By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Chrissie Hynde and JP Jones are slumped in a suite at Chicago's Dana Hotel, utterly discombobulated. Granted, these are rock stars, and it's mid-morning, but Jones — a feline Welshman, neatly groomed but, he admits, hungover — and Hynde wear the vacant, resigned stares of natural disaster refugees.
"I don't know what the f—-'s going on," Hynde says, running a hand through her trademark black mane. "Every day I look around and go, f—-, what is going on? We came over to spend two weeks here, now we're living here. I've never had anything catch fire like this in my career."
She's referring to some intense media and fan interest in her first-ever side project, a rootsy new band called JP, Chrissie & the Fairground Boys. It's a departure from Hynde's three decades leading rock's defiant Pretenders, a moniker that still exists solely because of Hynde's stubbornness and determination in the face of personal tragedy and commercial whim. Last May, without a record even being finished — the CD "Fidelity!" is finally released this Tuesday — she and Jones were trotting across the country, including a stop in Chicago, teasing fans with short sets of the new songs.
But the whirlwind promotional tour was even getting to a seasoned road warrior and expatriate like Hynde.
"I'm totally displaced," she says. "I don't know where I am most of the time, or where I'm supposed to be. I don't know if I'm man or woman. I don't know if I'm American or British. I don't know where I live. ... Men think I'm a man. The guys treat me like one of the guys."
"I treat you like a woman, don't I?" Jones asks.
"I don't know," Hynde replies.
The silence that follows that exchange is beyond awkward, but very telling. Everything there is to know about the mournful music and sighed laments on this record is communicated just as effectively in those several seconds of uncomfortable staring at boots. The union of Hynde and Jones is a dynamic musical partnership, but it's based on a star-crossed, May-December romance.
Jones, 31, met Hynde, 58, in a bar in late 2008. (Yes, gents, you can still meet people like Chrissie Hynde in a bar. Still wanna call it a night?) There was chemistry, then there were text messages. There was a spur-of-the-moment getaway to Havana, where their personal relationship flamed and fizzled. But it fueled a musical collaboration, and they wrote the 11 songs for "Fidelity!," each of them a naked confessional of an irresistible romance that they say could never really be.
"We made a record that is, yes, very honest. It's some pretty gut-wrenching stuff," Hynde says. "All the songs are written to each other, about each other. ... You know, a lot of people fall in love with people they can't be with. That's what this record is about. It's about falling in love with someone and realizing you can't be with him. He wants kids and a family. I'm too old. It's too late for me."
Right away, over the lilting, sad guitar of the opening song, "Perfect Lover," Hynde and Jones get to explaining what Hynde calls their "unrealistic" love:
Hynde: I smoke and drink and eat too much and other things I shouldn't
(JP: That's why I love you, baby)
I'd like to think I'd never touch what other women wouldn't
(You're not like the others)
I'm a hotbed of addictions, contradictions rule my day
(You're just like me)
I know it's wrong, but the pull's too strong, Lord, help me walk away
I found my perfect lover, but he's only half my age
He was learning how to stand when I was wearing my first wedding band
"Music is a distillation of love and pain," Hynde adds. "Everyone's suffering something. I was crying when I wrote some of this stuff. I mean, it's not that serious. The nature of rock — if you're watching a rock band, you should be laughing at least half the time. We didn't make an album to depress people."
The thoughtful Jones pauses, mulling that over during another strange silence. Finally, he wonders aloud, genuinely worried, "F—-, maybe we have."
A little 'fairground luck'
Hynde, Jones and a supporting guitarist, Patrick Murdoch from one of Jones' former bands, trotted into the Near North studios of JBTV last May, hitting the stage before a small audience of maybe 50 fans. But the instant Hynde appeared under the lights, someone shouted a request for the Pretenders' hit ballad "Night in My Veins."
Hynde's face fell. She hadn't even sat down yet. With a little of the sneer that's endeared her to rock fans for 30 years, she laid down the law for the evening: "Anyone else who says something like that tonight will be ejected from the premises."
Not that the song would have been inappropriate for this pair ("He's got his hands in my hair and his lips everywhere / It feels good, it's all right / even if it's just the night in my veins"), but Hynde is determined to prevent her rock star status from overshadowing her new project with Jones. She was insistent about the billing: JP first, no Hynde.
The relationship began, after all, musically. "I just liked his songs," Hynde says, a little sheepishly, which is saying something for this typically brassy woman. They originally bonded over a discussion of fairgrounds. Hynde has a lifelong love of them, and Jones grew up on the one his parents owned in Wales.
One night, Jones texted Hynde to wish her well before a Pretenders show, on tour supporting the band's last album, the country-rock set "Break Up the Concrete." He said he was sending her some "fairground luck." Hynde liked that phrase and replied, instructing him to write a song called "Fairground Luck." Two days later, it was in her in-box.
"I sent her the song, and she liked it," Jones says. "When she got off the tour, she said, 'Hey, you wanna go to Cuba?' We took guitars to Havana and wrote the basics for the album."
"Fairgrounds just always meant freedom to me," Hynde says, recalling her youth in Akron, Ohio. She's lived primarily in London since the early 1980s. "I loved these fairs that would show up, like, in a strip mall parking lot. I loved that. I loved the gypsy nature of it. The way these people showed up and then moved on to — somewhere else. It was very romantic. And I knew I had to keep moving like that. I left when I was 22 and moved to London. I just left. I feel like I'm still doing that."
Jones had been in a band called Grace, once groomed by EMI as a next-big-thing. It fell apart after two years, and when he met Hynde he'd been fronting a band called Big Linda. Many of those players are now rechristened as the Fairground Boys.
"I was offered a development deal through Universal before all this came about," Jones says. "They were going to put me with, like, 10 big-name songwriters. When a record label wants to put you with 10 different songwriters, how can any truth come out of that? How can you communicate who you are? I felt very pushed, pulled and manipulated. They wanted me to wear certain things, dye my hair. Chrissie and I got together and wrote our album, and it felt so much more natural. I found myself musically through her. She's my muse. I just walked away from it all."
"I didn't encourage that," Hynde interjects. "I didn't want to be that guy."
Jones laughs. "That guy!"
'The kids are safe'
Hynde and Jones returned to Chicago early this month for a 20-minute set at Lollapalooza — on the children's stage, following Dan Zanes. With old fans and tiny tots watching them play their naked songs about cross-generational lust, Hynde was open about the pair's difficult dynamic. She explained the new album was about "when a woman meets a much younger man and they realize they don't have a future together."
"But don't worry," she added, "the kids are safe as long as I'm on this stage."
The frustrated desire plays out across the span of "Fidelity!" In the first single, "If You Let Me," Jones' coarse, scoured voice warns, "If you don't want me to come in, you'd better lock this door." Hynde describes their first encounter in "Australia," her amazement ("I was propping up the bar on my own / Mostly, guys like you say goodbye to me") as clear as her submission ("OK, pal, take me outta here"). The songs are tuneful, built on guitars and a more pleasing variation of the Americana leanings Hynde explored on "Break Up the Concrete."
That album, she says, didn't get the grassroots interest this one has. But while the promotional efforts have been exhausting, she finds the response exciting. She's especially glad they came to America.
"There's nothing happening in music over there right now," Hynde says. "It's all pop crap. ... We came over here five weeks ago looking for interest. People don't do it like this anymore. There's still all this waiting and planning a strategy. I just wanna get on with it. Why not? I mean, we met in a bar.
"When the Pretenders started, we were in the '70s, coming out of that dreadful prog-rock period. And then punk happened, which was so refreshing in so many ways. It was like bands started being taken seriously without all this posing and styling. They were just themselves. I mean, later today we have to go to some photo shoot for Women's Wear Daily, and they told me to bring four different 'looks.' You know, that is just so not me. This is my look." She gestures to her high, black boots, jeans and black T-shirt. "There's just one, really. But even with that, it just feels fresh now. We've been taken seriously based on our music ever since we came ashore six weeks ago. The whole industry has collapsed, and people are finding an audience without all the trappings and the corporate strategies. Today feels more like 1977 than ever."
But after the flush of new romance is gone, both personally and commercially speaking, what will happen next? Hynde says she and Jones have enough material for a second album, but she hedges.
"A second album would be of a different nature," she says. "We were each other's muse on this album. The next one — I dunno." A beat. "Things have changed."
And they both fidget through another lengthy silence.
JP, Chrissie & the Fairground Boys are scheduled to perform Oct. 10 at Chicago's Park West, with Amy Correia. Tickets, $25.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Listening to Jimmy Webb's stable of once-upon-a-time hit songs — "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" — you'd think he had a GPS in his writing room.
The Oklahoma-born songwriter left home at age 16. In short order, he was writing songs for artists in the late '60s and early '70s, songs that became big hits, like "Up, Up and Away" for the Fifth Dimension and "MacArthur Park" for Richard Harris, Waylon Jennings and Donna Summer. Those other hits all belong to Glen Campbell.
Webb, 64, is on the road again, out playing some dates this month to support his first CD in a few years, "Just Across the River." The album features many of Webb's hits reborn in loose new arrangements and featuring guest singers such as Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Jackson Browne, Lucinda Williams, Campbell and more.
"We're in Chicago in a few days, then playing Largo in L.A. — I've got five sons and a daughter out there, plus my father, who's 87 — then Seattle, Nashville. I thought it was just a bunch of gigs, but I guess that's a tour," Webb says in his easygoing Oklahoma drawl. He's chatting from his home on the north shore of Long Island, N.Y., where he says he's really a homebody. But in order for home to have real value, you have to be glad to see it again.
Q. Why are you still traveling and touring?
A. Mainly because the alternative is to ossify and die. It sounds corny as hell, but music is my life. I've been lucky that I got away with this for so many years, that I've been able to do something I love doing and sometimes even get paid for it. To be honest, making music is not a real job, not like running a metal press on an assembly line somewhere. It's full of great moments of joy and passion, and interaction with the audience — which I enjoy more and more. Shaking hands, signing autographs, collecting anecdotes from people who've spent their lives on the other side of the speaker listening to what I have done and what my friends have done. I take a lot of energy from that. ... But at the same time, there's no place like home.
Q. Once Glen Campbell and the others had hits with those geographical songs, were you pegged as Rand McNally?
A. Success begats a certain kind of success. If you do a certain kind of photograph and it's successful in an ad campaign, you become known for that kind of photograph. It's like typecasting in movies. When I started writing about places, it was because I wanted to. I remember being a little uncomfortable once people started asking me to do it. [He pauses.] I started to say I don't do that anymore, but on Judy Collins' new album, which came out the same day as mine, she's got my new song "Paul Gauguin in the South Seas." So there I go again.
Q. Can you just not help yourself?
A. It's something at a very deep level in my consciousness. I tend to relate to places. I have a backlog of cinematic images and of places I've seen that I fall back to.
Q. Are your geographical references essential to the lyrics? Could the song have been "By the Time I Get to Seattle"?
A. It wouldn't have been a hit. [Laughs.] In that case, the location was important because I was in a real circumstance of having trouble in a romantic relationship, and I had decided to pack it in and drive back to Oklahoma. That whole song is about that trip back to Oklahoma, even though I never got around to making that trip. Phoenix is on Route 66, as is Albuquerque and Oklahoma City. I was born on Route 66 in a little town called Elk City. ... It had to be Phoenix for that song.
Q. Because you say, or because the song demanded it?
A. Sometimes these things, they make their own decisions. They take a certain line and you follow along and keep up because the song knows where it wants to go. Sometimes it's too good to be true and writes itself. Sometimes it's like scaling Mt. Everest, or being born and dying and being born again. ... "Gauguin" was a very difficult song to write. I knew the story was in there, and I knew I knew that story. I knew what it was like to work and have it unappreciated and want to run away from all the trappings of civilization. I Still sometimes pull my hair out with frustration at the whole urban groove and the rut we allow ourselves to get into, how hard it is to break out, how silly it is when you're sitting in, say, a place like Lanai, Hawaii, and thinking about New York. That's silly. But by the time you negotiate security and get yourself back on the plane, you've slowly indoctrinated back to the discipline and rigidity of the confines, the prison-like atmosphere of the urban areas we live in.
Q. So what places do you escape to?
A. Part of me is still an Okie. I like wide-open spaces. I like to get on my boat ... [On my end of the conversation, a siren screams through north Chicago streets. Webb pauses, hearing it, and says, "Speaking of the urban prison."] I like to have a nor'easter rattling my front teeth. I like to see nature acting out.
Q. You've revisited your catalog before, particularly in concerts. Why take the celebrity-guest approach on the new album?
A. It was never intended to have a lot of celebrity artists with it. That's a fact. If we discussed it at all it was to say let's not have celebrities involved. ... The main purpose of this album was to shed all the affectations of urban life, including the southern California pop roots I have. I at least have some capillaries. Some aspirations of my recording career have included the desire to make big production albums along the lines of Elton John or Billy Joel. Now that's silly. It's been done and done well by guys who will always do it better than I can. Freddy Mollin [the album's producer] said, 'We should go to Nashville, get top-line musicians, literally the very best, line 'em up and work it out so we're all in the studio on the same day.' These are busy guys. 'We'll cut 13 tracks in two days, and you'll have an epiphany. You'll have the most joyful time you've ever had in the studio.' He said, 'Just go back to the kitchen table in Oklahoma with your father sitting there strumming his old steel-string Silvertone guitar, singing "Red Sails in the Sunset," ... and let it go. It's the way you sound best.' I've learned Freddy is right most of the time. ... Sure enough, we had a ball. ... It was a nostalgic plunge into the swimming pool of memory and sentiment and the DNA of growing up as a country kid.
7 p.m. Saturday
Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $25, lincolnhallchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Nearly everyone in the Wainwright family writes and performs songs, often about each other. So when one of them passes away, one of the stages of grief is to write an album about the loss. Loudon Wainwright III, the patriarch of this postmodern Carter family, reflected on the death of each of his parents in an album each (1992's "History" after Loudon Wainwright Jr. died, 2001's "Last Man on Earth" after his mother died).
Friday night, two of Loudon's kids were on stage at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre. Daughter Martha Wainwright opened the show with her powerful anti-love songs, and she acknowledged the new grief hanging over the family following the death of their mother (Loudon's ex-wife), Canadian folk icon Kate McGarrigle. "My songs are already pretty depressing," Martha said, promising she wouldn't be delivering any songs about the loss of her mother. "I don't want to subject you to what might come out now."
Rufus Wainwright, however, though he might rankle at this suggestion, is more his father's son than he realizes. He has no qualms about laying bare his grief and despair before a paying audience, though he's usually less direct, and the first act of Friday night's concert was a highly artistic, touring funeral service.
Before Wainwright arrived on stage, the theater audience was instructed that this first act would be presented as a song cycle — no applause until the very end, please. (This announcement came before everyone was in their seats, however, so a few enthusiastic latecomers were confused and possibly mortified when they clapped and hooted after the first song, and were shushed.) Wainwright then entered the stage, backlit, walking one step at a time and dragging a 17-foot black train mounted with feathered shoulders, designed by Zaldy Goco, a costumer for Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga, among others. He lowered himself at the piano with somber face and began playing the entirety of his new album, "All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu."
An album of complex solo piano songs, "All Days Are Nights" has a smartly sequenced ebb and flow and thus succeeds in a beginning-to-end presentation. The accessible pop of the first few, however, gives way to some fairly complex playing, which during "The Dream" became so technical Wainwright lost focus on his singing. His notorious tenor, almost all sinuses, requires focus even when he's not running up and down the keyboard, but the occasional dissonance between the two heightened a sense of unease — even moreso than the sleepy blinking eyes hovering over him, video visuals courtesy Scottish artist Douglas Gordon.
Except for the three Shakespeare sonnets in the middle (momentum killers, all three), many of these songs are infused with just such unease, with restless thoughts and grief, written as they were in the months that McGarrigle's cancer worsened (and after he completed work on his first, semi-acclaimed opera, "Prima Donna"). The musical answering machine messages about her declining condition in "Martha" are briefly combated with the spirited lashing out and jaunty parlor piano of "Give Me What I Want and Give It to Me Now." It all marches toward the end, with "Zebulon," another song that mentions his mother's illness — but one that she liked so much that Wainwright played it at her funeral. Friday night, he clanged the song's chords slowly, slowly, like mournful church bells, and hesitated in the last lyric, "We'll have some tea and ice cream," just enough to transform it into: "We'll have some tea, and I ... scream." Then the processional, in retreat.
The second act, with Wainwright back and smiling, fresh and plucky in a peach-colored patterned suit, was a life-saver. Now he played as he did in the first fumbling years of his career, as a saloon singer, banging out grand, sweeping tunes on a piano and telling the occasional amusing story. But this set was suffused with loss in its own way, including "Memphis Skyline," a song he wrote about the death of singer Jeff Buckley, and his old stand-by, the hymn-like cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
And like those creepy blinking eyes, McGarrigle was watching over this set, too, a song cycle of its own that opened with "Beauty Mark," a song celebrating McGarrigle from Wainwright's acclaimed self-titled debut CD, and ended with one of McGarrigle's own tunes, "The Walking Song." Introducing the latter, Wainwright spoke of his mother for the first time, thanking fans for their outpouring of support and referring to his current circumstance as "a very treacherous game of life." The song nears its end with, "We'll talk blood and how we were bred / talk about the folks both living and dead / This song like this walk I find hard to end."
Wainwright has filled his career with tributes to things he says he misses, though often they're things he was barely around to experience, anyway — the Judy Garland concerts at Carnegie, a heyday of opera, even Buckley, with whom he spent just a few hours. He falls in love with the hindsight of them, and his yearning is similarly rose-tinted. The loss of his mother, though, is a stark experience he sees clearly and is working out the only way a Wainwright, not so much a McGarrigle, knows how. As such, his grief feels less shared than inflicted, but this concert seemed to marry his dreams and realities in slightly pretentious but exciting new ways. Bring on a new opera.
Martha's opening set cannot go unmentioned. She appeared onstage five minutes early, grabbing her guitar and launching into an example of her own, serrated approach to baring her heart in song, "Bleeding All Over You." Like her brother, she overstylizes her singing so much that it's often difficult to understand her, but she possesses a voice so powerful that her Dolly Parton crescendos draw yelps and whoops despite the words. Thankfully, she included a few songs from her new, hard-to-find (but oh-so worth the dig) plainly titled CD, "Martha Wainwright's Edith Piaf Record," further proof that hearing her belt in any language is a treat. She received her own standing ovation.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Rufus Wainwright has been busy. Lordy, has he been busy.
In the three years since his last studio album, "Release the Stars," he's ping-ponged from one ambitious project to the next. He performed sensational tribute concerts to Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere. He wrote music for 24 of Shakespeare's sonnets and performed them for a theatrical production, "Sonette," with director Robert Wilson in Berlin. He sang Berlioz's "Les Nuits d'ete" in New York. He even composed an entire opera, "Prima Donna," which enjoyed a successful premiere in Britain.
So perhaps it's not surprising that for his return to the recording studio, he sought to back off, downshift, quiet things a bit. "All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu," released this spring, finds the sweeping, murmuring singer-songwriter sonically naked — just his voice and piano.
"I threatened to do this a while ago," Wainwright says in an interview from a brief oceanside respite before beginning a U.S. tour. "Unfortunately, I needed the proper life circumstance in order to dig into it. Given the sad opportunity with my mother's passing and the exhaustion from working on the opera, the lone piano became my cocoon, shield and confessional."
Rare is the news article about Rufus Wainwright that doesn't allude to the musical dynasty from which he sprang. The mother that passed — that's Kate McGarrigle, beloved Canadian folk singer, who died of cancer in January. His father, still kicking, is rascally American folk singer Loudon Wainwright III. His aunt, Sloan Wainwright, writes and records, as does his sister and omnipresent backup singer, Martha Wainwright.
But Rufus and Martha were raised by Kate in Montreal, and Kate's death is an occasional and prominent lyrical thread on these 12 new compositions. They're not pop songs. They're sometimes complicated odes to grief, love and the tempest of life. In "Zebulon," it all begins piling up on him: "My mother's in the hospital / my sister's at the opera / I'm in love but let's not talk about it / there's so much to tell you."
"It all happened in concert," Wainwright says. "This album was finished right before she passed away and was released after her death.
"As Mom was passing, I had to face myself and the possibility of being alone. We had been so close. The piano was her main instrument, a vision I always acquainted with her presence. The technical difficulty of this enterprise was synonymous with the grief itself."
In "Martha," he puts music to plaintive phone messages for his sister, as if turning his father's song "OGM" inside out:
Martha, it's your brother calling
Time to go up north and see mother
Things are harder for her now
And neither of us is really that much older than each other anymore
Martha, it's your brother calling
Have you any chance to see father
Wondering how he's doing
And there's not much time
For us to really be that angry at each other anymore
"It is like something my father would write," he says, "perhaps as a kind of directness and slight aggression there, too, which he's well-known for." He laughs. "But I just hit 37. I'm well past the youthful bohemia I once inhabited so grandly."
The current tour presents a show in two acts. The first half contains the entire new album as a song cycle, with Wainwright at the piano and no applause. Then Wainwright returns for the second act "and we have fun and sing the old favorites."
Part of the first act, though, includes some of the Shakespeare sonnets, a project he says he tackled as a theatrical warm-up ahead of his opera. Wainwright includes three of them on the new album, including "Sonnet 10" ("For shame deny that thou bear'st love to any / Who for thy self art so unprovident") — the "gay one."
"I think of it as gay, anyway," he says. "For me, it reeks of a drunk old queen who's gone a little too far in one of his histrionic lessons. I can visualize it. You can definitely tell the poet has overstepped his bounds emotionally with this young man and shown a little more than he intended through his affection." A discussion of Shakespeare's sexuality follows.
"Shakespeare got it," Wainwright concludes, meaning he understood two sides of sexuality, but then he chuckles the punch line: "He probably gave it, too."
Wainwright returns to Carnegie Hall on Dec. 29, around which time he promises an "exciting" announcement related to a U.S. production of "Prima Donna."
• 8 p.m. Friday
• Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe
• Tickets, $46-$56
• (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Lollapalooza 2010 starts, rocks and raps with B.o.B.
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 12:23 PM
11:30 a.m. in the sun, and the sixth annual Lollapalooza in Chicago's Grant Park is under way. Already people are lined up at the bars, and the faint breezes are redolent with sun lotion, damp lawns and — there it is — a little marijuana smoke.
The first act of the day is one who doesn't deserve the crappy time slot: B.o.B., a chart-climbing hip-hop newbie with one of the year's best-selling records. He's a double-edged attack — one minute spitting quick, punchy rhymes at the growing crowd, the next playing guitar like an indie rocker, even covering a little of Vampire Weekend's "The Kids Don't Stand a Chance." (There's a cynical joke in there somewhere about the kids about to be assaulted by corporate shilling for three days ...) Atlanta's B.o.B. can deliver something for everyone. "Letter From Vietnam" is a guitar ballad, a '60s — or maybe just Lenny Kravitz-like — protest song. He picked up a guitar for it, then asked permission to keep playing it, as if he were breaking some rules to crossover back and forth. He held up his hip-hop, taunting us with "Past My Shades" and making the women in the crowd smile with "Nothin' on You" ("Beautiful girls / all over the world ..."). He mixed the rock and the rap in "Don't Let Me Fall." Fun, cheery, a good opener to the weekend's smorgasbord.
The fields are filling up, and be warned: They're not completely dry from the rain earlier in the week. Several spots are still squishy, with the potential for turning into complete pudding once the weight of thousands squeezes the water out. Don't wear your favorite shoes.
Lessons in old-school from the Walkmen, Raphael Saadiq
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 3:45 PM
Mid-afternoon Friday in the south field at Lollapalooza was about being old-school.
The Walkmen have been together 10 years. They manage to sound relatively fresh while drawing upon sounds and song styles much older than themselves, namely the squeezing, wheezing Dylanesque singing of Hamilton Leithauser, the 1950s-echoed guitar of Paul Maroon and the eerie cocktail organ of Walter Martin. Here's a band that began — born from the ashes of short-lived but explosive Jonathan Fire*Eater — all about creating certain instrumental tones. But the acquisition of Leithauser wound up deepening not only the sound but the songwriting. The new songs played from the band's upcoming next album, "Lisbon," due Sept. 14, are rich tales of wary living ("You're one of us or you're one of them," Leithauser shouted over and over) and worn romance ("There's a girl that you should know / she's from my not so long ago"). In a white button-down shirt, with sleeves rolled up, and a black tie, he leaned into the microphone, plungering his tenor through the very top of his sinuses for an incredible elongated moment during "All Hands and the Cook." One wonders how he maintains his voice over the course of a tour, but he sounded great here. Looking forward to the next disc.
After that, as Chicago's Mavis Staples took the stage in the north end of the field, a younger soul icon brought his own lessons in old-school on the main Parkways stage: Raphael Saadiq. Once a pioneer of New Jack Swing (we can now justifiably giggle at that label) in the group Tony! Toni! Tone!, Saadiq now looks like a traveling education in classic soul, complete with almost 12 band members in black Blues Brothers suits. He can lay down smooth, supple grooves, with a band that sounds as if they could back B.B. King later tonight, and talk sexy to the crowd simply singing, "Yeah, yeah, yeah," and then punch it up with a rock 'n' soul hit like "So Lady."
Are we not men? Well, they are still Devo!
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 6:47 PM
Is Devo sympathizing with humanity's plight, or just making fun?
In what was surely the most subversive set at Lollapalooza today — Lady Gaga's still to come, but she seems merely flashy and bawdy rather than really subversive — 1980s icons Devo blasted their modern folk songs about the plight of the working man and the diminishing of humanity in our automated world. Jogging on stage in gray uniforms and "Phantom of the Opera"-like half-masks, these plainly old men seemed to be rolling with the wonderment of being back at Lollapalooza, which they played years ago when it was a traveling festival (and even then were the quaint ol' vets). "It's 2010!" said Bob Casale, midway through a dynamic, multi-media set. "And we're here to f—-ing whip it again!"
Singer Mark Mothersbaugh leapt about the minimalist stage — just a drum set, two synth stands and guitars, spaciously arranged — looking extra robotic, wearing mirrored shades over his mannequin mask. But though their music has the rhythm of machinery, these are songs about the sad and worsening state of man. Even an old hit like "Girl U Want" has Mothersbaugh singing, "Look at you with your mouth watering ... she's just the girl you want." It's a common theme to Devo songs, blippy and innocent as they may appear on the surface. Look at yourself, they say. Be aware of your "Uncontrollable Urge," fight against "Going Under." Pay attention, because Madison Avenue is exploiting your urges and your apathy to make you buy things. And, hey, so are we.
As they sang "What We Do" ("breeding, pumping gas, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, do it again"), silhouetted images of various product icons flashed on the screen behind the stage, icons like the PlayStation controller and other basic "necessities" being hawked several hundred feet behind the crowd amid a forest of logos. It's machine music about reminding ourselves that we are men, not necessarily de-evolving, and it sounds as important today as it did in 1980 when computers and synthesizers were newfangled. After all, as Mothersbaugh sang to close the set — after jumping around with pom-poms, again either cheering this downward slide for our species or trying to empower us to reverse it — "A man is real! Not made of steel!"
Devo was bookended late Friday afternoon in the south end of the field by opposite ends of the energy stream. The Big Pink played beforehand, defining dullness. A limited grayscale instead of a declaration of color, they whined through a short set of electronic drone and drudgery ("fall like dominoes, fall like dominos," zzzzz). After Devo, however, came the perkiest kids in indie-rock: Matt & Kim. Every now and then, one of these coupled drum-and-something duos comes along, but never as relentlessly cheery as Matt Johnson (vocals, keyboards) and Kim Schifino (vocals, drums). Opening with one of several instrumental fanfares they'd play, Johnson asked both Schifino and the crowd, "Are you ready to get wild?" It takes some doing to pump up a festival-size crowd when you're only two strong, but these two have tactics. Schifino smiles so wide and so hard its almost threatening, the kind of unwavering grin you can only learn in realty school or have drilled into you by Sue Sylvester. Johnson doesn't allow the keyboard to hem him in; he jumps, he kicks, he climbs, he strikes Grecian urn poses. He had to catch his breath after only the third song. The songs — "Good Old-Fashioned Nightmare," "5K," "Light Speed" and, yes, "Lessons Learned" (the one with the video of them stripping down in Times Square) — with Johnson's plunky, piano-lesson melodies, don't always live up to the party vibe of the hosts, but they throw a lively one nonetheless.
Lollapalooza centers on Lady Gaga's Broadway bluster
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 11:53 PM
Early this year, Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell said Lady Gaga's performance would be the "centerpiece" of this summer's sixth annual concert festival in Grant Park. He said $150,000 was spent on the staging for the pop star's Monster Ball Tour theatrics.
In a conversation backstage Friday afternoon, Farrell said, "Did you see how many trucks she has? 18! And one of them is just for her wardrobe."
At this point, after a rise in the pop culture that defines meteoric, Lady Gaga is the centerpiece of any space she inhabits. Her gravity sucked most of the total crowd — estimated by Farrell at 80,000 strong Friday — from Friday's other headliner, the Strokes. The guy standing next to me throughout Gaga's show? Wearing a Strokes T-shirt.
So rock is dead, and somehow Broadway won. Lady Gaga's performance was a highly scripted, bewildering, bedazzled psychological drama, with production values right off the Great White Way.
Her two-hour set played like a jukebox musical — a bunch of Gaga hits strung together with a loose story line about kids in a broken-down car trying to get to the Monster Ball.
Our Lady first appeared in silhouette, singing "Dance in the Dark" in the first of many outlandish costumes fresh off the semi, including enormous shoulder pads, a nun's habit with a see-through plastic suit, a huge fringed lampshade, even the same disco-ball bra she wore when she played a Lollapalooza side stage for a small crowd as an unknown in 2007. She tackled all the hits — "Just Dance," "Love Game," "Poker Face," an encore of "Bad Romance" — from her two albums.
But the songs themselves seemed inconsequential next to Lady Gaga's evangelism. If you've ever been picked on, scorned, denied or in any way counted out, Lady Gaga wants you to know, she understands. Numerous litanies — frequently punctuated with unusually hoarse, throaty, Courtney Love screaming to get her point across — hammered this point, even if the songs only do indirectly. Born Stefani Germanotta, she was picked on in school, which she mentioned four times. Her conquering of pop culture and filling of Grant Park, she seemed to conclude, is vindication and validation. And you can have this, too. Let your freak flag fly with pride and you, too, shall be saved!
Someone's gotta say this to every generation, and it might as well be her this time around. She's just not adding a whole lot to it other than an overload of drama. Girl kinda needs to get over herself.
The attitude behind this is very aggressive, too, and you can see it in the choreography — all punches and thrown elbows and monster claws. Everyone on stage frowns and sneers. The band members flip each other off. The bassist is dressed like a military commando. Gaga's expletive-laced homilies end with screams that say, in essence, "F—- you, world!" She rips her stockings, she smears herself with blood, she's seen in a video dressed in delicate chiffons — and a gas mask. She strives to obliterate every convention of beauty, and she says she's doing it so we can "be FREEEEEEEE!"
"What I really hate," she added, "I hate money." (spit take!) Then the ridiculous scream again: "I don't want your money, I WANT YOUR SOOOOOOUL!" This before she tried to out-sacrilege Madonna (a profane prayer, a bleeding angel statue, comparing herself to Jesus) and added, in possibly her truest statement (despite also explaining that, next to money, she really "hates the truth"): "I don't care who you are or what you believe, all I care about is what you think of me."
What I think of her: She's an incredible talent, but she's buried it in all this showy nonsense that she seems to think has grand, transcendent meaning. When things quieted down and she sat at the piano, alone, she was stunning and truly entertaining, holding the crowd in the palm of her hand with greater power than the dancing and the mugging and the light show. She's got a helluva voice and can control or dish the vibrato with a master's skill. "Speechless" easily leaves a listener just that way, and a new song, "You and I," was a killer ballad with meat on its bones. She sounded like Bonnie Raitt when she sang it, and she certainly left us all something to talk about.
These piano ballads were also the only time we saw a sign of real humanity from Lady Gaga. She smiled. Before and after these two moments, she strutted through her performance with an eerie lack of facial expression, a completely vacant face, even when screaming. Here, she gave a shout-out to her dad. She brought out her former partner, Lady Starlight, for a brief dance routine to Metallica's "Metal Militia." She laughed. As she pounded out "You and I," she looked moved, awestruck, impassioned.
But the humanity disappeared once back on script. Then it was little more than cues and costumes and ... fireworks. It was "family night" with the Chicago Bears tonight at Soldier Field. Just as the curtain went up for Gaga's third act, a barrage of fireworks went off directly behind the stage (and over Soldier). A lot of people in the crowd wondered if this was part of Gaga's show — understandable given the aforementioned $150K spent, her obvious penchant for production excess and, hey, the fireworks lasted exactly as long as it took for Gaga & Co. to dance their way through "Monster."
No, they were really just an omen. See those, Stef? See how brightly they burn, and how quickly they fade?
Making it work with Wild Beasts, Stars, Soft Pack
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2010 5:17 PM
Saturday lunch hour and the north field of Lollapalooza is lurching and leaning into the straightforward rock of the Soft Pack. This San Diego quartet effects nonchalance — "Here's a new song. Whatever." — but plays like they mean it, filling the park, already packed with reddening bodies, with a grinding, fat-bottomed sound. They're the Fall, no, now they're the Hives. Matt Lamkin is as exciting singing lazy "all right's" and "oh yeah's" as he is roaring with conviction that you should "Answer for Yourself." Basic and emboldening, the way a Saturday morning should be.
In the park's Petrillo Band Shell, next came the Wild Beasts. Such nice blokes, these British boys. Not beastly at all, thanking us kindly for our attention and wishing us a wonderful day. And the music, all chiming guitars and soaring vocals. Just beautiful.
Until you start hearing what they're singing about. There are tales of hoodlums running wild in the streets, "scaring the oldies into their dressing gowns." There are serious threats against "any rival who goes for our girls." The title track of the British band's sophomore CD, "Two Dancers," recounts almost "Clockwork Orange"-like violence: "They dragged me by the ankles through the street / They passed me round them like a piece of meat." The disc's opening track, all humming synthesizers and beautiful bass lines and wood-block rhythms, finds singer Hayden Thorpe, sounding like a demented Jimmy Somerville, howling, "This is a booty call ... my boot, my boot, my boot up your ——hole." Alas, there was no one posted to the sign language station for this show; demonstrating those lyrics would've been added entertainment.
But the Mercury Prize-nominated Wild Beasts are a surprisingly great festival band, their cinematic songs and layered effects luring half-interested fans to the sun-baked pavement in front of the band shell. The sun is warm today but not brutal, and occasional relief from clouds add to the dreamlike feeling, especially with the right music. Thorpe sings mostly in an airy falsetto, a rare treat in modern rock, and it's more than a gimmick. It's difficult to imagine this music wrapping around another kind of voice, not with that light, vibrating timbre to the bass, not with that ringing Johnny Marr-ish guitar. Yes, there's the Smiths reference. Listening to the Wild Beasts, it's not unrealistic to trace the family tree of their leering, melodic style back through Gene (the Smiths of the '90s) to the debut of Morrissey, another daring high-scale singer. Bassist Tom Fleming takes occasional lead singing duties, too, alternating between a low bellow and his variation on the upper register as he did on "All the King's Men," from "Two Dancers." Earlier material had more spunk, a livelier step ("Brave Bulging," "The Devil's Crayon"), but the show came to a big, satisfying finish with the new "Hooting and Hollering."
Some bands, though, struggle to present themselves well in the heat of the afternoon sun. Canada's Stars tried to puff up their delicate sound, making themselves seem larger — good advice if encountering a bear in the woods, but as successful if encountering thousands of expectant fans in an urban park. This is a band that crafts intelligent mini-suites about romantic intrigue, led by two singers (Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan) with thin, soft voices. With the tracks carefully separated on CD, it's moving and magical. Live, it's sometimes a challenge, moreso outside of a dark club or theater. The band started slowly on Saturday, moving in slo-mo for some kind of effect and showering the crowd with white roses and the mylar debris of several hand-held confetti cannons. But that couldn't quite fill the void. Millan was sometimes hard to hear, intoning almost at a whisper (on "One More Night"), and Campbell forced his voice a little too hard in an apparent effort to be heard, though often he wasn't, either. When they joined together for "We Don't Want Your Body" — a new song that one of my companions said sounds alarmingly like a Debbie Gibson comeback effort — they at least began to pick up steam, charging to the end of the hourlong set with ripping takes on "I Died So I Could Haunt You," "Take Me to the Riot" and the closer, "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead."
Green Day plays on ... and on and on
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2010 10:29 PM
Friday night, Lady Gaga enjoyed the surprise addition of fireworks to her show, courtesy of a fortuitously timed barrage from the Bears' family night at Soldier Field directly behind Lollapalooza's main stage in the south end of Hutchinson Field in Chicago's Grant Park. Saturday night, pop-punk trio Green Day brought their own.
In a two-hour-plus set, singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool filled the stage with good ol' rock 'n' roll stage antics. Here's a band that has actually gone Broadway, creating a stage musical out of their hit concept album, "American Idiot." But instead of loading down their show with scripted theatrics, they relied on the basics — pyro, fireworks, pulling people on stage and endless exhortations to fans to put their hands in the air.
Note to Green Day fans: Want to get close to Billie Joe? Your chances aren't slim. Study the attention-getting tactics of audience members on game shows such as "The Price Is Right" and "Let's Make a Deal," because that's what a Green Day show has become. Armstrong spends much of the show shopping for fans to bring on stage. Five times, in fact, starting with a student from France, Matthew Sauvetre. He'd been waiting against the barricades all day, and he took the stage during "Know Your Enemy" waving a French flag. After that, Billie Joe pulled a young girl (not older than 10, who he then proceeded to ask, "Keira, do you want to start a f—-in' war?!"), an older woman to help him sing "Are We the Waiting," a small crowd of people and, near the end, a young guy to sing the entirety of "Longview."
Classic gimmicks and a program of three-minute rock songs, however, necessitates brevity. Green Day dragged it on and on. Here's to the simple joys of rawk blown up bigger than life, but by the time we crossed the two-hour mark with the same shtick — pop! roar! OK, my hands would like to lay still for a while — it was beyond wearying.
Thirty years ago, in the heyday of the Ramones (whose recording of "Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio?" played before the show started), we never could have dreamed that a handful of power chords could propel one band to such heights — 65 million records sold, four Grammys, a Broadway show, headlining Lollapalooza before tens of thousands (Saturday's crowd was again estimated at 80,000 total). An inevitable loss of edge occurs at those altitudes. A decent catalog of socially conscious material was presented Saturday night mostly as mere fun, then devolved into time-filling quotations of hard rock hits (from Ozzy to GNR) and, yegods, "Hey Jude." What WAS fun was when Billie Joe ripped through the power-chorded nuggets with abandon, like "Nice Guys Finish Last," which he finished with a quick, self-satisfied grin.
Pack your poncho, and other reading
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2010 11:33 AM
Uh oh, rain. A swath of light rain stretches form Chicago due west, with storms in northwestern Illinois. It's all drifting to the southeast and might not trouble the bulk of Lollapalooza's afternoon. But it will heat up today, reaching into the 90s for the first time this weekend. So pack your poncho (no umbrellas, please, people behind you want to see the band) and your water bottle, and look for the booths where you can fill your water bottle for free.
Beyond this blog, other reading for today ...
Soundgarden plays tonight, reunited after 13 years. But their first show was Thursday night at the Vic.
An interview with Yoshiki from X Japan, playing at 4 today.
You dudes and your bandanas.
Lollapalooza takes over Grant Park, so tourists visiting Chicago this weekend are denied seeing one of our most famous landmarks: Buckingham Fountain.
Which, of course, means that when it heats up today, we can jump in it.
Plus: more food options!
It's the Cribs, not the Smiths
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2010 3:48 PM
How did the Smiths' Johnny Marr become indie-rock's hired gun?
Since the dissolution of the Smiths, Marr has played with a lengthy list of other stars — from the Pretenders and Neil Finn to Modest Mouse and now the Cribs. They don't seem to pick him as much as he picks them up, sidling up to them like a swinger and telling them how much he loves their music. His cred — the ringing, complex guitar he contributed to the Smiths, not his proximity to Morrissey — makes them salivate and, voila!, Marr stays employed.
His work with the Cribs in their early-afternoon set Sunday at Lollapalooza sure seemed like that: work. It's not like he's adding much more than muscle to this band, a trio of brothers before Marr joined a couple of years ago — no distinctive Rickenbacker, no skipping "This Charming Man" kinds of melodies. Just good, hard grinding with the other Jarman boys (singer-guitarist Gary, bassist-singer Ryan and drummer Ross). Which is no complaint; he holds the line solidly — doing his bit on the side of the stage with confidence and a general lack of expression — while Gary and Ryan are free to caterwaul and fling themselves (and their melodies) all over the stage. His chords underneath the desperate squeals of "Cheat on Me" certainly sounded like the Marr we (older fans, that is) could easily recognize, and then finished with use of the whammy bar and a slide. But as the last song disintegrated in feedback, with Gary and Ryan rubbing their instruments on their amps for maximum noise, Marr was putting his jacket back on. Shift's over.
A focus on Marr, however, is just another tragic result of a Gen-X Smiths fan at the helm of this particular report — an unjust diversion from a perfectly good, punkish rock band. The front Jarmans are the real entertainment, Ryan of the bowl haircut and spit-out lyrics, Gary of the pigeon-toed, neck-straining leaps toward the mic. For "Men's Needs," Ryan leapt to a lower platform, pricking a brief solo before the girls in front (wearing Smiths T-shirts). The Cribs lash out at their own songs, yelp-singing and thrashing around, knocking over mic stands without a hint of script. A labored "Be Safe," with jagged video accompaniment of some guy whining about "the complacent ones" (eye rolling here), completely stalled the band's momentum midway through the set, but they rallied.
Arcade Fire brings the heat at the end
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2010 11:15 PM
Twitter, if you haven't learned this by now, is full of lies. Sunday night, for instance, the Twitterverse was full of cruel rumors aimed at festivalgoers at either end of the park during this final night of Lollapalooza 2010. First, news spread that Eddie Vedder was in town. The mind reeled — maybe we'd get an appearance with south-field headliners Soundgarden, maybe a duet with Chris Cornell on "Hunger Strike"? Nothing happened. Then came word that David Bowie was going to appear with Arcade Fire, headlining the park's north side. He's done it before, albeit a few years ago. Again, alas, nothing doing.
But who needs Bowie? Arcade Fire emerged onto the stage from a bath of amber lights, underneath a video screen showing sunsets, horizons, billowing clouds. Then they launched into "Ready to Start," a song from their acclaimed new CD "The Suburbs." The band's return to Lollapalooza could be likened to Lady Gaga's — once on a smaller stage (in 2005), they now return as triumphant, headlining scenesters. Sunday's performance proved it was no fluke.
Arcade Fire lays down bombastic hootenannies, squeezing every ounce of drama from its dense, epic arrangements and lyrics of challenge and hope. Win Butler, grandson of lounge-era bandleader Alvino Rey, and Regine Chassagne led the large ensemble through an hour of what the Waterboys used to call "the Big Music." An hour and a half set built slowly, full of little pop suites that crept around the stage and eventually exploded with the propulsive force of, um, the band's fiddles, accordions and hand percussion.
From the machine-gun rhythms of "No Cars Go" to the encore of "Wake Up" (what was, in previous years, the Bowie moment), the band cemented its updated art-rock thesis, attributing the previous work of Talking Heads and Mercury Rev but also more mainstream bluster like Springsteen and, especially when Butler sang "Rococo," Neil Young. Somehow, Arcade Fire gets away with everything, no matter how high the moon they're shooting for, and Sunday night's set ended with a distinct ring of validation.
Before Arcade Fire, the National filled the north end of Lollapalooza with its stark but gently applied folk-rock. Sounding like U2 on a bender, or pretty much every American Music Club album, the band was joined early on by Arcade Fire's Richard Parry (introduced as "Richie from Soundgarden") on "Anyone's Ghost." National singer Matt Berninger (right, photo by AP) is a surprising rock star, sheepish, doting, poking his deep voice into mushy staccato singing, while the band hums and plods behind him in its abrasive drone. It all built to a studied squawking and yowling before Berninger plunged himself into the crowd. Despite the racket, though, there's a lot going on in this band; they'd benefit from a more focused showcase here, like (hint, hint) a Millennium Park show.
X Japan makes U.S. debut, wins converts
By Thomas Conner on August 9, 2010 12:20 AM
The other night, referring to the small crowd for the Strokes and the triumph of Lady Gaga, I quipped that rock is dead. I stand corrected.
Making its U.S. debut — after forming in 1982 and re-forming in 2007, with massive popularity in its home country — X Japan took to the Lollapalooza main stage Sunday afternoon and delivered a spectacular, almost operatic performance of big ballads and speed metal.
Given the circumstances of the premiere, a small knot of hardcore fans clustered down front for the show, some of whom traveled from all over the country for this event, dressed to the nines in X Japan's glam-anime style called "visual kei." But by the end of the show, even the mildly curious were won over by the infectious rock drama. Fists were pumping, guys were playing air guitar, people were chuckling at themselves while following suit, making the X Japan sign by crossing forearms in the air. One guy in front of me was so involved in his air guitar, he sloshed beer all over nearby fans.
X Japan only played six songs, but the theater — on the same stage where 36 hours earlier Lady Gaga had brought her bawdy Broadway peep show — was captivating. Bursting to life with plumes of pyro, the quintet launched into "Rusty Nail" with a driving rock melody that dissolved into synthesized strings. Such is the duality of X Japan, moving between hard rock and classical structures sometimes within the same measure. A new song, "Jade," opens with a kind of rumbling guitar attack that would make Metallica take notice, then it's a lumbering power ballad, then it's chugging at a breakneck pace, finally erupting into a guitars vs. drums battle. All the while singer Toshi Deyama — he looks like Roy Orbison and sings with a pinched high tenor like Steve Perry — wails away unlike a man who'd been virtually out of commission for a decade before the group re-formed.
The band's late guitarist, Hide, was able to make the debut, too, several years after his suspicious death. He appeared on the video screens while Toshi sang a slice of "Kurenai." The heart of the band, composer and drummer Yoshiki Hayashi, pounded and rolled his drums (wearing a neck brace to protect himself following drumming-related back surgery) and occasionally moved to a see-through grand piano for transitional music or to kickstart top-heavy ballads like "I.V."
At the end, Toshi asked, "Are you ready to rock?!" But the question wasn't too late, because the crowd, swept up in the frenzy, finally had an answer. "We are!" band members began shouting. The answer was to cross your forearms, marking the sign of X Japan. Over and over, this call and response continued. Once he realized he'd converted the Lollapalooza throng, Toshi changed the chant to "You are!" And we were.
Company of Thieves and other final notes
By Thomas Conner on August 9, 2010 9:45 AM
Some bands from the last loose pages of the notebooks ...
Sunday morning was surprisingly delightful and refreshing for several reasons, which were focused in one area of the park. Rain showers and breezes cooled things down briefly, the Sony Bloggie Stage benefited from this more than most because of its tree-lined, green surroundings, and one of the first acts to grace this stage was Chicago's Company of Thieves. Playing to a remarkably full crowd at this small side stage, the Company played hard. With her band giving its all behind her, singer Genevieve Schatz danced all over the stage, wailing with abandon — throaty in her range, breathy above it, never stopping to think about which was which, just going for it. This isn't a complex band, they play pretty basic pop-rock, but they were certainly spirited Sunday morning, closing with "Oscar Wilde," a popular download from their latest album, "Ordinary Riches." They were joined on the final number by pirouetting youngsters from Framework Dance Chicago; it was a little "Fame," but fun. When the show wrapped, the people around me gave it three "wow's" and a "holy crap." I heartily agreed.
Company of Thieves was on "Live From Daryl's House" once. Some other pals of Hall & Oates, Chromeo, played in the south field Friday evening just before Lady Gaga. Hearing this gig, I wouldn't put them next to Hall & Oates, though. Klymaxx, maybe, or Rick James, Sylvester, certain corners of the Prince catalog. This Montreal duo gets a not-quite-disco groove on, but it never builds a full head of steam. Even the duo's last song, their new single, "Don't Turn the Lights On," sounded like warm-up music on the PA.
Sort of like Switchfoot, ick. The Christian-mainstream band's early Sunday set didn't sound like a live band, just a modern-rock radio station cranked really loud, all pinched and compressed. "Can you hear me? / This is the sound of the desperation bound," they sang in their penultimate song. Yep.
Dawes, midday Saturday on the Bloggie stage, is a curious new artifact. An L.A. quartet of young bucks, they play a dusty genre of country rock harking back to the 1970s Laurel Canyon days (Jackson Browne, CSN, etc.). Their debut disc is called "North Hills." It's bizarre: here's an up-and-coming indie-rock band — young ones, no one's older than 25 — plying a style of music redolent of some of the industry's most bloated corporate-rock indulgences. Just further proof that everything comes back to us. Dawes is good at refreshing this sound, though, a meaty band with a guitarist, singer Taylor Goldsmith, who knows how to punch and pull his lines (just what the world needs, a new Waddy Wachtel). When they harmonize on "Love Is All I Am," they sound not like Crosby, Stills and Nash or Fleetwood Mac but the branch of country music that listened to them. After moseying through "When My Time Comes," I expected an encore of "Magnet and Steel."
Biggest crowd, plus no sitting on the fence at Lollapalooza
By Thomas Conner on August 9, 2010 2:20 PM
Lollapalooza's attendance for 2010 marks its biggest yet in Chicago: 240,000 — that's 80K each day — filled Grant Park this weekend, topping last year's three-day record of 225,000 for the weekend.
The extra bodies had extra room, too. The festival grew 35 acres this year, filling 115 acres. This allowed for significantly easier traffic flow north and south, turning Columbus Drive into a mile-long sidewalk, and avoiding the bottleneck around Buckingham Fountain that caused so many missed sets in previous years. Perry's Stage, for DJs and electronic acts, grew considerably, as did the food area.
Still, the increased space allowed for up to 95,000 participants a day. Festival organizers C3 Productions said they capped attendance at 80,000 this year to "focus on flow and room for the patrons" in the new layout, according to C3 spokeswoman Shelby Meade.
Bigger space also meant more fenceline to patrol — and more opportunity for jumpers who don't want to pay admission.
We watched this happen all weekend long. Anders Smith Lindall reported on one breach involving 30 to 60 jumpers; he got photos of others.
Saturday evening, three young guys rolled over a fence and seemed startled to find themselves behind a bar. They scattered, and security personnel went after them. I saw one apprehended, a teenage boy in a black-and-white checked shirt. He was handcuffed and led out of the fence by security. More than a dozen jumped over the fence Sunday night into the media area. Security later said 15 had been rounded up from that breach. They then sat down and compared wounds — a cut hand for one, bruised leg for another. They chalked it up to "kids being kids."
That said, as of Sunday morning, Chicago Police said they had made just 27 Lolla-related arrests, most of them for fence-jumping.
The extra bodies also mean more money for Chicago's parks.With three-day passes costing $215 this year, the added capacity was expected to bring more revenue to the parks, which get 10.25 percent of receipts.
Last year that meant about $1.9 million for the district's fund-raising partner, Parkways Foundation. The money helped pay for everything from repairs to Buckingham Fountain to scholarships for some of the city's neediest kids to go to park district camps, said Brenda Palm, Parkways' executive director.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
'Twas an esteemed watchdog of modern society who once said, "I say, whip it. Whip it good!"
The music of Devo is chirpy and chilly, perky and punky, and the pioneering synthesizer band's early hits are enshrined in the seeming fluff of 1980s pop culture. But when Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale assembled the band in the late '70s, they had serious social commentary in mind.
The name itself is a shortening of "de-evolution," an idea that humankind actually regresses as it moves forward in time, instead of evolves toward an ever-brighter enlightenment. In the cold but still tuneful medium of electronic new wave, Devo was able to match the message to the medium, producing catchy but often controversial songs about the apeman on the train next to you ("Jocko Homo"), the perils of having "Freedom of Choice" and a rockist-riling cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction."
The latest revival of the Devo brand came this year with a new studio album, the lively and toothy "Something for Everybody," and a new tour, which includes a stop this weekend at Lollapalooza in Grant Park.
Mothersbaugh spoke with the Sun-Times about the band's revival of misfortunes, how they have tried to use advertising against itself and the pitiful state of the world overall:
Q. What drew you back to the studio after 10 years?
A. We're old-timers, and we forgot what made us stop in the first place. Kidding. Actually, we met with our label [Warner Bros.] and instead of pontificating to us about what a record company is and what an artist does, they said, "We're trying to reinvent ourselves. Maybe you can help us."
Q. The brave new world you've been singing about has arrived. Why join them on their quest?
A. We always want to be a part of something new and changing. The Internet has changed the way musicians and artists create art, and the way audiences experience it. It's even changed what art is. I like it. To me, YouTube is much more interesting than MTV ever was. For what you lose in some sort of quality, just the idea that you can watch this incredible encyclopedia of all sorts of music and art and information, well, I think it would be a really great time to be 20 years old and thinking, "I want to be an artist, but I don't know what to do."
Q. Your first experiences with Warner Bros., I'm guessing, were not open, round-table discussions.
A. [Laughs] There was a marketing meeting when we first landed at Warner [in 1977]. We're sitting around a table with these guys, and one guy goes, "Here's the marketing plan for your music: We're going to put life-size cut-outs of you in every major record store in the country." And then he just leaned back and smiled and the other guys tipped their coffee cups. We looked around. That was it. We said, "How much will that cost?" $5,000. "Can we have that money to make a film instead?" They were like, "A film? What can we do with a film?" We took the $5,000 and made the "Satisfaction" video, and they indeed had no idea what to do with it. We mostly showed it on a screen before we started our shows. But we kept talking about sound and vision, sound and vision. Then along came MTV, and instead of killing rock outright it kind of propped it up for another 10-15 years.
Q. Why is Devo always wrapped up inextricably with marketing and advertising?
A. It goes back to our beginnings. Gerry [Casale, the other Devo co-founder] and I were at Kent State in 1970, protesting the Vietnam War. Gerry was there the day they shot the kids on campus. I was protesting because, OK, they're commies, I don't care. They can have bad government if they want; I don't want us to be napalming them for it. After the shootings, everyone went quiet. So the first thing we learned was: rebellion is obsolete in capitalist culture.
Q. Even though that's the founding image of rock 'n' roll.
A. Exactly, but look how they all change. The Sex Pistols turned into groovy fashion statements. Anything political they were about was turned into a way for capitalists to make money. We wondered: How do affect change in a democracy? Who does it best? Even then, it was Madison Avenue. They don't do it by attacking, they do it by hugging you to death. So while we don't like most of the things they sell us — it's mostly conspicuous consumption and mindless consumerism — the techniques they use work. So we thought: What if we use those techniques for good instead of evil?
Q. You had this conversation with a major record label?
A. This time we did. They wanted us back. We said, "On one condition: Let us use an ad agency for marketing instead of you guys." We talked them into hiring Mother [a new ad agency in Los Angeles], and we talked to them about marketing a brand that had been off the marketplace for 25 years. We did focus groups, color studies, all kinds of things. We wound up using advertising techniques to skewer themselves but also advance our cause, so to speak.
Q. Haven't Devo songs have been used in ads for years, hawking all manner of products?
A. We've licensed Devo songs a thousand times, always have, always wanted to. "Whip It" has been "flip it" and "strip it" and Swiffer, I think, made it "Swiff it." To me, if that stupid commercial puts Devo in your head, and some kid who doesn't really know the song hears it and makes a connection to Devo, maybe he'll be proactive to find out what we're all about, hear the real lyrics, make it more important. It's like when "Freedom of Choice" gets used in a beer commercial. I don't drink beer, but if a beer drinker hears the lyric and it makes him think, "What do they mean by that?" that's better than not thinking it.
Q. You play both sides of this game. You write a lot of music for TV commercials. You even used to slip in subliminal messages, right?
A. I did do that early on, yes. I'd sneak in Devo catchphrases, like "Duty now for the future" and "Be like your ancestors or be different." If I didn't like the product, I'd put in "Sugar is bad for you" or "Question authority." It's easy to do. I lost interest after about 40 of them. It's funny, though, when you're unveiling these things in meetings, and you get to the part where you can barely hear "Choose your mutations carefully." I have to be careful not to blush.
Q. Why did you stop?
A. It's not necessary anymore. More people believe in our original concept of de-evolution than ever. Years ago, they thought we just had a bad attitude. We're just about the Captain & Tennille at this point. Honestly, I didn't think de-evolution would happen so soon. But here we are waiting in incredibly long lines at the airport for incredibly old planes with not enough food or water or air, and we have way too many people and no one is talking about the biggest problem on the planet, which is overpopulation. I never thought it would be like this so quickly. But, hey, we do have portable cell phones.
WITH DIRTY PROJECTORS
• 7:30 p.m. Thursday
• Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee
• $35-$100; congresschicago.com
• 4 p.m. Friday
• Grant Park, Michigan and Congress
• $90-$850; lollapalooza.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Lady Gaga isn't known for subtlety or subdued performances, and when she headlines the first night of Lollapalooza 2010 next weekend, she'll no doubt deliver an earful and an eyeful.
Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell already has admitted to spending up to $150,000 for the production of this single, two-hour performance. Lady Gaga's current Monster Ball tour features 15 over-the-top costume changes, plus a giant gyrosphere, a flaming piano, a neon car, a series of skits and an enormous squid attacking her onstage.
It's a long way from a clunky synthesizer and a disco-ball bra.
Lady Gaga performed three years ago on a side stage at Lollapalooza, long before she conquered the pop-culture world. She wasn't even blond yet.
It was Aug. 4, 2007, day two of the festival in Chicago's Grant Park. A small crowd of about 500 gathered to watch a brunette Lady Gaga, then 20, take the BMI Stage with her partner, DJ Lady Starlight, in the middle of the afternoon. During a 45-minute set, the Ladies played synth-driven dance-pop, including the songs "Boys Boys Boys," "Dirty Ice Cream" and "Disco Heaven."
Lady Gaga strutted across the small stage, singing, dancing, occasionally jabbing at a synthesizer, which she had set up just low enough so she'd have to lean over — flashing her cleavage — to operate it. She wore a black bikini, the top of which was adorned with chains (which she made herself), with high black stockings and heels. Her one costume change consisted of swapping the black bikini top for a mirrored one that turned her breasts into disco balls.
"I wouldn't say she was terrible," says Jake Malooley, now an editor at Time Out Chicago, who wrote a short review of Lady Gaga's appearance for the magazine's blog. (Critics from the Sun-Times and other local papers did not mention the performance.) "It just didn't seem like a Lollapalooza-worthy performance. She was doing this dance-pop sort of thing where she had a DJ, and she would poke a keyboard every now and then. ... It didn't seem very well put together, more about the spectacle than the music itself — dancing and being silly. She didn't seem to know how to play her synthesizer. She had to stop a song and get the engineer to show her how to program a certain sound."
His review that weekend concluded: "But no one's going to accuse Gaga of being a musician, and I think she's aware of that. 'In my day job, I'm a go-go dancer,' she said jokingly. Well, at least I thought it was a joke until midway through the next song she shimmied over to stage left, wrapped her legs around the scaffolding and began twirling while giving the metal pole a few aggressive pelvic thrusts. Very ladylike, indeed."
The revealing clothes even earned Lady Gaga some hassle by The Man. While later strolling the park offstage, wearing very short shorts, Lady Gaga was cited by a Chicago police officer for indecent exposure.
"I was wearing very short hot pants and a police officer told me to put my ass up against the fence because I was not appropriately attired to be seen by children," she told the New York Post last year. "I told him I was an artist, but he didn't care. Where I come from, they were just normal hot pants, but in Chicago they were indecent."
The outfit got Farrell's attention, though.
"I remember ... she's got dark-brown hair, she's in a bikini and she's wearing thigh-highs, and she's sweating because she was on at around 3 o'clock," he told MTV in June. "Her music was cool, her show was kind of cool."
The Lady in waiting
From that Lollapalooza to this one — from a few hundred bucks for a stage show to $150,000 — Lady Gaga's career trajectory has defined "meteoric rise."
Before she began turning heads in 2007, she was Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, daughter of two technology executives and a student at an Upper West Side private Catholic school, with classmates Paris and Nicky Hilton. (In classic, Bowie-esque coyness, she now refuses to acknowledge her real name. "She's not here anymore," she said of her birth name in an interview a week after Lollapalooza 2007. "She's covered in sequins.") Her stage name was derived, she claims, from the Queen hit in 1984, years before she was born.
She grew up playing piano and began writing songs as a teenager, even sneaking out at night to perform at coffeehouses — more Fiona Apple or Tori Amos than the flashy vixen she is now — but 2007 was the year folks began to take notice.
Performing as Lady Gaga and the Starlight Revue, with DJ Lady Starlight (aka Gaga pal and makeup artist Colleen Martin), the duo attracted the attention of producer Rob Fusari, a music-biz svengali who has worked with Destiny's Child and Whitney Houston. He had some advice. "I had read an article about women in rock," Fusari told the New York Post in January, "and how it was getting very difficult for women to break through in the rock genre, how Nelly Furtado had moved into more of a dance thing." The Starlight Revue, he said, wasn't "going in the right direction. It wasn't something kids could relate to." (Earlier this year, Fusari filed a $30.5 million lawsuit against Lady Gaga, claiming she shut him out of proper compensation for crafting her persona and music.)
So Lady Gaga and Lady Starlight began weaving dance beats and Europop into their songs. The gambit worked, sort of. Lady Gaga landed a recording contract with hip-hop label Def Jam. But nothing happened. A debut album was scheduled for May 2007, but the label dropped her after three months.
Enter up-and-coming R&B darling Akon, who took Lady Gaga under his wing and signed her to his own Kon Live imprint at Interscope Records. "I was like, 'Yo, I want to sign that right there. She needs to be under my umbrella,'" Akon told the Huffington Post earlier this year. "She just blossomed into a super megastar, man." And made Akon very rich, he admits. "She's pretty much retired me."
Initially, Lady Gaga worked for Interscope as an in-house songwriter. She crafted songs for the Pussycat Dolls and New Kids on the Block (with whom she toured). Two months ago, a recording made the gossip rounds on the Internet — allegedly of Britney Spears' singing a demo of Lady Gaga's "Telephone," which Spears declined to record for her "Circus" album. Lady Gaga recorded it herself, teamed with Beyonce, and made it a No. 1 hit this spring.
Fame comes quickly
Meanwhile, Lady Gaga was creating her own music and trying it out on any audience she could find. Her first major single, "Just Dance," was released in April 2008. By June, she returned to Chicago, not yet at the arena level; she performed at the finals of the Windy City Gay Idol talent contest at Circuit on North Halsted.
This was also the time when she began experimenting with outlandish stage antics to get a wavering audience's attention. "I remember one show I played where nobody was paying attention to me," she told the New York Post in April 2009. "It was really late, so I took my clothes off. I started playing in my underwear at the piano and I remember everyone was all of a sudden like 'Whoa!' And I said, 'Yeah, you're looking at me now, huh?'"
The natural brunette also bleached her hair blond, allegedly because she was weary of being mistaken for Amy Winehouse.
One of her best friends wrote a piece about Lady Gaga for the May 2010 edition of Esquire. He recalled: "Back in the summer of 2007, there was a night when she popped out of a cake and sang 'Happy Birthday, Mr. President' for my then boss, the owner of Beauty Bar in Manhattan. It was fitting, somehow — the Marilyn reference. I'll quote something she said to me one day around that time as directly as I can: 'No one in the world knows who I am, but they are going to want to know who I am. My first time ever on TV I want to be on a huge show where I play one song. I'm going to come out onstage in my underwear and show the world that here I am and I don't give a f--- what anyone thinks of me."
That same month, Time magazine listed Lady Gaga in its annual run-down of the world's 100 most influential people.
"The Fame," her debut album, finally appeared in the fall of 2008. Over the course of the next year and a half, Lady Gaga would score six consecutive No. 1 singles and sell 8 million records — 35 million singles worldwide.
"Just Dance" was a big hit in the clubs, and it reached No. 1 in January 2009. The next single, "Poker Face," was even bigger, topping charts around the world. "The Fame" earned six Grammy nominations, and won for best electronic/dance album and best dance recording. A pattern was set. The follow-up album wasn't even supposed to be an album. "The Fame Monster" was supposed to be a bonus disc for the debut, but a few extra tracks made it a full-fledged new album last November, just to feed the hungry masses.
The center of attention
Lady Gaga is such a spectacle now, not only is she one of two headliners this Friday (the Strokes are scheduled on the opposite stage at 8:30 p.m.), Farrell says she's the evening's "centerpiece." He just hopes the elaborate theatrics don't overshadow her songs.
"Her presentation is so overwhelming that some may overlook the music," Farrell told MTV Radio two weeks ago. "But the truth is, her music to me is right where music should be. It's on the cutting edge, but it's [also] in the crosshairs of where every musician is aiming these days. She's this hybrid of Yoko Ono, sort of the Plastic Ono Band meets Madonna meets Elton John. She's this beautiful crossing of those things every musician is looking to find. Everyone's looking for that sound, and I think she really hits it.
"The production of her music, the people she's surrounded herself with, the development of her stage show — it's something that, when I think about Lollapalooza, in that gorgeous setting of Grant Park, with the amazing buildings all around us, lit up, I see her and her show as being a centerpiece to the evening."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Which band in this year’s Lollapalooza lineup has accomplished all of the following?
— Sold out a 55,000-seat arena — 18 times.
— Created and popularized its own form of glam.
— Sold 30 million albums.
— Recorded a classical album with Beatles producer George Martin.
It ain’t Lady Gaga.
The band is X Japan, the biggest rock band in Japanese history. The quintet came together in 1982 (originally called just X, but John Doe had something to say about it), disbanded in 1997 and re-formed in 2007. They started as a speed metal band with delusions of grandeur and evolved into a power-ballad powerhouse. Their shows are equal parts Anthrax and Celine Dion.
In their homeland, their presence still creates Beatlesque hysteria, with screaming fans and impenetrable throngs. When the founding guitarist, Hideto “Hide” Matsumoto, died in 1998, nearly 50,000 weeping mourners crowded the funeral; last May almost twice that number mobbed a memorial service marking the 12th anniversary of his death.
But thus far, only Asian fans have had these opportunities to go wild for X Japan — because the 4 p.m. Aug. 8 performance at Lollapalooza in Chicago’s Grant Park will be X Japan’s U.S. debut.
“Yes, we’re a huge band in Japan, but that doesn’t mean anything here,” says Yoshiki Hayashi, usually known only by his first name. Yoshiki is the band’s drummer, songwriter and core idea man. He’s also a classically trained pianist. “We feel like a new band again, trying to make it. It’s a very pure feeling. It feels like it did when we started, which is good.”
Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, but America has given plenty of second chances to foreign acts. Yoshiki — who now lives in Los Angeles, where he’s wrapping up X Japan’s first new studio album in 14 years, due this fall — hopes X Japan will live and thrive again on these shores. When he speaks, he struggles with his English, but his ambition is clear.
So is his realism. After Lollapalooza, X Japan will launch its first U.S. tour, hitting 10-15 cities. They won’t be selling out or even playing arenas like they do at home.
And that’s OK with Yoshiki.
“We’d like to play clubs or small venues. We cannot do that in Japan anymore,” he says, noticeably excited by the prospect, and maybe a little relieved. He misses the old days, pre-mobs, pre-stadiums. “When we were an indie band, right after we graduated high school, we were performing for 50 people, maybe 200. That was a great moment. By the time we were signed to Sony [in 1988], we were already performing for 10,000 people or bigger. … We weren’t supposed to make it big, you know? We were — how do I say? — the black sheep of the family. The Japanese scene was very poppy. We were playing speed metal. Nobody thought we could be mainstream. Then it got very, very big.”
Back to basics
The American shows will be stripped down. X Japan fills arenas like the Tokyo Dome with massive productions — lights, lasers, pyrotechnics, enormous stages with catwalks, lots of running around and dramatic performance. Yoshiki has played several times on a drum riser that not only rises above the stage, it takes off and flies around the arena, trailing smoke and neon lights.
And, oh, the costumes. X Japan pioneered a style of presentation now known as “visual kei,” meaning flamboyant outfits and hairstyles, many of which resembled Kool-Aid fountains. In other words: glam rock, hair metal.
For the U.S. jaunt, Yoshiki says X Japan will be “back to basics.”
“The bigger we got, the bigger our personalities,” he says. “We just want to go back and focus on the rock. Either way, you know, you don’t see good rock shows anymore. Rock doesn’t sound mainstream these days. We’d like to contribute something to help bring rock back. Rock doesn’t have enough drama now. Rap, R&B, dance music has taken that. Our band wants to be a part of bringing that back to rock.” He laughs. “But our band has enough drama.”
Yoshiki and X Japan’s singer, Toshimitsu “Toshi” Deyama, have known each other since kindergarten. When Toshi left the band in 1997, it wasn’t amicably. Yoshiki says the two didn’t speak for up to eight years. When Hide committed suicide, Yoshiki thought X Japan was dead, too.
But in that time, the Internet flourished. X Japan’s music — and especially its videos — went viral. The band that’s still only performed two concerts outside of Japan (last year in Hong Kong and Taipei) now has fans from China to France.
Meanwhile, Yoshiki pursued solo interests. He recorded a best-selling classical album in Japan, the double-CD “Eternal Melody” in 1993, co-produced and arranged by George Martin. The next year, he contributed a symphonic version of “Black Diamond” to a classical Kiss tribute record. He composed and performed a piano concerto for Japan’s emperor. And he cashed in. There’s a Yoshiki line of jewelry, a Yoshiki wine, a Yoshiki racing team, even a Yoshikitty — the only time Hello Kitty has combined another name with its famous toy brand.
Still, he missed his childhood friend.
“It’s weird, when you have that vocalist next to you all the time for many years, you take for granted how great he was,” Yoshiki says of Toshi, who spent the intervening years performing spiritually minded acoustic concerts of what he called “eco rock.” “When we started talking again, he said the same thing about me. We discovered these fans around the world, and they were demanding a return from us. It made me — I still feel like I’m dreaming. I never thought we would reunite this band. And we can’t completely.”
Coming to America
At the first X Japan reunion shows in 2008, the band performed its 29-minute opus “Art of Life” — during which Yoshiki collapsed from the exertion — and featured a floating hologram of the late Hide playing his guitar parts. (There you go, William Gibson fans: Rei Toei lives!)
“That was too much for me,” Yoshiki says, assuring the band will not continue the stunt. “That was so real. It brought me to tears.”
But are there fans in the United States? Lollapalooza may be the band’s first ticketed performance, but on Jan. 9 X Japan filmed four new videos on the roof of Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre. Thousands crammed the streets to get a glimpse, fans who’d driven from Texas and Chicago for the occasion.
“Their music is a cross link of my generation,” says Chicago photographer and fan Nobuyoshi Fuzikawa, 38. “That’s why I’m so excited they’re still playing for a major audience after all these years. It’s inspiring, and makes me want to try new challenges. … Lollapalooza is [a] well-known concert around the world, so I will be happy to see a Japanese performer have a presence there.”
Takeshi Tsukawaki, 24, will be driving to Chicago from New York just for the Lollapalooza show. He’s a younger fan who discovered the band during its hiatus.
“I have two older brothers. They were always listening to X Japan,” he said. “I didn’t know they were such a big band in Asia. I just listen to them again and again. … I have no idea what a show will be like. Maybe they can’t play very well like before, or maybe they’re better and more powerful. I never expected to be able to see them, so I’m coming. There are lots of people coming.”
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.