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Tuning in with Thomas Conner

May 2009 Archives

"Unwigged and Unplugged" at the Chicago Theatre

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High atop my list of the best rock movies ever made, director Rob Reiner's "This Is Spinal Tap" (1984) succeeds partly because the spot-on satire reveals more truths about the absurdities of rock stardom and the music industry than any documentary on the subject.

The other reason it endures is that stars Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer clearly loved the music they were parodying, and they had the chops and the ears to create sounds of their own that actually deserve to be turned up to "11."

That music--as well as songs from Guest's films "A Mighty Wind" (2003) and "Waiting for Guffman" (1996)--was the focus of the trio's show at the Chicago Theatre Saturday. And what legendary front man David St. Hubbins called "The Majesty of Rock" was on full display.

As the longtime collaborators celebrate the 25th anniversary of "The Is Spinal Tap" with a DVD reissue and a new album, "Back from the Dead," they wisely decided to leave the spandex and the shtick at home and avoid pretending to be "England's loudest band." (When I saw them play C.B.G.B. as the mighty Tap in '84, the actors/musicians veered dangerously close to becoming what they were mocking, and it was even worse when they played "Big Bottom" with seven guest bassists at Live Earth in 2007.)

Instead, the threesome performed "Unwigged & Unplugged," with Guest and McKean on acoustic guitars, Shearer plucking electric or upright bass and all three on vocals. The 61-year-old Guest also played mandolin, and his virtuosity throughout--excluding a brief blast of didgeridoo--was a revelation. Not for nothing did he receive an honorary doctorate from the renowned Berklee College of Music in 2007.

With the exception of a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" rendered as early '60s campfire sing-along, McKean noted that all of the songs they performed were written "by some combination of the three of us." Adorned only by occasional keyboards from former Chicagoan C.J. Vanston and brief vocal turns by McKean's wife Annette O'Toole and Shearer's bride Judith Owen, the classic unplugged format highlighted the strength of their melodies and arrangements and emphasized the brilliantly subtle humor of their lyrics, both of which display a deep knowledge of and devotion to more than half a century of popular music.

Indelible tunes such as the heavy-metal anthems "Hell Hole" and "Sex Farm," the proto-Tap psychedelic nuggets "(Listen to the) Flower People" and "Rainy Day Sun" and the Folksmen standards "Corn Wine," "Blood on the Coal" and "A Mighty Wind" all could pass as actual relics of their respective eras if slotted into one of those ponderous history-of-rock TV specials, both because the vibe is that accurate and because the songs are that good.

Less worthy were the faux-show tunes from "Waiting for Guffman" (really, now, that's a target that's just too easy) and Shearer's campy Elvis parody "All Backed Up." But with a set list that ran to 25 songs before the encore and a show that lasted more than 2 ½ hours, that's a minor quibble.

Accuse the Tap trio of living on past glories if you will, but that was no preserved moose on stage. The truth is these veteran impersonators delivered one of the best evenings of music I've had this year.


The English quintet Art Brut burst on the scene in 2005 with a startlingly fresh album called "Bang Bang Rock & Roll," updating the legendary Modern Lovers for the new millennium and capturing the sheer joy of making an awesome if amateurish noise as lead singer Eddie Argos declared, "Look at us/We formed a band!"

On "It's a Bit Complicated" (2007), Argos' cheeky narrations and the band's garage/metal backings sounded more labored and predictable. But if it hasn't changed the formula on the new "Art Brut vs. Satan," produced by Black Francis of the Pixies, it has returned in prime form with goofy anthems such as "DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshakes," "Slap Dash for No Cash" and "Alcoholics Unanimous."

I caught up with Argos in London as the band prepared to come to Chicago for a five-night stand at Schubas starting Monday, June 8.

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Wilco, "Wilco (The Album)" (Nonesuch) [3.5 STARS]

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As a record-collecting geek and ardent student of rock history, Chicagoan Jeff Tweedy knows the best bands often provide a narrative arc with a dramatic twist or surprising turn upon the release of each new album.

The story behind Wilco's first album "A.M." (1995) was Tweedy establishing his own identity separate from Jay Farrar, his partner in Uncle Tupelo, the earlier group that laid the foundations of alternative country.

"Being There" (1996) found the singer and songwriter pushing the boundaries of alt-country toward old-school guitar rock, while "Summerteeth" (1999) showed him abandoning the genre for gorgeous orchestral pop unimaginable without the contributions of then-bandmate Jay Bennett. (See sidebar.)

Wilco's masterpiece, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (2002), was about the unraveling of the Bennett/Tweedy collaboration, as well as a shift toward more fractured experimental sounds reflecting a world in chaos--the perfect soundtrack after 9/11.

"A Ghost is Born" (2004) pushed the envelope on the art-rock and reflected Tweedy's battle to kick prescription drugs. And the group's last release, "Sky Blue Sky" (2007), was a quiet sigh of contentment after all that turbulence.

The big story on the group's seventh studio album--arriving in stores June 30th but already available as streaming audio at www.wilcoworld.net--is that there's really no story this time, which may account for the purposely generic title: "Wilco (The Album)."

Demo2DeRo: Camera

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When a band writes me that, "We believe you might be interested in our music because we have been told that we sometimes sound like a cross between the Feelies and Pere Ubu," you might think I'd be like Rene Zellweger in "Jerry Maguire"--"You had me at hello." But that isn't entirely true: It definitely gets my attention, but after that, I'm sure to be even more skeptical than usual when judging whether or not the boast is warranted.

Well, the local trio Camera--guitarist-vocalist David Syvilian, bassist-synthesist Ryan Aylward and drummer-pianist Joseph Scro--pretty much deliver the post-punk art-rock goods: Not only is the trio's version of the Feelies' "Moscow Nights" one of the most impressive I've heard (nobody covers the Feelies because the Feelies are just too hard to cover), originals such as "Wicked Wicked Games" and "One Neo Eon" are nearly as strong, doing proud the traditions of an era where it didn't seem unreasonable to pair ultra-danceable grooves with challenging musical ideas and often delightfully menacing sonic ambience.

Hear for yourself at www.myspace.com/CameraChicago; search out the band's self-titled 2005 EP or 2008 album "Fire & Science" or catch Camera live as part of I Am Fest at the Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee, at 3 p.m. on June 13. (Presented by the musicians' collective Chicago Noise Machine, the fest features 25 bands on two stages throughout the day; visit www.myspace.com/chicagonoisemachine for more info.)

Photo By_ Joe Wigdahl

Grizzly Bear, "Veckatimest" [2 STARS]

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Though the third album by the Brooklyn freak-folk quartet Grizzly Bear has been garnering ecstatic raves throughout the indie-rock underground, rarely has a recording that tries so hard to create a unique bucolic idyll--the name was inspired by a small uninhabited island in rural Massachusetts--sounded so deliberately contrived, convoluted and downright un-listener-friendly. In comparison, the Incredible String Band at its most serpentine and hippie-dippy was pure bubblegum pop.

Like the Pacific Northwest's modern folk-rockers Fleet Foxes or Blitzen Trapper, Grizzly Bear specializes in group vocals and an often acoustic, campfire vibe. But in place of the gorgeous and traditional harmonies, the New Yorkers favor a much more affected and, in my book, off-putting approach to the singing, evoking a bad imitation of Jeff Buckley's slippery crooning. Add to this the lo-fi digital production aesthetic--the musicians are as fond of laptop hiccups as they are of plucked, strummed or sawing strings--and you have a sound that's more Boho coffeehouse than backwoods hootenanny.

Far outnumbering the moments of quiet beauty ("Southern Point") and pop bliss ("Two Weeks") are the would-be lulling but in actuality boring bouts of pure inertia ("Hold Still," "Foreground") and the tuneless, meandering soundscapes that make me think of the Chipmunks on Ecstasy ("Dory," "Fine for Now")--and no, that it is not a compliment.

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UPDATED WEDNESDAY MORNING: STATEMENT FROM BENNETT'S LABEL AND MANAGEMENT

UPDATED TUESDAY AFTERNOON: CORONER'S REPORT INCONCLUSIVE

UPDATED MONDAY MORNING: STATEMENT FROM JEFF TWEEDY

Jay Bennett, a rock musician with deep ties to Chicago best known as a former member of Wilco, died early Sunday morning in downstate Urbana, where he had been running a recording studio, according to a spokesman for his family.

The singer and multi-instrumentalist was 45 years old.

"Early this morning, Jay died in his sleep and an autopsy is being performed," said Edward Burch, a friend and musician who collaborated with Bennett on the 2005 2002 album "The Palace at 4 a.m." "The family is in mourning and is unavailable for comment at this time."

UPDATE: Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup told the Associated Press on Tuesday that further testing is needed to determine Bennett's cause of death.

Northrup said Bennett was found unresponsive at his Urbana home Sunday and pronounced dead at a hospital later in the day. Preliminary autopsy results are pending histology and toxicology tests, he added.

Born in the Chicago suburb of Rolling Meadows, Bennett began playing in bands as a teenager. He attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and earned multiple degrees in secondary education, math and political science. In between, he co-founded the Replacements-like power-pop band Titanic Love Affair, which released three albums during the alternative-rock heyday between 1991 and 1996, when it was dropped from its label.

Bennett was working at a VCR repair shop in Champaign when he was tapped to join Wilco as it toured in support of its first album, "A.M." A talented arranger and versatile musician who could play virtually any instrument he picked up, from mandolin to Mellotron, Bennett formed a fruitful partnership with Wilco bandleader Jeff Tweedy. His contributions over a seven-year period were key to the albums that resulted in the band's national breakthrough, including "Being There" (1996), "Summerteeth" (1999) and "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (2002).

Relations between Bennett and Tweedy, both painstaking perfectionists, soured during the latter recording, as documented in the film "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," and Bennett left the band. Earlier this month, Bennett filed a lawsuit against Tweedy for breach of contract and unpaid artist's royalties, stemming in part from his role in the film.

In late April, Bennett wrote on his MySpace blog about dealing with intense pain from a hip injury suffered during a dive from the stage while playing with Titanic Love Affair. He was preparing to have surgery, but was concerned about his lack of health insurance. However, he also was looking forward to finishing his fifth solo album, "Kicking at the Perfumed Air," at his studio, Pieholden Suites, named after the song on "Summerteeth" that best encapsulates his talents as an arranger.

"This whole experience [with the hip pain] has really taught me to look both inward and outward for support, and I've learned things about myself that I thought I had completely figured out years ago," Bennett wrote. "Family and friends have helped me to keep faith in a future that will actually be much more carefree than my constricted present state. I encourage you all to tell me stories of recovery, as they really do help... All in all, I'm 'in a really good place' right now; I'm just waiting until I can make it all happen."

Bennett's former bandmates in Wilco are touring in Spain and could not be reached for comment. But Burch said he had spoken to bassist John Stirratt, and the band was "broken up" about the news.

"He was an extremely talented musician and a great person, and I'll miss him terribly," Burch added.

UPDATE: Wilco publicist Deb Bernardini released the following statement from Tweedy:

"We are all deeply saddened by this tragedy. We will miss Jay as we remember him -- as a truly unique and gifted human being and one who made welcome and significant contributions to the band's songs and evolution. Our thoughts go out to his family and friends in this very difficult time."

UPDATE: The Undertow Music Collective, Bennett's label and management, released the following statement Wednesday morning:

Our good friend Jay Walter Bennett left us this weekend. As news hits the wires so instantaneously these days, we thought it was important to share some thoughts about our friend and brother before any rumors got out of hand.

First, let it be known that Jay was in a really good place these past few years. He had returned to the area he loved--the "Twin Cities," Champaign-Urbana--and resurrected his studio, Pieholden Suite Sound, with the assistance of many dear friends and allies. Jay had been busy making music. He recently had released an intimate record entitled "Whatever Happened I Apologize," and he was looking forward to wrapping up his new work, "Kicking at the Perfumed Air." Proud of finishing a trilogy of records, including "Bigger Than Blue," "The Beloved Enemy," and "The Magnificent Defeat," Jay loved the balanced yet ironic album titles. He was also looking forward to engineering and releasing Titanic Love Affair's previously unreleased record, as well as starting work on "The Palace at 4 a.m. Part II," the follow-up to his post-Wilco debut with Edward Burch. "Jay the Academic" had also reemerged, pursuing his umpteenth degree at the University of Illinois, and he was thrilled to be t aking graduate classes again.

As many of you may be aware, Jay had finally found the courage to put his Wilco issues out into the public forum. After a long, four-year process (and therefore very much unrelated to his impending hip surgery), formal filings against Wilco were finally initiated. This task was very emotional for Jay. He was a "lover," and this confrontation was not easy for him. With the exception of his final period in Wilco, Jay looked back on his time in the band with great fondness and pride. While he was dismayed that some people may have formed a narrow perception of him via the "documentary," all who truly knew him understood that with most entertainment media, editing is usually constructed for dramatic effect and presents only a small part of a larger, more complex reality.

So, please spend some time this week engaging in Jay's favorite passions: listen to a Nick Lowe album, watch some Mythbusters on Discovery, play Warren Zevon's "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," rent Pay It Forward (one of his favorite movies), write a song with the TV on and the sound off, and focus on how Jay always concluded his communications:

"Love, Jay."

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Below: Vintage Vinyl Record Store in St. Louis pays tribute to a fallen local hero.

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Passion Pit, "Manners" (Frenchkiss) [3.5 STARS]

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In his quest to woo a crush at Boston's Emerson College, singer and songwriter Michael Angelakos recorded six songs in 2007 under the name Passion Pit. The resulting EP, "Chunk of Change," failed to win the girl, but it did yield a song called "Sleepyhead" that eventually racked up more than a million and a half hits on MySpace, ultimately leading to a record deal, a full-fledged quintet for live performances and a full-length debut album. The first part of that Romantic story is as old as time itself; the second, an increasingly familiar tale in the post-download era. But the 11 songs on this album nonetheless offer some of the freshest sounds on the current indie-pop scene.

Unrepentant college geeks and preppies, Passion Pit draws inspiration from '80s disco the way Vampire Weekend takes its cues from "Graceland"-style Afro-pop, but with none of the preciousness or pretensions. Songs such as the re-recorded "Sleepyhead," "Little Secrets" and "The Reeling" are irrepressible in their exuberance even as the lyrics flow from the poor, poor pitiful me school of lovers spurned. Gliding along on slightly clumsier and more human New Order rhythms, drenched in colorful washes of chiming synthesizers, adorned with occasional choral harmonies and crowned by the 21-year-old Angelakos' you'd-swear-he's-a-woman falsetto vocals, "Manners" arrives just in time to provide the perfect summer dance-party soundtrack.

Demo2DeRo: Machines That Think

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Progressive rockers continue to be a rare and elusive breed in the ranks of local bands: One supposes that the countless hours of wood-shedding in order to play 17 chords with six solos in 12/8 time doesn't leave much energy for gigging or D.I.Y. recording. But arriving hot on the heels of the old-school prog band Tautologic reviewed in this space just a few weeks ago comes a demo entry from this more modern combo, which owes more to Tool, Radiohead and Coheed and Cambria than it does to Yes or Genesis, though its chops certainly are at that level.

Founded in Champaign in 2003 by vocalist, bassist and keyboardist Pranay Patel, the band went through several lineup changes before solidifying around guitarists Francis (just Francis) and Josh Kalvelage and drummer Matt Meyer. The group has just released its second indie album, an ambitious, five-part, 25-track epic entitled "The Way the World Works Vol.1-5," and it's celebrating with a gig at the Bottom Lounge, 1375 W. Lake, at 9 p.m. Sunday, May 24.

For more info and to sample the band's serpentine but propulsive sounds, visit www.machinesthatthink.com or www.myspace.com/machinesthatthink.

Peaches: Feel the cream

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When Toronto-born, Berlin-based musician and performance artist Merrill Nisker burst onto the scene in 2000 with "The Teaches of Peaches," her debut album under the guise of her electro-clash alter ego Peaches, much of the appeal was based on the shock value of hearing this petite but somehow larger-than-life woman graphically challenging sexual mores and gender roles.

On her next two discs, "Father----er" (2003) and "Impeach My Bush" (2006), Peaches showed she had a lot more to say than early anthems such as "Diddle My Skittle" first indicated. And a funny thing started to happen: She found herself collaborating with pop and rock superstars such as Pink, Iggy Pop and Joan Jett, and hearing her praises sung by mainstream divas including Madonna and Christina Aguilera.

On her new album, "I Feel Cream," the now 40-year-old artist reveals yet another side of her personality, focusing much more on the keen melodic talents and surprising vocal chops that were easily overlooked amid the chaotic assaults of previous releases. I caught up with her from New York as she prepared to come to Chicago tonight.

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Nothing in popular culture ages more quickly than carefully calculated outrage.

For the first few years of the new millennium, Eminem undeniably was America's favorite cultural bogeyman--right after Marilyn Manson, and just before Paris Hilton. But the platinum-selling rapper has been hiding out in the Detroit suburbs for nearly five years, which might as well be a century in these hyper-accelerated Twittering times.

"I guess it's time for you to hate me again," the now 36-year-old Marshall Mathers intones in an annoying sing-song midway through "Relapse," his sixth studio album, which arrives in stores on May 19. "Let's begin, now hand me the pen/How should I begin it and where does it all end?/The world is just my medicine ball you're all in."

There's an air of weary resignation in those words and in the rapper's delivery as he returns to venting his frustrations and taking out his boundless anger on any target that's handy: This shtick is well and truly played, and he knows it. And lest you doubt it, realize that much of the rest of the song "Medicine Ball" is devoted to once again mocking paralyzed "Superman" actor Christopher Reeve--who died in 2004.

The precise moment when Eminem jumped the shark can be debated; I'm torn between whether it was the duet with Elton John at the Grammys telecast in 2001--which followed "The Slim Shady LP" in 1999 and "The Marshall Mathers LP" in 2000, both of which sold 9 million copies--or his starring turn in the 2002 film "8 Mile." But the impulse behind both of those projects was the same.

Eminem made his name and a fortune that bought him a 29-room mansion with an unrelenting spew of venom, hiding behind his alter ego Slim Shady while gleefully celebrating his homophobia and repeatedly fantasizing graphic homicidal violence against his ex-wife Kim Scott (whom he married a second time in January 2006, then divorced again that April). Underneath it all was a sensitive soul with the heart of a true romantic, he claimed: He didn't really hate gays, he jammed with Sir Elton! And he may have dreamed of dismembering Kim and his mother, but it was only because they didn't love him the way that he deserved. Remember those heart-wrenching scenes with Kim Bassinger as his mom in "8 Mile"?

Eminem may have had one of the most agile tongues and unique rhyming styles in the history of hip-hop, but that was only half the reason he had such appeal to the hordes of Generation Y teens trying to buy rebellion on credit at the shopping mall. The rest of it was that he shocked and horrified their parents--the audio equivalent of torture porn--but it was time to find a new monster as soon as he started asking America's soccer moms for a loving hug.

On "Relapse," Eminem spends half of the 20 tracks asking for love, understanding and sympathy for the drug problems that derailed his career. "I fall in bed with a bottle of meds and a Heath Ledger bobble head" he rhymes, proceeding to blame his addiction on his mother in "My Mom." He also tries to justify his feelings about homosexuals by rapping about incestuous pedophilic rape in "Insane," and he wraps it all up with the hoariest cliché in the world, actually asking us to "Walk in my shoes, just to see/What it's like to be me."

For the rest of the lengthy album, the star tries to reclaim his old status as the button-pushing bad boy, tweaking Amy Winehouse and her Kim, hubby Blake Fielder-Civil; making not one but two gratuitous references to Kim Kardashian's assets; confessing that he pleasures himself while watching "Hannah Montana" and imagining the ruthless torture and murder of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears in "Same Song and Dance," a title that provides another hint that he's aware of how tired this routine is.

Mostly crafted by his old mentor and producer, Dr. Dre, the music is just as stale and predictable, full of Dre's overrated bubblegum hooks and cheesy gothic ambience. The one exception is the Middle Eastern flavor of "Bagpipes from Baghdad," but Eminem blows the opportunity to offer a sequel/update to the track that remains his finest moment with more throw-away lines about Mariah Carey.

A fierce diatribe against President Bush floated on the Net not long before the release of his last album "Encore" (2004), "Mosh" for once found Eminem focusing his rage at someone who actually deserved it. "Imagine it pouring, it's raining down on us/Mosh pits outside the oval office," he rapped as George W. Bush sent his peers rolling through Iraq in un-armored humvees searching for nonexistent WMD. "No more blood for oil, we got our own battles to fight on our own soil/No more psychological warfare, to trick us to thinking that we ain't loyal."

"Mosh" offered a glimpse of what a potent artist Eminem could be if only he abandoned his snotty teenage obsessions. But alas, it remains an oddity in his catalog, rather than the track that points to a worthy second act in a spectacularly lucrative career. And at the end of the day, commerce is what Eminem has always really been about.

In a particularly bone-headed, slavishly worshipful review
, Rolling Stone compares "Relapse" to "a hip-hop version of Richard Pryor's 'Live on the Sunset Strip,' the classic 1982 stand-up flick where Pryor makes the audience squirm through jokes about freebase addiction and setting himself on fire." The only problems with that comparison are that Pryor actually was funny, and that he shared genuinely profound truths with his audience while revealing his inner demons.

That may be Eminem's goal, but he fails miserably.

"Whether I'm someone's favorite rapper or not, whether I'm thought of as one of the best, one of the most half-assed, whatever it is, I am one of the most personal," the rapper contends in The Way I Am, the autobiography he published last October. "That's why people relate to me, because I show so much of myself. That's why random taxi drivers call me 'Marshall.' And the reason I put so much of myself out there in the first place is because I had no idea I was going to be so famous. I had no idea, no f---ing clue. If I had to do it again, I don't know if I would."

Well, that sabbatical was your opportunity to bow out if you really wanted to, Em old pal. Instead, you came back with a hackneyed retread that gives us no better idea of who the "real" Marshall Mathers really is. And I for one don't care to know.

UPDATE: Since this review was posted on the message board of Eminem's Web site, I've heard from many of his fans, and their comments have all been posted below. Many of them share Mr. Mather's, er, adult vocabulary and, um, "edgy" sentiments, so while every effort has been made to truncate offending verbs and adjectives that cannot be printed in the newspaper, these are so plentiful that you read what follows at your own risk. Comments have otherwise not been edited.

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In the years after their surprising but welcome multi-platinum breakthrough with "Dookie" (1994), it seemed as if Green Day eventually would follow one of two predestined paths, either going soft as bandleader Billie Joe Armstrong leaned ever more heavily on that acoustic guitar, or burning out on the gleeful charms of snotty pop-punk a la Blink-182, Sum-41 and so many others of that ilk. Amazingly, the group found another way, crafting a bona fide "adult" sound by taking a cue from one of its heroes, the Who, and delivering a musically ambitious and politically ferocious rock opera with "American Idiot" (2004), which sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.

It was a heck of a twist and a hard act to follow, as evidenced by the nearly five years the Berkeley, Calif.-based trio spent crafting its new album with producer Butch Vig (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage). Ultimately, the band tried to go back to draw up an even bigger and better concept epic. Bigger "21st Century Breakdown" certainly is; better... well, not so much.

As with Pete Townshend, Armstrong's plot lines aren't always easy to discern. This time, we sort of follow two characters named Gloria and Christian, intended to be an Every Man and Woman for Generation Y, as they navigate the post-Bush debris of two wars, economic collapse and the death of the punk underground, traumas made all the more difficult by their Baby Boomer parents boasting that everything was better--even the crises--back in those halcyon '60s. "We are the desperate in the decline/Raised by the bastards of 1969," Armstrong declares at one point, later referencing John Lennon while bemoaning, "My generation is zero/I never made it as a working class hero."

This lyrical turf certainly isn't new, but the biggest problem with "21st Century Breakdown" is that it's bloated. Songs such as "Before the Lobotomy," "Last Night on Earth" and "Restless Heart Syndrome" take pointless detours into Queen or late-era Guns N' Roses bombast and theatricality. They're cheesy and distracting--especially because the band has never sounded fresher or more inspiring than it does during the more pared-down, propulsive and straightforwardly tuneful moments, on songs such as "Horseshoes and Handgrenades," "The Static Age" and the title track.

At nine songs instead of eighteen, "21st Century Breakdown" might have been even better than "American Idiot." Of course, that's why we have program buttons on our CD players and a delete function on the iPod.

Demo2DeRo: The Hudson Branch

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Building on roots in sensitive folk-rock (think: Nick Drake), genteel early '60s pop (echoes of Burt Bacharach) and polite indie-rock (a la the Sea and Cake), the Hudson Branch is a polished quintet comprised of guitarist-vocalist Cobey Bienert, drummer Corey Bienert, guitarist and keyboardist Jake Boll, bassist Matt Boll and trombone player and second keyboardist Richie Palys.

After two earlier EPs, including a lovely disc of Christmas standards released late last year, the group is gearing up to show the full range of its songwriting talents, nuanced grooves and lush arrangements on its first full-length album. You can get a preview of what to expect when it takes a short break from recording to perform at the Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont, at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 24. Or sample the band's sounds on its Web pages at www.thehudsonbranch.com or www.myspace.com/thehudsonbranch.

A few updates on what continues to be the biggest news story the American live music industry has ever witnessed (bearing in mind that the final word on the merger is still awaiting approval from the Justice Department).

1. According to a recent column in The Business Insider, even though Live Nation's stock price has fallen 80 percent in the last year, top executive Michael Rapino, last seen sitting beside Ticketmaster chief Irving Azoff on Capitol Hill, got a $550,000 raise. (And in these difficult economic times!) Somebody thinks he's doing a good job, it seems.

2. Hypebot.com notes that, while attendance at Live Nation events has dropped 22 percent for the first quarter from last year, Rapino says that precipitous plummet was "in line with our plan and, despite challenging economic times, fans are buying concert tickets at a healthy pace." Hey, this kind of insight is why the guy deserves that raise!

3. In the midst of slow ticket sales, Live Nation has a new idea for boosting revenue at its many venues across the U.S.: Charge more for hot dogs, beer and merchandise! (This according to The Business Insider again.)

4. Oh, yeah: The company is trying to bury its egregious parking fees, too. (As if there isn't anything but empty space around a venue such as the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park.)

5. The American Antitrust Institute last month issued a paper "urging the Department of Justice to 'just say no' to the proposed [Ticketmaster/Live Nation] merger now under investigation." (The PDF is here.) Among the conclusions: "Live Nation Entertainment would be a vertically integrated enterprise with dominance or substantial power on five market levels. The new entity would therefore be able to use its strengths in some markets as leverage to gain customers or compliance in others. This vertical integration would effectively frustrate new entry because, as a practical matter, it would require firms seeking to compete seriously against Live Nation Entertainment to enter the industry on several levels at once. The second factor is that the merged entity would likely enjoy market power not just as a seller but also as a buyer. In essence, the company's market dominance would benefit it in both ways."

6. Finally, though there is still no word on whether the Justice Department will approve the merger, The New York Times is reporting today that President Obama's top antitrust official is planning to "restore an aggressive enforcement policy against corporations that use their market dominance to elbow out competitors or to keep them from gaining market share." Which is to say that this may not be a done deal after all.

Gee, if the merger fails, does that mean Rapino will only get a $225,000 raise next year?

This weekend: the Vaselines, Windy & Carl

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Best known in the States for the fact that Kurt Cobain reinterpreted their song "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam" (itself a reworking of the traditional "I'll Be a Sunbeam") on "MTV Unplugged in New York," Eugene Kelly, Frances McKee and their Scottish indie-rock band the Vaselines were one of the great under-appreciated gems of the '90s music scene. With Sub Pop Records celebrating their catalog via the new collection "Enter the Vaselines," the group has reformed for a tour that is certain to be an event. Chicago ork-popsters the 1900s open at Metro, 3730 N. Clark, at 9 p.m. Saturday, May 16. The cover is $20; call (773) 549-4140 or visit www.metrochicago.com.

The long-running but consistently rewarding ambient/psychedelic shoegaze duo Windy & Carl released their most recent album "Songs for the Broken Hearted" on Chicago's Kranky Records last fall. They don't tour often, but the Michigan musicians never fail to create aglorious evening of tranced-out bliss whenever they do. They perform with Green Pasture Happiness and Al Niente at the Mopery, 2734 N. Milwaukee, starting at 10 p.m. Tuesday, May 19. Visit www.themoperychicago.blogspot.com for more info.

Celebrating Columbia College bands at Manifest

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Ask anyone who regularly writes about Chicago bands, and they'll tell you it often seems as if two out of three groups here have some connection to Columbia College.

There's AEMMP Records, of course, the student-run label that's part of the school's Arts, Entertainment & Media Management Program (hence the acronym), designed to prepare people for a career as a performer, manager, publicist or (that increasingly rare gig), a record company exec. (AEMMP recently released this year's project, a compilation album featuring 30 songs from bands such as the Office, Maps and Atlases, Bob Nanna, Owen, Walter Meego, David Costa and others.)

Even more impressive, though, is the musical component of Columbia's annual Manifest Urban Arts Festival, the college's annual spring celebration of student creativity. This year nearly 200 bands applied to perform on the two outdoor stages at today's [Friday, May 15] festival, which runs from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the heart of the South Loop campus. The student programming board eventually winnowed down the many contenders to 17 of the best local groups and DJs.

"Manifest has been taking place since 2001, but it's morphed each and every year," says program coordinator Sharod Smith. "This is the first time we're featuring this many students. Typically, we'd have half students and half bigger acts--last year we had OK-Go. [Other performers have included Common, Lupe Fiasco and Ozomotli.] This year it's all Columbia bands, with at least one or two students in the band."

Why does Columbia seem to produce so many adventurous musicians? It isn't only the music programs, Smith says. "A lot of people will come to Columbia and meet other people with different majors that might play guitar or drums, and they have a chance to really network and build something." That includes connecting with other students whose passion may be photography, fashion, Web and graphic design or audio engineering. "It's synergy at its finest."

"Two years ago, we had [R&B singer and Columbia grad] Matthew Santos up there onstage," Smith adds. "Since then, he's done a worldwide turn with Lupe Fiasco and he's been on MTV. I'd say Manifest is a chance to see--I'm not sure which one--but a band that might be on B96 or Q101 within the next few years."

Manifest is free and open to the public, and other elements of the festival include student film screenings, gallery exhibitions, Webcasts, radio and television broadcasts and performance art; visit www2.colum.edu/manifest/ for more information. Meanwhile, here is an overview of this year's musical contributions.

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After first announcing that the Flaming Lips would close out this year's Pitchfork Music Festival on Sunday, July 19, by following the same "Write the Night" format that the bands are adhering to on opening night, July 17, the concert's promoters then did an about-face and said the Lips wouldn't be taking online requests from fans after all.

Now the long-running psychedelic rockers-turned-postmodern circus act have changed their minds and WILL be taking fans' requests -- at least for part of the set list. (Sources tell me that the blame for all of this confusion belongs neither to the band nor Pitchfork's promoters, but to a booking agent in the middle. Hey, isn't indie-rock supposed to be about simple and direct communication between bands and fans?)

The Pitchfork press release reads:

Due to popular demand, The Flaming Lips will play selected requests from fans in the "Write the Night" format. All ticket buyers, including those who have already purchased, will be sent a link via email and have the chance to vote on requests, which the band will do their best to accommodate.

"The Lips are more than glad to be part of 'Write the Night'. They will do their best to accommodate the wildest and most obscure of requests - covers included." -- Wayne Coyne

Ticket buyers can go online and "Write the Night" by voting for the set list of their dreams for the bands performing on Friday night as well. Friday's performers include Built to Spill, Tortoise, Yo La Tengo and the Jesus Lizard. The ballot boxes are open until June 12. Those who have already purchased a ticket but have yet to vote should be sure to check their purchase confirmation email for a link to the polls.

Thanks, Wayne! I already cast my ballot in the second of the earlier posts on this confusing flip-flop, but I'll tack it on again after the jump if readers don't want to bother clicking through.

Three-day passes for the festival are now sold out, but two-day passes and individual day passes are still available via www.pitchforkmusicfestival.com.

Chicago Folk & Roots Festival lineup announced

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The Old Town School of Folk Music has announced the lineup for its 12th annual Folk & Roots Festival, Saturday and Sunday, July 11-12, in Welles Park on Lincoln between Montrose and Sunnyside.

Admission is an $8 suggested donation for adults, $4 suggested ffor seniors and children. (For more information, visit www.chicagofolkandroots.org.) The lineup follows the break.

Leonard Cohen at the Chicago Theatre

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For a Buddhist monk, Leonard Cohen showed little evidence Tuesday of "being here and now."

The 74-year-old Canadian singer and songwriter's more than three-hour performance during the first of two sold-out shows at the Chicago Theatre followed the same set list as every other show on the tour, including the one documented on his recent album "Live in London." Even the patter was identical.

The last time he toured, a decade and a half ago, the musical legend was "just a crazy kid with a dream," he quipped.

But spontaneity wasn't the point, even if it was essential to another of his key inspirations, the Beat movement. This was an unexpected late-career victory lap, necessitated by having lost most of his savings, but nonetheless a welcome gift to fans who either thought they'd never see him again, or who knew him only through covers by Jeff Buckley, John Cale, Rufus Wainwright and countless others.

Though Cohen is one of the most poetic songwriters to emerge in the '60s, second perhaps only to Bob Dylan in terms of the many gems in his impressive catalog, his studio recordings often are marred by syrupy over-production at odds with the simple brilliance of his writing and the limited but powerful instrument of that gravelly bass voice.

There were moments Tuesday when the polished nine-piece band over-played or sounded just too slick and lite for the material. But the poignant beauty of the songs simply couldn't be denied as one classic followed another, rife with grand Biblical allusions and gritty barroom epiphanies: "Bird on the Wire," "Suzanne," "Chelsea Hotel" and "Hallelujah"--most of all "Hallelujah," a song that even blew Dylan's mind.

Cohen's versions of those and more than 20 others were revelatory in the way that it's always illuminating to hear a great writer read their own work. Wearing his familiar black suit and fedora and dancing with a gentle shuffle or dropping to one knee, he was in fine voice and seemingly humbled by the adoration. And best of all, he seemed ready to go for 74 years more.

Millennium Park's "Edible Audible Picnics"

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As if this summer's free "Downtown Sound: New Music Mondays" series at Millennium Park wasn't enough of a gift (the Feelies! Red Red Meat!), the venue and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs are rounding out the Monday calendar with "Edible Audible Picnics" featuring a variety of indie-rock bands, DJs and electronic musicians.

The shows start at noon, and they include:

Pit Er Pat, Monday, June 15

Soul/Funk Record Part, Monday, June 22

Black Moth Super Rainbow, Monday, June 29

Experimental Sound Studio, Monday, July 6

Reggae Dub Sound Clash, Monday, July 20

Chicago Hip-Hop and It Don't Stop, Monday, July 27

Third Coast International Audio Festival, Monday, August 3

Daedelus, Monday, August 10

Emily Wells, Monday, August 17

Dark Party and Caural & K-Kruz, Monday, August 24

For more information, visit www.millenniumpark.org.

St. Vincent, "Actor" (4AD) [3.5 STARS]

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Annie Clark may look like an animated Disney heroine sprung to life, and the influence of willowy, ethereal singers and songwriters such as Feist and Tori Amos is obvious. But first impressions can be deceptive: There are streaks of violence and perversity running through all of the 27-year-old Texan's work as St. Vincent, and the orchestrated loveliness is liable to give way to a dissonant eruption at any time.

"We're sleeping underneath the bed/To scare the monsters out," Clark sings in "The Bed," one of many surprising moments on the follow-up to "Marry Me," her much-buzzed 2007 debut. "With our dear daddy's Smith and Wesson/We've gotta teach them all a lesson."

A veteran of the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens' touring ensemble, Clark has said she set out to create a "Technicolor animatronic ride," and that the album began when "the little seed to every song was envisioned as a film score." Playing most of the instruments herself (with the most notable assist coming from the rhythm section of indie-rockers Midlake), the artist creates a seamless blend of genres uniquely her own, and excluding a few lapses into overly precious artiness, she succeeds swimmingly.

Peaches, "I Feel Cream" (XL) [3 STARS]

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Since she burst onto the scene nearly a decade ago with "The Teaches of Peaches," Canadian electroclash artist and perverse provocateur Merrill Nisker has achieved an influence far beyond her album sales: She's collaborated with Pink, Iggy Pop and Joan Jett, her praises have been sung by the likes of Madonna and Christina Aguilera and Lady Gaga has pretty much ripped off her entire act, blanding it out in the process. But at age 40, with five albums to her credit, Nisker/Peaches can still shock anyone who tries to pigeonhole her.

"Never a straight line--serpentine," the artist sings on the opening track here, and the twist this time is that she downplays the sexual outrage to focus on her singing and the throbbing minimalist dance grooves crafted with Gonzales and Simian Mobile Disco. This isn't to say that Peaches has cleaned up her dirty mind or her potty mouth: "Never go to bed without a piece of raw meat," she advises at one point. But the real thrills come from hearing her peel back the curtain to analyze and joke about her own image ("Show Stopper," "Serpentine") and to confess her feelings about aging and consider her place in a list of famous "cougars" reaching back to Mae West ("Mommy Complex").

Demo2DeRo: Tautologic

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Like a lot of neo-prog bands, Marillion chief among them, modern progressive rockers Tautologic could do with a lot more grit in their sound: The Chicago band's first-wave heroes Genesis may have been intricate, ethereal and wispy, but they were never dainty or fragile. That minor quibble aside, the group's second album "Psychle," released in 2007 but only recently denting my radar, is an impressively ambitious example of virtuosic musicianship and deft arrangements navigating myriad sounds and styles without ever loosing that essential melodic thread or propulsive rock drive.

Formed in 1997 by key songwriter, guitarist, vocalist and driving force Ethan Sellers and currently completed by drummer Pat Buzby, guitarist Aaron Weistrop, bassist Nathan Britsch, saxophonist Chris Greene and violinist Emily Albright, Tautologic is all the more relevant for lyrics that deal not with lamia, slippermen, tales from topographic oceans and the other stuff or progressive-rock lore, but with Ray Davies-style sociological skewerings of "burnout roommates and their psychotic crack-whore girlfriends, tube socks, crazy homeless people, indie hipsters, quasi-terroristic rants against totalitarian utility companies and anything else that entertains and/or irritates."

Sample the group's sounds at www.myspace.com/tautologic, and keep an eye out for upcoming gigs at www.tautologic.com.

Sad coda to the Tweedy/Bennett Wilco partnership

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As reported by my Sun-Times colleague Lisa Donovan, multi-instrumentalist and producer Jay Bennett is suing his former collaborator in Wilco, bandleader Jeff Tweedy, for breach of contract and unpaid artist's royalties.

Other reports have noted that the suit seeks $50,000 in damages, and part of the dispute focuses on Bennett not being paid for his role in the documentary film "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart."

Bennett contributed to five Wilco albums during his seven years in the band, though his biggest impact was on the orchestral pop of "Summerteeth." Since his well-documented and acrimonious split with Tweedy, Bennett has followed a similar direction in his solo work and recorded other bands. But times have been tough, especially of late: Bennett does not have health insurance, and according to a recent post on his MySpace blog, he is gearing up to have hip replacement surgery. He writes, in part:

I still don't know exactly when my surgery will be, but I have learned a good deal about the procedure, and that has helped to make me MUCH less fearful. The double dose of anxiety caused by the pain, and the quite natural fear of the invasive surgery itself, really had me in its grip for a while, but now it only comes in waves. Once I am able to get a down payment of sorts together and actually have the surgery performed, I have been told that I then have only about six to eight weeks of physical therapy before I should be operating at approximately 80% capacity---these types of joint replacements have come light years in the past five years or so. The way I look at it, I'm functioning WAY below 80% right now, so what do I have to lose? Except a limp, some pain, some anxiety, and some weight. In many ways, I'm really looking forward to it, and wish I could go in tomorrow.

UPDATE: The lawsuit has been posted here. And Tweedy released the following statement to Paste magazine:


"I know exactly as much as everyone else does. I've read the news and I honestly have no idea what these claims are based on. It was such a long time ago. Aside from everything else, I'm being sued for not paying someone for appearing in a movie I didn't produce. Go figure. I am truly sad it has come to this. I am equally convinced, however, that I have done nothing wrong and that this will be handled fairly and swiftly."

Chicago pop-punks the Plain White T's may be best known for the single "Hey There Delilah," but the group will show the range of its talents during a gig dubbed "Three-Part Harmony: A Show in Three Acts" featuring rock and acoustic sets and a medley of fan favorites at Metro, 3730 N. Clark, at 7 p.m. Friday, May 8. Danger Radio and Single File open, and tickets are $20 via www.metrochicago.com.

The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, hosts a "3-Way Big Benefit" for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Tamms Year Ten Coalition and Young Authors Chicago starting at 4 p.m. Saturday, May 9, and featuring. Pillars & Tongues, Allá, Afri Caribe, Roommate, Judson Claiborne, Spires That in the Sunset Rise, Baby Alright a Hideout Dance Party with DJ Itch13. The cover charge is $12; for more information, visit http://hideoutchicago.com.

Revolution rock at the Goodman

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"When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake."

Splashed on the screen in one of the feel-good videos shown at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland (admission $22 plus Ticketmaster service fees), this famous quote is attributed to Plato, though as with many things, that dubious institution gets its wrong: In Book IV of The Republic, the Greek philosopher is more accurately quoted as contending that, "When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them."

In either translation, the statement seems like an anachronistic notion in 2009 on a pop-music landscape cluttered with iPhones and iPods, which foster a view of recorded music as the ultimate accessory and disposable commodity; Rock Band and Guitar Hero video games, which create the illusion that simulating the act is equal if not superior to actually creating music oneself, and a mainstream concert scene where corporate sponsorships are the norm and a $200 ticket is considered a bargain.

Of course, even if it's never voiced quite so eloquently, the ideal lives on in many corners of America's musical underground, from punk to hip-hop and from avant-garde jazz to electronica. It didn't die in the '60s, it just became harder to find: Baby Boomers like to think that rock music helped to end the Vietnam war, but even if there was nothing as remarkable as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young rushing "Ohio" from the recording studio to the airwaves in a matter of days after the shootings at Kent State, the Internet nevertheless was flooded with poignant and inspiring protest songs mere hours after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The transformative power of music also is alive and well in other corners of the globe, from the underground musicians challenging the status quo in basement clubs in China to the Iranian teens risking the wrath of the Islamic radicals who rule that country in order to buy black-market cassettes of Iron Maiden and Tupac Shakur (a scene brilliantly recreated in the animated film "Persepolis.").

With all due respect to the theater, photography, poetry and all of the other arts, for many young people, rock 'n' roll in all of its many permutations remains the most immediate and energizing embodiment of freedom, life and truth. And this is the central theme of playwright Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll," which is being performed at the Goodman Theatre through June 7th.

When Pearl Jam last performed in Chicago, the long-running Seattle rock band was censored by AT&T, one of the corporate sponsors of Lollapalooza and a Webcaster of the event, when singer and Evanston native Eddie Vedder dared to criticize President Bush and oil companies dumping toxic waste in Lake Michigan.

It will be interesting to see if Vedder has any comment on that incident when the rockers once again take the stage here during one of what they're calling "two special North America engagements" on Aug. 23 at the United Center. (The other show is on Aug. 21 in Toronto.)

Tickets for the Chicago show go on sale Saturday, May 9, at 11 a.m. via Pearl Jam's old nemesis, Ticketmaster. But a special ticket pre-sale for current, active members of the band's Ten Club begins today, May 4, and ends Wednesday, May 6, via www.pearljam.com.

Tickets are $68, plus the dreaded Ticketmaster service fees.

UPDATE: Pearl Jam has now added a second show on Aug. 24. Tickets for both gigs, Aug. 23 and 24, will go on sale Saturday, May 9, at 11 a.m.

How to publicize your band

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As part of its free monthly series of "Musicians at Work" forums, the Chicago Music Commission tonight is sponsoring a discussion on "How to Get Press" in the Washington Room of the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington Blvd.

Things kick off with a networking session from 5:30 to 6 p.m. The panel itself runs from 6 to 7 and features industrial rock percussion legend, author and Columbia College instructor Martin Atkins; Aaron Cohen, associate editor of Downbeat magazine; Jenny Lizak, publicist for Metro; Paul Natkin, rock photographer and board member of the CMC, and this columnist and blogger.

Per the CMC's description: "Join our panel of experts for a discussion of how the relationship between musician and press works. We will explore the best ways of approaching press - what to send and how to send it. The discussion will also extend to how to set up a press kit, what should be in it and in what form it should be sent."

For more info on the CMC and its events, visit its Web site.

Summer Concert Preview

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In its fifth year in Grant Park, with nine more years guaranteed to come thanks to the deal between city officials and Austin, TX-based promoters C3 Presents, Lollapalooza seems to have permanently changed the summer concert scene in Chicago.

Before the one-time traveling alternative-rock celebration was reinvented as a three-day "destination festival" trumpeting corporate synergy and the musical mainstream, Chicago's primary concert promoters, the local office of the national giant Live Nation and Chicago-based Jam Productions, consistently offered their busiest and most rewarding concert calendars of the year during the summer months.

Now, Lollapalooza buys up the Chicago-area date for many of the biggest and best summer tours, and Live Nation is left struggling to fill the major summer venues that it controls: the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre (FMBA) in Tinley Park, the Charter One Pavilion on Northerly Island and the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisc. With a few notable exceptions (U2, one of two local Phish dates, No Doubt and Billy Joel and Elton John among them), the Live Nation venues have a rather sad schedule of increasingly hoary arena-rockers, borderline has-beens and state fair cast-offs (Def Leppard, Aerosmith, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Styx and REO Speedwagon).

Meanwhile, with its proposed new outdoor amphitheater in Hoffman Estates delayed for yet another season, with a few notable exceptions (the other local Phish date chief among them), Jam's concert schedule is nearly empty between June and September at the major venues that it regularly books, and the theaters it programs are quiet, too. (Jam's venues include the Vic, the Riviera and the Aragon.) Smaller independent clubs have slowed down in a big way as well.

The result is not unlike having one gluttonous three-day feast but going hungry for the rest of June, July and August.

Nevertheless, if bingeing (and Lollapalooza) just aren't your thing, there still are some extraordinary musical experiences to be had in the steamy months to come. Here are my choices for the Ten Best Summer Concerts in 2009, listed in chronological order and followed by a look at the rest of the calendar.

More Pitchfork acts added

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If there is any way that Lollapalooza holds an edge over Pitchfork, it's in the way that the bigger festival holds all of its lineup until one much-ballyhooed announcement; Pitchfork's habit of releasing theirs a few bands at a time is starting to drive me crazy.

Not that each Pitchfork announcement doesn't pack a few new welcome surprises. It's just an annoyingly hype-y way of doing it.

Anyway, today's hype adds Beirut, Frightened Rabbit, Ponytail, Lindstrøm, the Mae Shi, DJ/Rupture and Dianogah to festival in Union Park, July 17-19.

See the previous announcements here and here and also here.

Thomas Conner

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

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