Gang of Four at Metro

MAY 11, 2005
Gang of Four
Metro, Chicago

Wow — what an amazing show this was. Gang of Four has always been one of those bands I wished I’d seen when they were together the first time around, so it was great to get the chance at last. Andy Gill’s jagged rhythms on guitar, so simple but so perfect. That propulsive rhythm section. Vocalist Dave King’s stage presence was a wonder in itself, as he rolled and squatted across the stage, often acting as if the power of the music had actually stunned him.

The crowd was an interesting mix of older fans (another Leeds rocker, Jon Langford of the Mekons, was in the crowd) and younger listeners, probably drawn by the legion of recent bands imitating Gang of Four. Young and old appeared to be having a fun, fun time. Gang of Four’s music is even more impressive in concert than it is on record  — and this reunited lineup more than lived up to expectations.

See photos of Gang of Four.

March and April 2005 concerts

The Underground Bee has been out of commission for a month or so… I was too exhaused by the big SXSW 2005 extravaganzato pay much attention to updating this site. It’s time to catch up. But first, here is an actual letter to the editor I received recently. (The authenticity of the signature is open to question, however.)

DEAR SIR,

I have perused the “Underground Bee” Web site, and I have to admit I am quite disappointed. There is much blathering on about Rock Bands and nary a mention of honey, beeswax, hives, drones, queens and such. I found a reference to something called “Bee Thousand,” but did not understand its meaning. In the future, please try to add items that might be of interest to the striped population.

Sincerely,
Buzz Aldrin

Well! I must admit I keep promising to expand this site’s purview beyond the aforementioned “blathering on about Rock Bands,” without fulfilling said promise. One of these days… I promise. I am far behind on my bee research.

Now, back to the blathering… Some recent concerts:

MARCH 25 — Orchestra Baobob at the HotHouse. This was the third time I’ve seen this fantastic band from Senegal. The grooves sounded as great as ever. Everyone was moving on the dance floor. PHOTOS.

APRIL 1 — The Kills at the Double Door. I have to plead ignorance about the music of the Kills  — I just listened to a little bit of their new album online as I decided whether to see this concert. I was intrigued when some critics compared the Kills to P.J. Harvey. I’m not sure that I see that much of a connection, but the Kills certainly put on a pretty darn entertaining concert. Guy on guitar, plus girl on vocals (and occasional guitar), plus drum machine. The spare lineup left them room to cavort across the Double Door stage, working up a good sweat. I will definitely be checking out the Kills’ music after seeing this show. Opening act Scout Niblett was simply tiresome. PHOTOS.

APRIL 3 — Dolorean at Schubas. The club was pretty empty as Dolorean took the stage at 11 p.m. on a Sunday, just 25 to 30 people sitting around to hear Dolorean’s lovely, quiet folk-pop. Bad timing, I suppose. Can’t these Sunday-night shows begin a little earlier? Anyway, Dolorean (which is mostly singer-songwriter Al James) sounded good live, and the lack of fans didn’t detract from my enjoyment. In fact, it made it seem more like James and band were playing a personal gig for the few fans in the place. One of the opening acts, Jeff Hanson, had an amazingly feminine voice, though this guy didn’t look the least bit androgynous. His songs sounded pretty good on first listen, falling somewhere in Jeff Buckley/Nick Drake territory.

APRIL 9  — Magnolia Electric Co. at Schubas. I‘m still not convinced that the 2003 album titled Magnolia Electric Co. was actually by the band called Songs:Ohia. That name doesn’t appear anywhere on my copy of the disc (though I’ve seen copies with a Songs:Ohia sticker). In any case, Jason Molina is now officially calling his band Magnolia Electric Co., and it is a first-rate group. Neil Young and Crazy Horse comparisons are inevitable, but Molina has his own distinctive voice. I like its natural quality. While he doesn’t do a Mark Knopler talk-singing thing, I get the sense that his singing comes straight out of his speaking voice. There’s something very conversational about it. And I love those deep-pitched solos that he plays on the lower strings of his guitar. Three members of Magnolia Electric Co. served as the opening act, playing in the incarnation known as the Coke Dares. Their shtick is playing very short songs in rapid succession, always being sure to say the name of each song. It was quite humorous. I’ll have to hear the songs on CD to say how worthwhile they are, but the Coke Dares seemed to pack a lot into each little burst of music. PHOTOS.

APRIL 15 — Paul Westerberg at the Riveria. He smashed a TV, a telephone and a guitar. He played a lot of his recent solo songs and a few odd covers (“If I Had a Hammer,” “Different Drummer”). He took swigs of whiskey. The concert degenerated into a series of aborted songs: one verse of “Like a Rolling Stone,” half of “Substitute,” a few chords from “Sweet Jane,” the riff from “Cat Scratch Fever.” His band anxiously awaited his next move. Someone got up to leave from a balcony seat and Westerberg said, “Hey, don’t you dare walk away!” Westerberg was falling down on the stage as he played his guitar. Was it all an act? He threw the microphone out into the crowd during “Can’t Hardly Wait,” and then jumped off the stage himself. End of show. Would he bother coming back for an encore? Yes! Glorious versions of “Alex Chilton” and “Left of the Dial” ensued. Was this concert a train wreck? Yes, at times, but it also had moments of triumph.

APRIL 16 — Andrew Bird at Metro. I had the honor of interviewing Mr. Bird recently, and it’s always an honor to see him play live. He’s still doing his amazing one-man band act, using a sampler pedal to loop various string and guitar sounds, building a song from the ground up right in front of the audience. That’s fascinating to see and hear, and it helps that the songs are so good. Kevin O’Donnell was with him on drums tonight, adding jazzy percussion. Bird actually slipped up a couple of times as he tried to juggle all of the musical balls  — but in an odd way, that made his act all the more impressive. It makes you realize how difficult it is to pull off perfection. Near the end of the show, one round of applause swelled beyond the typical cheering, and I sensed a genuine outpouring of affection and appreciation from the crowd. Opening act Archer Prewitt put on a fine set, with his soft, jazzy art-pop songs building into catchy grooves. It was nice seeing Dave Max Crawford, who works as a Metro bartender, on the stage as part of Prewitt’s band, drawing a big hand for a trumpet solo.

APRIL 17 — Damien Jurado at Schubas. Somehow, I’ve missed seeing Jurado in concert until now. I was tempted to see Elvis Costello over at the Auditorium tonight (I’ve somehow missed seeing him in concert, other than one show back in 1989), but I just couldn’t blow off Jurado again. Jurado is one of those singers who doesn’t look the least bit like a rock star, which makes him seem all the more real. He sat down for the whole show, getting up once to go back and play drums for one song. A nice mix of Jurado’s quiet acoustic songs and some rockers, like “Paper Wings.” Responding to an audience request, he played “Ohio” from Rehearsals for Depature, noting that he was heavily medicated (from hospital drugs, not illicit ones) at the time he wrote most of the songs for that album, so he doesn’t really remember the experience. I picked up a copy of that CD on the way out  — I owned it once before, but then it was stolen from my car. I wonder if the thieves ever listened to it? PHOTOS.

APRIL 20 — M. Ward at the Abbey Pub. Another musician I enjoyed interviewing recently. And as I mentioned before, I am waging a campaign for the recognition of M. Ward’s current supremacy in the musical firmament. So of course I enjoyed this show, which featured Ward playing with a full band, his pals in the group Norfolk & Western. The concert had its share of quiet acoustic moments, but it also rocked, especially with songs such as “Big Boat,” “Vincent O’Brien,” “Four Hours in Washington” and “Sad Sad Song.” It’s nice how much Ward varies his live performances. “Fuel For Fire,” which he played on piano at Schubas in February, was back to being an acoustic guitar song this time around, but with a really well-played harmonica solo added to the intro. His Carter Family cover, “Oh Take Me Back,” which is just a short ditty on Transistor Radio, began with an extended bluesy instrumental section. Despite his renown as a guitarist, Ward felt comfortable enough with his role as frontman to take his hands off the guitar and just sing at times. And at other times, it was possible to hear a tiny bit of the surprising influences he mentioned in my interview with him: Sonic Youth and Firehose. None of his music would be confused with those bands, but at a few of the concert’s loudest moments, he did make some dissonant noise with his electric guitar. Norfolk & Western had its own slot as the first opening act, playing melodic folk rock, followed by Devotchka, which played artsy cabaret music — a little like Calexico, with whistling, violin and accordion Interesting, I thought, though obviously not for all tastes. The crowd seemed to dig it. …Speaking of which, the M. Ward crowd was quite young, and I spotted a Bright Eyes T-shirt. Maybe he’s picking up some fans from his tours with Conor Oberst. PHOTOS.

APRIL 21 — Yo La Tengo at the Vic. You might take it as a bad sign that I kept nodding off during this concert, but I’d put the blame more on lack of sleep than lack of interesting music. Yo La Tengo started off the concert with a long instrumental drone, three keyboards going at once, bearing some similarity to Wilco’s much-hated electronic experimentation on “Less Than You Think.” Personally, I like this kind of thing, in small quantities, at least, and I thought this was a daring way for Yo La Tengo to start off its show. (Plus, it gave me time to catch a few winks.) The trio kept things eclectic at this concert, with punky garage rock, super-hushed mellowness and tropicalia. They even did a little dance routine. Somehow, it all sounds distinctly like Yo La Tengo and no one else. Responding to very enthusiastic applause, the band played three encores. A reminder of what a great band this is. NOW why was this concert on the same night as Chris Stamey at the Abbey Pub? I would have liked to have seen both, and given the fact that Yo La Tengo plays on Stamey’s new CD, you wouldn’t think they’d book shows at the same time. Oh, well…

Jeff Tweedy at the Vic

MARCH 5, 2005
Jeff Tweedy
The Vic, Chicago

Jeff Tweedy’s occasional solo concerts are one reason I feel lucky to live in Chicago. Sometimes Tweedy uses these shows to try out new songs, which end up later on albums by Wilco (or one of his other projects). Tonight’s show was all about nostalgia, though, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. Resurrecting no less than five pre-Wilco songs out of the Uncle Tupelo catalogue, Tweedy seemed to be reconnecting with some moments from his past — and giving the musical equivalent of a big wet kiss to some of his most rabid fans, the ones who scream out requests for oldies like “Gun” at his solo concerts.
In addition to the five Uncle Tupelo songs, Tweedy played a couple by one of his side projects, Golden Smog; two from the Loose Fur album; and one from the Minus Five album that Wilco worked on with Scott McCaughey. He also gave a rare performance of the non-album Wilco song “Blasting Fonda” and played a cover of Mott the Hoople’s “Henry and the H Bombs.”
Few performers can command the attention of a large theater with just a voice and an acoustic guitar, and Tweedy is one of them. Two of his Wilco bandmates, John Stirratt and Pat Sansone, opened in the guise of their group Autumn Defense, playing beautiful, sleepy acoustic pop, most of it from the excellent 2003 album Circles. Stirratt acted as if he were a little daunted about playing these little songs in front of such a big audience. “It’s like Schubas on steroids,” he joked, commenting on how quiet the room was.
Tweedy played several songs before saying anything to the audience, but he was talkative later on, bantering with the crowd about all of the people holding up cell phones. Tweedy momentarily blanked out on the lyrics of “(Was I) In Your Dreams” and flubbed a chord or two in “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (Again),” which made him seem human. He had some fun at his own expense about this. Those lapses were forgivable, of course, as Tweedy once again showed himself to be an accomplished acoustic guitarist. And his voice? It has become so familiar to me and many other listeners that it’s hard to say much new about it or to rate his vocals on a particular night. It just sounds like the voice of a friend.
Tweedy joked that it seemed like he’d played 10 or 12 Uncle Tupelo songs tonight. Noting that “Gun” was 12 years old, he shook his head and wondered where the years had gone. After a false start in a lower key, he played the song without a capo in the higher key he originally sang it in for Uncle Tupelo. When he polled the crowd afterward, most hands went up for the higher version. Tweedy lamented that it’s harder to sing that way.
With Autumn Defense as the opening act, the odds seemed good for a surprise appearance by Wilco at the end of the concert. But I’d heard no such thing happened on the previous night (I missed that concert). And after two encores and 90 minutes of music, it felt like the show was over. Tweedy played an excellent version of “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” capturing the jaunty vibe that song had in incarnations pre-dating the final studio version on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Tweedy waved to the crowd and walked off stage. Many people (myself included) got ready to leave, but then some roadies appeared.
At the sight of a Persian rug, the crowd went wild. Yes, I know that’s a cliche, but it’s one of the few times in the last year I’d say it was a true description of an audience reaction… the other being the roar of applause when Wilco took the stage at the Vic a year ago. This band certainly has some devoted fans.
Just about everyone knew what the rug meant — Glenn Kotche’s drum set was coming out. The roadies quickly set up the drums, a couple of keyboards and guitars. Beaming like a giddy child, Kotche sat down and began playing the recognizable beat of “Laminated Cat” (aka “Not For the Season”). Tweedy came back out and played the Loose Fur song. Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone joined in for “The Family Gardener.” Then Stirratt came out for the remainder of the mini-Wilco concert. All that was missing was guitarist Nels Cline, and Tweedy joked about that, having Sansone call him up on his cell phone. (He got Cline’s voice mail.)
Without Cline, Wilco’s sound was a little subdued and keyboard-dominated, but it matched the mood of the evening perfectly. The performance had the loose feel of a friendly living-room jam or rehearsal. Tweedy set down his guitar for three of the songs: Randy Newman’s “Political Science” (he even did a couple of leg kicks on the lines, “Boom goes London, boom Par-ee!”), “Hummingbird” and “I Shall Be Released.” After the big-keyboard finish of “Hummingbird,” Tweedy said, “Damn you, Jim O’Rourke! You made us sound like Supertramp!”
Those looking for clues about the direction of the next Wilco album were left clueless after tonight’s show, but it was a great look back at what Tweedy and his pals have accomplished so far.

Here’s the set list:

Someone Else’s Song
Remember the Mountain Bed
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
Airline to Heaven
(Was I) In Your Dreams
Wait Up
Black Eye
Radio King
Chinese Apple
Bob Dylans 49th Beard
Someday Some Morning Sometime
Blasting Fonda
Someday Soon
Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again)
Summer Teeth
ELT
I Can’t Keep From Talking

Encore 1
Gun
We’ve Been Had
Candyfloss
Henry & The H-Bombs
Acuff Rose
I’m The Man Who Loves You

Encore 2
Misunderstood

Encore 3
Not For The Season (with Glenn Kotche)
The Family Gardener (with Kotche, Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone)
How To Fight Loneliness (with Kotche, Jorgensen, Sansone and John Stirratt for rest of set)
John Wesley Harding
Political Science
Hummingbird
Late Greats

Encore 4
Passenger Side
California Stars
I Shall Be Released

Slobberbone at the Abbey Pub

MARCH 4, 2005
Slobberbone
The Abbey Pub, Chicago

What is it with Denton, Texas, anyway? Seems like a lot of good bands hail from there, including Slobberbone (as well as Centro-Matic and Midlake). Slobberbone’s calling it quits, but not before giving the fans what they want with this farewell tour. A good time was had by all (…well, as far as I could determine). Two Cow Garage also played tonight, ripping up the stage with its usual heart-on-sleeve over-the-top garage rock. And the first opening act, I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House, proved to be pretty darn entertaining, too, though they didn’t necessarily live up to their name, given the competition they faced onstage.

SEE PHOTOS OF SLOBBERBONE, TWO COW GARAGE & I CAN LICK ANY SONOFABITCH IN THE HOUSE (including some artsy shots, like the one above, taken through a bunch of beer bottles on the edge of the stage).

The Futureheads at the Double Door

The Futureheads were just as unrelenting in concert (March 1 at the Double Door) as they are on their CD. I still can’t help thinking of early XTC when I hear the Futurehead’s herky-jerky riffs, but they’re original enough to stand apart from their obvious influences. The interlocking guitar lines, the pounding bass and percussion are all great, but what really sets them above most of their contemporaries is the vocals. All four Futureheads sing, though it’s a far cry from sweet harmony. These Brits are a cheeky bunch, too, so their stage banter was pretty entertaining. Only down side: I wish their high-intensity style weren’t quite so unrelenting. I’m not asking for a ballad, but personally, I could use a bit of break.
The first opening act, the High Speed Scene, was pleasant enough but not exactly thrilling power pop. (Think Split Enz with louder guitars.) The second act, Sweden’s the Shout Out Louds, were more enjoyable, with tuneful songs; a hirsute and highly spastic bass player; a very Nordic-looking blonde on keyboards, xylophone, harmonica and tambourine; and a yelping lead singer who looks like Jason Schwartzbaum. I thought their resemblance to the Cure (mostly in the vocals) was a bit too obvious, but a die-hard Cure fan who listened to the Shout Out Louds’ three-song EP assures me I’m just imagining things.

M. Ward and Dr. Dog at Schubas

As a self-proclaimed “M. Head” (see my CD review), I went to see this show (Feb. 25, 2005, at Schubas) for just one reason, M. Ward’s performance, but it turned out to be a good triple bill.
Playing first: Shelley Short, a singer-songwriter with a pretty voice playing languid little ditties, traditional folk with a bit of old-timey songbook… but not so much that her music ever crossed into the cloying cuteness of Betty Boop stuff. If you need a reference point for Short’s style, she’s somewhere between Gillian Welch and Nora O’Connor — not nearly as accomplished as either of them, but showing a lot of promise. She sat down and played acoustic guitar for the whole set, backed by upright bass and drums.
After the show, I asked Shelley where she lives. “Portland, Oregon,” she said. “Wait, what am I saying? Chicago.” (She lived in Portland until about six months ago.) I picked up her CD, Oh Say Little Dogies, Why? You can tell from the packaging (or lack thereof) that it’s a homemade effort, but it generally sounded good to me on my first listen.
Up second was Dr. Dog. These guys from Philadelphia were fairly raucous onstage, though they always kept their performance grounded in the melodies and riffs of their songs rather than indulging in full-out jamming. They reminded me a little of My Morning Jacket, though not quite as hairy or loud. And the Faces — but maybe that’s just because I’d been listening to the great Five Guys Walk Into a Bar… box set earlier in the day, and suddenly the Faces seem like a touchstone for a lot of bands.
Anyway, Dr. Dog played songs rooted in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with good harmonies, impressive little instrumental breaks and some quality jumping and head-bobbing. I also picked up their CD, Easybeat from National Parking Records (a bargain at the merch-table price of $5). First impression: Not as loud or wild as the live show, with some interesting sounds and songs… Needs more time for evaluation. (See Dr. Dog on the SXSW site.)
Onto the main act…
I was not shocked that this show sold out, though I was a bit surprised at how quickly tickets disappeared. Who are the fans? People who found out about M. Ward from his opening slots on the tours with Bright Eyes and My Morning Jacket? No obvious group of Bright Eyes fanatics was visible in Schubas, but then again, it was a 21-and-over show so that might have shut out that contingent. Maybe Ward’s fan base is simply growing as more people hear about him (…through exposure such as his June 2004 interview on NPR).
Ward’s performance was preceded by yet another poem of opaque gibberish from Chicago’s rock concert poet Thax Douglas. Thax’s poems are indecipherable, but at least they’re reasonably short, and I’ve come to accept them as a sort of Chicago concert ritual. If nothing else, it’s interesting to see the reactions of concertgoers unfamiliar with his… um… Thaxness.
After Thax left the stage (nearly knocking me over in the process), Ward came up, the top half of his head enshrouded in a thin blue cap. As he plugged his guitar into his effect pedals, a young woman near the stage wearing an M.WARD T-shirt asked him to sign it and he politely replied, “Maybe later. I’m a little busy now.”
Standing away from his two vocal mikes, off to the side of the stage, Ward lifted his guitar with the neck pointed at the ceiling (for you guitar geeks out there, the only guitar he touched all night was his black Gibson J45) and played perhaps the quietest imaginable choice for an opening song, his version of Bach’s first prelude from “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” It’s clear that Ward is a virtuoso on guitar, but he doesn’t play this piece with the practiced precision of a classical guitarist. He gives it a looser, more emotional feeling.
A hush fell over Schubas, and the club would stay quiet for the next ninety minutes or so, broken only by the appreciative applause between songs, the occasional shout of “Chicago loves M. Ward!” or the murmur of audience members singing along in whispers. Ward was violating one of the Laws of Concert Scheduling by playing a solo acoustic set as the headline act after an opening set by a loud rock band, but that didn’t matter. This crowd was enthralled.
Without pausing, Ward’s Bach piece shifted into one of his most touching and obviously personal songs, “O’Brien,” from End of Amnesia. He proceeded to play some of the best songs off that album, as well as Transfiguration of Vincent and the new Transistor Radio. If anything, the set was dominated by key tracks from Vincent rather than the new CD.
Ward makes his guitar playing look easy, but there are few players who can make the instrument sound quite like he does. The key is his agile finger picking. On some songs, he used alternate tunings. It was startling to see that the guitar part he plays during the verses of “Sad Sad Song” is actually just one chord, played in an opening tuning without any fingers on the fretboard at all. Based on that description, you’d think it would be monotous and dull, but the rhythm and finger-picking pattern keep it interesting.
Ward did not say a whole lot between songs — nothing at all during a long stretch at the beginning of the concert  — and it was hard not to get the feeling that he’s reserved. After all, he uses an initial instead of his full first name. In the past, he’s let his hair hang down over this eyes in concert. Now, he was wearing a cap that almost seemed like a disguise. He wore a serious expression for most of the show, though a flicker of a smile sometimes it made it feel as if the seriousness was just a put-on. Or maybe it was his slight smile that was the put-on.
(Yeah, yeah, I know this sort of psychoanalysis of someone you’re watching on a stage is pretty bogus, but I can’t help it, especially when someone like Ward puts forward a persona that seems different than most of the other performers out there.)
Is that voice of his a mask he has chosen? Does he sing in a bit of a whisper to hide what his voice would sound like at full volume? Or is it just the way he naturally sounds? He does have a distinctive singing style, with a real heft and husky tone that gives it more weight than the sort of whispy falsetto that male vocalists often use when they want to sound pretty.
[Ward’s explanation, from the Merge Records Web site: Ward is at a loss to explain the origin of his singing voice, a three-pack-a-day rasp that sounds like it should come from a 75-year-old Mississippi Delta bluesman. It’s as much a non sequitur as the Southern-fried vocal delivery used 40 years ago by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty, a man who grew up just north of Oakland, Calif. “I don’t smoke,” Ward says. “I started recording in my parents’ house when I was 16 and, not wanting to wake anybody up, you just start to sing quieter and play quieter. I think that’s why my voice is so messed-up. People who only know the records think I’m really old or from the South.”]
Ward had no other musicians to help him out, but he never needed any assistance. Not only did he confirm his mastery of the guitar, he also sat down at a piano for several songs, showing that the tasty piano playing that pops on some of this studio recordings is no fluke.When he sang along to his piano playing, his music felt even more antique — echoing old-time ragtime, blues and jazz, as well as a slightly more recent influence, Tom Waits.
It was especially cool to hear Ward playing a piano version of “Flaming Heart,” a song that’s dominated by guitar in the studio version on End of Amnesia.Another piano highlight was Ward’s cover of the Daniel Johnston song, Story of an Artist,” which generated several laughs with its goofy but heartfelt lyrics.(Ward’s version of the song and Johnston’s original are on the 2004 CD Discovered Covered.)
Ward used his effects pedals to loop his guitar parts on a couple of songs, allowing him to solo on top of his own chords. Playing “Vincent O’Brien” for his encore, Ward even stepped over to the piano, with his guitar still slung over his shoulders, and pounded away at the keys for a joyous bit of racket that closed the song.
After all of his songs about sadness, Ward introduced his final song of the night as the happiest tune ever written. It was a lovely cover of “What a Wonderful World”  — with Ward omitting the title line of the song whenever it occurred, leaving it up to his guitar to speak those words. As he finished the song, Ward smoothly segued into a snippet of “When You Wish Upon A Star,” and with that melody still echoing on the sound system, he left the stage.
It was a masterful performance.
As I was leaving, I spotted Andrew Bird in the crowd and briefly talked with him. Bird’s obviously a fan of Ward’s music. “I feel a certain kinship with his music,” he told me.

Jorge Ben Jor at the HotHouse

Brazilian star Jorge Ben Jor just played a two-night stand at the HotHouse in Chicago the first time he’s ever played here to wildly enthusiastic audiences. I was there for night 2 and thoroughly enjoyed it. His guitar playing is highly rhythmic and slightly funky, his singing has the soft tones of typical Brazilian vocalists without being too mellow, and his songs have superbly catchy melodies and danceable beats.
The crowd sang along with many songs, and when I turned around at point, I saw the people just behind me waving a Brazilian flag over their heads. Appropariately enough, the Jorge Ben Jor song I know best is a tribute to a soccer player, “Ponta de Lanca Africano (Umbabararuma).”
The 1976 song, which I discovered when David Byrne included it as the opening track of the 1989 compilation Beleza Tropical: Brazil Classics 1, has an infectious guitar groove, and Jorge Ben (as he was billed on that CD) delivers some of the verses in a sort of pre-hip-hop patter that I want to chant along with even though I don’t know of a word of the language. The songs shows up occasionally as a bit of segue music on the public radio show “Marketplace.”
Let’s hope Jorge Ben Jor’s back in Chicago soon.

The Comas and Vietnam at the Empty Bottle

I have certain gaping holes in my knowledge of current pop culture, especially anything related to celebrity gossip. So unbeknownst to me, this album I’ve been listening to, Conductor by the Comas (Yep Roc), is apparently focused on lead singer Andy Herod’s romantic woes concerning a certain former girlfriend who is an actress on some television show I’ve never seen before.

(Maybe all of this would have been more obvious if I’d actually bought the CD, which comes with a DVD depicting the breakup story, rather than downloading it from emusic. Clue #1: The song called “Tonight on the WB.”)

Yeah, I have heard of Dawson’s Creek — I’m not that out of it — but if you’d asked me who Michelle Williams is, I wouldn’t have had any idea. (Or I might have remembered her as the cute chick from The Station Agent.)

Now that I know what Conductor is all about, I’m inclined to think: “Oh, great, some celebrity whining about breaking up with a celebrity girlfriend.” But that wouldn’t be fair, and this is a more-than-decent collection of rock songs. In any case, breakups are a great topic, no matter how famous your former partner is. And Herod doesn’t qualify as a celebrtity, not yet at least… Somehow, I had the idea that the Comas show at the Empty Bottle might sell out, given the press that the band’s been getting. As it turned out, it was a decent-size crowd, but there was enough space for me to roam around in front of the stage taking photos.

It’s hard to get a handle on exactly what style of music the Comas are playing. The album’s an eclectic mix of various rock genres and subgenres, though the core is melodic indie rock, not supercatchy enough to qualify as power pop, not quite extreme enough to qualify as postpunk. Ah, who cares about these labels, anyway? It’s good stuff, and the band pulled it off in concert, too.

Though the Comas recorded a couple of albums before this one, you wouldn’t have known it from their Empty Bottle show, which was less than an hour long, drawing almost exclusively (or was it exclusively?) from Conductor. And they aren’t the kind of band that transforms good studio songs into reveletory rave-ups in concert. But I wouldn’t call the show disappointing. Several of the songs moved toward more intense catharsis when Herod upped the intensity of his vocals. And when the Comas play in concert, the interplay between Herod and guitarist/backup vocalist Nichole Gehweiler becomes more apparent — their loose harmonies keep things interesting.

The opening act, Vietnam, was also interesting — and just as hard to pin down. Sounding at times like slightly sludgy ’70s blues rock, Vietnam’s percussion occasionally surged into Arcade Fire territory.

See my photos of the Comas and Vietnam performing February 18, 2005, at the Empty Bottle in Chicago.

Bettie Serveert at the Abbey Pub

OK, I will admit up front that writing about this concert is putting my critical faculties to the test. You see, I spent the whole show looking at up at Bettie Serveert’s lead singer, Carol van Dyk, and taking photos like this.Yes, I am smitten.
But, believe me, the music was great, too. Really. What is there to say about it, though? It’s simply hard-rocking and catchy indie pop songs, sung by one very sexy gal from Holland. (The band definitely rocks harder in concert than some of the pop songs with techno touches on the new CD from Minty Fresh, Attagirl.)
Wearing Buddy Holly glasses and a cowboy hat, Peter Visser plays the kind of kind of guitar riffs that will knock you in the head. I mean that both literally and figuratively. I was standing very close to Visser (but paying considerbably more attention to van Dyk), and at one point, his guitar brushed against the top of my head. Ah, the perils of concertgoing. If I were a centimeter taller, it might have hurt, but as it was, it was just a close call. I wasn’t sure Visser even noticed what happened, but then he leaned down and apologized before leaving the stage at the end of the set.
One surprise selection on the new CD is a cover of the Bright Eyes song “Lover I Don’t Have to Love.” As they introduced it, Visser commented in his Dutch accent that he didn’t understand the title. “I’ll explain it to you later,” van Dyk promised.
SEE MORE PHOTOS… MANY MORE PHOTOS OF BETTIE SERVEERT. (I plead guilty to focusing nearly all of my photographic attention on Ms. van Dyk. Can you blame me? And how am I supposed to edit this down to a reasonable number of pictures. Sheesh…)

Low and Pedro the Lion at Metro

The monks have broken their vow of silence. Low, the Duluth trio famous for its quiet, slow music, has gradually moved toward more aggressive sounds, culminating with the excellent new album The Great Destroyer (Sub Pop).
The mix of quiet, delicate moments and louder rave-ups sounded great in concert. Low still knows how to bring a hush over an audience. Low’s strength lies in compelling melodies, putting them across with cool harmonies and a minimum of musical accompaniment. How many other bands have a drummer who plays the whole show standing up?
Alan Sparhawk dedicated the new song “Death of a Salesman” to Arthur Miller, the author of the play of the same title, who’d died earlier in the day. He also noted he was playing it on a guitar signed by Chuck D. It’s a lovely and haunting song, performed solo by Sparhawk, in which the narrator gives up his efforts at writing music after being told by friends: “Music’s for fools, you shoul go back to school, the future is prisons and math.” It’s not the only song on The Great Destroyer about negation or abandoning music. Another track wistfully imagines the day “When I Go Deaf,” before erupting into a chaotic guitar solo.
Opening act Pedro the Lion played a solid set of tunes, sticking close to the band’s signature sound, pausing for a peculiar question-and-answer session with the audience (in which one man asked permission to use Pedro the Lion songs in a movie he’s making). The band cut loose on a cover of Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues,” joined by Sparhawk on guitar.
Pedro the Lion was preceded by an interesting solo performance by Tim Rutuli of Califone, who proved himself adept at both folksy blues and impromptu sonic experimentation (building layers of sound with a Casio “Rap Man”).

The Moaners at Subterranean

The band name notwithstanding, singer/guitarist Melissa Swingle doesn’t exactly moan. Her singing has a bit of drone in it, though it’s hardly monotone as she leaps fearlessly or maybe a bit lackadaiscally around the melody. It’s one of those dazed, deadpan voices that you’ll either love or hate. Me, I love it.

Last time we heard from Swingle, she was with Trailer Bride, another fine outfit. Now she’s part of Yep Roc’s burgeoning roster of cool bands, and she’s doing the guitar-drums duo thing, with Laura King on drums. So let’s get the obligatory line about the White Stripes out of the way right now: King’s a helluva better drummer than Meg White (though Meg’s primitive percussion does serve its purpose well). Swingle’s no Jack White hot shot on the guitar, but her jagged chords and peeling bottleneck-slide solos have an allure all their own. Combined with that voice of hers, the sound is bluesy Southern Goth swamp rock and stomp, everything sounding just a bit askew … which is why it’s so good.

The Moaners’ debut CD, Dark Snack, is full of good riffs and off-kilter tunes about pooches, overpopulation and roadhouse strippers. It sounds raw and live, so it wasn’t hard for the Moaners to pull it off in concert. King even managed to play guitar and drums simultaneously on one song, an impressive feat (she was just using her feet for the drums). Just one disappointment. I really wanted to see Swingle (who was wearing dark glasses and a Hello Kitty T-shirt) to whip out her saw. And no, that’s not some sort of obscene slang euphamism. She really does play a mean saw, given the chance, but I guess that’s hard to handle onstage when your band is just a guitarist and a drummer.

Rogue Wave and Two Gallants at Schubas

Judging from the credits on Out of the Shadow, one of 2004’s most promising debut albums, the band Rogue Wave is pretty much just songwriter Zach Rogue and some backing musicians…
There’s no doubt that Rogue is the captain of this ship, but Rogue Wave really did feel like a full-fledged band during their show at Schuba’s. The three backing musicians (only two are listed at www.roguewavemusic.com — Pat Spurgeon and Gram Lebron) swapped places on drums, bass, guitar and keyboards several times, but always sounded lively as they brought more of a rock edge to Rogue’s catchy, loopily psychedelic pop tunes.
Several new songs sounded fine — they might grow on me after I hear them more, though none of the new songs initially stood out as strong as the best tracks on Out of the Shadow.
The audience was very, very enthusiastic. The second encore actually seemed to be one of those unplanned sets that bands play when the crowd just won’t leave.
The Saturday Nights played first, with likable if not exactly outstanding power pop. Then came the angular, intense sound of the San Francisco guitar-and-drums duo Two Gallants. They ended their set by moving down onto the main floor of Schuba’s (taking a few pieces of their drum kit with them), playing one last song unamplified for the hushed room. A nice touch. Two Gallants are not much like the more famous guitar-drum duos out there (you know, White Stripes, Black Keys, Local H), but they left a strong first impression on me…
However, listening to the songs “Nothing to You” and “Train That Stole My Man” at the Two Gallants Web site, I’m not so sure. That singer’s voice… it seemed “edgy” during the concert, not exactly good but somehow invigorating… Now it seems a little annoying out of that context. A bit too Obersty, perhaps? Definitely an acquired taste, which I haven’t acquired yet.

Guided By Voices’ final concert

As Robert Pollard asked the crowd jammed into Chicago’s Metro nightclub to help him perform a sketch at the start of Guided By Voices’ final concert, hardcore GBV fans knew exactly what he had in mind. The audience did an encore of its chant from a few minutes earlier — “GBV! GBV!” — and Pollard & Co. (bandmates, plus former bandmates like brother Jim Pollard) recreated the spoken dialogue from the beginning of the “Propeller” album.

“Are you ready to rock?”

“This song does not rock.”

“89.”

The exchange would be meaningless to 99.9999 percent of the population, but it meant a lot to this crowd. (Just what does “89” mean, anyway?) And with that, GBV launched into its great prog-rock anthem, “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox” … not a song the band has played that much in recent years, and a good sign that GBV planned to dig deep into its back catalogue.

Alongside the bins filled with beer bottles — a requisite component of any GBV show — a couple of white plastic buckets labeled “PUKE” and “PISS” sat on the stage. And GBV even had its own bar on stage, with Pollard pal Trader Vic serving as bartender. Thus… we knew much alcohol would be consumed by the musicians. So what else is new at a GBV show? Pollard’s famous for chugging beers, twirling beer bottles into the air and catching them (well, at least some of the time), and somehow managing to hang onto cigarettes and beer while spinning around his microphone on its cord and doing karate kicks at the same time. He’s apparently given up smoking, but he took it up again for this final show, bumming smokes off audience members and GBVmates.

After a strong start, the concert paused for a New Year’s Eve midnight countdown… balloons falling and mostly exploding upon cigarettes (except for the balloons in the net that got tangled up in a ceiling fan)… and more drinking…

Pollard promised this would be the longest concert of all time, and he almost lived up to his promise. He said the set list had 61 songs — the same as Roger Maris’ old home-run record — but thanks to Barry Bonds, GBV would now have to go for 78 songs. They didn’t make it quite to that mark, but they did play close to four hours (from 11:20 p.m. until 3:20 a.m.), with a grand total of… 63 SONGS!!!

What exactly is the record for single longest performance by one band or artist, either in minutes or songs? Whatever it is, this GBV show was one for the history books. With that many songs, I was hard-pressed to remember some of the more obscure tunes, which Pollard dutifully identified — saying, for example, that the next song was from the 1993 EP Clown Prince of the Menthol Trailer. Um, there’s one I haven’t listened to in a while.

I could quibble with the set order and a few of the selections, but GBV played almost every song I wanted to hear, with many great tracks from “Bee Thousand,” “Alien Lanes” and “Propeller,” plus a few of the early, early songs that the band rarely played on tour. Looking at the set list from the previous night’s concert (which I did not attend), my only regrets are not hearing “Gold Star for Robot Boy” and “Liar’s Tale,” as well as that night’s opening act, Tobin Sprout.

A few other songs I wish I could have heard one more time in concert: “Break Even,” “Weed King,” “Striped White Jets,” “Little Lines,” “Jane of the Waking Universe,” “Bulldog Skin,” “The Ironmen Rally Song” and “Captain’s Dead” (actually, I never heard that one in concert). Oh, well… When a band has 900 songs, you’re bound to miss a few of your personal favorites when it gets boiled down to a mere 63 songs.

It was great to see Sprout and several other former GBV members sitting on some songs. I liked GBV best when Sprout was in the band, adding a second distinctive voice to the group’s sound. Ah, it was nice to hear him singing on “14 Cheerleader Coldfront.”

Hearing “Demons Are Real” for the first time in a while as a live song — and hearing it out of its normal context on “Bee Thousand” — I was struck by how gripping and odd it is. The best GBV songs are the ones with unusual rhythmic touches and off-kilter vocal phrasing, the ones that might seem just peculiar the first time you hear them but grow on you with repeated listens. “Cut-Out Witch” did not initially strike me as one of the better songs on “Under the Bushes, Under the Stars,” but when I noticed the song was becoming a regular fixture of GBV concerts, I came to see its genius. Other songs of this ilk include “Shocker in Gloomtown.” Reaction upon hearing it the first time: What the heck was that? Reaction upon hearing it the hundredth time: Best song of all time! (Well, not quite…)

After seeing some great, great GBV concerts, starting at the Lounge Ax in 1994, I’d been disappointed with a few of their shows in the last couple of years. They weren’t necessarily bad, but at times, the band lacked the spark and spontaneity it had once had. This final show, though, was the best I’d seen in years, and surely the most unforgettable.

Pollard was in generous mood, even making forgiving comments about people he has slagged in the past, such as Jim DeRogatis. Most of all, he seemed proud of what he’d accomplished in 21 years with Guided By Voices. Over an instrumental break in “Secret Star,” he recalled his dad telling him, “Do you realize how many shitty bands there are out there? What do you have to offer to rock ‘n’ roll?” And he remembered telling his mom, “I’m a fucking genius.” Her response: “A genius at what?” In those early days of obscurity, Pollard’s motivation was simple, he said: “I just wanna have fun.”

Perhaps my sentimental feelings about the night made me more forgiving than usual toward Nate Farley, whose drunken inability to play much guitar has irritated me at a couple of earlier shows… You had to cut him some slack tonight, as he was clearly having fun.

Pollard’s own drunkeness started to take a toll on the show’s pace as it neared the end of the main set, and he stopped two false starts on the song “Heavy Metal Breakfast.” He began missing more of those beer bottles tossed into the air, slurring some of the words, or just handing the microphone out into the audience while he staggered over to the bar for more booze from Trader Vic.

But when the band came back for two encores and Pollard vowed to “kick ass,” the sounds were splendid indeed. A fast-paced hit parade of sorts, the kind that great GBV concerts also climax with: “My Impression Now,” “My Valuable Hunting Knife,” “Queen of Cans and Jars,” “Hot Freaks,” “Motor Away,” “I Am a Scientist,” “Teenage FBI,” “Echos Myron” (always one of my favorites, with that classic line — “And we’re finally here, and shit yeah, it’s cool, and shouldn’t it be, or something like that”). The audience, which had seemed lethargic an hour earlier (probably because of the late hour), was pumped up now, singing every word, waving fists and fingers into the air. After Pollard introduced “Smothered in Hugs” as the final GBV song ever and I heard the opening chords and that indelible melody, I actually found myself getting a little choked up. Is it ridiculous to feel this way about a band you’ve loved for more than a decade, whose albums and concerts have been important milestones in your musical life?

I thought that might be the end, but after emcee Beatle Bob briefly took the stage to extend GBV’s thanks to its fans, the group came back for more. Pollard said he’d given a lot of thought to the songs he would play for the last GBV encore ever, and it was a fine way to end things:

“A Salty Salute” … Of course! How could they end without playing that one more time?

“Postal Blowfish” … another one of those songs that vaulted from obscurity and oddity to a solid position in the GBV repertoire.

“Pendulum,” which Pollard introduced as “We’ll put on some Cat Butt and do it up right” … another rarely heard early classic.

“Dayton, OH 19 Something and 5” … an obvious sentimental favorite.

“He’s the Uncle” … seems like an obscure choice to me, but I guess I’ll have to listen to this song more to figure out why Pollard included it.

“Exit Flagger” … This was the final song of the first GBV concert I ever saw. I still feel compelled to sing along with it.

And finally, a song that Pollard introduced as “The Ballad of Guided By Voices.” You could feel his emotion as he acknowledged the members of his band one last time. The song was actually “Don’t Stop Now,” with a fitting title for the band’s coda. As Pollard calmly delivered his last lines, it was hard for a GBV fan not to get goose pimples.

The goof, Nate Farley, was the last one to leave the stage, unable to resist one more chance to slap the hands of adoring fans. The crowd tried to rouse one more encore with another chant of “GBV! GBV!,” carrying on for a couple of minutes even after the lights and canned music had come on, but this really was the end.

SET LIST

Over the Neptune / Mesh Gear Fox
Watch Me Jumpstart
Pimple Zoo
Everybody Thinks I’m a Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking)
Fair Touching
Things I Will Keep
(New Year’s Countdown)
Glow Boy Butlers
Lethargy (with Jim Pollard)
The Best of Jill Hives
Red Ink Superman
14 Cheerleader Coldfront (with Tobin Sprout adding vocals)
The Girls of Wild Strawberries
Back to the Lake
Demons Are Real
Do the Earth
Tropical Robots
Beg for a Wheelbarrow
My Kind of Soldier
Wished I Was a Giant
Bright Paper Werewolves (with Leland Cain)
Lord of Overstock (with Leland Cain)
Window of My World
Navigating Flood Regions
Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory
Tractor Rape Chain
I Am a Tree (with John Wuerster from Superchunk on drums)
Drinker’s Peace
Chief Barrel Belly
Game of Pricks
Pink Gun
Matter Eater Lad
Redmen and Their Wives
Gonna Never Have to Die
I Drove a Tank (with Greg Demos and Jim MacPherson)
Shocker in Gloomtown (with Greg Demos and Jim MacPherson)
Secret Star
If We Wait
Huffman Prairie Flying Field
Sad if I Lost It
Cut-Out Witch
Buzzards and Dreadful Crows
Alone, Stinking, and Unafraid
Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy (with Matt Sweeney on bass)
Glad Girls
Johnny Appleseed (with Jim Greer and Tobin Sprout)
Heavy Metal Country
Murder Charge

Encore 1:
My Impression Now
My Valuable Hunting Knife
Queen of Cans and Jars
Hot Freaks (with Tobin)
Motor Away
I Am a Scientist (with Don Thrasher)
Teenage FBI
Echos Myron (Tobin adding vocals)
Smothered in Hugs

Encore 2:
A Salty Salute
Postal Blowfish
Pendulum
Dayton, OH 19 Something and 5
He’s the Uncle
Exit Flagger
Don’t Stop Now

The Arcade Fire at the Empty Bottle

As the Arcade Fire was setting up its equipment on the Empty Bottle’s stage, one had to wonder: Just what are those motorcycle helmets for? Are stunts of some sort going to be performed? Yes, indeed … and protective headgear would be required.

(A brief aside: With seven musiciansthe Arcade Fire had some difficulty squeezing onto the Bottle’s stage. Hey, guys — the Polyphonic Spree has played here. If they can do it, you can.)

The songs on the Arcade Fire’s CD, Funeral, are emotionally intense, but they wouldn’t necessarily lead you to think this would be a particularly wild band on the stage. And it’s not as if everyone in the lineup constantly wreaks havoc, but a few of the musicians do display a manic, almost reckless energy. Like British Sea Power, the Arcade Fire makes use of mobile percussion, as some of the guys march about with a snare drum, shake tambourines or pound drumsticks on any available surface. The Arcade Fire also played musical chairs; almost everyone played more than one instrument during the course of the concert.

This Montréal group’s songs seem to be based around fairly simple chords and melodies, but they are strong melodies, reinforced by lots of backup vocals, violin and accordion. Something about the vibe brought Talking Heads to mind… and then, appropriately enough, the band covered a Heads tune, “This Must be the Place (Naive Melody).” The Arcade Fire also increases tempos and intensity in the final sections of many songs, echoing the fervor of the Feelies.

Main vocalist Win Butler sings in one of those slightly strangled indie-rock yelps, bringing strong feeling to these tunes. Régine Chassagne sings a couple of songs, too, including “Haïti,” which was particularly fun in this concert performanceIt isn’t always easy to make out the words on Funeral without the lyrics sheet to guide you along.

Once you do become familiar with the lyrics, the songs take on even more resonance. Death and neighorhood are the recurring themes. The liner notes explain: “When family members kept dying they realized that they should call their recordFuneral, noting the irony of their first full length recording bearing a name with such closure.”

But what’s really striking about the lyrics is their private nature; they feel like excerpts from a diary — the notes of someone who views the world with both mystical wonder and trepidation. “We’re just a million little gods causin’ rain storms turnin’ every good thing to rust.”

The crowd at the sold-out Empty Bottle knew these songs well and cheered wildly at many points. The music was crashing brilliance.

SEE MY PHOTOS OF THE ARCADE FIRE.