Favorite Records of 2022

S.G. Goodman
Teeth Marks

This Kentucky singer-songwriter’s debut, Old Time Feeling, was my favorite album of 2020, and she captured my heart once again with her second record. This one is more of a rock album, as Goodman plays with a terrific group, often sounding like a talented bar band playing in a backwoods roadhouse. (At least, that’s how I picture it.) Another critic mentioned “shoegaze” when describing Goodman’s music, which struck me as a peculiar choice of musical terms. But I understand where that idea came from: There are times when Goodman and her backing band get into a groove, repeating a riff as if hypnotized or reveling in the waves of sound. A similar intensity and focus come through in Goodman’s voice, evoking the mountain music of her home state as well as its deeper roots in British folk. Goodman’s lyrics are poetic and passionate. I enjoyed hearing her conversation with Marc Maron on his WTF podcast, and then when she performed a top-notch show at Schubas, her strong personality was on display during her delightful storytelling in between the songs. The centerpiece of this album is a pair of haunting tracks, “If You Were Someone I Loved” and “You Were Someone I Loved.” Or is it one song divided into two parts? Together, they form a moving plea for empathy—and a demand to help neighbors and friends who are in crisis and despair.

Versions of Modern Performance

I find it thrilling to hear young people here in Chicago (in this case, a trio of young women) making vital new music with instruments that might seem almost old-fashioned and out of style: guitars and drums. Horsegirl’s music sounds a bit like old post-punk, but there’s a fresh quality to this combination of catchy vocal melodies, absurdist lyrics, and surging, swelling guitars—as well as the record’s moody interludes, featuring simple piano and ambient touches of art rock. As the album title suggests, these are versions of how rock music can be performed today. It doesn’t all have to sound like slick pop music. Horsegirl offers further evidence that the kids really are all right.

Makaya McCraven
In These Times

This is the best new jazz music I’ve heard in ages. Now, I must confess that I don’t listen to nearly as much new jazz as I should, so take that proclamation with a grain of salt. But this album confirms that Makaya McCraven, a Chicago drummer and producer who has dabbled in hip-hop and other styles of music, is an outstanding composer and arranger. The textures and moods shift from track to track, but every song is evocative and memorable. While working on other projects over the past seven years, McCraven saved up some of his best original compositions for this album, and it shows. I love it from beginning to end.

The Boys With the Perpetual Nervousness
The Third Wave of…

This Scottish-Spanish duo makes perfectly executed power pop, very reminiscent of bands like Teenage Fanclub, with chiming guitars and lovely harmony vocals. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but it’s really catchy.

Angel Olsen
Big Time

Angel Olsen hasn’t abandoned her roots as a folk singer, but she continues evolving and exploring. On this album, she sounds more soulful than ever, channeling grief and personal discovery into emotionally powerful songs.

The Sadies
Colder Streams

Before he died in February, Dallas Good wrote a description of his band’s latest album, commenting: “The Sadies don’t really fit tidily into any genre, or even sub-genre. We aren’t really ‘pre or post’ anything and we don’t have the right hair-cuts or hats for any particular scene. Can’t really call us modern or retro either. We certainly don’t claim to have re-invented the wheel. We just are. And have been for a very long time. So, all that matters is the music itself.” On Colder Streams, the Sadies stuck with their tried-and-true formula. And they succeeded once again, crafting yet another collection of great songs. Although his vocals were as understated as ever, Dallas had a gift for delivering a memorable melody with seemingly no effort. And as always, it was a joy to hear his guitar riffs intertwined with those of his brother, Travis. I mourned Dallas Good’s death while listening to Colder Streams, struck by lyrics such as: “When I search for answers, questions are all I find.” But think of this album is a celebration of great music, not an epitaph.

Nora O’Connor
My Heart

Ever since Nora O’Connor’s wonderful album Til the Dawn was released in 2004, I’d been hoping she would record another one. In the meantime, I saw her perform many times with the Flat Five or as a solo artist or as a guest with other musicians. My hopes finally came true this year, and her new record lived up to my expectations: a beautiful set of alt-country, Americana, and pop music with a bit of a 1970s West Coast vibe (via Chicago, of course).

Joan Shelley
The Spur

That beautiful voice, singing another set of beautiful songs. Louisville singer-songwriter Joan Shelley has expanded her sound, moving beyond acoustic guitar and fleshing out her arrangements with a full band, sometimes substituting piano for guitar. But the tunes still sound like Joan Shelley, with a soothing stillness at their core.


Oneida sometimes makes experimental and almost abstract music, but the band is as direct as ever on this album, which is filled with punchy rock songs, guitar riffs, propulsive drumming, and catchy melodies. It’s one of the long-running cult band’s most accessible records.

Cruel Country

In recent years, Jeff Tweedy released some solo albums, as well as records by a band he called Tweedy. His latest album with Wilco feels like a hybrid of his solo work and the full band: The songs are mostly rooted in acoustic guitar, but Wilco’s masterful musicians add many grace notes as they flesh out the arrangements on live takes in the Loft studio. Wilco has been making good albums all along, but this is the best in a while, with
Tweedy returning to his alt-country roots for a big batch of 21 memorable songs.

Runners-up, in alphabetical order:

Arcade Fire, We
Big Thief, Dragon Warm New Mountain I Believe in You
Andrew Bird, Inside Problems
Bitchin Bajas, Bajascillators
Björk, Fossora
Naima Bock, Giant Palm
Nora Brown, Long Time to Be Gone
Bill Callahan, YTILAER
Ceramic Animal, Sweet Unknown
Cola, Deep in View
Crystal Eyes, The Sweetness Restored
Dehd, Blue Skies
Drive-By Truckers, Welcome 2 Club XIII
Guided By Voices, Tremblers and Goggles by Rank
I Was a King, Follow Me Home
Julia Jacklin, Pre Pleasure
Damien Jurado, Reggae Film Star
Cate Le Bon, Pompeii
MJ Lenderman, Boat Songs
Cass McCombs, Heartmind
Mdou Moctar, Niger EP Vol. 2
Kevin Morby, This Is a Photograph
Nina Nastasia, Riderless Horse
Onyon, Onyon
Partner Look, By the Book
Plains, I Walked With You a Ways
Porridge Radio, Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky
Ty Segall, “Hello, Hi”
The Smile, A Light for Attracting Attention
Kelley Stoltz, The Stylist
Kelley Stoltz, Transnational Series Volume 1 (EP)
Superchunk, Wild Loneliness
Sharon Van Etten, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong
Spiritualized, Everything Was Beautiful
Spoon, Lucifer on the Sofa
Laura Veirs, Found Light
Wet Leg, Wet Leg
Weyes Blood, And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow

Jambinai at SXSW

One of the best groups I saw at SXSW this year was a South Korean band called Jambinai, which uses some traditional Korean instruments, along with electric guitar, bass and drums, creating a dramatic combination of Asian music with heavy metal and the orchestral sweep of ensembles like Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Jambinai’s great 2012 album Differance is available at Amazon.

Click here for an index of all my photos at SXSW 2014. And here’s my recap of the festival.

Here are a short video and several photos I took of Jambinai’s performance on March 12, 2014, at SXSW’s International Day Stage:

L99A3917 L99A4074 L99A4149 L99A4385 L99A4494 L99A4529 L99A4616 L99A4664

Click here for an index of all my photos at SXSW 2014. And here’s my recap of the festival.

Drive-By Truckers at the Vic

After avidly following the Drive-By Truckers through several great albums and something like seven concerts, I fell a bit out of touch with the group over the past few years. I barely paid attention to the Southern rock group’s 2010 album The Big To-Do, and I hadn’t seen them live since they co-headlined with the Hold Steady back in 2008. (Photos.)

So Saturday night’s concert at the Vic felt like getting reacquainted with some old friends. The latest album by the DBTs, Go-Go Boots, is a strong one, a whole new batch of memorable songs by the group’s two main singer-songwriter-guitarists, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, with subtle melodic hooks and characters worthy of good fiction. It’s clear now that the departure of the band’s other voice, Jason Isbell, a few years ago hasn’t slowed down this crew one bit.

The prolific band has a lot of material to choose from, and Saturday night’s show leaned heavily on the recent songs, at least during its first half. The band even brought out some burlesque dancers to illustrate the song “Go-Go Boots.” As always, Hood grinned a lot as he sang or stomped around with his guitar, looking like he was having the time of his life. He’s one of those musicians who conveys a honest exuberance in every performance. Cooley’s more laconic, not as much of a showman, and there’s a laid-back, conversational style to his vocals. It’s the juxtaposition of those voices that makes the DBTs such a special outfit. Bassist Shonna Tucker sings a few songs, too, and she sounded more confident than she did on her original contributions, adding a nice female counterpoint to the guys. Filled out by Brad Morgan, John Neff and Jay Gonzalez, the Drive-By Truckers are a tight group that knows how to play buzz-saw guitar riffs as well as song with more of a soulful swing.

They went deeper into their catalog during the second half of the nearly 2 1/2-hour show, playing older songs such as “Shut Up and Get On the Plane,” “Let There Be Rock,” “Hell No I Ain’t Happy,” “72 (This Highway’s Mean)” and “The Living Bubba.” In the encore, Kelly Hogan came out and sang lead vocals on a smooth cover of the Staple Singers/Curtis Mayfield song, “Let’s Do It Again.” The evening ended with another track from the classic double-album Southern Rock Opera, “Angels and Fuselage,” with Hood singing the pleading chorus: “I’m scared shitless…” The band left the stage one by one, until drummer Brad Morgan was the only one left. The backdrop was a couple of banners designed to look like stained-glass windows containing the ominous bird-like monster that’s become the band’s symbol. Morgan’s drum kit had an extra bass drum sitting next to him, decorated with the words “Go-Go Boots” in the shape of a cross, and making the stage appear like some dark chapel of Southern rock. Morgan didn’t use that bass drum much during the show, but in the final seconds, he reached over toward it with his mallet and thumped out the last, dramatic beats of the night.


Singleman Affair at the Hideout

Earlier this week, I reported about the Chicago band the Singleman Affair — led by Daniel Schneider — on WBEZ’s Eight Forty-Eight program. (Hear it here.) After seeing the Singleman Affair perform several times over the past few years, it’s a delight to hear the group’s second album, Silhouettes at Dawn, at long last. It’s a beautiful record, with orchestral flourishes fleshing out Schneider’s smartly composed and passionately performed folk rock. The Singleman Affair celebrated the release of this record, the band’s second, with a grand show Friday night (Feb. 11) at the Hideout, featuring an expanded, seven-piece lineup. Schneider looked lost in the music as he rocked out on his acoustic guitar, and the rest of the band was with him every step of the way.


The opening act Friday was also notable — singer-songwriter Angel Olsen, who’s been seen lately touring with Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Her band last night included another regular with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Emmett Kelly, on bass. Her gothic country-folk-rock songs sounded strong. Watch for a new Angel Olsen record next month.

Yo La Tengo does Seinfeld… plus some music

The current issue of the Chicago Reader includes photos I took at the highly unusual Yo La Tengo concert Feb. 4 at Metro in Chicago. The venerable indie-rock band, which somehow manages to continue attract young audiences even as its members get older, has been spinning a game-show-style wheel at the start of every show this tour, determining the theme of the concert’s first half. An audience member spun the wheel at Metro, and it landed on “Spinner’s Choice.” Much to the consternation of some crowd members, the guy picked “Sitcom Theater” instead of, say, a full set of music by side project Dump or songs that start with the letter “S.”

And so, what happened next was the members of Yo La Tengo and their roadies holding scripts onstage and reading the Chinese restaurant episode of “Seinfeld.” I found this to be pretty amusing. Ira Kaplan does a great Jerry Seinfeld. (Video.) If nothing else, it was a strange spectacle to behold. Some people in the audience clearly weren’t happy, however, and as the musicians neared the end of the script, some of them began clapping impatiently, demanding some music. The band took it all in stride, which made it seem even more like some perverse “irritate the audience” stunt of the sort Andy Kaufman might’ve pulled off.

Then came an intermission — which did go longer than necessary — and a regular Yo La Tengo concert, if there is such a thing. It was a wide-ranging set of old and recent songs, including everything from mellow folkie and jazzy ballads to loud rockers and experimental improvisation. Somehow, all of it sounds like Yo La Tengo.

The opening act was solo guitarist William Tyler, who has played in the past with Lambchop. He was quite impressive on acoustic and electric guitars, showing a mastery of quiet, delicate songs as well as stronger blasts of noise.

Best Records of 2010

myspace / artist website

From the opening notes to the very end, High Violet continually strikes that tricky balance that the National is known for — somehow sounding dazed and tense at the same time. The National has made some great records before, particularly 2007’s Boxer, but this one feels like an almost perfect distillation of its tightly wound, tamped-down anthems. Unsettling phobias run through the lyrics about ghosts, zombies, circus geeks and swarms of bees, but the majestic music feels more like a tonic to scare off the fear.

myspace /artist website / free mp3 of “I Don’t Get That”

San Francisco singer-songwriter and all-round musical genius Kelley Stoltz has made a string of top-notch records that hearken back to the golden era of the ’60s, playing most of the instruments himself. His latest record continues in that vein, but it leans more toward the Kinks and the Troggs, with the rawer sounds of ’60s garage rock. The compositions are still beautiful, with smart chord changes and guitar and bass lines that accomplish so much in a few simple turns, but it’s all a bit rougher around the edges. There’s one cover, a catchy take on an obscure 1965 British single, “Baby I’ve Got News For You,” by Big Boy Pete — and it’s a terrific match with Stoltz’s originals.

Click here to see Crawdaddy’s video of Stoltz playing an acoustic version of the same song.

label website / myspace / artist website

Will Oldham, who most often calls himself Bonnie “Prince” Billy these days, is one highly prolific singer-songwriter, with a complex, hard-to-track discography. He’s been on something of a roll with his last several recordings, and the latest is one of his best yet, a collaboration with the Cairo Gang, otherwise known as Emmett Kelly, a talented Chicago musician with a sensitive approach to playing the guitar. When the two of them play live together (something that really ought to be seen), you can feel how they’re feeding off one another. And that comes through on this strong set of 10 mostly acoustic songs. In a review earlier this year for Signal to Noise magazine, I wrote: Oldham has never sung better, gently catching all the subtle nuances of his melodies. His lyrics read like poetry on the page, but somehow even his archaic turns of phrase feel natural when he sings them. … Oldham dares to let his mind take him to places other songwriters avoid. On the last track, the elegiac “Kids,” he sings from the perspective of an aging man who’s afraid of moving, fearful of losing his ability to sing. If anything, Oldham sounds more fearless than ever. The two Bonnie “Prince” Billy shows I saw Chicago this fall were great, featuring Kelly and a full band. But this earlier, apparently unamplified duo concert by Oldhan and Kelly — captured on amateur video at Monster Island Basement in Brooklyn — looks even more amazing. The clip below begins in the middle of one song, “With Cornstalks or Among Them,” and continues with the song, “The Sounds Are Always Begging.”

label website / fan website

Arvo Pärt is one of the great living composers, and this year ECM released a recording of the first symphony he’s written in 37 years. The symphony is not really the form of music he’s known for, and this is not a typical symphony. Although Pärt has a full orchestra at his disposal — the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2009 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall — the symphony often sounds more like a piece of chamber music. It opens with serenity and stillness, like glimmers of light blinking in a night sky. But the same formulas that bind together the stars take on another, more menacing aspect as the symphony unravels over the course of three movements, arriving at a strangely tense and unresolved climax — unresolved except for the slight, almost passing resonance of a bell ringing at the very end. Like much of Pärt’s music, it feels mystical and soulful. (Here is a short essay I wrote about Pärt for a feature on classical music’s most inspiring people in the summer 2010 issue of Listen magazine.)

label website / myspace / buy at Bandcamp

The 1900s have been one of Chicago’s best bands over the past few years, and they emerged from some apparent turmoil with a slightly reconfigured lineup on this new record —sounding as strong as ever. The music isn’t quite as lushly orchestrated as it was on their superb 2007 album Cold and Kind, but the melodies are just as inventive, the words are great pop-song poetry, and the vocals by the trio of lead singers have never been so lovely. Another addictive collection of sweet songs with a bittersweet tinge.

myspace / label website / free mp3 of “Mermaid Parade”

Phosphorescent — which is essentially one guy, singer Matthew Houck, plus whatever musicians he assembles — has made good records in the past, but he/they seem to have found a new sense of purpose after doing a Willie Nelson tribute record in 2009. The result is the year’s best country record — or should we say alt-country? Country-rock? Forget all those labels. These are just great songs from top to bottom, with arrangements reminiscent of classic, old-time country and western.

label website /band website / myspace

No doubt, the Sadies are one of the most talented guitar bands you’ll ever see in concert. Using barely any effects pedals, they’ll show you how guitar, bass and drums are played by people who really, really know how to do it — but they also put that virtuosity to the service of the songs they’re playing, rather than simply showing off. And over their past few records, they’ve also matured into strong songwriters. The Sadies’ previous album, New Seasons, was my favorite of 2007. The new one ranks a notch below that one, but it’s a nearly unassailable bunch of tightly arranged roots-rock tunes, concluding with an incredible overture of sorts — the accurately named track “10 More Songs,” which crams a whole album’s worth of majestic guitar riffs into 4 minutes and 15 seconds.

myspace / label website / free mp3 of “King of Spain”

The Tallest Man on Earth — the stage name for Sweden’s Kristian Matsson — is a very traditional, acoustic-guitar-picking folk-rock singer-songwriter. It’s an old genre, but it’s far from exhausted, and Matsson is doing it as well as just about anyone right now. His dexterity on the guitar is impressive, and he’s surprisingly lively in concert, rarely standing still for more than a minute or two. But he’s mostly worth watching because of his gift for memorable melodies and words.

band website / myspace

It was hard not to wonder if the first Grinderman record would turn out to be a one-off stunt by Nick Cave. He recorded under a different name than usual, working with a subset of the musicians who play in his bigger band, the Bad Seeds, and the experience seemed to give him a jolt of electricity. It’s a good thing Cave reassembled Grinderman for a sophomore record, which is just as raging and raw as the first one, running over with black humor in the lyrics and an unstoppable power in the ragged blues-punk guitar riffs. This year, the middle-aged Cave showed the kids how to rock. (Warning: The first of the videos below, “Heathen Child,” is NSFW. It’s also insanely, wonderfully weird.)

artist website / myspace / video trailer

If only other young pop and R&B divas were as inventive and daring as Janelle Monáe. Her ambitious debut runs a wide gamut, from an orchestral introduction to bouncy dance music and elegant ballads, with a sci-fi theme running through the whole thing. She made her record the way she wanted to, and she had the director’s vision — and the powerful, nimble voice — required to pull it off.

AND THE NEXT 50 … in roughly descending order:
11. Kings Go Forth: The Outsiders Are Back (Luaka Bop)
12. LCD Soundsystem: This Is Happening (DFA/Virgin)
13. The Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (Merge)
14. She & Him: Vol. 2 (Merge)
15. Mavis Staples: You Are Not Alone (Anti-)
16. Nina Nastasia: Outlaster (Fat Cat)
17. Dios: We Are Dios (Buddyhead)
18. Sharon Van Etten: Epic (Ba Da Bing)
19. Tunng: …And Then We Saw Land (Thrill Jockey)
20. Best Coast: Crazy For You (Mexican Summer)
21. Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest (4AD)
22. Caribou: Swim (Merge)
23. Avi Buffalo: Avi Buffalo (Sub Pop)
24. Midlake: Courage of Others (Bella Union)
25. Kronos Quartet with Alim & Fargana Qasimov and Homayun Sakhi: Rainbow: Music of Central Asia Vol. 8 (Smithsonian Folkways)
26. Dr. Dog: Shame, Shame (Anti-)
27. Black Mountain: Wilderness Heart (Jagjaguwar)
28. A Broken Consort: Crow Autumn (Tompkins Square)
29. Laura Marling: I Speak Because I Can (Astralwerks)
30. The Vaselines: Sex With an Ex (Sub Pop)
31. Spoon: Transference (Merge)
32. The Black Angels: Phosphone Dream (Blue Horizon)
33. The Besnard Lakes: The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night (Jagjaguwar)
34. Owen Pallett: Heartland (Domino)
35. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra: Kollaps Tradixionales (Constellation)
36. Woods: At Echo Lake (Woodsist)
37. Cave: Pure Moods (Drag City)
38. Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings: I Learned the Hard Way (Daptone)
39. Justin Townes Earle: Harlem River Blues (Bloodshot)
40. The Fall: Your Future Our Clutter (Domino)
41. Laura Veirs: July Flame (Raven Marching Band)
42. White Hills: White Hills (Thrill Jockey)
43. The Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O.: In O to Infinity (Important)
44. Belle & Sebastian: Write About Love (Matador)
45. Charlotte Gainsbourg: IRM (Elektra/Asylum)
46. Clogs: The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton (Brassland)
47. Gil Scott-Heron: I’m New Here (XL)
48. Jónsi: Go (XL)
49. The Love Language: Libraries (Merge)
50. Barn Owl: Ancestral Star (Thrill Jockey)

And then there were, oh, about a hundred more records I heard from 2010 that I liked — if only I had more time to absorb them all.

Favorite photos of 2010 Part 2

































Favorite photos of 2010 Part 1


































August concerts

Concerts I’ve seen lately:

THE SWELL SEASON’s Glen Hansard and Marketa Iglova played five songs Aug. 12 at Lincoln Hall following a screening of the film that made them famous, Once, and a Q&A with Sound Opinions hosts Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis. What a delightful evening. (Of course, now I keep thinking about the tragic death of a fan that happened at a Swell Season concert in California a week later.)

LOST IN THE TREES played Aug. 16 at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion, part of the “Dusk Variations” series. A nice example of an indie folk-rock band making sophisticated use of chamber-music style strings.

MY MORNING JACKET played Aug. 17 at the Charter One Pavilion, which was my first visit to this concert venue on Northerly Island, where Meigs Field was until Mayor Daley ordered in the bulldozers. Charter One is basically a parking lot and bleachers set up in front of a big stage, with vendors selling tallboy cans of Bud for $11. ($11!!!) Not really my sort of venue, but I guess it served its purpose as a setting for My Morning Jacket’s arena rock. The band showed that it still knows how to rock out with a vengeance — at least when it’s playing its old songs. Luckily, the band played a lot from It Still Moves and Z, but I wish they’d played even older songs. The more recent songs are lackluster in comparison, although the band almost brought them to life on stage.

THE SADIES were scheduled to play two nights at Schubas, but the second night was cancelled, and the band ended up playing just one show, Aug. 20. It’s a shame that this terrific band hasn’t become more popular and moved up to bigger venues. On the other hand, it’s nice that Sadies fans can still enjoy seeing them up-close in an intimate venue like Schubas. The guitar licks were as awesome as they usually are, and it was great to hear the Sadies doing some songs from their excellent recent record, Darker Circles. They even did double duty, playing as the backing band for Jon Langford and Sally Timms during one of the opening sets. And they finished off the night with an encore medley of tunes originally played by Them in the ’60s: “Gloria,” “”I Can Only Give You Everything,” “Baby Please Don’t Go” and back to “Gloria.”

Sorry, no photos from these concerts, but my camera will be back in action very soon.

Phosphorescent at the Empty Bottle

The night before Lollapalooza (Aug. 5), Phosphorescent played an excellent set at the Empty Bottle — almost as good as anything I saw during the three days of Lollapalooza that followed. Phosphorescent’s recent album, Here’s to Taking It Easy, is one of the year’s best so far. The band (which started out as an essentially solo project by singer-songwriter Matthew Houck) played an odd, atmospheric variation of alt-country on its first two albums. The meandering quality of those records disappeared when Phosphorescent released a Willie Nelson tribute album in 2009, For Willie, and now that tighter focus carries on with Houck’s new batch of original songs.

The live show delivered the same smart mix of lush cosmopolitan country and ragged roots rock, with Houck’s voice sounding delightfully creaky. During the encore, Houck played a few acoustic solo songs, then the band came back for a soaring version of “Los Angeles” and one final blast of raucous rock.

The evening started out with a strong set by Chicago band Ceiling Stars, who earthy rock proved to be a good fit with Phosphorescent. In between those bands, noteworthy singer-songwriter J. Tillman, who has released seven albums in the past five years including the new Singing Ax, played a solo acoustic set. His songs sounded great — assuming you could actually concentrate on hearing them above the din of people talking over at the bar. Tillman tried not to complain too much, but he seemed a bit unnerved, saying, “This is brutal.” (Kim Bellware of Chicagoist also reported on this.) On a few occasions, the Empty Bottle has succeeded in presenting a performance of quiet music without the annoyance of bar chatter, but more often than not, acoustic shows are a bad fit with this venue.


Lollapalooza Wrap-Up

Last year, I skipped Lollapalooza. It was the first time I’d missed Lolla since it changed in 2005 from a touring festival to an annual Chicago event. My main reason: I simply wasn’t that excited about the musical lineup. I wasn’t thrilled about everything on this year’s schedule, either — with a reasonably diverse list of 150 musical acts, who could be? But this year, Lollapalooza definitely had enough quality bands to hold just about rock fan’s interest for most of the weekend. And the inclusion of the Arcade Fire as one of the headliners clinched it for me. There was no way I was going to miss this.

Overall, Lollapalooza 2010 turned out to be a pretty good time. I saw several great sets, several good sets and some mediocrity. There were a few moments of feeling trapped inside crowds, getting rained on and stepping in mud, but for the most part, it was a pleasant experience. The addition of Columbus Drive as a pedestrian thoroughfare did make it easier to get around the festival grounds.

I reviewed Lollapalooza for Pioneer Press, including an overview of the festival and the headliners. And I also blogged here with some thoughts inspired by the Arcade Fire’s closing set on Sunday.

As always, it was impossible to see everything I wanted to see. So, yeah, I missed Devo, Spoon, Rogue Wave, Gogol Bordello, Warpaint, Nneka and major chunks of the shows by MGMT, the Drive-By Truckers and Social Distortion, to name just a few. During Friday night’s headline sets, I caught the first several songs by the Strokes (who sounded pretty tight) before heading to the other end of the park for the last part of Lady Gaga’s overblown, screechy spectacle.

I also dashed back and forth Saturday night. I began with Green Day setting off fireworks, and then I went north and watched most of the show by Phoenix, and then I went back to see Green Day set off more fireworks. By that point, the show had devolved into an oldies medley with “Satisfaction,” “Hey Jude” and “Shout.” What was this, a rock concert or a wedding? And Phoenix still hasn’t won me over yet, either. When I was in the photo pit for the first three Phoenix songs, the band’s energy impressed me, but I just don’t find the tunes all that interesting.

On Sunday night, I tried to stay in one place. While I would have liked to see at least part of the Soundgarden show, I didn’t want to miss a moment of the Arcade Fire. And I also wanted to see the National, who were playing just before the Arcade Fire on that end of the park. Alas, after catching the first half of a fairly strong set by the National (with a guest appearance by Richard Reed Parry of the Arcade Fire), I found myself standing across the field, waiting to photograph the Arcade Fire and trying to hear as much of the National as I could. Not an ideal way to experience the show. It sounded like the National finally broke out of their low brooding mood later on during the set.

Other highlights of the festival included Mavis Staples’ set on Friday. She and her backup vocalists began with some a cappella gospel, lifting their beautiful voices into the summer-afternoon air and singing, “I Am His and He Is Mine.” Later in the set, Staples introduced guest guitarist Jeff Tweedy “of the Wilco band,” who produced Staples’ forthcoming album, You Are Not Alone. He also wrote the title song, which sounded lovely in concert, bringing together Tweedy’s folk rock with Staples’ soulful vocals.

Another great set came Friday evening, when reggae legend Jimmy Cliff made a rare appearance. Cliff was considerably more exuberant and energetic than I’d expected for a performer who’s 62. He danced across the stage with a light and joyful step, even doing a few karate kicks. His voice had a weathered but strong quality as he played classic songs including “The Harder They Come,” “Sitting in Limbo,” “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Many Rivers to Cross” and covers of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” and Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now.” A good vibe was in the air, as the crowd clapped along. PHOTOS OF JIMMY CLIFF.

I was not prepared for the outlandish experience of seeing Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. Having listened to the band’s record, somehow I expected a much more staid concert of the singer-songwriter variety. I didn’t realize Sharpe and his band have a fervent cult following — or that Sharpe likes to get right out into the crowd. The show had the feeling of a hippie circus, and some fans even climbed up into the trees.

The XX were a little pale and restrained, looking and sounding as if they didn’t really belong outdoors under bright summer sunlight. But they drew a big crowd with their cold, minimalist tunes, and the sound was cool indeed.

I wish I’d heard more garage rock at Lollapalooza, though the genre isn’t really well-suited to concerts on big stages where the crowd is so far away from the band. The Soft Pack were my favorite out of the scrappy young garage and punk bands that I saw, and I also enjoyed Wavves and Harlem.

Stars were as emotional and appealing as ever (even if their most recent songs aren’t as memorable as the early ones). Meanwhile, the New Pornographers did what they always do well: play one upbeat, catchy power-pop song after another. Neko Case of the New Pornographers later showed up on guest vocals with the Dodos, who played an intriguing combination of acoustic blues with more angular rock.

Metric’s Emily Haines seemed unstoppable as she sang and danced. I haven’t listened much to Metric’s records (and haven’t been that thrilled with what I’ve heard), but I can’t deny they put on a good live show.

The Antlers sounded magnificent and epic when they played songs from 2009’s Hospice, but the band’s other songs were less dramatic.

Dirty Projectors were the only band I heard talking about fonts during their stage banter. Their odd guitar lines and stunningly precise vocal harmonies created a sound that’s complex without being too off-putting.

Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison seemed to be pouring everything he had into his emotional performance.

It was raining during the set by British singer Frank Turner, but the damp weather didn’t diminish the strength of his forcefully delivered acoustic rock.

Other bands I liked: Social Distortion, Skybox, Mumford & Sons, the Black Keys, the Big Pink, the Walkmen, the Morning Benders and Grizzly Bear. MGMT sounded great when they played their cool new song “Brian Eno,” but I’m still not thrilled with the more popular music from their first album.

Despite the praise and hype that’s been heaped on them in England — and despite the presence of ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr — the Cribs were pretty dull.

And I don’t understand all the excitement about X Japan, which is just a Japanese version of Western hair-metal music. Other hard-rock bands from Japan, such as Boris, are far superior. But it was interesting to see X Japan’s fans gathered along the barricade, clasping red-haired dolls. As at many other Lollapalooza sets, it was the fans who made the show.









Lollapalooza: Music Divides Us

Music unites us? So I said yesterday in my post about the Arcade Fire’s Lollapalooza show. But music sometimes has the opposite effect, as the Arcade Fire points out in the lyrics of “Suburban War” — “Now the music divides us into tribes/You choose your side, I’ll choose my side.”

The various musical tribes seemed like they were at war during Lollapalooza. A war of words, anyway. On Friday night, as Lady Gaga played at the south end of the park, I saw a couple of young guys running north into the field where an audience had gathered to hear the Strokes. “Fuck Lady Gaga!” they shouted, emphasizing their proclamation with a gesture of simulated jacking-off.

Not long after that, when I was standing in the photo pit in front of the Budweiser stage, waiting for the Strokes to start playing, some of the fans chanted the same phrase for a minute: “Fuck Lady Gaga!” And from what I hear, people also chanted the same thing at a Friday-night set by 2ManyDJs.

On Saturday, while Green Day and Phoenix played on the two main stages, fans watching the Empire of the Sun on a smaller stage reportedly chanted, “Fuck Green Day!” The hostility carried over onto the Internet, where some Soundgarden fans derided Arcade Fire fans as hipsters who like “crap music.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with expressing your opinions about what music you like or don’t like. It’s all part of a great freewheeling debate. But it quickly becomes tiresome when the debate devolves into insults about the fans in rival musical tribes. Those tribes aren’t defined as narrowly as you might think. Believe it or not, there are at least a few people out there who like both Lady Gaga and the Strokes.

Lollapalooza Photos: Day Two

Photos from Day Two of Lollapalooza 2010, Aug. 7, 2010, at Grant Park in Chicago, including: The Kissaway Trail, The Morning Benders, The Soft Pack, Skybox, Harlem, Dragonette, Stars, The XX, Grizzly Bear, Metic, Social Distortion, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, Green Day and Phoenix.

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Cap’n Jazz and Mission of Burma

This past weekend’s Wicker Park Festival had a pretty strong lineup on both days. I was there for the two final sets on the north stage Saturday night: Mission of Burma followed by Cap’n Jazz.

The two bands have something in common. Both labored in obscurity when they were originally together. And both are more famous now that they’ve reunited. Well, “famous” is a relative term here, but at least they’re getting more recognition now, long after original hey day.

In Michael Azerrad’s terrific book about underground rock bands of the 1980s, Our Band Could Be Your Life, he describes Mission of Burma touring the country and playing in front of barely anyone. Reunited now since 2002, Mission of Burma at least draws a decent-sized crowd.

The aging punks sounded fierce and alive as they played Saturday on Milwaukee Avenue. The kids in the crowd started moshing, slamming up against one another, as Mission of Burma ran through some of its best-known old tunes in the final part of the set: “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” “This Is Not a Photograph” and “Red.”


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Cap’n Jazz apparently had a pretty good local following back in the early 1990s, but I for one heard nothing about them until years later. Here I was, a journalist at a suburban newspaper trying to stay on top of such things, and somehow it escaped my attention that some young guys from Wheeling were making all this noise. This was not the sort of band that sent out press releases to the local paper. Some now point to Cap’n Jazz as one of the groups that influenced all those later “emo” bands. I finally heard about Cap’n Jazz when its lead singer, Tim Kinsella, went on to perform in a series of other, and usually artsier, stranger bands, including Joan of Arc. (For more background, read Jessica Hopper’s interview with Tim Kinsella for the Chicago Reader.)

Reunited, apparently for just a brief tour, Cap’n Jazz is drawing sell-out crowds at clubs. They even landed on the front page of The New York Times’ Arts section.

Saturday night, the fans were rabid with excitement as Kinsella and company thrashed through their songs. “Just to be clear, these songs were written 15 or 17 years ago,” Kinsella remarked at one point. When a fan apparently said something encouraging Kinsella not to go away again, he said, “It’s not like I’ve been hiding, man … If you’d gone to a Joan of Arc show, there’d have been 30 people there.”

Kinsella threw himself out on the crowd a number of times. As the show reached its climax, maybe or dozen or so audience members climbed up onto the stage and dived back into the crowd. With a minute left before the end, security guards finally showed up to see what was going on.


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Johnny & Limelites Bid Bye-Bye

Lincoln Square record shop Laurie’s Planet of Sound has been hosting in-store performances on Thursday evenings in July, and the one last night (July 22) was both fun and bittersweet. Bittersweet because it was the farewell performance by the scrappy garage-rock band Johnny and the Limelites. However, it’s pretty obvious that we haven’t heard the last from Limelites frontman Brian Costello — the guy seems to be everywhere, and he even played bass Thursday in one of the other two bands in the lineup, Brian’s Dirty Business.

In between, yet another bunch of local garage rockers, Mickey, played a short set. All three bands were loud and energetic — their wildness restrained only a little bit by the small space where they were playing. At the end of the night, Costello led a conga line across the street to Ricochets Tavern.

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The next in-store show at Laurie’s will be Steve Dawson at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, July 29.

Pitchfork: A few thoughts

Survived another Pitchfork. Three days of indie rock and a few assorted other things under the hot sun in Union Park. Running back and forth between photo pits, darting through throngs of sweaty music fans sprawled out on blankets or bouncing up and down. Trying to hear a little bit of everything and missing a little bit of almost every show.

I’m writing a full review of Pitchfork for the fall issue of Signal to Noise magazine — imagine that, a review you have to wait to see in print. So I’m not going to post everything I have to say about the festival here. But here are a few thoughts. Make that: dashed-off thoughts.

Overall, it was a pretty good festival with several strong sets, but also a number of tepid musical performances. For me the high points included the Saturday headlining set by LCD Soundsystem and Sunday’s festival-closing greatest-hits reunion show by Pavement. The latter was a pure nostalgia trip, but a new generation of Pavement fans deserved a chance to see the band playing these songs, and the group delivered.

Lightning Bolt was an amazing jolt of energy in the middle of the afternoon Sunday, an almost nonstop assault. The rhythms were so strong that it seemed to win over even people who might not normally go in for such noisy music.

St. Vincent was as brilliant as ever. Broken Social Scene once again proved why I like them better in concert than I do on record. Cave played a terrific set of its Krautrock-influenced tunes, showing they’re one local band that definitely deserved a spot in this festival.

Titus Andronicus was another one of my favorite parts of the weekend, with a raging sense of passion. I also enjoyed: Wolf Parade, the Tallest Man on Earth, Sharon Van Etten, Liars, Netherfriends, Sonny & the Sunsets, Kurt Vile, Smith Westerns, Alla, Girls and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

Sleigh Bells were highly entertaining for the two songs that I was able to see before rushing over to the Pavement photo-pit line. (And getting pictures of Sleigh Bells and Pavement was why I barely saw any of Big Boi’s show, though other photogs managed to pull off that hat trick.)

Real Estate was so-so, showing the most potential in its instrumental passages. Best Coast sounded good for a couple of songs, but needed to vary its sound. Local Natives showed good energy, but that didn’t elevate their somewhat bland songs. Beach House’s songs were pretty but lethargic.

I like Here We Go Magic’s records, but didn’t get a chance to hear much of their live set. The same goes for Cass McCombs.

Panda Bear seemed to bore and/or annoy just about everyone. I’m sure some Panda Bear fans would disagree, but they were in the small minority inside Union Park. He was also boring to watch. The photographers had permission to stay in the pit for three songs, but some started leaving before the first song was over, when it became clear Panda Bear was barely animated.

Another bore was Modest Mouse, Friday’s headliner. I’ve never been a big fan, and the band once again failed to win me over, sticking with the same tired sound for song after song.

As I’ve confessed in the past, I’m not the best judge of hip-hop, so it’s hard for me to say how true fans would rate the sets by El-P, Raekwon and Big Boi.

The same goes for a lot of electronic dance and pop. Major Lazer certainly got the park dancing with its antics and that insistent beat, so that seems like something of an accomplishment.

Robyn was entertaining to watch, and her pop songs were a pleasant enough way to pass an hour. Other dance bands at the festival, Delorean and Neon Indian, excited a lot of folks but didn’t strike me as all that inventive. LCD Soundsystem trumped them all with songs that were both smart and fun.

Photos: Thermals, Hum, Caribou and more

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.

Black Mountain at Lincoln Hall

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.

Watch a video of the new Black Mountain song “Old Fangs.” Or download a free mp3 of the song here.

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.”

See my photos of Black Mountain and David Vandervelde at Lincoln Hall.

Recent concert round-up

I’ve fallen behind on reports from recent concerts, so here’s a quick round-up of some shows I caught last week.

JUNE 21: THE GREAT SOCIETY MIND DESTROYERS headlined an evening of psychedelic and experimental music at the Viaduct Theater. I’ve been digging the dark-psych sounds of this Chicago band on myspace (www.myspace.com/thegsmd) and was glad to see a live performance after missing several other recent gigs. I heard some outlandish jams. Only problem was the gig could have gone on for another song or two and I would have been even happier. Catch them July 10 at Schubas.

The Viaduct show also featured noisy rock by The N.E.C. and Leavitt/Ours, as well as a friend of mine, Cinchel, who started off the evening with guitar and laptop sounds that slowly built on one another, like a mountain range of tones.

See my photos of the Great Society Mind Destroyers, the N.E.C., Leavitt/Ours and Cinchel.

JUNE 22: DM STITH has been entrancing me with his music since I belatedly discovered his 2009 album Heavy Ghost. He played an intimate and engaging solo acoustic gig June 22 at the Andrew Rafacz Gallery on Washington Avenue. This was a nice little space for this sort of quiet show, which was booked by the folks from the Empty Bottle. Stith sang several songs from Heavy Ghost, as well as at least one new song and a Sparklehorse cover — a touching tribute to the late Mark Linkous. Stith kept his eyes closed almost the entire time he sang, as if squeezing out the emotion in his falsetto vocals. One of the opening bands, Inlets, played with him for a couple of songs. I wish there had been a piano in the room, since some of Stith’s best songs feature piano juxtaposed with layers of his haunting vocals. http://asthmatickitty.com/dm-stith

The evening also featured a hushed set of Scandinavian folk-rock by Silje Nes, including some very creative and subtle percussion.

See my photos of DM Stith, Inlets and Silje Nes.

JUNE 24: OMAR SULEYMAN, a Syrian singer, made his first Chicago appearance ever with a free concert at the SummerDance program in Grant Park — yet another fine example of the wonderful music you can see in Chicago for free. Accompanied by just his keyboard player, who made some delightful beats and snaky synth melodies, Suleyman confidentally strode the stage, clapping his bands to encourage dancing. (The audience didn’t actually need that much encouraging.) Suleyman’s nimble vocals were enchanting.

JUNE 24: QUINTRON & MISS PUSSYCAT were playing that same night at the Empty Bottle, but truth be told, I mostly went to see the two opening acts. Chicago’s Cave has an excellent new EP, Pure Moods of cool Krautrock-style jams. Cave sounded great live, too. The second band was Eddy Current Suppression Ring, a rambunctious garage/punk band from Down Under, who got the crowd bouncing. Then came an absurd puppet show to start off the set by Quintron, involving cats and pizza. It’s hard to say what exactly the point was, but it was certainly amusing. As for the music that followed — well, I’m not that familiar with Quintron, and I have to say I didn’t really “get” it. The mosh pit loved it, though.

More photos coming soon…

Superchunk Jumps Back to Life


Until Sunday’s show at the Taste of Randolph Street, it had been a long time since I’d seen Superchunk. I’d seen the band only once before — on Nov. 8, 1991, when the still-young group from Chapel Hill, N.C., opened for the Mekons at Cabaret Metro in Chicago. Don’t ask me for details about that show. I remember barely anything about that performance by Superchunk other than the fact that I liked it. Ah, if only I had been blogging then — maybe I would have jotted down at least a few thoughts about it.

In the 19 years since that show, Superchunk built a loyal if small following of fans with its fuzz-drenched guitar and bright pop melodies. Lead singer and guitarist Mac McCaughan also formed the band Portastatic — and he started a record label that would become one of the most successful in the indie-rock world, Merge. Superchunk has apparently been on hiatus at times, but the group’s back, with a new album, Majesty Shredding, scheduled to come out in September.

On Sunday (June 20), Superchunk came to play in Chicago for the first time in some years, headlining at the Taste of Randolph Street Festival. The band played with the spirit and energy of musicians half their age. McCaughan was especially exuberant, bouncing up and down almost all night long. Mac likes to jump as he plays guitar, and he never seemed to tire from the gymnastics. Bassist Laura Ballance shook her hair and bounced a fair amount, too, and everyone — including drummer Jon Wurster and guitarist Jim Wilbur — was smiling.

It was the sort of music that made you feel like smiling and/or jumping. In addition to a few songs from the new record such as “Learned to Surf,” Superchunk played most of the “hits” that longtime fans probably wanted to hear: “Slack Motherfucker,” “Hyper Enough,” “Hello Hawk,” “Skip Steps One and Three, ” Art Class,” “Like a Fool,” “Low Branches,” “Iron On,” “Water Wings,” “Driveway to Driveway” and “The First Part.” (If anyone has a complete set list, feel free to post it in comments.) It all sounded quite glorious.
See a video of Superchunk working on the new album.
See a video of Superchunk in concert at the 2009 Merge 20th anniversary celebration.

Also on Sunday at Taste of Randolph, I saw a similarly buoyant performance by another band on the Merge label, The Love Language. Can’t wait to hear their new album, which comes out in July. www.myspace.com/thelovelanguage … And Chicago’s Califone played as well — without nearly as much jumping. Of course, that’s not what Califone is all about, and the band delivered a strong set of the gritty, atmospheric folk rock that it’s known for. www.myspace.com/califonemusic

See my photos of Superchunk, the Love Language and Califone at the Taste of Randolph Street.

Tony Allen brings Afro-Beat to Chicago


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.

See my photos of Tony Allen and Great Lake Swimmers.

Junip at Lincoln Hall


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.

See my photos of Junip and Sonoi at Lincoln Hall.

Yakuza at the Beat Kitchen


Yakuza is a little unusual for a heavy-metal band — if that’s what you can call it. Lead singer Bruce Lamont also plays sax, an instrument you don’t hear often in metal. It works because Lamont is playing some pretty avant-garde, noisy stuff on that sax. On Saturday night, Yakuza played a show at the Beat Kitchen to celebrate the release of its new CD, Of Seismic Consequence.

If that saxophone wasn’t enough to convince you that this music is maybe a little more prog than your typical metal, there was also the presence of guest cellist Alison Chesley (a.k.a. Helen Money) on several songs, while Kelly Lamont sang harmony vocals. But Bruce Lamont and some of his bandmates (Matt McClelland and Ivan Cruz) also flung their hair around, with all of the abandon of real headbangers. The one exception was drummer James Staffell, who simply doesn’t have the long locks to fling.

Lamont (who also plays the part of Robert Plant in the tribute band Led Zeppelin II and tends bar at the Empty Bottle) seemed to be possessed at moments, staring intently at his microphone as he sang in a range of styles stretching beyond standard “Cookie Monster” growls. He never let up on the intensity, however. It was an epic performance by Yakuza.

See my photos of Yakuza in concert.

Here’s a promotional video trailer for the new Yakuza album, which comes out June 22 on Profound Lore Records, featuring the band members talking about the album.


Do-Division Street Fest


This past weekend, Chicago’s season of street festivals got into full swing, with Do-Division. All summer long, neighborhoods around Chicago host these fests with all of the stuff you’d expect — restaurant booths, vendors selling crafts and, of course, live music. The caliber of music booked at these festivals is pretty good and sometimes great, so it pays to check out the schedules. You can see some really cool bands playing a wide variety of music for that suggested festival admission, usually .

Do-Division had two stages, one booked by the Empty Bottle and one by Subterranean, so you knew there was going to be a heavy emphasis on indie rock. I caught a few sets on Saturday and Sunday, in between the occasional downpours and technical difficulties. (The generator went out for a while on the Damen Avenue stage Saturday.)

For me, the highlight was Warpaint, an all-female rock band from Los Angeles that played Sunday afternoon. The group’s 2009 CD Exquisite Corpse is pretty good (at least, that’s my judgment after having heard it a couple of times), but Warpaint really came alive onstage, with some very percussive riffing. Reminded me a bit of another all-female West Coast band I saw recently, Explode Into Colors.

I also highly enjoyed the lively Saturday-afternoon set by local garage rockers CoCoComa. But what’s the deal with starting your set 10 minutes early, guys? Good thing I got there just in the nick of time.

On Saturday evening, I ducked out of the fest for a while when the power wasn’t working — seemingly fritzed out by the overpoweringly abrasive humor of standup comic Neil Hamburger. While I was gone, Headlights finally began playing their delayed set. I returned just as they were finishing, unfortunately. But I did catch what came next, which was Pelican playing its heavy instrumental rock. Pelican’s fans raised their hands in the air to the head-banging beat. But you know, after a while, all of those Pelican songs start sounding the same to me.

Over the weekend, I also caught parts of the shows by Vacations and Soft Speaker, though not enough to form much of an opinion on either band. It was nice to see Jeanine O’Toole of the 1900s doing some guest vocals with Vacations.

See my photos from the Do-Division Street Fest, including CoCoComa, Vacations, Neil Hamburger, Pelican, Warpaint and Soft Speaker.

She and Him at Millennium Park


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.

See my photos of She and Him and Hollows.

Andre Williams and Dirty Diamonds

The current issue of the Chicago Reader (the June 4, 2010, edition) has my photos of Andre Williams and Dirty Diamonds playing May 29 at Schubas on the Photo Pit page.

I’ve posted additional pictures from the concert here on my blog

It was a fun show, with Williams in good form, singing his raunchy blues-soul songs. My only complaint was that I wish he’d played more music off his new CD, the Bloodshot release That’s All I Need.

Local group the Dirty Diamond got the show off to a good start, with a fun mash-up of Girl Group vocals, a bit of soul and dance, laptop percussion and electric guitars. The group was missing one of its three regular singers, but the performance still came off well. www.myspace.com/pumpthedirtydiamonds

Hum at Millennium Park


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.

See my photos of Hum at Millennium Park.

Saki Opens With Live Music


Chicago has new record stores! What a nice development to happen in 2010, just when it seemed like everyone was predicting the demise of the record store. It seems to me that Chicago has enough music fans to support at least a niche market of these shops, and it’s nice to see some new ones on the scene.

Saki opened Memorial Day weekend at 3716 W. Fullerton in Logan Square, run by the same folks who own Carrot Top Distribution. Saki has received a good amount of press coverage, including a short report I did for the Crain’s Chicago Business blog, another piece in Crain’s, Miles Raymer’s column in the Chicago Reader and an interview with Alison Cuddy on WBEZ’s Eight Forty-Eight show, among other stuff.

I stopped by Saki Saturday and took a look around. It surprisingly lacked the usual record-store sense of clutter. (Maybe that will come later.) The choice of CDs and LPs seemed to be pretty good on first glance. It looks like they’re aiming to offer an interesting selection rather than attempt a comprehensive inventory. My one purchase for the day was a pretty cool find: A self-published book of sheet music by the Handsome Family, which looks like a hymnal.

Saki had an impressive schedule of live music and DJs over the weekend, and it could turn out to be a great space for that sort of event. Steve Krakow a.k.a. Plastic Crimewave Sound was DJ’ing when I walked in, and the store also happened to have a bunch of his art for sale. Then I caught a live set by Chicago rock duo Love of Everything, who were charming if a little ramshackle. Is the disconnected quality of the guitar and drums an affectation and style, or is the band still learning? In any case, it was fairly fun.

Saki’s events continue this coming weekend, with Astronomer playing at 6 p.m. Saturday, June 5, and Jonboy Langford playing at 4 p.m. Sunday, June 6.

And this Friday, another Logan Square record store is scheduled to open, as Miles Raymer reported: Bucket o’ Blood Books and Records, 2307 N. Milwaukee.

See my photos of Love of Everything at Saki.

The Tallest Man on Earth at Lincoln Hall


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.

See my photos of the Tallest Man on Earth.

Thee Silver Mt. Zion at Schubas

Epic. That’s the word I keep coming back to whenever I describe the music of Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra. It’s not simply that this Montréal band’s songs tend to be 10 or 15 minutes long. And it’s not simply that the band uses its violins, upright bass and guitar to make dramatic sounds resembling an orchestra at full blast. There’s also the heightened emotion and sense of impending apocalypse in the vocals of Efrim Menuck. And his lyrics, which sprawl on for page after page, with so many memorable turns of phrase. Everything about it is epic.

Does that mean it’s pretentious, too? I suppose it can be taken that way, but there’s always been a fine line between beautifully epic music and pretentiously overwrought music, and of course, different fans draw that line in different places. As much as I enjoy songwriters who keep things simple and subtle, I also love a band that’s bold and ambitious, and Thee Silver Mt. Zion certainly qualifies for those adjectives.

The group came to Chicago last week for two nights of music. I did not see the first night at Lincoln Hall, but I went to the May 27 show at Schubas. The last time Thee Silver Mt. Zion played in Chicago, a couple of years ago at Logan Square Auditorium, some inebriated folks at the back of the room repeatedly disturbed the concert by yelling out inane comments. That might be what Menuck was referring to last week when he said, “We’ve had an antagonistic relationship to your city in the past.” In any case, Menuck said he was appreciative of the warmer reception his band got this time. (And, hey, that was just one group of idiots shouting last time, not the whole city.)

What made this show rather unusual was the sheer quantity of talking in between the songs. Menuck has been taking audience questions on this tour, and he repeatedly asked the crowd what they wanted to know. The questions ranged from absurd jokes to serious inquiries about the group’s creative process, and Menuck’s replies ranged from his fashion advice (“I don’t think you should be allowed to wear a baseball cap after the age of 22 years”) to a rant about BP’s oil spill. These back-and-forth chats with the crowd were interesting and entertaining at first, but after a while, they got old, stretching out the pauses in between songs to the point of tedium.

The music, on the other hand, was magnificent and enthralling throughout the set. Thee Silver Mt. Zion played a bit of its older music, but the focus was on its two most recent albums. 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons was my favorite record of 2008, and the band’s new record, Kollaps Tradixionales, is shaping up as one of 2010’s best. The group has had a larger lineup in the past, but the five-piece version touring now still makes a big sound, with two violins up at the front of the stage, while guitar, drums and bass are arrayed behind the string players. While most rock bands using strings go for a light orchestral-pop sound, Thee Silver Mt. Zion uses the tools of classical music to make songs that resemble the sharper-edged tones of orchestral thunder.

And now… I eagerly wait to find out the details of the upcoming tour by the older band featuring Menuck and some members of Thee Silver Mt. Zion, the legendary God Speed! You Black Emperor. That band’s web site, http://www.1119732.net (with a URL that I suspect is a reference to the 1914 U.S. Patent number for Nikola Tesla’s Apparatus for Transmitting Electrical Energy), says GSYBE will be playing in “9 American towns.” I’m hoping one will be Chicago, or at least a town nearby.

The May 27 show at Schubas featured Chicago’s Sadhu Sadhu as opening act. This was the first time I’d heard Sadhu Sadhu, and I was pretty darn impressed. The group plays long, jammy, dark, psychedelic rock with hypnotic bass lines and lots of guitar solos.

See my photos of Thee Silver Mt. Zion and Sadhu Sadhu.

Besnard Lakes and Ponys open Millennium season


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.

See my photos of the Besnard Lakes and the Ponys.

Mono and the Twilight Sad

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.

See my photos of Mono and the Twilight Sad.

Patrick Watson at Schubas

Montréal singer-songwriter Patrick Watson has been making records for several years now, including the wonderful 2009 album Wooden Arms, but he hadn’t played in Chicago until Monday night (May 17), when he finally visited our city with a gig at Schubas.

His talent on the piano was evident even before the show started, when Watson came onto the stage for a brief sound check and ran his fingers quickly up the keys of an upright piano with a virtuosic flourish. Watson spent most of the show sitting at the piano, occasionally moving to the standup microphone at the middle of the stage.

The lighting cast dark shadows as Watson and his backup band, the Wooden Arms, played a delightful set of songs with the sort of complexity and subtlety that you also hear in the compositions of Andrew Bird or Radiohead. His voice was often up in tenor range, and Watson showed a sophisticated appreciation for old-fashioned songwriting craft. But there were also several moments when the music rocked, complete with loud guitar solos.

For the encore, Watson donned a special megaphone suit — looking more like something from the movie Brazil than anything James Bond would be caught dead wearing — which allowed him to sing out in the middle of the nightclub floor without using the P.A. system. (I was not able to get a photo of this, but here’s a picture by another Chicago music blogger, Baby Stew.) And then, setting aside the suit, Watson pulled off a rather remarkable song that began with him singing unamplified out in the audience and leading the crowd in one of the best concert sing-alongs I’ve ever experienced. Was everyone in particularly good voice, or was the music simply inspiring? Then came some drumming from the stage. Watson and the rest of his musicians made their way back onto the stage as the song continued, transforming from campfire sing-along into exquisitely orchestrated art-pop.

What an excellent show. Now, Mr. Watson, please don’t take so long before you make a return visit to Chicago.


Seemy photos of Patrick Watson and opening act McKensie Toma.

Condo Dream Day at Hideout

Eleventh Dream Day’s residency at the Hideout continued Sunday night (May 16) with the month’s most notable opening act, Condo Fucks — which is actually an alias or alter ego of indie-rock legends Yo La Tengo. As the Matador Records website explains: “Many years ago, in a town called New London, in Connecticut, one band reigned supreme. Condo Fucks. … Georgia Condo. Kid Condo. James McNew.” Well, that’s not really much of an explanation, but this essentially seems to be an outlet for the three members of Yo La Tengo to play some loud, crunchy guitar chords as they cover a bunch of their favorite songs.

Condo Fucks released an album in March called Fuckbook (a nod to Yo La Tengo’s covers collection Fakebook). No tour has been announced, but the band did a special one-off gig opening for their old pals in Eleventh Dream Day. The press release on the Matador page is headlined: “Condo Fucks in Rare Chicago Appearance Shocker.”

This gig was Yo La Tengo in loud, garage-rock mode for the duration, with Ira Kaplan hunched over his guitar much of the night. Ira switched off on vocals with McNew (who was playing a baritone guitar as if it were a bass) and Georgia Kaplan. I have the complete set list, though I’m not sure about the origins of all these tunes. Help, anyone? [UPDATED 5/18/2010: Thanks to those who commented with info on the original artists. Still not sure about “Get Down.”]

“2120 South Michigan Avenue” (The Rolling Stones)
“Come On Up” (The Rascals)
“With a Girl Like You” (The Troggs)
“Accident” (The Electric Eels)
“Last Time Around” (The Del-Vettes)
“The Kid With the Replaceable Head” (Richard Hell)
“I’m Your Man” (Richard Hell)
“This Is Where I Belong” (The Kinks)
“What’cha Gonna Do About It” (The Small Faces)
“Frenzy” (The Fugs)
“Get Down”
“Dog Meat” (Flamin Groovies)
“Tiger In Your Tank” (Muddy Waters)
“Liz Beth” (Eleventh Dream Day)

Eleventh Dream Day took the stage next, playing a lot of its new songs again, but with more ferocious guitar solos from Rick Rizzo than two weeks ago. The band also played “The Arsonist” (digging all the way back to its 1987 self-titled debut for that one), one of its best-known songs, “Testify” (from the 1989 album Beet) and one of the standout tracks from its most recent record, “Lately I’ve Been Thinking” (from 2006’s Zeroes and Ones).

Ira Kaplan of Condo Fucks/Yo La Tengo came back onstage at the end of the night, joining Eleventh Dream Day for a cover of the Dream Syndicate’s “Halloween.” And then for the encore, the two bands merged together for an epic version of the Velvet Underground’s “Ocean,” extending the last part of the song into a long jam with the chorus, “Here comes the waves!” echoing through the noise.

See my photos of Condo Fucks and Eleventh Dream Day.

Tutu and Da at the Empty Bottle

The documentary film You Weren’t There is a fascinating and entertaining look at Chicago’s early punk-rock scene — a scene that most people barely even noticed or knew about in the late ’70s. Two of those neglected Chicago punk bands have new records out, collecting old recordings that barely came out in the first place.

Tutu & the Pirates and Da reunited for a show celebrating those records May 8 at the Empty Bottle. Tutu is one group that definitely doesn’t look like what you’d expect from punk stereotypes. These guys dressed up in goofy costumes, including a big Indian chief headdress, a police uniform and a hard hat. They dressed up like back in the ’70s, and they did it again on Saturday. The effect was something like seeing a jokey Village People act cranking through fast punk songs. A little odd, to say the least. The group was a little too heavy on the shtick for my tastes, but the songs still sounded pretty solid with shout-along choruses (if you actually knew the words to shout along with). The show dragged a bit, thanks to all the in-between-song joking around, but you had to cut these guys some slack. They haven’t played much lately other than a few reunion gigs. The set featured all three of the various drummers who played with Tutu & the Pirates, culminating with Tutu himself, the original drummer who hadn’t played with the band in ages. Wearing a war helmet emblazoned with his stage name, Tutu was grinning from ear to ear as he came onto the stage, and his section of the show seemed more propulsive than everything else.

The female-fronted post-punk band Da finished the show, playing its first gig since 1981. Like Tutu, this band sounded a bit rusty at times — not everything clicked quite the way it probably did when the band was playing in its heyday — but the power of the songs came through, making a good case for the idea that Da deserved a lot more attention when they were originally together.

The two old punk bands had a young garage-punk band as their opening act. Chicago’s Mickey started off the evening with a lively set, including a mid-song wrestling match between singer and guitarist. Mickey is upholding the punk tradition in fine fashion.

See my photos of Tutu & the Pirates, Da and Mickey.

For more about the bands, here’s Miles Raymer’s article in the Chicago Reader previewing the concert.

And to buy the DVD and LPs, here’s the website of Regressive Films, the producer of You Weren’t There.

Daytrotter Barnstormer in Monticello

On April 30, I headed downstate to Monticello, where I caught one of the Daytrotter Barnstormer concerts. My story and photo essay about the concert are in the May 13 Chicago Reader, which is the newspaper’s annual “In These Parts” issue.

I’ve also posted some additional photos of the bands that played April 30 in a gallery here, including Ra Ra Riot, Delta Spirit, Free Energy, Nathaniel Rateliff and Pearly Gate Music.

Jónsi at the Vic

Hiatus over. I’m catching up now with photos from some concerts I’ve seen recently. Jónsi, best known as the lead singer of Icelandic band Sigur Ros, performed a magnificent and hauntingly beautiful set of his solo music from the excellent new record Go on April 28 at the Vic Theatre. The concert built from a hushed quiet in the early songs to a cathartic burst in the encore, with Jónsi singing in a falsetto that was often angelic and occasionally demonic. The set itself was a masterpiece, with a shifting series of projected images making the stage feel like a cabinet of wonders.

The Chicago Reader published my pictures from the Jónsi concert on its Photo Pit page.

And I’ve posted some additional pictures. Here’s a gallery.

Antlers and Phantogram at Lincoln Hall

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.

See my photos of the Antlers and Phantogram.

David Vandervelde at the Empty Bottle

Free concerts on many Monday nights are of the great things about the Empty Bottle. This week (April 19), the headliner was David Vandervelde. I first met Vandervelde a few years ago when I was interviewing the late Jay Bennett at his Chicago studios. Vandervelde hadn’t released any records yet, but he was hanging out with Bennett, collaborating and messing around on a variety of instruments. Bennett told me how talented (and multitalented) Vandervelde was.

When Vandervelde’s strong solo debut, The Moon Station House Band, came out in 2007 on the Secretly Canadian label, the Bennett influence was obvious. Both musicians clearly had a lot of love for catchy late ’60s and early ’70s rock and pop music. Vandervelde’s 2008 CD Waiting for the Sunrise is mellower, but it still harkens back to that era.

As a live performer, Vandervelde is louder and looser than he is in the studio, and so it was on Monday night. Vandervelde often sings with a soft edge to his voice, making it ideal for carrying a sweet pop melody, but he also solos on electric guitar with the sort of ragged, jagged lines Neil Young does with Crazy Horse. He paid tribute to Bennett (who died last year) by playing a song they wrote together, “California Breezes,” and then he finished off the show with one of the best tracks on that first album, “Nothing No,” another track co-written by Bennett.

Vandervelde (who was backed by a couple of musicians from one of the opening acts, Ghostfinger) told me afterward that he plans to record a new album this summer.

See my photos of David Vandervelde at the Empty Bottle… which are, admittedly, rather dark and grainy. Hey, it was dim in there.

Record Store Day

As far as I’m concerned, every day should be Record Store Day, but as promotional gimmicks go, this is a good one. For three years now, independent record stores around the United States have celebrated the fact that they’re still in existence with a day featuring special records you can buy only on Record Store Day, in-store concerts and whatever festivities the local folks can think up. More than 20 shops in Chicago participated yesterday. Some of these stores had people lined up outside before business opened — fans hoping to snag a copy of something like, say, the clear-vinyl Neko Case LP.

I spent some time shopping, listening to live music and hanging out at Laurie’s Planet of Sound and Permanent Records, also making a brief stop at the Reckless Records in Wicker Park. All three stores were packed with record collectors and music fans for much of the day. Like most people, I buy music online these days, but I still love the experience of shopping in a brick-and-mortar store. While it’s true that the Internet has created new kinds of musical communities, there’s still something cool about chatting with a knowledgeable record-store clerk or hearing something interesting on the record-store turntable.

As far as the special collectible stuff on sale yesterday, I limited myself to just one locally produced 7-inch record — the Trouble in Mind label’s single featuring songs by four bands: Ty Segall, CoCoComa, White Wires and Charlie & the Moonhearts. Some good garage-rock on white vinyl. And like a lot of the vinyl releases that indie-rock bands are putting out lately, it came with a code to download mp3 versions of the songs for free. That’s one of the trends now — vinyl releases plus mp3s, without any CD.

At Laurie’s I, um, “caught” Vee Dee. The trio was playing songs off its new double LP, Public Mental Health System. The volume wasn’t quite as high as it usually is during a Vee Dee gig, but the music still rocked with a sort of early-’70s proto-punk sound. Think of the Stooges and bands like that. Earlier, Laurie’s also featured subdued, introspective songs from the singer who calls himself Algebro (a.k.a. Thom Cathcart).

Later in the afternoon, I saw White Mystery perform a rambunctious set of its garage-rock songs at Permanent Records. I know, I know — you’re probably thinking: Hasn’t this guy seen White Mystery three times in the past month or so. Yes, that’s true. I didn’t really plan to see them that many times, but it was still exciting to see them doing their thing, once again.

And it was exciting to see at least a few record stores are still thriving. See my photos of Algebro, Vee Dee and White Mystery playing on Record Store Day.

Owen Pallett at Lincoln Hall

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.

See my photos of Owen Pallett and Snowblink.

Bill Callahan at the Hideout

Singer-songwriter Bill Callahan, who used to call himself Smog, played two solo shows Saturday night (April 10) at the Hideout in Chicago, with proceeds going to the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center, a group that helps sexually abused children. Once again, the Hideout deserves praise for hosting interesting and entertaining events that also help out a good cause.

Callahan has a low-key personality onstage, matching the understated quality of his half-spoken baritone vocals. He did not speak much in between his songs, but there was no need — these songs beautifully spoke for themselves. He had a way of wincing a bit as he sang or played guitar that seemed to reveal glimpses of the emotions that went into writing them, even as he maintained a calm expression. As New York Times critic Ben Ratliff pointed out last week in a review of Callahan’s new live CD Rough Travel for a Rare Thing, Callahan’s singing has been great lately, relaxed and subtle.

He played songs that he recorded under the old Smog moniker as well as tracks from his recent Bill Callahan albums, including “Too Many Birds,” “Say Valley Maker,” “Sycamore” and “Rock Bottom Riser.” The crowd was exceptionally quiet throughout the performance, paying close attention to Callahan’s performance, but then the applause was quite loud and enthusiastic calling out Callahan for an encore, which he obligingly provided, playing “Let Me See the Colts.”

The opening act was Chicago artist Axis:Sova (a.k.a. Brett Sova, who also plays in the band Mass Shivers). He played solo electric guitar, including some hard-rock-style soloing and a few songs with vocals, which were more intriguing when they sounded less like hard rock.

See my photos of Bill Callahan and Axis:Sova.

Fanfarlo and Lawrence Arabia

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.

See my photos of Fanfarlo and Lawrence Arabia.

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

Love Is All at the Empty Bottle

Tuesday (April 6) was one of those nights when I wanted to be in at least two places at once — and I almost accomplished it. As soon as the Low Anthem finished their set at Lincoln Hall, I hopped into my car and headed over the the Empty Bottle, where Swedish band Love Is All. I got there just as Love Is All was finishing up its first song.

As I walked in this five-piece band from Gothenburg was playing lively, spiky rock that made you feel like bopping up and down. I’ve been enjoying the third and latest Love Is All record, Two Thousand and Ten Injuries — the only 2010 album I know of that has the number 2010 in the title. It’s Love Is All’s first record for the Champaign-based label Polyvinul, and it’s so much fun that the band should be getting more American fans soon.

Lead singer/keyboardist Josephine Olausson was clearly having fun as she moved around the stage, leaning over the audience at times. Her comments between songs were disarmingly funny in their modesty — as when she half-apologized for a song by saying that it would be “interesting.” “You like interesting, right?” she asked. Yes. Yes, we do.

See my photos of Love Is All.


The Low Anthem at Lincoln Hall

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.

See my photos of the Low Anthem and Nathaniel Rateliff.

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.

What to See This Week

April is shaping up as a busy month for concert going, with lots of cool indie-rock shows crowding onto the calendar. Here are a few of the promising concerts coming up in the next week that I recommend seeing.

FANFARLO with LAWRENCE ARABIA and ROBERT FRANCIS at Lincoln Hall. The British band Fanfarlo put out one of my favorite records last year, Reservoir, and the group’s live performance in 2009 at Schubas was a joyous, celebratory show. They should be great at Lincoln Hall — especially if they stretch out and play a bit longer. The New Zealand act Lawrence Arabia is also intriguing, with some sunny psychedelic folk-rock, and I believe this is the first chance to see him (a.k.a. James Milne) in Chicago. There’s good word of mouth about opener Robert Francis. Also tonight, TITUS ANDRONICUS is at the Bottom Lounge. I saw Titus Andronicus put on a riveting in-store show last month at Reckless Records, and it’ll be even better in a room where people can actually dance and move around. An intense band that plays songs with a deep sense of history.

THE XX are doing two shows at Lincoln Hall. Both are sold out. Good luck getting in if you don’t already have a ticket. WIll this cool, minimalist Brit band live up to the hype? Also on Thursday, THE SINGLEMAN AFFAIR plays at the Hideout. Great psychedelic folk-rock artist from Chicago, always worth seeing.

Lots of possibilities on this night: THE DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS and LANGHORNE SLIM at the Vic. FRED EAGLESMITH at FitzGerald’s. THE SOFT PACK at the Empty Bottle. MI AMI at the Hideout. JAPANDROIDS at Lincoln Hall. Take your pick. Any one of these could be a great show.

Another jam-packed night: BILL CALLAHAN (the guy formerly known as Smog) does two shows at the Hideout. MISSION OF BURMA is at the Double Door. Radiohead singer Thom Yorke’s solo project ATOMS FOR PEACE plays the first of two nights at the Aragon. And OWEN PALLETT, the multi-track-looping violinist and singer formerly known as Final Fantasy, plays at Lincoln Hall. His new record, Heartland, is a rich collection of beautiful songs which should sound terrific in concert. And oh, yeah, one of Chicago’s most excellent young garage bands, THE SMITH WESTERNS, are playing at Schubas. And THE BLANK DOGS are playing the Empty Bottle. I’ve never followed that band too closely, but they have a good reputation — and 17 records! So much to do and so little time!

If you were busy with one of the other shows on Saturday, this might be the night to catch ATOMS FOR PEACE. I hope Yorke’s music survives the notorious acoustics at the Aragon.

Maybe a night to rest? Nah. How about catching Robbie Fulks at the Hideout. (I said yesterday that he isn’t playing next Monday, but Fulks himself left a comment on my blog reporting that he is indeed going to perform. Check the Hideout calendar for confirmation.

Instead of seeing a concert, how about some poetry? (Or catch some live poetry before you head out to a late show. Poetry slam champion Roger Bonair-Agard, a native of Trinidad who now lives in Chicago, will perform during a poetry reading sponsored by the Society of Midland Authors at the Cliff Dwellers Club, 200 S. Michigan Ave. Admission is free. A social hour with free appetizers and a cash bar begins at 6 p.m., followed by the poetry at 7. (I am president of the Society of Midland Authors’ board.)

Robbie Fulks is back at the Hideout

As I reported here earlier, Robbie Fulks played every Monday night in February at the Hideout, serving up a completely different kind of show each week. He’s back at the same club this month, and he played a highly entertaining gig last night (April 5) with the Hoyle Brothers. The theme this time was ’70s country music… which meant lots of songs about adultery, by the likes of Barbara Mandrell, Glen Campbell, George Jones and a whole slew of lesser-known singers. As always, Fulks showed a sharp sense of humor while playing guitar with a complete sense of ease. The Hoyle Brothers (www.hoylebrothers.com, myspace.com/thehoylebrothers) were a good match with Fulks, and the band’s singer, Trevor, handled the lead vocals on about half of the tunes.

Fulks isn’t playing next Monday at the Hideout, but he’ll be back on April 19 and 26. The shows are at 7 p.m. with no opening act, finishing up before 9, with a “suggested donation” of $10. Last night, a bucket was passed for bucks halfway through the show. It was well worth $10. And Fulks says he hopes to continue playing lots of these Monday-night gigs through the rest of the year. Watch www.hideoutchicago.com and robbiefulks.com/for details.

See my photos of Robbie Fulks and the Hoyle Brothers.