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Tuning in with Thomas Conner

March 2012 Archives

Free music back in Millennium Park for summer

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Amid a shifting summer festival landscape -- tickets for Taste, a revamped Folk & Roots Festival -- the city's Cultural Affairs and Special Events department announced today an expanded slate of free outdoor concerts downtown in Millennium Park.

Kool & the Gang almost too hot on Van Halen bill

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KTG press photo by Silvia Mautner.jpg

Kool & the Gang's original members are Dennis Thomas (from left),
George Brown, Robert "Kool" Bell and Ronald Bell.

Trust me on this one: Don't dilly-dally on your way to the next Van Halen show. Get there on time, get your beer, get your seats and don't miss the opening act.

It looks weird on paper, I know: silky-smooth R&B pros Kool & the Gang opening for full-throttle rock goons Van Halen. But it works -- at least it did when the tour first stopped in Chicago in February -- the musicianship is superb and, hey, Diamond Dave knew it would be a heckuva party.

"When I met with David Lee [Roth] at a rehearsal, he mentioned to me that in the early days they used to play Kool & the Gang in the clubs, and he loved it," bassist and co-founder Robert "Kool" Bell told the Sun-Times this week. "We talked about doing this tour, and he said, 'Sixty percent of the audience is ladies, and you guys wrote "Ladies Night." Let's just go out and have a party.' That's how he ran it by me. I said, 'Yeah, let's get down on it!'"

Concertline: Howler, Noel Gallagher, Seun Kuti, more

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

This spunky Minneapolis quintet emerged as a popular favorite at this month's South by Southwest festival in Texas. They sound like a rollicking party where the Strokes and the Buzzcocks cover '50s rockabilly and doo-wop. It's definitely worth checking out at this free in-store show.
At 6:30 p.m. April 3 at Reckless Records, 3126 N. Broadway. Free. Call (773) 404-5080;

It's been a great couple of weeks for fans of modern guitar. First B.B. King, then George Benson, now acclaimed Los Angeles studio player (more than 3,000 sessions) and solo artist (more than 40 albums) Lee Ritenour takes a rare lap around the country. There's no new album -- he's got one in progress tentatively called "Rhythm Sections" -- just an opportunity to hear why his nickname is Captain Fingers.
At 8 p.m. April 4 at Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse. Tickets: $28-$43. Call (773) 381-4554;

Ben Kweller, power pop and that whole other country

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kwellerhat.jpgBen Kweller lashed about the stage during a showcase performance in mid-March at the annual South by Southwest music conference, bashing out new songs on guitar and piano. Aside from his gray jeans looking dad-tight instead of hipster-skinny, he was still the picture of youthful abandon -- and heaven knows we've heard enough about his teenage escapades.

Now 30 and a father of two, Kweller formed the band Radish when he was 12. That's not so unusual for a Beatles-loving kid. The major-label bidding war that erupted over the band, resulting in Kweller signing a recording contract at age 15 -- that was the story, and a controversial one.

Fortunately, however, Kweller hasn't burned out or faded away. The new songs are from "Go Fly a Kite," his fifth album. The SXSW show was in Austin, Texas, home to Kweller's new record label, the Noise Company. In our post-SXSW chat, we talked about that aspect of his youth -- Texas, country music and all those tumbleweeds that still roll through his power-pop.

Lollapalooza passes on sale -- prices up $15

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As usual, the lineup of performers isn't expected to be announced for a couple of weeks, but three-day passes to Lollapalooza 2012 just went on sale -- at higher prices.

Neither fact stopped the discounted batch from selling out in less than half an hour.

A limited number of early weekend passes for the annual music festival, Aug. 3-5 in Chicago's Grant Park, were available at 10 a.m. today for $200. Once those are gone -- which they now are -- the price jumps to $230.

The 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival, July 13-15 in Chicago's Union Park, has added nearly a dozen bands to its lineup, including the return of Sleigh Bells and Dirty Projectors, plus Flying Lotus, Danny Brown, Clams Casino, the Olivia Tremor Control, Iceage, the Men, Purity Ring, Schoolboy Q and the Atlas Moth.

Music reviews: The Shins, George Clinton, more

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The Shins, "Port of Morrow" (Columbia) 2<br />

shinsmorrowcd.jpgJames Mercer is back, still sporting the only handsome beard in indie-rock, but he's knee-capped the band. Bringing a turned-over lineup with him to a major-label debut, Mercer now leads a new roster of the Shins through familiar but overly spiffed-up guitar pop. Most of it openly wrestles with its tuneful, bare-bones roots and new producer Greg Kurstin's talent for contemporizing a band. The conflict is a draw: Fans of the band's cleaner, older sound likely will adore the loping balladry of "40 Mark Strasse" or the marching, nostalgic single "Simple Song," both of which find Mercer punching his falsetto in the groin. Elsewhere, the swirling dance-rock of "Bait and Switch," the overwritten and overproduced "Fall of '82" and the woozy title track weigh down the buoyancy usually associated with the Shins.

B.B. King @ House of Blues: Far gone, still thrilling

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(Photos by Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)

Is the thrill gone? Not quite, but it may be fading.

B.B. King -- the King of the Blues, the Beale Street Blues Boy, the superlative icon of blues guitar -- is still a thrill worth seeking, if only to lay eyes on a living legend and hear that utterly unique guitar tone. But Thursday night at Chicago's House of Blues, King, 86, seemed to be searching for the thrill, too, throughout an entertaining but unfocused and often confusing performance.

Music review: Madonna, 'MDNA'

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(Interscope) 3<br />

madonnamdnacd.jpgLady Gaga, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and the rest of the "shock" troops -- they never seem quite as labored and overwraught until we hear a new Madonna album. A good one, that is. When reminded of the effortless ease with which Madonna Louise Ciccone (and her usual bevy of producers) spins and slings dance-pop, both the pure fluff and the more serious stuff, the other ladies suddenly sound like they're running to stand still.

Madonna, 53, certainly has tried too hard many times herself; in fact, that's largely what she's been doing for the last decade, giving us the somber dud that was "American Life" (2003), the tired retreads of "Confessions on a Dance Floor" (2005), the embarrassingly oversexed (even for Madonna) generic disco of "Hard Candy" (2008). But when she lets us catch a little glimpse of the woman behind the brand, she usually scores on every level.

George Benson on remaining a 'Guitar Man'

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That singer-guitarist George Benson is one of the most successful crossover artists of all time can be seen not only in the chart and sales data but in the caliber of fellow musicians who acclaim him. Fellow jazzbos like Herbie Hancock and Earl Klugh -- you'd expect them to sing his praises, which both have done in interviews as recently as the last few months. But even rocker Lenny Kravitz gushed in a recent conversation: "Benson, please! He's unbelieeeeeeeevable! Have you heard 'The Other Side of Abbey Road'?"

Benson's come a long way since that 1970 album, a dreamy set of Beatles jazz translations -- but not too far.

Concertline: James Murphy, B.B. King, more

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

He's turned off his LCD Soundsystem, and now electropop pioneer James Murphy is indulging in collaborations with other artists as well as his passion behind the turntable. With classic rock and new wave influences this deep, his DJ sets are rich and textural. He leads a dance bill that includes DJ LA Jesus, Mister Joshua and Kool Hersh.
At 10 p.m. March 23 at the Mid, 306 N. Halsted. Tickets: $20. Call 312-265-3990;

One of the most interesting musicians from the '90s, the leader of Soul Coughing now looks back on that decade as an unhappy time of addiction. He just published a memoir, The Book of Drugs, and he's reading from it during his current shows, which also include what's become a requisite feature for him: Q&A with the audience.
He's got two suburban shows this week, first at 7:30 p.m. March 22 at S.P.A.C.E., 1245 Chicago Ave. in Evanston ($32-$42; 847-492-8860;, then at 8:30 p.m. March 23 at the Montrose Room at the InterContinental Hotel, 5300 N. River Road in Rosemont ($25; 847-544-5300;

SXSW 2012: The report

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Actor Matthew McConaughey (right) plays the bongos with Ian Astbury
of the Cult during the band's Saturday night concert at SXSW.

AUSTIN, Texas -- The headlines that began appearing throughout media during 2012's South by Southwest told the story: "SXSW: The soul revival continues," "At SXSW, real rock and roll lives," "Hip-hop's SXSW invasion." Bruce Springsteen in his keynote amused a rapt audience by reeling off a list of dozens and dozens of music genres, subgenres and sub-subgenres.

"This is all going on in this town right now," he said.

Indeed, it was. SXSW began 25 years ago as a showcase for aspiring and mid-level music talent. Since then, it's grown to a behemoth event, incorporating film and digital ventures, and the music portion now features big-name acts, as well. Last week at the annual conference in the Texas capital, Springsteen played, Lionel Richie debuted his new country songs, and hip-hop moguls like Lil Wayne, Eminem, 50 Cent and Kanye West made appearances.

As usual, I'm one guy with two feet -- can't see it all. But here's the index of the music I experienced during SXSW 2012:

-- Tom Morello's Occupy SXSW street showcase
-- Don Cornelius and "Soul Train" celebrated
-- Bruce Springsteen keynote, plus the Woody Guthrie centennial
-- Interview with Little Steven Van Zandt
-- Alabama Shakes deserves the hype
-- Fiona Apple's splendid case of nerves
-- Singer-songwriter John Fullbright comes of age
-- Ezra Furman, Sharon Van Etten, Mr. Muthaf---in' eXquire, R. Stevie Moore
-- Buzz bands: Hospitality, Ava Luna, Joe Pug
-- Power pop: Big Star tribute, dB's reunion, Brendan Benson
-- Hip-hop fusion: K. Flay, Idle Warship, Robert Glasper
-- SXSW global: K-pop, Juanes, Bensh, Noa Margalit
-- Homeless people turned into wi-fi hotspots

SXSW global: K-pop, Juanes, Bensh, Noa Margalit

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AUSTIN, Texas -- This year's South by Southwest features music acts from every continent except Antarctica (those penguins aren't as musical as you've been lead to believe). Here's some of the international flavor I sampled this week:

* * * * *

The panel session at SXSW 2012 was titled with a question -- "Do Music Moguls Know a Secret About K-Pop?" -- but the non-insider query is simpler: Do you know what K-pop is?

It's a genre of hyper-produced, often sugary sweet pop music mostly out of South Korea. It's got its own Billboard chart, and in December launched its own festival (K-Pop World, Dec. 7 in Seoul). According to the moderator of this industry panel, it's "a huge thing across Asia and other parts of the world," and it's about to invade the states.

SXSW: Don Cornelius, 'Soul Train' celebrated

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Tony Cornelius, son of "Soul Train" creator Don Cornelius, watches classic clips
from the TV music show with NPR interviewer Dan Charnas on Saturday afternoon
at South by Southwest.
(Thomas Conner/Sun-Times)

AUSTIN, Texas -- "Soul Train" creator and host Don Cornelius was left out of the Grammys' "in memorium" slide show last month, barely two weeks after the Chicago television pioneer was found dead of an apparent suicide, but he was celebrated Saturday at the annual South by Southwest music conference in the Texas capital.

At an event called "'Soul Train' Tribute to Don Cornelius," NPR's Dan Charnas conducted an amiable onstage chat with Don's son Tony Cornelius about the TV music show's history and legacy.

"If he'd come back here and see the love from those who miss him so much, I wonder, would he decide to stay?" Tony Cornelius asked during the session. "He had so much love to live for. It hurts me that he's not here."

SXSW: Hospitality, Ava Luna, Joe Pug

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AUSTIN, Texas -- There's buzz, and there's buzz. When people insist you see a band at South by Southwest, it's usually dicey. When people recommend a band like this -- "Aw, Hospitality. They're really good. I'd like to see them again" -- that you take a little more seriously.

The buzzy Brooklyn band's Friday night showcase at Frank was definitely worth the recommendations, and then some. Unassuming and sometimes unobtrusive, Hospitality segued from sound check to set without any fanfare or introduction; the snugly packed crowd in the small bar simply enjoyed the revelation that, hey, that beautiful music is the room's centerpiece now.

Hospitality, like its namesake, creeps up like that, anyway.

jwj SXSW 2012 Friday 09016b.jpg

Tom Morello leads a couple hundred Occupy Austin demonstrators
in a sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land" in the street outside his SXSW
showcase late Friday night.
(Photo courtesy Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman)

AUSTIN, Texas -- During his keynote speech at this year's South by Southwest music conference, Bruce Springsteen referred to folksinger Woody Guthrie as "a ghost in the machine." In the centennial year of his birth, Guthrie has certainly haunted SXSW 2012. Springsteen and many others have sung his songs. "Woody at 100," a panel session featuring his children, Nora and Arlo Guthrie, considered his legacy.

Then Friday night, Chicago-area native Tom Morello capped off his showcase in the middle of the street, leading a throng of Occupy Austin demonstrators in a sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land."

IMG_1105.JPGAUSTIN, Texas -- Kristine Flaherty grew up in Wilmette. She went to Stanford. She's also a helluva rapper.

With frenetic flow and live-wire, chicken-dance moves, K. Flay barreled through a Friday showcase at Austin's Red Eyed Fly, crumpling labels and defying genres. Backed by an excellent live drummer, Nicholas Suhr, she crafted loops and samples with real finesse, utilizing grinding guitar sounds and squawky electronic noises for melody and music more than mere beats and punctuation. "We're going to go to a fun place in our minds," she said by way of introducing one song. It was less invitation than advisory -- she picked up drumsticks and attacked her own percussion pad, and she and Suhr lost themselves momentarily in a rhythmic freakout of ecstatic proportions.

SXSW: Fiona Apple's splendid case of nerves

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Fiona Apple, pictured performing Wednesday night at Stubb's during SXSW,
drew an SRO crowd for her second showcase Thursday, as well.

AUSTIN, Texas -- Alabama Shakes might be one of the buzziest new bands at this year's South by Southwest music conference, but Fiona Apple is the one of the hottest returning-act tickets. After not having been seen outside of Los Angeles in years, and with her last record of emotionally taut pop-cabaret released in 2005, two lines for her second showcase Thursday night snaked around the block in different directions.

Power pop @ SXSW: Big Star tribute, dB's reunion

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AUSTIN, Texas -- At the 2010 South by Southwest music conference, critics and fans were eager for a scheduled celebration of the '70s band Big Star. The influential pop-rock band was at the height of a popular resurgence, fueled in part by a stellar box set ("Keep an Eye on the Sky") released the previous year. A panel session was planned, a hotly anticipated concert, too. But on the first day of the festival, bandleader and power-pop icon Alex Chilton died.

The pieces of those plans were reassembled in earnest Thursday night at SXSW 2012. In a star-studded concert -- featuring a pantheon of alt-rock greats including R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Wilco's Pat Sansone, Tommy Stinson, Peter Case, Chris Stamey, Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer, M. Ward and many more, plus Big Star's lone survivor, drummer Jody Stephens -- musicians inspired by the band, complete with a 12-piece orchestra, performed the whole of Big Star's "Third," their emotionally tangled and rightly acclaimed album recorded in 1974 and released by 1978.



AUSTIN, Texas -- Marveling at the breadth of contemporary pop music, Bruce Springsteen name-checked his own lengthy list of milestone influences during a funny and enlightening keynote address Thursday at the South by Southwest music conference.

The king of this particular musical Mardi Gras, Springsteen hit town Wednesday night and showed up to jam with Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo at the Austin Music Awards. In addition to his keynote speech, the Springsteen blitz continues tonight in concert with the E Street Band, a preview of the tour kicking off this weekend. His latest album, "Wrecking Ball," was released last week and debuted at No. 1 in 14 countries.

"No one hardly agrees on anything in pop anymore," Springsteen said in his opening remarks. He expressed awe at the number of bands booked at SXSW.

"There are so many subgenres and factions," he continued -- and then amused the standing-room crowd by listing as many as he could name, dozens of hyphenated musical classifications and creations, from melodic death metal and sadcore to rap-rock and Nintendocore. He ended the list with a slight slump, saying, "And folk music."

"This is all going on in this town right now," he said.

More highlights from Wednesday's music and panels at South by Southwest ...


AUSTIN, Texas -- "Is that a dude in his underwear, just playing?" asked a guy who wandered into The Jr bar just off Sixth Street on Wednesday night. Why, yes, yes it is.

Ezra Furman, the mad Evanstonian who recently relocated to the Bay Area, stepped onto the bare stage for his SXSW 2012 showcase nearly bare-assed, wearing only socks and boxer briefs. The rest of him was just the same -- wild eyes, spasmodic poses, a spitting earnestness so unnerving you pray he doesn't make eye contact.

Hurling a mixture of songs from his new solo album, "The Year of No Returning," and gems from "Mysterious Power" and his Chicago tenure with the Harpoons, the skinny folk-punk wunderkind bared his soul, as well, in songs alternating between naked desperation ("Bloodsucking Whore") and mournful reverie (a cover of Tom Waits' "Bottom of the World"). In a new song, "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde," he summed up his SXSW moment, singing, "I was hideous and handsome."

"I was supposed to be a wide-eyed sort of singer-songwriter, but I don't feel like that anymore," he said from the stage. "Too bad, marketing team."

SXSW: John Fullbright comes of age

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Singer-songwriter John Fullbright brought the church down
Wednesday night at South by Southwest.
(Photo courtesy Richard Webb)

AUSTIN, Texas -- Let me tell you my quick John Fullbright story before I go on about how mesmerizing and moving his Wednesday evening South by Southwest showcase was.

When I was writing about music in Oklahoma, I covered the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival each July in Guthrie's hometown of Okemah. Okemah has one motel, which is taken over by the artists and production crews during the festival. Folk singers, in my experience, don't sleep much, and every night after the shows wrapped up in town most of them would drag chairs into the motel parking lot and swap songs till dawn.

Every now and then, wide-eyed young buskers would stroll up and try to measure up. Few did -- until, several years ago, a teenaged Johnny Fullbright strode into to the circle with a banjo over his shoulder. Tipping his cap, the Okemah native offered to play a couple of his own songs. Soon, Arlo Guthrie's eyebrows raised and he sat forward in his lawn chair, and we all knew we were hearing something special.

littlestevensxsw.JPGAUSTIN, Texas -- Little Steven Van Zandt had a good chuckle about an alleged rumor reported this week during South by Southwest.

A writer at Magnet music magazine claimed he'd heard that, for their anticipated Thursday night performance during the annual music festival, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band would be performing a version of the Broadway musical "The Music Man." (The writer later confessed, not surprisingly, "I made it up.")

"You never know, though," Van Zandt said during a chat Wednesday with the Sun-Times, laughing heartily at the idea. "[Springsteen] might have some Broadway up his sleeve."

Van Zandt is in Austin this week for a couple of reasons. In addition to the Thursday night show, he's also promoting something SXSW hardly deals with it all: a TV show.

The Chicago Park District announced today it's extending the contract to keep Lollapalooza in Chicago's Grant Park at least through 2021 -- but they'll be paying local taxes from now on.

In a statement released by the district just moments ago, C3 Presents (based in Austin, where the annual South by Southwest music festival is currently under way) will continue to produce the annual, multi-stage concert in downtown Chicago "under a revised financial structure that will provide millions of dollars in new tax revenues for the city, county and state."

SXSW: Alabama Shakes deserves the hype

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2_Alabama Shakes 1 Thomas.jpg

Brittany Howard leads the band Alabama Shakes during a Wednesday showcase
at South by Southwest.
(Photo courtesy John Boydston)

AUSTIN, Texas -- Buzz bands at the annual South by Southwest music conference have a lot in common with those who win best new artist at the Grammys. You tend to not hear much from them afterward. (Last year, conference attendees and wristband fans clawed over each other to get into showcases by London fuzz-rock band Yuck. Who? Exactly.)

Possibly the buzziest of the buzz bands at this year's SXSW (so far) is Alabama Shakes -- but this is a band you're going to hear much more from.

Fresh out of the piney woods just an hour downriver from the legendary soul studios at Muscle Shoals -- and with only a couple of EPs to their credit thus far -- Alabama Shakes is a fiery quintet of youngsters playing country-soul that both Skynyrd and Otis could love.

SXSW dials down the digital, cranks up the music

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AUSTIN, Texas -- Let the music begin. For days here in the Texas capital, tastemakers from digital ventures and the film industry have been unveiling their wares at the South by Southwest culture conference. Tuesday night, however, the programming shifted back to what built SXSW a quarter century ago: music.

More than 2,000 bands will roll their gear into Austin during the next few days, performing on more than 90 official stages. Last year, more than 16,000 registrants attended the music portion of the festival, including artists, publicists, industry scouts and a lot of media.

Music is a hot topic among digital pioneers, of course, so concert stages were under way earlier in the week. Hip-hop titan Jay-Z (above) performed Monday night for an invitation crowd.

Concertline: Levon Helm, Fiona Apple, more

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

Revered classic rock drummer Levon Helm (the Band) regularly hosts "Midnight Rambles" at his Woodstock, N.Y., barn, and now he's taking the hootenannies on the road, touring with special guests Donald Fagen (Steely Dan) and guitarists Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett (Little Feat). His Chicago stop is a fund-raiser for the venue, thus the steep tickets.
At 5:30 p.m. March 16-17 at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $250. Call (773) 728-6000;

They've moved from small clubs to big theaters with lightning speed, and now hard-rocking duo the Black Keys are on their first arena tour. Don't expect a lot of pyro and stage sets, though. They're charging through songs from the latest album, "El Camino," and others with bare-bones panache and bare-knuckle force.
Arctic Monkeys open at 7:30 p.m. March 19 at United Center, 1901 W. Madison. Tickets: $39-$59. Call (800) 514-ETIX;


Melvin Hughes, who was hired by BBH Labs to provide and promote
a mobile 4G Wi-Fi service during SXSW, holds the T-shirt he was given
by the marketing agency in Austin, Texas on Tuesday.

AUSTIN, Texas -- Perhaps you've heard that the zeitgeist at the annual South by Southwest culturefest is now located in the Interactive segment, rather than the conference's original Music portion. Must be true -- the first real controversy of SXSW 2012 occurred before many music critics had landed in the Texas capital.

SXSW is now a 10-day event encompassing rollouts of films, digital ventures and new music. The movies and online jibber-jabber started March 9; the music blares on through March 18.

But it's a crowded event, with celebrities, journalists and industry types jamming the Austin Convention Center and venues throughout downtown. Last year, nearly 20,000 registrants attended the Interactive portion -- which wraps up today, just as the Music showcases begin tonight -- As you might imagine, mobile bandwidth comes at a premium.

So BBH Labs, the techie division of the marketing agency BBH, tried a little experiment.

Tense moments with EMA (Erika M. Anderson)

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Erika M. Anderson likes to make her songs into events. Something big, something dramatic to force you into a decision: love it or hate it.

"I didn't go to music school, but I hang out sometimes with music nerds," Anderson tells the Sun-Times. "They're always saying that the one thing that makes people make up their mind about music is an event, a dramatic moment that shifts things in such a way that they'll either really like it or dislike it. If you go along at the same dynamics and rhythm, people don't have to make up their mind about it. You have to make them choose."

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

Singer Brittany Howard leads this super-hyped soul-rock band from Athens, Ala. Howard is a force of nature, a formidable belter and guitarist able to shift seamlessly between Otis Redding and Led Zeppelin covers. The band's debut album, "Boys & Girls," is due in April and is one of the year's most anticipated.
Chicago's Canasta and Jennifer Castle open at 10 p.m. March 9 at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $15. Call (773) 525-2508;

Ravinia pop and rock shows for 2012

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The spacious lawn at the Ravinia Festival is lovely for picnicking during its annual summer classical concerts, but it's also perfect for dancing during the venue's requisite pop and rock shows.

The North Shore music destination has announced its seasonal slate of shows -- the usual mix of returning favorites and curious debuts.

Chicago's Kickback is a pop bribe worth taking

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Billy Yost has a lot to live for, but he sure thinks about death a lot.

His band, the Kickback, has been toughing it out on Chicago's scene for a few years now, earning word-of-mouth raves and landing at least one worthwhile prize: On Monday the Kickback starts a monthlong, weekly Practice Space residency at Schubas. The gigs will serve as something of a honeymoon -- two days before the residency begins, Yost is getting married.

Yost, however, talks like the Woody Allen of Chicago indie rock.

"I was in the shower one day and I just had the realization that I was going to die," Yost says. "I watched Warren Zevon on David Letterman's show talking about how he was going to die when he had cancer, and something just clicked -- these waves of massive panic. I don't want to not be alive. It seems hilarious to bring up in polite conversation. I haven't been able to find a way to deal with that. It's definitely informed the music of late."

Music review: Bruce Springsteen, 'Wrecking Ball'

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Bruce Springsteen, "Wrecking Ball" (Columbia) 2 and a half stars

brucewreckcd.jpgWoody Guthrie idolized Jesus Christ, but Woody could do without preachers. Holed up in a New York City flophouse in 1940, he penned his two greatest songs, each inspired by this point of view. "Jesus Christ Was a Man" depicted the Christian namesake as a worker "true and brave" who championed the rights of the common people and was betrayed by the political elite. "This Land Is Your Land" was Woody's reaction to another song that bugged him to death, Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." As Joe Klein wrote in Woody Guthrie: A Life, Woody saw Berlin's narcotic standard as "just another of those songs that told people not to worry, that God was in the driver's seat." Regardless of one's religious beliefs, Woody simply reasoned that such sentiments encouraged passivity in the here and now. Woody believed God had already blessed America -- made it for you and me -- and that it's our duty to use our God-given talents to do the work necessary to maintain that blessing and live up to its gift.

Bruce Springsteen is often connected in the culture to Woody's working-man spirit; no doubt he'll be involved in the some of the events this year celebrating the centennial of Woody's birth. The swell of Occupy Wall Street protests and their seeming lack of new music thus ratcheted up some anticipation of Springsteen's latest record, "Wrecking Ball," his 17th studio album (out Tuesday but currently being released online song-by-song, day-by-day). He's written some lyrics that address and allude to the country's recent financial crises and social inequities, but "Wrecking Ball" is a conflicted creation. In the end, Springsteen, now 62, merely falls to his knees and and calls on "a shepherd" to come sort it all out.

Thomas Conner

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


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