He asked the crowd to listen to the words of the final song of the set, “Why Is It So Hard,” saying, “Listen to the lyrics and you’ll know the story of my life,” he said. “It’s taken you to bring me forward to do some good.” His feelings clearly came out of real experience as he belted the chorus, “Why is it so hard to make it in America?” As the curtain closed on the stage, Bradley jumped down and hugged everyone he could.
Cryptic singer-songwriter Bill Callahan’s record Apocalypse is one of the year’s best, and his new songs sounded brilliant Friday night (Sept. 16) at the Brilliant Corners of Popular Amuseuments festival in Chicago. So did his older songs. Callahan’s two backing musicians fleshed out Callahan’s spare guitar playing without overwhelming it. Matt Kinsey’s electric guitar lines sounded like extensions of what Callahan was playing, integral and necessary parts of the melodies, as opposed to decorative layers. Neal Morgan’s drumming did more than keep the rhythm, adding colors to the sound, and intensifying the aggression in certain key moments. “We’re having a slightly better time with each song,” Callahan remarked midconcert, in his low-key manner. That indeed seemed to be the case.
Callahan’s lyrics are sometimes puzzling, inviting listeners to impose their own meanings. During one of the quirkiest songs on the new record, the anti-anthemic anthem “America!,” Callahan slipped into a bit of “Amazing Grace.” Callahan’s singing was understated, but he conveyed a great deal of melody in a few notes.
A new festival made its debut in Chicago this past weekend: Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements, which combined rock and world music with circus acts and a carnival in Eckhart Park. I was there Friday and Saturday. The festival is an interesting concept, and the music lineup was strong, but attendance was spotty. The chilly weather may have been partly to blame, as well as the admission prices: per night to see music, per circus act. Those aren’t exorbitantly high prices compared to many concerts, but they’re steeper than what people expect to pay for a street festival. And what about getting some interaction between the circus acts and the musicians?
I’ll post separate reviews and photo galleries for the two acts that were the main attractions for me: Bill Callahan on Friday night and Charles Bradley on Saturday. I also dug the Krautrock grooves of Chicago band CAVE, and Sidi Toure’s hypnotic African guitar music on Friday. On Saturday, A Hawk and a Hacksaw were another highlight, with their Balkan and Greek dance rhythms. The final band of the night Saturday was School of Seven Bells, who sounded all shiny and pretty but not terribly exciting, in my opinion. I missed Sunday’s part of the festival, though from the comments I saw on Twitter, it sounds like headliners Shellac drew a good crowd and Dan Deacon was his usual entertaining self.