Bruno Mars performs Friday night at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom.(Scott Stewart/Sun-Times)
Last June, Janelle Monae opened for Erykah Badu at the Chicago Theatre -- and completely upstaged her. In September, Monae performed at the Riviera Theatre, opening for her Atlanta pals in the band Of Montreal, and she was the only reason to attend the show. Friday night, Monae was back, this time at the Aragon Ballroom, performing first on a double bill with hitmaker Bruno Mars.
Did she blow Mars off the stage, too? She blew him clear to Pluto.
My Morning Jacket, "Circuital" (ATO) () -- Our favorite Kentucky neo-classic rockers received a deserved drubbing for the corny gags and R&B experiments on 2008's "Evil Urges." (Stylistic innovators on par with Wilco? Harrumph!) So the whispers ahead of the follow-up assured the faithful of a return to roots. While there's some of that -- and singer Jim James sings in the title track, somewhat panicky, about "ending up in the same place that we started out" -- "Circuital" is a laid-back swirl through the sounds and styles of the band's acclaimed 12-year career. It's not a high-water mark for them, and a few songs sound lazy and unfinished, but it's analog-warm, occasionally pleasant and likely will sound more impressive resonating from festival stages (such as Lollapalooza) this summer.
Bob Mould has always avoided living in the past -- except for the last two and a half years.
During that time, he's been writing an autobiography, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody (with Michael Azerrad, Little, Brown, $24.99), which publishes June 15. It tells the story of a punk rock pioneer consistently dodging his own past. He plays in bands -- the bracing fury of Husker Du (1980-88), the ear-splitting pop of Sugar (1992-95) -- then avoids reunions like a plague. He practically chucked rock altogether, shocking hard-core fans by reinventing himself in the new century as a DJ and electronic music maker. He lives in cities and then flees, never to return. He quits alcohol, quits smoking, no relapses. The man moves forward.
See a Little Light tells of Mould's struggles with homosexuality, personal relationships and various addictions, but this is not just another titillating rock 'n' roll memoir. There are good anecdotes, for sure -- Mould almost got the job producing Nirvana's "Nevermind," and his friendly rivalry with the Replacements' Paul Westerberg actually resulted in some demos together (which were stolen from a van, but "don't worry, the stuff wasn't very good") -- and makes certain we understand that we shouldn't expect a Husker Du reunion. It's a clear, plain account of one troubled musician's life, with a lively and happy present-day ending.
"I think longtime fans will be shocked but not really surprised by some of this stuff," Mould said this week from his home in San Francisco. "The plain storytelling is what they're used to from me. I didn't try to make it something it isn't. ... It's definitely my voice."
Mould will be in Chicago twice in the next three weeks, performing shows that illustrate the two sides of his personality and career. He spoke with the Sun-Times about the shows, the book and where music intersects with -- or divides -- a life ...
Chicagoans have been spoiled this spring with up-close-and-personal opportunities to see some of music's biggest stars. Just this month Paul Simon played an intimate show at the Vic, and Neil Young shuffled around the Chicago Theatre stage. British pop-soul sensation Adele only has a few years on their many decades, but as this year's biggest breakout thus far -- boasting the current No. 1 album ("21") and single ("Rolling in the Deep") -- she was an arena-sized star giving a wonderfully intimate, sold-out performance Tuesday night at the 2,500-capacity Riviera Theatre.
She won't be playing theaters for long, no doubt, and Tuesday's fans certainly enjoyed their good fortune. Adele (her last name is Adkins) walked on stage to a shower of cell-camera strobes that went on for three minutes. "You sing it," she commanded during "Someone Like You," an encore, but the crowd had been singing along all night. During one song, whenever Adele wasn't singing, the crowd shouted their adoration: "We love you, Adele!" "Sing it, girl!" "God, I love you!" That was just the men. When she returned for the encore, someone threw a black T-shirt on stage. She chuckled. It read in handmade script: "ADELEaholics anonymous."
Liz Phair's comeback didn't exactly stick, Sarah McLachlan's revival of Lilith Fair tanked and Sheryl Crow's pretty much gone country. What's a fan of strong '90s women in rock to do? Check out Company of Thieves, a Chicago band led by Genevieve Schatz, a small woman and a big voice.
With the lungs of Johnette Napolitano (Concrete Blonde) and the lilt of Dolores O'Riordan (the Cranberries, but without her trademark falsetto break, thank heavens), Schatz is a dynamo on record and on stage belting in front of this basic but bold rock band. She writes the literate lyrics, too -- the popular single from 2009 debut "Ordinary Riches," after all, was "Oscar Wilde" -- and the new single "Death in Communication" frames a miserable relationship with some keen allusions ("Honestly, my honesty was always what I gave for taking your bread / I never thought you would have hung it high above as you did over my head").
Amazingly, no: Lady Gaga's hotly anticipated third album, "Born This Way," has been relentlessly hyped -- the track listing reveal! the cover art reveal! the bar code reveal! -- and finally sees its official release Monday, concluding a long and thus far not overly satisfying build-up. Gaga's legions of fans, the "little monsters," have been holding out for their heroine since the singles began their march of carefully orchestrated leaks nearly five months ago.
What have they been holding out for? More singles, it turns out.
"Born This Way" isn't an album as much as an hourlong playlist of proposed new singles, perhaps no surprise from a performer more deft at crafting $1.29 confections than full-price meals. She's certainly adept at it -- seven monster hits ("Just Dance," "Poker Face," "Bad Romance" etc.) from her first two records, with the singles outselling the albums nearly four times over -- and this new batch is wildly ambitious compared to the previous two.
To say Wednesday night's concert by the Cars was no-nonsense would be putting it mildly. That's a back-handed compliment, though. The veteran rock band -- together again for the first time in a quarter-century -- played a pragmatic, 90-minute set hitting many career highlights, but a lack of frills made for an occasionally monotone show that also lacked a few thrills.
The four founding members (original bassist Ben Orr died in 2000) hit the Riviera Theatre stage in darkness, illuminated by camera flashes, and eased into the set via the calmest party anthem ever, "Good Times Roll." They then unpacked a set of classic top-10 hits, from their 1977-87 run, and album tracks fresh out of storage and unadulterated. There was no "updating" to be done here. The Cars' blend of sci-fi keyboards and blade-running guitars sounded a little 21st century when they first emerged, and their new album, "Move Like This," picks up as if alt-rock, hip-hop and electronica never happened.
Paul Simon in concert Monday night at Chicago's Vic Theatre.(Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)
Paul Simon's impact on succeeding generations has been as varied as the influences he himself has adopted and adapted. His early folk styles echo in the music of Fleet Foxes, Tobias Froberg, even Dave Matthews, and his beloved African rhythms drive the collegiate rock of Vampire Weekend. He's collaborated with the band Grizzly Bear.
But those are possibly fleeting examples. We can't unfortunately go so far as to call Simon's influence pervasive. Monday night's concert at Chicago's intimate Vic Theatre (he plays once more Tuesday at the Chicago Theatre, though Monday night he enthused, "I love playing in a club!") showcased a half-century career spanning myriad styles that -- because they are usually expertly written and played -- can sound deceptively mild, but those polyrhythms and long, conversational lyrics aren't for the musically meek. For young indie-folkies, it's usually easier to cover Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen instead.
Pity the poor set list. Exposed by web sites and attacked by the current album-in-concert trend, it's getting harder to find an artist who can deliver real surprises anymore, much less one who carefully crafts a song sequence as if making a mix for a lover -- shaping the experience (and the message conveyed) not only by the selection of songs but by the order of their ideas. Now here comes pop music chameleon Elvis Costello, throwing every set list over to chance.
Half of it, anyway. Costello's Sunday night concert at the Chicago Theatre found him again dwarfed by the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, a giant, vertical roulette wheel he debuted on tour in 1986. The wheel-of-misfortune contains 40 songs and a few themes; fans come on stage, spin the wheel, and the band plays that selection. It's a clever gimmick, but it has its perils. Thankfully, Costello prefigured those and crafted a show that side-stepped the wheel's cruel fate for most of the evening's performances. A nimble vaudevillian, he kept things moving.
The last time I spoke with Ian McCulloch, leader of Echo & the Bunnymen, he was typically humble. "I've got the best voice in the history of time," he said. "That's how people know my music is real, that I'm not lying to them. I'm not singing for the sake of it. I've got one of those voices that tells you it's the truth."
Echo & the Bunnymen features his dark, brooding and now a bit croaky Jim Morrison-ish voice plus the often wild and tortured sounds Will Sergeant wrings out of guitars.
The two modern-rock collaborators regrouped in 1994 after a sizzling spat and now have been together longer than the first go-round from '78 to '88. Now they return this week with one of those album concerts -- playing the entirety of their first two, "Crocodiles" (1980) and "Heaven Up Here" (1981).
During this chat from his home in Liverpool, McCulloch was just as modest and more reflective ...
The city has revamped its summer lakefront festival plan in an attempt to plug their annual budget shortfalls, and as we reported in February that meant Taste of Chicago would remain free (a lone bid to privatize it was turned down) but would fold in smaller festivals as daily programming themes and focus on local acts.
This weekend the Chicago Park District announced the music lineup at this summer's Taste, and it looks pretty much like any other Taste bill from the last several years -- some names, some curiosities, on a couple of days certainly more exciting than last year's.
Here's the full slate of acts June 24-July 3 at the Petrillo Music Shell ...
The Lonely Island, "Turtleneck and Chain" () -- The second outing from "Saturday Night Live" writing trio Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone is a comedy album -- but a lot more. Featuring a bevy of guests, from Michael Bolton and John Waters to Snoop Dogg and Nicki Minaj, "Turtleneck and Chain" boasts high-quality production and songwriting that's clever and funny but also pretty tight and smart. Beck's chorus on "Attracted to Us" works on both levels: It's a groove you can move to, but it's also hilarious to hear him sing, "All you pretty girls / We know you want our bodies / but we're more the introspective type." Basically, it's a good hip-hop record -- good enough to make you reconsider the latest Beastie Boys -- that also raises the bar for comedy albums. (Full album streaming here.)
Chicago's suburbs are lousy with angry young pop-punk bands, but few maintain the tight musicianship and walk-it-like-you-talk-it ideals that eventually make them stars.
Rise Against has both, and it's put them on top. They've made albums shouting down the Bush administration and the wars in the Middle East, and they've supported veganism and straight-edge living. Meanwhile, those albums keep climbing the charts -- "Siren Song of the Counter Culture" (2004) cracked the Billboard 200, "The Sufferer and the Witness" (2006) made the top 10, then "Appeal to Reason" (2008) reached No. 3 and the new album, "Endgame," debuted at No. 2 early this year.
They've become so big that this weekend their heroes -- Bad Religion, a veteran punk band that was formed in 1979, the year Rise Against leader Tim McIlrath was born -- are their opening act.
"I know, right?" McIlrath says, amazed. "It gives me goosebumps just to hear you say it."
Let's consider Raphael Saadiq without using the subtly pejorative terms "old-school" or "retro." As Isaac Hayes said, there is no old school -- you either went to school or you didn't -- and just because Saadiq's hot soul music sounds as if it was recorded in 1966, the year he was born, doesn't mean it's somehow less creative. Saadiq and other learned stylists like him -- Maxwell, D'Angelo, but also current indie-folkies (Fleet Foxes) or any power pop band -- don't merely ape the past; they simply select a different starting point. Why not go back to '66 and see in what directions you could take music other than the ones that followed history's beeline to '67?
The lineup is out today for the 14th Chicago Folk & Roots Festival, the annual family-friendly event organized by the Old Town School of Folk Music, happening July 9-10 in Welles Park on the North Side.
The main stage bills include Saturday (July 9) headliners the Lost Bayou Ramblers (feisty, rootsy Cajun), the great Rosie Flores (retro-California cowpunk) and ye olde Delbert McClinton (wheezy Texas blues-rock).
The Sunday (July 10) roster looks much broader and more creative, including afternoon sets by an interesting new Tuareg singer-guitarist, Bombino, and '70s roots-reggae legends the Abyssinians ("Hey You"). The evening features Chicago's Soul Sonic Sirkus (a kinetic mix of live funk music and acrobats), the beguiling Baloji (smooth French-African MC) and Maraca (breezy Cuban jazz led by a nimble flautist).
In addition to the full main stage lineup, the festival also includes several other stages (a dance tent, a children's stage, Old Town School staff performances, a gazebo stage and a Latin music stage). Music plays from noon to 9:30 p.m. each day. A $10 donation is requested for admission.
GrouponLive will be hawking tickets for Live Nation concerts, plus other entertainment events ticketed through the now Live Nation-owned Ticketmaster. The new site, according to the press release, is expected to be operational "in time for the summer concert season."
Mr. Robotic released a debut CD in February -- begrudgingly. The Chicago rapper, aka Columbia College student Marcas Harris, has been writing and recording high-energy, club-ready songs for several years, and he claims to be making a full-time living from it. But the Benjamins haven't been coming from album sales ("Boy in the Band: A Love Story," a six-song EP, is his first physical offering) or iTunes downloads (though a small set of his tracks first appeared there last year). Instead, Mr. Robotic plugged his fledgling career into the other side of the music business: licensing songs to movies, TV shows, advertising and much more.
"I don't necessarily think the album is dead; I'm just not sure I need one to be a full-time, working recording artist," Harris says. "For me, I've got a commercial this week, a TV show next week. ... The people I work with getting commercial placements, they just need songs -- and, you know, they're hungry."
"Commercial placements" -- that means more these days than just hearing your song playing on the car radio while handsome doctors drive around on "Grey's Anatomy," or even landing on a movie soundtrack. Mr. Robotic songs have been sold for both of those uses -- he was on the soundtracks to a couple of B-flicks last year ("Skyline" and "Stomp the Yard 2: Homecoming"), and his songs have been used on "Jersey Shore," "The Hills," "Greek," "The Beautiful Life" and more -- but he's also written a theme song for a sports drink and an exclusive song for a national chain of yogurt shops. A Mr. Robotic song was used as background for a LeBron James highlight reel on ESPN's "SportsCenter."
Each time a musician places a song in one of these spots -- ka-ching! It may not be a loud ka-ching, but in a troubled economy and a music business whose revenue model has been dismantled and decentralized, every little ka-ching counts. Websites, in-store promotions, social-media campaigns, smart-phone apps, you name it -- businesses have myriad new opportunities to try to turn our heads with a catchy tune, and they pay for each one.
Urge Overkill, "Rock & Roll Submarine" -- Those occasional appearances by Chicago's once-storied Urge Overkill during the last several years have been intermittent preparation for this new album, out Tuesday, the band's first since 1995's "Exit the Dragon." The band flamed out after the "Pulp Fiction" exposure ("Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon"), but leaders Nash Kato and Eddie Roeser have wisely eased back into things without too much pomp. Now we'll see if the new songs have the same stomp.
Intimacy cuts both ways. Acoustic instruments, soft tones, delicate timbres -- the "Unplugged" approach reliably draws us close. But, really, communion occurs just as intimately within an ear-piercing, teeth-rattling cacophony.
Neil Young has spent decades swinging between these extremes. During his measured performance Friday night at the Chicago Theatre, his first of two this weekend, he calmly and ably applied both tactics. He spoke to the hooting, sold-out crowd softly, in gentle and sometimes acoustic songs, but occasionally he carried a big, sonic stick. Nothing new, nothing life-altering, just solid and intense.
The Cars, "Move Like This" (Concord-Hear) () -- For their first album together in 24 years, the Cars (warning: automotive puns ahead) rebuild their New Wave chassis and hit the road with most of the original horsepower and a fuel mixture as combustible as ever. Now down to four (bassist Ben Orr died in 2000), the Cars' formula sounds surprisingly fresh and somehow as futuristic as "Candy-O" did in 1979.
Most bands ditch the drum machine early. Echo & the Bunnymen quickly hired a real person to play drums (their machine allegedly was named Echo). The Smashing Pumpkins were advised wisely to lose the beat box after their first few Chicago gigs. The last time I saw a male-female duo rocking out with just a drum machine behind them, Timbuk 3 was boasting of their bright future. (Whither Pat MacDonald?)
But the Kills are on their fourth album, and they love those programmed beats. Florida native Alison Mosshart and Britain's Jamie Hince (the future Mr. Kate Moss) returned to Chicago Wednesday night for a no-nonsense show at the Vic Theatre, weaving their New Wave blues riffs and dark Delta wailing into synthesized, push-button rhythms. It was a quickie -- they played just more than an hour -- but it was hot and dirty and got the job done.
"Every album is a reaction to the things you did previously," says John Eriksson -- and he should know something about reactions.
As a third of the Swedish pop trio Peter Bjorn & John, with singer-guitarist Peter Moren and bassist-keyboardist Bjorn Yttling, Eriksson has contributed to some intriguing, if unequal and opposite, reactions over the course of four albums in about as many years. PB&J swept the blogs and even the mainstream media in 2006 with its "Writer's Block" album, a set of songs boasting more hooks than a fishing tournament and a carefree, kitchen-sink production style. The song "Young Folks," with its whistled earworm melody, went around the world.
But when the touring stopped and the time came to make a new record, the band took a hard left turn. Then another one.
Steven Tyler's new memoir, Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?, is filled with lame puns, stolen jokes, colorful words -- Tylerisms, as they've come to be known on this season of "American Idol."
In describing his heyday leading the band Aerosmith, he says, "We were all gacked to the gills back then."
The word "gacked," he explains, defines a drug-addled state when one is "babbling, speaking in tongues, rattling on about nothing. ... You get to the end of some insane rant and go, 'Wait a minute, did I just say that?' "
His memoir, out today, is similarly gacked. If you have the stamina to reach the end, you may say, "Wait a minute, did I really read that?!"
Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul. This is undisputed. She's in the royal court of American gospel, too. But when it comes to jazz, blues, Broadway, movie themes, occasional pop (except for "Who's Zoomin' Who"), slow jams or opera, she's barely more than a pawn.
"A Woman Falling Out of Love" is Franklin's 38th album and her first regular solo set since 2003. It comes just months after Franklin, 69, canceled several concert dates and underwent a major surgery -- she still refuses to say what for -- before appearing in a taped message at this year's Grammys. She's back on the road shortly, including a May 19 show at the Chicago Theatre. That makes for a perfect opportunity here to hail a triumphant return, but this is an uneven collection.