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.

Reviews of June 19-22 concerts

I’m not quite as swamped with concerts this week as I have been lately, but here are a few good ones that happened in recent days.

Soy Un Caballo sounds like the name for a Spanish band, or maybe a New York pretending to be a Spanish band. The group’s name is Spanish for “I Am a Horse.” But this male-female duo is actually Belgian, and they sing most of their songs in French. They were delightful Friday night (June 19) at Schubas, playing a set of delicate songs on guitar, bass and vibes with pretty vocal harmonies. “It’s very courageous of you to take French lessons on a Friday night,” one of them remarked. Courageous? Hardly! The band happens to be on a Chicago label, Minty Fresh, which has a history of finding great bands from overseas. Check out Soy Un Caballo’s music at

Photos of Soy Un Caballo.

On Saturday night (June 20), the Empty Bottle had a strong, if somewhat mismatched, triple lineup. The headliners were O’Death, who got the crowd dancing like it was a real hoedown, while the band cranked out bluegrassy music with punk attitude. Ah, but a little bit of O’Death goes a long way for me. The fans loved it, anyway. The middle act on the bill, and my main reason for being there, was Tiny Vipers, the singer-songwriter also known as Jesy Fortino. She has some really nice songs, but they’re very quiet songs, and alas, the Bottle crowd was really chatty, making it almost painful at times to watch Fortino straining to be heard about that din. At several points, a big “shush” went up, and people shut up for a few minutes. The acoustic guitar picking and plaintive singing sounded beautiful… whenever I could hear it. (You can hear some of it here: The first act of the night was Balmorhea, an ensemble from Austin, Texas, that plays songs falling somewhere between chamber music and rock. It was pretty and mellow, though maybe a little too mellow. Balmorhea is practically an instrumental band, with vocals on only a few songs, but it was the ending of the show, when the members all came together and sang a cappella, that really stood out for me.

Photos of O’Death, Tiny Vipers and Balmorhea.

Monday (June 22) was another night with great (and free!) live music at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. It’s kind of hard to believe that Chicago city officials are cool enough to allow things like a concert by the Dirty Projectors to happen in a beautiful, world-class venue like the Pritzker. I guess that’s because the city government (for all of its many faults) has a smart Cultural Affairs Department. This particular show featured those indie-rock darlings from Brooklyn, the Dirty Projectors, opening for a stalwart Chicago act, the Sea and Cake. At least in the front part of the pavilion, it was clear that most of the twentysomething fans who rushed to get seats when the gates opened were Dirty Projectors fans. I overheard some of these kids saying that they didn’t even know who the Sea and Cake were, and some of them did not stick around for the headliners.

The Dirty Projectors have intrigued me on the two previous times I’ve seen them, but at times, their music seemed like not entirely successful experimentation. They’re getting more press now, thanks in part to collaborations with Björk and David Byrne (neither of whom was present for this show, of course). And boy, the Dirty Projectors really connected this time. With an expanded lineup, the band is doing a lot more with vocal harmonies — really peculiar but very precise harmonies, with intervals, overlapping patterns and spot-on timing. It’s easy to see why Björk would want to work with them. I was wowed by the sound of those voices, which seemed almost like a programmed effect than an organic piece of singing happening right in front of me. The guitar melodies were striking, too, with lots of African style skewed into strange new territory.

The Sea and Cake finished the show with a pretty good set, though as always, I find myself wishing that this band would break loose a little bit. They’re very talented, and their songs are smart compositions with inventive chords, but it’s always tamped down. The one thing that wasn’t tamped down was drummer John McIntire, who grimaced and made all sorts of intense expressions as he hammered away.

Photos of the Dirty Projectors and the Sea and Cake.

UPDATE: I was too busy today to pay attention to Twitter or anything like that, so I overlooked the news that the Dirty Projectors had been in a car accident. Everyone is reportedly OK.

Hey, Chris Mills and Sally Timms

Hey, Sally Timms: When are you going to release another solo CD? I’m asking because that set you played Sunday night (June 14) at Schubas sounded awfully good. And, well, it’s been a while.

Timms had a five-piece band playing behind her, with a delicate mix of banjo, mandolin, guitar, stand-up bass, clarinet, trumpet and drums, for a folky yet slightly jazzy sound. She played songs by her pal (and fellow Mekon) Jon Langford and others… even a cool version of the Mekons song “Corporal Chalkie.” And, as always, she had a delightfully wry and self-deprecating sense of humor.

She was the opening act for Chris Mills, which reminds me…

Hey, Chris Mills: Could you move back to Chicago? OK, I’m sure you have your reasons for being in New York, but you’re such a good singer-songwriter that I’d love to continue claiming you as one of Chicago’s best. Maybe I’ll continue claiming you anyway.

Mills was back in town for a one-off solo gig because he had a wedding to attend. (He played “In the Time of Cholera” at the wedding ceremony, apparently getting some puzzled looks from people unfamiliar with his music who saw that title in the program.) Mills is probably at his best when he has a full band playing him — one of the best things about this CDs is the lush and creative arrangements — but his songs also work really well as solo acoustic numbers. And that’s what he delivered Sunday night, singing in full-throated gusto.

Photos of Chris Mills and Sally Timms.

A week full of concerts

Phew! Eight concerts in the last seven days! And it’s been quite a run of good shows. Summing up what I’ve seen the last few days…

Art Brut was in town for five straight days of concerts at Schubas. I love it when a band does an extended stand at a smaller venue rather than doing one show in a bigger room. It takes more of a commitment from the band, but the result is that more fans get to see the group up-close in an intimate space. And the guys in Art Brut are always such fun, I gladly would have seen them more than once this week if there hadn’t been so many other good shows to see. I saw Art Brut on Tuesday (June 9), when the opening act was Team Band, a Chicago group trying very hard to be like Art Brut. Hey, what the heck — Art Brut leader Eddie Argos has previously suggested creating Art Brut franchises in various cities. Argos even joined Team Band onstage for one song, singing the lyrics he’d just learned a short time earlier.

At times, Art Brut has seemed almost as much of a comedy act as a rock band, thanks to Argos’ cheeky, self-referential lyrics. I’m enjoying their third and latest CD, with the terrific title Art Brut Vs. Satan, and Tuesday’s show was an energetic blast of very English punk rock, with a mix of catchy choruses and Argos’ humorous patter in the verses. As usual, Argos kept on referring to the band in the third person — “Ready, Art Brut?” — and he was sweatily leaping around and gesturing like mad. A highlight was the moment when he used his microphone cable as a jumping rope. It was a slight disappointment not to hear full-length versions of the classic Art Brut tracks “Formed a Band” and “Top of the Pops,” but Argos slyly dropped pieces of those choruses into other songs. And Argos served up not one but two songs about “D.C. Comics” — the actual song with that title, plus a completely reworked take on “Modern Art” that replaced most of the references to modern art with comic books instead. By the end of the week, Argos posted a Twitter comment about how much he was going to miss Schubas.

Photos of Art Brut and Team Band.

On Wednesday (June 10) I was at the Empty Bottle to see Pink Mountaintops, a side project by the leader of Black Mountain, Stephen McBean. Or is it fair to call it a side project? I mean, he’s done three records under the Pink Mountaintops name and just two under the Black Mountain moniker. Black Mountain may be the band he’s best known for, but he saves some excellent songs for Pink Mountaintops. On the previous Pink record, Axis of Evol, I had some trouble discerning exactly what the difference was between McBean’s Black and Pink projects. The difference is clearer on the latest CD, Outside Love. The songs are more concise than the typical Black Mountain jam. Some of them have a hard and fuzzy sounds reminiscent of the Jesus and Mary Chain and others are more like country rock. It all sounded very nice in concert, and we were also treated to a couple of good opening bands. Quest for Fire (including a couple of musicians who also played with Pink Mountaintops) played jammy guitar rock reminiscent of Black Mountain, while Suckers played intriguing rock with a touch of glam and psychedelia.

Photos of Pink Mountaintops, Quest for Fire and Suckers.

Thursday (June 11) was a really special night at the Empty Bottle, with a great double bill of Vic Chesnutt and Jonathan Richman. Sitting alone on the stage in his wheelchair, hunched over his acoustic guitar, Chesnutt managed to get the normally chatty crowds at the Bottle to listen intently to his quirky and heartfelt songs — he did pause one song to point out some “chatties” in the crowd, joking that the young ladies were talking about how handsome he is. Chesnutt introduced a few songs by noting that he had written them recently and might forget the chords and lyrics. And he did say “sorry” a few times as he tried to find his way through the songs, starting them over again. That’s the sort of uncertainty that can seem like a fault for many performers, but Chesnutt was so casual about it that it actually heightened the feeling that this was a performance akin to watching him in his living room. As he remarked at one point, “I know I’m going to fuck this one up but that hasn’t stopped me yet tonight.” Chesnutt said he’s recorded new music with both Jonathan Richman and Silver Mt. Zion. He closed with a song that he dubbed “the epic one” — “Worst Friend in the World.”

He was followed by Richman, who was — well, he was Jonathan Richman, a singular and strange guy. Very entertaining in his own way. If you go to see a Richman concert in the hope of hearing him do some of his early songs with the Modern Lovers, you’re probably going to be out of luck. And I have to confess I haven’t kept up with his recent records, so I wasn’t that familiar with the songs he played Thursday. But his humor and earnestness are immediately accessible, whether or not you’ve heard the songs before. Richman sang some songs in French or Spanish, and his acoustic guitar playing all night had a Spanish flair to it. He often let the music fall into an improvised groove with drummer Tommy Larkins. As Richman noted at one point during an extended riff: “This isn’t a song or anything. It’s just a beat.” Richman occasionally set down his guitar and picked up a cowbell or some jingle bells and pranced around on the stage, making some percussion. His eyes remained wide all night, as he seemed to be staring into the faces of individual audience members (including me)… And every few minutes, that stare would give way to a childish grin.

Photos of Jonathan Richman and Vic Chesnutt.

One more concert to report on: PJ Harvey and John Parish Friday at the Riviera. More on that later…

Metronome, Maestro and Telekinesis

It was a busy weekend in Chicago for music and other fun cultural activities, including the Printers Row Lit Fest. (More on that later… if I get a chance to blog about it.) The weather was strangely cold and rainy, but I didn’t let that stop me.

A few highlights: A new street festival called Metronome took place Saturday and Sunday on Milwaukee Avenue between Armitage and North, with an impressively eclectic lineup of music — indie rock, punk, electronic and folk, among other things. I caught the last two acts on the main stage Saturday night, as a chill wind was blowing. New York’s Here We Go Magic got off to a bit of a slow start, but then the band really picked up steam with some extended jams — not jam-band-style jams, but the sort of extended grooves that the Feelies and American Analog Set used to specialize in. Here We Go Magic lived up to its name in these moments, and their song “Fangela” is really marvelous.

The last act on that stage Saturday night was John Vanderslice, a dependable singer-songwriter whose music is a little slippery to define, genre-wise. It falls under the big umbrella of indie rock, but that doesn’t tell you much. It’s not the acoustic or roots-based music that dominates the singer-songwriter field, though there are some touches of that. He dabbles in electronic textures, but mostly what he does is write smart and melodic songs. And then when he plays them, he knows how to have some fun, cranking out hard electric guitar chords in the right spots. A number of his songs on the new album Romanian Names stick in the mind long after you hear them.

Photos of Here We Go Magic and John Vanderslice.

On Sunday afternoon, a noteworthy reunion concert happened, but it seemed like almost no one knew about it. The only reason I heard about it was a piece that Ira Glass did on WBEZ’s 848 show Friday. The stars of this affair were Maestro Subgum and the Whole, a peculiar Chicago musical collective that performed back in the early ’90s. Talk about musical acts who are hard to categorize, Maestro Subgum really was an oddball outfit. If anything, the group’s songs resembled musical theater or cabaret more than rock music — and fittingly enough, some of its members have gone on to perform with local theaters. This reunion show, following a concert earlier in the year at the Viaduct, was a benefit for the Curious Branch Theatre. It was wonderful to hear the group’s voices belting out harmonies on catchy but quirky old songs such as “Bamboo Guru.” The band’s master of ceremonies, “Lefty Fizzle,” seemed like a sort of old-time carnival barker, twirling his cane and prancing about in some sort of robe not normally seen outside of storage closets. And Ira Glass made a couple of appearances, talking about how much Maestro Subgum’s willingness to do its thing inspired him years ago to do his thing on the radio. (I only wish Maestro Subgum would have performed my favorite one of their songs, “Prayers for the Undoing of Spells.”)

Photos of Maestro Subgum and the Whole with Ira Glass.

Finally, the weekend came to a nice musical closing with three bands at Schubas. The headliners were Telekinesis, who have a very tuneful self-titled CD out on Merge Records, well worth getting. This Seattle band is somewhat unusual because the main singer and songwriter, Michael Benjamin Lerner, is a drummer. So Telekinesis plays with the drum kit right up at the front of the stage. Lerner’s songs remind me a bit of old power pop. They sounded strong and catchy in concert.

The Schubas lineup also featured An Horse, a guitar-and-drums duo from Australia, who seemed to be almost as big of a draw for the local fans as Telekinesis, if not bigger. They seemed quite charming, with scrappy, fairly straightforward rock songs, a bit on the garage-rock side. The first band one of the night was Chicago’s A Lull. Yes, the same band I saw less than a week ago, opening for Julie Doiron at the Empty Bottle. Once again, they sounded good, even though they’d lost the use of a computer. I liked them enough to pick up their EP at the merch table.

Photos of Telekinesis, An Horse and A Lull.

Dent May plus cool openers

I went to Schubas on Thursday night (May 28) out of curiosity more than anything else. The headliner, Dent May, is a singer from Mississippi who plays the ukulele, an instrument you don’t see onstage all that often, other than maybe a short novelty number or two in the middle of a concert. The uke is all that May plays during the course of his show, and he grimaces and rears back at times like he’s wailing on an electric guitar, even though he’s just plinking those little nylon strings. It made for an interesting sight, but I have to say his pop music didn’t really connect with me like I’d hoped. It wasn’t bad, but something about his voice and his melodies wore thin on me after a few songs. And yet, a number of people in the crowd seemed to love it, calling out requests for some of his songs, so I can see this guy may be destined to attract even more fans in the future.

I was pleasantly surprised by the two opening acts, however — both of them fledgling Chicago bands that showed a lot of promise. First up was My Gold Mask, a duo with Gretta Rochelle on vocals and drums (which she played standing up) and Jack Armondo on guitar and backing vocals. They rocked with the primitive energy you often get with guitar-and-drums duos, with a great full-on vocal attack from Rochelle on several songs. The band’s debut recording is a cassette tape… Gosh, you know, I appreciate the retro technology, but I’m trying to get rid of all my old cassettes, not gather more of them, so I just bought the card to get a digital download. Check them out at and

The middle band on the bill was Very Truly Yours, which sounded an awful lot like Camera Obscura — which is a good thing, in my book. Lead singer and vocalist Kristine Capua sings in a pretty, plaintive voice while the band plays swaying pop arrangements that sound straight of the 1960s. THe group has a nice five-song EP called Reminders. The hyperbolic (and, I hope, somewhat tongue-in-cheek) liner notes claim: “Very Truly Yours is America’s leading purveyor of what will someday be called the ‘time capsule sound.’ It’s music handcrafted in the here and now for the nostalgic daydreams we’re all still working on…” In concert, the members of Very Truly Yours seemed surprised that a modest-size crowd of people was paying attention and actually clapping after the songs. “You guys are so intense!” Capua said, giving the impression that Very Truly Yours hasn’t played in front of actual audiences very often so far. Based on how cool they sounded at this show, I hope they’re destined for many more shows and recordings to come. Check them out at

Photos of Dent May, My Gold Mask and Very Truly Yours.

Rodriguez at Schubas

Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez (full name: Sixto Diaz Rodriguez) is one of countless musicians who recorded great songs years and years ago — and then disappeared with a trace. He released just two albums: Cold Fact in 1970 and Coming From Reality in 1972, with psychedelic folk rock reminiscent of Love’s Forever Changes. Those records barely sold any copies in the U.S. and Rodriguez spent the coming years as day laborer in Detroit. Then, somehow, his records caught on in Australia. And then he became a star in South Africa. He’s still largely unknown in his home country, but that’s starting to change, now that the Light in the Attic label has reissued his albums on CD, and Friday (May 8), he came to Chicago to play in front of an enthusiastic and largely young audience at Schubas.

By now, having played to big audiences in South Africa, Rodriguez must be getting used to hearing cheers for his songs. But on Friday he still seemed like someone who’s feeling giddy at finally getting the recognition he sought four decades ago.”I’ve seen lonelier days and lonelier nights,” he said. And when the audience sang along with many of those old Rodriguez songs, the smiling singer almost seemed astonished. “Thanks for knowing the words, too,” he said. “That blows me away. Those are my lines.”

The three musicians playing with Rodriguez appeared to be learning some of the songs as they went along — Rodriguez had to show them the chords for a few songs, and the guitarist was using a cheat sheet with chords — but it sounded beautifully organic and remarkably close to the old recordings. Rodriguez’s voice is still in excellent form, and he has a distinctive way of plucking the chords on his electric-classical guitar. Highlights included his great signature song “Sugar Man,” which you can hear at The only thing lacking to keep it from being perfect were the strings and reeds heard on the original studio record. Rodriguez closed with a cover of “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” incorporating bits of “Long Tally Sally” and Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

This was one of those special concerts where you get a real sense of the performer’s personality and history.

The opening act was Vampire Hands, a much younger band playing percussion-heavy rock with some psychedelic audio effects. Sort of a weird match with Rodriguez, but in a way it seemed appropriate — two different generations of musicians coming together in front of an audience that seemed to appreciate both.

Photos of Rodriguez and Vampire Hands.

Listen to the Aug. 28, 2008, story about Rodriguez on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

Bowerbirds and La Strada at Schubas

Clearly, most of the crowd at Schubas Monday night (May 4) was there to hear Bowerbirds play songs from their 2007 album Hymns for a Dark Horse. But the crowd was in for a couple of nice surprises: an excellent opening band (La Strada) and a whole batch of new songs by Bowerbirds. As it happens, I have an advance copy of the new Bowerbirds album, Upper Air, which comes out July 7 on the Dead Oceans label, and I’ve been listening to it quite a bit. It’s a really nice record, a more-than-worthy follow-up to that debut record, which garnered some attention two years ago.

The new and old songs all sounded lovely, with Phil Moore plucking and strumming a classical guitar most of the night, giving the songs that particular sound you can only get with nylon strings. Moore’s gentle voice lofted the melodies all night, with a solid assist on harmony vocals from Beth Tacular, whose accordion notes fleshed out the arrangements. The touring drummer and bassist also added some subtle layers to the sound. I got the feeling that the crowd liked the new songs, though it was obvious that people responded a bit more to some of the songs they recognized, such as “Bur Oak.”

I wonder how many of the people at Schubas knew anything about the opening band, La Strada, or had heard any of their songs before? I suspect that the group, which has just an EP out at this point, was new to most of the audience, but the applause was enthusiastic. A few people even called out for an encore when the set was over. This band played orchestral pop with smart string arrangements featuring cello and violin, plus accordion on about half the songs. La Strada reminded me a bit of the Decemberists, without feeling quite as pretentious as that band can sometimes get. It was pretty and catchy music, played with a lot of spirit. I’m a convert. I bought La Strada’s self-titled EP at the merch table, and it’s sounding good.

Photos of Bowerbirds and La Strada.

Elvis Perkins and Other Lives

Thursday night (April 30), Schubas had a nice double bill, with Elvis Perkins in Dearland as the headliner plus an opening set by the Oklahoma band Other Lives. It was a sold-out show, which led me to wonder why the room was so empty just before the 9 p.m. starting time. Then I heard a cheer coming from the other room and remembered, “Oh, yeah, there’s a Bulls playoff game.” The room did eventually fill up, with a fair amount of people coming in to watch Other Lives even as the Bulls went into triple overtime.

This was my second time seeing Other Lives as an opening act at Schubas. I’d also seen them open last year for the Little Ones. By now, I’ve heard their cool debut record, a self-titled album that came out earlier this year. They remind me a bit of Midlake, with songs that blend a folk-rock sensibility with the intricate and delicate arrangements of art-rock. “End of the Year” is one of the standout tracks on the album, and its shifting tempos and moods sounded dramatic, almost epic, in concert. Adding a classy touch to the set list, Other Lives played a cover of Leonard Cohen’s song “Partisan.”

By the time Elvis Perkins and his backup band (who are collectively billed as Elvis Perkins in Dearland) took the stage, the Bulls had won their game and the room was full. Perkins is essentially a solo performer, but he clearly likes being part of a band and letting the other musicians have some moments in the spotlight. During the course of this show, the band blew on trombones and saxophones, fiddled on violins, switched off on instruments and banged on a bass drum in marching-band style. Perkins is an excellent singer with some strong songs, and he crooned to nice effect Thursday night, doing folksy ballads as well as old-fashioned rockers. The crowd responded most when he finished the encore with “While You Were Sleeping,” the first track on his first album, Ash Wednesday. And then, it actually was time for sleep.

Photos of Elvis Perkins in Dearland and Other Lives.

The Handsome Family and Marissa Nadler

The Handsome Family just keep on putting out one good record after another (and sometimes they’re great). I’m just getting familiar with the latest CD, Honey Moon, but it’s safe to say that Brett and Rennie Sparks are still going strong. Married 20 years? Congratulations are in order — and given just how demented and dark Rennie’s lyrics have been over the years, it’s interesting to hear them focus a little bit more than usual on happy love songs this time.

They put on an excellent show of new songs mixed with some of my all-time favorites from throughout their career Sunday (April 19) at Schubas. After spending much of their career playing as a duo with a drum machine, the Handsome Family has been touring lately with an actual drummer and a second guitarist, which adds considerable subtleness to the songs. Brett and Rennie haven’t really changed what they do all that much — it’s still gothic alt-country — but over their last few albums, they’ve recorded more songs with the sophisticated air of jazz standards. They played two great examples of that style Sunday night: “After We Shot the Grizzly” and “I Know You Are There.” And it was cool to hear them doing “Giant of Illinois” again after hearing Andrew Bird do his cover version.

And as always, Brett and Rennie engaged in some weird and very funny stage banter. The running theme of the night was Rennie’s experiments in time travel to acquire kittens from the past.

Photos of the Handsome Family.

The first act of the night was Barry McCormack, an Irish singer-songwriter who was almost as much of a raconteur as he was a musical act. Some nice songs, with good stories to introduce them.

The second act, Marissa Nadler, was almost worth the admission herself. I saw her play a couple of years ago on the concrete floor at Ronny’s. Schubas is a way more appropriate venue for this folk singer with a beautiful voice and her ethereal songs. For most of her set, she was joined by the guitarist from the band Tulsa, who added subtle echoes of her own guitar playing that fleshed out the songs. Nadler joked that she also has a band called Death Machine. One audience member remarked that he’d want to hear that. Nadler’s music is fragile, with her voice drenched in reverb. She commanded the audience’s attention as the room fell quiet.

Photos of Marissa Nadler and Barry McCormack.

Blind Pilot at Schubas

Blind Pilot was one of the bands I wanted to see at SXSW but missed. I heard several people giving very positive reviews of their sets in Austin, and got the sense Blind Pilot might be getting some buzz. I decided Friday afternoon to buy a ticket to that evening’s show by Blind Pilot at Schubas. Maybe half an hour later, Schubas sent out a Twitter update saying that only five tickets were left for the concert. Of course, it was sold out by the 10 p.m. showtime.

It was a young crowd — a lot of people who looked about 20 — and the crowd clearly knew the songs by Blind Pilot by heart, singing along to many of the lyrics. I wondered if I had missed something. Where did the band get all these fans all of a sudden? However that happened, the band has a pleasant folk-rock sound, with nice male-female vocal harmonies and a mix of trumpet, banjo, dulcimer and stand-up bass. It’s more soothing than rustic, and there’s good songcraft at work. It looks like Blind Pilot is heading toward even bigger popularity.

Photos of Blind Pilot and opening acts Deanna Devore and Death Ships.

Loney Dear at Schubas

Loney Dear is one of the best musical acts out of Sweden right now, and given how much great music is coming from Sweden, that’s saying a lot. Loney Dear (which is basically one guy, Emil Svanängen, with a backing band) came to Schubas Sunday night (March 1), playing a fabulous little show in the midst of a tour where most of Loney Dear’s gigs have been opening for Andrew Bird.

I’m just getting familiar with the songs on the new Loney Dear album, Dear John, but they were instantly infectious when Loney Dear played them on the Schubas stage. At its core, this music is gentle and pretty folk rock, with Svanängen singing soothing and lilting melodies in a falsetto. But Loney Dear has a more expansive sound than that, mixing in some electronics and upbeat rock rhythms. A cursory listen to Loney Dear’s records might lead you to expect a gossamer-thin sound, but the band was actually fairly loud and energetic Sunday night – but oh so quiet when Svanängen moved off-mike during two songs to sing and play his acoustic guitar without amplification.

The crowd sang along to the harmonies, and Svanängen was charmingly modest as he expressed his wonder at the reception his music was getting. The audience demanded two encores, and Loney Dear finished the night with “Sinister in a State of Hope,” one of my favorite songs from the 2007 album Loney, Noir. It was a joyous concert, one of those beautiful nights when bards and players from some distant land alight in our fair city to strum their guitars in one of our little rooms. /

It was nice to see opening act Anni Rossi again – just nine days after she opened for Deer Tick and Future Clouds and Radar at the Empty Bottle – with a more respectful audience. This time, people actually listened as she performed her quirky, uncoventional music on vocals and viola, including an Ace of Bass cover.

Photos of Loney Dear and Anni Rossi.

Aqueduct and Foundry

Aqueduct headlined Friday (Feb. 27) at Schubas. I’ve seen this band (i.e. David Terry) three times now and listened to its/his 2007 album Or Give Me Death, and I’m still not sure exactly what to make of Aqueduct. Terry has some catchy melodies, and a good sense of humor, but he also has a tendency toward cheesiness. That’s part of the humor, I guess, but I wonder what Terry would be capable of if he held back on the jokes for one night. Anyway, Aqueduct drew a very enthusiastic, young crowd Friday with a number of fans dancing wildly. So I guess he must be doing something right.

The first band of the night was Light Pollution. I see so many bands that I sometimes forget who I’ve seen, and Light Pollution was one band that rang a slight bell in my memory. But I couldn’t quite recall whether I’d seen Light Pollution before. Later, I had to check my own blog’s archive here to figure out that I’d seen Light Pollution opening for Malajube at the Empty Bottle in 2007. Seeing them again, I enjoyed their jangly sound.

Second up was the Foundry Field Recordings, from Columbia, Missouri. The main guy in this band, Billy Schuh, had a new set of backing players with him, who are also in a band called Bald Eagle (not DJ Bald Eagle, as they pointed out). I liked their music, which had a bit of a 1980s XTC feel to it.

Photos of Aqueduct, the Foundry Field Recordings and Light Pollution.

The War on Drugs at Schubas

One of the albums from early this year that’s really stuck with me is Wagonwheel Blues by the War on Drugs, a band from Philadelphia. I missed the group’s previous show in Chicago and was glad to catch them last night (Dec. 11) at Schubas. On record, the War on Drugs reminds me a little bit of the Waterboys – it’s something about Adam Granduciel’s voice, and the melodies – not to mention some other roots-rock influences, some Dylan, a little Springsteen. Live, the band had more of a Velvet Underground and psychedelic vibe.

It’s clear from the concert that this band is mostly Granduciel with backup players. Last night, they were a trio. Granduciel set up an elaborate chain of effects pedals for his guitars, keyboard, harmonica and police-radio microphone, among other gadgets. The pedals and chords were giving him a little trouble at times (try keeping it simple, dude), but he dealt gamely with all technical difficulties, not really seeming to care very much when the guitars sounded different than planned or squeals of feedback came out. The trio format forced the band to use recorded backing tracks on a few songs, and while that sort of thing bugs me at times, the War on Drugs played against those backing tracks with a lively sense of spontaneity. Despite a few technical problems and an overall sense of being slightly ramshackle, this was an energetic performance of some smart, catchy songs. I’m looking forward to hearing what’s next for the War on Drugs.

See photos of the War on Drugs.

Secretly Canadian page

Sadies, Flat Five and Dream Day

Recapping a few shows from the past week…

The Sadies were back in town Thursday (Dec. 4) for a show at Schubas, kicking off a tour with the estimable Tim Easton as opening act. The Sadies don’t have a new record out (not since releasing my favorite album of 2007, New Seasons), so we didn’t get any new songs, but there were plenty of great old tunes – something like 30, I think, if you include all those short instrumentals they ripped through. As always, the Good brothers were simply amazing on their guitars, and I took special notice this time that Travis was playing without any effects pedals at all, and Dallas had just a couple of rudimentary pedals. Further proof that you don’t need a lot of special effects to make the guitar sing. Highlights included covers of “A House is Not a Hotel” by Love and “Shake Some Action” by the Flaming Groovies. Easton put on a good show, too, playing solo acoustic (over chatty crowd noise) and mentioning that he has an album coming out in the spring with more of a rock sound.

Photos of the Sadies and Tim Easton.

Friday night (Dec. 5) marked the return of the Flat Five, a sort of local super group combining the talents of Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, KC McDonough and Gerald Dowd in an idiosyncratic cover band. Well, it’s mostly covers. They play a few originals, but it’s largely old pop, country, jazz, psychedelic and standard songs they clearly love. Their voices blend into truly lovely harmonies, and they have a knack for picking the sort of terrific tunes that a die-hard record collector loves. I stayed for both the early and late shows at the Hideout, and heard them doing everything from Spanky & Our Gang to the Dukes of Stratosphear, Rutles and Hoagy Carmichael. These are some special musicians who rarely put our records. You really have to catch them live to see what they’re all about.

Photos of the Flat Five.

I was back at the Hideout on Sunday (Dec. 7) for a show benefitting Goldie’s Place, an organization that helps the homeless get jobs. The show featured Jon Langford playing solo, followed by Eleventh Dream Day, and Eleventh Dream Day combining with Langford and Sally Timms for several Mekons and Three Johns songs. It was a lively affair, with a couple of strong new songs by Eleventh Dream Day (new album coming soon, guys? Let’s hope…), sloppy but fun renditions of those barely rehearsed Mekons songs and tighter performances of the Three Johns songs. All for a good cause.

Photos of Eleventh Dream Day with Jon Langford and Sally Timms.

The Broken West at Schubas

The Broken West – who used to be called the Brokedown, when I saw them in 2006 at SXSW – have a very good debut album out on the Merge label called I Can’t Go On I’ll Go On, filled with lots of catchy songs in the jangly-guitar, harmony-vocals vein. Somewhere a little outside the realms of power pop, with something of a California sound. They put on a nice set Wednesday night at Schubas, with most of the songs from the debut CD, plus a couple of tracks from their earlier Brokedown EP and one unreleased song. They’re not (yet) the sort of band that makes the songs sound a lot better or more exciting in concert, but they do put on a nice performance. I showed up halfway through an opening set by Probably Vampires, who played tuneful pop music that bounced along to keyboard chords.


Deadstring Bros., Matt Mays at Schubas

This was a double bill I couldn’t resist. Not only are the Deadstring Brothers a fine band, but the opening act was Matt Mays and el Torpedo, a great roots-rock band from Nova Scotia who (to my knowledge) have never played in Chicago before. I’ve missed them every year at SXSW, but then I was blown away by the intensity of the performance they gave of the song “Cocaine Cowgirl” Dec. 15, 2006, on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.” (How on earth did they land that gig?) Their album has been awfully hard to find in the U.S., and I ordered a copy in 2005 through, the Canadian version of amazon.

The turnout was a little light, which was to be expected for a Monday-night concert at Schubas with little or no publicity, but crowd got a little bigger as the music started, until there was a repsectable-sized crowd… but lots of space for more people. Matt Mays and his band (including a new guitarist) put in a good performance, though they didn’t quite catch fire like they did on “Conan.” The songs tended to be somewhat long, with a fair amount of jamming, which was OK with me.

The Deadstring Brothers played a short set (short because of it being a Monday night with a half-full room?) but it was pretty darn enjoyable. The songs from last year’s album sounded great, and the band threw in a few new songs that’ll be on a Bloodshot album this fall. The Deadstring Brothers are a bit too slavish in their imitation of Exile-era Stones, but if you’re going to copy a sound, that’s not a bad sound to copy. Plus, there’s plenty of the Band and Dylan mixed in, too.

See photos of Matt Mays.

See photos of the Deadstring Brothers.

The Last Town Chorus at Schubas

Yes, I know I just saw the Last Town Chorus recently, but I couldn’t resist another chance to see and hear Megan Hickey’s beautiful singing and lap-steel playing. Another great performance — she really can make that instrument sing — though it was a little disappointing to see such a small turnout for the show. Sunday-night doldrums? Lack of publicity? In any case, it made for an intimate concert, very quiet between the songs. Hickey filled some of the silences with her charming stage banter.

It was nice to hear NPR’s “All Things Considered” give a positive plug to the Last Town Chorus recently.

See my photos of the Last Town Chorus.

Okkervil River and Elvis Perkins at Schubas

Few singers put on such passionate performances as Okkervil River’s Will Sheff. You wonder how he can go through so much onstage catharsis night after night. He and his remarkable band delivered a typically intense show in the second night of a two-night stand at Schubas, including some new songs alongside fan favorites. I like the way the other members of Okkervil River, even the ones without microphones in front of them, sing along or mouth the words of Sheff’s songs. Even the guys who are ostensibly just there to play drums or bass obviously love the songs just as much as the fans do. At the end of the night, Sheff introduced “Kansas City” by saying, “This is the second-to-the-last time we’ll ever play this song.” He said he meaned it, but I’m hoping it was a joke.

Opening act Elvis Perkins seemed pretty good. Given his glasses and sweater and the name Elvis, I couldn’t help thinking of Marshall Crenshew as I listened. He was much less rockabilly than I’d imagined from his name. His song about the moon was excellent.


The Sadies at Schubas

I’ve probably said enough before about how fabulous of a band the Sadies are, so I won’t repeat myself too much here. As always, they put on a roaring-good show filled with lots of exceptional guitar playing. The opening act, Heavy Trash, was actually the Sadies plus Heavy Trash — which made it more enjoyable for me. I’m not a huge fan of Heavy Trash’s rockabilly, but it sounded pretty good in this setting. During the Sadies’ set, they brought out guest vocalists (three of Chicago’s finest), Kelly Hogan, Sally Timms and Jon Langford, before finishing up around 2 a.m. with more Heavy Trash. What, no “Memphis, Egypt”? Now, that would have been a great way to close out the night. Oh, well. Otherwise, tons of fun.


Chris Mills plays acoustic at Schubas

I was a little doubtful about how thrilling a solo acoustic concert by Chris Mills would be at the end of the night (such shows usually seem more engaging earlier in the evening, for me at least), but he proved his mettle with a very enjoyable set tonight. It was nice to hear his recent songs in this bare-bones format, with all of those horns and strings stripped away (not that there’s enough wrong with those grandiose arrangments). A few of the audience members were rather annoying with their loud comments, though it did turn amusing when the banter prolonged Mills’ attempt to start playing his final song of the night, finally compelling him to remark that he was in desperate need of a trip to the bathroom. After the show, I picked up a tour-only CD of outtakes from Mills’ last record, The Wall to Wall Sessions. (I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet…)


The opening act was a trio from Detroit called I, Crime. They sounded pretty good, with a combination of alt-country, old-style rock and punk. A milder version of X, perhaps? The songs did not leave that much of an impression on me, but I would see them again.


The 1900s and Devin Davis at Schubas

My main reason for going to Schubas tonight was the chance to see Devin Davis with a full band. As I’ve mentioned before, Davis’ record, Lonely People of the World, Unite!, was one of my favorites in 2005. I saw him at the Hideout in February, but I missed the shows he did with his band and caught a solo night — which was interesting, but not quite the same thing as hearing the songs in the full-band glory.

Davis sounded good tonight, backed by pedal steel guitar, drums, bass and keyboard/sax. The songs were a little less polished sounding than the studio versions, but they still sounded pretty darn strong — and I like the new songs he played. He closed with “Born to Run,” which was shown on the set list simply as “THE BOSS.” After the show, Devin told me he’d started working at 8:30 that morning on writing lyrics for one of the new songs. SEE PHOTOS OF DEVIN DAVIS.

Davis wasn’t actually the headlining act — that honor belonged to the 1900s. I’d read some of the local articles about this band and heard one or two of their songs online, but I didn’t know too much about them. They were quite impressive, doing delightfully, well, “twee” music… and I don’t mean that as an insult. I like twee. At least, when it’s done well. I’ve always liked Belle and Sebastian, the band shown in the dictionary next to the word twee, and the 1900s play music in a similar vein. Not that you’d mistake it for Belle and Sebastian, but it’s another big ensemble (seven musicians and singers, including violin) with guy and girl singers, doing pretty pop ditties. I liked what I heard — and saw. One of the singers, Jeanine O’Toole, was clearly the focus of much of the audience’s eyes as she accented the music with her flirtatious moves. The crowd right in front of the stage was almost all women, obviously big fans of the 1900s, cheering wildly throughout the show. After the show, I picked up a copy of the 1900s’ six-song EP, Plume Delivery, and I’m already enjoying it quite a bit.SEE PHOTOS OF THE 1900s.

I missed most of the opening set by the first band of the night, Gentleman Caller of Bloomington, Ind., but I liked what I heard. Will definitely check them out. SEE PHOTOS OF GENTLEMAN CALLER.

The Wrens at Schubas

This was one of those nights when you find yourself thinking, “Is this group playing in front of me at this little club the best rock band in the world?” The Wrens are certainly up there on the list of best live bands, and they were in fine, fine form tonight. Few other groups can build such a sense of drama as they go from quiet moments (a little flick on the guitar strings or the soft beat of a shaker) to rampaging rock. You can also sense the camaraderie and playfulness of these guys. Bassist/keyboardist/singer Kevin Whelan is a nutcase on stage, with a ton of reckless energy that includes jumping (or falling) into the crowd… When he came back onstage for the encore he leaped over the keyboard, hitting his foot on the keys with a clunk and then tumbled onto the floor. As he said, “If you want polish, go see a Maroon 5 concert.” I’ll stick with the Wrens, thank you.

Scott Miller and Kelly Hogan at Schubas

APRIL 26, 2006

Hogan (and that is how she prefers to be called, for some reason — last name only) was in a countrier than usual mood tonight, playing some tasty and twangy covers of obscure Nashville songs as well as a few of her originals. Less jazzy than she has been in recent years. Either style is fine with me. I just want to know: WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO PUT OUT ANOTHER ALBUM???? WE NEED IT!!!


Scott Miller is one of the nicest and funniest musicians I’ve interviewed, with a cool combination of rural Southern frankness and a sharp intellect. He’s also quite a good songwriter, though I have to admit I haven’t kept up on his music lately. (My copy of his Inside/Outside disc was stolen from my car a couple of years ago, and I haven’t gotten around to replacing it… And I just picked up his new CD at this show.) I played his old album Thus Always to Tyrants in preperation for this show and found myself thinking, “Home come I don’t listen to this more often?” The show featured several songs from that disc, which sounded great, especially the should-be-a-classic “Is There Room on the Cross for Me.” A couple of songs Miller played solo acoustic sounded good, too. The new songs I was not so familiar with… They seemed fine, but I’ll need to hear them on disc before I decide how they hold up. Some nice covers, including Neil Young’s “Hawks and Doves.”


A long night of good music at Schubas

FEB. 24, 2006
BRANDON DURHAM of Palaxy Tracks

I started off my night of two concerts at Schubas (with three acts) with a short mostly solo set by the guy usually known as Palaxy Tracks. I have to admit not being that familiar with his music; I’ve heard some of it, and it intrigues me a little bit — without exciting me all that much. I enjoyed his set, which apparently focused on new material, but I’d have to hear these songs again to decide just how much I like them. He was joined by three other musicians during the course of the quiet set.

WILL SHEFF of Okkervil River


Okkervil River is a very good band, with Will Sheff being the dominant force… It’s not quite one of those solo projects masquerading as a band, but this is definitely Sheff’s show. So it was interesting to see him perform a solo concert, playing some of those same songs that I’ve heard Okkervil River play with extravagant energy. Some of the songs were quite different in the solo guitar or piano format, and some new songs sounded great. He also threw in a cover of Sandy Denny’s “Solo.” I have to say it was quite a powerful performance. I like the group arrangments that Okkervil River plays in concert and on record, but I might like Sheff’s solo versions even better. He really bared his emotions tonight.



The late concert began with Michael Morris. I had no idea who this guy was, but was pleasantly surprised… This was this Minneapolis singer-songwriter’s first performance in Chicago. He reminded me of the Okkervil River/Bright Eyes school of intensely sung folk music. His songs had strong melodies, and I definitely want to hear more from him.



I know Phil from my old days at The Daily Illini. It was nice to see him and his group getting a fairly high-profile opening slot for the Deadstring Brothers concert at Schubas tonight — and to see the group back with a new drummer, Tom Jasek, after the tragic death of drummer Tim Rutkowski a year ago. Plus, they rocked.



The Deadstring Brothers definitely have an early-’70s Stones thing going, plus a couple of songs that obviously mimic The Band and Bob Dylan. But the lack of originality doesn’t bother me much with these guys, because it’s such fun to hear them play. Lead singer Kurt Marschke acknowledged they band is stuck in a 1970s time warp, but he doesn’t care, either. They’re a fine addition to the Bloodshot Records roster, and I liked hearing the songs I’ve come to know well from the new record Starving Winter Report.Hearing the older songs persuaded me that I need to pick up their first album, too.

The Autumn Defense at Schubas

FEB. 23, 2006
Schubas, Chicago


The Autumn Defense‘s concert at Schubas sold out in advance. Is it just because of the Wilco connection, or are more people starting to appreciate this band’s beautiful music? Yes, it’s very soft, maybe a little too soft and sleepy, but the Autumn Defense’s music is quite lovely. It reminds me of 1970s music — acoustic numbers by Big Star, for example. The band might also remind some people of Bread — not necessarily a good reference, though I take some guilty pleasure in enjoying a few Bread songs. (So do Jay Bennett and Edward Burch, who played “If” in concert and proclaimed it the best song ever written. A little bit of an exaggeration, but I won’t argue that it’s a great tune.) Backed by drums, pedal steel guitar and trumpet, the Autumn Defense sounded slightly more lively than they did when they opened for Jeff Tweedy at the Vic. Man, the crowd was very quiet tonight, which John Stirratt made note of…

Some new songs that the Autumn Defense plans to release on an album later this year sounded good, very much in the same vein as the Circles tracks. The last song of the encore was Stirratt’s only song in the Wilco catalogue, “It’s Just That Simple.”

John Klos was the opening act. This is the second night in a row I’d seen him (see below), which was a bit much. But his music is growing on me.

The Bottle Rockets with Jeff Tweedy at Schubas

JAN. 27, 2006
at Schubas, Chicago

Wow… what a night. I’d only seen the Bottle Rockets once before. Saw them a few months ago at the Beat Kitchen after years of intending to see them. Both of these shows were fun rock shows by a tight band.

This one, the last in the series of Gary Schepers benefit concerts, was extra special because of an appearance by a special guest — Jeff Tweedy. Standing as I was near the stage, I couldn’t help noticing Tweedy and his wife, Sue Miller, slipping in through the side door and standing by the edge of the stage. I always feel a little weird spotting someone like that at a concert. Don’t stare. He just wants to have fun like anyone else. So I find myself watching him once in a while from the corner of my eye. He’s watching the concert and clapping between songs like any fan.

Of course, it’s no surprise when Brian Hennemann of the Bottle Rockets invites Tweedy onto the stage late in the concert. For three songs, the BoRox (as they’re known in fan shorthand) become … WilBoRox? Tweedy picks up an electric guitar and they launch into the Neil Young classic “Walk On,” with Tweedy and Hennemann trading lead vocals. Then they do two of the songs that Wilco played on “A.M.,” back when Hennemann was playing guitar with the band: “Passenger Side” and “Casino Queen.” Tweedy looks like he’s having fun.

Henneman said the gaps between his meetings with Tweedy are growing progressively shorter. First, they went, I think he said, five years without seeing each other. Then four. Now it’s been three or two. He joked that they’ll soon be together on a reality TV show, Henneman and Tweedy hanging out in an apartment and writing songs.

Earlier in the show, Henneman had told a story about touring with Uncle Tupelo and having Gary Schepers come on board as the sound man. At their first stop in Denver, Tweedy lined up sleeping quarters at some fan’s house but Schepers insisted, “I don’t sleep on any little girl’s floor,” and so they went to a Motel 6 for the first time — a life-changing event, according to Henneman.

This story came up again when Tweedy took the stage and they reminisced about eating really bad food on the road.

Henneman gave a nice little intro to “Passenger Side,” recalling himself as a kid who could barely cut it in the studio when they recorded that. Tweedy’s expression made it obvious not to take the story too seriously.

Concert performances by “special guests” are often superfluous, but this was clearly a perfect example of how well they can work. This was sort of magical Chicago music moment that I live for.

Now, you may be asking, where are the photos? Well, like an idiot, I did not bring my camera with me to this concert. I’ll never leave home without it again.

Here’s a picture by Chris Constance:

Lucky Break
Kit Kat Clock
Alone In Bad Company
Every Kinda Everything
Get Down River
Middle Man
Mountain To Climb
Happy Anniversary
Gas Girl
Smoking 100’s Alone
I’ll Be Coming Around
$1000 Car
Gravity Fails
Welfare Music
Walk On (Tweedy & Henneman on vocals)
Passenger Side (Tweedy on vocals)
Casino Queen (Tweedy on vocals)
Slo Tom’s (request)
Cartoon Wisdom (request)
Nancy Sinatra

The Sadies at Schubas

DEC. 1, 2005

There hardly exists a better band than the Sadies, and they proved it yet again with this show. They had no new album to plug. And for once, they were playing on their own as the headliners (though Mekon Jon Langford joined them for three songs). All the more reason for the Sadies just to do what they do best — incredible guitar rock… the kind you don’t hear often enough these days, with intricately composed and skilfully played melodies on the guitars. And while the Good brothers are not known for their vocals, their singing sounded strong, too, with Travis in particular baring his teeth in caveman-like expressions as he let loose some powerful notes.

In addition to their own material, the Sadies played some obscure blues and country covers, and the encore culminated with a fantastic take on Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere,” followed by another great one, the Flaming Groovies’ “Shake Some Action.” Wow. One of the year’s best concerts.


Wolf Parade at Schubas

OCT. 14, 2005
Schubas, Chicago

Wolf Parade’s one of the hot new things this year, and it’s not just hype. Comparisons with the Arcade Fire (fellow Montreal rockers) seem inevitable, and there are some similarities. Wolf Parade’s not quite as manic or percussive onstage, but the band has a similar anything-goes and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink vibe.

Seeing Wolf Parade in concert makes it clear how important keyboards and electronics are to the band’s sound, with relatively old-fashioned electronic keyboards as well as theremin and other knob-twiddling noises. But the band’s far away from pure electronica, with plenty of guitar and drums. not to mention wind chimes and tambourines (not a whole lot of bass, though).

The guys in Wolf Parade seemed almost apologetic at times, saying their music is “all smoke and mirrors.” Perhaps there was a bit of sarcasm in their modesty, but there’s certainly some substance in their songs. Their album is almost brand-new, but the gung-ho crowd already knew the tunes well and sang along at key moments.

Now, only if they had more songs…



Opening acts the King of France and Robbers on High Street were good as well. I’m not familiar with Robbers’ repertoire, but seeing the band live, I can see why I’ve heard them described as a blatant ripoff of Spoon. That’s not really fair, however. The spare piano chords and tight rhythms that Spoon is known for are in Robbers’ music, too, though I think the band has a personality of its own.


Black Mountain at Schubas

SEPT. 21, 2005
Schubas, Chicago

Vancouver rocks! This turned out to be a great triple bill, with three bands hailing from the Pacific Canadian city. I missed the first few songs by Ladyhawk, but was quickly impressed by the guys. Full-out guitar rock that reminded me a little of My Morning Jacket or Kings of Leon. I was disappointed that Ladyhawk did not have any CDs for sale at the merch table, but glad to hear they’ve recorded a debut album, which will come out in spring 2006 on Jagjaguwar. There’s one to watch for.

Blood Meridian was up next. Not quite as exciting as Ladyhawk, but still good, with a slightly whiny or mopey folk-rock quality that reminded me a little of bands such as Phosphorescent or Okkervil River. The bassist for Black Mountain is the singer and guitarist for Blood Meridian, and the bands also share the same drummer. I picked up the 2004 Blood Meridian CD “we almost made it home,” and after one listen, I can say it’s pretty good, showing a lot of promise.

Black Mountain was great. I’m a bit of a latecomer to the self-titled album Black Mountain put out earlier this year. I just bought it a couple of months ago, but it has rapidly shot to the top of my list of favorite 2005 albums. The grooves are great, and Black Mountain has an excellent sense of the weight that each musical moment carries. In concert, the band replicates its studio recordings very well, adding a few fillips here and there, jamming a bit at times, without indulging too much in long solos. I love the tension between the male and female vocals, between the guitar and keyboard sounds.


Okkervil River and Earlimart at Schubas

MAY 12, 2005: Okkervil River should have been the headliner this night at Schubas, but for some reason, they were the opening act for Earlimart. Okkervil River was certainly the better band.

I am digging the new Okkervil CD, Black Sheep Boy, and I’ve been meaning to see the band in concert for a while now, so it was a treat to see Will Sheff and his group playing their songs with so much passion.

Passion, on the other hand, is something that seems to be a little lacking from Earlimart’s music. The only Earlimart album I’m familiar with is last year’s Treble and Tremble, and it strikes me as merely pretty good — pleasant enough, but not a record I go back to all that often. The connection and similarity to Elliott Smith intrigues me, however. I was hoping that seeing Earlimart in concert might do the trick for me, but it was a letdown after the great opening set by Okkervil River.


March and April 2005 concerts

The Underground Bee has been out of commission for a month or so… I was too exhaused by the big SXSW 2005 extravaganzato pay much attention to updating this site. It’s time to catch up. But first, here is an actual letter to the editor I received recently. (The authenticity of the signature is open to question, however.)


I have perused the “Underground Bee” Web site, and I have to admit I am quite disappointed. There is much blathering on about Rock Bands and nary a mention of honey, beeswax, hives, drones, queens and such. I found a reference to something called “Bee Thousand,” but did not understand its meaning. In the future, please try to add items that might be of interest to the striped population.

Buzz Aldrin

Well! I must admit I keep promising to expand this site’s purview beyond the aforementioned “blathering on about Rock Bands,” without fulfilling said promise. One of these days… I promise. I am far behind on my bee research.

Now, back to the blathering… Some recent concerts:

MARCH 25 — Orchestra Baobob at the HotHouse. This was the third time I’ve seen this fantastic band from Senegal. The grooves sounded as great as ever. Everyone was moving on the dance floor. PHOTOS.

APRIL 1 — The Kills at the Double Door. I have to plead ignorance about the music of the Kills  — I just listened to a little bit of their new album online as I decided whether to see this concert. I was intrigued when some critics compared the Kills to P.J. Harvey. I’m not sure that I see that much of a connection, but the Kills certainly put on a pretty darn entertaining concert. Guy on guitar, plus girl on vocals (and occasional guitar), plus drum machine. The spare lineup left them room to cavort across the Double Door stage, working up a good sweat. I will definitely be checking out the Kills’ music after seeing this show. Opening act Scout Niblett was simply tiresome. PHOTOS.

APRIL 3 — Dolorean at Schubas. The club was pretty empty as Dolorean took the stage at 11 p.m. on a Sunday, just 25 to 30 people sitting around to hear Dolorean’s lovely, quiet folk-pop. Bad timing, I suppose. Can’t these Sunday-night shows begin a little earlier? Anyway, Dolorean (which is mostly singer-songwriter Al James) sounded good live, and the lack of fans didn’t detract from my enjoyment. In fact, it made it seem more like James and band were playing a personal gig for the few fans in the place. One of the opening acts, Jeff Hanson, had an amazingly feminine voice, though this guy didn’t look the least bit androgynous. His songs sounded pretty good on first listen, falling somewhere in Jeff Buckley/Nick Drake territory.

APRIL 9  — Magnolia Electric Co. at Schubas. I‘m still not convinced that the 2003 album titled Magnolia Electric Co. was actually by the band called Songs:Ohia. That name doesn’t appear anywhere on my copy of the disc (though I’ve seen copies with a Songs:Ohia sticker). In any case, Jason Molina is now officially calling his band Magnolia Electric Co., and it is a first-rate group. Neil Young and Crazy Horse comparisons are inevitable, but Molina has his own distinctive voice. I like its natural quality. While he doesn’t do a Mark Knopler talk-singing thing, I get the sense that his singing comes straight out of his speaking voice. There’s something very conversational about it. And I love those deep-pitched solos that he plays on the lower strings of his guitar. Three members of Magnolia Electric Co. served as the opening act, playing in the incarnation known as the Coke Dares. Their shtick is playing very short songs in rapid succession, always being sure to say the name of each song. It was quite humorous. I’ll have to hear the songs on CD to say how worthwhile they are, but the Coke Dares seemed to pack a lot into each little burst of music. PHOTOS.

APRIL 15 — Paul Westerberg at the Riveria. He smashed a TV, a telephone and a guitar. He played a lot of his recent solo songs and a few odd covers (“If I Had a Hammer,” “Different Drummer”). He took swigs of whiskey. The concert degenerated into a series of aborted songs: one verse of “Like a Rolling Stone,” half of “Substitute,” a few chords from “Sweet Jane,” the riff from “Cat Scratch Fever.” His band anxiously awaited his next move. Someone got up to leave from a balcony seat and Westerberg said, “Hey, don’t you dare walk away!” Westerberg was falling down on the stage as he played his guitar. Was it all an act? He threw the microphone out into the crowd during “Can’t Hardly Wait,” and then jumped off the stage himself. End of show. Would he bother coming back for an encore? Yes! Glorious versions of “Alex Chilton” and “Left of the Dial” ensued. Was this concert a train wreck? Yes, at times, but it also had moments of triumph.

APRIL 16 — Andrew Bird at Metro. I had the honor of interviewing Mr. Bird recently, and it’s always an honor to see him play live. He’s still doing his amazing one-man band act, using a sampler pedal to loop various string and guitar sounds, building a song from the ground up right in front of the audience. That’s fascinating to see and hear, and it helps that the songs are so good. Kevin O’Donnell was with him on drums tonight, adding jazzy percussion. Bird actually slipped up a couple of times as he tried to juggle all of the musical balls  — but in an odd way, that made his act all the more impressive. It makes you realize how difficult it is to pull off perfection. Near the end of the show, one round of applause swelled beyond the typical cheering, and I sensed a genuine outpouring of affection and appreciation from the crowd. Opening act Archer Prewitt put on a fine set, with his soft, jazzy art-pop songs building into catchy grooves. It was nice seeing Dave Max Crawford, who works as a Metro bartender, on the stage as part of Prewitt’s band, drawing a big hand for a trumpet solo.

APRIL 17 — Damien Jurado at Schubas. Somehow, I’ve missed seeing Jurado in concert until now. I was tempted to see Elvis Costello over at the Auditorium tonight (I’ve somehow missed seeing him in concert, other than one show back in 1989), but I just couldn’t blow off Jurado again. Jurado is one of those singers who doesn’t look the least bit like a rock star, which makes him seem all the more real. He sat down for the whole show, getting up once to go back and play drums for one song. A nice mix of Jurado’s quiet acoustic songs and some rockers, like “Paper Wings.” Responding to an audience request, he played “Ohio” from Rehearsals for Depature, noting that he was heavily medicated (from hospital drugs, not illicit ones) at the time he wrote most of the songs for that album, so he doesn’t really remember the experience. I picked up a copy of that CD on the way out  — I owned it once before, but then it was stolen from my car. I wonder if the thieves ever listened to it? PHOTOS.

APRIL 20 — M. Ward at the Abbey Pub. Another musician I enjoyed interviewing recently. And as I mentioned before, I am waging a campaign for the recognition of M. Ward’s current supremacy in the musical firmament. So of course I enjoyed this show, which featured Ward playing with a full band, his pals in the group Norfolk & Western. The concert had its share of quiet acoustic moments, but it also rocked, especially with songs such as “Big Boat,” “Vincent O’Brien,” “Four Hours in Washington” and “Sad Sad Song.” It’s nice how much Ward varies his live performances. “Fuel For Fire,” which he played on piano at Schubas in February, was back to being an acoustic guitar song this time around, but with a really well-played harmonica solo added to the intro. His Carter Family cover, “Oh Take Me Back,” which is just a short ditty on Transistor Radio, began with an extended bluesy instrumental section. Despite his renown as a guitarist, Ward felt comfortable enough with his role as frontman to take his hands off the guitar and just sing at times. And at other times, it was possible to hear a tiny bit of the surprising influences he mentioned in my interview with him: Sonic Youth and Firehose. None of his music would be confused with those bands, but at a few of the concert’s loudest moments, he did make some dissonant noise with his electric guitar. Norfolk & Western had its own slot as the first opening act, playing melodic folk rock, followed by Devotchka, which played artsy cabaret music — a little like Calexico, with whistling, violin and accordion Interesting, I thought, though obviously not for all tastes. The crowd seemed to dig it. …Speaking of which, the M. Ward crowd was quite young, and I spotted a Bright Eyes T-shirt. Maybe he’s picking up some fans from his tours with Conor Oberst. PHOTOS.

APRIL 21 — Yo La Tengo at the Vic. You might take it as a bad sign that I kept nodding off during this concert, but I’d put the blame more on lack of sleep than lack of interesting music. Yo La Tengo started off the concert with a long instrumental drone, three keyboards going at once, bearing some similarity to Wilco’s much-hated electronic experimentation on “Less Than You Think.” Personally, I like this kind of thing, in small quantities, at least, and I thought this was a daring way for Yo La Tengo to start off its show. (Plus, it gave me time to catch a few winks.) The trio kept things eclectic at this concert, with punky garage rock, super-hushed mellowness and tropicalia. They even did a little dance routine. Somehow, it all sounds distinctly like Yo La Tengo and no one else. Responding to very enthusiastic applause, the band played three encores. A reminder of what a great band this is. NOW why was this concert on the same night as Chris Stamey at the Abbey Pub? I would have liked to have seen both, and given the fact that Yo La Tengo plays on Stamey’s new CD, you wouldn’t think they’d book shows at the same time. Oh, well…

M. Ward and Dr. Dog at Schubas

As a self-proclaimed “M. Head” (see my CD review), I went to see this show (Feb. 25, 2005, at Schubas) for just one reason, M. Ward’s performance, but it turned out to be a good triple bill.
Playing first: Shelley Short, a singer-songwriter with a pretty voice playing languid little ditties, traditional folk with a bit of old-timey songbook… but not so much that her music ever crossed into the cloying cuteness of Betty Boop stuff. If you need a reference point for Short’s style, she’s somewhere between Gillian Welch and Nora O’Connor — not nearly as accomplished as either of them, but showing a lot of promise. She sat down and played acoustic guitar for the whole set, backed by upright bass and drums.
After the show, I asked Shelley where she lives. “Portland, Oregon,” she said. “Wait, what am I saying? Chicago.” (She lived in Portland until about six months ago.) I picked up her CD, Oh Say Little Dogies, Why? You can tell from the packaging (or lack thereof) that it’s a homemade effort, but it generally sounded good to me on my first listen.
Up second was Dr. Dog. These guys from Philadelphia were fairly raucous onstage, though they always kept their performance grounded in the melodies and riffs of their songs rather than indulging in full-out jamming. They reminded me a little of My Morning Jacket, though not quite as hairy or loud. And the Faces — but maybe that’s just because I’d been listening to the great Five Guys Walk Into a Bar… box set earlier in the day, and suddenly the Faces seem like a touchstone for a lot of bands.
Anyway, Dr. Dog played songs rooted in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with good harmonies, impressive little instrumental breaks and some quality jumping and head-bobbing. I also picked up their CD, Easybeat from National Parking Records (a bargain at the merch-table price of $5). First impression: Not as loud or wild as the live show, with some interesting sounds and songs… Needs more time for evaluation. (See Dr. Dog on the SXSW site.)
Onto the main act…
I was not shocked that this show sold out, though I was a bit surprised at how quickly tickets disappeared. Who are the fans? People who found out about M. Ward from his opening slots on the tours with Bright Eyes and My Morning Jacket? No obvious group of Bright Eyes fanatics was visible in Schubas, but then again, it was a 21-and-over show so that might have shut out that contingent. Maybe Ward’s fan base is simply growing as more people hear about him (…through exposure such as his June 2004 interview on NPR).
Ward’s performance was preceded by yet another poem of opaque gibberish from Chicago’s rock concert poet Thax Douglas. Thax’s poems are indecipherable, but at least they’re reasonably short, and I’ve come to accept them as a sort of Chicago concert ritual. If nothing else, it’s interesting to see the reactions of concertgoers unfamiliar with his… um… Thaxness.
After Thax left the stage (nearly knocking me over in the process), Ward came up, the top half of his head enshrouded in a thin blue cap. As he plugged his guitar into his effect pedals, a young woman near the stage wearing an M.WARD T-shirt asked him to sign it and he politely replied, “Maybe later. I’m a little busy now.”
Standing away from his two vocal mikes, off to the side of the stage, Ward lifted his guitar with the neck pointed at the ceiling (for you guitar geeks out there, the only guitar he touched all night was his black Gibson J45) and played perhaps the quietest imaginable choice for an opening song, his version of Bach’s first prelude from “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” It’s clear that Ward is a virtuoso on guitar, but he doesn’t play this piece with the practiced precision of a classical guitarist. He gives it a looser, more emotional feeling.
A hush fell over Schubas, and the club would stay quiet for the next ninety minutes or so, broken only by the appreciative applause between songs, the occasional shout of “Chicago loves M. Ward!” or the murmur of audience members singing along in whispers. Ward was violating one of the Laws of Concert Scheduling by playing a solo acoustic set as the headline act after an opening set by a loud rock band, but that didn’t matter. This crowd was enthralled.
Without pausing, Ward’s Bach piece shifted into one of his most touching and obviously personal songs, “O’Brien,” from End of Amnesia. He proceeded to play some of the best songs off that album, as well as Transfiguration of Vincent and the new Transistor Radio. If anything, the set was dominated by key tracks from Vincent rather than the new CD.
Ward makes his guitar playing look easy, but there are few players who can make the instrument sound quite like he does. The key is his agile finger picking. On some songs, he used alternate tunings. It was startling to see that the guitar part he plays during the verses of “Sad Sad Song” is actually just one chord, played in an opening tuning without any fingers on the fretboard at all. Based on that description, you’d think it would be monotous and dull, but the rhythm and finger-picking pattern keep it interesting.
Ward did not say a whole lot between songs — nothing at all during a long stretch at the beginning of the concert  — and it was hard not to get the feeling that he’s reserved. After all, he uses an initial instead of his full first name. In the past, he’s let his hair hang down over this eyes in concert. Now, he was wearing a cap that almost seemed like a disguise. He wore a serious expression for most of the show, though a flicker of a smile sometimes it made it feel as if the seriousness was just a put-on. Or maybe it was his slight smile that was the put-on.
(Yeah, yeah, I know this sort of psychoanalysis of someone you’re watching on a stage is pretty bogus, but I can’t help it, especially when someone like Ward puts forward a persona that seems different than most of the other performers out there.)
Is that voice of his a mask he has chosen? Does he sing in a bit of a whisper to hide what his voice would sound like at full volume? Or is it just the way he naturally sounds? He does have a distinctive singing style, with a real heft and husky tone that gives it more weight than the sort of whispy falsetto that male vocalists often use when they want to sound pretty.
[Ward’s explanation, from the Merge Records Web site: Ward is at a loss to explain the origin of his singing voice, a three-pack-a-day rasp that sounds like it should come from a 75-year-old Mississippi Delta bluesman. It’s as much a non sequitur as the Southern-fried vocal delivery used 40 years ago by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty, a man who grew up just north of Oakland, Calif. “I don’t smoke,” Ward says. “I started recording in my parents’ house when I was 16 and, not wanting to wake anybody up, you just start to sing quieter and play quieter. I think that’s why my voice is so messed-up. People who only know the records think I’m really old or from the South.”]
Ward had no other musicians to help him out, but he never needed any assistance. Not only did he confirm his mastery of the guitar, he also sat down at a piano for several songs, showing that the tasty piano playing that pops on some of this studio recordings is no fluke.When he sang along to his piano playing, his music felt even more antique — echoing old-time ragtime, blues and jazz, as well as a slightly more recent influence, Tom Waits.
It was especially cool to hear Ward playing a piano version of “Flaming Heart,” a song that’s dominated by guitar in the studio version on End of Amnesia.Another piano highlight was Ward’s cover of the Daniel Johnston song, Story of an Artist,” which generated several laughs with its goofy but heartfelt lyrics.(Ward’s version of the song and Johnston’s original are on the 2004 CD Discovered Covered.)
Ward used his effects pedals to loop his guitar parts on a couple of songs, allowing him to solo on top of his own chords. Playing “Vincent O’Brien” for his encore, Ward even stepped over to the piano, with his guitar still slung over his shoulders, and pounded away at the keys for a joyous bit of racket that closed the song.
After all of his songs about sadness, Ward introduced his final song of the night as the happiest tune ever written. It was a lovely cover of “What a Wonderful World”  — with Ward omitting the title line of the song whenever it occurred, leaving it up to his guitar to speak those words. As he finished the song, Ward smoothly segued into a snippet of “When You Wish Upon A Star,” and with that melody still echoing on the sound system, he left the stage.
It was a masterful performance.
As I was leaving, I spotted Andrew Bird in the crowd and briefly talked with him. Bird’s obviously a fan of Ward’s music. “I feel a certain kinship with his music,” he told me.

Rogue Wave and Two Gallants at Schubas

Judging from the credits on Out of the Shadow, one of 2004’s most promising debut albums, the band Rogue Wave is pretty much just songwriter Zach Rogue and some backing musicians…
There’s no doubt that Rogue is the captain of this ship, but Rogue Wave really did feel like a full-fledged band during their show at Schuba’s. The three backing musicians (only two are listed at — Pat Spurgeon and Gram Lebron) swapped places on drums, bass, guitar and keyboards several times, but always sounded lively as they brought more of a rock edge to Rogue’s catchy, loopily psychedelic pop tunes.
Several new songs sounded fine — they might grow on me after I hear them more, though none of the new songs initially stood out as strong as the best tracks on Out of the Shadow.
The audience was very, very enthusiastic. The second encore actually seemed to be one of those unplanned sets that bands play when the crowd just won’t leave.
The Saturday Nights played first, with likable if not exactly outstanding power pop. Then came the angular, intense sound of the San Francisco guitar-and-drums duo Two Gallants. They ended their set by moving down onto the main floor of Schuba’s (taking a few pieces of their drum kit with them), playing one last song unamplified for the hushed room. A nice touch. Two Gallants are not much like the more famous guitar-drum duos out there (you know, White Stripes, Black Keys, Local H), but they left a strong first impression on me…
However, listening to the songs “Nothing to You” and “Train That Stole My Man” at the Two Gallants Web site, I’m not so sure. That singer’s voice… it seemed “edgy” during the concert, not exactly good but somehow invigorating… Now it seems a little annoying out of that context. A bit too Obersty, perhaps? Definitely an acquired taste, which I haven’t acquired yet.