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Tuning in with Thomas Conner

May 2013 Archives

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The Rolling Stones perform Tuesday night
at Chicago's United Center.
(Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)


Late last year, on the occasion of their 50th anniversary concerts in London and New York, I wrote of a Rolling Stones revelation. No more would I sneer at the batty old boomers and advise them to finally, at long last, for the love of all that's holy, please retire. Soldiering on as raucous rock 'n' rollers well into their unimagined, unnerving age, I said, could be their last, great rebellious act.

Emerging from Tuesday night's concert -- the first of three this week at Chicago's United Center, continuing Friday and Monday -- I remain convinced. The Stones are a bit worn and predictable, but they should absolutely rock until they drop.

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(Paul Natkin)


This summer, rare and previously unseen photos of the Rolling Stones go on exhibit in London, and last weekend a Stones retrospective opened at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum in Cleveland.

But don't rack up so many highway or air miles: Chicago photographer Paul Natkin is showing off his photos of the Stones and more in a career retrospective in the suburbs.

Review: John Fogerty, 'Wrote a Song for Everyone'

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jfogerty.jpgJohn Fogerty, "Wrote a Song for Everyone" (Vanguard) 2<br />
stars -- Many artists could benefit from the kind of legal troubles that beset John Fogerty. For nearly a decade, during a protracted battle with his former record label, Fogerty refused to perform his old Credence Clearwater Revival songs. But he emerged from the dispute with a reinvigorated legacy, welcomed by a fanbase positively salivating for a catalog whose legend had appreciated considerably. Ever since, Fogerty has been trying -- not always successfully -- to reintegrate that golden '60s past with whatever occasionally moves him in the present.

Review: Daft Punk, 'Random Access Memories'

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dpram.jpgDaft Punk, "Random Access Memories" (Columbia) 2<br />
and a half stars -- In 1984, before most of us owned a personal computer, novelist William Gibson coined the word "cyberspace." His spatial concept of a digital functionality -- a place that one jacks into -- set the tone for two decades of understanding about virtuality as an in-the-box idea and seeded pop culture for everything through "The Matrix." In his 2007 novel, Spook Country, however, Gibson killed off his own concept. Cyberspace is a metaphorical illusion, he concluded as he observed the ubiquitous, out-of-the-box computing functions that now pervade everyday reality. "There isn't any cyberspace, is there?" considers one character. "There never was, if you want to look at it that way. It was a way we had of looking where we were headed, a direction."

Consider the acronym EDM and all its various cumbersome and hyphenated forbearers as music's "cyberspace," and consider Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories" as the concept's command-Q keystroke.

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Chicago's summer concert season this year is one of the busiest and blockbuster-est -- and if you haven't yet committed your music dollars through Labor Day, you may be too late.

In the years since Lollapalooza's arrival as a destination festival each August in Grant Park, Chicago's summer club scene has grown quieter. The festival's radius clauses prevent its hundreds of acts from performing in the area in the weeks before and after the fest, thus sucking some of the air out of midsize rooms from May to October.

This year, though, the city seems to be working a different concert mojo. The schedule consists of one major tentpole show after another.

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Laura Stevenson and her band are the kind of DIY band that were made for the age of Internet sharing. Instantly hummable indie pop hooks galore and an open mind to sharing their music with whoever wants it. They offered their first album, A Record, as a donation-based download and their last album, 2011's Sit/Resist as a free download for a week. It helps the music is also pretty terrific and fans have responded in kind, the band experiencing a growing popularity with each album, aided by word of mouth and easy access to their songs, self-produced pop gems.

But for their new album, Wheel (out now on Don Giovanni), the band brought in Kevin McMahon (Titus Andronicus, Frightened Rabbit) to produce and collaborators Rob Moose (Bon Iver) on strings and Kelly Pratt (Beirut, Arcade Fire) on horns. The results is a more polished album than Sit/Resist but it's no less a charming, wonderful album. The album's centerpiece, "Runner," is a propulsive slice of shimmering pop that explodes into a cascading chorus that seems gleefully at odds with Stevenson's refrain, "This summer hurts." "Triangle" piles some wonderfully grungy guitars on top of Stevenson's vocals and accordion, roughing up the sound just enough to keep it from being overly slick, a hard enough balance to maintain. There are still quieter moments, too, like the acoustic "The Move" and stellar album opener "Renée," but it's on "Runner" and the epic "L-DOPA" where the production shines, illuminating a band unafraid to grow its sound for the better.

The band is in the midst of a tour across the U.S. and the hit Chicago tomorrow night, Saturday May 18, visiting the Beat Kitchen with openers Field Mouse and Warren Franklin & The Founding Fathers. I spoke with lead singer Laura Stevenson and bass player Michael Campbell about how giving away their music, bringing in an outside producer for Wheel, and where they drew inspiration from.

First of all, let's talk about your last album, Sit/Resist, and your decision to offer it for free for a week. What were the results? Was it a positive experience for you

Laura Stevenson: Our first record is still available for free on a download-donation-based label. Before that I was in Bomb The Music Industry and their records were on the same label and the same type of thing. It was very much a community. We came from that and Joe from Don Giovanni [the band's current label] understood that. It was a gesture because we knew a lot of people would be downloading it anyway so it was like "Here, have better quality files and don't get in trouble for it and we're happy to share it with you." It hasn't done anything but exposed us to more people and gotten more people excited about the record and people do buy the vinyl and the CD at shows and say "I just wanted to help you guys out." It's really cool because people are very supportive.

Mike Campbell: Well, for a very specific example, that's how you first heard of us, right? We made it at the point several years ago when we were in sort of a DIY bubble; it opened doors and made it easier for people to hear the record. I feel like at that point, we thought, "Let's make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to hear the record and it will even out down the line."

Power-pop demi-god Dwight Twilley cranks 'em out

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back blue.jpgA documentary is in the works about Dwight Twilley, and in addition to featuring songs from the pop-rocker's four-decade career (including his pair of No. 16 hits, "I'm on Fire" in 1975 and "Girls" in 1984) the film features several new autobiographical songs Twilley wrote and recorded for the occasion.

But you know how film projects go -- slowly. With no wrap date in sight for the film, Twilley went ahead and released the songs last year as "Soundtrack."

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We knew this would happen. A band calls a time out, some members go solo, it doesn't fly, the band regroups. Happens all the time -- the question is: What's changed?

In the case of Fall Out Boy, Chicago's suburban emo heroes, just listening to the new record -- "Save Rock and Roll," the band's fifth album and second to debut at No. 1 -- one is confronted immediately with galloping strings, thundering drums and new overall sonic ambitions. The guitars aren't as brash and in-your-face as the production and vocals. This North Shore-born band -- singer-guitarist Patrick Stump, bassist-lyricist Pete Wentz, guitarist Joe Trohman and drummer Andy Hurley -- clearly has evolved way beyond this album's endangered namesake.

Let's get right to that audacious title. Seriously?

Lollapalooza schedule up: Headliner decisions

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The full schedule for this summer's Lollapalooza is posted now, and the choices of what to see are occasionally as difficult as expected.

Each night of the three-day concert festival, Aug. 2-4 in Chicago's Grant Park, four acts will jockey for dominance -- two main headliners on the two biggest stages, plus one final act each night at the Perry's dance stage and the smaller Grove stage.

If you find some love for these clowns,
turn around, turn around.
-- Vampire Weekend, "Obvious Bicycle"

VWmvotc.jpgVampire Weekend, "Modern Vampires of the City" (XL) 3<br />
and a half stars -- The backlash against Vampire Weekend always was bogus hipster class-war bull. Spin magazine shoulders some of the blame for declaring the band's debut the best album of 2008 -- in its March issue -- but most of the kvetching I've ever heard about this well-heeled quartet has had more to do with their cardigans and deck shoes than their actual music. Rockism's inherent inferiority complex at its bitchiest. None of that could possibly take flight anymore, especially now that the band's third album refines the quartet's built-in beauty with such impressive grace.

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Vic Mensa leads Kids These Days during day two of the Coachella
music festival last month in Indio, California.
(Getty Images)


Just when I was sure they were really going to go places, young Chicago band Kids These Days has split up.

The young South Side band -- comprised of several members, large enough to encompass its multitude of styles -- just released its acclaimed debut album, "Traphouse Rock," last fall. In the span of little more than a year, the pop-rock-rap collective landed gigs at Lollapalooza and Coachella, a showcase at South by Southwest and an appearance on "Conan."

But singer-rapper Vic Mensa tells XXL today that Kids These Days "will no longer function as a band."

James Cotton finds his voice in 'big-city blues'

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Like most of the musicians who launched national careers from the Sun Records studio in Memphis, James Cotton was well seasoned by the time he arrived.

Later a Chicago fixture, Cotton spent his boyhood in the 1940s living and working with bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson. The harmonica legend took Cotton everywhere -- to his radio gigs in West Memphis, to family outings with Williamson's brother-in-law, Howlin' Wolf -- and Cotton, now a harp legend himself, made the most of his apprenticeship.

"No lessons. I just watched and learned," Cotton, 77, said in a recent interview.

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More than a quarter century ago, Camper Van Beethoven kept '80s college radio stocked with smart stoner songs ("Take the Skinheads Bowling," "Pictures of Matchstick Men"). Singer David Lowery turned up the yee-haw a bit in his next band, Cracker, and dipped a toe into the mainstream ("Teen Angst," "Low"). Between CVB's end in the early '90s and it's 2000s reincarnation, Lowery produced many acts (Counting Crows, Sparklehorse), guitarist-violinist Jonathan Segel (far left above) got around (Heironymous Firebrain, Jack & Jill, great solo albums including the recent "All Attractions") and bassist Victor Krummenacher played with Monks of Doom and made his own solo albums.

But the rebounds always came back to Camper and Cracker. The two bands share enough off-kilter whimsy and personnel that for most of the 21st century they've been touring as a package.

savagesdebut.jpgSavages, "Silence Yourself" (Matador) 4<br />
stars -- If the instructive title blows past you, the opening song reiterates the point: "Shut Up." The buzziest band at this year's SXSW -- and on the Pitchfork bill this summer -- Savages are a serious post-punk quartet, and it's worth hushing up in order to hear the intricacies at work amid all their carefully wrought guitar squall and gleefully bleak observations. Singer Jehnny Beth applies a quivering Grace Slick vibrato to her frequently tuneless, deeply earnest delivery, not unlike a more alarmed Morrissey or, given the song structures and the album's penchant for occasional odd urban noise, the Fall's Mark E. Smith. Songs massage as much fierce feedback ("Waiting for a Sign") as they do surprisingly supple melody ("She Will"), and producers Rodaidh McDonald and Johnny Hostile have masterfully manipulated it for grand effect whether one has quited down or not. A great rock album destined to top most rockist's best-o'-2013 list. (Wild Flag, we hardly knew ye.)

Review: 'The Great Gatsby' soundtrack

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gatsbyST.jpgVarious Artists, "Music From Baz Luhrmann's Film 'The Great Gatsby'" (Universal) 2<br />
and a half stars -- It is not, thank gawd, one of those retro-hipster jazz projects that comes along whenever pop music gets too boring (see Joe Jackson's "Jumpin' Jive" or the Squirrel Nut Zippers). It is merely another anachronistic hootenanny by Baz Luhrmann, mashing up modern music with his latest overstylized antique visuals in an adaptation of "The Great Gatsby." How all this will mesh with the movie remains to be seen -- Luhrmann's track record as a jukebox filmmaker is sketchy, though that "Roxanne" tango in "Moulin Rouge" was pretty great -- but at least the album itself is not overstylized. Like, at all.

As with any soundtrack, this one's hit-or-miss. The hits, though, are pretty stunning.

Thumbnail image for idiotwayne.JPGIn February, Lil Wayne's musical name-dropping of Emmett Till landed him in the middle of a Chicago controversy, one which drew in the Rev. Jesse Jackson to get it resolved.

In his contribution to "Karate Chop," a track by Atlanta rapper Future, Lil Wayne (aka Dwayne Michael Carter Jr.) used the battered face of the young Civil Rights icon as a metaphor for the ferocity of his sexual prowess. Airickca Gordon-Taylor, founding director of the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation, said then the song was "disappointing, dishonorable, and outright disrespectful to our family."

On Wednesday, Lil Wayne attempted to apologize -- but without really apologizing.

North Coast Music Festival headliners announced

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Method Man of Wu-Tang Clan performs at Coachella on April 14. (Getty)

Like most music fests now, the North Coast Music Festival sold out its first round of discounted tickets in December before announcing a single act. Now regular tickets for the summer-ending, three-day event are on sale -- and here's who's playing.

The first wave of headliners for NCMF 2013, announced today, hit the fest's three nodal points (hip-hop, EDM, jam) square on: Wu-Tang Clan, Afrojack and Big Gigantic.

Thomas Conner

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

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