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Tuning in with Thomas Conner

September 2012 Archives

Music reviews: Shemekia Copeland, Congregation, more

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Shemekia Copeland, "33 1/3" (Telarc) 3<br />
The Congregation, "Right Now Everything" (The Congregation) 3<br />
and a half stars

sc33.jpgContinuing Chicago's hot season for local releases, these two scorchers advocate forcefully for the city's soulful roots. Shemekia Copeland, nearly 15 years into a career but only as old as this album's title, seems to have been bequeathed Koko Taylor's title as Queen of the Blues. She deserves it, showcasing on "33 1/3" the worthwhile effort and resulting majesty in successfully blending old-world soul with new-age sass. Sticking with producer Oliver Wood (who guided her first post-Alligator Records outing, 2009's "Never Going Back") and restocking the cupboard with rich material (Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, her dad Johnny Copeland) -- and joined on one track by Buddy Guy ("Ain't Gonna Be Your Tattoo") -- Copeland delivers a moody, smoky set worthy of some kind of crown.

Music reviews: Green Day, No Doubt

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Green Day, "¡Uno!" (Reprise) Half star
No Doubt, "Push and Shove" (Interscope) 3<br />

greendayuno.jpgAfter the ambitious one-two punches of "American Idiot" and "21st Century Breakdown," Green Day couldn't help but retract its grandiose visions. Trapped by the expectation of event albums, though, they pull back to their simple power-pop roots by releasing not one, not two, but three albums within the course of the next few months. The first, "¡Uno!" (to be followed by, of course, "¡Dos!" on Nov. 13 and the hopefully all drum-solo album "¡Tré!" on Jan. 13) doesn't make the case for why we need two more platters of this very safe, very crisp and very clean pop-rock. Scrubbed free of any intellectual ideals and delving into only the shallowest of romantic depths, "¡Uno!" doesn't even rate that many stars. If I had to play this anti-punk pablum, I'd freak out on stage, too.

How can you just leave me standing? ...
Maybe I'm just too demanding.
-- Prince, "When Doves Cry"


As Prince returned to the United Center stage Monday night for his first encore, he seemed conflicted. He clearly had someplace else to be. He even said so.

"We got the House of Blues later," Prince said, winding up for what became an odd medley of hits. "We can do it there or we can do it here."

He opted for "here."

Prince @ United Center: A case of the Mondays

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As if answering some kind of Bat Signal -- perhaps there's a spotlight on top of the Hancock tower that throws a big purple Prince symbol into the sky -- pop megastar Prince swooped into to town this week, bringing the party -- and a few party fouls.

Near the end of his Monday night concert at United Center -- the first of three this week at the arena (plus three late-night shows at House of Blues, read on) in conjunction with the local Rebuild the Dream charity -- his crack NPG band started vamping into "Purple Rain." But Prince just had to explain his purple presence.

"Chicago, I don't want to preach," he lied, "but we need to love one another." He continued his homily, implicitly acknowledging the city's rough summer and his reason for being here, like some musical medicine man. "These are hard times, and they're gonna get harder. I don't need to be here; I want to be here." Earlier, as he was getting the party started, he instructed the sold-out crowd to "take your mind off all the problems outside."

Spitting distance: Warren Ellis and Dirty Three

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One of my all-time favorite concerts was a Dirty Three show, an opening slot for Beck in 1996 in an Oklahoma ballroom. The trio's instrumental rock is haunting enough on record, and in concert the players crackle with intensity.

This particular night violinist Warren Ellis (pictured above, left) sawed at his fiddle like a troll possessed, which isn't unusual. But he kept ... spitting, and straight upward. Lost in concentration, he would occasionally snort, hack and fire off a gob of goo at the low ceiling directly above him. His expulsions collected and collected -- and drooped and sagged -- until the inevitable occurred.

"That was the show when the loogie fell on my head? Yeah," Ellis remembers, impressively. "That was the only applause I got all night."

Madonna @ United Center: Flash and flattery

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(Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)

Earlier this week, Madonna caused a minimal stir by sniping at Lady Gaga, referencing her during a concert and adding, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

Wednesday night at Chicago's United Center, the first of two concerts there this week, Madonna again slipped the chorus of Gaga's "Born This Way" into the bridge of her own "Express Yourself" -- it's a seamless match, for sure -- but let it go without comment. Well, almost. She shouted a bit from "She's Not Me" at the end.

Empires' redemption: Lollapalooza rain, 'Garage Hymns'

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Chicago's Empires tells campfire tales with some, er, friends.

When the rain fell on Lollapalooza last month, Sean Van Vleet watched his dream go down the drain.

But, in fact, this story ends with a kind of Shawshank-level redemption.

Guthrie centennial wraps with 'Woody Sez'

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The cast of "Woody Sez" this month at Northlight Theater in Skokie.

Woody Guthrie, despite his aw-shucks Okie persona, was no fool. He knew how the fame game worked -- it hasn't changed much, even since his 1940s folksinging heyday -- and he seemed to know exactly what would happen to his own musical legacy.

"The hungrier you get up here in New York, the more they run your picture," Guthrie wrote to his younger sister in 1949, inserting a photo of himself from The New York Times. "After you starve clean to the rim of death they call you a professional, and after you die off they call you a great genius."

Music review: Kanye's G.O.O.D. mix, 'Cruel Summer'

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cruelsummer.jpegVarious Artists, "Cruel Summer" (G.O.O.D.) 2<br />
and a half stars -- A year and a half ago, Kanye West trotted the roster of his G.O.O.D. Music record label across a Texas stage in the middle of the night, like a musical fashion show. Then we waited for the compilation.

And waited. It was delayed, and delayed again.

Finally, on Tuesday (and after a handful of previews and a couple of online leaks), "Cruel Summer," Kanye's latest collection from his boutique rap label is due.

Worth the wait? Yes and no.

SCrunner.jpgThe Sea & Cake, "Runner" (Thrill Jockey) 4<br />
stars -- The Sea & Cake is the sound of 21st-century Chicago. In a metropolis slowly but surely evolving beyond its big-shouldered blues legacy, this artful, deceptively easygoing quartet remains a big tent of influences (plus rich collaborative resumés) while remaining relentlessly consistent; regardless of how they may color their edges, the Sea & Cake always sound like themselves: crisp, clean, humble, utterly modern. Technically, yes, they're post-rock, but without the sonic cubism common to bands usually saddled with that hyphen. "Runner," their ninth full-length (and a swift follow-up to last year's expressive EP, "The Moonlight Butterfly"), is another cool lake breeze -- 10 more songs worthy of careful listening (each player is vital, inextricable, wholly present in the mix) or just as easily employed as zone-out music on the L. Supple grooves, subtle electronics, guitar artistry, singer Sam Prekop's long, sweet sighs -- the city's perfect band.
In concert: The Sea & Cake is scheduled Oct. 29 at City Winery.

Chicago Riot Fest: Rock on, and hooray for Humboldt

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Summer music festivals in Chicago are often maddeningly eclectic and increasingly
electronic. This year, though, some of the best moments at the biggies were when a rare
rock band hit the stage, such as at the Pitchfork Music Festival (Ty Segall, Wild Flag)
and Lollapalooza (Jack White, Black Sabbath, the Black Keys).

Now the transformation of Chicago's Riot Fest from a late-autumnal, five-day club haunt into a last-week-o'-
summer outdoor festival stabs a sharp period on the end of the season by blaring all rock and roll, all the time. Many shades of it, to be sure, but this new expansion brings welcome focus to a city that's been getting more attention for its EDM roots than its considerable rock and punk heritage.

The weather agreed. After an opening night (with Neon Trees, the Offspring and more) indoors at the Congress Theater, the eighth annual Riot Fest stepped outside for the first time on Saturday and Sunday into sunny, cool Humboldt Park, complete with four stages and carnival rides.

Brilliant Corners: John Cale wants to talk 2 U

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JohnCale4466_byShawnBrackbill.jpgBefore we get too deeply into a story about musician and rock legend John Cale, I must pass along his (wha?) hipster-worthy hip-hop recommendations.

"The gangster stuff I can take or leave, and the misogyny, but there's a lot of funny stuff out there that's really good," Cale says in his hoarse Welsh brogue. "There's a group called Not the 1's with a song called 'You Dress Like an Asshole,' all about fashionistas. Ching Bling in Texas, he's good. One of his songs is 'They Can't Deport Us All.' There's a guy named Kokane, out of Snoop's crew. He's the most musical of them. He has three voices when he does a track -- one high sweet falsetto, one low growly one and one in the middle, where he talks. He's got a wicked sense of humor. He has a song called 'When It Rains It Pours,' about Katrina. Really gorgeous, gospelly stuff."

Not exactly where you think a conversation with the Velvet Underground's founding cellist would go, right?

Springsteen shows set a Wrigley record

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Last weekend's concerts by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band set an attendance record at Wrigley Field. (Read our review.)

The Boss packed 84,218 fans into the ballpark during his two shows, Sept. 7-8.

Paul McCartney's two-night stand in August 2011 held the previous record with 83,998.

RD-PRESS-PIC-2-2011.jpgOccupy Wall Street didn't produce much potent protest music, but in just a couple days of Chicago's teachers strike at least one rapper has enshrined the debate in song.

It's not bad, either. "Chicago Teacher," by Chicago-native hip-hop duo Rebel Diaz, patiently lays out the points of the dispute between the Chicago Teachers Union and the city. A chorus of "Homey, I was taught by a Chicago teacher!" doesn't come off nearly as hokey as it looks here in print, and they're clearly on the side of the teachers: "Rahm's a fake pretender with a corporate agenda / neoliberal offender, of course you offend us!"

Here's the song (free!), lyrics (complete with Chief Keef reference!) and more below ...

Chicago Riot Fest: Bigger, bolder, outdoors

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riotlogo.jpgAnother year, another expansion of Chicago's Riot Fest.

Last year the annual punk and indie-rock festival had grown to five venues over five days. They'd even expanded outside the city, launching the first Riot Fest in Philadelphia.

For this year's eighth event, Riot Fest is a three-day blowout -- the first night in the Congress Theater, the second and third days outdoors in Humboldt Park.

"We want to be the last big thing people remember from the summer," says co-promoter Sean McKeough.

McKeough and Riot Fest founder Michael Petryshyn can't be accused of lacking good ol' DIY ambition. The bigger dreams have meant bigger acts, and this year's lineup includes Iggy & the Stooges, Elvis Costello & the Imposters, the Offspring, Rise Against, the Descendents, Dropkick Murphys and many more.

Billy Corgan's North Shore tea shop opens Thursday

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Billy Corgan's schedule the rest of this week looks like this:

-- Thursday: Open new tea shop in North Shore suburb
-- Friday: Attend matches by his wrestling team, Resistance Pro
-- Saturday: Start rehearsals for Smashing Pumpkins tour

"There's my life," Corgan told the Sun-Times this week, chuckling. "Maybe not magical but always interesting."

The tea shop is Corgan's latest endeavor in a career full of Neil Young-esque left turns, on and off stage. It's an idea he said he's had for a decade, one that was announced almost a year ago and is finally budding with Thursday's grand opening of Madame Zuzu's Tea House, a former post office storefront at 582 Roger Williams Ave. in Highland Park.

Low blow: Chicago teachers strike below the belt

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UPDATE: The mayor's office actually responded to this news, assuring us that Rahm does not, in fact, like Nickelback.

The first Chicago teachers strike in a quarter century began just yesterday but already is getting downright dirty.

To wit: this protest sign captured and posted on Twitter ...


Music review: Bob Dylan, 'Tempest'

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dylantempest.jpgBob Dylan, "Tempest" (Columbia) 3<br />
stars -- Curse Dylan's pedigree. Bob Dylan -- the irascible genius, the living legend, the reclusive wunder-coot -- has been making truly stellar music this century, but the requisite galaxy of four- and five-star reviews is blinding and off-putting to many mere mortals who might really dig this stuff. More young listeners groomed by shuffled playlists and postmodern retro experiments, from the Squirrel Nut Zippers to Mumford & Sons (who shared the stage with Dylan at last year's Grammys), likely would relish Dylan's spirited spelunking through early 20th-century pop music and now, on "Tempest," mid-century blues and folk balladry. Critics keep harping on how Dreadfully Important it all is, because the Dylan legend must be maintained. But it's not. "Love and Theft," the ironically titled "Modern Times," that nutty Christmas album -- it's all just good Americana (really good). Without the '60s-savior pedigree, though, this stuff wouldn't rate a booking any bigger than, say, City Winery or S.P.A.C.E.

Playlist: Union songs for striking teachers

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Chicago teachers hit the sidewalks today for their first strike in 25 years.

If a picket line needs anything, it needs songs. Here are 12 classics to learn and sing on the barricades:

Rap panic! Hip-hop may be No. 1 but it's not the enemy

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Chief Keef backstage in July at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago's Union Park. (Andrea Bauer/Sun-Times Media Group)

It wasn't the kind of rap video people usually complain about.

The rapper in this video, Chicago's suddenly notorious Chief Keef, wasn't doing anything we haven't seen in rap videos before. He freestyled, he boasted, he riffed a few lines from his current hit. He then fired a semiautomatic rifle -- and pointed it into the camera.

The difference: Unlike the controversial play-acting video of, say, 13-year-old South Side rapper Lil Mouse earlier this summer, this video was real.

Shocking! MTV Video Music Awards not so shocking

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2 Chainz (left) and Lil Wayne get down Thursday night
at the MTV Video Music Awards.
(Getty Images)

MTV's annual spectacle of, well, spectacle actually kept the lid on Thursday night and delivered two hours of stunt-free, solid live performances.

It's a weird cultural moment for the 31-year-old cable network and its annual Video Music Awards. The top three singles so far this year -- fun.'s "We Are Young," Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe," Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" -- and all of the other nominees Thursday night became popular via numerous means, none of them MTV.

YouTube views, tweets, Facebook likes -- these are the street-level metrics determining what's momentarily hot and what's not nowadays. MTV has tried to fit in (the O Awards, anyone? Web 2.0 #fail) but largely has rested on the laurels of the VMAs' annual festival of carefully crafted outrageousness for attention.

This year, though, despite the usual advance hype about how totally cray the show would be, Friday morning's online a la carte video snippets will be short on shock value (other than the fact that dull boy band One Direction led the wins with three awards) but long on actual entertainment.

Concertline: 2 Chainz, Kiss and more

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

He's been everywhere this year -- collaborating with Kanye West ("Mercy" earlier in the year, plus the new single "Birthday Song"), partying with Nicki Minaj and opening for Drake on tour. Supporting his own new full-length, "Based on a T.R.U. Story," 2 Chainz heads out on his first headlining tour with a promise to deliver the G.O.O.D.s.
At 9 p.m. Sept. 7 at Metro, 3730 N. Clark. Tickets: $26. (800) 514-ETIX;

An inaugural Wicker Park music festival, the Dust Up is a daylong lineup of solid local and regional bands. DJs spin through the afternoon during a record fair featuring booths from Chicago labels the Numero Group, Bloodshot and Kranky Records. Then the music gets under way, featuring Disappears, Andre Williams & the Goldstars, Old Baby, Quarter Mile Thunder and the Jeff Walroth Band.
Record fair at noon, music starts at 4 p.m. Sept. 8 in the Big Star parking lot at 1531 N. Damen. Admission is free (21 and over). For information, call (773) 549-4140;

Prince's 'Welcome 2 Chicago' now up to 2 shows

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We're up to two. Just 19 more to go.

After announcing one Prince concert, Sept. 24 at Chicago's United Center, now a second show has been added "due to overwhelming demand" -- an impressive feat since tickets for the first show have only been available in pre-sales thus far.

Springsteen caps a Boss year with Wrigley shows

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bruce090412.JPGJohn Luerssen was surprised to learn that when Bruce Springsteen played the Chicago area in 2006, he only half-filled the venue.

"It was a bomb. Nobody went," says Luerssen, who's written a new book about Springsteen with a title designed to cap similar efforts: Bruce Springsteen FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Boss. "He wasn't putting that E Street sound out there. He was doing something totally different [supporting his folk album 'The Seeger Sessions']. It was one of the few thuds in his career. ...

"But now he's back in his element. At the Helsinki show [in July], he played for four hours and six minutes -- the longest show he and the E Street Band have ever played. He's going to be 63 next month, and he's just crushing it."

Takes a knocking, keeps on rocking -- that's why they call him the Boss.

Springsteen arrives in Chicago this weekend for two highly anticipated concerts in Wrigley Field after enjoying another banner year.

Prince welcomes U 2 Chicago -- for one show only?

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Tickets go on sale this week for Prince's first concert in Chicago in eight years.

Or will it be concerts?

Thomas Conner

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


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