CIMM Fest

The Chicago International Movies & Music Festival, or CIMM Fest, ran April 30-May 1 at several venues around the city, featuring movies about music as well as concerts and other events.

I saw three documentaries, all of them worth seeing:

Joe Angio’s long-awaited Revenge of the Mekons — a compelling, funny and inspiring telling of this great band’s unusual and seemingly never-ending story. Mekons Jon Langford and Sally Timms answered questions with Angio after the sold-out screening at Lincoln Hall, and they even did one Mekons song (“Tina”) a cappella. (See the trailer for the film here.)

Boyce & Hart: The Guys Who Wrote ‘Em — a portrait of the ’60s songwriting duo who wrote many of the Monkees’ songs. The film has a lot of great archival film clips and photos. Bobby Hart (who appeared after the screening) narrates much of the film, which makes the interesting choice of showing no talking-head interviews. Before the screening, a group of local musicians calling themselves the Candy Store Prophets (including Phil Angotti) performed a lively set of Boyce & Hart tunes in the Logan Theatre’s lounge, with dancing by several ladies wearing 1960s-style outfits.

The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes and the Course of Country Music — a history of country music’s founding family. It’s a good film on an important topic — including an interview with the late Johnny Cash — but the attempts at turning historic photos into animation are awkward and distracting. Before the screening, Lawrence Peters played a cool set of mostly Johnny Cash songs in the Logan Theatre’s lounge.

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Lawrence Peters

Yo La Tengo & Phil Cohran

The CIMM Fest concerts I caught included a strong set by Yo La Tengo at Concord Hall on May 1. In typical fashion, the trio ran the gamut from very quiet folk music to loud droning punk rock. The evening’s opening act, onetime Sun Ra collaborator Phil Cohran, returned to the stage to join in with Yo La Tengo for a Sun Ra tune.  YLT’s main set climaxed with some of the wildest guitar-tossing I’ve ever seen Ira Kaplan do. Following that rave-up, the encore finished with one of my favorite quiet Yo La Tengo songs, a lovely, low-key version of “My Little Corner of the World.” Kaplan said it was a request the band had received by email, noting that it seems like Yo La Tengo has played the song often during its Chicago concerts. Well, that’s just fine with me.

Mary Shelley scores ‘Potemkin’

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Mary Shelley — a trio consisting of Local H’s Scott Lucas, former Smashing Pumpkin drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and bassist Mark Ulery (of Matt Ulery’s Loom) — performed a live score to the silent Soviet film classic Battleship Potemkin at 1st Ward on May 2. The thunderous riffs were truly epic, and the band followed up the film with one bonus song, a cover of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane.”

Willis Earl Beal

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At the Hideout on May 2, Willis Earl Beal — wearing a Green Hornet mask — showed a short film he’d made, and then he played a recording of some new songs. He asked for the venue to turn off all the lights in the room, urging people not to walk out as his music played in almost total darkness. A few people did walk out, abandoning what turned out to be more of a listening party than an actual concert.

Tim Kinsella sings Marvin Tate songs

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Earlier that night, the Hideout hosted a wonderful set of Marvin Tate and Leroy Bach’s songs performed by Tim Kinsella, Bach, Melina Ausikaitis and Ben Boye. Tate himself stood near the stage, watching and listening as his songs were performed — with all of their charmingly oddball poetry and humor, and their almost nursery-rhyme like melodies — but he stepped up to the microphone at the end of the set to offer his thanks. Don’t miss the album of these quirky songs — with the rather unwieldy title Tim Kinsella Sings the Songs of Marvin Tate by LeRoy Bach Featuring Angel Olsen — which was released late last year with very little fanfare.

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These New Puritans

On May 3, the English band These New Puritans headlined a CIMM Fest concert at the Empty Bottle, performing impressive set of its arty rock, blending chamber music with post-punk. This band keeps changing up its modus operandi from one record to the next, but it always remains interesting.

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Pitchfork Music Festival 2013

See my photos of the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival for The A.V. Club: Days 1, 2 and 3. I’ve included photos in this blog post.

Björk
Björk

For a long while now, Pitchfork has been about a lot more than indie rock. The Pitchfork website and the Pitchfork Music Festival both have a history of mixing obscure, strange and intellectual music with unabashedly mainstream pop. This past weekend, the festival put an exclamation point on that attitude by booking controversial R&B superstar R. Kelly as one of three headliners. The other two were more typical examples of the sort of music originally associated years ago with Pitchfork: Björk and Belle & Sebastian.

In theory, I like this idea of mashing Top 40 artists and DIY bands together into one musical amusement park. It pushes fans out of their comfort zones, helping them to discover artists they’ve previously ignored because of a bias toward particular genres. I’m one of those music fans who needs some pushing. Call me an indie snob … a guitar-centric elitist … a rockist. I’ve been ignoring the vast majority of mainstream music for the past few decades. The reason is simple. To my ears, most of it sounds overproduced, unimaginative and uninteresting. I realize that the sonic style of this stuff — the way this music tends to be performed and packaged — probably leads me to overlook some creative and well-crafted songs. But it feels like a chore to sift through it all to find whatever gems might be hidden in there.

So … R. Kelly? Sorry. I’ve barely even listened to the guy. What I have heard didn’t make me want to continue listening. The controversy over the disturbing criminal charges he once faced — and was acquitted of — doesn’t make me especially eager to dig any deeper into his music, either. This weekend, I was taking photos for The A.V. Club. After being allowed to take pictures from the photographers pit during R. Kelly’s first song on Sunday night, I had fulfilled my duty. And I needed to get home to edit a day’s worth of photos. So I left Union Park at that point, missing most of R. Kelly’s set. I’ll leave it up to other writers to say whether his performance was what R. Kelly fans wanted to get out of the experience. Judging from most of the comments I’ve seen, his fans rated the concert as a smashing success. From what I did hear, I doubt that R. Kelly would have made a new fan out of me.

Björk
Björk
Björk
Björk

I did stay for Björk on Friday night. There was never any doubt about that. And I stayed for every minute of Belle & Sebastian. Both of these iconic artists delivered terrific performances — the only problem being the weather alert about an approaching storm that forced Björk to end her concert prematurely, cutting a few songs off her set list. Certainly, Björk’s more recent compositions aren’t as catchy as the earlier songs, but even the less memorable tunes came off as intriguing, complex creations as she performed Friday, wearing a sparkly set of spikes on her head. The set’s emotional climax was the moment when Björk sang “I love him, I love him, I love him, I love him…” in “Pagan Poetry,” tilting her head skyward, while her choir of female harmony singers responded, “She loves him, she loves him…” And then, shortly after Björk conjured some bottled lightning with a Tesla coil, actual lightning sparked in the dark clouds overhead.

Belle & Sebastian
Belle & Sebastian

Nothing so dramatic occurred during Belle & Sebastian’s set the following night. It was, quite simply, a fun time — a lively concert packed with so many fabulous songs that it was hard to imagine how anyone could come away from it without being a Belle & Sebastian fan.

Swans
Swans
Savages
Savages
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo

The three-day festival had plenty of other highlights for me. Woods jammed with a more Byrdsy vibe than ever. Swans droned and declaimed with frightening intensity. Savages made good on their hype. Wire started off a bit slow but finished with a strong buzz. Yo La Tengo played loud, and then quiet — so damn quiet that you had to listen — and then loud again.

...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
Foxygen
Foxygen
Foxygen
Foxygen
Phosphorescent
Phosphorescent

…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead dug into its songs with fierce power. Foxygen’s flailing lead singer, Sam France, climbed halfway up the red stage’s metal support column and jumped down, as the band fell into a delightfully shambolic groove. Phosphorescent leader Matthew Houck’s voice keened with longing. Julia Holter’s music floated as she stood as still as a statue. And Waxahatchee’s songs blossomed from bedroom folk into slacker rock.

Angel Olsen
Angel Olsen (double exposure)
Low
Low
Metz
Metz

Alas, I wasn’t able to stay for whole sets by Mikal Cronin, Angel Olsen, Low and Metz, but they all sounded great for the few songs of each that I did catch. (I wasn’t there when Low closed its set with a cover of Rihanna’s “Stay,” transforming a mainstream pop song into, well, a Low song.) And I wish I’d seen more of Parquet Courts to figure out what all the fuss is about.

What else happened over the weekend? Pissed Jeans cavorted with glee. Daughn Gibson intoned with brash confidence. Trash Talk praised old people for “having us all and shit.” The Breeders fumbled. Mac DeMarco stuck out his tongue. Joanna Newsom plucked her harp and warbled, the subtleties of her songs getting a bit lost in the park.

Lil B fans
Lil B fans
Solange
Solange

I went into this Pitchfork fest with a bias toward old-fashioned, guitar-based indie rock, and I came out of the weekend with my bias intact. Still a rockist, but trying to be open-minded. Toro Y Moi’s frothy pop did nothing for me. M.I.A. put on an impressive and energetic show, but her music quickly wore me down, as it has in the past. I still have no idea what Lil B is all about, other than the fact that he has some really enthusiastic fans. Solange, Beyonce’s sweetly smiling sister, seemed to charm much of the audience. Hearing her music for the first time, it struck me as unremarkable. Maybe just not my cup of tea.

And so, when New York Times critic Jon Caramanica writes that the Pitchfork fest’s second half “served as a reminder of how dance music has become the most exciting emergent narrative in pop,” I have to wonder: What was I missing? I much preferred the weekend’s indie rock, which included, according to Caramanica, “bands in various stages of delusion and defensiveness.”

Killer Mike won me over, though. Of all the hip-hop artists I watched at Pitchfork, he was the one who had the most to say, even if his rap denouncing Ronald Reagan’s lies in the Iran-contra affair seemed oddly dated. “I want to encourage Chicago to take care of each other,” he said in one of his mini-sermons in between his raps, apparently alluding to the city’s violence. “I’d like to encourage the people of Chicago to look out for one another.” Later in his set, looking out on a Pitchfork audience that was more racially diverse than it had been on previous days, Killer Mike declared, “This is what church is supposed to look like.”

Frankie Rose
Frankie Rose
Blood Orange
Blood Orange

See my photos of the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival for The A.V. Club: Days 12 and 3.

Solid Sound, Part 3

Read more about Solid Sound and see more photos in Parts 1, 2 and 4

My last two blog posts about Solid Sound were about what the members of Wilco were up to during this festival. But like any decent fest, this one wasn’t entirely about one band. In brief, the other highlights included a high-energy show on Saturday afternoon by The Dream Syndicate, who were cult favorites in the 1980s California indie-rock scene. This was their first North American gig in more than two decades, but as it felt like they’d never stopped playing.

The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate

Yo La Tengo played not one, but two shows during Solid Sound. Alas, I arrived too late on Friday night to get a set at the screening of the film The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, featuring a live score performed by Yo La Tengo. On Saturday afternoon, the group played a typically excellent set of its songs, both old and new, with the most drastic shift in dynamics I heard all weekend. After blasting a couple of noisy songs to open their concert, Yo La Tengo took the volume way, way down for a couple of its hushed, whispery ballads, “The Point of It” and “Decora” — and it seemed like everyone in the crowd stopped making any sound so they could listen in. (At least, that’s what it was like by the stage, where I was standing.) By the end of the set, the band back at full volume.

Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo
The MASS MoCA courtyard during Yo La Tengo's set
The MASS MoCA courtyard during Yo La Tengo’s set

Out of all the artists playing at Solid Sound, the one that seemed to represent younger, hyped bands was Foxygen. Just as they acted goofy during their recent in-store at Chicago’s Saki, Foxygen’s members seemed loopy at Solid Sound as they cavorted on the stage, playing their quirky, catchy songs. Perhaps they cavorted a bit too much. I heard most of Foxygen’s set, but I was away from the stage when lead singer Sam France reportedly tried to climb the scaffolding and got pulled down by security. Later in the day, I noticed three security guards surrounding Foxygen’s tambourine player, who looked intoxicated, and escorting him away from a tree. During Wilco’s show that night, Jeff Tweedy told the audience that the members of Foxygen had been “kicked out” of the festival. “They’re awesome. A little too awesome, I think,” he said. Later, he apologized, saying he hadn’t meant to disparage the band. But he dedicated the song “Passenger Side,” a song about drunk driving, to Foxygen. And then Tweedy brought up Foxygen one more time, suggesting that they might want to try drinking water onstage. The Reverse Direction blog has more about the Foxygen story. Whatever happened, I was charmed by what I saw of Foxygen’s set.

Foxygen
Foxygen
Foxygen
Foxygen
Foxygen
Foxygen

Although Low got some flack for playing one long droning song at the recent Rock the Garden festival in Minneapolis, the band played a standard set of its songs at Solid Sound on Saturday. And with Low, standard means beautiful.

Low
Low
Low
Low
Low
Low
Low
Low
Low
Low

Neko Case is another artist who nearly always delivers a good to great performance, and her show on Saturday night included a few songs from her forthcoming album The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, which comes out Sept. 3 on Anti. On first impression, the new songs sounded like a strong continuation of the singular style of music Case has been shaping over her last few records. For me, the highlight of the set was a heart-stopping performance of her 2002 song “I Wish I Was the Moon,” with Case’s voice plaintively calling out across the park in the opening verse. “We’re kind of a weird band for a festival because all of songs are bummers,” Case remarked at one point. Her stalwart harmony singer, Kelly Hogan, pointed out: “Low played earlier.” At the end of her set, Case said, “Every single song in our set is dedicated to that girl playing drums on her dad’s head.”

Neko Case
Neko Case
Neko Case and Kelly Hogan
Neko Case and Kelly Hogan
Neko Case
Neko Case
Neko Case
Neko Case
Neko Case
Neko Case
Neko Case
Neko Case
Neko Case
Neko Case
Jon Rauhouse plays during Neko Case's set
Jon Rauhouse plays during Neko Case’s set
Neko Case
Neko Case

Read more about Solid Sound and see more photos in Parts 1, 2 and 4

Solid Sound, Part 1

The MASS MoCA grounds
The MASS MoCA grounds

Read more about Solid Sound and see more photos in the rest of my report: Parts 23 and 4

Wilco’s home base is Chicago, but the band’s vacation home seems to be MASS MoCA — the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mass.  Wilco held its Solid Sound festival of music and arts June 21-23 on the museum’s sprawling grounds, the third time in four years that it has brought this event to this spot in the Berkshires. (The previous two Solid Sound fests were in 2010 and 2011, and then the event took the year off in 2012.) This past weekend was my first visit to Solid Sound and MASS MoCA.

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What a cool place to hold a festival. The maze-like museum has been open only since 1999, but most of the 26 brick buildings on the 13-acre site have been standing there since the 19th century, when 3,200 people worked there, making printed textiles for Arnold Print Works. During World War II, the industrial complex was transformed into the Sprague Electric Co.’s factory.

The Wilco strongman carnival game
The Wilco strongman carnival game

Now, it’s a place for putting up works of modern and contemporary art, with enough space to hang up some truly massive sculptures and paintings. And for three days in June, it was also a place to make music — and to explore. During his performance on Sunday with David Hidalgo, guitarist Marc Ribot marveled at the sight of music fans gathered in one of the old factory courtyards. “If they took all of the factories and turned them into art museums, everyone would have fun,” he remarked. (Not exactly a sound idea in economic terms, but let’s not quibble too much.)

Like many other music festivals, this one had a bunch of bands playing on a few stages, with their performances taking place over a few days. That’s one of the main reasons people attend festivals: to see a whole lot of bands in one fell swoop. The pace was more leisurely at Solid Sound than it is at, say, Lollapalooza or Pitchfork, with only a little bit of overlap in the performances. There was plenty of room for people to move around, anywhere other than the clusters right in front of the stages for the most popular musical artists.

There was a lot more than live music at Solid Sound. John Hodgman, who emceed the comedy portion of the festival, called it “a nexus of fantastic things coming together in an amazing space.” Of course, Hodgman was emceeing, so you’d expect him to hype up the festival a bit, but his description wasn’t far off from the truth.

Naturally, art was on display in and around the art museum — as well as displays created specifically for Solid Sound. “Jeff Tweedy’s Loft” exhibited pieces of Wilco memorabilia.

"Jeff Tweedy's Loft" exhibit at MASS MoCA
“Jeff Tweedy’s Loft” exhibit at MASS MoCA
1962 Silvertone 1482 tube amp used during the "A.M." sessions, on display in "Jefff Tweedy's Loft" at MASS MoCA
1962 Silvertone 1482 tube amp used during the “A.M.” sessions, on display in “Jefff Tweedy’s Loft” at MASS MoCA
A Nudie jacket on display in the "Jeff Tweedy's Loft" exhibit at MASS MoCa
A Nudie jacket on display in the “Jeff Tweedy’s Loft” exhibit at MASS MoCa

One of the museum’s galleries filled with Sol LeWitt paintings featured Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche’s sonic soundscapes playing over the speakers. Kotche also created some “earth drums,” which were embedded in the ground, with signs encouraging festival attendees to tap out messages in Morse code to one another. (I got the impression that most people were just playing random rhythms.) Wilco bassist John Stirratt and Chicago artist Chad Gerth created the “Rickshaw of Forward Motion,” a mobile sound installation. (I failed to catch a ride on it.)

Jeff Tweedy, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Jeff Tweedy, during the June 21 Wilco concert

And of course, Wilco performed on the concert stage — an all-request show on Friday night, followed by a more standard Wilco show on Saturday night. Saturday’s concert was fine, as far as Wilco concerts go. Just another night starring an outstanding band playing a wide range of songs from throughout its career. If you’ve seen a Wilco concert in the last few years, you’ve seen a show like this one. But the one on Friday was something else entirely.

John Hodgman, "randomizing" during the June 21 Wilco concert
John Hodgman, “randomizing” during the June 21 Wilco concert

The band asked for fans to request songs, and boy did they ever — apparently dozens of pages listing songs. Pulling from that list, the songs that Wilco chose to play were almost entirely covers. Hodgman came out onto the stage several times to “randomize” the concert, pulling out ping-pong balls with numbers assigned to songs on the huge master list and challenging the band to play them. This resulted in a few of the less-rehearsed and sloppier tunes of the night (Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” and Yo La Tengo’s “Tom Courtenay,” which was rescued by the participation of Yo La Tengo itself). Just to prove that all of his choices weren’t rigged, Hodgman also brought up three audience members to play “stump the band.” It turned out that Wilco couldn’t really play two of these audience requests (Lucinda Williams’ “Atonement” and the Cranberries’ “Dream”) without learning and rehearsing them, but the band delighted much of the crowd when it succeeded at playing the third audience member’s unlikely request: Daft Punk’s current hit, “Get Lucky.”

Jeff Tweedy, Pat Sansone and James McNew of Yo La Tengo, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Jeff Tweedy, Pat Sansone and James McNew of Yo La Tengo, during the June 21 Wilco concert

The members of Wilco were clearly having a blast as they played covers of some terrific tunes, ranging from the delicate, wistful beauty of the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” to a goose-bump-raising guitar solo by Nels Cline during Television’s epic “Marquee Moon.” And Replacements guitarist Tommy Stinson made a surprise appearance when Wilco played the Mats classic “Color Me Impressed.” Stinson (who will play with the reunited Replacements — er, Westerberg and Stinson — at Riot Fest in September) had a big grin on his face the entire time, and Tweedy seemed to relish sharing the stage with him.

Jeff Tweedy and Tommy Stinson, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Jeff Tweedy and Tommy Stinson, during the June 21 Wilco concert

At a couple of points during the night, a fan or two shouted, “Play some Wilco songs!” If you had never seen Wilco before, this concert would’ve served as a rather unusual introduction to the band’s live act. But for longtime fans, this was a night to treasure, filled with delightful musical nuggets. (NYC Taper captured the whole thing on audio.)

The set list almost speaks for itself:

The Boys Are Back in Town (Thin Lizzy) 
/ Cut Your Hair (Pavement)
 / In the Street (Big Star)
 / New Madrid (Uncle Tupelo)
 / Dead Flowers (Rolling Stones)
 / Simple Twist of Fate (Bob Dylan) / Ripple (Grateful Dead)
 / Who Loves the Sun (Velvet Underground)
 / And Your Bird Can Sing (The Beatles)
 / And Your Bird Can Sing (repeat) / Psychotic Reaction (Count Five)
 / Tom Courtenay (Yo La Tengo)
 with Yo La Tengo / James Alley Blues (Richard Rabbit Brown)
 / Waterloo Sunset (Kinks)
 with Lucius / Waterloo (ABBA)
 with Lucius / Peace Love and Understanding (Nick Lowe)
 / Marquee Moon (Television)
 / Happy Birthday (to Pat Sansone) / Don’t Fear The Reaper (Blue Oyster Cult) / Cinnamon Girl (Neil Young) / (Stump the Band) / Get Lucky (Daft Punk)
 / Surrender (Cheap Trick)
 / Color Me Impressed (Replacements)
 with Tommy Stinson
 / Kingpin
 / Thank You Friends (Big Star)
 / ENCORE: The Weight (The Band)
 with Lucius / Roadrunner (The Modern Lovers) with Yo La Tengo

Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, Glenn Kotche and Jeff Tweedy, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, Glenn Kotche and Jeff Tweedy, during the June 21 Wilco concert
John Stirratt, during the June 21 Wilco concert
John Stirratt, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Jeff Tweedy and Lucius, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Jeff Tweedy and Lucius, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Tommy Stinson and Jeff Tweedy, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Tommy Stinson and Jeff Tweedy, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Jeff Tweedy, Glenn Kotche and Tommy Stinson, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Jeff Tweedy, Glenn Kotche and Tommy Stinson, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Mikael Jorgensen, Nels Cline, Jeff Tweedy and  Glenn Kotche, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Mikael Jorgensen, Nels Cline, Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Wilco's June 22 concert
Wilco’s June 22 concert
Pat Sansone, during Wilco's June 22 concert
Pat Sansone, during Wilco’s June 22 concert
Jeff Tweedy, during Wilco's June 22 concert
Jeff Tweedy, during Wilco’s June 22 concert
Glenn Kotche, during Wilco's June 22 concert
Glenn Kotche, during Wilco’s June 22 concert
Glenn Kotche, during Wilco's June 22 concert
Glenn Kotche, during Wilco’s June 22 concert
Jeff Tweedy, during Wilco's June 22 concert
Jeff Tweedy, during Wilco’s June 22 concert
Jeff Tweedy, during Wilco's June 22 concert
Jeff Tweedy, during Wilco’s June 22 concert
John Stirratt, during Wilco's June 22 concert
John Stirratt, during Wilco’s June 22 concert
Nels Cline, during Wilco's June 22 concert
Nels Cline, during Wilco’s June 22 concert

Read more about Solid Sound and see more photos in the rest of my report: Parts 23 and 4

Yo La Tengo at Green Music Fest

Yo La Tengo was in fine form Saturday (June 25) at the Wicker Park street festival known as the Green Music Fest. It was an excellent little cross-section of most of the various moods and styles of music Yo La Tengo plays — only a little bit of the quiet, loungy stuff, but plenty of drony grooves, a handful of the band’s catchiest and most memorable songs (“Sugarcube” was a highlight for me) and lots of sharp-edged guitar solos by Ira Kaplan.






Yo La Tengo does Seinfeld… plus some music


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.


Condo Dream Day at Hideout

Eleventh Dream Day’s residency at the Hideout continued Sunday night (May 16) with the month’s most notable opening act, Condo Fucks — which is actually an alias or alter ego of indie-rock legends Yo La Tengo. As the Matador Records website explains: “Many years ago, in a town called New London, in Connecticut, one band reigned supreme. Condo Fucks. … Georgia Condo. Kid Condo. James McNew.” Well, that’s not really much of an explanation, but this essentially seems to be an outlet for the three members of Yo La Tengo to play some loud, crunchy guitar chords as they cover a bunch of their favorite songs.

Condo Fucks released an album in March called Fuckbook (a nod to Yo La Tengo’s covers collection Fakebook). No tour has been announced, but the band did a special one-off gig opening for their old pals in Eleventh Dream Day. The press release on the Matador page is headlined: “Condo Fucks in Rare Chicago Appearance Shocker.”

This gig was Yo La Tengo in loud, garage-rock mode for the duration, with Ira Kaplan hunched over his guitar much of the night. Ira switched off on vocals with McNew (who was playing a baritone guitar as if it were a bass) and Georgia Kaplan. I have the complete set list, though I’m not sure about the origins of all these tunes. Help, anyone? [UPDATED 5/18/2010: Thanks to those who commented with info on the original artists. Still not sure about “Get Down.”]

“2120 South Michigan Avenue” (The Rolling Stones)
“Come On Up” (The Rascals)
“With a Girl Like You” (The Troggs)
“Accident” (The Electric Eels)
“Last Time Around” (The Del-Vettes)
“The Kid With the Replaceable Head” (Richard Hell)
“I’m Your Man” (Richard Hell)
“This Is Where I Belong” (The Kinks)
“What’cha Gonna Do About It” (The Small Faces)
“Frenzy” (The Fugs)
“Get Down”
“Dog Meat” (Flamin Groovies)
“Tiger In Your Tank” (Muddy Waters)
“Liz Beth” (Eleventh Dream Day)

Eleventh Dream Day took the stage next, playing a lot of its new songs again, but with more ferocious guitar solos from Rick Rizzo than two weeks ago. The band also played “The Arsonist” (digging all the way back to its 1987 self-titled debut for that one), one of its best-known songs, “Testify” (from the 1989 album Beet) and one of the standout tracks from its most recent record, “Lately I’ve Been Thinking” (from 2006’s Zeroes and Ones).

Ira Kaplan of Condo Fucks/Yo La Tengo came back onstage at the end of the night, joining Eleventh Dream Day for a cover of the Dream Syndicate’s “Halloween.” And then for the encore, the two bands merged together for an epic version of the Velvet Underground’s “Ocean,” extending the last part of the song into a long jam with the chorus, “Here comes the waves!” echoing through the noise.

See my photos of Condo Fucks and Eleventh Dream Day.

Pitchfork Fest, Day One

My photos are up from day one of the 2009 Pitchfork Music Festival.

The night was a cool start to the one summer festival I’ve been eagerly anticipating — cool in more than one way. Temps were unseasonably low for Chicago in July, though that was fine with me. And the music was cool all night, too. It turned out to be a great idea to let fans vote on the set lists for this “Write the Night” section of the festival. Predictably, fans picked mostly older songs by the four bands playing Friday: Tortoise, Yo La Tengo, the Jesus Lizard and Built to Spill. (Well, all of the Jesus Lizard’s songs are “older,” since the band hasn’t played in a decade.) I wouldn’t want these bands to play this sort of sets all the time, but it was nice to hear some songs you don’t always hear in concert.

I’m terrible remembering song titles in general, and the fact that Tortoise doesn’t sing makes it doubly difficult for me to name which tunes they played, but the show included several key tracks from their early album Millions Now Living Will Never Die. An outdoor festival is not really the best venue to see this subtle band, but the Tortoise performance functioned well as an introductory set to the weekend’s festivities.

Yo La Tengo played a set loaded with many of its best songs, including “Autumn Sweater,” “Sugar Cube” and “Tom Courtenay.” When Ira Kaplan moved from organ to guitar, the music became more fierce, as he really dug into those strings for some sharp, almost atonal solos. At one point, Kaplan announced, “We’re going to deviate from your requests a little bit,” and then Yo La Tengo played a track from its forthcoming album. The song was called “Seeing Double and Triple,” and Kaplan dedicated it to Ron Santo. It featured a bouncy organ riff as well as key-banging organ solo. This was one of the better Yo La Tengo sets I’ve seen in the last few years, with more emphasis on the rock than on the mellow lounge-y stuff. (But hey, I wish they’d played “My Little Corner of the World.” I can’t complain too much, since I didn’t vote.)

Within about two seconds after the Jesus Lizard took the stage, lead singer and general all-around crazy guy David Yow had leaped into the audience for some of his trademark crowd surfing. And he kept up those antics throughout the show, whenever he wasn’t pausing to get back up on the stage to spit on the floor. The band sounded loud and intense, and the fans loved it. Yow made a few very foul jokes I won’t repeat here… I did laugh when he introduced one song by saying, “This is a dance song. Everybdy, get at arm’s-length distance so you have plenty of room to dance.”

After that sort of performance, Built to Spill was bound to seem a little sedate. As much as I love Built to Spill’s records, the group has seemed less than lively during the two previous concerts I’ve seen. Well, this time, they were pretty darn good, even though leader Doug Martsch and his bandmates seemed like zombies compared with David Yow. (Most human beings do.) It was a strong set of most of Built to Spill’s best songs, coming from several albums — maybe not all that different from a typical Built to Spill concert, but when the three guitars were talking to one another in those epic solos, the sound was magnificent.

Photos from day one of the Pitchfork Music Festival.

March and April 2005 concerts

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.)

DEAR SIR,

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.

Sincerely,
Buzz Aldrin

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:

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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…