Farewell, Centro-matic

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After 17 years, 11 albums and numerous concerts, the venerable Denton, Texas, band Centro-matic is calling it quits. I’m sad to see them go. At least, we’ll still have the records, including classics like 2003’s Love You Just the Same. And we’ll surely be hearing more from the band’s singer-songwriter-guitarist, Will Johnson, as well as the other musicians who have been playing in Centro for all these years: drummer Matt Pence, keyboardist-bassist Scott Danbom and bassist-guitarist Mark Hedman. But for the foreseeable future, we won’t get another chance to see this band live.

Centro-matic’s farewell tour included a stop at Schubas on Monday, Dec. 15. Johnson told the audience that Chicago has always been one of the cities where Centro-matic felt the most welcome on its tours, ever since the band starting hitting the road in 1998. For one last time, Centro-matic delivered charged versions of its greatest “hits.” Near the end of the show — I believe it was during “Fidgeting Wildly,” a song from the first Centro-matic album, 1997’s Redo the Stacks — the band dug hard into the final chords. As Johnson kicked up a leg and Pence pounded hard on the drums, it seemed like the whole stage was shaking. A glorious moment it was. So long, Centro-matic.

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Opening band Telegraph Canyon
Opening band Telegraph Canyon
Opening band Telegraph Canyon
Opening band Telegraph Canyon

Deleted Scenes at Township

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Deleted Scenes
Deleted Scenes

As you can see from my recent posts, I’ve been seeing a lot of concerts lately at the Logan Square club Township. The venue still feels a bit under the radar, but it has been booking some good shows recently, including local as well as touring bands. On Saturday night (Feb. 16), the Washington, D.C., band Deleted Scenes played — for some reason, as the third of four bands. I caught the last three bands (My Dad, Deleted Scenes and We Love You), and it seemed like each group had its own set of fans, and the people rotated in and out of the room during the evening. My Dad’s two-drummer math rock was ragged but energetic, and We Love You’s pop-punk was pleasant but somewhat generic. Deleted Scenes were the highlight of the evening, playing indie rock with some of the complexities of art rock. It was a strong performance in front of a small crowd in a small bar … by a band that’ll surely be playing bigger Chicago venues in the future.

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Deleted Scenes

Deleted Scenes
Deleted Scenes

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Deleted Scenes

Deleted Scenes
Deleted Scenes

Deleted Scenes
Deleted Scenes

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Deleted Scenes

My Dad
My Dad

We Love You
We Love You

Sharon Van Etten at Lincoln Hall

Singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten has been getting a lot of press this month, and deservedly so. Her third and latest album, Tramp, is a strong collection of songs, with some of the moody introspection of her previous records as well as a new, harder-charging sound on the standout track “Serpents.” Van Etten played to packed houses last Thursday and Friday nights at Lincoln Hall in Chicago; I was there Friday (Feb. 17).

When Van Etten played the very first afternoon set of the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival, her seemed a little tentative, like someone unaccustomed to playing on such a big stage. On Friday night, her singing was more assertive, and she had a trio of musicians helping to give her music a fuller sound. She still seemed a bit unnerved or uncertain about being in the spotlight. Van Etten was in a silly, giggly mood, joking around quite a bit in between songs, creating a strange contrast with her more serious lyrics. The fumbling around in between songs was charming at times, but after a while, the show’s erratic pacing became a distraction. Van Etten joked that we were watching her learning how to have a band, and that’s just what it felt like — not entirely a bad thing. Most interesting was the way Van Etten and her band stretched out the openings of some songs, creating drones that set the mood for the songs that eventually emerged.
sharonvanetten.com
myspace.com/sharonvanetten



Sharon Van Etten's band


Sharon Van Etten's band







Opening act Shearwater played an impressive set dominated by songs from its new record Animal Joy. Although most of the musicians backing Shearwater’s singer-songwriter Jonathan Meiburg were new to the lineup, but they played tight, rocking versions of the band’s art rock.
shearwatermusic.com
myspace.com/shearwater

Shearwater



At the end of the night, when Van Etten played her encore, the members of Shearwater came back onto the stage, too. Van Etten and Meiburg swapped lead vocals in a cover of Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty’s “Stop Dragging My Heart Around.” From what I hear, they teamed up the night before on a cover of the Soft Boys’ “I Wanna Destroy You.”

Sharon Van Etten + Shearwater

Veronica Falls at the Empty Bottle

The record I’ve listened to the most so far in 2012 is probably the self-titled album by the British band Veronica Falls. It came out last fall, escaping my attention at the time. It probably would have ended up somewhere on my best of 2011 list if I’d known about it. Anyway, I’m catching up now, and I caught Veronica Falls playing Thursday night (Feb. 16) at the Empty Bottle.

Veronica Falls is a standout in the school of recent bands reviving the sounds of 1960s girl groups, garage bands and one-hit wonders. At least, that’s my impression, but they’re making other critics think of ’80s British rock bands such as the Smiths. I can heart that, too. In any case, Veronica Falls’ melodies — both the melodies being sung and the ones being played on the guitars — are especially strong and catchy, which was just as obvious at the Bottle concert as it is listening to their record. The female-male harmonies are a delight, reminding me a touch of Sons and Daughters. And the contrast between the bright tunes and the often melodramatically dark lyrics (just look at the song titles: “Found Love in a Graveyard,” “Bad Feeling,” “Misery”) adds to the charm. Veronica Falls included a few new songs in its set, making me all the more eager to hear their next record. The band closed with a fine cover of Roky Erickson’s “Starry Eyes.”
veronicafalls.com
myspace.com/veronicafallshard

The show also featured opening sets by the affable Halamays and the scrappy Brilliant Colors (who did a fine cover themselves, of the Who’s “So Sad About Us”).










Brilliant Colors

Brilliant Colors

Cate Le Bon at Schubas

Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon’s really grown as an artist since I saw her playing some solo acoustic music at SXSW in 2008. That was nice, but her new record, Cyrk, is simply great, going deeper into the folk melodies of the British Isles while turning up the electric guitar a bit. Le Bon was also pretty great when she played a set dominated by those new songs Tuesday (Feb. 14) at Schubas. Le Bon sometimes sang with a touch of Nico in her delivery, but Le Bon’s vocals aren’t quite as chilly or monotone as that. Her hair hung in front of her face as she sang, and she spent most of the show playing electric guitar, moving over to the keyboards for a couple of songs. The climax of the set was the terrific two-part suite that also ends Cyrk — “Ploughing Out 1 + 2.” The moment where part 1 shifts into part 2 is a brilliant example of a transition that enhances the music on either side of it, and it worked just as well live as it does on record.
catelebon.com
myspace.com/catelebon









Jeff Mangum returns

Jeff Mangum is surrounded by mystique. He’s one of those musicians who stop making music and giving interviews, causing people to wonder and worship. None of that matters if the music isn’t good. In Mangum’s case, the last music he made before he seemed to fall off the face of the earth was a masterpiece, the 1998 Neutral Milk Hotel album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. In the 14 years since it was released, the album has gained a well-deserved cult following.

The enduring strength of the songs on Aeroplane is clear now that Mangum has finally emerged to play concerts. He delivered powerful performances of that Areoplane material and a few other Neutral Milk Hotel songs when I saw him Monday, Feb. 6, at the Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago and Wednesday, Feb. 8, at the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee.

Other than a few moments when other musicians joined him onstage to blow horns, bang drums or bow cello strings, the shows consisted entirely of Mangum sitting down on a chair, strumming acoustic guitars and singing. Mangum has one of those loud, proclaiming folk-singer voices — early Bob Dylan filtered through the droning British accent of John Lennon, with a touch of Syd Barrett — and his singing has changed very little in the years he’s been missing. Mangum showed that he’s capable of subtlety with a few, quieter turns of phrase, but he was more interested in belting out notes for the whole world to hear. When he slipped into wordless phrases, singing syllables such as “dee dee dee dee dee,” the melodies sounded like ancient folk laments and marching tunes.

The opening sets both nights were by a trio of musicians from the Elephant 6 collective, who also helped out with cameos during Mangum’s set: Scott Spillane and Laura Carter, both of whom played with Neutral Milk Hotel back in the day as well as the Gerbils, and Andrew Rieger of Elf Power. Spillane and Rieger each sang some nice songs, but the musicianship was ramshackle and sometimes blatantly off-key. The Elephant 6 scene and other lo-fi rock bands have always had a touch of amateurism, which can be charming in a naïve way, but these performances just made me wish they’d tuned their instruments better. And the songs paled in comparison with Mangum’s.

The crowds in Chicago and Milwaukee greeted Mangum rapturously, but the rapture felt a bit more intense in Milwaukee. Fans at both venues shouted questions in between songs, eager to hear some words from Mangum, but the questions tended more toward the sophomoric in Chicago. One audience member asked Mangum to compare Superman and Batman. Another asked his opinion of Stravinsky. One of these off-the-wall questions did generate an interesting response. Someone asked, “Jeff, how do you feel about reincarnation?” Mangum replied, “I’m doing it right now.” Despite his reputation as a recluse, Mangum seemed completely at ease performing onstage and interacting with the audience.

At the Pabst, a few audience members walked up to stand near the stage as Mangum played the second song of the night. At first, the venue’s ushers shooed those fans back to their seats, but then Mangum encouraged fans to get up if they wanted to. The whole front part of the main floor filled up soon with a throng of enthusiastic fans, standing and swaying to the classic Neutral Milk Hotel songs they’d never had a chance to hear live. Mangum remarked how gratifying it was to see his songs reaching people out in the world, years after he’d sent them out — “messages in a bottle.”

Woods at Subterranean

The New York band Woods was back in Chicago last week (Dec. 10) at Subterranean, with what seemed to be a temporary change in its lineup. The band didn’t explain why, but the usual tape-effects guy and harmony singer, G. Lucas Crane, was absent. Matt Valentine, who is the “MV” half of the duo MV + EE, filled in for Crane, adding another guitar to some of the songs, while playing bits of harmonica and keyboards at other moments. It’s always hard to tell exactly what sounds Crane is adding to the mix as he hunches over his cassette tapes and sings into headphones. With his contributions absent, Woods’ sound was touch less psychedelic and more direct. Lead singer and guitarist Jeremy Earl’s stage demeanor was as low-key as usual, but he really let loose on some of the guitar solos, making for a hard-rocking set.









Wilco at the Riviera

Although I missed Wilco’s concert Monday at the Civic Opera House, the band’s website helpfully provides not just a set list, but also a pie chart showing how many songs Wilco played that night from each of its albums. From all reports, it was a pretty epic concert, and I sure wish I’d seen that encore with Nick Lowe and Mavis Staples teaming up with Wilco. The pie chart reveals that Wilco played songs from each of its albums except for the two Mermaid Avenue records, Wilco (The Album) and one of my favorites, A Ghost Is Born. One of my favorites, you may say with shock and amazement? Yes, although some folks slag that 2004 record, I insist it’s one of Wilco’s pinnacle achievements. The three studio albums since then have all been fine, with several great songs scattered across them, but they pale in comparison to Ghost and the few albums preceding it.

I did see Wilco’s second show in its five-concert Chicago run, Tuesday night’s (Dec. 13) gig at the Riveria, a venue that almost feels like home for Jeff Tweedy and his band. And this time, the band was in more of a Ghost Is Born mood. Shockingly, Wilco opened the show with “Less Than You Think” — the much-criticized Ghost track that meanders off into seemingly endless and tuneless electronic hum. (All that hum has never bothered me, but like everyone else I often skip past it; I think that was part of the idea.) In concert, the song began quietly, and the crowd hushed to hear Tweedy whispering the words into his microphone. The song dissolved into a drone that simulated the buzzing on the album, but with an actual beat pulsing through it. This was not a crowd-pleasing choice for an opening song, but Tweedy and his bandmates know just how fervent and devoted their fans are — and that some fans would appreciate or at least tolerate seeing the show begin with an unusual song.

The concert turned out to be an interesting and frequently surprising mix of songs from throughout Wilco’s huge and excellent catalogue. Wilco repeated only seven of the songs from the previous night’s show. Some regular concert favorites were omitted, such as “Jesus etc.” Some of the mellower recent songs weren’t all that exciting, but the band did a beautiful job of rendering them. This is one exceptional group of musicians, seemingly capable of playing anything. Is Wilco almost too good? At times, the band’s proficiency starts to sound like self-indulgent wankery, but just when I’m about to scoff at a guitar solo that goes slightly over the top, the band pulls off some subtle musical turn of phrase and I find myself surrendering to the experience.

Wilco continues to tinker with its old songs. Jarring outbursts of dissonance and drumming were layered on top of “Via Chicago,” somewhat awkwardly. “Reservations,” which started off the second encore, was more beautiful than ever, a lovely blend of Tweedy’s original acoustic version with the moody, atmospheric arrangement on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Just when it seemed like the concert was about to end, Wilco launched into its epic-length Ghost track, “Spiders (kidsmoke),” giving it a jazzier, funkier groove than past renditions, and giving Tweedy a chance to scrape out skronky solos on the electric guitar. (Nels Cline is Wilco’s resident guitar whiz, but I’d like to hear more of Tweedy’s rough-hewn solos.) Improbably, the song featured an audience clap-along before finally returning to its signature power chord riff. And then Wilco extended its marathon with one more track, not shown on the set list, “I’m a Wheel.” It felt like the band could play until morning, but Tweedy and the guys finally called it a night.

The evening started off with a strong opening set by Eleventh Dream Day, who have added Jim Elkington of the Zincs as a second guitarist. The five-piece lineup gave Rick Rizzo more space to play, and it bodes well for the future of this band with a long and illustrious past.

WILCO SET LIST: Less Than You Think / Art of Almost / I Might / Black Moon / Bull Black Nova / Side With the Seeds / Red-Eyed and Blue / I Got You (At the End of the Century) / Born Alone / You Are My Face / Open Mind / Kamera / I Must Be High / Always in Love / Capitol City / Handshake Drugs / Can’t Stand It / Dawned on Me / Hummingbird / ENCORE 1: Via Chicago / Whole Love / Late Greats / Walken / Just a Kid / Monday / Outta Mind (Outta Sight) / ENCORE 2: Reservations / Spiders (kidsmoke) / I’m a Wheel

Thee Oh Sees at the Empty Bottle

California’s Thee Oh Sees are one of the best live rock bands at this moment. After delivering strong performances last year at Lincoln Hall and this summer at the Illinois Centennial Monument, Thee Oh Sees were back in Chicago for a couple of shows at the Empty Bottle on Wednesday night (Nov. 23) — and the late show may be the strongest set I’ve seen by them yet.

The prolific band just realized its second album of 2011, Carrion Crawler/The Dream, which was originally conceived as two EPs. Like the group’s live shows, the record is bursting with energy, sounding more intense than the last Thee Oh Sees record, Castlemania. But as well as this great new recording captures the live passion of the band, it’s still no match for seeing Thee Oh Sees on a stage. Somehow, Thee Oh Sees manage to make everything sound like it’s turned up and sped up a notch beyond expectations.

Leader John Dwyer and guitarist Petey Dammit both hold their guitars up high; Dwyer keeps his instrument unusually close to his face as he sings in spooky harmony with keyboardist Brigid Dawson. Practically every line of every song featured Dwyer and Dawson intertwining their voices, giving the’60s-garage-rock flavored tunes a somewhat ethereal mood, even as the two drummers, Mike Shoun and Lars Finberg, unrelentingly pushed the beat forward.

The opening sets by Paul Cary and Total Control were good, but it was the fantastic, charged music of Thee Oh Sees that sent the crowd into a writhing frenzy.








Ray Davies at the Chicago Theatre

Belatedly catching up now on something I intended to blog about earlier…

The legendary Kinks frontman and one of the all-time great rock songwriters, Ray Davies, performed a pretty delightful concert Nov. 11 at the Chicago Theatre. His new record, See My Friends, is one of those concept duet albums, featuring various stars singing or performing together with Davies on classic Kinks songs. Thankfully, the concert was just Davies and his backup musicians.

The show began with Davies playing eight and a half songs in mostly acoustic versions, backed by guitarist Bill Shanley. This intimate section of the show was really the high point of the night for me, packed with fantastic songs such as “Waterloo Sunset.” The half song was “Victoria,” which led into Davies reading a short bit of his autobiography, which led into “20th Century Man” as the full band took the stage. Davies’ band this time was The 88, who did a good job of sounding like the Kinks, keeping things a little bit loose as they nimbly responded to Davies’ occasional pauses to banter in the middle of songs. The 88 also played a nice opening set of somewhat Kinks-esque pop-rock songs.

As much as I enjoy hearing Davies talk about his songs and make jokes, at times his banter awkwardly interrupted the music. When Davies and his band ripped into the more rocking numbers, such as “You Really Got Me,” this 67-year-old Davies bounced around the stage like a much younger man.

Davies jested that he would fine himself $5 every time he mentioned the Kinks, but in truth, this show was essentially Davies doing a Kinks concert without the rest of the Kinks. He played only one of his recent solo songs (“Imaginary Man”), instead performing an excellent cross-section of the Kinks’ vast catalogue. At one point, someone in the crowd shouted out, “Where’s Dave?”

“Where’s Dave?” Davies replied. “Asleep. When he’s asleep, he can’t do any damage.”

A good-natured barb aimed at his brother. But it really would be nice to see Ray and Dave Davies playing together onstage again someday.

SET LIST: I Need You / I’m Not Like Everybody Else / Sunny Afternoon / Dedicated Follower of Fashion / Waterloo Sunset / See My Friends / Apeman / A Long Way From Home / Victoria (excerpt) + reading from X-Ray / 20th Century Man / David Watts / This Is Where I Belong / Where Have All the Good Times Gone / Till the End of the Day / Nothin’ in the World Can Stop Me Worrying ’Bout That Girl / Too Much on My Mind / All Day and All of the Night / Misfits / Full Moon / Celluloid Heroes / Imaginary Man / Muswell Hillbilly / You Really Got Me / ENCORE 1: Low Budget / ENCORE 2: Lola

Gillian Welch at the Vic

It’s hard to believe it had been seven years since the last Gillian Welch concert in Chicago. Playing Friday night (July 22) at the Vic, Gillian Welch and her indispensable partner, David Rawlings, picked up right where they left off: beautiful songs with subtle harmonies and head-spinning guitar solos. Welch writes that sort of lyrics that strike you anew with their poetry and truth as you hear them sung in concert, even if you’ve heard them a hundred times before.

As the doors to the concert hall opened and fans began filing in, I noticed Welch walking on the sidewalk in front of the Vic. No one else seemed to notice she was right there. Onstage, her persona was not shy, exactly — but she seems modest, humble and matter-of-fact. “We may not look excited, but we’re really very excited,” Welch remarked at one point. Rawlings frequently won midsong bursts of applause for all those long runs of notes he pulled out of his guitar with what seemed like no effort at all. This is truly a duo, not a solo singer-songwriter act — the duo of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, who perform under the name Gillian Welch.

The showiest Welch herself got all night was during “Six White Horses,” which she introduced semi-apologetically, explaining that it was recorded in the studio without much thought as to how the performance would look onstage. Here’s how it looked: Welch played the rhythm by slapping her hands on her thighs and clapping … and she even did a little dance during one part of the song, using her boots like tap shoes. It sounded remarkably close to the studio recording — and it was quite fun to watch, winning Welch one of the evening’s most enthusiastic rounds of applause.

Welch played all 10 of the songs from her excellent new album, The Harrow & the Harvest, which is one of the year’s best. After a lively version of the 2003 song “Wrecking Ball” — second time Welch and Rawlings had played the song so far on this tour — Rawlings said, “I think we’ll do you one better and play you one we haven’t played on this tour at all. I feel like we’re in friendly territory.” That was the intro to “My Morphine,” a classic song from Welch’s 1998 album Hell Among the Yearlings. Welch’s songs tend to be sad, but that one is among the darkest of all. The crowd loved it. Afterward, Welch remarked, “I figured most of you guys didn’t come to hear happy songs, so what the hell.”

The applause at the end of the night was loud, enthusiastic and sustained. Welch and Rawlings rewarded the crowd with two encores, including a cover of the country classic “Jackson” and finishing on a perfect note with “I’ll Fly Away.”

SET LIST: Scarlet Town / Elvis Presley Blues / My First Lover / The Way It Goes / Annabelle / The Way It Will Be / Wrecking Ball / My Morphine / Hard Times / Red Clay Halo / SET BREAK / No One Knows My Name / Tennessee / Silver Dagger / Miss Ohio / Six White Horses / Sweet Tooth (Dave Rawlings Machine song) / Dark Turn of Mind / Revelator / ENCORE 1: Down Along the Dixie Line / Jackson / ENCORE 2: The Way the Whole Thing Ends / I’ll Fly Away










Yo La Tengo at Green Music Fest

Yo La Tengo was in fine form Saturday (June 25) at the Wicker Park street festival known as the Green Music Fest. It was an excellent little cross-section of most of the various moods and styles of music Yo La Tengo plays — only a little bit of the quiet, loungy stuff, but plenty of drony grooves, a handful of the band’s catchiest and most memorable songs (“Sugarcube” was a highlight for me) and lots of sharp-edged guitar solos by Ira Kaplan.






Skull Defekts at the Hideout


The Skull Defekts, a hard-edged band from Sweden, rocked the Hideout Thursday night (March 31), with some key assistance from Daniel Higgs, a veteran vocalist better known for his work with the band Lungfish. Higgs sings on the new Skull Defekts album, Peer Amid, which came out in February on Thrill Jockey. He looks and sounds like a full-fledged member of the band — a frontman, in fact. With his gray beard, 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. At one point, Higgs asked the audience, “Do any of you have skull defects?” When someone replied, “Yes,” a member of the band said, “Excellent.” (I’m paraphrasing from memory here.)

www.myspace.com/skulldfx
www.skulldfx.com
Label website: www.thrilljockey.com/press/index.html?id=12317








The evening started out with a couple of other Thrill Jockey bands, playing drone music — an interesting contrast to the Skull Defekts. Mountains created a beautiful, shimmering wall of sound. Zomes’ simple chords on a dinky ’80s-era keyboard seemed too simple, however.

Mountains

Zomes

White Hills at the Empty Bottle


Papercuts finished their concert at Schubas Wednesday night just early enough for me to head over to the Empty Bottle for another great show — the New York-based band White Hills, who released an excellent self-titled record of hard rock, space jams and experimental drones last year, making all of those sounds fit together with perfect musical logic and some relentless riffs. The band has a double LP concept album, H-P1, coming out June 21 on Thrill Jockey, “telling the story of a corrupt government that is run like and owned by corporations,” according to a press release, which also compares White Hills with Hawkwind. I’ve just started listening to the new record, and I can tell I’m really going to like it.

In concert, White Hills didn’t play much of its droning, instrumental music — just a few choice interludes of oscillating feedback. The rest of the show was all-out rock. Guitarist-singer Dave W. was wearing makeup that made him look like an outcast from Kiss or an Alice Cooper tribute act, and he let loose with the sort of hair-flailing guitar solos that the music demanded. The bassist who calls herself Ego Sensation was decked out in red, showing a lot of leg as she pounded away on those low notes that give White Hills’ songs some of their dark psychedelic flavor. This is a band not to be missed.
www.myspace.com/whitehills
www.thrilljockey.com/artists/?id=12183











Papercuts at Schubas


The 2007 album by Papercuts, Can’t Go Back, is one of those records I keep going back to — a collection of catchy songs bathed in a sound reminiscent of ’60s psychedelia… or is it more like the ’80s revival of ’60s psychedelia? Something about Papercuts reminds me of bands from that era like the Rain Parade.

Papercuts’ fourth album, Fading Parade, is out now on Sub Pop. It hasn’t clicked me with yet the way Can’t Go Back did — it may take more listens for these tunes to worm their way into my mind — but it does sound quite lovely. The band played its new and old songs Wednesday night (March 23) at Schubas, casting a spell with dreamy melodies, with singer-songwriter Jason Robert Quever’s vulnerable vocals pointing the way. Viewed from one angle, Papercuts’ music might seem retro, but I prefer to think of it as timeless.
www.myspace.com/thepapercuts
www.subpop.com/artists/papercuts





The apt opening act Wednesday was Still Corners, an English band with a cool psych-pop sound. The optical illusions and films projected on the screen behind Still Corners resembled the visual shows used by bands such as Caribou and Broadcast, and the sound was enthralling.
www.myspace.com/stillcorners



Ron Sexsmith at Schubas


Showing his usual self-deprecating sense of humor, Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith expressed surprise last night (March 22) that one of his new songs, “Believe It When I See It,” is in heavy rotation on BBC Radio 2. It’s the closest thing he’s had to a hit in years, which, as he noted, might be a sign of the apocalypse foretold by Nostradamus. Sexsmith was playing at Schubas Tuesday, touring behind yet another solid album filled with wistful and well-crafted pop songs, “Long Player Late Bloomer.” So what if he hasn’t had any real hits? His melodies are masterful, and his performances feel sincere.

Tuesday night, Sexsmith and his band of longtime backing musicians played quite a few of the songs from the new album — “along with the hits you grew up with,” he joked. An interlude of quieter tunes was especially nice. For the encore, Sexsmith played three of his most memorable older songs, “Lebanon Tennessee,” “Tell Me Again” and “Secret Heart.” (I didn’t make any requests, but if I had, I would’ve loved to hear his gem, “Riverbed.”)
www.ronsexsmith.com




Opening act Caitlin Rose played a good set of country-tinged folk rock, displaying some strong vocals.
www.myspace.com/caitlinrosesongs

Robbie Fulks tribute to Michael Jackson


It sounds like an unlikely pairing: Chicago alt-country singer-songwriter-guitarist-raconteur Robbie Fulks playing the music of Michael Jackson. But then again, Fulks has wide-ranging musical tastes, judging from all the various stuff he’s covered in his Monday-night shows at the Hideout. So why not Michael Jackson? “Billie Jean” has been a staple of Fulks’ live shows for a while, and last year Fulks released a full album of Jackson covers, Happy. On Friday night (March 18), he played those songs — plus some additional Jackson and Jackson 5 tunes — at Lincoln Hall.

Happy is essentially a novelty record — and not one of my favorite Fulks albums — but he clearly put a lot of work into arranging Jackson’s songs for the idiom of a country band. And the music made for a fun, lively concert featuring DayGlo sets, a few bits of theater, preposterous pajama-like costumes, children, the mandolin playing of Don Stiernberg, a rat puppet, and vocals from the always wonderful Nora O’Connor. It was a silly, festive, strange pageant. And then after all of the Jackson music, Fulks and his band played a mini-concert of their own songs. As he does just about every Monday night at the Hideout (although not in March, when Kelly Hogan and Scott Ligon are filling in), Fulks showed what a great all-around entertainer he is.













Drive-By Truckers at the Vic


After avidly following the Drive-By Truckers through several great albums and something like seven concerts, I fell a bit out of touch with the group over the past few years. I barely paid attention to the Southern rock group’s 2010 album The Big To-Do, and I hadn’t seen them live since they co-headlined with the Hold Steady back in 2008. (Photos.)

So Saturday night’s concert at the Vic felt like getting reacquainted with some old friends. The latest album by the DBTs, Go-Go Boots, is a strong one, a whole new batch of memorable songs by the group’s two main singer-songwriter-guitarists, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, with subtle melodic hooks and characters worthy of good fiction. It’s clear now that the departure of the band’s other voice, Jason Isbell, a few years ago hasn’t slowed down this crew one bit.

The prolific band has a lot of material to choose from, and Saturday night’s show leaned heavily on the recent songs, at least during its first half. The band even brought out some burlesque dancers to illustrate the song “Go-Go Boots.” As always, Hood grinned a lot as he sang or stomped around with his guitar, looking like he was having the time of his life. He’s one of those musicians who conveys a honest exuberance in every performance. Cooley’s more laconic, not as much of a showman, and there’s a laid-back, conversational style to his vocals. It’s the juxtaposition of those voices that makes the DBTs such a special outfit. Bassist Shonna Tucker sings a few songs, too, and she sounded more confident than she did on her original contributions, adding a nice female counterpoint to the guys. Filled out by Brad Morgan, John Neff and Jay Gonzalez, the Drive-By Truckers are a tight group that knows how to play buzz-saw guitar riffs as well as song with more of a soulful swing.

They went deeper into their catalog during the second half of the nearly 2 1/2-hour show, playing older songs such as “Shut Up and Get On the Plane,” “Let There Be Rock,” “Hell No I Ain’t Happy,” “72 (This Highway’s Mean)” and “The Living Bubba.” In the encore, Kelly Hogan came out and sang lead vocals on a smooth cover of the Staple Singers/Curtis Mayfield song, “Let’s Do It Again.” The evening ended with another track from the classic double-album Southern Rock Opera, “Angels and Fuselage,” with Hood singing the pleading chorus: “I’m scared shitless…” The band left the stage one by one, until drummer Brad Morgan was the only one left. The backdrop was a couple of banners designed to look like stained-glass windows containing the ominous bird-like monster that’s become the band’s symbol. Morgan’s drum kit had an extra bass drum sitting next to him, decorated with the words “Go-Go Boots” in the shape of a cross, and making the stage appear like some dark chapel of Southern rock. Morgan didn’t use that bass drum much during the show, but in the final seconds, he reached over toward it with his mallet and thumped out the last, dramatic beats of the night.











OPENING ACT: HEARTLESS BASTARDS

Singleman Affair at the Hideout


Earlier this week, I reported about the Chicago band the Singleman Affair — led by Daniel Schneider — on WBEZ’s Eight Forty-Eight program. (Hear it here.) After seeing the Singleman Affair perform several times over the past few years, it’s a delight to hear the group’s second album, Silhouettes at Dawn, at long last. It’s a beautiful record, with orchestral flourishes fleshing out Schneider’s smartly composed and passionately performed folk rock. The Singleman Affair celebrated the release of this record, the band’s second, with a grand show Friday night (Feb. 11) at the Hideout, featuring an expanded, seven-piece lineup. Schneider looked lost in the music as he rocked out on his acoustic guitar, and the rest of the band was with him every step of the way.

www.myspace.com/thesinglemanaffair
www.cardboardsangria.com/singleman.html










The opening act Friday was also notable — singer-songwriter Angel Olsen, who’s been seen lately touring with Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Her band last night included another regular with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Emmett Kelly, on bass. Her gothic country-folk-rock songs sounded strong. Watch for a new Angel Olsen record next month.
www.myspace.com/ghostgrocersings



Yo La Tengo does Seinfeld… plus some music


The current issue of the Chicago Reader includes photos I took at the highly unusual Yo La Tengo concert Feb. 4 at Metro in Chicago. The venerable indie-rock band, which somehow manages to continue attract young audiences even as its members get older, has been spinning a game-show-style wheel at the start of every show this tour, determining the theme of the concert’s first half. An audience member spun the wheel at Metro, and it landed on “Spinner’s Choice.” Much to the consternation of some crowd members, the guy picked “Sitcom Theater” instead of, say, a full set of music by side project Dump or songs that start with the letter “S.”

And so, what happened next was the members of Yo La Tengo and their roadies holding scripts onstage and reading the Chinese restaurant episode of “Seinfeld.” I found this to be pretty amusing. Ira Kaplan does a great Jerry Seinfeld. (Video.) If nothing else, it was a strange spectacle to behold. Some people in the audience clearly weren’t happy, however, and as the musicians neared the end of the script, some of them began clapping impatiently, demanding some music. The band took it all in stride, which made it seem even more like some perverse “irritate the audience” stunt of the sort Andy Kaufman might’ve pulled off.

Then came an intermission — which did go longer than necessary — and a regular Yo La Tengo concert, if there is such a thing. It was a wide-ranging set of old and recent songs, including everything from mellow folkie and jazzy ballads to loud rockers and experimental improvisation. Somehow, all of it sounds like Yo La Tengo.





The opening act was solo guitarist William Tyler, who has played in the past with Lambchop. He was quite impressive on acoustic and electric guitars, showing a mastery of quiet, delicate songs as well as stronger blasts of noise.


Kings Go Forth at Double Door


One album that just barely missed my top 10 for 2010 was The Outsiders Are Back by Kings Go Forth, a very old-school-sounding soul band from Milwaukee. I saw Kings Go Forth for the first time last Friday (Jan. 21) at the Double Door, and the show proved that last year’s wonderful record is no fluke. In concert, the music sounded very close to the studio versions — not a note-for-note duplication by any stretch of the imagination, but a very impressive performance of songs that smartly use horns, guitar, bass, drums, keyboard and lots of vocals to make the sort of grooves and riffs that made 1960s and early ’70s Motown, soul, funk and R&B records so memorable.

There was no opening act, other than the DJs of the Soul Summit Free Dance Party, who did a fine job of getting the crowd moving, priming the dance floor for the excitement of Kings Go Forth. A couple of friends overheard some audience members predicting that the band was about to break into “Shout!” Um, sorry, dudes, but this is actually a band that plays original soul music (written by bassist Andy Noble), not the same cover songs you hear other bands doing over and over again. But I can see why someone would make that mistake, because these songs have the makings of classic tunes. I’m eager to hear what Kings Go Forth does next.

www.kingsgoforth.com
www.myspace.com/kingsgoforth








Robinson’s ragtime meets Sinfonietta


Reginald R. Robinson is a brilliant pianist and composer, in a genre that he seems to have almost entirely to himself these days: ragtime. The best way to catch up on this Chicago musician’s work is to buy his compilation Reflections — two CDs and one DVD — from his website, www.reginaldrrobinson.com. You’ll get the discs directly from Robinson himself, with an autograph. Robinson takes the style of ragtime composers who were popular at the turn of the 20th century, most notably Scott Joplin, and devises his own ingenious songs evoking that era.

Last week, Robinson performed with the Chicago Sinfonietta performed in concerts at Chicago Symphony Center (or Orchestra Hall, if you will) and Dominican University. I saw the performance Jan. 17 at Orchestra Hall, and it was quite a joy to see and hear Robinson’s ragtime syncopations mixing with a full orchestra in the piece titled Concerto for a Genius — featuring four of Robinson’s songs arranged for orchestra by Orbert Davis. As a hybrid of classical music and a form of “popular music” (although how “popular” really is ragtime?), it was reminiscent of the jazzy classical works of George Gershwin. Here’s a video of a performance of the concerto’s first part, “Mr. Murphy’s Blues,” in 2008 at the Auditorium Theatre:

If anything, I would’ve liked to hear Robinson’s piano more prominent in the arrangement. After the concerto, Robinson performed a mid-concert encore, playing a rollicking solo piece on the piano. His virtuosity in this little piece was astounding.

The concert by Robinson and Davis was the highlight of the concert’s first half, but it was aptly followed by a lovely performance of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, a concert version of his opera/musical, featuring passionate and impressive singing by Lisa Daltirus, Chauncey Packer and Donnie Ray Albert, plus the massed voices of the Chicago Community Choir. It felt like a classical concert melded with a gospel-song revival session. The concert was on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and so it seemed fitting that it concluded with Chicago Sinfonietta Music Director Paul Freeman leading the singers, musicians and audience in a stirring rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”

(Photo courtesy of Reginald R. Robinson’s website.)

Justin Townes Earle in Chicago


Justin Townes Earle really delivered Saturday night (Sept. 18) at Lincoln Hall, singing his smart original songs and some well-chosen covers with a strong voice and a raconteur’s flair. It was a great performance from beginning to end by a musician who can hold his own on the stage with nothing more than his voice, his acoustic guitar and his wit.

But the concert also came with some disturbing news about an incident two nights earlier in Indianapolis. I hadn’t heard anything about it until Saturday night (and I got the impression that many others in the audience were similarly unaware of the news), but Earle was arrested after his show in Indy. At several points during the Chicago show, Earle mentioned that he’d just spent a night in jail. He said his wrists were still chafing from the handcuffs. But when an audience member asked him what had happened, he wouldn’t get into details.

According to a report on the American Songwriter website, Earle was arrested and charged with battery, public intoxication and resisting law enforcement after his Sept. 16 gig at the Indianapolis club Radio Radio. “Earle, who had complained about the sound during the show, allegedly became incensed after the audience heckled him,” the website reports. “According to reports, Earle is accused of destroying equipment backstage and punching the club owner’s daughter.”

The websites My Old Kentucky Blog and Saving Country Music also described the concert and its aftermath. Audience members and Earle reportedly got into a belligerent exchange during the show, and someone in the audience threw a shirt that landed on Earle’s guitar in the middle of a song.

On Saturday night, Earle sounded defiant about what had happened, blaming the owner of the Indianapolis club for his arrest and criticizing the treatment he’d received from the police in Indiana. When Earle played some covers in the middle of his Chicago set, someone in the crowd shouted at that lamest of concert remarks, “Free Bird!” As it happens, one of the contentious moments in Indianapolis occurred when an audience members yelled “Free Bird,” and Earle reportedly responded, “Fuck ‘Free Bird.’ I fucking hate Lynyrd Skynyrd.” In Chicago, when that oh-so-predictable song request rang out once again, Earle said, “Don’t act like Indianapolis did. That’s what got me locked up.”

On Saturday, Earle was actually quite well-behaved, constantly referring to the audience as “ladies and gentlemen” in his Southern drawl. Whatever happened in Indianapolis, he mellowed out by the time he reached Chicago. But as Earle wryly remarked, “We’ve had an eventful tour so far.”

Saturday’s show also featured a pleasant opening set by singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield. When Earle took the stage, he said he was feeling under the weather — possibly because of his overnight stay in that jail cell — but it didn’t seem to affect his singing. “I’ve got a bit of a sore throat, but I’m going to sing my ass off,” he promised — and that’s just what he did.

Midway through Saturday’s show, Earle’s violinist, Josh Hedley, broke a string and was unable to continue performing — leaving Earle to perform alone for the rest of the set. Earle performed many of the songs from his new album, Harlem River Blues, a solid collection of alt-country songs with full band arrangements in diverse styles. Notably, one of them, “Rogers Park,” is about Chicago, drawing on Earle’s memories of the gritty neighborhoods where he lived as a teen. “I lived in Pilsen for a little while, and I lived in East Rogers Park,” he said Saturday, indicating that not all of his memories were pleasant. “In ’99? Hell no.”

As good as Earle’s own songs are, the concert was also memorable because of the great covers he played: The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” (which he introduced as a “country and Westerberg” song), Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Bad Gasoline,” Mance Lipscomb’s “So Different Blues” and Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927.” For that classic song, Earle laid his guitar down on the stage and bravely sang it a cappella, all by himself. The crowd inside Lincoln Hall barely made a noise, other than a few whoops of appreciation, as Earle sang out: “Louisiana! Louisiana! They’re tryin’ to wash us away!” It was a stunning and powerful moment of music-making by one very talented guy. Now, let’s hope the rest of his tour (and career) aren’t eventful in the same way as his visit to Indianapolis.

www.justintownesearle.com / www.myspace.com/justintownesearle


UPDATE, Sept. 21, 2010: Bloodshot Records just issued this statement from Justin Townes Earle about his arrest in Indianapolis: “Unfortunately, reports surfacing online about the incident in Indianapolis are not accurate. I have been advised by counsel that I should not comment on a pending criminal matter, but suffice to say that I am looking forward to having my day in court. I would also like to say that I oppose violence against women in any form.”

UPDATE, Sept. 23, 2010: Earle’s website posted this news yesterday: “Justin Townes Earle has decided to suspend the remaining dates on his tour and enter a rehabilitation facility. Earle is strongly committed to confronting his on-going struggle with addiction and thanks his family, friends and fans for their continued support through this difficult time.”

PHOTOS OF JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE







PHOTOS OF JESSICA LEA MAYFIELD


Thee Oh Sees at Lincoln Hall


Thee Oh Sees stomped through a strong set of garage-rock songs Wednesday (Sept. 15) at Lincoln Hall. By the end, it was clear that Thee Oh Sees are one of the best bands today that channel the sounds of the 1960s Nuggets era into their own original tunes. The San Francisco band’s main singer-songwriter, John Dwyer, sometimes held his guitar up high, right next to his face. Other times, he crouched down low. There was something rooster-like about his posture, which he might have learned from watching clips of ’60s bands appearing on TV shows. Keyboardist and percussionist Brigid Dawson mostly sang harmony vocals, but her voice was a key ingredient in Thee Oh Sees’ bewitching sound.

As much as the band stayed within a certain sonic template — mostly keeping the guitars in fuzzy feedback territory — the music ranged from tight three-chord riffs to sprawling psychedelic jams. That same variety is apparent on the latest record by Thee Oh Sees, Warm Slime, which is either an album or an EP, depending on how you define these things. The record starts off with the title track, which runs for more than 13 minutes long — one of those songs that locks onto a cool groove and just won’t let go. It’s almost half the length of the entire record, which continues with six considerably shorter and more concise tunes. www.myspace.com/ohsees

The opening acts included Hot Machines, a Chicago trio with some familiar faces: Jered Gummere, whose other bands include the Ponys; Alex White, whose other bands include White Mystery; and Matt Williams, whose other bands include Lover! and Live Fast Die. (How do these folks have time to play in so many different bands?) Their cranked-up guitar rock was a good match with Thee Oh Sees. www.myspace.com/hotmachines

PHOTOS OF THEE OH SEES

















PHOTOS OF HOT MACHINES


Cap’n Jazz and Mission of Burma

This past weekend’s Wicker Park Festival had a pretty strong lineup on both days. I was there for the two final sets on the north stage Saturday night: Mission of Burma followed by Cap’n Jazz.

The two bands have something in common. Both labored in obscurity when they were originally together. And both are more famous now that they’ve reunited. Well, “famous” is a relative term here, but at least they’re getting more recognition now, long after original hey day.

In Michael Azerrad’s terrific book about underground rock bands of the 1980s, Our Band Could Be Your Life, he describes Mission of Burma touring the country and playing in front of barely anyone. Reunited now since 2002, Mission of Burma at least draws a decent-sized crowd.

The aging punks sounded fierce and alive as they played Saturday on Milwaukee Avenue. The kids in the crowd started moshing, slamming up against one another, as Mission of Burma ran through some of its best-known old tunes in the final part of the set: “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” “This Is Not a Photograph” and “Red.”


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Cap’n Jazz apparently had a pretty good local following back in the early 1990s, but I for one heard nothing about them until years later. Here I was, a journalist at a suburban newspaper trying to stay on top of such things, and somehow it escaped my attention that some young guys from Wheeling were making all this noise. This was not the sort of band that sent out press releases to the local paper. Some now point to Cap’n Jazz as one of the groups that influenced all those later “emo” bands. I finally heard about Cap’n Jazz when its lead singer, Tim Kinsella, went on to perform in a series of other, and usually artsier, stranger bands, including Joan of Arc. (For more background, read Jessica Hopper’s interview with Tim Kinsella for the Chicago Reader.)

Reunited, apparently for just a brief tour, Cap’n Jazz is drawing sell-out crowds at clubs. They even landed on the front page of The New York Times’ Arts section.

Saturday night, the fans were rabid with excitement as Kinsella and company thrashed through their songs. “Just to be clear, these songs were written 15 or 17 years ago,” Kinsella remarked at one point. When a fan apparently said something encouraging Kinsella not to go away again, he said, “It’s not like I’ve been hiding, man … If you’d gone to a Joan of Arc show, there’d have been 30 people there.”

Kinsella threw himself out on the crowd a number of times. As the show reached its climax, maybe or dozen or so audience members climbed up onto the stage and dived back into the crowd. With a minute left before the end, security guards finally showed up to see what was going on.


PHOTOS: CAP’N JAZZ

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Photos: Thermals, Hum, Caribou and more

Here are some photos I’ve taken at concerts over the past couple of weeks.

THE THERMALS with DISAPPEARS July 5 at Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park


See more photos from the concert.

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HUM and LONELY TRAILER July 10 at the Champaign 150 street festival


See more photos from the concert.

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CARIBOU and BUDOS BAND July 12 at Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park


See more photos from the concert.

And coming soon — photos and reports from the Pitchfork Music Festival.

The Sadies at Schubas

I’ve probably said enough before about how fabulous of a band the Sadies are, so I won’t repeat myself too much here. As always, they put on a roaring-good show filled with lots of exceptional guitar playing. The opening act, Heavy Trash, was actually the Sadies plus Heavy Trash — which made it more enjoyable for me. I’m not a huge fan of Heavy Trash’s rockabilly, but it sounded pretty good in this setting. During the Sadies’ set, they brought out guest vocalists (three of Chicago’s finest), Kelly Hogan, Sally Timms and Jon Langford, before finishing up around 2 a.m. with more Heavy Trash. What, no “Memphis, Egypt”? Now, that would have been a great way to close out the night. Oh, well. Otherwise, tons of fun.

SEE PHOTOS OF THE SADIES & HEAVY TRASH.