Despite unseasonably chilly temperatures, the summer concert season got off to a stellar start May 27, with the year’s first show in the Monday night series called “Downtown Sound” at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.
The evening started with Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, a trio led by the highly esteemed guitarist. I’ve admired Ribot’s distinctive playing ever since I heard him on the 1985 Tom Waits masterpiece Rain Dogs. He went on to play on several more Waits albums as well as records by Elvis Costello, John Zorn and others. This was the first time I’d ever seen him perform in concert. Ribot really let his fingers fly at many points during Monday’s set, but he also led his group through the droning textures of a piece aptly called “Prayer.” Ribot was less successful as a singer, whenever he occasionally barked out some words. But it was marvelous to see him twisting notes on his guitar into gnarly, spiky solos.
The headliner had been billed ahead of time as the Lee Ranaldo Band, but by the time they were introduced, they were calling themselves Lee Ranado and the Dust. It’s half of Sonic Youth — Ranaldo on guitar and vocals and Steve Shelley on drums — along with guitarist Alan Licht and bassist Tim Luntzel. Of all the music released by Sonic Youth’s members since the band went on hiatus, Ranaldo’s 2012 album Between the Times and Tides is the strongest and most accessible work. And that came through during this concert performance, with a slew of catchy choruses and smartly constructed riffs.
Ranaldo and the Dust also played a few songs that the band is working on for its next record, as well as a somewhat surprising choice for a cover: the Byrds song “Everybody’s Been Burned,” written by David Crosby. Jamming out with Shelley and their new bandmates, Ranaldo seemed completely confident in his new role as a frontman.
Check out the rest of the schedule for this summer’s Downtown Sound concerts.
The Chicago band Disappears’ new drummer — possibly just a temporary fill-in — is Steve Shelley, more famous for his work with Sonic Youth. Shelley’s been spending a fair amount of time playing gigs in Chicago over the last year or so, and there he was on Tuesday evening (March 22), when the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago hosted a free show by Disappears. Making the gig extra special was the addition of the two musicians who make up the Chicago band White/Light, Matt Clark and Jeremy Lemos. They’re the curators of this “Face the Strange” series of free concerts at the MCA, and for this show, they sat in with the band, adding a couple of extra layers of humming noise to the proceedings. Disappears easily shifted between those experimental stretches of elongated chords into crunchier rock songs with vocals, and Shelley helped to tie it altogether without ever getting flashy on the drums. Only complaint: The band played too short, clocking in at barely more than half an hour. More music, please!
The 1970s German band Neu! is no more, but Hallogallo 2010 is almost the real thing. The one surviving member of the original duo, Michael Rother, is touring America for the first time in ages, playing the mesmerizing, driving instrumental music he recorded three decades ago in Neu!, along with some of his solo music. One of those old Neu! songs is called “Hallogallo,” and the name of this new touring band is Hallogallo 2010. It’s Rother plus Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and Tall Firs bassist Aaron Mullan.
Shelley and Mullan played their roles perfectly Wednesday, Sept. 8, at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, duplicating the tight, almost mechanical rhythms that Neu! pioneered. That beat that became known as “Motorik,” German for “motor skill.” Going through my photos from the concert, I noticed how happy Shelley looked as he did his part. Together, Shelley and Mullan were a pulsing machine. Rother played electric guitar, keyboards and electronic devices on top of that rhythmic foundation. It was minimalist, focused music, with twitchy energy.
The evening began with a strong set by Chicago’s Disappears — noisy and chaotic, but with a insistent beat that proved to be a good match for Hallogallo.
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PHOTOS OF DISAPPEARS
A museum gallery is an apt place for some drone music. As I’ve mentioned before, Chicago has a pretty active scene for drone music, which is a catch-all term for music with sustained notes or chords. The Chicago duo White/Light has an installation all this month at the Museum of Contemporary Art: a dark room filled with cabinet speakers and a couple of old tape machines. The tapes spin around, creating humming sounds that come out through the various speakers. If you spend a little time in the room, listening closely, you’ll notice different noises coming out of the various amps.
It’s a great spot for a little meditation. You’ll think that you’ve seen and heard everything there is to experience in this room after about 90 seconds, but linger for a while and let the sound wash over you.
That’s also the best attitude to take when experiencing a live performance of drone music. At various times during the month, White/Light’s Matt Clark and Jeremy Lemos and guest musicians have been performing in this space, improvising off the room’s droning vibe. The most famous of the guest musicians, Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, played with the duo Saturday afternoon (March 20). Shelley’s thumping mallets added throbbing rhythms to the abstract guitar and keyboard sounds, giving the music a bit of the same feeling as Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” The music built from a quiet intro into loud thump — loud enough that I saw one parent exiting the room with a young boy who was grimacing with his hands over his year. Ear plugs, folks — wear ear plugs!
Upcoming performances: March 23, 7 p.m.: Lucky Dragons. March 27, 3 p.m.: Félicia Atkinson: Saturday. March 28, 3 p.m.: White/Light.
Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley was in Chicago last night (Dec. 16), sitting in with three great local performers for an improvised set of instrumental music. Guitarists David Daniell and Douglas McCombs have been doing similar sets for a couple of years now, and they recently released a cool collection of their work called Sycamore on the Thrill Jockey label. They’ve played with various drummers, and each percussionist adds a different sense of rhythm and texture to their layers of guitar. For this show, in addition to Shelley, they were joined by Jeremy Lemos of the Chicago drone group White/Light.
Lemos played electronic stuff for part of the show, and then he unplugged one of his equipment cords and pushed the live end of the plug against his amp, creating small crescendos of feedbacks. In an interesting way, it was almost as if Lemos was providing the sort of distorted noise you’d normally expect to hear from the electric guitars, while the two guitarists were making more subtle shades of sound.
The set began very quietly, with Daniell and McCombs making tick-tock clicking sounds and tiny notes with their guitars. Some people in the bar did not seem to realize the performance had begun, chatting over this understated music, but the club quickly fell quiet as audience members concentrated on the music. For the first 10 minutes or so, Shelley was also listening intently. He sat at his drum kit without making any beats at all for a while, and then he cautiously felt his way into the music. At one point, the music took an unexpected country-folk lope, reminding me a bit of something Souled American might do, but channeled through the more ambient music of Daniell and McCombs. Later, the ensemble slid into more of a rock-music groove, giving Shelley a chance to stretch out on the drums. After cascading and falling a couple of times, the uninterrupted performance faded down. One by one, the musicians stopped playing until it was just Lemos, making some low squelches with his table of electronic gear.
Daniell tells me the four musicians did not get a chance to rehearse together before sitting down at Wednesday’s concert, which makes the performance all the more impressive.
Photos of David Daniell, Jeremy Lemos, Douglas McCombs and Steve Shelley.