It was nearly a decade since the last time I saw the Go! Team — when the British group played at Lollapalooza in 2006 — and that’s just too long to go without the exuberance of this delightful band. After a prolonged absence from Chicago, the Go! Team returned on Saturday, Jan. 16, playing at Lincoln Hall during the Tomorrow Never Knows Festival. It was thrilling to see this bunch cavorting with glee onstage again. Few bands I’ve ever seen look so much like they’re having fun.
As always, the Go! Team delivered a crazy mashup of musical genres — electric guitar riffs, dashes of hip-hop, melodies evoking 1970s TV theme songs, banjo and recorder. The women arrayed across the front of the stage (Ninja, Angela Mak and Cheryl Pinero) were in constant motion; Ninja beamed as she jumped and danced to the infectious beats. The enthusiastic crowd got moving, too. Ian Parton, the group’s founding mastermind, acted more like a sideman, but he came forward for the memorable harmonica melody that anchors the closing song of the first Go! Team album, “Everyone’s a V.I.P. to Someone,” and it felt like a star stepping into the spotlight.
The Go! Team’s set was somewhat abbreviated, clocking in at barely more than an hour. But what an hour it was.
The opening acts during this TNK show at Lincoln Hall were Jude Shuma — who closed with a cool cover of “All the Young Dudes,” in tribute to David Bowie — and the electronic dance duo Javelin, who were, let’s just say, not my cup of tea.
The Ex, a Dutch art-punk band that’s been around since 1979, returned to Chicago for the first time in four years, playing on Thursday, Oct. 22, at Lincoln Hall. As a bonus, the band included one of Chicago’s leading jazz players, Ken Vandermark, on saxophone. The Ex sounded as strong as ever, with jagged chords colliding over strange rhythms. Why isn’t this band more famous?
The Montreal musician Patrick Watson returned on Monday, Sept. 28, to Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, where I saw him perform in 2012. (I also saw him at Schubas back in 2009.) I’d overlooked his recent album Love Songs for Robots, but my initial impression is that it’s a nice extension of the beautiful orchestral pop music Watson has been making for years. And his music — both old and new — sounded as lovely and transporting as ever when he played on Monday night, with a nimble ensemble of players arrayed across the stage along with globe-shaped lights. Watson moved back and forth between his grand piano and the microphone in the center of the stage. When the band was in full flight, this was complex art rock filled with subtle, shifting layers. But there were also a couple of moments when Watson and his collaborators stood around one microphone and performed music with the utmost simplicity. Either way, it was brilliant.
The last time English folk singer-songwriter-guitarist Laura Marling played in Chicago — at the Athenaeum in 2013 — she played solo. For her return show on Wednesday, July 29, at Lincoln Hall, she brought a band. But for most of the night, the bass and drums stayed in the background, adding subtle shadings to the very full sound of Marling’s voice and guitar.
Marling cast a spell with her lovely singing, alternating between chatty half-spoken lines in a low register with sweet, fully sung melodies. All the while, she deftly picked out delicate patterns on her guitars, remarking at one point that she’s been practicing the Chet Atkins style of fingerpicking, which has necessitated allowing her thumb nail to grow longer, which she keeps having to explain to people. She demonstrated that technique on a nice cover of Dolly Parton’s “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind.”
Marling opened with the medley of songs that starts her 2013 album Once I Was an Eagle, and plenty a good selection from Short Movie, the fifth and latest album — one of my favorite records of 2015. She noted that she wrote one of the songs from the new album when she was backstage at the Athenaeum in Chicago in 2013. Marling once told an audience she’d like to move to Chicago, and people have asked her since then if she actually will. “I’m not,” she said, adding, “I came here on holiday two weeks ago. I really do like it. I’m not just saying that to be charming.”
The Marling fans at this sold-out show — a predominantly 20-something crowd with more women than men — were clearly charmed. When Marling forgot some of her early lyrics, she turned to the audience members in front of her for assistance.
Marling’s opening acts, Marika Hackman and Johnny Flynn, were a wonderful match with her. Both are singer-songwriters from England, and both played engrossing solo acoustic sets, making the whole evening feel like a mini-festival of Brit folk rock. Hackman (who was playing her first concert in Chicago) hooked me from the minute I heard her voice, prompting me to pick up her album We Slept at Last at the merch table at the end of the show. Flynn was also impressive, and many of the Marling fans in attendance also knew his music. Hackman and Flynn both joined in with Marling during her set. For the final song of the night — Marling did not come out for an encore — the band played Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work,” with Marling and Hackman trading off vocals.
It’s a joy to behold what the musicians in Calexico are capable of — not just the band’s core members (singer Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino) but the whole ensemble of players they’ve brought together to realize their vision. The distinctively Southwestern group played two sold-out shows this past weekend at Lincoln Hall; I was there on Sunday night, May 31.
With a few multi-instrumentalists in the lineup, Calexico feels almost like a miniature orchestra, and the music ran the gamut from exquisite folk ballads to spiky guitar riffs. But more than anything else, Calexico’s songs, both old and new, had jumpy, lively, layered rhythms that made you want to move. The tunes from Calexico’s outstanding new album, Edge of the Sun, sounded just as good as the old ones from records including the classic 2003 album Feast of Wire. And as Calexico often does, it played a wonderful cover of Love’s “Alone Again Or.”
Thanks to my friend Paul Suwan for putting together this set list of what Calexico played on Sunday:
Falling from the Sky / Quattro (World Drifts In) / Cumbia de Donde / Splitter / Woodshed Waltz / Miles from the Sea / Coyoacán / Inspiración / Bullets and Rocks / Tapping on the Line / Woven Birds / unknown instrumental / When the Angels Played / Deep Down / Alone Again Or / Crystal Frontier / FIRST ENCORE: Beneath the City of Dreams / Guero Canelo / SECOND ENCORE: Follow the River
Gaby Moreno, a Guatemalan singer-songwriter, played a beguiling opening set, singing solo as she plucked her acoustic guitar. Later in the night, Moreno — who sings on the new Calexico album — came back onto the stage to add backup vocals during Calexico’s encore.
Bloodshot Records artist Lydia Loveless joked around in between her songs on Friday, Nov. 28, at Lincoln Hall, but she set aside her goofy playfulness when she was in the full throes of performing her music, including many songs from her outstanding 2014 album Somewhere Else. Sometimes, she took her hands off her guitar and held them to her head, gesturing like someone in pain or shouting in anger. And then at the end of the night — after a deep set of riveting, twangy country-rock with her band and a few “off-script” solo songs — she ended up sitting on the stage with her legs sprawled out as the band kept on rocking. In the final moments, she covered up her face, and then, as the song ended, slipped off the stage without a word. She’d just said good-night with the exclamation point of her music.
Before Loveless took the stage, her sister Jessica played a lively set of shaggy but upbeat rock with her own band, the Girls. Lydia joined in for one song and one sibling hug.
My Brightest Diamond, the musician also known as Shara Worden, is a crossover artist in the best sense of the term. She easily dances between the realms of rock, classical music, cabaret and art songs. She knows how to use her lovely voice as an operatic instrument, but when she plays her electric guitar and rocks, she doesn’t sound like an opera house diva trying to be a pop star. This past summer, My Brightest Diamond played a free concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, but it was called off after a few songs because of a torrential rainstorm. She was back in Chicago on Thursday, Nov. 13, playing a concert at Lincoln Hall, which she called a “rain date.”
Like the Millennium Park concert, this one featured the Chicago marching band Mucca Pazza in a prominent cameo role. After the opening set of pulsing electronic squiggles by Dosh & Ghostband, a blast of brass came from the balcony, where the members of Mucca Pazza had assembled. The band marched downstairs and played on the floor in the midst of the crowd, then came onto the stage, joining with Worden and her rhythm section in a rambunctiously fun opening number.
The rest of the concert featured just the core My Brightest Diamond trio, as Worden played several songs from her recent album, This Is My Hand, as well as songs from throughout her career. One highlight was the quiet ballad that Worden wrote for her infant son, “I Have Never Loved Someone the Way I Love You,” from her 2011 album All Things Will Unwind, which she performed solo, softly crooning the lullaby as she strummed the chords on her electric guitar. For the last song of the night, she sang a faithful rendition of Peggy Lee’s hit “Fever,” a fine demonstration of her wide-ranging interests and remarkable talent.
The Clean’s concert on Monday, Aug. 18, at Lincoln Hall was one of those shows that leave you scratching your head and asking: What just happened? The legendary New Zealand band doesn’t come around all that often — the last time was a show at the Bottom Lounge in 2010 — so any appearance they make in Chicago is an event.
The trio sounded a little ragged, but I enjoyed the raggedness of the jams. As the Clean took the stage, drummer Hamish Kilgour crouched down next to his drum kit, as if hiding, tapping his drumsticks at the edges of the set. As that first song, the instrumental “Fish,” progressed, he eventually took his seat behind the drums. Bassist Robert Scott nonchalantly stood, holding down the rhythm. And guitarist David Kilgour stood with his back to the crowd, leaning toward his amp. It was a good while before he showed his face to the audience for more than a few seconds. At one point early in the set, Hamish hopped up from behind his drum kit, stepped off the stage and stood in the crowd for a minute, then got back up and leaned down to put his sunglasses on the microphone in front of his bass drum.
A few of the songs ended abruptly, like tossed-off numbers at a rehearsal — which made them feel more real to me. But then, after playing just 45 minutes or so, the band bid everyone good-night and left the stage. A long, loud round of applause followed, as the Clean fans made it clear they wanted to hear more. For one thing, the band hadn’t played its most famous song, “Tally Ho.” One guy was shouting, “Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!” — apparently, as his way of saying the band should play more. Hamish Kilgour and Scott returned to the stage and seemed to be getting ready to play, then went back behind the curtain. More applause. Hamish Kilgour and Scott return again. They disappear again. They come back, again without David Kilgour. Hamish said someone from the audience would have to come onstage to make an encore happen.
A guy I know from Laurie’s Planet of Sound, Paul Nixon, climbed onto the stage and took the microphone, offering a polite and gracious message to David Kilgour: The audience wants you to come back onstage and play more. Still, no sign of Kilgour. Now, a few other audience members (including my friend Sam O’Rama) got onstage to sing “Tally Ho” while two-thirds of the Clean played two-thirds of the song. Midway through the tune, another guy from the crowd climbed up and started playing the song’s three chords on Kilgour’s guitar (and playing it pretty well). And that’s how the show ended, with this odd audience singalong and the Clean missing one of its key members.
From what I recalled, the Clean’s last Chicago show, in 2010, was longer. But looking back at what I wrote about it, I see a harbinger of last night’s events:
Guitarist David Kilgour left the stage rather abruptly at the end of the main set and then again at the end of the first encore, almost seeming to surprising his band mates, drummer Hamish Kilgour and bassist Robert Scott. It seemed that the band was calling it a night at that point and the Bottom Lounge turned on the house music. But the audience wasn’t ready to leave, giving the Clean a loud and sustained round of applause, and finally the guys came back and played one of their best-known tunes, “Tally Ho!”
At last night’s show, Hamish Kilgour’s wry stage banter included the question, “What is a rock concert?” (Or words to that effect.) What indeed? This was certainly a rock concert, but unlike any I’ve seen.
The opening band Monday at Lincoln Hall was the wonderful psychedelic Brazilian outfit called Boogarins. Given the fact that they’re from Brazil and sing in Portuguese, they are bound to remind you of the late ’60s Tropicalia movement, but singer-guitarist Benke Ferraz told the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot that music of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett was an even bigger influence on Boogarins. All of that was audible as Boogarins dug into its colorful rock symphonies on Monday night.
Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy is releasing his first solo album — or rather, an album called Sukierae under the moniker “Tweedy” — on Sept. 23, and he was scheduled to play a headlining concert on July 12 at Taste of Chicago. The city canceled that show after heavy rainstorms earlier in the day, but Tweedy did play a free concert last night (July 17) during a taping of the public radio show “Sound Opinions” at Lincoln Hall.
The evening began with an entertaining interview: “Sound Opinions” co-hosts Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis talking with Jeff Tweedy and his 18-year-old son, Spencer, who plays drums on the new record and on this tour with the Tweedy band. Jeff Tweedy said every Wilco album is created by committee, but this one was different, as he kept things simple in the studio, recording 20 songs with Spencer on drums. “There’s a DNA connection that I’ve never experienced with other musicians,” he said.
But Tweedy plans to convene Wilco soon to begin work on a new album by the whole band — or at least to start the process by “messing around” in the studio. “Six people finding a part on a song — that’s kind of the idea of Wilco,” he said. As far as when to expect that album, he said “probably” next year.
Like his father, Spencer has a great sense of humor, and it was fun to see the two of them joking around during the interview. When the subject of Jeff Tweedy’s acting in recent episodes of “Parks and Recreation” and “Portlandia” came out, Spencer said, “Don’t be surprised if you see him in a major motion picture next year.” Acting surprised, his father asked, “Do you know something I don’t?”
After the interview, Tweedy and his band — Spencer on drums, Darin Gray on bass, Jim Elkington on guitar and Liam Cunningham on keyboards — played a set of songs from the new album. The music wasn’t a radical departure from Tweedy’s songs with Wilco: mostly mellow and midtempo, often with a pensive quality. It will take more listens to become familiar with these songs; I expect that they’ll grow on me, as most of Tweedy’s past music has.
He closed the show with three more recognizable songs: “You Are Not Alone,” which he wrote for Mavis Staples; Doug Sahm’s “Give Back the Key to My Heart,” which Tweedy covered with Uncle Tupelo on the 1993 album Anodyne; and the Wilco-Woody Guthrie anthem “California Stars.”
Portions of last night’s interview and concert will show up on a future episode of “Sound Opinions.” Thanks to the show’s producers for letting me take a few photos.
Back in the 1990s, when the Chicago rock music scene started to attract some attention, Veruca Salt was one of the local bands that seemed destined to make it big, thanks to the dynamite combination of vocals and guitar riffs from its two front women, Nina Gordon and Louise Post. But then, Gordon quit in 1998 — for reasons that the group still refuses to talk about (as you can see in this recent Chicago Tribune story by Mark Caro).
Whatever the reason was, the Gordon and Post are back together all these years later, along with Veruca Salt’s original rhythm section, bassist Steve Lack and drummer Jim Shapiro. They’re recording new music — including a single that came out on Record Store Day, “The Museum of Broken Relationships” and “It’s Holy” — and they returned to Chicago for their first local gig in ages, playing two sold-out shows at Lincoln Hall.
I was there for the concert on Monday (July 14), which made it clear that Veruca Salt still has what made it great in the first place. All of those old songs sounded terrific, and so did the new ones. And were there any signs of lingering tension between Gordon and Post? Not in the least. At a few points, the two ladies faced each other, shaking their hair as they played their guitars. And then, as the group finished its main set before the encore, Lack and Shapiro left the stage, leaving Gordon and Post playing by themselves. As Post made her way off the stage, she put down her guitar and kissed Gordon on the top of her head as Gordon played the final notes.
Returning for their encore, Gordon and Post handed out roses to the crowd. And then when it was all over, they hugged. They seemed ready to make up for the lost years.
January’s Tomorrow Never Knows festival keeps getting bigger, featuring more shows at more venues in Chicago. I saw two shows in this year’s festival: A fantastic, energetic set by Superchunk on Jan. 18 at Metro, which I did not photograph, except for a few cellphone pictures; and a lively evening of music on Jan. 19 at Lincoln Hall, featuring Alvvays, Pink Front, Diarrhea Planet and Yuck, which I did photograph:
After getting their concert last night at Lincoln Hall off to a strong start, The Men came to a screeching halt because of technical difficulties. One of the Brooklyn group’s members, Mark Perro, was playing a vintage keyboard — an instrument the band has apparently been using a lot lately — when it suddenly conked out on him. Or maybe it was the amp. In any case, the thing stopped making any sounds recognizable as music. Perro left the stage for a bit, while the rest of the band played a couple of songs. Then he returned, abandoning his malfunctioning keyboard and picking up an acoustic guitar.
The Men scrambled their planned set list, playing songs that they could do without the keyboard. They ended up playing several brand-new songs — songs even newer than The Men’s latest record, New Moon, which just came out last month. In spite of everything, The Men put on a thrilling performance of rock music reminiscent of the Replacements, with touches of roots rock and older classic rock. (The Faces, another appropriate reference point, were playing on Lincoln Hall’s speakers before The Men took the stage.) At one point, when I was standing in front of center stage, I heard what sounded like perfect stereo: two simultaneous and fantastic guitar solos, one on either end of the stage. This was clearly a band that knows how to play and has a good time doing it.
I got my first impression of Dan Deacon when he played 2007 Hideout Block Party, setting up a table of electronic gear and old Casio keyboards and stuff in the middle of the pavement — essentially performing into the midst of an enthusiastic crowd. It all seemed like lots of fun, but as often happens with electronic music artists, I was left wondering just what Deacon had been doing with all of those knobs and levers.
I overcame my skepticism about Deacon’s musicianship when I listened to his two most recent albums, 2009’s Bromst and this year’s America. Both of these records make it clear that Deacon’s a composer of some true sophistication, using the sort of overlapping melodic patterns that are common in Philip Glass’ minimalism but employing them to a different end — pulsing and often anthemic pop music.
As a concert act, Deacon is still a bit of a goofball and a party instigator. When he performed Wednesday (Nov. 7) at Lincoln Hall with his ensemble (two drummers plus keyboardist-guitarist Chester Endersby Gwazda, also one of the opening acts), the music was just as complex as it is on the records. It was still hard to decipher precisely how Deacon was coaxing all of those sounds out of that mound of wires in front of him, but it never felt like a bunch of precorded sounds scrolling on a laptop, which is the unfortunate fate of many electronic artists during concerts.
Deacon got the crowd to do a variety of dances and maneuvers that had the feeling of a hipster game of “Simon Says.” These games included one that involved much of the audience going out on the sidewalk in front of Lincoln Hall while Deacon and his band continued playing. During one song, many of the audience held their smartphones aloft and used Dan Deacon’s app, which picked up the song’s vibrations, triggering the phones to display light in various colors — making the fans part of the light show. The whole concert had an infectious sense of fun.
Gwazda’s opening set was cut short by problems with broken guitar strings. The evening also featured Height with friends (whose rap-rock tired me out after a while) and comedian Alan Resnick, who charmed with a bizarre lecture about creating a virtual version of himself.
Although it was set in a Berlin populated by humans as well as angels, Wim Wenders’ classic 1989 film Wings of Desire introduced many of its viewers (including me) to a couple of terrific bands originally from Australia: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — and a group with similarly Gothic and powerfully brooding music, Crime and the City Solution. Both bands contributed songs to the wonderful soundtrack and appeared in memorable concert scenes filmed in Berlin nightclubs, including this one:
While Nick Cave has gone on to become an icon, Crime and the City Solution broke up after releasing four albums, ending up as more of an obscure cult favorite. The group’s getting some new recognition now, however, thanks in part to a new collection from the Mute label, A History of Crime: Berlin 1987-1991: An Introduction to Crime and the City Solution, and a reunion tour, which brought Crime’s current lineup to Chicago’s Lincoln Hall on Sunday (Oct. 21).
According to the Chicago Reader, lead singer Simon Bonney lives these days in Detroit. The lineup that he has assembled for the new Crime and the City Solution includes two musicians from the band’s Berlin era, violinist Bronwyn Adams and guitarist Alexander Hacke (also of Einsturzende Neubauten). They are joined by guitarist David Eugene Edwards (of Wovenhand and 16 Horsepower), bassist Troy Gregory (who has played with the Dirtbombs, Swans and Spiritualized), keyboardist Matthew Smith, the always-superb drummer Jim White (a member of The Dirty Three who’s played with Cat Power and Nina Nastasia) and Danielle de Picciotto on visuals.
Bonney’s baritone sounded as dramatic ever as he sang his verbose lyrics, occasionally turning for help to a stack of laminated lyric sheets sitting on the stage in front of him. (Can’t remember his own words? Hey, he wrote a lot of words.) His bandmates encircled him on the stage, playing with a smoldering intensity. The old songs sounded fresh, and the band also played a couple of sharp tunes from a new album, American Twilight, which is set to come out next spring.
Here’s one of the new songs, “My Love Takes Me There”:
My photos from Sunday’s show, which also included an opening set by Bobby Conn:
Patrick Watson called his new record Adventures in Your Own Backyard because he recorded it almost entirely inside his apartment in Montreal. Nothing about it is lo-fi, however — it’s a beautiful recording of some of the most beautiful music yet from this excellent Canadian singer-songwriter, who makes delicate pop, rock and folk music with the sort of sophistication and subtle touches heard more often in chamber music or old pop standards. He’s in the same musical realm as Andrew Bird, Rufus Wainwright and the late Jeff Buckley.
And on Friday, Watson and his nimble band brought their musical adventures to Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, playing outstanding new songs such as “Lighthouse” and “Words in the Fire” along with fan favorites such as “Beijing” and “The Great Escape” from previous Watson albums. Watson spent most of the show sitting at the piano, although sitting hardly seems like the right word to describe what he was doing. While he doesn’t dance on his instrument as Jerry Lee Lewis does, Watson did make the piano seem like a living partner in the act of music-making as he coaxed lively but precise runs of notes out of it. The audience clearly included a good number of devoted Watson fans, who sang the backup harmonies impressively and shouted out requests. At one point, Watson apologized for not being able to show a movie he usually screens during one of his songs. “You can imagine the move that’s supposed to happen now,” he remarked. “It’s an imagination game tonight.” And indeed, his music did inspire all sorts of pictures in the mind.
Singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten has been getting a lot of press this month, and deservedly so. Her third and latest album, Tramp, is a strong collection of songs, with some of the moody introspection of her previous records as well as a new, harder-charging sound on the standout track “Serpents.” Van Etten played to packed houses last Thursday and Friday nights at Lincoln Hall in Chicago; I was there Friday (Feb. 17).
When Van Etten played the very first afternoon set of the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival, her seemed a little tentative, like someone unaccustomed to playing on such a big stage. On Friday night, her singing was more assertive, and she had a trio of musicians helping to give her music a fuller sound. She still seemed a bit unnerved or uncertain about being in the spotlight. Van Etten was in a silly, giggly mood, joking around quite a bit in between songs, creating a strange contrast with her more serious lyrics. The fumbling around in between songs was charming at times, but after a while, the show’s erratic pacing became a distraction. Van Etten joked that we were watching her learning how to have a band, and that’s just what it felt like — not entirely a bad thing. Most interesting was the way Van Etten and her band stretched out the openings of some songs, creating drones that set the mood for the songs that eventually emerged.
Opening act Shearwater played an impressive set dominated by songs from its new record Animal Joy. Although most of the musicians backing Shearwater’s singer-songwriter Jonathan Meiburg were new to the lineup, but they played tight, rocking versions of the band’s art rock.
At the end of the night, when Van Etten played her encore, the members of Shearwater came back onto the stage, too. Van Etten and Meiburg swapped lead vocals in a cover of Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty’s “Stop Dragging My Heart Around.” From what I hear, they teamed up the night before on a cover of the Soft Boys’ “I Wanna Destroy You.”
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra makes stirring, majestic rock music with a strong orchestral sound that rivals anything else today. Few bands deliver live performances as powerful as Silver Mt. Zion’s, and the ensemble proved its excellence once again with its show Saturday (Jan. 28) at Lincoln Hall. It wasn’t just the beautiful sound of those violins melding with the guitar, drums and upright bass to create epic peaks of sound — it was also the way all five of the musicians joined their voices together in otherworldly hymns.
The band (which includes members of the older and recently revived group Godspeed You! Black Emperor) played three new songs that carry on Silver Mt. Zion’s tradition of making long, dramatic pieces of music: “Take Away These Early Grave Blues,” “The State Itself Did Not Agree” and “What We Loved Is Not Enough.” That last song, along with another new one called “Psalms 99,” were for sale at the merch table in a limited-edition set of two 7-inchs — the songs are so long that each is split up into Parts 1 and 2 on these singles. Now there’s something you don’t see too often. Silver Mt. Zion played eight songs Saturday night. Few, if any, clocked in at less than 10 minutes, but every minute felt absolutely necessary.
Tame Impala, a psychedelic rock band from Perth, Australia, headlined two sold-out shows this week at Lincoln Hall in Chicago. But as far as I was concerned (and I suspect the same is true for a lot of the people who attended these concerts), they were double-headliner gigs. I wanted to see Tame Impala, but I was even more interested in catching the first Chicago performance by Yuck, a London band getting a lot of buzz lately in indie-rock circles.
Yuck’s self-titled debut album is one of the year’s best records so far, and the songs sounded strong in concert Tuesday (May 3). Yuck’s tunes have some lovely, high-ranging vocals that remind me of power pop by the likes of Teenage Fanclub, but there’s a lot of crunchy guitar, too, with touches of Sonic Youth at its poppiest and a bit of the loopiness of Pavement. Yuck’s songs have some terrific guitar melodies — those bent notes — on top of the chords.
Tame Impala’s 2010 album, InnerSpeaker, didn’t completely win me over. It’s a pleasant listen, but the songs came off better in concert, where there repetitive grooves got at least some of the crowd dancing. Or, well, swaying. Tame Impala plays psychedelic music of the hypnotic riff variety — lots of reverb and lots of those effects that make the chords sound like they’re slowly circling in and out of focus. As the band played, a screen showed live video from a camera pointed at an oscilloscope screen, and the music caused green lines to squiggle in circular shapes. But you really didn’t need that projection to visualize the music looping back on itself over and over again. Groovy stuff.
The evening started out with another “Y” band — Chicago’s Yawn — playing a set of upbeat indie pop that reminded me of Vampire Weekend.
The Chicago rock band Eleventh Dream Day has been together for a quarter of a century, but their recordings and live performances are still fresh and exciting. Celebrating the release of its latest record, the Thrill Jockey release Riot Now!, the group played Friday night (April 22) at Lincoln Hall, sounding as energetic and alive as ever. What’s the secret of these guys? Maybe it has something to do with the way they carry on as a sort of occasional endeavor, playing a few gigs a year rather than touring incessantly; recording a new album every few years instead of constantly going at it.
The new record is a keeper, with a bunch of songs that rank alongside the best Eleventh Dream Day has done. I won’t call it a comeback or a return to form, however, since I’ve never been disappointed with this outfit’s previous recordings or concerts. The band has been remarkably consistent over the years. In any case, Riot Now! is a document of Eleventh Dream Day in fine form. The band honed these songs in a series of gigs last year at the Hideout (I saw two of the four shows), then recorded them quickly in just a couple of days, without doing a lot of takes or overdubs. Not a bad way to capture a rock band’s live energy.
Friday night, Eleventh Dream Day launched into its show with several of the new songs, before going back to some of its oldest records, Prairie School Freakout and Beet. The new record features some terrific backup vocals from drummer Janet Beveridge Bean. That’s nothing new, but these songs blend Bean’s voice into the mix just about perfectly, adding an essential melodic layer. That same exciting blend of voices and noise came through in concert.
As always, Doug McCombs played some exceptional bass lines, both melodic and rhythmic, matching Bean’s driving percussion. And Rick Rizzo let loose with the sort of Crazy Horse guitar soloing we’ve come to expect from him. Rizzo pushed and pulled at its guitar as if it were a living animal he was struggling to control. Mark Greenberg played keyboards for most of the show, his chords thickening Eleventh Dream Day’s sound, but on the older songs — ones originally recorded with two guitarists — he switched to bass and McCombs added a second guitar. In both configurations, Eleventh Dream Day lived up to the title of that new album — Riot Now!.
Eleventh Dream Day on the Thrill Jockey site
Eleventh Dream Day live performance and interview with Alison Cuddy on WBEZ’s Eight Forty-Eight show — plus video
Greg Kot’s Chicago Tribune article
Matt Arado’s Daily Herald article
My 2006 Pioneer Press article about Eleventh Dream Day
Another one of my favorite local bands, the 1900s, opened the show, playing a nice set of their sparkling ’60s-style pop music, and a cool guitar rave out by Edward Anderson on “Two Ways.” The 1900s aren’t exactly in the same genre as Eleventh Dream Day, but the contrasting styles of these two Chicago bands complemented each other well.
It got as quiet as a church in Lincoln Hall Thursday night (April 21) in the moments in between songs. It wasn’t that the audience wasn’t applauding the mesmerizing, beautiful songs it was hearing from the band Low. Appreciative applause followed each song. But then, as the crowd waited for the band to begin another song, a hush fell over the room. What can you hear in such silence? I heard a deep respect. Fans who wanted to hear every note, who weren’t interested in making chit-chat. Low’s singer-guitarist, Alan Sparhawk, even joked about how quiet the crowd was, but he must be used to getting this sort of reception.
Low’s music demands it. On its early records, Low played music that was almost supernaturally quiet, with a slow, steady beat and whispered words. Over the years, Low has expanded its dynamic range, cranking up the volume and feedback on many of its songs, but there’s still a sense of quiet and a steady purpose behind the music. Low’s new record, C’mon, its first in five years, is outstanding. Recorded in a Duluth church, it captures the lovely vocals of Sparhawk and his wife, drummer Mimi Parker, in all of their choir-like glory.
Thursday’s concert featured many of the songs on the new record, and Lincoln Hall’s acoustics replicated that church atmosphere perfectly. Supplemented by bass and keyboards, Sparhawk and Parker blended their placid voices with subtle, steady rhythms to dramatic effect. Parker calmly stood as she played drums, using just brushes and mallets, no hard-tipped drumsticks, on a minimal kit: just two cymbals, a snare and a tom. Even when the music is in a low-key passage, Sparhawk had an intense look about him, tilting his head this way and that, squinting his eyes and scrunching up his face.
Of course, the concert also featured some of Low’s older songs, and those sounded wonderful as well. The concert concluded with a moving, progressively louder performance of “When I Go Deaf,” from the 2005 record The Great Destroyer — a song that faces the idea of losing the ability to hear songs with an oddly resigned attitude of acceptance. “When I go deaf/I won’t even mind/Yeah, I’ll be all right/I’ll be just fine…” The concept of not being able to hear music like the songs Low played Thursday night make is almost too sad to contemplate, however.
The opening act, Gaberdine, performed a nice set of moody folk-rock songs accented with cello and trumpet. A good match with Low, although more reminiscent of bands such as the Low Anthem and Bowerbirds
It sounds like an unlikely pairing: Chicago alt-country singer-songwriter-guitarist-raconteur Robbie Fulks playing the music of Michael Jackson. But then again, Fulks has wide-ranging musical tastes, judging from all the various stuff he’s covered in his Monday-night shows at the Hideout. So why not Michael Jackson? “Billie Jean” has been a staple of Fulks’ live shows for a while, and last year Fulks released a full album of Jackson covers, Happy. On Friday night (March 18), he played those songs — plus some additional Jackson and Jackson 5 tunes — at Lincoln Hall.
Happy is essentially a novelty record — and not one of my favorite Fulks albums — but he clearly put a lot of work into arranging Jackson’s songs for the idiom of a country band. And the music made for a fun, lively concert featuring DayGlo sets, a few bits of theater, preposterous pajama-like costumes, children, the mandolin playing of Don Stiernberg, a rat puppet, and vocals from the always wonderful Nora O’Connor. It was a silly, festive, strange pageant. And then after all of the Jackson music, Fulks and his band played a mini-concert of their own songs. As he does just about every Monday night at the Hideout (although not in March, when Kelly Hogan and Scott Ligon are filling in), Fulks showed what a great all-around entertainer he is.
The Tomorrow Never Knows festival was bigger than ever this year. It’s become the first major indie-rock event of the year in Chicago, expanding to three venues: Schubas, Lincoln Hall and now Metro. As it happened, though, the three shows I saw were all at Lincoln Hall. I took photos for the Chicago Reader’s Photo Pit page Jan. 14, 15 and 16.
The best bands I saw were Screaming Females (led by the outlandishly rocking guitar playing of Marissa Paternoster) and the always-lively Handsome Furs (who had a few new songs on their set list). Little Dragon delivered some fun, too, although the dance beat got to be a little monotonous as the show went on. “Super group” Mister Heavenly showed some potential with its songs, but the set felt rather awkward at times. Work on the stage banter, guys. I enjoyed the scrappy sound of the Cloud Nothings. Billygoat screened its own marvelous animated films during a set of mesmerizing instrumental music.
The Vaselines don’t sound like a band that skipped 21 years in between albums. Until last year’s reunion tour, which included a wonderful show at Metro in Chicago, the Scottish group hadn’t played in two decades. Led by Frances McKee and Eugene Kelly, the Vaselines played old songs that still sounded fresh, including the classic “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” while displaying a great sense of humor.
Since last year’s reunion concert, the Vaselines have released an album of new songs — actually, only the second full-length album the band has ever put out. Sex With an X, recently issued by Sub Pop, is a rare example of a reunited band writing and recording great songs that stand up well to the group’s original output. The new record sounds more polished than the old ones, but they’re in the same spirit and style.
The Vaselines were back in Chicago this week, playing Thursday (Oct. 28) at Lincoln Hall. It was another fine concert, and this time, the band had some new material to play. The Vaselines played six songs from the new album, including a couple of the catchiest songs anyone has put out this year: “I Hate the 80’s” and “Mouth to Mouth.” It would have been nice to hear “My God’s Bigger Than Your God,” too, but the half-dozen new tunes sounded strong next to the 16 Vaselines oldies in the set list.
The stage banter was hilarious and charming, just as it was last year, with McKee smiling as she made sarcastic remarks about “shagging,” while Kelly mostly played the hapless straight man.
The originally scheduled opening act, Dum Dum Girls, cancelled their appearance, which was disappointing, but the replacement, New York guitar-and-drums duo Schwervon, turned out to be a good surprise, with a lively set of songs. And then, as if making up for the lack of Dum Dum Girls, the Vaselines finished off their encore with an energetic rendition of their old song, “Dum Dum.”
SET LIST: Oliver Twisted / Monsterpussy / I Hate the 80’s / The Day I Was a Horse / Sex With an X / Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam / The Devil’s Inside Me / Molly’s Lips / Slushly / Poison Pen / Bitch / Such a Fool / No Hope / Rory Rides Me Raw / Ruined / Son of a Gun / Let’s Get Ugly / Mouth to Mouth / Dying For It (The Blues) / ENCORE: Sex Sux (Amen) / You Think You’re a Man / Dum Dum
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PHOTOS OF SCHWERVON
VIDEOS OF THE VASELINES AT LINCOLN HALL
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan have recorded three albums together, but they’ve never toured the United States as a duo until now. They finally made their Chicago debut Friday night (Oct. 22) at Lincoln Hall. Campbell used to sing and play cello in Belle and Sebastian; Lanegan has sung with numerous rock bands over the years, including the Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age, the Gutter Twins and the Twilight Singers (not to overlook his solo music, including the excellent 2004 album Bubblegum). Together, they sing chilled-out duets, with Campbell soft, wispy vocals whispering alongside the gruff half-spoken word that seem to be emerging from deep inside Lanegan’s chest. Their sound owes a lot to the 1960s records by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, and other musical acts over the years that have featured contrasting male-female vocal mixes. It’s enticing and beautiful, if somewhat sleepy, music.
That was exemplified with the stunning performance that opened Friday’s concert, the song “We Die and See Beauty Reign” (which also opens the third and latest record by Campbell and Lanegan, Hawk). Backed by a band of four musicians, the two singers performed the song in super-hushed tones, and the audience watched in utter silence. It was almost spooky how quiet it was. On their records, Campbell and Lanegan sound like lovers or friends whispering secrets to each other. That’s how they sounded in concert, too, although they didn’t look like that. The two spent most of the show, standing at their microphones, not moving around a great deal. They sometimes glanced across the stage at each other — Lanegan squinting or cocking his eyebrow — but didn’t interact a whole lot beyond that. But most of these songs are so low-key that the laid-back performance style seemed appropriate.
Midway through the concert, some audience members suddenly grew rowdy. A few guys yelled out comments about how sexy Campbell is — which she did her best to ignore. The rude shouting was an unwelcome disruption of the concert’s enchanting mood.
PHOTOS OF ISOBEL CAMPBELL AND MARK LANEGAN
The opening act was Willy Mason, an impressive singer-songwriter, who played solo-acoustic. He also made an appearance during the Campbell-Lanegan set, singing three songs with Campbell. (He also appears on a couple of tracks on Hawk.) The dynamic between Mason and Campbell was quite different from that between Lanegan and Campbell — he has more vocal range than Lanegan, and more of a country-folk sound. His mini-set brought some nice variety to the concert.
www.myspace.com/marklanegan / www.marklanegan.com>
www.myspace.com/willymason / http://willymason.com>
PHOTOS OF WILLY MASON
I’ve been a member of the Teenage Fanclub fanclub for 19 years now — ever since hearing the Scottish band’s wonderful 1991 album Bandwagonesque — but somehow I’d never seen the group until now. Bandwagonesque was the band’s biggest moment as far as popularity, but Teenage Fanclub has never stopped making highly appealing power-pop with strong melodies and harmonies. All of that came through loud and clear on Tuesday (Oct. 5), when Teenage Fanclub played the first of two concerts at Lincoln Hall in Chicago.
Teenage Fanclub has a fine new record out this year called Shadows, and Tuesday night’s show featured several songs from it, including the catchy “Baby Lee.” The set also drew on records from throughout the band’s two-decade career, though just one from Bandwagonesque, “The Concept” — which sounded positively epic. It was also great to hear “It’s All In My Mind,” from the 2005 record Man-Made, a song that really sticks in your mind.
The affable Norman Blake stood center-stage and handled most of the stage banter, but he’s not the only singer-songwriter in Teenage Fanclub. He was flanked by Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley, and both of them took turns singing lead vocals. Teenage Fanclub finished the show with the very first single the band ever recorded, “Everything Flows,” from the 1990 record A Catholic Education.
SET LIST: Start Again / Sometimes I Don’t Need / The Past / It’s All In My Mind / Don’t Look Back / Baby Lee / Verisimilitude / Shock and Awe / I Don’t Want Control / About You / Sweet Days / Your Love Is the Place / The Concept / Ain’t That Enough / When I Still Have Thee / Sparky’s Dream / ENCORE: Can’t Feel My Soul / I Need Direction / Today Never Ends / Everything Flows
PHOTOS OF TEENAGE FANCLUB
The opening act was Radar Bros., a band on Merge Records with a pleasant-enough if not terribly exciting indie-pop sound.
The most recent record from Bonnie “Prince” Billy, The Wonder Show of the World, is yet another very strong collection of songs by the prolific, enigmatic singer-songwriter Will Oldham. And it’s one of 2010’s best records. Oldham’s key collaborator on these recordings is Chicago guitarist Emmet Kelley — also known as the Cairo Gang. (Or is that the name of his band?) The songs on Wonder Show are mostly spare and acoustic, with a folk-rock sound that’s occasionally reminiscent of early ’70s Neil Young.
But when Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang came to Chicago for four concerts this week, the new songs were transformed into sprawling, loose-limbed, full-band arrangements. The music often sounded much different from the studio recordings, but it was equally beguiling. Oldham and his band played two shows Tuesday night (Sept. 28) at Ronny’s in Logan Square, which is — let’s face it — something of a dive bar. It’s quite a bit smaller than the last place I’d seen Oldham — the Vic Theatre, where he played my favorite concert of 2009.
I was at Ronny’s for the late show on Tuesday. After an opening set of atmospheric, droning folk rock by Scott Tuma, Oldham took the stage and removed his flip-flops, revealing his pink-painted toenails. Oldham’s fingernails had pink nail polish, too, and his eyes were underlined with black makeup. The eyeliner was smeared on the left side of his face, looking like a bruise. As usual, Oldham’s face was covered with bristly hair, including a walrus mustache. As he sang, Oldham often contorted his legs and arms as if he were improvising some yoga moves.
While Oldham often plays guitar in concert, he left all of the guitar playing up to Kelly at these shows. The two clearly have a close musical connection. Kelly has a gift for playing loose, informal renditions of songs. Kelly and Oldham seemed to be giving each other cues on where the songs were going. Kelly would lean forward, pausing as he waited for Oldham to come in with a vocal line. The rest of the band (bassist Danny Kiely, drummer Van Campbell, keyboardist Ben Boye) followed their leads.
Chicago singer-songwriter Angel Olsen provided harmony vocals — and she also sang lead on the first song of the show, a rocker called “Sweetheart.” When Oldham, Olsen and Kelly sang together in the quieter moments, the concert had the feeling of a basement choir practice among friends. But this was also a strong rock show. The opening track of the new album, “Troublesome Houses,” was transformed from mellow folk-rock into a louder, more driving song.
Here’s the photograph I took of the set list, which Oldham had in a notebook he carried onto the stage.
The songs were: “Sweetheart” / “With Cornstalks or Among Them” / “Go Folks, Go”” / “Easy Does It”/ “Where Wind Blows” / “I See a Darkness” / “Teach Me to Bear You” / “New Wonder” / “Island Bros” (?) / “Troublesome Houses” / “Kids” / “That”s What Our Love Is” / “Where Is the Puzzle?” ENCORE: “I Never Thought My Love Would Leave Me” (traditional folk song) / “Price of Love” medley
I did not recognize the first song of the encore, but based on the notes I took on the lyrics, it seems to have been the folk song “I Never Thought My Love Would Leave Me,” which has been performed by June Tabor and the Chieftains. The final verse was particularly striking as Oldham sang it: “I wish my father had never whistled/I wish my mother had never sung/I wish the cradle had never rocked me/I wish I’d died, love, when I was young.”
The final song was a long medley built around throbbing chords on Kelly’s guitar. Beginning as a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Price of Love,” the medley incorporated at least one other song, Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “Madeleine-Mary,” before circling back to the chorus: “That’s the price of love, the price of love, The debt you pay with tears and pain.”
As Oldham writhed on the stage Tuesday night at Ronny’s and the band filled out the songs with an almost jazzy sense of exploration, it reminded me sometimes of Van Morrison from the Astral Weeks era.
On Wednesday (Sept. 29), Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang played two more shows, this time at Lincoln Hall. This time, I attended the early show. Chicago musician Josh Abrams played a cool opening set, performing deep, jazzy ruminations on the gimbri, a North African instrument in the lute family.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s early set list on Wendesday turned out to be quite different from the previous night’s late show. Of the 11 songs, five were repeats. (The show was also briefer, with only 11 songs compared with the 16 at the Ronny’s late set.)
The vibe and performance were similar at Lincoln Hall, with just a little bit less of the more rocking songs. It struck me on Wednesday that many of Oldham’s songs feel like plays — short dramas being acted out on the stage, proceeding from one act to another with a real sense of surprise, even if you’ve heard the songs before. The audience followed along with rapt attention. When a song finally reached its closing line, the crowd often paused before clapping — as if we were all holding our breaths, wondering whether that was really the end.
Oldham’s strange expressions and gestures also seemed like a performance by an actor — not that I think there’s anything phony in his quirky moves. In the song “Teach Me to Bear You,” Oldham clenched his arms in front of his chest and bared his teeth as he sang the lines: “But my hands are empty, and my throat cracked and drawn, because I gave away the name you gave to me. Yes, I sang away the name you gave to me.” The specter of Oldham standing there in that posture was a vivid dramatization of the lyrics.
Here is a photograph I took of Emmet Kelly’s copy of the set list. The band added one song not listed, “Troublesome Houses,” and skipped a few others.
The songs were: “Because of Your Eyes” (Merle Haggard cover) / “The Sounds Are Always Begging” / “With Cornstalks or Among Them” / “Island Brah”? (This seems to be the song that looks like “Island Bros” on the previous night’s set list.) / “Merciless and Great” / “Another Day Full of Dread” / “Go Folks, Go” / “Troublesome Houses” / “You Remind Me of Something (The Glory Goes)” / “Teach Me to Bear You” / “You Are Lost”
Oldham, Olson and Kelly’s voices sounded beautiful at the concert ended with “You Are Lost,” one of the best songs from Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s 2009 record, Beware.
All in all, these were two more remarkable concert performances by one of today’s greatest songwriters.
Justin Townes Earle really delivered Saturday night (Sept. 18) at Lincoln Hall, singing his smart original songs and some well-chosen covers with a strong voice and a raconteur’s flair. It was a great performance from beginning to end by a musician who can hold his own on the stage with nothing more than his voice, his acoustic guitar and his wit.
But the concert also came with some disturbing news about an incident two nights earlier in Indianapolis. I hadn’t heard anything about it until Saturday night (and I got the impression that many others in the audience were similarly unaware of the news), but Earle was arrested after his show in Indy. At several points during the Chicago show, Earle mentioned that he’d just spent a night in jail. He said his wrists were still chafing from the handcuffs. But when an audience member asked him what had happened, he wouldn’t get into details.
According to a report on the American Songwriter website, Earle was arrested and charged with battery, public intoxication and resisting law enforcement after his Sept. 16 gig at the Indianapolis club Radio Radio. “Earle, who had complained about the sound during the show, allegedly became incensed after the audience heckled him,” the website reports. “According to reports, Earle is accused of destroying equipment backstage and punching the club owner’s daughter.”
The websites My Old Kentucky Blog and Saving Country Music also described the concert and its aftermath. Audience members and Earle reportedly got into a belligerent exchange during the show, and someone in the audience threw a shirt that landed on Earle’s guitar in the middle of a song.
On Saturday night, Earle sounded defiant about what had happened, blaming the owner of the Indianapolis club for his arrest and criticizing the treatment he’d received from the police in Indiana. When Earle played some covers in the middle of his Chicago set, someone in the crowd shouted at that lamest of concert remarks, “Free Bird!” As it happens, one of the contentious moments in Indianapolis occurred when an audience members yelled “Free Bird,” and Earle reportedly responded, “Fuck ‘Free Bird.’ I fucking hate Lynyrd Skynyrd.” In Chicago, when that oh-so-predictable song request rang out once again, Earle said, “Don’t act like Indianapolis did. That’s what got me locked up.”
On Saturday, Earle was actually quite well-behaved, constantly referring to the audience as “ladies and gentlemen” in his Southern drawl. Whatever happened in Indianapolis, he mellowed out by the time he reached Chicago. But as Earle wryly remarked, “We’ve had an eventful tour so far.”
Saturday’s show also featured a pleasant opening set by singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield. When Earle took the stage, he said he was feeling under the weather — possibly because of his overnight stay in that jail cell — but it didn’t seem to affect his singing. “I’ve got a bit of a sore throat, but I’m going to sing my ass off,” he promised — and that’s just what he did.
Midway through Saturday’s show, Earle’s violinist, Josh Hedley, broke a string and was unable to continue performing — leaving Earle to perform alone for the rest of the set. Earle performed many of the songs from his new album, Harlem River Blues, a solid collection of alt-country songs with full band arrangements in diverse styles. Notably, one of them, “Rogers Park,” is about Chicago, drawing on Earle’s memories of the gritty neighborhoods where he lived as a teen. “I lived in Pilsen for a little while, and I lived in East Rogers Park,” he said Saturday, indicating that not all of his memories were pleasant. “In ’99? Hell no.”
As good as Earle’s own songs are, the concert was also memorable because of the great covers he played: The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” (which he introduced as a “country and Westerberg” song), Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Bad Gasoline,” Mance Lipscomb’s “So Different Blues” and Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927.” For that classic song, Earle laid his guitar down on the stage and bravely sang it a cappella, all by himself. The crowd inside Lincoln Hall barely made a noise, other than a few whoops of appreciation, as Earle sang out: “Louisiana! Louisiana! They’re tryin’ to wash us away!” It was a stunning and powerful moment of music-making by one very talented guy. Now, let’s hope the rest of his tour (and career) aren’t eventful in the same way as his visit to Indianapolis.
UPDATE, Sept. 21, 2010: Bloodshot Records just issued this statement from Justin Townes Earle about his arrest in Indianapolis: “Unfortunately, reports surfacing online about the incident in Indianapolis are not accurate. I have been advised by counsel that I should not comment on a pending criminal matter, but suffice to say that I am looking forward to having my day in court. I would also like to say that I oppose violence against women in any form.”
UPDATE, Sept. 23, 2010: Earle’s website posted this news yesterday: “Justin Townes Earle has decided to suspend the remaining dates on his tour and enter a rehabilitation facility. Earle is strongly committed to confronting his on-going struggle with addiction and thanks his family, friends and fans for their continued support through this difficult time.”
PHOTOS OF JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE
Thee Oh Sees stomped through a strong set of garage-rock songs Wednesday (Sept. 15) at Lincoln Hall. By the end, it was clear that Thee Oh Sees are one of the best bands today that channel the sounds of the 1960s Nuggets era into their own original tunes. The San Francisco band’s main singer-songwriter, John Dwyer, sometimes held his guitar up high, right next to his face. Other times, he crouched down low. There was something rooster-like about his posture, which he might have learned from watching clips of ’60s bands appearing on TV shows. Keyboardist and percussionist Brigid Dawson mostly sang harmony vocals, but her voice was a key ingredient in Thee Oh Sees’ bewitching sound.
As much as the band stayed within a certain sonic template — mostly keeping the guitars in fuzzy feedback territory — the music ranged from tight three-chord riffs to sprawling psychedelic jams. That same variety is apparent on the latest record by Thee Oh Sees, Warm Slime, which is either an album or an EP, depending on how you define these things. The record starts off with the title track, which runs for more than 13 minutes long — one of those songs that locks onto a cool groove and just won’t let go. It’s almost half the length of the entire record, which continues with six considerably shorter and more concise tunes. www.myspace.com/ohsees
The opening acts included Hot Machines, a Chicago trio with some familiar faces: Jered Gummere, whose other bands include the Ponys; Alex White, whose other bands include White Mystery; and Matt Williams, whose other bands include Lover! and Live Fast Die. (How do these folks have time to play in so many different bands?) Their cranked-up guitar rock was a good match with Thee Oh Sees. www.myspace.com/hotmachines
The 1970s German band Neu! is no more, but Hallogallo 2010 is almost the real thing. The one surviving member of the original duo, Michael Rother, is touring America for the first time in ages, playing the mesmerizing, driving instrumental music he recorded three decades ago in Neu!, along with some of his solo music. One of those old Neu! songs is called “Hallogallo,” and the name of this new touring band is Hallogallo 2010. It’s Rother plus Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and Tall Firs bassist Aaron Mullan.
Shelley and Mullan played their roles perfectly Wednesday, Sept. 8, at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, duplicating the tight, almost mechanical rhythms that Neu! pioneered. That beat that became known as “Motorik,” German for “motor skill.” Going through my photos from the concert, I noticed how happy Shelley looked as he did his part. Together, Shelley and Mullan were a pulsing machine. Rother played electric guitar, keyboards and electronic devices on top of that rhythmic foundation. It was minimalist, focused music, with twitchy energy.
Tift Merritt has one of the most beautiful voices you’ll hear in today’s alt-country and Americana — or whatever you want to call the music she’s released on four albums since 2002, including the new record See You on the Moon. Merritt sounds a little more mainstream and traditional than some of her counterparts, such as Neko Case, but she’s still far, far better than the stuff that gets played on mainstream country radio. (And how many mainstream Nashville artists drop a reference to Mazzy Star in their lyrics or do a song in French?)
Merritt touched on all the aspects of her music during her set Friday night (July 30) at Lincoln Hall in Chicago, from soulful piano ballads and simple acoustic folk songs to louder, more driving Southern rock. The pedal-steel guitar of Eric Heywood (who’s played with Son Volt and other bands) added another lovely voice to the mix, dueting with Merritt’s dulcet vocals on songs such as the title track from 2002’s Bramble Rose. Her band also included longtime players Jay Brown on bass and Zeke Hutchins (her husband) on drums. During the encore, Hutchins stepped up to the mike for lead vocals on an a cappella song about Evel Knievel.
Highlights included the rocker “Engine to Turn” from the new album and a solo piano rendition of “Good Hearted Man,” from her 2004 album Tambourine. (Alas, we did not get to hear the title track, “Tambourine.”) Merritt played both of the cover tunes on her new record: “Live Till You Die” by Emitt Rhodes and “Danny’s Song” by Kenny Loggins. The latter is a song that I did not especially want to hear anyone cover, but Merritt manages to bring out its best qualities.
It’s too bad Lincoln Hall wasn’t more crowded for this fine show — the house seemed to be about half-full. Opening act Dawn Landes was pretty charming and tuneful in her own right, playing roots rock in a similar vein.
Vancouver rockers Black Mountain have a new album on the way — Wilderness Heart comes out Sept. 14 in North America — and the band gave Chicago a preview of the new tunes Thursday (July 1) at Lincoln Hall.
Judging from the new songs Black Mountain played (about half of the set), Wilderness Heart is going to be a fine follow-up to the band’s excellent earlier records, the self-titled debut from 2005 and In the Future from 2008. Continuing in the vein of those recordings, Black Mountain is making epic riffs, drawing on the hard rock, art rock and psychedelic music of the early ’70s.
Some of the band’s songs are quite long, to the point where it seems natural to call them “jams.” But Black Mountain doesn’t fill up all that time with endless solos or improvisation. Sometimes, guitarist/front man Stephen McBean and his band mates simply revel in the joy of playing a great melodic hook over and over. Other times, the songs are more like carefully constructed suites, each part leading into another part that seems like the only logical place the music could go.
McBean’s face remained hidden much of the time, buried under his long hair, as he played guitar or sang. The other thing that makes Black Mountain’s music so appealing is the combination of McBean’s vocals with those of Amber Webber. The new songs sounded strong, but of course, it was even more exciting to hear the ones we’re already familiar with, including “Don’t Run Our Hearts Around” and “Druganaut” from the first album, and “Evil Ways” from In the Future.
The evening started off with an opening set by David Vandervelde, who had at least one different musician in his band compared with the recent show he did at the Empty Bottle. (Or were both different? I’m not sure.) Vandervelde’s Crazy Horse-style guitar soloing on a couple of songs sounded great. The highlights were the last two songs of his set, both drawn from his debut CD, “Murder in Michigan” and “Never No.”
José Gonzalez, a Swedish singer-songwriter of Argentine heritage, has gained a following with his gentle singing and soft classical guitar plucking on the solo records Veneer (2005) and In Our Nature (2007). But Gonzalez was actually in a band before he made those records — Junip.
And now he’s back playing with his old bandmates from the 1990s (Tobias Winterkorn and Elias Araya) in Junip once again. Junip doesn’t yet have a proper album to call its own, but the group is giving away free copies of its EP, Rope and Summit, and touring America, including a stop Sunday (June 13) at Lincoln Hall in Chicago.
The sound of Junip is not radically different from those José Gonzalez solo records. Junip is dominated by his mellow sound, a blend of Latin American folk and Nick Drake. The other musicians in Junip flesh out the arrangements, but in subtle ways. The touring lineup includes regular drums as well as congas, plus guitar and synth. As during his solo shows, Gonzalez played sitting down, closing his eyes much of the time as she sang in a breathy tone.
The show, which also featured an opening set by Chicago band Sonoi, was far from being sold out — maybe because people didn’t realize this was a band starring Gonzalez? When the Junip album comes out later this year, I expect the band’s following will increase.
The stage at Lincoln Hall looked unusually bare Friday night (May 28) just before the Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson, who calls himself the Tallest Man on Earth, came out to perform. Clearly, this was going to be a solo show. Most of the usual amps and drum kits and equipment were absent, leaving a wide open space for Matsson to roam around during his set. A few guitars off to one side. An amp with some effects pedals on the other side of the stage. Microphone in the middle. A chair sitting at the far back part of the stage, many feet away from the microphone.
And sure enough, when Matsson performed, he did roam the stage. For a guy who performs Dylanesque folk music with an acoustic guitar, the Tallest Man on Earth is an oddly energetic, almost hyper guy, moving around a lot whenever he isn’t singing into the mike. He strutted around and crouched down as he plucked some intricate patterns on his guitar strings. Sometimes he went back to that chair and sat down for a minute. He often walked out toward the audience, leaning toward his fans. And they loved it.
Matsson’s songs sound a lot like Bob Dylan’s early acoustic music, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The Tallest Man on Earth might not be breaking any new ground as far as developing an original musical style, but that classic style of Dylanesque folk music is still a great template, with endless possibilities for new words, melodies and arrangements, so why not continue exploring it?
The latest album by the Tallest Man on Earth, The Wild Hunt, is a strong collection of songs from beginning to end, and Matsson played most of them on Friday, along with a selection from his earlier records — and, no surprise, some Dylan covers in the encore, including a nice a cappella version of “The Man in Me” with opening act Nathaniel Rateliff and his band joining in.
The Tallest Man on Earth was wrapping up his U.S. tour last week, getting ready for a time home to Sweden. His next local appearance will be at the Pitchfork Music Festival. Matsson, who seemed genuinely appreciative of the warm reception he got from the Chicago crowd, said he plans to rest up before his return visit to Chicago. “I’m going to sleep until I get to Pitchfork,” he said.
Two bands from different sides of the planet played Saturday (May 22) at Lincoln Hall, both making some beautiful noise. Up first, the Twilight Sad, from Glasgow, Scotland, sounded even more shoe-gaze-y than they have in the previous shows I’ve seen, with loud guitar feedback churning above, besides and underneath James Graham’s impassioned, Scottish-accented vocals. Graham circled around as he sang, his head tilted back, looking toward the ceiling — he always seems to have a lot of pent-up energy.
Mono, from Japan, then took the stage and proceeded to play two hours of soaring, powerful instrumental rock. Many of the songs began in calm understatement, with guitarists Takaakira Goto and Yoda sitting down, their faces shrouded in long hair, while bassist Tamaki Kunishi stood in between them in a black dress. But each song built in intensity, finally breaking at a moment when all of that hair started flying around. Mono’s music felt majestic, almost orchestral.
The Antlers put out one of my favorite records of 2009, a cathartic song cycle about, well, death, called Hospice. There’s no new Antlers record, but the band was back in Chicago again last night (April 22), stretching out those Hospice songs into art-rock epics. Peter Silberman, who started Antlers as a solo project, kept his voice floating up in high falsetto territory most of the night, with confident backing from Michael Lerner on drums and Darby Cicci on keyboards and bass pedals. The guitars and keyboards often melded together into amorphous washes, making it hard to tell who what playing exactly what. The band played one new song — and I have a photo of the set list, taken from a weird angle, where the title is hard to make out. “TEGNB6KK”? Sorry, that’s all I got for you on that.
The opening act was New York electronic-and-guitar duo Phantogram, who played an entertaining set of melodic songs, sounding like a real live band rather than the preprogrammed stuff you get at concerts by some electronic acts. Films of random street scenes and geometric patterns played on the screen behind Phantogram.
I saw two concerts on Saturday night (April 10) — both of them by singer-songwriters who used to call themselves by a stage name. After seeing the early show at the Hideout by the artist formerly known as Smog (Bill Callahan), I headed up to Lincoln Hall for the artist formerly known as Final Fantasy (Owen Pallett).
I had always thought the Final Fantasy name was rather silly — bringing to mind the computer game of the same name. A few months ago, Pallett announced he was dropping the name to “definitively distinguish my music from Square/Enix’s games.” Good idea. And so, his latest album arrived as mp3 files with “Final Fantasy” listed as the artist’s name, but by the time it actually came out, his publicist was saying that it was an Owen Pallett album, not a Final Fantasy album.
Either way, Heartland is filled with some alluringly beautiful orchestral pop music. I haven’t studied the lyrics enough to follow the narrative that apparently runs through the songs, but Pallett has said: “The songs themselves form a narrative concerning a farmer named Lewis and the fictional world of Spectrum. The songs are one-sided dialogues with Lewis, a young, ultra-violent farmer, speaking to his creator.”
In concert, Pallett performs in a style very much reminiscent of Andrew Bird, using looping pedals to build chords and counterpoint with his violin and keyboard playing. He was assisted at Lincoln Hall by guitarist and drummer Thomas Gill, but it was very much Pallett’s show. Pallett apologized for his voice, which was apparently a bit rougher than usual, but any difference was barely noticeable.
Pallett played one brand-new song, “Don’t Stop the Party on My Account,” and he finished off his encore with a cover of Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” — a joking reference, perhaps, to Pallett’s old stage name? Before playing the song, Pallett jokes, “If I got to a show and don’t see any humiliation, I feel like I want my money back. So here you go.” It wasn’t humiliating, but it was rather odd to see an indie-rock artist at Lincoln Hall doing a Mariah Carey song.
Like Pallett, the opening act was from Canada, and they had the antlers to prove it. It was a cool band called Snowblink, playing songs with fairly minimal arrangements (and a set of antlers on one of the guitars). Judging from the somewhat confusing information posted on the band’s myspace page, there’s a revolving lineup of several musicians, with Daniela Gesundheit being the main singer. On Saturday, it was just her on vocals and guitar plus one other guy. Interesting stuff.
I’m not sure why I hesitated before deciding to see U.K. indie-rock band Fanfarlo again, since I’ve liked them so much in the past and love their 2009 record Reservoir. I finally got off the fence and decided to see Fanfarlo Wednesday (April 7) at Lincoln Hall, thanks in part to one of the opening acts, a New Zealander named James Milne, who goes by the stage name Lawrence Arabia. (There’s no “of” in there.)
Lawrence Arabia won me over in concert with a sunny, slightly psychedelic sound with some touches of the Beatles and Beach Boys and his fellow Kiwi act the Ruby Suns. Not surprisingly, Milne has been a member of the Brunettes and the Ruby Suns (and also a touring member of Okkervil River). On his myspace page, he calls his songs “new old fashioned pop music,” which is an apt label. Lawrence Arabia looks like an act to watch. He has a new CD called Chant Darling out on Bella Union.
Alas, the other opening act on Wednesday, Robert Francis, gave me more of an allergic reaction. Way too power-ballad-y for my tastes.
But of course, it was well worth seeing Fanfarlo again no matter who the opening acts were. This was the best of the five performances I’ve seen by the band since 2008 (including three SXSW sets, a couple of which were marred by technical problems).
On Wednesday, Fanfarlo was completely in control of its music, playing the songs in a way that revealed the interplay between the voices and instruments. We heard the full band playing all of its parts, but also little moments when some of the sounds dropped out, becoming more like intimate duets. In one exceptionally beautiful passage, lead singer Simon Balthazar and multi-instrumentalist Cathy Lucas harmonized with wordless a cappella notes, stretching out at the end of a song.
The set included the key tracks from Reservoir — including one of my favorites, “Fire Escape,” which I’d never heard Fanfarlo play until now — and a couple of new songs.
As part of National Record Store Day (that’s next week — Saturday, April 17), Fanfarlo is releasing an exclusive 7” vinyl of the song “You Are One” with Fleetwood Mac cover “What Makes You Think You’re the One” on the B side. See recordstoreday.com for details on where you can buy this record and other Record Store Day exclusive.
Fanfarlo is also giving away a new EP to anyone who signs up for their mailing list at www.fanfarlo.com
The Low Anthem put out a wonderful folk-rock record last year called Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, and the Rhode Island group was back in Chicago this Tuesday (April 6), playing some new songs as well as covers of old-time folk songs. The concert at Lincoln Hall showed that this is a group with deep roots in American music, and deep talent, too. Expanded from a trio to a four-person lineup (with a fifth musician occasionally joining in on drums), the Low Anthem was in constant motion in between songs. It seemed like everyone on the stage played every instrument at some point.
The band played a few of its gritter, growly songs, but the evening was dominated by the quieter moments, with lovely falsetto vocals carrying the strong melodies. At a couple of points, all of the musicians gathered around a single old-fashioned microphone at the front of the stage, harmonizing the way bluegrass groups do.
It sounds like the Low Anthem’s next album (due sometime this fall) is going to be a good one. If you haven’t heard the Low Anthem yet, check out the video for the song “Charlie Darwin” on the band’s Web site, www.lowanthem.com.
The opening act, Nathaniel Rateliff, was a pleasant surprise. I’d never heard anything about this Denver singer-songwriter or a note of music, but he sang some compelling folk-rock songs, quickly winning me over. It seemed pretty straightforward and traditional, but also very solid.
I should be seeing Nathaniel Rateliff again later this month when the Daytrotter Barnstormer 3 tour comes through the Midwest, with concerts in actual barns in small towns featuring Rateliff along with Delta Spirit, Ra Ra Riot, Pearly Gate Music and Free Energy. I’m planning to head downstate for the April 30 show in Monticello, Illinois.
As I walked into Lincoln Hall on Wednesday night (March 24) right at 8 p.m., when Pere Ubu was scheduled to start playing, the band was already onstage. The brains and voice of the band, David Thomas, seemed to be giving a speech… or some sort of spoken introduction to the concert that was about to happen. I believe the words he was saying as I entered the room were: “I despise you. Each and every one of you.”
Classic David Thomas. It’s hard to tell how much of his cantankerous stage banter, his confrontations with both the audience and his backing musicians, are just an act. I don’t doubt that’s his real personality, but surely he’s exaggerating it a bit as part of the entertainment? Whatever the case is, he was in fine form during this show, one of just a couple that Pere Ubu did on this abbreviated “tour.”
Billed as “The First and the Last,” the show began with Pere Ubu playing its most recent record, Long Live Pere Ubu, a sort of dramatization of the absurdist play that gives the band its name, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. And as a concert, it did indeed seem like absurdist performance art, complete with a chicken mask and lots of goofy voices. In between songs, Thomas lashed out at music critics and berated his band for not playing segue music. “What’s with the fucking silence?” he shouted.
After an intermission, Pere Ubu returned to the stage and played its very first album, The Modern Dance, which sounded as original and strange as it did more than three decades ago. Thomas apologized about his singing voice, but it didn’t sound off to me. At one point, he knelt down and yelled a little, in an effort to exorcise whatever it was that was bothering his voice. “A week ago,” he said, “I felt something snap in my body. I could die. I’d be happy.”
Thomas, however, looked as if he’s lost quite a bit of weight since the last time he played in Chicago a year and a half ago. He was no longer using a cane for support, and he seemed in better health. Still drinking and smoking, though. And still scowling and snarling.
The encore ended abruptly, in the middle of a song, as Thomas once again apologized for whatever he thought he was doing wrong. As fans in the crowd called out, “We love you,” Thomas said, “I’m so fucking sorry,” and walked off-stage.
The New York band known as Woods was back in Chicago last night (Monday) for another fine jam session. After playing last year at the Empty Bottle, Woods and opening act Real Estate nearly filled a bigger venue this time, Lincoln Hall.
As in past Woods performances I’ve seen, vocalist/guitarist Jeremy Earl sang in a creaky falsetto reminiscent of Neil Young or maybe Canned Heat, while letting loose some wonderfully shambling electric guitar solos. Meanwhile, G. Lucas Crane is kneeling as he plays old cassette tapes, twiddling knobs, doing who knows what with the sounds coming out of the tapes, and singing into what looks like a set of headphones. When Woods stretched out its tunes, it rocked in a way that felt spontaneous and unpracticed. Despite sustained applause at the end of the concert, Woods did not come out for an encore.
The middle band on Monday’s bill, Real Estate, has been getting some buzz with its recent self-titled debut. The music’s very unassuming: nicely constructed little guitar pop songs, with just a touch of 1960s chamber pop or psychedelia. It all came across well in concert, although the laid-back Real Estate guys could stand to show a little more energy and enthusiasm.
Chicago trio Netherfriends started out the evening, playing songs from its debut EP. At times, Netherfriends sounded like White Rabbits (when keyboards were the dominant instrument), but more often the band went for an Animal Collective sort of vibe, with heavy rhythms and overlapping musical motifs. If anything, the percussion was a bit too aggressive in this live performance, but this band has some potential.
The Danish band Efterklang makes music that’s both alluring and somewhat elusive. I especially liked Efterklang’s 2007 record Parades, the sort of album that grows on you after repeated listens, revealing more layers. Efterklang’s new CD, Magic Chairs, sounds perhaps a little more straightforward, though it’s a far cry from boilerplate pop music.
Efterklang played a warmly glowing set of its new and old songs Monday (March 8) at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall (a venue that these touring Danes seemed to find a little strange, for some reason). Lead vocalists Casper Clausen spent most of the concert holding drumsticks, adding a second layer of percussion to the main drumming. The rest of the band was arrayed in a semi-circle behind Clausen and bassist Rasmus Stolberg, playing an ever-shifting mix of keyboards, flute, trumpet and guitar.
In addition to six songs from Magic Chairs, Efterklang played a few of the great tracks from Parades (“Mirador,” “Blowing Lungs Like Bubbles” and “Cutting Ice to Snow”) and two songs from Efterklang’s first album, Tripper (“Step Aside” and “Chapter 6”).
The idea behind the band Nouvelle Vague is to play songs from the new wave and early punk era like bossa nova or Brazilian lounge music, with sexy French ladies handling the vocals. Nouvelle Vague (the brainchild of French producers Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux) has recorded some lovely, quirky covers on its three albums, although the whole concept is pretty gimmicky. The shtick wears thin after a while, but it’s enjoyable for a song or two or three.
The touring version of Nouvelle Vague came to Chicago Friday night for a show at Lincoln Hall. And how can you go wrong when you’ve got a couple of sexy French ladies singing cool old songs that we all like? (Well, a lot of like those songs, anyway.) It was fun hearing songs like XTC’s “Making Plans for Nigel,” the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” and Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen in Love?” done up in this style.
The group records in the studio with a revolving cast of singers, but it had just two on tour. I don’t believe they ever got introduced during the show, which seems like a weird oversight. Or maybe they were supposed to be sort of anonymous? I’m told these two were Helena Noguerra and Karina Zeviani. Whoever they were, they did a fine job singing these songs, shaking their hair and striking poses, while the band played light versions of these tunes that used to rock hard. It was quite entertaining for a while, although it was still, in the end, a bit of a gimmick.
Nouvelle Vague was nicely paired with an opening act that sings some songs in French, Clare and the Reasons. As in previous Chicago gigs, this delightful trio delivered cool, jazzy pop music with some funny stage banter and a lot of personality in between the songs. It was too bad to hear that their vehicle was broken into during this visit to Chicago. Hope they don’t get scared off from visiting again soon.
UPDATE/CORRECTION: I’m informed that one of the two singers I referred to above as French ladies (Karina Zeviani) is actually Brazilian.
The Tomorrow Never Knows festival got bigger this year. It used to be a series of mid-January concerts at Schubas. This year, it was five nights of shows simultaneously happening at both Schubas and its new sister venue, Lincoln Hall. January is generally not all that exciting of a month on the concert calendar, but the TNK fest brought a good selection of up-and-coming indie-rock bands to Chicago.
I attended two of the shows during the festival. Last Thursday (Jan. 14) at Schubas, the headliners were Surfer Blood, a young band from Florida that’s been getting some buzz lately. I like what I’ve heard of Surfer Blood’s studio recordings. It might be a little too polished and amped up, but the power-pop single “Swim” is pretty darn catchy. The band has inspired some wild comparisons to other groups. Time Out Chicago said they sound like a mix of Asia and Brian Eno. Friends I follow on Twitter mentioned the Fixx and Boston. I was thinking more along the lines of the Ponys and OK Go. As a live act, Surfer Blood needs some practice. The band wasn’t bad, but songs that would have been appealing as three-minute pop singles got stretched out twice as long as that, until the repetitive chord progressions just got boring. Then again, “Swim” sounded really strong without all that heavy compression and reverb on the studio record. Surfer Blood abruptly ended its set with drum-set-smashing antics… ensuring that there would be no encore.
Also on the bill Thursday, Freelance Whales played buoyant songs from its forthcoming debut LP, Weathervanes. The record’s not out until March 16, but this band is already building a solid following. Freelance Whales also opened recently for Fanfarlo at Schubas, and Thursday’s appearance was another energetic performance of the catchy songs on Weathervanes.
Thursday’s show started out with the annoyingly named Lasers and Fast and Shit. With dramatic back lighting and lots of fog, the group hammered its way through some hard-edged post-punk. A couple of the songs had good hooks, but others sounded like run-of-the-mill rock.
And sandwiched in between all those bands was Bear in Heaven. A couple of the musicians in this Brooklyn band played in avant-garde guitarist Rhys Chatham’s metal band, but Bear in Heaven doesn’t play that sort of drony music. Its songs were ominous and dramatic, however.
On Saturday night, I was at Lincoln Hall for the triple bill of Julie Doiron, the Rural Alberta Advantage and Bowerbirds. Although the show was sold out, the room did not feel quite as jam-packed as I would have expected. I get the feeling some fans were there just for one band or another — and maybe some folks with festival passes were shuttling back and forth between Lincoln Hall and Schubas.
I saw Doiron play twice last year, once with a band and once solo. Saturday’s show was like a hybrid of those, since she had just one musician accompanying her, William Kidman on guitar. She didn’t talk as much as she during her last solo show (it would be hard for anyone to talk that much again), delivering a tighter set of some great songs, including at least one new composition and one very nice cover, Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me.”
The Rural Alberta Advantage were the middle band on the bill Saturday, but judging from the energy of their performance and the fan turnout, they should have been the headliners. This Canadian trio put out an excellent record in 2008 (when I discovered it on emusic), which then got wider release in 2009. Their music reminds me of Neutral Milk Hotel, probably because the band’s singer-songwriter Nils Edenloff sings in a strong tone similar to NHM’s Jeff Mangum. The songs sounded lively Saturday night, thanks to the powerful drumming of Paul Banwatt and the many touches provided by multi-instrumentalist Amy Cole. Edenloff was suffering from a cold, and his vocals were ragged on some of the songs, especially when he belted out notes. I winced a few times at hearing Edenloff’s voice crack, but he deserves a gold star for giving the music his full effort despite his illness. The RAA played a couple of new songs (which sounded like promising additions to the band’s repertoire), and two covers: Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and the theme of the Canadian kids’ TV show, “The Littlest Hobo.”
Bowerbirds finished off the night with a pretty performance of the band’s folk-rock ballads. This Raleigh, N.C., band’s 2009 record, Upper Air, really grew on me over time, with a lot of compositions that stick in the mind. In concert, Phil Moore’s vocals and guitar blended beautifully with Beth Tacular’s accordion and harmonies (though I wish Tacular would sing even more). All that being said, it was a very mellow set for midnight, lulling the crowd rather than rousing it. Maybe the Bowerbirds’ set would have worked better earlier in the evening.
Photos from Tomorrow Never Knows. (I’m still waiting to get my camera from the repair shop, but I managed to get a few photos at these shows, thanks to the kind friends who let me use their cameras.)
More Canadian rockers were in Chicago last night. This time, it was Sloan, the great and long-running power pop band from Nova Scotia. Sloan’s been making bright, highly tuneful records since 1992, which is when they released their best-known song, “Underwhelmed,” the one that you might have heard a few times on at least a few American radio stations. But Sloan really hasn’t gotten its due in the U.S. in the 17 years since then. Whatever. They still keep making cool music.
Sloan played Monday night (Dec. 7) at Lincoln Hall, performing songs from a new EP called Hit & Run as well as a good cross-section of songs from previous albums. But, hey, why’d they skip playing “A Sides Win,” which was written out on the set list? I guess they didn’t feel like playing that one. One of the best things about seeing Sloan in concert is enjoying the variety of vocals. All four of these guys take turns on lead vocals, so even though Chris Murphy seems to be the front man more than anyone else (Andrew Scott, Patrick Pentland and Jay Ferguson), it also feels like a very democratic band with lots of talent to go around.
The band was in fairly high spirits Monday, especially during the last part of the show, when Murphy struck some slightly ridiculous rock-star poses and got down close to some audience members. Things got really festive when Sloan kicked off its encore with “Underwhelmed.” Like most of the songs Sloan played Monday night, it sounded catchy, almost shiny, but it had some crunchy electric-guitar kick as well.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that a lot of good music gets forgotten. For every classic-rock band you hear on the radio a zillion times, there are a zillion bands barely anyone’s ever heard of… and at least a few of those zillions are worth hearing. Chicago’s Numero Group record label has done an exemplary job of bringing new attention to some of the forgotten greats. The label has reissued folk and psychedelic music, but its best-known speciality is soul music. Numero has an ongoing series of albums called “Eccentric Soul,” featuring long-lost tracks by record labels that folded years ago. The albums (available on both CD and vinyl) are lovingly packaged, and the Numero folks have a great ear for picking out some noteworthy tunes you’ve probably never heard before.
Now, a few of the soul musicians championed by Numero are back on the concert stage. Some of them played this spring at Park West (a show that I missed, alas). On Saturday night (Nov. 7), the Eccentric Soul Revue was back — this time at Lincoln Hall, with a revamped lineup. The evening was a real blast. A younger soul group, JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, served as the house band, keeping the music going almost nonstop for more than two hours as various singers stepped up to the mike. There was barely a pause as the horns kept blowing and the funky guitar chords kept twitching.
Things got started with some gospel harmonies, courtesy of Pastor T.L. Barrett & Choir. Their music is featured on the Numero CD Good God! Born Again Funk. After a couple of songs from JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, Renaldo Domino took center stage. Domino hadn’t performed onstage since the early ’70s, but he certainly didn’t sound as if he’d been away that long. Like everyone else in Saturday’s variety show, Domino seemed completely at ease strolling the stage, wearing the sort of leisure suit he probably wore in concerts more than three decades ago. And his voice sounded great. His music, including the cool tune “Not Too Cool to Cry,” is on the compilation Twinight’s Lunar Rotation.
Saturday’s show added a couple of female singers who weren’t at the Park West show: Sharon Clark and Linda Balentine. They both had strong voices and strong personalities that came through during their brief appearances. I wish they’d had a bit more time to play more songs. Balentine played the A side and B side of the only single she ever recorded, an ultra-rare 45 with “Glad About That” and “You’re a Hard Habit to Break,” which Numero reissued on a collection called The Bandit Label. Clark’s music is available on The Young Disciples.
In between the sets by Clark and Balentine, the Notations harmonized on a string of soulful oldies, one of the highlights of the evening. Three of the singers took turns on lead vocals, each showing his own distinct style and personality.
The final act of the night was Syl Johnson, who used to be on the Twinight record label together with the Notations and Domino. (Numero plans to put out a collection next year of Johnson’s complete recordings from 1959 to 1972.) Johnson’s standout songs on Saturday included “Thank You Baby,” and he closed his segment of the concert with a spot-on cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.”
Lincoln Hall was fairly crowded for the Eccentric Soul Revue, and the audience included both old and young fans. A fair amount of people danced and clapped along to the music, and the musicians seemed to be delighted at the response. It all came to a rousing conclusion when the choir returned, standing on the floor in front of the stage, and all of the evening’s performers joined their voices in a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
In the days before Vic Chesnutt played Thursday (Nov. 5) at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, it became clear that ticket sales must have been slow. The venue started offering a two-for-one ticket deal. And sure enough, when Chesnutt showed up on Thursday, attendance was pretty sparse. That’s a shame for all those who missed the show, since it was one of the year’s best.
I’m a latecomer to the Vic Chesnutt fan club, having largely ignored him for years. I’m starting to make up for that, but I still need to fill in the many gaps in my collection of his recordings. I saw him do an acoustic solo set opening for Jonathan Richman earlier this year at the Empty Bottle, which really wowed me. And now I’ve seen Chesnutt perform a different kind of concert, with a six-piece band playing epic, swelling arrangements behind him.
Chesnutt mostly played songs from his new album At the Cut and 2007’s North Star Deserter, both of which he recorded for Constellation Records with a backing band that included members of the great Montreal collective Silver Mt. Zion (and its predecessor, Godspeed! You Black Emperor) as well as Fugazi guitarist Guy Picciotto. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band made my favorite record of 2008, 13 Blues for Thirteen Moon, so I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing these musicians playing with Chesnutt. Not all of that group’s members were in the touring band that came to Chicago, but nevertheless the music had a similar feeling to the orchestral sweep of Silver Mt. Zion at its best.
In the center of it all was Mr. Chesnutt, sitting in his wheelchair, with a small, somewhat worn-looking acoustic guitar hanging over his neck with a tiny white string instead of a guitar strap. The way Chesnutt plucks at his guitar strings, he seems a little uncertain at first, as if he’s afraid he’ll forget the notes. He does hit the right notes, with a somewhat idiosyncratic sense of timing. Like the Empty Bottle show, this concert felt very spontaneous. The other musicians all trained their eyes on Chesnutt as he began most of the songs, plucking his guitar and singing in a seemingly fragile voice. They looked like they were waiting for their cues to start playing, feeling their way into the songs to match Chesnutt’s spirit.
The dynamic range of this concert was startling. At moments, Chesnutt was singing and playing all by himself as the audience quietly listened to each and every creak of the guitar strings and bend in his voice, almost like sitting in Chesnutt’s living room and attending an unplugged performance. And then the songs would erupt as the guitars, keyboards and bowed bass came in, making mountainous, majestic chords. And Chesnutt would rear back his head from the microphone and shout his words up to the mountaintop.
A highlight was the song “Coward,” which is the first track on the At the Cut album, one of the best showcases of what Chesnutt is capable of doing with these musicians. After the band left the stage at the end of the show, Chesnutt stayed and did one acoustic song. Then the group returned and played “Sponge,” from Chesnutt’s 1991 album West of Rome. The crowd was smaller than it should have been, but the fans who were there showed their appreciation with a strong round of applause as Chesnutt wheeled himself backstage.
It’s worth noting here that Chesnutt has not one, but two new albums out this fall. Although it isn’t even mentioned on his own Web site, Vapor Records recently released Chesnutt’s Skitter at the Take-Off, a spare, acoustic studio record he made in collaboration with Jonathan Richman, featuring some of the memorable songs he played at that Empty Bottle show in May. It’s a much different record from At the Cut, but both are recommended. A free six-song sample from At the Cut and North Star Deserter is available at http://vicchesnutt.com/home/audio/.
The opening act Thursday was Clare and the Reasons, who were quite a contrast from Chesnutt. A strange pairing? I suppose, although both of them seem like acts pursuing their singular visions for the music they want to play. Clare and the Reasons, whom I saw opening for My Brightest Diamond last year, played a delightful show of quaintly old-fashioned pop cabaret music from the new album Arrow, complete with violin, clarinet, trombone, kazoo and cool vocal harmonies. No musical saw, however — Clare reported that a zombie stole the band’s saw on Halloween. Gotta watch out for those kleptomatic zombies.
The new Lincoln Hall music venue has sold out some shows in its first couple of weeks, but on Thursday (Oct. 29) it was one of those rather chilled-out evenings with a small crowd of music fans standing around the main floor while three performers delivered their songs unadorned and intimate.
First up was the Baltimore duo Wye Oak, who have released two records on the Merge label, including this year’s The Knot. Jenn Wasner sang and played guitar, belting out some strong notes and shaking her hair with abandon whenever it was time for a solo. Andy Stack isn’t singing as much as he did on the first Wye Oak record, but he pulled off the impressive feat of playing the drums and keyboards at the same time. As much as I liked the Wye Oak performance, I wonder if they could accomplish more with a couple of other musicians to provide more variety and color to their arrangements. Still, it was fairly catchy rock music.
The middle act in the lineup was Julie Doiron, who was in an extremely chatty mood as she played her music solo, taking lots of requests from the audience, basically playing whatever her fans wanted to hear. Doiron’s stage banter was pretty funny, and she seemed to be in a “don’t know when to stop talking” mood. Her songs sounded more fragile than they did when she played with a full band at the Empty Bottle earlier this year, but Doiron still knew how to rock even when she was just playing by herself. What a charming, honest performer.
The headliners were Herman Dune (or Düne), a duo from France whose music is sometimes labeled “anti-folk” … another one of those genre labels I can’t really figure out. The members of this duo call themselves David-Ivar Herman Düne (guitars and vocals) and Néman Herman Düne (drums). I had not heard much of Herman Dune’s music before seeing this show, and I was initially a bit put off by David-Ivar’s vocals, especially at the moments when he does funny, falsetto things with it. But over the course of this concert, I warmed up to their music. There was a plainspoken quality to the music, and at times, the chords had that classic Velvet Underground sound. Reminded me a bit of Smog (Bill Callahan).
Lincoln Hall opened Friday in the same space where the 3 Penny Cinema used to show movies, on Lincoln Avenue just north of Fullerton. This is the same neighborhood where the Lounge Ax used to be one of the Chicago rock scene’s beacons. And with Wax Trax Records located just a short distance away, this stretch of Lincoln was a major destination for music fans. Not much has been happening in this part of Lincoln Park lately, as far as music goes, but that’s changing now with the opening of this new venue.
Run by the same fine folks who book so many great concerts over at Schubas, Lincoln Hall is three times bigger than its sister venue, holding about 500 people. I paid the place a visit for the first time on Saturday (Oct. 17) when Liam Finn was the headline act. To be honest, Lincoln Hall didn’t look all that big when I was standing on the main floor. It still has the cozy feel of a small venue, and that might be because the main floor’s capacity is only 169, almost exactly the size of Schubas. The difference is that there’s a large balcony with lots of prime viewing space along the railing. And boy does this room have a high ceiling. The long black drapes hanging behind the stage seem like they go up and up and up. The inside of Lincoln Hall looks a bit like a small music club where the ceiling has been lifted up. The place doesn’t have as much character as Schubas — at least, not yet. The place is brand spanking new after all. I appreciated the lack of posters, advertisements and decorations on the walls of the music room. With lots of stained wood and wrought-iron railings (at least, that’s what they looked like), Lincoln Hall is a classy-looking place. The decor is restrained — not all that exciting, maybe, but hey, the music’s what makes the excitement, right?
The sound at Saturday’s show was excellent. From what I read in the Chicago Tribune, it seemed as if the owners held off for a week on their official grand opening while they work out bugs like sound quality, but I didn’t see any bugs that needed to be worked out on Saturday. The sound was crystal clear. Even when I was standing near the stage, I didn’t really feel much need to use earplugs. I think that’s because the loudest speakers in the place were the ones hanging up on the ceiling way above my head. I did notice at one point that I was picking up too much sound from the bass amp on the stage, throwing off the balance of the mix I was hearing, but that’s probably an unavoidable thing for people who stand right next to the band.
I was up in the balcony for just a few minutes at the beginning of the night, and I thought the view of the stage from up there was excellent. The views were good on the main floor, too, of course. Nice sight lines all around. I’m told that about 300 people were there for Saturday’s concert, and with that many people, it was comfortable moving around. We’ll see what it’s like when it sells out.
At Saturday’s concert, a team of employees helped the bands set up and remove their equipment in between sets. There’s a sound board on the side of the stage as well as a large control station at the back of the main room. It all looks highly professional.
But… Memo to the guys running the lights: Would you mind laying off a bit on all those red lights? This is a problem that’s not unique to Lincoln Hall. Lots of music venues seem to think that concerts look cool when the musicians are bathed in a red or pink haze. And I doubt if most fans think there’s anything wrong with that. As a photographer, however, I hate red light. It really makes for lousy pictures. Those red lights knock out just about every other color in the spectrum, and all you’re left with is an image that might as well be black and white. There were a lot of red and pink lights Saturday night, especially when Liam Finn was playing. Once in a while, there was a burst of white light, and to me it felt like: Hallelujah! At last I can take a decent picture. So, if it’s not too much to ask, a little bit more of that white light would be fabulous, guys. I’m just saying…
Saturday’s show started off with Greycoats, who sounded a bit like Coldplay, playing polished pop-rock. Next up was the Chicago band Unicycle Loves You, which played some pretty good power pop. Nice melodic hooks and a tight sound, though I’d like to see Unicycle scruff things up a bit more.
Headliner Liam Finn usually puts on an entertaining show, and he was in good spirits Saturday night, especially when he used his looping pedals to go a little bit nuts with guitar solos and drum solos on top of the chords he’d just been playing. His mellower ballads sounded lovely, too. Finn treated the crowd to a couple of loud and lively cover songs. Noting that his sound guy was celebrating his birthday, and that it was also the birthday of someone in the audience, Finn played a rocking version of the Beatles’ “Birthday.” And during the encore, he cranked out some great Neil Young riffing on “Cinnamon Girl,” noting: “I wanna play in a Neil Young cover band!”
For more details on Lincoln Hall, see www.lincolnhallchicago.com