When Poi Dog Pondering singer Frank Orrall answers his home phone, the caller is treated to a sound rarely heard in the 21st century: the fading ring of an actual telephone bell.
"It's an old rotary phone," Orrall says. "I found it in a thrift shop in Lawrence, Kan. Avocado green, of course."
A perfect detail from a life lived somewhat determinedly in the slow lane. Orrall has led Poi Dog Pondering -- a band sometimes earthy and acoustic, sometimes earthy and electronic -- for two decades, singing a lot of songs that remind us to look beneath our technological trappings and dig into our living, breathing, messy humanity. The band began in Hawaii, took off while based in Austin, Texas, then settled into a patient groove after moving to Chicago in the mid-'90s.
POI DOG PONDERING
with JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound
8 p.m. Friday
Ravinia, 200 Ravinia Park Road, Highland Park
Tickets: $45 pavilion reserved, $22 lawn ($27 on day of concert)
Since becoming Chi town transplants, the Poi Dog production pace has eased up ("You get to know things better when they go by slow," Orrall once sang), and shows -- like the band's return to Ravinia this weekend -- have become rare, special occasions.
"With Columbia [Records, in the early '90s], it was always, 'Hey, how're the new songs coming? We need another "Be the One." ' Everything was paced in song-like units," Orrall says via his clunky old phone. "The time we've spent in Chicago is way more music-based. It's more, 'Wow, here's this great vibes player. Let's let him solo all over this track.' Or working with the Chicago Sinfonietta and taking the inspiration from that into the studio and orchestrating for ourselves. We've definitely stretched our musical wings here more."
Friday's concert isn't hawking a new album or part of a new tour. The band simply likes to reassemble for one special show in Chicago each year, which is possible now that Orrall is off the road with his other band, Thievery Corporation, with whom he plays percussion. He'll be back with them this fall when the duo tours with Massive Attack.
But there is a new Poi Dog album in the works, a follow-up to 2008's well-received "7."
"I've been heavily inspired lately by Brazilian music of the '60s and '70s," Orrall says. "I'm not going to make a Brazilian record, but I'm definitely influenced by the chords. They're a lot jazzier. They're also, like -- less drum sets, more percussion. Some stuff I'm working on is really mellow; I don't know if it will be for Poi Dog or something else. There's a groove side, too. I might fuse the two things or keep them separate. It's just me getting some skeletons together."
The Ravinia show might debut some new sounds, but it will also concentrate on the past. Several players from the Austin days will be on stage, such as John Nelson and Adam Sultan, plus guest vocalists Robert Cornelius and Carla Prather, as well as the House-O-Matic dance troupe from Englewood.
"We've been around so long now, we have so many satellite members," Orrall says. "We'll be playing songs we haven't played in a while, too, songs that require certain people we don't always get. We've got strings and a horn section, too. It's kind of an orchestra. The Ravinia stage can handle it."
When he's not a Poi Dog, Orrall has become something of a cook -- to the point that he's now renting himself out as an all-in-one dinner party chef and entertainment. Through the band's website, platetectonicmusic.com, Orrall can be booked right into your kitchen and living room.
"It started out as me sort of missing playing acoustically," he says. "The last few years, I picked up the acoustic guitar more, sitting around the living room strumming songs, not necessarily performing. Casual setting with friends, you know. 'What are the chords to that Sade song?' That kind of thing. It began happening at friends' houses, turned into some living room sets. I like dinner parties. Standing in the kitchen chopping and talking is one of my favorite things. So I thought, I should cook dinner, too. I've gotten quite good. So now, yeah, for $500 plus $40 a person for food and wine I'll come to your house, we'll cook, eat, play guitar."