My photos of A Giant Dog’s show on Wednesday, May 18, at the Empty Bottle, along with Melkbelly and So Pretty.
In 2013, I saw a couple of concerts by Cross Record, a group led by the promising Chicago singer-songwriter Emily Cross. (See my blog posts about her shows in January 2013 at Township and in August 2013 at the Double Door.) But then she bid Chicago farewell, moving to Austin, Texas. Cross Record made a welcome return on Saturday, April 30, playing a short but haunting set of new music at Schubas. Cross’ bandmate is her husband Dan Duszynski, who played guitar and drums and other musical gear, sculpting a distinct sounds for each song. Cross Record’s new album, Wabi-Sabi, has a loose, experimental air about it, with Cross’ breathy, ethereal vocals floating through the melancholy, introspective tunes. It took just a few listens for these songs to lodge themselves in my mind and heart. The short but lovely concert at Schubas affirmed just how strong these compositions are.
The Swiss group Klaus Johann Grobe played its first U.S. show ever on Tuesday, April 26, at the Empty Bottle in Chicago. Chicago also happens to be where the group’s American record label, Trouble in Mind, is based. Klaus Johann Grobe’s new album, Spagat der Liebe, continues in the keyboard-dominated Krautrock dance style of the duo’s 2014 debut, Im Sinne der Zeit. With the addition of a bassist to the concert lineup, the group made delightful grooves with synth, organ,metronomic drum beats and German lyrics that seemed almost chanted at times — a beguiling balance between the mechanical and the organic. The opening acts were the Hecks, with impressively complex and interlocking guitar lines, and Chandeliers, playing pleasantly trance-y synth-and-drums pop.
Years have gone by since the last time when the Coke Dares played in Chicago, but the trio returned on Friday, April 22, and played two sets at Logan Arcade. As the night began, guitarist Jason Evans Groth said that the band had rehearsed 700 songs, but it was going to play only 70. That wasn’t much of an exaggeration — most of the Coke Dares’ songs are short. Very short. The band ripped through one song after another, playing just a riff, maybe a verse, maybe a chorus and then screeching to a halt as Groth either jumped into the air with his guitar or abruptly announced, “Thank you!” before proceeding to introduce the next song. It was all quite amusing, with some fun tunes crammed into those brief snippets of rock. The longest song of the night may have been a cover of Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.” Or maybe it was the medley that closed the first set, including the commercial jingle for Juicy Fruit gum — a jingle that the Coke Dare reprised an hour later as they ended their second set.
There’s a serious and sobering story behind the band Songhoy Blues. These four musicians are in a sort of exile — as the title of their 2015 debut album, Music in Exile, suggests — having fled from northern Mali when it fell into violence and extremist rule. The quartet’s music may reflect on that backstory, but it sounds completely infectious and it’s joyful to experience, especially live. When Songhoy Blues played at Martyrs’ on Saturday, April 12, the show started off somewhat subdued, but by the second or third song, the audience was dancing, inspired by singer Aliou Touré’s own jumpy moves. Meanwhile, Garba Touré was playing some rather astounding stuff on his guitar — with touches of American blues and rock guitar solos amid the distinctively African musical motifs. As the concert grew more energetic, Songhoy Blues’ vocalist remarked that it was like a party in Africa. “We have to celebrate life, and we are going to enjoy life tonight,” he said.
The Necks have been improvising beautiful music for many years now. You might call them a jazz trio — after all, they do follow the standard lineup of instruments you’ll see in many jazz trios: piano, bass and drums. But these Australian musicians create their own distinctive sort of music, as they demonstrated Sunday, March 27, in a breathtaking performance at Constellation. They played two sets — each consisting of a single, uninterrupted piece of music that steadily built up from the smallest and quietest of musical gestures. At the very beginning, it was just Tony Buck flicking a brush on one of his drums. And then Lloyd Swanton joined in, fingering the strings of his upright bass with a rumbling musical gesture that fit in perfectly with the brushing. Finally, Chris Abrahams tenderly touched the keys of the piano, creating a circling pattern of notes. These minimalist motifs gradually transformed, growing in volume and intensity, but a steadiness remained at the heart of the music — each musician closely following the lead of the others but then pulling the trio in a slightly new direction. It was a wonder to see and hear.
Freakwater is the sound of two pining, earthy, twangy voices coming together — the voices of Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin, who formed this country-music band in Kentucky back in 1985, together with bassist Dave Gay. Nine years have gone by since the last Freakwater record, but those three core players and a stellar lineup of guest musicians have finally made another album, Scheherazade, which Bloodshot Records recently released. With Bean living in Chicago (where she plays drums for Eleventh Dream Day, among other things), this city qualifies as one of Freakwater’s hometowns, but the group saved Chicago for the final two shows of its tour — Friday and Saturday (March 18-19) at the Hideout. I was there on Saturday, and it was marvelous to hear Bean and Irwin’s voices intertwining once again as they shared all the humor and camaraderie of a tour-ending show.
The concert Wednesday, March 16, at Constellation was the first U.S. performance by Spunk, a quartet of Norwegian woman who have been improvising music under that name since 1995. Actually, as it turned out, it wasn’t quite a performance by the full group; cellist Lene Grenager wasn’t able to play due to an illness. But the rest of Spunk — Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje on voice and electronics; Kristin Andersen on trumpet, recorders and flutes; and Hild Sofie Tafjord on French horn and electronics — played as a trio, making some gloriously peculiar sounds. The absence of cello may have caused the mix to lean more heavily toward electronics, but it was really all about the way all of the noises blended together into shapes and textures. Bassoonist-composer Katherine Young opened the concert with similarly strange explorations of imaginative soundscapes.
The great Cincinnati rock band Wussy has a new album out, Forever Sounds — an outstanding follow-up to its 2014 album Attica! — and the group returned last week to its usual Chicago venue, the Red Line Tape, for two shows. I was there on Saturday, March 12, and it was another loose and lively set by Wussy, with old and new songs — even including one song that’s newer than the new album (“In the Tall Weeds”). Watch for details of another Chicago concert by Wussy (apparently at a different venue) coming up in late June. And you can see video of Wussy’s KEXP performance this week here.
SET LIST: Little Paper Birds / She’s Killed Hundreds / Gone / Maglite / To the Lightning / Hello I’m a Ghost / Pizza King / Better Days / Teenage Wasteland / In the Tall Weeds / Pulverized / Sidewalk / Aliens in Our Midst (originally by The Twinkeyz) / Dropping Houses / Beautiful ENCORE: Majestic-12 / Ceremony / Rigor Mortis
Some audience gasped as the ragtime pianist Reginald R. Robinson made an announcement at the beginning of his concert Saturday, March 12, at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago: This would be one of his last concerts, he said. “I’m going to retire from public performance next year,” said Robinson, a winner of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant” who may be the most prominent ragtime composer and performer today.
Robinson offered a little more explanation about his future plans during a question-and-answer session with the audience after the concert. “I’m moving to another stage of my life,” he said. “It’s an extension of what I’ve been doing. … I love playing for audiences, but I realized I’ve been doing this for 20 years.”
He said he plans to embark on a new artistic project, but he declined to say exactly what it will be. “I’m not going to say what it is,” he said. “I don’t want to jinx it. … It’s not a bad thing. It’ll be good. In fact, it’ll be great.”
So, it sounds like we’ll be hearing more from Robinson, but we may be running out of chances to see the sort of performance he gave on Saturday as part of the Chi-Town Jazz Festival.
He began with two of the most famous pieces by the composer known as the King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin: “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag.” He noted that he likes to play “The Entertainer” at a quick tempo, unlike the more stately style some pianists prefer. “People were dancing to it,” he said. “You have to swing it.”
Robinson then played several of his own compositions, telling the audience a bit of the story behind each piece. His playing stumbled in one passage of his 2013 composition, “Doing the Sugar Heel,” after he’d warned the audience that he didn’t have the sheet music for it and might have trouble remembering it all. He quickly recovered, and his playing was close to flawless in the hour that followed, with his fingers dancing across the piano keys in intricate patterns. The rhythms were often rollicking, and the melodies were lyrical, with beautiful touches of yearning.
SET LIST: The Entertainer (Joplin) / Maple Leaf Rag (Joplin) / Doing the Sugar Heel / Eternal Love of Ankhesenpaaton & Tutankhaton / So Deeply / Mr. Murphy’s Blues / Esperanza / Monkey Business / Swampy Lee / Footloose
For the last three years, the Empty Bottle has hosted an outdoor winter concert called “Music Frozen Dancing.” It’s a somewhat ridiculous idea, but the free event has drawn fairly big crowds even when the weather is inhospitable. It feels like one of those things where people want to be able to brag about doing something outrageous — “I stood outside in freezing temperatures and saw a punk-rock show on a street in February.” The event returned on Saturday, Feb. 28, but for better or worse, it was unseasonably warm, with temps in the 50s. That made it more tolerable for me, and I caught three of the four bands: Meat Wave, the Spits and the Black Lips. A mosh pit raged at a few points during the afternoon, but as night fell and temperatures dropped, it felt like most audience members were ready to go back inside.
The Black Lips
“New music” seems to be catching on lately as a label for the stuff that we used to call “20th-century music.” Neither label really works, but what else should we call the new music composed for classically trained musicians? Whatever you call it, it’s thriving in Chicago these days, with a slew of talented ensembles, musicians and composers.
The Frequency Series, curated by Chicago Reader music critic Peter Margasak, has been presenting concerts of new music on Sundays at Constellation in 2013. Last week, Frequency went a step further, with the first Festival of Chicago New Music. I attended two of the concerts:
Flutist Claire Chase performed Saturday, Feb. 27, at Constellation — but billing her just as a “flutist” is hardly adequate to describe the scope of what she does. Chase, who is a founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble, began this concert standing on a ladder. Over the course of the show, she crawled, jumped and slithered around on the floor, coaxing unexpected sounds from her flutes — including an enormous contrabass flute (pictured below). She also spoke, reciting verse and text, making the whole performance feel like a blend of music and performance art, reminiscent of artists like Laurie Anderson.
This was the latest iteration of “Density 2036,” a 22-year project she launched in 2014 to commission an entirely new body of repertory for solo flute each year until the 100th Anniversary of Edgard Varèse’s groundbreaking 1936 flute solo, “Density 21.5.” Each season between 2014 and 2036, Chase will premiere a new 60-minute program of solo flute work commissioned that year. This concert included the titular work by Varese alongside new pieces by Dai Fujikura, Francesca Verunelli, Nathan Davis, Jason Eckardt and Pauline Oliveros. It was a strange and impressive spectacle.
The Spektral Quartet played Sunday, Feb. 28, at Fullerton Hall in the Art Institute of Chicago, performing two compositions that tested how far musicians can go with the idea of playing string instruments as quietly as possible. The first half of the concert was the premiere of Bagatellen, a sequence of nine short movements by German-born Chicago resident Hans Thomalla. Thomalla’s concept was to take musical fragments and use them as the germinative seeds for each of this pieces. Frankly, I’m not sure how much different that is from the typical way pieces of music originate. But whatever the theory is behind Bagatellen, it was a mesmerizing suite, with some passages so quiet that you had to strain to hear slight tones hiding inside the clicks, buzzes and hums of fingers and bows touching the instruments.
The second half of the concert was Austro-Swiss composer Beat Furrer’s String Quartet No. 3, which employed a similar dynamic range. I had trouble grasping what was going on in this composition. Spektral’s players showed virtuosity, but the music itself left me cold. As with so much “new music” — especially music without traditional melody, harmony and rhythm — it might take many listens to reach a fuller appreciation.
Members of the Spektral Quartet introduced the music with helpful explanations — even demonstrating some of the ideas with brief snippets on their instruments. And at the end of the concert, they sat down along with Hans Thomalla to answer audience questions.
Neko Case said she was playing “deep cuts” at her concert Feb. 25 at the Tivoli Theatre, a grand old cinema in suburban Downers Grove. And indeed, Case performed several obscure tracks from her catalog, which is brimming over with so many shining gems of songwriting, singing and instrumental arrangement. The selections at this show even included a couple of songs from Case’s Canadian Amp EP.
Case is touring to support the recent boxed set that colects all of her albums into one deluxe package — Truckdriver, Gladiator, Mule — so this felt like an opportunity for her to dig through her repertoire.
She played with her longtime musicians Jon Rauhouse (on guitar and pedal steel) and Tom Ray (on upright bass), along with guitarist Eric Bachmann (the lead singer of Crooked Fingers and Archers of Loaf, who has been a member of Case’s touring band for a few years now). And of course, harmony vocalist extraordinaire Kelly Hogan, along with a few appearances by Nora O’Connor. But no drummer — just tambourine shakes and other minimal touches of percussion. That gave the performances a loose, unplugged feeling at times.
Case’s sense of humor was as charming and off-beat as it’s ever been. Indeed, I wondered if any audience members who weren’t accustomed to her stage banter knew what to make of it at times, especially when got amusingly scatological. For my part, it was a confirmation that this is the same delightful eccentric I first saw performing onstage at FitzGerald’s back in 2000.
The concert came to a breathtaking end with the second encore. Case and Hogan walked back out onto the stage and sang the a cappella duet “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.” It was nearly ruined by the inappropriate laughter of a few audience members reacting to the vulgarity in the lyrics — the line where Case and Hogan sing, “Get the fuck away from me!” That might seem amusing if you don’t know that the song is about a mother yelling that at her young child. But then the rest of the song silenced the crowd, as Case delivered those beautiful final words directed at the child she’d seen: “But don’t you ever shut up please/Kid, have your say/’Cause I still love you/Even if I don’t see you again.” It was a goose-bumps-raising moment.
SET LIST: Outro With Bees / Hold On, Hold On / Bought and Sold /
Man / Vengeance Is Sleeping / Ghost Wiring / This Tornado Loves You / Look for Me (I’ll Be Around) / Nothing to Remember / Andy / Blacklisted / I’m From Nowhere / Night Still Comes / At Last / City Swans /
Duchess / The Needle Has Landed / Middle Cyclone / Maybe Sparrow
FIRST ENCORE: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood / Sleep All Summer (Crooked Fingers cover, duet with Eric Bachmann) / Lady Pilot / Margaret vs. Pauline / Knock Loud / SECOND ENCORE: Nearly Midnight, Honolulu
Another thing that made this evening special was the opening act, Robbie Fulks. Yes, I have seen Fulks a ton of times — probably more than any other performer — largely because of the shows he’s been playing at the Hideout on most Monday nights for the past six years. So it was nothing novel for me to see him performing yet again. But it was great to hear Fulks playing the songs from his forthcoming album, Upland Stories, with a full band (including Nora O’Connor’s singing on several songs). I’ve heard Fulks’ new records, and it’s one of his best. His singing at the Tivoli Theatre show was especially impressive, showing a wide range from subtle quiet turns of phrase to long, sustained country hollers.
I also saw Fulks signing several of the new songs in a session Monday, Feb. 29, at the Hideout, which was filmed for a video. Later the same night, Fulks performed a fun tribute show to Alex Chilton, playing with Liam Davis, Casey McDonough and Gerald Dowd.
Eleanor Friedberger, who plays in the Fiery Furnaces with her brother, Matthew Friedberger, has also made three solo albums — including a fine new one called New View. She performed her solo music Feb. 24 at the Empty Bottle, backed by one of her opening acts, the California group Icewater. Like she does with the Fiery Furnaces, Friedberger performed in a cool, understated style, singing dense lyrics. How the heck does she remember so many words without showing the slightest hesitation? The highlight for me was the encore, which began with Friedberger standing alone on the stage, singing with just her acoustic guitar as accompaniment, before the rest of the band returned.
At one point during the concert, Friedberger told the audience about her day, including a visit to her old hometown, Oak Park. She said her high school softball coach had shown up earlier at the Empty Bottle, telling her that she still holds a school record — for her 19-game hitting streak! Further proof that she’s a winner.
The Lawrence Peters Outfit plays old-fashioned country music on the fourth Wednesday of every month at the High Hat Club, a new bar in the spot where Katerina’s used to be, 1920 W. Irving Park Road. I visited for the first time last week, on Feb. 24. It was a snowy night, and only a handful of people were there to see this cool band. Peters and his band, who are preparing to record a new album, deserve more of an audience for their sturdy, low-key music, which sounds like it could’ve been recorded back in the heyday of Sun Studio. Mark your calendars for those upcoming shows at High Hat.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham) returned to Chicago on Feb. 18, playing a concert at the Vic with the same band he played with last summer at the Old Town School of Folk Music — “The Bonny United Ensemble,” comprising Danny Kiely, Van Campbell, Roadie Rodahaffer and Drew Miller.
Oldham was in fine form, hopping around on one leg (as he is wont to do), and mixing in some interesting covers (songs by Bruce Springsteen, R. Kelly, Future Islands, and the Renderers, a New Zealand group). “Crewman/croonman” Oscar Lee Riley Parsons joined him onstage for the Buddy Holly song “Oh Boy,” and the two engaged in some odd almost vaudevillian banter.
SET LIST: New Whaling / The World’s Greatest (R. Kelly cover) / Easy Does It / Wai / Death to Everyone / For Every Field There’s a Mole / Love Comes to Me / A Dream of the Sea (Renderers cover) / Oh Boy (Buddy Holly cover) / Corner Of The Stair / Thunder Road (Bruce Springsteen cover) / Bed Is for Sleeping / So Far and Here We Are / Rubin and Cherise (Jerry Garcia Band cover) / Intentional Injury / One With The Birds / Quail and Dumplings
ENCORE: Seasons (Waiting On You) (Future Islands cover) / 2/15 > New Partner > 2/15
A nice bonus at this concert was the opening act, Maiden Radio, a trio from Oldham’s hometown, Louisville. The three women in Maiden Radio are Joan Shelley (whose solo album Over and Even was my favorite of 2015), Cheyenne Marie Mize (who made an EP of duets with Bonnie “Prince” Billy called Among the Gold in 2009) and Julia Purcell. Together, they sing traditional folk songs — which sounded delightful at the Vic. Maiden Radio also sounds lovely on its 2015 album Wolvering.
(Pardon my low-res iPhone pictures!)
Last summer, I took a ride all the way to Bloomington, Indiana, and back just to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor perform in a fairly small rock club, the Bluebird. This month, the Montreal rock orchestra finally got around to playing in Chicago, with shows on Feb. 13 at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel and Feb. 14 at Thalia Hall. I was at the Rockefeller Chapel concert.
In some ways, the performance was similar to the remarkable one I’d witnessed last year. In their typical fashion, the musicians in GY!BE took the stage without saying a word as a single chord droned. Fragmentary films flashed on the screen. The band played epic and thunderous compositions — including a full run-through of its 2015 album Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. And then after a few more songs (each lasting around 15 minutes) the mysterious ensemble departed the stage.
But there was one significant difference between these two concerts: the setting. With its high ceiling and Gothic architecture, Rockefeller was a perfect setting for Godspeed You! Black Emperor, heightening the sense of drama. I sat about halfway back in the chapel. That was too far away to get a good look at the band, but it didn’t really matter — it was a great vantage point for taking in the majesty of the space and the music.
(Pardon my grainy little pictures from this concert — I was using my iPhone from a long distance.)
SET LIST: Hope Drone / Gathering Storm / Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’ / Lambs’ Breath / Asunder, Sweet / Piss Crowns Are Trebled / Moya / The Sad Mafioso
On Tuesdays in February, the Hideout hosted a residency of concerts featuring Chicago musician Rob Frye. I was there on Feb. 23, when he performed as part of Bitchin Bajas, an instrumental drone group that also includes Cooper Crain (Frye’s fellow member in CAVE) and Dan Quinlivan. The three Bitchin Bajas set up their keyboards, drums and wind instruments on the main floor of the club and made beautiful, meditational music that lingered for a long time on single chords. (Some notable news about this band: Bitchin Bajas made a record with Bonnie “Prince” Billy called Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties, which Drag City is releasing March 18. You can see a video of their song “Your Hard Work Is About to Pay Off, Keep On Keeping On” here.)
After their set in the Hideout’s back room, the members of Bitchin Bajas and several guests (including singer Jeanine O’Toole from the 1900s and other bands) set up in the front bar, reassembling as a J.J. Cale tribute band and playing some delectably low-key guitar grooves.
J.J. Cale tribute band
On Saturday, Feb. 20, Bric-a-Brac Records hosted another one of its fun in-store punk/garage rock performances. Chicago’s Mr. Ma’am played the first set, followed by Royal Brat from Minneapolis. The place wasn’t as crowded as it gets during some of these free shows, but it was still buzzing with energy.
The Chicago band Negative Scanner made one of my favorite records last year — just narrowly missing out on my top 10. Released by the top-notch local label Trouble in Mind, Negative Scanner’s self-titled album is filled with short bursts of searing punk and garage, with singer-guitarist Rebecca Valeriano-Flores spitting out the words with alarming force. This group has played a lot of shows in Chicago, but somehow I had never seen it live until Friday, Feb. 12, when Negative Scanner opened for Disappears at the Empty Bottle. The band did not disappoint, ripping through a fast set of songs from the album and cementing its place as one of my favorite bands in Chicago right now.
Disappears is another outstanding local band — and it played a really strong set to finish the night, with those guitar riffs sounding especially propulsive. The first group of the night was Hide (or maybe that should be all-caps HIDE) — who played aggressive electronic music amid strobe lights. Not exactly my sort of music, but a cool spectacle. (See the first picture below for a demonstration of what happens when you take a quick sequence of photos while strobe lights are flashing.)
On Sunday, Jan. 31, the Chicago trio Stomatapod headlined an early show at the Empty Bottle — yes, an actual early show at the Empty Bottle, believe it or not — and it turned out to be a strong lineup of three noteworthy bands.
Thoughts Detecting Machine
The first act of the night was Thoughts Detecting Machine — a one-man band starring Rick Valentin from the great Champaign rock group the Poster Children. For this project, Valentin plays guitar and sings along with loops and backing tracks, making appealing rock songs with an electronic pulse.
The Rutabega, a duo from South Bend, Ind., that calls its music “carp rock,” played second. The group lists Built to Spill as one of its influences, but I also heard a distinct nod to the early Who — in fact, it sounded like one song was about to morph into “Happy Jack.” I liked the Rutabega enough to buy their album at the merch table.
Stomatopod (named after an order of crustaceans) is a grunge revival power trio — John Huston on guitar and vocals, Liz Bustamante on bass and Elliot Dicks on bass — slamming out hard-edged songs that occasionally reminded me of the Pixies.
For the seventh year, the Hideout hosted Chicago Psych Fest last week, with three nights of music from the more experimental, trippy end of the rock spectrum. What does “psychedelic” mean these days, anyway? This festival always offers an interesting range of answers to that question. I attended the first night of this year’s festival, on Jan. 29 — which turned out to be the Night of Flutes. Four bands played, and three of them included flute. The final group of the night, Spires That in the Sunset Rise, even had a flute duo, meaning that the overall ratio of flutes to bands was 1:1 for the night. (Oddly enough, the last band I saw in a previous show at the Hideout, Expo 76, also played flute!)
The evening started with the duo Lavasse (Whitney Allen and Mark Fragassi of Toupee) playing a sinister set that culminated with some onstage gardening. Then came the Singleman Affair, Daniel Schneider’s band, which released a great record last year called The End of the Affair. Schneider really threw himself into this performance, singing and playing with passion. The third group of the night was ADT, playing psych music closer to jazz. (But no flute!) Finally, Spires That in the Sunset Rise explored the idea of duets featuring wind instruments and vocals — and it was quite captivating.
The Singleman Affair
Spires That in the Sunset Rise
It was nearly a decade since the last time I saw the Go! Team — when the British group played at Lollapalooza in 2006 — and that’s just too long to go without the exuberance of this delightful band. After a prolonged absence from Chicago, the Go! Team returned on Saturday, Jan. 16, playing at Lincoln Hall during the Tomorrow Never Knows Festival. It was thrilling to see this bunch cavorting with glee onstage again. Few bands I’ve ever seen look so much like they’re having fun.
As always, the Go! Team delivered a crazy mashup of musical genres — electric guitar riffs, dashes of hip-hop, melodies evoking 1970s TV theme songs, banjo and recorder. The women arrayed across the front of the stage (Ninja, Angela Mak and Cheryl Pinero) were in constant motion; Ninja beamed as she jumped and danced to the infectious beats. The enthusiastic crowd got moving, too. Ian Parton, the group’s founding mastermind, acted more like a sideman, but he came forward for the memorable harmonica melody that anchors the closing song of the first Go! Team album, “Everyone’s a V.I.P. to Someone,” and it felt like a star stepping into the spotlight.
The Go! Team’s set was somewhat abbreviated, clocking in at barely more than an hour. But what an hour it was.
The opening acts during this TNK show at Lincoln Hall were Jude Shuma — who closed with a cool cover of “All the Young Dudes,” in tribute to David Bowie — and the electronic dance duo Javelin, who were, let’s just say, not my cup of tea.
Way back on April 21, 1990, I saw the Vulgar Boatmen perform a free in-store set at the old Reckless Records store on Broadway — playing songs from their 1989 debut album, You and Your Sister. It’s an outstanding record of songs that reminded me of the folkier side of the Feelies. The simple but graceful melodies, the insistent rhythms and the simple but smart guitar riffs have stuck in my mind ever since — even when years went by without seeing the band. Many years. I’m pretty sure I saw the Vulgar Boatmen just one more time in the early 1990s — at the Cubby Bear, I think. And then I lost track of this group.
The odd thing is: The Vulgar Boatmen had two different touring lineups — one based in Indiana and one in Florida. The two main songwriters were Richard Ray in Florida and Dale Lawrence in Indiana; they collaborated on songwriting and making records, but had separate bands in concert. A version of the Indiana group — led by Lawrence — is still playing, but not all that often. In recent years, the Vulgar Boatmen have been come to Chicago every January for a show at Schubas. (Lawrence was also in the early Indiana punk band the Gizmos, who played a reunion show I saw at Gonerfest in Memphis in 2014.)
I finally got around to seeing one of those shows on Jan. 9 — as the Vulgar Boatmen celebrated a new 25th anniversary reissue of You and Your Sister. That was a great excuse for the band to play all of the great songs on that record. Even though I haven’t heard these songs much over the past 20 years, every detail remained vivid in my memory — and boy, did it feel good to hear them being performed live once again. The encores stretched the concert past the two-hour mark, with fun covers including the Velvet Underground’s “Foggy Notion” and “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),” a Monkees song written by Neil Diamond. The rousing finale was the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait.” The show also included at least one new song by Lawrence, giving me hope that the Vulgar Boatmen will carry on with their somewhat strange career.
The opening act was a Chicago power-pop band called Mooner. I wasn’t familiar with Mooner before, but its sound was appealing — and a good fit with the Vulgar Boatmen set that was coming later.
After the Joan Shelley-Doug Paisley show last Thursday, Nov. 5, at Szold Hall, I headed up to the Red Line Tap to catch a concert by the Thrill Jockey band White Hills (which was featured performing on screen in last year’s Jim Jarmusch film Only Lovers Left Alive). This band deserved a bigger audience than it got on this night, when just a handful of fans were watching, but that didn’t lessen the strength of the music. White Hills has included other musicians over the years, but for this show, it was down to its two core members, guitarist-vocalist Dave W. and bassist-vocalist Ego Sensation. They fleshed out their sound with keyboards and drum machines, stretching out their songs into experimental grooves.
The Louisville, Ky., singer-songwriter Joan Shelley has a strong contender for my album of the year: Over and Even, which came out in September on the No Quarter label. The beautiful folk songs from this record were breathtaking to hear in a live performance — when Shelley played on Thursday, Nov. 5, at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s Szold Hall. Shelley has one of those unfussy voices that hit each note with a calm, cool precision. At the end of almost every song, audience members said, “Wow.” Meanwhile, Nathan Salsburg plucked out melodies and patterns on his guitar with highly impressive dexterity, giving the perfect accompaniment for Shelley’s vocals. The seemingly ubiquitous Chicago guitarist James Elkington, who plays on Shelley’s album and helped to record it, joined her and Salsburg for a few songs. The set included a cover of June Tabor’s “Where Are You Tonight.”
Shelley was the opening act for this concert; the headliner was another fine artist on the No Quarter label, Toronto singer-songwriter Doug Paisley. Shelley and Paisley have another thing in common: Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) has sung on records by both of them. Accompanied by Ben Whiteley on the upright bass, Paisley sang low-key country songs, revealing a wry sense of humor with his stage banter. He noted that Szold Hall — a square room with black curtains along the walls — was giving him a “Twin Peaks” vibe. During Paisley’s encore, Shelley returned to the floor and sang a couple of songs with him, bringing this enchanting evening to a lovely conclusion.
Welsh singer-songwriter-guitarist Cate Le Bon has moved way beyond her early acoustic songs. Her solo music got spikier and stranger — and then she turned up as an additional touring member of the California psychedelic band White Fence. Now, she’s taken that collaboration further, teaming up with White Fence’s Tim Presley in a side project called Drinks. (Or if we go with the all-caps style that the band seems to prefer, “DRINKS.”) The group released a cool record in August called Hermits on Holiday, and it played Oct. 23 at the Empty Bottle. Drinks combines Le Bon’s recent electric guitar riffs with the psych sounds of White Fence, adding a good dose of krautrock’s hypnotic repetition, as Presley and Le Bon trade off lead vocals. It all sounded sharp on Friday night at the Bottle.
The Ex, a Dutch art-punk band that’s been around since 1979, returned to Chicago for the first time in four years, playing on Thursday, Oct. 22, at Lincoln Hall. As a bonus, the band included one of Chicago’s leading jazz players, Ken Vandermark, on saxophone. The Ex sounded as strong as ever, with jagged chords colliding over strange rhythms. Why isn’t this band more famous?
Bric-a-Brac Records & Collectibles, a shop in Avondale just north of Logan Square, is really getting to be the go-to spot for free garage and punk rock performances. On Sunday afternoon, Oct. 11, the store hosted short, very spontaneous sets by three Chicago singer-guitarists with goofy stage names: Slushy, Pookie and Nobunny. Their fans sang along to some of the songs, and it felt like a rock concert, even without an actual stage or full bands.
Algiers — a band of Atlanta natives based in London — released a powerful self-titled debut album this summer. The music has been described as “dystopian soul,” and I can see why. Vocalist Franklin James Fisher hollers with the passion and style of a gospel or soul singer, but the musical arrangements surrounding his voice are a dark, almost art-rock mix of many varied elements. The band played Oct. 6 at the Empty Bottle, with a live sound that was pretty close to the studio recordings. At two points during the show, Fisher stepped down from the stage and sang amid the audience. He got down on his knees, almost seeming to plead as his sang his passionate, socially conscious lyrics. “You say your history’s over/All my blood’s in vain,” he implored in the song “Blood.”
The New Zealand band Salad Boys made one of my favorite recent records, the deceptively titled debut album Metalmania — which doesn’t sound the least bit like heavy metal. It’s sunny, tuneful rock with jangly guitars, occasionally slipping into rhythmic grooves. The group, whose record is on the Chicago label Trouble in Mind, began its U.S. tour on Sept. 23 at the Owl. As the three musicians began playing, I wondered if they could pull off the arrangements on the record with just one guitar, bass and drums. But guitarist-singer Joe Sampson deftly switched between the rhythmic parts, riffs and solos — and the songs were more charged than they are in the studio recordings. The trio stretched out the cycling riff at the end of “No Taste Bomber,” turning it into a Velvet Underground-style rave-up that eventually morphed into a bit of the Doors’ “L.A. Woman.”
Two Chicago bands opened for Salad Boys at the Owl: American Breakfast started off the show with some scrappy garage rock. And then Clearance celebrated the release of its Rapid Rewards LP, which sounds very much like a lost-long Pavement album — a pretty good Pavement album, though the strong similarity can be distracting. It was less noticeable when the band was playing at the Owl. It was a fun and lively set.
The Montreal musician Patrick Watson returned on Monday, Sept. 28, to Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, where I saw him perform in 2012. (I also saw him at Schubas back in 2009.) I’d overlooked his recent album Love Songs for Robots, but my initial impression is that it’s a nice extension of the beautiful orchestral pop music Watson has been making for years. And his music — both old and new — sounded as lovely and transporting as ever when he played on Monday night, with a nimble ensemble of players arrayed across the stage along with globe-shaped lights. Watson moved back and forth between his grand piano and the microphone in the center of the stage. When the band was in full flight, this was complex art rock filled with subtle, shifting layers. But there were also a couple of moments when Watson and his collaborators stood around one microphone and performed music with the utmost simplicity. Either way, it was brilliant.
The great, mysterious and powerful Canadian band Godspeed You! Black Emperor is not stopping in Chicago on its current tour. This is why I decided to make the trek on Monday night, Sept. 21, all the way down to Bloomington, Ind., where GY!BE was playing at the Bluebird Nightclub. I got a ride from my friend Sei Jin Lee, and we arrived just in time. What an odd thing it is to ride for hours through Indiana, only to walk into a nightclub on a college campus as a band starts playing — not just any band, but one that is making an apocalyptic roar. Was anything else happening anywhere in Indiana — or the whole Midwest — to rival the epic, majestic noise pouring forth from the stage in that inauspicious-looking bar at that moment?
Godspeed You! Black Emperor recently released its second album since coming back from hiatus, and it’s yet another epic by this Montreal ensemble: Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. That new album made up the core of the band’s set on Monday night, and like much of this band’s music, it seemed more like a symphony than just a series of rock songs. The violin melodies are one reason why GY!BE’s music feels orchestral, but it goes beyond that. All of the instruments, including electric guitars, combine to make mountains and valleys of sounds, carefully mapped out in these compositions. The pounding, crashing chords evoked the drama of a battle or a disaster, but melodies soar out of the darkness, sounding like a triumph of the human spirit.
No one in the band said a word. As always, its music had an eerie visual companion — flashing black-and-white collages created on the spot by Karl Lemieux, who ran strips of old movies through several projectors. The pictures looked like damaged newsreel scraps, postcards and manuscripts — decaying fragments of our world.
Set list: Hope Drone /Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’ / Lambs’ Breath/ Asunder, Sweet / Piss Crowns Are Trebled / (unknown) / Gathering Storm / (unknown) / Mladic
The new album by Low, Ones and Sixes, is something of a change for the long-running Duluth, Minn., band. The sonic textures are different this time, a bit more electronic and ambient, with some blips and beeps subtly blending into the band’s vocal harmonies and guitar chords. Low played many of the new songs on Saturday, Sept. 19, at Thalia Hall. The live versions didn’t sound drastically different from the studio recordings, but they helped to placed these songs into the context of what Low has been doing for more than 20 years: making music that’s beautiful in its serenity and spareness.
The trio (Alan Sparhawk on guitar and vocals, Mimi Parker on drums and vocals, and Steve Garrington on bass and keyboards) played several songs from other recent albums, and dug further back into its catalog for songs such as “In Metal” and one of my favorites, “Death of a Salesman.” It was a seated show, and audience members barely moved or said anything as Low performed. The band didn’t move around much, either. But as calm as it all looked, the music achieved a fierce intensity.
Mahmoud Ahmed is one of the greatest singers of Ethiopia — it may be no exaggeration to call him “one of the greatest singers in the world,” as the World Music Festival Chicago’s website asserted. Several albums in Buda Musique’s endlessly wonderful “Ethiopiques” series feature his songs, especially the recordings he made in the 1970s, when Ethiopia’s music flourished, using a scale reminiscent of Middle Eastern music, hypnotic circular rhythms and arrangements that borrowed from Western jazz and pop — making for an intoxicating, sometimes surreal mix of styles.
Ahmed gave his first public performance ever in Chicago on Sunday, Sept. 13, as part of World Music Festival Chicago, and it was a joyous occasion. The spry 71-year-old occasionally hopped and twirled as he performed on the Jay Pritzker Pavilion’s stage at Millennium Park, but what was most remarkable were the strange twists and turns his voice took. The crowd included many Chicagoans from Ethiopia and Africa, who sang along with Ahmed, danced with big smiles on their faces and waved Ethiopian flags. As much as I was enjoying the music, imagine what it was like for these immigrants to see a superstar from their homeland.
The Moroccan artist Aziz Sahmaoui opened Sunday’s concert, playing with his group University of Gnawa — singing with an alluring voice as the band wove together intricate, rhythmic layers of music. A couple of the other musicians took turns on vocals, wowing the audience with their own stirring and powerful voices.
Hailu Mergia, a keyboardist and accordion player, was a musical star in Ethiopia in the 1970s, playing in the one of the country’s best-known instrumental groups, Walias Band. He’s been living in the Washington, D.C., area for the past three decades, working as a cabdriver and playing his music at private events. But his music has attracted new attention since the Awesome Tapes From Africa label reissued a pair of his old recordings, which had been hard to find for many years. This past weekend, he played two shows in Chicago as part of World Music Festival Chicago — a wonderful series of free concerts sponsored by the city. I saw Mergia’s performance on Saturday, Sept. 12, at the Promontory in Hyde Park (getting there after Eleventh Dream Day’s show in Andersonville). Backed by bass and drums, Mergia played serpentine melodies on keyboards, accordion and melodica, his face occasionally breaking into a gentle smile as he looked out at the young people dancing in front of the stage to the trio’s lively, alluring rhythms.
Over the past 28 years, Eleventh Dream Day has consistently made good records, but its latest — Works for Tomorrow — is one of the best. The Chicago band played as a trio for many years, with Rick Rizzo on guitar and vocals, Douglas McCombs on bass and Janet Beveridge Bean on drums and vocals. Several years back, Mark Greenberg joined the lineup on keyboards, and then the band expanded yet again with James Elkington coming in as a second guitarist. The bigger lineup makes Eleventh Dream Day more versatile — and it makes an even bigger noise than before.
Eleventh Dream Day played Saturday night, Sept. 12, at the City Made Fest in Andersonville, focusing heavily on the new songs. The group didn’t even bother to play what may be its most famous song, “Testify.” (Eleventh Dream Day didn’t play it at a recent Hideout show, either.)
The new song “Go Tell It” kicked off with a long searing guitar solo by Elkington. On the chorus — “Go tell it on the mountain!” — Bean’s soulful wails joined together with Rizzo’s voice, sounding a bit like Merry Clayton’s classic duet with Mick Jagger on “Gimme Shelter.” Bean stepped out from behind the drums for the final song of the night, a cover of Judy Henske and Jerry Yester’s “Snowblind” that appears on the new album. She leaned over as she sang, as if she were squeezing every once of her strength into those vocals. As the final notes rang out, she nearly fell off the side of the stage. Decades after starting, Eleventh Dream Day sounds as vital as ever.
The British duo Ultimate Painting’s debut record came very close to being my favorite of 2014, and its second album, Green Lanes, is just about as good. Both records might seem a little languid and low-key at first, but don’t let the lack of loud feedback deceive you — there’s some great rock music happening here, with two guitars playing off each other and grooving in that classic style that goes back to the Velvet Underground. Jack Cooper and James Hoare trade off on lead vocals, often singing together in harmony, with the soft, unfussy style of English choir boys. And their melodies are just wonderful. These are some of the best-written songs of the past few years. As a live act, Ultimate Painting adds a drummer and bassist — and it also adds longer jams during some of its songs, stretching out those VU and Feelies moments. The band returned to Chicago on Thursday, Sept. 10, playing a delightful set at the Empty Bottle.
Ultimate Painting’s bassist on this tour is Anthony Cozzi, who was the leader of the Chicago band Radar Eyes, whose disbanding I lamented earlier this year. And he’s the guitarist in yet another great Chicago band, CoCoComa — which played Thursday night before Ultimate Painting. But Cozzi’s moving to the West Coast, so CoCoComa billed this as the last show it’ll play in Chicago for a long time. Two of its members, drummer-singer Bill Roe and guitarist Lisa Roe run the Trouble in Mind record label — which has been releasing garage and indie rock by many excellent bands, including Ultimate Painting. CoCoComa hasn’t been too active in the last few years, but Cozzi, the Roes and bassist Tyler J. Brock bashed out a lively bunch of songs on Thursday night for its “final-ish” gig. Don’t take your local bands for granted — you never know when they’ll call it quits or go on hiatus. I’ll miss CoCoComa, and hope they come back together eventually.
Another fine Chicago band, the Runnies, started out Thursday’s show at the Empty Bottle. After attending the earlier concert at Bohemian National Cemetery, I arrived at the Bottle just in time for the Runnies’ last few songs — fun keyboard-driven garage rock.
Out on Chicago’s Northwest Side, Bohemian National Cemetery has hosted a few concerts over the past few years, including performances by Wrekmeister Harmonies and the Silver Apples. But until this past week, I hadn’t made it out to any of these “Beyond the Gate” shows, which are presented by the Empty Bottle. I was there on Thursday, Sept. 10, for the concert by Earth, Disappears and Holy Sons, with appropriately atmospheric DJ sets by J.R. Robinson of Wrekmeister Harmonies.
The stage was next to the Marsaryk Memorial Mausoleum (No. 15 on this map), not far from the corner of Pulaski and Bryn Mawr. There aren’t any graves in that section of the cemetery, but tombstones and trees are visible off in the distance to the east.
It was still light outside as people showed up and Holy Sons (led by Emil Amos, who also plays in Grails, Om and Lilacs & Champagne) started off the show with bluesy hard rock.
It was getting dark by the time Disappears took the stage, with shimmering, clanging guitar chords ringing out across the lawn. The Chicago band’s latest album, Irreal, is another solid addition to its discography, but a couple of older tunes were the highlights for me. The set ended with Disappears locked into a Krautrock groove that gathered strength as it repeated and repeated.
As Earth played the final set of the night — slowly grinding out its thundering, mountainous instrumental music — guitarist Dylan Carlson cast huge shadows on the wall of the mausoleum behind him. I departed a bit early, just because I wanted to get to the Empty Bottle for that night’s “after show,” heading to my car on Bryn Mawr as Earth played its final song of the night. Walking on the sidewalk along the cemetery, I looked back across the rows of tombstones and heard Earth’s ethereal chords floating through the night air.
The prolific California band Thee Oh Sees released yet another fine album this year, Mutilator Defeated at Last, keeping up its run of catchy psychedelic-tinged garage rock records. Frontman John Dwyer completely changed the lineup of the band playing behind him a year ago, and the lineup had changed yet again by the time Thee Oh Sees came to Chicago for two sold-out shows this week at the Empty Bottle. The band’s current configuration has two drummers and a bassist backing up Dwyer, with the four of them arrayed across the front of the stage, Dwyer standing stage right instead of in the center, with a stack of amps behind him. As he usually does, Dwyer held his guitar high on his torso, with his eyes frequently shrouded in darkness; he stuck out his tongue and spat onto the stage many times. He sang nearly every note in reverb-drenched falsetto, and cranked out a series of searing guitar riffs. The two-drum lineup gave the music a driving intensity, especially on the last few songs, when the percussion seemed to take on more multilayered complexity. After playing more than 90 minutes — a fairly long set for Thee Oh Sees — Dwyer and his bandmates called it a night without an encore. It was a strong night from beginning to end, with noisy, energetic sets by two opening bands, the Blind Shake and Make-Overs.
Thee Oh Sees
The Blind Shake
When I saw Chicago singer-songwriter-guitarist Haley Fohr open for Bill Callahan in 2013, she played solo. At the time, I noted that her set “set built from droning folk songs to ear-shattering primal screams.” Then as now, Fohr performs under the name Circuit Des Yeux. But when she played Friday, Aug. 28, at the Hideout, Circuit Des Yeux was an actual band, with bass, violin and drums adding to the already-potent strength of Fohr’s music. The focus was still on Fohr’s vocals and her moody, sometimes transcendent songs, but the other musicians added more texture. Circuit Des Yeux’s latest album, In Plain Speech (Thrill Jockey), is well worth hearing. (Read the Chicago Reader’s story from May 18, 2015, about Circuit Des Yeux.)
The Hideout show also featured an engaging set of instrumental guitar music by Marisa Anderson — an idiosyncratic mix of blues and folk — as well as a strong performance by a new Chicago group called Slow Planes, whose atmospheric folk rock was a perfect complement to the rest of the night.
What a stark contrast it was on Wednesday, Aug. 19, at the Empty Bottle. On the one hand, the Australian rock band Royal Headache sounded fantastic as it ripped through one catchy song after another, including many from the fine new album, High, which comes out Friday. On the other hand, the group’s lead singer, who goes by the name Shogun, kept making self-deprecating comments, as if the concert were a disaster. “We used to be good,” he muttered at one point. Maybe it was just an act. Shogun’s vocals are a key part of what makes Royal Headache so good — I detect a bit of Robert Pollard in what he’s doing — and he spent the whole show pacing across the stage with manic energy. (Much as he did when I saw Royal Headache at the Burlington in 2012.)
This presented quite a challenge when it came to photographing Royal Headache on the Empty Bottle’s dimly lit stage, but I did what I could. It felt a bit like trying to capture a blurry, grainy image of a wild animal racing across a dark alley.
Royal Headache’s riveting show came at the end of a night filled with cool garage rock, including fun opening sets by Daylight Robbery, Storm Clouds and Sheer Mag.
My photos of Courtney Barnett performing July 19, 2015, at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park, Chicago. (See my festival recap and more photos.)
My photos of Sleater-Kinney performing July 18, 2015, at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park, Chicago. (See my festival recap and more photos.)