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Tuning in with Thomas Conner

January 2012 Archives

Mavis Staples, lots of tributes at Chicago Blues Festival

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Mavis Staples will headline a tribute-heavy schedule at the 29th annual Chicago Blues Festival, scheduled June 8-10 in Grant Park.

Staples will cap the festival's final day -- a schedule that features all female performers at the Petrillo Music Shell, including a tribute to the Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor, who died in 2009, by Melvia "Chick" Rodgers, Jackie Scott, Deitra Farr and Nora Jean Brusco.

Other top slots go to Texas Johnny Brown -- a jazzy Houston guitarist who toured with Bobby "Blue" Bland and Junior Parker -- on June 8 and Floyd Taylor on June 9. Taylor is a Chicago native, Dusable High School grad and son of the great Johnnie Taylor.

Lenny Kravitz's black and white world

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I've got Lenny Kravitz on the phone, so I have to ask him about that iPhone gizmo.

A few months ago, a picture of Kravitz became its own Internet meme -- a widely posted and forwarded photo of the rocker walking down a street talking on his iPhone, but using an old-fashioned telephone handset plugged into the device via a coiled cord. Kravitz has been accused more than once of being a retromaniac, and this seemed to perfectly sum up his nostalgic bent.

"That's funny," Kravitz says, "because I'm talking on it now."

Chicago's Rise Against back home @ UIC Pavilion

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Tim McIlrath of Chicago punk band Rise Against
at the mike on Friday night at UIC Pavilion.
(John J. Kim/Sun-Times)

The drum circles made a racket and the human microphone actually worked (actually worked, actually worked), but many have wondered: Where was the protest music of 2011, the year of the protestor?

Of course, no one asked that question who saw a ticketed or impromptu performance by Chicago punk band Rise Against, which has spent the last year furiously working a fresh body of songs screaming for attention to society's ills -- all of which they unleashed in a barrage Friday night at the UIC Pavilion.

Music review: Bhi Bhiman, 'Bhiman'

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(Boocoo) 4<br />

bhiman012712.jpgBhi Bhiman is hailed by his record company as "the Sri Lankan Woody Guthrie." He's second generation; his immigrant parents named him after Bhima, a central character in an ancient Indian text called the Mahabharata. But he grew up in St. Louis, an ordinary grunge-loving American schmo. He certainly doesn't dote on his heritage in his music, which is pure Americana folk -- the most exciting I've heard in a long while.

This question has been asked numerous times in recent weeks: If "the protestor" was Time's Person of the Year for 2011, where are the new protest songs? The answer is complicated, but it's also very early. We've only seen the word "occupy" capitalized for four short months. No doubt songs are being scribbled right now with various "eat the rich" themes, but as with all movements the most lasting legacies stem from those artists with less didactic approaches -- songwriters who fold the tension of the times into mundane tales of life and love. "Bhiman" is a record brimming with easily recognizable dilemmas, both economic and romantic, poured out through confident, simple musicianship and one of the most arresting voices you'll hear all year.

Glen Campbell's Goodbye Tour @ Rialto Square

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Glen Campbell performs Thursday night
at the Rialto Square Theater in Joliet.
(Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)

Farewell tours come and go, often followed by the inevitable reunion go-round. Make it look like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and the tickets sell themselves. Country superstar Glen Campbell, however, hails from a less cynical era, and when he hits the road on The Goodbye Tour, he means it.

Diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease a year ago this month, Campbell, 75, announced last summer that his latest album, "Ghost on the Canvas," would be his last and that he'd ride his tour bus on one final trek across the country. The Goodbye Tour stopped Thursday and Friday night at Joliet's Rialto Square Theater

Meanwhile, the Recording Academy announced early Thursday that Campbell will perform at the 54th annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 12 with Blake Shelton and the Band Perry.

Music review: Lana Del Rey, 'Born to Die'

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(Interscope) 1<br />
and a halfstars

borntodiecd.jpgShe tanked on "Saturday Night Live," so what? Cast your attention spans back to "SNL" disasters from Ke$ha (one of the all-time worst performances in 2010), Kanye West (whose "singing" debut bombed in 2008), Coldplay (Chris Martin's awkward attempt to fill a small space with big music in 2008), Ashlee Simpson (caught lip-syncing in 2004), on back to Sinead vs. the Pope in '92. It's a show of one-note comedy, so an off-key performance hasn't exactly slowed down any musicians' careers.

But that'll be my only defense of Ms. LDR. Because "Born to Die" is definitely not ready for primetime.

Concertline: Rise Against, Los Campesinos!, more

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A look ahead at shows worth seeing (and hearing) this week ...

The Chicago quartet emerged in 1999 with a loud pop-punk sound and something to say about the world. Since then, they've settled into the big time -- the latest album, "Endgame," debuted at No. 2 and, while they're still strumming at protests (Wisconsin, Occupy), they're booking shows in arenas with Live Nation. Will the message survive? It's a good bet, and likely a good show.
At 7 p.m. Jan. 27 at the UIC Pavilion, 525 S. Racine. Tickets: $32.50-$39.50. Call (800) 745-3000;

A Spanish name for a band that formed in Wales, but no one's Welsh. Just go with it. Five years along, this ensemble is still delivering fine indie-rock with Art Brut spunk and Arcade Fire ambition, now supporting last year's fine fourth album "Hello Sadness." Don't let their Budweiser commercial throw you off. They've still got it.
At 7:30 p.m. at Metro, 3730 N. Clark. Tickets: $20. Call (800) 514-ETIX;

'Nothing Is Wrong' with Dawes at Bluegrass & Blues fest

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Now in its fourth year, the Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival has grown into a formidable, two-weekend showcase of contemporary twists on American roots music.

Last Saturday the festival featured its bluegrass lineup (the Del McCoury Band with David Grisman, Bill Nershi, Joe Purdy and more) at an additional downtown venue, the Auditorium Theatre. This weekend the fest hunkers down in its birthplace, the trusty, musty Congress Theater, with a rewarding marquee of modern roots-rock: headliners Drive-By Truckers and Dawes, plus breakout locals such as Joe Pug, Bailiff, the Shams Band and more.

Are those really blues bands? For most of these acts, the blues are a starting point, a flavoring, a distant blood relation. The Foo Fighters and the Eagles are playing this spring's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, so perhaps we shouldn't quibble about matching acts to event names.

Taylor Goldsmith, lead singer-guitarist for Dawes, has led his band to great acclaim by sticking to a solid formula of 1970s, Laurel Canyon-inspired, slightly countryish soft-rock styles. But he's nothing if not versatile.

"I'm in Los Angeles right now, rehearsing for a fund-raiser thing my friends are putting together. I'm doing a couple of standards," Goldsmith said, chuckling, during a recent phone conversation. "I'm singing 'What Kind of Fool Am I?' and 'That Lucky Old Sun' -- the Ray Charles version."

Canasta hoping for winning hand in Mongolia

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canastaclothes.jpgSome bands say "world tour," and it means they've booked Vancouver immediately after Seattle. Chicago chamber-pop band Canasta is taking their show overseas -- to Mongolia.

The excursion is part of the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs' Arts Envoy Program. The tour begins Feb. 3 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital, and continues to Sainshand and Dalanzadgad before returning to Ulaanbaatar a week later.

Charles Mingus was a Promethean bass player and an underrated pianist, but his virtuoso instrument was the ensemble. Like Ellington, he composed specifically for his players' unique talents and personalities. It made for revelatory music -- but not a legacy that's easy to replicate and revive.

So when a group dares to take on the Mingus catalog, it's worth checking out. Friday night at the Harris Theater, the Chicago Jazz Ensemble dove in and made a joyous racket.

Brad Paisley, Miranda Lambert coming to Wrigley

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More Wrigley Field concert news: Country star Brad Paisley is bringing his Virtual Reality Tour to the Cubs' ballpark on June 9.

The tour -- which also features Miranda Lambert, Chris Young, the Band Perry and Jerrord Niemann -- just started last week. It's a rare Wrigley stop for a country package.

Various Artists, "Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International"
(Shangri-La/Fontana) 3 stars

dylanchimesamnesty.jpgGenres of pop music include rock, country, dance -- and Bob Dylan covers. From the high (the "I'm Not There" soundtrack) to the low ("Million Dollar Bash: Missouri Salutes Bob Dylan"), albums of Dylan covers -- never mind the individual songs interpreted in innumerable styles by countless artists on their own records -- have become a pop music cliché. But clichés are clichés because they strike a chord and demand repetition. Most of Dylan's songs possess a timeless mystery, a songwriter's gift that keeps on giving to performers of every stripe.

That's exactly what's gathered for this ambitious collection, a jaw-dropping roster from a wide array of genres -- 73 tracks (76 online) featuring 80 artists -- redoing the Dylan catalog as a four-disc set to raise funds for the international human rights organization.

'JBTV' is good, now it's nationwide

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News from the home TV front: Chicago's "JBTV" -- a locally produced, weekly syndicated program featuring musician interviews and performances -- has inked a deal to go nationwide. Starting Feb. 18, the one-hour show will air in more than a dozen major markets across the country.

Music review: Tim McGraw, 'Emotional Traffic'

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(Curb) 2 stars

mcgrawemotional.jpgCountry superstar and actor Tim McGraw ended his contentious relationship with his label, Curb Records, when a court in November ruled he could exit his nearly 20-year contract after Tuesday's long-delayed release of "Emotional Traffic," his 11th studio album and his last for the Music Row cornerstone. So let's finally go to the chopper for the "Traffic" report: These 12 tracks are pretty congested, but things definitely keep moving and there aren't many accidents.

The single "Felt Good on My Lips" hit the charts late in 2010, but it's still indicative of the whole album -- pure pop, with only McGraw's faint twang and commercial clout dictating that these tracks belong anywhere near the country bins.

Bruce Springsteen's new album -- and Wrigley show?

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Bruce Springsteen performs Saturday in Asbury Park, N.J. (Getty Images)

UPDATED 6:45 a.m.: Bruce Springsteen announced details Thursday morning of his 17th studio album, "Wrecking Ball," to be released March 6. The album will feature 11 new songs (13 in a special edition) produced by Ron Aniello.

No extra tour dates were announced -- Springsteen with the E Street Band has concerts scheduled in Europe through July -- but a source within the Chicago Cubs told the Sun-Times late Wednesday that the Boss is tentatively scheduled to perform at Wrigley Field in September.

A look ahead at shows worth seeing (and hearing) this week ...

If you thought that if you have an acoustic guitar it means that you are a protest singer -- think again. Sexton is super soulful as he strums through his considerable catalog, which turns 20 this year. He's a ferocious performer with a versatile voice and wolfish personality. Then again, his latest album, "Fall Like Rain," is a little protesty -- tinged with social commentary and featuring a cover of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth."
At 8 p.m. Jan. 20 at Park West 322, W. Armitage. Tickets: $27. Call (800) 514-ETIX;

This raffish rock duo just celebrated a 10th anniversary with a video directed by actress Samantha Morton. The scorching guitar-vocal attack of Jamie Hince and Alison Mossheart, respectively, made for one of the best shows last year, and they'll no doubt hit just as hard on the return trip.
At 8 p.m. Jan. 20 at the Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine. Call (800) 514-ETIX;

David Bromberg is back -- on tour, in town -- finally

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The week I got David Bromberg on the phone, one of the world's most forwarded/tweeted/shared story was right up his alley. A researcher at the University of Paris had conducted a blind test of violinists to see if they could tell the difference between a fine Stradivarius violin and a cheapie. The results: they couldn't.

Fiddlers, like Bromberg, however, would like to quibble.

"In this test, you had people listening to the instrument under their ear," Bromberg said, amid a list of faults he (and many others) have found with the study.

Via Chicago: Secret Colours, 'EP3'

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coloursep3.jpgBy a certain age, hearing wide-eyed kids making "trippy" music begins to fray one's patience. But then comes the occasional band with real smarts lurking and maybe smirking behind the smoky haze and glassy-eyed gazes. Chicago's Secret Colours is one of those. The sextet's latest "EP3" (3<br />
and a half stars), a fine five-song follow-up to its 2010 self-titled debut, drones seductively with hallucinogenic grooves but enough comfy pop hooks to keep us from slipping into a bad trip.

A look ahead at shows worth seeing (and hearing) this week ...

Near South Side venue the Shrine has started "Represent Africa," a monthly showcase (third Thursday of each month) of musicians "of African origin based in America." Next week is the second installment, hosted and headlined by Brooklyn-based but Ghanaian-born MC and filmmaker Blitz the Ambassador, supporting his latest album "Native Son" (featuring his hero Chuck D).
At 8 p.m. Jan. 19 at the Shrine, 2109 S. Wasbash. Admission is free. Call (312) 753-5700;

Woody Guthrie centennial events planned

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'Americana' is a new one on me, but when these fellers hire out to write a column every day they ain't no telling what kinds of words they'll fall back on to make a living.
-- Woody Guthrie

woodycig.jpgAmerican folksinger Woody Guthrie was born a hundred years ago this summer (July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Okla.), and plans are firming up for a series of conferences, concerts and other events across this country and others celebrating the centennial of this colorful character and musical legend.

The Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration officially kicks off next week and runs throughout 2012. The interconnected series of events is "designed to not only reflect, but to also look forward ... [and] to demonstrate how the influence of my father's music lives today -- and will live throughout the 21st century," says Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter and president of Woody Guthrie Publications, which is sponsoring many of the events in conjunction with the Grammy Museum.

Tomorrow Never Knows fest: Grouplove's mass adoration

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They're a brand new band, but Grouplove has been getting around.

The Los Angeles-based buzz band is flying straight from a series of shows in Australia to make its gig this weekend at Chicago's Tomorrow Never Knows festival, an annual multi-venue concert series of forward-thinking rock and pop bands. In another couple of weeks, Grouplove will be playing a festival in Switzerland, followed by weeks of club dates across the U.K. Then they're back on these shores, opening for Young the Giant down the East Coast, across the South and up the West Coast.

"That takes us through April, I think," says a cheerful but jet-lagged Christian Zucconi, one of the band's two singers.

This is a band with well-stamped passports. They formed on the island of Crete.

Notorious B.I.C.: Jay-Z raps his baby announcement

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Now that's a baby announcement.

Two days after singer Beyonce reportedly gave birth to a daughter, Blue Ivy (oh, those wacky celebrity baby names), father Jay-Z confirmed the news with a telling new song, made available online on Monday.

Listen to the track here...

Worldly sounds ahead in 2012, concert/album preview

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The term "world music" is a matter of perspective. In the United States, it's applied generally to anything from outside the U.S.-U.K. pop culture axis.

"In South Africa, you know, music from America is called 'world music,'" Albert Mazibuko, longtime tenor in the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo (above), tells the Sun-Times from his South African home. "But, you know, now all music is world music. It doesn't come from over there, from the 'world.' The world is everywhere."

In the year ahead, that may seem truer than ever. From many corners of the world, 2012 may sound something like 1986, the year the world outside South Africa learned about the then-20-year-old group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, via their collaboration with Paul Simon on his Grammy-winning "Graceland" album.

The mid-'80s featured cultural crossovers from David Byrne & Brian Eno's shortwave production of "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts" through Peter Gabriel working with Senegal singer Youssou N'Dour or Lou Reed and Iggy Pop guesting with Yemeni-Israeli singer Ofra Haza.

That whirlwind of success also had its perks for Mambazo -- one of which lead directly to the group's latest album.

Van Halen (with Roth) sets two Chicago shows

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Last month, we got confirmation that a Van Halen reunion tour was going to happen -- with singer David Lee Roth -- and today we got the dates. The 45-concert tour will include two swings through the Chicago area: first on Feb. 24 at United Center, and again April 1 at the Allstate Arena.

Thomas Conner

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


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This page is an archive of entries from January 2012 listed from newest to oldest.

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