Originally printed in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 8, April 15, 2014. Anthologized in Mason, M & Wall, H. (Eds.), A Voice Was Sounding: Selected Works from This Land, Vol. 5. Tulsa, Okla.: This Land Press.
Like many pejoratives, the word “Okie” has been reclaimed — particularly within the borders of its namesake state — as a proud regional identifier. Nearly a century ago, however, Californians spat the term toward the poor migrant families (whether they were actually from Oklahoma or not) rolling in across the deserts, desperate for food, shelter, and work.
Now here I am at a festival in southern California, surrounded by Okies — the real deal — and standing next to me is a fella wearing a dark blue T-shirt blaring a single word in white capital letters across his chest: “OKIE.” I ask for a photograph and, like every other genial character at this cozy little gathering, Cal Meek gladly shares his tale.
“I taught at Arvin [California] High School for 35 years,” Meek says, “and in 1999 I took a group of students to a leadership conference in Minneapolis, of all places. We would give students things to exchange with other students — you know, just stuff to barter with as a way to get them talking, trading. It’s a good mixer. The Oklahoma delegation had these shirts, and I wanted one.”
He pauses for a second, squints in the late-summer California sun, and swallows. “They were wearing them with pride, you see.” Another pause, but no loss of eye contact. “That’s what got to me, the change in pride. They were proud to be called Okies, to call themselves Okies.”
Now he looks away, scanning the flat cropland just beyond the schoolyard where hundreds of folks like him are gathered this Saturday morning. “It sure wasn’t like that in 1939, 1940. For sure, I can tell you that.”
On the surface, the annual Dust Bowl Festival is like any small-town fest. There are plentiful food booths — fried bologna sandwiches, biscuits and gravy, pit barbecue from Tomi’s Country Café promising the “Best OKIE food in town” (again with the proud capitalization) — as well as local art on display and various tchotchkes for sale, from crafty straw hats to “Dust Bowl Migration & Route 66” aprons. A table for the chamber of commerce. Sign-ups for this and that. Oleta Kay Sprague Ham, granddaughter-in-law of Florence Thompson, the “Migrant Mother” in Dorothea Lange’s famous photo, is signing copies of her new book. A band is on stage asking highly rhetorical questions between songs (“Anybody here like Merle Haggard?”).
A few hundred feet east of the festival site — the Sunset School on the outskirts of Lamont, California, just south of Bakersfield — sits the Arvin Migrant Center, the reason for the gathering. That’s its official, current designation, anyway, though you’ll hear it called by many names: the Arvin Federal Government Camp, the Lamont Farm Labor Supply Center, the Sunset Labor Camp (the camp’s address is on, no kidding, Sunset Boulevard), or its wider colloquialism: the Weedpatch Camp.
“Everyone calls the camp a different name,” says Faye Holbert, a member of the Lamont Women’s Club and a standout supporter of the camp’s ongoing preservation effort. “They’re always saying, ‘No, that’s not the right name…’ ”
Depending on the conversation, sometimes it’s “Steinbeck’s camp,” since the novelist immortalized the place in The Grapes of Wrath. This is the real-life, makeshift town where the fictional Joads ended up, along with all the other thousands in the Dust Bowl diaspora of the 1930s.
Each year, on the third Saturday in October, the children of those Okies (and Arkies, Texans, Kansans, and more) gather for a little catch-up with compadres and cousins. Whether by blood or simple shared experience, everyone at the Dust Bowl Festival is family.
“We’re looking for our cousins,” says Mary Ann Witham as she walks through the gate. A dozen people I meet say the same thing. “I think he’s a cousin of mine,” Mary Garland says about a man I had just spoken with.
Garland and her husband moved back to Bakersfield last fall. For the previous 23 years, they’d been back home, just south of Fort Smith, Arkansas, growing chickens for Tyson. “But we came back, because this is where family is,” she says. Without being asked, she produces family photos — but not the usual, color, Facebook-ubiquitous type. She instead fans out a hand of cracked, black-and-white snapshots, a few with scalloped white borders. One of them shows two teenage girls in denim overalls, scarves on their heads. “That’s my friend and me at 16, working in the fields,” she says.
She means those fields, over there, baking in today’s SoCal sun. Garland’s father, originally from Red Oak, Oklahoma, moved his family west from Arkansas in 1940. They wound up not at Weedpatch but another nearby workers’ camp, where Garland met her husband. Today is their first visit to the Dust Bowl Festival. She felt compelled to come, even if her kids don’t get it.
“We moved back here because, even though we’re from Arkansas, this is where home really got to be for us,” she says. “We went through hard times, and it’s important to remember them, and why. Our kids have no clue how hard we worked. My son should really see this. We can tell them what we went through, but they should see it. It’s the only way to really know how they got all they have today.”
The demographics at the Dust Bowl Festival, though, appear highly stratified: lots of grandparents, lots of grandkids, not many in between. Jimmy Thompson is holding out for a change in the age range. Thompson helped found the festival in 1990, and he’s been playing in bands and writing songs in the musical hotbed of nearby Bakersfield ever since his family settled in a tent at Weedpatch Camp in 1945. He’s a lively, wiry gentleman, and he’s convinced the inevitable passing of a generation with direct roots and experience at Weedpatch won’t deflate a growing annual event.
“Folks like us, we’re proud of what we had to work for, and our kids and our grandkids understand that,” he says. “They still see it. Migrant workers aren’t a thing of the past. The Arvin camp is full of them every summer. There’s a whole young generation coming up that has plenty of experience with the kind of hard work and history rooted here. They know how to appreciate it, celebrate it.
“I wrote a song about this,” Thompson says, then—because he obviously can’t help himself—he suddenly breaks into the song:
“Mom and Dad taught a way of life
that good things don’t come easy
You’ve got to work for what you get
and what you get will please you.”
When Thompson’s family arrived in California, they set up under some canvas in Weedpatch’s “tent circle,” and they were glad to be there. “At least this place had bathrooms,” he says, “so you didn’t have to go in a bush.” We’re standing next to one of the festival’s food booths, hawking hunks of cornbread smothered in chili beans, as Thompson describes the lean times decades ago on this same piece of ground: “People would work for a spoon of flour and a cup of lard.”
Faye Holbert’s family arrived here in 1948. “We came out because all our siblings were here,” she says. She worked for 22 years here at the Sunset School, an institution built by and for the very Okies the locals sought to isolate. “The school was built for the Dust Bowl people. Locals didn’t want them. Really, that was fine by the Okies, because they took pride in their work and jumped right in. They helped build the school. They grew a garden; all the food in the cafeteria came out of that garden. They even built a swimming pool. There’s pictures inside of kids digging the hole for the pool.”
“He helped dig that pool,” Betty Holliday says, pointing to her husband, Jack. They lived and worked at Weedpatch from 1941 to 1949. “That pool was something else.”
Holbert chuckles. “Once the school got going with that pool,” she says, “suddenly the locals were coming around, wondering if they could bring their kids. A peacemaker, that pool.”
The swimming pool is gone, and that’s a shame. The land around the Dust Bowl Festival is itself a hot, dusty basin. Driving to Bakersfield from the south — where I now live, in San Diego, just another Okie who moved West — brings you through big-town LA before creeping up the steady grades of the Sierra Pelona Mountains, a long and barren moonscape resembling grassy dunes. On the north side, the interstate dumps you into the central valley. There’s a gas station, a Denny’s, and a Ramada — beyond that, it’s flat nothing as far as you can squint.
The trick is, though, you can’t really see. The air over the whole southern end of the San Joaquin Valley is some of the most polluted in the country. Once again, in 2013, Bakersfield topped the American Lung Association’s list of U.S. cities with the worst year-round air pollution.
Contrary to expectations, the thick brown haze hanging over the cropland here isn’t creeping in from Los Angeles — where Woody Guthrie, in 1952, penned a short ditty called “Smoggy Old Smog” (“Smoggry oley smog why are ya here? / Smoggery oldey smog what bringsya here? / Ta choker down my towne fr’m th’ middle of th’ air? / What warnin are y’ fr’m God?”) — but rather from the Bay Area and, as reported in a recent study, all the way from China. Ozone produced by that county’s voracious fossil fuel appetite “is transported at high altitude until it gets to the valley, where it takes a dive,” according to an area air-pollution official quoted in The Bakersfield Californian, which publishes a lot of stories about air pollution.
Off the interstate, the drive into Bakersfield — Wheeler Ridge Road, which eventually becomes the Weedpatch Highway — passes fields full of an astonishing variety of produce, including some corn, several orchards, and a lot of grapes. The occasional tractor can be seen kicking up plumes of dry, tan dust, and that’s part of the haze, too. By the end of the festival, my mouth was dry, and I could taste the dust.
“Our folks had their Dust Bowl,” says Gary Richards, son of a Colorado farm worker at Weedpatch from 1940 to 1945, “and we’ve got this. Some days you can barely see the Tehachapi Mountains over there. My folks used to say this valley was starting to look like the one they left.”
“It was mighty clear when we got here, a real picture,” says Earl Shelton. “You could see every farm.”
Shelton was 7 years old when he settled at Weedpatch in 1941. The family farm near Scipio, Oklahoma, simply dried up. When he couldn’t water his crops, Shelton’s dad, Tom, turned to selling skunk skins. The market for those, as you might imagine, stinks, so shortly after New Year’s Day in 1941 Tom, a recent widower, packed his four sons into a rickety Model A Ford — the very embodiment of the Okie cliché — and started heading west on Route 66.
The tires came off the Ford near Seligman, Arizona. Tom managed to park the heap behind a gas station. For several days, Tom and his boys lived in the car. “I never went hungry, but I know my dad must have,” Shelton recalls.
With his last nickel, Tom Shelton bought a cup of coffee and struck up a conversation with a rancher who offered Tom room and board for the family plus $2.50 a day — a fortune then — to dig a pond on his land 30 miles away. Eight weeks later, the Sheltons and a small nest-egg crossed into California and set up a tent among the sage brush on the edge of Weedpatch Camp.
Life at the camp was a relief. “Clean water, nice toilets, baseball, bands and dances on Saturday nights — we had the time of our lives, believe it,” he says, brightening at the recollections. “Yessir, mighty nice.”
Three of the camp’s original Weedpatch buildings are preserved in the northeast corner of the fenced-in, gated Arvin Migrant Center, moved to this part of the site once becoming protected by the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. During the festival, a bus makes regular rounds between the school and the campsite. It’s perfectly walkable, but —feel that sun, taste that dust — who’d want to?
The resituated buildings, awaiting further restoration, include the camp’s library and post office. Outside the library stands a short granite monument, into which is embedded a plaque reading, “From the people of Oklahoma — the Okies — who found a home here and helped build California.” Signed: Governor Frank Keating, 2002.
The big community building is the centerpiece — and the one that Okie kids still talk about. “We called it Magic Mountain,” Earl Shelton says of the building, with its pitched roof and walls covered in bright green clapboard. The interior is about the size of the Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, with a similarly sized stage on the far end. The floor is original, with surprisingly few creaks and sags. This is where the camp held most events, dances, concerts, suppers, church services, and self-governing meetings.
“One thing you notice when looking at [original] pictures from the camp and around the community building: There’s no trash,” Faye Holbert says. “One lady who was born in the camp said you didn’t dare have things dirty. They’d call you out in those meetings and scold you. There were loudspeakers around the camp — they’d even say your name over the speakers.”
The rest of the Arvin Migrant Center is still tidy today. While the Dust Bowl Festival celebrates its sepia-toned history, the old camp remains quite active in the present. From May to October each year, the camp provides the same service it has since it was built by the Farm Security Administration in 1936. Since 1965, the Arvin camp has been operated by the Housing Authority of the County of Kern. The tents and tin shacks are long gone, of course, replaced by 88 tidy wood-frame units — $11.50 a day for a two-bedroom duplex, $12 for three bedrooms, $12.50 for four.
Nearby states such as Arizona may seek to criminalize immigrants seeking work, but California’s $43.5 billion-a-year farm industry still depends on a migrant labor force. Machinery can only do so much. Even in 2013, the grapes that make that sumptuous glass of California red wine you just photographed and posted on Facebook were plucked directly from the dusty vines by itinerant farmhands.
Just ask Mateo Martinez. He’s 15, gangly, shy, wearing a Misfits t-shirt. While the tour bus crew empties into the historic buildings, Mateo and his mother stand by the side of the road while she points out some of the existing, functioning buildings in the other direction.
“They [his parents] first came here in the ‘90s,” Mateo says. “She says they picked celery and lived here two years.” Work, wages, and some semblance of stability in the camp allowed Mateo’s parents to save, move on, move up, buy a home, later work for and then start their own landscaping business further upstate.
I ask Mateo if he knows what an Okie is. He shoots me a withering, quizzical look; he does not. I mention they were a group of migrant workers who lived here before his parents did. “Did they build it?” he asks. In a way, I say, yes. He shrugs.
“That’s cool,” he says, and he looks back toward the neat rows of houses. “Otherwise, I guess I wouldn’t be here.”
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The last time I saw Ezra Furman, he was in his underwear.
Performing, no less. The mad Evanstonian — one of the most visceral singer-songwriters I've encountered in this city — stepped onto a bare stage during the South by Southwest music festival in 2012 in Austin, Texas, nearly bare-assed, wearing only socks and boxer briefs. The rest of him was just the same — wild eyes, spasmodic moves, an unnerving earnestness.
"I was incredibly tired," Furman recalls. "That probably influenced the decision. Plus, that kind of environment needs a little ridiculousness."
At the time, Furman had just relocated to the Bay Area and self-released a new solo album with a title related to his exodus from the Chicago scene: "The Year of No Returning."
One year down, and he's returned — sort of.
Splitting his time between Chicago and Oakland, Furman has assembled a new Chicago-based band, the Boy-Friends — on the same turf where he and his former and formidable band, the Harpoons, ruled from 2006 until last year — with whom he'll launch a summer tour this weekend from the stage of a classic Chicago summer street festival.
The new backers include Ben "Chewy Bar" Joseph on keyboards and bass, Sam "Grape Crush" Durkes on drums and Jorgen "The Diddler" Jorgensen on bass and guitar.
The occasion for the tour is twofold: "The Year of No Returning" is getting a proper release on July 16 from storied indie label Bar/None, and a brand-new set, "Day of the Dog," recorded with the new band, comes out Sept. 17.
As a fairly rabid fan of his raw songwriting, I'll take it as an auspicious omen that my final interview before leaving the Sun-Times was this typically interesting recent chat with Furman:
Q: Where in the world is Ezra Furman today? And where do you call home now?
Furman: I'm in North Carolina by the beach on a little trek with family and friends. The question of home is a bit more complicated. I mostly live in Oakland, and I spend a lot fo time in Chicago and Evanston, where the band is. ... If you interview a musician in their 20s these days, they're having a harder time answering the question of "Where are you based?" The real answer is, "Well, I drive around a lot ..."
Q: The new band is not armed with any Harpoons, correct?
Furman: Yes, that band is defunct. They're all pals. They're doing responsible and good things. I wouldn't dream of kidnapping them from any of that.
Q: Tell us about the new album.
Furman: "The Year of No Returning" was made with various musicians, but I had to put together a touring band. To my delight, I've been able to put together a really great rock and roll band that I don't want to change. I call them the Boy-Friends. What I'm trying to do: I want to be like Elvis or Buddy Holly or Patti Smith — a rock and roll solo artist. They have bands, really good bands. I don't know why some people go by their name and some go by a band name. Going by my name gives me a certain freedom. A band name can be ... constraining.
Q: Like Chrissie Hynde, who's made great records for years using a variety of players — that she's trapped into calling the Pretenders every time.
Furman: Right. You buy a Paul Simon record, it could be him or a whole mix of stuff, Africans and what-not. That freedom appeals to me.
Q: At that SXSW gig, in your underwear, you said from the stage: "I was supposed to be a wide-eyed sort of singer-songwriter, but I don't feel like that anymore." What do you feel like?
Furman: I was afraid things were getting a little cute with me. I think some people think of me like kind of sunny and young and cute and innocent. They were starting to say, "He's like Jonathan Richman. He's a big sweetheart." I love Johnathan Richman, but I don't think that's how I feel. I don't feel particularly innocent. I don't feel so childlike anymore. Maybe I'm wrong about this. But I was getting that impression from people, and I was starting to play it up over the course of being in the Harpoons. And now, I wanted to make a record that had to do with adult rebellion. I think I got that phrase from Bruce Springsteen, from the idea of "Darkness on the Edge of Town."
Q: In all of my days, I would never describe your music as sunny or innocent.
Furman: Well, I know there's complexity and darkness and mixtures of anger and joy in the music I make, but I worry that the complexity doesn't come through — especially live, with crowds of people happy people on a night out. I hope that phrase doesn't sound condescending. It's just easy to believe that they didn't really hear the kind of messed-up thing I just said. I always wanted to be fun but not fun. I mean, what do you do with a song like "Bloodsucking Whore" [from Ezra Furman & the Harpoons' phenomenal 2011 album "Mysterious Power"]? How sexist is that song? It's complicated. I think that in my underwear at South by Southwest I was trying to remind myself and everyone else that it's complicated.
Q: I watched you play one of your last solo Chicago gigs on one of the Flesh hungry Dog Show bills at the Jackhammer. You were spewing, yes, some very complicated lyrics for an audience that, let's say, wasn't really getting it. It wasn't a listening room.
Furman: It's complicated, getting things across but also leading the party. I went to a Titus Andronicus show — there's a bunch of drunk dudes with drinks in the air, pumping fists and moshing. I was getting batted about. How do you have fun but also listen to the complicated things they're saying. How does the fun of going to a concert mesh with the sickness in you? It just does. Or it doesn't. It usually hangs together somehow. Springsteen, you know — you worry about him. I worry about him just listening to him. Does he still remember the feelings that led him to write "Nebraska"? It's a tense thing to mix in that complication, and when that sickness creeps into rock and roll — that's very interesting to me.
Q: What's new about the new record, "Day of the Dog"?
Furman: "The Year of No Returning" was recorded a year before I formed the Boy-Friends, and to me "Day of the Dog" is a sequel. There's similarity in the title — it's a time of something. This one's the manic side, though — the mania to "Year of No Returning's" depression. That was an introspective record, made in a careful way. It's really rather meticulous. The new record is manic.
Q: What do you mean by "manic"?
Furman: Mostly I mean a musical thing. Trying to get at something like "Maybeline" by Chuck Berry — a sensational moment, a musical thing. It has to do with the tempo and the backbeat and a going for broke. It has a strong theme of messianic hope, of waiting for a time when all bad things will be fixed and all downtrodden people will rise up. That's what the title track is about. There's something in the air that unites these things: rock and roll mania, and the downtrodden or just people who aren't doing well hoping for justice. I think these things are related in the human heart. Rock comes from the blues, which has that thing of the way things are is not the way they're supposed to be and that the broken-hearted people are maybe the secret heroes. That's this album.
EZRA FURMAN & THE BOY-FRIENDS
• 8:30 p.m. June 15
• 6 Corners BBQ Fest @ Irving Park, Cicero and Milwaukee
• (773) 685-9300, 6cornersbbqfest.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
A 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."
"This film doesn't seem to be speeding down the track, that's for sure," Twilley says. "I have no control over it. All I was in charge of was making this album. I did my job."
This is what Twilley does: cranks out album after album of remarkably consistent, solid power-pop.
He had his heyday — on Leon Russell's Shelter Records in the 1970s (with the Dwight Twilley Band that included the late Phil Seymour), recording hits with Tom Petty in the '80s — but after the 1994 earthquake in Los Angeles, Twilley packed up what was left and returned home to Tulsa, Okla. Ever since, he's been living in a midtown home with a converted garage studio. He's got nothing to do but make records, all day every day.
First came, appropriately, "Tulsa" (1999), then "The Luck" (2001), "47 Moons" (2004), "Have a Twilley Christmas" (2005), a live album, another best-of, an album of Beatles covers, then "Green Blimp."
"We almost always have a track going," Twilley says. "The best song is always the new one. We're about seven tracks into the new album now. The new one is 'Everybody's Crazy.' ... We were floundering in L.A. The labels didn't give a sh— about me. But then 'Wayne's World' happened [Twilley's 'Why You Wanna Break My Heart' was on the soundtrack] and we were able to come back to Oklahoma, buy a house and build a studio. In a way, the whole journey culminated in 'Soundtrack.' Now we're just making more records, all the time."
Twilley admits the post-"Soundtrack" work is slow going after the 2010 loss of Bill Pitcock IV, Twilley's longtime guitarist (and one of the most underappreciated ever).
"It's a drag," Twilley says. "Bill and I worked so closely, especially these last few years. We were still recording 'Soundtrack' when he died. It was strange in the middle of this autobiographical album to lose Bill, who'd been there from the start. And we lost [Twilley Band drummer] Jerry Naifeh a few months before. I'm the remaining Twilley Band guy, and I guess I'll still be holding the flag form my wheelchair."
A few guests have joined in on the new songs. Roger Linn (who played those great backwards guitars on "Sincerely") contributed to one track, 20/20's Ron Flynt on another.
Meanwhile, Twilley's been trotting out to a few rare one-off gigs.
"We took our pretty hot little new band to Atlanta," Twilley says of last month's Mess Around Festival, "and played to this kind of punkish audience, really young kids. They were singing the lyrics to every one of the songs. The sang all the lyrics to 'T.V.' Then, we were practically run out of town for not playing 'Looking for the Magic.' We just didn't have it worked up, but they were screaming for it at the end. It's a weird phenomenon with that song. We're rehearsing it. We'd better play it in Chicago."
HOZAC BLACKOUT FEST 2013
Featuring Dwight Twilley
with Pezband, GAMES, and the Sueves
• 8 p.m. May 19
• Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
• Tickets: $25.00; (773) 276-3600; emptybottle.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
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.
The reunited Camper is as workaday as the original. Are they celebrated with the same froth whipped up around Pavement reunions or the recent quasi-Replacements project? No. (Should they be? Yes.) But that's not exactly what these guys are in it for.
"As David put it, 'There's no benefit to quitting,'" Segel told me in a recent interview. "We play well, we entertain people, they seem to like it. If we can do it and break even, we benefit from the sheer enjoyment of the situation, and from getting better at what we do every time."
Answering questions online from his current home in Stockholm, Segel talked — and the boy does go on and on — about Camper's legacy, the band's latest California-centric album, "La Costa Perdida," his own solo work and the growing pains of music in a digital world:
Q: David Lowery told me a couple of years ago: "Cracker is so much my personality and Johnny [Hickman]'s, what I write we can do some version of. Camper is a particular beast." Can you describe the particular beast that is Camper? I still struggle myself ...
Jonathan Segel: Well, we have always been some sort of alchemy of the members of the band, regardless of the line-up at the time. A multi-headed hydra! The long-running line up in the 1980s was David, me, Victor Krummenacher, [guitarist] Greg Lisher and [drummer] Chris Pedersen. Then we hit a snag in 1989-90 and I was gone and replaced by David Immergluck and Morgan Fichter for a year (cut off one head and two more shall grow back in its place!). When we started playing as a band again, we went back to the long standing five-piece, but Chris P lives in Australia, so ultimately Frank Funaro has been drumming with us (from Cracker).
So who are we? One of the really interesting things about writing [2004's] "New Roman Times," and even more so with "La Costa Perdida," was bringing everything that we have all individually done in the interim to the table. David obviously has done Cracker but also a bunch of producing; Victor, coming through the Monks of Doom, has become an amazing singer-songwriter in the classic tradition; Greg, after the Monks, has worked on his own pop albums and is continually finishing an instrumental guitar album; and I've done, well, a lot also. So try to bring that all together into a band, where we all have ideas for what to do. We have feelers in all sorts of different types of music, we all are avid book readers, we all have now been playing music all of our adult lives (and longer). It's tough to describe the thread, but there is a definite California personality that comes out, complete with the punk and hippie personae, and a politicization that verges on the tinfoil hat regime. And if we start from there and go with it, the jokes and inside references can become extremely convoluted and bizarre. And that's fun for us — that's one of the big reasons why we continue to do it.
Q: Reunions of rock acts sometimes seem an inevitability. Tell me about how a hydra-headed ensemble like CVB starts communicating again about playing and writing, and eventually creating "New Roman Times." What was the motivation? What sets the CVB glue?
Segel: Are reunions inevitable? I actually never thought during the 1990s that Camper would ever play again. The process was similar to CVB's dissolution, in reverse — that is to say, in fits and starts. Coagulation, I suppose. I think the first indications were either Victor sitting in on bass with Cracker or my flying out to Richmond, Va., to record "White Riot" with Cracker for a Clash tribute record. (CVB had always covered "White Riot" as a country-ish tune ... still do, in fact.) That must have been 1998 or so? At that point I was playing in Sparklehorse for a couple years and David actually joined us onstage to play "All Her Favorite Fruit" in L.A. at the Troubadour, and I think he might have thought that playing some of the old songs would be fun then. By 2000, Greg, Victor and I were joining Cracker during shows for an "Apothecary Show" sort of Camper/Cracker amalgam, with me or Victor (and band) opening the shows. Then we worked on making old material into new material and new material into old material in the studio, making "Camper Van Beethoven is Dead, Long Live Camper Van Beethoven" and the entire cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" album. These sort of paved the way for us to record together again.
Camper really "got back together" finally in 2002 in New York for a series of shows at the Knitting Factory. We went to a rehearsal studio and tried to play every song from every album in order. Some worked, some didn't. But we realized that we were still that band that played all those songs, no matter what happened in the time in between, and they were all still in muscle memory to some extent. Plus it was an intense realization on my part, that this band of players was how I learned how to play in a band to begin with, it was very "family." So we continued. And made a new album in 2004 finally, and have been playing shows ever since.
Q: When you returned to CVB and were learning Morgan's violin parts, did you ever think, "Hmm, would've done this differently...," and did you seek to tweak or change any of them? How has the catalog settled/evolved over the years?
Segel: Actually, that's not quite right. I played on demos of about half the tracks on "Key Lime Pie" initially, before leaving the band in 1989, and then in the studio they got Don Lax to play violin. He's sort of a madman gypsy violinist from Santa Cruz. It sounds to me like they recorded him improvising and cut and pasted a bunch (on 2-inch tape!). Morgan played on two tracks on that record, "Pictures of Matchstick Men" and "Flowers," both of which I would swear were me playing. (We had recorded "Matchstick Men" for [1988's] "Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart," but didn't finish it so that our first major-label single wouldn't be a cover.) But apparently, says Victor, Dennis Herring analyzed my effects chain and duplicated it, and she played my parts exactly.
When we play material from "KLP," I simply cannot play like Don Lax. He's a really incredible violinist. I'm sort of a hack, a guitarist who started playing violin. So I do have to tweak it and change it, and for some of the tracks, like "All Her Favorite Fruit," I go back to my demo ideas. But when we were going to put out [the 2008 best-of] "Popular Songs of Great Enduring Strength and Beauty," Virgin wouldn't let us use their recordings, so we had to re-record things to have versions of songs from "OBRS" and "KLP" that we could use for this package. Bruce Kaphan was producing these tracks, and his charter was to make them sound as exact as possible to the originals, which was technically very odd, of course. Imagine trying to track down working studio gear common to the late 1980s. I could easily play things from "OBRS" for the most part but, man, the "KLP" things were incredibly difficult for me, technically and psychologically. I felt like I was being forced to pretend that I was the very guy that stole my own girlfriend. It took me a long and difficult session to record these versions of "All Her Favorite Fruit" and "When I Win the Lottery."
Actually, now that I think about it, I have had to learn one of Morgan's parts, on a song called "L'Aguardiente," which is only on record as a live version from 1990, I think. It's technically tough for me also, as she's a real violinist, and I don't get it right every time in concert. I sort of have to do it any way I can. She came to a show we played in Sebastapol a couple years back, and I offered the violin to her to play it, but she didn't accept.
Q: Tell me about making "La Costa Perdida," and what identity has it carved out in the Camper catalog?(Bonus Q: Hey, no instrumentals?!)
Segel: "La Costa" was quite a while in the making, of course — what, seven years between albums? Eight? After working on "New Roman Times," we toured a lot and planned to make a new record by getting together and writing it together. But when we finally had more time to think about it, we were all at home in our different cities (David in Richmond, Frank in New York, Greg in Santa Cruz, Victor in San Francisco and me in Oakland). Then Cracker cranked up their machine again and made another record, and the rest of us worked at our various jobs and on our own records. Then while Cracker was touring very extensively, they actually wrote another record all together. So Cracker had two releases between the Camper ones. In fact, so did I and so did Victor!
Camper still did the same annual touring, mostly Christmas to Presidents' Day, and then August or September into our Camp-Out Festival near Joshua Tree, but it wasn't until late 2010 that Greg and David got together for a few days and actually began to carve out some ideas for the next CVB album. About six months later, we were scheduled to play at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, Calif., and it got rained out (in June!) and rescheduled for a week later, so we all went to my (now former) house in Oakland every day and sat in the living room and wrote songs together. We must have gotten down ideas for about 20 tracks. The ideas that Greg and David had from the previous winter became mutated, many new musical ideas added during the week, many background and situational ideas for the lyrical content came out of the Big Sur area and its history. We zeroed in on the California theme, taking some inspiration from the Beach Boys "Holland" record, which was all about Northern California and Big Sur. We actually went to the studio to cut some basic tracks later that month, and did the rest in the fall. We decided to hold back some tracks to make the album very NorCal-centric, while the remaining ones were tending to head toward SoCal and L.A. (Just wait for part two!)
The actual "Lost Coast" is north of Mendocino, a fairly wild, hippie, survivalist, inaccessible place, but we took its ideas and spread them along the central coast for the content — that mixed with a few stories from Sweden standing in for Oakland. No instrumentals, you're right, except "Aged in Wood," originally titled something like "Meanwhile, at the Love-In ..." — it's actually the same melody as used in "I Was Too High for the Love-In" but entirely transposed into a major key instead of a minor key. I think that both may have started as an instrumentals.
To sum it up, the record grew like a plant, with all of us as gardeners. It didn't take long to get it shaped up, really, it seemed to have its own life. Some of the recordings really show some maturity and musicianship growth on all of our part — after so long we actually know how to play pretty well these days, and the recordings contain some beautiful parts and arranging (if I do say so myself!) and some subtle beauty. I do try to work with the details of everything I record on to make it have enough to reward listeners the more they listen, and Camper has always mixed so that we can freak out that one kid sitting in the dark with headphones in Iowa when he discovers the ear candies.
Q: When [your latest solo album] "All Attractions" came out, I reeled to learn there had been a few solo titles since "Scissors and Paper." I felt like a fair-weather fan for not keeping up. But I suspect lots of fans experience music this way, running to stand still in the info stream. You're an artist and former label chief: What are the challenges today in keeping fans aware and informed of your output, and how do you meet them?
Segel: Man, I've all but given up at this point. It's really impossible to sell records at our individual level. We're lucky that Camper is as popular as it is in order to get a little word out about everything else we do. The thing is, I've also been a front-man or "solo artist" since 1989, but with no real label or agency. Victor and I started Magnetic [Records] in 1993 to make our own CDs. We shut it down finally in 2011, though "All Attractions/Apricot Jam" did really come out in 2012. Financially, I could barely afford to record a band and manufacture some CDs to say nothing of advertising or promotion. (Numbers have dropped precipitously for me in the last while: 1,000 CDs were made of "Scissors and Paper" in 2000, 1,000 of "Edgy Not Antsy" in 2003, then 400 of "Honey" in 2008 and 300 of "All Attractions" in 2012. All of them are gone now, either sold or trashed.) I actually hired the press/PR guy that Camper uses for promoting "All Attractions," but with my limited budget, I got a few nice reviews. I mean, you found out about it! And I think it's my best music so far! Magnetic was always just a boutique label to affix a barcode on our CDs. None of them really sold much, it was a hobby. The company never made money. But every new release was exciting and a new reason to keep going. I actually thought every time that certainly this time people would find out how great these records were!
I don't know what I'm going to do now, really. I don't think I can stop making music, of course, but it's very discouraging to me to continue to spend the time, effort and money for a few dozen people to hear it. I have a Bandcamp page attached to my website, where I have tons of music I've made, film scores, dance company music, all my solo albums, [the bands] Dent and Chaos Butterfly, some random other collections. Most of it is pay-what-you-will — that is to say: market value. That's no way to run a label or be a professional musician. Even with the exposure from Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, it's a small circle of friends. So the answer is, I don't know. I have never been able to "sell" myself, my music (or, in fact, anything), and the new market demands hucksterism. I think that's sad for those of us who aren't hucksters, and leaves the market filled with exposure for marketeers more than musicians. I can't imagine any of my favorite artists ever being able to sell themselves, and I'm glad that most have not had to. Those that were forced into retirement or obscurity for financial reasons have my sympathy, to say the least.
Sadly, this all reminds me of one of my favorite musicians ever, who died last week: Scott Miller. He was in a band at UC-Davis when I was in high school in Davis, and I'd been a fan of his ever since, through Game Theory and the Loud Family and beyond. He basically stopped recording, to the concern of many, many fans, about eight years ago, as he had no label or backing and no means to see any new songwriting through to a recording that reached people. He wrote music criticism only (Music: What Happened?) and though many people wanted him to play and record more, he never did. Suddenly he died at 53 years old, and now we'll never get more of his brilliance.
Q: Tell me about your work at Pandora. What did you learn from the "inside" that illuminated (or darkened) your perspective on music and new media services?
Segel: Well, f---. You know, in the end I was fired. I had been teaching music theory and "Desktop Musicianship" (i.e., computer music) at The College of Marin and Ohlone College, but after the 2008 wide-scale economic f--- up, the state let go of a lot of the part-time contracts in the arts. So I applied in "the private sector." I actually thought Pandora would recognize the potential goldmine of musical knowledge and experience I represented, but of course it's a company and you're not paid to think. I tend to agree with Damon Krukowski, in his article in Pitchfork: These companies are about money, and music is simply the fodder they use to make money. I know [Pandora co-founder] Tim Westergren talks big about "being a musician" and how artist-centric the company is, but I never saw that really play out so well for musicians. In fact, where the company had been comprised of many, many musicians at the beginning, there were very few by the IPO. Ultimately, the disciplinary problems I had were based in continuing to "question decisions that had already been made" by those hierarchically above me in the company, even when they were basically unethical, like accepting ads from homophobic hate groups like "Speak Up University" and "Minnesotans for Marriage." But you know, I can't shut up so they "let me go."
I have read numerous articles saying that the trend in music "business" is even downloads will go the way of the CD and we'll only be left with streaming services (paying that ~$0.002 per stream in royalties). No individual could make money on that. It seems that only those who own the rights to millions of songs could. Also, of course, the providers of bandwidth and devices to listen with will get your money. For Pandora and Spotify to become profitable will mean that they sell more advertising and pay less royalties. Who wants that? Well, Wall Street does. And who makes the laws that support these things? I don't think it's the musicians.
Q: You've written a bit about the new business models for musicians. We're always hearing about the freedom offered by new media, but from my post it seems like musicians have to work harder and make less money. Right or wrong?
Segel: As I mentioned with respect to selling music above, I have found it harder to sell music and, yes, we work incredibly hard in Camper Van Beethoven both at recording and touring, and make very little money. So yeah, maybe there are people who can cash in on the "new models," but I haven't met them. All the musicians I know have had more and more trouble putting out records or touring to try to make ends meet. I know many who have given up.
I think the market as such is very geared toward quick runs from young bands and nobody is expected to ever really become a musician, something that takes time and effort. There has always been a focus on youth in rock music, but now there's even more necessity for youth because kids are the only ones who can be jobless and can live in poverty and enjoy the brief success while staying on couches on tour and saving nothing. By the time someone's 40 or so, it's much tougher to continue doing that, and now I'll be 50 this year and I have a child. There's no way I can support our family. In fact to be quite honest I've only made a living as a professional musician for maybe three years of the past 30, the rest of the time I worked other jobs to pay the rent — until I couldn't.
But I think that it's unlikely that the current crop of popular bands will be around in five or 10 years, and the market will continue to cycle through people who will put up with it until they can't. All the indie bands will be young, and few will ever be able to develop their musicianship or talent. Camper has been extremely tenacious, and part of that has to do with all of our inability to give up making music, so we've actually become decent musicians. It would be nice to make a living, but until we can, we'll have to tour only on occasion and record when we can. The problem of course is that work is a vicious cycle, the more time you spend at work the less you can spend being a musician. It's like that Onion article: When you're working 40 (or more) hour weeks, it's tougher and tougher to make the energy to do anything after work as you get older. And of course, the irony is that you really only get better as an artist with time. But yeah, current culture has no use for better artists, they want better spectacle, more youth, next big thing.
Q: There was CVB last month at SXSW, schlepping through sets like any other up-and-comers. In Chicago, you're booked into a very bro-centric sports bar. Are you comfortable at this mid-/survival level of the business, and what have been the ultimate ambitions of CVB all these years?
Segel: As David put it, "There's no benefit to quitting." We play well, we entertain people, they seem to like it. If we can do it and break even, we benefit from the sheer enjoyment of the situation, and from getting better at what we do every time. SxSW is a particularly weird situation, it's like a big city where human life is a dime a dozen, and there everybody is a musician, so being a musician is worth even less. And it's sort of funny to play at these places where there are a zillion young bands to show off a little what it's like to be a grown up band who's been playing together for years. So who knows what ultimate good comes of our playing there, but it's usually an incredible chaos with some fun attached. I didn't get to see much besides Robyn Hitchcock this year, but in previous years I have been able to see a bunch of cool music!
Q: Your solo debut, "Storytelling," remains one of my top-five desert-island discs. I've rarely heard a better balance of really smart composition and successful improvisation. Can you talk a bit about how you maintain that tricky balance in projects like these and, I'm guessing, in Camper, too?
Segel: First off, thank you. This could be a very long answer, but I'll try to be succinct. I've always been heavily invested in both musical composition and improvisation, and the back-and-forth of these things. Improvisation is really just composing in real time. We may use many methods, like starting with a written riff or progression and improvising on it, or improvising from nothing and then choosing a good bit and "freezing" it into written form and then working on it. I mean, I think all composers do, we certainly know Bach and Beethoven did, and Charlie Parker and Miles and Ornette and Jimi and so on and so on. In Camper, we have a tendency to work the songs into a quintessential form and that remains, to a certain extent, the ideal — but then things slowly change. In the writing stages, we do a lot of improvising around certain ideas. I know that Greg likes to completely compose his parts during the recording sessions until they are "done" and then he will play that same recorded part in concert. I, on the other hand, rarely play the same thing twice, unless it's a complete written melody like in "Good Guys and Bad Guys" or "Chairman Mao Reminisces About His Days in Southern China" or similar. But take, for example, "You've Got to Roll" on "La Costa Perdida." In concert, we will mostly play the same thing as is the recorded version, but the quiet part of the breaks where I'm playing that bluesy Les Paul lead part, I can't even remember what I played on the recording, so I just improvise. I have the luxury of being able to improvise quite a bit, and I can get away with it in CVB, which I like. We used to have some time to do our version of Tusk or Interstellar Overdrive for an encore in Camper and that was some hella improv on all our parts!
When I was making "All Attractions," I had written the structural stuff for all the songs, and improvised a lot over it for the guitar leads and melodies and such, but when recording the last couple basic tracks, we had an afternoon free in the studio, so we improvised with no starting point more than the first note, Victor on bass, John Hanes on drums, Graham Connah on Hammond and me on guitar, and then I took those tracks home and made compositions out of the improvisations! That became the bonus disc, "Apricot Jam." After that, we only did a couple shows of the songs on "All Attractions", and the last few shows I've done have been entirely space-rock improvisation. It was easier than getting them together to rehearse, that's for sure.
Aside: You know, it occurs to me, as you mentioned missing the in-between of "Scissors and Paper" and "All Attractions," that my entire solo output is in pairs: "Storytelling" with the first Hieronymus Firebrain (self titled) CD, then the two HF "Here" and "There," then two Jack & Jill CDs (and two Dent cds), "Scissors and Paper" goes with "Edgy Not Antsy," and "Honey" with "All Attractions," both heavy electric guitar things. (I'm not counting the improv and electronic stuff like Chaos Butterfly.)
Q: I enjoyed your recent blog post about the bass guitar. What instrument have you not figured out yet that you'd like to?
Segel: Lap steel! (I'm still avoiding the banjo.)
CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN & CRACKER
• 9 p.m. May 10
• Cubby Bear, 1059 W. Addison
• Tickets: $15 advance, $17 door; (773) 327-1662; cubbybear.com
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
SXSW 2013 opens with names big and small
By Thomas Conner on March 13, 2013 9:00 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "It's like Comic Con, but without anything cool."
That early review of South by Southwest came from one of the multitude of hipsters strutting through the Austin Convention Center on Tuesday — the final day of SXSW Interactive and the first day of SXSW Music. This annual conference and festival in the Texas capital has grown into a 10-day event encompassing rollouts of films, digital ventures and new music. The movies and online jibber-jabber started March 8; the music blares on through March 17.
The relative coolness of what lies ahead remains to be seen, but it's already shaping up to be a typical mix of fresh-faced new bands — the showcasing of which was SXSW's original mission when it began in 1987 — and big-name celebs.
In the latter category, Depeche Mode, Green Day and Dave Grohl's Sound City Players (an assembly of Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Springfield, Rick Nielsen, Corey Taylor and many more) have booked big performances this week. Other formidable names — Iggy & the Stooges, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Vampire Weekend, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds — also are among the thousands of artists vying for attention from journalists, record labels and digital media.
The rumor mill, though, is buzzing about two other megastars: Prince and Justin Timberlake. Both taut pop-R&B legends have been floated as possible surprise showcases during SXSW. The Prince gig is just a rumor, with an unnamed source suggesting that His Purpleness will perform with a 22-piece band Saturday night at the cavernous La Zona Rosa club.
Timberlake — whose new album, "The 20/20 Experience," is out Tuesday (read my review) — is scheduled all week on TV's "Lat Night With Jimmy Fallon," but the Austinist site has pieced together clues toward JT's own possible Saturday night show.
Watch this blog for my own reports. My docket includes the big and the small, from seeing how Green Day emerges from their personal crisis to checking out up-and-comers like Foxygen and Lianne La Havas. I'll also be sniffing out the home-cooking that always pervades SXSW, from Chicago's Wild Belle and Chief Keef to the premiere of the blues documentary "Born in Chicago." Stay tuned!
SXSW: Long live Shoes, long live Camper Van Beethoven
By Thomas Conner on March 13, 2013 6:32 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Janice Greenberg actually teared up a bit at the Camper Van Beethoven show.
The 46-year-old mother of two from Sonoma County, Calif., stumbled into the Jr. club Wednesday afternoon, squinting from the bright-to-black transition and her jaw hanging down. The band was running through its well-known 1980s indie-rock standard, "Take the Skinheads Bowling" — but it was, Greenberg discovered to her considerable dismay, their last song.
"I had no idea that they ... are they even ... I didn't know they were here!" she said, close to a wail. "I love Camper!"
Camper eased onto the stage Wednesday afternoon and played a 10-song, career-spanning set that was plenty to justify their status as indie-rock grandfathers. What was extraordinary, though — and somehow I always forget this till I'm faced with it — was the skill of the five players. CVB's music can get complicated, not in a convoluted art-rock sense but in a self-taught virtuoso sense. While singer David Lowery wheezes and whines his weird, grumpy-ol'-stoner tales, you've got Jonathan Segel (elegant on violin, especially during "Sad Lover's Waltz," but also adding swooping third guitar to the new "Too High for the Love-In") and Greg Lisher (braiding melodies and countermelodies throughout like a pro). New songs like "Northern California Girls" — from the recently released new album, "La Costa Perdida" — were refreshing live, while old surprises like "Seven Languages" still packed a punch.
The best part, though, was when Greenberg got the good news: Camper's playing again two hours later, at 7 p.m. right next door at El Sol y La Luna, 600 E 6th St. I'd quote her reaction, but she was off like a shot to secure her spot.
Trusty ol' Shoes
Another legacy act inaugurated SXSW 2013 Wednesday afternoon with a show that was, at least historically, slightly more momentous. Beloved power-pop band Shoes — the lions of Zion, Ill. — played their first concert outside the Chicago area in 18 years.
Shoes, an occasional underground delight since appearing in 1975, reunited last year to record "Ignition," their first new album since 1994. Early Wednesday afternoon, at an annual showcase organized by Chicago native publicist Cary Baker (who shepherded the dB's into their comeback at the same place last year), singer-guitarists Jeff Murphy and Gary Klebe, brother John Murphy on bass and drummer John Richardson blasted through their own career-spanning set.
Shoes is one of those bands with a consistency that's more than a little frightening. I was bobbing my head through most of "Say It Like You Mean It" before I remembered it was one of the new ones.
No one at SXSW has just one gig anymore: Shoes' play again (their official showcase) at 11 p.m. Friday at Maggie Mae's Gibson Room, 512 Trinity St.
SXSW: 'Born in Chicago' explores '60s blues hand-off
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 1:33 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — A day after it was announced as a featured documentary at next month's annual Chicago International Movies & Music Festival, "Born in Chicago" had its world premiere here at SXSW on Wednesday afternoon.
The film, directed by John Anderson, chronicles the history and tall tales from the generation of young, affluent white kids who gathered in Chicago during the 1950s and '60s, learning to play the blues from the men who had honed the music on their own. Narration by Marshall Chess (son and nephew of the Chess Records founders) mixes into interviews with Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Nick Gravenites, Barry Goldberg (who co-produced the film) and excellent footage of the late Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield. On the other side are snatches of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, plus interviews with Sam Lay and the great Hubert Sumlin.
"Born in Chicago" makes Bloomfield, a wealthy Jewish guitar virtuoso (a fact he presents in a funny bit of old footage), appear something of a valiant crusader for crossing the mid-century racial divide, bearing his instrument. Goldberg relates a templated tale of him and Bloomfield venturing into the South Side one night to sit in with Howlin' Wolf — and the hush that came over the club when two white boys walked in. All that's missing is the record-scratching clip from the Dexter Lake Club in "Animal House."
The film's problematic thesis, though, seems to be that this particular appropriation wasn't like all the other black cultural exploitations by white musicians — because Muddy and Wolf and the gang were apparently so thrilled to be noticed, appreciated and revered by these upper-middle class dilettantes. Chess himself drives the point home about "these white kids treating 'em like stars," and Goldberg assures us that "people recognized the respect we had for their music." Musselwhite — himself the subject of a current generational rediscovery thanks to his recent collaboration with Ben Harper — insists, "These guys ... were so flattered we knew who they were." Just because the original bluesmen welcomed their exploiters, however, does not mean they weren't exploited.
Even Jack White mentions what a "shame" it is that it takes white people to "legitimize" something like this, apparently never stopping to consider that the music previously had been perfectly legitimate for black people. So only when white people — a bunch of Brits, no less, once the Stones showed up at Chess — stamp their approval does a music become 2 legit 2 quit? Same song, umpteenth verse.
Steve Miller probably sums up the reality of the situation better than anyone in the film: "Everybody talks about it like, oh, these white kids. We were competing with Howlin' Wolf for gigs. ... It was business."
Catch "Born in Chicago" at the CIMM fest in Chicago, April 18-21. Four-day passes are on sale now.
SXSW: Chicago's Wild Belle ready for summer
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 8:15 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — SXSW originally was created to showcase music that was new, fresh, creative. Wild Belle returned to the festival Wednesday night boasting all three.
The Chicago-area, brother-sister duo of Elliot and Natalie Bergman kicked off the Wednesday showcases with a packed house at the roomy upstairs Haven club, with lines of eager badge-holders and fans stretching in two directions down the block. Leaning heavily on their new album, "Isles" — released Tuesday on major label Columbia — the Bergmans and their band bounced effortlessly through their reggae-driven pop. It was music for the Austin weather: warm, breezy and revitalizing. That they performed a song about being "bundled up like chickadees" in Chicago seemed almost to taunt the folks back home.
Natalie is a Kittenish creature — capitalized because, while her vocals certainly purr, she sings with a throaty, Eartha Kitt allure. She performs with a sultry confidence belying the fact that "Isles" is the band's debut. Elliot, though, is crucial to the band's unique sound. Puttering about among keyboards, a baritone saxophone and various gizmos, like a thumb piano with an electric pickup attached, he looks like Lazlo Hollyfield and underpins the music with a similarly silent mad genius. Wild Belle's sound is relaxed, summery and always keeps just left of what one might expect them to go. One of those moments where you wish this wasn't a mere 40-minute SXSW showcase.
SXSW: The return of Dixie Chick Natalie Maines
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 8:39 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Really, no hoots and cheers when Natalie Maines, covering Pink Floyd's "Mother," sang the song's line about running for president?
Maines, the singer for country's Dixie Chicks, returned to the spotlight in a Wednesday night showcase at the Austin City Limits Live theater during SXSW. Once the flashpoint for debate after disparaging President George W. Bush (telling a London audience in 2003, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas"), the Lubbock native was back in Austin a decade later to unveil the new Natalie. Performing the entirety of her new album, "Mother" — her solo debut since the Dixie Chicks went on hiatus in 2007 — Maines appeared stolid and confident.
In fact, in the beginning the set lacked much energy at all, plodding through midtempo numbers without much fanfare or enthusiasm. The Pink Floyd cover — a dark choice, but played capably and arranged for arenas — is part of the reason this is being touted as a "rock" record, and eventually more of her trademark feistiness backed up that perspective. Politics are still foregrounded: "I put this on the album because it reminds me of the West Memphis Three," she said by way of introducing Dan Wilson's "Free Life." But then — backed as she was Ben Harper and his Innocent Criminals band (Harper co-produced Maines' new album) — she put down her own guitar and launched into Patty Griffin's "Silver Bell," unleashing a pent-up Belinda Carlisle kind of frenzy while rooted at the mike. Suddenly the near faux-hawk hairdo was making sense.
"Mother" is due May 7. Incidentally, as Maines pointed out, Patty Griffin also has a new album out the same day.
SXSW: Dave Grohl talks Chicago, inspires the aspiring
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 2:08 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Dave Grohl stepped to the podium Thursday morning to deliver the keynote address at SXSW 2013, rolled up his sleeves, tucked his hair behind his ears — and put on reading glasses.
The move spoke not only to rock's AARP eligibility but to the paternal tone of his address. Largely an autobiography of a lifetime spent pursuing some measure of independence in his music, Grohl's speech aimed not at the media and industry crowding the Austin Convention Center ballroom but at any indie-rock kids who might hear him.
"There is no right or wrong, there is only your voice," he dispensed. "It's your voice. Cherish it, respect it, challenge it ... Everyone's blessed with at least that."
In Austin to hype his new documentary, "Sound City: Real to Reel," Grohl barely mentioned it, largely trying to inspire with his speech rather than merely shill for his flick.
The Foo Fighters leader and former Nirvana drummer began his hourlong talk with the moment of his birth, but wrapped it up by stating hope that his own two daughters will find their own way in the world. His remarks retraced that wayfinding, beginning with a K-tel record. His sister bought it in 1975, and it contained Edgar Winter's instrumental "Frankenstein," which he proceeded to scat for the audience. Hearing the tune was a life-changing moment, he said, adding, "It was the riff. I gave it all up for a f---in' riff."
Much of his tale he has told before, including the other pivotal musical moments he experienced during summer family visits in the Chicago area. He described (somehow) getting into the Cubby Bear to hear local punk legends Naked Raygun ("The most ferocious noise! Bodies were flying everywhere ... piss and puke. I was in heaven!") and making the pilgrimage to Wax Trax! Records to begin stocking up on the requisite punk catalog.
Grohl demonstrated the crude multitracking technique he came up with as a teen. With one tape machine, he recorded a few bars of a guitar riff. He placed that tape into another player and played it back, while recording some drum beats on the body of his guitar. Voila — the new recording contained both sounds!
Grohl's rewind was full of life-changing moments — a political punk show in Washington, D.C., a single question ("Have you heard of Nirvana?"), the death of Kurt Cobain.
"When Kurt died, I was lost. I was numb. The music that I had devoted my life to had now betrayed me. I had no voice. I put away my drums. I turned off the radio. I couldn't bear to hear someone else singing about their own pain or happiness."
He re-emerged with a self-made album, which he labeled the Foo Fighters, which became — as once described by Pitchfork, a media outlet he disparaged midway through his speech — "his generation's answer to Tom Petty — a consistent hit machine pumping out working-class rock."
Grohl's talk about Grohl was a bit thin after recent SXSW keynotes — Bruce Springsteen's rousing music history lesson last year, Bob Geldof's still-poignant pleas for rock's social conscience in 2011 — but it contained nuggets of self-awareness and inspiration for aspiring contemporary musicians.
Repeating a mantra about finding one's individual voice, he confessed, "F--- guilty pleasure! How about just pleasure? ... I can truthfully say out loud that 'Gangnam Style' is one of my favorite f---ing songs of the past year."
Dave Grohl's Sound City Players is a temporary supergroup featuring Grohl, Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Nielsen and many more. They perform an anticipated showcase later tonight.
SXSW shows off Chicago hip-hop
By Thomas Conner March 15, 2013 9:26 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Late Thursday night, an official showcase of more Chicago rappers — including King Louie, Lil Durk, Lil Mouse, GLC, Katie Got Bandz — stocked the upstairs Club 119 in the shadow of the Texas capitol. MCs and DJs ringed the club's small stage, waiting to be tagged in like pro wrestlers. Vic Spencer worked the crowd, followed by the dynamic and engaging YP, who boasted of his East Side roots and led the crowd chanting the title of "Insane" (alas, no Rockie Fresh cameo). Chance the Rapper was here, too, working his own forceful rhythms despite the tempo of his soothing, soulful tracks. Chance dances like a boxer on stage, and his rhymes (even when not talking about "tabs of acid" in "Brain Cells") get pretty wild and surreal.
And lest you've fallen prey to the notion that all Chicago hip-hop is bleak and violent, Chance shouted with notable ferocity: "Make some noise if you love your mama!"
SXSW: Dave Grohl's Sound City Players rock long
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2013 10:08 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "It's gonna be a long f---in' night," Dave Grohl promised at the start of his Thursday set with his live musical collage, the Sound City Players. Then the supergroup — Grohl on bass with his Foo Fighters, led by omnipresent hard-rock maestro Alain Johannes — kicked off a song that found Johannes pleading, "I hope it won't be long."
Dave Grohl's Sound City Players are a hodge-podge of recognizable names spanning three generations, a promotional ploy for Grohl's new documentary ("Sound City: Real To Reel," about the legendary Los Angeles recording studio) and its accompanying soundtrack. The group features Grohl and his band with Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Springfield, Lee Ving (Fear), Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick), Brad Wilk (Rage Against the Machine), Corey Taylor (Slipknot, Stone Sour), Chris Goss (Masters of Reality), Johannes (Eleven, Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures) and bassist Krist Novoselic (Nirvana).
They've performed a handful of shows since early January in New York, Los Angeles and London. Grohl said at the beginning of Thursday's SXSW concert outdoors at Stubb's BBQ that this one would "probably" be their last. "So we're gonna make it extra long, extra special."
Long we got — close to three-and-a-half hours — and special, too. The result was a rollicking rock and roll revue. Springfield came on for "I've Done Everything for You" and, of course, "Jessie's Girl." Taylor and Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins sang Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" and "Surrender," with Grohl on drums and Nielsen on guitar. Fogerty closed the show with Creedence Clearwater Revival hits, including "Proud Mary," "Bad Moon Rising" and trading verses with Grohl on "Fortunate Son." Through it all, Grohl stayed on stage playing with everyone's mini-set (switching between guitar, bass and drums), beaming with obvious glee at having assembled this temporary clubhouse.
Grohl's first guest, however, was the most transformative. After half a dozen songs bashed out with Johannes, Nicks stepped to the mic and proved to be more than up to the task of leading a bashing hard rock band.
She and Grohl pointed at each other as they sang the chorus of "Stop Dragging My Heart Around" (see, Grohl is his generation's Tom Petty!), and Nicks performed Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" with the band and "Landslide" with Grohl alone on guitar. She sang excellent new song from the "Sound City" soundtrack, "You Can't Fix This" -- graceful and tuneful, with a leaning, weaving riff more akin to Waddy Wachtel than Lindsey Buckingham. Swinging her ribboned tambourine and wearing shades, Nicks was in great voice and moving with an ease I've not seen on stage in a long time, particularly when the band began a surreal, clanging opening séance to "Gold Dust Woman," as Nicks waved her scarf with her back to the audience and conjured her old witchy self. With the Foo Fighters cranked to 11, Nicks wailed and howled and raised the dead, holding her own with the muscled band all the way through the cacophonous conclusion.
Forget Grohl's "Sirvana" work with Paul McCartney -- let's have some Fleetwood Fighters!
(Since a couple of people have asked: According to Pee Wee Herman himself via Twitter, the photo on the bass drum head was of Pee Wee, David Lee Roth and Rodney Dangerfield.)
SXSW: Flaming Lips bring 'Yoshimi,' 'The Terror'
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2013 11:23 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "The new record is probably going to freak some people out," said Wayne Coyne. "It is, on purpose, not a hopeful record."
He's talking about "The Terror," the Flaming Lips' new nine-track album due in late April, and as he does it's easy for him to get a little heavy.
"There are things we have to face as human beings, truths we must explore," Coyne says. "'The Terror' is a certain kind of terror, an uncanny sort of break in nature or your own life. It's not an insane, monster terror. It's the terror of realizing that love isn't the magic bullet. We all wake up with dread of the unknown. It's not about fear of dying, but about the fact that we just don't know what's going to happen anywhere, anytime."
We were sitting in a makeshift green room, a tent in a parking garage behind the venue where the Flaming Lips would perform later Thursday night. Not that parking garage. During SXSW '97 nearly 2,000 people crammed into the second level of a downtown garage to hear Coyne's Car Radio Orchestra, an experiment involving 28 vehicles. Coyne gave each driver a pre-mixed cassette and instructed them to press play and blare the music on cue. Soon, soothing synthesizer parts were swelling from various auto systems, with surreal samples and female orgasm sounds. It was an experiment; one car blew a fuse.
"The cops nearly shut us down," Coyne recalled.
Thursday night the Flaming Lips played a more intimate showcase — no confetti, no costumes, thankfully no big plastic ball — performing the whole of their 2002 album "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots." The show was packed — so much so there was still a line down the block when it was over.
Friday night, though, they'll be unveiling the new music in a free show at the Auditorium Shores amphitheater here.
"We keep saying this is the most depressing but life-affirming music we've ever done," Coyne said.
Coyne is also in town this week to promote a film, "A Year in the Life of Wayne's Phone," which had its world premiere Wednesday night at SXSW. The film is a collage of clips Coyne shot with his iPhone.
"I didn't do this on purpose," Coyne said. "I take so many videos, and my computer guy is always having to empty them off my computer to make room. One day he said, 'We should a movie of these.'"
Since Coyne shot nearly all the videos in vertical portrait mode rather than the usual horizontal scale, the film features three clips lined up, each running simultaneously. The clips range from interviews, shots of friends (look for Yoko Ono and Rivers Cuomo!), cute animals, the USB skull and Coyne crowdsurfing. The viewer's attention is directed by bringing up the audio on a certain clip, but it's still a disorienting challenge to take it all in.
SXSW: Green Day roars back to life
By Thomas Conner March 16, 2013 11:31 am
AUSTIN, Texas — In the middle of “Stay the Night,” Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong paused at the microphone, stared at the crowd for a moment and sighed, “Ah, welcome back!”
A turnabout of words. No doubt he was happy to see us — a crowd not even close to capacity at the Austin City Limits Live theater, but certainly a welcoming one. This was Green Day’s return to action after Armstrong’s profane meltdown last September at a festival in Las Vegas, complete with tantrum and smashed guitar. Days later, the band announced Armstrong was seeking treatment for substance abuse and a slate of arena dates was postponed.
Friday night at SXSW, though, Armstrong couldn’t have looked more refreshed, reinvigorated and grateful.
After the welcoming comment, he let the crowd sing for moment while he sat on the edge of the drum riser, first gazing back at us with some measure of incredulity, then sitting for a spell with his head in his hands.
There’s a lot of that in a Green Day show nowadays — the poor band vamping, sometimes for quite a long time, while Armstrong wrangles the crowd. He’s a professional motivator, certainly, and obsessed with airborne limbs (“Get your hands up! This ain’t no caf, motherf—ers!”). Thankfully, the band — Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, drummer Tr Cool and their criminally unsung “fourth member,” guitarist Jason White — was plenty exciting without the constant demands for shouts, singalongs and waving arms.
In 24 songs over two hours, Green Day ripped through its catalog, reaching back to the early ’90s and slotting in some requisite newbies from this winter’s album trilogy (“Uno!,” “Dos!” and “Tr!”). The hit parade marched along — “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Jesus of Suburbia,” the excellent “Know Your Enemy” — including some songs that now wear an extra patina of irony, given Armstrong’s recent troubles, such as “Burnout” and “Basket Case.”
Only once did Armstrong allude to his recent woes. During “Stop When the Red Lights Flash,” he had directed the band and the audience into a quiet moment and crouched into the microphone to kick off a climactic explosion — but just before he could whisper to a scream, a roadie darted over and replaced the wireless mic right in front of Armstrong’s mouth. The singer barely missed a beat but couldn’t help chuckle a bit. “And I wasn’t even on drugs,” he quipped.
But while the on-stage comeback was encouraging, SXSW finds Green Day at a possibly crucial juncture. The band also debuted not one but two new documentaries during this festival: “Broadway Idiot,” about the transformation of the 2004 “American Idiot” album into a hit musical, and “Cuatro!” chronicling the making of the recent trilogy.
Each album in that trilogy is, with remarkable consistency, terrible. (I reviewed “Uno!” but couldn’t find the heart to kvetch further about the other two.) So here they are with projects that look backward and forward. If the way forward is merely “Cinco!” then even though the band played the ACL theater like an arena, it may want to prepare itself for such smaller venues. The stoked fire in their bellies on display Friday night either will spark their previously impressive creativity within such a rigid genre, or it simply will warm their evenings as a very entertaining legacy act at the casinos and cruises of the future.
Green Day reboots its postponed tour starting March 28 at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont.
SXSW: The rebirth of Detroit punk trio Death
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2013 12:21 PM
Black musicians did a lot of great things in Detroit in the '60s and '70s. Rock and roll — much less anything that would later be called punk — wasn't always one of them. At SXSW this year, though, a band was on display that defies that notion: Death, a fraternal trio and a rare group that can justly support the claim "best band you've never heard."
Death was born in the east Detroit home of the Hackney family. Brothers Dannis, Bobby and David, like so many boomer-era musicians, started playing in the early 1970s as the Rock Fire Funk Express. But after witnessing concerts by the Who and fellow Detroiter Alice Cooper, the brothers threw their lot with their city's other musical heroes, punk-rock icons like the MC5 and Iggy Pop. The Hackney brothers then began writing taut, propulsive rock 'n' roll — truly great stuff — which, until a slightly miraculous rediscovery a few years ago, was heard by practically no one.
The story of the band's derailed promise and eventual obscurity is told ably in a documentary screening at SXSW, "A Band Called Death." Blessed with a rich tale, director-producer Jeff Howlett basically leans back and lets the golden plot points unfold one after another.
Opening with gushing praise from the likes of Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra and — was that Elijah Wood?! — "A Band Called Death" charts the emergence of this family band and the, for the times, unusual shift from R&B to rock and roll.
"Then the Who came to town," Dannis Hackney says, pausing to emphasize some unspoken gravitas of that moment, "and when I saw Alice Cooper, all bets were off. I said, 'If we ain't playing this, then we ain't gonna be having no fun.'"
Singer David Hackney, however, sought to express through the band's new music his own complex cosmology, which included some positive notions about the rebirth and transformation potential in death. Thus, he insisted on the name.
That made Death pretty much dead on arrival.
The band's first producer in Detroit, former Stax musician Don Davis, recalls in the film telling the band: "Have you lost your mind? Nobody is going to buy a song from a group called D-E-A-T-H," spelling out what apparently was still an uncomfortable moniker.
The trio's music caught the ear of hitmaker Clive Davis, who was ready to sign the band to Arista — as long as they changed the name. David refused to budge, insisting (with definitely punkish integrity) that the sacrifice would be a slippery slope. Bobby Hackney, in an earlier interview, recalled, "He said, 'If they make us change our name, then every little thing they see in us they're gonna wanna change — the music, the style, the concept. Once we change that name, we belong to them. Once we give in to that, Death is, well, dead.'"
Credibility intact, Death still died. They did, however, manage to secure the master recordings of what was to be the debut Death album. Attempts to release songs independently failed, and the brothers relocated to Vermont and formed a reggae band. David Hackney died in 2000, after insisting that his brothers hold on to those masters, saying, "One day the world's gonna come looking for this."
Amazingly, that's exactly what happened.
Biafra, a rabid record collector, bought a box of singles several years ago: Death's lone indie 45, "Politicians in My Eyes." He mentioned it in an interview. The writer posted the single online as an mp3. Word began spreading of its awesomeness.
Then the rediscovery came full circle. Bobby Hackney Jr. — clearly still dazed and amazed by this as he relates the story in the film — hears the song, likes it, and has no idea it's his dad until he goes as far as to Google some background. He calls home: "Dad, why didn't you tell me??!!"
This is 2008, and the following year momentum has built enough that Chicago-based label Drag City assists the Hackney brothers in restoring those old masters and finally releasing the debut Death album, titled "...For All the World to See." Another compilation of early demos followed.
This week at SXSW, in addition to the documentary screenings, two bands played showcases: Death, featuring surviving brothers Dannis and Bobby with two extra players, and Rough Francis, a deadly new generation featuring Bobby Hackney Jr., Julian Hackney and Urian Hackney.
Even better: Death will live again on a new record, titled "Relief," in the works now.
SXSW: Justin Timberlake, Prince, Smashing Pumpkins
By Thomas Conner March 17, 2013 9:06 am
The final night of SXSW featured two big legacy acts. OK, from a Chicago perspective it was three.
Justin Timberlake, making good on rumors, blew into town after a week on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” to play an intimate club gig. Here’s a star who will fill Chicago’s Soldier Field this summer, but here in Austin he played the 800-capacity Coppertank Events Center.
(Mind you, this show was only partly about music. Timberlake, now a beer spokesman, was here to promote the newly renovated MySpace web site, of which he’s a major investor, in a concert sponsored by Chevrolet.) Timberlake, backed by a 16-piece band, played for an hour. This writer did not gain admission — I just reviewed his record, and we’ll have plenty of chances to discuss JT further all year long — but there are good reviews here, here and here.
Across town, Prince played the larger club La Zona Rosa, leading a 22-piece band and performing more covers than his own songs. The nearly three-hour show — in which Prince never played guitar (fail) — did bring something to SXSW that is often hard to find: lots of R&B and funk.
"They called our people and said they wanted some funk in Austin,” said Prince, before belting out the last bars of a gentle rendition of “Purple Rain.” At least this show sounds like it was better than his previous Chicago fiascoes.
You won’t see a lot of photos from the Prince show online today, however. Notoriously prickly about photos at his shows, Prince banned all cameras. Even simply using a cell phone got some fans tossed — a biting irony, given that the concert was thrown by Samsung Galaxy and promoters worked the crowd beforehand offering customers fresh phone batteries or device test-drives. But intrepid Chicago photographer Michael Jackson (yup, his real name), shooting for the Sun-Times, landed the image above.
In other news: Today is Billy Corgan’s birthday — happy 46th! — an occasion the Chicago rocker rang in at midnight on stage at SXSW. The Smashing Pumpkins, still busy and ahead of a new world tour, played a set mixed with hits (“Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Tonight, Tonight”) and newer songs from the excellent “Oceania” album, even a cover of Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Review here, or see the detailed run-down on the Twitter feed from Hipsters United.
SXSW: Wanderings, discoveries, random notes
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2013 12:00 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — If it's Sunday, that means my notes are full of jottings about a dozen other bands I saw and haven't written about yet in the mad rush that is SXSW. Deep breath, here's a wrap-up of the other tunes worth mentioning ...
Best brand-spanking-new band
CHVRCHES, barely a year old, impressed with a strong batch of electronic pop at several showcases, including a Friday day stage. The Scottish trio's debut album isn't due until September, but singer-synth players Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty bear all the hallmarks of a forceful, creative unit with a single mind — perhaps the meaning of the beautiful current single, "The Mother We Share." Their newness is evident in the fact that they still have a ways to go before making their knob-twiddling something to watch on stage, but the songs are there. I haven't heard synth-driven pop this tight and tuneful since Robyn showed up.
Most hopeful feeling at end of showcase
No one really seems to have demanded this reunion of Chicago's Fall Out Boy, but the band's Friday night showcase — back at SXSW after eight years — at least showed off enough energy and chutzpah to suggest that the comeback is genuinely inspired. Their fans certainly remain adoring, singing along with practically every word that fell from singer Patrick Stump's lips, maybe even his stage banter. The 45-minute slot kept to singles old ("Sugar, We're Going Down," "Dance, Dance") and new ("My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark [Light 'Em Up]"). Stump flexed his own R&B muscles in a recent solo outing, and the new FOB is highlighting that strength. Even the cover of "Beat It" sounded more sincere and natural than one might expect. Definitely whetted the appetite for the new record.
Best stumbled-upon showcase
Field Report, a band led by Christopher Porterfield. Two bits of trivia: First, Field Report is an anagram of Porterfield. Second, Porterfield started out a decade ago in DeYarmond Edison, the band Justin Vernon fronted before creating Bon Iver. On his own, Porterfield is much warmer and far rootsier. At a Saturday SXSW showcase, his six-man band — plenty of plaid shirts and trucker hats, neither of which seemed to be worn with much hipster irony — delivers supple, textural Americana that fit right in with the venue's sponsorship by a home-improvement cable channel (as if his music was in itself an answer to the advertising banners hung around the bar, asking, "What does home mean to you?"). Singing well-written songs about New Mexico and a "bible school choir," Porterfield guided the band up and down various crescendos to achieve maximum emotional impact, all the while maintaining an appropriately pensive expression. "Is everyone drinking enough water?" he asked between songs. Bassist Travis Whitty chided him: "Concerned dad up here." Aw shucks.
Best return on investment in buzz
New York quartet Parquet Courts entered the festival with considerable, though understandably hesitant, buzz. The band's proper debut album, "Light Up Gold," out in January, is a complex chart of steady rhythms, snaking words and clean but often jarring guitars. It's not an album that immediately broadcasts "great stage show!" On stage Saturday night, the band lazed into action, blurring the line between hasty SXSW sound check and actual opening song. Driven by the rhythm section — featuring bassist Sean Yeaton, who spends the show contributing occasional backing vocals with hilariously distended tongue, like a punk Loudon Wainwright III — guitarists Andrew Savage and Austin Brown were free to work at their own pace and inspiration, pulsing their instruments to propel the song or torturing them a bit. The momentum of the Strokes, the late-night "Stoned and Starving" haze of the Dandy Warhols, plus occasional Sonic Youth squall. Adds up to a good time.
Best personal thrill with very little note-taking
A longtime Robyn Hitchcock fan, I wasn't going to miss perennial SXSW performer Robyn Hitchcock's early Saturday show, particularly since it was celebrating his 60th birthday (complete with tarantula-topped cake and red wine, which Hitchcock referred to as "lady petrol"). The British legend was supported by a number of pals — Ken Stringfellow (Posies), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5), Bill Rieflin (R.E.M., Ministry, tons), Linda Pitmon (Steve Wynn) — and for a moment, with Kelly Hogan on stage and Jon Langford in the wings, it seemed the band might turn into Robyn Hitchcock & the Chicagoans. Langford never materialized on stage with Hitchcock, though. Nor did R.E.M.'s Mike Mills (grinning, looking more content than I've seen him in years), who was at the bar and had played bass behind Stringfellow as the opening act. Nonetheless, Hitchcock told his usual bizarre stories and sang an impressively wide variety of songs — newish ones (the beautiful "Dismal City"), old ones ("Queen Elvis," "Ole Tarantula," "Alright, Yeah") and covers ("Tangled Up in Blue," "Don't Let Me Down") — as well as rapping a bit about the new pope.
Best delayed reaction
Lord Huron was highly recommended to me by friends at last year's SXSW, but I missed their showcase at a cramped little club. Fast forward one year and on Wednesday night they were filling the spacious ACL Live theater, ahead of Natalie Maines' comeback set, with some enchanting folksy harmonies and rhythms. Those harmonies have earned them far too many Fleet Foxes comparisons — and they're sometimes a bit thinner and wispier than that — but when those rhythms crank up they come alive. "Time to Run" does just that, and every band member is armed with some percussion instrument — a shaker, maracas, singer and bandleader Ben Schneider with a small snare. Good tunes when they get up and go.
Best hangover showcase
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell played NPR's Radio Day Stage inside the Austin Convention Center. It was Friday morning, and the soft-spoken angel that is Emmylou strolled out in her boots — cue the Janis Ian song — and quipped that everyone here deserved a merit badge just for navigating through the festival. She meant the confusion and enormity of SXSW, but when she and Crowell played Kris Kristopherson's "Chase the Feeling" ("And you got loaded again / Ain't you handsome when you're high") many vacant-eyed attendees were nodding with understanding, not rhythm.
Worst showcase logistics
Foxygen was due to play a half hour set Wednesday night at the Hype Hotel, which they started a half hour late. (Out of all the shows I saw this week, two started on time. That's my main complaint about SXSW's rampant growth. They're starting to lose control of their production.) Foxygen is a great, brassy band that sounds superb on their latest record, "We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic," but that interesting sound was completely swallowed up in the ramshackle venue that was the Hype Hotel, an empty commercial cavern hemmed in with sound-eating drywall that appeared to have been nailed up this month. Bummer.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Tea Leaf Green is a band of San Francisco prog-rockers — wait, come back, it's not quite that bad — who've been steeping for more than a decade in a blend of jam-band ramble-craft and breezy pop melody. They've also consistently upped their game from album to album, shed show to shed show. As jam bands go, they're one of the ones you want to see.
In 2007, the band swapped bassists and picked a winner. Reed Mathis (far right in the photo above) had cut himself loose from the renowned Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey over some creative differences, and he wound up jamming with TLG at a Colorado festival. Some support gigs turned into a job, and by the last TLG album, "Radio Tragedy!," Mathis was well-integrated and contributing beautiful folk ballads like "My Oklahoma Home."
I welcome any opportunity to go on about Mathis, because I've never seen him play when he didn't completely jelly my brain. He's a bassist, but he's not a bass player. He doesn't merely keep the groove locked in. He's a wild, free-form, thick-stringed guitar player, equal parts Stravinsky and Hendrix. And a helluva nice guy, to boot.
Just a snatch from a recent conversation — Mathis on the phone this week as the band headed toward Chicago — about keeping his jazz roots, FOMO and the spiritual path of improvisation:
Q: Did you think about a post-Jacob Fred solo career?
Mathis: Not really, because for me the most important thing is to be part of a musical collective, like a gang. I don't want to be a sideman or an accompanist, which the bassist is usually expected to be. I want to be free to play my instrument exactly as I am in the moment at all times. Which is selfish, but that's OK. TLG is a safe place to improvise. They don't expect anything from the bass, nothing specific. They also don't expect me to play a song the same way twice. They love surprises, which is the cornerstone of my playing.
Q: Are you jam or jazz?
Mathis: A lot of the old Fred fans haven't checked out TLG. They think that's what's happened to me, that I'm in some mediocre jam band playing white boy funk in the back. People say, "Do you miss playing jazz?" The answer is I still am. Every note I play is jazz.
Q: Where does improv fit into our very neat and archived digital world?
Mathis: Improv is not that popular a concept, really — even in the "jam band" world. A lot of my friends adore Phish. They go see a Phish concert and they'll be like, "They played that song wrong" or "They messed up that song." I'm like, no, they didn't. They did something new with that song. Everyone claims to like improv, but it really bothers us. In actual practice, it's scary. People want to feel like they're in control or in the know — that's the huge thing for music fans. One writer called it the hipster echo-chamber, writing about Alabama Shakes, saying everyone's in this rush to be hip and into the new hip sh— and nobody wants to feel like they don't know what's happening. That has real power because that's the reality of our day-to-day life, moment to moment. We'll never have control over our lives, and that's why improv has power. It's surrendering to a lack of control. To me, it's a spiritual duty to face that on a nightly basis. Civilization itself has been a trend of getting further and further from this primal fear, and improv flips that over and gives it the finger. The only time people surrender to that lack of control is when they're in love. Improv is just falling in love over and over, night after night.
Tea Leaf Green has a new album, "In the Wake," due May 14.
TEA LEAF GREEN
with Tumbleweed Wanderers
• 9 p.m. Feb. 23
• Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $17 advance, $20 door; (773) 525-2508; lincolnhallchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Harry 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."
Belafonte's legacy as an entertainer, though, is not easy to overshadow. "Calypso," the '56 record that launched an American craze for its namesake music, was the first U.S. LP to sell a million copies. His career since has been intertwined with other pillars of music (his 1962 "Midnight Special" album contains the first-ever recording of a young harmonica player named Bob Dylan) and politics (he campaigned for and worked with President Kennedy).
Belafonte also maintained a relationship with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. — a friendship that began in 1950 and which Belafonte says transformed his life — and he's spending January traveling the country to speak about it.
His free keynote address at 6 p.m. Jan. 28 at Northwestern University's Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Dr. on the campus in Evanston, concludes two weeks of events at the university celebrating King's life and legacy. NU recently made Martin Luther King Day an official university holiday; Jan. 21 was its first.
Last week, Belafonte spoke with the Sun-Times about his activism, his music and his fond memories of King.
Q: You're speaking about Dr. King at a number of universities and events this month. How did this tour come about now?
Belafonte: For the last many years, each time Dr. King's birthday comes up or the anniversary of his death, there's always a call by institutions and individuals to speak on the subject. Depending on the state of the union, I go and I speak and make commentary on what he might have observed and said if he'd been around today.
Q: That's a tall order, speculating on the observations of someone who's not around. How do you go about it?
Belafonte: What I find satisfying about the process is the getting into a social discourse on the state of our being universally. When you speak on what Dr. King might have said, it gives you a lot of latitude of putting propositions out of your own voice and opinion. It may carry a response that would be challenging to your point of view, but if you say it in the name of what Dr. King might have said people pause a little longer before giving you a rebuttal because they respect what he said and what he did. It has a little more nuance than if you say something yourself, and under that umbrella you can make a lot of observations about the social condition and bring up a lot of things for discussion.
Q: Where has King's legacy succeeded?
Belafonte: The real beauty and power of what the [Civil Rights] movement achieved — when you look back at the cunning and brutality and smarts and resources poured into trying to roll back the clock and end affirmative action and women's rights and so many things — is that the opposition has miserably failed. Including trying to stop Obama getting re-elected. There's the real tribute to what King achieved. Not from what we've taken but in stopping the opposition from defeating it.
Q: King is such a mythic figure. Tell me something sensory, something human about him.
Belafonte: What endeared him to me was the way in which he wrenched over the decisions he had to make. To watch him unable to sleep, develop all kinds of psychological disorders. He had a tic that plagued him constantly. It wasn't a stutter. It was a nervous disorder that gave him kind of a — he couldn't complete a sentence without a gasp for air. One day he seemed to no longer have that affliction.
Q: What happened?
Belafonte: I hosted the Johnny Carson show in February 1968 for a week. ... Dr. King was a guest, and he showed up late, turned up just as we'd gone on the air. He came on, and I asked him what happened. He said he'd gotten here and told the cab driver to hurry to the studio. He said, 'This guy took me on a Wild West ride.' He's saying this to the audience, 'I had to hang on for dear life, and when he stopped for a light I said, "Young man, I'd rather be considered a Martin Luther King late than the late Martin Luther King. Slow down." I said, 'On that subject, what do you think about death.' He gave an answer that's since been used a thousand times in looking back on his legacy. But I said, 'What happened to the tic?' I didn't say it on the air. He said, 'I made my peace with death.' It was a subliminal display of a tremendous anxiety, not so much about death as it affected him but when he made a decision his first consideration was that there could be violence and someone could lose their life, and I've led people into this conflict and do I have this right? [King was assassinated weeks later, April 4, 1968.]
Q: The last time I heard "Day O" it was a sample in Lil Wayne's "6 Foot, 7 Foot." What's your opinion of your catalog getting sampled?
Belafonte: I love it. I'm not a protectionist. I was talking to [blues legend] Brownie McGhee once about purism in folk music. He said all songs are folk songs. He said, 'Harry, the first song ever sung by a human being was "Ugh."' You know, the Neanderthals around the campfire trying to keep warm, and everything since 'Ugh' has been a distortion of that. Anybody can take my song. They can glady have it, because it was never my song.
Q: Right, your version was based on several that came before.
Belafonte: "Day-O" has a long history. Who knows where it came from. By the time it came to me it was full-blown. I had a happy time singing it.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
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.”
Reasons are mixed. There’s animosity, certainly; Smiths bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce took Morrissey and Marr to court in the ’90s over royalties. Morrissey and Marr, by both accounts, haven’t spoken in years, though neither can state a particular reason.
Marr aided in remastering the Smiths catalog for a box set, “Complete” (2011), without input from the other members. Just this month, Marr announced a new solo album, “The Messenger,” his proper solo debut after years of working with other artists and recording in various guises. He’ll be launching a tour in March the same week Morrissey’s current leg wraps up.
Morrissey, 53, meanwhile, tours successfully without an album to support. He says the follow-up to “Years of Refusal” (2009) is recorded, but once again he’s without a record label to distribute it.
His return to Chicago makes good after last fall’s cancellation of a string of shows (including Oct. 27 here) in order to return to England to care for his ailing mother. Days before that announcement, Morrissey answered our questions via email — the only way he’ll consent to most interviews nowadays, after years of claiming to be misquoted — about his pending memoir, American politics, the endless Smiths reunion queries and his years of refusal.
Q: What is the status of the new album? You always seem to be shopping for labels; why not release it yourself?
Morrissey: I’m not very bright when it comes to business. Or anything else, come to think of it.
Q: Your set lists draw from many albums, many eras. What older songs have you reconsidered performing (or altered) as the years have passed?
Morrissey: The difficulty is that there are many songs, and I like almost all of them. The era is immaterial, but the earlier songs are more parochial. It never occurred to me that anyone outside of Manchester would like them, or even listen to them.
Q: During your interview last fall on “The Colbert Report,” it seemed as if Stephen Colbert genuinely startled you at least for an instant when he looked toward the wings and joked, “Please welcome, Johnny Marr …” If it had not been a gag, and Johnny had strolled onstage, what would have transpired?
Morrissey: It was a slight look of exhaustion that people still persist with the question. Consider how the musicians I work with now feel. They work hard and we constantly tour all over the world, and it’s always fantastic, yet they are never mentioned anywhere and must persistently put up with Smiths re-formation questions. The Smiths almost left me on a mortuary slab. Is that something anyone should attempt to survive twice? Never mind re-formations: Will I ever get credit for surviving the Smiths? Twenty-five years on, the Chicago show sells out very quickly. Does this mean absolutely nothing?
Q: I, for one, am a Smiths fan that wholly supports your conviction not to reunite the band. Not that I wouldn’t melt down if it were to occur, but I’ve seen so many reunions burst the bubble of a band’s treasured legacy. Explain your reasons for keeping the offers at bay.
Morrissey: Money is the wrong reason to re-form because it immediately puts you at the mercy of those who gave you the cash, and you must do as they demand in order to get the cash back for them. I’d honor any band who re-formed and quietly recorded and got on with being together and enjoying that experience away from the splash of print media. It never happens. Bands reform, announce stadium tours, announce sponsorship and merchandising deals, and then they rehearse together. Ugh.
Q: That being said, you recently told the Village Voice, about the making of “Viva Hate”: “I didn’t want to be a solo artist.” When did you begin to enjoy working solo, and what caused the turnaround?
Morrissey: I didn’t enjoy being solo until “Your Arsenal” (1992), but the best period has been “You are the Quarry” (2004) to date. Previously to then, I was far too hard on myself and I thought I’d be punished by God if I ever enjoyed it.
Q: When you set out reluctantly on that solo path, did you think you’d still be touring (and interviewing) in the 21st century? If not, what other possible futures crossed your mind?
Morrissey: I couldn’t imagine any solo future whatsoever. When the first single (“Suedehead”) entered at No. 6, I was shaken. That was back when No. 6 required 75,000 sales. Now, you can get to No. 1 with 16,000 sales.
Q: Last I heard, you were trying to edit down the memoir. What’s the retrospection been like for you?
Morrissey: It’s all very cleansing. The difficulty is not getting bored with the central character.
Q: You’ve again been touring America during our presidential campaign season. You dislike the royals, I know, but what’s your opinion of our election mania? Any advice/opinions this time around?
Morrissey: I think the fact that the two candidates are neck and neck in most polls reflects badly on Obama. He’s had four years to woo everyone, so he’s obviously not been that convincing. If the Republican candidate were more likeable than Romney I believe they’d storm the gates. Obama loves to talk. To talk and smile, and then to smile and talk.
Q: You promoted the Smoking Popes years ago (a Chicago band — reunited and active again, by the way). What young upstarts are you championing these days?
Morrissey: None. They all turn around and bite you.
Q: You’ve been through Chicago many times. Is it merely another date on the schedule, or have you been able to connect to the city in any way? A favorite bookstore, a favorite view, a dear acquaintance …?
Morrissey: A dear acquaintance … how funny.
with Kristeen Young
8 p.m. Jan. 26
The Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
Tickets: $39.50-$79.50; (800) 745-3000; thechicagotheatre.com
UPDATE: Morrissey has postponed his Chicago concert yet again. Watch for details here.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
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.
Beck 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.
Funky pop trio Mos Scocious hugged a wall at the Tonic Room, 2447 N. Halsted, amended by keyboardist Ben Joseph and two horn players (Doug Daniels on sax, Jerry Mohlman on trumpet), and acted as the backing band with a rotating cast of singers tackling the material — most of them darting eyes toward the oddity in the room: a music stand.
The Mos Scocious guys frequent the Tonic Room and aren’t necessarily strangers to printed charts. Guitarist-singer Bradley Butterworth, bassist Josh Rosen, drummer Rob Dicke — met in Columbia College’s Jazz Performance classes, and Dicke continues studying in DePaul’s jazz program.
“The notes and ideas [in Song Reader] are very basic,” Butterworth said. “It’s like he gives you half a blank canvas, so the songs can really become your own. We’ve certainly done a lot to these songs that isn’t on the page.”
Michelle Hallman, for instance, opened “Rough on Rats” in tender a cappella before kicking the song into roadhouse overdrive and smacking it with her bluesy belt. She later roared through “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard” — and rapped one verse.
“It’s not in the music that way,” Hallman told me Thursday night. “It’s just my homage to Beck.”
In the sheet music itself, the notations for “Mutilation Rag” describe the piano instrumental as “a struggle between the right and left hand.” Joseph braved it and nailed it — keeping the staggering, “Piano Has Been Drinking” melody upright before expertly mashing the keys and declaring victory.
Singer Maggie Kubley of the Embraceables (featured in the above video) ignited the evening with a slow burn into “Last Night You Were a Dream,” bringing palpable dynamics to the song’s morning-after disillusionment. Kubley was slumming here, opening and closing the set with impressive pipes and the kind of direct emotion you don’t expect when popping into a college-’hood dive.
Three-part harmonies filled the folksy “The Wolf Is on the Hill,” lead by singer John Cicora, who then turned “Do We? We Do” into a stomping voodoo groove, complete with a jowl-shaking Screamin’ Jay Hawkins impression.
“It’s like going back to the days when you had to buy sheet music in order to hear music,” Butterworth said. “You had to be involved, take the initiative. You had to do this” — and here he gestured at the bar, full of 60-70 people. “You had to get people together.”
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
My first post-Oasis earful came last year from Liam Gallagher as he toured Beady Eye, a band comprised of three-fourths of Oasis minus singer Liam's guitarist brother Noel.
After 18 years together in Oasis, the Gallagher brothers had topped the charts ("Wonderwall," "Champagne Supernova") and altered the course of rock and roll. But they were 18 contentious years. The Gallaghers fought constantly, and at the Rock en Seine festival in Paris in 2009 another backstage dust-up turned out to be their last. Noel stormed out. Oasis was over.
Inevitable solo projects followed. Liam and the others came and went as Beady Eye. "We're not lacking anything," he assured me. (Except a hit.)
Noel, now 45, stalled a while, then produced a solo album and now a lengthy tour under the moniker Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds. The latter debut went platinum in England but hasn't fared as well in the States.
Which may explain why Noel — once one of the biggest rock stars in the world — this weekend not only shares a double bill with the middling band Snow Patrol but shares it at a casino out in Chicago's hinterlands.
The second earful — much funnier, by the way — came from Noel a few weeks ago. Adding to our conversation, a curious headline had appeared days earlier in the British music mag NME: "Liam Gallagher 'would reform Oasis tomorrow.'" The article claimed everybody wanted the reunion and only Noel stood in its way.
Judging by Noel's quip-tastic banter — which ranged from caring to not caring, from reuniting and not reuniting, even from Morrissey to Mitt Romney — fans shouldn't hold their breath.
Question: How is touring now different from touring with the Oasis juggernaut? A relief in some way, I'm guessing?
Noel Gallagher: Well, it's way, way, way more fulfilling and enjoyable than touring with Oasis. Oasis was all about the struggle and whether we'd do the show and whether the singer was going to turn up. In another way, though, this is harder for me personally because I've got to carry it all. I've got to bang on it from 9 every night. ... But the money's still good. Basically, that's what it really all boils down to.
Q: You were the guitarist in Oasis, not often up front at the mike. What have you learned about becoming a front man?
NG: You know the [Maroon 5] song "Moves Like Jagger"? I don't have them. I have moves like Wyman. I didn't know what to expect when I first stepped up front. I thought, well, this'll be weird for people. I haven't really learned anything, but it's reinforced my belief that what I always thought is true: It's all about the songs. The songs are the show. Groups are about the razzmatazz, but when you go see a solo artist like Neil Young or Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney or Bowie or me, you know, you're there to hear the songs. If you do that, that's it. Unless, you know, you're Madonna or Lady Gaga, but who gives a f—- about that? You don't go to see Neil Young dance.
Q: Now that you've put that in mind, I'd really like to see Neil Young dance.
NG: [Laughs] Nah. He's crap on his feet.
Q: After your experience in Oasis, how did you go about selecting players for High Flying Birds?
NG: I didn't put a band together at first. The record is all me. Next time, I'd like the band to play on the record. But my criteria were two things: You've gotta be on time, and don't be a f—-ing smart ass. That's it. Obviously, you've got to be able to play. But don't be a dick, and don't keep me waiting.
Q: I've heard you talk about Oasis naturally falling into what you call "the trap of stadium rock." Why is that inevitable at a certain level?
NG: You get to the point of selling out stadiums, and that's how your success is measured, subconsciously by you and everybody else. So you want to stay there, you know what I mean? People come to see you in stadiums, they want stadium rock. There's nowhere left for you to go. So you're expected to try and keep that going. It's f—-ing amazing, amazing, but don't tell me the next Green Day album sounds different than the last three, not that anybody gives a f—-. It was the same with Oasis. You start a rock band and the goal is to play stadiums. You get there, and you're stuck there. Any movement from that point is considered a failure. You don't get to say, "We need to f—- this off and go back to playing clubs," because you just can't. It's a trap — an enjoyable one, but it puts an unnecessary ceiling on creativity.
Q: I interviewed Liam last year, and I asked him what the backstage fight in 2009 was about. He said, "You'd have to ask Noel." So I'm asking: what was it about?
NG: Let's see if I can recall. He'd not turned up for the previous gig, [the V Festival] in England. He caught a lot of flak in the press over it — we all did, but he got most of it. He's a little bit like Hitler, Liam. Hitler thought there was a world conspiracy against the Germans, and Liam thinks there's a world conspiracy against him, perpetrated by me through the press.
Q: But you and Liam fought all the time. What made that fight the clincher for the band?
NG: It was just the straw that broke the camel's back. What makes an alcoholic give up drink after years of drinking? Going to the festival site that day, I had no intention of leaving the group. I was thinking about the next Oasis record. But after that, you know, I said f—- this. I didn't particularly want to go solo. But I just said f—- it. That's it, f—- it. A healthy dose of f—- it every now and then is good. It forces you into things you maybe should have done in the first place. Was it that bad? No. Had there been worse fights? Yeah.
Q: Have there been any moments of regret?
NG: No, and I don't mean that in a callous way. But, no. There was a huge fracas in the dressing room, sh— was smashed up. I went and sat in my car outside. The driver had the engine running. A big scene was going on inside. I sat there for what must have been a minute or two, but it felt like a lifetime. In that space of time, everything that had happened and was going to happen was flashing before my eyes. I made the decision. If I told the driver to drive, then it was finished. All the people in the field will go on. It'll cost us millions. Or I could sit here, calm down, and do the gig. It'll be f—-ing awful. Again, I thought, f—- it, and I said, "Drive." Once I'd said it, at no point did I have any regrets. I didn't leave to go solo. I didn't leave for anything other than to be happy. I made a record, got married, got a cat, had a baby. Now here I am three years later, and I really don't think about it at all. I don't think about what I'm doing now in relation to Oasis. I don't think that was great and this is sh—. I'm just doing it, playing for people who paid to come and see me. It's great.
Q: You may not think about it, but Liam might. You saw the NME story this week?
NG: Yeah, well, unfortunately in the two years after I left the band, everyone else's tune was very different. They were quite bullish about it. All the people in Beady Eye were saying, "Oasis ran its course, we're glad we're out of it, we're more creative now." OK, fine, if that's the way they feel. But don't come to me in three years when your sh— has well and truly gone down the toilet. I've seen Liam, Gem [Archer] and Chris [Shamrock] since then, and when I've seen them [the idea of a reunion] has never been mentioned.
Q: Is anyone besides journalists like me asking you about this?
NG: Nobody gives a sh—. I do realize that the only way to get people to stop asking me about it is to do it. But I'm stubborn. If it's the last thing I do, I won't do it. To re-form it, how could it be as good? People say they want it to happen because they're younger and they missed us. Tough sh—. I've never seen the Sex Pistols or the Beatles. I still haven't seen Bob Dylan, thank God.
Q: Morrissey's getting the same onslaught now about reuniting the Smiths.
NG: Exactly. I've seen them twice, and it was f—-ing great. You weren't around at the time? Tough. I've met Oasis fans who agree with me. It ran its course, we shouldn't revisit it. But we live in a strange world now where all people want is nostalgia. It's all they want. I don't get it.
Q: So tell me about something new. Tell me about your collaboration with Amorphous Androgynous (the Future Sound of London).
NG: That's gone. We've canned that. I thought it was finished, but then I didn't like it. It needed remixing, and I don't have the time to devote to it. I've been on the road 15 months and, really, the moment has passed. I don't want to put out a record next year. (a) I don't have the energy, and (b) I'll get divorced. I don't want to get divorced. But I'll revisit those songs eventually, just as a thing it's not going to happen. I feel bad for the guys in AA who spent a lot of time working on it. But f—- it, I get to do what I want.
Q: So what's your future look like then?
NG: I'm going to try and fake my own retirement and see how it goes. I've tried disappearing, but I've got too big a nose to disappear, really. I always get recognized, even if I dress like an Eskimo. I'm not going to do anything. Watch a lot of TV. What I might do is hope against hope that that guy beats Obama in the election.
Q: Beg pardon?
NG: We don't get enough laughs out of Obama. We liked George Bush. He was funny as f—-. The comedy value would be great with Romney. Not for you guys, though.
SNOW PATROL WITH NOEL GALLAGHER
• 7:30 p.m. Nov. 3
• The Venue at Horseshoe Casino, 777 Casino Center Drive in Hammond, Ind.
• Tickets: $35-$140; (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
You hear about John Lydon, but you think Johnny Rotten.
Who could blame you? In their few short years together in the late 1970s, Rotten's squawking snarl made an indelible cultural impression as leader of British punk band the Sex Pistols. The quartet crashed music's barricades and made a deep enough impact on modern music to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
But at the end of an ill-fated U.S. tour in 1978, the band disbanded. John Lydon was left stranded here in America, angry (personally and professionally) and hungry (literally and artistically).
His next project, Public Image Ltd., would have more staying power, lasting 15 years and proving influential in a less blatant but deeper and perhaps more meaningful way. The Pistols, sure, fired up a bunch of punk wannabes — many of whom Lydon still despises for their lack of originality (read on) — but PiL's innovative weave of dub beats, pop production and the angry energy of Lydon's vocals threaded into bands from U2 to Nine Inch Nails.
Lydon, 56, in our recent conversation with the California resident during a visit to London, admitted his heart wasn't ever fully committed to the Pistols — a band manufactured by Malcolm McLaren, a hipster clothier, with intentions largely as cynical and commercial as any contemporary boy band — at least beyond their initial run. There was no pining for the band's return, even though they re-formed for tours five times.
PiL is very much his drug of choice. Lydon managed to pay off old record company debts with money from a series of reunion shows in 2009 in the UK, as well as appearing in a much-mocked commercial for butter, and bring the band back this year with a lineup now featuring guitarist Lu Edmonds, bassist Scott Firth and drummer Bruce Smith. Their new album is plainly titled "This Is PiL."
"I love PiL," he says. "It's the heart and soul of me. When the Pistols fell apart, I wanted to do something completely honest and open and sharing and generous for the world."
His tone is soft, cooing, positively wistful. Lydon isn't really that Rotten. He's quick-tempered and a live-wire on TV chat shows, no doubt, but at heart he's a pussycat — a devoted husband of 30 years and a loyal father figure (taking time out to help raise the children of Nora Forster's daughter, Ari Up, herself the lead singer of a band, the Slits, before her death in 2010).
"I don't make commitments lightly," he purrs, about his marriage to Forster. "I picked the right woman, and she picked the right man."
Precious, no? But have no fear, Lydon's still as mouthy as ever, and during our chat he sounded off on numerous topics while celebrating the welcome return of his dear PiL:
On punk's unoriginality: "Punk has to learn to progress and stop imitating itself. That's a direct dig at punk bands out there at the moment, trying to live in our shadow. They don't understand. They keep doing this same bit over and over. I don't need whippersnappers to tell us what's what — again. I know the price of cheese."
On the Occupy Wall Street movement: "I love the Occupy thing. It was legalist, but what it did was passive resistance, like one of my old political heros, Gandhi. It raised questions, made you think things. The climate in the news shows was one of sarcasm. That's unfortunate. There's much to consider, and they were raising the questions that needed asking. ... No, I didn't join them. I'm not one for the tents. Johnny's literally not a happy camper."
On Russian punk band Pussy Riot: "Well, it got very dangerous when Madonna got involved. That could have upped the ante on their sentencing. One thing the Russian government wasn't prepared to listen to was a spoiled pop star ranting at them. You've got to be careful supporting these issues. She should put her crucifix away and put her knickers back on. ... But really, what they did wasn't very smart. It's no good running into a church screaming and shouting. It's pointless, really. I know what I'm talking about. I was discussed in Parliament under the Treason Act [for the Pistols' recording of 'God Save the Queen'], which carries the death penalty."
On the future of the Sex Pistols: "I can't write for them. I love them as friends and all, but I just can't go back to that space in time and create anything new. As a band, we never progressed beyond that period. I was just talking last night with [drummer] Paul Cook; we're really good friends. We just don't feel the need to do that ever again. ... We're all up to different things now. No plans to trot the boards with the boys."
On recording the new PiL album live: "We've all been around long enough to know how to use a studio properly. One thing we don't ever want to get caught with is studio trickery. If we can't play songs in somewhat of a live format, then we shouldn't waste time in recording them. ... These tracks proved well worth the decade wait, arguing with record labels who wouldn't let me out of their contracts."
On playing new shows: "We have to get out and play live. That's the bread and butter of what PiL is. We view ourselves as a live band, and we're trying to bring back the concept of live music. How much longer can you watch Las Vegas performers jump up and down with disco dancers? I've had enough. There's no humanity in it — no sharing, no give, no take, just money. It's become very ugly. 'American Idol' is part of this nonsense of removing you from your humanity. I don't want to be part of the sh— storm."
PUBLIC IMAGE LTD.
• 9 p.m. Oct. 21
• House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn
• Tickets, $37.50; (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
"Come Home to Mama"
Martha Wainwright, "Come Home to Mama" (Cooperative) [3 and a half stars] — The secret weapon in the Wainwright family, Martha is a wicked and potent genealogical branch bearing her father Loudon's sometimes uncomfortably honest confessional songwriting, her brother Rufus' occasional grandiose musical ambitions and her mother Kate McGarrigle's talent for modernizing and enlivening old, staid folk traditions.
Recorded at Sean Lennon's home studio and produced by Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda (and featuring guests such as Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and Dirty Three drummer Jim White), "Come Home to Mama," Wainwright's third outing (fourth, if you count the knock-down awesome Piaf record), is also a blend — of the singer-songwritery angst of her 2005 debut and the rock leanings of 2008's "I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too."
"I really like make-up sex / It's the only kind I ever get," she sing-songs in "Can You Believe It," like a forlorn-yet-upbeat mix of Cat Power and Liz Phair. The album's title comes from the ballad "Proserpina," the last song McGarrigle had written before her death in 2010. The ache of that recording (its lyrics, as well as its circumstances), the confidence of her voice (her tone, as well as her words), the wisdom in "Everything Wrong" and the bright flair of "Some People" — everything seems finally to come together into what must be Wainwright's first singular album.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Earl Klugh is a jazz guitarist — one of the greatest, no doubt, with a sweet, signature style on the nylon-stringed acoustic guitar — but don't think less of him just because his initial inspiration to the craft was a TV Western.
"The first exposure I had to the guitar really was on 'Bonanza,'" Klugh told the Sun-Times. "They always had a guitar by the fire, you know, and it was a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. I would look at it, and it wasn't like any of the guitars you'd see on, I don't know, 'American Bandstand' or something, or like Chuck Berry. That stuff was all great, but once I started playing a nylon-stringed guitar, there was no going back for me."
Well, he had some second thoughts.
"We had a stage band [in high school], and back then there wasn't any great pickup system. What I had was this little microphone you'd put on your guitar with a rubber band over it. You could turn the volume up, but the cavity of the guitar would feed back," he said. "It was primitive and, boy, I got teased a lot for that. ... But I look back now and, well, I showed 'em!"
More than 30 acclaimed albums (23 of them in the top 10 of Billboard's jazz chart, five at No. 1) and 12 Grammy nominations (the most recent for 2008's "The Spice of Life") — yes, he showed 'em.
Klugh took a break during a vacation stop on the South Carolina coast to talk to us about Crossroads, collaborations and, uh, "Hee Haw":
Q: The last time you were in Chicago was for Eric Clapton's 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival, right?
Earl Klugh: Oh yeah. There was a show.
Q: I love that performance, because here's a blues and rock festival, you're surrounded by Eric and Buddy [Guy] and all these plugged in guys, and you come out with your acoustic guitar and play "Angelina" just as delicately as you please. Was that bill daunting in any way?
EK: I've had pretty good success with kind of integrating the acoustic stuff into places like that. I was certainly different than the other players there. I do what I do. It went over well. But when you're a guy like me backing up to ZZ Top, yes, it's kind of intimidating.
Q: You came up in the '60s. Why did the classical guitar speak to you instead of all those shiny new electrics?
EK: When I first started playing guitar was right at the folk music craze — Peter, Paul & Mary, that type of thing. So acoustics were common, though not as much in jazz. The nylon-string just stuck all the way for me. It just felt like my instrument. When I tried to play a steel-stringed or electric guitar, I was already so far into the other it never occurred to me to switch.
Q: Is it true you were on [country-themed variety TV show] "Hee Haw," and why isn't this on YouTube?
EK: [Laughs] Me and Chet Atkins together, yeah. We were in the cornfield and everything. ... Chet was my idol. I love Chet Atkins. That was our first television appearance together, actually. I love Chet from the perspective of playing finger-style, the way he was able to play the bass and the chords. Once I saw him, it changed my life completely. I knew I wanted to play guitar like Chet Atkins. Then I was fortunate to play with him many times.
Q: What was it about Chet Atkins that appealed to so many players beyond his basic country classification?
EK: He was really a pioneer with the instrument. He was very much a tinkerer. He had a workshop, had all types of electric stuff. He'd do stuff like, one time he had his regular Gretsch guitar and he put a low D string, lower than the [bottom] E, added to it so that when he'd play it sounded like he was carrying the bass tones the whole time. He did several records with that.
Q: Sounds like something Les Paul would toy with.
EK: Very much like Les Paul. He loved to create different sounds and was always trying to come up with something new and fresh that would tickle his ear.
Q: You first connected with another guitar great, George Benson. How'd you meet, and what cemented the bond between you?
EK: Growing up in Detroit, we had a jazz club, Baker's Keyboard Lounge. In its heyday, everybody who played jazz, literally everybody, played at that club. I really got the chance to meet a lot of the great musicians. George was just going into his career in a big way, and he played Baker's five, six, seven times before he really broke big. We got to talking, and he was fascinated by my acoustic guitar. He said, "You're trying to play jazz on that nylon-string guitar!" He said, "Boy, you gotta keep doing that. That's gonna set you apart from everybody else."
Q: I've always thought you two had a lot in common stylistically, as if sometimes the only difference between you is who's usually plugged in and who's not.
EK: I learned a lot from him, it's true. What I mostly learned from him is, you know, he's a workaholic. When I first went on the road with him, we did a two-month tour. We went to breakfast one night after the show, and we're headed back to the room and I was saying, "I gotta go get some rest." The next day, the bass player, Roland Wilson, is coming out of his room, and he says, "Man, Earl, you and me are gonna have to get on it." I said, "What do you mean?" He says, "You know what George did after going back to his room last night? He started practicing. He practiced from 2:30 in the morning till 5." And this is after playing a show, you know. Roland said, "We gotta do that, too!" That's a work ethic there.
Q: Which I'm guessing you still draw upon in your manic schedule as writer, performer, arranger, recording artist, bandleader, collaborator and event organizer [the semi-annual Weekend of Jazz concert festivals]?
EK: I work real hard and it's a lot, but it's really great fun. I enjoy doing solo shows, but I enjoy playing with the band, as well. I feel very lucky.
Q: You're 59, correct?
EK: Yes, and ooh that came too soon! [Laughs]
Q: If I may: Fingers and joints don't exactly get looser with age. How do you keep those hands nimble?
EK: By taking care of the rest of my body. I go to the gym, I stay physically active. If I don't I'll really end up in a knot. My hands are still flexible. My thumb cracks, though. I can hear it now on my records. Like, there'll be a solo part in a song, and my thumb will crack.
Q: It's just extra percussion.
EK: [Laughs] Yeah, but that's a new phenomenon I really hope goes away.
Q: "The Spice of Life" is four years on now. Any new recordings coming?
EK: I'm working on a new CD now. It's going to be kind of interesting — a lot fo solo playing, but a few duets with some of my favorite players. I'm trying to track George down. Vince Gill seems to be interested. After that, I'll have another band and orchestra record before the end of the coming year.
• 8 p.m. Oct. 6
• Old Town School of Folk Music, Maurer Concert Hall, 4544 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $30-$34; (773) 728-6000; oldtownschool.org
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
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."
Unknown and from Australia, Dirty Three had just broken through with their third album, "Horse Stories," hailed in critics polls and voted by Rolling Stone as one of the top three albums of '96. Since then, Dirty Three has recorded five more albums of dense, emotional instrumental rock — including this year's "Toward the Low Sun" — and Ellis has joined the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, bands led by fellow Aussie Nick Cave, and worked with him on film scores.
Before launching the new tour, Ellis chatted with the Sun-Times from his Paris home about his hard-driving creative process, his position as a default front man and his new soundtrack with Cave for the upcoming film "Lawless," featuring Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees), Emmylou Harris and 85-year-old bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley singing songs by the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, Townes Van Zandt and more.
Q: You go into a zone when you perform live. What's happening?
A: I don't know any other way. I've always been like that. When I first started playing, there was an addictive thing about it. It's very much like taking drugs in that you get this kick from it. You don't get it every time, but when you get it you want it again. Nothing else gives me that.
Q: What happens when that doesn't happen?
A: It's terrifying. I get nervous about a bunch of stuff, but the two constant things are going into the studio and thinking, "Is this the day it stops?" and going on stage and it all goes horribly wrong. There are moments when it crumbles and I realize I'm just a dick with a violin. I feel healthy that this happens. It helps me keep my place in the scheme of things.
Q: That's a tough form of self-motivation.
A: It makes me stretch further. The next record I do, I always want to be the best thing I've ever done. I'm still waiting for the day I feel I've done something really, really great. That there's still a part of the experience that's mysterious is what's really attractive about it. Like doing a film score or trying to play a four-string guitar, or a few years ago I put the fiddle down and tried working with things I had no idea how to approach. It renews my interest in the whole thing.
Q: Do you consider yourself a front man?
A: I never have. Usually a singer is, by default, the front guy. That's how bands work. If I'm alluded to as the front guy, it's 'cause I'm closer to the front. But we've never thought about this band in that respect. It's always about the way the three of can go together — the sum of its parts as opposed to anything else. Without any one of us, this would cease to exist. That's always been the really strong attraction of the band.
Q: What — musically more than logistically — made "Horse Stories" such a breakout record for Dirty Three?
A: I don't know. That album was recorded under pretty bad conditions. I was a real mess on every level. The three of us were at war with each other, too. The record was shelved, but we played it for a couple of people who said, "You should put this out, there's really something here." ... I guess there's something quite desperate about it, pretty and desperate. It feels like you're privy to something, like you're sitting in a room with us. It's certainly a very charged album.
Q: The new record, "Toward the Low Sun," had its own difficulty in getting under way. You had writer's block?
A: We kept coming up with material, but it felt like we knew it, knew what was going on with it; it felt familiar. But every time we played live, something great happened. We realized we needed to get the live show into the new material, to give the music space to move around like in concert, open it up to how we react to each other on stage. That was the key. I'd started wondering if we'd ever make another record, thought maybe we'd said as much as we could. ... I was in a creative stalemate. It's a thing that happens to anybody no matter what you're doing. I don't want it to feel easy. I want to surprise myself.
Q: What was the spark that ignited between you and Nick Cave?
A: I don't know. We met in the '90s and I played on a record or two. We push each other. For the time being, it's a relationship that's very creative and productive.
Q: On the "Lawless" soundtrack, you've got some interesting versions of the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat." How'd those come about?
A: That was a joy to be a part of. Getting Ralph Stanley to throw his voice on our versions of these, it just sounded so insane. And it wasn't easy. We couldn't get Ralph to sing in 4/4, and he wouldn't sing in key. But he came out with these amazing versions. The real thing was when we brought Lou Reed into the studio and played them for him. His reaction was extraordinary. He really welled up. He couldn't believe it. Ralph took the song back to a place where it had come from. It was amazing. It certainly feels like one of the things that resonates the most historically that I've been involved in.
with the Cairo Gang
• 9 p.m. Sept. 26
• Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $18; (773) 525-2508; lincolnhallchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
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."
He continued, foreshadowing the collection of his notebooks, lyrics and artwork that now constitutes the Woody Guthrie Archives: "And when somebody steps in and buys up all of your diaries and scribblings and songs and poems they call you the greatest feller which ever lived, so's your debtors and loaners can get rich off the stink of your dead bones and yaller pages of ideas."
Guthrie himself certainly never got rich off his music, and I don't think anyone else has, either. But as Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter and the overseer of the Archives, told me earlier this year, "The influence of my father's music lives today, and will live throughout the 21st century."
That would have been clear this year — even without a string of celebrations marking Guthrie's 100th birthday.
In a post-Occupy landscape, Guthrie's topical, rabble-rousing spirit seems infused into everything from the street-marching "guitararmy" in New York City and elsewhere, often led by Chicago-area native Tom Morello, to the latest output from Bruce Springsteen (his new album, his SXSW keynote speech).
The varied Woody100 centennial events this year featured many posthumously hailing Guthrie, indeed, as a "great genius." They included six academic conferences (I spoke at one in March in my and Guthrie's home state), folk concerts big (a Los Angeles hoedown in April featuring Graham Nash, John Doe, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Kris Kristopherson and more) and small (Chicago's own tribute show in May), plus exhibits, plays and more. A few more national concerts are on tap — Sept. 22 in Brooklyn (with Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle and more) and Oct. 14 at D.C.'s Kennedy Center (with Arlo Guthrie, John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, Donovan, Lucinda Williams and more) — before wrapping the centennial and moving the Archives from New York to its new home in Tulsa, Okla.
Chicagoans can catch one last centennial event — a good one — during the next few weeks.
"Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie," a stage musical presenting just that, opens Sept. 21 and runs through Oct. 21 at Northlight Theatre, inside the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie.
Guthrie and Broadway? Have no fear. "Woody Sez" is a low-key, high-spirited celebration of Guthrie's music, featuring 30 folk songs (Guthrie's and other traditional tunes). It's far less jukebox musical than a kind of down-home playlist — a splendid swirl of tunes coming and going, each telling and supporting the story.
The Northlight production — featuring the show's creators, Nick Corley (director) and David M. Lutken (starring as Guthrie) — features a simple stage littered with musical instruments: four guitars, mandolin, upright bass, autoharp, dobro, three fiddles, banjo, dulcimer and a harmonica. In an hour and a half, the four actor-musicians keep snatching them up for a verse here, a chorus there, a full song or a reprise. This is how Guthrie lived — applying bits of songs to aid both speech and memory — and it's not so different a method from our own YouTube samples and iPod shuffles. Guthrie just happened to be a walking folk-music Google.
Lutken is great, warmly telling Guthrie's story and differing from his source material only in ways that aren't exactly complaints (unlike Guthrie, Lutken is a tall drink of water and sings beautifully). The cast also features David Finch, the delightful Helen Jean Russell and Austin musician (and formidable "Jill of all trades") Darcie Deaville. They act, they sing, they juggle, they tell bipartisan political jokes.
(There might even be an unintentional gay-marriage laugh in the show. "I married a girl," Lutken narrates as Guthrie, then continues after a slight but significant beat, "Most of us did in those days" — likely an innocent Guthrieism that the Sept. 14 audience reacted to with a slow wave of winking chuckles. Ever-adaptable, that Woody.)
Knitted together by verses from Guthrie's "The Ballad of Tom Joad," "Woody Sez" hopscotches through the folksinger's biography (in fact, taking giant leaps through his later years), ably chronicling what happens when a man with a singular voice not only finds it but figures out what to do with it. "I began to see the difference," Lutken says as Guthrie, "between wanting something to stop — and wanting to stop it."
Guthrie's legacy remains a bottomless well of inspiration for like-minded souls, and these centennial celebrations hopefully seeded more to come.
Deep down, though, Guthrie knew something else about celebrity, and — despite his pure and sainted status — he was happy for the attention. Perhaps channeling Oscar Wilde, he closed a 1948 manuscript with these lines: "I don't care / What you say about me / Just so you say it."
'WOODY SEZ; THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF WOODY GUTHRIE'
• Sept. 21-Oct. 21
• Northlight Theatre, inside the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie.
• Tickets: $25-$72; (847) 673-6300; northlight.org
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
2012 is the centenary for two seminal figures in American music: folksinger Woody Guthrie and composer John Cage, both born in 1912.
They had a few things in common, believe it or not. Both were bold pioneers of their respective genres. Both dabbled in Eastern mysticism (well, Guthrie dabbled, Cage dove in). Both fell in love with dancers the second time around (Guthrie married Marjorie Greenblatt from the Martha Stewart company, Cage partnered with Merce Cunningham).
They probably never met, but Guthrie is on record as being deeply affected by some of Cage's groundbreaking, boundary-busting classical music. On July 10, 1947 — the day his wife, Marjorie, gave birth to his son Arlo — Guthrie wrote a fan letter to the Disc Co. of America. He'd been listening to Maro Ajemian's recording of the "prepared piano" solos (in which piano strings are augmented with screws, cards and more) from Cage's "Amores," and Guthrie declared that "this sort of piano music was really a keen fresh breeze ... a welcome thing in the way of a healthy change from the old ways."
Guthrie and Cage strived (and sometimes starved) in the service of that goal — to freshen the stale ways of each particular niche in which they found themselves.
As a result, the other and primary commonality between Guthrie and Cage is their different but deep, deep influences on modern pop and rock music. Guthrie's influence is better cataloged and freely bantered about — anyone who's heard, say, Springsteen open his mouth during the last eight months can attest to that — but Cage's imprint is, well, cagier.
Like Guthrie, Cage's legacy is often appreciated more for his ideals than his actual compositions.
"His theory, which was the strongest, utilitarian, American theory of music, was addressing the purity and the [at the time] European expectation of purity in music. He said there is none," John Cale says.
Before joining deeply influential rock band the Velvet Underground in the late '60s, Cale was a classically trained viola player who conducted the debut of Cage's "Concert for Piano and Orchestra."
"He said if you go to a concert intending to concentrate cleanly on what you hear, you can focus all you want but you're going to hear traffic, people coughing, rustling. So forget about purity," Cale tells the Sun-Times. "What he was really talking about is sound design, such as in theater or filmmaking. You can't ever hear the music just purely; you're going to hear it in context. That's where he brought the concert hall out into the street."
That basic idea found its ultimate expression in Cage's "4'33"." Titled for its duration, the 1952 piece calls for any kind and any number of musicians to sit quietly, not playing anything, for precisely four minutes and 33 seconds.
The idea is that the inevitable sounds of the performance space — a humming air system, a footfall, a sneeze or two, the general cacophony of an allegedly silent room — create the "music." As Cage described of the piece's controversial 1952 premiere, "You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out."
Cage was quite serious about that piece — as well as his "prepared piano" compositions, his looped experiments with audio equipment, even when he'd drink a carton of milk on stage with a microphone at his throat.
But his daring and his derring-do often came with a wink.
"John was a really mischievous guy. I liked his sense of humor," Cale says. "It was such a relief for me. I was clinging to the Dadaists and Fluxus, and they were fun, but then the [German composer Karl] Stockhausen school was so intense and serious. ... I read John's Zen koans and his work with silence, and it was a relief. I liked the playful nature of his ideas. I mean, '4'33"?' — you know, they broadcast it on BBC [in 2004]." He chuckles. "One of the guys told me, 'At the Beeb, they don't allow silence on the broadcast waves. They have a system that if something goes off and there's dead air, it automatically puts in an old political speech or music. So when they did '4'33",' they had to shut that system off."
"4'33"" has even been recorded, including versions by Andrew W.K. and Frank Zappa, and appears on online in numerous versions, including a "dubstep remix."
Museum of Contemporary Art curator Lynne Warren's favorite version is a version by a self-professed death metal drummer, filmed and posted on YouTube. He sits behind a drum kits for only slightly more than a minute, later explaining that he played "a little faster than the original tempo."
"A lot of the myth about Cage is that he gave you permission to do anything, and that's absolutely not true," Museum of Contemporary Art curator Lynne Warren says. "He gave permission to go beyond one's presuppositions, habits of mind, rote ways of doing things. He taught people to listen in certain ways, to get rid of one's ego. It's hard to pin down. It's not like you can say this was the first pop musician to put on a costume and prance around doing glam rock. There's no real linear explanation of his influence."
Warren hopes to illuminate that slippery pedigree by opening up the MCA's library for "MCA DNA: John Cage," an exhibit opening Sept. 1 that seeks to show the interdisciplinary nature of Cage's music and its impact. Listening stations will present his music, but visitors also will be able to see, and in some cases handle, Cage scores and other work.
"People have asked, 'Why are you showing Cage materials, like scores, as art?'?" Warren said. "The answer is that he considered them works of art, and he made works of art himself — prints, drawings, some scores are based on a painting he'd done. You absolutely cannot pigeonhole him, even into one art form."
The MCA exhibit spotlights Cage's recurring relationship with Chicago and the museum itself. Cage lived in Chicago briefly (1941-42) and returned throughout the years for performances and festivals.
Warren says one of the museum's most requested images for reproduction is the city map Cage used to compose "A Dip in the Lake: Ten Quicksteps, Sixty-two Waltzes, and Fifty-six Marches for Chicago and Vicinity" (1978), a sound collage based on recordings made at 427 Chicago locations, determined by Cage's favorite composing method: chance. (Hear it here.)
Another return to Illinois included Cage's 1969 premiere of "HPSCHD" in an Urbana arena. The composition called for seven harpsichords, 52 tape machines, 59 amplifiers, 59 speakers, 64 slide projectors (using 6,400 slides), eight film projectors (showing 40 films), one 340-foot circular screen and 11 rectangular screens. A New York Times review reported, "Some of those present were supine, their eyes closed, grooving on the multiple stereophony."
Thread that image through your memory of various multimedia art, rock and art-rock performances you've seen. Then the visuals of the Talking Heads and MTV, the sound experiments of Brian Eno and the Flaming Lips, the anything-goes-and-should spirit of concerts by Frank Zappa and Sonic Youth — it all has clear roots.
"MCA DNA: John Cage" runs Sept. 1-March 3 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave. (312-280-2660; mcachicago.org).
John Cale performs separately as part of the Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements festival Sept. 21 at the Riverfront Theater, 650 W. Chicago (brilliantcornersofpopularamusements.com).
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The title of the first song on World Party's newest batch of recordings — "Arkeology," a five-disc, closet-cleaning retrospective, just left of a traditional box set — is a massive understatement for the project's central figure, singer-songwriter Karl Wallinger.
"Waiting Such a Long Long Time" finds Wallinger singing, in his world-weary voice over a party-pop guitar jangle, "I don't even know what I want anymore."
Which isn't really true. Not anymore.
"What I've been through, it's made me feel that all the stuff we worry about is not worth worrying about," Wallinger told the Sun-Times in a recent interview. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. It's very true. In my case, it's made me fatter. I had to be stronger to carry it all."
What he's been through is a virtual decade-plus absence from music following a brain aneurysm in 2000.
Following a brief stint with the Waterboys, contributing as keyboardist to the albums "A Pagan Place" (1984) and the phenomenal "This Is the Sea" (1985), Wallinger formed World Party — essentially a solo project but frequently featuring guitarist Dave Catlin-Birch, drummer Chris Sharrock and, early on, multi-instrumentalist Guy Chambers — then quickly charted a hit with the song "Ship of Fools" and enjoyed wide acclaim for an album of prescient environmental themes, "Goodbye Jumbo" (1990).
"Bang!" (1993), a superb album seamlessly blending genres from soul to rock to (briefly) opera, charted in Wallinger's native UK. But by the fifth World Party LP, "Dumbing Up" in 2000, many had stopped paying attention. Wallinger was already gone before he was really gone.
In February 2001, Wallinger was cycling with his son, Louis, when things went wrong.
"I just had a headache and said, 'I'm going to go to bed.' I came out half an hour later and said, 'I've got this headache — phone an ambulance,'" he recalled. "I woke up a day or two and two hospitals later. ... I came to feeling I'd just gone a few rounds with Muhammad Ali and thinking, 'This is a bit strange.' I seemed fine, but it was a test weeks later when I looked into this periscope thing that we found my vision was wrong."
Wallinger, now 54, has no right-side vision in either eye.
As you might imagine, this poses two separate problems.
"I'm a menace when Christmas shopping. I do a lot of collisions and have to say I'm sorry a lot," he said.
More to the professional point: "Playing instruments is a bit weird now. I used to look at my right hand as I played piano. That's how I learned. Now I can't see my right hand. Same with the guitar — I'm right-handed, but I play upside down like Bob Geldof or Jimi Hendrix. Eventually, I've gotten the hang of both again."
Two months out of the hospital, Wallinger tried his first gig, a benefit show — just to see where his abilities stood. Also on the bill: Edwyn Collins, a contemporary of Wallinger's from the '80s band Orange Juice and his own subsequent solo career ("A Girl Like You") who'd suffered a double aneurysm in 2005. ("We're so competitive. He just had to have the bigger one," Wallinger quipped.)
His skills were largely intact, he found, but the recovery would be long and steep. Fortunately, Wallinger received an unexpected financial windfall.
The aforementioned Guy Chambers heard one of Wallinger's songs, "She's the One," and took it to his new songwriting partner, pop singer Robbie Williams. The 1997 piano ballad, which Wallinger said was knocked out "in 10 minutes and recorded in about half an hour," became a big hit for Williams.
"So we didn't have to sell the kids to chemical experiments or anything," Wallinger said. "I think I'm a bit of a lucky person."
Using his down time constructively, Wallinger began going back through old recordings. He wound up compiling an iTunes playlist with a runtime of 79 days — B-sides, rarities, Beatles covers, interviews and a lot of tour tapes. He whittled it down to five and a half days, and his manager edited that to four CDs, which would become the bulk of "Arkeology." Some extra DAT tapes and one new project, a sweet ballad called "Everybody's Falling in Love," comprised the set's fifth and lead-off disc.
"Like 'Words,' that track's a great one," Wallinger said. "We did it, put it in a box and forgot about it. Great fun, that one. It was good going back and kind of recapping the 25 years, a good thing for me to do at this point in time. I've got stuff that I've done during the last 10 years I'm still going through, but really I'd like to get in and record new stuff. I'd like to get a new 12-song record out next year."
"Arkeology" — 70 tracks, and a bargain at less than $40 — immediately sold out a limited run and is now on its third pressing.
After this string of acoustic dates in America — a half dozen shows featuring violinist David Duffy and guitarist John Turnbull — Wallinger returns home for his first full-fledged British concert in 15 years.
Everything you need to know about how his career has shaken out geographically is in this sentence: He plays the Cubby Bear sports pub in Chicago, but in November he headlines the Royal Albert Hall in London.
"I'm burning the candle at both ends," Wallinger said, "but I'm good, I'm healthy, and I'm up for this. I'm told a few fans might be, too. So we'll give it a go."
• 8 p.m. Aug. 30
• Cubby Bear, 1059 W. Addison
• Sold out
• (773) 327-1662; cubbybear.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
It's been a banner year for power pop revivals. We've gotten new discs from Winston-Salem, N.C.'s the dB's (first with the original lineup in 30 years), Hawthorne, Calif.'s Redd Kross (first new material in 15 years) and now Zion, Ill.'s acclaimed Shoes — back with "Ignition," out now [★★★1/2], the first new album since 1994.
"When you go over the years and what we've been through, the delay makes sense. It just looks bad on paper," says founding Shoes member John Murphy with a chuckle. "I just saw No Doubt's together again. They haven't had a record in eight or 10 years. We just get used to the fact that these super-successful bands take forever to deliver a follow-up."
Shoes or any power pop band, really, could never be described as "super-successful." But while the core trio — singer-guitarists Jeff Murphy and Gary Klebe, plus brother John Murphy on bass — has never had a mass following, they always seem to be followed.
When home-recording equipment was more available and affordable in the mid-'70s, Shoes were already there — recording three albums in their living room (the limited-release "Un Dans Versailles," 1975, the shelved "Bazooka," 1976, and the official debut, "Black Vinyl Shoes," later in 1976, which was hailed as "one of the finest home-brewed releases ever" by Trouser Press rock critic Ira Robbins).
When major record labels were flush and throwing money at bands, Shoes were there — getting picked up by Elektra for three albums (starting with "Present Tense" in 1979).
When the money ran dry and bands were being cut loose, many starting their own independent labels — Shoes were there, releasing compilations, live and new albums on their own Black Vinyl label through the '90s.
"Shoes were, quite simply, everywhere in the music industry from the mid-'70s to the mid-'90s," says Mary Donnelly, a New York professor and blogger (powerpop.blogspot.com), who's about to publish Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes this fall. "They saw all the trends — the decadence and wild parties, money-is-no-object production and promotion, the crash of the industry in the early '80s, MTV (and the skepticism it engendered), the rise of college rock and indie and alternative, the problems wrought by independent distribution and the rise of digital recording. They were everywhere."
Murphy, ever humble and down-home, chuckles again.
"We've been kind of Forrest Gump-ing through time," he says.
Given how they pop up on the crest of each industry trend, you'd be forgiven for expecting their sound to have changed proportionally as well. Now in their late 50s, Shoes, however, have remained astonishingly consistent in their production of tuneful, harmonized, guitar-driven power-pop. The quality songwriting and, to some extent, the production of "Ignition" could fall anywhere within the band's nearly four-decade career.
"It's about how you absorb these things and how you turn them back out," Murphy says, trying to explain the band's through-line. "If you were to write the same song every year of your life, it would somehow be different each year. You'd attack it differently. It would come out of you differently. But it's still you writing the song."
"They tend to downplay their talents, but they're remarkable, instinctive writers," Donnelly says. "They can't even really explain what they do in a language that makes sense to anyone but themselves. And that hard work and authenticity shines through in everything they do."
Explaining the 18-year gap in new music, Murphy ticks off a litany of business woes that kept the band stymied. The shuttering of their recording studio, Short Order Recorder — a downtown Zion storefront where other revered power poppers, such as Material Issue and fellow Zion natives Local H, cut crucial records — was a "traumatic event," Murphy says. Selling the building took years.
The savior of Shoes, though, would be yet another home studio.
"We were at Gary's house one Sunday night, and we'd been there all night — it's midnight and we're getting ready to leave — and Gary says, 'Come here, I want to show you something,' " Murphy says. "Here it was. He surprised us. He'd moved in 2010 and started building this studio in his basement, buying gear along the way, stockpiling mikes and getting good deals.
"And Jeff happened to have a little song."
The song was "Out of Round," a few melancholy chords Jeff Murphy had cooked up, for which the other two dove into Klebe's basement to add a curious piano riff and some swirling sounds. It's an unusual track in the Shoes canon.
"We got into a groove. We kept going and going," Murphy says.
While much of "Ignition" wound up square within the footsteps of traditional Shoes, "Out of Round" isn't the album's only left-turn track. In our conversation, I had to bring up "Hot Mess," one of two songs credited to all three writers — and one with a surprising, almost AC/DC groove.
"Did you like it?" Murphy asks, nervously. "I ask because we knew it would be a polarizing track, that some people wouldn't dig it. Gary laid those guitars out, and Jeff and I said, 'Mmmm, sounds Stones-y!' He said, 'We could change that,' and I said, 'No, I don't think we should. Let's go down that road.' The thought process as we were building it was: What would Mick and Keith do? Plus, I started coming up with lyrics to make them laugh. I'd come out of the room, and they'd say, 'Did you just say...?!' But we really wanted this to sound like real music, not just a parody or a joke, not sarcastic. We wanted this, like anything we've done, to stand as real music."
Therein lies the struggle of every power pop band in America — striking the difficult balance between being influenced and being a thinly veiled cover band, between being a new voice and an echo.
The influences of Shoes are as obvious as they are alliterative: Beatles, Badfinger, Byrds, Big Star, Raspberries. But a 1979 feature in Trouser Press magazine quoted John Murphy describing the band's genesis as "a reaction to the things we hated. All there was at the time was Bowie, T. Rex and the Deep Purple school."
"We're more glass half-full on that now. That was pretty glass half-empty back then," Murphy says today. "Gary [then in Champaign] and I would write letters back and forth, talking early '70s and how things were about to get worse, saying, 'Ah, what happened to the early Beatles,' and 'Now all these horn bands like Chicago are coming along.' As soon as we found our way, here came disco, which absolutely took over. Now we can look back and see disco as this quaint period of time — aw, the cute little 'shake your booty' lyrics — like looking at 1920s music. But it didn't seem like that then. It was a survival thing for those who liked rock."
Donnelly describes growing up in a household full of brothers constantly playing Beatles records. "And just as I was reaching my music-buying stage, 12 or so, there was Shoes — like and not like at the same time," she says. "They were my first band, my declaration of independence, my own soundtrack. Though I never had the kind of gut-wrenching heartbreak they promised me in junior high school, there was always something about the hard-soft dichotomy, the shifting voices of the three principals that just spoke to me about how beauty and pain and power can travel together."
So here's Shoes in 2012, still shifting voices and songwriting duties — just like kindred, talent-stuffed spirits such as Sloan, Teenage Fanclub, the dB's, etc. — for another finely crafted, homemade, indie-rock record.
They're so behind the times, they're current.
Murphy drops things in conversation like "That YouTube is something else" and "I don't even have an iPod," but it's one of his songs on "Ignition" that updates the time-honored romantic lament to include "rambling emails and bitter tweets" ("I Thought You Knew").
"Power pop always fits," he says. "In today's world, it's more indie or alternative, whatever that word means, but it still has the same direction. It's just that now we're trying to do it more adult — I hate to use that word. Maturity, maybe. People say, 'Oh, you're a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl band.' But not really. It's about relationship songs. That's relevant to any age, any era."
In addition to the new album and the publication of Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes, Chicago's lauded Numero Group label is releasing this fall four vinyl Shoes LPs in a series ("One in Versailles," "Black Vinyl Shoes," "Bazooka" and "Pre-Tense Demos: 1978-1979," the demos for the "Present Tense" album). Expect the full Shoes vinyl experience, including lyrics sheets, photos and (yes!) T-shirt iron-ons.
An expanded best-of collection is due this fall, too, but Murphy says no live shows are currently in the works.
Shoes and Zion a matched pair
If you've ever read anything about the band Shoes, it's almost always been "Zion, Ill.'s Shoes."
Given the mythical power of the Chicago exurb's name, it's been attached to the band as a descriptor far more often than is the case with the origins of most other musical acts.
"Zion just has this weird mystery to it," bassist-songwriter Jeff Murphy says. "If you ask people in Chicago, they'll say they know it's dry and that the street names are all biblical."
Mary Donnelly's book on the band, Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes, includes a mini-history of the town, founded between Chicago and Milwaukee in 1901 by John Alexander Dowie.
"Zion was founded as a religious haven where spitting and bacon and alcohol and doctors were all illegal," Donnelly says. "But it didn't go to well for Dowie, who had pretty extravagant tastes, and the misfortune to get ill — a real problem if you're a faith healer and say that illness is the sign of Satan.
"By the time Shoes were raised there, it was still kind of weirdly religious, but no longer quite so cult-like. Still, they were raised in a town where bikinis and lottery tickets and beer were all banned by law. It's no wonder they were never a bar band: There were no bars!"
For an aspiring pop band, the association wasn't welcome in the beginning.
"At first, we tried to shake it, like we'd stepped in dog s---," Murphy says. "We thought, 'Are they making fun of us [by citing it all the time]?' Then we gave into it. It's part of our story. It sounds funny, I suppose. Everybody's gotta be from somewhere."
Originally printed in the Aug. 1, 2012, issue of This Land. Anthologized in Mason, M & Wall, H. (Eds.), A Voice Was Sounding: Selected Works from This Land, Vols. 3 & 4. Tulsa, Okla.: This Land Press.
Even before she rose from the dead, Karen Dalton always sounded like a ghost.
Her voice was an unearthly coo, a mournful banshee wail, baying the blues with clutching patience. The only urgency was in the timbre of her voice — fairly high, very round, all soft palette, and just shy of shrill. On first listen, everyone starts in with the comparisons to Billie Holiday. Eventually, though, you feel the need to get beyond that blurb, to go deeper, lured by her slow, slow siren call.
“No one sang the blues slower than she did,” says Richard Tucker, a fellow folk singer and Dalton’s ex-husband. “It was her sound, her tone. To me, that’s the big thing in her music. Her voice is so distinctive, nobody sounds like that. Madeleine Peyroux a little bit, but she’s more ‘up,’ not so bluesy. [Karen] sounds a fair amount like Billie Holiday, and of course, you hear that a lot about her. They could’ve said ‘the new Billie Holiday’ or ‘the country Billie Holiday,’ and she might have made a bigger impact, sold more records. I told her that back then, but she didn’t want to think about it.”
He chuckles. “You couldn’t tell her anything.” Then he really laughs at the thought. “Nobody had a clear picture of how to come out of it commercially and make her a known person. Only certain underground people hear her and say, ‘Wow.’ Nine out of ten don’t get it, but people who get it think she’s the greatest thing in the world.”
Nearly 20 years after her death, and 40 years after her last commercial recording, Dalton is just now gaining ground as a “known person.” She had everything going for her — a signature and authentic sound, moving from Oklahoma to Greenwich Village at exactly the right moment, the vocal admiration of that scene’s rising star, Bob Dylan — but none of it panned out, nothing translated into commercial success.
In the 21st century, though, all music is current and available. The temporality of tunes has been abolished. A teenager jumping into the pop music pool today need not dive, because everything’s on the surface — the Rolling Stones floating right alongside the Stone Temple Pilots, the Beatles with the English Beat, the Flamin’ Groovies and the Flaming Lips — all of it reachable within a smattering of keystrokes and hyperlinked by relativity and shared adoration. Degree of fame is irrelevant, or at least recast and often upended by the number of page views.
So someone like Dalton sounds at once old and new. Hipsters of each succeeding generation have reveled in her rediscovery — boomers embracing a new shoot from old roots, millennials donning another badge of indie identity. She’s the embodiment of the surrealistic, out-of-time ambassador in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.”
“My daughter’s been at parties and people say, ‘I heard this on YouTube the other day,’ and they’re talking about her grandmother,” says Dalton’s daughter, Abbe Baird. “She says, ‘The other day I was watching this movie, and they were playing Grandma.’ Like she was still alive, like she just recorded the song.”
Online, in footage filmed in her time, Dalton sounds and seems ghostly, utterly haunting of any decade. A black-and-white clip from a French documentary shot in 1969 (available on YouTube and as part of the new Cotton Eyed Joe CD collection) shows Dalton singing Tampa Red’s “It Hurts Me Too.” She’s at a microphone, sitting stock-still. Her straight, dark hair hangs slightly lower than her empty gaze. She plucks a tinny 12-string guitar with silver picks on her fingertips, which glisten just outside of her antediluvian (or merely “retro”) lace cuffs. Only occasionally, and barely, does she let a grin slide across her pale, pretty face. It’s a flash of humanity—the only sign that she may be more than merely an earthly amplifier for that otherworldly voice.
Look closely, too, and you’ll notice the missing teeth. Dalton’s story had no classic Behind the Music narrative arc. There was no rise to fame before the trouble started. Her life was tumultuous from the get-go, from her days growing up in Enid. She drank hard, she took drugs, she acted out. She was married and divorced twice before age 21, before leaving Oklahoma. Those two bottom incisors stayed behind.
“She was living with a guy who caught her in bed with my eventual stepfather, and she got punched in the face,” Baird says. “She used to say she was going to get her teeth fixed when she got to be a big star.”
Dalton, however, never got to be a star — and didn’t always seem to really want to be.
Like another Okie transplant in the Big Apple, Woody Guthrie, she sabotaged many chances to move her career forward. She hated recording; her first album, It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best (1969), was only captured because producer Fred Neil fooled her into believing the tape wasn’t rolling. She never wrote her own songs, performing and recording only covers in an era that valued the individual voice of the emerging singer-songwriter. Releasing only two albums, she never toured.
Saddled with drug and alcohol addictions, she roamed the country for years until even her two children and closest friends lost touch. She had one friend to the end, a country singer named Lacy J. Dalton (yes, she adopted the last name as a tribute), who got her into rehab a couple of times. But those missing teeth and the pain they caused were Dalton’s ticket to getting codeine prescriptions. She died in 1993, in Woodstock, New York.
“But she was more than just this junkie person that had a horrible life,” Tucker insists. “People have a tendency to think of musicians that way instead of thinking about the music they made. I don’t see Karen as a tragic figure but more as a misunderstood artist. There’s a lot of good times and inspiring music.”
The good times were rooted in Enid, in Oklahoma’s red dirt (and, eventually, Red Dirt music) heartland.
Dalton, born in 1937, grew up on three acres near the edge of Enid. The land was big enough to have horses. By all accounts, Dalton loved horses.
“She always had horses,” recalls Tucker, now 72 and holed up in Bellingham, Washington. “We had horses [when we lived together] in Colorado. We’d ride all day through the Rockies with the dogs. She really knew horses, too. We went to one big horse sale, were going to buy a couple. This guy had 50 horses in his pasture. She immediately pointed to one horse, which turned out to be the owner’s fastest quarter horse. She bought it. She just knew how its legs were shaped or something. She never lost a race — not on a racetrack or something, just in the hills. She raced a pickup truck once and beat it. Even when Abbe was living with us, she had a pony.”
To counter her aversion to recording, before retreating to upstate New York to record her second album, In My Own Time (1971), Dalton first returned to Enid to fetch her kids and her favorite horse.
“It’s no wonder she loved them so much,” Baird says. “She had the same wild spirit.”
Tucker visited with Dalton once back home in Enid. “Her dad was a welder, her mom was a nurse.”
“They were real Oklahoma people, the whole family having lived there forever,” he says. (Dalton’s mother, Evelyn, was of Cherokee descent.) “I remember on that visit, her mother picked us up at the bus station. In the car on the way home, after just five minutes, Karen started talking like her mother, talking more Okie. It was fascinating.”
“She loved to tease people with that accent,” Baird says. “She’d hear people use bad grammar, and she’d put on that act of an Okie hick to one-up them. But she didn’t have to act too hard.”
“You can hear Oklahoma in her voice in a different way when she sings,” Tucker says. “It’s that, I dunno, that lonesome sound. It’s not a hillbilly sound, it’s something else.”
“The phrasing, the gospel sound, the haunting minor key,” Baird adds. “It’s a backwoods thing. Her mother was a staunch Baptist, but they don’t believe in dancing, so Mom became a Methodist so she could dress to the nines and go to a church where they were singing all the old songs. ‘The Old Rugged Cross,’ all those. Plus, that farm of her grandparents’—there was a dividing line in Enid between where the black people lived and the white people, just two blocks north of it. I know she interacted with the whole black community in ways most people — most white people — didn’t get to.”
Dalton left Enid around 1961. She wasn’t clamoring to escape; she just wanted a new adventure. She’d taught herself guitar and was ready to find an audience. At least, at first.
“Enid was a small Midwestern town, and it was the mid-50s,” Baird says. “The only thing to do at night was drive up and down the main drag and try to get a date. Think about what was expected of women then. Most of them weren’t even expected to go to college. You got married and had babies as soon as you could. You stayed home and kept house. Karen did not want to do that. She liked to paint and play music. … She went to New York to do that. First, she went to Colorado, then to New York.
One of my favorite stories about her getting to New York was her discovery of spaghetti. There were no Italians in Enid, no Italian restaurants. She was very excited about it.”
Eventually landing in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Dalton found herself among the folk music revival of the early 1960s. She started making the rounds of pass-the-hat clubs, singing and playing her 27-fret banjo or a 12-string guitar. Tucker was a folksinger, too, and this is where they met and married.
This is also when Dalton met Jill Byrem, who would become Lacy J. Dalton. She, too, remembers Karen’s impact, specifically in a piece of advice she was given. “Why do you think you have to sing so loud?” Lacy, in an interview with London’s Guardian newspaper, recalled Karen telling her. “If you want to be heard you have to sing softer.”
Dylan was coming up through the same scene and often backed Dalton on harmonica. She had an effect on him, too, one he still remembered years later. Early in the first volume of his memoirs, Chronicles (published in 2004), on page 12, Dylan writes, “My favorite singer in the place was Karen Dalton. She was a tall white blues singer and guitar player, funky, lanky, and sultry. … Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday’s and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed and went all the way with it. I sang with her a couple of times.”
“Katie’s Been Gone” by Dylan & The Band is allegedly about Dalton. A generation later, she also inspired Nick Cave’s “When I First Came to Town.” Like Dylan, Cave has referred to Dalton as his “favourite female blues singer.” Devendra Banhart has proclaimed, “Without a doubt, she is my favorite singer.” Peter Stampfel, of The Holy Modal Rounders, later wrote of Dalton: “She was the only folk singer I ever met with an authentic ‘folk’ background. She came to the folk music scene under her own steam, as opposed to being ‘discovered’ and introduced to it by people already involved in it.”
The posthumous accolades began appearing within the last several years, as Dalton’s music began resurfacing — in both reissues of her two records as well as three new compilations of unreleased recordings. Cotton Eyed Joe (2007), named after the Bob Wills hit she loved to sing (downshifted into a slow, regretful reading), draws from the tape of a house concert for a small audience of friends from 1962 in Boulder. Green Rocky Road (2008) gathers home recordings from 1963. The most recent is this year’s chronologically titled 1966, featuring songs recorded by visiting pal Carl Baron in a Colorado mountain cabin.
“I sing on a few of those, and play,” Tucker says. “We were living in the hills outside Boulder. Carl was a friend of ours and loved to come up and jam with us. I didn’t even remember it, but apparently, on more than one occasion he had a cheap tape recorder and taped it. The quality is not good. A lot of things are so distorted we couldn’t use them. Like, she was doing this Lead Belly song, and she’d do this ‘Whoop!’ The distortion is so horrible they couldn’t fix it electronically. … See, none of this stuff was ever meant to be put out. If you were seriously trying to make a recording, you would’ve done a better job than most of these tapes. They’re just things that were captured in the moment, for personal mementos or maybe to help one of us remember parts of the songs. Now they’re just these ghosts come back to haunt us all.”
After recording In My Own Time at the turn of the ’70s, Dalton never made another record. She drifted, around the country and deeper into drugs. Lacy J. Dalton claims she had a recording session scheduled for Karen in Texas in 1992, but Karen exited rehab, went back to New York, and disappeared until her obituary the following year.
Tucker last saw Dalton in ’67, two years before she was tricked into recording her proper debut album. The two split up in Denver and Dalton never saw her again. Years later, when he sought to remarry, he says he tracked her down in order to send her divorce papers, which Dalton signed and returned without comment.
Even Baird, now relocated to eastern Illinois, eventually lost touch with her mother. “I was married and having children. I called her and told her I was going to be a mom. There was a long pause,” Baird says. “Then this voice said, ‘You bitch.’ … She never met her grandchildren.”
Baird says she doesn’t mind the revisitations via reissues.
“People keep saying they’ve come up with more stuff, so I guess she’s going to walk the earth a while longer,” she says. “You’re never reallyfamous until you die.”
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
New at Lollapalooza: Perry's open, anti-scale fencing
By Thomas Conner on July 29, 2012 4:00 AM
Music fans inside and outside of Lollapalooza will notice at least two physical changes at this year's music festival in Grant Park.
First, Perry's tent is no longer a tent.
Last year, Perry's stage — one of the festival's eight stages, focusing largely on DJs and electronic music, and named for Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell — expanded to an enormous circus tent with a 15,000-person capacity.
As it proved to be one of the most popular attractions at the weekend concert series, the tent roof trapped too much heat from the mass of dancers. By the second day of Lollapalooza 2011, portions of the big top had been stripped away to allow heat and humidity to escape.
This year, Perry's stage will be open-air like the others and will feature a theatrical set design courtesy of one of the acts, Swedish DJ Avicii.
Secondly, promoters are trying a new tactic to battle the perennial horde of fence-jumpers.
The last two years at Lollapalooza have seen a marked increase in the number of young fans assaulting the festival's perimeter fence in order to get in without paying. Sometimes it's one or two individuals — including several who were critically injured in their attempts last year — but last year saw flash mobs of up to a hundred at a time overwhelming certain sections of fence, occasionally employing boards as ramps.
Organizers at C3 Presents, producers of Lollapalooza, tell the Sun-Times this year's perimeter will include "The Black Fence," an 8-foot anti-scale barricade used in Washington, D.C., around government buildings and during citizen protests.
"The more pressure you put on it, the sturdier it gets," said Charlie Jones, a partner in C3.
Lollapalooza looks ahead: A 10-year deal with the city, paying taxes and standing out among the Big 3
By Thomas Conner on July 29, 2012 4:01 AM
Last year, Lollapalooza celebrated a 20th anniversary and the music festival's founder, Jane's Addiction singer Perry Farrell, remarked to me, "I mean, it looks like this will go on forever, right?"
Never say forever, but Lollapalooza's long-term future in Chicago — where the touring concert series was reborn in 2005 as a stationary, destination event in downtown's Grant Park — certainly firmed up this spring. In a revised agreement consummating the existing relationship between the city and the festival's producers, Texas-based C3 Presents, Chicago now has a solidified tax deal and Lollapalooza has use of the city's front yard through at least 2021.
"We're no longer dating now," C3 partner Charlie Jones told the Sun-Times this week. "We're married."
Plus, according to ads that started showing up on CTA platforms this week, the dates of next year's Lollapalooza are already set: Aug. 2-4, 2013.
Lollapalooza is now one of the country's big three annual pop music festivals, alongside the Bonnaroo Music Festival in rural Tennessee and the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival outside Los Angeles. This year Lollapalooza will admit another record crowd of 100,000 ticket holders per day into Chicago's public green space.
That's up from last year's already record-breaking daily tally of 90,000, and way up from a 33,000 daily maximum for 2005's inaugural reboot.
Can it get any bigger?
"No, I don't think it can," said Michael Kelly, superintendent of the Chicago Parks District, in a separate interview this week. Considering the number of people and available real estate, Kelly said, "We're about at the limit."
Jones (pictured) actually agrees. "At a certain point — and we may be there — there's a tipping point where it just feels too crowded," Jones said. "If we tried to think of pushing it to 150,000, we'd have to ask for Millennium Park, too. That becomes something too big, a different thing. I was at [the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival] the year they pushed it to 125,000. It was too much."
So, like an actual marriage, C3 and the Parks District both now speak of settling in, setting a routine — and fixing up the house.
Dearth and taxes
The new deal announced in March mandates that C3 pay for any damage done to the park immediately following the festival each August. Instead of C3 fixing things themselves, as they've done previously, the Park District will assess any damage and make the repairs, with C3 getting the bill.
Last year, a rain storm combined with high foot traffic on the fest's final day caused significant turf damage that took weeks to mend. C3 was criticized for its speed in making the repairs, for which they paid $800,000.
But Jones and Kelly have been in talks about facilitating more long-term infrastructure improvements to the park, specifically in drainage and soil retention — maintenance Jones likened to "looking under the hood and fixing 'er up."
"Lower Hutchinson Field has become a premier permitting space for the city," Kelly said. "The breast cancer walk, the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, the Chicago Marathon, now Lollapalooza — it's a big gathering space, and that's not going to change. We're going to take a serious look at how we can improve what's going on at that site, how we can make it great for softball as well as for the semis that roll in and out for these larger events."
Under its new terms with the city — a renegotiation that was initiated, Kelly and Jones said, by Jones and his partners, Charles Attal and Charlie Walker — C3 this year begins paying all city and county sales and amusement taxes.
In the previous arrangement, C3 was partnered not with the city itself but with the Parkways Foundation, a nonprofit fundraising arm of the Park District, which handled all the city permitting in exchange for an annual payment from Lollapalooza. Last year, according to the Park District, that amounted to $2.7 million from total ticket sales of $22.5 million.
Kelly said he expects the Park District to receive the same amount this year. The extra amount in city taxes, he said, will amount to about $1.5 million — higher than the $1.1 million estimate in a September 2011 city inspector general's report suggesting the tax be applied to the festival.
"We had to up the ante," Kelly said. "[C3] had to pay more for the event."
As a result, so did fans. To cover the added expense of the taxes, the cost of three-day passes to Lollapalooza jumped $15, from $185 (early-bird) and $215 (regular) to $200 and $230, respectively. The event still sold out all three-day passes within a week before performers were announced.
Parkways was able to earmark its Lollapalooza income especially for park improvements citywide, including playground renovations, Grant Park tree planting and part of the restoration of Buckingham Fountain, which sits between Lollapalooza's allocated concert area. Under the new deal, though, Kelly admits some of the Lollapalooza revenue will be used to shore up the Park District's deficit budget, but he adds, "We have been and will be disciplined in allocating a big chunk of that money to the neighborhoods."
Parkways announced in April that it will cease operations this summer. A new nonprofit division, which will not be connected to Lollapalooza, will start up later this year.
An aerial view of the crowds at Lollpalooza 2011. (Sun-Times file)
Standing out from the big 3
Lollapalooza's direct negotiation with governments is unique among the "big three" fests.
The Bonnaroo festival started in 2002 on a private farm in Manchester, Tenn., between Nashville and Chattanooga. In 2007, festival organizers purchased 530 acres of the land; they continue to lease about 250 acres for parking and camping. Bonnaroo occurs each June and draws about 80,000 people daily over four days.
Coachella now stages its concerts over two weekends at a rented private facility, the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif. That festival, which started in 1999, ran into its own governmental woes this spring when an Indio city councilor proposed a tax on Coachella tickets (approximately $18 per ticket). The festival balked and began shopping for alternate locations; the tax proposal was dropped.
Coachella's agreements with the polo club have been made two years at a time, with the current contract expiring after the 2013 festival (for which tickets are already on sale).
This year's Coachella events in April were attended by 158,000 total and grossed $47.3 million in ticket sales, according to Billboard Boxscore.
The Chicago Parks District estimates the overall economic benefit from Lollapalooza to the city at $100 million annually.
"Because we do this in the heart of a culturally savvy town," Jones said, "the overall economic impact is huge. Fifty percent of the people at this festival are from out of town. You can't get a hotel room during the festival. Plus, we shut down at 10 [p.m.]. After that, the town gets lit up."
He's referring to the numerous official post-festival concerts each night at Chicago indoor music venues, as well as the other food, drink and entertainment business from festivalgoers throughout the city.
Lollapalooza, in fact, has become so attractive to the Parks District that they're looking for other ways to add large music events to Chicago's green spaces. In addition to Lollapalooza in Grant Park and the annual Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park, this fall the annual punk rock Riot Fest will include two days outdoors in Humboldt Park.
The city's openness to large-scale music in the parks is a relatively recent development, Kelly said.
"I was still in college in 1991 when Smashing Pumpkins were talking about playing Butler Field, and people talked it down because the crowds would be too big or whatever," Kelly said. "Years later we were doing Shania Twain and Radiohead in the park, and people were saying, 'Well, maybe we can do concerts in Chicago parks, after all!' ...
"With the concerts we do now, we're one of the largest providers of outdoor entertainment in the state. And we've always got a Dave Matthews or a Jimmy Buffett knocking at our door. Plus, other cities, like San Francisco, have been calling and asking, 'How'd you do it?' So, yes, pop music has become increasingly important to us."
Lollapalooza opens Friday with record crowd
By Thomas Conner on August 3, 2012 10:00 AM
And so it begins again.
Year eight of Lollapalooza as a sit-down music festival in Chicago's Park — with at least 10 more on the horizon — is the biggest ever. Last year's fest jumped up to 90,000 fans each day; this year, a sold-out crowd of 100,000 per day will stream through the gates.
Concertgoers can expect to see added vendors, the usual upscale food options in Chow Town, Perry's stage under an open sky, extra barricades around the perimeter to foil fence jumpers and extra fencing around the park's landscaping (be kind to the bushes — you own them). Here's a look at the set-up.
Gates open at 11 a.m. today. For complete info about the fest, look to the Reader's handy guide. Plus, here are my music picks for Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the park.
Stay tuned to this blog through the weekend, where myself, Anders Smith Lindall and our Lolla crew will update all the music and news from Grant Park.
Important: Keep an eye on the weather: Severe storms are a good possibility late in the day Saturday. (Ask yourself: where would you seek shelter out there — and how long would it take to get there?)
In the meantime, some numbers. This year's 100,000 daily mark is a record attendance. But how does that stack up against the other two summer music fests in America's "big three"?
Setting: in suburban Indio, Calif.
Duration: 6 days (two weekends)
Time of year: mid-April
No. of performers (2012): 144
Total daily capacity: 75,000
Size of site: 90-acre polo grounds (rented), plus 280 acres (owned)
Ticket prices (2012, not including VIP packages): $285 plus fees (three-day pass only)
Reported gross: $47.3 million (2012)
Local annual government share: $1.6 million, plus applicable sales taxes
Local annual economic impact estimate: unknown
Setting: in rural Manchester, Tenn.
Duration: 4 days
Time of year: mid-June
No. of performers (2012): 184
Total daily capacity: 80,000
Size of site: 530 acres (owned), plus 250 acres (leased)
Ticket prices (2012, not including VIP packages): $209.50-$259.50 plus fees (four-day pass only)
Reported gross: $20 million (2012 estimate)
Local annual government share: $1 million given to Coffee County organizations since 2002
Local annual economic impact estimate: $20 million
Started: 2005 (reboot)
Setting: in urban Chicago
Duration: 3 days
Time of year: early August
No. of performers (2012): 130
Total daily capacity: 100,000
Size of site: 115 acres of Grant Park (total 319 acres)
Ticket prices (2012, not including VIP packages): $200-$230 (three-day pass), $95 (single-day pass)
Reported gross: $22.5 million (2011)
Local annual government share: $2.7 million to the Parkways Foundation in 2011
Local annual economic impact estimate: $100 million
Locals at Lolla: Empires, JC Brooks, Haley Reinhart, more
By Thomas Conner on August 3, 2012 12:00 PM
The out-of-state folks who book Lollapalooza at least make an effort to dip into the local talent pool, resulting in often well-deserved showcases for Chicago-area up-and-comers. Last year's side-stage performance by Kids These Days was explosive and contributed to landing the band on the "Conan" show earlier this year. Lolla 2012 spotlights several other locals, including the great alt-rock band Empires (3:20 p.m. Saturday, BMI stage), the already sweat-inducing soul group JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound (noon Saturday, Sony stage) and our own suburban "American Idol" finalist, Haley Reinhart (1:10 p.m. Friday, BMI stage).
Another one to watch is Andrew Christopoulos, a senior at Glenbrook North High School (pictured below).
He's 17, but he's played in a local band, the Axidents, for six years. Christopoulos plays drums in that band, but at his two (count 'em, two) Lollapalooza slots, he'll be showcasing his singer-songwriting chops on the piano.
"It's hard to put a genre on your own music, but I would call it 'folk rock.' It's mostly written for a piano and an acoustic guitar," Christopoulos told Sun-Times Media. "But I hired a full band, Jackpot Donnie — they're all older than I am — to back me for Lolla. There will be two guitarists, a bassist, a drummer, an organist, a cellist, and me on piano, and singing."
That all goes down twice — 4 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday — on the Kidzapalooza stage.
Lollapalooza: Perry's tent, White Panda in the sun
By Thomas Conner on August 3, 2012 2:26 PM
Some Lollapalooza fans wasted no time starting the rave Friday afternoon at Perry's stage, jumping and dancing to the duo White Panda.
Perry's, the one of Lolla's eight stages that focuses almost exclusively on DJs and electronic music, has been under a large tent in previous years. That caused high temperatures to be trapped and endanger fans, so this year Perry's is open-air — an enormous new stage, rivaling the size of the main Red Bull Soundstage in Grant Park's Hutchinson Field. The new Perry's features a special raised deck for the DJs, plus two video screens on either side and three LED strips above and below the stage.
"This is our home town and this means the world to us!" shouted White Panda's Tom Evans (aka Procrast).
He and his partner, Dan Griffith (DJ Griffi), wore panda masks with blinking LED eyes and led the crowd through their typical mash-up mixes, ranging from "Whoomp! (There It Is)" to — yegods — "Call Me Maybe."
The latter got the crowd really jumping — the half that wasn't smirking — and without that big top the Perry's crowd is in direct sun through the afternoon. Methinks the crowd I was watching during the White Panda will have a lot in common with the crowd in the first-aid tents by evening.
Lollapalooza Friday opens with hot rock block
By Thomas Conner on August 3, 2012 7:11 PM
Lollapalooza's first day began, as expected, with a strong indie-rock block in the afternoon. What wasn't expected was the marriage proposal.
Wisconsin native Alex Schaaf, performing on the Sony main stage as Yellow Ostrich, stopped his set midway through and introduced someone named Nate, who came on stage and promptly proposed to someone named Steph. "I met you a year ago and knew then that I'd be getting onstage with Yellow Ostrich to ask you this," Nate told his beloved. Everyone has their dream, man.
"Congratulations, and thank God she said yes," Schaaf said, resuming his show, "'cause that would have put a big bummer on everything."
His set was no bummer, shaking up his bedroom lo-fi by applying extra speed and spunk, even in the precocious "Elephant King."
Philadelphia's Dr. Dog regaled Hutchinson Field's sparse Friday afternoon crowd with a rich set of their slightly skewed, oddball pop. The fullness of the quintet's sound, after the rambunctious but ramshackle Yellow Ostrich, was laced with organ and inventive guitars. Their latest album is called "Be the Void," but there's no emptiness in their quirky '60s sounds, like a funky Camper Van Beethoven.
Tame Impala was next — and the heat was getting to them. After they rambled through "Apocalypse Dreams," a classic-rock marathon that ebbs and throbs through slow-grinding '60s guitar swell, singer-guitarist Kevin Parker stopped to explain something.
"If anyone's interested as to why that song sounded so strange," he said, "I think one of my [guitar] pedals has melted."
This Australian trio started out as 13-year-olds clear back in 1999, making bedroom records until 2007. Now fully immersed in the glare of hipster hype — and the harsh Friday Lollapalooza sun — they acquitted themselves nicely, switching effortlessly between shoegazey Floyd rock, early solo McCartney melodies and T. Rex boogie. Their second album, "Lonerism," is due in October, helmed by producer Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, etc.).
French electronics at Lollapalooza Friday: Madeon, M83
By Thomas Conner on August 3, 2012 11:47 PM
Perry's stage showcases a lot of rising stars, such is the nature of the fast-paced EDM world. Friday afternoon's case in point: Madeon, aka French dubstep DJ Hugo Leclercq, who introduced himself two years ago with six little words: "Here are 39 songs I like." That opening to his very viral video for "Pop Culture," a deft three-and-a-half-minute mash-up of those songs, set him on the path to Perry's stage, where he put on one of the day's more animated performances.
The drag of it, though, was that — despite the big, new Perry's stage being flanked by two enormous video screens and framed by LED strips above and below — no camera focused on the 18-year-old DJ's movements, his unique instrument (the Novation Launchpad) or, most tragically, his jazz hands. The screens at Perry's just flash a bunch of pseudo-trippy screen-saver nonsense, thus wasting the effort of building this large stage with its elevated DJ platform in order to showcase the mixmasters as real performers. Half the joy of watching "Pop Culture" on YouTube is that the footage is static on Leclercq's hands as he punches out all those melodies and beats. At least his jumping around — and, seriously, the jazz hands were cracking me up — gave those of us in the shade something to watch.
Another largely electronic act, M83 — and fellow Frenchfolks — crafted their cinescope sounds on the Sony main stage Friday evening. Bathed in and sometimes pierced by a flashy light show, the band worked through an hourlong set (almost pushing past their time limit up against the night's closer, the Black Keys) that swelled and swirled, nearly every song building with cymbal-crashing crescendo toward a big finish. Over and over.
The film-score quality of M83's elegant disco is well-raved about — and will be applied to an actual film soon, as M83 has been picked to score an upcoming sci-fi flick starring Tom Cruise — and it was easy for me to select their recent hit, "Midnight City," from their latest album (the double-CD "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming") as last year's finest single. Keyboardist Morgan Kibby is an earthy, shamanistic foil to Anthony Gonzalez' earnest guitar rubbing and button jabbing. The band's Friday set strove to pump up the beat occasionally, particularly with other members joining in on drum kits during the thumping "Reunion," but it never got quite fast or furious enough. Like the spiral galaxy the band is named after, their set shone brightly but spun for a long time before burning out. Still, "Midnight City" closes with something you don't hear much at Lollaplooza, in this or any other decade. As the man behind me said, thankfully quieting his chatty friends at the song's climax, "Um, I'm sorry. Are we hearing a freaking saxophone solo?!"
Friday @ Lollapalooza: the Shins, the Head & the Heart
By Thomas Conner on August 4, 2012 12:17 AM
Seattle's the Head & the Heart took to the Sony main stage Friday at Lollapalooza and sang, "Don't follow your head, follow your heart." So despite their name, we know where their allegiance lies — with the impulsive, romantic and less rational of the two.
An unusual sound for Lollapalooza, even in its rebooted era, the Head & the Heart play music loaded with acoustic guitar, violin, piano and tambourine. Lots of real, resonating wood. Add to that the dual singing tasks of the equally gravel-throated Jonathan Russell and Josiah Johnson, and you have a rootsy pop that's, well — if you're over 40, call them the Waterdudes, and if you're under 40, they're the Novemberists.
Unfortunately, playing just as the dinner hour approached, the Head & the Heart's set proved to be a leaden lead-in to the Shins. Despite a few aces — including a new song, "Gone," dappled with lovely harmonies and building to a whomping finish — the plaintive ballads and folk-rock eventually suffered. Passion Pit began playing in the north, and those spunky yelps, urgent beats and lively melodies wafting over the park suddenly made it sound as if we were in the wrong end.
The Shins kicked off their set on the Red Bull main stage with no fanfare, no introduction, just launching right into "Caring Is Creepy" and several older chestnuts. The old songs —from the era in which Natalie Portman wasn't the only one proclaiming that the band would change your life — helped establish an identity, provided enough "Oh yeah!" reminders for casual fans trudging through the dust. While the tunes were recognizable, the performances were wonderfully fuller and more dense. It was like hearing a concert recording of the Smiths late in their career, marveling at how lush the sound gets when just a second guitarist is added. In this case, singer-guitarist James Mercer has a completely new lineup around him after ditching the old band as the Shins moved up to a major label for the latest album, "Port of Morrow."
The guitars packed greater punch throughout, plus organ ("Simple Song") and a tourniquet-tight rhythm section ("Bait and Switch") raised brows and kept them high. The set, though, mirrored the band's recording career. It started strong and grew progressively less interesting, until it ended amid some lengthy prog-rock, noodling nonsense.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: the Black Keys
By Thomas Conner on August 4, 2012 12:51 AM
Friday night's headliners tested fans with a black decision: see the newly reunited and infinitely influential heavy metal band Black Sabbath, or catch a widescreen performance by one of rock's most rollicking and fresh duos, the Black Keys.
For Nathaniel J. Werner, 56, of Oak Park, the choice was clear.
"This is a bucket-list item," he said, while awaiting the Black Keys. "Sabbath? Pfft! Seen that. These Black Keys — I like the blues, and these guys do that and more."
That they do, and did.
Just as they proved themselves arena-worthy in March at Chicago's United Center, the bold pair — guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney (and augmented on stage by a few extra players) — showed they could headline a massive summer festival just as easily.
Introduced briefly by Mayor Rahm Emanuel (pictured at right — no black keys to the city? anyone?), the Black Keys opened with "Howlin' for You" and proceeded to get the audience doing just that, singing along instantly to the song's da-da refrain. Swinging wide through their decade-old catalog, Carney pounded furiously and Auerbach sang firmly while wrenching riffs from his guitar. The sound these two knit together draws from clear influences old and new but never sounds indebted to anyone. Timeless, tuneful and catchy, even while still being sonically dirty and rough to the touch, songs like "Dead and Gone" cause heads to bob involuntarily and make redundant Auerbach pleas such as, "Come on, Chicago, sing it with us!"
Midway through the set, Auerbach and Carney dismissed their support players and woodshedded alone. But, proving their scope, they concluded the show with something much less intimate: a blast of fireworks that spelled out their name above the stage. Humble and audacious.
Saturday weather at Lollapalooza: Emergency plans
By Thomas Conner on August 4, 2012 11:56 AM
Be ready for rough weather tonight, Paloozers.
Forecasts call for severe thunderstorms — a 75 percent chance as of noon, and radar shows a colorful squall line already charging east across Iowa. Last year, thunderstorms blew through on the third day of the festival, merely slowing down a few bands including the Foo Fighters, but organizers tell the Sun-Times they're prepared for any eventuality.
What follows are details from the on-site emergency plan according to information this morning from Lollapalooza producers C3 Presents, as well as a few personal tips:
There's a real-time weather station on site at Lollapalooza. Follow its data here.
In case of high winds: The plan instructs staff to secure items that could be blown around (trash cans, etc.). If it gets windy but not so much that the park should be evacuated, staff is instructed to create "safe areas" around any structure that might come tumbling down as a result.
In case of lightning: Good advice: "Tents, trees and picnic shelters offer little or no protection from lightning. Therefore it is imperative that in the event of lightning in the area that patrons are directed to one of the safe shelter sites until the lightning danger has passed." If lightning-detection equipment on site gets crackling, the crowd may be moved within the park or evacuated.
In case of evacuation: If officials determine that the park should be evacuated, they're going to make the announcement via audio and video, then direct us toward three primary locations: the Grant Park North Garage (25 N. Michigan), the Grant Park South Garage (325 S. Michigan) and the East Monroe St. Garage (5 S. Columbus, with an entrance on Michigan). Look for the signs, blue with white letters, that say "Weather Shelter."
A few tips of my own when facing rain at the fest:
— Wear real shoes. Stop wearing sandals and flip-flops, you crazy people.
— Umbrellas are (a) useless in the crowd and (b) obnoxious to those behind you. Get a cheap drugstore poncho. Covers completely and allows you to move.
— Plastic bags for protecting phones, cameras, etc. Take an extra that contains dry socks.
— The weather comes from the west. Seek shelter in a tent with an opening on the west side and you've sought no shelter at all.
— Safety first. Live to rock another day.
Lollapalooza rebooting after Saturday storm delay
By Thomas Conner on August 4, 2012 6:31 PM
Well, that happened.
Lollapalooza was shut down and Grant Park was evacuated for more than two hours Saturday as severe storms moved through Chicago.
The gates have reopened, and after a confusing but panic-free evacuation fans are trickling back in. Perry's stage is thumping and full of muddy dancers. Some acts have been canceled, but music is expected to begin shortly.
For now, follow the full report here. All details posted to Twitter, too @chicagosmusic.
This has been a test of the emergency Lollapalooza system
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 12:39 AM | No Comments | No TrackBacks
BY THOMAS CONNER Pop Music Critic
with Emily Morris and Mitchell Herrmann
"We need to clear the whole park."
That was the first audio announcement from the southern main stage Saturday afternoon at Lollapalooza in Grant Park. In the next hour, the day's entire sold-out crowd was evacuated from the park — the first such procedure in Lollapalooza's eight years as an annual event in Chicago — ahead of a squall line of severe storms that moved through Chicago featuring lightning, downpours and high winds.
"In all, more than 60,000 festival-goers and nearly 3,000 staff, artists and vendors were safely evacuated in 38 minutes," said a late-night statement from Lollapalooza producers C3 Presents.
Two and a half hours later, the crowds were back in the muddy park and bands were playing on a revised schedule. Storms? What storms?
Here's a run-down of what we experienced:
Saturday's weather forecast had been ominous for days, and by morning the squall line was already charging eastward across Iowa. C3 Presents released the details of their emergency plan, and a few hours later — at 3:30 p.m., after the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Chicago — we all experienced it.
According to that plan, in the event of the decision to evacuate the park ahead of severe weather, announcements would be made via audio and video. (C3 claims both occurred, though every fan we spoke with said they saw no video announcements.) The information was also reported on the Lollapalooza web site, Facebook page, Twitter account and transmitted to 40,000-plus subscribers to the festival's mobile app. Many fans we spoke with had heard the news via texts and tweets well before announcements came from the stage.
Several fans reported confusion about the information given, or lack thereof. "They just told us to get out and find the nearest shelter," said Sara Parolin of Kansas City. "I guess that's where we're going."
Many took the news in stride, and most everyone proceeded calmly and casually toward one of several exits on the west side of Grant Park.
Not everyone wanted to leave, though. Shortly after the announcements, hundreds lingered in front of Perry's stage on the southwest corner of Columbus and Balbo. Matt Colello of Woodstock was one of them. "For those who spent $250 on tickets, we don't want to leave," he said. "Hopefully, it'll be quick."
His friend, Donald Stephens of Chicago, added: "And on the off chance this becomes a huge mud pit dance party ..." He raised his eyebrows expectantly.
In a bit of irony, new barricades in place around the park to keep fence-jumpers from entering illegally held firm as fans tried to exit the park — though several jumped the fence to get out rather than sneak in.
Clearing the park was one thing, and seemed to be accomplished in a timely manner (with plenty of time before the storm hit) and relatively easily. Giving the nearly 60,000 people someplace to go, however, seemed another matter.
As I began to exit the park, I asked staff near the inside gate where we were being directed. I was told to proceed to the next gate where there would be instructions. The outer gate poured us all onto Michigan Avenue, and there was no one giving directions. There was no staff in sight. Fans were simply flowing onto Michigan Avenue, snarling traffic and scattering.
"Once we were outside of the park, there was no information or directions anywhere," said Noah Hyrent of Roselle.
They filled hotels and businesses, some of which reacted against the influx. At a Starbucks at Michigan and Balbo, employees ordered everyone out of the packed coffee shop, even customers who had beverages in their hands. A liquor store near Michigan and Congress locked its doors.
"As we crossed Michigan, I saw all these people looking out the windows in the hotel at this horde of people coming for them," said Kevin Spry of Downer's Grove, seeking shelter underneath the Congress Hotel's southern awning.
One Chicago Police officer, leaning casually against a fence along Michigan Ave., quipped: "There's no place out here for 100,000 people to go."
Inside the Congress Hotel, masses of mostly cheery festgoers congregated in the hotel's bar and in the Gold Room, where some brought their own cases of beer. There were plenty of whoops and yells as concertgoers continued to drink and tried to have a good time despite having to leave the fest. Dan Shaughnessy, 31, of Midway, played for the crowd.
The quick-thinking owner of a bar called Quay commandeered a school bus and sent it to ferry wayward fans to his establishment on Navy Pier.
By 6 p.m., word-of-mouth spread news that the gates were reopening. Lines formed back at the two entrances, and at 6:30 p.m. — as the rain just about stopped — fans were readmitted. At first, Lollapalooza staff tried to make everyone re-scan their wristbands but then abandoned that sluggish procedure for quicker visual checks.
Fans stream back into Hutchinson Field on Saturday for the restarted Lollapalooza.
(Video by Thomas Conner/Sun-Times)
Back inside, the scene was swampy, especially in Hutchinson Field — which was full of gulls quite enjoying the newly created wetlands. Trash cans were turned over and large puddles spotted the landscape. In no time, several young women were purposely bathing in the muck and sliding in the mud.
A clump of readmitted fans clustered in front of the Red Bull main stage affirmed their conviction by singing the national anthem and shouting, "USA! USA!"
One by one, the stages came back online, with Perry's dance stage first pumping out the "Star Wars" theme. Not everyone was back on the schedule, however. Several bands had their remaining sets trimmed and others, including the eagerly anticipated Southern neo-soul band Alabama Shakes, had their sets canceled.
Chicago alt-rock band Empires was one of the unlucky cancellations. After tweeting a single but potent curse word, the band followed up with, "Our set is canceled. Nothing we can do about it. Hard to put into words how bummed we are. Thank you to everyone that traveled."
City officials allowed the park curfew to stretch from 10 p.m. to 10:45 p.m. to accommodate the rest of the acts.
Coming in 2013: Lollapalooza Israel
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 1:25 AM
Shortly after Grant Park reopened to music fans after a temporary, weather-related evacuation, Lollapalooza made an off-topic announcement: the festival is expanding again overseas next year, this time to Tel Aviv, Israel.
Lollapalooza Israel is set for Aug. 20-22, 2013, in Tel Aviv's Yarkon Park.
It's the latest in international expansions by Lollapalooza, produced by the Texas-based C3 Presents. Lollapalooza Chile launched in 2011, and Lollapalooza Brazil began early this year.
"As a musician, I really missed the days when we were on the move," festival founder Perry Farrell said in a statement. "In the last few years we've widened our scope, presenting Lolla to the 'festival generation' around the world. Next stop: Tel Aviv."
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: fun., Washed Out
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 1:44 AM
Once back inside Grant Park after Lollapalooza's rain delay on Saturday, fans scrambled to catch up to a revised schedule. Eventually, though, most just followed their ears.
A whole lot of them, in fact, crammed around the smaller capacity Google Play stage to hear Brooklyn's fun. The crowd wasn't surprising given the trio's series of chart and sales record-breakers thanks to the omnipresence of the hit single "We Are Young." But there was something else going on Saturday night — a level of exuberance that exceeded the already highly pitched spirits the band often generates in concert.
This crowd had just been shoved out of the park and let back in, and they were happy to be there. fun.'s many whoa-whoa, singalong choruses were just the ticket to celebrate Lolla 2.0 on a suddenly cooler Saturday night. When the band finally played "We Are Young," the crowd went wild. The audience in front of the stage sang ecstatically. A dance party broke out on Columbus Ave.
"Oh thank God, thank God, thank God!" exclaimed Kathy Winegate, 30, of Kenosha. "If I didn't get to hear that song tonight, well, we'd have us a problem."
Immediately after was the band named for the evening's activities: Washed Out.
Ernest Greene, the Southern gent behind Washed Out, was pretty happy to be back in the park, too. "We didn't even think we were going to get to play today," he told the crowd, "so it sounds much better with all you guys here."
On record, Washed Out lives up to its name more than in concert. The dreamy, drowsy electro-pop of the group's stellar second album, "Within and Without," is retooled with bigger beats and seismic synths. After an opening number that would have pleased Jean Michel Jarre, the three synth players plus a drummer tightened the grooves underneath Greene's lowly mixed, indistinct vocals.
Before the deluge, Green spoke to me about that early-Michael Stipe view of vocal mixing, plus what's on tap next for the project:
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Frank Ocean, Aloe Blacc, more
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 1:55 AM
Saturday's schedule at Lollapalooza came pre-loaded with excellent R&B. Too bad the afternoon evacuation on account of weather resulted in the cancellation of one of those acts, the widely acclaimed Alabama Shakes, but the rest more than made up for the deficit.
In the blazing sun and soupy, pre-storm heat, sly soul singer Aloe Blacc (E. Nathaniel Dawkins) strutted out to a jumping, genteel start. With a suited band, featuring two horns, Blacc opened by showing how widely soul music can reach — swinging from "Politician," a lively groove stuffed with socially conscious lyrics ("This free country is not so free"), to a funky shaker celebrating more carnal concerns ("Her berries are sweeter and her melons are fat").
Likewise, his cheerleading with the crowd see-sawed between "Love!" and "Peace!" But what he really wanted folks to do was dance. To that end, he made sure we were all on the same page, asking: "Y'all remember a TV show called 'Soul Train'?" He then instructed the crowd to form the kind of dance lines popular on the long-running Chicago-born show.
Musically, Blacc moved through rich gospel, quoting soul standards and hip-shaking, wah-wah funk, all played and sung with a loose-limbed ease but a tight, professional snap. He closed with the bouncy rhythm of "I Need a Dollar," which even included a kind of dub/reggae breakdown. Best part: The sign language interpreter was communicating with hips as much as hands.
Chicago's own JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound opened Saturday's lineup in Hutchinson Field.
Anders Lindall caught that set. Afterward, Brooks sat down with me for a quick chat about soul music, Frank Ocean and how to get an audience into the palm of your hand:
Late because of the rain delay, ballyhooed R&B savior Frank Ocean calmly and coolly kneaded an hourlong set that justified all the slobbering reviews of his recent album, "Channel Orange."
A fixture in the media recently because of a game-changing blog post, in which he came out as bisexual, Ocean thankfully is not just another well-played piece of PR. Opening with an acoustic cover of Sade's "By Your Side," Ocean's depth of vision and talent were quickly fathomable.
An ecstatic crowd around the Google Play stage cheered every breath he took, especially when he buttered them up a bit. "I see we got a little rain today," Ocean said. "I'm happy you came back out. I wouldn't miss y'all for the world."
Performing with a four-piece band that didn't back him so much as they painted sounds around him, Ocean exuded an alluring confidence. And why not? He's got a strong voice that makes two- or three-octave leaps seem such a casual maneuver. He's singing some of the most clever, sometimes quirky and engaging lyrics and lines. He possesses a musical vision light years beyond the modern R&B bump-and-grind standard. Songs like "Novocaine" and "Swim Good" flushed with spooky undercurrents (both musically and narratively), and "Strawberry Swing" swelled into a dramatic, Coldplay-esque anthem. Even if the storm hadn't broken the heat, Ocean's performance still would've made a perfect evening.
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: fields, the Walkmen, Little Dragon
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 4:53 PM
"As Lady Gaga said when I saw her last time we played Lollapalooza [in 2010]," quipped the Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser during the band's Sunday afternoon set at Lollapalooza, "'It's hot as f—- up here!'"
This sounds like a complaint from Friday or Saturday, when Chicago heat indexes were closer to 100, not on Lollapalooza's comparatively glorious third day — cooler, drier, clearer.
Then again, Leithauser was on the Sony main stage, facing the direct sun — and, just like the band's appearance in 2010, wearing a black suit.
After Saturday's two-and-a-half hour stoppage and evacuation due to severe weather, conditions and moods at Lollapalooza on Sunday were much improved.
Grant Park's Butler and Hutchinson fields in the north and south, respectively, are definitely showing wear. In both spots, grass is compacted and pocked with muddy patches. The softball fields in Hutchinson are dry and dusty again, but the tundra around it is spongy in most places, swampy in others. The ground around Perry's stage (southwest of Columbus and Balbo) is something of a dry crust, occasionally punctured to reveal the muddy sludge beneath.
Patches of mud in Grant Park's Hutchinson Field at Lollapalooza on Sunday. (Thomas Conner/Sun-Times)
The only real drawback, though, is the stench. Each of these fields reeks of either an old gym sock or a neglected kitchen drain.
Myra Woodruff, 22, of Cincinnati sported an old-school safety pin in her earlobe and a wooden clothes pin on her nose. "Smell is not the sense I'm here to concentrate on," she said.
Despite cooler temperatures, shade is still at a premium, with lots of fans huddled under the trees near Perry's stage and the Google Play stage, while the sunny patches directly in front of the performers were half full.
The Walkmen, for their part, seemed labored in that afternoon sun. The quintet, with the bloom of a 10-year anniversary just fading, meandered through their set and only seemed to plug into a real power source near the end. Once again in an incongruent setting for Leithauser to be squinting in the glare and wailing, "We're gonna have a good time tonight," this band's traditionally dirty sonics sounded clean and their normally vintage equipment seemed efficiently modern. Their official after-show later tonight at Lincoln Hall should wrap Leithauser's quivering wails in the darkness it so requires.
Meanwhile, an actual band — not a DJ — took to Perry's stage. Sweden's Little Dragon quickly set to justifying why they belonged on the EDM stage, opening with a clanging rhythm and a springy synth beat. The DJ tower gone, the quartet was free to leap about the stage, with singer Yukimi Nagano banging a tear-shaped tambourine. Their deeply soulful sound might have been a bit minimal for the Perry's ravers, but the songs' clean lines and electronic hums showcased a well-heeled, well-armed band. They oughta be, they've been around for 15 years now. So when Nagano asks the crowd if it's OK to play a "really, really old song," she's not just being coy.
Contributing: Anders Smith Lindall
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: Sigur Ros
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 5:23 PM
You couldn't imagine a starker contrast between setting and style.
Here's Sigur Ros onstage at Lollapalooza. They open early with the funereal pace their hourlong set will maintain with elegant rigor throughout. Singer Jon Thor "Jonsi" Birgisson is, as always, playing his electric guitar with a bow. Eventually he begins emitting his pinched falsetto cry — like the call of some eerie, autistic wild — and continues the piece by singing that same cry directly into his guitar pickup. The result is an added echo, a faintly astral projected sound amid the band's chilly, lush, cinematic sound.
Before them, however, lies Hutchison Swamp.
The crowd is large, but not so large yet (in the middle of the day) that they can't avoid the biggest and slimiest of the mud pits, souvenirs of Saturday's brief but thorough storm soak. Many fans are again caked in the grey-green muck, which dries on their legs and shoes in the sun. All this crystalline beauty from this revived Icelandic band, but you keep expecting one of the "Swamp People" guys to wrassle a gator in the puddles.
Jonsi, all bones and pale, pale skin, patiently sawed out his ambitious (if occasionally wearying) compositions backed by the band, which was augmented by string and horn players. Video screens flanking the stage tried to frame the tone of the music by splicing watery imagery in between shots of the sun-squinting Icelanders. That they played as measured a set as they did in what had to be strange conditions likely contributed to the crowd's lengthy ovation.
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: At the Drive-In
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 11:17 PM
The other surprising reunion act at Lollapalooza doesn't have the profile of Black Sabbath but on a good day might be able to go toe-to-toe with them. For much of their Sunday evening set in Hutchinson Field, it was a good day for At the Drive-In.
The Texas quintet revived its controlled, virtuosic, "post-hardcore" thrash in a main stage set peppered with jerking guitar lines, stand-up comedy and technical glitches.
"We are collectively known as Latin Danzig," said singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala by way of reintroduction. Bixler-Zavala's wit crackled throughout the set, commenting on the muddy field's pungent odor ("It smells like a Toblerone!") and filling an equipment breakdown with a rant about shoes.
But most of the time he was yelping and barking and pushing that unsettling, high voice that often falls somewhere between Geddy Lee and Kevin Cronin, just as At the Drive-In's music blends prog and pop, respectively. A table-pounding gem like "Lopsided," as close to a power ballad as this band gets, still showcases Bixler-Zavala's vocal versatility.
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: Jack White
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 11:44 PM
Jack White closed out this year's Lollapalooza with an epic performance of the same kind of blues-rock that inspired the festival's Friday headliner, the Black Keys. But White is more than the yin to someone else's yang, he's the whole colorful circle of modern American music — bashing out rock, digging up roots and careening through country.
Fortunately, he brought along a band that could handle the breadth of material. In fact, he brought two.
On tour, White has been traveling with two bands: one all-female, one all-male. They usually take turns playing each gig. For Lollapalooza, they both hit the stage.
Opening Sunday's show with a serious-looking, suited crew of heavyweight gentlemen, called Los Buzzardos, White — in black, with white boots, looking every bit "The Crow" of rock and roll — began drawing from the scope of his work as part of projects such as the White Stripes ("Black Math," "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground") and the Dead Weather ("Blue Blood Blues"). Without the dead weight, as it were, he could showcase the same mélange of material and underlying razor focus displayed on his recent solo debut, "Blunderbuss." Crunching through "Sixteen Saltines," from that album, White and his moody men ran hot at full throttle and in low gear. Even when things backed off a bit and White took a turn at the piano during "Missing Pieces," sitting back-to-back with the Buzzardos keys man, the force was always fully felt.
Midway through the set, the gents retired and the ladies took over. The Peacocks, as they're called, dressed in white and maintained the hardcore energy and country gentility, continuing through more solo, White Stripes and even a Raconteurs ("Top Yourself") number.
All business, and hardly chatty ("We got lucky with the weather tonight, didn't we?"), White intently screamed, shrieked and growled into a set that rarely let up for an hour and a half. Then came the encore, a punishing blow of recognizable, raucous riffs: "Steady as She Goes" (another Raconteurs tune, which White used for some call-and-response with the packed crowd), "The Hardest Button to Button," "Freedom at 21" (during which the Peacocks' drummer bashed so hard she knocked off a cymbal) and "Seven Nation Army." In the end, both bands took a bow.
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Pitchfork Music Festival kicks off with new features
By Thomas Conner on July 13, 2012 3:45 PM
The 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival got off to a delayed start Friday afternoon due to passing storms. Gates opened 30 minutes later and music was delayed 10 minutes while crews pumped some flash-flooded spots.
First up is the organic drone of Lower Dens and the spunkier rock of Outer Minds. Through Sunday night, 47 bands will perform on three stages in Chicago's Union Park, featuring mostly indie subgenres of rock, pop, electronic and hip-hop.
With a daily capacity of 18,000 fans — Friday is nearly full, Saturday is sold out, Sunday is filling up — the annual music fest is exactly one-fifth the size of Lollapalooza's daily crowd of 90,000.
That does not mean it wields just 20 percent of the impact.
Showcasing rising stars and cutting-edge sounds, the Pitchfork event — derived from its namesake online music magazine, Pitchfork.com, the arbiter of what's playing in hipster headphones the world round — often assist in culling the field, even determining who steps up to the larger fests, such as Lolla, Coachella and Bonnaroo.
Situated squarely in this West Loop park, Pitchfork's schedule and layout are easy to manage and maneuver. It's a fan-friendly and usually Chicago-friendly experience. Ticket prices stayed level this year ($45 each day, $110 for three-day passes), so it's a great bargain.
New elements to the experience this year include on-site lockers for fans to stash belongings, a ride-sharing program and increased bicycle parking. Among the vendor booths and markets, such as the CHIRP Record Fair, is the new BookFort, sponsored by local publisher Featherproof and Poetry magazine, featuring books for sale and a schedule of readings and discussions throughout the weekend from writers ranging from Tim Kinsella to Cynthia Plaster Caster.
Also, for those not attending the festival, Pitchfork 2012 is streaming online for the first time via youtube.com/pitchforktv.
Pitchfork Day 1: Chicago's Willis Earl Beal amazes
By Thomas Conner on July 13, 2012 11:50 PM
Chicago's Willis Earl Beal delivered the first jaw-dropping set of this year's Pitchfork Music Festival. Preceded by a growing legend that's threatened to overshadow his actual talent — discovered as a visual artist and busker, Beal has been trumpeted as an eccentric wunderkind in Found magazine and in the Chicago Reader — he strutted onto the festival's smaller secondary stage as if he were headlining the United Center. He then unleashed a voice that would've filled eight United Centers.
Warming up with some head-turning a cappella gospel evoking Calvary, Beal started a reel-to-reel tape rolling — his only accompaniment at first — and began singing over tinny clangs, dobro slides and bass beats. But "singing" seems a flaccid verb for what Beal actually accomplishes. Projecting a massive, versatile voice that hollers and howls, grates and growls, the 27-year-old Beal's bellowing evokes the oldest bluesmen and the fiercest young rappers. It's a voice that swings wide, high and low — often from guttural yawps to fluttery falsetto within a single line. He's Screamin' Jay Hawkins, then he's Curtis Mayfield.
Beal's acclaimed debut album, "Acousmatic Sorcery," is mostly lo-fi and delicate. His show is raw and loud. Twirling slowly, falling down, wrapping himself in a black cape — his moody performance is dramatic and occasionally histrionic. It wears slightly thin, too, particularly during the stomping six-minute dirges, but it's unquestionably a singular talent.
"You've been very patient watching me up here being self-indulgent," Beal said near the end. The pleasure was ours.
Pitchfork Day 1: Rain, rain, we came to play
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 12:03 AM
With its afternoon opening delayed slightly by a brief but heavy storm, Pitchfork's first day was deluged by a second downpour just before 6 p.m. The music didn't stop, though. Pitchfork organizers kept things relatively on schedule, and most fans seemed energized by the cooling rain.
More wet weather is forecast into the weekend, with a 40 percent chance of more storms Saturday.
Pitchfork's daily capacity of 18,000 fans wasn't quite sold out Friday, and the roomy field even during headliners suggested many fans with weekend passes stayed home due to the weather.
After A$AP Rocky's crew defied the evening downpour, skies cleared quickly and — save for a few muddy spots and puddles — Friday night went off without a hitch.
"I think the sun is coming out," said Japandroids' Brian King as his duo's set got under way. "Everything's gonna be all right."
Pitchfork Day 1: Outer Minds, Olivia Tremor Control
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 12:25 AM
Friday's music at Pitchfork opened direct from the wayback machine.
The first band on stage, Chicago's Outer Minds, drenched the soggy park with shimmering '60s psychedelic boogie. Singer-guitarist Zach Medearis, Vox organist Mary McKane and tambourine-confetti queen Gina Lira harmonize like the Mamas & the Papas, but the music is eight-cylinder garage-rock — much wilder and reckless on stage than on record.
Medearis' Alex Chilton (Box Tops-era) bark and snaky Will Sergeant guitar lines literally vibrate in front of drummer Brian Costello's rolling fills and thundering drops. During "Until You're Dead," Costello was on his feet, pounding his toms like a musical Thor. Right on.
They were immediately followed on one of the main stages by the paisley sounds of the Olivia Tremor Control, a product of the Elephant 6 collective in the 1990s, re-formed in recent years (along with the reappearance of Jeff Mangum) with charter members Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart. Their sunny '60s pop faced down Friday's looming clouds and included numerous horns.
Pitchfork Day 1: A$AP Rocky vs. Big K.R.I.T.
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 12:34 AM
Two rising hip-hop scrappers nearly went head-to-head on the two main stages Friday night.
First, A$AP Rocky hit the Red stage — or at least his mob did. Rocky showed up during the fourth song and proceeded to throw his ADD rhymes at the crowd just before the second storm hit. Rain didn't stop the Harlem rapper, but with his frenetic flow, urban angst and stage-diving antics, little probably could. Championed by Drake and collaborating with Danny Brown, his 2011 debut "Live Love A$AP" caught enough mainstream attention to earn a major-label reissue this year. That was mainly for the slo-mo flow of hits like "Peso" and "Purple Swag." Friday, Rocky was so hyped-up his follow-up, coming in September, might be called "Live Wire."
Better was Big K.R.I.T., a slow burner from Mississippi who took to the Green stage in a Bulls cap and kept telling the crowd he wanted to "slow things down." With beats significantly more soulful than Rocky's, K.R.I.T. (King Remembered in Time) eased everyone through a scorching, satisfying set. His full-length debut, "Live from the Underground," mixes up the soul (and blues, he samples B.B. King) with anti-crunk hip-hop full of — like his Friday set — frequent reminders that K.R.I.T. is just "country people."
Pitchfork Day 1: Feist, Japandroids, Dirty Projectors
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 1:26 AM
The two guys who make up Japandroids have a knack for multiplying humanity. First, guitarist Brian King (pictured) and drummer David Prowse generate enough raucous sound for a full quartet and then some. Secondly, they draw a crowd — one of the biggest I've ever seen at Pitchfork's smaller stage under the trees.
Taking the Blue stage as the rain receded, King took responsibility. "We brought the Vancouver weather with us," he said. Because of the weather delays, their set was trimmed. "So I'm not gonna talk after this. We're just gonna cram in as many songs as we can. ... It's Friday night! Let's have some fun!"
Here are two guys definitely not sorry for party rocking. Playing several bashers from their latest album, "Celebration Rock," they filled the small space with spirited, punkish New Wave jams that electrified the large crowd — like they did at Pitchfork back in 2008 — and could have held down one of the main stages with atomic aplomb.
On the flip side, Dirty Projectors began their main stage set shortly after Japandroids, offering highly quirky, jazzy chamber-pop that might have been more rewarding on a smaller, more intimate stage.
A regular at Chicago outdoor festivals (Pitchfork in 2008, Downtown Sound in 2009, Lollapalooza 2010), Dirty Projectors just released "Swing Lo Magellan," a slightly more straightforward batch of songs, though that's not saying much for these herky-jerky composers. Opening the set with "Magellan" songs, Dirty Projectors presented a cool, jazzy front, mixing in prog-rock breaks and dubby bass into fractured tempos and occasionally glitchy sounds. Dave Longstreth is charismatic and creative, but he's no singer. Well into the set, the grooves began knitting together more seamlessly, and the songs that spotlighted the harmonies of the group's three women — as on the stunning "Beautiful Mother" — reminded me how much I used to love the Roches.
Closing out Friday's main stage was Feist, the not-so-feisty Canadian who became a darling of indie-pop years ago with a little song called "1,2,3,4," a song that wound up everywhere from iPod commercials to "Sesame Street." And she didn't play it.
What Feist did instead was put on the show she clearly intended to put on — a patient rendering of her songs, old and new, with a decidedly earthy, rootsy palette. She even had (speaking of the Roches' harmonies) the female trio Mountain Man singing backup and wrapped in baggy, monk-like robes. Mixing new songs, from last fall's "Metals," and spacious reinterpretations of a few old ones ("Mushaboom"), Feist and her band slowly prodded her catalog. Rhythms palpitated like Native American songs, and the set started off like a bit of a wet blanket. Chatter online and on-site leading up to this set questioned whether Feist was a headliner-worthy act. As she plodded along like Jackson Browne's sister, the naysayers were winning.
Eventually, though, she cranked things up to festival level, grinding into her guitar hard enough to remind us she began her musical life in a punk band. "My Moon My Man" featured some six-string squall before its big, booming finish, and midway through the rocking backbeat of "I Feel It All" she had the whole crowd back. This ebbed and flowed, swelling again during "Comfort Me" and concluding with a self-satisfied grin.
Pitchfork Day 2: 'Embrace the mud!'
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 6:50 PM
PHOTO BY ME
After Friday's soggy opening, the second day of the 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago's Union Park received another soaking early in the afternoon. But a little rain failed to dampen the spirits of the sold-out crowd.
Festival organizers acted quickly to manage the puddles and mud patches, laying down clay and plastic decking, and pumping where necessary.
As one festivalgoer said, though, leading several around her in a chant: "Embrace the mud!"
Pitchfork Day 2: Flying Lotus, Wild Flag
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 11:52 PM
Pitchfork's blessing and its curse can be the diversity of its programming. Saturday's schedule was proof of these extremes — a broadly inconsistent day — but sometimes the swing between extremes really crackle, as it did Saturday afternoon with two divergent but equally exciting sets.
First, California DJ Flying Lotus (Steven Ellison, pictured) quickly dispatched all who doubted that one man and a turntable deck could hold down one of Pitchfork's main stages. An odd booking, perhaps, but in the glare of post-rain sun, his charisma and cheer — not to mention a wise selection of tracks for his target audience (Kanye West & Jay-Z, Odd Future, Erykah Badu and more were in his fluid mixes) — were infectious. When he tweaked the Beastie Boys' "Intergalactic," the crowd — already pogoing in the slop — went berserk. When his time was up, he kept spinning and few argued.
Follow that postmodern party with a purely old-school guitar band. The inimitable Wild Flag continued knitting a '60s psych-rock thread that started on Friday with Outer Minds and Olivia Tremor Control.
But this supergroup quartet (members from Sleater-Kinney, Minders, Helium) see-sawed between more classic, concise pop-rock (closing with "Romance" from their highly acclaimed, self-titled debut) and stunning, feedback-drenched guitar workouts ("Glass Tambourine"), as well as taking turns between songs led by singer-guitarist Mary Timony and those led by Carrie Brownstein.
As if to highlight their roots as a two-guitar band, they opened with Television's "See No Evil," then unveiled a couple of new songs. Their back-and-forth in the climactic swirl of "Glass Tambourine" was athletic. Same for "Racehorse," which they ended by weaving squalls of feedback for several minutes, concluding with Brownstein — in an image I'll long remember — her hair frazzled and in her eyes, holding her aquamarine guitar by the bottom high over her head, with one hand, her other on her hip, as the feedback rolled and rolled. Triumphant.
A bonus of every Wild Flag show is watching Rebecca Cole dance behind her keyboards. Very Peanut-characterish, very endearing.
Pitchfork's known more for experimental and electronic acts, so it was nice to hear some rawk.
Pitchfork Day 2: Sleigh Bells and a mixed bag
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2012 12:40 AM
Saturday was a day of mixed reviews. The weather: dreadful at first, delightful by nightfall. Mobile service: some hilarious tweets, though several of them were delivered two hours late. The video screen: beautifully clear this year, even though its images always seemed brighter and sunnier than reality.
Music, too. Sleigh Bells, for starters. Their reign of terror on the evening main stage alternated between hard-hitting and plain silly.
Pumped-up cheerleader Alexis Krauss, guitarist-producer Derek Miller and a second guitarist, Jason Boyer, put on a spirited track show, leaping and posing to a backing of tinny beats and high-EQ noise. Even in the wide-open park space for Pitchfork — where they also played in 2010 — the sound was claustrophobic. Opening with their now-signature high-EQ guitar assault, they dished music that at times aped Billy Squier ("Demons"), Roxette ("Born to Lose") and a Jamaican Jesus & Mary Chain cover band ("End of the Line"). Give Krauss props for filling in the holes with buoyant stage prancing and fierce orders for everyone to cheer, and give the crowd props for obeying. "I'm coming to get you, Chicago!" she cried as she dove into the audience. She makes a racket, but she makes it look like a blast.
Chromatics were playing for five minutes before I realized that the innocuous synth-pop I was hearing was not the piped PA music. Danny Brown's pinched, nasally, Nipsey Russell rapping was funny but flat, like his usually wild hair that the Detroit MC hid underneath a ballcap. London's Hot Chip filled the good-time, dance-party slot last year ably designed by Cut Copy, but did so by playing a batch of uptempo dance-pop that all sounds exactly the same, even their cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Everywhere." They sounded like everyband.
Pitchfork Day 2: Grimes, Godspeed You! Black Emperor
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2012 1:17 AM
Saturday's Pitchfork headliners both seemed like mixed bags — especially to the hundreds of people who stuck with them for two songs and then bolted (I've never seen such an exodus on a Saturday night at Pitchfork) — but each earned their keep in drastically different ways.
On the main stage, the mysterious and expansive Godspeed You! Black Emperor confounded the curious and exalted the faithful. Reunited after a seven-year hiatus, the nine-member Montreal collective (last here in March 2011, just after reuniting) demonstrated why they are both revered and ignored, building a typical set that was all dynamics but little depth.
What GY!BE does is build tension — and build it, and build it. This is a band whose debut album had three songs on it, each averaging 17 minutes in length. Their opener Saturday night, as the field had cooled and the crowd loosened up, began with a musical murmur, a sound that could have been a sound check, could have been a tuning. Then a single violin note. Some static footage began (the video screen between the stages went dark for this, the better to force concentration on GY!BE's nonsense imagery behind them), drums began thumping, then an undulating hum. They sustained this intoned intimidation for 13 minutes, basically around a single note. You wondered if they even knew where they were, or cared.
From there, the set throbbed and threatened — morphing through Turkish violins and Middle Eastern chimes, unnerving drums that thundered and rattled, and occasional wafts of melody, like half-remembered folk tunes or hymns (I know I heard "Amazing Grace" in there). This was symphonic music as it would be crafted by, say, Crazy Horse.
A wordless wonder was a bold choice for a festival headliner, though only the faithful seemed to appreciate the audience with their Olympian legends. Unlike Explosions in the Sky, for instance, GY!BE never seem truly comfortable on — or even aware of — stage. Saturday's performance, however, launches a 17-date tour through the summer.
Meanwhile, another act proved far bigger than Pitchfork's small Blue stage. Vancouver native Grimes (Claire Boucher) took a break from her current participation in the Full Flex Express Tour with Skrillex, Diplo and others to drop in on Pitchfork and draw a massive crowd under the trees. Like GY!BE, she bewildered as many as she entranced — there was a similar mass exodus from her crowd, too, after a couple of songs — and seemed to be dancing to a different performance than the one we were hearing.
Despite purring and cooing through soft, skittering ballads and glitchy, gauzy pop fragments, Grimes whipped herself around as if she were spitting out block rockin' beats. Plus, in addition to her DJ (who didn't seem to unburden Grimes of her own considerable knob-twiddling efforts), Grimes was joined onstage by two dancers, of the "Solid Gold" variety. Whereas GY!BE is all structure and time, Grimes chucks structure for sound. Not only does she employ her own, trademark baby-doll voice to its full extent, she adds infantile vox humana to the synthesized mix. The result is often creepy, unsettling and occasionally bewitching. She knows how to craft a hook, but she casts them into strange, murky waters.
Pitchfork Day 3: the Electromusical Energy Visualizer
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2012 5:54 PM
Mind you, this is the Pitchfork Music Festival, not another World's Columbian Exposition. Nonetheless, in one corner of Chicago's Union Park during this weekend's annual indie-rock fest, there was a contraption called the Electromusical Energy Visualizer.
Fans enter one of its four booths (sponsored by online service eMusic), don headphones and place one hand on an electric sensor. They then listen to snippets of four songs, each by one of the bands on this year's Pitchfork schedule.
At the end of each song sample, a photo is snapped. Like an amusement park ride, you exit the booth and receive your photo set — each shot overlaid with a color from the spectrum allegedly corresponding to your "musical aura" while listening to the song.
Yes, it's a 21st-century mood ring.
My session seemed accurate enough: Lower Dens (light yellow, mildly happy), Beach House (bright yellow, very happy, see photo at left), Iceage (goofy expression on my face, but no mood response) and A$AP Rocky (no mood response).
Pitchfork Day 3: The wooden letters
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2012 7:08 PM
Fans who visited the Blue stage this weekend at the Pitchfork Music Festival took a moment or two to decipher Matthew Hoffman's plywood sculpture (above).
In letters 8-feet tall and spanning 80 feet atop the park's west fence, Hoffman spelled out, "THESE MOMENTS."
It's part of some on-site art installations in collaboration with Chicago-based Johalla Projects.
Watch a time-lapse video of the installation here, and see more of Hoffman's work here.
Pitchfork Day 3: Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, more
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2012 12:08 AM
The only thing that made Sunday afternoon's block of garage rock at Pitchfork 2012 more scorching and thrilling was the camaraderie between two of the acts.
"Hey, Ty Segall!" John Dwyer shouted from Pitchfork's smaller Blue stage. "Can you hear us?"
Dwyer leads Thee Oh Sees, the prolific Bay Area pysch-rock band (four albums in three years) with the ever-evolving name (OCS, the O.C.'s, the Ohsees). Sunday his band started a half hour before the like-minded Segall on the larger Red stage, and Dwyer knew a lot of fans were torn by the scheduling — and planning to bolt. "Don't go," he pleaded limply. "Stay!"
While both White Mystery redheads watched and pumped devil horns in the air behind the stacks, Thee Oh Sees plowed through a set of rich, textured psychedelic garage. Dwyer and his mates threw their heads hard back and forth as they ground out relentless riffs, and Dwyer yelped and hiccupped. The first song bore down for eight glorious minutes, bashing and scraping like early '90s-era Flaming Lips scoring a post-apocalyptic road movie. Hanging tight to their garage aesthetic, they still sashayed through slower, ambling boogies and several moody freakouts. Segall definitely heard them.
In fact, he tried to repay the favor. Midway through his own set, Segall led the crowd on a count of three to shout, "Dwyer!" Then he noticed that Dwyer had already finished and was standing to the side of Segall's stage. "Holy sh—!" he blurted. Then, with the same utter joy he played his stunning set, he shouted, "Yeah!"
Segall, an even more prolific California garage primitivist (11 albums since 2008), was Pitchfork 2012's great revelation.
Where was the mud Sunday? Not in the field, but in Segall's amps. Thick, peaty sonic mud, tuned for flinging. Opening with peals of feedback squall, Segall and his band — featuring the battering Emily Rose Epstein on drums and equally aggressive guitarist Charles Moothart — blasted through a set of rollicking rock and roll as true to form but just as texturally diverse as Thee Oh Sees. Where Dwyer's band is slightly more cerebral with their clay, Segall is all physical — grabbing handfuls, lurching to and fro, torturing the desired sounds out of his instrument by flexing and twisting every part of his body, not mere hands and fingers. Garage stomps and banshee wails, jangly bits and cooing harmonies, screeching jet engines and screams of bloody murder — hell, not only did he throw in a cover of AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," he turned in some credible blues-rock ("You Make the Sun Fry," a great title for Sunday's heat).
He even made something out of the stage-diving cliché by jumping in and steering the surf — pointing in the direction he wanted to go, out toward the sound booth and back to the stage. The crowd conveyed him just so while the band vamped. When he hit the stage again, he picked up his guitar and kept going. A golden god.
These sets were bookended by other unabashed guitar rockers at a festival sometimes known more for knob-twiddlers and shoegazers. Milk Music, a longhair bar band from Olympia, Wash., played dedicated '90s grunge and whipped their hair around without irony. The Men, a Brooklyn quartet with a Southern rock fixation, tempered their own thrash with slide guitar, harmonica and forays into stoner jams.
Pitchfork Day 3: Lady Gaga and Kendrick Lamar
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2012 12:35 AM
Straight outta Compton, rapper Kendrick Lamar earned a huge crowd at Pitchfork's smaller Blue stage on Sunday. Were they all drawn by Lamar's hard-as-nails flow? Not quite.
Lady Gaga was there to see him.
You read that right. Lamar, you see, keeps excellent company.
He's not a newbie, either. He started his career as K. Dot, making three mixtapes under that name. Now rechristened, Lamar has Snoop Dogg singing his praises and Dr. Dre signing him to his label. (Lamar even has allegedly contributed to "Detox," Dre's now-legendary third album that's been in the works for 11 years.) Pitchfork fans can appreciate that he recently performed a concert with Best Coast.
The Lady and Lamar somehow became friends, and Gaga tweeted about him last week ("What a sweetie calling me this morning to see how I'm doin"). In a move smacking of marketing machinations, Gaga swung through Chicago to play tastemaker.
During Lamar's set, Gaga danced on the side of the small stage under the trees, surrounded by her entourage (which included a beefy fellow waving photographers away). Twitter nearly burst into flames with anticipation of her joining him on stage, but the pairing didn't happen.
Which left us Lamar by himself. Frankly, that's a bit of a letdown. Hitting the stage 15 minutes late, Lamar spent much of his set freestyling — impressively, with an appealing and gravelly street-preacher flow, but he seemed to be doing it most often because his lame, distracted DJ wasn't backing him up. "Hol' Up" is an easygoing reflection built atop some chill Herb Alpert-like horn samples, but after that we got a ride on the cliché train. Leers about sex and alcohol, demands for noise-making and hand-waving, comparisons of himself to Martin Luther King Jr. — by the end of Lamar's set, Lady Gaga would have been a comparable injection of humility.
But she just leaned on the railing, in a black bustier and some heavy jewels. All dressed up, and she didn't go anywhere.
Pitchfork Day 3: Vampire Weekend, Beach House, the Field
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2012 1:33 AM
The 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival concluded Sunday night with three final acts touching on each strength this locally produced marquee has demonstrated over the years: dependable college rock (Vampire Weekend), noodling electronic mood music (Beach House) and a curious, tucked away experimental surprise (The Field).
Three days down, 47 acts on three stages, Pitchfork 2012 was a mixed bag — more mixed than usual, really — with a full-capacity sell-out only on Saturday.
Beach House — sigh. First off, I know. They're dreamy. If I never see a tweet or have it explained to me about their "dreamy" sound, it'll be too soon. But it's often a thin line between dreamy and dull.
When the drug lobby eventually succeeds in making everything legal and taxable, Beach House will be in great demand to provide music for Quaaludes commercials. Depending on your point of view, the plodding pretenses of Victoria Legrand (pictured) and Alex Scally (plus a mallet-loving drummer) either made for that perfect Pitchfork evening gazing into the twilight or a dreary, dark buzzkill. I expected the former but concluded the latter.
Legrand's sandy, deliberate voice pulsated in and out of the washed-out mix, while she and Scally hung back deep on the stage. (If you weren't positioned within a 45-degree cone from center stage, you could barely see them. Ironically, the cameramen were usually in the way, too.) Balancing light and dark tones within their Cocteau Twins echoes, the duo — in a better slot than their 2010 Pitchfork appearance — hummed and thrummed, mixing woozy sounds with delicate brushes and beats. But none of it had enough hooks to keep me from drifting away.
Which I'm glad I did, because I found the Field. A pseudonym for Swedish "minimal techno" artist Alex Willner, the Field on Sunday featured Willner joined by a drummer and bassist. Take the sustained tension of Saturday night's Godspeed You! Black Emperor, swap the bombast for some Tangerine Dream, and you've got the basics for this super-subtle patchwork of rhythm and sound that closed out Pitchfork's Blue stage.
Willner laid down a simple beat and began building dynamics above and below it — so lightly, carefully, applying the kind of noises you can't quite discern, the kind of insistent hums you search the house all over trying to locate. But it was cool, refreshing, and he kept layering the sounds and amping up the rhythm until the small crowd was dancing without most being aware of how or when they'd started. A study in electronic grace.
Now, to the Sunday night main-stage headliner: Vampire Weekend.
You hipsters and your inevitable backlashes. The preppy thing, the "Upper Wide Side Soweto" tag, the premature Spin acclaim, the bassist's relation to Scott Baio — I get it, Vampire Weekend is painted with easy targets. But on paper this band's world-beat/college-rock cocktail is much more affected than has been proven on record, and usually on stage (occasional cardigans notwithstanding). Hipsters love to employ the worn-out Paul Simon comparisons as a weapon. But you could do a helluva lot worse than having influences of such a rich songwriter and producer, particularly from his "Graceland" zenith. As has been argued before, Simon's legacy is overdue for indie-rock mining.
That said, Vampire Weekend missed an opportunity Sunday night to reintroduce themselves. Actually, the problem was that they didn't introduce anything new. "Contra," their last album, came out two and a half years ago; they've been laboring over the follow-up ever since, which they report is about 80 percent finished. From all that work, though, only one new song showed up Sunday. The rest of the set list was, well, drawn from the same well as their March 2010 concert in Chicago and their previous Pitchfork appearance as the hot new thing in 2008.
"It's been a long time since we played shows," singer Ezra Koenig told Sunday's ecstatic crowd. He repeated the caveat later, a few songs before his voice seemed to go (he sounded pretty out-of-practice on "I Stand Corrected").
The catalog is still bustling, spry and fun, especially with Sunday's concerted oomph, driven by the powerful drumming of Chris Tomson. But the new song — a stomping beat, a woven melody — and a satiny new reading of "Horchata" were the only fresh digs. Not that many seemed to mind. A screaming, dancing crowd hung on every tilt of Koenig's guitar and sang along to the whole bit. Still, to task, chaps! Finish that record!
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Paul Williams boasts an interesting and compelling life story. Unfortunately, even by the end credits, his documentarian remains somehow unconvinced.
Director Stephen Kessler ("Vegas Vacation") thus delivers a hand-wringing, self-indulgent film that is often trying, dull and, like a rainy Monday, is likely to get you down.
The diminutive Williams was once a giant star. By the end of the '70s, he'd written huge hits — Three Dog Night's "An Old Fashioned Love Song," the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" and "Rainy Days and Mondays," Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen" (his biggest hit and Oscar winner, from "A Star Is Born"), even the theme song for "The Love Boat" — and was a fixture on television, guesting on everything from "The Tonight Show" to "Police Woman." By the '80s, though, he'd disappeared into deep struggles with drug and alcohol addiction.
Like many fair-weather fans, Kessler assumed Williams was dead. The recent discovery of his error reignited a youthful admiration for Williams and his music, so Kessler began pestering his idol about telling his story on camera. For two and a half years he shadowed a clearly reluctant Williams, and the resulting footage was cobbled together for "Paul Williams Still Alive," opening Friday.
Despite being handed a timeless "Behind the Music" narrative arc — unlikely figure becomes huge star, huge star face-plants into addiction, has-been redeems self with indomitable spirit and a continuing career that's, hey, not digging ditches — Kessler early on admits his fan-boy insecurity about the modern marketability of his subject. Unable to see past his own adoration, though, Kessler decides instead to make the film about ... Kessler.
First-person documentary works if you're somewhat daring (Michael Moore) or even remotely likable (Morgan Spurlock). Kessler, however, shows himself to be timid, whiny and paranoid. The chat segments are uncomfortable because Kessler has no facility for interviewing. The daily-life segments are dull because Kessler is frequently shut out of the inner circle and left to twiddle his knobs. A series of gigs in the Philippines are a huge downer not because of what actually happens but because Kessler won't shut up about his own cultural paranoia regarding terrorism in the big bad jungle.
Thus, this film is about many things that never happen. Williams didn't die. Williams refuses to talk much about his past. Williams — despite numerous shameless attempts by Kessler to coerce him to do so — does not break down on camera and weep with shame over his former follies. (Other things that never happen: Williams' involvement with the Muppets is barely mentioned. "Phantom of the Paradise," ignored.)
In fact, it's Williams' defiance that ultimately end-runs around Kessler's meek machinations to illuminate his own story. "He always looks forward, he doesn't look back," Kessler finally realizes about his subject, two and a half years too late. Williams, meanwhile — ever calm, satisfied, radiantly secure — describes the happiness of his current existence and sobriety, then revels gleefully in Kessler's inability to churn it into a standard tell-all.
"The last few years have really f---ed up the end of your movie," he cackles, "and I love that!" There's at least that to love.
'PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE'
Rated PG-13, 87 minutes
Directed by Stephen Kessler
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Early in October 1997, Billy Bragg and his manager, Peter Jenner, finished a couple of concerts in Pennsylvania and jumped into a car. Bragg and the band Wilco had not yet begun recording their groundbreaking reinventions of Woody Guthrie songs, and Bragg had to see something before they started.
In a couple days, they were knocking around Okemah, Okla., Guthrie's birthplace — walking Main Street to see Woody's name carved in the cement back in the '20s, picking over the overgrown ruins of his childhood home.
People in Okemah are used to this. Guys with guitars make the pilgrimage year-round. The house is in ruins largely because so many wanna-be folkies have carried off its stones as souvenirs. Bragg, a noted British folk-rocker for more than three decades now, only turned heads when he flashed his accent.
"It seemed to me that if we were going to get in close to Woody then we needed to come and at least see Okemah," Bragg told me that day. He also came up to Tulsa, where I was writing then, and a great tip lead to a long interview. "You can read so much both of what Woody wrote about Oklahoma and what subsequent biographers have written, but we wanted to actually come down here and see what it looks like now — take that contemporary feel away with us — and to go out to Okemah and walk the streets that Woody walked and talk to the people about how they feel about him ... We're just trying to get a feel for it."
Bragg channeled that feel into the first volume of "Mermaid Avenue," recorded the following January and released in June 1998. This was the first major, full-length record using lyrics from the then-freshly opened Woody Guthrie Archives, songs for which Guthrie ("This Land Is Your Land") wrote down the words but not the tunes.
To add to the proper Americana feel of the newly crafted music, Bragg recruited Chicago's Wilco. With only two albums out, Wilco then was still saddled as "rootsy." After "Mermaid Avenue," the band began moving in fresher musical directions on the high-waterline albums "Summerteeth" and "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot."
For "Mermaid Avenue," Bragg and Wilco recorded dozens of tracks. Fifteen were released initially, and another 15 on "Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2" (2000). Two months ago, a box set was released featuring both volumes, plus a third (17 more songs) and a DVD of the album's making-of documentary, "Man in the Sand."
Their collaboration paved the way for scores of others — a wide range of musicians who have since spelunked through the Archives and revived hundreds of Guthrie's thousands of lost songs. Lou Reed, Rob Wasserman, Jonatha Brooke, Nellie McCay, Michael Franti, the Klezmatics, the Dropkick Murphys, Corey Harris, Natalie Merchant, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, David Amram, even Jeff Tweedy's former partner in Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar — all have posthumously collaborated with Guthrie in the years since "Mermaid Avenue."
It was a difficult beginning, though. "Man in the Sand," an odd film, documents the difficult "Mermaid" recording sessions. Tensions ran a bit high between Bragg and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett; by the end of the film they're not speaking, and there's no real explanation.
"When Nora approached me, the deal I made was that I chose the musicians," Bragg told me later, in July 1998. "She was very concerned that this not sound like a tribute record. Tributes are nice ideas, but they're often focused on the personalities of the people who record them. We wanted to focus on the artist."
So why Wilco?
"They sound like the ultimate Midwest Americana red-dirt band," Bragg said. "Jeff Tweedy is a marvelous songwriter, too. He really understood what we were doing."
This year is the centennial of Guthrie's birth, with months of celebrations are scheduled across the country, including last month's Guthrie tribute at Metro with Tom Morello as well as next weekend's 100th Birthday Celebration back at the Old Town School featuring Nora Guthrie, Bucky Halker and more (7:30 p.m. June 30, $21-$25). So Bragg is back on the road in America playing some of the "Mermaid Avenue" songs. His concerts feature one set of his own songs, another of Guthrie's.
If you have high hopes of Wilco members joining Bragg during either of his two shows this weekend in Chicago, it's not to be. The band has its own two-night stand this weekend at the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver. Wilco still plays "Mermaid Avenue" songs on rare occasions.
Bragg also will be leading a songwriting workshop titled "Why Write a Song? The Art of Communication in the Digital Age" at 11 a.m. June 23 in Szold Hall at the Old Town School. Registration is $35 at (773) 728-6000 and oldtownschool.org.
• 8 p.m. June 22-23
• Old Town School of Folk Music, Maurer Concert Hall, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave.
• Tickets: $36-$40; (773) 728-6000; oldtownschool.org
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
That singer-guitarist George Benson is one of the most successful crossover artists of all time can be seen not only in the chart and sales data but in the caliber of fellow musicians who acclaim him. Fellow jazzbos like Herbie Hancock and Earl Klugh — you'd expect them to sing his praises, which both have done in interviews as recently as the last few months. But even rocker Lenny Kravitz gushed in a recent conversation: "Benson, please! He's unbelieeeeeeeevable! Have you heard 'The Other Side of Abbey Road'?"
Benson's come a long way since that 1970 album, a dreamy set of Beatles jazz translations — but not too far.
He began as a sought-after session guitarist in the early '60s, playing alongside rising luminaries like Hancock and Miles Davis, and by the late '70s he was singing, too, logging hits on the jazz charts, R&B charts and pop charts ("Breezin'," "Give Me the Night" and "On Broadway," respectively).
Today, he's still singing but back to spotlighting his first love, the subject of his latest album, "Guitar Man."
"'Guitar Man,' yeah, that's what I am," Benson chuckles during an interview from his home outside Phoenix. "This one's got a good selection of songs, not really connected to each other but just telling one story — about the guitar. It was the obvious title after hearing what we got. You know, I got a great band together, and we tried to pick songs we thought we could do well, things the public will believe. People have heard me do so many things, I've just got to find things that speak to my guitar."
Recorded with plenty of space for improvisation, "Guitar Man" features pop standards from various eras ("Paper Moon," "Since I Fell for You" and an intriguing "Danny Boy," as well as "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "My Cherie Amour" and the lightest "Tequila" you've ever heard). The focus is definitely on the fingers.
" 'Paper Moon' — I mean, c'mon, man!" Benson says. "I was supposed to sing it. I taught the guys, and I played it. We heard it back, and I thought, man, it doesn't need any vocals. It captures that '40s mood, the vibe I heard under Nat King Cole. That was a good era. Nat played it very simple, but he was quite sophisticated in his approach."
Even before he began recording as a player, a very young Benson began his showbiz career as a singer: Little Georgie Benson, age 9.
"I wasn't a guitar player till many years later," Benson recalls. "Guitar gigs were everywhere in the '50s, and I started diddling around so I could keep working. Playing honky-tonk, simple stuff. I took a few gigs with an organ band that put me out front. I was 19 and touring with Brother Jack McDuff. People would see me and shout, 'Sing something, Little Georgie!' Jack did not like singers, period. But by the time I left his band, I was a bona fide guitar player."
By 1970, Benson was the No. 1 jazz guitarist in America.
"But I wasn't making any money to prove I was No. 1 anything. I wasn't getting ahead. I was existing," Benson says. "So I started dabbling back into vocals. The club owners loved it. If I did one vocal in the first set, the house wouldn't change over; people would stay for the second set. So I started doing that, and one day [producer] Tommy LiPuma came to me and said, 'George, I heard you sing five years ago, and I've never understood why they don't use your voice.' I told my manager: 'That's my next producer.'"
After signing to Warner Bros. in 1976, the LiPuma-produced "Breezin'" album hit the Top 10 on the strength of Benson singing a ballad, Leon Russell's "This Masquerade." A surprise hit, Benson kept trotting out his silky smooth tenor, scoring more hits from the Quincy Jones-produced "Give Me the Night" two years later. The album sold 5 million copies.
In between, Benson sang a song for a 1977 film about boxer Muhammad Ali. "The Greatest Love of All" reached No. 2. Barely a decade later, a new singer named Whitney Houston would take the song to No. 1.
"I met her just before she recorded it," Benson says. "I met her on the street near the Empire State Bulding. She got her hair done at the same place I took my boys. She saw me on the sidewalk and fell backwards, saying, 'You're one of my favorite artists! I'm recording that song!' One day I heard it on the radio and said, 'I wonder if it's that kid.' Sure enough."
Benson's band in Chicago will include local native Oscar Seaton, an alumnus of Ramsey Lewis' pop-jazz trio in the '60s.
with Boney James
• 7:30 p.m. March 23
• Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
• Tickets, $39.50-$250; (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
This SXSW post is not brought to you by an Austin homeless person
By Thomas Conner on March 13, 2012 6:09 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Perhaps you've heard that the zeitgeist at the annual South by Southwest culturefest is now located in the Interactive segment, rather than the conference's original Music portion. Must be true — the first real controversy of SXSW 2012 occurred before many music critics had landed in the Texas capital.
SXSW is now a 10-day event encompassing rollouts of films, digital ventures and new music. The movies and online jibber-jabber started March 9; the music blares on through March 18.
But it's a crowded event, with celebrities, journalists and industry types jamming the Austin Convention Center and venues throughout downtown. Last year, nearly 20,000 registrants attended the Interactive portion — which wraps up today, just as the Music showcases begin tonight. As you might imagine, mobile bandwidth comes at a premium.
So BBH Labs, the techie division of the marketing agency BBH, tried a little experiment.
They gathered 13 people from a local homeless shelter, gave them mobile 4G Wi-Fi devices and sent them into the throng. Each volunteer wore a T-shirt saying, "I'm [Homeless Person's Name], a 4G Hotspot."
Many have found the campaign insensitive. Wired.com wrote that it "sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia." Technology blog ReadWriteWeb called it a "blunt display of unselfconscious gall." In an online op-ed, The Washington Post wondered "Have we lost our humanity?"
The company paid the homeless workers $20 up front and a minimum of $50 a day for about six hours work, said Emma Cookson, chairwoman of BBH New York. They also were able to keep whatever customers donated in exchange for the wireless service.
When you log on to one of the Homeless Hot Spots sites, customers are introduced to the person providing the connection and are invited to make a donation. A statement on the page reads: "Homeless Hotspots is a charitable innovation initiative by BBH New York. It attempts to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations."
Saneel Radia, the BBH Labs director who oversaw the project, told the New York Times the company was not taking advantage of the homeless volunteers.
Other might want to get in on the action, though. My cab driver from the airport said, "Hell, they can load up my cab and I'll drive around with a hundred hotspots, long as I can keep the meter running."
SXSW dials down the digital, cranks up the music
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 9:00 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Let the music begin. For days here in the Texas capital, tastemakers from digital ventures and the film industry have been unveiling their wares at the South by Southwest culture conference. Tuesday night, however, the programming shifted back to what built SXSW a quarter century ago: music.
More than 2,000 bands will roll their gear into Austin during the next few days, performing on more than 90 official stages. Last year, more than 16,000 registrants attended the music portion of the festival, including artists, publicists, industry scouts and a lot of media.
Music is a hot topic among digital pioneers, of course, so concert stages were under way earlier in the week. Hip-hop titan Jay-Z performed Monday night for an invitation crowd.
Tuesday night, as the Interactive sessions died down, the music showcases revved up. Last year was the first time music showcases started backing into the Tuesday of SXSW week, and there were more this year.
Chief among them was the return of Philly singer-rapper Santigold, acclaimed upon her 2008 debut and not heard from much since. Now she's out hyping her upcoming sophomore set, "Master of My Make-Believe," due May 1.
This being Austin, there was also a crowded fete for the loveable and quirky Daniel Johnston, a beloved area singer-songwriter.
The music programming starts in earnest today and continues through the weekend, with Bruce Springsteen giving the keynote address midday Thursday and performing later that night with the E Street Band, which launches its next tour this weekend.
Got a SiriusXM radio or a friend who does? The SiriusXMU channel is airing SXSW broadcasts all week, including the Friday night outdoor concert by the Shins.
SXSW: Alabama Shakes deserves the hype
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 5:06 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Buzz bands at the annual South by Southwest music conference have a lot in common with those who win best new artist at the Grammys. You tend to not hear much from them afterward. (Last year, conference attendees and wristband fans clawed over each other to get into showcases by London fuzz-rock band Yuck. Who? Exactly.)
Possibly the buzziest of the buzz bands at this year's SXSW (so far) is Alabama Shakes — but this is a band you're going to hear much more from.
Fresh out of the piney woods just an hour downriver from the legendary soul studios at Muscle Shoals — and with only a couple of EPs to their credit thus far — Alabama Shakes is a fiery quintet of youngsters playing country-soul that both Skynyrd and Otis could love.
The anticipation generated one of the largest crowds ever for a daytime showcase at the Austin Convention Center, with several hundred filling a ballroom for the group's Wednesday afternoon performance. The band just played a sold-out gig last weekend at Chicago's Lincoln Hall.
For the most part, the hype is deserved. Lead singer Brittany Howard is a cool storm, one of those young singers exuding confidence beyond her years and presence possibly beyond this earthly realm. She pulls her accent back, often singing through rounded cheeks that add an extra dimension to her growls and wails. Her voice isn't a wide-ranging beast (her high notes are thin), but it's a beast nonetheless, purring like Macy Gray or exploding in very occasional fits of Janis Joplin.
The band supports her with remarkably restrained backing, controlling the dynamics of every song — slowing down when it wants to get fast, and vice versa — like making great love. Each player keeps things tuneful but spare — leaving huge spaces for Howard to snake through, then unleashing rare bursts of carefully timed fury. In that respect, they could use a songwriting mentor; at least half the set features rocking soul numbers that develop the same way, always ending with the band grinding hard while Howard wails something appropriately animalistic and urgent over and over ("Feels good!" or "Yes, he did!!" or "Well, all right!!!"). The band's ninth and final song, the dramatic groove of "You Ain't Alone," followed that template and resulted in their second standing ovation of the set.
SXSW: Little Steven on TV, Broadway, Springsteen tour
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 8:00 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Little Steven Van Zandt had a good chuckle about an alleged rumor reported this week during South by Southwest.
A writer at Magnet music magazine claimed he'd heard that, for their anticipated Thursday night performance during the annual music festival, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band would be performing a version of the Broadway musical "The Music Man." (The writer later confessed, not surprisingly, "I made it up.")
"You never know, though," Van Zandt said during a chat Wednesday with the Sun-Times, laughing heartily at the idea. "[Springsteen] might have some Broadway up his sleeve."
Van Zandt is in Austin this week for a couple of reasons. In addition to the Thursday night show, he's also promoting something SXSW hardly deals with it all: a TV show.
Following his turn as a gangster in the HBO series "The Sopranos," Van Zandt is again playing a mobster -- this time in a series produced for Norwegian television, "Lilyhammer." The show was recently picked up by Netflix as the streaming service's first original programming.
"I was in Norway producing one of my bands there, the Cocktail Slippers [an all-girl rock band from Oslo]," Van Zandt said, "and these writers came and pitched this to me. I wasn't planning on playing a mobster again, but it's such a great idea. ... The Norwegians have gone crazy for it because they love America and rock and roll. They love the spirit of individualism, which is a bit of a contradiction for them and their community-based government. My character is someone who doesn't follow the rules, and they're very used to following the rules. Someone like me being a little naughty is exotic to them."
After the SXSW show, the E Street Band kicks off its tour this weekend. The band performed last Friday at New York's Apollo Theater, debuting the five-man horn section that replaces late saxophone legend Clarence Clemons on tour.
"We'll be featuring our soul music roots more on this tour," Van Zandt said. "And, you know, this year is a celebration of Woody Guthrie [the centennial of his birth]. Quite a bit of Bruce's music is a tribute to Woody Guthrie. ... It just never ceases to amaze me how Bruce continues to write in a way that is vital and very much of the moment. It always keeps us from even thinking about becoming a nostalgia band, because every tour is a whole new everything."
Springsteen is delivering the SXSW keynote address Thursday at noon. His latest solo album, "Wrecking Ball," was just released, and it debuted at No. 1 this week.
SXSW: John Fullbright comes of age
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 11:48 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Let me tell you my quick John Fullbright story before I go on about how mesmerizing and moving his Wednesday evening South by Southwest showcase was.
When I was writing about music in Oklahoma, I covered the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival each July in Guthrie's hometown of Okemah. Okemah has one motel, which is taken over by the artists and production crews during the festival. Folk singers, in my experience, don't sleep much, and every night after the shows wrapped up in town most of them would drag chairs into the motel parking lot and swap songs till dawn.
Every now and then, wide-eyed young buskers would stroll up and try to measure up. Few did — until, several years ago, a teenaged Johnny Fullbright strode into to the circle with a banjo over his shoulder. Tipping his cap, the Okemah native offered to play a couple of his own songs. Soon, Arlo Guthrie's eyebrows raised and he sat forward in his lawn chair, and we all knew we were hearing something special.
Since then, Fullbright has shared stages with Joe Ely and fellow Okie songwriter Jimmy Webb, among others, and he recorded a live album. "From the Ground Up," though, will be his studio debut, due May 8 (Blue Dirt/Thirty Tigers).
Fullbright's SXSW showcase — the first of eight gigs he has here this week — was as perfect as if it were a Jonathan Demme concert film. Taking the stage at St. David's Episcopal Church in downtown Austin, the unassuming young singer stepped to the mike with his guitar and harmonica rack. He appears meek and milquetoast in his flesh-colored collared shirt and flat, parted hair, but — sorta like Kelly Joe Phelps — the square look is deceiving. He started plucking and blowing and wailing a first-person account of God setting up humans for their inevitable fall, and suddenly another crowd knew it was going to hear something special.
Fullbright synthesizes the best songcraft from his home state — Webb, Leon Russell and, by default, Merle Haggard. Just in his 20s, he mournfully considers how "all my life I've tested truth / but truth's not always sound." I'll give him credit for the double entendre in that last line, because the caliber of the rest of his songwriting is so good. He's got a tune called "Forgotten Flower," a thoughtful country lament, that Tom Waits and Randy Newman could fight over.
Possibly unintentionally, Fullbright filled his set on that church chancel with familiar subjects. He opened with "God Above," a searing blues. He sang, "Glory, glory, hallelujah," then played "Satan and St. Paul" and "Jericho."
The last three songs were plunked out on an upright piano, swinging from his own slow ballad "Nowhere to Be Found" to the dancing blues of "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do." The versatility was natural, authentic, untrained. Webb's oft-repeated endorsement predicts "that in a very short time John Fullbright will be a household name in American music." It may not be hyperbole.
SXSW: Ezra Furman, Sharon Van Etten, Mr. Muthaf---in' eXquire, the great R. Stevie Moore
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2012 9:33 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "Is that a dude in his underwear, just playing?" asked a guy who wandered into The Jr bar just off Sixth Street on Wednesday night. Why, yes, yes it is.
Ezra Furman, the mad Evanstonian who recently relocated to the Bay Area, stepped onto the bare stage for his SXSW 2012 showcase nearly bare-assed, wearing only socks and boxer briefs. The rest of him was just the same — wild eyes, spasmodic poses, a spitting earnestness so unnerving you pray he doesn't make eye contact.
Hurling a mixture of songs from his new solo album, "The Year of No Returning," and gems from "Mysterious Power" and his Chicago tenure with the Harpoons, the skinny folk-punk wunderkind bared his soul, as well, in songs alternating between naked desperation ("Bloodsucking Whore") and mournful reverie (a cover of Tom Waits' "Bottom of the World"). In a new song, "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde," he summed up his SXSW moment, singing, "I was hideous and handsome."
"I was supposed to be a wide-eyed sort of singer-songwriter, but I don't feel like that anymore," he said from the stage. "Too bad, marketing team."
• • •
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten played a demure set Wednesday night at Stubb's. Getting off to a late start, Van Etten plodded through several songs from her attention-getting 2010 debut, "Epic," and her new follow-up, "Tramp." I still don't quite get the slobbering reverence for her work. No doubt, it's encouraging to hear someone with a voice this lovely treading the well-worn road of dissonant strumming and oblique, soul-bearing poetry blazed by fellow New Jersey-raised Patti Smith. Most of the songs merely wear that path down deeper, though, warbling over organ and cymbal-shy drums until they reach big crescendos that stumble to clumsy halts. They're awfully passionate dirges for someone who seems so chipper and cheery during her brief stage banter.
• • •
Mr. Muthaf---in' eXquire and his red-hot New York rap crew continued their SXSW gigs Wednesday night at MI Annex on Sixth Street, and the crowd didn't want them to leave. "eXquire! eXquire!" they chanted, begging for one more freestyle, to no avail. MMeX is a weird, Wu-Tang-like mob of half a dozen rappers, and the group's namesake is a hulking, slurring nutjob with percolating flow. Wednesday night, he was spewing syllables so fast and without stopping that he began to slouch and collapse. At the climactic moment, he shot up as his mates punctuated the verse, shouting, "Breathe!" Huzzah!
• • •
Since the early 1970s, "singer"-songwriter R. Stevie Moore has been producing song after song after song — countless hours of tape — documenting the weird and wonderful corners of his mind. As the Trouser Press record guides have stated for years, "'Unsung hero' only touches on the injustice of obscurity for this wry, heartfelt artist whose limber genius." But he meandered into the SXSW spotlight this week for a few showcases, including a typically bewildering set of songs Wednesday afternoon in the middle of the SXSW trade show.
"Why would anyone come to South by Southwest to see Lionel Richie?" Moore sang in a seemingly off-the-cuff ditty about the preponderance of big-name bookings at this year's festival, which was born in the late '80s as a haven for spotlighting up-and-coming talent. "If I had to choose between Lionel Richie and Sufjan Stevens, it would be a dead heat."
A large fella, in shades and with a wild Santa Claus-white beard and hair fluttering every which way, Moore plunked out his crafty lyrics and bent tunes on acoustic guitar. From his bottomless repository of material, he plucked a remarkable cache of quirky love songs, such as "Traded My Heart for Your Parts" and, uh, "I Wanna Hit You" (which he punctuated with, "Pow! To the moon, Alice!"). Looking at him, a deranged Wilford Brimley gargling his notes and strumming herky-jerky chords, the song "Goodbye Piano" took on new resonance: "You're so out of tune / I assume you're dead."
SXSW keynote: Bruce Springsteen gives musical history lesson, celebrates Woody Guthrie centennial
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2012 3:22 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Marveling at the breadth of contemporary pop music, Bruce Springsteen name-checked his own lengthy list of milestone influences during a funny and enlightening keynote address Thursday at the South by Southwest music conference.
The king of this particular musical Mardi Gras, Springsteen hit town Wednesday night and showed up to jam with Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo at the Austin Music Awards. In addition to his keynote speech, the Springsteen blitz continues tonight in concert with the E Street Band, a preview of the tour kicking off this weekend. His latest album, "Wrecking Ball," was released last week and debuted at No. 1 in 14 countries.
"No one hardly agrees on anything in pop anymore," Springsteen said in his opening remarks. He expressed awe at the number of bands booked at SXSW.
"There are so many subgenres and factions," he continued — and then amused the standing-room crowd by listing as many as he could name, dozens of hyphenated musical classifications and creations, from melodic death metal and sadcore to rap-rock and Nintendocore. He ended the list with a slight slump, saying, "And folk music."
"This is all going on in this town right now," he said.
Citing rock critic Lester Bangs' assertion that Elvis Presley was the last thing Americans would agree on, Springsteen said each of the thousands of bands booked during SXSW "has the belief to turn Bangs' prophecy around.
"The one thing that's been consistent over the years is the genesis and the power of creativity. It's all about how you're putting what you do together. The elements you're using don't matter. It's not confined to guitars, tubes, turntables or microchips. There's no right way, no pure way of doing it — there's just doing it."
Springsteen then took the rapt audience on a tour through his own musical upbringing, noting each notable inspiration that molded him — from Presley's appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1956 through poetic descriptions of the power he felt coming from doo-wop, Roy Obison, Phil Spector, British Invasion bands, the Beatles, country, soul, Stax, Motown and Dylan.
He spent extra time on the Animals. "For me, the Animals were a revelation," he said. "That was the first full-blown class-consciousness I'd ever heard."
He sang and strummed most of "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," a song the Animals made famous, and declared, "That's every song I've ever written! That's all of them, I'm not kidding. That's 'Born to Run,' 'Born in the U.S.A.,' even the new ones." He played the riff from "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," then the riff from his own "Badlands": "Same f---ing riff, man."
Acknowledging that this is the centennial year of Woody Guthrie's birth, Springsteen concluded with how he's been inspired by the American folk legend to keep his own lyrical focus on the issues of working people. He was also honest about their differences.
"I knew I was never going to be Woody Guthrie. I liked the pink Cadillac too much. I liked the luxuries and comforts of being a star. I'd already gone a long way down a pretty different road," Springsteen said.
In the end, Springsteen tried to bring it back to music's colorful mass, the overwhelming amount of it, the dizzying scope of its styles as evidenced in SXSW itself. The thread fans and artists must needle out of the experience, he said, has always been the same no matter how many subgenres there are.
"Here we are in this town celebrating a sense of freedom that was Woody's legacy," Springsteen said. "We live in a post-authentic world. Authenticity today is just a house of mirrors. It's all about what you're bringing when the lights go down. At the end of the day, it's power and purpose that matters."
• • •
The Woody Guthrie connection bookended Springsteen's keynote.
Immediately before the speech on the same stage, American singer-songwriters Jimmy LaFave and Eliza Gilkyson strummed Guthrie songs, such as "Oklahoma Hills," "I Ain't Got No Home in This World" and "Deportee." Colombia's Juanes played a couple of his own songs, spirited tunes in Spanish he said were inspired by Guthrie. All three lead the sleepy SXSW crowd in a singalong of "This Land Is Your Land."
A panel session followed the keynote, titled "Woody at 100." Moderated by Bob Santelli, executive director at the Grammy Museum and a Guthrie scholar himself, the panel featured journalist Dave Marsh, scholar Doug Brinkley, songwriters LaFave and Joel Rafael, and two of Guthrie's children: singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie and head of the Woody Guthrie Foundation & Archives, Nora Guthrie.
Nora discussed the pending move of her father's archives — thousands of original lyrics, poems, notebooks, journals, artwork and more — from its current New York home to a new facility in Tulsa, Okla. She also highlighted a theme from Springsteen's keynote about music's many styles, noting that Woody wrote all kinds of music, including love songs and Jewish music.
Arlo made some important distinctions about his dad's legacy amid all the discussion of it in this centennial year.
"There are a lot of different Woodys," he said. "Even having known him along with my sister, I don't know that anybody has the capacity to have fully understand anyone. ... He really had the ability to distill all of us and put it into a way so that we recognize our own voice coming back to us. He said, 'Let me be known as a man who told you something you already knew.' ... Everybody in this room has a little voice they count on that they recognize as being them. My father recognized that voice in him and reflected it back on you so you recognize something that rings true to you. I don't think we're actually celebrating Woody — we're celebrating us. That's the genius of the man."
For a complete list of the numerous Guthrie centennial events around the country, see woody100.com.
Power pop @ SXSW: Big Star tribute, dB's reunion
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 10:32 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — At the 2010 South by Southwest music conference, critics and fans were eager for a scheduled celebration of the '70s band Big Star. The influential pop-rock band was at the height of a popular resurgence, fueled in part by a stellar box set ("Keep an Eye on the Sky") released the previous year. A panel session was planned, a hotly anticipated concert, too. But on the first day of the festival, bandleader and power-pop icon Alex Chilton died.
The pieces of those plans were reassembled in earnest Thursday night at SXSW 2012. In a star-studded concert — featuring a pantheon of alt-rock greats including R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Wilco's Pat Sansone, Tommy Stinson, Peter Case, Chris Stamey, Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer, M. Ward and many more, plus Big Star's lone survivor, drummer Jody Stephens — musicians inspired by the band, complete with a 12-piece orchestra, performed the whole of Big Star's "Third," their emotionally tangled and rightly acclaimed album recorded in 1974 and released by 1978.
Stamey — also appearing several times at SXSW this week with the reunited dB's (see below) — has made these "Third" gigs into something of a pet project, performing them a few times ahead of the festival. But Thursday's gig, back in something of an emotional center for the band and its fans, resonated with obvious love from the musicians, especially a smiling Stamey, who never sang but acted as bandleader.
Mixing up the album's various sequences, the show opened with M. Ward on piano meandering through Eden Ahbez's "Nature Boy," an outtake from "Third." Players and singers then started cycling behind the microphone. British pub band the Dunwells delivered "Take Care" with Irish balladry and an accordion. The Mayflies' Matt McMichaels lead a steady "Jesus Christ." Auer, who had joined a revived lineup of Big Star, drove slowly through "Black Car," fueled by the string quartet.
Standouts included Stinson, formerly of the Replacements, redeeming himself with a solid version of "Nightime." Watching him in his skinny plaid suit and hipster hat, one could almost forget he now slums in the reconstituted Guns N' Roses. Peter Case, once a svelte New Wave rocker in the Plimsouls, appeared shaggy and bearded and did his best Van Morrison impression through "Stroke It Noel" (Stamey's smile was a thousand watts through that one). Sansone's "You Can't Have Me" was powerful even without the wailing saxophone and the two drum solos from Stephens.
Stephens himself stepped out from behind the kit to sang a couple of songs, including a string-laden "Blue Moon" beautifully arranged with a Pachelbel's Canon sway.
R.E.M.'s Mike Mills originally was scheduled to be on stage for the show, but he canceled due to illness. The former band's guitarist, Buck, appeared instead. He merely lurked in the background for two songs, the cover of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" and "You Can't Have Me."
The show closed with "Thank You Friends," featuring most of the cast back on stage, like a traditional "This Land Is Your Land" folk finale.
The Big Star concert followed a screening of a documentary, still in progress, called "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" from director Drew DeNicola.
• • •
Stamey's a busy boy at SXSW 2012. In addition to corralling that large cast of players for the Big Star tribute, he's got his own showcase on Saturday, plus he and the reunited dB's are scheduled six times here this week.
Wednesday afternoon was their first showcase, on the Dogwood patio on West Sixth Street. Featuring originals Stamey, singer-guitarist Peter Holsapple and drummer Will Rigby, plus acclaimed Southern producer and artist Mitch Easter on bass, this latest revival of the beloved '80s power-pop group is hawking a new album, "Falling Off the Sky," due in June.
They utilized their showcase to show off many of the new tracks — as jangly and tuneful as ever. Holsapple insists the new album is "a great summertime record," and as he sang the new "World to Cry," a wind-blown tree in the courtyard approved by showering the tightly packed audience with new buds.
It's not all sunshine and tanlines. Another new song jangled over a martial rhythm and lyrics of lament and paralysis. Stamey remarked, "On my tombstone, I want, 'He wrote one great riff.'" Then he added, "Plus a lot of depressing songs." He then ripped a scary, dissonant solo from the heart of "Happenstance," which the band balanced with the gentle waves of melody in "Love Is for Lovers."
Their official showcase is tonight.
• • •
Fast forward to the 21st century: Power-pop rocker Brendan Benson was back on stage as a solo act Thursday night. Jack White's partner in the Raconteurs, Benson funnels most of his melodic talents into his solo albums. He has yet to make a bad one, and his next, "What Kind of World," is due in April on his new independent label Readymade.
His Thursday showcase wasn't as flawless as his records. Stringy-haired and a little adrift, Benson charged gamely through some new songs, though one had to be abandoned after the first verse; he tried to restart it, but flubbed something again and moved on into a duo of the Raconteurs' "Hands" and his own "Cold Hands (Warm Heart)" (in which he laments, "Why does it always happen...?").
SXSW: Fiona Apple's splendid case of nerves
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 12:05 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Alabama Shakes might be one of the buzziest new bands at this year's South by Southwest music conference, but Fiona Apple is the one of the hottest returning-act tickets. After not having been seen outside of Los Angeles in years, and with her last record of emotionally taut pop-cabaret released in 2005, two lines for her second showcase Thursday night snaked around the block in different directions.
Performing in a Presbyterian church, Apple strode purposefully onto a candlelit stage with a four-piece band and launched into "Fast as You Can." Still a frenetic ball of anxiety, when Apple stands at a microphone without a piano to occupy her hands her nervous energy nearly flings her limbs apart. Thursday night she wore a white shawl over her shoulders, which she immediately took to flipping and waving about like a manic Stevie Nicks. Banging fists against her body, flailing her arms, pounding the piano — one senses that without the music to focus her energy she'd go utterly mad. Then again, she can rein herself and become the perfect picture of Marlene Dietrich smolder, as she did during "Paper Bag."
Apple's voice is not a smooth or delicate instrument. It's guttural and trembling and sounds ravaged by a prior hour of sobbing; midway through her Thursday concert, she made a brief show of spraying some salve into the back of her throat. The songs fit the sound — lyric after lyric of man after man who doesn't understand her (the dolt who won't even kiss her in the right place in the new "Anything We Want") and heaps of self-doubt ("I'm gonna f--- it up" from "Mistake"). "Not that I go to church or anything," Apple said, gazing up at the shadowy altar, "but I'd like to apologize to the building itself for my cursing."
The band supports the crackling tension with herky-jerky soul-jazz phrases, as if Elvis Costello's "Spike" is drowning his sorrows at L.A.'s Largo club (home of the acclaimed residencies curated by Apple producer and compatriot Jon Brion). Prone to lengthy vamps and calliope-like refrains, the music's drunken gentility was often pierced by tinny, edgy solos from her guitarist. Every song was a suspense thriller, and as Woody Allen said, "I hope it lasts."
Briefly, anyway — her SXSW showcases kick off a tiny tour, just a few dates including two sold-out shows Sunday and Monday at Chicago's Lincoln Hall.
Apple's new album returns to her penchant for lengthy titles — (inhale) it's "The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do" — is scheduled for a June release.
SXSW hip-hop fusion: K. Flay, Idle Warship, Robert Glasper
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 5:51 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Kristine Flaherty grew up in Wilmette. She went to Stanford. She's also a helluva rapper.
With frenetic flow and live-wire, chicken-dance moves, K. Flay barreled through a Friday showcase at Austin's Red Eyed Fly, crumpling labels and defying genres. Backed by an excellent live drummer, Nicholas Suhr, she crafted loops and samples with real finesse, utilizing grinding guitar sounds and squawky electronic noises for melody and music more than mere beats and punctuation. "We're going to go to a fun place in our minds," she said by way of introducing one song. It was less invitation than advisory — she picked up drumsticks and attacked her own percussion pad, and she and Suhr lost themselves momentarily in a rhythmic freakout of ecstatic proportions.
K. Flay's sharpest weapon, though, is her fast-talking tongue. Her words-per-minute reached the red line almost every time. One song began with a slow, easygoing beat (no drummer), as she started rapping along. The beat kept modulating, faster and faster, and for three or four minutes she kept slinging syllables without a single flub or nonsense gibberish. Who knows what she wound up saying? But given the rest of her wisecracking, hard-hearted material -- all that's out thus far is an EP, "Eyes Shut," available free on her web site -- it's worth hearing at any speed.
• • •
Idle Warship — a new collaboration between acclaimed rapper Talib Kweli and Philly soul singer Res — released an album last fall that was mostly great, a fizzy mix of hip-hop, R&B and rock with just the right balance between all three. The group's SXSW showcases were highly anticipated — but, alas, their Friday afternoon show was ho-hum.
Backed by a live quartet, Kweli and Res ping-ponged their vocal duties and spent an inordinate amount of time asking the crowd for cheers instead of earning them. Kweli turned the word "soul" in one song into a falsetto, drawn-out "Soul Train" nod, but the music, which is buoyant and bouncy on record, lurched and lagged live. Even the synth underpinning of Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night" in the song "Steady," which eventually morphed into the whole band singing the Eurhythmics' "Sweet Dreams," failed to brighten the desperate energy on stage. The term "rap-rock" has certain negative connotations; this isn't really rap-rock, but it's close. A 21st-century Digable Planets, unfortunately, they ain't.
• • •
In one sense, I'd like to thank the sound engineers who had difficulty getting things in gear for the Robert Glasper Experiment showcase late Thursday night at the Elephant Room. Without their delay, some room in the tiny, dank club might not have opened up and I'd have missed the whole show standing on queue. The sound was substandard even when the show got under way, but those who made it in heard enough to justify the hype that brought us there.
Glasper is a hip-hop wunderkind. Glasper is a jazz juggernaut. A pianist, a Texas native, he seems to be knitting a new kind of fusion. A set that opens with Coltrane (sax player Casey Benjamin is pretty wicked, see video below) and nearly winds up with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" might only turn the head of zeitgeist interpreters like Brad Mehldau, but Glasper's quartet followed their open-minded explorations through the jazz tones, hip-hop beats and raucous rock with more ferocity than irony. His latest album, "Black Radio" (Blue Note), does the same thing and features guests like Mos Def and Chicago's Lupe Fiasco.
Occupy SXSW: Tom Morello carries Woody Guthrie torch through protest showcase, street party
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 10:20 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — During his keynote speech at this year's South by Southwest music conference, Bruce Springsteen referred to folksinger Woody Guthrie as "a ghost in the machine." In the centennial year of his birth, Guthrie has certainly haunted SXSW 2012. Springsteen and many others have sung his songs. "Woody at 100," a panel session featuring his children, Nora and Arlo Guthrie, considered his legacy.
Then Friday night, Chicago-area native Tom Morello capped off his showcase in the middle of the street, leading a throng of Occupy Austin demonstrators in a sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land."
"I am the Nightwatchman and this is a one man revolution!" said Morello (who performs solo under the moniker The Nightwatchman) at the beginning of his SXSW showcase, scheduled inside the Swan Dive bar near Sixth Street and Red River in downtown Austin.
But days earlier, Morello began reorganizing what the festival had programmed for him. His showcase, he declared, would become Occupy SXSW — all 99 percenters welcome. "SXSW has a lot of specialty shows — record companies, vodka companies, promoters and things like that," he told Rolling Stone on Tuesday. "I thought it was important that at a music gathering of that size, to have a place where the rebels, revolutionaries, rockers, rappers and the 99 percent could gather and have a mighty SXSW throw down."
Via social media and online networks, Occupy Austin spread the word and gathered Friday at the state capitol three hours before Morello's midnight showcase. The group of nearly 100 began marching toward the downtown streets already crowded with SXSW registrants and hopeful music fans.
How do you get a mob to move through a mob? By dancing. The benevolent Occupiers rolled a sound system with them, blaring mostly disco and dance tunes but also raising a ruckus with "Killing in the Name" by Rage Against the Machine, Morello's former hard rock band. About every block, they'd stop and dance, as well as wave some signs and hand out fliers. At Sixth and Brazos, the assembly inadvertently blocked traffic, which laid on the horns. The honking, however, simply raised more cheers and whoops.
Slowly, the demonstrators made their way down Sixth Street toward Morello's venue. One large banner reading "F--- the Police" was its own crowd control issue, because gawking passers-by insisted the bearers stop -- so they could take their picture with it. Irony of ironies: Midway down the street the group had to detour slightly after being blocked by a drum circle.
Morello started his official showcase about half an hour late, playing a few songs by himself before bringing on his latest band, the Freedom Fighter Orchestra — and, later, special guest Wayne Kramer from Detroit punk legend the MC5 — to tear through typically fiery Nightwatchman songs, including "Save the Hammer for the Man" and "Union Town," as well as Rage's "Bulls on Parade." The previous night, Morello had joined Springsteen on stage during his SXSW concert; Friday, Morello played Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," dedicating it to "the only Boss worth listening to."
As his official timeslot ended, Morello told the crowd — primarily SXSW badge-holders inside — to follow him outside. There, the largely uncredentialed Occupy crowd had been watching the showcase on a video projected on the wall. Morello proceeded to start a second showcase in the middle of the street, which he called "the people's venue" — carrying his acoustic guitar, which has "Whatever It Takes" scrawled on it (Guthrie's guitar famously sported the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists") — and leading the crowd in a rollicking sing-along of "This Land."
Lack of a PA didn't stop him — not when you have the "human microphone."
"Mic check!" Morello called, and the crowd began repeating him. In a very Obama-like delivery, he went on: "They can turn off the PA, but they can't shut this party down!"
He told a tale about guitar factory workers in South Korea who were fired because they formed a union. Using the human mic, he taught the crowd the chorus to his "World Wide Rebel Songs" and lead another sing-along.
He then ended the event with yet another Guthrie quip: "Take it easy," he shouted, "but take it!"
Catch Morello when he leads a Woody Guthrie tribute concert May 19 at Chicago's Metro, featuring Holly Near, the Klezmatics, Jon Langford, Bucky Halker and more.
SXSW: Hospitality, Ava Luna, Joe Pug
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 11:55 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — There's buzz, and there's buzz. When people insist you see a band at South by Southwest, it's usually dicey. When people recommend a band like this — "Aw, Hospitality. They're really good. I'd like to see them again" — that you take a little more seriously.
The buzzy Brooklyn band's Friday night showcase at Frank was definitely worth the recommendations, and then some. Unassuming and sometimes unobtrusive, Hospitality segued from sound check to set without any fanfare or introduction; the snugly packed crowd in the small bar simply enjoyed the revelation that, hey, that beautiful music is the room's centerpiece now.
Hospitality, like its namesake, creeps up like that, anyway.
Creating a sound way bigger than the sum of its basic quartet lineup, this is indie-pop with bright colors, effervescent arrangements and, most importantly, real swing. Underneath the big, fat, chiming guitar chords and singer-guitarist Amber Papini's conversational patter is usually a firm beat, certainly a supple groove thanks to left-handed bassist Brian Betancourt. They could probably go toe-to-toe with most dance-rockers from the first wave (Franz Ferdinand, etc.), but they'd also have a calming effect on them. "The Right Profession," from this year's self-titled debut, certainly moves, and "Friends of Friends" enjoys a groovy dance break, but other songs sometimes noodle, sometimes vamp, sometimes slip into a positively Pink Floyd reverie.
• • •
If Steely Dan worked to sound like the actual future, rather than Donald Fagen's nostalgic 1950s Worlds Fair perspective on it, they might sound something like Brooklyn's Ava Luna. A thrilling, lurching, bewildering, surprising frenzy of genre-splicing, this sextet's Friday night return to SXSW at the Iron Bear club rocked and grooved and glitched.
Driven by rhythms that stutter and fray, Ava Luna's 21st-century rock 'n' soul is humanized by no-nonsense vocals. Becca Kauffman and Felicia Douglass bring seriousness and sass, when called for, but it's singer-guitarist Carlos Hernandez that embodies the band's schizophrenic joy. Playing with an ADD tic justifying lyrics like, "If I could focus," Hernandez sings like a less-somnambulant James Blake — all heady methol and melancholy. It's headbanging dubstep, it's postmodern soul, full of sound and fury, and when some feedback began ebbing and flowing between songs — hey, some of us thought it was just part of the band's space-age sound.
• • •
Chicago's Joe Pug sounds like a native down here in Texas. Biting his lip, chewing his accent, flashing his winsome smile or sometimes wincing with emotion, Pug is the picture of down-home earnestness.
Squeezing in just five songs for the Folk Alliance showcase on Saturday at Threadgill's, Pug played a handful of thoughtful country-folk tunes from his second album, "The Great Despiser," due next month. That's after he broke a guitar string — on the first strum of the first chord in the first song -- which was surprising given how tender and delicate most of the material is, augmented here with only an occasional electric guitarist and a stand-up bassist. But the new album features guests such as the Hold Steady's Craig Finn, so it's gonna roll. To close, Pug was joined by Austin music legend Harvey Thomas Young for his song, previously covered by Pug, "Start Again."
SXSW: Don Cornelius, 'Soul Train' celebrated
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 4:54 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — "Soul Train" creator and host Don Cornelius was left out of the Grammys' "in memorium" slide show last month, barely two weeks after the Chicago television pioneer was found dead of an apparent suicide, but he was celebrated Saturday at the annual South by Southwest music conference in the Texas capital.
At an event called "'Soul Train' Tribute to Don Cornelius," NPR's Dan Charnas conducted an amiable onstage chat with Don's son Tony Cornelius about the TV music show's history and legacy.
"If he'd come back here and see the love from those who miss him so much, I wonder, would he decide to stay?" Tony Cornelius asked during the session. "He had so much love to live for. It hurts me that he's not here."
"Soul Train" was one of TV's longest-running syndicated shows, airing for 36 years. Launched at Chicago's WCIU in 1970, the music performance and dance program went national the following year and was crucial in showcasing black soul and R&B artists to a wider audience, including Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson.
"Dad talked about that quite often," Cornelius said. "He found a need, and he served it. There was a need to allow not only the music of black Americans but kids an opportunity to express themselves."
Charnas showed numerous video clips -- "Soul Train" performances, dancers, pivotal moments, Afro Sheen commercials (the sponsorship of Chicago-based Johnson Products was important to the show's early survival) -- and Cornelius commented.
"When I watch these clips, what comes to mind that people don't understand is these performances were about relationships. It wasn't, 'I want to do "Soul Train,"' it was friendships that developed over time," Cornelius said.
Many of those relationships began early in Chicago, where Don Cornelius negotiated complete ownership of "Soul Train" at WCIU because "no one believed" in the show, Tony Cornelius said.
Tony Cornelius was around age 12 when "Soul Train" premiered. He worked as a runner, cable mover, lighting operator and more throughout the years, eventually becoming an executive producer. From the start, he recalled, "Soul Train" was a family affair.
"My most vivid memory is my mother writing out cards of all the kids who wanted to dance on the show from high schools around the area," he said.
"The groundswell in Chicago was so exciting that [Don] decided Los Angeles would be the place to take it. That's where the stars were, where the acts were."
He took one thing with him, though: the Scramble Board.
Members of the audience were often selected for the Scramble Board, where they would reorder a jumbled set of letters to spell the name of a prominent black American. Don Cornelius later admitted that the gimmick was always fixed.
"It's funny, but it's true," Tony Cornelius said. "It's something he felt extremely strong about. We were speaking to the world, not just the dancers, and informing anyone who didn't know Stevie Wonder's name or Thurgood Marshall's name how to spell it and who they were."
Cornelius said years later he suggested to his father that they update the Scramble Board to something digital or more contemporary. Don refused, saying he wanted to maintain that set piece — the one piece of the Chicago set that traveled to L.A.
In honor of his father, Cornelius said the family has created the Don Cornelius Foundation to raise awareness, prevention and support for those contemplating suicide and aid for its survivors.
SXSW global: K-pop, Juanes, Bensh, Noa Margalit
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2012 12:14 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — This year's South by Southwest features music acts from every continent except Antarctica (those penguins aren't as musical as you've been lead to believe). Here's some of the international flavor I sampled this week:
• • •
The panel session at SXSW 2012 was titled with a question — "Do Music Moguls Know a Secret About K-Pop?" — but the non-insider query is simpler: Do you know what K-pop is?
It's a genre of hyper-produced, often sugary sweet pop music mostly out of South Korea. It's got its own Billboard chart, and in December launched its own festival (K-Pop World, Dec. 7 in Seoul). According to the moderator of this industry panel, it's "a huge thing across Asia and other parts of the world," and it's about to invade the states.
Earlier in the year, I suggested 2012 might have a more worldly sound, including more K-pop. Already in the United States, South Korean idol Kim Hyun-a has attracted media attention, and when K-pop acts tour this country it's not just their music that turns American heads.
"People often are stopping because of how many people show up" to these concerts, said Flowsion Shekar, founder of Koreaboo, a Korean news blog.
David Zedeck, a booking agent at Creative Artists Agency, said he's selling out 1,700 to 2,500-capacity venues with K-pop, even in interior cities like Atlanta, Kansas City and Denver. The group Girls Generation announced via Twitter that they would premiering a new video at a New York Best Buy. "We had 1,500 kids show up on a school day — from a tweet," he marveled. "This is bigger than anyone thinks it is."
Other prominent K-pop acts include Bigbang, JYP, the Wonder Girls and SMTown.
"Even though it comes from Korea, it's not of or for Korea anymore," said Jeff Yang, the Tao Jones columnist for the Wall Street Journal ("It wasn't my idea," he said sheepishly of his column's name). "It's become a world music. There are more people who don't understand Korean listening to K-pop than in Korea."
Yang predicted K-pop could develop in America one of two ways: It could become like Latin music, a cultural identifier for Asian-American communities, or it could establish itself as a platform like hip-hop, inviting collaboration and eventual evolution into something larger.
Some of the latter already is happening. Kanye West previously worked with the trio JYJ (rapping on the single "Ayyy Girl") and has said he plans to do more with the group. Snoop Dogg recently appeared on a track by Girls Generation, and DJ Swizz Beatz says he's hoping to help bring K-pop acts like Bigbang (currently atop the K-pop charts, No. 1 and 2) to America.
• • •
In addition to performing his own and Woody Guthrie's song immediately before Bruce Springsteen's keynote address at SXSW 2012 — one of his first English-language performances — Colombian singer Juanes has been making multiple appearances at the festival all week. He discussed his upcoming May album, "Juanes MTV Unplugged," during a Friday panel session, then performed during the Latin rock showcase later that night.
In an AP interview, he celebrated the cultural smorgasbord that is SXSW: "It's such a great opportunity to interact together and exchange culture. I just feel the world now and the world is absolutely sick, you know, so I just see music and culture and art in general as a great idea to change at least our own environment and just connect people to the music. You can just go and walk around the street and you can see bands from I don't know, wherever, and they can sing in Chinese if you want. You just have the opportunity to connect with somebody else you didn't know, and that's good."
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The sheer volume of music at SXSW makes random discoveries possible, probable and the payoff is often good. Thursday night I stopped for stir-fry at one of Austin's better food trucks downtown near Fifth and Brazos. On the corner a trio of Austrian vagabonds was playing to anyone who'd stop and listen. They're called Bensh, and they don't sound like a sidewalk band. Good-spirited pop with flourishes of electronics and gypsy bounce, Bensh's fluid, well-crafted pop caused me to scribble a seemingly bizarre list of comparisons in my notebook: Luka Bloom, Deathray, Syd Barrett, Animal Collective, the Monochrome Set. Much spunkier live than on record, Bensh still made a great impulse download that was perfectly dreamy in the earbuds during a pedicab ride home.
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A showcase of musicians from Israel, sponsored by the Israeli Consul, ran all day Friday in a downtown park. I caught an acoustic set by Noa Margalit, from the rock band the Car Sitters. Listening to her stoic personal songs, you'd never guess how energetic the Car Sitters usually are. Tel Aviv's Margalit — breathy, barefoot, bar-chording the heck out of her guitar — played things close to the vest, at least sonically. Lyrically, she was raging about politics and quality of life, lamenting (or marveling?) that "it doesn't take much to survive."
Later, J. Viewz, aka Grammy-nominated and Brooklyn-based producer Jonathan Dagan, let loose some throbbing beats with a soulful vocalist and great live drums.
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.