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Tuning in with Thomas Conner

September 2011 Archives

Broken Social Scene recently announced that, after a year and a half of touring in support of its fourth album, "Forgiveness Rock Record," the Canadian rock group will be taking a restful and possibly lengthy hiatus. Their last U.S. show for the foreseeable future will be Oct. 1 in San Francisco.

But they popped up one last time in Chicago on Wednesday night -- for free.

Acclaimed Diane Izzo remembered in tribute concert

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6715.jpgDiane Izzo is still speaking. Call her partner, Marco Zas, and if he's not home, the voice of the late Chicago singer-songwriter still invites you to leave a voicemail message.

"I don't know how to change it," Zas chuckles, then stops. "Even if I did, I probably still wouldn't do it."
Izzo died in February after a grueling battle with cancer, but her voice -- and her acclaimed songs -- still resonates with fans and especially musicians throughout Chicago and beyond.

As part of the announcement of this weekend's First Annual Diane Izzo Memorial Concert -- subtitled with a line from one of her songs, "Venice": "Yeah We're Pitiful but We're Gods!" -- local luminaries chimed in with memories and praise for Izzo's underappreciated talents.

(Photo by Jim Newberry)

Hall of Fame short list: Guns N' Roses, Joan Jett, more

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The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame today announced in nominees for induction in 2012.

An artist or band must have released its first single or album at least 25 years before nomination, so we're up to 1986 for the cut-off. And the nominees are ...

James Blake's haunting dubstep returns to Chicago

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Backstage at the Pitchfork Music Festival in July, I asked James Blake if he was comfortable as a singer. After listening to his sporadic releases of moody, spectral dubstep singles -- most of which are constructed around his voice, even though it's often smudged and muddied -- I was curious.

"Yeah," he answered quickly, firmly. Then he wavered. "I dunno. I always loved the way Arthur Russell, how he seems like he's always about to fall off the note in a way that's both tension-creating but also sort of satisfying and comforting when he doesn't, and when he kind of slightly does then it's like a quirk. I suppose my voice is always getting stronger, but I feel like there are weaknesses in it that I like in sort of a weird way."

Crowd still hooked on Jane's Addiction at Metro

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Jane's Addiction performs Saturday night in the first of two
weekend concerts at Chicago's Metro.
(Scott Stewart/Sun-Times)


Now here's something I haven't seen in quite a while. Jane's Addiction wrapped its brief reunion set Saturday night at Chicago's Metro, played a single encore, then stumbled back offstage. But the crowd wasn't in the same hurry to move along -- they stood their ground, still cheering as the houselights came up, genuinely begging for more.

For an instant, it looked like they might get the second encore they wanted, but no such luck. Roadies started pulling plugs. The crowd was so fired up a lot of folks just stood there singing along with the Pink Floyd on the PA.

Did I mention this was Jane's Freaking Addiction? In 2011?

"Wow, 20 years and we still suck, right?" front man Perry Farrell chortled to the crowd midway through the show. "We still don't know what the f--- we're doing. ... But we're gonna be something someday."

Music reviews: Girls, Nirvana, Syleena Johnson, more

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girlscd.jpgAllow me a brief old-man moment: When I was young, we had (depending on where you configured the starting line) barely more than a quarter century of rock history to learn as dutiful, emerging music fans. Listening to an ELO album and maybe "American Pie" was like CliffsNotes. Today, kids have up to six decades to catch up with. Some abandon the survey courses and focus the inspiration on one specific era, like the early '80s (Twin Shadow, the Drums) or 1970s Laurel Canyon songwriters (Dawes, Fleet Foxes). Others, like San Francisco duo Girls, go for it all, trying their hand at absolutely anything from the whole span of rock's story.

The ingredients of Girls' sophomore album, "Father, Son, Holy Ghost" (True Panther) [3<br />
and a half stars], make a stew of shoegaze, doo-wop, Beatles solo records, space rock, surf guitar, bubblegum pop, folk and a whole lot of Pink Floyd. The fact that singer Christopher Owens and craftsman Chet "JR" White manage to make it all sound, if not unique, at least completely their own keeps the jumble from becoming an inside joke a la the Pooh Sticks. This isn't a send-up or a love letter; it's an economical, trickle-down synthesis.

Music review: Wilco's 'The Whole Love'

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wilcowhole.jpg"Art of Almost," the first track on Wilco's eighth studio album attempts to offer plenty for discussion. We're hit quickly with watery electronic percussion and a head-rush of symphonic sampling before singer Jeff Tweedy starts chanting his few, esoteric words. It's not a complicated song; Tweedy could just strum the thing meditatively on an acoustic guitar. But this is what Wilco does now, or is expected to do. They stretch it, they color it, they fill it in, dressing up the music with loops and synthesizers -- always lightly, always tastefully. This is what built Wilco's reputation into something far beyond its core talents, the "experimentation" that earned the band such imperious praise starting on 1999's "Summerteeth" and culminating around 2002's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot."

It's also what makes the album, "The Whole Love" (recorded in the band's Chicago loft and a first on its newly launched dBpm label) [3<br />
and a half stars], unexpectedly delicate, pleasant and pretty. I say "unexpected" because the last few albums, including 2009's Grammy-nominated "Wilco (The Album)," were slightly more ham-fisted in their approach and a little too eager to reclaim roots. "The Whole Love" boasts an unbearable lightness and seems oblivious to expectations.

It's the end of the world: R.E.M. calls it quits

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"Just the slightest bit of finesse
might have made a little less mess
But it was what it was
Let's all get on with it now."
-- Michael Stipe, "Discoverer"

It's the end of an American institution as we know it: R.E.M. announced Wednesday that the band is calling it quits.

Mid-afternoon, the band posted a simple epitaph on its website: "To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening."

Singer Michael Stipe added: "A wise man once said -- 'The skill in attending a party is knowing when it's time to leave.' We built something extraordinary together. We did this thing. And now we're going to walk away from it. I hope our fans realize this wasn't an easy decision; but all things must end, and we wanted to do it right, to do it our way."

So ends 31 years together and 15 albums, a body of work that sounds like little else in contemporary pop and includes modern-rock milestones such as the band's impressionistic debut, 1983's "Murmur"; careful steps into the mainstream (1987's "Document" and 1988's "Green"); and the group's well-balanced, acoustic-electric magnum opus, 1992's "Automatic for the People."

Music review: SuperHeavy, 'SuperHeavy'

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superheavycd.jpgIt's the summer of supergroups. In rock, we got Wild Flag (hot). In hip-hop, we got Kanye & Jay-Z (tepid). For every other genre, apparently, we're now offered SuperHeavy (warm), an unexpected conglomerate of the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger, 68; Eurythmics co-founder Dave Stewart, 59; British soul singer Joss Stone, 24; Damian Marley, 33, son of the late reggae icon Bob; and Indian film composer A.R. Rahman, 45 ("Slumdog Millionaire"). If that combination of talents seems confounding, the band itself is just as bewildered. Late in the record, Stone can be heard crying, "What the f--- is going on?!"

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Joy Division never played the States. After years of gigging in Britain, the influential new wave band scheduled a U.S. tour in 1980, which was nixed after singer Ian Curtis' suicide that spring -- two weeks before the American tour.

"But Chicago was one of the first places we played with New Order," bassist Peter Hook says of the equally influential, rechristened trio that continued on without Curtis.

Hook is back in Chicago this weekend -- but without New Order. The three players, including singer-guitarist Bernard Sumner and drummer Stephen Morris, have always had a contentious relationship, which finally imploded earlier this year. Just a couple of weeks ago, in fact, New Order announced its first gigs since 2006 and the first shows ever without Hook: two charity concerts next month in Brussels and Paris, with bassist Tom Chapman.

Shortly after that announcement, Hook took to his own website to proclaim: "Everyone knows that New Order without Peter Hook is like Queen without Freddie Mercury, U2 without The Edge, Sooty without Sweep!" (the latter being beloved puppets on British TV).

It's a tad egotistical for Hook to say that, but it doesn't make it wrong.

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Lindsey Buckingham solo albums have been rare treats for rock fans -- until recently. After averaging eight-year interims between albums throughout the '80s and '90s, the Fleetwood Mac singer-guitarist has delivered three new albums in the last five years.

"There was a time when I was the Terrence Malick of rock in terms how the projects were spread out," Buckingham, 61, told the Sun-Times during a recent interview.

It's not that he's suddenly more prolific. He's simply been able to keep Fleetwood Mac's grubby paws off these batches of songs. Several Mac albums started as Buckingham solo projects, including 1987's "Tango in the Night" and the 21st-century comeback studio set, 2003's "Say You Will," which is virtually the Buckingham solo album it started out to be plus a few harmonies and Stevie Nicks songs.

The new album, "Seeds We Sow" (Buckingham) [3<br />
stars], finds Buckingham not only solo but independent -- self-releasing the record after ending a three-decade relationship with Warner Bros. We spoke with Buckingham about the new album, new personal challenges and new plans for Fleetwood Mac ...

Common's memoir written by lover, man, Chicagoan

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Last week, a fan tweeted Common and asked him what his new book was about. His reply was succinct even by Twitter standards: "Love. Manhood. Chicago."

"Those words really, like, define the book," the Chicago rapper and actor told the Sun-Times in an interview days later. "It's about the evolution of a young man growing into manhood. It's about love relationships, not only on a romantic level but love for the art you're doing, music and acting, love for my mother, my daughter.

"And, of course, Chicago. It's not only the backdrop on the cover, it's the backdrop of my life."

The book is One Day It'll All Make Sense (Atria, $25, 297 pages), a memoir by Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., a.k.a. Common (and before that, Common Sense). Common, 39, has released eight rap albums -- with a new one, "The Dreamer, the Believer" coming in November -- and developed a reputation as a "conscious" hip-hop artist.

That means his autobiography is full of deep thoughts, or what passes for them, and takes an arty approach to the genre. He opens each chapter with a letter to a different person, including Emmett Till, Common's estranged father, his aborted child, various friends, even music itself ("Dear Hip Hop: I used to love u").

Pitchfork festival organizer builds Brilliant Corners

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The Brilliant Corners festival features rock acts like Shellac ...


Mike Reed.jpgFortunately, Mike Reed is as creative as he is busy.

A drummer and leader in three local jazz bands now, Reed (pictured, left) also helps organize the annual Umbrella Music festival (coming Nov. 2-6) and co-owns and operates the Pitchfork Music Festival each summer. Now, he's added another expo to his lineup.

It's a doozy, too -- called Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements, this new three-day event seeks to synthesize music, film, comedy and especially circus performances under two big tops this weekend in Eckhart Park (Chicago Avenue and Noble Street, just north of the Pitchfork fest's Union Park home). The mission statement: "To reinvent the traditions of Vaudeville for a 21st century audience -- a live mash-up of art forms and entertainment under one umbrella."

... as well as circus acts like Chicago's El Circo Cheapo.

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Music reviews & news: Wild Flag, Madina Lake, Blondie

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wildflagcd.jpgWe could talk about this band's pedigree for some time, but that's only a sliver of the story. Yes, Wild Flag brings together two-thirds of the celebrated alt-rock trio Sleater-Kinney, singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss (also still half of the long-running indie-pop duo Quasi), and adds ex-Helium guitarist Mary Timony and keyboardist Rebecca Cole (ex-Minders). It's a family tree grown from modern rock hardwood, and I suppose we have to call it a supergroup despite that word's frequently horrible connotations.

Wild Flag, however, is not a bunch of seasoned pros slapping themselves on the back. It's a quartet that, at least for 10 splendid new songs, revives rock and roll with a joy not heard in years. The band's self-titled debut, "Wild Flag" (Merge) [4 stars], out today, is a swaggering rock record -- rock, not rawk. No self-righteous anthems here. It swings and jives and shimmies and shakes and occasionally gets wonderfully weird. It throws a great party. It's inspires Cheshire, just-ate-the-canary grins from start to finish, and it'll be ranked among the year's best albums, for sure.

OK noodling: Umphrey's McGee keeps jamming

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Umphrey's McGee -- maybe you've seen the name before, and like most Chicagoans you've either written it off completely (is it a leprechaun band?) or take them for granted as part of the city's musical wallpaper. They're one of those bands that's just always ... there. They've been in the local listings for nearly 15 years. Someone goes to the shows. You don't know anybody, but someone must.

Then again, they're a "jam band," the rock genre for whom the Grateful Dead, Phish and their all-afternoon guitar solos have become iconic and for which the adjective "noodling" found new usage.

"That word, 'jam,' has certain connotations to certain people, not always good," says Jeremy Frazier, who's been writing about Umphrey's McGee on his Chicago Jam Scene blog for a couple of years. "It's the hippie thing, or it's long, meandering songs that don't neatly fit into the three-minute iTunes model."

"There is a certain stigma that is attached to the 'jam band' label, which is perpetuated in large part by websites like Pitchfork Media that like to make easy generalizations about 'endless, self-indulgent noodling' and 'patchouli-drenched, tree-hugging hippies,'" says Jefferson Waful, who designs the band's expressive light displays and has watched them develop for several years. "While there may be some truth in these stereotypes, there is also some really unique, sophisticated improvisation that has only been paralleled by jazz musicians."

When the band itself chimes in, they just blame the name.

U.S. musical response to 9/11 was all about the country

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Paul McCartney performs at the Concert for New York in October 2001. (AP)


By Sept. 12, 2001, it was clear the front lines of America's musical response to the previous day's attacks would have a certain native twang.

That afternoon, I was in the safest place an American could be -- the middle of nowhere, driving across vacant grasslands toward Denver from a Sept. 11 hike of the Black Mesa in a remote corner of the Oklahoma panhandle -- and the airwaves, already saturated in those parts by country music, were thick with over-earnest patriotic songs DJs had dredged-up for the occasion.

Lee Greenwood's God-forsaken "God Bless the U.S.A." was repeated about every 20 minutes. They also dug into chestnuts old and new -- Brooks & Dunn's "Only in America" (a celebration of working stiffs released just weeks before), Billy Ray Cyrus' "Some Gave All" (honoring military servicefolk, from the same album as "Achy Breaky Heart"), even Merle Haggard's Vietnam-era "The Fightin' Side of Me" (pity, once again, that "squirrelly guy who claims he just don't believe in fightin'").

Eventually, I'd had my fill. I put in the only angry political music I had in the car: the first album from the Clash.

In the months to come, though, country music led the charge -- and had the greatest popular success -- with songs addressing the 9/11 murders, ranging from tender contemplation of the tragedies to blatant, boot-clad jingoism.

Goodbye, Ezra Furman (the stakes are high)

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ezrasolo.jpgEzra Furman's last gig in Chicago was as unexpected as one would expect, at least from this quixotic local character. He headlined last Friday's Flesh Hungry Dog Show bill at the Jackhammer, a cozy Rogers Park gay bar.

Maybe not as unexpected to fans -- after all, among the many different people Furman makes out with in this year's video for "Bloodsucking Whore" (below) is Gary Airedale (G. Thomas Ward), Flesh Hungry's creator -- but still not a traditional venue for his barking, rootsy, ever-more-frequently rockabilly-influenced songs. "I don't know how this looks up here to you out there," Furman said Friday from the Jackhammer stage, typically wild-eyed in his light yellow duster, "but it feels all right to me."

That was the last time Chicagoans will see Furman for a while. He plans to wrap up the recording of his first solo album (funded by fans) in Chicago during the next couple of weeks, and by the end of the month he'll be a San Franciscan.

Fall concert preview: Everybody back inside

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Festival, schmestival -- let's get rock 'n' roll back indoors and in the dark where it belongs.

With summer's concert season cooling off, and those festival radius clauses beginning to expire, Chicago's slate of autumn musical offerings is taking shape. Among the usual list of current stars and perennial favorites are some new and unique bills, as well as some curious and can't-miss tickets.

Here's a look at the highlights from this fall's concert calendar, including Jane's Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins, Herbie Hancock and, of course, Kanye West & Jay-Z, and more ...

Music review: Lil Wayne, 'Tha Carter IV'

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(Universal Republic) 2<br />
stars

lilwaynecarter4.jpgThis time last year, Lil Wayne was watching the MTV Video Music Awards from his prison cell on Rikers Island and plotting the release of "Tha Carter IV" timed to the day of his November 2010 release. Delays, delays -- and with Jay-Z and Kanye West also pushing their joint debut from January to August, the year's two most highly anticipated hip-hop albums showed up within weeks of each other. Wayne's is a bit more disappointing.

Save the date: The return of Al Jourgensen and Ministry

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Three years after vowing to be done with Ministry for good, former Chicagoan Al Jourgensen has not only reunited the band but scheduled a new album and tour.

The album is to be called "Relapse," and the tour to support it will include a pair of Chicago shows announced today -- June 28-29, 2012, at the Vic Theatre.

Thomas Conner

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

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