Alabama Shakes at the Hideout

The only music they’ve released so far is a four-song EP, but Alabama Shakes are already getting a lot of attention. They wowed a lot of people at CMJ in New York earlier this year. I heard about them through the Twitter/Facebook equivalent of word of mouth — comments from people bowled over by Alabama Shakes concerts. Paste magazine named them the best new band of 2012. Arriving this week for their first gigs ever in Chicago, the band sold out the Hideout on Thursday night (Dec. 15). And wow, did Alabama Shakes live up to the hype. This was the most joyous, energetic and lively musical performance I’ve seen in 2011, and a Hideout crowded with enthusiastic fans was the perfect place to see and hear Alabama Shakes. (They’re playing again tonight (Dec. 17) at SPACE in Evanston — see it if you can!)

The bespectacled young woman at the front of this band, Brittany Howard, has a powerful, soulful voice. But she’s also a talented guitarist, and it was just as thrilling to hear her playing riffs and solos as it was to hear her belting out the words. What a passionate, uninhibited performance it was. The band seamlessly blended Southern rock and soul — like country cousins of the Dap-Tone bands, or a more R&B-leaning version of the Drive-By Truckers. Alabama Shakes played a solid hour of songs, sounding vibrant throughout, and the crowd was shouting for more at the end — even if it meant playing some of the same songs over again.

This jaw-dropping show was preceded by a nice opening set by the Lawrence Peters Outfit, led by Hideout bartender and drummer-about-town Lawrence Peters, featuring some tasty, old-fashioned country music. Quite different from Alabama Shakes, but a good complement. Alabama Shakes attracted a fair number of people who had never been to the Hideout before, and they seemed a bit confused by Hideout owner Tim Tuten’s typically long and strange band intros, but Tuten seemed to win them over with his final rousing words, encouraging everyone to start shaking for Alabama Shakes.
















Lawrence Peters Outfit

Lawrence Peters Outfit

Mannequin Men and Vee Dee

The two Chicago bands playing at the Hideout Saturday night have been around for a few years, but they’ve both just released self-titled records. Does putting out a self-titled record imply that this is the one that defines your sound? Maybe, maybe not. But for both of these bands, Mannequin Men and Vee Dee, these 2011 albums are good starting points for anyone who wants to get familiar with what they’re doing. And both bands rocked pretty hard on Saturday night. Vee Dee’s label, BLVD, describes its music as “scuzz rock.” There’s a good amount of riffing ’70s hard rock, verging on heavy metal, in this trio’s sound, mixed up with garage, punk, glam and, yeah, scuzz.






The Mannequin Men have been playing catchy garage rock (or post-punk or what have you) with deliciously sneering vocals over the course of three albums now, and the new self-titled one is their best set of melodies and riffs so far. There’s even a touch of wistfulness amid the bratty snarling — just a touch. Singer-guitarist Kevin Richard sings lead on most of the songs, but the band’s secret weapon is drummer Seth Bohn, who handled the main vocals on a few of the best tunes Saturday night. The guys sounded loose but never sloppy (it’s a fine line), nailing the riffs when they needed to be nailed.











Hideout Block Party

Tim Tuten

The Hideout celebrated its 15th anniversary in true Hideout style, with a day full of top-notch music. Even the weather turned out pretty nice on Saturday (Sept. 24) — a little chilly at times, but without the downpours of rain or hail that had been predicted. It was a perfect day for the Hideout Block Party, and the diverse concert lineup was a superb representation of musicians who consider the Hideout as their home base, stars who have played there in the past and simply great musicians.

During his set (the final one of the night), Andrew Bird reminisced about sleeping in the Hideout’s upstairs offices a few times! “I don’t know what would’ve happened if it weren’t for the Hideout,” he said, echoing remarks a lot of people on the stage made throughout the day. Bird played several of his most popular songs, but he also tried out several new tunes, bringing out Nora O’Connor to sing harmony vocals (and a verse on one of the songs). His encore was a lovely cover of the Handsome Family song, “So Much Wine” — an apt choice.

Earlier, Bird and O’Connor both made guest appearances during a rousing set by Mavis Staples, who raved about how much she loves the Hideout. “If I could be, I’d be here every day,” she said. “They treat us like royalty.” Staples also made some cutting remarks about the turmoil in today’s American politics, adding an even more passionate edge to her songs that evoke the civil rights movement of the 1960s. That “tea” that’s become a symbol of conservative Republicans? Staples said it’s Kool-Aid. Bird joined in when Staples played the Band’s “The Weight,” and Staples called Nora O’Connor (who did backup vocals on the last Staples album) her “sister.”

Another highlight was the set by the legendary Booker T. Jones, who played some of his recent material as well as the most famous songs he wrote back in the ’60s: “Time Is Tight,” “Born Under a Bad Sign” (originally recorded by Albert King, written by Jones and William Bell) and, of course, “Green Onions.” Jones played guitar on a few songs, but the Hammond organ (played through the Leslie rotating speaker cabinet) is truly his instrument, and those thick notes sounded as cool as ever.

The set by Jon Langford’s Skull Orchard was deepened by the inclusion of the Burlington Welsh Men’s Chorus, who added their strong voices to Langford’s songs inspired by his memories of Wales. Earlier, White Mystery rocked with typical abandon for the small crowd that showed up at the start of the day, with their red hair flying. Kids These Days played a lively blend of musical styles (hip-hop, indie rock, horns). The Eternals were even funkier than usual. Andrew Bird’s drummer, Dosh, also played a short set of his multilayered instrumental compositions, which led into Bird’s set and the appearance of an illuminated whale coming through the crowd, courtesy of the musical performance art group that calls itself Opera-Matic. That’s just the sort of thing you’d expect to see at a Hideout Block Party.

White Mystery

White Mystery

White Mystery

White Mystery

White Mystery

Kid These Days

Kid These Days

Kid These Days

Kid These Days

The Eternals

The Eternals

The Eternals

Booker T. Jones

Booker T. Jones

Booker T. Jones band

Booker T. Jones

Booker T. Jones

Opera-Matic

Opera-Matic

Opera-Matic

Jon Langford's Skull Orchard

Jon Langford's Skull Orchard

Burlington Welsh Men's Chorus

Jon Langford's Skull Orchard

Jon Langford's Skull Orchard

Mavis Staples

Andrew Bird with Mavis Staples and Rick Holmstrom

Nora O'Connor (singing with Mavis Staples)

Mavis Staples

Mavis Staples

Dosh

The Opera-Matic whale

Andrew Bird

Andrew Bird

Andrew Bird

Some Hideout prehistory

The Hideout celebrates its 15th anniversary with the annual outdoor show known as the Hideout Block Party this Saturday. And tonight, there’s a photo exhibit across the street at High Concepts Lab. I’ll have some pictures in that show, along with other photographers — including Jim Newberry, who was interviewed yesterday on WBEZ. The anniversary has drawn some great media coverage this week, including: Althea Legaspi’s story for WBEZ, Christopher Borrelli’s story for the Tribune, and Dave Hoekstra’s story for the Sun-Times.

As some of that coverage notes, the Hideout’s actually much older than 15 years. That’s just how long it’s been a music venue. The bar itself has been there since 1934, or longer. (Prohibition? What’s that?) Curious, I hunted through the searchable archive of Chicago Tribune article, looking for any references to the old Hideout. I didn’t find any, but I did find a few stories about happenings near the corner of Wabansia and Elston, which is the Hideout’s neighborhood.

According to this story, from Dec. 7, 1899, the area was known as “The Valley” back then, and it sounds like a rather ramshackle sort of place. If you wanted to demolish a building in that era, you could just put up a sign saying “HELP YOURSELF,” and the neighbors would promptly tear it apart. And there was a character in the neighborhood known as “Jack the Ripper.” Note that the address of this house and stable is shown as 55 Wabansia. This was Chicago’s old street numbering system, which changed over to the current system in 1909. 55 Wabansia would have been very close to where the Hideout stands today, at 1354 Wabansia, maybe a few doors away. According to this story, the house had once been a saloon run by “Old” Keating sometime around the late 1860s or early 1870s.

On Jan. 20, 1925, the Tribune published this reminiscence of what the larger area including Wabansia was like in the 1880s and 1890s:

Not surprisingly, the area near the Hideout saw its share of crimes over the years. Here’s one from Feb. 27, 1902, when a man was robbed of 20 cents.

The industrial neighborhood around the Hideout included a beer warehouse, which suffered this unfortunate incident, reported on Jan. 8, 1940:


Crime struck again when $25,000 worth of “soap products” were stolen in a hijacking at Wabansia and Elston, as reported on July 18, 1963:

Too bad there isn’t more in the archive about the Hideout itself. But then again, guys hanging out in a bar isn’t the sort of thing newspapers generally write about … unless something bad happens.

Cass McCombs and Lower Dens at the Hideout

During his July 25 concert at Millennium Park, Ted Leo gave the audience some good advice about what to do later that night: Go see Cass McCombs at the Hideout. McCombs has developed into a songwriter of great subtlety and artistry over the past several years, and his latest album, Wit’s End, is a beautiful collection of soft, sometimes whispered ballads with intricate arrangements. McCombs seems to be taking inspiration from the classic American Songbook style of songwriting as much as he is from the chamber pop music of bands such as the Zombies.

Last week at the Hideout, McCombs and his band played these songs and older tunes with a loose, at times apparently improvisational feel, creating the sensation that they were sculpting each song on the spot. Playing a bit like a jazz combo, the musicians took turns soloing during some of the songs. McCombs sang most of the songs with a light touch, softly hitting the high notes with just a touch of vibrato in his falsetto. The lights were set on dim — which was not helpful with my efforts to take photographs, but did fit the music’s late-night vibe. After starting out quietly, the 90-minute set stretched out into country and folk rock and then more rocking jams. It all wrapped up at a pretty late hour for a Monday night — just past 1 a.m. — but it was dreamy rather than sleepy.
myspace.com/cassmccombs
http://cassmccombs.com

The opening act, Lower Dens, is the new band led by singer-songwriter Jana Hunter, and the group played a cool set to start out the evening, climaxing with some music that had a strong Krautrock pulse.
myspace.com/lowerdens
http://lowerdens.com





Skull Defekts at the Hideout


The Skull Defekts, a hard-edged band from Sweden, rocked the Hideout Thursday night (March 31), with some key assistance from Daniel Higgs, a veteran vocalist better known for his work with the band Lungfish. Higgs sings on the new Skull Defekts album, Peer Amid, which came out in February on Thrill Jockey. He looks and sounds like a full-fledged member of the band — a frontman, in fact. With his gray beard, Higgs resembled an Old Testament character or a crew member of an old whaling vessel as he commanded the stage Thursday with his unrestrained vocals. The rest of Skull Defekts — two drummers and two guitarists — never let up with their jagged punk-garage riffs. At one point, Higgs asked the audience, “Do any of you have skull defects?” When someone replied, “Yes,” a member of the band said, “Excellent.” (I’m paraphrasing from memory here.)

www.myspace.com/skulldfx
www.skulldfx.com
Label website: www.thrilljockey.com/press/index.html?id=12317








The evening started out with a couple of other Thrill Jockey bands, playing drone music — an interesting contrast to the Skull Defekts. Mountains created a beautiful, shimmering wall of sound. Zomes’ simple chords on a dinky ’80s-era keyboard seemed too simple, however.

Mountains

Zomes

Kelly Hogan and Scott Ligon at the Hideout


Robbie Fulks took a break from his ongoing, possibly never-ending series of Monday-night concerts at the Hideout this month. Kelly Hogan and Scott Ligon took over the spot in March. This Monday (March 28), they wrapped up their monthlong series of performances with a wonderful, intimate concert, featuring some of the songs Hogan plans to include on a new album.

Yes, a new Kelly Hogan album! It’s been way too long since the last one. And Hogan, who’s always been more of a song interpreter than a songwriter, is getting help from some great musical friends. Hogan and Ligon played several songs — some of them for the first time — that other songwriters gave her for possible inclusion on the new record: “Open Mind” by Jeff Tweedy, “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain” by Robyn Hitchcock, “Haunted” by Jon Langford, “Daddy’s Little Girl” by M. Ward, “We Can’t Have Nice Things” by Andrew Bird (with words by Jack Pendarvis) and “The Green Willow Valley” by the Handsome Family.

The set also included covers of songs by Les Paul and Mary Ford, the Louvin Brothers, the Magnetic Fields, Robbie Fulks, Catherine Irwin, the Everly Brothers, Vic Chesnutt, the Free Design and the Monkees. Scott Ligon played a new song he co-wrote with Terry Adams of NRBQ and his brother Chris Ligon’s hilarious scatological ditty “Poop Ghost.” And there was a wonderful rendition of Glenn Campbell’s old hit “Wichita Lineman.”

Hogan said Ligon is her “enabler,” helping her and encouraging her to make the new record. If the album captures the beautiful sound of their live performance, it will be a keeper.

UPDATE: Here’s some more info on the songs from Ms. Hogan herself. She tells me: “The Catherine Irwin song ‘Dusty Groove’ is also for the record, as is the Mag Fields ‘Plant White Roses’ and Vic Chesnutt’s amazing song ‘Ways of This World’ and Fulks’ awesomely creepy ‘Whenever You’re Out of My Sight.’ I think we did ten of the twelve album songs last night (didn’t get to the Edith Frost and John Wesley Harding ones — dang! we’ve played those every one of the other Mondays though…) I’ll be back in Chicago doing overdubs this summer and hope to squeeze in a few H/O shows then too.”

The Flat Five? It Must Be December


Earlier this year, I contributed a short article to the Chicago Reader’s “Best of Chicago” issue about The Flat Five, naming this local group the “Best Cover Band That Plays One Gig a Year.” At least, that has been this group’s performance pattern since mid-2007. Each December, this super group of singers and players convene for one night of performances at the Hideout. This year, that blessed night arrived on Friday (Dec. 10), with two sets at the Hideout. But as it happens, the Flat Five are going to play at least one more show this winter, Jan. 7 at Evanston Space. As I wrote in the Reader, it sure would be nice if that Flat Five played more often.

Who are the Flat Five? Even if you don’t know the band name, you may recognize the names of some of the members: Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, K.C. McDonough and Gerald Dowd. For these gigs, Alex Hall ably filled in for Dowd on drums, adding some accordion, too. (Dowd is on tour, so he wasn’t available.) While they all have ties to the alt-country scene, what they do in the Flat Five is more like a combination of supper-club cabaret with rock cover band. Beautiful harmonies and a quirky, smart selection of songs originally written by people such as Harry Nilsson, the Beach Boys, the Free Design, Spanky and Our Gang, XTC alter-ego the Dukes of Stratosphear, the Zombies and Bobby Hebb. (Plus a few songs by Scott Ligon’s brother, Chris Ligon.) The Flat Five practiced a repertoire of about 45 songs this time, and they spread out quite a few of those over the two sets Friday night, with just a few repeats.

As in past years, it was a true delight to hear these voices joining together on songs such as “Sundays Will Never Be the Same,” “Kites Are Fun” and “This Will Be Our Year.” And how many other “cover bands” do a “four-fer” of songs by Nilsson? There was rock, jazz, ballads, country, even a little bit of gospel. And it sounded glorious.

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VIDEOS OF THE FLAT FIVE

Barn Owl at the Hideout

Released this fall on Thrill Jockey, Barn Owl’s album Ancestral Star is a strong collection of instrumental rock — well, it’s instrumental if you don’t count the wordless vocals that blend in with the guitars on some tracks. The San Francisco duo played Sunday night (Nov. 21) at the Hideout in Chicago, making an awesome roar that was a few notches louder than most Hideout shows. One difference between Barn Owl as a studio band and a live act: The record is notable for how short the tracks are, despite their often epic qualities, but in concert Barn Owl played the full set with barely a pause — making its music sound more like one long piece. And while the album features occasional touches of instruments other than guitars, Sunday night was all about the guitars, with Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras playing off each other’s progressions to create a dark, brooding symphony of noise.
www.myspace.com/barnowlband

PHOTOS OF BARN OWL


The opening acts — three of them! — were well matched with Barn Owl. David Daniell and High Aura’d played similar instrumental guitar music, while Scott Tuma and his band (including Emmett Kelly and Jim White) stretched out Americana folk rock into lingering, atmospheric jams.

HIGH AURA’D

SCOTT TUMA

JIM WHITE

DAVID DANIELL

Condo Dream Day at Hideout

Eleventh Dream Day’s residency at the Hideout continued Sunday night (May 16) with the month’s most notable opening act, Condo Fucks — which is actually an alias or alter ego of indie-rock legends Yo La Tengo. As the Matador Records website explains: “Many years ago, in a town called New London, in Connecticut, one band reigned supreme. Condo Fucks. … Georgia Condo. Kid Condo. James McNew.” Well, that’s not really much of an explanation, but this essentially seems to be an outlet for the three members of Yo La Tengo to play some loud, crunchy guitar chords as they cover a bunch of their favorite songs.

Condo Fucks released an album in March called Fuckbook (a nod to Yo La Tengo’s covers collection Fakebook). No tour has been announced, but the band did a special one-off gig opening for their old pals in Eleventh Dream Day. The press release on the Matador page is headlined: “Condo Fucks in Rare Chicago Appearance Shocker.”

This gig was Yo La Tengo in loud, garage-rock mode for the duration, with Ira Kaplan hunched over his guitar much of the night. Ira switched off on vocals with McNew (who was playing a baritone guitar as if it were a bass) and Georgia Kaplan. I have the complete set list, though I’m not sure about the origins of all these tunes. Help, anyone? [UPDATED 5/18/2010: Thanks to those who commented with info on the original artists. Still not sure about “Get Down.”]

“2120 South Michigan Avenue” (The Rolling Stones)
“Come On Up” (The Rascals)
“With a Girl Like You” (The Troggs)
“Accident” (The Electric Eels)
“Last Time Around” (The Del-Vettes)
“The Kid With the Replaceable Head” (Richard Hell)
“I’m Your Man” (Richard Hell)
“This Is Where I Belong” (The Kinks)
“What’cha Gonna Do About It” (The Small Faces)
“Frenzy” (The Fugs)
“Get Down”
“Dog Meat” (Flamin Groovies)
“Tiger In Your Tank” (Muddy Waters)
“Liz Beth” (Eleventh Dream Day)

Eleventh Dream Day took the stage next, playing a lot of its new songs again, but with more ferocious guitar solos from Rick Rizzo than two weeks ago. The band also played “The Arsonist” (digging all the way back to its 1987 self-titled debut for that one), one of its best-known songs, “Testify” (from the 1989 album Beet) and one of the standout tracks from its most recent record, “Lately I’ve Been Thinking” (from 2006’s Zeroes and Ones).

Ira Kaplan of Condo Fucks/Yo La Tengo came back onstage at the end of the night, joining Eleventh Dream Day for a cover of the Dream Syndicate’s “Halloween.” And then for the encore, the two bands merged together for an epic version of the Velvet Underground’s “Ocean,” extending the last part of the song into a long jam with the chorus, “Here comes the waves!” echoing through the noise.

See my photos of Condo Fucks and Eleventh Dream Day.

Bill Callahan at the Hideout


Singer-songwriter Bill Callahan, who used to call himself Smog, played two solo shows Saturday night (April 10) at the Hideout in Chicago, with proceeds going to the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center, a group that helps sexually abused children. Once again, the Hideout deserves praise for hosting interesting and entertaining events that also help out a good cause.

Callahan has a low-key personality onstage, matching the understated quality of his half-spoken baritone vocals. He did not speak much in between his songs, but there was no need — these songs beautifully spoke for themselves. He had a way of wincing a bit as he sang or played guitar that seemed to reveal glimpses of the emotions that went into writing them, even as he maintained a calm expression. As New York Times critic Ben Ratliff pointed out last week in a review of Callahan’s new live CD Rough Travel for a Rare Thing, Callahan’s singing has been great lately, relaxed and subtle.

He played songs that he recorded under the old Smog moniker as well as tracks from his recent Bill Callahan albums, including “Too Many Birds,” “Say Valley Maker,” “Sycamore” and “Rock Bottom Riser.” The crowd was exceptionally quiet throughout the performance, paying close attention to Callahan’s performance, but then the applause was quite loud and enthusiastic calling out Callahan for an encore, which he obligingly provided, playing “Let Me See the Colts.”
www.myspace.com/toomuchtolove

The opening act was Chicago artist Axis:Sova (a.k.a. Brett Sova, who also plays in the band Mass Shivers). He played solo electric guitar, including some hard-rock-style soloing and a few songs with vocals, which were more intriguing when they sounded less like hard rock.

See my photos of Bill Callahan and Axis:Sova.

Robbie Fulks is back at the Hideout


As I reported here earlier, Robbie Fulks played every Monday night in February at the Hideout, serving up a completely different kind of show each week. He’s back at the same club this month, and he played a highly entertaining gig last night (April 5) with the Hoyle Brothers. The theme this time was ’70s country music… which meant lots of songs about adultery, by the likes of Barbara Mandrell, Glen Campbell, George Jones and a whole slew of lesser-known singers. As always, Fulks showed a sharp sense of humor while playing guitar with a complete sense of ease. The Hoyle Brothers (www.hoylebrothers.com, myspace.com/thehoylebrothers) were a good match with Fulks, and the band’s singer, Trevor, handled the lead vocals on about half of the tunes.

Fulks isn’t playing next Monday at the Hideout, but he’ll be back on April 19 and 26. The shows are at 7 p.m. with no opening act, finishing up before 9, with a “suggested donation” of $10. Last night, a bucket was passed for bucks halfway through the show. It was well worth $10. And Fulks says he hopes to continue playing lots of these Monday-night gigs through the rest of the year. Watch www.hideoutchicago.com and robbiefulks.com/for details.

See my photos of Robbie Fulks and the Hoyle Brothers.

White Mystery at the Hideout

Alex White has been rocking on Chicago stages for several years, playing with outfits including Miss Alex White and the Red Orchestra. That band was never really an orchestra, of course, and its music was anything but orchestral pop. White’s always been a garage/punk rocker. Her latest band is called White Mystery, and this time it’s just two people: Alex on guitar and vocals and her brother, Francis, on drums and vocals.

White Mystery’s been banging out feedback-drenched three-chord stompers for the past year or so, playing a lot of gigs around Chicago, but I hadn’t caught them live until Saturday (March 20), when they played a CD release party at the Hideout. The guitar-and-drums format is a perfect way for the White siblings to express their rambunctious energy, and it was a treat to see these two redheads tossing around their hair as they cranked out one cool tune after another.


Alex may be the star of this project, but Francis adds a lot of character, too, and their alternating voices were one of the best things about Saturday’s show. There’s something delightfully primitive about what they’re doing — but primitive doesn’t mean unintelligent. I hear some echoes of ’50s rock on White Mystery’s self-titled debut (engineered by the great local musician Devin Davis), like something you might have heard in a roadhouse somewhere, where the musicians had taken control of the soundboard and turned everything way up. (I’m picturing this as a scene directed by David Lynch.)
www.whitemysteryband.com
www.myspace.com/whitemysteryband

The first act of the night was a Chicago group called Other Minds, which played some lively, catchy “Nuggets”-style ’60s rock, with lots of 12-string guitar riffs, Farfisa chords and tambourine. The middle act was Charlie Slick, who played electronic dance music with a retro New Wave sound and sprinkled glitter onto the audience.

My photos of White Mystery, Other Minds and Charlie Slick on flickr.

Interview Show at the Hideout

Friday (March 5) was the first time I’d caught “The Interview Show” at the Hideout, which is pretty much what you would expect from the name: a talk show taking place right there on the Hideout stage. Mark Bazer’s the host, and on Friday he did a nice job keeping the conversation flowing. The guests on Friday included Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, who’s the Democratic nominee for Cook County Board president. It seemed a little surreal seeing one of Chicago’s leading political candidates this year getting up onto the Hideout stage, but then, a lot of slightly surreal things happen at the Hideout.

The show on Friday also included a funny intro bit featuring Justin Kaufmann, a couple of shows by the Changes, a monologue by actor James Anthony Zoccoli and interviews with author Josh Karp and actors John Mahoney and Robert Belushi (both are appearing in A Life at Northlight Theatre in Skokie). In all, an interesting selection of people and some good conversations.

Photos from the Interview Show.

Retribution Gospel Choir

Alan Sparhawk is best known as the singer and guitarist for Low, a band that plays most of its songs at a slow tempo and hushed volume level, to strangely mesmerizing effect. Low turns up the sound once in a while, but Sparhawk plays just about everything loud with his other band, Retribution Gospel Choir. The “choir” has a new album out on the Sub Pop label, its second record, aptly if not so imaginatively titled 2. And Retribution Gospel Choir came to Chicago Friday night (Feb. 19) for a sold-out show at the Hideout.

This was quite different from a Low concert. Instead of that chilled-out meditative mood, the feeling was all-out rock show. Sparhawk grimaced and flung his hair around as he played one hard-rocking riff and guitar solo after another — and yet, that appealing voice of his still sounded familiar from those old Low records. Bassist Steve Garrington and drummer (plus backup singer) Eric Pollard kept the music moving forward all night.

Retribution Gospel Choir played a lot of the songs off its new album, which is a solid collection of catchy, dare we say, almost mainstream-sounding rock songs. There’s a bit of classic rock in the choir’s formula, but it’s played with such conviction that it never feels like cliché.
www.retributiongospelchoir.com
www.myspace.com/retributiongospelchoir

Photos of Retribution Gospel Choir.

Robbie Fulks at the Hideout

Robbie Fulks, one of Chicago’s most talented and most entertaining musicians, is playing at the Hideout every Monday night in February. After missing week one of Fulks’ residency, I caught his performance last night, an evening of lovely duets with another terrific Chicago singer, Nora O’Connor. 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 Scrugg’s “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? Well, actually, that sort of thing can go wrong, but that’s not likely to happen with these two. Each of them made the other’s songs feel more complete.

Fulks continues his Hideout residency on Feb. 15 with a string trio. On Feb. 22, he’ll have his full band playing with him. The shows start at 7 p.m., and the suggested donation for admission is $10. www.hideoutchicago.com www.robbiefulks.com

Photos of Robbie Fulks and Nora O’Connor.

Hideout helps out Haiti

You can always count on the Hideout to get behind a good cause. Within days after a devastating earthquake struck Haiti, the Hideout put together a benefit show to raise money. Two of Chicago’s stalwart bands, Eleventh Dream Day and the Waco Brothers, played rousing sets Monday at the club, raising almost $8,000 for Partners in Health. Sally Timms of the Mekons was one of the key organizers of the event, which also featured a bake sale and a bake sale organized by My Vegetable Blog and a poster sale by Kathleen Judge of Judgeworks. If you didn’t make it to the sold-out show, you can still help out by buying one of the posters shown here. (Poster sale proceeds will go to Doctors Without Borders and Partners and Health.)

Eleventh Dream Day played first, delivering the sort of hard-charging rock we’ve come to expect — including three songs that have not yet been released, “Satellite,” “More Than Luck” and a tune with the phrase “Fades Away” in the chorus. All sounded like they’ll be great additions to the EDD catalogue — whenever the band gets around to recording them. It was also cool to hear EDD playing music from its classic album Beet.

The Waco Brothers did their thing, and they did it very well. They’re easy to take for granted, since they play so often and since they make it all look so easy, but they’re about as much fun to watch as any group in Chicago. Hideout owner Tim Tuten was absent (working at his day job in Washington, D.C.), but Jon Langford read a few text messages from Tim aloud to simulate a classic Tuten introduction. And then the Wacos kicked their way through several of their best-known tunes and favorite covers, including Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues,” the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law,” T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” and the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks.” Bassist Alan Doughty accidentally knocked out the venue’s trademark Christmas lights, which adorn the ceiling, when the lights got tangled up in his bass. Near the end of the show, Langford asked the crowd, “How late do you want us to play? We’ve got to wake up early and overthrow the government.”

My Gold Mask at the Hideout

My Gold Mask makes a lot of sound without much gear. The Chicago duo is Gretta Rochelle (who sings while she plays the drums, standing up) and Jack Armondo (who plays a nylon-string guitar, cranking it up much louder than a classical guitarist ever would). The two of them headlined at the Hideout on Saturday night (Jan. 9), selling out the place and filling the room with some enthusiastic fans.

Rochelle and Armondo sounded vibrant as they played songs from a new EP, A Thousand Voices, as well as their self-titled debut from last year — and one cover, Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes.” The two of them are clearly having fun as they perform, and the fun is pretty catchy. One highlight was the new song, “Violet Eyes,” which features some cool effects on the guitar and call-and-response vocals.

At the end of the set, My Gold Mask returned to the stage for one more song, naïvely asking, “Can we play another?” (Of course you can, guys!) It was apparently the first time My Gold Mask has ever had the chance to do an encore. It won’t be the last.
www.mygoldmask.com
www.myspace.com/mygoldmask

The first act of the night was also quite impressive. Violetness is a female singer-songwriter from Chicago. Doesn’t even have a record out yet. She’s working on an EP, and she has a couple of songs posted at www.myspace.com/violetnessmusic. (Of the two posted tracks, the one I like is “Perfect Love Flow.”) In concert, she was accompanied by a drummer and a cellist, and she played keyboards on some of the songs. In enjoyed the minimal arrangements. Her first song was just singing and drumming, which reminded me a bit of what the Swedish duo Wildbirds & Peacedrums does. Violetness has a strong voice, and she sometimes sings with a throaty tone and a jazzy swagger, with maybe a touch of Nina Simone. I can’t wait to hear what she does in the studio.

Another Chicago act, the Bitter Tears, played in between Violetness and My Gold Mask. The Bitter Tears are rather hard to categorize, a bit alt-country and a bit … glam? Well, maybe I just think glam rock when I see how they dress. The Tears like to put on makeup and outrageous outfits. The main singer was in drag Saturday night, with white makeup smeared all over his face, horror-movie-style. Tasteless jokes and provocative remarks were part of the Bitter Tears’ stage shtick. This is a band that likes to push people’s buttons. The music wasn’t bad, but it was overwhelmed by the spectacle.
www.myspace.com/thebittertears

Flat Five at the Hideout

The words “cover band” are usually a sort of insult in the world of rock critics. You wanna be a respected band? You’d better have some original songs. But that attitude overlooks a great tradition of musicians and singers interpreting songs written by other folks. That’s the lifeblood of classic jazz and the “American Songbook” sort of pop music.

So let’s call the Flat Five a fabulous bunch of song interpreters instead of labeling them a cover band. The Flat Five play only once a year (at least, that’s been the case during the last few years), and Friday was the night. Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, KC McDonough and Gerald Dowd reconvened this wonderful music outfit and performed their annual show at the Hideout.

The first songs of the night had a strong country and folk flavor, including tunes by Dolly Parton, Tom Paxton and the Louvin Brothers — and the Monkees’ “What Am I Doing Hanging Around.” This part of the concert featured just Ligon and Hogan on the stage, just the sound of their voices and Ligon’s acoustic guitar (which he was playing into a mike instead of using a cable into an amp). The other members of the Flat Five gradually joined them on stage. When Nora O’Connor came up, she and Hogan sang some of the tunes they used to do in a gospel duo called the Lamentations, such as the Staple Singers’ “Somebody Saved Me.” (Hogan mentioned that the two of them had just been recording some music with Mavis Staples — can’t wait to hear that!)

Ligon and McDonough did their best Roy Orbisons on a duet of “In Dreams.” And then, with the full band playing, the Flat Five ran through an amazing selection of wonderful songs from all sorts of genres, including the goofy “Kites Are Fun” by the Free Design, “Sundays Will Never Be the Same” by Spanky and Our Gang, “This Will Be Our Year” by the Zombies and “Vanishing Girl” by the Dukes of Stratosphear. Plus three Beach Boys songs, Randy Newman’s “Caroline” and a few original songs by McDonough, Ligon (and Ligon’s brother, Chris).

The song selection showed superb taste — and a great ear for what makes a classic pop song. And what voices! There’s nothing like hearing the natural sound of lovely voices harmonizing right in front of you. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait a whole year for the next appearance of the Flat Five.

Photos of the Flat Five.

Jay Bennett Tribute at the Hideout

Sunday (Nov. 15) was the birthday of Jay Bennett, the talented musician who died earlier this year. His friends celebrated his life and music with a show Sunday night at the Hideout. It’s been months since Jay died, but the sorrow still feels fresh. Hearing folks like Edward Burch, LeRoy Bach, Steve Frisbie, the Dolly Varden band, Brad Elvis, John Peacock and Quartet Parapluie playing songs written by Bennett — or in some cases, songs by other people that he loved — it was hard for me not to get choked up.

I regret missing the first part of the show (I was at the opening night of House Theatre’s delightfully surreal Mark Guarino play with Jon Langford songs, All the Fame of Lofty Deeds), but I showed up in time to hear Quartet Parapluie’s exquisite string arrangements of “Songs That Weren’t Finished” and “Venus Stopped the Train.”

Burch was half of the Bennett and Burch duo that recorded The Palace at 4am (Part I), my favorite post-Wilco Bennett record, so it seemed appropriate that Burch was the focal point of this show, organizing it and functioning as emcee. Many of the performers shared stories about their experiences with Bennett, which added an element of humor to an evening that might otherwise have been unbearably sad.

A bunch of the musicians came together onstage at the end of the night, playing really nice, spirited versions of some of the best songs off Palace, including “Puzzle Heart,” “Talk to Me,” “Whispers or Screams,” “Shakin’ Sugar,” “Drinking on Your Dime” and “My Darlin’,” which slid into a cover of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity,” with everyone singing along. The last song of the night was one of the best-known tunes Bennett co-wrote with Jeff Tweedy, using lyrics by Woody Guthrie, the classic “California Stars.” Hearing this string of great songs, it became painfully clear what a great talent we’ve lost.

Photos from the Jay Bennett tribute.

Daniell, McCombs and Rose


Chicago musicians David Daniell and Doug McCombs have teamed up for a beautiful new album on the Thrill Jockey label called Sycamore. This is the sound of two guitarists playing off each other, building lovely sonic sculptures. There are touches of jazz rhythm, some ambient texture and dramatic rock flourishes, but it’s really uncategorizable instrumental music. Daniell and McCombs played a CD release party Thursday (Sept. 24) at the Hideout, but unlike the typical CD release party, these guys weren’t just playing songs from their new album. The music seems to be part composed, part improvised, so what we heard Thursday night was one continuous performance without any pauses, featuring all three drummers on the album. John Herndon (who plays in Tortoise with McCombs) drummed during the opening part of the show, then Steven Hess sat down at a second drum kit. For a few minutes, Herndon and Hess played together, then Herndon got up and let Hess take over. A similar transition happened later when Frank Rosaly took over on drums. Each drummer brought his own style to the mix of sounds, as Daniell and McCombs dueted, interweaving the sounds of their two guitars.
http://www.thrilljockey.com/artists/?id=12220
Thrill Jockey is offering a free download of the Daniell-McCombs track “F# song.”

The opening act, Jack Rose, was well worth seeing in his own right, playing some very impressive solo acoustic guitar compositions. Rose plucked fast arpeggio chord patterns, but his songs were anchored by slower, more distinctive melodies, sometimes played on a single string. It made for some hypnotic listening.
www.myspace.com/jackrosekensington

Photos of David Daniell and Doug McCombs and Jack Rose.

Bloodshot Party at the Hideout

This year’s Hideout Block Party, which took place Saturday (Sept. 12), was scaled down from the two-stage, two- or three-day festivals of the last few years. It seemed almost like a return to the old days, when the Hideout hosted an annual party out on Wabansia Street in front of the bar. And the theme of this year’s festival was the 15th anniversary of Bloodshot Records, an alt-country record label whose artists have played at the Hideout many times over the years. It was beautiful, sunny day — some of the best weather Chicago’s had all summer — and a perfect time to celebrate two great Chicago institutions, the Hideout and Bloodshot.

I showed up just in time to hear the last song by the Sanctified Grumblers, a new acoustic-blues outfit featuring Rick Sherry of Devil in the Woodpile. Then came three of the Mekons — Jon Langford, Sally Timms and Rico Bell — doing a casual acoustic set. A reunion set by the Blacks was one of the big draws for me, and these guys sounded as good as they ever have. This may have been the last time we’ll see the Blacks for a while, though one can always wish.

Bobby Bare Jr. delivered the goods with his set, which featured a strong band including David Vandervelde on guitar and a quick run-through of Bare’s best songs as well as a cover of America’s “I Need You.” (!) Like most of the performers on Saturday, Bare thanked Bloodshot for everything the label has done. Or as he put it, “I’d like to thank Bloodshoot for putting up with all my bullshit … and making us feel like big shots in Chicago. Why are all you people staring at me? I don’t understand. Do I owe you money?”

Moonshine Willy was the band that started it all for Bloodshot Records, and the group reunited for its first show in 10 years Saturday, playing some old-timey country-folk.


The least country-sounding band of the day was next, Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, who have a fine new record coming out this week called …And the Horse You Rode In On. This “choir” is from Chicago, but as its name indicates, it’s a very British-sounding band, with lots of influence from Belle and Sebastian, the Smiths and other UK pop geniuses. Elia Einhorn’s lyrics are almost amusingly frank on the new CD, and he sprinkles in several Chicago-specific references. SYGC was lively on Saturday, bouncing through a set of lovely pop ditties. (I’m using “ditties” in the best sense of the term.)

Scott H. Biram calls himself a one-man band, but he’s basically a guy who plays the blues on acoustic guitar and cranks up everything really loud and dirty-sounding. A little bit of Biram goes a long way for me, but I see that he made some new fans Saturday. He was followed by the Deadstring Brothers, who sound a lot like the Rolling Stones doing country-rock in the “Dead Flowers” era. This Detroit group’s lineup has changed a bit since the time I saw them a few years back, and I wish they’d played more of the songs I know from that era, but it still sounded pretty strong.

I was really impressed with the set by Alejandro Escovedo. I’ve admired his music for several years without fully joining the Escovedo cult, but after Saturday night’s riveting performance, I can see why he inspires such fervent worship in some fans. During the first few songs of the set, his band blended rock with chamber strings in a driving style that isn’t typically for orchestral pop, and I loved the way Escovedo roamed the stage, staring intently at the various musicians as they were soloing. Thanking Bloodshot, Escovedo remarked, “They gave me a break when I couldn’t buy one.”

Was there any way the party could have ended other than a set by the Waco Brothers, replete with leg kicks, guest singers (Rico Bell and Escovedo), rocking covers of songs like “I Fought the Law” and the Wacos’ most rollicking hits? I don’t think so. The party really felt like a party.

Nina Nastasia at the Hideout

Singer-songwriter Nina Nastasia spent a couple of nights earlier this week (July 26 and 27) playing at the Hideout in Chicago, recording the shows for a planned live album. I was there on Sunday night, and it was an excellent, intimate show. Nastasia was sitting on a chair (elevated a bit above the Hideout’s normal stage) with her acoustic guitar, while a violin and viola player added chamber-music accompaniment that ranged from delicate to dramatic. It was a lovely setting for Nastasia’s songs — and an interesting contrast to the acoustic-guitar-plus-jazzy-drums arrangements on the album she did a couple of years about with Jim White. At times, Nastasia sang with a touch of that lonesome sound you hear in old-time country music. In other passages, she delivered her words with the timing of a jazz singer or a storytelling vibe.
www.myspace.com/ninanastasia
www.ninanastasia.com

The opening act on Sunday was Paletazo (a.k.a. Chicago singer-songwriter Chris Hansen), who played straight-up folk rock. (The live set sounded a lot less raw than the songs at www.myspace.com/paletazosongs.) The music sounded especially good when 1900s member (and Hideout concert booker) Jeanine O’Toole joined in on harmony vocals for a few songs.

Photos of Nina Nastasia and Paletazo. (I did not take a whole lot of photos at this show, since it was so quiet and I didn’t want the clicking of my camera to show up on that live recording or disturb the ambience.)

Magnolia Electric Co. at the Hideout

The new album by Magnolia Electric Co., Josephine, doesn’t come out until next week (July 21, to be precise), but the band was in Chicago this past weekend for a couple of shows. What’s with all the bands touring lately before their records are available? The assumption seems to be that the fans are going to hear advance copies anyway… Or maybe the bands see it as a good way to introduce their new material. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, you can usually buy copies of the new CDs and LPS at the merch table at these concerts, even if the albums aren’t officially available yet. And buying music straight from the band at the merch table seems like the surest way of putting money right into the musicians’ pockets. The prices are usually reasonable, too — $10 or less is the regular going price for CDs. I did pick up a copy of Josephine Sunday night (July 12) at the Hideout, and so far, it seems like an excellent addition to the Magnolia Electric Co. repertoire.

It’s too bad Chicago can’t quite claim that MECo (to use the common abbreviation for this band) is a local group any longer. Singer-songwriter-frontman Jason Molina used to live in Andersonville, and I once had the pleasure of interviewing him during an afternoon visit to Simon’s Tap. Lately, he’s been living in London, but thankfully he does make it back here once in a while to play gigs.

Sunday night’s show followed a gig on the previous night at Schubas, which I missed. The Hideout performance was very, very solid, with Molina and his Hoosier bandmates ripping through a fair number of new songs as well as old classics like “Riding With the Ghost.” I may have said this before on this blog, but I think that’s really one of the great songs of the last decade. From what I could tell from eyeing the guitar frets during this performance, Molina & Co. are playing it in a somewhat lower key than the studio version, which I have blundered my way through on acoustic guitar a few times. Guitarist Jason Evans Groth’s leads and solos on the rendition Sunday night were absolutely blazing, which more than made up for the fact that the band plays this song live without the female vocals that you hear on the studio version.

Josephine is a being billed as a concept album, “an honest-to-God effort on the part of Magnolia Electric Co. to pay tribute to the life and spirit” of the band’s former bassist, Evan Farrell, who died in late 2007. But it’s not a straightforward record about Farrell. Rather, it is filled with references to the woman in the title. I’m still making sense of how the lyrics in this song cycle fit together, but it’s suffused with longing and a sense of loss, topics that Molina has sung about before. In concert, the words sounded sincere, and so did the singing sound of those guitars.

An mp3 from the new Magnolia Electric Co. record, “Sad Little Eyes,” is available for download here.
www.magnoliaelectricco.com
www.myspace.com/magnoliaelectricco

The show had two opening acts. Sally Timms played another set similar to the one I wrote about recently at Schubas, backed once again by the subtle and pretty sounds of Mar Caribe. (www.myspace.com/marcaribemusic)

The first act of the evening was a cool discovery: Elephant Micah, will calls itself “an imaginary band since 2000.” Based in Bloomington, Ind., this is another one of those indie bands that basically started out as the recording project of one individual — in this case, Joe O’Connell. For this Hideout show, however, Elephant Micah seemed more like an actual folk-rock ensemble, playing some very quiet and gentle songs that had the audience silently spellbound. I later bought the Elephant Micah CD Hindu Windmill at the merch table. It’s very lo-fi — the sort of recording that includes the sound of the tape-recorder being turned off at the end of songs. The intimacy of it reminds me of the first recordings by Great Lake Swimmers. I’m excited to hear what Elephant Micah records in the future with the full band.
www.elephantmicah.com
www.myspace.com/elephantmicah

Photos of Magnolia Electric Co., Sally Timms and Elephant Micah.

Concert round-up

I’ve posted photos from several concerts lately without any comment here. Back on June 24, Robert Gomez, a singer-songwriter from Denton, Texas, performed a nice show of melancholy folk rock with a bit of a psychedelic edge at Schubas. It was sparsely attended, but I enjoyed the intimate feeling of the show. Chicago’s Rock Falls played an opening set of charming songs, including some ukulele strumming. Photos of Robert Gomez and Rock Falls.

I wrote earlier about how great the Feelies were on June 29 at Millennium Park. They were just one of three bands that I saw at the park’s Pritzker Pavilion. In addition to all of the great evening concerts, the park is also hosting free performances at noon every day this summer, including some rock shows in a series called “Edible Audible.” It’s not always easy for me to get downtown at noon, but I was there on June 29 for a show by Black Moth Super Rainbow. Normally, I’m not too thrilled with bands that run all of their vocals through the tired electronic effect known as the Vocoder. Black Moth does this, but somehow, I like this brand of Vocoder music better than most other electronic music. I think it’s because it feels trippy and psychedelic, with some catchy melodies. Photos of Black Moth Super Rainbow.

Back at the Pritzker that evening, Chicago’s Icy Demons were the opening act for the Feelies. I rather like this band and the CD that it put out last year, Miami Ice. Icy Demons mix some elements from 1970 prog rock with dance rhythms. I got the feeling that the band wore out its welcome at this show, since Feelies fans were so eager for the main act, but it was still pretty enjoyable. Photos of Icy Demons.

The Chicago ensemble DRMWPN (pronounced “dream weapon”) released one of my favorite records so far this year, Bright Blue Galilee, but good luck finding it. It’s a very limited edition on vinyl of a concert recording from 2007. DRMWPN basically plays a droning chord for about 40 minutes at every show, creating a meditative atmosphere. The group came together July 1 for another beautiful performance at the Chopin Theatre. Ostensible leader Jim Dorling had some trouble getting the group’s Dream Machine to work. That’s the light with the spinning cover that sets the perfect mood at DRMWPN concerts. After a few minutes of playing with the device, he finally got it spinning, and the music began drifting into place. Photos of DRMWPN, Ultimate Vag and 500MG.

Oumou Sangaré, a singer from Mali, put on a rousing show July 2 at the Pritzker Pavilion. She came across as a vibrant personality, and her large band kept the music going at a lively pace all night. It did not take long for a large group of fans to rush to the front part of the pavilion, and after that, it was a non-stop dance party. Photos of Oumou Sangaré.

Last year, Christian Kiefer, J. Matthew Gerken, Jefferson Pitcher and assorted guest singers put out a three-CD set called Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies. It does in fact include one song for each president, and after Barack Obama won last year’s election, these musicians released a follow-up song with Will Johnson of Centro-matic on lead vocals, “44. Barack Obama (Someone to Wake).” I played that song a lot last fall after the election. (You can download it for free here.) The trio of singer-songwriters who put this whole project together played July 3 at the Hideout and July 4 at Taste of Chicago. I caught the Hideout show, which featured one of the local musicians who performs on the CD — Steve Dawson of Dolly Varden signing about Lyndon B. Johnson — and several musicians doing interpretations of the songs. The Singleman Affair did great psychedelic-folk-rock versions of the songs about John Quincy Adams and Jimmy Carter. The Bitter Tears, dressed like decadent hillbillies, sang about Zachary Taylor. The Gunshy, Sin Ropas, Jeff Harms, Tim Rutili and Tim Kinsella also performed, and of course, Jon Langford was there — singing about Ronald Reagan. Hideout co-owner Tim Tuten (back in town from Washington) emceed the whole shindig, and his rambling and improvised intro to the Reagan was a humorous highlight. The concert featured about half of the songs from the 3-CD collection, ending with the soothing sing-along chorus of the Obama song: “Everything will be all right.” Photos of 44 Songs for 44 Presidents.

Do-Division and Cass McCombs

The summer street-festival season is now officially on in Chicago. And that means you’ll have lots of opportunities to see some great music for next to nothing out in the open air. (Some not-so-great music, too, but there’s so much good stuff, let’s not complain too much about the stuff we don’t like.) In fact, between these street festivals and all of the cool concerts planned at Millennium Park, you can practically fill your whole music calendar this summer without spending more than a few bucks here and there.

The Do-Division Festival, which featured music programmed by the Empty Bottle, had a strong schedule both days this past weekend. I missed the fest on Saturday, but from what I hear, the Handsome Furs and Viva Voce put on rocking sets. On Sunday night (May 31), I caught the Do-Division sets by White Rabbits and Menomena. Both bands make creative use of keyboards and percussion. White Rabbits remind me a bit of Spoon, so it seems appropriate that Spoon’s main man, Britt Daniel, produced the group’s latest record, It’s Frightening. I’m just getting used to that record, and so far, my favorite track is a mostly mellow song called “Company I Keep,” and that was one of my faves at the concert, too. The Rabbits kept most of their songs rollicking along thanks to all that drumming and percussion.

I wasn’t sure how much of a following Menomena has, but judging from the size of the crowd and the way people reacted to songs, clearly showing their familiarity with the tunes, I guess they are getting popular. At least, on a cult band level. If I’m not mistaken, all of the songs they played were from their 2007 record Friend or Foe. It seems like it’s just about time for a record with some fresh material, but it was still just fine and dandy to hear the indelible songs from that album once again. All three members of the band sing at various times, and while there is some guitar, the sound is anchored more in drums, bass, keyboards and the occasional sax. Menomena has its own distinctive sound, although at moments the trio reminds me of Mercury Rev or the Flaming Lips. Those 2007 songs are holding up really, really well after two years of listening… Now, how about for some new ones?

Photos of White Rabbits and Menomena.

After Do-Division wrapped up, I headed over to the Hideout, where Cass McCombs was headlining. It turned out to be one of those great nights at the Hideout when all sorts of things happen. First of all, it was nice to see Hideout co-owner Tim Tuten back in town, even if he was just here for a weekend break from his new job working for Education Secretary Arne Duncan. There Tim was, back in his old confines, helping his wife, Katie, set up tables and chairs in the music room and holding forth on the stage in a plaid shirt. Seemed like old times.

The evening at the Hideout got off to a good start with country rock by Rachel Eve. Her voice and melodies sounded nice, especially when the band rocked a little bit behind her. Then came the trustworthy local troubadour, Judson Claiborne, with a strong set of his original songs. In between the musical acts, there was some Andy Kaufman-esque comedy. A highlight was the strange performance of a “band” called Relevant Hairstyles actually just a monologue about describing a band that did not actually play. The bit had some brilliant moments.

Cass McCombs, who had a terrific album called Dropping the Writ a couple of years ago, is getting ready to release a new CD, and he mixed old and new songs in his set. Those Writ tunes are the ones that really grabbed me, but a couple of the new ones sounded great, too. Cass brought his own lights, which cast a sort of shifting techno-glow onto the stage, a bit odd in the honky-tonk environs of the Hideout, and he went over to the venue’s old piano for a couple of songs. Overall, it was a good show in an intimate venue by an artist who seems like he’s destined for bigger things.

Photos of Cass McCombs, Rachel Eve, Judson Claiborne and Relevant Hairstyles.

Random weekend scenes

FRIDAY, APRIL 24: Alas, I missed Neko Case at the Chicago Theatre. Well, since I’ve already seen her around 10 times, I suppose it’s not that great of a tragedy to miss her this time. But that new album of hers, Middle Cyclone, has really grown on me. I still think it’s not the equal of her terrific previous CD, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, but it will certainly end up as one of 2009’s best records.

So, instead of luxuriating in Neko’s siren vocals, I went Friday night to see ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL at the Music Box. I really knew nothing about Anvil, a heavy-metal band that briefly seemed to be on the verge of stardom in the 1980s. But knowing about Anvil or being a headbanger is beside the point with this documentary, which is one of the best films ever made about what it’s like to be in a struggling band year after year. As other people have pointed out, Anvil is a bit like a real-life This Is Spinal Tap, but even though you laugh at some of the misadventures of these Canadian rockers, you also feel for them. It’s a surprisingly touching film.

The band Anvil was at Friday night’s screening, answering some audience questions afterward. Guitarist-singer Steve “Lips” Kudlow acknowledged that some people come to see the movie for the laughs (as someone in the crowd said). “Let’s face it,” he said. “There’s no way around it. It’s somewhat of a Trojan horse.” Kudlow said the band gave the director, Sacha Gervasi, unfettered access to their lives because he was already a friend and a fan. That complete access shows in this marvelous and honest rock ‘n’ roll movie.

I stopped by THE HIDEOUT after the movie and caught the first jazz set of the night. The Immediate Sound series, which is normally on Wednesdays, was celebrating its third anniversary with shows on Friday and Saturday. It was a little odd seeing a completely different crowd at the Hideout from the folks I usually see hanging out there. The performance was being recorded, so a “no talking” rule was in effect, and the audience did watch and listen intently as Ken Vandermark and Ab Baars dueted with a variety of wind instruments. At times, they made almost ear-splitting and atonal noise of feverish intensity, but I enjoyed their improvisations most when the tones were more mellow and meditative.

SATURDAY, APRIL 25: This was the final day of an exhibit of EDVARD MUNCH’S paintings and prints at the Art Institute of Chicago. I took a stroll through the galleries before the art disappeared. Munch’s Scream has been practically ruined by kitschy merchandising of the image, but his art remains haunting. The pictures that linger in my mind are those men and women connected or nearly connected by strands of hair. The hair is saying things the people cannot bring themselves to say.

For the first time ever, THROBBING GRISTLE played in Chicago Saturday night. This was yet another show originally scheduled at the Epiphany church then moved to Logan Square Auditorium. Unfortunately, just as the line of ticket holders slowly made its way up the stairs into the venue, a cold downpour drenched the Throbbing Gristle faithful. I had a ticket for the early show, but not the late concert, and in retrospect I should have seen both. The late show featured the band playing various songs. The early show was a live performance of Throbbing Gristle’s soundtrack to the experimental Derek Jarman film In the Shadow of the Sun. The four musicians sat at computers while the movie played (computers that they obviously did not have in the early stages of their career), making loud, pulsating waves of sound — a good match for the abstracted images melting into one another on the screen.

The Love Language at the Hideout

The Love Language, a band from North Carolina, was one of the acts I hoped to catch last month at SXSW after hearing the group’s dandy pop track “Lalita.” I missed these guys when I was in Austin, but got another shot at seeing them last night, when they played at Chicago’s Hideout. It was a good set, and although the room could have accommodated more fans, the ones who were there were pretty enthusiastic. At times, the Love Language reminds me a bit of the Walkmen, but there’s more of a ’60s pop vibe to their songs, although with some Southern touches, naturally due to the band’s North Carolina origins. (Maybe a touch of alt-country, but nothing remotely like stereotypical Southern rock, though.) Singer-guitarist Stuart McLamb is clearly the band’s focal point, though the two female keyboard players helped a lot to liven up the show with their occasional dancing stints on tambourine.

www.myspace.com/thelovelanguage

The opening act was Mazes, a new Chicago band featuring a couple of the fine musicians already making excellent music in another group, the 1900s — Edward Anderson and Caroline Donovan — along with Charles D’Autremont. Mazes play ’60s-style rock, not that far afield from what the 1900s are doing, but less orchestral-sounding.

www.myspace.com/chicagomazes

Photos of the Love Language and Mazes.

Andrew Bird at the Hideout

It wasn’t long ago that Andrew Bird played at little clubs like the Hideout, but lately he’s been getting popular enough to draw big crowds at places like Millennium Park and to book a concert tour at opera houses. So it was something of a rare opportunity to see him playing last night (Dec. 15) back inside the comfy confines of his hometown Hideout.

This show and one on the previous night were announced quietly just a week ago, a sort of holiday surprise from the Hideout. As Bird explained from the stage, these last-minute shows happened when he discovered he needed to shoot a video for the song “Fitz and Dizzy” from his forthcoming CD. Bird and his band, along with Mucca Pazza, spent much of the day filming in and around the Hideout, and then the video crew filmed two performances of the tune during last night’s concert, with the Mucca Pazza marching-bands folks playing amidst the crowd.

The show included every song from the new album, with Bird apologizing a few times for the fact that the band is still learning how to play the songs. There were a few glitches when Bird’s looping pedals did not work as planned as always with Bird concerts, such imperfections only draw your attention to all the craft that goes into constructing this music. The new songs sounded nice, not too drastic a departure from Bird’s previous two records if my ears weren’t deceiving me, but it’ll take a while to absorb them fully. Bird sprinkled a few oldies into the set, including “Imitosis” and the encore “Tables and Chairs.” And although it isn’t on the set list I photographed, he also threw in “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left.”

Dosh (a.k.a. Martin Dosh) performed a brilliantly creative opening set of his own sequenced, looping music, in addition to playing drums and keyboards for Bird.

Photos of Andrew Bird and Dosh.

Sadies, Flat Five and Dream Day

Recapping a few shows from the past week…

The Sadies were back in town Thursday (Dec. 4) for a show at Schubas, kicking off a tour with the estimable Tim Easton as opening act. The Sadies don’t have a new record out (not since releasing my favorite album of 2007, New Seasons), so we didn’t get any new songs, but there were plenty of great old tunes – something like 30, I think, if you include all those short instrumentals they ripped through. As always, the Good brothers were simply amazing on their guitars, and I took special notice this time that Travis was playing without any effects pedals at all, and Dallas had just a couple of rudimentary pedals. Further proof that you don’t need a lot of special effects to make the guitar sing. Highlights included covers of “A House is Not a Hotel” by Love and “Shake Some Action” by the Flaming Groovies. Easton put on a good show, too, playing solo acoustic (over chatty crowd noise) and mentioning that he has an album coming out in the spring with more of a rock sound.

Photos of the Sadies and Tim Easton.

Friday night (Dec. 5) marked the return of the Flat Five, a sort of local super group combining the talents of Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, KC McDonough and Gerald Dowd in an idiosyncratic cover band. Well, it’s mostly covers. They play a few originals, but it’s largely old pop, country, jazz, psychedelic and standard songs they clearly love. Their voices blend into truly lovely harmonies, and they have a knack for picking the sort of terrific tunes that a die-hard record collector loves. I stayed for both the early and late shows at the Hideout, and heard them doing everything from Spanky & Our Gang to the Dukes of Stratosphear, Rutles and Hoagy Carmichael. These are some special musicians who rarely put our records. You really have to catch them live to see what they’re all about.

Photos of the Flat Five.

I was back at the Hideout on Sunday (Dec. 7) for a show benefitting Goldie’s Place, an organization that helps the homeless get jobs. The show featured Jon Langford playing solo, followed by Eleventh Dream Day, and Eleventh Dream Day combining with Langford and Sally Timms for several Mekons and Three Johns songs. It was a lively affair, with a couple of strong new songs by Eleventh Dream Day (new album coming soon, guys? Let’s hope…), sloppy but fun renditions of those barely rehearsed Mekons songs and tighter performances of the Three Johns songs. All for a good cause.

Photos of Eleventh Dream Day with Jon Langford and Sally Timms.

Hideout/Touch & Go Block Party, Day Three

It was a gray and rainy day, rather cool for this time of year, so it was hard for me to get motivated to show up early for the block party. I managed to get there in time for Tara Jane O’Neil, whose solo guitar songs sounded promising to me; I’ll have to hear more. Of the other bands today, Seam, the Black Heart Procession and Pinback were pretty good, though nothing really blew me away. Brick Layer Cake — with his stilted rhythms on guitar and largely tuneless singing — turned off some listeners, but I found it pretty funny. Not something I’m likely to listen to much, but worth seeing at least once. CocoRosie was the strangest act of the day, if not the whole festival, with harp, operatic singing and African rapping all blended together in a surreal stew. Not for all tastes, but fascinating.

I’d seen Calexico twice in the last few months, so I wasn’t all that eager to see their fest-closing set — but they reminded me again how good they are. In fact, because the sound was better, this struck me as a much-improved set from their performance at Lollapalooza. And it was a fine way to wrap up the block party.

SEE PHOTOS.

Hideout/Touch & Go Block Party, Day Two

An assembled mass of old punk fans, predominantly dressed in black, with short-cropped hair, is gathered in the parking lot where the city of Chicago normally keeps its garbage trucks. I hear clusters of people speaking in German or Japanese. The faithful have gathered to hear reunions and long-awaited shows by some of the, um, “seminal” bands that shaped post-punk’s sound. As Steve Albini notes during the evening set by Big Black, a lot of people talk about the history of punk as if it skipped straight from the Sex Pistols to Nirvana. Well, this day was all about what came in between.

I showed up in time to see and hear a galvanizing performance by The Ex, a long-running band out of the Netherlands I’ve only discovered recently. Then came pulverizing punk by Killdozer, a collaboration between Jon Langford of the Mekons and Kat of the Ex (a phenomenal drummer who is bringing out some interesting sides of Langford’s guitar playing) and the cheeky Didjits. P.W. Long’s solo acoustic music didn’t impress me much, and neither did Negative Approach, one of the first bands signed to Touch & Go lo so many years ago. They struck me as pretty straightforward punk, nothing all that interesting (god, that lead singer knows how to sneer, though). As I stood in the photo pit, I felt something hit me lightly on the shoulder. I looked down. It was a toothbrush, thrown in my direction by someone in the crowd.

Another Mekon was up next, Sally Timms, doing those fractured and odd arrangements that have characterized her music of late. It’s an acquired taste, but I’m starting to acquire it. (Too bad the entire Mekons crew wasn’t available to play at the block party — to me, they are one of the seminal Touch & Go bands.)

Scratch Acid played a chaotic, incredibly energetic set, featuring the famous antics of singer David Yow. He’s been compared to Iggy Pop, and I can see why (though Iggy looks a lot better with his shirt off). At one point, Yow leapt into the photo pit and grabbed Touch & Go owner Corey Rusk. I was a couple of feet away, not sure exactly what was happening. I snapped some pictures, including one of Rusk apparently biting Yow on the hand. A playful bite, I take it.

Man … or Astroman? had the coolest set of the festival. (Actually, they had just about the only “set” that went beyond a basic set-up.) TV monitors, spiral yellow tubes, space-age junk… you get the idea. The mostly instrumental space surf guitar music was fun, if nothing super special.

The biggest event of the day for most people was probably the brief reunion of Big Black’s original lineup. As promised, it was short, with just four songs. The Big Black show began with Albini tossing some lit firecrackers onto the stage, which scared back us photographers as they popped (I felt a spark or two hit me, but have no injuries to report). At one point Albini remarked that the audience could probably pick up on the fact that they weren’t thrilled to be doing it — but that they were willing to do it for the sake of Touch & Go. (Gee, thanks for the enthusiasm.) The Big Black set was followed by a strong show by Albini’s current band, Shellac.

SEE PHOTOS.

Hideout/Touch & Go Block Party, Day One

With the addition of the Touch & Go 25th anniversary theme, the Hideout’s annual Block Party has become a bigger affair than ever before. All three days sold out in advance? Wow. Well, I guess there are many fans of ’80s and ’90s punk-rock flocking to this event to relive their old glory days. I have to admit there are a lot of bands on the lineup that I don’t know all that well — in many cases, I knew these bands more by their reputation than their music. So I feel inadequate to the task of giving a really well-informed critique of their performances, but I was eager to see and hear what I’ve been missing.

As it all got under way, Hideout head honcho Tim Tuten thanked the city for allowing the Hideout to use the parking lot next to Wabansia, where garbage trucks are normally parked. He said the city workers had been cleaning up and preparing the area for the festival for the past couple of weeks — and a couple of the guys had asked him if Twisted Sister would be reuniting for the party. Yeah, he told them, they’re playing at 8 o’clock on Saturday. As always at the Hideout’s block parties, it’s strange but somehow fitting to see that hulking Department of Fleet Management building behind the stage, with old brick factories ringing the rest of the site. An industrial setting for Chicago rock music.

Friday night got off to a good start, with the Shipping News. I didn’t care much for the dance music of Supersystem, but the next set by Girls Vs. Boys was strong. I would have liked to stick around for Ted Leo and !!!, but I also had a ticket to see M. Ward and Oakley Hall at Metro (a must-see for me), so I headed uptown at 8 p.m.

SEE PHOTOS FROM DAY ONE OF THE HIDEOUT BLOCK PARTY.

The ‘Joe Show’ at the Hideout

Yet another benefit for a musician without health insurance. Yet another reminder of what an awful system (or lack of system) we have in the United States for making sure everyone gets the health care they deserve. This time, it was Waco Brothers drummer Joe Camarillo, who was recently injured in a car accident.While Camarillo recuperates, some of his musical pals teamed up for a benefit show at the Hideout. I missed the headlining final set of the night by the Wacos (I can only blame sleepiness for my early departure), but caught three wonderful performances.

First up was Scott Ligon, accompanied by Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor. They’d recently played a series of shows at Davenports, a venue for cabaret music. Now, this is an interesting development, because I’ve been thinking for a while that the music of Hogan and Ligon would appeal to a lot of people outside the “alt-country” niche. People who like Norah Jones, vocal jazz or plain old Great American Songbook music would find a lot to like in the songs they’re doing, both originals and interpretations of classics and obscurities. When Hogan made those live recordings at the Hideout a while back (whatever happened to that album???), I thought the jazz critics should have been there to hear it. Anyway, at tonight’s gig, Ligon was the ringleader, playing some really, really nice originals, side by side with songs by Brian Wilson and Hoagy Carmichael, with Hogan and O’Connor adding truly beautiful harmonies.

Most of the same musicians stayed onstage for the next set, by O’Connor — more vocal beauty was in store. It just made me long for her to put out another album. She became a mom recently, so parenthood may be her priority for the moment, but I’d love to hear another recording from her.

Next up was yet another Jon Langford band/project. Does this guy ever go to sleep? This latest venture is a duo called the KatJon Band — Langford plus drummer Katrin Bornfeld of the Dutch band The Ex. I’m not familiar with the music of The Ex, but this set certainly got me interested. Kat’s an amazing drummer, playing lively and complex rhythms that sounded almost like a marching band at times. She played with a calm demeanor as if she were barely exerting herself, often breaking out into a smile or smirk. Her drumming brought out some sides of Langford’s guitar playing that I haven’t heard too much recently — more aggressive and edgy than the typical rhythm guitar he plays with most of his other bands of late. They played an interesting set of music, including songs by the Mekons, Ex and Three Johns, plus a George Jones cover. It was one of the best Langford performances I’ve seen in the last few years.

SEE PHOTOS FROM THE CONCERT.

Wreckless Eric with Jon Langford and Amy Rigby at the Hideout

MARCH 11, 2006
at the Hideout, Chicago

SEE PHOTOS

A concert at 4 p.m.? What gives? Hideout honcho Tim Tuten explains that Jon Langford has been organizing some special concerts at the club every several weeks, and this time, he called up Tim with a late-breaking opportunity to bring the legendary Wreckless Eric to the Hideout, along with Amy Rigby. The club was already booked for that night, but a recent charity gig by Freakwater at 4 p.m. had been a success, so Tuten thought, Why not?

Tuten was in rare form with his logorrheic introduction to the whole affair – so much so that Langford’s first words, following Tuten’s intro, were, “I’m exhausted.” Langford played only songs from his new album, Gold Brick, and they sounded very good in concert.

Amy Rigby followed with a short but tasty set of her songs, including several from her 2005 album, Little Fugitive, which I liked quite a bit. She closed with the wonderful “Dancing With Joey Ramone.” Rigby said her daughter, who’s getting ready to go to college, was present, and she joked that she wants her to go into a career that’ll support her mom’s music. (“Just don’t do one of those ‘Girls Gone Wild’ tapes!”)

Then came Wreckless Eric, who hadn’t played in Chicago since 1980. One of my regrets in 2005 was missing his appearance at SXSW, so this was a great opportunity to make up for that. To be honest, I didn’t know any of his songs other than “Whole Wide World” (which I became familiar with through the Rhino D.I.Y. collections)… During his set, Langford had remarked that Wreckless Eric was an inspiration to the Mekons when they were starting. “That was sort of the template for the Mekons,” he said. “It’s Ok to be punk and sensitive at the same time.” And Rigby said, “I’m very excited he’s playing today. I’m just a fan.”

Even though I was unfamiliar with most of the songs, I found Wreckless Eric immediately engaging. Playing solo, he reminded me a little of Robyn Hitchcock. And he was an entertaining raconteur as he told stories and jokes over his guitar grooves – and didn’t hesitate in telling some of the chattier people in the back of the room to shut their  gobs. “Fucking hell, what are you talking about back there? I’m trying to do business up here.”

He introduced his biggest hit by sarcastically noting the similarity to Sting’s later song, “Fields of Gold” — “It’s by Sting, but I’m going to sing it with the correct lyrics.”

He also read a short bit from his memoirs (“I’m going to read it to you whether you like it or not”), and then brought out Amy Rigby to play with him on the last few numbers.

It was quite an entertaining way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Or as Eric put it (describing one particular moment of noise, not the whole show): “Sounded like a fire in a banjo factory.” Let’s hope Eric doesn’t wait so long before his next visit to Chicago.

 

Devin Davis at the Hideout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEE PHOTOS