Nick Cave at the Chicago Theatre

The real Stagger Lee, an African-American pimp named “Stag” Lee Shelton, killed a man in St. Louis on Christmas day, 1895, during an argument over a Stetson hat. The slaying became legendary thanks to a folk song called “Stack-a-Lee,” “Stacker Lee,” “Stagolee” or “Stagger Lee,” depending on who was spelling it out at any given time. Early versions of the song end with “poor, poor” Stagger Lee hanged and then hauled off to the cemetery via a “rubber-tired hearse” and “a lot of rubber-tired hacks.”

That’s not how the song ends when Nick Cave sings it. The 1996 version by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — actually, a loose interpretation of the old folk story, with new music written by Cave and six of his bandmates at the time — turns Stagger Lee into even more of a bad ass. Or to quote Cave’s twisted rendition of the words, “that bad motherfucker.”

By the time Cave & the Bad Seeds performed Monday night (April 1) at the Chicago Theatre, they had transformed Stagger Lee into an even more powerful, frightening demon of a man. In Cave’s live version of the song, the devil comes for Stagger Lee, and Stagger kills him, too. Cave was swaggering and writhing on the lip of the stage, lowering himself toward the outreached hands of the fans in front. The vulgar threats in the song’s lyrics (“suck my dick, because if you don’t, you’re sure to be dead”) became a leering come-on to the audience. Seeing someone in the crowd holding up a smartphone, Cave ad-libbed a new lyric: “In come the Devil with an iPhone in his hand.”

Nick Cave concerts are rarely, if ever, anything less than stellar. Monday’s show reaffirmed Cave’s breathtaking power as a live performer — and all the strengths of the versatile Bad Seeds ensemble. The new record by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away, is a brooding, moody set of songs. Much of it is quiet, but a tension rattles underneath the songs, as if they might burst into noise and apocalypse at any time. That expected catharsis never comes, but that doesn’t diminish the listening experience. If anything, it heightens the foreboding sense that something sinister is at play.

One of the new songs, “Higgs Boson Blues,” returns to the Satanic sort of blues Cave evokes in “Stagger Lee.” This time, Cave sings about the old legend about bluesman Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil, but the lyrics take a strange and unexpected journey into the world of pop celebrities including Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus. The song shows Cave at his most uninhibited as a songwriter. Like much of the album, “Higgs Boson Blues” feels like a phantasmagoria. (Dictionary definition: “a rapidly changing series of things seen or imagined, as the figures or events of a dream.”)

Cave and his band began the concert with four of the new songs, including a version of “Jubilee Street” that climaxed with a more rocking jam than the studio version, and a sprawling, dynamic “Higgs Boson Blues.” Then came a series of the Bad Seeds’ golden oldies, a smattering of piano ballads, and a staggering “Stagger Lee” to end the main set. (The Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot has the full set list at the end of his review.) The encore was a pounding “Tupelo” followed by one more song from the new record, the title track, an album closer that channels all of those disturbances and hallucinations into a shimmering meditation. And then the phantasmagoria shimmied out of view.

Ray Davies at the Chicago Theatre

Belatedly catching up now on something I intended to blog about earlier…

The legendary Kinks frontman and one of the all-time great rock songwriters, Ray Davies, performed a pretty delightful concert Nov. 11 at the Chicago Theatre. His new record, See My Friends, is one of those concept duet albums, featuring various stars singing or performing together with Davies on classic Kinks songs. Thankfully, the concert was just Davies and his backup musicians.

The show began with Davies playing eight and a half songs in mostly acoustic versions, backed by guitarist Bill Shanley. This intimate section of the show was really the high point of the night for me, packed with fantastic songs such as “Waterloo Sunset.” The half song was “Victoria,” which led into Davies reading a short bit of his autobiography, which led into “20th Century Man” as the full band took the stage. Davies’ band this time was The 88, who did a good job of sounding like the Kinks, keeping things a little bit loose as they nimbly responded to Davies’ occasional pauses to banter in the middle of songs. The 88 also played a nice opening set of somewhat Kinks-esque pop-rock songs.

As much as I enjoy hearing Davies talk about his songs and make jokes, at times his banter awkwardly interrupted the music. When Davies and his band ripped into the more rocking numbers, such as “You Really Got Me,” this 67-year-old Davies bounced around the stage like a much younger man.

Davies jested that he would fine himself $5 every time he mentioned the Kinks, but in truth, this show was essentially Davies doing a Kinks concert without the rest of the Kinks. He played only one of his recent solo songs (“Imaginary Man”), instead performing an excellent cross-section of the Kinks’ vast catalogue. At one point, someone in the crowd shouted out, “Where’s Dave?”

“Where’s Dave?” Davies replied. “Asleep. When he’s asleep, he can’t do any damage.”

A good-natured barb aimed at his brother. But it really would be nice to see Ray and Dave Davies playing together onstage again someday.

SET LIST: I Need You / I’m Not Like Everybody Else / Sunny Afternoon / Dedicated Follower of Fashion / Waterloo Sunset / See My Friends / Apeman / A Long Way From Home / Victoria (excerpt) + reading from X-Ray / 20th Century Man / David Watts / This Is Where I Belong / Where Have All the Good Times Gone / Till the End of the Day / Nothin’ in the World Can Stop Me Worrying ’Bout That Girl / Too Much on My Mind / All Day and All of the Night / Misfits / Full Moon / Celluloid Heroes / Imaginary Man / Muswell Hillbilly / You Really Got Me / ENCORE 1: Low Budget / ENCORE 2: Lola

Neil Young at the Chicago Theatre

Never having been to Neil Young’s house, I can only imagine what it’s like inside.

And I imagine that, somewhere, he has a room that looks much like the stage did last night (May 6) at the Chicago Theatre. Maybe it’s down in the basement, a sort of musical rec room — the place where he goes to practice old riffs, write new songs, or just play. Play in the sense of playing with his toys. Neil Young’s solo concert Friday felt like a glimpse into that room, that space where he’s just playing for himself.

As he did during the first half (the solo portion) of a 2007 concert inside this same beautiful, historic theater, Young casually wandered around the stage in between some of the songs, looking at his instruments as if he were trying to decide what to do next. To some extent, this is surely an act that he’s putting on, since he was working from a set list. Was he toying with the audience, to see what sort of reaction he’d get if he walked up to the grand piano and then walked away from it, only to strap on an electric guitar? Or was he wandering around in his own little world, oblivious of the audience eagerly watching his every move? (Probably the former.) It’s not as if Young didn’t acknowledge the audience’s presence. At several points, he raised an arm above his head, like a baseball player stepping out of the dugout and tipping his hat after a home run. And Young has the odd, endearing habit of applauding himself — as he came out onto the stage at the outset of the concert and the audience broke out into cheers, Young clapped, too.

Three keyboards were arrayed around Young: an upright piano, an organ in an old, ornate cabinet, and a grand piano painted in splotches of orange and pink. He played one song on each — hauling these big instruments around the country with him like totems, as if each song must be played on the particular instrument to which it belongs. A wooden statute of an American Indian stood at the back of the stage, and Young walked over to it and touched it once, as if he were putting his hand on the shoulder of a friend. Later, when Young was playing “Cortez the Killer,” a song about the European conquest of American Indians, he walked back over to the wooden Indian. Facing away from the audience, Young played his solo to the statute, slapping the body of his guitar to make the notes reverberate.

This concert was mostly about guitar, and Young played a few of them over the course of the night. Wearing a white hat with a black band, a white sport jacket, black T-shirt and blue jeans, Young sat down with an acoustic guitar to start the concert, playing “Hey Hey My My,” “Tell Me Why” and “Helpless.” The acoustics in the big auditorium were perfect, and while Young looked pretty tiny from my seat halfway up the balcony, it sounded as if he were right next to me, plucking his guitar strings and singing those songs in a voice not all that much changed from how it sounded when he was a young musician decades ago. His harmonica solos on these acoustic numbers were one of the most remarkable things he did all evening — improvising, pushing, jumping across the melody with the same searching spirit he has demonstrated in so many terrific electric guitar solos over the years.

The harmonica also prompted one of Young’s few bits of stage banter. In between songs, he shook some water out of it. (Was that just his saliva? Or did he put the harmonica in some water? I couldn’t tell.)

“I was told it’s bad to put my harmonicas in water,” he said. “A manufacturer told me. ‘Bullshit,’ that’s what I say.”

Young played the songs from his most recent album, Le Noise, in the same solo-guitar style they use on the record, a sort of hybrid between the usual sounds of acoustic and electric guitar — one guitar echoing around the room with a sound that seems multilayered, as if each string is a separate instrument. As impressive as this was, I still think the songs on Le Noise are just good, not great. The record and this live performance of those songs mark an interesting new direction for Young, but the melodies and lyrics were no match for the classic songs that made up the rest of the set.

The other time Young spoke was when he finally sat down at one of the keyboards, the upright piano. He introduced a song apparently called “Leia” (the Sugar Mountain website reports that this is an unreleased song he played for the first time in 2010).

“A song now for all the little people,” Young said. “The tiny little people with big smiles. Those too small to be here tonight. … They wanted to come, but couldn’t come. Mom said, ‘Nope.’ And a song for Grandpa. He was able to get here.”

The sing-songy tune that followed did seem a bit like a children’s ditty. Young moved to the organ and strapped on a harmonica for “After the Gold Rush,” playing odd runs of notes with a circus calliope effect as he sang — changing one time reference in the lyrics. “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st century,” he sang. And then he moved to the grand piano for “I Believe in You.”

Young also played electric guitar, using that instrument mostly for older classics. The hum of the strings was muted, muffled almost down to little more than bass notes, on the verses of “Down by the River,” but whenever he got to the chorus, the guitar came roaring to life. The riff from “Ohio” was loud and chunky from beginning to end, however, and Young’s iconic lyrics — dashed off three decades ago in reaction to a galvanizing tragedy — felt as urgent as if they were written today.

As the concert neared its end, Young returned to the electric guitar and stood a while, playing around with the hum and buzz his instrument was making, without allowing a melody to emerge from the noise too quickly. After a few minutes, it became clear that he was playing “Cortez the Killer.” Singing and playing electric guitar without a band can seem a little odd — acoustic guitar is the default instrument for a solo singer-songwriter, and hearing electric guitar makes you think, “Where’s the rest of the band?” Playing without a band had pluses and minuses for Young. It gave him freedom to stretch out his tunes, to let the notes hover a little bit longer before he sang another verse. And it focused our attention on every little nuance of the noise coming out of that guitar. But Young’s a master at playing epic guitar solos in the context of a full band, getting sparks of energy and inspiration from the other musicians playing behind him. That isn’t what this tour is about, however. The result was that much of Young’s guitar playing was more impressionistic: Instead of making symphonies that rise and fall with dramatic melodies, he was more interested in shaking his instrument and seeing what fell out. An impressive spectacle in its own way.

The last song before the encore was “Cinnamon Girl,” and when it came to that false ending — the moment when the song seems to end, just before that last little fillip of one guitar melody finishes it off — Young paused, as if he might not bother playing it. The crowd erupted into applause. Did people think the song was over? Or were they egging him on to finish that song? Young raised his hand in the air once again, acknowledging his fans, and then he finally played that little riff, repeating it several times, stretching out the song for just a minute longer.

Young (who played “Walk With Me” from Le Noise for his encore) was a marvel to see and hear Friday night. The concert wasn’t quite as epic as his 2007 show at the Chicago Theatre, but it was another excellent performance from this always-intriguing musician.

As a nice bonus, the concert also featured the great British singer-songwriter-guitarist Bert Jansch as the opening act. The understated Jansch played solo acoustic guitar, and the room filled with the sparkling, liquid sound of those bending strings. At the end of his set, he modestly remarked, “I want to thank you all for being so quiet and not throwing anything at me.” The theater was indeed pretty quiet, and Jansch seemed to impress the audience, which surely included many people unfamiliar with his music.

Sufjan Stevens at the Chicago Theatre

By his own admission, Sufjan Stevens has been uncertain about what musical directions to pursue since his 2005 popular and critical breakthrough, Illinois. It’s not as if he’s been silent; his orchestral suite The BQE was an impressive demonstration of his sophisticated composition techniques. His new album, Age of Adz, is a bold attempt to make a dramatic break from the folk-rock that made Stevens music. Or is it a desperate, overwrought attempt to do something different? The new songs aren’t without merit, but too many of them are weighted down by too many layers of electronic bleeps and textures. The problem isn’t that Stevens has gone electronic. It’s just that his new songs are built up with such labored arrangements that the various instruments often seem to be clashing against one another. Perhaps that’s the intended effect, but it makes for some rather weary listening. (Stevens also released an “EP,” All Delighted People, which is actually longer than most albums.)

Backed by 10 musicians and singers, Stevens focused on these new songs for most of his concert Friday night (Oct. 15) at the Chicago Theatre. At a few points, he all but apologized to the audience for playing the new stuff. It was impressive to see the musicians pulling off these complicated songs live, but the songs still didn’t really click. The drawn-out “Impossible Soul” culminated (as it does on the record) with Stevens singing Auto-Tuned vocals, which just felt like a bad joke. (Stevens sarcastically introduced the song as “the adult-contemporary mini-series song,” which wasn’t too far off the mark.)

The highlights of the show were those moments when Stevens played acoustic guitar, banjo or piano. After a long wait for some songs from Illinois, the audience finally heard the band play “Chicago.” And then came an all-Illinois encore, with Stevens playing four songs with minimal accompaniment. It was a great reminder of what made Stevens’ music so compelling in the first place — and a stark contrast with the bulk of the music he’d just played. Before closing the show with his haunting song about serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Stevens thanked the audience for being “very patient.”

The opening act — and also a member of Stevens’ band — was singer-songwriter DM Stith. It was odd to see Stith playing in such a huge room, not too many months after seeing him play at a little Chicago art gallery. He sat by himself now on the dark Chicago Theatre stage, playing an acoustic guitar and using looping pedals to create a spooky atmosphere. His set was captivating, but too short — only four songs.

SET LIST: Seven Swans / Too Much / Age of Adz / Heirloom / I Walked / Now That I’m Older / Vesuvius / Futile Devices / Get Real Get Right / The Owl and the Tanager / Impossible Soul / Chicago / ENCORE: Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois / Decatur, or Round of Applause for Your Stepmother / Casimir Pulaski Day / John Wayne Gacy, Jr.

Belle and Sebastian at the Chicago Theatre

Belle and Sebastian are a delightful band to behold in concert, as these Scots proved once again Monday (Oct. 11) at the Chicago Theatre. The band has a fine new record out today called Write About Love, which doesn’t really break any new artistic ground. It just sounds like a fairly typical Belle and Sebastian record, with the band’s trademark mix of bright and wistful melodies. And that’s perfectly acceptable to me. I’ll take a new Belle and Sebastian record any day.

The seven members of Belle and Sebastian plus five supplemental players assembled across the Chicago Theatre’s capacious stage and opened their performance with the opening track off the new record, “I Didn’t See It Coming” — a great song that showcases within one track the band’s various strengths, including that lovely mix of male and female vocals. Belle and Sebastian front man Stuart Murdoch spent the first part of the song in a stiff pose, his hands in his pockets, a scarf hanging over his sport jacket. Midway through the song, as he took over the lead vocals, Murdoch loosened up and began dancing a bit. And before long, as the concert went on, Murdoch was moving around the stage with a jaunty step, acting as if the place was his own personal dance floor.

Murdoch really knows how to work a crowd. Early in the show, he compared the concert experience to foreplay and sex. “I promise you we will come at the same time,” he said. During “Lord Anthony,” he brought a woman from the audience onto the stage to apply some makeup to his face (in keeping with the lyrics of the song). Later, he threw soft footballs autographed by the band into the crowd. At another point, he went out in the audience and selected several people to clap and dance onstage. Pretty soon, it looked like a party up there on the stage, and a few of the ladies took the opportunity to kiss or hug Murdoch.

Although the concert opened with a song from Write About Love, Belle and Sebastian played only a few songs from the new record. Instead, the group offered something like a greatest-hits collection for its fans. By my count, Belle and Sebastian played songs from all of its studio albums except Storytelling (2002): one from Tigermilk (1996), four from If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996), three from The Boy With the Arab Strap (1998), one from Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant (2000), five songs plus one B-side from Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003), one from The Life Pursuit (2006), and three from Write About Love.

The most glorious musical moments of the evening came when the instruments dropped out and Murdoch and his band mates sang a cappella, or with minimal accompaniment. Their voices sounded pure and lovely.

SET LIST: I Didn’t See It Coming / I’m a Cuckoo / Step Into My Office, Baby / She’s Losing It / I’m Not Living in the Real World / Piazza, New York Catcher / Lord Anthony / I Want the World to Stop / Sukie in the Graveyard / (I Believe in) Traveling Light / The Stars of Track and Field / Mayfly / There’s Too Much Love / The Boy With the Arab Strap / If You Find Yourself Caught In Love / Simple Things / Sleep the Clock Around / ENCORE: Judy and the Dream of Horses / Me and the Major

Van Morrison does ‘Astral Weeks’

For a few years now, it’s been trendy for musicians to perform live versions of entire albums from their back catalogues. Bruce Springsteen was in Chicago recently, playing all of “Born to Run.” And last Tuesday night (Sept. 29), it was Van Morrison’s turn. Playing to a sold-out Chicago Theatre, Morrison performed every song from his 1968 album “Astral Weeks.” Although it’s praised by many critics as one of the best records of all time, “Astral Weeks” is not exactly filled with hits. If Morrison had wanted to please audiences with a bunch of radio hits, he probably would have chosen to do his 1970 album “Moondance.” Instead, he played the strange half-jazz, half-orchestral vamps of “Astral Weeks,” the album that established his reputation as a vocalist who can mumble, moan and holler with a sort of mystical intensity.

A lot of the music on the original “Astral Weeks” felt like it was improvised. The musicians sounded as if they were feeling their way into the songs, tiptoeing around Morrison’s dominating voice. So it was no surprise that Tuesday night’s performance was not a note-for-note duplication of the record. In fact, Morrison even juggled the order of songs. Instead of closing the suite with “Slim Slow Slider,” he played that song third and moved “Madame George” into the final slot.

Morrison was in fine voice Tuesday, delivering the songs in his distinctive throaty tones. Morrison’s a highly emotive singer, wringing so much feeling out of every note, and yet he never visibly demonstrates much passion onstage. Hiding his eyes behind dark glasses and wearing a hat, Morrison shows little flair for showmanship, other than occasionally rearing back his head when he’s singing an especially demanding note. He never says a word to the audience. The only time he said anything audible on Tuesday was when he wanted more volume in his monitor and he barked, “Turn it up!” to someone off in the curtains.

Morrison simply isn’t the kind of performer who acts out the drama of his songs onstage, but that doesn’t mean his singing is any less impressive. He sang the tunes from “Astral Weeks” with what seemed like fresh emotion, while his nine-piece band played trembling arrangements similar, but not identical, to those on the record.

“Astral Weeks” (which Morrison also released recently on a live CD) was the second half of Tuesday’s concert. Earlier in the night, he sang a couple of his best-known hits, “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Have I Told You Lately,” along with several more obscure songs from his later albums. Morrison and his band sounded at time like lounge lizards, but these talented musicians were versatile, easily shifting into blues, folk or garage rock.

When the “Astral Weeks” section of the concert came to an end, Morrison picked up a harmonica and launched into the extended solo that opens “Mystic Eyes,” a song he did in the mid-’60s with his original rock band, Them. A couple of minutes later, “Mystic Eyes” slid right into Them’s biggest hit, “Gloria.” Morrison and his musicians spelled out the song’s title with those famous call-and-response vocals, and the theater came alive.

And then Morrison was gone. Almost as soon as he’d left the stage, the house lights in the Chicago Theatre came on. It was clear that Morrison was going to follow his usual pattern of not doing an encore. It was also clear from the applause that his fans would have liked another song. But that’s the thing about seeing a Van Morrison concert: You know he’s not going to give you everything you want, but what you do get from him is still pretty great.

Arcade Fire at the Chicago Theatre

Another old Daily Southtown concert review I’m belatedly posting now. I also saw the Arcade Fire concert two nights later, which was nearly as good.


The 10 musicians in the Arcade Fire made their entrance Friday night at the Chicago Theatre by strolling up the center aisle through the audience.

And then, the group frequently switched on a set of lights that illuminated the audience instead of the band. The message seemed to be that those rock stars up on the stage are just regular people like everyone else in the theater.

But what extraordinary musicians they are. Other bands may be more virtuosic, but few if any can top the Arcade Fire for playing with reckless passion and almost insane energy.

During the touring that followed the Montreal band’s 2004 debut, “Funeral,” the Arcade Fire quickly established a reputation as one of the world’s best live bands. That reputation is still intact after Friday’s riveting performance.

It was the first of three sold-out shows at the Chicago Theatre for the Arcade Fire, a band that played in front of a much tinier crowd at Chicago’s Empty Bottle just three years. Despite the exponential increase in venue size, the band still shows the same anarchic spirit that animated it when it was playing those early shows.

The Arcade Fire’s second album, “Neon Bible,” is a little more stately and subdued than the debut. It’s a very good record, but one had to wonder if the songs would translate into the same live experience as the “Funeral” songs.

The band has been playing the new songs long enough now that it seems to have figured out ways of taking them up a notch in concert. The audience reacted enthusiastically to the “Neon Bible” songs, clapping and swaying to the beat, but the crowd response got even more intense whenever the band played tracks from “Funeral.”

With violins and horns plus an ever-shifting lineup of instruments, including hurdy-gurdy, mandolin and organ, the Arcade Fire sounded at times like an orchestra or a folk string band, often playing with the spirit of a gospel revival show. Lead vocalist Win Butler sang his heart out, while several other members of the band added force to the songs with their huge chorus of harmony vocals.

During a few of the old songs, multi-instrumentalists Will Butler (Win’s brother) and Richard Reed Parry grabbed drumsticks and played percussion on whatever objects were in front of them — including each other. At one point, they threw pieces of a drum kit at each other. They never bothered to put on the helmets that they use to wear for protection during such stunts.

The Arcade Fire closed its second and final encore with Régine Chassagne, Win Butler’s wife and the other lead vocalist, singing “In the Backseat,” the closing track on “Funeral.” Even during this fairly quiet song, the band achieved an epic sound.

Chassagne sang in a tremulous voice, as if the emotions of the lyrics were still fresh in her mind. That’s one thing about the Arcade Fire — when these musicians perform their songs, they always sounds like they mean it.

Black Mirror
Keep the Car Running
(Antichrist Television Blues)
No Cars Go
Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
Neon Bible
The Well and the Lighthouse
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
My Body Is a Cage
Rebellion (Lies)
Ocean of Noise
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
In the backseat