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Tuning in with Thomas Conner

August 2009 Archives

Phish, "Joy" (JEMP Records) [2.5 out of 4 STARS]

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Throughout the extraordinarily successful first act of its career, the fact that Vermont's most acclaimed jam band recorded 10 studio albums was more or less irrelevant: As the most dedicated Phishead will tell you with a wide grin and heavy-lidded eyes, "It was all about the live adventure, man!" Indeed, Billboard reports that while the group's bestselling disc ("Hoist," 1994) moved only 663,000 units, and its last ("Undermind," 2004) racked up a mere 139,000 sold, from the period between 1989 and its split five years ago, the band peddled more than 5.8 million concert tickets to some 475 shows. That's a whole heck of a lot of T-shirts that will forever reek of patchouli and pot smoke.

Despite the accomplishment of having become the post-Jerry Grateful Dead for a new generation of grungy road trippers and tailgating partiers, guitarist and bandleader Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell, drummer Jon Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon always seemed peeved that rock radio and MTV pretty much ignored them, and so they kept going back to the studio, often with mildly pleasant if far from earth-shaking results. Though I'm by far in the minority, I actually preferred recorded Phish to live Phish--I just can't abide by the unfocused and never-ending onstage jams, dudes--especially in the early days circa "Junta" (1989) and "Lawnboy" (1990), when there still was a lot more Genesis-style progressive rock in the mix instead of jazz-fusion/hippie-twirling wank and head-scratching stylistic detours into, say, barbershop quartet--the sort of thing that's an unforgivably bad idea no matter how stoned you are.

Well, the prog is back with a vengeance, at least on the 13-minute, 30-second "Time Turns Elastic," the most remarkable track from the reunited group's new disc, "Joy." Producer Steve Lillywhite--who previously helmed "Billy Breathes" in 1996, though he'll forever be best known for having some role in eight of U2's biggest albums--has said that the 15 different sections of the pseudo-orchestral suite took 278 takes to nail. Yet for all of that, it's a catchy little ditty, meandering along in a cheerfully dizzying way like a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.

Unfortunately, nothing else on "Joy" is nearly as ambitious musically--and no, sorry, I do not count McConnell's pseudo-lounge tune, Gordon's heavy-handed stab at reggae or any of the jazz excursions. Thematically, though Anastasio told Rolling Stone that many of the lyrics deal with his struggle with drugs, his efforts to return to the land of the living after his 2006 arrest for possession and the recent death from cancer of his sister, the insights can best be described as sub-fortune cookie--and sometimes they're not even that good.
"Got a blank space where my mind should be," is the line that jumps out of "Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan," while "Ocelot"... well, it just has to be heard to be believed: "Ocelot, ocelot, where are you now?... You prance with the beasts that parade every night/And silently slouch through the forest by light."

Nevertheless, there's something noble in a band that really has nothing left to prove still chasing after the one goal that eludes it. Concert ticket sales alone are guaranteed to maintain spectacular trust funds for all the Phish men's spawn in perpetuity, and the group easily could have stuck with live recordings for as long as Act Two lasts, especially since it's now back where it was at the start of its career, funding its own recordings and releasing them independently. (JEMP is Phish's own label.) And rock radio and MTV barely even exist anymore, so who are they trying to impress now?

In any event, cudos to the boys for trying and, "Time Turns Elastic" aside, failing. One of these days, they may yet make an album as good as "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway."

Bloodshot Beer-B-Q, Sept. 12

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Founded by world-class music geeks and all-around swell Chicagoans Nan Warshaw and Rob Miller in 1994, Bloodshot Records has spent the last 15 years building a reputation as one of the most adventurous independent labels in America, with a catalog that far exceeds the narrow alternative-country box that some put it in, and a promising future even in these turbulent times.

"In addition to the world economic collapse that's happening globally, we're going to see indie labels in free fall," Warshaw predicted at the South by Southwest Music & Media Conference last March, taking her place on a panel entitled "Indie Labels Keep the Faith." Bloodshot's plan to stay vital: More than merely manufacturing and distributing its artists' recordings, it hopes to morph into the full-service business support system that musicians need because they'd rather concentrate on making their music.

Of course, some fans would say that Bloodshot has been doing that from the beginning. It's always been as much a lifestyle as a label, and therein lays its success.

As this year's slightly slimmed-down version of the annual end-of-summer Hideout Block Party, Warshaw, Miller and staffers past and present will celebrate their accomplishments and the label's Quincea├▒era on Saturday, Sept. 12, on the street in front of everyone's favorite local music dive at Elston and Wabansia. The $10 admission benefits the Rock for Kids and Chicago 826 charities, and in addition to a full day of music, the "15th Anniversary Bloodshot Beer-B-Q" promises a kids' area with art and games; an art show curated by the Yard Dog Gallery of Austin, TX; belt-sander races; a drunken spelling bee and food from Pilsen's Honky Tonk BBQ.

As for the music, an hour-by-hour sampling of the sounds follows the jump.

Nine Inch Nails at the Aragon

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Though he certainly has weathered his share of trying times--epic battles with substance abuse and wars with record labels chief among them--at age 44, Trent Reznor arguably stands taller and prouder today than any of his alternative-era peers.

Twenty-one years after he founded Nine Inch Nails in Cleveland, Reznor not only has avoided creative paralysis or resorted to empty nostalgia, he's made some of the most inventive music of his career in recent years, and he's done it independently on the Net, working hard to create a new model for artists to gainfully distribute their recordings.

Now, like all too few rockers who've tired of the tour/record/tour/record grind, the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is going out at the top of his game with a final handful of relatively intimate shows on the "Wave Goodbye" tour, which pulled into the Aragon Ballroom for the first of two sold-out shows Friday night.

The current and final version of Nine Inch Nails--Reznor, guitarist Robin Finck, bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen and drummer Ilan Rubin--hit the stage hard at 8:40 p.m. with ferocious versions of "Wish" and "Last," both from the 1993 album "Broken."

"This isn't meant to last/This is for right now," Reznor sang in the latter. But as the two-hour, twenty-minute set made clear with a diverse and rewarding tour of his rich catalog, his music has indeed stood the test of time, and it's likely to endure for quite a few years to come, even if the band as we've come to know it no longer exists to deliver it live.

Throughout its history, some critics and fans focused on the group's theatrical stage shows: the assault of airport runway lights, the billowing clouds of fog and the star's angry eruptions that sent keyboards and guitars flying--all tricks present at its penultimate Chicago show.

Others lauded the band's distinctive sonics, and deservedly so, given Reznor's creativity in building a unique palette of digital and traditional rock instruments that drew on elements of punk, thrash-metal and industrial dance music--with an acknowledged debt to Chicago's Wax Trax label in the '80s--combining to create something new and hard to categorize, part organic and part alien avant garde.

But as Johnny Cash famously illustrated with his stripped-down acoustic cover of "Hurt," the real heart of Nine Inch Nails' appeal is Reznor's powerfully emotional songwriting. And he delivered an absurdly generous helping of it on Friday before closing his first Aragon show with that signature tune.

From the ultra-aggressive '90s modern-rock radio hits "March of the Pigs," "Closer" and "Head Like a Hole," to a sampling of the swirling, moody, atmospheric/progressive-rock tracks from "The Fragile" (1999) and "The Slip" (2008), to out-of-left-field rarities such as "Banged and Blown Through," a track from "The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust!," the 2007 album he released by his friend, rapper Saul Williams, Reznor touched on every period and style of the band's long evolution.

Late in the show, the group was joined for three songs by former Bauhaus singer and Goth-rock progenitor Peter Murphy. As a nod to a musical influence, his cameo was a nice gesture. But it also was unnecessary: Reznor didn't need the extra undead star power, and Nine Inch Nails had long since made an impressive and unforgettable farewell statement.

Opening the show was the Danish quartet Mew, which devalued its enigmatic shoegazer psychedelia by overstaying its welcome onstage and playing too long, which only emphasized its all-too-obvious debts to Iceland's Sigur Ros.

Listen to Trent Reznor discuss his reasons for ending Nine Inch Nails, the band's rich musical past and his own creative future with me and co-host Greg Kot on Chicago Public Radio's "Sound Opinions" by podcasting or streaming our archived interview from last June here.

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Last year's short, sharp shock of a self-titled debut by the Brooklyn trio Vivian Girls arrived as the perfect antidote to the Miley Cyrus/"Juno" bizarro-world view of young femininity prevalent in the current media. Taking their name from characters in the alluring yet deeply disturbing fantasy world of Chicago outsider artist Henry Darger and their sound from the Shaggs via the Slits and the Ramones, these musicians captured all the complexities of the liberating joy and the threatening unease of burgeoning female sexuality, and they did it with a clangorous sugar buzz that roared by in about 20 minutes.

By the stilted standards of punk rock, the band matures considerably on its second disc. The individual songs and the album overall are twice as long as last time, and the group reportedly labored over this one for six whole days, as opposed to the three it spent on its bow. The melodies of tracks such as "Walking Alone at Night" and "The End" also seem more memorable--though that could just be a function of the fact that the lengthier tunes have an extra chorus or two to drive the hooks home.

Otherwise, the formula doesn't deviate much--the album title comes from the name of a film by Seijun Suzuki, Japan's answer to Russ Meyer, which ought to tell you that the girls are still mining the same vein of lyrical fodder while aiming for that enticing "naughty misbehavior at summer camp" vibe. But familiar or not, it's still one of the most irresistible bursts of rock-roll energy I've heard this year.

Arctic Monkeys, "Humbug" (Domino) [3.5 out of 4 stars]

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Anyone who saw the aging English buzz band Arctic Monkeys perform at Lollapalooza earlier this month got a preview of the curveball coming their way with the group's new disc: Rather than the frenetic energy of their signature single "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor," which helped make their 2006 debut "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not" the fastest-selling debut in British chart history, frontman Alex Turner and his mates reveled in far murkier and more sinister sounds.

As live party music, it was a bummer in the sunny festival setting. But as the sounds wash over me now in my cool, dark cave, the group's radical shift from bouncy Britpop and angular dance-punk to a combination of those groves with the warlock soul music of Nick Cave and Scott Walker is absolutely enchanting, and welcome evidence that the group's interests and ambitions far exceed a bit of flirty, fleeting fun at the disco on Saturday night.

Though the band's choice of Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss) as producer seems bizarre at first blush, the king of hallucinogenic desert rock turns out to have been the perfect choice, given the back alleys the group chose to explore this time around. Sure, the fine line between exuberant good times and soul-threatening excess is familiar turf in rock 'n' roll (witness: Lou Reed's entire career). Yet since Turner ranks beside Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos and Pulp's Jarvis Cocker as the best modern heir of the time-honored U.K. school of lyrical sociologists founded by Ray Davies, Bryan Ferry and Morrissey, there are devilishly delightful twists and turns in every droning mood-piece and intriguing dungeon slow jam.

The second track, "Crying Lightning," exemplifies the decadence and the wit. As a tom-heavy groove pounds with the fury of Sunday morning's hangover and the guitar line beckons like a snake charmer's pipe, Turner relates one of the several "twisted and deranged" encounters that fill these tracks, this one with a Lolita-like lass who "puffs out her chest like she never lost a war" while munching on her Pick 'n' Mix sweets and filling our hero with rude thoughts he knows he'll regret, even if we love every minute of living through his mistakes.

This weekend: Bye-bye M.O.T.O., hello Jake Burns

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Paul Caporino, best known on the local music scene as the tireless leader of the long-running and super-cool garage-punk band M.O.T.O. is leaving the Windy City and moving to Providence, and our loss is Rhode Island's gain. Thankfully, he's playing two farewell shows before loading the U-Haul. At the first, starting at 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 28, at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, he shares the bill with Bang! Bang! and Bird Talk; the cover is $8; call 773-276-3600 or visit www.emptybottle.com. The second goodbye gig takes place at the Mutiny, 2428 N. Western, on Saturday, Aug. 29; call (773) 486-7774 or visit www.themutinychicago.com for more information.

Always a Mecca for ex-pat British punk legends (see also: the Mekons), Chicago is now home for Jake Burns, former leader of U.K. legends Stiff Little Fingers, and he has a new band, Nefarious Fat Cats, that includes some equally legendary local names: John and Joe Haggerty of Pegboy, along with special guests such as Scott Lucas of Local H, Joe Principe of Rise Against, Herb Rosen of Beer Nuts and Mark DeRosa of Dummy. The group takes the stage at the Beat Kitchen, 2100 W Belmont, after openers Destroy Everything at 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 30. The cover is $8; call (773) 281-4444 or visit www.beatkitchen.com for more info.

Creed: They heard we missed 'em, now they're back

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Mercifully missing from the music scene since they broke up in June 2004, Florida pomp-rockers Creed are back, and though they've reportedly been playing to half-empty sheds on their summer reunion tour, some fans are thrilled.

I am not one of them.

More than any other group in the late '90s, singer Scott Stapp, guitarist Mark Tremonti, drummer Scott Phillips and bassist Brian Marshall epitomized the sad end of the alternative era as it petered out in a flurry of hollow poses, pointless bombast and corporate commodification.

When I consider the worst concerts I've ever endured, Creed's stop at the Allstate Arena in early 2002 always springs to mind. "Was there a single overdone arena-rock clich├ę that Creed avoided?" I asked in my review. "There was fog, moody blue lighting, great gushing geysers of flame, shooting fireworks, a hail of sparks and invocations to raise those lighters high.

"There were towering Greek columns, a ramp for pretty-boy singer Stapp to run around, the occasional explosion and giant video screens. There were also several 'How you doing, Chicago?''s, numerous declarations of this audience being 'the best in the world' and emotional references to Sept. 11 (properly setting up the melodramatic power ballad 'One') and Stapp's son (subject of the even more over-the-top power ballad 'With Arms Wide Open').

"Hey, wait, I know: Stapp the preachy spiritualist avoided his patented 'nailed to the cross' stage pose, a staple of previous shows!" I concluded. "How could he? I want my money back!"

In the annals of Creed in Chicago, that wasn't even the band's worst concert. That dishonor goes to the group's return trip to the same venue later that year, on Dec. 29, 2002. That show prompted disgruntled concertgoers to do more than ask for their money back: Some filed a class-action lawsuit against the band--the first case I know of where music lovers took legal action against a band for being lousy.

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Seven years is an eternity in popular music, and the woman known as "the Voice" seems to have spent much of that time in a very dark place.

For the current generation of pop and R&B fans, Whitney Houston is best known for the troubled home life she shared with the world on the reality television show, "Being Bobby Brown." She finally divorced Brown in 2007, but not before making a series of tawdry headlines, from a bust in Hawaii when authorities found pot in her luggage, to an abruptly canceled appearance at the Academy Awards, to rumors that her spectacular vocal instrument had been damaged beyond repair by substance abuse.

Ask most kids today if they're aware of Houston's musical accomplishments--the record-breaking string of multi-platinum hits, including the 1993 cover of "I Will Always Love You," one of the biggest singles of all time--and they'll probably say, "Hell to the no!" They're more likely to react to a Monica Lewinsky joke.

The personal turmoil isn't Houston's biggest comeback challenge, however; everyone loves a good redemption story. The real hurdle is that 25 years after musical impresario Clive Davis took a girl from Newark, N.J. and struck gold with the formula of soaring, virtuosic vocals delivered over soft, cushy, melodramatic pillows of smoother-than-smooth backing tracks, the prime vehicle for peddling such sounds has long since shifted to the "American Idol" universe.

It's probably a given that older fans who haven't had a Whitney fix since the disappointing "Just Whitney" in 2002 will embrace her long-awaited sixth album "I Look to You," which arrives in stores on Tuesday [Aug. 31]. But for Houston to reclaim her diva crown and superstar status, she also needs to appeal to those younger listeners.

To this end, executive producer Davis recruited some of the biggest names in hip-hop and R&B to handle the actual knob-twirling and songwriting--Swizz Beatz, R. Kelly, Alicia Keys, Akon, Stargate, Diane Warren and David Foster included--at a cost that no doubt tops the annual expenditures of many small nations. Then he tinkered with it all for more nearly two years: The disc initially was set for release in late 2007.

The first thing that strikes you when listening to "I Look to You" is that despite all of those stylistically diverse egos in the kitchen, "I Look to You" doesn't sound overcooked at all: The sound throughout is clean, modern, unfettered and consistently designed to keep the focus on Houston's singing, whether it's on the moderately bouncing club tracks (which lean toward old-school house rather than modern electro) or the requisite ballads (Kelly in particular pairs things down to little more than a grand piano and vocals on the two tracks he helms). The only time things stray from this goal is during a pointless duet with Akon on "Like I Never Left."

The second thing that hits you is that Houston's singing is still incredibly powerful--a sublime mix of gospel purity, pop prissiness and bedroom purr. True, there are no spectacular key changes and show-stopping leaps to her highest register; these days, when Houston stretches for those impossible notes, she does it much more gingerly. But the lack of octave-spanning trilling actually is an improvement in my book, which always favors emotional expression over rote displays of technical ability.

As for the emotions Houston is expressing, the theme of weathering hard times and coming out the better for them runs through all 11 tracks, including the cover of Leon Russell's "A Song for You." (He's no Dolly Parton, but it's still a lovely tune in Houston's hands). As the singer said at one of her high-profile listening parties, "There are times in life when we go through certain situations--some not so good. You have to reach for a higher strength, you have to reach deep inside yourself, spend time with yourself to make some corrections that go beyond your own understanding and lean on a higher understanding."

Oprah viewers will of course swoon over the sounds and thoughts expressed in tracks such as the Kelly-helmed "Salute" ("So don't call it a comeback, I've been here for years/Through all of the drama and the pain and all of the tears/It's time to stop this roller coaster so that I can get off/And start moving mountains, swimming seas, and climbing over") and the Warren/Foster power ballad "I Didn't Know My Own Strength" ("I crashed down and I tumbled/But I did not crumble/I got through all the pain/I didn't know my own strength/Survived my darkest hour/My faith kept me alive/I picked myself back up/Hold my head up high").

But my bet is that the "American Idol" crowd will connect with many of these tracks, too: They may not have struggled with divorce and rehab, but Houston's just-hang-on histrionics speak just as movingly to that unrequited sophomore crush, and heartbreak is heartbreak, after all. Certainly anyone in need of tear-jerking ballads and uplifting groovers could do much worse on the current pop scene, and when our heroine croons, "I want you to love me like I never left," she gives us plenty of reasons to heed her call.

Return of the New Music Seminar

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In the early '90s, the New York-based New Music Seminar was the biggest annual gathering of the music industry in America; at first, the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, TX, was a pale shadow, though it has since usurped that role.

Now, the New Music Seminar is being revived as what looks like a single-day intensive self-help course for musicians in the new digital age. And it comes to the Park West in Chicago on Oct. 6. Early-bird registration is $99, with the price rising to $125 on Sept. 4 and $150 on the day of the event.

More information can be found here, but a quick recap from the Web site holds that this new New Music Seminar is about "seeing the music business and your opportunities a new way; learning to create the music and content you need to succeed; standing out from your competition; legal and business basics that you must know; keeping up with the latest technology to put you in front; managing and monetizing your relationship with your fans, and networking with others to build your own music business foundation." It adds that the seminar is NOT about "a debate about DRM; how to get signed; getting your songs on the radio; the politics of the music business or fitting In."

UPDATE: Several readers have emailed to ask about the support and what time Pearl Jam takes the stage. Bad Religion opens at 7:30, celebrating 30 years of punk; Pearl Jam went on Sunday night at 8:50 p.m.

UPDATE: Promoters Jam Productions have announced that additional tickets have been released for Pearl Jam's second Chicago show Monday night. Visit www.ticketmaster.com or call 1-800-745-3000. Bad Religion celebrates its 30th anniversary by opening at 7:30 p.m.

The biggest classic-rock fans of the alternative era, Evanston native Eddie Vedder and his band mates in Seattle's Pearl Jam have now been reliably rocking arenas long enough to claim that appellation themselves.

On Sept. 20, the band will release its ninth studio album, "Backspacer," and a radical stylistic departure is unlikely. The big difference is the band is going without a major label for the first time, instead using its Web site as well as iTunes, indie retailers and the Target chain.

Not since its start in 1990 and perhaps during the tense period a few years later when it waged war with Ticketmaster has the quintet had so much to prove. Perhaps as a result, it was an even more energized Pearl Jam than usual that pulled into the United Center on Sunday for the first of two sold-out nights.

"We've got a lot of emotion to get through tonight," Vedder said at the start. "So let's go through it together."

The group opened with a lovely version of the droning, folksy "Long Road" before tearing into a rollicking "Corduroy" and a ferocious "Why Go," nicely illustrating the contrasting poles of its sound.

"Why go home?" Vedder asked after the latter. " I am home, and it feels f---ing great to be here. Life experiences... even if you don't live in Chicago [anymore], Chicago will always live in you, and it's nice to come back and see so many people come out for this."

"This" was a two-hour jaunt through the Pearl Jam catalog, heavier on the hard-rockers than the ballads this time, but as usual mixing signature hits with deep album tracks and, oddly, only a brief taste of the new tunes---so much for crass commercialism.

The band did lose the plot a few times, notably during a pointlessly jammed-out "Even Flow," which found guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard trading tasty licks worthy of Chickenfoot as Vedder stood aside, smoking a cigarette and swigging from a bottle of wine. (Always the Romantic poet, our boy.)

For the most part, though, this was as focused and propulsive a set as I've seen Pearl Jam play in the last two decades. And like all true classic-rock pros, Vedder & Co. gave every indication that they're ready to keep rolling for 20 years more.

Set list after the jump.

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Though the original vision for Lollapalooza came from Perry Farrell, the Jane's Addiction vocalist has long partnered with one of the most powerful men in the music business to make the concert a reality.

Super-agent Marc Geiger is a vice president at Beverly Hills-based William Morris Endeavor, the company run by Hollywood giant Ari Emanuel, brother of former Chicago congressman turned presidential chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and model for the character of Ari Gold on "Entourage."

As a William Morris press release describes him, "Geiger is the consummate music industry insider, having worn the hats over the years of concert promoter, talent agent, record executive and Internet pioneer... [He also] was instrumental in the formation of the now legendary alternative music festival, Lollapalooza."

From 1991 through 2003, Geiger was one of several agents booking Lollapalooza in its original incarnation as a traveling day-long concert. That came to an end in 2004, when a two-day bill that was to have included Morrissey, Modest Mouse, the String Cheese Incident and the Flaming Lips was canceled because of poor sales three weeks before the start of a 16-city tour.

In Geiger's words, Lollapalooza was broken and it needed to be fixed. The following year, he and Farrell entered a 50/50 deal with Austin, TX-based concert promoters Capital Sports & Entertainment, now C3 Presents, to reinvent the concert as a weekend-long "destination festival" based on giant European shows such as Reading and Glastonbury. C3 already was running a similar concert, the Austin City Limits Festival, in Texas.

"We created a partnership for two reasons," Geiger says. "One, they were in festival-build mode. Two, we were in festival-fix mode. Frankly, I didn't care what city I worked with them in. I just happened to think they do a great job."

The new Lollapalooza wound up in Grant Park, and in the last five years, it has remade the concert scene in Chicago. All the while, Geiger has mostly declined to talk about it, in part because of an inherent conflict of interest: As a talent agent representing dozens of top bands, he must negotiate the biggest fees possible for those acts from Lollapalooza, the festival he co-owns, as well as from competitors such as the Pitchfork Music Festival or the Warped Tour.

Geiger and I briefly met at Lollapalooza this year during the set by the NewNo2, Dhani Harrison's band and one of his many clients. He made reference to my criticisms of Lollapalooza as lacking vibe and a vision and being overly corporatized. "Keep it up, criticism is good," he said. A few days later, he emailed me.

"We should do a post Lolla/historical/how did Lolla get here Q&A," Geiger wrote. After the jump: the highlights of that 90-minute interview.

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Lollapalooza 2009; Sun-Times photo by Marty Perez.

I have no response to this

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"A tribute to Sarah Palin, set to the music of R Kelly."

Or this, from the Smashing Pumpkins' camp. (Press release on the new drummer follows the jump.)

The return of Red Red Meat

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"There is a timeless quality to the languid head rock of Red Red Meat," I wrote in the Sun-Times in February 1994, shortly before the release of the band's second album, "Jimmywine Majestic," when it seemed poised to be Chicago's next breakout act at the height of the alternative era.

That description proved prophetic. Over the course of the group's short but productive career, its albums and live shows always seemed as if they could be emanating from 1966 as well as 1996. And though it never attracted an audience larger than a devoted cult following, that quality remains in 2009: The group's entrancing mix of psychedelic blues and skewed pop hasn't aged a bit, as it proved during a reunion show at South by Southwest last March.

How did guitarist-vocalist Tim Rutili, drummer Brian Deck, bassist Tim Hurley and percussionist Ben Massarella come to return to the scene now, given that they've all been busy with myriad other projects since the group's last album for Seattle's Sub Pop Records, "There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight" (1997)?

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The reunited Red Red Meat onstage; Sub Pop Records photo by Jeff Economy.

1. Legendary Memphis musician (he worked with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, among many others) and producer (his credits include Big Star, Paul Westerberg and Ry Cooder) Jim Dickinson died at age 67 Saturday morning. Former Chicago Reader rock critic Bob Mehr, now at the Memphis Commercial Appeal, has a stirring tribute here.

2. My Sun-Times colleague Dave Hoekstra paid tribute to another departed musical legend, Les Paul, here. In the many media tributes that greeted his death, it always was amusing to hear clearly clueless commentators try to describe what "multi-track recording" is, as well as to assign all credit for inventing and popularizing the electric guitar to the undeniably important Paul. Please, Leo Fender also deserves some props.

3. I have become a cartoon, along with my "Sound Opinions" partner, Greg Kot. Brilliant!

4. I have not, however, become a rapper.

5. Aerosmith has canceled its Aug. 28 stop at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre, along with the rest of its annual summer jaunt, due to injuries singer Steven Tyler suffered when he fell off the stage during in South Dakota earlier this month. Plus, you know, the fact that the musicians are all getting really old and fragile.

6. Oh no, it's not time to start thinking about Lollapalooza 2010 already, is it?

I'm afraid so. Chicagoist tipped me to the fact that the giant musical Walmart on the Lake already is selling tickets to next year's festival in Grant Park on Aug. 6 to 8, 2010 -- without naming any of the acts, of course. The first offering of bargain-priced $60 "souvenir three-day passes" has sold out, but "early-bird" three-day passes still are being offered at $175 at the concert's Web site.

Them Crooked Vultures at Metro; updated

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The best show by far of Lollapalooza 2009 really was part of Lollapalooza in name only: the after-show at Metro in the wee hours of Monday morning that marked the world premier of Them Crooked Vultures, the new supergroup featuring Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, former Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighters leader Dave Grohl and the legendary John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.

Sources said the band turned down the chance to replace the Beastie Boys when they dropped off the Lollapalooza bill as Adam Yauch battled cancer; apparently, the new group preferred to make its debut in a much more intimate setting. (Instead of the potential crowd of 75,000 that would have seen the band in Grant Park, it played instead to 1,100 at Metro, mostly hardcore fans of Homme and Grohl lucky enough to get tickets after a fan club notification.)

Addressing the setting for this auspicious bow, Homme said, "We could have done this in L.A." As he pantomimed a well-endowed woman performing a rude sexual act, the crowd cheered wildly. "That's why we came here!" he added. "We came to Chicago because we wanted to play Metro!"

During an amazing 12-song, 80-minute set, Them Crooked Vultures went on to prove it is one the rarest things in rock: a supergroup that not only deserves that appellation, but which actually is greater than the sum of its storied parts.

With second guitarist and occasional keyboardist Alain Johannes, another veteran of Queens of the Stone Age, augmenting the star trio, the heart of the sound owed a lot to that band's brand of hypnotic but intense stoner rock, as well as to the more spacey and bluesy sounds of Homme's earlier group, Kyuss. Grohl also played for a time with the Queens, after their third album, "Songs for the Deaf" (2002). But as great as that group has been at various points, Them Crooked Vultures take the sound to a whole new level.

Simply put, Jones has enhanced any musical setting he's ever graced with his classy and virtuosic presence, whether it's been producing the Butthole Surfers, performing in a trio with art-rocker Diamanda Galas or serving as the solid anchor that grounded his larger-than-life band mates in Zep. And as obsessive rock fans who grew up worshipping Jimmy Page and John Bonham, Homme and Grohl seemed thrilled to be standing onstage with one of their heroes, and they pushed themselves to new heights to prove that they deserved the honor.

One of the hardest-hitting percussionists of his generation, Grohl seemed even more intense in this setting than he'd been during his stint with the Queens, hammering his snare with both hands to create a massive backbeat, firing off rapid fire single-stroke rolls that made his single bass drum sound like two, and playing long and complicated fills between hi-hat, snare and rack tom without ever losing the songs' propulsive drive.

Indeed, the complexity of the arrangements in tunes such as "Elephants" and "Caligulove" bordered at times on progressive rock--both of the old-school Yes variety, and the more modern Tool flavor. But the fact that the quartet never lost that forward momentum or the essential gritty blues growl made the music more of a full-body hard-rock experience than a cerebral study in musicianship, even when Jones sat at the keyboard to add a lovely coda to "Daffodils," or moved from a six-string bass, to eight strings, to 10 strings and finally to a mystery instrument that resembled a strap-on lap steel guitar with a built-in digital screen.

Homme handled most of the lead vocals, though Grohl, Jones and Johannes all traded off on backing parts. As for the thematic concerns of the material--well, it's never been easy to discern what Homme is singing about onstage, and we'll just have to wait to figure that out until the group releases its debut album, "Never Deserved the Future," on Oct. 23.

UPDATE:
I incorrectly printed the release date and album title above based on a story from Rolling Stone that turns out to have been wrong. Says the band's publicist: "There is no set release date as yet. I don't think there's an album title either."

If the Metro show was any indication, the disc should be a stunner. The band presumably played the entire album--there was no encore--and only one song fell flat: "Interlude w/ Ludes," an alien lounge tune that found Jones on keytar and Homme putting down his ax to slink around the stage like an unholy combination of Dean Martin and Tom Jones.

Them Crooked Vultures set list: "Elephants," "New Fang," "Scumbag Blues," "Dead End Friends," "Bandoliers," "Mind Eraser (No Chaser)," "Gunman," "Daffodils," "Interlude w/ Ludes," "Caligulove," "Warsaw," "Nobody Loves Me."

DeRo's Day Three video wrap-up

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Sun-Times contributor Anders Smith Lindall reports:

Live from the sauna that is Grant Park, it's the third and final day of Lollapalooza.

As usual I'll be focused on the northernmost stages--which today promise the likes of Jane's Addiction, Lou Reed and Neko Case--while Jim holds down the south. Apart from those big three, though, I have fewer must-sees today and more inclination to just follow my ears.

Powered by the lingering buzz of several excellent shows on Saturday, I have my hopes up.

Music aside, an aspect of this iteration of Lolla that's drawn notice from fans is the video boards, which are order of magnitude sharper than any I've seen before. (Their colors also seem super-saturated, lending an almost hyper-real look to the filmed images.)

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Scenes from the crowd at Lollapalooza early in day three Sunday; Sun-Times photos by Marty Perez.

Follow the jump for more on the video operation, including an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at a the production of a planned 3D documentary feature.

Lollapalooza Day Three by Jim DeRogatis; final wrap-up

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1 p.m.: Things are off to a slow start here on the third and final day of Lollapalooza 2009 in the southern end of Grant Park. The heat already is stultifying--the dashboard reading on my Mac says it's 90 degrees--and I just got word that, in addition to a heat advisory in effect until 6 p.m., though there is no hint of it at the moment, a severe thunderstorm warning has been issued "with large hail and strong winds" later in the day.

Last year, on the Monday after Lollapalooza when the tornado-warning sirens went off for the first time I've heard since I moved to Chicago in the early '90s, I called the city to ask what evacuation plans were in place for Grant Park in the event of severe weather during the concert or any other major event. Chicago emergency management personnel declined to answer, citing security concerns in the event of a terrorist attack (!).

It seems fairly obvious that if the weather turns dangerous, people in the north of the park will be herded into the underground parking garages below Millennium Park. In the south, the plan is less clear: It would be a long walk to Soldier Field or the Field Museum across Lake Shore Drive, and it's about a mile to Millennium Park in the north. The hotels on South Michigan are a considerable hike, too, and they probably couldn't shelter 30,000 people in a hurry.

Let's hope we never have to find out.

As for day three's opening sounds in Hutchinson Field, the wispy tunes of the London-formed, Brooklyn-based pop band Alberta Cross drifted off the stage and floated away over Lake Michigan with precious little to remember or mark them as unique.

Meanwhile, onstage now, the Syracuse, N.Y. pop band Ra Ra Riot is jangling away, with its genteel melodies enhanced by sawing cello and violin. But the group's songs are no more noteworthy.

The band is playing to a crowd that already numbers about 10,000 however, and listeners are just sort of standing politely in the dusty field, sweating and baking under the bright sun.

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Bat for Lashes onstage in Hutchinson Field; Sun-Times photo by Marty Perez.

Much more as the day progresses after the jump.

DeRo's Day Two video wrap-up

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And plans for Sunday ...

Sun-Times freelancer Anders Smith Lindall reports:

First post, 10:55 a.m.: It's a few minutes before 11 on Saturday morning; Lolla Day Two is about to begin. The conditions are already soupy on the lakefront, as today promises to be a real steam bath. At least it will be a change from Friday's relentless rain. This pic I snapped during the Bon Iver set pretty well sums up yesterday's conditions:

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There might be an up side to the worrisome practice of Lolla bar tents selling beer in aluminum cans--including 24-ounce tallboys--rather than plastic cups. While security personnel fret that the cans could become dangerous missiles, the value of aluminum recyclables may be keeping them off the ground and out of the garbage:

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Finally, must-see recommendations from two more notable faces in the crowd.

Rock-poster artist and Dianogah bass player Jay Ryan, buttonholed backstage at yesterday's Andrew Bird gig: "I'd like to see TV on the Radio and Neko Case. But I'll be at a wedding instead."

WXRT host Marty Lennartz: "I'm looking forward to Lou Reed. It's been so long since he did a real rock show, a festival show. For years he's been doing these oddball projects. I'm sure he has something special planned."

Regular updates follow the jump.

Lollapalooza Day Two by Jim DeRogatis; final wrap-up

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With yesterday's mud slowly drying under increasingly hot and humid if still overcast skies, the second day of Lollapalooza gets underway for me at noon at the smaller stage at the foot of Balbo with theNewNo2. The quintet takes its name from the classic TV series "The Prisoner" starring mod-era hero Patrick McGoohan. But the group is destined to be best known as the band fronted by Dhani Harrison, son of the late Beatle George and Olivia Trinidad Arias, and a dead ringer for his father circa "A Hard Day's Night."

Though I'm a proud Chicagoan, nepotism has never counted for much with me, and the truth is I would love theNewNo2 no matter whose DNA the bandleader carries. Even stronger than the band's debut album "You Are Here," released late last year, the group's short but intense live set is a wonderful, swirling, psychedelic noise-pop assault that mixes equal parts vintage '90s shoegazer rock (a la My Bloody Valentine, Ride and Slowdive) and more recent Moog-laced Radiohead, though it's distinguished by the strong melodies and vocals that, yeah, sorta do sound like you-know-who.

An impressively noisy guitarist who also plays a weird sampler/analog synthesizer that looks as if it was made at home from parts at Radio Shack, Harrison takes the stage wearing a goofy pirate's hat that he bought at the festival yesterday--it winds up in the crowd in the hands of a guy who wrestles it from several other fans who all dived for it--and a T-shirt that says, "La Muerte Palooza."

"Did you get rained on yesterday?" the singer asks. "Sorry about that. We're here today--that's why it's nice out."

Who am I to argue with that kind of logic?

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Dhani Harrison (left) with drummer/keyboardist Oli Hecks of the NewNo2.

Much more on Lollapalooza Day Two after the jump.

UPDATED SUNDAY 3:10 p.m.: Promoters have just announced that the final day of Lollapalooza, like the two before it, has sold out of single-day tickets. Saturday, spokeswoman Shelby Meade said the "sold-out" number was "about the same" as last year, which promoters put at 75,000 per day, or a total of 225,000 concertgoers in Grant Park throughout the weekend.

Lollapalooza Day One by Jim DeRogatis; final wrap-up

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It's shortly before 11:30 a.m., and the main acts have yet to start in the southern end of Grant Park at Hutchinson Field. But technicians already have tested the sound system with the theme from "Star Wars," the infrastructure is all in place for the fifth year of Lollapalooza as a reinvented destination festival--complete with much less of an obnoxious corporate presence in terms of signage on the big stages, a definite aesthetic improvement to be sure--and the first rumor surprise of the weekend is buzzing around.

Young mainstream country chanteuse LeAnn Rimes is said to be performing on the Kids' Stage with the festival's corporate figurehead and Jane's Addiction front man Perry Farrell at 3:30 this afternoon.

Oh, and it's starting to rain a bit.

Hang on, folks. Here we go.

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She's not crying. It's just the rain, dampening the first day of Lollapalooza 2009 in Grant Park. (John J. Kim/Sun-Times)


12:20 p.m.: The music gets underway in Hutchinson Field with the Henry Clay People , a twangy alternative-country-leaning pop quintet from Glendale, Calif., inexplicably named after the 19th century politician known as "the great compromiser" (or, alternately, "the great pacifier," though he was an ardent hawk who advocated the War of 1812).

The group is almost painfully earnest as it performs its upbeat but largely unmemorable sounds in front of an early, umbrella-carrying and poncho-wearing crowd of about 500 hearty souls. It covers Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty" (the song that musician sued the Republican Party over for using in an unauthorized campaign ad for Sen. John McCain; hmm, do you think these guys were poly-sci majors in college?), pays homage to a deceased friend named Randy by bringing his ashes on stage ("He wanted to travel the world, and now he's here with us playing Lollapalooza!") and tries to get a reaction from the soggy minions by referencing the last big event that happened in this field.

"This is a song about the end of the world. It was written pre-Barack Obama."

(Silence.)

"This is Grant Park, where he gave his acceptance speech, right?"

(Nothing.)

"Um, O.K...."

Still, the group does provide a fitting opening for the festival, perfectly nailing--perhaps unconsciously--the vibe of the new Lollapalooza with a tune it introduces as "a song about why rock 'n' roll scenes are so important." The key lyric: "This ain't a scene, it's just a generation caught in between... This ain't a scene, it's just a place to be."

The rest of day one continues after the jump.

Hey folks, it's Anders here alongside DeRo, as always, for the fifth incarnation of Lollapalooza. Thanks to Jim for the opportunity to join him once again as a guest blogger this weekend.

I'm rested and ready for a gluttonous three days at this annual lakeside musical buffet, and I plan to post regular updates here throughout. Follow along--and please chime in with comments--as we take in all the sights and sounds.

11:00 a.m.: It's now just past 11 o'clock on Friday morning, and the usual Lolla-opening invocation of the "Star Wars" theme is booming through the park. That means the live music's only minutes away. See you back here frequently as the day unfolds.

12:15 p.m.: With the music only just getting started, I've used my first hour on-site to get re-oriented--and I've found some significant changes to this year's layout.

Foremost is an alteration any fan will note and appreciate: Hutchinson Field is much more open and spacious around the southernmost stage (Lolla's biggest, known this year as the Chicago 2016 stage). That's because the exclusive viewing tents (the "cabanas") no longer line the field's entire west side and the VIP area (the Lolla Lounge) has disappeared from its previous perch along the lakefront on the southeast. As a result, the field should accommodate more fans more comfortably for the headline acts, and prime sightlines on either side of the main stage are now open to the public rather than reserved for VIPs.

There are still about a dozen cabanas in the south end, but they're much less conspicuous. Is the lesser number of VIP tents a reflection of the recession-ravaged economy? Quite likely, but the upshot for rank-and-file fans is better views and more elbow room.

In other news, stage signage is likewise much less gaudy this time out. You really have to know to look for the Chicago 2016 logo on the main stage, for example--I wouldn't be surprised if many folks miss it entirely. That will help keep the focus where it should be, on the music.

And to further improve views, there's a tall camera platform above the sound board, maybe a hundred feet out from the stage. This eye-in-the-sky video position should make for great performance shots on the big screens that sit to either side of the main stage.

Those changes are for the better. But there's already one aspect of this year's festival causing security folks some concern: The beer tents are selling suds in aluminum cans, not plastic cups. And those cans come in both 12- and 24-ounce sizes. Clearly even a typical 12-oz. can of beer could be a dangerous projectile; sent flying, a 24-oz. behemoth (like the one below) "would be like a boot to the head," a security veteran said.

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Meanwhile, a light rain is falling. Given the forecast, it's probably too much to hope that this holds off, so if you're coming down later, I recommend all appropriate gear for wet conditions and muddy grounds.

One note on the stage entertainment so far: The first invocation of our hometown President of the United States was recorded around 11:45 by the Henry Clay People. "This is a song called 'The End of the World,'" the singer said. "It was written in the pre-Barack Obama era."

For the rest of Day One, follow the jump.

John Hughes, writer, director and music fan

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Movie critics around the world, including my colleague Rober Ebert, are no doubt working overtime at the moment to pay tribute to director John Hughes--the prime chronicler of teenage life in the '80s, at least as seen in the Chicago suburbs where he lived at the time--following his death Thursday morning of a heart attack in New York. But it is worth thinking for a moment about John Hughes, the music fan.

As Hughes told Greg Kot and me during a rare interview on our radio show "Sound Opinions" in 1999, throughout his time living in the Chicago area and well into his prime years as a filmmaker, he loved nothing more than haunting the racks of vinyl at the old Wax Trax record store on Lincoln Avenue in the heady days after the punk explosion yielded to New Wave and the electronic dance sounds that followed.

It was there that he first connected with many of the bands that would become staples of his soundtracks. And it was those soundtracks that opened many young listeners' ears to music that couldn't be heard on many radio stations at the time.

Music played a key role in all of the films Hughes directed himself, and there's a long list of his best, most quirky discoveries and finest pairings of sound and vision: "True" by Spandau Ballet and "Turning Japanese" by the Vapors in "Sixteen Candles" (1984); "Don't You" by Simple Minds in "The Breakfast Club" (1985); "Oh Yeah" by Yello in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986) and of course the use of the Psychedelic Furs song that gave the title to "Pretty in Pink" (1986, which Hughes wrote and produced but did not direct).

Intensely private and shunning the Hollywood spotlight since the early '90s, Hughes granted us that interview only reluctantly, and it was one of only a handful he did to promote the indie film "Reach the Rock," the soundtrack of which was released on Hefty Records, the label started by his son John Hughes III and which was a vibrant if low-key part of the local music scene for a decade.

But once Hughes II started talking about music, he didn't want to stop, and the passionate conversation about the sounds he loved continued even after we went off the air.

Them Crooked Vultures sell out in three minutes

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The show that has quickly become the buzz of Lollapalooza 2009--though it is not taking place in Grant Park and requires a separate ticket--the debut of Them Crooked Vultures, a new supergroup featuring Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Nirvana, Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age and the mighty John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin--sold out in three minutes Thursday morning when tickets went on sale for its 11:59 p.m. show Sunday at Metro.

A spokesman for the group advises: "They're doing paperless [tickets], so no scalpers. Make sure your readers know not to get ripped off!"

No word on how many tickets to the Metro show were sold, but capacity at the venerated North Side club is 1,100.
Meanwhile,
Rolling Stone.com
is reporting that the band will release an album entitled "Never Deserved the Future" on Oct. 23.

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Jane's front man and the festival's founder-turned-corporate figurehead Perry Farrell doesn't offer many details in his interview with Melinda Newman of Hitfix.com, but he does hint at some sort of spectacular flyover:

"We're doing a helicopter trick... I'm going to be emotional. I know when the helicopter flies over Grant Park, people are going to be emotional."

He also dropped the tidbit that the concert is being filmed for possible theatrical release (in 3D, no less); that he can't envision what the festival will look like by the end of its long-term deal with the city in 2018 ("I can't go down the road that far") and that he "doesn't even think about" criticisms of the fest that have been made by this blogger or Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune ("When they look at it, when they try to put it down, it's like the Olympics: You to take out the highest and the lowest score"), though that has been all too obvious for the last five years.

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Garnering rave reviews in several other cities a few months back, that legendary Irish crank Van Morrison performed his classic 1968 album "Astral Weeks" in its entirety. Now, he's bringing it to Chicago with a show at the Chicago Theatre on Sept. 29. Tickets are $65 to $350 plus service fees, and they go on sale at 10 a.m. on Aug. 17 through www.ticketmaster.com.

Schubas to open new, larger venue

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Greg Kot of the Tribune got the scoop here; hey, Matt Rucins, thanks for never calling me back!

Located in the site of the old Three Penny movie theater at 2424 N. Lincoln Ave.--ironically, within doors of where the late, great Lounge Ax was hounded out of business by neighbors who disliked having a rock club in the 'hood but have no problem with a dozen raucous sports and singles bars--the new Lincoln Hall is about three times as big as the under-200-capacity Schubas at Southport and Belmont, which means it will compete for bookings and audience with clubs the size of Double Door and the Empty Bottle. No opening date has been set.

1. Tributo does Jacko: First up, Tributosaurus, Chicago's best tribute band, tackles Michael Jackson this week with a couple of shows: Thursday, Aug. 6, at Fitzgerald's in Berwyn (show starts at 7:30 p.m., $15 admission) and Wednesday, Aug. 5, at Martyr's, though both of the shows there sold out in advance.

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2. Shellac rocks the Bean:
Next up: With all of the music happening in town this weekend, it would be easy to forget about Shellac playing Millennium Park for free on Monday starting at 6:30 p.m. after openers Shearwater. Be kind to your eardrums so you have some left for Steve Albini & Co. to blow out in that sublime setting.

3. Also at Martyr's: Jay Bennett Tribute: To honor the recently deceased singer, songwriter, producer and one-time Wilco multi-instrumentalist, the local artists Fair Herald, City at Large and Evan Holmes & Exit Ghost will perform in tribute to Bennett at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 18, at the club at 3855 N. Lincoln. Tickets are $8. "Jay Bennett, especially his work with Wilco, has always been a pretty big inspiration to us," said Fair Herald vocalist Mike Bellis. "Everything from his raunchier-than-hell guitars on 'Being There' to the more complex melodies and keyboard arrangements on 'Summerteeth' and 'Yankee [Hotel Foxtrot]' has been a touchstone for us when we're piecing together new songs." The musicians will cover Wilco and Bennett's solo material.

4. Can you hear me now? On the Lollapalooza front, I got an amusing email from an Apple flack hyping all of the useful iPhone "apps" that folks might want to call up during the concert -- amusing, that is, because hundreds of people with an AT&T cell connection have complained to me about never being able to connect to anything when Grant Park is flooded with iPhone users! (I've suffered from this myself, ever since Cingular sold out the contract on my not-hip-at-all, old-school cell phone to AT&T.) Anyway, if things are better out there this year, Apple tells us:

There's an app for that!

Lollapalooza: The official electronic guide to the festival. Create your schedule, read about the bands, browse media and find your way around Grant Park. Free

Buster: The Chicago Bus Tracker: Quick and easy way to find out how long the wait for a Chicago bus will take. $0.99

Guide Map Chicago: Mobile access to detailed interactive Chicago maps. $1.99

SPIN Mobile: Includes festival coverage for Lollapalooza. Free

MusicFest 09: Lineups, personalized agenda, encore flame and festival maps for Lollapalooza and other music festivals. $1.99

TentFinder: Find your tent amongst the thousands of others, using GPS technology. $1.99

5. And, finally, I received a cheery update on all of the doings this weekend by Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell. To wit:


PERRY FARRELL will celebrate his past, present and future at this year's installment of LOLLAPALOOZA, which is set for August 7, 8 & 9 at Grant Park in Chicago. Not only will PERRY perform with the original lineup of Jane's Addiction at Lollapalooza for the first time since 1991 on Sunday, August 9, but he will also deliver a solo live electro set with his group Saturday, August 8 at "Perry's," the expanded electronic music-focused area at the festival. ...

"I looked out at the massive audience last year [at Lollapalooza] and imagined communicating with them," says PERRY. "I dreamt of performing with the original Jane's Addiction team. Wanting us to pick up where we left off at the first Lolla (this year is Lolla #18). An evening with Jane's was always intimate, even at 70 thousand-plus. We spent this past year honing our show; building an outdoor music experience that will again unleash the Lollapalooza spirit. The conjure of Sex, Glory, and Pageantry."

Close to FARRELL's heart at the festival is "Perry's"--the club-style area in the middle of the festival which launched last year as a place where people can experience live sets from an amazing line-up of live electro-bands and DJs. Now upgraded to the max, the area has been expanded to accommodate 10,000 people and will feature state-of-the-art sound system and high-end LED screens.

As always, PERRY values artistic growth. "People often ask me if the feeling of festivals has changed over the years. I tell them that first-time experiences are hard to top, but in following the evolution of music performance, I find constant inspiration. As Lollapalooza turns 18 this August, I have been most inspired by the collision of electronics and live instrumentalists. In '09 we have created a new scene. There will be an 'in the round' D.J tower with L.E.D screens, and protruding performance platforms have been built to accommodate the latest inspirations of the dance culture. With my dance partner of 11 years, Etty Lau Farrell, we'll be performing a 'Live electro' set alongside some the world's best producers and live P.A. manipulators. A larger portion of land (10,000 capacity, just north of Buckingham Fountain) has been designated to accommodate the growing throngs of dance enthusiasts.

Lest anyone think that the former Peretz Bernstein was coasting at age 50, content to just rest on his laurels, collect his checks as the new Lollapalooza's corporate figurehead... and pose for goofy pictures.

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Regina Spektor, "Far" (Sire) [3 OUT OF 4 STARS]

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With three major-label albums to her credit, the debate that's run through the career of 29-year-old Russian-born, New York-based singer and songwriter Regina Spektor is whether the at-times overwhelming quirkiness of her music is the natural expression of a genuinely eccentric personality or a hipster pose crafted to help her stand out on the modern-Bohemian "anti-folk" scene. (No one argues about whether or not she is quirky; in fact, it sometimes seems as if there's an unofficial law that the word must be used in every review.)

Ultimately, it really doesn't matter--at least not when Spektor's melodies are more memorable than her odd verbal tics (she's inordinately fond of dolphin yelps and squeals) and sometimes bizarre metaphors and lyrical images ("So we made our own computer out of macaroni pieces/And it did our thinking while we lived our lives/It counted up our feelings/And divided them up even/And it called that calculation perfect love," she sings in the opening track, "The Calculation"). Even though her latest outing was crafted with the help of four big-name producers--David Kahne (Paul McCartney, the Strokes), Garret "Jackknife" Lee (U2, R.E.M.), Jeff Lynne (ELO, the Traveling Wilbury's) and Mike Elizondo (Fiona Apple, Eminem)--our heroine remains as giddily goofy and willfully weird as ever on standout tracks such as "Blue Lips," "Eet" and "Wallet," while the combination of her cascading piano and startled-teen vocals make it hard to resist any quirk she cares to flaunt.

In the end, the oddest aspects of Spektor's songs are balanced by more profound and troubling observations, and they emerge as the only logical response to a world that sometimes seems insane. As she sings in "Laughing With," "No one laughs at God in a hospital/No one laughs at God in a war/No one's laughing at God/When they're starving or freezing or so very poor."

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At first blush, Vancouver musicians Brian King and David Prowse seem to be one of many bands subscribing to two near-ubiquitous trends in the current indie-rock underground: Yep, they're another two-person guitar-and-drums duo, and sure enough, they're steeped in the resurgent waves of '90s fuzz guitar a la Dinosaur Jr. and Mudhoney. But Japandroids are distinguished by an unusually sharp ear for winning melodies decorating their waves of six-string noise and propulsive drumming, and they have a thematic devotion to alienation--from the opposite sex, mostly, but also geographical and of the "I just wasn't made for these times" variety--that adds an urgent desperation and undeniable undertow to the proceedings.

Just try not to get sucked into songs such as "The Boys Are Leaving Town" or "Heart Sweats"; it's darn near impossible.

Demo2DeRo: Saurab Bhargava

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"I consider my albums to be soundtracks for themselves," Chicago musician Saurab Bhargava says of the sounds on his recent self-released album, "Chromatique," and that's an apt description for his cinematic orchestral pop. A classically trained pianist who's also mastered guitar and bass and played in a variety of bands ranging from punk to blues, the Duke University grad is now devoted to a uniquely dreamy style that has echoes of indie-rock outfits such as Slint and Rachel's, as well as the more song-oriented ork-pop of the ever-influential Cardinal.

Recorded at the local Raxtrax studio, produced by Dave Suycott (Stabbing Westward, Verbow) and featuring the contributions of a number of other local musicians on drums, strings and horns, "Chromatique" is as impressive and well-executed a sonic vision as this column has ever received, and it will be fascinating to see if Bhargava can develop a way to present his music live. Meanwhile, you can keep up with his doings and sample his sounds on the www.saurabbhargava.com.

DEVELOPING: Word has yet to officially come down from the Lollapalooza camp, but the buzz is that the Them Crooked Vultures, a new supergroup featuring Queens of the Stone Age band leader Josh Homme, Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl and the mighty John Paul Jones, Led Zeppelin's legendary bass player, will provide the much-needed icing on the cake largely missing from this year's festival lineup by closing things out with a special intimate after-show Sunday night at Metro.

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More details as they emerge. Tickets apparently go on sale Thursday, Aug. 6, at 10 a.m. here, with the show starting at midnight (or 11:59 p.m.) Sunday.

All of this first tipped by the Rock & Roll Ghost blog, by the way, and cudos to them. UPDATE: Credit where it's due: Chicagoist apparently had it even earlier.

Live Nation expands "bargain" tickets

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In its continuing -- and increasingly desperate-looking -- attempt to fill seats at concerts that are hurting this summer, the local office of giant national concert promoters Live Nation are expanding their "no service fees" Wednesdays and half-price promotions to include shows at theaters and clubs, too, including the local House of Blues.

The promotion starts at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday (Aug. 5) and runs for 24 hours at www.livenation.com, providing a 50% discount off the total price and fees of tickets in multiples of two. The half-price shows include Brad Paisley on Aug. 7, Creed on Aug. 30 and Toby Keith on Sept. 19 at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre; Heaven & Hell on Aug. 19 at Charter One Pavilion and no service fees at all House of Blues shows.

There also is this nifty little promotion that a reader made me aware of (because nothing says "rock 'n' roll" like a foot-long sandwich).

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Alas, as the Live Nation fine print notes, its half-price promotion is "not available in combination with other offers"

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