Jacco Gardner at the Empty Bottle


As I wrote last week in Time Out Chicago, one of the Chicago record label Trouble in Mind’s latest finds is a psychedelic singer-songwriter from the Netherlands named Jacco Gardner. His debut album, Cabinet of Curiosities, is a delightful throwback to Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and the chamber pop of the Left Banke; a more contemporary reference point is the music of newer psychedelic groups such as Caribou.

Gardner and his band played last night (March 19) at the Empty Bottle, visiting Chicago for the first time (and remarking on how cold our city is). The studio versions of Gardner’s songs are tuneful, pretty and generally on the mellow side, occasionally veering into strange and spooky sounds. The live versions Gardner played with his touring band didn’t radically change those arrangements, but the Zombies-esque drumming, acoustic guitar chords and melodic bass lines had a bit more zip — making the songs all the better. Gardner’s definitely a talent to watch.

I arrived at the Empty Bottle just in time to hear the last few minutes of the opening set by MMOSS, another Trouble in Mind band — who were jamming out on a different, spacier variety of psychedelic music.

Below: Pictures of Jacco Gardner and his band.


Vetiver at the Empty Bottle

Despite the fact that Vetiver’s been together for six years, I somehow missed seeing the band until last night (March 10) at the Empty Bottle. The group’s been called “freak folk,” not one of my favorite genre labels, but Vetiver certainly has a folk-rock feeling. I’m particularly fond of Vetiver’s second full-length record, the 2006 release To Find Me Gone, which has strong melodies as well as a somewhat spooky mood.

I was glad to hear some songs from that record Wednesday night. The songs from Vetiver’s 2009’s record Tight Knit sounded a bit more conventional, but still pretty enjoyable. I wonder if something rubbed off on Vetiver when the band played as ex-Jayhawks singer Gary Louris’ backing group? www.vetiverse.com

The show started off with an opening act all the way from the Czech Republic, Please the Trees, who played a cool, rocking set. Looking up the band on myspace, I see that it describes its influences as “sound, noise, silence, wood, river, sea, sky, light, love,” while the sound is described as “Something in between Abba and Helmet.” www.myspace.com/pleasethetrees

The second band was Chicago’s Robbie Hamilton & Soft Drugs, who played rock with an early ’70s country-rock tinge, including a shout-out to Gram Parsons. Some good songs, though the set got a little sloppy at the end. www.myspace.com/robbiehamiltonmusic

It was a frustrating night for taking photos, especially during the headlining set by Vetiver. The band’s singer and songwriter, Andy Cabic, was under dim red lighting for the entirety of the show, so if you don’t see many pictures of Cabic in my gallery, that’s why. Photos of Vetiver, Please the Trees and Robbie Hamilton & Soft Drugs.

Tape and Mountains

Thursday (Jan. 28) was a night of instrumental and mostly mellow music at the Empty Bottle. All three acts on the bill played slow-moving, ambient music, the sort of stuff that makes you meditate more than it makes you dance. It was a fairly cool evening of chilling out (with frigid temperatures outside).

The headliners were Sweden’s Tape — four musicians playing a laptop, guitar, drums and keyboards, with a bit of harmonica thrown in. Despite the electronic elements, the music sounded almost organic, with some bits that were almost like folk music mashed together with washes of electronic texture.

The show also featured the Brooklyn ambient duo Mountains. Playing without any pause during their set, Mountains played acoustic instruments like guitars, harmoniums and melodicas, processing them through a mound of electronic equipment until they were virtually unrecognizable, making waves of echoing, reverb-heavy chords.

Appropriately enough, the first act of the night was the Chicago duo David Daniell and Douglas McCombs, whom I’ve seen numerous times and written about here previously. This time, they played without any percussion, but they still created beautiful, glacial sounds with their two guitars.

Photos of Tape, Mountains and David Daniell & Douglas McCombs.

Daniell, Lemos, McCombs and Shelley

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.

Hidden Cameras at the Empty Bottle

You need a chart to keep track of who’s who in Canadian rock collectives. It seems like every musician in Toronto and Montréal plays in about 12 bands, and each and every one of them has performed at some point in Broken Social Scene. Two bands from the intertwined Canadian indie-rock scene, the Hidden Cameras and Gentleman Reg, wrapped up their U.S. tour with a show Thursday (Dec. 3) at the Empty Bottle.

The two bands seemed to morph into one another Thursday. The Gentleman Reg set featured several of the musicians who showed up later as Hidden Cameras members. The two ladies in Gentleman Reg’s band donned long blonde wigs and waved red flags while the Hidden Cameras were playing. You get the feeling there’s a never-ending jam session going on somewhere up in Canada where musicians come and go from the stage, some of them occasionally paying us a visit south of the border.

The Hidden Cameras put out an excellent record in 2004 called Mississisauga Goddam and they’ve kept up the quality on their records since then, including a new album on the Arts & Crafts label, Origin:Orphan. Wearing antiquated-looking hoods, the band took the stage with the dramatic, quasi-symphonic prelude that opens the new record. Front man Joel Gibb and his band seemed to be going for a bit of a Spinal Tap vibe, but that lasted for only a few minutes. The hoods quickly came off, and the Hidden Cameras reveled in their upbeat, catchy tunes — which the group has described as “gay church folk music.” It’s celebratory and occasionally goofy music, with some of that Arcade Fire let’s-switch-instruments-every-three-minutes aesthetic and an infectious sense of fun.

Gentleman Reg is also on the Arts & Crafts label, with a new album called Jet Black, and his/their music was a good match with the Hidden Cameras. I don’t know how many the crowd was with Reg’s songs (I wasn’t familiar at all), but by the end, people were dancing and clapping along and even calling out for the opening act to do an encore. (That didn’t happen, but of course, Reg came back onto the stage later on to join in with the Hidden Cameras’ festivities.)

Awkward moment of the night: One of the Hidden Cameras tried to start a conversation with the crowd, asking if anyone was “engaged” in local politics. The response was an uncomfortable silence, and the musicians seemed to interpret this as meaning that everyone in attendance was apathetic about politics. Some more miscommunication ensued before the band wisely went back to playing music. If the Hidden Cameras had spoken individually with people in the crowd, I’m certain they would have found some folks with plenty to say about Chicago politics, but that sort of dialogue rarely works in the middle of a concert. It was too of a complicated question to answer with a shout from the dance floor.

Photos of the Hidden Cameras and Gentleman Reg.

Helen Money, rock cellist

Helen Money (a.k.a. Alison Chesley of Chicago) gets some amazing sounds out of her cello. Performing Monday night (Nov. 30) at the Empty Bottle, she sometimes played her instrument in the traditional way, bowing the strings and playing fluid series of notes that would fit right into a classical concerto. But at other times, she ran her cello’s sounds through guitar pedals and other effects, creating feedback-heavy tones of the sort normally associated with the electric guitar. She plucked her strings or tapped them with her bow for percussive effects. She used looping pedals and backing tracks to build layers of harmony, creating a ruckus worthy of a heavy metal band on some songs. There were even a few touches of Jimi Hendrix in her performance.

Money has played cello with bands including Verbow, Bob Mould, Mono, Russian Circles and Disturbed, so it’s no surprise that she rocks more than your typical cellist when she performs solo. Her free gig at the Empty Bottle was a CD release party celebrating her new recording, In Tune. I like the CD but I enjoyed hearing Money’s compositions live even more — they sounded so strong and powerful. There’s been a fair amount of music lately that bridges the world of classical and indie-rock, and Helen Money is a fine example of an experimental hybrid.

The only downside of this performance, which received hearty applause, was the usual chatter from the Empty Bottle’s bar, which disrupted the quieter passages of Money’s music. Classical music concertgoers would be absolutely appalled to hear anything remotely as loud in a concert hall. I know you can’t expect the same sort of quiet reverence at the Empty Bottle, but it’s too bad the room wasn’t as quiet as the Velvet Lounge got recently when Claire Chase gave an avant-garde flute concert. Certain rooms are better suited for this sort of performance and unfortunately, the Bottle (despite its excellent and imaginative booking) doesn’t always provide the best ambience.

The first act of the night was Fielded (a.k.a. Lindsay Powell) who sang by herself on the stage, running her voice through lots of echoing loops and adding some keyboards here and there for an atmospheric wall of sound.

Next up was Anatomy of Law, a Chicago band including former members of Animal Law. Barely pausing in between songs (or maybe playing very long tunes), Anatomy sounded at first like Joy Division, with dark, pulsing mood music. The second half of the set got noisier and more aggressive, climaxing with the two percussionists pounding a primitive beat with a clatter of sheet metal. (Sorry, no photos of Anatomy of Law — the lighting was simply too dark to get any decent images.)

Photos of Helen Money and Fielded.

Shrinebuilder at the Empty Bottle

I don’t see a lot of heavy-metal concerts … probably because I don’t like heavy metal all that much. But stoner rock — now, that’s something I can get behind once in a while. What’s the difference? Stoner rock is just about as heavy as heavy metal, though at least some of the singers tend to sing, rather than growl or scream.

I’m not sure if Shrinebuilder is heavy metal or stoner rock or some other variety of underground metal, but the group’s self-titled debut album is the sort of hard rock that I actually like — thunderously loud at times, but not continuously screechy. This is a super group of sorts, featuring guitarist Scott “Wino” Weinrich (from Saint Vitus and the Obsessed), drummer Dale Crover (from the Melvins), bassist Al Cisneros (from Sleep and Om) and guitarist Scott Kelly (from Neurosis).

They played their dramatic songs Saturday night (Nov. 14) at the Empty Bottle, but with little of the onstage dramatic flourishes of classic metal bands. They curled their lips in the occasional snarl, but mostly they just pounded away on their instruments. Weinrich, Cisneros and Kelly took turns signing, and Shrinebuilder benefited from the variety of voices.

The opening band at the late show was a good match with Shrinebuilder — the local metal band Yakuza, which stands out from other headbangers by featuring saxophone alongside the typical shredding guitar riffs. Lead singer Bruce Lamont (whom you may recognize from his work as an Empty Bottle bartender) sang with vocal-cord-shredding intensity whenever he wasn’t wailing on his horns. Yakuza’s music included some touches of prog-rock grandeur. And it was loud.

Photos of Shrinebuilder and Yakuza.

Scot-U.K. invasion

Does everything sound better in a Scottish accent? Sometimes I think so, but that’s probably just a personal quirk of mine. I do love the sound of Scottish singers, the way that burr bends the words. If you’re like me and you like Scottish music, the Empty Bottle was the place to be on Monday night. Two of the three bands were from Scotland: headliners the Twilight Sad and the cheekily named We Were Promised Jetpacks. Earlier on their tour, these bands were playing together with another Scottish outfit, Frightened Rabbit, but on this leg of the tour, they teamed up with a great band from Brighton, England, BrakesBrakesBrakes.

It seemed like the band playing second, We Were Promised Jetpacks, drew the most fans in Chicago, judging from the way the crowd responded, singing along to many of the lyrics. But all three bands received strong applause and deserved it. BrakesBrakesBrakes is known as Brakes in England, but the band calls itself BrakesBrakesBrakes in the U.S. to avoid a legal conflict with an American band called Brakes. As far as I’m concerned, these blokes are THE Brakes, so I’d rather just call them Brakes.

I’ve been a fan of Brakes since the band released Give Blood in 2005, and the group’s latest CD, Touchdown, is another strong recording. Opening Monday night’s show, Brakes slammed through a series of quick songs, tossing off these punk, post-punk, country and rock gems like musical haikus. Several of the songs end abruptly, as soon as Brakes have said everything they want to say. The shortest song of the night was so short that Brakes played it twice: the 2005 political commentary “Cheney,” which consists of about 30 seconds of the name “Cheney!” being chanted over and over followed by the eloquent plea: “Stop being such a dick!” The band also threw in a cover of Camper Van Beethoven’s “Shut Us Down,” but the highlights were some of the now-classic songs from Brakes’ 2005 debut and new tracks like the catchy “Don’t Take Me to Space (Man)” and the wistful “Leaving England.” And in case anyone was thinking that Brakes are a bit like Art Brut, guitarist Tom White kicked off one song by asking the rest of the band, “Ready, Art Brut?”

We Were Promised Jetpacks played most of the songs from their recent debut record, These Four Walls, stretching some of that out. Not that this was anything like jam music. It was just that these lads seemed to love feeling the pulse of their riffs and rhythms, so they luxuriated in that sound. And so did the crowd. Singer Adam Thompson knows how to belt. I was amazed at how far back he got from the microphone at some points, signing at maximum volume, his voice rising above all that other noise. Noting that this was the last night of their U.S. tour, Thompson said he was looking forward to going home to Scotland. “I need my mom and my mashed potatoes,” he said.

Fellow Glaswegians the Twilight Sad raised the intensity level even higher for a riveting, cathartic set at the end of the night. Playing songs from the band’s excellent 2007 CD Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters as well as the new Forget the Night Ahead, the Twilight Sad played loud, passionate post-punk. Lead singer James Graham holds the mike in his hand and roams the stage, raising his eyes to the ceiling or dropping down to his knees like a man who’s nearly overcome with the music and words passing through his mouth. When the band finished its set with guitars pressed into amplifiers for squalls of feedback, it was clear that there would be no encore. That ending was too climatic to follow up with another song.

Photos of the Twilight Sad, We Were Promised Jetpacks and BrakesBrakesBrakes.

Faust at the Empty Bottle

Along with bands like Can and Neu, the originators of the early ’70s German art rock known as krautrock included Faust. On Wednesday (Oct. 7), Faust played in the Chicago for the first time in more than decade. If Faust’s guitarist-bassist-singer-general-all-around-mischief-maker Jean-Hervé Peron had his facts right, Faust hasn’t played here since a gig at the Lounge Ax in 1994. At the Lounge Ax show, Faust was down to two musicians: Peron and drummer Werner “Zappi” Diermaier. For this return concert, Faust had expanded, with guitarist-keyboardist James Johnston and guitarist-singer Geraldine Swayne. “This time, we are a bit more numerous,” Peron said.

Faust is known for its unusual stage antics, breaking the boundaries of what bands are expected to do in concert, and Faust did not disappoint at the Empty Bottle. A cement mixer was sitting on the floor in front of the stage, and I began to get worried that I was standing too close to this machine. Some Bottle employees got things ready by breaking beer bottles inside the mixer. During the first song, Peron signaled to Faust’s roady that they machine should be turned on. It started spinning around, making a churning rhythm that served as the beat for Faust’s first song of the night. Peron dropped some rocks from plastic cups into the cement mixer, then he got down onto the main floor and threw more beer bottles into the cement mixer with a whipping motion of his arm. (At this point, I was backing away from the machine as much as I could, since bits of rock and dust were flying.)

Later in the show, Diermaier took out some sort of power sander, threw off a bunch of sparks, and applied the power tool to his cymbals. (I’m pretty sure at least one provision of the fire code was violated at this show.) During one improvised number, Swayne left the stage and painted an abstract picture on the wall next to the stage. Some of the audience sat down so more people could see what she was painting, but the Bottle’s layout didn’t make it easy to experience what was going on. And then, during the encore, Peron and Swayne led as much of the crowd as they could over to the other side of the Empty Bottle’s bar, where Swayne played piano. Peron got on top of the piano and sang unamplified. Then he gestured to the audience with a bottle of bleach.

Throughout all of this activity, Faust played classic songs and some new ones. The music was dominated by strong bass grooves. Faust pulled together its clattering, thumping sounds with an offbeat sense of how different musical voices can mesh. As Diermaier recalled, somewhat touchingly: “People said this is bullshit, but we kept on playing it. I’m talking about krautrock.”

Opening act Bobby Conn played with Monica Boubou on violin and electronic drum beats, slamming through a series of hard-edged disco-glam-prog tunes. And then Boubou joined in with Faust for a couple of songs. It was a strange night. I survived, but I don’t recommend standing next to the cement mixer.

Photos of Faust and Bobby Conn.

Death at the Empty Bottle

Death, with members of Rough Francis
Death, with members of Rough Francis

One of this year’s best records was actually recorded back in the mid-’70s, but this is the first time most of the music has ever been released. The band was called Death, and it played something that sounded an awful lot like punk rock. That’s not what you’d expect three African-American brothers from Detroit to play in that era (or any era, for that matter), but these guys liked what they heard from groups like the Stooges, MC5 and Alice Cooper and put their own stamp on that proto-punk sound. Death’s demo tapes finally surfaced this year when Chicago label Drag City put them out under the title …For the Whole World to See. I was initially attracted to this album by the great story behind it, which you can read here in a New York Times story with the apt headline: “The Band That Was Punk Before Punk Was Punk.”

But beyond having a great back story, this is also a great album, with both the sheer force of classic punk and inventive bass, guitar and drum parts kicking together in those slightly irregular patterns that are the key ingredient in so many great rock songs. Death’s music reminds me of bands that came later, including Television, the Dirtbombs and the Damned, though it’s doubtful anyone in those bands ever heard a note of Death.

Death has reunited for just a handful of shows, including a concert Saturday (Sept. 26) at the Empty Bottle. (It was a late show, so I was able to catch both this concert as well as the earlier Schubas show by the Rural Alberta Advantage.)

The original lineup of Death was brothers David Hackney (on guitar), Bobby Hackney (bass and vocals) and Dannis Hackney (drums). David died, so for these reunion shows, Bobby and Dannis are being joined by a replacement guitarist, Bobbie Duncan. The big question was whether these guys would be able to pull off the terrific songs they recorded 35 years ago.

The answer is yes. But with an asterisk.

When Hackney brothers and Duncan rocked out on the Death songs, it sounded great. In case you hadn’t noticed all those cool bass lines, drum rolls and riffs on the original record, they came through loud and clear in concert, and Bobby Hackney nailed the lead vocals (skipping past a few high notes). The crowd loved it, and a rambunctious mosh pit broke out, a twisting mass of young bodies colliding with one another in front of the stage. The Hackney brothers must have found all this a little strange — a mob of mostly twentysomething white kids going nuts over the music they wrote more than three decades ago in complete obscurity.

Death, with a picture of the band’s deceased founding member David Hackney

Here’s the asterisk, however: The guys in Death did not quit playing music after Death disbanded in the mid-’70s. They went on to play R&B under the name 4th Movement and reggae under the name Lambsbread. And on Saturday night, they supplemented the Death songs with a number of these R&B/reggae tunes, which were not the greatest fit with the punk repertoire. Some of the fans respectfully waited through these songs for another chance to mosh. A few people in the back of the room were less respectful, shouting out things like, “This song sucks!” From what I could hear, the reggae and R&B songs were just so-so, nothing as distinctive as the Death songs. One or two of these songs would have been sufficient. The Death show also came to a grinding halt on two occasions, when the musicians huddled onstage in darkness trying to work out technical difficulties or some other unspecified problem, with bothering to tell the audience what was going on. During one of these unexplained breaks, some people in the crowd got into some sort of shouting match. The whole thing felt weird. But then Bobby Hackney stepped back to the microphone and simply said, “Death!” and everything seemed to be right again, as the band charged into “Freakin Out.”

Death, with members of Rough Francis
Death, with members of Rough Francis
Death, with members of Rough Francis
Death, with members of Rough Francis

At the end of the set, the members of opening act Rough Francis (including a second generation of Hackneys) joined forces with Death for the anthemic “Politicians in My Eyes.” For an encore, Death played an unreleased song from the Death era, which Bobby introduced as one of his late brother’s favorites, a song with “Rock and roll!” in the chorus.

Overall, the show was a mixed success, with moments of triumph along with a few fumbles. Still, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Rough Francis played a strong opening set — so strong that some audience members tried to get them to play an encore. The first band of the night, Tyvek, played primitive punk rock with an offbeat, catchy sensibility.

Rough Francis
Rough Francis
Rough Francis
Rough Francis
Rough Francis
Rough Francis
Rough Francis
Rough Francis

Last night of Wire Fest

I feel like I slacked off a bit last week when I missed most of the Wire Festival, a.k.a., “Adventures in Modern Music,” an annual showcase of some of the strangest music around, which the British magazine Wire curates and the Empty Bottle hosts. I’m sure I missed a lot of provocative music during the first four nights of the festival. I did catch the final night on Sunday (Sept. 13). The club seemed less than half full, but it was an excellent night of the sort of challenging music that Wire Fest is known for.

First up was Woods, a really cool band from New York with one of this year’s noteworthy records, Songs of Shame, whom I saw at SXSW. The core of this band’s songs are catchy rock tunes sung in a high falsetto, which remind me a bit of Canned Heat or Neil Young or something from that early ’70s era — but twisted through an experimental, improvisational, psychedelic vibe. Woods also played some extended instrumental jams, building their sound around drones and tape loops. Actual cassette tapes are part of the Woods’ sonic arsenal. Cool stuff.

The next band was the Subarachnoid Space. Never heard of ’em. They put on a pretty impressive set of heavy instrumental rock — heavy metal and art rock without any singing. The music was loud, but it was also fairly diverse within the limits of heavy instrumental rock. The third act of the night, Zola Jesus, was Chicago singer/composer Nika Danilova and two keyboardists, playing chilly techno pop, but with slightly stranger vocal melodies than the usual techno pop.

The headliners were Phantom Orchard, a collaboration between two highly respected experimental musicians, drummer Ikue Mori (who was working a laptop instead of drumming at this concert) and harpist Zeena Parkins. Their music included quiet, delicate tapestries of harp notes dancing over bubbly electronic textures. But Phantom Orchard also cranked up the volume and discordance for some sharp, piercing compositions as well.

Photos from Wire Fest.

Autolux at the Empty Bottle

The California band Autolux released one fairly cool CD in 2004 called Future Perfect, and then… Well, to be honest, I assumed that Autolux was yet another one of the countless bands I’d simply lost track of. I figured they must have made other records that had escaped my attention. But, no, as it turns out, Future Perfect remains their one and only CD. For some reason, Autolux is touring, and the band came to Chicago’s Empty Bottle on Friday night (Aug. 4). Appropriately, during a lull between songs, someone in the crowd shouted out, “When you are going to make another record?” The sarcastic response from singer-bassist Eugene Goreshter was that the band was making a record at that very moment, communing with the crowd in the “original peer-to-peer network.” Uh, OK. But seriously, guys — when are you going to make another record?

In any case, it was a good show, thanks to Carla Azar’s energetic drumming, varied vocals by Goreshter and Azar, and solid guitar playing of Greg Edwards. At Autolux’s best moments, the band pulsed with strong, thumping sounds. The show did lag a bit at times, though. Maybe a better sense of pacing would have made it a little closer to perfect. It was sort of fun to see the band play one song twice in a row — following a broken guitar string on the first run-through. Some fans insisted on hearing the song again (I’m sorry — does anyone know which song it was? I forget) … and one guy even wanted to hear it a third time.

There were two opening acts, and the middle band on the bill, Mini Mansions, put on a pretty impressive set. The trio has an odd lineup on stage: one guy on keyboards, one guy on bass, and one guy switching back and forth between guitar and drums. Getting a full-time drummer would be a plus, but the quality of the songwriting came through. The unusual cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” was nice.

As for the first band of the night, Avagami — well, let’s just say I would have enjoyed the evening more if I’d shown up around the time Mini Mansions started playing. Avagami’s goofy shtick wore thin very quickly for me.

Photos of Autolux and Mini Mansions.

Vivian Girls at the Empty Bottle

Where have I been lately, you may ask? Yes, it’s true, the Underground Bee has been in a sort of quasi-hibernation lately, not reporting much on concerts in Chicago or anything else. There simply haven’t been that many concerts in town the last couple of weeks that I felt compelled to see. And I was busy with other work, including an out-of-town trip for several days.

Trying to get back into the swing of things, I went to see the Vivian Girls on Sunday (Aug. 30) at the Empty Bottle. It seems like these three gals have been playing an awful lot in recent months, including a set at the Pitchfork Music Fest that I missed because of scheduling conflicts. Yesterday, they not only played at the Bottle, but also made a 6 p.m. appearance at Permanent Records, playing acoustic during the in-store gig. They did not sound the least bit acoustic Sunday night, however, cranking up the feedback as they ran through songs from their 2008 self-titled EP and a few new ones. If you want to believe the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot, the new Vivian Girls CD coming out Sept. 8, Everything Goes Wrong is “a more ambitious effort in every way.” I haven’t heard it yet myself, but I’m looking forward to it. In concert, the new songs didn’t sound that much different from the old ones — more fuzz-drenched primitive garage rock with girlish vocals. It was a lively set, climaxing with a fun bit where the three Vivians switched instruments even as they continued making noise for the final song.

The opening acts were a pretty good match with the Vivian Girls: Daylight Robbery hammered away at its post-punk songs, then the Beets sang queasy harmonies over rickety acoustic guitar and thwacking drumbeats. The Beets had a dummy on the stage, which spent some of the show vomiting green fluid into a plastic garage can. What a class act!

Photos of the Vivian Girls, Daylight Robbery and the Beets.

Reviews of June 19-22 concerts

I’m not quite as swamped with concerts this week as I have been lately, but here are a few good ones that happened in recent days.

Soy Un Caballo sounds like the name for a Spanish band, or maybe a New York pretending to be a Spanish band. The group’s name is Spanish for “I Am a Horse.” But this male-female duo is actually Belgian, and they sing most of their songs in French. They were delightful Friday night (June 19) at Schubas, playing a set of delicate songs on guitar, bass and vibes with pretty vocal harmonies. “It’s very courageous of you to take French lessons on a Friday night,” one of them remarked. Courageous? Hardly! The band happens to be on a Chicago label, Minty Fresh, which has a history of finding great bands from overseas. Check out Soy Un Caballo’s music at www.myspace.com/soyuncaballo.

Photos of Soy Un Caballo.

On Saturday night (June 20), the Empty Bottle had a strong, if somewhat mismatched, triple lineup. The headliners were O’Death, who got the crowd dancing like it was a real hoedown, while the band cranked out bluegrassy music with punk attitude. Ah, but a little bit of O’Death goes a long way for me. The fans loved it, anyway. The middle act on the bill, and my main reason for being there, was Tiny Vipers, the singer-songwriter also known as Jesy Fortino. She has some really nice songs, but they’re very quiet songs, and alas, the Bottle crowd was really chatty, making it almost painful at times to watch Fortino straining to be heard about that din. At several points, a big “shush” went up, and people shut up for a few minutes. The acoustic guitar picking and plaintive singing sounded beautiful… whenever I could hear it. (You can hear some of it here: www.myspace.com/tinyvipersss) The first act of the night was Balmorhea, an ensemble from Austin, Texas, that plays songs falling somewhere between chamber music and rock. It was pretty and mellow, though maybe a little too mellow. Balmorhea is practically an instrumental band, with vocals on only a few songs, but it was the ending of the show, when the members all came together and sang a cappella, that really stood out for me.

Photos of O’Death, Tiny Vipers and Balmorhea.

Monday (June 22) was another night with great (and free!) live music at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. It’s kind of hard to believe that Chicago city officials are cool enough to allow things like a concert by the Dirty Projectors to happen in a beautiful, world-class venue like the Pritzker. I guess that’s because the city government (for all of its many faults) has a smart Cultural Affairs Department. This particular show featured those indie-rock darlings from Brooklyn, the Dirty Projectors, opening for a stalwart Chicago act, the Sea and Cake. At least in the front part of the pavilion, it was clear that most of the twentysomething fans who rushed to get seats when the gates opened were Dirty Projectors fans. I overheard some of these kids saying that they didn’t even know who the Sea and Cake were, and some of them did not stick around for the headliners.

The Dirty Projectors have intrigued me on the two previous times I’ve seen them, but at times, their music seemed like not entirely successful experimentation. They’re getting more press now, thanks in part to collaborations with Björk and David Byrne (neither of whom was present for this show, of course). And boy, the Dirty Projectors really connected this time. With an expanded lineup, the band is doing a lot more with vocal harmonies — really peculiar but very precise harmonies, with intervals, overlapping patterns and spot-on timing. It’s easy to see why Björk would want to work with them. I was wowed by the sound of those voices, which seemed almost like a programmed effect than an organic piece of singing happening right in front of me. The guitar melodies were striking, too, with lots of African style skewed into strange new territory.

The Sea and Cake finished the show with a pretty good set, though as always, I find myself wishing that this band would break loose a little bit. They’re very talented, and their songs are smart compositions with inventive chords, but it’s always tamped down. The one thing that wasn’t tamped down was drummer John McIntire, who grimaced and made all sorts of intense expressions as he hammered away.

Photos of the Dirty Projectors and the Sea and Cake.

UPDATE: I was too busy today to pay attention to Twitter or anything like that, so I overlooked the news that the Dirty Projectors had been in a car accident. Everyone is reportedly OK. http://pitchfork.com/news/35710-dirty-projectors-in-car-accident/

A week full of concerts

Phew! Eight concerts in the last seven days! And it’s been quite a run of good shows. Summing up what I’ve seen the last few days…

Art Brut was in town for five straight days of concerts at Schubas. I love it when a band does an extended stand at a smaller venue rather than doing one show in a bigger room. It takes more of a commitment from the band, but the result is that more fans get to see the group up-close in an intimate space. And the guys in Art Brut are always such fun, I gladly would have seen them more than once this week if there hadn’t been so many other good shows to see. I saw Art Brut on Tuesday (June 9), when the opening act was Team Band, a Chicago group trying very hard to be like Art Brut. Hey, what the heck — Art Brut leader Eddie Argos has previously suggested creating Art Brut franchises in various cities. Argos even joined Team Band onstage for one song, singing the lyrics he’d just learned a short time earlier.

At times, Art Brut has seemed almost as much of a comedy act as a rock band, thanks to Argos’ cheeky, self-referential lyrics. I’m enjoying their third and latest CD, with the terrific title Art Brut Vs. Satan, and Tuesday’s show was an energetic blast of very English punk rock, with a mix of catchy choruses and Argos’ humorous patter in the verses. As usual, Argos kept on referring to the band in the third person — “Ready, Art Brut?” — and he was sweatily leaping around and gesturing like mad. A highlight was the moment when he used his microphone cable as a jumping rope. It was a slight disappointment not to hear full-length versions of the classic Art Brut tracks “Formed a Band” and “Top of the Pops,” but Argos slyly dropped pieces of those choruses into other songs. And Argos served up not one but two songs about “D.C. Comics” — the actual song with that title, plus a completely reworked take on “Modern Art” that replaced most of the references to modern art with comic books instead. By the end of the week, Argos posted a Twitter comment about how much he was going to miss Schubas.

Photos of Art Brut and Team Band.

On Wednesday (June 10) I was at the Empty Bottle to see Pink Mountaintops, a side project by the leader of Black Mountain, Stephen McBean. Or is it fair to call it a side project? I mean, he’s done three records under the Pink Mountaintops name and just two under the Black Mountain moniker. Black Mountain may be the band he’s best known for, but he saves some excellent songs for Pink Mountaintops. On the previous Pink record, Axis of Evol, I had some trouble discerning exactly what the difference was between McBean’s Black and Pink projects. The difference is clearer on the latest CD, Outside Love. The songs are more concise than the typical Black Mountain jam. Some of them have a hard and fuzzy sounds reminiscent of the Jesus and Mary Chain and others are more like country rock. It all sounded very nice in concert, and we were also treated to a couple of good opening bands. Quest for Fire (including a couple of musicians who also played with Pink Mountaintops) played jammy guitar rock reminiscent of Black Mountain, while Suckers played intriguing rock with a touch of glam and psychedelia.

Photos of Pink Mountaintops, Quest for Fire and Suckers.

Thursday (June 11) was a really special night at the Empty Bottle, with a great double bill of Vic Chesnutt and Jonathan Richman. Sitting alone on the stage in his wheelchair, hunched over his acoustic guitar, Chesnutt managed to get the normally chatty crowds at the Bottle to listen intently to his quirky and heartfelt songs — he did pause one song to point out some “chatties” in the crowd, joking that the young ladies were talking about how handsome he is. Chesnutt introduced a few songs by noting that he had written them recently and might forget the chords and lyrics. And he did say “sorry” a few times as he tried to find his way through the songs, starting them over again. That’s the sort of uncertainty that can seem like a fault for many performers, but Chesnutt was so casual about it that it actually heightened the feeling that this was a performance akin to watching him in his living room. As he remarked at one point, “I know I’m going to fuck this one up but that hasn’t stopped me yet tonight.” Chesnutt said he’s recorded new music with both Jonathan Richman and Silver Mt. Zion. He closed with a song that he dubbed “the epic one” — “Worst Friend in the World.”

He was followed by Richman, who was — well, he was Jonathan Richman, a singular and strange guy. Very entertaining in his own way. If you go to see a Richman concert in the hope of hearing him do some of his early songs with the Modern Lovers, you’re probably going to be out of luck. And I have to confess I haven’t kept up with his recent records, so I wasn’t that familiar with the songs he played Thursday. But his humor and earnestness are immediately accessible, whether or not you’ve heard the songs before. Richman sang some songs in French or Spanish, and his acoustic guitar playing all night had a Spanish flair to it. He often let the music fall into an improvised groove with drummer Tommy Larkins. As Richman noted at one point during an extended riff: “This isn’t a song or anything. It’s just a beat.” Richman occasionally set down his guitar and picked up a cowbell or some jingle bells and pranced around on the stage, making some percussion. His eyes remained wide all night, as he seemed to be staring into the faces of individual audience members (including me)… And every few minutes, that stare would give way to a childish grin.

Photos of Jonathan Richman and Vic Chesnutt.

One more concert to report on: PJ Harvey and John Parish Friday at the Riviera. More on that later…

Julie Doiron brings the rock

That headline above this blog post is one that I didn’t expect to write. New Brunswick singer-songwriter Julie Doiron has been writing and recording for quite a while now — she’s just released her eighth album, I Can Wonder What You With Your Day on Jagjaguwar — but I’ve never followed her all that closely. I’ve heard great things about her, but my impression of her was that she sings quiet, melancholy and sometimes somewhat precious indie folk rock. There is some of that sort of stuff on her new record, sing-songy, girly, campfire songs such as “The Life of Dreams” and “Glad to Be Alive.” But there are also several songs that are louder and more energetic.

That side of her music came out in full force Wednesday (June 3) at the Empty Bottle, thanks to Doiron’s engaging playing on the electric guitar, her passionate singing and the loose, Neil Young-esque vibe of her backing band. (Despite the fact that they played with a Neil Young vibe, I didn’t appreciate the guy in the crowd who kept on requesting her to do “Cortez the Killer.” Give it a rest, dude.) Doiron let things get quiet on a couple of tunes, but for the most part, it really was a rock show, and a quite good one at that. And she came off as a very nice and approachable person in her good-natured comments in between the songs.

The first band of the night was a local outfit called A Lull, who put an quite impressive set of elegant and lovely rock songs accented by trumpet and occasionally pounded into the floor with drums, drums and more drums. There were four drummers in this group (if you include the guy playing trumpet plus drums), so this is one group you can definitely throw into the “Drum Circle” school of indie rock. There was an ethereal quality to the songs reminiscent of atmospheric bands like Efterklang and Grizzly Bear. And when the songs fell into a percussive groove, it sounded pretty darn cool. So far, A Lull has released just an EP, Ice Cream Bones, but I’m eager to hear more. Check them out at www.myspace.com/alullmusic

The middle band on the bill was the Night Owl Choir. In their softer moments, they reminded me a bit of the chilled-out alt-country band Acetone. The Night Owl Choir was pretty good, showing some promise, though perhaps they could stand to add a few more colors to their musical palette.

Photos of Julie Doiron, A Lull and the Night Owl Choir.

Haino and Conrad at Empty Bottle

Last night (April 28) was an evening of extremes at the Empty Bottle. The headliners were two avant-garde legends making a rare appearance in Chicago: Keiji Haino and Tony Conrad. They played for about 90 minutes, taking just one pause. Was that two “songs”? Not exactly. More like one long improvisation with a slight break in the middle. Conrad played violin most of the night, seemingly strangling the instrument at some moments, or at least molesting it in various ways that aren’t taught at Juilliard. Conrad also bowed a plastic disc with a hole in it, and played for a bit on a pedal steel guitar.

Over on the other side of the stage, Haino was bending over into his microphone, screaming and flailing around his long mane of gray hair. Haino also made noises with various unidentified electronic devices, blew into a curvy plastic tube and wailed away on his electric guitar.

How did it all mesh together? At some moments, the ferocity of what Hainu and Conrad were both doing was almost overwhelming. At other times, the performance began to sag a bit, but then the duo would always rally back.

The first act of the night was Bloodyminded, who offered up even more ear-splitting screams over electronic squiggles that were nearly completely atonal, as far as I could tell. Then came avant-garde music of a completely different character, as David Daniell and Doug McCombs played their slow and sublime glacier of guitar chords. The beautiful hum got its pulse from Frank Rosaly’s subtle, jazzy percussion.

Photos of Keiji Haino and Tony Conrad.

Million Tongues

Steve Krakow, a.k.a. Plastic Crimewave Sound, may be the leading impresario of underground rock music in Chicago — a musician in a few bands, the writer and artist behind the comic strip “The Secret History of Chicago Music,” the creator/editor of the hand-drawn magazine Galactic Zoo Dossier, and curator of the occasional festivals and concerts bearing the banner Million Tongues. The Million Tongue series returned last Wednesday (March 25) for a showcase of experimental music and garage rock at the Empty Bottle.

I should have shown up earlier, because I really liked what I heard from the band Cave as I walked in near the end of their set. The next band, a French act called Gunslingers, did some sort of noisy biker rock, which I enjoyed whenever it started to cook like a Velvet Underground jam. I didn’t really get what the legendary noise-rock artist Michael Yonkers was all about. His heavily processed guitar solos seemed mostly like random sound to me, but when Plastic Crimewave Sound joined him onstage, the music they played together sounded more like rock songs and it started to click with me a little bit.

Over on the side stage in between the main acts, we heard short sets from Ray Donato (seemed like a lot of noise to me) and Bicycle Tricycle, who played some nicely distorted songs that sounded something like “Nuggets”-era psychedelic folk rock played at the wrong volume.

Mannequin Men, who were recently mentioned on the Entertainment Weekly Web site as a band to watch, charged through some of their great punk/garage rock at the end of the night, but I was still recovering from SXSW and feeling sleepy. Did not make it through all of their set, though what I heard this time was enough to confirm my opinion that these guys are one of the better young bands in Chicago right now.

Photos from a Million Tongues event.

Human Highway and Handsome Furs

I’m here in Austin now for SXSW, but before I get too immersed in all the madness, I’m catching up on a couple of concerts I saw over the weekend. Both of these bands would be on my list of groups to see at SXSW if I hadn’t seen them in Chicago already. Human Highway, a Canadian duo featuring Nick Thorburn of Islands and Jim Guthrie), played Saturday night at the Empty Bottle, putting a real ’60s flair into their harmony-heavy pop songs. The group’s debut CD, Moody Motorcycle, has been getting a lot of spins this year on my stereo. Check out Human Highway’s song “The Sound” here.

Photos of Human Highway.

I was back at the Bottle Sunday night to see another Canadian duo, the Handsome Furs, who released one of my favorite 2007 albums, Plague Park. Don Boeckner (who’s also in Wolf Parade) cranks out tuneful songs on his electric guitar and sings with gusto while his wife, Alexi Perry, rocks her drum machine and tiny electronic keyboard. And she does rock it. The tension between the rock guitar and the electronic beats really drives this duo’s music. And you don’t have to be a fan of most electronic music to appreciate what Boeckner and Perry are up to. I’ve been delinquent in getting the new CD by the Handsome Furs, Face Control, but I heard a lot of performed live Sunday night, and the songs just vibrant. Boeckner and Perry pour everything into their live performances, and they seemed genuinely and pleasantly surprised by the very enthusiastic response they received from an audience of adoring Chicago fans.

Photos of the Handsome Furs.

Deer Tick and Future Clouds

Concerts feel a little strange when you’re there to see one band and everyone else seems to be there for one of the other acts. That was the case Friday (Feb. 20) at the Empty Bottle. I was eager to see Future Clouds and Radar for the first time, having enjoyed the catchy studio recordings by this Austin band. They weren’t headliners, though, and it was obvious that just about everyone was there to see Deer Tick. In fact, a few of the Deer Tick fans were so impatient for the main act that they yelled out some rude comments near the end of the Future Clouds set, casting a sour mood over the whole show for me.

The evening got started with Anni Rossi, who sang and played viola, struggling to be noticed above the loud chattering from the bar. She played only four or five songs, which sounded promising and intriguing, but the Bottle’s crowd noise was a huge distraction.

Future Clouds and Radar, led by former Cotton Mather frontman Robert Harrison, plays power pop with some psychedelic touches, reminding me of artists like XTC and Robyn Hitchcock. As a live band, they were pretty good, but the songs didn’t have quite as much sparkle or power as they should have. The band also needs to work a bit on the pacing of its show. I think the Deer Tick fans started to get restless near the end because Future Clouds was playing a pretty long set for an opening band and taking its time in between songs.

I had completely missed the Deer Tick phenomenon until ending this show, so I was a bit surprised to see how rabidly enthusiastic some of the fans were. Leader John McCauley seemed a bit shocked, too. Maybe he should play in Chicago more often. The crowd sang along with several of Deer Tick’s country and bluegrass-infused rock songs. In spite of the fact that McCauley’s from Rhode Island, his music seemed more like Southern rock. I enjoyed the band’s energy, though I have to wonder why on earth they would choose to close their show with a cover of “La Bamba.”

Photos of Deer Tick, Future Clouds and Radar and Anni Rossi.

A Million Tongues at the Empty Bottle

Steve Krakow, a.k.a. Plastic Crimewave, has many musical activities, ranging from playing in Plastic Crimewave Sound and the various Guitarkestra events, editing, writing and cartooning… and organizing an annual festival of strange psychedelia, folk rock and other stuff at the Empty Bottle called Million Tongues. I think it of sort of like the concert equivalent of the bins at the record stores where you find obscure old vinyl with great songs almost no one has ever heard of.

Friday’s mini-fest was headlined by the classic rock legend Terry Reid – who may be most legendary for turning down a gig as lead singer of Led Zeppelin. The music he ended up making on his own without Zep isn’t nearly as famous, but he clearly has a loyal cult following, as evidenced by the people signing along Friday as he performed gravelly voiced blues rock. And the stellar backup band that came together for this one-off gig was further proof that Reid is well-liked in certain circles: Emmett Kelly on guitar, LeRoy Bach on guitar and organ, David Vandervelde on bass and Ryan Rapsys on drums. The band sounded great, and so did Reid. Let’s hope he enjoyed playing with these lads well enough to do it again sometime.

Second billing went to another English veteran, Mark Fry, and his backup group included Dan Schneider of the venerable local outfit the Singleman Affair. I’d never heard Fry’s music before, but I was instantly enchanted by the lilting sounds of his folk rock. His 1971 record Dreaming With Alice has been described as “acid folk,” and I can see why. This was Fry’s first-ever show in Chicago. Or did Krakow say first-ever show in America? Either way, a belated appearance by a talented songwriter.

Also notable at Friday’s show were English folkie Ellen Mary McGee, whose lovely songs managed to cut through the annoying chatter over at the bar, and the first act of the night, Piss Piss Piss Ono Ono Ono, who made some compelling instrumental rock in a too-short set. Virginia Tate played both guitar and flute in another short set, while Brent Gutzeit and Steven Hess droned ambient-style. The odd group out was Hans Condor, whose head-banging rock seemed a bit like something out of School of Rock – complete with a stage dive out onto an empty audience floor (no one was injured). At least those guys seemed to be having fun.

Photos from the Million Tongues festival.