By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The last time I saw Ezra Furman, he was in his underwear.
Performing, no less. The mad Evanstonian — one of the most visceral singer-songwriters I've encountered in this city — stepped onto a bare stage during the South by Southwest music festival in 2012 in Austin, Texas, nearly bare-assed, wearing only socks and boxer briefs. The rest of him was just the same — wild eyes, spasmodic moves, an unnerving earnestness.
"I was incredibly tired," Furman recalls. "That probably influenced the decision. Plus, that kind of environment needs a little ridiculousness."
At the time, Furman had just relocated to the Bay Area and self-released a new solo album with a title related to his exodus from the Chicago scene: "The Year of No Returning."
One year down, and he's returned — sort of.
Splitting his time between Chicago and Oakland, Furman has assembled a new Chicago-based band, the Boy-Friends — on the same turf where he and his former and formidable band, the Harpoons, ruled from 2006 until last year — with whom he'll launch a summer tour this weekend from the stage of a classic Chicago summer street festival.
The new backers include Ben "Chewy Bar" Joseph on keyboards and bass, Sam "Grape Crush" Durkes on drums and Jorgen "The Diddler" Jorgensen on bass and guitar.
The occasion for the tour is twofold: "The Year of No Returning" is getting a proper release on July 16 from storied indie label Bar/None, and a brand-new set, "Day of the Dog," recorded with the new band, comes out Sept. 17.
As a fairly rabid fan of his raw songwriting, I'll take it as an auspicious omen that my final interview before leaving the Sun-Times was this typically interesting recent chat with Furman:
Q: Where in the world is Ezra Furman today? And where do you call home now?
Furman: I'm in North Carolina by the beach on a little trek with family and friends. The question of home is a bit more complicated. I mostly live in Oakland, and I spend a lot fo time in Chicago and Evanston, where the band is. ... If you interview a musician in their 20s these days, they're having a harder time answering the question of "Where are you based?" The real answer is, "Well, I drive around a lot ..."
Q: The new band is not armed with any Harpoons, correct?
Furman: Yes, that band is defunct. They're all pals. They're doing responsible and good things. I wouldn't dream of kidnapping them from any of that.
Q: Tell us about the new album.
Furman: "The Year of No Returning" was made with various musicians, but I had to put together a touring band. To my delight, I've been able to put together a really great rock and roll band that I don't want to change. I call them the Boy-Friends. What I'm trying to do: I want to be like Elvis or Buddy Holly or Patti Smith — a rock and roll solo artist. They have bands, really good bands. I don't know why some people go by their name and some go by a band name. Going by my name gives me a certain freedom. A band name can be ... constraining.
Q: Like Chrissie Hynde, who's made great records for years using a variety of players — that she's trapped into calling the Pretenders every time.
Furman: Right. You buy a Paul Simon record, it could be him or a whole mix of stuff, Africans and what-not. That freedom appeals to me.
Q: At that SXSW gig, in your underwear, you said from the stage: "I was supposed to be a wide-eyed sort of singer-songwriter, but I don't feel like that anymore." What do you feel like?
Furman: I was afraid things were getting a little cute with me. I think some people think of me like kind of sunny and young and cute and innocent. They were starting to say, "He's like Jonathan Richman. He's a big sweetheart." I love Johnathan Richman, but I don't think that's how I feel. I don't feel particularly innocent. I don't feel so childlike anymore. Maybe I'm wrong about this. But I was getting that impression from people, and I was starting to play it up over the course of being in the Harpoons. And now, I wanted to make a record that had to do with adult rebellion. I think I got that phrase from Bruce Springsteen, from the idea of "Darkness on the Edge of Town."
Q: In all of my days, I would never describe your music as sunny or innocent.
Furman: Well, I know there's complexity and darkness and mixtures of anger and joy in the music I make, but I worry that the complexity doesn't come through — especially live, with crowds of people happy people on a night out. I hope that phrase doesn't sound condescending. It's just easy to believe that they didn't really hear the kind of messed-up thing I just said. I always wanted to be fun but not fun. I mean, what do you do with a song like "Bloodsucking Whore" [from Ezra Furman & the Harpoons' phenomenal 2011 album "Mysterious Power"]? How sexist is that song? It's complicated. I think that in my underwear at South by Southwest I was trying to remind myself and everyone else that it's complicated.
Q: I watched you play one of your last solo Chicago gigs on one of the Flesh hungry Dog Show bills at the Jackhammer. You were spewing, yes, some very complicated lyrics for an audience that, let's say, wasn't really getting it. It wasn't a listening room.
Furman: It's complicated, getting things across but also leading the party. I went to a Titus Andronicus show — there's a bunch of drunk dudes with drinks in the air, pumping fists and moshing. I was getting batted about. How do you have fun but also listen to the complicated things they're saying. How does the fun of going to a concert mesh with the sickness in you? It just does. Or it doesn't. It usually hangs together somehow. Springsteen, you know — you worry about him. I worry about him just listening to him. Does he still remember the feelings that led him to write "Nebraska"? It's a tense thing to mix in that complication, and when that sickness creeps into rock and roll — that's very interesting to me.
Q: What's new about the new record, "Day of the Dog"?
Furman: "The Year of No Returning" was recorded a year before I formed the Boy-Friends, and to me "Day of the Dog" is a sequel. There's similarity in the title — it's a time of something. This one's the manic side, though — the mania to "Year of No Returning's" depression. That was an introspective record, made in a careful way. It's really rather meticulous. The new record is manic.
Q: What do you mean by "manic"?
Furman: Mostly I mean a musical thing. Trying to get at something like "Maybeline" by Chuck Berry — a sensational moment, a musical thing. It has to do with the tempo and the backbeat and a going for broke. It has a strong theme of messianic hope, of waiting for a time when all bad things will be fixed and all downtrodden people will rise up. That's what the title track is about. There's something in the air that unites these things: rock and roll mania, and the downtrodden or just people who aren't doing well hoping for justice. I think these things are related in the human heart. Rock comes from the blues, which has that thing of the way things are is not the way they're supposed to be and that the broken-hearted people are maybe the secret heroes. That's this album.
EZRA FURMAN & THE BOY-FRIENDS
• 8:30 p.m. June 15
• 6 Corners BBQ Fest @ Irving Park, Cicero and Milwaukee
• (773) 685-9300, 6cornersbbqfest.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Harry Belafonte in recent years has been positively Kanye-esque in his outspokenness.
The 85-year-old singer — a revered icon in American pop music, the King of Calypso, the resonant voice behind the 1956 classic "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)" — has tallied headlines for his frank opinions on matters ranging from U.S. foreign policy to race relations.
In 2002, Belafonte likened Secretary of State Colin Powell to a "house slave" for his acquiescence to the invasion of Iraq. He called President Bush "the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world" during a 2006 meeting with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
Last month during an MSNBC interview, he advocated the jailing of Obama's obstructionist Republican opponents: "The only thing left for Barack Obama to do is to work like a Third World dictator and just put all these guys in jail."
No surprise, perhaps, that Belafonte says he considers himself an activist first.
"I'm an activist who became an entertainer," Belafonte told the Sun-Times. "It's usually the other way around."
Belafonte's legacy as an entertainer, though, is not easy to overshadow. "Calypso," the '56 record that launched an American craze for its namesake music, was the first U.S. LP to sell a million copies. His career since has been intertwined with other pillars of music (his 1962 "Midnight Special" album contains the first-ever recording of a young harmonica player named Bob Dylan) and politics (he campaigned for and worked with President Kennedy).
Belafonte also maintained a relationship with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. — a friendship that began in 1950 and which Belafonte says transformed his life — and he's spending January traveling the country to speak about it.
His free keynote address at 6 p.m. Jan. 28 at Northwestern University's Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Dr. on the campus in Evanston, concludes two weeks of events at the university celebrating King's life and legacy. NU recently made Martin Luther King Day an official university holiday; Jan. 21 was its first.
Last week, Belafonte spoke with the Sun-Times about his activism, his music and his fond memories of King.
Q: You're speaking about Dr. King at a number of universities and events this month. How did this tour come about now?
Belafonte: For the last many years, each time Dr. King's birthday comes up or the anniversary of his death, there's always a call by institutions and individuals to speak on the subject. Depending on the state of the union, I go and I speak and make commentary on what he might have observed and said if he'd been around today.
Q: That's a tall order, speculating on the observations of someone who's not around. How do you go about it?
Belafonte: What I find satisfying about the process is the getting into a social discourse on the state of our being universally. When you speak on what Dr. King might have said, it gives you a lot of latitude of putting propositions out of your own voice and opinion. It may carry a response that would be challenging to your point of view, but if you say it in the name of what Dr. King might have said people pause a little longer before giving you a rebuttal because they respect what he said and what he did. It has a little more nuance than if you say something yourself, and under that umbrella you can make a lot of observations about the social condition and bring up a lot of things for discussion.
Q: Where has King's legacy succeeded?
Belafonte: The real beauty and power of what the [Civil Rights] movement achieved — when you look back at the cunning and brutality and smarts and resources poured into trying to roll back the clock and end affirmative action and women's rights and so many things — is that the opposition has miserably failed. Including trying to stop Obama getting re-elected. There's the real tribute to what King achieved. Not from what we've taken but in stopping the opposition from defeating it.
Q: King is such a mythic figure. Tell me something sensory, something human about him.
Belafonte: What endeared him to me was the way in which he wrenched over the decisions he had to make. To watch him unable to sleep, develop all kinds of psychological disorders. He had a tic that plagued him constantly. It wasn't a stutter. It was a nervous disorder that gave him kind of a — he couldn't complete a sentence without a gasp for air. One day he seemed to no longer have that affliction.
Q: What happened?
Belafonte: I hosted the Johnny Carson show in February 1968 for a week. ... Dr. King was a guest, and he showed up late, turned up just as we'd gone on the air. He came on, and I asked him what happened. He said he'd gotten here and told the cab driver to hurry to the studio. He said, 'This guy took me on a Wild West ride.' He's saying this to the audience, 'I had to hang on for dear life, and when he stopped for a light I said, "Young man, I'd rather be considered a Martin Luther King late than the late Martin Luther King. Slow down." I said, 'On that subject, what do you think about death.' He gave an answer that's since been used a thousand times in looking back on his legacy. But I said, 'What happened to the tic?' I didn't say it on the air. He said, 'I made my peace with death.' It was a subliminal display of a tremendous anxiety, not so much about death as it affected him but when he made a decision his first consideration was that there could be violence and someone could lose their life, and I've led people into this conflict and do I have this right? [King was assassinated weeks later, April 4, 1968.]
Q: The last time I heard "Day O" it was a sample in Lil Wayne's "6 Foot, 7 Foot." What's your opinion of your catalog getting sampled?
Belafonte: I love it. I'm not a protectionist. I was talking to [blues legend] Brownie McGhee once about purism in folk music. He said all songs are folk songs. He said, 'Harry, the first song ever sung by a human being was "Ugh."' You know, the Neanderthals around the campfire trying to keep warm, and everything since 'Ugh' has been a distortion of that. Anybody can take my song. They can glady have it, because it was never my song.
Q: Right, your version was based on several that came before.
Belafonte: "Day-O" has a long history. Who knows where it came from. By the time it came to me it was full-blown. I had a happy time singing it.
Drive, he said: Noel Gallagher not flying as high after Oasis but says he's much happier on his own
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
My first post-Oasis earful came last year from Liam Gallagher as he toured Beady Eye, a band comprised of three-fourths of Oasis minus singer Liam's guitarist brother Noel.
After 18 years together in Oasis, the Gallagher brothers had topped the charts ("Wonderwall," "Champagne Supernova") and altered the course of rock and roll. But they were 18 contentious years. The Gallaghers fought constantly, and at the Rock en Seine festival in Paris in 2009 another backstage dust-up turned out to be their last. Noel stormed out. Oasis was over.
Inevitable solo projects followed. Liam and the others came and went as Beady Eye. "We're not lacking anything," he assured me. (Except a hit.)
Noel, now 45, stalled a while, then produced a solo album and now a lengthy tour under the moniker Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds. The latter debut went platinum in England but hasn't fared as well in the States.
Which may explain why Noel — once one of the biggest rock stars in the world — this weekend not only shares a double bill with the middling band Snow Patrol but shares it at a casino out in Chicago's hinterlands.
The second earful — much funnier, by the way — came from Noel a few weeks ago. Adding to our conversation, a curious headline had appeared days earlier in the British music mag NME: "Liam Gallagher 'would reform Oasis tomorrow.'" The article claimed everybody wanted the reunion and only Noel stood in its way.
Judging by Noel's quip-tastic banter — which ranged from caring to not caring, from reuniting and not reuniting, even from Morrissey to Mitt Romney — fans shouldn't hold their breath.
Question: How is touring now different from touring with the Oasis juggernaut? A relief in some way, I'm guessing?
Noel Gallagher: Well, it's way, way, way more fulfilling and enjoyable than touring with Oasis. Oasis was all about the struggle and whether we'd do the show and whether the singer was going to turn up. In another way, though, this is harder for me personally because I've got to carry it all. I've got to bang on it from 9 every night. ... But the money's still good. Basically, that's what it really all boils down to.
Q: You were the guitarist in Oasis, not often up front at the mike. What have you learned about becoming a front man?
NG: You know the [Maroon 5] song "Moves Like Jagger"? I don't have them. I have moves like Wyman. I didn't know what to expect when I first stepped up front. I thought, well, this'll be weird for people. I haven't really learned anything, but it's reinforced my belief that what I always thought is true: It's all about the songs. The songs are the show. Groups are about the razzmatazz, but when you go see a solo artist like Neil Young or Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney or Bowie or me, you know, you're there to hear the songs. If you do that, that's it. Unless, you know, you're Madonna or Lady Gaga, but who gives a f—- about that? You don't go to see Neil Young dance.
Q: Now that you've put that in mind, I'd really like to see Neil Young dance.
NG: [Laughs] Nah. He's crap on his feet.
Q: After your experience in Oasis, how did you go about selecting players for High Flying Birds?
NG: I didn't put a band together at first. The record is all me. Next time, I'd like the band to play on the record. But my criteria were two things: You've gotta be on time, and don't be a f—-ing smart ass. That's it. Obviously, you've got to be able to play. But don't be a dick, and don't keep me waiting.
Q: I've heard you talk about Oasis naturally falling into what you call "the trap of stadium rock." Why is that inevitable at a certain level?
NG: You get to the point of selling out stadiums, and that's how your success is measured, subconsciously by you and everybody else. So you want to stay there, you know what I mean? People come to see you in stadiums, they want stadium rock. There's nowhere left for you to go. So you're expected to try and keep that going. It's f—-ing amazing, amazing, but don't tell me the next Green Day album sounds different than the last three, not that anybody gives a f—-. It was the same with Oasis. You start a rock band and the goal is to play stadiums. You get there, and you're stuck there. Any movement from that point is considered a failure. You don't get to say, "We need to f—- this off and go back to playing clubs," because you just can't. It's a trap — an enjoyable one, but it puts an unnecessary ceiling on creativity.
Q: I interviewed Liam last year, and I asked him what the backstage fight in 2009 was about. He said, "You'd have to ask Noel." So I'm asking: what was it about?
NG: Let's see if I can recall. He'd not turned up for the previous gig, [the V Festival] in England. He caught a lot of flak in the press over it — we all did, but he got most of it. He's a little bit like Hitler, Liam. Hitler thought there was a world conspiracy against the Germans, and Liam thinks there's a world conspiracy against him, perpetrated by me through the press.
Q: But you and Liam fought all the time. What made that fight the clincher for the band?
NG: It was just the straw that broke the camel's back. What makes an alcoholic give up drink after years of drinking? Going to the festival site that day, I had no intention of leaving the group. I was thinking about the next Oasis record. But after that, you know, I said f—- this. I didn't particularly want to go solo. But I just said f—- it. That's it, f—- it. A healthy dose of f—- it every now and then is good. It forces you into things you maybe should have done in the first place. Was it that bad? No. Had there been worse fights? Yeah.
Q: Have there been any moments of regret?
NG: No, and I don't mean that in a callous way. But, no. There was a huge fracas in the dressing room, sh— was smashed up. I went and sat in my car outside. The driver had the engine running. A big scene was going on inside. I sat there for what must have been a minute or two, but it felt like a lifetime. In that space of time, everything that had happened and was going to happen was flashing before my eyes. I made the decision. If I told the driver to drive, then it was finished. All the people in the field will go on. It'll cost us millions. Or I could sit here, calm down, and do the gig. It'll be f—-ing awful. Again, I thought, f—- it, and I said, "Drive." Once I'd said it, at no point did I have any regrets. I didn't leave to go solo. I didn't leave for anything other than to be happy. I made a record, got married, got a cat, had a baby. Now here I am three years later, and I really don't think about it at all. I don't think about what I'm doing now in relation to Oasis. I don't think that was great and this is sh—. I'm just doing it, playing for people who paid to come and see me. It's great.
Q: You may not think about it, but Liam might. You saw the NME story this week?
NG: Yeah, well, unfortunately in the two years after I left the band, everyone else's tune was very different. They were quite bullish about it. All the people in Beady Eye were saying, "Oasis ran its course, we're glad we're out of it, we're more creative now." OK, fine, if that's the way they feel. But don't come to me in three years when your sh— has well and truly gone down the toilet. I've seen Liam, Gem [Archer] and Chris [Shamrock] since then, and when I've seen them [the idea of a reunion] has never been mentioned.
Q: Is anyone besides journalists like me asking you about this?
NG: Nobody gives a sh—. I do realize that the only way to get people to stop asking me about it is to do it. But I'm stubborn. If it's the last thing I do, I won't do it. To re-form it, how could it be as good? People say they want it to happen because they're younger and they missed us. Tough sh—. I've never seen the Sex Pistols or the Beatles. I still haven't seen Bob Dylan, thank God.
Q: Morrissey's getting the same onslaught now about reuniting the Smiths.
NG: Exactly. I've seen them twice, and it was f—-ing great. You weren't around at the time? Tough. I've met Oasis fans who agree with me. It ran its course, we shouldn't revisit it. But we live in a strange world now where all people want is nostalgia. It's all they want. I don't get it.
Q: So tell me about something new. Tell me about your collaboration with Amorphous Androgynous (the Future Sound of London).
NG: That's gone. We've canned that. I thought it was finished, but then I didn't like it. It needed remixing, and I don't have the time to devote to it. I've been on the road 15 months and, really, the moment has passed. I don't want to put out a record next year. (a) I don't have the energy, and (b) I'll get divorced. I don't want to get divorced. But I'll revisit those songs eventually, just as a thing it's not going to happen. I feel bad for the guys in AA who spent a lot of time working on it. But f—- it, I get to do what I want.
Q: So what's your future look like then?
NG: I'm going to try and fake my own retirement and see how it goes. I've tried disappearing, but I've got too big a nose to disappear, really. I always get recognized, even if I dress like an Eskimo. I'm not going to do anything. Watch a lot of TV. What I might do is hope against hope that that guy beats Obama in the election.
Q: Beg pardon?
NG: We don't get enough laughs out of Obama. We liked George Bush. He was funny as f—-. The comedy value would be great with Romney. Not for you guys, though.
SNOW PATROL WITH NOEL GALLAGHER
• 7:30 p.m. Nov. 3
• The Venue at Horseshoe Casino, 777 Casino Center Drive in Hammond, Ind.
• Tickets: $35-$140; (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
You hear about John Lydon, but you think Johnny Rotten.
Who could blame you? In their few short years together in the late 1970s, Rotten's squawking snarl made an indelible cultural impression as leader of British punk band the Sex Pistols. The quartet crashed music's barricades and made a deep enough impact on modern music to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
But at the end of an ill-fated U.S. tour in 1978, the band disbanded. John Lydon was left stranded here in America, angry (personally and professionally) and hungry (literally and artistically).
His next project, Public Image Ltd., would have more staying power, lasting 15 years and proving influential in a less blatant but deeper and perhaps more meaningful way. The Pistols, sure, fired up a bunch of punk wannabes — many of whom Lydon still despises for their lack of originality (read on) — but PiL's innovative weave of dub beats, pop production and the angry energy of Lydon's vocals threaded into bands from U2 to Nine Inch Nails.
Lydon, 56, in our recent conversation with the California resident during a visit to London, admitted his heart wasn't ever fully committed to the Pistols — a band manufactured by Malcolm McLaren, a hipster clothier, with intentions largely as cynical and commercial as any contemporary boy band — at least beyond their initial run. There was no pining for the band's return, even though they re-formed for tours five times.
PiL is very much his drug of choice. Lydon managed to pay off old record company debts with money from a series of reunion shows in 2009 in the UK, as well as appearing in a much-mocked commercial for butter, and bring the band back this year with a lineup now featuring guitarist Lu Edmonds, bassist Scott Firth and drummer Bruce Smith. Their new album is plainly titled "This Is PiL."
"I love PiL," he says. "It's the heart and soul of me. When the Pistols fell apart, I wanted to do something completely honest and open and sharing and generous for the world."
His tone is soft, cooing, positively wistful. Lydon isn't really that Rotten. He's quick-tempered and a live-wire on TV chat shows, no doubt, but at heart he's a pussycat — a devoted husband of 30 years and a loyal father figure (taking time out to help raise the children of Nora Forster's daughter, Ari Up, herself the lead singer of a band, the Slits, before her death in 2010).
"I don't make commitments lightly," he purrs, about his marriage to Forster. "I picked the right woman, and she picked the right man."
Precious, no? But have no fear, Lydon's still as mouthy as ever, and during our chat he sounded off on numerous topics while celebrating the welcome return of his dear PiL:
On punk's unoriginality: "Punk has to learn to progress and stop imitating itself. That's a direct dig at punk bands out there at the moment, trying to live in our shadow. They don't understand. They keep doing this same bit over and over. I don't need whippersnappers to tell us what's what — again. I know the price of cheese."
On the Occupy Wall Street movement: "I love the Occupy thing. It was legalist, but what it did was passive resistance, like one of my old political heros, Gandhi. It raised questions, made you think things. The climate in the news shows was one of sarcasm. That's unfortunate. There's much to consider, and they were raising the questions that needed asking. ... No, I didn't join them. I'm not one for the tents. Johnny's literally not a happy camper."
On Russian punk band Pussy Riot: "Well, it got very dangerous when Madonna got involved. That could have upped the ante on their sentencing. One thing the Russian government wasn't prepared to listen to was a spoiled pop star ranting at them. You've got to be careful supporting these issues. She should put her crucifix away and put her knickers back on. ... But really, what they did wasn't very smart. It's no good running into a church screaming and shouting. It's pointless, really. I know what I'm talking about. I was discussed in Parliament under the Treason Act [for the Pistols' recording of 'God Save the Queen'], which carries the death penalty."
On the future of the Sex Pistols: "I can't write for them. I love them as friends and all, but I just can't go back to that space in time and create anything new. As a band, we never progressed beyond that period. I was just talking last night with [drummer] Paul Cook; we're really good friends. We just don't feel the need to do that ever again. ... We're all up to different things now. No plans to trot the boards with the boys."
On recording the new PiL album live: "We've all been around long enough to know how to use a studio properly. One thing we don't ever want to get caught with is studio trickery. If we can't play songs in somewhat of a live format, then we shouldn't waste time in recording them. ... These tracks proved well worth the decade wait, arguing with record labels who wouldn't let me out of their contracts."
On playing new shows: "We have to get out and play live. That's the bread and butter of what PiL is. We view ourselves as a live band, and we're trying to bring back the concept of live music. How much longer can you watch Las Vegas performers jump up and down with disco dancers? I've had enough. There's no humanity in it — no sharing, no give, no take, just money. It's become very ugly. 'American Idol' is part of this nonsense of removing you from your humanity. I don't want to be part of the sh— storm."
PUBLIC IMAGE LTD.
• 9 p.m. Oct. 21
• House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn
• Tickets, $37.50; (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Earl Klugh is a jazz guitarist — one of the greatest, no doubt, with a sweet, signature style on the nylon-stringed acoustic guitar — but don't think less of him just because his initial inspiration to the craft was a TV Western.
"The first exposure I had to the guitar really was on 'Bonanza,'" Klugh told the Sun-Times. "They always had a guitar by the fire, you know, and it was a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. I would look at it, and it wasn't like any of the guitars you'd see on, I don't know, 'American Bandstand' or something, or like Chuck Berry. That stuff was all great, but once I started playing a nylon-stringed guitar, there was no going back for me."
Well, he had some second thoughts.
"We had a stage band [in high school], and back then there wasn't any great pickup system. What I had was this little microphone you'd put on your guitar with a rubber band over it. You could turn the volume up, but the cavity of the guitar would feed back," he said. "It was primitive and, boy, I got teased a lot for that. ... But I look back now and, well, I showed 'em!"
More than 30 acclaimed albums (23 of them in the top 10 of Billboard's jazz chart, five at No. 1) and 12 Grammy nominations (the most recent for 2008's "The Spice of Life") — yes, he showed 'em.
Klugh took a break during a vacation stop on the South Carolina coast to talk to us about Crossroads, collaborations and, uh, "Hee Haw":
Q: The last time you were in Chicago was for Eric Clapton's 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival, right?
Earl Klugh: Oh yeah. There was a show.
Q: I love that performance, because here's a blues and rock festival, you're surrounded by Eric and Buddy [Guy] and all these plugged in guys, and you come out with your acoustic guitar and play "Angelina" just as delicately as you please. Was that bill daunting in any way?
EK: I've had pretty good success with kind of integrating the acoustic stuff into places like that. I was certainly different than the other players there. I do what I do. It went over well. But when you're a guy like me backing up to ZZ Top, yes, it's kind of intimidating.
Q: You came up in the '60s. Why did the classical guitar speak to you instead of all those shiny new electrics?
EK: When I first started playing guitar was right at the folk music craze — Peter, Paul & Mary, that type of thing. So acoustics were common, though not as much in jazz. The nylon-string just stuck all the way for me. It just felt like my instrument. When I tried to play a steel-stringed or electric guitar, I was already so far into the other it never occurred to me to switch.
Q: Is it true you were on [country-themed variety TV show] "Hee Haw," and why isn't this on YouTube?
EK: [Laughs] Me and Chet Atkins together, yeah. We were in the cornfield and everything. ... Chet was my idol. I love Chet Atkins. That was our first television appearance together, actually. I love Chet from the perspective of playing finger-style, the way he was able to play the bass and the chords. Once I saw him, it changed my life completely. I knew I wanted to play guitar like Chet Atkins. Then I was fortunate to play with him many times.
Q: What was it about Chet Atkins that appealed to so many players beyond his basic country classification?
EK: He was really a pioneer with the instrument. He was very much a tinkerer. He had a workshop, had all types of electric stuff. He'd do stuff like, one time he had his regular Gretsch guitar and he put a low D string, lower than the [bottom] E, added to it so that when he'd play it sounded like he was carrying the bass tones the whole time. He did several records with that.
Q: Sounds like something Les Paul would toy with.
EK: Very much like Les Paul. He loved to create different sounds and was always trying to come up with something new and fresh that would tickle his ear.
Q: You first connected with another guitar great, George Benson. How'd you meet, and what cemented the bond between you?
EK: Growing up in Detroit, we had a jazz club, Baker's Keyboard Lounge. In its heyday, everybody who played jazz, literally everybody, played at that club. I really got the chance to meet a lot of the great musicians. George was just going into his career in a big way, and he played Baker's five, six, seven times before he really broke big. We got to talking, and he was fascinated by my acoustic guitar. He said, "You're trying to play jazz on that nylon-string guitar!" He said, "Boy, you gotta keep doing that. That's gonna set you apart from everybody else."
Q: I've always thought you two had a lot in common stylistically, as if sometimes the only difference between you is who's usually plugged in and who's not.
EK: I learned a lot from him, it's true. What I mostly learned from him is, you know, he's a workaholic. When I first went on the road with him, we did a two-month tour. We went to breakfast one night after the show, and we're headed back to the room and I was saying, "I gotta go get some rest." The next day, the bass player, Roland Wilson, is coming out of his room, and he says, "Man, Earl, you and me are gonna have to get on it." I said, "What do you mean?" He says, "You know what George did after going back to his room last night? He started practicing. He practiced from 2:30 in the morning till 5." And this is after playing a show, you know. Roland said, "We gotta do that, too!" That's a work ethic there.
Q: Which I'm guessing you still draw upon in your manic schedule as writer, performer, arranger, recording artist, bandleader, collaborator and event organizer [the semi-annual Weekend of Jazz concert festivals]?
EK: I work real hard and it's a lot, but it's really great fun. I enjoy doing solo shows, but I enjoy playing with the band, as well. I feel very lucky.
Q: You're 59, correct?
EK: Yes, and ooh that came too soon! [Laughs]
Q: If I may: Fingers and joints don't exactly get looser with age. How do you keep those hands nimble?
EK: By taking care of the rest of my body. I go to the gym, I stay physically active. If I don't I'll really end up in a knot. My hands are still flexible. My thumb cracks, though. I can hear it now on my records. Like, there'll be a solo part in a song, and my thumb will crack.
Q: It's just extra percussion.
EK: [Laughs] Yeah, but that's a new phenomenon I really hope goes away.
Q: "The Spice of Life" is four years on now. Any new recordings coming?
EK: I'm working on a new CD now. It's going to be kind of interesting — a lot fo solo playing, but a few duets with some of my favorite players. I'm trying to track George down. Vince Gill seems to be interested. After that, I'll have another band and orchestra record before the end of the coming year.
• 8 p.m. Oct. 6
• Old Town School of Folk Music, Maurer Concert Hall, 4544 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $30-$34; (773) 728-6000; oldtownschool.org
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
One of my all-time favorite concerts was a Dirty Three show, an opening slot for Beck in 1996 in an Oklahoma ballroom. The trio's instrumental rock is haunting enough on record, and in concert the players crackle with intensity.
This particular night violinist Warren Ellis (pictured above, left) sawed at his fiddle like a troll possessed, which isn't unusual. But he kept ... spitting, and straight upward. Lost in concentration, he would occasionally snort, hack and fire off a gob of goo at the low ceiling directly above him. His expulsions collected and collected — and drooped and sagged — until the inevitable occurred.
"That was the show when the loogie fell on my head? Yeah," Ellis remembers, impressively. "That was the only applause I got all night."
Unknown and from Australia, Dirty Three had just broken through with their third album, "Horse Stories," hailed in critics polls and voted by Rolling Stone as one of the top three albums of '96. Since then, Dirty Three has recorded five more albums of dense, emotional instrumental rock — including this year's "Toward the Low Sun" — and Ellis has joined the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, bands led by fellow Aussie Nick Cave, and worked with him on film scores.
Before launching the new tour, Ellis chatted with the Sun-Times from his Paris home about his hard-driving creative process, his position as a default front man and his new soundtrack with Cave for the upcoming film "Lawless," featuring Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees), Emmylou Harris and 85-year-old bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley singing songs by the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, Townes Van Zandt and more.
Q: You go into a zone when you perform live. What's happening?
A: I don't know any other way. I've always been like that. When I first started playing, there was an addictive thing about it. It's very much like taking drugs in that you get this kick from it. You don't get it every time, but when you get it you want it again. Nothing else gives me that.
Q: What happens when that doesn't happen?
A: It's terrifying. I get nervous about a bunch of stuff, but the two constant things are going into the studio and thinking, "Is this the day it stops?" and going on stage and it all goes horribly wrong. There are moments when it crumbles and I realize I'm just a dick with a violin. I feel healthy that this happens. It helps me keep my place in the scheme of things.
Q: That's a tough form of self-motivation.
A: It makes me stretch further. The next record I do, I always want to be the best thing I've ever done. I'm still waiting for the day I feel I've done something really, really great. That there's still a part of the experience that's mysterious is what's really attractive about it. Like doing a film score or trying to play a four-string guitar, or a few years ago I put the fiddle down and tried working with things I had no idea how to approach. It renews my interest in the whole thing.
Q: Do you consider yourself a front man?
A: I never have. Usually a singer is, by default, the front guy. That's how bands work. If I'm alluded to as the front guy, it's 'cause I'm closer to the front. But we've never thought about this band in that respect. It's always about the way the three of can go together — the sum of its parts as opposed to anything else. Without any one of us, this would cease to exist. That's always been the really strong attraction of the band.
Q: What — musically more than logistically — made "Horse Stories" such a breakout record for Dirty Three?
A: I don't know. That album was recorded under pretty bad conditions. I was a real mess on every level. The three of us were at war with each other, too. The record was shelved, but we played it for a couple of people who said, "You should put this out, there's really something here." ... I guess there's something quite desperate about it, pretty and desperate. It feels like you're privy to something, like you're sitting in a room with us. It's certainly a very charged album.
Q: The new record, "Toward the Low Sun," had its own difficulty in getting under way. You had writer's block?
A: We kept coming up with material, but it felt like we knew it, knew what was going on with it; it felt familiar. But every time we played live, something great happened. We realized we needed to get the live show into the new material, to give the music space to move around like in concert, open it up to how we react to each other on stage. That was the key. I'd started wondering if we'd ever make another record, thought maybe we'd said as much as we could. ... I was in a creative stalemate. It's a thing that happens to anybody no matter what you're doing. I don't want it to feel easy. I want to surprise myself.
Q: What was the spark that ignited between you and Nick Cave?
A: I don't know. We met in the '90s and I played on a record or two. We push each other. For the time being, it's a relationship that's very creative and productive.
Q: On the "Lawless" soundtrack, you've got some interesting versions of the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat." How'd those come about?
A: That was a joy to be a part of. Getting Ralph Stanley to throw his voice on our versions of these, it just sounded so insane. And it wasn't easy. We couldn't get Ralph to sing in 4/4, and he wouldn't sing in key. But he came out with these amazing versions. The real thing was when we brought Lou Reed into the studio and played them for him. His reaction was extraordinary. He really welled up. He couldn't believe it. Ralph took the song back to a place where it had come from. It was amazing. It certainly feels like one of the things that resonates the most historically that I've been involved in.
with the Cairo Gang
• 9 p.m. Sept. 26
• Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $18; (773) 525-2508; lincolnhallchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
That singer-guitarist George Benson is one of the most successful crossover artists of all time can be seen not only in the chart and sales data but in the caliber of fellow musicians who acclaim him. Fellow jazzbos like Herbie Hancock and Earl Klugh — you'd expect them to sing his praises, which both have done in interviews as recently as the last few months. But even rocker Lenny Kravitz gushed in a recent conversation: "Benson, please! He's unbelieeeeeeeevable! Have you heard 'The Other Side of Abbey Road'?"
Benson's come a long way since that 1970 album, a dreamy set of Beatles jazz translations — but not too far.
He began as a sought-after session guitarist in the early '60s, playing alongside rising luminaries like Hancock and Miles Davis, and by the late '70s he was singing, too, logging hits on the jazz charts, R&B charts and pop charts ("Breezin'," "Give Me the Night" and "On Broadway," respectively).
Today, he's still singing but back to spotlighting his first love, the subject of his latest album, "Guitar Man."
"'Guitar Man,' yeah, that's what I am," Benson chuckles during an interview from his home outside Phoenix. "This one's got a good selection of songs, not really connected to each other but just telling one story — about the guitar. It was the obvious title after hearing what we got. You know, I got a great band together, and we tried to pick songs we thought we could do well, things the public will believe. People have heard me do so many things, I've just got to find things that speak to my guitar."
Recorded with plenty of space for improvisation, "Guitar Man" features pop standards from various eras ("Paper Moon," "Since I Fell for You" and an intriguing "Danny Boy," as well as "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "My Cherie Amour" and the lightest "Tequila" you've ever heard). The focus is definitely on the fingers.
" 'Paper Moon' — I mean, c'mon, man!" Benson says. "I was supposed to sing it. I taught the guys, and I played it. We heard it back, and I thought, man, it doesn't need any vocals. It captures that '40s mood, the vibe I heard under Nat King Cole. That was a good era. Nat played it very simple, but he was quite sophisticated in his approach."
Even before he began recording as a player, a very young Benson began his showbiz career as a singer: Little Georgie Benson, age 9.
"I wasn't a guitar player till many years later," Benson recalls. "Guitar gigs were everywhere in the '50s, and I started diddling around so I could keep working. Playing honky-tonk, simple stuff. I took a few gigs with an organ band that put me out front. I was 19 and touring with Brother Jack McDuff. People would see me and shout, 'Sing something, Little Georgie!' Jack did not like singers, period. But by the time I left his band, I was a bona fide guitar player."
By 1970, Benson was the No. 1 jazz guitarist in America.
"But I wasn't making any money to prove I was No. 1 anything. I wasn't getting ahead. I was existing," Benson says. "So I started dabbling back into vocals. The club owners loved it. If I did one vocal in the first set, the house wouldn't change over; people would stay for the second set. So I started doing that, and one day [producer] Tommy LiPuma came to me and said, 'George, I heard you sing five years ago, and I've never understood why they don't use your voice.' I told my manager: 'That's my next producer.'"
After signing to Warner Bros. in 1976, the LiPuma-produced "Breezin'" album hit the Top 10 on the strength of Benson singing a ballad, Leon Russell's "This Masquerade." A surprise hit, Benson kept trotting out his silky smooth tenor, scoring more hits from the Quincy Jones-produced "Give Me the Night" two years later. The album sold 5 million copies.
In between, Benson sang a song for a 1977 film about boxer Muhammad Ali. "The Greatest Love of All" reached No. 2. Barely a decade later, a new singer named Whitney Houston would take the song to No. 1.
"I met her just before she recorded it," Benson says. "I met her on the street near the Empire State Bulding. She got her hair done at the same place I took my boys. She saw me on the sidewalk and fell backwards, saying, 'You're one of my favorite artists! I'm recording that song!' One day I heard it on the radio and said, 'I wonder if it's that kid.' Sure enough."
Benson's band in Chicago will include local native Oscar Seaton, an alumnus of Ramsey Lewis' pop-jazz trio in the '60s.
with Boney James
• 7:30 p.m. March 23
• Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
• Tickets, $39.50-$250; (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
It's complicated, but it's all right.
Getting the sprawling musical family that is Poi Dog Pondering together for a reunion weekend is a Herculean task. Frank Orrall, the band's pater familias and grand poobah, says the time is right.
"It's the 25th anniversary of the band," he says. Then he starts worrying me. "It just feels like the time to do it," he adds. "People are having kids, their work or other projects are taking them in different directions, they're going through different things in life. It seemed like an important time to document who we are while everyone is still here. It's getting harder to go out on the road. People have commitments."
This isn't a swan song, is it?
"No, we're still totally vitally strong and present as a band. But we don't move like the gypsies we once were. We just need to sit for a musical portrait while we can."
So Friday and Saturday the band reassembles for two reunions — the band's Austin lineup (1987-1992) on Dec. 2 and various incarnations of its Chicago existence (1993-present) on Dec. 3. The shows will be recorded and filmed for CD and DVD.
Austin-era bassist Bruce Hughes agrees about now being the right time for this reunion.
"Everybody is still extremely active in music," he says. "It's not like it was a little blip in college rock and now we're a bunch of accountants, paunchy and dejected, saying, "Hey we should get the band back together again."
The members from Austin have been rehearsing — they haven't played together in 18 years — and getting nostalgic.
"People are losing weight, growing mullets back out," violinist Susan Voelz says. "I was gonna get a perm."
We spoke with four members from throughout the band's lifespan for this brief oral history of how the band gelled in Austin and eventually transported to and transformed itself in Chicago:
Poi Dog Pondering originally came together in 1986 as a small nucleus of buskers and film enthusiasts in Honolulu, including Orrall, singer-songwriter Abra Moore, guitarist Ted Cho and drummer Sean Coffey.
Frank Orrall (singer): We started meeting in Hawaii and traveling, spending a year going across the mainland in sleeping bags, busking our way from Los Angeles to New York. That was the original gypsy creed of the band. ... The dance thing that came out in our music in Chicago — that was something always in me, even back in Hawaii. I cut my teeth in Hawaii going to these two clubs, one of which was a gay disco that kicked in at one in the morning. But punk and new wave bands played before that and would hang out. So there was this big mixture of new wave and dance music, and even in Austin that started coming back out, especially later. You can hear it in "Get Me On" and "Lackluster," on the same record with some full-on Hawaiian sounds.
Deep in the heart
As the band traveled the mainland, they started to stick — musically and physically — in Austin, Texas. A few local players were attracted to their spirit and sound.
Bruce Hughes (Austin-era bassist): The Austin origin story verges on mythology. I know I saw Frank and Abra and Sean come through and play. The way I remember it: At the time, I was hanging with a bunch of musicians that included Alejandro Escovedo, hanging out on Avenue D [near the Univ. of Texas campus], making barbecue and playing music. Ronnie Lane of the Small Faces had moved to town. He was sick with multiple sclerosis and wanted to get away from L.A.. Alejandro put a band together to help Ronnie play music and got me involved. Susan Voelz, too — I already knew her from a band we were in together with Arthur Brown. The Ronnie Lane band was the Seven Samurai, and one night at the Continental Club this little band opened up for us.
Susan Voelz (violinist): It was a Tuesday at the Continental Club. It was raining. I didn't even dress up. I just wandered over and played the gig. But that was a transformative show. I was playing with good musicians, plus Poi Dog — they were coming through and I happened to see their show, and I remember meeting Frank that night.
Hughes: They had a little wooden marimba and acoustic guitar and a snare with brushes, and accordion and penny whistle — Frank, Abra and Sean. I remember listening to them and seeing all this joy on stage. I thought, "I love these guys! It looks like so much fun!" They had so much spirit and joy and freedom. I ended up meeting Frank through another friend of mine, and we kept in touch.
Voelz: Later, they called and said, "Come play violin!" ... I hadn't intended to join the band. They were very open in the studio, and I liked that. They invited me to play live with them at the Texas Union ballroom. I walk in, and it's already this big Poi Dog show, lots of energy and enthusiasm in the room. I was like, "Oh, that's what this is about." I liked the fire.
Hughes: That fall — I think, 1987 — Frank called and said, "Hey, I'm out in Oakland, and me and Abra want to start putting together demos for a record. Come help me." I caught a ride with Frank's girlfriend, and we spent several days in this cold, warehouse space cooking food and making music, and we had a residency in the [Mission] district. I came home for the holidays and convinced Frank to come down to Austin. Half of Poi Dog was already here, and San Francisco was so expensive. "Just come to Austin," I said.
Orrall: I said, "OK, let's go to Austin and track this record." I meant to stay there a month and I stayed four years. Austin has a nice lifestyle, a strong self-identity. People are proud to be from Austin. In that period, also, there was a real spirit of collaboration, not just among Austin musicians but every kind of art. That movie "Slacker" [Richard Linklater's classic, in which Orrall appears for one brief, hapless segment] is all about that — that thing made by everyone contributing.
Poi Dog Pondering's self-titled debut appeared in 1989 on the independent Texas Hotel label.
Hughes: We finished the record, and we were still busking on campus. We slowly set up shows at clubs and on campus and around, close to the university youth culture. More songs were added, more fans were added, more excitement. Soon there were seven, eight, nine, 10 people on stage. It definitely gelled and found the nutrients it needed.
Voelz: Part of it, I think, is that the camaraderie in the band is real, was from the beginning in Austin. It's ridiculous — we really do like each other. We enjoy each other. I enjoy when Ted or Max hits high notes, or when Dag plays something I've never heard before. It's a hurricane, or an ocean. We want to get into that realm. It's big. I never know where everything's going, but I follow it.
The debut album includes the song "Aloha, Honolulu," written by Hughes, who was not part of the band's Hawaiian beginnings.
Hughes: My family were musical. My grandfather was a Dixieland cornet player from Chicago. I grew up listening to a lot of music from the '30s and '40s, so it wasn't foreign to me, that Hawaiian style of music. Not traditional, of course, but that Hawaiian style — Bing Crosby, etc. I developed a deep love for it, and after I got to know Frank and his friends from Hawaii I wrote that song in L.A. as we were getting ready to go to Hawaii, my first trip. It was my way of saying, "Hey, welcome me."
PDP released two more albums in a contentious relationship with Columbia Records — 1990's "Wishing Like a Mountain, Thinking Like the Sea" and 1992's "Volo Volo."
North to Chicago
Restless spirits all, the band began contemplating a move north. Maybe New York? Maybe Chicago? Only three core members make the move: Orrall, Voelz and multi-instrumentalist Dave Max Crawford.
Orrall: I enjoyed Austin, but I didn't plan on living there. I really had a strong interest in urban music and dance that wasn't in the forefront in Austin, or even happening at all. I wanted to live in a bigger city, either Chicago or New York. I planned to go to New York, but I had a lot of friends in Chicago so I stopped to visit on the way. I ended up staying, and it was the totally right choice.
Voelz: I was tired of the heat and really missed the snow. I grew up in Wisconsin. And I wasn't ready to be done with Poi. It was musically rich for me. Right away, we met really great players and went into this whole other dimension.
Hughes: Family ties — I had a lot of reasons to stay in Austin. ... One of the reasons the band moved there was because we had so many fans there already. The groove thing had already started happening in Poi Dog, and Chicago picked up on it immediately and embraced it like no one else.
PDP began picking up new players to round out the now Chicago-based collective.
Dag Juhlin (Chicago-era guitarist): I had been working the door at Lounge Ax back in the late '80s-early '90s, so I'd seen Poi Dog and the rather respectable hysteria they inspired in town. Long lines, multi-night stands, etc. ... Frank, Dave Max and I were already working together at Milly's Orchid Show to back up noted chanteuse Syd Straw, and they very casually asked me if I wanted to be part of their first Lounge Ax show. I said yes. The shows went on for months, and there was always a rotating cast of players, but I kept on getting invited back. Somewhere along the line, Frank and Dave Max had decided to put together a new Poi Dog made of Chicago players.
Into the groove
In Chicago, in the early-1990s, house music was literally booming. Orrall began steering the band in that direction. PDP's next album, 1995's "Pomegranate," shows the clubby influence on their otherwise earthy sound.
Orrall: I didn't realize how strong the Chicago house community was. I started realizing the impact it had on everything I liked, including the Manchester stuff, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays. They were all inspired by Chicago.
Voelz: I loved what we were doing [in Chicago] from the get-go. Thinking back around "Pomegranate," you can really hear Chicago in that record. Austin is hot, you wear less clothes, it's a smaller city. Chicago was winter and there were mittens and pasta in the studio. "Pomegranate" is super song-based, but I knew Frank was into that whole other dimension of house music, less structure and more groove. I love a good song, but when the songwriting opened around the grooves — it felt more orchestral to me right away. There were more places for strings and orchestration, so we added more strings and horns. It was super fun, and I knew how to write for that. Then came the Sinfonietta and "Carmen."
Orrall: In Chicago, the full-on house stuff became part of Poi Dog Pondering — to the chagrin of some fans and even band members. We went through a shakedown. Some people weren't happy with the incorporation of that. ... It was too jarring a change.
Juhlin: I had resisted the stuff like "U-Li-La-Lu" [from "Wishing Like a Mountain"], but I fell immediately for "Pulling Touch" [from the debut]. It had this insistent, four-on-the-floor kick drum and sidestick that absolutely hypnotized me. Once I started getting further into the catalog, I realized how much heart was in the music. Chicago was a town of punk snobbery, and [Juhlin's band] the Slugs, god bless/help us, were standing in the fringes of that nonsense. I let go of the posturing and was proud to be part of Poi Dog and the type of honest, soul-searching music they were making. I think the "hippie" tag that the band got slapped with is just really dumb, cooler-than-thou shorthand.
Hughes: When I heard Poi Dog getting into real deep house culture there, I was not surprised. I knew Frank was heading there. There's a lot of that stuff going down on "Volo Volo." ... There's a lot of equatorial influence, not necessarily Hawaiian, in Frank's music. It's music from all over the Caribbean, from zouk to some deep Samoan stuff going on. Anything that was exciting and energetic and spiky, African pop, Caribbean pop. The groove was there, even if you couldn't hear it right away.
Juhlin: As far as the groovy stuff goes, well, that was a learning curve for me, as well. I always secretly fancied myself as versatile, and actually loved retro-fitting my sort of power chord style into something more supportive, colorful and textural. I still was/am able to add the grit when appropriate, and Susan Voelz, bless her heart (and eardrums), will tell you that I have yet to truly learn to turn my amp volume down onstage, but playing with Poi Dog forced me to listen and adapt, and to be aware of the sound as a whole. I've had some of the most thrilling musical interactions of my life with my PDP bandmates, and it's almost shocking how routinely and effortlessly they can occur.
The band that eats together
Rehearsals, performances, any occasion with Orrall is one for food, as well. (He sings, he feasts — how many living puns will he spin from his name?) Every conversation with a PDP member mentions grand dining as part of the experience. Today, Orrall hires himself out as Chef Franc (cheffranc.com); he'll come to your house, cook a dinner party and bring his guitar.
Voelz: Frank and food — he has appetite for life. Touring and traveling, our compass of curiosity included food, music, bookstores, record stores, nothing was left out. It was never "Oh, that restaurant is too swanky for us," it was always "No, we're going for it!" Max used to say, "Hold on to your per diems, we're going to dinner with Frankie!"
Hughes: We were traveling carnival auteurs, with a deep familial sense. No matter what we had, we could get together and make a big party, a big supper. ... [Orrall] is a master chef, as fun to cook for as to cook with. It's a lot of fun to sit back and let him take over the kitchen. It's almost exactly the way he approaches music, too.
Orrall: I've always loved the dinner party. I love what happens when a group comes together to drink wine and talk story. It relates to when I was a kid. My family had parties, and Mom would bust out the guitar. People brought instruments, and at the end of the night all these adults are playing Roy Rogers and Carter Family songs. ... In the early days of Poi Dog, as street musicians, we'd make 12 dollars some days. We always had to fiure out how to make that work. So it was always about being creative, buying pasta and frozen peas an making our own meal, and it eventually became this social thing for all of us in the studio. My cooking has always been combined with music, and the other way around.
Pondering the future
Orrall: Would I move again? I'm originally from Hawaii, and I've been trying to make more of an effort to be in Hawaii more. I'm always going to be in Chicago. It's my creative home. But I'm becoming more of a gypsy now, like I used to be.
Orrall is working on his first solo album, likely a set of instrumental, Brazilian-inspired tunes. Voelz has completed a 50-minute orchestrated suite for Thai yoga. She also promises to finish a long-delayed record of Prince covers.
Voelz: I'll never put that out. No, I think I will next year. That's such a lie. I've been saying that for four years. Maybe a show with Robbie Fulks. He's got his Michael Jackson covers record out. OK, that for sure will happen next year.
Hughes has played with numerous others (Cracker, Bob Schneider, Jason Mraz). He is currently finishing his third solo album and leading his own band, Bruce Hughes & the All Nude Army.
Juhlin reunited the Slugs for one show last year. He now leads an inventive local covers band, Expo '76.
Juhlin: I like to say that we're not a cover band, but a band that does covers. It's one of the most fun musical experiences I've ever had in my life. ... Don't count out those Slugs, though. I think we may end up doing a show before too long.
POI DOG PONDERING'S "TALE OF TWO CITIES"
• 9 p.m. Dec. 2 — The Austin Years
• 9 p.m. Dec. 3 — The Chicago Years
• Metro, 3730 N. Clark
• Tickets: $26, (800) 514-ETIX, metrochicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
In his 1976 appearance as a celebrity guest on "The Muppet Show," singer-songwriter Paul Williams sang one of his own songs accompanied by a small Muppet choir, a backing band by the name Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (showing remarkable restraint), and the subdued piano of Rowlf the Dog.
The tune was called "Sad Song," but Williams remembers it as one of the happiest moments of his life.
"Oh, it's one of those Hallmark lyrics I wrote, basically a co-dependent anthem, which is pretty much what I spent my life writing. But the way it worked on the show is a perfect example of this intense emotional connectedness we feel with these characters," Williams says.
In the scene — see it and other great Muppet music moments here — the song winds to a close with Williams leaning on Rowlf's piano nonchalantly singing about "the sad song that used to be our song," a sharply sentimental but sweet moment, and as Rowlf plays the final chords, he glances at Williams, as if to say, "Did that help?" Rowlf then closes the piano keys and gently pats the lid.
"I mean, Rowlf did more with the closing of that piano than most actors ever got from Orson Welles," Williams says, laughing heartily at the 35-year-old memory.
Music always has been the beating heart of the Muppets. That "intense emotional connectedness" fans feel to the felt friends created by the late Jim Henson has fueled excitement about the first new Muppet movie in 12 years — "The Muppets," opening Wednesday in theaters — and it comes directly from the power of the franchise's iconic songs, such as Williams' and Kenny Ascher's "Rainbow Connection" and "Movin' Right Along."
For those of us who grew up with the Muppets, the music made an impact beyond celebrity moments on "The Muppet Show," the syndicated TV variety series Henson produced from 1976 to 1981. Those moments included Elton John performing "Crocodile Rock" with the song's namesake and Julie Andrews donning Maria's dress again for "The Lonely Goatherd" on a farm.
"The Muppet Show" celebrated pop songs by reimagining them, adding narratives and creating set pieces in the years just before MTV — always stopping just short of parodying them. Like classic Looney Tunes cartoons, this was a show aimed chiefly at adults; kids could LOL to Muppets dancing around to the Village People's "Macho Man," but adults were ROTFL when Gonzo's disco-dressed chicken gang rumbled with a posse of butch, leather-clad pigs. The show also unearthed folk classics, mid-century lounge music, Tin Pan Alley chestnuts and rhythm & blues.
"We covered everything — every genre and every century," Muppet performer Dave Goelz (Gonzo, Zoot and others) told the SF Weekly in 2007. "We did Charleston numbers, we did the latest stuff in rock 'n' roll, we did the '40s, '30s, classical. I really miss the way we worked with music. Jim was a pretty musical guy."
The new Muppet movie, fortunately, works with music in the same spirit. "The Muppets" soundtrack is not, thankfully, "The Green Album," an unnecessary, marketing-driven collection released in August featuring current indie-rockers (OK Go, Andrew Bird, Weezer, etc.) covering classic Muppet songs. The Muppets are doing their own thing again.
The film's director and music supervisor both come from a musical-comedy project that isn't just a kindred spirit; its title sounds like its own Muppets production number: "Flight of the Conchords."
"The Muppets and 'Flight of the Conchords,' yeah, there are quite a lot of similarities," says Bret McKenzie, half of the Conchords duo and music supervisor for "The Muppets." (The film's director is "Conchords" co-creator and director James Bobin.) "I really didn't have to shift gears, like, at all."
"Flight of the Conchords" was basically an adult "Muppet Show." Few actors are more Muppety than Jermaine Clement, and the songs he and McKenzie wrote for each episode of their acclaimed HBO comedy series (and live concerts) kept things movin' right along in the same adventurous, wondrous and usually optimistic spirit. Henson no doubt would have loved the "Bowie" episode, with Clement dressed up as "1986 David Bowie from the movie 'Labyrinth,' " a puppets-'n'-people fantasy film that Henson directed.
"There's a quality to the production [of 'The Muppets'], a looseness that reflects the looseness of the Muppets themselves, and I think you could say the same about [the Conchords] most times," McKenzie says. "This guy Chris Caswell, who worked on the original Muppets music as a piano player, told me Henson said, 'If it sounds too good, it's not right.' I kept thinking about that a lot. Finding the line between that looseness and a grand musical number — it's a challenge."
Plus, the Muppet universe has a few commandments.
"I quickly had to learn a few things," McKenzie says. "Like, in the Muppets' world, they've always existed. Kermit was never a piece of fabric. I had one lyric with Kermit saying, 'I remember when I was just a piece of felt,' and they said, 'Oh, no, you can't use that.' Another thing is that all these characters have specific vocal ranges. If they go too high or too low, they stop sounding like the character we know. If Miss Piggy goes too high, she sounds like a squeaky mouse.
"Also, all animals can talk — except chickens. They can only cluck. I had this big finale with everyone singing along, and we cut to the chickens, and I said, 'OK, chickens sing.' 'Oh, no, chickens can't sing.' So it's even funnier, because it's, 'OK, cluck,' and they cluck, cluck, cluck."
McKenzie's "Life's a Happy Song" has such a finale — a classic Muppet cluster-cluck that even includes lines sung by Hollywood icon Mickey Rooney and indie rocker Feist. It's one of four new songs McKenzie wrote for "The Muppets" (the others are "Let's Talk About Me," "Man or Muppet" and "Me Party"), and he oversaw the production of other original songs, as well as the film's reprise of favorites like "Rainbow Connection."
The film also includes actor Chris Cooper, who plays villainous oilman Tex Richman, performing — ye gods — a rap song.
"The rap song was a very dangerous idea," McKenzie says. "I arrived and that was already in the script, so I had to make it work. The risk is that it will be a joke from the late '80s. We've all seen people rapping badly. So I gave Chris some rapping lessons — on Skype. If you can imagine, Chris Cooper and I rapping on Skype. It was so bizarre, one of many bizarre moments in this experience. God, it was funny." He laughs.
"He does a stellar rap performance, I must say. We had to make it Muppety, though, you know? We joked about adding, like, some Kanye AutoTune, but it's not about making some contemporary, winking reference. I didn't want this to sound like a Hannah Montana album."
A star is reborn
"Muppety." It's an adjective they all use. Williams says it's a quality he first spotted early in the morning.
"I was a solid fan of everything Henson before he asked me to come over and do 'The Muppet Show,' because living on the road at that time, the best, most intelligent entertainment we could find on television while getting up in the morning and getting ready to go to the next city was 'Sesame Street,' " he says.
The diminutive Williams was once a huge star, lest we forget. By the end of the '70s, he'd written huge hits — Three Dog Night's "An Old Fashioned Love Song," Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen" (from "A Star Is Born"), the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" and "Rainy Days and Mondays," even the theme song for "The Love Boat" — and was a fixture on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson (48 times!). By the '80s, he fell off the radar due to deep struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, a story that's told in a new documentary currently making the film-fest rounds, "Paul Williams: Still Alive." Williams also is in his second term as president of ASCAP.
"Everybody wanted to do 'The Muppet Show' because it was so very hip," Williams says. On the set of the show, "I understood the magic of what was happening when I was standing there talking to Jim and Frank [Oz, founding Muppet puppeteer and voice actor], and Frank has Miss Piggy on his arm and Jim has Rowlf and Kermit on his arms, so it was all of us in this conversation. There was this extra level of engagement, a kind of medium, that really made it special. Songs came alive in that."
After his "Muppet Show" appearance, Henson asked Williams to write some songs for another project he was working on, a holiday special that would double as a workshop for some production techniques later perfected for "The Muppet Movie" (1979). The special was "Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas" for HBO.
Their relationship cemented, Williams went on to co-write the now-classic tunes for the first Muppets film. He remembers a moment in the creative process during that film that summarized the unique nature of creating with Henson.
"I love Gonzo most of all," Williams says. "We're all landlocked birds, you know? There was a great scene where the Muppets break down on the road in the desert, and I said to Jim, 'You know, I'm a child of the '60s' — I'm 21 years sober now, of course, but in those days, there were a variety of chemicals involved, and people were having a lot of spiritual awakenings as a result. I said, 'What if we write about that? Here's Gonzo experiencing that feeling of connectedness.' Jim said, 'That's really nice. What if we also get beyond the metaphoric and allow Gonzo to actually experience flying?' So he wrote that whole fair scene where Gonzo gets the balloons and is taken away just to support the song. It's so Muppets — it's a lofty dream squarely rooted on the ground."
So many songs: 10 great Muppet music moments
As you gear up for Muppet-mania this week ahead of the new movie, "The Muppets" — read about the Muppets music and the Flight of the Conchords connection — here are 10 great musical moments from our felt friends (in no particular order), from the show, the movies and the viral videos.
Get this: The song "Mahna Mahna," written by Piero Umiliani, first appeared in a 1968 Italian film ("Sweden: Heaven and Hell") about Nordic sex, drugs and suicide. Thankfully, it resurfaced a decade later as a perfect set piece for "The Muppet Show," featuring two fluorescent pink cows (?!) and one very groovy beatnik.
'Last Time I Saw Him' with Diana Ross
Performing with Muppets is a transformative experience for some singers. In this clip from the fourth season of "The Muppet Show," Diana Ross appears more natural, relaxed and happy than she ever did with the Supremes, first sitting on the stoop and jamming with a few Muppets, then turning it into a full-on production number with a great arrangement that ambles like a Muppet road reverie. By the end of the tune, Muppet horn players are in a Dixieland breakdown, and Ross puts a period on the number with a hammy vaudeville face.
The Muppets started a comeback a couple of years ago with a series of YouTube videos — more respectful pop song covers — like this Muppety take on Queen's popera.
'While My Guitar Gently Weeps'
Sure, "The Muppet Show" had a laugh track, but some poignant moments found their way in. Sgt. Floyd Pepper, of the Muppet band Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem, occasionally turned in cool, calm readings of pop songs. His performance of Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" (a duet with Janice, "fer sure") is smooth, but this take on this George Harrison song is a piece of pre-MTV perfection, setting up a little narrative in the scene — complete with Miss Piggy in silhouette during a very "Eleanor Rigby" kind of moment — and creating a transcendent moment, especially when Floyd caresses his guitar and says, "Oh, baby, don't cry."
How do you celebrate St. Patty's Day in Muppetland? With the three tenors, of course — the Swedish Chef, Beaker and Animal. Assembling three of the Muppets no one can understand to sing such a classic tune is only the start of the hilarity. The rest of it follows when Beaker overcomes his anxiety for a solo, Animal goes off actually looking for Danny, and the turtlenecks.
'Sad Song' with Paul Williams
After singer-songwriter Paul Williams made this appearance on the first season of "The Muppet Show" in 1976, Jim Henson asked him to write more Muppets music. That turned into a collaboration that lasted decades and produced some of the Muppets' most iconic songs, including "Rainbow Connection." Williams said of the scene: "I mean, Rowlf did more with the closing of that piano than most actors ever got from Orson Welles."
Animal vs. Buddy Rich
"The Muppet Show" showcased all kinds of music, including jazz. In this scene, Animal is let off his chain to challenge revered jazz player Buddy Rich to a drum battle. While Animal hollers like a tennis pro during the match, Rich flies over his kit with power and panache. Animal's drums, incidentally, were performed on the show by British jazz drummer Ronnie Verrell.
'In the Navy'
First, this is the second Village People song the Muppets covered (the other, well ...). For this musical number, the navy in question is a horde of marauding Muppet Vikings, and when they chant "We want you as a new recruit!" — they're not kidding. They come ashore and proceed to shanghai villagers into shipboard service. Educational on sooooo many levels.
'Grandma's Feather Bed' with John Denver
John Denver forged a lasting kinship with the Muppets — he made several "Muppet Show" appearances, hosted a Christmas special and the 1982 special "Rocky Mountain Holiday" — which began with this odd performance. Perhaps it was a less jaded era, so creators and audiences didn't see anything creepy about Denver hopping into bed with a bunch of Muppets, having a pillow fight with them, or dressing in drag as Grandma.
The movies are filled with great Muppet songs (one of my favorites is "The Happiness Hotel" from "The Great Muppet Caper"), but the benchmark was always Paul Williams' Oscar-nominated gem from the very first opening credits.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Lindsey Buckingham solo albums have been rare treats for rock fans — until recently. After averaging eight-year interims between albums throughout the '80s and '90s, the Fleetwood Mac singer-guitarist has delivered three new albums in the last five years.
"There was a time when I was the Terrence Malick of rock in terms how the projects were spread out," Buckingham, 61, told the Sun-Times during a recent interview.
It's not that he's suddenly more prolific. He's simply been able to keep Fleetwood Mac's grubby paws off these batches of songs. Several Mac albums started as Buckingham solo projects, including 1987's "Tango in the Night" and the 21st-century comeback studio set, 2003's "Say You Will," which is virtually the Buckingham solo album it started out to be plus a few harmonies and Stevie Nicks songs.
The new album, "Seeds We Sow" (Buckingham) [★★★], finds Buckingham not only solo but independent — self-releasing the record after ending a three-decade relationship with Warner Bros. We spoke with Buckingham about the new album, new personal challenges and plans for Fleetwood Mac ...
Q: We last spoke amid the Fleetwood Mac's Unleashed Tour in 2009. You described the experience then as "hang time" for the band and "a proving ground." What came out of the experience, what was proven?
Lindsey Buckingham: To me, it kind of revealed itself to be a freeing experience. You know, I've got this large machine with Fleetwood Mac, and then this small machine with the solo work. As any filmmaker who's done an indie vs. a big-budget project will tell you, it's the small projects where you're able to take the risks and grow and follow your heart to the greatest degree. Fleetwood Mac went out on that tour without an album to support; we were basically doing a body of work. I think any band that's been around for a while, eventually you get to a point where your audience is less interested in hearing anything new from you. When you come to terms with that, it's kind of cool! I can go out now with the solo stuff and grow and reaffirm the transcendent aspects of playing, and then I can bring that back to Fleetwood Mac to enhance what we already have.
Q: Mac is planning a tour next year, again without a new record to support?
LB: That's what I've heard through the grapevine. I've read Mick [Fleetwood, Mac's founding drummer] saying that in interviews. I'd be surprised if something didn't happen.
Q: It's always funny to me, hearing you talk about how you communicate — or don't — with the other band members. We always think rock bands are closer than they usually are. But you're hearing Mick's thoughts via the media.
LB: Well, yeah, I spent some time with Stevie recently making her album. I speak with Mick once in a while. We don't feel a need to hang as a community at this point. That's probably best.
Q: It's been nice to see three solo albums in a row, none of which have been hijacked to become a Mac album. How'd you manage to keep the band away from these songs?
LB: After "Under the Skin" and "Gift of Screws," I had to tell them: "Don't bother me for three years!" My material on the last Fleetwood Mac album, "Say You Will," was meant to be a solo album, and if you take that material on its own it would hold up well as a solo album. The hijacking phenomenon has happened several times. So I started by telling them to leave me alone — and they did! I did two albums back-to-back and toured both, and I wasn't planning to make this third album. It just came out of me, a very spontaneous thing.
Q: The press sheet for the new album makes a big deal out of your DIY approach — writing, recording, producing, mixing it all yourself. But that's not unusual for you, right?
LB: I always make the analogy to painting. Working with a band is more like movie making; it's more political to get from point A to point B in the creative process. When I work alone, it's me slopping colors on the canvas. I don't have to have a notion for a whole song. It can be a far more meditative process. The point of departure on this project is releasing it myself.
Q: You're a full-fledged indie-rocker now.
LB: Yes, and it feels good. Warner Bros., even in the best of times for the record industry, never stepped up to the plate for my solo work. They always said, "OK, fine, but let's get back to what's important," i.e., the band.
Q: So you're on your own, but Mac is still on Warner?
LB: Well, that's a whole other complex question. Technically, no, the band is not on Warner. There are legal snags I don't even want to go into. If Fleetwood Mac does do another album, I'd love to see us do something like what the Eagles did with Walmart.
Q: You've mentioned a lot recently that part of what has made you more prolific is how content you are in your family and personal life. I thought an artist had to be discontented to produce his best work.
LB: I thought that, too. Isn't that funny? Certainly part of the appeal of Fleetwood Mac has been people buying into the struggle of our private lives and realizing we're writing about what's actually going on between us — the musical soap opera that's been a subtext of everything, the history of us having successful careers but being utter failures in our personal lives, I would say. ... I was lucky to meet someone [wife Kristen] and have all this happen at a late point in my life, after I was done with all that garbage. It's allowed me to completely dispel the notion that family and children are death to an artist. It depends on the individual. There are, though, a lot of artistic things that can be approached and written about within the balanced framework of a stable family life.
Q: Your son is almost a teenager now. Has he started his own musical journey, and has any of it had an impact on you musically?
LB: He's 13 and hormonal. He turned on a dime 10 months ago into a different person. You hear about that, but nothing prepares you for it. He's an intent listener. He'll burn CD compilations of things he likes. I'll listen; some of it makes sense to me, some of it doesn't. It's all pretty thoughtful, though. He also has a healthy ... not a disregard but a healthy ambivalence for what I do. He looks at me on stage and basically thinks, "There's Dad showing off again."
Q: Has he turned you on to anyone in particular?
LB: I don't know the names of some of the people he's been listening to. He takes it in one song at a time.
Q: Does that bother you, as a traditional album artist?
LB: It gives me pause and it doesn't at the same time. When I was a young boy, all we listened to was singles, 45s. People made albums, but it wasn't an art form. Albums then were two singles and a lot of throw-away. Then the Beatles defined it as an art form, and some of us are still doing that. I had this discussion with [my son] the other day a few months back, in fact. I was struggling over the sequence of the album. He said, "Dad, why are you spending so much time on the running order?" I said, "Well, it's like a movie. You can have a lot of great scenes, but if you don't edit it together in the right order, the relationship to each other, the story you're trying to tell — it won't be a good movie." He just looks at me and goes, "Yeah, whatever."
• 7:30 p.m. Sept. 18
• Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield
• Tickets: $55, (800) 514-ETIX, jamusa.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Ezra Furman's last gig in Chicago was as unexpected as one would expect, at least from this quixotic local character. He headlined last Friday's Flesh Hungry Dog Show bill at the Jackhammer, a cozy Rogers Park gay bar.
Maybe not as unexpected to fans — after all, among the many different people Furman makes out with in this year's video for "Bloodsucking Whore" (below) is Gary Airedale (G. Thomas Ward), Flesh Hungry's creator — but still not a traditional venue for his barking, rootsy, ever-more-frequently rockabilly-influenced songs.
"I don't know how this looks up here to you out there," Furman said Friday from the Jackhammer stage, typically wild-eyed in his light yellow duster, "but it feels all right to me."
That was the last time Chicagoans will see Furman for a while. He plans to wrap up the recording of his first solo album (funded by fans) in Chicago during the next couple of weeks, and by the end of the month he'll be a San Franciscan.
I caught up with him Wednesday afternoon before he returned to the studio. (Also read our chat from earlier in the year, on the release of his third album with the Harpoons, "Mysterious Power.")
Some snatches from our conversation:
Q. You're always a bit edgy on stage, but you seemed more nervous than usual [Friday night].
A. I haven't played that often by myself. I'm still working through the possibilities. I was a little bit nervous.
Q. It's always nice to see you singing like Buddy Holly about Buddy Holly.
A. I've been doing a lot of rockabilly songs when I do shows by myself. I like to explore the intersection of my influences. Music journalists know about my influences usually before I do. I usually don't know who I'm influenced by till I read the article. I've heard about a lot of bands I really like from people who see my shows. I was 15 and people would come up and say, "So you're a Violent Femmes devotee?" I was like, "Who?" Or the Modern Lovers. Our manager couldn't believe we'd never heard of the Modern Lovers. He said, "I thought you were trying to do that."
Q. So why San Francisco?
A. A few reasons. Mostly, you know, these songs, all these women's names — "Wild Rosemarie," "Portrait of Maude" — these names of women. Well, now I'd like to refer to one real person who's going back to San Francisco to get her Ph.D. I'm going to follow her.
Q. Is she aware of this?
A. [Laughs] Yes, she's invited me. I'm accepting.
Q. San Francisco's nice. Good music, good punk.
A. I was just buying a ticket to this one band's concert there. Their being from San Francisco also actually factored into my decision to go there. They're called Girls. Their first album in 2009, it hit me like a sack of cement. They're my favorite band now.
Q. So you'll finish the solo album here and then take it with you?
A. I have to finish before I go. It's well on its way now. Being as the band is not involved, it's a very different experience to me. I'm totally masterminding every decision. I'm rounding up musicians who play instruments I've never played along with before, like double bass and there's some saxophone coming.
Q. Maybe you'll self-release it from the West Coast?
A. Maybe. I might just see who's interested among labels I think are cool. I feel pretty empowered about it, though.
Q. I imagine, after doubling your fund-raising goal on Kickstarter.
A. I had no idea if that would be successful at all. I reached my $4,000 goal in three days. Over the next 30, it doubled. It's really helped.
Q. Is solo the way ahead?
A. Well, before you ask: the [Harpoons] are not broken up. We're in sort of a waiting period. ... We'll likely make another album as a four-piece band.
Wild Flag unfurls new, powerful rock energy ... and two women playing guitar solos at the same time
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
I checked out Sleater-Kinney one night in 2000 in New York City. As they took the stage at the Bowery Balloom and plugged in, some yokel in the balcony shouted, "I hope you're better than you were at Irving Plaza!" The crowd ooh'd, then booed. A challenge had been made, a gauntlet thrown. The next two hours were one sweaty, thousand-watt rebuttal.
There weren't many fair-weather fans of Sleater-Kinney. During their late-'90s, turn-of-the-century reign as the country's most intense and credible female alt-rockers (always with that gender qualifier, if not the dreaded "riot grrrl" tag), their emotionally raw performances and feminist convictions inspired fierce devotion among fans. Even Time magazine called them "America's best rock band." But by 2006, utterly spent, the trio announced an "indefinite hiatus" and hasn't regrouped since.
But late last year two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney, singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein (now a co-star of cable sketch comedy show "Porlandia") and drummer Janet Weiss (also still half of the long-running indie-pop duo Quasi), reappeared in an emerging new band, Wild Flag, with ex-Helium guitarist Mary Timony and keyboardist Rebecca Cole (ex-Minders). You could say they're a supergroup — but the Fugazi comparisons are closer than those of the Traveling Wilburys.
In March, Wild Flag made its debut at the annual South by Southwest music showcase, playing a rousing, irresistible set. The music was chunky, strong and urgent, but also lighter, bouncier, full of Cole's kitschy keys and layer upon layer of sunny ooh's and ahh's. Their energy positively crackled — and they have successfully captured that on the band's self-titled debut album, due Sept. 13.
It's as if another gauntlet was thrown, and this new quartet feels they have even more to prove. We spoke last week with Weiss about that and more ...
Q: I absolutely love the record. It's a blast.
Janet Weiss: Oh good. We haven't talked to too many people who've heard it. Hopefully it's different and surprising in some ways.
Q: It is surprising. Were you going for the element of surprise?
JW: Any time I make a record or walk onto a stage, I'm hoping to surprise people. It's getting harder to do, though. There's so much information about a record and a band before you even hear the music or see the show, as in YouTube or an online presence, that gives a lot away instead of intriguing people. I think surprise is one of our greatest weapons, and I think we wield it well here.
Q: What's first surprising is the level of energy, absolutely bristling from the songs. You recorded the whole thing live, right?
JW: Yeah, there are only maybe three or four overdubs, besides the vocals. It's a real energy record. We're all four looking at each other while we're playing. The intricate moments that feel vibrant are actually us playing together, really finding out who we are as a band, and focusing on that instead of fancy production. We're not making an epic, 18-song double record. It wasn't about that. This is like shaking your hand, "How are you? Nice to meet you!" We're still finding out who we are. We're not sure.
Q: Where is all the excitement coming from?
JW: We just really want this to go off. Carrie hadn't been in a band for a few years, so she was probably dying to get back up there and play. Mary had been teaching guitar but not playing. Rebecca went back to school. The three of them especially were chomping at the bit to express themselves in that way again. I've never lost that. It's what I do in my life.
Q: Tell me how Wild Flag got started.
JW: Carrie asked me to help her with a soundtrack she was doing for a documentary. I'd known Rebecca and played with her for years, always thought she was awesome. We got her to play on it, as well. The three of us recorded, wrote some ditties, some instrumental incidental music. Spending the days in the practice space just reminded me of our connection, how prolific Carrie and I can be when we sit down to write. It went really well. It was a very organic unfolding. It wasn't, "Oh, we're gonna make this new band and take over the world!" Mary and Carrie create this dynamic that I really love in music with this tension and contrast. It's a little like Sleater-Kinney, but there's more bravado here, more pushing and pulling.
And I've never seen two women playing guitar solos at the same time. [Laughs] I've never seen that! Have you? I've been watching music my whole life, and that's something I've never seen!
Q: Why does that confound you? Why, in 2011, is that such a funny, shocking thing to realize?
JW: I'm just surprised. I just sat down and thought about it. Have I seen this? I haven't. And without going off into a conversation about women in rock, because I don't do that — I don't discuss "women in rock" because I don't "men in rock" — I just thought: I've seen two guys play solos together. I'm just saying.
Q: The chemistry you're describing, part of that is already well established between you and Carrie — and it seems pretty intense. Why is that?
JW: We do have this intensity. It's a language, an ability to be open with each other. There's an easiness there.
Q: And what does that mean specifically for the music?
JW: It means we get to important ideas very fast. It means we already feel like we're getting somewhere in this band. It's a language for working through how to unfold a song.
Q: Does that turn into music that's otherwise more intense than the usual pop fare?
JW: Well, we definitely feel music has gotten a little soft in the last few years. We've missed seeing truly cathartic, emotional, visceral performances. We miss seeing people letting go, daring you to let go.
Q: Sleater-Kinney always maintained a similarly intense relationship with its fans. What contributed to that?
JW: We totally exposed ourselves on records, and [our music] was a desperation to share our experiences, to create — it was our desire, our need to have the experience between us be meaningful and intense and revealing, every time.
Q: Was any part of the creation of Wild Flag linked to a desire to return to that Sleater-Kinney intensity?
JW: Not in the way of, "Let's relive this thing that existed." This was a brand-new discovery on its own. There are very few situations you get in and think, "This is really exciting, this has some real possibilities!"
Q: Will this lead toward or away from a Sleater-Kinney reunion?
JW: Sleater-Kinney was so in the moment — every show was a big deal — and that relationship with the fans was so intense and meaningful, to do it again as a reunion would feel so much less to me, less than what it was. I would never want to touch that. ... Why go on tour if we'd be less than we were? We value what we stood for. It's bigger than us.
Wild Flag will return in the fall as part of a proper tour. They're scheduled Oct. 9 at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western. Tickets: $15, (773) 276-3600, emptybottle.com.
with Mickey and Radar Eyes
• 10:30 p.m. July 22
• Subterranean, 2011 W. North
• Sold out
• 9 p.m. July 23
• Wicker Park Fest, Milwaukee and North avenues
• Tickets: $5 requested donation at festival entrance, wickerparkfestchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Neil Finn, the leader of Crowded House, has a new music project inspired by his empty house.
"The kids have left home, and we've got a bit more time on our hands," Finn told the Sun-Times this week. "This is the kind of thing you do when you're rattling around the place."
Finn's speaking of his wife, Sharon, with whom he's formed a new band, Pajama Club — so named because the songs grew out of late-night jams the couple had while drinking wine in their PJs. Their son, Liam Finn, 27, now has an acclaimed career of his own.
Pajama Club is the latest outing for Finn, whose lengthy career began in the late '70s with down-under pop band Split Enz and was followed by his own trio, Crowded House ("Don't Dream It's Over," "Something So Strong"), a solo career and occasional albums with his brother, Tim Finn, as the Finn Bros. After the death of drummer Paul Hester in 2005, Crowded House reunited and has since recorded two more albums ("Intriguer," the latest).
For Pajama Club, the Finns are joined on stage by New Zealand indie-rocker Sean Donnelly — who had a broad hand in "updating" the PJ Club songs, Finn said — and drummer Alana Skyring. The group's self-titled debut album is due Sept. 13.
Finn spoke with us about the new project — and his many others ...
Q. I understand this started late at night at home, but you're also playing different instruments.
A. That's right. I played drums and Sharon played bass, instruments on which we've no skills. All the songs came from these bass-and-drums grooves. I've never written like that before, and it sounded to my ears quite fresh. To find new angles at this point is a joy. It's really fun to play, and we came up with stuff I wouldn't normally come up with.
Q. Are you playing drums on stage?
A. I play some guitars on stage, and drums for one song.
Q. Of all new instruments, why drums?
A. Every singer fancies himself a drummer. I thought I was totally challenged in that department until one night at [Los Angeles nightclub] Largo with Jon Brion I ended up on the drum kit for an extended period. I held it down rather well until "All You Need Is Love," and those bars of five completely stuffed me up. But that was the incentive. I can't do anything flash, but I can hold down a feel.
Q. How much have you thought about Paul as you play the drums?
A. Not much overtly, though it's reminded me what a great drummer he was. The way he played his high hat and the feel he got is very important to the way I play guitar. I'm attempting to provide the same feel, but it's not easy to find. There's something in the way he swung that matches exactly with the way I play acoustic guitar. I've got that same swing in my head because my body is genetically programmed to him now.
Q. The Pajama Club songs are ... I want to say dark, at least for you. Is that accurate?
A. It's got a jammy, dark atmosphere to it, sure. Some songs on the album are a little darker, a little more open-ended than you might be used to from me. There are psychedelic touches, if I may be so bold. But there's also a lot of simple, groove-oriented stuff. It's quite eclectic in the true sense of the word.
Q. You're finally working out your love of [early-'80s dance band] ESG, I guess?
A. That was one of the initial inspirations, yes — those first dabblings with ESG, early-'80s bass grooves, wit that chanty stuff on top. We were attempting an homage to that concept, though it's more songy, for obvious reasons.
Q. What's the status of Crowded House?
A. We've got songs circling there, too. I was in the studio with them earlier in the year. Hopefully something will emerge next year.
Q. Anything with Tim?
A. Not currently, but we've been talking, trying to will it back into being.
Q. Will you work directly with Liam?
A. We've shared the stage on occasions, and we've talked about and will do some recording together. It's almost overdue now. He's doing his own thing, which is right and proper. I think we've got an album in us, too, he and I. They're backing up, all these projects.
Q. It's not easy to keep track of you.
A. I'm naturally restless. It's possibly confusing for the general public.
8 p.m. July 1
Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee
Tickets: $20-$22, ticketfly.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
When you've shot your mouth off and claimed that your band is the best in the world, what do you say when that band dissolves and you form a new one?
"We're the second-best band in the world."
So says Liam Gallagher, singer from '90s Britpop leaders Oasis and now leader of Beady Eye.
After 18 years of quarrels while Oasis tried to make good on that boast — two Guinness World Records for their chart and sales success in the UK but only two No. 1's in America (for the songs "Wonderwall" in 1995 and "Champagne Supernova" in '96) — in 2009 Noel Gallagher, Liam's brother and the band's chief songwriter, stormed out after a backstage fight. The Gallagher brothers fought all the time, but two hours later Noel posted a statement online saying he'd quit the band and "simply could not go on working with Liam a day longer."
Liam, though, intended to go on working, and so did the rest of the existing lineup of Oasis: Andy Bell (formerly with Ride), Gem Archer and Chris Sharrock. They initially said they'd continue as Oasis but later adopted the new name, Beady Eye.
A new sound, too? Sort of. Beady Eye's debut record, "Different Gear, Still Speeding," released in February, is the same mash-up of Beatles, Stones, Kinks and some more Beatles. The difference is in its tone — lighter, breezier, sunnier, free from all that heavy expectation and Very Big Importance that so often weighed down Oasis records.
"That was Noel. He's very important, don't you know?" Liam told the Sun-Times, and he chuckled. "I'm only half joking."
The Noel-free band, Beady Eye, is booked solid throughout Europe this summer, but they're swinging through North America for only four shows this month in Chicago, then Toronto, New York and Philadelphia. Before they played last weekend's Isle of Wight Festival in southern England, Liam Gallagher and Archer talked to the Sun-Times about the new songs, making music without Noel and how life goes on.
Q: You're playing just four dates in North America this month. Why?
Liam Gallagher: We're just going to test the waters and see if you guys are up for it. No point in going over and slunking it if you're not into it. Things are selling out. We're going to get on stage and do what we do. Hopefully, that's enough.
Gem Archer: We're a brand new band with a brand new set. We can't book an 18-month tour yet.
LG: We've done all that with Oasis. We're not 20 years of age. We're not desperate to crack it, you know?
Q: So how is what you're doing that different from Oasis?
LG: I don't think we're trying to be different than anything. We're staying true to what we do. We're making music we like. There's no big gimmick around it.
GA: We love melody, and we're just giving something out. It's not going to change people's lives. It's rock and roll, isn't it?
LG: We're not trendy. I hope we're not. Our style of music will always be played. It might remind people of the '60s ...
GA: And '70s.
LG: ... and, you know, we're certainly not trying to reinvent the wheel. The wheels' good.
Q: You feel like that now, but did you feel like that when Noel left Oasis?
GA: It's funny, man. When the band split, we knew we weren't finished with music, but we didn't have a great master plan or an agenda or anything. We knew we wanted to keep going. We wanted to keep making music.
Q: The debut album is so breezy and easygoing. Would it sound like that if it were an Oasis album?
LG: If Noel hadn't left, we'd probably be trying to do this with him — and not having any f—-ing luck. But it's not some new experiment. You can only go so far with a f—-ing experiment before you go, "That's not f—-ing us anymore." Anyone can record a tea bag being squeezed out of a monkey's ass, but it's stupid. We like guitar, bass, drums and piano. It's what we do.
Q: You clearly still love the Beatles.
LG: Everybody goes on about that, saying, "That's all they do is that f—-ing Beatles thing." We all love Lennon and George. They're the best band in the world. I'm not going to stop listening to my favorite band in the world just because some f—-ing pervert doesn't get it.
GA: Take the song "Bring the Light." It sounded a different way when we demoed it. Liam said, "It's not quite there." We tried bringing it back toward a Beatles thing, and then Liam wanted to go a little Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and we said, "Imagine if the [Sex] Pistols had a piano player."
Q: What's missing from the formula without Noel?
LG: He made a lovely cup of tea. [Laughs] No, I mean, Noel's a great songwriter, but so's Gem and Andy, and I'm getting there. Andy's better than Noel on guitar. People have this f—-ing bee in their bonnet because Noel's not there. We're not lacking anything. We've got great songwriters in the band. I'm not going to paint on big eyebrows to make people happy.
GA: It doesn't feel like a wonky table.
Q: What was the backstage fight actually about?
LG: You'd have to ask him. I might have had a couple of beers and things were coming to the surface, but that's f—-ing life. Noel wanted to be a solo star. I think he honestly had enough of Oasis and wasn't getting his own way and wanted to do his own thing. He wanted to sing all his own songs and take all the glory. Let him go do it. The rest of us weren't enjoying the creative process. ... That's sh—. If you're not doing that, you might as well go work at McDonald's. I'm sure he'll be f—-ing great, but there's a lot f—-ing more lacking in a Noel Gallagher gig, a lot more missing in his stuff than in ours.
Q: So you're not going to his wedding [on June 18 to Sara MacDonald]?
LG: No, I'm busy playing gigs in Chicago.
GA: This schedule's been in for a while.
LG: He goes on about how he wasn't invited to my wedding. No one was at my wedding but Nic's [wife Nicole Appleton] mum and my mum. Get over it, mate. I've not been invited to his wedding. I'll be in Chicago. I'll come cry about it to Oprah. [Muttering in background] What's this sh— about Oprah retiring? She needs to stay on it. She needs the [vitamin] B12.
Q: You're already at work on a second record?
LG: We're definitely doing a second record when the tour ends. We'll get it out next year. We like putting out songs in the summer. We're not going to rush it, but we're not going to dick about with it. The tunes we've got so far are absolutely big.
GA: It's really getting us off. We did this [first] record out of sheer adrenaline, rehearsed it like a brand new band. There was no concept behind it except, "See you at the end of the tune." The next one will have a sense of ourselves, some breathing space.
Q: So if Oasis was the best band in the world, what's Beady Eye?
LG: We're the second-best band in the world.
GA: It's not arrogance. I just don't get why people would be in anything or a band if they don't think it's the best.
LG: Oasis was the best band in the world till Beady Eye. We'll take it over. Noel can't do it by himself. It's a lock for us.
with the Dig
• 8:30 p.m. June 18
• Metro, 3730 N. Clark
• Sold out
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Bob Mould has always avoided living in the past — except for the last two and a half years.
During that time, he's been writing an autobiography, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody (with Michael Azerrad, Little, Brown, $24.99), which publishes June 15. It tells the story of a punk rock pioneer consistently dodging his own past. He plays in bands — the bracing fury of Husker Du (1980-88), the ear-splitting pop of Sugar (1992-95) — then avoids reunions like a plague. He practically chucked rock altogether, shocking hard-core fans by reinventing himself in the new century as a DJ and electronic music maker. He lives in cities and then flees, never to return. He quits alcohol, quits smoking, no relapses. The man moves forward.
See a Little Light tells of Mould's struggles with homosexuality, personal relationships and various addictions, but this is not just another titillating rock 'n' roll memoir. There are good anecdotes, for sure — Mould almost got the job producing Nirvana's "Nevermind," and his friendly rivalry with the Replacements' Paul Westerberg actually resulted in some demos together (which were stolen from a van, but "don't worry, the stuff wasn't very good") — and makes certain we understand that we shouldn't expect a Husker Du reunion. It's a clear, plain account of one troubled musician's life, with a lively and happy present-day ending.
"I think longtime fans will be shocked but not really surprised by some of this stuff," Mould said this week from his home in San Francisco. "The plain storytelling is what they're used to from me. I didn't try to make it something it isn't. ... It's definitely my voice."
Mould will be in Chicago twice in the next three weeks, performing shows that illustrate the two sides of his personality and career. He spoke with the Sun-Times about the shows, the book and where music intersects with — or divides — a life ...
Question: In the book, you refer to Chicago as "a key city for me," with some fun tales about shows at the Riviera and Aragon. Why has Chicago been important?
Bob Mould: Strictly by numbers, Chicago is my biggest market. I do my best business there, whether it's selling records or tickets or the amount of airplay or media coverage. It's my biggest town. I always emphasize to whoever I'm working with that Chicago has to get special treatment.
Q: Why do you think we like you so much?
BM: I don't know, I've just always connected there. Joe Shanahan [owner of Metro] has been a key part of that over the years, and Norm [Winer, music programmer] at WXRT. ... It must just be the ethic of Chicago. It's a hard-working, no-nonsense town.
Q: Yet in all the different cities you've lived in — Minneapolis, New York, Austin, D.C., San Francisco — you've never landed here?
BM: That aaaaaalmost happened in '02. It was the winter, though. I've lived in the Adirondacks and Minneapolis and had about 30 years of hard winters. But my partner and I at the time said, "Do we really want to do this winter thing?"
Q: Your show this weekend is another Blowoff party. How have those volved over the years?
BM: It's myself and Rich Morel, both singer-songwriter musicians, producers, whatever. We started this party in 2003. The idea was to meet people. I'd just moved to Washington, D.C., and I wanted to meet people. We had a shared love of disco and electronic music, and we just started these DJ nights that, over eight years, have morphed into this big seasonal dance event that we take around the country.
Q: You were somewhat new to electronic and dance music when this started, right?
BM: Going back to my punk rock days, I had no time for disco and little time for '80s electronic music, which now I know is a shame because there was so much great stuff I was missing at the time. I had to go back and re-educate myself.
Q: The solo show next month will feature you playing songs and reading from the book, is that right?
BM: Yes. [Laughs] I don't know how I'm going to do that. I'm waiting for a call back from Ray Davies to see how he did it. [Laughs]
Q: Now that you have the book in your hand, how do you feel about it and the process of writing it?
BM: I'm very proud of it. It's been a lot of work. ... It's not at all what I thought it would be.
Q: What do you mean?
BM: Well, the obvious route would have been: Here's a cursory look at my childhood and some things I liked as a kid, and then, oh, I was in this band and then another band, and all these wonderful things happened. Everyone who picks this up is going to know that story already. It was clear to me that my job was to let people really know who I am, to take ownership of my life, the good and bad.
Q: This comes out just a few months after Andrew Earles' Husker Du biography (Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock). Bandmates Grant Hart and Greg Norton are interviewed in that book, but not you. Is that because this book was under way?
BM: Yes. I haven't read that book.
Q: You've written before. Why not write this memoir on your own? How did Azerrad help shape the story?
BM: Where he gets credit is, as an outsider, getting me to shed the stories that had no bearing on the greater story. And also, things that I'd drop as an aside, he'd be like, "Wait a minute!"
Q: The book has a different tone in the grumpy first half (when your homosexuality was an open secret) than the cheery second (when you were completely out). I'm intrigued by why you felt it so necessary to "bid a farewell to rock" in order to fully pursue a life as a gay man.
BM: I wanted to reinvent myself as a person. For whatever reasons at the time, it was not possible to be fully myself being constantly beholden to my rock 'n' roll career. I needed to step off that. I was basically planning my gay identity in '97-'98, starting to brush up on and then immerse myself in the gay life. I'd never allowed myself that, never had it. The more I sat in the van, the less I was going to have it. I just needed to spend time around other gay people and basically learn how to be one, which I wasn't getting in punk rock. The two were not going to co-exist. Now I know better, but at the time I thought I really needed to let go of this.
Q: How did the transition from rock to electronic music facilitate this?
BM: Electronic music was the soundtrack of that life. The coffee shops, restaurants, gyms where I was spending time were all playing this music. Instead of going to a rock bar every night of my life and hearing rock all the time, I was in environments hearing keyboards and processed vocals and divas. Once it was in my head — I'm a musician, I wanted to learn how people made that music. It took a number of years to get it. It's not as intuitive as pop music.
Q: What will your next music be?
BM: I'm still figuring that out. I stopped writing music when I started writing the book. So I'm just getting back to it.
with Bob Mould and Rich Morel
♦ 11 p.m. May 28
♦ Metro, 3730 N. Clark
♦ $16, (800) 514-ETIX, metrochicago.com
An evening of reading and music
♦ 8 p.m. June 16
♦ Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport
♦ $25, (773) 325-1700, mercurytheaterchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The last time I spoke with Ian McCulloch, leader of Echo & the Bunnymen, he was typically humble. "I've got the best voice in the history of time," he said. "That's how people know my music is real, that I'm not lying to them. I'm not singing for the sake of it. I've got one of those voices that tells you it's the truth."
Echo & the Bunnymen features his dark, brooding and now a bit croaky Jim Morrison-ish voice plus the often wild and tortured sounds Will Sergeant wrings out of guitars.
The two modern-rock collaborators regrouped in 1994 after a sizzling spat and now have been together longer than the first go-round from '78 to '88. Now they return this week with one of those album concerts — playing the entirety of their first two, "Crocodiles" (1980) and "Heaven Up Here" (1981).
During this chat from his home in Liverpool, McCulloch was just as modest and more reflective ...
Q. We spoke last year when you were touring "The Fountain," which you said was the best record you and Will had made since "Ocean Rain." Does that opinion still stand?
A. "What Are You Going to Do With Your Life?" (1999) is also up there as a great Bunnymen-sounding record. That isn't to discount "Siberia" (2005). "Flowers" (2000) is not me favorite.
Q. What makes "a great Bunnymen-sounding record"?
A. The ingredients that made "Crocodiles," "Porcupine," "Ocean Rain." The lyrics and melody and sound of this band, combined. Time helps. Time can give you that insight into what you're about. Doing these "Crocodiles" shows we see, ah, these songs really are as good as we thought and a lot of people thought. The gigs are a master class in rock 'n' roll.
Q. They must be long, too.
A. 30 songs. We're approaching Springsteen territory.
Q. Time has improved the songs, you say, but how has it changed them?
A. Well, it doesn't seem that long ago. It's mad to think that between whatever demos John Lennon did in 1960 to 1970, this is three times that amount of time. Some of these songs — it's the first time we've played them since we played with the drum machine. They sound like we've just written them. We tried not to make records with clichéd sounds of the time. Synthesizers sound horrible.
Q. So why start at the beginning with these two albums?
A. We thought of this before we did the "Ocean Rain" shows [in Britain]. Some of it was to throw down the gauntlet and say, "Which of the bands out there could play their first two records and they'd still ring true?" ... We'll have to wait 20 years to do "Siberia" and "The Fountain" when people realize how great they are.
Q. So what are you getting out of this experience?
A. An extensive "I told you so," as much as anything. Of course, we're preaching to the converted.
Q. Do you find that you're carrying yourself in some way that is different?
A. They're very intense gigs. There's not a lot of "Howdy, folks." It reminds me how I used to be on stage — that important thing of attitude.
Q. Will you tour other albums?
A. Maybe. We could do "Porcupine." Tough one, that. The best way to do that one is with headphones on loud and very much in the dark.
Q. What about the final, self-titled album? It always gets a bad rap.
A. I'm pleased that it looks like it at least got out there a bit, but a lot of it I couldn't listen to. In some ways, it's the one type of Bunnymen with "The Game," but in others, with "Lips Like Sugar," there are so many songs that don't feel like us. A lot of people bought it and loved it. I have mixed feelings. Obviously, it's the one that made me think we should call it a day.
Q. When you write new songs, do you try to reach back to whatever well you drew these early ones from?
A. Whatever inspiration for "The Killing Moon" is also there on "The Fountain" in "The Idolness of Gods." If anything, I've gotten much better. I'm still trying to find that best-ever song. People say "The Killing Moon" is the best we song we've written. Nothing lasts forever, and as important as that song is to us, I try to always think of that next song that strips another veil away. It doesn't weigh on me mind. Every day I've got a head full of tunes.
ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN
performing "Crocodiles" and "Heaven Up Here"
with Kelley Stoltz
• 7:30 p.m. May 17
• Vic Theatre, 3159 N. Sheffield
• Tickets: $30, (800) 514-ETIX, jamusa.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago's suburbs are lousy with angry young pop-punk bands, but few maintain the tight musicianship and walk-it-like-you-talk-it ideals that eventually make them stars.
Rise Against has both, and it's put them on top. They've made albums shouting down the Bush administration and the wars in the Middle East, and they've supported veganism and straight-edge living. Meanwhile, those albums keep climbing the charts — "Siren Song of the Counter Culture" (2004) cracked the Billboard 200, "The Sufferer and the Witness" (2006) made the top 10, then "Appeal to Reason" (2008) reached No. 3 and the new album, "Endgame," debuted at No. 2 early this year.
They've become so big that this weekend their heroes — Bad Religion, a veteran punk band that was formed in 1979, the year Rise Against leader Tim McIlrath was born — are their opening act.
"I know, right?" McIlrath says, amazed. "It gives me goosebumps just to hear you say it."
"We opened for them five years ago, at the Riviera, and we've been friends ever since. At some point, those guys said, 'Hey, we should go on tour sometime.' They were the first ones to say, 'You're getting pretty big. We'll go out with you.' They're the band we put on a pedestal. We never considered them as support. It speaks to our respect of them and how much we want to introduce our young fans to them. There's not much out there currently that we have an affinity toward, so this is perfect."
We caught up with McIlrath to chat about his band's success, its fierce social messages and how those translated to a crowd of protesters on the steps of the Wisconsin state capitol in February.
Question: You just got back from a tour in South America. How does your music go down there? I would think your message is popular, but I don't hear about too much South American punk ...
Tim McIlrath: Those parts of the world are hard to figure out. They're way more into dance music than rock. A guy like me screaming into the microphone is a minority. The dance music scene there is massive. But, yeah, progressive things and social justice in that environment are way more common. The right wing party in Brazil is treated with the same attention level as the Green party here. The only question in their politics is how left wing you are.
Q: You recently joined Tom Morello in Madison to sing for the protests against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's bill against collective bargaining for unions. How'd that happen?
TM: I was in Denver when that started happening. I got a call from Morello and flew back home. I went from O'Hare right to Madison. It was incredible, and it was right in my own backyard, this attack not just on the people of Wisconsin but on the Midwest ideology or the working class. ... I was grateful for the opportunity to play for them. As someone from Chicago, I don't find myself arm-in-arm with people in Packers jackets very often.
Q: Have you much experience as a protest singer — at an actual protest?
TM: No, I've gone to protests but have never played before. I said yes before I thought about it. I kind of leaped before I looked. We've got six records, I can figure something out. Then I get there on the capitol steps, it's freezing, with my guitar in hand. My friends are doing all these union songs I'd never heard before. I look at the crowd, and this is not a Rise Against show. There are not a bunch of kids waiting for me to play. There are people from all walks of life, and they need inspiration. I had to energize this crowd. I felt like some of the songs I could have played wouldn't translate. I started to rethink my strategy. I need something that would bridge the gap between me and this audience. The two songs I thought of were "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills & Nash and "Who'll Stop the Rain?" by CCR. As I played that one, it started to rain a little.
Q: You've been playing "Ohio" in concert. Why that particular protest song?
TM: I read about its inception. Neil Young rushed in with it, said, "Here, it's tracked," and got it out. He said, "This song needs to be out right now." In the recording, you can hear it. It's not complicated. In the few words he says, he gets his point across. ... It's a song about a governor who goes too far. I didn't want it to be irrelevant to what was happening in Wisconsin, and I didn't want to somehow compare [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker to people being shot and killed, but I thought maybe it would express that this kind of thing has happened in the past and people have fought it in the past — that we can fight and win.
Q: The new Rise Against album, "Endgame," is apocalyptic and seems pretty bleak. Am I wrong?
TM: "Endgame" is my strategy to find a different approach to attack a lot of the same societal ills. Instead of being a guy tugging on your shirt sleeve, saying, "Check out what's going on in the world. Let's do something!" I imagined a character who says, "OK, I've tried tugging and begging you. Now let's paint a picture of the repercussions of our actions." So it's a story, kind of, that shows where the world is headed in the event of a financial or environmental collapse, war, worldwide poverty. Let's paint a picture of what that looks like — and then imagine the world that could be born from those ashes. You get people to picture that future possible world, and they can learn from their mistakes right now.
Q: It's pretty much a concept album.
TM: I shy away from "concept album." There are songs on this record that don't talk about this. But the "Endgame" concept does pop up in several places.
Q: Lyrically, it has a kind of "Life After People" tone to it.
TM: Yeah, we're not reinventing the wheel here. "The Road," "Life After People," we've got apocalypse on the tip of our tongues right now. It seems like the world is ending, there's a lot of doom and gloom. We've tried many approaches to get people to wake up. This is a different one.
with Bad Religion and Four Years Strong
♦ 7 p.m. May 13 and 14
♦ Aragon Ballroom, 1106 W. Lawrence
♦ Sold out
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Johnny Mathis is more versatile than you think, but he knows where his bread is buttered. He could branch out and try different styles of music — and he has, read on — but why mess with the mushy, easy-listening crooner formula that has given him nearly 80 top-40 hits over the course of a half-century singing career?
The Mathis hit parade started in 1957 with "Chances Are," "It's Not for Me to Say" and "Wonderful! Wonderful!" and continued for decades, mostly in the same vanilla template — soft strings, tender arrangements, the unequaled smoothness of Mathis' voice, lulling and languid — through "A Certain Smile," "Gina," "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late" and all that Christmas music. His greatest-hits album, one of the first, logged a staggering 490 weeks on the Billboard albums chart (that's nine-plus years), a record beaten only by Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon."
But Mathis himself at least once tried to rock.
"Well, yeah, when you're young and starting out, you want to do everything. I tried it all, believe it or not," Mathis says, adding a laugh. "I was fortunate at the beginning of my career to have a lot of hits right away. That gives you a little clout as far as the record company is concerned. Plus, in that day, as an artist, you made a lot of records." Mathis released four albums annually in both 1958 and 1959. "So you were always looking for material, and I used to go in to my producer and say, 'Check this out!' I'd show them a James Brown song. They'd say, 'You know, John, that's great, but let's try something else.' And thank goodness."
Does that mean in a record vault somewhere are tapes of Johnny Mathis throwing down like James Brown?
"Unfortunately, yes," Mathis says, no longer laughing. "I keep wondering when they're going to rear their ugly head. Fortunately, most of that stuff is well buried."
Then he starts chuckling again, remembering some of his off moments. There have been a few.
"One of the first songs I sang was a Burt Bacharach song," Mathis recalls. "Burt is a task master, always has been. He wants you to do it exactly as he hears it in his head. ... But I wasn't taking direction well. The song is called 'Warm and Tender'" — Mathis sings a few bars, sounding creamy and light even over the cell connection from his California home — "and I ended up sounding like Frankie Laine. It was so bad. It's on the other side of one of my biggest records, 'It's Not for Me to Say,' which sold a million copies. I hear it and think, 'How could he possibly have let me do that?'
"There's a lot of that. I made a few songs years ago under the care of a doctor who gave me amphetamines, and that didn't sound good, either."
Mathis, who tours only occasionally now at age 75 and spends most of his time at home and playing golf five days a week (he now boasts an impressive seven holes-in-one), credits his very straight-and-narrow style to a small group of good advisers, most notably Gil Reigers, his guitarist for more than 40 years.
But despite the gentle but firm guidance, the Velvet Voice occasionally has veered off the sweetened path, from trying his hand at Brazilian music ("The one place I'd like to get back to is Brazil," he says, "because I fell in love with the people there and their music, and I still sing a lot of Brazilian songs") to making frequent guest appearances with the Muppets (his duet with Rowlf the Dog on "Never Before, Never Again" during a 1979 TV special is worth YouTubing).
Two recent projects, in fact, have brought his varied tastes full circle.
Late last year, a Jewish organization called the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation compiled an intriguing CD, "Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations." The album rounded up rare instances of notable black singers taking on Jewish music, such as Cab Calloway mixing Yiddish into his scatting during "Utt-Da-Zy" and Eartha Kitt's orchestrated delivery of "Sholem."
The society also dug up a relevant Mathis recording. One of the four albums he recorded in 1958 was "Good Night, Dear Lord," a collection of religious songs dedicated to his mother. Amid the expected Christian music — from spirituals ("Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Deep Night") to formal pieces ("The Rosary," two versions of "Ave Maria") — were three Jewish songs: the Yiddish hymn "Eli Eli"; a song about a Warsaw ghetto, "Where Can I Go?"; and the Yom Kippur prayer chant "Kol Nidre." The latter appears on "Black Sabbath."
"People ask me to explain why someone like myself would get involved with religious Jewish music," Mathis says. "It's the way you're brought up. Me, growing up in San Francisco, I had this extraordinary opportunity to listen to all kinds of music and studied voice for seven or eight years with a wonderful teacher. She first introduced me to it. As a singer, when you hear something extraordinary like that — and a lot of Jewish music is musically quite challenging — you want to sing it, you want to at least try it, to see if you can do it."
Back to his roots
Mathis' latest album, also released last fall, is off-track, too — "Let It Be Me: Mathis in Nashville." A good friend of the late Ray Charles, it may have been inevitable that Mathis — a native of Texas — would tackle a country record. But Mathis says this actually has more to do with his roots in rock 'n' roll.
"The first music I heard was country music. My father sang it for me," Mathis says. "That's the reason I started singing. This country album is really a throwback to what my dad taught me, and it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. Over the years, I've performed with extraordinary people always in the background of my arrangements, especially the guitar players. This time, they're in the forefront. It's a guitar record! It's such a joy to listen to the recordings when I stop singing and hear this extraordinary guitar music."
So he made a record that kinda rocks, after all?
"Is it so hard to believe?" Mathis asks, laughing again. "My little brother [Michael], you know, had a band and did mostly rhythm and blues. He did stuff with Sly Stone there in San Francisco. Michael got me involved with a lot of rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. But I studied, as I mentioned, with a classical teacher, and most of the music I heard was pretty much Broadway and classical, and that's what I got involved with. In the household, my dad was singing country and Michael was playing rock 'n' roll, and I had six other brothers and sisters bringing in other stuff. If the slightest thing had changed, who knows, I could have been a rock 'n' roll star."
• When: 9 p.m. April 30
• Where: Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Rd., Rosemont
• Tickets: $65-$75, (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Ezra Furman knows you probably haven't heard of him, and he's not terribly worried about it. Make no mistake, he'd like you to hear his music — I recommend it highly, it's damn good — but he's more concerned about making that music, and making it good, than he is about spending time marketing himself. He wouldn't even know where to begin.
"I'm not worried about being rich and famous," Furman says. "I see a lot of rich and famous people in our culture, and most of them are jerks. I wouldn't want to be them. I'm not saying it's bad — I dream of greatness, you know — I just want to be good at what I do, great at making songs. I'd rather be the starving artist who goes unrecognized. I'd rather be Van Gogh than Jack Johnson. I want to be one of those guys who does it for a long time, who after a while just doesn't quit. They make great records and nobody listens to them and then suddenly they're a cult hero. I could do that."
He's nothing if not quixotic. Stammering in his speech but blistering in his singing, Furman idealizes the artist as idealist. He's having this chat with us from the living room of his parents' Evanston home, where his band rehearses because they can't afford anywhere else. He mentions several times how poor he and his bandmates, the Harpoons, are despite having met each other at Boston's private Tufts University.
"Sometimes it gets a little dicey," Furman says. "I've been a little too poor sometimes. Now may be one of those times."
But his confidence in his music is well placed. Whether its existence attracts money or not, Ezra Furman & the Harpoons — guitarist Andrew Langer, bassist Job Mukkada and drummer Adam Abrutyn — make rootsy rock 'n' roll that's fiery, fierce and, above all, honest. The songs on their third and so far best album, the new "Mysterious Power," are at once familiar and exciting. Furman's not doing anything we haven't already heard from Dylan in the early '60s or Neil Young across the span of the '70s or the Violent Femmes in the mid-'80s, but he's doing it with such ferocity and abandon that makes him an individual stylist rather than a mere imitator. You don't have to reinvent the wheel in rock 'n' roll just to get it rolling.
Question: You seem pretty cavalier about claiming to walk the poverty line.
Ezra Furman: It's the life of an artist. It's fine with me. My only real goal is to be good at this. I've idealized all these people who were never very successful. I don't know. Maybe I should care a little more. I'm getting by. ... I don't need much money. I like the 99-cent loaf of bread better than the $3.50 one.
Q: Who's one of those not-very-successful people that you idolize?
EF: Paul Baribeau, for one. Nobody's heard of him, and he's the best songwriter in America, basically. He's always playing people's houses or basements. He's in his 30s. He's such a heart-stopping, great songwriter and performer. He can write a really passionate song, and he mostly just plays acoustic guitar and screams. He's my No. 1 evangelical project.
Q: So what would success look like for you?
EF: My version of success is someone finding my album in a bargain bin one day and falling in love with it. Beyond that, everything else is a bonus.
Q: What could lead you to the point of "selling out"?
EF: I don't think I'll get there. I was reading this article recently by the guy from OK Go [singer Damian Kulash, in the Wall Street Journal] all about how making money in the music business is different from what it used to be. He's talking about selling music to corporations for commercials and all kinds of stuff, and how it's not selling out anymore. Nobody sees this as impure anymore. He was so cavalier about it — just do it, this is how you get rich now, and you wanna get rich, right? I was like, shut up, stop. Not everybody is in this just to chase money.
Q: You're chasing, what, gratitude, affection, artistic credibility?
EF: Just some sign that what we do is good. I know how I feel about my favorite records. I want people feeling that about us. To be somebody's favorite record, at least for a period in their lives — that's the ultimate success in being a musician. What could be a greater honor than to always be in someone's car stereo? I'm not going to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. F—- that. I'd rather be in someone's stereo.
Q: The new record, "Mysterious Power," sounds more energetic and cohesive than the previous two, which is saying something. What's behind that?
EF: We just had more time. It's a more carefully chosen album. The first ones were slapped together pretty quick. Each one was done in five or six days, like, "This is our band, this is how we play songs live, there you go." We didn't have a record label, no one was asking for the album. We made the album and then found a label for it. We spent time on it, and some songs I thought were throwaways wound up being turned into some of the best ones simply because we had time to find out.
Q: Give me an example. Which songs followed that course?
EF: "Bloodsucking Whore" is a good example. That was a bitter joke. That was me in a messed-up relationship, and I was, like, listing off Buddy Holly songs. I wanted to write some simple, classic Buddy Holly ballad. I just threw it out and didn't think much of it. It was a joke to me. But the Harpoons, believe it or not, they're musicians. People probably don't know that enough about this band. I'm just sort of a strummy, singy guy. I write these songs and the Harpoons know what to do with them. They picked that one out and masterminded the sound of it. It's one of the best on the record.
Q: What compels you to keep writing songs?
EF: Dissatisfaction with what I've already done, I guess. I listen to so much music. The real answer is I listen to so much and I'm like, "Oh, man!" It's a healthy sort of jealousy. It's like the competition. The past year, I started getting into the Replacements. The things they got away with. I think, "I could do that better than he does!" Or some great record like [the Beach Boys'] "Pet Sounds" — man, I could totally pull off my own version of this.
Q: What are you recognizing in this other music? What makes a great album great?
EF: Well, that's just it. They didn't know they were making a great record when they were making it. They didn't think they were capable of writing the greatest album ever. That's what keeps me going. Who knows what could happen if I keep writing? Maybe I'm about to drop a total masterpiece if I keep pushing myself. I see some sort of potential in myself. You just never know. You should always write another song.
EZRA FURMAN & THE HARPOONS
with Tristen and the Apache Relay
♦ 9:30 p.m. April 23
♦ Subterranean, 2011 W. North
♦ Tickets, $10-$12, (773) 278-6600; subt.net
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Music Review Loudon Wainwri.jpgLoudon Wainwright has written biting songs about love ("It's Love and I Hate It"), the end of love ("Your Mother and I," "Whatever Happened to Us?"), family ("Your Father's Car," "White Winos") and kids ("Be Careful There's a Baby in the House," "Father/Daughter Dialogue"). His biggest hit was a 1972 novelty about road kill ("Dead Skunk").
In recent years, though, Wainwright, 64, has begun considering mortality — and looking back. He offered up a renewed greatest-hits set in 2008's "Recovery," re-recordings of some of his favorite old songs. The following year, Wainwright resuscitated the catalog of a lost Carolina country legend in "High, Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project." Now he's back with his own legendary-status project, "40 Odd Years," a box set of Wainwright's 40-year career featuring four discs of his bittersweet, intensely personal folk songs (three from the albums, one of outtakes and rarities), plus a DVD of filmed performances. It's out May 3 from Shout! Factory.
"Well, you want to get the box out before you're in the box yourself," Wainwright said during a recent chat. "I've had interest in a box set on a couple of occasions, but my friend and patron Judd Apatow" — Wainwright has worked on several of Apatow's projects, including scoring the film "Knocked Up" and acting in the TV series "Undeclared" — "he's got a good relationship with the guys at Shout! Factory, and he kept nudging them, 'C'mon, guys, Loudon needs a box.' Without his help, it might not have happened.
His 40 years of making music has worked in conjunction with nearly 20 different record labels, so assembling a Wainwright box took some doing. He chatted with me from his Long Island home about boiling down his life's work, dredging up some rare tracks and looking ahead.
Q. Did the process of evaluating your catalog for this box set begin when you reconsidered old songs for the "Recovery" album?
A. If you've been doing this and as you get older, you look back. Can't help it. In my songwriting, I seem to be doing a lot of that lately. It has to do with coming to the end of something, I guess. "Recovery" was a way of revisiting songs, some 40 years later, in the context of the band I work with out in L.A. This box set starts all the way back to the first track of the first record.
Q. Did you select the tracks?
A. Yes, I had to pick the tracks, which was very painful. A lot of things didn't make it. You only have 80 minutes on a CD. Hopefully it has some sweep for the listener, some interest for old fans and new fans alike.
Q. How did you make your choices?
A. Some people let others decide for them. I could have gone that route. I have friends who are familiar with my canon and whose judgment I trust. I checked in with those people and asked their opinion on what was essential. I requested the same of some fans that I've met at gigs over the years — they always seem to be guys. At the end fo the day, it was difficult. In the liner notes I say it was like drowning kittens. I left off some of my favorites.
Q. Like what?
A. Two songs: "Missing You" and "Man's World." Those are favorites of mine, but there was just no room for them.
Q. Yet you included a lot of extras on the bonus disc. Tell me what transpired to make you feel that "Laid," a song you say you always felt was too mean to put on a record, is OK to lay out there now?
A. It's a little rough, but I like it. The idea of bonus tracks is to put out stuff people wouldn't normally have heard, and "Laid" fit right into that pocket. "Laid" is a pretty bleak look at getting laid. It's not something I do anymore. It's just an interesting snapshot of where I was at the time.
Q. Were there discoveries for yourself when digging up some of the rarities?
A. Well, in terms of the bonus tracks, yeah. There's a song on the box called "McSorley's," which is a song I only performed about three times, in 1970. The oldest saloon in New York's East Village was this Irish bar called McSorley's, and until 1970 only men were allowed. Coinciding with the rise of the women's movement, there was a lot of pressure put on the place and that tradition was broken. They forced it to go co-ed. At the time, I was a twentysomething sexist pig and wrote this song as a kind of protest. This was a great tradition, women are turning into men, that sort of thing. It was very sarcastic. I think politically I've moved away from that stance [laughs], but I put it on the box as an interesting look at where I was in 1970 — wistful about the idea that there are bars where only men can go.
Q. You talk about these songs as if they're photos in an album.
A. That word "snapshot" is very good here. These songs are three-minute pictures of something. There's a lot of stuff behind them — the good songs, anyway.
Q. Do you enjoy going back and listening to the old stuff?
A. [A pause] I'm not a guy who sits around and listens to his own records. That's not my idea of a good time. When you make a record, you listen to it hundreds of times; you kind of wallow in it. Once it's out and you can't change anything, I don't want to hear it again. I'm not going to be listening to this box set.
Q. The Irish version of "The Hardy Boys at the Y" on the box was nice to hear. It makes much more sense in that arrangement. I never understood why the ends of the verses repeat until now.
A. I love that kind of music. The Boys of the Lough, the Bothy Band, Christy Moore — we knew each other playing folk festivals. I can't recall why we didn't put that song out this way instead of the live version [on 1975's "Unrequited"].
Q. Tell me about writing "No Sure Way."
A. I once lived in Brooklyn Heights, a beautiful part of New York, and there's this thing called the Promenade Walk out there where you can see all of lower Manhattan. When 9/11 happened, I was out here in this Long Island house, and I went back a day or two later to the Promenade and looked at that ... smoking mound, I guess is what it was, of rubble and humanity. When you face something that huge, you think, "I'm not even going to think of writing a song about this. It's too ridiculous and too maudlin." I'm sure there are hundreds of songs written about 9/11 now. But later that week I found myself taking a subway ride that went directly underneath the mound, and I wrote and recorded this song three days later. Like the words I used in the song, it felt "obscene."
Q. In the liner notes, David Wild describes you as "fearless." Do you feel fearless?
A. In my part of the liner notes, I address that point that David and others have made. Take the song "Hitting You." It's about hauling off and hitting [daughter] Martha. That's an example, I suppose, of a fearless song. If you're at a performance in a dark room with lights on you and a microphone and people are sitting there listening, it sounds and looks fearless — but it's a natural habitat for me. I feel pretty safe. I'm aware of the fact that I'm getting into areas that maybe people have strong feelings about, but for me it feels quite natural, not any act of courage. It's what I do. It's my shtick. I write about my personal life and the people in it. I haven't masked it too much. It's just what I do.
Q. That's what folk music is supposed to be all about.
A. It's about what's happening to you, and what's happened to me is in manyways what's happened to everybody. My life is not particularly unusual. There's identification. That's what art is about. People say, "I know what he's talking about."
Q. I read that [Wainwright's son] Rufus is assembling his own box set, true?
A. Yes, Rufus and I are recording a song next week to be on his bonus disc.
Q. What song?
A. "Down Where the Drunkards Roll" by Richard Thompson.
Q. And congratulations on becoming a granddad again. [Rufus Wainwright announced earlier this year he and his partner became parents to a child, Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen, via Lorca Cohen, daughter of Canadian singer Leonard Cohen.]
A. Thanks. I was in L.A. when Viva arrived. I love being a grandparent. It's so much easier.
Q. What's next?
A. Writing new songs, and I suspect I'll think about making another record.
Q. Any acting gigs?
A. I have an audition tomorrow! Thank heaven I have folk music to fall back on.
with Kim Richey
• 7 and 10 p.m. April 15
• Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $24-$28, (773) 728-6000, oldtownschool.org
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The party game should have been called The Six Degrees of Joe Boyd.
A now-legendary music producer, the American-born Boyd (right, above) was a central figure in London's music scene during the mid-'60s. He ran Elektra Records' office there as well as the famed UFO club. In both capacities, he worked with artists such as Eric Clapton, the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Nico, Nick Drake and Pink Floyd. He's loaded with stories about many of rock's iconic figures and watershed moments. Before London, he was a part of the folk revival in the states, working with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. When Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Boyd was the guy who plugged in his guitar.
While Boyd was shepherding seminal music in the '60s, Robyn Hitchcock was hoarding it as a gangly teen and aspiring rocker. Within a decade, the eccentric and occasionally loopy Hitchcock was reproducing those sounds in his own music — in the Soft Boys in the '70s, with the Egyptians in the '80s, on his solo albums still.
Now the two have joined forces for a short tour. Boyd tells stories, some of which he reads from his superb 2007 memoir White Bicycles, and Hitchcock chimes in with songs to illustrate a point, pop a punchline or simply revel in '60s nostalgia.
They've performed the show together a handful of times, at South by Southwest and other festivals, but it's hardly rehearsed.
"No, no, we wing it," Boyd said in an interview from London. "Robyn was actually worried about committing to too many of these shows, afraid they'd start to get rehearsed and structured. One night in Portland [Ore.], they'd scheduled a second show, as we have in Chicago, and some people from the first show said they'd buy tickets and stay for the second if we'd do different stuff. We cobbled a whole new show together in 10 minutes. It helped convince him we could keep this spontaneous and loose and not let it calcify."
"We decide before each show which episodes he's going to tell, then I select the songs accordingly," Hitchcock said in a separate interview. "Joe tells his stories very well. There's so much. This is Joe's story, and I come in as the winged messenger singing the songs he midwifed into existence and asking persistent questions about Syd Barrett. He's very good, and the camera loves him. We're filming the Chicago shows, in fact, to make an amalgamated compound version for video."
Spontaneity, after all, has been the hallmark of Boyd's producing career. "I'm always in favor of not rehearsing too much," he said. "I try to do things as live as possible in the studio."
This, he said, is one of the reasons his producing career has slowed to a trickle in recent years. Boyd rarely picks up producing gigs anymore. "The people that do call me up, I say, 'Well, if I really like the music, would you be up to doing it live in the studio? A week to record and a week to mix?' They look at me like, uhhhh. 'A week, is that all?' Why would anyone need more? What are you going to do in there with more than a week other than overthink it? They say they'll get back to me, and they don't. ... The recording process has been demystified now. Many artists think, probably rightly, Robyn included, that they don't need a producer. In the '60s, groups would come in wide-eyed and need someone to show them what to do. I still think that process was a good one. I'm not sure the ProTools and democratizing of the process has really empowered artists as much as they think."
Boyd revived his producing duties in the '80s, tackling emerging bands such as R.E.M. ("Fables of the Reconstruction"), 10,000 Maniacs ("The Wishing Chair") and Billy Bragg ("Worker's Playtime"). Boyd and Hitchcock first met in London while Boyd was working on R.E.M.'s album, Hitchcock said.
I asked Boyd for an '80s story instead of a '60s one. He told one — by way of last year's remastered anniversary reissue of R.E.M.'s "Fables."
"I always had a problem with those mixes. The group was unhappy, I was unhappy," he said. "No one liked the room we were mixing in. Michael [Stipe] was always saying, 'Turn me down, turn me down,' and Peter was saying, 'Turn me down.' How could you mix a record if everyone wanted to be turned down? Peter's the one who brought me in on this in the first place. He was a big Nick Drake and Incredible String Band fan. So when it came time for the 25th anniversary, I approached the group — we're still good friends — and said, 'Let me try remixing a couple of tracks, see what you think. If you like it, we'll do the whole record.' So we did, and I was kind of thrilled by it. It sounded great. Everyone agreed it finally sounded really good — but at least one person in the group felt the moment is the moment, that the mixing is part of the art, and he was uncomfortable remixing it. I understood, I didn't disagree. Normally I would never suggest remixing a record. We'd all agreed that this decision would have to be unanimous, and since there was some resistance, I said fine and left it. Then they remastered it, and somehow they managed to do not everything but some of the things I was trying to accomplish in the remix. It sounds much better."
But this show, titled "Live & Direct From 1967," concentrates on that formative era.
"It's all about the '60s, really, which technically started in about 1965," Hitchcock said. "This is when Joe was tour managing and intersected with Bob Dylan. He's putting his coat into a room at a party, and there's a guy on the floor serenading two young women. It's Dylan singing 'Masters of War' and 'Hard Rain.' You can imagine his voice muffled by all the coats but somehow still hypnotizing them. ... If the world went into color in 1965, the color were defined by '67. There was pop music sounding very different, and people were getting very hairy. Something changed in the molecular structure of society, and a lot of it had to do with music. Music either symbolized or caused it, I don't know which. I was changing myself. I was 14. I'm emblematic of it. That change is part of my DNA."
"This show only works because of Robyn's connection to the music I had a hand in, and it's a deep, unfathomable connection," Boyd said. "Here's somebody whose music is completely original — you couldn't possibly accuse him of being derivative — so out and completely Robynesque, and yet it's so in the spirit of the '60s. He didn't absorb much into the '70s. The loam in which his curious musical plants grow is very much the rotting — and now I'm sounding like Robyn, I've been around him too much — the rotting carcasses of the '60s are the loam in which his fruits grow."
Boyd's roots reach all the way to the soil here, in fact. His musical career might not have taken off without what he calls his "turning point in Chicago."
"Chicago was very important to me, and I've hardly been back there since," he said. "I had some cousins who lived there, and I'd come out to visit with my father. We discovered Bob Kester and the Jazz Record Mart, and Delmark Records. We'd hang out at that shop, and Kester was amused by our precocity as teenagers. He would allow us to thumb through his 78 [rpm record] collection. It was great to get to go to Chicago because we got to hang out at Kester's. After my freshman year at Harvard, I decided to take a year off and go to work at a record company. Kester gave me the introduction to Les Koenig at Contemporary Records [a jazz label in California]. After that, I became a distributor back in Boston for Delmark and others. Then I happened to hear about [blues musician] Paul Butterfield, and told [producer] Paul Rothchild what I'd heard. He went to Chicago, saw Butterfield, signed him to Elektra. I suggested adding Mike Bloomfield, too, and that worked out so well that's how I got the job offer from Elektra to go to London. So the key things in my life happened in Chicago, and since 1965 I've barely been back."
ROBYN HITCHCOCK & JOE BOYD: 'LIVE & DIRECT FROM 1967'
7 and 10 p.m. March 19
Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $31-$35, (773)728-6000, oldtownschool.org
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
They say the devil is in the details. For DJ Afrika Bambaataa, the devil is hard at work in the lack of them.
"Hip-hop has been hijacked by a Luciferian conspiracy," he says, quite matter-of-factly. "People have used hip-hop in a lot of ways that cause a lot of mind problems. They use the word wrongfully. They use it to mean a part instead of a whole. Like many of these [radio] stations say they're hip-hop, they're playing hip-hop. I go to these stations, and these so-called program directors don't know jack crap about hip-hop culture. They know rap to a certain extent. But I question them. I say, 'Where's your go-go, your hip-house, your electro-funk, your raga, your R&B and soul?' They get real quiet."
As the man often credited with inventing the term "hip-hop," Bambaataa has the right to quibble over its application.
The history of the enigmatic Bambaataa — his real name is a mystery, though it's often reported as Kevin Donovan, and you absolutely do not ask him how old he is — has been told and retold and should be on tablets by now. Grew up in the south Bronx projects, became a warlord in the Black Spades gang, then decided to use his powers for good instead of evil. With a natural talent for community organizing and an innate charisma, Bambaataa formed his own gang, the Zulu Nation, and started throwing the coolest parties in his 'hood.
When people gathered for a block party, the distinction between audience and performer was nebulous. A DJ plugged his system (illegally) into the lamppost and played some records; to keep the energy up, he only played a minute or two of the song before cutting to another one. Kids would dance, showing off some crazy new moves. Someone might grab a microphone and tell stories or rap. Someone else colors a nearby wall with spray-paint. These would become the four pillars of what Bambaataa would enshrine as "hip-hop": DJing, break dancing, MCing (rapping) and graffiti art.
"It was a word that was being used in cliche raps, by Keith "Cowboy" [Wiggins, later of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five] and other people," Bambaataa says. "Once this became a thing, you know, we had to call it something. It's hip-hop. It's hip, and you've gotta hop to the beat to get down to feeling what you're feeling."
This is why Bambaataa is still going, still touring as a DJ without much fanfare, still throwing block parties in whatever club will have them: It's about "getting down."
"I can't stand it when the audience just stares at you," he says. "I tell these promoters, 'I'm coming to DJ. It's about the audience and the party. People are gonna dance, so be ready.' ... Dancing brings out the inner self of people, lets certain things go. You're stressed out, got problems at home, hard times at work — the vibration of the music does many things to many different people. Has throughout history. We're never more human than when we're moving to music. Dogs run, birds sing, bees work. Humans do all that, but only humans dance."
Bambaataa's party culture thrived throughout the '70s. Then rappers started making records. Bambaataa's output during the last three decades has been erratic but influential (he recently collected his '90s output in "The Decade of Darkness: 1990-2000"), especially at first. His penchant for mixing old music with new also led him to blend styles, as well. His 1982 single "Planet Rock" was revelatory: Instead of a funk band, Bambaataa clipped beats and sounds from a record by Germany's dance-rock pioneers Kraftwerk. A new approach to music making (and copyright lawsuits) was born.
Today, though, Bambaataa is one DJ who doesn't show up to the club with a lot of precious vinyl.
"I love having a digital crate now," he says. "I still go looking for certain vinyl records, but I put 'em into my digital crate.
"This way I can have a variety of so much different music I can spring on any audience I play for. ... It helps me take people on a journey. The last gig I was at, I said, 'I want you to dance like your mom and pop used to.' I started throwing '60s records. People went crazy. Once you've got 'em, you keep 'em going. I jump back to a style they enjoy today, then hit 'em with James Brown. I play stuff even from the '30s and '40s, stuff I didn't even know I had. Whatever the moment presents."
The music Bambaataa is hip to now
Afrika Bambaataa still combs record stores for the purpose of loading up his digital DJ playlists. Here's what he's been grooving on lately:
• "I finally found Sly & the Family Stone's 'Dance a la Musique' in French. It's this thing they did, they re-cut 'Dance to the Music' and sang it like Alvin & the Chipmunks. It was serious to find that."
• "Brazilian electro-funk, rio-funk, Bali-funk — that's killing now. I'm pushing a lot of that."
• "In hip-hop, I like this Lore'l from Brooklyn. Very refreshing."
• "I'm liking a lot of the underground stuff people are making right off their laptops. What about that Gorillaz album they made on an iPad?"
• "Janelle Monae, man, I love her. I DJ'd for some of her shows. I'd like to do more."
with Intel, Maker, Trew and Shred One
• 10 p.m. Jan. 26
• The Mid, 306 N. Halsted
• Tickets: $10, (312) 265-3990, themidchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Liz Phair knows the indie-rock party line. She's heard it stated and restated for coming up on 18 years: Her first album, 1993's landmark-knighted "Exile in Guyville," was feminist rock 'n' roll genius on every level — and everything else she's ever uttered since, as speech or song, is utter crap.
Perhaps that's because "Guyville" is such a strong, confident statement from a Wicker Park woman who seemed quite uncompromising, and each follow-up record has seemed unsteady, whimsical and quite compromising. When Phair surprised fans last summer with a new album, "Funstyle," released through her website, the wrath returned. Critics were universally dumbfounded by the album's tuneless talent, dreadful rapping on one track ("Bollywood") and wide-of-the-mark execution, few more colorfully than those around her adopted hometown. The A.V. Club called "Funstyle" a "box of dirt." Pitchfork said it was "horrible on just about every conceivable level." The Reader said listening to it gives you a good case of the "douchechills."
But unlike Phair's stab at mainstream pop in 2003, much of the vitriol flung at "Funstyle" was tempered ever-so-slightly by an underlying fascination. In my own review, I held out hope that Phair was in on her own joke (one song, "U Hate It," foretold all the bad reviews, and the music was posted with a note explaining "How to Like It"). It's a difficult work of art but, for better or worse, it's certainly daring. When we consider art outside the typical commercial, consumerist frame of pop music, that trait is usually respected, if not always revered.
Before she started another tour this month — on which she and a full band will indeed perform songs from "Funstyle" — we caught up with Phair to find out just WTF is going on.
Q. You've taken another beating over "Funstyle." How does this one rate?
Liz Phair: I feel less beaten up about this than on previous things. The first two weeks of press was so, "Blah blah, I'm freaking out, why wasn't I told?" My career has been riddled with controversy, which I never fully understand. I don't know why it surprises people that I surprise them.
Q. Your intent then was to spring something wacky on us?
LP: It was really done in the spirit of good-hearted fun. ... That's part of why I wrote the little blurb to go with it. I didn't expect people not to get that. I called it "Funstyle." I was trying to be direct. The first round of reviews — I don't think they even got that it was funny. Really, you think I'm actually trying to start a rap career now? It stopped me in my tracks, like when you're at a party and someone says something and you just don't know how to respond to further the conversation? It's, like, OK, I'm going back to the bar to get another drink now ...
Q. And this isn't just your damage-control explanation now — ha ha, it was a joke, get it?
LP: No, I've been as consistently clear about this from the very beginning of the project. I don't see how it could be clearer.
Q. So what was the beginning of the project?
LP: The stuff on "Funstyle" came from two things. First, there's stuff influenced by my TV scoring career. [Phair's day job these days is scoring television shows. Her music has set the mood for episodes of "90210" and "In Plain Sight," winning her an ASCAP award for composing.] You spend long, long hours in a studio messing with soundscapes, and you get slap-happy. So you try to have fun with it, you try to crack yourself up. And there's a mania that develops having all this stuff, these sounds, at your fingertips, which I tried to put into a quasi-serious but mostly tongue-in-cheek piece of work. ... The other part was born in very natural jam sessions and a friendship with Dave Matthews. [Phair was briefly on Matthews' record label, ATO. Some of his playing appears on "Funstyle."] I would fly around and piggyback on various recording sessions he does when he's on the road when he wants to get ideas down. It was truly just two artists meeting and wanting to make music together. It was very simple on my end.
Q. Dave wasn't thrilled about the results, I guess. You just lost your ATO deal and your management — directly as a result of "Funstyle"?
LP: Yeah. ATO is a lovely label, but the guy that signed me left, and you know what that does. There's a reassessment, and suddenly the new people don't know who you are or care. And the stuff I was doing, they didn't know what to do with. My management said, "Hell no, I am not taking a rap song into a radio station! It's the stupidest thing I ever heard." I said, "Really? I think it's the funniest thing." I took it hard. I loved my management team. But sometimes it's time to part ways.
Q. So you wind up with this batch of songs, you know they're going to throw people for a loop. How much thinking about the situation did you do before posting?
LP: I waited a year sitting on this stuff. I wasn't trying to blow this up. I waited to see if I liked it as much as I thought I did. Now I'm writing a more mature and serious record, but it felt really wrong to skip over this. It's who I am intrinsically as a person, someone who puts it all out and takes a chance with an unbroken chain and doesn't stop to make sure I look just so before I leave the house.
Q. You're unfiltered. You think: Why not only try rapping but let's even display the results?
LP: Sure. It's about the journey and the process. I do things because I love doing them, or trying them. I'm less invested in protecting or even developing a brand. Obviously. ... And who cares if it's outside your comfort zone? I've always been a little daring. My parents like to joke that if there's something I'm totally unqualified for, that's of course what I'll be doing next.
Q. Can there be a Liz Phair album other than "Guyville, Part 2" that will please the masses?
LP: Uh, no? To do "Guyville 2" because I'm supposed to do it or because it's the only thing people like feels — meh. I'm writing stuff now that's really touching me, some stuff that's actually made me weep. I don't know if it's "Guyville 2," but it's off-kilter and very heartfelt and very personal, directed at a single person. It feels authentic, maybe in the same way.
Q. Does this free-wheeling spirit you're describing have anything to do with raising your son, who's now in his teens?
LP: He's just 14. All parents gush about what it's like to be a parent. I love it. His little world — he's basically sound, he's independent, and I enjoy him. There's kind of a rock 'n' roll way a 14-year-old boy thinks, and there's definitely a resonance between my job and what his brain is like. It's partly uncomfortable and partly really inspiring. He keeps me in touch with that part of myself.
with the Horse's Ha
8 p.m. Jan. 22
Metro, 3730 N. Clark
Tickets: $25, (800) 514-ETIX, metrochicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
John Mellencamp wants to go back and start again. He doesn't want to become Johnny Cougar again — God, no. He has nothing but contempt for his own early work as a late-'70s/early-'80s, floppy-haired heartland poster boy. When he speaks of his first eight albums of pandering pop-rock — full of Top 40 hits, mind you, like "I Need a Lover," "Hurts So Good," and signature songs like "Jack & Diane" and "Pink Houses" — it's with a scoff and a sneer.
He's tried to reboot several times. The name change, for one — Johnny Cougar, then John Cougar Mellencamp, cat-free since '91. The turning point came when Mellencamp, a native of Seymour, Ind., released 1985's "Scarecrow," a transitional album that gave us "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." but also rootsy, populist tracks like "Small Town," "The Face of the Nation," "Justice and Independence" and "You've Gotta Stand for Somethin'." It was a bid for critical respect, and it worked. (That same year, he helped found Farm Aid with Neil Young and Willie Nelson.) Each album since — an admirable catalog of a dozen more records with a thoroughly Midwestern blend of Friday-night fun and corner-diner speeches — has received various and consistent acclaim.
But people at the shows still expect him to do the splits.
"I talked to my next-door neighbor this morning," Mellencamp, 59, said during our recent interview from his Indiana home. "She was at the show in Bloomington [Ind.]. She said, 'Really, I like the old John better.' And I said, 'Well, Cathy, that guy doesn't exist anymore.' It'd be foolish of me to try and do at my age now what I was doing at 32. It's not dignified. Jumping off an amp at my age would be stupid. Singing 'Hurts So Good'? Please. If people are coming to see 'The Coug,' they should stay home."
If he could erase parts of the past and start over, he said he would. And this is what much of our conversation was about: looking to the past without being nostalgic, back-tracking through decades of "progress" to a point further back — and taking a different route from there. Anything, he said, that might detour around, say, 1983's "The Kid Inside."
Q. You have pretty clear contempt for your early work.
A. I did what I had to do. I did what people told me. There was no way those folk songs were ever going to get anywhere unless I had hit records.
Q. By denouncing those early records, aren't you also insulting your fans?
A. Am I worrying about insulting people? Well, there's no winning that. No matter what you do, someone's going to be insulted. Playing "R.O.C.K." tomorrow night would certainly be insulting. To me.
Q. If you played it like you did in 1985, perhaps.
A. The only thing to do is to try and figure out a way to get to people who want to hear songs like "Easter Eve" [a new, nearly seven-minute song] and do a good job at it. I'll play "R.O.C.K." again, but not in a way you'll imagine. Last night during a show [at Nashville's storied Ryman Auditorium] during a slow, quiet section, someone yelled out, 'Jack and Diane!' I said, 'You're impatient.' I play it, but you don't know what it is till I start singing it. It's the first time I've enjoyed playing it in 20 years. It's a brand new song. It's the folk song it always meant to be. It doesn't sound anything like that version on radio. I always looked at that song like a graphic novel, and now it takes on a whole new seriousness I never realized existed in it.
Mellencamp's new album, "No Better Than This," showcases his desire to rewind and replay. Released in August on revered folk label Rounder Records, its 13 new songs were recorded at three historic locations, and in mono. Much of the album was captured in single takes at Sun Studios, the Memphis storefront where Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash made landmark debuts. Other songs were taped at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga. (the first stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War), and Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in downtown San Antonio, where a young Robert Johnson sat and recorded 16 now-legendary blues songs (including "Sweet Home Chicago") this week in November 1936.
"The only song written especially for one of the locations was 'Right Behind Me,'" Mellencamp said. "I looked at the songs I'd written and realized I hadn't written a song about the devil. How do you walk into Robert Johnson's house without a song about the devil? So I wrote 'Right Behind Me' real quick." The song's narrator is off to see his baby ("She in Chicago"), and the devil's over his shoulder. "He thinks he's got me / but he ain't got me," he sings — either victorious or overconfident, it's never clear.
Mellencamp sees demons all around him, mostly technological ones. CDs? "A con," he said. MP3s? "A terrible way to listen to music." This lead into a lengthy rant that peaked with his favorite declaration: "The Internet is the most dangerous invention since the atomic bomb." Before this, he had some choice things to say about the recent election, such as: "I love it when the right starts talking about all they've done — referring back to World War II and what their grandparents did. You weren't even born, what the f—- do you have to do with it?"
The world has progressed, he says, but in the wrong direction. So for "No Better Than This," he wanted to go back — sort of, not to relive and re-create, but to start anew from back there. Or at the very least steer back to the path that could have been. As he talked about the new record and his choices of location (interest first, ability to reach them while on tour with Willie Nelson second), Mellencamp insisted he "wasn't trying to go back" by using the old methods and sites. He "looked at this as a forward move."
"Calling something progress doesn't make it better," he said. "That's what the song 'The West End' is about. Things are worse now than they've ever been. There's a line that says, 'Look what progress did / Someone lined their pockets / I don't know who that is.' This is not some old guy hanging on to the idea that things were better when he was a kid. F—- that! I'm not nostalgic at all. I just think we went the wrong way with progress back when we had the chance."
Still, he describes his new tour as "a modern-day vaudeville show." Each concert begins with the showing of a documentary by photographer Kurt Marcus about the making of "No Better Than This." Mellencamp and his band play on "a wild variety" of acoustic instruments, then Mellencamp plays solo for about 40 minutes. The concert closes with a full electric band, all-out rock 'n' roll.
Q. So you still give a little of the old John, rocking out some hits in the end?
A. I'm playing the songs I want to play. At this age, to be doing anything else would be a waste of time.
Q. "Pink Houses," I'll bet.
A. All I've gotta do is start playing that song in the show, and I don't have to sing a note. People know every word to that song. Of course, that song was totally misunderstood when it came out and wound up related to some kind of community, or having pride, pride in ourselves, which is not what it's about but is what people took from it. That can't be bad.
Q. You won the Woody Guthrie Award back in 2003. His songs have been misunderstood more than a few times. Ever thought about writing new music to some of his old lyrics the way others have done?
A. Nora [Guthrie, Woody's daughter and keeper of the Woody Guthrie Archives] has sent me hundreds of lyrics. The fact that so many people have done that is exactly why I won't do it. I wouldn't even pretend I would know what to do with his words. But Wilco and — what's his name? the British guy? — Billy Bragg, they did a hell of a job. ... The world sure needs more music like that now.
Q. Because of hard times?
A. When times are good, you end up with stuff like the Charleston, that kind of music, light stuff, "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?" When times are tough, you turn to what is stable, what makes the backbone of this country. Music from the land.
Q. The "heartland"? Do you claim that kind of identity?
A. Years ago, I was fussing around, worrying about what to wear on stage. My wife looked at me and said, "John, put on a pair of blue jeans and get out there. You're a blue jeans man. Don't mess with that." That's what people come back to. People don't need smoke and mirrors. I'm an old pair of brown shoes — worn out, but comfortable. Things like that, you just sometimes don't appreciate till later on.
6:30 p.m. Nov. 26 and 27
Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
Tickets: $42.50-$125, (800) 745-3000, ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Crowded House called it quits in 1996 after four albums and several modest hits. Granted, most of those hits were on the front end ("Don't Dream It's Over" in 1987, "Better Be Home Soon" the following year), and the band fared better in Europe and its native lands down under. But singer and songwriter Neil Finn's McCartneyesque melodies have survived as a credible, inspiring body of work.
Rumors and requests of a reunion persisted, but in 2005 founding drummer Paul Hester killed himself. The reunion, however — of Finn and bassist Nick Seymour, adding Mark Hart and a new drummer, Matt Sherrod — eventually happened in spite of this tragedy, possibly because of it.
Crowded House Mach II has been a more complex affair, thus far delivering two albums ("Time on Earth" in 2007, this summer's "Intriguer") of densely arranged tunes with wilder undercurrents. We caught up with Neil Finn this week to hear how the new venture is holding together.
Q. How's this tour going?
A. We're in really good shape as a band. It's a very generic answer, but it's true. We've clocked a lot of miles, and our instincts are serving us very well. We're jamming more.
Q. Beg pardon? I certainly don't think of Crowded House as a jam band.
A. Well, as much as our spirit of adventure will allow us. It's not always going to be particularly appealing for the audience to hear us go off together, but we're striking a balance. But I do love the way some songs can be, to some extent, redefined. When I say jamming, I mean throwing a few new angles on the tracks. There are quite a few points in the set where we depart from the script.
Q. Like where?
A. "Private Universe," "Hole in the River" — these have allowed themselves to become quite sprawling, quite intense. Generally speaking, most audiences have seemed quite thrilled with them.
Q. Is there something about the new lineup that lends itself to this happening?
A. We always had that inclination in the old band, though we were regarded as this tight pop band. I think we always had a sense of openness on stage, though. ... We began our career in the first incarnation by busking, the three of us, on streets, in houses, restaurants. So early on there was a freedom, a willingness to get the audience involved and go where you wanted to go. Our drummer at the time [Hester] had a mad sense of abandon and humor, and that became a part of our show. We don't have his presence anymore, but our approach to performing is still looking for those moments that jump off.
Q. You ended the band saying you needed some creative space. Did you find it?
A. Absolutely. I felt hemmed in by Crowded House at the time. I went and made two solo albums, another two with my brother [Tim Finn]. In the course of that I got to play with some amazing people. It was good for the natural restlessness of creativity.
Q. The solo songs called out to be outside the band?
A. It's hard to talk about, but yeah. I suppose I could have done this with the band, or I could've kept the name and done the same thing with other people. But I attached myself to the idea that the band is a fairly involved, encompassing thing and you had to be in it completely; you couldn't come and go.
Q. I remember Rhett Miller speaking about his first solo album away from the Old 97s. People were always asking him, "These sound like Old 97s songs. Why couldn't you just do them with the band?"
A. Right, he toured with me once; I remember that same conversation. He could have; I could have. Sometimes you just have to feel around outside your comforts.
Q. Was re-forming the band inevitable after Paul died?
A. It was part of the sequence of events, no doubt. I was seeing Nick quite a bit in the aftermath of that awful thing. We reconnected and found ourselves playing music, as we do. I was working on what was to be a solo album at the time, but he started to be a part of that process. By the end, we were reconciled to some new spirit of the band. ... It put a good history to our story, so that it wouldn't end in that dark place.
7:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday
House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn
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.