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Tuning in with Thomas Conner

July 2009 Archives

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Even before the Beastie Boys were forced to drop out as Adam Yauch battles cancer, the six headlining slots at Lollapalooza 2009 were overall the least impressive that the weekend-long musical smorgasbord has mustered during its five years as a reinvented "destination festival" based in Grant Park.

Ah, you say, but Lollapalooza isn't really about the big marquee bands; it's about the opportunity to sample a whole lot of music in the one of the most beautiful parks in America over the course of one very long weekend.

True enough. But even with 142 sets scattered over eight stages during 33 hours of music, my personal list of good-to-sure-bet highlights seems skimpier this summer than in years past--though I'm of course always open to pleasant surprises.

Here is a look at the acts I'm most eagerly anticipating, with the full schedule of all the rest available online at the festival's Web site www.lollapalooza.com. (More interesting reading online: Greg Kot of the Tribune talks with top execs from promoters C3 Presents and concludes that "the festival doesn't boost a particularly Chicago-centric vibe... For the most part, the Lollapalooza lineup is interchangeable with that of any other big festival in America.")

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Absurdly prolific since they first burst onto the music scene with "Gallowsbird's Bark" in 2003--this is their eighth album--the sibling duo of suburban Oak Park's Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger have steadily built a cult following devoted to their genre-defying, hyper-literary and melodically slippery modern update of progressive rock and Brechtian cabaret. But despite some impressive moments, and the allure of Eleanor's distaff version of Lou Reed's sing-speak delivery, their catalog as a whole is overly fussy, pretentiously belabored and sometimes headache-inducing. And good luck trying to hum any of their songs from beginning to end.

The emerging consensus on "I'm Going Away" is that this is the Friedberger's most straightforward and tuneful effort, but I just don't hear it. The alternating assaults of verbiage and pointless repetition of unremarkable lines--"She's gonna get me folked up, fairly beat," Eleanor keeps chanting in "Cups and Punches," as if she'll eventually convince us that it means something--merge with multi-instrumentalist and musical visionary Matthew's sensory-overload sonic collages, which can shift instantly from a vintage Yes guitar solo to a high school musical-worthy overture. But it all lacks the emotional core necessary to prompt any reaction more enthusiastic than, "Oh, my, isn't that clever and complicated?" Followed quickly by, "So what?"

Demo2DeRo: I Think Everything I Say

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With roots stretching back to their time at Bradley University in Peoria, guitarists Carl Johnson and Jon Trainor, drummer Zach Dresser and bassist Matt Heston clearly are children of the alternative '90s: Their trumpeted list of musical heroes includes the Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam and Third Eye Blind. At times, they do indeed muster an echo of that era's grungy bombast. But on songs such as "Shine," "Near" and the impressive sing-along "This is a Hospital for Sinners," they add an endearing sort of Weezer-by-way-of-a-million-modern-emo-bands plaintiveness and vulnerability.

It's hard to say whether this is intentional or an accidental result of the fact that they can't really sing, but it sorta works: "What would Pearl Jam have sounded like if Jonathan Richman was the frontman instead of Eddie Vedder?" is an intriguing question that really had never occurred to me before.

The quartet just celebrated the arrival of its new self-titled EP with a record release party at Phyllis' Musical Inn last, but it will be playing again at Ronny's, 2101 N. California, on Aug. 21. Meanwhile, the new tunes are streaming online at www.myspace.com/ithinkeverythingisay.

The Dead Weather and Screaming Females at the Vic

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Where lesser mortals would be daunted at the task of driving one mighty hellhound-on-your-trail rock band, Jack White now propels three.

There are the White Stripes, of course, which White followed several years into their platinum-selling career with his first side project, the Raconteurs. But as he proved Tuesday night when his newest busman's holiday the Dead Weather made its Chicago debut at the Vic Theatre, his desire to howl at the moon, literally and metaphorically, remains undiminished, as does the potency he brings to the proceedings.

Make no mistake: While the Dead Weather was clearly a tight-knit collaboration with Alison Mosshart of the Kills on vocals, Jack Lawrence of the Raconteurs on bass and Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age on keyboards and guitar, it was White's love for and knowledge of the
dirtiest, sexiest, most dangerous kind of grunge-infected blues that informed every note the new group played.

White spent almost the entire set behind the drums, the instrument he played in the first group that won him national attention, Goober and the Peas, and which he attacks much like his ex-wife Meg: simply but powerfully. He only claimed the spotlight and the lead vocal role a few
times, most notably on a killer cover of "You Just Can't Win" by Van Morrison's first band, Them, and the nonsensical but effective original "I Cut Like a Buffalo" from the Dead Weather's debut album, "Horehound."

White also grabbed the guitar during a haunting duet with Mosshart on "Will There Be Enough Water?," which ended the set proper before a well-deserved encore.

Otherwise, center stage solely belonged to Mosshart, who possessed it as a sexy/scary woman on the verge of an unstoppable libidinous rampage or violent bloody murder--it was hard to tell which. She stood atop or draped herself over the monitors, she pranced and stalked, and she dropped to her knees, howling all the while through standout tracks such as "60 Feet
Tall," "Hang You from the Heavens" and "So Far From Your Weapon."

Even before the Raconteurs' disappointing second album, that group felt more like a detour than a destination. Not so the Dead Weather, which, if it continues to evolve and White doesn't lose interest, could well eclipse the White Stripes.

In a rare example of an opening band being every bit as awesome as the headliner, the New Jersey trio Screaming Females provided ample evidence that it was more than ready for the sudden leap it recently made from tiny, underground all-ages clubs to sold-out theaters as the Dead Weather's hand-picked support.

As massive a sonic presence on guitar and vocals as she is a physically diminutive presence, Marissa Paternoster brought to mind Bob Mould at his scariest with a touch of heavy-metal shredder thrown in, while bassist Mike Rickenbacker and drummer Jarret Dougherty completed the Husker Du-like assault with tunes from their recent third album, the aptly titled "Power
Move."

A busy day for concert updates!

First up, hometown heroes Wilco have added a second show on Oct. 19 at the UIC Pavilion after the Oct. 18 gig sold out. Tickets are on sale now for $39.50, reserved or main floor general admission, via the Pavilion box office or via www.ticketmaster.com or (312) 559-1212. (My two cents: I wish these gigs were at the Chicago or Auditorium theaters, which sound vastly superior to the boomy college basketball arena.)

Next up, following his impressive shows here a few months back, singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen is adding what's being billed as a "third and final Chicago show" at the Rosemont Theatre on Oct. 29. Tickets go on sale Monday, Aug. 3, at 10 a.m. at the box office in Rosemont or through Ticketmaster. (No ticket prices listed as yet by promoters AEG Live.)

Finally, word's come down from promoters Jam Productions that the return visit by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on Sept. 20 at the United Center will vary from the rest of the 2009 "Workin' On a Dream" tour by featuring a performance in its entirety of the Boss's classic 1975 album "Born to Run." Tickets for that show go on sale Saturday, Aug. 1, at the United Center box office and through Ticketmaster, with prices ranging from $65 to $98.

UPDATE: Also dipping into the back catalog to perform one of their most-loved albums in its entirety: the Pixies, who've announced that they'll be playing the 1989 album "Doolittle" at the Aragon on Nov. 20 and 21. Tickets for the Aragon shows will go on sale Saturday, Sept. 12, through Ticketmaster; no word as yet on pricing.

Oh, and in one more bit of concert news: The Allstate Arena has just been named second in ticket sales in the U.S. for the first half of 2009, according to the concert industry trade magazine Pollstar, trailing only Philips Arena in Atlanta, GA.

Save the date: "The Bloodshot Beer-B-Q," Sept. 12

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The Hideout isn't doing a full-blown block party this year--oh, this economy--but Bloodshot Records, one of Chicago's local-treasure indie labels, will be celebrating its 15th anniversary outside the club on Wabansia at Elston with a day-long "Beer-B-Q" starting at noon on Sept. 12.

The lineup includesAlejandro Escovedo, the Waco Brothers with Rico Bell, Bobby Bare Jr., Deadstring Brothers, the reunited Blacks, the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, Scott H. Biram and a reunion by Moonshine Willy, playing one show only after a decade-long break.

Admission is $10, with proceeds benefiting Rock for Kids and 826 Chicago. Tickets can be reserved at www.bloodshotrecords.com.

Some links I've been meaning to share

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Call now for a picture of a reporter you can sponsor: Because it's better to laugh than cry.

The David Lee Roth "Runnin' with the Devil" soundboard: Hours of hair-metal hilarity!

How the hometown press in Austin is covering Texas promoters C3 Presents' Chicago Olympics ambitions.

And finally: Groove with the Smashing Pumpkins' new drummer, a 19-year-old freshman from Berklee School of Music, as the group unveils a new tune. Video here.

Calling someone's loved ones in the hours after they receive the worst news imaginable is by far the worst task anyone ever undertakes in the difficult business of journalism, and it is all the more gut-wrenching when you're doing it to report on someone you know and admire, both as an artist and as a human being. You do this not out of some gruesome desire to land a "scoop," but because tens of thousands (and in some cases, millions) of people were touched by this person and his or her work, and they deserve to know the truth, no matter how sad.

And, in this new age of Internet "journalism," blogs and tweets, you also do it because sometimes the rumors and untruths spread much more quickly and virulently than the facts.

When Chicagoist broke what would turn out to be the non-news of the death of local rock poet Thax Douglas just before the start of the first day of the 2009 Pitchfork Music Festival, several dozen local journalists who cover this city's music community dropped everything they were doing and began a frantic effort to try to confirm whether the news was true. Again, this wasn't out of any morbid desire to fill column inches or blog space, but because Thax is a burly, bearded and beloved presence at seemingly hundreds of packed concerts a year, and his readings have made him part of the lives of countless Chicagoans who would mourn his passing.

The story turned out to be false: Thax maintains that someone hacked into his Facebook account and posted the lie as a "prank." Three people at the Sun-Times alone (me, my colleague Dave Hoekstra and my editor Thomas Conner) worked on debunking this none-too-funny joke, and it took a few hours and a lot of phone calls and interviews before we succeeded, along with several other diligent news sources online and in print. I think it's safe to say all of us were happy that, unlike so many other obits we had to pursue, this one didn't need to get written--though I did mention it (because Tortoise did, onstage in front of thousands) in my first-day account of Pitchfork and in a post the next day trying to clear things up.

Resurrected, alive and kicking, Thax recently took umbrage (on Facebook again) with one or both of those posts and cussed me out. So it goes. I stand by what I wrote, and he's welcome to correct anything he deems untrue, or to add his side of the story.

Much more troubling to me is a post in that discussion on Thax's page by Jay Bennett's former collaborator Edward Burch, who was one of the people I called on Memorial Day evening when trying to determine if there was any truth in the rumors swirling on the Net about his friend's death. I wish that story had turned out like Thax's, but as Bennett's myriad fans know, it didn't.

Several weeks after Bennett's death--which I covered with several posts on this blog, stories in the newspaper and pieces on the radio, all paying homage to the musician's prodigious talents and memorable personality--the Champaign-Urbana coroner released his report: Bennett died of an "apparently accidental overdose" (the exact wording) of a common but controversial pain killer, fentanyl.

In all of my other reports on Bennett's death, I noted that he was in considerable pain as he awaited hip surgery, which, sadly, he was struggling to fund. I noted that again in the post on the coroner's report and, since I had never heard of fentanyl and assumed many readers wouldn't have either, I turned to the two sources journalists go to first for information on a drug: The Physician's Desk Reference (I have a slightly outdated copy here from my research into the drug darvon when I was writing a biography of Lester Bangs) and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's regularly updated publication Drugs of Abuse, which is now online and which covers every drug, legal and illegal, that can result in the death, intentional or unintentional, of the person who takes it.

The story on fentanyl was very similar in both places, and I quoted much of the entry from the latter source, cutting out a few sentences about the drug's different brand names and means of consumption. By no means was Bennett's the first death from this drug, which is why it's controversial, and which makes the story even more sad, because that means it didn't have to happen and perhaps, in this world of countless painkillers, this one should never have been prescribed.

Burch (as well as several people who commented here on that entry) believe I was trying to somehow insinuate that Bennett was abusing the drug. That never occurred to me--the lead of the story was, after all, that officials said he died of an apparently accidental overdose, the clearest language you ever get in an autopsy or death report (and I've seen more than a few). I did not attempt to clarify the post earlier because I thought that would only prompt more discussion about something I never intended to say in the first place. Mea culpa.

On reflection, to paraphrase the elegant language President Obama used on Friday about the Gates affair, I could have calibrated the words in that post differently, and I wish I'd used the language from the PDR instead of Drugs of Abuse. I apologize to anyone who was hurt by what I posted, and add only that it was the last sad footnote to a story I covered in depth and, I hope for the most part, with the respect its subject deserved.

Beatles

Many consider it the best rock movie ever made; an argument can certainly be made that it's the most influential. And no less an authority than my hero and Sun-Times colleague Roger Ebert has called it "one of the great life-affirming landmarks of the movies."

Join me and "Sound Opinions" co-host Greg Kot as we introduce the Beatles' first movie, "A Hard Day's Night," at the historic Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport, at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 28. Advance tickets are $9, $8 for WBEZ members and students, on the Web.

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Though a band always can claim bragging rights for playing one of the main stages in Grant Park, the 11:30 a.m. opening slot at Lollapalooza is a thankless one, especially on the last day of the festival, when the music might be heard by a few dozen hearty, sun-burned souls as everyone else sleeps in.

Nevertheless, when the Austin, Texas, quartet the Octopus Project took the stage in Hutchinson Field last year, it provided the perfect contrast to the bombast of the rest of the festival, creating a soothing, blissful vibe under the bright blue skies and entrancing everyone who listened to the band's gorgeous ambient/electronic soundscapes.

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Last year, Chicago 2016, the non-profit organization vying to bring the Olympics here, had an informational booth at Lollapalooza near the entrance of the concert in the center of Grant Park, close to other public-service groups trumpeting voter registration and saving the environment.

Meanwhile, AT&T's corporate logo seemed to be everywhere concertgoers turned.

This year, Chicago's initiative to land the Olympics and Paralympic games will replace AT&T as the name atop the main stage at the southern end of Hutchinson Field when the festival takes place from Aug. 7 to 9. But unlike the old "presenting sponsor," Chicago 2016 won't be paying for the privilege.

Dallas, TX-based telecommunications giant AT&T had partnered with neighboring Austin, TX-based concert promoters C3 Presents at Lollapalooza since the concert's reinvention as a Chicago-based destination festival in 2005.

"Lollapalooza has a long-standing reputation among young adults and music fans worldwide for delivering a one-of-a-kind experience, and this sponsorship is a unique way to showcase how AT&T delivers great communications and entertainment solutions to our customers," Scott Helbing, chief marketing officer for the company, said in a 2006 press release.

But after last year, AT&T dropped the fest like a troublesome cell phone call.

"AT&T is proud to have delivered exclusive webcasts of the Lollapalooza Music Festival from 2005-2008," AT&T spokeswoman Meghan Roskopf said Tuesday. "Our contract with the festival ended last year and we decided not to renew based on a variety of business goals and objectives."

Asked where the company might pursue those goals and objectives if it isn't doing so at iPhone-packed Lollapalooza, Roskopf said, "We can't really discuss future strategies for competitive reasons."

"You'd have to ask AT&T" why it is no longer a sponsor, said Shelby Meade, spokeswoman for Lollapalooza and C3 Presents. "We enjoyed our association with them." But the relationship wasn't always a smooth one.

In 2007, AT&T's "Blue Room" Webcasts from the concert caused a controversy in the music world after Pearl Jam complained that singer and Evanston native Eddie Vedder had been censored via an audio drop-out when he made non-profane comments criticizing President Bush. It was later revealed that several other artists at Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, including the Flaming Lips, the Nightwatchman, the Jon Butler Trio and Lupe Fiasco, also had been silenced by AT&T when making similar political comments.

Whatever the reason, AT&T is out and Chicago 2016 is in.

Was C3 unable to find another paying sponsor to replace AT&T, or is the company boosting the Olympics because of executives' stated ambitions to play a major role in staging festivities here if Chicago wins the bid on Oct. 2nd? The company's statements could be read as supporting either theory--or both.

"Sponsorship sales have been challenging in 2009 and we felt the best use of the naming rights was to back the bid for the 2016 Olympics," Meade said. She declined to say how much naming rights to the main stage were worth. "We don't discuss dollars."

Asked whether C3, which also organized an elaborate dinner for the International Olympic Committee when it recently visited Chicago, hopes that its support of the games will pay off with the company winning a role in organizing Olympics festivities, Meade said, "This is a goodwill gesture, we had the opportunity to do this in 2009, we may not be able to provide the same support in the years to come."

New York dance-rock/art-punk heroine Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs will take the high-profile Saturday night headlining slot opposite Tool in Grant Park, replacing the Beastie Boys, who've canceled their summer tour as Adam Yauch is treated for cancer, according to information newly posted on the Lollapalooza Web site.

The Sun-Times is awaiting comment from promoters C3 Presents about whether they will waive their stated policy of "no refunds or exchanges" for ticket buyers who specifically bought a ticket to see the Beastie Boys.

Lollapalooza spokeswoman Shelby Meade said promoters C3 Presents will not be offering refunds or exchanges for concertgoers who bought tickets specifically to see the Beastie Boys.

"Because the Lollapalooza Music Festival includes over 100 artists, the chance of artist cancellation is always a possibility," Meade said. "C3 Presents, however, is proud that over the years the festival has been held, there have been relatively few cancellations. C3 Presents' policy is that cancellation by individual bands does not entitle a ticket holder to a refund. With over a 100 acts, the fans are still receiving a tremendous value."

Three-day passes for Lollapalooza are still on sale at www.lollapalooza.com for $205, while single-day passes are $80. Prices for the private luxury cabanas are not listed but are available by email inquiry. There are no service fees for any of the tickets.

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This year, when throngs of concertgoers look up at the main stage at Lollapalooza on Aug. 7 to 9, they won't be seeing the logo for one of the festival's corporate sponsors.

Instead, the banner will tout the "Chicago 2016 Stage," trumpeting the three-day concert's support of the city's bid to host the 2016 Olympics and Paralympic Games.

AT&T, a major corporate underwriter of Lollapalooza since the former traveling alternative-rock tour was reinvented as a "destination festival" in Grant Park in 2005, previously claimed naming rights for the main stage, and it paid to be the biggest corporate presence at the fest. But it is not involved with the concert this year.

Chicago 2016 spokesman Patrick Sandusky said the organization isn't paying anything to have a presence at Lollapalooza. "It's a good-will gesture" on the part of the promoters, Austin, TX-based C3 Presents, Sandusky said.

"[C3] came to us with the opportunity, and we think it's a great way to reach thousands and thousands of people with just a general message about the bid," Sandusky added. "They've certainly been helpful and allowed us to do that. They actually were the executive producers of the dinner when the IOC [International Olympic Committee] was in town, when we had Buddy Guy and Koko Taylor."

Executives with C3 Presents have often expressed a desire to be part of staging the Olympics here if Chicago wins its bid on Oct. 2. "I would love nothing more," C3 co-owner Charlie Jones told the Tribune. "I don't think there is any doubt the city will get the Olympics... [and] when they get it, I would love nothing more than to help the city bring that event to the world."

Sandusky stressed that Chicago 2016 has no commitments with any companies yet to play a role in the Olympics. "They've been helpful to us, and they do very good work, but we haven't considered anything past Oct. 2nd," Sandusky said of C3. "It would be presumptive of us."

C3 has parlayed its success staging Lollapalooza into promoting several other high-profile events, including President Obama's celebration in Grant Park on election night, several inaugural balls and the Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn.

"One of the things we're trying to demonstrate to the IOC is how we're able to stage large-scale events on the lakefront," Sandusky said. "We have hundreds of thousands of people, whether it be election night or Lollapalooza, and we want to showcase to them that hosting the games wouldn't be something that's new to Chicago in terms of managing crowds."

AT&T became a source of controversy as a Lollapalooza sponsor in 2007 when its Webcast censored political comments that Pearl Jam singer and Evanston native Eddie Vedder made about President Bush. But it still was a major presence last year.

AT&T's absence from this year's Lollapalooza still leaves the festival with a long list of corporate sponsors, including Budweiser, Sony PlayStation, Vitamin Water, Citi, BMI, Honda and F.Y.E. Like those advertisers, Olympics 2016 is eager to reach the Lollapalooza audience.

"It's a great opportunity to get the brand out there, to get more people engaged--and people who, frankly, aren't naturally going to come across what we're doing, because they're not at sporting events," Sandusky said. "There certainly is a group of people that would be at Lollapalooza that wouldn't be at some of the other places we've been."

Beastie Boys pull out as Lollapalooza headliner

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Legendary hip-hop group the Beastie Boys announced today that they are canceling all summer tour dates--including Lollapalooza--and postponing the release of their new album because band member Adam Yauch has been diagnosed with cancer.

A spokeswoman for Lollapalooza promoters C3 Presents said they have no information yet about what will become of the prime Saturday night slot the group had held. (The remaining headliners are Depeche Mode and Kings of Leon on Friday, Aug. 7; Tool on Saturday Aug. 8, and Jane's Addiction and the Killers on Sunday, Aug. 9.)

The Beastie Boys' press release follows the jump.

Pichfork 2009: More on the backline, Day 3

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By Mark Guarino

The synthesizer was the instrument of choice for most bands for the duration of Pitchfork; however no band put it to better use than Mew. The Danish quintet played disco-funk designed for arenas. The romanticism of the band's ambitious songs and the octave-climbing vocals of singer Jonas Bjerre peaked in long, fragmented songs like "Special" that featured irresistible pop choruses that, despite their repetition, was cathartic.

Throughout the set, Bjerre demonstrated just how high the ceiling is on his vocal range, at one point emulating the sped-up production style of Kanye West. The electronic crunch that lined most songs contrasted the band's song structures, which were peppered with sweet spots and always felt like a journey worth taking.

Pitchfork 2009: Day III

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The Flaming Lips' big finale in Union Park; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.

As the staff at the Pitchfork Music Festival, largely volunteers from the local music community, made the last-minute preparations for the final day of 2009 two hours before the doors opened Sunday morning, chief festival promoter Mike Reed reported that, despite the grousing of some concertgoers on this and other blogs, the cap on festival attendance has not been raised this year (it's still 18,300 per day, as in previous years) and, regardless of the endless lines, there are not fewer Porta-Potties on site (in fact, another 35 were brought in this morning).

"I think what's happening is that, thanks to the cooler weather, people are just staying here longer, sticking around where in the past they might have said, 'I've seen the band I came for, and it's just too hot--let's go,'" Reed said.

There also is the fact that of any festival I have attended in the last 20 years on this beat--from Woodstock redux to the infamous Furthur rave at a go-cart track in Hixton, Wisc. to Lollapalooza in all of its different incarnations, and from Warped to Lilith Fest to the Guiness Fleadgh--Pitchfork is a fundamentally pleasant experience, with an uplifting communal vibe (again, witness all those volunteers), a non-corporate slant (though there are plenty of corporate sponsors present on the fringes, even in this troubled economy) and most of all an adventurous booking policy that, while it may result in some bands that are nowhere near ready to make the leap from 200-seat clubs to a massive baseball field, always yields plenty of thrilling musical discoveries that definitely do deserve a spotlight this bright.

"People have to realize that there are just some things about seeing a concert outdoors that are never going to be as good as seeing music in a club or theater," Reed said.

True enough; I've always said that rock 'n' roll should happen indoors at night, with air conditioning and free-flowing beer. But as the big summer outdoor music experience goes, it still doesn't get any better than Pitchfork.

Anticipation was high as an even more ambitious stage set-up than usual for psychedelic showmen and festival headliners the Flaming Lips required the promoters to reconfigure the main stage to make way for a giant video screen, but from the beginning at 1 p.m., day three was proving to be the best this year.

The first two acts on the main stages both came out strong. The Los Angeles-based experimental combo the Mae Shi mixed elements of punk, noise-rock, indie-pop, hip-hop, dance music and--the oddest ingredient of all--Christian-themed lyrics. At one point during a high-energy opening set, the musicians passed along a giant multi-colored tarpaulin for the crowd to hold aloft in a simple yet effective bit of showmanship.

Unfortunately, this was the last performance by the group with its current lineup, as Pitchfork (the Web site, not the festival) reports that band founder Jeff Byron will continue under the Mae Shi name while the three other members of the current touring group will split off to form a new band called Signals. I did not hear the band comment on that during its show, but the musicians did lash out at Pitchfork (the Web site, once again) for failing to critique its last album, "HLLLYH."

"Come on, give it a four," one of the musicians said, referring to Pitchfork;s 1-to-10 rating system, "just review that s---!"

Next up was the Scottish quartet Frightened Rabbit, current masters of the deeply emotional, enduringly tuneful heartbreak anthem. Scott Hutchison and his bandmates underscored the emotion in their songs with rolling waves of rhythm guitar and dramatic crescendos, making their well-crafted melodies all the more potent.

The highs continued in the central part of the park with the Portland folk-rock/alternative country band Blitzen Trapper, the sublime vehicle for the novelistic lyrics and timeless melodies of singer and songwriter Eric Earley. The gorgeous songs from the group's last album "Furr" held the audience in their thrall, even during the most quiet moments.

After that, the energy level jumped again with Troy Donald Jameson, hip-hop's Pharoahe Monch. Like Doom on Saturday night, the veteran of Organized Konfusion kept things straightforward and old-school, captivating with just his rhymes and the beats, with occasional flourishes from a soulful backing vocalist.

The Thermals kept the adrenaline pumping as the Portland group delivered its invigorating and tuneful punk sounds--though by far the best song in its set was a cover of Nirvana's unforgettable "Sappy."

As the day drew to a close, things slowed down again, first with the Walkmen, whose merger of Tom Waits and the that classic New York Velvet Underground (or Strokes, if your prefer) drone might have been much more effective if singer Hamilton Leithauser's theatrical vocals weren't so annoying, and then with M83, French one-man band Anthony Gonzales, augmented for the occasion with some help on drums and keyboards. His own merger of shoegazer guitar swirl and lush dance-pop would have been much more appealing in a club, or perhaps at another time than after 19 hours of music in the park over the rest of the weekend.

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Grizzly Bear at Pitchfork; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.

Much loved by much of the indie-rock underground, the Brooklyn quartet Grizzly Bear took the stage as the penultimate act of the fest, riding high on the success of their recent third album "Veckatimest." But the group's brand of slippery, slinky "freak folk" wasn't nearly as effective as the more traditional sounds of Blitzen Trapper had been, and it was overpowered by the cheers of fans at the other end of the field every time one of the Flaming Lips' crew members walked onstage for last-minute preparations.

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Wayne Coyne inside the space bubble; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.

Finally, it was the Lips' moment. The band had flip-flopped on whether it would reprise the "Write the Night" concept to close the fest, ultimately agreeing to honor "some" requests. This longtime Lips fan--and, full disclosure, author of a biography on the band--was eager for anything different from the tried and true tricks of the last decade: the costumed dancers, confetti showers, giant balloons, bandleader Wayne Coyne's roll through the crowd in a "space bubble" and the rest.

In the end, the Lips kept all of those gimmicks, and they played many of the songs that have become staples of every show. But they rose above what's been in danger of becoming a Vegas on acid shtick in part because the festival setting called for the visual overkill, but even more because they challenged themselves musically onstage, playing two brand new songs and digging way beyond deep for several rarities they've almost never performed live, including the 1995 song "Bad Days" and the studio outtake "Enthusiasm For Life (Defeats Internal, Existential Fear)."

It was a great ending to another outstanding Pitchfork festival, with the only disappointment being that the no-exceptions 10 p.m. curfew meant the Lips couldn't play an encore, and even after so much music all weekend long, fans had to leave wanting more.

The Flaming Lips' setlist: "Race for the Prize"; "Convinced of the Hex" (new song); "Bad Days"; ""Enthusiasm For Life (Defeats Internal, Existential Fear)"; "Yeah Yeah Yeah Song"; "Fight Test"; "Silver Trembling Hands" (new song); "Mountainside"; "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Part 1"; "She Don't Use Jelly"; "Do You Realize?"

More photos from the Flaming Lips' set by Oscar Lopez for the Sun-Times after the jump.

Pitchfork 2009: Day II, the Balance Stage

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By Mark Guarino

Sun-Times freelancer

Drum-guitar duo Wavves started about 25 minutes late, which made the truncated set sound more frenzied than the music itself. Guitarist-singer Nathan Williams prefers the reverb on his vocals caked deep inside a well of sound, resulting in a mix that made him sound like he was shouting, not from Ashland Ave., the location of the stage, but at least as far away as Western, or maybe even farther.

His obscured singing further muddied the band's ghostly punk sound early in the set. In late May the San Diego band ignited blog chatter when Williams delivered an incoherent performance at a festival in Barcelona that ended when drummer Ryan Ulsh dumped a beer on his head.

On Saturday, Williams showed no sign he needed a similar wake-up call. Wearing a Bulls cap, he loosened up mid-way through, giving his rudimentary guitar riffing more of a bounce. Injecting blasts of intermittent noise, he ended his set with Ulsh playing fuzzy pop songs that sounded sunnier with Williams' vocals floating through its middle.

Lindstrom, the one-word surname of Hans-Peter Lindstrom from Norway, played a perfunctory DJ set that turned half the grass field before his stage into a daytime rave. His laptop set allowed for little room to breathe; instead the music flowed uninterrupted, creating disco-studded waves that paused only for rhythmic breaks that broke through unexpectedly and in a big way.

Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino did not add much to synth-pop, by now, a precious genre that has run its course. Billed as Matt and Kim, they broke their drums and keyboards to the most elemental level: big beat party music. "This is the (expletive) party stage!" yelled Schifino, who later got low to pay tribute to the bootylicious dance maneuverings of Beyonce.

But despite the mini-songs, the duo showed an allegiance to arena rock through a cover of "The Final Countdown," a 1986 hit by Swedish glam-rockers Europe. Johnson, who just admitted they were playing "to the biggest crowd they every played in front of," got the crowd to clap along in what became a major peak for a band mostly capable of small wonders.

There is no single frontman in The Black Lips -- they all are. The Atlanta band, which plays a particularly sloppy brand of early British Invasion rock, finds unity in gang vocals, which gives the songs their slightly jeering edge. Unlike most bands, the Black Lips actually look, sound and interact like a group of woozy street thugs, an asset to the music, which sounded hanging on its last hinge.

That gave the band's set a sense of glee; songs like "Cold Hands" showed they knew how to set it to melodies. "So we got a 7.4, I think," said guitarist Ben Eberbaugh, mocking the rating system of the website that hosted the festival, but helping to headline it anyway.

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The Black Lips onstage at Pitchfork; Sun-Times photos by Oscar Lopez.

Pitchfork 2009: Day II

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Making the scene at Pitchfork 2009; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.

The second day of Pitchfork 2009 continued the slow-to-somnambulant vibe of much of Day I. First up on the main stages in Union Park: Cymbals Eat Guitars and Plants and Animals, two groups whose live performances failed to captivate in the larger-than-life festival setting, and which seemed to be struggling to find unique identities.

A much-buzzed quartet from New York, Cymbals Eat Guitars could well have been Minneapolis' Tapes 'n Tapes playing the same stage two years ago and failing to distinguish themselves as anything more than vaguely New Wave-sounding generic indie rock, though like Built to Spill the night before, the musicians did at least try to play to the wide open spaces with dramatic use of contrasting loud/soft dynamics.

Slightly less twee on stage than on album, Montreal's Plants and Animals nonetheless seemed confused about whether they wanted to emulate the Talking Heads circa "Remain in Light," as they'd do for one song, or vintage '70s Krautrock with a driving motorik beat, as they'd do for the next. Then, just to confuse things even more, they'd throw in a bit of heavy-metal posturing.

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F---d Up singer Pink Eyes struts his stuff; photo courtesy of Andrew Gill, WBEZ.

Things only really got started at 2:30 in the afternoon when Toronto-based art-punk provocateurs F---ed Up took the Aluminum Stage, and bald, bearded, beer-bellied singer Pink Eyes (a.k.a. Damian Abraham) proved himself in the same league as the Jesus Lizard's David Yow, spending almost the entire set in the field with the fans, standing atop the crowd barrier or tearing apart any beach ball tossed his way with his teeth.

In your face with a three-guitar attack and relentlessly propulsive rhythms, the group's wall of sound is nevertheless intensely melodic, and many in the crowd sang along throughout its set. And while some critics have raised alarms about the cryptic politics of some of the band's lyrics, the live show underscores that it's all just about energy, and Pink Eyes' stage presence is just a celebration of cutting loose.

If the musicians really believed in fascism, they could never abide anyone having so much fun.

Finding themselves in the same difficult spot that Built to Spill was in after the Jesus Lizard, the Brooklyn quartet the Pains of Being Pure at Heart acquitted themselves a little better, entrancing the crowd rather than trying to pummel it, and letting the lush waves of shoegazer guitar and wispy pop harmones float over the park like a fluffy cloud.

After the group's pleasant breather of a set, I headed over to the smaller Balance Stage and caught the last half of Bower Birds, one of the several folk-rock revivalist bands on the bill this year. Way too mannered on record, the group was much more impressive live, thanks to the magnetic presence of front woman Beth Tacular, and the musicians' deft juggling of upright bass, accordion, violin and gorgeous harmony vocals. The large crowd responded by listening with an almost reverent silence.

Things quickly got a lot looser and much more energetic with the next band, Ponytail, which had been one of my picks for the best of the fest (thanks to the strength of its 2008 album "Ice Cream Spiritual") and which turned out to be even better than I'd hoped.

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Molly Siegal and Ponytail speak in tongues at Pitchfork; photo courtesy of Andrew Gill, WBEZ.

Front woman Molly Siegal is a unique presence, dressed for this occasion in pink jeans and a phosphorescent green Michael Jackson T-shirt, looking like she was having epileptic seizures as she pogoed non-stop and let her eyes roll to the back of her head and singing in mostly insensible, speaking-in-tongues yelps, bleats and squeals. Think of Yoko Ono and Bjork dueting on the part of the B-52's "Rock Lobster" where they make the sounds of the stingray and the narwhal, and you'll still only be about half way there.

Though Siegal demands the spotlight, guitarists Ken Seeno and Dustin Wong and drummer Jeremy Hyman create a melodic and undeniable backdrop for her alien vocals, intertwining repetitive riffs and decorating the rhythms with all manner of cool synthesized or effected noises.

After Ponytail, it was back to the main stages for Yeasayer, a consistently hypnotic and magical live act that has long since proven it's mastery of the festival setting with it genre-defying mix of electronic and acoustic rhythms, folk-rock harmonies, free-form jazz excursions, shoegazer guitars and world percussion.

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Doom takes the stage at Pitchfork; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.

If Doom (arty hip-hopper Daniel Dumile) specializes in creating elaborate mythical worlds in the studio, the only gimmick during his Pitchfork set was his trademark super villain mask. Otherwise, his set was a straightforward, hard-grooving assault of steady beats, rapid-fire rhymes and inventive backing tracks.

Finally, Day II came to an end on the main stages in mellow fashion once again as Beirut and the National wrapped things up.

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Beirut on the Connector Stage at Pitchfork; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.

The horns that decorated much of New Mexico musician Zach Condon's music with Beirut were lovely, but not lovely enough to make up for his annoying ukulele, and the sometimes pointlessly eclectic arrangements and overall lazy mid-tempo groove weren't what this listener needed to stay motivated as the end of such a long day of music drew near.

The Ohio to New York transplants in the Americana-oriented group the National started out just as slowly, but rumbling baritone vocalist Matt Berninger and his band mates picked up steam as the set went on, and the group's mix of alternative country and chamber pop was beautiful and enchanting at times.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, it was Ponytail and the National that powered me on the trip home, and which I'll remember along with the Jesus Lizard as the high points of everything I've seen in Union Park this year or any other.

After the jump: More images from Pitchfork 2009.

Update: Thax Douglas is alive and well

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Thax Douglas photo from his Facebook page.

The local rock 'n' roll poet posted this on his Facebook page six hours ago:

Thax Douglas wow--fwiw I have never attended much less read at Pitchfork- will write more tomorrow- thanks for the ♥ 's

An odd statement, since A.) It does not address how someone posted on his page yesterday, claiming to be his father and asserting that Thax was dead, and B.) Thax has attended Pitchfork in the past--or at least he tried to. The promoters said Friday night and Saturday morning that he tried to crash the fest without a ticket once, and they told him he had to come in like everyone else (that is, to pay). Thax apparently took this as being "banned" from the festival.

Could this all have been a way for Thax to get a dig in at Pitchfork by casting a maudlin pall on opening night and/or affirming that many local scenesters love his burly, bearded presence? Or was he punked by a hacker? Either way, it would be nice to hear the poet and scene mainstay explain what really happened.

This is not, by the way, Thax's first Internet controversy. A few years ago, he lashed out at Jeff Tweedy and Wilco, long some of his biggest fans and supporters, when they declined to let him read at one show (never mind the countless others where he did). When the band members were offended that the poet had turned on them, he then claimed not to have written the nasty and paranoid post in question.

Update: Thax has made two more posts related to this mysterious death on his Facebook page:

The message which I removed was by an anonymous hacker- I thought a certain friend of mine was playing a practical joke but he denied it. Altho reading you are dead seems like a curse-the publicity was entertaining so I will leave it at that. Sorry but not my fault.

btw I don't read at Pitchfork because I am good friends with the Intonation people and are uncomfortable with how the people who run the P festival treated my friends. I like Ryan Schreiber as a person- I'd just rather keep my distance from the festival-plus I do Lolla & 1 megafest a year is enuf!

Pitchfork 2009: Day I

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Tortoise at Pitchfork; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.

Having survived a brief picket by union stagehands earlier in the week, and with the promoters hoping that the ominous, low-lying gray clouds wouldn't open up, the fifth annual Pitchfork Music Festival got underway in the West Side's Union Park late Friday afternoon in a lulling, low-key fashion with a set by Chicago's instrumental navel-gazers Tortoise.

Never a very inspiring act in concert, the instrument-hopping quintet didn't gain any excitement from partaking in day one's "Write the Night" concept, which involved concertgoers voting online in advance for the songs they'd most like to hear. Since so many of the band's sleepy grooves and repetitive minimalist melodies are so similar, it all sounded like one long, boring song anyway, this part with mallets, that with Moog synthesizer, this part with a bit of jazzy guitar from Jeff Parker.

Quipped one festival-goer: "I'm just going to consider this like that music they use to test the P.A."

The only drama in Tortoise's set came from drummer John Herndon's introductory dedication of the performance to local poet Thax Douglas, a ubiquitous presence reading his short, music-inspired poems at local rock clubs and theaters, and "a dear friend of ours who died this morning."

The problem with this moving sentiment is that no reliable news organizations have been able to confirm Douglas' alleged death at the time of this posting, and it appears to have been debunked as an Internet hoax.

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Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.

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Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.

Pitchfork 2009's second act, long-running Hoboken, N.J.-based guitar-rockers Yo La Tengo, also started out sleepily, leaning toward more trance-inducing Krautrock-style drones early in the set.

The flaws in the "Write the Night" concept quickly became apparent: Since the results weren't posted in advance, you really couldn't tell if the band was fulfilling fans' requests or not. Also, if the broad base of fans doesn't have a deep knowledge of the band's catalog and history, instead of challenging it to perform some rarely heard nuggets, they probably just asked for the best-known songs, many of which they'd likely have heard anyway.

Whatever the results of the balloting, guitarist-vocalist Ira Kaplan, drummer-vocalist Georgia Hubley and bassist-vocalist James McNew kicked into gear about 20 minutes into their set with a ferocious noise-guitar blowout, and from that point on, they proceeded to alternate some of their most straightforward and winning pop tunes with chaotic Velvet Underground-style noise rock.

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Jesus Lizard singer David Yow goes into the crowd (briefly) and stares lovingly into the eyes of stage manager and always amiable scenester Howard Greynolds, charged with the unenviable task of fishing him out ; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.

By far the highlight of Day I--and such a powerful presence that it seemed pointless for any other band to even try to compete--the Jesus Lizard took the stage in Chicago once again, a decade after the legendary noise-rock quartet disbanded.

Through the '90s, singer David Yow earned a place on a short list that includes Iggy Pop and the late Lux Interior of the Cramps, similar forces of nature who courted chaos whenever they picked up a microphone.

As he prepares to celebrate his 49th birthday next month, Yow may be mellowing some: Unlike many shows in the past, where he seemed to spend most of his time atop the up-stretched arms of the crowd, Yow only dived in the seething mass of humanity a few times. He kept his clothes on--there was no reprise of the infamous "Tight and Shiny" routine of old--and he didn't pop any of his limbs out of joint.

He could have been intimidated by the distance between the stage and the crowd barriers. And it's also possible that the festival setting just didn't inspire the same lunacy that used to grip him at Metro or the Vic Theatre back in the day. But it really didn't matter.

The relative absence of outrageous stage antics allowed fans to focus on the fact that, while Yow is by no means a great singer in any traditional sense of the word, he is a unique and unforgettable one, with a voice one alt-era critic described as a hostage screaming through the duct tape over his mouth, and another said evoked a possessed preacher speaking in tongues.

Meanwhile, bassist David Wm. Sims and drummer Mac McNeilly showed they hadn't lost a beat, remaining one of the best rhythm sections of their generation, with an undeniable James Brown swing under their ferocious punk-rock-meets-John Bonham bombast. And cool as ever through it all, Duane Denison churned out spare but indelible riffs without ever breaking a sweat--that is, until he allowed himself the indulgence of rolling on the floor amid sweeping waves of feedback during the last song of the set (followed shortly thereafter by a two-song encore, a rarity at Pitchfork, but well-deserved).

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Yow and Jesus Lizard drummer Mac McNeilly; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.

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Duane Denison; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.

Even if you weren't a big fan of Built to Spill--and I was never converted by their postmodern updates of classic Neil Young and Crazy Horse guitar jams--you had to pity bandleader, guitarist, vocalist and Idaho native Doug Martsch for having the unenviable task of trying to follow the Jesus Lizard, headlining over that band in its home town.

Martsch and his bandmates tried their best, making impressive use of dramatic dynamics shifts with quiet interludes exploding into six-string rave-ups. But it was sort of like following a gourmet meal with a Twinkie for desert: It might have been fine as a snack at a different time, but after what had preceded it, there simply was no point.

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Built to Spill; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez. More photos from Day I after the jump.

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In addition to the fact that she's now Patti Smith's daughter in law, Meg White should be grateful she divorced Jack because fidelity obviously was never his strong suit. Already moonlighting with one side project, the arena-pop Raconteurs, the leader of the White Stripes has now signed up for a third gig, returning to his original instrument (remember his drumming in Goober and the Peas?) to back Kills vocalist Alison Mosshart, Raconteurs bassist Jack Lawrence and Queens of the Stone Age keyboardist and guitarist Dean Fertita.

There are hints of all those bands in the grooves of this disc, recorded quick and dirty at Jack White's home studio in Nashville, but the first question you have to ask with any super group, whether it's Chickenfoot or the Dead Weather, is "Would anybody care if it wasn't for the pedigrees?" For the latter, the answer is a resounding "yes," thanks to a deliciously dirty, grease- and oil-splattered garage-rock sound steeped in the raunchy, sex-and-violence vibe of the most mysterious and alluring blues. "I like to grab you by the hair/And drag you to the devil," Mosshart moans in "Hang You from the Heavens," a line that tells you all you need to know about the thematic concerns of these 11 tracks, which succeed because the grooves match them perfectly.

Though his vocal and songwriting contributions are limited--they're most notable on the epic "I Cut Like a Buffalo"--White's aesthetic permeates this album. Even better, though, is the fact that it's fueled by his joy at playing the devil's music. Showing no hint of jaded rock-star burnout, our boy from Detroit propels these sounds with more evil glee than we've heard since Nick Cave took a holiday of his own with Grinderman.

The Dead Weather performs with equally grungy openers Screaming Females at the Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield, at 7:30 p.m. July 28 and 29. Tickets are $30 via www.ticketmaster.com.

Demo2DeRo: Ohvaur

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Ohvaur

The members of the Chicago quintet Ohvaur seem to thrive on alienation: With four members who migrated to the Windy City from warm and sunny Miami, plus one transplant from Wisconsin, they're not only strangers in a strange land, they're dedicated to turning to the formula of electronic pop inside-out, using the digital instruments for the main melodies and the acoustic instruments for the rhythm beds. (That is, laptop hooks over a real rhythm section, instead of guitars enhancing drum loops and digital bass.)

This twist would merely be a novel footnote if bandleader Timothy Den, who comes from the world of film scores and time in indie-rockers Kimone, and his bandmates Daniel Escauriza, Joel Hernandez, Mike Horick and Christian Loaiza weren't such good songwriters, creating lush, beautiful but occasionally unsettling vibes on songs such as "Not What This Century Wants" and "A Once and Future World Citizen."

Ohvaur's debut EP is streaming on the Web at www.myspace.com/ohvaur, and though the group doesn't have any gigs listed at the moment, I'm curious to see how they pull it off live.

Shellac added to Millennium Park's New Music Mondays

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Now here's a booking that's about as far away from the Grant Park Orchestra as you can get: Legendary Chicago noise-rockers Shellac have been added to the free New Music Mondays series at Millennium Park, taking the stage after Shearwater at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 10.

Whoo-hoo!

The other remaining Monday booking this summer is just as exciting, with reunited Chicago warped blues masters Red Red Meat headlining over Rural Alberta Advantage on Aug. 24. Visit the clunky city Web site for more information.

UPDATE:
Oops, I forgot one more of these great free gigs: Otto and NOMO at 6:30 p.m. on August 17. Thanks, Millennium Park folks, for really contributing to the summer music scene; it's a little bit harder now to say the city never gives us anything. But, um, could you please do something about this parking meter fiasco?

Green Day at the United Center

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Though its members may present themselves as typical snotty slackers, Green Day can't be faulted for lack of ambition.

Not only has the long-running Bay Area pop-punk trio delivered two sprawling concept albums with its last two releases, but it's seen both hit No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart, silencing skeptics who thought its 1994 smash "Dookie" was a fluke.

Meanwhile, 37-year-old Billie Joe Armstrong and his band mates have long since traded the tiny all-ages dives of their early years for the biggest arenas. And they're almost convincing enough to pull it off.

Almost, but not quite: There's just no denying that punk rock was never intended to be heard in an enormodome. You need to feel the bass drum in your gut, the guitars should make your ears ring and you ought to see the singer's sneer, if not dodge his spit.

And no matter how much a band is trying to remain true to its roots, something about playing an arena brings out the arena-rock cliches.

When Green Day performed at the United Center Monday, those came in the form of cheesy pyrotechnics and snippets of corny covers ranging from Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" to the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There," with a break for "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" somewhere in the middle.

All of this tomfoolery was especially annoying since the group has such a deep and rich catalog, and it only played some two dozen songs during a more than two-hour set.

The band came out strong with a salvo of some of the most ferocious tunes from the recent "21st Century Breakdown," mostly eschewing the melodramatic ballads. Yet while I'm not a big fan of this rock opera about aimless youth in search of a cause--I greatly prefer the more directly political "American Idiot" (2004)--it was still disappointing that the band didn't try to make the case for the entire "Quadrophenia"-like epic.

In the end, when the group was hitting full-throttle--either on new material such as "Know Your Enemy" and "The Static Age" or on old favorites like "Longview" and "Basket Case"--you could almost believe it wasn't just show business.

Then, all too soon, the sax player (one of three sidemen) would come out dressed like Michael Jackson, Armstrong would shout "Chicago!" for the 40th time or the band would lapse into another cover (which have been pretty much the same every night of the tour). And you'd have to admit it was all about as sincere and spontaneous as Neil Diamond in Vegas, though not as
much fun.

Previewing Pitchfork 2009

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In its fifth year in the West Side's Union Park, since its origin as Intonation in 2005, the Pitchfork Music Festival has cemented its reputation as the premier annual celebration of cutting-edge music in Chicago--and arguably the entire country.

With a comfortable if not particularly scenic setting, manageable crowds, bargain-priced tickets, an encouraging community vibe and most of all imaginative and musically challenging bookings, Pitchfork is everything the festival experience should be--that is, for those of us who value the music over "making the scene."

Here is an hour-by-hour look at the acts on this year's bill, with my choices for absolute must-sees marked by * * *.

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Still one of the hardest working bands in show business when it comes to relentless gigging 35 years into their storied career, Rockford's own Cheap Trick haven't garnered as much attention for recent recordings, though they've been reconnecting with their muse in the studio of late after the relatively disappointing output of the '90s.

In between the recent 30th anniversary celebration of their breakthrough album, "Live at Budokan," and their upcoming gig playing all of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in Las Vegas in September, the prime purveyors of Midwestern power-pop recorded a new and at times very Beatlesesque set of new material, which also includes an inspired cover of Slade's glam-rock era anthem, "When the Lights Are Out."

Unlike so many of their peers, the members of Cheap Trick have lost none of their powers: Robin Zander remains a powerhouse vocalist at age 56, Rick Nielsen continues to wield one of the most distinctive if underrated guitars in rock and the rhythm section of Tom Petersson and Bun E. Carlos are still a force of nature. It's a joy to hear them tear through flat-out rockers such as "California Girl," "Sick Man of Europe" and "Alive," as well as more orchestrated (though never bombastic) power ballads such as "Miss Tomorrow" and "These Days." None of these songs are likely to win the band new fans, but they deserve to.

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Many of the leading lights in the so-called "neo-soul" or "natural R&B" movement of the mid-'90s seemed to suffer from mid-career crises, withdrawing from the spotlight in the new millennium. Sade, Lauryn Hill, D'Angelo--all have been M.I.A. for the last decade or so, and the same was true of Brooklyn-born singer Maxwell, who has not released a new album since his third studio disc, "Now," in 2001.

Maxwell reportedly spent his lost years living as a "regular person"--"People tend to be so hell-bent on remaining famous that you become desensitized to the music industry to some level," he told Billboard--as well as falling in and out of love. The progressive emotions of that relationship--longing, devotion and finally regret--fuel much of "BLACKsummers'night," the first installment of what he says will be a trilogy. Yet if he still represents a welcome and more enlightened alternative to the bump 'n' grind cliches of too much modern hip-hop, overall, Maxwell's return is a sleepy affair.

Though they are gorgeously recorded, tastefully arranged and beautifully played in the old-school way by flesh-and-blood musicians eschewing digital tomfoolery, only a handful of the songs written with guitarist Hod David leave a lasting impact, chief among them the first single "Pretty Wings" and the anthemic "Help Somebody." Too much of the rest of the disc--the largely acoustic "Playing Possum," the opening atmospheric ballad "Bad Habits," the mildly funky slow jam "Stop the World"--never rise above the level of pleasant background music.

Demo2DeRo: A Lull

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A Lull

In their relatively brief time as a band, Nigel Dennis, Mike Brown and Todd Miller--collectively known as A Lull--impressively have shared the stage with national touring acts such as Yeasayer, Appleseed Cast and Cursive. There are echoes of all of those groups in the Chicago trio's music, as well as hints of Animal Collective, but more in the way it approaches creating catchy, buoyant pop out of sometimes skewed or experimental ingredients, including dark electronic ambience and sputtering synthesized percussion.

The group has so far released an impressive four-song EP, "Ice Cream Bones," currently streaming on the Web at www.myspace.com/alullmusic, and it's working to complete a full-length debut entitled "Confetti." And it's kicking off an ambitious tour that stretches from Texas to Boston with a gig at the Bottom Lounge, 1375 W. Lake, at 8 p.m. on Thursday [July 16].

Though it garners less attention than some of the summer's hipper or more-hyped music celebrations, the Chicago Folk & Roots Festival sponsored by the Old Town School of Folk Music always has some of the most diverse and surprising bookings, as well as by far the most family-friendly vibe.

Though there was some concern earlier in the year that the economy might sideline this year's event, the 12th annual festival will take place as always in Welles Park on Lincoln Avenue between Montrose and Sunnyside Saturday and Sunday from noon to 10, and it once again boasts a promising lineup. Here is a closer look at each of the main-stage performers, as well as a run-down of some of the other acts and activities.

Live-blogging the Michael Jackson memorial

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Noon Central: The much-anticipated Michael Jackson memorial, scheduled to begin at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, is about a half-hour late getting underway as the Jackson Family makes its way to the stadium from a private, hour-long Jehovah's Witness ceremony at the Forest Lawn Cemetery. (Though Jackson's mother Katharine reportedly has purchased a plot, it's unclear if her son will be buried there.)

ABC seems to have the best access, but the efforts of anchor Charles Gibson to kill time waiting for the ceremony to begin are absolutely painful. And Jackson hagiographer turned "Night Line" host Martin Bashir is nothing short of sanctimonious and insufferable.

12:30 Central: Things finally get underway as Jackson's casket is wheeled onstage by his brothers, each wearing one sequined glove, while the Andrae Crouch gospel choir sings in the background. The group was part of the ensemble that Jackson put together to record the backing vocals for "Man in the Mirror."

Jackson family spiritual advisor Pastor Lucious Smith speaks first, calling Jackson "an idol, a hero and even a king.... Michael Jackson was and always shall be a beloved part of the Jackson family and the family of man."

Smith adds that the memorial, taking place at the same venue where Jackson had been rehearsing for the London concert dates that were to begin later this month, will "celebrate his life."

12:45 Central: Mariah Carey performs, singing in an unusually understated and powerful style, handling the high parts of "I'll Be There" as R&B singer Trey Lorenz performs the lower parts. On his recording, Jackson sang both, covering a three-octave range.

Queen Latifah takes the podium. "When Michael Jackson sang and danced, we never felt distant," she says. "We felt like he was right there for us."

She goes on to read a poem by Maya Angelou with the recurring refrain, "We had him."

1 p.m. Central: Of the next two musical acts, both close friends of Jackson, Lionel Richie delivers a heartfelt version of the modern spiritual, "Jesus Is Love," which he originally recorded with the Commodores, while Stevie Wonder plays a heart-rending, stripped-down, piano-and-vocal version of "They Won't Go When I Go."

In between, Motown founder Berry Gordy offers some intimate personal recollections of the Jackson 5 auditioning for his record label, and how the Jackson brothers used to play baseball with his children. He also notes that Jackson didn't "just raise the bar, he broke the bar," and he concludes: "He was the greatest entertainer who ever lived."

1:15 Central: Basketball stars Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson pay tribe to Jackson's philanthropy, and Johnson tells a funny story about visiting Jackson and being shocked to realize that the musician enjoyed eating Kentucky Fried Chicken, just like he does.

Here's an interesting music-business footnote: Johnson concludes by thanking the city of Los Angeles and AEG for putting on the memorial. AEG was to have promoted the London concerts, and it stands to lose tens of millions of dollars since their cancellation.

1:22 Central: Chicagoan Jennifer Hudson takes the stage, backed by the house band and a gosel choir, and tears through an inspired and uplifting version of Jackson's "Will You Be There," from the "Dangerous" album (1991).

The only misstep in this gorgeous performance is the inclusion of the taped monologue by Jackson, a maudlin touch: "In our darkest hour/In my deepest despair/Will you still care?/Will you be there?/In my trials/And my tribulations/Through our doubts/And frustrations..."

1:25 Central: The Rev. Al Sharpton recalls the Jackson family's climb from humble beginnings in Gary, Ind., to the top of the music world, and remembers meeting and befriending Jackson himself at the Black Expo in Chicago. He goes on to pay tribute to Jackson as a unifying force in racial politics: "He created a comfort level where people who thought they were separate became connected through his music."

It's a good point, but Sharpton, as he often does, goes a little too far when claiming that Jackson made people "comfortable enough" with him as an African-American celebrity to later embrace Oprah Winfrey and Tiger Woods... and to vote for Barack Obama.

1:34 Central: John Mayer, the white easy-listening rocker inexplicably beloved by and sought after as a collaborator by many African-American musicians, delivers a guitar-driven instrumental version of "Human Nature" from "Thriller."

1:39 Central: Brooke Shields, another former child star who grew up to date Michael Jackson for a time, notes that captions of the couple together often said "an unlikely couple" or "an odd pair... but to us, it was the most natural of friendships. Michael always knew he could count on me to support him or to be his date."

1:48 Central: Michael's brother Jermaine sings an understated version of "Smile," a.k.a. "Smile Though Your Heart Is Aching," the song Charlie Chaplin wrote for the 1936 film "Modern Times," which Shields just noted was Michael Jackson's favorite song.

1:53 Central: Martin Luther King III recalls how his father always said be the best of what you are. "Michael Jackson was truly the best of what he was."

2:05 Central: Like so many politicians, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D - TX) is talking a lot -- a whole lot -- but she's really not saying anything.

2:08 Central: Usher, one of the modern soul men most obviously influenced by Michael Jackson, sings a relatively straight version of "Gone Too Soon," another song from the "Dangerous" album. It's one of Jackson's more melodramatic tunes, and Usher doesn't rescue it from the pathos of the original.

2:14 Central: Smokey Robinson takes the stage after a video clip of the Jackson 5 performing "Who's Lovin' You" with Michael on lead vocals. "I wrote that song. I thought I sang it," Robinson says. But after Jackson recorded it, "I wanted to check his birth certificate," because he couldn't believe a 10-year-old kid could invest so much emotion in the tune.

2:20 Central: Things have got to be winding down: Shaheen Jafargholi, age 12, is onstage now singing his version of "Who's Lovin' You," which he rode to fame by performing on "Britain's Got Talent." Smokey Robinson doesn't deserve to hear this.

2:24 Central: Jackson choreographer Kenny Ortega, who was working with the singer at the Staples Centers during the rehearsals for the London shows, introduces what was to have been the backing ensemble for those concerts. They start "We Are the World," and are soon joined by several of the earlier performers and Jackson siblings (including a very low-key Janet, who's stayed far from the spotlight since her brother's death) and his children as they segue into "Heal the World."

It's interesting that, if enough of it exists to yield some entire performances, AEG did not use some of the video footage allegedly shot of Jackson himself at those rehearsals. That footage could turn out to be either one of the most valuable or most disappointing documents in the history of popular music.

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