Tortoise and Ryley Walker concerts, in one night

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).


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Ryley Walker

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.

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Mbongwana Star at Millennium Park

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.

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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.

Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta
Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta

King Sunny Adé at Millennium Park

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.

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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.

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Mahmoud Ahmed and Aziz Sahmaoui at Millennium Park


Mahmoud Ahmed is one of the greatest singers of Ethiopia — it may be no exaggeration to call him “one of the greatest singers in the world,” as the World Music Festival Chicago’s website asserted. Several albums in Buda Musique’s endlessly wonderful “Ethiopiques” series feature his songs, especially the recordings he made in the 1970s, when Ethiopia’s music flourished, using a scale reminiscent of Middle Eastern music, hypnotic circular rhythms and arrangements that borrowed from Western jazz and pop — making for an intoxicating, sometimes surreal mix of styles.

Ahmed gave his first public performance ever in Chicago on Sunday, Sept. 13, as part of World Music Festival Chicago, and it was a joyous occasion. The spry 71-year-old occasionally hopped and twirled as he performed on the Jay Pritzker Pavilion’s stage at Millennium Park, but what was most remarkable were the strange twists and turns his voice took. The crowd included many Chicagoans from Ethiopia and Africa, who sang along with Ahmed, danced with big smiles on their faces and waved Ethiopian flags. As much as I was enjoying the music, imagine what it was like for these immigrants to see a superstar from their homeland.

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The Moroccan artist Aziz Sahmaoui opened Sunday’s concert, playing with his group University of Gnawa — singing with an alluring voice as the band wove together intricate, rhythmic layers of music. A couple of the other musicians took turns on vocals, wowing the audience with their own stirring and powerful voices.

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Bob Mould at Millennium Park


Last year, Bob Mould celebrated the 25th anniversary of his debut solo album, Workbook. But when he played Monday night (June 23) at Millennium Park, the mostly acoustic rock of that album was nowhere to be heard. Mould launched his unrelentingly loud and energetic set of feedback-drenched power pop and punk with the first three songs from Copper Blue, the 1992 album he made with his band Sugar.

Then he said, “Let’s play some new stuff and some new real stuff.” And that’s precisely what he did, playing some tunes from his most recent records, including the excellent new album Beauty & RuinOne of the tracks on that record, “I Don’t Know You Anymore,” is as catchy as anything Mould’s ever written, and it was a standout during Monday’s show.

Mould had two top-notch musicians backing him up: Jon Wurster of Superchunk on drums and Jason Narducy on bass. Narducy has played with several bands over the years (including a recent stint as Superchunk’s touring bassist), and he also opened Monday’s concert, singing and playing guitar with his pop-punk band Split Single — a good match with Mould’s music.

Just about the only relief in the onslaught by Mould’s trio came when he mellowed out for a few minutes during the wistful “Hardly Getting Over It,” a song he originally recorded with his first band, the legendary Hüsker Dü. By the end of his set, he’d played five Sugar songs, five Hüsker Dü songs and 12 from his solo records. Nothing from Workbook, though. He wasn’t in that mode on Monday night. This was Bob Mould in full-on, guitars-cranked-up mode.

SET LIST (from Greg Kot’s Chicago Tribune review)

The Act We Act (Sugar) / A Good Idea (Sugar) / Changes (Sugar) / Star Machine / The Descent / Little Glass Pill / I Don’t Know You Anymore / Kid With Crooked Face / Nemeses Are Laughing /  The War / Hardly Getting Over It (Hüsker Dü) / Helpless (Sugar) / Keep Believing / Egoverride /  Hey Mr. Grey / If I Can’t Change Your Mind (Sugar) / Come Around (Sugar) / Tomorrow Morning / Something I Learned Today (Hüsker Dü) / Chartered Trips (Hüsker Dü) / Fix It
ENCORE: Flip Your Wig (Hüsker Dü) / Makes No Sense At All (Hüsker Dü)


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eighth blackbird and Michael Ward-Bergeman at Millennium Park


The Loops and Variations concert series at Millennium Park usually features a contemporary classical act  as well as another artist playing electronic music. Last week, on June 19, there was just one set, but it was varied enough to fit the concept. One of Chicago’s best new-music ensembles, eighth blackbird, had the whole show to itself — but with a guest musician sitting in on several pieces, composer-accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman. The evening started with his beautiful composition “Barbeich,” which blended the lyricism of Argentine accordionist Raúl Barboza with the subtly shifting patterns of Steve Reich’s minimalism.

Ward-Bergeman left the stage for a while as eighth blackbird played Bryce Dessner’s “Murder Ballades” suites followed by a set of works by Richard Parry, Claudio Monteverdi, Carlo Gesualdo and Bon Iver. Then he was back to play — and sing — the final three songs, as the eighth blackbird sextet turned itself into a New Orleans party band, performing “Mardi Gras,” “St. James Infirmary” and “Mississippi.”

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Richard Thompson at Millennium Park and Space


It’s no revelation to me that Richard Thompson is one of the best living guitarists, if not the best. And yet, it felt like a revelation on Saturday night as Thompson played a solo that went on and on, bending and shaping itself to higher and higher peaks, during the song “Can’t Win” at the Space nightclub in Evanston — a song he repeated during his free concert Monday night at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, with a similarly epic solo.

When Thompson recorded the studio version of “Can’t Win” for his 1988 album Amnesia, it was five minutes long, with barely a minute of soloing that fades out at the end. But the live version on the 1993 collection Watching the Dark: The History of Richard Thompson stretched on for more than nine minutes, and now that’s become more typical of the way he plays it in concert. At about the seven-minute mark on Saturday night, I thought I might be watching the best guitar playing I’d ever seen. It was simply remarkable that Thompson could build and sustain so much drama as he sculpted that endless string of notes.

As impressive as Thompson’s virtuosity is, there’s very little showy about his demeanor as he delivers these incredible performances. And while there’s a lot to said for musicians who take a more minimalist approach, reducing a song to its essential elements instead of ornamenting it with endless variations, it’s thrilling to watch the notes pour out of Thompson’s fingers.

Thompson played both nights with the same rhythm section that accompanied him on his 2013 album Electric — bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome, both of whom are almost comically exuberant. The set lists were pretty similar, except for the fact that Thompson started off his Millennium Park show with an acoustic set, playing six songs he hadn’t performed on Saturday. “I always wanted to be my own opening act,” he joked.

Saturday’s concert included an impromptu, figured-out-on-the-fly cover of the country classic “The Wild Side of Life,” prompted by some stage banter about its singer, Hank Thompson. And the trio also started to play the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” apparently as a lark, but only the first few bars. On both nights, the encores included a rollicking song I didn’t recognize, which turned out to be a cover of the 1950s song “Daddy Rollin’ Stone,” originally written by Otis Blackwell, popularized by Derek Martin and covered by the Who as the B-side to “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere.” And on Saturday, the group also played the Bob Dylan and the Band classic, “This Wheel’s on Fire.”

As exciting as it was to experience Richard Thompson’s electric guitars on both nights, it was a special treat to hear those acoustic songs in the early set on Monday. Thompson can make his acoustic guitar sound like two or three, soloing or riffing on top of chords and bass lines, and at moments, his complex fingering brought out exotic melodies that evoked Middle Eastern music.

Thompson showed his comedic charm with an extended explanation of his song about a trip on a cruise ship, “Johnny’s Far Away,” from the 2007 album Sweet Warrior. And then he closed his acoustic mini-show with one of his most popular songs, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” On the end of every verse, Thompson stretched out the word “ride,” closing his eyes and turning the word into an almost prayerful drone. And then his fingers flitted across the strings like lightning.


Stuck on the Treadmill / Sally B / Salford Sunday / For Shame of Doing Wrong / My Enemy / Can’t Win / Saving the Good Stuff for You / The Wild Side of Life / Al Bowlly’s in Heaven / Fork in the Road / Good Things Happen to Bad People / Did She Jump or Was She Pushed? / I’ll Never Give It Up / Wall of Death / If Love Whispers Your Name

ENCORE: Dry My Tears And Move On / Eight Miles High excerpt / Tear Stained Letter

SECOND ENCORE: Wounding Myself / This Wheel’s in Fire / Daddy Rollin’ Stone


ACOUSTIC SET: I Misunderstood / Walking on a Wire / Valerie / Genesis Hall / Johnny’s Far Away / 1952 Vincent Black Lightning

ELECTRIC SET: Stuck on the Treadmill / Sally B / Salford Sunday / For Shame of Doing Wrong / My Enemy / Can’t Win / Al Bowlly’s in Heaven / Fork in the Road / Good Things Happen to Bad People / Did She Jump or Was She Pushed? / I’ll Never Give It Up / Wall of Death / If Love Whispers Your Name

ENCORE: Daddy Rollin’ Stone / Tear Stained Letter

Photos from Monday’s concert at Millennium Park:

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Omar Souleyman at Millennium Park


Syrian singer Omar Souleyman cast a strange spell as he performed Monday night on the Jay Pritzker Pavilion stage in Millennium Park. He did not make any especially flamboyant gestures as he strolled the stage — and yet, he has a commanding presence. A contingent of Syrian or Arab-American fans was going a bit nuts in the seats near the stage. And plenty of people who don’t know a word of Arabic or Kurdish, like me, were getting into the music, too. As usual, the Millennium Park security guards were on a buzzkill mission, insisting on getting people out of the aisles when they tried to dance. A lot of people managed to dance anyway, mostly by standing in front of their seats. The mood was festive.

The only musician accompanying Souleyman was his amazing collaborator, Rizan Sa’id, who sounded like a whole band of electronic musicians as he played synth solos and dance rhythms on two Korg keyboards. Sa’id is not a demonstrative entertainer, but the sounds he coaxes out of those instruments are very impressive. At the end of the show, the nonchalant maestro didn’t even take a bow. He just walked off the stage, barely looking at the crowd that was roaring with approval.

(Click here to see my photos of the opening act on Monday, Joshua Abrams + Natural Information Society.)


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Joshua Abrams + Natural Information Society in Millennium Park

Emmett Kelly and Joshua Abrams
Emmett Kelly and Joshua Abrams

Millennium Park’s series of free summer concerts at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, always one of the highlights of the year in Chicago, is in full swing now. Monday’s headliner was Omar Souleyman (click here to see my photos of Souleyman), but the show also featured a top-notch opening act, Chicago bassist Joshua Abrams and the talented ensemble of players he calls the Natural Information Society. Abrams’ second record with a version of this group, Represencing, was one of my top 10 albums for 2012 — and the current lineup sounded fabulous in the Pritzker stage on Monday, jamming to hypnotic grooves with psychedelic and exotic flair.

Abrams played the guimbri, a North African instrument, throughout the show, accompanied by the versatile guitarist Emmett Kelly (leader of the great Cairo Gang); drummers Frank Rosaly and Mikel Avery; Lisa Alvarado on harmonium and gong; and Ben Boye on autoharp and keyboards. It was glorious.

Mikel Avery
Mikel Avery


Frank Rosaly
Frank Rosaly
Joshua Abrams
Joshua Abrams
Frank Rosaly
Frank Rosaly
Frank Rosaly
Frank Rosaly
Emmett Kelly
Emmett Kelly
Ben Boye
Ben Boye


Mikel Avery
Mikel Avery
Mikel Avery, Ben Boye and Liza Alvarado
Mikel Avery, Ben Boye and Liza Alvarado
Joshua Abrams
Joshua Abrams
Emmett Kelly and Joshua Abrams
Emmett Kelly and Joshua Abrams
Ben Boye
Ben Boye