Chicago star watchers have picked Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant out of some local crowds this week -- he enjoyed a meal Monday evening at David Burke's Primehouse at the James Hotel, even thrilling guests in the lobby with an impromptu jam session -- and Tuesday night he thrilled the crowd at Taste of Chicago by joining Los Lobos on the stage.
June 2010 Archives
If you missed the second Crossroads Guitar Festival last weekend -- Eric Clapton's now-annual shredder convention in suburban Chicago -- or if you just want to re-live the experience (with a much better view, perhaps), the whole thing was filmed and will be shown in movie theaters across the country and throughout the Chicago area at 7:30 p.m. July 27. Tickets are $15 plus a service charge. Check this list of area theaters and click for tickets.
Sia, "We Are Born" (Monkey Puzzle-Jive)
Macy Gray, "The Sellout" (Concord)
The cover of Sia's previous record, 2008's "Some People Have Real Problems," featured a close-up portrait of the youthful blonde clutching a handful of ink markers, with which she had just drawn lines and hearts on her own face. "We Are Born" looks similar, but this time the close-up shows a much more styled, made-up Sia. The marks are not her own -- they're carefully applied dots and squares, appliqued stripes and a rainbow of pipe cleaners in her hair. The visual representation evokes the music on each album; Sia has transitioned from an interesting singer making her own mark to one who now works for Sony's Jive label and is being mashed into some templates into which she doesn't necessarily fit.
Oh dear: a middle-age album. But if you're going to listen to a pop singer romanticize the ineffable vagaries of middle age and, yegods, menopause, wouldn't you rather listen to someone like Tracey Thorn, who's always carried herself with magnanimity and grace -- and who's not hungry for big hits because she's never really had any -- instead of some crisis-driven pop star upping the ick factor by singing about love as if he or she is still 22 and horny?
Last night he returned to the awards show stage with an acclaimed performance, but Kanye West was sued Friday by a rapper claiming he actually wrote the Grammy-winning West single "Stronger."
Joe Jackson couldn't sing that line much anymore -- Memphis is everywhere.
Wednesday at the House of Blues, for instance, Cyndi Lauper is performing. She'll do her big hits, no doubt, but she'll also be peeling songs from her new album of -- get this -- Delta blues classics. "Memphis Blues" is her latest CD, released last week, and it features Miss She Bop playfully reading tunes such as "I'm Just Your Fool," "Early in the Morning," "How Blue Can You Get" and "Crossroads," with an impressive array of guests including Allen Toussaint, B.B. King, Charlie Musselwhite and Jonny Lang. "I knew from the moment Allen Toussaint hit the keys in 'Shattered Dreams' that we were creating something really special," Lauper said upon the album's release. The disc closes with "Wild Women Don't Get the Blues," a recording that must become a bookend to her most famous hit, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."
Here's a sampler:
In other Memphis assaults on pop culture ...
Well, the show's just begun, but so far Kanye West has managed not only to avoid making a fool of himself but also remind us what a fierce and commanding rapper he can be.
For the first time in its 10-year history, the annual BET Awards ceremony opened Sunday night with a musical number: Kanye performing his latest single "Power," leaked from the new batch of recordings he's been laboring over for several months in Hawaii.
The transition was instructive. Pre-show cameras were focused on Soulja Boy on a sun-bleached platform outside the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, surrounded by fans who couldn't get inside for the real show. He was strutting around singing "Pretty Boy Swag," as vapid and meaningless a slice of artistic expression as you're bound to find anywhere.
Then the BET Awards logo blocked out the screen, and the wailing tribal chorus loop from Kanye's "Power" started up. After lying low since earning the disdain of everyone, including President Obama, by grabbing the microphone at last year's MTV Video Music Awards and insisting that Beyonce should have won Taylor Swift's award -- suddenly there he was, back on top. In fact, he was standing on a set designed to look like a mountain top, and he looked like Moses with a microphone stand as a staff. In silhouette throughout the performance, Kanye -- in a red suit with a large Egyptian bust on a chain around his neck -- writhed and gyrated, spitting out the bitter words of his new single. Most of those were bleeped out; sometimes long sections of the performance were silent because of the censorship. Sometimes the whole thing looked like a production number from a cheap "Lord of the Rings" musical, with Kanye cast as a more manic Smigel and seeking his precious self-respect again.
It was no life-changing performance, but here's to Kanye putting his mouth where his talent is, for a change, and providing at least a fleeting illustration for empty-headed tools like Soulja Boy what real hip-hop from the heart sounds and even looks like. Here's hoping the trophies tonight reflect a similar realization -- and that Kanye stays offstage and leaves us with this fine moment.
How do you think Kanye did in this comeback moment?
When circuses had live bands, mostly in the early half of the 20th century, they frequently employed a type of song called a "screamer." These were the blazing-fast tunes played as animals galloped 'round the rings or after a particularly daring feat had been performed. They're hard as hell to play -- ask a brass player what it's like to triple-tongue his instrument (though maybe not in mixed company) -- and they often pack in several music styles at once, with two melodies, just to add to the urgency of the cacophony.
Katzenjammer, the latest pop curiosity to blow in from Scandinavia, comes running out of its debut CD with a real screamer. An insistent, jabbing trumpet begins, then an urgently plucked banjo. A crowd punctuates the rhythm with shouts of "Hey!" Then a woman is singing, "This evening's too quiet / Oh, we need a real riot / to shake and to break and to bite like a snake!" The chorus warns of an impending storm amid a tempest of acoustic guitars, a balalaika, drums and four women having a weirdly urgent, Nordic hoe-down.
That's "A Bar in Amsterdam," only the first of such genre-crunching, multi-instrumental tracks on "Le Pop" from Norway's Katzenjammer.
Tributes to the late Michael Jackson have come from far and wide corners of the music world. One of the most interesting comes from Chicago's own Robbie Fulks. He's not a soul singer, though he is soulful. He's definitely not R&B. He's alt-country, roots music, No Depression all the way -- and over the course of the last eight years he's tinkered with a set of MJ covers, which he's now finally released as an official album.
"Happy: Robbie Fulks Plays the Music of Michael Jackson" (Boondoggle) features Fulks' earthy, country-fried takes on Jackson hits ("Black or White," "Man in the Mirror," "Billie Jean," etc.) and misses ("Ben," "Farewell My Summer Love," "Privacy"). There also are now two different takes on Fulks' rambling "Goin' Back to Indiana."
On the occasion of Jackson's death one year ago today, we caught up with Fulks to chat about this set, which has been rumored and bootlegged and possibly stolen by Chris Cornell ...
A wonderful thing happened when Michael Jackson died: We started seeing him as a musician again.
He'd had one comeback album, he was planning a comeback tour. He needed a comeback of any stripe. He wasn't the King of Pop anymore; he was Wacko Jacko. All we ever talked about was his detachable nose and his hyperbaric chamber and his unique take on child care (four stories above the street), not to mention the allegations of child molestation (one set of claims settled out of court in 1994, another resulting in acquittal in 2005). Granted, he didn't provide us much else to talk about. He spent much of his time in seclusion, and the music he did produce -- only two new albums in the last 20 years -- was uninspired and weak.
But 2009 was supposed to be the year he finally stood on the concert stage and came back, moonwalking his way out of those dark, tabloid-page shadows. With a "hee-hee!" and a hip thrust, he was going to remind us, finally, that despite whatever abuse he might have suffered or committed, he was a world-class performer and hitmaker with at least some measure of artistic legacy worthy of celebration.
Fred Anderson, jazz pioneer and keeper of the Velvet Lounge, had a heart attack on June 14 -- and he died today at age 81. An innovative sax man, Anderson helped found the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the kind of free-thinking, creative music organization you just don't see much of anymore. Much of the out-of-the-box jazz this city is known for grew and prospered because of Anderson. He was active to the end, and his energy will be missed.
The state's attorney general is investigating the Lollpalooza concert festival to determine if its performer contracts violate anti-trust policies, according to Vocalo blogger and former Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis.
DeRogatis is citing several sources claiming an official investigation of Lollapalooza and its organizers, C3 Presents, by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is under way -- and some subpoenas have been delivered -- looking into the annual three-day festival's "radius clauses" and whether they unfairly choke the Chicago music marketplace each summer.
The attorney general's office would not confirm an investigation Thursday afternoon to the Sun-Times. C3 Presents spokeswoman Shelby Meade declined comment this afternoon.
I'm fresh back from a lengthy overseas vacation. Spent some weeks gallivanting through Scandinavia, hitting some great record shops in Helsinki (who knew?) and just missing the Raveonettes in Copenhagen (drat!). Now onward to summer festival season in Chicago!
Since the change of hands, I've been meaning to mention the other folks who cover music for the Sun-Times. Their bylines were all over the place while I was gone, and will continue to be. I can't see every show, and often I defer to the genre expertise of some of these talented writers and critics ...
I get it now: All those screaming Beatles fans -- they were terrified.
In Alan Goldsher's new illustrated novel, Paul Is Undead, the current turn-classics-into-zombie-stories fad catches up the Fab Four, rewriting rock history to cast the Beatles as walking dead.
John Lennon, for instance, is turned into a zombie by another hungry zombie shortly after his birth. He then meets Paul, realizes the only way to secure him as a bandmate is to make him a zombie, too, and does the deed. (The description of the zombie transformation involves tongues and necks and it's way homoerotic.)
They tour the world, eating fans' brains an pursued by Britain's greatest zombie hunter: Mick Jagger.
The older I get, the more I suspect there's a trick But really there's no trip at all that doesn't result in a fall -- MGMT, "Siberian Breaks"
It was a model rock 'n' roll success story. College mates Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden form a band and get snatched up by Columbia Records, a major major label. Their debut album, 2007's "Oracular Spectacular," is a mildly trippy set of dance rock that hits a nerve with the festival crowds, going gold and selling 3 million digital downloads globally, according to Nielsen SoundScan. They enjoy such success that even before laying down any new tracks they decide to title their sophomore album "Congratulations."
What could go wrong?
Question No. 3: What sonic and stylistic elements distinguish the Chicago blues sound?
Question No. 17: What was the first film to use a rock 'n' roll soundtrack?
Essay No. 2: Elvis Presley and the Beatles made successive impacts on American rock 'n' roll. Discuss their historic and musical development. Then declare and defend your choice for which of the two was most significant to rock as a whole.
These are the kinds of questions students across the country (if they're lucky) strained to answer during recent final exams.
Yes, parents, your tuition might be funding a study of psychedelic rock, quizzes about the names of Brill Building songwriters or term papers about Michael Jackson.
The history of pop music is fast becoming an enviable elective course on university campuses across the country. UCLA's music history program offers a wide variety of pop music courses, from a Beatles overview to "History of Electronic Dance Music." Northwestern University offers a basic course called "The Cultural History of Rock Music" (though thus far it's been quarantined in the School of Continuing Studies). We even found one at the associate-degree level deep in the wilds of New Jersey: Raritan Valley Community College's "Rock 'n' Roll History and Culture."
Roll over, Beethoven, indeed.
Last fall, the members of the Chicago band Scotland Yard Gospel Choir were psyched and ready to play. They'd finished a second album for Bloodshot Records, "... And the Horse You Rode in On," and released it Sept. 15. Early reviews were good -- "a big leap forward with its sophisticated songwriting and production," said the Sun-Times -- and band leader Elia Einhorn said he thought it was the band's best work. He couldn't wait to unveil it live.
A CD release party was booked for Halloween at Subterranean. To warm up, the band planned some out-of-town gigs. On Sept. 24, six members of the band loaded the van and started rolling toward a show in Cincinnati. On Interstate 65 in Indiana, a tire blew out. The van swerved into oncoming traffic, then flipped and rolled over the median.
"It was f---ing horrible," Einhorn told the Sun-Times shortly after the accident. "I seriously thought we were going to lose one or two of the band."
Elvis Costello and the Attractions made the "Imperial Bedroom" album, their seventh, at the dawn of the 1980s. The band's heroic status in post-punk had begun to cement, they'd toyed with soul and country, and it was already time for a return to form. The tempos are mostly up (save the blues lounge ballad "Almost Blue"), the arrangements are big, the sound is fairly lush and dense. It's more complex than it sounds, and the songs click through a first listen before you really tune into the bitterness and fear lurking in the lyrics.
The same could be said of Bret Easton Ellis' Imperial Bedrooms (Knopf, $25, 192 pages) -- that it glides along with deceptive urgency and false cheer, with serpents coiled in the shadows -- at least at first. It's a return to characters, if not completely to form. This is, for whatever reason, a sequel to Less Than Zero (another Costello title), the debut novel that put Ellis on the literary map back in 1985. In that smart, zeitgeisty tour de force, chief narrator Clay revisits his Los Angeles home during Christmas break, floats through the remnants of a decadent, druggy, emotionally vacant existence and finally bails, heading to back to an East Coast prep school. The final impression: He at least recognizes a way out of the sense of doom gripping his friends and former girlfriend, and he might actually take it.
Imperial Bedrooms spoils that into-the-sunset idea.
(Latent/Razor & Tie)
Over the years, we've heard more and more from Michael Timmins. When the Cowboy Junkies sighed onto the scene with the surprise success of "The Trinity Session" (1988), we all fixated on the opiate voice of Margo Timmins, Michael's sister. On the 10 albums since, Margo has consistently haunted the band's soft, sluggish roots music. But chief songwriter and guitarist Michael has seeped slowly to the fore, musically and vocally. It's been a welcome intrusion.
"Renmin Park," the first in a four-part run of albums they're calling the Nomad Series, is art directed by Michael, inspired by three months he spent in China in 2008. Two decades have given him time and space to practice shaping the vast atmosphere created by Margo's airy voice. He's tried a lot of moody guitar effects, but here he uses samples and, more than in the past, his own voice as a spectral counterpoint to Margo's low, breathy singing.
Two pillars of '80s alt-rock, two anniversaries, two landmark albums. But don't worry, neither is jumping on the play-the-entire-album bandwagon. Not entirely.
"To do a whole album from start to finish on stage -- that idea bores me right away," says Johnette Napolitano, the brunette lead singer for Concrete Blonde. The band has kicked off a tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of its album "Bloodletting." "We'll lean a lot on the 'Bloodletting' stuff, but we had a solid base of fans before that record. Like I'm going to go out and not play [the song] 'Still in Hollywood'? I don't think so."
The Psychedelic Furs are still touring after reuniting early in the new century, and this summer marks the 30th anniversary of that similarly dark, gritty band's self-titled debut.
Singer Richard Butler was surprised to hear that.
"Oh, wow -- you're the first person to mention that," he said in a phone interview during tour rehearsals in Miami. "I hadn't thought of it. We're playing dates in England doing all of [the 1981 album] 'Talk Talk Talk.' ... It was a suggestion by our manager. I figured, if we're going to play any of our albums whole, that would be it. It's where the sound that came to be known as our sound came together. But that's not what we're doing on the full tour. No way."
Ahead of shows this weekend in Chicago, the two veteran singers reflected on the past and why in 2010 it's still worth dredging up.
Intriguing new book alert: Weeks back, when I wrote my obligatory introductory column, I mentioned how saturated the average American is these days with music, sound and noise. It makes it challenging to focus on the good stuff and really savor a song when we're being force-fed tunes all day long, from the CTA platform to the frozen foods aisle. Brandon LaBelle is "an artist and writer working with sound and the specifics of location," and his new book, Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life, explores this noise "pollution" beyond music, including the sounds of the street, the home, even the sky.
Will we ever see or hear Xtina outside the prism of other high-profile female artists? She hit big once fellow Mouseketeer Britney Spears opened the door for singers just like her at the turn of the century. Next, she decided to go raunchy, retreading Madonna's blazed trail with cheaper, inferior product. By 2006's "Back to Basics," she of the brassy voice at least tried to show it off in a wide gamut running from swing to techno. Ambitious, yes -- and clearly a vocal talent that could put most of the others to shame -- but a chameleon. Will she ever be unique?
The answer on "Bionic," at first, is a triumphant no. She has the technology, but she can't rebuild a respectable sound. Even Aguilera herself sounds bored with the overproduced dreck she has to sing on the title track, vowing to "get you with my electronic supersonic rocket, ah-ah!" Hearing her powerful, flawless voice made to jabber through the dancefloor mush of "Not Myself Tonight" is positively infuriating. "I'll go back to the girl I used to be," she promises, "but, baby, not tonight" -- and the electronics splice up her last syllable. Cuz that's all edgy and stuff. Whatever.
The city's cool Downtown Sound: New Music Mondays concert series is under way. Grunge-era Illinois rockers Hum regrouped again last week to play, and Besnard Lakes kicked off the series before that. This is the smartly curated series that brought Red Red Meat and the Feelies back to life last summer.
Tonight -- if you haven't had Zooey Deschanel overload lately -- the creative trio She & Him (M. Ward and Deschanel, above) return to Chicago for a Downtown Sound show at 6:30 p.m. in Millennium Park. Also on the bill: fiery Chicago pop-punk band the Hollows.
Here's the rest of the lineup for these free concerts in Millennium Park through the end of July ...
It's called a riff -- that chord progression or melodic twist that repeats and repeats, giving a rock song a chugging foundation. In classical music, this device is called an ostinato, derived from the Italian word for stubborn. The Fall, in every one of its myriad incarnations around the central snarling demon that is Mark E. Smith, are masters of the riff. Fall songs start the riff early, jumping them like a motorcycle crank. As the riff rumbles -- stubbornly, so stubbornly -- Smith is then free to mutter and mumble and bellow and bark until the riff is shredded and spent and the engineer finally just shuts off Smith's saliva-covered mic.
Think of Ravinia as the anti-Lollapalooza. Over three days each August, Lollapalooza runs thousands of fans through a marathon of hundreds of bands. There's the walking back and forth and back and forth between stages. There's the dusty skillet of Grant Park in the summertime. There's the difficult decision-making when you realize you can't be at two stages at once. It's a blast, make no mistake, but it's exhausting.
Ravinia is the country's oldest outdoor music festival, and it's in no hurry. Take the summer, explore and enjoy its music. Picnic on its cool lawn, kick your shoes off. Arrive early, stay late. It's a hike into the far north 'burbs, sure, but it's definitely relaxing.
Ravinia will never corner the market on Lolla's pop-rock cred, but every so often the festival's pop lineup shows signs of at least some creative effort. This year, the schedule has a few perennials -- I keep waiting for the summer Patti LuPone and the BoDeans finally just book a double bill -- and a few are mercifully absent (no Elvis Costello! no Indigo Girls! no Tony Freakin' Bennett!). While this summer's new blood doesn't exactly set the heart racing, here are five sure bets worth the pavilion ticket price and five shows perfect for lying back on the lawn:
Speaking of large bands of nice people playing sweet, thoughtful soft rock: Scotland's Belle & Sebastian have announced a tour. It's a small one -- only nine dates, from Sept. 30 in Brooklyn to Oct. 17 in San Francisco.
In between: Oct. 11 at the Chicago Theatre. Tickets are $39.50 plus fees, on sale at 10 a.m. June 12 (800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com).
The still-nebulous group hasn't toured the United States in four years. They're allegedly wrapping up a new album, but we've heard this before.
Bono cracked his back in rehearsals, had emergency surgery, wound up having to postpone a world tour. This week, singer Leona Lewis plunged from the stage, narrowly avoiding serious injury when a hydraulic lift malfunctioned. Last fall, six members of Chicago's own Scotland Yard Gospel Choir was scattered across an interstate highway in a frightening car crash.
For not offering any health benefits, this music business is pretty dangerous.
After months of slow healing, the band is ready to play again: They've scheduled a show -- their first since the accident -- June 19 at Subterranean, 2011 W. North, with Very Truly Yours and Wells-Next-the-Sea. Tickets are an easy $10 here.
Chicago loves its sweet, sprawling pop bands. From transplants Poi Dog Pondering to the natives of the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, or even Michigan visitors the Great Lakes Myth Society, somehow we make these big bands feel at home on often tiny stages. This summer, the cheerful half-dozen souls in Canasta return with a sophomore set that cements the sunny ambition that shone on its debut EP ("Find the Time," 2004) and album ("We Were Set Up," 2005).
Take the title however you want. Maybe the EP was the fakeout, the first album was the tease and this finely honed, controlled but still somehow breezy album is the breather. Those words also accurately describe the self-contained trilogy of the opening track, "Becoming You" -- an organ-buoyed opening switches to a piano-based ballad swirled with singer Matt Priest's quivery Neil Tennant-at-the-cabaret voice, before exhaling through a positively Sufjanriffic breakdown, complete with spunky piano and languid violins. The tone is set for an album of open-air chamber pop that sounds like it wants to go haywire (and become a mess) but has been expertly subdued and shaped and is thus sublime.
Live Nation/Ticketmaster, your new concert overlords, have announced a special deal on concert tickets this month. "No Service Fee June" means the live music behemoth will nix its always inconvenient "convenience fees," which often jack up the price of a simple concert ticket by a third or more.
When the two entertainment giants merged this year, with the surprise and seemingly easy approval of the Obama justice department, music fans quaked in their Chuck Taylors, fearing the sky wouldn't even be the limit to the fees they'd charge. This move follows last summer's similar round of price cuts (remember "No Service Fee Wednesdays"?) and is no doubt a grab to lure fans into a summer concert market that still has a lot of empty seats.
After all that tabloid drama late last year -- Joe Perry said the band would tour without Steven Tyler (even allegedly auditioned singers), Tyler started singing in hardware stores and went to rehab -- classic rock dinosaurs Aerosmith reunited and swore they'd tour again. Today they announced 18 U.S. concert dates.
It's the (oh brother) "Cocked, Locked, Ready to Rock Tour." The band started this tour this spring in South America. Europe is next, then home -- including Aug. 22 at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheater in Tinley Park. No opening act for this date yet (in other markets, it's Sammy Hagar & the Wabos). Ticket info coming shortly here.
The Chicago Photography Collective has pulled together an exhibit of music-themed images. "Blues With a Feeling" opens tonight, 5-8 p.m., at the collective's gallery, 29 E. Madison.
The showing runs through June 30 and features shots of Chicago's blues history by several local photographers, including a couple who are no stranger to the Sun-Times pages (print and online): Paul Natkin and Michael Jackson.