Woods, Real Estate & Netherfriends

The New York band known as Woods was back in Chicago last night (Monday) for another fine jam session. After playing last year at the Empty Bottle, Woods and opening act Real Estate nearly filled a bigger venue this time, Lincoln Hall.

As in past Woods performances I’ve seen, vocalist/guitarist Jeremy Earl sang in a creaky falsetto reminiscent of Neil Young or maybe Canned Heat, while letting loose some wonderfully shambling electric guitar solos. Meanwhile, G. Lucas Crane is kneeling as he plays old cassette tapes, twiddling knobs, doing who knows what with the sounds coming out of the tapes, and singing into what looks like a set of headphones. When Woods stretched out its tunes, it rocked in a way that felt spontaneous and unpracticed. Despite sustained applause at the end of the concert, Woods did not come out for an encore.

The middle band on Monday’s bill, Real Estate, has been getting some buzz with its recent self-titled debut. The music’s very unassuming: nicely constructed little guitar pop songs, with just a touch of 1960s chamber pop or psychedelia. It all came across well in concert, although the laid-back Real Estate guys could stand to show a little more energy and enthusiasm.

Chicago trio Netherfriends started out the evening, playing songs from its debut EP. At times, Netherfriends sounded like White Rabbits (when keyboards were the dominant instrument), but more often the band went for an Animal Collective sort of vibe, with heavy rhythms and overlapping musical motifs. If anything, the percussion was a bit too aggressive in this live performance, but this band has some potential.

Photos of Woods, Real Estate and Netherfriends.

Efterklang at Lincoln Hall

The Danish band Efterklang makes music that’s both alluring and somewhat elusive. I especially liked Efterklang’s 2007 record Parades, the sort of album that grows on you after repeated listens, revealing more layers. Efterklang’s new CD, Magic Chairs, sounds perhaps a little more straightforward, though it’s a far cry from boilerplate pop music.

Efterklang played a warmly glowing set of its new and old songs Monday (March 8) at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall (a venue that these touring Danes seemed to find a little strange, for some reason). Lead vocalists Casper Clausen spent most of the concert holding drumsticks, adding a second layer of percussion to the main drumming. The rest of the band was arrayed in a semi-circle behind Clausen and bassist Rasmus Stolberg, playing an ever-shifting mix of keyboards, flute, trumpet and guitar.

In addition to six songs from Magic Chairs, Efterklang played a few of the great tracks from Parades (“Mirador,” “Blowing Lungs Like Bubbles” and “Cutting Ice to Snow”) and two songs from Efterklang’s first album, Tripper (“Step Aside” and “Chapter 6”).

Photos of Efterklang.

Nouvelle Vague at Lincoln Hall

The idea behind the band Nouvelle Vague is to play songs from the new wave and early punk era like bossa nova or Brazilian lounge music, with sexy French ladies handling the vocals. Nouvelle Vague (the brainchild of French producers Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux) has recorded some lovely, quirky covers on its three albums, although the whole concept is pretty gimmicky. The shtick wears thin after a while, but it’s enjoyable for a song or two or three.

The touring version of Nouvelle Vague came to Chicago Friday night for a show at Lincoln Hall. And how can you go wrong when you’ve got a couple of sexy French ladies singing cool old songs that we all like? (Well, a lot of like those songs, anyway.) It was fun hearing songs like XTC’s “Making Plans for Nigel,” the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” and Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen in Love?” done up in this style.

The group records in the studio with a revolving cast of singers, but it had just two on tour. I don’t believe they ever got introduced during the show, which seems like a weird oversight. Or maybe they were supposed to be sort of anonymous? I’m told these two were Helena Noguerra and Karina Zeviani. Whoever they were, they did a fine job singing these songs, shaking their hair and striking poses, while the band played light versions of these tunes that used to rock hard. It was quite entertaining for a while, although it was still, in the end, a bit of a gimmick.

Nouvelle Vague was nicely paired with an opening act that sings some songs in French, Clare and the Reasons. As in previous Chicago gigs, this delightful trio delivered cool, jazzy pop music with some funny stage banter and a lot of personality in between the songs. It was too bad to hear that their vehicle was broken into during this visit to Chicago. Hope they don’t get scared off from visiting again soon.

Photos of Nouvelle Vauge and Clare and the Reasons.

UPDATE/CORRECTION: I’m informed that one of the two singers I referred to above as French ladies (Karina Zeviani) is actually Brazilian.

Tomorrow Never Knows

The Tomorrow Never Knows festival got bigger this year. It used to be a series of mid-January concerts at Schubas. This year, it was five nights of shows simultaneously happening at both Schubas and its new sister venue, Lincoln Hall. January is generally not all that exciting of a month on the concert calendar, but the TNK fest brought a good selection of up-and-coming indie-rock bands to Chicago.

I attended two of the shows during the festival. Last Thursday (Jan. 14) at Schubas, the headliners were Surfer Blood, a young band from Florida that’s been getting some buzz lately. I like what I’ve heard of Surfer Blood’s studio recordings. It might be a little too polished and amped up, but the power-pop single “Swim” is pretty darn catchy. The band has inspired some wild comparisons to other groups. Time Out Chicago said they sound like a mix of Asia and Brian Eno. Friends I follow on Twitter mentioned the Fixx and Boston. I was thinking more along the lines of the Ponys and OK Go. As a live act, Surfer Blood needs some practice. The band wasn’t bad, but songs that would have been appealing as three-minute pop singles got stretched out twice as long as that, until the repetitive chord progressions just got boring. Then again, “Swim” sounded really strong without all that heavy compression and reverb on the studio record. Surfer Blood abruptly ended its set with drum-set-smashing antics… ensuring that there would be no encore.

Also on the bill Thursday, Freelance Whales played buoyant songs from its forthcoming debut LP, Weathervanes. The record’s not out until March 16, but this band is already building a solid following. Freelance Whales also opened recently for Fanfarlo at Schubas, and Thursday’s appearance was another energetic performance of the catchy songs on Weathervanes.

Thursday’s show started out with the annoyingly named Lasers and Fast and Shit. With dramatic back lighting and lots of fog, the group hammered its way through some hard-edged post-punk. A couple of the songs had good hooks, but others sounded like run-of-the-mill rock.

And sandwiched in between all those bands was Bear in Heaven. A couple of the musicians in this Brooklyn band played in avant-garde guitarist Rhys Chatham’s metal band, but Bear in Heaven doesn’t play that sort of drony music. Its songs were ominous and dramatic, however.

On Saturday night, I was at Lincoln Hall for the triple bill of Julie Doiron, the Rural Alberta Advantage and Bowerbirds. Although the show was sold out, the room did not feel quite as jam-packed as I would have expected. I get the feeling some fans were there just for one band or another — and maybe some folks with festival passes were shuttling back and forth between Lincoln Hall and Schubas.

I saw Doiron play twice last year, once with a band and once solo. Saturday’s show was like a hybrid of those, since she had just one musician accompanying her, William Kidman on guitar. She didn’t talk as much as she during her last solo show (it would be hard for anyone to talk that much again), delivering a tighter set of some great songs, including at least one new composition and one very nice cover, Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me.”

The Rural Alberta Advantage were the middle band on the bill Saturday, but judging from the energy of their performance and the fan turnout, they should have been the headliners. This Canadian trio put out an excellent record in 2008 (when I discovered it on emusic), which then got wider release in 2009. Their music reminds me of Neutral Milk Hotel, probably because the band’s singer-songwriter Nils Edenloff sings in a strong tone similar to NHM’s Jeff Mangum. The songs sounded lively Saturday night, thanks to the powerful drumming of Paul Banwatt and the many touches provided by multi-instrumentalist Amy Cole. Edenloff was suffering from a cold, and his vocals were ragged on some of the songs, especially when he belted out notes. I winced a few times at hearing Edenloff’s voice crack, but he deserves a gold star for giving the music his full effort despite his illness. The RAA played a couple of new songs (which sounded like promising additions to the band’s repertoire), and two covers: Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and the theme of the Canadian kids’ TV show, “The Littlest Hobo.”

Bowerbirds finished off the night with a pretty performance of the band’s folk-rock ballads. This Raleigh, N.C., band’s 2009 record, Upper Air, really grew on me over time, with a lot of compositions that stick in the mind. In concert, Phil Moore’s vocals and guitar blended beautifully with Beth Tacular’s accordion and harmonies (though I wish Tacular would sing even more). All that being said, it was a very mellow set for midnight, lulling the crowd rather than rousing it. Maybe the Bowerbirds’ set would have worked better earlier in the evening.

Photos from Tomorrow Never Knows. (I’m still waiting to get my camera from the repair shop, but I managed to get a few photos at these shows, thanks to the kind friends who let me use their cameras.)

Sloan at Lincoln Hall

More Canadian rockers were in Chicago last night. This time, it was Sloan, the great and long-running power pop band from Nova Scotia. Sloan’s been making bright, highly tuneful records since 1992, which is when they released their best-known song, “Underwhelmed,” the one that you might have heard a few times on at least a few American radio stations. But Sloan really hasn’t gotten its due in the U.S. in the 17 years since then. Whatever. They still keep making cool music.

Sloan played Monday night (Dec. 7) at Lincoln Hall, performing songs from a new EP called Hit & Run as well as a good cross-section of songs from previous albums. But, hey, why’d they skip playing “A Sides Win,” which was written out on the set list? I guess they didn’t feel like playing that one. One of the best things about seeing Sloan in concert is enjoying the variety of vocals. All four of these guys take turns on lead vocals, so even though Chris Murphy seems to be the front man more than anyone else (Andrew Scott, Patrick Pentland and Jay Ferguson), it also feels like a very democratic band with lots of talent to go around.

The band was in fairly high spirits Monday, especially during the last part of the show, when Murphy struck some slightly ridiculous rock-star poses and got down close to some audience members. Things got really festive when Sloan kicked off its encore with “Underwhelmed.” Like most of the songs Sloan played Monday night, it sounded catchy, almost shiny, but it had some crunchy electric-guitar kick as well.

Photos of Sloan and opening act Magneta Lane.

Eccentric Soul Revue

I’m a firm believer in the idea that a lot of good music gets forgotten. For every classic-rock band you hear on the radio a zillion times, there are a zillion bands barely anyone’s ever heard of… and at least a few of those zillions are worth hearing. Chicago’s Numero Group record label has done an exemplary job of bringing new attention to some of the forgotten greats. The label has reissued folk and psychedelic music, but its best-known speciality is soul music. Numero has an ongoing series of albums called “Eccentric Soul,” featuring long-lost tracks by record labels that folded years ago. The albums (available on both CD and vinyl) are lovingly packaged, and the Numero folks have a great ear for picking out some noteworthy tunes you’ve probably never heard before.

Now, a few of the soul musicians championed by Numero are back on the concert stage. Some of them played this spring at Park West (a show that I missed, alas). On Saturday night (Nov. 7), the Eccentric Soul Revue was back — this time at Lincoln Hall, with a revamped lineup. The evening was a real blast. A younger soul group, JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, served as the house band, keeping the music going almost nonstop for more than two hours as various singers stepped up to the mike. There was barely a pause as the horns kept blowing and the funky guitar chords kept twitching.

Things got started with some gospel harmonies, courtesy of Pastor T.L. Barrett & Choir. Their music is featured on the Numero CD Good God! Born Again Funk. After a couple of songs from JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, Renaldo Domino took center stage. Domino hadn’t performed onstage since the early ’70s, but he certainly didn’t sound as if he’d been away that long. Like everyone else in Saturday’s variety show, Domino seemed completely at ease strolling the stage, wearing the sort of leisure suit he probably wore in concerts more than three decades ago. And his voice sounded great. His music, including the cool tune “Not Too Cool to Cry,” is on the compilation Twinight’s Lunar Rotation.

Saturday’s show added a couple of female singers who weren’t at the Park West show: Sharon Clark and Linda Balentine. They both had strong voices and strong personalities that came through during their brief appearances. I wish they’d had a bit more time to play more songs. Balentine played the A side and B side of the only single she ever recorded, an ultra-rare 45 with “Glad About That” and “You’re a Hard Habit to Break,” which Numero reissued on a collection called The Bandit Label. Clark’s music is available on The Young Disciples.

In between the sets by Clark and Balentine, the Notations harmonized on a string of soulful oldies, one of the highlights of the evening. Three of the singers took turns on lead vocals, each showing his own distinct style and personality.

The final act of the night was Syl Johnson, who used to be on the Twinight record label together with the Notations and Domino. (Numero plans to put out a collection next year of Johnson’s complete recordings from 1959 to 1972.) Johnson’s standout songs on Saturday included “Thank You Baby,” and he closed his segment of the concert with a spot-on cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.”

Lincoln Hall was fairly crowded for the Eccentric Soul Revue, and the audience included both old and young fans. A fair amount of people danced and clapped along to the music, and the musicians seemed to be delighted at the response. It all came to a rousing conclusion when the choir returned, standing on the floor in front of the stage, and all of the evening’s performers joined their voices in a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Photos from the Eccentric Soul Revue.

Vic Chesnutt at Lincoln Hall

In the days before Vic Chesnutt played Thursday (Nov. 5) at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, it became clear that ticket sales must have been slow. The venue started offering a two-for-one ticket deal. And sure enough, when Chesnutt showed up on Thursday, attendance was pretty sparse. That’s a shame for all those who missed the show, since it was one of the year’s best.

I’m a latecomer to the Vic Chesnutt fan club, having largely ignored him for years. I’m starting to make up for that, but I still need to fill in the many gaps in my collection of his recordings. I saw him do an acoustic solo set opening for Jonathan Richman earlier this year at the Empty Bottle, which really wowed me. And now I’ve seen Chesnutt perform a different kind of concert, with a six-piece band playing epic, swelling arrangements behind him.

Chesnutt mostly played songs from his new album At the Cut and 2007’s North Star Deserter, both of which he recorded for Constellation Records with a backing band that included members of the great Montreal collective Silver Mt. Zion (and its predecessor, Godspeed! You Black Emperor) as well as Fugazi guitarist Guy Picciotto. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band made my favorite record of 2008, 13 Blues for Thirteen Moon, so I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing these musicians playing with Chesnutt. Not all of that group’s members were in the touring band that came to Chicago, but nevertheless the music had a similar feeling to the orchestral sweep of Silver Mt. Zion at its best.

In the center of it all was Mr. Chesnutt, sitting in his wheelchair, with a small, somewhat worn-looking acoustic guitar hanging over his neck with a tiny white string instead of a guitar strap. The way Chesnutt plucks at his guitar strings, he seems a little uncertain at first, as if he’s afraid he’ll forget the notes. He does hit the right notes, with a somewhat idiosyncratic sense of timing. Like the Empty Bottle show, this concert felt very spontaneous. The other musicians all trained their eyes on Chesnutt as he began most of the songs, plucking his guitar and singing in a seemingly fragile voice. They looked like they were waiting for their cues to start playing, feeling their way into the songs to match Chesnutt’s spirit.

The dynamic range of this concert was startling. At moments, Chesnutt was singing and playing all by himself as the audience quietly listened to each and every creak of the guitar strings and bend in his voice, almost like sitting in Chesnutt’s living room and attending an unplugged performance. And then the songs would erupt as the guitars, keyboards and bowed bass came in, making mountainous, majestic chords. And Chesnutt would rear back his head from the microphone and shout his words up to the mountaintop.

A highlight was the song “Coward,” which is the first track on the At the Cut album, one of the best showcases of what Chesnutt is capable of doing with these musicians. After the band left the stage at the end of the show, Chesnutt stayed and did one acoustic song. Then the group returned and played “Sponge,” from Chesnutt’s 1991 album West of Rome. The crowd was smaller than it should have been, but the fans who were there showed their appreciation with a strong round of applause as Chesnutt wheeled himself backstage.

It’s worth noting here that Chesnutt has not one, but two new albums out this fall. Although it isn’t even mentioned on his own Web site, Vapor Records recently released Chesnutt’s Skitter at the Take-Off, a spare, acoustic studio record he made in collaboration with Jonathan Richman, featuring some of the memorable songs he played at that Empty Bottle show in May. It’s a much different record from At the Cut, but both are recommended. A free six-song sample from At the Cut and North Star Deserter is available at http://vicchesnutt.com/home/audio/.

The opening act Thursday was Clare and the Reasons, who were quite a contrast from Chesnutt. A strange pairing? I suppose, although both of them seem like acts pursuing their singular visions for the music they want to play. Clare and the Reasons, whom I saw opening for My Brightest Diamond last year, played a delightful show of quaintly old-fashioned pop cabaret music from the new album Arrow, complete with violin, clarinet, trombone, kazoo and cool vocal harmonies. No musical saw, however — Clare reported that a zombie stole the band’s saw on Halloween. Gotta watch out for those kleptomatic zombies.

Photos of Vic Chesnutt and Clare and the Reasons.

Herman Dune, Julie Doiron and Wye Oak

The new Lincoln Hall music venue has sold out some shows in its first couple of weeks, but on Thursday (Oct. 29) it was one of those rather chilled-out evenings with a small crowd of music fans standing around the main floor while three performers delivered their songs unadorned and intimate.

First up was the Baltimore duo Wye Oak, who have released two records on the Merge label, including this year’s The Knot. Jenn Wasner sang and played guitar, belting out some strong notes and shaking her hair with abandon whenever it was time for a solo. Andy Stack isn’t singing as much as he did on the first Wye Oak record, but he pulled off the impressive feat of playing the drums and keyboards at the same time. As much as I liked the Wye Oak performance, I wonder if they could accomplish more with a couple of other musicians to provide more variety and color to their arrangements. Still, it was fairly catchy rock music.

The middle act in the lineup was Julie Doiron, who was in an extremely chatty mood as she played her music solo, taking lots of requests from the audience, basically playing whatever her fans wanted to hear. Doiron’s stage banter was pretty funny, and she seemed to be in a “don’t know when to stop talking” mood. Her songs sounded more fragile than they did when she played with a full band at the Empty Bottle earlier this year, but Doiron still knew how to rock even when she was just playing by herself. What a charming, honest performer.

The headliners were Herman Dune (or Düne), a duo from France whose music is sometimes labeled “anti-folk” … another one of those genre labels I can’t really figure out. The members of this duo call themselves David-Ivar Herman Düne (guitars and vocals) and Néman Herman Düne (drums). I had not heard much of Herman Dune’s music before seeing this show, and I was initially a bit put off by David-Ivar’s vocals, especially at the moments when he does funny, falsetto things with it. But over the course of this concert, I warmed up to their music. There was a plainspoken quality to the music, and at times, the chords had that classic Velvet Underground sound. Reminded me a bit of Smog (Bill Callahan).

Photos of Herman Dune, Julie Doiron and Wye Oak.

Lincoln Hall opens

Lincoln Hall opened Friday in the same space where the 3 Penny Cinema used to show movies, on Lincoln Avenue just north of Fullerton. This is the same neighborhood where the Lounge Ax used to be one of the Chicago rock scene’s beacons. And with Wax Trax Records located just a short distance away, this stretch of Lincoln was a major destination for music fans. Not much has been happening in this part of Lincoln Park lately, as far as music goes, but that’s changing now with the opening of this new venue.

Run by the same fine folks who book so many great concerts over at Schubas, Lincoln Hall is three times bigger than its sister venue, holding about 500 people. I paid the place a visit for the first time on Saturday (Oct. 17) when Liam Finn was the headline act. To be honest, Lincoln Hall didn’t look all that big when I was standing on the main floor. It still has the cozy feel of a small venue, and that might be because the main floor’s capacity is only 169, almost exactly the size of Schubas. The difference is that there’s a large balcony with lots of prime viewing space along the railing. And boy does this room have a high ceiling. The long black drapes hanging behind the stage seem like they go up and up and up. The inside of Lincoln Hall looks a bit like a small music club where the ceiling has been lifted up. The place doesn’t have as much character as Schubas — at least, not yet. The place is brand spanking new after all. I appreciated the lack of posters, advertisements and decorations on the walls of the music room. With lots of stained wood and wrought-iron railings (at least, that’s what they looked like), Lincoln Hall is a classy-looking place. The decor is restrained — not all that exciting, maybe, but hey, the music’s what makes the excitement, right?

The sound at Saturday’s show was excellent. From what I read in the Chicago Tribune, it seemed as if the owners held off for a week on their official grand opening while they work out bugs like sound quality, but I didn’t see any bugs that needed to be worked out on Saturday. The sound was crystal clear. Even when I was standing near the stage, I didn’t really feel much need to use earplugs. I think that’s because the loudest speakers in the place were the ones hanging up on the ceiling way above my head. I did notice at one point that I was picking up too much sound from the bass amp on the stage, throwing off the balance of the mix I was hearing, but that’s probably an unavoidable thing for people who stand right next to the band.

I was up in the balcony for just a few minutes at the beginning of the night, and I thought the view of the stage from up there was excellent. The views were good on the main floor, too, of course. Nice sight lines all around. I’m told that about 300 people were there for Saturday’s concert, and with that many people, it was comfortable moving around. We’ll see what it’s like when it sells out.

At Saturday’s concert, a team of employees helped the bands set up and remove their equipment in between sets. There’s a sound board on the side of the stage as well as a large control station at the back of the main room. It all looks highly professional.

But… Memo to the guys running the lights: Would you mind laying off a bit on all those red lights? This is a problem that’s not unique to Lincoln Hall. Lots of music venues seem to think that concerts look cool when the musicians are bathed in a red or pink haze. And I doubt if most fans think there’s anything wrong with that. As a photographer, however, I hate red light. It really makes for lousy pictures. Those red lights knock out just about every other color in the spectrum, and all you’re left with is an image that might as well be black and white. There were a lot of red and pink lights Saturday night, especially when Liam Finn was playing. Once in a while, there was a burst of white light, and to me it felt like: Hallelujah! At last I can take a decent picture. So, if it’s not too much to ask, a little bit more of that white light would be fabulous, guys. I’m just saying…

Saturday’s show started off with Greycoats, who sounded a bit like Coldplay, playing polished pop-rock. Next up was the Chicago band Unicycle Loves You, which played some pretty good power pop. Nice melodic hooks and a tight sound, though I’d like to see Unicycle scruff things up a bit more.

Headliner Liam Finn usually puts on an entertaining show, and he was in good spirits Saturday night, especially when he used his looping pedals to go a little bit nuts with guitar solos and drum solos on top of the chords he’d just been playing. His mellower ballads sounded lovely, too. Finn treated the crowd to a couple of loud and lively cover songs. Noting that his sound guy was celebrating his birthday, and that it was also the birthday of someone in the audience, Finn played a rocking version of the Beatles’ “Birthday.” And during the encore, he cranked out some great Neil Young riffing on “Cinnamon Girl,” noting: “I wanna play in a Neil Young cover band!”

For more details on Lincoln Hall, see www.lincolnhallchicago.com

Photos of Liam Finn, Unicycle Loves You and Greycoats.