The Eternals are one of the hardest Chicago bands to pin down, as they slip from one musical form into another. In recent times, they’ve been just a duo (Damon Locks and Wayne Montana) playing funky, jazzy, experimental rock. But for their concert last week (June 12) at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the Eternals expanded to a massive, 10-musician lineup. And the band played nothing other than one long suite of new music called “Espiritu Zombi.” The new and perhaps temporary members of the Eternals for this occasion included 1900s vocalist Jeanine O’Toole, bassist Matt Lux, cellist Tomeka Reid and the always-animated vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz.
Those vibes gave this zombie music a flavor that was reminiscent of another Chicago outfit, Exploding Star Orchestra. Not coincidentally, Locks has performed with that ensemble in the past. And the extra vocalists added new levels of beauty and complexity previously unheard in the strange world of the Eternals. The suite was an audacious and ambitious composition, which deserved the spotlight it received in this prominent venue. Decked out in psychedelic attire, Locks danced with elbow-jutting moves, a dapper weirdo reveling in his moment on the city’s big stage.
The Hideout celebrated its 15th anniversary in true Hideout style, with a day full of top-notch music. Even the weather turned out pretty nice on Saturday (Sept. 24) — a little chilly at times, but without the downpours of rain or hail that had been predicted. It was a perfect day for the Hideout Block Party, and the diverse concert lineup was a superb representation of musicians who consider the Hideout as their home base, stars who have played there in the past and simply great musicians.
During his set (the final one of the night), Andrew Bird reminisced about sleeping in the Hideout’s upstairs offices a few times! “I don’t know what would’ve happened if it weren’t for the Hideout,” he said, echoing remarks a lot of people on the stage made throughout the day. Bird played several of his most popular songs, but he also tried out several new tunes, bringing out Nora O’Connor to sing harmony vocals (and a verse on one of the songs). His encore was a lovely cover of the Handsome Family song, “So Much Wine” — an apt choice.
Earlier, Bird and O’Connor both made guest appearances during a rousing set by Mavis Staples, who raved about how much she loves the Hideout. “If I could be, I’d be here every day,” she said. “They treat us like royalty.” Staples also made some cutting remarks about the turmoil in today’s American politics, adding an even more passionate edge to her songs that evoke the civil rights movement of the 1960s. That “tea” that’s become a symbol of conservative Republicans? Staples said it’s Kool-Aid. Bird joined in when Staples played the Band’s “The Weight,” and Staples called Nora O’Connor (who did backup vocals on the last Staples album) her “sister.”
Another highlight was the set by the legendary Booker T. Jones, who played some of his recent material as well as the most famous songs he wrote back in the ’60s: “Time Is Tight,” “Born Under a Bad Sign” (originally recorded by Albert King, written by Jones and William Bell) and, of course, “Green Onions.” Jones played guitar on a few songs, but the Hammond organ (played through the Leslie rotating speaker cabinet) is truly his instrument, and those thick notes sounded as cool as ever.
The set by Jon Langford’s Skull Orchard was deepened by the inclusion of the Burlington Welsh Men’s Chorus, who added their strong voices to Langford’s songs inspired by his memories of Wales. Earlier, White Mystery rocked with typical abandon for the small crowd that showed up at the start of the day, with their red hair flying. Kids These Days played a lively blend of musical styles (hip-hop, indie rock, horns). The Eternals were even funkier than usual. Andrew Bird’s drummer, Dosh, also played a short set of his multilayered instrumental compositions, which led into Bird’s set and the appearance of an illuminated whale coming through the crowd, courtesy of the musical performance art group that calls itself Opera-Matic. That’s just the sort of thing you’d expect to see at a Hideout Block Party.