Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

May 2012 Archives

NYCHamericana.jpgNeil Young & Crazy Horse, "Americana" (Reprise) 2<br />
stars -- After spending years plumbing his own career in projects ranging from the rarities and lost tracks of "Archives" (the first volume came out in 2009) to his highly anticipated memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, due in the fall, Neil Young can be forgiven for wanting to get out of his own head for a while. Instead of showcasing new material, "Americana" rounds up some favorite public-domain campfire classics, protest songs and murder ballads and feeds them to Crazy Horse. The result is typically grungy, sometimes gleefully sloppy and ultimately another mildly amusing detour.


Somewhere in the vacation slides of Canasta's trip to Mongolia, there's a small epiphany.

The six-piece Chicago group -- a celebrated stalwart of "orchestral pop," meaning big ideas in small packages, often produced with a lot of gear -- landed the unusual gig via the Arts Envoy Program from the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (and part of a wider initiative to celebrate 20 years of U.S.-Mongol relations). The weeklong tour began Feb. 3 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital, and continued to the highland towns of Sainshand and Dalanzadgad.

Mongolia. In February.

"It was freezing," recalls Canasta's singer-violinist Elizabeth Lindau, adding for emphasis, "freezing." She knows freezing. She once spent a season working at a research station in Antarctica. Mongolia, she says, was colder.

3 outta 4: Red Hot Chili Peppers @ Allstate Arena

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(Photos by Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)

When the Red Hot Chili Peppers returned to the stage Monday night at Allstate Arena, they did so one by one.

Drummer Chad Smith first leapt up and hung from a circular lighting rig before dropping onto the stool behind his enormous kit (complete with timpani). Guitarist Josh Klinghoffer emerged next, adding textured filigrees atop Smith's rebar rhythms. Bassist Flea walked in on his hands before picking up his bass for another thwackfest. The trio -- all eye contact and double-dog dares -- tore through their seventh sizzling jam of the night, and for a moment, well, you'd be forgiven if you hoped Anthony Kiedis wouldn't come back out.

Music reviews: PiL, Garbage, more

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This week's Playlist is all comeback kids ...

thisispil.jpgPublic Image Ltd., "This Is PiL" (PiL Official) 2<br />
and a half stars -- Anger is still an energy for John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), returning to his post-Sex Pistols gang -- the mostly adventurous Public Image Ltd. -- with the first new PiL music in two decades. Featuring the latest lineup of guitarist Lu Edmonds, drummer Bruce Smith and bassist Scott Firth, "This Is PiL" comes on like the Big Audio Dynamite reunion at last year's Lollapalooza -- you think it's just a nostalgia romp, but it fits into current scenes and sounds better than expected.

Bobby Brown: New single not about Whitney Houston

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It's not about Whitney.

Fans have been scratching their heads over Bobby Brown's latest single, "Don't Let Me Die," the harbinger to his first solo album in 14 years due next week.

The song, a plain lamenting ballad, begins with Brown -- former husband of Whitney Houston, who died in February -- singing, "Been 'bout a month since you been gone / I guess it's pretty clear that you ain't coming home." The video features some funereal imagery, and the song ends with a long exhale and the sound of a heart monitor.

Some have wondered: Is Brown pimping our Whitney grief?

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

The No. 1 DJ in the world returns to raise the roof (possibly literally) at the Congress, ahead of a summer full of festival bookings, the return of the Electric Daisy Carnival and a residency in Las Vegas. The Frenchman knows he'll be in the motherland this weekend: "It's interesting because [dance] music was born in Chicago with house music and Detroit with techno, and we took it in Europe and turned it into something trendy and cool, crossing-over and playing it on the radio," he recently told the Hollywood Reporter.
At 7:30 p.m. May 25 at the Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee. Tickets: $48.50-$125. Call (773) 276-1235;

The city's annual free Downtown Sound concert series kicks off Monday evening with two underappreciated local heroes: Kelly Hogan, the former Rock*A*Teen longtime Chicago omnipresence, and Scott Lucas & the Married Men, the rootsy side of Local H's Lucas. Both have new albums due on June 5: Hogan's "I Like to Keep Myself in Pain," and "Blood Half Moon" from Lucas' Married Men.
At 6:30 p.m. May 28 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Admission is free. Visit the site.

Justin Bieber tour reaches Chicago Oct. 23-24

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beebvegas.JPGBelieve it or not, Justin Bieber is not only about to release his fourth album, he's about to kick off a North American tour -- which comes to the Chicago area Oct. 23-24 at the Allstate Arena.

Bieber announced his tour plans today, a few weeks ahead of releasing "Believe," due June 19, featuring duets with Drake, Nicki Minaj, Big Sean and Ludacris.

LMFAO wants to get you ROTFL, ASAP

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Music Q&A LMFAO-1.jpg

Pop music and comedy have been friends with benefits since Stan Freberg lampooned culture via song in the 1950s. Their occasionally legitimate offspring has included a motley crew of court jesters from Sheb Wooley ("Purple People Eater") to "Weird Al" Yankovic's parodies to the wink-wink schlock of Tenacious D.

LMFAO -- named for a colloquial online acronym implying a high-degree of hilarity (more on that below) -- is the latest pop duo throwing their dignity at your funny bone. Wild glasses, crazy costumes, skits and songs about partying, partying and more partying -- if it means guiding you into their low-rent escapism, these two have little shame.

"It could be an inflatable palm tree," LMFAO's Redfoo said in a recent conference with reporters. "It could be a shuffling zebra that will just kind of make you feel like you're in a dream. I think that's the main thing with the costumes and the colors. Some things are random. Sometimes you might just get a grown-up guy in a hot dog suit. Why? There is no reason why. That is exactly why. ... It's like Halloween in the daytime."

The Bee Gees came in threes, but which one was Robin?

Not the tinny falsetto voice that became the hallmark of the trio's pop and disco hits -- that was bearded brother Barry. Robin was the thin one with the wispy hair, wonky overbite and the quivering, tender tenor. When the fraternal group began, in fact, Robin was the lead singer.

After a lengthy battle with cancer, a family spokesperson confirmed Sunday that Robin Gibb has died at age 62.

Here are five tracks from the group's catalog that best showcase Robin's unique contribution to an initially inherent British, folkie-pop sound:

Friday afternoon at Daley Center, folk-rocker Tom Morello roused the rally organized by National Nurses United by playing inspirational union songs. Then he tried to lead a sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land." But the crowd was young and, well, many didn't know the words.

That was not a problem Saturday night.

Closing out a sold-out show -- a concert called This Land Is Your Land: A Centennial Concert Celebration of the Legendary Woody Guthrie, at Metro in Wrigleyville -- Morello and the entire bill of more than 30 local musicians and international icons crowded the stage and sang every line to Guthrie's unofficial national anthem without any audience coaching. This crowd, though, was (at least in comparison with the usual rock mobs at Metro) not young. Many even knew the "censored" verses.

Saturday's tribute show crystallized in music much of what was being chanted, debated and discussed across Chicago during the weekend of the NATO summit and its corresponding protests.

'Queen of Disco' Donna Summer dead at 63

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donnasummer.JPGInto her 60s, the girl still worked hard for the money.

In fact, in 2008, just before turning 60, Donna Summer had a No. 1 dance hit with "I'm a Fire." That meant she, along with Cher, had scored a No. 1 song in each of the last four decades. Only Madonna has charted more dance hits than Summer.

But the record stops there: Summer has died at age 63 after a battle with cancer.

Her family released a statement, saying Summer died Thursday morning and that they "are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy." Summer had been living in Englewood, Fla., with her husband Bruce Sudano.

The five-time Grammy winner sold more than 130 million albums and contributed, as much as the success of the Bee Gees, to making disco wildly popular in the 1970s with hits such as "Could It Be Magic," "Love to Love You Baby," "I Feel Love," "Bad Girls," "Last Dance" and the No. 1 "Hot Stuff."

Music review: 'Occupy This Album'

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Various Artists, "Occupy This Album" (Music for Occupy) 2<br />

occupycd.jpgAn opus of 99 songs for $9.99 claiming to speak for the 99 percent, "Occupy This Album" is fortified with polemic and rhetoric in its titles alone: "Take a Stand," "We Stand as One," "Hell No (I'm Not Alright)," "We're the 99," "Fight the Good Fight," "People Have the Power." It's not all bombast and barricades, though. As diverse as the movement itself, this four-CD set is a sprawling, sometimes silly and sometimes satisfying set that -- while not offering much in the way of chart-topping, paradigm-shifting populism -- at least offers up a few answers to those asking, "Where's all the protest music?"

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

One of rock's finest interpreters, Bonnie Raitt, 62, has re-emerged after a seven-year recording hiatus with yet another set of perfectly pleasant, well-chosen and occasionally daring songs, "Slipstream." With her honey-smooth voice and take-it-easy guitar playing, she'll hold down two nights this week in Chicago.
Marc Cohn opens at 7:30 p.m. May 19-20 at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State. Tickets: $39.50-$75. Call (800) 514-ETIX;

Another package show from WKSC-FM (103.5), the Fantabuloso bill features Enrique Iglesias (who's getting around this summer and will be at the United Center Aug. 3 with Jennifer Lopez), Gym Class Heroes, B.O.B., the Wanted, Karmin, Cobra Starship, Havana Brown, Neon Hitch, Dev and Outasight, Carly Rae Jepsen and -- just added -- Adam Lambert. That's a lot of short sets.
At 5:30 p.m. May 18 at Allstate Arena, 6920 N. Mannheim Rd. in Rosemont. Tickets: $25-$95. Call (800) 745-3000;

Cornerstone Festival 2012 will be the last

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The Cornerstone Festival -- the Lollapalooza of Christian pop music -- has announced this year's event will be the last, ending a 29-year run in Illinois.

In a statement released last night, festival directors Genesis Winter & Scott Stahnke announced: "In 2012, we'll be celebrating one final Cornerstone Festival together. Based on a range of factors -- including changes in the market and a difficult economy -- the timing seems right. This was obviously a hard decision, wrestled with over years and particularly over recent months. But with the decision made, we have the opportunity to come together one last time and bring to a happy, grateful -- if tearful -- close to this chapter of our lives."

Chicago's Riot Fest is changing plans and moving around. The annual punk festival, usually held later in autumn in multiple local clubs, is pulling back to September and going outdoors.

Promoters announced today the Riot Fest & Carnival slated for Sept. 14 at the Congress Theater and Sept. 15-16 at Humboldt Park.

An impressive first round of acts announced today includes Iggy & the Stooges, Elvis Costello, Rise Against, the Descendents, the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Offspring, Dropkick Murphys and more.

Freddie Mercury, the singer for Queen who died in 1991, is expected to return to the stage tonight.

The appearance will occur during a special performance of "We Will Rock You," a musical inspired by Queen's music and celebrating its 10th anniversary in London's West End theater district.

Queen guitarist Brian May says the effect is not exactly a hologram but "an optical illusion of sorts."

Music review: Two new sides of Damon Albarn

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Damon Albarn, "Dr. Dee" (Virgin) 1<br />
and a halfstars

Rocket Juice & the Moon, "Rocket Juice & the Moon" (Honest Jon) 2<br />
and a half stars

drdee.jpgYears ago, as the end of Blur loomed, some Britrock rag reported that bandleader Damon Albarn was going off to write musical theater instead. Lads gagged, but I thought: Jeez, perfect. The developed drama, the compact narrative knack, the woozy-calliope musicality of the band -- he'd be great writing for the stage. His projects since then, from the postmodernism of Gorillaz to various one-offs and side projects, have indulged his thespian pursuits to various degrees and with various degrees of success. With something of a Midas touch in modern Brit rock, it's maybe fitting he chose a 16th-century alchemist as the central subject of "Dr. Dee," an opera composed with director Rufus Norris. The results, however, are more pyrite than golden.


Tom Morello (center) leads his "guitarmy" through the streets
of New York City on May 1.

Things are wrong
Things are going wrong
Can you tell that in a song?
-- Echo & the Bunnymen, "Rescue"

Throughout the fall of 2011, we heard the questions: "What do the Occupy Wall Street protestors want?" "What are their goals?" "Who speaks for them?" By year's end, there was another question: "Where's their music?"

The two inquiries are inextricably related. One reason we've had trouble grasping why the Occupiers are Occupying is because their grievances have yet to dominate the popular arts -- where spoonfuls of sugar help the medicine go down -- and their songs haven't exactly hit the charts or gone very viral.

"I had a funny conversation the other day ... about the need for new chants," says Marguerite Horberg, executive director of portoluz, which produces socially conscious art events in Chicago. "It's still all the 'Hey, hey! Ho, ho!' I think it's time for something new."

There are new protest songs out there, some powerful and potent; they're just not yet as pervasive as baby boomer cultural imperialism has conditioned us to expect from a modern social movement. With the music business now as decentralized as the Occupy movement itself, one has to rev up the search engine to unearth the musical voices of contemporary protest.

This weekend, though, some of the best of those new voices will be gathered in Chicago, occupying several events (official and otherwise) to sing their dissent in the shadow of the ballyhooed NATO summit. Speaking through hard rock, klezmer, Afrobeat, banda, Norteno, marching bands, jazz, country and, yes, traditional folk, these protest singers seek to both venerate and explode the Woody Guthrie-Bob Dylan, lone-wolf-with-an-acoustic-guitar template of musical protest.

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

Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, is still touring on the strength of her visceral, alluring 2011 album "Strange Mercy," but she recently announced she's got another set coming in the fall -- a collaboration with Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. She was a monster at Coachella, so she might tear down the Vic.
At 7:30 p.m. May 11 at the Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield. Sold out.

Faculty and friends of Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music -- where legendary Band drummer Levon Helm just performed one of his star-studded Midnight Ramble shows in March -- gather this weekend to celebrate the life of the influential musician, who died in mid-April. Featured players include Steve Dawson, Nate Herman, Charles Kim, Steve Levitt, Arielle Luckmann, Colby Maddox and more.
At 7 p.m. May 13 at Old Town's Gary and Laura Maurer Concert Hall, 4544 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $11-$12. Call (773) 728-6000;

Hipster-hop: Childish Gambino @ the Riv

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Donald Glover has tried to stay at odds with his hip-hop persona.

gambinomug.jpgIn his non-musical life, Glover is a star stand-up comedian, an acclaimed actor (playing Troy Barnes on NBC's "Community") and an Emmy-winning writer ("30 Rock"). As a rapper, calling himself Childish Gambino, he casts himself as outsider. The line -- the punchline, in most cases -- is usually drawn by race. He's "the only black kid at a Sufjan concert"; he doesn't know what the projects are ("Man, that sounds fancy to me"); he gets "culture shock at barber shops cause I ain't hood enough / We all look the same to the cops, ain't that good enough?"

But with the critical success of "Camp," the debut Childish Gambino full-length, and now some sizzling-hot live shows, the outsider role is becoming a harder sell. At some point, he's going to look pretty silly standing before a sold-out crowd of crazed, ecstatic fans -- as was the case Wednesday night at Chicago's Riviera Theater -- barking, "Why nobody wanna admit they like me just a little bit?"

The summer concert season is just getting under way, and today the city announced headliners for one of summer's final music events -- the 34th annual Chicago Jazz Festival.

The multi-venue festival, Aug. 30-Sept. 2, will spotlight drummer Roy Haynes, singer Dianne Reeves and Southern piano legend Allen Toussaint.


Dave Davison is having some fun. So he says, anyway, repeatedly.

When he called from Paris, where his band Maps & Atlases just finished another European tour, he said he was "really having fun." The tour, too, was "really fun." He expects the subsequent U.S. tour also to be "a lot of fun." The sophomore Maps & Atlases album making the tours possible, "Beware and Be Grateful" (Barsuk), was "really fun to make."

It's really fun to listen to, as well. A sound that once threatened to be too carefully studied blossoms on "Beware and Be Grateful" into a rosy cheekiness, some daring doings and, in a tale of resistance against "Vampires," a moshy, Morrissey-esque march.

Much of the same can be said of Andrew Bird's new music. Practically an old-timer in the indie genres now, Bird, 38, has released his ninth album, "Break It Yourself" (Mom & Pop), and it is, likewise, fun -- one of the cheeriest, most carefree sets he's recorded in years. Several times (particularly the buoyant "Lusitania"), Bird's trademark whistling sounds less like its usual desolate country portent and more like a loose-limbed fella with hands in his pockets kicking stones down the lane.

Both Chicago bandleaders have hometown shows this weekend, and both spoke in recent interviews of tapping into new creative inspirations and, more than anything, trusting the creative flow of their respective collectives.

Summer concert preview 2012, indoors and out

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Summer 2012 looks bustling and healthy, compared with recent summer concert seasons, since it offers more big headliners and a growing crop of festivals.

The city may be charging for the close-up seats at this year's Taste of Chicago, but its other festivals have found new life on their own again (rather than last year's budget-inspired experiment of packing them into themed days at Taste). Multi-day celebrations like the Chicago Gospel Festival and the Chicago Jazz Festival are spreading out this year, programming events in the downtown parks but also other locations in an effort to achieve wider inclusion above focused destination.

The free Monday evening Downtown Sound series of concerts is back in Millennium Park, and an additional regular schedule of cutting-edge shows has been added: the Loops & Variations series, focusing on electronic and experimental music.

Click here for a list of some of the biggest and most noteworthy shows scheduled in the area thus far.

yauch09.JPGThe Beastie Boys blared from the stereo at Three Aces, a restaurant-bar in Chicago's University Village neighborhood, on Friday afternoon.

"Isn't it sad?" our waitress said, pulling a forlorn expression. "We all really liked him."

As if he were a regular customer.

Saturday, on the Red Line, a kid -- maybe 16, 17, as old as I was when I first heard the Beasties -- was blaring "Pass the Mic" through his earbuds. Across the aisle, I could hear Adam Yauch barking, "My name is MCA, and I still do what I please!" The kid saw me listening, pointed to his ears, smiled, then pulled the same forlorn expression.

Sadness after the news Friday that Yauch, 47, died after a three-long year battle with throat cancer, cut across all kinds of demographics, just as the Beastie Boys' hip-hop managed to do.

Concertline: M83, Carolina Chocolate Drops, more

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

It's not easy to sell a double album these days, but M83's "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming" contained at least one ringer: the masterful synth-driven single, "Midnight City," the best of 2011. Anthony Gonzalez says he penned it as a soundtrack to the little films in his head, and it's a cinematic sensation: even in concert, where the touring band is energetic and spunky, at least for a bunch of knob-twiddlers.
At 7:30 p.m. May 4 at the Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine. Sold out.

Lots of nostalgia nerds play old-timey music, but the Carolina Chocolate Drops aren't kidding around. This quartet salvages traditional rural tunes and styles (from the Carolinas, of course) that might otherwise be lost to warped 78s and crumbling sheet music. They also stir in more modern active ingredients; yes, there's fiddle and banjo, but there's also some occasional beat-boxing.
Bhi Bhiman and Po' Girl open at 9 p.m. May 5 at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $20. Call (773) 525-2508;


If you're going to translate rock music to the theater stage, this is the way to do it.

The beloved rock musical will always be around -- and these days you've got everything from commercially potent jukebox garbage like "Rock of Ages" to intriguing original historical angles such as "Memphis" -- and it's perhaps logical to keep within a musical oeuvre when dragging pop songs from one kind of stage to another.

But there's a small production right now amid Chicago's fertile storefront theater scene that offers up something different. It's a cover band with a unique twist. It's a new kind of mixtape. It's not just art imitating life, it's art imitating art. Reflecting it, anyway.

It's "Deliver Us From Nowhere: Tales From Nebraska," a title that's actually missing a set of quotation marks. That should probably read "Tales From 'Nebraska.' " Eleven playwrights were paired with 10 local directors to create short plays based on the songs from Bruce Springsteen's landmark 1982 album, "Nebraska."

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 May 2012 listed from newest to oldest.

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