Starting off a new year of concerts

December and January tend to be fairly quiet months for concert-going in Chicago — but there’s always something good going on out there if you look hard enough. For the most part, I’ve been lying low lately, but I did see a few cool shows.

One of my final concerts of 2009 was the Dec. 28 performance at Schubas by Rock Falls, with opening acts Royal Osprey and Roommate. It was nice to hear Roommate paying tribute to the late Vic Chesnutt with a cover of his song “Sponge,” not to mention another fine cover, Guided By Voices’ “Smothered in Hugs.” Rock Falls delivered another fine performance of her folk rock, concluding the show with a lovely a cappella version of “On the Street Where You Live” from “My Fair Lady.” This was the last of four Monday night showcases in December for the local label Cardboard Sangria.
Photos of Rock Falls, Royal Osprey and Roommate.

And then I closed the year out on Dec. 30 with the Fiery Furnaces at Schubas. The band’s Matt Friedberger is playing guitar these days in concert rather than organ or electric piano, which is an improvement in my book. The band sounded as tight and as strange as ever, with Eleanor Friedberger reciting her usual river of surreal poetry. As much as I prefer hearing the band use guitar over keyboards, it would be even better if the Fiery Furnaces varied their sound within a show. The music is rich and multifaceted, but it can get monotonous when the Furnaces lock into one sound for the whole show. Opening act Cryptacize is known to drive some folks crazy, but I’ve liked their dadaist, disconnected songs. This time, they sounded a little less discombobulated than before (recombobulated?) Primary Cryptacize singer Nedelle Torrisi sounded strong and alluring. (Sorry, no photos — I gave my camera the night off.)

I did not see any live music on New Year’s Eve, but I did start off 2010 with a free afternoon gig by Philadelphia singer-songwriter Kurt Vile at Permanent Records. The shop was crammed full of people as Vile sang and played acoustic guitar behind the counter with his music enveloped in very heavy reverb. Vile has been writing some cool songs, and he’s also part of the excellent band the War on Drugs. The guy barely showed his face during the performance, letting his long hair hang down in front. Hence, the scarcity of photos. But I did post a couple of photos of Kurt Vile, including one shot of him talking after the performance.

Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman played three sold-out shows in a row at the Empty Bottle, starting on New Year’s Eve. I did not see any of those concerts, but I picked up a ticket when he announced a fourth gig — performing solo at the Viaduct Theater Sunday evening (Jan. 3). Lekman has a fairly enchanting stage presence, weaving humorous stories into his songs. The set started out with just vocals and guitar, but then Lekman began using backing tracks from a laptop. Eventually, he played a song or two karaoke-style, dancing around as he sang to the music on the laptop. A minute later, he apologized. “I’m sorry this show degenerated into some sort of vaudeville there for a second. I just feel it really deep.” At another point, Lekman got the audience to play the “feather game” — keeping a feather aloft by blowing at it — while Lekman played “A Handful of Feathers.” There was a strong feeling of connection and friendship between the audience and the artist.
Photos of Jens Lekman.

Alas, my camera stopped working halfway through the Lekman concert. Hoping to get it fixed soon.

Concert round-up

I’ve posted photos from several concerts lately without any comment here. Back on June 24, Robert Gomez, a singer-songwriter from Denton, Texas, performed a nice show of melancholy folk rock with a bit of a psychedelic edge at Schubas. It was sparsely attended, but I enjoyed the intimate feeling of the show. Chicago’s Rock Falls played an opening set of charming songs, including some ukulele strumming. Photos of Robert Gomez and Rock Falls.

I wrote earlier about how great the Feelies were on June 29 at Millennium Park. They were just one of three bands that I saw at the park’s Pritzker Pavilion. In addition to all of the great evening concerts, the park is also hosting free performances at noon every day this summer, including some rock shows in a series called “Edible Audible.” It’s not always easy for me to get downtown at noon, but I was there on June 29 for a show by Black Moth Super Rainbow. Normally, I’m not too thrilled with bands that run all of their vocals through the tired electronic effect known as the Vocoder. Black Moth does this, but somehow, I like this brand of Vocoder music better than most other electronic music. I think it’s because it feels trippy and psychedelic, with some catchy melodies. Photos of Black Moth Super Rainbow.

Back at the Pritzker that evening, Chicago’s Icy Demons were the opening act for the Feelies. I rather like this band and the CD that it put out last year, Miami Ice. Icy Demons mix some elements from 1970 prog rock with dance rhythms. I got the feeling that the band wore out its welcome at this show, since Feelies fans were so eager for the main act, but it was still pretty enjoyable. Photos of Icy Demons.

The Chicago ensemble DRMWPN (pronounced “dream weapon”) released one of my favorite records so far this year, Bright Blue Galilee, but good luck finding it. It’s a very limited edition on vinyl of a concert recording from 2007. DRMWPN basically plays a droning chord for about 40 minutes at every show, creating a meditative atmosphere. The group came together July 1 for another beautiful performance at the Chopin Theatre. Ostensible leader Jim Dorling had some trouble getting the group’s Dream Machine to work. That’s the light with the spinning cover that sets the perfect mood at DRMWPN concerts. After a few minutes of playing with the device, he finally got it spinning, and the music began drifting into place. Photos of DRMWPN, Ultimate Vag and 500MG.

Oumou Sangaré, a singer from Mali, put on a rousing show July 2 at the Pritzker Pavilion. She came across as a vibrant personality, and her large band kept the music going at a lively pace all night. It did not take long for a large group of fans to rush to the front part of the pavilion, and after that, it was a non-stop dance party. Photos of Oumou Sangaré.

Last year, Christian Kiefer, J. Matthew Gerken, Jefferson Pitcher and assorted guest singers put out a three-CD set called Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies. It does in fact include one song for each president, and after Barack Obama won last year’s election, these musicians released a follow-up song with Will Johnson of Centro-matic on lead vocals, “44. Barack Obama (Someone to Wake).” I played that song a lot last fall after the election. (You can download it for free here.) The trio of singer-songwriters who put this whole project together played July 3 at the Hideout and July 4 at Taste of Chicago. I caught the Hideout show, which featured one of the local musicians who performs on the CD — Steve Dawson of Dolly Varden signing about Lyndon B. Johnson — and several musicians doing interpretations of the songs. The Singleman Affair did great psychedelic-folk-rock versions of the songs about John Quincy Adams and Jimmy Carter. The Bitter Tears, dressed like decadent hillbillies, sang about Zachary Taylor. The Gunshy, Sin Ropas, Jeff Harms, Tim Rutili and Tim Kinsella also performed, and of course, Jon Langford was there — singing about Ronald Reagan. Hideout co-owner Tim Tuten (back in town from Washington) emceed the whole shindig, and his rambling and improvised intro to the Reagan was a humorous highlight. The concert featured about half of the songs from the 3-CD collection, ending with the soothing sing-along chorus of the Obama song: “Everything will be all right.” Photos of 44 Songs for 44 Presidents.