My personal favorites were Charles Bradley, The National, The Cure and Palma Violets.
Were those tears on Charles Bradley’s face or just beads of sweat? Both, I’d venture to guess. It had been about 100 degrees earlier in the day and was still fairly steamy when Bradley hit the stage Monday night (July 16) at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion — and he’s an energetic performer who tends to sweat anyway, in the tradition of another singer he resembles in many ways, the legendarily hardworking James Brown. But Bradley’s songs are also drenched with emotion.
Just as he did at last summer’s Chicago gig, Bradley strained his voice to the limits, screaming and shouting and squeezing out notes bursting with both pain and passion. His band, the Extraordinaries, kept a soulful groove bouncing through the whole set, including a few instrumental tracks, but the focus was on Bradley, who truly seemed to wow the audience with his unbridled intensity as well as his heartfelt comments. His encore made a strong case for “Why Is It So Hard” being one of the great songs of recent years, and as the song ended, Bradley descended from the stage and hugged some of his fans across the security barricade for several minutes.
Speaking of security barricades… Bradley urged audience members to get up close to the stage and start dancing, but Millennium Park’s security guards refused to let anyone into that area (reserved for press photographer such as myself), or even to stand in the aisles. Security concerns and keeping the aisles open are legitimate concerns, but surely the guards could lighten up a bit. At least, people were allowed to stand up in front of their seats and sway to Bradley’s soul-baring soul music.
Monday’s free concert also featured an excellent opening act, folk singer-songwriter-banjoist Abigail Washburn. She sang lovely original compositions as well as a couple of old gospel and folk songs of the sort that you’ll hear on Alan Lomax’s field recordings — and even a song in Chinese, which she learned when she lived in China. Washburn’s music was often quiet and spare, sounding beautiful and crystal clear in the summer air at the Pritzker Pavilion, making the concert feel like an intimate gathering despite the epic proportions of the venue.
These are my favorite musical performances that I saw in 2011, with quotes from my original blog posts.
1. ALABAMA SHAKES (Dec. 15 at Hideout). “Wow, did Alabama Shakes live up to the hype. This was the most joyous, energetic and lively musical performance I’ve seen in 2011, and a Hideout crowded with enthusiastic fans was the perfect place to see and hear Alabama Shakes. … The crowd was shouting for more at the end — even if it meant playing some of the same songs over again.” (Original blog post and more photos.)
2. CHARLES BRADLEY (Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements festival Sept. 17). “Some of his soul shouts gave me chills. … 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.” (Original blog post and more photos.)
3. THEE OH SEES (Nov. 23 at Empty Bottle). “Somehow, Thee Oh Sees manage to make everything sound like it’s turned up and sped up a notch beyond expectations. … The fantastic, charged music of Thee Oh Sees … sent the crowd into a writhing frenzy.” (Original blog post and more photos.)
4. WILD FLAG (Oct. 9 at Empty Bottle). This was the second time I’d seen Wild Flag perform in 2011, following a July 23 set during Wicker Park Fest. That was a great set, but the four members of Wild Flag were really on fire on the second night of their fall return to Chicago, lifting their songs to another level as they jammed out with joyous abandon.
5. GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR (March 26-27 at Metro). “The eight musicians … said barely a word to the audience over the course of the last two nights, concentrating intently on their dark, brooding and apocalyptic music. … The visual accompaniment added to the sense that these ‘songs’ (if that’s even the right word) tell stories, despite the lack of lyrics. And no singing was necessary to convey emotion, either. It was music capable of raising goosebumps.” (Original blog post and more photos.)
6. ELVIS COSTELLO & THE IMPOSTERS (May 15 at Chicago Theatre). “It was truly a ‘show,’ not just a typical concert. Reviving a gimmick he featured in a 1980s tour, Costello gave audience members a chance to come up on stage and spin the big wheel, which had about 40 songs or ‘jackpot’ slots on it … Costello put on a top hat and grabbed a cane … (and) guided Sunday’s audience through a diverse set of songs…” (Original blog post.)
7. MY BRIGHTEST DIAMOND WITH THE CHICAGO YOUTH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (Aug. 8 at Millennium Park). “How beautiful it was to hear the concert begin with the opening notes of ‘Dragonfly’ from My Brightest Diamond’s 2006 debut album, Bring Me the Workhorse — those swooping, sweeping violins. The concert was filled with terrific moments like that…” (Original blog post and more photos.)
8. SKULL DEFEKTS (March 31 at Hideout). “With his gray beard, (Daniel) Higgs resembled an Old Testament character or a crew member of an old whaling vessel as he commanded the stage Thursday with his unrestrained vocals. The rest of Skull Defekts — two drummers and two guitarists — never let up with their jagged punk-garage riffs.” (Original blog post and more photos.)
9. WILCO (Dec. 13 at Riviera). “This is one exceptional group of musicians, seemingly capable of playing anything. … It felt like the band could play until morning…” (Original blog post.)
10. RICHARD THOMPSON (Sept. 12 at Evanston Space). “As always, Thompson made his guitar sing, often sounding like an entire band — or two or three guitars, anyway. … The dark, quiet songs were especially haunting…” (Original blog post.)
Bill Callahan (Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements Sept. 16)
The Flaming Lips (July 7 at Aragon)
Le Butcherettes (Nov. 4 at Subterranean)
Neil Young and Bert Hansch (May 6 at the Chicago Theatre)
M. Ward (Dec. 4 at Schubas)
NRBQ (Aug. 27 at FitzGerald’s)
Drive-By Truckers (Feb. 26 at Vic)
Gillian Welch (July 22 at the Vic)
Tune-Yards (Pitchfork Music Festival July 15 at Union Park)
Mavis Staples (Hideout Block Party Sept. 24 at Hideout)
Screaming Females (Tomorrow Never Knows festival Jan. 14 at Lincoln Hall)
Soul Train 40th anniversary concert with the Chi-Lites, the Emotions, the Impressions, Jerry “The Iceman” Butler (Sept. 5 at Millennium Park)
Another one of the year’s standout records is No Time for Dreaming by Charles Bradley, a terrific soul singer in the style of James Brown who’s belatedly getting attention after decades of obscurity. Read his bio here: http://thecharlesbradley.com/#bio. Bradley’s been through a lot over the years, including the experience of grieving over his brother’s murder. He pours those experiences into his songs, and when he played Saturday (Sept. 18) at the Brilliant Corners festival, the songs were bursting with emotion. There were sexy songs, too, and Bradley danced with come-hither moves. And what a voice this guy has. Some of his soul shouts gave me chills.
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.