My photos from the splendid concert by the legendary Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour on Thursday, Aug. 10, at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion:
My photos from the splendid concert by the legendary Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour on Thursday, Aug. 10, at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion:
Amadou and Mariam played a truly delightful concert of lively music from Mali on Monday, July 24, at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion. I’m looking forward to the duo’s new album, La Confusion, coming out September 22.
The opening act was Frank Waln, a hip-hop artist of Lakota heritage, who delivered his raps with illuminating and powerful commentary about the history of injustices suffered by Native Americans.
The Drive-By Truckers played a rousing free concert on Thursday, July 20, at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion — performing about half of the songs from their terrific 2016 album American Band, along with a cover of the Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” and, of course, some of the Truckers’ classic older tunes. During “Let There Be Rock,” Patterson Hood sang the song’s usual refrain (“And I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd but I sure saw Molly Hatchet/With 38 Special and the Johnny Van Zant Band”), but he also added: “I never saw the Clash, but I saw the Replacements about seven times.” Hood and his longtime bandmate Mike Cooley switched back and forth on lead vocals throughout the set. The only flaw in the show was its relative brevity. I’m sure the Drive-By Truckers would have answered the audience’s clamoring pleas for an encore if Millennium Park had allowed them to play past 9 p.m. In any case, it was a delight to see one of America’s best rock bands playing a free show in this beautiful setting. (Set list.) And the opening act, an acoustic folk trio from Boston called Honeysuckle, was a nice bonus.
Aug. 25 felt like a quintessential night of live Chicago music: seeing Tortoise at Millennium Park, followed by Ryley Walker’s late concert at the Empty Bottle. Tortoise’s instrumental music resonated beautifully in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, with the band members constantly shifting around the instruments, playing intricate patterns with almost astonishing precision. The show also featured a nice opening by Homme (a duo I’d seen recently at the Pitchfork Music Festival).
Ryley Walker’s music seems quite different from Tortoise at first glance, and yet, there’s some similarity, especially when he is playing live with his excellent band. Like Tortoise and other Chicago bands — like Joshua Abrams and Natural Information Society — Walker and his collaborators know how to stretch a song out, to revel in grooves, to explore a chord progression or melodic motif in ways that are hypnotic and enchanting. Walker’s new album, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, is terrific, but its jammy folk-rock songs only hint at how jammy the group gets in concert. I recommend buying the deluxe 2-LP version, which adds a record containing a 41-minute live version of “Sullen Mind,” a song that is a mere 6 1/2 minutes in its studio version.
Walker’s set on Thursday at the Empty Bottle was a marvel. And it was particularly special because it offered a rare chance to see Leroy Bach — who produced the album — sitting in with the band. And it’s uncertain how many more times we’ll get a chance to see the fantastic drummer Frank Rosaly playing with this band, as we did on Thursday; I’m told that Rosaly has moved from Chicago to Europe. That’s a loss for Chicago, but Thursday night’s wonderful sets by Tortoise and Walker showed that the city’s independent music scene — where rock, jazz, country and experimental music often overlap — is as vibrant as ever.
The African band Mbongwana Star got the audience dancing on Aug. 11 at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion, playing wildly infectious beats and beguiling, highly rhythmic guitar riffs and solos. This group from the Democratic Republic of the Congo includes two singers (Yakala “Coco” Ngambali and Nsituvuidi “Theo” Nzonza,) who were also founding members of the band Staff Benda Bilili (that name means “look beyond appearances”) — paraplegic musicians from the streets of Kinshasa. Last week on the stage at Millennium Park, Ngambali and Nzonza spun around in their wheelchairs, with Nzonza especially exuberant and demonstrative, frequently lifting his arms up with an air of triumph.
The show began with a fine performance by the Chicago-based group Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta, which mixed some psychedelic and Krautrock touches into its Latin rock.
It had been years since the legendary Nigerian singer King Sunny Adé played in Chicago. He was scheduled to perform in Millennium Park’s concert series last summer, but then that gig got canceled. He made up for it this Monday, July 18, lighting up the Jay Pritzker Pavilion stage \with his infectious, positive vibes. Adé and his large band always kept a great groove going, with forward-pushing rhythms pulsing through even the quietest passages. And throughout the show, Adé and the singer-dancers dressed in white acted out little scenes, almost like a theatrical company or a dance troupe — such as a guitar solo that left them all staggering in a exaggerated stupor. Many audience members were on their feet by the end of the show, greeting this African hero and his glorious music with enthusiastic applause.
Ugochi, a Nigerian-American singer based in Chicago, opened the show, performing music that she called “Afro-soul,” blending various American and African genres.
Femi Kuti‘s father, the legendary Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti, created the extraordinary and exhilarating style of music called Afrobeat. As Fela’s eldest son, Femi is carrying on the family tradition. On Monday, July 11, he performed a joyous nonstop jam with his band, The Positive Force, at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Early in the concert, Kuti told the audience: “By the end of tonight, we hope you feel the beauty of Africa through music, we hope you feel the essence of true peace.” That musical message came through loud and clear.
Mahmoud Ahmed is one of the greatest singers of Ethiopia — it may be no exaggeration to call him “one of the greatest singers in the world,” as the World Music Festival Chicago’s website asserted. Several albums in Buda Musique’s endlessly wonderful “Ethiopiques” series feature his songs, especially the recordings he made in the 1970s, when Ethiopia’s music flourished, using a scale reminiscent of Middle Eastern music, hypnotic circular rhythms and arrangements that borrowed from Western jazz and pop — making for an intoxicating, sometimes surreal mix of styles.
Ahmed gave his first public performance ever in Chicago on Sunday, Sept. 13, as part of World Music Festival Chicago, and it was a joyous occasion. The spry 71-year-old occasionally hopped and twirled as he performed on the Jay Pritzker Pavilion’s stage at Millennium Park, but what was most remarkable were the strange twists and turns his voice took. The crowd included many Chicagoans from Ethiopia and Africa, who sang along with Ahmed, danced with big smiles on their faces and waved Ethiopian flags. As much as I was enjoying the music, imagine what it was like for these immigrants to see a superstar from their homeland.
The Moroccan artist Aziz Sahmaoui opened Sunday’s concert, playing with his group University of Gnawa — singing with an alluring voice as the band wove together intricate, rhythmic layers of music. A couple of the other musicians took turns on vocals, wowing the audience with their own stirring and powerful voices.
Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion began its “Downtown Sound” concert series this week — with shows on Monday and Thursday evenings. On Thursday, June 4, the Very Best gave an exuberant performance that got many audience members dancing. The group is a collaboration between Radioclit (a London-based DJ/production duo) and Esau Mwamwaya, a singer from Malawi. At times, the music sounded purely African; and at a few moments, the electronics gave it spooky textures. But more often, it came across like party tunes, replete with singalong refrains. The opening act, Chicago dance band Glass Lux, played synth pop songs that sounded straight out of the 1990s.
For details on upcoming concerts at Millennium Park, see my recent story for Crain’s Chicago Business or visit millenniumpark.org.
The New York-based ensemble Alarm Will Sound plays acoustic arrangements and orchestral scores of music that was originally created by electronic artists such as Aphex Twin. And what a strange and impressive sound it made on July 3. The group made its Chicago debut as the final concert of Millennium Park’s Loops and Variations series. The highlights included the Chicago premiere of Steve Reich’s Radio Rewrite, which reworks themes from the music of Radiohead.
The program included:
Last year, Bob Mould celebrated the 25th anniversary of his debut solo album, Workbook. But when he played Monday night (June 23) at Millennium Park, the mostly acoustic rock of that album was nowhere to be heard. Mould launched his unrelentingly loud and energetic set of feedback-drenched power pop and punk with the first three songs from Copper Blue, the 1992 album he made with his band Sugar.
Then he said, “Let’s play some new stuff and some new real stuff.” And that’s precisely what he did, playing some tunes from his most recent records, including the excellent new album Beauty & Ruin. One of the tracks on that record, “I Don’t Know You Anymore,” is as catchy as anything Mould’s ever written, and it was a standout during Monday’s show.
Mould had two top-notch musicians backing him up: Jon Wurster of Superchunk on drums and Jason Narducy on bass. Narducy has played with several bands over the years (including a recent stint as Superchunk’s touring bassist), and he also opened Monday’s concert, singing and playing guitar with his pop-punk band Split Single — a good match with Mould’s music.
Just about the only relief in the onslaught by Mould’s trio came when he mellowed out for a few minutes during the wistful “Hardly Getting Over It,” a song he originally recorded with his first band, the legendary Hüsker Dü. By the end of his set, he’d played five Sugar songs, five Hüsker Dü songs and 12 from his solo records. Nothing from Workbook, though. He wasn’t in that mode on Monday night. This was Bob Mould in full-on, guitars-cranked-up mode.
SET LIST (from Greg Kot’s Chicago Tribune review)
The Act We Act (Sugar) / A Good Idea (Sugar) / Changes (Sugar) / Star Machine / The Descent / Little Glass Pill / I Don’t Know You Anymore / Kid With Crooked Face / Nemeses Are Laughing / The War / Hardly Getting Over It (Hüsker Dü) / Helpless (Sugar) / Keep Believing / Egoverride / Hey Mr. Grey / If I Can’t Change Your Mind (Sugar) / Come Around (Sugar) / Tomorrow Morning / Something I Learned Today (Hüsker Dü) / Chartered Trips (Hüsker Dü) / Fix It
ENCORE: Flip Your Wig (Hüsker Dü) / Makes No Sense At All (Hüsker Dü)
The Loops and Variations concert series at Millennium Park usually features a contemporary classical act as well as another artist playing electronic music. Last week, on June 19, there was just one set, but it was varied enough to fit the concept. One of Chicago’s best new-music ensembles, eighth blackbird, had the whole show to itself — but with a guest musician sitting in on several pieces, composer-accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman. The evening started with his beautiful composition “Barbeich,” which blended the lyricism of Argentine accordionist Raúl Barboza with the subtly shifting patterns of Steve Reich’s minimalism.
Ward-Bergeman left the stage for a while as eighth blackbird played Bryce Dessner’s “Murder Ballades” suites followed by a set of works by Richard Parry, Claudio Monteverdi, Carlo Gesualdo and Bon Iver. Then he was back to play — and sing — the final three songs, as the eighth blackbird sextet turned itself into a New Orleans party band, performing “Mardi Gras,” “St. James Infirmary” and “Mississippi.”
It’s no revelation to me that Richard Thompson is one of the best living guitarists, if not the best. And yet, it felt like a revelation on Saturday night as Thompson played a solo that went on and on, bending and shaping itself to higher and higher peaks, during the song “Can’t Win” at the Space nightclub in Evanston — a song he repeated during his free concert Monday night at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, with a similarly epic solo.
When Thompson recorded the studio version of “Can’t Win” for his 1988 album Amnesia, it was five minutes long, with barely a minute of soloing that fades out at the end. But the live version on the 1993 collection Watching the Dark: The History of Richard Thompson stretched on for more than nine minutes, and now that’s become more typical of the way he plays it in concert. At about the seven-minute mark on Saturday night, I thought I might be watching the best guitar playing I’d ever seen. It was simply remarkable that Thompson could build and sustain so much drama as he sculpted that endless string of notes.
As impressive as Thompson’s virtuosity is, there’s very little showy about his demeanor as he delivers these incredible performances. And while there’s a lot to said for musicians who take a more minimalist approach, reducing a song to its essential elements instead of ornamenting it with endless variations, it’s thrilling to watch the notes pour out of Thompson’s fingers.
Thompson played both nights with the same rhythm section that accompanied him on his 2013 album Electric — bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome, both of whom are almost comically exuberant. The set lists were pretty similar, except for the fact that Thompson started off his Millennium Park show with an acoustic set, playing six songs he hadn’t performed on Saturday. “I always wanted to be my own opening act,” he joked.
Saturday’s concert included an impromptu, figured-out-on-the-fly cover of the country classic “The Wild Side of Life,” prompted by some stage banter about its singer, Hank Thompson. And the trio also started to play the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” apparently as a lark, but only the first few bars. On both nights, the encores included a rollicking song I didn’t recognize, which turned out to be a cover of the 1950s song “Daddy Rollin’ Stone,” originally written by Otis Blackwell, popularized by Derek Martin and covered by the Who as the B-side to “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere.” And on Saturday, the group also played the Bob Dylan and the Band classic, “This Wheel’s on Fire.”
As exciting as it was to experience Richard Thompson’s electric guitars on both nights, it was a special treat to hear those acoustic songs in the early set on Monday. Thompson can make his acoustic guitar sound like two or three, soloing or riffing on top of chords and bass lines, and at moments, his complex fingering brought out exotic melodies that evoked Middle Eastern music.
Thompson showed his comedic charm with an extended explanation of his song about a trip on a cruise ship, “Johnny’s Far Away,” from the 2007 album Sweet Warrior. And then he closed his acoustic mini-show with one of his most popular songs, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” On the end of every verse, Thompson stretched out the word “ride,” closing his eyes and turning the word into an almost prayerful drone. And then his fingers flitted across the strings like lightning.
Stuck on the Treadmill / Sally B / Salford Sunday / For Shame of Doing Wrong / My Enemy / Can’t Win / Saving the Good Stuff for You / The Wild Side of Life / Al Bowlly’s in Heaven / Fork in the Road / Good Things Happen to Bad People / Did She Jump or Was She Pushed? / I’ll Never Give It Up / Wall of Death / If Love Whispers Your Name
ENCORE: Dry My Tears And Move On / Eight Miles High excerpt / Tear Stained Letter
SECOND ENCORE: Wounding Myself / This Wheel’s in Fire / Daddy Rollin’ Stone
ACOUSTIC SET: I Misunderstood / Walking on a Wire / Valerie / Genesis Hall / Johnny’s Far Away / 1952 Vincent Black Lightning
ELECTRIC SET: Stuck on the Treadmill / Sally B / Salford Sunday / For Shame of Doing Wrong / My Enemy / Can’t Win / Al Bowlly’s in Heaven / Fork in the Road / Good Things Happen to Bad People / Did She Jump or Was She Pushed? / I’ll Never Give It Up / Wall of Death / If Love Whispers Your Name
ENCORE: Daddy Rollin’ Stone / Tear Stained Letter
Photos from Monday’s concert at Millennium Park:
Syrian singer Omar Souleyman cast a strange spell as he performed Monday night on the Jay Pritzker Pavilion stage in Millennium Park. He did not make any especially flamboyant gestures as he strolled the stage — and yet, he has a commanding presence. A contingent of Syrian or Arab-American fans was going a bit nuts in the seats near the stage. And plenty of people who don’t know a word of Arabic or Kurdish, like me, were getting into the music, too. As usual, the Millennium Park security guards were on a buzzkill mission, insisting on getting people out of the aisles when they tried to dance. A lot of people managed to dance anyway, mostly by standing in front of their seats. The mood was festive.
The only musician accompanying Souleyman was his amazing collaborator, Rizan Sa’id, who sounded like a whole band of electronic musicians as he played synth solos and dance rhythms on two Korg keyboards. Sa’id is not a demonstrative entertainer, but the sounds he coaxes out of those instruments are very impressive. At the end of the show, the nonchalant maestro didn’t even take a bow. He just walked off the stage, barely looking at the crowd that was roaring with approval.
(Click here to see my photos of the opening act on Monday, Joshua Abrams + Natural Information Society.)
Millennium Park’s series of free summer concerts at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, always one of the highlights of the year in Chicago, is in full swing now. Monday’s headliner was Omar Souleyman (click here to see my photos of Souleyman), but the show also featured a top-notch opening act, Chicago bassist Joshua Abrams and the talented ensemble of players he calls the Natural Information Society. Abrams’ second record with a version of this group, Represencing, was one of my top 10 albums for 2012 — and the current lineup sounded fabulous in the Pritzker stage on Monday, jamming to hypnotic grooves with psychedelic and exotic flair.
Abrams played the guimbri, a North African instrument, throughout the show, accompanied by the versatile guitarist Emmett Kelly (leader of the great Cairo Gang); drummers Frank Rosaly and Mikel Avery; Lisa Alvarado on harmonium and gong; and Ben Boye on autoharp and keyboards. It was glorious.
After decades of using Grant Park’s Petrillo Bandshell as its main stage, the Chicago Jazz Festival has finally moved to a classier, better-sounding and more welcoming venue: Millennium Park. The festival, which continues throughout this weekend, officially opened yesterday (Aug. 29) with events including a concert by Jack DeJohnette in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.
Calling it a Jack DeJohnette concert doesn’t seem adequate, however. For this occasion, the legendary jazz drummer assembled a stellar group of well-known Chicago jazz men — pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, bassist Larry Gray and reedists Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill — billing it as “Special Legends Edition Chicago.” It was indeed special, a set of music filled with intelligent and probing solos by all five of these players, but more than just solos. This may have been an one-off performance, but this quintet thrived on interplay and collaboration.
Jeff Parker and Nels Cline, two virtuoso guitarists who are fluent in both jazz and rock, played together Aug. 8 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Backed by drummer Frank Rosaly and bassist Nate McBride, they played their version of the 1964 avant-garde jazz album The Turning Point by pianist Paul Bley, Sun Ra saxophonist John Gilmore, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Paul Motian. You didn’t have to be familiar with the original to appreciate the subtle and terrific playing by Cline, Parker, Rosaly and McBride.
It’s always a joy when the Handsome Family, who once called Chicago their home, return to this city for a concert. “We did live in Chicago back in the 1800s. The place was all gas lamps,” the Handsome Family’s Rennie Sparks remarked Monday night at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium. “We like what you’ve done with the place.”
Well, it hasn’t been quite that long since Rennie and her husband/bandmate, Brett Sparks, lived along Milwaukee Avenue, an experience that inspired grimly humorous and evocative songs such as “The Woman Downstairs.” Rennie writes the lyrics, but it’s Brett who sings them, and on Monday night, standing on the stage in that glorious venue, he sang of those old days in Wicker Park in the 1980s and ’90s: “Chicago is where the woman downstairs/Starved herself to death last summer/Her boyfriend Ted ate hot dogs/And wept with the gray rats out on the fire escape…” And oh, that chorus about the wind screaming up Ashland Avenue.
It’s one of the great songs about Chicago — and a fine example of the Handsome Family’s unusual artistry. This alt-country duo often plunges into the darkness with its macabre lyrics, and yet, it delivers them with an almost jaunty spirit and a wicked sense of humor. The Handsome Family’s latest album, Wilderness, is a concept record, with each song telling the story of a different animal. The deluxe edition comes with a beautiful illustrated book of Rennie Sparks stories to go with each song.
For Monday’s concert, the Sparkses were supplemented by a couple of backing musicians, drummer Jason Toth and guitarist David Gutierrez, which fleshed out and stretched out the songs nicely. Along with a few of the new songs, the Handsome Family played old classics, including “The Sad Milkman,” “So Much Wine,” “In the Air,” “My Sister’s Tiny Hands” and “Weightless Again.”
Rennie was as whimsical as ever with her stage banter, telling the people sitting back on the lawn that all of the musicians onstage had donkey hooves for feet. At one point, when Brett thanked the audience for its kindness, Rennie interjected, “They could still turn on us.” “You always say that,” Brett drawled.
As a matter of fact, there was one particularly loud and boisterous audience member whose shouting proved to be a distraction — by the end, he was yelling out non sequitors such as “Cocaine Blues”! — but not enough to detract from a splendid concert.
The opening act Monday was Chicago singer-songwriter Azita, who sounded lovely as she played Millennium Park’s Steinway piano. Her backup musicians gave her songs a more rocking sound than usual, evoking 1970s guitar-and-piano pop. They played a cool cover of Joe Jackson’s “Breaking Us in Two,” but the highlight was hearing Azita play a quiet song with minimal accompaniment, her voice hitting high notes that echoed the jazzy piano chords.
Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion hosts a series of free concerts on Thursday evenings called “Loops and Variations,” which brings together electronic experimental music with modern classical music. (“New music,” if you will.) This past Thursday (June 27), the series presented a concert by the Baltimore duo Matmos, with Chicago’s Fonema Consort as the opening act. The Fonema portion of the evening was a good deal more serious. Matmos was downright silly. Still, somehow the two halves of the concert seemed to fit together in a strange way.
Matmos has collaborated in the past with artists such as Björk and So Percussion. They’re one of those electronic acts featuring guys hunched over their laptops, but they’re much livelier and more playful than the typical artist matching that description. On Thursday, they strolled out onto the Pritzker Pavilion stage clapping their hands and making goofy vocal noises, wandering around the stage as if they didn’t know where to sit down. After settling down with their gear and making an evocative soundscape, they explained that they’d been playing music that used recordings Matmos member Drew Daniel had made on recent trips to Istanbul and Beijing.
Joined midconcert by a guitarist and drummer, the Matmos duo transformed into something slightly more like a traditional rock band. OK, hardly traditional — Matmos member M.C. Schmidt blew bubbles in a bowl of water during one performance that was described as a aural simulation of liposuction. And near the end of its set, Daniel expressed his desire for NSA leaker Edward Snowden and led the group in a version of “I Want Candy,” with the words changed to “I Want Snowden.”
Fonema Consort focuses on 20th and 21st century vocal and instrumental music. According to the group’s website, it’s all centered around “our fascination with the exploration of vocal possibilities in music, including the traditional presentation of a text, the breaking down of words into phonemes, or the total absence of words, and the ramifications thereof.”
Those concepts were on vivid display during the consort’s performance on Thursday, including passage of spoken word whispered like auditory hallucinations. (Matmos member M.C. Schmidt later remarked that he’d been in the backstage bathroom listening to this music through the speakers there. “It was terrifying,” he said.) There were also some bravura passages of ear-shattering singing, and wind and string instruments dancing around the voices. The concert included works by Pablo Chin, Daniel Dehaan, Edward Hamel, Jonathon Kirk and Joan Arnau Pàmies.
The last time I saw a headline set by singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten was Feb. 17, 2012, at Lincoln Hall. As I noted back then, she was in a silly, giggly mood, fumbling around a bit too much in between her lovely songs. She was more focused when she played this Monday (June 3) at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Her goofy charm was still evident, as she made a few jokes, but this concert was all about her music. She doesn’t have a new record, so her set list drew from last year’s Tramp as well as her earlier albums. Even in a venue with thousands of concertgoers and a sweeping, panoramic view of Chicago’s skyline, Van Etten’s songs felt like intimate revelations.
For photos of the opening act, Speck Mountain, see my last blog post.
One of the delightful things about seeing a concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park is watching the performers themselves marveling at the beauty of the venue. And for some of the lesser-known musicians who get the chance to grace this stage — thanks to the inventive, often bold programming choices of the folks who book summer concerts — you can sense a certain amount of awe. I sensed that on Monday night (June 3), when the Chicago band Speck Mountain landed a primo spot as Sharon Van Etten’s opening act. It’s a very good bet that a sizable portion of the audience that turned out for the evening didn’t know who Speck Mountain was, but they probably made a lot of new fans.
Did they have any jitters about playing on a big stage in front of thousands of people? Not that I noticed. In fact, the band sounded more confident than I’ve ever seen them, especially when they jammed out with dual guitar solos on songs from their strong recent album Badwater. Marie-Claire Balabanian’s singing and guitar playing both sounded beautiful. They were a perfect choice to set the stage for Van Etten’s headlining performance. (More on her in my next post…)
Despite unseasonably chilly temperatures, the summer concert season got off to a stellar start May 27, with the year’s first show in the Monday night series called “Downtown Sound” at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.
The evening started with Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, a trio led by the highly esteemed guitarist. I’ve admired Ribot’s distinctive playing ever since I heard him on the 1985 Tom Waits masterpiece Rain Dogs. He went on to play on several more Waits albums as well as records by Elvis Costello, John Zorn and others. This was the first time I’d ever seen him perform in concert. Ribot really let his fingers fly at many points during Monday’s set, but he also led his group through the droning textures of a piece aptly called “Prayer.” Ribot was less successful as a singer, whenever he occasionally barked out some words. But it was marvelous to see him twisting notes on his guitar into gnarly, spiky solos.
The headliner had been billed ahead of time as the Lee Ranaldo Band, but by the time they were introduced, they were calling themselves Lee Ranado and the Dust. It’s half of Sonic Youth — Ranaldo on guitar and vocals and Steve Shelley on drums — along with guitarist Alan Licht and bassist Tim Luntzel. Of all the music released by Sonic Youth’s members since the band went on hiatus, Ranaldo’s 2012 album Between the Times and Tides is the strongest and most accessible work. And that came through during this concert performance, with a slew of catchy choruses and smartly constructed riffs.
Ranaldo and the Dust also played a few songs that the band is working on for its next record, as well as a somewhat surprising choice for a cover: the Byrds song “Everybody’s Been Burned,” written by David Crosby. Jamming out with Shelley and their new bandmates, Ranaldo seemed completely confident in his new role as a frontman.
Check out the rest of the schedule for this summer’s Downtown Sound concerts.
Were those tears on Charles Bradley’s face or just beads of sweat? Both, I’d venture to guess. It had been about 100 degrees earlier in the day and was still fairly steamy when Bradley hit the stage Monday night (July 16) at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion — and he’s an energetic performer who tends to sweat anyway, in the tradition of another singer he resembles in many ways, the legendarily hardworking James Brown. But Bradley’s songs are also drenched with emotion.
Just as he did at last summer’s Chicago gig, Bradley strained his voice to the limits, screaming and shouting and squeezing out notes bursting with both pain and passion. His band, the Extraordinaries, kept a soulful groove bouncing through the whole set, including a few instrumental tracks, but the focus was on Bradley, who truly seemed to wow the audience with his unbridled intensity as well as his heartfelt comments. His encore made a strong case for “Why Is It So Hard” being one of the great songs of recent years, and as the song ended, Bradley descended from the stage and hugged some of his fans across the security barricade for several minutes.
Speaking of security barricades… Bradley urged audience members to get up close to the stage and start dancing, but Millennium Park’s security guards refused to let anyone into that area (reserved for press photographer such as myself), or even to stand in the aisles. Security concerns and keeping the aisles open are legitimate concerns, but surely the guards could lighten up a bit. At least, people were allowed to stand up in front of their seats and sway to Bradley’s soul-baring soul music.
Monday’s free concert also featured an excellent opening act, folk singer-songwriter-banjoist Abigail Washburn. She sang lovely original compositions as well as a couple of old gospel and folk songs of the sort that you’ll hear on Alan Lomax’s field recordings — and even a song in Chinese, which she learned when she lived in China. Washburn’s music was often quiet and spare, sounding beautiful and crystal clear in the summer air at the Pritzker Pavilion, making the concert feel like an intimate gathering despite the epic proportions of the venue.
The Eternals are one of the hardest Chicago bands to pin down, as they slip from one musical form into another. In recent times, they’ve been just a duo (Damon Locks and Wayne Montana) playing funky, jazzy, experimental rock. But for their concert last week (June 12) at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the Eternals expanded to a massive, 10-musician lineup. And the band played nothing other than one long suite of new music called “Espiritu Zombi.” The new and perhaps temporary members of the Eternals for this occasion included 1900s vocalist Jeanine O’Toole, bassist Matt Lux, cellist Tomeka Reid and the always-animated vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz.
Those vibes gave this zombie music a flavor that was reminiscent of another Chicago outfit, Exploding Star Orchestra. Not coincidentally, Locks has performed with that ensemble in the past. And the extra vocalists added new levels of beauty and complexity previously unheard in the strange world of the Eternals. The suite was an audacious and ambitious composition, which deserved the spotlight it received in this prominent venue. Decked out in psychedelic attire, Locks danced with elbow-jutting moves, a dapper weirdo reveling in his moment on the city’s big stage.
“It’s not a concert,” Jonathan Richman told the audience Monday night (June 4) at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park. “It’s supposed to be more like a party. That’s why I sang all the songs with the word ‘party.'” And indeed, Richman’s performance — like any Richman performance — didn’t feel like a normal concert. Not exactly a party, either. Not a party hosted by a normal person, anyway. Richman doesn’t seem like a normal person, and that’s much of the reason why it’s so entertaining and funny and touching to watch him play his music.
Richman followed the same format he’s used in his concerts for many years now, playing an unamplified classical guitar into a microphone as he sings, accompanied by just one musician, drummer Tommy Larkins, who plays a plot with brushes as he keeps a minimally invasive beat going underneath Richman’s loopy tunes. Richman frequently sets his guitar down or holds it to the side as he sings or interjects jokes and wry commentary into the middle of his songs. And whenever the impulse strikes, Richman stops everything else to dance and shake some percussion. As one of these dancing interludes went on for a few minutes, Richman remarked, “We can only get away with this for so long. Pretty soon we’ll have to switch to another song.” And so he did.
Richman sang in Italian, French, Hebrew and Spanish and maybe some other languages, too, helpfully offering English translations that only heightened the sense of absurdity. He sang tributes to Vermeer and Keith Richards. He reminisced about dancing in the lesbian bar and got the crowd to sing along about opening the door to Bohemia. A big, goofy grin stretched across his face. He seemed to be smiling at the reaction of the crowd. Then again, I have the feeling Richman would have been smiling no matter what.
In a somewhat unusual pairing, the opening act for Richman was jazz guitarist Bobby Broom and his Deep Blue Organ Trio, who made some groovy music, including a cover of the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” Not exactly what you’d expect before seeing Jonathan Richman, but since Richman’s so uncategorizable, it made about as much sense as anything would.
Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion opened its season of free concerts on Memorial Day (May 28) with a stellar selection: Kelly Hogan, who has an outstanding new record, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, coming out any day now. I had the privilege of interviewing Hogan for the A.V. Club. Hogan’s all-star studio band isn’t touring with her, but she put together another crack outfit of musicians to play her new songs: Jim Elkington on guitar, Casey McDonough on bass and Joe Camarillo on drums — plus (for this gig anyway) Scott Ligon on organ and “piano situation” and Nora O’Connor on harmony vocals and guitar. But of course, Hogan herself was the center of attention, as she greeted the crowd with her irreverent banter and wowed us with her voice, whether she was belting out notes with deep strength or cooing more delicate tones.
Hogan and her band played every song from the new record, not straying too far from the studio versions but varying up the delivery and arrangements like a jazz combo comfortable with its ability to make changes on the spot. The encore began with a lovely performance of the Magnetic Fields song “Papa Was a Rodeo,” which Hogan recorded back in 2000. Ligon gently plucked Elkington’s nylon-string guitar as Hogan’s only accompaniment — until O’Connor returned to the stage midsong and took over the lead vocals on the final verse, making the tune into an endearing duet.
Monday’s opening act was Local H singer-guitarist Scott Lucas’ other band, Scott Lucas & the Married Men, who also have a new record coming out June 5, Blood Half Moon. Lucas and his band delivered a pretty fierce performance, particularly on the closing song — which also closes the new record — a dark, heavy incantation, the traditional song “There Ain’t No Grave (Gonna Hold My Body Down).” When the band stopped and Lucas kept chanting the chorus a few more times, he looked slightly possessed.
Given how popular the TV series Soul Train was for so many years, it was no surprise that a huge crowd turned out Monday night (Sept. 5) for an all-star concert at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion celebrating the show’s 40th anniversary. Estimating crowd sizes is difficult to do with any precision, but the emcees said 20,000 or more people had packed into the park. One thing is for sure: Someone was sitting in nearly every seat in the pavilion, except when they got up to dance.
The stars of the concert were the Chi-Lites, the Emotions, the Impressions and Jerry “The Iceman” Butler, each singing a few of their biggest hits, and all of their voices sounded great. They were backed by an orchestra and band conducted by Tom Tom Washington, with top-notch arrangements that fleshed out the songs without overwhelming the vocals.
Gene Chandler was also billed to perform, but he only made it onto the stage for the big finale, when everyone came out for a rousing rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.” What happened to the set Chandler was supposed to perform? I suspect that time ran out, because of an alarmingly long gap between the Impressions and Butler, when emcees Herb Kent and Richard Steele were forced to kill time. It’s not clear what was happening there, but it was the one flaw in an otherwise smoothly run variety show. The creator of Soul Train, Don Cornelius, also spoke at the concert, as a new street sign in his honor was unveiled. “This is the biggest thing that ever happened to me,” he said.
Composer Steve Reich turns 75 on Oct. 3, and musical ensembles have been celebrating that landmark birthday this year by performing Reich’s music. Two estimable new music groups based in Chicago, eighth blackbird and Third Coast Percussion, joined forces and brought in assorted friends to play three pieces by Reich Monday (Aug. 22) at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. It was a magnificent way for Millennium Park to wrap up this summer’s series of “Dusk Variations” concerts.
The four members of Third Coast Percussion started out the evening with Reich’s Mallet Quartet, which was followed by a mixed ensemble playing the Double Sextet (with two sets of musicians on flute, cello, violin, cello, piano and vibraphone) — a piece that Reich won the Pulitzer Prize for, after eighth blackbird played its world premiere.
But the main attraction was the hourlong composition in the second half of the concert, Reich’s seminal masterpiece Music for 18 Musicians. The interlocking, interwoven patterns of notes rising up from the Pritzker stage sounded like a living organism, a whole greater than the sum of its parts — although it was fascinating to focus in on the individual parts as well. The music of Reich and other minimalists such as Philip Glass has a mechanical quality, evoking electronica as well as old wind-up music boxes, but a live performance is never completely mechanical. On Monday evening, the precision of the playing was impressive, but it was the human quality of how those notes meshed together without ever being completely robotic that made Reich’s music sound so sublime.
My Brightest Diamond, aka Shara Worden, deftly bridges the realms of indie rock and classical music. She once aspired to be an opera singer, and her formal training shows in her spectacular vocals. She also studied composition, and that shows in the sophistication of what she writes and plays. She’s one rock performer who really deserves to have an orchestra playing behind her, at least on special occasions, so it was wonderful that she got the chance on Monday, Aug. 8, to play at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion with fully symphonic accompaniment by the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras.
How beautiful it was to hear the concert begin with the opening notes of “Dragonfly” from My Brightest Diamond’s 2006 debut album, Bring Me the Workhorse — those swooping, sweeping violins. The concert was filled with terrific moments like that as Worden and the young musicians played songs from My Brightest Diamond’s first two records and the new one, All Things Unwind, which comes out Oct. 18 on Asthmatic Kitty. CYSO faculty member Brian Baxter took Worden’s arrangements for six instruments and expanded them into full orchestral scores.
And this was not the sort of staid or restrained performance one might expect in the classical context. Worden, wearing a striking silver-and-black-checked dress, danced with glee and made grandiose gestures as she sang, playing guitar, ukulele, thumb piano and autoharp at various times.
Worden introduced some of her songs with stories, and she even told a children’s story of sorts as she explained how one of her new songs was inspired by the 1871 book At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald.
She said another new song was inspired by seeing Laurie Anderson in concert. The day after the concert, Worden met Anderson, who told her, “Maybe it takes more than a lifetime to learn how to love.” Worden took that line and wrote the song around it.
The weather was lousy for this outdoor concert, with rain pouring down at a few points, but it was dry enough under the pavilion near the stage. During one song, Worden injected some ad-lib lyrics: “Sh-sh-sh-Chicago, we don’t care if it’s raining.”
While watching all of this, I had to wonder whether any of the high school musicians in the orchestra were taking any special inspiration from the experience of working with Worden. She’s a great role model for anyone (but especially girls) who want to find their own musical path.
The concert was part of Millennium Park’s “Dusk Variations” series, which focuses on “music mixing pop and alternative genres with classical music.” Still to come: Rasputina on Aug. 15 and Chicago Counterpoint: A Steve Reich Celebration on Aug. 22.
Millennium Park’s Monday-night rock concert series, “Downtown Sound,” wrapped up on July 25 with a show by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists — but it’s hardly the end of this summer’s music at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. The “Made in Chicago” jazz series begins Thursday, while the “Lunchbreak Music Series” and Grant Park Music Festival continue. And Monday nights will shift to the “Dusk Variations” theme next week — experimental classical music mixed with electronica, folk, rock and the avant-garde — including a must-see performance Aug. 8 by My Brightest Diamond. Check out the schedules here.
Like some of the other concerts at Pritzker, Monday’s featured a somewhat odd pairing of headline band and opening act. Ted Leo is a real rocker, while opener Rachel Ries is more of a troubadour type. Pritzker’s concert bookings can make for some unusual contrasts, but it’s rather cool to see this sort of diversity on the same stage in the same night. Ries (until recently, a Chicago resident) played a nice set of folk rock songs with a jazzy tinge. And then Leo and his Pharmacists treated the crowd to a complete performance of his first album from a decade ago, The Tyranny of Distance, preceded by several songs from his other records. Leo was playing with an injured knee, and he apologized for not being to jump around quite as much as usual, but it didn’t stop him from singing and playing those guitar chords with sweaty vigor.
The free concert Monday evening (June 27) at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion was one of those shows that had you wondering: Who’s everyone here to see, the headline or the opening act? I was there for the headliner, Low, who have a terrific new album out, C’mon, and put on a great show back in April at Lincoln Hall. The fact that Glen Hansard was opening seemed like a nice bonus. But clearly Hansard, the lead singer of the Frames and one-half of the Swell Season duo that gained fame and fans in the film Once, drew a large contingent of concertgoers Monday. His modest acoustic songs were pleasant enough, and Hansard threw himself into some of the songs with an almost startling intensity — including a cover of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks.” A predominantly female bunch of Hansard fans oohed and ahh’ed at all of this, and then a lot of them packed up and left before Low took the stage. Their loss.
Low played a set that was pretty similar to the recent one at Lincoln Hall, playing most of the new record and a sample of a few older songs, climaxing with “When I Go Deaf” as the encore. It was beautiful to behold the vocal harmonies of guitarist Alan Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker soaring out into the summer air at Millennium Park as the songs unfolded with stately grace — evoking both of the words in the title of one song, “Majesty/Magic.”
Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion has a pretty full schedule of concerts all summer, not just the Monday-night “Downtown Sounds” shows I’ve written about earlier, but also classical, jazz, world music and more. The Thursday evening “Music Without Borders” series got started June 9 with the Mongolian-Chinese band Hanggai and Honduran singer-guitarist Aurelio Martinez.
Chicago’s mercurial and downright peculiar weather of late didn’t cooperate for this occasion. The temperature dropped from the 90s the previous day to the 50s, making for a pretty chilly outdoor show. The crowd was a small fraction of the audience that turned out a few days earlier, packing the park for Iron & Wine. (I missed that concert, but believe me, it was crowded. Just check out these photos at Time Out Chicago.)
Despite the sparse attendance and cool temps, Thursday’s concert featured two lively performances. Aurelio Martinez’s spry guitar playing and exuberant personality got the crowd moving a little bit, especially a small group of folks waving the Honduran flag. Martinez is not only an accomplished musician — he’s also a politician, a member of the Garifuna community and the first black person to become a deputy in the National Congress of Honduras. His most recent record (released by Sub Pop in January) is Laru Beya, and a couple of free mp3s are available here. It’s interesting and unusual to see Sub Pop releasing a record that would normally be lumped in with that amorphous category, “world music.”
The main act was Hanggai, an array of Mongolian musicians dressed in traditional garb… Well, maybe that was traditional garb. I’m not so sure about that weird bare-chested vest-like get-up the one singer wore, which made him look a bit like a member of the Mongolian Hell’s Angels. The guys played a mix of Western instruments such as electric guitar and banjo with Asian instruments, and the music was also a blend of Asian melodies with American rock ‘n’ roll. It’s surprising to read that Ken Stringfellow of the Posies and latter-day Big Star produced Hanggai’s most recent record, He Who Travels Far. In concert, Hanggai’s music was accessible and fun. The crowd even applauded whenever the singers spoke between songs in their native language, even if few people in the pavilion understand what they were saying. The songs often had a galloping beat, and people got up to dance in front of their seats. (Millennium Park’s security staff strictly enforced a “no dancing in the aisles” rule Thursday night. It sure would be nice if the park set aside a little more space for dancing.)
The weather was beautiful in Chicago on Memorial Day (May 30) — perfect for the free concert at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion starring headliner Justin Townes Earle and opening act Andre Williams. They made for a somewhat unusual pair — a 29-year-old country-folk singer and a 74-year-old blues and soul singer — but they’re both on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records. And they’re both entertainers with strong, distinctive personalities.
Backed by the Goldstars and a horn section, Williams strutted the stage, wearing some snazzy threads, only slightly cleaning up his somewhat lascivious lyrics for the all-ages audience. (Yes, he did sing “Jailbait,” and he also dedicated a song about “trying to score some blow” to his daughter.)
Justin Townes Earle was accompanied by just violin and upright bass, along with his own acoustic guitar. As he showed last fall at Lincoln Hall, he’s one of those singer-songwriters who can hold his own on the stage, even without a full band. His old-style country-music banter in between songs was peppered with polite references to the audiences as “ladies and gentlemen,” and his set was dominated by songs from his excellent 2010 record, Harlem River Blues — but why didn’t he play the song about his days as a teen in Chicago, “Rogers Park”? A highlight was his intense version of the Lightnin’ Hopkins blues tune, “I Been Burning Bad Gasoline.” It was good to see Earle playing to a large and appreciative audience.
Yes, it is hard to believe sometimes how unusual and wonderful the concerts promoted by the city of Chicago in the beautiful Millennium Park are. The summer season of free concerts got started Monday night (May 23) with … Bonnie “Prince” Billy? And Eleventh Dream Day as the opening act?
I love both of these acts, but they’re not exactly superstars or even what most people would think of as mainstream crowd pleasers. But over the past few years, the programmers in the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs have proven that they’ve got good taste and they’re willing to take risks. There’s been a shakeup since last fall, and I’m still trying to make sense of what it means that the city has moved around jobs and transferred some of these responsibilities to the tourism office. So far, so good — interesting and cool music is still being booked at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that it stays this way in the months and years to come. (Check out this summer’s concert schedule at Millennium Park here.)
The first act of the night Monday was Chicago’s venerable but still very lively indie-rock band Eleventh Dream Day, although it was questionable for a while whether they would actually play. Drummer and harmony vocalist Janet Beveridge Bean broke an ankle Sunday, and initially the band was planning to cancel the gig as a result. But Jim Elkington (who was in the Zincs and collaborated with Bean in the Horse’s Ha) was recruited to fill in on drums. Bean came out onto the stage in crutches and stood at her own mini drum set, singing throughout the set and offering some backup percussion. Elkington sounded pretty good, considering he’d just had one chance to rehearse the songs. It wasn’t quite the full Eleventh Dream Day experience, but the songs still sounded pretty great … and it made for an unusual and unique show. Bean joked that she was worried about keeping her job with the band. I don’t think there’s any need for her to worry about that, as her vocals came through as strong as ever Monday night.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka Will Oldham, performed Monday with the same band he’s had with him last year, the Cairo Gang, which is led by guitarist Emmett Kelly of Chicago, and also includes Chicago singer Angel Olsen. Oldham was a bit more mellow than he’s been the past few times I’ve seen him, but he was just as expressive with his oddball yoga/dance moves, lifting his bare foot at skewed angles while he sang, cradling his guitar in his hands when he wasn’t playing it.
Unless I failed to recognize some of the songs (which is certainly possible, given how many records Oldham has put out), I believe that the bulk of songs he played Monday were brand-new ones, not yet released. He opened with “Troublesome Houses,” off of 2010’s Wonder Show of the World, and played another song from that same terrific album, “Go Folks, Go” just before the encore. But everything in between seemed to be new, with Oldham using lyrics sheets. The songs tended toward the quiet, with lyrics about spiritual seeking as well as the casual references to sex we’ve come to expect. At one point, he warned the audience to clap hands over the ears of anyone children in attendance, then proceeded to sing, “As boys, we fucked each other.” Another song mentioned sweaty thighs locked together. The first of the new songs he performed was almost a solo a cappella performance, with just a few eerie accents from the Steinway piano and the upright bass. The audience in the section of the pavilion near the stage fell almost completely silent as Oldham delivered this melody from the peculiar depths of his throat.
In its loveliest moments, the new material built to gospel-like choruses and impressive three-part harmonies featuring Oldham, Olsen and Kelly. More listens will be needed to decide how the new songs stack up — Oldham’s work usually needs repeat listens before it clicks with me — but it was a daring and beautiful performance. I was wondering what the people in the audience less familiar with Oldham’s work made of it all. It was steady, low-key folk-rock with tinges of jazz and gospel, the sort of music that requires close listening. Did it win over the audience or were people scratching their heads? It’s impossible for anyone to tell what everyone else is thinking in a crowd, but I got the sense that people were at least respectful and intrigued by what they were hearing.
During the encore, Bonnie “Prince” Billy played “There Is No God,” a single he’s releasing June 12 on Drag City, with profits going to Save Our Gulf and Turtle Hospital to support efforts to clean up and maintain waterways — a good cause, in the wake of the recent flooding along the Mississippi River basin. (Watch the video here.) After sounding spiritual in other songs earlier in the evening, Oldham now declared bluntly, “There is no god.” But the declaration wasn’t quite that simple. “There is no god,” he sang, “But that which surround the tongue/That which sees love in the chest/That which puts mouth on cock and vagina/That that is the best.” In his own odd way, Oldham reminds me of poets like Walt Whitman.
His occasionally vulgar lyrics made the spectacle of the concert in the park seem all the more subversive… or surreal, anyway. So the city of Chicago is paying this guy to stand in his bare feet on that fancy stage designed by Frank Gehry and blurt out lyrics about cocks and vaginas and sweaty thighs and how god doesn’t exist? Yep. Pretty cool, isn’t it?
Here are some photos I’ve taken at concerts over the past couple of weeks.
THE THERMALS with DISAPPEARS July 5 at Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park
See more photos from the concert.
HUM and LONELY TRAILER July 10 at the Champaign 150 street festival
See more photos from the concert.
CARIBOU and BUDOS BAND July 12 at Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park
See more photos from the concert.
And coming soon — photos and reports from the Pitchfork Music Festival.
When Tony Allen performed Monday (June 14) at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, one of the members of his band wore a T-shirt that read, “Afro-Beat: Created by Tony Allen.” Some may ask: Wasn’t Fela Kuti the Nigerian musician who created this style of music? Yes, but drummer and band leader Tony Allen was present at the creation, too, working with Fela for many years. Allen has recorded some great Afro-Beat records under his own name since the 1970s, and Monday’s show was a rare opportunity to see him performing here in Chicago.
Despite Allen’s renown on the drums (Brian Eno called him “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived”), he was not especially flashy during this performance. Instead of playing big drum solos, he ticked out subtle rhythms. But they were the driving force behind the funky grooves that the band played, including wah-wah guitar chords punctuated by horn blasts. Allen sang on some of the songs, delivering the words in a half-spoken spiel reminiscent of Fela’s own incantations.
This was classic Afro-Beat, played by one of the guys who invented the music, and the crowd loved the extended jams. Some fans formed lines, snaking down the Pritzker Pavilion’s aisles like a bunch of giddy folks at a wedding reception.
Tony Allen’s opening act was Great Lake Swimmers, a folk-rock band from Toronto. I love both Tony Allen and Great Lake Swimmers, so I was among the audience members who were pleased to see both. It was an odd pairing, though. Led by Tony Dekker, Great Lake Swimmers played soft-spoken, lullingly pretty songs.
It’s no surprise that the Millennium Park concert on Monday evening (June 7) by She and Him would be crowded. But the throngs that packed into the Pritzker Pavilion and the lawn surpassed expectations. When I arrived at 5 p.m. for the 6:30 concert, the lawn was already close to full and a long line snaked around the park, filled with people waiting for the gates to open for the 4,000-seat pavilion. By the time the music started, the area in front of the stage and much of the aisle space were jam-packed with fans.
The big turnout was probably due to several things: 1. Many of these people, especially the people up near the front who were singing along to the music, are She and Him fans. Duh. 2. Zooey Deschanel is oh, so cute. She isn’t a huge movie star, but she is a star and she’s pretty, so of course, a lot of people would turn out just to see her. 3. Beautiful weather. 4. Beautiful park. 5. Free admission. I mean, given all of those factors, why not go to Millennium Park for the She and Him show — even if it was on a Monday night, not exactly the top night for entertainment?
I count myself among the She and Him fans. Deschanel is definitely more than a pretty face. Over the two records she’s made with the masterful M. Ward as her guitar-playing and occasionally singing partner, she’s proven that she knows how to write a great song. Volume One and the recent Volume Two are filled with catchy tunes in the classic pop style, the sort of stuff that would have been radio hits in the 1960s or early ’70s. Both of these records have really stuck with me.
And in concert, She and Him pretty much deliver what they do on record. Deschanel was having a great deal more fun than she did the first time I saw She and Him, at a SXSW party in 2008, when her stage presence was rather shy and stiff. This time, she danced more often, even jumping up and down a bit. The show especially came alive on upbeat songs like the great “This Is Not a Test.”
Ward, meanwhile, stayed in Deschanel’s shadow for most of the evening, playing some nice if understated (or undermixed?) licks on the guitar. I get the feeling Ward enjoys letting Deschanel be the focus of attention in this project. Together with the backup band, Ward really makes Deschanel’s songs and the covers in their repertoire (such as NRBQ’s “Riding in My Car”) sound like vintage pop. She and Him did play one of Ward’s solo songs, “Magic Trick,” and he took over the lead vocals for a rousing version of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” during the first encore.
The concert seemed to be over at that point, when the P.A. system started playing the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” But then Ward and Deschanel came back out and played one more song, Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “You Put a Spell On Me.” It was the one time all night Deschanel really belted out some notes (not that there was anything wrong with the cool, controlled style she displayed the rest of the evening). And then, with Ward’s final solo playing on a repeating loop, She and Him exited, after 90 minutes of winsome music.
Chicago girl group Hollows opened the concert, playing in front of a vast crowd that must have been considerably larger than any audience they’ve ever entertained. With their retro sound, they won over at least the fans in the pavilion, who gave Hollows rapturous applause after their set.
Champaign rock band Hum, who came close to stardom in the 1990s with the song “Stars,” and then seemed to fade out, have reunited recently for a few gigs — including an unlikely appearance Monday night (May 31) at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. It was unlikely just because you wouldn’t expect an old indie-rock band with a cult following to surface at the most prestigious park venue in downtown Chicago. But then again, as I’ve mentioned here before, Millennium Park has some surprisingly interesting concerts.
Hum is definitely a band that sounds like its era. There’s some similarity to Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins and other bands of the ’90s. Hum doesn’t vary its sound a whole lot, sticking with the same formula and playing the songs without a lot of showmanship. But it was clear that Hum’s fans were ecstatic to hear those songs being performed in strong live versions. For many of the fans, it was the first chance they’d ever had to see a Hum performance — or the first chance in quite a while. The band offered few hints as to whether or when it will play again.
Some cool upcoming shows at Millennium Park: The Very Best and Antibalas play in the venue’s “Music Without Borders” series this Thursday (June 3). And She & Him play with opening act Hollows next Monday (June 7). Both shows are at 6:30 p.m.
A lot of great music is on the calendar for Chicago this summer, including many street fairs as well as the big rock fests, Pitchfork and Lollapalooza. Best of all, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park has a ton of free concerts, including rock, classical, jazz and world music. And as in the last few years, the city of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs has done an exceptional job in booking some really interesting and noteworthy acts at this beautiful venue.
The summer concert season officially began Monday night (May 24) with the first of the “Downtown Sound” shows — a series that focuses mostly on rock, with a surprising amount of critically praised indie rock.
The double bill last night started with the Ponys, a Chicago band that’s been on hiatus for the past few years. It’s good to hear them playing again, with sharp guitar hooks and reverb-laden vocals by lead singer Jered Gummere echoing in architect Frank Gehry’s pavilion. The place wasn’t exactly packed — there were plenty of empty seats, which wasn’t surprising considering how big the place is — but when a small crowd of fans began dancing near the stage, it felt festive. The Millennium Park security seemed to be more casual than usual about letting people dance up in that area near the stage, which is a smart idea.
The headliners were the Besnard Lakes from Montréal, who make music with a sweeping sense of drama and high-flying melodies. Singer-guitarist-keyboardist Jace Lasek hit some impressive falsetto notes with something close to perfection. (I laughed when a member of Chicago band the 1900s tweeted last night that they were expecting Lasek to bust into that Conan O’Brien comic tune “In the Year 2000” at any minute.) Bassist Olga Goreas also sings some of the lead vocals, and that mix of male and female voices was beautiful. Deftly moving from delicate passages of music into louder rock, the Besnard Lakes played many songs from their new album, The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night, as well as some tracks from their first two records. Lasek shook his hair and grimaced like a classic-rock rocker.
Check out the schedule of upcoming Pritzker Pavilion concerts at www.millenniumpark.org.
Now, this was one strange scheduling change. The concert originally planned for Monday evening (Aug. 10) at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park was Malian singer Rokia Traore with opening act Shearwater. Unfortunately, Traore had to cancel her tour, then the city replaced her on the bill with … Shellac?!? That’s right — the hard-hitting rock band led by Chicago’s most famous record producer, Steve Albini. They were a strange pairing with Shearwater — and it seemed like at least a few African music aficionados showed up last night thinking they were to going to hear the much mellower sounds of Rokia Traore, only to find their ears pounded by Albini & Co. Truth be told, I’m not that big a fan of Shellac. They are good at what they do, but it’s just not the sort of music I enjoy listening to all that much. You have to get them props, though, for the power and precision of the pulverizing performance last night.
Shearwater is more to my liking. It was originally seen by many people as a sort of side project to Okkervil River, since Shearwater singer-songwriter Jonathan Meiburg also plays sometimes in Okkervil. But it’s very clear by now that Shearwater is very much its own entity. Meiburg has a nice voice that floats up to high notes while he and his band play complex arrangements that mix the atmospherics of art rock and folk rock. For a band that can sound awfully delicate on some songs, Shearwater was strong, even driving at times last night.
The Great Performers of Illinois festival, sponsored by the Illinois Arts Council, seemed like it was about to slip under the radar. I got the feeling not many people were even aware of it, but its presence in Millennium Park was hard to miss this past weekend. The headliner was Dennis DeYoung playing the songs of Styx, an event I would have paid to miss, but the festival was almost surreally diverse, with everything from mimes and Abe and Mary Lincoln impersonators to the Fiery Furnaces playing their perversely challenging rock.
On Saturday afternoon (July 11), I caught about half an hour of the set by Daniel Knox, whom I’d seen recently at the Hideout. I appreciate the wit of Knox’s piano songs, though I’m having trouble warming up to his rather blunt voice. I wonder how his songs would sound sung by either a more polished vocalist or someone who’s idiosyncratic but more interesting, like Tom Waits?
Speaking of idiosyncratic, the Fiery Furnaces were the next act playing at Millennium Park’s Wrigley Square — a space just off Michigan Avenue, south of Randolph, where a series of classical-style columns and the Chicago skyline makes a beautiful, panoramic backdrop for the music. In fact, one of the delightful quirks of the Fiery Furnaces show was watching guitarist Matthew Friedberger occasionally looking off to the side of the stage and peering up at the skyscrapers while he was playing. Oh, yes, he was playing guitar — at last. Recent Fiery Furnaces tours have been dominated by the sound of Matthew playing organ, and a little bit of that went a long way. It was a good change of pace to hear him back on electric guitar during this show, which was one of three that the band played in Chicago in three days (following gigs at the Hideout and FitzGerald’s).
I’m still absorbing the new Fiery Furnaces album, I’m Going Away, so it’s hard to say yet what I think of it. Now that I think about it, that remains more or less true of every single record this band has ever put out. Their music is so jam-packed, with fast changes in tempo, style and lyrical themes. It can seem maddening, but it’s often brilliant. Some of the things that may drive you mad during one listen will seem brilliant the next time. The Fiery Furnaces have turned out to be an uncompromisingly strange band that revels in throwing down the gauntlet in front of its listeners, daring people to enter the twisted musical world of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger.
Going into Saturday’s concert, I was bracing myself for yet another peculiar musical experience. Would the Fiery Furnaces’ nonstop Jabberwocky drive me crazy or enchant me? This time around, the band was a delightful marvel. As always, Eleanor seemed to have a bad case of logorrhea, throwing out whole paragraphs of lyrics. The band was lively, sounding almost improvisatory as it shifted from one quirky rhythmic pattern to another. The songs from I’m Going Away sounded strong — these tunes seem to be a little more compact and straightforward than previous Fiery Furnaces compositions. The highlights for me were songs from the group’s previous record, Widow City, including “Duplexes of the Dead.” That album is turning out to be one of my favorites by the Fiery Furnaces, although like just about everything by this band, it’s hard to take it all in with one listen.
Photos of the Fiery Furnaces and Daniel Knox.
I was back at Millennium Park on Sunday (July 12) to catch some of the three-hour show by the Viper and His Famous Orchestra, a “neo-skiffle” band from Champaign. After an hour set by the Viper, one of the band’s members, Edward Burch, played a set of his own. Burch is best-known for collaborating with the late Jay Bennett on their record The Palace at 4am (Part 1), and when I walked up around 1:30 p.m., Burch and some of his musical friends (including Steve Frisbie) were playing the Bennett and Burch song “California.” It was a beautiful and touching tribute to Bennett, who died on Memorial Day weekend, and the rest of Burch’s set was just as good. It seemed a little strange seeing this unannounced tribute to Bennett in the middle of Millennium Park — this stage was next to the mirrored “Bean” sculpture” — as dozens of people walked by, unaware of who was performing or whose music was being played.
During the third hour of this show, the Viper and His Famous Orchestra played again, offering tributes to various Illinois towns with cute tunes about subjects such as the MTD (Champaign-Urbana’s Mass Transit District). It was quaint music, and the park crowd seemed to enjoy it. The set ended with a skiffle tribute to Michael Jackson.
Photos of the Viper and His Famous Orchestra and Edward Burch.
I’ve posted photos from several concerts lately without any comment here. Back on June 24, Robert Gomez, a singer-songwriter from Denton, Texas, performed a nice show of melancholy folk rock with a bit of a psychedelic edge at Schubas. It was sparsely attended, but I enjoyed the intimate feeling of the show. Chicago’s Rock Falls played an opening set of charming songs, including some ukulele strumming. Photos of Robert Gomez and Rock Falls.
I wrote earlier about how great the Feelies were on June 29 at Millennium Park. They were just one of three bands that I saw at the park’s Pritzker Pavilion. In addition to all of the great evening concerts, the park is also hosting free performances at noon every day this summer, including some rock shows in a series called “Edible Audible.” It’s not always easy for me to get downtown at noon, but I was there on June 29 for a show by Black Moth Super Rainbow. Normally, I’m not too thrilled with bands that run all of their vocals through the tired electronic effect known as the Vocoder. Black Moth does this, but somehow, I like this brand of Vocoder music better than most other electronic music. I think it’s because it feels trippy and psychedelic, with some catchy melodies. Photos of Black Moth Super Rainbow.
Back at the Pritzker that evening, Chicago’s Icy Demons were the opening act for the Feelies. I rather like this band and the CD that it put out last year, Miami Ice. Icy Demons mix some elements from 1970 prog rock with dance rhythms. I got the feeling that the band wore out its welcome at this show, since Feelies fans were so eager for the main act, but it was still pretty enjoyable. Photos of Icy Demons.
The Chicago ensemble DRMWPN (pronounced “dream weapon”) released one of my favorite records so far this year, Bright Blue Galilee, but good luck finding it. It’s a very limited edition on vinyl of a concert recording from 2007. DRMWPN basically plays a droning chord for about 40 minutes at every show, creating a meditative atmosphere. The group came together July 1 for another beautiful performance at the Chopin Theatre. Ostensible leader Jim Dorling had some trouble getting the group’s Dream Machine to work. That’s the light with the spinning cover that sets the perfect mood at DRMWPN concerts. After a few minutes of playing with the device, he finally got it spinning, and the music began drifting into place. Photos of DRMWPN, Ultimate Vag and 500MG.
Oumou Sangaré, a singer from Mali, put on a rousing show July 2 at the Pritzker Pavilion. She came across as a vibrant personality, and her large band kept the music going at a lively pace all night. It did not take long for a large group of fans to rush to the front part of the pavilion, and after that, it was a non-stop dance party. Photos of Oumou Sangaré.
Last year, Christian Kiefer, J. Matthew Gerken, Jefferson Pitcher and assorted guest singers put out a three-CD set called Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies. It does in fact include one song for each president, and after Barack Obama won last year’s election, these musicians released a follow-up song with Will Johnson of Centro-matic on lead vocals, “44. Barack Obama (Someone to Wake).” I played that song a lot last fall after the election. (You can download it for free here.) The trio of singer-songwriters who put this whole project together played July 3 at the Hideout and July 4 at Taste of Chicago. I caught the Hideout show, which featured one of the local musicians who performs on the CD — Steve Dawson of Dolly Varden signing about Lyndon B. Johnson — and several musicians doing interpretations of the songs. The Singleman Affair did great psychedelic-folk-rock versions of the songs about John Quincy Adams and Jimmy Carter. The Bitter Tears, dressed like decadent hillbillies, sang about Zachary Taylor. The Gunshy, Sin Ropas, Jeff Harms, Tim Rutili and Tim Kinsella also performed, and of course, Jon Langford was there — singing about Ronald Reagan. Hideout co-owner Tim Tuten (back in town from Washington) emceed the whole shindig, and his rambling and improvised intro to the Reagan was a humorous highlight. The concert featured about half of the songs from the 3-CD collection, ending with the soothing sing-along chorus of the Obama song: “Everything will be all right.” Photos of 44 Songs for 44 Presidents.
This was one musical reunion show I was really looking forward to, and it did not disappoint. The Feelies played in Chicago last night for the first since putting out their fourth record in 1991. I saw them only once back in the day, and that concert was a bit truncated because one of the band members was ill. So it almost felt like I was seeing them for the first time when they took the stage June 29 at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. (Another fabulous free show at this lovely venue!)
The Feelies do their thing without a lot of fuss or showmanship, so it somehow seemed apt that the band came onstage and then paused for a minute to work out some technical difficulties, not saying anything to the audience. And then, they suddenly burst right into the opening chords of their 1991 song “For Awhile.” What followed was an almost-perfect run through of great tunes from all four Feelies albums: Bill Million’s trademark chords strummed over and over, Glenn Mercer’s cool, understated vocals, bassist Brenda Sauter’s melodic bass lines, Mercer’s tuneful, piercing guitar solos building on top of those cycling chords. And of course, those Feelies rhythms. And some songs, the beat stayed steady as drummer-percussionists Stanley Demeski and Dave Weckerman kept things constantly shaking. And other tunes, the beat began slow then accelerated, as the band seemed to shift again and again into higher gears. A song might being like pastoral folk rock and end in a frenzy.
Towards the end of the show, a young man danced his way into the empty area between the front row and the stage, twitching with the sort of spastic moves that looked perfect for the jerky sounds of songs from the first Feelies album, Crazy Rhythms. A park security guard led this fellow away, but he came back a minute later and continued dancing. That seemed to open the flood gates, as people jumped to the front area of the pavilion and started twitching along. Feelies lead singer and guitarist Glenn Mercer seemed to revel in the moment, coming out to the edge of the stage for guitar solos inches away from the upraised hands of fans (some of whom looked way too young to remember the last time the Feelies were around).
The Feelies played two new songs, both of which sounded like they’ll be great additions to the band’s discography whenever it gets around to recording them. The group encored with two rousing covers: R.E.M.’s “Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)” and the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” (which the Feelies originally did on the 1988 record Only Life), plus their own song “a Cé-La.” And then something wonderful happened that you don’t see often at the Pritzker Pavilion — a second encore. People clapped and even pounded on the edge of the stage, making quite a racket. They would not let the Feelies leave without at least one more song. And so the band came back out and did another cool cover, the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black.”
At one point during the show, Sauter told the crowd, “Thank you for waiting 20 years.” It was a long wait, but it sure was great to see and hear the Feelies playing last night in front of an adoring, lively crowd.
(I’ll post photos and blog soon about the other bands I saw Monday at the Pritzker Pavilion, Feelies opening act Icy Demons and the noontime act, Black Moth Super Rainbow.)
I’m not quite as swamped with concerts this week as I have been lately, but here are a few good ones that happened in recent days.
Soy Un Caballo sounds like the name for a Spanish band, or maybe a New York pretending to be a Spanish band. The group’s name is Spanish for “I Am a Horse.” But this male-female duo is actually Belgian, and they sing most of their songs in French. They were delightful Friday night (June 19) at Schubas, playing a set of delicate songs on guitar, bass and vibes with pretty vocal harmonies. “It’s very courageous of you to take French lessons on a Friday night,” one of them remarked. Courageous? Hardly! The band happens to be on a Chicago label, Minty Fresh, which has a history of finding great bands from overseas. Check out Soy Un Caballo’s music at www.myspace.com/soyuncaballo.
On Saturday night (June 20), the Empty Bottle had a strong, if somewhat mismatched, triple lineup. The headliners were O’Death, who got the crowd dancing like it was a real hoedown, while the band cranked out bluegrassy music with punk attitude. Ah, but a little bit of O’Death goes a long way for me. The fans loved it, anyway. The middle act on the bill, and my main reason for being there, was Tiny Vipers, the singer-songwriter also known as Jesy Fortino. She has some really nice songs, but they’re very quiet songs, and alas, the Bottle crowd was really chatty, making it almost painful at times to watch Fortino straining to be heard about that din. At several points, a big “shush” went up, and people shut up for a few minutes. The acoustic guitar picking and plaintive singing sounded beautiful… whenever I could hear it. (You can hear some of it here: www.myspace.com/tinyvipersss) The first act of the night was Balmorhea, an ensemble from Austin, Texas, that plays songs falling somewhere between chamber music and rock. It was pretty and mellow, though maybe a little too mellow. Balmorhea is practically an instrumental band, with vocals on only a few songs, but it was the ending of the show, when the members all came together and sang a cappella, that really stood out for me.
Photos of O’Death, Tiny Vipers and Balmorhea.
Monday (June 22) was another night with great (and free!) live music at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. It’s kind of hard to believe that Chicago city officials are cool enough to allow things like a concert by the Dirty Projectors to happen in a beautiful, world-class venue like the Pritzker. I guess that’s because the city government (for all of its many faults) has a smart Cultural Affairs Department. This particular show featured those indie-rock darlings from Brooklyn, the Dirty Projectors, opening for a stalwart Chicago act, the Sea and Cake. At least in the front part of the pavilion, it was clear that most of the twentysomething fans who rushed to get seats when the gates opened were Dirty Projectors fans. I overheard some of these kids saying that they didn’t even know who the Sea and Cake were, and some of them did not stick around for the headliners.
The Dirty Projectors have intrigued me on the two previous times I’ve seen them, but at times, their music seemed like not entirely successful experimentation. They’re getting more press now, thanks in part to collaborations with Björk and David Byrne (neither of whom was present for this show, of course). And boy, the Dirty Projectors really connected this time. With an expanded lineup, the band is doing a lot more with vocal harmonies — really peculiar but very precise harmonies, with intervals, overlapping patterns and spot-on timing. It’s easy to see why Björk would want to work with them. I was wowed by the sound of those voices, which seemed almost like a programmed effect than an organic piece of singing happening right in front of me. The guitar melodies were striking, too, with lots of African style skewed into strange new territory.
The Sea and Cake finished the show with a pretty good set, though as always, I find myself wishing that this band would break loose a little bit. They’re very talented, and their songs are smart compositions with inventive chords, but it’s always tamped down. The one thing that wasn’t tamped down was drummer John McIntire, who grimaced and made all sorts of intense expressions as he hammered away.
Photos of the Dirty Projectors and the Sea and Cake.
UPDATE: I was too busy today to pay attention to Twitter or anything like that, so I overlooked the news that the Dirty Projectors had been in a car accident. Everyone is reportedly OK. http://pitchfork.com/news/35710-dirty-projectors-in-car-accident/
A great season of free concerts is under way in Chicago, including a number of noteworthy shows in the beautiful Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park. St. Vincent (a.k.a. singer-songwriter Annie Clark) performed last night (June 8) beneath architect Frank Gehry’s curving metallic folds, with an appreciative audience and the Chicago skyline spread out before her. Looking out at that tableau, the wide-eyed Clark marveled, “Look at this place. It’s ridiculous!”
St. Vincent was ridiculously great, too. I saw her play three decent shows as an opening act when she was touring to support her first album, but her second record, Actor, is quite a step up from that first effort. It could end up being one of 2009’s best CDs. The intimate show she played this spring at the Hideout was so cool, but it was nice to see her playing this time with a full complement of backing musicians. At one point, not one but two of the musicians were playing clarinet!
Although she did play some music from her first album, opening with the title track, “Marry Me,” St. Vincent focused on the new stuff last night. The songs sounded lush, almost orchestral, with St. Vincent’s lovely voice floating through the dense arrangements, delivering literate lyrics that showed a sharp sense of humor as well as some occasional dark thoughts. But the music never stayed in one pretty place for long — St. Vincent let loose with noisy, angular electric-guitar solos on many of her songs. The noise was beautiful, too.
The opening act, Chicago band Allá, was a good match for St. Vincent, playing some long psychedelic and minimalist jams. It’s nice to see Millennium Park featuring some local bands on its schedule. Just hang out this summer at the park and you’ll hear a ton of great music of all sorts. Check out the schedule at www.millenniumpark.org. One can’t-miss show is the Feelies on June 29.
I knew Millennium Park was a beautiful place (yeah, even with all of the stuff crammed into it and the slight tinge of amusement park…) but I’d never seen a concert there before. What a great place to see live music on a nice summer night. The free general admission seating worked out great. Even though it was crowded and I showed up just a few minutes before starting time, I walked into the pavilion and easily found a seat in the second row right in front of the stage. Frank Gehry’s architecture created an interesting backdrop for the music.
All of that being said, the security at the concert venue was ridiculous. These spoil-sports vainly tried to enforce a rule against dancing in the pavilion (it’s apparently allowed out on the lawn, but not in the area closest to the stage). Maybe that rule makes sense for the many classical concerts held here, but with Seu Jorge and his percussionists going at it wildly – and then with Amadou & Mariam getting into African grooves – the dancing was unstoppable. Even at the end, the ushers were trying to keep people from dancing in the few feet of space right in front of the stage.
Anyway, both acts were fabulous. I had some trouble really getting into Seu Jorge’s 2005 album Cru after being wowed by his concert last year at Logan Square Auditorium. It’s a fine record, but not nearly as exciting as his live show. Tonight’s concert verified my impression from last year – that he’s a vibrant performer with a rich voice. I love the way his voice creaks its way around the lower notes. And his band, mostly percussionists who switch off on playing ukelele, knows how to get an infectious beat going. Jorge of course played a couple of the David Bowie covers that he has become known for. I hope he tries something similar with songs by other artists.
Last year, I saw Seu Jorge and Amadou & Mariam on consecutive days at the Chicago World Music Festival, so it was a real pleasure to see both acts on the same bill this time. Amadou & Mariam were marvelous – with Mariam’s voice in fine form, and Amadou’s guitar solos sounding as good as ever. It took a few songs for the crowd to get back into the dancing spirit (everyone might have been a little worn out by Seu Jorge), but then the dancing resumed.