Mid-February Concert Recap

Quick recaps of a few concerts (and other literary musical event) I’ve seen recently:

OLIVIA CHANEY and MARK DVORAK: The English singer Olivia Chaney was enchanting as she made her Chicago debut as a solo artist on Feb. 12 at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s Szold Hall. She alternated between piano, guitar and harmonium, with accompaniment on many songs from violinist Jordan Hunt, but the focus stayed on her dulcet voice through the show. She has the sort of voice that would lend itself well to melodramatic pop ballads, but she takes a more understated approach, passionately singing songs that are mostly rooted in the traditions of English folk music. I’m looking forward to hear debut record, The Longest River, coming in March from Nonesuch.

Chaney’s opening act was the longtime Chicago folk musician Mark Dvorak, who did a marvelous job of telling stories to set up his songs and get the audience involved in the performance. This was what folk music is all about.

SLEATER-KINNEY and LIZZO: I was just as surprised as anyone when Sleater-Kinney sneakily revealed that it had reunited and recorded a new album. I loved the last Sleater-Kinney record, The Woods, when it came out in 2005. And the four concerts I saw by this trio around that time were terrific. Back together after a decade-long hiatus, the band sounds as strong as ever. Its new album, No Cities to Love, is an early contender for the best album of 2015, and Sleater-Kinney’s Feb. 17 show at the Riviera set the bar high for concerts of the year. Corin Tucker wailed with astounding force, her voice — one of the great rock ’n’ roll voices — hitting powerful peaks. But what was truly marvelous was watching and listening as Tucker traded off vocal parts with Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, echoing the way Tucker and Brownstein’s guitar riffs ping-ponged across the stage while Weiss pounded the drums with driving intensity. To see the set list and a nicely vivid description of the show, read Greg Kot’s review for the Tribune, which also has some cool photos by Chris Sweda.  I wasn’t familiar with the opening act, hip-hop artist Lizzo, but she showed off some soulful vocals and seemed just as excited as anyone to be seeing Sleater-Kinney.

THE WESTERN ELSTONS: I’ve written about my love for the Flat Five. The Western Elstons, another great band, include three members of the Flat Five: Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall, as well as a rotating lineup of other musicians. It’s easy enough to see the Western Elstons — they regularly play free shows at Simon’s Tavern in Andersonville, usually on the third Wednesday of the month. Even though Chicago was in a deep freeze on the night of Feb. 18, I stopped into Simon’s and was delighted by the fun and virtuosic performance these boys gave in front of a small but enthusiastic crowd. A highlight for me was the cover of the Kinks’ “Picture Book.”

GREIL MARCUS with JON LANGFORD and SALLY TIMMS: The legendary rock critic Greil Marcus spoke on Feb. 19 at the Old Town School of Music about his new book, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, with musical accompaniment by Jon Langford and Sally Timms, two members of a band he has championed over the decades, the Mekons. As Marcus explained, he insisted on avoiding obvious songs in his history of rock, focusing instead on appreciations of lesser-known classics such as “Shake Some Action” by the Flamin’ Groovies. Showing his enthusiasm for the craft of writing and recording great music — and his keen interest in the stories behind great music — Marcus offered astute observations about Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him” and Joy Division’s “Transmission” — and then Langford and Timms illustrated by playing their own versions.

SWANS and XYLOURIS WHITE: I never saw Swans when the band was together during its original era, from 1982 to 1997, but I’ve been entranced by the dark music Swans has released since leader Michael Gira reformed the group in 2010. Playing on Saturday, Feb. 21, at Thalia Hall, Swans paused only a handful of times during two hours of droning, throbbing, thrumming, pounding, chanting and arm waving. It was epic.

The opening act, Xylouris White, is a duo consisting of George Xylouris on Cretan lute and Jim White on drums. White, who has played with the Dirty Three, Nina Nastasia and Cat Power among many others, was as impressive as always, adding an edge of chaos to his circling rhythms. And he’s found a good match in Xylouris, who got his lute strings vibrating with blinding speed. Xylouris also sang a few songs. It was music that might get lumped into that amorphous category “world music,” yet it felt like a perfect fit for Swans. Both artists leaned into their songs with fierce determination.