The BellRays at the Empty Bottle

Soul music and R&B are alive well these days, not because of the usual slickly produced fare you hear on the radio, but because of rawer, back-to-basics acts like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, the Detroit Cobras and the BellRays. The BellRays put on a lively performance before a small crowd (about 50 or so, not pathetic, but they deserved a bigger audience), with lead singer Lisa Kekaula exhorting everyone to dance and holler. The BellRays play a mix of soul with some hard-rock or garage-rock guitars. I like their new album Have a Little Faith pretty well, but it all sounded better in concert. SEE PHOTOS OF THE BELLRAYS.

The opening acts were Bottles of Wine (who did not leave much of an impression on me… reasonably well-played but not very interesting blues) and SSM. I’m not sure what to make of SSM. The guitar-keyboard-drums trio had a pretty good sound, but the songs didn’t stick with me. SEE PHOTOS OF SSM.


Pink Mountaintops and Black Angels at the Empty Bottle

Black Mountain’s self-titled CD was one of my favorites in 2005. This year, I discovered Pink Mountaintops, sort of an alter ego of Black Mountain. Both bands are led by Stephen McBean, and both bands are dominated by his great groove guitar riffs and his vocals, which seem to me to have a certain hippy/slacker vibe. Pink Mountaintops is not as heavy as Black Mountain, but it’s not exactly a lite-rock version of that band. I’ve yet to hear the first album by Pink Mountaintops (Jessica Hopper wrote an illuminating commentary on both of the band’s records in the Chicago Reader, and now I’m eager to hear that first record). The new one is very good, though, and this concert was, too.

Given the fact that this band is mostly Stephen McBean (or so it seems), it was interesting to see so many musicians crowding onto the stage – seven. Plus, a number of musicians from the two opening acts got onto the stage at times, giving the whole concert a weird party-like atmosphere. McBean is reserved onstage, saying little between songs but letting his singing and guitar riffs say a lot. 

One of the opening acts, the Black Angels, practically stole the show. I’ve been wanting to hear this Austin band since I missed them at SXSW. What I heard tonight: intense, psychedelic guitar playing, and more than a few yelps of intensity. Great stuff. I picked up the two Black Angels CDs at the show, and after a couple of listens, the 2006 full-length Passover is sounding outstanding.

The first act of the night was Chicago’s Catfish Haven. I’ve said before that I can’t quite get into this band. I like their sound for a song or two, but then it wears thin – I think because they don’t vary their hard-strummed acoustic guitar/spastic bass/drums formula from song to song. That said, I can hear some good songwriting going on in there, and the spastic bass playing was more spastic than ever.

Eleventh Dream Day at the Empty Bottle

Thank the rock gods (or whoever your reigning deity may be) that Eleventh Dream Day has soldiered on for all these years. (It’s hard to believe they’ve been together for 23 years now.) EDD concerts and albums only come once in a rare while, but they’re always an event. And EDD shows always rank among my favorites of the year. Sure, they might not be doing anything that’s considered especially groundbreaking or trendy in 2006, but their music almost seems like it went out of fashion then came back into fashion. To my ears, it fits in perfectly with a lot of the garage rock and punk revivalism going on these days.

The songs from the new album, Zeroes and Ones, sounded great next to older EDD tunes. It’s as good an album as they’ve ever done, and the track “Lately I’ve Been Thinking” is one of my favorite songs this year.

Rick Rizzo was in fine form, pushing and pulling on the neck of his guitar as if he were struggling to keep it from writhing out of control. Janet Bean’s drumming was tight when it needed to be, more chaotic when the music called for it. And Doug McComb was excellent as always on the bass. (Does this guy look like the prototypical bassist or what? He really looks like he is exerting himself as he works those strings.)

The show got really great when keyboardist Mark Greenberg switched to bass and McCombs took up guitar. The group kicked into a fiery version of an oldie, “Testify,” followed by “Lately I’ve Been Thinking” (on which Kiki Yablon of the opening act Red Eyed Legends joined in). The encore was a surprising cover of Joy Division’s “Isolation” (which really did sound like an EDD song) and a song from the very first EDD record, Prairie School Freakout. (Sorry, my memory of song titles is failing me here…)


Acid Mothers Temple at the Empty Bottle

Last year’s cancellation of an Acid Mothers Temple at the Empty Bottle was a big disappointment. Since seeing this band back in 2002 at SXSW, I’ve been eager to see them again — especially since I’ve become more familiar with their recordings (though I’ve just heard a fraction of their prodigious discography).

So it was exciting to finally see AMT again. I’m not sure which version of the band this was (Acid Mothers Temple and the Melting Paraiso U.F.O.? Acid Mothers Temple and the Cosmic Inferno?), or exactly what the differences are. This was a lean, mean version of the band, with just four guys making a ton of noise. There was some fabulous guitar soloing, and several cacophonic moments that brought “Instellar Overdrive”-era Pink Floyd to mind.

Commenting in their broken English on being in Chicago, AMT offered up a couple of fun Chicago pieces of music — a short version of Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4,” followed later by a chorus of “Saturday in the Park” thrown into one song. And the encore? Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye,” the White Sox anthem — or some twisted version of the tune.

The opening band, the Antarcticans, was a pretty good instrumental group. They sounded almost exactly as I’d imagined — big glaciers of guitar riffs.



Oneida et al at the Empty Bottle

AUG. 17, 2005
Empty Bottle

You’d think from the coverage that appeared in the Trib this week that tonight’s headliner was Kinski, but that was just the opening act.


Plastic Crimewave Sound got things started with their typically noise-filled rave-ups… definitely in the old droning tradition of the Velvet Underground. Not bad. Kudos for including a harmonica solo.


Kinski is a mostly instrumental (or is that “instrumetal”?) band, sounding great when it locks in on a heavy riff. I’m not quite as convinced about Kinski’s quieter and more experimental passages, but it is certainly an interesting and enjoyable group.

Oneida’s one of the most underrated bands around — or at least unheralded. I don’t understand why Oneida doesn’t get more ink. Maybe it’s the band’s deliberate use of repetition. Maybe it’s their reputation as an “underground” band. In any case, Oneida plays songs that are both accessible in terms of melody as well as insanely energetic. Oneida takes those little instrumental passages that other bands play and stretches them to the breaking point — sometimes past the breaking point — until they became something like mesmerizing mantras. You’re hearing the same thing over and over until it starts to sound different. Or maybe it is different?

Oneida pulls off its musical tricks with a minimum of technology. The trio (organ, drums, guitar/bass) plays music that is both tightly controlled, in the tradition of Krautrock bands like Can, while sounding like it could spin out of control at any moment, thanks to the amazing drumming.

The Comas and Vietnam at the Empty Bottle

I have certain gaping holes in my knowledge of current pop culture, especially anything related to celebrity gossip. So unbeknownst to me, this album I’ve been listening to, Conductor by the Comas (Yep Roc), is apparently focused on lead singer Andy Herod’s romantic woes concerning a certain former girlfriend who is an actress on some television show I’ve never seen before.

(Maybe all of this would have been more obvious if I’d actually bought the CD, which comes with a DVD depicting the breakup story, rather than downloading it from emusic. Clue #1: The song called “Tonight on the WB.”)

Yeah, I have heard of Dawson’s Creek — I’m not that out of it — but if you’d asked me who Michelle Williams is, I wouldn’t have had any idea. (Or I might have remembered her as the cute chick from The Station Agent.)

Now that I know what Conductor is all about, I’m inclined to think: “Oh, great, some celebrity whining about breaking up with a celebrity girlfriend.” But that wouldn’t be fair, and this is a more-than-decent collection of rock songs. In any case, breakups are a great topic, no matter how famous your former partner is. And Herod doesn’t qualify as a celebrtity, not yet at least… Somehow, I had the idea that the Comas show at the Empty Bottle might sell out, given the press that the band’s been getting. As it turned out, it was a decent-size crowd, but there was enough space for me to roam around in front of the stage taking photos.

It’s hard to get a handle on exactly what style of music the Comas are playing. The album’s an eclectic mix of various rock genres and subgenres, though the core is melodic indie rock, not supercatchy enough to qualify as power pop, not quite extreme enough to qualify as postpunk. Ah, who cares about these labels, anyway? It’s good stuff, and the band pulled it off in concert, too.

Though the Comas recorded a couple of albums before this one, you wouldn’t have known it from their Empty Bottle show, which was less than an hour long, drawing almost exclusively (or was it exclusively?) from Conductor. And they aren’t the kind of band that transforms good studio songs into reveletory rave-ups in concert. But I wouldn’t call the show disappointing. Several of the songs moved toward more intense catharsis when Herod upped the intensity of his vocals. And when the Comas play in concert, the interplay between Herod and guitarist/backup vocalist Nichole Gehweiler becomes more apparent — their loose harmonies keep things interesting.

The opening act, Vietnam, was also interesting — and just as hard to pin down. Sounding at times like slightly sludgy ’70s blues rock, Vietnam’s percussion occasionally surged into Arcade Fire territory.

See my photos of the Comas and Vietnam performing February 18, 2005, at the Empty Bottle in Chicago.

The Arcade Fire at the Empty Bottle

As the Arcade Fire was setting up its equipment on the Empty Bottle’s stage, one had to wonder: Just what are those motorcycle helmets for? Are stunts of some sort going to be performed? Yes, indeed … and protective headgear would be required.

(A brief aside: With seven musiciansthe Arcade Fire had some difficulty squeezing onto the Bottle’s stage. Hey, guys — the Polyphonic Spree has played here. If they can do it, you can.)

The songs on the Arcade Fire’s CD, Funeral, are emotionally intense, but they wouldn’t necessarily lead you to think this would be a particularly wild band on the stage. And it’s not as if everyone in the lineup constantly wreaks havoc, but a few of the musicians do display a manic, almost reckless energy. Like British Sea Power, the Arcade Fire makes use of mobile percussion, as some of the guys march about with a snare drum, shake tambourines or pound drumsticks on any available surface. The Arcade Fire also played musical chairs; almost everyone played more than one instrument during the course of the concert.

This Montréal group’s songs seem to be based around fairly simple chords and melodies, but they are strong melodies, reinforced by lots of backup vocals, violin and accordion. Something about the vibe brought Talking Heads to mind… and then, appropriately enough, the band covered a Heads tune, “This Must be the Place (Naive Melody).” The Arcade Fire also increases tempos and intensity in the final sections of many songs, echoing the fervor of the Feelies.

Main vocalist Win Butler sings in one of those slightly strangled indie-rock yelps, bringing strong feeling to these tunes. Régine Chassagne sings a couple of songs, too, including “Haïti,” which was particularly fun in this concert performanceIt isn’t always easy to make out the words on Funeral without the lyrics sheet to guide you along.

Once you do become familiar with the lyrics, the songs take on even more resonance. Death and neighorhood are the recurring themes. The liner notes explain: “When family members kept dying they realized that they should call their recordFuneral, noting the irony of their first full length recording bearing a name with such closure.”

But what’s really striking about the lyrics is their private nature; they feel like excerpts from a diary — the notes of someone who views the world with both mystical wonder and trepidation. “We’re just a million little gods causin’ rain storms turnin’ every good thing to rust.”

The crowd at the sold-out Empty Bottle knew these songs well and cheered wildly at many points. The music was crashing brilliance.


Fiery Furnaces set list

Better late than never… Here’s the set list from the chaotic concert by the Fiery Furnaces on January 15 at Chicago’s Empty Bottle.

At times, the Furnaces — brother and sister Matt and Eleanor Friedberger  — seemed to be playing different songs at the same time … but somehow it held all together. With barely any pause between some of the tunes, the concert was like a collage of song fragments.