Serena Maneesh and Depreciation Guild

Serena Maneesh plays March 31, 2010, at the Bottom Lounge in Chicago.

Serena Maneesh, a Norwegian band that plays the deliciously loud rock music known as “shoe gaze,” hasn’t toured the U.S. for a few years, but the group was back this week. The tour brought Serena Maneesh on Wednesday (March 31) to Chicago’s Bottom Lounge. It was an event worthy of a big turnout, but alas, attendance looked a little sparse. Despite that, the group’s front man, Emil Nikolaisen, made a gracious (and, I think, heartfelt) statement from the stage about how special it felt for him to play again in Chicago.

It was the last night that Nikolaisen’s sister, the tall and very Nordic-looking bassist-singer Hilma, played with the band on this tour before heading back to Norway to take care of her children. Lucky for us that we got to see Serena Maneesh with Hilma in the lineup!

With a sound that resembles the churning yet melodic noise of My Bloody Valentine, Serena Maneesh has some songs that seem more like pop than psychedelic hard rock, especially when Hilma takes over on lead vocals. In concert, though, the band was all about the loud jams on Wednesday night. Emil drapes some sort of fringed shawl over himself and occasionally sets aside his guitar just so that he can cavort and twirl to the waves of noise. No actual “shoe-gazing” for this Norwegian rocker! It makes for an exciting spectacle, both for the ears and for the eyes, and Serena Maneesh delivered a strong set.

But no encore? What’s up with that? The crowd clearly wanted more, but from what I hear, Serena Maneesh did not do encores at its recent New York shows, either.

Four bands played Wednesday, and the opening acts included Canyon playing instrumental hard rock reminiscent of Pelican. And sandwiched between all these bands was yet another bunch of noise-makers, Apteka, which played with impressive energy.

See my photos of Serena Maneesh, the Depreciation Guild, Apteka and Canyon.

Janelle Monáe at Schubas

Janelle Monáe performs March 29, 2010, at Schubas in Chicago.

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Monáe is known for singing with OutKast, but her performance Monday was more soul and pop than hip-hop. She wowed me with her strong voice and her sense of drama. I also noticed some interesting almost orchestral flourishes in the song arrangements. She and her backing musicians came out onto the stage in druid robes for a Spinal Tap-esque entrance, with a fog machine going, and the whole show had an air of spectacle about it, despite being at little ol’ Schubas. (Opening act The 54 also delivered a lively set of hard-rocking music.)

Nobunny at Crown Liquors

A little advice to my fellow concert photographers: If you plan on taking pictures at a show by Nobunny, please consider wearing a protective helmet and kneepads. I’m willing to brave the pushing and shoving of a mosh pit once in a while to capture some action, but I really wondered if I might get bruised or rupture some organs when I was standing Saturday night (March 27) in front of the “stage” (i.e. makeshift platform) at Crown Liquors in Chicago. I lasted about one song in the mosh pit, getting zero photos since it was impossible to focus or do anything with my camera other than try to protect it from all of the beer droplets flying through the air.

So who or what is Nobunny? He’s a musician (actual name: Justin Champlin) who wears a mangy-looking vaguely garage/punk rock.

On Saturday, he was playing at a new Chicago venue, Crown Liquors, on Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square. This place is a bit like Cal’s or Ronny’s: an old bar or liquor store with a place for rock music tacked on. I don’t know if the venue was prepared for the mayhem that would result when Nobunny played. Some people in the crowd threw bottles at the stage, which prompted one of the employees to threaten an end to the show. The crowd calmed down a bit, and the music went on. (Nobunny’s backup musicians for this show included members of Yolks plus Brian Costello on drums.)

Once I’d escaped the mosh pit, I tried getting some photographs from farther away, which wasn’t easy. This isn’t my best work: grainy, blurry. But hey, it’s the best I could manage. This experience made me realize how I need to prepare better for using flash during dark concerts.

Nobunny’s set was the climax of a four-band lineup, chock full of noisy garage music. Yolks, Mickey and White Mystery played earlier, making for a lively night.

See my photos of Nobunny, White Mystery, Mickey and Yolks.

Pere Ubu at Lincoln Hall

As I walked into Lincoln Hall on Wednesday night (March 24) right at 8 p.m., when Pere Ubu was scheduled to start playing, the band was already onstage. The brains and voice of the band, David Thomas, seemed to be giving a speech… or some sort of spoken introduction to the concert that was about to happen. I believe the words he was saying as I entered the room were: “I despise you. Each and every one of you.”

Classic David Thomas. It’s hard to tell how much of his cantankerous stage banter, his confrontations with both the audience and his backing musicians, are just an act. I don’t doubt that’s his real personality, but surely he’s exaggerating it a bit as part of the entertainment? Whatever the case is, he was in fine form during this show, one of just a couple that Pere Ubu did on this abbreviated “tour.”

Billed as “The First and the Last,” the show began with Pere Ubu playing its most recent record, Long Live Pere Ubu, a sort of dramatization of the absurdist play that gives the band its name, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. And as a concert, it did indeed seem like absurdist performance art, complete with a chicken mask and lots of goofy voices. In between songs, Thomas lashed out at music critics and berated his band for not playing segue music. “What’s with the fucking silence?” he shouted.

After an intermission, Pere Ubu returned to the stage and played its very first album, The Modern Dance, which sounded as original and strange as it did more than three decades ago. Thomas apologized about his singing voice, but it didn’t sound off to me. At one point, he knelt down and yelled a little, in an effort to exorcise whatever it was that was bothering his voice. “A week ago,” he said, “I felt something snap in my body. I could die. I’d be happy.”

Thomas, however, looked as if he’s lost quite a bit of weight since the last time he played in Chicago a year and a half ago. He was no longer using a cane for support, and he seemed in better health. Still drinking and smoking, though. And still scowling and snarling.

The encore ended abruptly, in the middle of a song, as Thomas once again apologized for whatever he thought he was doing wrong. As fans in the crowd called out, “We love you,” Thomas said, “I’m so fucking sorry,” and walked off-stage.

See my photos of Pere Ubu.

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.)

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.

The dream of Big Star

So many songs are recorded every year. Thousands of them are forgettable, but there are always some good, even great songs. Some of those great songs are heard by only a few people. For whatever reason, they don’t reach listeners. Sometimes record labels are to blame. Sometimes radio is the bad guy. Sometimes it just seems like fate. Some music gets noticed, some doesn’t. And unfortunately, good songs seem to disappear before you even get a chance to hear them.

Big Star’s entire recorded output in the 1970s was like that. Barely anyone heard this band while it was still together. It never had a hit record. Its albums sold a few thousand copies and went out of print. Listening now to a recording of a 1973 Big Star concert on the recent box set Keep An Eye on the Sky, what’s remarkable is how little attention anyone in the audience is paying to the musical performance. Looking back on Big Star, they were clearly one of the best bands of their time, but they were playing a gig in front of almost nobody, getting a smattering of claps.

If the story had ended there, it would have been another sad tale about the woes of musicians. But then, the music of Big Star took on a life of its own. Other musicians starting playing Big Star songs or talking about how much they liked those Big Star records. The group suddenly had a cult following. One of its songs even ended up as the theme of a television show.

Some people dream of becoming rock stars. But for me, Big Star represents another sort of dream — the idea that your songs might live on even if your band breaks up, even if you never get onto the charts. The idea that a good song will win out in the end. You may not get rich and famous, but maybe your records will end up in the hands of someone who loves your music. It might take years or decades to happen, but a good song just won’t die.

Thanks for the music, Alex.

R.I.P. Alex Chilton

Alex Chilton, the great singer and songwriter who made three of my all-time favorite albums in the 1970s with Memphis power-pop band Big Star, died today. I discovered Big Star via cassette copies of those records back around 1987, when I was in college. It was around the time the Replacements recorded their tribute song, “Alex Chilton,” and the Bangles recorded their version of Big Star’s classic track “September Gurls” (one of the most perfect rock songs ever).

Big Star was one of those bands you heard other music fans talking about: “You’ve got to hear this… The LPs are rare, but I’ve got a copy on cassette.” And this was one of those cases when the band lived up to the mystique. All those songs on No. 1 Record and Radio City should have been hits, and then there was that strange, fractured, haunting dream of an album, Third/Sister Lovers.

I was lucky enough to see a few solo shows by Alex Chilton. He didn’t seem very interested in reliving his days in Big Star. He was doing his own, distinctly different solo music by this point, though he would play a few Big Star songs in concert, like “Holocaust” or “In the Street.” And what about his even earlier musical incarnation, the Box Tops, when he had a No. 1 hit, “The Letter,” when he was just a teen? Forget it. Chilton wasn’t going to play that. (He did a few shows now and then under the Box Tops name, but I never caught any of those performances.) Chilton just did what he wanted to.

The clamor for a Big Star reunion grew loud enough that Chilton and original drummer Jody Stephens teamed up with Posies members Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer to form a new lineup of the band in 1993. I saw their show at Metro in Chicago, which was pretty cool. It didn’t feel completely authentic (more like half reunion, half tribute band), but it was wonderful to hear Chilton singing those songs again, with Stephens’ perfect drum beats behind him.

Big Star recorded a new album a couple of years ago, In Space, which was a colossal disappointment for me. It’s hard for me to consider it a true part of the band’s canon. But all of those 1970s Big Star songs still get me, every time. Few other bands have ever crystallized so well the power of a well-written rock song: A riff that grabs you, lyrics that seem simple at first but reveal odd idiosyncrasies the more you listen, and the honest emotion of those vocals. Those first two albums are also masterpieces of sequencing. The songs follow one another in an order that feels like a great mix tape. (As for Third, the proper sequence is a matter of some mystery and debate, but the album still works beautifully in its various versions, a weirdly baroque and deeply personal drama.)

Big Star was scheduled to play this Saturday at South By Southwest. I’m not attending SXSW this year, and I was feeling sorry that I was going to miss this chance at seeing Big Star again. Tonight came the sad news that Chilton had died, apparently of a heart attack. So I’m playing some Big Star songs tonight and mourning the death of yet another great musician (coming so soon after Vic Chesnutt, Lhasa De Sela, Jay Reatard and Mark Linkous).

(Photo: Alex Chilton poses outside his home in New Orleans on Aug. 20, 1993. AP Photo/Dave Steuber, posted on the Memphis Commercial-Appeal Web site.)