Aug. 25 felt like a quintessential night of live Chicago music: seeing Tortoise at Millennium Park, followed by Ryley Walker’s late concert at the Empty Bottle. Tortoise’s instrumental music resonated beautifully in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, with the band members constantly shifting around the instruments, playing intricate patterns with almost astonishing precision. The show also featured a nice opening by Homme (a duo I’d seen recently at the Pitchfork Music Festival).
Ryley Walker’s music seems quite different from Tortoise at first glance, and yet, there’s some similarity, especially when he is playing live with his excellent band. Like Tortoise and other Chicago bands — like Joshua Abrams and Natural Information Society — Walker and his collaborators know how to stretch a song out, to revel in grooves, to explore a chord progression or melodic motif in ways that are hypnotic and enchanting. Walker’s new album, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, is terrific, but its jammy folk-rock songs only hint at how jammy the group gets in concert. I recommend buying the deluxe 2-LP version, which adds a record containing a 41-minute live version of “Sullen Mind,” a song that is a mere 6 1/2 minutes in its studio version.
Walker’s set on Thursday at the Empty Bottle was a marvel. And it was particularly special because it offered a rare chance to see Leroy Bach — who produced the album — sitting in with the band. And it’s uncertain how many more times we’ll get a chance to see the fantastic drummer Frank Rosaly playing with this band, as we did on Thursday; I’m told that Rosaly has moved from Chicago to Europe. That’s a loss for Chicago, but Thursday night’s wonderful sets by Tortoise and Walker showed that the city’s independent music scene — where rock, jazz, country and experimental music often overlap — is as vibrant as ever.
I saw three documentaries, all of them worth seeing:
Joe Angio’s long-awaited Revenge of the Mekons — a compelling, funny and inspiring telling of this great band’s unusual and seemingly never-ending story. Mekons Jon Langford and Sally Timms answered questions with Angio after the sold-out screening at Lincoln Hall, and they even did one Mekons song (“Tina”) a cappella. (See the trailer for the film here.)
Boyce & Hart: The Guys Who Wrote ‘Em — a portrait of the ’60s songwriting duo who wrote many of the Monkees’ songs. The film has a lot of great archival film clips and photos. Bobby Hart (who appeared after the screening) narrates much of the film, which makes the interesting choice of showing no talking-head interviews. Before the screening, a group of local musicians calling themselves the Candy Store Prophets (including Phil Angotti) performed a lively set of Boyce & Hart tunes in the Logan Theatre’s lounge, with dancing by several ladies wearing 1960s-style outfits.
The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes and the Course of Country Music — a history of country music’s founding family. It’s a good film on an important topic — including an interview with the late Johnny Cash — but the attempts at turning historic photos into animation are awkward and distracting. Before the screening, Lawrence Peters played a cool set of mostly Johnny Cash songs in the Logan Theatre’s lounge.
Yo La Tengo & Phil Cohran
The CIMM Fest concerts I caught included a strong set by Yo La Tengo at Concord Hall on May 1. In typical fashion, the trio ran the gamut from very quiet folk music to loud droning punk rock. The evening’s opening act, onetime Sun Ra collaborator Phil Cohran, returned to the stage to join in with Yo La Tengo for a Sun Ra tune. YLT’s main set climaxed with some of the wildest guitar-tossing I’ve ever seen Ira Kaplan do. Following that rave-up, the encore finished with one of my favorite quiet Yo La Tengo songs, a lovely, low-key version of “My Little Corner of the World.” Kaplan said it was a request the band had received by email, noting that it seems like Yo La Tengo has played the song often during its Chicago concerts. Well, that’s just fine with me.
Mary Shelley scores ‘Potemkin’
Mary Shelley — a trio consisting of Local H’s Scott Lucas, former Smashing Pumpkin drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and bassist Mark Ulery (of Matt Ulery’s Loom) — performed a live score to the silent Soviet film classic Battleship Potemkin at 1st Ward on May 2. The thunderous riffs were truly epic, and the band followed up the film with one bonus song, a cover of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane.”
Willis Earl Beal
At the Hideout on May 2, Willis Earl Beal — wearing a Green Hornet mask — showed a short film he’d made, and then he played a recording of some new songs. He asked for the venue to turn off all the lights in the room, urging people not to walk out as his music played in almost total darkness. A few people did walk out, abandoning what turned out to be more of a listening party than an actual concert.
On May 3, the English band These New Puritans headlined a CIMM Fest concert at the Empty Bottle, performing impressive set of its arty rock, blending chamber music with post-punk. This band keeps changing up its modus operandi from one record to the next, but it always remains interesting.
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