Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

March 2009 Archives

"Playful" is a word that doesn't automatically spring to mind when considering the work of 39-year-old singer and songwriter Polly Jean Harvey: Despite her occasional forays into the sunnier side of romance--say, "Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea" (2000)--the bulk of her consistently rewarding catalog is as dark, harrowing and cathartic as rock gets. She certainly was in a Gothic frame of mind on her last official solo album, "White Chalk" (2007), and that mood continues here. "When you call out my name in rapture/I volunteer my soul for murder," she announces on the opening track, "Black Hearted Love"--and that isn't even the most sinister moment.

Nevertheless, this disc essentially is Harvey letting loose, having fun and kicking back with her favorite collaborator, John Parish, the multi-instrumentalist who's contributed to and sometimes produced her work for two decades now. The difference here, as with their last co-credited effort, "Dance Hall at Louse Point" (1996), is that Parish crafted all of the music. "It's quite freeing, because I only have to think about words... and singing," Harvey told Billboard. "That's a joy, so in a way it's much easier than writing my own solo work. Also, John gives music that I would never come up with, so I find that inspiring."

Indeed, Harvey is a woman unleashed throughout these 10 tracks, literally barking like a dog on the Captain Beefheart/Tom Waits homage "Pig Will Not," channeling a haunted old woman in "April," fantasizing (one hopes) violent and bloody revenge in the title track and in general enjoying a frenzied mid-life revival of rock 'n' roll fury to rival the one recently witnessed from another of her collaborators, Nick Cave.

Demo2DeRo: Kory Quinn and the Comrades

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Since starting this column a few years back, submissions from local bands have come via the usual snail mail and email (which actually has become my preferred method--no reason to waste the expense and the natural resources on shiny discs when online music is so much easier), as well as in person whenever I'm out and about. But Kory Quinn was the first musician to pop up on my radar via a flier stapled to the box of the pizza I ordered. But darned if the music wasn't even tastier than the pepperoni.

You'll find precious little background info on the group--which features Quinn on guitar, banjo and lead vocals, Joe Paul on upright bass, Dobro Joe on dobro and Jake Moon on guitar--posted on its Web site, I gather the band migrated to Chicago from Indiana; that its biggest influence is Harry Smith's famous "Anthology of American Folk Music" and that it's gearing up to perform at the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah, Okla., in July. Beyond that, the details of the Comrades are a mystery, but that's fine, because stark, haunting but brilliantly rendered songs such as "Shoes of the Dead," "You Ain't Coming Back," "Austin" and "Under the Gun" succeed because of their dark and twisted layers and the many lingering questions of that vaunted "old, weird America."

The band has a busy schedule of upcoming gigs, including F. O'Mahony's, 3701 N. Broadway, on April 7, and the Horseshoe, 4115 N. Lincoln, on April 17. But you'll probably have to provide your own pizza.

Music announced for Taste of Chicago 2009

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Music lovers put off in these tight economic times by the exorbitant price of tickets for summer concerts by U2 and other big names can take solace in the fact that the headliners at Taste of Chicago are still priced right: They're still free.

The Mayor's Office of Special Events on Tuesday announced this year's roster of acts at the Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park includes funk legends Charlie Wilson of the Gap Band and Cameo at 5:30 p.m. on June 26; rootsy rockers the Counting Crows at 5 p.m. on June 27; the Wallflowers and Chicago rockers Lovehammers at 5 p.m. on June 28, and Broadway in Chicago (with selections from "Mary Poppins," "Jersey Boys," "Young Frankenstein," "Spring Awakening" and "In the Heights") at 6 p.m. on June 29.

Also: alternative-pop band the Barenaked Ladies at 5:30 p.m. on June 30; R&B star Ne-Yo at 5:30 p.m. on July 1; Super Diamond and Afrodisiacs at 5:30 p.m. on July 2; blues great Buddy Guy at 3 p.m. on July 4 and kids' music artists Mitchell Musso and Jordan Pruitt at 2:30 p.m. on July 5.

As this blog reported earlier, this year, the smaller Taste stage also will be highlighting the rosters of several of Chicago's best independent labels, including Bloodshot Records on June 27, Earwig on June 30 and Thrill Jockey on July 2, while indie rocker Christian Kiefer and guests artists will be presenting "A Patriotic Salute to our 44 Presidents" on July 4, with songs for every U.S. president.

Though it's almost impossible to believe that Billy Corgan would try to replace Jimmy Chamberlin, one of the best drummers of his generation, via open auditions, the Smashing Pumpkins' publicist just released the following statement:

Auditions will be held Friday, April 10 in Los Angeles for drummers who are looking to play with THE SMASHING PUMPKINS. They should send their background info, photos and performance web links via email only to:

What's the matter, Billy -- the Illinois Entertainer's ad rates too steep? Craigslist is free, you know! Then again, it may prove hard indeed to find a percussionist who'd want such an, um, challenging gig...


Reader Kevin J. writes of this morning's ticket sale for U2 at Soldier Field on Sept. 12:

I know I won't be the only one bothering you with this today but I would like for someone to tell me how a 70,000 seat concert is sold out in 5 minutes. I got through to Livenation .com at 10:00 .When I got connected to Ticketmaster it was approximately 10:05. I requested $95.00 tickets, and was told none were available . The same happened within 5 minutes for every price ticket I tried. They were nice enough to direct me to an auction were I could no doubt get tickets at a higher price . I am through with any Live Nation concert. We really need Ticketmaster, and LiveNation to merge like a hole in the head.. The funniest part is I'm really more interested in seeing Snow Patrol than U2. They couldn't have sold out The House Of Blues as fast as they just sold out Soldier Field. Thanks for letting me vent.

Sure enough, I just checked on the availability of two top-tier tickets at the $250 price via, and was directed to... this Ticketmaster auction site, which is inviting me to bid on either the "Zone Backstage Tour Experience" (starting bid: $1,515) or the plain old "Zone Experience" ticket (starting bid: $255).

Since I cannot double back in time to the official 10 a.m. on sale, there's no way of knowing if potential ticket buyers were automatically directed to the auction site while face-price tickets were still available, as was the case with the controversial Bruce Springsteen concerts. But in every other way, it seems as if Ticketmaster/Live Nation are operating with business as usual for the U2 shows, which means gouging fans for every dollar the company (and the band) can get.

And still Bono hasn't deigned to offer any public comment on the merger.

Update: A new Web site describing itself as "a search engine for tickets--think of us like Google for concert tickets,", already has nearly 1,300 listings for "secondary market sales" of U2 tickets in Chicago via scalpers using sites such as StubHub, TicketNetwork and eBay. Top price: $16,500 for a general admission floor seat.

No, that was not a typo: $16,500 via StubHub. Recession? What recession? (At the low end of the spectrum, there also are seats starting at $81.)

Update: And now Live Nation announces a SECOND U2 show at Soldier Field on Sept. 13. Tickets for that show go on sale a week from today, Monday, April 6, at 10 a.m. Hope you didn't spring for those $16,500 tickets in the time between the sell-out and this announcement!

Talking to Numero Group co-founder Tom Lunt

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At a time when some of Chicago's best independent record labels are struggling for survival--witness the recent layoffs of 23 employees at Touch and Go Records--the Numero Group stands out as a surprising success.

Devoted to lavishly packaged and extensively-annotated reissues of worthy but little-heard sounds from the past, the label was founded in 2003 by Tom Lunt, a former ad exec, and Ken Shipley, who'd been working as a talent scout for Rykodisc Records. Rob Sevier, a DJ and musical archivist, soon became the third partner. All were dedicated collectors or "crate diggers," scouring dusty record-store bins for obscure vinyl.

"I met Ken at a record store, which is where people like us would meet," Lunt recalls. "We hung out a bit and found that we had a lot in common in terms of our interests and ambitions. I was about to go to work in Warsaw for a year"--he oversaw marketing for McDonald's in Poland--"but I said, 'Well, if I ever get back, let's keep talking.'

"Well, I got back from Warsaw and we ran into each other again at Whole Foods. I said that I wanted to get something going: 'I've got something new that I want to do and I'm tired of the advertising industry; it's just a drag.' I left when I was 49, and I'm 56 now, the same age as rock 'n' roll. So we got together and had a lot of meetings at this Arabic place on North Avenue [Sultan's Market], and that was our office from the beginning. We knew Rob, and we knew we wanted to do a re-issue label, and this whole idea of eccentric soul was something we talked about early on because Rob is a big fan and this huge source of professorial information."

The Numero Group isn't the only Chicago indie trumpeting its accomplishments this weekend; the venerated punk label Johann's Face is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a show at the Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace, starting at 9 p.m. Saturday, April 4, and featuring No Empathy, Not Rebecca, the Sass Dragons and Bread and Bottle. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door; call (773) 478-4408 or visit

Over the course of four albums, from "604" (2001) through "Velocifero" (2008), the Liverpool electronic-pop quartet Ladytron has shown considerable stylistic range and a consistently unerring ear for great hooks. They remain cult favorites, but favorites popular enough to headline two shows at Metro, 3730 N. Clark, with the Faint, Telepath and Figo starting at 8:30 p.m. Friday, April 3, and with the same bill again at 6 p.m. Saturday, April 4. Tickets are $25; call (773) 549-4140 or visit

Major bummer. From the promoters:

We have a correction regarding the Flaming Lips' performance at the 2009 Pitchfork Music Festival. The "Write the Night" series, in which tickets holders get to vote on the songs that they want to hear, is happening on Friday, with Built to Spill, the Jesus Lizard, Tortoise, and Yo la Tengo. The Flaming Lips will be closing out the Festival on Sunday, July 19th, but they will not be part of the "Write the Night" series, as was previously indicated. We apologize for any confusion. Any problems regarding tickets purchased due to what was previously reported can be addressed with TicketWeb for reimbursement at Thanks, and we hope to see you in July.

Neither Pitchfork promoter Mike Reed nor Lips manager Scott Booker could be reached for comment (yet), so it's not clear what happened. But with all things Flaming Lips, the buck stops with bandleader Wayne Coyne, so let me direct this to him:

Hey, Wayne: You guys have been playing more or less the same set for almost a decade now; a few new songs get added, one older song gets dropped in per night, and maybe a cover, but mostly we get a lot of eye candy, with very few if any real musical surprises. How is this major Chicago festival appearance going to be any different than the Lollapalooza show a few years ago, or any of a dozen recent Lips shows your fans may have caught in these parts? What's the matter, buddy: Afraid to deviate from the standard set list, stretch out as in the old days, and either succeed brilliantly or fail nobly? Don't you think the fans at an eclectic, diverse and independent festival in one of the cities that has always been among the band's strongest bases of support deserve and would accept something a little left of center--something different and special? Or is this just another paycheck like all the other big corporate festivals and the Kraft salad dressing commercials?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah... um, no, no, no, no, no, no.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "It's Blitz" (Interscope) [3.5 STARS]

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Mindful perhaps of the rapidity with which yesterday's Next Big Thing becomes today's old news and tired formula--see the rapid rise and equally quick fall to "them again?" status of peers such as the Strokes and Franz Ferdinand--the New York trio of Nick Zinner, Brian Chase and frenetic vocalist Karen O take some radical chances on their third album, tinkering with two of the three key ingredients in their minimalist sound as Zinner shifts from his punk take on shoegazer guitar to synthesizer (or at least guitars that sound like synths) and drummer Chase hones to much more straightforward and dance-floor-friendly grooves.

Not for nothing is the cover an image of O's hand exploding an egg. But the risky reinvention pays off, since the most galvanizing element of the band has always been O's vocals, which can range from a seductive coo to a frightening cacophony, and because the art-punk of the early '80s New York scene that so inspires the band was never all that far removed from the dance clubs of the same period. "Off with your head/Dance 'til your dead," O demands on "Heads Will Roll," which ranks with "Dull Life," "Shame and Fortune" and the single "Zero" among the disc's most frenzied moments.

Just as effective are the mellower moments, including the Krautrock nod of "Soft Shock" and the electro-balled "Dragon Queen" (which features backing vocals by Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio) and "Hysteric," in which O offers sounds more content than she ever has on record ("Flow sweetly, hang heavy/You suddenly complete me," she repeats in the choruses), indicating that this infamous wild woman of the band's live performances has a deep well of emotions that she's only begun to explore.

Demo2DeRo: Joe Pug

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Singer-songwriter Joe Pug has been the beneficiary of a growing buzz in Chicago, but I managed by just a few minutes to miss two of his six gigs at the recent South by Southwest Music & Media Conference. The songs on his Web sites ( and are impressive enough, however, showing the clear influence of music heroes such as Bob Dylan and John Prine, a rich baritone that belies his age and a bold political consciousness that may not be in style but which is still very much needed.

"When hunger strikes are fashion and freedom is routine/And all the streets in Cleveland are named for Martin Luther King/You may see me at the protest but notice that I drag/I burn my father's flag," the 23-year-old artist sings in "I Do My Father's Drugs," one of seven tracks on his "Nation of Heat" EP.

Dropping out of school at the University of North Carolina, where he was hoping to become a playwright, Pug moved to Chicago a few years ago and began to reinvent himself as a musician, working in between as a carpenter. He's gearing up to release his first full album later this year, and he returns to Chicago to perform at Schubas on May 1 and 2 in the midst of a long tour that started before SXSW and which runs through the end of May.

The Flaming Lips to rock Pitchfork

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The Flaming Lips pre-space bubbles, plushies and confetti guns, circa 1989.

Promoters of the Pitchfork Music Festival have announced that Oklahoma's venerated psychedelic-pop weirdoes the Flaming Lips will close out this year's three-day concert in Union Park on July 17 to 19.

The Lips have become a staple on the festival circuit in recent years with their low-tech whiz-bang stage shows, though many longtime fans have been disappointed by the lack of older material in their sets and the overabundance of shtick (bandleader Wayne Coyne singing "Happy Birthday"--that sort of thing).

At Pitchfork, however, the band will be reprising the opening night's "Write the Night: Set Lists by Request" concept, inviting fans to cast their votes online for the songs they'd most like to hear. If they vote wisely, the Lips actually pay attention to the balloting and Coyne deigns to pick up a guitar again, the results could almost be enough to make one forgive the band for selling out to those annoying Kraft salad dressing commercials or picking on those poor, sensitive kids in the Arcade Fire (among numerous other sins of late).

In any event, here is one veteran Flaming Lips fan's choice for the ultimate live set list, in chronological order from early in the band's career to the present. (If the group plays these songs, I'm happy to take them in any sequence they wanna give 'em.)

1. "Jesus Shootin' Heroin" (from "Hear It Is," 1986)

2. "Everything's Explodin'" ("Oh My Gawd!!!... The Flaming Lips," 1987)

3. "Chrome-Plated Suicide" ("Telepathic Surgery," 1987)

4. "Shine On Sweet Jesus" ("In a Priest Driven Ambulance," 1990)

5. "Unconsciously Screaming" ("In a Priest Driven Ambulance," 1990)

6. "Five Stop Mother Superior Rain" ("In a Priest Driven Ambulance," 1990)

7. "Hit Me Like You Did the First Time" ("Hit to Death in the Future Head," 1992)

8. "Frogs" ("Hit to Death in the Future Head," 1992)

9. "Turn It On" ("Transmissions from the Satellite Heart," 1993)

10. "Pilot Can at the Queer of God" ("Transmissions from the Satellite Heart," 1993)

11. "Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles" ("Clouds Taste Metallic," 1995)

12. "Kim's Watermelon Gun" ("Clouds Taste Metallic," 1995)

13. "The Captain is a Cold-Hearted and Egotistical Fool" (outtake from "The Soft Bulletin," 1999)

14. "Waitin' for a Superman" ("The Soft Bulletin," 1999)

15. "Pompeii am Götterdämmerung" ("At War with the Mystics," 2006)

Yeah, yeah, many Pitchforkers may quibble with only one official song from "The Soft Bulletin," but the band has been playing much of that album in concert regularly since its release. Even more so with "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" (2002). This is a chance to get the band to revisit a rich catalog that stands with some of the best in rock history--and I mean, right up there beside Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and certainly any band of the alternative generation--and the vast majority of the songs I've chosen haven't been heard live in more than 15 years.

Anyway, this is my list, and I'm stickin' with it! If you think you can do better, I'd love to see it.

More Lollapalooza leaks... ?

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This list, sixty or so strong, comes from a blog called Faronheit, with which I previously have been unfamiliar, and, while claiming to have a solid source inside Austin, TX-based promoters C3 Presents, the blogger equivocates by noting, "Given that I've been told the list is at least 90% correct (if not higher), I'm pretty willing to let a 10% margin of error slide in this case. Think of it this way: if you cut out 6 artists from this list of 60, does it make the remaining lineup a whole lot worse?"

Well, maybe, maybe not, but it might make the list inaccurate, and we old-school reporters still value that. Either way, it's interesting to scan it. And, amazingly, it does skip the big scoop I posted at the end of yesterday's Lollapalooza entry.

The list follows the jump.

Jimmy Chamberlin speaks... er, blogs

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Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin has addressed his departure from the band in a post on his new blog... though it's nearly as cryptic as his old mate Billy Corgan's writings.

Here is the post in its entirety:

March 24, 2009 at 07:54 - Posted by jcc

By now you have heard the news of my departure from the Smashing Pumpkins. I will say, without going into any unnecessary details that this represents a positive move forward for me. I can no longer commit all of my energy into something that I don't fully possess. I won't pretend I'm into something I'm not. I won't do it to myself, you the fan, or my former partner. I can't just, "Cash the check" so to speak. Music is my life. It is sacred. It deserves the highest commitment at every level and the Pumpkins are certainly no different. I'm sorry but it really IS that simple. There is no drama, bad blood, or anything else but a full commitment to music. My best goes out to Billy and I'm glad he has chosen to continue under the name. It is his right. I will continue to make music with the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex as well as pursuing other musical interests. I feel that I have a long way to go and a lot to give. Thanks to everyone for your kind words and support through all of this. I am constantly humbled by all of you! It is an honor and a privilege to play music for a living and I don't take it for granted not even for a second.

Stay tuned....... JC

Meanwhile, Mr. Corgan has begun to Twitter, though he hasn't tweeted anything of interest yet. This should be fun.


Billy Corgan helps porn star Sasha Gray celebrate her 21st birthday earlier this month.

A Corganphile much more dedicated to following his writings on the Web than I found and sent me the following curious post that the Great Pumpkin wrote a few weeks back, apologizing for...

Well, exactly why he is sorry isn't really clear. Could it be that he knew the split with Jimmy Chamberlin was looming? Was it his support of the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger? His rants during the shows on the last tour? His selling his songs to TV commercials? Any or all of the above?

I'm not sure, but it's interesting reading. Here it is in its entirety.

February 26, 2009 11:55pm

Since it's a new year, let's try something new...

Let's try to forgive each other, support each other, be kind in our words and deeds, and get out of judging each other...

The world around us right now is very complicated...

I for one am very confused by much of the information I come across...

I am concerned about so many losing their jobs, homes, and peaceful lives under an increasingly curious set of circumstances...there are however new opportunities to be had, even in the worst of times...we are all affected by the changes that are going on on a global scale...the politics of egoism and cultural divides mean very little if you can't support your family, or help those in need, even if you want to is a test for us now to find how to heal each other...i believe very strongly in the power of prayer to affect change and welcome in forgiveness...

I don't mind asking publicly for your forgiveness...if I have offended you somewhere along the way, out of my own ignorance or fear, please forgive would be part of my own healing to be forgiven...

I can honestly say that if I have ever wanted to do anything in this life it has been to heal others thru my work...i have failed many times to shine some light in this world, but I can still try and try again...


U2 Soldier Field tickets to go on sale March 30

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U2 will open the American leg of its 360° Tour at Soldier Field with openers Snow Patrol on Sept. 12, and tickets will go on sale a week from today, Monday, March 30, at 10 a.m. through Ticketmaster with prices set at $32, $57, $97 and $252 -- plus, of course, the dreaded, steep and as yet unadvertised Ticketmaster "convenience fees."

From the press release:

Long-time U2 Show Director Willie Williams has worked again with architect Mark Fisher (ZooTV, PopMart, Elevation and Vertigo), to create an innovative 360˚ design which affords an unobstructed view for the audience. U2 360° also marks the first time a band has toured in stadiums with such a unique and original structure (which can be viewed at

"U2 has always been at their best when surrounded by their audience, this staging takes a giant leap forward. With 85 percent of the tickets priced at less than $95.00, general admission floor tickets priced at $55.00 and at least 10,000 tickets at every venue priced at the $30.00 price range, we have worked very hard to ensure that U2 fans can purchase a great priced ticket with a guaranteed great view" says U2's manager Paul McGuinness.

The Grammys have their "Big Four" categories each year; Lollapalooza has its "Big Six" headliners, two per night on the opposite ends of Grant Park.

The Chicago Tribune is reporting that Las Vegas glam-popsters the Killers and progressive-metal giants Tool have joined the Kings of Leon, the Beastie Boys, Jane's Addiction and Depeche Mode as the year's top acts on Aug. 7 to 9.

This columnist noted a few days ago that Lou Reed, Neko Case and Andrew Bird also are on the bill. The Tribune adds the Decemberists as a likely booking as well. Meanwhile, the Chicago Reader is playing an educated guessing game dropping names such as Girl Talk and Animal Collective, the Consequence of Sound blog adds Atmosphere, Delta Spirit, Friendly Fires, Kaiser Chiefs, the Ravonettes, Paul Green's School of Rock All-Stars and theNewNo2 to the list, and Chicagoist really got the whole ball rolling with this post last month.

As usual, festival organizers are griping about not being able to control the news and all of these annoying Chicago reporters, you know, reporting.

"It's pesky. But you gotta look at it like this: It's kind of exciting these guys care enough to try to dig up what we're doing every year," Lollapalooza corporate figurehead Perry Farrell told MTV News. He then proceeded to do some leaking himself, promising more electronic artists on the roster.

An easy solution for Austin, TX-based promoters C3 Presents: Release the lineup already! (Twice in the past, the full list of acts was released on the first day of the South by Southwest Music & Media Conference.) Keeping it bottled up is just daring Chicago journalists to keep digging... though of course, that means even more stories and free publicity, so maybe that's all part of the master plan. So let me do my part by adding another bombshell...

THE BEATLES WILL BE PLAYING LOLLAPALOOZA! Of course, it will be without John Lennon and George Harrison. Sources say Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr also will be sitting this one out, and the band that takes the stage will not actually be playing any older Fab Four tunes. Also, the group will be masquerading under a name other than the Beatles. Stay tuned for further developments!


Common and Kanye in Austin. Photo by Dorothy Hong, The FADER .

Though I generally avoid the hipster-heavy corporate-sponsored parties at SXSW--what's the point with so many extraordinary showcases as part of the music fest proper?--the closing act at the Levi's Fader Fort--a shopping mall-like venue specially constructed in an industrial no man's land on the east side of Austin and sponsored by the jeans company and the Fader magazine--was just too enticing to pass up.

This celebration of the roster of G.O.O.D. Music did indeed draw the rumored special guest, none other than... well, here's how the label's founder announced himself: "Rockin' the [South by] Southwest... Kanye West!"


For devoted followers of Neil Young--and, really, what rock fan with a modicum of taste isn't?--the long-rumored, long, long-anticipated first installment of the singer and songwriter's massive box-set career overview has been something of a Holy Grail--and quite possibly just as mythical.

But it's here. It exists. (I've seen and touched it!) It's a got a firm, no-kidding release date (June 2). And not only is it absolutely amazing, it quite possibly is a model for the only kind of recorded product that independent and chain stores alike will still be selling in the post-CD future.

SXSW 2009: Let's hear it for the ladies in the house

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As it happens, in addition to An Horse and the She Creatures, many of my favorite discoveries at SXSW 2009 have had a strong female presence. Here are some more I've yet to mention.

* Yelle

This French singer, a.k.a. Julie Budet, made her debut in 2007 with the "Pop Up" album (only issued in the U.S. last year), but she's best appreciated live, where the infectious energy of her electronic dance-pop is simply undeniable. Not for nothing is her stage name a feminized version of the acronym for "You Enjoy Life."


* St. Vincent

In a not dissimilar vein but hailing from Dallas and a bit more cinematic in scope, Annie Clark isn't quite as impressive live as she is on album, including the new "Actor." But this former member of the Polyphonic Spree is nonetheless an indie chanteuse to watch.


* Suzanna Choffel

Hard-to-pigeonhole singer-songwriters are a dime a dozen in Austin, but Choffel, a big winner at the local music awards Wednesday, impressed me more than any I've heard here with a unique sound equal parts Beat poetry, smoky soul grooves and indie-pop eccentricity. Think Feist meets Erykah Badu, with a hint of Tex-Mex seasoning.


* The Vivian Girls

This Brooklyn trio's self-titled debut was one of my favorite records of 2008, and if their live show is a bit, um, unpolished, that only makes the aggression and unstoppable D.I.Y. attitude all the more inspiring. The Vivian Girls are one of the most anticipated acts performing at this year's Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park.



Tinted Windows: Bun E. Carlos, James Iha, Taylor Hanson, Adam Schlesinger.

All of the highlights on my third night of music in Austin came at a venue called Pangea, which is quite clearly an awful dance club when it isn't commandeered by SXSW, and they started with a solo set by Britpop hero Graham Coxon.

Though Coxon will always be best known for his partnership with Damon Albarn, with whom he reportedly is about to reunite for another go-round with Blur, the guitarist has been a prolific solo artist, with the sounds on his seven indie albums ranging from aggressive but melodic punk/garage-rock to introspective and skewed folk music echoing Syd Barrett and Nick Drake.

Coxon's SXSW set leaned heavily on the latter style, and while the boomy dance club sometimes swallowed his quiet material, and he lacks the stage presence of his former mate Albarn (or of Pete Doherty, whom he backed on a new solo album called "Grace/Wastelands"), he persevered and delivered several magical moments for anyone willing to listen.

Jimmy Chamberlin has quit the Smashing Pumpkins, but that is not deterring band leader Billy Corgan from forging on ahead under the corporate name.

Here's the press release:

The SMASHING PUMPKINS' guitarist, singer, songwriter and founding member Billy Corgan has announced that drummer Jimmy Chamberlin has left the group. Chamberlin joined the band Corgan founded in Chicago in 1988 and played on all their albums except Adore (1998). Corgan will continue to write and record as SMASHING PUMPKINS with plans to head into the studio this spring.

My second night of club-hopping in Austin started strong with a set by Chicago underground rock legends Red Red Meat.

Led by guitarist-vocalist Tim Rutili, the band released a series of indelible albums that always seemed both timeless and way ahead of their time through the early and mid '90s. Sub Pop Records recently reissued the fan favorite "Bunny Gets Paid" (1995), and the band--never officially broken up, though mostly inactive since 1998--has come together for a handful of shows, including two at the Empty Bottle back home Tuesday and Wednesday, and a showcase gig at SXSW at a club called Radio Room Patio tonight.

Though my favorite version of the band will always be the one that recorded "Jimmywine Majestic" (1994) with the twin guitars of Rutili and Glenn Girard, the second best lineup certainly was the one that performed here, with dual drummers Brian Deck and Ben Massarella and still unnaturally tall bassist and backing vocalist Tim Hurley. Like riding a bicycle--albeit a rusty one with dented rims and noisemakers in between the spokes--the group fell right back into its trademark shambling groove, with Rutili alternating sliding wails and feedback drones on guitar and ethereal, dark, slippery but nonetheless beautiful vocal melodies emerging from the bluesy, psychedelic murk.

Best of all: In addition to a gorgeous cover from the first album by Low, the band played a new tune, hinting that in addition to Rutili's many other projects, Red Red Meat may once again become an ongoing force.


Red Red Meat back in the day: Tim Hurley, Ben Massarella, Tim Rutili and Brian Deck.

Finally, some exciting Lollapalooza whispers

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So far, the acts rumored to be performing at this year's Lollapalooza in Grant Park on Aug. 7 to 9 have been less than thrilling: Kings of Leon, Depeche Mode, Jane's Addiction and (the one standout) the Beastie Boys. But industry sources cornered at SXSW have added another exciting name to the list: Lou Reed.

The venerated godfather of punk has been performing his classic 1973 concept album "Berlin" in select cities, but he's yet to stop in Chicago. It's unclear whether he'll be playing that piece at Lollapalooza or a plain old Lou Reed set, but either way, it should be a treat.

Also said to be joining the roster, whenever Austin, TX-based promoters C3 Presents choose to announce it: alternative-country chanteuse and former Chicagoan Neko Case and the Windy City's devoted pop eccentric Andrew Bird.

Discounted "early bird" tickets for the festival go on sale on March 31. An earlier bacth of "souvenir tickets" were put on sale a few weeks ago, and they quickly sold out.

C3, which staged the Grant Park rally the night of President Obama's election as well as several events in Washington, D.C. during the inauguration, is also said to have been tapped to help stage this year's Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn. No word yet on whether Perry Farrell will take part.

The second day of panels at SXSW started for me with a session called "Indie Labels Keep the Faith" featuring representatives from two of Chicago's best: Nan Warshaw, co-owner of Bloodshot Records, and Howard Greynolds, formerly one of the overseers at Touch and Go.

Warshaw said Bloodshot has seven full-time and three part-time employees. Touch and Go, long one of the most respected indie labels in America, recently scaled back from 23 employees to three, Greynolds said, and he was one of those let go.

Though Warshaw, Greynolds and other panelists from Rounder, Wildflower, Barsuk and Kill Rock Stars tried to paint as positive a picture as possible about the work these indies have done and continue to do, one couldn't help but leave the session thinking that the prognosis is dire indeed, with five thousand record stores having closed their doors in the last few years, the CD doomed to extinction within the next few years and the new music industry shaping up to include tiny labels that sell fewer than 5,000 records on vinyl or as a downloads at one end of the spectrum and a handful of majors that sell more than 50,000 albums at the other--eliminating the middle ground where the best indie labels traditionally have thrived.

SXSW 2009: Kanye's coming to Texas

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The big rumor swirling around SXSW Wednesday was that Kanye West would be among the surprise superstars "dropping in" at the festival. Now the Chicago superstar has confirmed to the Associated Press that he'll be performing, though he hasn't said where or when.

Odds are it's at a corporate party venue called the Fader Fort on Saturday night.

As for other big names, a "surprise" gig by Metallica is one of the worst kept secrets here (the band is in town to hype a new edition of the Rock Band video game) and Big Boi, half of the hip-hop duo OutKast, said to be showcasing songs from a forthcoming solo album.

Though SXSW organizers are well aware that the proposed Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger is the biggest music story of the year--if not the biggest to break during the history of the conference--there is nothing on the four-day schedule of panels and seminars at the Austin Convention Center addressing its implications. But that's not for lack of trying.

Panel organizers worked hard to arrange a public interview with Ticketmaster chief Irving Azoff, but Azoff declined. The company also passed on sending any other representatives to speak publicly at SXSW, as did Live Nation.

In their arguments on Capitol Hill, Azoff and Live Nation boss Michael Rapino both repeated that the merger would help up-and-coming artists--indeed, that it was essential for securing their future in these turbulent economic times. SXSW is the largest annual gathering of developing artists in America.

The mega-corporations' lack of a public presence speaks volumes.

It's ironic that here in Austin, some 10,000 attendees at the South by Southwest Music Conference all received a flier proclaiming that "Austin Is Music," lauding the city's support of the local music scene and its new music initiative as part of the City of Austin Economic Growth & Redevelopment Services Office.

Seattle, Memphis and New Orleans all have similar offices under their mayors, while Chicago has... a chief executive seemingly determined to thwart the local music community at every turn, with the reintroduction of the promoters ordinance simply Mayor Daley's latest assault.

The musical advocacy group the Chicago Music Commission has long trumpeted the economic benefits to the city from the music scene, and it's becoming increasingly pointed in its opposition to the promoters ordinance. Now it's posted an alternative proposal on its Web site. The full statement is best read there, but the group does offer an outline of what it's suggesting, and that follows the jump.

Meanwhile, word here among several of the founders of Chicago's best indie labels is that the city has finally wised up (apparently in part under the prodding of the CMC) and devoted an entire stage at this year's Taste of Chicago Festival in Grant Park to showcasing the local stars on the labels' rosters. Stay tuned for more details.

SXSW 2009, night one: Roky, An Horse & more

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For the first decade or so of South by Southwest's existence, the full-on assault of showcase gigs didn't begin until the second night of the festival. The only thing to do on Wednesday was to attend the Austin Music Awards, the city's annual bout of self-congratulatory hoo-ha--laudable (Chicago wishes it had something as credible) yet ultimately, like all awards shows, pretty boring (especially to visitors from other cities).

Nevertheless, for years, I attended the awards lured by the promise of an appearance by Austin's psychedelic-rock legend Roky Erickson, who inevitably disappointed by coming onstage for half a song and fumbling the words before shuffling off to return to a hermitage plagued by his infamous battle with mental illness.

Healthier and seemingly happier than he's been in decades, Erickson was a revelation at a handful of Chicago shows in recent years, including appearances with his backing band the Explosives at the Intonation Music Festival and Lollapalooza. But I was excited about seeing him fronting the Black Angels, a wonderfully dense, droning and mind-altering Austin band that I first discovered at SXSW in 2006.

In its 23rd year, the South by Southwest Music & Media Conference remains the premier annual music fest in America--a combination of the Cannes or Sundance film festivals and Spring Break, as well as the most accurate barometer for the state of the music industry at any given moment.

A major question hovered over Austin on Wednesday, however, at the start of four days of seminars and panel discussions and four nights of showcase gigs by musicians who traveled to the Texas capital from across the U.S. and around the world.

How would the global financial crisis--not to mention the death rattle of the old-school music business--be felt at SXSW 2009?

Gearing up for South by Southwest

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Though I'm frantically trying to do my laundry, pack and meet half a dozen deadlines before heading to Texas for the annual South by Southwest Music Festival, I did manage to take a quick look today at the roster of local bands heading to the music industry's annual version of the Cannes or Sundance film festivals meets Spring Break.

As always, Chicago is represented in a big way among the hundreds of bands traveling to the festival from around the world. Following the jump is the full list of officially showcasing local acts (all from Chicago, unless otherwise noted); if you'd like to read more about any of them or sample their sounds, visit the SXSW Web site, a great resource even if you aren't going to Austin.

Mind you, there are probably twice as many additional acts performing at unsanctioned gigs in Austin during the festival, but that's a whole other story and a lot harder list to compile.

Ask Colin Meloy about the reference points for the fifth album by his Portland, Ore.-based chamber-pop band and he'll cite a host of obscure folk-rock inspirations from the '60s (among them Nic Jones, Shirley Collins and Anne Briggs, whose 1966 EP inspired the title of this disc). But the truth is that the Decemberists have spent much of their career trying to make a better concept album/rock opera/song cycle than Jethro Tull's 1972 classic "Thick as a Brick," and at last they have succeeded.

As the many song fragments here seamlessly flow together in a delicious, delirious swirl of baroque melodrama, '70s analog synthesizers, elegiac heavy-metal guitars and gorgeous, timeless melodies, Meloy, his bandmates and a roster of guest voices including Robyn Hitchcock, Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond), Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) spin an enchanting tale of a woman named Margaret hassled by a demonic animal, a forest queen and a villainous rake (among others) while simply trying to treasure true love with her beau, William.

Yes, it's supremely silly, but the Decemberists know that. More importantly, they know that we know that, and they invite us to laugh along with one witty lyrical bon mot after another while enjoying the bounty of hooks and deft melodic turns on standout tracks such as "The Rake's Song," "The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing," "The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid" and the title track (though honestly, the disc is best enjoyed as a whole, in classic concept-album fashion).

With sales of their last album "The Crane's Wife" (2006) edging toward 300,000 and a sold-out show last summer at Millennium Park among their accomplishments, the Decemberists have firmly established themselves as one of the most creative forces in modern rock today. It's time for them to finally stop worrying and admit they love the Tull, because Ian Anderson can only wish he was making music this strong today.

Mastodon, "Crack the Skye" (Warner Bros.) [3.5 STARS]

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The problem with a lot of the so-called "prog-metal" genre is that the bands either skimp on the unrelenting bottom of great metal in their effort to be pointlessly complex and "progressive," or the invention and melody of great progressive-rock is barely discernable amid the thunderous metal assault. The Atlanta quartet Mastodon gets it right on both counts, and on its eagerly anticipated fourth studio album, it also adds a wonderfully dark and disorienting psychedelic swirl (a la vintage Hawkwind) and an even more ambitious conceptual construct than on its 2004 epic "Leviathan" (nominally inspired by Melville's Great White Whale).

The story is graphic-novel gonzo, involving a crippled young man who projects himself into an alternate universe via astral travel and meets up with Rasputin, though as drummer Brann Dailor told Billboard, "It's all metaphors for personal s--t." As focused as the lyrics are obtuse, the concise, powerful production of Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against the Machine) keeps things firmly rooted in the requisite dinosaur thump even as the vocals acquire a new melodic edge (relatively speaking) and the guitars veer off into the psychedelic stratosphere in a way that suggests that Mastodon is only beginning to come into its own and show us what it's really capable of.

Demo2DeRo: Very Truly Yours

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"One day a girl found a message in a bottle," the Chicago pop quartet Very Truly Yours writes by way of evoking its sound. "The message was from a person she'd never met in a place she'd never been. Every day, the girl would read the message and every night she would write a song. She would imagine all the things the person would do, the things they would see and the sounds they would hear." Eventually, the girl takes all of the songs, puts them in a bottle and throws it into the ocean where she found the original message, but not before enclosing a letter signed--you knew this was coming--"Very Truly Yours."

Undeniably cute in that "Danger! Kimya Dawson/"Juno" soundtrack way, guitarist/vocalist/keyboardist Kristine Capua, guitarist Lisle Mitnik, bassist Dan Hyatt and drummer Andy Rogers redeem themselves from falling on the wrong side of twee via the undeniable appeal of the gentle, romantic and lilting melodies of songs such as "Every Little Word" and "Homesick."

Formed last August with the goal of crafting what the group calls "end-of-summer-going-into-winter pop," the band made its recorded debut on a split CD with the British pop band the Understudies, and it's gearing up to release its second single this summer. You can sample a healthy selection of its tunes on its Web site,, or catch the combo live at the Bottom Lounge, 1375 W. Lake, on Thursday, April 9.

What the heck is Billy thinking?

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As the leader of alternative-era heroes the Smashing Pumpkins, Billy Corgan is one of the most successful musicians Chicago has ever produced.

And as the major-label system that has dominated the music industry for seven decades crumbles around him, the 42-year-old graduate of Glenbard North High School is doing everything he can to maintain that rock-star status--from lobbying Congress, to breaking a long-held principle against selling his music to Madison Avenue.

"The 'system' that was once the modern record business, essentially ushered in with the meteoric rise of the Beatles, is now helplessly broken, and by almost every account available, cannot be repaired," Corgan wrote in one recent letter to Congress. "Personally I would add to that a healthy 'good riddance,' as the old system far too often took advantage of the artists as pawns while the power brokers colluded behind the scenes to control the existing markets."

Few musical advocates would disagree with that statement. But some of the answers that Corgan is proposing are prompting longtime fans to ask, "What the heck is Billy thinking?"


As diminutive as his Chicago client is tall, super-manager Irving Azoff is the man who stands behind Billy Corgan--as well as the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger.

The enduring portrait of Azoff, now 61, comes from Frederic Dannen's classic 1990 history of the old-school music industry, Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business. Dannen wrote:

"Azoff stood 5' 3" on a good day. Friends called him the 'Poison Dwarf.' He was easily one of the most loathed men in the music business. His tantrums were extraordinary... Needless to say, Azoff's artists loved him. Most every rock star wants an SOB for a manager," and Azoff was the kind of guy who once delivered a gift-wrapped box bearing a boa constrictor to one competitor.

Through a Ticketmaster spokesman, Azoff declined to comment for this article.

A native of downstate Danville, Azoff was a music fan who traveled to Chicago to see the Beatles at Comiskey Park. He got his start booking bands at high school and continued during his time at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He dropped out in 1970, moved to Los Angeles and landed his first serious client with his then-roommate, soft-rocker Dan Fogelberg. Soon, he also was managing the Eagles, Steeley Dan, Boz Skaggs, Steve Nicks, Heart and Jackson Browne.

A protégé of David Geffen, in the '80s, Azoff became head of MCA Records. He rescued the label from bankruptcy--and became the subject of a federal investigation of a New York mobster working out of MCA's offices. No charges were brought.

In 1989, Azoff left MCA to join Warner Music, where he was co-owner of a new label called Giant Records. He sold his share of Giant back to Warner in 2001, just as CD sales were beginning to slump. From there, he returned to artist management as founder of Front Line Management, with superstar clients including the Eagles, Christina Aguilera, Axl Rose and Morrissey. His biggest innovation: Exclusive deals with big-box retailers such as Walmart and Best Buy to release his clients' new music, a move that not only alienated the old record labels, but the many mom and pop record stores who'd been loyal to those artists and consistently sold their music for years.

In October 2008, Front Line was acquired by Ticketmaster, and Azoff wound up as Ticketmaster's CEO. A major architect of the merger with Live Nation, if the deal is approved by the Justice Department, he will serve as Chairman of the Board of the new Live Nation Entertainment, in addition to being CEO of Front Line.

Many industry observers see an inherent conflict of interest in an artist manager also being an executive at the company selling the artist's recordings, concert tickets and merchandise, which is the world Live Nation Entertainment envisions. Whose interests come first: the artist's, or the company's shareholders? "The artist's interests always come first," Azoff told the Wall Street Journal last month.

Testifying before the Congressional subcommittees, Azoff maintained that the merger is necessary to "save" the music industry and put the power back in the hands of the artists. But as Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) noted, it also will make the already wealthy Azoff an even richer man--and possibly the most powerful in the music business.

Mikael Jorgensen: Not just the guy with the laptop

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Onstage as a member of Wilco, Mikael Jorgensen updates the role of Brian Eno in Roxy Music or Allen Ravenstine in Pere Ubu, twiddling the knobs of a synthesizer or manipulating sounds through a laptop computer.

Few knew that beneath that calm, scientific façade beat the romantic heart of a pop songwriter. Now, Jorgensen has bared that side of his musical personality on the debut album by his side project Pronto, "All Is Golden," recently released on Chicago's Contraphonic label.

"I've kind of been straddling that line my entire life," Jorgensen says. "I got my first synthesizer when I was in seventh grade, and I've never been able to really figure out a way to merge that part of my music and the sort of classic-rock/pop songwriting I was into with my first band in New Jersey, Lizard Music. They've always sort of remained separate. 'All is Golden' is a reflection of experiences and learning and thinking about the music-making process in Wilco, but also incorporating musical ideas that were like, 'I want to do this sort of '70s, Steeley Dan-tinged stuff and take my first real crack at lyric writing.'"


Pronto: Left to right: Greg O'Keeffe, Mikael Jorgensen, Tunde Oyewole, and Erik Paparazzi

The many sides of Rachael Yamagata

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Chicago fans who've followed her career from fronting the funk-pop band Bumpus to striking out on her own as a solo artist know that Rachael Yamagata has always had several sides to her musical personality.

Unfortunately, Yamagata's 2004 major-label debut "Happenstance" largely was devoted to positioning her as the next Norah Jones--a polite female songstress at the piano, perfect for the coffee-house set.

"I've definitely been called that on occasion," Yamagata says, laughing. "My friend Kevin Salem, who's played guitar on my records and who's been a sort of mentor, is always telling me, 'The record company signed you and they didn't actually know what they ended up getting in terms of the spectrum of things.' And I definitely feel like if somebody is calling me that, they just haven't seen a live show.

"I could see how that perception could come maybe from the first record, but if they were saying that about me based on the first record, they'll probably be really surprised by this record."


Photo by Hilary Walsh

During a brief audience with Bono following U2's radio promo event at Metro Tuesday night, I had the opportunity to ask the singer one question about the single most important story in music today: the proposed merger between the controversial ticket broker Ticketmaster and the huge national concert promoter Live Nation.

Last year, U2 hopped into bed with Live Nation in a big way, signing a 12-year global contract allowing the American promoter to handle all merchandising, digital and branding rights as well as touring for the Irish band. And on its last tour, U2 faced significant criticism from fans--including one who questioned the band during the promo event--who were angry about Ticketmaster's handling of the specially-priced fan club tickets, an inordinate number of which seemed to wind up in the hands of scalpers.

Surprisingly, given the facts that the band is gearing up to work with these two companies for what is expected to be one of the top-grossing tours of 2009; that U2 made $25 million from selling its stock in Live Nation in December, and that the merger was the subject of two recent hearings on Capitol Hill as well as an ongoing investigation by the Justice Department, Bono said he had no opinion on the mega-merger.

U2 visits Chicago's Metro

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Shirley Manson with U2 at Metro; photo by Paul Natkin

Continuing an extensive and relentless publicity campaign that has often seemed both more expensive and more elaborately planned than the American invasion of Iraq, U2 came to Chicago's Metro on Tuesday night.

The Irish rockers did not perform, and they declined to talk to the press, lest they be forced to confront any mildly thorny question.

A few months prior to launching their U.S. tour at Soldier Field on Sept. 12 and the night before their 12th studio album, "No Line on the Horizon," was set to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart, Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. came here for one reason and one reason only.

To hype, hype, hype--the better to sell, sell, sell.

This weekend: Even in Blackouts, Brigid Murphy

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All good things come to an end, but some end too soon before their time. Even in Blackouts, Chicago's premier acoustic punk band and the post-Screeching Weasel combo led by John "Jughead" Pierson, will play its last public show after what he calls "seven years of struggle and the most amazing life-changing times" Friday [March 13] at Reggie's Rock Club, 2109 S. State, after opening sets by Glittermouse, Highball and Let Me Run starting at 6 p.m. Tickets are $7; for more info, call (312) 949-0121 or visit

The irrepressible Brigid Murphy, impresario behind Chicago's venerated "Milly's Orchid Show," has spun a special show for the next generation of eccentric music lovers entitled "Milly's (Almost) All Kids Revue" starting at 3 p.m. Sunday [March 15] at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln, and featuring a host of performers including Lola the Circus Dog, Magic and Music by Dennis DeBodt and Samantha Boots, Barrel of Monkeys, Kid Opera by Diane Schoff, Lariet Twirling by the Duran family, Milly and her (almost) All Kid Coal Diggers and Nora O'Connor. Tickets are $25, $23 for Old Town members, and $21 for seniors and children. For more information, call (773) 728-6000 or visit

The Tossers: St. Patrick's Day done right

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As the Tossers prepare to play their pre-St. Patrick's Day bash at Metro, a tradition that's drawn enthusiastic sold-out crowds for the past four years, the local Celtic-punk band knows the evening is not without its hazards.

"The worst thing is that everyone thinks, 'Maybe I can grab one of these guys and do a shot!'" guitarist Mike Pawula says with a laugh. "For them, that's their one experience to have a drink with us, but they forget that we have that same experience with 999 other people, and it's very dangerous! We try to mind our P's and Q's and just try to focus so the show goes off without a hitch.

"There's a lot of beer thrown. There are shoes thrown, and it's a bit of minefield on stage sometimes. But every year has gotten better, and it's a fun time."

Demo2DeRo: Lovers in Arms

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With a gritty, timeless vibe that conjures a spaceage bachelor pad chanteuse singing over gentle, seductive soul/worldbeat/trip-hop grooves late at night on a lonely "el" platform, Lovers in Arms began 2006 as a fruitful collaboration between singers and sonwriters Caroline Yohanan and Armando Perez. The group made its recorded debut with a disc called "Belmont Electric," expanded to a quintet for live performance (with bassist Ryan Schoen, drummer Dan Lieber and Juan Lugo joining Perez on guitar) and returned to the studio last year to craft the new D.I.Y. album "Strength for the Weary," as impressive a disc from a Chicago combo as this column has ever covered.

"I'm addicted/Like a junkie," Yohanan coos in "Shades of Green." "Wrap your arms around me/Let me feel you/Layers of green." That's an invitation that's hard to resist, as evidenced by the sample tracks posted on the band's Web page (, or the considerable charm it exudes in concert. (Lovers in Arms performs at the Funky Buddha Lounge on April 9, at Subterranean on April 10 and at Martyr's on April 18.)

Chris Cornell, "Scream" (Interscope) [1/2 STAR]

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Many are the rock fans who still find the 44-year-old former frontman of grunge-era heroes Soundgarden pleasant to look at. But if you didn't think his Gen X take on Ronnie James Dio was goofy enough musically in that band, Chris Cornell undeniably has been morphing into Spinal Tap's David St. Hubbins ever since, starting with his misguided attempt to reinvent himself as Jeff Buckley on his solo bow "Euphoria Morning" (1999), continuing through his lame James Bond theme and the cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" on "Carry On" (2007), and building to his ill-fated stint fronting Audioslave.

Now comes "Scream," Cornell's third solo disc and an audacious bid to redefine himself, salvage his career and/or conquer whole new worlds with that histrionic four-octave wail. Worthy ambitions, perhaps. But this psychedelic dance record crafted by superstar R&B and hip-hop producer Timbaland, featuring tracks co-written with Justin Timberlake and Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic and boasting a cover image of the singer smashing a guitar (lest anyone miss the point) fails so miserably in every way, you'd swear it was some sort of postmodern parody, if only our hero wasn't infamous for having no discernible sense of humor or any ability to laugh at himself.

As Timbaland cements his sad decline from cutting-edge sonic genius to lazy purveyor of soulless, generic dance-pop full of cliché-ridden electronic grooves and pointlessly percolating synthesizers, Cornell layers electronic effects on his voice and spouts lyrics that, when they aren't merely inane ("I should've looked back some time alone," "I should have left that side of town a long time ago," etc.), often are downright offensive ("No, that bitch ain't a part of me," he sings again and again in the opening track presumably because, well, every hip-hop-flavored album has to have a few anti-woman tracks, right?).
"Pick it up, pick it up, watch out, now pick it up," goes the endlessly repeated and endlessly annoying chorus of the closing track, "Watch Out"; if only the words had been "Put it down, put it down, watch out, now put it down," we could at least commend the artist for warning listeners away from this mess. No such luck, however, so this review will have to suffice. (And I'm going with half a star versus none simply because of the slim possibility that this really is all a put-on; I know I laughed a lot more while listening to this disc than I have during any comedy I've seen in recent memory.)

Though the emo scene that first lovingly embraced the band will forever hail "The Ugly Organ" (2003) as its masterpiece, Cursive actually set a much higher mark to match with "Happy Hollow," the 2006 concept album that found the Omaha group examining the complexities of religion from the perspectives of different small-town residents via a musical backdrop that recalled the most baroque but buoyant moments by XTC. At first blush, the band's sixth album appears less ambitious both musically and lyrically: Overall, it's a quieter, less dense or dynamic recording, and lyricist Tim Kasher is looking inward again instead of making grand sociological statements.

"I'm at my best when I'm at my worst," Kasher sings early on in "From the Hips," while at the end of the disc, in "What Have I Done?," he adds, "I spent the best years of my life waiting on the best years of my life." The key to appreciating "Mama, I'm Swollen" is the realization that Kasher was heavily inspired by the novel Rabbit, Run: In many ways, these 10 songs update John Updike for a new generation, examining what should be contented, comfortable suburban lives that actually are anything but, with the characters in these songs either running away from their problems, boredom or both, or seeking salvation through misguided affairs.

The music also creeps up on you, with the most dramatic and experimental tracks coming late in the disc, but with subtle yet winning melodies bubbling under throughout. Kasher may be trying to carve out a new career as a Hollywood screenwriter, and his work with his side band the Good Life may be equally important to him at this point. But as these 10 songs prove, Cursive remains a vital force in modern rock.

Billy Corgan declined to give the letter to the Sun-Times, and a spokesman for Sen. Herb Kohl, chairman of the Committee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, said that as of Monday evening, his office has yet to receive the elusive missive.

Thankfully, Ticketmaster has finally provided a copy of Corgan's letter endorsing its merger with giant concert promoter Live Nation. The full text follows.

Dear Chairmen Kohl & Leahy and Ranking Members Hatch & Specter:

The merger as proposed before you on the surface may seem to be too much power in the hands of the few, and I can understand the need for Congress to review this matter. Here I would hope that my 20 years in the recording and touring business will allow me some candid authority on these issues, and would help shed some light for you on some of the nuances that perhaps could easily get missed.

The 'system' that was once the modern record business, essentially ushered in with the meteoric rise of the Beatles, is now helplessly broken. And by almost every account available cannot be repaired. Personally I would add to that a healthy 'good riddance,' as the old system far too often took advantage of the artists as pawns while the power brokers colluded behind the scenes to control the existing markets. This control often saw the sacrificing of great careers to maintain that control. Look no further than the major record labels' intense fight to slow down the progress of Internet technologies that more readily brought music and video to the consumer because they couldn't completely control it. This disastrous decision on their part has destroyed the economic base of the recording industry. It is now a shadow of its former self.

Artists now find a heavy shift of emphasis to the live performance side, and this is where this merger finds its merit. The combination of these companies creates powerful tools for an independent artist to reach their fans in new and unprecedented ways, all the while restoring the power where it belongs. In today's ever changing world, the ability for artists to connect to their fans and stay connected is critical for the health of our industry. Without sustainable, consistent economic models upon which to make key decisions, it is both the music and the fans that suffer.

In short, we have a broken system. This is a new model that puts power into the hands of the artist, creating a dynamic synergy that will inspire great works and attract healthy competition. The proposed merger you have before you helps create those opportunities by boldly addressing the complexity of the existing musical and economic landscapes.

Billy Corgan

The Smashing Pumpkins


Radio should be paying performers more for the songs it plays, Smashing Pumpkins bandleader Billy Corgan told congressional leaders Tuesday during a hearing on the Performance Rights Act before the House Committee on the Judiciary.

Pushed by the major label's lobbying group, the Recording Industry Association of America, bills have been introduced to both houses of Congress to require conventional or "terrestrial" radio to pay musicians for playing on recordings given airtime. Radio has long paid royalties to the songwriters, but it has not paid separate performance royalties, which have been required of Internet, television satellite broadcasters.

"The change to the law we are here to discuss only redresses an outmoded, unfair practice that favors one participant's [radio's] needs over another [performers']. This legislation is simply a form of restoration to artists long overdue," Corgan said.

But rather than demanding more royalties from conventional radio, many music advocates say performance royalties should be waived for all broadcasters, since playing a song on any medium essentially is a free ad that may boost sales of that recording.

If the changes in the law pass, "your local radio stations will be forced to cut services or employees, may be forced to move from a music format to a talk format or may be facing bankruptcy," NAB Radio Board Chairman Steve Newberry told the committee.


The radio trade FMQB covers the broadcasters' perspective here.

The Taking It Back to the Roots! blog has a strong background piece here.

And Corgan's full testimony can be found following the jump.

What will Simon think?

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Ziegfeld Theater

Slated to perform on "American Idol" this week: Chicago's own Kanye West.

West will play "Heartless" from his 2008 album "808s & Heartbreak."

Mr. Corgan goes to Washington

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The parade of Chicago music industry heavy-hitters on Captiol Hill will continue tomorrow when Smashing Pumpkins bandleader Billy Corgan testifies at a hearing on the Performance Rights Act before the House Committee on the Judiciary.

Pushed by what's left of the major-label lobbying group, the Recording Industry Association of America, bills recently were introduced to both houses of Congress to require conventional or "terrestrial" radio to pay performance rights to musicians for recordings that are played on the airwaves. The radio industry has long paid copyright royalties to the songwriters (collected by the organizations ASCAP, BMI and SESAC), but it has not paid separate performance royalties, while Internet Webcasters, television broadcasters and satellite radio all have been required to.

Traditional radio was for years allowed to coast along without paying performance royalties under the labels' reasoning that playing a song on the radio was, in effect, a paid commercial for the song and the artist. But times have changed, conventional radio no longer has the juice it once had and many performers and labels are now hungering for that extra piece of the pie.

Also slated to testify at Tuesday's hearing are RIAA chairman Mitch Bainwol and Steve Newberry, chairman of the NAB Radio Board. At the moment, Corgan is the only artist on the witness list -- which is ironic, given that only a few days ago, he told the Sun-Times:

"I am loathe from here and ever on to talk about the music business. So
honestly I'd rather not comment."

That was in response to the fact that Corgan joined Seal, Shakira, Journey and Van Halen on the short list of artists who wrote to Congress in support of the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger. Corgan's letter has not yet been published as part of the Congressional record of the subcommittee hearings, and he declined to share it with the Sun-Times.

Lollapalooza 1986... Er, um, I mean, 2009

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Speculation has been rampant for several weeks now about who the headliners might be for Lollapalooza 2009, coming to Grant Park for the fifth time Aug. 7-9.

Chicagoist started the ball rolling a few weeks ago by taking some well-educated guesses based on the obvious holes in the big summer concert tours around Lolla weekend. Greg Kot at the Chicago Tribune gives it a little more spin today, citing "multiple sources inside the industry." The promoters, per usual, are declining to comment until their official press release, whenever that might be.

As news goes, the three names so far are hardly stop-the-presses in terms of excitement. They are the cash-in nostalgia act Jane's Addiction (this would be the third reunion go-round by my count, none as satisfying as the first time; don't forget the dreadful 2003 comeback album "Strays"); '80s synth-pop/mope-rock heroes Depeche Mode (gearing up for the release of a new album called "Sounds of the Universe") and the Beastie Boys (who are celebrating the 20th anniversary reissue of the classic "Paul's Boutique," but don't bet on them playing that album at Lolla; they have a new disc called "Tadlock's Glasses" that they'll be promoting).

Come on now, Chicago: Are you ready to rock it again like we did in the Reagan era? Whoo-hoo!

UPDATE: Billboard is reporting a fourth headliner on the Lolla bill: country-rockers the Kings of Leon. And so the time warp continues!


And it's an impressive one.

Instead of the "Don't Look Back" classic-album reviews on opening night for the last few years, this time, fans will have a chance to write the bands' set lists as part of a new series dubbed "Write the Night: Set Lists By Request." Concertgoers who purchase a ticket will get a confirmation email linking to a Web page where they can vote on which of each band's songs they'd like to hear. Voting begins when tickets go on sale on March 13 and ends on June 12.

The acts announced so far for Friday, July 17, are guitar-rockers Built to Spill, reunited Chicago noise-rock legends the Jesus Lizard playing their first show here in 11 years, venerable indie-rock heroes Yo La Tengo and hometown post-rockers Tortoise.

Acts announced for Saturday, July 18, include the National, Pharoahe Monch and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. And the performers unveiled for Sunday, July 19, are Grizzly Bear, the Walkmen and the Vivian Girls.

More information can be found at

It would have been an honor just to be nominated...

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But it's even more fun to be ranked above the Chicago Tribune's critic, for whatever that is worth!

30 Jim DeRogatis Pop music critic, Chicago Sun-Times

The Sun-Times columnist, co-host of syndicated radio talk show "Sound Opinions" and author of several books, including "Milk It: Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the '90s" and "Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma's Fabulous Flaming Lips," continues to be the recognizable face of Chicago's music criticism, and his consistent newspaper pieces that question the motives of major corporations like Live Nation and Ticketmaster reinforce his dedication to music fans more than anyone else. "Sound Opinions" reaches seventy-five radio stations nationwide, expanding DeRo's message weekly.

When last we heard from 26-year-old Texas singer Kelly Clarkson, the first season winner of "American Idol" was feuding with record label chief Clive Davis over her third album "My December," a soggy and sullen effort that Davis accused of tamping out the spark fans loved most from the mildly rocking, gently female-empowering pop songstress. And Davis was right: When Clarkson toured in support of that disc, playing scaled-down theater shows after failing to sell out the arenas, the best tunes from her first two releases ("Behind These Hazel Eyes," "Miss Independent," "Breakaway") put to shame the disappointing, self-obsessed and bitter new material.

Clarkson returned to her old sugar-buzz form earlier this year with the blunt but catchy single "My Life Would Suck without You," tapping the talents of veteran teen-pop maestro Max Martin and setting a record for the largest leap to No. 1. And much of the rest of her fourth album, which was in large part produced by another teen-pop giant, Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, falls giddily in line, with the auteur cheerfully eschewing all talk of trying to rewrite Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" this time around.

As this genre goes, I've long preferred Clarkson's peers Pink (before she got married and went soft), Joss Stone (who's a lot more soulful in a prefab way) and even Hilary Duff. Still, it's hard to deny the bubblegum charms of up-tempo songs such as "Long Shot" and "I Do Not Hook Up" (both co-written by Katy "I Kissed a Girl" Perry) and the Walmart-safe grunge anthem "Whyyouwannabringmedown." Sappy ballads such as "Cry" and "If No One Will Listen" aren't nearly as successful, but there's more than enough of the old Kelly (however genuine or manufactured that might have been) to please the faithful and modestly entertain--or at least not offend--anyone else within earshot of their daughters' cranked- up iPods.

K'Naan, "Troubadour" (A&M) [3.5 STARS]

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In "ABC's," the second track on the second album and first major-label release by K'Naan, the rapper portrays a world where kids learn the mechanics of handling a gun before they're taught the alphabet: "I'm from the most risky zone/No place is more shifty global/More pistols, Russian revolvers/We shootin' all that is normal." But this is no gangsta rapper exaggerating the thug life of the ghetto while growing up in the suburbs. Born Kanaan Warsame in Mogadishu, he and his mother fled the brutal civil war in Somalia in 1991, landing first in New York and finally in Ontario, Canada, where the rapper still lives.

If we accept Chuck D's famous statement that hip-hop is the CNN of the streets, global reportage is just as important as domestic, and K'Naan's portraits of war-torn Africa are vivid, deeply moving and even grimly funny at times. These dispatches wouldn't be nearly as powerful, though, if the artist wasn't such a fluid rapper, deftly spinning rhymes that have earned comparisons to American greats Mos Def and Talib Kweli over tracks that, like those of Kanye West, are rife with imaginative rhythms and bursting with arresting melodies (though K'Naan favors traditional African music over dusty soul classics and Daft Punk to provide his well-chosen samples).

In fact, the biggest knock "Troubadour" is the fact that K'Naan (or his American record company) doesn't rely enough on his talents, instead trotting out a thoroughly unnecessary series of cameos, including an embarrassing turn by Maroon 5 vocalist Adam Levine on "Bang Bang" and some superfluous wanking by Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett on "If Rap Gets Jealous." Because while the rapper can be undone at times by his own earnestness--"Nobody fat enough for lipo" in Africa, he notes--both the melodies and the heart-on-sleeve romance of winners such as "Fatima" and "Fire in Freetown" are ultimately undeniable.

Demo2DeRo: The Royal Pines

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The best country-rock captures one of my favorite qualities in real country music--the forlorn, foreboding and slightly psychedelic vibe that one gets from listening to an act like the Carter Family--then merges it with the power and drive of great rock 'n' roll. And that's exactly what you get in songs such as "What I Said I Saw" and "These Bodies" by the Royal Pines.

Singer and songwriter Joe Patt isn't kidding when his band's MySpace page ( lists under influences "creepy teenagers and weird old men," while the "sounds like" slot offers "champagne in the cemetery."

A veteran of Columbus, Ohio's fertile garage-rock underground, where he was best known as a drummer, Patt moved to Chicago in 2002, did time in several other local bands and finally came to the front of the stage and formed his own group with lead guitarist Brian Harper, bassist Brendan O'Mara and drummer Joe Gerdeman. To date, the band has one strong and wonderfully creepy album to its credit, appropriately entitled "Old World" and released on Ohio's She He It label, but I for one am eager for more.

(The Royal Pines perform at the Bottom Lounge, 1375 W. Lake, on March 19; visit for more information.)

• The ordinance will result in fewer shows at Chicago clubs.

From the Nocturna dance nights at Metro to the shoegazer-oriented Tomorrow Never Knows Festival at Schubas, and from the Kuma's Doom Fest at Double Door to the Alex Chilton Birthday Bash at the Empty Bottle, some of the city's most rewarding events are conceived and run by indie promoters working at established clubs, whose rosters will thin out considerably if these promoters are driven out of business.

• The ordinance will squash the Jam Productions of tomorrow.

Every established promoter was at some point a struggling up-and-comer. The insurance and fee requirements in the ordinance, as well as the stipulation that all promoters be over age 18, discourages the "hey, kids, let's put on a show!" aspect of underground music scenes--or drives them underground to unsafe, unlicensed venues.

• The ordinance could drive some clubs out of business.

In the wake of E2, Chicago music venues are more tightly licensed, regulated and inspected than ever before, and they arguably are safer for the scrutiny that comes from being forced to comply with the dozens of laws already on the books. This extra layer of legislation could be the last straw the convinces some venues it simply isn't worth the trouble.

Ten months after a City Council committee tabled a controversial law that opponents say would hamper and possibly eliminate many of Chicago's independent concert promoters, a revised draft has been circulated to Aldermen and made public by a local advocacy group, which charges that little has been done to address its fundamental problems.

The Chicago Music Commission "believes the ordinance as drafted is not necessary to achieve the city's stated goals of seeing a more transparent and accountable promoter industry in Chicago," according to a statement posted on the group's Web site, along with a version of the revised law dated Jan. 6 but not yet made public by the city.

"If the ordinance becomes law, it will create unworkable burdens for many small and young music promoters in Chicago, pressuring a key component of the vibrant Chicago music community instead of supporting and fostering its growth," the CMC statement added.

The so-called event promoters ordinance originally was introduced to the City Council License Committee in June 2007 by the Department of Business Affairs and Licensing at the request of Mayor Daley. Officials said it was a reaction, four years after the fact, to the disaster at the E-2 nightclub which claimed 21 lives in 2003, even though that tragedy was as much a problem of the venue as the promoter.

In May 2008, the license committee approved the ordinance, but it was tabled before coming to a vote in the full council after an unprecedented outcry from the music community, which was outraged that the city had not sought input from musicians, club and theater owners, promoters or music fans.

"You don't want to have a burden on the event promoters. But, at the same time, they have a responsibility to protect the people," Daley said when defending the ordinance at that time. He and other city officials vowed to work closely with the local music scene to revise the law and address concerns before another vote.

Yet despite a handful of meetings with music advocates and local promoters over the last year, the revised law still would place what CMC and other advocates call unreasonable burdens on small promoters, who would have to register with and be fingerprinted by the city, pay a two-year license fee ranging from $500 to $2,000 and obtain $300,000 in liability insurance--even if they are working with an established venue already licensed by the city, subject to inspections by numerous departments and carrying its own liability insurance.

Sources say the licensing committee was set to vote on the revised law on March 11. But Robert Rawls, a spokesman for committee chairman Ald. Gene Schulter (47th) said on Thursday that the ordinance is not on the agenda for the upcoming meeting, and that "Alderman Schulter feels that more work needs to be done and does not know when this issue will be brought before the committee for a public hearing."

Rawls did not respond to a request for comment about the CMC's statements or publication of the revised ordinance on Tuesday.

"We were able to obtain a copy of what we believe is the current ordinance," CMC board member Dan Lurie said. "[City officials] have indicated to us that they're not ready to share, but we thought it was important enough to get up [on our Web site] in the interest of disclosure."

Although a few exemptions have been written into the law since it was first introduced--including some sparing promoters who work without compensation or who run one-off benefit concerts--it still has a broad definition of independently promoted events that would include hundreds of concerts or dance nights that take place each month across the city at well-respected venues such as Metro, the Empty Bottle, Schubas, the Hideout, Reggie's, Martyr's, the Abbey Pub and many others.

In a letter to Schulter, other council members and Mary Lou Eisenhauer, acting director of the Department of Business Affairs and Licensing, the CMC contends that "other, less burdensome means are currently available to address public safety and accountability concerns"; that more research needs to be done to define alleged problems caused by indie promoters (the city has not cited any statistics), and that the music community should be included in the process of drafting any legislation.

"Instead of first seeking to impose a top-down, costly, untested license the city should instead pursue an extensive outreach effort to better understand the community it is seeking to regulate," the CMC's letter states. "As the world looks anew at our city in its bid for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, and as we as a city struggle to weather the economic storm, CMC and the Chicago music community, including the promoters who help make Chicago music a world-class resource, want to see responsible, safe promotion of Chicago music."

Rather than the costly license process and the additional insurance burden, which would drive many small promoters out of business, the CMC proposes that the city institute a simple registry for independent promoters working at PPA- (Public Place of Amusement) licensed venues.

"The vast majority of people in the music community are law-abiding business people who are operating on very thin profit margins and who are looking to just stay afloat in this economic climate," CMC board member Lurie said. "They're not looking to cause trouble, and they play by the rules. If there are problems out there, we're suggesting that there be some kind of collaborative effort between the city and the music community to address the problems together."

The revised promoters ordinance and the Chicago Music Commission's statements can be found on the advocacy group's Web site here.

Panel discussion on the Chicago promoters ordinance

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If city officials were hoping that the nearly year-long delay in reintroducing the revised (but still not public) event promoters ordinance would have quashed the level of interest among community activists, well, they were wrong.

The "Free Speech First Friday" discussion series at the Old Town School of Folk Music had scheduled a session on the controversial legislation even before it appeared as if it's about to enter the spotlight again. A panel featuring representatives of the Chicago Music Commission, anarcho-activists JaGoFF/, this columnist/blogger and others will take place starting at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the venerated school at 4544 N Lincoln.

The folks at 4 The also are conducting a petition drive against the ordinance.

The issue, it's obvious, is anything but dead.


Four years ago, Chicago photographer G. Thomas Ward was fronting a poppy queercore band called Flesh Hungry Dog under his nom de rock, Gary Airedale. Unfortunately, as he's written on his Web site, "There weren't too many venues that were willing to host four gay men belting out songs called 'Macho P----y' about lesbian S&M sex or 'Goin' Down,' a dark, blues-influenced song about a married bi-sexual looking for sexual satisfaction cruising the park in his mini-van."

In the great D.I.Y. punk tradition, Airedale decided to find a venue and create an event himself. Now, some 40 shows later, the singer's band is history, but the Flesh Hungry Dog Show is alive and well and getting bigger the first Friday of every month, standing as one of the musical underground's most vibrant and diverse club nights.

"I was a child of the '80s and the whole punk and New Wave scene," Airedale says. "When I first started off, I didn't know what the hell I was doing, and I was lucky to be able to get bands to play. I put together a few shows at the Underground Lounge, but it wasn't a regular thing, and I didn't really like the Underground Lounge. So I approached Jackhammer.

"Jackhammer wasn't known as a music venue; it was kind of a dumpy leather gay bar, but the owner loved music and loved what we wanted to do. We didn't have a stage, and bands would play on the floor, but it was kind of cool. It started as this kind of grungy, slap-it-together-any-way-you-can kind of night. But over the four years I've been doing it, it has developed more of an aesthetic. We have burlesque performers and we've had vaudeville-type performers between the bands; we've sprayed everybody with Silly String. It's kind of a high-energy, anything-goes, kitschy, fun, queer/alternative thing."

Touring in support of their recently released sixth album "The Century of Self," the always mind-blowing Austin, TX art-rockers ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead bring their massive, percussion-heavy sound to Logan Square Auditorium, 2539 N. Kedzie, after an opening set by Funeral Party at 8 p.m. Friday [March 6]. Tickets are $15; for more information, visit

Sponsored by the venerable music boutique Metal Haven Chicago (2003 W. Montrose) and marking another high point in the ongoing cross-pollination of the local music underground and the burgeoning burlesque scene, Viva La Muerte's Hot & Heavy Burlesque promises "a heavy metal burlesque revue... clad in leather and ready to rock!" With performers including Viva La Muerte, Backdoor Aly & Siren Jinx, Ms. Bea Haven, Salome Slaughter, Miss Maya Sinstress, Maiden Sacrifice, Red Hot Annie and many others, the show takes place at 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday [March 6 and 7] at La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston. Tickets are $15; for more information, visit

Metal Burlesque

Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.


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