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June 2009 Archives

Moby, "Wait for Me" (Mute) [3.5 STARS]

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Sometimes, phenomenal pop success can leave an artist crippled with creative paralysis, striving in vain to match or top that commercial peak; witness Michael Jackson after "Thriller." Moby's sixth studio album wasn't quite at that level--"Play" (1999) sold a mere 10 million copies worldwide--and the three discs he released afterwards were nowhere near the spectacular failures of "HIStory" or "Invincible." But the electronic musician once dubbed "the face of techno" has struggled nonetheless for the last decade, over-emphasizing his weaknesses (primarily his monotone singing) at the expense of his strengths (gorgeous, melancholy instrumentals adorned with perfectly chosen samples).

A newly independent Moby reconnected with his roots on the dance floor and the spark of his 1992 breakthrough "Go" on his last release, "Last Night" (2008), and now, with the new "Wait for Me," he's finally made another album that recaptures the unique emotions of "Play," if not the then-startling invention. This is to say that as the languid, echoing, strings- and piano-laden tracks of his newest leisurely unfold in the Sunday-morning chill-out vibe after a sweaty night of ecstasy, he doesn't reveal any new tricks as a songwriter or a producer. But nobody does this sound better.

Moby has credited a chat with director David Lynch, who helmed the video for the new single "Shot in the Back of the Head," with the inspiration here, which is fitting, since the signature sample in "Go" came from Angelo Badalamenti's "Laura Palmer's Theme." Moby himself only sings on only one song, otherwise recruiting female vocalists--Leela James, who's heard on the title track, is one of the best, as well as the biggest name--staying strictly instrumental, or relying on evocative samples (my favorite is the soulful, bluesy chant of "The battle will be over"") that hint at hidden mysteries to keep us pondering and listening again and again.

Demo2DeRo: The Yearbooks

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The young Chicago pop quintet of vocalist Sars Flannery, guitarist Billy Friel and Eric Hehr, bassist Drew Potenza and drummer Adam James--collectively known as Yearbooks--are remarkably Spartan with their presence on the Web: Their MySpace page doesn't include a bio, and they've posted only one track. But when the song is as strong as "Season of Love," a wonderfully effervescent bit of power pop that brings to mind the Zombies or the Byrds reimagined in the new millennium by musicians who've also listened to plenty of Matthew Sweet and Britpop--you don't really need to hear a lot more or know the whole story to be hooked.

The group does note that it's shooting a video for the tune, and it's performing live at the Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont, at 8 p.m. on July 15. If it's got a whole set as irresistible as "Season of Love," this definitely is a band to watch.

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They write songs for presidents (and sometimes dress like them); from left: Jefferson Pitcher, Christian Kiefer and Matthew Gerken.

Like millions of Americans, Christian Kiefer, a history teacher in Sacramento, Calif., spent last Nov. 4 glued to his television, watching as events unfolded in Chicago's Grant Park. "We all watched it on TV, and we admit that we teared up when the news came and CNN scrolled the banner" announcing that Barack Obama had become the 44th President, Kiefer says.

Now, on Saturday, Kiefer will be onstage in the same park performing the song he wrote about Obama, "Someone to Wake," as part of Taste of Chicago's celebration of indie rock. "It will definitely be somewhat cathartic to be standing in the same geography and playing that song there at the end of the show on the Fourth of July," he says.

Of course, he and his bandmates have 43 songs about the 43 other presidents first.

This weekend: Hair-metal nostalgia, and Man Man

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Wanna party this holiday weekend like it's 1984? Toyota Park in Bridgeview, 7300 W. 71st St., is sponsoring the two-day MusicFest Friday, July 3, and Saturday, July 4. Friday's performers are Billy Squier, Starship starring Mickey Thomas, Over the Rainbow and Off Broadway. Saturday's are Lita Ford, Warrant, Lynch Mob, L.A. Guns, Adler's Appetite, Enuff Z'nuff and the Leftovers. Tickets are $10 per day or $15 for a two-day pass via www.ticketmaster.com, (312) 559-1212.

Keeping the freaky spirit of Frank Zappa's original Mothers of Invention alive and well in the new millennium, Philadelphia's experimental rockers Man Man come to the Bottom Lounge, 1375 W. Lake St., at 8 p.m. Sunday, July 5. Expect horns; expect fractured rhythms; expect the unexpected. Chandeliers open, and tickets are $15 via www.ticketweb.com.

Few bands stay broken up anymore, even those that sucked the first time: Witness the return of Creed and Third Eye Blind.

But like the best of their peers--Mission of Burma, Wire and the Buzzcocks--New Jersey art-punks the Feelies avoided the taint of nostalgia at the Pritzker Pavilion on Monday, their first Chicago show in 18 years.

One reason the quintet's return is so welcome is that it left a lot of unfinished business. After four brilliant albums that paved the way for acolytes such as R.E.M., the Feelies disbanded in 1991--broke, frustrated but far from creatively spent.

More importantly, their sound--a frenetic version of the Bo Diddley/Velvet Underground beat propelled by Bill Million's frantic rhythm guitar and adorned by Glenn Mercer's tubular leads--was always timeless, and it remains as unique and energizing today as it was circa their debut, "Crazy Rhythms" (1980).

The Feelies are set to perform that classic, all jagged edges and jangled nerves, at New York's All Tomorrow's Parties Festival in September. But befitting their return to the Midwest, some of the strongest material Monday came from the more organic follow-up, "The Good Earth" (1986), with songs such as "On the Roof" and "The High Road" evoking long drives through the plains as the rhythm section of bassist Brenda Sauter, drummer Stanley Demeski and percussionist Dave Weckerman rode those inimitable grooves.

Also noteworthy were two aggressive but tuneful new songs, "Nobody Knows" and "Time Is Right," which showed that the Feelies of the new millennium are every bit the band they were two decades ago, and we're lucky to have them back.

What's more, a new generation of fans seems especially eager to lose itself in that Feelies undertow. Through much of the night, the crowd in Millennium Park stayed politely glued to its seats. But the intensity slowly built over the course of a 90-minute set, and as it reached a peak with the one-two punch of "Raised Eyebrows" and "Crazy Rhythms," a lone dancer hurtled toward the stage and started frantically pogoing.

Security moved in to shoo him off, but before they could, swarms of twenty-somethings who were likely seeing the band for the first time suddenly bounded down the aisles, and the mass of perhaps a thousand twitchy, hyperactive and joyful dancers continued to lose themselves in the swirl of "Fa Ce La" and two encores that included covers of the Velvet Underground, R.E.M. and the Rolling Stones.

It definitely was a moment worth waiting almost 20 years for.

Where does Michael Jackson fit in the pop pantheon?

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With millions around the world mourning his death and some commentators hitting outlandish heights of hyperbole while trying to assess his cultural impact, Michael Jackson poses two fascinating questions for students of popular music.

Where does the self-professed King of Pop fit in the pantheon of musical greats? And will his recordings continue to endure 10, 20 or 50 years in the future?

Eulogizing the King of Rock 'n' Roll after his death in 1977, rock critic Lester Bangs famously wrote, "I can guarantee you one thing: We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis."

Bangs himself died a few months before the release of "Thriller" in 1982, so we'll never know if the best-selling album of all time might have prompted him to revise his opinion about Elvis Presley's lock on the title of pop music's biggest unifying force. I suspect that Bangs just got caught up in the frenzy over Presley's passing: Certainly he knew that a generation before Elvis, Frank Sinatra had an impact almost as profound and wide-reaching, while a generation after, the Beatles did the same.

During the two decades I've spent as a music journalist and critic, I've encountered hardcore gangsta rappers, slick R&B thugs, ditzy dance-pop divas and multiply-pierced and tattooed hard-rockers who seemingly had nothing in common sonically or stylistically--except that they all agreed on Michael Jackson.

Part of this is because these diverse music lovers grew up with Jackson, whether it was at the tail end of the Baby Boom, during the young singer's reign as an irrepressible bubblegum-pop star in the Jackson 5, or later on, during the ascendance of Generation X in the '80s, a decade he defined as a ubiquitous presence on MTV and half a dozen radio formats after the phenomenal success of "Thriller."

If you're of a certain age, to disavow the importance of Jackson now is to dismiss everything you hold as unique and distinctive about your youth. But his death doesn't resonate only because of nostalgia.

To this day, whenever an ambitious artist enters the recording studio and attempts to blend funk, soul, R&B, disco, jazz, rock and hip-hop, the best parts of Jackson's recorded legacy stand as a guiding beacon. "You can see his influence in his sister Janet, in Justin Timberlake, Usher, Britney Spears, and in Jennifer Lopez and Mariah Carey," superstar producer and Arista Records chief Antonio "L.A." Reid wrote in 2004. "A world without Michael Jackson would be a very, very different world."

Many of those who knew him portrayed a humble and self-effacing man when they spoke to the obituary writers. Audio engineer and record producer Bruce Swedien, who worked with Jackson on "Thriller" and many other recordings, told National Public Radio, "Michael was quiet and unassuming in the studio, and if you weren't aware of what was going on, you almost wouldn't know what we were doing."

In a prepared statement, Paul McCartney, a one-time collaborator turned rival (having been outbid by Jackson for control of the Beatles' catalog), said, "He was a massively talented boy man with a gentle soul."

But Jackson wasn't quiet, gentle or boyish when arguing for his own place in history. In fact, through the quarter-century since "Thriller," he flaunted an ego that seemed boundless, and which could be ugly and unsettling.

For the cover of his 1995 album "HIStory," one of only two albums Jackson managed to release in the last 18 years, the star chose cover art depicting him as an enormous statue towering over a turbulent landscape while wearing militaristic garb complete with machine-gun ammunition belts. It was based, he said, on a sculpture in Prague that set the record as the world's largest statue of Joseph Stalin.

Meanwhile, on the title track of that album, the star used musical samples to equate his talents as a songwriter with those of the great composers Beethoven and Mussorgsky and historical audio clips to invite comparisons of his accomplishments with those of Charles Lindbergh, Lou Gehrig, Robert Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

The most devoted acolyte would be hard-pressed to make the case that Jackson had as great an impact on the world as Dr. King. Which brings us back to the question of where the musician does fit in the history books.

The singular success of "Thriller" makes it easy to forget that Jackson's canon actually is much skimpier than those of Sinatra, Presley, the Beatles or any other superstar who had such a massive impact on the culture. After the Jackson 5, he spent the first seven years of his solo career trying to find his voice. He produced his masterpiece, "Off the Wall," in 1979, followed by two strong discs, though "Thriller" was overrated and "Bad" (1987) was overhyped. That's a total of three keepers out of 10 solo albums.

During the last 20 years of his career, Jackson barely performed live in the United States, and his recordings went from being merely disappointing to being downright embarrassing. The last two, "HIStory" and "Invincible" (2001), were dominated by songs boasting a weird and disturbing mix of messianic posturing, persecution complex, paranoia and obsessive concern for what one of his tunes called "all the lost children."

The star excoriated the media for reveling in the scandalous charges that he'd had sexual relations with underage boys. "Stop maliciously attacking my integrity," Jackson whined in "Privacy," while in "Tabloid Junkie," he sneered, "With your pen you torture men/You'd crucify the Lord." Yet at the same time, he seemed incapable of singing about anything else.

Nothing can ever be predicted with certainty in a world as tumultuous as pop music. But in the end, if I had to hazard a guess, I would bet that aspiring young musicians will still be finding inspiration in the best grooves from "Off the Wall," "Thriller" and "Bad" half a century from now, and that the songs of the Jackson 5 will still make even the most self-conscious hipster grin and bound onto the dance floor.

But with the passage of time, as more details of the travails of Jackson's final years become public, the songs from the last phase of his career will only become more troubling as desperate cries for help from a talented man quite literally melting down in full view of the world. And every bit as loud as his music will be a life story that stands as a cautionary tale about the debilitating, corrosive and possibly lethal power of fame.

Michael Jackson, dead at 50: A complicated legacy

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UPDATE: Jim DeRogatis talks to Robert Siegel on NPR's "All Things Considered" here.

As the music world begins to assess the complicated legacy of the man who crowned himself the King of Pop, there is no denying that Michael Jackson's climb from humble beginnings amid the belching smokestacks of Gary, Ind., to the top of the charts and worldwide superstardom will rank beside those of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and the Beatles as one of the most extraordinary rags-to-riches stories ever.

Nor is it an exaggeration to say that Jackson, who died of a heart attack after being rushed to a hospital in Los Angeles on Thursday afternoon a little more than two months shy of his 51st birthday, made a more profound impact in the arenas of soul, R&B and dance-pop than any other singer or songwriter in history.

Sadly, these accomplishments also will forever be intertwined with one of the most tawdry and tragic public meltdowns that pop culture has ever witnessed, with long shadows cast by charges of child abuse, behavior that ranged from mildly eccentric to disturbingly bizarre and the star's inability to create worthwhile new music divorced from his personal turmoil throughout the last 18 years of his career.

In many ways, Jackson's biggest musical success turned out to be his biggest handicap, since its beyond-all-measures accomplishments were something he could never top.

Released on Nov. 30, 1982, the singer's sixth solo studio album "Thriller" became one of the bestselling discs of all time, with sales estimated as falling anywhere between 40 and 100 million copies worldwide. But despite the much-vaunted impact of its genre-blurring sounds on radio and the pop charts--it spawned six Top 10 singles, including the back-to-back No. 1 hits "Billie Jean" and "Beat It"--and the fact that its big-budget videos broke the unofficial color barrier at MTV, real fans never thought it his finest work.

That honor belongs to "Off the Wall," the 1979 album that actually pioneered the mix of funk, disco, pop, soul, jazz and rock polished for mainstream consumption on "Thriller." With songs such as "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough" and "Rock with You," and collaborations with superstars such as Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, who clearly viewed the then 20-year-old star as a peer, "Off the Wall" is the album hardcore fans reach for, including celebrated acolytes such as Justin Timberlake and Usher.

For that matter, more moving than anything on "Thriller" is the 1972 ballad "Ben," another No. 1 hit and a song that Jackson, right at the start of his solo career, invested with so much emotion that it instantly transcended its origins as a love song to a killer rat from a B-grade horror film.

And, of course, there are the irrepressible, irresistible, unrelentingly upbeat songs of the Jackson Five, the family group that featured Michael and four of his eight siblings. Dismissed as bubblegum pop by some critics during their hit-making prime from 1969 through 1971, in retrospect, they stand as one of the most heartfelt and enduring acts that the legendary Motown Records ever produced. Michael's vocals in particular shine through, with the prepubescent star somehow singing in a voice wise and soulful beyond its years.

It's one of the great ironies of his career that Jackson's voice pitched higher and more closely evoked a young child the older he got--though this somehow fit his infamous Peter Pan-like obsession with childhood and refusing to grow old.

While some manifestations of this could be overlooked--the pet chimp, the amusement park on his Neverland ranch, the bones of the Elephant Man and the rest--others, like the disfiguring plastic surgery, could not. Nor could the disturbing facts that in 1995, he settled charges of having sexual relations with a 13-year-old boy by reportedly paying the child's family $20 million, and that a decade later, Jackson faced criminal charges for having sex with another minor.

The superstar was acquitted of those charges in 2005, but music industry experts remained divided over whether he could ever rebuild his career. His last two albums, "HIStory" (1995) and "Invincible" (2001) were commercial and critical failures, dominated by songs rife with paranoia and full of weird, messianic images. He hadn't toured the U.S. in two decades--his last Chicago shows were at the Rosemont Horizon in April 1988--and the first four of the much-hyped comeback gigs set for London's 02 Arena in July already had been postponed, with bookies in the U.K. laying odds that Jackson would cancel outright.

Now, the question of whether the King of Pop could ever have recovered all or some of his past glories will be just another of the many troubling mysteries always linked to his name.

SIDEBAR: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY IN SONG

Throughout his career, Michael Jackson's music often seemed to comment directly on the events and issues in his life, with the topics shifting from the challenges of growing up early in his career to chronic complaints of being persecuted toward the end. Here is a look at some revealing lyrics offering an intimate glimpse at the man behind the music.

* "With a Child's Heart" (1973): "With a child's heart/Go face the worries of the day/With a child's heart/Turn each problem into play/No need to worry no need to fear/Just being alive makes it all so very clear."

* "I Can't Help It" (1979): "Looking in my mirror/Took me by surprise/I can't help but see you/Running often through my mind/Helpless like a baby/Sensual disguise/I can't help but love you/It's getting better all the time."

* "Man in the Mirror" (1988): "I'm starting with the man in the mirror/I'm asking him to change his ways/And no message could have been any clearer/If you wanna make the world a better place/Take a look at yourself, and then make a change."

* "Tabloid Junkie" (1995): "It's slander/You say it's not a sword/But with your pen you torture men/You'd crucify the Lord."

* "Privacy" (2001): "Ain't the pictures enough/Why do you go through so much/To get the stories you need/So you can bury me?/You've got the people confused/You've got the stories confused/You try to get me to lose/The man I really am."

This weekend: Van der Graaf Generator, Shellac

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Though it may not be nearly as familiar a name as peers like Genesis or Yes, fans such as Chicagoan Jim Christopulos, author of Van der Graaf Generator--The Book, hold up Peter Hammill's band as the finest of the first English progressive-rock era. Hammill has made a few appearances in the States in recent years, but Van der Graaf itself is coming here for the first time ever at 8 p.m. Friday, performing at the Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace, after an opening set by another relic of that time, the Strawbs. Tickets are $30 in advance, $35 at the door; call (773) 478-4408 or visit www.abbeypub.com.

Its recent recorded output could never be called prolific, and it may not perform live often, but any appearance by Steve Albini, Bob Weston and Todd Trainer--collectively known as Chicago noise-rock gods Shellac--is certain to leave your mind rattled and your ears ringing for some time to come. The band performs at 8 p.m. Saturday and at noon on Sunday after opening sets by Bear Claw and Three Second Kiss at the Bottom Lounge, 1375 W Lake St. Tickets are $12; call (312) 929-2022 or visit www.bottomlounge.com.

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Exactly one month after indie-rock record producer and former Wilco musician Jay Bennett was found dead in bed at his home in downstate Illinois, Urbana-Champaign officials have said he died of an apparently accidental overdose of a common but controversial pain killer.

Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup told the Associated Press that tests show the 45-year-old musician died from fentanyl, a drug commonly found in patches prescribed to treat chronic pain.

In late April, Bennett wrote on his MySpace blog about dealing with intense pain from a hip injury suffered years ago 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.

According to "Drugs of Abuse," a publication of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration:

First synthesized in Belgium in the late 1950s, fentanyl, with an analgesic potency of about 80 times that of morphine, was introduced into medical practice in the 1960s... Illicit use of pharmaceutical fentanyls first appeared in the mid-1970s in the medical community and continues to be a problem in the United States. To date, over 12 different analogues of fentanyl have been produced clandestinely and identified in the U.S. drug traffic. The biological effects of the fentanyls are indistinguishable from those of heroin, with the exception that the fentanyls may be hundreds of times more potent. Fentanyls are most commonly used by intravenous administration, but like heroin, they may also be smoked or snorted.

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In a ruling that already is infamous as one of the most wrong-headed in the history of the American judicial system -- not to mention that it will forever stand as the best evidence of the contempt of the old-school music industry toward the music lovers who once were its customers -- Jammie Thomas-Rasset, a divorced mom from Northern Minnesota, was found guilty last week of illegally downloading 24 songs, with a penalty of $80,000 per track and a grand total of $1.92 million.

As someone who fails to see the distinction between analog-taping a song off the radio (which still is legal) and downloading it onto one's hard drive (and the Recording Industry Association of America, the major labels' mafia-like enforcers and trade group, never proved that the defendant shared her files with anyone other than their own digital spy), Thomas-Rasset is guilty primarily of bad taste: Take a look at what those 24 tracks were, as listed by the p2pnet Web site.

I mean, really: Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me"? The Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris"? Journey's "Faithfully"? And Richard Marx's "Now and For Ever"? Ack!

To his credit, however, the Chicago-born and resident-still lite-rocker Marx has issued a strongly worded defense of Thomas-Rasset that is just as much an indictment of the industry that made him famous. It reads:

As a longtime professional songwriter, I have always objected to the practice of illegal downloading of music. I have also always, however, been sympathetic to the average music fan, who has been consistently financially abused by the greedy actions of major labels. These labels, until recently, were responsible for the distribution of the majority of recorded music, and instead of nurturing the industry and doing their best to provide the highest quality of music to the fans, they predominantly chose to ream the consumer and fill their pockets. So now we have a "judgment" in a case of illegal downloading, and it seems to me, especially in these extremely volatile economic times, that holding Ms. Thomas-Rasset accountable for the continuing daily actions of hundreds of thousands of people is, at best, misguided and at worst, farcical. Her accountability itself is not in question, but this show of force posing as judicial come-uppance is clearly abusive. Ms. Thomas-Rasset, I think you got a raw deal, and I'm ashamed to have my name associated with this issue.

It would be nice to see other artists on that list join Marx in defending Thomas-Rasset, though the bigger questions are: What can this woman do now, and what does it mean for the rest of those who download music? As always, the ars-technica Web site has an excellent analysis of the situation, listing the six options open to Thomas-Rasset, from paying the fine to (most music lovers' choice of the best-case scenario) hoping this case becomes the focal point for a charge by Congress and the Obama administration to address the fundamental problems in American copyright laws ignoring the historic changes of the digital world.

The Feelies come back to Chicago on Monday

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When the Feelies last performed in Chicago, at the Vic Theatre in 1991 during a show broadcast live on WXRT (93.1-FM), the legendary New Jersey art-punks were at the end of the second phase of their career.

The first act had started in Haledon in 1972, when guitarists and vocalists Glenn Mercer and Bill Million bonded over a shared appreciation for the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, Brian Eno and other bands that no one else in suburban New Jersey seemed to appreciate. After several years spent honing a unique sound in the basement, they adopted a name from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, began to play at New York clubs such as C.B.G.B. and Max's Kansas City and eventually signed to England's Stiff Records to release their debut album, "Crazy Rhythms" (1980).

Aptly titled--the Feelies' trademark is a hyper-frenetic version of the Bo Diddley/Velvets beat augmented by percussion and propelled by frantic rhythm guitars--the group didn't sound or look like any other: These were mad scientists who took the art-nerd personas of the Modern Lovers or the Talking Heads to a new extreme. Yet though they developed a devoted cult following and were hailed by the Village Voice as the best underground band in New York, they essentially disappeared in 1982.

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Feelies Mach I, circa 1978. From left: Bill Million, Vinny DeNunzio, Keith DeNunzio, Glenn Mercer. (Photo courtesy of the Feelies.)

Pisces, "A Lovely Sight" (Numero Group) [3.5 STARS]

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Though it's primarily known for its "eccentric soul" reissues, the founders of Chicago's Numero Group label also have a deep and abiding love for the wildly inventive and genre-blurring qualities of vintage psychedelic rock, and with their latest release, they've unearthed as brilliant a buried treasure as I've ever heard from the fertile period that followed "Sgt. Pepper's" and the much-vaunted Summer of Love.

Hardly a hippie haven, the psychedelic trip as interpreted in Rockford, Ill., circa 1969 was darker, grittier and on occasion more sinister and threatening than anything heard in sunny San Francisco--not for nothing does Numero describe the group of studio musicians who called themselves Pisces as aiming for "the Beatles and Jefferson Airplane, but somehow sounding more like the Velvet Underground's meth'd out Midwest cousin." As with the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, that hint of menace makes the group's journey toward the white light all the more powerful.

Previously heard only on three ultra-rare 45's issued back in the day--the group's one album remained unreleased until this collection--Pisces' other big asset is the warm, robust Earth Mother voice of sometimes vocalist Linda Bruner, who shines on tracks such as the enchanting "Dear One," the lovely "Say Goodbye to John" and the haunting "Sam." The band was not immune to the indulgences of the times--a song like "Mary" sinks under the weight of all that phasing and studio trickery, while the somber spoken-word bit in "Genesis II" would have been better left to the Moody Blues. But overall, the enduring melodies and unique ambience of "A Lovely Sight" sound as vibrant and relevant today as they did four decades ago.

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Fifteen years after its self-titled debut, in what we might now call the "post-post-rock era," the automatic waves of hyperbolic praise that once greeted any new release from the Chicago instrumental collective Tortoise have ebbed, and it's become much easier to hear the band as what it always was: A group of progressive-rock geeks who happened to understand that a good groove beats pointless displays of virtuosity every time, crafting the ideal soundtrack for a pretty but incomprehensible art film that no one will ever make.

This is to say, Tortoise never intended to reinvent the wheel, just have fun spinning it 'round in the studio. Sometimes the results were brilliant--"Djed" from "Millions Now Living Will Never Die" (1996) remains their "21st Century Schizoid Man" or "Close to the Edge"--and sometimes they evoked that annoying hipster Muzak that they play in the lobbies and elevators of W hotels. And the group's sixth proper album and first release in five years does not depart from that mix.

On the plus side are some of the proggiest pieces Tortoise ever has recorded: There are moments during "Prepare Your Coffin," "Penumbra" and "Minors" when you could swear Keith Emerson himself was twirling the knobs of that vintage Moog synthesizer (though it most likely was drummer and Soma Studio owner John McEntire). On the other hand, there are several tunes you could swear you've heard before--isn't "The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One" this band's ninth or tenth Ennio Morricone homage?--and several otherwise promising tracks, including the opening "High Class Slim Came Floatin' In," are needlessly interrupted mid-trance with pointless stylistic detours seemingly designed only to underscore that wow, these guys sure can mix it up. (It's ambient techno! No, it's ironic jazz fusion! Wait, wait, I know--that's cumbia!)

As always, how much all this appeals to you will depend on how much you like spooling that imaginary movie in your head--or how much you enjoy staying at the W.

Demo2DeRo: The Alaya Conscious

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If cinematic Chicago rockers Tortoise had a little bit more Tool or Mars Volta in them, they might sound like the Alaya Conscious, a local instrumental trio featuring guitarist Evan Dunn , bassist Mike Rinkenberger and drummer Dave Robison.

Formed in the summer of 2006, the group initially planned to build a more conventional sound, but the departure of its vocalist during the recording of its first EP, "Seventy One Percent," set the musicians in a new direction, and it comes to fruition in the alternately pummeling and lulling grooves of "Red," a second EP released last week.

Several of the new tracks can be heard at www.myspace.com/thealayaconscious, or catch the band live at a benefit for Children's Memorial Hospital at Capone's, 19081 Old LaGrange Rd. in Mokena, on July 26.

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As the music world continues to await the Justice Department's yea or nay on the merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation, Billboard reports another interesting development out of the nation's capital: Seth Hurwitz and his Maryland-based company It's My Party have filed an 11-count lawsuit seeking to block the merger and charging that Live Nation "deliberately" and "unlawfully" acquired monopolistic power over the national concert scene.

The lawsuit also alleges that Live Nation has used its influence to "coerce" artists from only appearing at amphitheaters and other venues that the mega-company controls.

I.M.P. ranks beside Chicago's Jam Productions as one of the few remaining vital and vibrant indie promoters in the U.S.-- it books D.C.'s vaunted 9:30 Club as well as the area amphitheatre, the Merriweather Post Pavilion--and Hurwitz testified along with Jam's Jerry Mickelson at the Senate hearing on the merger earlier this year.

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In other news, Ticketmaster chief Irving Azoff, who would play a major role in the merged corporation, has refused to speak to the Chicago Sun-Times, but he has talked to Kara Swisher of All Things Digital--not that he's said a heck of a lot. Hitsville critiques the interview and notes some of the questions left unanswered here.

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In these times of harrowing financial uncertainty, most major American corporations are struggling to determine how to stay profitable in the face of a skittish and turbulent marketplace.

In this regard, Disney's reigning teen-pop behemoth the Jonas Brothers is no different than General Motors.

The difficult task of staying relevant with a young audience as it graduates from the Harry Potter books to the Twilight series has challenged every bubblegum act of the last two decades--see Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Hilary Duff, etc., etc. But there's an even stronger whiff of desperation with the three well-coiffed brothers from Wyckoff, N.J., since they've already ridden and fallen off this merry-go-round once, having been embraced and then dropped by Columbia Records in the mid-2000s before the Mouse's Hollywood label finally pushed them to the top of the charts.

On their fourth album "Lines, Vines and Trying Times," which arrives in stores today [Tuesday], 16-year-old Nick, 19-year-old Joe and legal-drinking-age Kevin trot out every trick they and their handlers can think of to signify a more "mature" collection than the fizzy, sugary, vaguely New Wave pop sets of the past. But instead of a bold next step in their evolution, they wind up with a singularly ponderous and joyless mess.

This album is lousy with heavy-handed horns and pretentious string sections, super-slick production tricks, pointless celebrity cameos (including blues-guitar showboat Jonny Lang and Nick's on-again, off-again squeeze Miley Cyrus) and awkward nods to other genres in an attempt to show the boys' depth and diversity. Witness the country turn "What Did I Do to Your Heart" and the ska-lite of the bonus track "Keep It Real."

Worst of all--and finding a nadir amid such a festering pile of garbage is no mean feat--is the attempt to go gangsta rap via the almost comically awful "Don't Charge Me for the Crime." A collaboration with Common, who amazingly tops even the embarrassing pandering of last year's "Universal Mind Control," this endless dud offers one howler after another as the Chicago rapper remakes his masterful "Testify" as a made-for-the Disney Channel TV movie ("The verdict came in and they said I was guilty/I looked at the judge, 'Hey, America built me'") and the JoBros drop in on the choruses to beg forgiveness ("Don't charge me for the crime/Wrong place, wrong time").

Sorry, boys, but if you do the crime, you've gotta do the time.

Nearly as bad is the bounty of woe-is-me lyrics about the difficulties of stardom and the women who've done the JoBros wrong. "Now I'm done with superstars/And all the tears on her guitar," they sing in "Much Better," perhaps nodding to Joe's former girlfriend Taylor Swift, while in "Poison Ivy," our heroes compare romance to an allergic reaction: "I try to scratch away the issue/All I ever get is tissues/I can't wipe away my tears/Everyone's allergic to poison ivy/Everybody gets the itch/Everybody hates that."

Actually, given the fellas' much-vaunted chastity, it's refreshing to hear them admit they occasionally get the itch. But the boys have an unfailingly tin ear both musically and lyrically, especially when it comes to probing their frustrations with the opposite sex.

In recent interviews, the JoBros have said the new album was heavily inspired by Neil Diamond, with whom they bonded at a charity tribute last February. The difference is that Diamond is a brilliant songwriter who decorates his tunes with just the right touch of Vegas schlock, laughing at himself all the while. The Jonas Brothers are never less than super-serious, and there's no hint of self-deprecation. They may have been aiming for the Jewish Elvis, but they come off as humorless Wayne Newton wannabes.

The reason why posters of these goobers adorn the walls of so many teenaged girls is obvious, at least if you think for a moment like a teenaged girl. But why anyone of any age would want to listen to them remains as big a mystery as any of the shenanigans of the business world. And all we can do is hope they go away as soon as possible.

PJ Harvey and John Parish at the Riv

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The best blues always is a little frightening: As the greats pour their soul into a cathartic purging, a listener often is just a little bit worried that all of that pain and anger might backfire in their direction.

As tens of thousands of revelers once again filled Grant Park for the Blues Festival over the weekend, precious little on the bill there held that kind of promise -- or threat. For those kinds of thrills and chills, you had to see PJ Harvey and John Parish at the Riviera Theatre Friday night.

To an even greater degree than on her own stellar albums, British singer Polly Jean Harvey has felt free to inhabit a wide range of characters struggling with all manner of crises on the two discs she's made with multi-instrumentalist Parish: "Dance Hall at Louse Point" (1996) and the recent "A Woman a Man Walked By."

Rather than shouldering all of the songwriting burden, in this collaboration, Harvey crafts the vocals and lyrics based on inspiration from Parish's music. And her at-times wordless singing is much more subtle, nuanced and alternately beautiful and harrowing.
While some longtime fans may have been disappointed that Friday's set list shorted the rest of Harvey's rich catalog in favor of the two albums with Parish, the rewarding range of her singing and the intensity of her performance were undeniable, whether she was gliding through entrancingly moody tracks such as "Black Hearted Love" and "Rope Bridge Crossing" at the start of the night, or pounding through furious stompers like the Captain Beefheart homage "Pig Will Not," which closed the set proper preceding the well-deserved encore.

The backing group in fact included a Beefheart alum, bassist and keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman, in addition to Jean-Marc Butty on drums and Giovanni Ferrario on guitar. As with the best of the Captain and his Magic Band, Harvey, Parish and their group created a merger of blues and rock that was both futuristic and timeless.

The forlorn melodies and fractured grooves were an ideal setting for Harvey's emotional vocals and theatrical delivery. And if the latter was less flamboyant than during the height of the alternative era, it was dramatic nonetheless.

During a fierce version of "Taut," Harvey started out on her knees as if in prayer, and wound up stalking the stage like a woman possessed. "Save me, Jesus!" she screamed. And you had to hope He heard her.

Some links I've been meaning to share

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1. A reader recently emailed me this link to a rather self-righteous D.I.Y. video arguing that Green Day's new pop-punk anthem "Know Your Enemy" rips off the classic chant from Chicagoans Naked Raygun's old pop-punk anthem "New Dreams." Me, I ain't really buying it -- I'd see it as more of an homage, if anything; any mention of Naked Raygun in the national press these days is a good one, and most of all nothing is original in rock 'n' roll anyway -- but decide for yourselves.

2. Though his output is sporadic, my old pal Bill Wyman rarely fails to connect when he winds up for a spirited rant worthy of the attentions of his blog, Hitsville. His first winner of late is an update on the Recording Academy's recent shuffling of the Grammy categories: They finally have, at long last, killed the Best Polka Recording award, which was hard to defend given that apparently there were fewer than two dozen polka records released last year, but which will nevertheless come as sad news to the likes of perennial local nominess Eddie Blazonczyk's Versatones.

3. Also of note from Mr. Wyman: This devastating rebuttal to Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth's recent whining about Radiohead and free downloading hurting indie artists. This from a group that not so long ago released a special disc exclusively through Starbucks.

4. More YouTube fun: JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound with a most unlikely cover of Wilco's "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart." Jeff Tweedy never knew he could be this funky-soulful.

5. And finally, this, a band called Wicked Celtics with a ditty entitled "I Don't Wanna Hear Your Band." This is not a comment on the majority of submission I get for the weekly Demo2DeRo column. I swear. Honest...

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Ever since their calculated reinvention from a politically conscious, bargain-basement version of the Roots into a pop-conscious, genre-blurring hip-pop combo circa "Elephunk" (2003), their third studio album but first with Stacy Ferguson on vocals, the Black Eyed Peas have been the modern equivalent of those '70s cartoon bands like Josie and the Pussycats and the Banana Splits, devoted to sugary hooks, silly lyrics and lowest-common-denominator dance grooves. Heaven help us if we had to listen to Fergie sing without the benefit of auto-tune; Apl.De.Ap and Taboo are two of the least impressive rappers on top of the pop charts and as the group's musical mastermind, will.i.am rarely has encountered a cliché he's failed to embrace. Yet these are precisely the reasons why their brand of bubblegum has been impossible to resist.

The band is not infallible: Things go wrong whenever the musicians try to get serious, and they've been doing it more of late, most notably with will.i.am's 2008 ode to Barack Obama, "Yes We Can," and his attempts to compare himself to Bob Dylan (though you have to admire the audacity there, and hope he realizes how funny that it is). On the follow-up to "Monkey Business" (2005), the heavy-handed "message songs" occasionally drag the proceedings down, belying the acronym behind the title ("The Energy Never Dies"). Witness the dreadful stab at teenybopper punk, "Now Generation" and the would-be "We Are the World"-anthemic "One Tribe." Ugh.

Thankfully, these missteps--as well as some of the admitted filler the band included to allow interactive fan remixes via the Web down the road--can easily be excluded for the iPod play list in favor of a new batch of gleefully stupid, undeniably joyous party-hearty anthems in the tradition of "My Humps" and "Let's Get It Started": "Boom Boom Pow," "I Gotta Feeling," "Electric City," "Ring-a-Ling" and best of all "Party All the Time" which advises that, "If we could party all night and sleep all day and throw all of our problems away/Our lives would be eee-a-zee." Now tell me that's not a message we all could use these days.

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The fourth album by Phoenix opens with a track called "Lisztomania" that seems to underscore that the giddy rush of a good pop phenomenon is timeless, whether we're talking about this uber-hip French dance-rock band or the crazed fans who filled orchestra halls to hear Franz Liszt in the 1800s. "A Lisztomania/Think less but see it grow... From the mess to the masses," croons frontman Thomas Mars, a.k.a. director Sofia Coppola's baby daddy. And after three previous disc that paled in comparison to the best of Air, whom Phoenix sometimes backed in concert, the band has finally produced an album that delivers that kind of promised excitement.

With the recent release of "Manners," the debut album by the Boston band Passion Pit, it's shaping up to a great summer for modern updates on synth-heavy '80s disco. If Passion Pit bring a bit more personality and soul to the proceedings, while Mars and company seem like the somewhat aloof Europeans they no doubt are, standout tracks such as "Lisztomania," "1901" and "Lasso" nonetheless deliver inspired grooves and memorable melodies, while more trance-like interludes such as "Love Like a Sunset" (parts one and two) evoke a combination of Roxy Music circa "Avalon" and the band's mentors in Air, and that's not a bad thing at all.

Demo2DeRo: TAxi

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Taxi

At their invigorating best, as on the rollicking "See Her Dead" or the anthemic "Sinners on a Sunday," the Chicago quartet TAxi offers yet another take on that never-gets-old brand of tuneful Midwestern garage punk, with a focus on melody that barely (just barely) contains the chaos threatening to erupt. Other times, as on "Chinatown," the band plays it a bit too safe, and the polish veers dangerously close to Dave Matthews Band territory. Thankfully, those moments are in the minority.

The current lineup of guitarist-vocalist Brian Petzel, bassist Toby Merrick, drummer Jacob Fawcett and keyboardist Paul Solans recently recorded a new self-titled EP, the follow-up to the earlier "One Night with Me," downstate at Pieholden Suites, the studio owned by the late Jay Bennett, and touches of Wilco circa "Summerteeth" mix nicely with the more discordant guitar eruptions. The group celebrated that disc with a record release party at the Bottom Lounge last month, but keep an eye on it Web sites, www.taxirocks.com and www.myspace.com/taxirockschicago, for upcoming dates, or visit for a free download of the new sounds now.

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Though it has garnered much less attention than many of the albums in her stellar career, the first disc that PJ Harvey released as a full-on collaboration with frequent sideman and multi-instrumental wizard John Parish, "Dance Hall at Louse Point" (1996), stands as one of the most creative of her career.

Freed from the responsibilities of crafting all of the music and lyrics, the British art-punk heroine stretched out and let loose, inhabiting a wealth of different characters we'd never met before, from the Patti Smith on steroids of "Taut" to the postmodern cabaret chanteuse in her cover of the Peggy Lee standard "Is That All There Is?"

Now, nearly a decade and a half later, Harvey and Parish have given us a new team effort, "A Woman a Man Walked By," and it's even more powerful and impressive. Why the long wait between these two discs?

"Good question!" Parish says with a chuckle. "It's funny: We always intended to do another record, and it hadn't really occurred to us how long it had been, really. It was just we'd obviously both been doing lots of other stuff, sometimes together and sometimes independently. I guess we needed a reason to actually make it happen at a specific time.

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Called out on the relative stinginess of their "no-service-fees Wednesday" -- those initially only were for the lawn seats at the two big Live Nation amphitheaters in Tinley Park and East Troy, Wisc. -- the monolithic, would-be monopoly that is the giant national concert promoter is extending the deal to reserved seats as well as adding its Charter One Pavilion on Northerly Island.

The press release reads, in part:

"No Service Fee Wednesdays - June 10th at 12:01 a.m., offering fans some of the lowest prices of the summer on all tickets in our Amphitheatres both Reserved and lawn tickets with no ticket service fees on any LiveNation.com-ticketed amphitheater show, and only at www.LiveNation.com. This will include all 4 packs, 6 packs and other special offers. Just added for all Charter One Pavilion shows."

A full list of the shows that might benefit Live Nation concertgoers this season (providing they buy tickets on a Wednesday) follows the jump. Meanwhile, it's worth a second look at how much some of those tickets still cost -- the promoter may be waiving service fees, but not its egregious per-person parking fees or other costs.

Jay-Z at Northerly Island, July 7: Base price, reserved seating: $129. Service fee: $18.50. No additional costs. Total six days a week: $147.50. Total on "no-service-fees Wednesdays": $129.

Coldplay at Alpine Valley, July 25: Base price, reserved seating: $97.50. Parking: $6. Service fee: $20.15. "Ticket Tax": $6.95. Total six days a week: $130.60. Total on "no-service-fees Wednesdays": $110.45 .

Brad Paisley at First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre, Aug. 7: Base price, reserved seating: $53.50. Parking: $4.25. Service fee: $14. Total six days a week: $71.75. Total on "no-service-fees Wednesdays": $57.75.

Demo2DeRo: King Sparrow

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From '60s progenitors such as the Litter and the Trashmen, through '80s and '90s heroes such as the Replacements and Guided by Voices and into the present, Midwestern garage-rock has been a genre that's less about specific sonic hallmarks (though, as practiced here in the center of the country, there generally is a certain tunefulness to the proceedings) than it is about having the right attitude on stage, in the studio and while sneering at the universe everywhere else. And Chicago's King Sparrow have that in spades.

Formed by guitarist-vocalist Eric Georgevich, drummer John McGeown and bassist Sean Price in the Spring of 2008, the trio already has made its mark on the local underground--the Windy City Rock Web site named it one of the best new bands last year--and the buzz is sure to grow louder with the release of the band's debut EP "Derailer," a set of five deliriously grungey but deliciously melodic garage-punk nuggets with just enough of a swinging bottom to indicate that the musicians have listened to their share of Chicago blues and Motown soul.

Listen to the group on the Web at www.myspace.com/kingsparrow or www.kingsparrow.com or catch it live at Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, with the Main Drag and Inchworm at 8 p.m. on Monday, June 22.

Some links I've been meaning to share

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In no particular order, and all intended as nothing more than tools for killing time on the Web:

1. My good friend and former colleague Mark Kemp has contributed a swell piece to Paste magazine listing the best songs ever about print journalism. (Remember that?) Some of his favorites... no, wait, I don't want to ruin it. Read it all here.

2. Another friend recently shared this (sometimes not always safe for work) site with me, which boasts a title that can be discreetly expanded to "Look at this (bleeping) hipster." Yes, it can be cruel. But remember, these are folks begging for attention, and the site merely is giving it to them. Can't wait to see how many contenders wind up here from this year's Pitchfork and Lollapalooza festivals!

3. In late January, I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Patti Smith and filmmaker Jay Sebring as their movie "Dream of Life" was shown at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern. Just found the video for that night here.

This weekend: St. Vincent, Jenny Lewis

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"Actor," the second album by Texas singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, is one of the most impressive, ambitious and cinematic indie-rock/orchestral pop discs in years. Will she be able to replicate it live? Aside from a few bursts of histrionic over-indulgence, she did at South by Southwest last March. She performs here at 7:30 p.m. Sunday [June 7] at Metro, 3730 N. Clark, following openers Pattern is Movement. Tickets are $13 in advance, $15 day of show via www.metrochicago.com. (Tickets purchased for the original venue, Epiphany, will be honored.)

Clark also performs a free show on Monday, June 8, at the Jay Pritzker Pavillion in Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph. Allá opens at 6:30 p.m.

jennylewis7eo

With last year's "Acid Tongue," country-pop singer and songwriter Jenny Lewis proved that her brilliant 2006 solo bow "Rabbit Fur Coat" was no fluke, and her live shows just get better and better every time she comes through town. She performs tonight [Friday, June 5] at the Park West, 322 W. Armitage, on an inspired double bill with the Sadies. Tickets are $22; call (773) 929-5959.

Riot Fest announces 2009 dates, some headliners

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riot-fest

The fifth annual installment of one of the best showcases for punk and underground music in the U.S. will take place at the Congress Theatre this fall on Oct. 7 to 12.

Among the acts announced so far: local pop-punk legends Screeching Weasel, NOFX , the Alkaline Trio, Murder City Devils, the reunited Dead Milkmen and first-wave British punks Cock Sparrer.

A limited number of five-day passes go on sale Saturday [June 6] for $99 at www.ticketweb.com/snl/Search.action?query=riot+fest.

The festival also is branching out this year with Riot Fest West, which takes place Nov. 12 to 14 in Los Angeles at four venues: Palladium, the Wiltern, Key Club and the Roxy.

More information on both festivals can be found at www.RiotFest.org.

Koko Taylor dead at 80

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Sun-Times coverage here, with more to follow.

UPDATE: My colleague Dave Hoekstra's tribute can be read here.

Sonic Youth, "The Eternal" (Matador) [3.5 STARS]

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While critical consensus held that the long-running New York art-punks' last album "Rather Ripped" (2006) was its most tuneful in ages--"Sonic Youth are the best band in the universe," rock-crit dean Robert Christgau gushed--I just didn't hear the consistency, concision and vitality that marks the group's best efforts: "Bad Moon Rising" (1985), "Sister" and "Evol" (1986), "Daydream Nation" (1988) and "Goo" (1990). And, after the long string of relative duds that it's been giving us since 1994, I though it unlikely that Sonic Youth would ever regain those peaks again.

Well whaddya know? Seemingly reinvigorated by their departure from the major-label ranks (yes, the band that brought Nirvana to Geffen has, a decade and a half after the end of the alternative-rock movement, finally moved to Matador) and another "fifth Youth" lineup change (Jim O'Rourke left two albums ago, and he's been replaced by Mark Ibold of Pavement on bass as Kim Gordon moves to guitar), the band has given us a 16th studio album that stands as its freshest, most spirited and just plain best in 17 years. "This album is a celebration of newfound freedom," Thurston Moore has said. "Releasing this album with our friends at Matador feels like liberation, which inspired us during the recording process."

Never mind that Sonic Youth always has posited itself as the least-compromising band in rock; "a celebration of newfound freedom" is exactly what these 12 tracks sound like, from the opening joy-in-noise manifesto of "Sacred Trickster" ("Press up against the amp/Turn up the treble, don't forget!/Getting dizzy, sitting around/Sacred trickster in a lo-tech sound!") through the closing epic of the tellingly entitled "Massage the History."

As those two bookends indicate, Sonic Youth isn't breaking new ground here: We've heard variations on every sound it's exploring, from the postmodern Hawkwind space-rock to the fractured "Goo"/"Dirty" pop tunes to the aforementioned guitar trance-out epic. And the lyrics are predictably dismissible, whether they're imitating/paying tribute to second-tier Beat poetry (having hailed Allen Ginsberg in the past, this time they champion Gregory Corso) or just making us scratch our heads in bewildered stupefaction ("Penetration destroys the body/Violation of a cosmic body/Do you understand the problem?/Anti-war is anti-orgasm").

But 30 years into a career that has, at alternating moments, been both dramatically under- and ridiculously overrated, Sonic Youth has delivered a masterful disc to remind us why we cared.

big-whiskey-and-the-groogrux-king

Though legions of lite-beer-swilling fans disagree--their tours reportedly have grossed more than a half a billion dollars--the Dave Matthews Band always has been better in the studio than on the stage, where the endless wank-fest jams of saxophonist LeRoi Moore and violinist Boyd Tinsley could be a torture far worse than waterboarding. That isn't to say that the quintet's six previous studio albums are good, just that they're more pleasurable/less offensive than the concerts, with gently bouncy hybrid jazz-funk-rock rhythms and innocuous easy-listening melodies easily digested while sipping a latte. The band's new disc continues this tradition, and it may even be the group's finest moment on record.

Named in tribute to Moore, who died at age 46 in an ATV accident last August, "Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King" is an album that almost didn't happen: Even before the loss of their bandmate, the musicians were debating whether to continue their stadium-filling corporate enterprise, having lost much of their drive and acquired considerable personal acrimony toward one another over the last decade of easy but lucrative chooglin'. Ultimately they decided to give it one more try, retreating to an isolated home studio at a house called Haunted Hollow outside Charlottesville, Va., and the combination of an uncertain future and the loss of Moore early in the sessions seems to have rekindled a "seize the day" spark artfully fanned by producer Rob Cavallo (Green Day, the Goo Goo Dolls), who kept things concise, focused and mostly jam-free, with an emphasis on those lazy but catchy melodies that are Matthews' specialty.

The South African native is still a bonehead when it comes to writing lyrics, which fall either in the categories of Hallmark card romantic banality ("You and me together, we could do anything, baby"), coffee-mug philosophizing ("Funny the way it is, if you think about it/Somebody's going hungry and someone else is eating out") or frat-house sex talk ("Love me baby, love me baby, shake me like a monkey"). But if you toss the disc in the rotation for your next backyard barbecue as a nod to those friends who only listen to triple-A radio, and you ignore what ol' Dave is singing about, at least you won't lose your lunch.

Live Nation = "Free-Nation"? Um, not really

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In an effort to ease the burden on music fans in these difficult economic times--and to sell some of the extra lawn seats that have been slow to move this summer concert season--the Chicago office of giant national concert promoter Live Nation has announced a plan to forego service fees for tickets purchased on Wednesdays.

"No Service Fee Wednesdays" begin at 12:01 a.m. on June 3rd for tickets purchased via www.LiveNation.com. As the company's press release puts it, "Throughout the rest of the summer, Live Nation becomes Free-Nation as it offers savings on concert tickets for hundreds of shows and millions of fans."

Well, "Free-Nation" is more than a bit of an exaggeration. Service fees will be waived only for lawn seats at Live Nation's two big local sheds, the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park and the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisc. (For some reason, perhaps because it's owned by the city and only operated by Live Nation, the Charter One Pavilion on Northerly Island is excluded.)

Service fees remain intact for the more costly pavilion seats at both venues.

Here's how a typical ticket breaks down: Lawn seats for Nickelback in Tinley Park are on sale now for $28.50. LiveNation.com tacks on $6 per ticket for parking (an injustice if numerous people carpool, since each ticket buyer still pays $6, bring the cost for six to park amid the acres of empty gravel fields to $36).

Also added on: $1 "for charity" and a $12.10 ticket fee.

The latter fee is waived, but that $28.50 ticket still costs you $35.50. Thankfully, in contrast to the giant national ticket broker Ticketmaster, LiveNation.com does not charge you extra to print the ticket out with your own home computer.

Live Nation execs say that in addition to priming the pump for summer concert ticket sales, they wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to do something that wouldn't have been possible in the past when the company sold all of its tickets through Ticketmaster. "We wanted to do something that had never been done before," said Live Nation President and CEO Michael Rapino.

Live Nation broke from Ticketmaster early this year and began selling tickets to its shows on its own. But shortly thereafter, the two concert giants announced a plan to merge.

Roundly criticized throughout the music industry, the merger is pending approval from the Department of Justice--which may just want to consider whether even a minor price break such as this one could or would be part of the proposed Live Nation Entertainment super-company.

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