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January 2013 Archives

Top this: Top 7 musical moments from '30 Rock'

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The real "Saturday Night Live" has had its share of musical spin-offs, from the unfortunate but blessedly brief recording career of Eddie Murphy ("Party All the Time") to more recent smart comedy songs like "Dick in a Box" and other Lonely Island fare.

As we say goodbye tonight to TV's "30 Rock," a sentence it pains me to write, I can't help but look back on a few moments from that fictional late-night comedy show that I wish had been real spin-offs.

Harry Belafonte: activist first, 'Banana Boat' second

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belafonte012513.JPGHarry Belafonte in recent years has been positively Kanye-esque in his outspokenness.

The 85-year-old singer -- a revered icon in American pop music, the King of Calypso, the resonant voice behind the 1956 classic "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)" -- has tallied headlines for his frank opinions on matters ranging from U.S. foreign policy to race relations.

In 2002, Belafonte likened Secretary of State Colin Powell to a "house slave" for his acquiescence to the invasion of Iraq. He called President Bush "the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world" during a 2006 meeting with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

Last month during an MSNBC interview, he advocated the jailing of Obama's obstructionist Republican opponents: "The only thing left for Barack Obama to do is to work like a Third World dictator and just put all these guys in jail."

No surprise, perhaps, that Belafonte says he considers himself an activist first.

"I'm an activist who became an entertainer," Belafonte told the Sun-Times. "It's usually the other way around."

Morrissey postpones Chicago show -- again

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Morrissey fans: Apparently, we want the one we can't have.

Morrissey has postponed his sold-out concert scheduled for this weekend, Jan. 26 at the Chicago Theatre. The show was itself a rescheduled appointment after the famed British singer postponed a string of concerts last fall to care for his ailing mother.

This time, a band member has fallen ill, according to a statement just released by the promoter, Jam Productions. Word is actually several members have picked up the flu.

Beyoncé's national anthem: Did she put her sing on it?

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Beyoncé at Monday's inauguration: A for authentic or just an O-face? (AP)

It's a good thing our government isn't running the nation's finances into the ground or dragging on an overseas war so we can ask the important questions of our officials in Washington. Namely: Did Beyoncé actually sing the national anthem during Monday's outdoor inauguration ceremony for President Obama or not?

Lip-syncing became an accepted, open secret in the music industry years ago. We've all watched hundreds if not thousands of lip-synced performances -- on TV, in videos, at live concerts -- whether we were aware of it or not. We may watch more: Sun-Times columnist Bill Zwecker reported this morning that Adele plans to prerecord her "Skyfall" performance for backup at next month's Oscars.

So why does Beyoncé-gate still have legs?

Pearl Jam to play Wrigley Field July 19

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Another summer show at Wrigley Field has been announced: Pearl Jam on July 19.

Rumors about a show began circulating Tuesday on Twitter. Wednesday morning, Pearl Jam confirmed the information in that medium, tweeting, "IT'S OFFICIAL: Pearl Jam will be playing at Wrigley Field."

Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Feb. 9 at or by calling 1-800-THE-CUBS. Tickets will not be available at the Wrigley Field Box Office.

Emeli Sandé a treat to see on her way up

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2010 was a great year for Swedish dance-pop singer Robyn. Her music had tapped into the zeitgeist in Europe and come ashore here to break into or be broken by America. She put out three EPs and received near-unanimous critical lauds. She was the first performer at that year's Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago to turn heads -- this feisty, diminutive woman with serious pipes and a serious blonde crop. I remember watching that show and thinking, "Wow, nearly everyone I know would be all over this."

Tuesday night, Lincoln Hall, and here's Emeli Sandé -- another feisty, diminutive woman with serious pipes and a serious blonde crop, a mantle filling with European awards and high-profile gigs (she sang at both the opening and closing ceremonies at last year's London Olympics), and a campaign to take America by storm or be taken by it. I had the same thoughts. The difference: Robyn fascinated and excited, but based on Tuesday's show Emeli's got the love on her side.

Review: Aaron Neville, 'My True Story'

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ANstory.jpgAaron Neville's "Tell It Like It Is" is the best soul song ever recorded, and I'll wrastle anyone who challenges that fact. But Neville's career, with and without his famous New Orleans brothers, has swung widely between authentic provincial masterpieces and broader pop pabulum. He's trotted through every genre -- country, standards, 2010's fine gospel turn, "I Know I've Been Changed" -- but "My True Story," his debut for the Blue Note label, feels less like marketing and more like the man.

That's because the songs comprising "My True Story" are all of a genre no timid marketer would tackle in 2013: doo-wop.

It's over, still you cling: Morrissey on Smiths reunion

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The Smiths disbanded a quarter century ago after just five years and four studio albums -- a comparatively short run given the lasting depth of their influence throughout indie rock. Ever since, getting them back together has been the holy grail of music promoters.

Millions have been offered. Coachella organizers allegedly promised to make the entire two-weekend festival 100 percent vegetarian to appease singer-lyricist Morrissey, an outspoken animal-rights activist, if he'd take their stage just with guitarist Johnny Marr and call it the Smiths.

But Morrissey's publicist made the issue Taylor Swift-clear last October in this statement to Rolling Stone: "The Smiths are never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever going to reunite -- ever."

U.K.'s top-seller Emeli Sandé looks to the U.S.

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emeli012113.JPGA lot of interesting people have come down from the Scottish highlands, but until recently not many of them has had much to do with R&B.

"I was definitely standing alone for most of it when I was a kid," says Emeli Sandé. "I liked music none of my friends really got or knew much about. There certainly were not a lot of performances I could see in the north of Scotland. But there was a radio station from London that I listened to at night. That's how I found Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys. I managed to find the people I could relate to."

Fast-forward to 2012. Sandé, now 25, is a sought-after songwriter. Rihanna, Leona Lewis, Tinie Tempah, even Susan Boyle have recorded Sandé's songs. Sandé's own debut, "Our Version of Events," is the year's best-selling album in the U.K. (and on my own list of the year's best albums). The album enjoyed an unbroken 47-week run in the top 10 of the British charts, only the second album to achieve such a feat (the Beatles' "Please Please Me" had 62 consecutive weeks). Sandé performed in both the opening and closing ceremonies of London's 2012 Olympics. On the day she spoke with the Sun-Times, Sandé was awaiting news of the BRIT Award nominations. She received three.

Now Sandé doesn't just relate to Alicia Keys -- Keys produced part of Sandé's album.

Review: Camper Van Beethoven, 'La Costa Perdida'

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CVBcosta.jpgA couple of years ago, on the occasion of his belated solo debut, David Lowery tried to explain to me the differences between his two legacy bands: "Camper Van Beethoven has a pretty identifiable song that works for them. Cracker, a little less so. Cracker is so much my personality and Johnny [Hickman]'s, what I write we can do some version of. Camper is a particular beast."

Like most Camper Van Beethoven albums since the quintet's debut, 1985's "Telephone Free Landslide Victory" (containing the Dr. Demento staple "Take the Skinheads Bowling"), including the album made after the band reunited just more than a decade ago, 2004's "New Roman Times," the new "La Costa Perdida" ambles and rambles through all kinds of songs.

Dolly Varden has been playing 'For a While'

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"For a While," the new album from Chicago's venerable Dolly Varden (out Jan. 22) sounds like a band of musicians utterly comfortable in their own skins. The songwriting of Steve Dawson and wife Diane Christiansen is built on carefree melodies and sweet-but-never-cloying harmonies, making its creation seem deceptively easy. The thoughtful, reminiscent verses transmit a modest wisdom. The woody, moseying arrangements show off occasional experimental flourishes -- the kind a grown-up musician tries out, not the brash theatricality of a grand-standing whipper-snapper.

It's an adult album for the adult at heart.

Dawson, 47, teaches songwriting and guitar at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

"My songwriting class has a bunch of older dudes," he says one afternoon in a Wicker Park diner. "We were talking about that certain freedom you find once you hit 40. The pressure's suddenly off. You don't give as much of a sh--. We were all saying we wish we had this attitude at 22. Instead of worrying all the time about what people think about what you do, we could've done anything."

Concertline: TNK fest, 10,000 Maniacs, and McLovin!

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

Chicago's annual multi-day, multi-venue winter music festival Tomorrow Never Knows returns in 2013 with a typically rich lineup, running Jan. 16-20 at Lincoln Hall, Schubas, the Hideout, Smart Bar, Metro and the Vic Theatre. A full schedule is here. Some suggested must-sees:
-- Chicago's Wild Belle has hit a stride with their rock-steady dreamscapes, and this is a potent moment to catch them in action before the March 12 release of "Isles" (Jan. 17 @ Lincoln Hall)
-- The double bill of the Walkmen and Father John Misty is liable to be a gritty slice of wacky pie (Jan. 18 @ the Vic)
-- Fans of Maps & Atlases and/or M83 can find common ground within the cinematic scope of Geographer's indie-pop (Jan. 20 @ Schubas).

Justin Timberlake posts new song, album coming

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JT011413.JPGFew blockbuster albums are released immediately following the holiday shopping glut. But this January is full of blockbuster album announcements.

Last week, David Bowie announced his first new music in a decade, posting a new single (underwhelming, but we have faith). Then Beyonce -- already busy with Obama's inaugural preparations and an upcoming Super Bowl halftime show, along with her pending fifth solo album -- dropped news of a new Destiny's Child song, "Nuclear."

Last night, it was JT's turn. While Adele was winning a Golden Globe for her "Skyfall" James Bond theme, Justin Timberlake announced his first new album in six years and posted a new single, "Suit & Tie."

Chicago bands booked for SXSW

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The annual South by Southwest music conference -- the Sundance for pop music -- has been announcing waves of bookings for its next tuneful spring break, March 12-17 in the Texas capital.

As usual, several Chicago folks have made the early cut. This year's locals with official showcases for the industry and media include ...

Beyonce (duh) to perform at Obama inauguration

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Beyonce has some big weeks ahead.

Before her halftime performance Feb. 3 at Super Bowl XLVII, she'll be singing the national anthem at President Obama's inauguration ceremony Jan. 21 on the Capitol steps in Washington, D.C.

Also performing at the inauguration, per an announcement this morning: Kelly Clarkson will sing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" and James Taylor will sing "America the Beautiful".

Grammy performers: Rihanna, fun., Taylor Swift, more

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The Recording Academy announced the first round of performers for this year's Grammys: Taylor Swift, Mumford & Sons, fun., Rihanna and the Black Keys.

Performers are usually drawn from the pool of artists with the greatest number of nominees, which this year includes six acts with six nods each -- including the Black Keys, Mumford & Sons and fun.

The Ocean Blue returns for shows, new album

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David Schelzel says the upcoming new album by the Ocean Blue -- their first full-length in nearly 14 years -- sounds a lot like the pop band's first two records. Why? Because he's been listening to a lot of current indie pop -- a good chunk of which sounds a lot like "The Ocean Blue" (1989) and "Cerulean" (1991).

"Stylistically, my headspace right now is more in the music I loved from that time period, and the new music I listen to now sounds more like the music I loved growing up," Schelzel says. "I love the xx, Beach House. I was with a friend one time in a restaurant and she heard Beach House come on. She said, 'Man, that sounds exactly like the Ocean Blue.' I don't necessarily agree with her, but it's funny she said that."

Bowie's back: new single now, album coming

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Happy birthday, Bowie -- you got us a gift?

David Bowie, 66 today, posted a new single on his web site this morning and teased the pending arrival of a new album -- his 30th, and his first in a decade -- titled "The Next Day."

Cool sheet: Hear Beck's 'Song Reader' come alive

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In pop music, when hard-pressed to do something new, do something really old. This maxim plays out in the latest batch of songs from Beck, an album the "Loser" star did not record, but one you now can hear -- if you play it yourself.

beckbook010313.jpgBeck Hansen's Song Reader is a fancy folio containing 20 pieces of sheet music, plus nearly a hundred pages of art (from Marcel Dzama, Leanne Shapton, Jessica Hische and more), published in mid-December by McSweeney's.

In some introductory liner notes, writer Jody Rosen describes the project as "an experiment in ventriloquism." Beck wrote the words and music; now you have to give them voice and sound.

Many musicians, professionals and amateurs, are doing just that. The web site for the project already overflows with videos of wildly varying performances of the songs. Dig Amy Regan's sultry reading of "Do We? We Do," John Alexander's Jackson Browne-y take on "Ye Midnight Stars" or the lighter-than-air "Old Shanghai" by Contramano.

Typical of Beck, this "album" -- songs he's been tinkering with since 2004 -- is an eclectic bunch. Last Thursday night in midtown Chicago, a similarly eclectic bunch gathered to play the set in its entirety.

Buddy Guy: 'Live at Legends' and live at Legends

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This city's continuing lack of a permanent blues museum remains a criminal blunder. (St. Louis? Really?) But in the meantime, we more than make do with the living historic exhibit that is guitarist Buddy Guy. An active embodiment of rock and roll's connection with its blues roots, Guy not only remains justly celebrated (last month's Kennedy Center Honors) but active and creative -- releasing a new live album, at the beginning of which he promises, in a firm whisper, "I'm not through yet."

Thomas Conner

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


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