Chad VanGaalen, a singer-songwriter from Calgary, Alberta, makes his recordings practically alone, writing every note and playing nearly every instrument. VanGaalen’s most recent album on Sub Pop, Light Information, offers an outstanding example of what he does so well: richly layered indie rock, with tuneful melodies but plenty of strange and murky textures. His songs have a touch of the lo-fi quality heard in classic Guided By Voices records, although it’s not because of any tape hiss — it has more to do with the way VanGaalen blends his various elements into an alchemical stew. It isn’t always immediately apparent which instrument is doing what in a song.
How does this translate during a live performance? As VanGaalen demonstrated during his Dec. 2 gig at the Empty Bottle, his songs also sound great when they’re played in a pretty straightforward style by a rock band. The tunes were less ornate and more direct — like an alternate but equally compelling version of the brilliant audio art VanGaalen creates in his home studio.
Opening act Un Blonde — the solo project of Montreal-based musician Jean-Sebastian Audet — played a very loose set, with some awkward pauses as Audet seemed to be deciding on the spot which song to play next, signaling that information to his backing musicians right as a song began. I sensed a bit of restlessness in the audience, and yet, I found it fascinating to watch, somewhat like witnessing an impromptu rehearsal. This was my first exposure to Un Blonde’s music, and I could tell that Audet’s a talent to watch.
Jambinai was one of my favorite bands at SXSW in 2014, playing epic music that mixed rock instruments with traditional Korean instruments. The South Korean band came to Chicago for the first time ever last week, playing May 18 at the Empty Bottle, and the concert showed once again that this is a superb ensemble playing music with dramatic power. There’s an orchestral strength to the music that’s reminiscent of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but Jambinai really makes a sound unlike anything else I’ve heard.
It’s mesmerizing to watch Jambinai member Eunyong Sim playing the geomungo, a traditional Korean stringed instrument of the zither family. She uses a variety of techniques to coax deep and rattling sounds out of that large and impressive-looking instrument, sometimes plucking or caressing the strings and sometimes tapping them with a short bamboo stick called a suldae. The geomungo functions at times like a bass, but it also has something of a percussive element to its sound.
Another member of the group, Bomi Kim, plays the haegeum, a bowed string instrument. It’s more like the Chinese urhu than a European violin, with two silk strings suspended in front of rod. Because those strings never actually touch a surface like the neck of a violin, the notes slide up and down. And Kim makes those notes really soar.
Giving the band more of a rock or even heavy metal edge was guitarist-vocalist Ilwoo Lee, who also occasionally played a small horn. He plays piri, a double-reed instrument, on Jambinai’s second and most recent album, Hermitage, which is excellent. The group leans more toward heavy metal on the new record, with a bit more vocals, compared with the predominantly instrumental debut album, 2012’s Differance.
Near the end of Jambinai’s set, Lee remarked that he hadn’t been sure what to expect when his band played in Chicago. How much of an audience would show up? After all, he said, “We are a strange band from a strange country.” Jambinai deserves a larger following, but the listeners who did turn out for Jambinai’s Chicago debut were richly rewarded.
Two master musicians from Japan — guitarist Kawabata Makoto, who’s the leader of Acid Mothers Temple, and percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani — created a beautiful instrumental epic onstage at the Empty Bottle on Nov. 29. Both used bows at many points during the concert, with Makoto bowing the strings of his electric guitar while Nakatani gently coaxed vibrations from a huge gong and other pieces of percussion. Nakatani even played the drums with his mouth for one short passage. This collaboration was an enthralling duet, filled with dramatic musical flourishes. Makoto and Nakatani seemed to be playing with an uncommon sense of freedom.
(Blog post continues below photos.)
The evening also featured two noteworthy opening sets. Brian Case, leader of the rock band Disappears, played instrumental electronic music. Spires That In the Sunset Rise continued exploring the many possibilities of what sounds two musicians can create together, duetting with wind instruments at some points, singing and plucking autoharp at other times. The results were bracing and fascinating.
Aug. 25 felt like a quintessential night of live Chicago music: seeing Tortoise at Millennium Park, followed by Ryley Walker’s late concert at the Empty Bottle. Tortoise’s instrumental music resonated beautifully in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, with the band members constantly shifting around the instruments, playing intricate patterns with almost astonishing precision. The show also featured a nice opening by Homme (a duo I’d seen recently at the Pitchfork Music Festival).
Ryley Walker’s music seems quite different from Tortoise at first glance, and yet, there’s some similarity, especially when he is playing live with his excellent band. Like Tortoise and other Chicago bands — like Joshua Abrams and Natural Information Society — Walker and his collaborators know how to stretch a song out, to revel in grooves, to explore a chord progression or melodic motif in ways that are hypnotic and enchanting. Walker’s new album, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, is terrific, but its jammy folk-rock songs only hint at how jammy the group gets in concert. I recommend buying the deluxe 2-LP version, which adds a record containing a 41-minute live version of “Sullen Mind,” a song that is a mere 6 1/2 minutes in its studio version.
Walker’s set on Thursday at the Empty Bottle was a marvel. And it was particularly special because it offered a rare chance to see Leroy Bach — who produced the album — sitting in with the band. And it’s uncertain how many more times we’ll get a chance to see the fantastic drummer Frank Rosaly playing with this band, as we did on Thursday; I’m told that Rosaly has moved from Chicago to Europe. That’s a loss for Chicago, but Thursday night’s wonderful sets by Tortoise and Walker showed that the city’s independent music scene — where rock, jazz, country and experimental music often overlap — is as vibrant as ever.
The prolific Ty Segall has yet another new band — GØGGS, which also includes Chris Shaw from the Memphis punk band Ex-Cult and Charles Moothart of Fuzz, CFM and the Ty Segall Band. The group, which recently released its self-titled debut album on In the Red records, played its first Chicago shows last week at the Empty Bottle. I was there on the second night (Wednesday, July 20), and it was one of the more unhinged rock performances I’ve seen lately. The opening acts, Soddy Daisy and Absolutely Not, were pretty damn impressive, too, making for a fun night.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Blackout Fest, an annual showcase of garage, punk and power pop music curated by Chicago’s HoZac Records, returned to the Empty Bottle May 15 and 16. It wasn’t quite as raucous as these shows have been in some past years, but both nights had solid lineups of bands both old and new.
The headliners fell into the “old” category — both were groups with cult status from the 1970s. On Friday night, it was the Real Kids, a Boston punk and power pop band led by singer-guitarist John Felice, who was also an original member of the Modern Lovers (alongside Jonathan Richman) and a Ramones roadie. Somewhat surprisingly, the Real Kids started their Blackout set with their best-known song, the super-catchy “All Kindsa Girls.” But the band had plenty of other great tunes to play during its set, including some from last year’s album Shake … Outta Control and a cover of the Beatles’ “You Can’t Do That.”
The headliners on Saturday were the Avengers, a San Francisco punk band that made its recording debut with an EP in 1978. The group didn’t last for long after that, but founding members Penelope Houston and Greg Ingraham reunited in 2004. They were in top form during their charged, energetic Blackout show.
The early acts on Friday night were Chicago’s MAMA and Milwaukee’s Platinum Boys — both playing power-pop songs with classic-rock-style guitar riffs — and Cozy, a group from Minneapolis with a giddy glam songs and a playful attitude to match.
On Saturday, the night started with another string of bands playing lively guitar rock: Gross Pointe, Thing and Nervosas, followed by Sweet Knives, a Memphis group featuring members of the Lost Sounds, a band that featured Jay Reatard, playing new versions of that group’s old songs. The riffs barely let up all weekend.
Australian rock bands have been making a lot of cool records lately — maybe it’s just something I happen to be noticing rather than a trend, but in any case, I’m excited to hear all this great music from Down Under. The latest discovery for me is Twerps, a Melbourne group that played Sunday, April 12, at the Empty Bottle. The Chills and the Feelies seem to be two influences, but the alternating male and female vocals also reminded me of groups like the Essex Green. The tuneful and lively songs were so good that I felt compelled to buy Range Anxiety, Twerps’ latest album (and the band’s first for the Merge label) at the merch table. And the record is proving to be quite enjoyable. I might have bought some recordings by the opening band Coffin Ships, too — but they didn’t have anything for sale! (Here’s Sei Jin Lee’s video of Twerps playing earlier the same day at Permanent Records.)
The Vaselines, who played Wednesday, Jan. 21, at the Empty Bottle, are one of the best rock-band reunions of recent years. Barely noticed outside of Scotland when they were together the first time — for a few years in the 1980s — they gained more fans when Nirvana covered three of their songs. The original duo, Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee, came back together several years ago. And by now, the reunited Vaselines have released two albums of new material, sounding very much like the Vaselines of old, except with higher production values and better-tuned guitars.
Last week at the Bottle, they played a fun set of old and new songs, plus McKee’s cheeky stage banter. She said she’s been enjoying talking with Vaselines fans at the mercy table each night during this tour. “You’re the fucking weirdest audience so far,” she told the Chicago crowd. “Well done.”
When it came time for the Vaselines to sing their most famous song, “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam,” McKee forgot a verse in the middle of the tune. Afterward, Kelly — who’d been the butt of most of McKee’s jokes all night long — said, “Jesus Christ almighty! What happened there? We beg your forgiveness!” That was the only stumble during a lively set of catchy songs. All is forgiven, guys.
Late last year, it was reported that Thee Oh Sees — a fantastic and very prolific rock band — was taking a “hiatus.” It didn’t turn out to be much of a hiatus, or anything that most musicians would even call a break. Thee Oh Sees leader John Dwyer moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles and promptly released yet another great record, Drop. And he came to Chicago for shows this week at the Empty Bottle on Tuesday and Wednesday. I was at Tuesday’s concert.
But this wasn’t the same Thee Oh Sees. Other than Dwyer, the entire lineup of the group has changed. It’s now just a trio of guitar, bass and drums. Dwyer was as intense as ever, ripping through one piercing guitar riff and solo after another as he sang his catchy melodies in a floating falsetto, adding a trippy, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd vibe to his rampaging garage rock tunes. The new rhythm section was tight and hard-hitting. I did miss some elements of the old Thee Oh Sees lineup, especially Brigid Dawson’s keyboard and vocals — she used to blend her voice with Dwyer’s on practically every word of every song, a compelling and sometimes spooky part of the group’s performances. That’s gone now, but Dwyer and his new bandmates are one hell of a live act.
My photos of Musee Mecanique from the band’s performance on Oct. 29 at the Empty Bottle. The Portland, Ore., band released a great record of dreamy folk rock called Hold this Ghost in 2008, and now it has another fine album, From Shores of Sleep. The trio’s tapestry of sounds was lovely in concert, including the closing cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.”
Greg Cartwright writes songs that could easily pass for classic nuggets from the era of ’60s garage bands. As the leader of Reigning Sound, he knows how to write, sing and play a tune that stomps with fierce energy, but he also has a soft touch when the moment calls for it. Reigning Sound’s records, including the outstanding new album Shattered, also include nods to soul music and string-laden pop ballads.
Cartwright (who has also played with the Oblivians, Parting Gifts and other bands) brought Reigning Sound to the Empty Bottle on Monday, Sept. 1, and the set felt like a nonstop hit parade. Fans packed the floor in front of the stage, dancing, swaying and singing along with one song after another. The Reigning Sound lineup on the new album includes Cartwright and longtime keyboardist Dave Amels, plus three newcomers, who are Amels’ bandmates in Brooklyn soul group The Jay Vons: Mike Catanese, Benny Trokan and Mikey Post. They’re a tight unit, perfect for Cartwright’s concise, subtle rockers.
There’s something matter-of-fact about the way Cartwright performs his songs in concert. There’s plenty of passion in his voice, but he doesn’t bother jumping around and making any rock-star gestures. He just delivers the songs. And what songs they are.
July 30 was one of those nights when I wanted to be at concerts simultaneously. As soon as Courtney Barnett finished her bang-up show at Schubas, I hopped into my car and headed for the Empty Bottle — arriving sometime after Oneida had started playing. I caught the final hour or so of the performance, though, and what a joy it was to see these New York musicians playing in Chicago again, making their first appearance here in several years.
Since the Krautrock-influenced group finished its epic “Thank Your Parents” trilogy of albums, it has released two records: Absolute II in 2011 and A List of Burning Mountains in 2012 — instrumental recordings with long passages of quiet punctuated by jarring blasts of noise and percussion. Joined by James McNew of Yo La Tengo on bass, Oneida played some of that sort of stuff during its show last week, but it also delivered some of the Oneida pieces that more closely resemble actual songs — ending with one of its most lively, riveting numbers, the 2006 song “Up With People.” Audience members pogoed to the insistent beat.
At the merch table, Oneida was selling some limited-edition cassettes of recent music, called The Brah Tapes, but they’d run out by the time I tried to buy one.
Death returned Friday (June 12) to the Empty Bottle, sounding stronger and more confident than the group was back in 2009 at the same venue. This new version of Death — including two of the original members who made some fantastic protopunk recordings in Detroit in the mid-1970s — even played a couple of new songs, for an album that’s in the works. The incredible story of this band is chronicled in the documentary A Band Called Death.
The lineup at the Empty Bottle on Thursday, May 22, was a musical version of the Trans-Canada Highway: three Canadian artists, each from a different province — Chad VanGaalen of Calgary, Alberta; Cousins of Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Bry Webb of Guelph, Ontario.
The headliner was the delightfully odd Chad VanGaalen, who has been releasing somewhat lo-fi, psychedelic home recordings for the past decade. But he hasn’t toured much, remaining something of an enigmatic figure — in my imagination anyway. A recent press release from his label, Sub Pop, feeds that sense of mystique, noting:
He has never worked in a commercial recording studio. By his hands alone, one line, sound, shape or word leads organically to the next. Over the last ten to fifteen years, Chad has been producing living maps in songs, drawings, modified instruments, animations and performances–shifting forms pointing to another world, infinitely more liveable, maybe hidden just under the surface of our own ever-disintegrating reality.
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Shrink Dust, Chad’s fifth full-length album under his own name, we have a new window into his world. The album is, in Chad’s view, a country record. It is also partially a score to Chad’s soon-to-be released, animated, sci-fi feature, Translated Log of Inhabitants (“It’s like Bob and Doug McKenzie in space,” says Chad).
Always a fan of esoteric instruments, Chad taught himself to play an aluminum pedal steel guitar. His experiments with this instrument unify the album, along with themes of death, transformation, fear, benign evil, and the eccentricity of love. A newfound affection for The Flying Burrito Brothers, and the sci-fi mysticism of the 1980s graphic novel The Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius, also drove the album.
There is indeed a certain amount of alt-country on the new record, but it sounds more like the Shins doing country than the typical sort of Americana that falls under the label.
As far as I know, VanGaalen had never played in Chicago before Thursday’s gig. Commenting to the audience about his drive into the city, he remarked, “The city goes on forever. … But now that we’re here, it’s a very nice place.” VanGaalen also told the audience about playing Frisbee earlier in the day with a Chicago man who seemed to him to be a meth addict. And he complained about his guitar, describing it as “a bad eBay purchase.”
That guitar sounded just fine, however, and so did VanGaalen’s big array of effects pedals, which he used to transform that single guitar into a psych-rock orchestra, with help from a two-piece rhythm section. And VanGaalen’s voice, often rising to a falsetto, artfully conveyed the many memorable melodies he has fashioned on Shrink Dust and previous records.
I was surprised to see how young the audience of VanGaalen fans was — it seemed like barely anyone in the nearly full room was over the age of 23. Where did these kids discover VanGaalen’s music? And why weren’t any of the somewhat older indie-rock fans I usually see at Empty Bottle shows like this in attendance?
With two outstanding opening acts, Thursday’s show was impressive from beginning to end. The evening started out with a set by Bry Webb, lead singer of the Constantines. The songs on his new record, Free Will, are mellower than the Constantines’ rock, almost qualifying as folk, but they still has something of that Constantines edge to them. His set at the Bottle included a nice cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Calvary Cross.”
I wasn’t familiar at all with the middle band in the lineup, Cousins, but the guitar-and-drums duo quickly won me over with songs that rocked pretty hard with soaring melodies — including at least three about lead singer Aaron Mangle’s grandmother. The group’s new album, The Halls of Wickwire, is dedicated to her memory. How Canadian is that!
At 11:34 p.m. May 20, I tweeted: This Nazoranai show at @theemptybottle is so loud it might cause a rupture in the cosmic fabric. I was joking, but I was half-serious. This band’s music was so loud — and, at times, so otherworldly — that it was downright disorienting. The cosmic fabric did not, in fact, rupture Tuesday night at the Empty Bottle, but the sensory experience was jarring. At one point, when I pulled my cellphone out of my pocket (maybe it was the moment when I tweeted), I could feel the thundering vibrations from Stephen O’Malley’s bass guitar pulsing in my phone — as if the phone were vibrating because of an incoming call. I’m sure glad I was wearing earplugs.
Beyond the intense decibel levels, the music itself was powerful, shifting from pulverizing metal riffs into strange sonic shapes, far removed from the standard structure of rock songs. The names of the tracks on Nazoranai’s self-titled 2012 album give you a pretty good idea of the sort of effect this trio creates with its noise. One song is called, “Feel the Ultimate Joy Towards the Resolve of Pillar Being Shattered Within You Again and Again and Again,” and another is titled, “Not a Joy to Come Closer but So-called a Sacred Insanity Has Finally Appeared.”
Nazoranai is something of a supergroup in the realm of experimental rock. The trio comprises Japanese guitarist Keiji Haino, Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O)) and Australian drummer Oren Ambarchi. New York Times critic Ben Ratliff put Nazoranai’s 2012 record (its only album thus far) at No. 2 on his list of the year’s best releases, writing that Haino
plays gesturally, with no traditional technique, turning ritual motion into sound and engaging the room’s echo with falsetto chants or mangled screams. In Japanese the band’s name means “I do not trace,” in the sense of a student of drawing or music tracing a master’s lines. Though some tracks on its new self-titled live album (Ideologic Organ/Mego) introduce slow, steady, Band of Gypsys-like drum grooves, the rest is open, meditative, sometimes miraculous and mostly terrifying.
Speaking of playing gesturally, Haino set down his guitar during one passage on Tuesday night and used a metal ribbon as a sort of whip to generate noise.
It’s pure improvisation. I’m going to try and avoid as many clichés as I can here, in talking about improvisation. That’s the whole thing, though. It’s not a cliché — the idea is that I don’t know what the idea is. The idea is in the present, so everything that happens is happening right then, and will probably never be repeated. Even stylistic tendencies, I’ve noticed, have been completely different every time we play together. I really appreciate Mr. Haino for that. I mean, he is the conductor of the group, you know? That’s why we are the rhythm section. In my fantasy world, and Oren’s, it is a rock ’n’ roll power trio. Maybe Mr. Haino thinks that too, and maybe it is, but it’s just coming from a different angle. That’s why I play bass and Oren plays drums, we want to be rhythm section. We love Mr. Haino’s guitar playing, especially. We want to be the rhythm section so he can play guitar leads, you know? We’re right there, we get to hear it and see it very closely, and we get to participate in that way. We are not a backing band at all; the whole character of that music is not that way of course. I can just say what is happening from my perspective. It’s an interesting exercise in patience, in trance, in timbre and in alertness as a player.
Blackout Fest was back this past weekend at the Empty Bottle, and once again, Chicago’s HoZac Records delivered a fun package of garage rock, punk and power pop. I missed the first night on May 15 (an art show and opening party), but I was there the following two nights.
The headliners on May 16 were a pretty big deal: The Boys, a legendary British punk band from the 1970s, played a Chicago gig for the first time — and amazingly, it was only the fourth time the Boys had ever played in the U.S. As these older blokes ripped through their old tunes (including a bunch of memorable shout-along songs, such as “Brickfield Nights”), a bunch of young garage-rock lovers packed the dance floor in front of the stage, moshing and bopping up and down with reckless joy.
Friday’s lineup also included the Man (I showed up too late for their set), the fuzzy guitar riffs of 999999999 (apparently pronounced “all nines”) and First Base, a Toronto band with a slew of sweet and catchy songs. They even did a cover of the ABBA song “Mamma Mia.”
The headliners on Saturday, May 17, were another band that started back in the mid-’70s punk explosion: The Dictators, from New York City. Maybe the Dictators are actually a kind of proto-punk, since they formed all the way back in 1974. And on Saturday, as the current lineup played old Dictators songs as well as covers of songs by bands like the Flamin’ Groovies, they jammed more than you’d expect from punks. The frontman, Handsome Dick Manitoba, insisted on telling stories to the audience in his gruff New York accent, which slowed down the pace of the gig a bit, but still proved pretty entertaining. He’s quite a character. For the most part, the crowd ate it up.
The rest of the lineup on Saturday was solid, with three bands playing the kind of straight-ahead, no-frills rock that HoZac is known for: Rainbow Gun Club, A Giant Dog and — my favorite of the bunch — Shocked Minds.
“We’re keeping it unreal,” one of the Skull Defekts declared during the Swedish rock band’s concert Tuesday night (April 30) at the Empty Bottle. Something was a little askew about everything these Swedes said onstage — and the music was askew and unreal, too. The last time I saw Skull Defekts (2011 at the Hideout), they had their fifth quasi-member along with them: Daniel Higgs, a Baltimore singer best known as the frontman of Lungfish. The combination of Higgs’ vocals and Skull Defekts’ music was powerful.
Higgs and Skull Defekts are still working together — a press release describes him as “the group’s spiritual ringleader,” and he sings on the group’s latest album, the compelling Dances in Dreams of the Known Unknown. But he wasn’t with the band for its most recent Chicago show. Not to worry, though — even without Higgs, this was a band of phenomenal force and creativity. At times, the jagged, clanging and weirdly interlocking guitar riffs reminded me of early Sonic Youth. And with two drummers, the band had an almost tribal rhythm going through much of its set. The band seems to like playing with bright white lights shining and casting shadows, and the effect only seemed to heighten the intensity that these Swedes brought to the Empty Bottle stage.
Waxahatchee — which is either a band or singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield, depending on how you define these things — released an outstanding record last year called Cerulean Salt, with guitar chords and vocals that keep on reminding me of Liz Phair. The good, early Liz Phair records, that is. Waxahatchee played Saturday night (April 26) at the Empty Bottle, beginning and ending the show with quiet songs that were essentially solo Katie Crutchfield performances. In between, the full band kicked in, showing that Waxahatchee is more than mellow folk rock. Most impressive of all was the way Crutchfield’s melodies, stuck in my head from many listens to the records, rang out in concert.
There’s a tall guy named Pat with dark black hair and a dark black beard who shows up at a lot of garage rock shows at places like the Empty Bottle. So (in the interest of full disclosure) it’s not too surprising that I know this guy named Pat. Pat likes a good mosh pit. In fact, he champions the motto “No Weak Pits.”
Pat started a record label this year. He called it Tall Pat Records. Tall Pat’s first record is by a Chicago band called Dumpster Babies. The album is called Dumpster Babies, and the first song on it is “Dumpster Babies.” This is rough-edged, fun and slightly sloppy rock, bashed out the way good garage bands have always bashed.
On Friday, Nov. 22, Dumpster Babies and another three Chicago bands connected with Tall Pat — Flesh Panthers, the Man and the Bingers — took over the Empty Bottle for a night of music called (for reasons that remain mysterious to me) Cuddlestock 2013. Why not, I guess? And why not get the evening started with a Gin Blossoms cover by Flesh Panthers? OK, that’s an odd choice, but whatever. I was especially impressed with the Bingers, who showed off some subtlety in their songwriting and musicianship even as they leapt off the drum kit and writhed upon their backs.
Dumpster Babies caught a bit of a Mats vibe, and their song “Bloody Nose” sounded especially great — it has one of those indelible punk-rock stuttering rhythms in the chorus. The moshing wasn’t as intense as the wild action I witnessed a week earlier at the Diarrhea Planet show, but there was some spirited dancing, to be sure. (Photos here.) No weak pits were seen. Cheers to Tall Pat and all of the guys who start record labels for the love of it.
While Sonic Youth remains on indefinite hiatus, the group’s members have been quite busy with other projects. Lee Ranaldo, who played in Millennium Park in May, was back in town on Sunday (Oct. 13) for another show with his new band, the Dust — playing this time at the Empty Bottle. The group features another member of Sonic Youth, drummer Steve Shelley, as well as guitarist Alan Licht and bassist Tim Luntzel. Following opening sets by drone artist Mykel Boyd and Doug McCombs’ instrumental band Brokeback, the Dust played a fairly long set for a late concert on a Sunday night, more than 90 minutes, stretching past 1 a.m., but it was worth staying around for the end. The group really got into a groove in that final half-hour, including a cool encore cover of the Modern Lovers’ “She Cracked.”
“Like the Rolling Stones, we’re getting back to our club roots,” David Thomas, the lead singer and mastermind of Pere Ubu, said Saturday night (Sept. 22) during his band’s concert at the Empty Bottle. “As you know, tomorrow we begin a string of 17 sold-out shows at Soldier Field.”
Thomas was in a talkative and quite humorous mood. This was the first time I’ve seen him spend a concert sitting down, and Thomas, who’s 60, needed some assistance walking to the stage. But even though he was seated, Thomas was in a lively mood, whether he was bashing the Americana genre (describing a typical song about some guy eating a hamburger) or observing that “for every lady that comes to a Pere Ubu show, five others (guys) come. That’s just a fact.” He reminisced about the time Pere Ubu opened for Kool and the Gang in Denmark, when that band’s stage routine taught him the importance of acknowledging the “special ladies” in the crowd.
Before Pere Ubu took the stage, there was an opening performance billed as a set by Gagarin, a British keyboard player and electronic artist who’s a member of Pere Ubu. But Gagarin wasn’t actually present in the Empty Bottle. As Bill Meyer explained in his preview article for the Chicago Reader, Thomas refused to pay the fee that the American Federation of Musicians requires to vet the merits of visa applicants, so Pere Ubu’s British members (Gagarin and guitarist Keith Moliné) had their applications denied. So, during this opening set, Thomas came onto the stage and sang into a telephone receiver while music by Gagarin was piped in via Skype. For a few surreal minutes, a man with a chicken mask covering his head (I believe that was Pere Ubu synth/theremin player Robert Wheeler) came onto the stage and hovered near Thomas, like an apparition conjured by his brain.
During the main Pere Ubu set, Thomas was joined onstage by Wheeler, drummer Steve Mehlman, bassist Michele Temple and substitute guitarist Dave Cintron. The band’s lean, taut synth/guitar lines left space for Thomas’ distinctive voice, as Pere Ubu played old songs such as “Heaven,” “Vacuum in my Head” and “Goodnight Irene” as well as several selections from its strong new record Lady From Shanghai (the group’s 17th studio album in 35 years). The website for this album proclaims: “Smash the hegemony of dance. Stand Still. The dancer is puppet to the dance. It’s past time somebody puts and end to this abomination. Lady From Shanghai is an album of dance music fixed.”
Pere Ubu closed its set with an unabashedly commercial plea, singing a ditty that Thomas called the “march of mercy,” which encourage audience members to visit the merch table and buy stuff. I did just that, picking up the new album as well as a 100-page book that Thomas wrote about the making of Lady From Shanghai — a sort of extended set of liner notes called Chinese Whispers.
Pere Ubu played on a night with a lot of great concerts to choose from in Chicago; @pkmonaghan tweeted that Steve Earle, one of the other artists playing last night, “is a fucking American treasure.” True — and so is David Thomas, in his own odd way.
It seems like most of my friends who are regular Chicago concertgoers have seen the local band Heavy Times a bunch of times. Somehow, I’d missed every opportunity to see Heavy Times — until Tuesday night (Aug. 20) at the Empty Bottle.
I thought I might have blown my last chance to see this group, which has put out some excellent records on the local Hozac label. Back in May, the Chicago Reader’s Gossip Wolf column reported that Heavy Times “broke up onstage after more or less playing at Quarters Rock ‘n’ Roll Palace in Milwaukee on April 27” — and this was just a few weeks before the band was set to release its third album, Fix It Alone. But as Gossip Wolf subsequently reported, Heavy Times ended up losing two of its members and recruiting some new players to fill out the lineup. That’s a strange situation for a band to go through just as it’s releasing a new album, but Heavy Times seems to have made it through the turmoil.
As a group on the Hozac label, it’s natural for Heavy Times to get lumped in with other “garage rock” bands. It’s a genre label I use often myself, and Heavy Times seems to fit somewhere within the loose boundaries of garage. Like a lot of garage rock, this music is essentially punk, and Heavy Times plays it with serrated edges and a sharp focus. The songs are quite tuneful, with riffs and vocal melodies that stick in your mind, but there’s nothing ingratiating about the way frontman Bo Hansen sings those hooks. Each song is a short, tense burst. Tuesday’s set was a rapid-fire series of these blasts.
My photos of Heavy Times:
Heavy Times was the middle band in a lineup of three groups playing Tuesday at the Empty Bottle. I confess that I did not stick around for the headliner, Survival. (I would’ve stayed, except for wanting to get some sleep.) The first band of the night was another local band, Vamos — who put on a fun, energetic set of punk rock.
Hozac Records’ Blackout Fest was back this past weekend for another round of garage rock, power pop and other mostly raw and raucous music. It stretched out across four days at the Empty Bottle; I was there for the last two nights: Saturday, May 18, when Chrome headlined; and Sunday, May 19, when Dwight Twilley had top billing.
For my money, Sunday was the much better of these two nights — partly because Sunday’s lineup leaned more heavily to the power-pop end of the spectrum, which was to my liking. As for Saturday … Well, Saturday had its moments, too, especially the powerful music of Chicago’s Verma, with wordless singing (or is it merely incomprehensible?). Wizzard Sleeve, with Quintron on percussion, were another highlight, with a number of catchy choruses.
But when Chrome took the stage for the headline act of the night, everything ground to a halt. Original Chrome member Helios Creed encountered one technical difficulty after another, struggling to tune his guitar or to get his pedals working, even as he kept making boasts such as, “We’re going to blow you away.” It seemed like a rehearsal with a newly assembled band more than an actual concert. The band sounded all right once it got started playing songs, but there was an uncomfortable vibe among the players. At several points, Creed abruptly halted songs by waving his arms at everyone else in the band, giving them a not-so-subtle signal to stop playing. Maybe this is just the way Creed functions on stage, but it seemed more like malfunctioning.
Sunday got off to a damn good start with The Sueves, a Chicago band with jagged guitar riffs and vocals — the best discovery of Blackout Fest for me. The second band of the night was one that I was already familiar with, Games, who put out a strong album of ’60-influenced garage rock/power pop on Hozac late last year. The songs sounded even more bracing in concert than they do in the studio versions.
Then came what amounted to a double dose of power-pop headliners: Oak Park’s Pezband — a trio that originally formed around 1971 and still knows how to rock, demonstrating that they should play far more often than they do — followed by Dwight Twilley. The Tulsa, Okla., singer is most famous for his two hits, “Girls” and “I’m on Fire,” but he has a cult following of fans who clearly loved hearing Twilley play other songs from his old records — as well as the news that Hozac is releasing the first official record of Twilley’s 1975 song “Shark (in the Dark).” Twilley closed out the Blackout Fest in style.
Japan’s masters of heavy psychedelic jams, Acid Mothers Temple, returned to Chicago last night (April 12) for a show — where else but the Empty Bottle, the same venue they’ve played several times in recent years? As always, the guys in the band were sitting behind a couple of merch tables, completely covered with dozens of different CDs. Acid Mothers Temple (in all of its various configurations and different names) is incredibly prolific.
Touring this time as a quintet under the old Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O. name, the group played just four songs, but each song stretched to somewhere around the 30-minute mark. Right from the first minute, the band dug into its cycling, circling guitar riffs with fierce intensity. The synth notes swooped up and down, and the noisy suites occasionally arrived at something that sort of resembled as a chorus, as a few of the band members joined together into a chant. Fans applauded when they recognized the bright riff from “Pink Lady Lemonade.” At the end, it all came to a crashing climax, with founding member Kawabata Makoto hoisting his guitar to the ceiling and letting it fall into the audience. It was another thrilling performance by a band that possesses great powers.
Denver band Tjutjuna — two drummers, a guitarist and a bassist who doubled on Theremin — opened the show with instrumental psychedelic rock jams, a perfect match with Acid Mothers Temple.
Admission was free Monday night at the Empty Bottle — as it often is on Mondays — for a triple bill of intriguing local bands. With DJ Scary Lady Sarah playing music in between the bands, the live music got started with the first-ever concert by Acteurs, a duo comprising Jeremy Lemos of White/Light and Brian Case of Disappears. Song shapes occasionally emerged out of the amorphous synth squiggles and reverb-drenched vocals, but Acteurs was more about the atmosphere than anything else. It may turn out to be just a side project for these two busy musicians, but they make for an interesting combination of talents. (Their six-song EP is out on the British label Public Information, and you can listen to it on bandcamp.)
The second band of the night, Population, played goth post-punk with vocals strongly reminiscent of Joy Division and guitar lines that evoked the Cure. The band’s latest songs are streaming on bandcamp.
The headliner was Implodes (like Disappears, a Chicago band with a present-tense verb for a name). The group’s second album, Recurring Dream, recently came out on Chicago’s Kranky label, and the gauzy shoegaze guitar music sounded great in concert.
On Friday night at the Empty Bottle, Thurston Moore introduced his new group, Chelsea Light Moving, as if both he and his bandmates were completely unknown newcomers to the music scene. Just some new band called Chelsea Light Moving. From Chicago. Or so he said. Of course, the New York-based Chelsea Light Moving is actually a new vehicle for Moore, who’s already famous as a member — apparently, a former member — of Sonic Youth.
The surprising news in 2011 that Sonic Youth was breaking up, or at least taking an extended hiatus, left us fans wondering what the group’s individual members would do on their own. Drummer Steve Shelley spent some time playing with Chicago’s Disappears. Lee Ranaldo released a quite tuneful and enjoyable solo record last year, emphasizing the pop side of Sonic Youth. Kim Gordon made an appearance at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago last week (which I missed), reportedly getting rather avant-garde with noisy jams based on Nina Simone songs. On Friday, it was Moore’s turn, and he played songs from his new album with Chelsea Light Moving — which is named for an actual moving company that composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich once operated, back when they need to move furniture to pay the bills.
Moore’s solo records have shown that he’s just as responsible for Sonic Youth’s melodic side as anyone else in the band was, but with Chelsea Light Moving, he’s gravitating more toward the noisier, scrappier end of the spectrum. Moore’s new songs are sometimes bring back memories of what it was like to hear Sonic Youth for the first time, when the chord progressions — or whatever those weird sequences of notes might be properly called — seemed to operate on a logical system distinctly different from most rock music. It was fascinating to watch Moore returning to those roots, even as he tries to reinvent himself. On Friday night, Chelsea Light Moving’s other members (Samara Lubelski, John Moloney and Keith Wood) felt like a backup band for Moore rather than a group where he’s an equal partner in a musical mind-meld. So, yeah, it wasn’t Sonic Youth. But then again, what is?
The show also featured an opening set by Jeremy Lemos, who plays in the Chicago drone band White/Light. This was billed as a solo set, but he was joined onstage by the other half of White/Light, Matt Clark, as well as Mark Solotroff (of the bands Bloodyminded and Anatomy of Habit), for a set of abstract hums and bleeps.
The second band of the evening was Cave, the Chicago krautrockers, who dug into their repetitive riffs with intensity.
As I wrote last week in Time Out Chicago, one of the Chicago record label Trouble in Mind’s latest finds is a psychedelic singer-songwriter from the Netherlands named Jacco Gardner. His debut album, Cabinet of Curiosities, is a delightful throwback to Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and the chamber pop of the Left Banke; a more contemporary reference point is the music of newer psychedelic groups such as Caribou.
Gardner and his band played last night (March 19) at the Empty Bottle, visiting Chicago for the first time (and remarking on how cold our city is). The studio versions of Gardner’s songs are tuneful, pretty and generally on the mellow side, occasionally veering into strange and spooky sounds. The live versions Gardner played with his touring band didn’t radically change those arrangements, but the Zombies-esque drumming, acoustic guitar chords and melodic bass lines had a bit more zip — making the songs all the better. Gardner’s definitely a talent to watch.
I arrived at the Empty Bottle just in time to hear the last few minutes of the opening set by MMOSS, another Trouble in Mind band — who were jamming out on a different, spacier variety of psychedelic music.
Last Monday (Feb. 25), I caught two concerts — first, the always-entertaining Hideout residency of Robbie Fulks, who featured Brooklyn singer-songwriter Greg Trooper as his guest this time. I wasn’t familiar with Trooper’s music going into this show, but I was quite impressed with what I heard, and Fulks contributed some masterful guitar solos to Trooper’s tunes while, of course, singing a few of his own.
And then I was off to a free concert at the Empty Bottle with Ex Cops, Henry Wagons and Panoramic & True. Wagons, an Australian singer, was the highlight of the night for me, with his confrontational and highly humorous stage banter, culminating with his effort to get a reluctant audience member standing at the bar to emit a blood-curdling scream as the climax to a song about executions.
Time flies. It doesn’t seem like five years have passed since I attended the Thrill Jockey record label’s 15th anniversary celebration. (I posted photos here.) But on Thursday (Dec. 20), somehow it was already time for Thrill Jockey’s 20th anniversary. The Chicago label has maintained a defiantly independent streak over its two decades of existence, an achievement well worth celebrating. Thursday’s concert at the Empty Bottle was free, though not everyone waiting in the long line outside managed to get in.
There weren’t any speeches from the stage — just three bands, playing the sort of out-of-the-mainstream music Thrill Jockey is known for. It would’ve been impossible to represent the full range of Thrill Jockey’s musical spectrum in just a few hours, but this was a good sample. Man Forever, a group led by Oneida drummer John Colpitts aka Kid Millions, started the evening with a single piece of music featuring four percussionists playing polyrhythmic patterns as guitars and bass provided a wall of drone. Then came The Sea and Cake, a long-running Thrill Jockey band, playing its alternative-universe version of what pop music might sound like. And finally, two of the musicians from that outfit (John McEntire and Doug McCombs) stuck around for a performance by one of their other bands, the so-called post-rock (sorry!) instrumentalists Tortoise. One of the band’s members, Dan Bitney, was ill and unable to attend, so the band played as a quartet — which made for a scrappy and rocking, if somewhat abbreviated, set.
Kudos to Thrill Jockey for a terrific 20 years, and here’s to … the next 20?
OM emerged out of the heavy music genre that’s often called stoner rock, but the band has moved beyond that sound — exploring Middle Eastern melodic structures and other mystical elements. When OM started in 2003, it was the duo of Al Cisneros and Chris Hakius, who’d been the rhythm section for stoner legends Sleep. OM’s most recent lineup has bassist-singer Cisneros playing with drummer Emil Amos — and now, former Chicagoan Robert A.A. Lowe, aka Lichens, has joined the roster. The three of them played Saturday (Nov. 17) at the Empty Bottle, playing music from their recent record Advaitic Songs as well as older songs.
OM’s latest studio recordings sound trippy and almost meditative at times, but each song keeps moving forward with an insistent quality. The rhythm section doesn’t have to drive you to keep listening — there’s simply something inherent in those exotic musical motifs that makes it feel natural to keep them on repeat. As a live act on Saturday night, playing to a jam-packed, sold-out Empty Bottle, OM turned up the heaviness, hammering the bass riffs home with more force. Sitting behind a table, Lowe seemed like an essential part of OM’s musical quotient, singing, playing guitar and fiddling with various electronic gear as he painted more layers on top of OM’s sturdy foundation.
Saturday’s show started off with a solo set by Bruce Lamont, who’s also the singer and sax player in the arty heavy metal band Yakuza, the Robert Plant simulacrum in tribute band Led Zeppelin II — and an Empty Bottle bartender. Lamont used looping to build an evocative drone with his voice, guitar and woodwinds.
The second act of the night was Daniel Higgs, who used to sing with the band Lungfish and also collaborated last year on a terrific punk record by the Swedish band Skull Defekts. (See my review and photos of Higgs’ 2011 show with Skull Defekts at the Hideout.) For his gig at the Empty Bottle, the gray-bearded Higgs sat with a banjo and intoned songs of epic length with lyrics that spooled out with no end in sight. In fact, most of the set seemed to be one song, which he interrupted and then returned to. He told the audience that he was still working out some of this material, trying to decide on a melody to go with his words. It was often compelling and interesting, but it got monotonous by the end of his set. Like many other musicians playing quiet music on the Empty Bottle’s stage, Higgs seemed to be frustrated with the chatter of bar patrons intruding on his songs, but he addressed his frustration by addressing the crowd in strange, elliptical and humorous comments. “I think they should turn this place into a church,” he said at one point. And then he got the crowd to sing a note, directing us just to make it up. “This concert needs a recalibration,” he explained.
Thursday was one of those nights when it was possible to see a couple of good concerts in the same night. After King Tuff at Subterranean, I headed over to the Empty Bottle, where Grass Widow was headlining a late show. The all-female San Francisco trio harmonized in a way that sounded similar to other bands in the recent crop of “Girl Groups,” but they also went beyond the usual garage-rock three-chord template by playing some really creative melodies on the guitar and bass. The group’s latest record is called Internal Logic, and the songs are indeed built on a strong foundation of musical logic. But hey, it’s also rock, and that’s just what Grass Widow did on Thursday night.
The Empty Bottle show also featured San Francisco punk rockers Neon Piss and Iowa City’s Wet Hair, who sounded vaguely krautrockish. But my favorite of the three opening bands was another all-female bunch, Chicago’s Blizzard Babies — who played more of that girl-group garage rock, but with one unusual touch: a ukulele.
The Canadian band Metz — or METZ, if you follow the group’s preferred capitalization scheme — was back in Chicago this past Saturday night (Oct. 27) for a gig at the Empty Bottle. I happened to catch these guys a year ago, when they played in the same room, opening for Iceage. This time, they were the headliners and they had an actual record out, a self-titled debut that came out recently on the Sub Pop label.
This trio plays pulverizing punk rock — or perhaps it’s post-punk? It’s hard to tell where the boundaries are between rock’s noisier genres. Metz’s driving, loud riffs are more reminiscent of ’90s punk than the looser, garage-rock-influenced punk that’s been heard a lot lately. Saturday’s performance was tight and powerful. It’s the sort of music that might live up to the title of one Metz song, “Headache,” but it actually feels good if you give into the pain.
Saturday’s show also featured an opening set by Toronto’s Absolutely Free, which began interestingly enough with a bit of a Caribou vibe, but by the end of the set, I was getting bored and sensing more of an Animal Collective sensibility. (And sorry, I didn’t get any good photos of Absolutely Free, because it so blasted dark.) The middle set of the night was another strong performance by Chicago’s Radar Eyes, who were decked out in Halloween costumes and playing with a new, apparently temporary drummer, Nithin Kalvakota, filling in for expectant mother Shelley Zawadzki.
Most of the music was dreamy and drifting Thursday night (Oct. 25) at the Empty Bottle. Chicago’s Bare Mutants started off the evening with songs heavily laden with trippy Velvet Underground-esque drones.
The second band of the night, Alex Bleeker and the Freaks, jammed more, but other than a few flourishes of dirty noise, most of the songs sounded pretty, not all that far removed from the music of Bleeker’s other band, Real Estate. The band’s interesting choice for its final song was “Animal Tracks” by Mountain Man; the original is a spare piece of Appalachian folk music sung by three women, but the Freaks turned into an extended Crazy Horse type of jam.
The headliners, Twerps, came to Chicago all the way from Melbourne, Australia, bringing some catchy if somewhat low-key indie pop tunes with them. (Check out their music at twerps.bandcamp.com.) At the end, they brought Alex Bleeker and the Freaks onto the stage with them, and everyone joined together in a ragged cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Virginia” — a change of pace from the mellowness that preceded it, but a rousing way to call it a night.
The Wire, a fine British magazine about experimental music, sponsors a truly diverse and frequently odd festival each year at the Empty Bottle in Chicago called Adventures in Modern Music. The festival ran five days; I caught one set on Wednesday, Oct. 3 (R. Stevie Moore) and most of the show on Thursday, Oct. 4.
R. Stevie Moore has reportedly recorded something like 400 homemade albums of lo-fi rock music, finally touring extensively for the first time last year at the age of 59. I can’t say I’m familiar with his oeuvre, if that’s the right word for it, but he put on an interesting enough performance that I’m curious to delve into his recordings … if I can figure out a starting point. His beard was blue. His stage banter included an odd chant about Neil Armstrong and Lance Armstrong.
Thursday’s show was a great example of the odd juxtapositions that are typical of the AIMM schedule. The evening started with an outstanding jazz set by Joshua Abrams and his band, Natural Information Society — well, jazz is about as close a genre label as seems appropriate, but it hardly seems adequate. Next up was the Manchester, England, techno artist Andy Stott, who generated some mesmerizing layered beats with his laptop.
Then came the New Hampshire black metal band Vattnet Viskar, which conjured up the natural fury of a thunderstorm with precise and powerful riffs. Finally, the English experimental duo Demdike Stare sounded downright sinister with pulsing drones.
Chicago’s terrific HoZac Records brought its annual Blackout Fest to the Empty Bottle this past weekend, May 18-20, for three long nights filled with lots and lots of rock music — mostly garage rock, with a bit of punk, power pop and classic ’60s psychedelic music thrown in for good measure. Many, but not all, of the bands are on the HoZac label, and nearly all of them shared a similar spirit of banging out scrappy yet tuneful songs with enthusiasm.
This was the sort of festival where an audience member would boo (jokingly, I think) at the very sight of an acoustic guitar. That was during Friday’s set by Cozy, but haters of mellow music had nothing to worry about — the band strummed a few acoustic chords before jumping back into the rock. And while some of the musicians swaggered and flailed with punk attitude, many of them were more nonchalant in their stage manner. The Ketamines set the tone by dryly announcing: “We’re going to play 12 songs and then we’re going to stop.”
The festival’s two biggest names were Saturday headliners Redd Kross and Sunday’s closing act, Roky Erickson. Redd Kross is getting ready to release its first album in 15 years, Researching the Blues, which will come out Aug. 7 on Merge Records. Judging from the title song (download it here), Redd Kross’s new music sounds much like its old — power pop with a hard edge. Saturday’s set started off with a complete performance of the band’s 1981 album Born Innocent, which provided some raucous fun — although personally, I would have preferred to hear a full run-through of Redd Kross’ 1993 record Phaseshifter. The band did play some songs from that album later in its set, as well as a cover of the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.”
Erickson, the legendary former leader of the 13th Floor Elevators, has been back on the concert circuit for a few years now, recovering from a long absence due to legal problems and mental illness. Erickson seemed to be in a good place Sunday night, smiling as he sang and played guitar, backed by a strong and hard-rocking band. The audience in the sold-out venue sang along to many choruses and was rewarded at the end with the 13th Floor Elevators classic, “You’re Gonna Miss Me.”
There were many other fine performances throughout the weekend. My favorites included Barreracudas, who played head-bopping pop-punk; Far-Out Fangtooth, who delved more into dark psych sounds reminiscent of the Black Angels; Fungi Girls, who sound like the house band at some mysterious road house circa 1966; and Bare Mutants, who grooved to a Velvet Underground-style beat.