By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
"Shout It Out"
OK, Hanson wins. They beat all the people (myself included) who ever knocked their sweet hooks, ruddy faces and boy-band hype. The latest from Oklahoma's undaunted trio is a joyous, jubilant cache of near-perfect pop singles. The whole set is one big 1970s AM-radio anachronism, really. Effervescent and ebullient. Download: "Thinkin' 'Bout Somethin'" would make Ray Charles smile wide, and not just because they copied his "Blues Brothers" scene for the video.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Jon Bon Jovi is standing up.
The only reason that's news is because he blew out a calf muscle on stage July 9 during a concert at New Meadowlands Stadium in his home state of New Jersey.
"I got another leg," he told the crowd. "I don't need this one."
He hobbled back to the microphone and finished the show with "Livin' on a Prayer."
"The leg's back now, miraculously, with all the rehab I've had," Bon Jovi told the Sun-Times in an interview Wednesday. "If I was a football player, I'd say I'm 'probable' to play. Really I've just nursed all the sympathy I could get at home, and now I've gotta go back to work."
Work is a prominent theme on his latest record, "The Circle." Bon Jovi's job has looked the same for nearly 30 years — playing one massive stadium show after another. This weekend, he returns to Chicago for two nights at Soldier Field. After that, more stadiums and arenas in 30 countries for the next two years. Again.
The Circle Tour already is the top-grossing tour in North America. Bon Jovi's last tour also had that distinction, in 2008. Amid all the reports of canceled shows and trimmed-back tours this summer, Bon Jovi's stadium gigs emerge as one of the few winners. Thus far in 2010, he's played 38 shows, selling half a million tickets and banking $52.8 million, according to Pollstar.
Since long before the band hit it big with the 1986 album "Slippery When Wet" ("Livin' on a Prayer," "You Give Love a Bad Name," "Wanted Dead or Alive"), Bon Jovi has been playing the big venues. "It's what we've done since the inception of this band," he said during a conversation that reflected on the first stadium shows, the new music business and writing a song about Jennifer Hudson.
Q. These tours are clearly huge undertakings. Do you have a limit? What would be too big for you?
A. Well, I was the guy quoted saying that I wanted to play and sell out the desert — more than once. I've always been very comfortable in the big venues. It's not an issue of being too big as long as it's manageable, for us and the fans, and the business calls for it. And we're having fun, which we still are.
Q. Do you remember the first arena you played?
A. Yes: 1983, opening for ZZ Top at Madison Square Garden. Talk about a daunting venue — this was before we'd even released a record. It took courage, but we did it. ... It was really only daunting inasmuch as this was the fabled Madison Square Garden, a place where heroes have walked. Every kid out there thinks that tennis racket is going to turn into a guitar and they're going to have the chance to speak to someone. We got there. We got in trouble, too. We had more people backstage than ZZ Top had times 10. We invited everyone. There was one case of beer between about 150 people. We didn't even get to meet ZZ. It was a fantasy.
Q. Do you still get nervous at all?
A. Not so much nerves, but anticipation. I ask: "Are you prepared?" I've never had stage fright, if that's what you mean.
Q. What do you attribute that to?
A. If you really want to dissect it, it goes back to the drinking age in New Jersey being 18 back in the '70s, which meant you could sneak into bars as young as 16. You'd get to see bands, and you thought that was the big time. And every step along the way, that was the big time. From the dance to the club to headlining a club to theaters and stadiums — every step on that path you said, "This is it! I've made it!" ... It all goes back to that naivete or innocence at 16. I didn't have to go to the service, and I was young enough I could live at home, and I didn't have a family to support, so I could chase this dream. When the drinking age changed to 21, it changed the opportunities for the next generation of kids. Now you had to get to about 19 before you could sneak in and see a rock band, and by then things can be different.
Q. In the '80s, you had the quintessential success story: make a record, hand it to a DJ, he plays it, it catches on, sign the record contract. Could you pull that off today?
A. Yeah, but in a different way. The public spaces are on the Internet now, and the audiences aren't as big. "The Loop" [Chicago's WLUP-FM] had a voice back then. There were places like that where DJs had influence and were style makers. There are a couple of those guys still in the world. Pierre Robert in Philadelphia [at WMMR-FM] is a throwback to that. He guides you through what's going on, including some social activism. But if a kid like me walked into a Clear Channel chain now ... no one's going to come out and say, "Sure, let's spin this on the air in Chicago!" He'd get his ass whooped.
Q. When did you realize that had changed?
A. One day in Chicago. I remember walking Michigan Avenue — right? where all the stores are? — to that huge Virgin Megastore that was there until three or four years ago. I'd go there whenever I was in Chicago. I'd buy DVDs and CDs and whatever junk, anything and everything. I walked down there one day to see it all gone and thought that's the beginning of, not the end but — it was definitely my nose slamming into the face of the record business and thinking, "Well, the new generation better find us a trick, because the old generation has given away the keys to the kingdom."
Q. Puts "7800 Fahrenheit" in a new light, eh?
A. You know, I had a conversation with Doug Morris, now the head of Universal [Media Group, Bon Jovi's current record label]. He was president of Atlantic Records when they tried to sign me in 1983. There we were in a meeting with [Atlantic founder] Ahmet Ertegun and Doug and all these guys trying to sign me, and we didn't sign. I did my deal at Polygram. But Doug wound up at Unversal, and I asked him, "What would have happened if I'd signed with Atlantic?" He said, "To tell you the truth, I don't know if we'd have made 'Slippery When Wet.'" I said, "Why?" He said, "You know, your first two albums did OK, but chances are we wouldn't have given you that third shot. That's the way Atlantic used to think. If you're not headlining after two records, move on." And now here he is the president of my label, saying, "Sure glad we didn't drop you."
Q. I'm guessing this is why you remain in at least some contact with aspiring bands, putting contest winners on your stadium bills [like Chicago's 7th Heaven, opening Friday's concert].
A. I've been doing the opening band contest for years. I love it. I want them to get the opportunity to go out there and see what it would be like on Christmas morning, the way we lived. If anything, it's a motivation tool. When they've tasted that ZZ Top moment, they go back home and work harder and figure out things, whether it's soliciting fans in the aisles with fliers they've made or giving away CDs 'cause they've made 500 of them or calling the newspaper and telling them what you do, getting an article written about you. My day or this day, you've got to work hard at it.
Q. How's "The Circle" doing?
A. Well enough, in this day and age. I think it's a fabulous album that says a lot.
Q. You do seem to be tackling topical matters more than ever here. How do you approach current events without crossing the line into folk music?
A. We think universally and timelessly. Case in point: the song "Bullet." One Sunday morning Richie [Sambora, guitarist] was at my house, and I'm watching "Meet the Press," and it's about Jennifer Hudson's brother-in-law, what's his name? The guy who killed her family members on a rampage? [On Oct. 24, 2008, actress-singer Hudson's mother, brother and nephew were murdered on the South Side. Hudson's estranged brother-in-law, William Balfour, has been charged with the murders.] He's this guy going, like, "Why didn't I get mine?" Awful. But instead of sitting down and writing a song with his name in it or hers, with a specific day and date, you make your case because this same situation is going to happen again in five years somewhere else. You speak to the larger issues. You ask whether the song will stand up 20 years from now and is the message going to be clear.
with Kid Rock and 7th Heaven (Friday)
with Kid Rock and the Worsties (Saturday)
7 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Soldier Field, 1400 S. Museum Campus Dr.
Tickets: $36.50-$500; ticketmaster.com (Friday is sold out)
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Pitchfork Music Festival opens ... sounding pretty folkie
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 4:40 PM
Bright sun, water bottles, brooding singer-songwriters — this must be the sixth Pitchfork Music Festival. The annual hootenanny is now under way in Chicago's Union Park ... and it sounds like a hootenanny. The fest opened Friday afternoon with two fine strummers that made the venue sound more like a folk festival than the go-to shopping mall of indie rock.
Sharon Van Etten had the daunting job of not just kicking off the afternoon's music but doing so by squinting and singing directly into the July sun. Van Etten warbled her shy solo tunes. The crowd gathered. A warm-up indeed.
But it was the Tallest Man on Earth, aka Kristian Matsson, who brought the first real musical heat. Skinny, scruffy, charging boldly around the stage with his small-body acoustic guitar, Matsson played some fine folk songs. Opening with the title track to his new CD "The Wild Hunt" and strumming hard through to "King of Spain," Matsson growled and howled through a set of easy chords and pastoral lyrics in the tradition of America's best traditional music. Which is all the more impressive since he's here from Sweden. Small wonder he was so enthusiastically received at the Sasquatch Music Festival earlier.
This weekend each year I'm often instead at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. Both Van Etten and Matsson could swing hard on the folk fest circuit. The fact that they are welcomed so warmly in the heart of indie rock — Matsson numerous times thanked the crowd "for being so lovely" — hopefully is a pleasing portent for the "genre."
Pitchfork Music Festival: Believing in the Liars
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 6:06 PM
Ain't no folkie fest no more.
Angus Andrews, singer for the Liars, is prowling the Pitchfork main stage, shrieking over the band's fractured, stop-start rhythms. The cacophony he's raising is terrible and terrifying. His vocals — a series of owl cries and electronically distorted yowls — rise and fall over guitar lines played carefully just a half tone off where they should be, and the bass lurks and dodges in the lengthening shadows. This doesn't sound like a 10-year-old band. The Liars are still throwing in everything and the kitchen sink, like an underpracticed, angry Supergrass, though they've definitely ramped up the intensity of their caterwaul since the release of this year's "Sisterworld." "The devil's in Chicago at motherf—-in' Pitchfork!" Andrews shouts. Then, in his lovely British accent, he politely and demurely says, "Thanks so much for having us" and preaches for a second about not throwing water bottles. I knew it was all an act.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Stay cool with cheaper water
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 9:28 PM
Friday's late-afternoon start to the Pitchfork Music Festival was certainly hot in Chicago's Union Park. But it's been hotter, and staff reported no unusual increase in heat-related medical care. Just to be on the safe side, however, the festival decided Friday to cut the cost of water in half. Bottled water is now available for $1, and will remain so throughout the weekend.
"Out of concern for the heat, we're trying to be proactive," said Pitchfork staffer Anders Smith Lindall. This came shortly after an announcement from the main stage that water would be handed to concertgoers pressed against the front barricades, where some fans had already been pulled and treated for heat exhaustion.
Music starts earlier in the day Saturday and Sunday, meaning more time for fans to be under the sun. A high of 90 is forecast each day.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Rockin' Robyn!
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 10:46 PM
Who knew the best performer of the day would be a blonde bombshell spinning Euro-disco? Robyn — another Swede on Friday's bill and a former child star who's fought hard to regain her own artistic control — came out fighting, throwing punches in the air when she wasn't doing that elbows-high, shoulder-leaning dance all '80s female singers used to do.
Feisty, sexy, spunky Robyn opened with the virtues of being a "Fembot," assured us that love hurts "With Every Heartbeat" and sang flawlessly through new single "Dancing on My Own" in front of a band dressed in all white, twiddling knobs and pounding synth-pad drums. The latter really exploded at the end of "Cobrastyle," with Robyn showing some kick-box dancing. Her Pink-ish feistiness reached its zenith in "Don't F—-ing Tell Me What to Do," during which she led some kind of aerobics class (sporting a totally Pat Benatar green beret, too).
And she was the crowd favorite.
Go figure. I had grown to assume this was a fairly rockist crowd, and I was originally surprised by the booking of this talented but very dance-pop artist on the venerable Pitchfork bill. But she embodies the spirit of whatever "indie" started out to mean. She debuted at 16 as an R&B starlet, and she's faced consistent and constant stumbling blocks in her business dealings which have kept her from the States. Even back in 2003, she was collaborating with experimental synth-pop outfit the Knife while her label was releasing a sugary best-of over here. She bought herself out of her record contract and started making the kind of music she wanted, and suddenly she won Grammys (in Sweden). Now she's doing her thing, releasing three "Body Talk" EPs — the second one's due Sept. 7 and might include a collaboration with Snoop Dogg! — and finally making an impact in the United States. Just last night she was singing at the Arvika Festival in Sweden, and after Pitchfork comes a North American tour, co-headlining with Kelis.
Judging by the diversity of the people dancing determinedly to her songs tonight, it should be a great tour.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Broken Social Scene, Modest Mouse
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 11:18 PM
Sundown slowed down with Broken Social Scene, a sprawling Toronto collective with a few Chicago roots. This band makes a lovely sound, even if the songs don't always gel behind the chiming guitars and palpitating drums.
Thirty-one musicians appear on the band's latest CD, "Forgiveness Rock Record," recorded in Chicago under the guidance of John McEntire from Tortoise and the Sea & Cake. McEntire himself played a second drum set on stage Friday night, adding needed extra heft to gauzy arrangements that tend to sag if not tended carefully.
This loosey-goosey ensemble, which tends to trade instruments among each other, was most engaging when they got the pulse going, rollicking through "Texico Bitches" and the rumbling furnace of "Cause = Time," which featured five guitars. The set ended in a see-sawing riff with strings that evoked the most intense Poi Dog Pondering drones.
Alas, the evening wrapped with Modest Mouse, a rodent of a band whose major-label indie rock (work that phrase out for a while) deserves the restraint implied by its name.
Now that the trinket of ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr is being worn by another indie-rock sweetheart (the Cribs) — though new guitarist Jim Fairchild did a helluva job filling those shoes, particularly during "Satellite Skin" — Modest Mouse is just a tuneless junkyard of discarded song parts. Frontman and the band's sole constant Isaac Brock is one of the most difficult singers to enjoy in rock and roll, and when he picks up that banjo for "The Devil's Workday" and sings about hanging himself for treason, well, hey, we got some rope. The God-awful funk beats of "Education," the stand-up bass — they're just a dissonant Dave Matthews Band, and the neo-hippies in the crowd were twirling in their calico prints to prove it.
Pitchfork Music Festival: In a Delorean, plus Dam-Funk
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2010 6:40 PM
Delorean in the summer heat is a weird and wonderful experience. Hitting the stage switched on, they build layer upon layer, loop upon loop — dreamy synth sounds that build and build and then ease off, one tune blending into another. That has the effect of inducing a dreamy state, which coupled with the blaring sun on your neck could induce a crazy euphoria. Or, like the guy behind me, you could just complain, "They've been playing this same song for half an hour." But listen closely, behind bassist Ekhi Lopetegi's thin vocals, and there are intricate patterns in the sampled piano and the vox humana. Despite the scraggly page-boys and beards, this band is not grounded in rock but draws more from the Balearic house music of their native Barcelona, Spain. Lopetegi's bass, though, and Guillermo Astrain's guitar bring enough vibration to a rock crowd to keep it on its feet. Primal Scream, we hardly knew ye.
California's Dâm-Funk (DJ Damon Riddick) got a late start on the shady balance stage, but in no time he laid down some fat beats and was advising us, "You gotta keep your hood pass intact, y'all." Dâm-Funk (it's pronounced "dame") mostly just turned on sounds and rhythms, then stalked the stage singing like a lost DeBarge. Then he pulled out the keytar and started into his trademark, slow, mostly instrumental jams. Joined by a live drummer and an extra synth player, Dâm-Funk updated '70s and '80s urban soul, and he stayed classy even when the shouts from Wu-Tang's Raekwon intruded from across the park. Since he was late starting, he even cut his set short. "We gotta respect the other bands, y'all," he said, removing the keytar. "We got four more songs, but f—- it. Peace!" Such consideration! Only at Pitchfork.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Titus Andronicus is no tragedy
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2010 6:47 PM
Best band of Saturday afternoon: Titus Andronicus, a blazing band from Glen Rock, N.J., a location that has allowed them to absorb the best of bombast from Springsteen, the fire of post-punk from New York and possibly even a little Philly soul. "I'm sweating like a pregnant nun talking to the pope," said frontman Patrick Stickles after lurching out of another of the band's nihilistic songs, "No Future, Part 3." But their outlook isn't completely bleak. The song hammers a refrain, "You'll always be a loser!" over and over before concluding: "But that's OK." The quintet was augmented by a few support players, piano and strings and horns; the extra players weren't necessary, but Titus Andronicus songs are multi-level, architectural creations with a capacity for a lot of extra decor. This is band that can write as well as it rocks, and God does it rock. At one moment Stickles is picking a spidery melody on his guitar, next the kinetic Amy Klein is crunching into the tune, and — as in the sprawling "Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ" — it all builds to a triumphant bashing. Near the end the guitars screeched in harmony and hit a northern highlands rhythm like they were Big Country. Then they turn around with the panache and the chops to introduce the band via a jump-bluesy tune, "And Ever." Brutal and friendly, vicious and tender, Titus Andronicus has it all.
Pitchfork Music Festival: The rain doesn't really help
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 2:00 PM
Day 3 of the sixth annual Pitchfork Music Festival, which began in 2005 as Intonation, is under way in the sultry summer heat. A noontime thunder shower moved through quickly, cooling things off for a matter of moments before the sun returned and added the evaporated rain to the day's humidity totals.
Water remains at half price, a dollar a bottle. Still, the line for the free water is longer than that for the bottled variety. Pitchfork staffer (and occasional Sun-Times contributor) Anders Smith Lindall says festival workers are handing out water bottles to distressed concertgoers when the line gets excruciatingly long.
Those who don't mind earning their reward — and helping to keep the park clear of debris — can earn one beverage ticket (worth a buck, for one bottle of water) for every 10 discarded plastic cups collected and returned to the recycling booth.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Best Coast is the best
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 3:30 PM
Sunday's music at the Pitchfork Music Festival began with dessert. Between the dull, thudding chords of Cass McCombs and the first laconic and then tortured feedback of the Girls, a fresh, sunny new pop band called Best Coast held down the Balance stage — the "small" stage, under the trees — with a workmanlike attitude and a handful of cheery love ditties. Ultimately unpretentious, Best Coast (Bethany Cosentino and two pals) ran through songs from the debut "Crazy for You" CD, filled with bright major chords and lyrics like "I'll try to make you mine" and "that's just not your deal." The crowd got a big chuckle when she sang, "I lost my job / I miss my mom / I wish my cat could talk." She closed with the trendy single "When I'm With You," the repeated refrain of which is, "When I'm with you, I have fun." So true.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Local Natives are fleet and foxy
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 5:19 PM
Seattle's Fleet Foxes brought beautiful harmonies back to modern music, rescuing three-part tenor singing from the vaults of Crosby, Stills & Nash. But as beautiful as "White Winter Hymnal" can be, the band hasn't yet jumped up and shown any oomph.
Orange County's Local Natives have seized that opportunity, and Sunday afternoon at the Pitchfork Music Festival they delivered a set of exciting, rhythmic music laced with the energy of post-punk as well as those sweet, core harmonies. Much of their music is built around what their voices can achieve, and the fact that they achieved it the brutal July Chicago heat is impressive. But these harmonies have teeth. Kelcey Ayer took charge of most of the proceedings, hitting beautiful high notes while bashing the bejesus out of his small stand-up drum kit. The beats he added to the regular drummer's rhythm — sometimes Ayer would play keyboard with his left hand and drum with his right — made songs like "Airplanes" blast like a jet engine. "Camera Talk," the evolving "Shape Shifter," the cover of the Talking Heads' "Warning Signs" — it was all fleet and (dig guitarist-singer Taylor Rice's stache!) very foxy.
Earlier, clouds provided sweet relief from the heat just as Beach House began its Sunday afternoon set. Mother Nature knows how to set the mood. Despite the summery name, Beach House makes cool — no, chill — music. With piercing vocals and a hushed, daydreamy tone to the hypnotic sounds, Beach House is made for a little less light.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Major Lazer, Big Boi
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 10:41 PM
Saturday evening began with the digital dub attack of Major Lazer, a computerized dancehall project of Diplo — marking a return to Pitchfork — and Switch. For an hour they assaulted the adoring crowd with very little music, mostly just bleats and blasts that sound like various industrial park alarms. The noises dodged and moved — a frenetic mess for the ADHD set — and Diplo spent most of his stage time shouting the name Major Lazer (at least four dozen times) and begging the crowd for hands in the air.
Big Boi doesn't have to beg.
Strutting on stage with one of his Atlanta MCs, the other half of hip-hop's acclaimed Outkast starting flinging syllables, eventually firing fastfastfast through "Ghetto Musick" over a machine-gun beat. A relentless hourlong set featured several Outkast hits (a snappy run through "Ms. Jackson") and a few guests, ranging from guest singer Neil Garrard for the tuneful "Follow Us" to a trash-talking youngster. The set dragged on and the beats became monotonous, but when he launched into "ATLiens" and hollered, "Put your hands in the air!" it was superfluous. They'd been up for a while.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Pavement resurfaces
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 11:45 PM
Pavement has worn all three tags hung on this music. Here's a band that was serviced to college radio, came to define a certain smoky corner of alt-rock and now is lionized as indie heroes with a worldwide reunion tour and headlining slot at the Pitchfork fest. The band's much-anticipated set couldn't have begun more appropriately — first with a long, meandering introductory rant by Drag City's Ryan Murphy about the contrasts between this festival and Lollapalooza, among other topics, and then a false start to the opener, "Cut Your Hair." The band that worked hard but looked like slackers is still in perfect non-form.
Band leader Stephen Malkmus played facing stage left, and other band members frequently played with their backs to the crowd. Malkmus kept throwing sidelong glances at his old mates as if he wasn't sure what came next. As he maintained a carefree composure — all casual smirks, air drumming and lazy twirls — multi-instrumentalist Bob Nastanovich jumped around most of the time like a devilish imp, hollering through "Debris Slide" and rapping, if you call it that, through "Unfair," which built to such caterwauling mayhem that guitarist Scott Kannberg even tried a scissor kick.
One minute it was amazing the whole thing was still on the rails, like they should be following the Smith Westerns on the B stage, the next — such synchronized beauty and cacophony. The end result being, hey, Pavement has a serious legacy, after all. The echoes we've been hearing at this festival, this weekend and years past, they all came together in one joyfully sloppy master class of indie rock.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.