Arbouretum and Brokeback at Schubas



The Baltimore band Arbouretum has been playing heavy, rootsy guitar rock for about decade now, making several strong records on the Thrill Jockey label. On Arbouretum’s latest album, Song of the Rose, the group continues forging the sort of music it always has: songs rooted in folk rock with fuzz-drenched electric guitar riffs and solos, and mournful melodies carried by Dave Heumann’s plaintive voice. The epic quality of the music came through in Arbouretum’s live performance on Saturday, May 27, at Schubas. These four musicians — Heumann, bassist Corey Allender, keyboardist Matthew Pierce and drummer Brian Carey — dug into their songs with an unflashy intensity.

(Story continues below photos.)

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Another Thrill Jockey band, Brokeback, opened the show with a set of evocative instrumental rock. Led by Doug McCombs (who also plays in Eleventh Dream Day and Tortoise), Brokeback recently released a new album, Illinois River Valley Blues.

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Big Thief at Schubas

The Brooklyn band Big Thief released a great album last year called Masterpiece — and the group, led by singer-songwriter-guitarist Adrianne Lenker, was even more impressive in concert last week at Schubas. Big Thief played Jan. 11, as part of the Tomorrow Never Knows festival. The band was missing one of its regular members, guitarist Buck Meek, reducing the lineup to a guitar-bass-drums trio, but it still sounded powerful. Lenker was a force of nature, shaping the songs with both her guitar playing and her impassioned vocals. The songs from Masterpiece sounded terrific, and the set also featured several tunes from a new record that’ll be out soon. This night of the TNK fest also featured a lovely set by Sam Evian, as well as Hoops and Campdogzz.

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Sam Evian
Sam Evian
Sam Evian
Sam Evian

Poster Children at Schubas

Sadly, I arrived a bit late for the Poster Children’s early concert on Wednesday, Nov. 23, at Schubas. Rather than barging my way to the front of the crowded room during this sold-out show, I stayed in the back corner — which turned out to be a pretty good spot for getting some photos. This Champaign rock band, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, sounded as exuberant and energetic as ever.

On its website, the band reports: “If you saw us on this tour, you probably felt like we were having a blast on the stage, and you were right, we were. We were ecstatic to be playing again, and we are especially happy to see our new songs so well-received. We’ve already been in the studio with Steve Albini, recording new songs, and we’ll continue to work on a new record that should be released sometime in 2017.”

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Cate Le Bon and Mega Bog at Schubas


As I’ve said in previous blog posts, the Welsh-born singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon has developed into one of today’s most exciting musicians. Since her previous concert at Schubas, in January 2014, she has played in Chicago a couple of times as a touring guitarist with the West Coast psychedelic band White Fence, as well as a member of Drinks — a duo she formed with White Fence’s Tim Presley.

Now, she has an excellent new solo album called Crab Day, which finds her exploring deeper into her beguilingly strange blend of influences — British folk, European cabaret music, psychedelic flourishes, lurching rhythms with moments of Krautrock repetition and searing, jagged electric guitar riffs and solos. All of these elements were vividly on display when Le Bon and her top-notch band played on Monday, May 9, at Schubas. She played nearly every song from Crab Day, plus several from her previous album, 2013’s Mug Museum. (Nothing from her earlier recordings, however.)

The stage was dark, and she was dressed in black, with her hair frequently hanging over her face — until she shook it around during a guitar solo. That prompted one of her few onstage comments during the set: “Are there any hairdressers in the house? Well, then, see me immediately after the show.”

Le Bon’s vocals sometimes reminded me of Nico’s singing with the Velvet Underground, but Le Bon would rise above that chilly chanting style for emotional passages, revealing a wider range and more colorful palette. As with so many musicians, she also shows some Velvet Underground influence in the way she plays guitar, but that’s just one aspect of Le Bon’s wonderfully singular style.

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Mega Bog

I was unfamiliar with the opening act, Mega Bog, a Seattle group led by Erin Birgy, but I quickly found myself enchanted by the band’s jazzy folk rock. The vibe of these songs reminded me of Joni Mitchell, Bill Callahan and the Sea and Cake, and I’m eager to hear more.

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Cross Record at Schubas

In 2013, I saw a couple of concerts by Cross Record, a group led by the promising Chicago singer-songwriter Emily Cross. (See my blog posts about her shows in January 2013 at Township and in August 2013 at the Double Door.) But then she bid Chicago farewell, moving to Austin, Texas. Cross Record made a welcome return on Saturday, April 30, playing a short but haunting set of new music at Schubas. Cross’ bandmate is her husband Dan Duszynski, who played guitar and drums and other musical gear, sculpting a distinct sounds for each  song. Cross Record’s new album, Wabi-Sabi, has a loose, experimental air about it, with Cross’ breathy, ethereal vocals floating through the melancholy, introspective tunes. It took just a few listens for these songs to lodge themselves in my mind and heart. The short but lovely concert at Schubas affirmed just how strong these compositions are.

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The Loom

Opening act The Loom
Opening act The Loom


Vulgar Boatmen at Schubas


Way back on April 21, 1990, I saw the Vulgar Boatmen perform a free in-store set at the old Reckless Records store on Broadway — playing songs from their 1989 debut album, You and Your Sister. It’s an outstanding record of songs that reminded me of the folkier side of the Feelies. The simple but graceful melodies, the insistent rhythms and the simple but smart guitar riffs have stuck in my mind ever since — even when years went by without seeing the band. Many years. I’m pretty sure I saw the Vulgar Boatmen just one more time in the early 1990s — at the Cubby Bear, I think. And then I lost track of this group.

The odd thing is: The Vulgar Boatmen had two different touring lineups — one based in Indiana and one in Florida. The two main songwriters were Richard Ray in Florida and Dale Lawrence in Indiana; they collaborated on songwriting and making records, but had separate bands in concert. A version of the Indiana group — led by Lawrence — is still playing, but not all that often. In recent years, the Vulgar Boatmen have been come to Chicago every January for a show at Schubas. (Lawrence was also in the early Indiana punk band the Gizmos, who played a reunion show I saw at Gonerfest in Memphis in 2014.)

I finally got around to seeing one of those shows on Jan. 9 — as the Vulgar Boatmen celebrated a new 25th anniversary reissue of You and Your Sister. That was a great excuse for the band to play all of the great songs on that record. Even though I haven’t heard these songs much over the past 20 years, every detail remained vivid in my memory — and boy, did it feel good to hear them being performed live once again. The encores stretched the concert past the two-hour mark, with fun covers including the Velvet Underground’s “Foggy Notion” and “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),” a Monkees song written by Neil Diamond. The rousing finale was the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait.” The show also included at least one new song by Lawrence, giving me hope that the Vulgar Boatmen will carry on with their somewhat strange career.













The opening act was a Chicago power-pop band called Mooner. I wasn’t familiar with Mooner before, but its sound was appealing — and a good fit with the Vulgar Boatmen set that was coming later.


Colin Stetson at Schubas


It’s hard to believe what Colin Stetson is able to do with the saxophone. As he performed Tuesday, July 28, at Schubas, it sounded at times like three or four instruments were playing, but he was standing alone, without any electronics gear or effects pedals to aid him. Here’s how the Constellation record label’s website explains what he does:

Colin Stetson has developed a unique and renowned voice as a performer and composer, chiefly on bass and tenor saxophones, where he rallies an array of technical strengths and innovations (circular breathing, contact micing of his own body and the body of his instrument, vocalizations through the reed) to make some of the most captivatingly organic, darkly soulful and otherworldly solo instrumental work of recent years.

The notes came sprawling out of his saxophones — including a massive bass sax that he played on several of the compositions — with one layer of tones circling around in a pattern while other layers squealed, bleated and soared on top. The force of the music was almost overwhelming at times, both because of the volume levels and the way those notes vibrated against one another. Stetson’s performance was something of an athletic feat, and he’d worked up a set by the end of an incredible hour.

Colin Stetson will also play (with the great Chicago percussionist Frank Rosaly) Thursday at Constellation.

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Opening act Gracie and Rachel
Opening act Gracie and Rachel

Farewell, Centro-matic

After 17 years, 11 albums and numerous concerts, the venerable Denton, Texas, band Centro-matic is calling it quits. I’m sad to see them go. At least, we’ll still have the records, including classics like 2003’s Love You Just the Same. And we’ll surely be hearing more from the band’s singer-songwriter-guitarist, Will Johnson, as well as the other musicians who have been playing in Centro for all these years: drummer Matt Pence, keyboardist-bassist Scott Danbom and bassist-guitarist Mark Hedman. But for the foreseeable future, we won’t get another chance to see this band live.

Centro-matic’s farewell tour included a stop at Schubas on Monday, Dec. 15. Johnson told the audience that Chicago has always been one of the cities where Centro-matic felt the most welcome on its tours, ever since the band starting hitting the road in 1998. For one last time, Centro-matic delivered charged versions of its greatest “hits.” Near the end of the show — I believe it was during “Fidgeting Wildly,” a song from the first Centro-matic album, 1997’s Redo the Stacks — the band dug hard into the final chords. As Johnson kicked up a leg and Pence pounded hard on the drums, it seemed like the whole stage was shaking. A glorious moment it was. So long, Centro-matic.

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Opening band Telegraph Canyon
Opening band Telegraph Canyon
Opening band Telegraph Canyon
Opening band Telegraph Canyon

Courtney Barnett at Schubas

Courtney Barnett sang her delightful lyrics in her deadpan style on Wednesday night at Schubas, which was very charming — but what really wowed me was her guitar playing. Early on in the set, she stepped away from the microphone stand and started flailing around with her guitar, her hair hanging down over her face, digging harder into her riffs, while bassist Bones Sloan and drummer Dave Mudie pounded away. As terrific as this Australian’s songs sound on her 2013 record The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, they were even more intense and alluring in live performance. This was a Lollapalooza pre-show, and Barnett seemed to be marveling at how much her fan base has grown. Expect her to play a bigger venue the next time she’s in town. And if you’re at Lolla today, make sure to catch her set at 2:15 p.m. (Check out this video of a performance she gave earlier this at the WBEZ studios.)

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Opening act Varsity
Opening act Varsity


Ane Brun and Linnea Olsson at Schubas

Ane Brun

Ane Brun

Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun’s songs sounded delicate and intimate Saturday night, Feb. 15, at Schubas. As she explained to the audience at the sold-out concert, it took her years to gain the confidence to build bigger arrangements for her songs, turning more of the music she’d written over to other musicians. For her current tour, she decided to bring the songs back to a more elemental level — playing with just one other musician, Swedish cellist-singer Linnea Olsson. When Brun introduced “This Voice,” she noted that she played much “bigger” versions of the song over the years. But this time, she said, “We’re going to bring it down to the smallest version ever.”

But as Brun plucked the strings of her guitar and Olsson bowed her cello, those two instruments sounded at times like a miniature orchestra. Brun played songs from throughout her career, including covers of Amerie’s dance hit “1 Thing,” Henry Purcell’s 1688 aria “Dido’s Lament” (which Brun renders as “Laid in Earth”) and Arcade Fire’s “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels).”

Saturday’s concert also featured a delightful opening set by Olsson, who performed solo — using looping pedals to build her cello lines into rich arrangements. It’s a technique many other musicians are using in recent years, most notably Andrew Bird, but Olsson did it as skillfully as anyone I’ve ever seen. On one song, Olsson effectively turned her cello into a percussion instrument, tapping on it to create the rhythmic underpinning of a song from her new album, the aptly named Ah!

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Linnea Olsson Linnea Olsson Linnea Olsson Ane Brun and Linnea Olsson

Ane Brun's footwear
… I couldn’t resist getting a photo of Ane Brun’s distinctive footwear.


Chris Mills at Schubas


Chris Mills smiles a lot when he sings, and it’s a big, beaming smile. His voice is big, too. As he was belting out the notes of his memorable songs on Friday, Jan. 24, at Schubas, it was  obvious that he was having a great time.

Mills hasn’t lived in Chicago for several years now — what, it’s already been a decade? — but as the Tribune aptly put it in a headline over a recent interview: “Chris Mills is a Chicagoan no matter where he roams.” At least, that’s how I think of him, even if he’s living in New York. When he was still in Chicago, Mills seemed like he was part of the local alt-country scene, but his music was never really alt-country: more like singer-songwriter rock, folk and power pop. During his set on Friday, Mills joked a couple of times about the phrase that Reader critic Peter Margasak had used to describe some of his new songs: “genre-neutral.” Even if that sounds vaguely insulting, it does accurately point out how hard it is to put a genre label on Mills’ music.

Mills has a strong new album called Alexandria, his first record in five years, which he funded with a Kickstarter campaign. (I was a contributor.) The fact that he was able to raise $20,389 just goes to show that his fans haven’t forgotten him.

On this record, Mills worked with Norwegian producer Christer Knutsen, who also played guitar, piano and organ and sang backing vocals. Knutsen and drummer Pal Hausken came over from Norway to play on this current tour. Mills’ backup band, the Distant Stars, also includes a familiar face from the Chicago music scene: bassist Ryan Hembrey, who often runs the sound at the Hideout.

The Schubas music room wasn’t quite as full as it should have been — possibly because it was snowing that night, and the roads were treacherous — but the people who did turn out clearly knew Mills’ songs, the new ones as well as the older ones he has played over the years. Mills took some requests, challenging his new Scandinavian bandmates to figure out some songs they hadn’t rehearsed, such as “You Are My Favorite Song.” Highlights of the night included “The Silver Line” and “Living the Dream.”

Mills and the Distant Stars ended the night with a spirited cover of Big Star’s “Thank You Friends,” which was Mills’ way of thanking everyone who came to the show and all those who pitched in money to help him make Alexandria.

The opening act, Irish-American singer-songwriter Niall Connolly, was charming and funny as he introduced his folk songs, which were spare and lovely. Mills remarked later that Connolly is something of a leader in a scene of musicians in Brooklyn, and it was easy to believe that, based on his performance Friday.

Oh, and Chicagoans: You have another chance to see Chris Mills. He and his band will play a free show Sunday, Feb. 2, at the Saki record store in Logan Square, with an opening set by Jon Lindsay starting at 3 p.m.

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Niall Connolly
Niall Connolly

Correction: An earlier version of this post included an incorrect name for the drummer in Chris Mills’ band.

Cate Le Bon at Schubas


Welsh singer-songrwiter Cate Le Bon got stuck in a terrible traffic jam on her way to play on Thursday, Jan. 23, at the Schubas nightclub in Chicago. Forty or so trucks and cars crashed in a pileup on I-94 in Michigan that afternoon, and three people died. Le Bon and her touring bandmates weren’t injured, but they were among the many people who sat in their cars without moving for several hours. As audience members showed up for the concert, the Schubas staff said  Le Bon was late — but that she was on her way. The opening act, Kevin Morby, was traveling in the same vehicle, so he was late, too.

Morby was supposed to start playing at 9 p.m., but it wasn’t until sometime after 10:30 p.m. when all of the musicians finally showed up. The bands quickly set up and did a sound check. Morby (of Woods and The Babies) played just three songs, but they packed some punch. And then, just a few minutes later, Le Bon took the stage, apologizing for the delay. The audience members who’d stuck around for this belated gig greeted her warmly — and were rewarded with a stellar performance.

Le Bon’s 2013 album, Mug Museumsounds lovely, but her music was even better live — and not just because of her beautiful vocals. The riffs and lines Le Bon played on her electric guitar were sharp, almost spiky, intertwining in intricate patterns with the rest of the band. In the hardest-rocking songs, the riffs bounced back and forth between Le Bon and guitarist-keyboardist H. Hawkline, adding a stereo effect to the psychedelic folk-rock — and reminding me a bit of the great late ’70s band Television. (I thought I might be the only one to make that comparison, but then I noticed what the Chicago Reader’s Peter Margasak had written earlier: “The shapes of her angular guitar lines suggest Tom Verlaine at his most minimal…”)

In spite of the delays earlier in the evening, when it seemed uncertain whether this concert would even happened, it turned out to be an outstanding show.

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Kevin Morby
Kevin Morby
Kevin Morby
Kevin Morby


Midlake and Sarah Jaffe at Schubas


The Denton, Texas, band Midlake has pulled off a rare feat — losing its primary singer-songwriter (Tim Smith) and emerging with a strong new album (Antiphon). Playing Thursday night (Dec. 5) at Schubas, Midlake also proved that it can still play the music from its earlier albums just fine. Guitarist Eric Pulido has taken over as Midlake’s new lead singer, and his vocal style isn’t too far removed from Smith’s. His harmonies — and the singing by the rest of Midlake’s virtuosic players — were always part of what makes this artsy folk rock band’s sophisticated, haunting music so special.

During Thursday’s show, Midlake played several of the new Antiphon songs, but it didn’t shy away from the old material, even playing the early song “Kingfish Pies” (from the 2004 album Bamnan and Silvercork) — the weird little anthem that attracted my attention to Midlake in the first place. And of course, Midlake performed key tracks from 2010’s The Courage of Others and 2006’s The Trials of Van Occupanther, the album that stands as its masterpiece. Flute melodies, guitar arpeggios and vocal harmonies meshed into enchanting forest folk music and soaring, powerful rock.

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The opening act was another artist from Denton, singer-songwriter Sarah Jaffe, who was accompanied by Midlake drummer McKenzie Smith (who also produced her recent songs, “Satire” and “Defense”). Turning up the volume on her electric guitar, Jaffe pushed her usually mellow songs toward a more hard-edged sound as the set progressed.

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Laura Veirs at Schubas

You can count on Laura Veirs. She’s had a string of records filled with alluring songs, and her latest album (her ninth) is no exception. Warp & Weft is a strong collection, and it dominated Veirs’ concert Wednesday (Sept. 26) at Schubas. The live versions of the songs were enchanting, as Veirs and her band played delicate folk rock as well as a few more rocking numbers. These are smartly arranged songs, with guitar, violin and keyboard parts balanced to perfection. Veirs sings her notes straight and cool, with little noticeable vibrato, skipping up to the high notes with ease. Veirs switched from acoustic to electric guitar on a few songs, handling the night’s loudest guitar solos, including the rousing tribute to Alice Coltrane, “That Alice,” which closed out this delightful concert.

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A member of Veirs’ band, guitarist-bassist Karl Blau, also played the opening set. Blau began his set with an unusually long spoken introduction, explaining who he is, what town he is from (Anacortes, Wash.) and what he was about to do. As he put it, he does audio experiments and then recites poetry on top of them. But even though he claimed that he wouldn’t be singing, Blau did in fact sing some pretty good melodies above his quirky percussion-bass-and-thumb-piano loops.


Centro-matic at Schubas


When you see concerts week in and week out at the same venues, you start to take them for granted. I haven’t been at Schubas much in the past year, but I’ve been back a few times this week, and it felt like returning home after a long absence. I got the sense that Will Johnson, the frontman of Denton, Texas, band Centro-matic, might be feeling something similar when his band played on the Schubas stage Monday night (Sept. 23). Midway through the set, Johnson paused to say what a pleasure it was to be playing again in “one of the most sacred, sacred” music rooms in the country. Indeed — just think of all the great music that has vibrated that wooden arch above the Schubas stage over the years.

Centro-matic is working on a new album, and the band played a bit of the new music, mixed in with songs from throughout its career. Johnson’s distinctive voice — that magically strange whine of his — was in fine form, sounding beautifully forlorn. And these four musicians have been playing together for so long that they make it look like the most natural thing in the world.

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The Bats at Schubas

Some bands really make you wait. The Bats, a New Zealand band that formed in 1982, went for 19 years without visiting Chicago. The previous time they played here was a 1994 gig at the late, lamented Lounge Ax nightclub. The group stopped recording for a while, but then came back together in 2005. But New Zealand is a long way from Chicago, and so, the group’s local fans had to make do with listening to the studio records. Until Sunday (June 9) — when the Bats made their triumphant return.

Schubas was the venue this time, and the show sold out just shortly before the Bats began playing. The room was packed with a who’s who of Chicago’s most stalwart concertgoers and record-store clerks. And the Bats’ set list was packed with 22 songs stretching from the band’s first record, Daddy’s Highway (1987), to the most recent, Free All the Monsters (2011). It was wonderful to hear those clean, jangly guitar lines meshing together and those catchy vocal melodies — sounding like the 1960s by way of the 1980s.

Robert Scott, the Bats’ main singer, kept his face hidden in the shadow of a baseball cap all night. Scott’s onstage personality was low-key, but bassist Paul Kean was exuberant. The whole quartet, which also includes guitarist-singer Kaye Woodward and drummer Malcolm Grant, clicked as a musical unit. And the fans loved it. The Bats promised they’d be back in Chicago faster this time. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 19 years.

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The opening act Sunday at Schubas was the Chicago band Magic Gloves, and they proved to be a great match with the Bats. Three of the Magic Gloves traded off on lead vocals, and the songs made a very strong first impression. Definitely a group I look forward to hearing and seeing again.

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The Sadies at Schubas

The Sadies

Saturday night (July 7) at Schubas was the umpteenth time I’ve seen the Sadies, but they’re a band that deserves to be seen umpteen times. I would have seen them yet again on Monday at the Pritzker Pavilion, too, but I opted instead for the wonderful combo of Robbie Fulks and Sally Timms at the Hideout.

After leaving West Fest and taking the bus to Schubas, I walked in just in time for the glorious opening riff of “Memphis, Egypt,” the classic Mekons song — which was the opening number for the opening act, Jon Langford and His Sadies. (Langford joked about the Sadies as if they were a separate band coming up later in the show.) The Sadies play that Mekons music fiercely … and then, when it was time for the main act, they returned to the stage and impressed me all over again with their telepathic guitar playing. It all culminated with another great medley of covers during the encore. I’m hard-pressed to name all the songs that crammed into this 10-minute-plus epic, but it was all bluesy ’60s garage rock, including the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” and the Belfast Gypsies’ “People, Let’s Freak Out,” among others.

The Sadies
The Sadies
The Sadies
The Sadies
The Sadies
The Sadies
The Sadies

Cate Le Bon at Schubas

Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon’s really grown as an artist since I saw her playing some solo acoustic music at SXSW in 2008. That was nice, but her new record, Cyrk, is simply great, going deeper into the folk melodies of the British Isles while turning up the electric guitar a bit. Le Bon was also pretty great when she played a set dominated by those new songs Tuesday (Feb. 14) at Schubas. Le Bon sometimes sang with a touch of Nico in her delivery, but Le Bon’s vocals aren’t quite as chilly or monotone as that. Her hair hung in front of her face as she sang, and she spent most of the show playing electric guitar, moving over to the keyboards for a couple of songs. The climax of the set was the terrific two-part suite that also ends Cyrk — “Ploughing Out 1 + 2.” The moment where part 1 shifts into part 2 is a brilliant example of a transition that enhances the music on either side of it, and it worked just as well live as it does on record.

Cheyenne Marie Mize at Schubas

The Louisville singer-songwriter Cheyenne Marie Mize has performed with Will Oldham, and now she’s establishing a solo career of her own. Her introspective 2010 debut, Before Lately, had an intriguing mix of styles, and her adventurousness continues on the new EP, We Don’t Need. When Mize performed Wednesday (Jan. 25) at Schubas, she started off her set with the song that opens the EP, “Wishing Well,” which features little more than her singing and chanting to a drum beat. Throughout the rest of her set, she switched between guitar, keyboards and violin, while two other musicians (a drummer and a multi-instrumentalist) provide subtle backing but kept the songs sounding spare and direct.

Plants and Animals at Schubas

The Montreal band Plants and Animals doesn’t easily fit into any of the typical rock genres. Their music has a bit of late ’60s/early ’70s hippie vibe, and there’s a tendency toward jamming, but they don’t sound to me like a jam band. Their 2008 record Parc Avenue is a strong set of songs with unusual turns that stick in your mind. Somehow, I completely missed their 2010 album La La Land until now, and now they’re on the verge of releasing another album, The End of It. They played at Schubas on Jan. 12, part of the bigger-than-ever Tomorrow Never Knows festival. The Parc Avenue songs were excellent in concert, and the new ones were promising.

The evening also featured opening sets by Canon Blue, Herman Dune and the local acoustic folk-rock trio Cloudbirds, who include former members of The M’s. (Cloudbirds are giving away their album online.)



Herman Dune

Herman Dune

Canon Blue
Canon Blue

Karkwa at Schubas

The sparse attendance Tuesday night (Dec. 6) at Schubas confirmed my suspicion that few Americans know anything about the French-Canadian rock band Karkwa — despite the fact that the group won Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize in 2010 for its fourth album, Les Chemins de verre. (Previous winners: Final Fantasy, Patrick Watson, Caribou and Fucked Up.)

About 40 people showed up to hear the band at Schubas, and singer-guitarist Louis-Jean Cormier sounded almost apologetic as he explained that he was about to — gasp! — sing lyrics in French. The fans in attendance clearly didn’t mind, of course. Karkwa’s art rock sounded even better in live performance than it does on record, with sophisticated but not overly fussy layers of guitar, keyboard and percussion that sounded a bit like early Radiohead at times. When the band returned to the stage for an encore, at the insistence of the crowd, Cormier seemed surprised to hear a few people calling out requests for songs. Yes, there are at least a few Americans who’ve caught onto Karkwa.

M. Ward at Schubas

One of the first times I saw M. Ward perform in concert was at Schubas. It was Feb. 25, 2005, and the opening acts included a band almost no one had heard of called Dr. Dog. Both performers have since gained considerable fame and acclaim, and gone on to play much bigger venues. So it was a real treat to see M. Ward back at Schubas on Sunday night (Dec. 4). Chicago got lucky with this gig. Ward played a charity gig in the Quad Cities, and played this one additional show, calling it his “Rock Island Line” tour.

One thing that made it special was the opening set, which featured longtime Ward sideman Mike Coykendall along with their mutual friend, singer-songwriter Carlos Forster. Forster has a new record out, Family Trees, which was recorded by Coykendall and produced by Ward, with Ward signing a duet with Forster on the song “Campfire Songs.” Coykendall and Forster are both nice singers in their own right, and they were joined by Ward for a few songs, giving the whole thing the feeling of a basement jam session by old friends.

That vibe carried on during the main set. As in many past gigs, Ward wore a hat, almost seeming to hide his eyes as he performed. As always, Ward’s guitar playing was excellent, showing his virtuosity without showing it off, and he casually reached over to plink a few notes on the piano at times. Along with Coykendall, the band included drummer Scott McPherson and Nashville pedal steel player/multi-instrumentalist Chris Scruggs. The superb but too short set (barely more than an hour) ranged from hushed acoustic folk to rollicking, old-style rock ‘n’ roll. Ward didn’t say anything about the first song he played, but it was a Howlin’ Wolf cover — maybe a tribute to Wolf’s guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, who had died earlier in the day?

SET LIST: Howlin’ for My Darlin’ (Howlin’ Wolf cover) / Poison Cup / Post-War / Chinese Translation / Paul’s Song / Vincent O’Brien / Cosmopolitan Pap / Fisher of Men / Bean Vine Blues #2 (John Fahey cover) / Whole Lotta Losin’ (Monsters of Folk song) / Rock Island Line (folk song cover) / Roll Over Beethoven (Chuck Berry cover) / ENCORE: Magic Trick / Campfire Songs (Carlos Forster vocals) / We All Gotta Go (Mike Coykendall vocals) / Never Had Nobody Like You / ENCORE 2: 100 Million Years (Ward solo acoustic)

Mike Coykendall and Chris Scruggs

Carlos Forster

The War On Drugs at Schubas

It’s been almost three years since the Philadelphia band called The War On Drugs released a great record called Wagonwheel Blues and performed at Schubas. Since then, one musician from the band, Kurt Vile, has attracted some acclaim of his own (and he has more or less left The War On Drugs). Now, there’s finally a second album by The War On Drugs, Slave Ambient. And the band was back at Schubas Friday night (Aug. 26).

It was a four-piece band this time, compared to the stripped-down three-man lineup that played here in 2008. The sounder was fuller, sometimes positively dense. Led by singer-songwriter-guitarist Adam Granduciel, The War On Drugs essentially plays a sort of folk rock, but on the new album, it has a trippy, slightly psychedelic air wafting through it, as the dreamy songs run into one another. Live, that sound was cranked up, and Granduciel let himself get lost in reverb-drenched guitar solos. The new record’s nice, but the band hasn’t topped its excellent 2008 song “Arms Like Boulders,” which was a highlight of the set.

The first band of the night was Tammar from Bloomington, Indiana, who were also bathed in reverb, with barely decipherable vocals echoing inside the rhythms. The middle act on the lineup was Caveman, a Brooklyn band getting some attention lately. From what I heard, the band’s usual drummer was missing, but with two musicians banging the drums, there was certainly no lack of rhythm.


Centro-Matic at Schubas

At a few of the recent concerts I’ve seen, good performances have been followed by rather tepid applause. Audiences seemed bored or too lazy or maybe too tired because of the late hour to clap loudly enough to demand an encore. This was not the case Sunday night (July 3) when Centro-Matic played at Schubas. The crowd was loud, sounding very glad indeed to hear this band from Denton, Texas, playing in Chicago for the first time in a couple of years. There was no doubt that these fans wanted to hear an encore, and they got it. (Actually, they got two encores.)

Centro-Matic recently released a album, Candidate Waltz, and the set featured a few of the new songs, including the standout track, “Only in My Double Mind,” which has all of the qualities of a trademark Centro anthem: ringing chords, a thumping beat and Will Johnson’s distinctive, slightly creaky vocals — all that, with a soaring chorus and lots of “ahhs.”

Of course, Centro-Matic also played some of its staple songs, including several tracks from the 2003 album that remains one of its best, Love You Just the Same. And the band dug out two songs from its very first album, 1996’s lo-fi Redo the Stacks, “Rock and Roll Eyes” and “Am I the Manager Or Am I Not?” And Centro-Matic can also be counted on to play a quirky cover, and this time, it was Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long.” Through it all, Johnson kicked up his legs as he played guitar while his longtime bandmates — Matt Pence, Scott Danbom and Mark Hedman — gave the music both driving force and subtle shades. It was yet another triumphant show for one of indie rock’s most dependable bands, with a pretty nice opening set by Sarah Jaffe.

Gruff Rhys at Schubas

Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys came to Schubas Thursday night (June 9) for a concert of his solo music, and he brought along a whole bag of tricks. Need some audio samples? Rhys played them the old-fashioned way, with a miniature turntable spinning records such as a BCC sound-effects collection while Rhys and his band performed. Rhys also had some sort of electronic drumsticks, a device with a glowing red appendage that sounded like a Theremin, a yellow safety vest just in case his airplane crashed, some big signs saying “APPLAUSE,” WOAH,” and “THANK YOU.”

Rhys also had a repertoire of catchy songs, of course, as well as a wonderful, Welsh sense of humor and whimsy, which he displayed with his fanciful song introductions. And it helped that he had such a sharp backing band, Y Niwl, who are also from Wales. Y Niwl was the opening act, too, performing a groovy set of instrumental rock hearkening back to ’60s surf, twang and party rock. Y Niwl then returned to the stage for the main set, playing behind Rhys as he played tunes from his new album, Hotel Shampoo, and two earlier solo records.

The high point of the concert for me came at the end, when Rhys played the epic “Skylon!” — which was 14 minutes long in the studio version on his 2007 album Candylion, and was as long or longer in the live performance, combining a narrative about an airplane flight with a cycling riff that had some of the chugging power of a Velvet Underground rave-up but more of a psychedelic aura.

Papercuts at Schubas

The 2007 album by Papercuts, Can’t Go Back, is one of those records I keep going back to — a collection of catchy songs bathed in a sound reminiscent of ’60s psychedelia… or is it more like the ’80s revival of ’60s psychedelia? Something about Papercuts reminds me of bands from that era like the Rain Parade.

Papercuts’ fourth album, Fading Parade, is out now on Sub Pop. It hasn’t clicked me with yet the way Can’t Go Back did — it may take more listens for these tunes to worm their way into my mind — but it does sound quite lovely. The band played its new and old songs Wednesday night (March 23) at Schubas, casting a spell with dreamy melodies, with singer-songwriter Jason Robert Quever’s vulnerable vocals pointing the way. Viewed from one angle, Papercuts’ music might seem retro, but I prefer to think of it as timeless.

The apt opening act Wednesday was Still Corners, an English band with a cool psych-pop sound. The optical illusions and films projected on the screen behind Still Corners resembled the visual shows used by bands such as Caribou and Broadcast, and the sound was enthralling.

Ron Sexsmith at Schubas

Showing his usual self-deprecating sense of humor, Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith expressed surprise last night (March 22) that one of his new songs, “Believe It When I See It,” is in heavy rotation on BBC Radio 2. It’s the closest thing he’s had to a hit in years, which, as he noted, might be a sign of the apocalypse foretold by Nostradamus. Sexsmith was playing at Schubas Tuesday, touring behind yet another solid album filled with wistful and well-crafted pop songs, “Long Player Late Bloomer.” So what if he hasn’t had any real hits? His melodies are masterful, and his performances feel sincere.

Tuesday night, Sexsmith and his band of longtime backing musicians played quite a few of the songs from the new album — “along with the hits you grew up with,” he joked. An interlude of quieter tunes was especially nice. For the encore, Sexsmith played three of his most memorable older songs, “Lebanon Tennessee,” “Tell Me Again” and “Secret Heart.” (I didn’t make any requests, but if I had, I would’ve loved to hear his gem, “Riverbed.”)

Opening act Caitlin Rose played a good set of country-tinged folk rock, displaying some strong vocals.

Tunng at Schubas

I’m not going to use the genre catchphrase that the British band Tunng got stuck with a few years back. Let’s just say it involves a combination of folk music with electronic textures and percussions. You get the idea. (If not, Google it.) Even if that label was a bit constricting, it’s true that Tunng makes music out of that combination of sounds. And what beguiling music it is. The group’s latest record, …And Then We Saw Land, is filled with loopy, catchy tunes where the voices of Mike Lindsay and Becky Jacobs and harmonize chant together over a delightful jingle of jangling percussion and inventive guitar melodies.

The spirited, sing-along and dance-around-like-a-fool side of Tunng was on full display when the group came to Chicago for the first time in three years, playing Wednesday (Nov. 18) at Schubas. Given Tunng’s reputation as something of a folk-rock group, who would’ve expected Lindsay to don a pair of goofy glasses that would’ve been appropriate for Bootsy Collins? Meanwhile, Jacobs frequently did a cute sort of robot-walk dance. Meanwhile, the drummer — um, was that Martin Smith? I believe so — was tickling some of the sea shells and car keys arrayed in front of him with this bare toes. (He also play keyboard and a bunch of other percussion.)

This was quite a joyful musical affair, reminding me of the communal feeling of harmonizing by Scandinavian bands Müm and Efterklang. Tunng mostly played songs from its new record, and then dug out a couple of older tunes for the end of the show, “Bullets” and “Woodcat.” Many of the songs opened with recordings of spoken word, often used for humorous effect, as when the members of Tunng followed some instructions on how to make your fingers create the optical illusion of a sausage floating in front of your eyes.


The opening act was Louisville singer-songwriter Cheyenne Marie Mize, who’s played as a member of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s band. She played a solid set of songs from her solo album Before Lately, showing that she’s someone to watch.

Avi Buffalo at Schubas

Avi Buffalo started out as the musical stage name of singer-songwriter-guitarist Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg, which played Wednesday (Oct. 20) at Schubas. Still, Zahner-Isenberg was clearly the focus of attention and the key creative force on the stage. Avi Buffalo played a cool set of songs from its self-titled debut album, which came out in April on Sub Pop. In both his singing and his guitar playing, Zahner-Isenberg displays tremendous creativity. His melodies sometimes jump and twist like a Shins or XTC tune, and his falsetto singing is also in the same realm as the Shins’ James Mercer. Drummer Sheridan Riley’s percussion artfully filled in the spaces in Zahner-Isenberg’s songs. As crafty as those songs are, the live performance by Avi Buffalo was refreshingly simple and straightforward, without a lot of sonic effects to dress up the intriguing music.


The opening acts were Whisker Music and New Ruins, both of whom play roots rock. I especially liked the set by Whisker Music, a Chicago band that released a self-titled debut EP last year, reminding me of alt-country by groups such as the Blacks.



The Dø at Schubas

On Monday night (Sept. 14), Chicago was lucky to receive a visit from the Dø, a French/Finnish indie-pop duo. Schubas was a little bit empty as the opening bands played earlier that night — hey, it was a Monday, and Pavement was playing down at Millennium Park — but the room was about half-full by the time this delightful European act took the stage.

The duo — singer and sometimes guitarist Olivia Merilahti and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Dan Levy — had a guitarist, drummer and roadie for this tour, and the songs sounded fresh and lively. They played some new songs, as well as an appropriately bouncy cover of Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope.”

The Dø, by the way, pronounces its name like “dough,” with a long “o.” The group takes its name from the first note on the “do re mi…” musical scale. The Dø’s debut album, A Mouthful, came out in Europe in 2008, but it did not get an official U.S. release until this year. (An aside: The whole idea of import records seems so obsolete today. Who wants to wait months or even years for a record to get an official release in the U.S. if it’s worth hearing now? File sharing, myspace and have practically erased international boundaries, at least as far as release dates go.)

Listen to the Dø at and

The opening acts were the Wooden Sky, a Toronto band playing likable roots rock, and Dirty Diamond, a Chicago band with three female singers who seem to be aiming for a sort of girl-group party-pop sound.


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.

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, (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.

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.

Seabear at Schubas

I discovered Seabear a couple of years ago through an almost random search. I’ve liked other musical acts from Iceland, so I searched around online for some new Icelandic bands, hitting upon Seabear. I downloaded Seabear’s first album from emusic and loved the breathy vocals of lead singer Sindri Már Sigfússon and the mellow folk-rock-pop vibe.

Sigfússon also plays under the name Sin Fang Bous, recording a more psychedelic or experimental version of the stuff he does with Seabear, and last year he played a Chicago gig under that name (opening for Múm). But last Friday (April 2) was the first time Seabear had ever played in Chicago, coming at the end of the Icelandic band’s first U.S. tour. I wasn’t sure what to expect for turnout. I wondered how many people have actually heard of Seabear. A fair amount, as it turns out. Schubas was not sold out in advance, but the room was full by the time Seabear took the stage. And the band delivered a strong set.

With seven musicians on stage, Seabear was an authentic band, not just a solo project by Sigfússon (which is apparently how the group started out). Sigfússon’s soft vocals sounded lovely, and the band brought the songs to life with subtle musical touches. When Sigfússon’s bandmates joined in on harmony vocals, the show took on the feeling of friends gathering together to sing favorite songs (much like a Múm gig).

Seabear has a nice new record out called We Built the Fire. The band was also featured recently on NPR’s Song of the Day.

As a bonus, the show started out with a beautiful set of chamber-style folk-pop by Sóley , who is the keyboard player and a backup singer in Seabear. I wish she’d played for more than 20 minutes, but I look forward to hearing more from her in the future.

In between Sóley and Seabear, Chicago artist Via Tania (a.k.a. Tania Bowers + band) played songs from her new album Moon Sweet Moon, with earthy singing and a rootsy, moody brand of folk rock.

See my photos of Seabear, Sóley and Via Tania.

Janelle Monáe at Schubas

Janelle Monáe performs March 29, 2010, at Schubas in Chicago.

Singer Janelle Monáe’s been getting some buzz for a while now, but she still doesn’t have a proper album out. That will change soon (when her debut CD, ArchAndroid, comes out in May), and she was in Chicago this week for two shows at Schubas. I was there on the first night, Monday (March 29), and after seeing Monáe’s dynamic, dazzling performance, I think it’s safe to say she’s going to be playing at much bigger venues in the future.

Monáe is known for singing with OutKast, but her performance Monday was more soul and pop than hip-hop. She wowed me with her strong voice and her sense of drama. I also noticed some interesting almost orchestral flourishes in the song arrangements. She and her backing musicians came out onto the stage in druid robes for a Spinal Tap-esque entrance, with a fog machine going, and the whole show had an air of spectacle about it, despite being at little ol’ Schubas. (Opening act The 54 also delivered a lively set of hard-rocking music.)

A Sunny Day in Glasgow

There are a lot of bands recently with geographical names, but it seems like most of them are not actually from the places mentioned in their band names. Portugal the Man? They’re from Alaska. I’m From Barcelona? They’re from Sweden. Illinois? They’re from Pennsylvania. Continuing in this vein, there’s the band A Sunny Day in Glasgow. In all fairness, one of the band’s former members actually used to live in Glasgow, Scotland, but the group is based in Philadelphia, and that guy isn’t even in the band anymore (if wikipedia is to be believed). So the band name is more about the mood and style of the music than where the musicians are from.

I won’t go on at length about this band, because they’re new to me, even though they’ve been playing for a few years. They came to Schubas on Wednesday (March 3) and played a quite enjoyable set of indie pop music, with a big emphasis on tuneful vocals. The group’s gone through some lineup changes, and I don’t know how this version of Sunny Day compares with previous ones, but the pair of female singers, Jen Goma and Annie Fredrickson, were fun both to hear and watch. The group finished its show with a Fleetwood Mac cover, “Everywhere.” Like the band’s name, it all sounded pretty sunny.

Photos of A Sunny Day in Glasgow and opening act Acrylics.

Ike Reilly at Schubas

When you see the enthusiasm of Ike Reilly’s fans — the way they recognize his catchiest songs, the way they sing along, the way they shout out, “I love you, Ike!” — it seems clear that this guy could be a star. The reality is, however, that he’s more of a hidden treasure. Reilly, who still lives in his hometown of Libertyville up in Lake County, has a pretty good following here in Chicago and some other places, but like most indie-label artists, he doesn’t get all the radio airplay that he deserves.

Reilly has a strong album out called Hard Luck Stories, and he wrapped up a string of four Monday-night concerts at Schubas this week. The room filled up pretty well for a Monday evening, and it was obvious that some of Reilly’s true believers were in attendance. Although one of Reilly’s musicians was absent for the night, his band (the Ike Reilly Assassination) delivered the songs in lean, tight performances. In his gruff voice, Reilly sang his story songs about characters that seem so real. And he hooked his audience with the catchy choruses of shoulda-been hits like “When Irish Eyes are Burning.”

My only complaint: I was hoping to hear a song from Reilly’s new record that’s been caught in my mind lately, “The Ballad of Jack and Haley.” Oh, well, I guess I should have requested it online beforehand, which is how some of the fans at Schubas got to hear their Reilly faves.

Photos of the Ike Reilly Assassination.

Laura Veirs at Schubas

How many women would go on tour and perform concerts if they were eight months pregnant? Laura Veirs did, showing up Saturday night (Feb. 28) at Schubas in Chicago, looking very “with child,” as they say. She didn’t act the least bit uncomfortable, however, seeming completely at ease as she performed songs from her excellent new record, July Flame, as well as a good number of older tunes. And despite the fact that she’s about to become a mother, Veirs vowed to be back soon, baby in tow.

It’s been a mystery to me why Veirs hasn’t gained more popularity over the years. She’s made several albums of wonderful folk-rock songs, writing smart lyrics and singing insinuating melodies in an appealingly open, honest voice. She deserves a spot in the top tier of today’s singer-songwriters, but she still doesn’t have a lot of name recognition. She used to be on the prestigious Nonesuch label, but now (like a good number of other artists abandoned by the majors) she is releasing her records on her own label, Raven Marching Band. More power to her.

Veirs’ songs rang out strong and clear Saturday night. And in case anyone wants to try playing those songs, she was selling a July Flame songbook with lyrics, chords and guitar tabs. That’s something I’d like to see more often at merch tables. (I bought one and got Veirs’ autograph. You can buy a copy at Veirs’ Web site.

Photos of Laura Veirs.

Alec Ounsworth at Schubas

Five years ago, indie-rockers Clap Your Hands Say Yeah were all the rage, getting lots of hype and seemingly coming out of nowhere. And then, as happens so often whenever there’s hype, there was some backlash. In hindsight, the band’s self-titled debut holds up well. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah hasn’t lived up to expectations since then, however. With the group apparently on hiatus, lead singer Alec Ounsworth came to Chicago Thursday (Feb. 25) for a show at Schubas. It seemed as if a fair number of the fans in attendance showed up for opening act Ezra Furman and the Harpoons. By the end of the night, when Ounsworth finished his set, the attendance was less than you’d expect for a once-hyped indie star.

Ounsworth’s voice has always been a little wobbly, with a tendency to veer off-key. That sort of singing — emotionally searing but potentially grating — has been in vogue for several years now in indie rock. (Furman does it, too.) There’s a thin line between the good and bad when attempt this sort of barely controlled attack on the notes. On Thursday, Ounsworth landed on the good side of that line. With his hat, eyeglasses and mustache, he looked a bit like a character from sort sort of costume drama. And he had an unusual presence on the stage — barely moving around during the instrumental breaks other than tilting his head this way and that.

Ounsworth played songs from his recent solo debut, Mo Beauty, and another record, Skin and Bones, which he made under the moniker Flashy Python. He also played a bit of his repertoire from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, including “Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood.” His backing musicians were a lively bunch, bringing a quirky sense of energy to the tunes.

Photos of Alec Ounsworth and Ezra Furman.

Tomorrow Never Knows

The Tomorrow Never Knows festival got bigger this year. It used to be a series of mid-January concerts at Schubas. This year, it was five nights of shows simultaneously happening at both Schubas and its new sister venue, Lincoln Hall. January is generally not all that exciting of a month on the concert calendar, but the TNK fest brought a good selection of up-and-coming indie-rock bands to Chicago.

I attended two of the shows during the festival. Last Thursday (Jan. 14) at Schubas, the headliners were Surfer Blood, a young band from Florida that’s been getting some buzz lately. I like what I’ve heard of Surfer Blood’s studio recordings. It might be a little too polished and amped up, but the power-pop single “Swim” is pretty darn catchy. The band has inspired some wild comparisons to other groups. Time Out Chicago said they sound like a mix of Asia and Brian Eno. Friends I follow on Twitter mentioned the Fixx and Boston. I was thinking more along the lines of the Ponys and OK Go. As a live act, Surfer Blood needs some practice. The band wasn’t bad, but songs that would have been appealing as three-minute pop singles got stretched out twice as long as that, until the repetitive chord progressions just got boring. Then again, “Swim” sounded really strong without all that heavy compression and reverb on the studio record. Surfer Blood abruptly ended its set with drum-set-smashing antics… ensuring that there would be no encore.

Also on the bill Thursday, Freelance Whales played buoyant songs from its forthcoming debut LP, Weathervanes. The record’s not out until March 16, but this band is already building a solid following. Freelance Whales also opened recently for Fanfarlo at Schubas, and Thursday’s appearance was another energetic performance of the catchy songs on Weathervanes.

Thursday’s show started out with the annoyingly named Lasers and Fast and Shit. With dramatic back lighting and lots of fog, the group hammered its way through some hard-edged post-punk. A couple of the songs had good hooks, but others sounded like run-of-the-mill rock.

And sandwiched in between all those bands was Bear in Heaven. A couple of the musicians in this Brooklyn band played in avant-garde guitarist Rhys Chatham’s metal band, but Bear in Heaven doesn’t play that sort of drony music. Its songs were ominous and dramatic, however.

On Saturday night, I was at Lincoln Hall for the triple bill of Julie Doiron, the Rural Alberta Advantage and Bowerbirds. Although the show was sold out, the room did not feel quite as jam-packed as I would have expected. I get the feeling some fans were there just for one band or another — and maybe some folks with festival passes were shuttling back and forth between Lincoln Hall and Schubas.

I saw Doiron play twice last year, once with a band and once solo. Saturday’s show was like a hybrid of those, since she had just one musician accompanying her, William Kidman on guitar. She didn’t talk as much as she during her last solo show (it would be hard for anyone to talk that much again), delivering a tighter set of some great songs, including at least one new composition and one very nice cover, Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me.”

The Rural Alberta Advantage were the middle band on the bill Saturday, but judging from the energy of their performance and the fan turnout, they should have been the headliners. This Canadian trio put out an excellent record in 2008 (when I discovered it on emusic), which then got wider release in 2009. Their music reminds me of Neutral Milk Hotel, probably because the band’s singer-songwriter Nils Edenloff sings in a strong tone similar to NHM’s Jeff Mangum. The songs sounded lively Saturday night, thanks to the powerful drumming of Paul Banwatt and the many touches provided by multi-instrumentalist Amy Cole. Edenloff was suffering from a cold, and his vocals were ragged on some of the songs, especially when he belted out notes. I winced a few times at hearing Edenloff’s voice crack, but he deserves a gold star for giving the music his full effort despite his illness. The RAA played a couple of new songs (which sounded like promising additions to the band’s repertoire), and two covers: Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and the theme of the Canadian kids’ TV show, “The Littlest Hobo.”

Bowerbirds finished off the night with a pretty performance of the band’s folk-rock ballads. This Raleigh, N.C., band’s 2009 record, Upper Air, really grew on me over time, with a lot of compositions that stick in the mind. In concert, Phil Moore’s vocals and guitar blended beautifully with Beth Tacular’s accordion and harmonies (though I wish Tacular would sing even more). All that being said, it was a very mellow set for midnight, lulling the crowd rather than rousing it. Maybe the Bowerbirds’ set would have worked better earlier in the evening.

Photos from Tomorrow Never Knows. (I’m still waiting to get my camera from the repair shop, but I managed to get a few photos at these shows, thanks to the kind friends who let me use their cameras.)

Evangelicals and Holiday Shores

A little before 9 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 22), it was looking unlikely that Holiday Shores would play its scheduled gig at Schubas, opening for Evangelicals. The band was still on the road, but it showed up in the nick of time, unloading amps and instruments cases into Schubas’ music room. Good thing they made it, since it turned out to be a sparkling set of music.

This band from Florida’s Panhandle has a debut album out called Columbus’d the Whim. In concert, Holiday Shores sounded at first like a pretty typical indie-rock band of the moment (a little Arcade Fire, a little Modest Mouse, a little Dirty Projectors), but the music took on a more distinctive sound as the show went on. The songs had an upbeat, cheerful quality, and some impressive guitar duets featuring serpentine melodies. It was a spirited performance that showed Holiday Shores stands out a bit from the crowd.

Evangelicals were also well worth hearing, although you wouldn’t have known it from the sparse attendance at Sunday’s show. Twenty people or so were in the music room as this surreal, melodramatically emotional psychedelic rock band from Oklahoma played. The band deserved a bigger crowd, as it played some of the terrific tunes from its most recent album, 2008’s The Evening Descends. The band’s light display included a couple of mannequin-like figures pulsing with pink lights, an apt image for a band that sings: “Strange things keep happening! Strange things keep happening!”

Photos of Evangelicals and Holiday Shores.

Meat Puppets at Schubas

I enjoyed listening to records by the Meat Puppets back in the ’80s — and I regretted the fact that I never saw them in concert. A few years ago, it seemed like I might never have that chance, since the band had gone on hiatus and bassist Cris Kirkwood was reportedly suffering from some pretty serious drug problems. In 2007, Cris emerged from limbo, however, reforming the Meat Puppets with his brother, Kurt. They were back in Chicago last week, playing three nights in a row at Schubas. I caught their set on Friday night.

I haven’t listened to the Meat Puppets all that much in recent years, but their old music instantly flashed back into my mind as I heard the Kirkwood brothers doing their unique combination of loopy guitar riffs, loping country rhythms and psychedelia. The music sounded heavier in concert than it does on record. In fact, this was one of the rare Schubas shows where I eventually felt compelled to move to the back of the room because of the overpowering volume. The bass and drum sounds were thumping a bit too loud in my eardrums up there by the stage.

Cris Kirkwood’s face was only intermittently visible, peaking out from a tangle of hair as he pounded away on the bass. His voice still blended together with Kurt’s in shaggy sibling harmony, and Kurt curled his lips as he played his guitar solos. He really seemed to relish the moment. Drummer Ted Marcus tied together the band’s somewhat spacious sound with off-kilter beats. And the Meat Puppets played many of their best songs, including “Up on the Sun,” “Plateau” (made famous by Nirvana) and “Backwater.”

The first opening band was Atlanta’s Winston Audio, which played hard rock with Southern flair and lots of hair being tossed around. The second band, Dynasty Electric, seemed like a mismatch with the rest of the bill, playing electronic pop — dance music accented with electric guitar and Theremin. They weren’t really playing my kind of music, but they made for some pretty pictures.

Photos of the Meat Puppets, Winston Audio and Dynasty Electric.

Choir of Young Believers

A band from Denmark called Choir of Young Believers made one of my favorite records this year, This Is for the White in Your Eyes, and the group’s music sounded just as sublime in concert the other night (Oct. 26) at Schubas. The leader of this Choir, Jannis Noya Makrigiannis, sang beautiful melodies that put most rock tunesmiths to shame. Markigiannis knows how to write (and sing) a melody that makes dramatic leaps rather than sticking with less imaginative notes.

For all intents and purposes, Markigiannis is Choir of Young Believers, but he had a solid backup group (bass, drums and cello) that did an excellent job of playing live arrangements similar to the studio recordings. I’ve had trouble putting my finger on exactly what Choir reminds me of. The Ghostly International label’s Web site compares Choir’s music with classic pop music such as Roy Orbison. I can see that — the music Markigiannis is making with Choir feels like a Scandinavian take on the epic, quasi-orchestral pop music of Phil Spector — but there’s also something about it that reminds me of indie artists from the 1980s, and I hear similarities to other Scandinavian artists such as Loney Dear.

Performing the final show of Choir’s U.S. tour Monday night at Schubas, Markigiannis hit all the high notes. At the end of the main set, he even let loose on guitar, flailing around with charged energy. He returned without his backup band for one solo song during the encore — a cover of the Swedish band First Floor Power’s song “Goddamn Your Finger.” (Choir’s cover of the song appears on the various artists collection Saluting the Crunchy-Frog-a-logue.

Alas, Schubas was not nearly as crowded as it should have been for this show, although the folks who did show up clearly liked what they heard. Monday nights are always a tough night to draw a crowd, and on this Monday, these Danes were competing with a few other high-profile indie-rock shows in Chicago. The Schubas show also featured opening acts Chris Bathgate (doing some nice roots-rock with trumpet and trombone accents) and Brazil’s MoMo (whom I recently saw at the Chicago World Music Festival). It was a motley but interesting mix of musical styles.

Photos of Choir of Young Believers.

Dead Man’s Bones at Schubas

As I said in my recent review of the CD by Dead Man’s Bones, this is one peculiar project. And so it was in concert, too. Dead Man’s Bones came to Schubas Wednesday night (Oct. 21) for two sold-out shows. I think it’s a fair assumption that a high percentage of the crowd turned out because the band includes film actor Ryan Gosling. And need I say that a high percentage of the crowd was female? Gosling could have doing just about anything on the stage, and a good number of these fans probably would have shown up anyway. But, given the way the crowd responded to the songs, it was also clear that these fans have been listened to the Dead Man’s Bones album, which sounds a bit like Daniel Johnston teaming up with a school choir to do a musical about haunted houses. (The vocals are on key more often than Johnston’s, however.)

The songs sounded much the same in the concert, with a chorus of children in white sheets and pale ghost makeup crowding onto the stage and singing many of the choruses, to the delight of the audience. One of the girls in the chorus took part into a miniature drama, involving her falling dead and then singing from behind a backlit sheet. The whole spectacle was campy and quirky to the extreme. Even the opening act, if you can call it that, was an exercise in ironic amateurism: a talent show that included an artist drawing a picture then singing, a belly dancer, and a magician.

I expect some people would find the whole Dead Man’s Bones show a bit precious, but I enjoyed it from beginning to end, and unlike many of the folks in attendance, I wasn’t even there to moon over Mr. Gosling. (Don’t forget that he has other collaborators in this band, including another singer-songwriter, Zach Shields.) The celebratory show had some of the zany sense of humor and the “let’s try something weird” attitude that animated the Flaming Lips at their best. It was certainly a very memorable night.

Photos of Dead Man’s Bones.

Elliott Brood at Schubas

The Canadian trio Elliott Brood calls its music “goth country,” which is a fairly apt description. The group played Tuesday night at Schubas, combining banjo, guitar, ukulele and drums with gritty and sometimes growled singing. Despite the dark side of Elliott Brood’s music, the music came across as upbeat in the live performance. The band played with its own lights, including strings of twinkly little bulbs and some spinning red ambulance lights. A big banner with the band’s name hung from a frame in front of the drum kit, making the stage look like an old-fashioned carnival show. The highlight of the set came at the end, when drummer Stephen Pitkin passed out pie tins and wooden spoons to the crowd for some audience participation. And then, during the encore, opening act the Wooden Sky (who had put on a pretty good set of alt-country) joined Elliott Brood onstage for some dancing and singing along. Suddenly, the goth country tunes seemed like party music.

The evening got off to a nice start with the moody songs of Chicago’s Speck Mountain — another band that might qualify as goth country, but with a slower, more drawn-out beat.

Photos of Elliott Brood, the Wooden Sky and Speck Mountain.

Lincoln Hall opens

Lincoln Hall opened Friday in the same space where the 3 Penny Cinema used to show movies, on Lincoln Avenue just north of Fullerton. This is the same neighborhood where the Lounge Ax used to be one of the Chicago rock scene’s beacons. And with Wax Trax Records located just a short distance away, this stretch of Lincoln was a major destination for music fans. Not much has been happening in this part of Lincoln Park lately, as far as music goes, but that’s changing now with the opening of this new venue.

Run by the same fine folks who book so many great concerts over at Schubas, Lincoln Hall is three times bigger than its sister venue, holding about 500 people. I paid the place a visit for the first time on Saturday (Oct. 17) when Liam Finn was the headline act. To be honest, Lincoln Hall didn’t look all that big when I was standing on the main floor. It still has the cozy feel of a small venue, and that might be because the main floor’s capacity is only 169, almost exactly the size of Schubas. The difference is that there’s a large balcony with lots of prime viewing space along the railing. And boy does this room have a high ceiling. The long black drapes hanging behind the stage seem like they go up and up and up. The inside of Lincoln Hall looks a bit like a small music club where the ceiling has been lifted up. The place doesn’t have as much character as Schubas — at least, not yet. The place is brand spanking new after all. I appreciated the lack of posters, advertisements and decorations on the walls of the music room. With lots of stained wood and wrought-iron railings (at least, that’s what they looked like), Lincoln Hall is a classy-looking place. The decor is restrained — not all that exciting, maybe, but hey, the music’s what makes the excitement, right?

The sound at Saturday’s show was excellent. From what I read in the Chicago Tribune, it seemed as if the owners held off for a week on their official grand opening while they work out bugs like sound quality, but I didn’t see any bugs that needed to be worked out on Saturday. The sound was crystal clear. Even when I was standing near the stage, I didn’t really feel much need to use earplugs. I think that’s because the loudest speakers in the place were the ones hanging up on the ceiling way above my head. I did notice at one point that I was picking up too much sound from the bass amp on the stage, throwing off the balance of the mix I was hearing, but that’s probably an unavoidable thing for people who stand right next to the band.

I was up in the balcony for just a few minutes at the beginning of the night, and I thought the view of the stage from up there was excellent. The views were good on the main floor, too, of course. Nice sight lines all around. I’m told that about 300 people were there for Saturday’s concert, and with that many people, it was comfortable moving around. We’ll see what it’s like when it sells out.

At Saturday’s concert, a team of employees helped the bands set up and remove their equipment in between sets. There’s a sound board on the side of the stage as well as a large control station at the back of the main room. It all looks highly professional.

But… Memo to the guys running the lights: Would you mind laying off a bit on all those red lights? This is a problem that’s not unique to Lincoln Hall. Lots of music venues seem to think that concerts look cool when the musicians are bathed in a red or pink haze. And I doubt if most fans think there’s anything wrong with that. As a photographer, however, I hate red light. It really makes for lousy pictures. Those red lights knock out just about every other color in the spectrum, and all you’re left with is an image that might as well be black and white. There were a lot of red and pink lights Saturday night, especially when Liam Finn was playing. Once in a while, there was a burst of white light, and to me it felt like: Hallelujah! At last I can take a decent picture. So, if it’s not too much to ask, a little bit more of that white light would be fabulous, guys. I’m just saying…

Saturday’s show started off with Greycoats, who sounded a bit like Coldplay, playing polished pop-rock. Next up was the Chicago band Unicycle Loves You, which played some pretty good power pop. Nice melodic hooks and a tight sound, though I’d like to see Unicycle scruff things up a bit more.

Headliner Liam Finn usually puts on an entertaining show, and he was in good spirits Saturday night, especially when he used his looping pedals to go a little bit nuts with guitar solos and drum solos on top of the chords he’d just been playing. His mellower ballads sounded lovely, too. Finn treated the crowd to a couple of loud and lively cover songs. Noting that his sound guy was celebrating his birthday, and that it was also the birthday of someone in the audience, Finn played a rocking version of the Beatles’ “Birthday.” And during the encore, he cranked out some great Neil Young riffing on “Cinnamon Girl,” noting: “I wanna play in a Neil Young cover band!”

For more details on Lincoln Hall, see

Photos of Liam Finn, Unicycle Loves You and Greycoats.

Youth Group at Schubas

After seeing the story of London’s Black Plague and listening to some delightful classical music during Black Violet (see my previous post), I stopped at Schubas last night (Oct. 6) for a show by Australia’s Youth Group.

I’ve enjoyed Youth Group’s 2005 album Skeleton Jar and the group’s 2006 album Casino Twilight Dogs. Both are filled with smart, melodic tunes that stick in your head. At times, Youth Group verges on the sort of mellow indie pop played by groups like Death Cab For Cutie, but there’s also a quality to the guitar lines that reminds me more of ’60s psychedelic rock channeled through contemporary indie rock. I’m less familiar with Youth Group’s latest CD, The Night Is Ours, but those new songs sounded pretty good alongside the old ones on Tuesday night.

The heart of this band is the hirsute singer-guitarist Toby Martin, who has the sort of fine mellow voice that’s perfect for carrying an anthem like “Forever Young.” That voice also meshes well with the louder guitars on Youth Group songs. The band doesn’t reinvent its songs in concert, but it does play them with a sort of insistent intensity. Schubas was not sold out for these musicians who’d made the trip from Sydney, but the room filled up somewhat by the time Youth Group played, and the audience showed its appreciation for what it was hearing. (I just wish the band had played one of my favorite songs off their last album, “Sorry.”)

The first act of the show was the Wiitala Brothers, who were celebrating the release of a new CD. They sounded like a pretty solid rock duo, closing their set with a couple of nice, melodic ballads. Next up was Other Girls. Not surprisingly, Other Girls was actually four guys (following the trend of all-male bands like Girls and Women). They sounded an awful lot like other recent bands such as the Walkmen, with that style of strained singing, so I can’t say they were all that distinctive, but they won me over with their energy.

Photos of Youth Group, Wiitala Brothers and Other Girls.

Rural Alberta Advantage

The Rural Alberta Advantage put out an excellent record last year called Hometowns, with a sound that reminded me of Neutral Milk Hotel. The record received more attention this year after the Saddle Creek picked it up for wider release, and the trio — Nils Edenloff, Amy Cole and Paul Banwat — came to Chicago last night (Sept. 26) for the second time in a couple of months. Their late show at Schubas sold out, so an early show was added. Clearly, more people are discovering this band, so expect them to be playing bigger venues in the future.

Edenloff, who grew up in Alberta and sings about his home province in some of the sings, is the singer-songwriter-guitarist-keyboardist at the center of the Rural Alberta Advantage. The strong melodies of his songs really came through during the early show at Schubas, with some lovely harmony vocals and glockenspiel or keyboard accents from Cole and energetic drumming by Banwat. These are songs you know you’ll want to hear again. The band supplemented its set with a couple of cover tunes, both of which Edenloff played as solo acoustic numbers: “S.O.S.” by ABBA (always one of the few ABBA songs I’ve really liked), and “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. Man, I didn’t expect them to play that song, but even that tune (which I always thought of as a cheesy cliche) came off pretty well.

The opening act Saturday at Schubas, the Love Language, also delivered a vibrant set of its songs. I saw this band in the spring at the Hideout, and they impressed me yet again this time, with catchy songs and plenty of energy.

Photos of the Rural Alberta Advantage and the Love Language.

Amazing Baby and Entrance Band

The Brooklyn band Amazing Baby came to Schubas in Chicago on Friday night, and they made Schubas look like a miniature rock arena, complete with lasers, billowing fog and strobe lights. It’s good to see a band with a sense of showmanship, although I wondered at times if Amazing Baby was overdoing it. The music was pretty good, but it was overpowered by the band’s attempt to present a rock spectacle on that little stage. Amazing Baby’s at its best when some strong ’60s-style melodies shine through the polished mix. I’d like to hear them experiment more.

The opening band, aptly named for that slot, was Entrance Band, whom I saw recently opening for Sonic Youth. This trio sounds great when it gets psychedelic. Not so great (in my opinion) when it starts to sound more like ’70s hard rock. There were lots of long jams during their set Friday … a little too long, but there were some intense moments when Entrance Band’s three players really clicked together.

Photos of Amazing Baby and Entrance Band.

Lost in the Trees at Schubas

It’s becoming a pretty common sight these days to see violins, violas and cellos onstage at an indie-rock concert. Both local and touring bands often seem almost like miniature orchestras or string quartets at Chicago venues such as Schubas, the Empty Bottle and the Hideout. One of the best and most sophisticated of the current orchestral rock outfits is Lost in the Trees, an ensemble from Chapel Hill, N.C.

Lost in the Trees’ 2008 album All Alone in an Empty House alternates between delicate, highly melodic folk rock, which is a little reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens, and some instrumental orchestral compositions that are about the closest thing to traditional classical music that you’ll hear anywhere on a rock CD today. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Ari Picker is the dominant guy in Lost in the Trees, but when the band came to Schubas last Thursday (July 9) it felt like a true ensemble. A full string section played beautiful arrangements throughout the set, supplemented by guitar, drums, mandolin, glockenspiel and horns. The strong tunes from that 2008 CD resonated in concert, affirming that this is definitely a group to watch for future releases. (And now I really want to hear the earlier Lost in the Trees releases from 2004 and 2006). Lost in the Trees finished its show by moving off the stage and onto the main floor at Schubas, playing unamplified with a bunch of fans gathered around. It was a lovely moment.

Photos of Lost in the Trees.

The first band of the night was Halloween, Alaska, which seemed to have a fair amount of fans in attendance, including people who really recognized the songs. The band sounded too much like Death Cab For Cutie for my tastes, but I suppose that’ll be a strong selling point for many folks. (And like so many bands these days, this one is named after a place where they are not from. They’re actually from Minnesota, not Alaska. As a native of Alaska, I disapprove.)

The second group of the night was Box of Baby Birds, a Chicago group led by Gary Calhoun James. Box of Baby Birds plays subtle, mellow folk rock with moody textures. The group’s new EP, Arboreal, is another fine recording, worth delving into, and the songs sounded beguiling at the Schubas performance. Box of Baby Birds is also playing July 23 at the Hideout on a bill with Cameron McGill. Alas, these CD release shows are also being billed as “farewell shows” for Box of Baby Birds, as James is apparently moving to Austin, Texas.