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November 2011 Archives

The two halves of Poi Dog Pondering: An Orrall history

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Poi Dog Pondering -- the pre-Chicago lineup, in Austin, Texas.

It's complicated, but it's all right.

Getting the sprawling musical family that is Poi Dog Pondering together for a reunion weekend is a Herculean task. Frank Orrall, the band's pater familias and grand poobah, says the time is right.

"It's the 25th anniversary of the band," he says. Then he starts worrying me. "It just feels like the time to do it," he adds. "People are having kids, their work or other projects are taking them in different directions, they're going through different things in life. It seemed like an important time to document who we are while everyone is still here. It's getting harder to go out on the road. People have commitments."

This isn't a swan song, is it?

"No, we're still totally vitally strong and present as a band. But we don't move like the gypsies we once were. We just need to sit for a musical portrait while we can."

So Friday and Saturday the band reassembles for two reunions -- the band's Austin lineup (1987-1992) on Dec. 2 and various incarnations of its Chicago existence (1993-present) on Dec. 3. The shows will be recorded and filmed for CD and DVD.

It's a Justin Bieber Christmas! The Beeb's holiday album, "Under the Mistletoe" (previously reviewed, 2 and a half stars), clocked 210,000 copies sold in its first week in early November, making it Bieber's second album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard chart.

In other 2011 Chirstmas album offerings ... well, last year we had Mariah Carey, Susan Boyle, Lady Antebellum and more. Who's the biggest name this year? Carole King? Michael Buble? Bah humbug!

Here's a look at the few musical gifts and several lumps of coal this holiday season ...

As Loudon Wainwright once sang: "Suddenly it's Christmas / the longest holiday!" -- and it begins now. Despite the hardy nature of Chicagoans, however, there's no need to carol outdoors or wander frigid, public-space tree-lighting ceremonies to get a musical dose of holiday cheer.

Here's a roundup of holiday-themed concerts -- at warm, indoor venues -- worth some Christmas greenery ...

First-ever video from Umphrey's McGee, 'Booth Love'

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Chicago jam band Umphrey's McGee has been around more than 15 years and recently released its 12th album, "Death by Stereo," and first for Dave Matthews' ATO record label. In all that time, the sextet has developed a visually arresting stage production -- but they've never made a video.

Until now. Today the band premieres its first video -- for "Booth Love," one of the first singles released ahead of "Death by Stereo." The video, directed by Travis Rime Brooks, showcases a glorious summer day in Chicago, following three roller-skating sirens through the city, complete with champagne at Wrigley Field.

See the new video here ...

So many songs: 10 great Muppet music moments

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As you gear up for Muppet-mania this week ahead of the new movie, "The Muppets" -- read about the Muppets music and the Flight of the Conchords connection -- here are 10 great musical moments from our felt friends (in no particular order), from the show, the movies and the viral videos.

'Mahna Mahna'

Get this: The song "Mahna Mahna," written by Piero Umiliani, first appeared in a 1968 Italian film ("Sweden: Heaven and Hell") about Nordic sex, drugs and suicide. Thankfully, it resurfaced a decade later as a perfect set piece for "The Muppet Show," featuring two fluorescent pink cows (?!) and one very groovy beatnik.


In his 1976 appearance as a celebrity guest on "The Muppet Show," singer-songwriter Paul Williams sang one of his own songs accompanied by a small Muppet choir, a backing band by the name Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (showing remarkable restraint), and the subdued piano of Rowlf the Dog.

The tune was called "Sad Song," but Williams remembers it as one of the happiest moments of his life.

williams_Paul.jpg"Oh, it's one of those Hallmark lyrics I wrote, basically a co-dependent anthem, which is pretty much what I spent my life writing. But the way it worked on the show is a perfect example of this intense emotional connectedness we feel with these characters," Williams says.

In the scene -- see it and other great Muppet music moments here -- the song winds to a close with Williams leaning on Rowlf's piano nonchalantly singing about "the sad song that used to be our song," a sharply sentimental but sweet moment, and as Rowlf plays the final chords, he glances at Williams, as if to say, "Did that help?" Rowlf then closes the piano keys and gently pats the lid.

"I mean, Rowlf did more with the closing of that piano than most actors ever got from Orson Welles," Williams says, laughing heartily at the 35-year-old memory.

Music always has been the beating heart of the Muppets. That "intense emotional connectedness" fans feel to the felt friends created by the late Jim Henson has fueled excitement about the first new Muppet movie in 12 years -- "The Muppets," opening Wednesday in theaters -- and it comes directly from the power of the franchise's iconic songs, such as Williams' and Kenny Ascher's "Rainbow Connection" and "Movin' Right Along."

Guns N' Roses wanted to rock and roll all night

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Guns N' Roses 1.jpg

Axl Rose and guitarist D.J. Ashba (right) illustrate their appetite for destruction Tuesday night at the Allstate Arena. (Jon Gitchoff/For the Sun-Times)

Axl Rose and his hired guns -- still parading around under the name Guns N' Roses, even though the creative core of that band dissolved two decades ago -- are now more famous for their delays than their music. Not only did it take 17 years to produce the band's so-so latest album, 2008's "Chinese Democracy," Rose and his crew are notoriously late arriving on stage for concerts. Tuesday night's start time at the Allstate Arena was 9 p.m., but the Guns didn't fire until 11:10 p.m. By 2 a.m., the final confetti was just starting to fall.

"You want 8 o'clock shows, go find F-R-I-E-N-D-S or hit a cinema somewhere," read a recent Axl-ish post from Guns N' Roses on the band's Facebook page. "This is Rock N' Roll! ... This is Guns N' Roses and when the time is right the stage will ignite."

Given the unnerving professionalism and tightly regimented scheduling that now rules most pop concerts, at least give Rose credit for thumbing his nose at your day job and shaking us nearly all night long. I'd almost forgotten the anticipation, anger and at least some momentary sense of long-forgotten mystery (each a vital ingredient for rock and roll) generated by a simple late start.

The trick is, when you finally show up, to give the crowd something worth waiting for.

Big summer shows are already lining up for 2012. After the recent Roger Waters at Wrigley announcement, today comes news that country superstars Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw have joined forces for a twofer tour -- arriving July 7 at Chicago's Soldier Field.

The 19-date Brother of the Sun Tour reunites the two singers on the road for the first time since their successful joint tour almost 10 years ago. Since then, they've each become two of the biggest stars in country music.

Tommy Stinson: one of Guns N' Roses' many replacements

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Axl Rose performs with Guns N' Roses Nov. 2 in Atlanta. (Getty Images)

When I asked bassist Tommy Stinson about the likelihood of a Replacements reunion, his answer killed two bands with one stone: "About as likely as a f---in' Guns reunion."

The difference, of course, is that Replacements singer Paul Westerberg doesn't still tour the world with a bunch of session musicians and call it the Replacements.

Guns N' Roses, however, still records and performs, even though singer and curmudgeonly iconoclast Axl Rose is the only founding member remaining and has been for nearly 20 years. Stinson, a founding member of college-rock pioneers the Replacements, has now played with GNR longer than he was with the 'Mats.

"Thirteen years now!" Stinson guffaws during our recent interview, laughing at the realization. "That wasn't supposed to happen, but I'm glad it did."

Glen Campbell to say Chicago farewell Jan. 26

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Glen Campbell's "Goodbye Tour" has scheduled a Chicago-area stop: Jan. 26 at the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet.

After revealing an Alzheimer's disease diagnosis in June, Campbell said his current album -- the acclaimed "Ghost on the Canvas," released Aug. 30 -- and supporting tour would be his last. His touring band includes wife Kim and several sons and daughters.

'Wayman Tisdale Story' goes behind the music

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WT Stage 6.jpg

Midway through "The Wayman Tisdale Story," the jolliness of this particular giant begins to seem suspect. Half an hour into the documentary, no one interviewed has said anything that isn't absolutely glowing about this famed basketball star turned jazz musician. Even the dark times -- his flat NBA career after such success at the Univ. of Oklahoma in the '80s, his early struggles in music in the '90s, the battle with cancer he eventually lost in 2009 -- are almost comically bright and brimming with cheer. It must be airbrushed, a puff piece.

But then I thought back to the Wayman I knew, and I remembered: He really was this nice, this happy. That upbeat demeanor and ever-present smile -- it was genuine.

"It was like he'd never had a bad day," says Michael Jordan, a frequent talking head in this film. Tisdale had his share of bad days, but he never let them turn him into a bad person. After Tisdale lost most of his right leg to bone cancer in 2008, Jordan says, "I couldn't tell that he'd just been through this traumatic change in his life."

Virtual pop idol Hatsune Miku beaming into theaters

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miku.jpgNovelist William Gibson's "bridge trilogy" -- Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996) and All Tomorrow's Parties (1999) -- features a recurring "character" of new interest to music fans -- especially this week.

Named Rei Toei, Gibson's creation is an artificial intelligence -- a virtual, computer-generated character who becomes a huge pop star. But now, someone in real life finally caught up to the fiction and created her.

Her name is Hatsune Miku (the name means "first sound of the future"). Created by software company Crypton Future Media, she's a Vocaloid -- a virtual pop singer with machine-driven vocals and a digital female avatar.

On Thursday, she's doing something flesh-and-blood pop stars can't do: She'll be performing a concert in nine U.S. cities (including Chicago) -- at the same time.


Sonny Moore seems exhausted, yet he insists he's pumped, psyched, rarin' to go one more round. He's just arrived at the First Bank Center in Denver, an arena the young DJ -- spinning under the name Skrillex -- quickly sold out, like most of the stops along his mammoth Mothership Tour this fall. He sticks a fork into a salad, pauses and sighs.

"It's been a f---ing insane year, man," he says.

He's speaking for himself, but he also could be echoing the weary amazement of DJs the world over. After umpteen previous declarations that various forms of electronic dance music -- techno, electronica, trip-hop, Chicago's own house music -- were poised for a takeover of the nation's popular tastes, 2011 has been the year it finally happened on a wider scale.

Moore, 23, started his musical life in Los Angeles leading a screamo punk band called From First to Last, then switched to his DJ alter-ego -- crafting a sledgehammering style of dubstep, one of electronic music's many niches -- just a couple of years ago. He signed to Deadmau5's label this time last year, and though he's only released a handful of EPs thus far ("Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites," "More Monsters and Sprites") his concert crowds have quadrupled.

But one thing made Moore realize he'd really hit the big time.

"When I saw myself on 'Beavis and Butt-head,' " he says.

Music reviews: Kelly Clarkson, Bjork, Magazine, more

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clarksonstronger.jpgIt's been a decade since Kelly Clarkson won the first "American Idol," and next year she turns 30. On "Stronger" (RCA) [2<br />
and a half stars], her definitely strong new album -- debuting at No. 2 this week behind Coldplay's "Mylo Xyloto" -- Clarkson is finally trying to act her age, even if it's only momentary. Of course, the album is peppered with the now-requisite kiss-off anthems. They're her bread-and-butter these days and, as she makes clear here, she's no dummy. After explaining precisely how to dump a guy in the opening smack-down ("Mr. Know-It-All"), she warns another dude, "I'm not as dumb as you think" ("You Love Me") before turning the concept around on another loser: "Dumb plus dumb equals you" ("Einstein"). Love is a battlefield, indeed, and Clarkson is still all fired up.

Sting bets back to bass-ics on new tour

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stingwrigley07.JPGIn an interview with Bass Player magazine, Sting once waxed romantic and spiritual about his native instrument.

"I love my current main bass, a '54 Fender Precision," Sting said in March 2000. "There's no finish on it; it's just a wreck. Something about that really appeals to me. An old instrument is something to be cherished. I think instruments absorb and retain energy -- it sounds mystical, but I really believe it."

He loves the Fender Precisions. Chicagoans saw him play a similarly battered one when the reunion of the Police stopped at Wrigley Field in July 2007.

Since then, Sting has been through Chicago three more times hawking various revamped, refurbished and rearranged versions of his catalog, including last summer's two-night stand at the Ravinia Festival as part of his marathon world tour with a symphony orchestra. This weekend, he's back yet again, but this time he's looking at his songs through his beloved bass.

SXSW early showcase picks include Chicago

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Applications to play the annual South by Southwest music festival next March in Austin, Texas, are open through Friday, but the fest has already announced a slew of bands who've been given slots to play.

Two Chicago bands have made the early cut:

Mahogany -- Fresh off a CMJ showcase, this "electric music-based multidisciplinary media ensemble" was founded at Michigan State Univ., also claims Philadelphia and New York as home and is now based here. Then again, as they've declared, "Mahogany was declared a sovereign city-state canton-town." Their next EP, "Electric Prisms," is expected soon via Chicago's BLVD Records.

Musikanto -- This Chicago-based folk-rocker, Mike Musikanto, released the "Sky of Dresses" album in August. Musikanto ceased studying painting to instead apply brushstrokes to some fine acoustic music, starting with "Ghost Pain" in 2009. He was just on NPR's "Mountain Stage."

Roger Waters building 'The Wall' June 8 in Wrigley Field

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As expected, "The Wall" is coming back to Chicago -- and it might get covered in ivy.

Roger Waters, co-founder of classic rock band Pink Floyd, will bring his technologically sophisticated production of the band's 1979 concept album back to North America this summer, Live Nation announced Tuesday morning. The tour includes a few ballparks, including a stop June 8 at Wrigley Field.

Tickets for "The Wall" at Wrigley go on sale at 10 a.m. Nov. 14 via

Music review: Justin Bieber, 'Under the Mistletoe'

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beebxmas.jpgHalloween's over, but here comes the season's real scare: Justin Bieber's back -- with a Christmas album.

Keep in mind, Bieber, now all of 17, is a household name yet still has not released a non-seasonal, full-length album -- just two long EPs, an acoustic collection and now this diverse, occasionally quite fresh holiday set, "Under the Mistletoe" (Mercury) [2<br />
and a half stars], out Tuesday.

Styx or 'The Music of Styx'? Fans can choose or have both

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For a band that seems to argue and bicker a lot, the original members of Styx currently agree about one thing: No reunion -- not now, not anytime soon, probably not ever.

"I don't think [a reunion] is realistic," Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw recently told Rolling Stone. "We tried it in 1996, and we realized what was true in 1983 was only more true in 1996. We'd just gone our separate ways. Rather than having a positive effect on each other, we have a very negative effect on each other."

Former Styx singer Dennis DeYoung is less definite. In a recent interview with the Sun-Times, he answered the reunion question by reminding us he never meant to leave the band in the first place (in the '80s). Or the second (in the '90s).

"Of course, I'd like that, but a reunion decision has nothing to do with me," De­Young said. "It's not within my power."

Thomas Conner

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


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