Hideout SXSW Send Off Party

It’s a March tradition at the Hideout: On the Saturday before the SXSW festival begins in Austin, the club hosts an all-day benefit concert featuring many of the Chicago bands that are heading down to Texas, raising some money to help them cover their travel costs. (They’re not actually getting paid for playing those gigs at SXSW — imagine that.) The lineup was strong this past Saturday (Feb. 9), and I managed to catch the first seven hours of the shindig before I finally bailed — not because the later bands were any less worthy, but just to get some rest.

The afternoon got started with a terrific set by Twin Peaks, a group of guys barely out of high school. I’d noticed them featured in Loud Loop Press’ recent list of 13 local bands to watch in 2013, and the song “Sunken” on their bandcamp page further piqued my interest. They more than lived up to my expectations, bashing out a bunch of catchy songs with some surprisingly Beach Boys-esque harmonies and Television-esque guitar leads.



Judson Claiborne performed lead singer-songwriter Chris Salveter’s folk rock with a muscular, roots-rock vibe, offering an intriguing preview of the group’s forthcoming record, We Have Not Doors You Need Not Keys.


The Congregation filled the stage with brassy, old-fashioned soul music, with occasional blasts of Who-style guitar and drums  as a bonus; the group closed with an unexpected cover of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”


Scott Lucas & the Married Men followed with perhaps the most intense performance of the day, culminating with a searing version of “There Ain’t No Grave (Gonna Hold My Body Down),” filled with some stunning guitar playing by Mr. Lucas.


The Waco Brothers were billed to play next, but it was actually a combination of the Wacos and another group led by Jon Langford, Skull Orchard. As Langford explained, a couple of the usual Waco members were unavailable to play; I presume he was joking when he explained that Tracey Dear was indisposed because of chafing he’d become afflicted with after a nudist adventure in the jungles of Costa Rica. Langford called tonight’s band, which featured Jim Elkington, “Waco Orchard,” and they played a fun set, finishing with Langford throwing his guitar into the arms of drummer Joe Camarillo for the last chord.


For a complete change of pace, Frontier played droning, ominous music in nearly complete darkness, other than a few bright beams of light. It should’ve been louder.


And then the Summer Girlfriends played their sunny girl group tunes, sounding tighter than they did the last time I’d seen them, with at least one brand new song in the set.


There was plenty more ahead — Mahogany, Outer Minds, The Hood Internet — but that was as far as I made it. Good luck to all of these bands at SXSW!

Mountains at the Hideout


Wednesdays are usually a night for jazz and improvisational music at the Hideout. Last Wednesday (Feb. 28), the venue hosted three bands playing instrumental rock music of the sort often called, for lack of a better term, drone. The evening started with Bitchin Bajas, a keyboard/electronics duo comprising Cooper Crane from Cave and Dan Quinlivan from Mahjongg, who got a cool krautrock vibe going by the end of their set. Next up was White/Cream — which is Jeremy Lemos of the band White/Light teaming up with Tim Iseler, joined for this set by the always-inventive Chicago drummer Frank Rosaly. The duo responded to Rosaly’s rhythms as they fashioned subtle electronic patterns.

The headliner was Mountains, the electronics-and-guitars duo of Koen Holtkamp and Brendon Anderegg, who recently released a new album, Centralia, on Thrill Jockey. Live, their music pulsed and washed over the room in waves of chords, a soothing symphony.

(I confess to cheating a bit with some of these photos; the room was dark during the performances, so I captured a few shots of Mountains as they were setting up, before the actual concert began.)

Bitchin Bajas
Bitchin Bajas
Frank Rosaly
Frank Rosaly
White/Cream with Frank Rosaly
White/Cream with Frank Rosaly



Interview Show at the Hideout

Friday (March 5) was the first time I’d caught “The Interview Show” at the Hideout, which is pretty much what you would expect from the name: a talk show taking place right there on the Hideout stage. Mark Bazer’s the host, and on Friday he did a nice job keeping the conversation flowing. The guests on Friday included Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, who’s the Democratic nominee for Cook County Board president. It seemed a little surreal seeing one of Chicago’s leading political candidates this year getting up onto the Hideout stage, but then, a lot of slightly surreal things happen at the Hideout.

The show on Friday also included a funny intro bit featuring Justin Kaufmann, a couple of shows by the Changes, a monologue by actor James Anthony Zoccoli and interviews with author Josh Karp and actors John Mahoney and Robert Belushi (both are appearing in A Life at Northlight Theatre in Skokie). In all, an interesting selection of people and some good conversations.

Photos from the Interview Show.

Retribution Gospel Choir

Alan Sparhawk is best known as the singer and guitarist for Low, a band that plays most of its songs at a slow tempo and hushed volume level, to strangely mesmerizing effect. Low turns up the sound once in a while, but Sparhawk plays just about everything loud with his other band, Retribution Gospel Choir. The “choir” has a new album out on the Sub Pop label, its second record, aptly if not so imaginatively titled 2. And Retribution Gospel Choir came to Chicago Friday night (Feb. 19) for a sold-out show at the Hideout.

This was quite different from a Low concert. Instead of that chilled-out meditative mood, the feeling was all-out rock show. Sparhawk grimaced and flung his hair around as he played one hard-rocking riff and guitar solo after another — and yet, that appealing voice of his still sounded familiar from those old Low records. Bassist Steve Garrington and drummer (plus backup singer) Eric Pollard kept the music moving forward all night.

Retribution Gospel Choir played a lot of the songs off its new album, which is a solid collection of catchy, dare we say, almost mainstream-sounding rock songs. There’s a bit of classic rock in the choir’s formula, but it’s played with such conviction that it never feels like cliché.

Photos of Retribution Gospel Choir.

Robbie Fulks at the Hideout

Robbie Fulks, one of Chicago’s most talented and most entertaining musicians, is playing at the Hideout every Monday night in February. After missing week one of Fulks’ residency, I caught his performance last night, an evening of lovely duets with another terrific Chicago singer, Nora O’Connor. The two sat on chairs and played acoustic guitars, with Fulks’ fingers plucking fast runs of bluegrass notes while O’Connor played rhythm chords. O’Connor’s no slouch on guitar, as evidenced by her playing in the Blacks, but she was modest about her abilities Monday. At one point, when Fulks said, “Take it, Nora!” she responded with a sarcastic, “Please!

Fulks and O’Connor played some old-timey bluegrass and gospel tunes, such as “The Lost Indian” and Flatt and Scrugg’s “Take Me in Your Lifeboat.” Of course, they played some of their own songs as well — a couple of recent Fulks songs and a couple of oldies, plus some of the best tracks off O’Connor’s excellent (and thus far only) solo record, 2004’s Til the Dawn. And some cool covers: Fulks taking the lead on George Jones’ “The Flame In My Heart,” and O’Connor singing M. Ward’s “Helicopter,” Fleetwood Mac’s “That’s Alright” and Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters.” In between songs, Fulks was as funny as ever with his stage banter.

As Fulks remarked, how can you go wrong with two people playing acoustic guitars and singing? Well, actually, that sort of thing can go wrong, but that’s not likely to happen with these two. Each of them made the other’s songs feel more complete.

Fulks continues his Hideout residency on Feb. 15 with a string trio. On Feb. 22, he’ll have his full band playing with him. The shows start at 7 p.m., and the suggested donation for admission is $10. www.hideoutchicago.com www.robbiefulks.com

Photos of Robbie Fulks and Nora O’Connor.

Hideout helps out Haiti

You can always count on the Hideout to get behind a good cause. Within days after a devastating earthquake struck Haiti, the Hideout put together a benefit show to raise money. Two of Chicago’s stalwart bands, Eleventh Dream Day and the Waco Brothers, played rousing sets Monday at the club, raising almost $8,000 for Partners in Health. Sally Timms of the Mekons was one of the key organizers of the event, which also featured a bake sale and a bake sale organized by My Vegetable Blog and a poster sale by Kathleen Judge of Judgeworks. If you didn’t make it to the sold-out show, you can still help out by buying one of the posters shown here. (Poster sale proceeds will go to Doctors Without Borders and Partners and Health.)

Eleventh Dream Day played first, delivering the sort of hard-charging rock we’ve come to expect — including three songs that have not yet been released, “Satellite,” “More Than Luck” and a tune with the phrase “Fades Away” in the chorus. All sounded like they’ll be great additions to the EDD catalogue — whenever the band gets around to recording them. It was also cool to hear EDD playing music from its classic album Beet.

The Waco Brothers did their thing, and they did it very well. They’re easy to take for granted, since they play so often and since they make it all look so easy, but they’re about as much fun to watch as any group in Chicago. Hideout owner Tim Tuten was absent (working at his day job in Washington, D.C.), but Jon Langford read a few text messages from Tim aloud to simulate a classic Tuten introduction. And then the Wacos kicked their way through several of their best-known tunes and favorite covers, including Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues,” the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law,” T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” and the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks.” Bassist Alan Doughty accidentally knocked out the venue’s trademark Christmas lights, which adorn the ceiling, when the lights got tangled up in his bass. Near the end of the show, Langford asked the crowd, “How late do you want us to play? We’ve got to wake up early and overthrow the government.”

My Gold Mask at the Hideout

My Gold Mask makes a lot of sound without much gear. The Chicago duo is Gretta Rochelle (who sings while she plays the drums, standing up) and Jack Armondo (who plays a nylon-string guitar, cranking it up much louder than a classical guitarist ever would). The two of them headlined at the Hideout on Saturday night (Jan. 9), selling out the place and filling the room with some enthusiastic fans.

Rochelle and Armondo sounded vibrant as they played songs from a new EP, A Thousand Voices, as well as their self-titled debut from last year — and one cover, Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes.” The two of them are clearly having fun as they perform, and the fun is pretty catchy. One highlight was the new song, “Violet Eyes,” which features some cool effects on the guitar and call-and-response vocals.

At the end of the set, My Gold Mask returned to the stage for one more song, naïvely asking, “Can we play another?” (Of course you can, guys!) It was apparently the first time My Gold Mask has ever had the chance to do an encore. It won’t be the last.

The first act of the night was also quite impressive. Violetness is a female singer-songwriter from Chicago. Doesn’t even have a record out yet. She’s working on an EP, and she has a couple of songs posted at www.myspace.com/violetnessmusic. (Of the two posted tracks, the one I like is “Perfect Love Flow.”) In concert, she was accompanied by a drummer and a cellist, and she played keyboards on some of the songs. In enjoyed the minimal arrangements. Her first song was just singing and drumming, which reminded me a bit of what the Swedish duo Wildbirds & Peacedrums does. Violetness has a strong voice, and she sometimes sings with a throaty tone and a jazzy swagger, with maybe a touch of Nina Simone. I can’t wait to hear what she does in the studio.

Another Chicago act, the Bitter Tears, played in between Violetness and My Gold Mask. The Bitter Tears are rather hard to categorize, a bit alt-country and a bit … glam? Well, maybe I just think glam rock when I see how they dress. The Tears like to put on makeup and outrageous outfits. The main singer was in drag Saturday night, with white makeup smeared all over his face, horror-movie-style. Tasteless jokes and provocative remarks were part of the Bitter Tears’ stage shtick. This is a band that likes to push people’s buttons. The music wasn’t bad, but it was overwhelmed by the spectacle.

Flat Five at the Hideout

The words “cover band” are usually a sort of insult in the world of rock critics. You wanna be a respected band? You’d better have some original songs. But that attitude overlooks a great tradition of musicians and singers interpreting songs written by other folks. That’s the lifeblood of classic jazz and the “American Songbook” sort of pop music.

So let’s call the Flat Five a fabulous bunch of song interpreters instead of labeling them a cover band. The Flat Five play only once a year (at least, that’s been the case during the last few years), and Friday was the night. Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, KC McDonough and Gerald Dowd reconvened this wonderful music outfit and performed their annual show at the Hideout.

The first songs of the night had a strong country and folk flavor, including tunes by Dolly Parton, Tom Paxton and the Louvin Brothers — and the Monkees’ “What Am I Doing Hanging Around.” This part of the concert featured just Ligon and Hogan on the stage, just the sound of their voices and Ligon’s acoustic guitar (which he was playing into a mike instead of using a cable into an amp). The other members of the Flat Five gradually joined them on stage. When Nora O’Connor came up, she and Hogan sang some of the tunes they used to do in a gospel duo called the Lamentations, such as the Staple Singers’ “Somebody Saved Me.” (Hogan mentioned that the two of them had just been recording some music with Mavis Staples — can’t wait to hear that!)

Ligon and McDonough did their best Roy Orbisons on a duet of “In Dreams.” And then, with the full band playing, the Flat Five ran through an amazing selection of wonderful songs from all sorts of genres, including the goofy “Kites Are Fun” by the Free Design, “Sundays Will Never Be the Same” by Spanky and Our Gang, “This Will Be Our Year” by the Zombies and “Vanishing Girl” by the Dukes of Stratosphear. Plus three Beach Boys songs, Randy Newman’s “Caroline” and a few original songs by McDonough, Ligon (and Ligon’s brother, Chris).

The song selection showed superb taste — and a great ear for what makes a classic pop song. And what voices! There’s nothing like hearing the natural sound of lovely voices harmonizing right in front of you. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait a whole year for the next appearance of the Flat Five.

Photos of the Flat Five.

Jay Bennett Tribute at the Hideout

Sunday (Nov. 15) was the birthday of Jay Bennett, the talented musician who died earlier this year. His friends celebrated his life and music with a show Sunday night at the Hideout. It’s been months since Jay died, but the sorrow still feels fresh. Hearing folks like Edward Burch, LeRoy Bach, Steve Frisbie, the Dolly Varden band, Brad Elvis, John Peacock and Quartet Parapluie playing songs written by Bennett — or in some cases, songs by other people that he loved — it was hard for me not to get choked up.

I regret missing the first part of the show (I was at the opening night of House Theatre’s delightfully surreal Mark Guarino play with Jon Langford songs, All the Fame of Lofty Deeds), but I showed up in time to hear Quartet Parapluie’s exquisite string arrangements of “Songs That Weren’t Finished” and “Venus Stopped the Train.”

Burch was half of the Bennett and Burch duo that recorded The Palace at 4am (Part I), my favorite post-Wilco Bennett record, so it seemed appropriate that Burch was the focal point of this show, organizing it and functioning as emcee. Many of the performers shared stories about their experiences with Bennett, which added an element of humor to an evening that might otherwise have been unbearably sad.

A bunch of the musicians came together onstage at the end of the night, playing really nice, spirited versions of some of the best songs off Palace, including “Puzzle Heart,” “Talk to Me,” “Whispers or Screams,” “Shakin’ Sugar,” “Drinking on Your Dime” and “My Darlin’,” which slid into a cover of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity,” with everyone singing along. The last song of the night was one of the best-known tunes Bennett co-wrote with Jeff Tweedy, using lyrics by Woody Guthrie, the classic “California Stars.” Hearing this string of great songs, it became painfully clear what a great talent we’ve lost.

Photos from the Jay Bennett tribute.

Daniell, McCombs and Rose

Chicago musicians David Daniell and Doug McCombs have teamed up for a beautiful new album on the Thrill Jockey label called Sycamore. This is the sound of two guitarists playing off each other, building lovely sonic sculptures. There are touches of jazz rhythm, some ambient texture and dramatic rock flourishes, but it’s really uncategorizable instrumental music. Daniell and McCombs played a CD release party Thursday (Sept. 24) at the Hideout, but unlike the typical CD release party, these guys weren’t just playing songs from their new album. The music seems to be part composed, part improvised, so what we heard Thursday night was one continuous performance without any pauses, featuring all three drummers on the album. John Herndon (who plays in Tortoise with McCombs) drummed during the opening part of the show, then Steven Hess sat down at a second drum kit. For a few minutes, Herndon and Hess played together, then Herndon got up and let Hess take over. A similar transition happened later when Frank Rosaly took over on drums. Each drummer brought his own style to the mix of sounds, as Daniell and McCombs dueted, interweaving the sounds of their two guitars.
Thrill Jockey is offering a free download of the Daniell-McCombs track “F# song.”

The opening act, Jack Rose, was well worth seeing in his own right, playing some very impressive solo acoustic guitar compositions. Rose plucked fast arpeggio chord patterns, but his songs were anchored by slower, more distinctive melodies, sometimes played on a single string. It made for some hypnotic listening.

Photos of David Daniell and Doug McCombs and Jack Rose.

Bloodshot Party at the Hideout

This year’s Hideout Block Party, which took place Saturday (Sept. 12), was scaled down from the two-stage, two- or three-day festivals of the last few years. It seemed almost like a return to the old days, when the Hideout hosted an annual party out on Wabansia Street in front of the bar. And the theme of this year’s festival was the 15th anniversary of Bloodshot Records, an alt-country record label whose artists have played at the Hideout many times over the years. It was beautiful, sunny day — some of the best weather Chicago’s had all summer — and a perfect time to celebrate two great Chicago institutions, the Hideout and Bloodshot.

I showed up just in time to hear the last song by the Sanctified Grumblers, a new acoustic-blues outfit featuring Rick Sherry of Devil in the Woodpile. Then came three of the Mekons — Jon Langford, Sally Timms and Rico Bell — doing a casual acoustic set. A reunion set by the Blacks was one of the big draws for me, and these guys sounded as good as they ever have. This may have been the last time we’ll see the Blacks for a while, though one can always wish.

Bobby Bare Jr. delivered the goods with his set, which featured a strong band including David Vandervelde on guitar and a quick run-through of Bare’s best songs as well as a cover of America’s “I Need You.” (!) Like most of the performers on Saturday, Bare thanked Bloodshot for everything the label has done. Or as he put it, “I’d like to thank Bloodshoot for putting up with all my bullshit … and making us feel like big shots in Chicago. Why are all you people staring at me? I don’t understand. Do I owe you money?”

Moonshine Willy was the band that started it all for Bloodshot Records, and the group reunited for its first show in 10 years Saturday, playing some old-timey country-folk.

The least country-sounding band of the day was next, Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, who have a fine new record coming out this week called …And the Horse You Rode In On. This “choir” is from Chicago, but as its name indicates, it’s a very British-sounding band, with lots of influence from Belle and Sebastian, the Smiths and other UK pop geniuses. Elia Einhorn’s lyrics are almost amusingly frank on the new CD, and he sprinkles in several Chicago-specific references. SYGC was lively on Saturday, bouncing through a set of lovely pop ditties. (I’m using “ditties” in the best sense of the term.)

Scott H. Biram calls himself a one-man band, but he’s basically a guy who plays the blues on acoustic guitar and cranks up everything really loud and dirty-sounding. A little bit of Biram goes a long way for me, but I see that he made some new fans Saturday. He was followed by the Deadstring Brothers, who sound a lot like the Rolling Stones doing country-rock in the “Dead Flowers” era. This Detroit group’s lineup has changed a bit since the time I saw them a few years back, and I wish they’d played more of the songs I know from that era, but it still sounded pretty strong.

I was really impressed with the set by Alejandro Escovedo. I’ve admired his music for several years without fully joining the Escovedo cult, but after Saturday night’s riveting performance, I can see why he inspires such fervent worship in some fans. During the first few songs of the set, his band blended rock with chamber strings in a driving style that isn’t typically for orchestral pop, and I loved the way Escovedo roamed the stage, staring intently at the various musicians as they were soloing. Thanking Bloodshot, Escovedo remarked, “They gave me a break when I couldn’t buy one.”

Was there any way the party could have ended other than a set by the Waco Brothers, replete with leg kicks, guest singers (Rico Bell and Escovedo), rocking covers of songs like “I Fought the Law” and the Wacos’ most rollicking hits? I don’t think so. The party really felt like a party.

Nina Nastasia at the Hideout

Singer-songwriter Nina Nastasia spent a couple of nights earlier this week (July 26 and 27) playing at the Hideout in Chicago, recording the shows for a planned live album. I was there on Sunday night, and it was an excellent, intimate show. Nastasia was sitting on a chair (elevated a bit above the Hideout’s normal stage) with her acoustic guitar, while a violin and viola player added chamber-music accompaniment that ranged from delicate to dramatic. It was a lovely setting for Nastasia’s songs — and an interesting contrast to the acoustic-guitar-plus-jazzy-drums arrangements on the album she did a couple of years about with Jim White. At times, Nastasia sang with a touch of that lonesome sound you hear in old-time country music. In other passages, she delivered her words with the timing of a jazz singer or a storytelling vibe.

The opening act on Sunday was Paletazo (a.k.a. Chicago singer-songwriter Chris Hansen), who played straight-up folk rock. (The live set sounded a lot less raw than the songs at www.myspace.com/paletazosongs.) The music sounded especially good when 1900s member (and Hideout concert booker) Jeanine O’Toole joined in on harmony vocals for a few songs.

Photos of Nina Nastasia and Paletazo. (I did not take a whole lot of photos at this show, since it was so quiet and I didn’t want the clicking of my camera to show up on that live recording or disturb the ambience.)

Magnolia Electric Co. at the Hideout

The new album by Magnolia Electric Co., Josephine, doesn’t come out until next week (July 21, to be precise), but the band was in Chicago this past weekend for a couple of shows. What’s with all the bands touring lately before their records are available? The assumption seems to be that the fans are going to hear advance copies anyway… Or maybe the bands see it as a good way to introduce their new material. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, you can usually buy copies of the new CDs and LPS at the merch table at these concerts, even if the albums aren’t officially available yet. And buying music straight from the band at the merch table seems like the surest way of putting money right into the musicians’ pockets. The prices are usually reasonable, too — $10 or less is the regular going price for CDs. I did pick up a copy of Josephine Sunday night (July 12) at the Hideout, and so far, it seems like an excellent addition to the Magnolia Electric Co. repertoire.

It’s too bad Chicago can’t quite claim that MECo (to use the common abbreviation for this band) is a local group any longer. Singer-songwriter-frontman Jason Molina used to live in Andersonville, and I once had the pleasure of interviewing him during an afternoon visit to Simon’s Tap. Lately, he’s been living in London, but thankfully he does make it back here once in a while to play gigs.

Sunday night’s show followed a gig on the previous night at Schubas, which I missed. The Hideout performance was very, very solid, with Molina and his Hoosier bandmates ripping through a fair number of new songs as well as old classics like “Riding With the Ghost.” I may have said this before on this blog, but I think that’s really one of the great songs of the last decade. From what I could tell from eyeing the guitar frets during this performance, Molina & Co. are playing it in a somewhat lower key than the studio version, which I have blundered my way through on acoustic guitar a few times. Guitarist Jason Evans Groth’s leads and solos on the rendition Sunday night were absolutely blazing, which more than made up for the fact that the band plays this song live without the female vocals that you hear on the studio version.

Josephine is a being billed as a concept album, “an honest-to-God effort on the part of Magnolia Electric Co. to pay tribute to the life and spirit” of the band’s former bassist, Evan Farrell, who died in late 2007. But it’s not a straightforward record about Farrell. Rather, it is filled with references to the woman in the title. I’m still making sense of how the lyrics in this song cycle fit together, but it’s suffused with longing and a sense of loss, topics that Molina has sung about before. In concert, the words sounded sincere, and so did the singing sound of those guitars.

An mp3 from the new Magnolia Electric Co. record, “Sad Little Eyes,” is available for download here.

The show had two opening acts. Sally Timms played another set similar to the one I wrote about recently at Schubas, backed once again by the subtle and pretty sounds of Mar Caribe. (www.myspace.com/marcaribemusic)

The first act of the evening was a cool discovery: Elephant Micah, will calls itself “an imaginary band since 2000.” Based in Bloomington, Ind., this is another one of those indie bands that basically started out as the recording project of one individual — in this case, Joe O’Connell. For this Hideout show, however, Elephant Micah seemed more like an actual folk-rock ensemble, playing some very quiet and gentle songs that had the audience silently spellbound. I later bought the Elephant Micah CD Hindu Windmill at the merch table. It’s very lo-fi — the sort of recording that includes the sound of the tape-recorder being turned off at the end of songs. The intimacy of it reminds me of the first recordings by Great Lake Swimmers. I’m excited to hear what Elephant Micah records in the future with the full band.

Photos of Magnolia Electric Co., Sally Timms and Elephant Micah.

Concert round-up

I’ve posted photos from several concerts lately without any comment here. Back on June 24, Robert Gomez, a singer-songwriter from Denton, Texas, performed a nice show of melancholy folk rock with a bit of a psychedelic edge at Schubas. It was sparsely attended, but I enjoyed the intimate feeling of the show. Chicago’s Rock Falls played an opening set of charming songs, including some ukulele strumming. Photos of Robert Gomez and Rock Falls.

I wrote earlier about how great the Feelies were on June 29 at Millennium Park. They were just one of three bands that I saw at the park’s Pritzker Pavilion. In addition to all of the great evening concerts, the park is also hosting free performances at noon every day this summer, including some rock shows in a series called “Edible Audible.” It’s not always easy for me to get downtown at noon, but I was there on June 29 for a show by Black Moth Super Rainbow. Normally, I’m not too thrilled with bands that run all of their vocals through the tired electronic effect known as the Vocoder. Black Moth does this, but somehow, I like this brand of Vocoder music better than most other electronic music. I think it’s because it feels trippy and psychedelic, with some catchy melodies. Photos of Black Moth Super Rainbow.

Back at the Pritzker that evening, Chicago’s Icy Demons were the opening act for the Feelies. I rather like this band and the CD that it put out last year, Miami Ice. Icy Demons mix some elements from 1970 prog rock with dance rhythms. I got the feeling that the band wore out its welcome at this show, since Feelies fans were so eager for the main act, but it was still pretty enjoyable. Photos of Icy Demons.

The Chicago ensemble DRMWPN (pronounced “dream weapon”) released one of my favorite records so far this year, Bright Blue Galilee, but good luck finding it. It’s a very limited edition on vinyl of a concert recording from 2007. DRMWPN basically plays a droning chord for about 40 minutes at every show, creating a meditative atmosphere. The group came together July 1 for another beautiful performance at the Chopin Theatre. Ostensible leader Jim Dorling had some trouble getting the group’s Dream Machine to work. That’s the light with the spinning cover that sets the perfect mood at DRMWPN concerts. After a few minutes of playing with the device, he finally got it spinning, and the music began drifting into place. Photos of DRMWPN, Ultimate Vag and 500MG.

Oumou Sangaré, a singer from Mali, put on a rousing show July 2 at the Pritzker Pavilion. She came across as a vibrant personality, and her large band kept the music going at a lively pace all night. It did not take long for a large group of fans to rush to the front part of the pavilion, and after that, it was a non-stop dance party. Photos of Oumou Sangaré.

Last year, Christian Kiefer, J. Matthew Gerken, Jefferson Pitcher and assorted guest singers put out a three-CD set called Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies. It does in fact include one song for each president, and after Barack Obama won last year’s election, these musicians released a follow-up song with Will Johnson of Centro-matic on lead vocals, “44. Barack Obama (Someone to Wake).” I played that song a lot last fall after the election. (You can download it for free here.) The trio of singer-songwriters who put this whole project together played July 3 at the Hideout and July 4 at Taste of Chicago. I caught the Hideout show, which featured one of the local musicians who performs on the CD — Steve Dawson of Dolly Varden signing about Lyndon B. Johnson — and several musicians doing interpretations of the songs. The Singleman Affair did great psychedelic-folk-rock versions of the songs about John Quincy Adams and Jimmy Carter. The Bitter Tears, dressed like decadent hillbillies, sang about Zachary Taylor. The Gunshy, Sin Ropas, Jeff Harms, Tim Rutili and Tim Kinsella also performed, and of course, Jon Langford was there — singing about Ronald Reagan. Hideout co-owner Tim Tuten (back in town from Washington) emceed the whole shindig, and his rambling and improvised intro to the Reagan was a humorous highlight. The concert featured about half of the songs from the 3-CD collection, ending with the soothing sing-along chorus of the Obama song: “Everything will be all right.” Photos of 44 Songs for 44 Presidents.

Do-Division and Cass McCombs

The summer street-festival season is now officially on in Chicago. And that means you’ll have lots of opportunities to see some great music for next to nothing out in the open air. (Some not-so-great music, too, but there’s so much good stuff, let’s not complain too much about the stuff we don’t like.) In fact, between these street festivals and all of the cool concerts planned at Millennium Park, you can practically fill your whole music calendar this summer without spending more than a few bucks here and there.

The Do-Division Festival, which featured music programmed by the Empty Bottle, had a strong schedule both days this past weekend. I missed the fest on Saturday, but from what I hear, the Handsome Furs and Viva Voce put on rocking sets. On Sunday night (May 31), I caught the Do-Division sets by White Rabbits and Menomena. Both bands make creative use of keyboards and percussion. White Rabbits remind me a bit of Spoon, so it seems appropriate that Spoon’s main man, Britt Daniel, produced the group’s latest record, It’s Frightening. I’m just getting used to that record, and so far, my favorite track is a mostly mellow song called “Company I Keep,” and that was one of my faves at the concert, too. The Rabbits kept most of their songs rollicking along thanks to all that drumming and percussion.

I wasn’t sure how much of a following Menomena has, but judging from the size of the crowd and the way people reacted to songs, clearly showing their familiarity with the tunes, I guess they are getting popular. At least, on a cult band level. If I’m not mistaken, all of the songs they played were from their 2007 record Friend or Foe. It seems like it’s just about time for a record with some fresh material, but it was still just fine and dandy to hear the indelible songs from that album once again. All three members of the band sing at various times, and while there is some guitar, the sound is anchored more in drums, bass, keyboards and the occasional sax. Menomena has its own distinctive sound, although at moments the trio reminds me of Mercury Rev or the Flaming Lips. Those 2007 songs are holding up really, really well after two years of listening… Now, how about for some new ones?

Photos of White Rabbits and Menomena.

After Do-Division wrapped up, I headed over to the Hideout, where Cass McCombs was headlining. It turned out to be one of those great nights at the Hideout when all sorts of things happen. First of all, it was nice to see Hideout co-owner Tim Tuten back in town, even if he was just here for a weekend break from his new job working for Education Secretary Arne Duncan. There Tim was, back in his old confines, helping his wife, Katie, set up tables and chairs in the music room and holding forth on the stage in a plaid shirt. Seemed like old times.

The evening at the Hideout got off to a good start with country rock by Rachel Eve. Her voice and melodies sounded nice, especially when the band rocked a little bit behind her. Then came the trustworthy local troubadour, Judson Claiborne, with a strong set of his original songs. In between the musical acts, there was some Andy Kaufman-esque comedy. A highlight was the strange performance of a “band” called Relevant Hairstyles actually just a monologue about describing a band that did not actually play. The bit had some brilliant moments.

Cass McCombs, who had a terrific album called Dropping the Writ a couple of years ago, is getting ready to release a new CD, and he mixed old and new songs in his set. Those Writ tunes are the ones that really grabbed me, but a couple of the new ones sounded great, too. Cass brought his own lights, which cast a sort of shifting techno-glow onto the stage, a bit odd in the honky-tonk environs of the Hideout, and he went over to the venue’s old piano for a couple of songs. Overall, it was a good show in an intimate venue by an artist who seems like he’s destined for bigger things.

Photos of Cass McCombs, Rachel Eve, Judson Claiborne and Relevant Hairstyles.

Random weekend scenes

FRIDAY, APRIL 24: Alas, I missed Neko Case at the Chicago Theatre. Well, since I’ve already seen her around 10 times, I suppose it’s not that great of a tragedy to miss her this time. But that new album of hers, Middle Cyclone, has really grown on me. I still think it’s not the equal of her terrific previous CD, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, but it will certainly end up as one of 2009’s best records.

So, instead of luxuriating in Neko’s siren vocals, I went Friday night to see ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL at the Music Box. I really knew nothing about Anvil, a heavy-metal band that briefly seemed to be on the verge of stardom in the 1980s. But knowing about Anvil or being a headbanger is beside the point with this documentary, which is one of the best films ever made about what it’s like to be in a struggling band year after year. As other people have pointed out, Anvil is a bit like a real-life This Is Spinal Tap, but even though you laugh at some of the misadventures of these Canadian rockers, you also feel for them. It’s a surprisingly touching film.

The band Anvil was at Friday night’s screening, answering some audience questions afterward. Guitarist-singer Steve “Lips” Kudlow acknowledged that some people come to see the movie for the laughs (as someone in the crowd said). “Let’s face it,” he said. “There’s no way around it. It’s somewhat of a Trojan horse.” Kudlow said the band gave the director, Sacha Gervasi, unfettered access to their lives because he was already a friend and a fan. That complete access shows in this marvelous and honest rock ‘n’ roll movie.

I stopped by THE HIDEOUT after the movie and caught the first jazz set of the night. The Immediate Sound series, which is normally on Wednesdays, was celebrating its third anniversary with shows on Friday and Saturday. It was a little odd seeing a completely different crowd at the Hideout from the folks I usually see hanging out there. The performance was being recorded, so a “no talking” rule was in effect, and the audience did watch and listen intently as Ken Vandermark and Ab Baars dueted with a variety of wind instruments. At times, they made almost ear-splitting and atonal noise of feverish intensity, but I enjoyed their improvisations most when the tones were more mellow and meditative.

SATURDAY, APRIL 25: This was the final day of an exhibit of EDVARD MUNCH’S paintings and prints at the Art Institute of Chicago. I took a stroll through the galleries before the art disappeared. Munch’s Scream has been practically ruined by kitschy merchandising of the image, but his art remains haunting. The pictures that linger in my mind are those men and women connected or nearly connected by strands of hair. The hair is saying things the people cannot bring themselves to say.

For the first time ever, THROBBING GRISTLE played in Chicago Saturday night. This was yet another show originally scheduled at the Epiphany church then moved to Logan Square Auditorium. Unfortunately, just as the line of ticket holders slowly made its way up the stairs into the venue, a cold downpour drenched the Throbbing Gristle faithful. I had a ticket for the early show, but not the late concert, and in retrospect I should have seen both. The late show featured the band playing various songs. The early show was a live performance of Throbbing Gristle’s soundtrack to the experimental Derek Jarman film In the Shadow of the Sun. The four musicians sat at computers while the movie played (computers that they obviously did not have in the early stages of their career), making loud, pulsating waves of sound — a good match for the abstracted images melting into one another on the screen.

The Love Language at the Hideout

The Love Language, a band from North Carolina, was one of the acts I hoped to catch last month at SXSW after hearing the group’s dandy pop track “Lalita.” I missed these guys when I was in Austin, but got another shot at seeing them last night, when they played at Chicago’s Hideout. It was a good set, and although the room could have accommodated more fans, the ones who were there were pretty enthusiastic. At times, the Love Language reminds me a bit of the Walkmen, but there’s more of a ’60s pop vibe to their songs, although with some Southern touches, naturally due to the band’s North Carolina origins. (Maybe a touch of alt-country, but nothing remotely like stereotypical Southern rock, though.) Singer-guitarist Stuart McLamb is clearly the band’s focal point, though the two female keyboard players helped a lot to liven up the show with their occasional dancing stints on tambourine.


The opening act was Mazes, a new Chicago band featuring a couple of the fine musicians already making excellent music in another group, the 1900s — Edward Anderson and Caroline Donovan — along with Charles D’Autremont. Mazes play ’60s-style rock, not that far afield from what the 1900s are doing, but less orchestral-sounding.


Photos of the Love Language and Mazes.

Andrew Bird at the Hideout

It wasn’t long ago that Andrew Bird played at little clubs like the Hideout, but lately he’s been getting popular enough to draw big crowds at places like Millennium Park and to book a concert tour at opera houses. So it was something of a rare opportunity to see him playing last night (Dec. 15) back inside the comfy confines of his hometown Hideout.

This show and one on the previous night were announced quietly just a week ago, a sort of holiday surprise from the Hideout. As Bird explained from the stage, these last-minute shows happened when he discovered he needed to shoot a video for the song “Fitz and Dizzy” from his forthcoming CD. Bird and his band, along with Mucca Pazza, spent much of the day filming in and around the Hideout, and then the video crew filmed two performances of the tune during last night’s concert, with the Mucca Pazza marching-bands folks playing amidst the crowd.

The show included every song from the new album, with Bird apologizing a few times for the fact that the band is still learning how to play the songs. There were a few glitches when Bird’s looping pedals did not work as planned as always with Bird concerts, such imperfections only draw your attention to all the craft that goes into constructing this music. The new songs sounded nice, not too drastic a departure from Bird’s previous two records if my ears weren’t deceiving me, but it’ll take a while to absorb them fully. Bird sprinkled a few oldies into the set, including “Imitosis” and the encore “Tables and Chairs.” And although it isn’t on the set list I photographed, he also threw in “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left.”

Dosh (a.k.a. Martin Dosh) performed a brilliantly creative opening set of his own sequenced, looping music, in addition to playing drums and keyboards for Bird.

Photos of Andrew Bird and Dosh.

Sadies, Flat Five and Dream Day

Recapping a few shows from the past week…

The Sadies were back in town Thursday (Dec. 4) for a show at Schubas, kicking off a tour with the estimable Tim Easton as opening act. The Sadies don’t have a new record out (not since releasing my favorite album of 2007, New Seasons), so we didn’t get any new songs, but there were plenty of great old tunes – something like 30, I think, if you include all those short instrumentals they ripped through. As always, the Good brothers were simply amazing on their guitars, and I took special notice this time that Travis was playing without any effects pedals at all, and Dallas had just a couple of rudimentary pedals. Further proof that you don’t need a lot of special effects to make the guitar sing. Highlights included covers of “A House is Not a Hotel” by Love and “Shake Some Action” by the Flaming Groovies. Easton put on a good show, too, playing solo acoustic (over chatty crowd noise) and mentioning that he has an album coming out in the spring with more of a rock sound.

Photos of the Sadies and Tim Easton.

Friday night (Dec. 5) marked the return of the Flat Five, a sort of local super group combining the talents of Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, KC McDonough and Gerald Dowd in an idiosyncratic cover band. Well, it’s mostly covers. They play a few originals, but it’s largely old pop, country, jazz, psychedelic and standard songs they clearly love. Their voices blend into truly lovely harmonies, and they have a knack for picking the sort of terrific tunes that a die-hard record collector loves. I stayed for both the early and late shows at the Hideout, and heard them doing everything from Spanky & Our Gang to the Dukes of Stratosphear, Rutles and Hoagy Carmichael. These are some special musicians who rarely put our records. You really have to catch them live to see what they’re all about.

Photos of the Flat Five.

I was back at the Hideout on Sunday (Dec. 7) for a show benefitting Goldie’s Place, an organization that helps the homeless get jobs. The show featured Jon Langford playing solo, followed by Eleventh Dream Day, and Eleventh Dream Day combining with Langford and Sally Timms for several Mekons and Three Johns songs. It was a lively affair, with a couple of strong new songs by Eleventh Dream Day (new album coming soon, guys? Let’s hope…), sloppy but fun renditions of those barely rehearsed Mekons songs and tighter performances of the Three Johns songs. All for a good cause.

Photos of Eleventh Dream Day with Jon Langford and Sally Timms.