Post-SXSW, the music goes on

After all those SXSW photos and reviews, I haven’t had much energy to write lately, but I did manage to make it out to some concerts. In fact, against my better judgment, I had a ticket to see the Magnetic Fields March 16 at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, just a few hours after my plane from Austin landed. I say it was against my better judgment just because I feared I would feel like a zombie after five straight days of non-stop music. As it turned out, I didn’t feel all that drained, and this turned out to be a fabulous show I would have hated to miss.

The Magnetic Fields were playing six shows over three days at the Old Town School, and I saw the first show on the final night of their visit. Unlike the feedback-drenched Jesus and Mary Chain sound of their new album, the aptly titled Distortion, the concert featured Stephen Merritt and his group performing in a sort of string quartet meets folk-rock band format. That’s actually how I prefer my Magnetic Fields music, though I wouldn’t mind hearing them do a few louder songs in concert sometime. They played an excellent selection of songs from Distortion plus of course some oldies from 69 Love Songs and other records, with lots of dryly witty banter between Claudia Gonson and Merritt (Gonson does most of the talking, leaving Merritt to respond with grumpy one-liners). Shirley Simms on vocals (and Sally Timms, who guested on one song) added to the beauty of the songs. I did not take photos at this show, but kirstiecat has photos from one of the March 14 shows.

On March 17, rather than doing anything Irish for St. Patrick’s Day, I saw Norwegian singer Hanne Hukkelberg perform a lovely set of her quirky songs at Schubas. I’ve only listened to her music a little bit, but I’m definitely going to spend more time with it now. See my photos of Hanne Hukkelberg. I also enjoyed the opening sets by Boat, who played a sort of folk chamber music, and Haley Bonar, whose music is more traditional singer-songwriter alt-country. See my photos of Haley Bonar and Boat.

On March 19, I went to see the reunited British punk band the Slits at Subterranean. When I walked in, the second of four bands that night was about to start. The guitar-and-drums duo Shellshag played a chaotic set. It was fun at moments, and I sensed some good melodies in the songs, but the loose, shambling quality of the performance distracted me too much. I felt like a sober person watching drunk or stoned people having fun. Sometimes, watching people having fun is fun in and of itself. Other times… well, you just feel like you’re not in on the joke. The next band up was Old Time Relijun, who have enough of a following that they might normally be the headliners. After seeing them live (but not really knowing their records), I have to say: Meh, I guess that just ain’t for me. But hey, the fans liked it. They loudly urged the band to do an encore, but it was time for the Slits. Now, the Slits are a band I know mostly by reputation. I have heard and enjoyed their 1979 record Cut, but I can’t say I’ve paid much attention to the Slits. Singer Ari Up and bassist Tessa Pollitt are back together now as the Slits, playing with three much younger musicians as their backup band. Up has a goofy stage personality that matches her gold pants and long dreadlocks, and for most of this show, the fun was fairly infectious. After a while, though, the concert devolved into too much between-song goofing around. The guitarist complained, “I’m bored,” at one point – a joke, no doubt, but she had a point. And the second half of the concert focused too much on the Slits’ newer reggae music than its old punk rock for my tastes. Still, I have to give these ladies credit for bringing back the Slits. See my photos of the Slits, Old Time Relijun and Shellshag.

After a concert-free weekend, I was at the Empty Bottle on Monday (March 24) for a late show by British Sea Power. I missed BSP a few times when I was in Austin, and I definitely did not want to miss them again. They really tore down the place with strong versions of tracks off their new record, Do You Like Rock Music? (I take it that’s a rhetorical question) and some older songs. The concert captured what I like best about British Sea Power’s records, that tension between the ragged edges of their punkier tunes and the grandeur of their epic numbers, with transitions and segues that shouldn’t work but somehow do. At the end of the show, the members of BSP were on top of amps, on top of audience members, and on top of one another – and there was no need for an encore to follow up that dramatic climax. (Besides, it was pushing 2 a.m. on a Monday night.) See my photos of British Sea Power. One of my local favorites, the 1900s, opened for BSP. I’ve said enough about them in the past, so I’ll just say they played a strong set including one new song, and I was glad to see them again. See my photos of the 1900s.

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