January’s Tomorrow Never Knows festival keeps getting bigger, featuring more shows at more venues in Chicago. I saw two shows in this year’s festival: A fantastic, energetic set by Superchunk on Jan. 18 at Metro, which I did not photograph, except for a few cellphone pictures; and a lively evening of music on Jan. 19 at Lincoln Hall, featuring Alvvays, Pink Front, Diarrhea Planet and Yuck, which I did photograph:
Few rock bands have ever crafted and performed instrumental music with the same power and majesty as the Montreal ensemble Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Nine years after releasing its most recent album and several years since its last tour, GY!BE is playing concerts once again, including three sold-out shows in Chicago — Saturday (March 26) and Sunday (March 27) at Metro, and one more, tonight at the Vic.
The term “orchestral rock” usually refers to bands sweetening their pop sound with the lush sounds of a string section; that’s not what GY!BE does, but if any rock band deserves to be called an orchestra, this one does. When the group reaches the dramatic climax of one of its compositions, it sounds like a cross behind a noisy rock band playing at full-on, feedback-drenched intensity (think Sonic Youth) crossed with dozens of violinists, cellists and trumpeters performing a classical score (think Mahler). Actually, there were just eight musicians onstage Saturday and Sunday at Metro making those thunderous chords. As rock bands go, that’s a big lineup, but GY!BE often sounds bigger than that number would suggest.
The eight musicians — three guitarists, two percussionists, one violinist and two bassists (one electric and one upright) — said barely a word to the audience over the course of the last two nights, concentrating intently on their dark, brooding and apocalyptic music. There weren’t many moments of obvious virtuosity. These players are more interested in blending its instrumental voices together than showing off as individuals.
As they played in near darkness, four film projectors sent flickers onto the screen behind them — visual poetry that matched the music, with images of garbage dumps, birds in flight, medieval churches and fire — including the disturbing image of motion pictures melting in the projector. (It seems appropriate that Wikipedia lists film projector Karl Lemieux as a member of GY!BE, bringing the total lineup to nine.)
The visual accompaniment added to the sense that these “songs” (if that’s even the right word) tell stories, despite the lack of lyrics. And no singing was necessary to convey emotion, either. It was music capable of raising goosebumps.
A recording of Saturday’s concert is posted on archive.org. GY!BE set lists can be difficult to decipher, given all of the band’s multiple-part compositions and its alternate names for songs, but this appears to be what the group played Saturday: Hope Drone / Storm (Lift Yr. Skinny Fists, Like Antennas to Heaven/Gathering Storm/Il Pleut à Mourir + Clatters Like Worry) / Monheim (Murray Ostril: “…They Don’t Sleep Anymore on the Beach…”/Monheim) / Albanian / Dead Metheny… / Floyd (Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls) / Gorecki (Moya) / Blaise Bailey Finnegan III
Sunday’s concert featured some of the same pieces, as well as three other songs: 12-18-99 (a variation or alternate name for 09-15-00?) / World Police and Friendly Fire / The Sad Mafioso.
The current issue of the Chicago Reader includes photos I took at the highly unusual Yo La Tengo concert Feb. 4 at Metro in Chicago. The venerable indie-rock band, which somehow manages to continue attract young audiences even as its members get older, has been spinning a game-show-style wheel at the start of every show this tour, determining the theme of the concert’s first half. An audience member spun the wheel at Metro, and it landed on “Spinner’s Choice.” Much to the consternation of some crowd members, the guy picked “Sitcom Theater” instead of, say, a full set of music by side project Dump or songs that start with the letter “S.”
And so, what happened next was the members of Yo La Tengo and their roadies holding scripts onstage and reading the Chinese restaurant episode of “Seinfeld.” I found this to be pretty amusing. Ira Kaplan does a great Jerry Seinfeld. (Video.) If nothing else, it was a strange spectacle to behold. Some people in the audience clearly weren’t happy, however, and as the musicians neared the end of the script, some of them began clapping impatiently, demanding some music. The band took it all in stride, which made it seem even more like some perverse “irritate the audience” stunt of the sort Andy Kaufman might’ve pulled off.
Then came an intermission — which did go longer than necessary — and a regular Yo La Tengo concert, if there is such a thing. It was a wide-ranging set of old and recent songs, including everything from mellow folkie and jazzy ballads to loud rockers and experimental improvisation. Somehow, all of it sounds like Yo La Tengo.
The opening act was solo guitarist William Tyler, who has played in the past with Lambchop. He was quite impressive on acoustic and electric guitars, showing a mastery of quiet, delicate songs as well as stronger blasts of noise.
Eels may be the only band I’ve ever seen with a fake set list. As opening act Jesca Hoop performed before the Eels show Friday (Oct. 1) at Metro, I took pictures of a set list taped to the show, which was labeled “Eels” and appeared to be a list of the songs the singer-songwriter E (a.k.a. Mark Everett) would be performing later with his band, Eels. Well, I was fooled.
While I do admire the music of Eels, I must confess that I’m not all that familiar with the song titles. But as I consulted my pictures of the set list on the back of my camera during the show, I quickly realized something was fishy about those titles. Fellow music photographer and writer Kirstie Shanley (a.k.a. Kirstiecat) then informed me that the fake set list had been replaced with an actual set list as Eels took the stage. I’d missed that moment since I was standing over on the other side of the photo pit. She was kind enough to share her photo of the actual set list with me (in which a few titles were partially obscured).
All of this is yet another example of E’s peculiar sense of humor. I don’t know what all of the fake song titles mean. One includes the stage name of the new Eels guitarist, “P-Boo.” And while Eels actually played a cover of Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” the fake set list included a different Lovin’ Spoonful hit, “Do You Believe in Magic?” And at the point where Eels played George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” the set list indicated, “If on a Winter’s Night.” Also, what’s with all of the songs about summer? During “Summertime,” E opened a cooler and tossed some ice-cream cones and other frozen desserts into the audience.
E played the first few songs either solo or accompanied by just pedal-steel guitar. Then for the rest of the set, Eels were in their rock-show mode. E’s face was barely visible, hidden behind dark shades, a bandana and a mass of facial hair. And the other four musicians, all of them bearded, wore sunglasses as well.
Opening act Hoop’s music still hasn’t clicked with me, and her set didn’t quite win me over. Still, it was tons better than the first act of the night, a ventriloquist comedian whose jokes fell flat with uncomfortable silence. Was that E’s idea, too?
ACTUAL EELS SET LIST: Grace Kelly Blues / What I Have to Offer / End Times / She Said Yeah / Gone Man / Summer in the City / Tremendous Dynamite / In My Younger Days / Paradise Blues / Jungle Telegraph / My Beloved Monster / Spectacular Girl / Fresh Feeling / Dog Faced Boy / That Look You Gave That Guy / Souljacker Part 1 / Talking’ ‘Bout Knuckles / Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues / I Like Birds / Summertime / Looking Up / ENCORE 1: That’s Not Her Way / ENCORE 2: I Like the Way This Is Going
FAKE EELS SET LIST: New Pollution / She Said What? / Gone Baby Gone / Tender Dreams of Love / Beethoven’s Cunt / Not Now / The Name Game / Butter Blues / Gimme a Jingle / Blowing Sunshine (Part 1) / Spectacular Giraffe / Peace Frog / The Book You Gave That Girl / Soul Cake (Part 1) / P-Boo, Baby / Karate Monkey / Roxanne / If on a Winter’s Night / Blowing Sunshine (Part 2) / ENCORE 1: Do You Believe in Magic? / ENCORE 2: Hot Blooded
UPDATE: Thanks to Chris Fairfield for e-mailing me and filling in the gaps on the set list.
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The National’s latest record, High Violet, is shaping up as one of my 2010 favorites. Like the band’s previous album, Boxer, it’s an almost perfect distillation of what makes the National so great: moody music with tension boiling just below the surface. The melodies may seem minimalist at first, as Matt Berninger’s conversational baritone spells out the lyrics in small gestures, the tune moving up and down by only a few notes. That first impression is deceiving, and the National’s melodies start burrowing their way into your memory.
The National played a sold-out concert Sunday (Sept. 26) at the Riviera Theatre, which was a fine opportunity for me to catch a full-length show, in contrast to my truncated experience watching the National at Lollapalooza. (Thanks to music blogger www.babystew.com for letting me use his ticket to the Riviera show, which I’d failed to plan for.) The concert drew heavily from High Violet and Boxer, with just a few older songs, including “Abel” and “Daughter of the SoHo Riots” from 2005’s Alligator.
In concert, the National raised the tension level of its most subdued songs. The harmony vocals were especially strong, as several members of the band joined their voices together with Berninger on those unforgettable choruses. The crowd sang along at key moments, too. But Berninger was the focus of attention for most of the night. Berninger began the concert closely hugging his microphone, but as the show went on, he became more animated, bouncing his microphone stand like a toy. During instrumental passages, he paced the stage, raising his clenched fists, like someone fighting off voices in his head. Berninger’s dance is awkward, lacking the typical rock-star moves, but it feels authentic. He seems to be expressing the emotion and energy he’s feeling from these songs in the only way he can. A singular rock-band frontman, he’s fascinating to watch.
It was thrilling how the National’s songs built to dramatic climaxes, and the show ended with an encore featuring three of the best: Another track from Alligator, “Mr. November,” in between two of my favorites from High Violet: “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” and “Terrible Love.” During that final song, Berninger walked out into the audience, singing out in the midst of the crowd’s voices for several minutes.
www.myspace.com/thenational / www.americanmary.com (The National website)
The Riviera concert began with a nice opening set by Owen Pallett (the artist formerly known as Final Fantasy). After the National, I ran down to Metro, arriving in time to catch 45 minutes of the concert by Caribou. The psychedelic electronic rock was a cool way to cap off an evening of great music.
I did not take photos Sunday night, but here are my previous pictures of these artists:
The National at Lollapalooza 2010
The National at Lollapalooza 2008
Caribou July 12, 2010, at the Pritzker Pavilion
Caribou at Pitchfork 2008
Caribou April 11, 2008, at the Empty Bottle
Owen Pallett April 10, 2010, at Lincoln Hall
The show on Friday (July 10) at Metro was a record-release party for Mannequin Men, but the garage-y Chicago quartet made the night seem more like a four-band celebration of the joys of three-chord rock. Mannequin Men were on the bill with three other groups of similar sensibility. All in all, it was quite an enjoyable series of simple but raucous guitar riffs, thumping bass notes and drumbeats, topped off with sneering vocals.
The three youngsters in Chicago’s Stranger Waves got the evening off to a roaring start with a solid set. These guys are only 17 years old? They sure know how to play their instruments already, and their songwriting chops aren’t bad, either. www.myspace.com/thestrangerwaves
Up next was the only band of the night from somewhere other than Chicago, the Puerto Rican group Davila 666. Whereas Stranger Waves sounded tight, these fellows were very loose, almost like they were jamming at a party rather than performing a concert, but the music was very much in the same garage-rock spirit. A couple of the songs sounded suspiciously similar to recognizable hits of the genre — was that one tune a Spanish translation of “Teenage Kicks” or just a very close-sounding song? Well, I guess there’s only so much you can do with three chords, right? www.myspace.com/davila666
The third band, Thomas Function, did not make as much of an impression on me as the rest of the lineup Friday night, but they were reasonably enjoyable, too. (Looking at my photos of the band, I’m wondering: Gee, was the lighting that strange … or did I do something weird with the settings on my camera? Lots of interesting shadows.) www.myspace.com/thomasfunction
Then it was time for the headliners, Chicago’s own Mannequin Men. As I mentioned recently after seeing them play a late show at the Empty Bottle, they really do seem like one of the best live acts in the city these days. However, they still don’t seem to have a large enough following to headline the Metro on a Friday night. The place was not embarrassingly empty by any stretch of the imagination, but there was a lot more room to move around on the main floor than I’m used to seeing. Maybe this band needs more time to build the buzz that it deserves. During the set, lead singer Kevin Richard jokingly offered some tips for other bands, including: Don’t put yourself on a bill with other bands that are better than yours. Well, that’s not true… No reason for an inferiority complex, dude. He also commented about being drunk, which did seem to be true. Mannequin Men sounded good as they ripped through some great songs from their new CD, Lose Your Illusion, Too, and the previous record, Fresh Rot, with lots of classically snotty punk-rock attitude. The band got a small group of fans onstage to sing along on one song, then halfheartedly came out for an encore… By that point, Richard’s guitar was broken, and by the very end, he wasn’t even on the stage. It was a sloppy, disheveled ending to the concert. Not that that’s really a bad thing. Hey, this is garage rock, right? www.myspace.com/mannequinmen
The odds are, if you’ve heard of the Vaselines, it’s because Nirvana covered a few of their songs. This Scottish band recorded just one LP and some singles in the late ’80s, broke up, then briefly reformed to open for their fans in Nirvana. They haven’t played together since the early ’90s, and they’d never played a concert in Chicago (for the Midwest, for that matter) until last night (May 16) at Metro. The occasion for their current tour is an excellent new collection of their old songs, Enter the Vaselines, issued this year by Sub Pop. As one of the band’s two singer-guitarists, Frances McKee, noted, it’s an “old-new CD.”
The group is essentially the duo of McKee and Eugene Kelly, though for this show they were backed up by three musicians on loan from other Scottish groups: guitarist Stevie Jackson and bassist Bob Kildea (both from Belle and Sebastian) and drummer Michael McGaughrin (from the 1990s). They were, as McKee joked, “the professionals in this outfit.”
Despite being away for so many years, the Vaselines sounded so fresh. Their songs have some of that Velvet Underground and post-punk feel, but there’s also a sweet pop side to what they do. That attitude also came through in their hilarious stage banter. Well, McKee was hilarious in any case, making bitterly funny remarks about her erstwhile romantic partner, Kelly, who played the part of the straight man in this routine. When Kelly introduced one song by saying, “This is a love song,” she interjected with a smile, “Not any more.” She also accused him of wearing “grumpy pants,” and when audience members called out that they loved Kelly, she tartly noted, “You obviously don’t know him.” After another song, she said, “There’s a message in that song: If you take too many drugs, you’ll end up like Eugene.” She delivered all this verbal abuse with a wry sense of humor (maybe that Scottish accent helps), and he stood there and took it with a slightly chagrined look.
If they still had any actual bitter feelings between them, it didn’t stop them from performing top-notch versions of their old songs, including of course highlights like “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” which Nirvana fans know so well from the MTV Unplugged album. And the Vaselines even played a couple of new songs (one of which was identified simply as “new new song” on the set list), which sounded almost as good as the oldies. Let’s hope we hear more from the Vaselines soon.
The opening act was one of my local favorites, the 1900s (not to be confused with the aforementioned Scottish group, the 1990s). They’ve had a couple of members leave the band over the last year, but they had a new drummer and keyboard player in place for last night’s gig, and they also played a few new songs, which sounded promising. I eagerly await their next record.
I’ve had trouble pinning down what exactly makes TV on the Radio’s music so unusual and so interesting. Is it the odd layers of sound on their records? The vocal style, including some parts that are almost like post-punk doo wop? I’m still not sure, but after seeing TV on the Radio in concert, I think there’s simply something distinctive about the group’s peculiar melodies and harmonies. The sound of the band was more direct in concert, but it was still beguiling and strange.
It was a high-energy show, with songs from both of the group’s albums plus some EP tunes. The band called a halt to the excessive outpouring of Metro’s fog machine (“That’s a little too much magic”). For the last song, the members of opening act Grizzly Bear came back onstage to dance and clap along.
I’m not familiar at all with Grizzly Bear, but I enjoyed their performance, which was mostly quiet ballads of the meditative and soaring sort.
Oakley Hall impressed me when I saw them in January 2005 at the Empty Bottle (opening for the Constantines), but their first album, which I purchased at the show that night, was a bit of a disappointment. A decent start for the group, but a little too lo-fi. The new Oakley Hall albumGypsum Strings is a marked improvement (I’ve yet to pick up the record the band released earlier in 2006, Second Guessing, but it’s now on my “must” list), and the band sounds even better in concert. I hear a lot of Fairport Convention and Richard and Linda Thompson in their music, mostly because vocalist Rachel Cox sings in that even-toned English folk style — and because the repeating chords have some of that dirge quality you hear in Fairport. It’s a fascinating variation of the music that guitarist/singer/keyboardist Pat Sullivan did when he was in Oneida. Oakley Hall takes those folk elements and then really cranks up the guitar riffs and oscillating keyboard chords. Sullivan’s just an OK vocalist, so it’s a good thing that the wonderful Cox is taking over more of the singing duties. SEE PHOTOS OF OAKLEY HALL AT METRO.
Oakley Hall’s set list:
For anyone who has the impression that M. Ward performs sleepy, quiet music (an impression you could easily get from some of his records), this performance definitely proved otherwise. Ward played electric guitar, not acoustic, almost all night, until the first encore. And he had two — two! — drummers. Ward and his band rocked, with Ward taking some wonderful guitar solos. It’s not just the solos that make his playing special, it all of the subtle finger picking he employs throughout his songs. But when he’s playing with a full band, he doesn’t hog the spotlight, often delegating some of the guitar lines to the other players, allowing him to sing verses without touching the strings, or to step over to his electric piano.
Ward tends to crouch down, doing sort of a low-key version of Chuck Berry’s duck walk as he skulks across the stage with his guitar. And his microphones are set low so that Ward has to lean down into them, scrunching his face as he sings in his husky voice. His face looks calm as he plays a solo, though, his fingers flying with amazing ease.
As Ward and his band came out, a recording of Daniel Johnston’s original version of “To Go Home,” the second track on Ward’s new album, was playing. With Ward pounding the chords on the piano and those two drum kits clattering with a joyful sound, his band took over the song.
While there were a few folky moments, Ward emphasized the rock side of his repertoire. After closing the main set with “Big Boat,” Ward returned to the stage alone for an acoustic encore. In “I’ll Be Yr Bird,” he changed the words to “I’m not Vic Chestnutt, I’m no Bob Mould.”
The set list on the stage listed another Daniel Johnston song, “The Story of an Artist,” as the final song of the night, but when Ward and band came back for a second encore, they instead chose to play the song that may be Ward’s most memorable anthem, “Vincent O’Brien,” and it was the finest live version of it I’ve heard.
This was also surely one of the best concerts I’ve seen this year.
M. WARD SET LIST
To Go Home
Four Hours in Washington
Right in the Head
Poor Boy, Minor Key
Duet for Guitars #3 (this may have begun with Rag)
I’ll Be Yr Bird
Lullaby & Exile
Has Calexico mellowed into some sort of Tex-Mex lite rock? Some people apparently think so, after a cursory listen to the band’s latest CD, Garden Ruin. While the record does have more than its share of quiet moments, it has some rockers, too, and this album’s a grower.
And in concert, on June 23 at Metro, Calexico is just as fiery and nimble as ever. It was another top-notch performance by Calexico tonight. Joey Burns is sort of an assuming frontman — not super showy — but that just adds to feeling that this one-time duo has truly become a full-fledged band. Especially impressive is that German/Latino duo swapping instruments all night long — trumpets, vibes, keyboards, guitar, accordion, percussion — those guys (Martin Wenk and Jacob Valenzuela) are great. John Convertino got some excellent rattlesnake noises out of the drum kit.
There were a lot of old songs, plus a good sample from the new record. “Bisbee Blue” and “Letter to Bowie Knife” sounded especially good, as did the Feast of Wire tunes like “Not Even Stevie Nicks” (that one veered off into a new section that sounded much different from the studio version). Calexico also played its nice cover of Love’s “Alone Again Or,” and during the encore, opening act Jason Collett and a bunch of other musicians came onstage for Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Other guest musicians included Doug McCombs of Tortoise and Eleventh Dream Day sitting in on guitar for a few songs and Chicago’s go-to guy on trumpet, Dave “Max” Crawford (who’s also a bartender at Metro… nice to see him on the stage there for a change).
A screen behind the band showed grainy footage of bullfights, horses wading through water and demolition derbies. It was just grainy and abstract enough to work as a nice visual backdrop without being too distracting, and it matched Calexico’s Southwestern vibe perfectly.
I don’t know the solo music of Jason Collett, who opened the concert, but it sounded pretty darn good. Mellow pop taken up a notch by some talented musicians (including guest players from the Stills, who were in town for Intonation Fest.)
FEB. 17, 2006
THE ELECTED and STARS
at the Metro, Chicago
On the coldest night of Chicago’s winter so far, the musical theme at Metro was meteorologically perverse. The Elected came with their songs from “Sun, Sun, Sun,” while Stars offered another suggestion for warmth, playing songs from their 2004 disc “Set Yourself on Fire.”
The Elected, a band that hails from the sunnier climes of Los Angeles, did its best to bring at least a little musical brightness to the room. Led by Blake Sennett, who’s better known as a member of Rilo Kiley, the Elected play delightful light pop – one critic compared them to the Eagles last week, but they make me think of the Mamas and the Papas, the Turtles and the Left Banke. At times, especially when they use pedal steel guitar, the Elected sounds a little like the countriest of Bright Eyes’ music (but with vocals that aren’t a fraction as overwrought as Conor Oberst’s).
The harmonies sounded wonderful in concert. All of that lovely, lilting music might have left some audience members hoping for a little more rock, and for its final song, the Elected obliged. “At Home (Time Unknown),” which also closes the Elected’s new album, ends with an extended jam. A lite-rock guitar duel? Sort of. While these guys are far less powerful than, say, My Morning Jacket, this closing blaze of guitars showed that they are capable of doing more than pretty ooo’ing and ahh’ing.
Stars, from Montreal, were the headliners. (Until I showed up, I wasn’t actually sure who would get top billing in this nice combination of two well-regarded indie-rock bands.)
“Set Yourself on Fire” has several great songs, and several others that seem a little lackluster to me. The concert was much the same (though it did include songs from Stars’ earlier records, as well as a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” in addition to the “Set Yourself on Fire” tracks).
Given the fact that this band includes a violin and trumpet and alternating/harmonizing male and female lead vocalists, in addition to the standard rock instrument lineup, you’d think Stars would have the potential for a wide variety of sounds and arrangements, but the group tends to stick to similarly bland settings. Its melodies are good, sometimes very good, though, and those harmonies can be awfully touching, the way Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan’s voices blend.
Stars is a good band with the potential, as yet unrealized, to be a great band. Whatever my opinions on Stars, I could see they’ve reached a pretty loyal cult following. The show was sold out, and the predominantly young crowd at this 18-and-over concert adored Stars. As the singers stretched out their arms during some of the more memorable lyrics, I sensed a swooning among many of the youngsters in attendance.
So, hey, if Stars is connecting with listeners to this degree, I won’t complain too much.
OCT. 29, 2005
THE GO! TEAM
The Go! Team once again earned its exclamation point tonight, with an incredible show of nonstop fun, mix-and-match musical styles.
Also worth noting: Opening act the Grates put on a fun show themselves. It’s a drums, guitar and singer trio from Australian, and the singer was practically doing jumping jacks throughout the set.
OCT. 6, 2005
SEPT. 24, 2005
Sabina Sciubba of Brazilian Girls is probably the sexiest musical performer I’ve ever seen onstage, and not just because she has a great set of legs. Her entire act is a sexual tease, a seduction act directed at the entire audience (well, at least the male half, and at this concert with a big lesbian turnout, probably most of the crowd).
True to form, she had a bizarre outfit tonight that shielded her eyes. Wearing a one-piece swimsuit with tights (both flesh-colored), Sciubba had black cardboard rectangles stapled to her getup, strategically covering all the naughty-bit areas like censor bars, as well as a black bar attached to her glasses.
Halfway through the show, she ripped off the cardboard on her chest, revealing a knife and blood stain underneath. Despite wearing spiked heels, Sciubba somehow managed to dance, wiggle and writhe all night. She coyly extended her arms to the crowd many times, touching the hands of eager audience members (including me) or borrowing cigarettes for a drag. She waved a black towel like a matador’s towel toward audience members who were no doubt feeling some urge to charge the stage. She urged audience members to chant “I want pussy” or “I have pussy” (depending on each audience member’s gender), while invitingly pointing at her crotch.
Oh, yeah, what about the music? Believe me, despite all of the abovementioned visual distractions, I can honestly report that Brazilian Girls make some exceptionally catchy dance music, bossa nova and samba rhythms meeting up with techno, lounge and classic songs. The drummer (Aaron Johnston), playing a combo of acoustic drums and electronic pieces, pulls off some amazing rhythms, while the keyboard/computer (Did Gutman) and bass (Jess Murphy) guys fill out the mix with some very intelligent, catchy sounds.
The show started late (12:45) and ran for almost two hours. It was a long wait for Brazilian Girls at this Estrojam concert. The opening acts including the Breakbone Dance Company, who were pretty impressive if not exactly my thing; Anna Oxygen, who played fairly catchy dance music but had some trouble explaining the concept behind her concept music, which has something to do with petri dishes, unicorns and rainbows; and Scream Club, a dance duo singing about acne and such concepts as “socially awesome.” Awesome, it was not.
It was a busy weekend of concerts, and I didn’t even go to Farm Aid. It was a pretty remarkable three days of music, with at least three performances that rank among the year’s best.
SEPT. 16: LAURA VEIRS started off the weekend at Metro with an excellent set of her spacey folk rock, mostly drawn from her new album Year of Meteors. In concert, it becomes clear how much of her music’s odd charm is rooted in her guitar playing, with its peculiar sense of rhythms and unorthodox finger-picked chords. Viers has a lovely deadpan voice, and a tendency to smirk a lot … as if she can’t believe she’s actually up onstage in front of a crowd.
She was just the opening act, followed by the impressive spectacle of SUFJAN STEVENS and his seven-person backup band/cheerleading squad. The songs from Illinois sounded great in concert. If listeners hadn’t already realized these are complicated and well crafted compositions, it became obvious watching Stevens and his band pull it off in concert. The mostly young crowd was wildly enthusiastic. Who’d have thought we’d see a crowd of 20-ish rock fans whooping at a trombone solo or the unfurling of an Illinois state flag? The band, dressed in Illinois shirts, with the three female musicians decked out as cheerleaders, performed cheers in between the songs and even formed a human pyramid onstage. It was a strange mix of the seriousness of art rock with giddy silliness.
SEPT. 17: The Hideout Block Party is always a great event, and this year’s featured a couple of especially noteworthy shows. ELEVENTH DREAM DAY played a set of new songs, which will be on a just-recorded CD. This band plays only once or twice a year, but whenever it does, it’s one of the best rock shows of the year. The new material sounded great, and the members of Eleventh Dream Day again showed that they’re all outstanding musicians. The band’s core trio was supplemented by keyboard player Mark Greenberg.
The headline of the day, however, was the first gig anywhere by the reunited original lineup of THE dB’S. They look a lot older than I remember, but then, I saw them twice back in the mid 1980s in Champaign, so I probably look a lot older, too. The dB’s played a couple of new songs, which sounded good, but the set focused on the classic power pop songs from their first two albums. It still sounded fresh. The band came back for a rare festival-set encore, “Neverland.”
I also caught sets at the Hideout Block Party by Kevin O’Donnell’s Ensemble General, an intriguing big group led by drummer-around-town O’Donnell. His monologue during one song about blue states invading red states was a highlight. And with his between-song banter, O’Donnell revealed himself to be one funny guy.
I’m not sure what to make of the Sam Roberts Band, from Montreal. The songs were OK, but the sound was too jam-band for me.
The always-excellent Ponys were going strong when I had to depart the block party for…
BOUBACAR TRAORE, a Malian guitarist and singer who played a spellbinding set at Park West. (I also saw him the following night at Logan Square Auditorium.) Traore plays a style of percussive acoustic-guitar music that will remind American listeners of the blues. Using just his thumb and forefinger to pick the strings, Traore rarely plays actual chords, essentially soloing throughout each song, even as he sings. Traore was the opening act for…
AMADOU & MARIAM, a married couple of blind singers from Mali, whose new album is one of the best of 2005. The music sounded great in concert, too, with Amadou taking the chance to stretch out with some pretty amazing guitar solos. Another difference from the studio recordings was the stronger emphasis on percussion, one of the reasons the crowd was dancing almost nonstop. (Why no photos of Amadou & Mariam? Because I idiotically left my camera in my car, thinking the Park West does not allow photos, though it turns out I could have brought it in.)
SEPT. 17: After another exceptional opening set by Boubacar Traore, Brazil’s SEU JORGE played tonight at the Logan Square Auditorium. Like last night’s concert by Amadou & Mariam, this was part of the Chicago World Music Festival. Jorge is a commanding singer, and his songs (which I wasn’t familiar with) sounded excellent. At times, he sang softly with gentle guitar or ukulele rhythms carrying the beat. At other times, the music was heavy on percussion (the band included Jorge on guitar, a bass player and three percussionist) with Jorge growling, rapping or singing full-out in a more rock-music style. After Jorge left stage, the three percussionists led the crowd for a while in some clap-alongs, then Jorge returned for an acoustic set, including three of the David Bowie songs he covered for The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. At the end of the night, Jorge stood before the crowd and gave an impassioned speech about the people of his generation trying to make Brazil a better place.
MAY 11, 2005
Gang of Four
Wow — what an amazing show this was. Gang of Four has always been one of those bands I wished I’d seen when they were together the first time around, so it was great to get the chance at last. Andy Gill’s jagged rhythms on guitar, so simple but so perfect. That propulsive rhythm section. Vocalist Dave King’s stage presence was a wonder in itself, as he rolled and squatted across the stage, often acting as if the power of the music had actually stunned him.
The crowd was an interesting mix of older fans (another Leeds rocker, Jon Langford of the Mekons, was in the crowd) and younger listeners, probably drawn by the legion of recent bands imitating Gang of Four. Young and old appeared to be having a fun, fun time. Gang of Four’s music is even more impressive in concert than it is on record — and this reunited lineup more than lived up to expectations.
The Underground Bee has been out of commission for a month or so… I was too exhaused by the big SXSW 2005 extravaganzato pay much attention to updating this site. It’s time to catch up. But first, here is an actual letter to the editor I received recently. (The authenticity of the signature is open to question, however.)
I have perused the “Underground Bee” Web site, and I have to admit I am quite disappointed. There is much blathering on about Rock Bands and nary a mention of honey, beeswax, hives, drones, queens and such. I found a reference to something called “Bee Thousand,” but did not understand its meaning. In the future, please try to add items that might be of interest to the striped population.
Well! I must admit I keep promising to expand this site’s purview beyond the aforementioned “blathering on about Rock Bands,” without fulfilling said promise. One of these days… I promise. I am far behind on my bee research.
Now, back to the blathering… Some recent concerts:
MARCH 25 — Orchestra Baobob at the HotHouse. This was the third time I’ve seen this fantastic band from Senegal. The grooves sounded as great as ever. Everyone was moving on the dance floor. PHOTOS.
APRIL 1 — The Kills at the Double Door. I have to plead ignorance about the music of the Kills — I just listened to a little bit of their new album online as I decided whether to see this concert. I was intrigued when some critics compared the Kills to P.J. Harvey. I’m not sure that I see that much of a connection, but the Kills certainly put on a pretty darn entertaining concert. Guy on guitar, plus girl on vocals (and occasional guitar), plus drum machine. The spare lineup left them room to cavort across the Double Door stage, working up a good sweat. I will definitely be checking out the Kills’ music after seeing this show. Opening act Scout Niblett was simply tiresome. PHOTOS.
APRIL 3 — Dolorean at Schubas. The club was pretty empty as Dolorean took the stage at 11 p.m. on a Sunday, just 25 to 30 people sitting around to hear Dolorean’s lovely, quiet folk-pop. Bad timing, I suppose. Can’t these Sunday-night shows begin a little earlier? Anyway, Dolorean (which is mostly singer-songwriter Al James) sounded good live, and the lack of fans didn’t detract from my enjoyment. In fact, it made it seem more like James and band were playing a personal gig for the few fans in the place. One of the opening acts, Jeff Hanson, had an amazingly feminine voice, though this guy didn’t look the least bit androgynous. His songs sounded pretty good on first listen, falling somewhere in Jeff Buckley/Nick Drake territory.
APRIL 9 — Magnolia Electric Co. at Schubas. I‘m still not convinced that the 2003 album titled Magnolia Electric Co. was actually by the band called Songs:Ohia. That name doesn’t appear anywhere on my copy of the disc (though I’ve seen copies with a Songs:Ohia sticker). In any case, Jason Molina is now officially calling his band Magnolia Electric Co., and it is a first-rate group. Neil Young and Crazy Horse comparisons are inevitable, but Molina has his own distinctive voice. I like its natural quality. While he doesn’t do a Mark Knopler talk-singing thing, I get the sense that his singing comes straight out of his speaking voice. There’s something very conversational about it. And I love those deep-pitched solos that he plays on the lower strings of his guitar. Three members of Magnolia Electric Co. served as the opening act, playing in the incarnation known as the Coke Dares. Their shtick is playing very short songs in rapid succession, always being sure to say the name of each song. It was quite humorous. I’ll have to hear the songs on CD to say how worthwhile they are, but the Coke Dares seemed to pack a lot into each little burst of music. PHOTOS.
APRIL 15 — Paul Westerberg at the Riveria. He smashed a TV, a telephone and a guitar. He played a lot of his recent solo songs and a few odd covers (“If I Had a Hammer,” “Different Drummer”). He took swigs of whiskey. The concert degenerated into a series of aborted songs: one verse of “Like a Rolling Stone,” half of “Substitute,” a few chords from “Sweet Jane,” the riff from “Cat Scratch Fever.” His band anxiously awaited his next move. Someone got up to leave from a balcony seat and Westerberg said, “Hey, don’t you dare walk away!” Westerberg was falling down on the stage as he played his guitar. Was it all an act? He threw the microphone out into the crowd during “Can’t Hardly Wait,” and then jumped off the stage himself. End of show. Would he bother coming back for an encore? Yes! Glorious versions of “Alex Chilton” and “Left of the Dial” ensued. Was this concert a train wreck? Yes, at times, but it also had moments of triumph.
APRIL 16 — Andrew Bird at Metro. I had the honor of interviewing Mr. Bird recently, and it’s always an honor to see him play live. He’s still doing his amazing one-man band act, using a sampler pedal to loop various string and guitar sounds, building a song from the ground up right in front of the audience. That’s fascinating to see and hear, and it helps that the songs are so good. Kevin O’Donnell was with him on drums tonight, adding jazzy percussion. Bird actually slipped up a couple of times as he tried to juggle all of the musical balls — but in an odd way, that made his act all the more impressive. It makes you realize how difficult it is to pull off perfection. Near the end of the show, one round of applause swelled beyond the typical cheering, and I sensed a genuine outpouring of affection and appreciation from the crowd. Opening act Archer Prewitt put on a fine set, with his soft, jazzy art-pop songs building into catchy grooves. It was nice seeing Dave Max Crawford, who works as a Metro bartender, on the stage as part of Prewitt’s band, drawing a big hand for a trumpet solo.
APRIL 17 — Damien Jurado at Schubas. Somehow, I’ve missed seeing Jurado in concert until now. I was tempted to see Elvis Costello over at the Auditorium tonight (I’ve somehow missed seeing him in concert, other than one show back in 1989), but I just couldn’t blow off Jurado again. Jurado is one of those singers who doesn’t look the least bit like a rock star, which makes him seem all the more real. He sat down for the whole show, getting up once to go back and play drums for one song. A nice mix of Jurado’s quiet acoustic songs and some rockers, like “Paper Wings.” Responding to an audience request, he played “Ohio” from Rehearsals for Depature, noting that he was heavily medicated (from hospital drugs, not illicit ones) at the time he wrote most of the songs for that album, so he doesn’t really remember the experience. I picked up a copy of that CD on the way out — I owned it once before, but then it was stolen from my car. I wonder if the thieves ever listened to it? PHOTOS.
APRIL 20 — M. Ward at the Abbey Pub. Another musician I enjoyed interviewing recently. And as I mentioned before, I am waging a campaign for the recognition of M. Ward’s current supremacy in the musical firmament. So of course I enjoyed this show, which featured Ward playing with a full band, his pals in the group Norfolk & Western. The concert had its share of quiet acoustic moments, but it also rocked, especially with songs such as “Big Boat,” “Vincent O’Brien,” “Four Hours in Washington” and “Sad Sad Song.” It’s nice how much Ward varies his live performances. “Fuel For Fire,” which he played on piano at Schubas in February, was back to being an acoustic guitar song this time around, but with a really well-played harmonica solo added to the intro. His Carter Family cover, “Oh Take Me Back,” which is just a short ditty on Transistor Radio, began with an extended bluesy instrumental section. Despite his renown as a guitarist, Ward felt comfortable enough with his role as frontman to take his hands off the guitar and just sing at times. And at other times, it was possible to hear a tiny bit of the surprising influences he mentioned in my interview with him: Sonic Youth and Firehose. None of his music would be confused with those bands, but at a few of the concert’s loudest moments, he did make some dissonant noise with his electric guitar. Norfolk & Western had its own slot as the first opening act, playing melodic folk rock, followed by Devotchka, which played artsy cabaret music — a little like Calexico, with whistling, violin and accordion Interesting, I thought, though obviously not for all tastes. The crowd seemed to dig it. …Speaking of which, the M. Ward crowd was quite young, and I spotted a Bright Eyes T-shirt. Maybe he’s picking up some fans from his tours with Conor Oberst. PHOTOS.
APRIL 21 — Yo La Tengo at the Vic. You might take it as a bad sign that I kept nodding off during this concert, but I’d put the blame more on lack of sleep than lack of interesting music. Yo La Tengo started off the concert with a long instrumental drone, three keyboards going at once, bearing some similarity to Wilco’s much-hated electronic experimentation on “Less Than You Think.” Personally, I like this kind of thing, in small quantities, at least, and I thought this was a daring way for Yo La Tengo to start off its show. (Plus, it gave me time to catch a few winks.) The trio kept things eclectic at this concert, with punky garage rock, super-hushed mellowness and tropicalia. They even did a little dance routine. Somehow, it all sounds distinctly like Yo La Tengo and no one else. Responding to very enthusiastic applause, the band played three encores. A reminder of what a great band this is. NOW why was this concert on the same night as Chris Stamey at the Abbey Pub? I would have liked to have seen both, and given the fact that Yo La Tengo plays on Stamey’s new CD, you wouldn’t think they’d book shows at the same time. Oh, well…
As Robert Pollard asked the crowd jammed into Chicago’s Metro nightclub to help him perform a sketch at the start of Guided By Voices’ final concert, hardcore GBV fans knew exactly what he had in mind. The audience did an encore of its chant from a few minutes earlier — “GBV! GBV!” — and Pollard & Co. (bandmates, plus former bandmates like brother Jim Pollard) recreated the spoken dialogue from the beginning of the “Propeller” album.
“Are you ready to rock?”
“This song does not rock.”
The exchange would be meaningless to 99.9999 percent of the population, but it meant a lot to this crowd. (Just what does “89” mean, anyway?) And with that, GBV launched into its great prog-rock anthem, “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox” … not a song the band has played that much in recent years, and a good sign that GBV planned to dig deep into its back catalogue.
Alongside the bins filled with beer bottles — a requisite component of any GBV show — a couple of white plastic buckets labeled “PUKE” and “PISS” sat on the stage. And GBV even had its own bar on stage, with Pollard pal Trader Vic serving as bartender. Thus… we knew much alcohol would be consumed by the musicians. So what else is new at a GBV show? Pollard’s famous for chugging beers, twirling beer bottles into the air and catching them (well, at least some of the time), and somehow managing to hang onto cigarettes and beer while spinning around his microphone on its cord and doing karate kicks at the same time. He’s apparently given up smoking, but he took it up again for this final show, bumming smokes off audience members and GBVmates.
After a strong start, the concert paused for a New Year’s Eve midnight countdown… balloons falling and mostly exploding upon cigarettes (except for the balloons in the net that got tangled up in a ceiling fan)… and more drinking…
Pollard promised this would be the longest concert of all time, and he almost lived up to his promise. He said the set list had 61 songs — the same as Roger Maris’ old home-run record — but thanks to Barry Bonds, GBV would now have to go for 78 songs. They didn’t make it quite to that mark, but they did play close to four hours (from 11:20 p.m. until 3:20 a.m.), with a grand total of… 63 SONGS!!!
What exactly is the record for single longest performance by one band or artist, either in minutes or songs? Whatever it is, this GBV show was one for the history books. With that many songs, I was hard-pressed to remember some of the more obscure tunes, which Pollard dutifully identified — saying, for example, that the next song was from the 1993 EP Clown Prince of the Menthol Trailer. Um, there’s one I haven’t listened to in a while.
I could quibble with the set order and a few of the selections, but GBV played almost every song I wanted to hear, with many great tracks from “Bee Thousand,” “Alien Lanes” and “Propeller,” plus a few of the early, early songs that the band rarely played on tour. Looking at the set list from the previous night’s concert (which I did not attend), my only regrets are not hearing “Gold Star for Robot Boy” and “Liar’s Tale,” as well as that night’s opening act, Tobin Sprout.
A few other songs I wish I could have heard one more time in concert: “Break Even,” “Weed King,” “Striped White Jets,” “Little Lines,” “Jane of the Waking Universe,” “Bulldog Skin,” “The Ironmen Rally Song” and “Captain’s Dead” (actually, I never heard that one in concert). Oh, well… When a band has 900 songs, you’re bound to miss a few of your personal favorites when it gets boiled down to a mere 63 songs.
It was great to see Sprout and several other former GBV members sitting on some songs. I liked GBV best when Sprout was in the band, adding a second distinctive voice to the group’s sound. Ah, it was nice to hear him singing on “14 Cheerleader Coldfront.”
Hearing “Demons Are Real” for the first time in a while as a live song — and hearing it out of its normal context on “Bee Thousand” — I was struck by how gripping and odd it is. The best GBV songs are the ones with unusual rhythmic touches and off-kilter vocal phrasing, the ones that might seem just peculiar the first time you hear them but grow on you with repeated listens. “Cut-Out Witch” did not initially strike me as one of the better songs on “Under the Bushes, Under the Stars,” but when I noticed the song was becoming a regular fixture of GBV concerts, I came to see its genius. Other songs of this ilk include “Shocker in Gloomtown.” Reaction upon hearing it the first time: What the heck was that? Reaction upon hearing it the hundredth time: Best song of all time! (Well, not quite…)
After seeing some great, great GBV concerts, starting at the Lounge Ax in 1994, I’d been disappointed with a few of their shows in the last couple of years. They weren’t necessarily bad, but at times, the band lacked the spark and spontaneity it had once had. This final show, though, was the best I’d seen in years, and surely the most unforgettable.
Pollard was in generous mood, even making forgiving comments about people he has slagged in the past, such as Jim DeRogatis. Most of all, he seemed proud of what he’d accomplished in 21 years with Guided By Voices. Over an instrumental break in “Secret Star,” he recalled his dad telling him, “Do you realize how many shitty bands there are out there? What do you have to offer to rock ‘n’ roll?” And he remembered telling his mom, “I’m a fucking genius.” Her response: “A genius at what?” In those early days of obscurity, Pollard’s motivation was simple, he said: “I just wanna have fun.”
Perhaps my sentimental feelings about the night made me more forgiving than usual toward Nate Farley, whose drunken inability to play much guitar has irritated me at a couple of earlier shows… You had to cut him some slack tonight, as he was clearly having fun.
Pollard’s own drunkeness started to take a toll on the show’s pace as it neared the end of the main set, and he stopped two false starts on the song “Heavy Metal Breakfast.” He began missing more of those beer bottles tossed into the air, slurring some of the words, or just handing the microphone out into the audience while he staggered over to the bar for more booze from Trader Vic.
But when the band came back for two encores and Pollard vowed to “kick ass,” the sounds were splendid indeed. A fast-paced hit parade of sorts, the kind that great GBV concerts also climax with: “My Impression Now,” “My Valuable Hunting Knife,” “Queen of Cans and Jars,” “Hot Freaks,” “Motor Away,” “I Am a Scientist,” “Teenage FBI,” “Echos Myron” (always one of my favorites, with that classic line — “And we’re finally here, and shit yeah, it’s cool, and shouldn’t it be, or something like that”). The audience, which had seemed lethargic an hour earlier (probably because of the late hour), was pumped up now, singing every word, waving fists and fingers into the air. After Pollard introduced “Smothered in Hugs” as the final GBV song ever and I heard the opening chords and that indelible melody, I actually found myself getting a little choked up. Is it ridiculous to feel this way about a band you’ve loved for more than a decade, whose albums and concerts have been important milestones in your musical life?
I thought that might be the end, but after emcee Beatle Bob briefly took the stage to extend GBV’s thanks to its fans, the group came back for more. Pollard said he’d given a lot of thought to the songs he would play for the last GBV encore ever, and it was a fine way to end things:
“A Salty Salute” … Of course! How could they end without playing that one more time?
“Postal Blowfish” … another one of those songs that vaulted from obscurity and oddity to a solid position in the GBV repertoire.
“Pendulum,” which Pollard introduced as “We’ll put on some Cat Butt and do it up right” … another rarely heard early classic.
“Dayton, OH 19 Something and 5” … an obvious sentimental favorite.
“He’s the Uncle” … seems like an obscure choice to me, but I guess I’ll have to listen to this song more to figure out why Pollard included it.
“Exit Flagger” … This was the final song of the first GBV concert I ever saw. I still feel compelled to sing along with it.
And finally, a song that Pollard introduced as “The Ballad of Guided By Voices.” You could feel his emotion as he acknowledged the members of his band one last time. The song was actually “Don’t Stop Now,” with a fitting title for the band’s coda. As Pollard calmly delivered his last lines, it was hard for a GBV fan not to get goose pimples.
The goof, Nate Farley, was the last one to leave the stage, unable to resist one more chance to slap the hands of adoring fans. The crowd tried to rouse one more encore with another chant of “GBV! GBV!,” carrying on for a couple of minutes even after the lights and canned music had come on, but this really was the end.
Over the Neptune / Mesh Gear Fox
Watch Me Jumpstart
Everybody Thinks I’m a Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking)
Things I Will Keep
(New Year’s Countdown)
Glow Boy Butlers
Lethargy (with Jim Pollard)
The Best of Jill Hives
Red Ink Superman
14 Cheerleader Coldfront (with Tobin Sprout adding vocals)
The Girls of Wild Strawberries
Back to the Lake
Demons Are Real
Do the Earth
Beg for a Wheelbarrow
My Kind of Soldier
Wished I Was a Giant
Bright Paper Werewolves (with Leland Cain)
Lord of Overstock (with Leland Cain)
Window of My World
Navigating Flood Regions
Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory
Tractor Rape Chain
I Am a Tree (with John Wuerster from Superchunk on drums)
Chief Barrel Belly
Game of Pricks
Matter Eater Lad
Redmen and Their Wives
Gonna Never Have to Die
I Drove a Tank (with Greg Demos and Jim MacPherson)
Shocker in Gloomtown (with Greg Demos and Jim MacPherson)
If We Wait
Huffman Prairie Flying Field
Sad if I Lost It
Buzzards and Dreadful Crows
Alone, Stinking, and Unafraid
Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy (with Matt Sweeney on bass)
Johnny Appleseed (with Jim Greer and Tobin Sprout)
Heavy Metal Country
My Impression Now
My Valuable Hunting Knife
Queen of Cans and Jars
Hot Freaks (with Tobin)
I Am a Scientist (with Don Thrasher)
Echos Myron (Tobin adding vocals)
Smothered in Hugs
A Salty Salute
Dayton, OH 19 Something and 5
He’s the Uncle
Don’t Stop Now