Jon Langford’s Four Lost Souls at the Hideout

Oct. 11 was Jon Langford’s 60th birthday, and it was also the date of a release party at the Hideout for his latest record. Of course, this prolific Chicago musician who never seems to stop creating would spend his birthday on a stage.

His latest project is a great one: The album is called Four Lost Souls, which is also the name of the group he assembled for some recording sessions in the fabled area around Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In addition to Langford, the Four Lost Souls include vocalists Tawny Newsome and Bethany Thomas and guitarist-singer John Szymanski.

As the Chicago Reader noted in a feature story, Langford ditched his usual process of writing songs on guitar, opting to create them on piano instead. He did sit down at the Hideout’s piano during another recent gig (with the Freakons), but despite the piano origins of his Four Lost Souls tunes, he played them all on guitar. They’re recognizable as the sturdy sort of rock and country songs Langford is known for, but his collaborators add different flavors to the sound. It’s great to hear Newsome and Thomas singing, whether it’s adding the heft of their harmonies or stepping to the forefront with occasional lead vocals. That’s true of the record, and the strength of that singing was loud and clear during the Hideout show.

Ever since Langford moved from Britain to Chicago, this Welsh punk rocker has championed American roots music in its many forms. With this project, he carries on that tradition, sounding as devoted as he ever has to making great music and having a good time while he does it. Happy 60th, Mr. Langford.

(Here’s a lovely Instagram photo by misterjayem of Langford with his birthday cake in the bar following his band’s performance.)

Hideout Block Party 2017

I missed the first day and a half of the Hideout Block Party this weekend — I was in Louisville for the Cropped Out music festival — but I got back into Chicago on Sunday afternoon and caught the final few hours of the Hideout’s fun shindig, which I was glad to see making a return after a gap for the past couple of years. Here are my photos from Sunday night, which capped off daylong celebration for the 20th birthday of Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio.

Danielson Famile


Electrical Audio’s birthday

Nina Nastasia


Man or Astroman?

Screaming Females

Freakons at the Hideout and the Shitty Barn

When the Mekons teamed up with Freakwater, of course they called themselves the Freakons. As they’ve joked, the other option was Meekwater, a far less formidable-sounding portmanteau.

Actually, this collaborative group — which played a few shows last week, recording one of them for a forthcoming album — doesn’t include all of the Mekons. Its members are Freakwater’s Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean plus two key members of the Mekons, Jon Langford and Sally Timms. Joining them are two fiddlers, Jean Cook and Anna Krippenstapel, and ubiquitous Chicago guitarist James Elkington.

It seems natural that the Mekons and Freakwater are collaborating, given their shared musical territory. The Mekons may be punks from England and Wales, but they’re steeped in a love of old American country, along with British folk. The Kentuckians in Freakwater have mined similar musical veins. The two outfits have even covered a few of the same songs. And now this conglomeration is making a record of songs about coal mining. All profits from the album will benefit Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, a grassroots organization opposing mountaintop removal mining and promoting economic justice, voting rights, and Kentucky’s transition to new energy sources.

The Freakons played two shows at the Hideout last week, one of which was recorded for the album. I attended the other gig, on Sept. 10, as well a concert by the Freakons on Sept. 14 at a rustic venue in Spring Green, Wis., charmingly named The Shitty Barn. (Elkington played at the Hideout but was absent from the Shitty Barn show.) As the band members noted a few times, their songs tended to be sad and bleak. But there were several rousing songs inspired by the spirit of miners toiling away at their work — and as always, Langford and Timms were quick with humorous quips. The group even played a recording of Richard Burton telling some tall tales on the Dick Cavett show about his coal-mining father.

The songs (some original, some covers) included: “Chestnut Blight,” “Corrie Doon,” “Canaries,” “Dreadful Memories,” “Coal Miner’s Grave,” “Abernant 1984/85,” “Johnny Miner,” “Trimdon Grange Explosion,” “Mannington Mine,” “Black Leg Miner,” “Dark as a Dungeon” and “Working in a Coal Mine.” After seeing these live shows, I look forward to hearing the Freakons’ album.

Freakons at the Hideout

Freakons at the Shitty Barn

Jason Molina tribute at the Hideout

Jason Molina performing during a Magnolia Electric Co. concert on July 12, 2009, at the Hideout.

Chicago journalist Erin Osmon has a new book about the life of a great singer-songwriter who died in 2013 — Jason Molina: Riding With the Ghost. Last week at Chicago’s Hideout (July 22), Osmon read some passages from her biography — readings that served as introductions to performances by many of the musicians Molina played with. It was a bit of reprise of the great 2013 tribute concert I saw at the Bluebird in Bloomington, Indiana.

Last week’s show didn’t feature quite as many Molina colleagues, but it was still a pretty stellar cast, including various members of Molina’s bands Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. — as well as guest stars like Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor. The show ended with epic renditions of “Farewell Transmission” and “John Henry Split My Heart.”

Read and hear my 2006 interview with Molina.

Thigh Master at the Hideout

Thigh Master, a rock band from Brisbane, Australia, played on Friday, March 10, at the Hideout — and like so many of the Australian bands I’ve heard lately, these guys played scrappy garage rock. I did notice a few artsy touches in the interlaced guitar melodies — nothing quite as elaborate as prog rock, though. It was an energetic and enjoyable set, part of a show that also featured the Chicago bands Pool Holograph and Basement Family.

According to a recent story in the Australian Rolling Stone, Thigh Master’s been together since 2012 and has released several singles, but last fall’s Early Times in the group’s first full-length album. You can stream and/or buy Thigh Master’s music via Bandcamp.

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Pool Holograph
Pool Holograph
Basement Family
Basement Family

Robbie Fulks’ Final Hideout Residency Shows: Photo Gallery

My photos of the final three shows in Robbie Fulks’ seven-year-long series of Monday-night concerts at the Hideout. (Read my blog post about the finale of Fulks’ epic residency.)

February 6, 2017: With Nora O’Connor

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Tim Tuten introduces Nora O'Connor and Robbie Fulks
Tim Tuten introduces Nora O’Connor and Robbie Fulks
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Kelly Hogan joins in on vocals with Nora O’Connor and Robbie Fulks

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Robbie Fulks makes his exit at the end of the night.
Robbie Fulks makes his exit at the end of the night.

February 20, 2017: With High Plains Jamboree

Tim Tuten introduces Robbie Fulks and High Plains Jamboree
Tim Tuten introduces Robbie Fulks and High Plains Jamboree

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February 27, 2017: With Robbie Gjersoe

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The early arrivals wait in line at 4:30 p.m.
The early arrivals wait in line at 4:30 p.m.
Robbie Fulks chats while Robbie Gjersoe sound-checks his guitar.
Robbie Fulks chats while Robbie Gjersoe sound-checks his guitar.
Marc Caro fills in for Tim Tuten, introducing Robbie Fulks and Robbie Gjersoe
Marc Caro fills in for Tim Tuten, introducing Robbie Fulks and Robbie Gjersoe

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Steve Frisbie joins in on vocals
Steve Frisbie joins in on vocals

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Nora O'Connor plays with Robbie Gjersoe and Robbie Fulks
Nora O’Connor plays with Robbie Gjersoe and Robbie Fulks

Seven Years of Robbie Fulks at the Hideout on Mondays

Robbie Fulks performs during the second show of his Hideout residency, on February 8, 2010.
Robbie Fulks performs during the second show of his Hideout residency, on February 8, 2010.

In January 2010, Chicago’s Hideout announced that singer-songwriter-guitarist Robbie Fulks was going to play a series of four concerts at this cozy little nightclub. He was on the schedule for every Monday night in February. On Twitter, I commented: “Cool!”

Little did I know what I was in for.

As it turned out, Fulks’ “residency” lasted way longer than one month. He just kept on playing at the Hideout on one Monday after another, bringing talented guest artists onto the stage with him and playing shows with a startlingly wide range of themes. Fulks is known as an alt-country singer, but these concerts showed just how varied his musical interests are — along with the old-fashioned country songs you’d expect, Fulks and his ever-changing cohort covered everything from Thelonious Monk and Stephen Sondheim to Liz Phair, Harry Nilsson, Bob Dylan and Cheap Trick. And man, was it glorious.

In November 2010, Fulks said his residency “will be continuing next year and in fact indefinitely.” As the years rolled on, you could count on seeing Fulks play at the Hideout on Monday evenings. He wasn’t there every single Monday, of course — he took off a week here and there, and was absent for some stretches or a month or longer while he was out on tour. But more often than not, you could just show up at the Hideout around 7 p.m. on Monday and pay the $10 suggested donation to see Fulks. (With only a couple of exceptions, no advance tickets were available.)

These shows were one of Chicago’s musical treasures. But after seven years — and 250 gigs — Fulks played the final show of his epic Monday-night Hideout residency this week. (I may be guilty of overusing the word “epic,” but in this case, it seems entirely appropriate.)

In a post on his blog — written with his typical eloquence and erudition — Fulks reflected on why he undertook this residency and some of the things he accomplished:

I started it because I wanted a place to try out new ideas, some of which were offbeat and none of which I could see coming much in advance, at a place that was laidback and non-prominent enough that a loose and not always highly performative approach could be accepted. …

Here are some things I was able to do under the circumstances, things I hadn’t done before: play Prokofiev; sit quietly for a minute between songs, tuning and thinking; play Charlie Parker; tell 10-minute off-the-cuff stories; try out tunes on clawhammer banjo, ukulele, bass, mandolin, fiddle, and other instruments not native to me; play a 15-minute noise-drone improvisation; reharmonize songs by Bob Dylan, Wayne Shorter, and the Monkees, among many others; listen hard for the first time to people like Leonard Cohen, Danny Elfman, Stephen Sondheim, Blake Babies, Sonny Boy Williamson, Arthur Russell, Ty Segall, and Donna Summer; transcribe Doc Watson’s version of “Beaumont Rag”; collaborate with Michael Shannon; jam with Jason Adasciewicz; take off my pants in front of a paying audience; back up Liz Carroll in time signatures such as 9/8; use guitar pedals like Plimsoul overdrive and something called “Freeze sound retainer” which is truly wonderful and flummoxes both accompanists and house sound people; improvise country underscoring beneath country storytelling; play Jimi Hendrix. Some of this I do regret. However, I see now that I deeply regretted aspirational actions like playing the bass guitar on “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass,” or trying to comp an unknown Gershwin piece at high tempo, in the moments I was doing it, then let it go immediately afterward. This marks clear progress for me from the days when I’d forget a lyric or do something stupid in public and then experience burning blood to the face when the memory arose months or years after. The little humiliations were so ongoing for me during this series that I normalized them and was able to get over myself, at last, here at age 53.

You saw *how* many concerts?!?

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That adventurous spirit helps explain why Fulks’ shows on Monday nights were so enjoyable. By my tally, I attended 58 of these concerts. (It might actually be a few more than that.) Other fans were there almost every week, including a couple of tapers who preserved audio of the performances for their own private collections. Ed Steffy, who says he attended all but two of Fulks’ 250 Monday-night shows, is the bearded fellow who was always sitting near the stage with an impressive-looking stack of audio gear. At the final show this week, Fulks asked Steffy what he’s going to do with the hundreds of hours he recorded. “I’m going to make a million dollars bootlegging,” Steffy joked. In fact, Steffy handed out free copies of a CD compiling 17 of his favorite songs from the seven years — and his “rough” mixes sound absolutely delightful. Could we get an actual live record out of this? (Hint, hint…)

My friend Heather Copeland was there practically every week, too — holding up her little camera to record video of just about every song. She has posted hundreds of these videos on YouTube, and it’s well worth your time to sample those. (I’ve included links to several of the videos in this post.) Fulks gratefully gives her credit for helping preserve his performances, though he occasionally mentions that he’d rather not see certain moments displayed for everyone to see on the internet.

For the first three years, Heather kept a list of every song Fulks and his cohort played at the shows she attended — coming up with a tally of 1,069 different titles. Most of these are songs that Fulks and his guests played only one time. Around 170 songs were repeated once or twice. The grand total number of songs Fulks played over the course of the seven years is well over 1,000, considering that he played hundreds of additional songs in the four years missing from Heather’s list.

A different show each time

Now, if you’ve told me back in 2010 that I was going to see Robbie Fulks some 60 times over the next seven years, I would have scoffed. (And yes, I actually saw several Fulks concerts at other venues over this seven-year stretch.) Obviously, I’m a fan of Fulks’ music — he’s not just a great singer and songwriter, but also a whiz on the guitar and an entertaining raconteur — but who really needs to see any musician that many times? However, it quickly became clear that Fulks was playing a different show each time. And not just tweaking his set list here and there. Only a few of the shows he played during the seven years were strictly focused on his own songs — the kind of show you’d normally expect at something billed as “a Robbie Fulks concert.”

Instead, he used his regular spot on the Hideout’s schedule to showcase other musicians and stretch his own repertoire by playing with them. I missed the very first night of the residency in 2010 — when Fulks played with his stalwart sideman Robbie Gjersoe — but I was there for the second week, February 8, 2010, when his guest was the great Nora O’Connor.

Robbie Fulks performs with Nora O'Connor during the second show of his Hideout residency, on February 8, 2010.
Robbie Fulks performs with Nora O’Connor during the second show of his Hideout residency, on February 8, 2010.

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

The two sat on chairs and played acoustic guitars, with Fulks’ fingers plucking fast runs of bluegrass notes while O’Connor played rhythm chords. O’Connor’s no slouch on guitar, as evidenced by her playing in the Blacks, but she was modest about her abilities Monday. At one point, when Fulks said, “Take it, Nora!” she responded with a sarcastic, “Please!”

Fulks and O’Connor played some old-timey bluegrass and gospel tunes, such as “The Lost Indian” and Flatt and Scruggs’ “Take Me in Your Lifeboat.” Of course, they played some of their own songs as well — a couple of recent Fulks songs and a couple of oldies, plus some of the best tracks off O’Connor’s excellent (and thus far only) solo record, 2004’s Til the Dawn. And some cool covers: Fulks taking the lead on George Jones’ “The Flame In My Heart,” and O’Connor singing M. Ward’s “Helicopter,” Fleetwood Mac’s “That’s Alright” and Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters.” In between songs, Fulks was as funny as ever with his stage banter. As Fulks remarked, how can you go wrong with two people playing acoustic guitars and singing?

Watching as they learn songs

That evening set the template for many shows that followed: a few pals casually playing songs together, including tunes they know very well — plus songs they’re just figuring out how to play. With talented and skilled musicians, that kind of performance hits a sweet spot: You can hear them testing themselves and exploring the notes. You can see them reacting to what they’re hearing from the other folks onstage.

I talked with Fulks about this when I interviewed him on January 18, for a Pioneer Press article about his first-time-ever Grammy nominations. (Alas, he didn’t win!) Here’s a bit of our conversation:

Q: What do you mean by the idea of rehearsal?

Fulks: If you have a one-time-only show, but it has a lot of curves in it, a lot of things that you need to go over, like, how do you efficiently go over that with five or six people? And that’s been interesting to sort through. In the old days, I would have had one or two rehearsals within the week of the show. And then later, I would kind of run minimal parts of the show at 5 that afternoon — an hour or two before doors — and just kind of race through it. And when you see the results of the one thing, a thorough-going rehearsal, versus the results of the other, you start to think, ‘Well, maybe you don’t need to rehearse at all.’ You know? Because it’s not that different. The results aren’t that different. So I’ve tried some shows without rehearsing at all. (Laughs.) I tried everything in between. And I’ve learned that there’s not a consistently reliable way to do it — so that the results will be, you know, error-free. But less is probably better.

Q: Well, I was going to say, one of the things I enjoy most about your Monday-night shows is that you often have you and some other musicians playing together, who obviously haven’t played the songs a zillion times — they don’t know them that well — but you’re good enough musicians that you can figure out things by ear, and if you make a little mistake, it’s not that noticeable. So that sort of “well played but not over-rehearsed” quality is what I find so appealing about it.

Fulks: Well, that’s almost always the case, what you just said. There was one memorable train wreck, where there was a half-step modulation in a song. And one guy, the guy that was leading the modulation, modulated a whole rather than half a step, and then he just stuck to his guns and played the whole rest of the song in that key, and just threw the whole thing — nobody knew what to do, and it kind of exploded. And then there was last Monday, where the show ended and somebody called the song, and it was one that I thought I knew but didn’t know. And again, I just wrecked it for everyone. And it was the last song of the night, and people gave me some shit as I walked through the crowd afterward. (Laugh.)

Q: What was the song?

Fulks: “Cherokee Shuffle.” It’s a song that every flat-picker knows very well. And I thought I knew. But I got it confused with another fiddle tune.

I missed that particular performance — but that sort of train-wreck moment is a key to why these shows were so great. By daring to fail, Fulks and the other musicians sometimes achieved almost transcendental beauty. Sure, they failed occasionally — very occasionally — but even those few off-key notes or flubbed lyrics were interesting or humorous.

A community of musicians

The Pussycat Trio — Robbie Gjersoe, Bo Sample and Robbie Fulks — on February 24, 2014
The Pussycat Trio — Robbie Gjersoe, Beau Sample and Robbie Fulks — on February 24, 2014
Don Stiernberg performs with Fulks on December 5, 2016.
Don Stiernberg performs with Fulks on December 5, 2016.

Over the past seven years, Fulks’ most frequent guests included O’Connor, mandolinist Don Stiernberg, the Hoyle Brothers, Eric Noden, Steve Dawson, Steve Frisbie, Justin Roberts, Jenny Scheinman, Greg Cahill of Special Consensus, Jon Langford and Kelly Hogan. (Video of Fulks and Hogan singing “You’re The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly,” a song by Lola Jean Dillion & L.E. White made famous by Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty.)

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Gjersoe probably played with Fulks more than anyone else, including duo shows as well as performance by groups like the Pussycat Trio (Fulks and Gjersoe plus Beau Sample) or the Scavengers (Fulks and Gjersoe plus Gerald Dowd, Casey McDonough).

Linda Gail Lewis performs with Robbie Fulks on August 29, 2016.
Linda Gail Lewis performs with Robbie Fulks on August 29, 2016.

On some nights, Fulks turned over the spotlight to his guest artist, acting more like a sideman. One of my favorite examples of this was the show on August 29, 2016, starring Linda Gail Lewis, a sister of Jerry Lee Lewis who sings and plays piano very much in her brother’s style. It was great fun to watch her grinning as she performed with Fulks and the crack band he’d assembled for this gig as well as some recording sessions during Lewis’ visit to Chicago (Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall). (Fulks wrote about meeting Linda Gail Lewis on his blog.)

Tributes, stellar and strange

Some of Fulks’ Monday-night shows were tributes — including whole evenings devoted to the music of the Everly Brothers, George Jones, Hank Williams, the Velvet Underground (video of “Beginning to See the Light”), Alex Chilton, Cheap Trick, Doc Watson, Harry Nilsson (video of “Without You”), Levon Helm, Merle Haggard, Roger Miller, Liz Phair (video of “H.W.C.”) and Stephen Sondheim. An evening of “Bitter Ex-Beatle” songs included Fulks doing John Lennon’s “God,” with some added lyrics alluding to his regular audience members and the garbage trucks in the city lot across the street from the Hideout. The crowd gives a howl of disbelief when Fulks declares, “I don’t believe in Hideout!” (Video.)

Around Christmastime, Fulks would bring in Steve Dawson and Diane Christiansen from the band Dolly Varden to sing songs about Jesus Christ. Memorably, the power went out in the middle of the first song, the Velvet Underground’s “Jesus,” during the show on December 8, 2014. The “Jesus Christ Trio,” as they called themselves, continued playing, without the benefit of electricity, for the next hour in near darkness — and it was magical.

Fulks takes a guitar solo during the "Carter Family Jazz Style" show on March 28, 2016, with Jason Adasiewicz, Kent Kessler and Gerald Dowd.
Fulks takes a guitar solo during the “Carter Family Jazz Style” show on March 28, 2016, with Jason Adasiewicz, Kent Kessler and Gerald Dowd.

On some nights, Fulks and his guests covered entire albums: The Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace of Sin, Gram Parsons’ Grievous Angel, Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!!!, Bob Dylan and the Band’s The Basement Tapes (video of “Tears of Rage”) and Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming and Street Legal. (The experience of covering Dylan’s overlooked 1978 album Street Legal with rich, full-band arrangements was so rewarding that Fulks has begun working on a studio recording of the whole thing.) On July 21, 2014, Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon — whom I’d spotted in the audience at an earlier Fulks gig — handled all the lead vocals for a performance of Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask.

Fulks plays guitar as Michael Shannon sings the Lou Reed album The Blue Mask on July 21, 2014.
Fulks plays guitar as Michael Shannon sings the Lou Reed album The Blue Mask on July 21, 2014.

At the time, I wrote:

Fulks stayed in the background, playing guitar and incongruously wearing overalls. (Explaining his decision to recruit Shannon for lead vocals, Fulks said, “Who’s going to take a guy in overalls singing Lou Reed songs seriously?”)

The most inventive shows may have been those in which Fulks and his collaborators mashed together two unlikely musicians or styles: Thelonious Monk vs. The Monkees (video of “I’m A Believer”), Graham and Charlie Parker, Jazz Does The Carter Family, Jerry v. Lou Reed (video of the “Amos Moses” and “Sweet Jane” mashup), Merle Travis vs. Miles Davis, and Leonard Cohen v. Lynyrd Skynryd (video of “Freebird”).

Yes, there was banter.

As you can tell from those themes, Fulks has a sharp sense of humor. That also comes through with his stage banter, which was a regular feature on Monday nights. At some point, he’d pause to chat with his guest artists about how their week had gone, invariably telling a humorous story from his own life, or an anecdote about a musician. Amid all the jesting, Fulks also offered smart insights about music and other topics. (When Robbie Fulks and Kelly Hogan covered the James Taylor song “Carolina in My Mind,” they spent five minutes discussing Taylor — captured in this video.)

In one of the more bizarre episodes, Fulks reacted to a 2012 National Enquirer story that referenced his music.

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That week at the Hideout, Fulks commented: “Apparently this is Exhibit A in the overwhelming case that Drew Carey is having a mental breakdown — that he likes my songs.” (Video by Jerome Hughes.)

Certain artists and themes drew big crowds — “big” being a relative term, when you’re talking about a venue that holds around 100 people. On many nights, there were just 25 or 30 people in the room. Country singer-songwriter Lydia Loveless made an unexpected cameo on February 3, 2015, when she was stuck in Chicago because of bad weather. After sitting in the audience, she came up onstage to sing a few songs with Fulks, and he explained the Hideout’s Monday-night vibe to her. “It’s a crowd of 30, but it responds like a crowd of 22,” he joked.

Oh, yeah — he also made some great records while all of this was going on.

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Over the course of his residency at the Hideout, Fulks released two of the best albums he’s made during his career: Gone Away Backwards in 2013 and Upland Stories in 2016. I suspect that the experience of playing these varied shows on Monday nights influenced his songwriting and recording process. Fulks says one night was especially influential on his songwriting: a tribute on January 19, 2015, to singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester, who’d recently died. “I just remembered how deeply he had hit me when I was 17 years old,” Fulks told me. “And revisiting his writing style came to influence the next, I don’t know, 30 or 40 songs I made up after that.” (Fulks wrote about Winchester on his blog.)

“The end is near!”

Fulks, during his February 25, 2013, show with Greg Trooper
Fulks, during his February 25, 2013, show with Greg Trooper

During a show in November 2015, Fulks nonchalantly mentioned that he was going to end his run of Monday-night shows. I heard a stirring in the audience as Fulks’ fans reacted to the news. Later that evening, I saw Fulks at the Hideout’s bar and asked him exactly when the end would be. He said it would probably be sometime in the fall of 2016. As it turned out, Fulks stretched it out longer than that, but he finally decided to finish up the residency at the end of February 2017. On his blog, Fulks explains:

…in case anyone’s interested, that the reason I’m ending is that it just seems like the right time to. I had something to accomplish in starting the Mondays; I’m not sure I could have defined it precisely and not sure I did accomplish it after all, but whether I did or didn’t, it’s certainly past time to proceed to the next fuzzily defined idea or goal. If feeling more comfortable in performance was a goal, I can say without much self-love that I’m there! If it was to learn new songs made by other people, I suppose I’ve learned about 1,500 since 2010, and forgotten all but maybe 200. Not much achieved there, but a little. If it was to augment my guitar skills…hmm. Maybe. Probably not.

As the end drew near, I went to the Hideout on Monday night for a Fulks show whenever I could. And after neglecting to photograph many of Fulks’ Monday gigs, I brought my camera to the last three shows. (My photos are posted in a separate gallery.)

February 6, 2017: With Nora O’Connor

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On February 6, Nora O’Connor was back, and her singing sounded as exquisite as ever. A cover of the Handsome Family’s “So Much Wine” gave me goosebumps. Another Monday-night stalwart, Kelly Hogan, joined O’Connor and Fulks for a couple of songs. The set included songs by Loudon Wainwright III (video), Jimmy Driftwood (video), Dan Penn (video)  and Bobby Braddock (video).

February 20, 2017: With High Plains Jamboree

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On February 20, Fulks presented the Austin bluegrass band High Plains Jamboree, and he stepped out of the spotlight for most of the night, playing guitar alongside the group. I became a fan of High Plains Jamboree when the group played with Fulks on a Monday night last year, and this return appearance was just as wonderful. In the middle of the concert, singer-mandolinist Brennen Leigh performed several duets with Fulks, including “The Angels Rejoiced” by the Louvin Brothers (video)  and a rousing gospel song, “He Will Set Your Fields On Fire,” by James and Martha Carson — which had Fulks singing one set of words in the chorus while Leigh simultaneously sang other lyrics. The cheers after that song were long and loud. “I knew we had some angry Christians here,” Fulks joked. High Plains Jamboree played two terrific politically themed songs — from an album that’ll be coming out later this year — one about illegal immigration called “El Coyote” (video) and another timely protest number titled “You Ain’t Laying No Pipeline” (video).

When Fulks sang one of his own songs, “Sometimes the Grass is Really Greener,” he responded to the sight of High Plains Jamboree’s old-fashioned-looking microphones by saying it made him feel like Walter Winchell — and then he proceeded to sing a verse in a old-timey radio-announcer voice. And then he added an impressive yodel to the song, earning a big round of applause.

February 27, 2017: The finale with Robbie Gjersoe

Robbie Gjersoe, Nora O'Connor and Robbie Fulks during the final show of Fulk's Monday-night residency at the Hideout, on February 27, 2017.
Robbie Gjersoe, Nora O’Connor and Robbie Fulks during the final show of Fulks’ Monday-night residency at the Hideout, on February 27, 2017.

For the grand finale, on February 27, Fulks played with the same guy who helped him start off the entire series seven years ago, Robbie Gjersoe. They originally met through one of those old Chicago Reader classified ads where musicians try to find people with similar musical tastes to start a band. Gjersoe is a master guitarist, especially adept at playing with a slide. The parts he adds to Fulks’ songs remind me of the essential contributions that Dave Rawlings makes to Gillian Welch’s music. Whenever these two Robbies play together, it’s a joy to see two guitarists with so much talent playing off each other. “The Robbie and Robbie show is my favorite of all of them,” Nora O’Connor remarked when she joined them onstage during this final show for a few songs.

For once, Fulks played a lot of his own songs — kicking off the set list with several of his most beloved tunes, ones you’d expect during an encore: “Tears Only Run One Way,” “Sometimes the Grass is Really Greener,” “Let’s Kill Saturday Night,” “The Buck Starts Here” and “There You Go Again.” Fulks also played a newer song with the chorus, “The old times have made a wreck of our lives,” explaining that it’s his response to people who are nostalgic about older times — people who say they’d like to live in Louisville in the 1930s, as he put it. “I don’t think so,” Fulks remarked. “You guys heard of dentistry? It’s great.”

Fulks was dressed up more than usual, wearing a sharp-looking suit. And the room was packed full. Reflecting on the end of his residency, Fulks said, “A couple of people have asked me what I’m doing — as if it’s the end of my life.” Later he added, “What I had in mind when I started this was to do just whatever popped into my mind.”

At the very end — the last song of the last show — Fulks and Gjersoe played a bluegrass tune made famous by Jimmy Martin:

There ain’t nobody gonna miss me when I’m gone
There ain’t nobody gonna mourn for me too long
Won’t you write these words upon my headstone
There ain’t nobody gonna miss me when I’m gone

Fulks isn’t actually gone, of course — he still plans to play concerts in the Chicago area and elsewhere — but plenty of folks are sure gonna miss seeing Robbie on Monday nights at the Hideout.

Robbie Fulks exits with his guitar in hand at the end of his February 6, 2017, show with Nora O'Connor.
Robbie Fulks exits with his guitar in hand at the end of his February 6, 2017, show with Nora O’Connor.

(This blog post is also on my page at Medium.)

Joan Shelley at the Hideout

Joan Shelley’s album Over and Even was my favorite record of 2015, , so of course I’m thrilled to hear that she’s working on a new album. She mentioned this during her concert on Saturday, Dec. 3, at the Hideout, where she sprinkled some of the new material amid a nice a selection of songs from her first two albums. Shelley says she’s working on the new recordings here in Chicago with the seemingly ubiquitous Chicago guitarist Jim Elkington as well as her own marvelous guitar player, Nathan Salsburg. Shelley’s voice was stunningly beautiful at the Hideout show, especially when she sang a cappella versions of two traditional folk songs: “Darlin’ Don’t You Know That’s Wrong” by Addie Graham and the chillingly macabre “Little Margaret,” which closes with the lyrics: “Three times he kissed her cold corpsy lips/And fell in her arms asleep.”

The show also featured a charming opening set by Moon Bros., aka Matt Schneider, who silenced the room with the simple act of rattling jingle bells and then played impressive instrumental songs on his acoustic guitar, along with a few sung folk tunes.

Here’s a video I took of Shelley and Salsburg performing the song “Here and Whole,” which is on a new 7-inch record released by the No Quarter label.

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Joan Shelley exits with her dog, who'd been sitting on the back part of the stage throughout the show.
Joan Shelley exits with her dog, who’d been sitting on the back part of the stage throughout the show.
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Moon Bros.
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Moon Bros.

Ultimate Painting at the Hideout

The British duo Ultimate Painting keeps turning out one splendid record after another — three albums in the past three years. James Hoare and Jack Cooper’s newest collection, Dusk (on Chicago label Trouble in Mind), is basically more of the same: pretty little pop gems with glittering, interlaced guitar lines and delicate vocal melodies and harmonies.

But when the band performs these songs in concert — as it did on Friday, Dec. 2, at the Hideout — it turns up the volume a few notches, grooving like the Feelies or the Velvet Underground. Hoare set down his guitar to play the Hideout’s house piano on a couple of songs, but the guitars were what this night was really about — culminating in a long, searing jam in the final song of the show, “Ten Street.”

The show started with enjoyable sets by the Chicago band Deeper (whose music reminded me a bit of 1980s or ’90s post-punk) and the New York group EZTV (whose music reminded of … well, Ultimate Painting).

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Deeper
Deeper
EZTV
EZTV

Joshua Abrams’ Hideout residency

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The masterful Chicago musician Joshua Abrams played five concerts at the Hideout in November, playing with different collaborators on each Tuesday night. The one constant was the group he calls Natural Information Society Residency — but even that ensemble has a shifting lineup. It’s essentially a setting for Abrams to play an African instrument called the gimbri (a three-stringed skin-covered bass plucked lute used by the Gnawa people of West Africa) as part of a large group of musicians improvising meditative minimalism and drones — part jazz, part rock, part world music, part experiment. Natural Information Society is one of Chicago’s best groups today, and the two shows I saw during November’s residency only confirmed how innovative and transcendent this band is.

I was there on Nov. 15, when the evening started with a set by Emmett Kelly, the multitalented musician who leads the Cairo Gang (or performs under that moniker) as well as playing guitar with numerous other bands. On this evening, however, Kelly sang cool jazz music in a style reminiscent of Chet Baker, with moody and atmospheric arrangements by the Joshua Abrams Quintet.

Then the main set featured Natural Information Society joining forces with Bitchin Bajas. Kelly joined in on guitar.

(Blog post continues below photos.)

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Nov. 22

The second show I saw was on Nov. 22, when the fabulous drummer Hamid Drake performed during both sets. During the jazzy opening set, Abrams and Drake played with Edward Wilkerson on reeds and oud and Josh Berman on cornet. Then came another mesmerizing performance by Natural Information Society.

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The Mekons at the Hideout

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The Mekons have a new record called Existentialism — a lo-fi live CD of new songs performed into one microphone, with an accompanying book — but the band played just one of those new tunes on Monday, Sept. 19, at the Hideout. Instead of promoting the new material, the band delivered a typically rollicking set filled with most of its most beloved songs. Sally Timms said the Mekons would play fewer “hits” during the following night’s show at the Hideout; Jon Langford jokingly questioned whether that would be possible.

The Handsome Family’s Brett and Rennie Sparks came onstage and sang their song “The Sad Milkman” with the Mekons. And then, finally, as the Mekons came back for a second encore, the band played one song from the new album — it wasn’t printed on the set list — “Simone on the Beach,” which is inspired by the true story of French writer Simone de Beauvoir and her love affair with Chicago author Nelson Algren. It’s also a song that happens to mention the bar where the Mekons were playing on this night: “Did they drink at the Hideout, back in 1947? The house under the highway, in bed with him as container trucks roll by.”

See my videos from the concert: “Memphis, Egypt” and “Where Were You.”

SET LIST: Memphis, Egypt / Beaten and Broken / Tina / Millionaire / Diamonds / Abernant 1984-85 / Heaven and Back / Fantastic Voyage / Fletcher Christian / Orpheus / Now We Have the Bomb / Last Dance / Curse / Hard to Be Human

ENCORE: Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem / The Sad Milkman / Big Zombie / Shanty / Where Were You

SECOND ENCORE: Simone on the Beach / Ghosts of American Astronauts

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Hideout 20-Year Reunion

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The Hideout, one of my favorite music venues, celebrated its 20th anniversary with a daylong mini-festival on Saturday — billed as a “20-Year Reunion.” In truth, the Hideout is much older than just two decades, as the city of Chicago’s cultural historian, Tim Samuelson, told the audience on Saturday in a short spiel about the venue’s history. He said it’s been serving alcohol since around 1919 — probably continuing as an illegal booze joint during the Prohibition Era.

But 20 years ago was when Tim Tuten and his wife, Katie, and their friends, twins Jim and Mike Hinchsliff, took over the Hideout and began transforming it into a friendly gathering place in the midst of a starkly urban landscape. (There’s a parking lot across the street filled with city garbage trucks.) In 2004, I interviewed the Tutens and the Hinchsliff brothers for a Pioneer Press feature about the Hideout. Back then, I wrote:

After eight years of running the Hideout, the owners still look on the experience like a fun adventure from their childhood days in the suburbs. “Kids used to make forts,” Tim Tuten says. “We looked at this as a fort or a clubhouse.”

That’s as true as it ever was. The Hideout is a sort of playground for musicians and their fans, and it also hosts comedy and literary events, political discussions … you name it. The genre of music most often associated with the Hideout is alt-country, but its concert schedule extends way beyond twang, including everything from experimental jazz to hard rock. And I’ve always sensed a welcoming vibe in its cozy space. Even on those rare nights when I don’t know a lot of people in the crowd, it just feels like a place where it’s easy to strike up a conversation with some of your fellow music fans.

The venue hosted an outdoor festival called the Hideout Block Party during many years, sometimes on Wabansia Street in front of the bar, sometimes taking over a bigger space in that garbage-truck parking lot. Last year, there was no Block Party. And this year’s event was pulled together somewhat belatedly. It turned out to be a smaller-scale even than the festival was in some years. There was just a small stage in front of the bar, and admission was a $20 donation. The lineup was filled with artists who have been regulars and favorites at the Hideout over the past 20 years. There was no need to bring in any additional big-name stars.

I did not see every single minute of Saturday’s party (my excuse is that I was recovering from sitting through the 15-hour Ragamala concert over the previous night). Early in the afternoon, I missed Plastic Crimewave Vision Celestial Guitarkestra, a “Late, Late Breakfast Pancake Brunch” and the Girl Talk interview show; and at the end of the night, I missed indoor performances by Devil in a Woodpile and the Lawrence Peters Outfit. But the eight hours of music I did catch were a fun time, filled with good spirit. It culminated with a lively set by Eleventh Dream Day, who closed with a cover of Lovin Spoonful’s “Summer in the City.” (See my video of the song here.)

Happy 20th birthday to the Hideout — and may you outlive all the changes that may be coming in the neighborhood. Chicago needs you.

Tim Tuten introduces Matina (Nora O’Connor, Gerald Dowd and Liam Davis)
Tim Tuten introduces Mantina (Nora O’Connor, Gerald Dowd and Liam Davis)
Matina
Mantina

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Kelly Hogan with Mantina
Kelly Hogan with Mantina
Andy Hopkins and Kelly Hogan with Mantina
Andy Hopkins and Kelly Hogan with Mantina
White Mystery
White Mystery
White Mystery
White Mystery
White Mystery
White Mystery
White Mystery
White Mystery
The Amazing Mr. Ash
The Amazing Mr. Ash
Poet Gregorio Gomez reads “The City”
Poet Gregorio Gomez reads “The City”
Nora O'Connor and Robbie Fulks
Nora O’Connor and Robbie Fulks
Robbie Fulks
Robbie Fulks
Kelly Hogan
Kelly Hogan
Andy Hopkins and Kelly Hogan
Andy Hopkins and Kelly Hogan
Tim Tuten raps about the Hideout with musical accompaniment from Mr. Rudy Day
Tim Tuten raps about the Hideout with musical accompaniment from Mr. Rudy Day
Mr. Rudy Day
Mr. Rudy Day
Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson, with Tim Tuten
Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson, with Tim Tuten
Tim Samuelson tells the history of the Hideout
Tim Samuelson tells the history of the Hideout
Jon Langford & Skull Orchard
Jon Langford & Skull Orchard

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The birthday cake
The birthday cake
JC Brooks Band
JC Brooks Band
JC Brooks Band
JC Brooks Band
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day

BÖC, Rob Mazurek & Emmett Kelly and Horse Lords

Friday, Aug. 26, was another two-concert night for me. Talk about strange juxtapositions. I started out the evening by driving to Skokie for a free show by Blue Öyster Cult at the Backlot Bash street festival… which was pretty good, as far as classic rock band shows go. But alas, I missed the big finish with “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Godzilla” so I could make it to the Hideout in time for a show on the more experimental end of the spectrum…

Blue Öyster Cult

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Rob Mazurek and Emmett Kelly

I got to the Hideout in time to see the record-release show for Rob Mazurek and Emmett Kelly. Mazurek is best known as a jazz musician, playing cornet as well as using electronics. Kelly is a versatile guitarist, playing with both rock and jazz groups, as well as a fine singer-songwriter in his own right, leading the Cairo Gang. On the new album Alien Flower Sutra. Kelly’s voice drifts through strange sonic landscapes sculpted by Mazurek. The music was equally strange in Friday’s live performance.

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Horse Lords

Their set was followed by Horse Lords, a band from Baltimore playing instrumental music that might get categorized as jazz — though it sounded to me more like progressive rock along the lines of King Crimson or krautrock, with guitar, sax, bass and drums locked into rigorous patterns. Whatever genre it is, it was damn impressive.

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The Rizdales at the Hideout

The Rizdales — a country band from London, Ontario — played Aug. 20 at the Hideout, apparently playing in Chicago for the first time ever. Although the group records original music by the husband-and-wife songwriting team Tom and Tara Dunphy, its most recent album is Blue Ain’t The Word: A Tribute to the Music of Ray Price, and this show was a tribute to Price and his music. Three Chicago singers joined the Rizdales onstage during the show: Jon Langford, Rachel Drew and Lawrence Peters, who also opened the concert. It made for an enjoyable night of old-fashioned country music.

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Rachel Drew
Rachel Drew
Lawrence Peters
Lawrence Peters

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Jon Langford
Jon Langford

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Lawrence Peters Outfit
Lawrence Peters Outfit

Freakwater at the Hideout

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.

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Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin of Freakwater sing with opening act Jaye Jayle.

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Opening act Morgan Geer’s Drunken Prayer. (Geer also played guitar with Freakwater.)
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Dave Gay plays with opening act Morgan Greer’s Drunken Prayer. (Gay is also Freakwater’s bassist.)
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Opening act Jaye Jayle.

Bitchin Bajas at the Hideout

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.

Bitchin Bajas

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J.J. Cale tribute band

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Chicago Psych Fest

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.

Lavasse

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The Singleman Affair

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ADT

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Spires That in the Sunset Rise

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Circuit Des Yeux at the Hideout

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.

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Marisa Anderson

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Slow Planes

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The Mekons at Square Roots, Hideout & Poetry Foundation

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The Mekons took questions from the audience near the end of their set Monday evening at Chicago’s Poetry Foundation — which was billed as “A Quiet Night In with the Mekons: readings, writings and songs.” Someone asked what it was like being one of the last punk bands from the original 1977 era still standing. “We’ve had a long career, but it’s mostly because we haven’t thought of it as a career,” Jon Langford replied. Tom Greenhalgh observed that the music business tends to destroy bands and people. Rico Bell noted that the Mekons have stayed together for so long because they’re friends. And Lu Edmonds said, “The album that means the most to everyone in the band is the next one.”

The longevity and continued vitality of the Mekons are remarkable. This band just keeps going on and on, and I hope it never stops. Mekons tours don’t happen all that often, because the musicians are so spread out — some living in Chicago, others elsewhere in the U.S., some of them still residing in Great Britain, where the band got started. The group reconvened last week, practicing in Miller Beach, Ind., heading out on a short tour and making plans to record a new album — for the first time, making a record of new songs at a live performance. As Sally Timms explained Monday, “We’re doing to record a new record in the amount of time it takes to listen to it.”

Whenever Langford announces the band’s name and its place of origin in concert, he says, “We’re the Mekons from Leeds.” But since Langford and Timms live in Chicago, this city feels like the Mekons’ second home. And so it seemed fitting that the Mekons are playing four gigs in Chicago on this tour. I saw three of those shows: Friday, July 10, at the Square Roots Fest, a street festival in Lincoln Square; Saturday, July 11, at the Hideout; and Monday, July 13, at the aforementioned Poetry Foundation event. The Mekons are also playing another show at the Hideout on Wednesday.

All of the Mekons’ regular members were there except for bassist Sarah Corina. Dave Trumfio, who produced the Mekons’ 1994 record Retreat From Memphis, filled in on bass, with Langford introducing him as “Baron Von Trumfio.”

Mekons fans came from far and wide for these shows. On Saturday, I encountered people from St. Louis, Seattle, Austin, California and Kentucky at the Hideout. And I’ve talked with Chicago fans who are trekking to see the Mekons on Tuesday in Mineral Point, Wis., or at other shows east of Chicago. This is a band that inspires devotion from its fans — and the Mekons proved themselves worthy of such enthusiasm at their shows in Chicago over the past four days.

Even though they’re preparing to make a new record, they didn’t fill their concerts with those songs-in-progress. Instead, these were more like greatest-hits shows. On Friday, the Mekons threw down the gauntlet with their opening song, starting the show with that rampaging anthem, “Memphis, Egypt.” On Saturday, they saved that song for the end of the regular set. Both nights ended with their early punk classic, that urgent question “Where Were You?” Friday’s set included an especially lovely medley that blended the waltzes “Shanty” and “Wild and Blue.” Both nights were filled with rollicking rock, country hoedowns and plenty of choruses sung and shouted by the band’s four (or sometimes, even five) vocalists, prompting joyful singalongs and dancing in the crowd.

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Greenhalgh, who’s really an essential part of this collective that lacks a single frontman, missed some Mekons concerts a few years ago. But he was back this time, and in great form, especially when he took the lead vocals on “(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian.” And it was a true pleasure to hear the Mekons delivering a charging version of another great song from the So Good It Hurts album, “Fantastic Voyage,” on both Friday and Saturday. (Saturday’s show also featured a kicking opening set by the Ungnomes, a local teen punk band led by Jon Langford’s son, Jimmy.)

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Monday’s show was decidedly different, with unplugged performances of several songs as well as recitations of poetry, fiction and Mekons lyrics. The band’s lyrics, which were collected in the 2002 book Hello Cruel World, have always been highly literate. Often composed as a group effort — a process Timms discusses in a recent Poetry Magazine article — Mekons lyrics avoid feeling pretentious or stiff or overwrought, but they manage to sneak some rather sophisticated ideas and allusions worthy of academic footnotes into those rock ’n’ roll songs. And so, when the various members of the Mekons stood up on Monday to recite lyrics as if they were poems, it came off as rather impressive. And the stripped-down versions of Mekons songs were beautiful.

At all three of these shows, the Mekons were loose without being sloppy or shambolic. They flubbed a few lyrics here and there, but those moments just gave the Mekons another reason to laugh at themselves and carry on, making life-affirming music the way they’ve been doing since 1977.

Square Roots

The Mekons performing Friday, July 10, at the Square Roots Fest in Lincoln Square.

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The Hideout

The Mekons performing Saturday, July 11, at the Hideout, with opening act the Ungnomes.

The Ungnomes
The Ungnomes

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The Poetry Foundation

The Mekons performing Monday, July 13, at the Poetry Foundation.

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DRMWPN and Chicago Psych Fest at the Hideout

The Chicago group DRMWPN (pronounced “Dream Weapon”) hasn’t played for several years, which made its performance last night (Jan. 31) at the Hideout noteworthy. I wrote about DRMWPN in a 2007 article for Signal to Noise magazine about Chicago’s drone music scene. The band, if that’s what it is, does just one thing: perform a single piece of music that rises and descends like a wave. DRMWPN played the final set of the final night of Chicago Psych Fest VI, with a who’s who of great Chicago musicians assembled on the stage to find that perfect chord, and it was beautiful.

The evening started with the dreamy, reverberating keyboards and vocals of Matchess. Then came three sets heavy on the jamming, by the bands Underground Symposium, Dark Fog and Unmanned Ships. Most of these musical acts performed with trippy projections of shifting colorful shapes. But when DRMWPN played, all of the light came from the spinning appliance known as the Dream Machine. The Hideout hummed as a snowstorm began outside.

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Matchess
Matchess
Underground Symposium
Underground Symposium
Dark Fog
Dark Fog
Dark Fog
Dark Fog
Unmanned Ship
Unmanned Ship

The Flat Five: Interviews with Scott Ligon and Kelly Hogan

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The Flat Five are a supergroup of the Chicago music scene, combining five terrific talents: Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall. The group plays a delightfully diverse range of cover songs, and it’s working on its first album, a collection of songs written by Ligon’s brother, Chris Ligon (longtime co-host of the Chris & Heather calendar shows at FitzGerald’s with his wife, cartoonist Heather McAdams). The Flat Five is halfway through a series of four Thursday-night shows at the Hideout. You have two more chances to catch them during this residency: Nov. 13 and 20. (I included these Flat Five shows on a list of this season’s recommended pop concerts in the Nov. 3 issue of Crain’s Chicago Business.)

Last week, the group performed on the floor of the Hideout in front of the stage, focusing on quieter songs, while the audience included people sitting on the stage. After a 90-minute set, the Flat Five took a break and then came back with a jar full of songs requested by the crowd, playing some of those for the next hour and a half.

Last month, I interviewed two members of the Flat Five, Scott Ligon and Kelly Hogan. Here’s an edited transcript of those conversations, interspersed with my photos from last week’s show.

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SCOTT LIGON

Q: How would you explain the concept of the Flat Five?

A: We’re a bunch of friends that have played together over the years in different incarnations. And the Flat Five is an opportunity for us to all do things that we would otherwise never do in any other band. It gives us a chance to explore music that we couldn’t really do in any other band. But more than anything, it just gives us a chance to sing together, and that’s what we love to do.

When I first moved to Chicago, I came up here because I’d struck up a relationship with Kelly. The first time we ever sang together, we just had this magical experience. It was almost like we’re separated at birth or something. I actually have a recording of our first gig, which we only had one rehearsal for. It’s a show that my brother Chris and Heather were putting on at FitzGerald’s, and Kelly was supposed to do a short set with her friend Andy Hopkins. And Andy Hopkins wasn’t going to be able to make the show. And so she was thinking she wasn’t going to be able to make the show. And she was actually telling my brother Chris this while I was at his house. I had seen Kelly sing maybe one time, and I volunteered — I said, “Hey, you know what? I’ll do a set with Kelly.”

And we just started discussing some things on the phone, and discovered we had a lot of music in common. We got together the night before the show and sang together. And I swear, there’s no difference between the way we sang that night and the way we sing together now, over 10 years later. I have a recording of that night, and it sounds like we’d been singing together for years. So we did have this sort of magical connection right away.

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I had been thinking about moving to New York. I was living in Peoria at the time. And my connection with Kelly made up my mind about not moving to New York and sticking with Chicago. I’d been here once before. So, I came up here and immediately started doing Thursday nights with Kelly at the Hideout and working the door on other nights. We were just doing duets at the Hideout.

At some point, she said, “I have this wonderful friend Nora who’s a fantastic singer. We should have her out some night.” And Nora just came out and sat in, and it was the same thing — it was like this magic that happened the very first time that the three of us all sang together. We all knew exactly what to do, you know? We all knew what part to take on any given song, and so then we started doing a trio thing. We had been offered a gig opening for the Blind Boys of Alabama, which seemed like an odd thing for us to do. So we decided to do some — sort of the opposite side of the coin. We decided to do some white gospel and country gospel music. None of us are particularly religious, but we like a lot of music. (Laughs.) So we were doing that for a while under the name the Lamentations. We were doing that for a little while and peppering the set with just little country music and some other oddities.

While this was going on, I had been getting to know this guy, Casey McDonough — who I was discovering I also had this strange connection with, almost separated-at-birth kind of thing. We found out that we had met one another maybe 20 years earlier, when we were kids. We were in our teens and we met at BeatleFest, apparently. So we had this Beatle connection. Casey started working with me in my country and western band, the Western Elstons. And we start developing a duet style together. And I thought, “Man, he would be perfect for this thing with me and Kelly and Nora.” So, he joined that band, and then all of a sudden we had all of this music to draw from. Because Kelly and I had our list of songs that we were performing. And we had a complete selection of tunes we were doing with Nora. And Casey and I had this whole other bag that we were doing. And we just decided to put it all together in one group and not be concerned about style, but to just be concerned about substance. And so was born the Flat Five.

Q: And you had Gerald Dowd on drums originally, and now Alex Hall.

A: Yes, Gerald Dowd was with us for two or three years. We played so infrequently. There were some conflicts when Gerald couldn’t do it, so we started using Alex. Casey and Alex and myself had developed a little trio called the Letter 3. I was playing piano, and we were mostly doing jazz and rhythm and blues and stuff like that. So it seemed to make sense to bring Alex into the band. Once again, we had a whole other group’s worth of material to add to the Flat Five’s set. So, the Flat Five is comprised of maybe five different bands, actually.

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Q: How do you describe the range of music that you guys play? Is there a common thread?

A: I don’t think that musically there’s necessarily a common thread. I think the common thread is just that these songs are fantasy songs for us — songs that maybe in the past we fantasized that we wish we could do someday in a band. It gives us an opportunity. Because of the range of the band — because we’re able to cover so many different styles and we have so many singers — we are able to do things we wouldn’t be able to do in any other band. Recently we’ve been doing this song, it’s a musical version of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” which I heard 30 years ago on an old Buddy Morrow record called “Poe for Moderns.” It’s a big band arrangement of “The Raven,” and it’s just this really odd little song that I doubt any of my friends had ever heard, but it’s something that stuck with me for decades.

Q: When I was trying to figure out one of your set lists and I was Googling the various songs, I think that was the one that I couldn’t identify. Where did this come from? And part of the problem was that if you search for “The Raven,” you get all sorts of stuff about Edgar Allan Poe.

A: It’s wonderful to be able to stump the Internet. And we don’t do these things to be — we don’t do anything because people aren’t aware of it.

Q: You’re not being deliberately obscure?

A: No, I’m not. I don’t mean to speak for the others. To me, that’s just being cute, you know? That song really meant something to me.

Q: It’s jazzy, with a Manhattan Transfer or Swingle Singers sort of harmony.

A: The music itself is very challenging, and that’s part of what’s really fun. Because none of us are classically trained or anything like that. So, it gives us an opportunity to really stretch. It’s one thing to appreciate a piece of work that’s done in five-part harmony. It’s another thing to figure out how it’s done. And then figure out how to do it.

Q: So you guys are figuring this out by ear by hearing the records?

A: Exactly. That’s how we do everything. And none of us is a trained arranger. It’s just all for the love of the songs that we choose to perform.

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Q: I think it’s interesting how you could step into a Flat Five gig and you guys would be doing vocal harmonies on a Hoagy Carmichael song. And at that moment, I’ll think this is a concert that jazz fans or fans of the Great American Songbook would love. And then a minute later, you’re wailing on a guitar solo and it’s suddenly more of a rock concert. And five minutes after that, now you’re doing country music. I appreciate all of that. But I wonder: Are there people here who like only one of these kinds of music — and what do they think about the rest of the show?

A: You know, that’s the thing. I’m sure you’re aware of the fact that I’m currently a member of NRBQ. That band — and some other rock ’n’ roll bands in the past were unafraid to do any kind of music. The Beatles did whatever kind of music they wanted to. And nobody said, “Oh, they’re doing all these different kinds—” It was just under the umbrella of the Beatles. Now, I’m not comparing us to the Beatles or anything like that. But NRBQ works in the same tradition. Music is music, and if it moves you, it moves you, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s about being connected to the spirit of this music. Classifying, I think, is troublesome. Because I get just as much joy out of listening to an old Hoagy Carmichael record as I do listening to the Ramones. Most of my friends, most of my musical friends, they’re the same way, you know? But people think you have to do something in order to be successful, you know? If you have to present something in a certain way in order to be successful, I don’t really want to be part of it. I just want to play music because I love it. And that’s what we do. We’re unconcerned about categories.

Q: The article in the Chicago Reader several years ago portrayed you as this great musician who wasn’t putting out a lot of recordings. And I’ve often though the same thing about Nora and Kelly — at least Kelly had a record come out on Anti- last year, but it took 10 years where she was doing all kinds of stuff: touring with Neko, playing shows at the Hideout. And the Western Elstons are playing at Simon’s. So you guys are all very busy, but if I look you guys up on allmusic.com and look at your discographies, you look like you’re not doing much. For you, is the focus just doing music in a live setting? Or have the opportunities to make records just not come along as often as they do for some people?

A: I think it’s a combination of things. First of all, I’m not going to work a regular job. I’ve been making a living playing music for 20 years now, and it’s not easy. It’s not easy to keep yourself booked all the time. It’s also not easy to make a living playing music and to continue to do things that you really love to do. Now, it’s taken me some time to get to the point where I’m comfortable with all of the different projects that I’m involved in. Currently, I’m not doing anything that I don’t really enjoy. Which is a great thing. But it takes up a lot of your time. And also, I think you could also say that maybe we’re a little lazy.

Q: But you’re keeping busy playing live shows, which isn’t a sign of laziness.

A: I don’t want to speak for Kelly and the others concerning this particular topic. But you know, I’ve had some kind of strange goals in life. All I ever wanted to do was play music and enjoy it. That’s all I ever cared about. And then you come into this thing where — well, the music business, they sort of define success for you. Well, I’m not going to let anybody define my own success for me. I’m going to do things. I’ve always been very stubborn about the way I want to live my life and the way I want to spend my time. I had sort of been chasing this (NRBQ) thing around for a long time. I saw them for the first time when I was 18, and it just changed my life. I just knew that I was somehow supposed to be connected — I was connected to this group. I was busy trying to make a living in bands, but I always had this NRBQ thing hanging around in my consciousness. Twenty years of thinking about it and feeling as though I was supposed to be involved in it — 20 years later, I ended up being in the band.

Q: That’s kind of remarkable, isn’t it?

A: It is a crazy story. I mean, it really is. It literally is a dream come true. I used to have dreams, actual dreams, that I was — “Oh my God, I’m up onstage playing in this band.” Or: “Oh my God. (NRBQ leader) Terry Adams just walked into the room while I’m playing.” Just things like that. I was pretty geeked out about that band. And it did come true. And the strange thing is, it’s not like I was really actively pursuing it, but I just always had some strange feeling about it. So, like I said, who’s to define success? In my mind, I kind of got what I wanted.

In high school, I remember counselors saying — I think they all thought I wanted to be famous. They didn’t get it. All I ever cared about was just playing good music. Because I started from a really young age, and it just got in me. I just knew from the time that I was in sixth or seventh grade that this is what I’m going to be doing. And I’m very fortunate to be able to do it and to be able to pay my bills.

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Q: And now Casey has joined NRBQ, too.

A: He’s in every band that I’m in. (Laughs.)

Q: Obviously that takes up a portion of your time. But you have a pretty good balance of doing that and other things like the Flat Five and the Western Elstons?

A: It takes some doing to give each one of those things their space. But yeah, it’s all that I do. You’re constantly juggling all of these different things. And Kelly’s doing the same thing: Working with Neko and doing all of the different projects that she’s involved in. But we’ve always had this soft spot in our hearts for the Flat Five. For a time, we were doing it once year and then maybe twice a year.

Q: Was that mostly because of scheduling issues?

A: Pretty much. People were so busy. I think at the time, the Neko thing was really taking off, and Kelly is very devoted to Neko. And at the same time, the thing with NRBQ was taking off for me. So we needed that space to be able to cultivate these things.

Q: So, as you do this residency at the Hideout, you’re preparing to do an album of all covers of your brother’s songs?

A: Yeah, that’s what we’re proposing. Sort of a tribute to my brother’s music.

Q: Why don’t you describe what your brother is all about, musically?

A: I can’t describe what my brother is all about. I really can’t. To me, that music is completely singular. There’s just nothing like Chris Ligon. There’s nothing like what it is that he does.

Q: How old are you, and how old is he?

A: Well, he’s 12 years older than me. I’m 44. I grew up with his music in the house. It was great, because he always involved me in his music, from the time that he started making these weird recordings in the basement. The very first song that I ever remember him working on that he asked me to be a part of was a song called, “Your Cheeks Are Redder As Hell.” (Laughs.) And I think I might have played vacuum cleaner on that song. And he had some other really bizarre songs early on. One called, “I Guess They Call Me Butter Fingers.”

He’s a fabuloulsy original creative songwriter. He has the ability to make — he can create a song that is based on a form that is familiar. He also has the ability, I think, to create new music, which is really hard to do.

Q: You mean, new in a way that it’s different from anything else?

A: Where it’s literally not based on anything you’ve ever heard before. And that’s almost impossible. And it takes a really special person to be able to do that.

Q: If you go ahead with these plans for an album, when is that likely to happen?

A: Well, we have started. The great thing is, we’re doing this on our own time and our own money.

Q: No label involved at this point?

A: No, not at this point. So, we’re our own boss. And we’ll just do it as time allows. But it’s really exciting, because one of the things that was happening over the last couple of years was this feeling of: God, like, are we crazy? Why are we only doing this once a year? You know? It just became this thing where we’re going to be sorry if we don’t do something about this band, if we don’t document some of what we’re capable of. And you know, we really love each other. It’s a really fun thing to do. We’re hoping to be able to try to do it more often. We’ve begun doing it sort of more quarterly. Maybe four times a year instead of twice.

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 KELLY HOGAN

Q: What’s your summary of what the Flat Five is all about?

A: I was trying to explain it to my mom, because I was playing her some of our stuff we’ve been recording. I don’t know. We’re unapologetically groovy. We like it so much. It’s almost like it doesn’t matter if anybody shows up. We’re junkies, man. We just love that harmony, and, like, the harder the arrangement, the more we like it. It’s joy. All our inner-band emails, the word “joy” comes up all the time. And “groovy.” This morning, we were writing each other. I was like, “Yall, let’s just go ahead and be weird. ’Cause you know we’re already weird. Let’s be as weird as we want to be.”

Q: Is there a common thread in all of the songs that you guys do?

A: Joy? Curiosity and joy. Just trying it on. Trying on all the clothes. All the crayons. We just start throwing songs at each other. Like: “This is one I’ve always wanted to do.” And we’ll always try everybody’s baby, at least once. Some songs jibe and some don’t. Everybody brings their faves to the table.

Q: With some of these songs, are you creating three-, four- or even five-part harmonies that weren’t in the original recordings?

A: Oh, yeah, most definitely. We do that, like when we covered the Dan Wilson song, “All Kinds.” Because everybody — especially Alex, Casey and Scott — they can do everything. They play everything. Alex, our drummer, sings like a dream. So we just want to show him off. He has a nice bass voice. That’s the joy — that vibration. The harmony thing is really what’s our glue. So, why make Alex miss out? We’ll find a part for Alex. We’ve got to give him a piece of the frosting on it, too. We can’t be hoggin’ all the sugar.

Q: Scott traced the whole thing back to the first time he sang with you, as a duo. The way he remembers it, the minute he started singing with you, he could tell it was going to be a great thing having these two voices blend together — that it was very natural. Is that how you remember it?

A: It was amazing. Yeah. I know where I was sitting in my living room when we sort of looked at each other across the coffee table and were like, “Uh-huh. All right. Yeah.” Scott and I talked for, like, 10 minutes on the phone, just about what we were going to do. I got off the phone and turned to my roommate at the time and said, “Oh my God.” I looked at the set list Scott and I had made. I said, “Every band that we’re covering ends in Brothers or Sisters.” The Everly Brothers, the Davis Sisters, the Wilburn Brothers. For someone you’ve never sung with before, this is going to have to click or it’s going to be a disaster. Everything we were about to sing was super-close intuitive, blood-relation harmony. I wasn’t thinking about it when we were talking but then I was like, “Oh boy. It’s going to crash and burn.”

But then Scott came over, and as soon as we started singing together — and then, I think I mentioned Georgie Fame, and we bonded over Georgie Fame and Lou Rawls. It’s just that thing where I could start singing the first line of a song and Scott would just join in. And that’s what happens in Flat Five practices all the time. We have a hard time sometimes getting to the actual song we’re supposed to be practicing, because all of a sudden we’re doing the Guess Who. Somebody just starts humming a song, and all these guys, they just know how to do it. It’s this intuitive thing. We’re eating and sleeping and breathing music. It’s very organic.

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Q: Do you feel like you have a harmony relationship with each of the different people you sing with? When you sing with Neko, there’s one thing happening, but with you sing with Scott, there’s a different thing?

A: Oh, yeah. Definitely, definitely. There’s different ways of singing. As a harmony singer, there’s this way that you — have you ever laid tile? Where you score the putty? It’s almost like you fit into it. Like it’s a different way of scoring and texturizing your voice against somewhere else’s. And that can vary from song to song. There are different colors. What’s fun with Nora and Scott and all these guys, is we can have the whole box of crayons. We can do all different types, from country harmonizing — rough, the bluegrass types of chords and intervals — and then get to the Free Design, and it’s all (sings in bright tones), “Ba Ba Ba.” Then it’s all groovy again. We can’t say no.

Q: You went for a period where you were playing one show per year. Now it’s a little more than that. Has it just come together scheduling-wise, that you’re able to do more?

A: Yeah. Well, we’ve made more of an effort. Once Scott and Casey got with NRBQ, it was even more difficult to do even the once a year. So we’ve really made a concerted effort, because we really like it. When you play once a year and you practice, you don’t want to do the same songs all the time. But everybody’s so busy. So we’ve made a concerted effort to expand our repertoire, which already has like 85 songs in it. Then, we’ve bandied the idea of doing the Chris Ligon catalogue. Scott and I have mentioned to each other for years, and then we were like: “We need to do this. We need to do this.” So we made our plan and everybody’s made their sacrifices, schedule-wise. I mean, I have to drive in from Wisconsin, so I do a lot of couch surfing and stuff. But it’s so worth it.

Q: So for people who don’t know Chris Ligon’s music: Who is he and what’s his music all about?

A: (Laughs.) Oh my God. It’s sophisticated, weird and twisted, dark and light at the same time, you know? With that sort of wry sense of humor. I don’t know. He’s loose and tight. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s happening in there. I just can’t get enough of it. Freestyle. A feral kind of thing. But very sophisticated musicality. And like, Dr. Demento’s going to have the biggest boner. That kind of thing.

Q: What do you have planned for the last two shows of the residency at the Hideout?

A: The last week (of the Hideout residency) on the 20th, Chris and Heather are going to be our co-stars. Chris Ligon is going to do his own set, Heather is going to show films. Nov. 13 is called Flat Five and Friends. Max Crawford is going to come join us and there may or may not be an entire Beach Boys album done in order.

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A night of international garage rock at the Hideout

It was cool to see bands from other parts of the world playing loud rock music last Friday night, Aug. 8, at the Hideout, as well as a couple of the Chicago bands that are regulars in the local scene. The evening started with Sultan Bathery, a group from Vicenza, Italy, who cranked out riffs like a punk version of a 1950s roadhouse band. Then came Chicago’s Uh Bones with more of a 1960s vibe. As the guys in Uh Bones started to turn off their amps, some enthusiastic fans shouted, “Play that cover! ‘Gloria’!” And so the band did an encore, playing the classic 1960s song by Van Morrison and Them, “Gloria,” which was a staple of garage-rock gigs back in that era. The song can still get a crowd going. I videotaped about a minute of it on Friday:

Next up was Make-Overs, a guitar-and-drums duo from South Africa, whose music was the most modern-sounding of anything all night, but still very rough and jagged, keeping with the spirit of things. Another guitar-and-drums duo, Chicago’s ubiquitous White Mystery, closed out the night with a typically raucous performance, their red curls flying.

Sultan Bathery

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Uh Bones

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Make-Overs

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White Mystery

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A shrine to the dead

While I was at the Hideout, I snapped this shot of a memorial shrine in the front bar, with pictures of longtime Hideout patron Daniel Blue, left, and Studs Terkel.

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Robbie Fulks and Michael Shannon at the Hideout

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Robbie Fulks’ Monday-night shows at the Hideout are never the same, covering a huge variety of music and guest-starring all sorts of folks. This week, the theme was a tribute to the late Lou Reed, with a beginning-to-end performance of Reed’s 1982 album Blue Mask. And the special guest — the guy who sang Reed’s songs — was Michael Shannon, the Oscar-nominated actor and cast member of the Boardwalk Empire series on HBO.

Shannon has acted in many Chicago stage plays over the years, and he’s no stranger to live music, either, playing guitar and singing in the band Corporal. And he did an outstanding job “as” Lou Reed — not exactly impersonating the legendary singer but putting across his words and minimal melodies in a style that wasn’t too far removed from Reed’s trademark manner.

Fulks stayed in the background, playing guitar and incongruously wearing overalls. (Explaining his decision to recruit Shannon for lead vocals, Fulks said, “Who’s going to take a guy in overalls singing Lou Reed songs seriously?”) Fulks assembled a crack band to play Blue Mask, including Alex Hall on drums, Jason Narducy on bass, Grant Tye on guitar and Scott Stevenson on keyboards.

The Hideout doesn’t usually sell tickets in advance for Fulks’ Monday-night shows, but it did this time, and it sold out ahead of time. Shannon remarked that he hadn’t heard Blue Mask until Fulks asked him to perform him. As he was listening to the record, his wife — fellow actress Kate Arrington — pointed out that the final song on the album, “Heavenly Arms,” is sung to someone named Sylvia. That just happens to be the name of Shannon and Arrington’s young daughter. She was in the Hideout audience on Monday night with her mom, and Shannon dedicated “Heavenly Arms” to her, filling the song with what was clearly some deep fatherly love.

Addendum: Shannon will perform in “The Hal Russell Story,” a concert at 6: 30 p.m. July 31 at Millennium Park, performing the texts that the late Russell spoke on the  1992 album of the same name. See the park’s website for more details on the show. Thanks to the Chicago Reader’s Peter Margasak for the tip.

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Langford, Timms and Fulks at the Hideout

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Two of the Mekons — Jon Langford and Sally Timms — are preparing to tour Scotland in August, along with another member of Chicago’s alt-country scene, Robbie Fulks. And to help raise money for this trip, the three played together Sunday (July 13) at the Hideout. (Mark Guarino wrote a Sun-Times article about the whole Mekons-Fulks Scottish adventure.)

Most of the songs at Sunday’s show came from the Mekons’ vast discography, including a few deep cuts. It was cool to hear Fulks adding his acoustic guitar leads and solos to these songs, and he even sang lead vocals on the classic tune “Sometimes I Feel Like Fletcher Christian,” usually sung by Tom Greenhalgh. (That’s one of the songs you can hear in the appearance Langford, Timms and Fulks made on WBEZ.) And it was really lovely to hear Timms sing one of Fulks’ songs, “In Bristol Town One Bright Day.”

The trip to Scotland will include a recording session — so we can expect to hear some new music by the Mekons, or some version of the band anyway, someday soon.

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Eleventh Dream Day, Dump and Sidi Toure

You have two more chances this month to see Eleventh Dream Day. The band is playing every Sunday in April at the Hideout, trying out some new songs for an upcoming album. They sounded just as fiery as ever at last week’s show, which featured two excellent opening acts: Malian guitarist Sidi Toure (accompanied by n’goni virtuoso Abdoulaye Koné aka Kandiafa and joined on a couple of songs by Chicago harmonica player Billy Branch) and Dump (the solo side-project pseudonym of Yo La Tengo’s James McNew).

Sidi Toure, Kandiafa and Billy Branch

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Dump (James McNew)

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Eleventh Dream Day

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Precious Blood at the Hideout

Photos of Precious Blood on Feb. 25 at the Hideout, featuring Nora O’Connor, Danny Black and Kevin McDonough, a show that wrapped up O’Connor’s outstanding February residency at the Hideout.

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Ed Holstein and Steve Dawson at the Hideout

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A hundred-some people turned out at the Hideout on Saturday afternoon, Feb. 22, for a folk music concert organized by local music journalist Mark Guarino. Billed as “From Old Town to Greenwich Village: Songs of the American Folk Revival,” it featured Ed Holstein and Steve Dawson.

Holstein, a well-known figure in the Chicago folk music scene of the late 1960s and early ’70s, had never played at the Hideout before. “I always wanted to play by a whole bunch of dump trucks,” he remarked. Holstein played songs by Bob Dylan, John Prine, Mississippi John Hurt and others, interspersing the music with entertaining stories from Holstein’s own early experiences as a folk singer. He reminisced about his first gigs at the Earl of Old Town, which just happened to fall during the Democratic National Convention of 1968. “The opening act was the National Guard,” he cracked, noting that Vincent Price was in the audience, trying to impress a young woman with the fact that he had all of this singer’s recordings back at his hotel room (apparently thinking — or hoping that the woman would think — this was Bob Dylan or someone more famous than the young Holstein).

Dawson started off the show with a several of his own songs as a couple of folk covers, then returned to play with Holstein at the end of the concert. The crowd sang along with a few of the tunes. Although the Hideout has been hosting folk musicians for years, this was an unusual example of the venue attracting Chicago’s older folk music fans. It would be cool to see more shows like this.

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The Flat Five at the Hideout

The Flat Five, from left: Scott Ligon, Alex Hall, Casey McDonough, Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor
The Flat Five, from left: Scott Ligon, Alex Hall, Casey McDonough, Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor

Nora O’Connor’s monthlong residency at the Hideout continued on Tuesday, Feb. 18, with a show by the band that Hideout owner Tim Tuten called the club’s very own supergroup.  It’s no longer the “Best Cover Band That Plays One Gig a Year,” but that’s just because the Flat Five have slightly increased their performance schedule.

And “cover band” isn’t really an adequate description for this quintet of masterful musicians and singers, who assemble a few times a year to  indulge in their love of finely crafted pop songs, with an emphasis on obscure gems with harmony vocals. Just peruse this week’s set list  (scroll down below the photo gallery) to get an idea of the Flat Five’s electric and impeccable musical tastes.

The Flat Five are Nora O’ConnorKelly HoganScott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall. (Ligon, McDonough and Hall also perform in the Western Elstons, who have a regular gig at Simon’s Tavern, and on Tuesday at the Hideout, they were joined for a while onstage by another member of that band, guitarist Joel Paterson.)

During Tuesday’s marvelous Flat Five show, O’Connor remarked, “This is my favorite band in the world to be in. I feel like I’m playing and watching at the same time.”

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SET LIST

The Raven
The Party (Henry Mancini)
Treat Me Like a Lady (Lesley Gore)
Little Bell (The Dixie Cups)
Birds of a Feather (Joe South)
I Went to Sleep (The Beach Boys)
Mama Don’t Like My Man (Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings)
Caroline (Randy Newman)
Life Line (Harry Nilsson)
Poli High (Harry Nilsson)
Without Rhyme or Reason (Fran Landesman and Bob Dorough)
All Kinds (Dan Wilson)
Florida (Chris Ligon)
Kites Are Fun (The Free Design)
The Winter Is Cold (Wendy & Bonnie)
Love Is Only Sleeping (The Monkees)
No True Love (The Dixie Cups)
[set break]
Sermonette (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross)
Niki (The Third Wave)
Lil’ Darlin’ (Neal Hefti)
When I Stop Dreaming (The Louvin Brothers)
I Want Some More (Colin Blunstone)
Lazybones (Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael)
Don’t Forget to Cry (Everly Brothers)
Grey Funnel Line (Cyril Tawney)
Sad, Sad Girl and Boy (The Impressions)
Love Lotsa Lovin (Lee Dorsey)
Friends (The Beach Boys)
Tomorrow Won’t Bring the Rain (Dion)
Almond Grove (Chris Ligon)
Plastic Man (The Kinks)
That’s Alright (Fleetwood Mac)
Poop Ghost (Chris Ligon)
Let Him Run Wild (The Beach Boys)
Sunday Will Never Be the Same (Spanky & Our Gang)
Don’tcha Hear Me Callin’ To Ya (The Fifth Dimension)

Nora O’Connor’s February residency at the Hideout

One of Chicago’s best singers, Nora O’Connor, is performing every Tuesday night in February at the Hideout. Despite being a regular at the Hideout and collaborating with many other musicians, including Andrew Bird and Robbie Fulks, she’s had only one solo album — the delightful Til the Dawn, released a decade ago by Bloodshot Records — and she doesn’t headline all that many gigs that are billed as Nora O’Connor shows.

O’Connor kicked off her month of shows on Feb. 4 with an intimate set, performed in front of one microphone in the Hideout’s front room. This show as originally billed as the return of Cantina, her old duo with Matt Weber, but he was unable to make it, so it ended up being more of a solo Nora set, with accompaniment from Casey McDonough and Gerald Dowd — plus Hideout sound man Ryan Hembrey, who jumped in on bass guitar for a few songs from Til the Dawn. They called themselves Mantina. And on Facebook, Dowd said they were “a soft-rock trio juggernaut.”

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You have three more chances to see Nora O’Connor this month at the Hideout. On Feb. 11, she’ll lead a band in performing the entirety of the 1973 album Buckingham/Nicks. On Feb. 18, she’ll perform as part of the Flat Five. And on Feb. 25, she’ll play as part of Precious Blood, her new band with Danny Black and Kevin McDonough. Here’s Jay Ryan’s poster for the series:

Recap: The Hideout Block Party/A.V. Fest

Almost without fail, the Hideout Block Party is one of the summer’s most entertaining festivals — and that hasn’t changed over the past couple of years, when it combined with the A.V. Club’s A.V. Fest. It feels like a gathering of old friends — in the middle of an concrete-block and corrugated-metal cityscape, with a whiff of trash wafting over from all of the city garbage trucks parked nearby.

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Hideout co-owner Tim Tuen

The banner on this year’s stage, created by the great Chicago poster artist Jay Ryan, depicted garbage trucks tumbling in midair. And on Friday night, the Streets & Sanitation odors were stronger than usual. As Kelly Hogan wryly noted (during Neko Case’s concert, where she was providing her delightful-as-usual harmony vocals): “That breeze feels great even though it smells like dumpster juice.” The smell was worth putting up with because of all the great music, and thankfully, the wind was blowing in another direction on Saturday.

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Neko Case

Unfortunately, the crowd was chatty on Friday night during the sets by Case and Mavis Staples. Wandering around the parking lot, it wasn’t easy to find an area where you could hear the music clearly without being distracted by nearby conversations. As usual, the audience members closest to the stage were the most attentive, and a hush finally fell over most of the crowd when Case daringly performed  “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” an a cappella song from her new album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder IFight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You.  The song delivers a fairly stunning emotional impact in the studio version, and it was only heightened in the live performance. That was the highlight of the night, but the rest of Case’s set was lovely, too — such a subtle mix of tough and tender. The final song of the night was her 2002 classic “I Wish I Was the Moon,” and she performed the opening verse a cappella (or nearly so) — the same way she did the song during the Solid Sound Fest this summer. And once again, Case’s voice rang out with clarity. See more of my photos from Neko Case’s performance.

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Mavis Staples

Earlier in the evening, Mavis Staples ably demonstrated the power of her own voice. The matriarch of Chicago gospel recently had knee surgery, and she told the crowd, “This is my very first concert with the new knee. So I’m going to call this knee ‘the Hideout.'” Staples, who recorded a live album inside the Hideout, does genuinely seem to love the place, and the reception that she gets whenever she plays there. 

Staples’ voice sounded tentative during the first song, her cover of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” (from her excellent new album One True Vine), but there was nothing uncertain about her vocals in the rest of the set, as she gave full-throated glory to songs new and old. Closing with the Staple Singers’ classic “I’ll Take You There,” she exhorted the audience to sing along, taunting  that the crowd’s first attempt at joining in was “weak.” See more of my photos from Mavis Staples’ performance.

Friday also featured the scrappy garage rock of Nude Beach and the acoustic jamming of Trampled by Turtles.

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Nude Beach
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Nude Beach
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Nude Beach
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Trampled by Turtles
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Trampled by Turtles
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Trampled by Turtles

 

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Girl Group Chicago

Saturday was a festive day in the garbage-truck parking lot. I just barely missed the opening set by the Guitarkestra (though I heard the roar of its chord in the distance as I walked up to the Hideout). I arrived in time for a fabulous set by Girl Group Chicago — five singer and 15 musicians, if I counted correctly, playing big renditions of classic girl group songs, joined onstage by the dancing gals known as the Revelettes. See more of my photos from Girl Group Chicago’s performance.

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Jon Langford and Jean Cook
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Jon Langford
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Jean Cook
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Jon Langford

It wouldn’t be a Hideout Block Party without a performance by Jon Langford, and for this one, he played with a new lineup of his Skull Orchard band, playing a new song on the timely topic of “endless war” and closing with a cover of the Faces’ “Debris.” He also played “Haunted,” the song he wrote for Kelly Hogan’s album of last year. “The royalty checks are flooding in,” he joked. “They almost match the parking tickets.”

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The Both (Aimee Mann and Ted Leo)
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The Both (Aimee Mann)
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The Both (Aimee Mann and Ted Leo)
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The Both (Aimee Mann)

Next up was the Both, a duo comprising Aimee Mann and Ted Leo. They’ve recorded an album together, and their musical styles blended with surprising ease during this set, despite some technical difficulties with the mix during the first couple of songs.

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The Walkmen
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The Walkmen
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The Walkmen

The Walkmen sounded as intense as ever during their late-afternoon set; lead singer Hamilton Leithauser was unrelenting.

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Superchunk

It was bittersweet to see Superchunk for the first time without the band’s longtime bass Laura Ballance, which is still recording with the group but has retired from touring. But Jason Narducy did a fine job of handling duties on bass, even getting into Superchunk’s bouncy, jumpy spirit. It seemed like lead singer Mac McCaughan’s feet were a few inches above the stage at just about any given moment during the show, and Superchunk was as lively and exciting as it ever was. New songs, like set opening “FOH,” sounded terrific alongside oldies like “Slack Motherfucker.” And in some comments to the crowd, McCaughan paid tribute to all of the Chicago people and institutions that helped Superchunk over the years, including the Lounge Ax, Steve Albini and Touch and Go Records. See more of my photos from Superchunk’s performance.

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The Hold Steady
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The Hold Steady
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The Hold Steady
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The crowd during the Hold Steady’s set
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The Hold Steady
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The Hold Steady
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The Hold Steady

As darkness fell, the Hold Steady launched into a loud and raucous set. The fans along the barricade by the stage clearly loved frontman Craig Finn’s shout-singing and wild gestures. Since keyboardist Franz Nicolay left the band, its sound has been all guitars, all the time. The nonstop riffing in the first half of the set was a bit much, but when the Hold Steady dug into its back catalog for some of its catchiest choruses at the end, all was well in Hideoutville.

Saturday’s headliner was Young the Giant. Who? … OK, I had heard of this group, but I’ve just barely heard its music. And I knew plenty of other people who turned out to see Superchunk or the Hold Steady and who were largely unfamiliar with Young the Giant. Judging from the people who crowded near the stage at the end of the night, most of Young the Giant’s fans are in their late teens or early 20s. And well … to my ears, Young the Giant’s music was rather bland and generic pop rock. It paled in comparison to the other music I’d been hearing all day. But I can’t complain too much, given how much fun the whole weekend was.

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Young the Giant
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Young the Giant

Hogan and Samarov at the Hideout

Kelly Hogan returned on Sunday night to the venue she calls her favorite — Chicago’s Hideout, of course. It was another outstanding performance by Hogan, featuring most of the songs on her 2012 album I Like to Keep Myself in Pain as well as No, Bobby Don’t and the Magnetic Fields’ “Papa Was a Rodeo.” Here’s my video of that song:

Hogan’s band for this gig was essentially The Flat Five, a group she performs with occasionally, although Casey McDonough and Nora O’Connor switched on their usual instruments — he played guitar while she handled bass duties — and the drummer was original Flat Five-r Gerald Dowd rather than current member Alex Hall. During the long encore, McDonough, O’Connor, Dowd Scott Ligon each took a turn at the microphone. It was like a mini-Flat Five set. (For a full one, check them out June 8 at Space in Evanston.)

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The opening act was Dmitry Samarov — the author, painter and former cabdriver, whom I profiled for the Chicago Reader in 2011. Among his many creative endeavors, Dmitry recently released a CD called Blue Light, featuring his readings of stories accompanied by improvised jazz by guitarist Bill MacKay, drummer Charles Rumback and bassist Daniel Thatcher. The four of them took the Hideout stage on Sunday and made music and stories together, with the laid-back vibe of a guy recounting stories to you in a bar. Well, I guess that’s actually what this was. You can hear the studio recordings — and buy the CD — at http://samarov.bandcamp.com. I especially enjoy the story “Charles Bronson.”

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Freakwater on the Front Porch

Janet Bean played every Tuesday night in April at the Hideout, except for April 23, when one of her bands, Eleventh Dream Day, had to cancel its gig at the last minute. She played with a different group or configuration of musics each week, culminating this week with Freakwater — the alt-country duo she plays in along with Catherine Irwin. The ever-present guitarist Jim Elkington joined them, adding some nice fills and solos to their acoustic strumming.

The weather was so nice on Tuesday that the Hideout moved the concert out onto its front porch. Not many other Chicago venues could do that, but the Hideout sits in the middle of an old industrial area and it can get away with doing something like this. The outdoor setting added to the friendly, casual vibe. Freakwater hasn’t had a new album since 2005, but Bean and Irwin are working on new songs, and they played a couple of them. They also noted that their 1999 song “Dog Gone Wrong” somehow became popular in Turkey for a while.

And they revealed that Freakwater is working on a collaborative project with Jon Langford and Sally Timms of the Mekons. The combined groups might be called the Freakons, Bean said. Sitting in the crowd, Langford called out another suggestion. “Meekwater!”

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Frank Rosaly at the Hideout

The always-inventive Chicago drummer Frank Rosaly has played with many groups of many musical styles, but the sextet Cicada Music is an especially personal project for him. Rosaly is the leader of this ensemble, which has just released its debut album on the Delmark label. The group played April 14 at the Hideout. While Rosaly’s intricate percussion was as remarkable as ever, it was clear from the first note that this was more than just a vehicle for his drumming. These compositions are designed for a full band to explore — and the interplay among the six musicians on the Hideout stage was impressive to behold.

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Frank Rosaly
Keefe Jackson and Jason Roebke
Keefe Jackson and Jason Roebke
Jason Stein
Jason Stein
Jason Adasiewicz
Jason Adasiewicz
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Frank Rosaly
James Falzone
James Falzone

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Hideout SXSW Send Off Party

It’s a March tradition at the Hideout: On the Saturday before the SXSW festival begins in Austin, the club hosts an all-day benefit concert featuring many of the Chicago bands that are heading down to Texas, raising some money to help them cover their travel costs. (They’re not actually getting paid for playing those gigs at SXSW — imagine that.) The lineup was strong this past Saturday (Feb. 9), and I managed to catch the first seven hours of the shindig before I finally bailed — not because the later bands were any less worthy, but just to get some rest.

The afternoon got started with a terrific set by Twin Peaks, a group of guys barely out of high school. I’d noticed them featured in Loud Loop Press’ recent list of 13 local bands to watch in 2013, and the song “Sunken” on their bandcamp page further piqued my interest. They more than lived up to my expectations, bashing out a bunch of catchy songs with some surprisingly Beach Boys-esque harmonies and Television-esque guitar leads.

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Judson Claiborne performed lead singer-songwriter Chris Salveter’s folk rock with a muscular, roots-rock vibe, offering an intriguing preview of the group’s forthcoming record, We Have Not Doors You Need Not Keys.

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The Congregation filled the stage with brassy, old-fashioned soul music, with occasional blasts of Who-style guitar and drums  as a bonus; the group closed with an unexpected cover of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”

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Scott Lucas & the Married Men followed with perhaps the most intense performance of the day, culminating with a searing version of “There Ain’t No Grave (Gonna Hold My Body Down),” filled with some stunning guitar playing by Mr. Lucas.

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The Waco Brothers were billed to play next, but it was actually a combination of the Wacos and another group led by Jon Langford, Skull Orchard. As Langford explained, a couple of the usual Waco members were unavailable to play; I presume he was joking when he explained that Tracey Dear was indisposed because of chafing he’d become afflicted with after a nudist adventure in the jungles of Costa Rica. Langford called tonight’s band, which featured Jim Elkington, “Waco Orchard,” and they played a fun set, finishing with Langford throwing his guitar into the arms of drummer Joe Camarillo for the last chord.

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For a complete change of pace, Frontier played droning, ominous music in nearly complete darkness, other than a few bright beams of light. It should’ve been louder.

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And then the Summer Girlfriends played their sunny girl group tunes, sounding tighter than they did the last time I’d seen them, with at least one brand new song in the set.

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There was plenty more ahead — Mahogany, Outer Minds, The Hood Internet — but that was as far as I made it. Good luck to all of these bands at SXSW!

Mountains at the Hideout

Mountains

Wednesdays are usually a night for jazz and improvisational music at the Hideout. Last Wednesday (Feb. 28), the venue hosted three bands playing instrumental rock music of the sort often called, for lack of a better term, drone. The evening started with Bitchin Bajas, a keyboard/electronics duo comprising Cooper Crane from Cave and Dan Quinlivan from Mahjongg, who got a cool krautrock vibe going by the end of their set. Next up was White/Cream — which is Jeremy Lemos of the band White/Light teaming up with Tim Iseler, joined for this set by the always-inventive Chicago drummer Frank Rosaly. The duo responded to Rosaly’s rhythms as they fashioned subtle electronic patterns.

The headliner was Mountains, the electronics-and-guitars duo of Koen Holtkamp and Brendon Anderegg, who recently released a new album, Centralia, on Thrill Jockey. Live, their music pulsed and washed over the room in waves of chords, a soothing symphony.

(I confess to cheating a bit with some of these photos; the room was dark during the performances, so I captured a few shots of Mountains as they were setting up, before the actual concert began.)

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Bitchin Bajas
Frank Rosaly
Frank Rosaly
White/Cream with Frank Rosaly
White/Cream with Frank Rosaly
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Mountains
Mountains
Mountains
Mountains
Mountains

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Mountains
Mountains

Robbie Fulks, Henry Wagons, etc.

Robbie Fulks

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.

Robbie Fulks
Robbie Fulks
Greg Trooper
Greg Trooper
Panoramic & True
Panoramic & True
Henry Wagons
Henry Wagons
Henry Wagons
Henry Wagons
Henry Wagons
Henry Wagons
Henry Wagons
Henry Wagons
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Ex Cops
Ex Cops
Ex Cops
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Ex Cops

Catherine Irwin at the Hideout

Catherine Irwin

Catherine Irwin

It’s been seven years since the last album by Freakwater, the alt-country duo of Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean, and a decade since Irwin released her last solo record. Thankfully, there’s some action lately on the Freakwater front. The duo is reuniting (reconvening?) for a tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of its album Feels Like the Third Time, with a show Jan. 21 at the Hideout. And Irwin recently released a great solo record called Little Heater, which brought her to the Hideout on Friday night for a delightful set of her rustic, plaintive country-folk songs.

She mostly played songs from the new record, including “Dusty Groove,” which her friend Kelly Hogan also sang on her 2012 album. And Irwin threw in another one of her songs that has been covered by a friend, “Hex,” which Neko Case sang on her 2004 live album, The Tigers Have Spoken. It was great to hear Irwin sing these songs in her own unmistakable voice.

The night started with a set from Rachel Ries, who said she is recording an album in Chicago with help from Emmett Kelly and David Vandervelde. Following Irwin’s set, Mr. Rudy Day (featuring Andy Hopkins, Mike Bulington and Geoff Greenberg) cranked up the volume considerably above the hushed sounds of the acts that preceded them.

Catherine Irwin
Catherine Irwin
Catherine Irwin
Catherine Irwin

Rachel Ries
Rachel Ries

Mr. Rudy Day
Mr. Rudy Day

Syl Johnson and Renaldo Domino

Renaldo Domino
Syl Johnson
Syl Johnson

“The Secret History of Chicago Music” comic strip by Steve Krakow, aka Plastic Crimewave, has started presenting concerts showcasing the city’s overlooked musical acts. The latest edition was on Saturday, Dec. 8, at the Hideout.

Andre Williams was originally scheduled to appear, but when he fell ill, Syl Johnson was the last-minute substitute. So the lineup ended up featuring two great soul singers, Syl Johnson and Renaldo Domino, both of whom have had their music reissued in recent years by Chicago’s esteemed archival label the Numero Group. And both were backed on Saturday night by Expo 76, who played several songs of their own, too — well, several of the fun covers of rock oldies that they specialize in, anyway.

Expo 76 (featuring Dag Juhlin) served its role well as the house band for the night. Domino was suave and soulful. Johnson showed off his Grammy nominee medallion and played his best-known songs, letting loose on some bluesy guitar solos. The highlight was a long, impassioned take on his anthem, “Is It Because I’m Black?”

Dag Juhlin of Expo 76
Dag Juhlin of Expo 76

Syl Johnson
Syl Johnson

Syl Johnson
Syl Johnson

Syl Johnson
Syl Johnson showing his Grammy nominee medallion

Syl Johnson
Syl Johnson

Renaldo Domino
Renaldo Domino

Renaldo Domino
Renaldo Domino

Renaldo Domino
Renaldo Domino

Renaldo Domino
Renaldo Domino

Renaldo Domino
Renaldo Domino

The week in concerts

Mike Cooley

Mike Cooley
Mike Cooley

Notes on the past week’s concerts:

TUESDAY, NOV. 27, THE HIDEOUT — RICK RIZZO AND JANET BEAN: The Hideout’s been hosting some shows lately in its front room, including a few recent gigs by Rizzo, the lead singer and guitarist for Eleventh Dream Day. This time, he was joined by his fellow Eleventh Dream Day member Janet Bean, who normally plays drums and sings. For this unamplified performance, she had jingle bells on her ankles; she also shook a tambourine and occasionally played a Melodica, while Rizzo played acoustic guitar. It was unusual to hear EDD’s songs unplugged. The tunes are meant to rock, but it was cool to hear Rizzo and Bean’s vocal harmonies and lyrics so clearly. They played several new songs, which will probably show up on the next Eleventh Dream Day record, whenever that comes out.

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 28, THE BURLINGTON — DAVID VANDERVELDE: This was the last of four Wednesday-night shows Vandervelde performed during his November “residency” at the Burlington; the only one that I managed to catch. He was in excellent form, playing several songs with buzzing guitar riffs and solos in the style of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. But as always, he also reveled in power-pop melodies. On this occasion, his songs reminded me more than a little bit of Badfinger. Can’t wait to hear his next record. I showed up just in time to catch the last song and a half by Mazes, who seemed to be rocking pretty hard; and alas, I missed the first set of the night, by the Singleman Affair.

THURSDAY, NOV. 29, ALLSTATE ARENA — THE WHO: I hadn’t been planning to see The Who until I got a last-minute offer for a ticket. I’m glad I went. The one time I’d seen The Who before was their “farewell” tour in 1989. And I was skeptical about the whole idea of Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend carrying on as “The Who” without either Keith Moon or John Entwistle. But as much as I’d prefer going in a time machine back to a Who concert circa 1967, they played a remarkably good show this time.

Daltrey’s vocals stayed strong. Townshend twirled his arm in that trademark windmill, making jagged shards out of his rhythm chords. And several musicians filled out the rest of the sounds as they performed the entirety of their complex 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia, followed by a short string of some greatest hits: “Who Are You,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” They should’ve ended the show there, but they went on, with Daltrey and Townshend alone on the stage doing an acoustic duet version of “Tea & Theatre,” from The Who’s 2006 album Endless Wire. It was actually nice to hear the two of them playing by themselves, but the song paled in comparison to everything that had come before it. Still, all in all, a memorable night of music by one of the world’s greatest rock bands — or what remains of it.

FRIDAY, NOV. 30, THE HIDEOUT — MIKE COOLEY: Patterson Hood gets the most attention in the Drive-By Truckers, but the other singer-songwriter-guitarist in the group, Mike Cooley, has been contributing great songs to the band’s albums since the beginning. He rarely plays solo gigs, so it was a privilege to see him sitting down with a couple of acoustic guitars on the Hideout’s stage. Cooley, who generally lets Hood do all the talking between songs at DBT shows, turned out to be a fairly talkative and wickedly funny guy. And what a pleasure to hear his songs in these plucked-acoustic arrangements, which often sounded quite a bit different than the full band versions. A friend who saw Cooley on Thursday night as well told me that he played a lot of different songs the previous night. As Cooley noted, he works without a set list, and he obligingly played some of the songs requested by enthusiastic fans. Highlights included “Zip City,” “Checkout Time in Vegas,” “Marry Me,””Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” and “When the Pin Hits the Shell.”

I had my camera at only one of these concerts, the Mike Cooley show. My photos:

Mike Cooley
Mike Cooley
Mike Cooley
Mike Cooley
Mike Cooley

The dB’s at the Hideout

Chris Stamey of The dB's
Peter Holsapple of The dB's
Peter Holsapple of The dB's

Even back in the 1980s, when The dB’s were going strong with four really cool albums of power-pop music, the band was a little bit under the radar. They were one of those groups that you heard about from obsessive record collectors rather than hearing them on the radio. They were starting to get some attention around 1987, when I saw them opening for R.E.M. at the Assembly Hall in Champaign, but then they broke up shortly after that.

They remained favorites of those obsessive record collectors, however — and in 2005, the original lineup reunited for some gigs, including an appearance at the Hideout Block Party. They started working on a new album. And took seven years doing it. Released this summer, Falling Off the Sky turned out to be a winner, a collection of catchy, clever tunes featuring the voices of Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, sounding just about the same as they sounded 30 years ago. (It probably didn’t hurt that a couple of their old-time cohorts, Mitch Easter and Scott Litt, assisted with production.)

Chicago was lucky to get two dB’s shows this week at a great venue, the Hideout — especially lucky considering how this fall “tour” included just one other concert, in St. Louis.

The dB’s seemed like they were having a great deal of fun on Thursday night, as they dug deep into their back catalog for songs including their 1979 single “Black and White” — and of course, popular tracks like “Amplifier” and “Neverland.” They turned down an audience request for “Molly Says,” with Holsapple admitting that the band was neglecting songs from the 1987 album The Sound of Music — a fine record, in my opinion. But they did insert “Big Brown Eyes” into their set after someone yelled out that song title. And at the end of the night, the dB’s rocked out on a cover of Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want).”

Gene Holder of The dB's
Gene Holder of The dB's

Chris Stamey of The dB's
Chris Stamey of The dB's

Gene Holder of The dB's
Gene Holder of The dB's

Chris Stamey of The dB's
Chris Stamey of The dB's

Peter Holsapple of The dB's
Peter Holsapple of The dB's

Will Rigby of The dB's
Will Rigby of The dB's

Will Rigby of The dB's
Will Rigby of The dB's

The Hideout gigs gave dB’s drummer Will Rigby a chance to put his daughter Hazel in the spotlight. As it happens, she lives in Chicago, playing bass and singing with the band Outside World, who opened for the dB’s — playing fuzzy shoegaze rock, reminiscent of a different slice of 1980s rock music. (According to Joshua Klein’s review in the Chicago Tribune, this was apparently the first time Hazel had ever seen her dad’s band in concert.)

Outside World
Outside World

Outside World
Outside World

Hideout Block Party & A.V. Fest

Two of the summer’s last big music festivals in Chicago vied for attention this past weekend: the Hideout Block Party, which is always one of the season’s most neighborly musical shindigs, and Riot Fest, which expanded beyond its usual indoor confines to become a truly major event in Humboldt Park. I was at the Hideout on Friday and Saturday, including a two-hour Wilco concert, and then I spent Sunday at Riot Fest, culminating with a stunning show by Iggy & the Stooges.

The Hideout Block Party combined forces this year with the Onion’s A.V. Club (which held a separate fest last year at the same location). But it largely felt like a typical Hideout Block Party, with a heavy emphasis on the sort of alt-country and roots-rock music that is the club’s mainstay, though hardly the only genre you’ll hear within its friendly confines.

The two best bands of the night on Friday played early: Cave got the crowd moving with tight krautrock grooves, and then the War on Drugs channeled its rootsier songs into similarly cycling rhythms. The biggest names on the bill for that first night were Glen Hansard and Iron & Wine — both of whom played perfectly pleasant and respectable sets that were a tad too mellow for a headlining festival slot.

Cave
Cave

Tim Tuten
Tim Tuten

The War on Drugs
The War on Drugs

Glen Hansard
Glen Hansard

Iron & Wine
Iron & Wine

Iron & Wine
Iron & Wine

It was worth showing up early for Saturday’s Hideout lineup, which started off at noon with a sterling set of old-fashioned country music by the Lawrence Peters Outfit (led by one of the bar’s regular bartenders). The crowd was still sparse at that hour, but some dancing broke out.

Lawrence Peters Outfit
Lawrence Peters Outfit

Lawrence Peters Outfit
Lawrence Peters Outfit

Next up were the Waco Brothers with Paul Burch, all of them wearing red shirts except for Burch, who made up for it by wearing red shoes. Not surprisingly, given Waco Jon Langford’s history of outspoken support for labor unions, the band was showing its colors in support of Chicago’s striking teachers, and the Wacos played the timely song “Plenty Tough and Union Made.” The Wacos kicked out their catchy riffs with their usual sense of reckless merriment.

Waco Brothers
Waco Brothers

Waco Brothers
Waco Brothers

Waco Brothers and Paul Burch
Waco Brothers and Paul Burch

Waco Brothers and Paul Burch
Waco Brothers and Paul Burch

Kelly Hogan’s been on a roll lately, finally releasing a terrific album, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, after years of keeping her fans waiting for a recording that would match the splendor of her live performances. And she was in top vocal form Saturday afternoon, soulfully singing much of the new album as well as the older song “No Bobby Don’t.”

Kelly Hogan
Kelly Hogan

Kelly Hogan
Kelly Hogan

Kelly Hogan
Kelly Hogan

Kelly Hogan, Jon Langford and Nora O'Connor
Kelly Hogan, Jon Langford and Nora O'Connor

The Corin Tucker Band’s set marked the welcome return of the singer-guitarist who was one-third of Sleater-Kinney. The other two members of that band have been rocking out as part of their excellent new band, Wild Flag, but hearing Tucker’s banshee wails and spiky riffs on songs from her new record, Kill My Blues, was a reaffirming reminder of Tucker’s own riot grrrl credentials.

Corin Tucker Band
Corin Tucker Band

Corin Tucker Band
Corin Tucker Band

Corin Tucker Band
Corin Tucker Band

Performing in the late afternoon, Wild Belle played mellow, reggae-influenced indie pop. More impressive was the solid, driving sounds of the next band, Wye Oak, the Baltimore guitar-and-drums duo. And even better was the act after that, Lee Fields, a soul singer with a sound and songs that evoke the classic tunes of the 1960s. Fields, who released a smartly written and beautifully arranged record this year called Faithful Man, delivered one of the weekend’s best sets with able assistance from his backup band, the Expressions, and a lot of audience members waving their arms.

Wild Belle
Wild Belle

Wild Belle
Wild Belle

Wild Belle
Wild Belle

Wye Oak
Wye Oak

Wye Oak
Wye Oak

Wye Oak
Wye Oak

The Expressions
The Expressions

Lee Fields
Lee Fields

Lee Fields
Lee Fields

Lee Fields
Lee Fields

As darkness fell, Wilco took the stage, which was set up in a city parking lot normally occupied by garbage trucks. “For so many years, they’ve looked past us with the Hideout Block Party,” Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy dryly noted. “What’s up with that? This is one of our favorite places in Chicago. This parking lot. Love the place.”

This Wilco set felt like a bit of a throwback. While the band played the requisite songs you’d expect from its most recent couple of albums, it bookended the show with songs from Being There, and there was plenty from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, too — including moody, tricky songs such as “Poor Places” and “Radio Cure.” The performance ebbed and flowed from dark moments of meditation to intricate prog guitar solos and rousing, foot-stomping rock — the full range of what this remarkable band is capable of. The eight-song encore included one of the Woody Guthrie lyrics that Wilco wrote music for on the Mermaid Avenue records, “Christ for President” — an apt choice in this election season. After dedicating the song to the Hideout impresario Tim Tuten, Tweedy sang Guthrie’s words: “The only way we can ever beat/These crooked politician men/Is to run the money changers out of the temple/Put the Carpenter in.”

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

WILCO SET LIST: Misunderstood / Company in my Back / I Might / Sunken Treasure / Either Way / Hummingbird / Impossible Germany / Born Alone / Radio Cure / Handshake Drugs / Wishful Thinking / Whole Love / Kamera / I Must Be High / Nothingsevergonnastandinmyway(again) / Heavy Metal Drummer / Poor Places / Art of Almost ENCORE: Dawned On Me / A Shot In the Arm / Passenger Side / Christ for President / Walken / I’m the Man Who Loves You / Monday / Outtasite (Outta Mind)

The after show

More on Riot Fest in my next post…

Willis Earl Beal at the Hideout

The emergence of Willis Earl Beal is one of the most fascinating Chicago music stories of the past year. A year ago, he was “super unknown,” as the headline of a terrific Chicago Reader story by Leor Galil put it. Beal was essentially an outsider artist, making lo-fi tapes of his music, never performing in public, without any myspace page or anything like that, who was posting strange flyers about himself, which led to his discovery by Found magazine and the Reader. Now, somehow, Beal landed a deal with a prestigious record label, XL, which has just released an album of his home recordings, Acousmastic Sorcery.

Beal played last night at the Hideout. Although he recently opened for SBTRKT at the House of Blues, this was apparently his first headlining gig in Chicago. As he took the stage in a leather jacket and shades, he remarked, “Since you all came to see me, we’re going to do this my way.” Doing it his way included opening the show with a reading of the Charles Bukowski poem “The Harder You Try.” Then came an a cappella song, followed by several songs featuring Beal singing to tracks he’d records — on a reel-to-reel tape machine, of all things.

He played one song on guitar, briefly struggling with an out-of-tune acoustic and then playing an electric guitar he was unfamiliar with. His guitar playing was rudimentary, off-kilter and almost arhythmic, but his singing was soulful and impassioned. For another song, he sat down at the piano, playing simple notes as he sang. Both of these songs made you wonder what Beal would sound like with professional musicians backing him. Would it enhance his music, or detract from its quirky appeal? As things stand now, Beal is an unusual songwriter and performer who doesn’t easily fit into any category. There are touches of Tom Waits and Screaming Jay Hawkins in what he does. He showed that he’s capable of great blues and soul vocals, but his reel-to-reel accompaniment pushed the songs into stranger, more surreal territory.

Beal went back to a cappella for the final song of the night, “Same Old Tears” — a powerful performance that featured the audience clapping the beat. I videotaped that song and Beal’s comments afterward:

After the song ended, Beal made it clear he’s not that happy with his debut record. “It’s not a reflection of what you just saw on the stage,” he said. “It’s some shit I did when, I just like, I didn’t know what I was doing. It’s like walking in on somebody on the toilet. So, like, buy it, you know, to fill my pockets, but it’s not what you just saw. Also, I’m not a fucking musician. I am a motivational speaker, with harmonious inclinations.” Beal’s being too harsh about his record. He may not have known what he was doing, but that could explain part of what makes Beal so magical.













The opening act last night provided a nice bonus: Quarter Mile Thunder, a new band led by Ben Clarke, played haunting, quiet folk rock with a moody, atmospheric mix of acoustic guitar, piano and synth. “We’ve got a record done if anybody wants to put it out,” Clarke said, prompting some laughs. “It’s true.” Indeed, you can stream the album, Twist, at http://soundcloud.com/quartermilethunder/sets/twist/s-Xmjx9.

The Flat Five at the Hideout

I’m catching up on some recent concert photos — or not so recent, as the case may be. Here are some pictures from the Flat Five shows Dec. 18 at the Hideout. They were as wonderful as always.