Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

Netherfriends: 50 states, 50 songs, 354 days

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Shawn Rosenblatt, the man behind Netherfriends, poses at the South Side theater where he lives this summer. (John Kim/Sun-Times)

Every now and then, a musician thinks he can do this. George Thorogood, being so bad to the bone, had no trouble. In 1981, the blues-rocker played a concert a day, each in a different U.S. state, starting Oct. 23 in Honolulu, winding around the mainland (including Nov. 11 at Chicago's Park West) and finishing Dec. 11 in Pasadena.

Others try to earn their stripes by recording songs for each of the flag's stars. In the '90s, the Dambuilders started writing a song for each of the 50 states. They only got to 15.

In 2003, indie-pop wunderkind Sufjan Stevens started his own 50 states project. He was going to write an album for each state, starting with "Greetings From Michigan," which was followed by his critical breakthrough, "Illinoise." That's as far as he got.

"That's the reason I've gotten no press for mine," says Shawn Rosenblatt, a one-man Chicago band called Netherfriends who earlier this year completed his own 50-songs-in-50-states project. "NPR knew about this but said they had no interest in it because of Sufjan, because he didn't finish. No one thought I would."

◆ 3:15 p.m. Sunday
◆ Wicker Park Fest, Milwaukee and North avenues
◆ $5 donation requested at festival entrance

Rosenblatt's odyssey included both performing and recording. He gave up his job and his apartment in Chicago and hit the road for a year. The rules:

-- He had to play a show in each state.
-- He had to write one completely new song while in the state (not necessarily about the state).
-- He had to record that song while in the state.
-- He had to reach all 50 within a year.

He did it: He left April 14, 2010, and got back April 3, 2011.

The results are starting to come out now. Rosenblatt has released a Netherfriends EP, "Angry East Coast," featuring the songs "Philadelphia, PA," "Washington, DC," "Rehoboth Beach, DE" and "Dennis, MA." The next full-length album will be "Middle America" later this year, followed by "The Sun Belt" and more from the coasts.

Rosenblatt grew up in Philly and came to Chicago for school at Columbia College, from which he graduated before the tour. Netherfriends (named for a more worldly location: the -lands, not the -regions) began as a group but has whittled down to a solo project, using loops as backing sounds for Rosenblatt's singing, guitar and keyboards. On the road, he picked up extra musicians for certain legs of the tour.

As a group, Netherfriends released the alluring pop album "Barry and Sherry" (with "Bret Easton Ellis Novel") last year. As he explored solo loops, Rosenblatt recorded Netherfriends' "Alap," a free album of ambient drones.

The seven songs on "Alap" each are named for a day of the week. After the 50 states tour, Rosenblatt embarked on the Bicycle Tour, riding his bicycle to every show between Philadelphia and Boston. ("After a year in a van, I felt like a slob.") He's brainstorming a Pizza Party Tour. The man's got to have a gimmick -- or at least a goal.

"I don't want to be the guy who talks about stuff like this and never does it," he says.

Circling the map, Rosenblatt had his ups and downs. A lot of stuff got stolen -- a power amp, a passport, a van.
He played a steak house in Casper, Wyo., and a hipster bar in Tulsa, Okla. He saw great towns ("Fairbanks, Alaska, was amazing!" "People lost their mind over this stuff in Lafayette, Ind.!") and awful towns ("We got into a fight with these frat guys in Tallahassee"). He wasn't crazy about Hawaii, though he did get some press there ("a nice write-up, with my name right next to Kathy Griffin!"). He wrote "Chicago, IL" about the girl he left behind here.

He and two support players almost missed their required duties in Alabama. After a show in Mobile, an empty gas tank set them back a few hours on the way to their next gig in Hattiesburg, Miss. Once that show was over, Rosenblatt stuck to the plan. They'd played in Alabama, but they hadn't recorded in Alabama.

"So after the Hattiesburg show, we were next due in Texas, but I drove us back to Alabama -- two hours in the other direction -- to write and record the song," Rosenblatt says. "We roll into Wilmer, Ala., to an abandoned gas station. In 10 minutes, I wrote and recorded a song. It's definitely the most rushed, but it's one I really like. The band was pissed."

Next up, Rosenblatt's working on two new recording projects. First, he's splicing up Harry Nilsson songs into samples, which he'll recombine and sing new songs over them. ("That'll be free," he says, "I couldn't afford the licensing.") Another Netherfriends album will be songs written by Rosenblatt but sung by local female vocalists. The songs will be named after the singers.

"They're not gimmicks," Rosenblatt says. "Sufjan said himself upfront that his 50 states thing was a gimmick. I do these themes and stuff just to entertain myself. There's life, and there's art. I've made my life into art. So I've got to make it interesting."

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on July 21, 2011 6:00 AM.

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