Farewell, Centro-matic

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After 17 years, 11 albums and numerous concerts, the venerable Denton, Texas, band Centro-matic is calling it quits. I’m sad to see them go. At least, we’ll still have the records, including classics like 2003’s Love You Just the Same. And we’ll surely be hearing more from the band’s singer-songwriter-guitarist, Will Johnson, as well as the other musicians who have been playing in Centro for all these years: drummer Matt Pence, keyboardist-bassist Scott Danbom and bassist-guitarist Mark Hedman. But for the foreseeable future, we won’t get another chance to see this band live.

Centro-matic’s farewell tour included a stop at Schubas on Monday, Dec. 15. Johnson told the audience that Chicago has always been one of the cities where Centro-matic felt the most welcome on its tours, ever since the band starting hitting the road in 1998. For one last time, Centro-matic delivered charged versions of its greatest “hits.” Near the end of the show — I believe it was during “Fidgeting Wildly,” a song from the first Centro-matic album, 1997’s Redo the Stacks — the band dug hard into the final chords. As Johnson kicked up a leg and Pence pounded hard on the drums, it seemed like the whole stage was shaking. A glorious moment it was. So long, Centro-matic.

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Opening band Telegraph Canyon
Opening band Telegraph Canyon
Opening band Telegraph Canyon
Opening band Telegraph Canyon

Angel Olsen at Thalia Hall

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After introducing the musicians in her band, Angel Olsen omitted her own name, remarking, “I’m still learning about who I am.” Maybe that’s true (as it is for most of us), but Olsen sounded completely confident in her musical identity as she performed Saturday night, Nov. 29, at Thalia Hall. As always, her voice was a wonder to behold, commanding everyone’s attention even when it was just a whisper. There’s nothing fussy or affected about the way she sings — it seems like that remarkable sound just naturally comes out of her. Her vocal style is cool, but it isn’t cold; there’s plenty of emotion pushing to break through even when her singing seems to be placid on the surface.

Her singing also has a timeless quality, with echoes of traditional English folk music and old-timey Americana as well as contemporary indie rock. As a result, Olsen’s performance on Saturday — featuring many songs from her great album from earlier this year, Burn Your Fire For No Witness — transcended genre. She played a couple of songs solo, bringing back memories of similarly intimate performances she gave a few years ago at Saki and the Burlington, back when she was still residing in Chicago.

But for most of the night, Olsen’s songs were shaped into subtle rock songs by her band: guitarist Stewart Bronaugh, bassist Emily Elhaj and drummer Josh Jaeger. For the first time, the band played a delightfully jangly cover of Jackie Deshannon’s classic 1963 song “When You Walk in the Room,” which was a hit for the Searchers in 1964. Commenting on how much she’s come to love playing with this group, Olsen said, “Basically, we’re all in a relationship now.”

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The show also featured strong opening sets by the atmospheric indie-rockers Lionlimb (a band featured two members of Olsen’s group, Bronaugh and Jaeger) and the hard-riffing roots-rockers State Champion.

State Champion
State Champion
State Champion
State Champion
Lionlimb
Lionlimb

Lydia Loveless at Lincoln Hall

Bloodshot Records artist Lydia Loveless joked around in between her songs on Friday, Nov. 28, at Lincoln Hall, but she set aside her goofy playfulness when she was in the full throes of performing her music, including many songs from her outstanding 2014 album Somewhere Else. Sometimes, she took her hands off her guitar and held them to her head, gesturing like someone in pain or shouting in anger. And then at the end of the night — after a deep set of riveting, twangy country-rock with her band and a few “off-script” solo songs — she ended up sitting on the stage with her legs sprawled out as the band kept on rocking. In the final moments, she covered up her face, and then, as the song ended, slipped off the stage without a word. She’d just said good-night with the exclamation point of her music.

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Bassist Benjamin Lamb
Bassist Benjamin Lamb
Guitarist Todd May
Guitarist Todd May

Before Loveless took the stage, her sister Jessica played a lively set of shaggy but upbeat rock with her own band, the Girls. Lydia joined in for one song and one sibling hug.

The Girls
The Girls
Lydia Loveless with the Girls
Lydia Loveless with the Girls
Opening act Baby Money
Opening act Baby Money

Thee Oh Sees at the Empty Bottle

Late last year, it was reported that Thee Oh Sees — a fantastic and very prolific rock band — was taking a “hiatus.” It didn’t turn out to be much of a hiatus, or anything that most musicians would even call a break. Thee Oh Sees leader John Dwyer moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles and promptly released yet another great record, Drop. And he came to Chicago for shows this week at the Empty Bottle on Tuesday and Wednesday. I was at Tuesday’s concert.

But this wasn’t the same Thee Oh Sees. Other than Dwyer, the entire lineup of the group has changed. It’s now just a trio of guitar, bass and drums. Dwyer was as intense as ever, ripping through one piercing guitar riff and solo after another as he sang his catchy melodies in a floating falsetto, adding a trippy, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd vibe to his rampaging garage rock tunes. The new rhythm section was tight and hard-hitting. I did miss some elements of the old Thee Oh Sees lineup, especially Brigid Dawson’s keyboard and vocals — she used to blend her voice with Dwyer’s on practically every word of every song, a compelling and sometimes spooky part of the group’s performances. That’s gone now, but Dwyer and his new bandmates are one hell of a live act.

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Opening act Running
Opening act Running
Opening act Jack Name
Opening act Jack Name

My Brightest Diamond at Lincoln Hall

L99A1721My Brightest Diamond, the musician also known as Shara Worden, is a crossover artist in the best sense of the term. She easily dances between the realms of rock, classical music, cabaret and art songs. She knows how to use her lovely voice as an operatic instrument, but when she plays her electric guitar and rocks, she doesn’t sound like an opera house diva trying to be a pop star. This past summer, My Brightest Diamond played a free concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, but it was called off after a few songs because of a torrential rainstorm. She was back in Chicago on Thursday, Nov. 13, playing a concert at Lincoln Hall, which she called a “rain date.”

Like the Millennium Park concert, this one featured the Chicago marching band Mucca Pazza in a prominent cameo role. After the opening set of pulsing electronic squiggles by Dosh & Ghostband, a blast of brass came from the balcony, where the members of Mucca Pazza had assembled. The band marched downstairs and played on the floor in the midst of the crowd, then came onto the stage, joining with Worden and her rhythm section in a rambunctiously fun opening number.

The rest of the concert featured just the core My Brightest Diamond trio, as Worden played several songs from her recent album, This Is My Handas well as songs from throughout her career. One highlight was the quiet ballad that Worden wrote for her infant son, “I Have Never Loved Someone the Way I Love You,” from her 2011 album All Things Will Unwindwhich she performed solo, softly crooning the lullaby as she strummed the chords on her electric guitar. For the last song of the night, she sang a faithful rendition of Peggy Lee’s hit “Fever,” a fine demonstration of her wide-ranging interests and remarkable talent. L99A1811 L99A1862 L99A1926 L99A2473 L99A2503 L99A2742 L99A2883 L99A2887 L99A2961 L99A3087 L99A3159 L99A3296 L99A3327 L99A3386 L99A3625

Dosh & Ghostband
Dosh & Ghostband

The Flat Five: Interviews with Scott Ligon and Kelly Hogan

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

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

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

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SCOTT LIGON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: You’re not being deliberately obscure?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Q: And now Casey has joined NRBQ, too.

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

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

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

Q: Was that mostly because of scheduling issues?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: No label involved at this point?

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

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 KELLY HOGAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Day of the Dowd

L99A0029Gerald Dowd has drummed for with a lot of different Chicago musicians over the years, rarely taking the spotlight himself. Saturday was his day, and what a remarkable feat it was. FitzGerald’s hosted daylong festival called “Day of the Dowd,” featuring 17 bands playing over the course of 13 1/2 hours. Dowd played drums for the first 16 of these bands, barely taking any breaks longer than a few minutes. And then for the finale, Dowd stepped up to the microphone with an acoustic guitar, singing and playing tuneful alt-country songs from his first album as a solo artist, Home Now.

I showed up halfway through the day, arriving in time to catch a rare performance by the great Chicago power-pop band Frisbie — which was so good that it made me hope Frisbie starts playing more shows and recording music again. The rest of an evening was a who’s who of Chicago’s alt-country and related genres. Here’s the full list of bands that played starting at 11 a.m.: Justin Roberts and the Not Ready For Naptime Players, Dave Sills, Brian Ohern’s Model Citizens Big Band, Electric Dirt, Samba Bamba, the Regulators, Nora O’Connor, the Hoyle Brothers, EXO, Dave Ramont, Frisbie, Jive Council, Kelly Hogan, Lush Budgett, Chris Mills, Robbie Fulks and Gerald Dowd and his Moral Minority.

All of these musicians gave their time to play at this event, celebrating the release of Dowd’s new album and all that he’s done for them over the years. The event also raised money for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Some singers and musicians kept turning up on the stage, performing with various groups over the course of the marathon.

Dowd started his own set with his 14-year-old son standing next to him and playing guitar. Various other musicians joined Dowd over the course of that final hour, but then it was just him standing alone on the stage for the encore, playing a beautiful acoustic ballad from Home Now. I sensed something especially heartfelt in the applause. It was astounding to think what this man had just put himself through. He was still standing as the show ended around 12:40 a.m., remarking that he was looking forward to a day without any drumming on Sunday.

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Dave Ramont and Gerald Dowd
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Frisbie
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Frisbie

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Frisbie
Frisbie
Frisbie
Frisbie

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Kelly Hogan
Kelly Hogan
Kelly Hogan
Kelly Hogan
Scott Ligon (playing with Kelly Hogan)
Scott Ligon (playing with Kelly Hogan)
Lush Budgett
Lush Budgett
Chris Mills
Chris Mills
Chris Mills
Chris Mills
Chris Mills
Chris Mills
Kelly Hogan gives Dowd a back rub.
Kelly Hogan gives Dowd a back rub.
Robbie Fulks
Robbie Fulks
Grant Tye, Kelly Hogan and Robbie Fulks
Grant Tye, Kelly Hogan and Robbie Fulks
Gerald Dowd with his son.
Gerald Dowd with his son.

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Grant Tye, Dave Sills and Gerald Dowd

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Musee Mecanique at the Empty Bottle

My photos of Musee Mecanique from the band’s performance on Oct. 29 at the Empty Bottle. The Portland, Ore., band released a great record of dreamy folk rock called Hold this Ghost in 2008, and now it has another fine album, From Shores of Sleep. The trio’s tapestry of sounds was lovely in concert, including the closing cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.”

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White Fence, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard and Ultimate Painting

My photos of White Fence, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard and Ultimate Painting from their performances on Oct. 18 at Subterranean. Cate LeBon performed as a touring member of White Fence.

Check out their recent records: White Fence’s For the Recently Found Innocent, Ultimate Painting’s self-titled debut and I’m in Your Mind Fuzz.

White Fence

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King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

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Ultimate Painting

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Favorite concert photos of 2011

These are my favorites out of the photos I took at concerts in 2011.

SCREAMING FEMALES Jan. 14 at Lincoln Hall
HANDSOME FURS Jan. 15 at Lincoln Hall
LITTLE DRAGON Jan. 16 at Lincoln Hall
KINGS GO FORTH Jan. 21 at the Double Door
BUDDY GUY Jan. 23 at Buddy Guy's Legends
YO LA TENGO Feb. 4 at Metro
THE DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS Feb. 26 at the Vic
RON SEXSMITH March 22 at Schubas
WHITE HILLS March 23 at the Empty Bottle
WHITE HILLS March 23 at the Empty Bottle
GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR March 26 at Metro
SKULL DEFEKTS March 31 at the Hideout
SILVER ABUSE April 16 at Permanent Records
LOW April 21 at Lincoln Hall
ELEVENTH DREAM DAY April 22 at Lincoln Hall
THE SPITS May 27 at the HoZac Blackout Festival
NONES May 28 at the HoZac Blackout Festival
EARTH June 8 at Mayne Stage
GRUFF RHYS June 9 at Schubas
HANGGAI June 9 at the Pritzker Pavilion
SWORD HEAVEN June 11 in the Neon Marshmallow Fest at the Empty Bottle
CENTRO-MATIC July 3 at Schubas
EMA July 15 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
TUNE-YARDS July 15 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
GUIDED BY VOICES July 15 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
NEKO CASE July 15 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
ZOLA JESUS July 16 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
OFF! July 16 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
KURT VILE July 17 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
ODD FUTURE July 17 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
ODD FUTURE July 17 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
ODD FUTURE audience July 17 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
ARIEL PINK'S HAUNTED GRAFFITI July 17 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
HEALTH July 17 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
GILLIAN WELCH July 22 at the Vic

WILD FLAG July 23 at Wicker Park Fest
WILD FLAG July 23 at Wicker Park Fest
FOOTBALL July 24 at the Illinois Centennial Monument
THEE OH SEES July 24 at the Illinois Centennial Monument

THEE OH SEES July 24 at the Illinois Centennial Monument
ANATOMY OF HABIT Aug. 7 at the Empty Bottle

MY BRIGHTEST DIAMOND Aug. 8 at the Pritzker Pavilion

MAGIC KEY Aug. 21 at the Illinois Centennial Monument
TERRY ADAMS with NRBQ Aug. 27 at FitzGerald’s
SCOTT LIGON with NRBQ Aug. 27 at FitzGerald’s
SOUL TRAIN CONCERT Sept. 5 at the Pritzker Pavilion
THE EMOTIONS Sept. 5 at the Pritzker Pavilion
BILL CALLAHAN Sept. 16 at Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements

CHARLES BRADLEY Sept. 17 at Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements
WHITE MYSTERY Sept. 24 at the Hideout Block Party
WHITE MYSTERY Sept. 24 at the Hideout Block Party
BOOKER T. JONES Sept. 24 at the Hideout Block Party
MAVIS STAPLES Sept. 24 at the Hideout Block Party
LE BUTCHERETTES Nov. 4 at Subterranean
ROCKET FROM THE TOMBS Dec. 7 at the Empty Bottle
ALABAMA SHAKES Dec. 15 at the Hideout

Iggy & the Stooges

The Photo Pit page in this week’s Chicago Reader features my pictures from the concert last Sunday (Aug. 29) by Iggy & the Stooges at the Riviera. Click on the image below to see the online version.


After guitarist Ron Asheton died last year, I figured that would be the end of the Stooges reunion. But the band found a suitable way of carrying on, recruiting James Williamson, the guitarist who played with the Stooges on their final album, 1973’s Raw Power — and who co-wrote all of the great songs on that record with Iggy Pop. Williamson dropped out of music after that and spent 30 years in the computer business. If you Google him, one of the top photos that comes up is this one showing him in his business attire:

For the current tour with Iggy & the Stooges, Williamson strapped on his electric guitar once again, and that businessman returned to his roots as a protopunk rocker. Sounded great, too. Williamson was fairly staid as he cranked out that cool guitar riffs. The one “new” guy in the band — venerable ex-Minutmen bassist Mike Watts — was more animated, puffing out his cheeks and occasionally jabbing his bass into his amp.

Iggy Pop showed no signs of slowing down. It’s hard to believe the guy is 63. What energy! He’s still one of the greatest live performers in rock music, and on Sunday night he barely let up for an hour and a half. The Riviera Theatre (where the concert was moved after apparently slow tickets sales for the larger Aragon Ballroom) was crowded, hot and sweaty — slightly uncomfortable, but really, isn’t that the perfect environment for a jolt of raw power?

… Looking back on what I wrote about seeing a SXSW interview with Iggy Pop and Ron and Scott Asheton in 2007, here’s a nugget: Iggy said his stage antics were inspired by the dancing he saw in Chicago clubs when he was gigging as a blues drummer. “I had never seen such raw sexuality than I saw in the blues dancing,” he said, adding that he was also inspired by Big Bird.

And click here to see my photos of Iggy & the Stooges (with Ron Asheton) at Lollapalooza 2007.

Andre Williams and Dirty Diamonds

The current issue of the Chicago Reader (the June 4, 2010, edition) has my photos of Andre Williams and Dirty Diamonds playing May 29 at Schubas on the Photo Pit page.

I’ve posted additional pictures from the concert here on my blog

It was a fun show, with Williams in good form, singing his raunchy blues-soul songs. My only complaint was that I wish he’d played more music off his new CD, the Bloodshot release That’s All I Need.
www.bloodshotrecords.com/artist/andre-williams

Local group the Dirty Diamond got the show off to a good start, with a fun mash-up of Girl Group vocals, a bit of soul and dance, laptop percussion and electric guitars. The group was missing one of its three regular singers, but the performance still came off well. www.myspace.com/pumpthedirtydiamonds