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December 2009 Archives

Club-Hopping: Butch Walker residency at Schubas

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One of the most diverse talents on the current music scene singer/guitarist Butch Walker is a remarkable roots-rocker in his solo career as well as in-demand producer in the pop realm, working with artists such as Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry and Pink. In short, you never know what you're going to get from him, and he takes the stage at Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, for a three-day residency starting at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 5, continuing at the same time Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 6-7, and featuring a set list chosen by fans via Twitter on that final evening. Tickets are $20 a night, and more information is available at www.schubas.com or (773) 525-2508.

Mickey Leigh, a.k.a. Joey Ramone's kid brother, will be joined by co-author Legs McNeil (Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk) as the two sign copies of their new book I Slept with Joey Ramone: A Family Memoir at Barbara's Bookstore, 1218 S. Halsted, at 7:30 p.m. TODAYFriday, Thursday, Dec. 17. They'll also read passages and do a question and answer session. Admission is free; call (312) 413-2665 for more info.

Sally Timms, Jon Langford and their usual group of co-conspirators will present their Fourth Annual Hideout Christmas Panto (as they explain it, panto is short for "pantomime, a traditional British Christmas play"), entitled "Ho Ho Ho the Humanity:
Prior to his career as a purveyor of gifts, Santa Claus was a zeppelin pirate!" at 7 and 10 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 17, and again on Friday, Dec. 18. (The early show each night is all-ages and family-friendly; the late show is 21 and over.) Tickets are $12 for adults, $5 children, and "fancy dress is encouraged." Advance tickets and more info can be found at www.hideoutchicago.com.

Fall Out Boy's Joe Trohman will join Bob Nanna (Braid), Mike Kinsella (Owen, The Owls, Joan Of Arc) and Drew Brown in performing a set of covers by the mighty Morrissey on Dec. 26 at Subterranean, 2011 W. North, during a benefit for the worthy cause of Girls Rock! Chicago (www.girlsrockchicago.org). Show time is 9:30 p.m., and tickets are $10; for more info on this one-night-only show, visit www.subt.net.

Chicago's musical offerings this New Year's Eve

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Dedicated club-hoppers know that Chicago is one of the best cities for live music in America, and it often rocks harder than ever on New Year's Eve.

Sure, you have to compete for space at the bar with folks who only venture out once every few months. But it can be worth the trouble for the right holiday show.

Here is an overview of the coolest sounds to usher in 2010, starting with my top five picks among the many offerings.

1. The Jesus Lizard at Metro, 3730 N. Clark

Plain and simple, this quartet is one of the best bands Chicago has ever produced, especially onstage. It has delivered at all three of its hometown reunion gigs to date, even when it was a bit rusty at the Pitchfork Music Festival last July, and even when vocalist David Yow injured his ribs at the first of two Metro shows last November and had to play the second while seated on a stool. You know the group will have something special planned for the holiday.

Disappears opens at 10 p.m., and tickets are $51 in advance, $61 at the door; call (773) 549-4140 or visit www.metrochicago.com. Meanwhile, below the main room at Metro in Smart Bar, the DJ booth with host an all-Chicago lineup including Chris Santiago, the Hood Internet, John Patterson, Sassmouth, Bald E. and Nate Manic. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 day of show or $75 for reserved seating.

2. Pegboy and Shot Baker at the Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont

Shut out of the Jesus Lizard? A more straightforward but no less rousing night of classic Chicago punk is being served up by the Beat Kitchen, courtesy of the long-running and always entertaining Pegboy, with Shot Baker drawing on that group's influence as well as Naked Raygun and the Effigies. Anxiety High opens at 10, and tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at door; check (773) 281-4444 or www.beatkitchen.com.

3. Local H and Electric Six at Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee

Scott Lucas is gearing up to release a potent debut album by his new band the Married Men early next year, so this may be the last opportunity for some time to hear him with his vastly underrated melodic grunge combo Local H. Detroit's Electric Six is just as stellar in concert, and White Mystery opens at 9:30 p.m. The cover is $65, including a hosted bar; (773) 489-3160 or www.doubledoor.com.

4. The Tossers, Yakuza, Teen Idols and Scott Lucas and the Married Men at Reggie's Rock Club, 2109 S. State

Cudos to Reggie's for a diverse and creative bill strong on local talent. The Tossers make every day St. Patrick's Day, Yakuza stretches the boundaries of metal in ways unmatched by any other group on the scene, Teen Idols are pop-punk at its best and Lucas is just as great with the more rootsy Married Men as he is with Local H--he just won't have time to chat after his set at 8 p.m. since he'll be heading north to Double Door for his second gig of the night. Tickets are $30; (312) 949-0121, www.reggieslive.com.

5. The Fiery Furnaces at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln

I respect the wild art-rock ambitions of Oak Park natives Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger more than I love the Fiery Furnaces' music, especially on their eighth album, "I'm Going Away." But the group is much more fun onstage, where its legions of fans can marvel at Matthew's ability to navigate those serpentine arrangements, as well as bask in his sister's captivating presence. The show starts at 9 p.m., Cryptacize shares the bill and tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door. Call (773) 525-2501 or visit www.lincolnhallchicago.com.

Since this month marks not only the end of 2009 but the conclusion of the first decade of the new century, more contemplation from the pop music desk seems in order.

Though any such glancing overview is by necessity full of gaping holes and glossed-over details, in the grand scope of things, the nearly 60-year history of rock 'n' roll breaks down pretty cohesively decade by decade in terms of each 10-year span offering a handful of key movements that dramatically changed the music we love.

The '50s gave us the birth of this new sound from its roots in country, R&B, blues, jazz and Tin Pan Alley pop. The '60s witnessed the reinterpretation of those roots via the British Invasion and the Technicolor expansion of the psychedelic era. The '70s saw the emergence of heavy metal and disco, as well as the punk explosion. In the '80s, we had synth-pop/New Wave and the origins of hip-hop, while the '90s found hip-hop becoming the major force in popular music, even as alternative rock exploded at the beginning of the decade and teen-pop surged up at the end of it.

So, what are the key developments that have shifted the ground in popular music during the 2000's? The changes that spring to mind all have been technological or commercial rather than strictly musical.

The Best Live Music of 2009

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In a high-tech world where virtual experiences are becoming ever more popular, you still can't beat the real thing: Sorry, but playing "Rock Band" is vastly inferior to playing in a rock band, or to having a band rock your world onstage.

No digital trip will ever match the intensity of being in a crowd at a great live performance, where the artists absorb the energy of the fans in the crowd, amplify it and reflect it back in an increasingly powerful feedback loop that ultimately creates a unique and transcendent experience.

On the first day of the New Year, here is a look back at my choices for the best live shows from the hundreds I witnessed in 2009. I look forward to seeing many more in 2010, and I hope to run into you in the clubs.

The Best Albums of 2009

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For all of the talk in recent years of the death of the album as digital distribution has become the norm and every listener is now their own DJ and programmer, the album nonetheless remains the dominant way we measure a musician's creativity.

Why? It has little to do with the Luddite tendencies of critics or the robotic buying habits of consumers. In the end, it's the artists who continue striving to create an ideal collection of songs compiled at a particularly inspired time and place in their lives and sequenced with considerable care to present a beginning to end musical journey.

As always, there was no shortage of great albums in 2009--exquisite sets of music that I couldn't stop playing again and again, and which made me think or feel in ways that seemed fresh and exciting as well as addictive. And, once again, rather than critical buzz, commercial success or any other measure of accomplishment, those are the criteria I considered when compiling by year-end Top 10.

Plain and simple, if the apartment caught fire and I had to flee, these are the CDs I would grab from among the thousands in the ponderous stacks of this year's releases. (Of course, if I took the trouble to load them into an iPod, I'd have less to carry... I really ought to get one of those new-fangled gadgets some day!)

It's always time to celebrate when Brigid Murphy, the auteur behind Milly's Orchard Show, takes her act to the stage, and things ought to be even more festive as she presents "Milly's All-Kid Holiday Spectacular" at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave., for two shows at 3:30 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13. Participants include the Blisters featuring Spencer Tweedy, Mini Midnight Circus, the Chicken Fat Klezmer Band, Holy Cross/IHM Marimba Ensemble and Choir, Wilson Brehmer, Hula Hooping by Annie Warnick, Jane Baxter Miller, Juggler Bruce Bailey, Berger Park Bucket Drummers, Katie Kot, Kai Juhlin, Jake Smith and Aylin Bayramoglu and more. Tickets are $20 ($18 for Old Town members) through www.oldtownschool.org or (773) 728-6000.

As holiday charity events go, it's hard to think of one that's more worthy--or more fun--than the annual "Second City That Never Sleeps: Letters to Santa" extravaganza. Starting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 15, and running through 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 16, this year's all-ages 24-hour entertainment bonanza features musical guests Jeff Tweedy (7 p.m. Tuesday), Robbie Fulks (10 p.m.), Upright Citizen's Brigade's Matt Walsh and Horatio Sanz (midnight), the Flashmob Marching Band ( 3 a.m. Wednesday), Bonnie Prince Billy (6 a.m.), BabyCo (7:30), Nina Nastasia (noon), the Mountain Goats (2 p.m.) and the Blisters (4:30), among many others. Tickets are $15, available only at the door, but good for the entire 24 hours as long as seats are available. More info can be found by searching "The Second City That Never Sleeps: Letters to Santa" on Facebook.

Pelican: Loud is a state of mind

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Pelican: Left to right, Bryan Herweg, Laurent Schroeder-Lebec,Trevor de Brauw and Larry Herweg. Photo by Marty Watson.

From its start in 2001, the hard-hitting Chicago quartet Pelican has never fit neatly into any pigeonhole: It's too metal to really be part of the Wicker Park post-rock scene, and too methodical to be part of the raw metal underground.

"I think it's really just drawing a few people from every niche," says Trevor de Brauw, who formed the band with fellow guitarist Laurent Schroeder-Lebec and the sibling rhythm section of bassist Bryan and drummer Larry Herweg. "We never worried about that, because we were never careerists when we got into it. Pelican was just a side project from another hardcore band we were doing, and it just sort of picked up momentum.

"Initially, the goal was just to be loud--not the only goal, but that was the defining characteristic we wanted. Over the years, it's developed from something that's not just feeling loud but seeming loud. It's not so much about the actual volume; in many cases, we're quieter with our stage volume than the bands that we tour with--they'll have three or four guitar amps and all this extra stuff, and Laurent and I are just playing out of [Marshall] half stacks. It doesn't need to be super-loud to convey that feeling of a physical property of sound."

In the end, then, rather than any specific genre description, "loud as a state of mind rather than a decibel reading" is as good a way to characterize Pelican as any other.

Topping the list of multiple nominations for the 52nd annual Grammy Awards, announced Wednesday night in Los Angeles, is dance diva Beyonce Knowles, who garnered 10 nods for her third solo album, "I Am... Sasha Fierce," released in November 2008.

Other multiple honorees include the young country-pop singer Taylor Swift, who got eight nominations, and the Black Eyed Peas, Maxwell and superstar Chicago producer and rapper Kanye West, who got six each.

As is often the case, the Grammys' "big four" categories seem to acknowledge commercial accomplishments--and old-school music industry corporate hype--much more than the awards' stated goal of recognizing musical excellence and innovation.

For the top prize of album of the year, the contenders are Beyonce; the Black Eyed Peas, "The E.N.D."; Lady Gaga, "The Fame"; the Dave Matthews Band, "Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King" and Swift, "Fearless."

Vying for record of the year are Beyonce, "Halo"; the Black Eyed Peas, "I Gotta Feeling"; Lady Gaga, "Pokerface"; Kings of Leon, "Use Somebody" and Swift, "You Belong with Me."

The nods for song of the year, which honors the songwriters, are Lady Gaga, "Pokerface"; Maxwell, "Pretty Wings"; Beyonce, "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)"; Kings of Leon, "Use Somebody" and Swift, "You Belong with Me."

And for best new artist, the roster is country bumpkins the Zac Brown Band; R&B singer Keri Hilson; mopey synth-pop duo MGMT; grunge throwback Silversun Pickups and the English dance-pop group the Ting Tings.

Hometown hero West's nominations came for best rap performance by a duo or group ("Make Her Say" with fellow Chicagoan Common and Kid Cudi and "Amazing" with Young Jeezy), best rap/sung collaboration ("Ego" with Beyonce, "Knock You Down" with Keri Hilson and Ne-Yo and "Run This Town" with Jay-Z and Rihanna), and best rap song ("Run This Town"). Unfortunately, his incredible fourth album "808s and Heartbreak," released late in 2008, was shut out of all of the key album categories.

For the second year in a row, in a vain attempt to expand the television presence of the Grammy franchise and compete with the "American Idol" ratings juggernaut, awards sponsors the Recording Academy announced the nominations for a handful of the top pop categories during an hour-long live broadcast from L.A., delaying the release of the much longer master list of honorees until after the show finished airing on CBS.

Notorious for its odd definition of the calendar year, the Grammy eligibility period for 2009 is even shorter and stranger than usual--covering only 11 months, from Oct. 1, 2008, to Aug. 31, 2009--because the Recording Academy will air its televised awards presentation earlier than usual, on Jan. 31. These dates eliminate from consideration some of the most successful and acclaimed releases of the year, including albums from Jay-Z, Mariah Carey and Pearl Jam.

Also a real head-scratcher among this year's nominees was a nod for best pop performance by duo or group with vocals to Hall & Oates for "Sara Smile," a song originally released in 1976, but surfacing again in November 2008 on the almost universally ignored "Daryl Hall & John Oates Live at the Troubadour" album.

In addition to West and Common, who also was nominated for best rap album with "Universal Mind Control," the worst album of his career, other Chicago nominees include Ministry (best metal performance, "Senor Peligro"); Kurt Elling (best jazz vocal album, "Dedicated To You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman"); Ann Nesby (the Joliet artist got nods for best R&B performance by a duo or group with vocals and best traditional R&B performance); the Chicago Symphony Chorus (best classical album); Donald Lawrence & Company (best traditional gospel album) and Kathy Griffin (the Oak Park native was acknowledged for best comedy album).

Also: Lalah Hathaway (best female R&B vocal performance); Larry Skoller (best traditional blues album); Lawrence Hobgood (best instrumental arrangement); Smokie Norful (best gospel performance and best contemporary R&B gospel album); Neko Case (best contemporary folk album and best recording package, "Middle Cyclone"); Wilco (best Americana album, "Wilco: The Album") and the incomparable Mavis Staples (best contemporary blues album, "Live: Hope at the Hideout").

UPDATE: Overlooked in my first pass attempting to chart all the local honorees: Liz Carroll was nominated for best traditional world music album for her disc with John Doyle, "Double Play"; Mavis Staples got a second nod for her contribution of 'Waiting for My Child to Come Home' with Patty Griffin on the album "O Happy Day," nominated for best traditional gospel album, and Kathleen Judge received a nomination for her work with Neko Case in designing the artwork for "Middle Cyclone," nominated for best recording package.

Among the visually glitzy but musically bland performances on Wednesday's TV special were a rapped medley by host LL Cool J, who did his thing in front of a scantily clad dancer rubbing cake frosting all over herself; a heavily auto-tuned Black Eyed Peas; a bit of holiday schmaltz from Sugarland and a flat tribute to Michael Jackson by Maxwell via a lite-jazz version of "The Lady in My Life."

The absolute nadir, however, came courtesy of the Administration, the new side project by Nick Jonas. What could be worse than the sugary sweet teen-pop of his other group, the Jonas Brothers, you ask? Try Nick getting funky with backing from veterans of Prince's New Power Generation. And yes, it was even worse than you might imagine.

Anyone starting a new independent record label these days has to be driven by passion, because the business prospects are anything but promising. Chicagoan Michael Paeth clearly is a fan and a believer, and he's celebrating a new compilation, "Analog Highway," trumpeting the Americana, roots- and garage-rock artists on his Mile Long Records label (www.milelongrecords.com) with a record release show Saturday, Dec. 5, at 9 p.m. at Martyr's, 3855 N. Lincoln. The performers include Dive Bar, Penthouse Sweets, Twilight Revival, Scattergun, Nashville Wreckers, Medicine Hat and Sawbuck, and the cover is $8. More information can be found at www.martyrslive.com, (773) 404-9494.

It's a busy evening Sunday, Dec. 6, at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, starting with a free screening at 7 p.m. of "Wesley Willis's Joyrides," a new documentary by Chris Bagley and Kim Shively "celebrating the life and phenomenon of the legendary Wesley Willis, cult rock-and-roll icon." Then, starting at 9, the club hosts a strong triple bill with a $3 cover (a buck a band!) featuring Magical Beautiful, Above/Below Sea Level and Implodes. Finally, beginning at 11, DJs Bruce Lamont and Mark Solotroff spin what they're billing as a "Death Musick Ritual" (admission is free). For more info, call (773) 276-3600 or visit www.emptybottle.com.

Chris Brown, "Graffiti" (Jive) [1 STAR out of 4]

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Sometimes, great art is made by reprehensible human beings--or at least by people who've done reprehensible things. This is a dilemma every critic faces at some point: Can you separate the art from the artist and his misdeeds? And should you?

For this critic, a key factor is whether the artist is attempting to make art from the acts for which he's been vilified. If the artist is talking about them, it's beholden upon the critic to address them, too. So Chris Brown is the only one to blame for reviews of his third studio album noting that he pleaded guilty last August to felony assault of his former girlfriend Rihanna--a crime for which he was sentenced to five years' probation, six months of community labor and a year of domestic violence counseling.

Before that now-infamous incident, Brown was the hottest rising star in R&B, splitting the difference between the musical approaches of Usher and R. Kelly, and exuding a vulnerable sweetness that made him seem huggable even during his lustiest moments. Setting aside the recent scandal for a moment, "Graffiti" is a troublesome effort solely on its musical merits: Attempting to expand his reach beyond the core R&B fan base, Brown and a top-dollar team of producers including Swizz Beatz and Polow Da Don veer wildly from the singer's strengths to dabble in half-hearted, contrived and autotune-drenched experiments with mechanical dancehall ("I Can Transform Ya"), electronic dance-pop ("So Cold," "I.Y.A.") and overwrought, Muse-style pomp-rock ("I'll Go").

But there are even bigger problems with the lyrics.

Self-serving references to the "difficulties" the 20-year-old singer has endured since the much-publicized end of his relationship with Rihanna flit through several tracks on "Graffiti." But the key song is "Famous Girl," which claims a prominent position right in the middle of the 13-track disc, and which should become infamous as one of the most offensive excuses for domestic violence ever recorded.

The song argues that Rihanna is famous for breaking hearts and that she cheated on Brown, even as the singer proudly boasts that he's a heartbreaker, too, and that he cheated on her as well. "I thought I found the right woman/There were other guys who thought the same thing/Like them, you let me down," Brown sings to his ex. "Sorry I bust[ed] the windows out [of] your car/I might have cheated in the beginning/I was wrong for writing 'Disturbia.'" (Brown was credited as a co-writer of that Rihanna hit.)

When this is the best that Brown can do to explain his actions, it's harder than ever to understand or forgive them--or listen to the other themes that dominate the album, that we should all admire him because he's so darn rich and so darn sexy. If Rihanna's new disc "Rated R" displayed deep reservoirs previously untapped in her earlier discs, "Graffiti" shows a shallow and soulless Brown well hidden until now.

Sometimes, great art is made by reprehensible human beings, and squaring the two is enormously difficult. Thankfully, that problem isn't nearly as thorny when reprehensible human beings make art that is thoroughly mediocre and at times just garbage.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from December 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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