This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
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SXSW 2013 opens with names big and small
By Thomas Conner on March 13, 2013 9:00 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "It's like Comic Con, but without anything cool."
That early review of South by Southwest came from one of the multitude of hipsters strutting through the Austin Convention Center on Tuesday — the final day of SXSW Interactive and the first day of SXSW Music. This annual conference and festival in the Texas capital has grown into a 10-day event encompassing rollouts of films, digital ventures and new music. The movies and online jibber-jabber started March 8; the music blares on through March 17.
The relative coolness of what lies ahead remains to be seen, but it's already shaping up to be a typical mix of fresh-faced new bands — the showcasing of which was SXSW's original mission when it began in 1987 — and big-name celebs.
In the latter category, Depeche Mode, Green Day and Dave Grohl's Sound City Players (an assembly of Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Springfield, Rick Nielsen, Corey Taylor and many more) have booked big performances this week. Other formidable names — Iggy & the Stooges, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Vampire Weekend, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds — also are among the thousands of artists vying for attention from journalists, record labels and digital media.
The rumor mill, though, is buzzing about two other megastars: Prince and Justin Timberlake. Both taut pop-R&B legends have been floated as possible surprise showcases during SXSW. The Prince gig is just a rumor, with an unnamed source suggesting that His Purpleness will perform with a 22-piece band Saturday night at the cavernous La Zona Rosa club.
Timberlake — whose new album, "The 20/20 Experience," is out Tuesday (read my review) — is scheduled all week on TV's "Lat Night With Jimmy Fallon," but the Austinist site has pieced together clues toward JT's own possible Saturday night show.
Watch this blog for my own reports. My docket includes the big and the small, from seeing how Green Day emerges from their personal crisis to checking out up-and-comers like Foxygen and Lianne La Havas. I'll also be sniffing out the home-cooking that always pervades SXSW, from Chicago's Wild Belle and Chief Keef to the premiere of the blues documentary "Born in Chicago." Stay tuned!
SXSW: Long live Shoes, long live Camper Van Beethoven
By Thomas Conner on March 13, 2013 6:32 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Janice Greenberg actually teared up a bit at the Camper Van Beethoven show.
The 46-year-old mother of two from Sonoma County, Calif., stumbled into the Jr. club Wednesday afternoon, squinting from the bright-to-black transition and her jaw hanging down. The band was running through its well-known 1980s indie-rock standard, "Take the Skinheads Bowling" — but it was, Greenberg discovered to her considerable dismay, their last song.
"I had no idea that they ... are they even ... I didn't know they were here!" she said, close to a wail. "I love Camper!"
Camper eased onto the stage Wednesday afternoon and played a 10-song, career-spanning set that was plenty to justify their status as indie-rock grandfathers. What was extraordinary, though — and somehow I always forget this till I'm faced with it — was the skill of the five players. CVB's music can get complicated, not in a convoluted art-rock sense but in a self-taught virtuoso sense. While singer David Lowery wheezes and whines his weird, grumpy-ol'-stoner tales, you've got Jonathan Segel (elegant on violin, especially during "Sad Lover's Waltz," but also adding swooping third guitar to the new "Too High for the Love-In") and Greg Lisher (braiding melodies and countermelodies throughout like a pro). New songs like "Northern California Girls" — from the recently released new album, "La Costa Perdida" — were refreshing live, while old surprises like "Seven Languages" still packed a punch.
The best part, though, was when Greenberg got the good news: Camper's playing again two hours later, at 7 p.m. right next door at El Sol y La Luna, 600 E 6th St. I'd quote her reaction, but she was off like a shot to secure her spot.
Trusty ol' Shoes
Another legacy act inaugurated SXSW 2013 Wednesday afternoon with a show that was, at least historically, slightly more momentous. Beloved power-pop band Shoes — the lions of Zion, Ill. — played their first concert outside the Chicago area in 18 years.
Shoes, an occasional underground delight since appearing in 1975, reunited last year to record "Ignition," their first new album since 1994. Early Wednesday afternoon, at an annual showcase organized by Chicago native publicist Cary Baker (who shepherded the dB's into their comeback at the same place last year), singer-guitarists Jeff Murphy and Gary Klebe, brother John Murphy on bass and drummer John Richardson blasted through their own career-spanning set.
Shoes is one of those bands with a consistency that's more than a little frightening. I was bobbing my head through most of "Say It Like You Mean It" before I remembered it was one of the new ones.
No one at SXSW has just one gig anymore: Shoes' play again (their official showcase) at 11 p.m. Friday at Maggie Mae's Gibson Room, 512 Trinity St.
SXSW: 'Born in Chicago' explores '60s blues hand-off
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 1:33 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — A day after it was announced as a featured documentary at next month's annual Chicago International Movies & Music Festival, "Born in Chicago" had its world premiere here at SXSW on Wednesday afternoon.
The film, directed by John Anderson, chronicles the history and tall tales from the generation of young, affluent white kids who gathered in Chicago during the 1950s and '60s, learning to play the blues from the men who had honed the music on their own. Narration by Marshall Chess (son and nephew of the Chess Records founders) mixes into interviews with Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Nick Gravenites, Barry Goldberg (who co-produced the film) and excellent footage of the late Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield. On the other side are snatches of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, plus interviews with Sam Lay and the great Hubert Sumlin.
"Born in Chicago" makes Bloomfield, a wealthy Jewish guitar virtuoso (a fact he presents in a funny bit of old footage), appear something of a valiant crusader for crossing the mid-century racial divide, bearing his instrument. Goldberg relates a templated tale of him and Bloomfield venturing into the South Side one night to sit in with Howlin' Wolf — and the hush that came over the club when two white boys walked in. All that's missing is the record-scratching clip from the Dexter Lake Club in "Animal House."
The film's problematic thesis, though, seems to be that this particular appropriation wasn't like all the other black cultural exploitations by white musicians — because Muddy and Wolf and the gang were apparently so thrilled to be noticed, appreciated and revered by these upper-middle class dilettantes. Chess himself drives the point home about "these white kids treating 'em like stars," and Goldberg assures us that "people recognized the respect we had for their music." Musselwhite — himself the subject of a current generational rediscovery thanks to his recent collaboration with Ben Harper — insists, "These guys ... were so flattered we knew who they were." Just because the original bluesmen welcomed their exploiters, however, does not mean they weren't exploited.
Even Jack White mentions what a "shame" it is that it takes white people to "legitimize" something like this, apparently never stopping to consider that the music previously had been perfectly legitimate for black people. So only when white people — a bunch of Brits, no less, once the Stones showed up at Chess — stamp their approval does a music become 2 legit 2 quit? Same song, umpteenth verse.
Steve Miller probably sums up the reality of the situation better than anyone in the film: "Everybody talks about it like, oh, these white kids. We were competing with Howlin' Wolf for gigs. ... It was business."
Catch "Born in Chicago" at the CIMM fest in Chicago, April 18-21. Four-day passes are on sale now.
SXSW: Chicago's Wild Belle ready for summer
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 8:15 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — SXSW originally was created to showcase music that was new, fresh, creative. Wild Belle returned to the festival Wednesday night boasting all three.
The Chicago-area, brother-sister duo of Elliot and Natalie Bergman kicked off the Wednesday showcases with a packed house at the roomy upstairs Haven club, with lines of eager badge-holders and fans stretching in two directions down the block. Leaning heavily on their new album, "Isles" — released Tuesday on major label Columbia — the Bergmans and their band bounced effortlessly through their reggae-driven pop. It was music for the Austin weather: warm, breezy and revitalizing. That they performed a song about being "bundled up like chickadees" in Chicago seemed almost to taunt the folks back home.
Natalie is a Kittenish creature — capitalized because, while her vocals certainly purr, she sings with a throaty, Eartha Kitt allure. She performs with a sultry confidence belying the fact that "Isles" is the band's debut. Elliot, though, is crucial to the band's unique sound. Puttering about among keyboards, a baritone saxophone and various gizmos, like a thumb piano with an electric pickup attached, he looks like Lazlo Hollyfield and underpins the music with a similarly silent mad genius. Wild Belle's sound is relaxed, summery and always keeps just left of what one might expect them to go. One of those moments where you wish this wasn't a mere 40-minute SXSW showcase.
SXSW: The return of Dixie Chick Natalie Maines
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 8:39 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Really, no hoots and cheers when Natalie Maines, covering Pink Floyd's "Mother," sang the song's line about running for president?
Maines, the singer for country's Dixie Chicks, returned to the spotlight in a Wednesday night showcase at the Austin City Limits Live theater during SXSW. Once the flashpoint for debate after disparaging President George W. Bush (telling a London audience in 2003, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas"), the Lubbock native was back in Austin a decade later to unveil the new Natalie. Performing the entirety of her new album, "Mother" — her solo debut since the Dixie Chicks went on hiatus in 2007 — Maines appeared stolid and confident.
In fact, in the beginning the set lacked much energy at all, plodding through midtempo numbers without much fanfare or enthusiasm. The Pink Floyd cover — a dark choice, but played capably and arranged for arenas — is part of the reason this is being touted as a "rock" record, and eventually more of her trademark feistiness backed up that perspective. Politics are still foregrounded: "I put this on the album because it reminds me of the West Memphis Three," she said by way of introducing Dan Wilson's "Free Life." But then — backed as she was Ben Harper and his Innocent Criminals band (Harper co-produced Maines' new album) — she put down her own guitar and launched into Patty Griffin's "Silver Bell," unleashing a pent-up Belinda Carlisle kind of frenzy while rooted at the mike. Suddenly the near faux-hawk hairdo was making sense.
"Mother" is due May 7. Incidentally, as Maines pointed out, Patty Griffin also has a new album out the same day.
SXSW: Dave Grohl talks Chicago, inspires the aspiring
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 2:08 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Dave Grohl stepped to the podium Thursday morning to deliver the keynote address at SXSW 2013, rolled up his sleeves, tucked his hair behind his ears — and put on reading glasses.
The move spoke not only to rock's AARP eligibility but to the paternal tone of his address. Largely an autobiography of a lifetime spent pursuing some measure of independence in his music, Grohl's speech aimed not at the media and industry crowding the Austin Convention Center ballroom but at any indie-rock kids who might hear him.
"There is no right or wrong, there is only your voice," he dispensed. "It's your voice. Cherish it, respect it, challenge it ... Everyone's blessed with at least that."
In Austin to hype his new documentary, "Sound City: Real to Reel," Grohl barely mentioned it, largely trying to inspire with his speech rather than merely shill for his flick.
The Foo Fighters leader and former Nirvana drummer began his hourlong talk with the moment of his birth, but wrapped it up by stating hope that his own two daughters will find their own way in the world. His remarks retraced that wayfinding, beginning with a K-tel record. His sister bought it in 1975, and it contained Edgar Winter's instrumental "Frankenstein," which he proceeded to scat for the audience. Hearing the tune was a life-changing moment, he said, adding, "It was the riff. I gave it all up for a f---in' riff."
Much of his tale he has told before, including the other pivotal musical moments he experienced during summer family visits in the Chicago area. He described (somehow) getting into the Cubby Bear to hear local punk legends Naked Raygun ("The most ferocious noise! Bodies were flying everywhere ... piss and puke. I was in heaven!") and making the pilgrimage to Wax Trax! Records to begin stocking up on the requisite punk catalog.
Grohl demonstrated the crude multitracking technique he came up with as a teen. With one tape machine, he recorded a few bars of a guitar riff. He placed that tape into another player and played it back, while recording some drum beats on the body of his guitar. Voila — the new recording contained both sounds!
Grohl's rewind was full of life-changing moments — a political punk show in Washington, D.C., a single question ("Have you heard of Nirvana?"), the death of Kurt Cobain.
"When Kurt died, I was lost. I was numb. The music that I had devoted my life to had now betrayed me. I had no voice. I put away my drums. I turned off the radio. I couldn't bear to hear someone else singing about their own pain or happiness."
He re-emerged with a self-made album, which he labeled the Foo Fighters, which became — as once described by Pitchfork, a media outlet he disparaged midway through his speech — "his generation's answer to Tom Petty — a consistent hit machine pumping out working-class rock."
Grohl's talk about Grohl was a bit thin after recent SXSW keynotes — Bruce Springsteen's rousing music history lesson last year, Bob Geldof's still-poignant pleas for rock's social conscience in 2011 — but it contained nuggets of self-awareness and inspiration for aspiring contemporary musicians.
Repeating a mantra about finding one's individual voice, he confessed, "F--- guilty pleasure! How about just pleasure? ... I can truthfully say out loud that 'Gangnam Style' is one of my favorite f---ing songs of the past year."
Dave Grohl's Sound City Players is a temporary supergroup featuring Grohl, Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Nielsen and many more. They perform an anticipated showcase later tonight.
SXSW shows off Chicago hip-hop
By Thomas Conner March 15, 2013 9:26 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Late Thursday night, an official showcase of more Chicago rappers — including King Louie, Lil Durk, Lil Mouse, GLC, Katie Got Bandz — stocked the upstairs Club 119 in the shadow of the Texas capitol. MCs and DJs ringed the club's small stage, waiting to be tagged in like pro wrestlers. Vic Spencer worked the crowd, followed by the dynamic and engaging YP, who boasted of his East Side roots and led the crowd chanting the title of "Insane" (alas, no Rockie Fresh cameo). Chance the Rapper was here, too, working his own forceful rhythms despite the tempo of his soothing, soulful tracks. Chance dances like a boxer on stage, and his rhymes (even when not talking about "tabs of acid" in "Brain Cells") get pretty wild and surreal.
And lest you've fallen prey to the notion that all Chicago hip-hop is bleak and violent, Chance shouted with notable ferocity: "Make some noise if you love your mama!"
SXSW: Dave Grohl's Sound City Players rock long
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2013 10:08 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "It's gonna be a long f---in' night," Dave Grohl promised at the start of his Thursday set with his live musical collage, the Sound City Players. Then the supergroup — Grohl on bass with his Foo Fighters, led by omnipresent hard-rock maestro Alain Johannes — kicked off a song that found Johannes pleading, "I hope it won't be long."
Dave Grohl's Sound City Players are a hodge-podge of recognizable names spanning three generations, a promotional ploy for Grohl's new documentary ("Sound City: Real To Reel," about the legendary Los Angeles recording studio) and its accompanying soundtrack. The group features Grohl and his band with Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Springfield, Lee Ving (Fear), Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick), Brad Wilk (Rage Against the Machine), Corey Taylor (Slipknot, Stone Sour), Chris Goss (Masters of Reality), Johannes (Eleven, Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures) and bassist Krist Novoselic (Nirvana).
They've performed a handful of shows since early January in New York, Los Angeles and London. Grohl said at the beginning of Thursday's SXSW concert outdoors at Stubb's BBQ that this one would "probably" be their last. "So we're gonna make it extra long, extra special."
Long we got — close to three-and-a-half hours — and special, too. The result was a rollicking rock and roll revue. Springfield came on for "I've Done Everything for You" and, of course, "Jessie's Girl." Taylor and Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins sang Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" and "Surrender," with Grohl on drums and Nielsen on guitar. Fogerty closed the show with Creedence Clearwater Revival hits, including "Proud Mary," "Bad Moon Rising" and trading verses with Grohl on "Fortunate Son." Through it all, Grohl stayed on stage playing with everyone's mini-set (switching between guitar, bass and drums), beaming with obvious glee at having assembled this temporary clubhouse.
Grohl's first guest, however, was the most transformative. After half a dozen songs bashed out with Johannes, Nicks stepped to the mic and proved to be more than up to the task of leading a bashing hard rock band.
She and Grohl pointed at each other as they sang the chorus of "Stop Dragging My Heart Around" (see, Grohl is his generation's Tom Petty!), and Nicks performed Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" with the band and "Landslide" with Grohl alone on guitar. She sang excellent new song from the "Sound City" soundtrack, "You Can't Fix This" -- graceful and tuneful, with a leaning, weaving riff more akin to Waddy Wachtel than Lindsey Buckingham. Swinging her ribboned tambourine and wearing shades, Nicks was in great voice and moving with an ease I've not seen on stage in a long time, particularly when the band began a surreal, clanging opening séance to "Gold Dust Woman," as Nicks waved her scarf with her back to the audience and conjured her old witchy self. With the Foo Fighters cranked to 11, Nicks wailed and howled and raised the dead, holding her own with the muscled band all the way through the cacophonous conclusion.
Forget Grohl's "Sirvana" work with Paul McCartney -- let's have some Fleetwood Fighters!
(Since a couple of people have asked: According to Pee Wee Herman himself via Twitter, the photo on the bass drum head was of Pee Wee, David Lee Roth and Rodney Dangerfield.)
SXSW: Flaming Lips bring 'Yoshimi,' 'The Terror'
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2013 11:23 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "The new record is probably going to freak some people out," said Wayne Coyne. "It is, on purpose, not a hopeful record."
He's talking about "The Terror," the Flaming Lips' new nine-track album due in late April, and as he does it's easy for him to get a little heavy.
"There are things we have to face as human beings, truths we must explore," Coyne says. "'The Terror' is a certain kind of terror, an uncanny sort of break in nature or your own life. It's not an insane, monster terror. It's the terror of realizing that love isn't the magic bullet. We all wake up with dread of the unknown. It's not about fear of dying, but about the fact that we just don't know what's going to happen anywhere, anytime."
We were sitting in a makeshift green room, a tent in a parking garage behind the venue where the Flaming Lips would perform later Thursday night. Not that parking garage. During SXSW '97 nearly 2,000 people crammed into the second level of a downtown garage to hear Coyne's Car Radio Orchestra, an experiment involving 28 vehicles. Coyne gave each driver a pre-mixed cassette and instructed them to press play and blare the music on cue. Soon, soothing synthesizer parts were swelling from various auto systems, with surreal samples and female orgasm sounds. It was an experiment; one car blew a fuse.
"The cops nearly shut us down," Coyne recalled.
Thursday night the Flaming Lips played a more intimate showcase — no confetti, no costumes, thankfully no big plastic ball — performing the whole of their 2002 album "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots." The show was packed — so much so there was still a line down the block when it was over.
Friday night, though, they'll be unveiling the new music in a free show at the Auditorium Shores amphitheater here.
"We keep saying this is the most depressing but life-affirming music we've ever done," Coyne said.
Coyne is also in town this week to promote a film, "A Year in the Life of Wayne's Phone," which had its world premiere Wednesday night at SXSW. The film is a collage of clips Coyne shot with his iPhone.
"I didn't do this on purpose," Coyne said. "I take so many videos, and my computer guy is always having to empty them off my computer to make room. One day he said, 'We should a movie of these.'"
Since Coyne shot nearly all the videos in vertical portrait mode rather than the usual horizontal scale, the film features three clips lined up, each running simultaneously. The clips range from interviews, shots of friends (look for Yoko Ono and Rivers Cuomo!), cute animals, the USB skull and Coyne crowdsurfing. The viewer's attention is directed by bringing up the audio on a certain clip, but it's still a disorienting challenge to take it all in.
SXSW: Green Day roars back to life
By Thomas Conner March 16, 2013 11:31 am
AUSTIN, Texas — In the middle of “Stay the Night,” Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong paused at the microphone, stared at the crowd for a moment and sighed, “Ah, welcome back!”
A turnabout of words. No doubt he was happy to see us — a crowd not even close to capacity at the Austin City Limits Live theater, but certainly a welcoming one. This was Green Day’s return to action after Armstrong’s profane meltdown last September at a festival in Las Vegas, complete with tantrum and smashed guitar. Days later, the band announced Armstrong was seeking treatment for substance abuse and a slate of arena dates was postponed.
Friday night at SXSW, though, Armstrong couldn’t have looked more refreshed, reinvigorated and grateful.
After the welcoming comment, he let the crowd sing for moment while he sat on the edge of the drum riser, first gazing back at us with some measure of incredulity, then sitting for a spell with his head in his hands.
There’s a lot of that in a Green Day show nowadays — the poor band vamping, sometimes for quite a long time, while Armstrong wrangles the crowd. He’s a professional motivator, certainly, and obsessed with airborne limbs (“Get your hands up! This ain’t no caf, motherf—ers!”). Thankfully, the band — Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, drummer Tr Cool and their criminally unsung “fourth member,” guitarist Jason White — was plenty exciting without the constant demands for shouts, singalongs and waving arms.
In 24 songs over two hours, Green Day ripped through its catalog, reaching back to the early ’90s and slotting in some requisite newbies from this winter’s album trilogy (“Uno!,” “Dos!” and “Tr!”). The hit parade marched along — “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Jesus of Suburbia,” the excellent “Know Your Enemy” — including some songs that now wear an extra patina of irony, given Armstrong’s recent troubles, such as “Burnout” and “Basket Case.”
Only once did Armstrong allude to his recent woes. During “Stop When the Red Lights Flash,” he had directed the band and the audience into a quiet moment and crouched into the microphone to kick off a climactic explosion — but just before he could whisper to a scream, a roadie darted over and replaced the wireless mic right in front of Armstrong’s mouth. The singer barely missed a beat but couldn’t help chuckle a bit. “And I wasn’t even on drugs,” he quipped.
But while the on-stage comeback was encouraging, SXSW finds Green Day at a possibly crucial juncture. The band also debuted not one but two new documentaries during this festival: “Broadway Idiot,” about the transformation of the 2004 “American Idiot” album into a hit musical, and “Cuatro!” chronicling the making of the recent trilogy.
Each album in that trilogy is, with remarkable consistency, terrible. (I reviewed “Uno!” but couldn’t find the heart to kvetch further about the other two.) So here they are with projects that look backward and forward. If the way forward is merely “Cinco!” then even though the band played the ACL theater like an arena, it may want to prepare itself for such smaller venues. The stoked fire in their bellies on display Friday night either will spark their previously impressive creativity within such a rigid genre, or it simply will warm their evenings as a very entertaining legacy act at the casinos and cruises of the future.
Green Day reboots its postponed tour starting March 28 at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont.
SXSW: The rebirth of Detroit punk trio Death
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2013 12:21 PM
Black musicians did a lot of great things in Detroit in the '60s and '70s. Rock and roll — much less anything that would later be called punk — wasn't always one of them. At SXSW this year, though, a band was on display that defies that notion: Death, a fraternal trio and a rare group that can justly support the claim "best band you've never heard."
Death was born in the east Detroit home of the Hackney family. Brothers Dannis, Bobby and David, like so many boomer-era musicians, started playing in the early 1970s as the Rock Fire Funk Express. But after witnessing concerts by the Who and fellow Detroiter Alice Cooper, the brothers threw their lot with their city's other musical heroes, punk-rock icons like the MC5 and Iggy Pop. The Hackney brothers then began writing taut, propulsive rock 'n' roll — truly great stuff — which, until a slightly miraculous rediscovery a few years ago, was heard by practically no one.
The story of the band's derailed promise and eventual obscurity is told ably in a documentary screening at SXSW, "A Band Called Death." Blessed with a rich tale, director-producer Jeff Howlett basically leans back and lets the golden plot points unfold one after another.
Opening with gushing praise from the likes of Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra and — was that Elijah Wood?! — "A Band Called Death" charts the emergence of this family band and the, for the times, unusual shift from R&B to rock and roll.
"Then the Who came to town," Dannis Hackney says, pausing to emphasize some unspoken gravitas of that moment, "and when I saw Alice Cooper, all bets were off. I said, 'If we ain't playing this, then we ain't gonna be having no fun.'"
Singer David Hackney, however, sought to express through the band's new music his own complex cosmology, which included some positive notions about the rebirth and transformation potential in death. Thus, he insisted on the name.
That made Death pretty much dead on arrival.
The band's first producer in Detroit, former Stax musician Don Davis, recalls in the film telling the band: "Have you lost your mind? Nobody is going to buy a song from a group called D-E-A-T-H," spelling out what apparently was still an uncomfortable moniker.
The trio's music caught the ear of hitmaker Clive Davis, who was ready to sign the band to Arista — as long as they changed the name. David refused to budge, insisting (with definitely punkish integrity) that the sacrifice would be a slippery slope. Bobby Hackney, in an earlier interview, recalled, "He said, 'If they make us change our name, then every little thing they see in us they're gonna wanna change — the music, the style, the concept. Once we change that name, we belong to them. Once we give in to that, Death is, well, dead.'"
Credibility intact, Death still died. They did, however, manage to secure the master recordings of what was to be the debut Death album. Attempts to release songs independently failed, and the brothers relocated to Vermont and formed a reggae band. David Hackney died in 2000, after insisting that his brothers hold on to those masters, saying, "One day the world's gonna come looking for this."
Amazingly, that's exactly what happened.
Biafra, a rabid record collector, bought a box of singles several years ago: Death's lone indie 45, "Politicians in My Eyes." He mentioned it in an interview. The writer posted the single online as an mp3. Word began spreading of its awesomeness.
Then the rediscovery came full circle. Bobby Hackney Jr. — clearly still dazed and amazed by this as he relates the story in the film — hears the song, likes it, and has no idea it's his dad until he goes as far as to Google some background. He calls home: "Dad, why didn't you tell me??!!"
This is 2008, and the following year momentum has built enough that Chicago-based label Drag City assists the Hackney brothers in restoring those old masters and finally releasing the debut Death album, titled "...For All the World to See." Another compilation of early demos followed.
This week at SXSW, in addition to the documentary screenings, two bands played showcases: Death, featuring surviving brothers Dannis and Bobby with two extra players, and Rough Francis, a deadly new generation featuring Bobby Hackney Jr., Julian Hackney and Urian Hackney.
Even better: Death will live again on a new record, titled "Relief," in the works now.
SXSW: Justin Timberlake, Prince, Smashing Pumpkins
By Thomas Conner March 17, 2013 9:06 am
The final night of SXSW featured two big legacy acts. OK, from a Chicago perspective it was three.
Justin Timberlake, making good on rumors, blew into town after a week on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” to play an intimate club gig. Here’s a star who will fill Chicago’s Soldier Field this summer, but here in Austin he played the 800-capacity Coppertank Events Center.
(Mind you, this show was only partly about music. Timberlake, now a beer spokesman, was here to promote the newly renovated MySpace web site, of which he’s a major investor, in a concert sponsored by Chevrolet.) Timberlake, backed by a 16-piece band, played for an hour. This writer did not gain admission — I just reviewed his record, and we’ll have plenty of chances to discuss JT further all year long — but there are good reviews here, here and here.
Across town, Prince played the larger club La Zona Rosa, leading a 22-piece band and performing more covers than his own songs. The nearly three-hour show — in which Prince never played guitar (fail) — did bring something to SXSW that is often hard to find: lots of R&B and funk.
"They called our people and said they wanted some funk in Austin,” said Prince, before belting out the last bars of a gentle rendition of “Purple Rain.” At least this show sounds like it was better than his previous Chicago fiascoes.
You won’t see a lot of photos from the Prince show online today, however. Notoriously prickly about photos at his shows, Prince banned all cameras. Even simply using a cell phone got some fans tossed — a biting irony, given that the concert was thrown by Samsung Galaxy and promoters worked the crowd beforehand offering customers fresh phone batteries or device test-drives. But intrepid Chicago photographer Michael Jackson (yup, his real name), shooting for the Sun-Times, landed the image above.
In other news: Today is Billy Corgan’s birthday — happy 46th! — an occasion the Chicago rocker rang in at midnight on stage at SXSW. The Smashing Pumpkins, still busy and ahead of a new world tour, played a set mixed with hits (“Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Tonight, Tonight”) and newer songs from the excellent “Oceania” album, even a cover of Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Review here, or see the detailed run-down on the Twitter feed from Hipsters United.
SXSW: Wanderings, discoveries, random notes
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2013 12:00 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — If it's Sunday, that means my notes are full of jottings about a dozen other bands I saw and haven't written about yet in the mad rush that is SXSW. Deep breath, here's a wrap-up of the other tunes worth mentioning ...
Best brand-spanking-new band
CHVRCHES, barely a year old, impressed with a strong batch of electronic pop at several showcases, including a Friday day stage. The Scottish trio's debut album isn't due until September, but singer-synth players Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty bear all the hallmarks of a forceful, creative unit with a single mind — perhaps the meaning of the beautiful current single, "The Mother We Share." Their newness is evident in the fact that they still have a ways to go before making their knob-twiddling something to watch on stage, but the songs are there. I haven't heard synth-driven pop this tight and tuneful since Robyn showed up.
Most hopeful feeling at end of showcase
No one really seems to have demanded this reunion of Chicago's Fall Out Boy, but the band's Friday night showcase — back at SXSW after eight years — at least showed off enough energy and chutzpah to suggest that the comeback is genuinely inspired. Their fans certainly remain adoring, singing along with practically every word that fell from singer Patrick Stump's lips, maybe even his stage banter. The 45-minute slot kept to singles old ("Sugar, We're Going Down," "Dance, Dance") and new ("My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark [Light 'Em Up]"). Stump flexed his own R&B muscles in a recent solo outing, and the new FOB is highlighting that strength. Even the cover of "Beat It" sounded more sincere and natural than one might expect. Definitely whetted the appetite for the new record.
Best stumbled-upon showcase
Field Report, a band led by Christopher Porterfield. Two bits of trivia: First, Field Report is an anagram of Porterfield. Second, Porterfield started out a decade ago in DeYarmond Edison, the band Justin Vernon fronted before creating Bon Iver. On his own, Porterfield is much warmer and far rootsier. At a Saturday SXSW showcase, his six-man band — plenty of plaid shirts and trucker hats, neither of which seemed to be worn with much hipster irony — delivers supple, textural Americana that fit right in with the venue's sponsorship by a home-improvement cable channel (as if his music was in itself an answer to the advertising banners hung around the bar, asking, "What does home mean to you?"). Singing well-written songs about New Mexico and a "bible school choir," Porterfield guided the band up and down various crescendos to achieve maximum emotional impact, all the while maintaining an appropriately pensive expression. "Is everyone drinking enough water?" he asked between songs. Bassist Travis Whitty chided him: "Concerned dad up here." Aw shucks.
Best return on investment in buzz
New York quartet Parquet Courts entered the festival with considerable, though understandably hesitant, buzz. The band's proper debut album, "Light Up Gold," out in January, is a complex chart of steady rhythms, snaking words and clean but often jarring guitars. It's not an album that immediately broadcasts "great stage show!" On stage Saturday night, the band lazed into action, blurring the line between hasty SXSW sound check and actual opening song. Driven by the rhythm section — featuring bassist Sean Yeaton, who spends the show contributing occasional backing vocals with hilariously distended tongue, like a punk Loudon Wainwright III — guitarists Andrew Savage and Austin Brown were free to work at their own pace and inspiration, pulsing their instruments to propel the song or torturing them a bit. The momentum of the Strokes, the late-night "Stoned and Starving" haze of the Dandy Warhols, plus occasional Sonic Youth squall. Adds up to a good time.
Best personal thrill with very little note-taking
A longtime Robyn Hitchcock fan, I wasn't going to miss perennial SXSW performer Robyn Hitchcock's early Saturday show, particularly since it was celebrating his 60th birthday (complete with tarantula-topped cake and red wine, which Hitchcock referred to as "lady petrol"). The British legend was supported by a number of pals — Ken Stringfellow (Posies), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5), Bill Rieflin (R.E.M., Ministry, tons), Linda Pitmon (Steve Wynn) — and for a moment, with Kelly Hogan on stage and Jon Langford in the wings, it seemed the band might turn into Robyn Hitchcock & the Chicagoans. Langford never materialized on stage with Hitchcock, though. Nor did R.E.M.'s Mike Mills (grinning, looking more content than I've seen him in years), who was at the bar and had played bass behind Stringfellow as the opening act. Nonetheless, Hitchcock told his usual bizarre stories and sang an impressively wide variety of songs — newish ones (the beautiful "Dismal City"), old ones ("Queen Elvis," "Ole Tarantula," "Alright, Yeah") and covers ("Tangled Up in Blue," "Don't Let Me Down") — as well as rapping a bit about the new pope.
Best delayed reaction
Lord Huron was highly recommended to me by friends at last year's SXSW, but I missed their showcase at a cramped little club. Fast forward one year and on Wednesday night they were filling the spacious ACL Live theater, ahead of Natalie Maines' comeback set, with some enchanting folksy harmonies and rhythms. Those harmonies have earned them far too many Fleet Foxes comparisons — and they're sometimes a bit thinner and wispier than that — but when those rhythms crank up they come alive. "Time to Run" does just that, and every band member is armed with some percussion instrument — a shaker, maracas, singer and bandleader Ben Schneider with a small snare. Good tunes when they get up and go.
Best hangover showcase
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell played NPR's Radio Day Stage inside the Austin Convention Center. It was Friday morning, and the soft-spoken angel that is Emmylou strolled out in her boots — cue the Janis Ian song — and quipped that everyone here deserved a merit badge just for navigating through the festival. She meant the confusion and enormity of SXSW, but when she and Crowell played Kris Kristopherson's "Chase the Feeling" ("And you got loaded again / Ain't you handsome when you're high") many vacant-eyed attendees were nodding with understanding, not rhythm.
Worst showcase logistics
Foxygen was due to play a half hour set Wednesday night at the Hype Hotel, which they started a half hour late. (Out of all the shows I saw this week, two started on time. That's my main complaint about SXSW's rampant growth. They're starting to lose control of their production.) Foxygen is a great, brassy band that sounds superb on their latest record, "We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic," but that interesting sound was completely swallowed up in the ramshackle venue that was the Hype Hotel, an empty commercial cavern hemmed in with sound-eating drywall that appeared to have been nailed up this month. Bummer.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
In pop music, when hard-pressed to do something new, do something really old. This maxim plays out in the latest batch of songs from Beck, an album the “Loser” star did not record, but one you now can hear — if you play it yourself.
Beck Hansen’s Song Reader is a fancy folio containing 20 pieces of sheet music, plus nearly a hundred pages of art (from Marcel Dzama, Leanne Shapton, Jessica Hische and more), published in mid-December by McSweeney’s.
In some introductory liner notes, writer Jody Rosen describes the project as “an experiment in ventriloquism.” Beck wrote the words and music; now you have to give them voice and sound.
Many musicians, professionals and amateurs, are doing just that. The web site for the project already overflows with videos of wildly varying performances of the songs. Dig Amy Regan’s sultry reading of “Do We? We Do,” John Alexander’s Jackson Browne-y take on “Ye Midnight Stars” or the lighter-than-air “Old Shanghai” by Contramano.
Typical of Beck, this “album” — songs he’s been tinkering with since 2004 — is an eclectic bunch. Last Thursday night in midtown Chicago, a similarly eclectic bunch gathered to play the set in its entirety.
Funky pop trio Mos Scocious hugged a wall at the Tonic Room, 2447 N. Halsted, amended by keyboardist Ben Joseph and two horn players (Doug Daniels on sax, Jerry Mohlman on trumpet), and acted as the backing band with a rotating cast of singers tackling the material — most of them darting eyes toward the oddity in the room: a music stand.
The Mos Scocious guys frequent the Tonic Room and aren’t necessarily strangers to printed charts. Guitarist-singer Bradley Butterworth, bassist Josh Rosen, drummer Rob Dicke — met in Columbia College’s Jazz Performance classes, and Dicke continues studying in DePaul’s jazz program.
“The notes and ideas [in Song Reader] are very basic,” Butterworth said. “It’s like he gives you half a blank canvas, so the songs can really become your own. We’ve certainly done a lot to these songs that isn’t on the page.”
Michelle Hallman, for instance, opened “Rough on Rats” in tender a cappella before kicking the song into roadhouse overdrive and smacking it with her bluesy belt. She later roared through “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard” — and rapped one verse.
“It’s not in the music that way,” Hallman told me Thursday night. “It’s just my homage to Beck.”
In the sheet music itself, the notations for “Mutilation Rag” describe the piano instrumental as “a struggle between the right and left hand.” Joseph braved it and nailed it — keeping the staggering, “Piano Has Been Drinking” melody upright before expertly mashing the keys and declaring victory.
Singer Maggie Kubley of the Embraceables (featured in the above video) ignited the evening with a slow burn into “Last Night You Were a Dream,” bringing palpable dynamics to the song’s morning-after disillusionment. Kubley was slumming here, opening and closing the set with impressive pipes and the kind of direct emotion you don’t expect when popping into a college-’hood dive.
Three-part harmonies filled the folksy “The Wolf Is on the Hill,” lead by singer John Cicora, who then turned “Do We? We Do” into a stomping voodoo groove, complete with a jowl-shaking Screamin’ Jay Hawkins impression.
“It’s like going back to the days when you had to buy sheet music in order to hear music,” Butterworth said. “You had to be involved, take the initiative. You had to do this” — and here he gestured at the bar, full of 60-70 people. “You had to get people together.”
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Woody Guthrie, despite his aw-shucks Okie persona, was no fool. He knew how the fame game worked — it hasn't changed much, even since his 1940s folksinging heyday — and he seemed to know exactly what would happen to his own musical legacy.
"The hungrier you get up here in New York, the more they run your picture," Guthrie wrote to his younger sister in 1949, inserting a photo of himself from The New York Times. "After you starve clean to the rim of death they call you a professional, and after you die off they call you a great genius."
He continued, foreshadowing the collection of his notebooks, lyrics and artwork that now constitutes the Woody Guthrie Archives: "And when somebody steps in and buys up all of your diaries and scribblings and songs and poems they call you the greatest feller which ever lived, so's your debtors and loaners can get rich off the stink of your dead bones and yaller pages of ideas."
Guthrie himself certainly never got rich off his music, and I don't think anyone else has, either. But as Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter and the overseer of the Archives, told me earlier this year, "The influence of my father's music lives today, and will live throughout the 21st century."
That would have been clear this year — even without a string of celebrations marking Guthrie's 100th birthday.
In a post-Occupy landscape, Guthrie's topical, rabble-rousing spirit seems infused into everything from the street-marching "guitararmy" in New York City and elsewhere, often led by Chicago-area native Tom Morello, to the latest output from Bruce Springsteen (his new album, his SXSW keynote speech).
The varied Woody100 centennial events this year featured many posthumously hailing Guthrie, indeed, as a "great genius." They included six academic conferences (I spoke at one in March in my and Guthrie's home state), folk concerts big (a Los Angeles hoedown in April featuring Graham Nash, John Doe, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Kris Kristopherson and more) and small (Chicago's own tribute show in May), plus exhibits, plays and more. A few more national concerts are on tap — Sept. 22 in Brooklyn (with Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle and more) and Oct. 14 at D.C.'s Kennedy Center (with Arlo Guthrie, John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, Donovan, Lucinda Williams and more) — before wrapping the centennial and moving the Archives from New York to its new home in Tulsa, Okla.
Chicagoans can catch one last centennial event — a good one — during the next few weeks.
"Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie," a stage musical presenting just that, opens Sept. 21 and runs through Oct. 21 at Northlight Theatre, inside the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie.
Guthrie and Broadway? Have no fear. "Woody Sez" is a low-key, high-spirited celebration of Guthrie's music, featuring 30 folk songs (Guthrie's and other traditional tunes). It's far less jukebox musical than a kind of down-home playlist — a splendid swirl of tunes coming and going, each telling and supporting the story.
The Northlight production — featuring the show's creators, Nick Corley (director) and David M. Lutken (starring as Guthrie) — features a simple stage littered with musical instruments: four guitars, mandolin, upright bass, autoharp, dobro, three fiddles, banjo, dulcimer and a harmonica. In an hour and a half, the four actor-musicians keep snatching them up for a verse here, a chorus there, a full song or a reprise. This is how Guthrie lived — applying bits of songs to aid both speech and memory — and it's not so different a method from our own YouTube samples and iPod shuffles. Guthrie just happened to be a walking folk-music Google.
Lutken is great, warmly telling Guthrie's story and differing from his source material only in ways that aren't exactly complaints (unlike Guthrie, Lutken is a tall drink of water and sings beautifully). The cast also features David Finch, the delightful Helen Jean Russell and Austin musician (and formidable "Jill of all trades") Darcie Deaville. They act, they sing, they juggle, they tell bipartisan political jokes.
(There might even be an unintentional gay-marriage laugh in the show. "I married a girl," Lutken narrates as Guthrie, then continues after a slight but significant beat, "Most of us did in those days" — likely an innocent Guthrieism that the Sept. 14 audience reacted to with a slow wave of winking chuckles. Ever-adaptable, that Woody.)
Knitted together by verses from Guthrie's "The Ballad of Tom Joad," "Woody Sez" hopscotches through the folksinger's biography (in fact, taking giant leaps through his later years), ably chronicling what happens when a man with a singular voice not only finds it but figures out what to do with it. "I began to see the difference," Lutken says as Guthrie, "between wanting something to stop — and wanting to stop it."
Guthrie's legacy remains a bottomless well of inspiration for like-minded souls, and these centennial celebrations hopefully seeded more to come.
Deep down, though, Guthrie knew something else about celebrity, and — despite his pure and sainted status — he was happy for the attention. Perhaps channeling Oscar Wilde, he closed a 1948 manuscript with these lines: "I don't care / What you say about me / Just so you say it."
'WOODY SEZ; THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF WOODY GUTHRIE'
• Sept. 21-Oct. 21
• Northlight Theatre, inside the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie.
• Tickets: $25-$72; (847) 673-6300; northlight.org
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
New at Lollapalooza: Perry's open, anti-scale fencing
By Thomas Conner on July 29, 2012 4:00 AM
Music fans inside and outside of Lollapalooza will notice at least two physical changes at this year's music festival in Grant Park.
First, Perry's tent is no longer a tent.
Last year, Perry's stage — one of the festival's eight stages, focusing largely on DJs and electronic music, and named for Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell — expanded to an enormous circus tent with a 15,000-person capacity.
As it proved to be one of the most popular attractions at the weekend concert series, the tent roof trapped too much heat from the mass of dancers. By the second day of Lollapalooza 2011, portions of the big top had been stripped away to allow heat and humidity to escape.
This year, Perry's stage will be open-air like the others and will feature a theatrical set design courtesy of one of the acts, Swedish DJ Avicii.
Secondly, promoters are trying a new tactic to battle the perennial horde of fence-jumpers.
The last two years at Lollapalooza have seen a marked increase in the number of young fans assaulting the festival's perimeter fence in order to get in without paying. Sometimes it's one or two individuals — including several who were critically injured in their attempts last year — but last year saw flash mobs of up to a hundred at a time overwhelming certain sections of fence, occasionally employing boards as ramps.
Organizers at C3 Presents, producers of Lollapalooza, tell the Sun-Times this year's perimeter will include "The Black Fence," an 8-foot anti-scale barricade used in Washington, D.C., around government buildings and during citizen protests.
"The more pressure you put on it, the sturdier it gets," said Charlie Jones, a partner in C3.
Lollapalooza looks ahead: A 10-year deal with the city, paying taxes and standing out among the Big 3
By Thomas Conner on July 29, 2012 4:01 AM
Last year, Lollapalooza celebrated a 20th anniversary and the music festival's founder, Jane's Addiction singer Perry Farrell, remarked to me, "I mean, it looks like this will go on forever, right?"
Never say forever, but Lollapalooza's long-term future in Chicago — where the touring concert series was reborn in 2005 as a stationary, destination event in downtown's Grant Park — certainly firmed up this spring. In a revised agreement consummating the existing relationship between the city and the festival's producers, Texas-based C3 Presents, Chicago now has a solidified tax deal and Lollapalooza has use of the city's front yard through at least 2021.
"We're no longer dating now," C3 partner Charlie Jones told the Sun-Times this week. "We're married."
Plus, according to ads that started showing up on CTA platforms this week, the dates of next year's Lollapalooza are already set: Aug. 2-4, 2013.
Lollapalooza is now one of the country's big three annual pop music festivals, alongside the Bonnaroo Music Festival in rural Tennessee and the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival outside Los Angeles. This year Lollapalooza will admit another record crowd of 100,000 ticket holders per day into Chicago's public green space.
That's up from last year's already record-breaking daily tally of 90,000, and way up from a 33,000 daily maximum for 2005's inaugural reboot.
Can it get any bigger?
"No, I don't think it can," said Michael Kelly, superintendent of the Chicago Parks District, in a separate interview this week. Considering the number of people and available real estate, Kelly said, "We're about at the limit."
Jones (pictured) actually agrees. "At a certain point — and we may be there — there's a tipping point where it just feels too crowded," Jones said. "If we tried to think of pushing it to 150,000, we'd have to ask for Millennium Park, too. That becomes something too big, a different thing. I was at [the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival] the year they pushed it to 125,000. It was too much."
So, like an actual marriage, C3 and the Parks District both now speak of settling in, setting a routine — and fixing up the house.
Dearth and taxes
The new deal announced in March mandates that C3 pay for any damage done to the park immediately following the festival each August. Instead of C3 fixing things themselves, as they've done previously, the Park District will assess any damage and make the repairs, with C3 getting the bill.
Last year, a rain storm combined with high foot traffic on the fest's final day caused significant turf damage that took weeks to mend. C3 was criticized for its speed in making the repairs, for which they paid $800,000.
But Jones and Kelly have been in talks about facilitating more long-term infrastructure improvements to the park, specifically in drainage and soil retention — maintenance Jones likened to "looking under the hood and fixing 'er up."
"Lower Hutchinson Field has become a premier permitting space for the city," Kelly said. "The breast cancer walk, the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, the Chicago Marathon, now Lollapalooza — it's a big gathering space, and that's not going to change. We're going to take a serious look at how we can improve what's going on at that site, how we can make it great for softball as well as for the semis that roll in and out for these larger events."
Under its new terms with the city — a renegotiation that was initiated, Kelly and Jones said, by Jones and his partners, Charles Attal and Charlie Walker — C3 this year begins paying all city and county sales and amusement taxes.
In the previous arrangement, C3 was partnered not with the city itself but with the Parkways Foundation, a nonprofit fundraising arm of the Park District, which handled all the city permitting in exchange for an annual payment from Lollapalooza. Last year, according to the Park District, that amounted to $2.7 million from total ticket sales of $22.5 million.
Kelly said he expects the Park District to receive the same amount this year. The extra amount in city taxes, he said, will amount to about $1.5 million — higher than the $1.1 million estimate in a September 2011 city inspector general's report suggesting the tax be applied to the festival.
"We had to up the ante," Kelly said. "[C3] had to pay more for the event."
As a result, so did fans. To cover the added expense of the taxes, the cost of three-day passes to Lollapalooza jumped $15, from $185 (early-bird) and $215 (regular) to $200 and $230, respectively. The event still sold out all three-day passes within a week before performers were announced.
Parkways was able to earmark its Lollapalooza income especially for park improvements citywide, including playground renovations, Grant Park tree planting and part of the restoration of Buckingham Fountain, which sits between Lollapalooza's allocated concert area. Under the new deal, though, Kelly admits some of the Lollapalooza revenue will be used to shore up the Park District's deficit budget, but he adds, "We have been and will be disciplined in allocating a big chunk of that money to the neighborhoods."
Parkways announced in April that it will cease operations this summer. A new nonprofit division, which will not be connected to Lollapalooza, will start up later this year.
An aerial view of the crowds at Lollpalooza 2011. (Sun-Times file)
Standing out from the big 3
Lollapalooza's direct negotiation with governments is unique among the "big three" fests.
The Bonnaroo festival started in 2002 on a private farm in Manchester, Tenn., between Nashville and Chattanooga. In 2007, festival organizers purchased 530 acres of the land; they continue to lease about 250 acres for parking and camping. Bonnaroo occurs each June and draws about 80,000 people daily over four days.
Coachella now stages its concerts over two weekends at a rented private facility, the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif. That festival, which started in 1999, ran into its own governmental woes this spring when an Indio city councilor proposed a tax on Coachella tickets (approximately $18 per ticket). The festival balked and began shopping for alternate locations; the tax proposal was dropped.
Coachella's agreements with the polo club have been made two years at a time, with the current contract expiring after the 2013 festival (for which tickets are already on sale).
This year's Coachella events in April were attended by 158,000 total and grossed $47.3 million in ticket sales, according to Billboard Boxscore.
The Chicago Parks District estimates the overall economic benefit from Lollapalooza to the city at $100 million annually.
"Because we do this in the heart of a culturally savvy town," Jones said, "the overall economic impact is huge. Fifty percent of the people at this festival are from out of town. You can't get a hotel room during the festival. Plus, we shut down at 10 [p.m.]. After that, the town gets lit up."
He's referring to the numerous official post-festival concerts each night at Chicago indoor music venues, as well as the other food, drink and entertainment business from festivalgoers throughout the city.
Lollapalooza, in fact, has become so attractive to the Parks District that they're looking for other ways to add large music events to Chicago's green spaces. In addition to Lollapalooza in Grant Park and the annual Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park, this fall the annual punk rock Riot Fest will include two days outdoors in Humboldt Park.
The city's openness to large-scale music in the parks is a relatively recent development, Kelly said.
"I was still in college in 1991 when Smashing Pumpkins were talking about playing Butler Field, and people talked it down because the crowds would be too big or whatever," Kelly said. "Years later we were doing Shania Twain and Radiohead in the park, and people were saying, 'Well, maybe we can do concerts in Chicago parks, after all!' ...
"With the concerts we do now, we're one of the largest providers of outdoor entertainment in the state. And we've always got a Dave Matthews or a Jimmy Buffett knocking at our door. Plus, other cities, like San Francisco, have been calling and asking, 'How'd you do it?' So, yes, pop music has become increasingly important to us."
Lollapalooza opens Friday with record crowd
By Thomas Conner on August 3, 2012 10:00 AM
And so it begins again.
Year eight of Lollapalooza as a sit-down music festival in Chicago's Park — with at least 10 more on the horizon — is the biggest ever. Last year's fest jumped up to 90,000 fans each day; this year, a sold-out crowd of 100,000 per day will stream through the gates.
Concertgoers can expect to see added vendors, the usual upscale food options in Chow Town, Perry's stage under an open sky, extra barricades around the perimeter to foil fence jumpers and extra fencing around the park's landscaping (be kind to the bushes — you own them). Here's a look at the set-up.
Gates open at 11 a.m. today. For complete info about the fest, look to the Reader's handy guide. Plus, here are my music picks for Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the park.
Stay tuned to this blog through the weekend, where myself, Anders Smith Lindall and our Lolla crew will update all the music and news from Grant Park.
Important: Keep an eye on the weather: Severe storms are a good possibility late in the day Saturday. (Ask yourself: where would you seek shelter out there — and how long would it take to get there?)
In the meantime, some numbers. This year's 100,000 daily mark is a record attendance. But how does that stack up against the other two summer music fests in America's "big three"?
Setting: in suburban Indio, Calif.
Duration: 6 days (two weekends)
Time of year: mid-April
No. of performers (2012): 144
Total daily capacity: 75,000
Size of site: 90-acre polo grounds (rented), plus 280 acres (owned)
Ticket prices (2012, not including VIP packages): $285 plus fees (three-day pass only)
Reported gross: $47.3 million (2012)
Local annual government share: $1.6 million, plus applicable sales taxes
Local annual economic impact estimate: unknown
Setting: in rural Manchester, Tenn.
Duration: 4 days
Time of year: mid-June
No. of performers (2012): 184
Total daily capacity: 80,000
Size of site: 530 acres (owned), plus 250 acres (leased)
Ticket prices (2012, not including VIP packages): $209.50-$259.50 plus fees (four-day pass only)
Reported gross: $20 million (2012 estimate)
Local annual government share: $1 million given to Coffee County organizations since 2002
Local annual economic impact estimate: $20 million
Started: 2005 (reboot)
Setting: in urban Chicago
Duration: 3 days
Time of year: early August
No. of performers (2012): 130
Total daily capacity: 100,000
Size of site: 115 acres of Grant Park (total 319 acres)
Ticket prices (2012, not including VIP packages): $200-$230 (three-day pass), $95 (single-day pass)
Reported gross: $22.5 million (2011)
Local annual government share: $2.7 million to the Parkways Foundation in 2011
Local annual economic impact estimate: $100 million
Locals at Lolla: Empires, JC Brooks, Haley Reinhart, more
By Thomas Conner on August 3, 2012 12:00 PM
The out-of-state folks who book Lollapalooza at least make an effort to dip into the local talent pool, resulting in often well-deserved showcases for Chicago-area up-and-comers. Last year's side-stage performance by Kids These Days was explosive and contributed to landing the band on the "Conan" show earlier this year. Lolla 2012 spotlights several other locals, including the great alt-rock band Empires (3:20 p.m. Saturday, BMI stage), the already sweat-inducing soul group JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound (noon Saturday, Sony stage) and our own suburban "American Idol" finalist, Haley Reinhart (1:10 p.m. Friday, BMI stage).
Another one to watch is Andrew Christopoulos, a senior at Glenbrook North High School (pictured below).
He's 17, but he's played in a local band, the Axidents, for six years. Christopoulos plays drums in that band, but at his two (count 'em, two) Lollapalooza slots, he'll be showcasing his singer-songwriting chops on the piano.
"It's hard to put a genre on your own music, but I would call it 'folk rock.' It's mostly written for a piano and an acoustic guitar," Christopoulos told Sun-Times Media. "But I hired a full band, Jackpot Donnie — they're all older than I am — to back me for Lolla. There will be two guitarists, a bassist, a drummer, an organist, a cellist, and me on piano, and singing."
That all goes down twice — 4 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday — on the Kidzapalooza stage.
Lollapalooza: Perry's tent, White Panda in the sun
By Thomas Conner on August 3, 2012 2:26 PM
Some Lollapalooza fans wasted no time starting the rave Friday afternoon at Perry's stage, jumping and dancing to the duo White Panda.
Perry's, the one of Lolla's eight stages that focuses almost exclusively on DJs and electronic music, has been under a large tent in previous years. That caused high temperatures to be trapped and endanger fans, so this year Perry's is open-air — an enormous new stage, rivaling the size of the main Red Bull Soundstage in Grant Park's Hutchinson Field. The new Perry's features a special raised deck for the DJs, plus two video screens on either side and three LED strips above and below the stage.
"This is our home town and this means the world to us!" shouted White Panda's Tom Evans (aka Procrast).
He and his partner, Dan Griffith (DJ Griffi), wore panda masks with blinking LED eyes and led the crowd through their typical mash-up mixes, ranging from "Whoomp! (There It Is)" to — yegods — "Call Me Maybe."
The latter got the crowd really jumping — the half that wasn't smirking — and without that big top the Perry's crowd is in direct sun through the afternoon. Methinks the crowd I was watching during the White Panda will have a lot in common with the crowd in the first-aid tents by evening.
Lollapalooza Friday opens with hot rock block
By Thomas Conner on August 3, 2012 7:11 PM
Lollapalooza's first day began, as expected, with a strong indie-rock block in the afternoon. What wasn't expected was the marriage proposal.
Wisconsin native Alex Schaaf, performing on the Sony main stage as Yellow Ostrich, stopped his set midway through and introduced someone named Nate, who came on stage and promptly proposed to someone named Steph. "I met you a year ago and knew then that I'd be getting onstage with Yellow Ostrich to ask you this," Nate told his beloved. Everyone has their dream, man.
"Congratulations, and thank God she said yes," Schaaf said, resuming his show, "'cause that would have put a big bummer on everything."
His set was no bummer, shaking up his bedroom lo-fi by applying extra speed and spunk, even in the precocious "Elephant King."
Philadelphia's Dr. Dog regaled Hutchinson Field's sparse Friday afternoon crowd with a rich set of their slightly skewed, oddball pop. The fullness of the quintet's sound, after the rambunctious but ramshackle Yellow Ostrich, was laced with organ and inventive guitars. Their latest album is called "Be the Void," but there's no emptiness in their quirky '60s sounds, like a funky Camper Van Beethoven.
Tame Impala was next — and the heat was getting to them. After they rambled through "Apocalypse Dreams," a classic-rock marathon that ebbs and throbs through slow-grinding '60s guitar swell, singer-guitarist Kevin Parker stopped to explain something.
"If anyone's interested as to why that song sounded so strange," he said, "I think one of my [guitar] pedals has melted."
This Australian trio started out as 13-year-olds clear back in 1999, making bedroom records until 2007. Now fully immersed in the glare of hipster hype — and the harsh Friday Lollapalooza sun — they acquitted themselves nicely, switching effortlessly between shoegazey Floyd rock, early solo McCartney melodies and T. Rex boogie. Their second album, "Lonerism," is due in October, helmed by producer Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, etc.).
French electronics at Lollapalooza Friday: Madeon, M83
By Thomas Conner on August 3, 2012 11:47 PM
Perry's stage showcases a lot of rising stars, such is the nature of the fast-paced EDM world. Friday afternoon's case in point: Madeon, aka French dubstep DJ Hugo Leclercq, who introduced himself two years ago with six little words: "Here are 39 songs I like." That opening to his very viral video for "Pop Culture," a deft three-and-a-half-minute mash-up of those songs, set him on the path to Perry's stage, where he put on one of the day's more animated performances.
The drag of it, though, was that — despite the big, new Perry's stage being flanked by two enormous video screens and framed by LED strips above and below — no camera focused on the 18-year-old DJ's movements, his unique instrument (the Novation Launchpad) or, most tragically, his jazz hands. The screens at Perry's just flash a bunch of pseudo-trippy screen-saver nonsense, thus wasting the effort of building this large stage with its elevated DJ platform in order to showcase the mixmasters as real performers. Half the joy of watching "Pop Culture" on YouTube is that the footage is static on Leclercq's hands as he punches out all those melodies and beats. At least his jumping around — and, seriously, the jazz hands were cracking me up — gave those of us in the shade something to watch.
Another largely electronic act, M83 — and fellow Frenchfolks — crafted their cinescope sounds on the Sony main stage Friday evening. Bathed in and sometimes pierced by a flashy light show, the band worked through an hourlong set (almost pushing past their time limit up against the night's closer, the Black Keys) that swelled and swirled, nearly every song building with cymbal-crashing crescendo toward a big finish. Over and over.
The film-score quality of M83's elegant disco is well-raved about — and will be applied to an actual film soon, as M83 has been picked to score an upcoming sci-fi flick starring Tom Cruise — and it was easy for me to select their recent hit, "Midnight City," from their latest album (the double-CD "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming") as last year's finest single. Keyboardist Morgan Kibby is an earthy, shamanistic foil to Anthony Gonzalez' earnest guitar rubbing and button jabbing. The band's Friday set strove to pump up the beat occasionally, particularly with other members joining in on drum kits during the thumping "Reunion," but it never got quite fast or furious enough. Like the spiral galaxy the band is named after, their set shone brightly but spun for a long time before burning out. Still, "Midnight City" closes with something you don't hear much at Lollaplooza, in this or any other decade. As the man behind me said, thankfully quieting his chatty friends at the song's climax, "Um, I'm sorry. Are we hearing a freaking saxophone solo?!"
Friday @ Lollapalooza: the Shins, the Head & the Heart
By Thomas Conner on August 4, 2012 12:17 AM
Seattle's the Head & the Heart took to the Sony main stage Friday at Lollapalooza and sang, "Don't follow your head, follow your heart." So despite their name, we know where their allegiance lies — with the impulsive, romantic and less rational of the two.
An unusual sound for Lollapalooza, even in its rebooted era, the Head & the Heart play music loaded with acoustic guitar, violin, piano and tambourine. Lots of real, resonating wood. Add to that the dual singing tasks of the equally gravel-throated Jonathan Russell and Josiah Johnson, and you have a rootsy pop that's, well — if you're over 40, call them the Waterdudes, and if you're under 40, they're the Novemberists.
Unfortunately, playing just as the dinner hour approached, the Head & the Heart's set proved to be a leaden lead-in to the Shins. Despite a few aces — including a new song, "Gone," dappled with lovely harmonies and building to a whomping finish — the plaintive ballads and folk-rock eventually suffered. Passion Pit began playing in the north, and those spunky yelps, urgent beats and lively melodies wafting over the park suddenly made it sound as if we were in the wrong end.
The Shins kicked off their set on the Red Bull main stage with no fanfare, no introduction, just launching right into "Caring Is Creepy" and several older chestnuts. The old songs —from the era in which Natalie Portman wasn't the only one proclaiming that the band would change your life — helped establish an identity, provided enough "Oh yeah!" reminders for casual fans trudging through the dust. While the tunes were recognizable, the performances were wonderfully fuller and more dense. It was like hearing a concert recording of the Smiths late in their career, marveling at how lush the sound gets when just a second guitarist is added. In this case, singer-guitarist James Mercer has a completely new lineup around him after ditching the old band as the Shins moved up to a major label for the latest album, "Port of Morrow."
The guitars packed greater punch throughout, plus organ ("Simple Song") and a tourniquet-tight rhythm section ("Bait and Switch") raised brows and kept them high. The set, though, mirrored the band's recording career. It started strong and grew progressively less interesting, until it ended amid some lengthy prog-rock, noodling nonsense.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: the Black Keys
By Thomas Conner on August 4, 2012 12:51 AM
Friday night's headliners tested fans with a black decision: see the newly reunited and infinitely influential heavy metal band Black Sabbath, or catch a widescreen performance by one of rock's most rollicking and fresh duos, the Black Keys.
For Nathaniel J. Werner, 56, of Oak Park, the choice was clear.
"This is a bucket-list item," he said, while awaiting the Black Keys. "Sabbath? Pfft! Seen that. These Black Keys — I like the blues, and these guys do that and more."
That they do, and did.
Just as they proved themselves arena-worthy in March at Chicago's United Center, the bold pair — guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney (and augmented on stage by a few extra players) — showed they could headline a massive summer festival just as easily.
Introduced briefly by Mayor Rahm Emanuel (pictured at right — no black keys to the city? anyone?), the Black Keys opened with "Howlin' for You" and proceeded to get the audience doing just that, singing along instantly to the song's da-da refrain. Swinging wide through their decade-old catalog, Carney pounded furiously and Auerbach sang firmly while wrenching riffs from his guitar. The sound these two knit together draws from clear influences old and new but never sounds indebted to anyone. Timeless, tuneful and catchy, even while still being sonically dirty and rough to the touch, songs like "Dead and Gone" cause heads to bob involuntarily and make redundant Auerbach pleas such as, "Come on, Chicago, sing it with us!"
Midway through the set, Auerbach and Carney dismissed their support players and woodshedded alone. But, proving their scope, they concluded the show with something much less intimate: a blast of fireworks that spelled out their name above the stage. Humble and audacious.
Saturday weather at Lollapalooza: Emergency plans
By Thomas Conner on August 4, 2012 11:56 AM
Be ready for rough weather tonight, Paloozers.
Forecasts call for severe thunderstorms — a 75 percent chance as of noon, and radar shows a colorful squall line already charging east across Iowa. Last year, thunderstorms blew through on the third day of the festival, merely slowing down a few bands including the Foo Fighters, but organizers tell the Sun-Times they're prepared for any eventuality.
What follows are details from the on-site emergency plan according to information this morning from Lollapalooza producers C3 Presents, as well as a few personal tips:
There's a real-time weather station on site at Lollapalooza. Follow its data here.
In case of high winds: The plan instructs staff to secure items that could be blown around (trash cans, etc.). If it gets windy but not so much that the park should be evacuated, staff is instructed to create "safe areas" around any structure that might come tumbling down as a result.
In case of lightning: Good advice: "Tents, trees and picnic shelters offer little or no protection from lightning. Therefore it is imperative that in the event of lightning in the area that patrons are directed to one of the safe shelter sites until the lightning danger has passed." If lightning-detection equipment on site gets crackling, the crowd may be moved within the park or evacuated.
In case of evacuation: If officials determine that the park should be evacuated, they're going to make the announcement via audio and video, then direct us toward three primary locations: the Grant Park North Garage (25 N. Michigan), the Grant Park South Garage (325 S. Michigan) and the East Monroe St. Garage (5 S. Columbus, with an entrance on Michigan). Look for the signs, blue with white letters, that say "Weather Shelter."
A few tips of my own when facing rain at the fest:
— Wear real shoes. Stop wearing sandals and flip-flops, you crazy people.
— Umbrellas are (a) useless in the crowd and (b) obnoxious to those behind you. Get a cheap drugstore poncho. Covers completely and allows you to move.
— Plastic bags for protecting phones, cameras, etc. Take an extra that contains dry socks.
— The weather comes from the west. Seek shelter in a tent with an opening on the west side and you've sought no shelter at all.
— Safety first. Live to rock another day.
Lollapalooza rebooting after Saturday storm delay
By Thomas Conner on August 4, 2012 6:31 PM
Well, that happened.
Lollapalooza was shut down and Grant Park was evacuated for more than two hours Saturday as severe storms moved through Chicago.
The gates have reopened, and after a confusing but panic-free evacuation fans are trickling back in. Perry's stage is thumping and full of muddy dancers. Some acts have been canceled, but music is expected to begin shortly.
For now, follow the full report here. All details posted to Twitter, too @chicagosmusic.
This has been a test of the emergency Lollapalooza system
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 12:39 AM | No Comments | No TrackBacks
BY THOMAS CONNER Pop Music Critic
with Emily Morris and Mitchell Herrmann
"We need to clear the whole park."
That was the first audio announcement from the southern main stage Saturday afternoon at Lollapalooza in Grant Park. In the next hour, the day's entire sold-out crowd was evacuated from the park — the first such procedure in Lollapalooza's eight years as an annual event in Chicago — ahead of a squall line of severe storms that moved through Chicago featuring lightning, downpours and high winds.
"In all, more than 60,000 festival-goers and nearly 3,000 staff, artists and vendors were safely evacuated in 38 minutes," said a late-night statement from Lollapalooza producers C3 Presents.
Two and a half hours later, the crowds were back in the muddy park and bands were playing on a revised schedule. Storms? What storms?
Here's a run-down of what we experienced:
Saturday's weather forecast had been ominous for days, and by morning the squall line was already charging eastward across Iowa. C3 Presents released the details of their emergency plan, and a few hours later — at 3:30 p.m., after the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Chicago — we all experienced it.
According to that plan, in the event of the decision to evacuate the park ahead of severe weather, announcements would be made via audio and video. (C3 claims both occurred, though every fan we spoke with said they saw no video announcements.) The information was also reported on the Lollapalooza web site, Facebook page, Twitter account and transmitted to 40,000-plus subscribers to the festival's mobile app. Many fans we spoke with had heard the news via texts and tweets well before announcements came from the stage.
Several fans reported confusion about the information given, or lack thereof. "They just told us to get out and find the nearest shelter," said Sara Parolin of Kansas City. "I guess that's where we're going."
Many took the news in stride, and most everyone proceeded calmly and casually toward one of several exits on the west side of Grant Park.
Not everyone wanted to leave, though. Shortly after the announcements, hundreds lingered in front of Perry's stage on the southwest corner of Columbus and Balbo. Matt Colello of Woodstock was one of them. "For those who spent $250 on tickets, we don't want to leave," he said. "Hopefully, it'll be quick."
His friend, Donald Stephens of Chicago, added: "And on the off chance this becomes a huge mud pit dance party ..." He raised his eyebrows expectantly.
In a bit of irony, new barricades in place around the park to keep fence-jumpers from entering illegally held firm as fans tried to exit the park — though several jumped the fence to get out rather than sneak in.
Clearing the park was one thing, and seemed to be accomplished in a timely manner (with plenty of time before the storm hit) and relatively easily. Giving the nearly 60,000 people someplace to go, however, seemed another matter.
As I began to exit the park, I asked staff near the inside gate where we were being directed. I was told to proceed to the next gate where there would be instructions. The outer gate poured us all onto Michigan Avenue, and there was no one giving directions. There was no staff in sight. Fans were simply flowing onto Michigan Avenue, snarling traffic and scattering.
"Once we were outside of the park, there was no information or directions anywhere," said Noah Hyrent of Roselle.
They filled hotels and businesses, some of which reacted against the influx. At a Starbucks at Michigan and Balbo, employees ordered everyone out of the packed coffee shop, even customers who had beverages in their hands. A liquor store near Michigan and Congress locked its doors.
"As we crossed Michigan, I saw all these people looking out the windows in the hotel at this horde of people coming for them," said Kevin Spry of Downer's Grove, seeking shelter underneath the Congress Hotel's southern awning.
One Chicago Police officer, leaning casually against a fence along Michigan Ave., quipped: "There's no place out here for 100,000 people to go."
Inside the Congress Hotel, masses of mostly cheery festgoers congregated in the hotel's bar and in the Gold Room, where some brought their own cases of beer. There were plenty of whoops and yells as concertgoers continued to drink and tried to have a good time despite having to leave the fest. Dan Shaughnessy, 31, of Midway, played for the crowd.
The quick-thinking owner of a bar called Quay commandeered a school bus and sent it to ferry wayward fans to his establishment on Navy Pier.
By 6 p.m., word-of-mouth spread news that the gates were reopening. Lines formed back at the two entrances, and at 6:30 p.m. — as the rain just about stopped — fans were readmitted. At first, Lollapalooza staff tried to make everyone re-scan their wristbands but then abandoned that sluggish procedure for quicker visual checks.
Fans stream back into Hutchinson Field on Saturday for the restarted Lollapalooza.
(Video by Thomas Conner/Sun-Times)
Back inside, the scene was swampy, especially in Hutchinson Field — which was full of gulls quite enjoying the newly created wetlands. Trash cans were turned over and large puddles spotted the landscape. In no time, several young women were purposely bathing in the muck and sliding in the mud.
A clump of readmitted fans clustered in front of the Red Bull main stage affirmed their conviction by singing the national anthem and shouting, "USA! USA!"
One by one, the stages came back online, with Perry's dance stage first pumping out the "Star Wars" theme. Not everyone was back on the schedule, however. Several bands had their remaining sets trimmed and others, including the eagerly anticipated Southern neo-soul band Alabama Shakes, had their sets canceled.
Chicago alt-rock band Empires was one of the unlucky cancellations. After tweeting a single but potent curse word, the band followed up with, "Our set is canceled. Nothing we can do about it. Hard to put into words how bummed we are. Thank you to everyone that traveled."
City officials allowed the park curfew to stretch from 10 p.m. to 10:45 p.m. to accommodate the rest of the acts.
Coming in 2013: Lollapalooza Israel
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 1:25 AM
Shortly after Grant Park reopened to music fans after a temporary, weather-related evacuation, Lollapalooza made an off-topic announcement: the festival is expanding again overseas next year, this time to Tel Aviv, Israel.
Lollapalooza Israel is set for Aug. 20-22, 2013, in Tel Aviv's Yarkon Park.
It's the latest in international expansions by Lollapalooza, produced by the Texas-based C3 Presents. Lollapalooza Chile launched in 2011, and Lollapalooza Brazil began early this year.
"As a musician, I really missed the days when we were on the move," festival founder Perry Farrell said in a statement. "In the last few years we've widened our scope, presenting Lolla to the 'festival generation' around the world. Next stop: Tel Aviv."
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: fun., Washed Out
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 1:44 AM
Once back inside Grant Park after Lollapalooza's rain delay on Saturday, fans scrambled to catch up to a revised schedule. Eventually, though, most just followed their ears.
A whole lot of them, in fact, crammed around the smaller capacity Google Play stage to hear Brooklyn's fun. The crowd wasn't surprising given the trio's series of chart and sales record-breakers thanks to the omnipresence of the hit single "We Are Young." But there was something else going on Saturday night — a level of exuberance that exceeded the already highly pitched spirits the band often generates in concert.
This crowd had just been shoved out of the park and let back in, and they were happy to be there. fun.'s many whoa-whoa, singalong choruses were just the ticket to celebrate Lolla 2.0 on a suddenly cooler Saturday night. When the band finally played "We Are Young," the crowd went wild. The audience in front of the stage sang ecstatically. A dance party broke out on Columbus Ave.
"Oh thank God, thank God, thank God!" exclaimed Kathy Winegate, 30, of Kenosha. "If I didn't get to hear that song tonight, well, we'd have us a problem."
Immediately after was the band named for the evening's activities: Washed Out.
Ernest Greene, the Southern gent behind Washed Out, was pretty happy to be back in the park, too. "We didn't even think we were going to get to play today," he told the crowd, "so it sounds much better with all you guys here."
On record, Washed Out lives up to its name more than in concert. The dreamy, drowsy electro-pop of the group's stellar second album, "Within and Without," is retooled with bigger beats and seismic synths. After an opening number that would have pleased Jean Michel Jarre, the three synth players plus a drummer tightened the grooves underneath Greene's lowly mixed, indistinct vocals.
Before the deluge, Green spoke to me about that early-Michael Stipe view of vocal mixing, plus what's on tap next for the project:
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Frank Ocean, Aloe Blacc, more
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 1:55 AM
Saturday's schedule at Lollapalooza came pre-loaded with excellent R&B. Too bad the afternoon evacuation on account of weather resulted in the cancellation of one of those acts, the widely acclaimed Alabama Shakes, but the rest more than made up for the deficit.
In the blazing sun and soupy, pre-storm heat, sly soul singer Aloe Blacc (E. Nathaniel Dawkins) strutted out to a jumping, genteel start. With a suited band, featuring two horns, Blacc opened by showing how widely soul music can reach — swinging from "Politician," a lively groove stuffed with socially conscious lyrics ("This free country is not so free"), to a funky shaker celebrating more carnal concerns ("Her berries are sweeter and her melons are fat").
Likewise, his cheerleading with the crowd see-sawed between "Love!" and "Peace!" But what he really wanted folks to do was dance. To that end, he made sure we were all on the same page, asking: "Y'all remember a TV show called 'Soul Train'?" He then instructed the crowd to form the kind of dance lines popular on the long-running Chicago-born show.
Musically, Blacc moved through rich gospel, quoting soul standards and hip-shaking, wah-wah funk, all played and sung with a loose-limbed ease but a tight, professional snap. He closed with the bouncy rhythm of "I Need a Dollar," which even included a kind of dub/reggae breakdown. Best part: The sign language interpreter was communicating with hips as much as hands.
Chicago's own JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound opened Saturday's lineup in Hutchinson Field.
Anders Lindall caught that set. Afterward, Brooks sat down with me for a quick chat about soul music, Frank Ocean and how to get an audience into the palm of your hand:
Late because of the rain delay, ballyhooed R&B savior Frank Ocean calmly and coolly kneaded an hourlong set that justified all the slobbering reviews of his recent album, "Channel Orange."
A fixture in the media recently because of a game-changing blog post, in which he came out as bisexual, Ocean thankfully is not just another well-played piece of PR. Opening with an acoustic cover of Sade's "By Your Side," Ocean's depth of vision and talent were quickly fathomable.
An ecstatic crowd around the Google Play stage cheered every breath he took, especially when he buttered them up a bit. "I see we got a little rain today," Ocean said. "I'm happy you came back out. I wouldn't miss y'all for the world."
Performing with a four-piece band that didn't back him so much as they painted sounds around him, Ocean exuded an alluring confidence. And why not? He's got a strong voice that makes two- or three-octave leaps seem such a casual maneuver. He's singing some of the most clever, sometimes quirky and engaging lyrics and lines. He possesses a musical vision light years beyond the modern R&B bump-and-grind standard. Songs like "Novocaine" and "Swim Good" flushed with spooky undercurrents (both musically and narratively), and "Strawberry Swing" swelled into a dramatic, Coldplay-esque anthem. Even if the storm hadn't broken the heat, Ocean's performance still would've made a perfect evening.
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: fields, the Walkmen, Little Dragon
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 4:53 PM
"As Lady Gaga said when I saw her last time we played Lollapalooza [in 2010]," quipped the Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser during the band's Sunday afternoon set at Lollapalooza, "'It's hot as f—- up here!'"
This sounds like a complaint from Friday or Saturday, when Chicago heat indexes were closer to 100, not on Lollapalooza's comparatively glorious third day — cooler, drier, clearer.
Then again, Leithauser was on the Sony main stage, facing the direct sun — and, just like the band's appearance in 2010, wearing a black suit.
After Saturday's two-and-a-half hour stoppage and evacuation due to severe weather, conditions and moods at Lollapalooza on Sunday were much improved.
Grant Park's Butler and Hutchinson fields in the north and south, respectively, are definitely showing wear. In both spots, grass is compacted and pocked with muddy patches. The softball fields in Hutchinson are dry and dusty again, but the tundra around it is spongy in most places, swampy in others. The ground around Perry's stage (southwest of Columbus and Balbo) is something of a dry crust, occasionally punctured to reveal the muddy sludge beneath.
Patches of mud in Grant Park's Hutchinson Field at Lollapalooza on Sunday. (Thomas Conner/Sun-Times)
The only real drawback, though, is the stench. Each of these fields reeks of either an old gym sock or a neglected kitchen drain.
Myra Woodruff, 22, of Cincinnati sported an old-school safety pin in her earlobe and a wooden clothes pin on her nose. "Smell is not the sense I'm here to concentrate on," she said.
Despite cooler temperatures, shade is still at a premium, with lots of fans huddled under the trees near Perry's stage and the Google Play stage, while the sunny patches directly in front of the performers were half full.
The Walkmen, for their part, seemed labored in that afternoon sun. The quintet, with the bloom of a 10-year anniversary just fading, meandered through their set and only seemed to plug into a real power source near the end. Once again in an incongruent setting for Leithauser to be squinting in the glare and wailing, "We're gonna have a good time tonight," this band's traditionally dirty sonics sounded clean and their normally vintage equipment seemed efficiently modern. Their official after-show later tonight at Lincoln Hall should wrap Leithauser's quivering wails in the darkness it so requires.
Meanwhile, an actual band — not a DJ — took to Perry's stage. Sweden's Little Dragon quickly set to justifying why they belonged on the EDM stage, opening with a clanging rhythm and a springy synth beat. The DJ tower gone, the quartet was free to leap about the stage, with singer Yukimi Nagano banging a tear-shaped tambourine. Their deeply soulful sound might have been a bit minimal for the Perry's ravers, but the songs' clean lines and electronic hums showcased a well-heeled, well-armed band. They oughta be, they've been around for 15 years now. So when Nagano asks the crowd if it's OK to play a "really, really old song," she's not just being coy.
Contributing: Anders Smith Lindall
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: Sigur Ros
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 5:23 PM
You couldn't imagine a starker contrast between setting and style.
Here's Sigur Ros onstage at Lollapalooza. They open early with the funereal pace their hourlong set will maintain with elegant rigor throughout. Singer Jon Thor "Jonsi" Birgisson is, as always, playing his electric guitar with a bow. Eventually he begins emitting his pinched falsetto cry — like the call of some eerie, autistic wild — and continues the piece by singing that same cry directly into his guitar pickup. The result is an added echo, a faintly astral projected sound amid the band's chilly, lush, cinematic sound.
Before them, however, lies Hutchison Swamp.
The crowd is large, but not so large yet (in the middle of the day) that they can't avoid the biggest and slimiest of the mud pits, souvenirs of Saturday's brief but thorough storm soak. Many fans are again caked in the grey-green muck, which dries on their legs and shoes in the sun. All this crystalline beauty from this revived Icelandic band, but you keep expecting one of the "Swamp People" guys to wrassle a gator in the puddles.
Jonsi, all bones and pale, pale skin, patiently sawed out his ambitious (if occasionally wearying) compositions backed by the band, which was augmented by string and horn players. Video screens flanking the stage tried to frame the tone of the music by splicing watery imagery in between shots of the sun-squinting Icelanders. That they played as measured a set as they did in what had to be strange conditions likely contributed to the crowd's lengthy ovation.
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: At the Drive-In
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 11:17 PM
The other surprising reunion act at Lollapalooza doesn't have the profile of Black Sabbath but on a good day might be able to go toe-to-toe with them. For much of their Sunday evening set in Hutchinson Field, it was a good day for At the Drive-In.
The Texas quintet revived its controlled, virtuosic, "post-hardcore" thrash in a main stage set peppered with jerking guitar lines, stand-up comedy and technical glitches.
"We are collectively known as Latin Danzig," said singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala by way of reintroduction. Bixler-Zavala's wit crackled throughout the set, commenting on the muddy field's pungent odor ("It smells like a Toblerone!") and filling an equipment breakdown with a rant about shoes.
But most of the time he was yelping and barking and pushing that unsettling, high voice that often falls somewhere between Geddy Lee and Kevin Cronin, just as At the Drive-In's music blends prog and pop, respectively. A table-pounding gem like "Lopsided," as close to a power ballad as this band gets, still showcases Bixler-Zavala's vocal versatility.
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: Jack White
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 11:44 PM
Jack White closed out this year's Lollapalooza with an epic performance of the same kind of blues-rock that inspired the festival's Friday headliner, the Black Keys. But White is more than the yin to someone else's yang, he's the whole colorful circle of modern American music — bashing out rock, digging up roots and careening through country.
Fortunately, he brought along a band that could handle the breadth of material. In fact, he brought two.
On tour, White has been traveling with two bands: one all-female, one all-male. They usually take turns playing each gig. For Lollapalooza, they both hit the stage.
Opening Sunday's show with a serious-looking, suited crew of heavyweight gentlemen, called Los Buzzardos, White — in black, with white boots, looking every bit "The Crow" of rock and roll — began drawing from the scope of his work as part of projects such as the White Stripes ("Black Math," "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground") and the Dead Weather ("Blue Blood Blues"). Without the dead weight, as it were, he could showcase the same mélange of material and underlying razor focus displayed on his recent solo debut, "Blunderbuss." Crunching through "Sixteen Saltines," from that album, White and his moody men ran hot at full throttle and in low gear. Even when things backed off a bit and White took a turn at the piano during "Missing Pieces," sitting back-to-back with the Buzzardos keys man, the force was always fully felt.
Midway through the set, the gents retired and the ladies took over. The Peacocks, as they're called, dressed in white and maintained the hardcore energy and country gentility, continuing through more solo, White Stripes and even a Raconteurs ("Top Yourself") number.
All business, and hardly chatty ("We got lucky with the weather tonight, didn't we?"), White intently screamed, shrieked and growled into a set that rarely let up for an hour and a half. Then came the encore, a punishing blow of recognizable, raucous riffs: "Steady as She Goes" (another Raconteurs tune, which White used for some call-and-response with the packed crowd), "The Hardest Button to Button," "Freedom at 21" (during which the Peacocks' drummer bashed so hard she knocked off a cymbal) and "Seven Nation Army." In the end, both bands took a bow.
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Pitchfork Music Festival kicks off with new features
By Thomas Conner on July 13, 2012 3:45 PM
The 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival got off to a delayed start Friday afternoon due to passing storms. Gates opened 30 minutes later and music was delayed 10 minutes while crews pumped some flash-flooded spots.
First up is the organic drone of Lower Dens and the spunkier rock of Outer Minds. Through Sunday night, 47 bands will perform on three stages in Chicago's Union Park, featuring mostly indie subgenres of rock, pop, electronic and hip-hop.
With a daily capacity of 18,000 fans — Friday is nearly full, Saturday is sold out, Sunday is filling up — the annual music fest is exactly one-fifth the size of Lollapalooza's daily crowd of 90,000.
That does not mean it wields just 20 percent of the impact.
Showcasing rising stars and cutting-edge sounds, the Pitchfork event — derived from its namesake online music magazine, Pitchfork.com, the arbiter of what's playing in hipster headphones the world round — often assist in culling the field, even determining who steps up to the larger fests, such as Lolla, Coachella and Bonnaroo.
Situated squarely in this West Loop park, Pitchfork's schedule and layout are easy to manage and maneuver. It's a fan-friendly and usually Chicago-friendly experience. Ticket prices stayed level this year ($45 each day, $110 for three-day passes), so it's a great bargain.
New elements to the experience this year include on-site lockers for fans to stash belongings, a ride-sharing program and increased bicycle parking. Among the vendor booths and markets, such as the CHIRP Record Fair, is the new BookFort, sponsored by local publisher Featherproof and Poetry magazine, featuring books for sale and a schedule of readings and discussions throughout the weekend from writers ranging from Tim Kinsella to Cynthia Plaster Caster.
Also, for those not attending the festival, Pitchfork 2012 is streaming online for the first time via youtube.com/pitchforktv.
Pitchfork Day 1: Chicago's Willis Earl Beal amazes
By Thomas Conner on July 13, 2012 11:50 PM
Chicago's Willis Earl Beal delivered the first jaw-dropping set of this year's Pitchfork Music Festival. Preceded by a growing legend that's threatened to overshadow his actual talent — discovered as a visual artist and busker, Beal has been trumpeted as an eccentric wunderkind in Found magazine and in the Chicago Reader — he strutted onto the festival's smaller secondary stage as if he were headlining the United Center. He then unleashed a voice that would've filled eight United Centers.
Warming up with some head-turning a cappella gospel evoking Calvary, Beal started a reel-to-reel tape rolling — his only accompaniment at first — and began singing over tinny clangs, dobro slides and bass beats. But "singing" seems a flaccid verb for what Beal actually accomplishes. Projecting a massive, versatile voice that hollers and howls, grates and growls, the 27-year-old Beal's bellowing evokes the oldest bluesmen and the fiercest young rappers. It's a voice that swings wide, high and low — often from guttural yawps to fluttery falsetto within a single line. He's Screamin' Jay Hawkins, then he's Curtis Mayfield.
Beal's acclaimed debut album, "Acousmatic Sorcery," is mostly lo-fi and delicate. His show is raw and loud. Twirling slowly, falling down, wrapping himself in a black cape — his moody performance is dramatic and occasionally histrionic. It wears slightly thin, too, particularly during the stomping six-minute dirges, but it's unquestionably a singular talent.
"You've been very patient watching me up here being self-indulgent," Beal said near the end. The pleasure was ours.
Pitchfork Day 1: Rain, rain, we came to play
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 12:03 AM
With its afternoon opening delayed slightly by a brief but heavy storm, Pitchfork's first day was deluged by a second downpour just before 6 p.m. The music didn't stop, though. Pitchfork organizers kept things relatively on schedule, and most fans seemed energized by the cooling rain.
More wet weather is forecast into the weekend, with a 40 percent chance of more storms Saturday.
Pitchfork's daily capacity of 18,000 fans wasn't quite sold out Friday, and the roomy field even during headliners suggested many fans with weekend passes stayed home due to the weather.
After A$AP Rocky's crew defied the evening downpour, skies cleared quickly and — save for a few muddy spots and puddles — Friday night went off without a hitch.
"I think the sun is coming out," said Japandroids' Brian King as his duo's set got under way. "Everything's gonna be all right."
Pitchfork Day 1: Outer Minds, Olivia Tremor Control
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 12:25 AM
Friday's music at Pitchfork opened direct from the wayback machine.
The first band on stage, Chicago's Outer Minds, drenched the soggy park with shimmering '60s psychedelic boogie. Singer-guitarist Zach Medearis, Vox organist Mary McKane and tambourine-confetti queen Gina Lira harmonize like the Mamas & the Papas, but the music is eight-cylinder garage-rock — much wilder and reckless on stage than on record.
Medearis' Alex Chilton (Box Tops-era) bark and snaky Will Sergeant guitar lines literally vibrate in front of drummer Brian Costello's rolling fills and thundering drops. During "Until You're Dead," Costello was on his feet, pounding his toms like a musical Thor. Right on.
They were immediately followed on one of the main stages by the paisley sounds of the Olivia Tremor Control, a product of the Elephant 6 collective in the 1990s, re-formed in recent years (along with the reappearance of Jeff Mangum) with charter members Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart. Their sunny '60s pop faced down Friday's looming clouds and included numerous horns.
Pitchfork Day 1: A$AP Rocky vs. Big K.R.I.T.
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 12:34 AM
Two rising hip-hop scrappers nearly went head-to-head on the two main stages Friday night.
First, A$AP Rocky hit the Red stage — or at least his mob did. Rocky showed up during the fourth song and proceeded to throw his ADD rhymes at the crowd just before the second storm hit. Rain didn't stop the Harlem rapper, but with his frenetic flow, urban angst and stage-diving antics, little probably could. Championed by Drake and collaborating with Danny Brown, his 2011 debut "Live Love A$AP" caught enough mainstream attention to earn a major-label reissue this year. That was mainly for the slo-mo flow of hits like "Peso" and "Purple Swag." Friday, Rocky was so hyped-up his follow-up, coming in September, might be called "Live Wire."
Better was Big K.R.I.T., a slow burner from Mississippi who took to the Green stage in a Bulls cap and kept telling the crowd he wanted to "slow things down." With beats significantly more soulful than Rocky's, K.R.I.T. (King Remembered in Time) eased everyone through a scorching, satisfying set. His full-length debut, "Live from the Underground," mixes up the soul (and blues, he samples B.B. King) with anti-crunk hip-hop full of — like his Friday set — frequent reminders that K.R.I.T. is just "country people."
Pitchfork Day 1: Feist, Japandroids, Dirty Projectors
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 1:26 AM
The two guys who make up Japandroids have a knack for multiplying humanity. First, guitarist Brian King (pictured) and drummer David Prowse generate enough raucous sound for a full quartet and then some. Secondly, they draw a crowd — one of the biggest I've ever seen at Pitchfork's smaller stage under the trees.
Taking the Blue stage as the rain receded, King took responsibility. "We brought the Vancouver weather with us," he said. Because of the weather delays, their set was trimmed. "So I'm not gonna talk after this. We're just gonna cram in as many songs as we can. ... It's Friday night! Let's have some fun!"
Here are two guys definitely not sorry for party rocking. Playing several bashers from their latest album, "Celebration Rock," they filled the small space with spirited, punkish New Wave jams that electrified the large crowd — like they did at Pitchfork back in 2008 — and could have held down one of the main stages with atomic aplomb.
On the flip side, Dirty Projectors began their main stage set shortly after Japandroids, offering highly quirky, jazzy chamber-pop that might have been more rewarding on a smaller, more intimate stage.
A regular at Chicago outdoor festivals (Pitchfork in 2008, Downtown Sound in 2009, Lollapalooza 2010), Dirty Projectors just released "Swing Lo Magellan," a slightly more straightforward batch of songs, though that's not saying much for these herky-jerky composers. Opening the set with "Magellan" songs, Dirty Projectors presented a cool, jazzy front, mixing in prog-rock breaks and dubby bass into fractured tempos and occasionally glitchy sounds. Dave Longstreth is charismatic and creative, but he's no singer. Well into the set, the grooves began knitting together more seamlessly, and the songs that spotlighted the harmonies of the group's three women — as on the stunning "Beautiful Mother" — reminded me how much I used to love the Roches.
Closing out Friday's main stage was Feist, the not-so-feisty Canadian who became a darling of indie-pop years ago with a little song called "1,2,3,4," a song that wound up everywhere from iPod commercials to "Sesame Street." And she didn't play it.
What Feist did instead was put on the show she clearly intended to put on — a patient rendering of her songs, old and new, with a decidedly earthy, rootsy palette. She even had (speaking of the Roches' harmonies) the female trio Mountain Man singing backup and wrapped in baggy, monk-like robes. Mixing new songs, from last fall's "Metals," and spacious reinterpretations of a few old ones ("Mushaboom"), Feist and her band slowly prodded her catalog. Rhythms palpitated like Native American songs, and the set started off like a bit of a wet blanket. Chatter online and on-site leading up to this set questioned whether Feist was a headliner-worthy act. As she plodded along like Jackson Browne's sister, the naysayers were winning.
Eventually, though, she cranked things up to festival level, grinding into her guitar hard enough to remind us she began her musical life in a punk band. "My Moon My Man" featured some six-string squall before its big, booming finish, and midway through the rocking backbeat of "I Feel It All" she had the whole crowd back. This ebbed and flowed, swelling again during "Comfort Me" and concluding with a self-satisfied grin.
Pitchfork Day 2: 'Embrace the mud!'
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 6:50 PM
PHOTO BY ME
After Friday's soggy opening, the second day of the 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago's Union Park received another soaking early in the afternoon. But a little rain failed to dampen the spirits of the sold-out crowd.
Festival organizers acted quickly to manage the puddles and mud patches, laying down clay and plastic decking, and pumping where necessary.
As one festivalgoer said, though, leading several around her in a chant: "Embrace the mud!"
Pitchfork Day 2: Flying Lotus, Wild Flag
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 11:52 PM
Pitchfork's blessing and its curse can be the diversity of its programming. Saturday's schedule was proof of these extremes — a broadly inconsistent day — but sometimes the swing between extremes really crackle, as it did Saturday afternoon with two divergent but equally exciting sets.
First, California DJ Flying Lotus (Steven Ellison, pictured) quickly dispatched all who doubted that one man and a turntable deck could hold down one of Pitchfork's main stages. An odd booking, perhaps, but in the glare of post-rain sun, his charisma and cheer — not to mention a wise selection of tracks for his target audience (Kanye West & Jay-Z, Odd Future, Erykah Badu and more were in his fluid mixes) — were infectious. When he tweaked the Beastie Boys' "Intergalactic," the crowd — already pogoing in the slop — went berserk. When his time was up, he kept spinning and few argued.
Follow that postmodern party with a purely old-school guitar band. The inimitable Wild Flag continued knitting a '60s psych-rock thread that started on Friday with Outer Minds and Olivia Tremor Control.
But this supergroup quartet (members from Sleater-Kinney, Minders, Helium) see-sawed between more classic, concise pop-rock (closing with "Romance" from their highly acclaimed, self-titled debut) and stunning, feedback-drenched guitar workouts ("Glass Tambourine"), as well as taking turns between songs led by singer-guitarist Mary Timony and those led by Carrie Brownstein.
As if to highlight their roots as a two-guitar band, they opened with Television's "See No Evil," then unveiled a couple of new songs. Their back-and-forth in the climactic swirl of "Glass Tambourine" was athletic. Same for "Racehorse," which they ended by weaving squalls of feedback for several minutes, concluding with Brownstein — in an image I'll long remember — her hair frazzled and in her eyes, holding her aquamarine guitar by the bottom high over her head, with one hand, her other on her hip, as the feedback rolled and rolled. Triumphant.
A bonus of every Wild Flag show is watching Rebecca Cole dance behind her keyboards. Very Peanut-characterish, very endearing.
Pitchfork's known more for experimental and electronic acts, so it was nice to hear some rawk.
Pitchfork Day 2: Sleigh Bells and a mixed bag
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2012 12:40 AM
Saturday was a day of mixed reviews. The weather: dreadful at first, delightful by nightfall. Mobile service: some hilarious tweets, though several of them were delivered two hours late. The video screen: beautifully clear this year, even though its images always seemed brighter and sunnier than reality.
Music, too. Sleigh Bells, for starters. Their reign of terror on the evening main stage alternated between hard-hitting and plain silly.
Pumped-up cheerleader Alexis Krauss, guitarist-producer Derek Miller and a second guitarist, Jason Boyer, put on a spirited track show, leaping and posing to a backing of tinny beats and high-EQ noise. Even in the wide-open park space for Pitchfork — where they also played in 2010 — the sound was claustrophobic. Opening with their now-signature high-EQ guitar assault, they dished music that at times aped Billy Squier ("Demons"), Roxette ("Born to Lose") and a Jamaican Jesus & Mary Chain cover band ("End of the Line"). Give Krauss props for filling in the holes with buoyant stage prancing and fierce orders for everyone to cheer, and give the crowd props for obeying. "I'm coming to get you, Chicago!" she cried as she dove into the audience. She makes a racket, but she makes it look like a blast.
Chromatics were playing for five minutes before I realized that the innocuous synth-pop I was hearing was not the piped PA music. Danny Brown's pinched, nasally, Nipsey Russell rapping was funny but flat, like his usually wild hair that the Detroit MC hid underneath a ballcap. London's Hot Chip filled the good-time, dance-party slot last year ably designed by Cut Copy, but did so by playing a batch of uptempo dance-pop that all sounds exactly the same, even their cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Everywhere." They sounded like everyband.
Pitchfork Day 2: Grimes, Godspeed You! Black Emperor
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2012 1:17 AM
Saturday's Pitchfork headliners both seemed like mixed bags — especially to the hundreds of people who stuck with them for two songs and then bolted (I've never seen such an exodus on a Saturday night at Pitchfork) — but each earned their keep in drastically different ways.
On the main stage, the mysterious and expansive Godspeed You! Black Emperor confounded the curious and exalted the faithful. Reunited after a seven-year hiatus, the nine-member Montreal collective (last here in March 2011, just after reuniting) demonstrated why they are both revered and ignored, building a typical set that was all dynamics but little depth.
What GY!BE does is build tension — and build it, and build it. This is a band whose debut album had three songs on it, each averaging 17 minutes in length. Their opener Saturday night, as the field had cooled and the crowd loosened up, began with a musical murmur, a sound that could have been a sound check, could have been a tuning. Then a single violin note. Some static footage began (the video screen between the stages went dark for this, the better to force concentration on GY!BE's nonsense imagery behind them), drums began thumping, then an undulating hum. They sustained this intoned intimidation for 13 minutes, basically around a single note. You wondered if they even knew where they were, or cared.
From there, the set throbbed and threatened — morphing through Turkish violins and Middle Eastern chimes, unnerving drums that thundered and rattled, and occasional wafts of melody, like half-remembered folk tunes or hymns (I know I heard "Amazing Grace" in there). This was symphonic music as it would be crafted by, say, Crazy Horse.
A wordless wonder was a bold choice for a festival headliner, though only the faithful seemed to appreciate the audience with their Olympian legends. Unlike Explosions in the Sky, for instance, GY!BE never seem truly comfortable on — or even aware of — stage. Saturday's performance, however, launches a 17-date tour through the summer.
Meanwhile, another act proved far bigger than Pitchfork's small Blue stage. Vancouver native Grimes (Claire Boucher) took a break from her current participation in the Full Flex Express Tour with Skrillex, Diplo and others to drop in on Pitchfork and draw a massive crowd under the trees. Like GY!BE, she bewildered as many as she entranced — there was a similar mass exodus from her crowd, too, after a couple of songs — and seemed to be dancing to a different performance than the one we were hearing.
Despite purring and cooing through soft, skittering ballads and glitchy, gauzy pop fragments, Grimes whipped herself around as if she were spitting out block rockin' beats. Plus, in addition to her DJ (who didn't seem to unburden Grimes of her own considerable knob-twiddling efforts), Grimes was joined onstage by two dancers, of the "Solid Gold" variety. Whereas GY!BE is all structure and time, Grimes chucks structure for sound. Not only does she employ her own, trademark baby-doll voice to its full extent, she adds infantile vox humana to the synthesized mix. The result is often creepy, unsettling and occasionally bewitching. She knows how to craft a hook, but she casts them into strange, murky waters.
Pitchfork Day 3: the Electromusical Energy Visualizer
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2012 5:54 PM
Mind you, this is the Pitchfork Music Festival, not another World's Columbian Exposition. Nonetheless, in one corner of Chicago's Union Park during this weekend's annual indie-rock fest, there was a contraption called the Electromusical Energy Visualizer.
Fans enter one of its four booths (sponsored by online service eMusic), don headphones and place one hand on an electric sensor. They then listen to snippets of four songs, each by one of the bands on this year's Pitchfork schedule.
At the end of each song sample, a photo is snapped. Like an amusement park ride, you exit the booth and receive your photo set — each shot overlaid with a color from the spectrum allegedly corresponding to your "musical aura" while listening to the song.
Yes, it's a 21st-century mood ring.
My session seemed accurate enough: Lower Dens (light yellow, mildly happy), Beach House (bright yellow, very happy, see photo at left), Iceage (goofy expression on my face, but no mood response) and A$AP Rocky (no mood response).
Pitchfork Day 3: The wooden letters
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2012 7:08 PM
Fans who visited the Blue stage this weekend at the Pitchfork Music Festival took a moment or two to decipher Matthew Hoffman's plywood sculpture (above).
In letters 8-feet tall and spanning 80 feet atop the park's west fence, Hoffman spelled out, "THESE MOMENTS."
It's part of some on-site art installations in collaboration with Chicago-based Johalla Projects.
Watch a time-lapse video of the installation here, and see more of Hoffman's work here.
Pitchfork Day 3: Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, more
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2012 12:08 AM
The only thing that made Sunday afternoon's block of garage rock at Pitchfork 2012 more scorching and thrilling was the camaraderie between two of the acts.
"Hey, Ty Segall!" John Dwyer shouted from Pitchfork's smaller Blue stage. "Can you hear us?"
Dwyer leads Thee Oh Sees, the prolific Bay Area pysch-rock band (four albums in three years) with the ever-evolving name (OCS, the O.C.'s, the Ohsees). Sunday his band started a half hour before the like-minded Segall on the larger Red stage, and Dwyer knew a lot of fans were torn by the scheduling — and planning to bolt. "Don't go," he pleaded limply. "Stay!"
While both White Mystery redheads watched and pumped devil horns in the air behind the stacks, Thee Oh Sees plowed through a set of rich, textured psychedelic garage. Dwyer and his mates threw their heads hard back and forth as they ground out relentless riffs, and Dwyer yelped and hiccupped. The first song bore down for eight glorious minutes, bashing and scraping like early '90s-era Flaming Lips scoring a post-apocalyptic road movie. Hanging tight to their garage aesthetic, they still sashayed through slower, ambling boogies and several moody freakouts. Segall definitely heard them.
In fact, he tried to repay the favor. Midway through his own set, Segall led the crowd on a count of three to shout, "Dwyer!" Then he noticed that Dwyer had already finished and was standing to the side of Segall's stage. "Holy sh—!" he blurted. Then, with the same utter joy he played his stunning set, he shouted, "Yeah!"
Segall, an even more prolific California garage primitivist (11 albums since 2008), was Pitchfork 2012's great revelation.
Where was the mud Sunday? Not in the field, but in Segall's amps. Thick, peaty sonic mud, tuned for flinging. Opening with peals of feedback squall, Segall and his band — featuring the battering Emily Rose Epstein on drums and equally aggressive guitarist Charles Moothart — blasted through a set of rollicking rock and roll as true to form but just as texturally diverse as Thee Oh Sees. Where Dwyer's band is slightly more cerebral with their clay, Segall is all physical — grabbing handfuls, lurching to and fro, torturing the desired sounds out of his instrument by flexing and twisting every part of his body, not mere hands and fingers. Garage stomps and banshee wails, jangly bits and cooing harmonies, screeching jet engines and screams of bloody murder — hell, not only did he throw in a cover of AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," he turned in some credible blues-rock ("You Make the Sun Fry," a great title for Sunday's heat).
He even made something out of the stage-diving cliché by jumping in and steering the surf — pointing in the direction he wanted to go, out toward the sound booth and back to the stage. The crowd conveyed him just so while the band vamped. When he hit the stage again, he picked up his guitar and kept going. A golden god.
These sets were bookended by other unabashed guitar rockers at a festival sometimes known more for knob-twiddlers and shoegazers. Milk Music, a longhair bar band from Olympia, Wash., played dedicated '90s grunge and whipped their hair around without irony. The Men, a Brooklyn quartet with a Southern rock fixation, tempered their own thrash with slide guitar, harmonica and forays into stoner jams.
Pitchfork Day 3: Lady Gaga and Kendrick Lamar
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2012 12:35 AM
Straight outta Compton, rapper Kendrick Lamar earned a huge crowd at Pitchfork's smaller Blue stage on Sunday. Were they all drawn by Lamar's hard-as-nails flow? Not quite.
Lady Gaga was there to see him.
You read that right. Lamar, you see, keeps excellent company.
He's not a newbie, either. He started his career as K. Dot, making three mixtapes under that name. Now rechristened, Lamar has Snoop Dogg singing his praises and Dr. Dre signing him to his label. (Lamar even has allegedly contributed to "Detox," Dre's now-legendary third album that's been in the works for 11 years.) Pitchfork fans can appreciate that he recently performed a concert with Best Coast.
The Lady and Lamar somehow became friends, and Gaga tweeted about him last week ("What a sweetie calling me this morning to see how I'm doin"). In a move smacking of marketing machinations, Gaga swung through Chicago to play tastemaker.
During Lamar's set, Gaga danced on the side of the small stage under the trees, surrounded by her entourage (which included a beefy fellow waving photographers away). Twitter nearly burst into flames with anticipation of her joining him on stage, but the pairing didn't happen.
Which left us Lamar by himself. Frankly, that's a bit of a letdown. Hitting the stage 15 minutes late, Lamar spent much of his set freestyling — impressively, with an appealing and gravelly street-preacher flow, but he seemed to be doing it most often because his lame, distracted DJ wasn't backing him up. "Hol' Up" is an easygoing reflection built atop some chill Herb Alpert-like horn samples, but after that we got a ride on the cliché train. Leers about sex and alcohol, demands for noise-making and hand-waving, comparisons of himself to Martin Luther King Jr. — by the end of Lamar's set, Lady Gaga would have been a comparable injection of humility.
But she just leaned on the railing, in a black bustier and some heavy jewels. All dressed up, and she didn't go anywhere.
Pitchfork Day 3: Vampire Weekend, Beach House, the Field
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2012 1:33 AM
The 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival concluded Sunday night with three final acts touching on each strength this locally produced marquee has demonstrated over the years: dependable college rock (Vampire Weekend), noodling electronic mood music (Beach House) and a curious, tucked away experimental surprise (The Field).
Three days down, 47 acts on three stages, Pitchfork 2012 was a mixed bag — more mixed than usual, really — with a full-capacity sell-out only on Saturday.
Beach House — sigh. First off, I know. They're dreamy. If I never see a tweet or have it explained to me about their "dreamy" sound, it'll be too soon. But it's often a thin line between dreamy and dull.
When the drug lobby eventually succeeds in making everything legal and taxable, Beach House will be in great demand to provide music for Quaaludes commercials. Depending on your point of view, the plodding pretenses of Victoria Legrand (pictured) and Alex Scally (plus a mallet-loving drummer) either made for that perfect Pitchfork evening gazing into the twilight or a dreary, dark buzzkill. I expected the former but concluded the latter.
Legrand's sandy, deliberate voice pulsated in and out of the washed-out mix, while she and Scally hung back deep on the stage. (If you weren't positioned within a 45-degree cone from center stage, you could barely see them. Ironically, the cameramen were usually in the way, too.) Balancing light and dark tones within their Cocteau Twins echoes, the duo — in a better slot than their 2010 Pitchfork appearance — hummed and thrummed, mixing woozy sounds with delicate brushes and beats. But none of it had enough hooks to keep me from drifting away.
Which I'm glad I did, because I found the Field. A pseudonym for Swedish "minimal techno" artist Alex Willner, the Field on Sunday featured Willner joined by a drummer and bassist. Take the sustained tension of Saturday night's Godspeed You! Black Emperor, swap the bombast for some Tangerine Dream, and you've got the basics for this super-subtle patchwork of rhythm and sound that closed out Pitchfork's Blue stage.
Willner laid down a simple beat and began building dynamics above and below it — so lightly, carefully, applying the kind of noises you can't quite discern, the kind of insistent hums you search the house all over trying to locate. But it was cool, refreshing, and he kept layering the sounds and amping up the rhythm until the small crowd was dancing without most being aware of how or when they'd started. A study in electronic grace.
Now, to the Sunday night main-stage headliner: Vampire Weekend.
You hipsters and your inevitable backlashes. The preppy thing, the "Upper Wide Side Soweto" tag, the premature Spin acclaim, the bassist's relation to Scott Baio — I get it, Vampire Weekend is painted with easy targets. But on paper this band's world-beat/college-rock cocktail is much more affected than has been proven on record, and usually on stage (occasional cardigans notwithstanding). Hipsters love to employ the worn-out Paul Simon comparisons as a weapon. But you could do a helluva lot worse than having influences of such a rich songwriter and producer, particularly from his "Graceland" zenith. As has been argued before, Simon's legacy is overdue for indie-rock mining.
That said, Vampire Weekend missed an opportunity Sunday night to reintroduce themselves. Actually, the problem was that they didn't introduce anything new. "Contra," their last album, came out two and a half years ago; they've been laboring over the follow-up ever since, which they report is about 80 percent finished. From all that work, though, only one new song showed up Sunday. The rest of the set list was, well, drawn from the same well as their March 2010 concert in Chicago and their previous Pitchfork appearance as the hot new thing in 2008.
"It's been a long time since we played shows," singer Ezra Koenig told Sunday's ecstatic crowd. He repeated the caveat later, a few songs before his voice seemed to go (he sounded pretty out-of-practice on "I Stand Corrected").
The catalog is still bustling, spry and fun, especially with Sunday's concerted oomph, driven by the powerful drumming of Chris Tomson. But the new song — a stomping beat, a woven melody — and a satiny new reading of "Horchata" were the only fresh digs. Not that many seemed to mind. A screaming, dancing crowd hung on every tilt of Koenig's guitar and sang along to the whole bit. Still, to task, chaps! Finish that record!
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
This SXSW post is not brought to you by an Austin homeless person
By Thomas Conner on March 13, 2012 6:09 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Perhaps you've heard that the zeitgeist at the annual South by Southwest culturefest is now located in the Interactive segment, rather than the conference's original Music portion. Must be true — the first real controversy of SXSW 2012 occurred before many music critics had landed in the Texas capital.
SXSW is now a 10-day event encompassing rollouts of films, digital ventures and new music. The movies and online jibber-jabber started March 9; the music blares on through March 18.
But it's a crowded event, with celebrities, journalists and industry types jamming the Austin Convention Center and venues throughout downtown. Last year, nearly 20,000 registrants attended the Interactive portion — which wraps up today, just as the Music showcases begin tonight. As you might imagine, mobile bandwidth comes at a premium.
So BBH Labs, the techie division of the marketing agency BBH, tried a little experiment.
They gathered 13 people from a local homeless shelter, gave them mobile 4G Wi-Fi devices and sent them into the throng. Each volunteer wore a T-shirt saying, "I'm [Homeless Person's Name], a 4G Hotspot."
Many have found the campaign insensitive. Wired.com wrote that it "sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia." Technology blog ReadWriteWeb called it a "blunt display of unselfconscious gall." In an online op-ed, The Washington Post wondered "Have we lost our humanity?"
The company paid the homeless workers $20 up front and a minimum of $50 a day for about six hours work, said Emma Cookson, chairwoman of BBH New York. They also were able to keep whatever customers donated in exchange for the wireless service.
When you log on to one of the Homeless Hot Spots sites, customers are introduced to the person providing the connection and are invited to make a donation. A statement on the page reads: "Homeless Hotspots is a charitable innovation initiative by BBH New York. It attempts to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations."
Saneel Radia, the BBH Labs director who oversaw the project, told the New York Times the company was not taking advantage of the homeless volunteers.
Other might want to get in on the action, though. My cab driver from the airport said, "Hell, they can load up my cab and I'll drive around with a hundred hotspots, long as I can keep the meter running."
SXSW dials down the digital, cranks up the music
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 9:00 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Let the music begin. For days here in the Texas capital, tastemakers from digital ventures and the film industry have been unveiling their wares at the South by Southwest culture conference. Tuesday night, however, the programming shifted back to what built SXSW a quarter century ago: music.
More than 2,000 bands will roll their gear into Austin during the next few days, performing on more than 90 official stages. Last year, more than 16,000 registrants attended the music portion of the festival, including artists, publicists, industry scouts and a lot of media.
Music is a hot topic among digital pioneers, of course, so concert stages were under way earlier in the week. Hip-hop titan Jay-Z performed Monday night for an invitation crowd.
Tuesday night, as the Interactive sessions died down, the music showcases revved up. Last year was the first time music showcases started backing into the Tuesday of SXSW week, and there were more this year.
Chief among them was the return of Philly singer-rapper Santigold, acclaimed upon her 2008 debut and not heard from much since. Now she's out hyping her upcoming sophomore set, "Master of My Make-Believe," due May 1.
This being Austin, there was also a crowded fete for the loveable and quirky Daniel Johnston, a beloved area singer-songwriter.
The music programming starts in earnest today and continues through the weekend, with Bruce Springsteen giving the keynote address midday Thursday and performing later that night with the E Street Band, which launches its next tour this weekend.
Got a SiriusXM radio or a friend who does? The SiriusXMU channel is airing SXSW broadcasts all week, including the Friday night outdoor concert by the Shins.
SXSW: Alabama Shakes deserves the hype
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 5:06 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Buzz bands at the annual South by Southwest music conference have a lot in common with those who win best new artist at the Grammys. You tend to not hear much from them afterward. (Last year, conference attendees and wristband fans clawed over each other to get into showcases by London fuzz-rock band Yuck. Who? Exactly.)
Possibly the buzziest of the buzz bands at this year's SXSW (so far) is Alabama Shakes — but this is a band you're going to hear much more from.
Fresh out of the piney woods just an hour downriver from the legendary soul studios at Muscle Shoals — and with only a couple of EPs to their credit thus far — Alabama Shakes is a fiery quintet of youngsters playing country-soul that both Skynyrd and Otis could love.
The anticipation generated one of the largest crowds ever for a daytime showcase at the Austin Convention Center, with several hundred filling a ballroom for the group's Wednesday afternoon performance. The band just played a sold-out gig last weekend at Chicago's Lincoln Hall.
For the most part, the hype is deserved. Lead singer Brittany Howard is a cool storm, one of those young singers exuding confidence beyond her years and presence possibly beyond this earthly realm. She pulls her accent back, often singing through rounded cheeks that add an extra dimension to her growls and wails. Her voice isn't a wide-ranging beast (her high notes are thin), but it's a beast nonetheless, purring like Macy Gray or exploding in very occasional fits of Janis Joplin.
The band supports her with remarkably restrained backing, controlling the dynamics of every song — slowing down when it wants to get fast, and vice versa — like making great love. Each player keeps things tuneful but spare — leaving huge spaces for Howard to snake through, then unleashing rare bursts of carefully timed fury. In that respect, they could use a songwriting mentor; at least half the set features rocking soul numbers that develop the same way, always ending with the band grinding hard while Howard wails something appropriately animalistic and urgent over and over ("Feels good!" or "Yes, he did!!" or "Well, all right!!!"). The band's ninth and final song, the dramatic groove of "You Ain't Alone," followed that template and resulted in their second standing ovation of the set.
SXSW: Little Steven on TV, Broadway, Springsteen tour
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 8:00 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Little Steven Van Zandt had a good chuckle about an alleged rumor reported this week during South by Southwest.
A writer at Magnet music magazine claimed he'd heard that, for their anticipated Thursday night performance during the annual music festival, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band would be performing a version of the Broadway musical "The Music Man." (The writer later confessed, not surprisingly, "I made it up.")
"You never know, though," Van Zandt said during a chat Wednesday with the Sun-Times, laughing heartily at the idea. "[Springsteen] might have some Broadway up his sleeve."
Van Zandt is in Austin this week for a couple of reasons. In addition to the Thursday night show, he's also promoting something SXSW hardly deals with it all: a TV show.
Following his turn as a gangster in the HBO series "The Sopranos," Van Zandt is again playing a mobster -- this time in a series produced for Norwegian television, "Lilyhammer." The show was recently picked up by Netflix as the streaming service's first original programming.
"I was in Norway producing one of my bands there, the Cocktail Slippers [an all-girl rock band from Oslo]," Van Zandt said, "and these writers came and pitched this to me. I wasn't planning on playing a mobster again, but it's such a great idea. ... The Norwegians have gone crazy for it because they love America and rock and roll. They love the spirit of individualism, which is a bit of a contradiction for them and their community-based government. My character is someone who doesn't follow the rules, and they're very used to following the rules. Someone like me being a little naughty is exotic to them."
After the SXSW show, the E Street Band kicks off its tour this weekend. The band performed last Friday at New York's Apollo Theater, debuting the five-man horn section that replaces late saxophone legend Clarence Clemons on tour.
"We'll be featuring our soul music roots more on this tour," Van Zandt said. "And, you know, this year is a celebration of Woody Guthrie [the centennial of his birth]. Quite a bit of Bruce's music is a tribute to Woody Guthrie. ... It just never ceases to amaze me how Bruce continues to write in a way that is vital and very much of the moment. It always keeps us from even thinking about becoming a nostalgia band, because every tour is a whole new everything."
Springsteen is delivering the SXSW keynote address Thursday at noon. His latest solo album, "Wrecking Ball," was just released, and it debuted at No. 1 this week.
SXSW: John Fullbright comes of age
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 11:48 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Let me tell you my quick John Fullbright story before I go on about how mesmerizing and moving his Wednesday evening South by Southwest showcase was.
When I was writing about music in Oklahoma, I covered the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival each July in Guthrie's hometown of Okemah. Okemah has one motel, which is taken over by the artists and production crews during the festival. Folk singers, in my experience, don't sleep much, and every night after the shows wrapped up in town most of them would drag chairs into the motel parking lot and swap songs till dawn.
Every now and then, wide-eyed young buskers would stroll up and try to measure up. Few did — until, several years ago, a teenaged Johnny Fullbright strode into to the circle with a banjo over his shoulder. Tipping his cap, the Okemah native offered to play a couple of his own songs. Soon, Arlo Guthrie's eyebrows raised and he sat forward in his lawn chair, and we all knew we were hearing something special.
Since then, Fullbright has shared stages with Joe Ely and fellow Okie songwriter Jimmy Webb, among others, and he recorded a live album. "From the Ground Up," though, will be his studio debut, due May 8 (Blue Dirt/Thirty Tigers).
Fullbright's SXSW showcase — the first of eight gigs he has here this week — was as perfect as if it were a Jonathan Demme concert film. Taking the stage at St. David's Episcopal Church in downtown Austin, the unassuming young singer stepped to the mike with his guitar and harmonica rack. He appears meek and milquetoast in his flesh-colored collared shirt and flat, parted hair, but — sorta like Kelly Joe Phelps — the square look is deceiving. He started plucking and blowing and wailing a first-person account of God setting up humans for their inevitable fall, and suddenly another crowd knew it was going to hear something special.
Fullbright synthesizes the best songcraft from his home state — Webb, Leon Russell and, by default, Merle Haggard. Just in his 20s, he mournfully considers how "all my life I've tested truth / but truth's not always sound." I'll give him credit for the double entendre in that last line, because the caliber of the rest of his songwriting is so good. He's got a tune called "Forgotten Flower," a thoughtful country lament, that Tom Waits and Randy Newman could fight over.
Possibly unintentionally, Fullbright filled his set on that church chancel with familiar subjects. He opened with "God Above," a searing blues. He sang, "Glory, glory, hallelujah," then played "Satan and St. Paul" and "Jericho."
The last three songs were plunked out on an upright piano, swinging from his own slow ballad "Nowhere to Be Found" to the dancing blues of "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do." The versatility was natural, authentic, untrained. Webb's oft-repeated endorsement predicts "that in a very short time John Fullbright will be a household name in American music." It may not be hyperbole.
SXSW: Ezra Furman, Sharon Van Etten, Mr. Muthaf---in' eXquire, the great R. Stevie Moore
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2012 9:33 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "Is that a dude in his underwear, just playing?" asked a guy who wandered into The Jr bar just off Sixth Street on Wednesday night. Why, yes, yes it is.
Ezra Furman, the mad Evanstonian who recently relocated to the Bay Area, stepped onto the bare stage for his SXSW 2012 showcase nearly bare-assed, wearing only socks and boxer briefs. The rest of him was just the same — wild eyes, spasmodic poses, a spitting earnestness so unnerving you pray he doesn't make eye contact.
Hurling a mixture of songs from his new solo album, "The Year of No Returning," and gems from "Mysterious Power" and his Chicago tenure with the Harpoons, the skinny folk-punk wunderkind bared his soul, as well, in songs alternating between naked desperation ("Bloodsucking Whore") and mournful reverie (a cover of Tom Waits' "Bottom of the World"). In a new song, "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde," he summed up his SXSW moment, singing, "I was hideous and handsome."
"I was supposed to be a wide-eyed sort of singer-songwriter, but I don't feel like that anymore," he said from the stage. "Too bad, marketing team."
• • •
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten played a demure set Wednesday night at Stubb's. Getting off to a late start, Van Etten plodded through several songs from her attention-getting 2010 debut, "Epic," and her new follow-up, "Tramp." I still don't quite get the slobbering reverence for her work. No doubt, it's encouraging to hear someone with a voice this lovely treading the well-worn road of dissonant strumming and oblique, soul-bearing poetry blazed by fellow New Jersey-raised Patti Smith. Most of the songs merely wear that path down deeper, though, warbling over organ and cymbal-shy drums until they reach big crescendos that stumble to clumsy halts. They're awfully passionate dirges for someone who seems so chipper and cheery during her brief stage banter.
• • •
Mr. Muthaf---in' eXquire and his red-hot New York rap crew continued their SXSW gigs Wednesday night at MI Annex on Sixth Street, and the crowd didn't want them to leave. "eXquire! eXquire!" they chanted, begging for one more freestyle, to no avail. MMeX is a weird, Wu-Tang-like mob of half a dozen rappers, and the group's namesake is a hulking, slurring nutjob with percolating flow. Wednesday night, he was spewing syllables so fast and without stopping that he began to slouch and collapse. At the climactic moment, he shot up as his mates punctuated the verse, shouting, "Breathe!" Huzzah!
• • •
Since the early 1970s, "singer"-songwriter R. Stevie Moore has been producing song after song after song — countless hours of tape — documenting the weird and wonderful corners of his mind. As the Trouser Press record guides have stated for years, "'Unsung hero' only touches on the injustice of obscurity for this wry, heartfelt artist whose limber genius." But he meandered into the SXSW spotlight this week for a few showcases, including a typically bewildering set of songs Wednesday afternoon in the middle of the SXSW trade show.
"Why would anyone come to South by Southwest to see Lionel Richie?" Moore sang in a seemingly off-the-cuff ditty about the preponderance of big-name bookings at this year's festival, which was born in the late '80s as a haven for spotlighting up-and-coming talent. "If I had to choose between Lionel Richie and Sufjan Stevens, it would be a dead heat."
A large fella, in shades and with a wild Santa Claus-white beard and hair fluttering every which way, Moore plunked out his crafty lyrics and bent tunes on acoustic guitar. From his bottomless repository of material, he plucked a remarkable cache of quirky love songs, such as "Traded My Heart for Your Parts" and, uh, "I Wanna Hit You" (which he punctuated with, "Pow! To the moon, Alice!"). Looking at him, a deranged Wilford Brimley gargling his notes and strumming herky-jerky chords, the song "Goodbye Piano" took on new resonance: "You're so out of tune / I assume you're dead."
SXSW keynote: Bruce Springsteen gives musical history lesson, celebrates Woody Guthrie centennial
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2012 3:22 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Marveling at the breadth of contemporary pop music, Bruce Springsteen name-checked his own lengthy list of milestone influences during a funny and enlightening keynote address Thursday at the South by Southwest music conference.
The king of this particular musical Mardi Gras, Springsteen hit town Wednesday night and showed up to jam with Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo at the Austin Music Awards. In addition to his keynote speech, the Springsteen blitz continues tonight in concert with the E Street Band, a preview of the tour kicking off this weekend. His latest album, "Wrecking Ball," was released last week and debuted at No. 1 in 14 countries.
"No one hardly agrees on anything in pop anymore," Springsteen said in his opening remarks. He expressed awe at the number of bands booked at SXSW.
"There are so many subgenres and factions," he continued — and then amused the standing-room crowd by listing as many as he could name, dozens of hyphenated musical classifications and creations, from melodic death metal and sadcore to rap-rock and Nintendocore. He ended the list with a slight slump, saying, "And folk music."
"This is all going on in this town right now," he said.
Citing rock critic Lester Bangs' assertion that Elvis Presley was the last thing Americans would agree on, Springsteen said each of the thousands of bands booked during SXSW "has the belief to turn Bangs' prophecy around.
"The one thing that's been consistent over the years is the genesis and the power of creativity. It's all about how you're putting what you do together. The elements you're using don't matter. It's not confined to guitars, tubes, turntables or microchips. There's no right way, no pure way of doing it — there's just doing it."
Springsteen then took the rapt audience on a tour through his own musical upbringing, noting each notable inspiration that molded him — from Presley's appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1956 through poetic descriptions of the power he felt coming from doo-wop, Roy Obison, Phil Spector, British Invasion bands, the Beatles, country, soul, Stax, Motown and Dylan.
He spent extra time on the Animals. "For me, the Animals were a revelation," he said. "That was the first full-blown class-consciousness I'd ever heard."
He sang and strummed most of "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," a song the Animals made famous, and declared, "That's every song I've ever written! That's all of them, I'm not kidding. That's 'Born to Run,' 'Born in the U.S.A.,' even the new ones." He played the riff from "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," then the riff from his own "Badlands": "Same f---ing riff, man."
Acknowledging that this is the centennial year of Woody Guthrie's birth, Springsteen concluded with how he's been inspired by the American folk legend to keep his own lyrical focus on the issues of working people. He was also honest about their differences.
"I knew I was never going to be Woody Guthrie. I liked the pink Cadillac too much. I liked the luxuries and comforts of being a star. I'd already gone a long way down a pretty different road," Springsteen said.
In the end, Springsteen tried to bring it back to music's colorful mass, the overwhelming amount of it, the dizzying scope of its styles as evidenced in SXSW itself. The thread fans and artists must needle out of the experience, he said, has always been the same no matter how many subgenres there are.
"Here we are in this town celebrating a sense of freedom that was Woody's legacy," Springsteen said. "We live in a post-authentic world. Authenticity today is just a house of mirrors. It's all about what you're bringing when the lights go down. At the end of the day, it's power and purpose that matters."
• • •
The Woody Guthrie connection bookended Springsteen's keynote.
Immediately before the speech on the same stage, American singer-songwriters Jimmy LaFave and Eliza Gilkyson strummed Guthrie songs, such as "Oklahoma Hills," "I Ain't Got No Home in This World" and "Deportee." Colombia's Juanes played a couple of his own songs, spirited tunes in Spanish he said were inspired by Guthrie. All three lead the sleepy SXSW crowd in a singalong of "This Land Is Your Land."
A panel session followed the keynote, titled "Woody at 100." Moderated by Bob Santelli, executive director at the Grammy Museum and a Guthrie scholar himself, the panel featured journalist Dave Marsh, scholar Doug Brinkley, songwriters LaFave and Joel Rafael, and two of Guthrie's children: singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie and head of the Woody Guthrie Foundation & Archives, Nora Guthrie.
Nora discussed the pending move of her father's archives — thousands of original lyrics, poems, notebooks, journals, artwork and more — from its current New York home to a new facility in Tulsa, Okla. She also highlighted a theme from Springsteen's keynote about music's many styles, noting that Woody wrote all kinds of music, including love songs and Jewish music.
Arlo made some important distinctions about his dad's legacy amid all the discussion of it in this centennial year.
"There are a lot of different Woodys," he said. "Even having known him along with my sister, I don't know that anybody has the capacity to have fully understand anyone. ... He really had the ability to distill all of us and put it into a way so that we recognize our own voice coming back to us. He said, 'Let me be known as a man who told you something you already knew.' ... Everybody in this room has a little voice they count on that they recognize as being them. My father recognized that voice in him and reflected it back on you so you recognize something that rings true to you. I don't think we're actually celebrating Woody — we're celebrating us. That's the genius of the man."
For a complete list of the numerous Guthrie centennial events around the country, see woody100.com.
Power pop @ SXSW: Big Star tribute, dB's reunion
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 10:32 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — At the 2010 South by Southwest music conference, critics and fans were eager for a scheduled celebration of the '70s band Big Star. The influential pop-rock band was at the height of a popular resurgence, fueled in part by a stellar box set ("Keep an Eye on the Sky") released the previous year. A panel session was planned, a hotly anticipated concert, too. But on the first day of the festival, bandleader and power-pop icon Alex Chilton died.
The pieces of those plans were reassembled in earnest Thursday night at SXSW 2012. In a star-studded concert — featuring a pantheon of alt-rock greats including R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Wilco's Pat Sansone, Tommy Stinson, Peter Case, Chris Stamey, Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer, M. Ward and many more, plus Big Star's lone survivor, drummer Jody Stephens — musicians inspired by the band, complete with a 12-piece orchestra, performed the whole of Big Star's "Third," their emotionally tangled and rightly acclaimed album recorded in 1974 and released by 1978.
Stamey — also appearing several times at SXSW this week with the reunited dB's (see below) — has made these "Third" gigs into something of a pet project, performing them a few times ahead of the festival. But Thursday's gig, back in something of an emotional center for the band and its fans, resonated with obvious love from the musicians, especially a smiling Stamey, who never sang but acted as bandleader.
Mixing up the album's various sequences, the show opened with M. Ward on piano meandering through Eden Ahbez's "Nature Boy," an outtake from "Third." Players and singers then started cycling behind the microphone. British pub band the Dunwells delivered "Take Care" with Irish balladry and an accordion. The Mayflies' Matt McMichaels lead a steady "Jesus Christ." Auer, who had joined a revived lineup of Big Star, drove slowly through "Black Car," fueled by the string quartet.
Standouts included Stinson, formerly of the Replacements, redeeming himself with a solid version of "Nightime." Watching him in his skinny plaid suit and hipster hat, one could almost forget he now slums in the reconstituted Guns N' Roses. Peter Case, once a svelte New Wave rocker in the Plimsouls, appeared shaggy and bearded and did his best Van Morrison impression through "Stroke It Noel" (Stamey's smile was a thousand watts through that one). Sansone's "You Can't Have Me" was powerful even without the wailing saxophone and the two drum solos from Stephens.
Stephens himself stepped out from behind the kit to sang a couple of songs, including a string-laden "Blue Moon" beautifully arranged with a Pachelbel's Canon sway.
R.E.M.'s Mike Mills originally was scheduled to be on stage for the show, but he canceled due to illness. The former band's guitarist, Buck, appeared instead. He merely lurked in the background for two songs, the cover of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" and "You Can't Have Me."
The show closed with "Thank You Friends," featuring most of the cast back on stage, like a traditional "This Land Is Your Land" folk finale.
The Big Star concert followed a screening of a documentary, still in progress, called "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" from director Drew DeNicola.
• • •
Stamey's a busy boy at SXSW 2012. In addition to corralling that large cast of players for the Big Star tribute, he's got his own showcase on Saturday, plus he and the reunited dB's are scheduled six times here this week.
Wednesday afternoon was their first showcase, on the Dogwood patio on West Sixth Street. Featuring originals Stamey, singer-guitarist Peter Holsapple and drummer Will Rigby, plus acclaimed Southern producer and artist Mitch Easter on bass, this latest revival of the beloved '80s power-pop group is hawking a new album, "Falling Off the Sky," due in June.
They utilized their showcase to show off many of the new tracks — as jangly and tuneful as ever. Holsapple insists the new album is "a great summertime record," and as he sang the new "World to Cry," a wind-blown tree in the courtyard approved by showering the tightly packed audience with new buds.
It's not all sunshine and tanlines. Another new song jangled over a martial rhythm and lyrics of lament and paralysis. Stamey remarked, "On my tombstone, I want, 'He wrote one great riff.'" Then he added, "Plus a lot of depressing songs." He then ripped a scary, dissonant solo from the heart of "Happenstance," which the band balanced with the gentle waves of melody in "Love Is for Lovers."
Their official showcase is tonight.
• • •
Fast forward to the 21st century: Power-pop rocker Brendan Benson was back on stage as a solo act Thursday night. Jack White's partner in the Raconteurs, Benson funnels most of his melodic talents into his solo albums. He has yet to make a bad one, and his next, "What Kind of World," is due in April on his new independent label Readymade.
His Thursday showcase wasn't as flawless as his records. Stringy-haired and a little adrift, Benson charged gamely through some new songs, though one had to be abandoned after the first verse; he tried to restart it, but flubbed something again and moved on into a duo of the Raconteurs' "Hands" and his own "Cold Hands (Warm Heart)" (in which he laments, "Why does it always happen...?").
SXSW: Fiona Apple's splendid case of nerves
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 12:05 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Alabama Shakes might be one of the buzziest new bands at this year's South by Southwest music conference, but Fiona Apple is the one of the hottest returning-act tickets. After not having been seen outside of Los Angeles in years, and with her last record of emotionally taut pop-cabaret released in 2005, two lines for her second showcase Thursday night snaked around the block in different directions.
Performing in a Presbyterian church, Apple strode purposefully onto a candlelit stage with a four-piece band and launched into "Fast as You Can." Still a frenetic ball of anxiety, when Apple stands at a microphone without a piano to occupy her hands her nervous energy nearly flings her limbs apart. Thursday night she wore a white shawl over her shoulders, which she immediately took to flipping and waving about like a manic Stevie Nicks. Banging fists against her body, flailing her arms, pounding the piano — one senses that without the music to focus her energy she'd go utterly mad. Then again, she can rein herself and become the perfect picture of Marlene Dietrich smolder, as she did during "Paper Bag."
Apple's voice is not a smooth or delicate instrument. It's guttural and trembling and sounds ravaged by a prior hour of sobbing; midway through her Thursday concert, she made a brief show of spraying some salve into the back of her throat. The songs fit the sound — lyric after lyric of man after man who doesn't understand her (the dolt who won't even kiss her in the right place in the new "Anything We Want") and heaps of self-doubt ("I'm gonna f--- it up" from "Mistake"). "Not that I go to church or anything," Apple said, gazing up at the shadowy altar, "but I'd like to apologize to the building itself for my cursing."
The band supports the crackling tension with herky-jerky soul-jazz phrases, as if Elvis Costello's "Spike" is drowning his sorrows at L.A.'s Largo club (home of the acclaimed residencies curated by Apple producer and compatriot Jon Brion). Prone to lengthy vamps and calliope-like refrains, the music's drunken gentility was often pierced by tinny, edgy solos from her guitarist. Every song was a suspense thriller, and as Woody Allen said, "I hope it lasts."
Briefly, anyway — her SXSW showcases kick off a tiny tour, just a few dates including two sold-out shows Sunday and Monday at Chicago's Lincoln Hall.
Apple's new album returns to her penchant for lengthy titles — (inhale) it's "The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do" — is scheduled for a June release.
SXSW hip-hop fusion: K. Flay, Idle Warship, Robert Glasper
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 5:51 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Kristine Flaherty grew up in Wilmette. She went to Stanford. She's also a helluva rapper.
With frenetic flow and live-wire, chicken-dance moves, K. Flay barreled through a Friday showcase at Austin's Red Eyed Fly, crumpling labels and defying genres. Backed by an excellent live drummer, Nicholas Suhr, she crafted loops and samples with real finesse, utilizing grinding guitar sounds and squawky electronic noises for melody and music more than mere beats and punctuation. "We're going to go to a fun place in our minds," she said by way of introducing one song. It was less invitation than advisory — she picked up drumsticks and attacked her own percussion pad, and she and Suhr lost themselves momentarily in a rhythmic freakout of ecstatic proportions.
K. Flay's sharpest weapon, though, is her fast-talking tongue. Her words-per-minute reached the red line almost every time. One song began with a slow, easygoing beat (no drummer), as she started rapping along. The beat kept modulating, faster and faster, and for three or four minutes she kept slinging syllables without a single flub or nonsense gibberish. Who knows what she wound up saying? But given the rest of her wisecracking, hard-hearted material -- all that's out thus far is an EP, "Eyes Shut," available free on her web site -- it's worth hearing at any speed.
• • •
Idle Warship — a new collaboration between acclaimed rapper Talib Kweli and Philly soul singer Res — released an album last fall that was mostly great, a fizzy mix of hip-hop, R&B and rock with just the right balance between all three. The group's SXSW showcases were highly anticipated — but, alas, their Friday afternoon show was ho-hum.
Backed by a live quartet, Kweli and Res ping-ponged their vocal duties and spent an inordinate amount of time asking the crowd for cheers instead of earning them. Kweli turned the word "soul" in one song into a falsetto, drawn-out "Soul Train" nod, but the music, which is buoyant and bouncy on record, lurched and lagged live. Even the synth underpinning of Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night" in the song "Steady," which eventually morphed into the whole band singing the Eurhythmics' "Sweet Dreams," failed to brighten the desperate energy on stage. The term "rap-rock" has certain negative connotations; this isn't really rap-rock, but it's close. A 21st-century Digable Planets, unfortunately, they ain't.
• • •
In one sense, I'd like to thank the sound engineers who had difficulty getting things in gear for the Robert Glasper Experiment showcase late Thursday night at the Elephant Room. Without their delay, some room in the tiny, dank club might not have opened up and I'd have missed the whole show standing on queue. The sound was substandard even when the show got under way, but those who made it in heard enough to justify the hype that brought us there.
Glasper is a hip-hop wunderkind. Glasper is a jazz juggernaut. A pianist, a Texas native, he seems to be knitting a new kind of fusion. A set that opens with Coltrane (sax player Casey Benjamin is pretty wicked, see video below) and nearly winds up with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" might only turn the head of zeitgeist interpreters like Brad Mehldau, but Glasper's quartet followed their open-minded explorations through the jazz tones, hip-hop beats and raucous rock with more ferocity than irony. His latest album, "Black Radio" (Blue Note), does the same thing and features guests like Mos Def and Chicago's Lupe Fiasco.
Occupy SXSW: Tom Morello carries Woody Guthrie torch through protest showcase, street party
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 10:20 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — During his keynote speech at this year's South by Southwest music conference, Bruce Springsteen referred to folksinger Woody Guthrie as "a ghost in the machine." In the centennial year of his birth, Guthrie has certainly haunted SXSW 2012. Springsteen and many others have sung his songs. "Woody at 100," a panel session featuring his children, Nora and Arlo Guthrie, considered his legacy.
Then Friday night, Chicago-area native Tom Morello capped off his showcase in the middle of the street, leading a throng of Occupy Austin demonstrators in a sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land."
"I am the Nightwatchman and this is a one man revolution!" said Morello (who performs solo under the moniker The Nightwatchman) at the beginning of his SXSW showcase, scheduled inside the Swan Dive bar near Sixth Street and Red River in downtown Austin.
But days earlier, Morello began reorganizing what the festival had programmed for him. His showcase, he declared, would become Occupy SXSW — all 99 percenters welcome. "SXSW has a lot of specialty shows — record companies, vodka companies, promoters and things like that," he told Rolling Stone on Tuesday. "I thought it was important that at a music gathering of that size, to have a place where the rebels, revolutionaries, rockers, rappers and the 99 percent could gather and have a mighty SXSW throw down."
Via social media and online networks, Occupy Austin spread the word and gathered Friday at the state capitol three hours before Morello's midnight showcase. The group of nearly 100 began marching toward the downtown streets already crowded with SXSW registrants and hopeful music fans.
How do you get a mob to move through a mob? By dancing. The benevolent Occupiers rolled a sound system with them, blaring mostly disco and dance tunes but also raising a ruckus with "Killing in the Name" by Rage Against the Machine, Morello's former hard rock band. About every block, they'd stop and dance, as well as wave some signs and hand out fliers. At Sixth and Brazos, the assembly inadvertently blocked traffic, which laid on the horns. The honking, however, simply raised more cheers and whoops.
Slowly, the demonstrators made their way down Sixth Street toward Morello's venue. One large banner reading "F--- the Police" was its own crowd control issue, because gawking passers-by insisted the bearers stop -- so they could take their picture with it. Irony of ironies: Midway down the street the group had to detour slightly after being blocked by a drum circle.
Morello started his official showcase about half an hour late, playing a few songs by himself before bringing on his latest band, the Freedom Fighter Orchestra — and, later, special guest Wayne Kramer from Detroit punk legend the MC5 — to tear through typically fiery Nightwatchman songs, including "Save the Hammer for the Man" and "Union Town," as well as Rage's "Bulls on Parade." The previous night, Morello had joined Springsteen on stage during his SXSW concert; Friday, Morello played Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," dedicating it to "the only Boss worth listening to."
As his official timeslot ended, Morello told the crowd — primarily SXSW badge-holders inside — to follow him outside. There, the largely uncredentialed Occupy crowd had been watching the showcase on a video projected on the wall. Morello proceeded to start a second showcase in the middle of the street, which he called "the people's venue" — carrying his acoustic guitar, which has "Whatever It Takes" scrawled on it (Guthrie's guitar famously sported the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists") — and leading the crowd in a rollicking sing-along of "This Land."
Lack of a PA didn't stop him — not when you have the "human microphone."
"Mic check!" Morello called, and the crowd began repeating him. In a very Obama-like delivery, he went on: "They can turn off the PA, but they can't shut this party down!"
He told a tale about guitar factory workers in South Korea who were fired because they formed a union. Using the human mic, he taught the crowd the chorus to his "World Wide Rebel Songs" and lead another sing-along.
He then ended the event with yet another Guthrie quip: "Take it easy," he shouted, "but take it!"
Catch Morello when he leads a Woody Guthrie tribute concert May 19 at Chicago's Metro, featuring Holly Near, the Klezmatics, Jon Langford, Bucky Halker and more.
SXSW: Hospitality, Ava Luna, Joe Pug
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 11:55 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — There's buzz, and there's buzz. When people insist you see a band at South by Southwest, it's usually dicey. When people recommend a band like this — "Aw, Hospitality. They're really good. I'd like to see them again" — that you take a little more seriously.
The buzzy Brooklyn band's Friday night showcase at Frank was definitely worth the recommendations, and then some. Unassuming and sometimes unobtrusive, Hospitality segued from sound check to set without any fanfare or introduction; the snugly packed crowd in the small bar simply enjoyed the revelation that, hey, that beautiful music is the room's centerpiece now.
Hospitality, like its namesake, creeps up like that, anyway.
Creating a sound way bigger than the sum of its basic quartet lineup, this is indie-pop with bright colors, effervescent arrangements and, most importantly, real swing. Underneath the big, fat, chiming guitar chords and singer-guitarist Amber Papini's conversational patter is usually a firm beat, certainly a supple groove thanks to left-handed bassist Brian Betancourt. They could probably go toe-to-toe with most dance-rockers from the first wave (Franz Ferdinand, etc.), but they'd also have a calming effect on them. "The Right Profession," from this year's self-titled debut, certainly moves, and "Friends of Friends" enjoys a groovy dance break, but other songs sometimes noodle, sometimes vamp, sometimes slip into a positively Pink Floyd reverie.
• • •
If Steely Dan worked to sound like the actual future, rather than Donald Fagen's nostalgic 1950s Worlds Fair perspective on it, they might sound something like Brooklyn's Ava Luna. A thrilling, lurching, bewildering, surprising frenzy of genre-splicing, this sextet's Friday night return to SXSW at the Iron Bear club rocked and grooved and glitched.
Driven by rhythms that stutter and fray, Ava Luna's 21st-century rock 'n' soul is humanized by no-nonsense vocals. Becca Kauffman and Felicia Douglass bring seriousness and sass, when called for, but it's singer-guitarist Carlos Hernandez that embodies the band's schizophrenic joy. Playing with an ADD tic justifying lyrics like, "If I could focus," Hernandez sings like a less-somnambulant James Blake — all heady methol and melancholy. It's headbanging dubstep, it's postmodern soul, full of sound and fury, and when some feedback began ebbing and flowing between songs — hey, some of us thought it was just part of the band's space-age sound.
• • •
Chicago's Joe Pug sounds like a native down here in Texas. Biting his lip, chewing his accent, flashing his winsome smile or sometimes wincing with emotion, Pug is the picture of down-home earnestness.
Squeezing in just five songs for the Folk Alliance showcase on Saturday at Threadgill's, Pug played a handful of thoughtful country-folk tunes from his second album, "The Great Despiser," due next month. That's after he broke a guitar string — on the first strum of the first chord in the first song -- which was surprising given how tender and delicate most of the material is, augmented here with only an occasional electric guitarist and a stand-up bassist. But the new album features guests such as the Hold Steady's Craig Finn, so it's gonna roll. To close, Pug was joined by Austin music legend Harvey Thomas Young for his song, previously covered by Pug, "Start Again."
SXSW: Don Cornelius, 'Soul Train' celebrated
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 4:54 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — "Soul Train" creator and host Don Cornelius was left out of the Grammys' "in memorium" slide show last month, barely two weeks after the Chicago television pioneer was found dead of an apparent suicide, but he was celebrated Saturday at the annual South by Southwest music conference in the Texas capital.
At an event called "'Soul Train' Tribute to Don Cornelius," NPR's Dan Charnas conducted an amiable onstage chat with Don's son Tony Cornelius about the TV music show's history and legacy.
"If he'd come back here and see the love from those who miss him so much, I wonder, would he decide to stay?" Tony Cornelius asked during the session. "He had so much love to live for. It hurts me that he's not here."
"Soul Train" was one of TV's longest-running syndicated shows, airing for 36 years. Launched at Chicago's WCIU in 1970, the music performance and dance program went national the following year and was crucial in showcasing black soul and R&B artists to a wider audience, including Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson.
"Dad talked about that quite often," Cornelius said. "He found a need, and he served it. There was a need to allow not only the music of black Americans but kids an opportunity to express themselves."
Charnas showed numerous video clips -- "Soul Train" performances, dancers, pivotal moments, Afro Sheen commercials (the sponsorship of Chicago-based Johnson Products was important to the show's early survival) -- and Cornelius commented.
"When I watch these clips, what comes to mind that people don't understand is these performances were about relationships. It wasn't, 'I want to do "Soul Train,"' it was friendships that developed over time," Cornelius said.
Many of those relationships began early in Chicago, where Don Cornelius negotiated complete ownership of "Soul Train" at WCIU because "no one believed" in the show, Tony Cornelius said.
Tony Cornelius was around age 12 when "Soul Train" premiered. He worked as a runner, cable mover, lighting operator and more throughout the years, eventually becoming an executive producer. From the start, he recalled, "Soul Train" was a family affair.
"My most vivid memory is my mother writing out cards of all the kids who wanted to dance on the show from high schools around the area," he said.
"The groundswell in Chicago was so exciting that [Don] decided Los Angeles would be the place to take it. That's where the stars were, where the acts were."
He took one thing with him, though: the Scramble Board.
Members of the audience were often selected for the Scramble Board, where they would reorder a jumbled set of letters to spell the name of a prominent black American. Don Cornelius later admitted that the gimmick was always fixed.
"It's funny, but it's true," Tony Cornelius said. "It's something he felt extremely strong about. We were speaking to the world, not just the dancers, and informing anyone who didn't know Stevie Wonder's name or Thurgood Marshall's name how to spell it and who they were."
Cornelius said years later he suggested to his father that they update the Scramble Board to something digital or more contemporary. Don refused, saying he wanted to maintain that set piece — the one piece of the Chicago set that traveled to L.A.
In honor of his father, Cornelius said the family has created the Don Cornelius Foundation to raise awareness, prevention and support for those contemplating suicide and aid for its survivors.
SXSW global: K-pop, Juanes, Bensh, Noa Margalit
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2012 12:14 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — This year's South by Southwest features music acts from every continent except Antarctica (those penguins aren't as musical as you've been lead to believe). Here's some of the international flavor I sampled this week:
• • •
The panel session at SXSW 2012 was titled with a question — "Do Music Moguls Know a Secret About K-Pop?" — but the non-insider query is simpler: Do you know what K-pop is?
It's a genre of hyper-produced, often sugary sweet pop music mostly out of South Korea. It's got its own Billboard chart, and in December launched its own festival (K-Pop World, Dec. 7 in Seoul). According to the moderator of this industry panel, it's "a huge thing across Asia and other parts of the world," and it's about to invade the states.
Earlier in the year, I suggested 2012 might have a more worldly sound, including more K-pop. Already in the United States, South Korean idol Kim Hyun-a has attracted media attention, and when K-pop acts tour this country it's not just their music that turns American heads.
"People often are stopping because of how many people show up" to these concerts, said Flowsion Shekar, founder of Koreaboo, a Korean news blog.
David Zedeck, a booking agent at Creative Artists Agency, said he's selling out 1,700 to 2,500-capacity venues with K-pop, even in interior cities like Atlanta, Kansas City and Denver. The group Girls Generation announced via Twitter that they would premiering a new video at a New York Best Buy. "We had 1,500 kids show up on a school day — from a tweet," he marveled. "This is bigger than anyone thinks it is."
Other prominent K-pop acts include Bigbang, JYP, the Wonder Girls and SMTown.
"Even though it comes from Korea, it's not of or for Korea anymore," said Jeff Yang, the Tao Jones columnist for the Wall Street Journal ("It wasn't my idea," he said sheepishly of his column's name). "It's become a world music. There are more people who don't understand Korean listening to K-pop than in Korea."
Yang predicted K-pop could develop in America one of two ways: It could become like Latin music, a cultural identifier for Asian-American communities, or it could establish itself as a platform like hip-hop, inviting collaboration and eventual evolution into something larger.
Some of the latter already is happening. Kanye West previously worked with the trio JYJ (rapping on the single "Ayyy Girl") and has said he plans to do more with the group. Snoop Dogg recently appeared on a track by Girls Generation, and DJ Swizz Beatz says he's hoping to help bring K-pop acts like Bigbang (currently atop the K-pop charts, No. 1 and 2) to America.
• • •
In addition to performing his own and Woody Guthrie's song immediately before Bruce Springsteen's keynote address at SXSW 2012 — one of his first English-language performances — Colombian singer Juanes has been making multiple appearances at the festival all week. He discussed his upcoming May album, "Juanes MTV Unplugged," during a Friday panel session, then performed during the Latin rock showcase later that night.
In an AP interview, he celebrated the cultural smorgasbord that is SXSW: "It's such a great opportunity to interact together and exchange culture. I just feel the world now and the world is absolutely sick, you know, so I just see music and culture and art in general as a great idea to change at least our own environment and just connect people to the music. You can just go and walk around the street and you can see bands from I don't know, wherever, and they can sing in Chinese if you want. You just have the opportunity to connect with somebody else you didn't know, and that's good."
• • •
The sheer volume of music at SXSW makes random discoveries possible, probable and the payoff is often good. Thursday night I stopped for stir-fry at one of Austin's better food trucks downtown near Fifth and Brazos. On the corner a trio of Austrian vagabonds was playing to anyone who'd stop and listen. They're called Bensh, and they don't sound like a sidewalk band. Good-spirited pop with flourishes of electronics and gypsy bounce, Bensh's fluid, well-crafted pop caused me to scribble a seemingly bizarre list of comparisons in my notebook: Luka Bloom, Deathray, Syd Barrett, Animal Collective, the Monochrome Set. Much spunkier live than on record, Bensh still made a great impulse download that was perfectly dreamy in the earbuds during a pedicab ride home.
• • •
A showcase of musicians from Israel, sponsored by the Israeli Consul, ran all day Friday in a downtown park. I caught an acoustic set by Noa Margalit, from the rock band the Car Sitters. Listening to her stoic personal songs, you'd never guess how energetic the Car Sitters usually are. Tel Aviv's Margalit — breathy, barefoot, bar-chording the heck out of her guitar — played things close to the vest, at least sonically. Lyrically, she was raging about politics and quality of life, lamenting (or marveling?) that "it doesn't take much to survive."
Later, J. Viewz, aka Grammy-nominated and Brooklyn-based producer Jonathan Dagan, let loose some throbbing beats with a soulful vocalist and great live drums.
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."
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
Nearly everyone in the Wainwright family writes and performs songs, often about each other. So when one of them passes away, one of the stages of grief is to write an album about the loss. Loudon Wainwright III, the patriarch of this postmodern Carter family, reflected on the death of each of his parents in an album each (1992's "History" after Loudon Wainwright Jr. died, 2001's "Last Man on Earth" after his mother died).
Friday night, two of Loudon's kids were on stage at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre. Daughter Martha Wainwright opened the show with her powerful anti-love songs, and she acknowledged the new grief hanging over the family following the death of their mother (Loudon's ex-wife), Canadian folk icon Kate McGarrigle. "My songs are already pretty depressing," Martha said, promising she wouldn't be delivering any songs about the loss of her mother. "I don't want to subject you to what might come out now."
Rufus Wainwright, however, though he might rankle at this suggestion, is more his father's son than he realizes. He has no qualms about laying bare his grief and despair before a paying audience, though he's usually less direct, and the first act of Friday night's concert was a highly artistic, touring funeral service.
Before Wainwright arrived on stage, the theater audience was instructed that this first act would be presented as a song cycle — no applause until the very end, please. (This announcement came before everyone was in their seats, however, so a few enthusiastic latecomers were confused and possibly mortified when they clapped and hooted after the first song, and were shushed.) Wainwright then entered the stage, backlit, walking one step at a time and dragging a 17-foot black train mounted with feathered shoulders, designed by Zaldy Goco, a costumer for Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga, among others. He lowered himself at the piano with somber face and began playing the entirety of his new album, "All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu."
An album of complex solo piano songs, "All Days Are Nights" has a smartly sequenced ebb and flow and thus succeeds in a beginning-to-end presentation. The accessible pop of the first few, however, gives way to some fairly complex playing, which during "The Dream" became so technical Wainwright lost focus on his singing. His notorious tenor, almost all sinuses, requires focus even when he's not running up and down the keyboard, but the occasional dissonance between the two heightened a sense of unease — even moreso than the sleepy blinking eyes hovering over him, video visuals courtesy Scottish artist Douglas Gordon.
Except for the three Shakespeare sonnets in the middle (momentum killers, all three), many of these songs are infused with just such unease, with restless thoughts and grief, written as they were in the months that McGarrigle's cancer worsened (and after he completed work on his first, semi-acclaimed opera, "Prima Donna"). The musical answering machine messages about her declining condition in "Martha" are briefly combated with the spirited lashing out and jaunty parlor piano of "Give Me What I Want and Give It to Me Now." It all marches toward the end, with "Zebulon," another song that mentions his mother's illness — but one that she liked so much that Wainwright played it at her funeral. Friday night, he clanged the song's chords slowly, slowly, like mournful church bells, and hesitated in the last lyric, "We'll have some tea and ice cream," just enough to transform it into: "We'll have some tea, and I ... scream." Then the processional, in retreat.
The second act, with Wainwright back and smiling, fresh and plucky in a peach-colored patterned suit, was a life-saver. Now he played as he did in the first fumbling years of his career, as a saloon singer, banging out grand, sweeping tunes on a piano and telling the occasional amusing story. But this set was suffused with loss in its own way, including "Memphis Skyline," a song he wrote about the death of singer Jeff Buckley, and his old stand-by, the hymn-like cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
And like those creepy blinking eyes, McGarrigle was watching over this set, too, a song cycle of its own that opened with "Beauty Mark," a song celebrating McGarrigle from Wainwright's acclaimed self-titled debut CD, and ended with one of McGarrigle's own tunes, "The Walking Song." Introducing the latter, Wainwright spoke of his mother for the first time, thanking fans for their outpouring of support and referring to his current circumstance as "a very treacherous game of life." The song nears its end with, "We'll talk blood and how we were bred / talk about the folks both living and dead / This song like this walk I find hard to end."
Wainwright has filled his career with tributes to things he says he misses, though often they're things he was barely around to experience, anyway — the Judy Garland concerts at Carnegie, a heyday of opera, even Buckley, with whom he spent just a few hours. He falls in love with the hindsight of them, and his yearning is similarly rose-tinted. The loss of his mother, though, is a stark experience he sees clearly and is working out the only way a Wainwright, not so much a McGarrigle, knows how. As such, his grief feels less shared than inflicted, but this concert seemed to marry his dreams and realities in slightly pretentious but exciting new ways. Bring on a new opera.
Martha's opening set cannot go unmentioned. She appeared onstage five minutes early, grabbing her guitar and launching into an example of her own, serrated approach to baring her heart in song, "Bleeding All Over You." Like her brother, she overstylizes her singing so much that it's often difficult to understand her, but she possesses a voice so powerful that her Dolly Parton crescendos draw yelps and whoops despite the words. Thankfully, she included a few songs from her new, hard-to-find (but oh-so worth the dig) plainly titled CD, "Martha Wainwright's Edith Piaf Record," further proof that hearing her belt in any language is a treat. She received her own standing ovation.
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Lollapalooza 2010 starts, rocks and raps with B.o.B.
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 12:23 PM
11:30 a.m. in the sun, and the sixth annual Lollapalooza in Chicago's Grant Park is under way. Already people are lined up at the bars, and the faint breezes are redolent with sun lotion, damp lawns and — there it is — a little marijuana smoke.
The first act of the day is one who doesn't deserve the crappy time slot: B.o.B., a chart-climbing hip-hop newbie with one of the year's best-selling records. He's a double-edged attack — one minute spitting quick, punchy rhymes at the growing crowd, the next playing guitar like an indie rocker, even covering a little of Vampire Weekend's "The Kids Don't Stand a Chance." (There's a cynical joke in there somewhere about the kids about to be assaulted by corporate shilling for three days ...) Atlanta's B.o.B. can deliver something for everyone. "Letter From Vietnam" is a guitar ballad, a '60s — or maybe just Lenny Kravitz-like — protest song. He picked up a guitar for it, then asked permission to keep playing it, as if he were breaking some rules to crossover back and forth. He held up his hip-hop, taunting us with "Past My Shades" and making the women in the crowd smile with "Nothin' on You" ("Beautiful girls / all over the world ..."). He mixed the rock and the rap in "Don't Let Me Fall." Fun, cheery, a good opener to the weekend's smorgasbord.
The fields are filling up, and be warned: They're not completely dry from the rain earlier in the week. Several spots are still squishy, with the potential for turning into complete pudding once the weight of thousands squeezes the water out. Don't wear your favorite shoes.
Lessons in old-school from the Walkmen, Raphael Saadiq
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 3:45 PM
Mid-afternoon Friday in the south field at Lollapalooza was about being old-school.
The Walkmen have been together 10 years. They manage to sound relatively fresh while drawing upon sounds and song styles much older than themselves, namely the squeezing, wheezing Dylanesque singing of Hamilton Leithauser, the 1950s-echoed guitar of Paul Maroon and the eerie cocktail organ of Walter Martin. Here's a band that began — born from the ashes of short-lived but explosive Jonathan Fire*Eater — all about creating certain instrumental tones. But the acquisition of Leithauser wound up deepening not only the sound but the songwriting. The new songs played from the band's upcoming next album, "Lisbon," due Sept. 14, are rich tales of wary living ("You're one of us or you're one of them," Leithauser shouted over and over) and worn romance ("There's a girl that you should know / she's from my not so long ago"). In a white button-down shirt, with sleeves rolled up, and a black tie, he leaned into the microphone, plungering his tenor through the very top of his sinuses for an incredible elongated moment during "All Hands and the Cook." One wonders how he maintains his voice over the course of a tour, but he sounded great here. Looking forward to the next disc.
After that, as Chicago's Mavis Staples took the stage in the north end of the field, a younger soul icon brought his own lessons in old-school on the main Parkways stage: Raphael Saadiq. Once a pioneer of New Jack Swing (we can now justifiably giggle at that label) in the group Tony! Toni! Tone!, Saadiq now looks like a traveling education in classic soul, complete with almost 12 band members in black Blues Brothers suits. He can lay down smooth, supple grooves, with a band that sounds as if they could back B.B. King later tonight, and talk sexy to the crowd simply singing, "Yeah, yeah, yeah," and then punch it up with a rock 'n' soul hit like "So Lady."
Are we not men? Well, they are still Devo!
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 6:47 PM
Is Devo sympathizing with humanity's plight, or just making fun?
In what was surely the most subversive set at Lollapalooza today — Lady Gaga's still to come, but she seems merely flashy and bawdy rather than really subversive — 1980s icons Devo blasted their modern folk songs about the plight of the working man and the diminishing of humanity in our automated world. Jogging on stage in gray uniforms and "Phantom of the Opera"-like half-masks, these plainly old men seemed to be rolling with the wonderment of being back at Lollapalooza, which they played years ago when it was a traveling festival (and even then were the quaint ol' vets). "It's 2010!" said Bob Casale, midway through a dynamic, multi-media set. "And we're here to f—-ing whip it again!"
Singer Mark Mothersbaugh leapt about the minimalist stage — just a drum set, two synth stands and guitars, spaciously arranged — looking extra robotic, wearing mirrored shades over his mannequin mask. But though their music has the rhythm of machinery, these are songs about the sad and worsening state of man. Even an old hit like "Girl U Want" has Mothersbaugh singing, "Look at you with your mouth watering ... she's just the girl you want." It's a common theme to Devo songs, blippy and innocent as they may appear on the surface. Look at yourself, they say. Be aware of your "Uncontrollable Urge," fight against "Going Under." Pay attention, because Madison Avenue is exploiting your urges and your apathy to make you buy things. And, hey, so are we.
As they sang "What We Do" ("breeding, pumping gas, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, do it again"), silhouetted images of various product icons flashed on the screen behind the stage, icons like the PlayStation controller and other basic "necessities" being hawked several hundred feet behind the crowd amid a forest of logos. It's machine music about reminding ourselves that we are men, not necessarily de-evolving, and it sounds as important today as it did in 1980 when computers and synthesizers were newfangled. After all, as Mothersbaugh sang to close the set — after jumping around with pom-poms, again either cheering this downward slide for our species or trying to empower us to reverse it — "A man is real! Not made of steel!"
Devo was bookended late Friday afternoon in the south end of the field by opposite ends of the energy stream. The Big Pink played beforehand, defining dullness. A limited grayscale instead of a declaration of color, they whined through a short set of electronic drone and drudgery ("fall like dominoes, fall like dominos," zzzzz). After Devo, however, came the perkiest kids in indie-rock: Matt & Kim. Every now and then, one of these coupled drum-and-something duos comes along, but never as relentlessly cheery as Matt Johnson (vocals, keyboards) and Kim Schifino (vocals, drums). Opening with one of several instrumental fanfares they'd play, Johnson asked both Schifino and the crowd, "Are you ready to get wild?" It takes some doing to pump up a festival-size crowd when you're only two strong, but these two have tactics. Schifino smiles so wide and so hard its almost threatening, the kind of unwavering grin you can only learn in realty school or have drilled into you by Sue Sylvester. Johnson doesn't allow the keyboard to hem him in; he jumps, he kicks, he climbs, he strikes Grecian urn poses. He had to catch his breath after only the third song. The songs — "Good Old-Fashioned Nightmare," "5K," "Light Speed" and, yes, "Lessons Learned" (the one with the video of them stripping down in Times Square) — with Johnson's plunky, piano-lesson melodies, don't always live up to the party vibe of the hosts, but they throw a lively one nonetheless.
Lollapalooza centers on Lady Gaga's Broadway bluster
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 11:53 PM
Early this year, Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell said Lady Gaga's performance would be the "centerpiece" of this summer's sixth annual concert festival in Grant Park. He said $150,000 was spent on the staging for the pop star's Monster Ball Tour theatrics.
In a conversation backstage Friday afternoon, Farrell said, "Did you see how many trucks she has? 18! And one of them is just for her wardrobe."
At this point, after a rise in the pop culture that defines meteoric, Lady Gaga is the centerpiece of any space she inhabits. Her gravity sucked most of the total crowd — estimated by Farrell at 80,000 strong Friday — from Friday's other headliner, the Strokes. The guy standing next to me throughout Gaga's show? Wearing a Strokes T-shirt.
So rock is dead, and somehow Broadway won. Lady Gaga's performance was a highly scripted, bewildering, bedazzled psychological drama, with production values right off the Great White Way.
Her two-hour set played like a jukebox musical — a bunch of Gaga hits strung together with a loose story line about kids in a broken-down car trying to get to the Monster Ball.
Our Lady first appeared in silhouette, singing "Dance in the Dark" in the first of many outlandish costumes fresh off the semi, including enormous shoulder pads, a nun's habit with a see-through plastic suit, a huge fringed lampshade, even the same disco-ball bra she wore when she played a Lollapalooza side stage for a small crowd as an unknown in 2007. She tackled all the hits — "Just Dance," "Love Game," "Poker Face," an encore of "Bad Romance" — from her two albums.
But the songs themselves seemed inconsequential next to Lady Gaga's evangelism. If you've ever been picked on, scorned, denied or in any way counted out, Lady Gaga wants you to know, she understands. Numerous litanies — frequently punctuated with unusually hoarse, throaty, Courtney Love screaming to get her point across — hammered this point, even if the songs only do indirectly. Born Stefani Germanotta, she was picked on in school, which she mentioned four times. Her conquering of pop culture and filling of Grant Park, she seemed to conclude, is vindication and validation. And you can have this, too. Let your freak flag fly with pride and you, too, shall be saved!
Someone's gotta say this to every generation, and it might as well be her this time around. She's just not adding a whole lot to it other than an overload of drama. Girl kinda needs to get over herself.
The attitude behind this is very aggressive, too, and you can see it in the choreography — all punches and thrown elbows and monster claws. Everyone on stage frowns and sneers. The band members flip each other off. The bassist is dressed like a military commando. Gaga's expletive-laced homilies end with screams that say, in essence, "F—- you, world!" She rips her stockings, she smears herself with blood, she's seen in a video dressed in delicate chiffons — and a gas mask. She strives to obliterate every convention of beauty, and she says she's doing it so we can "be FREEEEEEEE!"
"What I really hate," she added, "I hate money." (spit take!) Then the ridiculous scream again: "I don't want your money, I WANT YOUR SOOOOOOUL!" This before she tried to out-sacrilege Madonna (a profane prayer, a bleeding angel statue, comparing herself to Jesus) and added, in possibly her truest statement (despite also explaining that, next to money, she really "hates the truth"): "I don't care who you are or what you believe, all I care about is what you think of me."
What I think of her: She's an incredible talent, but she's buried it in all this showy nonsense that she seems to think has grand, transcendent meaning. When things quieted down and she sat at the piano, alone, she was stunning and truly entertaining, holding the crowd in the palm of her hand with greater power than the dancing and the mugging and the light show. She's got a helluva voice and can control or dish the vibrato with a master's skill. "Speechless" easily leaves a listener just that way, and a new song, "You and I," was a killer ballad with meat on its bones. She sounded like Bonnie Raitt when she sang it, and she certainly left us all something to talk about.
These piano ballads were also the only time we saw a sign of real humanity from Lady Gaga. She smiled. Before and after these two moments, she strutted through her performance with an eerie lack of facial expression, a completely vacant face, even when screaming. Here, she gave a shout-out to her dad. She brought out her former partner, Lady Starlight, for a brief dance routine to Metallica's "Metal Militia." She laughed. As she pounded out "You and I," she looked moved, awestruck, impassioned.
But the humanity disappeared once back on script. Then it was little more than cues and costumes and ... fireworks. It was "family night" with the Chicago Bears tonight at Soldier Field. Just as the curtain went up for Gaga's third act, a barrage of fireworks went off directly behind the stage (and over Soldier). A lot of people in the crowd wondered if this was part of Gaga's show — understandable given the aforementioned $150K spent, her obvious penchant for production excess and, hey, the fireworks lasted exactly as long as it took for Gaga & Co. to dance their way through "Monster."
No, they were really just an omen. See those, Stef? See how brightly they burn, and how quickly they fade?
Making it work with Wild Beasts, Stars, Soft Pack
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2010 5:17 PM
Saturday lunch hour and the north field of Lollapalooza is lurching and leaning into the straightforward rock of the Soft Pack. This San Diego quartet effects nonchalance — "Here's a new song. Whatever." — but plays like they mean it, filling the park, already packed with reddening bodies, with a grinding, fat-bottomed sound. They're the Fall, no, now they're the Hives. Matt Lamkin is as exciting singing lazy "all right's" and "oh yeah's" as he is roaring with conviction that you should "Answer for Yourself." Basic and emboldening, the way a Saturday morning should be.
In the park's Petrillo Band Shell, next came the Wild Beasts. Such nice blokes, these British boys. Not beastly at all, thanking us kindly for our attention and wishing us a wonderful day. And the music, all chiming guitars and soaring vocals. Just beautiful.
Until you start hearing what they're singing about. There are tales of hoodlums running wild in the streets, "scaring the oldies into their dressing gowns." There are serious threats against "any rival who goes for our girls." The title track of the British band's sophomore CD, "Two Dancers," recounts almost "Clockwork Orange"-like violence: "They dragged me by the ankles through the street / They passed me round them like a piece of meat." The disc's opening track, all humming synthesizers and beautiful bass lines and wood-block rhythms, finds singer Hayden Thorpe, sounding like a demented Jimmy Somerville, howling, "This is a booty call ... my boot, my boot, my boot up your ——hole." Alas, there was no one posted to the sign language station for this show; demonstrating those lyrics would've been added entertainment.
But the Mercury Prize-nominated Wild Beasts are a surprisingly great festival band, their cinematic songs and layered effects luring half-interested fans to the sun-baked pavement in front of the band shell. The sun is warm today but not brutal, and occasional relief from clouds add to the dreamlike feeling, especially with the right music. Thorpe sings mostly in an airy falsetto, a rare treat in modern rock, and it's more than a gimmick. It's difficult to imagine this music wrapping around another kind of voice, not with that light, vibrating timbre to the bass, not with that ringing Johnny Marr-ish guitar. Yes, there's the Smiths reference. Listening to the Wild Beasts, it's not unrealistic to trace the family tree of their leering, melodic style back through Gene (the Smiths of the '90s) to the debut of Morrissey, another daring high-scale singer. Bassist Tom Fleming takes occasional lead singing duties, too, alternating between a low bellow and his variation on the upper register as he did on "All the King's Men," from "Two Dancers." Earlier material had more spunk, a livelier step ("Brave Bulging," "The Devil's Crayon"), but the show came to a big, satisfying finish with the new "Hooting and Hollering."
Some bands, though, struggle to present themselves well in the heat of the afternoon sun. Canada's Stars tried to puff up their delicate sound, making themselves seem larger — good advice if encountering a bear in the woods, but as successful if encountering thousands of expectant fans in an urban park. This is a band that crafts intelligent mini-suites about romantic intrigue, led by two singers (Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan) with thin, soft voices. With the tracks carefully separated on CD, it's moving and magical. Live, it's sometimes a challenge, moreso outside of a dark club or theater. The band started slowly on Saturday, moving in slo-mo for some kind of effect and showering the crowd with white roses and the mylar debris of several hand-held confetti cannons. But that couldn't quite fill the void. Millan was sometimes hard to hear, intoning almost at a whisper (on "One More Night"), and Campbell forced his voice a little too hard in an apparent effort to be heard, though often he wasn't, either. When they joined together for "We Don't Want Your Body" — a new song that one of my companions said sounds alarmingly like a Debbie Gibson comeback effort — they at least began to pick up steam, charging to the end of the hourlong set with ripping takes on "I Died So I Could Haunt You," "Take Me to the Riot" and the closer, "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead."
Green Day plays on ... and on and on
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2010 10:29 PM
Friday night, Lady Gaga enjoyed the surprise addition of fireworks to her show, courtesy of a fortuitously timed barrage from the Bears' family night at Soldier Field directly behind Lollapalooza's main stage in the south end of Hutchinson Field in Chicago's Grant Park. Saturday night, pop-punk trio Green Day brought their own.
In a two-hour-plus set, singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool filled the stage with good ol' rock 'n' roll stage antics. Here's a band that has actually gone Broadway, creating a stage musical out of their hit concept album, "American Idiot." But instead of loading down their show with scripted theatrics, they relied on the basics — pyro, fireworks, pulling people on stage and endless exhortations to fans to put their hands in the air.
Note to Green Day fans: Want to get close to Billie Joe? Your chances aren't slim. Study the attention-getting tactics of audience members on game shows such as "The Price Is Right" and "Let's Make a Deal," because that's what a Green Day show has become. Armstrong spends much of the show shopping for fans to bring on stage. Five times, in fact, starting with a student from France, Matthew Sauvetre. He'd been waiting against the barricades all day, and he took the stage during "Know Your Enemy" waving a French flag. After that, Billie Joe pulled a young girl (not older than 10, who he then proceeded to ask, "Keira, do you want to start a f—-in' war?!"), an older woman to help him sing "Are We the Waiting," a small crowd of people and, near the end, a young guy to sing the entirety of "Longview."
Classic gimmicks and a program of three-minute rock songs, however, necessitates brevity. Green Day dragged it on and on. Here's to the simple joys of rawk blown up bigger than life, but by the time we crossed the two-hour mark with the same shtick — pop! roar! OK, my hands would like to lay still for a while — it was beyond wearying.
Thirty years ago, in the heyday of the Ramones (whose recording of "Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio?" played before the show started), we never could have dreamed that a handful of power chords could propel one band to such heights — 65 million records sold, four Grammys, a Broadway show, headlining Lollapalooza before tens of thousands (Saturday's crowd was again estimated at 80,000 total). An inevitable loss of edge occurs at those altitudes. A decent catalog of socially conscious material was presented Saturday night mostly as mere fun, then devolved into time-filling quotations of hard rock hits (from Ozzy to GNR) and, yegods, "Hey Jude." What WAS fun was when Billie Joe ripped through the power-chorded nuggets with abandon, like "Nice Guys Finish Last," which he finished with a quick, self-satisfied grin.
Pack your poncho, and other reading
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2010 11:33 AM
Uh oh, rain. A swath of light rain stretches form Chicago due west, with storms in northwestern Illinois. It's all drifting to the southeast and might not trouble the bulk of Lollapalooza's afternoon. But it will heat up today, reaching into the 90s for the first time this weekend. So pack your poncho (no umbrellas, please, people behind you want to see the band) and your water bottle, and look for the booths where you can fill your water bottle for free.
Beyond this blog, other reading for today ...
Soundgarden plays tonight, reunited after 13 years. But their first show was Thursday night at the Vic.
An interview with Yoshiki from X Japan, playing at 4 today.
You dudes and your bandanas.
Lollapalooza takes over Grant Park, so tourists visiting Chicago this weekend are denied seeing one of our most famous landmarks: Buckingham Fountain.
Which, of course, means that when it heats up today, we can jump in it.
Plus: more food options!
It's the Cribs, not the Smiths
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2010 3:48 PM
How did the Smiths' Johnny Marr become indie-rock's hired gun?
Since the dissolution of the Smiths, Marr has played with a lengthy list of other stars — from the Pretenders and Neil Finn to Modest Mouse and now the Cribs. They don't seem to pick him as much as he picks them up, sidling up to them like a swinger and telling them how much he loves their music. His cred — the ringing, complex guitar he contributed to the Smiths, not his proximity to Morrissey — makes them salivate and, voila!, Marr stays employed.
His work with the Cribs in their early-afternoon set Sunday at Lollapalooza sure seemed like that: work. It's not like he's adding much more than muscle to this band, a trio of brothers before Marr joined a couple of years ago — no distinctive Rickenbacker, no skipping "This Charming Man" kinds of melodies. Just good, hard grinding with the other Jarman boys (singer-guitarist Gary, bassist-singer Ryan and drummer Ross). Which is no complaint; he holds the line solidly — doing his bit on the side of the stage with confidence and a general lack of expression — while Gary and Ryan are free to caterwaul and fling themselves (and their melodies) all over the stage. His chords underneath the desperate squeals of "Cheat on Me" certainly sounded like the Marr we (older fans, that is) could easily recognize, and then finished with use of the whammy bar and a slide. But as the last song disintegrated in feedback, with Gary and Ryan rubbing their instruments on their amps for maximum noise, Marr was putting his jacket back on. Shift's over.
A focus on Marr, however, is just another tragic result of a Gen-X Smiths fan at the helm of this particular report — an unjust diversion from a perfectly good, punkish rock band. The front Jarmans are the real entertainment, Ryan of the bowl haircut and spit-out lyrics, Gary of the pigeon-toed, neck-straining leaps toward the mic. For "Men's Needs," Ryan leapt to a lower platform, pricking a brief solo before the girls in front (wearing Smiths T-shirts). The Cribs lash out at their own songs, yelp-singing and thrashing around, knocking over mic stands without a hint of script. A labored "Be Safe," with jagged video accompaniment of some guy whining about "the complacent ones" (eye rolling here), completely stalled the band's momentum midway through the set, but they rallied.
Arcade Fire brings the heat at the end
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2010 11:15 PM
Twitter, if you haven't learned this by now, is full of lies. Sunday night, for instance, the Twitterverse was full of cruel rumors aimed at festivalgoers at either end of the park during this final night of Lollapalooza 2010. First, news spread that Eddie Vedder was in town. The mind reeled — maybe we'd get an appearance with south-field headliners Soundgarden, maybe a duet with Chris Cornell on "Hunger Strike"? Nothing happened. Then came word that David Bowie was going to appear with Arcade Fire, headlining the park's north side. He's done it before, albeit a few years ago. Again, alas, nothing doing.
But who needs Bowie? Arcade Fire emerged onto the stage from a bath of amber lights, underneath a video screen showing sunsets, horizons, billowing clouds. Then they launched into "Ready to Start," a song from their acclaimed new CD "The Suburbs." The band's return to Lollapalooza could be likened to Lady Gaga's — once on a smaller stage (in 2005), they now return as triumphant, headlining scenesters. Sunday's performance proved it was no fluke.
Arcade Fire lays down bombastic hootenannies, squeezing every ounce of drama from its dense, epic arrangements and lyrics of challenge and hope. Win Butler, grandson of lounge-era bandleader Alvino Rey, and Regine Chassagne led the large ensemble through an hour of what the Waterboys used to call "the Big Music." An hour and a half set built slowly, full of little pop suites that crept around the stage and eventually exploded with the propulsive force of, um, the band's fiddles, accordions and hand percussion.
From the machine-gun rhythms of "No Cars Go" to the encore of "Wake Up" (what was, in previous years, the Bowie moment), the band cemented its updated art-rock thesis, attributing the previous work of Talking Heads and Mercury Rev but also more mainstream bluster like Springsteen and, especially when Butler sang "Rococo," Neil Young. Somehow, Arcade Fire gets away with everything, no matter how high the moon they're shooting for, and Sunday night's set ended with a distinct ring of validation.
Before Arcade Fire, the National filled the north end of Lollapalooza with its stark but gently applied folk-rock. Sounding like U2 on a bender, or pretty much every American Music Club album, the band was joined early on by Arcade Fire's Richard Parry (introduced as "Richie from Soundgarden") on "Anyone's Ghost." National singer Matt Berninger (right, photo by AP) is a surprising rock star, sheepish, doting, poking his deep voice into mushy staccato singing, while the band hums and plods behind him in its abrasive drone. It all built to a studied squawking and yowling before Berninger plunged himself into the crowd. Despite the racket, though, there's a lot going on in this band; they'd benefit from a more focused showcase here, like (hint, hint) a Millennium Park show.
X Japan makes U.S. debut, wins converts
By Thomas Conner on August 9, 2010 12:20 AM
The other night, referring to the small crowd for the Strokes and the triumph of Lady Gaga, I quipped that rock is dead. I stand corrected.
Making its U.S. debut — after forming in 1982 and re-forming in 2007, with massive popularity in its home country — X Japan took to the Lollapalooza main stage Sunday afternoon and delivered a spectacular, almost operatic performance of big ballads and speed metal.
Given the circumstances of the premiere, a small knot of hardcore fans clustered down front for the show, some of whom traveled from all over the country for this event, dressed to the nines in X Japan's glam-anime style called "visual kei." But by the end of the show, even the mildly curious were won over by the infectious rock drama. Fists were pumping, guys were playing air guitar, people were chuckling at themselves while following suit, making the X Japan sign by crossing forearms in the air. One guy in front of me was so involved in his air guitar, he sloshed beer all over nearby fans.
X Japan only played six songs, but the theater — on the same stage where 36 hours earlier Lady Gaga had brought her bawdy Broadway peep show — was captivating. Bursting to life with plumes of pyro, the quintet launched into "Rusty Nail" with a driving rock melody that dissolved into synthesized strings. Such is the duality of X Japan, moving between hard rock and classical structures sometimes within the same measure. A new song, "Jade," opens with a kind of rumbling guitar attack that would make Metallica take notice, then it's a lumbering power ballad, then it's chugging at a breakneck pace, finally erupting into a guitars vs. drums battle. All the while singer Toshi Deyama — he looks like Roy Orbison and sings with a pinched high tenor like Steve Perry — wails away unlike a man who'd been virtually out of commission for a decade before the group re-formed.
The band's late guitarist, Hide, was able to make the debut, too, several years after his suspicious death. He appeared on the video screens while Toshi sang a slice of "Kurenai." The heart of the band, composer and drummer Yoshiki Hayashi, pounded and rolled his drums (wearing a neck brace to protect himself following drumming-related back surgery) and occasionally moved to a see-through grand piano for transitional music or to kickstart top-heavy ballads like "I.V."
At the end, Toshi asked, "Are you ready to rock?!" But the question wasn't too late, because the crowd, swept up in the frenzy, finally had an answer. "We are!" band members began shouting. The answer was to cross your forearms, marking the sign of X Japan. Over and over, this call and response continued. Once he realized he'd converted the Lollapalooza throng, Toshi changed the chant to "You are!" And we were.
Company of Thieves and other final notes
By Thomas Conner on August 9, 2010 9:45 AM
Some bands from the last loose pages of the notebooks ...
Sunday morning was surprisingly delightful and refreshing for several reasons, which were focused in one area of the park. Rain showers and breezes cooled things down briefly, the Sony Bloggie Stage benefited from this more than most because of its tree-lined, green surroundings, and one of the first acts to grace this stage was Chicago's Company of Thieves. Playing to a remarkably full crowd at this small side stage, the Company played hard. With her band giving its all behind her, singer Genevieve Schatz danced all over the stage, wailing with abandon — throaty in her range, breathy above it, never stopping to think about which was which, just going for it. This isn't a complex band, they play pretty basic pop-rock, but they were certainly spirited Sunday morning, closing with "Oscar Wilde," a popular download from their latest album, "Ordinary Riches." They were joined on the final number by pirouetting youngsters from Framework Dance Chicago; it was a little "Fame," but fun. When the show wrapped, the people around me gave it three "wow's" and a "holy crap." I heartily agreed.
Company of Thieves was on "Live From Daryl's House" once. Some other pals of Hall & Oates, Chromeo, played in the south field Friday evening just before Lady Gaga. Hearing this gig, I wouldn't put them next to Hall & Oates, though. Klymaxx, maybe, or Rick James, Sylvester, certain corners of the Prince catalog. This Montreal duo gets a not-quite-disco groove on, but it never builds a full head of steam. Even the duo's last song, their new single, "Don't Turn the Lights On," sounded like warm-up music on the PA.
Sort of like Switchfoot, ick. The Christian-mainstream band's early Sunday set didn't sound like a live band, just a modern-rock radio station cranked really loud, all pinched and compressed. "Can you hear me? / This is the sound of the desperation bound," they sang in their penultimate song. Yep.
Dawes, midday Saturday on the Bloggie stage, is a curious new artifact. An L.A. quartet of young bucks, they play a dusty genre of country rock harking back to the 1970s Laurel Canyon days (Jackson Browne, CSN, etc.). Their debut disc is called "North Hills." It's bizarre: here's an up-and-coming indie-rock band — young ones, no one's older than 25 — plying a style of music redolent of some of the industry's most bloated corporate-rock indulgences. Just further proof that everything comes back to us. Dawes is good at refreshing this sound, though, a meaty band with a guitarist, singer Taylor Goldsmith, who knows how to punch and pull his lines (just what the world needs, a new Waddy Wachtel). When they harmonize on "Love Is All I Am," they sound not like Crosby, Stills and Nash or Fleetwood Mac but the branch of country music that listened to them. After moseying through "When My Time Comes," I expected an encore of "Magnet and Steel."
Biggest crowd, plus no sitting on the fence at Lollapalooza
By Thomas Conner on August 9, 2010 2:20 PM
Lollapalooza's attendance for 2010 marks its biggest yet in Chicago: 240,000 — that's 80K each day — filled Grant Park this weekend, topping last year's three-day record of 225,000 for the weekend.
The extra bodies had extra room, too. The festival grew 35 acres this year, filling 115 acres. This allowed for significantly easier traffic flow north and south, turning Columbus Drive into a mile-long sidewalk, and avoiding the bottleneck around Buckingham Fountain that caused so many missed sets in previous years. Perry's Stage, for DJs and electronic acts, grew considerably, as did the food area.
Still, the increased space allowed for up to 95,000 participants a day. Festival organizers C3 Productions said they capped attendance at 80,000 this year to "focus on flow and room for the patrons" in the new layout, according to C3 spokeswoman Shelby Meade.
Bigger space also meant more fenceline to patrol — and more opportunity for jumpers who don't want to pay admission.
We watched this happen all weekend long. Anders Smith Lindall reported on one breach involving 30 to 60 jumpers; he got photos of others.
Saturday evening, three young guys rolled over a fence and seemed startled to find themselves behind a bar. They scattered, and security personnel went after them. I saw one apprehended, a teenage boy in a black-and-white checked shirt. He was handcuffed and led out of the fence by security. More than a dozen jumped over the fence Sunday night into the media area. Security later said 15 had been rounded up from that breach. They then sat down and compared wounds — a cut hand for one, bruised leg for another. They chalked it up to "kids being kids."
That said, as of Sunday morning, Chicago Police said they had made just 27 Lolla-related arrests, most of them for fence-jumping.
The extra bodies also mean more money for Chicago's parks.With three-day passes costing $215 this year, the added capacity was expected to bring more revenue to the parks, which get 10.25 percent of receipts.
Last year that meant about $1.9 million for the district's fund-raising partner, Parkways Foundation. The money helped pay for everything from repairs to Buckingham Fountain to scholarships for some of the city's neediest kids to go to park district camps, said Brenda Palm, Parkways' executive director.
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Pitchfork Music Festival opens ... sounding pretty folkie
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 4:40 PM
Bright sun, water bottles, brooding singer-songwriters — this must be the sixth Pitchfork Music Festival. The annual hootenanny is now under way in Chicago's Union Park ... and it sounds like a hootenanny. The fest opened Friday afternoon with two fine strummers that made the venue sound more like a folk festival than the go-to shopping mall of indie rock.
Sharon Van Etten had the daunting job of not just kicking off the afternoon's music but doing so by squinting and singing directly into the July sun. Van Etten warbled her shy solo tunes. The crowd gathered. A warm-up indeed.
But it was the Tallest Man on Earth, aka Kristian Matsson, who brought the first real musical heat. Skinny, scruffy, charging boldly around the stage with his small-body acoustic guitar, Matsson played some fine folk songs. Opening with the title track to his new CD "The Wild Hunt" and strumming hard through to "King of Spain," Matsson growled and howled through a set of easy chords and pastoral lyrics in the tradition of America's best traditional music. Which is all the more impressive since he's here from Sweden. Small wonder he was so enthusiastically received at the Sasquatch Music Festival earlier.
This weekend each year I'm often instead at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. Both Van Etten and Matsson could swing hard on the folk fest circuit. The fact that they are welcomed so warmly in the heart of indie rock — Matsson numerous times thanked the crowd "for being so lovely" — hopefully is a pleasing portent for the "genre."
Pitchfork Music Festival: Believing in the Liars
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 6:06 PM
Ain't no folkie fest no more.
Angus Andrews, singer for the Liars, is prowling the Pitchfork main stage, shrieking over the band's fractured, stop-start rhythms. The cacophony he's raising is terrible and terrifying. His vocals — a series of owl cries and electronically distorted yowls — rise and fall over guitar lines played carefully just a half tone off where they should be, and the bass lurks and dodges in the lengthening shadows. This doesn't sound like a 10-year-old band. The Liars are still throwing in everything and the kitchen sink, like an underpracticed, angry Supergrass, though they've definitely ramped up the intensity of their caterwaul since the release of this year's "Sisterworld." "The devil's in Chicago at motherf—-in' Pitchfork!" Andrews shouts. Then, in his lovely British accent, he politely and demurely says, "Thanks so much for having us" and preaches for a second about not throwing water bottles. I knew it was all an act.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Stay cool with cheaper water
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 9:28 PM
Friday's late-afternoon start to the Pitchfork Music Festival was certainly hot in Chicago's Union Park. But it's been hotter, and staff reported no unusual increase in heat-related medical care. Just to be on the safe side, however, the festival decided Friday to cut the cost of water in half. Bottled water is now available for $1, and will remain so throughout the weekend.
"Out of concern for the heat, we're trying to be proactive," said Pitchfork staffer Anders Smith Lindall. This came shortly after an announcement from the main stage that water would be handed to concertgoers pressed against the front barricades, where some fans had already been pulled and treated for heat exhaustion.
Music starts earlier in the day Saturday and Sunday, meaning more time for fans to be under the sun. A high of 90 is forecast each day.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Rockin' Robyn!
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 10:46 PM
Who knew the best performer of the day would be a blonde bombshell spinning Euro-disco? Robyn — another Swede on Friday's bill and a former child star who's fought hard to regain her own artistic control — came out fighting, throwing punches in the air when she wasn't doing that elbows-high, shoulder-leaning dance all '80s female singers used to do.
Feisty, sexy, spunky Robyn opened with the virtues of being a "Fembot," assured us that love hurts "With Every Heartbeat" and sang flawlessly through new single "Dancing on My Own" in front of a band dressed in all white, twiddling knobs and pounding synth-pad drums. The latter really exploded at the end of "Cobrastyle," with Robyn showing some kick-box dancing. Her Pink-ish feistiness reached its zenith in "Don't F—-ing Tell Me What to Do," during which she led some kind of aerobics class (sporting a totally Pat Benatar green beret, too).
And she was the crowd favorite.
Go figure. I had grown to assume this was a fairly rockist crowd, and I was originally surprised by the booking of this talented but very dance-pop artist on the venerable Pitchfork bill. But she embodies the spirit of whatever "indie" started out to mean. She debuted at 16 as an R&B starlet, and she's faced consistent and constant stumbling blocks in her business dealings which have kept her from the States. Even back in 2003, she was collaborating with experimental synth-pop outfit the Knife while her label was releasing a sugary best-of over here. She bought herself out of her record contract and started making the kind of music she wanted, and suddenly she won Grammys (in Sweden). Now she's doing her thing, releasing three "Body Talk" EPs — the second one's due Sept. 7 and might include a collaboration with Snoop Dogg! — and finally making an impact in the United States. Just last night she was singing at the Arvika Festival in Sweden, and after Pitchfork comes a North American tour, co-headlining with Kelis.
Judging by the diversity of the people dancing determinedly to her songs tonight, it should be a great tour.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Broken Social Scene, Modest Mouse
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 11:18 PM
Sundown slowed down with Broken Social Scene, a sprawling Toronto collective with a few Chicago roots. This band makes a lovely sound, even if the songs don't always gel behind the chiming guitars and palpitating drums.
Thirty-one musicians appear on the band's latest CD, "Forgiveness Rock Record," recorded in Chicago under the guidance of John McEntire from Tortoise and the Sea & Cake. McEntire himself played a second drum set on stage Friday night, adding needed extra heft to gauzy arrangements that tend to sag if not tended carefully.
This loosey-goosey ensemble, which tends to trade instruments among each other, was most engaging when they got the pulse going, rollicking through "Texico Bitches" and the rumbling furnace of "Cause = Time," which featured five guitars. The set ended in a see-sawing riff with strings that evoked the most intense Poi Dog Pondering drones.
Alas, the evening wrapped with Modest Mouse, a rodent of a band whose major-label indie rock (work that phrase out for a while) deserves the restraint implied by its name.
Now that the trinket of ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr is being worn by another indie-rock sweetheart (the Cribs) — though new guitarist Jim Fairchild did a helluva job filling those shoes, particularly during "Satellite Skin" — Modest Mouse is just a tuneless junkyard of discarded song parts. Frontman and the band's sole constant Isaac Brock is one of the most difficult singers to enjoy in rock and roll, and when he picks up that banjo for "The Devil's Workday" and sings about hanging himself for treason, well, hey, we got some rope. The God-awful funk beats of "Education," the stand-up bass — they're just a dissonant Dave Matthews Band, and the neo-hippies in the crowd were twirling in their calico prints to prove it.
Pitchfork Music Festival: In a Delorean, plus Dam-Funk
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2010 6:40 PM
Delorean in the summer heat is a weird and wonderful experience. Hitting the stage switched on, they build layer upon layer, loop upon loop — dreamy synth sounds that build and build and then ease off, one tune blending into another. That has the effect of inducing a dreamy state, which coupled with the blaring sun on your neck could induce a crazy euphoria. Or, like the guy behind me, you could just complain, "They've been playing this same song for half an hour." But listen closely, behind bassist Ekhi Lopetegi's thin vocals, and there are intricate patterns in the sampled piano and the vox humana. Despite the scraggly page-boys and beards, this band is not grounded in rock but draws more from the Balearic house music of their native Barcelona, Spain. Lopetegi's bass, though, and Guillermo Astrain's guitar bring enough vibration to a rock crowd to keep it on its feet. Primal Scream, we hardly knew ye.
California's Dâm-Funk (DJ Damon Riddick) got a late start on the shady balance stage, but in no time he laid down some fat beats and was advising us, "You gotta keep your hood pass intact, y'all." Dâm-Funk (it's pronounced "dame") mostly just turned on sounds and rhythms, then stalked the stage singing like a lost DeBarge. Then he pulled out the keytar and started into his trademark, slow, mostly instrumental jams. Joined by a live drummer and an extra synth player, Dâm-Funk updated '70s and '80s urban soul, and he stayed classy even when the shouts from Wu-Tang's Raekwon intruded from across the park. Since he was late starting, he even cut his set short. "We gotta respect the other bands, y'all," he said, removing the keytar. "We got four more songs, but f—- it. Peace!" Such consideration! Only at Pitchfork.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Titus Andronicus is no tragedy
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2010 6:47 PM
Best band of Saturday afternoon: Titus Andronicus, a blazing band from Glen Rock, N.J., a location that has allowed them to absorb the best of bombast from Springsteen, the fire of post-punk from New York and possibly even a little Philly soul. "I'm sweating like a pregnant nun talking to the pope," said frontman Patrick Stickles after lurching out of another of the band's nihilistic songs, "No Future, Part 3." But their outlook isn't completely bleak. The song hammers a refrain, "You'll always be a loser!" over and over before concluding: "But that's OK." The quintet was augmented by a few support players, piano and strings and horns; the extra players weren't necessary, but Titus Andronicus songs are multi-level, architectural creations with a capacity for a lot of extra decor. This is band that can write as well as it rocks, and God does it rock. At one moment Stickles is picking a spidery melody on his guitar, next the kinetic Amy Klein is crunching into the tune, and — as in the sprawling "Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ" — it all builds to a triumphant bashing. Near the end the guitars screeched in harmony and hit a northern highlands rhythm like they were Big Country. Then they turn around with the panache and the chops to introduce the band via a jump-bluesy tune, "And Ever." Brutal and friendly, vicious and tender, Titus Andronicus has it all.
Pitchfork Music Festival: The rain doesn't really help
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 2:00 PM
Day 3 of the sixth annual Pitchfork Music Festival, which began in 2005 as Intonation, is under way in the sultry summer heat. A noontime thunder shower moved through quickly, cooling things off for a matter of moments before the sun returned and added the evaporated rain to the day's humidity totals.
Water remains at half price, a dollar a bottle. Still, the line for the free water is longer than that for the bottled variety. Pitchfork staffer (and occasional Sun-Times contributor) Anders Smith Lindall says festival workers are handing out water bottles to distressed concertgoers when the line gets excruciatingly long.
Those who don't mind earning their reward — and helping to keep the park clear of debris — can earn one beverage ticket (worth a buck, for one bottle of water) for every 10 discarded plastic cups collected and returned to the recycling booth.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Best Coast is the best
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 3:30 PM
Sunday's music at the Pitchfork Music Festival began with dessert. Between the dull, thudding chords of Cass McCombs and the first laconic and then tortured feedback of the Girls, a fresh, sunny new pop band called Best Coast held down the Balance stage — the "small" stage, under the trees — with a workmanlike attitude and a handful of cheery love ditties. Ultimately unpretentious, Best Coast (Bethany Cosentino and two pals) ran through songs from the debut "Crazy for You" CD, filled with bright major chords and lyrics like "I'll try to make you mine" and "that's just not your deal." The crowd got a big chuckle when she sang, "I lost my job / I miss my mom / I wish my cat could talk." She closed with the trendy single "When I'm With You," the repeated refrain of which is, "When I'm with you, I have fun." So true.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Local Natives are fleet and foxy
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 5:19 PM
Seattle's Fleet Foxes brought beautiful harmonies back to modern music, rescuing three-part tenor singing from the vaults of Crosby, Stills & Nash. But as beautiful as "White Winter Hymnal" can be, the band hasn't yet jumped up and shown any oomph.
Orange County's Local Natives have seized that opportunity, and Sunday afternoon at the Pitchfork Music Festival they delivered a set of exciting, rhythmic music laced with the energy of post-punk as well as those sweet, core harmonies. Much of their music is built around what their voices can achieve, and the fact that they achieved it the brutal July Chicago heat is impressive. But these harmonies have teeth. Kelcey Ayer took charge of most of the proceedings, hitting beautiful high notes while bashing the bejesus out of his small stand-up drum kit. The beats he added to the regular drummer's rhythm — sometimes Ayer would play keyboard with his left hand and drum with his right — made songs like "Airplanes" blast like a jet engine. "Camera Talk," the evolving "Shape Shifter," the cover of the Talking Heads' "Warning Signs" — it was all fleet and (dig guitarist-singer Taylor Rice's stache!) very foxy.
Earlier, clouds provided sweet relief from the heat just as Beach House began its Sunday afternoon set. Mother Nature knows how to set the mood. Despite the summery name, Beach House makes cool — no, chill — music. With piercing vocals and a hushed, daydreamy tone to the hypnotic sounds, Beach House is made for a little less light.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Major Lazer, Big Boi
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 10:41 PM
Saturday evening began with the digital dub attack of Major Lazer, a computerized dancehall project of Diplo — marking a return to Pitchfork — and Switch. For an hour they assaulted the adoring crowd with very little music, mostly just bleats and blasts that sound like various industrial park alarms. The noises dodged and moved — a frenetic mess for the ADHD set — and Diplo spent most of his stage time shouting the name Major Lazer (at least four dozen times) and begging the crowd for hands in the air.
Big Boi doesn't have to beg.
Strutting on stage with one of his Atlanta MCs, the other half of hip-hop's acclaimed Outkast starting flinging syllables, eventually firing fastfastfast through "Ghetto Musick" over a machine-gun beat. A relentless hourlong set featured several Outkast hits (a snappy run through "Ms. Jackson") and a few guests, ranging from guest singer Neil Garrard for the tuneful "Follow Us" to a trash-talking youngster. The set dragged on and the beats became monotonous, but when he launched into "ATLiens" and hollered, "Put your hands in the air!" it was superfluous. They'd been up for a while.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Pavement resurfaces
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 11:45 PM
Pavement has worn all three tags hung on this music. Here's a band that was serviced to college radio, came to define a certain smoky corner of alt-rock and now is lionized as indie heroes with a worldwide reunion tour and headlining slot at the Pitchfork fest. The band's much-anticipated set couldn't have begun more appropriately — first with a long, meandering introductory rant by Drag City's Ryan Murphy about the contrasts between this festival and Lollapalooza, among other topics, and then a false start to the opener, "Cut Your Hair." The band that worked hard but looked like slackers is still in perfect non-form.
Band leader Stephen Malkmus played facing stage left, and other band members frequently played with their backs to the crowd. Malkmus kept throwing sidelong glances at his old mates as if he wasn't sure what came next. As he maintained a carefree composure — all casual smirks, air drumming and lazy twirls — multi-instrumentalist Bob Nastanovich jumped around most of the time like a devilish imp, hollering through "Debris Slide" and rapping, if you call it that, through "Unfair," which built to such caterwauling mayhem that guitarist Scott Kannberg even tried a scissor kick.
One minute it was amazing the whole thing was still on the rails, like they should be following the Smith Westerns on the B stage, the next — such synchronized beauty and cacophony. The end result being, hey, Pavement has a serious legacy, after all. The echoes we've been hearing at this festival, this weekend and years past, they all came together in one joyfully sloppy master class of indie rock.
By Thomas Conner
© The Chicago Sun-Times
The fastidiousness of Donald Fagen is well-documented among his band's considerable contributions to rock 'n' roll. In the studio for Steely Dan records, six-hour sessions were common just to polish 12 bars of rhythm guitar. Noted session musicians would be brought in at great expense to play jazzlike guitar and sax solos — solos Fagen already had written and carefully notated for them. This control freakishness gave Steely Dan's hits and album tracks their celebrated (and sometimes derided) slickness and meticulous swing.
Saturday night at the Chicago Theatre, however, Fagen — at 58 and on his first ever solo tour — showed signs of mellowing with age, of letting go of the little stuff. At least he made it look that way.
Midway through his less-than-two-hour set, he paused and slumped at his center-stage electric piano. "What do we do now?" he asked. It was a rhetorical question, but the lively audience was quick to answer by shouting requests. "Oh, right there, I heard it!" he said, then turned to his band and seemed to call the next tune ("Third World Man"). Donald Fagen appeared to — gasp! — take a request.
It may have been an act (though given the varied set lists I've seen from the tour thus far, probably not), but it was indicative of Fagen's feistiness while free of his longtime Steely Dan cohort Walter Becker. By himself, Fagen clearly wants to get his groove on. His solo albums (one per decade since 1982) have been driven by backbeats more prominent than on most Dan albums before the turn-of-the-century reunion.
This was clear Saturday night whenever the set veered from solo work — powered by metronomic drummer Keith Carlock's sparse kit and Freddie Washington's gurgling bass — to a handful of Dan album tracks, each of which opened up the full range of Fagen's nine-piece band. The Dan tunes breathed a bit more, the sound was fuller, richer, broader, and the ensemble sounded like an ensemble. That was the goal of Steely Dan, after all — to combine '50s R&B with the careful arrangement of Ellington's big bands. Fagen on his own, though, tends to shrug off the Ellingtonia and get down to basics.
That's not a criticism of his solo work, just a distinction — hopefully a helpful one, given that so many critics write about Fagen's solo outings as indistinguishable echoes of Steely Dan. Every time I've seen Steely Dan live, Fagen has slunk onto the stage, a sheepish member of a large band. Saturday night, though, he strutted onto the stage, plopped down at his keyboard and, raising a single finger high into the air, jabbed down the first notes of "Green Flower Street" like a call to order, or arms. The tight interplay of the rhythm section on that song set the tone for the evening. This was a groove-centric rock 'n' soul revue.
Most of Fagen's song selections were delightful surprises — "Teahouse on the Tracks," "Home at Last," "Goodbye Look," "FM," even a left-field cover of "Mis'ry and the Blues" from 1930s Oklahoma City-Chicago musician Charlie LaVere. The new CD, "Morph the Cat," was represented but not dwelled upon (just "Brite Nitegown," "Mary Shut the Garden Door" and "What I Do," featuring Chicago harmonica player Howard Levy). His encore was just one song — again, Fagen slumped and seemed unsure what to play. "I feel like just playing something fast," he said and launched the band into Chuck Berry's "Viva Viva Rock 'n' Roll" with a scorching solo from guitarist Jon Herington.
Therein, too, lies another sign of Fagen's relaxed grip. Of the two guitarists onstage Saturday night, Herington and Wayne Krantz, only the former seemed up to Fagen's previous finicky standards. Krantz's solos often went too far afield of the melody, even the countermelody, and filled the theater with a dizzying number of notes. His delivery seemed clumsy, too, as if his left fingers were bandaged. Herington, though he didn't get as many solos, was superb — clean, crisp, remarkably fluid and with a more rockin' tone that suited the somewhat restless spirit of the set. His playing was sharp enough to inspire hopes he'd romp into "Reelin' in the Years." Alas, no.
The show was so groove-tastic, though, that two attendees remarked after the show that they wished the tour was playing smaller venues — so they could have danced. Here's to Fagen's return next time in Uptown — the Aragon? the Green Mill?
at Chicago Theatre
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The Guthrie Family, John Flynn, Cyril Neville, Kevn Kinney, Ramsay Midwood and the Burns Sisters
At the Vic Theatre
A pundit on a Sunday TV news program recently quoted a woman in a northeastern state who asked, "Why should I pay to rebuild New Orleans?" This was cited as an example of the disconnect felt by Americans outside the Deep South as to the relative importance of aiding in the reconstruction of a sacked American city. The program's panel offered several studious answers to her question — jazz heritage, oil flow, even the Louisiana Purchase was invoked — but no one got beyond business and politics. No one ever answered, "Because, ma'am, if you'd lost your home, I'd help you."
Most of the bandwagon benefit CDs, songs and concerts during the past three months have avoided that golden measure, as well. It's all for Mardi Gras, y'all! But leave it to the Guthrie family to gather together and remind us — by example — that family is a concept transcending bloodlines and borders.
If you think that's dreamy-eyed hippie idealism, fine. But truth be told, the heart of folk music beats underneath an old bumper sticker slogan: think globally, act locally. Don't try to save the whole world. Just do what you can where you are, or where you can go.
Arlo's latest such effort is the Ridin' on the City of New Orleans tour, which kicked off with Monday night's concert. For the next two weeks, Arlo and his "family" — actual offspring, such as son Abe and daughter Sarah Lee, plus numerous friends — will travel south from Chicago to New Orleans on the fabled train heralded in Chicagoan Steve Goodman's song (and Arlo's biggest hit) "The City of New Orleans." They'll be playing concerts along the way, raising money for musicians and music venues in the Crescent City.
Arlo threw together this tour, and Monday night's premiere — the costs of which, Arlo announced, were underwritten by comedian and Illinois native Richard Pryor — certainly appeared thrown together. The spirit was willing (and thrilling), but attendance was weak. It's starting just like a train, slow and clunky, but it shows every sign it'll roar into Memphis and New Orleans as a polished, shiny package.
Arlo's extended family on this night included John Flynn, singing shrill but amusing topical songs; Kevn Kinney of the Atlanta band Drivin' n' Cryin', turning in some intriguing, wide-open blues smoked by his hoarse, Jimmy LaFave wheeze; woozy, enigmatic Texas troubadour Ramsay Midwood, and the Burns Sisters, who awkwardly added harmonies to other acts' choruses throughout the night before delivering two a cappella numbers that elicited cheers and whoops from the pensive crowd.
Abe Guthrie's band Xavier performed its usual set of mediocre jam-band noodling (oy, the guitar solos). And though Sarah Lee Guthrie's set, with husband Johnny Irion, wasn't her best, her belting alt-country twang still shone as the most interesting new talent in Woody Guthrie's family.
Arlo emceed more than he performed, lending the headline spotlight to Cyril Neville, youngest of the Neville Brothers. After seven folk and blues acts, Neville strutted onstage in his black hat with red sequins and feather and presented a lively, albeit slightly rote, set of the rhythm and blues nurtured in the New Orleans venues Arlo's trying to save.
"There's no logic to it," Arlo had said earlier of the eclectic bill, and Neville's deep grooves clearly bewildered the timid folk support players — but people finally started dancing and clapping and getting their blood flowing. Neville climbed behind the drum kit for two songs, including an extended final jam, a tribute to New Orleans. "The storm ain't over, y'all," Neville reminded us.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Slah-oan! Slah-oan! The stage was set and the natives were restless. The chant started slowly. At first it was in perfect harmony with the song playing over the PA, almost as if it were a backing track. But the song ended and the chant continued — as if this were a European soccer match or a Morrissey concert. Next, darkness, shadows ambled into position, then a snare drum rolled and everything just exploded.
Sloan is the Canadian Fab Four, a powerhouse quartet that writes well and rocks hard. Fifteen years into a career of sorts, and here they were Thursday night back in Chicago celebrating an unusually refreshing look backward — the release of "A Sides Win," an astonishingly solid singles collection reaching back to 1992.
Back then, Geffen Records was trying to turn them into Sonic Youth when all they really wanted to be was Cheap Trick. (From the stage on Thursday, bassist Chris Murphy referred to Robin Zander "the best singer in America.") Fortunately, they became much more — without, thus far, anything resembling "The Flame" (shudder) — and turned the Beatles' fully cocked "Revolver" rock 'n' roll legacy into an experience more fun, more clever and more honest than every band in the mid-'90s "power-pop revival" put together and turned up to 11.
Thursday's show at the Double Door — where they last played, they kept reminding us, years ago when they opened for Jale (who? exactly) — was an unapologetic romp through the greatest hits. Given the band's exuberance and the fans' unwavering devotion — Slah-oan! Slah-oan! ... it kept going throughout the show — it was an approach that never seemed calculated to sell the latest record. They played the hits (in Canada, where their second album was voted the greatest disc of all time, yes, they have hits) because they are, indeed, great songs. No one in the crowd cried out for obscure album tracks. Many clapped along long before they were asked to (each incidence of which somehow, at least through these rose-colored lenses, was utterly free of the usual cliches).
Every song elicited whoops and cheers and wild movement by the kind of geeky rock fans who are not prone to grace in such contexts. It was easy to imagine the Double Door as the UIC Pavilion. Here's a band that missed the era that would have embraced it with arena arms.
Opening with "Losing California," with guitarist Patrick Pentland craning his neck to accommodate a mike stand too tall for him, Sloan crashed through its A-list, covering nearly all of the greatest-hits package — a maniacal "Money City Maniacs," a stomping "She Says What She Means," closing with the frenetic, two-minute rush of "The Good in Everyone."
Sloan didn't begin its career quite as rawk as it's become, an evolution that was obvious when, after blasting through a half dozen breathless scorchers, they were a bit too out of breath to handle the delicate harmonies of one of their first singles, "Coax Me." And when everyone but Pentland switched instruments so that drummer Andrew Scott could play guitar and sing a couple of his songs — all four members write and sing, like Teenage Fanclub — his slow, carefully colored dirge-ballad was an interesting and, admittedly, welcome island in the testosterone flood.
Those who claim that rock is dead simply don't understand the compartmentalized playing field of 21st century popular culture. It ain't dead, it's just been put into its place. But that doesn't mean it's any less thrilling when you dive in. Just listen to the fans spilling out of the Double Door, still chanting. Slah-oan! Slah-oan!
at the Double Door
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
When New Order finished playing "Transmission" — a quirky song by New Order's doomed, post-punk predecessor, Joy Division — singer Bernard Sumner hissed and said, "Enough of that rock s---! We want you to start dancing!" And, true to the band's hits-heavy set, they launched into "True Faith" as if it were a brand-new nightclub sensation.
Like most of the set Tuesday night at the Aragon Ballroom, these were songs they seemed obliged to play. God forbid a New Order concert should pass without "True Faith," "Bizarre Love Triangle" and the requisite Joy Division chestnut.
But during "Transmission," something happened that makes New Order shows still worth seeing after (gulp) a quarter of a century. This band — a British outfit we sometimes know more from dance floors and John Hughes movie soundtracks — actually rocked. Sumner matched the songs' quaint but deceptively foreboding mood with uncharacteristic growling and gurgling (it's a bit low for his range), while bassist Peter Hook barked and shrieked randomly. And for a few minutes, the New Order experience was about pogoing and pumping fists rather than twirling and dancing. Post-punk, indeed.
Tuesday's energetic show was spiced with such moments. Given that the band's live incarnation is a genuine guitar-bass-drums-vocals quartet, the occasional use of pre-recorded synthesizers and beats seemed surprisingly intrusive. The best songs were those that allowed guitarist Phil Cunningham to cut loose ("Regret," "Crystal") and let Hook show off his chiming namesake hooks in soloing poses at the edge of the stage (nearly every song, but especially the new "Hey Now What You Doing" and the opener, "Love Vigilantes").
Hook was manic, and once again he proved to be an invaluable asset in the band's attack — something not said about many bass players. Looking like a bedraggled Alan Rickman, Hook prowled the spotlight all night, plucking out the alarmingly simple bass melodies that make New Order, like so many of the British bands from that early '80s era, sound as good in concert and on the dance floor as it does in the car or on an iPod. Sometimes he's providing the groove, sometimes he's taking the melody, often he's doing both.
Again, this magic peaked during a Joy Division song, the classic "Love Will Tear Us Apart." It had its typically lumbering moments, but when Hook stopped bellowing indecipherably, dropped the melody and started grinding into his black bass next to drummer Stephen Morris' explosive kit, the two sparked some crackling fire, which Hook tamed to the end with an absurd but wildly cheered one-note solo back at stage's edge.
Sumner introduced all the songs — no suspense, no pretensions — cracked jokes and thanked Chicago for waiting 12 years since the band's last local show. And, really, it's that down-to-earth attitude that makes New Order still so engaging at this late date. The band didn't break new ground, by any means, but it rocked — no extended remix required.
at the Aragon Ballroom
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
You probably don't know me from Adam, maybe only as a tag-along colleague of John Wooley's. We've talked only a few times, on rare occasions when you let down your veil of eccentricity and granted an interview.
I write this open letter to you, though, because after seeing you launch the show for Joe Cocker on Monday night at the Brady Theater, I wanted to address you directly instead of merely preaching to the asylum choir, as it were. Who knows if we'll ever speak again. This is likely my last concert review for this publication, so I'm feeling rather audacious.
Concerts are not competitions, by any means. That's good, Leon, because Cocker kicked your butt Monday night.
It was a little shocking. Granted, I was in my mother's womb when the two of you were romping across the country as the infamous Mad Dogs and Englishmen, but I've seen you in that concert film stealing Joe's show.
Heck, you stole his very fire.
I've listened to and reported the stories and legends about that event for more than seven years as a pop critic for this newspaper. People speak of you as if you were some kind of shaman — in hushed tones, the awe still palpable after three decades. But it's an awe rooted in that heyday. It's old.
Obviously, so are you. In body, that's one thing, but in spirit — somehow I didn't expect that. I should have: you've been giving this same show for a decade, at least.
Monday night was no different. Maybe a little worse, really. You sat motionless at your keyboard, wheezing through songs you were reading off a teleprompter, never looking at the audience — never even acknowledging us.
You plowed through the set without so much as a breath between songs. When you mashed your last chord Monday night and removed your sunglasses, I saw your eyes for the first time in years. They looked vacant, maybe a little uncomfortable.
Most telling, though, you looked insanely bored.
I actually expected boredom and autopilot from Cocker. I've never been fond of that old hack, but he blew me away. He had the sell-out crowd on its feet for an hour-and-a-half.
He's three years younger than you, but Monday night it looked like 20. His trademark spasmodic arms were wringing out some hot soul, and — during his smooth, reggae take on "Summer in the City" — he convulsed his entire body to make incredible wails come out.
Did you see the women dancing as he sang "You Can Leave Your Hat On"? No, I guess you didn't. You'd left the theater before his set started.
I wish you had seen it — not to ogle the chicks but to watch Cocker in action. He should be a washed-up has-been by now, but he was a master Monday night.
Maybe he needs Viagra at his age, but he hasn't forgotten what his blue-eyed soul is all about. It's about sex, and he can still conjure it.
What's your music about these days, Leon? Is it just down to the bottom line? Are you touring simply because you have to pay the rent? Your show reeks of that motive.
There's no showmanship. There's no entertainment. There's absolutely zero passion. All you had up there Monday night was a bunch of fine songs smothered by synthesized instruments, polyester arrangements and desperate, break-neck speed.
This sub-Best Western lounge act may work for you. Fine. You're obviously able to book plenty of shows, and you've got your record label humming. But if Cocker wasn't on the bill Monday night, we'd have gone home restless, feeling cheated.
You were once one of the greatest showmen in rock 'n' roll. I don't mean to crack the whip and insist on the same level of energy and psychosis; I just somehow expected greater maturity in your act instead of this much self-parody.
For whatever it's worth — they don't call this "two cents" for nothing — I, the young upstart with virtually no on-stage experience, offer these suggestions for your future endeavors:
1. Go unplugged
Get rid of that silly synthesizer you cling to. The synchronized synth-piano effect you played so frequently Monday night is tinny, harsh, awful.
If you must have the teleprompter screen, those can be rigged to sit anywhere, such as the music stand on a piano. You're a techie, you know this.
The Brady Theater has a beautiful grand piano in the house. I'd pay good money to see you play an actual piano again. I think it would do you good, if I might be so bold. Piano keys kick back in a way keyboards don't, and it looks like you could use a little reaction from your music, a little challenge. Plus, all that synthesized noise has no dynamics.
Every song you played, from the jaunty "Tight Rope" to the exquisite ballad "A Song for You," came at us with the exact same hammering force and volume. There was no loud and soft, no give and take, none of your trademark subtleties. Also, lose those synth-drum pads. Better yet: bring back Teddy Jack.
2. Get up, stand up
We've all heard about your legendary (or mythical) shyness. Is that why you never move? Is that why the only time we hear you speak is to introduce the band?
All that beautiful, long white hair — and it just lays there. I don't expect it to fly like it used to when you were running around the stage in 1970, but I hardly think it's a lot to ask that you move around a little.
Turning your neck to the left would be a start. Look at us. Here's a biggie: smile. The Brady was filled to the brim Monday night with people who shelled out hard-earned bucks — amid both the Christmas shopping season and a bad economy — to see you. Sure, they want to hear the songs, but your presence is also part of the bargain.
If you want to make your career strictly about songwriting and steer clear of the stage, more power to you; you're one of the best writers around. But if you're going to strike the deal and perform for us, commit to the physical aspect of it. Even Jimmy Webb rocks back and forth and chats a little.
3. Put a spell on us
Speaking of Webb, take a page from his book. Grow a little mystique around yourself. In fact, go away for a while, if you can afford it. You're in league with people like Webb as a songwriter, but you're more than that, really.
I think of you more along the lines of Van Dyke Parks — an arranger, a writer, a maestro. Play on that, and flaunt a little ego. Don't play every venue offered you. Seeing you live should be an event, a rare and precious opportunity.
This was your third show here this year. If you're going to stay in Nashville, work behind the scenes with other artists who will speak of you reverently in their interviews. You are the master of space and time, right?
4. Come home
Actually, don't stay in Nashville. Your kids are grown now, and technology allows us to live anywhere we want and still do business. So move back to Tulsa.
Get away from that den of dumbing-down. Sure, Tulsa's not as classy as Nashville (depends, however, on your definition of class), but it's a nurturing musical community. You'd be welcomed with open arms.
Remember the Tulsa Sound? Everyone here still claims you were one of its founding fathers, that it's a style of bluesy rock that's more about the space between the notes.
Listening to that onslaught of eighth notes unleashed upon us Monday night — a sweet little song like "Hummingbird" whipped up into a suffocating tornado of music — who would still make that claim?
Come back, even for a little while. Dig up your roots. Maybe you could host a monthly jam down at the Cain's Ballroom. Heck, Garth doesn't need a Nashville zip code.
5. Suck it up
The bulk of the people who bought tickets to Monday's show wanted to see you perform, and they wanted to see Cocker perform, but they really wanted to see the two of you perform together.
First time on a bill together in three decades — of course, we all expected it. Surely whatever bad blood that once existed between you would have drained away by now.
Alas, you never showed, and we were left to come in through the bathroom window for Cocker's encore, in which he knocked four numbers outta the park.
At the very least you might have been inspired by the ol' codger, picked up a few tips from his sheer production values. He's got soul, for sure, but you've got spirit. You used to have grace, and you could at least have been gracious. If not for Joe, for your fans. It's all for your fans.
This post contains complete reviews of this annual festival ...
Singer-songwriter Steve Young performance opens Woody Guthrie Folk Fest
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
"It is raining right now all over the farmlands around, and I have never seen prettier nor heartier land" . . .
— Woody Guthrie in a letter to Moe Asch, July 8, 1945
OKEMAH — It came as no surprise Wednesday night when Steve Young darkened the skies over this small town and brought rain upon the land.
It happened just as he began playing one of his signature tunes, "Montgomery in the Rain." The song is restive and mournful, laced with memories of Young's youthful binges and nights toasting the great Hank Williams atop his Montgomery grave.
The lyrics resonated in the hearts of the crowd gathered to hear Young kick off this week's Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, the fifth annual celebration of the late Okemah native's folk legacy.
"I don't want to stay here, and I'm just rolling through your town," Young sang, his voice like pure cream shot through a fire hose -- powerful, direct and smooth. "I just came back here to remember the joy and the pain . . . go out to Hank's tombstone and cry me a thunderstorm chain."
That's when the beige stage curtain behind Young began to breathe, then flutter, than flap audibly. A backstage door had been left open, and the cold front plowing across the Okfuskee County fields was pressing its gusts into the historic Crystal Theater, the very place where Guthrie often came as a boy, where as the evening's emcee, scholar Guy Logsdon, pointed out Guthrie first heard the song "Midnight Special" in 1925.
There were flashes of lightning on the backstage brick walls, and a faint rumble of thunder underscored Young's performance.
Guthrie's Okemah tombstone is merely ceremonial. He was cremated and scattered at sea in 1967, but the thunderstorm chain cried just the same. Young looked back only once to acknowledge the commotion before someone got the door closed. He seemed pretty nonplussed. He's likely prone to these kinds of mystical accidents. He's definitely got his mojo working.
In my story about Young last week, I described his music as "darkly Southern." It's not dark as much as it is shadowy, and it's more worldly than Southern.
He played Tex-Mex tunes and Irish jigs, but the phrase worked to hint at Young's Gothic nature. His songs seem haunted, like a crumbling Georgian mansion draped in moss and memories. Songs such as the heaving, churning "Jig" seem conjured from a graveyard, ghostly reminders to live life to its fullest and that "if you want to rock the jig, you gotta play it real."
Most of Young's performances heave and churn. That voice -- better suited to evangelical preaching -- no doubt careens out of his throat with incredible strength and control, frequently pinching off a phrase like a wincing Dylan, and his guitar picking is lightning-fast. His right hand moves all over the strings of his acoustic guitar, ringing every one and filling the hall like an orchestra.
Alternately driving and delicate, I scribbled in my notebook that it reminded me of Windham Hill Records founder Will Ackerman, whose last album, oddly enough, was "Sound of Wind Driven Rain."
Largely unknown as a performer, which, after seeing him, is unfathomable, Young presented an impressive catalog of songs, songs about being "a dreamer and . . . a drifter," songs about Oklahoma ("What a good place to be born"), songs about his southern Appalacian youth.
He delivered a jaw-dropping tribute to Selena, the late Tejano singer, that swelled and hollered like a classic Slim Whitman lament ("She rode out of Corpus Christi into the old Tejano land . . . so they might understand that they had a hidden beauty"), even mentioning Judge Roy Bean, like some mythic tale off of Dylan's "John Wesley Harding."
He also presented two Guthrie songs, neither of which smacked of last-minute preparation in order to justify this particular booking. The precursor to his Selena song was a carefully considered reading of "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)," which he restructured almost like an Elizabethan ballad.
Near the end of his set, he added "Pastures of Plenty," played high on the neck of his guitar in minor keys, singing fully and richly, like Ralph Stanley singing "O Death."
The convictions of that song have never sounded so personal, so real. Even as he worked through a considerable number of songs by other songwriters -- Tom T. Hall, Lloyd Price, John D. Loudermilk -- Young was the master, controlling and often reshaping the songs instead of merely replaying them.
And, after a day of intense, choking heat, we all appreciated the cooling rain that greeted the audiences as we emerged, charged from the performance.
However inadvertent it may have been, it was yet another annual blessing that took the edge off a festival under the sun during a typically scorching July week.
Luke Reed opened the Wednesday night benefit concert (before the intermission, during which, oddly enough, the sound man played Jenny Labow's "everything but you" album).
A native Oklahoman who's been in Tennessee a long time, Reed played original songs weighted with homesickness and pining for these "Oklahoma Hills," with which he closed his set in a jazzy, swinging rendition.
I've been away a long time, and it comes out in my songs," he said between tunes about being a "descendant of the wind" and "missing you and wide open spaces."
Reed is a songwriter, first and foremost. He writes good, solid tunes, but his voice and delivery are unsteady, wavering in a manner that no doubt matters more in Nashville than at a folk festival. He sounds like what Patrick Williams of the Farm Couple probably sounded like decades ago as a novice: not yet smooth, but smart. Funny, too, as he ended his set with a humorous song, reminding us that in spite of all the songs written about horses, spurs, saddles and guns "there wouldn't be no cowboys if it wasn't for the cows."
Guthrie Folk Festival 'matures'
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — At most available opportunities, the organizers of this weekend's Woody Guthrie Folk Festival made announcements from the various stages to recognize the presence of members of the Guthrie family, from relatives of Guthrie's son Roy to the omnipresent firecracker that is Guthrie's sister, Mary Jo Edgmon.
Guthrie's family, however, is not limited to these blood relatives. If the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival has shown the world anything at all, it's that Guthrie's family those who embrace the music he created and the ideals for which he struggled is a vast, diverse crowd of folks. The festival has become an annual family reunion for "Woody's children," the folk singers and fans who relish the old songs and their renewing spirit. This year, the festival's fifth, they came from all corners of the globe six countries and countless musical genres to pay homage and have a major hootenanny.
How do I know it's a family gathering? Because this year everyone seemed to bring their girlfriends. Performers Ellis Paul, Don Conoscenti and Slaid Cleaves brought along wives and significant others for the first time. A few of the crewmen had girls in tow. Some organizers joked that if the spouses were consenting to Okemah in July, that spoke well for the careers of the performers, the stamina of the festival, or both.
But the most significant indications of the festival's family atmosphere are in watching the "children" grow up and in the consistent helping hands and support the artists give one another.
First, this year's festival featured few new acts — at least, none of the headliners were new names to the festival roster. Most have been here throughout the festival's history, and eight of this year's performers were honored with plaques for having participated at all five festivals (Conoscenti, Paul, Bob Childers, Tom Skinner, Joel Rafael, the Red Dirt Rangers, Peter Keane and Jimmy LaFave).
But the lack of new blood did not slow festival attendance as some, including myself, expected it might. In fact, the most interesting new act, Steve Young, drew a paltry crowd for the Wednesday night benefit concert in the Crystal Theater.
No, the clans still came to the festival grounds Thursday night's being the biggest draw yet and, more intriguingly, we got something more from the routine performances. The kids have grown up. The performers we've watched at this festival for up to five years have matured, gained confidence, come into their own.
For instance, Boston's Ellis Paul took the main festival stage Thursday night with, I dare say, a swagger. A kind, gentle, sweet-voiced poet, Paul has been a fairy of the festival for years, fluttering in with tunes spun of tulle and tales of intricate and tortuous(CQ) romance.. This year, with his lengthening hair, he donned a gnarly cowboy hat ("I want to be a Red Dirt Ranger, you see") and strutted onstage with never-before-seen power and assurance. He plowed right into a hard blues wailer, "Rattle My Cage," full of the strength we'd seen in him before but now apparently confident in it, flaunting it a bit, proud. He has come a ways, too. Five years ago, at the first festival, he was a wide-eyed dreamy songwriter still getting his road legs. Today, his songs score Gwenyth Paltrow movies, and Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter, seeks him out to add new music to old Guthrie lyrics.
He played that song Thursday night, too his Guthrie collaboration, "God's Promise," an intricate musing on the double-edged facts of life that Guthrie wrote from his hospital bed in 1955. "It's the coolest thing I've ever done as a human being," Paul said of the posthumous collaboration. "Anyone who knows me knows that this was like me writing a song with Jesus."
Another branch of the family that's grown by leaps and bounds is the Oklahoma- bred Red Dirt Rangers, who rocked and rolled Friday night on the main stage harder than I've ever seen them. Of course, it may have just looked that way the festival crew used the Rangers' set as the opportunity to test drive a new fog machine, so much of their set looked like a Spinal Tap concert but the extended jam with a fret-wanking guitar solo in the title track to the band's new album, "Starin' Down the Sun," was no hallucination.
The bulk of their set concentrated the bulk of their set on Guthrie material, from their song "Steel Rail Blues" ("What would Woody Guthrie say if he were in my shoes?") and the Guthrie-esque "Leave This World a Better Place" to covers of " Cadillac Eight" (a moody number that really broke in the fog machine), the kickin' "Rangers Command" and "California Stars." When they closed with Jimmy LaFave's "Red Dirt Roads at Night," guitarist Ben Han was practically doing Pete Townshend windmills. R-a-w-k, rock.
LaFave joined the Rangers for that song, and therein lies the real other thrill of this festival's familial spirit: the family is pretty incestuous. Most of the artists respect, admire and maybe even adore each other. As a result, they take advantage of these rare opportunities to play together, to jam, to back each other up.
To wit: Don White joined Tom Skinner during his set. Later, Irene Kelly, an old acquaintance of White's from Nashville, asked him to join her during her Thursday night set. ("I guess I'd better go listen to her CD," he chuckled that afternoon.) Darcie Deaville brought the incomparable Mary Reynolds up to help her through Guthrie's "Union Maid," then added Conoscenti (who had just stepped out of his car arriving in Okemah) and Terry "Buffalo" Ware for a swingin' rendition of Guthrie's "New York Town." Conoscenti joined Paul, his old friend, during his set, as did Joel Rafael Band percussionist Jeff Berkley. Berkley and Ware, in fact, played with just about everyone.
Fayetteville bassist Melissa Kirper backed the Farm Couple, knocking out the Brick Street Cafe´ crowd by singing an "O Brother" staple, "I'll Fly Away" and sounding exactly like Gillian Welch. Bob Childers was backed by Skinner, Brandon Jenkins, and two DoubleNotSpyz members, John Williams and David Cooper. Amanda Cunningham joined him for harmony. The Rangers included fiddler Randy Crouch in their lineup and allowed Childers to come up and sing, once more, his classic song about Guthrie, "Woody's Road." The Rangers then joined Kevin Welch for an unrehearsed barreling through the bad-to-the-bone "Kickin' Back in Amsterdam." David R joined George and Linda Barton during their cafe´ set.
Fierce fiddler Wes Gassaway played the whole Wednesday night set with native Okie Luke Reed. Plus, in order to fill the main-stage slot left vacant by Abe Guthrie's band Xavier (an ill guitarist kept them from attending), festival organizer Mike Nave encouraged and helped to assemble the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival All-Star Band, a sprawling and unrehearsed-but-still-tight conglomerate that included Ware, Gassaway, Skinner, Reynolds, Deaville, Conoscenti, Don Morris, Greg Jacobs, Phil Lancaster (from the defunct Still on the Hill), T.Z. Wright. The band cycled through songs by Skinner, Reynolds and Jacobs, including Skinner leading the crowd through Arlo Guthrie's "Last Train to Glory," a rousing ballad about the railway to heaven that perfects Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready." The group had no rehearsal ("We wouldn't dream of it," Ware later joked) and still thrilled the crowd. That's a folk festival for you, and this one is indeed for all of us.
Around, about the festivities
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — Some sights and sounds from a week of concerts, panel discussions and camaraderie at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival:
Interesting acts: Roger Tillison, an old cohort of J.J. Cale (he wrote "One Step Ahead of the Blues" for him) and Leon Russell, showed up Thursday at the Brick Street Cafe´ for a temperate run through some good old songs. Effron White, from Fayetteville, sounds exactly like the singer for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and he wrapped his Brick Street set with the festival's most rousing reading of Guthrie's "Hard Travelin'" rousing because that gravelly voice sounded like it had actually done a lot of hard travelling. The best songwriter at the festival, though, surely must be Slaid Cleaves, whose economy with words creates gut-kicking images and butt-kicking songs. In "Broke Down," his latest Americana hit, he tells of a ruined suitor who tries to pawn the ring he bought for a girl; the next line skips a lot of narrative but lets us know exactly how the deal and his emotions turned out: "Somewhere at the bottom of Lake Ponchatrain there's a love note carved inside a wedding ring." Genius, even without his excellent yodeling.
The mother of all festivals: Mary Jo Edgmon, Guthrie's sister, is always in high demand at the festival. Appearing at panel sessions, pancake breakfasts and book signings throughout the week in Okemah, she brightens the event with her boundless energy and infectious cheer. At a local eatery one night, she stopped at my table to say hello. She was due at her tent near the festival stage 10 minutes earlier. But then a fan stopped her to relay her admiration, and a friend called her over to meet another couple. She made the rounds of the restaurant, leaving half an hour later after another family member, exasperated, cried, "She ain't left yet?"
Like an angel: I've printed it before, I'll print it again Mary Reynolds has the most beautiful voice in the world. A fixture on many stages, her pipes ring like the bells of heaven, from a jaunty run through "Union Maid" with Darcie Deaville to stopping the main-stage show Thursday night as part of the all-star band singing "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You" as a lullaby. Jimmy LaFave even got her onstage to sing "Hobo's Lullaby," her performance of which might as well be the festival's anthem. Sandpaper-throated Bob Childers joked backstage: "She reminds of me of myself before I started smoking."
Doctor's orders: Boston-based Vance Gilbert once again proved to be the funniest and most empowering act at the festival, in no small part because of the a cappella gospel prayer with which he closes his show.
Gilbert steps into the audience and shouts out this old-time holler without a microphone. He wasn't supposed to do that this year, though, under orders from physicians trying to heal his stressed vocal chords. "I'm not going to do it anywhere else, but if they think I'm not going to give my best show at this festival, well, uh-uh, no sir," he said later.
He gets around: One festivalgoer came all the way from Scotland for the event and wore his traditional garb, including kilt, the whole time. But if you really want an idea for the transcendent nature of Guthie's songs, ask performer Bill Chambers from Australia. "I've heard aborigines singing 'This Land Is Your Land' in the heart of the bush," he said.
The late show: Scheduled after-hours shows this year lacked a lot to be desired including attendance. Chicago's Cedarcase proved competent, at best, and Beaver Nelson from Austin, Texas, barely justified the buzz that's followed the band. The best Brick Street set, though, came from Tulsa's own marshallcity, which rocked the basement despite operating under a stern "no Led Zeppelin covers" order. One of their alt-country songs, though, still slipped in a few barks of "It's been a long time since I rock 'n' rolled."
A little ingenuity: Ohio-native, Texas-based singer-songwriter Michael Fracasso is a lone gunman. He holds the stage by himself with just his guitar and .,. where's that bass drum coming from? Ah, it's only Fracasso's foot. He taps a bass drum microphone with his boot for rhythmic support. Similarly, the Farm Couple added a trumpet solo to their closing number, "Ain't Misbehavin'." There's no trumpeter in the duo, but singer-guitarist Patrick Williams huffs out a mean impression of one through his moustache.
Someone didn't get the memo: Arlo Guthrie could not make this year's festival; he's touring with Judy Collins. However, the marquee outside the Okemah Mazzio's still read, "Welcome to Okemah, Arlo."
Documentary in works: An OETA crew was at the festival this year filming interviews to add to an upcoming extended feature on Woody Guthrie on the network's quarterly "Gallery" program. The piece is scheduled for the September episode.
Living history: Joel Rafael's new CD of Guthrie covers, "Woodeye" (officially released this week but available for the first time at the festival), includes the haunting ballad "Don't Kill My Baby and My Son." Guthrie wrote the song about a mob lynching of a black family near Okemah in 1911. Again this year, he and his wife drove some of the backroads in Okfuskee County looking for the site of that horrific vigilante crime. My companion and I did the same, discovering photos of the lynching on display at a small "Old West" museum just west of Okemah off the interstate. The museum also has newspaper clippings about "Pretty Boy" Floyd, the subject of Guthrie's famous eponymous song (one of the clippings attributes two bank robberies on the same afternoon one in Texarkana, one in Kansas City to the famed outlaw, expanding Guthrie's claim that "every crime in Oklahoma was added to his name"), as well as a copy of the McIntosh County Democrat from 1964 reporting on the progress of the Eufaula Dam. Festival regular Greg Jacobs sings a phenomenal song about that dam and the creation of Eufaula Lake, which submerged his family's farm.
This post contains complete reviews of this annual festival ...
Community, kin embrace annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — Arlo Guthrie drove into town by himself in a
pickup truck. Before he appeared on stage Wednesday night
here at the Crystal Theater, Woody Guthrie's younger
sister, Mary Jo Edgmon, insisted the audience sing "Happy
Birthday" to him, his 54th birthday having been Tuesday.
Like a good relative, he grinned and bore it, waving to the
A young woman behind me sighed and chuckled, "It's a
family affair tonight."
And every night this weekend.
That comment nailed the overriding spirit of this year's
Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, the fourth annual folk music
celebration in the late balladeer's hometown organized by
the intra-state Woody Guthrie Coalition. It's all about
family -- immediate, extended and created.
The first two rows at Wednesday night's tribute concert
were full of Guthrie relatives. Don Conoscenti and Ellis
Paul shared the stage that night, and Conoscenti ribbed
Paul about his new haircut; they've spent the week tagging
around town together as if they were actually brothers. As
fans arrive in the campground and at the various Okemah
venues, there are numerous jubilant reunions of old
friends, many of whom see each other once a year -- at this
Larry Long, who is scheduled to perform on the main
stage Saturday night, said in a conversation earlier this
week that this family feeling is exactly why this festival
has remained successful in these early years. Long, an Iowa
native, struggled with a Woody Guthrie tribute concert in
1989 here in Okemah, when the town was still somewhat
divided over honoring its hometown hero (a dispute that
arose because of the communist company Guthrie sometimes
kept in the 40s).
"This festival has a great capacity to do good work and
honor the place that Okemah is," Long said. "When we were
trying it, that's what we wanted to achieve: to make this a
celebration of the traditions that nurtured Woody, his
sense of love of community and place and the family
traditions that make places like Okemah so delightful."
A sense of community and a laid-back spirit made Wednesday
night's tribute concert all the more enjoyable. For the
first time in the festival's four years, though, the
Wednesday night show had a handful of empty seats, largely
because previous kick-off shows have featured big-name
talent. This year the Wednesday fund-raiser was the annual
tribute concert modeled after the bi-coastal tributes
following Guthrie's death in 1967. Nearly two dozen
performers cycled through the show, performing Guthrie
songs between readings of Guthrie's prose.
But the lack of mega-commercial giants on the historic
Crystal stage hardly dampened the energy or worth of the
ticket. Instead, performers and audience were able to let
their hair down and experience the occasional magic that
occurs when everyone laughs and thinks, "Well, we're all
Of course, when a reviewer begins carping about the
laid-back spirit of a performance, that usually means the
sound system was bad and the performers forgot some words
and there were some production mistakes. Some and maybe all
of these things were true Wednesday night. The crucial
difference is that nothing seriously derailed the show -- or
the moments of magic -- and if there's somebody out there
complaining I'd be real surprised.
The first magic moment came early, on the fourth song.
Conoscenti and Paul together sang Guthrie's eerie portrait
of a Vigilante Man, accompanied only by Conoscenti's
Kokopeli-painted banjo. He played the song with a ghostly
tension and foreboding, and Paul's piercing harmony gave it
an unearthly feel. The song marched like a posse through
the darkness, evoking Stephen Stills live performances of
"Black Queen." They kept their eyes locked on each other from
start to finish -- who knows if they'd ever performed this
together before? -- and the audience barely breathed.
The second breath-taker was nicely balanced, the fourth
song from the end. Mary Reynolds, a native of Oklahoma
City, played and sang "Hobo's Lullaby." It's not as important
to say that she played the song as it is to say she sang
it. Reynold's voice is a clarion call, a beautiful and
controlled birdsong, and with the help of two friends
backing her with harmonies, the performance was as if three
angels were hovering over a lonely hobo in a dank boxcar,
their voices alone filling him with hope.
Those were the jaw-droppers. Other great moments
included Slaid Cleaves' chilling reading of "1913 Massacre,"
a festival repeat that never gets old; a fiery (but not
brimstony) run through "Jesus Christ" by the versatile and
spunky trio Still on the Hill; and the playful -- and only
barely cheesey -- dialogue between the Farm Couple on
After the all-star finales -- with every performer from
the night crammed on the stage for "Hard Travelin'"
(jumpstarted by Paul, who belts it out with gusto),
"Oklahoma Hills" and "This Land Is Your Land" -- half the
audience hung around chatting and meeting the musicians.
The theater sweepers eventually had to shove people out the
door. There was no boundary between star and fan, no
rushing off to an ivory tour bus. This is folk music, after
all, and the folks gathered here this weekend are one big
Audience heats up on opening evening
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — Pity the band with that first set.
It's Thursday evening at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival
-- on an outdoor stage, in July, in Oklahoma, for Pete's sake
-- the sun's still high enough in the sky to make misery, and
nobody is fool enough to be out in the heat.
Well, some folks were. A dedicated stage crew and about
30 fans when the first band started.
"What in tarnation are we doing out here?" asked a fan to
no one in particular.
By the time Xavier finished its opening set, though, the
crowd was coming on, hauling lawn chairs and fans into the
field where the Pastures of Plenty main stage looms. By the
time the Red Dirt Rangers brought down the rafters, the
audience was several hundred strong.
Xavier is the band featuring Abe Guthrie -- son of Arlo
Guthrie and thus grandson of the festival's honored
namesake. They've come a long way, baby. What was once a
clunky and often ill-advised heavy metal band has matured
over the last decade into a tight and buoyant
Southern-sounding rock band.
The quartet opened the main stage festival by singing an
a cappella version of the Beatles' "Nowhere Man," no doubt a
ringer in their repertoire but an ironic opening to the
festival; the song describes an anonymous slacker who
couldn't be more the reverse of Woody Guthrie's do-or-die
gumption. The rest of the band's set chugged ahead
unfettered, maintaining the same sharp harmonies through
rootsy rock that see-sawed between Alabama's rockin' side
and Little Feat's country side.
But the heat was getting to them, too.
"We're from Massachusetts, so this hundred degrees is a
bit different for us," guitarist Randy Cormier said from the
stage. "We just shoveled out our last bit of snow up there."
As the sun dipped behind the Okemah hill, the Thursday
night main stage bill continued to shine. Grammy-winner
Pierce Pettis slipped by, and Lucy Kaplansky (who's
performed with everyone, from Shawn Colvin and Dar Williams
to John Gorka and Bill Morrissey) played a beautiful,
subdued set, which included a surprising cover of Roxy
Music's "More Than This."
Slaid Cleaves moseyed his way through a batch of songs
that further proves he is one of the most talented singers
out of Austin, Texas (if not the reincarnation of Cisco
Houston himself). He led off with his current hit, "Broke
Down," before singing a character sketch of a very colorful
character. The song included a couple of yodels, which both
generated their own applause. When fellow Austin musician
Darcie Deaville joined him onstage, she ribbed him about
the yodeling. "I got that from Don Walser," Cleaves said, and
the two of them then played a Walser tune. Cleaves later
added his own, festival-centric verses to Guthrie's "I Aint
Got No Home" and then closed with a haunting, pre-"Mermaid
Avenue" collaboration with Guthrie: Cleaves' tune to a 1940
Guthrie lyric, "This Morning I Was Born Again."
The Red Dirt Rangers closed the show with their usual
backbeat, once again being the first festival act to get
audience members on their feet dancing. They opened with
"Rangers Command," a groove-greased Guthrie original and the
title track from their latest album. Later, they played a
tune by the late Benny Craig, a former Ranger and a
much-missed and talented multi-instrumentalist. The tune,
called "Leave This World a Better Place," was unusually funky
for Craig -- or was that the Rangers? -- but its lyrical
sentiments were perfect for a festival honoring a scrappy
songwriter who tried his utmost to leave the world just
Off-stage activities sometimes outshine headliners
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival has grown
substantially in its four years, so much so that the
experience involves much more than the evening headliners
in the pasture. Music and other activities continue
throughout the day, especially on the weekend. Here's a
round-up of some of the magic moments from around Woody
Guthries hometown this weekend:
It's not in the brochure
This festival offers an awful lot of music for the
hungry folk fan, but there's even more available than fans
find printed in the official schedule. Sometimes the best
shows of the week occur at about 4 in the morning in the
parking lot of the OK Motor Lodge. That's the only motel in
town, and during the festival it's full of musicians and
concert organizers. Musicians often live by the slogan,
"I'll sleep when I'm dead," so when they get home after the
night's gigs, many of them pull lawn chairs into a corner
of the parking lot and swap songs until dawn.
Friday night (er, Saturday morning), for instance, found
Jimmy LaFave, Bill Erickson, Bob Childers, Terry Ware,
Emily Kaitz, members of Xavier and scattered Red Dirt
Rangers camped out with several fans and budding musicians
softly strumming tunes in the cool July night. Kaitz had
her stand-up bass on the blacktop and lightened the mood
early on with a song about bass players taking over the
world and righting its fret-ful wrongs.
Erickson tried unsuccessfully to lead a sing-along ("I
guess they're too tired," he later muttered; of course, he
actually said tarred), and LaFave coursed the group through
"You Ain't Going Nowhere." Dawn usually found a handful of
these desperados still fumbling through "Sweet Home
Coffee, black as night
Those all-night parking-lot sessions take their toll,
though, when you're scheduled to perform the next morning.
Of course, 12:40 p.m. isn't morning to most of us, but it's
the crack of dawn to most guitar-slingers. Bob Childers
needed a lot of coffee Friday morning.
His early afternoon set at the Brick Street Cafi may
have been slow going at first, but Green Country native
Childers is armed with a wily charm that squeezed through
his own squinting eyes. Thanks to a Brick Street waitress
who kept his coffee mug topped off on stage ("I'm loving you
right now," Childers said as she poured him coffee at the
microphone, "I'm gonna write a song about you"), the
early-bird crowd learned or was reminded of Childer's tall
talents as a songwriter. He muddled his way through
original classics such as "Sweet Okie Girl," "Restless Spirit"
and his appropriate finale, the eloquent "Woody's Road." Just
when he thought he was off to bed, the crowd hooted for an
encore, a rarity on the afternoon indoor stages.
Can I see some I.D.?
At this or any other music festival, the surest way to
find great performers is to follow the performers. See the
shows the musicians see, and your eyes and ears will rarely
be sore. Case in point: the crowd for Dustin Pittsley was
practically half the festival roster.
Pittsley is another hot blues phenom, a teenager fresh
out of Chandler High School. He recently placed third in
the "Jam With Kenny Wayne Shepherd" contest, and his looks
and licks are dead ringers for that blues guitar upper
classman. He wailed on an acoustic guitar Saturday
afternoon inside the Brick Street Cafi while pal Smiley
Dryden huffed on harmonica and main-stage star Kevin Bowe
sat in on a few of Pittsley's groove-jammed originals. A
name to know.
A harp with no strings
"We got accused once of being a bluegrass band," said
DoublNotSpyz singer John Williams midway through the band's
Friday set at the Brick Street Cafi. "We had all the
instruments. It was an easy mistake."
He then launches into a song with a Jew's harp solo.
Easy mistake, indeed.
The DoublNotSpyz (ask a "Beverly Hillbillies" fan to
explain the name) are more than mere bluegrass, though, and
Williams is often the proof. He was tapped as a favorite
harmonica player throughout the festival, especially during
Wednesday night's tribute concert and that's the instrument
through which he rocks the hardest.
He's more interesting to listen to than big-shots like
Blues Traveler's John Popper because Williams wailing isn't
just self-aggrandizing improvisation; Williams sticks by
the melody being steered by singer and co-songwriter Larry
Spears and keeps his audience in the song, not the
spotlight. His harp-heaving alone received a standing
Coming into his own
Austin-based singer-songwriter Michael Fracasso started
his set Saturday afternoon in the Crystal Theater with his
poignant, droning reflection on the 1950s, and he ended
with a song called "1962." The timespan framed him well: his
naked, honest songs are deeply rooted in that era of folk
music's second great revival, the same era that inspired a
In white T-shirt and cuffed blue jeans, Fracasso's
rugged Rust Belt looks belied his sensitive nature. It's
that sensitivity that produces such beautifully crafted
original songs ("Wise Blood," inspired by the novel "The Last
Temptation of Christ," was enormously uplifting) and is able
to tap into vast new realms of emotion buried deep within
His reading of Guthrie's "1913 Massacre," for instance, is
a masterpiece of vocal and acoustic dynamics. I've heard
that song and even his rendition of it dozens of times, but
I must confess: Saturday's performance of it flooded my
eyelids more than a bit. That's how folk songs stay alive
in the hearts of the people.
Everything's new, again
This happens every year, and Friday afternoon was no
different. A young guy or his girlfriend stumble wide-eyed
down Okemah's bustling Main Street. They're brand new to
the festival, no doubt, and they stop a stranger to ask
about the goings-on. Then one of them asks, from a well of
perfect innocence, "So when does Woody Guthrie perform?"
Woody, we hardly knew ye.
Woody Guthrie Festival draws together friends and family
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — Near the end of his Saturday night set
headlining the Pastures of Plenty main stage, Arlo Guthrie,
son of the namesake of this weeks Woody Guthrie Folk
Festival, started a sweet old tune by one of his dad's
"There've been enough people playing songs by my dad. I'd
like to play a song by one of his friends. That's kind of
what this festival is about a festival of friends," Guthrie
Indeed, the four-day festival this year glowed with the
jubilation of reunited friends and renewed family ties, in
the audience and backstage. Some company used to offer a
long-distance calling plan called "Friends and Family," and
this fourth Woody Guthrie Folk Festival could have flown
that same banner.
The unseasonably cool and clear weather, which came
through late Thursday night -- just before the festival
schedule reached its full intensity outdoors -- aided both
attitude and attendance. Friday and Saturday shows at the
outdoor stage were crowded, despite organizers nervousness
about not having a big name on the festival bill this
All that big-name talk is more than a little insulting
to Arlo, though, who is hardly a slouch. For a festival
honoring his late folksinging father, he's plenty big
enough and clearly draws and holds a large crowd.
Austin songwriter Jimmy LaFave mentioned during his
Friday night set that he wishes the festival were called
the Woody and Arlo Guthrie Folk Festival. Arlo has
performed at each Guthrie festival thus far and has
remained dedicated to the gathering, which brings together
a good chunk of his relatives, too. After his performance
at Wednesday night's tribute concert, he hardly had time to
talk to fans and media; there were too many relatives to
greet. For Arlo, this is a family affair, in every
In fact, backing him up Saturday night was Xavier, the
band featuring Arlos son, Abe. (Sara Lee, Arlos daughter
who thrilled audiences at last years festival, could not
attend this year because she's finishing an album.) Xavier
had opened the outdoor stage on Thursday night with a
powerful blend of homey harmonies and taut rock, which
beefed up Arlos songs considerably.
We've heard Arlo strumming and wheezing through his
songs so many years now that we forget how tightly they
usually are written and how easily they can rock if given
to the right band. The Xavier boys gave Arlo some muscle
and breadth through "Coming to Los Angeles," "Chilling of the
Evening" (which opened the show as a tribute to the weather,
perhaps?), and a springy version of the blues classic "St.
Preceding Arlo was the Joel Rafael Band, another family
affair. Playing violin for her dad was Jamaica Rafael, who
also sang a creeping and eventually moving version of
Woody's "Pastures of Plenty."
Joel sang a few Guthrie songs with his inimitable
patience and grace, as well as his talking tune about his
first visit to Okemah and this festival a few years ago.
The song describes his surprise upon being unable to find a
parking space outside of Lou's Rocky Road Tavern in Okemah
that first night. As a result of the song and the familial
friendship kindled between Joel and Lou, there's a sign up
outside the bar reserving a space especially for him in
Friday nights main-stage lineup was almost one big
Vance Gilbert, Don Conoscenti and Ellis Paul have been
close friends for several years now, and they played the
Woody Guthrie Folk Festival this year one after another, in
"We hardly ever get to play together, or even see each
other for long stretches of time, being out on the road as
much as we are," Paul said Saturday afternoon.
From the stage Friday night, after inviting Conoscenti
to join him for a couple of songs (including "3,000 Miles"),
Paul said, "I haven't played with Don in about six months.
It's a lot like not having sex for six months."
Go ahead, snicker, but these guys really think that much
of each other. Gilbert even performed a song he had written
years ago for Paul, a semi-bitter broken-hearted lament
about Paul's plans to move from their Boston base to
Nashville. Its an amazing song, "Taking It All to Nashville,"
expressing deep love between two (heterosexual) men, and it
was the jewel of Gilbert's set.
"I'm not mad at him anymore," Gilbert said from the stage
after finishing the song. "He moved back to Boston."
Gilbert's performance was amazingly powerful. He dished
the sass between songs, joking that "LaFave sounded blacker
than I do, like a cross between Bob Dylan and Al Green," but
his songs couldn't be sweeter or more delicately
constructed. His voice is like butter, and when he was
called back for an encore -- not a given occurrence at this
festival, by any means -- he showcased it by stepping into
the audience, sans microphone, and singing a moving myth
called "The King of Rome." He is definitely a new member of
the festival family.
Oddly enough, though, for all the spirit of camaraderie
and family, I never heard anyone on stage Saturday night,
the festival's climax, wish Woody a happy 89th birthday.
That is, after all, the reason this festival occurs in the
hottest possible part of the summer; Woody Guthrie was born
on July 14, 1912.
If the festival maintains the strength it enjoyed this
year (on what organizers thought might be a slow year), he
may be reborn again every July in a pasture west of his old
This post contains my complete reviews of this annual festival ...
Singer-songwriter's sincere performance a fitting opening to festival
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — Most music fans my age missed the boat on
Jackson Browne. We were just coming around when "Lawyers in
Love" was being foisted on Top 40 radio (a silly song that
was not surprisingly missing from Browne's 1997 greatest
hits collection) and the tepid but memorable "Somebody's
Baby" was the coda to the quintessential teen-sex film "Fast
Times at Ridgemont High."
These were not Browne's greatest artistic achievements.
They were Jackson bollocks.
What we young'uns missed were the crucial years of
lyrical songwriting eloquence long before that early-'80s
wash-out and the equally important years of political
proselytizing that followed. As rock critic Dave Marsh has
said, Browne's career is like Bob Dylan's in reverse:
Browne was first an intensely personal songwriter and then
became interested in the politics and social causes of his
This gave Browne the advantage of employing artful and
romantic lyricism to his political songs; the loving detail
of these individual pieces helps link his artistic vision
to his political idealism. At a gritty event that simply
vibrates with Dylan's brave, wheezy influence, Browne's
tenderness, humility and grace spearheaded the third annual
Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival with a refreshing and
apropos concert Wednesday night in Okemah's historic
"Folk music is what made me want to start playing music,"
Browne told the sold-out crowd during his show. "Woody, Pete
Seeger, Leadbelly -- these are the people who lit a fire
Of course, what else would you say on stage at a Woody
Guthrie festival? But he proved his sincerity with a
three-hour solo show (he even donated his time for this) of
his "more folkish stuff," switching between acoustic guitars
and piano to perform nearly 30 of his own carefully drawn
classic songs from the last 30 years. He sang an old
Rev. Gary Davis cocaine blues tune ("I learned this from a
Dave Van Ronk album," he said), Dylan's "Song to Woody" ("Ah, I
love that song," he said as he finished) and then Guthrie's
own classic "Deportee."
Between these, he invoked the nervousness and purpose of
every folk singer ever born: "Boy, singing these songs on
the edge of your bed is one thing. Singing them in front of
other people is, well . . . But, you know, I started
singing them not because I was a good singer but because I
The songs Browne did write, he sang beautifully. After
the show, he was mildly distraught, convinced that his
voice had been terrible that night. It was not. Thick with
its own natural peat and the mid-summer Oklahoma humidity,
his voice resonated through the hall with as much
reassuring purpose as it always has.
It's not a dynamic voice, and Browne's one weakness is
that he writes songs within his limited vocal range; he
uses the same keys and modulations so that, after a while,
the songs tend to sound the same. (The occasional
finger-picking and slide guitar Wednesday night threw a
nice country-blues change-up, though.) However, Browne's
music stands tall over the rest of his ilk -- the laid-back
southern California sensitive singer-songwriter stuff of
the '70s -- because he somehow managed to avoid the cynicism
that corrupted his peers.
While Linda Ronstadt tried to prove she was everywoman
by singing in Spanish, and the Eagles reunited to sing
acidic songs of contempt and charge $300 a ticket, Browne
quietly continued through the late '80s and '90s writing
songs with quizzical questions and wry social observations.
He's no optimist, but -- in the spirit of Guthrie -- he
operates from a live-and-let-live perspective that brings
an audience to an awareness of personal or political
foibles without humiliating the ones at fault. It's a more
graceful, humanitarian approach to empowerment through
As he illustrated Wednesday night, this approach works
on both sides of his music. The confessional songs show it
just as readily as the socially conscious ones. "Fountain of
Sorrow," he pointed out, is about an old girlfriend, and "it
turns out the song is better than she deserved." Still, he
sang its words at the piano with none of the bitterness we
might expect from the situation: "You could be laughing at
me, you've got the right / But you go on smiling so clear
A politically fierce song, "Lives in the Balance," rails
against the United States' "secret, covert wars" around the
world not by calling the president names but by
illuminating the toll exacted by these unwise policies:
"There are people under fire / There are children at the
cannons." It's the same process of focusing on the "right"
details that Woody employed. "Deportee" is a song about the
victims, not the perpetrators. Empathy is a stronger
motivator than anger.
Even though, as mentioned, early songs such as "For
Everyman" and "Late for the Sky" were unflinchingly personal,
the seeds of Browne's social conscience were evident from
his first solo hit, "Doctor, My Eyes." Despite its catchy,
pleasant Brill Building groove, the song is an early
expression of a social observer's initial squint into
life's harsh light (lyrics above).
Again, here's Browne swiveling the camera around to the
person struggling -- in this case, himself -- instead of
setting sights on those causing the struggle. It's a cry
for help, but not in the sense of whining or welfare;
Browne instead seeks validation of his own feelings of
sadness and frustration about the world's situation. In
this song, he hasn't learned yet how universal that feeling
is -- a lesson Guthrie himself learned at about the same
point in his own songwriting career.
His performance of "Doctor, My Eyes" was part of a medley
that began with that song and ended with another early
standard, "These Days." As he see-sawed the groove on the
piano, Browne began to brighten noticeably. Throughout the
bulk of his show, he had been fairly sober, concentrating
on songs he hasn't played regularly in concert and closing
his eyes in serious songwriter mode. Perhaps it was the
song's upbeat momentum or the relief of a relatively
stage-shy performer realizing that the concert was nearing
its end, but Browne started smiling. His eyes stared at a
distant point, then he would suddenly focus on the crowd
before him and smile.
By the time he launched into "The Pretender," his most
iconic hit song and the most frequently shouted request of
the evening, Browne was revived -- and leading a revival. He
liked the feel of the line "I'll get up and do it again /
Amen" so much that he did it twice with gospel fervor, the
same with "Get it up again" later in the song. He seemed so
into the flow of the tune that he didn't want to finish the
song, telescoping the ending with extended riffing and much
satisfied nodding to himself.
How many times has he played this song? Thousands? Tens
of thousands? And he's still this into it?
So when he came out for an encore and played "Take It
Easy," the Eagles' breakthrough hit he co-wrote with Glenn
Fry, it was clear exactly how much taller Browne stood than
his contemporaries. He so easily switches gears between
singing about "the blood in the ink of the headlines" and
standing on that mythical corner in Winslow, Ariz. But when
you hear him in concert, you realize that even "Take It Easy"
encourages us to "find a place to make your stand."
This undercurrent underscored how much Browne belonged
at the opening ceremony of this festival, honoring a
songwriter who could also switch gears swiftly -- one minute
decrying the fascist menace, the next minute bouncing up
and down making kiddie car noises. It was a strong
beginning to a worthwhile festival gathering more strength
and purpose every year.
Seeger sparks Guthrie Festival
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — Folk music, you know, is not about showmanship.
This is its saving grace and sometimes its most
frustrating trait. It is folk music, after all -- by and for
folks -- and each of its practitioners labors to keep their
own songs and themselves as close to The People as
possible. No fancy clothes. No fancy shows. Sometimes, it
seems, not even a simple rehearsal.
This is fun and even noble when performing in a coffee
house or hootenanny. When entertaining a throng of
thousands from a 50-foot stage rig in a spacious pasture
east of Okemah, however, folk music's struggle against
separation from the masses becomes a tougher fight.
Saturday's final concert at the Woody Guthrie Free Folk
Festival here was such a brave battle -- full of glorious
triumphs and tragic defeats.
Leading the charge was folk's figurehead, Pete Seeger.
Indispensable as a living archive of American folk, Seeger
commanded the Pastures of Plenty main stage with a
childlike charm, telling the tales behind the songs and
leading the audience in sing-alongs with every one.
Seeger is the epitome of folk music's anti-showmanship.
He'd been in town for days without being mobbed by fans. He
has no entourage. He strolls confidently but slowly wearing
faded jeans and an untucked knit shirt. He walked by fans
and musicians alike in downtown Okemah, most of whom had no
idea who the old man was until someone whispered, "Hey,
that's Pete Seeger."
This is how he took the stage Saturday night -- jeans,
untucked, cap askew -- picking at a tall banjo and leading us
right away into a sing-along of "Midnight Special." Scruffy
looking, scratchy-throated and rarely keeping the beat, the
thousands clustered in the steamy Okemah Industrial Park
pasture swooned, sang and lit up the late night with an
electric storm of flashbulbs.
Over the next hour and a half, Pete got the crowd
singing not only because he prompted us with each line
before he sang it but because the utter joy radiating from
his ruddy-cheeked smile was impossible to disallow. He led
us through "Turn! Turn! Turn!" with such exuberance you'd
think he had composed the tune in a Biblical revelation
backstage that evening, not nearly 50 years ago. He sang
several of Guthrie's children's songs, such as "Why Oh Why,"
and led the crowd of all ages through the cheery tune of
wonderment. We sang along because he wasn't talking down to
us as if we were children; rather, he crackled with the
obvious thrill of sharing the song and the joy its has
brought him with one more huge crowd of people.
All of this was off the cuff, and while Seeger's undying
passion for American folk song charged him for the
situation, his compatriots on stage didn't fight the good
fight with the same conviction. On stage with Seeger and
his grandson, Tao Rodriguez, were the Guthrie clan: Arlo,
his daughter Sara Lee, his son Abe and Sara Lee's husband
Johnny Irion. As the pendulum swung back and forth between
Seeger and the Guthries, it was clear the latter suffered
most from the spontaneous nature of an unrehearsed mass
The Guthries rumbled through a rousing rendition of
Woody's "Sinking of the Reuben James," supported by Seeger.
But when the Guthries' turn came around again, there were
often lengthy deserts of no music. Arlo had a tough time
keeping his guitar in tune, and he told mildly amusing
stories while cranking his strings -- the same stories he
told at the first and second Guthrie festival here.
Sometimes he would sit helplessly and wonder aloud what
songs they could play that everyone knew. These were always
the moments when a family or two would decide to pack up
the chairs and blankets and call it a night.
Rodriguez saved the show a time or two by belting out
some Cuban songs, including an enlivening duet with his
grandfather on "Guantanamera," a hit for the Sandpipers in
1966. The show wrapped up with an all-star jangle through
"Will the Circle Be Unbroken," featuring a stage full of most
of the evening's performers.
Preceding the Seeger-Guthrie set Saturday night was
another charter performer at the festival, the Joel Rafael
Band. A quiet treasure, Rafael brought down nightfall with
his patient, comforting roots music. The band consists of
congas, acoustic guitars and viola -- a wellspring of wood
creating wholly organic and soothing sounds. In addition to
being the only performer in three days to point out the
bloated, bright full moon shining over the festival
grounds, Rafael evoked Guthrie with a most weathered and
righteous approach. He first sang "Way Down Yonder in the
Minor Key," one of the Guthrie lyrics Billy Bragg and Wilco
put to music, then he tackled a rare Guthrie tune called
"Don't Kill My Baby and My Son" about the planned lynching of
a black woman, her young son and her baby near Okemah early
in the century. During his "Talkin' Oklahoma Hills," though,
he summed up folk musicians' burgeoning perspective on
Guthrie, saying, "Will Rogers is the most famous Oklahoman
in the whole country, and Woody Guthrie is the most famous
Oklahoman in the whole wide world."
Pastures of Plenty: Oklahoma town draws wealth of talent to honor Woody Guthrie
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — The July afternoon heat was hard and brutal,
even with an uninspired breeze. Triple-digit temperatures
radiated from Okemah's downtown pavement, and shoe soles
foolish enough to be tramping up and down Broadway at
highnoon stuck to the blacktop. Townspeople hibernated in
air-conditioned places of business, peering warily out
And yet . . . where was that accordion music coming
In the heart of downtown Okemah, in the little patch of
park that now boasts a crude statue of Woody Guthrie, sat
Rosemary Hatcher huffing on her squeezebox. A former music
teacher from California, now living in Payola, Hatcher was
visiting Okemah for the third annual Woody Guthrie Free
Folk Festival, a festival that took over the small town
with live music events from Wednesday to Sunday. On
Thursday, she had setup her stool and music stand in the
tiny park and was pumping softlyunder the shade of her
straw cowboy hat and four huddling pinetrees.
"I just got this Woody Guthrie songbook," Hatcher said,
clothes-pinning the pages to the music stand. "I'm playing
through a lot of songs I haven't played before. You know,
they were meant to be played on guitar. This book even
tells you where to put your capo. But I think they sound
nice with accordion, too. Do you know this one, `Oklahoma
"I just like to travel and play my music," she said,
echoing the sentiments of the majority of musicians playing
at the festival, most of whom donate their time for the
privilege of offering up their songs in Guthrie's
Feeling hot, hot, hot
Erica Wheeler started her set on the festival's Pastures
of Plenty main stage with a song called "Hot," she said "in
honor of all of you who are."
She'd been battling the 100-plus heat index all day
Thursday, refusing her 2 p.m. sound check (as all of the
day's acts did) because of the oppressive temperatures. On
stage that evening, the sun had just begun to ease off as
the Maryland songstress began strumming her pretty,
"It gets to hot / I ain't complaining / No, I am not," she
sang, and she meant it, despite her wardrobe: long sleeves
and an ankle-length skirt, all black.
The following day, bluesy singer Peter Keane voiced his
own ideas about the heat.
"Today is Woody's birthday," he said, "and that's why they
have the festival here. Makes you kind of wish he'd been
born in March or April, doesn't it?"
The protest against Woody Guthrie in his hometown has
dwindled to a feeble poster in a storefront window. It's a
blown-up copy of an anonymous newspaper column from a 1989
edition of the Oklahoma Constitution, and it's posted in
the window of Okemah's American Legion building.
The column, titled "Woody Was No Hero," lambasted the
Oklahoma Gazette, a weekly newspaper in Oklahoma City, for
honoring Guthrie through its Oklahoma Music Awards. The
actual awards were called Woodys.
"He loved the totalitarian dictatorship of Josef Stalin,"
the author proclaimed about the songwriter, on whose guitar
was scrawled the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists," and
the column wrongly described Guthrie as "a militant
A woman in a nearby clothes shop, when asked about the
sign, discouraged investigation of the matter.
"That's not how the majority of this town feels anymore,"
A good sign
J.R. Payne knows how Okemah used to feel about Woody. He
also knows something about signs that pop up when the
festival comes around.
"This town for a long time was pretty hooky-hooky over
all that propaganda," he said, making a see-sawing so-so
motion with both hands, "though none of it amounts to a hill
Payne tends the Okfuskee County Historical Museum,
downtownnext to the Crystal Theater where several festival
performances take place. He's quick to point out a long
sign that sits atop a case of Guthrie artifacts in the
museum. The sign reads, "This Land Is Your Land."
"I had that sign made several years ago, and one morning
I noticed that it had disappeared," Payne said. "But then,
when all this Woody Guthrie hullabaloo started just last
year or so, well, suddenly that sign came back out."
Among three rooms full of regional memorabilia, the
museum shows off several Guthrie photographs, including two
classphotos (you can quickly pick out Woody's aw-shucks
smirk without the aid of the notations) and one photograph
of a girlish, near-toddler Guthrie standing outside his
family's original Okemah home.
Payne, 82, remembers Guthrie from these school days. His
first year at Okemah High School was Woody's last year
"He was living back in the trees there," Payne said,
pointing toward the east where Woody had lived alone in his
old gang clubhouse behind his family's last Okemah home. "He
was just a guy, you know. Funny. He was the joke editor for
the school paper. But he was just like anybody else."
Real roots music
In addition to the main-stage concerts each evening,
this year's festival included live music all day long at
two Okemah mainstays: the Brick Street Cafe and Lou's Rocky
Road Tavern. Several main-stage acts reappeared on these
stages -- Ellis Paul played for a while Saturday afternoon at
Lou's -- and even more new artists played here, including a
new band with an incredible legacy.
The group was called Rig, an acronym for the members'
last names -- Tao Rodriguez (Pete Seeger's grandson), Sara
Lee and Abe Guthrie (Arlo's kids), John Irion (Sara Lee's
husband) -- and they played an unadvertised show Saturday
afternoon to a packed house at the Brick Street Cafe.
Playing mostly old folk songs from their respective family
lineages, they opened with a rousing rendition of Guthrie's
"Union Maid" and closed with an equally ferocious "Rock Island
Line," both belted out with real passion by a red-faced
Seeger and Arlo Guthrie were in attendance, beaming with
Some of the most exciting performances at this year's
festival were at the late-night All-Star Jams in the
spacious basement of the Brick Street Cafe. Hosted by the
Red Dirt Rangers, the shows carried on after each night's
main-stage concert and featured the Rangers as a house band
for whichever performers happened to be in the cafe with
This is where fans could see real musicianship unfold.
For instance, Michael Fracasso took the basement stage
Thursday night and unleashed a more raucous side of
himself, shouting a series of chords to the band before
beginning the song and letting the players improvise parts
as each song plowed along.
George Barton, from Barton and Sweeney, led the band --
which that night featured Don Conoscenti, the Neal Cassady
of folkmusic, on drums -- through a visceral blues song,
singing, "You don't have to be black to feel blue / Any
color will do." Scott Aycock, host of the "Folk Salad" show on
KWGS 89.5-FM, led the band through a haunted, wailing
rendition of Dylan's "One More Cup of Coffee." Friday night,
Stillwater's Jason Bolan and the Stragglers took over the
stage for three songs and had the entire basement full of
people on its feet dancing.
The Rangers held court a while each night there, too.
Friday night they performed "Dwight Twilley's Garage Sale," a
song singer-guitarist Brad Piccolo wrote about stopping at
a garage sale run by Tulsa's own pop legend Twilley. "I wish
I could afford that guitar," Piccolo sings, "I'd take it home
and write a hit song / Say adios to the bars."
The Oregon tale
This year's Guthrie festival included a film screening
among all the music. "Roll On, Columbia: Woody Guthrie and
the Bonneville Power Administration" is a documentary about
Guthrie's 30-day job in May 1941 writing songs about the
dam projects along the Columbia River in Oregon and
Washington. The video was released in February and was
produced by Michael Majdic, an associate professor at the
University of Oregon.
The film neatly sums up this pivotal chapter in
Guthrie's career, featuring interviews with Arlo Guthrie,
Pete Seeger, Mary Guthrie Boyle (Woody's first wife), Studs
Terkel, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Nora Guthrie (Woody's
sister) and numerous BPA dam workers. It was during this
unusual assignment that Guthrie wrote some of his most
sparkling work, including "Pastures of Plenty," "Hard
Travelin' " and "The Biggest Thing a Man Has Ever Done."
The three screenings of the film this weekend in Okemah
were part of a larger program that included performances of
the songs by another Oregon professor, Bill Murlin, and
Guthrie impersonator Carl Allen.
Ellis, himself and us
Bill McCloud, McCloud is the president of the Orphanage
Society in Pryor, which puts on the festival with the Woody
Guthrie Coalition, introducd Boston singer Ellis Paul,
saying, "People said we'd never get Ellis Paul this year,
that he'd gotten too big for us. But that's not what Ellis
Paul, who's performed at all three Guthrie festivals
thus far, told the large crowd Friday night that he plans
to play the festival every year he's asked to.
Paul's song "The World Ain't Slowing Down" is featured
prominently in the latest hit film from the Farrelly
brothers starring Jim Carrey, "Me, Myself and Irene." The
only thing the new prominence has brough Paul is the
ability to retrieve stolen goods, as he said in a story
from the stage.
"I went to the premiere of the movie and the party
afterwards, and I decided not to take my cell phone inside.
I figured, it's a Hollywood party, everyone's going to have
the things, I don't want to be one of those people," he
said. "When I got out to my car that night, my phone had
Later that week, Paul was singing the National Anthem at
the baseball game between the Boston Red Sox and the New
"A friend of mine there said, `Hey, Ellis, I just talked
to the guy who stole your phone.' So I called the number
and said,`Hey, you've got my cell phone.' The guy said, `I
know. You're famous.' He'd been talking to my old girl
friends and probably doing interviews. I think he's doing
Letterman next week."
Paul played a thrilling, albeit brief, set with fellow
singer-songwriter Don Conoscenti and Joel Rafael Band
percussionist Jeff Berkeley. He included his rousing
rendition of Guthrie's "Hard Travelin'."
Shy rockers in flight
Ellis Paul has charted higher than the northeast
Oklahoma duo of Barton and Sweeney, but the Oklahomans'
music has soared much higher -- physically.
Earlier this year, NASA astronauts took Barton and
Sweeney's latest CD, "On the Timeline," with them on a space
shuttle mission. The space walkers heard Barton and Sweeney
in a bar one night, bought the disc, then called later to
ask if they could take it with them into orbit. One morning
during the mission, the astronauts were awakened with one
of the tracks.
That's a little consolation for Sweeney, who recalls
when Paul got the better of him at the 1994 Kerrville New
Folk Contest. Paul won first place; Sweeney got second.
"That's why his name's a little bigger on the festival
T-shirts there," Sweeney laughed.
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
© Tulsa World
Tulsa band Fanzine gets a chance to shine at SXSW showcase
By Thomas Conner 03/19/2000
AUSTIN, Texas — The sound man at Opal Divine's Firehouse
was filling the pre-show dead time with his own selection
of classic-rock greatest hits: a couple of cuts from the
Eagles' "Long Run" album, a smattering of Zeppelin, a lot of
Journey. A few minutes before showtime, he played Cheap
Trick's live cover of "Ain't That a Shame," and Fanzine
drummer Don Jameson started air-drumming.
"Oh, yes!" he said, tapping into the song's lengthy
introductory groove. "This is what it's about, right here.
It's not, 'Won't you step back from that ledge, my friend' "
— making a face, making fun of the Third Eye Blind hit
"Jumper" — "It's about the shaking of the booty. It's about
being larger than life . . . There isn't an arena big
enough to hold us."
This weekend it wasn't arenas, just a small club patio
on the edge of Austin's hottest nightclub scene and in the
middle of its yearly music-industry lottery.
On Wednesday night, Jameson and his Tulsa-based rock
band, Fanzine, kicked off the South by Southwest music
festival, an annual congregation of music-business talent
scouts and international media all searching for the Next
Big Thing. Nearly 1,000 bands — a record — from around the
world were scheduled to play hourlong sets in clubs
throughout Austin this weekend, and Fanzine had the
daunting task of playing in the first showcase slot on the
first night of the festival. In just a few hours, and
certainly over the four days of the festival, these four
players would learn what, indeed, it was all about.
It's all about the gig
South by Southwest is basically a live-music mall.
"Buyers" from record labels, management companies and music
magazines stroll up and down Austin's nightclub-lined Sixth
Street and shop for the hottest new fashions in pop music.
So when your band is fortunate enough to land a showcase
here, you want everything to be perfect. For Fanzine,
it very nearly was.
"How lucky are we to be playing right before the
Mayflies?" Jameson asked when the band finished sound check.
The Mayflies, an up-and-coming pop band from Chapel Hill,
N.C., were listed by many SXSW forecasters as one of the
most interesting acts to see this year. They would thus be
drawing a crowd of scouts and record company reps, and many
of them would come early — and hear Fanzine.
"We're blessed tonight. This feels good," Fanzine singer
Adam said before the show.
The band arrived in Austin on Tuesday and immediately
went to work with staple guns and smiles, tacking up
posters advertising the Wednesday night gig and thrusting
handbills into the palms of any passers-by.
"We came all this way, I just want someone to see us,"
Jameson said. "Tonight's all about being seen — eyes on us."
And, of course, ears.
It's not about the gig
Still, Jameson and the other Fanzine players weren't
expecting miracles. Their set coincided with the Austin
Music Awards — a ceremony honoring the best of local talent,
much like Tulsa's Spotniks — the big event of Wednesday
night. The band's 24 hours in town wasn't a lot of time to
spread the word about its showcase. Most music reps and
media don't arrive until late Wednesday or Thursday,
anyway. "I really expect very little tonight," Jameson
said. "It's the first night, and this club's off the beaten
path, but this sure is great to put (in the press kit). It
means we've been chosen among some kind of selected upper
The World Wide Web was certainly an aid in advance
promotion. Word of the showcase spread quickly on, oddly
enough, Web sites and newsgroups for fans of the Toadies.
Plus, Tulsa radio music directors e-mailed their record
company contacts en masse, advising them of the Fanzine
One of them, KMYZ 104.5-FM music director Ray Seggern,
attended Wednesday's show. Seggern is an Austin native,
having worked with the city's popular modern rock station
for several years. He knows people, and he dragged as many
as he could with him to see the Tulsa band.
But even Seggern was realistic.
"It's not about the gig," he said. "The gig is the least
important part. (What's important) is the networking, the
experience, the mindset. Just being here and wearing a
badge is important."
Case in point: Hanson. The young Tulsa trio spent
several days at SXSW early in the '90s. Too young to even
play in the local bars, they strolled the streets and
softball-park bleachers, singing for anyone who would
listen. An astute music manager did, and the rest is
It's about support
For Fanzine's show, though, Opal Divine's was packed.
Most importantly, the crowd stayed and stared. Many SXSW
showcase audiences often are indifferent groups of jaded
music-industry mavens concentrating on wheeling and dealing
with other industry folk rather than listening to the
bands. Fanzine's crowd, though, stopped, looked and
listened. The band was on point, too. Tighter than
they've been in many months — and fueled by more adreneline,
no doubt — they tore through 40 minutes of their
groove-stuffed, flashy and unrelenting rock 'n' roll. Adam
threw off his bright orange jacket ("You like me mack?") by
the third song and was soon shaking his tambourine all over
the club's outdoor wooden deck and dancing with Beatle Bob,
an eccentric music-industry analyst who came to the show
and danced his trademark swingin' dance.
Many in Wednesday night's crowd were Tulsans, checking
out their hometown band on Austin's turf. Tim Kassen, a
Williams Company agent who also books bands for Tulsa's
Bourbon Street Cafe on 15th Street, was in town and said he
made a beeline to Fanzine's show. "Nobody performs like
Adam, with all that energy," he said. "Heck, if I had the
money, I'd sign them."
Also looking on were T.J. Green and Angie Devore, the
husband-and-wife team at the helm of new Tulsa band
Ultrafix. They weren't scheduled to play in Austin this
weekend; they came down just to attend the conference and
meet music-business folks and other musicians. They had
planned to arrive in Austin on Thursday but came a day
early to be present for the Fanzine show.
"It's all about support, man," Green said.
By George, we got us a rock show
By Thomas Conner 03/19/2000
AUSTIN, Texas — When South by Southwest occurs each
March, the Texas capital is literally overrun by music
businesspeople and musicians. How invasive is the
conference? Just ask presidential hopeful George W. Bush.
When the Texas governor realized he was going to sweep
Tuesday's second big round of Republican presidential
primaries, his campaign staff decided to book a local
ballroom to host the celebration and inevitable victory
But they couldn't find one. Every ballroom, theater and
public venue in town was booked up with SXSW events. Bush
and his supporters wound up in far northwest Austin,
patting themselves on the back in a gymnasium at the Dell
Jewish Community Campus.
Talk about rocking the vote.
Rangers in command
Storms raked the Texas hill country late Thursday
afternoon. The Ray Price show in the park surely was
doomed, so we headed for indoor shelter. The fact that it
had tortillas, margaritas and the Red Dirt Rangers made it
The Oklahoma roots-music band played the first of its
five SXSW-week gigs ("Six," Ranger John Cooper said later — "We
actually got one that pays!") at Jovita's, an authentic
Mexican restaurant south of downtown Austin.
And I mean authentic. The walls were arrayed with rich,
colorful murals, mostly depicting masked rebels in olive
drab, including a giant portrait of Che Guevera. The tables
were so sticky we had to paper them over with copies from a
stack of someone's Spanish-English poem entitled
"Crossroads." Our waitress had two breathtaking parrots
tattooed on her shoulder blades.
As the storm pelted Jovita's corrugated skylight, the
Rangers blasted through their typically invigorating set of
Okie rock 'n' soul, opening the show with two Woody Guthrie
covers, "Rangers' Command" (the title track to the Rangers'
latest CD, recorded in Austin) and "California Stars" (one of
the Woody lyrics put to music by Billy Bragg and Wilco) — a
nod to Woody's younger sister, Mary Jo Edgmon, sitting in
Also watching the Rangers was fellow Stillwater native,
now Austin-based songwriter Jimmy Lafave. The Rangers also
played his song "Red Dirt Roads," rocking it more than Lafave
probably ever envisioned and using it as a sparring match
between electric guitarist Ben Han and new steel guitarist
Roger Ray, also of Stillwater's Jason Boland and the
Stranglers. Whoops and yelps all around.
This ... is Wanda
Conversation overheard on the sidewalk outside the
Continental Club, Thursday night in the freezing cold,
waiting in vain to get inside and hear Oklahoma City
rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson:
She: "We'll never get in."
He: "They're full? At eight o'clock? Who is this woman?"
She: "I don't know. She looks like Loretta Lynn."
He: "Loretta Lynn never had a stand-up bass player like
She: "Can you see her hair?"
He: "That's all I can see. I could be back at the hotel
and still see that hair."
She: "It's not that big."
She: "Nothing. I was wrong."
Talking 'bout Tulsa
Tulsans protested the derogatory mention of the city in
a recent Best Western ad campaign, but our hometown creeps
into the world's consciousness in strange and mysterious
Take, for example, a song by Astrid, a spunky and
tuneful guitar band from Scotland. Near the end of the
band's hard-hitting showcase, they played a song called
"Cybersex," which the singer was good enough to point out "is
about cybersex." The refrain, from the point of view of the
narrative's libidinous web surfer: "It's 3 p.m. in Idlewild
/ Kansas, Tulsa, Arkansas."
Norman band Starlight Mints were lucky enough to land a
SXSW showcase this year, but it was nearly ruined by
equipment problems that delayed them 20 minutes — nearly
half of their allotted playing time. (And SXSW showcases
begin and end on time, or else.)
Still, the embryonic rock band impressed a capacity
crowd at the intimate Copper Tank North club with its
herky-jerky melodies and noises. My notes include this
absurd but revealing description of the band's music:
"Gordon Gano (Violent Femmes) singing, Thurston Moore (Sonic
Youth) on guitar, chick from the Rentals (Maya Rudolph) on
keys, all aboard a carousel at Wayne Coyne's (Flaming Lips)
For the record
While SXSW takes over Austin with live music, another of
the country's biggest musical events occurs here at the
same time. This one involves recorded music: the annual
Austin Record Convention, the largest new-and-used record
sale in the country.
Hundreds of record dealers from all over the country
huddle over tables in the Palmer Municipal Auditorium and
hawk more than a million CDs, LPs, 45s and even 78s. With
the world's music business leaders in town, these dealers
have to face a particular and knowledgeable clientele.
"This is the reissue, though. See, it's dated '92. You
don't have the '84 original with the six extra versions?"
That's pretty standard discussion fare at the
convention. One dealer from Minnesota boasted a
pristine, still-wrapped copy of former Tulsan Leon
Russell's "The Wedding Album." Asking price: $100.
A C-note? Has he heard it?
"No, but my books tell me that's a steal."
A rose by any other name ...
Part of the fun of perusing the SXSW schedule is the
humor and daring of some of the band names. The chucklers
on this year's list: Alabama Thunder Pussy, ... And You
Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Bastard Sons of Johnny
Cash, Betty Blowtorch, Camaro Hair, Del the Funky
Homosapien, the Dino Martinis, Fatal Flying Guilloteens, I
Am the World Trade Center, Man Scouts of America, Maximum
Coherence During Flying, the Psychedelic Kinky Fellows,
Roar! Lion, Sci-Fi Uterus and the Tremolo Beer Gut.
Food for the soul
If you want music media to come see your band, set up a
free buffet. A table of sumptuous Texas barbecue and an
absence of cash registers filled La Zona Rosa with SXSW
registrants Thursday afternoon to see the Nixons open for
Texas guitar hero Ian Moore. Greasy hands clapped for the
Nixons' timeless (as in, stuck in 1993) grunge rock.
The band sported a new record label (the showcase sponsor,
Koch Records), new songs ("P.O.V." and the wildly cheery
"Blackout") and, well, a new band. Singer Zac Malloy is the
only original Norman-native member left, having jettisoned
the rest of the crew for a new batch of Dallas-based
The Nixons started in Norman as a cover band, scored a
modern rock hit early in the '90s with "Sister" and now are
based in Dallas. A new album is due April 11.
'What about the amps?'
Austin is full of colorful, sometimes downright
eccentric, characters, so when we noticed the guy talking
to himself on Fourth Street, it was no big shock.
He stood in the hot afternoon sun, pacing in circles,
gesturing wildly and talking, talking, talking — by himself.
"What about the amps?" he kept asking. "Where are the amps?" We
skirted him just off the curb, thinking to ourselves, "So
young, and already so nuts." Then we noticed it.
The earpiece, the hidden microphone — a hands-free cell
SXSW snapshots: The high, mighty and downright loony go wild in Austin
By Thomas Conner 03/22/2000
AUSTIN, Texas — More than 30 years after his death,
musicians — and, indeed, Americans — are just now figuring
out what Woody Guthrie was about.
Greg Johnson, owner of Oklahoma City's revered Blue Door
nightclub, summed it up ably during a South by Southwest
panel discussion entitled "Made for You and Me: Woody
Guthrie's Dust Bowl Legacy."
"Woody was about freedom and community," Johnson said. "He
was about propping people up. Bruce Springsteen used to say
it this way: 'Woody was about the next guy in line.' "
Veteran music journalist Dave Marsh led the panel, which
also included Austin-based songwriters Jimmy Lafave and
Michael Fracasso. The star of the panel, though, was
Guthrie's youngest sister, Mary Jo Edgmon, who regaled the
crowd with homespun tales of her proud father, her
misunderstood mother and her iconic older brother. "I
was reared on music all the way up to here," Edgmon said,
pointing over her head. "Woody taught me chords on the
guitar. I got really good at that C chord, I guess it was."
Edgmon spoke proudly of the "1,000 percent turnaround" in
America's perception of Woody, particularly in his Green
Country hometown of Okemah. She said she's thrilled to see
the misunderstandings about Woody's political and spiritual
beliefs clearing up.
"I want the world to understand that the Guthrie family
was not trash, that Woody was as good a man as there is,"
Lafave and Fracasso both punctuated the panel session
with performances. Fracasso sang Guthrie's "1913 Massacre"
and one of his own songs directly inspired by Woody's
songwriting (Fracasso's chorus: "From the mountains to the
valleys / from the prairies to the sea / If you ain't got
love, you ain't got a nickel"). Lafave sang a song about
Woody called "Woody's Road," written by acclaimed Oklahoma
songwriter Bob Childers, and then closed the afternoon
event with a rendition of Guthrie's "Oklahoma Hills," joined
by members of the Red Dirt Rangers and Edgmon herself.
Paint the town Redd
Austin's Top of the Marc is a clean, classy place — not
your usual SXSW mosh pit. The clientele shows the proper
amount of cuff, and the bar has drambuie. Festival
organizers couldn't just stick another all-girl Japanese
punk band in here. They needed class. So they called
upon Charlie Redd and his boys.
Decked out and dynamic, the Full Flava Kings brought
Redd back home in style. "Bring it on home, y'all!" Redd
would shout in a song's closing jam, though it was unclear
which home he was referring to — his native Austin or his
new Tulsa HQ. Either way, his Austin friends and fans saw a
new Redd on Saturday night: more groovy, more gravy and
drizzling a more honeyed baritone over the band's dense
rhythm-and-funk. In addition to charter Kings Dave
Kelly on guitar, Brian Lee on keyboards and Stanley Fary
beating the drums mercilessly, the Full Flava Kings debuted
new guitarist and veteran Tulsa funkmeister Travis Fite
(Phat Thumb) to the Austin crowd.
Their response? Ask the female stranger who tried to
start The Bump with me during the show.
Here come the brides
Tyson Meade, the colorful leader of the Norman-reared
Chainsaw Kittens, used to wear dresses on stage as a rule.
After his Friday night SXSW showcase, he took the fixation
to a bold new level by getting married to another man in
full white-gown fabulousness.
Before the next band (the bizarro but like-minded Frogs)
took the tent stage outside the Gallery Lombardi Lounge,
Meade reappeared in a wedding processional that parted the
crowd. The wedding party included several maids, matrons
and misters of honor in various degrees of Mardi Gras-esque
garb, all of whom surrounded the officiating Hindu priest
for the brief ceremony.
In a flurry of toasts and funny-but-heartfelt vows,
Meade and Skip Handleman Werner — who was always preceded by
the mysterious title "international pop star" — were
pronounced unlawfully married. They smooched, and the
wedding party bunny-hopped from the venue as "Y.M.C.A."
Reports of this high camp should not overshadow news of
the Kittens' triumphant return. Still without a record deal
after the sad demise of the Smashing Pumpkins' Scratchie
Records, the Kittens blasted back into action Friday night
with an explosive set of old and new glam-punk songs.
Meade, juiced by pre-wedding jitters, took the stage in a
royal blue feathery jacket and furiously belted and
screamed his way through the serrated set of Kitty classics
reaching all the way back to the band's debut album,
I can't chaaange
Billy Joe Winghead's lead singer, John Manson, took out
his personal angst about Meade's marriage (he was
distraught over not getting to, um, kiss the bride) through
BJW's two sets of roadhouse rock. The OKC-Tulsa band
blew into Austin late Saturday and played back-to-back
shows at the Hole in the Wall, a University of Texas
hangout, and Cheapo Discs. Shoppers at the latter venue
were typically unfazed by the blaring band over in the
corner — until they played "Free Bird."
A cliche request that normally turns off young rock
audiences always turns heads when its coming from the
five-piece Billy Joe Winghead. Tulsa bassist Steve Jones
sings over the guitar grind while Manson waves out the
melody on his green theremin. Amid the band's repertoire of
songs about rest-stop sex, doomed B-filmstars and car
salesman lingo, "Free Bird" is practically the crown jewel
and always a crowd pleaser.
Hit me with your best shot
Readers of the Austin Chronicle voted David Garza the
city's second-best musician of the '90s. (Ask a blues fan
who was first.) It's not simply because he writes
well-rounded pop songs and executes them gracefully on
record with his band; it's that he really doesn't need his
band at all.
On the Waterloo Park stage late Saturday afternoon,
Garza held his own with only his pretty red Gibson guitar
to keep him company. Songs that on record seem pieced
together by clever arrangements of drum machines, acoustic
guitar and Garza's versatile voice — like "Discoball World" --
evened out in frenetic and energetic solo jams. Near the
end, he took requests, cheerfully tearing his fingernails
off by barreling through "Take Another Shot."
Thank you, sir, may I have another?
The good, the bad, and the ugly
Rumor of the week: That Neil Young was the mysterious
"special guest" billed immediately before Steve Earle's
Friday night set at Stubb's. Young was in Austin for South
by Southwest, but not the music part. His latest concert
film, "Silver and Gold," was premiering. The special guest
was Whiskeytown singer Ryan Adams.
Patron saint of the festival: Doug Sahm. The drive-train
for the Sir Douglas Quartet may be dead but he hasn't left
Austin. From two star-studded tributes to him — one at
Wednesday night's Austin Music Awards (featuring Shawn and
Shandon Sahm), another Friday at the legendary Antone's
blues club (featuring former bandmate Augie Meyers and,
straight from the where-is-he-now bins, Joe "King" Carassco) --
to posters in Mexican restaurants advertising prints of his
portrait for sale, Sahm has edged out Townes Van Zandt as
the bandwagon who bought the farm.
Best TV footage no one could use: Steve Earle's Thursday
morning keynote address. Earle delivered his words of
wisdom wearing a T-shirt that read, "I'm from f—-ing outer
Comeback of the week: Former Byrds icon Roger McGuinn,
whose Friday night performance brought overplayed standards
back down to earth with grace and style.
Best T-shirt: "My lawyer can kick your lawyer's ass."
Most shameless self-promotion: Dallas rap-rockers
Pimpadelic not only drove around downtown blocks in its
giant tour bus with the band's name emblazoned along the
sides, the band also spent its free time walking around
Austin with dancers it hired from the Yellow Rose strip
club, all of whom, of course, sported tightly cropped
T-shirts bearing the band's name. Watch for the band's
debut on Tommy Boy Records.
Most prominent foreign country: The Netherlands, buoyed
by waning interest in the annual Japan Night and extensive
lobbying by the Dutch Rock and Pop Institute.
Best non-SXSW show: Austin's ear-splitting Hotwheels Jr.
on Friday afternoon in a tiny CD shop way out in north
Austin. They spell it r-a-w-k.
Favorite new discovery: Scotland's newest guitar pop
band Astrid, with a debut album, "Strange Weather Lately,"
out now on Fantastic Plastic Records.
Best diversion on the way to another gig: The strolling
horn band Crawdaddy-O, which braved the frigid cold
Thursday night livening people's steps with funky Dixieland
jams, including — at Adam of Fanzine's request — some
sizzling James Brown.
This post contains preview and review coverage of this annual festival ...
Free Woody Guthrie: a folkfest
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
After his historic performance on the inaugural night of last year's Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival, British folk singer Billy Bragg loaded up and headed south. His next gig was an appearance on public television's "Austin City Limits." As he took that famous stage, the first words out of his mouth were, "I just got back from Okemah. They're putting on a festival there for Woody Guthrie, and it's the coolest thing ever."
The morning after that aired, David Gustafson's phone about came out of the wall.
Gustafson already had attracted a good deal of attention by organizing the weeklong homage to Guthrie, America's greatest folk singer ("This Land Is Your Land," "Pretty Boy Floyd," "Deportee") and an Okemah native, but Bragg's public endorsement rolled out a bandwagon ripe for jumping on.
"The word got out in all kinds of crazy ways, and after Billy's announcement people called from all over," Gustafson said in a conversation this week. "Artists were clamoring to be involved with this — and none of them get paid. That's not an issue, they don't care. They want to pay tribute to Woody in any way they can. We had to turn away a lot of people — big names, too. The future of the festival is bright."
The clamor has boosted this year's festival to more than 40 scheduled performers, up from last year's dozen. An extra charity night has been added to this week's entertainment, and the Wednesday night kick-off concert features three of folk's largest legends: Country Joe McDonald, the Kingston Trio and Woody's son Arlo Guthrie.
Last year's festivities — complete with the unveiling of a Guthrie statue in downtown Okemah — were inspiring on two fronts. First, the undying devotion of so many musicians to Woody's songs and legacy made clear how deeply the late singer's music touched the country's psyche. Plus, for the first time in decades, Oklahomans — and, more significantly, Okemahns — rallied around the Guthrie legacy. Guthrie's socialist leanings caused many people erroneously to brand him as anti-American and anti-religious.
That turnaround in public sentiment helped to convince the Guthrie family that this festival was worth supporting. Since Woody's death in 1967, the Guthries — daughter Nora, son Arlo, sister Mary Jo — have been hesitant to stamp their name on just every Woody Guthrie tribute event. And there have been hundreds.
"One thing Arlo's always said is that he's proud to be Woody's son but that he didn't ever feel like it was his job to carry the torch for Woody. He wanted to be his own artist. Now the entire family is saying that this is the event they want to sponsor and encourage," Gustafson said. "That kind of makes it official, and we feel great about that."
Gustafson said he sees the festival growing significantly every year. Big names in music already have been in touch with the festival organizers to talk about playing in future years.
Some may attend sooner than that. In January, the official Jackson Browne web page began listing the Guthrie festival on Browne's tour itinerary. Gustafson called Browne's organization to see what was up.
"It wound up not working out, but it was left really kind of vague. Maybe he'll show up anyway," Gustafson said. "John Mellencamp is ending his world tour in Dallas on Thursday, too, and he's been made aware of the festival. Who knows what could happen?"
An all-star start
The second annual Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival begins Wednesday night in Okemah's Crystal Theater with an all-star concert that's not — as the festival's name implies — free.
"Arlo said he'd be here this year, but he could only be here for the Wednesday show," Gustafson said. "We ran the numbers and decided it would be best to charge for this show and raise some money to keep the rest of it alive."
Wednesday's show occurs on what would have been Woody's 87th birthday. Plus, while the MTV crowd focuses on the 30th anniversary Woodstock concert this summer in New York, this Wednesday night show reunites two acts that played the original Woodstock: Arlo and Country Joe McDonald.
Arlo did manage to make a name for himself as a folk singer, scoring hits from "The Motorcycle Song" to his magnum opus, the raucous and rambling "Alice's Restaurant." This will be Arlo's first Okemah performance in a decade.
Country Joe and the Fish rose out of Berkley, Calif., in the mid- '60s to lead the psychedelic movement in rock. By the time he played Woodstock, his "I-Feel- Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" and his notorious f-word chant had become the rallying call for resistance to the Vietnam War. McDonald himself has had intermittent success as a solo artist since.
The Kingston Trio could be credited with the success — or at least the polarization — of mainstream folk music. Once one of the biggest acts in popular music (in 1961, 20 percent of Capitol Records' profits was all from the Kingston Trio), the Trio's staid, party songs struck a chord with cheeky, collegiate America and led to a string of No. 1 hits, starting with 1958's "Tom Dooley." The enormous success of this group gave other record companies the courage to sign acts like Bob Dylan. The Kingston Trio disbanded in 1967, but charter member Bob Shane revived it in 1971 and has nurtured a loyal following ever since.
Thursday's festivities are an added feature at this year's Guthrie festival. It's also the day Gustafson is most excited about.
"I don't know how to explain how cool this is going to be," he said.
Thursday night's free show at the Crystal Theater will focus on Huntington's Disease, the nervous disorder that killed Woody.
Shortly after Guthrie died in '67, several of his musician friends, from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Judy Collins and Arlo, organized four tribute concerts — two at Carnegie Hall, two at the Hollywood Bowl — which featured a scripted performance mixing Guthrie songs with readings from his writings and journals. Actors Will Geer and Peter Fonda narrated the shows. Thursday's show will be a re-creation of those performances using the original script from the Woody Guthrie Archives.
"We've taken that script, modified it, added some of Billy's songs and will present it with about 40 musicians," Gustafson said. "(Boston folksinger) Ellis Paul got hold of some lyrics Woody wrote about Huntington's itself, while he was suffering from the disease. The song is called 'No Help Known,' and he's put music to them."
This show caps off a day-long symposium on Huntington's Disease for health-care workers from around the region.
"See, it's not just a music thing anymore. It's starting to stretch into an event of what the man was about and what his experience was rather than only the music," Gustafson said.
The weekend, though, is all about music. Nearly 30 folk performers will be playing on the festival grounds from Friday to Sunday.
National acts include John Wesley Harding, a British alt-rocker gone traditional and self-styled "gangsta folk" player; Jimmy Lafave, an Okie expatriate from Austin and one of the leading voices in red-dirt folk music; and the Joel Rafael Band, an acoustic quartet from San Diego led by exalted Native American songwriter Rafael.
Numerous regional red-dirt players will be on hand, too, namely Tulsa's Brandon Jenkins, the Farm Couple, DoubleNotSpyz and the Red Dirt Rangers.
More music will sound from a stage in the campground area, as well as several after-hours late- night jams in clubs throughout Okemah.
"Some people will go all night," Gustafson said. "The celebration will be intense."
The Birthday Hootenanny
Featuring Arlo Guthrie, the Kingston Trio and Country Joe McDonald
Crystal Theater, on Main Street in Okemah
Tickets are $27, available at all Tulsa-area Carson Attractions outlets. Call (918) 584-2000.
"Huntington's Disease: Caring for People in Mid and Advanced Stages" -- a half-day conference for health-care professionals
Featuring Jim Pollard, HD expert
Crystal Theater, on Main Street in Okemah
Tickets are $15, payable to the Huntington Disease Society of Oklahoma. For information, call Dorothy Hearn, (405) 236-4372.
"HD: Woody's Greatest Struggle in Story and Song" -- a panel discussion of Guthrie's battle with Huntington's Disease and how it affected his life and work
Featuring Woody's sister, Mary Jo Edgmon, plus Guthrie historian Guy Logsdon and singer Jimmy Lafave, Bob Childers, Ellis Paul and Peter Keane
Crystal Theater, on Main Street in Okemah
This event is free.
Hoot for Huntington's
Featuring the Kingston Trio, Country Joe McDonald, Ellis Paul, John Wesley Harding, Slaid Cleaves, Joel Rafael, Peter Keane, the Red Dirt Rangers, Jimmy Lafave, Larry Long, Tom Skinner, Bob Childers, and Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer
Crystal Theater, on Main Street in Okemah
This event is free, but donation opportunities will be available for the Huntington's Disease Society of Oklahoma.
Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival
6 p.m.: M.L. Liebler and the Magic Poetry Band
6:30 p.m.: Brandon Jenkins
7:40 p.m.: Chuck Pyle
8:30 p.m.: Slaid Cleaves
9:20 p.m.: John Wesley Harding
10:10 p.m.: Jimmy Lafave
Pastures of Plenty Amphitheater, in the Okemah Industrial Park off of Interstate 40
This event is free.
Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival
4 p.m.: DoubleNotSpyz with the Farm Couple
4:40 p.m.: Okie Songwriters in the Round featuring Tom Skinner, Bob Childers and Bill Erickson
5:30 p.m.: Women Singer-Songwriters in the Round featuring Emily Kaitz, Anne Armstrong, Linda Lowe and Darcie Deaville
6:20 p.m.: Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer
7:10 p.m.: Larry Long
8 p.m.: Red Dirt Rangers
8:50 p.m.: Peter Keane
9:40 p.m.: Bill Hearne
10:30 p.m.: Joel Rafael Band
Pastures of Plenty Amphitheater, in the Okemah Industrial Park off of Interstate 40
This event is free.
Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival
1 p.m.: Songwriting contest winners
1:40 p.m.: Susan Shore
2:30 p.m.: Still on the Hill
3:20 p.m.: Don Conoscenti
4 p.m.: Country Joe McDonald
Pastures of Plenty Amphitheater, in the Okemah Industrial Park off of Interstate 40
This event is free.
For more information -- including directions to the site, a printable map and details on camping and available hotels -- look on the Internet at http://www.woodyguthrie.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (918) 825-6342.
Ellis Paul hangs onto the essence of Woody Guthrie's music and ideals
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Woody Guthrie was a restless soul. He couldn't stay in one place for very long, and he wound up traveling all over this country -- from the redwood forests to the Gulf stream waters. He saw different lands and different people, the scope of which informed the compassionate songs he sang with a reedy voice and a beat-up six-string.
Ellis Paul knows about that wanderlust, and he's thankful for what it brings to his own folk songs.
"It limits your experience to stay in one place," Paul said in a conversation last week. "Woody kept darting all over the country. He traveled without any route. He went out to California and got the migrant workers imbedded in his perspective. He wouldn't have had that if he'd stayed in Oklahoma. He was pretty worldly, he hung out with a diverse group of people -- poets and writers and artists and dancers and workers and politicians and union leaders. That's the great thing about the creative lifestyle: you hook up with the whole, romantic rainbow of humanity.
"I'm on the road a lot because that's the way my music gets out there. It's exactly what Woody was doing when he was around. It's essential because the majority of the airplay you get is in nightclubs in front of a focused group of people. I get some airplay on the radio, but the main drive for this music is the engine of my car."
Paul, who grew up on a Maine potato farm and is now a Boston- based singer, is a compelling songwriter in his own right and a workhorse on the neck of his open-tuned acoustic guitar. His latest album,
"Translucent Soul," was released last year on Philo Records, part of the Rounder Records group.
He will be one of several featured performers in Thursday night's Hoot for Huntington's concert, a preliminary event at the Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival in Okemah. The show will re-create a Woody Guthrie tribute concert from the late '60s as a fundraiser for the Huntington's Disease Society of Oklahoma.
Paul has won numerous awards -- seven Boston Music Awards, even the prestigious Best New Artist award at the Kerrville Folk Festival -- and the Boston Globe once hailed him as "a national folk star and ... the quintessential Boston songwriter: literate, provocative, urbanely romantic."
"I don't know if that quote sums up me, but it sums up the Boston scene. It's a literate scene because it comes out of listening rooms rather than bars," Paul said. "Boston has always had a great folk scene, and it's one of the only ones in the country that's thriving. It's a real industry here. It may be because of the collection of colleges here, all with radio stations catering to this kind of music. Folk is a somewhat intellectual art form, a little more heady than pop music. You don't have to know how to beat the bars here. If you emerge from playing bars, you have to do tricks to shut people up, like using more hooks. If you're in one of these listening rooms, all you've got is you and your words. The hook and the volume are secondary. That's why Boston songwriters tend to me more thoughtful and soft."
Woody wasn't exactly loud, either. In fact, his quiet voice is usually what made the biggest impact.
Paul has the same thing going for him. His small tenor has power whether cooing or squeaking, and he said he tries to adhere to Woody's same songwriting principles.
Asked what in his own music is inspired by Woody, Paul said it would be "a complete awareness of the truth and trying to get to the bottom of it every single time, regardless of commercial viability."
"Woody was a painter more than a singer -- or a journalist, really," Paul said. "He was trying to paint a picture of where he was in the time he was living. I feel like that's what I'm doing. I'm trying to be honest and real and talk about what's important."
Like most of today's folk musicians, Paul came to Guthrie's music by way of Bob Dylan. However, where others peered into Woody's music from Dylan's stateroom, Paul wound up leaving Dylan behind and embracing Guthrie completely.
"For me, what happened is that Woody became more important than Dylan or anybody," Paul said. "It was someone giving me the Joe Klein book (a Guthrie biography) -- that changed my life. Philosophically, he was doing something very risky, and his life story is so tied into 20th century history. He came out of the Depression, went with the migrant workers, served in a world war, fought fascism and he had so much to do with what happened in the '60s.
"Here I am in the '90s doing my music and being hit by the tragedy of his story -- the fires, the marriages, the disease -- and the fact that he wrote 5,000 songs. It was a ridiculous amount of creativity. Plus, he had that overall philosophy that songs are supposed to be something more than just entertainment. They're supposed to be informational and change the people who hear them. I was overwhelmed by him, and changed, and I'm still in awe."
Country Joe asks, Where's the social reflection?
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
The music of Country Joe and the Fish is inextricable from the public protests of the Vietnam War. Thirty years after Joe McDonald and his psychedelic San Francisco band set the tone for the Woodstock festival, that war is still very much on McDonald's mind.
We had the opportunity to pick Country Joe's brain this week, prior to his solo appearances at this week's Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival in Okemah -- including his headlining show on Sunday -- and here are some of his notorious notions:
On the new, "improved" 30th anniversary Woodstock concert: "It's kind of a shame that they're choosing not to address the Vietnam War. That war was connected to Woodstock. It's probably the reason for it ... There's no effort at all toward social reflection. They're just still trying to make money off it."
On how radical the original Woodstock really was: "The right wing and the left wing hated us. Our lifestyles themselves were a threat to the status quo. Just the fact that we were trying to have fun was a threat to both sides. Young people today don't realize that ... We were politicized as much as anybody, but we tried to have fun at the same time. That itself was very political, and it scared the hell out of people."
On the legacy of the Vietnam War: "The war is what did it. We were raised to blindly believe that America and our leaders were always right, then they sent us off to a war that shouldn't have been fought and we were just slaughtered. We did what they asked us to do, and we were disrespected and spit on. We were hated 'cause we fought and hated 'cause we didn't fight. We're still hated. The whole Monica (Lewinsky) thing -- that was the last go-round for the conservative '50s generation that absolutely hated the changes of the '60s."
On what his Oklahoma roots taught him about life: "My father was born in Sallisaw. His dad had a ministry and three farms in Sallisaw. So I'm having a little family reunion on this visit ... Dad grew up on that farm, and my grandfather was a Presbyterian minister of the reformed school that believed children were not born into sin. He was an agrarian reformer, too, who built dams and worked to reclaim the soil. Dad then taught me how to farm in California. We broke horses together when I was a kid. He had a lot of Oklahoma sensibility about him, and taught me a lot. I live in the city now. City folks don't know how to dig a hole or anything. They hire someone to do a research study on hole digging, then get a big-time university project to walk the dog. They're totally mystified by dirt and critters. I mean, they buy these big plastic compost bins. My dad taught me to dig a hole in the ground, put in the compost, cover it with dirt. That's a compost pile."
On how he wound up at a Woody Guthrie festival: "I grew up with his music, on 78s, along with rhythm and blues and lots of leftist union music in the house. My parents were leftist and admired working people, and my music tries to reflect the value of working people and respect their struggle for wages and justice -- which is still an enormous problem, now on a global perspective. Woody did the same thing -- and how."
On an old album: "I recorded a record called `Thinking of Woody Guthrie' for the Vanguard label, did it in Nashville with Nashville musicians back in 1970. It's all Woody songs. It's on CD now, and I'll have some with me at the show."
On a new album: "I bumped into a guy with an English rock band called the Bevis Frond. We made a live record of Country Joe and the Fish music called `Eat Flowers and Kiss Babies.' It's an electric tribute to some of the old music, 10 classic songs. It's on vinyl and CD, and you can get it on my website, countryjoe.com."
John Wesley Harding: Folks are beginning to talk
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
John Wesley Harding doesn't confine his wordplay to his
witty and acerbic lyrics. He's a right clever
Early in his career -- back when he suffered barbs for
sounding too much like Elvis Costello, as if that's a bad
thing -- Harding called his particular brand of folk-rock
"power folk." It didn't catch on. Then he called it "folk
noir." No bumper stickers followed. Nowadays, he calls his
music "gangsta folk," and this label may stick.
"The term 'gangsta folk' got a little foothold in
American culture," said Harding, a native Brit now living in
Seattle, during a conversation last week. "For a phrase I
entirely made up, there's a sticker on the Smithsonian
Folkways box set that says, `This is real gangsta folk,'
implying that there's something else out there, which must
be me. It's like Burroughs made up the phrase `heavy
metal.' So I thought, well, I'll be in the dictionary now.
" 'Gangsta folk' simply reflects what I do as opposed to
what other singer-songwriters do. I'm not a sensitive
singer-songwriter. Ellis Paul (Boston singer, who appeared
at the Guthrie festival earlier this week) and I decided I
was an insensitive singer-songwriter. Any way you can
position yourself, you know?"
Harding, a featured act on Friday's bill at the Woody
Guthrie Free Folk Festival in Okemah, has made a career of
being dodgy -- dodging critical whines, dodging record label
failures, dodging the lassos that would rope him into
various consuming classifications. Always, he has dodged
what was expected of him.
For instance, he followed up the acoustic concerts that
gave him his start with a cover of Madonna's "Like a Prayer"
and then two slickly produced albums that had more to do
with power pop than power folk. Just as everyone had
written him off as a Costello clone, he turned in the 1992
album "Why We Fight," a preview of the more deeply rooted
folk pioneering to come and including a pre-O.J. indictment
of American justice, "Where the Bodies Are." When we expected
a real folk record, he gave us the '70s orchestrations of
"John Wesley Harding's New Deal," and when we expected an
innovative new musical direction, he gave us his latest
record, this year's "Trad Arr Jones," an entire record of Nic
Jones songs. Jones is a folk music legend in Britain and
has not performed in public since a car accident in 1982.
The origins of gangsta folk? You guessed it. Harding
said it's Woody Guthrie, pure and simple.
"Without a doubt, he started gangsta folk," Harding said.
"The lineage of gangsta folk runs from Woody through Dylan
to Springsteen's 'Nebraska' album. Those are the high-water
marks. Its real origins are the old murder ballads. It's
music with a lot of dead bodies, no flinching in talking
about sex and reality, with freedom to write from your
imagination. That's especially important. People don't make
things up anymore. Everyone writes about themselves and
their own lives. That started with the '70s
singer-songwritery stuff. I guess, people were doing enough
drugs that they thought their private lives were incredibly
interesting. It's not easy to make that stand up, though.
Someone like Loudon Wainwright does it and it's
Guthrie-esque in its honesty, humor and brilliance. Now
it's all mixed in with a kind of therapy-speak that's
Harding found Woody Guthrie the same way nearly every
folk songwriter has: through Bob Dylan. Dylan's emphasis on
Guthrie's importance led legions of aspiring troubadours to
check out Joe Klein's Guthrie biography from their local
libraries. Harding watched the film biopic "Bound for Glory,"
which he said he "didn't much like," but something in the
life story of Guthrie kept pulling Harding in until a
larger sense of the singer's struggle emerged.
Other artists showed Harding the way to Guthrie's
experience. He first heard "Do Re Mi" played by Ry Cooder,
and numerous Guthrie songs Harding first heard performed by
"I'm a huge Woody Guthrie fan, but I don't put on Woody
Guthrie albums. I have the Woody Guthrie greatest hits, and
I don't think he's even on that record," Harding laughed.
"Woody's very important. He and Hank Williams are very
similar in their influence in that you don't need to own a
record by them to know that you love them. Their influence
is that pervasive in everyone's music. You can't even say
that about Bob Dylan. Many people don't know any Jimmie
Rodgers or Hank Williams or Woody Guthrie albums, but they
already love their music. That makes them more like Mozart
than pop songers -- someone whose music is everywhere and in
the minds of everyone, regardless of who's playing it."
With "Trad Arr Jones," Harding tried to do for Nic Jones
what Dylan did for Guthrie. Jones -- who Harding said
"certainly would have been influenced by Woody" -- inspired
Harding's own work, and he said he wanted to share the
discovery with his fans.
"It's music that really moved me that's not available
now, and I thought it deserved to be done. It's my covers
album, it's just that I decided to do covers by all the
same guy. His influence on my music is massive, namely in
the narrative tradition," Harding said.
The label that issued "Trad Arr Jones," Zero Hour Records,
has folded, but the CD is still widely available. Harding
said he'll also have some for sale with him at the festival
Review: This folk festival is bound for glory
BY THOMAS CONNER
Arlo Guthrie paused during his encore of "Goodnight Irene"
to tell us what a wonderful festival this was. Four hours
into the evening, we already knew that. Then he reminded us
of something else, something we needed reminding of.
"You know, it's only in the last 50 to 100 years that
we've let other people do our singing for us," Guthrie said,
strumming his guitar. "We used to sit around the fire,
whatever kind of fire, and sing these old songs together.
These are our songs. It feels good to sing them. It makes
us feel more like human beings."
So we sang, helped ol' Arlo and his kids -- Abe on piano,
Sarah Lee on second guitar -- finish out the song and end
another goosebumpy kick-off to the Woody Guthrie Free Folk
Festival. He was right, it did feel good to sing aloud.
Grandparents harmonized. College kids clapped. Mothers with
sleepy babies on their shoulders swayed back and forth. For
a minute or two, the faceless caution of the Internet and
the pigeonholes of cultural classification all melted away,
and we indeed felt like human beings again.
Arlo, son of the festival's late honoree, wrapped up
Wednesday night's Birthday Hootenanny concert at Okemah's
Crystal Theater with trademark grace and aplomb. Tossing
out songs -- a few of his own, a few of his dad's -- and
stories, the trio rambled through an engaging set of humor
and humanism. He played "City of New Orleans" (with a story
about forgetting the words during a performance at, of all
things, a Steve Goodman tribute show), "The Motorcycle Song"
("I can't believe I wrote this stupid song and made a living
singing it -- for decades! I love America!") and "This Land Is
The next generation of Guthries heightened the evening's
musicianship and all-important sense of tradition. Abe
received a well-deserved whoop of applause for a gritty
solo during "Walking Blues" and his crucial support during
Arlo's fresh take on "House of the Rising Sun." Sarah Lee had
one song in the spotlight, singing Gillian Welch's "Orphan
Girl" with a chiming, crystal-clear voice. Arlo and Abe
backed her up with soothing harmonies; they came in
one-by-one, singing the chorus of "No mother, no father, no
sister, no brother," creating a great irony -- a wrenching
song about a girl who knows no family sung here by a girl
whose family legacy will live on for generations.
Wednesday's concert also featured the commercially
legendary Kingston Trio. Still able to sell huge volumes of
tickets, the Kingston Trio -- consisting of one original
member, Bob Shane -- is an anachronism of the highest order.
In their prime, they were a nostalgia act, white-washing
traditional folk songs for a homogenous late-'50s
audiences, and now they're nostalgic about their own
nostalgia. Granted, there is a generation or two between
this group's mystique and my understanding, but their bar
jokes and impassable distance between their own experience
and the songs they were singing made a great bathroom
Really, these three soft, old white guys in crisp
Hawaiian shirts -- like a cast of a gay "Bonanza" -- have never
done any "Hard Travelin' " or they wouldn't be so lively and
jovial when singing about it. George Grove, while a
studiously talented player, looks positively goofy singing
a song in the persona of a lovelorn Mexican servant.
Shane's solo reading of "Scotch and Soda" was the one sublime
moment in the trio's set -- a smooth, lush song anyway, and
one in which Shane clearly had an emotional investment. The
rest of the bright, cheery songs about subway fares and
serial killers are better left to Branson stages with the
stench of breakfast buffets wafting through the aisles.
Country Joe McDonald started the show with a
cantankerous kick. Still as feisty as he was when he played
Woodstock 30 years ago next month, McDonald exhibited what
30 years of playing the guitar can teach a man. Not only
were his lyrics riotously funny and biting (especially his
"no-nukes `Yankee Doodle' "), the music he pulled out of a
weathered acoustic guitar was rich and full -- sloppy here
and there, but only sloppy in the sense of an intrepid
player refusing to keep to the well-traveled path. "Janis,"
written years ago for Janis Joplin, rings with gorgeous
chords and tender sentiment, and a slide instrumental,
"Thinking About John Fahey," helped the concert live up to
its title as a hootenanny. McDonald is scheduled to
headline the festival's outdoor show on Sunday evening.
Wednesday's show was emceed by Boston singer-songwriter --
and honorary citizen of Okemah -- Ellis Paul. He introduced
the acts, shared stories about his and others' pilgrimages
to Woody's birthplace and sang a few of his own immensely
pretty songs. While the three headlining acts were
well-established, Paul impressed the standing-room-
only crowd, earning the most comments like, "Hey, he's good.
I gotta get that CD." It's highly deserved recognition for
an artist of broad beauty and depth.
Another link in this chain
Of the many lessons to be learned during the Thursday
night concert at the Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival,
there are two important ones. First, Woody Guthrie's music,
life and philosophies are loaded with timeless moral
lessons for everyone. Secondly, out of organizational chaos
can come performances of soul-shaking excitement.
Thursday night's free show in Okemah's Crystal Theater
followed a day of events related to Huntington's Disease,
the nervous disorder to which Guthrie succumbed in 1967.
The concert re-created and amended a series of all-star
tribute shows performed in New York and California after
What began as a confusing, impersonal concert eventually
warmed into a right cozy hoe-down. By the show's end, it
was a hot time in the ol' hometown.
About 30 musicians, ranging in origin from just south of
London to just east of Tulsa, took turns on stage --
frequently backing each other -- singing unique arrangements
of Woody Guthrie songs. In between performances, Pryor
school teacher Bill McCloud read from Guthrie's writings --
observations on life, death and all the uplifting fuss
It was an odd and thrilling evening. The artists had
received their song assignments sometimes hours before
showtime. Austin songwriter Slaid Cleaves managed to learn
all 10 verses of "1913 Massacre," and performed it with the
necessary chill. Local songwriter Bob Childers had no idea
what the words were to "Biggest Thing a Man Has Ever Done"
and didn't have his glasses to see the music stand. In a
flurry of high comedy, Red Dirt Rangers singer Brad Piccolo
tried to feed him the lines, a tactic which produced lots
of laughter but little music until festival organizer David
Gustafson brought out Childers' glasses.
When good musicians aren't quite sure what's going on
but find themselves onstage anyway, marvelous things can
happen. Such inspired moments came frequently from Jimmy
Lafave's band, which backed numerous singers, and the
Rangers, who were responsible for breaking the ice with
their unaffected stage presence. Incredibly solid
performances came from John Wesley Harding (a rocking "Dear
Mrs. Roosevelt"), Tom Skinner (a heartfelt "Jesus Christ") and
Joel Rafael ("Deportee" with more conviction than I've ever
seen it performed).
Twenty songs later, the entire group of performers
crowded onstage and led the crowd in a religious, 15-minute
"This land Is Your Land." Everyone was on their feet,
clapping and singing, and the singers took turns on the
verses, shouting and laughing and yipee-yi-yo-ing.
Suddenly, another lesson from the festival was clear: Woody
is alive and well, and as long as these songs survive,
humanity's hope will never die.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
I felt daring. I thought it would be a bold experiment.
I figured that as a music journalist at the second hometown
Hanson concert it was my duty to have the raw experience --
to hear the full and frenzied screaming of the crowd.
So I took out my earplugs.
Just for a second.
Ow. Big mistake.
Hanson is hardly old hat for Tulsans. Thursday night's
sold-out concert of more than 8,000 breathless, hysterical
fans filled the Mabee Center — often host to more serene
worship services — with as much (if not more) yelping,
gasping and general high-decibel swooning than the first
Tulsa concert on July 8.
The trio may sing "Where's the
Love?" to its other teeming bunches across the continent,
but the question is moot in front of the fawning hometown
crowd. Those valued earplugs, though, are designed to
screen out the noise and let in the music.
those aren't one in the same. Even though the last thing on
most young girls' minds is the music, the Hanson moptops
churn out plenty of good and grooving sound. Whatever your
opinion of the boys' bubblegum bop and girlish locks, no
one can watch a Hanson concert without reaching the
conclusion that these kids are really in it for the music.
The frothing girls are a bonus by-product for now, the
serenade is their greatest thrill.
Ours, too. When the excitement of actually seeing the
boys in the flesh boils down by midshow, everyone realizes
what solid music they're hearing. The Hanson brothers were
raised on classic R&B — much of which they cover throughout
the show with respect if not always fire — and their
performances are saturated in soul. Taylor's deepening
voice allows him to pull off a fair Steve Winwood
impression in the Spencer Davis Group's "Gimme Some Lovin' "
though these young rascals miss the spark of the Young
Rascals' "Good Lovin.' " They encored with a righteous take
on a hometown standard, "Livin' on Tulsa Time." Also, in this
show they added a cover of Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride,"
a smart choice musically even though they might not have
gotten the sexual leer of it quite yet.
As always, though, they shine brightest during their own
material: the R&B-injected "Where's the Love," the momentous
ballads "With You in Your Dreams" and "Weird" (the "Open Arms" of
the '90s), and the intriguing new song "If You're Ever
Lonely," a moody plea that sounds like Ace-era Paul Carrack.
Once again, the mid-show acoustic set was the brightest
moment of the concert, allowing them to show off their
oft-doubted instrumental chops and unbeatable harmonies.
The vocalizing in "Soldier" is breathtaking; if only it
wasn't a throw-away lyric about toys. Still, when Isaac has
his moment alone at the keyboards for "More Than Anything,"
his deft command of balladry, showmanship and a fairly
arresting tune makes for a goose-pimply moment.
Soon after, though, Zac is spraying the front rows with
a water rifle, so we're brought back to reality. There's
really little tomfoolery, though, and even less blatant
teen-idol posturing. These guys always come to play music
and nothing more, despite the diversionary fuss that
follows them everywhere. They thank the crowd profusely and
just crank out the songs — about 23 in a 100-minute show.
Sure, we have to wear the earplugs today for the screaming
girls, but one day the screams will die away and — yes, just
like the Beatles — their musical legacy will be all that
matters. But hang onto the plugs, for now. Hansonmania is
likely going to be a long, strange trip.
And don't forget, this concert is a double-bill of Tulsa
talent. Admiral Twin opens the show, and though their
Thursday night performance hinted at the exhaustion of the
unending summer, they still packed a wallop and kept the
throng on its feet. Bassist Mark Carr and guitarist John
Russell work as a tag team, taking turns striking the rock
star pose at the edge of stage right. Fortunately, they
aren't just posing. Carr's focused bass and Russell's
lively guitar propel the pop band with real force. The guys
are still promising a forthcoming announcement of a
possible label deal. Stay tuned.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
I'll be at a party somewhere in 10 years, and the
discussion inevitably will turn to concerts we've seen.
We'll be swapping takes on Lollas and Liliths, and somehow
I'll mention that I saw Billy Bragg perform his Woody
Guthrie songs in Woody's hometown of Okemah back in the
summer of '98.
The faces around me will tighten — brows raised, cheeks
drawn, lips pursed. There will be a beat of silent,
palpable awe. Someone will say, "Wow, you were there?"
By then, the Woody Guthrie Free Folk Arts Festival in
Okemah will have surpassed the Philadelphia folk festival
as the country's largest celebration of folk music and all
things acoustically American. Each year, tens of thousands
of folkies will invade Okemah — the once peaceful town few
in the nation had heard of — for the four-day festival
featuring the world's biggest names in folk music, from
Arlo Guthrie to Bruce Springsteen. Jewel will be trying to
mount a comeback, begging the festival organizers for a
spot on the prestigious bill. Congress will have replaced
the national anthem with Woody's "This Land Is Your Land."
These are the images that floated through my mind
Tuesday night as I stood outside Okemah's Crystal Theater
after Billy Bragg's historical performance inside. Surely I
had just witnessed the beginning of something big. Surely
something significant had happened tonight.
Whether the momentum of this week's incredible folk
festival in Okemah — featuring Arlo, Tom Paxton, a host of
talented folkies and Billy Bragg — will carry it far enough
to realize my little daydream remains to be seen (a good
bet, though). Still, something significant certainly
happened Tuesday night. After years of hesitation and doubt
from his home state, Woody was finally welcomed home.
The festival hooted and hollered all weekend, but the
defining performance was Bragg's Tuesday night show.
Himself a union-backing troubadour, Bragg was asked by
Woody's daughter, Nora, to write and record music to
several of the thousands of tuneless manuscripts in the
Woody Guthrie Archives. The results of this collaboration
were released this month as an album, "Mermaid Avenue," and
Bragg opted to perform some of these gems in Woody's
hometown — on a vintage stage where Woody himself once
The evening was electric. The faces of the all-ages,
standing-room-only crowd were bright with anticipation and
thrill. Camera crews from the BBC, CNN and various regional
production groups scurried throughout the theater. Woody's
sister was there. Journalists from France were there
(gloating over their nation's World Cup victory . . . on
Bastille Day, no less). Best of all, no one was protesting
Woody's socialist leanings. Everyone was friendly, and the
show was free. But despite the build-up and the hype
preceding this simple folk concert, Bragg wound up
surpassing it. A veteran British rocker with folk
tendencies and punk roots, Bragg emerged on stage as humble
and personable as ever. He plugged in his lone electric
guitar and began serving up songs and stories. He played a
few of his own tunes — opening with the romantic "A New
England" and closing with an encore of his greatest
political song, "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards" — but
concentrated on the task at hand: reintroducing us to our
nation's most important songwriter.
The album, as I've already huzzahed in these pages, is a
stellar achievement, but Bragg's performance realized every
hopeful anticipation. That these songs communicate just as
effectively through one man and his guitar (rather than the
full band on most of the record) speaks to the already
established simple genius of Guthrie's writing. That Bragg
revived Woody's spirit with such vitality speaks to the
simple genius of his own talent. This evening in Okemah was
not the knee-slapping nostalgia-fest I partly feared it
might become. Instead, Bragg's sincerity, tenderness and
obvious appreciation for the material and the man fluffed,
buffed and wholly restored the memory and image of Guthrie
in the minds of a curious crowd.
It's like finding out something new about someone you've
known for years — this new light shed on the person's
character shatters your preconceived notions and makes
their personality more tangible. Woody not only was an
earnest, guitar-toting activist; he was a lover, a
worshiper, a voter, a dreamer and a father. Bragg made
sure we saw these sides of Woody. His Christian devotion
rang proudly in Bragg's harsh reading of "Christ for
President." His playfulness bounced through "My Flying
Saucer." His amazingly graceful blend of the personal and
political inspired chills in "She Came Along to Me."
"This is the Woody most people haven't seen — the Woody in
the archives," Bragg said on stage, "and it's just as
important as the Woody we already know."
Why is this important? Ask any of the people there
Tuesday night — the grandparents, the tattooed punks, the
grizzled Okies, the dewey-eyed high schoolers, the
well-starched nine-to-fivers. These disparate groups were
all gathered together peacefully to celebrate a few glories
of living, and Woody's words — thanks in no small part to
Bragg's faithful delivery — spoke to every one of them.
Woody's impact effects more people than Will Rogers, Troy
Aikman or even Garth Brooks, and his legacy has only
Welcome home, Woody.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
If Hanson is the future of teeny-bop, I'm going to start
hunting for the fountain of youth. But, no, this isn't
music that can be easily lumped into that derisive
Hanson shares nothing in common with bands usually
referred to as teeny-bop, bubble gum or sugar pop. No way
did New Kids on the Block put on a show with this much
conviction, and I'll wager a good chunk of my retirement
money that Taylor Hanson could wither every one of the
Backstreet Boys to cinders with his voice alone.
Hanson is much better than that, and the proof was in
the group's eagerly awaited hometown concert Wednesday
night at the Mabee Center.
These three kids from Tulsa, America, have got soul.
They're steeped in it. They drip it all over the stage. I
don't know where they got it, but they've got a firm grip
on it. They were kind enough to set the Mabee Center on
fire with it for nearly two hours Wednesday. It makes
sense — they were raised on '50s and '60s rhythm and blues
and rock 'n' roll. They tried to justify those roots
Wednesday night, too, by opening the show with “Gimme Some
Lovin'' and covering other soulful oldies, like “Doctor,
Doctor'' and “Summertime Blues.''
That's all well and good, and it pacifies the parents
who feel dragged along, but it hardly makes a case to book
three teen- agers into any city's biggest arena.
Hanson, delightfully enough, shines brightest when
they're Hanson, playing their own songs. After a cautious
delivery of “Thinking of You,'' they launched into their
second big hit, “Where's the Love,'' and the house started
This was the moment they themselves seemed to come
alive. This was a song in which they had a personal stake
and one they could back with the impressive — but still
limited — arsenal of life experiences. They can mimic
the great soul pioneers — and Taylor easily does, frequently
throwing in a very James Brown-ish “C'mon!'' But they can
throw down by themselves, too. When they do, it's
Even a completely silly, throw-away song like
“Soldier'' became a dynamic performance live. It's an
absurd little story of a lonely toy soldier, but when
Taylor thwaps his keyboard and sings, “He sank to the
bottom of the rivah,'' this goofy tale suddenly has almost
They played that song during a stripped-down, unplugged
set, complete with armchair and mood lamps. The full-bore
band sets that book-ended this intermission were exciting
and tight, but this acoustic set illustrated just how
durable these three mop-tops will prove to be.
This is how Hanson's talent was sown, just sitting down
and playing. That their songs are strengthened by this kind
of delivery indicates a long life ahead.
The acoustic set ended with Taylor and Zac leaving
eldest brother Isaac alone on stage for a solo number at
the piano. Isaac started off as the trio's lead singer, and
he was shoved aside once the more buxom Taylor's voice came
into its own.
That was unfortunate, because as the latest record,
“Three Car Garage,'' shows, Isaac is a strong singer. He
definitely has an overly romantic streak, but his solo was
surprisingly moving. If Fiona Apple ever experiences a
relationship that doesn't make her feel dirty and cheap,
she and Isaac could make beautiful music together.
The show was sprinkled with moments that appeared to be
special for the Tulsa audience. Other than repeatedly
assuring us how glad they were to be playing at home, the
Hansons played several songs introduced as “a song we
played around here a lot'' or “a song that's only been
played in Tulsa.''
The crowd, of course, loved every minute of it. Of
course, Zac could have sat on the edge of the stage and
clipped his toenails, and the girls still would have
But one day, rest assured, these girls will look back on
these exciting concert moments and listen to “Middle of
Nowhere'' again. They'll cock their heads and realize how
good the music is, how it still holds up, how it still gets
them moving and brings to mind happy times.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
To my sister, Lauren,
Couldn't help thinking of you throughout every moment of
Amy Grant's performance Friday night here at Tulsa's Mabee
Center. It's funny — it caught me by such surprise. I'd
forgotten this musical link you and I shared. Many
circumstances and miles have come between us, but as Amy
sang those old songs from our younger, more questioning
years, I remembered everything I've learned and loved about
you. So I thought I'd write and let you know, because I
think these are the kinds of bond-strengthening revelations
that Amy's music is all about.
I may throw today's Tulsa World readers for a loop by
showing my sentimental streak this way. I'm the rascally,
young rock critic down here, and Amy Grant isn't the kind
of show any regular readers might expect me to rave about.
It's not power pop, after all. But even rascally, young
rock critics have weaknesses they keep hidden behind their
biting commentary, and Amy Grant is one of mine. Thanks to
She reminds me so much of you — a strong, active woman
who radiates an astonishingly calm assurance. This is true
on stage more than on record, though the songs from her
newest album, "Behind the Eyes," are clear signs of her
reconciliation with that forum. But even if she begins
relaxing in the studio, her live performances always will
best convey the spirit of her songs. They are songs that,
like you, often make their point so subversively you don't
always realize that her spiritual convictions inform every
lyric. Once you're aware of where she's coming from, the
firmness (not rigidity) of her spiritual confidence is
She played a lot of songs from the new record, which I
hope you've got, starting with the current hit, "Takes a
Little Time." ("It takes a little time sometimes / to get
your feet back on the ground" — you've given me that advice
before, haven't you?) The show got off to a slow start,
though. Her casualness — that astonishing calm — first seemed
like apathy. This was her last show on a 100-day tour; she
was probably exhausted. But singing is obviously more than
just a gift she recognized and seized upon. Perhaps it's a
real calling, because despite that exhaustion, she couldn't
help but get revved up as she worked through her set. She
had to ask the audience to stand up and sway for one song,
but when she played the groove-woven "Curious Thing," we
weren't following orders anymore. I saw you both in her
inevitable revitalization and in that song's golly-gee
wonder at life's unexpected quirks.
Seeing you in the new material was a joyful surprise. I
knew, though, that the old songs would remind me of you. I
remember just as much "El Shaddai" and "My Father's Eyes" as
"Whip It" and "Candy-O" playing in your car on the way to
school 15 years ago, and each had its own set of
inspirations. In fact, she took time out during her second
set Friday to perform a lot of those oldies — from "Thy Word"
to "The Wallet Song" — without the band. Wish you could have
seen this. Everyone else was singing along, and I could
have used your lyrical coaching.
Then she played another one, "Missing You," from her new
album. Oddly enough, she said she wrote this one for her
own sister who had moved away recently after a lifetime of
living nearby. Sound familiar? Can't say I was completely
dry-eyed when she sang, "Missing you is just a part of
living / Missing you feels like a way of life / I'm living
out the life that I've been given / but I still wish you
were mine." Rascally, young rock critics aren't supposed to
tear up in public. Missing you nearly ruined my
But that's what music is supposed to do, right — break
down those emotional barriers? OK, so maybe everyone
doesn't have the opportunity to write about it to entire
cities, but I can't imagine there are many fans reading me
this morning who haven't had similar experiences with Amy's
— or anyone's — music. Songwriters write deeply personal
songs, and they hand them off to us knowing (or at least
hoping) that we'll share their feelings or apply our own.
It's an essential part of human communication, and I don't
think Amy would be embarrassed by my expression here half
as much as you will be when you read it. Next time I write,
I promise I won't print 170,000 copies of it. See you later
this month, I hope.
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.