By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Music critic Paul Nelson didn't just interview some of the greatest rock musicians of the boomer era, he became their friends. He opened up to them. Some counseled him, a few loaned him money. When the wife of singer-songwriter Warren Zevon saw her husband needed an intervention to face his addictions, she paid for Nelson to fly from New York to Los Angeles — not to report it, to be there as a close friend.
Some of the most striking moments in Kevin Avery's Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson (Fantagraphics, $29.99, 584 pages) are taken from Nelson's tapes of these personal, conversational interviews. In most instances, the interviewer-interviewee role is reversed. Nelson wrote for Rolling Stone and other music magazines, but also wrote about literature and film. In his last round of chats with actor Clint Eastwood, Nelson opens up about writing to a woman who'd sent him a fan letter (about one of his Zevon articles) and that he was hoping it might turn into a relationship.
"Jeez, I'm pretty lonesome," Nelson admits. "I mean, maybe this will be something."
"Sure," Eastwood responds.
Everything Is an Afterthought is as much a eulogy for the life and work of this influential critic and writer as it is a reflection of how otherworldly the entertainment industry of the 1960s and '70s appears from a contemporary perspective of online bloggers and digital music.
"I think it's hard to imagine today the power of the critics and the way the music business took them seriously," Elliott Murphy, one of the musicians Nelson championed fiercely in his writing, tells Avery. "Because it was really still the time where the music was leading the industry, not the industry leading the music like it is today. These were mysterious people to the music business."
Nelson was a mystery, indeed. Not so much in the second half of this book — a meaty collection of his direct reviews and colorful articles about Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, his pal Rod Stewart and his beloved New York Dolls, among others — but definitely in the first half, Avery's thorough but disjointed biography.
A passionate critic, "a writer as brilliant as he was forgotten," Nelson rubbed shoulders with generational icons — and then just quit.
Born in Minnesota, he knew Dylan before he was Dylan; the Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott records Dylan first heard were Nelson's. He published his own folk zine, The Little Sandy Review, and was managing editor at Sing Out! magazine before following Dylan into rock and roll and landing at Rolling Stone. (Like Dylan, Nelson quickly soured on topical folk songs, saying they were "like sticking a slogan on the Mona Lisa's forehead.")
Nelson's personal relationship with many artists didn't prevent him from being critical of them in his writing. Nelson didn't see the future of rock in Springsteen the way critic Jon Landau did, but he favorably compared "The River" to the Clash's "London Calling"; "Nebraska," however, left Nelson "shocked and dismayed." He was friends with Stewart but still noted that in the '70s the singer had "suddenly metamorphosed into Jayne Mansfield."
Eventually, though, Nelson became utterly disillusioned with pop music. During a 1979 interview with Zevon, Nelson said, "If rock once stood for some sort of a rebellion against whatever you had, like Brando said, really it now stands for complete conformity, it seems to me — outside of 10, 12 artists: Jackson, Bruce, Clash, you, Neil Young." By the mid-'80s, he was out, taking a faceless clerk job at a New York City video store and retreating privately with his other two loves: movies and crime novels.
Avery's narrative is bookended by a morbid fascination with Nelson's lonely end, living poorly and finally dying in his apartment in 2006 at age 70.
But the dual nature of his book is fantastic, because after reading about Nelson's life we desire and deserve to read his work. Nelson understood Dylan better than most, he held his ground against the "narcissism" of Patti Smith (amen, brother!), and his pieces championing the New York Dolls ooze an infectious enthusiasm for rock and roll's power to hit you where it counts. For Nelson, this wasn't entertainment. It was personal.
"There was no calculation — Paul was totally idealistic about rock and roll," said Rolling Stone colleague Peter Herbst. "He believed in its transformative power, I think because he was transformed himself."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
It's complicated, but it's all right.
Getting the sprawling musical family that is Poi Dog Pondering together for a reunion weekend is a Herculean task. Frank Orrall, the band's pater familias and grand poobah, says the time is right.
"It's the 25th anniversary of the band," he says. Then he starts worrying me. "It just feels like the time to do it," he adds. "People are having kids, their work or other projects are taking them in different directions, they're going through different things in life. It seemed like an important time to document who we are while everyone is still here. It's getting harder to go out on the road. People have commitments."
This isn't a swan song, is it?
"No, we're still totally vitally strong and present as a band. But we don't move like the gypsies we once were. We just need to sit for a musical portrait while we can."
So Friday and Saturday the band reassembles for two reunions — the band's Austin lineup (1987-1992) on Dec. 2 and various incarnations of its Chicago existence (1993-present) on Dec. 3. The shows will be recorded and filmed for CD and DVD.
Austin-era bassist Bruce Hughes agrees about now being the right time for this reunion.
"Everybody is still extremely active in music," he says. "It's not like it was a little blip in college rock and now we're a bunch of accountants, paunchy and dejected, saying, "Hey we should get the band back together again."
The members from Austin have been rehearsing — they haven't played together in 18 years — and getting nostalgic.
"People are losing weight, growing mullets back out," violinist Susan Voelz says. "I was gonna get a perm."
We spoke with four members from throughout the band's lifespan for this brief oral history of how the band gelled in Austin and eventually transported to and transformed itself in Chicago:
Poi Dog Pondering originally came together in 1986 as a small nucleus of buskers and film enthusiasts in Honolulu, including Orrall, singer-songwriter Abra Moore, guitarist Ted Cho and drummer Sean Coffey.
Frank Orrall (singer): We started meeting in Hawaii and traveling, spending a year going across the mainland in sleeping bags, busking our way from Los Angeles to New York. That was the original gypsy creed of the band. ... The dance thing that came out in our music in Chicago — that was something always in me, even back in Hawaii. I cut my teeth in Hawaii going to these two clubs, one of which was a gay disco that kicked in at one in the morning. But punk and new wave bands played before that and would hang out. So there was this big mixture of new wave and dance music, and even in Austin that started coming back out, especially later. You can hear it in "Get Me On" and "Lackluster," on the same record with some full-on Hawaiian sounds.
Deep in the heart
As the band traveled the mainland, they started to stick — musically and physically — in Austin, Texas. A few local players were attracted to their spirit and sound.
Bruce Hughes (Austin-era bassist): The Austin origin story verges on mythology. I know I saw Frank and Abra and Sean come through and play. The way I remember it: At the time, I was hanging with a bunch of musicians that included Alejandro Escovedo, hanging out on Avenue D [near the Univ. of Texas campus], making barbecue and playing music. Ronnie Lane of the Small Faces had moved to town. He was sick with multiple sclerosis and wanted to get away from L.A.. Alejandro put a band together to help Ronnie play music and got me involved. Susan Voelz, too — I already knew her from a band we were in together with Arthur Brown. The Ronnie Lane band was the Seven Samurai, and one night at the Continental Club this little band opened up for us.
Susan Voelz (violinist): It was a Tuesday at the Continental Club. It was raining. I didn't even dress up. I just wandered over and played the gig. But that was a transformative show. I was playing with good musicians, plus Poi Dog — they were coming through and I happened to see their show, and I remember meeting Frank that night.
Hughes: They had a little wooden marimba and acoustic guitar and a snare with brushes, and accordion and penny whistle — Frank, Abra and Sean. I remember listening to them and seeing all this joy on stage. I thought, "I love these guys! It looks like so much fun!" They had so much spirit and joy and freedom. I ended up meeting Frank through another friend of mine, and we kept in touch.
Voelz: Later, they called and said, "Come play violin!" ... I hadn't intended to join the band. They were very open in the studio, and I liked that. They invited me to play live with them at the Texas Union ballroom. I walk in, and it's already this big Poi Dog show, lots of energy and enthusiasm in the room. I was like, "Oh, that's what this is about." I liked the fire.
Hughes: That fall — I think, 1987 — Frank called and said, "Hey, I'm out in Oakland, and me and Abra want to start putting together demos for a record. Come help me." I caught a ride with Frank's girlfriend, and we spent several days in this cold, warehouse space cooking food and making music, and we had a residency in the [Mission] district. I came home for the holidays and convinced Frank to come down to Austin. Half of Poi Dog was already here, and San Francisco was so expensive. "Just come to Austin," I said.
Orrall: I said, "OK, let's go to Austin and track this record." I meant to stay there a month and I stayed four years. Austin has a nice lifestyle, a strong self-identity. People are proud to be from Austin. In that period, also, there was a real spirit of collaboration, not just among Austin musicians but every kind of art. That movie "Slacker" [Richard Linklater's classic, in which Orrall appears for one brief, hapless segment] is all about that — that thing made by everyone contributing.
Poi Dog Pondering's self-titled debut appeared in 1989 on the independent Texas Hotel label.
Hughes: We finished the record, and we were still busking on campus. We slowly set up shows at clubs and on campus and around, close to the university youth culture. More songs were added, more fans were added, more excitement. Soon there were seven, eight, nine, 10 people on stage. It definitely gelled and found the nutrients it needed.
Voelz: Part of it, I think, is that the camaraderie in the band is real, was from the beginning in Austin. It's ridiculous — we really do like each other. We enjoy each other. I enjoy when Ted or Max hits high notes, or when Dag plays something I've never heard before. It's a hurricane, or an ocean. We want to get into that realm. It's big. I never know where everything's going, but I follow it.
The debut album includes the song "Aloha, Honolulu," written by Hughes, who was not part of the band's Hawaiian beginnings.
Hughes: My family were musical. My grandfather was a Dixieland cornet player from Chicago. I grew up listening to a lot of music from the '30s and '40s, so it wasn't foreign to me, that Hawaiian style of music. Not traditional, of course, but that Hawaiian style — Bing Crosby, etc. I developed a deep love for it, and after I got to know Frank and his friends from Hawaii I wrote that song in L.A. as we were getting ready to go to Hawaii, my first trip. It was my way of saying, "Hey, welcome me."
PDP released two more albums in a contentious relationship with Columbia Records — 1990's "Wishing Like a Mountain, Thinking Like the Sea" and 1992's "Volo Volo."
North to Chicago
Restless spirits all, the band began contemplating a move north. Maybe New York? Maybe Chicago? Only three core members make the move: Orrall, Voelz and multi-instrumentalist Dave Max Crawford.
Orrall: I enjoyed Austin, but I didn't plan on living there. I really had a strong interest in urban music and dance that wasn't in the forefront in Austin, or even happening at all. I wanted to live in a bigger city, either Chicago or New York. I planned to go to New York, but I had a lot of friends in Chicago so I stopped to visit on the way. I ended up staying, and it was the totally right choice.
Voelz: I was tired of the heat and really missed the snow. I grew up in Wisconsin. And I wasn't ready to be done with Poi. It was musically rich for me. Right away, we met really great players and went into this whole other dimension.
Hughes: Family ties — I had a lot of reasons to stay in Austin. ... One of the reasons the band moved there was because we had so many fans there already. The groove thing had already started happening in Poi Dog, and Chicago picked up on it immediately and embraced it like no one else.
PDP began picking up new players to round out the now Chicago-based collective.
Dag Juhlin (Chicago-era guitarist): I had been working the door at Lounge Ax back in the late '80s-early '90s, so I'd seen Poi Dog and the rather respectable hysteria they inspired in town. Long lines, multi-night stands, etc. ... Frank, Dave Max and I were already working together at Milly's Orchid Show to back up noted chanteuse Syd Straw, and they very casually asked me if I wanted to be part of their first Lounge Ax show. I said yes. The shows went on for months, and there was always a rotating cast of players, but I kept on getting invited back. Somewhere along the line, Frank and Dave Max had decided to put together a new Poi Dog made of Chicago players.
Into the groove
In Chicago, in the early-1990s, house music was literally booming. Orrall began steering the band in that direction. PDP's next album, 1995's "Pomegranate," shows the clubby influence on their otherwise earthy sound.
Orrall: I didn't realize how strong the Chicago house community was. I started realizing the impact it had on everything I liked, including the Manchester stuff, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays. They were all inspired by Chicago.
Voelz: I loved what we were doing [in Chicago] from the get-go. Thinking back around "Pomegranate," you can really hear Chicago in that record. Austin is hot, you wear less clothes, it's a smaller city. Chicago was winter and there were mittens and pasta in the studio. "Pomegranate" is super song-based, but I knew Frank was into that whole other dimension of house music, less structure and more groove. I love a good song, but when the songwriting opened around the grooves — it felt more orchestral to me right away. There were more places for strings and orchestration, so we added more strings and horns. It was super fun, and I knew how to write for that. Then came the Sinfonietta and "Carmen."
Orrall: In Chicago, the full-on house stuff became part of Poi Dog Pondering — to the chagrin of some fans and even band members. We went through a shakedown. Some people weren't happy with the incorporation of that. ... It was too jarring a change.
Juhlin: I had resisted the stuff like "U-Li-La-Lu" [from "Wishing Like a Mountain"], but I fell immediately for "Pulling Touch" [from the debut]. It had this insistent, four-on-the-floor kick drum and sidestick that absolutely hypnotized me. Once I started getting further into the catalog, I realized how much heart was in the music. Chicago was a town of punk snobbery, and [Juhlin's band] the Slugs, god bless/help us, were standing in the fringes of that nonsense. I let go of the posturing and was proud to be part of Poi Dog and the type of honest, soul-searching music they were making. I think the "hippie" tag that the band got slapped with is just really dumb, cooler-than-thou shorthand.
Hughes: When I heard Poi Dog getting into real deep house culture there, I was not surprised. I knew Frank was heading there. There's a lot of that stuff going down on "Volo Volo." ... There's a lot of equatorial influence, not necessarily Hawaiian, in Frank's music. It's music from all over the Caribbean, from zouk to some deep Samoan stuff going on. Anything that was exciting and energetic and spiky, African pop, Caribbean pop. The groove was there, even if you couldn't hear it right away.
Juhlin: As far as the groovy stuff goes, well, that was a learning curve for me, as well. I always secretly fancied myself as versatile, and actually loved retro-fitting my sort of power chord style into something more supportive, colorful and textural. I still was/am able to add the grit when appropriate, and Susan Voelz, bless her heart (and eardrums), will tell you that I have yet to truly learn to turn my amp volume down onstage, but playing with Poi Dog forced me to listen and adapt, and to be aware of the sound as a whole. I've had some of the most thrilling musical interactions of my life with my PDP bandmates, and it's almost shocking how routinely and effortlessly they can occur.
The band that eats together
Rehearsals, performances, any occasion with Orrall is one for food, as well. (He sings, he feasts — how many living puns will he spin from his name?) Every conversation with a PDP member mentions grand dining as part of the experience. Today, Orrall hires himself out as Chef Franc (cheffranc.com); he'll come to your house, cook a dinner party and bring his guitar.
Voelz: Frank and food — he has appetite for life. Touring and traveling, our compass of curiosity included food, music, bookstores, record stores, nothing was left out. It was never "Oh, that restaurant is too swanky for us," it was always "No, we're going for it!" Max used to say, "Hold on to your per diems, we're going to dinner with Frankie!"
Hughes: We were traveling carnival auteurs, with a deep familial sense. No matter what we had, we could get together and make a big party, a big supper. ... [Orrall] is a master chef, as fun to cook for as to cook with. It's a lot of fun to sit back and let him take over the kitchen. It's almost exactly the way he approaches music, too.
Orrall: I've always loved the dinner party. I love what happens when a group comes together to drink wine and talk story. It relates to when I was a kid. My family had parties, and Mom would bust out the guitar. People brought instruments, and at the end of the night all these adults are playing Roy Rogers and Carter Family songs. ... In the early days of Poi Dog, as street musicians, we'd make 12 dollars some days. We always had to fiure out how to make that work. So it was always about being creative, buying pasta and frozen peas an making our own meal, and it eventually became this social thing for all of us in the studio. My cooking has always been combined with music, and the other way around.
Pondering the future
Orrall: Would I move again? I'm originally from Hawaii, and I've been trying to make more of an effort to be in Hawaii more. I'm always going to be in Chicago. It's my creative home. But I'm becoming more of a gypsy now, like I used to be.
Orrall is working on his first solo album, likely a set of instrumental, Brazilian-inspired tunes. Voelz has completed a 50-minute orchestrated suite for Thai yoga. She also promises to finish a long-delayed record of Prince covers.
Voelz: I'll never put that out. No, I think I will next year. That's such a lie. I've been saying that for four years. Maybe a show with Robbie Fulks. He's got his Michael Jackson covers record out. OK, that for sure will happen next year.
Hughes has played with numerous others (Cracker, Bob Schneider, Jason Mraz). He is currently finishing his third solo album and leading his own band, Bruce Hughes & the All Nude Army.
Juhlin reunited the Slugs for one show last year. He now leads an inventive local covers band, Expo '76.
Juhlin: I like to say that we're not a cover band, but a band that does covers. It's one of the most fun musical experiences I've ever had in my life. ... Don't count out those Slugs, though. I think we may end up doing a show before too long.
POI DOG PONDERING'S "TALE OF TWO CITIES"
• 9 p.m. Dec. 2 — The Austin Years
• 9 p.m. Dec. 3 — The Chicago Years
• Metro, 3730 N. Clark
• Tickets: $26, (800) 514-ETIX, metrochicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
In his 1976 appearance as a celebrity guest on "The Muppet Show," singer-songwriter Paul Williams sang one of his own songs accompanied by a small Muppet choir, a backing band by the name Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (showing remarkable restraint), and the subdued piano of Rowlf the Dog.
The tune was called "Sad Song," but Williams remembers it as one of the happiest moments of his life.
"Oh, it's one of those Hallmark lyrics I wrote, basically a co-dependent anthem, which is pretty much what I spent my life writing. But the way it worked on the show is a perfect example of this intense emotional connectedness we feel with these characters," Williams says.
In the scene — see it and other great Muppet music moments here — the song winds to a close with Williams leaning on Rowlf's piano nonchalantly singing about "the sad song that used to be our song," a sharply sentimental but sweet moment, and as Rowlf plays the final chords, he glances at Williams, as if to say, "Did that help?" Rowlf then closes the piano keys and gently pats the lid.
"I mean, Rowlf did more with the closing of that piano than most actors ever got from Orson Welles," Williams says, laughing heartily at the 35-year-old memory.
Music always has been the beating heart of the Muppets. That "intense emotional connectedness" fans feel to the felt friends created by the late Jim Henson has fueled excitement about the first new Muppet movie in 12 years — "The Muppets," opening Wednesday in theaters — and it comes directly from the power of the franchise's iconic songs, such as Williams' and Kenny Ascher's "Rainbow Connection" and "Movin' Right Along."
For those of us who grew up with the Muppets, the music made an impact beyond celebrity moments on "The Muppet Show," the syndicated TV variety series Henson produced from 1976 to 1981. Those moments included Elton John performing "Crocodile Rock" with the song's namesake and Julie Andrews donning Maria's dress again for "The Lonely Goatherd" on a farm.
"The Muppet Show" celebrated pop songs by reimagining them, adding narratives and creating set pieces in the years just before MTV — always stopping just short of parodying them. Like classic Looney Tunes cartoons, this was a show aimed chiefly at adults; kids could LOL to Muppets dancing around to the Village People's "Macho Man," but adults were ROTFL when Gonzo's disco-dressed chicken gang rumbled with a posse of butch, leather-clad pigs. The show also unearthed folk classics, mid-century lounge music, Tin Pan Alley chestnuts and rhythm & blues.
"We covered everything — every genre and every century," Muppet performer Dave Goelz (Gonzo, Zoot and others) told the SF Weekly in 2007. "We did Charleston numbers, we did the latest stuff in rock 'n' roll, we did the '40s, '30s, classical. I really miss the way we worked with music. Jim was a pretty musical guy."
The new Muppet movie, fortunately, works with music in the same spirit. "The Muppets" soundtrack is not, thankfully, "The Green Album," an unnecessary, marketing-driven collection released in August featuring current indie-rockers (OK Go, Andrew Bird, Weezer, etc.) covering classic Muppet songs. The Muppets are doing their own thing again.
The film's director and music supervisor both come from a musical-comedy project that isn't just a kindred spirit; its title sounds like its own Muppets production number: "Flight of the Conchords."
"The Muppets and 'Flight of the Conchords,' yeah, there are quite a lot of similarities," says Bret McKenzie, half of the Conchords duo and music supervisor for "The Muppets." (The film's director is "Conchords" co-creator and director James Bobin.) "I really didn't have to shift gears, like, at all."
"Flight of the Conchords" was basically an adult "Muppet Show." Few actors are more Muppety than Jermaine Clement, and the songs he and McKenzie wrote for each episode of their acclaimed HBO comedy series (and live concerts) kept things movin' right along in the same adventurous, wondrous and usually optimistic spirit. Henson no doubt would have loved the "Bowie" episode, with Clement dressed up as "1986 David Bowie from the movie 'Labyrinth,' " a puppets-'n'-people fantasy film that Henson directed.
"There's a quality to the production [of 'The Muppets'], a looseness that reflects the looseness of the Muppets themselves, and I think you could say the same about [the Conchords] most times," McKenzie says. "This guy Chris Caswell, who worked on the original Muppets music as a piano player, told me Henson said, 'If it sounds too good, it's not right.' I kept thinking about that a lot. Finding the line between that looseness and a grand musical number — it's a challenge."
Plus, the Muppet universe has a few commandments.
"I quickly had to learn a few things," McKenzie says. "Like, in the Muppets' world, they've always existed. Kermit was never a piece of fabric. I had one lyric with Kermit saying, 'I remember when I was just a piece of felt,' and they said, 'Oh, no, you can't use that.' Another thing is that all these characters have specific vocal ranges. If they go too high or too low, they stop sounding like the character we know. If Miss Piggy goes too high, she sounds like a squeaky mouse.
"Also, all animals can talk — except chickens. They can only cluck. I had this big finale with everyone singing along, and we cut to the chickens, and I said, 'OK, chickens sing.' 'Oh, no, chickens can't sing.' So it's even funnier, because it's, 'OK, cluck,' and they cluck, cluck, cluck."
McKenzie's "Life's a Happy Song" has such a finale — a classic Muppet cluster-cluck that even includes lines sung by Hollywood icon Mickey Rooney and indie rocker Feist. It's one of four new songs McKenzie wrote for "The Muppets" (the others are "Let's Talk About Me," "Man or Muppet" and "Me Party"), and he oversaw the production of other original songs, as well as the film's reprise of favorites like "Rainbow Connection."
The film also includes actor Chris Cooper, who plays villainous oilman Tex Richman, performing — ye gods — a rap song.
"The rap song was a very dangerous idea," McKenzie says. "I arrived and that was already in the script, so I had to make it work. The risk is that it will be a joke from the late '80s. We've all seen people rapping badly. So I gave Chris some rapping lessons — on Skype. If you can imagine, Chris Cooper and I rapping on Skype. It was so bizarre, one of many bizarre moments in this experience. God, it was funny." He laughs.
"He does a stellar rap performance, I must say. We had to make it Muppety, though, you know? We joked about adding, like, some Kanye AutoTune, but it's not about making some contemporary, winking reference. I didn't want this to sound like a Hannah Montana album."
A star is reborn
"Muppety." It's an adjective they all use. Williams says it's a quality he first spotted early in the morning.
"I was a solid fan of everything Henson before he asked me to come over and do 'The Muppet Show,' because living on the road at that time, the best, most intelligent entertainment we could find on television while getting up in the morning and getting ready to go to the next city was 'Sesame Street,' " he says.
The diminutive Williams was once a huge star, lest we forget. By the end of the '70s, he'd written huge hits — Three Dog Night's "An Old Fashioned Love Song," Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen" (from "A Star Is Born"), the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" and "Rainy Days and Mondays," even the theme song for "The Love Boat" — and was a fixture on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson (48 times!). By the '80s, he fell off the radar due to deep struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, a story that's told in a new documentary currently making the film-fest rounds, "Paul Williams: Still Alive." Williams also is in his second term as president of ASCAP.
"Everybody wanted to do 'The Muppet Show' because it was so very hip," Williams says. On the set of the show, "I understood the magic of what was happening when I was standing there talking to Jim and Frank [Oz, founding Muppet puppeteer and voice actor], and Frank has Miss Piggy on his arm and Jim has Rowlf and Kermit on his arms, so it was all of us in this conversation. There was this extra level of engagement, a kind of medium, that really made it special. Songs came alive in that."
After his "Muppet Show" appearance, Henson asked Williams to write some songs for another project he was working on, a holiday special that would double as a workshop for some production techniques later perfected for "The Muppet Movie" (1979). The special was "Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas" for HBO.
Their relationship cemented, Williams went on to co-write the now-classic tunes for the first Muppets film. He remembers a moment in the creative process during that film that summarized the unique nature of creating with Henson.
"I love Gonzo most of all," Williams says. "We're all landlocked birds, you know? There was a great scene where the Muppets break down on the road in the desert, and I said to Jim, 'You know, I'm a child of the '60s' — I'm 21 years sober now, of course, but in those days, there were a variety of chemicals involved, and people were having a lot of spiritual awakenings as a result. I said, 'What if we write about that? Here's Gonzo experiencing that feeling of connectedness.' Jim said, 'That's really nice. What if we also get beyond the metaphoric and allow Gonzo to actually experience flying?' So he wrote that whole fair scene where Gonzo gets the balloons and is taken away just to support the song. It's so Muppets — it's a lofty dream squarely rooted on the ground."
So many songs: 10 great Muppet music moments
As you gear up for Muppet-mania this week ahead of the new movie, "The Muppets" — read about the Muppets music and the Flight of the Conchords connection — here are 10 great musical moments from our felt friends (in no particular order), from the show, the movies and the viral videos.
Get this: The song "Mahna Mahna," written by Piero Umiliani, first appeared in a 1968 Italian film ("Sweden: Heaven and Hell") about Nordic sex, drugs and suicide. Thankfully, it resurfaced a decade later as a perfect set piece for "The Muppet Show," featuring two fluorescent pink cows (?!) and one very groovy beatnik.
'Last Time I Saw Him' with Diana Ross
Performing with Muppets is a transformative experience for some singers. In this clip from the fourth season of "The Muppet Show," Diana Ross appears more natural, relaxed and happy than she ever did with the Supremes, first sitting on the stoop and jamming with a few Muppets, then turning it into a full-on production number with a great arrangement that ambles like a Muppet road reverie. By the end of the tune, Muppet horn players are in a Dixieland breakdown, and Ross puts a period on the number with a hammy vaudeville face.
The Muppets started a comeback a couple of years ago with a series of YouTube videos — more respectful pop song covers — like this Muppety take on Queen's popera.
'While My Guitar Gently Weeps'
Sure, "The Muppet Show" had a laugh track, but some poignant moments found their way in. Sgt. Floyd Pepper, of the Muppet band Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem, occasionally turned in cool, calm readings of pop songs. His performance of Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" (a duet with Janice, "fer sure") is smooth, but this take on this George Harrison song is a piece of pre-MTV perfection, setting up a little narrative in the scene — complete with Miss Piggy in silhouette during a very "Eleanor Rigby" kind of moment — and creating a transcendent moment, especially when Floyd caresses his guitar and says, "Oh, baby, don't cry."
How do you celebrate St. Patty's Day in Muppetland? With the three tenors, of course — the Swedish Chef, Beaker and Animal. Assembling three of the Muppets no one can understand to sing such a classic tune is only the start of the hilarity. The rest of it follows when Beaker overcomes his anxiety for a solo, Animal goes off actually looking for Danny, and the turtlenecks.
'Sad Song' with Paul Williams
After singer-songwriter Paul Williams made this appearance on the first season of "The Muppet Show" in 1976, Jim Henson asked him to write more Muppets music. That turned into a collaboration that lasted decades and produced some of the Muppets' most iconic songs, including "Rainbow Connection." Williams said of the scene: "I mean, Rowlf did more with the closing of that piano than most actors ever got from Orson Welles."
Animal vs. Buddy Rich
"The Muppet Show" showcased all kinds of music, including jazz. In this scene, Animal is let off his chain to challenge revered jazz player Buddy Rich to a drum battle. While Animal hollers like a tennis pro during the match, Rich flies over his kit with power and panache. Animal's drums, incidentally, were performed on the show by British jazz drummer Ronnie Verrell.
'In the Navy'
First, this is the second Village People song the Muppets covered (the other, well ...). For this musical number, the navy in question is a horde of marauding Muppet Vikings, and when they chant "We want you as a new recruit!" — they're not kidding. They come ashore and proceed to shanghai villagers into shipboard service. Educational on sooooo many levels.
'Grandma's Feather Bed' with John Denver
John Denver forged a lasting kinship with the Muppets — he made several "Muppet Show" appearances, hosted a Christmas special and the 1982 special "Rocky Mountain Holiday" — which began with this odd performance. Perhaps it was a less jaded era, so creators and audiences didn't see anything creepy about Denver hopping into bed with a bunch of Muppets, having a pillow fight with them, or dressing in drag as Grandma.
The movies are filled with great Muppet songs (one of my favorites is "The Happiness Hotel" from "The Great Muppet Caper"), but the benchmark was always Paul Williams' Oscar-nominated gem from the very first opening credits.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
When we catch up with jazz legend Herbie Hancock, he's in his Los Angeles studio doing what comes naturally. He's fiddling with computers.
"I'm working with some technology here, trying to improve on some of it, trying to adjust the software — adapting it for the tour," he says.
The tour he speaks of is one of three he has scheduled this fall. In the coming weeks, the revered and influential Chicagoan will be on the road with his current quartet, as well as playing more dates with orchestras (performing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue").
This week, though, Hancock returns to the Chicago area on what's being billed as his "first-ever U.S. solo tour" — a surprising claim for the 71-year-old pianist whose career stretches back, past MTV hits and years with Miles Davis, to the 1950s.
"This is not a solo acoustic piano tour," he clarifies. "It's acoustic piano and synthesizer and my iMac. I'm integrating them all so there are more sounds I can produce in a solo context that go beyond the acoustic piano. I can build an accompaniment. I can alter, modify the sounds on the fly."
As a teen in Chicago, Hancock didn't necessarily think music was his destiny. A child prodigy in classical music, he played the first movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 5 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11. But he never had a jazz teacher, and when he left Chicago it was to study electrical engineering at Iowa's Grinnell College.
But his penchant for techie tinkering and the ease with which he goes gaga for gadgets both shaped his career as a pioneering figure in post-bop jazz. An early missionary for the clavinet and electric piano, in the late '60s Hancock was one of the first jazz musicians to perform and record with synthesizers. A decade later, he was the first person I witnessed jamming out with a keytar.
On stage in Philadelphia earlier this month, Hancock lamented the recent death of Apple founder Steve Jobs, listing the various archaic Mac computers still littering his home.
"Technology fascinates me," he tells the Chicago Sun-Times. "I started toying with things like that when I was a boy in Chicago. . . . I've always loved science. With this technology now, I can do both. For me, it's fun and challenging at same time. Really, I have to focus and balance the personal enthusiasm I may have for the science with the idea of communicating life through music with an audience.
"Music uses sound to tell its story. It doesn't say what that sound has to be, doesn't say it has to be acoustic or electronic. It just wants out. What I'm able to do with all of this extends the possibilities of how I can orchestrate that story."
Turning toward jazz — and the future
Hancock's futurism has shaped his sound so much that when he was given the music award at this year's BET Honors, he was introduced as a player who has "changed the way we listen to music" and is "undoubtedly the master of innovating new sound."
Last year, Hancock was feted several times on the occasion of turning 70, including a special tribute concert hosted by Bill Cosby at Carnegie Hall. A West Coast tribute focused on Hancock's post-Davis group, often called Mwandishi, an early-'70s sextet (eventually septet) that consciously mixed electronic and acoustic instruments.
Christian McBride, bassist and co-director of the National Jazz Museum of Harlem, said then, "I'm the biggest Weather Report fan, but I think Mwandishi was the most futuristic band of all time. With other bands, certain elements really give away their time in history. But Mwandishi was so far ahead of the pack . . . They were somehow able to balance the old traditions of jazz and the futuristic, electronic funk sound."
The aha moment that put Hancock on that forward-thinking jazz path, steering him away from engineering and classical music, occurred at Grinnell. He started learning to play jazz at 14 by listening to records, but at college he decided he wanted to perform.
"I wanted to put together a jazz concert and construct a big band," Hancock says. "There weren't a lot of jazz musicians at that small liberal arts school in Iowa, so I had to teach all the sections how to phrase so that it wouldn't be so wooden and mechanical. I tried to give them a sense, at least from my perspective in those early stages of my development as a jazz musician, you know, how they should approach it and play certain things. . . . I was 18, I was able to improvise by then." He pauses, chuckles. "I had more sense of what to do than any of them did."
Hancock spent a semester working with this group, and his schoolwork suffered. Had he not crammed at the last minute for his engineering finals, he says he would have flunked most of them. The struggle showed him the light.
"After the concert was over, I just remember going to my dorm room, looking in the mirror and saying to myself, 'Hey, Herbie, who are you trying to kid?' " he says. "The next day I changed my major. It wasn't an either-or situation, it was just a realization that music is what I must do and there was no plan B. I think I made the right decision. I hope people think so."
During summers home in Chicago, Hancock worked as a mail carrier during the day and jammed in local clubs at night. He reels off names of mentors and peers from that circa-1960 Chicago jazz scene — fellow pianists Willie Pickens and Chris Anderson ("I learned a lot from him") and Harold Mabern, sax player Eddie Harris, horn player Ira Sullivan — and venues, from the Gate of Horn to Robert's Lounge.
In addition to the general praise for Chicago's nurturing musical climate, Hancock when pressed gets down to what the city's scene specifically contributed to his arsenal.
"Especially for piano players, I'm certain, Chicago was an incredible place for the development of a keen sense of harmony, how harmony can work in music — between players and between your fingers," he says. "The way these guys were open to playing with each other, you just were able to pick up how it all could work much easier.
"We used to have jam sessions there with piano players, and we'd just take a ballad, for example, and each one would play one chorus and we'd harmonize the ballad. The next guy would keep playing it, and we'd harmonize a different way. We did it for fun and shared ideas. That was great. For harmonic development, Chicago was the place."
He took those skills to New York in 1961, where he joined Donald Byrd's group before becoming the pianist in trumpeter Davis' second acclaimed quintet. The jazz career that took off from there included a long string of solo albums spanning hits from the loping acoustic piano of "Cantaloupe Island" in 1964 to the MTV-embraced synth-funk of "Rockit" in 1983.
Even as Hancock passed the age of AARP eligibility, his music continued to impress. His 2007 album "River: The Joni Letters," a tribute to Joni Mitchell's folk-pop songs, surprised everyone at the 2008 Grammys by beating the odds and winning album of the year — only the second jazz album to do so (the first: "Getz/Gilberto" in 1965).
Turning back toward Chicago — and his classical past
Today, however, Hancock says he's spending a lot of time thinking about the classical music he played as a boy in Chicago.
A combination of events pointed him back toward the symphony hall. First, Hancock says he came across some tapes someone had made of orchestrations to solo performances Hancock had given as part of a 2000-'01 duet tour with former Davis bandmate Wayne Shorter. If someone else could envision simple, synthesized and sequence orchestrations around his solo piano, then surely he could come up with his own, he says. The tinkering began.
Also, in 2009, Hancock began a joint series of performances with classical piano star Lang Lang (which stopped at Ravinia with the CSO). The recent "Rhapsody in Blue" revival began there, and Hancock says a door was opened. Last year, he performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
At the time, Quincy Jones, who has known Hancock since both were grooming their talent on Chicago's South Side, said he was eager to see what more Hancock would bring to classical programming.
"He can do it all," Jones said.
Hancock returned to L.A.'s Disney Hall last month with the Philharmonic, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting.
"I hadn't been playing classical since I was 7 years old in Chicago playing Mozart and Bach and Scarlatti. I did a Bartok piece once with Chick Corea years ago," he says. "But then I found there was actually interest from various orchestras in concerts. . . . I've got three more in December." He laughs. "So I've had to get my chops together!
"These things just happen. They present themselves. When I see a doorway opening or an opportunity or a direction that seems to be telling me, 'Examine this,' I follow it. It's the curious part of my nature. It's what's led me all the great places I've gotten to go."
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 29
Where: Wentz Concert Hall, North Central College Fine Arts Center, 171 E. Chicago, Naperville
Tickets: $85-$95, (630) 637-7469, northcentralcollege.edu/showtix
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Lindsey Buckingham solo albums have been rare treats for rock fans — until recently. After averaging eight-year interims between albums throughout the '80s and '90s, the Fleetwood Mac singer-guitarist has delivered three new albums in the last five years.
"There was a time when I was the Terrence Malick of rock in terms how the projects were spread out," Buckingham, 61, told the Sun-Times during a recent interview.
It's not that he's suddenly more prolific. He's simply been able to keep Fleetwood Mac's grubby paws off these batches of songs. Several Mac albums started as Buckingham solo projects, including 1987's "Tango in the Night" and the 21st-century comeback studio set, 2003's "Say You Will," which is virtually the Buckingham solo album it started out to be plus a few harmonies and Stevie Nicks songs.
The new album, "Seeds We Sow" (Buckingham) [★★★], finds Buckingham not only solo but independent — self-releasing the record after ending a three-decade relationship with Warner Bros. We spoke with Buckingham about the new album, new personal challenges and plans for Fleetwood Mac ...
Q: We last spoke amid the Fleetwood Mac's Unleashed Tour in 2009. You described the experience then as "hang time" for the band and "a proving ground." What came out of the experience, what was proven?
Lindsey Buckingham: To me, it kind of revealed itself to be a freeing experience. You know, I've got this large machine with Fleetwood Mac, and then this small machine with the solo work. As any filmmaker who's done an indie vs. a big-budget project will tell you, it's the small projects where you're able to take the risks and grow and follow your heart to the greatest degree. Fleetwood Mac went out on that tour without an album to support; we were basically doing a body of work. I think any band that's been around for a while, eventually you get to a point where your audience is less interested in hearing anything new from you. When you come to terms with that, it's kind of cool! I can go out now with the solo stuff and grow and reaffirm the transcendent aspects of playing, and then I can bring that back to Fleetwood Mac to enhance what we already have.
Q: Mac is planning a tour next year, again without a new record to support?
LB: That's what I've heard through the grapevine. I've read Mick [Fleetwood, Mac's founding drummer] saying that in interviews. I'd be surprised if something didn't happen.
Q: It's always funny to me, hearing you talk about how you communicate — or don't — with the other band members. We always think rock bands are closer than they usually are. But you're hearing Mick's thoughts via the media.
LB: Well, yeah, I spent some time with Stevie recently making her album. I speak with Mick once in a while. We don't feel a need to hang as a community at this point. That's probably best.
Q: It's been nice to see three solo albums in a row, none of which have been hijacked to become a Mac album. How'd you manage to keep the band away from these songs?
LB: After "Under the Skin" and "Gift of Screws," I had to tell them: "Don't bother me for three years!" My material on the last Fleetwood Mac album, "Say You Will," was meant to be a solo album, and if you take that material on its own it would hold up well as a solo album. The hijacking phenomenon has happened several times. So I started by telling them to leave me alone — and they did! I did two albums back-to-back and toured both, and I wasn't planning to make this third album. It just came out of me, a very spontaneous thing.
Q: The press sheet for the new album makes a big deal out of your DIY approach — writing, recording, producing, mixing it all yourself. But that's not unusual for you, right?
LB: I always make the analogy to painting. Working with a band is more like movie making; it's more political to get from point A to point B in the creative process. When I work alone, it's me slopping colors on the canvas. I don't have to have a notion for a whole song. It can be a far more meditative process. The point of departure on this project is releasing it myself.
Q: You're a full-fledged indie-rocker now.
LB: Yes, and it feels good. Warner Bros., even in the best of times for the record industry, never stepped up to the plate for my solo work. They always said, "OK, fine, but let's get back to what's important," i.e., the band.
Q: So you're on your own, but Mac is still on Warner?
LB: Well, that's a whole other complex question. Technically, no, the band is not on Warner. There are legal snags I don't even want to go into. If Fleetwood Mac does do another album, I'd love to see us do something like what the Eagles did with Walmart.
Q: You've mentioned a lot recently that part of what has made you more prolific is how content you are in your family and personal life. I thought an artist had to be discontented to produce his best work.
LB: I thought that, too. Isn't that funny? Certainly part of the appeal of Fleetwood Mac has been people buying into the struggle of our private lives and realizing we're writing about what's actually going on between us — the musical soap opera that's been a subtext of everything, the history of us having successful careers but being utter failures in our personal lives, I would say. ... I was lucky to meet someone [wife Kristen] and have all this happen at a late point in my life, after I was done with all that garbage. It's allowed me to completely dispel the notion that family and children are death to an artist. It depends on the individual. There are, though, a lot of artistic things that can be approached and written about within the balanced framework of a stable family life.
Q: Your son is almost a teenager now. Has he started his own musical journey, and has any of it had an impact on you musically?
LB: He's 13 and hormonal. He turned on a dime 10 months ago into a different person. You hear about that, but nothing prepares you for it. He's an intent listener. He'll burn CD compilations of things he likes. I'll listen; some of it makes sense to me, some of it doesn't. It's all pretty thoughtful, though. He also has a healthy ... not a disregard but a healthy ambivalence for what I do. He looks at me on stage and basically thinks, "There's Dad showing off again."
Q: Has he turned you on to anyone in particular?
LB: I don't know the names of some of the people he's been listening to. He takes it in one song at a time.
Q: Does that bother you, as a traditional album artist?
LB: It gives me pause and it doesn't at the same time. When I was a young boy, all we listened to was singles, 45s. People made albums, but it wasn't an art form. Albums then were two singles and a lot of throw-away. Then the Beatles defined it as an art form, and some of us are still doing that. I had this discussion with [my son] the other day a few months back, in fact. I was struggling over the sequence of the album. He said, "Dad, why are you spending so much time on the running order?" I said, "Well, it's like a movie. You can have a lot of great scenes, but if you don't edit it together in the right order, the relationship to each other, the story you're trying to tell — it won't be a good movie." He just looks at me and goes, "Yeah, whatever."
• 7:30 p.m. Sept. 18
• Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield
• Tickets: $55, (800) 514-ETIX, jamusa.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
By Sept. 12, 2001, it was clear the front lines of America's musical response to the previous day's attacks would have a certain native twang.
That afternoon, I was in the safest place an American could be — the middle of nowhere, driving across vacant grasslands toward Denver from a Sept. 11 hike of the Black Mesa in a remote corner of the Oklahoma panhandle — and the airwaves, already saturated in those parts by country music, were thick with over-earnest patriotic songs DJs had dredged-up for the occasion.
Lee Greenwood's God-forsaken "God Bless the U.S.A." was repeated about every 20 minutes. They also dug into chestnuts old and new — Brooks & Dunn's "Only in America" (a celebration of working stiffs released just weeks before), Billy Ray Cyrus' "Some Gave All" (honoring military servicefolk, from the same album as "Achy Breaky Heart"), even Merle Haggard's Vietnam-era "The Fightin' Side of Me" (pity, once again, that "squirrelly guy who claims he just don't believe in fightin'").
Eventually, I'd had my fill. I put in the only angry political music I had in the car: the first album from the Clash.
In the months to come, though, country music led the charge — and had the greatest popular success — with songs addressing the 9/11 murders, ranging from tender contemplation of the tragedies to blatant, boot-clad jingoism.
On the softer end of that spectrum, country gentleman Alan Jackson hit No. 1 just two months after the attacks with a thoughtful, plaintive ballad, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)." With the dust barely settled in New York City, Jackson could only muster questions — not so much about the causes of the attacks but about Americans' personal reactions to the crisis. Beyond echoing the common JFK-era query of its title, the song probes for responses both public ("Did you burst out in pride for the red, white and blue / and the heroes who died just doin' what they do?") and private ("Did you call up your mother and tell her you loved her? / Did you dust off that Bible at home?"). Mawkish, maybe, but it served its purpose.
Toby Keith, of course, was more blunt. By summer 2002, after Jackson and much of country music had spent months being courteously somber and reflective, America had reached the anger phase of its grief, which pushed Keith's next album to No. 1 on the strength of his own parenthetical single, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." With imagery that includes the Statue of Liberty not only making a fist but shaking it, Keith — with trademark subtlety — warned evildoers everywhere: "You'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. / 'Cause we'll put in a boot in your ass / It's the American way."
I expected that kind of confidence and rage from rock 'n' roll, instead, and boy was I let down.
A month after 9/11, musicians gathered at the Concert for New York City, an event organized by Paul McCartney. The former Beatle himself had watched the Twin Towers attacks from the the tarmac at JFK airport, and debuted his reaction song at the concert. "Freedom," however, is a viscous melody and a pitying lyric — one which never directly addresses the tragedy, waxing generally about the broad virtues of its subject. "We will fight for the right / to live in freedom," McCartney sings.
McCartney played the song everywhere, marketing it as the ultimate 9/11 anthem, but it never caught on. In fact, it was frequently employed at rallies with a less peaceful intent. McCartney told Britain's Telegraph last year: "I think it got hijacked a bit, and [turned into something] a bit militaristic. Mine was in the spirit of 'We Shall Overcome'; you know, 'Fight for your rights' in the civil rights sense; [it] doesn't mean, 'Go out and hit people.' It was a pity: it kind of stopped me doing it, actually."
Neil Young, who 31 years prior had rushed into a studio to record "Ohio," a quick response to the Kent State shootings, did the same in the fall of 2001 and released "Let's Roll" that November. Over a slow, moody jam that inverts the idea of holy war, Young celebrates those who revolted against their captors aboard Flight 93, ultimately bringing it down in Pennsylvania. Passenger Todd Beamer's words became Young's title, as well as a rousing catchphrase for months to come. The catchphrase had a much longer life than Young's song.
Clear Channel Communications, the company that eventually spun off today's Live Nation, didn't help matters by circulating among its 1,200 radio stations a list of 165 "lyrically questionable" songs, suggesting DJs steer clear of them in the weeks after 9/11 in the name of sensitivity. Some might have been understandable — Soundgarden's "Blow Up the Outside World," Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young," the GAP Band's "You Dropped a Bomb on Me," Peter, Paul & Mary's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" — but the list also included puzzling choices such as Neil Diamond's "America" and John Lennon's "Imagine."
It was a rock-centric list, which probably helped open the field of musical catharsis to country's well-heeled patriotism. DJs had free rein to draw from an arsenal that already included Faith Hill's "Star-Spangled Banner" from the year before as well as new flag-wavers from LeAnn Rimes ("God Bless America"), Randy Travis ("America Will Always Stand"), Charlie Daniels ("This Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag"), Kenny Rogers ("Homeland") and Hank Wiliams Jr. ("America Will Survive," a rewrite of his 1982 single "A Country Boy Can Survive").
And, yes, "God Bless the U.S.A.," Greenwood's curse from 1984, returned to the charts in October 2001, peaking again at No. 16.
FIVE GOOD 9/11 SONGS
I'll leave you with a few antidotes to all that yee-haw saccharine and sentiment. Here are five of my own favorite songs addressing a wide array of perspectives on 9/11:
Bruce Springsteen, "The Rising"
Sung from the point of view of one of the New York City firefighters headed up the stairs of the World Trade Center, Springsteen's anthem, the last-minute title track to his 2002 album, was the worthiest of the popular 9/11 songs if only because of its utter disinterest in retaliation. Instead of an uprising, Bruce goes for a broader, transcendent kind of uplift.
Fleetwood Mac, "Illume"
A couple of years later, this Stevie Nicks song appeared on Fleetwood Mac's heralded comeback album, "Say You Will." It's touching in its candlelit consideration — simply a musing on the national mindset (after she "saw history go down" and was thinking about "how we could make it / what we've been through / all of the trauma"). "I didn't set out to write a Sept. 11th song, it just happened," Nicks said that year. "I also wrote one called 'Get Back on the Plane' and a song called 'The Towers Touched the Sky,' but it was just too depressing." Wise choice, and a lovely meditation.
Ministry, "Lies Lies Lies"
Though I'm doubtful of Al Jourgensen's conspiracy theories, I support his monstrously rocking skepticism on this typically jagged, distorted track from the recently reunited collective. "I'm on a mission to never forget / 3,000 people that I've never met," Jourgensen growls affectionately before warning that the attacks might actually have been planned "not by Al Qaeda, not by bin Ladin / but by a group of tyrants / that should be of great concern to all Americans."
Loudon Wainwright III, "No Sure Way"
This pensive folk song from the typically frank and poignant Wainwright, on his 2005 album "Here Come the Choppers," was written just a few days after 9/11 as Wainwright rode the subway into Manhattan — which traveled underneath ground zero for the first time. "They say heaven's high above us hell's not far below / In that subway tunnel there was no sure way to know," he sings. "When you face something that huge, you think, 'I'm not even going to think of writing a song about this. It's too ridiculous and too maudlin,' " Wainwright told me in March. "I'm sure there are hundreds of songs written about 9/11 now. ... Like the words I used in the song, it felt 'obscene.' "
James, "Hey Ma"
McCartney went for indirect and missed; this British band was a little more direct and much more moving. Opening in the aftermath ("The towers have fallen / so much dust in the air"), grandiose singer Tim Booth swings between indignation — "Please don't preach me forgiveness / You're hardwired for revenge" — and graphic grief — "Hey ma, the boy's in body bags / coming home in pieces." That it's the title track to one of the group's finest albums is a sweet bonus.
Honorable mention — In addition to Neil Young, another moving ballad from the viewpoint of the Flight 93 passengers came from, of all places, a Velvet Revolver track called "Messages." Singer Scott Weiland sounds great on the recording, weaving his brave cell-phone farewells between languid solos from guitarist Slash. Surprisingly effective, and it still holds up well.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Ezra Furman's last gig in Chicago was as unexpected as one would expect, at least from this quixotic local character. He headlined last Friday's Flesh Hungry Dog Show bill at the Jackhammer, a cozy Rogers Park gay bar.
Maybe not as unexpected to fans — after all, among the many different people Furman makes out with in this year's video for "Bloodsucking Whore" (below) is Gary Airedale (G. Thomas Ward), Flesh Hungry's creator — but still not a traditional venue for his barking, rootsy, ever-more-frequently rockabilly-influenced songs.
"I don't know how this looks up here to you out there," Furman said Friday from the Jackhammer stage, typically wild-eyed in his light yellow duster, "but it feels all right to me."
That was the last time Chicagoans will see Furman for a while. He plans to wrap up the recording of his first solo album (funded by fans) in Chicago during the next couple of weeks, and by the end of the month he'll be a San Franciscan.
I caught up with him Wednesday afternoon before he returned to the studio. (Also read our chat from earlier in the year, on the release of his third album with the Harpoons, "Mysterious Power.")
Some snatches from our conversation:
Q. You're always a bit edgy on stage, but you seemed more nervous than usual [Friday night].
A. I haven't played that often by myself. I'm still working through the possibilities. I was a little bit nervous.
Q. It's always nice to see you singing like Buddy Holly about Buddy Holly.
A. I've been doing a lot of rockabilly songs when I do shows by myself. I like to explore the intersection of my influences. Music journalists know about my influences usually before I do. I usually don't know who I'm influenced by till I read the article. I've heard about a lot of bands I really like from people who see my shows. I was 15 and people would come up and say, "So you're a Violent Femmes devotee?" I was like, "Who?" Or the Modern Lovers. Our manager couldn't believe we'd never heard of the Modern Lovers. He said, "I thought you were trying to do that."
Q. So why San Francisco?
A. A few reasons. Mostly, you know, these songs, all these women's names — "Wild Rosemarie," "Portrait of Maude" — these names of women. Well, now I'd like to refer to one real person who's going back to San Francisco to get her Ph.D. I'm going to follow her.
Q. Is she aware of this?
A. [Laughs] Yes, she's invited me. I'm accepting.
Q. San Francisco's nice. Good music, good punk.
A. I was just buying a ticket to this one band's concert there. Their being from San Francisco also actually factored into my decision to go there. They're called Girls. Their first album in 2009, it hit me like a sack of cement. They're my favorite band now.
Q. So you'll finish the solo album here and then take it with you?
A. I have to finish before I go. It's well on its way now. Being as the band is not involved, it's a very different experience to me. I'm totally masterminding every decision. I'm rounding up musicians who play instruments I've never played along with before, like double bass and there's some saxophone coming.
Q. Maybe you'll self-release it from the West Coast?
A. Maybe. I might just see who's interested among labels I think are cool. I feel pretty empowered about it, though.
Q. I imagine, after doubling your fund-raising goal on Kickstarter.
A. I had no idea if that would be successful at all. I reached my $4,000 goal in three days. Over the next 30, it doubled. It's really helped.
Q. Is solo the way ahead?
A. Well, before you ask: the [Harpoons] are not broken up. We're in sort of a waiting period. ... We'll likely make another album as a four-piece band.
By Thomas Conner
© The Washington Post
Rapper and actor Common is usually cool as a cucumber, but in 2006, he got a little nervous. He was working with Black Eyed Peas member and in-demand music producer Will.I.Am on a song for a movie soundtrack, and Will had assembled the tracks using liberal samples from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“So this was serious, you know? Now I’m collaborating with Dr. King,” Common says. “Ain’t no playing around now. Not only do I have to be good, I can’t let down Martin Luther King.”
The fact that Common speaks of King in the present tense is telling of the personal and conversational flow to the rhymes he applied to the song “A Dream” (from the soundtrack to “Freedom Writers”). “In between the . . . hustle and the schemes / I put together pieces of a dream / I still have one,” he coolly and reverently raps before King’s voice returns to the mix.
Lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking hip-hop has always mentioned King this much — and this reverently. Since Common’s posthumous collaboration with King, MCs have been all over MLK. Sometimes it’s 50 Cent just citing his name, but others have equated King’s dream with the election of the nation’s first black president (rapper Jay-Z: “Now that that’s that, let’s talk about the future / We have just seen the dream as predicted by Martin Luther”).
Even Common was at it again a few months ago. At the White House (an invitation that caused apoplexy among certain pundits over the rapper’s controversial song about a cop killer), he performed a song from his album due in November, “The Dreamer, the Believer,” using more of King’s dream speech between verses.
But it wasn’t always like this.
“King was invisible in the early days” of hip-hop, says Michael Hill, a professor at the University of Iowa who researches racial identity and African American literature. “He wasn’t ‘sampled’ widely, even though his speeches were readily available. . . . He just wasn’t making his way into hip-hop songs. But that changed as agitation for a Martin Luther King holiday began in the 1980s.”
Stevie Wonder cited King in his cheery 1981 R&B song “Happy Birthday” (“There ought to be a law against / anyone who takes offense / at a day in your celebration”). The federal holiday for King’s mid-January birthday was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, and the first holiday was observed in 1986 — but some states hesitated, which prompted Public Enemy’s scathing attack in “By the Time I Get to Arizona” (“The whole state’s racist / Why want a holiday? / [Expletive] it, ’cause I wanna”).
King’s voice was introduced, years before hip-hop, by an iconic DJ, Joe Gibson, known as “Jack the Rapper.” Throughout the late 1980s and the ’90s, though, the most frequent civil rights icon cited by Public Enemy and other rappers was Malcolm X.
“Once they bring out Malcolm X, King goes away again for 15 to 20 years,” Hill says. “That Public Enemy sample [of] Malcolm — ‘Too black, too strong!’ [in ‘Bring the Noise’] — it’s one of the most iconic samples in hip-hop. They patented Malcolm X as the voice that should be associated with this particular hard-edged framework, connecting the music with the notion of militancy.”
• • •
King’s absence makes sense to some. “The philosophy of nonviolent protest or redemptive suffering runs counter to the confrontational tone of so much hip-hop,” says Adam Bradley, co-editor of the groundbreaking Anthology of Rap (Yale University Press). “More than that, the Martin Luther King vision is harder to fit into a slogan than Malcolm’s. For Malcolm, you have ‘by any means necessary,’ catchphrases that capture, albeit imperfectly, his vision. With King, the closest we come is ‘I have a dream.’ It’s not surprising that’s one of the most prominent ways he appears in hip-hop.”
Even Common, for all of his use of King’s iconic speech, agrees. “Malcolm just represents more of the . . . the fire of hip-hop,” he said.
Not that it has to be one or the other. MCs in hip-hop frequently drop both names into the same song, often among a torrent of proper names.
“The main uses for name-dropping in hip-hop are as a simile,” Bradley says. “ ‘I’m like this person.’ Or occasional self-aggrandizement. Lil Wayne has this song [‘Playing With Fire’] where he says, ‘Assassinate me, (expletive) / ’cause I’m doing the same [expletive] that Martin Luther King did.’ That’s arguable,” Bradley says, then chuckles.
How serious are rappers when they link themselves so directly to a potent or polarizing figure?
For someone like Lil Wayne, Bradley says, “King’s name gives him the sound he wants to use. . . . It has little of the reverence,” Bradley says. “It’s delivered with a knowing sense that its audacity may resist the comparison, and through that it will nonetheless achieve the desired effect, which is to cast himself the giant.”
Sometimes the name-dropping, though, is didactic, often from artists who style themselves as socially conscious or political. King’s name is often employed as a means of teaching history to young people. Chuck D once famously referred to hip-hop as “the black CNN,” and even in today’s hyper-informational online culture, some MCs still take that role seriously.
Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco, known for recently calling President Obama, on TV, “the biggest terrorist,” believes names are talismans, that dropping them will create ripples in the pond.
“It’s really a triumph anytime some rapper mentions his name,” Fiasco says of King. “The hope is that you say his name and some street dude in a car at a strip club smoking weed, that something triggers in him to go, ‘Now who is that guy and what did he do?’ ” Fiasco adds, “The names still carry weight in my world. Sneaking them in is very important.”
• • •
For Fiasco, there’s little sneaking going on. He opens his non-album track “BMF (Building Minds Faster)” announcing, “I think I’m Malcolm X, Martin Luther / add a King, add a Junior,” then proceeds through a list of figures he wants you to know about — “I’m Tupac, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Marcus Garvey . . . I’m Rev. Run . . . I’m T-Pain” — between his various critiques of social and foreign policy.
“I don’t even really break down who those guys were in the ‘BMF’ freestyle,” Fiasco says. “The names carry their own weight. Keeping them alive is all we need to do. It’s all we can do.”
Common understands this default duty of hip-hop — “Rap music in the hood plays the fatherly role,” he raps in “A Dream” — but when he was writing his rhymes to accompany King’s speech, the experience wasn’t so objective. It was personal.
His first verse describes every kind of darkness — gunshots fire from “sounds of blackness,” he’s followed by “dark clouds” and in his struggle to better himself, he says, “I just want some of your sun.” By the second verse, he’s turned introspective, speaking words as a letter to himself, telling “my story” about “tryna make it from a gangsta to a godlier role.” King’s dream becomes his own, though he initially worries he “ain’t using it for the right thing.”
“A lot of the struggle or fight that Dr. Martin Luther King was talking about was more for unity and about the rights of human beings,” Common says. “The character I took on in that song, you know, he says that fight exists in me. . . . I believe the change begins with you. You hear President Barack Obama speak and say, man, our work is just beginning. Well, our work is my work. We’ve got to take responsibility for the work. In the end, Martin’s dream starts with having a dream yourself — and then working to realize it, wherever and whoever you are.”
Anthologized in Mason, M. & Brown, M. (Eds.), A Voice Was Sounding: Selected Works from This Land Vols. 1 & 2. Tulsa, Okla.: This Land Press.
Methodist church basement, northwest Oklahoma City, 1987. Yes, there is wood paneling. Yes, the carpet is shag, a rich cobalt blue. Yes, a threadbare pool table, a stereo with illuminated VU meters, two speaker cabinets taller than I am at age 16. About half a dozen of us have shown up this evening. I attend church youth group for two reasons. One, that look on my parents’ face when I say, “I’m going to church” — I can dash out with that line and come home late. Two, Sondra might be there. I’ve been enduring youth group since I got my learner’s permit because sometimes I get to drive her home. Tonight she’s here and wearing that shimmery, fuzzy, opal-colored sweater, and tonight the group is going to talk about God and pop music, the spirit and the flesh, love and lust—and I’m supposed to figure out which is which.
The discussion topic is titled “With or Without Who?” and centers on U2’s new single (“With or Without You”). As in, who can’t Bono live with or without? Is this a God thing or a woman thing? We talk about other songs, other bands, and inevitably we get to the Call. That band’s singer, Michael Been, is from Oklahoma City, too, and I suspect he’s seen his share of church basements and shimmery sweaters.
We listen to “Everywhere I Go,” from the Call’s Reconciled LP the previous year, and it’s a step beyond Bono’s conflation of religious yearning and gut-wrenching desire. Everywhere Been goes, he thinks of _____, looks for _____, needs _____. Years after Sting stalked his human prey in “Every Breath You Take,” Been is either a monk considering his maker or, given the increasing urgency of his pleas (“I neeeeed you!”), utterly infatuated. He doesn’t sing like a man who gets filed next to Bill Gaither and Michael W. Smith down at Sound Warehouse. He starts barking and yelping and moaning, and Sondra’s doing that thing where she tucks her hands inside the sleeves of that sweater and then leans back and stretches. “Smiles, eyes, powers to confound me,” Been sings, low, patiently. Then his voice thins, gets tighter, on the verge of something: “I lose my nerve / Your voice, it echoes all around me.”
God’s voice, or her voice? I’m hedging, praying to both. I’m 16, and I just can’t see the freakin’ difference.
Those were heady days for youth pastors across America. Pop music afforded them new ways to connect with the kids. A band of session geeks called Mr. Mister scored a No. 1 hit with a blatant hymn titled in biblical Greek, “Kyrie.” Amy Grant made a pop record with synthesizers and wore leopard prints on the cover. By the time U2 released The Joshua Tree,” bearing songs such as “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “In God’s Country,” our youth group topic was inevitable. God had once again taken an interest in the devil’s music.
This was the environment in which the Call thrived. But the Call — even the band name could be a religious allusion, or not — was just the peak of a lengthy career for Been (pronounced like the legume, not the past participle), one in which a deeply personal tug-of-war between spirit and flesh had played out within a large, tuneful catalog of songs. Back and forth he went, from Christian bands with earthy sounds to roots-rock bands with spiritual songs — always swinging widely between heaven and heart. But on Aug. 19, 2010, the latter lost the battle. Been, 60, was backstage at the Pukkelpop music festival in Belgium — he wasn’t on the bill, his son was — where he collapsed of an apparent heart attack.
It’s 1997, and, after being AWOL most of the decade, the Call has released a greatest-hits compilation ahead of a new album, To Heaven and Back. For promotion, Been films a chat with a “star” interviewer, Kevin Max. The choice is meant to be ironic; Max is the lead voice in a trio called dc Talk, then at the vanguard of the mid-’90s resurgence of Christian pop music.
By way of asking a question, Max makes a statement about the Call: “That’s what people want to hear from the Call. They want to hear the fight between the principalities of powers.”
Been agrees. “I think we separate life too much from spiritual,” he says. “I don’t know what it is. I was talking with a friend of mine just last night. One of my favorite authors is a guy by the name of Frederick Buechner, and Buechner wrote about the trouble with, like, church. The trouble with church is we all go in and sit quietly — it’s totally unlike the other seven days of the week and the rest of the pretty much other 23 hours of Sunday. It’s this one hour when we have to be in and be so reserved, and it’s tense and it’s quiet and everyone gets real uptight if the kids are making noise. He was saying this kind of thing should be done in the midst of children running around playing and having fun. We separate this flesh and blood, nuts and bolts, children laughing, screaming, Grandpa over there snoring — all of that is supposed to be part and parcel of life.”
He follows with a story about seeing Martin Scorsese’s 1973 film Mean Streets, which opens with Charlie (Harvey Keitel) in a Catholic church, holding his finger over one of the candle flames. He’s practicing, building up a pain threshold. When Charlie was a boy, he watched a priest do this for a long, long time. Charlie’s opening lines to the film, in voiceover: “The pain of hell has two kinds. The kind you can touch with your hand, and the kind you can feel in your heart, your soul. The spiritual kind. And you know, the worst of the two is the spiritual.” Immediately, the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” kicks in.
“I thought, God, it’s spiritual, and then, ‘Be My Baby,’ ” Been says. “Rock ’n’ roll and the spiritual — all this stuff became one thing to me. Finally my life really turned into this kind of struggle between spiritual and the flesh, between ‘Be My Baby’ and that holy candle.”
Years earlier, 1988, Been was actually on one of Scorsese’s sets. I didn’t even recognize him as the Apostle John when I first saw Scorsese’s adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ, after elbowing my way through protesters outside a Memphis multiplex. Here’s a different story of the life of Jesus, not as an incorruptible deity among men, but a divine being in a human body — and thus subject to the same doubts and desires inherent to the form. His temptations are real. He finds himself, like all of us, struggling to do God’s will.
“When the old authors first wrote the Bible, they had this guy Jesus,” Been told the Los Angeles Times that year. “He’s a man, everybody knew he was a man, everybody knew where he was born, they knew he died, they knew he had followers, he had a reputation as being demonic and revolutionary and every other word at the time that they called heretic. And then these guys who wrote the New Testament had this massive job of proving to everybody that this man was God. So the emphasis of what they did was on [the man’s] God qualities, divine qualities — which are all accurate, all true, to me. … But 2000 years later, the job’s reversed. You have to remember he was a man, because if he wasn’t a man and didn’t go through everything we went through, it wouldn’t mean anything to me.
“I remember at one point in my particular life, somebody saying to me if I was in a lot of pain or struggling or doubting, questioning my life, in that kind of turmoil, and somebody would say, ‘Well, Jesus knows what you’re going through,’ I would’ve said, ‘No way does he know what I’m going through. Not if he’s God. Not if at any time he can call upon his God side and rise above the problem. He wouldn’t really know it. If he did know it, it would be patronizing, condescending.”
Been was raised in Oklahoma City but moved to Chicago when he was 12. He saw Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed, and he toyed with comedy (even beating his pal John Belushi in a state comedy competition). His swings between heaven and heart began there: He formed a band called the Saints, then joined two bands already in progress: Aorta and Lovecraft.
Been first helped turn Aorta from a middling psychedelic band, to a country-rock band with Christian overtones on 1970’s Aorta 2. Been loved Dylan, Van Morrison, especially the Band (whose members Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson eventually recorded with the Call). Whenever Been picked up an acoustic guitar, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” wasn’t far behind.
“We got in to see the Band [after a Chicago concert],” said Chicago-based jazz guitarist James Vincent in a recent conversation. Back then, he was named Jim Donlinger and was Been’s songwriting partner in Aorta and Lovecraft. “For him it was like meeting the Beatles. That’s where it was for him, that pop-oriented, maybe slightly country music with big ideas in it, sometimes spiritual, sometimes very earthbound. That’s what changed Aorta and really made Lovecraft. You can hear the beginnings of Michael’s thoughts there, anyway. There was always some religious component to his songs, but not in a way you could call gospel, you know? … We weren’t writing gooey love songs, either of us. We were trying to make a statement. Some of the things we wrote about were almost — we were kind of fascinated by death, I guess. Don’t know what that was all about. One song we wrote together was about somebody who had a consciousness after death. It was that person’s perspective of what the experience was like. I can’t remember what it was called. It was serious, though. Michael was serious. He wanted to understand it. He wanted to understand it all.”
The rest of the ’70s find Been sporting a sculpted mullet and bouncing around different bands, looking for the right middle ground between the spiritual and secular. At first, he fell in with full-fledged Christian bands, playing bass on an album called Laughter in Your Soul and with the family gospel band 2nd Chapter of Acts. His next two bands were named for more sensual pursuits: Fine Wine (to which Been contributed the songs “Heaven Knows” and “I Wonder If It’s All Worth It?”), and the Original Haze, a name shared by a particularly potent strain of marijuana.
By the time Been and Musick formed the Call, the New Wave was beginning to wash ashore a propulsive strain of rock ’n’ roll that welcomed Been’s instrument, the bass. The connective tissue between the black-and-white beat and the melody’s Technicolor, the bass flourished in the romantic corners of New Wave music, driving both sides and sometimes blurring the distinctions entirely (New Order, Japan, the beginnings of Duran Duran, the end of Roxy Music). Been’s bass, next to the drums of Scott Musick, a fellow Oklahoman who’d moved to San Francisco with Been and been behind the kit in the Original Haze, drove much of the Call’s music.
New Wave also was populated by many like-minded idealists — Bono in U2, Mike Peters in the Alarm, Mike Scott in the Waterboys, Jim Kerr in Simple Minds — inspired by the righteousness of punk but also the arms-wide scope of ’70s arena rock. Here, Been’s illusions of grandeur had plenty of room to roam, between heaven and earth, and a driving style to support and enhance the urgency of their messages.
The band had its moment in the sun. The Call made music that was shown on MTV and played in church basements. It wasn’t wholly religious, and it wasn’t completely secular. By the band’s second album, Modern Romans in 1983, they opened with “The Walls Came Down,” a superb rock hymn about Jericho that never mentions Jericho. Instead, it turns the city back into a fable, a story, a symbol, and like so many Call songs, it turns into an allegory of modern war. “I don’t think there are any Russians / and there ain’t no Yanks,” Been sings, drawing the song to a conclusion by pointing out and trying to knock down a contemporary wall, “Just corporate criminals / playing with tanks.”
A ying-yang dichotomy pervades the Call’s catalog, often in clever ways. Songs include “Day or Night,” “Flesh and Steel,” “Back From the Front,” “With or Without Reason.” He even seems to cop to it: “I’ve been tortured by this riddle / and I don’t know how to stop” (“Too Many Tears”). In “The Morning,” he sings exuberantly of the spiritual (right?) things he does want: “I wanna live, I wanna breathe, I wanna love hard / wanna give my life to you.”
Also in that song, one of his best, he again admits: “I’m divided / but I’ve decided / it’s my nature.”
In a 1997 interview, I asked Been whether the Call was a Christian band.
“Certainly not in the definition of it today, where there’s an entire genre of Christian rock,”’ he said. “We’re not part of that. This just had much more to do with the way I was raised and the way I learned how to write and express myself. I was born and raised there in the Bible belt — it’s classic Southern guilt. Those religious ideas got a hold of me as a kid, and none of it struck me as spiritual. It was all rules and threat and punishment and fear. You hang onto those things later in life, and they come out. I’m no peddler of Christianity. It’s just the language I use.”
The issue was hotly debated in some Christian circles, especially as the religious pop music market became a bigger commercial concern. A September 1990 article in Christian Century magazine, “The Call’s Cry in the Wilderness” by Brent Short, analyzed the band with scholarly detail.
“Unlike much of ‘contemporary Christian music,’ The Call uses no religious rhetoric and attempts no proselytizing,” Short wrote. “Their style is at once driving, confrontational, rhythm-oriented, vulnerable and self-deprecating. … Their records show not a trace of the self-righteous theologizing and Bible-quoting that ruins so much ‘Christian music.’”
I wrote about pop music for the Tulsa newspaper throughout the ’90s, as the ghetto of “Christian rock” was overcrowding. I interviewed a lot of Christian rock acts — dc Talk, Third Day, Audio Adrenaline, Jars of Clay. Every one of them told me how much they hated (er, struggled with) the “Christian” pigeonhole. These were Been’s children, young songwriters living their Christian faith not in a bubble but in the world. They were writing songs that weren’t merely modern-language transcriptions of psalms, and they couldn’t understand why their occasionally religious lyrical content damned them to a distant corner of the record shop.
“The odd person will come out to one of our shows and realize that we’re playing the devil’s music because it’s too loud. What I want to know is, exactly what decibel level does the devil come in at?” Peter Furler, singer for the Newsboys, told me in 1996. “We’re not trying to play to please the mainstream or to try and please the Christian market because either way you lose. We try to stay focused and do what we do best, making sure we feel our own convictions that we’re doing the right thing. … But I don’t want us to be just a Christian version of Pearl Jam.”
“I think the best thing you can say about a song — whatever experience I had writing it — [is that] all the feelings are so universal,” Been said. “Experiences everyone goes through, just different circumstances, different names, but it’s all similar. If you can write a song [to which] someone can go, ‘I relate that to this part of my life’ — then you’ve really done it. That’s the best you can do. The most you can expect is to spark somebody’s life that they’ve got going.”
As he sang in “With or Without Reason” (with or without who?):
How you gonna tell your story
Are you gonna tell it true?
Either with or without reason
Love has paid the price for you.
Beer and barbecue joint, Tulsa’s 18th and Boston district, 1997. Yes, there is Budweiser neon. Yes, there are two sauces on each table in pointy-tipped bottles. No, it’s not the kind of venue the Call expected to be playing the year they released a greatest-hits collection. But the place is packed, shoulder to pork shoulder.
Been walks in, and suddenly I’m sorry I’ve come. I’m ashamed of my reasons. He’s heavy and moving slowly. There’s more of him for gravity to love. He sets up a stool behind his microphone — God, he’s going to sing sitting down, a big broken body, like B.B. King. It’s going to be the kind of night where he just sits still, the kind of night where he just won’t move. He’s squinty and blotchy and every square inch the aging, also-ran has-Been.
But spirit conquers all. The crowd claps and the band lumbers into its set, the usual mix of new songs and greatest hits, and Been’s voice purrs and growls. He sits on the stool and creeps toward its edge. He slips into “Oklahoma,” his most potent lyrical blend of God the father and Mother Nature, and his low voice rumbles like the approaching storm: “We were shakin’ in our beds that night…” His legs twitch, his feet start scuffing the floor. “There was movement in our hearts that day…” He wants off that stool.
Steamrolling into the catalog, Been finds himself once again restating the determination of his belief. He begins: “I’ve been in a cave for 40 days…” He wants to give out, he wants to give in. He sings with closed eyes, he chews his lips between lines. Drink orders are being shouted at the bar. He still believes, through the lies, the storms, the cries, the wars, he still believes. Someone’s brought their kids, and one of them, a little girl, twirls around in front of Been, at his feet. Tossed on the waves, through the darkness, despite the grave, he still believes. Through cold, heat, rain, tears, crowds and cheers — and someone actually cheers. Others follow, mid-song, whoops and hollers. The electricity is crackling now, the voltage ready to spark.
Been drives toward the end of another laundry list of things that will not deter him, and finally cries, “Oh, I still believe!’ — and he’s off the stool like a shot, like it exploded. Red-faced, sweating, he grabs the microphone and spits his sermon. “I’ll march this road / I’ll climb this hill / upon my knees if I have to.” More cheers, noise, cacophony, everything church is not supposed to be. “I’ll take my place / up on this stage / I’ll wait till the end of time / for you like everybody else.”
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Good morning, grandma!
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 1:13 PM
Lollapalooza 2011 opened with this ringing, backhanded endorsement from Jenn Wasner of the band Wye Oak: "I love Lollapalooza because it's the one festival even my grandparents know what it is."
Such cross-generational branding succeeded in selling out a record capacity this year. Over the weekend, 90,000 fans will attend each day of Lollapalooza. That makes this three-day concert event in Chicago's Grant Park one of the country's biggest, with Coachella's daily attendance around 75,000 and Bonnaroo's more than 100,000.
Thousands were already on hand Friday morning for the festival's opening sets, which included Baltimore duo Wye Oak and their Southern gothic shoegaze. Wasner, however, struggled to get going against a bad guitar pedal that eventually forced her to stop mid-song and apologize.
"There seems to be a ghost in it or something," she said as drummer Andy Stack looked on helplessly. "This is the worst thing that's ever happened to me."
She eventually salvaged her gear and the set, completing the song "Plains" to gracious applause from several hundred devoted early fans.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Vaccines, Naked & Famous
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 2:41 PM
Lollapalooza opened Friday morning with an announcement about more Lollapaloozing to be had worldwide next year — the festival will return to Chile (March 31-April 1) and add a new event in Sao Paulo, Brazil (April 7-8) — and then quickly moved to Britain as the Vaccines christened this year's main stage in the south end of Hutchinson Field.
Supporting their super-hyped debut, "What Did You Expect From the Vaccines," the Vaccines turned over the same well-tilled ground — lots of post-punk revival with tons of reverb and Strokesy confidence — but sounded fresher and cockier than they do on record. Singer Justin Young comes on quickly with a Dylanesque whine over his band's retro Walkmen grind, advocating for emotional destruction in "Blow It Up" and a quickie in "Post-Breakup Sex." The band's heap of influences seeped deeper than expected, too; for "Wetsuit" guitarist Freddie Cowan and the rhythm section chugged along simply like the Crickets, and Young encouraged dancing, saying, "This is one you can dance to. You're at a rock and roll show, remember." Anything to help clear away some of the band's studied self-consciousness.
When the Naked & Famous started playing at the other end of the south field, one fan shouted, and seemed sincere, "Oh, yay, another British accent!" That would be the buoyant Alisa Xayalith, leader of the festival's first '80s-inspired offering. Full of humming synths and buzzing guitars, all propped up by hard drums and loops, this New Zealand quintet took its time whipping up a melodious melodrama. "All of This" and "Punching in a Dream" opened the set establishing the template: Gothy pretension but irresistible tunes, sometimes building up one and tearing down the other. (They, too, suffered some equipment-related pauses on the same stage that dogged Wye Oak's earlier set. "Just fixing some broken sh—," Xayalith assured during a long break.) I'll call them Katrina & the Darkwaves.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Foster the People
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 7:31 PM
Friday afternoon turned out to be fine concert weather, with high clouds dulling the sun's edge and a cool lake breeze occasionally refreshing weary fans. But don't tell Mark Foster, hapless leader of L.A.'s Foster the People, whose crisp white dress shirt was transparent with sweat by the band's third song.
Foster the People are brand new, riding a slick slacker single from last year that landed them on one of Lollapalooza's biggest stage this year. They're still exploring who they are as a band, and they played the day's most eclectic set — evolving from dreamy, keyboard-laden grooves to ill-advised R&B to throwaway love ditties and, near the end, a straight cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold." Foster is an odd duck, singing in his pinched nasal voice and occasionally leaping over to mash piano keys or pound the drums (as he did during "Call It What You Want"). Sometimes he was ridiculous, his shoulders jerking up and down as he whined his New Radicals funk-lite; other times he was gloriously unhinged, cackling like a madman near the end of the set when Foster the People suddenly turned into a garage band (or Joe "King" Carrasco). I the end they returned to what they thus far do best, laying down supple, sleepy grooves for that aforementioned single, "Pumped Up Kicks." Most of the crowd was pumped up and sang along.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: A Perfect Circle
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 7:33 PM
You've never heard John Lennon's "Imagine" delivered with such quivering earnestness as warped vocalist Maynard James Keenan gives it. In fact, you've likely never heard the song turned on its head in quite this manner, imbued with minor piano chords and a martial rhythm — twisted from its hopeful, thoughtful origins into a surprisingly dystopian sneer.
Such is the heavy gloom of A Perfect Circle, a supergroup playing Lollapalooza's main stage after being reactivated from a seven-year hiatus.
With no new music to present, this patient, pummeling band — led by Keenan from Tool, and now featuring former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha — drew from the band's brief period of activity, and a lot from 2004's "Emotive." That album was mostly covers and was not widely acclaimed. Their take on Depeche Mode's "People Are People," for instance, is so thundering and morose as to be largely unrecognizable. There's something to be said for making a song your own.
Because where Keenan's Tool goes for the gnarled composition, A Perfect Circle succeeds in creating a somber, dour mood, simmering with restrained fury, which Keenan unleashed perfectly during "Pet," roaring and growling from his isolated perch in the back of the stage (he does like to lurk) and whacking a tambourine on a staff to punctuate his demands: "Go back to sleep!" The song ended with angelic, chiming guitar, smoothing out the scene.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Chicago's Kids These Days
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 9:45 PM
If you looked around Lollapalooza just after 4 p.m. Friday and wondered where all the teenagers had gone, a large crowd of them were crammed in front of the BMI stage watching fellow Chicago teens Kids These Days.
Easily one of the best shows I saw all Friday, Kids These Days is an eight-piece group comprised of 18- and 19-year-olds, half of them from Whitney Young High School. Mixing up blues, hip-hop, funk, rock, jazz and most other genres except electronic (but give them time), KTD has come up through the ranks during the last two years. They started selling out small clubs, then filled Metro, played a buzzworthy showcase at South by Southwest last March, and now here they are at Lollapalooza. The meteoric local rise, based on the sheer energy of their performances and a pretty potent musical cocktail, should have drawn the attention of any music industry moguls present.
Friday, though, was a hometown celebration.
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
KTD charged on stage with enough energy for the rest of the day's lineup. Rapper Vic Mensa lead the charge, biting off rhymes with a clenched jaw and leaping around the small stage pumping up the crowd, salted as it was with adoring friends, family and classmates. Fans were crowd surfing almost immediately, and Mensa and others tried their hand at stage diving.
Mensa has no fear of Lollapalooza-related injuries. He tried to attend the festival last year — by sneaking in. He jumped a fence near the Metra tracks, but brushed against an electrical transformer. He not only took several thousand volts through his left arm, he fell 30 feet to the pavement and spent three days in the hospital. "I almost f—-in' died trying to sneak in here last year," Mensa told the crowd. "This is way better."
The unfettered mashing up of genres KTD pulls off is truly heady. They mix together everything great about Chicago's musical roots. Guitarist Liam Cunningham will lay down a blues riff, the horns will pop in with some kind of syncopated ska, the rhythm section backs it up with some slinky rock-soul, all the while Mensa is bounding around like Tigger the Creator. With remarkable compositional and performance skill, they blended "Summertime" into James Brown's "Man's World," threaded by Mensa's rhymes ("You're like a blood transplant and you're just my type"). Their repertoire of classics is broad, though: the horn section snuck in the riff from Radiohead's "Creep."
Effervescent, exciting stuff. The results are positively funkadelic. This band could open for Ozomatli as easily as Steely Dan. KTD has an EP out now, "Hard Times," available on iTunes. A full-length is in the works.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Chatting with OK Go
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 12:37 AM
You've seen their viral music videos online, and so apparently has the president.
OK Go, the treadmmills-to-Pilobolus YouTube favorites, performed at Barack Obama's 50th birthday bash this week at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom. Two days later they were playing to Lollapalooza.
We caught a few minutes with OK Go singer Damian Kulash backstage at Grant Park on Friday to talk about his Marilyn Monroe impression:
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Muse, Girl Talk
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 12:44 AM
Who was the main headliner Friday night? If you're over 30, you probably thought it was Coldplay. But the biggest stage at Lollapalooza with room for the biggest crowd is on Hutchison Field in the south end of the park, and that's not where Coldplay performed. The bigger stage and crowd went to Muse.
That older demographic has been asking me for weeks, "Who the hell is Muse?" But this wailing trio has been around for 17 years, longer than Coldplay — long enough that at festivals later this month in their native Britain they'll be performing one of their "classic" albums in its entirety — and they sold out London's Wembley Stadium before most Yanks had heard of them. Muse has developed a fiercely loyal following around the world of largely younger fans less familiar with the glam- and prog-rock they ape so ably. The band's appearance last year on the latest "Twilight" movie soundtrack put them over the top in the United States.
As if to ingratiate themselves, singer-guitarist Matthew Bellamy slipped in several nods to Americana during the band's nearly two-hour show, threading our National Anthem early in the set and transitioning with "House of the Rising Sun" later. This was between the band's relentless assault of slightly anachronistic, theatrical pomp on the order of everyone from Queen to Def Leppard. This is a band of unrepentant Big Rawk dorks, unafraid to wallow in the hoariest clichés — and they inspire such moments in their fans. Half the people around me were air guitaring throughout the set with wide smiles, reveling in the gift of a summer concert festival moment — a free pass for acting silly and letting loose. Songs such as "Resistance" and "United States of Eurasia," along with all the "1984"-meets-"Tron" visuals on stage, are as shallow as most primetime TV (and by hour two, most Muse sounds the same) but the crowd at Hutchinson Field cheered religiously for every hollow agit-pop couplet ("Rise up and take the power back / It's time that the fat cats had a heart attack") and punishing riff all the way to the encore.
Meanwhile, the real action Friday night was in the newly expanded Perry's tent. The festival's annual DJ stage expanded this year to house 15,000 ravers (that's one big tent, lemme tell ya), and Girl Talk overflowed the capacity.
A Chicago favorite, Girl Talk, a k a 29-year-old Pittsburgh biologist Gregg Gillis, returned to Lollapalooza after three years with a much bigger show featuring his wild, live mix of pop music samples. Gillis makes music out of splicing others' together into new creations, and watching him trigger his samples in real time is like seeing a truly mad scientist at work. Dozens of fans from the crowd joined him on stage, throwing streamers, toilet paper and confetti around Gillis as he folded rap into '80s pop and '90s R&B into indie-rock. He snips the "hey ho" out of the Ramones and the "ay ay ay ay" out of Vampire Weekend for use as rhythmic props for Big Boi and General Public. His catholic tastes make for some of the best cross-generational jamming ever, and it certainly got every one of nearly 20,000 people hopping.
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Grouplove, Ximena Sarinana, more
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 2:21 PM
It's cool and lovely at Lollapalooza — but that's because a fair amount of rain fell overnight. The clouds remain, which is great, but there's a 50-50 chance of more precip. Hutchinson Field is muddy, oddly everywhere except the perpetually dusty baseball diamonds. Some hay has been spread around in the worst areas, but the coverage is pretty poor. If you're packing up now, include a cheap poncho and don't wear the good shoes.
"I can't believe I wore flip-flops," lamented Carrie Berenstein, 22, of Aurora, as she tip-toed her way across the muddy grass. "I'm going to be a disaster. I'm already a disaster."
Saturday opened with a worldly vibe on many stages. "We're from Los Angeles," said a member of Grouplove by way of introduction — noteworthy only because of his thick British accent. Grouplove came together at an artists retreat on the island of Crete and reconvened back in America, fusing a worldly sensibility with otherwise rootsy Americana. The quintet delighted through "Don't Say Oh Well," strumming guitars and one ukulele (for pure sound, not gimmick!).
All Mexico's Ximena Sarinana had to say during her set was "This song is all in Spanish" or "Viva Mexico!" and the small crowd gathered for her noon Saturday set at the BMI side stage cheered and whooped. Several waved Mexican flags. Sarinana, 25, a popular telenovela actress south of the border, is going for a breakout with her self-titled sophomore album, which is really great. For her early afternoon set at Lollapalooza, silhouetted against the lake with flying geese as an occasional backdrop, Sarinana performed a handful of new songs as well as a few from her 2008 debut, the misleadingly titled "Mediocre."
Playing electric piano at center stage, she eased into the big drums and cinematic refrain of "Normal" before electronically layering her vocals, and later bopped through her bouncy new pop single, "Different," and the seductive groove of "Echo Park." "This is the first festival I've played in America," she said. As impressed as I am with the album, I have to say her set suffered from a sense of unease and occasionally shrill vocals, as if she hasn't quite mastered the challenges of moving and singing at the same time. The crowd, however, demanded an encore, and she obliged by finally knocking us out with her fine voice — singing the sad, bluesy title track to "Mediocre" alone at her keyboard, working every dynamic smoothly and powerfully. Every nationality was cheering then.
On the main south stage, Cincinnati's Walk the Moon leapt joyously through its set of world music dance-rock, heavy on the beats and smeared with very Bow Wow Wow warpaint. Mixing beard-rock harmonies and spirited, switched-up beats, they worked through their own "Lisa Baby," about a "dancing queen," and by the end of the set were covering Bowie's "Let's Dance."
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Big Audio Dynamite
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 4:02 PM
In our interview before the band's Lollapalooza debut, former Clash guitarist Mick Jones said the world had not, indeed, been clamoring for a reunion of his post-Clash band, Big Audio Dynamite — but they haven't minded it, either.
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
This unlikely but potent collaboration between Jones and filmmaker Don Letts started in 1984 and took the world grooves the Clash had begun to explore, pushing them further while also working open-mindedly with sound samples and video visuals. If that sounds pioneering, go figure - from yesterday's MTV to today's YouTube — it might have been. Because B.A.D. sounded very fresh, and very good, during their Saturday afternoon concert here.
What sounded a wee bit gimmicky in the mid-'80s — the film dialogue samples, the sound effects (ricocheting bullets and wailing sirens), the synthesized beats — are now perfectly natural to contemporary ears. I'd forgotten what a Wild West fixation these Brits had, still on display: They opened with whistling western movie music, and shouted "Rawhide!" after Jones' ADD guitar solo in "B.A.D."
The other reason people might not mind the return of B.A.D. is because the band's socially conscious songs, written during the Reagan and Bush administrations, alas, still speak to economic inequality and class conflict. Saturday they sounded positively prescient, singing, "Nation's economy's on a downward slide / On the best course of action no one can decide." That's from 1985. But they also debuted a new song, "Rob Peter, Pay Paul," which Jones introduced this way: "Our current global financial meltdown is explained in three and a half minutes." Sample lyric: "Where is the justice? What happened to the law?"
It was a surprisingly jangly song for this, the band that finds a groove and works it - usually for much longer than three and a half minutes. The opening "Medicine Show" (on which drummer Greg Roberts wasted no time attacking his cowbell), "A Party" (featuring Letts breaking out from behind the keys and deliver some fiery toasting), the closing "Rush" - these are songs with eternal grooves, lasting five minutes or more. They milked the signature riff of "The Bottom Line," teasing it like they were making a live 12-inch mix.
What will come of it? Jones and Letts said they don't know yet. Maybe a new album - they did play the new song, which is one more than most reunited bands manage (ahem, the Police) - but certainly more reissues.
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Cee Lo Green, Local Natives
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 7:43 PM
I had tweeted earlier in the day Saturday that I'd like to hear less "thank you" and more "f—- you" at Lollapalooza. So many bands had been taking to the stages and voicing their unbounded gratitude — thanking everyone for being there and thanking Lollapalooza for having them, profusely — that it started to feel like rock was really dead, after all. Where's the sneer, the challenge, the middle finger?
Cee Lo Green tried to say something about that, and literally. Appearing on stage wearing football shoulder pads bearing long chrome spikes and hanging chains, Green juiced the crowd by demanding that we shout "f—- yeah!" It was an opening salvo in a long tease leading up to the one song the massive crowd in Hutchinson Field wanted to hear. In the meantime, however, we listened to Green shout and growl — for most songs, his trademark smooth husk was gone, even intentionally distorted (and he's a judge on "The Voice," no less) — through a speedy set of his rock-soul songs and a few unexpected covers, from the Violent Femmes to Billy Idol. Green seemed to suffer from technical issues, as well, stopping and starting songs, such as his "Crazy" hit with Gnarls Barkley, haphazardly.
One of his early records was "Cee Lo Green Is a Soul Machine," but Saturday night's hard riffs and black leather meant to portray a rock machine. And nothing says rock and roll like "F—- You," which Green finally got around to at the end of his cumbersome, mostly uninspired hourlong set.
Preceding Mr. Green was one of those fawning, thankful bands. Orange County's Local Natives were clearly thrilled to have graduated from last year's Pitchfork Music Festival to this year's Lollapalooza. "This is the biggest crowd we've played to by far," said singer Kelcey Ayer. "This is insane!" It was a joyous, not fearful, exclamation, fitting with the band's sweet temperament. All tight SoCal harmonies and heaving, unaffected guitars, Local Natives moved through a set of rhythmic charmers from their own "Shape Shifter," built on piano chord crescendos, and a cover of the Talking Heads' "Warning Sign." The Sony stage seemed like it might be too big for them, but they held it. Fleet and foxy.
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Ximena Sarinana
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 8:00 PM
After her Saturday afternoon set at Lollapalooza, we got to chat with Mexican actress-singer Ximena Sarinana, whose self-titled sophomore album I adore ...
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Eminem, Skylar Grey
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2011 1:28 AM
Arcade Fire beat Eminem to Lollapalooza (they headlined here last year) and snatched the top Grammy from him in February. But it's still been Mr. Mathers' year. Taylor Swift, after all, isn't covering Arcade Fire in concert this summer, and if Facebook is any arbiter of cultural presence, it was announced this week that Eminem has overtaken Lady Gaga as the most "liked" living person on the social media site.
For fans new and old, Eminem took to Lollapalooza's main stage Saturday night and encapsulated his entire career into one sizzling 90-minute set. Featuring two noteworthy guests — and assisted midway by an old partner, Ryan "Royce da 5'9" " Montgomery — the Detroit rapper launched a consistent barrage of recognizable tunes and furious rhymes into the largest crowd ever assembled at the annual concert festival in Chicago's Grant Park.
Performing nearly the exact set he delivered in June at the Bonnaroo festival, Eminem — who so rarely tours these days — dished hits one after another, sometimes in abbreviated form, reaching all the way back to "The Slim Shady LP." Prowling the stage in a hoodie, Em proved deft as ever with his famously furious rhymes (misogynistic and homophobic as they sometimes are), spitting out "No Love" and "The Way I Am" with such tenacity and urgency you wouldn't think there was a decade between them.
Midway through the set, though, it was easy to forget Eminem is a rapper as we entered the hot chorus portion of the evening, signaled by the guest appearance of Bruno Mars. The omnipresent tunesmith sang a trademark melody for the chorus of "Lighters," a new single from Bad Meets Evil, a revived collaboration between Eminem and Royce that delivered a new EP in June. This continued through "Airplanes II," "Space Bound" and several other tracks more song than rap. By the time we reached "Love the Way You Lie," we expected Skylar Grey — who co-wrote the song and who performed on Lollapalooza's BMI stage earlier in the day — to take the Rihanna part. No dice. She did, however, appear to sing her part in "I Need a Doctor."
"Lighters" was the song that softened the immensity of the audience in Hutchinson Field. This was a crowd one could officially refer to as ginormous. With a record sell-out this year of 90,000 each day, it looked as if at least 80,000 of them were waving hands and jumping up and down in the mud for Eminem. Even he seemed impressed, guffawing, "Holy sh—, there's a lot of people here." But in between Em's fuzzy-wuzzy raps in that song, Mars sang about "a sky full of lighters" at the same time he witnessed one. Tens of thousands of people in a field holding lighters — real lighters, much more than cell phones for a change — was a breathtaking sight.
Eminem has made much of his recovery, even making it the title of last year's "comeback" album. A video intro to the concert plays up the post-addiction story, and Saturday night — after asking fans, "How many people here get f—-ed up to the "Recovery" album? ... What kinda crazy backwards-ass sh—is that?" — he even managed to turn it into sketch comedy. In what he played as a personal moment, Eminem asked the crowd if we minded him relapsing tonight, taking a drink. He produced a bottle. Veteran hype man Kon Artis played the other side, "You sure you wanna do this? You know you get crazy when you drink." Eminem slowly put the bottle to his lips and drank. Liquid then began streaming from various holes in the special shirt he was wearing, as if he were a Warner Bros. cartoon character enjoying a beverage after a gun fight. What is this, "Hip-Hop With Benny Hill"?
He also used the shtick to validate — or explain away — the quirky, juvenile sound of his early hits. A medley of "My Name Is"/"The Real Slim Shady"/"Without Me" sounds potentially hilarious cast against Em's grave current image as a newly sober but still angry young man, but he introduced it by framing it in context with his addiction: "This is the stuff I was making when I was drunk."
Skylar Grey's own midafternoon performance on a side stage established that she belongs on the sidelines. Sassing around the stage in a flailing shirt and bikini top, Grey tried to play the tough, bad girl but hit the mark closer to Alannah Myles than, say, Gwen Stefani. Backed by too many meathead rap-rock grooves and peppered with too many clumsy exhortations for the sizable crowd to either dance or fight each other, most of the songs from Grey's forthcoming album, "Invinsible" (sic) seemed a dime a dozen despite her obvious vocal talent. She opened "Weirdo" with the refrain from Radiohead's "Creep" and sermonized about celebrating the world's oddballs, and it just sounded like a cheap grab at Lady Gaga's limelight. Here's to more "featuring Skylar Grey" and less solo Skylar Grey.
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: Titus Andronicus, Imelda May
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2011 3:37 PM
Lollapalooza opened to a humid, rain-soaked Sunday with the defiant punk-Celtic squalls of New Jersey's Titus Andronicus.
As Big Audio Dynamite was the day before, Titus Andronicus proved to be the day's most socially relevant voice, crowing its resigned and occasionally paranoid lyrics about a U.S. of A. that's a shell of its former self. Their influences may be British punk and Irish pub rock, but their outlook is very American — even in the fans, who shouted "U-S-A!" several times, especially when singer-guitarist Patrick Stickles soloed so hard the U.S. flag tied to the end of his guitar actually waved in the light afternoon breeze. Lamenting in his choking yawps how "after 10,000 years it's still us against them" and that we continually squander "the value our forefathers gave you," Stickles' nervously darting eyes eventually always bring it back home to the harder, more personal questions: "Is there a soul on this earth who isn't too frightened to move?"
Titus Andronicus is still supporting the album, last year's phenomenal "The Monitor," that they were at last year's Pitchfork Music Festival, and the set hasn't changed much. Still, it's great to hear Stickles shouting a hundred times during "No Future, Pt. 3," ringing over Grant Park, "You will always be a loser!" — changing it up just once to "You will always Lollapalooza!" The band goes for Springsteen bombast (even name-checking him during "The Battle of Hampton Road") but balances its uber-American influences — "Forever" is '50s rock so classic all it lacks is a Chuck Berry duckwalk — with those from Emerald Isle pubs. "Four Score and Seven" may allude to Lincoln, but the music is pure craic. It even had young guys with their arms around one another's shoulders, swaying and singing along.
The flip side of that came immediately after, when Dublin's Imelda May started her set across Hutchinson Field with a forceful thwack of her bassist's upright. Speaking between songs in a brogue so thick it was difficult to understand, this Irish lass served up a set of pure retro rockabilly. She gave props to a song she's "dreamed of playing here because it was recorded right here in Chicago at the wonderful Chess studios," Howlin' Wolf's "Poor Boy." Ultimately, though, this was music too slick, and with too much shtick, to leave a deep impression in Sunday's mud. Then again, she did continue the festival's emergent '80s theme by covering "Tainted Love." Whatever.
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: The Cars
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2011 7:56 PM
Capping a noticeable 1980s vibe running throughout this year's festival, the Cars played a typically solid but staid set Sunday afternoon — much like their May set at the Riviera, just outdoors. Opening with their classic "Let the Good Times Roll," the most sedate party anthem ever, the reunited quartet (sans original singer-bassist Ben Orr, who died in 2000) see-sawed between MTV-era hits — "My Best Friend's Girl," "You Might Think," "Magic," "Let's Go," etc. — and tracks from their new album, "Move Like This." As usual, Ric Ocasek hardly moved, and the set glided along with great songs but zero showmanship. "I like the nightlife, baby," Ocasek sang as he squinted into the late afternoon sun.
Before their set, we sat down with guitarist Elliott Easton and drummer David Robinson to discuss how the band got back together ...
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: The rain, Foo Fighters, Arctic Monkeys
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2011 1:29 AM
Lollapalooza ended Sunday in the mud and muck from two short but powerful rain storms that drenched Chicago's Grant Park — and the record 90,000 fans assembled there for the final day of the annual music festival — and gave many fans a night of rock and roll they won't soon forget.
Hannah Frudden was at the Perry's rave tent when the first wave of rain came Sunday evening. "It was the best 30 minutes of my life!" said the 19-year-old Northwestern student, exuberant despite being covered head to toe in mud. As she stood along a sidewalk near the main Lollapalooza stages, every other passer-by noticed her condition and gave her high-fives and hugs.
Jesse Warmling, 39, in from Dallas, surrendered gladly to the downpour, which lasted about half an hour and only slightly delayed Sunday's concert schedule on the final evening of this three-day music festival in Chicago's Grant Park. "We haven't seen rain for months in Texas," Warmling said. "I'll take it any way and anywhere."
When British band Arctic Monkeys took the main stage at 6:30 p.m., a half hour delay, the rain had nearly stopped — and a rainbow framed the stage. "We're gonna push through this," singer Alex Turner said. The band rushed through an abbreviated set, but at least included the song "She's Thunderstorms," from their newest album, dedicating it "to Mother Nature."
The rain returned a couple of hours later, early in the Foo Fighters headlining set, but Dave Grohl scared it away.
Always eager to play, the Foo Fighters — the band started 16 years ago by former Nirvana member Grohl — started their set promptly at 8 p.m., their first notes crescendoing as the final notes from Explosions in the Sky faded out across the field. They slammed into "Bridges Burning," from the band's acclaimed new album "Wasting Light," and hurried into "Rope" as dark clouds amassed again in the northwest. By the time they launched into "My Hero," their fourth song, the floodgates had opened once again. Torrents drowned the throng and produced a perfect rock and roll moment. That feeling when the rain starts falling, and you're getting drenched, and you decide, "F—- it, we're not running for cover" — that's a rock and roll moment.
"I don't give a f—- if it's raining," Grohl declared after the band had noodled cautiously through the song's ending, backing away from the rain that came at them from an sharp angle. If they had the slightest notion of cutting off the performance, the crowd had no intention of letting them. When you and tens of thousands of others are in the middle of Hutchinson Field, ankle-deep in mud and no hope of escape, you've made your rock and roll decision. The crowd kept the song going, singing loudly even as Grohl and the band dropped out momentarily. Soon he was singing "Arlandria," in which the line, "Shame, shame, go away / come again some other day," easily sounded like a chant against the weather.
Grohl started and ended the set sounding a little hoarse — perhaps because of the three-hour special show the Foo Fighters had played Saturday night for a thousand fans at Chicago's Metro. His energy, however, was not dampened. Always bug-eyed and ferocious onstage, Grohl on Sunday was whipping his wet hair around wildly as he ground away at his guitar, leaping and growling and shouting. He caressed the softer dynamics, too, stitching "Skin and Bones" together so lightly the song barely held together but benefited from accordion backing. He thanked the crowd for sticking with him and sang "Times Like These" by himself, celebrating the special moment.
Of course, Grohl related once again his tale of seeing his first rock show at the Cubby Bear (the band was Naked Raygun) — his age tends to change when he tells this story, Sunday night he was younger, 13 — and how it "changed my life." He then added that the first Lollapalooza 20 years ago had a similar impact. He beckoned Lolla founder Perry Farrell to come on stage, which he did — quickly, running on and off like a mischievous imp.
Chicago police: 'We don't work as bouncers' at Lollapalooza
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2011 2:28 PM
Has everyone dried out and washed up?
The day after a rainy, muddy conclusion to Lollapalooza 2011 — read our full report — the Chicago Police Dept. has released a range of arrests during the three-day weekend concert festival in Grant Park.
As we've reported, last year's individual fence jumpers turned into this year's online-organized flash mobs — large groups of fans who gather and overwhelm a section of fence, using strength in numbers to insure better penetration and unpaid admission. Some groups were as large as 200-300 people.
But Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy on Monday told the Sun-Times' Rummana Hussain that only a total of 20 to 30 people were arrested during the three-day Lollapalooza festivities.
While McCarthy said gate crashing at Lollapalooza is not "acceptable," he said officers assigned to the private event are not "bouncers."
"We're there to provide for the public safety," he said. "We don't work as bouncers for admission purposes."
The actual bouncers are the folks employed by Safety Service Systems (S3). They're the blue T-shirts seen here apprehending some other gate-crashers.
In the YouTube video below — one of several posted during the weekend, purportedly showing various groups of young people storming fences at the festival —one such mob coalesces near a vulnerable section of fence, rushes it (as you can see in the slo-mo, they had a plank to help them ramp up the chain-link) and streams inside the festival's perimeter. Near the end, two police paddy wagons arrive, but as the poster of the video writes: "Two paddy wagons came, but no one was actually taken away. It seemed like if you were under 17 years old they let you go , after searching you. 18 years old and up seemed to get tickets."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Sade debuted in 1984 — its first CD, "Diamond Life," featured a helpful parenthetical on the spine: "(pronounced Shar-day)" — and has sounded largely the same ever since. That's a compliment.
A Sade song sounds like ... a Sade song. Slow, sultry, deeply emotional and frosted with the iconic singer's cool, foggy, deliberately aloof voice. No evident trends, no guest rappers, no samples. The singles from the ’80s ("Smooth Operator," "The Sweetest Taboo," "Stronger Than Pride") are distinguishable from last year's "Soldier of Love," chiefly in the technical nuances of the production. The music, though, is stubbornly identifiable.
"To me, we're the punkest of punks within our own world, because we do what we do," said Sade — a k a singer Helen Folasade Adu, whose moniker is also the band name — during our interview. "We're not belonging to any particular genre, and we're always brave enough to do what we do whether it's understood or not. That fact that it's received well, we're endlessly grateful for. But our music is always approached in a way that's 'this is what we do, take it or leave it.' We don't have aspirations to change."
Received well, indeed. Over the same dates this weekend as Lollalaplooza in Chicago's Grant Park, Sade has nearly sold out three consecutive concerts at the United Center. "Soldier of Love" debuted at No. 1 when it was released in February 2010, possibly because fans were so eager to hear the first new material from Sade in a decade. In the last 18 years, Sade has released three albums. Like the pace of her songs, Sade is in no hurry.
Sade herself is as reticent as she is patient. In a rare interview, she talked to the Sun-Times about musical consistency, Justin Bieber and taking her own sweet time ...
Q: What does tour preparation involve for you and the band?
We're just talking about it now with the people working on the visual side of it. We're taking a long look at the songs to see how they really are in a way, how to represent them visually. In some ways, by looking at them in that way you learn something new, you see the songs a little from the outside. Once they're done, they're sent off somewhere. They're out there, and we have to rein them back in.
Q: Your first album in 10 years was out in February (2010), yet you're not touring until the following summer. Why the delay?
I couldn't sort of see myself going out there. I had to come up for air in a way. When we make an album, it's quite intense, very all-encompassing and consuming. I couldn't consider it, couldn't do it. I know it would have been the practical, sensical thing to do, to support the album and help it on its way. But I think if you're going to do something right you have to be 100-percent sure it's the best thing to do at that moment. I couldn't honestly feel that way, so I'm glad we took the breather before going back into it.
Q: You're never in any hurry, are you?
[Laughs] Having said that, I'm always late. The anxiety I feel when I'm late is nothing like the anxiety I feel when I'm on time. [Laughs] The few times in my life I've been early, it's all gone wrong. I'm in constant fear of being early. That's why I'm always late. Plus, obviously, I'm Nigerian. You can take the girl out of Nigeria ...
Q: Has Sony ever breathed down your neck, pressuring you for a new album next year instead of next decade?
They've lost all ambition with me. ... This is the only way I can go. You've got to be yourself. I'm much better at being myself. My life dominates me, and its circumstances come first. That actually enriches the music. I don't have that blind ambition just to do it. It has to feel right, otherwise I get sort of confused and wonder what I'm doing.
Q: Describe for me what happens — you release an album and tour in 2000-2001, then nearly eight years go by before the call goes out to reconvene the band. What has to happen for you to reach a creative boil?
It's hard to say. In some way, I feel the pressure boiling from the band. I suppose that kicks me into a more conscious state — more aware of the real practical side of it, the reality of what it takes. Also, I think I'll commit at the beginning. I have to get involved, get the train in motion, downhill picking up steam, then suddenly I find I'm doing it. I'm one of those people, if I stop and think it holds me back.
Q: You don't start writing until you're in the studio, right?
That's why making records is so expensive for us. I have collections of bits on paper, written little scraps of ideas from when I'm really excited by a thought or a feeling that's managed to make it to a bit of paper. We have that to start with, and that's it, really. Whenever we make an album, we have to go somewhere we can cut ourselves off from reality. That speeds up the process.
Q: Your music has evolved yet remained remarkably consistent and identifiable. You haven't flown off on stylistic tangents. How do you manage that?
To me, we're the punkest of punks within our own world, because we do what we do. We're not belonging to any particular genre, and we're always brave enough to do what we do whether it's understood or not. That fact that it's received well, we're endlessly grateful for. But our music is always approached in a way that's 'this is what we do, take it or leave it.' We don't have aspirations to change, only to develop within.
Q: Which means you must have an ESP with the band by now, right?
We've created our own language, so to speak, yes. We keep speaking and expressing ourselves with our own kind of language. If anything over the years, we've broken things down, become more abstract and more raw than it used to be, less polished. In a way it's more truthful, but that's subtle. Only a real lover of our music or someone who turns us up loud would really understand what I mean by that.
Q: Have you ever considered collaborations or side projects?
No, I feel safe in our little group.
Q: The only extracurricular project of yours I'm aware of is that bit part in "Absolute Beginners."
Well, yeah, talk about not being yourself. That was me sort of being someone else. It was very easy, like putting on a cloak, that becoming somebody for a little while. If I had to do that for a long while it would be grating. I didn't do other film work after that. I've tended to avoid becoming more famous than I already am, and I don't feel that's a very good way of expressing myself.
Q: Has fame been a challenge for you?
People generally let me be me. People are aware that I'm not someone particularly begging for attention. They hold back a bit with me.
Q: What music do you listen to?
I live in a house with an 18-year-old and a 14-year-old, so it's full of music. Just anything. My daughter and stepson are really broad-minded. When I was young, people were almost identified solely by the kind of music they liked. People fell into categories of who liked what. It's lovely about young kids now — they love music for the sake of it. It's so accessible, and it's all right to love Muse and Justin Bieber at the same time. That's infectious. There's no snobbery attached to their feeling for music.
Q: So Bieber's even gotten to you?
Justin Bieber singing "Cry Me a River" — that made me cry. We're sitting on the sofa at home, and my daughter showed it to me on YouTube. There's a kind of loveliness about him, an innocence. He's so maligned. I like Janelle Monae. I think she's sweet. We listen to a lot of rap and hip-hop. I love Raekwon. It's very heavy, I know, but I love the beats. I think he's genius.
Q: So many artists left the saxophone behind in the '80s. Not you. Why?
It's back there with the hats and the lampposts. [Laughs] We did leave the sax behind a little bit ourselves, but this album has a resurgence of sax. I think saxophone on a lot of '80s music is there like the synthesizer is there. It's fashionable. Leg warmers came along, and sax did, too. But if you love it, you hold onto it. The sax for Stuart [Matthewman] is like an additional limb. He loves it, and it's really infected our music. It's used for a reason, not just because it's the thing at that time.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Lollapalooza wasn't supposed to last 20 years. It was a miracle it survived 20 dates. The tour was a death knell, a tick on a bucket list, the proverbial last hurrah. That first tour, Lollapalooza 1991 — that was meant to nail a particular coffin shut.
"It was the farewell tour for Jane's Addiction," says Perry Farrell, leader of that storied — and now revived — alt-rock band and inadvertent founder of Lollapalooza. "Marc [Geiger, his agent] called me up to discuss what we wanted to do, how we wanted to send ourselves off. He said we could do whatever we wanted. Well, my background was putting on shows and parties in L.A. I would never play the straight clubs, I was always finding the weird loft or setting up in front of a hot dog stand or taking people into the desert. I was used to putting on parties that had extra things. And Marc said 'whatever you want.' So I said, 'All right, I'll call you back.' I wanted to really think about it."
Geiger, now head of music at William Morris Endeavor and still booking the new stationary Lollapalooza, recalls the idea for a roving festival being sparked in London.
After a Jane's Addiction club show, Farrell lost his voice, thus forcing the band to cancel its appearance the next day at Britain's Reading Festival, an annual multi-band music event dating back to the 1970s.
"I went on to the festival the next day and had an amazing time," Geiger says, "and we go back to the hotel, where the band is sitting around pretty depressed, and said, 'Man, you should have seen this. This is what we should try to do with the breakup tour.' Perry said, 'Absolutely,' and we sat in the lobby sketching out the format and making lists of bands. ... This being Jane's Addiction, there was a lot of interesting stuff going on. One day a while later, Perry called me at 1 a.m. and said, 'I've got the name!' He'd heard it on a Three Stooges episode."
Fried from drug abuse and exhausted from touring, by 1991 Jane's Addiction was ready to call it a day. Farrell and guitarist Dave Navarro were at each other's throats. They finished recording "Ritual de lo Habitual" and were able to agree on one last thing: the tour supporting that album would be their last as a band.
Farrell had no reason to think it would repeat itself.
"I wanted a longer lineup, just because I wanted to have a wilder, bigger party," Farrell says. "If it's a farewell, then let's invite some of our musical friends and peers. Nothing was supposed to come of it, you know. I had no intention of doing it again. I mean, the thing was over and William Morris and Marc and these guys are all really enthusiastic and saying, 'We think we can get the Red Hot Chili Peppers for next year!' — and I went, 'Wait, what? Next year?'"
Farrell's musical Frankenstein (created also with help from Jane's manager Ted Gardner and booking agent Don Muller) would become the undead monster stomping through popular music and the summer concert scene for years to come. Lollapalooza lived, died, and in 2005 was born again as an annual, stationary "destination festival" in Chicago's Grant Park. This weekend the event is sold out, meaning 90,000 fans a day over three days will hear 130 bands on eight stages.
Lollapalooza — one day and one stage — debuted July 18, 1991, at a dusty, shade-less amphitheatre in Phoenix. For the next month and a half, the tour's nine performers visited 21 cities, including Aug. 3 at the World Music Theatre (formerly the Tweeter Center, currently the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre) in nearby Tinley Park.
By the end of Lollapalooza that year, Jane's Addiction would be over — but more popular than ever. The rift in the band, however, was clear from that first show.
"The guys in Jane's Addiction got into a fist fight on stage. It was a hell of a way to debut," recalls Andy Cirzan, vice president of Chicago's Jam Productions. Jam would be producing the inaugural Lollapalooza when it reached the Chicago suburbs, so Cirzan had flown to Phoenix to see how it was going down. "The fight continued off stage. There was some definite roundhousing going on. I don't know if anyone landed a punch, but I specifically saw some punches flying as they left the stage."
"Yeah, well, that's why we were leaving," Farrell admits.
The rest of the Lolla lineup that first year: Nine Inch Nails, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Living Colour, Ice T & Body Count, the Butthole Surfers, Rollins Band, the Violent Femmes and Fishbone. (See where the Lolla class of '91 is now.)
Emergency Broadcast Network, a group of video artists, bewildered fans at some of the shows by projecting soundtracked films between sets (basically the kind of electronica videos now all over YouTube). In San Francisco, an all-black heavy metal band, Othello's Revenge, played 1991's only side stage.
(That same Aug. 3, 1991, weekend in Chicago also offered Bonnie Raitt with Chris Isaak at Poplar Creek, the O'Jays at the Arie Crown Theatre, Kelly Willis at Schubas, Dizzy Gillespie at Ravinia, and the South Shore Jazz Festival featuring the Count Basie Orchestra at the South Shore Cultural Center.)
The idea of a multi-band festival wasn't that unusual in 1991. One that moved around the country was.
"The festival scene had been in Europe for a long time, and lot of this was modeled on that idea. But those were all destination festivals. To take this thing a put it on the road, that was unheard of," Cirzan says. "You're not talking about two or three bands and their equipment. Now you're talking about eight or nine bands, stages, vending, kiosks, and moving it all across America."
The more Farrell thought about what he wanted to do, brainstorming after that initial "whatever you want" phone call, the more he wanted to do.
"I was thinking in terms of what else would happen on the grounds. I really wanted an art gallery," Farrell says. "That's the first extracurricular, front-of-house idea I had, to have a traveling art gallery. From there, I started thinking, well, that covers the ground, but what about the sky? So I wanted hot-air balloons. I kept on going. I didn't get resistance on anything except the hot-air balloons. We managed to do it one year, but a balloon only holds two to four people at a time. It wasn't cost effective."
Even the first Lollapalooza provided plenty of extra, non-musical distraction to fill the long hours in the summer sun. In addition to shops full of trinkets and food vendors, numerous organizations were spreading their gospels. Greenpeace had a heavy presence, and informational kiosks abounded for groups such as Rock the Vote, the League of Women Voters, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the National Abortion Rights Action League, Handgun Control Inc. and the Citizenship Education Fund. The Amok Bookstore sold banned books.
Jeffrey Othello, namesake leader of Othello's Revenge, christened Lollapalooza's first side stage. After working his way through college in concert security for legendary Bay Area promoter Bill Graham, Othello's first band was booked at Graham's 1990 festival, A Gathering of the Tribes. A precursor to Lollapalooza, this two-day event — a mini-tour organized by the Cult's Ian Astbury, with the first day outside San Francisco and the second outside Los Angeles — featured a diverse bill that included Soundgarden, the Indigo Girls, Ice T, Queen Latifah, Iggy Pop, Joan Baez and more.
"Our music got resistance from the booking agency for that festival, but you don't say no to Bill Graham," Othello recalls. "He liked our music, so he built a second stage especially for us on this grassy area at stage left. ... We were a big enough hit that we got the call to try the same thing at Lollapalooza that first year."
Lollapalooza '92 included a full-time side stage on all the dates, as well as the addition of the briefly notorious Jim Rose Circus Sideshow.
Diverse but not everything
The first Lollapalooza lineup and several subsequent ones were diverse, which is not necessarily the same as today's smorgasbord, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. In 1991, the industry still filed many of these bands under "college rock."
"The other reason I wanted so many bands to come with us is I felt there was strength in numbers," Farrell says. "This is before the title 'alternative rock.' There was no name for it. It was just this underground phenomenon now getting a presence on radio and showing good numbers on the live circuit. I figured if I just brought my friends and my record collection out there with me, together it would be very powerful."
The booking philosophy of the first Lollapalooza was considerably looser than subsequent tours.
"It was us in a hotel room with the manager and the band, and everybody could pick one band," Geiger says. "It was the non-scientific, choose-your-kickball-team approach. Dave wanted Siouxsie, because he's a Goth. Perky [Jane's drummer Stephen Perkins] loved Rollins. Perry wanted Ice-T. Eric [Avery, former Jane's bassist] wanted the Butthole Surfers. I wanted Nine Inch Nails and the Pixies. I got one. Living Colour was no one's choice; they were exploding at the time, and we thought they made sense."
"It was all hair metal at that time," Farrell says. "We were fighting against that. We were not pop, and rock had become pop. I don't want to pick on people like Styx and Journey, but you understand they would say they're rock bands. To me, they're pop groups. We didn't want to be that."
Farrell and Gieger also say they wanted those early Lollapaloozas to stay manageable. That '91 show seemed like such a big deal — with nine bands. This weekend's hootenanny in Grant Park showcases 130.
"I have to say, that's what was nice — and, I think, most effective — about those early tours. It wasn't about a million bands. It was a marquee slot, and everyone lobbied to be on it. It was a strategy about breaking your band nationwide," Cirzan says. "Today, it's, what, 150 bands? The average consumer — I mean, how could you even digest more than, say, 20 bands in a day? It doesn't seem that helpful to bands, just the promoters."
"The cool part came later," says Debbie Cohen, an English teacher at Glenbrook South High School. She attended Lollapalooza '91 at the World. "After seeing the bands you'd never heard of and then, after they became huge, you were able to say, 'Wow, I saw that show!' ... It was a whole day of music, and that seemed very cool, but it wasn't so much that it was too much, like today. Plus, at 15 years old, Tinley Park seemed very far away and exotic."
Cohen tagged along with her older brother, who was there "because Jane's Addiction was his favorite band in the whole world." They had tickets on the lawn; she remembers the day being slightly rainy. For Jane's Addiction, they managed to squeeze against the barrier between the lawn and the pavilion, and Cohen was hoisted onto "the shoulders of this 6-foot-4 dreadlocked boy named Todd, so I had the best seat in the house."
Her current students were astonished to learn Lollapalooza had a history.
"They were so excited this year, and I'd never heard of most of the bands. I said, 'You know, I was at the first one.' They looked at me like I was an alien," Cohen says. "I named some of the bands. 'Who's that?!' they said. ... They were totally flabbergasted."
Stephanie Katsaros, a Chicago sustainability consultant now who was 16 at Lollapalooza '91 at the World, got her view by standing on the pavilion armrests, "headbanging and fist-pumping to 'Head Like a Hole' during NIN."
Her experience at the first Lollapalooza was so satisfying and eye-opening, Katsaros says she's been to every one except 2008. The music was great, she says, but the crowd was amazing.
"The scope of the people — it was almost like the high school cafeteria, with punks on one side and preps on the other, had been mixed up," she says. "This mélange of people and ideas. It was the first time I'd seen that kind of movement. ... It started in the parking lot. People had cooler and food and drinks at their cars, just hanging out. It was definitely not a Grateful Dead parking lot scene. I remember black T-shirts and piercings and Mohawks. All these people kind of finding each other. ... We didn't know there was an us!"
Within a few years, the organizers of Lollapalooza began to realize that the scene was as important, if not moreso, than the music. They thought they'd try an experiment — in Chicago.
"They called us up in '95 and said, 'We want you ready to go on sale next week,'" Cirzan says. "I said, 'Well, you've got to tell me who's on the show.' They said, 'Ah, we're not going to announce the artists yet. We just want to see what we've got, and you're the test market.' I'll be damned if we didn't sell out 28,000 tickets with no lineup."
This is now the routine: Lollapalooza passes go on sale, and often sell out, sometimes weeks before a single artist is announced. That this now occurs in Chicago is because of that 1995 venture.
"When I thought about where we would put this as a destination festival, I never forgot that," Farrell says. "Chicago and I have had a love affair for a long time."
That same year, '95, Geiger told the Sun-Times, in response to a question about the festival's scaling back of shows that year: "I think in 2010, people are going to look back and see that we did what we had to in 1995 to ensure that Lollapalooza would still be around. ... It would be nice to be involved with something that lasts that long, given that the trends of the business go so fast."
Just as Lollapalooza came back from the dead, Jane's Addiction also lived, died, lived again and died again, but has reunited once more and is back this week with the first single — perhaps aptly titled "Irresistible Force" — from a new album, "The Great Escape," their first in eight years due in late September.
Oddly, given the perfect timing, Jane's Addiction is not performing at this year's Lollapalooza. As I speak with Perry, he's packing for another gig early this week — in Australia.
"We're going down to do one show at Splendour in the Grass. It's a destination festival!" he says. "We played Lollapalooza there a few years ago. We've got a great lineup this year, they don't need us. Maybe next year. I mean, it looks like this will go on forever, right?"
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
I checked out Sleater-Kinney one night in 2000 in New York City. As they took the stage at the Bowery Balloom and plugged in, some yokel in the balcony shouted, "I hope you're better than you were at Irving Plaza!" The crowd ooh'd, then booed. A challenge had been made, a gauntlet thrown. The next two hours were one sweaty, thousand-watt rebuttal.
There weren't many fair-weather fans of Sleater-Kinney. During their late-'90s, turn-of-the-century reign as the country's most intense and credible female alt-rockers (always with that gender qualifier, if not the dreaded "riot grrrl" tag), their emotionally raw performances and feminist convictions inspired fierce devotion among fans. Even Time magazine called them "America's best rock band." But by 2006, utterly spent, the trio announced an "indefinite hiatus" and hasn't regrouped since.
But late last year two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney, singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein (now a co-star of cable sketch comedy show "Porlandia") and drummer Janet Weiss (also still half of the long-running indie-pop duo Quasi), reappeared in an emerging new band, Wild Flag, with ex-Helium guitarist Mary Timony and keyboardist Rebecca Cole (ex-Minders). You could say they're a supergroup — but the Fugazi comparisons are closer than those of the Traveling Wilburys.
In March, Wild Flag made its debut at the annual South by Southwest music showcase, playing a rousing, irresistible set. The music was chunky, strong and urgent, but also lighter, bouncier, full of Cole's kitschy keys and layer upon layer of sunny ooh's and ahh's. Their energy positively crackled — and they have successfully captured that on the band's self-titled debut album, due Sept. 13.
It's as if another gauntlet was thrown, and this new quartet feels they have even more to prove. We spoke last week with Weiss about that and more ...
Q: I absolutely love the record. It's a blast.
Janet Weiss: Oh good. We haven't talked to too many people who've heard it. Hopefully it's different and surprising in some ways.
Q: It is surprising. Were you going for the element of surprise?
JW: Any time I make a record or walk onto a stage, I'm hoping to surprise people. It's getting harder to do, though. There's so much information about a record and a band before you even hear the music or see the show, as in YouTube or an online presence, that gives a lot away instead of intriguing people. I think surprise is one of our greatest weapons, and I think we wield it well here.
Q: What's first surprising is the level of energy, absolutely bristling from the songs. You recorded the whole thing live, right?
JW: Yeah, there are only maybe three or four overdubs, besides the vocals. It's a real energy record. We're all four looking at each other while we're playing. The intricate moments that feel vibrant are actually us playing together, really finding out who we are as a band, and focusing on that instead of fancy production. We're not making an epic, 18-song double record. It wasn't about that. This is like shaking your hand, "How are you? Nice to meet you!" We're still finding out who we are. We're not sure.
Q: Where is all the excitement coming from?
JW: We just really want this to go off. Carrie hadn't been in a band for a few years, so she was probably dying to get back up there and play. Mary had been teaching guitar but not playing. Rebecca went back to school. The three of them especially were chomping at the bit to express themselves in that way again. I've never lost that. It's what I do in my life.
Q: Tell me how Wild Flag got started.
JW: Carrie asked me to help her with a soundtrack she was doing for a documentary. I'd known Rebecca and played with her for years, always thought she was awesome. We got her to play on it, as well. The three of us recorded, wrote some ditties, some instrumental incidental music. Spending the days in the practice space just reminded me of our connection, how prolific Carrie and I can be when we sit down to write. It went really well. It was a very organic unfolding. It wasn't, "Oh, we're gonna make this new band and take over the world!" Mary and Carrie create this dynamic that I really love in music with this tension and contrast. It's a little like Sleater-Kinney, but there's more bravado here, more pushing and pulling.
And I've never seen two women playing guitar solos at the same time. [Laughs] I've never seen that! Have you? I've been watching music my whole life, and that's something I've never seen!
Q: Why does that confound you? Why, in 2011, is that such a funny, shocking thing to realize?
JW: I'm just surprised. I just sat down and thought about it. Have I seen this? I haven't. And without going off into a conversation about women in rock, because I don't do that — I don't discuss "women in rock" because I don't "men in rock" — I just thought: I've seen two guys play solos together. I'm just saying.
Q: The chemistry you're describing, part of that is already well established between you and Carrie — and it seems pretty intense. Why is that?
JW: We do have this intensity. It's a language, an ability to be open with each other. There's an easiness there.
Q: And what does that mean specifically for the music?
JW: It means we get to important ideas very fast. It means we already feel like we're getting somewhere in this band. It's a language for working through how to unfold a song.
Q: Does that turn into music that's otherwise more intense than the usual pop fare?
JW: Well, we definitely feel music has gotten a little soft in the last few years. We've missed seeing truly cathartic, emotional, visceral performances. We miss seeing people letting go, daring you to let go.
Q: Sleater-Kinney always maintained a similarly intense relationship with its fans. What contributed to that?
JW: We totally exposed ourselves on records, and [our music] was a desperation to share our experiences, to create — it was our desire, our need to have the experience between us be meaningful and intense and revealing, every time.
Q: Was any part of the creation of Wild Flag linked to a desire to return to that Sleater-Kinney intensity?
JW: Not in the way of, "Let's relive this thing that existed." This was a brand-new discovery on its own. There are very few situations you get in and think, "This is really exciting, this has some real possibilities!"
Q: Will this lead toward or away from a Sleater-Kinney reunion?
JW: Sleater-Kinney was so in the moment — every show was a big deal — and that relationship with the fans was so intense and meaningful, to do it again as a reunion would feel so much less to me, less than what it was. I would never want to touch that. ... Why go on tour if we'd be less than we were? We value what we stood for. It's bigger than us.
Wild Flag will return in the fall as part of a proper tour. They're scheduled Oct. 9 at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western. Tickets: $15, (773) 276-3600, emptybottle.com.
with Mickey and Radar Eyes
• 10:30 p.m. July 22
• Subterranean, 2011 W. North
• Sold out
• 9 p.m. July 23
• Wicker Park Fest, Milwaukee and North avenues
• Tickets: $5 requested donation at festival entrance, wickerparkfestchicago.com
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Q&A with Hodgy Beats from MellowHype, Odd Future
By Thomas Conner on July 12, 2011 1:00 PM
Hodgy Beats and Left Brain, members of hotly debated rap group Odd Future — appearing Sunday afternoon at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago's Union Park — also work together under the name MellowHype. The duo's self-released 2010 album "Blackendwhite" was reissued this week by Fat Possum Records with extra tracks, and a new album, "Numbers," is expected later this year.
We caught up with Hodgy Beats last week following Odd Future's performance at the T in the Park festival in Scotland, the last of a string of dates for the group across Europe. When we weren't rehashing the controversy about the group's violent lyrics, there was other stuff to talk about ...
Q: How have the shows been in Europe this month?
Hodgy Beats: Europe is pretty wild, yo. The festival shows have been very, very intense. The crowds are really in love with Odd Future. Musically, people out here are more into it.
Q: How did you and Left Brain meet?
HB: We've known each other, sh—, probably since the second semester of 10th grade. So, 2007-ish.
Q: What clicked between you?
HB: I was just waiting for someone else to come along to make music with.
Q: You work together as MellowHype; within Odd Future, do you also work as a unit?
HB: We work together and with other people. He makes a lot of beats. Left Brain drops a beat and it's, there you go.
Q: With up to 10 people onstage at Odd Future gigs, how do you keep it from getting too confusing?
HB: Before shows we remind each other, hey, everybody's excited and into it and everybody wants to be on stage, but let's try to keep it minimal. It's three people max at all times. That doesn't work out all the time.
Q: What should we expect at this show?
HB: A bunch of niggers rocking the f—- out.
Q: Will there be some MellowHype shows in the future?
HB: Actually, there will be. When "Numbers" comes out, we'll do our own tours.
Q: How will they differ from the whole group's shows?
HB: It'll be more personal, more hands-on. We'll actually pull a different crowd.
Q: Why do you think that?
HB: We're just different, dude. We're just different.
Q: Is there going to be an Odd Future album?
(Someone in the background then shouted "No, tell him no, Hodgy!" and laughed.)
Q: Who's that?
HB: That's my counselor.
Q: How was it lying in a coffin full of snakes for the "64" video?
HB: It was crazy. Actually, it was cool. I never thought I'd be doing something like that.
Q: That video has some dark imagery. How much of that is your idea and how much is the vision of the director (Matt Alonzo)?
HB: It's all my decision. It just looks cool. It's not dark to me.
Q: You and Left Brain are cranking out a lot of music. What inspires you to be so creative and so fast?
HB: It's just what we do. It's a living. We're getting paid for it now, not that it matters. But music is our passion and our joy. We enjoy doing it, that's why we make a lot of it.
Q: "Not that it matters"? You could take or leave the money?
HB: I'd still be doing it, trying to get where I am, with or without someone's money.
Q: You have plans for a solo album, too?
HB: Yeah, called "Damien." There's no set date or any stress on it.
Odd Future's strange present: Local advocates seek to balance lyrics of rape, violence, homophobia
By Thomas Conner on July 12, 2011 1:30 PM
I'm not a f—-in' role model
I'm a 19-year-old f—-ing emotional roller coaster with pipe dreams
These motherf—-ers think I'm supposed to live up to something?
— Tyler the Creator in "Goblin"
They've been called "the future of the music business" for their freewheeling, Internet-based approach to recording and distribution. They've also been called "inexcusable," "reprehensible" and "dangerous" for lyrics that are frequently violent, misogynist, anti-gay and anti-police. They're called OFWGKTA (Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All), and they're a large, young hip-hop collective that's become one of the most divisive topics in music.
Odd Future, scheduled to perform July 17 at the annual Pitchfork Music Festival, has turned heads with some of the freshest sounds in hip-hop, heard mostly in tracks given away free online and on myriad solo projects by the group's members. (Odd Future, a sprawling bunch with 10 regular members, like a baby Wu-Tang Clan, performs together live but has only assembled tracks for two mixtapes.) Their songs are wildly aggressive and boundlessly creative, the wordplay crazy-clever and surprisingly sharp.
But it's those rhymes — peppered as they are with rape, kidnapping, murder and torture fantasies, blasphemy, homophobia, you name it — that's fixated the press and helped elevate this cult rap collective to the level of a Billboard magazine cover in March and last month's in-depth New Yorker feature, and it's the casual, matter-of-fact delivery of them that makes parents and activists apoplectic.
— "Kill people, burn sh—, f—- school / Odd Future here to steer you to what the f—-'s cool / F—- rules, skate life, rape, write, repeat twice" ("Pidgeons")
— In the song "Splatter," Odd Future's biggest breakout star Tyler the Creator boasts of having sex with "your teen daughter ... always against her will" followed by the same with "this grandmother named Jill."
— In "French" a business plan is hatched that, for some reason, includes a sexual act with the Virgin Mary.
Hodgy Beats, at 20 he and Tyler are the oldest of the mostly teenage group, spoke to the Sun-Times last week from a tour stop in London. As he and other members have maintained, Odd Future's lyrics, he said, are preposterous artistic expressions rather than reportage or incitement to action.
"Nothing is really serious," the laconic rapper said. "It's just like all the things in our music. It's in the atmosphere, it's in the world, and it's in our lyrics. ... I think it's funny that people flip out about sh— like that."
For some, it's not enough to write off songs that mention rape and murder to being humorous or simply "not serious." Several Chicago advocates for gay and women's rights in recent weeks promised to protest before the group's afternoon performance at Chicago's Union Park. But the festival announced Thursday that local organizations, including Between Friends and Rape Victim Advocates, will have "an onsite presence at the festival" in the form of an informational booth in the park.
"When we didn't have a booth at the festival, we were going to stand at the entrance to the Pitchfork festival and hand out 6,000 fans that have messages on them — one side lists resources for women who might be involved in domestic violence or a violent relationship, the other side a message about violence against women," says Kathy Doherty, executive director of Between Friends, a 25-year-old domestic violence agency. "Now we have a booth and can still give out the fans as well as information there. ... It's not a protest, it's an awareness-raising event."
Odd Future certainly isn't the first music act to terrify the predominately white media with tales of violence and gore, nor will they be the last. The once-hot controversies of N.W.A., Ice-T, 2 Live Crew, even Eminem are now so distant in pop cultural memory as to seem quaint. These Odd Future kids count the social pathologies of the Geto Boys (late-'80s pioneers of a subgenre called "horrorcore") among their inspirations, as well as shock-rock groups from Black Sabbath to Slipknot.
"When I was 15, my tape collection consisted of Geto Boys, N.W.A., 2 Live Crew," Mike Reed, a local music promoter and musician who co-owns the Pitchfork festival and oversees its booking, wrote in an e-mail to the Sun-Times. "At the time I thought it to be fun. I'm 37 now and have the maturity to see how silly it is/was. I'm not really offended by Odd Future, but can see why people are.
"I think the factor that they are so young is also very shocking for most white media members. Not sure how much this is an issue in more African-American music press."
In May, a writer for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, another organization denouncing the group, said youth is no excuse: "Tyler has said in interviews that he is not homophobic, yet his Twitter feed and rhymes are rampant with anti-gay slurs and references. His defense that 'people take things too seriously' or that he's 'just a kid' is inexcusable."
Hodgy Beats, born Gerard Damien Long (not in Chicago, as many online rumors suggest) and raised in New Jersey, answered our questions (more Q&A here) in few words and fragments, clearly young, inexperienced and more comfortable slinging rhymes than speaking to the media. "It's hard being interviewed," he muttered. "I don't like being asked a lot of questions." Reacting to the flurry of attention the group has received, he said, "The media is stupid. Niggers should ignore it." He paused, perhaps considering the context of his statement, and added, "I'm honestly not mad at the media. They help sell records, I guess."
He chalked up the gross-out element of the songs to boyish competition and bravado in the recording studio. "Sometimes it's us seeing who comes up with the sickest sh—, the most disgusting thing they can throw in," he said.
Hodgy Beats and another Odd Future member, Left Brain, also work together under the name MellowHype. The duo's self-released 2010 album "Blackendwhite" will be reissued July 12 by Fat Possum Records with extra tracks, and a new album, "Numbers," is expected later this year.
Asked what's the coolest musical sound the duo created for "Numbers," Hodgy Beats said, "A bitch moaning. We got some sounds like a bunch of whores just moaning. It's the most perfect sound you could use. It's crazy. Imagine bobbing your head to bitches moaning. That's what 'Numbers' sounds like."
Near the end of our conversation, Hodgy Beats attempted to explain Odd Future's lyrics in the context of street slang and evolving language. "There's gays running around and sh—, but when you call someone a faggot people think you're talking about a gay person," he said. When I asked for clarification as to how else he might define and employ the word "faggot," the phone went dead. We either lost the overseas connection or he hung up.
Odd Future has one female member, Syd Tha Kid, a lesbian who also seems baffled by any controversy around the group's lyrics. "People just choose to be offended by stuff," she told Billboard. "If they are, then that sucks and I'm sorry, but they don't have to keep listening. Words are words. They don't act out what they say, they just say it."
In an MTV interview, Syd tha Kid recalled a confrontation with her father, who said that her involvement in Odd Future was "slapping a lot of other females in the face." She replied, "That's what I do. I slap bitches, Dad."
The group's members have not made news for any actual violent acts. Tyler the Creator, a k a Tyler Okonma, was arrested in May in Los Angeles on a charge disturbing the peace, then quickly released. Frank Ocean, the group's R&B crooner and most likely crossover star, ranted online in April about being arrested in L.A. for unspecified charges.
Odd Future concert tickets have sold well in recent months as their live shows remain popular. (Though last weekend, the group's set at Scotland's T in the Park festival ended approximately 20 minutes early when fans began throwing bottles at them.) In March, Billboard reported that the group's actual record sales have been "modest," though Tyler the Creator's second solo album, "Goblin," debuted at No. 5 on the magazine's albums chart in mid-May based on first-week sales of 45,000.
Doherty at Between Friends says she simply wants her group's message to have the chance to compete with Odd Future's at the festival. "We certainly believe in free speech, and with that in mind Odd Future has the right to sing and use the lyrics they do. But the rest of us in Chicago have the right to balance that point of view with powerful messages of our own about violence again women," she says.
"We work with kids in schools who often get caught up in lyrics but don't think about what they say. So when we talk about that, then they begin to realize that other people using derogatory language — calling women and girls 'bitches' and language against gays and lesbians — can be presented as fun and not serious, but it really has a domino effect ... and doesn't send the right message about how we like to see people talk about each other."
• NPR: "Why You Should Listen to the Rap Group Odd Future, Even Though It's Hard"
• Village Voice: "On Odd Future, Rape and Murder, and Why We Sometimes Like the Things That Repel Us"
• New Yorker: long-read about Odd Future and the whereabouts of Earl Sweatshirt and their follow-up
• Complex: More on the mystery of Earl Sweatshirt here and here
• Irish Times: Last week's Tyler the Creator interview
• Pitchfork: Hodgy Beats interview from June
PITCHFORK MUSIC FESTIVAL
• 3-10 p.m. July 15, noon-10 p.m. July 16-17
• Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph
• Three-day passes are sold out. Individual tickets for July 17 are sold out, but remain for July 15 and 16: $45, (866) 777-8932, pitchforkmusicfestival.com.
Pitchfork Music Festival opens: Gatekeeper, EMA, early-bird fans
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2011 5:52 PM
Oh, is this the way they say the future's meant to feel,
Or just 20,000 people standing in a field?
— Jarvis Cocker
The first band scheduled to play the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival was, of course, Gatekeeper. The electronic duo kicked off just after, of course, the gates opened at 3 p.m. sharp for this seventh annual indie-rock-and-more event at Union Park in Chicago's West Loop.
Nearly 50 bands will perform on three stages here in Union Park during the next three days, and more than 50,000 fans are expected to attend. Tickets (surprisingly) remain for tonight's acts and Saturday's bill. Sunday is sold out.
The first kids through the gate Friday afternoon began sprinting toward the main stage. The park was virtually empty; why in such a hurry? "If I didn't get a spot up close for Animal Collective, then the night would be a complete disaster," said Jimmy Chang, 17, from his blanket near the lip of the Green Stage. "I am NOT MOVING!"
P4k2011's first sounds were very yin and yang. As Gatekeeper's light, blissful tunes fluttered over the trees, EMA (Erika M. Anderson) squinted into the hazy afternoon sun and began grinding out some dark, menacing music. Supported by a guitarist, her little sister on drums and Leif Shackelford on violin and keyboards, Anderson, 28, took her sweet time building up some twisting, twisted alt-rock. Flipping her bleached bangs in and out of her eyes, Anderson seemed to struggle to restrain herself — at one point joking about "breaking things" but keeping a cool head as she lead her band through these slow, brooding songs.
"I wish that every time he touched me he left a mark," she snarled in "Marked," a song that began with Shackelford strumming his violin like a ukulele. Elsewhere, Shackelford sawed at that poor thing like John Cale on his Velvet Underground cello. The band frequently collapsed into VU-like noise breaks, on the foreboding "Butterfly Knife" and again (with two violins now!) on "Breakfast," but without the drone. Anderson gurgles and groans like a Patti Smith hopeful, but she's got more panache. "I did not bring the whiskey on stage," she said. "I don't know why."
Pitchfork Music Festival: James Blake interview and set
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2011 8:00 PM | No Comments | No TrackBacks
We caught just a few minutes to sit down with soft-spoken London dubstep musician James Blake before his performance this evening at the Pitchfork Music Festival:
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Fey young Londoner James Blake not only proved himself, following his curious debut album released in February, he proved to be the night's most transcendent performance.
Influenced by American R&B — and vocally often a dead ringer for Aaron Neville — the 22-year-old Blake made cold beats and fragmented samples come alive Friday evening on the festival's smallest stage under the trees. Seemingly shy behind his keyboard, Blake played and set both graceful and grandiose, reaching surprising heights often with just two or three ingredients.
In the interview before the show, I asked Blake if he felt confident as a singer. His firm affirmative belies the amount of heavy, thickening effects he heaps on his vocals, which alternately slunk around his melody soulfully or swelled above the clipped dubstep beats laid down by both a programmer and a tenacious live drummer. Dub is not a genre that warms easily, but Blake's spectral approach — transmitting his vocals from the ether, often introducing songs with churchy organ and haunting the arrangements with ghostly piano — brings spirit to it and even results in some very human moments. "CMYK" builds on a cheerful, eager rhythm, humming snyths and two R&B samples fractured beyond recognition (they're rhythmic elements, they're not supposed to be understood) — plus another very effect-drenched vocal howl from Blake — and eventually bursts into a jubilant, hopping dancefloor rhythm that had the packed crowd under the tress really jumping. Surprising and superb.
Pitchfork Music Festival: tUnE-yArDs, Animal Collective
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 12:00 AM
The intrepid Merrill Garbus, the central figure of tUnE-yArDs, won for best soundcheck of the day. Portents of what was to come, Garbus called out various wails and "day-oh's" into the microphone, which then looped back through the speakers in endless arrays to make a choir of one. The crowd gathered at the small Blue Stage cheered wildly, and the show hadn't even begun yet.
Garbus' proper set leapt to life with "Party Can (Do You Want to Live?)" on the strength of those looped vocals, a lynchpin of the tUnE-yArDs' engaging, exciting set. Singing, re-singing and playing her own abbreviated drum kit, Garbus, her face streaked with colorful war paint, wailed and cooed and hollered through a set bristling with punkish spirit — at least in the defiant creativity of the electronically enhanced arrangements, amended here and there by two saxophone players — and bracing composition, from the "wah-ooh-wah" vocal round and bleating jazz climax of "Gangsta" to the occasional instances of barking and guitar scraping.
Each song found dissonance and harmony tugging at war, never finding an easy truce but always a workable and tuneful solution. By "Powa," another track from this year's "W H O K I L L" album, Garbus was singing more naturally — and soulfully — her powerful pipes stretching out a bit as more than mere fodder for the sequencers. The tech never diluted the songs, the songs never lost their spirit of celebration and joy. "You're a wonderful sight to see out there," she said, catching her breath. "You're a massive bundle of love." Back at ya, m'dear.
Animal Collective closed out the night, making a God-awful racket of their unfocused, rambling electronic jams. On a stage full of flashing lights and papery backdrops, the individual members of the band — longtime friends and collaborators Avey Tare (David Porter), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), Deakin (Josh Dibb) and Geologist (Brian Weitz) — were lost as they cranked out a lot of music fans hadn't yet heard, since the band's last album was 2009's "Merriweather Post Pavilion" and they've since been working on film scores and other projects.
Industrial clanking, monotonous rhythms and lengthy, noodling transitions between songs made for a noisy, messy performance. Only a few moments came close to gelling — a frenetic calypso waltz early in the show with wild static noises sliding up and down the scale, and an easygoing "A Long Time Ago" — but most of the music was scattered. I know the Guggenheim has bestowed some overvalued art-rock cred on them, but while their drifting, shiftless sounds may constitute art it doesn't constitute a good time.
"Were you here for Panda Bear last year?" asked the woman next to me. Alas, yes I was. She joined me in rolling eyes. "My friend and I were rolling on the ground in the fetal position begging God to make it stop." Lather, rinse, repeat.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Battles interview and set
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 12:11 AM
A chat with the members of Battles (about two of the three's Chicago days) shortly after their Friday evening show:
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Somewhere between the knob twiddlers and the hardcore rockers is Battles, a New York trio (down from a quartet) whose members are not averse to describing their music as "math rock." Their cacophony was established so quickly and loudly that it interfered with the sometimes more delicate music of tUnE-yArDs clear across the park.
Mixing loops and ferocious live drumming from former Helmet basher John Stanier, Battles ably re-crated the tunes from their new and acclaimed "Gloss Drop"; that album employed various vocalists, none of whom were on stage Friday evening, though a few showed up on video screens. Sometimes the crushing beats reverberated across the park like the live/looped signal sent by the aliens in "Contact," with former Chicago guitarists Ian Williams and Dave Konopka working sometimes together, sometimes at cross-purposes on, under and around them.
There were moments the music was both punishing and pretty, a strange but exciting experience.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Guided by Voices and Neko Case
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 12:14 AM
Stubbornly prolific band Guided by Voices returned to Chicago for the fest, still going with its reunited "classic" '93-'96 lineup last seen here at the Riviera Theatre last October (the band's "final" show was New Year's Eve 2004 at Chicago's Metro). But the longer this rascally band trundles on, the more fun they get. Lead singer Robert Pollard is growing into his natural curmudgeoness, and Friday evening's set was 45 minutes of pure kicky, catchy rock.
Pollard took the stage with a confident "1, 2, 3, kick it!" and opened with "Echos Myron," joined by Neko Case singing harmony and shaking a tambourine. Clutching a tequila bottle ("He's probably pretty hammered," one fan noted mid-set) and dangling a cigarette, Pollard and his jittery leg led the band — with the rip-roaring twin-guitar attack of Tobin Sprout and Charles Mitchell — careening through an oldies but very good set. It was the kind of rock and roll that actually sounds bettered by the off-key, absurdist warblings and occasional feedback from the PA. Not much was going to slow these guys down.
Alt-country queen Case seemed in a relaxed, cozy mood Friday night, playing a set of mostly ballads and slow belters. You know, the stuff that best showcases That Voice — songs like "The Pharaohs" with its long, patient phrases about being "your blue, blue baby," or her tiger empathy in "People Got a Lot of Nerve." With accordion, banjo and frequent brushes on the drums, Case commanded a steady set and reminded Chicagoans how much we miss her being a resident.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Cold Cave on a hot day
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 4:42 PM
One thing I never thought I'd get at a Cold Cave show: a sunburn.
There was the New York darkwave trio, all pale and wrapped in black leather (pleather?), defiant in the fierce Saturday afternoon sun early on day two of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival. I would have welcomed an environmental catastrophe that would've blacked out the sun and plunged these moody bastards into the dark where they belong, but the contrast emboldened their presentation.
At heart, Cold Wave takes mid-'80s synth pop (New Order, OMD) and moves it forward — just beyond the reach of nostalgia. Their most successful tactic for doing so: scratching it up, getting it dirty, just around the edges. Nearly every song started with a wall of harsh sound — a piercing electronic whine, blaring white noise, glitchy static — from which would suddenly spring bouncy, flouncy keyboards, courtesy Dominick Fernow (Prurient from Madison, Wis.), and pounding beats. Before launching into "I've Seen the Future and It's No Place for Me," singer Wesley Eisold simply hissed into the microphone at length, satisfying a compulsion to begin every song with amelodic clatter of some sort. Like Cold Cave's album, "Cherish the Light Years," it was noise vs. melody, brashness vs. shyness, a singer using the word "outside" a lot when he probably didn't intend it so literally today.
Eisold hangs on the microphone and pouts (very Ian McCulloch), blurts out in his tuneless baritone (very Peter Murphy), sometimes pulling the neck of his T-shirt off his shoulder to show off his ink; during "Confetti," he pointed to a large "23" on his left shoulder. Meanwhile, Fernow could barely contain himself behind his decks, occasionally breaking free during a loop to dance about the stage with the most inspiring and embarrassing moves.
Pitchfork Music Festival: No Age, Off!
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 6:11 PM
Los Angeles drum-and-guitar duo No Age bashed out punkish songs on Saturday's Red Stage in a set that just got more chaotic as it went. Drummer Dean Spunt is also the duo's singer, and watching him flail at his kit and still try to keep his mouth on the mike is entertainment alone. Meanwhile, guitarist Randy Randall ping-ponged back and forth on the stage, nearly toppling over during oldie "Neck Escaper."
Throughout the No Age set, water — and water bottles (empty, the ones I saw, thank goodness) — flew everywhere, in impressive fountains shooting straight up from the crowd or in thrown spray. Later, at the Blue Stage, Keith Morris of the punk band Off! advised his similarly inclined crowd: "Don't throw stuff around! That's not cool. DRINK the water. Stay hydrated."
After an opening homily — in which Morris warned, in the understatement of the day, "We're gonna bring a different flavor to the party today" — Morris and his band, a supergroup offshoot of the Circle Jerks, bashed out a ferocious set of hardcore and speed metal. Rare was the song that passed the two-minute mark, propelled down the fast lane by riffy guitarist Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides) and bassist Steven Shane McDonald (Redd Kross). The particular flavor added by Morris was his occasional off-the-cuff homilies ("F—- people" from a guy who actually seems so nice ...) and unearthly caterwauling.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Dismemberment Plan, Twin Shadow
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 8:17 PM
I'm not sure I've ever seen Travis Morrison this giddy.
Always a self-satisfied performer — and a wicked-nerdy dancer — Morrison's shows at the helm of the still-reunited Dismemberment Plan are never stiff, but Saturday he seemed exceptionally loose and free-spirited. We last saw D-Plan in February at the Metro; the band ceased activity in 2003 but reunited late last year to tour in support of a classy vinyl reissue of their 1999 masterpiece "Emergency & I." The tour finished, this was the only remaining show on the band's books. It's last? Again?
Maybe that's why Morrison was riding high even as he squinted into the late-day sun. The band certainly sounded crisp — throughout this tour they've been sharper than ever, with bassist Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley strutting as one of rock's sharpest rhythm sections — and dished out more wordy, jerky faves, still heavy on the "Emergency & I" tracks. In the outdoor summer heat, they hilariously started into their most anthemic song, "The Ice of Boston," a tale of cold New Year's Eve loneliness that in concert traditionally finds Morrison inviting fans to join him on stage during the song. "No, you can't come up on stage," Morrison said Saturday, noting the impossibility of crowd access to the festival stage, "and, frankly, I'm relieved. I don't need the microphone in the teeth, as usual."
After a troubled and delayed sound check — a frequent occurrence all day today on the Blue Stage — Twin Shadow finally got under way, playing its lush, moody 1980s-inspired pop.
George Lewis Jr., the Domincan-born, Florida-raised, motorcycle-loving enigma leading this group, is a born crooner and plays guitar as if he learned it directly from Hall & Oates records. The '80s shtick laid on pretty heavily, though, and sometimes — unlike the records — leaned more toward hotel-lounge Spandau Ballet than anything justifying the band's acclaim thus far. Lewis announced that the band's fifth song, the title track to the new album, "Forget," would be their last, so perhaps the sound check delay robbed them of the momentum of a full set.
Pitchfork Music Festival: DJ Shadow, Fleet Foxes
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 11:02 PM
It's pretty funny watching a field full of people all staring at the same thing — nothing.
DJ Shadow, the highly influential mixmaster Josh Davis, performed his turntable set from inside a large white globe. On the Red Stage on Saturday evening sat the globe, with various psychedelic projections hitting its surface (not the full array he's given to other crowds in the dark, however), and inside — allegedly, at first — was Davis, knitting together his breakbeats and samples. The crowd cheered, and stared at the white globe. On a video screen to the east, cameras within the sphere showed Davis hard at work spinning his tables, toggling switches, cradling headphones to one ear and syncing up the next sound, beat or piece of music.
His mixes are exciting, no doubt — the thumping bass must have vibrated windows in Lakeview — pushing funk, rock, slow jams, jazz, ambient music, whatever works through the stacks. But the gimmick was a strange gambit in a penultimate slot before nearly 20,000 people. Midway through the show, the back hemisphere of the globe spins around, revealing an opening and showing Davis to the crowd for the rest of the set. (A good thing, too, otherwise you couldn't help but wonder if Davis wasn't lying on a beach in Brazil, sending just the globe, a reel-to-reel of the music and that synced video out on tour.) The fourth DJ Shadow record in 15 years, "The Less You Know, the Better," will be out this fall, and here's hoping we next see him indoors and in the dark.
The transition from DJ Shadow's club atmosphere to the sweet, earthy folk of Saturday night headliner Fleet Foxes was a radical shift, emblematic of the catholic tastes of Pitchfork fans ...
Fleet Foxes leader Robin Pecknold joked early in his band's set about playing the Pitchfork festival three years ago, saying it was "super fun" and they followed rapper Dizzee Rascal, who handed off the set by saying, "F—- that folk sh—!" Pecknold chuckled, then straightened up. "I hope he'll be making a return appearance, too," he said.
The fact that Fleet Foxes not only returned to Pitchfork this year but held down the Saturday night headliner slot — mightily successfully — says much about how they've come along as a band. When they played here in 2008, they were still linked musically and lyrically to the "Blue Ridge Mountains," but the follow-up — the dense and tightly woven "Helplessness Blues" — is more worldly, with a greater diversity (and proficiency) of instruments. That mass of music, as opposed to just a set of pretty harmonies, made for a rich and rewarding set that employed mostly acoustic instruments for repeated crescendos and thundering.
Those trademark harmonies were a lynchpin to the show, of course, but now the band frames them within each song — using them to open a song ("Drops in the River") or to spotlight a heartfelt moment in the middle (the breathtaking pause in "Bedouin Dress"). But even the signature vocal rounds of "White Winter Hymnal" gave away the band's newfound confidence as players — of acoustic guitars, mandolins, upright bass, some organ — as well as singers; the song on Saturday stepped out with a stride not heard before, a new eagerness to strum harder and chug faster and get where it was going — which was, of course, a similarly urgent "Ragged Wood." In "The Protector," they again started softly, carefully, with their traditional and subtly churchy singing, but by the time Pecknold sang, "You run with the devil," they'd clearly abandoned their hymnal for the excitement of that ragged wood. Hallelujah.
Want more Pitchfork fest? Fly to Paris this fall
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2011 7:00 AM
Lollapalooza expanded internationally this year, launching Lollapalooza Chile in April. Now Chicago's own Pitchfork Music Festival has announced it's also going abroad.
Pichfork Music Festival Paris will premiere Oct. 28 and 29 in that city's Parc de la Villette. The lineup thus far includes Bon Iver — who not only plays Oct. 29 but also selects the other bands on the bill — as well as Wild Beasts, Cut Copy, Kathleen Edwards and more.
Tickets are 79.90 Euros (roughly $115), available via digitick.com.
Pitchfork has previously collaborated on performances at Britain's All Tomorrow's Parties festival and the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona, Spain.
Pitchfork Music Festival: The heat is on
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2011 8:00 AM
Beginning Sunday, a mass of hot air arrives in Chicago — and we don't mean all the pundits debating the worth of Odd Future.
It's going to be hot, hot, hot — the start of possibly the biggest heat wave here since 2006. The National Weather Service calls the impending heat "massive."
The forecast highs on Sunday are in the mid- to low-90s, but with humidity the heat index will make it feel near or over 100 degrees.
The heat will be around all week, but right now we care about Sunday in Union Park (and other festivals around town).
At the Pitchfork Music Festival ...
— There is at least one CTA cooling bus on the grounds, parked at the end of Flatstock, and if needed, there will be an additional cooling bus at Ashland and Washington.
— The first 6,000 attendees through the gate each day will get a free bottle of water.
— On Saturday, the festival hooked up some free water fountains, the better for you to keep your water bottle filled. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
Another rock writer and festival veteran taught me a nifty trick for these things: a wet washcloth in a Ziploc bag. Add a little cool water here and there, wring it out, wipe your face, neck, arms. Or, as one of the Pitchfork publicists was doing Saturday, simply wear it on your head.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Odd Future
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2011 2:42 PM
For controversial rap group Odd Future, Sunday afternoon at the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival began with a little damage control.
Less than an hour before taking the stage in Chicago's Union Park, members of the group delivered boxes of cupcakes to the anti-violence organizations on site — the same organizations manning booths and handing out paper fans containing domestic violence resource information specifically to counter what they saw as dangerous expressions of hate, violence and homophobia in Odd Future's music.
"They took some of the fans, too," said Amanda Wapiennik with Family Shelter Service. "One of them said, 'See we're nice.' I said, 'We never said you weren't.' ... That's exactly the kind of dialogue and exchange we're looking for."
It was nice while it lasted.
Odd Future's set, at the height of Sunday's swelter, was rife with the usual foul language and appalling exhortations to violence and misogyny — lots of "smack you, bitch," "f—- the police," "f—-in' ho," happy tales of "punches to the stomach" and advice to "shoot that f—-in' nigga, aim for the head," and I lost count of the number of times someone shouted "f—-in' bitch!" — even while they gave lip service to opposing voices. Group leader and breakout solo star Tyler the Creator, his left leg in a cast for a broken foot, said, "A big shout out to the domestic violence groups out here." This came as the echo of the latest "f—-in' bitch!" died away and right before the next song, "I Got a Gun (You Better Run)."
Shock tactics simply are in the young group's DNA and their 15-song set was thick with the confrontation that's caused such a fuss all year around their mostly free online recordings and raucous live shows. Problem is, the shock and awe is all they brought. Odd Future knows how to engage a crowd with nasty talk, stage diving (even Tyler, in his cast) and the mystical bond between crowd and performer created by the middle finger, but musically the 45-minute set was a very average hip-hop show. (Big Boi, on this same stage and nearly same slot last year, brought so much more.)
Members Left Brain and Hodgy Beats opened the show, dishing up a song from their reissued MellowHype album "Blackendwhite." DJ Syd Tha Kid provided most of the beats and musical backing, thin as it usually was; Odd Future's recordings sound much more inventive. At times, five members were prancing back and forth at the lip of the stage or diving over it. The whole thing was like watching a "Chinese fire drill," but the often monotonous beats and hate speech was more like listening to Oi! (a punk subgenre) without guitars.
In the end, though, Odd Future wanted us to know, as they repeated over and over, that they don't care what you, me or anyone thinks of them. Before launching into "Pidgeons," with its refrain of "Kill people, burn sh—, f—- school," Tyler dedicated "this beautiful song to everyone who don't like me, every protestor ... everyone writing a faggot-ass review of this show." There was extra, unprintable advice for the latter, even though reviews like this one and other articles about the group's controversy are likely the chief reason Odd Future has seen a spike in sales. Even Hodgy Beats, a member of Odd Future and half of MellowHype, in our interview last week, admitted: "I'm honestly not mad at the media. They help sell records, I guess."
But of all the hot air, the most absurd thing the group shouted during that song may have been this: "I'm radical! I'm f—-in' radical!" There's really nothing radical about their potty mouths and juvenile gross-out humor. If anything, it's old.
If Odd Future's doing anything noteworthy, it's forcing another occasional re-evaluation of language. I've seen much high-minded discussion of how Odd Future is determined to soften if not break down the sharpness of certain language and how they cleverly define their particular audience with prescient knowledge of who will get the joke and who won't. I think this ascribes way too much forethought to teenage kids who are cranking out hip-hop with incredible speed and spontaneity, but that doesn't mean they're not achieving a result. If there's anything academic in Odd Future, it's the simple fact that they're a bellwether to a generation that's absorbed some slightly different cultural standards, mainly from video games (which sell nearly four times as much as music) — many of them violent and all of them, thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision, freely available to all ages — that does not necessarily see the same gravity in words or depictions of rape, murder and violence.
At the end of my chat with Hodgy Beats he said, "There's gays running around and sh—, but when you call someone a faggot people think you're talking about a gay person." It could be simply a matter for the linguists. Faggot used to mean a bundle of sticks, a meatball, and in today's slang it's still a common pejorative for a gay man. But what does it mean to the youth of Odd Future? By the time I asked for clarification as to how else he might define and employ the word "faggot," he'd hung up.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Yuck, How to Dress Well, Kurt Vile
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2011 10:48 PM
London quartet Yuck has been one of the biggest hypes this year — the lines to see each of several showcases last spring at SXSW were long and futile — and while they couldn't hope to live up to it, their '90s Shoegaze Fanclub shtick is growing on me.
Curly-haired Daniel Blumberg plays guitar and sings with a permanent crick in his neck, often stooped as he grinds out Lush swells on guitar. His longtime mate and fellow guitarist Max Bloom fills whatever spaces Blumberg doesn't — he added a great slide solo to "Suicide Policeman" — and the parts make for a pleasant whole. They were more laid back Sunday, swinging between the riffy fun of "The Wall" and a few songs so easygoing and with melodies so loping I half expected Jackson Browne to join them. In March I said "it should make for a harmless summer '90s revival," and voila.
How to Dress Well, aka Tom Krell, was the latest casualty Sunday afternoon of sound check delays at the Blue Stage. Leading the group as singer only, just a drummer/keyboardist and a string section (complete with conductor), Krell didn't quite gel. HTDW's music has lit up blogs based on its ephemeral nature, the ghostly ways he weaves his R&B-inflected vocals underneath subtle samples and gossamer synth sounds. At Pitchfork, the soft strings and simplistic drums weren't enough to support Krell's ambitious, quivering falsetto. His so-far signature tune "Ready for the World" came on too strong, and "Decisions" didn't make enough. "We're still working out the kinks," Krell said midway through.
Philadelphia singer-songwriter Kurt Vile — he of the shaggy long hair, like almost everyone in the band — returned to Pitchfork with a bigger, bolder sound. Vile was at this festival last year, when he was still getting the Nick Drake comparisons. Sunday's set, full of muscled guitar and songs about trains, strove for Springsteen, complete with a sax solo on "Freak Train."
Pitchfork Music Festival: Cut Copy, TV on the Radio, Deerhunter
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2011 11:21 PM
Cut Copy was the hit of the Pitchfork Music Festival's third night, delivering a set of its '80s-inspired dance-rock that had Union Park jammed and jumping.
They're just four clean-cut Australian blokes in nice shirts. But in the middle of "Saturdays," just as the sun was fading out a broiling afternoon, Dan Whitford called out a simple arena-rock, crowd-juicing trick — "On the count of three, I want you to go crazy! One, two, three, go!" — and craziness ensued. It is a beautiful, beautiful thing to watch a crowd of nearly 18,000 people jumping and waving hands in time, freaking the frack out, throwing inflatable things around and spraying water, with wide eyes and smiles from ear to ear.
The crowd was putty in Whitford's hand, a dynamic performer who makes up in audience engagement what he lacks in his pinched voice. Whitford commands the stage with a kind of authority that produces results; when he sings about something "in the sky" and points toward it, you look up.
Cut Copy is not a complicated band — this is basic pop with disco grooves and lyrics about reaching for the stars, holding onto your dream and trying to get you on the phone — and the crowd was full of fans, people who knew when to "ooh," when to "yeah!" and who cheered the songs they recognized just from the first synthesizer note. The band pulled from its whole catalog, including tracks from the latest album, "Zonoscope," and the new single "Blink and You'll Miss a Revolution" (a song from 2010, though it gained some note during the Arab Spring, so now it's a new single out July 25, packaged alongside a remix by fellow Pitchfork performer Toro Y Moi). When they started "Lights and Music," a propulsive tune with dissonant synths and the bassline from the Pretenders' "Mystery Achievement," the park went crazy without being told. Even Whitford was taken aback by the crowd's enthusiasm, blurting a "Wow!" when the song ceased.
As acts compete to fill the void left by LCD Soundsystem, the Oprah of indie dance-rock, Cut Copy might have a chance for a breakthrough.
Before Cut Copy was Deerhunter, Atlanta's wall of noise rock band. Deerhunter recently covered a band that gets to its root influences, fellow Georgians Pylon, and their Sunday set was an irresistible and daring mix of the same dance rhythms and guitar drone. The quartet opened with several minutes of guitar wash and cymbals before collapsing into "Desire Lines," a song of tightly controlled jangle, an evolving rhythm and several showcases for guitar scrapes within guitarscapes — towering leader Bradford Cox ringing one chord for what seemed like days, while guitarist Lockett Pundt worked up and down scales. Reverb drenched the instruments and the vocals, so eventually everything was ringing, ringing, ringing. The band let layers of sound pile up, and often left them there — buzzing on for several minutes, while the rhythm section kept it afloat, until the tension was almost too much. "Little Kids" crumbled into waves of feedback. "Nothing Ever Happened" snaked through its verses before stretching itself to the breaking point. Occasionally they dabbled in barroom stomps and slow, Red House Painters narcotics, but mostly it was walls and walls of sound.
After Cut Copy was Brooklyn's revived funky bunch, TV on the Radio. The band released the acclaimed "Nine Types of Light" on April 12, eight days before bassist Gerard Smith died of lung cancer. Sunday night they were just as eclectic as ever, mixing up Southern boogie, post-punk, electronica, blues and balladry, sometimes in the same song. Their headlining set seemed extra funky, at least at first, tripping explosives in "New Cannonball Blues" before going slow jam for a few tunes. "The Wrong Way," however, was a hot soul stomp utilizing the competitive vocals of both Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone to conjure the revelatory dream the song's poetry describes. Such a swampy mix of music: they're indie-rock's Little Feat.
Pitchfork and Odd Future: At least we talked about it
By Thomas Conner on July 20, 2011 4:32 PM
One of the first things you learn to do in journalism school is rewrite press releases, but when they come along as eloquently written as this one that arrived today — from Between Friends, the Chicago domestic violence preventative organization that was one among several advocacy groups at the Pitchfork Music Festival last weekend trying to counter the frequently hateful message in the lyrics of rap group Odd Future and their Sunday performance — I say run the thing verbatim.
It's a fine coda to an odd moment in a great festival ...
CREATING THE DIALOGUE FOR A SAFE FUTURE NOT AN ODD FUTURE
CHICAGO (7/20/11) — The odd choice of Pitchfork Music Festival organizers to include Odd Future, known for their misogynistic lyrics, provided the perfect platform for creating a dialogue that was heard around the world about violence against women and the LGBTQ community. Colleen Norton, Prevention & Education Manager at Between Friends, where we focus on building a community free from violence against women, enlisted the help of several other organizations - Rape Victim Advocates, the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, Center on Halsted, Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation and others, and created a successful campaign to raise awareness about how such violence is often glorified, minimized or ignored.
This campaign generated a huge response from the local, national and international community. One woman wrote: "I'm from Australia and I've been very concerned about Odd Future's lyrics and performances. Even if they're meant to be 'ironic or protesting in some way against all the toxic rubbish in the media, I absolutely oppose their approach...so I just wanted to send a message of support to you for your awareness-raising campaign at Pitchfork. If I was in Chicago that day I would definitely join you!" Back in Chicago, as we ran out of the 7,000 fans passed out to concertgoers. A young woman, who took one, came back after reading it and told us, "It really means a lot. Thank you for being here." More telling are the numbers of concertgoers that came to us after Odd Future's performance, voicing their discomfort with the lyrics and asking for the fans we used to decorate our booth!
Others completely missed the objective of the campaign by questioning the "lack of protest". Maybe we are watching too much reality TV to understand the art of generating real conversations that lead to a shared understanding? Media regarding Odd Future being booked at Pitchfork was indeed a catalyst for us to seek a presence at the festival. However, picketing Odd Future's performance would have been shortsighted and distracting from our real goals. Instead, our fans were in the hands of 7,000 supporters waving the message: Cool it! Don't be a fan of violence.
So what did we accomplish? We mobilized others to: 1) Think critically about how violence against women and the LGBTQ community is portrayed in their community through music, art, and the media,
2) Talk about ways to end such violence, and 3) Seek help from the resources provided. The conversation spread quickly with every online article, blog, picture, and comment posted engaging everyone in the dialogue both locally and around the world!
Between Friends and our partners thank the thousands of you who supported this campaign and helped us achieve our goals! Now we encourage you to continue the dialogue - wherever that takes you! Hear more online at our Facebook page - http://www.facebook.com/BetweenFriendsChicago.
About Between Friends
Between Friends is a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization dedicated to breaking the cycles of domestic violence throughout Chicagoland. Between Friends offers domestic violence survivors resources and support to help them rebuild their lives and move into safer and healthier situations. In addition, Between Friends addresses domestic violence as a community issue and offers extensive education and training programs for groups throughout the Chicago area to help prevent domestic violence before it begins. For more information visit www.betweenfriendschicago.org.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Chicago Sun-Times
The May 26 arrest of accused war criminal Ratko Mladic, after 16 years on the run, brought back memories for Bill Carter — none of them cheerful.
"Pure evil," Carter said, describing the infamous Serbian general now on trial, accused of genocide during the Yugoslav Wars. "It's a big deal for him to finally be captured. He killed a lot of people I knew."
For nearly four years, 1992-96, the longest siege of a modern capital. Serbian forces blockaded and bombed the capital city of Bosnia & Herzegovina, while nearly every day snipers fired at citizens. More than 10,000 were killed, many more wounded. Carter, an American writer and filmmaker, was living in Sarajevo at the outbreak of the war.
He related his experience in an acclaimed documentary, "Miss Sarajevo," and a book, Fools Rush In: A True Story of Love, War and Redemption. But while there, Carter tried to tell the world what was happening to Sarajevo. He knew we wouldn't necessarily listen to him, but he bluffed his way into a meeting with someone we were listening to, U2's singer, Bono — a desperate gamble that connected one of the world's biggest rock bands to one of the world's greatest humanitarian crises.
Within days, U2 was broadcasting live video of Sarajevo's plight during its 1993 "ZooTV" concerts in sold-out arenas throughout Europe. Bono then not only produced Carter's film, he wrote a song for it, "Miss Sarajevo," recorded with famed tenor Luciano Pavarotti — which U2 is now performing on tour for only the second time in North America, with footage from Carter's film.
On a couple of occasions, and as recently as a 2009 interview, Bono has cited "Miss Sarajevo" as his favorite U2 song. A few reviews of the current leg of the band's 360 Tour claim the song is a high point of the evening. But it's rooted in a low point of Carter's life.
• • •
Carter arrived in Sarajevo in 1993, part of the Serious Road Trip, a humanitarian organization delivering food to desperate Sarajevans. He himself learned what it's like to be hungry and addled by a war zone.
"I had a stash of chocolate baby food that I lived on for months," Carter recalled. "I lost 30 pounds, some hair and a tooth. The people in Sarajevo, you know, after years of constant bombings, snipers — they were completely stressed. Adrenaline is a very powerful drug in the body, and when shells are constantly going off around you, you get a high dose. You do that every day for years, and you had kids there who were 18 with gray hair."
Carter's film (which opens as he's dodging sniper bullets) depicts the constant terror as well as how Sarajevans coped with it, muddling through daily life and resorting to surrealism and defiant, dark humor. It culminates in the Miss Sarajevo pageant, which featured contestants in bathing suits posing for a photo and holding a banner that read, "Don't let them kill us."
Carter, like most Sarajevans, felt the world was ignoring the city's plight. (As U2 guitarist The Edge said in an August 1993 radio interview, "At that time, Sarajevo was not really on Page One of any of the international newspapers. It was like Page Seven, and you really had to go looking for it.") He sought a way to get the world's attention.
While working on film footage one summer day in '93 at the Sarajevo television station, a rare day with electricity, he saw U2 on TV being interviewed, describing their futuristic new tour.
"The answer from one of the band members," Carter writes in Fools Rush In, "was something like, 'A great deal of what's behind this tour is the idea of addressing the idea of a united Europe.' What Europe were they speaking of? Europe was ignoring their geographical ass down here in Bosnia."
U2's tour was coming to nearby Verona, Italy, in a few weeks. So Carter borrowed some letterhead from the president of Sarajevo TV and faxed the band an interview request, as if he actually worked for the network. He expected nothing, but weeks later a return fax came. Bono would love to chat before the show.
• • •
Carter escaped Sarajevo in a cargo plane to Verona, where he sat down with Bono for 20 minutes. The backstage interview footage is included on the DVD of his "Miss Sarajevo" film. "We don't seem to learn from history," Carter says.
"That's the subject of a lot of our songs," says Bono.
Hours later, Carter was in a villa with the band, teaching them the intricacies of the Serbian-Bosnian conflict and the human toll being exacted. With several days before the next U2 concert, Bono was ready to jump in the car with Carter and go to Sarajevo, see for himself, maybe play an impromptu gig. Carter dissuaded him — any large gathering of people in Sarajevo was an easy target for Serb missile batteries.
But the band wanted to do something, and a relationship was established that resulted in an idea.
"I think it worked because I didn't ask anything for me," Carter said. "I told Bono, 'Don't give me money. That's not gonna do s---. We have to reach peoples consciousness. That's our only hope, or were just spinning our wheels.' That appeals to U2. So I was like, the biggest band in the world wants to come to Sarajevo, what do I do? What if we could take Sarajevo to them instead? What if we could link to their concerts by satellite and just tell people what was going on?"
On July 17, 1993, that's what happened. In an experiment fraught with challenges technical (Sarajevo's electricity was unreliable), logistical (for Carter to get to the TV station in Sarajevo meant darting through Snipers Alley) and faithful ("I was just some crazy f---ing longhair kid who they met one night and was slightly nuts, probably — what if I went on the first broadcast and pulled my pants down?" he mused), Carter and two friends stood in front of a camera in Sarajevo and appeared on a giant screen at U2's concert in Bologna.
They talked about the refugees under attack, the need for water and food, and Carter told a story about a friend hit by a grenade. For 10 concerts over the next month, the last one in London's Wembley Stadium to 100,000 people, they did the same thing broadcasting the news from Sarajevo in the middle of a U2 concert.
"Artistically, it was awkward," The Edge later confessed. "We knew it was a risk in the sense that putting something that potent and that shocking in the middle of a rock and roll show, which is ultimately about having a good time and seeing a band play a few songs, could completely scuttle the show. On some nights, it almost did. But what we also, I suppose, hoped to achieve from it was maybe to generate a little bit more media coverage of what was going on there. And, of course, now events have overtaken us and Sarajevo is right on the front page again."
• • •
After the war, U2 made it to Sarajevo, at last, playing a concert in 1997 attended by members of the various factions who'd been shooting at each other a few years earlier. Bono called the concert "one of the toughest and one of the sweetest nights of my life." Carter thinks it was the most important concert they ever played, that and Belfast.
The whole experience was certainly important for Carter. If it hadn't happened, if he hadn't gotten in front of Bono, it would have been bad: "That summer of '93 was the worst. The war and the heat and there was no water. I was watching people die. It would have ended badly for me."
Now the song "Miss Sarajevo" reappears on U2s tour, which in April became the most successful tour of all time. Ticket sales for the 2009-11 jaunt are expected to surpass $700 million, besting the previous record held by the Rolling Stones' Bigger Bang Tour, 2005-07, which grossed $554 million. (Tuesday's show, rescheduled from its original date of July 6, 2010, was one of several postponed last year after Bono suffered a back injury.) The performance now features footage from Carter's film, which he was able to finish in U2's Dublin studios.
"I'm not sure why they chose the song now," Carter said. "They pick songs extremely carefully. It's a unique song in their repertoire. It doesn't sound like anything else they do. But it also has some resonance again. With the footage, people are asking questions again. What is that about? Whatever happened in Bosnia? If they ask, they get answers, and they learn, and maybe it helps in some weird way for something like this never to happen again."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Neil Finn, the leader of Crowded House, has a new music project inspired by his empty house.
"The kids have left home, and we've got a bit more time on our hands," Finn told the Sun-Times this week. "This is the kind of thing you do when you're rattling around the place."
Finn's speaking of his wife, Sharon, with whom he's formed a new band, Pajama Club — so named because the songs grew out of late-night jams the couple had while drinking wine in their PJs. Their son, Liam Finn, 27, now has an acclaimed career of his own.
Pajama Club is the latest outing for Finn, whose lengthy career began in the late '70s with down-under pop band Split Enz and was followed by his own trio, Crowded House ("Don't Dream It's Over," "Something So Strong"), a solo career and occasional albums with his brother, Tim Finn, as the Finn Bros. After the death of drummer Paul Hester in 2005, Crowded House reunited and has since recorded two more albums ("Intriguer," the latest).
For Pajama Club, the Finns are joined on stage by New Zealand indie-rocker Sean Donnelly — who had a broad hand in "updating" the PJ Club songs, Finn said — and drummer Alana Skyring. The group's self-titled debut album is due Sept. 13.
Finn spoke with us about the new project — and his many others ...
Q. I understand this started late at night at home, but you're also playing different instruments.
A. That's right. I played drums and Sharon played bass, instruments on which we've no skills. All the songs came from these bass-and-drums grooves. I've never written like that before, and it sounded to my ears quite fresh. To find new angles at this point is a joy. It's really fun to play, and we came up with stuff I wouldn't normally come up with.
Q. Are you playing drums on stage?
A. I play some guitars on stage, and drums for one song.
Q. Of all new instruments, why drums?
A. Every singer fancies himself a drummer. I thought I was totally challenged in that department until one night at [Los Angeles nightclub] Largo with Jon Brion I ended up on the drum kit for an extended period. I held it down rather well until "All You Need Is Love," and those bars of five completely stuffed me up. But that was the incentive. I can't do anything flash, but I can hold down a feel.
Q. How much have you thought about Paul as you play the drums?
A. Not much overtly, though it's reminded me what a great drummer he was. The way he played his high hat and the feel he got is very important to the way I play guitar. I'm attempting to provide the same feel, but it's not easy to find. There's something in the way he swung that matches exactly with the way I play acoustic guitar. I've got that same swing in my head because my body is genetically programmed to him now.
Q. The Pajama Club songs are ... I want to say dark, at least for you. Is that accurate?
A. It's got a jammy, dark atmosphere to it, sure. Some songs on the album are a little darker, a little more open-ended than you might be used to from me. There are psychedelic touches, if I may be so bold. But there's also a lot of simple, groove-oriented stuff. It's quite eclectic in the true sense of the word.
Q. You're finally working out your love of [early-'80s dance band] ESG, I guess?
A. That was one of the initial inspirations, yes — those first dabblings with ESG, early-'80s bass grooves, wit that chanty stuff on top. We were attempting an homage to that concept, though it's more songy, for obvious reasons.
Q. What's the status of Crowded House?
A. We've got songs circling there, too. I was in the studio with them earlier in the year. Hopefully something will emerge next year.
Q. Anything with Tim?
A. Not currently, but we've been talking, trying to will it back into being.
Q. Will you work directly with Liam?
A. We've shared the stage on occasions, and we've talked about and will do some recording together. It's almost overdue now. He's doing his own thing, which is right and proper. I think we've got an album in us, too, he and I. They're backing up, all these projects.
Q. It's not easy to keep track of you.
A. I'm naturally restless. It's possibly confusing for the general public.
8 p.m. July 1
Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee
Tickets: $20-$22, ticketfly.com
By Thomas Conner
© Obit magazine
In a March episode of NBC’s hit comedy “30 Rock,” writer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) panics because she has no “plan B” for her career and thus nothing to fall back on during an unforeseen professional hiatus. She stumbles through dark backstreets as she’s taunted by the voices of “people whose professions are no loner a thing” — such as travel agents, American autoworkers, the CEO of Friendster and a man who “played dynamite saxophone solos in rock and roll songs.”
This wasn’t the first winking obituary for the rock sax solo, but this week’s news might be the last. Sax player Clarence Clemons died Saturday from complications he suffered from a June 12 stroke. He was 69.
Clemons was a founding member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band — a pillar, given the way Springsteen leaned on him, both literally (the Boss supports himself on the Big Man in the iconic photograph on the “Born to Run” LP gatefold) and figuratively (utilizing Clemons’ impassioned sax solos to intensify his lyrical themes) — and, for at least one generation, Clemons was the epitome of the hooked horn’s particular power in a musical genre for which it was not designed.
A creation of the Romantic era (invented in 1846 by Belgian clarinetist Adolphe Sax), the saxophone evolved to become a signifier of romance. The bent woodwind never took hold in orchestral music but found solid purchase in military bands, where its portability and honking volume were valued. Marching bands, concert bands, big bands, jazz — its migration was natural and swift. By the 1950s, as rhythm-and-blues evolved into even more guttural rock ’n’ roll, musicians like Louis Jordan and King Curtis finessed this suitably throaty instrument into the robust soul that would define the rest of the century.
With its roots in rock’s genesis — Ike Turner’s 1951 hit “Rocket 88,” possibly the first rock single, was credited to Jackie Brenston, the band’s singer and one of the song’s two sax players — by the 1970s and ’80s the saxophone was often employed to evoke that era’s rose-tinted innocence and authenticity. When a third-generation rocker wanted to trace his New Wave stead to some age-old cred, he plugged in a sax solo — from David Bowie reinventing himself (again) by lamenting “all Papa’s heroes” in “Young Americans” and Billy Joel linking his contemporary tastes to the classics in “It’s Still Rock ’n Roll to Me” to INXS’s horn-y claims on American soul (“What You Need,” etc.) and the popcorn purity of the movie “Eddie and the Cruisers” (with John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band providing “On the Dark Side” and the rest of the Springsteen-parody soundtrack).
Within that cocoon of Eisenhower-level security, the more relaxed sax solo became an emblem of true heart and romance. (How do you imply that insipid bad-boy Rob Lowe has a heart of gold in the movie “St. Elmo’s Fire”? By making his rawest expression of his passion be through an extended sax solo with his bar band.) Among wind instruments, its reedy timbre sounds the most like a human voice, finishing lyrical thoughts by saying things a human just can’t say. But several Foreigners (“Urgent”), Quarterflashes (“Harden My Heart”) and Spandau Ballets (“True”) later, the cliché became a caricature, and Liz Lemon’s fears became inevitable.
But at the heart of that golden — or brassy — age was the hulking sideman who best encapsulated the instrument’s classicism, passion and romance, sometimes in a single sustained note. Clemons played tenor sax with studied passion much more than technical skill. This wasn’t jazz, this was rock. It was all about feeling — and reaction.
“There’s a lot of pride Bruce took in watching the response that Clarence would get from the audience with his solos,” Alto Reed, sax player for Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band, told the Chicago Sun-Times this week. “The songs would come to life with the first note of a sax line. He was brilliant. His tone was not your typical, classic horn-section sound. It was growly, gassy. You could feel the energy coming out of his sax. Big Man, big sax, big sound.”
Clemons turned in many memorable sax solos for Springsteen songs — “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road,” “Badlands,” I usually throw in his huffing on “I’m Goin’ Down” — but few argue over which was his greatest accomplishment: “Jungleland.”
The ultimate whisper to a scream, “Jungleland” is an epic from Springsteen’s 1975 breakthrough album, “Born to Run.” Springsteen relates the tragic story of the Magic Rat and his star-crossed affair with the “barefoot girl” amid a scene of urban angst and frustration this side of the Jersey state line. It’s “a holy night” filled with people who are “hustling,” “hungry” and “hunted,” and just as the most “desperate” are ready to split (“Just one look / and a whisper / and they’re gone”) the song slams on the brakes, stops chugging forward and — announced by an arresting, almost dissonant long note, like a siren in the band’s rear view — becomes a detour down Clemons’ own backstreets of American imagery and sound.
It’s a song within a song, two-and-a-half minutes within the nearly 10-minute anthem and a necessary non-verbal underscore of the hopeless scene Springsteen has been setting up. Clemons’ sustained warning wails a while longer, defiant against the cascade of cymbals and piano chords behind him, before beginning its eulogy for the Eden that sometime, somehow turned into Jungleland. Twice, three times he returns to the major chord, the hopeful tone, voicing the Rat’s own hubris and bringing the song’s pent-up rage to a rolling boil. In the end, though, Clemons and his narrative collapse whimpering and spent as the piano takes over. Springsteen returns to wrap up the story, and it’s even worse than we expected for the Rat and his girl: “They wind up wounded / not even dead.” But we already knew that. Bruce’s jittery homily left the options open, but Clarence’s rock-steady solo confirmed the despair to come.
“That’s the flip side of rock and roll,” wrote Bob Lefsetz, music industry observer and publisher of the Lefsetz Letter, of the “Jungleland” solo this week. “The exuberance — and then the solitary feeling that you’re Wall-E, alone in a city without heart, without hope.”
Clemons often relayed the story of working on his “Jungleland” composition for 16 straight hours. Today, his results are not only loved, they are liked: There’s a dedicated Facebook page called “Clarence Clemons’ Sax Solo in Jungleland.”
In a surprise twist, Clemons re-emerged this spring and seemed ready to bestow validation on the rock and roll sax solo with the help of an unexpected admirer: None other than Lady Gaga tapped the E Streeter for saxophone parts on three tracks for her third outing, “Born This Way,” one of the most anticipated and talked-about albums of the year. In the video to Gaga’s latest single, “Edge of Glory,” Clemons sits on a building stoop while Gaga dances in the street and on the fire escape. He hardly moves, except to finger the valves of his horn. Gaga has said the song is rooted in her own experiences witnessing her grandfather’s final moments before death; the week the video debuted her young fans were making their own “get well soon” video for Clemons after the stroke.
What was he doing there, with Lady Gaga of all people? He was doing what he always did: Adding gravitas and a much-needed counterweight to an outsized personality and the frenetic music s/he produced. In the “Edge of Glory” video, Clemons is the only other person in the scene — the only figure with whom Lady Gaga deigned to share the spotlight, just like Springsteen. His music and instrument were as key to that role as his size and personality, and let’s hope rock never forgets his lesson.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
When you've shot your mouth off and claimed that your band is the best in the world, what do you say when that band dissolves and you form a new one?
"We're the second-best band in the world."
So says Liam Gallagher, singer from '90s Britpop leaders Oasis and now leader of Beady Eye.
After 18 years of quarrels while Oasis tried to make good on that boast — two Guinness World Records for their chart and sales success in the UK but only two No. 1's in America (for the songs "Wonderwall" in 1995 and "Champagne Supernova" in '96) — in 2009 Noel Gallagher, Liam's brother and the band's chief songwriter, stormed out after a backstage fight. The Gallagher brothers fought all the time, but two hours later Noel posted a statement online saying he'd quit the band and "simply could not go on working with Liam a day longer."
Liam, though, intended to go on working, and so did the rest of the existing lineup of Oasis: Andy Bell (formerly with Ride), Gem Archer and Chris Sharrock. They initially said they'd continue as Oasis but later adopted the new name, Beady Eye.
A new sound, too? Sort of. Beady Eye's debut record, "Different Gear, Still Speeding," released in February, is the same mash-up of Beatles, Stones, Kinks and some more Beatles. The difference is in its tone — lighter, breezier, sunnier, free from all that heavy expectation and Very Big Importance that so often weighed down Oasis records.
"That was Noel. He's very important, don't you know?" Liam told the Sun-Times, and he chuckled. "I'm only half joking."
The Noel-free band, Beady Eye, is booked solid throughout Europe this summer, but they're swinging through North America for only four shows this month in Chicago, then Toronto, New York and Philadelphia. Before they played last weekend's Isle of Wight Festival in southern England, Liam Gallagher and Archer talked to the Sun-Times about the new songs, making music without Noel and how life goes on.
Q: You're playing just four dates in North America this month. Why?
Liam Gallagher: We're just going to test the waters and see if you guys are up for it. No point in going over and slunking it if you're not into it. Things are selling out. We're going to get on stage and do what we do. Hopefully, that's enough.
Gem Archer: We're a brand new band with a brand new set. We can't book an 18-month tour yet.
LG: We've done all that with Oasis. We're not 20 years of age. We're not desperate to crack it, you know?
Q: So how is what you're doing that different from Oasis?
LG: I don't think we're trying to be different than anything. We're staying true to what we do. We're making music we like. There's no big gimmick around it.
GA: We love melody, and we're just giving something out. It's not going to change people's lives. It's rock and roll, isn't it?
LG: We're not trendy. I hope we're not. Our style of music will always be played. It might remind people of the '60s ...
GA: And '70s.
LG: ... and, you know, we're certainly not trying to reinvent the wheel. The wheels' good.
Q: You feel like that now, but did you feel like that when Noel left Oasis?
GA: It's funny, man. When the band split, we knew we weren't finished with music, but we didn't have a great master plan or an agenda or anything. We knew we wanted to keep going. We wanted to keep making music.
Q: The debut album is so breezy and easygoing. Would it sound like that if it were an Oasis album?
LG: If Noel hadn't left, we'd probably be trying to do this with him — and not having any f—-ing luck. But it's not some new experiment. You can only go so far with a f—-ing experiment before you go, "That's not f—-ing us anymore." Anyone can record a tea bag being squeezed out of a monkey's ass, but it's stupid. We like guitar, bass, drums and piano. It's what we do.
Q: You clearly still love the Beatles.
LG: Everybody goes on about that, saying, "That's all they do is that f—-ing Beatles thing." We all love Lennon and George. They're the best band in the world. I'm not going to stop listening to my favorite band in the world just because some f—-ing pervert doesn't get it.
GA: Take the song "Bring the Light." It sounded a different way when we demoed it. Liam said, "It's not quite there." We tried bringing it back toward a Beatles thing, and then Liam wanted to go a little Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and we said, "Imagine if the [Sex] Pistols had a piano player."
Q: What's missing from the formula without Noel?
LG: He made a lovely cup of tea. [Laughs] No, I mean, Noel's a great songwriter, but so's Gem and Andy, and I'm getting there. Andy's better than Noel on guitar. People have this f—-ing bee in their bonnet because Noel's not there. We're not lacking anything. We've got great songwriters in the band. I'm not going to paint on big eyebrows to make people happy.
GA: It doesn't feel like a wonky table.
Q: What was the backstage fight actually about?
LG: You'd have to ask him. I might have had a couple of beers and things were coming to the surface, but that's f—-ing life. Noel wanted to be a solo star. I think he honestly had enough of Oasis and wasn't getting his own way and wanted to do his own thing. He wanted to sing all his own songs and take all the glory. Let him go do it. The rest of us weren't enjoying the creative process. ... That's sh—. If you're not doing that, you might as well go work at McDonald's. I'm sure he'll be f—-ing great, but there's a lot f—-ing more lacking in a Noel Gallagher gig, a lot more missing in his stuff than in ours.
Q: So you're not going to his wedding [on June 18 to Sara MacDonald]?
LG: No, I'm busy playing gigs in Chicago.
GA: This schedule's been in for a while.
LG: He goes on about how he wasn't invited to my wedding. No one was at my wedding but Nic's [wife Nicole Appleton] mum and my mum. Get over it, mate. I've not been invited to his wedding. I'll be in Chicago. I'll come cry about it to Oprah. [Muttering in background] What's this sh— about Oprah retiring? She needs to stay on it. She needs the [vitamin] B12.
Q: You're already at work on a second record?
LG: We're definitely doing a second record when the tour ends. We'll get it out next year. We like putting out songs in the summer. We're not going to rush it, but we're not going to dick about with it. The tunes we've got so far are absolutely big.
GA: It's really getting us off. We did this [first] record out of sheer adrenaline, rehearsed it like a brand new band. There was no concept behind it except, "See you at the end of the tune." The next one will have a sense of ourselves, some breathing space.
Q: So if Oasis was the best band in the world, what's Beady Eye?
LG: We're the second-best band in the world.
GA: It's not arrogance. I just don't get why people would be in anything or a band if they don't think it's the best.
LG: Oasis was the best band in the world till Beady Eye. We'll take it over. Noel can't do it by himself. It's a lock for us.
with the Dig
• 8:30 p.m. June 18
• Metro, 3730 N. Clark
• Sold out
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Bob Mould has always avoided living in the past — except for the last two and a half years.
During that time, he's been writing an autobiography, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody (with Michael Azerrad, Little, Brown, $24.99), which publishes June 15. It tells the story of a punk rock pioneer consistently dodging his own past. He plays in bands — the bracing fury of Husker Du (1980-88), the ear-splitting pop of Sugar (1992-95) — then avoids reunions like a plague. He practically chucked rock altogether, shocking hard-core fans by reinventing himself in the new century as a DJ and electronic music maker. He lives in cities and then flees, never to return. He quits alcohol, quits smoking, no relapses. The man moves forward.
See a Little Light tells of Mould's struggles with homosexuality, personal relationships and various addictions, but this is not just another titillating rock 'n' roll memoir. There are good anecdotes, for sure — Mould almost got the job producing Nirvana's "Nevermind," and his friendly rivalry with the Replacements' Paul Westerberg actually resulted in some demos together (which were stolen from a van, but "don't worry, the stuff wasn't very good") — and makes certain we understand that we shouldn't expect a Husker Du reunion. It's a clear, plain account of one troubled musician's life, with a lively and happy present-day ending.
"I think longtime fans will be shocked but not really surprised by some of this stuff," Mould said this week from his home in San Francisco. "The plain storytelling is what they're used to from me. I didn't try to make it something it isn't. ... It's definitely my voice."
Mould will be in Chicago twice in the next three weeks, performing shows that illustrate the two sides of his personality and career. He spoke with the Sun-Times about the shows, the book and where music intersects with — or divides — a life ...
Question: In the book, you refer to Chicago as "a key city for me," with some fun tales about shows at the Riviera and Aragon. Why has Chicago been important?
Bob Mould: Strictly by numbers, Chicago is my biggest market. I do my best business there, whether it's selling records or tickets or the amount of airplay or media coverage. It's my biggest town. I always emphasize to whoever I'm working with that Chicago has to get special treatment.
Q: Why do you think we like you so much?
BM: I don't know, I've just always connected there. Joe Shanahan [owner of Metro] has been a key part of that over the years, and Norm [Winer, music programmer] at WXRT. ... It must just be the ethic of Chicago. It's a hard-working, no-nonsense town.
Q: Yet in all the different cities you've lived in — Minneapolis, New York, Austin, D.C., San Francisco — you've never landed here?
BM: That aaaaaalmost happened in '02. It was the winter, though. I've lived in the Adirondacks and Minneapolis and had about 30 years of hard winters. But my partner and I at the time said, "Do we really want to do this winter thing?"
Q: Your show this weekend is another Blowoff party. How have those volved over the years?
BM: It's myself and Rich Morel, both singer-songwriter musicians, producers, whatever. We started this party in 2003. The idea was to meet people. I'd just moved to Washington, D.C., and I wanted to meet people. We had a shared love of disco and electronic music, and we just started these DJ nights that, over eight years, have morphed into this big seasonal dance event that we take around the country.
Q: You were somewhat new to electronic and dance music when this started, right?
BM: Going back to my punk rock days, I had no time for disco and little time for '80s electronic music, which now I know is a shame because there was so much great stuff I was missing at the time. I had to go back and re-educate myself.
Q: The solo show next month will feature you playing songs and reading from the book, is that right?
BM: Yes. [Laughs] I don't know how I'm going to do that. I'm waiting for a call back from Ray Davies to see how he did it. [Laughs]
Q: Now that you have the book in your hand, how do you feel about it and the process of writing it?
BM: I'm very proud of it. It's been a lot of work. ... It's not at all what I thought it would be.
Q: What do you mean?
BM: Well, the obvious route would have been: Here's a cursory look at my childhood and some things I liked as a kid, and then, oh, I was in this band and then another band, and all these wonderful things happened. Everyone who picks this up is going to know that story already. It was clear to me that my job was to let people really know who I am, to take ownership of my life, the good and bad.
Q: This comes out just a few months after Andrew Earles' Husker Du biography (Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock). Bandmates Grant Hart and Greg Norton are interviewed in that book, but not you. Is that because this book was under way?
BM: Yes. I haven't read that book.
Q: You've written before. Why not write this memoir on your own? How did Azerrad help shape the story?
BM: Where he gets credit is, as an outsider, getting me to shed the stories that had no bearing on the greater story. And also, things that I'd drop as an aside, he'd be like, "Wait a minute!"
Q: The book has a different tone in the grumpy first half (when your homosexuality was an open secret) than the cheery second (when you were completely out). I'm intrigued by why you felt it so necessary to "bid a farewell to rock" in order to fully pursue a life as a gay man.
BM: I wanted to reinvent myself as a person. For whatever reasons at the time, it was not possible to be fully myself being constantly beholden to my rock 'n' roll career. I needed to step off that. I was basically planning my gay identity in '97-'98, starting to brush up on and then immerse myself in the gay life. I'd never allowed myself that, never had it. The more I sat in the van, the less I was going to have it. I just needed to spend time around other gay people and basically learn how to be one, which I wasn't getting in punk rock. The two were not going to co-exist. Now I know better, but at the time I thought I really needed to let go of this.
Q: How did the transition from rock to electronic music facilitate this?
BM: Electronic music was the soundtrack of that life. The coffee shops, restaurants, gyms where I was spending time were all playing this music. Instead of going to a rock bar every night of my life and hearing rock all the time, I was in environments hearing keyboards and processed vocals and divas. Once it was in my head — I'm a musician, I wanted to learn how people made that music. It took a number of years to get it. It's not as intuitive as pop music.
Q: What will your next music be?
BM: I'm still figuring that out. I stopped writing music when I started writing the book. So I'm just getting back to it.
with Bob Mould and Rich Morel
♦ 11 p.m. May 28
♦ Metro, 3730 N. Clark
♦ $16, (800) 514-ETIX, metrochicago.com
An evening of reading and music
♦ 8 p.m. June 16
♦ Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport
♦ $25, (773) 325-1700, mercurytheaterchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The last time I spoke with Ian McCulloch, leader of Echo & the Bunnymen, he was typically humble. "I've got the best voice in the history of time," he said. "That's how people know my music is real, that I'm not lying to them. I'm not singing for the sake of it. I've got one of those voices that tells you it's the truth."
Echo & the Bunnymen features his dark, brooding and now a bit croaky Jim Morrison-ish voice plus the often wild and tortured sounds Will Sergeant wrings out of guitars.
The two modern-rock collaborators regrouped in 1994 after a sizzling spat and now have been together longer than the first go-round from '78 to '88. Now they return this week with one of those album concerts — playing the entirety of their first two, "Crocodiles" (1980) and "Heaven Up Here" (1981).
During this chat from his home in Liverpool, McCulloch was just as modest and more reflective ...
Q. We spoke last year when you were touring "The Fountain," which you said was the best record you and Will had made since "Ocean Rain." Does that opinion still stand?
A. "What Are You Going to Do With Your Life?" (1999) is also up there as a great Bunnymen-sounding record. That isn't to discount "Siberia" (2005). "Flowers" (2000) is not me favorite.
Q. What makes "a great Bunnymen-sounding record"?
A. The ingredients that made "Crocodiles," "Porcupine," "Ocean Rain." The lyrics and melody and sound of this band, combined. Time helps. Time can give you that insight into what you're about. Doing these "Crocodiles" shows we see, ah, these songs really are as good as we thought and a lot of people thought. The gigs are a master class in rock 'n' roll.
Q. They must be long, too.
A. 30 songs. We're approaching Springsteen territory.
Q. Time has improved the songs, you say, but how has it changed them?
A. Well, it doesn't seem that long ago. It's mad to think that between whatever demos John Lennon did in 1960 to 1970, this is three times that amount of time. Some of these songs — it's the first time we've played them since we played with the drum machine. They sound like we've just written them. We tried not to make records with clichéd sounds of the time. Synthesizers sound horrible.
Q. So why start at the beginning with these two albums?
A. We thought of this before we did the "Ocean Rain" shows [in Britain]. Some of it was to throw down the gauntlet and say, "Which of the bands out there could play their first two records and they'd still ring true?" ... We'll have to wait 20 years to do "Siberia" and "The Fountain" when people realize how great they are.
Q. So what are you getting out of this experience?
A. An extensive "I told you so," as much as anything. Of course, we're preaching to the converted.
Q. Do you find that you're carrying yourself in some way that is different?
A. They're very intense gigs. There's not a lot of "Howdy, folks." It reminds me how I used to be on stage — that important thing of attitude.
Q. Will you tour other albums?
A. Maybe. We could do "Porcupine." Tough one, that. The best way to do that one is with headphones on loud and very much in the dark.
Q. What about the final, self-titled album? It always gets a bad rap.
A. I'm pleased that it looks like it at least got out there a bit, but a lot of it I couldn't listen to. In some ways, it's the one type of Bunnymen with "The Game," but in others, with "Lips Like Sugar," there are so many songs that don't feel like us. A lot of people bought it and loved it. I have mixed feelings. Obviously, it's the one that made me think we should call it a day.
Q. When you write new songs, do you try to reach back to whatever well you drew these early ones from?
A. Whatever inspiration for "The Killing Moon" is also there on "The Fountain" in "The Idolness of Gods." If anything, I've gotten much better. I'm still trying to find that best-ever song. People say "The Killing Moon" is the best we song we've written. Nothing lasts forever, and as important as that song is to us, I try to always think of that next song that strips another veil away. It doesn't weigh on me mind. Every day I've got a head full of tunes.
ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN
performing "Crocodiles" and "Heaven Up Here"
with Kelley Stoltz
• 7:30 p.m. May 17
• Vic Theatre, 3159 N. Sheffield
• Tickets: $30, (800) 514-ETIX, jamusa.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago's suburbs are lousy with angry young pop-punk bands, but few maintain the tight musicianship and walk-it-like-you-talk-it ideals that eventually make them stars.
Rise Against has both, and it's put them on top. They've made albums shouting down the Bush administration and the wars in the Middle East, and they've supported veganism and straight-edge living. Meanwhile, those albums keep climbing the charts — "Siren Song of the Counter Culture" (2004) cracked the Billboard 200, "The Sufferer and the Witness" (2006) made the top 10, then "Appeal to Reason" (2008) reached No. 3 and the new album, "Endgame," debuted at No. 2 early this year.
They've become so big that this weekend their heroes — Bad Religion, a veteran punk band that was formed in 1979, the year Rise Against leader Tim McIlrath was born — are their opening act.
"I know, right?" McIlrath says, amazed. "It gives me goosebumps just to hear you say it."
"We opened for them five years ago, at the Riviera, and we've been friends ever since. At some point, those guys said, 'Hey, we should go on tour sometime.' They were the first ones to say, 'You're getting pretty big. We'll go out with you.' They're the band we put on a pedestal. We never considered them as support. It speaks to our respect of them and how much we want to introduce our young fans to them. There's not much out there currently that we have an affinity toward, so this is perfect."
We caught up with McIlrath to chat about his band's success, its fierce social messages and how those translated to a crowd of protesters on the steps of the Wisconsin state capitol in February.
Question: You just got back from a tour in South America. How does your music go down there? I would think your message is popular, but I don't hear about too much South American punk ...
Tim McIlrath: Those parts of the world are hard to figure out. They're way more into dance music than rock. A guy like me screaming into the microphone is a minority. The dance music scene there is massive. But, yeah, progressive things and social justice in that environment are way more common. The right wing party in Brazil is treated with the same attention level as the Green party here. The only question in their politics is how left wing you are.
Q: You recently joined Tom Morello in Madison to sing for the protests against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's bill against collective bargaining for unions. How'd that happen?
TM: I was in Denver when that started happening. I got a call from Morello and flew back home. I went from O'Hare right to Madison. It was incredible, and it was right in my own backyard, this attack not just on the people of Wisconsin but on the Midwest ideology or the working class. ... I was grateful for the opportunity to play for them. As someone from Chicago, I don't find myself arm-in-arm with people in Packers jackets very often.
Q: Have you much experience as a protest singer — at an actual protest?
TM: No, I've gone to protests but have never played before. I said yes before I thought about it. I kind of leaped before I looked. We've got six records, I can figure something out. Then I get there on the capitol steps, it's freezing, with my guitar in hand. My friends are doing all these union songs I'd never heard before. I look at the crowd, and this is not a Rise Against show. There are not a bunch of kids waiting for me to play. There are people from all walks of life, and they need inspiration. I had to energize this crowd. I felt like some of the songs I could have played wouldn't translate. I started to rethink my strategy. I need something that would bridge the gap between me and this audience. The two songs I thought of were "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills & Nash and "Who'll Stop the Rain?" by CCR. As I played that one, it started to rain a little.
Q: You've been playing "Ohio" in concert. Why that particular protest song?
TM: I read about its inception. Neil Young rushed in with it, said, "Here, it's tracked," and got it out. He said, "This song needs to be out right now." In the recording, you can hear it. It's not complicated. In the few words he says, he gets his point across. ... It's a song about a governor who goes too far. I didn't want it to be irrelevant to what was happening in Wisconsin, and I didn't want to somehow compare [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker to people being shot and killed, but I thought maybe it would express that this kind of thing has happened in the past and people have fought it in the past — that we can fight and win.
Q: The new Rise Against album, "Endgame," is apocalyptic and seems pretty bleak. Am I wrong?
TM: "Endgame" is my strategy to find a different approach to attack a lot of the same societal ills. Instead of being a guy tugging on your shirt sleeve, saying, "Check out what's going on in the world. Let's do something!" I imagined a character who says, "OK, I've tried tugging and begging you. Now let's paint a picture of the repercussions of our actions." So it's a story, kind of, that shows where the world is headed in the event of a financial or environmental collapse, war, worldwide poverty. Let's paint a picture of what that looks like — and then imagine the world that could be born from those ashes. You get people to picture that future possible world, and they can learn from their mistakes right now.
Q: It's pretty much a concept album.
TM: I shy away from "concept album." There are songs on this record that don't talk about this. But the "Endgame" concept does pop up in several places.
Q: Lyrically, it has a kind of "Life After People" tone to it.
TM: Yeah, we're not reinventing the wheel here. "The Road," "Life After People," we've got apocalypse on the tip of our tongues right now. It seems like the world is ending, there's a lot of doom and gloom. We've tried many approaches to get people to wake up. This is a different one.
with Bad Religion and Four Years Strong
♦ 7 p.m. May 13 and 14
♦ Aragon Ballroom, 1106 W. Lawrence
♦ Sold out
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Mr. Robotic released a debut CD in February — begrudgingly.
The Chicago rapper, aka Columbia College student Marcas Harris, has been writing and recording high-energy, club-ready songs for several years, and he claims to be making a full-time living from it. But the Benjamins haven't been coming from album sales ("Boy in the Band: A Love Story," a six-song EP, is his first physical offering) or iTunes downloads (though a small set of his tracks first appeared there last year). Instead, Mr. Robotic plugged his fledgling career into the other side of the music business: licensing songs to movies, TV shows, advertising and much more.
"I don't necessarily think the album is dead; I'm just not sure I need one to be a full-time, working recording artist," Harris says. "For me, I've got a commercial this week, a TV show next week. ... The people I work with getting commercial placements, they just need songs — and, you know, they're hungry."
"Commercial placements" — that means more these days than just hearing your song playing on the car radio while handsome doctors drive around on "Grey's Anatomy," or even landing on a movie soundtrack. Mr. Robotic songs have been sold for both of those uses — he was on the soundtracks to a couple of B-flicks last year ("Skyline" and "Stomp the Yard 2: Homecoming"), and his songs have been used on "Jersey Shore," "The Hills," "Greek," "The Beautiful Life" and more — but he's also written a theme song for a sports drink and an exclusive song for a national chain of yogurt shops. A Mr. Robotic song was used as background for a LeBron James highlight reel on ESPN's "SportsCenter."
Each time a musician places a song in one of these spots — ka-ching! It may not be a loud ka-ching, but in a troubled economy and a music business whose revenue model has been dismantled and decentralized, every little ka-ching counts. Websites, in-store promotions, social-media campaigns, smart-phone apps, you name it — businesses have myriad new opportunities to try to turn our heads with a catchy tune, and they pay for each one.
Those new and revitalized sources of income represent a seismic shift in a musician's business plan. As Damian Kulash — singer for Chicago's OK Go, which just unveiled its theme song to Morgan Spurlock's upcoming documentary about product placement — wrote in a thoughtful December essay about these issues for the Wall Street Journal, "So if vanishing record revenue isn't being replaced by touring income, how are musicians feeding themselves? For moderately well established artists, the answer is increasingly corporate sponsorship and licensing — a return, in a sense, to the centuries-old logic of patronage. In 1995, it was rare for musicians to partner with corporations; in most corners of the music industry, it was seen as the ultimate sell-out. But with investments from labels harder to come by, attitudes toward outside corporate deals have changed."
Bob DePugh handles music licensing at Chicago's Alligator Records. He's been with the label for more than 20 years, and he started making licensing deals for the label about a decade ago. Two songs by Hound Dog Taylor, for instance, are slated for "The Rum Diary," another Hunter S. Thompson story made into an upcoming movie starring Johnny Depp. DePugh even does extra work on the side. He's placed songs for artists at Chicago's Bloodshot Records, too — the Deadstring Brothers in "Sons of Anarchy," Justin Townes Earle in "Justified," the Sadies in "CSI: NY."
"It became more and more my full-time job as the market really grew for it," he says. "Of course, 10 years ago way fewer people knew about this scheme, so the fees you could get were much higher. About five or six years ago is when it really took off, once shows like 'The Gilmore Girls' and that ilk became highly driven by the soundtrack. The floodgates kind of opened. That was also about the time that CD sales began to drop, so it became more important [for artists]. A lot more people are now chasing this income, and by a lot more I mean everyone."
Licensing songs, however, is a crapshoot, DePugh says. Live performance is where the income is for today's musician, followed by album sales and single downloads. He's mystified by the notion of artists who include placements as part of a business plan.
"You can't rely on this income, not really at all," he says. "It's very fickle, and you're dealing with a lot of people. The music supervisor might take your song to the editor, and it might not work, or the director won't like it, or the budget will change — there are a lot of factors that make it very unreliable. It's great as found money, but you can't balance your budget assuming you're going to win the lottery."
One of those music supervisors scouting songs for TV is Evan Frankfort. He's won a Daytime Emmy for his soap opera scores and is a frequent collaborator with Chicago native Liz Phair writing TV music (he helped Phair craft her now-notorious "Funstyle" album while both were in the studio working on TV shows). Through his Los Angeles post-production music company, Would Work Sound, he also helps connect musicians with television directors looking for the right song for the right moment.
But while sealing the deal for a song in a primetime drama can feel satisfying for the artist at first, Frankfort says, the check usually is only as big as the artist. "Fees range from $500, if no one knows who you are, to maybe $10,000 if you have a following," he says.
Lyle Hysen, a New York-based music broker who works on commission with labels such as Chicago's Thrill Jockey and Drag City, has seen higher. "'Grey's Anatomy,' that could get you some money," he says, "but shows like that are usually exclusively dealing with a particular label. But that level of placement could get you $30,000 [all in]. New shows and cable networks don't have that kind of money, maybe $2,000, $5,000 or $20,000. It's not huge, and it's not consistent, but it's money the band doesn't have to load up the van for."
"A theme song, that's the ultimate goal," says Michael J. Mallen, a Los Angeles music broker who has scored Mr. Robotic many of his placements. "When we talk about this stuff, people usually think of the Rembrandts. Nobody knew who they were, then they wrote the theme song for 'Friends.' At that level, you're talking millions of dollars."
Most TV musical appearances, though, are disappointing for the musicians. Programs need theme songs and dramatic soundtracks, but they mostly need music for the background of a scene. Usually deep background.
"Most placements, I'd say three out of four, you won't even know your song is on the show," Frankfort says. "Everyone wants that final placement [like] at the end of 'Six Feet Under,' when the music plays over the drama, but it's usually at the bottom of what's going on. A guy I just did a record with had a song on a show this week. It was his first placement, and he was very excited. He e-mailed everybody. Not only was the show a big pile of sh—, he didn't even know where the song was. He called and said, 'I guess you didn't use it, after all.' I said, 'Yeah, we did, it's in the bar scene.'"
"I've listened to some placements on TV four or five times, cupping my ears down by the speaker, till I get a hint of the steel guitar lick that tells me, 'Oh, yeah, that's the track,'" DePugh says. "Sometimes the tenor of the singer's voice barely comes through. It can be that nuanced. It may not be that thrilling for the artist, until the check clears."
Frankfort has co-written with Chicago-area pop-punk band the Plain White T's, another band that has recently taken to the music licensing route to keep some money coming in. In August, the T's went on a tour not of public concert venues but of TV network boardrooms, playing mini acoustic shows for music supervisors in an attempt to market their music for primetime placements. Singer Tom Higgenson told Billboard: "With our band, our strong points are our lyrics, our melodies, our harmonies. ... We can strip our music down to bare bones and it's still just as effective."
It worked. Plain White T's songs have since been used in promos for NBC's "Parenthood," ABC's "Private Practice," Showtime's "Californication" and a two-month slot on ABC Family's "Secret Life of the American Teenager."
"Plain White T's are just so damn good in that environment," said Disney Music Group vice president of licensing Dominic Griffin. "Especially with 'Rhythm of Love.' It's such a great song with a universal message; it certainly has made it easier to accomplish our goals."
Those goals can range widely, but the bottom line is always there. "Usually, it's supervisors asking, 'Do you have anything that sounds like the Black Keys? Or Coldplay?'" Hysen says. "They want something that sounds hot and current, but something they can clear. Good supervisors don't give me the 'I need something that sounds like a rainy Tuesday.' Most of it's fairly targeted. ... Lyrical cues are pretty big. There's a lot of home, hey I wanna go home, I'm home — a 'home' theme is good. Seeing is a big one, too — happy to see you, good to be seen, maybe a medical show where someone gets their sight back. The werewolf/vampire things are pretty on-target these days. Don't mention fangs but maybe sing about internal love, undying love. Most good love songs do that, anyway."
Does any of this actually sell records or concert tickets?
Only if flashing the musician's name is part of the deal. A few years ago, the late Nick Drake plunged back into the zeitgeist when one of his songs was artfully used in a Volkswagen commercial; CD sales and downloads spiked because the Volkswagen site mentioned the artist for interested viewers who went hunting it. Several months ago, Hyundai helped boost the sales of an unknown pop duo, Pomplamoose, by using several of their Christmas songs in a series of TV ads and correspondingly naming them on their site. Mr. Robotic saw a small sales boost on iTunes after his "Jersey Shore" appearance, because as the song played in the show it included his name and song title in the corner of the screen. Also, that yogurt shop and that sports drink — they both placed links to his songs on their websites.
That doesn't happen when the song's playing in a coffee shop behind the main characters on "The Vampire Diaries" or when it flies by in a commercial promo.
"The good thing about TV music is that you can do a lot of it. The bad thing is that it has an air date," Frankfort says. "The music lives and dies very quickly, sometimes anonymously."
For an unknown, indie artist, music licensing affords them connections that could lead to other things, as well as the occasional check for a song placement. Oddly enough, indie artists even have a leg up on snaring these movie and TV show deals.
"I'm working mostly with unsigned people, independent artists," says Mallen, Mr. Robotic's broker. "If you're signed to a record company, that means there's publishing tied up in the deal, too. It complicates things. In films, often they want something that's available free and clear. It's quicker for them, it's cheaper, but the artist gets their name out there, for whatever it might be worth. I mean, Mr. Robotic can say he was in the Netflix Top 100. That's at least something."
"Most shows don't have budgets for big acts," Frankfort says. "Cable shows, commercials, they're all looking for cheap buys. One band's cheap, though, is another band's payday. Plus, even TV shows that blow their wad on a Fleetwood Mac song probably still need 10 other songs for cheaper."
Chicago balladeer Brad Smith has no illusions about his brush with international fame by virtue of a single song placement. "There's no doubt I was cheaper to get than Bruce Springsteen," he says.
Smith, a 30-year-old unemployed actor and a local musician seemingly unconcerned with his low profile, landed a song, "Help Yourself," on the soundtrack of the acclaimed and Oscar-nominated George Clooney film "Up in the Air" in 2009. How'd he do it? A combination of luck and, you know — it's not what you know but who.
"A friend of mine from high school is [director] Jason Reitman's brother-in-law," Smith says. "He played my CD for this guy, who forwarded it to Jason while he was in pre-production for that movie. I was told this, and then I heard nothing for almost a year. Then one day, Jason calls me up. He wants to use the song, but he doesn't know anything about me, so he's asking questions, like where I regularly played music. I said I didn't very often. He asks, 'What do you do?' I said, 'I read a lot and drink coffee. I'm unemployed.' He says, 'What do you live on?' I said, 'Frankly, if you weren't using this song, I don't know what I'd be doing. I'm about to lose my apartment.' ... That made for a good story. He plucks this guy from obscurity who has no money and puts his song into a movie that's about unemployment."
But despite the song's fairly prominent appearance in an Oscar-nominated movie (in the wedding scene) and on its internationally sold soundtrack — Smith wouldn't say how much he was paid for the deal — Smith remains ensconced in relative obscurity. His soft, acoustic-based songs draw easy comparisons to Elliott Smith, but he didn't receive the same landmark Oscar performance moment.
"There was a lot of talk in the beginning about awards, and Paramount was very confident the song would get lots of nominations, but that didn't happen," Smith says. "In the end, it hasn't done much [for me] at all. My Facebook and MySpace pages got messages from people in Uganda and Romania. That was cool. I got a couple of calls from a company asking me to do a cover of 'Slip Sliding Away' for a commercial, which thankfully didn't end up happening. They wanted to put 'Help Yourself' in that show 'Hung' [on Showtime], but I don't own the song anymore, so I forward those calls to Paramount. ... And I didn't move to Hollywood to pursue this, so things just died back down."
What he did get from the experience is less tangible, certainly less bankable. After taking part in some publicity for the film, he came back to Chicago and finally put a band together. He got serious about songwriting. Early this year, he celebrated the release of a new full-length album, "Love Is Not What You Need," with a show at Schubas, followed by participation in a songwriters series at Metro.
"The biggest thing I took from it was the realization I could take this seriously," Smith said. "My parents, too. It comforted them about what, in their eyes, was something of a hobby, something that wasn't putting them at ease about my security. Now I'm trying to get my legs, as far as my live performance goes. And now I've got some contacts. I much prefer the slow build to sudden stardom, but maybe this will actually work out."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Johnny Mathis is more versatile than you think, but he knows where his bread is buttered. He could branch out and try different styles of music — and he has, read on — but why mess with the mushy, easy-listening crooner formula that has given him nearly 80 top-40 hits over the course of a half-century singing career?
The Mathis hit parade started in 1957 with "Chances Are," "It's Not for Me to Say" and "Wonderful! Wonderful!" and continued for decades, mostly in the same vanilla template — soft strings, tender arrangements, the unequaled smoothness of Mathis' voice, lulling and languid — through "A Certain Smile," "Gina," "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late" and all that Christmas music. His greatest-hits album, one of the first, logged a staggering 490 weeks on the Billboard albums chart (that's nine-plus years), a record beaten only by Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon."
But Mathis himself at least once tried to rock.
"Well, yeah, when you're young and starting out, you want to do everything. I tried it all, believe it or not," Mathis says, adding a laugh. "I was fortunate at the beginning of my career to have a lot of hits right away. That gives you a little clout as far as the record company is concerned. Plus, in that day, as an artist, you made a lot of records." Mathis released four albums annually in both 1958 and 1959. "So you were always looking for material, and I used to go in to my producer and say, 'Check this out!' I'd show them a James Brown song. They'd say, 'You know, John, that's great, but let's try something else.' And thank goodness."
Does that mean in a record vault somewhere are tapes of Johnny Mathis throwing down like James Brown?
"Unfortunately, yes," Mathis says, no longer laughing. "I keep wondering when they're going to rear their ugly head. Fortunately, most of that stuff is well buried."
Then he starts chuckling again, remembering some of his off moments. There have been a few.
"One of the first songs I sang was a Burt Bacharach song," Mathis recalls. "Burt is a task master, always has been. He wants you to do it exactly as he hears it in his head. ... But I wasn't taking direction well. The song is called 'Warm and Tender'" — Mathis sings a few bars, sounding creamy and light even over the cell connection from his California home — "and I ended up sounding like Frankie Laine. It was so bad. It's on the other side of one of my biggest records, 'It's Not for Me to Say,' which sold a million copies. I hear it and think, 'How could he possibly have let me do that?'
"There's a lot of that. I made a few songs years ago under the care of a doctor who gave me amphetamines, and that didn't sound good, either."
Mathis, who tours only occasionally now at age 75 and spends most of his time at home and playing golf five days a week (he now boasts an impressive seven holes-in-one), credits his very straight-and-narrow style to a small group of good advisers, most notably Gil Reigers, his guitarist for more than 40 years.
But despite the gentle but firm guidance, the Velvet Voice occasionally has veered off the sweetened path, from trying his hand at Brazilian music ("The one place I'd like to get back to is Brazil," he says, "because I fell in love with the people there and their music, and I still sing a lot of Brazilian songs") to making frequent guest appearances with the Muppets (his duet with Rowlf the Dog on "Never Before, Never Again" during a 1979 TV special is worth YouTubing).
Two recent projects, in fact, have brought his varied tastes full circle.
Late last year, a Jewish organization called the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation compiled an intriguing CD, "Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations." The album rounded up rare instances of notable black singers taking on Jewish music, such as Cab Calloway mixing Yiddish into his scatting during "Utt-Da-Zy" and Eartha Kitt's orchestrated delivery of "Sholem."
The society also dug up a relevant Mathis recording. One of the four albums he recorded in 1958 was "Good Night, Dear Lord," a collection of religious songs dedicated to his mother. Amid the expected Christian music — from spirituals ("Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Deep Night") to formal pieces ("The Rosary," two versions of "Ave Maria") — were three Jewish songs: the Yiddish hymn "Eli Eli"; a song about a Warsaw ghetto, "Where Can I Go?"; and the Yom Kippur prayer chant "Kol Nidre." The latter appears on "Black Sabbath."
"People ask me to explain why someone like myself would get involved with religious Jewish music," Mathis says. "It's the way you're brought up. Me, growing up in San Francisco, I had this extraordinary opportunity to listen to all kinds of music and studied voice for seven or eight years with a wonderful teacher. She first introduced me to it. As a singer, when you hear something extraordinary like that — and a lot of Jewish music is musically quite challenging — you want to sing it, you want to at least try it, to see if you can do it."
Back to his roots
Mathis' latest album, also released last fall, is off-track, too — "Let It Be Me: Mathis in Nashville." A good friend of the late Ray Charles, it may have been inevitable that Mathis — a native of Texas — would tackle a country record. But Mathis says this actually has more to do with his roots in rock 'n' roll.
"The first music I heard was country music. My father sang it for me," Mathis says. "That's the reason I started singing. This country album is really a throwback to what my dad taught me, and it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. Over the years, I've performed with extraordinary people always in the background of my arrangements, especially the guitar players. This time, they're in the forefront. It's a guitar record! It's such a joy to listen to the recordings when I stop singing and hear this extraordinary guitar music."
So he made a record that kinda rocks, after all?
"Is it so hard to believe?" Mathis asks, laughing again. "My little brother [Michael], you know, had a band and did mostly rhythm and blues. He did stuff with Sly Stone there in San Francisco. Michael got me involved with a lot of rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. But I studied, as I mentioned, with a classical teacher, and most of the music I heard was pretty much Broadway and classical, and that's what I got involved with. In the household, my dad was singing country and Michael was playing rock 'n' roll, and I had six other brothers and sisters bringing in other stuff. If the slightest thing had changed, who knows, I could have been a rock 'n' roll star."
• When: 9 p.m. April 30
• Where: Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Rd., Rosemont
• Tickets: $65-$75, (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Ezra Furman knows you probably haven't heard of him, and he's not terribly worried about it. Make no mistake, he'd like you to hear his music — I recommend it highly, it's damn good — but he's more concerned about making that music, and making it good, than he is about spending time marketing himself. He wouldn't even know where to begin.
"I'm not worried about being rich and famous," Furman says. "I see a lot of rich and famous people in our culture, and most of them are jerks. I wouldn't want to be them. I'm not saying it's bad — I dream of greatness, you know — I just want to be good at what I do, great at making songs. I'd rather be the starving artist who goes unrecognized. I'd rather be Van Gogh than Jack Johnson. I want to be one of those guys who does it for a long time, who after a while just doesn't quit. They make great records and nobody listens to them and then suddenly they're a cult hero. I could do that."
He's nothing if not quixotic. Stammering in his speech but blistering in his singing, Furman idealizes the artist as idealist. He's having this chat with us from the living room of his parents' Evanston home, where his band rehearses because they can't afford anywhere else. He mentions several times how poor he and his bandmates, the Harpoons, are despite having met each other at Boston's private Tufts University.
"Sometimes it gets a little dicey," Furman says. "I've been a little too poor sometimes. Now may be one of those times."
But his confidence in his music is well placed. Whether its existence attracts money or not, Ezra Furman & the Harpoons — guitarist Andrew Langer, bassist Job Mukkada and drummer Adam Abrutyn — make rootsy rock 'n' roll that's fiery, fierce and, above all, honest. The songs on their third and so far best album, the new "Mysterious Power," are at once familiar and exciting. Furman's not doing anything we haven't already heard from Dylan in the early '60s or Neil Young across the span of the '70s or the Violent Femmes in the mid-'80s, but he's doing it with such ferocity and abandon that makes him an individual stylist rather than a mere imitator. You don't have to reinvent the wheel in rock 'n' roll just to get it rolling.
Question: You seem pretty cavalier about claiming to walk the poverty line.
Ezra Furman: It's the life of an artist. It's fine with me. My only real goal is to be good at this. I've idealized all these people who were never very successful. I don't know. Maybe I should care a little more. I'm getting by. ... I don't need much money. I like the 99-cent loaf of bread better than the $3.50 one.
Q: Who's one of those not-very-successful people that you idolize?
EF: Paul Baribeau, for one. Nobody's heard of him, and he's the best songwriter in America, basically. He's always playing people's houses or basements. He's in his 30s. He's such a heart-stopping, great songwriter and performer. He can write a really passionate song, and he mostly just plays acoustic guitar and screams. He's my No. 1 evangelical project.
Q: So what would success look like for you?
EF: My version of success is someone finding my album in a bargain bin one day and falling in love with it. Beyond that, everything else is a bonus.
Q: What could lead you to the point of "selling out"?
EF: I don't think I'll get there. I was reading this article recently by the guy from OK Go [singer Damian Kulash, in the Wall Street Journal] all about how making money in the music business is different from what it used to be. He's talking about selling music to corporations for commercials and all kinds of stuff, and how it's not selling out anymore. Nobody sees this as impure anymore. He was so cavalier about it — just do it, this is how you get rich now, and you wanna get rich, right? I was like, shut up, stop. Not everybody is in this just to chase money.
Q: You're chasing, what, gratitude, affection, artistic credibility?
EF: Just some sign that what we do is good. I know how I feel about my favorite records. I want people feeling that about us. To be somebody's favorite record, at least for a period in their lives — that's the ultimate success in being a musician. What could be a greater honor than to always be in someone's car stereo? I'm not going to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. F—- that. I'd rather be in someone's stereo.
Q: The new record, "Mysterious Power," sounds more energetic and cohesive than the previous two, which is saying something. What's behind that?
EF: We just had more time. It's a more carefully chosen album. The first ones were slapped together pretty quick. Each one was done in five or six days, like, "This is our band, this is how we play songs live, there you go." We didn't have a record label, no one was asking for the album. We made the album and then found a label for it. We spent time on it, and some songs I thought were throwaways wound up being turned into some of the best ones simply because we had time to find out.
Q: Give me an example. Which songs followed that course?
EF: "Bloodsucking Whore" is a good example. That was a bitter joke. That was me in a messed-up relationship, and I was, like, listing off Buddy Holly songs. I wanted to write some simple, classic Buddy Holly ballad. I just threw it out and didn't think much of it. It was a joke to me. But the Harpoons, believe it or not, they're musicians. People probably don't know that enough about this band. I'm just sort of a strummy, singy guy. I write these songs and the Harpoons know what to do with them. They picked that one out and masterminded the sound of it. It's one of the best on the record.
Q: What compels you to keep writing songs?
EF: Dissatisfaction with what I've already done, I guess. I listen to so much music. The real answer is I listen to so much and I'm like, "Oh, man!" It's a healthy sort of jealousy. It's like the competition. The past year, I started getting into the Replacements. The things they got away with. I think, "I could do that better than he does!" Or some great record like [the Beach Boys'] "Pet Sounds" — man, I could totally pull off my own version of this.
Q: What are you recognizing in this other music? What makes a great album great?
EF: Well, that's just it. They didn't know they were making a great record when they were making it. They didn't think they were capable of writing the greatest album ever. That's what keeps me going. Who knows what could happen if I keep writing? Maybe I'm about to drop a total masterpiece if I keep pushing myself. I see some sort of potential in myself. You just never know. You should always write another song.
EZRA FURMAN & THE HARPOONS
with Tristen and the Apache Relay
♦ 9:30 p.m. April 23
♦ Subterranean, 2011 W. North
♦ Tickets, $10-$12, (773) 278-6600; subt.net
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Music Review Loudon Wainwri.jpgLoudon Wainwright has written biting songs about love ("It's Love and I Hate It"), the end of love ("Your Mother and I," "Whatever Happened to Us?"), family ("Your Father's Car," "White Winos") and kids ("Be Careful There's a Baby in the House," "Father/Daughter Dialogue"). His biggest hit was a 1972 novelty about road kill ("Dead Skunk").
In recent years, though, Wainwright, 64, has begun considering mortality — and looking back. He offered up a renewed greatest-hits set in 2008's "Recovery," re-recordings of some of his favorite old songs. The following year, Wainwright resuscitated the catalog of a lost Carolina country legend in "High, Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project." Now he's back with his own legendary-status project, "40 Odd Years," a box set of Wainwright's 40-year career featuring four discs of his bittersweet, intensely personal folk songs (three from the albums, one of outtakes and rarities), plus a DVD of filmed performances. It's out May 3 from Shout! Factory.
"Well, you want to get the box out before you're in the box yourself," Wainwright said during a recent chat. "I've had interest in a box set on a couple of occasions, but my friend and patron Judd Apatow" — Wainwright has worked on several of Apatow's projects, including scoring the film "Knocked Up" and acting in the TV series "Undeclared" — "he's got a good relationship with the guys at Shout! Factory, and he kept nudging them, 'C'mon, guys, Loudon needs a box.' Without his help, it might not have happened.
His 40 years of making music has worked in conjunction with nearly 20 different record labels, so assembling a Wainwright box took some doing. He chatted with me from his Long Island home about boiling down his life's work, dredging up some rare tracks and looking ahead.
Q. Did the process of evaluating your catalog for this box set begin when you reconsidered old songs for the "Recovery" album?
A. If you've been doing this and as you get older, you look back. Can't help it. In my songwriting, I seem to be doing a lot of that lately. It has to do with coming to the end of something, I guess. "Recovery" was a way of revisiting songs, some 40 years later, in the context of the band I work with out in L.A. This box set starts all the way back to the first track of the first record.
Q. Did you select the tracks?
A. Yes, I had to pick the tracks, which was very painful. A lot of things didn't make it. You only have 80 minutes on a CD. Hopefully it has some sweep for the listener, some interest for old fans and new fans alike.
Q. How did you make your choices?
A. Some people let others decide for them. I could have gone that route. I have friends who are familiar with my canon and whose judgment I trust. I checked in with those people and asked their opinion on what was essential. I requested the same of some fans that I've met at gigs over the years — they always seem to be guys. At the end fo the day, it was difficult. In the liner notes I say it was like drowning kittens. I left off some of my favorites.
Q. Like what?
A. Two songs: "Missing You" and "Man's World." Those are favorites of mine, but there was just no room for them.
Q. Yet you included a lot of extras on the bonus disc. Tell me what transpired to make you feel that "Laid," a song you say you always felt was too mean to put on a record, is OK to lay out there now?
A. It's a little rough, but I like it. The idea of bonus tracks is to put out stuff people wouldn't normally have heard, and "Laid" fit right into that pocket. "Laid" is a pretty bleak look at getting laid. It's not something I do anymore. It's just an interesting snapshot of where I was at the time.
Q. Were there discoveries for yourself when digging up some of the rarities?
A. Well, in terms of the bonus tracks, yeah. There's a song on the box called "McSorley's," which is a song I only performed about three times, in 1970. The oldest saloon in New York's East Village was this Irish bar called McSorley's, and until 1970 only men were allowed. Coinciding with the rise of the women's movement, there was a lot of pressure put on the place and that tradition was broken. They forced it to go co-ed. At the time, I was a twentysomething sexist pig and wrote this song as a kind of protest. This was a great tradition, women are turning into men, that sort of thing. It was very sarcastic. I think politically I've moved away from that stance [laughs], but I put it on the box as an interesting look at where I was in 1970 — wistful about the idea that there are bars where only men can go.
Q. You talk about these songs as if they're photos in an album.
A. That word "snapshot" is very good here. These songs are three-minute pictures of something. There's a lot of stuff behind them — the good songs, anyway.
Q. Do you enjoy going back and listening to the old stuff?
A. [A pause] I'm not a guy who sits around and listens to his own records. That's not my idea of a good time. When you make a record, you listen to it hundreds of times; you kind of wallow in it. Once it's out and you can't change anything, I don't want to hear it again. I'm not going to be listening to this box set.
Q. The Irish version of "The Hardy Boys at the Y" on the box was nice to hear. It makes much more sense in that arrangement. I never understood why the ends of the verses repeat until now.
A. I love that kind of music. The Boys of the Lough, the Bothy Band, Christy Moore — we knew each other playing folk festivals. I can't recall why we didn't put that song out this way instead of the live version [on 1975's "Unrequited"].
Q. Tell me about writing "No Sure Way."
A. I once lived in Brooklyn Heights, a beautiful part of New York, and there's this thing called the Promenade Walk out there where you can see all of lower Manhattan. When 9/11 happened, I was out here in this Long Island house, and I went back a day or two later to the Promenade and looked at that ... smoking mound, I guess is what it was, of rubble and humanity. When you face something that huge, you think, "I'm not even going to think of writing a song about this. It's too ridiculous and too maudlin." I'm sure there are hundreds of songs written about 9/11 now. But later that week I found myself taking a subway ride that went directly underneath the mound, and I wrote and recorded this song three days later. Like the words I used in the song, it felt "obscene."
Q. In the liner notes, David Wild describes you as "fearless." Do you feel fearless?
A. In my part of the liner notes, I address that point that David and others have made. Take the song "Hitting You." It's about hauling off and hitting [daughter] Martha. That's an example, I suppose, of a fearless song. If you're at a performance in a dark room with lights on you and a microphone and people are sitting there listening, it sounds and looks fearless — but it's a natural habitat for me. I feel pretty safe. I'm aware of the fact that I'm getting into areas that maybe people have strong feelings about, but for me it feels quite natural, not any act of courage. It's what I do. It's my shtick. I write about my personal life and the people in it. I haven't masked it too much. It's just what I do.
Q. That's what folk music is supposed to be all about.
A. It's about what's happening to you, and what's happened to me is in manyways what's happened to everybody. My life is not particularly unusual. There's identification. That's what art is about. People say, "I know what he's talking about."
Q. I read that [Wainwright's son] Rufus is assembling his own box set, true?
A. Yes, Rufus and I are recording a song next week to be on his bonus disc.
Q. What song?
A. "Down Where the Drunkards Roll" by Richard Thompson.
Q. And congratulations on becoming a granddad again. [Rufus Wainwright announced earlier this year he and his partner became parents to a child, Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen, via Lorca Cohen, daughter of Canadian singer Leonard Cohen.]
A. Thanks. I was in L.A. when Viva arrived. I love being a grandparent. It's so much easier.
Q. What's next?
A. Writing new songs, and I suspect I'll think about making another record.
Q. Any acting gigs?
A. I have an audition tomorrow! Thank heaven I have folk music to fall back on.
with Kim Richey
• 7 and 10 p.m. April 15
• Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $24-$28, (773) 728-6000, oldtownschool.org
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.