Chad VanGaalen, a singer-songwriter from Calgary, Alberta, makes his recordings practically alone, writing every note and playing nearly every instrument. VanGaalen’s most recent album on Sub Pop, Light Information, offers an outstanding example of what he does so well: richly layered indie rock, with tuneful melodies but plenty of strange and murky textures. His songs have a touch of the lo-fi quality heard in classic Guided By Voices records, although it’s not because of any tape hiss — it has more to do with the way VanGaalen blends his various elements into an alchemical stew. It isn’t always immediately apparent which instrument is doing what in a song.
How does this translate during a live performance? As VanGaalen demonstrated during his Dec. 2 gig at the Empty Bottle, his songs also sound great when they’re played in a pretty straightforward style by a rock band. The tunes were less ornate and more direct — like an alternate but equally compelling version of the brilliant audio art VanGaalen creates in his home studio.
Opening act Un Blonde — the solo project of Montreal-based musician Jean-Sebastian Audet — played a very loose set, with some awkward pauses as Audet seemed to be deciding on the spot which song to play next, signaling that information to his backing musicians right as a song began. I sensed a bit of restlessness in the audience, and yet, I found it fascinating to watch, somewhat like witnessing an impromptu rehearsal. This was my first exposure to Un Blonde’s music, and I could tell that Audet’s a talent to watch.
I missed the first day and a half of the Hideout Block Party this weekend — I was in Louisville for the Cropped Out music festival — but I got back into Chicago on Sunday afternoon and caught the final few hours of the Hideout’s fun shindig, which I was glad to see making a return after a gap for the past couple of years. Here are my photos from Sunday night, which capped off daylong celebration for the 20th birthday of Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio.
Cropped Out, an underground music festival in Louisville, Kentucky, lined up a blockbuster band for the top of its lineup this summer: The Fall. I was already eager to attend Cropped Out again after having a fun time there last year, and this sealed the deal. Alas, The Fall later announced it was canceling this show along with a few others, due to frontman Mark E. Smith’s health. As a replacement, Cropped Out added a new headliner, and it was not a surprising one: Louisville’s own Bonnie “Prince” Billy, who also played at this rather DIY festival last year.
And so, on Saturday, Sept. 24, when Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) stepped up to the microphone, he told the crowd: “Hello, class. Sorry, Mr. Smith is sick, but I’m the sub.” And then Oldham and his band, the Bonafide United Musicians, proceeded to play a set consisting entirely of songs from his most recent album, Best Troubadour, a tribute to the late country music icon Merle Haggard. This was a cool treat for me — it’s an outstanding record that has deepened my appreciation for Haggard’s artistry as well as Oldham’s, and it was great to hear these cover versions in their full live glory.
That was the high point of Cropped Out for me, but it was an interesting couple of days overall — including noisy punk and garage bands. I was especially impressed with the tuneful songs of Athens, Georgia, band Deep State. The Australian punk band feedtime, originally formed in the late 1970s, raged along with the younger groups, and Connecticut’s Magik Markers closed out the weekend with a powerful set.
There was also some jazz, most notably a strenuous, intense solo performance by Peter Brötzmann on the deck next to the Ohio River, Cropped Out’s most delightful stage. And on the quieter end of the spectrum, a lovely acoustic set by The Other Years, a Louisville duo. Other favorite moments for me include Omaha singer-guitarist David Nance’s set, and the hilariously rambling stoner monologues that Frank Hurricane told to introduce his songs. And speaking of funny, Cropped Out included comedy by Neil Hamburger and Chicago-based Sarah Squirm. Two very different comics, and yet in similar ways, they pushed boundaries beyond joke-telling into psychology and performance art.
75 Dollar Bill
The Other Years
Le fruit vert
Tara Jane O’Neill
(with Catherine Irwin and Thalia Zedek)
Tyler Damon/Tashi Dorji
Shit & Shine
Bonnie “Prince” Billy
& the Bonafide United Musicians
When the Mekons teamed up with Freakwater, of course they called themselves the Freakons. As they’ve joked, the other option was Meekwater, a far less formidable-sounding portmanteau.
Actually, this collaborative group — which played a few shows last week, recording one of them for a forthcoming album — doesn’t include all of the Mekons. Its members are Freakwater’s Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean plus two key members of the Mekons, Jon Langford and Sally Timms. Joining them are two fiddlers, Jean Cook and Anna Krippenstapel, and ubiquitous Chicago guitarist James Elkington.
It seems natural that the Mekons and Freakwater are collaborating, given their shared musical territory. The Mekons may be punks from England and Wales, but they’re steeped in a love of old American country, along with British folk. The Kentuckians in Freakwater have mined similar musical veins. The two outfits have even covered a few of the same songs. And now this conglomeration is making a record of songs about coal mining. All profits from the album will benefit Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, a grassroots organization opposing mountaintop removal mining and promoting economic justice, voting rights, and Kentucky’s transition to new energy sources.
The Freakons played two shows at the Hideout last week, one of which was recorded for the album. I attended the other gig, on Sept. 10, as well a concert by the Freakons on Sept. 14 at a rustic venue in Spring Green, Wis., charmingly named The Shitty Barn. (Elkington played at the Hideout but was absent from the Shitty Barn show.) As the band members noted a few times, their songs tended to be sad and bleak. But there were several rousing songs inspired by the spirit of miners toiling away at their work — and as always, Langford and Timms were quick with humorous quips. The group even played a recording of Richard Burton telling some tall tales on the Dick Cavett show about his coal-mining father.
The songs (some original, some covers) included: “Chestnut Blight,” “Corrie Doon,” “Canaries,” “Dreadful Memories,” “Coal Miner’s Grave,” “Abernant 1984/85,” “Johnny Miner,” “Trimdon Grange Explosion,” “Mannington Mine,” “Black Leg Miner,” “Dark as a Dungeon” and “Working in a Coal Mine.” After seeing these live shows, I look forward to hearing the Freakons’ album.
Amadou and Mariam played a truly delightful concert of lively music from Mali on Monday, July 24, at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion. I’m looking forward to the duo’s new album, La Confusion, coming out September 22.
The opening act was Frank Waln, a hip-hop artist of Lakota heritage, who delivered his raps with illuminating and powerful commentary about the history of injustices suffered by Native Americans.
Last week’s show didn’t feature quite as many Molina colleagues, but it was still a pretty stellar cast, including various members of Molina’s bands Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. — as well as guest stars like Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor. The show ended with epic renditions of “Farewell Transmission” and “John Henry Split My Heart.”
The Drive-By Truckers played a rousing free concert on Thursday, July 20, at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion — performing about half of the songs from their terrific 2016 album American Band, along with a cover of the Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” and, of course, some of the Truckers’ classic older tunes. During “Let There Be Rock,” Patterson Hood sang the song’s usual refrain (“And I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd but I sure saw Molly Hatchet/With 38 Special and the Johnny Van Zant Band”), but he also added: “I never saw the Clash, but I saw the Replacements about seven times.” Hood and his longtime bandmate Mike Cooley switched back and forth on lead vocals throughout the set. The only flaw in the show was its relative brevity. I’m sure the Drive-By Truckers would have answered the audience’s clamoring pleas for an encore if Millennium Park had allowed them to play past 9 p.m. In any case, it was a delight to see one of America’s best rock bands playing a free show in this beautiful setting. (Set list.) And the opening act, an acoustic folk trio from Boston called Honeysuckle, was a nice bonus.
I’ve been moaning for years about how seldom two of my favorite musical artists — the Feelies and PJ Harvey — play in Chicago. One of the great things about being a music fan in Chicago is that you get a chance to see just about every touring artist. But there are a few bands and singers who bypass the Midwest or simply don’t tour all that much. Since the Feelies went on hiatus around 1991 and then reunited, the New Jersey rock band had played in Chicago only one time, at Millennium Park in 2009. That year was also the last time British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey had played in Chicago; when she released her recent records, she played only a handful of U.S. shows.
So, you can imagine how thrilled I was — along with other Chicago fans of the Feelies and PJ Harvey — when it was announced that both of them were coming to the Pitchfork Music Festival. And they were just two of the artists that made for an especially strong and diverse lineup at this year’s festival, which took place this past weekend (July 14-16) at its usual location, Union Park on Chicago’s West Side. Not surprisingly, as it turned out, the sets by PJ Harvey and the Feelies were two of my favorite moments in a really fun weekend of live music (which was made more enjoyable by the delightfully temperate weather).
Holding a saxophone aloft like a talisman, PJ Harvey made a dramatic entrance as the musicians in her large band banged drums, making the concert feel like some sort of pagan ritual. After opening with songs from her most recent album, The Hope Demolition Project, Harvey seemed to be running backward through her discography, but she eventually circled back to the new songs, with the voices of her bandmates adding to the power of the chorus. As always, Harvey was a riveting presence at the center of the stage. (Set list.)
The Feelies got off to a slightly late start, because the previous act playing on the other side of the field, George Clinton, ran several minutes past his scheduled time slot. That may seem like a minor point — and yes, I was also excited to watch Clinton, the 75-year-old godfather of funk, jamming with his Parliament/Funkadelic group, whom I’d never seen before — but Pitchfork is designed to run on a pretty tight schedule. Once the Feelies started playing, the band hit a couple of wrong notes — that’s hardly an egregious crime, and yet it was surprising, considering how precise the band typically sounds. Once the Feelies had found their footing, however, the group was in top form, strumming its trademark chords to those driving rhythms. (Set list.)
Here’s the rub: As much as I enjoyed seeing both the Feelies and PJ Harvey playing in the beautiful weather in front of crowds in Union Park, I was left wanting more. I’d love to see longer shows by both of these bands, as opposed to these typically condensed festival sets that last an hour or so. (I’m jealous of those who saw the Feelies playing a full show at El Club in Detroit on the following night.) But I will take what I can get. And in general, shorter sets do create a livelier feeling at music festivals.
This year’s Pitchfork experienced some logistical problems — including long lines at the entrance on Friday. And when the big field got crowded at the end of the day, it wasn’t fun to make my way through the throngs of people. And this may be stating the obvious, but depending on where you were at any given moment, your experience of the festival may have been completely different from my own. I watched Harvey’s show from a spot near the stage, but then as she began playing the final song of her set, I started needling my way back through the crowd to reach the photo pit for the next show, by Saturday’s headliners, A Tribe Called Quest. By the time I’d reached the back part of the field, Harvey was still playing, but I could barely hear her music at all. In that part of the park, it was hard to tell that a concert was even going on.
Other highlights for me over the weekend included the resonating shoegaze guitar wall of Ride; the sultry, moody songs of Angel Olsen, which often built to ferocious climaxes; LCD Soundsystem’s dance party (even if it was a bit of rerun from previous fests); George Clinton’s nonstop groove; the boundless enthusiasm and catchy riffs of the garage rockers Priests, Cherry Glazerr, Jeff Rosenstock and NE-HI; Thurston Moore, still doing music that sounds like Sonic Youth (and why the hell not?); the enthralling songs of Mitski, who seemed almost stoic during the early part of her set (I wasn’t able to stay for the whole performance, which reportedly climaxed with a “primal scream”); Colin Stetson’s stunningly muscular saxophone minimalism; A Tribe Called Quest paying tribute to its recently deceased member, Phife Dawg, with an energetic set; the beautiful and passionate vocals of Jamila Woods; and R&B star Solange’s elaborately staged visual and audio spectacle.
As promised, Wilco performed its 1996 album Being There from beginning to end on Friday, June 23. Being There had won an online poll asking Wilco fans which of the band’s records it should perform on the opening night of Solid Sound, a festival Wilco curates every other year at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. After playing the 24 Americana songs on that beloved double album — without ever pausing for any of frontman Jeff Tweedy’s usual stage banter — Wilco came back onstage for an encore.
Without saying anything, the band launched into “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” the opening track from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, its masterpiece album from 2002. And then the band played “Kamera,” the second song on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. At this point, I wondered: Wait a second — is Wilco going to play the entire Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album, too? Some people standing near me in the crowd voiced the same question. And sure enough, that’s exactly what Tweedy and his band did, delivering all 11 songs from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in sequence, without ever stopping to announce what they were doing.
Wilco played the songs from both albums with the sort of flourishes and sonic layers that are typical of its live performances, but the band seemed to rein in those embellishments a little bit, keeping most of the songs as concise as they are on the original records. For instance, Tweedy has created a tradition of shouting “Nothing!” many, many times at the climax of “Misunderstood,” the opening song on Being There. He skipped that ritual during this performance.
The concert gained intensity during the encore, which showed just how artfully Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was constructed. After the noisy climax of “Poor Places,” Tweedy sang the opening verse of “Reservations” in a practically solo performance on acoustic guitar. A hush fell over the outdoor field where Wilco was playing — on the grounds of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art — as Tweedy quietly sang. The band subtly began filling in the rest of the song behind him. Just as it does on the record, the song drifted into an atmospheric final epilogue. That recording continued to play after the members of Wilco had lifted their hands toward the audience and departed from the stage. It was breathtakingly beautiful. (NYC Taper posted a recording of the show.)
This was the high point of Solid Sound, but it was hardly the only reason that the festival was worth traveling to attend. The weekend also included a rare concert by the Shaggs, the sisters who made the legendarily shambolic record Philosophy of the World in 1969. This performance was actually by two of the sisters — Dot and Betty Wiggin — and they were just singing. As an article in one of the local newspapers, The Manchester Journal, explained, “Arthritis prevents both Dot and Betty from playing instruments.” They were backed up by a younger group that has also played with Dot in recent years, the Dot Wiggin Band. As the Journal noted, “they work hard to master the sisters’ very unique style.” That made for a rather strange spectacle — seemingly talented musicians trying their best to sound as primitive as the Shaggs did when they made that 1969 recording under their father’s tutelage. The audience included adoring members of the Shaggs cult as well as some people who didn’t grasp what was going on. “My God, these people can’t keep the beat,” remarked a beer vendor who was clearly unfamiliar with the story of the Shaggs. “That’s how it’s supposed to sound,” I tried to explain. She shook her head and said, “So, it’s one of those things where it’s supposed to be so bad that it’s good?” It was certainly surreal, and I found it rather endearing to watch these two older women singing the off-kilter ditties they’d recorded when they were young.
Highlights of Solid Sound included a set by Television — even without Richard Lloyd, the group plays terrific guitar duels. And so did Kevin Morby and his band. Joan Shelley’s lilting folk songs sounded as delightful as ever. I was very impressed by the vocals and guitar playing of the Saskatchewan country-folk duo Kacy & Clayton (who have recorded a new album at Wilco’s Loft studio in Chicago). Another Saskatchewan musician, Andy Shauf, performed lovely ballads. Daniel Bachman’s instrumental guitar music was exquisite. And the emotion of Big Thief’s songs was palpable. While I was never a big fan of the J. Geils Band, that group’s vocalist, Peter Wolf, gave an entertaining and energetic performance with his current group, the Midnight Travelers. I also enjoyed the shows on the big stage by Kurt Vile and the Violators and Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin with the Guilty Ones.
In addition to all of the music, there was comedy — led as always by John Hodgman. Sadly, I missed out on all of that because of schedule conflicts with the live music. But I did find time to explore the art exhibits at Mass MoCA, which recently expanded. Chicago artist Nick Cave (not to be confused with the musician of the same name) has a massive installation called Until at the museum through August, which really shows what’s cool about this venue: With big rooms inside 19th-century factory buildings, it gives artist spaces where they try out big ideas. Here’s my video of a quick, three-minute walk-through of Cave’s installation:
Other noteworthy exhibits now on display include Jenny Holzer’s exploration of U.S. government’s torture victims at sites including Abu Ghraib. And there’s an interesting set of artworks by the musician Laurie Anderson, including huge drawings of dogs and some virtual reality environments she created. I spent 15 minutes immersed in one of those three-dimensional realms, and it was an odd and beguiling trip.
Of course, Solid Sound featured even more Wilco. On the second night, Wilco played a more typical concert. After opening with “At Least That’s What You Said,” the first song from the 2004 album A Ghost Is Born, Tweedy joked that, no, the band was not going to play that whole record: “We aren’t going to play any albums in their entirety tonight,” he said. “We’re going to play stuff from all our albums — except Being There and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. If you like those albums, you should have been here last night.” During the song “Via Chicago,” Tweedy abruptly exclaimed, “Holy shit! What the fuck was that?” I was too far away to see what had happened, but other audience members later told me that a bat had swooped down near Tweedy’s face as he was singing. Later in the show, Tweedy joked that he’d been attacked by a falcon or a “predator drone,” and he said it was the most scared he’s ever been onstage. He recovered pretty quickly in that moment, though. (Set list.)
Wilco’s various side projects played during the festival, including the Autumn Defense performing its album Circles and closing with a Love cover. Nels Cline played complex and lyrical jazz guitar with a quartet that included his past collaborator, guitarist Julian Lage. And drummer Glenn Kotche’s group On Fillmore sounded great — from inside the museum, anyway, where I happened to be at the time.
Just as it did in 2015, Solid Sound concluded with a set by Tweedy & Friends. The first part of this performance featured the band called Tweedy. That was followed by a solo acoustic performance by Jeff Tweedy. And then numerous musicians joined in — including two of his sons: drummer Spencer Tweedy (of course) but also Sammy, who sang Graham Nash’s song “Military Madness.” With various members of Wilco and other bands filling the stage, Tweedy and his assembled friends sang “California Stars,” “Give Back the Key to My Heart” and “I Shall Be Released.” (Set list.) It was a fitting way to end this weekend of friendship and creativity.
Negative Scanner — one of my favorite rock bands in Chicago these days — played a great free show on Saturday, June 10, at Bric-a-Brac Records. It was part of the fourth anniversary party at Bric-a-Bric & Collectibles, a shop where live garage rock is a regular occurrence. Singer-guitarist Rebecca Valeriano-Flores sounded ferocious at times, leading Negative Scanner through several songs from its self-titled 2015 album, along with a couple of tunes I didn’t recognize. (Signs of a new record coming sometime soon?)
After Negative Scanner, I stuck around for another Chicago band, the hard-rocking trio Sweet Cobra, which made a thunderous noise.
Why did I go to Detroit to see Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, rather than attending their concert next week in Chicago? Well, for one thing, I wanted an excuse for a road trip to Detroit. But I also discovered that the tickets for Cave’s June 3 show at Detroit’s Masonic Temple were considerably cheaper than tickets for his June 16 show at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre. Especially if I wanted to be up close to the stage, which is really the way to experience Cave in concert. I believe that the priciest Chicago tickets were more than $150, whereas similar tickets — for general admission on the main floor — were just $50 in Detroit. So off I went … and the trip was well worth it.
Cave is one of the most riveting live performers you will ever see, and he’s still at the top of his game. The last Cave show I saw — June 20, 2014, at the Milwaukee Theatre — was my favorite concert of that year. In the three years since then, Cave experienced a personal tragedy: his 15-year-old son Arthur fell to his death from a 60-foot after freaking out on LSD. An almost overpowering sense of grief filled Cave’s achingly beautiful album last year, Skeleton Tree.
Considering what Cave has gone through over the past few years, I wondered if his live shows might be a more somber affair. As it turns out, the concerts Cave is performing on this tour with his stellar backing band, the Bad Seeds, are similar in many ways to his previous tour. He still spends a great portion of the concert leaning out over the audience, walking among his fans, walking and lying on top of his fans — allowing them to stretch their hands up toward him, and sometimes reaching out to hold their hands. It’s a strange communal act that feels deeply personal. One rarely sees an artist putting himself or herself into the hands of an audience like that.
Now, add the lingering sorrow over the tragedy in Cave’s life — something that was surely on the minds of many audience members — and the musical communion feels even more spiritual.
Cave began the concert sitting in a chair at the front of the stage, singing an exquisitely still “Anthrocene.” But then the intensity built over the next six songs, as he prowled the stage and the audience, singing “Jesus Alone,” “Magneto,” “Higgs Boson Blues,” “From Her to Eternity,” “Tupelo” and “Jubilee Street” — culminating with Cave proclaiming “I’m vibrating — look at me now!” It felt like the whole theater was vibrating.
Cave took down the drama a bit during some quieter songs in the middle of the set, but brought back the high energy again with songs including his concert staples “Red Right Hand” and, in the encore, “Stagger Lee.” The Bad Seeds brought all of the songs to life with an ever-shifting palette of sounds. Warren Ellis raged on violin and guitar, of course, but also manned the grand piano at many key moments. When someone in the audience shouted out their love for Ellis, Cave smiled and remarked, “He’s fucking adorable. I don’t know what it is.” His beard? No, Cave suggested — it’s his heart.
The set list included many songs from Cave’s two most recent albums, plus the core oldies you expect at any Cave show. It was nice to hear one deep cut, “Breathless,” from his 2004 album The Lyre of Orpheus. And just as he did back in 2014, Cave ended his show with the title song from his 2013 masterpiece Push the Sky Away. It’s a meditative tune without a drum beat, which would seem to make it an unusual choice for the climatic closing number, but somehow it works as the most powerful way to end the performance. As he did three years ago, Cave used this song as his moment to walk way out in the crowd with his microphone on a long cord, finally wading his way back through the audience — brushing against me as he went — onto the stage for his final bow.
Anthrocene / Jesus Alone / Magneto / Higgs Boson Blues / From Her to Eternity / Tupelo / Jubilee Street / The Ship Song / Into My Arms / Girl in Amber / I Need You / Red Right Hand / The Mercy Seat / Distant Sky / Skeleton Tree
Encore: The Weeping Song / Breathless / Stagger Lee / Push the Sky Away
(I did not have photo credentials for this concert, so I didn’t have my regular camera gear with me. I managed to get these pictures with my iPhone; pardon the smaller-than-usual size.)
The Baltimore band Arbouretum has been playing heavy, rootsy guitar rock for about decade now, making several strong records on the Thrill Jockey label. On Arbouretum’s latest album, Song of the Rose, the group continues forging the sort of music it always has: songs rooted in folk rock with fuzz-drenched electric guitar riffs and solos, and mournful melodies carried by Dave Heumann’s plaintive voice. The epic quality of the music came through in Arbouretum’s live performance on Saturday, May 27, at Schubas. These four musicians — Heumann, bassist Corey Allender, keyboardist Matthew Pierce and drummer Brian Carey — dug into their songs with an unflashy intensity.
(Story continues below photos.)
Another Thrill Jockey band, Brokeback, opened the show with a set of evocative instrumental rock. Led by Doug McCombs (who also plays in Eleventh Dream Day and Tortoise), Brokeback recently released a new album, Illinois River Valley Blues.
Jambinai was one of my favorite bands at SXSW in 2014, playing epic music that mixed rock instruments with traditional Korean instruments. The South Korean band came to Chicago for the first time ever last week, playing May 18 at the Empty Bottle, and the concert showed once again that this is a superb ensemble playing music with dramatic power. There’s an orchestral strength to the music that’s reminiscent of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but Jambinai really makes a sound unlike anything else I’ve heard.
It’s mesmerizing to watch Jambinai member Eunyong Sim playing the geomungo, a traditional Korean stringed instrument of the zither family. She uses a variety of techniques to coax deep and rattling sounds out of that large and impressive-looking instrument, sometimes plucking or caressing the strings and sometimes tapping them with a short bamboo stick called a suldae. The geomungo functions at times like a bass, but it also has something of a percussive element to its sound.
Another member of the group, Bomi Kim, plays the haegeum, a bowed string instrument. It’s more like the Chinese urhu than a European violin, with two silk strings suspended in front of rod. Because those strings never actually touch a surface like the neck of a violin, the notes slide up and down. And Kim makes those notes really soar.
Giving the band more of a rock or even heavy metal edge was guitarist-vocalist Ilwoo Lee, who also occasionally played a small horn. He plays piri, a double-reed instrument, on Jambinai’s second and most recent album, Hermitage, which is excellent. The group leans more toward heavy metal on the new record, with a bit more vocals, compared with the predominantly instrumental debut album, 2012’s Differance.
Near the end of Jambinai’s set, Lee remarked that he hadn’t been sure what to expect when his band played in Chicago. How much of an audience would show up? After all, he said, “We are a strange band from a strange country.” Jambinai deserves a larger following, but the listeners who did turn out for Jambinai’s Chicago debut were richly rewarded.
As he sat down behind the piano at the Hungry Brain on May 16, the 81-year-old Chicago pianist Erwin Helfer introduced himself to the 20 or so people in the club. “This is the Erwin Helfer trio — me, the piano and the stool,” he said, displaying his wry sense of humor. Helfer, who plays a free show at 7:30 p.m. every Tuesday at the Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont Ave., opened his set with the classic “St. James Infirmary Blues,” before offering up a delightful sample of the various styles he has played over the decades — jazz, blues and boogie-woogie — along with charming stories and illuminating explanations of the music. Remarking on how attentive and appreciate the small audience was, Helfer said: “I’m not used to playing in places as sophisticated at this. I feel like I’m in Europe.”
Thigh Master, a rock band from Brisbane, Australia, played on Friday, March 10, at the Hideout — and like so many of the Australian bands I’ve heard lately, these guys played scrappy garage rock. I did notice a few artsy touches in the interlaced guitar melodies — nothing quite as elaborate as prog rock, though. It was an energetic and enjoyable set, part of a show that also featured the Chicago bands Pool Holograph and Basement Family.
The Brooklyn band Big Thief released a great album last year called Masterpiece — and the group, led by singer-songwriter-guitarist Adrianne Lenker, was even more impressive in concert last week at Schubas. Big Thief played Jan. 11, as part of the Tomorrow Never Knows festival. The band was missing one of its regular members, guitarist Buck Meek, reducing the lineup to a guitar-bass-drums trio, but it still sounded powerful. Lenker was a force of nature, shaping the songs with both her guitar playing and her impassioned vocals. The songs from Masterpiece sounded terrific, and the set also featured several tunes from a new record that’ll be out soon. This night of the TNK fest also featured a lovely set by Sam Evian, as well as Hoops and Campdogzz.
I’ve written before about my friend Jason Shanley, who performs guitar and electronic music under the name Cinchel. He is part of a new group called Mirror of Nature, which performed a cool set of improvised instrumental music on Jan. 7 at the Hungry Brain. Cinchel’s guitar, Mike Weis’ drums, Neil Jendon’s electronics and Keefe Jackson’s bass clarinet blended beautifully together into shifting sonic sculptures.
Sept. 26 during the Cropped Out festival at the American Turners Club in Louisville.
After 7 p.m., as the sun was going down, Callahan walked out onto the American Turner Club’s deck next to the Ohio River, where a small crowd had gathered for his performance. As Callahan played, insects along the rivers buzzed and chirped. Boats passed by on the river. Birds flying in V-shaped formations crossed the sky overheard. Throughout it all, Callahan sang with his typical poise, quirky sense of timing and wry humor. The astounding guitarist Matt Kinsey coaxed incredible sounds out of his Gibson SG electric guitar, almost like a second voice duetting with Callahan. What a transporting and unforgettable hour it was. See my blog post and photos. (Honorable mention: The Callahan concert I saw a few days later at Constellation in Chicago was also damn good.)
Aug. 7 at the Chicago Theatre.
Three terrific singer-songwriters — Neko Case, k.d. lang and Laura Veirs — teamed up for a album last year, and their concert was just as collaborative and warm-spirited. A special night featuring three amazing voices.
Sept. 9-10 at the Chicago Cultural Center.
A 15-hour concert of Indian classical music, stretching from 6 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 9, until 9 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 10, with sitars, tablas, flutes, violins and singers sounding all night under the magnificent Tiffany Dome in Preston Bradley Hall. The music was mesmerizing, beautiful and astonishing. Many of the pieces that were performed were intended to be heard at the specific times they were played, such as ragas for the “coming dawn,” which were heard around 4:30 a.m. The pink hues of the rising sun trickled into the grand room after 6 a.m., glinting in the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome. It was a gorgeous sight to behold, all the more so with such incredible musical accompaniment. See my blog post and photos.
4. Le Butcherettes
March 3 at Subterranean.
Le Butcherettes’ beautiful frontwoman Teri Gender Bender (aka Teresa Suárez) strides around the stage like she owns it — rapidly changing her facial expressions from wide-mouthed, wide-eyed insanity to gentle smiles as she switched between guitar and keyboards. See my blog post and photos. See my blog post and photos.
5. Joan Shelley
Dec. 3 at the Hideout.
Shelley’s voice was stunningly beautiful at the Hideout show, especially when she sang a cappella versions of two traditional folk songs: “Darlin’ Don’t You Know That’s Wrong” by Addie Graham and the chillingly macabre “Little Margaret,” which closes with the lyrics: “Three times he kissed her cold corpsy lips/And fell in her arms asleep.” Honorable mention goes to Shelley’s lovely set at the Cropped Out festival in Louisville. Like the set by Bill Callahan, it was performed at sunset on the banks of the Ohio River. Both times I saw Shelley in 2016, the beauty of her song “Not Over by Half” brought tears to my eyes. See my blog post and photos.
Aug. 25 at the Empty Bottle.
This felt like a quintessential night of live Chicago music: seeing Tortoise at Millennium Park, followed by Ryley Walker’s late concert at the Empty Bottle. (Consider the Tortoise show an honorable mention here.) Walker and his collaborators know how to stretch a song out, to revel in grooves, to explore a chord progression or melodic motif in ways that are hypnotic and enchanting. This set was a marvel. See my blog post and photos.
8. The Flat Five and Chris Ligon
Oct. 22 at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
As I wrote in my album review, the debut album by the Flat Five, It’s a World of Love and Hope, is a strange and wonderful thing. I doubt you’ll hear any other record this year that sounds anything like this. And this performance was especially great, with an opening set by Flat Five member Scott Ligon’s brother, Chris — the eccentric genius who wrote all of the songs on the album. (Honorable mention: The Flat Five also played a lovely show at the Green Mill.)
9. The Necks
March 27 at Constellation.
The Necks’ minimalist motifs gradually transformed, growing in volume and intensity, but a steadiness remained at the heart of the music — each musician closely following the lead of the others but then pulling the trio in a slightly new direction. It was a wonder to see and hear. See my blog post and photos.
10. Reigning Sound
Sept. 29 during Goner Fest at the Hi Tone in Memphis.
The excitement of the crowd was palpable. Maybe it was because this was a hometown show for the band. Or maybe people were just thrilled to see this version of the band. People were dancing and singing along all around me, and the enthusiasm was contagious. And as Greg Cartwright sang one quick masterpiece after another, it reminded me of just how impressive those Reigning Sound albums are, with tightly wounded rock tunes reminiscent of the 1960s, packing memorable melodies into every minute. See my blog post and photos.
Special prize: Robbie Fulks
Monday-night residency at the Hideout.
So many excellent nights of music and repartee. If I had a choose a favorite from 2016, it might be Fulks’ show with Linda Gail Lewis on Aug. 29. Jerry Lee Lewis’ sister sang and played the piano very much in the style of her more famous brother — including many covers of his hits — with Fulks, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall (aka those guys from the Flat Five and the Western Elstons) providing just the right accompaniment. Lewis kept smiling, and so did I.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Feb. 13 at Rockefeller Chapel
Neko Case and Robbie Fulks, Feb. 15 at the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove
eighth blackbird with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, March 26 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
Waco Brothers and The Sadies, May 21 at Wire in Berwyn
Savages, July 16 during the Pitchfork Music Festival at Union Park
Kamasi Washington, July 17 during the Pitchfork Music Festival at Union Park
King Sunny Ade, July 18 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park
Vulgar Boatmen with Walter Salas-Humara, July 27 at Martyrs’ Radiohead, July 29 during Lollapalooza in Grant Park
Mbongwana Star, Aug. 11 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park Wilco and Twin Peaks, Aug. 21 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park Guided By Voices, Sept. 3 at Metro Eleventh Dream Day, Sept. 10 at the Hideout
Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society + Bitchin Bajas and Emmet Kelly with Joshua Abrams Quintet, Nov. 15 at the Hideout Robyn Hitchcock and Emma Swift, Nov. 17 at City Winery
Kawabata Makoto & Tatsuya Nakatani, Nov. 29 at the Empty Bottle
Joan Shelley’s album Over and Even was my favorite record of 2015, , so of course I’m thrilled to hear that she’s working on a new album. She mentioned this during her concert on Saturday, Dec. 3, at the Hideout, where she sprinkled some of the new material amid a nice a selection of songs from her first two albums. Shelley says she’s working on the new recordings here in Chicago with the seemingly ubiquitous Chicago guitarist Jim Elkington as well as her own marvelous guitar player, Nathan Salsburg. Shelley’s voice was stunningly beautiful at the Hideout show, especially when she sang a cappella versions of two traditional folk songs: “Darlin’ Don’t You Know That’s Wrong” by Addie Graham and the chillingly macabre “Little Margaret,” which closes with the lyrics: “Three times he kissed her cold corpsy lips/And fell in her arms asleep.”
The show also featured a charming opening set by Moon Bros., aka Matt Schneider, who silenced the room with the simple act of rattling jingle bells and then played impressive instrumental songs on his acoustic guitar, along with a few sung folk tunes.
Here’s a video I took of Shelley and Salsburg performing the song “Here and Whole,” which is on a new 7-inch record released by the No Quarter label.
The British duo Ultimate Painting keeps turning out one splendid record after another — three albums in the past three years. James Hoare and Jack Cooper’s newest collection, Dusk (on Chicago label Trouble in Mind), is basically more of the same: pretty little pop gems with glittering, interlaced guitar lines and delicate vocal melodies and harmonies.
But when the band performs these songs in concert — as it did on Friday, Dec. 2, at the Hideout — it turns up the volume a few notches, grooving like the Feelies or the Velvet Underground. Hoare set down his guitar to play the Hideout’s house piano on a couple of songs, but the guitars were what this night was really about — culminating in a long, searing jam in the final song of the show, “Ten Street.”
The show started with enjoyable sets by the Chicago band Deeper (whose music reminded me a bit of 1980s or ’90s post-punk) and the New York group EZTV (whose music reminded of … well, Ultimate Painting).
Two master musicians from Japan — guitarist Kawabata Makoto, who’s the leader of Acid Mothers Temple, and percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani — created a beautiful instrumental epic onstage at the Empty Bottle on Nov. 29. Both used bows at many points during the concert, with Makoto bowing the strings of his electric guitar while Nakatani gently coaxed vibrations from a huge gong and other pieces of percussion. Nakatani even played the drums with his mouth for one short passage. This collaboration was an enthralling duet, filled with dramatic musical flourishes. Makoto and Nakatani seemed to be playing with an uncommon sense of freedom.
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The evening also featured two noteworthy opening sets. Brian Case, leader of the rock band Disappears, played instrumental electronic music. Spires That In the Sunset Rise continued exploring the many possibilities of what sounds two musicians can create together, duetting with wind instruments at some points, singing and plucking autoharp at other times. The results were bracing and fascinating.
Sadly, I arrived a bit late for the Poster Children’s early concert on Wednesday, Nov. 23, at Schubas. Rather than barging my way to the front of the crowded room during this sold-out show, I stayed in the back corner — which turned out to be a pretty good spot for getting some photos. This Champaign rock band, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, sounded as exuberant and energetic as ever.
On its website, the band reports: “If you saw us on this tour, you probably felt like we were having a blast on the stage, and you were right, we were. We were ecstatic to be playing again, and we are especially happy to see our new songs so well-received. We’ve already been in the studio with Steve Albini, recording new songs, and we’ll continue to work on a new record that should be released sometime in 2017.”
The masterful Chicago musician Joshua Abrams played five concerts at the Hideout in November, playing with different collaborators on each Tuesday night. The one constant was the group he calls Natural Information Society Residency — but even that ensemble has a shifting lineup. It’s essentially a setting for Abrams to play an African instrument called the gimbri (a three-stringed skin-covered bass plucked lute used by the Gnawa people of West Africa) as part of a large group of musicians improvising meditative minimalism and drones — part jazz, part rock, part world music, part experiment. Natural Information Society is one of Chicago’s best groups today, and the two shows I saw during November’s residency only confirmed how innovative and transcendent this band is.
I was there on Nov. 15, when the evening started with a set by Emmett Kelly, the multitalented musician who leads the Cairo Gang (or performs under that moniker) as well as playing guitar with numerous other bands. On this evening, however, Kelly sang cool jazz music in a style reminiscent of Chet Baker, with moody and atmospheric arrangements by the Joshua Abrams Quintet.
Then the main set featured Natural Information Society joining forces with Bitchin Bajas. Kelly joined in on guitar.
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The second show I saw was on Nov. 22, when the fabulous drummer Hamid Drake performed during both sets. During the jazzy opening set, Abrams and Drake played with Edward Wilkerson on reeds and oud and Josh Berman on cornet. Then came another mesmerizing performance by Natural Information Society.
Bill Callahan’s performance was the highlight of the Cropped Out festival’s second day, Saturday, Sept. 24, in Louisville. After 7 p.m., as the sun was going down, Callahan walked out onto the American Turner Club’s deck next to the Ohio River, where a small crowd had gathered for his performance. I was sitting right in front of the stage when Callahan stepped around me, casually remarking, “Watch out. There’s a piece of cheese.” Looking down, I saw a small chunk of pizza sitting next to me. After that odd little greeting, Callahan gave a breathtakingly beautiful performance — accompanied, as he often is, by the astounding guitarist Matt Kinsey, as well as bassist Jaime Zuverza (who’d played earlier in the day with his own band, Hidden Ritual).
As they played, insects along the rivers buzzed and chirped. Boats passed by on the river. Birds flying in V-shaped formations crossed the sky overheard. Callahan remarked that the temperature was perfect. In this enchanting setting, as dusk fell, Callahan aptly sang a few songs that mentioned rivers. His set list included songs from his superb recent albums Apocalypse and Dream River, as well as covers of Grateful Dead and Carter Family songs, finishing with a few of the tunes that Callahan performed years ago under the moniker Smog. Throughout it all, Callahan sang with his typical poise, quirky sense of timing and wry humor. Kinsey coaxed incredible sounds out of his Gibson SG electric guitar, almost like a second voice duetting with Callahan.
What a transporting and unforgettable hour it was.
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SET LIST: Riding for the Feeling / Spring / America! / Easy Wind (Grateful Dead cover) / Drover / Rococo Zephyr / Walk that Lonesome Valley (Carter Family cover) / I’m New Here (Smog song) / Say Valley Maker (Smog song) / Let Me See the Colts (Smog song)
(I saw another Callahan concert two days later, the early set on Sept. 26 at Constellation in Chicago. The set list was similar, with just a few differences, and Zuverza wasn’t present. It was another wonderful performance, even if it lacked the idyllic natural environment of Callahan’s Cropped Out show.)
Cropped Out’s second day started off with an odd, jokey set by Vern — more like performance comedy art than rock concert.
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The New Zealand band Opposite Sex followed, with an intriguing performance, showing the energy of punk rock but with a variety of other influences thrown into the mix. (The group’s recent album Hamlet even includes a couple of quieter songs played on piano.)
The next band up, Felchers, hadn’t been scheduled to perform on the Spooky Beach riverside deck, but it was one of only two stages with working electricity in the early afternoon, so that’s where they ended up. This Kentucky played straight-ahead hardcore punk, growl-shouting phrases like, “Oh my, this is unsettling!”
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The Louisville band Insect Policy mixed jazzy art-rock improvisation with punk-style vocals. One of the musicians was wearing an Acid Mothers Temple T-shirt, which gave a pretty good indication of Insect Policy’s influences.
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Creeping Pink played dreamy shoegaze rock, with vocals that blended into the guitars. (On Facebook, the Los Angeles band calls its stuff “Tape Glam.”)
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On the Spooky Beach deck, Chicago artist Matchess (aka Whitney Johnson) performed a lovely sonic collage, with recorded sounds blending into her vocals, keyboards and violin.
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As I mentioned above, Bill Callahan bassist Jaime Zuverza also fronted his own band at Cropped Out — Hidden Ritual — playing dark, brooding rock that reminded me of Protomartyr and the Cure.
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One of my favorite bands on Saturday was Bugg, apparently from Bloomington, Indiana. Searching online, I’ve found only scant information about Bugg, other than a demo posted on YouTube. Bugg’s pop-punk was bursting with energy. At moments, the group reminded me of the Replacements, and then the guys really won me over by doing a cover of the classic Guided By Voices tune “Bulldog Skin.”
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Power, a trio from Melbourne, Australia, lived up to its name, playing metal-punk riffs with intensity and precision.
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After Bill Callahan’s astonishing set came a complete change of pace: the St. Louis punk band Black Panties, led by a frontman clad in a black outfit, complete with a face-obscuring mask. The crowd inside Turners Tavern went wild, setting the tone for the rest of the evening, which was marked by much moshing. All of the sets during this late portion of Cropped Out’s second day, Pissed Jeans was the most iconoclastic and unpredictable, clearly having a great deal of fun. Saturday night also featured the festival’s only hip-hop, the longtime rapper Kool Keith, who got much of the crowd dancing.
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Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, a rock band from Columbus, Ohio, that stopped playing back in 2000, was back together at Cropped Out. I recall seeing this group open for Guided By Voices in 1997, and Saturday’s performance evoked that era of indie rock. The band sounded excellent.
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Cropped Out concluded with a strong performance by the Austin, Texas, post-punk band Spray Paint. A long two days of music came to an end with a jolt of energy.
Cropped Out feels like a homemade music festival. The website for the annual event in Louisville, Kentucky, hasn’t been thoroughly updated for a couple of years. Although the site displays pictures of the 2016 festival lineup, if you click on the drop-down menu for “FESTIVAL,” the most recent info listed is from 2014. Ticket sales are handled through some guy’s PayPal account. ($70 for a weekend pass.) Even the description of the venue is a bit sketchy: American Turners Club? What is that exactly? So, don’t think of Cropped Out as being anything like the bigger, more commercial music festivals. This is not Lollapalooza. It’s DIY.
I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect when I drove to Louisville last week for Cropped Out, but the Sept. 23-24 festival turned out to be a rather delightful experience. The American Turners Club — a German-American organization’s center with a swimming pool, boat club, gymnastics group, etc. — is a compound along the southern shore of the Ohio River. The place had a feel of a VFW hall crossed with a run-down athletic center. Glamorous, it was not, but the location near the river gave it a pastoral charm. However, the men’s room had a horror-movie vibe, with a urinal trough and blinking neon light next to an oddly vacant room containing a chair.) And the Cropped Out organizers decked out the whole venue with garish Halloween inflatable decorations, bedsheets spray-painted with the names of the various stages, and a bunch of comic-book-style drawings. (Like the one next to the bar that showed someone passed out and surrounded by emptied bottles.)
There were four stages, including one in a covered outdoor space — where a large monster with outstretched arms hung on the ceiling above the bands. Upstairs, the Turners Tavern hosted indoor performances, including several punk shows (by bands like Black Panties and Lumpy and the Dumpers) that quickly turned into wild mosh pits. My favorite spot was “Spooky Beach,” the deck near the Ohio River shore where several artists performed throughout the weekend. It was sunny and hot both days, and this little stage was an idyllic setting for beautiful performances by Bill Callahan, Joan Shelley, Matchess and others.
The festival ran on schedule, with only a few minor hitches. (Early on Saturday, a transformer blew out, knocking out the power throughout most of the center, but there was enough electricity to run two stages. And within a couple of hours, the utility company crews had everything fixed.) I’d estimate that a few hundred people attended the festival throughout the weekend. It was always pretty easy to walk around, and to get spots close to the stages. There was no security to speak of, and fans were allowed to walk around on just about all sides of the stages.
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I didn’t get press credentials. I’m not even sure if they were offered, or who was handling publicity for the festival. I just bought a ticket, brought my camera, and took pictures as much as I desired, without anyone stopping me. (That’s the way I like it.)
The closest thing to a corporate sponsor sign was a tombstone on the roof deck, saying that Cropped Out “is survived” by sponsorship from a list local businesses. It was positioned next to an electric organ, which anyone was welcome to play.
The audience looked like the sort of people I see at indie rock and experimental music shows in Chicago, or in other cities where I’ve attended such concerts: Mostly young people, along with a few middle-aged music aficionados (gray-haired folks like myself). A lot of tattoos and long hair. A fair amount of these people seemed to be from Louisville or nearby. As one of the musicians performing at Cropped Out remarked (I’m forgetting exactly who said this), Kentucky is not just bluegrass music.
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Three of the bands I saw early on Friday, Sept. 23, were Louisville locals, and they offered a good sample of some of the underground music being made in the city today. Dry Summers played off-kilter rock songs with a loopy, cheerful vibe. Pleasure Boys thundered and howled its heavy psychedelic music — epic, but with a slightly goofy air about it, reminding me of early Black Mountain. And Cereal Glyphs impressed me with melodic, psychedelic tunes, a little reminiscent of the 1960s Nuggets records. Other strong performances I saw early on Friday included Paper Claw, hailing from Lafayette, Indiana, a band I definitely want to hear more from.
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Performing at “Spooky Beach,” Louisville experimental artist Aaron Rosenblum built a sonic landscape using birdcalls, train noises and electronics.
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Beat Awfuls, a band from Lexington, Kentucky, played indie rock with some of the tunefulness of Guided By Voices.
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Giving Up from Garner, Iowa, played strange, intriguing art-punk with lots of spirit and energy.
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As I expected, Louisville singer-songwriter Joan Shelley’s performance on Friday was a highlight of Cropped Out. Adding to the beauty of her delicate folk songs — which she sang and played guitar, with perfect accompaniment by guitarist Nathan Salsburg — was the setting. Shelley performed on that deck next to the Ohio River, with the sun going down behind her. It was entrancing and exquisite.
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Here’s my video of the final song from Joan Shelley’s performance, “Not Over By Half”:
The festival included one jazz performance, by saxophonist Joe McPhee and pedal-steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. (Yes, a pedal-steel guitarist playing jazz, and in a somewhat unorthodox style — it was entrancing.)
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After darkness fell on Friday, Fred and Toody Cole — two-thirds of the punk band Dead Moon — performed their old songs at Spooky Beach, with a couple of bright white lights illuminating their faces amid the gloom.
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The Dead C, a New Zealand noise-rock band that’s been together since 1986, performed in the evening under the “Phreedom Hall” awning — or two-thirds of the group performed, anyway. Drummer Robbie Yeats wasn’t present, but guitarists Bruce Russell and Michael Morley conjured up a storm of loud, feedback-drenched textures.
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Friday’s final performance was inside Turners Tavern, where a crowd gathered around Bitchin Bajas and Bonnie “Prince” Billy as they performed mesmerizing, dream-like chants from their recent album together, Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties.
The Handsome Family have a new album called Unseen, which brought them to Chicago for a concert on Sunday night at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Sadly, I missed that show, but I did see the group’s cool performance of several songs on Tuesday, Sept. 20, in an art gallery. Presented by Aron Packer Projects at the Tom Robinson Gallery, it was part of a one-night-only exhibit of paintings by Rennie Sparks, the Handsome Family’s brilliant lyricist. In addition to Rennie’s richly imaginative paintings of animals, the exhibit included a few items that weren’t for sale: a sample of her collection of dog and cat food cans from around the world, and a display case of cat whiskers she has collected. These oddities were the perfect backdrop for a short sample of Brett and Rennie Sparks’ beautiful and darkly humorous old-fashioned country and folk music. (Terry Gross’ interview of the Handsome Family this week on NPR’s Fresh Air is well worth hearing.)
The Mekons have a new record called Existentialism— a lo-fi live CD of new songs performed into one microphone, with an accompanying book — but the band played just one of those new tunes on Monday, Sept. 19, at the Hideout. Instead of promoting the new material, the band delivered a typically rollicking set filled with most of its most beloved songs. Sally Timms said the Mekons would play fewer “hits” during the following night’s show at the Hideout; Jon Langford jokingly questioned whether that would be possible.
The Handsome Family’s Brett and Rennie Sparks came onstage and sang their song “The Sad Milkman” with the Mekons. And then, finally, as the Mekons came back for a second encore, the band played one song from the new album — it wasn’t printed on the set list — “Simone on the Beach,” which is inspired by the true story of French writer Simone de Beauvoir and her love affair with Chicago author Nelson Algren. It’s also a song that happens to mention the bar where the Mekons were playing on this night: “Did they drink at the Hideout, back in 1947? The house under the highway, in bed with him as container trucks roll by.”
SET LIST: Memphis, Egypt / Beaten and Broken / Tina / Millionaire / Diamonds / Abernant 1984-85 / Heaven and Back / Fantastic Voyage / Fletcher Christian / Orpheus / Now We Have the Bomb / Last Dance / Curse / Hard to Be Human
ENCORE: Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem / The Sad Milkman / Big Zombie / Shanty / Where Were You
SECOND ENCORE: Simone on the Beach / Ghosts of American Astronauts
The Hideout, one of my favorite music venues, celebrated its 20th anniversary with a daylong mini-festival on Saturday — billed as a “20-Year Reunion.” In truth, the Hideout is much older than just two decades, as the city of Chicago’s cultural historian, Tim Samuelson, told the audience on Saturday in a short spiel about the venue’s history. He said it’s been serving alcohol since around 1919 — probably continuing as an illegal booze joint during the Prohibition Era.
But 20 years ago was when Tim Tuten and his wife, Katie, and their friends, twins Jim and Mike Hinchsliff, took over the Hideout and began transforming it into a friendly gathering place in the midst of a starkly urban landscape. (There’s a parking lot across the street filled with city garbage trucks.) In 2004, I interviewed the Tutens and the Hinchsliff brothers for a Pioneer Press feature about the Hideout. Back then, I wrote:
After eight years of running the Hideout, the owners still look on the experience like a fun adventure from their childhood days in the suburbs. “Kids used to make forts,” Tim Tuten says. “We looked at this as a fort or a clubhouse.”
That’s as true as it ever was. The Hideout is a sort of playground for musicians and their fans, and it also hosts comedy and literary events, political discussions … you name it. The genre of music most often associated with the Hideout is alt-country, but its concert schedule extends way beyond twang, including everything from experimental jazz to hard rock. And I’ve always sensed a welcoming vibe in its cozy space. Even on those rare nights when I don’t know a lot of people in the crowd, it just feels like a place where it’s easy to strike up a conversation with some of your fellow music fans.
The venue hosted an outdoor festival called the Hideout Block Party during many years, sometimes on Wabansia Street in front of the bar, sometimes taking over a bigger space in that garbage-truck parking lot. Last year, there was no Block Party. And this year’s event was pulled together somewhat belatedly. It turned out to be a smaller-scale even than the festival was in some years. There was just a small stage in front of the bar, and admission was a $20 donation. The lineup was filled with artists who have been regulars and favorites at the Hideout over the past 20 years. There was no need to bring in any additional big-name stars.
I did not see every single minute of Saturday’s party (my excuse is that I was recovering from sitting through the 15-hour Ragamala concert over the previous night). Early in the afternoon, I missed Plastic Crimewave Vision Celestial Guitarkestra, a “Late, Late Breakfast Pancake Brunch” and the Girl Talk interview show; and at the end of the night, I missed indoor performances by Devil in a Woodpile and the Lawrence Peters Outfit. But the eight hours of music I did catch were a fun time, filled with good spirit. It culminated with a lively set by Eleventh Dream Day, who closed with a cover of Lovin Spoonful’s “Summer in the City.” (See my video of the song here.)
The Flat Five — that wonderful Chicago group I’ve photographed and written about many times before — played three sets on Saturday, Aug. 27, at the Green Mill. As the band’s members observed, it may be the first time anyone has ever played a Hollies cover (“Carrie Anne”) at this venerable jazz club. But there’s a lot of jazz in what the Flat Five do, making this evening a real treat. The Flat Five’s long-awaited debut album, It’s a World of Love and Hope, comes out Oct. 14, featuring 12 songs written by Chris Ligon — the oddball songwriter who’s the brother of Flat Five member Scott Ligon. You can hear one song, “This Is Your Night,” on Soundcloud. Saturday’s show included songs from the new album as well as the Flat Five’s usual mix of obscure pop gems. Even though the group played from 8 p.m. to midnight (with a couple of breaks), it still played only a fraction of its vast repertoire.
Friday, Aug. 26, was another two-concert night for me. Talk about strange juxtapositions. I started out the evening by driving to Skokie for a free show by Blue Öyster Cult at the Backlot Bash street festival… which was pretty good, as far as classic rock band shows go. But alas, I missed the big finish with “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Godzilla” so I could make it to the Hideout in time for a show on the more experimental end of the spectrum…
Blue Öyster Cult
Rob Mazurek and Emmett Kelly
I got to the Hideout in time to see the record-release show for Rob Mazurek and Emmett Kelly. Mazurek is best known as a jazz musician, playing cornet as well as using electronics. Kelly is a versatile guitarist, playing with both rock and jazz groups, as well as a fine singer-songwriter in his own right, leading the Cairo Gang. On the new album Alien Flower Sutra. Kelly’s voice drifts through strange sonic landscapes sculpted by Mazurek. The music was equally strange in Friday’s live performance.
Their set was followed by Horse Lords, a band from Baltimore playing instrumental music that might get categorized as jazz — though it sounded to me more like progressive rock along the lines of King Crimson or krautrock, with guitar, sax, bass and drums locked into rigorous patterns. Whatever genre it is, it was damn impressive.
Aug. 25 felt like a quintessential night of live Chicago music: seeing Tortoise at Millennium Park, followed by Ryley Walker’s late concert at the Empty Bottle. Tortoise’s instrumental music resonated beautifully in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, with the band members constantly shifting around the instruments, playing intricate patterns with almost astonishing precision. The show also featured a nice opening by Homme (a duo I’d seen recently at the Pitchfork Music Festival).
Ryley Walker’s music seems quite different from Tortoise at first glance, and yet, there’s some similarity, especially when he is playing live with his excellent band. Like Tortoise and other Chicago bands — like Joshua Abrams and Natural Information Society — Walker and his collaborators know how to stretch a song out, to revel in grooves, to explore a chord progression or melodic motif in ways that are hypnotic and enchanting. Walker’s new album, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, is terrific, but its jammy folk-rock songs only hint at how jammy the group gets in concert. I recommend buying the deluxe 2-LP version, which adds a record containing a 41-minute live version of “Sullen Mind,” a song that is a mere 6 1/2 minutes in its studio version.
Walker’s set on Thursday at the Empty Bottle was a marvel. And it was particularly special because it offered a rare chance to see Leroy Bach — who produced the album — sitting in with the band. And it’s uncertain how many more times we’ll get a chance to see the fantastic drummer Frank Rosaly playing with this band, as we did on Thursday; I’m told that Rosaly has moved from Chicago to Europe. That’s a loss for Chicago, but Thursday night’s wonderful sets by Tortoise and Walker showed that the city’s independent music scene — where rock, jazz, country and experimental music often overlap — is as vibrant as ever.
The Rizdales — a country band from London, Ontario — played Aug. 20 at the Hideout, apparently playing in Chicago for the first time ever. Although the group records original music by the husband-and-wife songwriting team Tom and Tara Dunphy, its most recent album is Blue Ain’t The Word: A Tribute to the Music of Ray Price, and this show was a tribute to Price and his music. Three Chicago singers joined the Rizdales onstage during the show: Jon Langford, Rachel Drew and Lawrence Peters, who also opened the concert. It made for an enjoyable night of old-fashioned country music.
I always love seeing concerts at Logan Square’s Illinois Centennial Monument — that tall column with the eagle on top — but these shows don’t happen often enough. So it was cool that Comfort Station, Maximum Pelt and Tall Pat Records teamed up for a fundraiser festival on Aug. 20. I was there for just a short time, arriving just as a brief rainstorm hit and then staying long enough to catch a playful, noisy set by Comm to Black on the outdoor stage and a meditative performance inside Comfort Station by Cinchel.
The African band Mbongwana Star got the audience dancing on Aug. 11 at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion, playing wildly infectious beats and beguiling, highly rhythmic guitar riffs and solos. This group from the Democratic Republic of the Congo includes two singers (Yakala “Coco” Ngambali and Nsituvuidi “Theo” Nzonza,) who were also founding members of the band Staff Benda Bilili (that name means “look beyond appearances”) — paraplegic musicians from the streets of Kinshasa. Last week on the stage at Millennium Park, Ngambali and Nzonza spun around in their wheelchairs, with Nzonza especially exuberant and demonstrative, frequently lifting his arms up with an air of triumph.
The show began with a fine performance by the Chicago-based group Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta, which mixed some psychedelic and Krautrock touches into its Latin rock.
One of the main reasons to attend Lollapalooza this year was the reunion of LCD Soundsystem, and the band did not disappoint. It was blast to hear LCD’s greatest hits on the final Sunday night of Lolla (July 31), and the crowd around me was dancing with joy at the end.
As expected, the highlight of this year’s Lollapalooza for me was Radiohead. It was great to see the band again after an absence of several years, and the new songs sounded very strong in concert alongside a career-spanning sample of Radiohead classics. During the song “Identikit,” as Thom Yorke chanted the line, “Broken hearts make it rain,” it actually did start to rain — just a few sprinkles. And as it turned out, that was the only moment during the whole evening when I noticed any rain falling. Although the concert was supposed to end at 10 p.m., Radiohead returned for a surprise second encore, playing two oldies, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” and “Karma Police.” Interestingly, according to setlist.fm, the band’s written set list showed “Reckoner” as an alternative song to start the second encore, followed by “Silent Night.”
Burn the Witch / Daydreaming / Ful Stop / 2 + 2 = 5 / Myxomatosis / My Iron Lung / Climbing Up the Walls / No Surprises / Pyramid Song / Bloom / Identikit / The Numbers / The Gloaming / Weird Fishes/Arpeggi / Everything in Its Right Place / Idioteque / There There
FIRST ENCORE: Let Down / Present Tense / Paranoid Android / Nude / Bodysnatchers
SECOND ENCORE: Street Spirit (Fade Out) / Karma Police
The prolific Ty Segall has yet another new band — GØGGS, which also includes Chris Shaw from the Memphis punk band Ex-Cult and Charles Moothart of Fuzz, CFM and the Ty Segall Band. The group, which recently released its self-titled debut album on In the Red records, played its first Chicago shows last week at the Empty Bottle. I was there on the second night (Wednesday, July 20), and it was one of the more unhinged rock performances I’ve seen lately. The opening acts, Soddy Daisy and Absolutely Not, were pretty damn impressive, too, making for a fun night.
My photos from the 2016 Pitchfork Music Festival are featured on the A.V. Club website. Here are some additional pictures from Day 3, July 17. (Click here for photos from Day 1, and here for photos from Day 2.)
My photos from the 2016 Pitchfork Music Festival are featured on the A.V. Club website. Here are some additional pictures from Day 2, July 16. (Click here for photos from Day 1, and here for photos from Day 3.)
My photos from the 2016 Pitchfork Music Festival are featured on the A.V. Club website. Here are some additional pictures, starting with a gallery from Day 1, July 15. (Click here for photos from Day 2, and here for photos from Day 3.)
It had been years since the legendary Nigerian singer King Sunny Adé played in Chicago. He was scheduled to perform in Millennium Park’s concert series last summer, but then that gig got canceled. He made up for it this Monday, July 18, lighting up the Jay Pritzker Pavilion stage \with his infectious, positive vibes. Adé and his large band always kept a great groove going, with forward-pushing rhythms pulsing through even the quietest passages. And throughout the show, Adé and the singer-dancers dressed in white acted out little scenes, almost like a theatrical company or a dance troupe — such as a guitar solo that left them all staggering in a exaggerated stupor. Many audience members were on their feet by the end of the show, greeting this African hero and his glorious music with enthusiastic applause.
Ugochi & A.S.E.
Ugochi, a Nigerian-American singer based in Chicago, opened the show, performing music that she called “Afro-soul,” blending various American and African genres.
Femi Kuti‘s father, the legendary Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti, created the extraordinary and exhilarating style of music called Afrobeat. As Fela’s eldest son, Femi is carrying on the family tradition. On Monday, July 11, he performed a joyous nonstop jam with his band, The Positive Force, at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Early in the concert, Kuti told the audience: “By the end of tonight, we hope you feel the beauty of Africa through music, we hope you feel the essence of true peace.” That musical message came through loud and clear.