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March 2010 Archives

Usher, "Raymond v Raymond" (LaFace) 1 star

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When the R&B world last heard from Usher Raymond IV, on "Here I Stand" in 2008, the former teen prodigy from Atlanta finally had become a man. Leaving behind the solipsistic and ungentlemanly kiss-and-tell aspects of "Confessions" (2004), which chronicled his split with Rozonda "Chili" Thomas of TLC, he moved on to sing about the much more mature topics of struggling to be a good father and a faithful husband. But "Here I Stand" was a commercial disaster compared to "Confessions," and the 31-year-old singer has since divorced the spouse so lovingly portrayed on the last disc, his former stylist Tameka Foster. For studio album number six, he revels more than ever in hollow player posing and empty sexual braggadocio, and delivers the sleepiest and least inspired album of his career.

Incredible art can be made from the soul-wrenching tragedy of divorce--witness Marvin Gaye's "Here, My Dear"--but the Usher songs that most directly address his recent drama, the vapid "Papers," "Foolin' Around" and "Guilty," don't even rise to the level of reality TV melodrama. Even worse are the songs where he attempts to reassert how irresistibly desirable he remains, including the annoyingly inane "So Many Girls" and the obnoxious "Lil Freak," an account of attempting to arrange a ménage a trois with two lesbians that would embarrass R. Kelly, if only for the fact that it unjustifiably lifts the synthesizer hook from Stevie Wonder's immortal social critique, "Living for the City."

Add to these sins the usual pointless cameos (from a sleep-rapping Ludacris to the ubiquitous Will.I.Am), a complete waste of production talent (including Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and Polow da Don) and most of all a thorough lack of dancefloor-worthy grooves, and you have a dud that leaves you struggling to remember why Usher ever appealed, to say nothing of once appearing to be the post-Kelly R&B savior that R&B still desperately needs.

Demo2DeRo: The Vindits

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Though the Chicago quartet the Vindits earnestly admire a diverse group of indie-rockers known for their lo-fi recordings--from the Minutemen to Sebadoh to the White Stripes--there is nothing slapdash about the sound or the songwriting on the four songs from the group's new EP, "Shots," which shows a sophisticated use of dynamics, an evocative eye for telling lyrical details and a bounty of hooks.

Guitarists-vocalists Kyle Peterson and Matthew Lane, bassist-vocalist Paul Meister and drummer Janis Sayer came together in 2007 and have two earlier EPs to their credit, in addition to a well-articulated sonic goal: "Loud like a car crash, or soft like a dimly-lit barroom make-out while 'Crimson & Clover' plays on the jukebox." That's a promise that songs such as "Waiting" and "Another Way" fulfill--sample them at or the band is sure to play them when it celebrates its new release at the Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont, on April 22.

Club-Hopping: Watson Twins, Flesh Hungry Dog Show

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Though they're probably still best known for enveloping Jenny Lewis with gorgeous harmonies on her 2006 album "Rabbit Fur Coat," the Watson Twins, Chandra and Leigh, also have made some extraordinary music on their own, including their recent album, "Talking to You, Talking to Me." The pair performs at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln, at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 4. Tickets are $20 ($18 for Old Town members, $16 for seniors and children) via, or call (773) 728-6000.

One of the musical underground's most vibrant and diverse club nights, the Flesh Hungry Dog Show celebrates its fifth anniversary of monthly multi-media bacchanals at 9 p.m. Friday, April 2, at Jackhammer, 6406 N. Clark. The lineup includes the Joans, Bobby Conn + Burglars and the electro-glam act Brilliant Pebbles. Tickets are $12 online at or $15 at the door.

There has been no shortage of sad losses in the music world in recent weeks, from Alex Chilton on the national level to three local stalwarts, two of whom will be remembered in the coming days with fitting musical celebrations.

John Brazas, a.k.a. Johnnie Coolrock, was in many ways the ultimate fan: a regular at countless local gigs; a frequent correspondent on the Sound Opinions message board, keeping this critic and others on their toes; a musician (he probably reached his biggest audience when he contributed the power-pop gem "Good Girls" to the soundtrack for the movie "Roller Boogie"), and a tireless booster of local music who for a time ran a venue called the Sputnik Coffehouse in suburban Homewood. He was battling pancreatic cancer (there was a Sputnik reunion to benefit his health care costs last November) and he lost the fight when he passed away on March 18, though he is sure to live on in the hearts of the many who shared a gig or a beer with him.

Columbia student Jay Polhill, a talented photographer who loved to shoot local bands, was found dead in the Calumet river on March 2. Some of his many friends are paying tribute to his memory on Friday, March 26, with a concert at Metro, 3730 N. Clark St. Performers include the Ivorys, featuring his friend and roommate Brendan Lazar, Glasko, the Kickback and the Streets on Fire. Admission is free before 9 p.m., and the show also will include a presentation of some of his photographs and artwork.

Finally, Carlos Hernandez Gomez, who died of cancer in January, always will be remembered in these parts as a reporter's reporter--a fedora-wearing, hard-charging muckraker for Chicago Public Radio and CLTV. But he also was an avid music fan and a musician, and he was just as eager to talk about Dylan or the Beatles as he was about Daley or Obama. Fittingly, his wife, wife, Randi Belisomo Hernandez, family and friends, including the actor Joe Farina, will celebrate his passion with a memorial concert at FitzGerald's, 6615 Roosevelt Road in Berwyn, starting at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 8. Given his special love for the British Invasion, the music will include the Beatle Brothers, Phil Angotti and Brad Elvis, Eric Howell and a reunion by his own band, the Gear, with Farina serving as the master of ceremonies. Tickets are $25 in advance via or $30 at the door, and proceeds will benefit Living Water International, a faith-based, non-profit organization that helps communities in countries such as Haiti acquire safe drinking water.

Lilith Fair in Tinley Park, July 17

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Lilith Fair, the resurrected celebration of women in music, will pull into the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park on July 17, with tickets going on sale Saturday at 10 a.m., according to promoters Live Nation.

The fest originally was launched by singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan in 1997 as a feminist alternative to the original touring Lollapalooza, and it was active in its first incarnation through 1999. Headliners for the new festival include McLachlan, R&B great
Mary J. Blige, American Idol and pop princess Kelly Clarkson, pioneering hard-rockers Heart and indie-rock darling Cat Power.

Though the full list of artists performing over the course of the tour is an impressive one, not all artists are appearing at every tour stop. Also on the Chicago area bill: Vedera, Kate Nash, Meaghan Smith, La Roux and Vita Chambers, according to the tour's Web site.

Tickets are priced at $41.50 for lawn seats to $127 for reserved seating, plus service charges. Prices have not been announced for the "Gold Circle Tickets." Tickets available through or 1-800-745-3000.

SXSW Night Four: Anders Smith Lindall reports

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Contributor Anders Smith Lindall reports:

The last show of South by Southwest 2010--the tribute to Alex Chilton--was its one must-see event, and its emotional capstone. Starring original Big Star members Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel plus Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer (who played with the band in recent reunions for more than a decade), the gig drew special guests Mike Mills of R.E.M., John Doe (X), Chris Stamey (the dBs), Chuck Prophet (Green on Red) and more. In all the dozen and a half songs they delivered at Antone's formed a moving tribute to Chilton's artistry and legacy. (Read Jim DeRogatis's full review and his Chilton obituary.)

Otherwise, the conference and festival ended not with a whimper or a bang but a shiver. Chicago-like wind gusts and temperatures diving below 40 degrees on Saturday afternoon made hats, scarves and mittens the most-sought fashion accessories.

Aside from the Big Star performance, the best act I saw on this last day of Austin show-going was Miss Li, stage name of the Swedish songwriter, singer and piano player Linda Carlsson who played at the opulent, historic Driskill Hotel.

SXSW 2010 ends with a lot of love for Alex Chilton

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For many who attended South by Southwest 2010, the final day of the conference was all about power-pop great Alex Chilton, who died at age 59 on Wednesday.

It only made sense: As has often been said of the Velvet Underground, Chilton's beloved band Big Star never sold a lot of records, but it often seems as if everyone who bought one started a band--or became a rock critic. And the largest gathering anywhere in the world of people who loved his music took place over the last five days in Austin.

The celebration of Chilton's life and legacy began during the day at the convention center with a panel entitled "I Never Travel Far Without a Little Big Star," moderated by music journalist Bob Mehr, the former Chicago Reader rock critic now at the Memphis Commercial Appeal who broke the news of the musician's death, and who wrote the liner notes to last year's Big Star box set, "Keep an Eye on the Sky."

Mehr started by noting that a very different sort of discussion had been planned, and the initial impulse was to cancel the talk and Saturday night's showcase gig by the reunited Big Star after Chilton's death. Instead, both became a sort of Irish wake.

The surviving members of the original Big Star, drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel (the other key member, Chris Bell, died in 1978) were joined by Ardent Records founder John Fry via Skype from Memphis in recounting Chilton's uniquely musical and bohemian upbringing, and the optimistic early days of Big Star, which Chilton joined after already having had one career as a teen star in the chart-topping Box Tops.

Other participants on the panel--power-pop disciples Tommy Keene and Chris Stamey and Posies bandmates Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, who backed Chilton and Stephens in Big Star Mach II for the last 18 years--contributed anecdotes and insights stemming from their love of Chilton's singing, songwriting and virtuosic guitar playing, as well as diplomatically worded glimpses of his personality, which could rank second only to Lou Reed's in terms of cutting wit, brutal honesty and overall surliness.

Stephens recounted a meeting between Chilton and Charles Manson at Beach Boy Dennis Wilson's house and noted, "Manson had met his match." And Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, who had been invited to come to Austin for Saturday night's musical tribute but could not attend, passed along to the panel that, whatever one thought of his personality, it was consistent: "Alex was Alex all of his life."

Much later in the day--or actually early Sunday morning--the planned Big Star showcase at Austin's storied club Antone's turned into an all-star tribute that began after a few heartfelt words from the always humble and classy Stephens, and the reading of an eloquent tribute written by Chilton's wife Laura. (The two married last August.)

Then the man was celebrated in the most fitting way possible: through his music.

With Stringfellow and Auer leading the way, delivering gorgeous harmony vocals and intricate guitar and bass lines, and Stephens mixing the frenetic chaos of Keith Moon with the spot-on devotion to the groove so common in Memphis soul, a procession of guest musicians helped underscore both the timeless beauty of Chilton's best songs and the wide-ranging influence his music had across different genres and generations.

Relentlessly melodic and at times transcendent, there could have been no better way to bid Alex Chilton farewell (though Paul Westerberg of the Replacements certainly did a fine job with the op ed he wrote for the New York Times on Saturday).

Here is the set list and the roster of guests at Antone's:

1. "Back of a Car"

2. "Don't Lie to Me" (with Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets)

3. "In the Street" (with Kirkwood)

4. "I am the Cosmos" (Chris Bell song, with Chris Stamey of the dB's)

5. "When My Baby's Beside Me" (with Stamey)

6. "Big Black Car" (with M. Ward)

7. "Way Out West" (with Andy Hummel)

8. "Daisy Glaze"

9."Jesus Christ" (with Mike Mills of R.E.M.)

10. "For You"

11. "I'm in Love with a Girl" (with John Doe of X)

12. "The Ballad of El Goodo" (with a stunningly brilliant vocal by Sondre Lerche)

13. "Thirteen"

14. "Feel"

15. "Thank You Friends" (with Chuck Prophet)

16. "Nighttime" (with Evan Dando)

17. "Try Again" (with Dando and Amy Speace)

18. "September Gurls" (with the Watson Twins, Susan Cowsill, Mills and Hummel)

SXSW Night Three: Anders Smith Lindall reports

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Contributor Anders Smith Lindall reports:

The music industry in general, and SXSW-goers in particular, tend to be consumed by the latest thing. Instead of what's best, the focus is what's next: the next hot song, next buzz band, the next must-see showcase flogged in the next pithy tweet.

We're all guilty of it. But my Friday here in Austin shook me loose from that shortsighted mindset.

For that I can thank Smokey Robinson, the R&B giant and creative force of the Motown era who performed at the Austin Music Hall a day after delivering the conference keynote address. Leading a big band and wearing a Cheshire cat grin, he gave the crowd a crash course in his catalog--in itself a mini-history of American pop and soul that he embroidered with stories of working with Stevie Wonder and the Temptations.

His hits are indelible, and the versions played here were faithful, but Robinson and the band tweaked them just enough to sound fresh. In addition to "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "Get Ready," "My Girl" and "Tears of a Clown," there was a funky "I Second That Emotion," a stripped-down and smoldering "Tracks of My Tears," and a slow-burning "Ooh Baby Baby" that served as a vocal showpiece. The cheers for that one stopped the set, making the 70-year-old Robinson laugh, "Yeah, I still got it."

An inheritor of Robinson's legacy, Raphael Saadiq led off for the legend and nearly stole the show.

SXSW 2010: Night three, the showcases

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Honing to my trusty method of adapting Brian Eno's theory of "happy accidents" in the recording studio to a tired rock critic stumbling from club to club in search of chance musical discoveries, my third night in Austin yielded some great results, as well as a fair share of duds. But I'll mostly stick with recounting the peaks.

Intrigued by the name of a band from Minneapolis called Gay Witch Abortion, I started my night at a club called Soho (pretty much the diametric opposite of the Soho one would find in New York, but that's beside the point).


Gay Witch Abortion

A duo comprised of Shawn Walker on drums and Jesse Bottomley on guitar and (minimal) vocals, the band played a punishing brand of stoner-rock that incorporated just enough of a modern post-rock edge to justify the musicians' short haircuts. (No Sasquatch, these boys.) Touchingly, they also seemed to have their parents selling their merch at the back of the club. (Feel the raw power here.)

From there it was back to Mohawk Patio for a packed showcase of cutting-edge hip-hop and electronic acts promoted by Chicago's Biz 3 publicity firm.

How hip was the room? I spotted an incognito Perez Hilton--he was wearing a hat over his silly hairdo, and he stuck his conference registration badge inside a pocket as soon as he entered the club--frantically rushing to elbow his way in.

I had come for the much-buzzed female rapper Uffie, but things were running so late, I caught two other acts first.


Salem: Heather Marlatt, John Holland and Jack Donoghue

Salem is a trio from Traverse City, Michigan, though they also spent some time in Chicago, which creates a dense, difficult, sludgy but sexy sound that is simultaneously alienating and seductive, with elements of trip-hop, gothic darkwave, Southern hip-hop and electronic pop music. Part of me loved it, and part of me hated, but I certainly am intrigued enough to eagerly seek out their recordings as soon as I get home.



It was much easier to make up my mind about Maluca, a New York rapper of Dominican descent who affected fashion-model cool while wearing a SWAT helmet (don't ask me why) and moving in tandem with two dancers who flanked her. The artist's self-described "electro meringue" was not without its appeal, but her performance was flat and uninspired, and she seemed to be doubling her vocals over canned backing tracks. (Check it out here.)

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Summer Cats

Meanwhile, in the smaller side room at Mohawk--many Austin clubs have two stages, one inside and one outside--a quintet from Melbourne, Australia, called Summer Cats jangled through a delightful set that mixed equal parts vintage Go Betweens' pop sophistication and Beat Happening garage naivete. (Bop along while listening here.)



Finally, Uffie took the stage back outside. Born Anna-Catherine Hartley in Florida but raised in Hong Kong and now based in Paris, the globe-trotting rapper mixes synth-pop, electronica and hip-hop on her forthcoming debut album "Sex Dreams and Denim Jeans," a title that hints at the often very salty language and in-your-face sexuality of her lyrics. The word in the dance underground is that Ke$ha! pretty much ripped off her act from Uffie, but so far, I'd say Lady Gaga has it all over both of them.

From there, I headed back to Elysium, which was now hosting SXSW's "Japan Nite," for an artist called Omodaka.



A solo project by electronic composer Soicchi Terada, Omodaka mixed entrancing electronic sounds, strange video projections and a reworked space-age take on Kabuki theater, making for a set that was otherworldly both musically and visually. (Sample the music here.)

Night three ended for me back at Stubb's again (ugh) with a fascinating Bay Area act called Beats Antique.

Beats Antique.jpg

Beats Antique

Musically, producers David Satori and Sidecar Tommy create an unlikely mix of electronic burbles, live trance drumming and Middle Eastern drones, but just as important is the non-musical third partner in the core trio, bellydancer Zoe Jakes, who helps turn the already entrancing sounds into a full-fledged tribal fusion bacchanal. Recently signed with managers C3 Presents, it's a pretty fair bet they'll win a sweet slot at Lollapalooza. (Sample the music here.)

SXSW 2010: Day Three, the panels

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Though there were fewer newsworthy sessions during the penultimate day of panel discussions at the Austin Convention Center, I did catch two entertaining roundtables entitled "Meet the New Soul -- Same as the Old Soul?" and "Music Journalism in the Post-Print Era."

As with so many of these sessions attempting to answer open-ended questions, nothing much was decided during either talk. But the soul panel was notable for an appearance by Chicagoan Che Smith, better known as rapper Rhymefest, who pretty much stole the show.



The other panelists--Bob Davis of, New York attorney Judy Tint, Claudette Robinson of the Miracles and Motown fame, and rock critic Dave Marsh--all offered different definitions of what constitutes "soul music," and where it can and cannot be heard today. But with the tenor of all of his comments, as well as with an a cappella rap of a stunning new tracks about his child custody battle, Rhymefest made it clear:

Soul music is music made by people who are not afraid to bare their souls.

"Unless you've spent time in the south or the midwest, it's hard to grasp not the academic definition of soul music, but the blue-collar working-class definition of what it really is," Rhymefest said.

The co-author with Kanye West of "Jesus Walks," Rhymefest condemned the rampant sexism and consumerism in much of the best-selling hip-hop, and attacked the business model of an industry where an artist can sell 130,000 records, as he did with his debut "Blue Collar" in 2006, "and they still make you feel like a loser."

Rhymefest has parted ways with Clive Davis and J Records and is gearing up to release his next album "El Che" independently on May 18. And the sample he provided, two verses of "The City is Falling," indicates that he isn't backing off from telling it as he sees it--though he didn't exactly square how his support for Walmart jibes with his attacks on commercialism in music.

"Artists are supposed to mean something," the rapper said. "It would have killed me if Stevie Wonder had sold 'Ribbon in the Sky' to a cologne and an energy drink and made a reality TV show."

Here, here.

The post-print music journalism panel offered no such rallying cry as a group comprised mostly of young journalists (some excellent, such as Maura Johnston ex- of Idolator, and some verging on annoying gimmickry, such as Chris Weingarten) bemoaned the shrinking number of paying media outlets and the simultaneous proliferation of blogs that are more about promoting free MP3s than providing critical insights or significant journalism.

These are problems no music journalist would contest. But other problems went unmentioned. As noted in another post on this blog, the top Justice Department official responsible for approving the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger spoke at SXSW about 24 hours before this session, presenting herself to be questioned about one of the most important, far-reaching and controversial stories in the music industry during the last 25 years. Yet few journalists, online or otherwise, bothered to cover it.

And as of this writing, only one blog, run by activists the Future of Music Coalition, has posted an account of Varney's appearance -- that is, if you discount those hosted by the big, old, dead-tree-media institutions of the Sun-Times, the Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.

SXSW Night Two: Anders Smith Lindall reports

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Sun-Times contributor Anders Smith Lindall reports:

I suppose it can't be called an epiphany if I knew what I was in for. Whatever the phrase, the raw beauty and intense emotion of Thursday night's performance by the New York songwriter Sharon Van Etten felt like a spiritual experience. For me, it's hands down the high point of SXSW so far.

Fittingly, it happened in a church. Van Etten stood by the altar at St. David's, a modest old Episcopal sanctuary just up the hill from the mad carnival of 6th Street; here a few dozen rapt converts crowded in the front pews. Playing a hollow-bodied red Gibson guitar, she struck stark chords and let them ring or picked arpeggio patterns that glittered as they rolled. They perfectly framed her voice, which floated from a confessional whisper to a tingling ghostly cry.

Van Etten is a relative newcomer to performing and recording with just one album to her credit, last year's self-released disc Because I Was in Love. It's an intimate, inner-directed set of songs as the title implies, and it provided most of the fodder for this set. The standout track is the devastating, gorgeous "Much More Than That"; here its painstaking lyrics came to the fore--"I sigh and then I frown/I write this moment down/'Cause I cannot paint pictures with my tongue"--but the real magic was in Van Etten's ethereal, wordless sighs between each verse.

It's hard to imagine that she'll be playing for tiny clutches of listeners much longer. She certainly shouldn't be. Whether your tastes run to Sixties folkies Sandy Denny or Joan Baez, the pointillist intensity of Low or the elegant string-laden art-rock of The Velvet Underground and Nico, seek out Sharon Van Etten.


Elsewhere Thursday, I saw some new artists, checked out a few familiar faces, and caught several foreign bands.

SXSW 2010: Night two, the showcases

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Musically, round two of SXSW was much stronger for me, with the highlights starting during the day in the convention center with a group called Mumiy Troll, a long-running Russian rock band formed in Vladivostok in 1983 by the insanely animated vocalist and songwriter Ilia Lagutenko.


Mumiy Troll

The SXSW Web site had reported that the quartet had canceled its festival appearance and a short U.S. tour after Laguteno underwent an emergency appendectomy earlier this month. But there he was on stage, bounding about like a madman as the group churned out rollicking New Wave grooves behind him, bringing to mind a looser, more joyful version of early Public Image, Ltd. crossed with Devo.

Apparently, after years of surviving bans and persecution by the local Communist party, a burst appendix was nothing. (You can hear a sample of Mumiy Troll's joyful noise here.)

My evening started out back at Stubb's, which once again proved to be the wrong venue for the sublime Canadian rockers the Besnard Lakes, though the group fared slightly better in conveying the lush subtleties of its sound in that big dirt bowl than Broken Bells did on Wednesday.


The Besnard Lakes

Led by the husband-and-wife team of guitarist-vocalist Jace Lasek and bassist-vocalist Olga Goreas, the band has crafted one of the most winning albums so far this year in the stunning "Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night." As they delivered its gorgeous harmonies and haunting melodies while enveloped in clouds of stage fog, I couldn't help but think how incredible the group will sound when it performs a free show in Millennium Park on May 24.


The Soft Pack

Next up at Stubb's was the San Diego indie-rock quartet the Soft Pack, formerly the controversially named Muslims. The band's deceptively simple but rhythmically driving sound was better suited to the backyard frat party vibe of the venue, but it remains to be seen whether it holds up on record.

From there it was on to a club called Mohawk, where the restrained but powerful post-rock of the Madison quartet All Tiny Creatures evoked Tortoise jamming on Philip Glass. (Listen here.)


All Tiny Creatures

Even better was the enigmatically named jj, which has released two widely acclaimed albums of seductive electronic pop music. On record, jj is the Swedish duo of Joakim Benon and Elin Kastlander, but onstage at SXSW, Kastlander performed alone with digital backing tracks, bringing to mind a more cheerful and more zaftig version of Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico, with a laptop replacing the harmonium.


Elin Kastlander

My final highlight of day two came at a showcase for the stoner-rock record label Small Stone at the club Encore courtesy of the Los Angeles band Sasquatch, which sounds exactly like you would want a band named Sasquatch to sound.



Led by the whiskey-chugging, fire-snorting guitarist and vocalist Keith Gibbs and featuring former Chicagoan Jason Casanova on bass, the group's sound is rooted in classic Grand Funk Railroad, in terms of the arena-rocking melodies, though it's augmented with all manner of twisted psychedelic/metal chaos, from hints of Monster Magnet to touches of Blue Cheer. You can sample it here--and be sure to turn it all the way up for maximum impact.

For the second time since news of the merger of giant national concert promoters Live Nation and monopolistic ticket brokers Ticketmaster was first announced 14 months ago, the heads of those two companies, Michael Rapino and Irving Azoff, declined to speak to the assembled music industry at South by Southwest about the alleged benefits to the consumer and the music world.

However, Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney, the Obama administration Justice Department official who approved the settlement paving the way for the merger in late January, did travel from Washington, D.C., to take part in a panel discussion Thursday afternoon entitled "Creative Capitol: Music, Culture and Policy under Obama."


Christine Varney

SXSW Night One: Anders Smith Lindall reports

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Sun-Times contributor Anders Smith Lindall reports:

It's been a day and a half in the SXSW zoo. I haven't been run over by a pedicab, doused in patchouli, arrested, sunburned or succumbed to gout. In other words, in the big picture, all is well.

On the music front, as always here, you win some and lose some. I wasted 40 minutes on Denmark's Choir of Young Believers without catching a single song; instead I stood around through the end of the act before them--a petite Parisienne named Seko who played ukulele, sang about loving you as much as peanut butter, and was just as deadly twee as you imagine--and was treated to 20 minutes of the Young Believers tuning and checking sound before I split. On the plus side, I'd never come across Austin's Strange Boys but liked their woolly jangle, all sloppy, scrawled Chuck Berry riffs, ragtag guy-girl vocals and even a chugging sax.

In short, when trying to grasp and enjoy an event of such daunting scale, plenty of hoary tropes apply: Go with the flow. Follow your nose. Be in the moment. So an overflow crowd kept me from catching Nas with Damian Marley, and a few songs of Spoon seen from the back of a dense, milling throng left me cold. That only meant I lucked into hearing a last few songs from Via Tania, the buzzing art-pop project of adopted Chicagoan Tania Bowers. Shutouts at jam-packed gigs by Surfer Blood and Billy Bragg found me ending the night with Flying Lotus, nom de turntable of Steven Ellison, whose rolling blend of warm funk, hip hop and spongy dub stoked and chilled onlookers in a low room hung with red velvet and lit only by flickering images--outstretched arms, foliage, a drill bit entering a skull--projected on an overhanging screen.

Among other notable acts I saw later Wednesday:

SXSW 2010: Smokey Robinson's keynote address

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The music industry is in the midst of the biggest technological revolution since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, and almost everything about the business is undergoing radical change. But attendees at its biggest annual gathering wouldn't necessarily know that from the keynote addresses at the last few South by Southwest Music Festivals, which have spotlighted venerated elders and musical heroes of the past rather than current movers and shakers.

Last year, Quincy Jones reveled in self-serving anecdotes about his storied history, and this year's keynoter, Motown great Smokey Robinson, didn't seem to hold much more promise for addressing this historic and unprecedented upheaval. A much better choice for the agenda-setting address would have been producer Brian Burton, a.k.a. DJ Danger Mouse, whose new project Broken Bells already is one of the big hits of the fest, and who also has scored with Gnarls Barkley and Beck and had his own dramatic run-in with the changing industry via his controversial "Grey Album" mash-up of Jay-Z and the Beatles.

But the 70-year-old Robinson, a former Motown vice-president as well as leader of the Miracles and a prolific solo artist, turned out to be a welcome surprise. Famous for his warm and winning personality, he not only was much more charming than Jones or 2008 keynoter Lou Reed, but in between the usual stories of a celebrated career, he imparted a fair amount of timeless wisdom equally relevant to an up-and-coming young gospel singer or an aspiring composer of cutting-edge electronic sounds.

SXSW 2010: Night one, the showcases

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News of the death of Alex Chilton cast a pall over the first night of showcases at the South by Southwest Music Festival, with word spreading instantaneously via Twitter and cell phone text messages. But the music went on, as it always does.

My plan had been to start the night with Plastic Crimewave Sound. Though I usually make a rule of avoiding Chicago bands in Austin, since I can see them at home any time, Steve "Galactic Zoo Dossier" Krakow never fails to deliver a splendid psychedelic bacchanal, and I figured he'd really rise to the occasion for SXSW. Alas, writing up the news about Chilton caused me to miss their set at a club called Rusty Spurs (how very Texas), but I did see the group that followed them, the San Diego quintet Blessure Grave.

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Blessure Grave

The group's mournful, synthesizer-driven dirges seemed appropriately funereal at the moment, and their hypnotic trance grooves proved that it isn't only bands from Brooklyn that are mining the Joy Division sound. (SXSW posts sound clips from almost every band playing the festival; sample Blessure Grave here.)

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Broken Bells

My next stop was the much-buzzed showcase for Broken Bells at Stubb's. Irresistible on their recent self-titled album, I was curious to see if the gorgeous melodies created by unlikely collaborators James Mercer of the Shins and superstar producer Brian Burton, a.k.a. DJ Danger Mouse, would translate in concert.

Hiding in dark, moody lighting beneath impressionistic video projections, the duo and a drummer expertly recreated the lush pop of "Sailing to Nowhere" and "The Ghost Inside." But Stubb's hardly was the ideal venue for the group. The sound was excellent, but the venue--really a fenced-in sloping dirt bowl behind a barbecue joint, open to the elements and supremely uncomfortable--didn't allow listeners to really lose themselves in the cascading waves of sound. (The club is run by Charles Attal, one of the "three Charlies" behind Austin-based Lollapalooza promoters C3 Presents.)

From there I hit a lovably dumpy dive called Elysium (apparently a goth dance club when SXSW hasn't taken it over) to catch up with old favorites the Muffs.


The Muffs

Powerhouse frontwoman Kim Shattuck formed the group in 1991, and it had a brief moment as a buzz band when it was signed to Warner Bros. during the alternative-rock feeding frenzy. But the Muffs' ultra-melodic yet raw and raunchy garage rock always was too good for mainstream consumption, to say nothing of modern rock radio play.

Now a trio, the Muffs are gearing up to release a new album. And as evidenced by a rollicking SXSW performance, nearly two decades on, they remain an undeniable grungy good time.


Surfer Blood

Finally, the word of mouth about the West Palm Beach, Fla. quintet Surfer Blood compelled me to end the night at their showcase at a truly dreadful, cramped and poor-sounding joint called Wave Rooftop.

Blame it on my poor choice of which venue to see the band at--they reportedly hold this year's record for the most showcases by any band at the festival: an astounding 12 at different times and in different clubs, including sanctioned and unofficial gigs--but live even more than on their recent debut album "Astro Coast," Surfer Blood came off as yet another generic indie noise-rock band desperately wishing it could be the Pixies. (Hear for yourself here.)

Overall, a less than overwhelming start for this year's musical experiences. But there are three more days and nights and at least three dozen more bands to go.

Alex Chilton.jpg

Alex Chilton, a legend of the Memphis music scene and one of the founding fathers of the power-pop movement, died at a hospital in New Orleans on Wednesday, the victim of an apparent heart attack. He was 59 years old.

Chilton's hugely influential band Big Star was about to be celebrated at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, partaking in a panel session and a showcase gig on Saturday. The band was experiencing the latest in a series of career resurgences, thanks to the recent reissues of its celebrated albums from the '70s as the box set, "Keep an Eye on the Sky."

According to the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Chilton's native Memphis, the singer, guitarist and songwriter had been complaining about his health early Wednesday and was taken to the emergency room, where he was pronounced dead. "Alex passed away a couple of hours ago," Big Star drummer Jody Stephens told the paper. "I don't have a lot of particulars, but they kind of suspect that it was a heart attack."

Born William Alexander Chilton and raised in a musical family, Alex experienced his first taste of musical stardom at the tender age of 16 as a member of the Box Tops. His surprisingly deep, soulful and mature vocals propelled the 1967 single "The Letter" to No. 1 on the singles chart in the U.S. and many other countries, and his first group went on to score several other hits, including "Cry Like a Baby" (1968) and "Soul Deep" (1969).

When the Box Tops broke up in 1970, Chilton was left feeling jaded and bitter about the music industry, which he felt had exploited the group. He had lost none of his joy in playing music, however, and in 1971, he linked up with an existing group of Memphis musicians--Stephens, fellow guitarist and vocalist Chris Bell and bassist Andy Hummel--and Big Star was born as a band with a distinctive sound based in equal parts on the grit of Southern soul and the chiming guitars and irresistible harmonies of British Invasion pop.

Despite two brilliant records whose titles evinced Chilton's sardonic sense of humor and ingrained skepticism about the music industry--"#1 Record" (1972) and "Radio City" (1974)--and the warm embrace of pioneering rock critics such as Lester Bangs and Cameron Crowe, the band's label, Ardent Records, was unable to break the group on radio, and it struggled to find an audience during its original incarnation.

Reduced to just Chilton and Stephens, Big Star made one final record in 1978, alternately called "Third" or "Sister Lovers," and a dark night of the soul classic. "We've sort of flirted with greatness, but we've yet to make a record as good as Big Star's 'Third,'" R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck once said.

After Big Star broke up, Chilton went on to make a series of solo albums--among them strong discs such as "Like Flies on Sherbert" (1979) and "Bach's Bottom" (1981)--that won him a place on the fringes of the punk scene. But as punk yielded to the indie-rock movement of the mid-'80s, he became a true hero to a new generation of musicians, and elements of Big Star's sound were embraced by a new wave of bands led by R.E.M.

Such is the level of devotion in Chicago, where power-pop remains a thriving and much-loved genre, that a group of local musicians has for years thrown an annual "Alex Chilton Birthday Bash" to celebrate his songs every December.

Among the many bands that have proudly cited Big Star as an influence and put their own interpretations on its sounds are Chicago's Wilco and Material Issue, the dB's, Teenage Fanclub, the Posies (whose Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow fleshed out the reunited version of the band that has performed over the last decade), Game Theory, Matthew Sweet, Velvet Crush, the Bangles (who scored a hit with a cover of "September Gurls"), Ryan Adams, Cheap Trick (which covered "In the Street" as the theme song for the sitcom "That '70s Show") and of course the Replacements, who went so far as to write a song called "Alex Chilton."

"Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round," Paul Westerberg sang in the Replacements' tribute. "They sing... I'm in love with that song."

Those words stand as a fitting tribute to a great talent, survived by his wife, Laura, son, Timothy, and legions of fans whose lives were enriched by his music.

SXSW 2010: Day One, the panels

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From its humble beginnings as a regional music festival launched in the Texas state capital in 1987, South by Southwest has grown to become two weeks embracing three of the most respected and most-buzzed conferences worldwide--the film and interactive components were added in 1994--drawing tens of thousands of people from around the globe and generating an estimated $110 million annually for the Austin economy.

The music festival remains SXSW's largest component: It is the music industry's mix of Spring Break and the Cannes Film Festival, with 1,400 bands playing in 80 venues over the next five nights. But this year, attendance of some 10,000 at the interactive fest nearly rivals the 12,000 attending the music fest, though there also are tens of thousands of non-registered music fans, many from Chicago, swarming into the city to crash the official showcases or attend the non-sanctioned parties.

The interactive festival was winding down on Wednesday just as the music fest was starting up. But the two most interesting panels I caught at the Austin Convention Center on day one blurred the line between where interactive ended and music began.


Derek Sivers

Things kicked off with a session entitled "Successful SXSW: The Tao of the Conference," hosted by Derek Sivers, who is best known for launching the CD Baby Web site to help up-and-coming bands establish themselves and distribute their music outside the traditional record label system. Sivers sold the site to Disc Makers in 2008 for $22 million and moved on to other Internet ventures, but he used his talk to pass on advice for musicians who have come to Texas to be heard, but are struggling to stand out amid the sometimes overwhelming din of so many bands.

A musician himself, Sivers didn't pull punches: Musicians are used to getting in front of a microphone and sharing their lives with the world, he said. To make connections at a conference such as SXSW, the trick is to listen more than to talk.

"People are the reason you paid so much money and came so far," Sivers said. "So indulge deeply."

Drawing from his own wealth of anecdotes as well as showing brief video interviews with other musicians with wisdom to impart, Sivers made the case for even the most introverted artists pretending to be extroverts--at least for a couple of hours a day during the conference--in order to meet people who may be able to help their careers down the line. This is best accomplished not by hyping themselves, he said, but by listening.

"Be interested. Listen deeply. And ask questions like a reporter," Sivers said.

I like that last part, as much as I like the idea of a New Media Guru lauding the timeless techniques of good old-fashioned dead-tree media.


Ray Beckerman

Much less inspiring and much more sobering and frightening was a talk later in the day called "Recording Industry vs. The People" by New York attorney Ray Beckerman, who also writes a blog by that name.

Set in one of the smaller, darker and colder rooms off the beaten track in the vast convention center, the session was both Orwellian and Kafkaesque as Beckerman described the unrelenting legal campaign that the Recording Industry Association of America has waged against its own customers in a crusade to stop what it calls illegal downloading. (The paid lobbying group of the major-label recording industry, the RIAA has filed about 40,000 of these cases to date, and it shows no signs of relenting.)

While the goal of stopping copyright infringement may be noble, Beckerman portrayed a battle that has been anything but, with judges who have little to no understanding of the technology at the heart of the cases they're hearing; RIAA investigators and attorneys using thuggish, bullying tactics that seem intended more to harass people than to get at the truth or recover legitimate damages; a hit-and-miss approach to suing people who pay for an Internet connection rather than providing solid proof that anyone at that ISP address actually committed illegal file sharing ("More than half of the cases that have been brought have been against people who did not commit copyright offenses," Beckerman claimed) and most of all fines that are far out of proportion to the actual damages.

Beckerman estimates that the actual cost in lost royalties to an artist from someone illegally downloading a song that sells on iTunes for 99 cents is about 35 cents, since that's the average royalty the artist would have received from the record company for that tune. But the RIAA seeks and secures fines that range from a minimum of $750 to a maximum of $150,000 per song--or 2,200 to 450,000 times the actual damages.

Also frightening is the fact that President Obama's Justice Department has so far filled six of its top slots with attorneys who worked for the RIAA and brought lawsuits against alleged illegal downloaders--dashing hopes that the administration might take a more forward-looking approach to the issue and bring some sanity to the problem of copyright infringement in the digital age.

For all of the bad omens, however, Beckerman ended his talk on a positive note. "We are entering a golden age of music," he said, "where more people can make a living [making music]. The age of platinum acts selling millions of records is decreasing, but the age of artists eking out a living by selling their art is increasing," via the possibilities for the Net making micro-payments to artists digitally distributing their own work.

That certainly is the hope of every band I'll see tonight, or throughout the rest of SXSW 2010.

SXSW Day One: Anders Smith Lindall reports

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Sun-Times contributor Anders Smith Lindall reports:

Wed., 12:25 p.m.: It used to be that South by Southwest didn't really get rolling until Thursday. Wednesday's sparser schedule of official evening showcases and unofficial day parties made it a transition day; this was the time to arrive and get settled, maybe catch a few bands, dip your toe in the pool before diving right in.

No more. With the success of SXSW expansion into film and interactive portions that precede the music conference and festival, the city is already jammed when us rockers arrive. My flight touched down shortly after 10 on Tuesday night; by 11 I'd encountered my first block-long line outside a downtown venue. The circus is always in town.

I did manage to navigate that line in time to catch the first-ever performance from Jakob Dylan and Three Legs, the rock scion's new band that features Neko Case, Kelly Hogan, and Case's sidemen Barry Mirochnick (drums), Jon Rauhouse (steel), Tom Ray (bass) and Paul Rigby (guitar).


Phish to kick off summer tour in Chicago

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Jam giants Phish will kick off its summer tour on June 11 in Chicago at Toyota Park.

An "online ticket request period" is currently underway at, ending on Friday, March 26. Tickets go on sale to the general public on Friday, April 2.

Phish had been one of the bands rumored to be playing Wrigley Field this summer; Elton John and Billy Joel were another, but they were ruled out a few weeks ago. That leaves Paul McCartney and Dave Matthews still in the Wrigley rumor mill.

Two additional Phish shows announced: Saturday and Sunday, August 14 and 15, at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, WI. Tickets on sale Saturday, April 3 at 10 a.m.

Though three-quarters of the Chicago music scene is either already in or en route to Austin, TX, for the South by Southwest Music Conference, the music news doesn't stop back home in Chicago. In fact, an enterprising reporter can even glean some useful nuggets on the plane!

The most exciting musical development in the city's summer concert scene after the Pitchfork Festival--and, one could argue, even better in some ways, because it's free--the "Downtown Sound" series of after-work concerts will be back this season on Mondays in the Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park. The full schedule is:

May 24:
Hypnotic Canadian psychedelic rockers the Besnard Lakes with local punk heroes the Ponys

May 31:
Venerable downstate guitar wizards Hum with rockers Volcano!

June 7:
Singer-songwriter team She and Him (Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward) with Chicago's Hollows

June 14: Afrobeat giant Tony Allen with Great Lake Swimmers

June 21: Indie-rock duo the Books with Via Tania

June 28: Huntsville with On Fillmore and Wilco guitarist Nels Cline

July 5:
Indie rockers The Thermals with local buzz band Disappears

July 12: Canadian electronic musician Caribou with Budos Band

July 19:Hometown hip-hop heroine Kid Sister with Konono No. 1

July 26: Gospel goddess Naomi Shelton with Bomba Estereo

The Eagles coming to Soldier Field

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The local office of giant national concert promoters Live Nation has announced that the legendary country-rockers the Eagles will perform at Soldier Field with openers the Dixie Chicks and Keith Urban on Saturday, June 19.

Tickets go on sale Monday, March 29, at 10 a.m., though American Express Cardmembers can buy them earlier, starting Monday, March 22.

No ticket prices have been announced for the Chicago show, though they are likely to be steep: The Eagles have been one of the prime forces over the last 15 years driving ticket prices first past the $100 mark, then past the $200 mark, with some of the most egregious service fees in the industry tacked on top of that.

According to Live Nation, service fees won't be an issue at Soldier Field. Its press release notes, "The concert utilizes All-In ticketing, which allows fans to purchase tickets without any added fees and streamlines the ticket buying process."

The Eagles famously are managed by Irving Azoff, who also happens to be the CEO of Ticketmaster, newly merged with Live Nation and eager to calm fans' concerns about skyrocketing prices. But "All-In" ticketing doesn't mean cheaper seats; it just means that service fees are folded into the face price of the ticket.

Although there are some $45 tickets in the nether regions of the Hollywood Bowl for the Eagles' upcoming performances there in April, the best seats are priced at $275 -- with VIP packages there and at other tour stops priced as high as $995.

Club-Hopping: Air, the Appleseed Cast

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Long before the members of Phoenix were generating a major buzz as the hippest French export since Serge Gainsbourg (if not Bridget Bardot), their mentors in the duo Air, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel, were making some of the coolest ambient/electronic pop music this side of Brian Eno. Touring in support of their latest album "Love 2," they come to the Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine, at 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 24. AM opens, and tickets are $32 via, (312) 559-1212.

Indie/underground favorites the Appleseed Cast never disappoint in concert, but on their current tour, they're putting a special twist on things, performing two of their best-known albums, "Low Level Owl, Vol. 1" and "Low Level Owl, Vol. 2," back to back in their entirety. The group performs at the Bottom Lounge, 1375 W Lake St., after openers Dreamend (featuring Ryan Graveface of Graveface Records and Black Moth Super Rainbow) at 8 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $15 via; call (312) 929-2022 or visit

Demo2DeRo: The Maybenauts

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Little more than a year old--they played their first show in January 2009--the Maybenauts have the sort of imaginative arrangements (glam-rock to psychedelic pop), sophisticated melodies (three-part vocal harmonies a specialty) and cohesive vision (think of a '60s go-go bacchanal in outer space) lacking in many power-pop groups that have been slogging it out for a decade or more.

Lead vocalist and keyboardist Leilani Frey and bassist and backing vocalist Ellie Maybe are old friends who've been harmonizing and writing songs together for years. Guitarist Vee Sonnets came into the fold while Maybe was recording a solo record, "Meet Ellie," and the Maybenauts were completed by drummer Emily Agustin. The quartet already has won some impressive fans--Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go's produced its debut single, "My Head Is A Bomb," released digitally--and the band is issuing its first full album on March 21. Meanwhile, you can listen to its alternately grungy and giggly tunes online at, or see the band onstage at Cigars & Stripes, 6715 W. Ogden in Berwyn, on Friday, March 26, and at the Cubby Bear, 1059 W. Addison, on Thursday, April 8.

Julian Casablancas: Stroking out on his own

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With the Strokes missing in action since "First Impressions of Earth" in 2006, singer and songwriter Julian Casablancas took a cue from several of his bandmates and went the solo route late last year, stretching out in some unexpected directions on "Phrazes for the Young."

Though the Strokes are finally finishing album number four--as well as gearing up to play a headlining slot at Lollapalooza in Grant Park this August--Casablancas is in the midst of a solo tour that will bring him to the Vic Theatre on April 6. We spoke by phone from New York as he prepared to return to the road.

Chicago's southern migration

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With the music component of South by Southwest 2010 set to begin on Wednesday--following the newer interactive and film festivals which now precede it--the annual migration of local artists to the (hopefully) warmer and sunnier environs of Austin, Texas, is underway.

I'll be blogging from the festival regularly, aided and abetted by Sun-Times contributor Anders Lindall. Meanwhile, here is a look at some of the local musicians who'll be among the thousands of artists from around the world showcasing at the hundreds of official gigs (which sometimes seem to be augmented by twice as many unofficial shows).

These showcases are attended by myriad journalists, industry insiders and just plain music fans. And after Texans, one of the biggest groups represented at the festival is Chicagoans enjoying the music business answer to Spring Break--it's sometimes as hard to avoid running into familiar faces as it is on Saturday night in Wicker Park.


The Forecast (from Peoria), 1 a.m., Amsterdam Café, 121 W. 8th

Califone, 12 a.m., Club de Ville, 900 Red River

Moneypenny, 12:15 a.m., Dirty Dog Bar, 505 E. 6th St.

Hannibal Buress (comedian), 10 p.m., Esther's Follies, 525 E. 6th St.

Plastic Crimewave Sound, 9 p.m, Rusty Spurs, 405 E. 7th St.

Stephanie Nilles, 8 p.m., Stephen F's Bar, 701 Congress Ave.


Mittens on Strings, 8 p.m., The Ale House, 310 E. 6th St.

The Cool Kids, 6 p.m., Auditorium Shores Stage, Riverside Dr & S 1st St

Yourself and the Air, 11 p.m., BD Riley's, 204 E. 6th St.

Hollywood Holt, 10:50 p.m., Beauty Bar Backyard, 617 E. 7th St.

Maps & Atlases, 1:15 a.m., Emo's Jr, 603 Red River St.

Common Loon (from Champaign), 7:30 p.m., Maggie Mae's Gibson, 512 Trinity St.

Moneypenny, 12:45 a.m., The Phoenix, 409 Colorado St.

Joe Pug, 12 a.m., St. David's Bethell Hall, 301 E. 8th St.

Anni Rossi, 12 a.m., St. David's Historic Sanctuary, 301 E. 8th St.

Love of Everything, 9 p.m., The Velveeta Room, 521 E. 6th St.

Joan of Arc, 1 a.m., The Velveeta Room, 521 E. 6th St.

Light Pollution (Western Springs), 12 a.m., Wave, 408 E. 6th

Skybox, 8 p.m., Wave Rooftop, 408 E. 6th


Cheap Trick (Rockford), 8 p.m., Auditorium Shores Stage

Rebel Diaz, 10:20 p.m., Club 115, 115 San Jacinto St.

Patrick Stump (Fall Out Boy goes solo), 11 p.m., Dirty Dog Bar, 505 E. 6th St.

Flosstradamus, 12 a.m., Emo's Jr, 603 Red River St.

The Fold, 12 a.m., Friends, 208 E. 6th St.

Cast Spells, 9 p.m., Habana Calle 6, 709 E. 6th St.

Yakuza, 11:35 p.m.,Headhunters, 720 Red River St.

The Atlas Moth, 1:20 a.m., Headhunters, 720 Red River St.

Smith Westerns, 11 p.m., Latitude 30, 512 San Jacinto St.

Kid Sister & Flosstradamus, 10:40 p.m., Malverde, 400B W. 2nd St.

The Cool Kids, 11:30 p.m., Mohawk Patio, 912 Red River St.

Kidz in the Hall, 10:45 p.m., Scoot Inn, 1308 E. 4th St.

Hey Champ, 8 p.m., Spill, 212 E. 6th St.

Flosstradamus, 7:30 p.m., Stubb's, 801 Red River St.

Psalm One, 11:55 p.m., Victory Grill, 1104 E. 11th St.


Joan of Arc, 12 a.m., Galaxy Room, 508 E. 6th St.

The Hood Internet, 11 p.m., Karma Lounge, 119 W. 8th St.

Waco Brothers, 11 p.m., Red Eyed Fly, 715 Red River St.

Willy Joy, 8 p.m., Speakeasy Kabaret, 412 Congress Ave.

Kelsey Wild (Byron), 9 p.m., Stephen F's Bar, 701 Congress Ave.


Led Zeppelin 2, 12 a.m., Emo's Main Room, 603 Red River St.

Demo2DeRo: The Ragtones

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As bands' boasts of an unlikely combination of influences go, I haven't heard a wilder one than the way guitarist-vocalist Chris Oakes described the Ragtones: as a combination of Tom Waits, the White Stripes and Nine Inch Nails. (Forget about "one of these things is not like the others"; none of them are!) Yet if the Chicago trio doesn't quite pull off that unholy marriage, it's easy to see what he was getting at: The band boasts a timeless, amorphous rootsiness at the same time that it feels thoroughly modern and sometimes downright alien.

Initially formed to provide the backdrop for a fashion show, the response to that one-off live show was so encouraging that the group decided to keep going, and it's been playing out regularly since early last year. The Ragtones--which are completed by keyboardist Jeremy Tromburg and drummer Mike Mazzola--are about to release a 10-song album aptly entitled "The Ragtones Time Travel Extravaganza." A generous sampling of their songs is streaming online at, and the band will perform at Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee, on Monday, March 22.

Big noise from the Big Pink

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As half of the much-buzzed London duo the Big Pink, Milo Cordell grew up surrounded by music. His father, Denny Cordell, was an in-demand record producer in the '60s, working with Joe Cocker, the Moody Blues, Procul Harum and Georgie Fame, among others.

"My whole family--brothers, friends, everyone I know--is completely immersed in music," Milo says. "So many different kinds of music were around when I was younger, it was like I didn't have a choice. Not that I was forced into it, but when you get that bug, especially if you fall in love with music at a young age, you're f---ed, because there is nothing else you can do."

Nevertheless, Cordell never planned on being in a band, and he didn't play an instrument until recently. His entre into the music world was as the founder of a small labor-of-love independent label, Merok Records, best known for nurturing the Klaxons and the Teenagers early on and, more recently, releasing the work of New Jersey art-rockers Titus Andronicus. But about two and a half years ago, Cordell was hanging out with his childhood friend, guitarist Robbie Furze, and the two started tinkering in Furze's home studio.

Broken Bells, "Broken Bells" (Columbia) 3 and a half stars

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As an unexpected, left-field, typecast-busting side project similar to Gorillaz, the new collaboration between producer Brian Burton (better known as Danger Mouse, the auteur behind "The Grey Album," Gnarls Barkley and Beck's "Modern Guilt," among other worthy undertakings) and James Mercer (leader of the heartstring-tugging jangle-pop band the Shins) seems on the surface less likely to produce a pure pop gem. But the self-titled debut by this underground supergroup not only finds both artists stretching outside their comfort zones, it boasts some of the most striking songwriting that either talent has given us.

Veering from his usual working methods in the studio, Burton relies much less on samples and more on a large array of live instrumentation, including wheezing old-school keyboards and ambient synthesizers that could have been used on Brian Eno's "Another Green World." Meanwhile, the notoriously introspective Mercer sounds positively jaunty at some points (the gleeful waltz, "Sailing to Nowhere") and downright funky at others ("The Ghost Inside"), and he bravely stretches out as a vocalist to a deeper register at one extreme and a flittering falsetto at the other.

As already noted, however, the strength of the melodies carry the day, and they're strong enough to appeal to folks who've never heard anything else these new partners have done (and couldn't care less). In addition to the tracks mentioned above, other standouts include the indelible opener "The High Road," the '60s pop-inflected "Your Head Is On Fire" and the toy piano-driven "October."

Gorillaz, "Plastic Beach" (Virgin) 3 and a half stars

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Since the long silence on record from Britpop heroes Blur--their last album was "Think Tank" in 2003--singer and bandleader Damon Albarn has hardly been absent from the music scene. His many other endeavors include numerous worldbeat projects ("Mali Music," "Monkey: Journey to the West" and producing Amadou and Mariam among them), the awkwardly titled The Good, the Bad and the Queen and of course those post-modern Banana Splits (or "virtual hip-hop group," as he prefers), Gorillaz. With all of this musical activity, plus a seemingly short-lived Blur reunion last year, fans are forgiven for suspecting that Albarn was distracted while crafting Gorillaz' newest. Yet while the animated genre-blenders' third effort is much more laidback and low-key than its predecessors, it is no less rewarding.

Following the prevailing trend of too much big-name hip-hop product circa 2010, "Plastic Beach" is lousy with cameo appearances, from the ubiquitous Snoop Dogg to De La Soul, soul legend Bobby Womack to punk godfather Lou Reed, and Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of the Clash to the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music. Yet the focus never strays far from Albarn's prevailing sonic vision of one ever-shifting, globe-spanning groove adorned with dark yet captivating melodies, paired here with conceptual partner Jamie "Tank Girl" Hewlett's latest alternate-universe concept of a floating island of trash alienating humanity from the natural world, though nevertheless full of hidden and unexpected treasures.

More dense and downbeat the self-titled 2001 debut or "Demon Days" (2005) and lacking a jump-out hit like "Clint Eastwood" or "Feel Good Inc.," the cartoon simians' latest offering actually feels more of a piece than the other albums, and it provides a beginning-to-end journey of an entrancing if slightly sinister world that exists only in the space between your ear buds.


Evocatively named for a remote and gorgeous body of water in North-Central Saskatchewan and led by the husband-and-wife team of guitarist-vocalist Jace Lasek and bassist-vocalist Olga Goreas, who spend their days running Montreal's hip Breakglass Studios, the Besnard Lakes have built a devoted cult following over the course of two albums ("Volume One" in 2003 and "The Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse" in 2007) that found a middle ground between the folkie, back-to-nature sounds and vibes of so-called "beard rock" (think indie raves such as Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes) and the early '90s psychedelia of shoegazers like My Bloody Valentine, Lush and Ride. It's a big, sprawling sound that the group likes to explore on big, sprawling songs, and its third album is its most epic offering yet.

Featuring not one but two stunning two-part suites--"Like the Ocean, Like the Innocent" and "Land of the Living Skies"--"...Are the Roaring Night" is an expansive canvas leisurely colored with muted, twilight tones, courtesy of hazy walls of guitar, whispered harmony vocals and sleepwalking rhythms. In fact, it may be a bit too sleepy for anyone with attention deficit disorder--nothing here rocks as hard or feels as immediate as the last album's standout, "Devastation." But for those who relish losing themselves in great, enveloping washes of sound, it's irresistible--and it's just a bonus that it includes the best enigmatic Chicago anthem since the Handsome Family's "The Giant of Illinois," via the hypnotic "Chicago Train."

Mark Linkous, Sparklehorse, R.I.P.

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The last time I interviewed Mark Linkous, the singer-songwriter better known to a generation of underground music fans as Sparklehorse, he spoke emotionally and directly about how his battle with depression had delayed his 2007 album "Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain" for nearly five years. At the time, he was feeling better and proud that the album had finally come out.

"I'm not saying I'm safe now--that I might never be depressed again--but it's not as dangerous as it was," Linkous told me. "You know, there's a great line in that show 'Deadwood,' where Calamity Jane says, 'Every day, you have to figure out how to live all over again.' Well, that's how I feel."

Tragically, Linkous shot himself in the heart on March 6 in Knoxville, Tenn. He was 47 years old.

Born and raised in Virginia, Linkous signed to Capitol Records in the mid-'90s on the strength of a demo. He released the critically acclaimed Sparklehorse debut "Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot" in 1996, scoring a modern-rock hit with "Someday I Will Treat You Good," and landing high-profile tours opening for Radiohead and R.E.M. While on tour, he passed out after mixing Valium with prescription antidepressants, and wound up partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair for several months.

Linkous chronicled his surgeries and his recovery on the 1998 album "Good Morning Spider," and followed that with another strong effort in 2001's "It's a Wonderful Life." Often described as Southern Gothic or the darkest strain of alternative country, his distinctive sounds prompted a series of collaborations with other accomplished musicians, including one of his heroes, Tom Waits; Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips, and Danger Mouse, the superstar producer who is half of Gnarls Barkley.

Linkous reportedly was working on a new Sparklehorse album and was moving to Knoxville to set up a studio to finish it. And his collaboration with Burton/Danger Mouse and director David Lynch, a multi-media project called "Dark Night of the Soul," finally was cleared after a year of legal delays causes by Burton's record label to come out some time later this year.

Though he always suffered self-doubts, in 2007, Linkous described making music as the lifeline that lifted him up. "It hauled me out of the hole," he told me, adding that he hoped it could keep him "from slipping down into the vortex again and not being able to keep my head above water." Sadly, it was not enough.

Billy Corgan parts with more Pumpkins

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For many fans, the Smashing Pumpkins haven't really been the Smashing Pumpkins since bandleader Billy Corgan parted ways with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, the last remaining original member.

And the sounds that Corgan has crafted in the new millennium have more or less marked him as the sadly spent but still wildly egotistical Dennis DeYoung of his generation.

Nevertheless, for those who still care or truly are desperate for work, the Great Pumpkin's publicists have announced that he will be holding open auditions for a new bassist and a keyboardist "who is a fan of--and can play in the prog-rock style of--Jon Lord and Rick Wakeman." (They were in Deep Purple and Yes, respectively, kids.)

The same methodology was used to find current drummer Mike Byrne last year. Current faux-Pumpkins bassist Ginger Pooley allegedly left the band to raise her new baby--but take that with a grain of salt. It now turns out that Corgan's last parting with Chamberlin was not nearly as amicable as portrayed by his hype merchants at the time.

In a controversial new interview with Rolling Stone, Corgan now claims he fired Chamberlin. He also whines that, "There's a lot of days where you feel forgotten" (though probably not as forgotten as D'Arcy Wretzky).

The full interview is not online, but Rolling Stone does have a hype blurb with some choice quotes up here. It notes:

In a soul-baring, wide-ranging interview, Corgan discusses the idiosyncratic spiritual beliefs that saved him from suicidal depression (including his association with a vintage hippie cult called Source Family); opens up for the first time about his 2009 split with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin (Corgan says he fired him); reveals his father's heroin addiction (his dad was arrested two years ago with a needle still in his arm); says that he "loves" Jessica Simpson; and much more...

Corgan on His Critics: "Do I belong in the conversation about the best artists in the world? My answer is yes, I do," he says. "I've been too productive for too long, and despite what anybody wants to strip away from me, I am influential. I am. So all the Pitchforks in the world can try to strip me of every ounce of dignity, but I belong."

On the Pumpkins' Breakup: "Rather than break up the band, what I should have done is chuck James [Iha] out," Corgan says. "I should have just said to Jimmy [Chamberlin], 'You go to rehab, and we'll continue, and James, get the f--- out of here.' Instead, I fell on my sword for James, for what I thought was a friend."

On His Spiritual Beliefs: Corgan subscribes to the fashionable idea that we're building to a cataclysm, or at least a major vibrational shift, in 2012; he wonders what was really in the H1N1 vaccine; he fears that the United States is headed toward a Soviet Union-style economic collapse... But when pressed on details, he backs off: "I don't want to be a dead hero," he says.

On "Loving" Jessica Simpson: "If I go, 'Oh, we're just friends,' then it's like, 'Did they go out, did he dump her or she dump him, what happened?' It has nothing to do with any of that. Sometimes people just like being around each other, and good things come out of that. My goal in life is to love whoever I think is worth loving, and I think if people knew her like I knew her, they would love her like I do. It's really simple."

Meanwhile, the music world yawns and prepares for three nights of "American Idol."

Club-Hopping: The Black Eyed Peas, Jeff Tweedy

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Choose whatever adjectives you will to describe the Black Eyed Peas--pandering posers or hip-pop geniuses--they're vastly entertaining live onstage, and, Fergie and the other guys roll into the United Center, 1901 W. Madison, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 12, on the tour supporting their fifth studio album, "The E.N.D.," which already has racked up sales of 3 million in the U.S. alone. Ludacris and LMFAO open, and tickets are $49.50 to $89.50 via, (312) 559-1212.

On a rare break between Wilco tours, that band's leader plays two shows this weekend at the Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield, starting at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 12-13. Jeff Tweedy's solo gigs always are a prime opportunity to hear him road-test new material and reinvent old favorites, and proceeds benefit a children's scholarship fun. Tickets still remain for $50 via or at the Vic box office, (773) 472-0449; other price points vary.

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Rolling into Union Park on July 16 - 18, the Pitchfork Music Festival has unveiled its second batch of acts on the slate for its fifth year.

The new bands announced today include Canadian indie-pop supergroup Broken Social Scene; inventive rapper El-P; Animal Collective's Panda Bear; the venerable Jon Spencer Blues Explosion; Brooklyn art-rockers Bear in Heaven; New Jersey art-punks Titus Andronicus; Gary, Indiana emcee Freddie Gibbs; space-funk wizard Dam-Funk; Chicago glam-rockers the Smith Westerns; the much-buzzed indie heroes Girls and local psychedelic rockers Cave and Allá.

Single-day passes are on sale at for $40 per day, though three-day passes sold out in record time for the fest, shortly after going on sale a few weeks ago.

The day-by-day lineup so far is:


Modest Mouse

Broken Social Scene



LCD Soundsystem

Panda Bear

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion


Titus Andronicus

Bear in Heaven

Freddie Gibbs

The Smith Westerns




St. Vincent

Lightning Bolt


Cass McCombs

Here We Go Magic

Sleigh Bells




Meanwhile, in other Union Park music festival news, something called the North Coast Music Festival is set to take place at the West Side green space on Labor Day weekend, September 3-5, courtesy of "your friends & comrades @ Silver Wrapper, React, Cold Grums, Kingtello, & Metronome Chicago," according to the event's Facebook page.

The same source boasts that "this debut music festival promises to feature the world's greatest and most cutting edge electronic, indie, hip hop, jam and rock & roll artists," but there is precious little other information available about it to date.


At a time when bands that formed yesterday play arenas tonight and are forgotten tomorrow, the Silversun Pickups have built a career the old-fashioned way: with a slow but steady rise to stardom.

Rooted in L.A.'s hip Silver Lake club scene, guitarist-vocalist Brian Aubert, bassist Nikki Monninger, drummer Christopher Guanlao and keyboardist Joe Lester released their debut EP "Pikul" in mid-2005, followed a year later by the album "Carnavas." The buzz built through methods new and old--steady touring and radio play for the singles "Lazy Eye" and "Well Thought Out Twinkles," as well as tracks placed on video game, movie and television soundtracks--and last year, a few months after the release of their second album "Swoon," the musicians found themselves nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy.

"That was pretty weird, wasn't it?" Aubert says, clearly still bemused by the honor. "We like to joke that it was a slow year in music and that they just landed on us when they threw the dart at the dartboard!"

Citizen Cope: Thinking outside the box

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The music of Brooklyn's Clarence Greenwood, better known as Citizen Cope, has never fit neatly into any one box. There are elements of the singer-songwriter, the R&B soul man, the hip-hop street poet and the psychedelic rocker.

Think of a much less smarmy John Mayer crossed with Stevie Wonder and a hint of Randy Newman. As for Cope, as his friends call him, the only label that doesn't make him balk is the amorphous "urban folk."

"A lot of journalism and radio seems so segregated or divided and niche-oriented, whereas I know very few people who just listen to one type of music," the artist says. "Fans seems to just listen to the songs, whereas the record companies were always like, 'It's not fast enough or this or that enough,' or they don't want to play it on the radio or write about it in the newspaper. It affected me from the ego standpoint, but it never affected my determination to continue doing music."

Thomas Conner

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


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