Besnard Lakes and Ponys open Millennium season

PHOTOS

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.
www.theponys.com
www.myspace.com/theponys

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.
www.thebesnardlakes.com
www.myspace.com/thebesnardlakes

Check out the schedule of upcoming Pritzker Pavilion concerts at www.millenniumpark.org.

See my photos of the Besnard Lakes and the Ponys.

A Weekend of Concerts

It was a busy weekend of concerts, and I didn’t even go to Farm Aid. It was a pretty remarkable three days of music, with at least three performances that rank among the year’s best.

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She was just the opening act, followed by the impressive spectacle of SUFJAN STEVENS and his seven-person backup band/cheerleading squad. The songs from Illinois sounded great in concert. If listeners hadn’t already realized these are complicated and well crafted compositions, it became obvious watching Stevens and his band pull it off in concert. The mostly young crowd was wildly enthusiastic. Who’d have thought we’d see a crowd of 20-ish rock fans whooping at a trombone solo or the unfurling of an Illinois state flag? The band, dressed in Illinois shirts, with the three female musicians decked out as cheerleaders, performed cheers in between the songs and even formed a human pyramid onstage. It was a strange mix of the seriousness of art rock with giddy silliness.

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF LAURA VEIRS AND SUFJAN STEVENS.

SEPT. 17: The Hideout Block Party is always a great event, and this year’s featured a couple of especially noteworthy shows. ELEVENTH DREAM DAY played a set of new songs, which will be on a just-recorded CD. This band plays only once or twice a year, but whenever it does, it’s one of the best rock shows of the year. The new material sounded great, and the members of Eleventh Dream Day again showed that they’re all outstanding musicians. The band’s core trio was supplemented by keyboard player Mark Greenberg.

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF ELEVENTH DREAM DAY.

The headline of the day, however, was the first gig anywhere by the reunited original lineup of THE dB’S. They look a lot older than I remember, but then, I saw them twice back in the mid 1980s in Champaign, so I probably look a lot older, too. The dB’s played a couple of new songs, which sounded good, but the set focused on the classic power pop songs from their first two albums. It still sounded fresh. The band came back for a rare festival-set encore, “Neverland.”

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF THE dB’S.

I also caught sets at the Hideout Block Party by Kevin O’Donnell’s Ensemble General, an intriguing big group led by drummer-around-town O’Donnell. His monologue during one song about blue states invading red states was a highlight. And with his between-song banter, O’Donnell revealed himself to be one funny guy.

I’m not sure what to make of the Sam Roberts Band, from Montreal. The songs were OK, but the sound was too jam-band for me.

The always-excellent Ponys were going strong when I had to depart the block party for…

BOUBACAR TRAORE, a Malian guitarist and singer who played a spellbinding set at Park West. (I also saw him the following night at Logan Square Auditorium.) Traore plays a style of percussive acoustic-guitar music that will remind American listeners of the blues. Using just his thumb and forefinger to pick the strings, Traore rarely plays actual chords, essentially soloing throughout each song, even as he sings. Traore was the opening act for…

AMADOU & MARIAM, a married couple of blind singers from Mali, whose new album is one of the best of 2005. The music sounded great in concert, too, with Amadou taking the chance to stretch out with some pretty amazing guitar solos. Another difference from the studio recordings was the stronger emphasis on percussion, one of the reasons the crowd was dancing almost nonstop. (Why no photos of Amadou & Mariam? Because I idiotically left my camera in my car, thinking the Park West does not allow photos, though it turns out I could have brought it in.)

SEPT. 17: After another exceptional opening set by Boubacar Traore, Brazil’s SEU JORGE played tonight at the Logan Square Auditorium. Like last night’s concert by Amadou & Mariam, this was part of the Chicago World Music Festival. Jorge is a commanding singer, and his songs (which I wasn’t familiar with) sounded excellent. At times, he sang softly with gentle guitar or ukulele rhythms carrying the beat. At other times, the music was heavy on percussion (the band included Jorge on guitar, a bass player and three percussionist) with Jorge growling, rapping or singing full-out in a more rock-music style. After Jorge left stage, the three percussionists led the crowd for a while in some clap-alongs, then Jorge returned for an acoustic set, including three of the David Bowie songs he covered for The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.  At the end of the night, Jorge stood before the crowd and gave an impassioned speech about the people of his generation trying to make Brazil a better place.

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF BOUBACAR TRAORE AND SEU JORGE.

The Ponys and the M’s at Subterranean

MAY 28, 2005: The Ponys and the M’s at Subterranean. I’ve seen the M’s a few times now, though I still haven’t heard their studio recordings. I enjoyed this performance more than any of the previous M’s concerts I’d seen. I’ve always liked the idea of what they’re trying to do, but the songs have just sounded a little too thick. Not enough dynamics or variation in the sound. But the melodies and harmonies and the obvious ’60s influences have finally started to sink in for me.

The Ponys have now put out two very good records, so I was excited to see them in concert for the first time. I’m not sure where TimeOut Chicago’s writer came up with the idea that they’re ripping off the Stooges. I hear a lot more Television myself, plus some British punk and glam rock.

Yeah, I guess they are a little retro, but who isn’t these days? As the New York Times pointed out the other day in a piece about the White Stripes (making a point that occurred me back when I was at this year’s SXSW), rock bands today seem to feel a freedom to borrow whatever sounds they want from any part of rock’s history.

Anyway, the Ponys were quite good in concert, performing their catchy riffs and keening vocals with a lot of energy. The place was packed, and the crowd up by the stage included a bride and groom celebrating their wedding day. (Friends of the band?)

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF THE PONYS.