Day of the Dowd

L99A0029Gerald Dowd has drummed for with a lot of different Chicago musicians over the years, rarely taking the spotlight himself. Saturday was his day, and what a remarkable feat it was. FitzGerald’s hosted daylong festival called “Day of the Dowd,” featuring 17 bands playing over the course of 13 1/2 hours. Dowd played drums for the first 16 of these bands, barely taking any breaks longer than a few minutes. And then for the finale, Dowd stepped up to the microphone with an acoustic guitar, singing and playing tuneful alt-country songs from his first album as a solo artist, Home Now.

I showed up halfway through the day, arriving in time to catch a rare performance by the great Chicago power-pop band Frisbie — which was so good that it made me hope Frisbie starts playing more shows and recording music again. The rest of an evening was a who’s who of Chicago’s alt-country and related genres. Here’s the full list of bands that played starting at 11 a.m.: Justin Roberts and the Not Ready For Naptime Players, Dave Sills, Brian Ohern’s Model Citizens Big Band, Electric Dirt, Samba Bamba, the Regulators, Nora O’Connor, the Hoyle Brothers, EXO, Dave Ramont, Frisbie, Jive Council, Kelly Hogan, Lush Budgett, Chris Mills, Robbie Fulks and Gerald Dowd and his Moral Minority.

All of these musicians gave their time to play at this event, celebrating the release of Dowd’s new album and all that he’s done for them over the years. The event also raised money for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Some singers and musicians kept turning up on the stage, performing with various groups over the course of the marathon.

Dowd started his own set with his 14-year-old son standing next to him and playing guitar. Various other musicians joined Dowd over the course of that final hour, but then it was just him standing alone on the stage for the encore, playing a beautiful acoustic ballad from Home Now. I sensed something especially heartfelt in the applause. It was astounding to think what this man had just put himself through. He was still standing as the show ended around 12:40 a.m., remarking that he was looking forward to a day without any drumming on Sunday.

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Dave Ramont and Gerald Dowd
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Frisbie
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Frisbie

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Frisbie
Frisbie
Frisbie
Frisbie

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Kelly Hogan
Kelly Hogan
Kelly Hogan
Kelly Hogan
Scott Ligon (playing with Kelly Hogan)
Scott Ligon (playing with Kelly Hogan)
Lush Budgett
Lush Budgett
Chris Mills
Chris Mills
Chris Mills
Chris Mills
Chris Mills
Chris Mills
Kelly Hogan gives Dowd a back rub.
Kelly Hogan gives Dowd a back rub.
Robbie Fulks
Robbie Fulks
Grant Tye, Kelly Hogan and Robbie Fulks
Grant Tye, Kelly Hogan and Robbie Fulks
Gerald Dowd with his son.
Gerald Dowd with his son.

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Grant Tye, Dave Sills and Gerald Dowd

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Chris Mills at Schubas

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Chris Mills smiles a lot when he sings, and it’s a big, beaming smile. His voice is big, too. As he was belting out the notes of his memorable songs on Friday, Jan. 24, at Schubas, it was  obvious that he was having a great time.

Mills hasn’t lived in Chicago for several years now — what, it’s already been a decade? — but as the Tribune aptly put it in a headline over a recent interview: “Chris Mills is a Chicagoan no matter where he roams.” At least, that’s how I think of him, even if he’s living in New York. When he was still in Chicago, Mills seemed like he was part of the local alt-country scene, but his music was never really alt-country: more like singer-songwriter rock, folk and power pop. During his set on Friday, Mills joked a couple of times about the phrase that Reader critic Peter Margasak had used to describe some of his new songs: “genre-neutral.” Even if that sounds vaguely insulting, it does accurately point out how hard it is to put a genre label on Mills’ music.

Mills has a strong new album called Alexandria, his first record in five years, which he funded with a Kickstarter campaign. (I was a contributor.) The fact that he was able to raise $20,389 just goes to show that his fans haven’t forgotten him.

On this record, Mills worked with Norwegian producer Christer Knutsen, who also played guitar, piano and organ and sang backing vocals. Knutsen and drummer Pal Hausken came over from Norway to play on this current tour. Mills’ backup band, the Distant Stars, also includes a familiar face from the Chicago music scene: bassist Ryan Hembrey, who often runs the sound at the Hideout.

The Schubas music room wasn’t quite as full as it should have been — possibly because it was snowing that night, and the roads were treacherous — but the people who did turn out clearly knew Mills’ songs, the new ones as well as the older ones he has played over the years. Mills took some requests, challenging his new Scandinavian bandmates to figure out some songs they hadn’t rehearsed, such as “You Are My Favorite Song.” Highlights of the night included “The Silver Line” and “Living the Dream.”

Mills and the Distant Stars ended the night with a spirited cover of Big Star’s “Thank You Friends,” which was Mills’ way of thanking everyone who came to the show and all those who pitched in money to help him make Alexandria.

The opening act, Irish-American singer-songwriter Niall Connolly, was charming and funny as he introduced his folk songs, which were spare and lovely. Mills remarked later that Connolly is something of a leader in a scene of musicians in Brooklyn, and it was easy to believe that, based on his performance Friday.

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Niall Connolly
Niall Connolly

Correction: An earlier version of this post included an incorrect name for the drummer in Chris Mills’ band.

Hey, Chris Mills and Sally Timms

Hey, Sally Timms: When are you going to release another solo CD? I’m asking because that set you played Sunday night (June 14) at Schubas sounded awfully good. And, well, it’s been a while.

Timms had a five-piece band playing behind her, with a delicate mix of banjo, mandolin, guitar, stand-up bass, clarinet, trumpet and drums, for a folky yet slightly jazzy sound. She played songs by her pal (and fellow Mekon) Jon Langford and others… even a cool version of the Mekons song “Corporal Chalkie.” And, as always, she had a delightfully wry and self-deprecating sense of humor.

She was the opening act for Chris Mills, which reminds me…

Hey, Chris Mills: Could you move back to Chicago? OK, I’m sure you have your reasons for being in New York, but you’re such a good singer-songwriter that I’d love to continue claiming you as one of Chicago’s best. Maybe I’ll continue claiming you anyway.

Mills was back in town for a one-off solo gig because he had a wedding to attend. (He played “In the Time of Cholera” at the wedding ceremony, apparently getting some puzzled looks from people unfamiliar with his music who saw that title in the program.) Mills is probably at his best when he has a full band playing him — one of the best things about this CDs is the lush and creative arrangements — but his songs also work really well as solo acoustic numbers. And that’s what he delivered Sunday night, singing in full-throated gusto.

Photos of Chris Mills and Sally Timms.

Chris Mills plays acoustic at Schubas

I was a little doubtful about how thrilling a solo acoustic concert by Chris Mills would be at the end of the night (such shows usually seem more engaging earlier in the evening, for me at least), but he proved his mettle with a very enjoyable set tonight. It was nice to hear his recent songs in this bare-bones format, with all of those horns and strings stripped away (not that there’s enough wrong with those grandiose arrangments). A few of the audience members were rather annoying with their loud comments, though it did turn amusing when the banter prolonged Mills’ attempt to start playing his final song of the night, finally compelling him to remark that he was in desperate need of a trip to the bathroom. After the show, I picked up a tour-only CD of outtakes from Mills’ last record, The Wall to Wall Sessions. (I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet…)

SEE PHOTOS OF CHRIS MILLS.

The opening act was a trio from Detroit called I, Crime. They sounded pretty good, with a combination of alt-country, old-style rock and punk. A milder version of X, perhaps? The songs did not leave that much of an impression on me, but I would see them again.

SEE PHOTOS OF I, CRIME.