SXSW 2006

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The Guerrero Produce Warehouse is exactly what it says. No produce was in sight, tonight, however — although I did notice that the sign on the wall about Sleater-Kinney starting its set at 10:30 was taped just above a label for: “Rodent Station No. 4.”

While everyone took advantage of the free food and beer, I drifted over to the area by the stage, which was pretty empty in the early part of the evening, and staked out a spot for photos. A guy walking by remarked, “Boy, you really must want to see this band.” No duh. Eventually, more S-K fans filtered in and soon enough, it was reasonably crowded.

The ladies of S-K were even more animated tonight than they’d been in the two shows I saw in 2005. Carrie Brownstein was really doing a lot of classic-rock guitar-hero moves — kung fu kicks, Townshend windmills, and in general, jumping around. She was smiling an awful lot — clearly having a ball.

Corin Tucker’s banshee vocals were as amazing as ever, and things got really incredible when Carrie and Corin were trading guitar licks in front of Janet Weiss’ powerhouse drumming. The songs from¬†The Woods¬†(my favorite record of 2005) were just as great as I expected, and the long guitar solo in “Let’s Call It Love” even took on new dimensions as Brownstein continued to experiment with it.

For their encore, S-K took audience requests for some of their older songs and also played a cover of “The Promised Land.” (They always seem to include one interesting cover in their sets.)¬†SEE PHOTOS OF SLEATER-KINNEY…¬†SEE THE SET LIST¬†(which doesn’t include the encore).

On the way back to the hotel from the party, I passed a shop selling religious statues and candles, looked into the window and saw a life-sized model of a human skeleton in a white robe, one its bony fingers stretched out to greet passers-by.

I stopped at Beerland for the last set of the night —¬†LIL’ CAP’N TRAVIS, who should really be bigger than they are. Great roots-rock, with three alternating vocalists and a damn fine pedal-steel player (doing some interesting things I’d never seen before on the instrument). A nice show, though I was fading by 2 a.m….¬†SEE PHOTOS OF LIL’ CAP’N TRAVIS.

The first day party that I hit is the Guitar Town/Conqueroo bash at Mother Egan’s. As I walked in,¬†JAMES McMURTRY¬†was playing a solo acoustic set. I haven’t kept up with his music in the last few years, but the short performance that I see here persuades me that I should. “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” is a really powerful song, probably one of the best political-protest songs of the last few years, and its stirring portrayal of Americans struggling to make it on the minimum wage (among other topics) seemed to rivet the attention of the crowd. A goose-bumps moment.¬†(SEE PHOTO.)

Next on the lineup is¬†TOM FREUND,¬†whose music is totally new to me. On a few of the songs, he plays stand-up bass as he sings, which is an unusual combination in the music world. I like it… With his gruff voice and the bass-heavy arrangements, it reminds me a little of Tom Waits or Morphine (but more roots-rock than either of those). Interesting percussion and lap steel accompaniment from his backup players. (Beatle Bob shows up to dance alongside the stage as Freund is playing, my second Beatle Bob sighting of the festival — he was also at last night’s Lil’ Cap’n Travis show.) Freund closes with a cover of Buffalo Springfiel’s “For What It’s Worth.”¬†(SEE PHOTO.)

STEVE WYNN & THE MIRACLE 3¬†are next. I’ve been hearing raves about this guy for the past few years, didn’t really get into his music until listening to the latest CD,¬†tick…tick…tick.¬†The songs have grown on me, and it’s undeniable that Wynn has a bang-up band that transforms these tunes into real rockers. (Plus, he has a cute female drummer, whose face was very expressive throughout the show…)¬†SEE PHOTOS OF STEVE WYNN.

I left the party after that, heading over the convention center for a couple of industry talks and a performance by a local band covering classic girl group songs,¬†THE CARROTS.¬†(SEE PHOTO.)¬†In the first celebrity event of SXSW,THE BEASTIE BOYS¬†are “interviewed” by the audience. Maybe not such a good idea. The questions are OK, but the Boys often give short, sarcastic answers, leading to some awkward moments of silence and calls for “any more questions?” A moderator would have helped… Best part that I saw was just their reaction to the set with big comfy chairs:

“This is some real Actors Studio-type shit.”

I saw a little bit of the performance by¬†I LOVE YOU BUT I’VE CHOSEN DARKNESS¬†at Emo’s day party, and couldn’t get into it.¬†(SEE PHOTO.)

The Velvet Spade… what a crappy venue (at least the indoor portion of it). There was a long line of people waiting to get in at the 8 p.m. starting time, thanks to the fact that the place just hosted a rock ‘n’ roll party for Texas Governor Rick Perry… which ran late. Everyone finally piles into the place, and the little room, with the “stage” just inches off the floor is crammed tight. No space for bands to store their equipment, so that’s out in front of the stage, too.

THE SUN¬†is playing… I still haven’t gotten around to getting the CD these guys put out a few years ago, produced by Jay Bennett. Saw them open for the Flaming Lips a couple of years ago at Chicago’s Riv. They certainly have spirit and they certainly make a lot of noise. I’m not sure yet what to make of them. I like what I could hear, but at times, it seems like good songs are buried under too much feedback. By the last couple of songs, the Sun focused on more easily recognized melodies. And I like the fact that the band uses as many as two keyboards in some songs, while keeping the music in a loud-semi-punk/garage band style. At one point, a scream by the lead vocalist is so loud that I notice a couple of people in the crowd rearing back their heads as if they’ve been slapped.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF THE SUN.

I head outside to the Velvet Spade Patio, a considerably nicer place to see a band, although it has problems with sound bleed from nearby Club DeVille. One of my best memories of previous SXSW’s is seeing the Wrens playing a day party at this patio, hearing the music of the band next door and playing along impromptu. Tonight, after catching about two songs by¬†GOLDENBOY¬†(SEE PHOTO.)¬†(I liked the mp3 at swsw.com, but the duo didn’t create much of an impression on me live), I see¬†THE REPUTATION¬†from Chicago. The band’s a little late in setting up, but nothing too terrible. Leader Elizabeth Elmore makes a remark about the group’s previous SXSW gig being a disaster, in which a keyboard was thrown off the stage. “It’s kind of a cliffhanger to see if it’s as much of a train wreck as last year’s,” she says. Not sure what that was all about, but tonight it’s definitely not a disaster. No keyboard is present to be thrown. The Reputation plays solid guitar-driven power pop, keeping the volume pretty high at all times. I enjoyed it, although the sound wasn’t great — Elmore’s vocals were often all but inaudible.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF THE REPUTATION.

Keeping with the Chicago theme for a while, I go over to the Lava Lounge Patio for some of the Flameshovel Records showcase. It’s a cool label putting out music by a lot of interesting bands these days. I came in as¬†LYING IN STATES¬†was playing. Its music is fierce with some unexpected artsy moves. I can picture some of the mainstream, er, I mean, “alternative” rock radio listeners getting into this band, but its music is smarter than most of that stuff, with a few moments that remind me of Radiohead.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF LYING IN STATES.

While the next band,¬†BOUND STEMS,¬†is setting up, the stench of sewage fills the area in front of the stage. Water is pooling up through a drain in the floor. The crowd scatters, a guy tries to mop up the mess, but the odor lingers. Bound Stems soldiers on, decorating its mike stands and drum kit with foliage — a la British Sea Power. Nice touch of atmosphere for the stage show, though it’d be better without that sewer smell. Anyway, I catch just a few songs by Bound Stems, and don’t form too much of an impression. When the male and female vocalists put some passion into the chorus, it starts to take on the emotional resonance of the Arcade Fire, which is a good thing.¬†(SEE PHOTO.)

Next stop: Emo’s. The Norwegian band¬†SERENA MANEESH¬†comes out, with the guitarist/singer draped in a white fringe shawl (this is a guy) and scarves hanging from the mike stand. The bass player is a tall, very Nordic-looking gal with long, white-blonde hair who has a bit of the Nico look about her. (Not the Neko look…) I had considered catching Serena Maneesh’s recent concert at the Empty Bottle in Chicago, so I was glad to get another opportunity to see them. I don’t understand a word of what they’re singing (was it English or Norwegian?), but the waves of guitar noise are fabulous, in the great tradition of My Bloody Valentine, and there’s also a hippy psychedelic vibe that reminds me of the Warlocks. Except that these Nords look like outcasts from a Viking crocheting commune.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF SERENA MANEESH.

OF MONTREAL¬†is next on the Emo’s stage. I’ve listened to this band’s last two albums and found myself sort of liking the music but not buying into it completely. With their Brian Eno-ish electronic dance show, they didn’t captivate me much as a live act, either, though I could see some of the people in attendance were rabid fans. And I have to admit that was a pretty impressive entrance by the (male) lead singer, who came out in a wedding dress as “Here Comes the Bride” was playing, only to have the white dress pulled off by his bandmates, revealing a bare torso and white trousers underneath.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF OF MONTREAL.

After 15 or 20 minutes of hearing Of Montreal, I decided to skidaddle over to the Parish… Catch a few minutes downstairs by¬†GIL MANTERA’S PARTY DREAM… not long enough to comment on the band, just long enough to snap a couple of pictures.¬†(SEE PHOTO.)¬†Then I go upstairs for¬†ART BRUT, whose 2005 albumBang Bang Rock & Roll¬†is one of the more fun recordings to come out of the recent Brit punk revival. Art Brut lived up to its potential as a live act. I’d never see lead singer Eddie Argos before, so I was in for a bit of shock as he followed the rest of the band out onto the stage. Young punk? Hardly. He comes out in a business suit, and his mustache and neatly cut hair make him look more like a character from “The Office” than someone in a punk band. He puts on a show that’s as much a comedy act as a concert, with very funny lyrics complemented by his exaggerated expressions… (including many references to the band’s name, as in the command, “Art Brut, Go!”). As the show went on, he got more sweaty and his white office shirt came untucked, revealing a bit of protruding belly.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF ART BRUT.

THE PALM SCHOOL CHOIR,¬†an actual choir from a local school in Austin, won an amazing gig — opening for¬†NEIL YOUNG.¬†Opening, that is, for the morning’s keynote “speech” by Young (really an onstage interview). The kids were charming, playing original songs written by the band teacher and accompanied by a rock band. The first song was “One Good Rock Show Can Change the World” (a line spoken by Jack Black in “High Fidelity” and quoted in the opening montage of the radio show “Sound Opinions”) — what an appropriate choice for the theme of this whole festival.

Young, along with filmmaker Jonathan Demme (who just directed the concert film “Neil Young: Heart of Gold”), were interviewed by journalist Jan Uhleszki. On the questions about songwriting and creativity, Young took the side of those who say these things are essentially mysterious and unexplainable. “I don’t know where anything comes from,” he said. “I just totally write out of the air… I try not to think about it. The more you think about it, the worse it gets. … I’m proudest of the work when it comes fast. It just happens so fast and so easy…”

He compared creativity to a wild animal in a hole that has to be approached carefully. “If I get too close…”

Discussing the pressure to repeat the music that made him famous in the first place, Young said:

“You can’t be who you were… People want to know why you don’t make your most famous record over over. Because it’s death.”

Young said he recently turned down a concert promoter’s plan for a tour. “They wanted to call the tour ‘Neil Young’s Greatest Hits.’ That was it for them. They’re done.”

Though his latest album is acoustic, Young said he longs to play again with his louder pals in Crazy Horse. “I hear this massive, hideous, crunching noise. And I feel like I’m coming home.”

At the end of the interview, Demme plugged a couple of new bands that he likes, including Chicago’s M’s (sorry, I forget who the other band was…). And Young added, “Is Superwolf from Chicago here? It’s a devastating metal folk band.” Not sure who he meant — the “Superwolf” collaboration by Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Matt Sweeney, perhaps. Though it isn’t exactly “metal folk.”

Over lunch, I caught a few songs by¬†OWEN¬†(a.k.a. Mike Kinsella), playing his lovely, soul-baring quiet folk at the trade show’s day stage. This guy really deserves more of an audience.¬†(SEE PHOTO.)

In another onstage interview,¬†MORRISSEY¬†spoke in the afternoon, who was just about what you would expect — funny, a little self-aggrandizing (though somehow slightly self-deprecating at the same time… how does he do that?).

Saying that he’s in a good mood lately, he explained, “There’s still a lot of beauty in the world. It’s mostly nature. … Nature calms us down.”

The question was asked, “And you have people in your life?” The sarcastic reply:

“There’s no people in my life at all, no.
Why would I need people?”

Looking back at the lyrics of the early songs he wrote with the Smiths, Morrissey said, “I was always brutally honest, and that made people uncomfortable. … I didn’t ever want to be one of the headless pack. I wanted to mean something to the people who listened.”

On his famous comments long ago about leading a life of celibacy, he said, “It’s a curse, the word is a curse. It was me for a while, but then it wasn’t me. I think everybody goes through dry spells.”

After describing the way Johnny Mars wrote the music to the Smiths songs, Morrissey insisted he was never interested in playing instruments himself. “I want simply to be naked before the world. Guitars are a cop out. It’s just a way to be busy all the time. You might as well be behind a tree.”

Morrissey also revealed that the Smiths were recently offered $5 million to play a reunion gig at the Coachella festival. Gasps from the crowd. “Is that high?” he said. “Money doesn’t come into it.” (Well, at least not for now, Morrissey. We’ll see…)

After sitting through some of the panel discussions about indie labels and breaking British buzz bands, I caught the last part of K.D. LANG’s interview. (Sorry, K.D., I just can’t do that lowercase name thing you prefer…) Lang said she sees performing great music while being openly gay as “the highest standard of subversive, progressive behavior.”

Then came¬†KRIS KRISTOFFERSON’s¬†interview. He said the spare quality of his new album came out of the experience of performing some solo acoustic concerts. “It put a focus on the song, the lyrics. There was nothing else to hide behind.”

On recording the album with Don Was: “I’m embarrassed to say how long it took. people will say I did it with just my left hand.” How long? “A few hours,” he said, explaining that’s how long it took him to play the songs for Was, and then Was touched them up a little — but not much — after that.

Hoping that the speculation about a surprise appearance by Neil Young might turn out to be true, I went to Antones at 6:30 p.m. for the concert by Young’s former Buffalo Springfield bandmate,¬†RICHIE FURAY.¬†It was a decent set of old and new music, making me think Furay probably deserves more credit than he generally receives as a forerunner of the recent American and alt-country movements. But Neil did not show up. The moment when he would have come out — a moment that Furay and his band perhaps prepared for — was when Furay introduced a medley of three songs that Young wrote, but Furay sang, for Buffalo Springfield.¬†(SEE PHOTO.)

The rest of the evening, I was peripatetic. And without planning it, I turned into a truly international night — seeing musicians from Iran, Lativa, Luxembourg, Finland, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Yugoslavia.

I am highly interested in the culture of Iran, mostly as a result of watching many Iranian films. So I thought the appearance by a group from Tehran called 127 would be a must-see. I headed to Caribbean Lights for that show at 8 p.m. Unfortunately, I can’t say I found 127’s music all that interesting. They struck me as an Iranian band trying to sound too hard like an American band in the vein of Dave Matthews — with the addition of trombone and some occasional Persian-style melodies in the guitar solos. Not that there’s anything wrong with foreign bands trying to sound American or British — that description could apply to many of the other groups I liked during SXSW this year — but I’d have preferred hearing an Iranian band that sounded a little more … Iranian.

Making a quick exit, I went up and down the block in search of good music.¬†GORAN GORA¬†of Latvia was playing to a nearly empty room at Spiro’s, poor guy. I heard two of his acoustic-guitar songs (which were accompanied by a guy playing sounds from a laptop), which were pleasant … and one piano song, which was downright awkward. The chorus, though, may have explained why Gora’s audience was so sparse while other bands were drawing hipsters in droves: “I’m not from New York City/I’m from Baltic States.”¬†(SEE PHOTO.)

I popped back for a few minutes into the patio area of Spiro’s, which was hosting a European showcase tonight. Heard a few minutes of the Luxembourger¬†DANIEL BALTHASAR,¬†who seemed totally uninteresting.¬†(SEE PHOTO.)¬†Went across the street to Room 710 and watched a few songs by¬†INSECT SEX ACT¬†— lacerating hard rock. Pretty intense. Maybe not exactly my thing, but this band was good at it.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF INSECT SEX ACT.

After hearing bits of four bands in one hour, I needed some stability, so I went to the reliable Undertow Records’ showcase at Habana Calle 6 Patio (a really nice outdoor venue) and watched St. Louis’¬†WATERLOO¬†play some nice Midwestern alt-country. Nothing groundbreaking, but good stuff if you like Son Volt, the Jayhawks and groups like that.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF WATERLOO.

Continuing the global village theme, I saw¬†THE LATEBIRDS¬†from Finland at the Drink. Wearing plaid shirts, they played really, really nice ’60s-style pop, complete with jangly Byrds guitars, electric piano and harmonies. This seems like a band that should build at least a cult following in the U.S. among the fans of other ’60s revival groups like the Redwalls. Interestingly, the lead singer mentioned that the Latebirds would be opening for Wilco the following night at the Opry in Nashville. How the heck did they get that gig? Then he gave a shout out to former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, who was in the crowd. (I’d thought that was him standing over there…) Coomer produced the Latebirds’ new record. The band closed by asking, “Are there any Nick Lowe fans here? Any Elvis Costello fans?” and then played “What’s So Funny (‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding).” Nice.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF THE LATEBIRDS.

At 11, I went to Flamingo Cantina for the show by¬†DR. DOG.¬†I saw this band open for M. Ward about a year ago and was very impressed, picking up a copy of their CD,¬†Easy Beat, which hadn’t been officially released it. It’s a very fine record, though it may suffer a little in comparison to Dr. Dog’s bang-up concerts. The fidelity on the record could be touch better, but that’s a minor quibble. The thing is, these guys from Philadelphia write really, really good songs, with interesting chord changes and clever arrangements and things like guitar lines echoing vocal lines. And it draws from great musicial traditions, including late-period Beatles (think “Don’t Let Me Down”) and the Faces. British rock with a dash of soul and classic songbook songwriting. But Dr. Dog’s onstage persona is far from the sophisticated image you might get from what I’ve just written. No band that I saw at SXSW this year was as lively as Dr. Dog, jumping around the stage (and swinging guitars and feet perilously close to me… my fault for being so close). Jumping with unrestrained joy, total abandon. Goofy, too, with a weird, smashed-up hat on one guy’s head and cheapo sunglasses on two of them. Somehow, even as they prance around the stage, nearly colliding with one another, the guys in Dr. Dog are able to pull off their songs almost note-perfect. Think of the power of a My Morning Jacket concert. At the end of the show, the fans who were obviously familiar with Dr. Dog’s music were singing along — no hollering along, at the top of the lungs: “Wake up, wake up, wake up!” Wow. What a show.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF DR. DOG.

Back to the international stuff: a bit of the set by Montreal’s¬†WE ARE WOLVES¬†at Emo’s IV. They were playing aggressive keyboard rock. I wouldn’t call that kind of thing techno, exactly. More like keyboard punk. I didn’t hear enough to decide if I like it. The singer had a huge two-dimensional picture of a skull propped up above his head for a while.¬†(SEE PHOTO.)

At Spiro’s, I walked into an impressive set of music on the patio, thinking it was the band scheduled to be playing at that time, Syd Matters, but it turned out to be Belgium’s¬†GIRLS IN HAWAII. Terrible name. Change it at once. But keep the music. In its prettier passages, the singing and melodies reminded me of Coldplay — no, let me amend that. I hate Coldplay, so that’s a bad comparison. I think these melodies will remind some people of Coldplay, though it reminds me of Radiohead and similar bands. How’s that? But the thing that made Girls in Hawaii a little more interesting than the other groups mining this same territory is that the group also knows how to rock. The instrumental breaks reminded me more of the Pixies than Coldplay. Good thing.¬†(SEE PHOTO.)

Playing in the front room of Spiro’s is a heavy metal band from the Netherlands called¬†SAN ANDREAS.¬†I could swear that one of the songs, sung in that typical Metallica-style hoarse screaming, has the chorus:¬†“I LOVE SEINFELD!!!”¬†Then again, maybe he’s singing something in Dutch that just sounds like that.¬†(SEE PHOTO.)¬†I also saw a little bit of the Yugoslavian metal band¬†STUKA¬†playing here… and wanted to leave as soon as I could.

I hoped to see Islands down the street at Emo’s IV, but the band was taking forever to set up, so I left before hearing a single note. They were all getting into white clothes at that point. Back at Spiro’s Patio, things were also running alarmingly behind schedule.¬†SYD MATTERS, from Paris, was finally playing. Nice music, similar to the description I just made about Girls in Hawaii. Another group with pretty melodies and strong instrumental breaks. But the show was still going at 1:20 a.m. (20 minutes after headliner dEUS should have started). One guitar’s sound cut out. A sound person walked up onstage, and the next thing we all know, Syd Matters’ set had ended in mid-song. One of them threw down his microphone stand and yelled “Fuck you!” I presume the group was told to end its set because of the late hour, but I’m not sure. I hear that Girls in Hawaii took a long time to set up, throwing off the schedule for the rest of the bands.¬†(SEE PHOTO.)

Now came a long, excruciating wait for¬†dEUS¬†to begin. This venue or the people running the European showcase obviously didn’t know what they were doing. As the hour got later and later, I could hear the guy working the sound board telling the guys on stage things like, “That microphone is coming through on Channel 15. It should be on Channel 17.” Meanwhile, the guys on stage were pulling cords in and out of sockets, trying to figure out where they should go. Tempers started flaring. Many of the people in the audience — including a sizable contingent of Europeans — were huge fans of dEUS and would wait through anything to see them. But soon the catcalls began. At least the wait gave me a chance to talk to some interesting people, including a University of Texas student from Greece who hosts a radio show called “Sonic Youth.” Commenting on American music, he said:

“I like your music, but not all of it. Like Nickelback. Why do they let that guy sing?”

Finally, the band came on at 2:20, twenty minutes after the venue was supposed to be closed for the night. I’ve heard many good things about dEUS over the years, but never bought any of their CDs. I was very impressed by the set they played — finally finishing up around 3 a.m. Aggressive music but with a good sense of dynamics and musicality. The only song I didn’t care for all that much was a pop ballad dEUS played from its new album. Too bad the technical screw-ups made this showcase such an ordeal, because a lot of the music was great.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF dEUS.

I show up late at the convention center for the interview with CHRISSIE HYNDE, and after hearing the last part of her talk, I regret not seeing all of it.

She told the story of how she almost got married to Johnny Rotten and/or Sid Vicious as a joke. And how she almost got married to Ray Davies, getting as far as the wedding ceremony. “I think the guy just thought it was a bad idea — the guy doing the service,” she explained.

She declined to be pressed further on her love life:

“I know what you’re thinking, she had all these cool rock stars. Hey, someone had to fuck me.”

And she revealed the story of her first kiss. As a teen, she and one other white friend went to a concert at the Akron Civic Center with an almost entirely black audience. Singer Jackie Wilson pulled Hynde up on to the stage and kissed her. “I went completely fucking quiet,” Hynde remembered. “And everyone fucking hated me.”

BILLY BRAGG¬†followed Hynde, with the most erudite (and interesting) talk I’ve ever seen by a rock musician. Bragg, who’s writing a political book, talked about the alarming rise of nationalism in England and Europe, which led into a discussion of the Clash standing up against racism, Churchill and Roosevelt signing the Atlantic Charter during World War II… and many other topics. “If I could write a fucking song about it, I would,” Bragg said, explaining his decision to write a book. “A song about the Atlanic Charter and the welfare state…” He shook his head and laughed.

On his decision to call the book “The Progressive Patriot”: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with patriotism. I think Woody Guthrie is the greatest American patriot.”

Other Bragg comments: “I think of the guitar, especially the electric guitar, as more of a percussive instrument than a melodic instrument.”

“I could play (live versions of all the songs on) my box set in two hours. I’m sure I could do it if I’m wired enough.”

On today’s “alternative” rock:

“I know the shit that ‘alternative’ is supposed to be alternative to. That ain’t alternative — that’s just heavy metal sped up.”

“I love this town. To know in your heart that Austin exists… a beacon of weirdness in a sea of redneck mediocrity.”

I had hoped to catch the Go Team at the Spin party today, but Bragg’s talk was too interesting to skip. So by the time I made it to Stubbs for the Spin party, all of the free food was gone, the Go Team had played, and¬†WE ARE SCIENTISTS¬†was taking the stage. Now, here’s a band that has zero interest for me. It’s hard to explain why one band imitating old punk records is annoying and others are fun, but this one’s just annoying. To me, at least. Sounds like a copy of a copy of a copy to me. I didn’t stay long.¬†(SEE PHOTO.)

I catch a couple of songs by a fellow with what may be the festival’s most ridiculous name,¬†GET CAPE. WEAR CAPE. FLY.¬†He’s not bad, though — playing acoustic guitar and singing with accompaniment from a laptop and dancing around the trade show’s day stage.¬†(SEE PHOTO.)

RAY DAVIES¬†played an intimate acoustic mini-concert in a dim room at the convention center, interspersing a half-dozen songs with his commentary and clips from a video documentary based on footage he shot over the past several years. Davies teased us by opening with the chords to “Waterloo Sunset,” but then playing just a little snatch of that great song. (The greatest song?) He stopped, joking, “That’s the radio version.” The new songs sounded very good in this live performance. In fact, a couple of them have stuck in my head all week, even as I’ve heard a hundred other bands. A good sign. I have some reservations about Davies’ new album,¬†Other People’s Lives,¬†but they have more to do with the sound of the record, which is a little polished for my tastes. Stripped down to acoustic performances, the songs were even better. And I imagine they might be good in the setting of an electric concert with a full band, too.

In a Q-and-A after the performance (with almost all of the questions coming from journalists in the audience, making it seem more like a press conference), Davies said people sometimes ask him: Why bother writing new songs? “My answer is because I live,” he said. “If I can’t write, I can’t live as a complete person.”

Davies said he would like to play again with his brother Dave, who’s recovering from a stroke that affected his ability to control his hands. “I held his hand — God knows why,” Davies said, laughing.

Eventually, he said, “We’ll sit down and see if there’s any music we feel it’s relevant to do.”

BRAKES¬†is my first official SXSW showcase gig of the night. This is one of the shows I’ve been looking forward to the most. Brakes’ 2005 album¬†Give Blood¬†was criminally overlooked, and the lack of hype continued at SXSW. In the arrays of critics’ choices in the two local papers today, not a single person picked this show for the 8 p.m. time slot. Hmpf. What do they know. There is a line outside, so some people (especially some visitors from Britain) are aware of how good this band is. (Of course, some of those people were undoubtedly showing up at the Blender Bar at the Ritz early because Editors were playing later.)

Brakes’ performance did not disappoint: sharp, funny and tuneful punk, with the constant presence of an acoustic guitar lending things a little bit of folkiness. Some of Brakes’ songs are so damn short… “Cheney” is a political protest song that’s all of about eight seconds. Even introducing these short numbers seemed absurd, like the final song of the show, “Comma Comma Comma Full Stop,” which received not only an intro but also an extraneous guitar lick from “Layla” — and then was over in a few seconds. Brakes make every second count.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF BRAKES.

THE KOOKS were next in this showcase of Brit bands. They were just OK, veering a little towards jam-band-ness at times. I checked out of there. (SEE PHOTO.)

A slow-moving line had formed outside the Red Eyed Fly for the Sub Pop showcase, but just before showtime, the flood gates opened and I got in.¬†KELLEY STOLTZ¬†was just as amazing in person as he is on record. What a terrific songwriter. And he wasn’t the shy, retiring individual onstage that I imagined from his reputation as a reclusive musical genius. (OK, maybe I made up that part about “reclusive” in my imagination, but it seemed to fit the Brian Wilson part of his music…) Switching between keyboards and guitar, Stoltz was quite lively onstage, even sinning an odd bit of banter in the middle of a song as he encouraged the crowd to listen to the hum of the amplifiers.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF KELLEY STOLTZ.

BAND OF HORSES¬†followed Stoltz, another highly anticipated show. The group’s new album is excellent, and the band almost pulled it off live. Almost — there were a couple of gaffs with guitar tuning and guitar soloing, but these were forgivable mistakes for a band playing such great music. I love the way these songs are constructed, with minor-key, quieter sections that contrast with the main parts and give the rest of the songs even more power. Singer Ben Bridwell started off on a pedal steel guitar (actually, it had no pedals… so I’m not sure what to call it… just a steel guitar?), playing the instrument with broad sweeps across its strings, almost like he was playing an autoharp or zither. He later switched to a regular guitar, and then played a three-string bass (regular bass guitar with the E string missing) as part of a bass duet. Band of Horses included a cover of Otis Redding’s “Because You Got Me Chained and Bound,” not a song I would have expected, but one that fit right in.SEE PHOTOS OF BAND OF HORSES.

Though I was doubtful about getting in, I went across town to Antone’s, where¬†SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS¬†were playing at midnight, followed by Neko Case. I got stuck in line for a while, but luckily, I was in line right by the door, and Jones’ joyful soul-funk music was clearly audible where I was standing — and I could even see her off in the distance. Jones got the crowd dancing like crazy, and by the time I was inside, I heard people commenting in wonder that anyone is still making music like Jones.

She’s a tough act to follow, but¬†NEKO CASE¬†is also hard to top. Once again, I heard many people in the audience expressing their amazement at Case’s voice and performance. As much as we sometimes like keeping musical secrets to ourselves, it’s also a pleasure to see other people discovering something beautiful or great that you discovered earlier. Even if you’ve heard Case’s records, you have to see her in concert to understand how great of a singer she is. To see her singing with such control and passion, hitting high notes and loud notes seemingly with ease… it’s simply stunning. It was still stunning to me, and I’ve seen her perform maybe nine or ten times.

Her new album¬†Fox Confessor Brings the Flood¬†is the best of the year. I hate to say that this early in the year, and I know other great records will come along in the next nine months, but¬†Fox¬†is perched at the top of my list right now. It’s so rich with haunting words, lovely melodies, peculiar musical touches, killer vocals and song-to-song flow. The songs sounded very good live (only minor problem: the lack of some of the instruments featured in the studio). Introducing one of the songs with gothic lyrics, Case said, “This is a scary story.” The theme of scary stories recurs throughout the new album (and her previous albums), but the truly scary thing tonight was how talented Case is.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF NEKO CASE.

Finally, a day without much of importance happening at the convention center. And that means… more time to spend at day parties. I opted to stick around all afternoon at the Misra Records party at Red Eyed Fly. Every act was worthwhile:

SHEARWATER. I had missed seeing this band until now. What beautiful singing and strong playing. SEE PHOTOS OF SHEARWATER.

LAURA VEIRS,¬†whose loopy folk rock is always enchanting. She used a looping pedal to construct epics out of her guitar parts and vocals — maybe even more impressive than Andrew Bird in how subtly she used the technique.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF LAURA VEIRS.

GREAT LAKE SWIMMERS was one of my favorite discoveries last year, and Tony Dekker was back this time with a couple of musicians backing him up on banjo and brushed drums. His melodies, poetic words and soft singing are magical. SEE PHOTOS OF GREAT LAKE SWIMMERS.

THE MENDOZA LINE¬†is a good, sometimes great band on record, but they played a ramshackle show at SXSW a few years ago. Just a bad night, I hoped. Every band has one. Today, they made up for it somewhat. The band sounded fine, but still didn’t have quite the spark that I was looking for. Not sure why Timothy Bracy barely sang at all, since he shares a lot of the lead vocals with Shannon McArdle on the records. Shannon commented on how much she enjoyed seeing Morrissey at Stubbs the other night, especially since he took off his shirt three times during the portion of the concert she saw.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF THE MENDOZA LINE.

DR. DOG¬†reprised its excellent show from the other night. I’ve raved enough already. At this gig, the group was more talkative, turning out to be one of the funniest of SXSW. Just who were those superfans in the crowd? People who have been following the band around? New converts? One guy had a softball signed by all but one of the Dr. Dog guys. (Band comment in a stage whisper,¬†“He can’t write or read.”) The same guy later called out that he lives in a Dumpster across the street from the band’s house and that’s how he learned all of the songs. When he was hauled onto stage later to dance along to the climatic song, the guy enthusiastically exclaimed:

“Listen to Dr. Dog and your dreams will come true!”

The band’s rejoinder: “This is coming from a guy who lives in a Dumpster across the street from my house.”¬†SEE PHOTOS OF DR. DOG…¬†SEE DR. DOG’S SET LIST.

CENTRO-MATIC¬†can always be counted on for a great performance — and are a regular feature at these Misra parties. The band was as good as ever, playing rocking versions of even the slightly subdued songs from the new record.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF CENTRO-MATIC.

The evening started with crooner¬†RICHARD HAWLEY¬†at Eternal. This Englishman reminds me of Nick Lowe in ballad mode. What a fine voice, and nice touch with the spare arrangements. Performers like Hawley raise the question: Why don’t people looking for some smooth “adult contemporary” music listen to something intelligent like this instead of buying the latest Barry Manilow? Different thing, I guess, but it seems like a much, much better executed version of adult music to me.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF RICHARD HAWLEY.

I popped into Elysium’s annual Japan Night for a few songs by¬†THE RODEO CARBURETTOR¬†(sic). I can see there’s a big crowd (mostly locals from Austin, I think) who love seeing the whole lineup of Japanese bands every year. I’ve liked some of the Japanese bands I’ve heard over the years (Acid Mother Temple is a special favorite), but others have struck me more as novelty acts than anything I’d listen to repeatedly. The Rodeo Carburetor played decent punk rock, but the most pit was beginning to get violent, so I split.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF THE RODEO CARBURETTOR.

The only thing I knew about¬†RICHARD SWIFT¬†was that he has a new record coming out on Secretly Canadian, and that’s a great label. He was playing tonight in the Secretly Canadian showcase at Emo’s Annex, and proved to be a good find. Like Kelley Stoltz or Richard Hawley, Swift plays smartly written music. Like Stoltz, Swift is a scruffy, energetic performer — not the sophisticated nightclub act he might choose to be, based on the quality of his songwriting. On the last song, Swift’s second keyboard player leaned over and played ragtime-style bits in the upper range of the keyboard while Swift continued to play his part. Pretty cool. A bunch of the other Secretly Canadian folks got onto stage and clapped and sang along to one tune.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF RICHARD SWIFT.

Rainbow Quartz is another great label, specializing in bands that revive the sounds of the ’60s. So I figured the label’s showcase would be worth attending. As I walked in to the Blender Bar, the place was nearly empty forTHE WINNERYS. The band was good enough, but didn’t seem all that special — Spaniards trying to sound like the Beatles.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF THE WINNERYS.

I headed down the street to Habana Calle 6 Patio for a set by Minneapolis’¬†THE OWLS. Nice co-ed folk rock, with the musicians literally playing musical chairs. The songs are pleasant, but I’d have to hear them more before deciding just how much I like them.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF THE OWLS.

Back to the Blender Bar for another Rainbow Quartz act, THE JESSICA FLETCHERS from Oslo. Very good stuff, more in a garage band vein. SEE PHOTOS OF THE JESSICA FLETCHERS.

Then across town to a remote venue called Molotov Lounge for¬†THE BROKEDOWN, a band from L.A. The group’s¬†mp3 file at www.sxsw.com¬†was one of the best that I heard during my insane attempt to sample all 1,000 songs. Live, the group is good, maybe not quite as great as that song, a slice of, yes, sunny California harmony pop. The band had an enthusiastic crowd, but ti seemed to be mostly the band’s friends from L.A. Too bad more SXSWer’s didn’t discover the Brokedown.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF THE BROKEDOWN.

ROBERT POLLARD¬†seemed like an appropriate act to cap off this year’s festival. As he noted from the stage at Antone’s:

“Now it’s time for the obligatory, end-of-SXSW, indie-rock-icon performance.”

The Guided By Voices fans were out in force, giving Pollard an enthusiastic reception as he played songs, mostly from his new solo album. The band was good. Pollard still has that leg kicks and microphone twirls down. It wasn’t exactly a GBV show, but it was still pretty damn good.¬†SEE PHOTOS OF ROBERT POLLARD.

The Kooks

OCT. 1 ‚ÄstOK, so this is October and that photo you’re looking at is from March. What gives? Well, the Kooks were one band that I did not pay much attention to when I was in Austin this spring. They came onstage just after a smashing performance by Brakes. The Kooks didn’t leave much of an impression on me, and I was itching to scurry across town for the Sub Pop showcase, so I left halfway through the Kooks’ show. And, when I posted¬†all of those many, many SXSW photos¬†on the Underground Bee, I only bothered to include one measly picture of the Kooks.

And then… unbeknownst to me (and to most of the American record-buying public), the Kooks became pretty big stars in the U.K. And in the last couple of months, “The Kooks” shot way ahead of everything else on the list of search phrases that are leading people to find this very Web site.

And so, in answer to public demand, I’ve gone back into my photo files and constructed a whole gallery of Kooks pix.¬†CLICK HERE TO SEE THE WHOLE ALBUM OF PHOTOS OF THE KOOKS.

Belle & Sebastian and New Pornographers

MARCH 10, 2006
at the Riviera, Chicago

Belle and Sebastian was just about perfection on Friday night. Great selection of songs both old and new ‚Äď including several early tracks that I didn‚Äôt expect to hear, like ‚ÄúDog on Wheels,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúThe State I Am In‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúLazy Line Painter Jane,‚ÄĚ which featured guest vocals from a woman in the crowd. Her husband had e-mailed the band, suggesting that she sing the duet. What a sweet moment, and luckily, the woman (identified only as Amanda) did know how to sing well.

Good opening set, too, from the New Pornographers. What a perfect pairing. These bands come from similar musical places, but their approaches are different. The New Pornographers have a tendency to hammer home every musical hook with a lot of force and doubled (tripled or quadrupled) parts. Yes, it’s a little cheesy, but in the best sense of the term. Even without Neko Case, they sounded great.

 

The Autumn Defense at Schubas

FEB. 23, 2006
Schubas, Chicago

SEE PHOTOS

The¬†Autumn Defense‘s concert at Schubas sold out in advance. Is it just because of the Wilco connection, or are more people starting to appreciate this band’s beautiful music? Yes, it’s very soft, maybe a little too soft and sleepy, but the Autumn Defense’s music is quite lovely. It reminds me of 1970s music — acoustic numbers by Big Star, for example. The band might also remind some people of Bread — not necessarily a good reference, though I take some guilty pleasure in enjoying a few Bread songs. (So do Jay Bennett and Edward Burch, who played “If” in concert and proclaimed it the best song ever written. A little bit of an exaggeration, but I won’t argue that it’s a great tune.) Backed by drums, pedal steel guitar and trumpet, the Autumn Defense sounded slightly more lively than they did when they opened for¬†Jeff Tweedy at the Vic.¬†Man, the crowd was very quiet tonight, which John Stirratt made note of…

Some new songs that the Autumn Defense plans to release on an album later this year sounded good, very much in the same vein as the¬†Circles¬†tracks. The last song of the encore was Stirratt’s only song in the Wilco catalogue, “It’s Just That Simple.”

John Klos was the opening act. This is the second night in a row I’d seen him (see below), which was a bit much. But his music is growing on me.

Devin Davis at the Hideout

FEB. 23, 2006
DEVIN DAVIS
The Hideout, Chicago
SEE PHOTOS

After¬†raving last year¬†about¬†Devin Davis‘ album,¬†Lonely People of the World, Unite!¬†(and being the only critic to vote for his song “Giant Spiders” as one of the songs of the year in the¬†Pazz & Jop¬†poll), I finally got around to seeing him perform in concert. Too bad I missed the earlier Wednesday-night shows in his February residency at the Hideout. I would have liked to see him play with a full band.

Still, it was entertaining and impressive to see what he could do as a one-man band. Davis used the same sort of looping pedals that Andrew Bird uses to build multiple-track songs in concert, right in front of the audience’s eyes. Davis clobbered on the drums for some songs, creating slightly off-kilter percussion tracks, and then played on top of those beats with guitar and harmonica. The drumming loops had some fun moments, but it was more impressive when Davis used the looping pedals to harmonize with his own vocals, or to create a droning chord with his harmonica. He also played Theremin, demonstrating nice pitch control on the notoriously tricky instrument as he added “God Bless America” at the end of one song.

Davis opened with an unusual cover, Wilco’s “At Least That’s What You Said” — perhaps a nod to the fact that one member of Wilco, Mikael Jorgensen, had just opened for him. Davis apologized, “I hope that wasn’t too cheesy.” No, it wasn’t cheesy at all. It was a shadow of the Wilco original, but still a nice tribute to Chicago’s best-known band. Davis made a good attempt at duplicating the guitar/drum solo at the end of the song by going wild on the harmonica.

He also played a new song on a various-artists compilation from Kill Rock Stars, and he also did a cover of the Mississippi John Hurt song “Blessed Be the Word of the Lord,” noting, “I’m not very relgious, but it’s a good fucking song.” For the most part he played the songs from¬†Lonely People.¬†It was a little ramshackle, maybe not the best introduction to Davis for newcomers, but further proof of his mad-scientist capabilities.

JOHN KLOS (formerly of¬†The Boas) was the first performer of the night, playing rather sleepy but pretty songs on keyboards and guitar, backed up by a second guitarist. I enjoyed Kloss’ music, but it would be nice to hear fuller arrangments of some of the songs. At one point, when the music threatened to get upbeat, he commented, “Pop songs? That’s up to you.”

MIKAEL JORGENSEN of Wilco was second on the bill. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Jorgensen is best known as the guy with the laptop who has incorporated sampled noise into the Wilco concert sound, but he also plays keyboard. In his solo show tonight, he was pretty impressive on both keyboards and guitar as he sang pop tunes — ranging from Randy Newman-style numbers on the piano to Flaming Groovies-ish power pop on guitar. Backed by a bassist and drummer, Jorgensen showed that he’s a fair vocalist — nothing special, but nothing bad, either. His songs show promise. Damn, Wilco sure has a lot of talented members.

SEE PHOTOS

The Elected and Stars at Metro

FEB. 17, 2006
THE ELECTED and STARS
at the Metro, Chicago

On the coldest night of Chicago‚Äôs winter so far, the musical theme at Metro was meteorologically perverse.¬†The Elected¬†came with their songs from ‚ÄúSun, Sun, Sun,‚ÄĚ while¬†Stars¬†offered another suggestion for warmth, playing songs from their 2004 disc ‚ÄúSet Yourself on Fire.‚ÄĚ

The Elected, a band that hails from the sunnier climes of Los Angeles, did its best to bring at least a little musical brightness to the room. Led by Blake Sennett, who‚Äôs better known as a member of Rilo Kiley, the Elected play delightful light pop ‚Äď one critic compared them to the Eagles last week, but they make me think of the Mamas and the Papas, the Turtles and the Left Banke. At times, especially when they use pedal steel guitar, the Elected sounds a little like the countriest of Bright Eyes‚Äô music (but with vocals that aren‚Äôt a fraction as overwrought as Conor Oberst‚Äôs).

The harmonies sounded wonderful in concert. All of that lovely, lilting music might have left some audience members hoping for a little more rock, and for its final song, the Elected obliged. ‚ÄúAt Home (Time Unknown),‚ÄĚ which also closes the Elected‚Äôs new album, ends with an extended jam. A lite-rock guitar duel? Sort of. While these guys are far less powerful than, say, My Morning Jacket, this closing blaze of guitars showed that they are capable of doing more than pretty ooo‚Äôing and ahh‚Äôing.

Stars, from Montreal, were the headliners. (Until I showed up, I wasn’t actually sure who would get top billing in this nice combination of two well-regarded indie-rock bands.)

‚ÄúSet Yourself on Fire‚ÄĚ has several great songs, and several others that seem a little lackluster to me. The concert was much the same (though it did include songs from Stars‚Äô earlier records, as well as a cover of Bruce Springsteen‚Äôs ‚ÄúHungry Heart,‚ÄĚ in addition to the ‚ÄúSet Yourself on Fire‚ÄĚ tracks).

Given the fact that this band includes a violin and trumpet and alternating/harmonizing male and female lead vocalists, in addition to the standard rock instrument lineup, you’d think Stars would have the potential for a wide variety of sounds and arrangements, but the group tends to stick to similarly bland settings. Its melodies are good, sometimes very good, though, and those harmonies can be awfully touching, the way Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan’s voices blend.

Stars is a good band with the potential, as yet unrealized, to be a great band. Whatever my opinions on Stars, I could see they’ve reached a pretty loyal cult following. The show was sold out, and the predominantly young crowd at this 18-and-over concert adored Stars. As the singers stretched out their arms during some of the more memorable lyrics, I sensed a swooning among many of the youngsters in attendance.

So, hey, if Stars is connecting with listeners to this degree, I won’t complain too much.

The Wrens at the Norris University Center

FEB. 10, 2006
THE WRENS
at the Norris University Center, Evanston

The Norris University Center on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus ranks high on the list of the crappiest venues where I’ve ever seen a rock concert… but sometimes, the most memorable shows happen in these out-of-the-way and less-than-ideal places. The Wrens showed that the limitations of a venue are no obstacle to performing a great rock concert.

The lighting was abysmal — super dark for most of the show, ultra bright for one song played with the house lights one. (See above photo.) The limited lighting prompted Kevin Whelan of the Wrens to remark sarcastically, “What the hell kind of rock show is this?” And while the sound was pretty bad during the very little bit of the opening bands that I caught (I walked in as the last of three opening bands was finishing up), it wasn’t too bad for the Wrens, at least from where I was standing, up near the stage.

While the Wrens have their share of loud rock songs, some of the most remarkable moments came when the room got very, very quiet for the songs played on piano or with just a few notes on the guitar. You could hear the unamplified clicking noise Greg Whelan was making with a little percussion device in the palm of his hand on one song.

The Wrens mostly played songs from The Meadowlands, their last and most familiar album. (This concert was also a great chance to buy their early, out-of-print CDs over at the merch table.) The crowd, mostly college students, knew these songs well and gave the Wrens a very appreciative response. Watching Kevin Whelan leap around the stage and ham it up is truly entertaining.

The Wrens are an interesting live band. Their songs sounded as if they’d been broken down into the simplest of building blocks. At times, a guitar riff or percussion part sounded a little out of synch or a bit off, but then when the rest of the music kicked in, it was exactly right.

Kudos to the student organization NiteSkool for booking this show.

SEE PHOTOS OF THE WRENS.

Bang! Bang! and Healthy White Baby at the Double Door

JAN. 28, 2006
at the Double Door

Four bands were playing at this showcase organized by a zine called¬†The Crutch¬†(sorry, never heard of it before…), and I showed up in time for the last two bands: Bang! Bang! and Healthy White Baby.

I’ve seen¬†Bang! Bang!¬†calling its music “sex rock,” which seems like a gimmick to me. Like other rock music isn’t about sex? Come on. But it’s definitely a band with sex appeal (well, at least bassist and singer Greta Fine is sexy, from my standpoint…) And their songs (which I’d never heard before tonight’s show) were exciting and energetic. This is definitely a band I plan to check out again.

The club was crowded, and the response to Bang! Bang! was fairly frenzied, so it was a little disappointed to see the audience dissipate before¬†Healthy White Baby¬†took the stage. The crowd was smaller but still appreciative. As the band set up, I was wondering, “Where’s Laurie Stirratt?” Later in the concert, guitarist-vocalist Danny Black explained that she couldn’t play the show because of some family responsibilities, and rather than cancel the concert, the band brought in a substitute bassist (introduced only as “Jeff”).

It was a good performance of the songs from Healthy White Baby’s 2005 debut (which has grown on me — I think I underrated it initinally), plus one goofy cover,¬†Maxine Nightingale’s¬†1976 disco hit, “Right Back Where We Started From.” HWB’s songs remind me a little of¬†the Black Keys, with their gritty blues-rock riffs.

SEE PHOTOS OF BANG! BANG!

SEE PHOTOS OF HEALTHY WHITE BABY.

The Bottle Rockets with Jeff Tweedy at Schubas

JAN. 27, 2006
THE BOTTLE ROCKETS
at Schubas, Chicago

Wow… what a night. I’d only seen¬†the Bottle Rockets¬†once before. Saw them a few months ago at the Beat Kitchen after years of intending to see them. Both of these shows were fun rock shows by a tight band.

This one, the last in the series of¬†Gary Schepers benefit concerts,¬†was extra special because of an appearance by a special guest ‚ÄĒ Jeff Tweedy. Standing as I was near the stage, I couldn’t help noticing Tweedy and his wife, Sue Miller, slipping in through the side door and standing by the edge of the stage. I always feel a little weird spotting someone like that at a concert.¬†Don’t stare. He just wants to have fun like anyone else.¬†So I find myself watching him once in a while from the corner of my eye. He’s watching the concert and clapping between songs like any fan.

Of course, it’s no surprise when Brian Hennemann of the Bottle Rockets invites Tweedy onto the stage late in the concert. For three songs, the BoRox (as they’re known in fan shorthand) become … WilBoRox? Tweedy picks up an electric guitar and they launch into the Neil Young classic “Walk On,” with Tweedy and Hennemann trading lead vocals. Then they do two of the songs that Wilco played on “A.M.,” back when Hennemann was playing guitar with the band: “Passenger Side” and “Casino Queen.” Tweedy looks like he’s having fun.

Henneman said the gaps between his meetings with Tweedy are growing progressively shorter. First, they went, I think he said, five years without seeing each other. Then four. Now it’s been three or two. He joked that they’ll soon be together on a reality TV show, Henneman and Tweedy hanging out in an apartment and writing songs.

Earlier in the show, Henneman had told a story about touring with Uncle Tupelo and having Gary Schepers come on board as the sound man. At their first stop in Denver, Tweedy lined up sleeping quarters at some fan’s house but Schepers insisted, “I don’t sleep on any little girl’s floor,” and so they went to a Motel 6 for the first time — a life-changing event, according to Henneman.

This story came up again when Tweedy took the stage and they reminisced about eating really bad food on the road.

Henneman gave a nice little intro to “Passenger Side,” recalling himself as a kid who could barely cut it in the studio when they recorded that. Tweedy’s expression made it obvious not to take the story too seriously.

Concert performances by “special guests” are often superfluous, but this was clearly a perfect example of how well they can work. This was sort of magical Chicago music moment that I live for.

Now, you may be asking, where are the photos? Well, like an idiot, I did not bring my camera with me to this concert. I’ll never leave home without it again.

Here’s a picture by Chris Constance:

SET LIST
Lucky Break
Kit Kat Clock
Alone In Bad Company
Every Kinda Everything
Get Down River
Middle Man
Mountain To Climb
Happy Anniversary
Gas Girl
Smoking 100’s Alone
I’ll Be Coming Around
$1000 Car
Gravity Fails
Indianapolis
Welfare Music
Walk On (Tweedy & Henneman on vocals)
Passenger Side (Tweedy on vocals)
Casino Queen (Tweedy on vocals)
ENCORE
Slo Tom’s (request)
Cartoon Wisdom (request)
Nancy Sinatra
Crossroads

Jeff Tweedy at the Abbey Pub

JAN. 25, 2006
at the Abbey Pub

SEE PHOTOS OF JEFF TWEEDY. 

SET LIST
The Ruling Class
Summer Teeth
(Was I) In Your Dreams
Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard
Please Tell My Brother
Blasting Fonda
Pieholden Suite
Is That The Thanks I Get? (new song, title uncertain)
Airline To Heaven
I’m The Man Who Loves You
Heavy Metal Drummer
New Madrid
ELT
Someday Soon|
ENCORE 1
A Shot In The Arm
Hoodoo Voodoo
Henry & the H Bombs
Theologians
Spiders (Kidsmoke)
I Can’t Keep From Talking
ENCORE 2
Acuff-Rose

Miss Alex White and the Paybacks at Subterranean

After seeing Jon Langford at the MCA, I hopped over to Subterranean and caught two bands:¬†Miss Alex White,¬†a Chicago singer-guitarist, who played very impressive and lively rock, and Detroit’s garage-rockers¬†the Paybacks.¬†I liked the Paybacks — and especially enjoyed watching the lead singer, Wendy Case, stretching out her lanky frame on stage — but my first impression of the music was pretty good, not great. (Hey, check out the photos of the band at their Web site… Looks like Wendy Case has been a blond until recently…)

SEE PHOTOS OF MISS ALEX WHITE.

SEE PHOTOS OF THE PAYBACKS.

Jon Langford: The Executioner’s Last Songs

Jan. 21 ‚ÄĒ “The Executioner’s Last Songs,” which Jon Langford performed Friday and Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is a mix of concert, staged reading, performance art and video projection.¬†Nothing too pretentious, thankfully… Despite the title, only a small part of the show (the last section) is about Langford and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts recording their anti-death-penalty albums.

For the most part, it’s Langford talking about growing up in Wales, going to art school, discovering punk, forming the Mekons, coming to the U.S. and meeting Lester Bangs, etc. etc., eventually discovering country music via the Chicago WZRD deejay Terry Nelson (who was in attendance for the MCA shows)…

The music was a mix of Langford solo stuff, the Mekons, Wacos, PVC, covers (Tom Jones’ “Deliliah,” introduced as “the Welsh national anthem”). It was kind of interesting hear Langford play “Memphis, Egypt” and throw in a spoken interlude explaining the story behind some of the lyrics — concerning a trip to East Berlin, where they found it impossible to buy any Communist souvenirs.

When I saw this last year at SXSW, it was just Langford, Sally Timms and the violinist Jean Cook, with Langford doing almost all of the reading.

This time, he had those two, plus Tony Maimone playing an odd banjo bass, a drummer (sorry, can’t remember who off the top of my head)… and some of the others, mostly Timms and Cook, did some of the reading.

Highlights included some clips from the aborted TBS kids show that starred Langford as “The Salty Old Sea Dog,” a pirate inside a tiny boat inside a bathroom sink reciting nonsensical poetry. (The show also featured “Cowboy Sally.”)

Anyway, it was all pretty fun, though it did go on a bit long. And the MCA theater is one of those venues that has good sound and sightlines but feels a little too staid for a rock concert.

This was more polished than the version I saw last year, but some of the best moments were the mistakes and ad libs… such as when Timms egged Langford into pretending he was Russell Crowe.

Concerts I Attended in 2005

Jan. 1:¬†Guided By Voices (Metro… Technically, the concert began in 2004, but most of it was in 2005.)
Jan. 14: Neko Case; The Sadies (Metro)
Jan. 15: Constantines; Oakley Hall (Empty Bottle)
Jan. 30: Rogue Wave; Two Gallants; the Saturday Nights (Schubas)
Feb. 5: The Moaners (Subterranean)
Feb. 11: Low; Pedro The Lion; Tim Rutuli (Metro)
Feb. 12: Bettie Serveert (Abbey Pub)
Feb. 18: The Comas; Vietnam (Empty Bottle)
Feb. 22: Jorge Ben Jor (HotHouse)
Feb. 25: M. Ward; Shelley Short; Dr. Dog (Schubas)
March 1: The Futureheads; Shout Out Louds; High Speed Scene (Double Door)
March 4: Slobberbone; Two Cow Garage; I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the Room (Abbey Pub)
March 5: Jeff Tweedy; Autumn Defense (Vic)
March 15: Grand Champeen; Two Cow Garage; Richmond Fontaine (Beerland, Austin)
March 16:¬†SXSW ‚ÄĒ Robyn Hitchcock; Jennifer Gentle; Gris Gris; Midlake; Burning Bright; Mono
March 17:¬†SXSW ‚ÄĒ Mavis Staples; Apostles of Hustle; Stars; Dr. Dog; The Redwalls; Noodles; Titan Go Kings; Jon Langford; Adem; Ampop; Martha Wainwright; M.I.A.; Hot Chip; LCD Soundsystem
March 18:¬†SXSW ‚ÄĒ The Futureheads; Bloc Party; New York Dolls; Picastro; Ida; Grey DeLisle; The Warlocks; Dios Malos; the Capitol Years; Shonen Knife
March 19:¬†SXSW ‚ÄĒ The Zincs; Phosphorescent; Micah P. Hinson; Great Lake Swimmers; Nicolai Dunger; Centro-Matic; the Frames; the Last Town Chorus; Nic Armstrong & the Thieves; the Silent League; Controller.Controller; the Nightingales; Daniel Johnston; Brazilian Girls
March 25: Orchestra Baobob (HotHouse)
April 1: The Kills; Scout Niblett (Double Door)
April 3: Dolorean; Jeff Hansen; [opening act?] (Schubas)
April 9: Magnolia Electric Co.; Coke Dares (Schubas)
April 15: Paul Westerberg (Riveria)
April 16: Andrew Bird; Archer Prewitt (Metro)
April 17: Damien Jurado (Schubas)
April 20: M. Ward; Norfolk & Western; Devotchka (Abbey Pub)
April 21: Yo La Tengo (Vic)
May 10:¬†Tift Merritt; Nora O’Connor (Schubas)
May 11: Gang Of Four; Radio 4 (Metro)
May 12: Okkervil River; Earlimart (Schubas)
May 28:¬†The Ponys; The M’s (Subterranean)
June 8: Madeline Peyroux; Rebecca Martin (Park West)
June 9: Ivy; Astaire (Double Door)
June 11: Vanessa Davis Band (North Center street fest)
June 11: The Coral (Martyrs)
June 16: Sleater-Kinney; Dead Meadow (Riveria)
June 17: Comets On Fire; Plastic Crimewave Sound; Atomic Bitchwax; Growing (Abbey Pub)
June 18: My Morning Jacket (Randolph Street Festival)
June 21: Philip Glass (Ravinia)
June 23: The Moaners; Mr. Rudy Day; [opening act?]; [opening act?] (Abbey Pub)
June 24: Graham Parker; The Figgs (Double Door)
June 25: Bettie Serveert; Tristen; Nomad Planets; Braam (Abbey Pub)
July 1: Reigning Sound; Tough & Lovely; Catfish Haven (Subterranean)
July 2:¬†American Music Festival (FitzGerald’s) ‚ÄĒ The Lee Boys; The Kinsey Report; Tributosaurus; Robbie Fulks; the Gourds
July 5: Billy Corgan; the Crimea (Vic)
July 9:¬†Folk & Roots Festival (Welles Park) ‚ÄĒ Alejandro Escovedo
July 10:¬†Folk & Roots Festival (Welles Park) ‚ÄĒ Funkadesi; Tinariwen
July 16: Van Cliburn (Ravinia)
July 17:¬†Intonation Music Festival ‚ÄĒ Thunderbirds Are Now!; Dungen; Xiu Xiu; Out Hud; The Hold Steady; Andrew Bird
July 23:¬†Lollapalooza (Grant Park) ‚ÄĒ The Redwalls; M83; The Warlocks; And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead; Ambulance LTD; Liz Phair; Kaiser Chiefs; The Brian Jonestown Massacre; The Bravery; Blonde Redhead; The Black Keys; The Pixies; The Walkmen; Digable Planets
July 24:¬†Lollapalooza (Grant Park) ‚ÄĒ The Ponys; Kasabian; Dinosaur Jr.; Tegan and Sara; The Drive-By Truckers; The Arcade Fire; The Dandy Warhols; Death Cab For Cutie
July 26:¬†“Play It Again: The Music Of Woody Allen” (Ravinia)
July 27: Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris (Ravinia)
July 30:¬†Wicker Park Festival — Scotland Yard Gospel Choir; Head of Femur; Turing Machine; Okkervil River; Olivia Tremor Control
Aug. 17: Oneida; Plastic Crimewave Sound; Kinski (Empty Bottle)
Aug. 19: Tony Bennett (Ravinia)
Aug. 24: Marc-André Hamelin (Ravinia)
Aug. 25: Liz Phair; Mat Kearney (Black Orchid)
Aug. 30: Gipsy Kings (Ravinia)
Sept. 3: The Dirtbombs; Popsick; Big Whisky; M.O.T.O.; Decibators; Phenoms (Double Door)
Sept. 8: Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra (HotHouse)
Sept. 9: The Sights; Thunderwing; The Makers (Subterranean)
Sept. 10: The Rolling Stones; Blues Brothers; Los Lonely Boys (Soldier Field)
Sept. 16: Sufjan Stevens; Laura Veirs (Metro)
Sept. 17:¬†Hideout Block Party ‚ÄĒ Kevin O’Donnell’s Ensemble General; Eleventh Dream Day; Sam Roberts Band; The DB’s; The Ponys (Hideout)
Sept. 17: Amadou & Mariam; Boubacar Traore (Park West)
Sept. 18: Seu Jorge; Boubacar Traore (Park West)
Sept. 21: Black Mountain; Ladyhawk; Blood Meridian (Schubas)
Sept. 24: Brazilian Girls; Breakbone Dance; Anna Oxygen; Scream Club (Metro)
Sept. 29: Bob Mould; [opening act?] (Metro)
Oct. 1: Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings; Binky Griptite; the Messengers of the Soul Sound (Double Door)
Oct. 3: Lhasa (HotHouse)
Oct. 6: Sleater-Kinney; The Ponys (Metro)
Oct. 7: The Fiery Furnaces; Pit er Pat (Logan Square Auditorium)
Oct. 14: Wolf Parade; Robbers On High Street; King of France (Schubas)
Oct. 28: The Constantines; The Hold Steady; Thunderbirds Are Now! (Logan Square Auditorium)
Oct. 29: The Go! Team; the Grates; [opening act?] (Metro)
Nov. 1: Wilco; New Orleans All Star Band (Auditorium Theatre)
Nov. 3:¬†Youssou N’dour (Symphony Center)
Nov. 11: Konono No. 1; the Eternals (Logan Square Auditorium)
Nov. 19: Detroit Cobras; Reigning Sound; Vee Dee (Double Door)
Nov. 26: Jimmy Scott; Gospel Keyboard Trio (HotHouse)
Nov. 26: The Bottle Rockets; The Siderunners (Beat Kitchen)
Dec. 1: The Sadies; John Kimler (Schubas)
Dec. 6: Pinchas Zukerman and others (Pick-Staiger)
Dec. 22: The Waco Brothers; High Hawk (Schubas)

The Sadies at Schubas

DEC. 1, 2005
Schubas

There hardly exists a better band than the Sadies, and they proved it yet again with this show. They had no new album to plug. And for once, they were playing on their own as the headliners (though Mekon Jon Langford joined them for three songs). All the more reason for the Sadies just to do what they do best ‚ÄĒ incredible guitar rock… the kind you don’t hear often enough these days, with intricately composed and skilfully played melodies on the guitars. And while the Good brothers are not known for their vocals, their singing sounded strong, too, with Travis in particular baring his teeth in caveman-like expressions as he let loose some powerful notes.

In addition to their own material, the Sadies played some obscure blues and country covers, and the encore culminated with a fantastic take on Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere,” followed by another great one, the Flaming Groovies’ “Shake Some Action.” Wow. One of the year’s best concerts.

SEE PHOTOS OF THE SADIES.

Jimmy Scott at the HotHouse

NOV. 26, 2005
The HotHouse

I’d almost forgotten¬†that Jimmy Scott was playing in town last night, part of a tour celebrating his 80th birthday. It’s reportedly more than five years since the last time he played in Chicago, so this was a can’t-miss show.

I first became familiar with Scott when he provided that strange song, “Sycamore Trees,” to David Lynch’s TV series “Twin Peaks.” (The song actually appears on the soundtrack to the film, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.”) Who was this singer with that elusive, androgynous voice? Adrogynous doesn’t really do it justice as an adjective. Otherwordly, maybe. I’m still not that familiar with Scott’s discography (though my purchase of¬†The Essential Jimmy Scott¬†last night should remedy that). He was the subject of an interesting documentary a few years ago, now out on DVD, and he made another weird cameo ‚ÄĒ singing John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” with Wilco as his backup band in the Ehtan Hawke film “Chelsea Walls.”

The Lynch and Lennon songs were not part of Scott’s show last night, but he did live up to his billing as “the Legendary Jimmy Scott.” With a nice piano-bass-drums combo (the Jazz Expressions) playing behind him, Scott gracefully sang standards (“Blue Skies,” “Embraceable You”) and some of his past hits (“When Did You Leave Heaven?,” “If You Only Knew”).

Age has added an interesting timbre¬†‚ÄĒ and even more fragility¬†‚ÄĒ to Scott’s voice. He looked a little fragile himself, but reasonably spry for being 80 years old. And he had a nice sense of humor, joking with his band between songs. Unfortunately, he probably wasn’t joking when he said he hasn’t made much money from all those decades of recording and performing music.

The concert was short, but it’s hard to demand too much stage time out of a legend in his 80th year. The Chicago Gospel Keyboard Trio played a really nice opening set.

SEE PHOTOS OF JIMMY SCOTT.

The Bottle Rockets at the Beat Kitchen

Those who know¬†me as a fan of alt-country/Americana/roots rock/whatever music may be shocked to hear that I’d never seen the Bottle Rockets, who are stalwarts of the field, until last night (Nov. 26) at the Beat Kitchen. I actually got as far as driving to a Bottle Rockets show maybe 10 years ago, but it was sold out and I did not get in. Many times since then, I’ve planned to see them but one thing or another came up. I had no excuse last night… even with a Jimmy Scott concert earlier in the evening… and I discovered what I’ve been missing.

What a great band. The musicianship was tight, and the banter with the faithful fans in the crowd was fun. The old songs sounded excellent, and the group also played a number of songs from its forthcoming album on Bloodshot Records, which sounded promising. The title of the album is still to be determined, as Brian Henneman explained several times from the stage. Henneman remarked that the Bottle Rockets have been at it for 12 years now, finally reaching the point where they make… $12,000 a year. I hope they stick with it.

As for the opening band, the Siderunners… well, I guess I’m just not in on the joke. They were decent musicians of the rockabilly/twangy roots rock variety, and some of their songs seemed OK, but their sense of humor was just annoying.

SEE PHOTOS OF THE BOTTLE ROCKETS.

The Reigning Sound and Detroit Cobras at the Double Door

NOV. 19, 2005
The Double Door

An excellent double bill, with Reigning Sound frontman Greg Cartwright doing double-duty as guitarist for the Detroit Cobras. Both bands were great, but it’s the Detroit Cobras who had the better stage show, thanks to Rachel Nagy’s charisma… The first band of the night, Vee Dee, was pretty good, playing melodic pop-punk songs with some impressive guitar licks (maybe a little too much guitar virtuosity was on display, as a matter of fact).

SEE PHOTOS OF THE REIGNING SOUND AND THE DETROIT COBRAS.

Konono No. 1 at Logan Square Auditorium

NOV. 11, 2005
Logan Square Auditorium

One of the stranger recent concerts…¬†Konono No. 1’s from Congo, playing thumb pianos and banging on some sort of cowbells, all amplified through primitive equipment including big speakers like the one above… The rhythmic songs are long (like, half an hour long) and highly repetitive. The grooves are great, but after a while the repetition starts to wear thin… and then you come back around again and feel it all moving to another level. Maybe. They’ve been compared to electronic dance bands. Think of it as Kraftwerk with really primitive equipment.

Other than the two dancing singers, most of the members of Konono No. 1 stood impassively on the stage, staring out at the strangeness of America. I wondered what they made of it all.

SEE PHOTOS OF KONONO NO. 1.

The Go! Team at Metro

OCT. 29, 2005

THE GO! TEAM
Metro, Chicago

The Go! Team once again earned its exclamation point tonight, with an incredible show of nonstop fun, mix-and-match musical styles.

Also worth noting: Opening act¬†the Grates¬†put on a fun show themselves. It’s a drums, guitar and singer trio from Australian, and the singer was practically doing jumping jacks throughout the set.

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF THE GO! TEAM.

Wolf Parade at Schubas

OCT. 14, 2005
Schubas, Chicago

Wolf Parade’s¬†one of the hot new things this year, and it’s not just hype. Comparisons with the Arcade Fire (fellow Montreal rockers) seem inevitable, and there are some similarities. Wolf Parade’s not quite as manic or percussive onstage, but the band has a similar anything-goes and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink vibe.

Seeing Wolf Parade in concert makes it clear how important keyboards and electronics are to the band’s sound, with relatively old-fashioned electronic keyboards as well as theremin and other knob-twiddling noises. But the band’s far away from pure electronica, with plenty of guitar and drums. not to mention wind chimes and tambourines (not a whole lot of bass, though).

The guys in Wolf Parade seemed almost apologetic at times, saying their music is “all smoke and mirrors.” Perhaps there was a bit of sarcasm in their modesty, but there’s certainly some substance in their songs. Their album is almost brand-new, but the gung-ho crowd already knew the tunes well and sang along at key moments.

Now, only if they had more songs…

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF WOLF PARADE.

 

Opening acts the¬†King of France¬†and Robbers on High Street were good as well. I’m not familiar with Robbers’ repertoire, but seeing the band live, I can see why I’ve heard them described as a blatant ripoff of Spoon. That’s not really fair, however. The spare piano chords and tight rhythms that Spoon is known for are in Robbers’ music, too, though I think the band has a personality of its own.

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF ROBBERS ON HIGH STREET.

Lhasa at the HotHouse

OCT. 3, 2005
HotHouse, Chicago

If I had a chance¬†to redo my list of 2004’s best albums,¬†The Living Road¬†by Lhasa would move up from the honorable mentions into the top 10, maybe the top 5. This elegant, beautiful, haunting record has proved to have legs.

Lhasa did not disappoint in concert, commanding the attention of a crowded room of quiet listeners as she sang with just two musicians backing her up, mostly on guitar and cello. She told a few lengthy stories as introductions to her songs, giving the concert the feel of “VH1 Storytellers,” which might have been annoying if she weren’t such a heartfelt and compelling speaker.

I love the way she looks when she sings, raising her left hand next to her head, sometimes making a fist and scrunching up her eyes as if she were squeezing the notes out of her head. Simply amazing music.

SEE PHOTOS OF LHASA.

Sharon Jones at the Double Door

OCT. 1, 2005
Double Door, Chicago

Neither of Sharon Jones’¬†albums includes a date anywhere on the cover, so it’s easy to imagine someone picking up one of these discs and assuming it was recorded sometime in the ’60s or early ’70s. Talk about retro, these recordings authentically sound like they were made in that era. If you thought the “neo-soul” movement is a throwback to older styles of soul, funk and R&B, you have got to hear the music Jones is putting out, including her great 2005 album¬†Naturally.¬†This is James Brown and Motown-style soul put across with a great sense of fun and terrific musicianship and vocals.

The show, a “super soul revue,” began with just the band playing a couple of instrumental songs. Then guitarist Binky Griptite came out to front the band for a good half-hour or more, showing his music to be almost as likable as Jones’. Then, after a dramatic buildup, Jones herself came onstage and held our attention for the rest of the night.

The only drawback was Jones complaining incessantly about the sound system during the early part of the show, though she turned even that into a funky performance of sorts as she sang about needing more vocals in the monitors. Once she got over those problems, she continued speaking her mind, very frankly, on topics such as President Bush’s response to the flooding in New Orleans.

Jones pulled several audience members onto the stage to dance with her at various points, and the dance floor was filled with moving bodies all night long.

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF SHARON JONES.

Brazilian Girls at Metro

SEPT. 24, 2005
Metro, Chicago

Sabina Sciubba¬†of Brazilian Girls is probably the sexiest musical performer I’ve ever seen onstage, and not just because she has a great set of legs. Her entire act is a sexual tease, a seduction act directed at the entire audience (well, at least the male half, and at this concert with a big lesbian turnout, probably most of the crowd).

True to form, she had a bizarre outfit tonight that shielded her eyes. Wearing a one-piece swimsuit with tights (both flesh-colored), Sciubba had black cardboard rectangles stapled to her getup, strategically covering all the naughty-bit areas like censor bars, as well as a black bar attached to her glasses.

Halfway through the show, she ripped off the cardboard on her chest, revealing a knife and blood stain underneath. Despite wearing spiked heels, Sciubba somehow managed to dance, wiggle and writhe all night. She coyly extended her arms to the crowd many times, touching the hands of eager audience members (including me) or borrowing cigarettes for a drag. She waved a black towel like a matador’s towel toward audience members who were no doubt feeling some urge to charge the stage. She urged audience members to chant “I want pussy” or “I have pussy” (depending on each audience member’s gender), while invitingly pointing at her crotch.

Oh, yeah, what about the music? Believe me, despite all of the abovementioned visual distractions, I can honestly report that Brazilian Girls make some exceptionally catchy dance music, bossa nova and samba rhythms meeting up with techno, lounge and classic songs. The drummer (Aaron Johnston), playing a combo of acoustic drums and electronic pieces, pulls off some amazing rhythms, while the keyboard/computer (Did Gutman) and bass (Jess Murphy) guys fill out the mix with some very intelligent, catchy sounds.

The show started late (12:45) and ran for almost two hours. It was a long wait for Brazilian Girls at this Estrojam concert. The opening acts including the Breakbone Dance Company, who were pretty impressive if not exactly my thing; Anna Oxygen, who played fairly catchy dance music but had some trouble explaining the concept behind her concept music, which has something to do with petri dishes, unicorns and rainbows; and Scream Club, a dance duo singing about acne and such concepts as “socially awesome.” Awesome, it was not.

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF BRAZILIAN GIRLS.

Black Mountain at Schubas

SEPT. 21, 2005
Schubas, Chicago

Vancouver rocks! This turned out to be a great triple bill, with three bands hailing from the Pacific Canadian city. I missed the first few songs by¬†Ladyhawk,¬†but was quickly impressed by the guys. Full-out guitar rock that reminded me a little of My Morning Jacket or Kings of Leon. I was disappointed that Ladyhawk did not have any CDs for sale at the merch table, but glad to hear they’ve recorded a debut album, which will come out in spring 2006 on Jagjaguwar. There’s one to watch for.

Blood Meridian¬†was up next. Not quite as exciting as Ladyhawk, but still good, with a slightly whiny or mopey folk-rock quality that reminded me a little of bands such as Phosphorescent or Okkervil River. The bassist for Black Mountain is the singer and guitarist for Blood Meridian, and the bands also share the same drummer. I picked up the 2004 Blood Meridian CD¬†“we almost made it home,”¬†and after one listen, I can say it’s pretty good, showing a lot of promise.

Black Mountain was great. I’m a bit of a latecomer to the self-titled album Black Mountain put out earlier this year. I just bought it a couple of months ago, but it has rapidly shot to the top of my list of favorite 2005 albums. The grooves are great, and Black Mountain has an excellent sense of the weight that each musical moment carries. In concert, the band replicates its studio recordings very well, adding a few fillips here and there, jamming a bit at times, without indulging too much in long solos. I love the tension between the male and female vocals, between the guitar and keyboard sounds.

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF BLACK MOUNTAIN.

The Sights at Subterranean

SEPT. 9, 2005
Subterranean

With a strong influence¬†from the Faces (check out their cover of “Stay With Me” on the new CD), the Sights stand out as a little different from the rest of the current crop of garage bands. Interesting lineup, too: Guitar, organ and drums, with no bass (unless you count the bass keyboard). Guitarist-singer Eddie Baranek also throws an occasional bit of gospel holler into the songs. Well, white-boy imitation of gospel holler, but it’s nice anyway.

The most melodic song on the Sights’ self-titled 2005 album is “Scratch My Name in Sin,” and it sounded just as great in concert tonight as it does on record. The Sights could stand to broaden their style and sound a little, but they’re a very fine band nonetheless.

They were not actually the headliners at this concert. The Makers were the main act, but I can’t say I was too thrilled with what I heard. A couple of decent songs were evident, but the glamminess (and hamminess) of their overall act tended toward the annoying.

The first band to play was Thunderwing. Although the name makes them sound like hockey-playing heavy-metal rockers, they were more in the vein of glam-rock-meets-garage. Not bad, worth another listen.

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF THE SIGHTS.

Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra at the HotHouse

SEPT. 8, 2005
The HotHouse

Antibalas sounded glorious¬†all night long at the HotHouse, reviving the funky sounds of Fela Kuti¬† and driving them into the future with their own twists on the Afrobeat tradition. It’s a rare joy to see such a great horn section in action, and Antibalas also has one of the coolest keyboard players around, Victor Axelrod. Those solos on the electric piano are dynamite. It was also cool watching the guitarists and bassist getting into grooves that you just wanted to go on and on. Whether he was having his way with congos or leading the band (and audience) in a chant, Amayo was an entertaining frontman.

Make sure to check out the new EP, Government Magic, which has five very strong tracks. It’s for sale only at¬†www.antibalas.com.

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF ANTIBALAS.

The Dirtbombs at the Empty Bottle

SEPT. 3, 2005
Double Door

The Dirtbombs¬†were phenoms tonight… unlike opening band the Phenoms, who were far from phenomenal. In fact, this very long night (part of the “Electric City Rock Fest”) had no less than five opening bands, most of which was highly skippable. Popsick played some good music, and Big Whisky and M.O.T.O. had their moments, but the Decibators and Phenoms were sheer drudgery to watch, punk bands without any noticeable merit other than energy and attitude.

By contrast, the Dirtbombs have good songs, as well as a great sense of dynamics and drama. I’m still not sure why they need two bass players and two drummers, but, hey, whatever works for them.

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF THE DIRTBOMBS.

 

Oneida et al at the Empty Bottle

AUG. 17, 2005
Empty Bottle

You’d think¬†from the coverage that appeared in the Trib this week that tonight’s headliner was Kinski, but that was just the opening act.

 

Plastic Crimewave Sound¬†got things started with their typically noise-filled rave-ups… definitely in the old droning tradition of the Velvet Underground. Not bad. Kudos for including a harmonica solo.

 

Kinski¬†is a mostly instrumental (or is that “instrumetal”?) band, sounding great when it locks in on a heavy riff. I’m not quite as convinced about Kinski’s quieter and more experimental passages, but it is certainly an interesting and enjoyable group.

Oneida’s¬†one of the most underrated bands around ‚ÄĒ or at least unheralded. I don’t understand why Oneida doesn’t get more ink. Maybe it’s the band’s deliberate use of repetition. Maybe it’s their reputation as an “underground” band. In any case, Oneida plays songs that are both accessible in terms of melody as well as insanely energetic. Oneida takes those little instrumental passages that other bands play and stretches them to the breaking point ‚ÄĒ sometimes past the breaking point ‚ÄĒ until they became something like mesmerizing mantras. You’re hearing the same thing over and over until it starts to sound different. Or maybe it is different?

Oneida pulls off its musical tricks with a minimum of technology. The trio (organ, drums, guitar/bass) plays music that is both tightly controlled, in the tradition of Krautrock bands like Can, while sounding like it could spin out of control at any moment, thanks to the amazing drumming.

Wicker Park Festival 2005

JULY 30, 2005
WICKER PARK FESTIVAL

This was the best lineup for a street festival this summer in Chicago, probably because the nearby Subterranean nightclub booked the music. Sunday featured the esteemed Reigning Sound, but deciding to attend one day only, Saturday was the obvious choice.

I missed Catfish Haven and Baby Teeth, but showed up in time for the¬†Scotland Yard Gospel Choir.¬†The band practically invited comparisons to Belle & Sebastian with its name, and its orchestrally twee pop music featuring alternating male and female vocals. But, hey, the songs are strong, so who cares if it’s not totally original? The band fits in well with the other big, quasi-orchestral ensembles of the moment, like Head of Femur (who played next on the same stage) or even the Arcade Fire.

Head of Femur was also very good, bringing its big-sounding set to a raucous conclusion.

Turing Machine,¬†from Brooklyn, will certainly not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for instrumental heavy-guitar rock music, it was pretty impressive.

  

Okkervil River¬†was just as excellent as it was in May at Schubas, bringing fierce passion to its music. It’s interesting to see how much the nonsinging band members sing along with the lyrics off-mike. Even if they’re not contributing to the vocals, the songs obviously mean a lot more to them than a paying instrumental gig. I wonder what the people standing up on the nearby Blue Line el platform thought about the music they were hearing and seeing from a distance.

  

Olivia Tremor Control¬†hasn’t toured for quite some time, so the group’s arrival in Chicago for two shows was pretty noteworthy. I was hoping the band’s live show would trump some of the problems with its studio recordings ‚ÄĒ which have a lot of good melodies and playing, but way too much lo-fi psychedelic wankery. It was fairly exciting and humorous to see Olivia Tremor Control going through its sound check, with a bewildering variety of instruments and noise makers: tuba, saw, banjo, reel-to-reel tape machine … even a typewriter???

Unfortunately, the set started off with a surprise mini-concert by the Tall Dwarves. Their songs might be fine, but this was the wrong time to hear them, and one of them went badly awry with off-key guitar playing and/or singing (by one of the OTC horn players).

When Olivia Tremor Control finally took the stage, it became clear the band’s pretty much the same in concert as it is on record: brilliant at moments, annoying at others, a shambling mess with bits of beauty.

Intonation Music Festival

JULY 17, 2005
INTONATION MUSIC FESTIVAL
Union Park, Chicago

I missed¬†all of Day 1… Decided I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Van Cliburn last night at Ravinia, and didn’t want to deal with the hassle of trying to do both in one day. I’m certainly not the best judge of classical piano performances, but I can say Van a rivetingly peculiar presence onstage…

I thought I would see all of the Intonation Fest today, but after getting an early start, the heat and long lines got to me, so I bailed out after Andrew Bird.

Lines were actually quite short for most of the day, but after 5 p.m., the lines for food, beer and water all got humongous and I didn’t feel like standing around in line to get those essentials.

I enjoyed everything I saw, to some extent: Thunderbirds Are Now! seemed pretty good, but I need to hear more of their music to say how much I’d recommend it.

I like bands that sing in their native tongues, so I was keen of the Swedes in¬†Dungen… who even trotted out a flute for some Jethro Tull-like moments. I was expecing ’60s-style garage rock, but it sounded more ’70s to me. Good,
in any case.

Xiu Xiu were slightly abrasive, but made nice use of autoharp (?) … I’d like to hear more of their stuff. I liked the sound, though I don’t know if the songs were all that strong.

Out Hud’s¬†dance music wouldn’t normally be my kind of thing, but I liked the funkiness of it. Seemed more “live” than a lot of electronic concerts.

The Hold Steady¬†were great. I was a little skeptical about these guys a year ago, but they’ve grown on me a lot. The lyrics are smart enough that the songs work as more than jokes. Is this band in a genre by itself? Who else is like them? It’s sort of like a mutant strain of white-guy rap that bears almost no similarity to hip-hop rap.

Andrew Bird¬†was as brilliant as always. I love this guy … and I overheard a lot of comments from impressed concertgoers who’d never seen him before.

I was hoping to stick around for the Wrens and Les Savy Fav (not the Decemberists, though ‚ÄĒ I still don’t care for that band), but five hours of enduring that heat was enough… I don’t know anything about the other band that was playing, Deerhoof.

In any case, I hope the Intonation Music Festival is back again next year.

Chicago Folk & Roots Festival 2005

JULY 9-10, 2005
CHICAGO FOLK & ROOTS FESTIVAL
at Welles Park, sponsored by the Old Town School of Folk Music

I could have¬†spent the whole weekend hanging out at this fest, which is always one of the most enjoyable in Chicago… Alas, other duties called… and in the interest of maintaining some semblance of sanity, I limited my time at the festival to just a couple of performances.

On Saturday, I caught the headline act, Alejandro Escovedo, whose set was interesting and enjoyable, if a little low-key for the festival setting. Twas nice to see him with a full string quartet, plus good old John Dee Graham on electric guitar and lap steel guitar, offering some very fine solos. It’s too bad the festival schedule didn’t also include a separate set by Graham. Escovedo got everyone to sing along when he played “All the Young Dudes” in his encore, and then the show ended with nothing but the string players on stage, going on surprisingly long in a gentle coda to the evening.

On Sunday, I showed up in time to hear the last several songs by Funkadesi. I liked the mix of reggae and Bollywood vocals. But the main reason I was there was the band playing next, Tinariwen. The two records by this group of Tuareg nomads from the Sahara are among my favorites of the last few years, very hypnotic bluesy desert chanting.

Tinariwen played once before in Chicago, in a gig that was poorly publicized at the Chicago Cultural Center. The vibe at that show was all wrong, with a screening of the documentary “Festival in the Desert” delaying Tinariwen’s performance in a claustrophrobic concert hall, and then many audience members walked out during the show, seemingly because it was so late, not because of any deficiency in the performance.

Better vibe this time. The Folk & Roots Fest was a perfect setting for these guys. They don’t speak much English, but they knew how to say, “Welcome to the desert,” at the beginning of their set, aptly setting the tone for the concert. It was exciting to see Tinariwen’s music inspiring rhythmic clapping, dancing and some enthusiastic whoops and hollers from the Chicago crowd this time.

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF TINARIWEN.

Billy Corgan at the Vic

JULY 5, 2005
BILLY CORGAN
at the Vic

I expended most of my mental energy concerning this concert in writing an actual review for Pioneer Press. This was the first time I’d seen Corgan perform in concert since way back in November 1989, when I happened to catch the then-unknown Smashing Pumpkins open for the Buzzcocks at Cabaret Metro. I recall liking them at the time, and for some reason, they reminded me a little bit of T. Rex.

American Music Festival

JULY 2, 2005
AMERICAN MUSIC FESTIVAL
at FitzGerald’s

I always try¬†to make it to this fine festival for at least one day. As Robbie Fulks said during his set tonight, it’s like a little bit of Austin, Texas.

The discovery of the day was the¬†Lee Boys, a Florida “sacred steel” group that plays a rousing blues-gospel-rock. The blazing star of this band is pedal-steel guitarist Roosevelt Collier. The minute I heard this kid playing, it was obvious he’s something special. And the crowd knew it, too. I’m guessing few people in the room knew anything about the Lee Boys before today, but they certainly have some new fans.

The Kinsey Report also impressed with their blues, and Tributosaurus pulled off a nice tribute to the music of the Band.

Robbie Fulks was as entertaining as always¬† ‚ÄĒ of course, there are those who are put off by his sarcasm and tomfoolery, but I just find it amusing. He’s one of those great showmen with multiple talents¬† ‚ÄĒ in his case, singing, songwriting, guitar playing and comical emceeing. “Georgia Hard,” the title track of his new CD, already sounds like a classic. The short set came to a rather abrupt end becase of the midnight curfew, as Fulks joked about not wanting to tick off the “Berwyn gendarmes.”

Just as Fulks finished up, the Gourds were getting ready to play inside the club. I’m woefully behind on my knowledge of this Austin band, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about them (despite the fact that President George W. Bush is apparently one of their fans … I guess you can’t blame the band for that). All I can say is they sounded good, but I didn’t know the songs and I was tired.

SEE PHOTOS FROM THE AMERICAN MUSIC FESTIVAL.

The Reigning Sound at Subterranean

JULY 1, 2005
THE TOUGH & LOVELY
CATFISH HAVEN
THE REIGNING SOUND
at Subterranean

Pity the band¬†with that first opening-act slot… The musicians walk out onto the stage in front of a mostly empty dance floor, which will be packed with people later on the same night. Or so I was thinking as the first group got ready to play tonight. I wasn’t even sure what they were called (and despite the lead singer’s saying the name a couple of times, I wasn’t sure that they were the Tough & Lovely until I stopped by the merch table later).

But tonight it took all of about five seconds to recognize that the lead singer of the Columbus, Ohio-based Tough & Lovely, Lara Yazvac, has quite a voice ‚ÄĒ big and brassy, and totally in her control. And the band sounded pretty tight as it played some darn catchy songs, very much rooted in the sound of the early ’60s. With Yazvac on vocals, it was hard not to think of the classic girl groups from that era, though, not suprisingly, the Tough & Lovely are contemporary enough to add a touch of punk here and there. Some fine organ playing was part of the mix, too.

It was clear the Tough & Lovely won over the crowd, even though most people at Subterranean had never heard their music before.I just had to stop by the merch table afterward and buy a copy of the Tough & Lovely’s 2004 CD¬†Born of the Stars. Sounds good on first listen. One standout track is the one called “Tough and Lovely” ‚ÄĒ carrying on the odd tradition of songs with titles that are the same or similar to the band name. This is definitely a band to watch.

Catfish Haven¬†had the middle slot. I’ve seen this Chicago trio a few times, usually as an opening act, and I have trouble mustering much enthusiasm for their music. If I heard a short snippet from one of their songs, I think I’d say it sounded good, and some of the snippets might even sound great, but the lack of variety in their songs becomes a little tedious after a while. It’s all song at the same intense pitch, with lots of heavily strummed acoustic guitar on top of the bass and drums. I kept thinking that I might like this music better if these three musicians had some additional helpers to balance out the sound ‚ÄĒ maybe a real lead guitarist who could take solos, or a keyboard player, or a female singer. Anything to add something different.

The Reigning Sound¬†are also a trio, and like Catfish Haven, they don’t really change up their basic sound that much during the course of a show. But their sound is so good, and their songs are so good, that it hardly matters.

Singer-guitarist Greg Cartwright plays with a no-frills set up ‚ÄĒ no effects pedals, no electric tuner. At the end of the show he played about four songs without bothering to fix a broken string. He didn’t even have a set list on the floor in front of him. He occasionally consulted a song list sitting behind him on an amp, but it seemed more like he was running through a list of available songs to see which ones they hadn’t played yet. A couple of times, the Reigning Sound obliged audience requests, and during the encore, Cartwright had to come over and tell the bassist the chords for a song they hadn’t rehearsed.

The fans loved it all, singing along with the Reigning Sound’s garage rock anthems. I can’t wait for their new album.

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF THE TOUGH & LOVELY AND THE REIGNING SOUND.

Bettie Serveert at the Abbey Pub (again)

JUNE 25, 2005
BETTIE SERVEERT

at the Abbey Pub

Bettie Serveert¬†is a good band on CD, even better in concert. Of course, as I mentioned in¬†my previous Bettie Serveert concert report,¬†lead singer Carol Van Dyk offers plenty of, um, visual distraction, but the music is also excellent… more lively, real and raw than most of the band’s studio CDs have been able to capture. Van Dyk (or is it Van Dijk? Depends on which CD you’re looking at) was performing tonight with a cold, but no one would have noticed much difference if she hadn’t mentioned it.

Guitarist Peter Visser plays with quite a spread of effects pedals laid out in front of it (and no monitors), but he uses those pdeals for fairly subtle changes in the sound of his guitar. His guitar did not brush against my head this time, though it did come close…

After playing their cover of the Bright Eyes song “Lover I Don’t Have to Love,” Van Dijk and Visser said Conor Oberst complimented them on their version after seeing them at a concert in New York. Visser laughingly recounted Oberst hugging him and calling him “brother” at their first meeting, which led Visser into a little speech about how wonderful the world would be if everyone hugged everyone else and called him brother. (You have to imagine this being said with a Dutch accent.)

Bettie Serveert closed with a teriffic version of the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On.”

This was yet another Abbey Pub show with three opening bands, which I easily could have skipped. Not that any of them were actually bad… Just nothing that stood out too much. The singer known only as Tristen sang well, but her songs were not distinguished. Nomad Planets played good countrified ’70s-style guitar rock, and Braam … I’m not sure how to classify that band, but it did have a decent-size contigent of fans on hand.

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF BETTIE SERVEERT…

And from the archives, photos of Bettie Serveert from Feb. 12, 2005.

Graham Parker and the Figgs at the Double Door

JUNE 24, 2005
GRAHAM PARKER AND THE FIGGS
at the Double Door

It wasn’t until¬†someone at the concert asked me that I realized I actually had seen Graham Parker once before. It was almost exactly 20 years ago July 5, 1985, at Poplar Creek, where he was opening (with the Shot as his backup group) for Eric Clapton. Not an especially memorable concert. Or maybe I was just too young at the time for me to remember anything now.

Parker’s idea of hiring the Figgs as his latest backup band was brilliant. I had never thought of the two together, but listening to the Figgs play an opening set of their own music, it was hard not to be struck by how well their energetic, um, pub rock (is that how they’ve been categorized?) matches Parker’s.

Parker is considerably older, of course. He joked that the Ian Dury T-shirt he was wearing was older than some members of the Figgs. But even if he looks more like Ben Kingsley than your typical pop star of the moment, Parker’s looking fit, and he performed with just as much intensity as ever.

Parker and the Figgs played a number of songs from the new Bloodshot CD they’ve recorded together, but the set included plenty of classic tunes, especially from Parker’s¬†Howling Wind¬†and¬†Squeezing Out Sparks¬†albums. This is as good a time as any to catch Parker in concert.

It was also a pleasure hearing him sit in with Jon Langford the other night on WXRT’s¬†“Eclectic Company”¬†show ‚ÄĒ worth a listen 10 p.m. to midnight Mondays for some interesting conversation and records you don’t normally hear on the radio. Now, if only the rest of XRT’s schedule were half as intriguing…

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF GRAHAM PARKER AND THE FIGGS.

The Moaners at the Abbey Pub

JUNE 23, 2005
THE MOANERS
at the Abbey Pub

For my money,¬†the Moaners ‚ÄĒ Melissa Swingle and Laura King ‚ÄĒ have topped the White Stripes this year in the realm of guitar-and-drums duos, though the Stripes’ disc¬†Get Behind Me Satan¬†is getting a lot more attention than the Moaners’ fine debut record¬†Dark Snack.

Unfortunately, attendance was sparse at tonight’s show. The Abbey Pub wasn’t nearly as crowded as Subterranean had been the last time the Moaners were in town. Ah, I suppose it was an off night, coming on a Thursday without much advertising or publicity. But the small crowd didn’t make the music any less exciting.

King showed herself to be an exceptional drummer, making a powerful sound with a relatively small kit, and Swingle’s sleepy vocals and slide-heavy electric guitar playing were just as twisted as ever.

Some new songs in the encore¬† ‚ÄĒ a couple of them half-finished¬† ‚ÄĒ sounded promising. Can’t wait for that next Moaners album. Check them out July 11 at theHideout.

Out of the three opening acts tonight, the only one worth noting was Mr. Rudy Day, a band led by Chicago alt-country scene fixture Andy Hopkins, playing music that sounded like it was straight out of ’70s classic rock. He’s a good lead guitarist, and not a bad singer, either.

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF THE MOANERS.

And from the archives, photos of the Moaners on Feb. 5, 2005.

Philip Glass at Ravinia

JUNE 21, 2005
Philip Glass
at Ravinia

This performance of Glass’ new suite “Orion” was a great chance to hear some world-music virtuosos, including three of my favorite “ethnic” instruments, the Chinese lute known as the pipa, the Gambian harp-like instrument called the kora, and the sitar. As on the Orion CD, most of the music was excellent, although the section of Celtic fiddling was a little jarring. And as my brother said, the big finale was a little like “Yanni at the Acropolis.”

We were sitting in front of a chatty older woman who kept asking, “Which of them is Philp Glass? It can’t be that guy” ‚ÄĒ it was! ‚ÄĒ “because his hair’s not curly enough.” And when the digeridoo player were performing, she felt it was necessary to comment, “He’s making that noise with his mouth.”

My Morning Jacket at the Randolph Street Festival


JUNE 18, 2005
My Morning Jacket
at the Randolph Street Festival

They’re better groomed…¬†not quite as much hair, not quite as much reverb… but man, they still rock with incredible intensity. Tonight’s show was a reminder of why I have called these guys the world’s best live rock ‘n’ roll band. And I’m not the only one to give them that title.

I first saw them in 2002, at South By Southwest. I’d already heard reports about their live shows in Chicago, and I’d picked up their album¬†At Dawn. The disc seemed pretty good to me, but it did not prepare me for the phenomenal concert performance I was about to see. One of the papers in Austin recommended the show that day, saying it would be a nice quiet end to the evening. The writer apparently had given only a cursory listen to some of MMJ’s quieter recordings, and hadn’t heard about their incendiary live shows.

This was one of the first times I’d ever used my video camera to film a musical performance and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing through the lens. After opening with “At Dawn,” the band launched into a hard-rocking song I’d never heard before (it turned out to be “One Big Holiday,” released later on the¬†It Still Moves¬†CD). Seeing these hairy guys thrashing around on the stage as they played their songs and amped up the intensity of what I’d heard on CD was simply amazing.

Lead singer and songwriter Jim James barely showed his face the entire concert, singing through a mass of hair that hang down over his face. As if that “Cousin It” routine weren’t enough, he also had a stuffed-toy buffalo head stuck on the microphone in front of him.Was he a little stage shy… or just weird? And did he have an animal fetish?

Later, at another concert, James played with a toy parrot perched on one shoulder. And then came the cover of It Still Moves, showing bears (stuffed bears? people in bear costumes?) instead of the band members.

But little by little, James has come out from behind the mask. I’ve seen the band in concert six times now, plus a show by Jim James with Bright Eyes and M. Ward, and My Morning Jacket has yet to disappoint. The band has gone through some personnel changes since that concert I saw in 2002 ‚ÄĒ the only members left from that lineup are James and bassist Two-Tone Tommy. The current lineup is pretty damn solid, though.

At the Randolph Street Festival show, James was wearing a tan sport jacket, his hair still long but neatly pulled back from his face. His voice was just as powerful and as beautiful as ever, as he sustained many long notes. He was more talktative than usual, bragging that My Morning Jacket had performed the best sound check by any band ever. He also noted that they had felt surrounded by cuteness at the festival, after visiting a tent with puppies and seeing someone walking around with a kitten.

MMJ played several new songs, which sounded promising, plus favorites like “Golden,” “One Big Holiday,” “Lowdown,” “Mahgeetah” and “Run Thru,” and a cover of Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying With You.”

The great moments came when the band stretched out the songs ‚ÄĒ there was more than one false ending, followed by more jamming. MMJ’s detractors have pointed out that the band’s jams are nothing all that complicated, musically speaking. It’s true that they repeat many riffs over and over, but that misses the point of what’s so brilliant about MMJ. They take a seemingly simple pattern of notes, and play it harder and harder, flailing it until it sounds like something new. It’s so cathartic.

SEE PHOTOS OF MY MORNING JACKET.

Comets on Fire at the Abbey Pub

JUNE 17, 2005
Comets on Fire
at the Abbey Pub

I groaned¬†when I walked up at 9 p.m. and saw a schedule posted on the wall with three opening bands. Three! Oh, well, it’s not as if I had any other place to go, but still…

It turned out to be a smorgasbord of various forms of noisy rock music. First, Plastic Crimewave Sound. I’d seen them once before, and they impressed me a bit more this time, though I’m still not sure they have songs I really want to hear again on CD. The noise style for these guys was to create a Sonic Youth-style wall of noise over rock-pop song structures… I think.

Next was Atomic Bitchwax, which for lack of a better term, plays stoner rock. Or tuneful hard rock. Whatever you want to call it. I’d never heard a note of their music before, but I enjoyed it, and they had a contingent of enthusiastic fans in the Abbey tonight. The drummer was particularly good.

As I was waiting for the next group, a guy standing near the front of the stage asked me, “So, you’re the digital camera guy?”

“Uh, I guess so,” I responded. (More on this guy later.)

Next came Growing. I had a feeling what we were in for when the band members lined up about six or seven large amps across the middle of the stage without any drum kit, and then packed lots of pedals and wires from toolboxes. Growing turned out to be a guitarist and bassist playing one long wall of noise ‚ÄĒ think Metal Machine Music meets that long, drony electronic thing on the last Wilco record. Luckily, this lasted only about 30 minutes, and I didn’t actually mind it as a sort of third course before the main entree of Comets on Fire, but I don’t imagine that I’ll be especially anxious to hear more music by Growing.

As soon as Comets on Fire began playing, that guy who’d asked me about the camera before bashed his way through the crowd and started aggressively swaying against the stage, pushing the monitors and even grabbing one of the cords plugged into the monitors. When he saw me, he stuck out his hand to block one of the photos I was trying to take. Then he got into a shouting match with a photographer standing nearby… A couple of minutes later, security showed up and ejected this clown.

Like Atomic Bitchwax, Comets on Fire were dominated by some gonzo drumming. In fact, the drummer was positioned front and center on the stage. Also unusual was the guy off on the right side of the stage, who was basically twiddling knobs on a pile of electronic gear to make the psychedelic sound effects that permeate Comets on Fire’s music.

As on their fine CD from last year,¬†Blue Cathedral, Comets on Fire played loud and chaotic rock, like a demented version of mid-1970s hard rock. Is it stoner rock? Space rock? I’m not sure. And I’m not sure if I can identify a single word from the shouted lyrics. But I do know I liked it. Comets on Fire rock with unrestrained fury.

SEE PHOTOS OF COMETS ON FIRE.

Vanessa Davis Band at North Center Rib Fest

JUNE 11, 2005: Vanessa Davis Band at North Center Rib Fest.¬†I’d never seen her before, though I was with a friend who claimed to have seen her something like 40 times. It was an entertaining set of blues rock and R&B, made all the more interesting by Davis’ bigger-than-life personality. She was apparently not clear on the concept that this was a family festival with kids in the crowd, and let loose with some adult language… while talking about a recent DUI arrest that her lawyer had advised her not to talk about. Oops!

Later, I caught some of¬†the Coral’s¬†show at Martyrs’. I got there late, just in time to hear the last five songs… enough for me to confirm my memory from SXSW 2003 that they’re a great live band, better than they sound on their studio records. I will have to listen more to the new one. If the Futureheads are the new XTC, these guys are the new Dukes of Stratosphear. (And I mean that in a good way.)

Ivy and Astaire at the Double Door

JUNE 9, 2005: Ivy and Astaire at the Double Door.¬†I don’t know much about either of these bands, but I enjoyed seeing them. Astaire sounded a little generic, but with some of the same appeal as Rilo Kiley. I’m way behind on the Ivy discography, but I thought their songs sounded fairly cool in concert.

Madeleine Peyroux at Park West

JUNE 8, 2005: Madeline Peyroux at Park West.¬†So who really cares that a lot of Peyroux’s records have been sold at Starbucks? At least one critic has pointed out that connection with barely concealed disdain.If the music’s good, I don’t care where people are getting it or which people are listening to it. And Peyroux’s good. She might seem to fall in the same general category as Norah Jones, but I find her much more interesting. And yeah, she does sound a lot like Billie Holiday, but I get the impression it’s a natural similarity rather than an act she’s putting on. Her songs, mostly drawn from last year’s album, sounded fairly similar in concert, though they were hardly just reproductions of the studio recordings. The vibe was very mellow, but the music was enchanting.

The Ponys and the M’s at Subterranean

MAY 28, 2005: The Ponys and the M’s at Subterranean.¬†I’ve seen the M’s a few times now, though I still haven’t heard their studio recordings. I enjoyed this performance more than any of the previous M’s concerts I’d seen. I’ve always liked the idea of what they’re trying to do, but the songs have just sounded a little too thick. Not enough dynamics or variation in the sound. But the melodies and harmonies and the obvious ’60s influences have finally started to sink in for me.

The Ponys have now put out two very good records, so I was excited to see them in concert for the first time. I’m not sure where TimeOut Chicago’s writer came up with the idea that they’re ripping off the Stooges. I hear a lot more Television myself, plus some British punk and glam rock.

Yeah, I guess they are a little retro, but who isn’t these days? As the New York Times pointed out the other day in a piece about the White Stripes (making a point that occurred me back when I was at this year’s¬†SXSW), rock bands today seem to feel a freedom to borrow whatever sounds they want from any part of rock’s history.

Anyway, the Ponys were quite good in concert, performing their catchy riffs and keening vocals with a lot of energy. The place was packed, and the crowd up by the stage included a bride and groom celebrating their wedding day. (Friends of the band?)

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF THE PONYS.

Okkervil River and Earlimart at Schubas

MAY 12, 2005: Okkervil River should have been the headliner this night at Schubas, but for some reason, they were the opening act for Earlimart. Okkervil River was certainly the better band.

I am digging the new Okkervil CD,¬†Black Sheep Boy,¬†and I’ve been meaning to see the band in concert for a while now, so it was a treat to see Will Sheff and his group playing their songs with so much passion.

Passion, on the other hand, is something that seems to be a little lacking from Earlimart’s music. The only Earlimart album I’m familiar with is last year’s¬†Treble and Tremble,¬†and it strikes me as merely pretty good ‚ÄĒ pleasant enough, but not a record I go back to all that often. The connection and similarity to Elliott Smith intrigues me, however. I was hoping that seeing Earlimart in concert might do the trick for me, but it was a letdown after the great opening set by Okkervil River.

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF OKKERVIL RIVER AND EARLIMART.