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Tuning in with Thomas Conner

June 2011 Archives

Tribute albums are often items to avoid -- well-meaning but sometimes sappy or self-absorbed affairs. Three new tribute CDs, though, and are worth your ears:

buddyrave063011.jpgVarious artists, "Rave On Buddy Holly" (Fantasy) (3<br />
and a half stars) -- The spare twang and chugging rock style pioneered by lanky Texan Buddy Holly in the 1950s has been nurtured in succeeding generations by acts ranging from Marshall Crenshaw to the aptly named Raveonettes, and three of those generations gather here for a rollicking rave-up of Holly's classics.

Opening quietly, with delicate and faithful readings of "Dearest" (the Black Lips) and "Everyday" (Fiona Apple with Jon Brion), this collection quickly gets weird with none other than Paul McCartney. The Beatles were certainly influenced by Holly, and McCartney turns in a freewheeling run through "It's So Easy" that, thick with distorted vocals and hard riffs, sounds like something John Lennon would've included on his 1975 love letter to classic "Rock and Roll." It also ends with McCartney yelping through a goofy rant as if he were Wolfman Jack, drawing the song out to nearly five minutes -- twice the length of nearly any Holly cut.

Paul McCartney at "It's So Easy" (Buddy Holly Cover)

Elsewhere, there are more interesting interpretations from intriguing choices -- Cee Lo Green's quick and flirty "(You're So Square) Baby, I Don't Care," My Morning Jacket's wonderfully delicate "True Love Ways" with a string section, the intriguing way Modest Mouse turns "That'll Be the Day" into a creepy threat, and the deftly controlled country-rock of John Doe's "Peggy Sue Got Married" -- and some requisite duds -- like the basic bar-band slop of Justin Townes Earle's "Maybe Baby," Patti Smith's droning ruination of "Words of Love" and Lou Reed's typically tuneless deconstruction of "Peggy Sue." Graham Nash, whose first band was named after Buddy, closes the overall worthwhile set with a sweet, sad, piano-and-strings arrangement of "Raining in My Heart." There's definitely enough here to make you say, "Oh Boy!"

U2's reprise of 'Miss Sarajevo': The story of a song

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The May 26 arrest of accused war criminal Ratko Mladic, after 16 years on the run, brought back memories for Bill Carter -- none of them cheerful.

"Pure evil," Carter said, describing the infamous Serbian general now on trial, accused of genocide during the Yugoslav Wars. "It's a big deal for him to finally be captured. ... He killed a lot of people I knew."

For nearly four years -- 1992-96, the longest siege of a modern capital -- Serbian forces blockaded and bombed the capital city of Bosnia & Herzegovina, while nearly every day snipers fired at citizens. More than 10,000 were killed, many more wounded. Carter, an American writer and filmmaker, was living in Sarajevo at the outbreak of the war.

He related his experience in an acclaimed documentary, "Miss Sarajevo," and a book, Fools Rush In: A True Story of Love, War and Redemption. But while there, Carter tried to tell the world what was happening to Sarajevo. He knew we wouldn't necessarily listen to him, but he bluffed his way into a meeting with someone we were listening to, U2's singer Bono -- a desperate gamble that connected one of the world's biggest rock bands to one of the world's greatest humanitarian crises.

Within days, U2 was broadcasting live video of Sarajevo's plight during its 1993 ZooTV concerts in sold-out arenas throughout Europe. Bono then not only produced Carter's film, he wrote a song for it -- "Miss Sarajevo," recorded with famed tenor Luciano Pavarotti -- which U2 is now performing on tour for only the second time in North America, now using footage from Carter's film.

The video for "Miss Sarajevo" with U2 (Passengers) and Luciano Pavarotti

pjclub062911.jpgNeil Finn, the leader of Crowded House, has a new music project inspired by his empty house.

"The kids have left home, and we've got a bit more time on our hands," Finn told the Sun-Times this week. "This is the kind of thing you do when you're rattling around the place."

Finn's speaking of his wife, Sharon, with whom he's formed a new band, Pajama Club -- so named because the songs grew out of late-night jams the couple had while drinking wine in their PJs. Their son, Liam Finn, 27, now has an acclaimed career of his own.

Pajama Club is the latest outing for Finn, whose lengthy career began in the late '70s with down-under pop band Split Enz and was followed by his own trio, Crowded House ("Don't Dream It's Over," "Something So Strong"), a solo career and occasional albums with his brother, Tim Finn, as the Finn Bros. After the death of drummer Paul Hester in 2005, Crowded House reunited and has since recorded two more albums ("Intriguer," the latest).

For Pajama Club, the Finns are joined on stage by New Zealand indie-rocker Sean Donnelly -- who had a broad hand in "updating" the PJ Club songs, Finn said -- and drummer Alana Skyring. The group's self-titled debut album is due Sept. 13.

Finn spoke with us about the new project -- and his many others ...

Eddie Vedder at the Chicago Theatre: Little big man

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vedder062811.JPGSteve Martin used to suggest in his arena comedy act, "Hey, let's get small!"

Eddie Vedder is trying. Not only has he backed away from the enormity of his band, '90s alt-rock giants Pearl Jam, he's pointed the shrink ray at his instrument. Last month, Vedder released his first non-soundtrack solo album, "Ukulele Songs," and now he's undertaking an unusually intimate tour with the same tiny guitar.

The ukulele revival in recent years has manifested in everything from photo opps like Taylor Swift's playing one on her current tour and Diana Krall pulling one out this week at the Montreal Jazz Festival to genuine composition, such as the charming uke-driven pop of Dent May or Amanda Palmer's wicked EP of uked Radiohead covers.

But Vedder's use of the Hawaiian four-stringed guitar doesn't play like a gimmick -- at least not during his Tuesday night concert at the Chicago Theatre, his first in a two-night stand.

Each fall, Chicago's Riot Fest assembles a very loud bill of punk and hardcore bands, now utilizing several different local venues. The lineup for October's seventh Riot Fest was announced earlier this week, with extra news today of an exciting reunion of sorts.

The festival announced its "largest lineup ever" for Oct. 5-9, featuring fitting headliners such as the Descendents, ALL (two eras of the band!), Social Distortion, X (playing the "Los Angeles" album), Seven Seconds and more, plus one very unexpected headliner: Weezer, an oddly pop choice for a festival that has previously prided itself on its punk cred. Then again, the event is no longer called Riot Fest, really; it's now the Red Bull Riot Fest. Yes, corporate sponsorship of a punk festival.

danzig062411.JPGToday's news at least is in keeping with the festival's tradition of creating an interesting reunion each year (like last year's original Naked Raygun crew):

Glenn Danzig will reunite with members from his post-Misfits band, Samhain, for one set, then with guitarist Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein from the Misfits for several Misfits songs, and that's in addition to Danzig's own set -- all Oct. 7 at the Congress Theater.

Tickets for the fest just went on sale this morning: buy for individual shows, or there are two passes -- one for just the Congress shows ($135), and one for the whole festival ($145)

CD review: Beyonce, '4'

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(Columbia) 3 stars

beyoncefour062311.jpgNews circulated this week that execs at Columbia, Beyonce's record label, were scrambling to cover their assets ahead of a dawning realization that the diva's fourth album might be a dud. "They're very nervous about Beyonce's new record," an insider told the New York Post. "It doesn't have the hit songs that her fans are used to. They asked her to make changes, but she said no." There's even talk of reassembling Destiny's Child in a desperate bid to sacrifice a cash cow before the end of the fiscal year.

Fans, as always, should pay no attention to the moneychangers' wringing of hands. If a record label is nervous, in fact, pay attention; it's probably worth it. Sure, Beyonce's first new single, "Run the World (Girls)," was a left-turn shocker for fans -- that bleating Major Lazer sample, the skittering island rhythms and too-fast, too-furious dancefloor gambit -- but it's not wholly indicative of the new album, which is built largely on something else that's not necessarily been B's strongest suit: smooth and solid balladry.

If anything, "4" has more in common with "21."

"It's only a food festival," Mayor Daley said months ago as the lamest of ducks, defining his vision of the city's annual Taste of Chicago lakefront chowfest. He was defending his staunch opposition to a proposal to both privatize the event and tack on ticket fees for the musical entertainment. He'd asked to explore the privatizing, but he was adamant the event remain free. All of it.

I won't rehash the arguments here about free vs. pay, but as the revamped, reorganized, still-free version of the annual event begins this weekend, it's important to remind folks that the Taste is not only a food festival. We shouldn't take its name too literally. For many people, especially outside Cook County, the Taste is less about sampling actual food than it is about having a nice excuse to come downtown and sample the city itself.

As my Sun-Times colleague Sue Ontiveros wrote in January of her family's annual jaunt to Taste, "The point of our Taste visits was to see the kids' entertainment and experience what our wonderful city has to offer, giving me a chance to show [my son]: 'See, this is your city, embrace it.' "

Peter Gabriel at United Center: A symphonic survey

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petergabriel062011.JPGFrom his heady masked days in Genesis through many thoughtful solo albums, Peter Gabriel always has been a man of ideas. So it's worrying to see him succumb during the last year to first one and now two of the hoariest geezer-rock gimmicks: the covers album (last year's "Scratch My Back," featuring songs by Paul Simon, Neil Young and more) and the orchestral tour (the current, deceptively titled New Blood Tour).

Stepping onto the stage Monday night at Chicago's United Center, while the house lights were still up, Gabriel tried to explain. His covers album, we knew, was supposed to be half of a larger project; the second part, "I'll Scratch Yours," will feature those same artists covering Gabriel's songs in return -- if it ever happens. Gabriel admitted Monday that working with other songwriters is "like herding cats" and that the whole thing had only "sort of worked." In the meantime, however, he said he began working up some of his interpretations for an orchestra. Then some of his own songs. Pretty soon he had enough for a concert. (More than enough: Monday's show was three hours.)

The challenge in such an exercise is to reinvent the songs, not merely arrange them for a larger group of musicians. While Gabriel -- 61, balding, plump, looking like a cross between the Buddha and Billy Joel -- didn't break much of a sweat Monday night, physically or creatively, he and his fiery New Blood Orchestra managed to breathe new life into more than 20 of his compositions, some of which were genuinely renewed and exalted by the experience.

2nd Paul McCartney show added at Wrigley

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As expected, Paul McCartney has announced a second and final show at Wrigley Field.

In addition to the July 31 show that went on sale this morning, now an Aug. 1 show is available -- and on sale now via or by calling (800) THE-CUBS. Quickly.

Tickets are priced in several tiers: $255, $170, $104.50, $74.50, $54.50 and $34.50.


(Scott Stewart/Sun-Times)

Ladies, is it OK if Kells gets a little freaky?

No, seriously, he's asking. For the first time, perhaps. Ironically, he's making a case.

"Can I start some of the old sex songs for ya?" asked infamous R&B superstar R. Kelly during his Thursday night concert at the Allstate Arena. Then he declared: "I know this is the 'Love Letter' tour, but we're gonna start with some sex!"

Start? This was 15 songs into the set -- I counted 40 titles in the 90-minute show ("I've got a lot of songs to sing," he threatened), though nearly all were abbreviated into a nearly non-stop medley -- and he'd already run through plenty of sleaze.

But Kelly was all suited up, looking crisp and proper, singing "Freaky in the Club" with a surprisingly businesslike manner, hardly freaky at all. He quickly dropped in a few songs from his latest album, "Love Letter," which ditches most of his iconic lewdness in favor of soul music classicism and homage. He purred through the title track and the soft, safe, utterly bland ballad "Number One Hit." Were we to believe that his lecherous infamy was really in the past tense?

The bridge from "Number One Hit" to the song "Number One Sex," however, is short, and Kelly roared across it in no time. He couldn't help himself.

Rihanna at United Center: A deluxe pop spectacle

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(Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)

Rihanna has it all -- a good voice, good songs, the bod, the overt sex drive -- and on her flashy, extravagant and occasionally salacious current tour she crams it all into one jaw-dropping, head-spinning two-hour concert.

The 23-year-old superstar brought her Loud tour Wednesday night to Chicago's United Center, maximizing the space with nearly every arena gimmick in live music. Rihanna rose and descended through the stage floor, hovered on platforms and danced on risers that brought her close enough to ecstatic fans to high-five them. Mobile video screens craned overhead, fireworks exploded, smoke snorted and fog seeped. She changed clothes five times.

It was a deluxe pop spectacle -- but an artfully managed and extremely well-sequenced one. The show flowed almost narratively, opening with "Only Girl (In the World)" and wrapping with "Don't Stop the Music" and "Take a Bow," framing clusters of songs into neat set pieces. The theater and choreography, however, rarely restricted Rihanna's vocal talent (nary a lip was synced) or smothered her considerable, winking personality.

As we've previously reported was likely, Paul McCartney just now confirmed extra dates for his new On the Run Tour -- including July 31 at Wrigley Field.

Tickets for the Wrigley show go up for sale at 10 a.m. next Monday, June 20, via or by calling (800) THE-CUBS.

Tickets will be priced in several tiers: $255, $170, $104.50, $74.50, $54.50 and $34.50.


When you've shot your mouth off and claimed that your band is the best in the world, what do you say when that band dissolves and you form a new one?

"We're the second-best band in the world."

So says Liam Gallagher, singer from '90s Britpop leaders Oasis and now leader of Beady Eye.

After 18 years of quarrels while Oasis tried to make good on that boast -- two Guinness World Records for their chart and sales success in the UK but only two No. 1's in America (for the songs "Wonderwall" in 1995 and "Champagne Supernova" in '96) -- in 2009 Noel Gallagher, Liam's brother and the band's chief songwriter, stormed out after a backstage fight. The Gallagher brothers fought all the time, but two hours later Noel posted a statement online saying he'd quit the band and "simply could not go on working with Liam a day longer."

Liam, though, intended to go on working, and so did the rest of the existing lineup of Oasis: Andy Bell (formerly with Ride), Gem Archer and Chris Sharrock. They initially said they'd continue as Oasis but later adopted the new name, Beady Eye.

A new sound, too? Sort of. Beady Eye's debut record, "Different Gear, Still Speeding," released in February, is the same mash-up of Beatles, Stones, Kinks and some more Beatles. The difference is in its tone -- lighter, breezier, sunnier, free from all that heavy expectation and Very Big Importance that so often weighed down Oasis records.

"That was Noel. He's very important, don't you know?" Liam told the Sun-Times, and he chuckled. "I'm only half joking."

The Noel-free band, Beady Eye, is booked solid throughout Europe this summer, but they're swinging through North America for only four shows this month in Chicago, then Toronto, New York and Philadelphia. Before they played last weekend's Isle of Wight Festival in southern England, Liam Gallagher and Archer talked to the Sun-Times about the new songs, making music without Noel and how life goes on.

arcticsuck.jpgArctic Monkeys, "Suck It and See" (3<br />
stars) -- It's already a year for bands side-stepping, if not quite backing away from, experimental steps forward, as Britain's super-hyped Arctic Monkeys do on this fourth album. Letting go of most, but not all, of the trippy sounds they explored on "Humbug" two years ago, the band instead plugs into a late-'70s riff-rock mode that feels much more natural, even if Alex Turner, 25, stretches to sing about "kung fu fighting on your roller skates." You can almost hear the roar of the Trans Am engine and the T-top breeze in your hair through many of these tracks, heavy with deep grooves but brightened by light, chiming choruses, such as lead single "Don't Sit Down 'Cause I Moved Your Chair." It's like a war between brothers -- one who likes Thin Lizzy and one who likes Big Star. The title track is gorgeous and appropriately leering ("That's not a skirt, girl, that's a sawn-off shotgun  / and I can only hope you've got it aimed at me"), and "Library Pictures" is a smooth suite that shows how this band has matured.

Chicago never wants for three-day concert festivals during the summer, and the jammy/electronicish North Coast Music Festival, which debuted last year, returns this Labor Day weekend for another go-round.

The bulk of the lineup is now available ...

The United Sounds of America concert series scheduled this week and next at Symphony Center have really great lineups and promise to be interesting shows -- especially the June 17 night focusing on Detroit and featuring Marshall Crenshaw, Bettye LaVette, Brendan Benson, Wayne Kramer and more. Dave Hoekstra chronicles the series and talks to Crenshaw.

However, today it was announced that the June 16 show about Memphis has been canceled. For information, call (312) 294-3000.

As we reported earlier, the Cubs are asking Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) to introduce an ordinance today that would authorize holding two Paul McCartney concerts at Wrigley Field on July 31 and Aug. 1. Still no official word from Macca's camp on any dates past his gig this Friday in Las Vegas.

UPDATE 4:18 p.m.: McCartney just announced another baseball park show: July 15 at Yankee Stadium. It kicks off a new tour, the 2001 On the Run Tour, according to a Wednesday press release.

Lollapalooza 2011 schedule: Decisions, decisions

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Lollapalooza has already announced its lineup, but today the summer concert festival published the schedule for all three days, Aug. 5-7 in Chicago's Grant Park.

The evening headliner match-ups look like this:

Friday 8/5: Coldplay vs. Ratatat vs. Girl Talk vs. Muse
Saturday 8/6: My Morning Jacket vs. Beirut vs. Pretty Lights vs. Eminem
Sunday 8/7: Deadmau5 vs. Kid Cudi vs. Foo Fighters

The full schedule grids: 2011_Lolla_Grids.pdf

Also, single-day tickets ($90) are now available, in addition to however many three-day passes ($215) remain. Look for tickets here.


Mick Jagger's tribute to soul great Solomon Burke during the Grammys in February was arresting for two reasons. First, wow, all pouty lips and cock-o'-the-walk strutting, the elderly Jagger was on fire. But second, who was leading that fiery band -- that stylish, fierce guitarist Jagger chased around the stage?

That's Raphael Saadiq, and you might have heard him before.

A torchbearer for much of the old-school soul that was contemporary to the Stones, Saadiq first came around in the early '90s as a member of R&B chart-toppers Tony! Toni! Toné! ("Little Walter," "Feels Good," "Whatever You Want"). At the end of that decade, he formed his own supergroup of sorts, called Lucy Pearl with Dawn Robinson (En Vogue) and Al Shaheed Muhammad (A Tribe Called Quest). By that time, he was also an in-demand producer for artists -- like D'Angelo and Joss Stone, and various collaborations with everyone from Whitney Houston to Ludacris -- seeking to add a bit of authentic grit to their own R&B.

Now Saadiq, 45, is enjoying raves for his fourth solo album, "Stone Rollin'," which debuted last month at No. 1 on Billboard's R&B chart and No. 14 overall, the highest opening of his career.

"I guess if you keep knocking, somebody's gonna let you in," Saadiq told the Sun-Times.

Thomas Conner

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


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