This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
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SXSW 2013 opens with names big and small
By Thomas Conner on March 13, 2013 9:00 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "It's like Comic Con, but without anything cool."
That early review of South by Southwest came from one of the multitude of hipsters strutting through the Austin Convention Center on Tuesday — the final day of SXSW Interactive and the first day of SXSW Music. This annual conference and festival in the Texas capital has grown into a 10-day event encompassing rollouts of films, digital ventures and new music. The movies and online jibber-jabber started March 8; the music blares on through March 17.
The relative coolness of what lies ahead remains to be seen, but it's already shaping up to be a typical mix of fresh-faced new bands — the showcasing of which was SXSW's original mission when it began in 1987 — and big-name celebs.
In the latter category, Depeche Mode, Green Day and Dave Grohl's Sound City Players (an assembly of Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Springfield, Rick Nielsen, Corey Taylor and many more) have booked big performances this week. Other formidable names — Iggy & the Stooges, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Vampire Weekend, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds — also are among the thousands of artists vying for attention from journalists, record labels and digital media.
The rumor mill, though, is buzzing about two other megastars: Prince and Justin Timberlake. Both taut pop-R&B legends have been floated as possible surprise showcases during SXSW. The Prince gig is just a rumor, with an unnamed source suggesting that His Purpleness will perform with a 22-piece band Saturday night at the cavernous La Zona Rosa club.
Timberlake — whose new album, "The 20/20 Experience," is out Tuesday (read my review) — is scheduled all week on TV's "Lat Night With Jimmy Fallon," but the Austinist site has pieced together clues toward JT's own possible Saturday night show.
Watch this blog for my own reports. My docket includes the big and the small, from seeing how Green Day emerges from their personal crisis to checking out up-and-comers like Foxygen and Lianne La Havas. I'll also be sniffing out the home-cooking that always pervades SXSW, from Chicago's Wild Belle and Chief Keef to the premiere of the blues documentary "Born in Chicago." Stay tuned!
SXSW: Long live Shoes, long live Camper Van Beethoven
By Thomas Conner on March 13, 2013 6:32 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Janice Greenberg actually teared up a bit at the Camper Van Beethoven show.
The 46-year-old mother of two from Sonoma County, Calif., stumbled into the Jr. club Wednesday afternoon, squinting from the bright-to-black transition and her jaw hanging down. The band was running through its well-known 1980s indie-rock standard, "Take the Skinheads Bowling" — but it was, Greenberg discovered to her considerable dismay, their last song.
"I had no idea that they ... are they even ... I didn't know they were here!" she said, close to a wail. "I love Camper!"
Camper eased onto the stage Wednesday afternoon and played a 10-song, career-spanning set that was plenty to justify their status as indie-rock grandfathers. What was extraordinary, though — and somehow I always forget this till I'm faced with it — was the skill of the five players. CVB's music can get complicated, not in a convoluted art-rock sense but in a self-taught virtuoso sense. While singer David Lowery wheezes and whines his weird, grumpy-ol'-stoner tales, you've got Jonathan Segel (elegant on violin, especially during "Sad Lover's Waltz," but also adding swooping third guitar to the new "Too High for the Love-In") and Greg Lisher (braiding melodies and countermelodies throughout like a pro). New songs like "Northern California Girls" — from the recently released new album, "La Costa Perdida" — were refreshing live, while old surprises like "Seven Languages" still packed a punch.
The best part, though, was when Greenberg got the good news: Camper's playing again two hours later, at 7 p.m. right next door at El Sol y La Luna, 600 E 6th St. I'd quote her reaction, but she was off like a shot to secure her spot.
Trusty ol' Shoes
Another legacy act inaugurated SXSW 2013 Wednesday afternoon with a show that was, at least historically, slightly more momentous. Beloved power-pop band Shoes — the lions of Zion, Ill. — played their first concert outside the Chicago area in 18 years.
Shoes, an occasional underground delight since appearing in 1975, reunited last year to record "Ignition," their first new album since 1994. Early Wednesday afternoon, at an annual showcase organized by Chicago native publicist Cary Baker (who shepherded the dB's into their comeback at the same place last year), singer-guitarists Jeff Murphy and Gary Klebe, brother John Murphy on bass and drummer John Richardson blasted through their own career-spanning set.
Shoes is one of those bands with a consistency that's more than a little frightening. I was bobbing my head through most of "Say It Like You Mean It" before I remembered it was one of the new ones.
No one at SXSW has just one gig anymore: Shoes' play again (their official showcase) at 11 p.m. Friday at Maggie Mae's Gibson Room, 512 Trinity St.
SXSW: 'Born in Chicago' explores '60s blues hand-off
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 1:33 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — A day after it was announced as a featured documentary at next month's annual Chicago International Movies & Music Festival, "Born in Chicago" had its world premiere here at SXSW on Wednesday afternoon.
The film, directed by John Anderson, chronicles the history and tall tales from the generation of young, affluent white kids who gathered in Chicago during the 1950s and '60s, learning to play the blues from the men who had honed the music on their own. Narration by Marshall Chess (son and nephew of the Chess Records founders) mixes into interviews with Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Nick Gravenites, Barry Goldberg (who co-produced the film) and excellent footage of the late Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield. On the other side are snatches of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, plus interviews with Sam Lay and the great Hubert Sumlin.
"Born in Chicago" makes Bloomfield, a wealthy Jewish guitar virtuoso (a fact he presents in a funny bit of old footage), appear something of a valiant crusader for crossing the mid-century racial divide, bearing his instrument. Goldberg relates a templated tale of him and Bloomfield venturing into the South Side one night to sit in with Howlin' Wolf — and the hush that came over the club when two white boys walked in. All that's missing is the record-scratching clip from the Dexter Lake Club in "Animal House."
The film's problematic thesis, though, seems to be that this particular appropriation wasn't like all the other black cultural exploitations by white musicians — because Muddy and Wolf and the gang were apparently so thrilled to be noticed, appreciated and revered by these upper-middle class dilettantes. Chess himself drives the point home about "these white kids treating 'em like stars," and Goldberg assures us that "people recognized the respect we had for their music." Musselwhite — himself the subject of a current generational rediscovery thanks to his recent collaboration with Ben Harper — insists, "These guys ... were so flattered we knew who they were." Just because the original bluesmen welcomed their exploiters, however, does not mean they weren't exploited.
Even Jack White mentions what a "shame" it is that it takes white people to "legitimize" something like this, apparently never stopping to consider that the music previously had been perfectly legitimate for black people. So only when white people — a bunch of Brits, no less, once the Stones showed up at Chess — stamp their approval does a music become 2 legit 2 quit? Same song, umpteenth verse.
Steve Miller probably sums up the reality of the situation better than anyone in the film: "Everybody talks about it like, oh, these white kids. We were competing with Howlin' Wolf for gigs. ... It was business."
Catch "Born in Chicago" at the CIMM fest in Chicago, April 18-21. Four-day passes are on sale now.
SXSW: Chicago's Wild Belle ready for summer
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 8:15 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — SXSW originally was created to showcase music that was new, fresh, creative. Wild Belle returned to the festival Wednesday night boasting all three.
The Chicago-area, brother-sister duo of Elliot and Natalie Bergman kicked off the Wednesday showcases with a packed house at the roomy upstairs Haven club, with lines of eager badge-holders and fans stretching in two directions down the block. Leaning heavily on their new album, "Isles" — released Tuesday on major label Columbia — the Bergmans and their band bounced effortlessly through their reggae-driven pop. It was music for the Austin weather: warm, breezy and revitalizing. That they performed a song about being "bundled up like chickadees" in Chicago seemed almost to taunt the folks back home.
Natalie is a Kittenish creature — capitalized because, while her vocals certainly purr, she sings with a throaty, Eartha Kitt allure. She performs with a sultry confidence belying the fact that "Isles" is the band's debut. Elliot, though, is crucial to the band's unique sound. Puttering about among keyboards, a baritone saxophone and various gizmos, like a thumb piano with an electric pickup attached, he looks like Lazlo Hollyfield and underpins the music with a similarly silent mad genius. Wild Belle's sound is relaxed, summery and always keeps just left of what one might expect them to go. One of those moments where you wish this wasn't a mere 40-minute SXSW showcase.
SXSW: The return of Dixie Chick Natalie Maines
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 8:39 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Really, no hoots and cheers when Natalie Maines, covering Pink Floyd's "Mother," sang the song's line about running for president?
Maines, the singer for country's Dixie Chicks, returned to the spotlight in a Wednesday night showcase at the Austin City Limits Live theater during SXSW. Once the flashpoint for debate after disparaging President George W. Bush (telling a London audience in 2003, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas"), the Lubbock native was back in Austin a decade later to unveil the new Natalie. Performing the entirety of her new album, "Mother" — her solo debut since the Dixie Chicks went on hiatus in 2007 — Maines appeared stolid and confident.
In fact, in the beginning the set lacked much energy at all, plodding through midtempo numbers without much fanfare or enthusiasm. The Pink Floyd cover — a dark choice, but played capably and arranged for arenas — is part of the reason this is being touted as a "rock" record, and eventually more of her trademark feistiness backed up that perspective. Politics are still foregrounded: "I put this on the album because it reminds me of the West Memphis Three," she said by way of introducing Dan Wilson's "Free Life." But then — backed as she was Ben Harper and his Innocent Criminals band (Harper co-produced Maines' new album) — she put down her own guitar and launched into Patty Griffin's "Silver Bell," unleashing a pent-up Belinda Carlisle kind of frenzy while rooted at the mike. Suddenly the near faux-hawk hairdo was making sense.
"Mother" is due May 7. Incidentally, as Maines pointed out, Patty Griffin also has a new album out the same day.
SXSW: Dave Grohl talks Chicago, inspires the aspiring
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 2:08 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Dave Grohl stepped to the podium Thursday morning to deliver the keynote address at SXSW 2013, rolled up his sleeves, tucked his hair behind his ears — and put on reading glasses.
The move spoke not only to rock's AARP eligibility but to the paternal tone of his address. Largely an autobiography of a lifetime spent pursuing some measure of independence in his music, Grohl's speech aimed not at the media and industry crowding the Austin Convention Center ballroom but at any indie-rock kids who might hear him.
"There is no right or wrong, there is only your voice," he dispensed. "It's your voice. Cherish it, respect it, challenge it ... Everyone's blessed with at least that."
In Austin to hype his new documentary, "Sound City: Real to Reel," Grohl barely mentioned it, largely trying to inspire with his speech rather than merely shill for his flick.
The Foo Fighters leader and former Nirvana drummer began his hourlong talk with the moment of his birth, but wrapped it up by stating hope that his own two daughters will find their own way in the world. His remarks retraced that wayfinding, beginning with a K-tel record. His sister bought it in 1975, and it contained Edgar Winter's instrumental "Frankenstein," which he proceeded to scat for the audience. Hearing the tune was a life-changing moment, he said, adding, "It was the riff. I gave it all up for a f---in' riff."
Much of his tale he has told before, including the other pivotal musical moments he experienced during summer family visits in the Chicago area. He described (somehow) getting into the Cubby Bear to hear local punk legends Naked Raygun ("The most ferocious noise! Bodies were flying everywhere ... piss and puke. I was in heaven!") and making the pilgrimage to Wax Trax! Records to begin stocking up on the requisite punk catalog.
Grohl demonstrated the crude multitracking technique he came up with as a teen. With one tape machine, he recorded a few bars of a guitar riff. He placed that tape into another player and played it back, while recording some drum beats on the body of his guitar. Voila — the new recording contained both sounds!
Grohl's rewind was full of life-changing moments — a political punk show in Washington, D.C., a single question ("Have you heard of Nirvana?"), the death of Kurt Cobain.
"When Kurt died, I was lost. I was numb. The music that I had devoted my life to had now betrayed me. I had no voice. I put away my drums. I turned off the radio. I couldn't bear to hear someone else singing about their own pain or happiness."
He re-emerged with a self-made album, which he labeled the Foo Fighters, which became — as once described by Pitchfork, a media outlet he disparaged midway through his speech — "his generation's answer to Tom Petty — a consistent hit machine pumping out working-class rock."
Grohl's talk about Grohl was a bit thin after recent SXSW keynotes — Bruce Springsteen's rousing music history lesson last year, Bob Geldof's still-poignant pleas for rock's social conscience in 2011 — but it contained nuggets of self-awareness and inspiration for aspiring contemporary musicians.
Repeating a mantra about finding one's individual voice, he confessed, "F--- guilty pleasure! How about just pleasure? ... I can truthfully say out loud that 'Gangnam Style' is one of my favorite f---ing songs of the past year."
Dave Grohl's Sound City Players is a temporary supergroup featuring Grohl, Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Nielsen and many more. They perform an anticipated showcase later tonight.
SXSW shows off Chicago hip-hop
By Thomas Conner March 15, 2013 9:26 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Late Thursday night, an official showcase of more Chicago rappers — including King Louie, Lil Durk, Lil Mouse, GLC, Katie Got Bandz — stocked the upstairs Club 119 in the shadow of the Texas capitol. MCs and DJs ringed the club's small stage, waiting to be tagged in like pro wrestlers. Vic Spencer worked the crowd, followed by the dynamic and engaging YP, who boasted of his East Side roots and led the crowd chanting the title of "Insane" (alas, no Rockie Fresh cameo). Chance the Rapper was here, too, working his own forceful rhythms despite the tempo of his soothing, soulful tracks. Chance dances like a boxer on stage, and his rhymes (even when not talking about "tabs of acid" in "Brain Cells") get pretty wild and surreal.
And lest you've fallen prey to the notion that all Chicago hip-hop is bleak and violent, Chance shouted with notable ferocity: "Make some noise if you love your mama!"
SXSW: Dave Grohl's Sound City Players rock long
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2013 10:08 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "It's gonna be a long f---in' night," Dave Grohl promised at the start of his Thursday set with his live musical collage, the Sound City Players. Then the supergroup — Grohl on bass with his Foo Fighters, led by omnipresent hard-rock maestro Alain Johannes — kicked off a song that found Johannes pleading, "I hope it won't be long."
Dave Grohl's Sound City Players are a hodge-podge of recognizable names spanning three generations, a promotional ploy for Grohl's new documentary ("Sound City: Real To Reel," about the legendary Los Angeles recording studio) and its accompanying soundtrack. The group features Grohl and his band with Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Springfield, Lee Ving (Fear), Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick), Brad Wilk (Rage Against the Machine), Corey Taylor (Slipknot, Stone Sour), Chris Goss (Masters of Reality), Johannes (Eleven, Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures) and bassist Krist Novoselic (Nirvana).
They've performed a handful of shows since early January in New York, Los Angeles and London. Grohl said at the beginning of Thursday's SXSW concert outdoors at Stubb's BBQ that this one would "probably" be their last. "So we're gonna make it extra long, extra special."
Long we got — close to three-and-a-half hours — and special, too. The result was a rollicking rock and roll revue. Springfield came on for "I've Done Everything for You" and, of course, "Jessie's Girl." Taylor and Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins sang Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" and "Surrender," with Grohl on drums and Nielsen on guitar. Fogerty closed the show with Creedence Clearwater Revival hits, including "Proud Mary," "Bad Moon Rising" and trading verses with Grohl on "Fortunate Son." Through it all, Grohl stayed on stage playing with everyone's mini-set (switching between guitar, bass and drums), beaming with obvious glee at having assembled this temporary clubhouse.
Grohl's first guest, however, was the most transformative. After half a dozen songs bashed out with Johannes, Nicks stepped to the mic and proved to be more than up to the task of leading a bashing hard rock band.
She and Grohl pointed at each other as they sang the chorus of "Stop Dragging My Heart Around" (see, Grohl is his generation's Tom Petty!), and Nicks performed Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" with the band and "Landslide" with Grohl alone on guitar. She sang excellent new song from the "Sound City" soundtrack, "You Can't Fix This" -- graceful and tuneful, with a leaning, weaving riff more akin to Waddy Wachtel than Lindsey Buckingham. Swinging her ribboned tambourine and wearing shades, Nicks was in great voice and moving with an ease I've not seen on stage in a long time, particularly when the band began a surreal, clanging opening séance to "Gold Dust Woman," as Nicks waved her scarf with her back to the audience and conjured her old witchy self. With the Foo Fighters cranked to 11, Nicks wailed and howled and raised the dead, holding her own with the muscled band all the way through the cacophonous conclusion.
Forget Grohl's "Sirvana" work with Paul McCartney -- let's have some Fleetwood Fighters!
(Since a couple of people have asked: According to Pee Wee Herman himself via Twitter, the photo on the bass drum head was of Pee Wee, David Lee Roth and Rodney Dangerfield.)
SXSW: Flaming Lips bring 'Yoshimi,' 'The Terror'
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2013 11:23 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "The new record is probably going to freak some people out," said Wayne Coyne. "It is, on purpose, not a hopeful record."
He's talking about "The Terror," the Flaming Lips' new nine-track album due in late April, and as he does it's easy for him to get a little heavy.
"There are things we have to face as human beings, truths we must explore," Coyne says. "'The Terror' is a certain kind of terror, an uncanny sort of break in nature or your own life. It's not an insane, monster terror. It's the terror of realizing that love isn't the magic bullet. We all wake up with dread of the unknown. It's not about fear of dying, but about the fact that we just don't know what's going to happen anywhere, anytime."
We were sitting in a makeshift green room, a tent in a parking garage behind the venue where the Flaming Lips would perform later Thursday night. Not that parking garage. During SXSW '97 nearly 2,000 people crammed into the second level of a downtown garage to hear Coyne's Car Radio Orchestra, an experiment involving 28 vehicles. Coyne gave each driver a pre-mixed cassette and instructed them to press play and blare the music on cue. Soon, soothing synthesizer parts were swelling from various auto systems, with surreal samples and female orgasm sounds. It was an experiment; one car blew a fuse.
"The cops nearly shut us down," Coyne recalled.
Thursday night the Flaming Lips played a more intimate showcase — no confetti, no costumes, thankfully no big plastic ball — performing the whole of their 2002 album "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots." The show was packed — so much so there was still a line down the block when it was over.
Friday night, though, they'll be unveiling the new music in a free show at the Auditorium Shores amphitheater here.
"We keep saying this is the most depressing but life-affirming music we've ever done," Coyne said.
Coyne is also in town this week to promote a film, "A Year in the Life of Wayne's Phone," which had its world premiere Wednesday night at SXSW. The film is a collage of clips Coyne shot with his iPhone.
"I didn't do this on purpose," Coyne said. "I take so many videos, and my computer guy is always having to empty them off my computer to make room. One day he said, 'We should a movie of these.'"
Since Coyne shot nearly all the videos in vertical portrait mode rather than the usual horizontal scale, the film features three clips lined up, each running simultaneously. The clips range from interviews, shots of friends (look for Yoko Ono and Rivers Cuomo!), cute animals, the USB skull and Coyne crowdsurfing. The viewer's attention is directed by bringing up the audio on a certain clip, but it's still a disorienting challenge to take it all in.
SXSW: Green Day roars back to life
By Thomas Conner March 16, 2013 11:31 am
AUSTIN, Texas — In the middle of “Stay the Night,” Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong paused at the microphone, stared at the crowd for a moment and sighed, “Ah, welcome back!”
A turnabout of words. No doubt he was happy to see us — a crowd not even close to capacity at the Austin City Limits Live theater, but certainly a welcoming one. This was Green Day’s return to action after Armstrong’s profane meltdown last September at a festival in Las Vegas, complete with tantrum and smashed guitar. Days later, the band announced Armstrong was seeking treatment for substance abuse and a slate of arena dates was postponed.
Friday night at SXSW, though, Armstrong couldn’t have looked more refreshed, reinvigorated and grateful.
After the welcoming comment, he let the crowd sing for moment while he sat on the edge of the drum riser, first gazing back at us with some measure of incredulity, then sitting for a spell with his head in his hands.
There’s a lot of that in a Green Day show nowadays — the poor band vamping, sometimes for quite a long time, while Armstrong wrangles the crowd. He’s a professional motivator, certainly, and obsessed with airborne limbs (“Get your hands up! This ain’t no caf, motherf—ers!”). Thankfully, the band — Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, drummer Tr Cool and their criminally unsung “fourth member,” guitarist Jason White — was plenty exciting without the constant demands for shouts, singalongs and waving arms.
In 24 songs over two hours, Green Day ripped through its catalog, reaching back to the early ’90s and slotting in some requisite newbies from this winter’s album trilogy (“Uno!,” “Dos!” and “Tr!”). The hit parade marched along — “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Jesus of Suburbia,” the excellent “Know Your Enemy” — including some songs that now wear an extra patina of irony, given Armstrong’s recent troubles, such as “Burnout” and “Basket Case.”
Only once did Armstrong allude to his recent woes. During “Stop When the Red Lights Flash,” he had directed the band and the audience into a quiet moment and crouched into the microphone to kick off a climactic explosion — but just before he could whisper to a scream, a roadie darted over and replaced the wireless mic right in front of Armstrong’s mouth. The singer barely missed a beat but couldn’t help chuckle a bit. “And I wasn’t even on drugs,” he quipped.
But while the on-stage comeback was encouraging, SXSW finds Green Day at a possibly crucial juncture. The band also debuted not one but two new documentaries during this festival: “Broadway Idiot,” about the transformation of the 2004 “American Idiot” album into a hit musical, and “Cuatro!” chronicling the making of the recent trilogy.
Each album in that trilogy is, with remarkable consistency, terrible. (I reviewed “Uno!” but couldn’t find the heart to kvetch further about the other two.) So here they are with projects that look backward and forward. If the way forward is merely “Cinco!” then even though the band played the ACL theater like an arena, it may want to prepare itself for such smaller venues. The stoked fire in their bellies on display Friday night either will spark their previously impressive creativity within such a rigid genre, or it simply will warm their evenings as a very entertaining legacy act at the casinos and cruises of the future.
Green Day reboots its postponed tour starting March 28 at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont.
SXSW: The rebirth of Detroit punk trio Death
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2013 12:21 PM
Black musicians did a lot of great things in Detroit in the '60s and '70s. Rock and roll — much less anything that would later be called punk — wasn't always one of them. At SXSW this year, though, a band was on display that defies that notion: Death, a fraternal trio and a rare group that can justly support the claim "best band you've never heard."
Death was born in the east Detroit home of the Hackney family. Brothers Dannis, Bobby and David, like so many boomer-era musicians, started playing in the early 1970s as the Rock Fire Funk Express. But after witnessing concerts by the Who and fellow Detroiter Alice Cooper, the brothers threw their lot with their city's other musical heroes, punk-rock icons like the MC5 and Iggy Pop. The Hackney brothers then began writing taut, propulsive rock 'n' roll — truly great stuff — which, until a slightly miraculous rediscovery a few years ago, was heard by practically no one.
The story of the band's derailed promise and eventual obscurity is told ably in a documentary screening at SXSW, "A Band Called Death." Blessed with a rich tale, director-producer Jeff Howlett basically leans back and lets the golden plot points unfold one after another.
Opening with gushing praise from the likes of Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra and — was that Elijah Wood?! — "A Band Called Death" charts the emergence of this family band and the, for the times, unusual shift from R&B to rock and roll.
"Then the Who came to town," Dannis Hackney says, pausing to emphasize some unspoken gravitas of that moment, "and when I saw Alice Cooper, all bets were off. I said, 'If we ain't playing this, then we ain't gonna be having no fun.'"
Singer David Hackney, however, sought to express through the band's new music his own complex cosmology, which included some positive notions about the rebirth and transformation potential in death. Thus, he insisted on the name.
That made Death pretty much dead on arrival.
The band's first producer in Detroit, former Stax musician Don Davis, recalls in the film telling the band: "Have you lost your mind? Nobody is going to buy a song from a group called D-E-A-T-H," spelling out what apparently was still an uncomfortable moniker.
The trio's music caught the ear of hitmaker Clive Davis, who was ready to sign the band to Arista — as long as they changed the name. David refused to budge, insisting (with definitely punkish integrity) that the sacrifice would be a slippery slope. Bobby Hackney, in an earlier interview, recalled, "He said, 'If they make us change our name, then every little thing they see in us they're gonna wanna change — the music, the style, the concept. Once we change that name, we belong to them. Once we give in to that, Death is, well, dead.'"
Credibility intact, Death still died. They did, however, manage to secure the master recordings of what was to be the debut Death album. Attempts to release songs independently failed, and the brothers relocated to Vermont and formed a reggae band. David Hackney died in 2000, after insisting that his brothers hold on to those masters, saying, "One day the world's gonna come looking for this."
Amazingly, that's exactly what happened.
Biafra, a rabid record collector, bought a box of singles several years ago: Death's lone indie 45, "Politicians in My Eyes." He mentioned it in an interview. The writer posted the single online as an mp3. Word began spreading of its awesomeness.
Then the rediscovery came full circle. Bobby Hackney Jr. — clearly still dazed and amazed by this as he relates the story in the film — hears the song, likes it, and has no idea it's his dad until he goes as far as to Google some background. He calls home: "Dad, why didn't you tell me??!!"
This is 2008, and the following year momentum has built enough that Chicago-based label Drag City assists the Hackney brothers in restoring those old masters and finally releasing the debut Death album, titled "...For All the World to See." Another compilation of early demos followed.
This week at SXSW, in addition to the documentary screenings, two bands played showcases: Death, featuring surviving brothers Dannis and Bobby with two extra players, and Rough Francis, a deadly new generation featuring Bobby Hackney Jr., Julian Hackney and Urian Hackney.
Even better: Death will live again on a new record, titled "Relief," in the works now.
SXSW: Justin Timberlake, Prince, Smashing Pumpkins
By Thomas Conner March 17, 2013 9:06 am
The final night of SXSW featured two big legacy acts. OK, from a Chicago perspective it was three.
Justin Timberlake, making good on rumors, blew into town after a week on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” to play an intimate club gig. Here’s a star who will fill Chicago’s Soldier Field this summer, but here in Austin he played the 800-capacity Coppertank Events Center.
(Mind you, this show was only partly about music. Timberlake, now a beer spokesman, was here to promote the newly renovated MySpace web site, of which he’s a major investor, in a concert sponsored by Chevrolet.) Timberlake, backed by a 16-piece band, played for an hour. This writer did not gain admission — I just reviewed his record, and we’ll have plenty of chances to discuss JT further all year long — but there are good reviews here, here and here.
Across town, Prince played the larger club La Zona Rosa, leading a 22-piece band and performing more covers than his own songs. The nearly three-hour show — in which Prince never played guitar (fail) — did bring something to SXSW that is often hard to find: lots of R&B and funk.
"They called our people and said they wanted some funk in Austin,” said Prince, before belting out the last bars of a gentle rendition of “Purple Rain.” At least this show sounds like it was better than his previous Chicago fiascoes.
You won’t see a lot of photos from the Prince show online today, however. Notoriously prickly about photos at his shows, Prince banned all cameras. Even simply using a cell phone got some fans tossed — a biting irony, given that the concert was thrown by Samsung Galaxy and promoters worked the crowd beforehand offering customers fresh phone batteries or device test-drives. But intrepid Chicago photographer Michael Jackson (yup, his real name), shooting for the Sun-Times, landed the image above.
In other news: Today is Billy Corgan’s birthday — happy 46th! — an occasion the Chicago rocker rang in at midnight on stage at SXSW. The Smashing Pumpkins, still busy and ahead of a new world tour, played a set mixed with hits (“Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Tonight, Tonight”) and newer songs from the excellent “Oceania” album, even a cover of Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Review here, or see the detailed run-down on the Twitter feed from Hipsters United.
SXSW: Wanderings, discoveries, random notes
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2013 12:00 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — If it's Sunday, that means my notes are full of jottings about a dozen other bands I saw and haven't written about yet in the mad rush that is SXSW. Deep breath, here's a wrap-up of the other tunes worth mentioning ...
Best brand-spanking-new band
CHVRCHES, barely a year old, impressed with a strong batch of electronic pop at several showcases, including a Friday day stage. The Scottish trio's debut album isn't due until September, but singer-synth players Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty bear all the hallmarks of a forceful, creative unit with a single mind — perhaps the meaning of the beautiful current single, "The Mother We Share." Their newness is evident in the fact that they still have a ways to go before making their knob-twiddling something to watch on stage, but the songs are there. I haven't heard synth-driven pop this tight and tuneful since Robyn showed up.
Most hopeful feeling at end of showcase
No one really seems to have demanded this reunion of Chicago's Fall Out Boy, but the band's Friday night showcase — back at SXSW after eight years — at least showed off enough energy and chutzpah to suggest that the comeback is genuinely inspired. Their fans certainly remain adoring, singing along with practically every word that fell from singer Patrick Stump's lips, maybe even his stage banter. The 45-minute slot kept to singles old ("Sugar, We're Going Down," "Dance, Dance") and new ("My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark [Light 'Em Up]"). Stump flexed his own R&B muscles in a recent solo outing, and the new FOB is highlighting that strength. Even the cover of "Beat It" sounded more sincere and natural than one might expect. Definitely whetted the appetite for the new record.
Best stumbled-upon showcase
Field Report, a band led by Christopher Porterfield. Two bits of trivia: First, Field Report is an anagram of Porterfield. Second, Porterfield started out a decade ago in DeYarmond Edison, the band Justin Vernon fronted before creating Bon Iver. On his own, Porterfield is much warmer and far rootsier. At a Saturday SXSW showcase, his six-man band — plenty of plaid shirts and trucker hats, neither of which seemed to be worn with much hipster irony — delivers supple, textural Americana that fit right in with the venue's sponsorship by a home-improvement cable channel (as if his music was in itself an answer to the advertising banners hung around the bar, asking, "What does home mean to you?"). Singing well-written songs about New Mexico and a "bible school choir," Porterfield guided the band up and down various crescendos to achieve maximum emotional impact, all the while maintaining an appropriately pensive expression. "Is everyone drinking enough water?" he asked between songs. Bassist Travis Whitty chided him: "Concerned dad up here." Aw shucks.
Best return on investment in buzz
New York quartet Parquet Courts entered the festival with considerable, though understandably hesitant, buzz. The band's proper debut album, "Light Up Gold," out in January, is a complex chart of steady rhythms, snaking words and clean but often jarring guitars. It's not an album that immediately broadcasts "great stage show!" On stage Saturday night, the band lazed into action, blurring the line between hasty SXSW sound check and actual opening song. Driven by the rhythm section — featuring bassist Sean Yeaton, who spends the show contributing occasional backing vocals with hilariously distended tongue, like a punk Loudon Wainwright III — guitarists Andrew Savage and Austin Brown were free to work at their own pace and inspiration, pulsing their instruments to propel the song or torturing them a bit. The momentum of the Strokes, the late-night "Stoned and Starving" haze of the Dandy Warhols, plus occasional Sonic Youth squall. Adds up to a good time.
Best personal thrill with very little note-taking
A longtime Robyn Hitchcock fan, I wasn't going to miss perennial SXSW performer Robyn Hitchcock's early Saturday show, particularly since it was celebrating his 60th birthday (complete with tarantula-topped cake and red wine, which Hitchcock referred to as "lady petrol"). The British legend was supported by a number of pals — Ken Stringfellow (Posies), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5), Bill Rieflin (R.E.M., Ministry, tons), Linda Pitmon (Steve Wynn) — and for a moment, with Kelly Hogan on stage and Jon Langford in the wings, it seemed the band might turn into Robyn Hitchcock & the Chicagoans. Langford never materialized on stage with Hitchcock, though. Nor did R.E.M.'s Mike Mills (grinning, looking more content than I've seen him in years), who was at the bar and had played bass behind Stringfellow as the opening act. Nonetheless, Hitchcock told his usual bizarre stories and sang an impressively wide variety of songs — newish ones (the beautiful "Dismal City"), old ones ("Queen Elvis," "Ole Tarantula," "Alright, Yeah") and covers ("Tangled Up in Blue," "Don't Let Me Down") — as well as rapping a bit about the new pope.
Best delayed reaction
Lord Huron was highly recommended to me by friends at last year's SXSW, but I missed their showcase at a cramped little club. Fast forward one year and on Wednesday night they were filling the spacious ACL Live theater, ahead of Natalie Maines' comeback set, with some enchanting folksy harmonies and rhythms. Those harmonies have earned them far too many Fleet Foxes comparisons — and they're sometimes a bit thinner and wispier than that — but when those rhythms crank up they come alive. "Time to Run" does just that, and every band member is armed with some percussion instrument — a shaker, maracas, singer and bandleader Ben Schneider with a small snare. Good tunes when they get up and go.
Best hangover showcase
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell played NPR's Radio Day Stage inside the Austin Convention Center. It was Friday morning, and the soft-spoken angel that is Emmylou strolled out in her boots — cue the Janis Ian song — and quipped that everyone here deserved a merit badge just for navigating through the festival. She meant the confusion and enormity of SXSW, but when she and Crowell played Kris Kristopherson's "Chase the Feeling" ("And you got loaded again / Ain't you handsome when you're high") many vacant-eyed attendees were nodding with understanding, not rhythm.
Worst showcase logistics
Foxygen was due to play a half hour set Wednesday night at the Hype Hotel, which they started a half hour late. (Out of all the shows I saw this week, two started on time. That's my main complaint about SXSW's rampant growth. They're starting to lose control of their production.) Foxygen is a great, brassy band that sounds superb on their latest record, "We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic," but that interesting sound was completely swallowed up in the ramshackle venue that was the Hype Hotel, an empty commercial cavern hemmed in with sound-eating drywall that appeared to have been nailed up this month. Bummer.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Harry Belafonte in recent years has been positively Kanye-esque in his outspokenness.
The 85-year-old singer — a revered icon in American pop music, the King of Calypso, the resonant voice behind the 1956 classic "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)" — has tallied headlines for his frank opinions on matters ranging from U.S. foreign policy to race relations.
In 2002, Belafonte likened Secretary of State Colin Powell to a "house slave" for his acquiescence to the invasion of Iraq. He called President Bush "the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world" during a 2006 meeting with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
Last month during an MSNBC interview, he advocated the jailing of Obama's obstructionist Republican opponents: "The only thing left for Barack Obama to do is to work like a Third World dictator and just put all these guys in jail."
No surprise, perhaps, that Belafonte says he considers himself an activist first.
"I'm an activist who became an entertainer," Belafonte told the Sun-Times. "It's usually the other way around."
Belafonte's legacy as an entertainer, though, is not easy to overshadow. "Calypso," the '56 record that launched an American craze for its namesake music, was the first U.S. LP to sell a million copies. His career since has been intertwined with other pillars of music (his 1962 "Midnight Special" album contains the first-ever recording of a young harmonica player named Bob Dylan) and politics (he campaigned for and worked with President Kennedy).
Belafonte also maintained a relationship with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. — a friendship that began in 1950 and which Belafonte says transformed his life — and he's spending January traveling the country to speak about it.
His free keynote address at 6 p.m. Jan. 28 at Northwestern University's Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Dr. on the campus in Evanston, concludes two weeks of events at the university celebrating King's life and legacy. NU recently made Martin Luther King Day an official university holiday; Jan. 21 was its first.
Last week, Belafonte spoke with the Sun-Times about his activism, his music and his fond memories of King.
Q: You're speaking about Dr. King at a number of universities and events this month. How did this tour come about now?
Belafonte: For the last many years, each time Dr. King's birthday comes up or the anniversary of his death, there's always a call by institutions and individuals to speak on the subject. Depending on the state of the union, I go and I speak and make commentary on what he might have observed and said if he'd been around today.
Q: That's a tall order, speculating on the observations of someone who's not around. How do you go about it?
Belafonte: What I find satisfying about the process is the getting into a social discourse on the state of our being universally. When you speak on what Dr. King might have said, it gives you a lot of latitude of putting propositions out of your own voice and opinion. It may carry a response that would be challenging to your point of view, but if you say it in the name of what Dr. King might have said people pause a little longer before giving you a rebuttal because they respect what he said and what he did. It has a little more nuance than if you say something yourself, and under that umbrella you can make a lot of observations about the social condition and bring up a lot of things for discussion.
Q: Where has King's legacy succeeded?
Belafonte: The real beauty and power of what the [Civil Rights] movement achieved — when you look back at the cunning and brutality and smarts and resources poured into trying to roll back the clock and end affirmative action and women's rights and so many things — is that the opposition has miserably failed. Including trying to stop Obama getting re-elected. There's the real tribute to what King achieved. Not from what we've taken but in stopping the opposition from defeating it.
Q: King is such a mythic figure. Tell me something sensory, something human about him.
Belafonte: What endeared him to me was the way in which he wrenched over the decisions he had to make. To watch him unable to sleep, develop all kinds of psychological disorders. He had a tic that plagued him constantly. It wasn't a stutter. It was a nervous disorder that gave him kind of a — he couldn't complete a sentence without a gasp for air. One day he seemed to no longer have that affliction.
Q: What happened?
Belafonte: I hosted the Johnny Carson show in February 1968 for a week. ... Dr. King was a guest, and he showed up late, turned up just as we'd gone on the air. He came on, and I asked him what happened. He said he'd gotten here and told the cab driver to hurry to the studio. He said, 'This guy took me on a Wild West ride.' He's saying this to the audience, 'I had to hang on for dear life, and when he stopped for a light I said, "Young man, I'd rather be considered a Martin Luther King late than the late Martin Luther King. Slow down." I said, 'On that subject, what do you think about death.' He gave an answer that's since been used a thousand times in looking back on his legacy. But I said, 'What happened to the tic?' I didn't say it on the air. He said, 'I made my peace with death.' It was a subliminal display of a tremendous anxiety, not so much about death as it affected him but when he made a decision his first consideration was that there could be violence and someone could lose their life, and I've led people into this conflict and do I have this right? [King was assassinated weeks later, April 4, 1968.]
Q: The last time I heard "Day O" it was a sample in Lil Wayne's "6 Foot, 7 Foot." What's your opinion of your catalog getting sampled?
Belafonte: I love it. I'm not a protectionist. I was talking to [blues legend] Brownie McGhee once about purism in folk music. He said all songs are folk songs. He said, 'Harry, the first song ever sung by a human being was "Ugh."' You know, the Neanderthals around the campfire trying to keep warm, and everything since 'Ugh' has been a distortion of that. Anybody can take my song. They can glady have it, because it was never my song.
Q: Right, your version was based on several that came before.
Belafonte: "Day-O" has a long history. Who knows where it came from. By the time it came to me it was full-blown. I had a happy time singing it.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
"Come Home to Mama"
Martha Wainwright, "Come Home to Mama" (Cooperative) [3 and a half stars] — The secret weapon in the Wainwright family, Martha is a wicked and potent genealogical branch bearing her father Loudon's sometimes uncomfortably honest confessional songwriting, her brother Rufus' occasional grandiose musical ambitions and her mother Kate McGarrigle's talent for modernizing and enlivening old, staid folk traditions.
Recorded at Sean Lennon's home studio and produced by Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda (and featuring guests such as Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and Dirty Three drummer Jim White), "Come Home to Mama," Wainwright's third outing (fourth, if you count the knock-down awesome Piaf record), is also a blend — of the singer-songwritery angst of her 2005 debut and the rock leanings of 2008's "I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too."
"I really like make-up sex / It's the only kind I ever get," she sing-songs in "Can You Believe It," like a forlorn-yet-upbeat mix of Cat Power and Liz Phair. The album's title comes from the ballad "Proserpina," the last song McGarrigle had written before her death in 2010. The ache of that recording (its lyrics, as well as its circumstances), the confidence of her voice (her tone, as well as her words), the wisdom in "Everything Wrong" and the bright flair of "Some People" — everything seems finally to come together into what must be Wainwright's first singular album.
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
New at Lollapalooza: Perry's open, anti-scale fencing
By Thomas Conner on July 29, 2012 4:00 AM
Music fans inside and outside of Lollapalooza will notice at least two physical changes at this year's music festival in Grant Park.
First, Perry's tent is no longer a tent.
Last year, Perry's stage — one of the festival's eight stages, focusing largely on DJs and electronic music, and named for Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell — expanded to an enormous circus tent with a 15,000-person capacity.
As it proved to be one of the most popular attractions at the weekend concert series, the tent roof trapped too much heat from the mass of dancers. By the second day of Lollapalooza 2011, portions of the big top had been stripped away to allow heat and humidity to escape.
This year, Perry's stage will be open-air like the others and will feature a theatrical set design courtesy of one of the acts, Swedish DJ Avicii.
Secondly, promoters are trying a new tactic to battle the perennial horde of fence-jumpers.
The last two years at Lollapalooza have seen a marked increase in the number of young fans assaulting the festival's perimeter fence in order to get in without paying. Sometimes it's one or two individuals — including several who were critically injured in their attempts last year — but last year saw flash mobs of up to a hundred at a time overwhelming certain sections of fence, occasionally employing boards as ramps.
Organizers at C3 Presents, producers of Lollapalooza, tell the Sun-Times this year's perimeter will include "The Black Fence," an 8-foot anti-scale barricade used in Washington, D.C., around government buildings and during citizen protests.
"The more pressure you put on it, the sturdier it gets," said Charlie Jones, a partner in C3.
Lollapalooza looks ahead: A 10-year deal with the city, paying taxes and standing out among the Big 3
By Thomas Conner on July 29, 2012 4:01 AM
Last year, Lollapalooza celebrated a 20th anniversary and the music festival's founder, Jane's Addiction singer Perry Farrell, remarked to me, "I mean, it looks like this will go on forever, right?"
Never say forever, but Lollapalooza's long-term future in Chicago — where the touring concert series was reborn in 2005 as a stationary, destination event in downtown's Grant Park — certainly firmed up this spring. In a revised agreement consummating the existing relationship between the city and the festival's producers, Texas-based C3 Presents, Chicago now has a solidified tax deal and Lollapalooza has use of the city's front yard through at least 2021.
"We're no longer dating now," C3 partner Charlie Jones told the Sun-Times this week. "We're married."
Plus, according to ads that started showing up on CTA platforms this week, the dates of next year's Lollapalooza are already set: Aug. 2-4, 2013.
Lollapalooza is now one of the country's big three annual pop music festivals, alongside the Bonnaroo Music Festival in rural Tennessee and the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival outside Los Angeles. This year Lollapalooza will admit another record crowd of 100,000 ticket holders per day into Chicago's public green space.
That's up from last year's already record-breaking daily tally of 90,000, and way up from a 33,000 daily maximum for 2005's inaugural reboot.
Can it get any bigger?
"No, I don't think it can," said Michael Kelly, superintendent of the Chicago Parks District, in a separate interview this week. Considering the number of people and available real estate, Kelly said, "We're about at the limit."
Jones (pictured) actually agrees. "At a certain point — and we may be there — there's a tipping point where it just feels too crowded," Jones said. "If we tried to think of pushing it to 150,000, we'd have to ask for Millennium Park, too. That becomes something too big, a different thing. I was at [the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival] the year they pushed it to 125,000. It was too much."
So, like an actual marriage, C3 and the Parks District both now speak of settling in, setting a routine — and fixing up the house.
Dearth and taxes
The new deal announced in March mandates that C3 pay for any damage done to the park immediately following the festival each August. Instead of C3 fixing things themselves, as they've done previously, the Park District will assess any damage and make the repairs, with C3 getting the bill.
Last year, a rain storm combined with high foot traffic on the fest's final day caused significant turf damage that took weeks to mend. C3 was criticized for its speed in making the repairs, for which they paid $800,000.
But Jones and Kelly have been in talks about facilitating more long-term infrastructure improvements to the park, specifically in drainage and soil retention — maintenance Jones likened to "looking under the hood and fixing 'er up."
"Lower Hutchinson Field has become a premier permitting space for the city," Kelly said. "The breast cancer walk, the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, the Chicago Marathon, now Lollapalooza — it's a big gathering space, and that's not going to change. We're going to take a serious look at how we can improve what's going on at that site, how we can make it great for softball as well as for the semis that roll in and out for these larger events."
Under its new terms with the city — a renegotiation that was initiated, Kelly and Jones said, by Jones and his partners, Charles Attal and Charlie Walker — C3 this year begins paying all city and county sales and amusement taxes.
In the previous arrangement, C3 was partnered not with the city itself but with the Parkways Foundation, a nonprofit fundraising arm of the Park District, which handled all the city permitting in exchange for an annual payment from Lollapalooza. Last year, according to the Park District, that amounted to $2.7 million from total ticket sales of $22.5 million.
Kelly said he expects the Park District to receive the same amount this year. The extra amount in city taxes, he said, will amount to about $1.5 million — higher than the $1.1 million estimate in a September 2011 city inspector general's report suggesting the tax be applied to the festival.
"We had to up the ante," Kelly said. "[C3] had to pay more for the event."
As a result, so did fans. To cover the added expense of the taxes, the cost of three-day passes to Lollapalooza jumped $15, from $185 (early-bird) and $215 (regular) to $200 and $230, respectively. The event still sold out all three-day passes within a week before performers were announced.
Parkways was able to earmark its Lollapalooza income especially for park improvements citywide, including playground renovations, Grant Park tree planting and part of the restoration of Buckingham Fountain, which sits between Lollapalooza's allocated concert area. Under the new deal, though, Kelly admits some of the Lollapalooza revenue will be used to shore up the Park District's deficit budget, but he adds, "We have been and will be disciplined in allocating a big chunk of that money to the neighborhoods."
Parkways announced in April that it will cease operations this summer. A new nonprofit division, which will not be connected to Lollapalooza, will start up later this year.
An aerial view of the crowds at Lollpalooza 2011. (Sun-Times file)
Standing out from the big 3
Lollapalooza's direct negotiation with governments is unique among the "big three" fests.
The Bonnaroo festival started in 2002 on a private farm in Manchester, Tenn., between Nashville and Chattanooga. In 2007, festival organizers purchased 530 acres of the land; they continue to lease about 250 acres for parking and camping. Bonnaroo occurs each June and draws about 80,000 people daily over four days.
Coachella now stages its concerts over two weekends at a rented private facility, the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif. That festival, which started in 1999, ran into its own governmental woes this spring when an Indio city councilor proposed a tax on Coachella tickets (approximately $18 per ticket). The festival balked and began shopping for alternate locations; the tax proposal was dropped.
Coachella's agreements with the polo club have been made two years at a time, with the current contract expiring after the 2013 festival (for which tickets are already on sale).
This year's Coachella events in April were attended by 158,000 total and grossed $47.3 million in ticket sales, according to Billboard Boxscore.
The Chicago Parks District estimates the overall economic benefit from Lollapalooza to the city at $100 million annually.
"Because we do this in the heart of a culturally savvy town," Jones said, "the overall economic impact is huge. Fifty percent of the people at this festival are from out of town. You can't get a hotel room during the festival. Plus, we shut down at 10 [p.m.]. After that, the town gets lit up."
He's referring to the numerous official post-festival concerts each night at Chicago indoor music venues, as well as the other food, drink and entertainment business from festivalgoers throughout the city.
Lollapalooza, in fact, has become so attractive to the Parks District that they're looking for other ways to add large music events to Chicago's green spaces. In addition to Lollapalooza in Grant Park and the annual Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park, this fall the annual punk rock Riot Fest will include two days outdoors in Humboldt Park.
The city's openness to large-scale music in the parks is a relatively recent development, Kelly said.
"I was still in college in 1991 when Smashing Pumpkins were talking about playing Butler Field, and people talked it down because the crowds would be too big or whatever," Kelly said. "Years later we were doing Shania Twain and Radiohead in the park, and people were saying, 'Well, maybe we can do concerts in Chicago parks, after all!' ...
"With the concerts we do now, we're one of the largest providers of outdoor entertainment in the state. And we've always got a Dave Matthews or a Jimmy Buffett knocking at our door. Plus, other cities, like San Francisco, have been calling and asking, 'How'd you do it?' So, yes, pop music has become increasingly important to us."
Lollapalooza opens Friday with record crowd
By Thomas Conner on August 3, 2012 10:00 AM
And so it begins again.
Year eight of Lollapalooza as a sit-down music festival in Chicago's Park — with at least 10 more on the horizon — is the biggest ever. Last year's fest jumped up to 90,000 fans each day; this year, a sold-out crowd of 100,000 per day will stream through the gates.
Concertgoers can expect to see added vendors, the usual upscale food options in Chow Town, Perry's stage under an open sky, extra barricades around the perimeter to foil fence jumpers and extra fencing around the park's landscaping (be kind to the bushes — you own them). Here's a look at the set-up.
Gates open at 11 a.m. today. For complete info about the fest, look to the Reader's handy guide. Plus, here are my music picks for Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the park.
Stay tuned to this blog through the weekend, where myself, Anders Smith Lindall and our Lolla crew will update all the music and news from Grant Park.
Important: Keep an eye on the weather: Severe storms are a good possibility late in the day Saturday. (Ask yourself: where would you seek shelter out there — and how long would it take to get there?)
In the meantime, some numbers. This year's 100,000 daily mark is a record attendance. But how does that stack up against the other two summer music fests in America's "big three"?
Setting: in suburban Indio, Calif.
Duration: 6 days (two weekends)
Time of year: mid-April
No. of performers (2012): 144
Total daily capacity: 75,000
Size of site: 90-acre polo grounds (rented), plus 280 acres (owned)
Ticket prices (2012, not including VIP packages): $285 plus fees (three-day pass only)
Reported gross: $47.3 million (2012)
Local annual government share: $1.6 million, plus applicable sales taxes
Local annual economic impact estimate: unknown
Setting: in rural Manchester, Tenn.
Duration: 4 days
Time of year: mid-June
No. of performers (2012): 184
Total daily capacity: 80,000
Size of site: 530 acres (owned), plus 250 acres (leased)
Ticket prices (2012, not including VIP packages): $209.50-$259.50 plus fees (four-day pass only)
Reported gross: $20 million (2012 estimate)
Local annual government share: $1 million given to Coffee County organizations since 2002
Local annual economic impact estimate: $20 million
Started: 2005 (reboot)
Setting: in urban Chicago
Duration: 3 days
Time of year: early August
No. of performers (2012): 130
Total daily capacity: 100,000
Size of site: 115 acres of Grant Park (total 319 acres)
Ticket prices (2012, not including VIP packages): $200-$230 (three-day pass), $95 (single-day pass)
Reported gross: $22.5 million (2011)
Local annual government share: $2.7 million to the Parkways Foundation in 2011
Local annual economic impact estimate: $100 million
Locals at Lolla: Empires, JC Brooks, Haley Reinhart, more
By Thomas Conner on August 3, 2012 12:00 PM
The out-of-state folks who book Lollapalooza at least make an effort to dip into the local talent pool, resulting in often well-deserved showcases for Chicago-area up-and-comers. Last year's side-stage performance by Kids These Days was explosive and contributed to landing the band on the "Conan" show earlier this year. Lolla 2012 spotlights several other locals, including the great alt-rock band Empires (3:20 p.m. Saturday, BMI stage), the already sweat-inducing soul group JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound (noon Saturday, Sony stage) and our own suburban "American Idol" finalist, Haley Reinhart (1:10 p.m. Friday, BMI stage).
Another one to watch is Andrew Christopoulos, a senior at Glenbrook North High School (pictured below).
He's 17, but he's played in a local band, the Axidents, for six years. Christopoulos plays drums in that band, but at his two (count 'em, two) Lollapalooza slots, he'll be showcasing his singer-songwriting chops on the piano.
"It's hard to put a genre on your own music, but I would call it 'folk rock.' It's mostly written for a piano and an acoustic guitar," Christopoulos told Sun-Times Media. "But I hired a full band, Jackpot Donnie — they're all older than I am — to back me for Lolla. There will be two guitarists, a bassist, a drummer, an organist, a cellist, and me on piano, and singing."
That all goes down twice — 4 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday — on the Kidzapalooza stage.
Lollapalooza: Perry's tent, White Panda in the sun
By Thomas Conner on August 3, 2012 2:26 PM
Some Lollapalooza fans wasted no time starting the rave Friday afternoon at Perry's stage, jumping and dancing to the duo White Panda.
Perry's, the one of Lolla's eight stages that focuses almost exclusively on DJs and electronic music, has been under a large tent in previous years. That caused high temperatures to be trapped and endanger fans, so this year Perry's is open-air — an enormous new stage, rivaling the size of the main Red Bull Soundstage in Grant Park's Hutchinson Field. The new Perry's features a special raised deck for the DJs, plus two video screens on either side and three LED strips above and below the stage.
"This is our home town and this means the world to us!" shouted White Panda's Tom Evans (aka Procrast).
He and his partner, Dan Griffith (DJ Griffi), wore panda masks with blinking LED eyes and led the crowd through their typical mash-up mixes, ranging from "Whoomp! (There It Is)" to — yegods — "Call Me Maybe."
The latter got the crowd really jumping — the half that wasn't smirking — and without that big top the Perry's crowd is in direct sun through the afternoon. Methinks the crowd I was watching during the White Panda will have a lot in common with the crowd in the first-aid tents by evening.
Lollapalooza Friday opens with hot rock block
By Thomas Conner on August 3, 2012 7:11 PM
Lollapalooza's first day began, as expected, with a strong indie-rock block in the afternoon. What wasn't expected was the marriage proposal.
Wisconsin native Alex Schaaf, performing on the Sony main stage as Yellow Ostrich, stopped his set midway through and introduced someone named Nate, who came on stage and promptly proposed to someone named Steph. "I met you a year ago and knew then that I'd be getting onstage with Yellow Ostrich to ask you this," Nate told his beloved. Everyone has their dream, man.
"Congratulations, and thank God she said yes," Schaaf said, resuming his show, "'cause that would have put a big bummer on everything."
His set was no bummer, shaking up his bedroom lo-fi by applying extra speed and spunk, even in the precocious "Elephant King."
Philadelphia's Dr. Dog regaled Hutchinson Field's sparse Friday afternoon crowd with a rich set of their slightly skewed, oddball pop. The fullness of the quintet's sound, after the rambunctious but ramshackle Yellow Ostrich, was laced with organ and inventive guitars. Their latest album is called "Be the Void," but there's no emptiness in their quirky '60s sounds, like a funky Camper Van Beethoven.
Tame Impala was next — and the heat was getting to them. After they rambled through "Apocalypse Dreams," a classic-rock marathon that ebbs and throbs through slow-grinding '60s guitar swell, singer-guitarist Kevin Parker stopped to explain something.
"If anyone's interested as to why that song sounded so strange," he said, "I think one of my [guitar] pedals has melted."
This Australian trio started out as 13-year-olds clear back in 1999, making bedroom records until 2007. Now fully immersed in the glare of hipster hype — and the harsh Friday Lollapalooza sun — they acquitted themselves nicely, switching effortlessly between shoegazey Floyd rock, early solo McCartney melodies and T. Rex boogie. Their second album, "Lonerism," is due in October, helmed by producer Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, etc.).
French electronics at Lollapalooza Friday: Madeon, M83
By Thomas Conner on August 3, 2012 11:47 PM
Perry's stage showcases a lot of rising stars, such is the nature of the fast-paced EDM world. Friday afternoon's case in point: Madeon, aka French dubstep DJ Hugo Leclercq, who introduced himself two years ago with six little words: "Here are 39 songs I like." That opening to his very viral video for "Pop Culture," a deft three-and-a-half-minute mash-up of those songs, set him on the path to Perry's stage, where he put on one of the day's more animated performances.
The drag of it, though, was that — despite the big, new Perry's stage being flanked by two enormous video screens and framed by LED strips above and below — no camera focused on the 18-year-old DJ's movements, his unique instrument (the Novation Launchpad) or, most tragically, his jazz hands. The screens at Perry's just flash a bunch of pseudo-trippy screen-saver nonsense, thus wasting the effort of building this large stage with its elevated DJ platform in order to showcase the mixmasters as real performers. Half the joy of watching "Pop Culture" on YouTube is that the footage is static on Leclercq's hands as he punches out all those melodies and beats. At least his jumping around — and, seriously, the jazz hands were cracking me up — gave those of us in the shade something to watch.
Another largely electronic act, M83 — and fellow Frenchfolks — crafted their cinescope sounds on the Sony main stage Friday evening. Bathed in and sometimes pierced by a flashy light show, the band worked through an hourlong set (almost pushing past their time limit up against the night's closer, the Black Keys) that swelled and swirled, nearly every song building with cymbal-crashing crescendo toward a big finish. Over and over.
The film-score quality of M83's elegant disco is well-raved about — and will be applied to an actual film soon, as M83 has been picked to score an upcoming sci-fi flick starring Tom Cruise — and it was easy for me to select their recent hit, "Midnight City," from their latest album (the double-CD "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming") as last year's finest single. Keyboardist Morgan Kibby is an earthy, shamanistic foil to Anthony Gonzalez' earnest guitar rubbing and button jabbing. The band's Friday set strove to pump up the beat occasionally, particularly with other members joining in on drum kits during the thumping "Reunion," but it never got quite fast or furious enough. Like the spiral galaxy the band is named after, their set shone brightly but spun for a long time before burning out. Still, "Midnight City" closes with something you don't hear much at Lollaplooza, in this or any other decade. As the man behind me said, thankfully quieting his chatty friends at the song's climax, "Um, I'm sorry. Are we hearing a freaking saxophone solo?!"
Friday @ Lollapalooza: the Shins, the Head & the Heart
By Thomas Conner on August 4, 2012 12:17 AM
Seattle's the Head & the Heart took to the Sony main stage Friday at Lollapalooza and sang, "Don't follow your head, follow your heart." So despite their name, we know where their allegiance lies — with the impulsive, romantic and less rational of the two.
An unusual sound for Lollapalooza, even in its rebooted era, the Head & the Heart play music loaded with acoustic guitar, violin, piano and tambourine. Lots of real, resonating wood. Add to that the dual singing tasks of the equally gravel-throated Jonathan Russell and Josiah Johnson, and you have a rootsy pop that's, well — if you're over 40, call them the Waterdudes, and if you're under 40, they're the Novemberists.
Unfortunately, playing just as the dinner hour approached, the Head & the Heart's set proved to be a leaden lead-in to the Shins. Despite a few aces — including a new song, "Gone," dappled with lovely harmonies and building to a whomping finish — the plaintive ballads and folk-rock eventually suffered. Passion Pit began playing in the north, and those spunky yelps, urgent beats and lively melodies wafting over the park suddenly made it sound as if we were in the wrong end.
The Shins kicked off their set on the Red Bull main stage with no fanfare, no introduction, just launching right into "Caring Is Creepy" and several older chestnuts. The old songs —from the era in which Natalie Portman wasn't the only one proclaiming that the band would change your life — helped establish an identity, provided enough "Oh yeah!" reminders for casual fans trudging through the dust. While the tunes were recognizable, the performances were wonderfully fuller and more dense. It was like hearing a concert recording of the Smiths late in their career, marveling at how lush the sound gets when just a second guitarist is added. In this case, singer-guitarist James Mercer has a completely new lineup around him after ditching the old band as the Shins moved up to a major label for the latest album, "Port of Morrow."
The guitars packed greater punch throughout, plus organ ("Simple Song") and a tourniquet-tight rhythm section ("Bait and Switch") raised brows and kept them high. The set, though, mirrored the band's recording career. It started strong and grew progressively less interesting, until it ended amid some lengthy prog-rock, noodling nonsense.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: the Black Keys
By Thomas Conner on August 4, 2012 12:51 AM
Friday night's headliners tested fans with a black decision: see the newly reunited and infinitely influential heavy metal band Black Sabbath, or catch a widescreen performance by one of rock's most rollicking and fresh duos, the Black Keys.
For Nathaniel J. Werner, 56, of Oak Park, the choice was clear.
"This is a bucket-list item," he said, while awaiting the Black Keys. "Sabbath? Pfft! Seen that. These Black Keys — I like the blues, and these guys do that and more."
That they do, and did.
Just as they proved themselves arena-worthy in March at Chicago's United Center, the bold pair — guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney (and augmented on stage by a few extra players) — showed they could headline a massive summer festival just as easily.
Introduced briefly by Mayor Rahm Emanuel (pictured at right — no black keys to the city? anyone?), the Black Keys opened with "Howlin' for You" and proceeded to get the audience doing just that, singing along instantly to the song's da-da refrain. Swinging wide through their decade-old catalog, Carney pounded furiously and Auerbach sang firmly while wrenching riffs from his guitar. The sound these two knit together draws from clear influences old and new but never sounds indebted to anyone. Timeless, tuneful and catchy, even while still being sonically dirty and rough to the touch, songs like "Dead and Gone" cause heads to bob involuntarily and make redundant Auerbach pleas such as, "Come on, Chicago, sing it with us!"
Midway through the set, Auerbach and Carney dismissed their support players and woodshedded alone. But, proving their scope, they concluded the show with something much less intimate: a blast of fireworks that spelled out their name above the stage. Humble and audacious.
Saturday weather at Lollapalooza: Emergency plans
By Thomas Conner on August 4, 2012 11:56 AM
Be ready for rough weather tonight, Paloozers.
Forecasts call for severe thunderstorms — a 75 percent chance as of noon, and radar shows a colorful squall line already charging east across Iowa. Last year, thunderstorms blew through on the third day of the festival, merely slowing down a few bands including the Foo Fighters, but organizers tell the Sun-Times they're prepared for any eventuality.
What follows are details from the on-site emergency plan according to information this morning from Lollapalooza producers C3 Presents, as well as a few personal tips:
There's a real-time weather station on site at Lollapalooza. Follow its data here.
In case of high winds: The plan instructs staff to secure items that could be blown around (trash cans, etc.). If it gets windy but not so much that the park should be evacuated, staff is instructed to create "safe areas" around any structure that might come tumbling down as a result.
In case of lightning: Good advice: "Tents, trees and picnic shelters offer little or no protection from lightning. Therefore it is imperative that in the event of lightning in the area that patrons are directed to one of the safe shelter sites until the lightning danger has passed." If lightning-detection equipment on site gets crackling, the crowd may be moved within the park or evacuated.
In case of evacuation: If officials determine that the park should be evacuated, they're going to make the announcement via audio and video, then direct us toward three primary locations: the Grant Park North Garage (25 N. Michigan), the Grant Park South Garage (325 S. Michigan) and the East Monroe St. Garage (5 S. Columbus, with an entrance on Michigan). Look for the signs, blue with white letters, that say "Weather Shelter."
A few tips of my own when facing rain at the fest:
— Wear real shoes. Stop wearing sandals and flip-flops, you crazy people.
— Umbrellas are (a) useless in the crowd and (b) obnoxious to those behind you. Get a cheap drugstore poncho. Covers completely and allows you to move.
— Plastic bags for protecting phones, cameras, etc. Take an extra that contains dry socks.
— The weather comes from the west. Seek shelter in a tent with an opening on the west side and you've sought no shelter at all.
— Safety first. Live to rock another day.
Lollapalooza rebooting after Saturday storm delay
By Thomas Conner on August 4, 2012 6:31 PM
Well, that happened.
Lollapalooza was shut down and Grant Park was evacuated for more than two hours Saturday as severe storms moved through Chicago.
The gates have reopened, and after a confusing but panic-free evacuation fans are trickling back in. Perry's stage is thumping and full of muddy dancers. Some acts have been canceled, but music is expected to begin shortly.
For now, follow the full report here. All details posted to Twitter, too @chicagosmusic.
This has been a test of the emergency Lollapalooza system
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 12:39 AM | No Comments | No TrackBacks
BY THOMAS CONNER Pop Music Critic
with Emily Morris and Mitchell Herrmann
"We need to clear the whole park."
That was the first audio announcement from the southern main stage Saturday afternoon at Lollapalooza in Grant Park. In the next hour, the day's entire sold-out crowd was evacuated from the park — the first such procedure in Lollapalooza's eight years as an annual event in Chicago — ahead of a squall line of severe storms that moved through Chicago featuring lightning, downpours and high winds.
"In all, more than 60,000 festival-goers and nearly 3,000 staff, artists and vendors were safely evacuated in 38 minutes," said a late-night statement from Lollapalooza producers C3 Presents.
Two and a half hours later, the crowds were back in the muddy park and bands were playing on a revised schedule. Storms? What storms?
Here's a run-down of what we experienced:
Saturday's weather forecast had been ominous for days, and by morning the squall line was already charging eastward across Iowa. C3 Presents released the details of their emergency plan, and a few hours later — at 3:30 p.m., after the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Chicago — we all experienced it.
According to that plan, in the event of the decision to evacuate the park ahead of severe weather, announcements would be made via audio and video. (C3 claims both occurred, though every fan we spoke with said they saw no video announcements.) The information was also reported on the Lollapalooza web site, Facebook page, Twitter account and transmitted to 40,000-plus subscribers to the festival's mobile app. Many fans we spoke with had heard the news via texts and tweets well before announcements came from the stage.
Several fans reported confusion about the information given, or lack thereof. "They just told us to get out and find the nearest shelter," said Sara Parolin of Kansas City. "I guess that's where we're going."
Many took the news in stride, and most everyone proceeded calmly and casually toward one of several exits on the west side of Grant Park.
Not everyone wanted to leave, though. Shortly after the announcements, hundreds lingered in front of Perry's stage on the southwest corner of Columbus and Balbo. Matt Colello of Woodstock was one of them. "For those who spent $250 on tickets, we don't want to leave," he said. "Hopefully, it'll be quick."
His friend, Donald Stephens of Chicago, added: "And on the off chance this becomes a huge mud pit dance party ..." He raised his eyebrows expectantly.
In a bit of irony, new barricades in place around the park to keep fence-jumpers from entering illegally held firm as fans tried to exit the park — though several jumped the fence to get out rather than sneak in.
Clearing the park was one thing, and seemed to be accomplished in a timely manner (with plenty of time before the storm hit) and relatively easily. Giving the nearly 60,000 people someplace to go, however, seemed another matter.
As I began to exit the park, I asked staff near the inside gate where we were being directed. I was told to proceed to the next gate where there would be instructions. The outer gate poured us all onto Michigan Avenue, and there was no one giving directions. There was no staff in sight. Fans were simply flowing onto Michigan Avenue, snarling traffic and scattering.
"Once we were outside of the park, there was no information or directions anywhere," said Noah Hyrent of Roselle.
They filled hotels and businesses, some of which reacted against the influx. At a Starbucks at Michigan and Balbo, employees ordered everyone out of the packed coffee shop, even customers who had beverages in their hands. A liquor store near Michigan and Congress locked its doors.
"As we crossed Michigan, I saw all these people looking out the windows in the hotel at this horde of people coming for them," said Kevin Spry of Downer's Grove, seeking shelter underneath the Congress Hotel's southern awning.
One Chicago Police officer, leaning casually against a fence along Michigan Ave., quipped: "There's no place out here for 100,000 people to go."
Inside the Congress Hotel, masses of mostly cheery festgoers congregated in the hotel's bar and in the Gold Room, where some brought their own cases of beer. There were plenty of whoops and yells as concertgoers continued to drink and tried to have a good time despite having to leave the fest. Dan Shaughnessy, 31, of Midway, played for the crowd.
The quick-thinking owner of a bar called Quay commandeered a school bus and sent it to ferry wayward fans to his establishment on Navy Pier.
By 6 p.m., word-of-mouth spread news that the gates were reopening. Lines formed back at the two entrances, and at 6:30 p.m. — as the rain just about stopped — fans were readmitted. At first, Lollapalooza staff tried to make everyone re-scan their wristbands but then abandoned that sluggish procedure for quicker visual checks.
Fans stream back into Hutchinson Field on Saturday for the restarted Lollapalooza.
(Video by Thomas Conner/Sun-Times)
Back inside, the scene was swampy, especially in Hutchinson Field — which was full of gulls quite enjoying the newly created wetlands. Trash cans were turned over and large puddles spotted the landscape. In no time, several young women were purposely bathing in the muck and sliding in the mud.
A clump of readmitted fans clustered in front of the Red Bull main stage affirmed their conviction by singing the national anthem and shouting, "USA! USA!"
One by one, the stages came back online, with Perry's dance stage first pumping out the "Star Wars" theme. Not everyone was back on the schedule, however. Several bands had their remaining sets trimmed and others, including the eagerly anticipated Southern neo-soul band Alabama Shakes, had their sets canceled.
Chicago alt-rock band Empires was one of the unlucky cancellations. After tweeting a single but potent curse word, the band followed up with, "Our set is canceled. Nothing we can do about it. Hard to put into words how bummed we are. Thank you to everyone that traveled."
City officials allowed the park curfew to stretch from 10 p.m. to 10:45 p.m. to accommodate the rest of the acts.
Coming in 2013: Lollapalooza Israel
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 1:25 AM
Shortly after Grant Park reopened to music fans after a temporary, weather-related evacuation, Lollapalooza made an off-topic announcement: the festival is expanding again overseas next year, this time to Tel Aviv, Israel.
Lollapalooza Israel is set for Aug. 20-22, 2013, in Tel Aviv's Yarkon Park.
It's the latest in international expansions by Lollapalooza, produced by the Texas-based C3 Presents. Lollapalooza Chile launched in 2011, and Lollapalooza Brazil began early this year.
"As a musician, I really missed the days when we were on the move," festival founder Perry Farrell said in a statement. "In the last few years we've widened our scope, presenting Lolla to the 'festival generation' around the world. Next stop: Tel Aviv."
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: fun., Washed Out
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 1:44 AM
Once back inside Grant Park after Lollapalooza's rain delay on Saturday, fans scrambled to catch up to a revised schedule. Eventually, though, most just followed their ears.
A whole lot of them, in fact, crammed around the smaller capacity Google Play stage to hear Brooklyn's fun. The crowd wasn't surprising given the trio's series of chart and sales record-breakers thanks to the omnipresence of the hit single "We Are Young." But there was something else going on Saturday night — a level of exuberance that exceeded the already highly pitched spirits the band often generates in concert.
This crowd had just been shoved out of the park and let back in, and they were happy to be there. fun.'s many whoa-whoa, singalong choruses were just the ticket to celebrate Lolla 2.0 on a suddenly cooler Saturday night. When the band finally played "We Are Young," the crowd went wild. The audience in front of the stage sang ecstatically. A dance party broke out on Columbus Ave.
"Oh thank God, thank God, thank God!" exclaimed Kathy Winegate, 30, of Kenosha. "If I didn't get to hear that song tonight, well, we'd have us a problem."
Immediately after was the band named for the evening's activities: Washed Out.
Ernest Greene, the Southern gent behind Washed Out, was pretty happy to be back in the park, too. "We didn't even think we were going to get to play today," he told the crowd, "so it sounds much better with all you guys here."
On record, Washed Out lives up to its name more than in concert. The dreamy, drowsy electro-pop of the group's stellar second album, "Within and Without," is retooled with bigger beats and seismic synths. After an opening number that would have pleased Jean Michel Jarre, the three synth players plus a drummer tightened the grooves underneath Greene's lowly mixed, indistinct vocals.
Before the deluge, Green spoke to me about that early-Michael Stipe view of vocal mixing, plus what's on tap next for the project:
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Frank Ocean, Aloe Blacc, more
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 1:55 AM
Saturday's schedule at Lollapalooza came pre-loaded with excellent R&B. Too bad the afternoon evacuation on account of weather resulted in the cancellation of one of those acts, the widely acclaimed Alabama Shakes, but the rest more than made up for the deficit.
In the blazing sun and soupy, pre-storm heat, sly soul singer Aloe Blacc (E. Nathaniel Dawkins) strutted out to a jumping, genteel start. With a suited band, featuring two horns, Blacc opened by showing how widely soul music can reach — swinging from "Politician," a lively groove stuffed with socially conscious lyrics ("This free country is not so free"), to a funky shaker celebrating more carnal concerns ("Her berries are sweeter and her melons are fat").
Likewise, his cheerleading with the crowd see-sawed between "Love!" and "Peace!" But what he really wanted folks to do was dance. To that end, he made sure we were all on the same page, asking: "Y'all remember a TV show called 'Soul Train'?" He then instructed the crowd to form the kind of dance lines popular on the long-running Chicago-born show.
Musically, Blacc moved through rich gospel, quoting soul standards and hip-shaking, wah-wah funk, all played and sung with a loose-limbed ease but a tight, professional snap. He closed with the bouncy rhythm of "I Need a Dollar," which even included a kind of dub/reggae breakdown. Best part: The sign language interpreter was communicating with hips as much as hands.
Chicago's own JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound opened Saturday's lineup in Hutchinson Field.
Anders Lindall caught that set. Afterward, Brooks sat down with me for a quick chat about soul music, Frank Ocean and how to get an audience into the palm of your hand:
Late because of the rain delay, ballyhooed R&B savior Frank Ocean calmly and coolly kneaded an hourlong set that justified all the slobbering reviews of his recent album, "Channel Orange."
A fixture in the media recently because of a game-changing blog post, in which he came out as bisexual, Ocean thankfully is not just another well-played piece of PR. Opening with an acoustic cover of Sade's "By Your Side," Ocean's depth of vision and talent were quickly fathomable.
An ecstatic crowd around the Google Play stage cheered every breath he took, especially when he buttered them up a bit. "I see we got a little rain today," Ocean said. "I'm happy you came back out. I wouldn't miss y'all for the world."
Performing with a four-piece band that didn't back him so much as they painted sounds around him, Ocean exuded an alluring confidence. And why not? He's got a strong voice that makes two- or three-octave leaps seem such a casual maneuver. He's singing some of the most clever, sometimes quirky and engaging lyrics and lines. He possesses a musical vision light years beyond the modern R&B bump-and-grind standard. Songs like "Novocaine" and "Swim Good" flushed with spooky undercurrents (both musically and narratively), and "Strawberry Swing" swelled into a dramatic, Coldplay-esque anthem. Even if the storm hadn't broken the heat, Ocean's performance still would've made a perfect evening.
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: fields, the Walkmen, Little Dragon
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 4:53 PM
"As Lady Gaga said when I saw her last time we played Lollapalooza [in 2010]," quipped the Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser during the band's Sunday afternoon set at Lollapalooza, "'It's hot as f—- up here!'"
This sounds like a complaint from Friday or Saturday, when Chicago heat indexes were closer to 100, not on Lollapalooza's comparatively glorious third day — cooler, drier, clearer.
Then again, Leithauser was on the Sony main stage, facing the direct sun — and, just like the band's appearance in 2010, wearing a black suit.
After Saturday's two-and-a-half hour stoppage and evacuation due to severe weather, conditions and moods at Lollapalooza on Sunday were much improved.
Grant Park's Butler and Hutchinson fields in the north and south, respectively, are definitely showing wear. In both spots, grass is compacted and pocked with muddy patches. The softball fields in Hutchinson are dry and dusty again, but the tundra around it is spongy in most places, swampy in others. The ground around Perry's stage (southwest of Columbus and Balbo) is something of a dry crust, occasionally punctured to reveal the muddy sludge beneath.
Patches of mud in Grant Park's Hutchinson Field at Lollapalooza on Sunday. (Thomas Conner/Sun-Times)
The only real drawback, though, is the stench. Each of these fields reeks of either an old gym sock or a neglected kitchen drain.
Myra Woodruff, 22, of Cincinnati sported an old-school safety pin in her earlobe and a wooden clothes pin on her nose. "Smell is not the sense I'm here to concentrate on," she said.
Despite cooler temperatures, shade is still at a premium, with lots of fans huddled under the trees near Perry's stage and the Google Play stage, while the sunny patches directly in front of the performers were half full.
The Walkmen, for their part, seemed labored in that afternoon sun. The quintet, with the bloom of a 10-year anniversary just fading, meandered through their set and only seemed to plug into a real power source near the end. Once again in an incongruent setting for Leithauser to be squinting in the glare and wailing, "We're gonna have a good time tonight," this band's traditionally dirty sonics sounded clean and their normally vintage equipment seemed efficiently modern. Their official after-show later tonight at Lincoln Hall should wrap Leithauser's quivering wails in the darkness it so requires.
Meanwhile, an actual band — not a DJ — took to Perry's stage. Sweden's Little Dragon quickly set to justifying why they belonged on the EDM stage, opening with a clanging rhythm and a springy synth beat. The DJ tower gone, the quartet was free to leap about the stage, with singer Yukimi Nagano banging a tear-shaped tambourine. Their deeply soulful sound might have been a bit minimal for the Perry's ravers, but the songs' clean lines and electronic hums showcased a well-heeled, well-armed band. They oughta be, they've been around for 15 years now. So when Nagano asks the crowd if it's OK to play a "really, really old song," she's not just being coy.
Contributing: Anders Smith Lindall
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: Sigur Ros
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 5:23 PM
You couldn't imagine a starker contrast between setting and style.
Here's Sigur Ros onstage at Lollapalooza. They open early with the funereal pace their hourlong set will maintain with elegant rigor throughout. Singer Jon Thor "Jonsi" Birgisson is, as always, playing his electric guitar with a bow. Eventually he begins emitting his pinched falsetto cry — like the call of some eerie, autistic wild — and continues the piece by singing that same cry directly into his guitar pickup. The result is an added echo, a faintly astral projected sound amid the band's chilly, lush, cinematic sound.
Before them, however, lies Hutchison Swamp.
The crowd is large, but not so large yet (in the middle of the day) that they can't avoid the biggest and slimiest of the mud pits, souvenirs of Saturday's brief but thorough storm soak. Many fans are again caked in the grey-green muck, which dries on their legs and shoes in the sun. All this crystalline beauty from this revived Icelandic band, but you keep expecting one of the "Swamp People" guys to wrassle a gator in the puddles.
Jonsi, all bones and pale, pale skin, patiently sawed out his ambitious (if occasionally wearying) compositions backed by the band, which was augmented by string and horn players. Video screens flanking the stage tried to frame the tone of the music by splicing watery imagery in between shots of the sun-squinting Icelanders. That they played as measured a set as they did in what had to be strange conditions likely contributed to the crowd's lengthy ovation.
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: At the Drive-In
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 11:17 PM
The other surprising reunion act at Lollapalooza doesn't have the profile of Black Sabbath but on a good day might be able to go toe-to-toe with them. For much of their Sunday evening set in Hutchinson Field, it was a good day for At the Drive-In.
The Texas quintet revived its controlled, virtuosic, "post-hardcore" thrash in a main stage set peppered with jerking guitar lines, stand-up comedy and technical glitches.
"We are collectively known as Latin Danzig," said singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala by way of reintroduction. Bixler-Zavala's wit crackled throughout the set, commenting on the muddy field's pungent odor ("It smells like a Toblerone!") and filling an equipment breakdown with a rant about shoes.
But most of the time he was yelping and barking and pushing that unsettling, high voice that often falls somewhere between Geddy Lee and Kevin Cronin, just as At the Drive-In's music blends prog and pop, respectively. A table-pounding gem like "Lopsided," as close to a power ballad as this band gets, still showcases Bixler-Zavala's vocal versatility.
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: Jack White
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2012 11:44 PM
Jack White closed out this year's Lollapalooza with an epic performance of the same kind of blues-rock that inspired the festival's Friday headliner, the Black Keys. But White is more than the yin to someone else's yang, he's the whole colorful circle of modern American music — bashing out rock, digging up roots and careening through country.
Fortunately, he brought along a band that could handle the breadth of material. In fact, he brought two.
On tour, White has been traveling with two bands: one all-female, one all-male. They usually take turns playing each gig. For Lollapalooza, they both hit the stage.
Opening Sunday's show with a serious-looking, suited crew of heavyweight gentlemen, called Los Buzzardos, White — in black, with white boots, looking every bit "The Crow" of rock and roll — began drawing from the scope of his work as part of projects such as the White Stripes ("Black Math," "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground") and the Dead Weather ("Blue Blood Blues"). Without the dead weight, as it were, he could showcase the same mélange of material and underlying razor focus displayed on his recent solo debut, "Blunderbuss." Crunching through "Sixteen Saltines," from that album, White and his moody men ran hot at full throttle and in low gear. Even when things backed off a bit and White took a turn at the piano during "Missing Pieces," sitting back-to-back with the Buzzardos keys man, the force was always fully felt.
Midway through the set, the gents retired and the ladies took over. The Peacocks, as they're called, dressed in white and maintained the hardcore energy and country gentility, continuing through more solo, White Stripes and even a Raconteurs ("Top Yourself") number.
All business, and hardly chatty ("We got lucky with the weather tonight, didn't we?"), White intently screamed, shrieked and growled into a set that rarely let up for an hour and a half. Then came the encore, a punishing blow of recognizable, raucous riffs: "Steady as She Goes" (another Raconteurs tune, which White used for some call-and-response with the packed crowd), "The Hardest Button to Button," "Freedom at 21" (during which the Peacocks' drummer bashed so hard she knocked off a cymbal) and "Seven Nation Army." In the end, both bands took a bow.
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Pitchfork Music Festival kicks off with new features
By Thomas Conner on July 13, 2012 3:45 PM
The 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival got off to a delayed start Friday afternoon due to passing storms. Gates opened 30 minutes later and music was delayed 10 minutes while crews pumped some flash-flooded spots.
First up is the organic drone of Lower Dens and the spunkier rock of Outer Minds. Through Sunday night, 47 bands will perform on three stages in Chicago's Union Park, featuring mostly indie subgenres of rock, pop, electronic and hip-hop.
With a daily capacity of 18,000 fans — Friday is nearly full, Saturday is sold out, Sunday is filling up — the annual music fest is exactly one-fifth the size of Lollapalooza's daily crowd of 90,000.
That does not mean it wields just 20 percent of the impact.
Showcasing rising stars and cutting-edge sounds, the Pitchfork event — derived from its namesake online music magazine, Pitchfork.com, the arbiter of what's playing in hipster headphones the world round — often assist in culling the field, even determining who steps up to the larger fests, such as Lolla, Coachella and Bonnaroo.
Situated squarely in this West Loop park, Pitchfork's schedule and layout are easy to manage and maneuver. It's a fan-friendly and usually Chicago-friendly experience. Ticket prices stayed level this year ($45 each day, $110 for three-day passes), so it's a great bargain.
New elements to the experience this year include on-site lockers for fans to stash belongings, a ride-sharing program and increased bicycle parking. Among the vendor booths and markets, such as the CHIRP Record Fair, is the new BookFort, sponsored by local publisher Featherproof and Poetry magazine, featuring books for sale and a schedule of readings and discussions throughout the weekend from writers ranging from Tim Kinsella to Cynthia Plaster Caster.
Also, for those not attending the festival, Pitchfork 2012 is streaming online for the first time via youtube.com/pitchforktv.
Pitchfork Day 1: Chicago's Willis Earl Beal amazes
By Thomas Conner on July 13, 2012 11:50 PM
Chicago's Willis Earl Beal delivered the first jaw-dropping set of this year's Pitchfork Music Festival. Preceded by a growing legend that's threatened to overshadow his actual talent — discovered as a visual artist and busker, Beal has been trumpeted as an eccentric wunderkind in Found magazine and in the Chicago Reader — he strutted onto the festival's smaller secondary stage as if he were headlining the United Center. He then unleashed a voice that would've filled eight United Centers.
Warming up with some head-turning a cappella gospel evoking Calvary, Beal started a reel-to-reel tape rolling — his only accompaniment at first — and began singing over tinny clangs, dobro slides and bass beats. But "singing" seems a flaccid verb for what Beal actually accomplishes. Projecting a massive, versatile voice that hollers and howls, grates and growls, the 27-year-old Beal's bellowing evokes the oldest bluesmen and the fiercest young rappers. It's a voice that swings wide, high and low — often from guttural yawps to fluttery falsetto within a single line. He's Screamin' Jay Hawkins, then he's Curtis Mayfield.
Beal's acclaimed debut album, "Acousmatic Sorcery," is mostly lo-fi and delicate. His show is raw and loud. Twirling slowly, falling down, wrapping himself in a black cape — his moody performance is dramatic and occasionally histrionic. It wears slightly thin, too, particularly during the stomping six-minute dirges, but it's unquestionably a singular talent.
"You've been very patient watching me up here being self-indulgent," Beal said near the end. The pleasure was ours.
Pitchfork Day 1: Rain, rain, we came to play
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 12:03 AM
With its afternoon opening delayed slightly by a brief but heavy storm, Pitchfork's first day was deluged by a second downpour just before 6 p.m. The music didn't stop, though. Pitchfork organizers kept things relatively on schedule, and most fans seemed energized by the cooling rain.
More wet weather is forecast into the weekend, with a 40 percent chance of more storms Saturday.
Pitchfork's daily capacity of 18,000 fans wasn't quite sold out Friday, and the roomy field even during headliners suggested many fans with weekend passes stayed home due to the weather.
After A$AP Rocky's crew defied the evening downpour, skies cleared quickly and — save for a few muddy spots and puddles — Friday night went off without a hitch.
"I think the sun is coming out," said Japandroids' Brian King as his duo's set got under way. "Everything's gonna be all right."
Pitchfork Day 1: Outer Minds, Olivia Tremor Control
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 12:25 AM
Friday's music at Pitchfork opened direct from the wayback machine.
The first band on stage, Chicago's Outer Minds, drenched the soggy park with shimmering '60s psychedelic boogie. Singer-guitarist Zach Medearis, Vox organist Mary McKane and tambourine-confetti queen Gina Lira harmonize like the Mamas & the Papas, but the music is eight-cylinder garage-rock — much wilder and reckless on stage than on record.
Medearis' Alex Chilton (Box Tops-era) bark and snaky Will Sergeant guitar lines literally vibrate in front of drummer Brian Costello's rolling fills and thundering drops. During "Until You're Dead," Costello was on his feet, pounding his toms like a musical Thor. Right on.
They were immediately followed on one of the main stages by the paisley sounds of the Olivia Tremor Control, a product of the Elephant 6 collective in the 1990s, re-formed in recent years (along with the reappearance of Jeff Mangum) with charter members Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart. Their sunny '60s pop faced down Friday's looming clouds and included numerous horns.
Pitchfork Day 1: A$AP Rocky vs. Big K.R.I.T.
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 12:34 AM
Two rising hip-hop scrappers nearly went head-to-head on the two main stages Friday night.
First, A$AP Rocky hit the Red stage — or at least his mob did. Rocky showed up during the fourth song and proceeded to throw his ADD rhymes at the crowd just before the second storm hit. Rain didn't stop the Harlem rapper, but with his frenetic flow, urban angst and stage-diving antics, little probably could. Championed by Drake and collaborating with Danny Brown, his 2011 debut "Live Love A$AP" caught enough mainstream attention to earn a major-label reissue this year. That was mainly for the slo-mo flow of hits like "Peso" and "Purple Swag." Friday, Rocky was so hyped-up his follow-up, coming in September, might be called "Live Wire."
Better was Big K.R.I.T., a slow burner from Mississippi who took to the Green stage in a Bulls cap and kept telling the crowd he wanted to "slow things down." With beats significantly more soulful than Rocky's, K.R.I.T. (King Remembered in Time) eased everyone through a scorching, satisfying set. His full-length debut, "Live from the Underground," mixes up the soul (and blues, he samples B.B. King) with anti-crunk hip-hop full of — like his Friday set — frequent reminders that K.R.I.T. is just "country people."
Pitchfork Day 1: Feist, Japandroids, Dirty Projectors
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 1:26 AM
The two guys who make up Japandroids have a knack for multiplying humanity. First, guitarist Brian King (pictured) and drummer David Prowse generate enough raucous sound for a full quartet and then some. Secondly, they draw a crowd — one of the biggest I've ever seen at Pitchfork's smaller stage under the trees.
Taking the Blue stage as the rain receded, King took responsibility. "We brought the Vancouver weather with us," he said. Because of the weather delays, their set was trimmed. "So I'm not gonna talk after this. We're just gonna cram in as many songs as we can. ... It's Friday night! Let's have some fun!"
Here are two guys definitely not sorry for party rocking. Playing several bashers from their latest album, "Celebration Rock," they filled the small space with spirited, punkish New Wave jams that electrified the large crowd — like they did at Pitchfork back in 2008 — and could have held down one of the main stages with atomic aplomb.
On the flip side, Dirty Projectors began their main stage set shortly after Japandroids, offering highly quirky, jazzy chamber-pop that might have been more rewarding on a smaller, more intimate stage.
A regular at Chicago outdoor festivals (Pitchfork in 2008, Downtown Sound in 2009, Lollapalooza 2010), Dirty Projectors just released "Swing Lo Magellan," a slightly more straightforward batch of songs, though that's not saying much for these herky-jerky composers. Opening the set with "Magellan" songs, Dirty Projectors presented a cool, jazzy front, mixing in prog-rock breaks and dubby bass into fractured tempos and occasionally glitchy sounds. Dave Longstreth is charismatic and creative, but he's no singer. Well into the set, the grooves began knitting together more seamlessly, and the songs that spotlighted the harmonies of the group's three women — as on the stunning "Beautiful Mother" — reminded me how much I used to love the Roches.
Closing out Friday's main stage was Feist, the not-so-feisty Canadian who became a darling of indie-pop years ago with a little song called "1,2,3,4," a song that wound up everywhere from iPod commercials to "Sesame Street." And she didn't play it.
What Feist did instead was put on the show she clearly intended to put on — a patient rendering of her songs, old and new, with a decidedly earthy, rootsy palette. She even had (speaking of the Roches' harmonies) the female trio Mountain Man singing backup and wrapped in baggy, monk-like robes. Mixing new songs, from last fall's "Metals," and spacious reinterpretations of a few old ones ("Mushaboom"), Feist and her band slowly prodded her catalog. Rhythms palpitated like Native American songs, and the set started off like a bit of a wet blanket. Chatter online and on-site leading up to this set questioned whether Feist was a headliner-worthy act. As she plodded along like Jackson Browne's sister, the naysayers were winning.
Eventually, though, she cranked things up to festival level, grinding into her guitar hard enough to remind us she began her musical life in a punk band. "My Moon My Man" featured some six-string squall before its big, booming finish, and midway through the rocking backbeat of "I Feel It All" she had the whole crowd back. This ebbed and flowed, swelling again during "Comfort Me" and concluding with a self-satisfied grin.
Pitchfork Day 2: 'Embrace the mud!'
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 6:50 PM
PHOTO BY ME
After Friday's soggy opening, the second day of the 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago's Union Park received another soaking early in the afternoon. But a little rain failed to dampen the spirits of the sold-out crowd.
Festival organizers acted quickly to manage the puddles and mud patches, laying down clay and plastic decking, and pumping where necessary.
As one festivalgoer said, though, leading several around her in a chant: "Embrace the mud!"
Pitchfork Day 2: Flying Lotus, Wild Flag
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 11:52 PM
Pitchfork's blessing and its curse can be the diversity of its programming. Saturday's schedule was proof of these extremes — a broadly inconsistent day — but sometimes the swing between extremes really crackle, as it did Saturday afternoon with two divergent but equally exciting sets.
First, California DJ Flying Lotus (Steven Ellison, pictured) quickly dispatched all who doubted that one man and a turntable deck could hold down one of Pitchfork's main stages. An odd booking, perhaps, but in the glare of post-rain sun, his charisma and cheer — not to mention a wise selection of tracks for his target audience (Kanye West & Jay-Z, Odd Future, Erykah Badu and more were in his fluid mixes) — were infectious. When he tweaked the Beastie Boys' "Intergalactic," the crowd — already pogoing in the slop — went berserk. When his time was up, he kept spinning and few argued.
Follow that postmodern party with a purely old-school guitar band. The inimitable Wild Flag continued knitting a '60s psych-rock thread that started on Friday with Outer Minds and Olivia Tremor Control.
But this supergroup quartet (members from Sleater-Kinney, Minders, Helium) see-sawed between more classic, concise pop-rock (closing with "Romance" from their highly acclaimed, self-titled debut) and stunning, feedback-drenched guitar workouts ("Glass Tambourine"), as well as taking turns between songs led by singer-guitarist Mary Timony and those led by Carrie Brownstein.
As if to highlight their roots as a two-guitar band, they opened with Television's "See No Evil," then unveiled a couple of new songs. Their back-and-forth in the climactic swirl of "Glass Tambourine" was athletic. Same for "Racehorse," which they ended by weaving squalls of feedback for several minutes, concluding with Brownstein — in an image I'll long remember — her hair frazzled and in her eyes, holding her aquamarine guitar by the bottom high over her head, with one hand, her other on her hip, as the feedback rolled and rolled. Triumphant.
A bonus of every Wild Flag show is watching Rebecca Cole dance behind her keyboards. Very Peanut-characterish, very endearing.
Pitchfork's known more for experimental and electronic acts, so it was nice to hear some rawk.
Pitchfork Day 2: Sleigh Bells and a mixed bag
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2012 12:40 AM
Saturday was a day of mixed reviews. The weather: dreadful at first, delightful by nightfall. Mobile service: some hilarious tweets, though several of them were delivered two hours late. The video screen: beautifully clear this year, even though its images always seemed brighter and sunnier than reality.
Music, too. Sleigh Bells, for starters. Their reign of terror on the evening main stage alternated between hard-hitting and plain silly.
Pumped-up cheerleader Alexis Krauss, guitarist-producer Derek Miller and a second guitarist, Jason Boyer, put on a spirited track show, leaping and posing to a backing of tinny beats and high-EQ noise. Even in the wide-open park space for Pitchfork — where they also played in 2010 — the sound was claustrophobic. Opening with their now-signature high-EQ guitar assault, they dished music that at times aped Billy Squier ("Demons"), Roxette ("Born to Lose") and a Jamaican Jesus & Mary Chain cover band ("End of the Line"). Give Krauss props for filling in the holes with buoyant stage prancing and fierce orders for everyone to cheer, and give the crowd props for obeying. "I'm coming to get you, Chicago!" she cried as she dove into the audience. She makes a racket, but she makes it look like a blast.
Chromatics were playing for five minutes before I realized that the innocuous synth-pop I was hearing was not the piped PA music. Danny Brown's pinched, nasally, Nipsey Russell rapping was funny but flat, like his usually wild hair that the Detroit MC hid underneath a ballcap. London's Hot Chip filled the good-time, dance-party slot last year ably designed by Cut Copy, but did so by playing a batch of uptempo dance-pop that all sounds exactly the same, even their cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Everywhere." They sounded like everyband.
Pitchfork Day 2: Grimes, Godspeed You! Black Emperor
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2012 1:17 AM
Saturday's Pitchfork headliners both seemed like mixed bags — especially to the hundreds of people who stuck with them for two songs and then bolted (I've never seen such an exodus on a Saturday night at Pitchfork) — but each earned their keep in drastically different ways.
On the main stage, the mysterious and expansive Godspeed You! Black Emperor confounded the curious and exalted the faithful. Reunited after a seven-year hiatus, the nine-member Montreal collective (last here in March 2011, just after reuniting) demonstrated why they are both revered and ignored, building a typical set that was all dynamics but little depth.
What GY!BE does is build tension — and build it, and build it. This is a band whose debut album had three songs on it, each averaging 17 minutes in length. Their opener Saturday night, as the field had cooled and the crowd loosened up, began with a musical murmur, a sound that could have been a sound check, could have been a tuning. Then a single violin note. Some static footage began (the video screen between the stages went dark for this, the better to force concentration on GY!BE's nonsense imagery behind them), drums began thumping, then an undulating hum. They sustained this intoned intimidation for 13 minutes, basically around a single note. You wondered if they even knew where they were, or cared.
From there, the set throbbed and threatened — morphing through Turkish violins and Middle Eastern chimes, unnerving drums that thundered and rattled, and occasional wafts of melody, like half-remembered folk tunes or hymns (I know I heard "Amazing Grace" in there). This was symphonic music as it would be crafted by, say, Crazy Horse.
A wordless wonder was a bold choice for a festival headliner, though only the faithful seemed to appreciate the audience with their Olympian legends. Unlike Explosions in the Sky, for instance, GY!BE never seem truly comfortable on — or even aware of — stage. Saturday's performance, however, launches a 17-date tour through the summer.
Meanwhile, another act proved far bigger than Pitchfork's small Blue stage. Vancouver native Grimes (Claire Boucher) took a break from her current participation in the Full Flex Express Tour with Skrillex, Diplo and others to drop in on Pitchfork and draw a massive crowd under the trees. Like GY!BE, she bewildered as many as she entranced — there was a similar mass exodus from her crowd, too, after a couple of songs — and seemed to be dancing to a different performance than the one we were hearing.
Despite purring and cooing through soft, skittering ballads and glitchy, gauzy pop fragments, Grimes whipped herself around as if she were spitting out block rockin' beats. Plus, in addition to her DJ (who didn't seem to unburden Grimes of her own considerable knob-twiddling efforts), Grimes was joined onstage by two dancers, of the "Solid Gold" variety. Whereas GY!BE is all structure and time, Grimes chucks structure for sound. Not only does she employ her own, trademark baby-doll voice to its full extent, she adds infantile vox humana to the synthesized mix. The result is often creepy, unsettling and occasionally bewitching. She knows how to craft a hook, but she casts them into strange, murky waters.
Pitchfork Day 3: the Electromusical Energy Visualizer
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2012 5:54 PM
Mind you, this is the Pitchfork Music Festival, not another World's Columbian Exposition. Nonetheless, in one corner of Chicago's Union Park during this weekend's annual indie-rock fest, there was a contraption called the Electromusical Energy Visualizer.
Fans enter one of its four booths (sponsored by online service eMusic), don headphones and place one hand on an electric sensor. They then listen to snippets of four songs, each by one of the bands on this year's Pitchfork schedule.
At the end of each song sample, a photo is snapped. Like an amusement park ride, you exit the booth and receive your photo set — each shot overlaid with a color from the spectrum allegedly corresponding to your "musical aura" while listening to the song.
Yes, it's a 21st-century mood ring.
My session seemed accurate enough: Lower Dens (light yellow, mildly happy), Beach House (bright yellow, very happy, see photo at left), Iceage (goofy expression on my face, but no mood response) and A$AP Rocky (no mood response).
Pitchfork Day 3: The wooden letters
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2012 7:08 PM
Fans who visited the Blue stage this weekend at the Pitchfork Music Festival took a moment or two to decipher Matthew Hoffman's plywood sculpture (above).
In letters 8-feet tall and spanning 80 feet atop the park's west fence, Hoffman spelled out, "THESE MOMENTS."
It's part of some on-site art installations in collaboration with Chicago-based Johalla Projects.
Watch a time-lapse video of the installation here, and see more of Hoffman's work here.
Pitchfork Day 3: Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, more
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2012 12:08 AM
The only thing that made Sunday afternoon's block of garage rock at Pitchfork 2012 more scorching and thrilling was the camaraderie between two of the acts.
"Hey, Ty Segall!" John Dwyer shouted from Pitchfork's smaller Blue stage. "Can you hear us?"
Dwyer leads Thee Oh Sees, the prolific Bay Area pysch-rock band (four albums in three years) with the ever-evolving name (OCS, the O.C.'s, the Ohsees). Sunday his band started a half hour before the like-minded Segall on the larger Red stage, and Dwyer knew a lot of fans were torn by the scheduling — and planning to bolt. "Don't go," he pleaded limply. "Stay!"
While both White Mystery redheads watched and pumped devil horns in the air behind the stacks, Thee Oh Sees plowed through a set of rich, textured psychedelic garage. Dwyer and his mates threw their heads hard back and forth as they ground out relentless riffs, and Dwyer yelped and hiccupped. The first song bore down for eight glorious minutes, bashing and scraping like early '90s-era Flaming Lips scoring a post-apocalyptic road movie. Hanging tight to their garage aesthetic, they still sashayed through slower, ambling boogies and several moody freakouts. Segall definitely heard them.
In fact, he tried to repay the favor. Midway through his own set, Segall led the crowd on a count of three to shout, "Dwyer!" Then he noticed that Dwyer had already finished and was standing to the side of Segall's stage. "Holy sh—!" he blurted. Then, with the same utter joy he played his stunning set, he shouted, "Yeah!"
Segall, an even more prolific California garage primitivist (11 albums since 2008), was Pitchfork 2012's great revelation.
Where was the mud Sunday? Not in the field, but in Segall's amps. Thick, peaty sonic mud, tuned for flinging. Opening with peals of feedback squall, Segall and his band — featuring the battering Emily Rose Epstein on drums and equally aggressive guitarist Charles Moothart — blasted through a set of rollicking rock and roll as true to form but just as texturally diverse as Thee Oh Sees. Where Dwyer's band is slightly more cerebral with their clay, Segall is all physical — grabbing handfuls, lurching to and fro, torturing the desired sounds out of his instrument by flexing and twisting every part of his body, not mere hands and fingers. Garage stomps and banshee wails, jangly bits and cooing harmonies, screeching jet engines and screams of bloody murder — hell, not only did he throw in a cover of AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," he turned in some credible blues-rock ("You Make the Sun Fry," a great title for Sunday's heat).
He even made something out of the stage-diving cliché by jumping in and steering the surf — pointing in the direction he wanted to go, out toward the sound booth and back to the stage. The crowd conveyed him just so while the band vamped. When he hit the stage again, he picked up his guitar and kept going. A golden god.
These sets were bookended by other unabashed guitar rockers at a festival sometimes known more for knob-twiddlers and shoegazers. Milk Music, a longhair bar band from Olympia, Wash., played dedicated '90s grunge and whipped their hair around without irony. The Men, a Brooklyn quartet with a Southern rock fixation, tempered their own thrash with slide guitar, harmonica and forays into stoner jams.
Pitchfork Day 3: Lady Gaga and Kendrick Lamar
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2012 12:35 AM
Straight outta Compton, rapper Kendrick Lamar earned a huge crowd at Pitchfork's smaller Blue stage on Sunday. Were they all drawn by Lamar's hard-as-nails flow? Not quite.
Lady Gaga was there to see him.
You read that right. Lamar, you see, keeps excellent company.
He's not a newbie, either. He started his career as K. Dot, making three mixtapes under that name. Now rechristened, Lamar has Snoop Dogg singing his praises and Dr. Dre signing him to his label. (Lamar even has allegedly contributed to "Detox," Dre's now-legendary third album that's been in the works for 11 years.) Pitchfork fans can appreciate that he recently performed a concert with Best Coast.
The Lady and Lamar somehow became friends, and Gaga tweeted about him last week ("What a sweetie calling me this morning to see how I'm doin"). In a move smacking of marketing machinations, Gaga swung through Chicago to play tastemaker.
During Lamar's set, Gaga danced on the side of the small stage under the trees, surrounded by her entourage (which included a beefy fellow waving photographers away). Twitter nearly burst into flames with anticipation of her joining him on stage, but the pairing didn't happen.
Which left us Lamar by himself. Frankly, that's a bit of a letdown. Hitting the stage 15 minutes late, Lamar spent much of his set freestyling — impressively, with an appealing and gravelly street-preacher flow, but he seemed to be doing it most often because his lame, distracted DJ wasn't backing him up. "Hol' Up" is an easygoing reflection built atop some chill Herb Alpert-like horn samples, but after that we got a ride on the cliché train. Leers about sex and alcohol, demands for noise-making and hand-waving, comparisons of himself to Martin Luther King Jr. — by the end of Lamar's set, Lady Gaga would have been a comparable injection of humility.
But she just leaned on the railing, in a black bustier and some heavy jewels. All dressed up, and she didn't go anywhere.
Pitchfork Day 3: Vampire Weekend, Beach House, the Field
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2012 1:33 AM
The 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival concluded Sunday night with three final acts touching on each strength this locally produced marquee has demonstrated over the years: dependable college rock (Vampire Weekend), noodling electronic mood music (Beach House) and a curious, tucked away experimental surprise (The Field).
Three days down, 47 acts on three stages, Pitchfork 2012 was a mixed bag — more mixed than usual, really — with a full-capacity sell-out only on Saturday.
Beach House — sigh. First off, I know. They're dreamy. If I never see a tweet or have it explained to me about their "dreamy" sound, it'll be too soon. But it's often a thin line between dreamy and dull.
When the drug lobby eventually succeeds in making everything legal and taxable, Beach House will be in great demand to provide music for Quaaludes commercials. Depending on your point of view, the plodding pretenses of Victoria Legrand (pictured) and Alex Scally (plus a mallet-loving drummer) either made for that perfect Pitchfork evening gazing into the twilight or a dreary, dark buzzkill. I expected the former but concluded the latter.
Legrand's sandy, deliberate voice pulsated in and out of the washed-out mix, while she and Scally hung back deep on the stage. (If you weren't positioned within a 45-degree cone from center stage, you could barely see them. Ironically, the cameramen were usually in the way, too.) Balancing light and dark tones within their Cocteau Twins echoes, the duo — in a better slot than their 2010 Pitchfork appearance — hummed and thrummed, mixing woozy sounds with delicate brushes and beats. But none of it had enough hooks to keep me from drifting away.
Which I'm glad I did, because I found the Field. A pseudonym for Swedish "minimal techno" artist Alex Willner, the Field on Sunday featured Willner joined by a drummer and bassist. Take the sustained tension of Saturday night's Godspeed You! Black Emperor, swap the bombast for some Tangerine Dream, and you've got the basics for this super-subtle patchwork of rhythm and sound that closed out Pitchfork's Blue stage.
Willner laid down a simple beat and began building dynamics above and below it — so lightly, carefully, applying the kind of noises you can't quite discern, the kind of insistent hums you search the house all over trying to locate. But it was cool, refreshing, and he kept layering the sounds and amping up the rhythm until the small crowd was dancing without most being aware of how or when they'd started. A study in electronic grace.
Now, to the Sunday night main-stage headliner: Vampire Weekend.
You hipsters and your inevitable backlashes. The preppy thing, the "Upper Wide Side Soweto" tag, the premature Spin acclaim, the bassist's relation to Scott Baio — I get it, Vampire Weekend is painted with easy targets. But on paper this band's world-beat/college-rock cocktail is much more affected than has been proven on record, and usually on stage (occasional cardigans notwithstanding). Hipsters love to employ the worn-out Paul Simon comparisons as a weapon. But you could do a helluva lot worse than having influences of such a rich songwriter and producer, particularly from his "Graceland" zenith. As has been argued before, Simon's legacy is overdue for indie-rock mining.
That said, Vampire Weekend missed an opportunity Sunday night to reintroduce themselves. Actually, the problem was that they didn't introduce anything new. "Contra," their last album, came out two and a half years ago; they've been laboring over the follow-up ever since, which they report is about 80 percent finished. From all that work, though, only one new song showed up Sunday. The rest of the set list was, well, drawn from the same well as their March 2010 concert in Chicago and their previous Pitchfork appearance as the hot new thing in 2008.
"It's been a long time since we played shows," singer Ezra Koenig told Sunday's ecstatic crowd. He repeated the caveat later, a few songs before his voice seemed to go (he sounded pretty out-of-practice on "I Stand Corrected").
The catalog is still bustling, spry and fun, especially with Sunday's concerted oomph, driven by the powerful drumming of Chris Tomson. But the new song — a stomping beat, a woven melody — and a satiny new reading of "Horchata" were the only fresh digs. Not that many seemed to mind. A screaming, dancing crowd hung on every tilt of Koenig's guitar and sang along to the whole bit. Still, to task, chaps! Finish that record!
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Paul Williams boasts an interesting and compelling life story. Unfortunately, even by the end credits, his documentarian remains somehow unconvinced.
Director Stephen Kessler ("Vegas Vacation") thus delivers a hand-wringing, self-indulgent film that is often trying, dull and, like a rainy Monday, is likely to get you down.
The diminutive Williams was once a giant star. By the end of the '70s, he'd written huge hits — Three Dog Night's "An Old Fashioned Love Song," the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" and "Rainy Days and Mondays," Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen" (his biggest hit and Oscar winner, from "A Star Is Born"), even the theme song for "The Love Boat" — and was a fixture on television, guesting on everything from "The Tonight Show" to "Police Woman." By the '80s, though, he'd disappeared into deep struggles with drug and alcohol addiction.
Like many fair-weather fans, Kessler assumed Williams was dead. The recent discovery of his error reignited a youthful admiration for Williams and his music, so Kessler began pestering his idol about telling his story on camera. For two and a half years he shadowed a clearly reluctant Williams, and the resulting footage was cobbled together for "Paul Williams Still Alive," opening Friday.
Despite being handed a timeless "Behind the Music" narrative arc — unlikely figure becomes huge star, huge star face-plants into addiction, has-been redeems self with indomitable spirit and a continuing career that's, hey, not digging ditches — Kessler early on admits his fan-boy insecurity about the modern marketability of his subject. Unable to see past his own adoration, though, Kessler decides instead to make the film about ... Kessler.
First-person documentary works if you're somewhat daring (Michael Moore) or even remotely likable (Morgan Spurlock). Kessler, however, shows himself to be timid, whiny and paranoid. The chat segments are uncomfortable because Kessler has no facility for interviewing. The daily-life segments are dull because Kessler is frequently shut out of the inner circle and left to twiddle his knobs. A series of gigs in the Philippines are a huge downer not because of what actually happens but because Kessler won't shut up about his own cultural paranoia regarding terrorism in the big bad jungle.
Thus, this film is about many things that never happen. Williams didn't die. Williams refuses to talk much about his past. Williams — despite numerous shameless attempts by Kessler to coerce him to do so — does not break down on camera and weep with shame over his former follies. (Other things that never happen: Williams' involvement with the Muppets is barely mentioned. "Phantom of the Paradise," ignored.)
In fact, it's Williams' defiance that ultimately end-runs around Kessler's meek machinations to illuminate his own story. "He always looks forward, he doesn't look back," Kessler finally realizes about his subject, two and a half years too late. Williams, meanwhile — ever calm, satisfied, radiantly secure — describes the happiness of his current existence and sobriety, then revels gleefully in Kessler's inability to churn it into a standard tell-all.
"The last few years have really f---ed up the end of your movie," he cackles, "and I love that!" There's at least that to love.
'PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE'
Rated PG-13, 87 minutes
Directed by Stephen Kessler
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
This SXSW post is not brought to you by an Austin homeless person
By Thomas Conner on March 13, 2012 6:09 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Perhaps you've heard that the zeitgeist at the annual South by Southwest culturefest is now located in the Interactive segment, rather than the conference's original Music portion. Must be true — the first real controversy of SXSW 2012 occurred before many music critics had landed in the Texas capital.
SXSW is now a 10-day event encompassing rollouts of films, digital ventures and new music. The movies and online jibber-jabber started March 9; the music blares on through March 18.
But it's a crowded event, with celebrities, journalists and industry types jamming the Austin Convention Center and venues throughout downtown. Last year, nearly 20,000 registrants attended the Interactive portion — which wraps up today, just as the Music showcases begin tonight. As you might imagine, mobile bandwidth comes at a premium.
So BBH Labs, the techie division of the marketing agency BBH, tried a little experiment.
They gathered 13 people from a local homeless shelter, gave them mobile 4G Wi-Fi devices and sent them into the throng. Each volunteer wore a T-shirt saying, "I'm [Homeless Person's Name], a 4G Hotspot."
Many have found the campaign insensitive. Wired.com wrote that it "sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia." Technology blog ReadWriteWeb called it a "blunt display of unselfconscious gall." In an online op-ed, The Washington Post wondered "Have we lost our humanity?"
The company paid the homeless workers $20 up front and a minimum of $50 a day for about six hours work, said Emma Cookson, chairwoman of BBH New York. They also were able to keep whatever customers donated in exchange for the wireless service.
When you log on to one of the Homeless Hot Spots sites, customers are introduced to the person providing the connection and are invited to make a donation. A statement on the page reads: "Homeless Hotspots is a charitable innovation initiative by BBH New York. It attempts to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations."
Saneel Radia, the BBH Labs director who oversaw the project, told the New York Times the company was not taking advantage of the homeless volunteers.
Other might want to get in on the action, though. My cab driver from the airport said, "Hell, they can load up my cab and I'll drive around with a hundred hotspots, long as I can keep the meter running."
SXSW dials down the digital, cranks up the music
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 9:00 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Let the music begin. For days here in the Texas capital, tastemakers from digital ventures and the film industry have been unveiling their wares at the South by Southwest culture conference. Tuesday night, however, the programming shifted back to what built SXSW a quarter century ago: music.
More than 2,000 bands will roll their gear into Austin during the next few days, performing on more than 90 official stages. Last year, more than 16,000 registrants attended the music portion of the festival, including artists, publicists, industry scouts and a lot of media.
Music is a hot topic among digital pioneers, of course, so concert stages were under way earlier in the week. Hip-hop titan Jay-Z performed Monday night for an invitation crowd.
Tuesday night, as the Interactive sessions died down, the music showcases revved up. Last year was the first time music showcases started backing into the Tuesday of SXSW week, and there were more this year.
Chief among them was the return of Philly singer-rapper Santigold, acclaimed upon her 2008 debut and not heard from much since. Now she's out hyping her upcoming sophomore set, "Master of My Make-Believe," due May 1.
This being Austin, there was also a crowded fete for the loveable and quirky Daniel Johnston, a beloved area singer-songwriter.
The music programming starts in earnest today and continues through the weekend, with Bruce Springsteen giving the keynote address midday Thursday and performing later that night with the E Street Band, which launches its next tour this weekend.
Got a SiriusXM radio or a friend who does? The SiriusXMU channel is airing SXSW broadcasts all week, including the Friday night outdoor concert by the Shins.
SXSW: Alabama Shakes deserves the hype
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 5:06 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Buzz bands at the annual South by Southwest music conference have a lot in common with those who win best new artist at the Grammys. You tend to not hear much from them afterward. (Last year, conference attendees and wristband fans clawed over each other to get into showcases by London fuzz-rock band Yuck. Who? Exactly.)
Possibly the buzziest of the buzz bands at this year's SXSW (so far) is Alabama Shakes — but this is a band you're going to hear much more from.
Fresh out of the piney woods just an hour downriver from the legendary soul studios at Muscle Shoals — and with only a couple of EPs to their credit thus far — Alabama Shakes is a fiery quintet of youngsters playing country-soul that both Skynyrd and Otis could love.
The anticipation generated one of the largest crowds ever for a daytime showcase at the Austin Convention Center, with several hundred filling a ballroom for the group's Wednesday afternoon performance. The band just played a sold-out gig last weekend at Chicago's Lincoln Hall.
For the most part, the hype is deserved. Lead singer Brittany Howard is a cool storm, one of those young singers exuding confidence beyond her years and presence possibly beyond this earthly realm. She pulls her accent back, often singing through rounded cheeks that add an extra dimension to her growls and wails. Her voice isn't a wide-ranging beast (her high notes are thin), but it's a beast nonetheless, purring like Macy Gray or exploding in very occasional fits of Janis Joplin.
The band supports her with remarkably restrained backing, controlling the dynamics of every song — slowing down when it wants to get fast, and vice versa — like making great love. Each player keeps things tuneful but spare — leaving huge spaces for Howard to snake through, then unleashing rare bursts of carefully timed fury. In that respect, they could use a songwriting mentor; at least half the set features rocking soul numbers that develop the same way, always ending with the band grinding hard while Howard wails something appropriately animalistic and urgent over and over ("Feels good!" or "Yes, he did!!" or "Well, all right!!!"). The band's ninth and final song, the dramatic groove of "You Ain't Alone," followed that template and resulted in their second standing ovation of the set.
SXSW: Little Steven on TV, Broadway, Springsteen tour
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 8:00 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Little Steven Van Zandt had a good chuckle about an alleged rumor reported this week during South by Southwest.
A writer at Magnet music magazine claimed he'd heard that, for their anticipated Thursday night performance during the annual music festival, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band would be performing a version of the Broadway musical "The Music Man." (The writer later confessed, not surprisingly, "I made it up.")
"You never know, though," Van Zandt said during a chat Wednesday with the Sun-Times, laughing heartily at the idea. "[Springsteen] might have some Broadway up his sleeve."
Van Zandt is in Austin this week for a couple of reasons. In addition to the Thursday night show, he's also promoting something SXSW hardly deals with it all: a TV show.
Following his turn as a gangster in the HBO series "The Sopranos," Van Zandt is again playing a mobster -- this time in a series produced for Norwegian television, "Lilyhammer." The show was recently picked up by Netflix as the streaming service's first original programming.
"I was in Norway producing one of my bands there, the Cocktail Slippers [an all-girl rock band from Oslo]," Van Zandt said, "and these writers came and pitched this to me. I wasn't planning on playing a mobster again, but it's such a great idea. ... The Norwegians have gone crazy for it because they love America and rock and roll. They love the spirit of individualism, which is a bit of a contradiction for them and their community-based government. My character is someone who doesn't follow the rules, and they're very used to following the rules. Someone like me being a little naughty is exotic to them."
After the SXSW show, the E Street Band kicks off its tour this weekend. The band performed last Friday at New York's Apollo Theater, debuting the five-man horn section that replaces late saxophone legend Clarence Clemons on tour.
"We'll be featuring our soul music roots more on this tour," Van Zandt said. "And, you know, this year is a celebration of Woody Guthrie [the centennial of his birth]. Quite a bit of Bruce's music is a tribute to Woody Guthrie. ... It just never ceases to amaze me how Bruce continues to write in a way that is vital and very much of the moment. It always keeps us from even thinking about becoming a nostalgia band, because every tour is a whole new everything."
Springsteen is delivering the SXSW keynote address Thursday at noon. His latest solo album, "Wrecking Ball," was just released, and it debuted at No. 1 this week.
SXSW: John Fullbright comes of age
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 11:48 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Let me tell you my quick John Fullbright story before I go on about how mesmerizing and moving his Wednesday evening South by Southwest showcase was.
When I was writing about music in Oklahoma, I covered the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival each July in Guthrie's hometown of Okemah. Okemah has one motel, which is taken over by the artists and production crews during the festival. Folk singers, in my experience, don't sleep much, and every night after the shows wrapped up in town most of them would drag chairs into the motel parking lot and swap songs till dawn.
Every now and then, wide-eyed young buskers would stroll up and try to measure up. Few did — until, several years ago, a teenaged Johnny Fullbright strode into to the circle with a banjo over his shoulder. Tipping his cap, the Okemah native offered to play a couple of his own songs. Soon, Arlo Guthrie's eyebrows raised and he sat forward in his lawn chair, and we all knew we were hearing something special.
Since then, Fullbright has shared stages with Joe Ely and fellow Okie songwriter Jimmy Webb, among others, and he recorded a live album. "From the Ground Up," though, will be his studio debut, due May 8 (Blue Dirt/Thirty Tigers).
Fullbright's SXSW showcase — the first of eight gigs he has here this week — was as perfect as if it were a Jonathan Demme concert film. Taking the stage at St. David's Episcopal Church in downtown Austin, the unassuming young singer stepped to the mike with his guitar and harmonica rack. He appears meek and milquetoast in his flesh-colored collared shirt and flat, parted hair, but — sorta like Kelly Joe Phelps — the square look is deceiving. He started plucking and blowing and wailing a first-person account of God setting up humans for their inevitable fall, and suddenly another crowd knew it was going to hear something special.
Fullbright synthesizes the best songcraft from his home state — Webb, Leon Russell and, by default, Merle Haggard. Just in his 20s, he mournfully considers how "all my life I've tested truth / but truth's not always sound." I'll give him credit for the double entendre in that last line, because the caliber of the rest of his songwriting is so good. He's got a tune called "Forgotten Flower," a thoughtful country lament, that Tom Waits and Randy Newman could fight over.
Possibly unintentionally, Fullbright filled his set on that church chancel with familiar subjects. He opened with "God Above," a searing blues. He sang, "Glory, glory, hallelujah," then played "Satan and St. Paul" and "Jericho."
The last three songs were plunked out on an upright piano, swinging from his own slow ballad "Nowhere to Be Found" to the dancing blues of "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do." The versatility was natural, authentic, untrained. Webb's oft-repeated endorsement predicts "that in a very short time John Fullbright will be a household name in American music." It may not be hyperbole.
SXSW: Ezra Furman, Sharon Van Etten, Mr. Muthaf---in' eXquire, the great R. Stevie Moore
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2012 9:33 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "Is that a dude in his underwear, just playing?" asked a guy who wandered into The Jr bar just off Sixth Street on Wednesday night. Why, yes, yes it is.
Ezra Furman, the mad Evanstonian who recently relocated to the Bay Area, stepped onto the bare stage for his SXSW 2012 showcase nearly bare-assed, wearing only socks and boxer briefs. The rest of him was just the same — wild eyes, spasmodic poses, a spitting earnestness so unnerving you pray he doesn't make eye contact.
Hurling a mixture of songs from his new solo album, "The Year of No Returning," and gems from "Mysterious Power" and his Chicago tenure with the Harpoons, the skinny folk-punk wunderkind bared his soul, as well, in songs alternating between naked desperation ("Bloodsucking Whore") and mournful reverie (a cover of Tom Waits' "Bottom of the World"). In a new song, "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde," he summed up his SXSW moment, singing, "I was hideous and handsome."
"I was supposed to be a wide-eyed sort of singer-songwriter, but I don't feel like that anymore," he said from the stage. "Too bad, marketing team."
• • •
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten played a demure set Wednesday night at Stubb's. Getting off to a late start, Van Etten plodded through several songs from her attention-getting 2010 debut, "Epic," and her new follow-up, "Tramp." I still don't quite get the slobbering reverence for her work. No doubt, it's encouraging to hear someone with a voice this lovely treading the well-worn road of dissonant strumming and oblique, soul-bearing poetry blazed by fellow New Jersey-raised Patti Smith. Most of the songs merely wear that path down deeper, though, warbling over organ and cymbal-shy drums until they reach big crescendos that stumble to clumsy halts. They're awfully passionate dirges for someone who seems so chipper and cheery during her brief stage banter.
• • •
Mr. Muthaf---in' eXquire and his red-hot New York rap crew continued their SXSW gigs Wednesday night at MI Annex on Sixth Street, and the crowd didn't want them to leave. "eXquire! eXquire!" they chanted, begging for one more freestyle, to no avail. MMeX is a weird, Wu-Tang-like mob of half a dozen rappers, and the group's namesake is a hulking, slurring nutjob with percolating flow. Wednesday night, he was spewing syllables so fast and without stopping that he began to slouch and collapse. At the climactic moment, he shot up as his mates punctuated the verse, shouting, "Breathe!" Huzzah!
• • •
Since the early 1970s, "singer"-songwriter R. Stevie Moore has been producing song after song after song — countless hours of tape — documenting the weird and wonderful corners of his mind. As the Trouser Press record guides have stated for years, "'Unsung hero' only touches on the injustice of obscurity for this wry, heartfelt artist whose limber genius." But he meandered into the SXSW spotlight this week for a few showcases, including a typically bewildering set of songs Wednesday afternoon in the middle of the SXSW trade show.
"Why would anyone come to South by Southwest to see Lionel Richie?" Moore sang in a seemingly off-the-cuff ditty about the preponderance of big-name bookings at this year's festival, which was born in the late '80s as a haven for spotlighting up-and-coming talent. "If I had to choose between Lionel Richie and Sufjan Stevens, it would be a dead heat."
A large fella, in shades and with a wild Santa Claus-white beard and hair fluttering every which way, Moore plunked out his crafty lyrics and bent tunes on acoustic guitar. From his bottomless repository of material, he plucked a remarkable cache of quirky love songs, such as "Traded My Heart for Your Parts" and, uh, "I Wanna Hit You" (which he punctuated with, "Pow! To the moon, Alice!"). Looking at him, a deranged Wilford Brimley gargling his notes and strumming herky-jerky chords, the song "Goodbye Piano" took on new resonance: "You're so out of tune / I assume you're dead."
SXSW keynote: Bruce Springsteen gives musical history lesson, celebrates Woody Guthrie centennial
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2012 3:22 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Marveling at the breadth of contemporary pop music, Bruce Springsteen name-checked his own lengthy list of milestone influences during a funny and enlightening keynote address Thursday at the South by Southwest music conference.
The king of this particular musical Mardi Gras, Springsteen hit town Wednesday night and showed up to jam with Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo at the Austin Music Awards. In addition to his keynote speech, the Springsteen blitz continues tonight in concert with the E Street Band, a preview of the tour kicking off this weekend. His latest album, "Wrecking Ball," was released last week and debuted at No. 1 in 14 countries.
"No one hardly agrees on anything in pop anymore," Springsteen said in his opening remarks. He expressed awe at the number of bands booked at SXSW.
"There are so many subgenres and factions," he continued — and then amused the standing-room crowd by listing as many as he could name, dozens of hyphenated musical classifications and creations, from melodic death metal and sadcore to rap-rock and Nintendocore. He ended the list with a slight slump, saying, "And folk music."
"This is all going on in this town right now," he said.
Citing rock critic Lester Bangs' assertion that Elvis Presley was the last thing Americans would agree on, Springsteen said each of the thousands of bands booked during SXSW "has the belief to turn Bangs' prophecy around.
"The one thing that's been consistent over the years is the genesis and the power of creativity. It's all about how you're putting what you do together. The elements you're using don't matter. It's not confined to guitars, tubes, turntables or microchips. There's no right way, no pure way of doing it — there's just doing it."
Springsteen then took the rapt audience on a tour through his own musical upbringing, noting each notable inspiration that molded him — from Presley's appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1956 through poetic descriptions of the power he felt coming from doo-wop, Roy Obison, Phil Spector, British Invasion bands, the Beatles, country, soul, Stax, Motown and Dylan.
He spent extra time on the Animals. "For me, the Animals were a revelation," he said. "That was the first full-blown class-consciousness I'd ever heard."
He sang and strummed most of "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," a song the Animals made famous, and declared, "That's every song I've ever written! That's all of them, I'm not kidding. That's 'Born to Run,' 'Born in the U.S.A.,' even the new ones." He played the riff from "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," then the riff from his own "Badlands": "Same f---ing riff, man."
Acknowledging that this is the centennial year of Woody Guthrie's birth, Springsteen concluded with how he's been inspired by the American folk legend to keep his own lyrical focus on the issues of working people. He was also honest about their differences.
"I knew I was never going to be Woody Guthrie. I liked the pink Cadillac too much. I liked the luxuries and comforts of being a star. I'd already gone a long way down a pretty different road," Springsteen said.
In the end, Springsteen tried to bring it back to music's colorful mass, the overwhelming amount of it, the dizzying scope of its styles as evidenced in SXSW itself. The thread fans and artists must needle out of the experience, he said, has always been the same no matter how many subgenres there are.
"Here we are in this town celebrating a sense of freedom that was Woody's legacy," Springsteen said. "We live in a post-authentic world. Authenticity today is just a house of mirrors. It's all about what you're bringing when the lights go down. At the end of the day, it's power and purpose that matters."
• • •
The Woody Guthrie connection bookended Springsteen's keynote.
Immediately before the speech on the same stage, American singer-songwriters Jimmy LaFave and Eliza Gilkyson strummed Guthrie songs, such as "Oklahoma Hills," "I Ain't Got No Home in This World" and "Deportee." Colombia's Juanes played a couple of his own songs, spirited tunes in Spanish he said were inspired by Guthrie. All three lead the sleepy SXSW crowd in a singalong of "This Land Is Your Land."
A panel session followed the keynote, titled "Woody at 100." Moderated by Bob Santelli, executive director at the Grammy Museum and a Guthrie scholar himself, the panel featured journalist Dave Marsh, scholar Doug Brinkley, songwriters LaFave and Joel Rafael, and two of Guthrie's children: singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie and head of the Woody Guthrie Foundation & Archives, Nora Guthrie.
Nora discussed the pending move of her father's archives — thousands of original lyrics, poems, notebooks, journals, artwork and more — from its current New York home to a new facility in Tulsa, Okla. She also highlighted a theme from Springsteen's keynote about music's many styles, noting that Woody wrote all kinds of music, including love songs and Jewish music.
Arlo made some important distinctions about his dad's legacy amid all the discussion of it in this centennial year.
"There are a lot of different Woodys," he said. "Even having known him along with my sister, I don't know that anybody has the capacity to have fully understand anyone. ... He really had the ability to distill all of us and put it into a way so that we recognize our own voice coming back to us. He said, 'Let me be known as a man who told you something you already knew.' ... Everybody in this room has a little voice they count on that they recognize as being them. My father recognized that voice in him and reflected it back on you so you recognize something that rings true to you. I don't think we're actually celebrating Woody — we're celebrating us. That's the genius of the man."
For a complete list of the numerous Guthrie centennial events around the country, see woody100.com.
Power pop @ SXSW: Big Star tribute, dB's reunion
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 10:32 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — At the 2010 South by Southwest music conference, critics and fans were eager for a scheduled celebration of the '70s band Big Star. The influential pop-rock band was at the height of a popular resurgence, fueled in part by a stellar box set ("Keep an Eye on the Sky") released the previous year. A panel session was planned, a hotly anticipated concert, too. But on the first day of the festival, bandleader and power-pop icon Alex Chilton died.
The pieces of those plans were reassembled in earnest Thursday night at SXSW 2012. In a star-studded concert — featuring a pantheon of alt-rock greats including R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Wilco's Pat Sansone, Tommy Stinson, Peter Case, Chris Stamey, Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer, M. Ward and many more, plus Big Star's lone survivor, drummer Jody Stephens — musicians inspired by the band, complete with a 12-piece orchestra, performed the whole of Big Star's "Third," their emotionally tangled and rightly acclaimed album recorded in 1974 and released by 1978.
Stamey — also appearing several times at SXSW this week with the reunited dB's (see below) — has made these "Third" gigs into something of a pet project, performing them a few times ahead of the festival. But Thursday's gig, back in something of an emotional center for the band and its fans, resonated with obvious love from the musicians, especially a smiling Stamey, who never sang but acted as bandleader.
Mixing up the album's various sequences, the show opened with M. Ward on piano meandering through Eden Ahbez's "Nature Boy," an outtake from "Third." Players and singers then started cycling behind the microphone. British pub band the Dunwells delivered "Take Care" with Irish balladry and an accordion. The Mayflies' Matt McMichaels lead a steady "Jesus Christ." Auer, who had joined a revived lineup of Big Star, drove slowly through "Black Car," fueled by the string quartet.
Standouts included Stinson, formerly of the Replacements, redeeming himself with a solid version of "Nightime." Watching him in his skinny plaid suit and hipster hat, one could almost forget he now slums in the reconstituted Guns N' Roses. Peter Case, once a svelte New Wave rocker in the Plimsouls, appeared shaggy and bearded and did his best Van Morrison impression through "Stroke It Noel" (Stamey's smile was a thousand watts through that one). Sansone's "You Can't Have Me" was powerful even without the wailing saxophone and the two drum solos from Stephens.
Stephens himself stepped out from behind the kit to sang a couple of songs, including a string-laden "Blue Moon" beautifully arranged with a Pachelbel's Canon sway.
R.E.M.'s Mike Mills originally was scheduled to be on stage for the show, but he canceled due to illness. The former band's guitarist, Buck, appeared instead. He merely lurked in the background for two songs, the cover of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" and "You Can't Have Me."
The show closed with "Thank You Friends," featuring most of the cast back on stage, like a traditional "This Land Is Your Land" folk finale.
The Big Star concert followed a screening of a documentary, still in progress, called "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" from director Drew DeNicola.
• • •
Stamey's a busy boy at SXSW 2012. In addition to corralling that large cast of players for the Big Star tribute, he's got his own showcase on Saturday, plus he and the reunited dB's are scheduled six times here this week.
Wednesday afternoon was their first showcase, on the Dogwood patio on West Sixth Street. Featuring originals Stamey, singer-guitarist Peter Holsapple and drummer Will Rigby, plus acclaimed Southern producer and artist Mitch Easter on bass, this latest revival of the beloved '80s power-pop group is hawking a new album, "Falling Off the Sky," due in June.
They utilized their showcase to show off many of the new tracks — as jangly and tuneful as ever. Holsapple insists the new album is "a great summertime record," and as he sang the new "World to Cry," a wind-blown tree in the courtyard approved by showering the tightly packed audience with new buds.
It's not all sunshine and tanlines. Another new song jangled over a martial rhythm and lyrics of lament and paralysis. Stamey remarked, "On my tombstone, I want, 'He wrote one great riff.'" Then he added, "Plus a lot of depressing songs." He then ripped a scary, dissonant solo from the heart of "Happenstance," which the band balanced with the gentle waves of melody in "Love Is for Lovers."
Their official showcase is tonight.
• • •
Fast forward to the 21st century: Power-pop rocker Brendan Benson was back on stage as a solo act Thursday night. Jack White's partner in the Raconteurs, Benson funnels most of his melodic talents into his solo albums. He has yet to make a bad one, and his next, "What Kind of World," is due in April on his new independent label Readymade.
His Thursday showcase wasn't as flawless as his records. Stringy-haired and a little adrift, Benson charged gamely through some new songs, though one had to be abandoned after the first verse; he tried to restart it, but flubbed something again and moved on into a duo of the Raconteurs' "Hands" and his own "Cold Hands (Warm Heart)" (in which he laments, "Why does it always happen...?").
SXSW: Fiona Apple's splendid case of nerves
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 12:05 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Alabama Shakes might be one of the buzziest new bands at this year's South by Southwest music conference, but Fiona Apple is the one of the hottest returning-act tickets. After not having been seen outside of Los Angeles in years, and with her last record of emotionally taut pop-cabaret released in 2005, two lines for her second showcase Thursday night snaked around the block in different directions.
Performing in a Presbyterian church, Apple strode purposefully onto a candlelit stage with a four-piece band and launched into "Fast as You Can." Still a frenetic ball of anxiety, when Apple stands at a microphone without a piano to occupy her hands her nervous energy nearly flings her limbs apart. Thursday night she wore a white shawl over her shoulders, which she immediately took to flipping and waving about like a manic Stevie Nicks. Banging fists against her body, flailing her arms, pounding the piano — one senses that without the music to focus her energy she'd go utterly mad. Then again, she can rein herself and become the perfect picture of Marlene Dietrich smolder, as she did during "Paper Bag."
Apple's voice is not a smooth or delicate instrument. It's guttural and trembling and sounds ravaged by a prior hour of sobbing; midway through her Thursday concert, she made a brief show of spraying some salve into the back of her throat. The songs fit the sound — lyric after lyric of man after man who doesn't understand her (the dolt who won't even kiss her in the right place in the new "Anything We Want") and heaps of self-doubt ("I'm gonna f--- it up" from "Mistake"). "Not that I go to church or anything," Apple said, gazing up at the shadowy altar, "but I'd like to apologize to the building itself for my cursing."
The band supports the crackling tension with herky-jerky soul-jazz phrases, as if Elvis Costello's "Spike" is drowning his sorrows at L.A.'s Largo club (home of the acclaimed residencies curated by Apple producer and compatriot Jon Brion). Prone to lengthy vamps and calliope-like refrains, the music's drunken gentility was often pierced by tinny, edgy solos from her guitarist. Every song was a suspense thriller, and as Woody Allen said, "I hope it lasts."
Briefly, anyway — her SXSW showcases kick off a tiny tour, just a few dates including two sold-out shows Sunday and Monday at Chicago's Lincoln Hall.
Apple's new album returns to her penchant for lengthy titles — (inhale) it's "The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do" — is scheduled for a June release.
SXSW hip-hop fusion: K. Flay, Idle Warship, Robert Glasper
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 5:51 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Kristine Flaherty grew up in Wilmette. She went to Stanford. She's also a helluva rapper.
With frenetic flow and live-wire, chicken-dance moves, K. Flay barreled through a Friday showcase at Austin's Red Eyed Fly, crumpling labels and defying genres. Backed by an excellent live drummer, Nicholas Suhr, she crafted loops and samples with real finesse, utilizing grinding guitar sounds and squawky electronic noises for melody and music more than mere beats and punctuation. "We're going to go to a fun place in our minds," she said by way of introducing one song. It was less invitation than advisory — she picked up drumsticks and attacked her own percussion pad, and she and Suhr lost themselves momentarily in a rhythmic freakout of ecstatic proportions.
K. Flay's sharpest weapon, though, is her fast-talking tongue. Her words-per-minute reached the red line almost every time. One song began with a slow, easygoing beat (no drummer), as she started rapping along. The beat kept modulating, faster and faster, and for three or four minutes she kept slinging syllables without a single flub or nonsense gibberish. Who knows what she wound up saying? But given the rest of her wisecracking, hard-hearted material -- all that's out thus far is an EP, "Eyes Shut," available free on her web site -- it's worth hearing at any speed.
• • •
Idle Warship — a new collaboration between acclaimed rapper Talib Kweli and Philly soul singer Res — released an album last fall that was mostly great, a fizzy mix of hip-hop, R&B and rock with just the right balance between all three. The group's SXSW showcases were highly anticipated — but, alas, their Friday afternoon show was ho-hum.
Backed by a live quartet, Kweli and Res ping-ponged their vocal duties and spent an inordinate amount of time asking the crowd for cheers instead of earning them. Kweli turned the word "soul" in one song into a falsetto, drawn-out "Soul Train" nod, but the music, which is buoyant and bouncy on record, lurched and lagged live. Even the synth underpinning of Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night" in the song "Steady," which eventually morphed into the whole band singing the Eurhythmics' "Sweet Dreams," failed to brighten the desperate energy on stage. The term "rap-rock" has certain negative connotations; this isn't really rap-rock, but it's close. A 21st-century Digable Planets, unfortunately, they ain't.
• • •
In one sense, I'd like to thank the sound engineers who had difficulty getting things in gear for the Robert Glasper Experiment showcase late Thursday night at the Elephant Room. Without their delay, some room in the tiny, dank club might not have opened up and I'd have missed the whole show standing on queue. The sound was substandard even when the show got under way, but those who made it in heard enough to justify the hype that brought us there.
Glasper is a hip-hop wunderkind. Glasper is a jazz juggernaut. A pianist, a Texas native, he seems to be knitting a new kind of fusion. A set that opens with Coltrane (sax player Casey Benjamin is pretty wicked, see video below) and nearly winds up with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" might only turn the head of zeitgeist interpreters like Brad Mehldau, but Glasper's quartet followed their open-minded explorations through the jazz tones, hip-hop beats and raucous rock with more ferocity than irony. His latest album, "Black Radio" (Blue Note), does the same thing and features guests like Mos Def and Chicago's Lupe Fiasco.
Occupy SXSW: Tom Morello carries Woody Guthrie torch through protest showcase, street party
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 10:20 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — During his keynote speech at this year's South by Southwest music conference, Bruce Springsteen referred to folksinger Woody Guthrie as "a ghost in the machine." In the centennial year of his birth, Guthrie has certainly haunted SXSW 2012. Springsteen and many others have sung his songs. "Woody at 100," a panel session featuring his children, Nora and Arlo Guthrie, considered his legacy.
Then Friday night, Chicago-area native Tom Morello capped off his showcase in the middle of the street, leading a throng of Occupy Austin demonstrators in a sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land."
"I am the Nightwatchman and this is a one man revolution!" said Morello (who performs solo under the moniker The Nightwatchman) at the beginning of his SXSW showcase, scheduled inside the Swan Dive bar near Sixth Street and Red River in downtown Austin.
But days earlier, Morello began reorganizing what the festival had programmed for him. His showcase, he declared, would become Occupy SXSW — all 99 percenters welcome. "SXSW has a lot of specialty shows — record companies, vodka companies, promoters and things like that," he told Rolling Stone on Tuesday. "I thought it was important that at a music gathering of that size, to have a place where the rebels, revolutionaries, rockers, rappers and the 99 percent could gather and have a mighty SXSW throw down."
Via social media and online networks, Occupy Austin spread the word and gathered Friday at the state capitol three hours before Morello's midnight showcase. The group of nearly 100 began marching toward the downtown streets already crowded with SXSW registrants and hopeful music fans.
How do you get a mob to move through a mob? By dancing. The benevolent Occupiers rolled a sound system with them, blaring mostly disco and dance tunes but also raising a ruckus with "Killing in the Name" by Rage Against the Machine, Morello's former hard rock band. About every block, they'd stop and dance, as well as wave some signs and hand out fliers. At Sixth and Brazos, the assembly inadvertently blocked traffic, which laid on the horns. The honking, however, simply raised more cheers and whoops.
Slowly, the demonstrators made their way down Sixth Street toward Morello's venue. One large banner reading "F--- the Police" was its own crowd control issue, because gawking passers-by insisted the bearers stop -- so they could take their picture with it. Irony of ironies: Midway down the street the group had to detour slightly after being blocked by a drum circle.
Morello started his official showcase about half an hour late, playing a few songs by himself before bringing on his latest band, the Freedom Fighter Orchestra — and, later, special guest Wayne Kramer from Detroit punk legend the MC5 — to tear through typically fiery Nightwatchman songs, including "Save the Hammer for the Man" and "Union Town," as well as Rage's "Bulls on Parade." The previous night, Morello had joined Springsteen on stage during his SXSW concert; Friday, Morello played Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," dedicating it to "the only Boss worth listening to."
As his official timeslot ended, Morello told the crowd — primarily SXSW badge-holders inside — to follow him outside. There, the largely uncredentialed Occupy crowd had been watching the showcase on a video projected on the wall. Morello proceeded to start a second showcase in the middle of the street, which he called "the people's venue" — carrying his acoustic guitar, which has "Whatever It Takes" scrawled on it (Guthrie's guitar famously sported the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists") — and leading the crowd in a rollicking sing-along of "This Land."
Lack of a PA didn't stop him — not when you have the "human microphone."
"Mic check!" Morello called, and the crowd began repeating him. In a very Obama-like delivery, he went on: "They can turn off the PA, but they can't shut this party down!"
He told a tale about guitar factory workers in South Korea who were fired because they formed a union. Using the human mic, he taught the crowd the chorus to his "World Wide Rebel Songs" and lead another sing-along.
He then ended the event with yet another Guthrie quip: "Take it easy," he shouted, "but take it!"
Catch Morello when he leads a Woody Guthrie tribute concert May 19 at Chicago's Metro, featuring Holly Near, the Klezmatics, Jon Langford, Bucky Halker and more.
SXSW: Hospitality, Ava Luna, Joe Pug
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 11:55 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — There's buzz, and there's buzz. When people insist you see a band at South by Southwest, it's usually dicey. When people recommend a band like this — "Aw, Hospitality. They're really good. I'd like to see them again" — that you take a little more seriously.
The buzzy Brooklyn band's Friday night showcase at Frank was definitely worth the recommendations, and then some. Unassuming and sometimes unobtrusive, Hospitality segued from sound check to set without any fanfare or introduction; the snugly packed crowd in the small bar simply enjoyed the revelation that, hey, that beautiful music is the room's centerpiece now.
Hospitality, like its namesake, creeps up like that, anyway.
Creating a sound way bigger than the sum of its basic quartet lineup, this is indie-pop with bright colors, effervescent arrangements and, most importantly, real swing. Underneath the big, fat, chiming guitar chords and singer-guitarist Amber Papini's conversational patter is usually a firm beat, certainly a supple groove thanks to left-handed bassist Brian Betancourt. They could probably go toe-to-toe with most dance-rockers from the first wave (Franz Ferdinand, etc.), but they'd also have a calming effect on them. "The Right Profession," from this year's self-titled debut, certainly moves, and "Friends of Friends" enjoys a groovy dance break, but other songs sometimes noodle, sometimes vamp, sometimes slip into a positively Pink Floyd reverie.
• • •
If Steely Dan worked to sound like the actual future, rather than Donald Fagen's nostalgic 1950s Worlds Fair perspective on it, they might sound something like Brooklyn's Ava Luna. A thrilling, lurching, bewildering, surprising frenzy of genre-splicing, this sextet's Friday night return to SXSW at the Iron Bear club rocked and grooved and glitched.
Driven by rhythms that stutter and fray, Ava Luna's 21st-century rock 'n' soul is humanized by no-nonsense vocals. Becca Kauffman and Felicia Douglass bring seriousness and sass, when called for, but it's singer-guitarist Carlos Hernandez that embodies the band's schizophrenic joy. Playing with an ADD tic justifying lyrics like, "If I could focus," Hernandez sings like a less-somnambulant James Blake — all heady methol and melancholy. It's headbanging dubstep, it's postmodern soul, full of sound and fury, and when some feedback began ebbing and flowing between songs — hey, some of us thought it was just part of the band's space-age sound.
• • •
Chicago's Joe Pug sounds like a native down here in Texas. Biting his lip, chewing his accent, flashing his winsome smile or sometimes wincing with emotion, Pug is the picture of down-home earnestness.
Squeezing in just five songs for the Folk Alliance showcase on Saturday at Threadgill's, Pug played a handful of thoughtful country-folk tunes from his second album, "The Great Despiser," due next month. That's after he broke a guitar string — on the first strum of the first chord in the first song -- which was surprising given how tender and delicate most of the material is, augmented here with only an occasional electric guitarist and a stand-up bassist. But the new album features guests such as the Hold Steady's Craig Finn, so it's gonna roll. To close, Pug was joined by Austin music legend Harvey Thomas Young for his song, previously covered by Pug, "Start Again."
SXSW: Don Cornelius, 'Soul Train' celebrated
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 4:54 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — "Soul Train" creator and host Don Cornelius was left out of the Grammys' "in memorium" slide show last month, barely two weeks after the Chicago television pioneer was found dead of an apparent suicide, but he was celebrated Saturday at the annual South by Southwest music conference in the Texas capital.
At an event called "'Soul Train' Tribute to Don Cornelius," NPR's Dan Charnas conducted an amiable onstage chat with Don's son Tony Cornelius about the TV music show's history and legacy.
"If he'd come back here and see the love from those who miss him so much, I wonder, would he decide to stay?" Tony Cornelius asked during the session. "He had so much love to live for. It hurts me that he's not here."
"Soul Train" was one of TV's longest-running syndicated shows, airing for 36 years. Launched at Chicago's WCIU in 1970, the music performance and dance program went national the following year and was crucial in showcasing black soul and R&B artists to a wider audience, including Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson.
"Dad talked about that quite often," Cornelius said. "He found a need, and he served it. There was a need to allow not only the music of black Americans but kids an opportunity to express themselves."
Charnas showed numerous video clips -- "Soul Train" performances, dancers, pivotal moments, Afro Sheen commercials (the sponsorship of Chicago-based Johnson Products was important to the show's early survival) -- and Cornelius commented.
"When I watch these clips, what comes to mind that people don't understand is these performances were about relationships. It wasn't, 'I want to do "Soul Train,"' it was friendships that developed over time," Cornelius said.
Many of those relationships began early in Chicago, where Don Cornelius negotiated complete ownership of "Soul Train" at WCIU because "no one believed" in the show, Tony Cornelius said.
Tony Cornelius was around age 12 when "Soul Train" premiered. He worked as a runner, cable mover, lighting operator and more throughout the years, eventually becoming an executive producer. From the start, he recalled, "Soul Train" was a family affair.
"My most vivid memory is my mother writing out cards of all the kids who wanted to dance on the show from high schools around the area," he said.
"The groundswell in Chicago was so exciting that [Don] decided Los Angeles would be the place to take it. That's where the stars were, where the acts were."
He took one thing with him, though: the Scramble Board.
Members of the audience were often selected for the Scramble Board, where they would reorder a jumbled set of letters to spell the name of a prominent black American. Don Cornelius later admitted that the gimmick was always fixed.
"It's funny, but it's true," Tony Cornelius said. "It's something he felt extremely strong about. We were speaking to the world, not just the dancers, and informing anyone who didn't know Stevie Wonder's name or Thurgood Marshall's name how to spell it and who they were."
Cornelius said years later he suggested to his father that they update the Scramble Board to something digital or more contemporary. Don refused, saying he wanted to maintain that set piece — the one piece of the Chicago set that traveled to L.A.
In honor of his father, Cornelius said the family has created the Don Cornelius Foundation to raise awareness, prevention and support for those contemplating suicide and aid for its survivors.
SXSW global: K-pop, Juanes, Bensh, Noa Margalit
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2012 12:14 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — This year's South by Southwest features music acts from every continent except Antarctica (those penguins aren't as musical as you've been lead to believe). Here's some of the international flavor I sampled this week:
• • •
The panel session at SXSW 2012 was titled with a question — "Do Music Moguls Know a Secret About K-Pop?" — but the non-insider query is simpler: Do you know what K-pop is?
It's a genre of hyper-produced, often sugary sweet pop music mostly out of South Korea. It's got its own Billboard chart, and in December launched its own festival (K-Pop World, Dec. 7 in Seoul). According to the moderator of this industry panel, it's "a huge thing across Asia and other parts of the world," and it's about to invade the states.
Earlier in the year, I suggested 2012 might have a more worldly sound, including more K-pop. Already in the United States, South Korean idol Kim Hyun-a has attracted media attention, and when K-pop acts tour this country it's not just their music that turns American heads.
"People often are stopping because of how many people show up" to these concerts, said Flowsion Shekar, founder of Koreaboo, a Korean news blog.
David Zedeck, a booking agent at Creative Artists Agency, said he's selling out 1,700 to 2,500-capacity venues with K-pop, even in interior cities like Atlanta, Kansas City and Denver. The group Girls Generation announced via Twitter that they would premiering a new video at a New York Best Buy. "We had 1,500 kids show up on a school day — from a tweet," he marveled. "This is bigger than anyone thinks it is."
Other prominent K-pop acts include Bigbang, JYP, the Wonder Girls and SMTown.
"Even though it comes from Korea, it's not of or for Korea anymore," said Jeff Yang, the Tao Jones columnist for the Wall Street Journal ("It wasn't my idea," he said sheepishly of his column's name). "It's become a world music. There are more people who don't understand Korean listening to K-pop than in Korea."
Yang predicted K-pop could develop in America one of two ways: It could become like Latin music, a cultural identifier for Asian-American communities, or it could establish itself as a platform like hip-hop, inviting collaboration and eventual evolution into something larger.
Some of the latter already is happening. Kanye West previously worked with the trio JYJ (rapping on the single "Ayyy Girl") and has said he plans to do more with the group. Snoop Dogg recently appeared on a track by Girls Generation, and DJ Swizz Beatz says he's hoping to help bring K-pop acts like Bigbang (currently atop the K-pop charts, No. 1 and 2) to America.
• • •
In addition to performing his own and Woody Guthrie's song immediately before Bruce Springsteen's keynote address at SXSW 2012 — one of his first English-language performances — Colombian singer Juanes has been making multiple appearances at the festival all week. He discussed his upcoming May album, "Juanes MTV Unplugged," during a Friday panel session, then performed during the Latin rock showcase later that night.
In an AP interview, he celebrated the cultural smorgasbord that is SXSW: "It's such a great opportunity to interact together and exchange culture. I just feel the world now and the world is absolutely sick, you know, so I just see music and culture and art in general as a great idea to change at least our own environment and just connect people to the music. You can just go and walk around the street and you can see bands from I don't know, wherever, and they can sing in Chinese if you want. You just have the opportunity to connect with somebody else you didn't know, and that's good."
• • •
The sheer volume of music at SXSW makes random discoveries possible, probable and the payoff is often good. Thursday night I stopped for stir-fry at one of Austin's better food trucks downtown near Fifth and Brazos. On the corner a trio of Austrian vagabonds was playing to anyone who'd stop and listen. They're called Bensh, and they don't sound like a sidewalk band. Good-spirited pop with flourishes of electronics and gypsy bounce, Bensh's fluid, well-crafted pop caused me to scribble a seemingly bizarre list of comparisons in my notebook: Luka Bloom, Deathray, Syd Barrett, Animal Collective, the Monochrome Set. Much spunkier live than on record, Bensh still made a great impulse download that was perfectly dreamy in the earbuds during a pedicab ride home.
• • •
A showcase of musicians from Israel, sponsored by the Israeli Consul, ran all day Friday in a downtown park. I caught an acoustic set by Noa Margalit, from the rock band the Car Sitters. Listening to her stoic personal songs, you'd never guess how energetic the Car Sitters usually are. Tel Aviv's Margalit — breathy, barefoot, bar-chording the heck out of her guitar — played things close to the vest, at least sonically. Lyrically, she was raging about politics and quality of life, lamenting (or marveling?) that "it doesn't take much to survive."
Later, J. Viewz, aka Grammy-nominated and Brooklyn-based producer Jonathan Dagan, let loose some throbbing beats with a soulful vocalist and great live drums.
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.
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Good morning, grandma!
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 1:13 PM
Lollapalooza 2011 opened with this ringing, backhanded endorsement from Jenn Wasner of the band Wye Oak: "I love Lollapalooza because it's the one festival even my grandparents know what it is."
Such cross-generational branding succeeded in selling out a record capacity this year. Over the weekend, 90,000 fans will attend each day of Lollapalooza. That makes this three-day concert event in Chicago's Grant Park one of the country's biggest, with Coachella's daily attendance around 75,000 and Bonnaroo's more than 100,000.
Thousands were already on hand Friday morning for the festival's opening sets, which included Baltimore duo Wye Oak and their Southern gothic shoegaze. Wasner, however, struggled to get going against a bad guitar pedal that eventually forced her to stop mid-song and apologize.
"There seems to be a ghost in it or something," she said as drummer Andy Stack looked on helplessly. "This is the worst thing that's ever happened to me."
She eventually salvaged her gear and the set, completing the song "Plains" to gracious applause from several hundred devoted early fans.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Vaccines, Naked & Famous
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 2:41 PM
Lollapalooza opened Friday morning with an announcement about more Lollapaloozing to be had worldwide next year — the festival will return to Chile (March 31-April 1) and add a new event in Sao Paulo, Brazil (April 7-8) — and then quickly moved to Britain as the Vaccines christened this year's main stage in the south end of Hutchinson Field.
Supporting their super-hyped debut, "What Did You Expect From the Vaccines," the Vaccines turned over the same well-tilled ground — lots of post-punk revival with tons of reverb and Strokesy confidence — but sounded fresher and cockier than they do on record. Singer Justin Young comes on quickly with a Dylanesque whine over his band's retro Walkmen grind, advocating for emotional destruction in "Blow It Up" and a quickie in "Post-Breakup Sex." The band's heap of influences seeped deeper than expected, too; for "Wetsuit" guitarist Freddie Cowan and the rhythm section chugged along simply like the Crickets, and Young encouraged dancing, saying, "This is one you can dance to. You're at a rock and roll show, remember." Anything to help clear away some of the band's studied self-consciousness.
When the Naked & Famous started playing at the other end of the south field, one fan shouted, and seemed sincere, "Oh, yay, another British accent!" That would be the buoyant Alisa Xayalith, leader of the festival's first '80s-inspired offering. Full of humming synths and buzzing guitars, all propped up by hard drums and loops, this New Zealand quintet took its time whipping up a melodious melodrama. "All of This" and "Punching in a Dream" opened the set establishing the template: Gothy pretension but irresistible tunes, sometimes building up one and tearing down the other. (They, too, suffered some equipment-related pauses on the same stage that dogged Wye Oak's earlier set. "Just fixing some broken sh—," Xayalith assured during a long break.) I'll call them Katrina & the Darkwaves.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Foster the People
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 7:31 PM
Friday afternoon turned out to be fine concert weather, with high clouds dulling the sun's edge and a cool lake breeze occasionally refreshing weary fans. But don't tell Mark Foster, hapless leader of L.A.'s Foster the People, whose crisp white dress shirt was transparent with sweat by the band's third song.
Foster the People are brand new, riding a slick slacker single from last year that landed them on one of Lollapalooza's biggest stage this year. They're still exploring who they are as a band, and they played the day's most eclectic set — evolving from dreamy, keyboard-laden grooves to ill-advised R&B to throwaway love ditties and, near the end, a straight cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold." Foster is an odd duck, singing in his pinched nasal voice and occasionally leaping over to mash piano keys or pound the drums (as he did during "Call It What You Want"). Sometimes he was ridiculous, his shoulders jerking up and down as he whined his New Radicals funk-lite; other times he was gloriously unhinged, cackling like a madman near the end of the set when Foster the People suddenly turned into a garage band (or Joe "King" Carrasco). I the end they returned to what they thus far do best, laying down supple, sleepy grooves for that aforementioned single, "Pumped Up Kicks." Most of the crowd was pumped up and sang along.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: A Perfect Circle
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 7:33 PM
You've never heard John Lennon's "Imagine" delivered with such quivering earnestness as warped vocalist Maynard James Keenan gives it. In fact, you've likely never heard the song turned on its head in quite this manner, imbued with minor piano chords and a martial rhythm — twisted from its hopeful, thoughtful origins into a surprisingly dystopian sneer.
Such is the heavy gloom of A Perfect Circle, a supergroup playing Lollapalooza's main stage after being reactivated from a seven-year hiatus.
With no new music to present, this patient, pummeling band — led by Keenan from Tool, and now featuring former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha — drew from the band's brief period of activity, and a lot from 2004's "Emotive." That album was mostly covers and was not widely acclaimed. Their take on Depeche Mode's "People Are People," for instance, is so thundering and morose as to be largely unrecognizable. There's something to be said for making a song your own.
Because where Keenan's Tool goes for the gnarled composition, A Perfect Circle succeeds in creating a somber, dour mood, simmering with restrained fury, which Keenan unleashed perfectly during "Pet," roaring and growling from his isolated perch in the back of the stage (he does like to lurk) and whacking a tambourine on a staff to punctuate his demands: "Go back to sleep!" The song ended with angelic, chiming guitar, smoothing out the scene.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Chicago's Kids These Days
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 9:45 PM
If you looked around Lollapalooza just after 4 p.m. Friday and wondered where all the teenagers had gone, a large crowd of them were crammed in front of the BMI stage watching fellow Chicago teens Kids These Days.
Easily one of the best shows I saw all Friday, Kids These Days is an eight-piece group comprised of 18- and 19-year-olds, half of them from Whitney Young High School. Mixing up blues, hip-hop, funk, rock, jazz and most other genres except electronic (but give them time), KTD has come up through the ranks during the last two years. They started selling out small clubs, then filled Metro, played a buzzworthy showcase at South by Southwest last March, and now here they are at Lollapalooza. The meteoric local rise, based on the sheer energy of their performances and a pretty potent musical cocktail, should have drawn the attention of any music industry moguls present.
Friday, though, was a hometown celebration.
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
KTD charged on stage with enough energy for the rest of the day's lineup. Rapper Vic Mensa lead the charge, biting off rhymes with a clenched jaw and leaping around the small stage pumping up the crowd, salted as it was with adoring friends, family and classmates. Fans were crowd surfing almost immediately, and Mensa and others tried their hand at stage diving.
Mensa has no fear of Lollapalooza-related injuries. He tried to attend the festival last year — by sneaking in. He jumped a fence near the Metra tracks, but brushed against an electrical transformer. He not only took several thousand volts through his left arm, he fell 30 feet to the pavement and spent three days in the hospital. "I almost f—-in' died trying to sneak in here last year," Mensa told the crowd. "This is way better."
The unfettered mashing up of genres KTD pulls off is truly heady. They mix together everything great about Chicago's musical roots. Guitarist Liam Cunningham will lay down a blues riff, the horns will pop in with some kind of syncopated ska, the rhythm section backs it up with some slinky rock-soul, all the while Mensa is bounding around like Tigger the Creator. With remarkable compositional and performance skill, they blended "Summertime" into James Brown's "Man's World," threaded by Mensa's rhymes ("You're like a blood transplant and you're just my type"). Their repertoire of classics is broad, though: the horn section snuck in the riff from Radiohead's "Creep."
Effervescent, exciting stuff. The results are positively funkadelic. This band could open for Ozomatli as easily as Steely Dan. KTD has an EP out now, "Hard Times," available on iTunes. A full-length is in the works.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Chatting with OK Go
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 12:37 AM
You've seen their viral music videos online, and so apparently has the president.
OK Go, the treadmmills-to-Pilobolus YouTube favorites, performed at Barack Obama's 50th birthday bash this week at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom. Two days later they were playing to Lollapalooza.
We caught a few minutes with OK Go singer Damian Kulash backstage at Grant Park on Friday to talk about his Marilyn Monroe impression:
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Muse, Girl Talk
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 12:44 AM
Who was the main headliner Friday night? If you're over 30, you probably thought it was Coldplay. But the biggest stage at Lollapalooza with room for the biggest crowd is on Hutchison Field in the south end of the park, and that's not where Coldplay performed. The bigger stage and crowd went to Muse.
That older demographic has been asking me for weeks, "Who the hell is Muse?" But this wailing trio has been around for 17 years, longer than Coldplay — long enough that at festivals later this month in their native Britain they'll be performing one of their "classic" albums in its entirety — and they sold out London's Wembley Stadium before most Yanks had heard of them. Muse has developed a fiercely loyal following around the world of largely younger fans less familiar with the glam- and prog-rock they ape so ably. The band's appearance last year on the latest "Twilight" movie soundtrack put them over the top in the United States.
As if to ingratiate themselves, singer-guitarist Matthew Bellamy slipped in several nods to Americana during the band's nearly two-hour show, threading our National Anthem early in the set and transitioning with "House of the Rising Sun" later. This was between the band's relentless assault of slightly anachronistic, theatrical pomp on the order of everyone from Queen to Def Leppard. This is a band of unrepentant Big Rawk dorks, unafraid to wallow in the hoariest clichés — and they inspire such moments in their fans. Half the people around me were air guitaring throughout the set with wide smiles, reveling in the gift of a summer concert festival moment — a free pass for acting silly and letting loose. Songs such as "Resistance" and "United States of Eurasia," along with all the "1984"-meets-"Tron" visuals on stage, are as shallow as most primetime TV (and by hour two, most Muse sounds the same) but the crowd at Hutchinson Field cheered religiously for every hollow agit-pop couplet ("Rise up and take the power back / It's time that the fat cats had a heart attack") and punishing riff all the way to the encore.
Meanwhile, the real action Friday night was in the newly expanded Perry's tent. The festival's annual DJ stage expanded this year to house 15,000 ravers (that's one big tent, lemme tell ya), and Girl Talk overflowed the capacity.
A Chicago favorite, Girl Talk, a k a 29-year-old Pittsburgh biologist Gregg Gillis, returned to Lollapalooza after three years with a much bigger show featuring his wild, live mix of pop music samples. Gillis makes music out of splicing others' together into new creations, and watching him trigger his samples in real time is like seeing a truly mad scientist at work. Dozens of fans from the crowd joined him on stage, throwing streamers, toilet paper and confetti around Gillis as he folded rap into '80s pop and '90s R&B into indie-rock. He snips the "hey ho" out of the Ramones and the "ay ay ay ay" out of Vampire Weekend for use as rhythmic props for Big Boi and General Public. His catholic tastes make for some of the best cross-generational jamming ever, and it certainly got every one of nearly 20,000 people hopping.
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Grouplove, Ximena Sarinana, more
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 2:21 PM
It's cool and lovely at Lollapalooza — but that's because a fair amount of rain fell overnight. The clouds remain, which is great, but there's a 50-50 chance of more precip. Hutchinson Field is muddy, oddly everywhere except the perpetually dusty baseball diamonds. Some hay has been spread around in the worst areas, but the coverage is pretty poor. If you're packing up now, include a cheap poncho and don't wear the good shoes.
"I can't believe I wore flip-flops," lamented Carrie Berenstein, 22, of Aurora, as she tip-toed her way across the muddy grass. "I'm going to be a disaster. I'm already a disaster."
Saturday opened with a worldly vibe on many stages. "We're from Los Angeles," said a member of Grouplove by way of introduction — noteworthy only because of his thick British accent. Grouplove came together at an artists retreat on the island of Crete and reconvened back in America, fusing a worldly sensibility with otherwise rootsy Americana. The quintet delighted through "Don't Say Oh Well," strumming guitars and one ukulele (for pure sound, not gimmick!).
All Mexico's Ximena Sarinana had to say during her set was "This song is all in Spanish" or "Viva Mexico!" and the small crowd gathered for her noon Saturday set at the BMI side stage cheered and whooped. Several waved Mexican flags. Sarinana, 25, a popular telenovela actress south of the border, is going for a breakout with her self-titled sophomore album, which is really great. For her early afternoon set at Lollapalooza, silhouetted against the lake with flying geese as an occasional backdrop, Sarinana performed a handful of new songs as well as a few from her 2008 debut, the misleadingly titled "Mediocre."
Playing electric piano at center stage, she eased into the big drums and cinematic refrain of "Normal" before electronically layering her vocals, and later bopped through her bouncy new pop single, "Different," and the seductive groove of "Echo Park." "This is the first festival I've played in America," she said. As impressed as I am with the album, I have to say her set suffered from a sense of unease and occasionally shrill vocals, as if she hasn't quite mastered the challenges of moving and singing at the same time. The crowd, however, demanded an encore, and she obliged by finally knocking us out with her fine voice — singing the sad, bluesy title track to "Mediocre" alone at her keyboard, working every dynamic smoothly and powerfully. Every nationality was cheering then.
On the main south stage, Cincinnati's Walk the Moon leapt joyously through its set of world music dance-rock, heavy on the beats and smeared with very Bow Wow Wow warpaint. Mixing beard-rock harmonies and spirited, switched-up beats, they worked through their own "Lisa Baby," about a "dancing queen," and by the end of the set were covering Bowie's "Let's Dance."
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Big Audio Dynamite
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 4:02 PM
In our interview before the band's Lollapalooza debut, former Clash guitarist Mick Jones said the world had not, indeed, been clamoring for a reunion of his post-Clash band, Big Audio Dynamite — but they haven't minded it, either.
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
This unlikely but potent collaboration between Jones and filmmaker Don Letts started in 1984 and took the world grooves the Clash had begun to explore, pushing them further while also working open-mindedly with sound samples and video visuals. If that sounds pioneering, go figure - from yesterday's MTV to today's YouTube — it might have been. Because B.A.D. sounded very fresh, and very good, during their Saturday afternoon concert here.
What sounded a wee bit gimmicky in the mid-'80s — the film dialogue samples, the sound effects (ricocheting bullets and wailing sirens), the synthesized beats — are now perfectly natural to contemporary ears. I'd forgotten what a Wild West fixation these Brits had, still on display: They opened with whistling western movie music, and shouted "Rawhide!" after Jones' ADD guitar solo in "B.A.D."
The other reason people might not mind the return of B.A.D. is because the band's socially conscious songs, written during the Reagan and Bush administrations, alas, still speak to economic inequality and class conflict. Saturday they sounded positively prescient, singing, "Nation's economy's on a downward slide / On the best course of action no one can decide." That's from 1985. But they also debuted a new song, "Rob Peter, Pay Paul," which Jones introduced this way: "Our current global financial meltdown is explained in three and a half minutes." Sample lyric: "Where is the justice? What happened to the law?"
It was a surprisingly jangly song for this, the band that finds a groove and works it - usually for much longer than three and a half minutes. The opening "Medicine Show" (on which drummer Greg Roberts wasted no time attacking his cowbell), "A Party" (featuring Letts breaking out from behind the keys and deliver some fiery toasting), the closing "Rush" - these are songs with eternal grooves, lasting five minutes or more. They milked the signature riff of "The Bottom Line," teasing it like they were making a live 12-inch mix.
What will come of it? Jones and Letts said they don't know yet. Maybe a new album - they did play the new song, which is one more than most reunited bands manage (ahem, the Police) - but certainly more reissues.
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Cee Lo Green, Local Natives
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 7:43 PM
I had tweeted earlier in the day Saturday that I'd like to hear less "thank you" and more "f—- you" at Lollapalooza. So many bands had been taking to the stages and voicing their unbounded gratitude — thanking everyone for being there and thanking Lollapalooza for having them, profusely — that it started to feel like rock was really dead, after all. Where's the sneer, the challenge, the middle finger?
Cee Lo Green tried to say something about that, and literally. Appearing on stage wearing football shoulder pads bearing long chrome spikes and hanging chains, Green juiced the crowd by demanding that we shout "f—- yeah!" It was an opening salvo in a long tease leading up to the one song the massive crowd in Hutchinson Field wanted to hear. In the meantime, however, we listened to Green shout and growl — for most songs, his trademark smooth husk was gone, even intentionally distorted (and he's a judge on "The Voice," no less) — through a speedy set of his rock-soul songs and a few unexpected covers, from the Violent Femmes to Billy Idol. Green seemed to suffer from technical issues, as well, stopping and starting songs, such as his "Crazy" hit with Gnarls Barkley, haphazardly.
One of his early records was "Cee Lo Green Is a Soul Machine," but Saturday night's hard riffs and black leather meant to portray a rock machine. And nothing says rock and roll like "F—- You," which Green finally got around to at the end of his cumbersome, mostly uninspired hourlong set.
Preceding Mr. Green was one of those fawning, thankful bands. Orange County's Local Natives were clearly thrilled to have graduated from last year's Pitchfork Music Festival to this year's Lollapalooza. "This is the biggest crowd we've played to by far," said singer Kelcey Ayer. "This is insane!" It was a joyous, not fearful, exclamation, fitting with the band's sweet temperament. All tight SoCal harmonies and heaving, unaffected guitars, Local Natives moved through a set of rhythmic charmers from their own "Shape Shifter," built on piano chord crescendos, and a cover of the Talking Heads' "Warning Sign." The Sony stage seemed like it might be too big for them, but they held it. Fleet and foxy.
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Ximena Sarinana
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 8:00 PM
After her Saturday afternoon set at Lollapalooza, we got to chat with Mexican actress-singer Ximena Sarinana, whose self-titled sophomore album I adore ...
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Eminem, Skylar Grey
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2011 1:28 AM
Arcade Fire beat Eminem to Lollapalooza (they headlined here last year) and snatched the top Grammy from him in February. But it's still been Mr. Mathers' year. Taylor Swift, after all, isn't covering Arcade Fire in concert this summer, and if Facebook is any arbiter of cultural presence, it was announced this week that Eminem has overtaken Lady Gaga as the most "liked" living person on the social media site.
For fans new and old, Eminem took to Lollapalooza's main stage Saturday night and encapsulated his entire career into one sizzling 90-minute set. Featuring two noteworthy guests — and assisted midway by an old partner, Ryan "Royce da 5'9" " Montgomery — the Detroit rapper launched a consistent barrage of recognizable tunes and furious rhymes into the largest crowd ever assembled at the annual concert festival in Chicago's Grant Park.
Performing nearly the exact set he delivered in June at the Bonnaroo festival, Eminem — who so rarely tours these days — dished hits one after another, sometimes in abbreviated form, reaching all the way back to "The Slim Shady LP." Prowling the stage in a hoodie, Em proved deft as ever with his famously furious rhymes (misogynistic and homophobic as they sometimes are), spitting out "No Love" and "The Way I Am" with such tenacity and urgency you wouldn't think there was a decade between them.
Midway through the set, though, it was easy to forget Eminem is a rapper as we entered the hot chorus portion of the evening, signaled by the guest appearance of Bruno Mars. The omnipresent tunesmith sang a trademark melody for the chorus of "Lighters," a new single from Bad Meets Evil, a revived collaboration between Eminem and Royce that delivered a new EP in June. This continued through "Airplanes II," "Space Bound" and several other tracks more song than rap. By the time we reached "Love the Way You Lie," we expected Skylar Grey — who co-wrote the song and who performed on Lollapalooza's BMI stage earlier in the day — to take the Rihanna part. No dice. She did, however, appear to sing her part in "I Need a Doctor."
"Lighters" was the song that softened the immensity of the audience in Hutchinson Field. This was a crowd one could officially refer to as ginormous. With a record sell-out this year of 90,000 each day, it looked as if at least 80,000 of them were waving hands and jumping up and down in the mud for Eminem. Even he seemed impressed, guffawing, "Holy sh—, there's a lot of people here." But in between Em's fuzzy-wuzzy raps in that song, Mars sang about "a sky full of lighters" at the same time he witnessed one. Tens of thousands of people in a field holding lighters — real lighters, much more than cell phones for a change — was a breathtaking sight.
Eminem has made much of his recovery, even making it the title of last year's "comeback" album. A video intro to the concert plays up the post-addiction story, and Saturday night — after asking fans, "How many people here get f—-ed up to the "Recovery" album? ... What kinda crazy backwards-ass sh—is that?" — he even managed to turn it into sketch comedy. In what he played as a personal moment, Eminem asked the crowd if we minded him relapsing tonight, taking a drink. He produced a bottle. Veteran hype man Kon Artis played the other side, "You sure you wanna do this? You know you get crazy when you drink." Eminem slowly put the bottle to his lips and drank. Liquid then began streaming from various holes in the special shirt he was wearing, as if he were a Warner Bros. cartoon character enjoying a beverage after a gun fight. What is this, "Hip-Hop With Benny Hill"?
He also used the shtick to validate — or explain away — the quirky, juvenile sound of his early hits. A medley of "My Name Is"/"The Real Slim Shady"/"Without Me" sounds potentially hilarious cast against Em's grave current image as a newly sober but still angry young man, but he introduced it by framing it in context with his addiction: "This is the stuff I was making when I was drunk."
Skylar Grey's own midafternoon performance on a side stage established that she belongs on the sidelines. Sassing around the stage in a flailing shirt and bikini top, Grey tried to play the tough, bad girl but hit the mark closer to Alannah Myles than, say, Gwen Stefani. Backed by too many meathead rap-rock grooves and peppered with too many clumsy exhortations for the sizable crowd to either dance or fight each other, most of the songs from Grey's forthcoming album, "Invinsible" (sic) seemed a dime a dozen despite her obvious vocal talent. She opened "Weirdo" with the refrain from Radiohead's "Creep" and sermonized about celebrating the world's oddballs, and it just sounded like a cheap grab at Lady Gaga's limelight. Here's to more "featuring Skylar Grey" and less solo Skylar Grey.
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: Titus Andronicus, Imelda May
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2011 3:37 PM
Lollapalooza opened to a humid, rain-soaked Sunday with the defiant punk-Celtic squalls of New Jersey's Titus Andronicus.
As Big Audio Dynamite was the day before, Titus Andronicus proved to be the day's most socially relevant voice, crowing its resigned and occasionally paranoid lyrics about a U.S. of A. that's a shell of its former self. Their influences may be British punk and Irish pub rock, but their outlook is very American — even in the fans, who shouted "U-S-A!" several times, especially when singer-guitarist Patrick Stickles soloed so hard the U.S. flag tied to the end of his guitar actually waved in the light afternoon breeze. Lamenting in his choking yawps how "after 10,000 years it's still us against them" and that we continually squander "the value our forefathers gave you," Stickles' nervously darting eyes eventually always bring it back home to the harder, more personal questions: "Is there a soul on this earth who isn't too frightened to move?"
Titus Andronicus is still supporting the album, last year's phenomenal "The Monitor," that they were at last year's Pitchfork Music Festival, and the set hasn't changed much. Still, it's great to hear Stickles shouting a hundred times during "No Future, Pt. 3," ringing over Grant Park, "You will always be a loser!" — changing it up just once to "You will always Lollapalooza!" The band goes for Springsteen bombast (even name-checking him during "The Battle of Hampton Road") but balances its uber-American influences — "Forever" is '50s rock so classic all it lacks is a Chuck Berry duckwalk — with those from Emerald Isle pubs. "Four Score and Seven" may allude to Lincoln, but the music is pure craic. It even had young guys with their arms around one another's shoulders, swaying and singing along.
The flip side of that came immediately after, when Dublin's Imelda May started her set across Hutchinson Field with a forceful thwack of her bassist's upright. Speaking between songs in a brogue so thick it was difficult to understand, this Irish lass served up a set of pure retro rockabilly. She gave props to a song she's "dreamed of playing here because it was recorded right here in Chicago at the wonderful Chess studios," Howlin' Wolf's "Poor Boy." Ultimately, though, this was music too slick, and with too much shtick, to leave a deep impression in Sunday's mud. Then again, she did continue the festival's emergent '80s theme by covering "Tainted Love." Whatever.
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: The Cars
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2011 7:56 PM
Capping a noticeable 1980s vibe running throughout this year's festival, the Cars played a typically solid but staid set Sunday afternoon — much like their May set at the Riviera, just outdoors. Opening with their classic "Let the Good Times Roll," the most sedate party anthem ever, the reunited quartet (sans original singer-bassist Ben Orr, who died in 2000) see-sawed between MTV-era hits — "My Best Friend's Girl," "You Might Think," "Magic," "Let's Go," etc. — and tracks from their new album, "Move Like This." As usual, Ric Ocasek hardly moved, and the set glided along with great songs but zero showmanship. "I like the nightlife, baby," Ocasek sang as he squinted into the late afternoon sun.
Before their set, we sat down with guitarist Elliott Easton and drummer David Robinson to discuss how the band got back together ...
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: The rain, Foo Fighters, Arctic Monkeys
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2011 1:29 AM
Lollapalooza ended Sunday in the mud and muck from two short but powerful rain storms that drenched Chicago's Grant Park — and the record 90,000 fans assembled there for the final day of the annual music festival — and gave many fans a night of rock and roll they won't soon forget.
Hannah Frudden was at the Perry's rave tent when the first wave of rain came Sunday evening. "It was the best 30 minutes of my life!" said the 19-year-old Northwestern student, exuberant despite being covered head to toe in mud. As she stood along a sidewalk near the main Lollapalooza stages, every other passer-by noticed her condition and gave her high-fives and hugs.
Jesse Warmling, 39, in from Dallas, surrendered gladly to the downpour, which lasted about half an hour and only slightly delayed Sunday's concert schedule on the final evening of this three-day music festival in Chicago's Grant Park. "We haven't seen rain for months in Texas," Warmling said. "I'll take it any way and anywhere."
When British band Arctic Monkeys took the main stage at 6:30 p.m., a half hour delay, the rain had nearly stopped — and a rainbow framed the stage. "We're gonna push through this," singer Alex Turner said. The band rushed through an abbreviated set, but at least included the song "She's Thunderstorms," from their newest album, dedicating it "to Mother Nature."
The rain returned a couple of hours later, early in the Foo Fighters headlining set, but Dave Grohl scared it away.
Always eager to play, the Foo Fighters — the band started 16 years ago by former Nirvana member Grohl — started their set promptly at 8 p.m., their first notes crescendoing as the final notes from Explosions in the Sky faded out across the field. They slammed into "Bridges Burning," from the band's acclaimed new album "Wasting Light," and hurried into "Rope" as dark clouds amassed again in the northwest. By the time they launched into "My Hero," their fourth song, the floodgates had opened once again. Torrents drowned the throng and produced a perfect rock and roll moment. That feeling when the rain starts falling, and you're getting drenched, and you decide, "F—- it, we're not running for cover" — that's a rock and roll moment.
"I don't give a f—- if it's raining," Grohl declared after the band had noodled cautiously through the song's ending, backing away from the rain that came at them from an sharp angle. If they had the slightest notion of cutting off the performance, the crowd had no intention of letting them. When you and tens of thousands of others are in the middle of Hutchinson Field, ankle-deep in mud and no hope of escape, you've made your rock and roll decision. The crowd kept the song going, singing loudly even as Grohl and the band dropped out momentarily. Soon he was singing "Arlandria," in which the line, "Shame, shame, go away / come again some other day," easily sounded like a chant against the weather.
Grohl started and ended the set sounding a little hoarse — perhaps because of the three-hour special show the Foo Fighters had played Saturday night for a thousand fans at Chicago's Metro. His energy, however, was not dampened. Always bug-eyed and ferocious onstage, Grohl on Sunday was whipping his wet hair around wildly as he ground away at his guitar, leaping and growling and shouting. He caressed the softer dynamics, too, stitching "Skin and Bones" together so lightly the song barely held together but benefited from accordion backing. He thanked the crowd for sticking with him and sang "Times Like These" by himself, celebrating the special moment.
Of course, Grohl related once again his tale of seeing his first rock show at the Cubby Bear (the band was Naked Raygun) — his age tends to change when he tells this story, Sunday night he was younger, 13 — and how it "changed my life." He then added that the first Lollapalooza 20 years ago had a similar impact. He beckoned Lolla founder Perry Farrell to come on stage, which he did — quickly, running on and off like a mischievous imp.
Chicago police: 'We don't work as bouncers' at Lollapalooza
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2011 2:28 PM
Has everyone dried out and washed up?
The day after a rainy, muddy conclusion to Lollapalooza 2011 — read our full report — the Chicago Police Dept. has released a range of arrests during the three-day weekend concert festival in Grant Park.
As we've reported, last year's individual fence jumpers turned into this year's online-organized flash mobs — large groups of fans who gather and overwhelm a section of fence, using strength in numbers to insure better penetration and unpaid admission. Some groups were as large as 200-300 people.
But Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy on Monday told the Sun-Times' Rummana Hussain that only a total of 20 to 30 people were arrested during the three-day Lollapalooza festivities.
While McCarthy said gate crashing at Lollapalooza is not "acceptable," he said officers assigned to the private event are not "bouncers."
"We're there to provide for the public safety," he said. "We don't work as bouncers for admission purposes."
The actual bouncers are the folks employed by Safety Service Systems (S3). They're the blue T-shirts seen here apprehending some other gate-crashers.
In the YouTube video below — one of several posted during the weekend, purportedly showing various groups of young people storming fences at the festival —one such mob coalesces near a vulnerable section of fence, rushes it (as you can see in the slo-mo, they had a plank to help them ramp up the chain-link) and streams inside the festival's perimeter. Near the end, two police paddy wagons arrive, but as the poster of the video writes: "Two paddy wagons came, but no one was actually taken away. It seemed like if you were under 17 years old they let you go , after searching you. 18 years old and up seemed to get tickets."
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Q&A with Hodgy Beats from MellowHype, Odd Future
By Thomas Conner on July 12, 2011 1:00 PM
Hodgy Beats and Left Brain, members of hotly debated rap group Odd Future — appearing Sunday afternoon at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago's Union Park — also work together under the name MellowHype. The duo's self-released 2010 album "Blackendwhite" was reissued this week by Fat Possum Records with extra tracks, and a new album, "Numbers," is expected later this year.
We caught up with Hodgy Beats last week following Odd Future's performance at the T in the Park festival in Scotland, the last of a string of dates for the group across Europe. When we weren't rehashing the controversy about the group's violent lyrics, there was other stuff to talk about ...
Q: How have the shows been in Europe this month?
Hodgy Beats: Europe is pretty wild, yo. The festival shows have been very, very intense. The crowds are really in love with Odd Future. Musically, people out here are more into it.
Q: How did you and Left Brain meet?
HB: We've known each other, sh—, probably since the second semester of 10th grade. So, 2007-ish.
Q: What clicked between you?
HB: I was just waiting for someone else to come along to make music with.
Q: You work together as MellowHype; within Odd Future, do you also work as a unit?
HB: We work together and with other people. He makes a lot of beats. Left Brain drops a beat and it's, there you go.
Q: With up to 10 people onstage at Odd Future gigs, how do you keep it from getting too confusing?
HB: Before shows we remind each other, hey, everybody's excited and into it and everybody wants to be on stage, but let's try to keep it minimal. It's three people max at all times. That doesn't work out all the time.
Q: What should we expect at this show?
HB: A bunch of niggers rocking the f—- out.
Q: Will there be some MellowHype shows in the future?
HB: Actually, there will be. When "Numbers" comes out, we'll do our own tours.
Q: How will they differ from the whole group's shows?
HB: It'll be more personal, more hands-on. We'll actually pull a different crowd.
Q: Why do you think that?
HB: We're just different, dude. We're just different.
Q: Is there going to be an Odd Future album?
(Someone in the background then shouted "No, tell him no, Hodgy!" and laughed.)
Q: Who's that?
HB: That's my counselor.
Q: How was it lying in a coffin full of snakes for the "64" video?
HB: It was crazy. Actually, it was cool. I never thought I'd be doing something like that.
Q: That video has some dark imagery. How much of that is your idea and how much is the vision of the director (Matt Alonzo)?
HB: It's all my decision. It just looks cool. It's not dark to me.
Q: You and Left Brain are cranking out a lot of music. What inspires you to be so creative and so fast?
HB: It's just what we do. It's a living. We're getting paid for it now, not that it matters. But music is our passion and our joy. We enjoy doing it, that's why we make a lot of it.
Q: "Not that it matters"? You could take or leave the money?
HB: I'd still be doing it, trying to get where I am, with or without someone's money.
Q: You have plans for a solo album, too?
HB: Yeah, called "Damien." There's no set date or any stress on it.
Odd Future's strange present: Local advocates seek to balance lyrics of rape, violence, homophobia
By Thomas Conner on July 12, 2011 1:30 PM
I'm not a f—-in' role model
I'm a 19-year-old f—-ing emotional roller coaster with pipe dreams
These motherf—-ers think I'm supposed to live up to something?
— Tyler the Creator in "Goblin"
They've been called "the future of the music business" for their freewheeling, Internet-based approach to recording and distribution. They've also been called "inexcusable," "reprehensible" and "dangerous" for lyrics that are frequently violent, misogynist, anti-gay and anti-police. They're called OFWGKTA (Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All), and they're a large, young hip-hop collective that's become one of the most divisive topics in music.
Odd Future, scheduled to perform July 17 at the annual Pitchfork Music Festival, has turned heads with some of the freshest sounds in hip-hop, heard mostly in tracks given away free online and on myriad solo projects by the group's members. (Odd Future, a sprawling bunch with 10 regular members, like a baby Wu-Tang Clan, performs together live but has only assembled tracks for two mixtapes.) Their songs are wildly aggressive and boundlessly creative, the wordplay crazy-clever and surprisingly sharp.
But it's those rhymes — peppered as they are with rape, kidnapping, murder and torture fantasies, blasphemy, homophobia, you name it — that's fixated the press and helped elevate this cult rap collective to the level of a Billboard magazine cover in March and last month's in-depth New Yorker feature, and it's the casual, matter-of-fact delivery of them that makes parents and activists apoplectic.
— "Kill people, burn sh—, f—- school / Odd Future here to steer you to what the f—-'s cool / F—- rules, skate life, rape, write, repeat twice" ("Pidgeons")
— In the song "Splatter," Odd Future's biggest breakout star Tyler the Creator boasts of having sex with "your teen daughter ... always against her will" followed by the same with "this grandmother named Jill."
— In "French" a business plan is hatched that, for some reason, includes a sexual act with the Virgin Mary.
Hodgy Beats, at 20 he and Tyler are the oldest of the mostly teenage group, spoke to the Sun-Times last week from a tour stop in London. As he and other members have maintained, Odd Future's lyrics, he said, are preposterous artistic expressions rather than reportage or incitement to action.
"Nothing is really serious," the laconic rapper said. "It's just like all the things in our music. It's in the atmosphere, it's in the world, and it's in our lyrics. ... I think it's funny that people flip out about sh— like that."
For some, it's not enough to write off songs that mention rape and murder to being humorous or simply "not serious." Several Chicago advocates for gay and women's rights in recent weeks promised to protest before the group's afternoon performance at Chicago's Union Park. But the festival announced Thursday that local organizations, including Between Friends and Rape Victim Advocates, will have "an onsite presence at the festival" in the form of an informational booth in the park.
"When we didn't have a booth at the festival, we were going to stand at the entrance to the Pitchfork festival and hand out 6,000 fans that have messages on them — one side lists resources for women who might be involved in domestic violence or a violent relationship, the other side a message about violence against women," says Kathy Doherty, executive director of Between Friends, a 25-year-old domestic violence agency. "Now we have a booth and can still give out the fans as well as information there. ... It's not a protest, it's an awareness-raising event."
Odd Future certainly isn't the first music act to terrify the predominately white media with tales of violence and gore, nor will they be the last. The once-hot controversies of N.W.A., Ice-T, 2 Live Crew, even Eminem are now so distant in pop cultural memory as to seem quaint. These Odd Future kids count the social pathologies of the Geto Boys (late-'80s pioneers of a subgenre called "horrorcore") among their inspirations, as well as shock-rock groups from Black Sabbath to Slipknot.
"When I was 15, my tape collection consisted of Geto Boys, N.W.A., 2 Live Crew," Mike Reed, a local music promoter and musician who co-owns the Pitchfork festival and oversees its booking, wrote in an e-mail to the Sun-Times. "At the time I thought it to be fun. I'm 37 now and have the maturity to see how silly it is/was. I'm not really offended by Odd Future, but can see why people are.
"I think the factor that they are so young is also very shocking for most white media members. Not sure how much this is an issue in more African-American music press."
In May, a writer for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, another organization denouncing the group, said youth is no excuse: "Tyler has said in interviews that he is not homophobic, yet his Twitter feed and rhymes are rampant with anti-gay slurs and references. His defense that 'people take things too seriously' or that he's 'just a kid' is inexcusable."
Hodgy Beats, born Gerard Damien Long (not in Chicago, as many online rumors suggest) and raised in New Jersey, answered our questions (more Q&A here) in few words and fragments, clearly young, inexperienced and more comfortable slinging rhymes than speaking to the media. "It's hard being interviewed," he muttered. "I don't like being asked a lot of questions." Reacting to the flurry of attention the group has received, he said, "The media is stupid. Niggers should ignore it." He paused, perhaps considering the context of his statement, and added, "I'm honestly not mad at the media. They help sell records, I guess."
He chalked up the gross-out element of the songs to boyish competition and bravado in the recording studio. "Sometimes it's us seeing who comes up with the sickest sh—, the most disgusting thing they can throw in," he said.
Hodgy Beats and another Odd Future member, Left Brain, also work together under the name MellowHype. The duo's self-released 2010 album "Blackendwhite" will be reissued July 12 by Fat Possum Records with extra tracks, and a new album, "Numbers," is expected later this year.
Asked what's the coolest musical sound the duo created for "Numbers," Hodgy Beats said, "A bitch moaning. We got some sounds like a bunch of whores just moaning. It's the most perfect sound you could use. It's crazy. Imagine bobbing your head to bitches moaning. That's what 'Numbers' sounds like."
Near the end of our conversation, Hodgy Beats attempted to explain Odd Future's lyrics in the context of street slang and evolving language. "There's gays running around and sh—, but when you call someone a faggot people think you're talking about a gay person," he said. When I asked for clarification as to how else he might define and employ the word "faggot," the phone went dead. We either lost the overseas connection or he hung up.
Odd Future has one female member, Syd Tha Kid, a lesbian who also seems baffled by any controversy around the group's lyrics. "People just choose to be offended by stuff," she told Billboard. "If they are, then that sucks and I'm sorry, but they don't have to keep listening. Words are words. They don't act out what they say, they just say it."
In an MTV interview, Syd tha Kid recalled a confrontation with her father, who said that her involvement in Odd Future was "slapping a lot of other females in the face." She replied, "That's what I do. I slap bitches, Dad."
The group's members have not made news for any actual violent acts. Tyler the Creator, a k a Tyler Okonma, was arrested in May in Los Angeles on a charge disturbing the peace, then quickly released. Frank Ocean, the group's R&B crooner and most likely crossover star, ranted online in April about being arrested in L.A. for unspecified charges.
Odd Future concert tickets have sold well in recent months as their live shows remain popular. (Though last weekend, the group's set at Scotland's T in the Park festival ended approximately 20 minutes early when fans began throwing bottles at them.) In March, Billboard reported that the group's actual record sales have been "modest," though Tyler the Creator's second solo album, "Goblin," debuted at No. 5 on the magazine's albums chart in mid-May based on first-week sales of 45,000.
Doherty at Between Friends says she simply wants her group's message to have the chance to compete with Odd Future's at the festival. "We certainly believe in free speech, and with that in mind Odd Future has the right to sing and use the lyrics they do. But the rest of us in Chicago have the right to balance that point of view with powerful messages of our own about violence again women," she says.
"We work with kids in schools who often get caught up in lyrics but don't think about what they say. So when we talk about that, then they begin to realize that other people using derogatory language — calling women and girls 'bitches' and language against gays and lesbians — can be presented as fun and not serious, but it really has a domino effect ... and doesn't send the right message about how we like to see people talk about each other."
• NPR: "Why You Should Listen to the Rap Group Odd Future, Even Though It's Hard"
• Village Voice: "On Odd Future, Rape and Murder, and Why We Sometimes Like the Things That Repel Us"
• New Yorker: long-read about Odd Future and the whereabouts of Earl Sweatshirt and their follow-up
• Complex: More on the mystery of Earl Sweatshirt here and here
• Irish Times: Last week's Tyler the Creator interview
• Pitchfork: Hodgy Beats interview from June
PITCHFORK MUSIC FESTIVAL
• 3-10 p.m. July 15, noon-10 p.m. July 16-17
• Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph
• Three-day passes are sold out. Individual tickets for July 17 are sold out, but remain for July 15 and 16: $45, (866) 777-8932, pitchforkmusicfestival.com.
Pitchfork Music Festival opens: Gatekeeper, EMA, early-bird fans
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2011 5:52 PM
Oh, is this the way they say the future's meant to feel,
Or just 20,000 people standing in a field?
— Jarvis Cocker
The first band scheduled to play the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival was, of course, Gatekeeper. The electronic duo kicked off just after, of course, the gates opened at 3 p.m. sharp for this seventh annual indie-rock-and-more event at Union Park in Chicago's West Loop.
Nearly 50 bands will perform on three stages here in Union Park during the next three days, and more than 50,000 fans are expected to attend. Tickets (surprisingly) remain for tonight's acts and Saturday's bill. Sunday is sold out.
The first kids through the gate Friday afternoon began sprinting toward the main stage. The park was virtually empty; why in such a hurry? "If I didn't get a spot up close for Animal Collective, then the night would be a complete disaster," said Jimmy Chang, 17, from his blanket near the lip of the Green Stage. "I am NOT MOVING!"
P4k2011's first sounds were very yin and yang. As Gatekeeper's light, blissful tunes fluttered over the trees, EMA (Erika M. Anderson) squinted into the hazy afternoon sun and began grinding out some dark, menacing music. Supported by a guitarist, her little sister on drums and Leif Shackelford on violin and keyboards, Anderson, 28, took her sweet time building up some twisting, twisted alt-rock. Flipping her bleached bangs in and out of her eyes, Anderson seemed to struggle to restrain herself — at one point joking about "breaking things" but keeping a cool head as she lead her band through these slow, brooding songs.
"I wish that every time he touched me he left a mark," she snarled in "Marked," a song that began with Shackelford strumming his violin like a ukulele. Elsewhere, Shackelford sawed at that poor thing like John Cale on his Velvet Underground cello. The band frequently collapsed into VU-like noise breaks, on the foreboding "Butterfly Knife" and again (with two violins now!) on "Breakfast," but without the drone. Anderson gurgles and groans like a Patti Smith hopeful, but she's got more panache. "I did not bring the whiskey on stage," she said. "I don't know why."
Pitchfork Music Festival: James Blake interview and set
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2011 8:00 PM | No Comments | No TrackBacks
We caught just a few minutes to sit down with soft-spoken London dubstep musician James Blake before his performance this evening at the Pitchfork Music Festival:
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Fey young Londoner James Blake not only proved himself, following his curious debut album released in February, he proved to be the night's most transcendent performance.
Influenced by American R&B — and vocally often a dead ringer for Aaron Neville — the 22-year-old Blake made cold beats and fragmented samples come alive Friday evening on the festival's smallest stage under the trees. Seemingly shy behind his keyboard, Blake played and set both graceful and grandiose, reaching surprising heights often with just two or three ingredients.
In the interview before the show, I asked Blake if he felt confident as a singer. His firm affirmative belies the amount of heavy, thickening effects he heaps on his vocals, which alternately slunk around his melody soulfully or swelled above the clipped dubstep beats laid down by both a programmer and a tenacious live drummer. Dub is not a genre that warms easily, but Blake's spectral approach — transmitting his vocals from the ether, often introducing songs with churchy organ and haunting the arrangements with ghostly piano — brings spirit to it and even results in some very human moments. "CMYK" builds on a cheerful, eager rhythm, humming snyths and two R&B samples fractured beyond recognition (they're rhythmic elements, they're not supposed to be understood) — plus another very effect-drenched vocal howl from Blake — and eventually bursts into a jubilant, hopping dancefloor rhythm that had the packed crowd under the tress really jumping. Surprising and superb.
Pitchfork Music Festival: tUnE-yArDs, Animal Collective
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 12:00 AM
The intrepid Merrill Garbus, the central figure of tUnE-yArDs, won for best soundcheck of the day. Portents of what was to come, Garbus called out various wails and "day-oh's" into the microphone, which then looped back through the speakers in endless arrays to make a choir of one. The crowd gathered at the small Blue Stage cheered wildly, and the show hadn't even begun yet.
Garbus' proper set leapt to life with "Party Can (Do You Want to Live?)" on the strength of those looped vocals, a lynchpin of the tUnE-yArDs' engaging, exciting set. Singing, re-singing and playing her own abbreviated drum kit, Garbus, her face streaked with colorful war paint, wailed and cooed and hollered through a set bristling with punkish spirit — at least in the defiant creativity of the electronically enhanced arrangements, amended here and there by two saxophone players — and bracing composition, from the "wah-ooh-wah" vocal round and bleating jazz climax of "Gangsta" to the occasional instances of barking and guitar scraping.
Each song found dissonance and harmony tugging at war, never finding an easy truce but always a workable and tuneful solution. By "Powa," another track from this year's "W H O K I L L" album, Garbus was singing more naturally — and soulfully — her powerful pipes stretching out a bit as more than mere fodder for the sequencers. The tech never diluted the songs, the songs never lost their spirit of celebration and joy. "You're a wonderful sight to see out there," she said, catching her breath. "You're a massive bundle of love." Back at ya, m'dear.
Animal Collective closed out the night, making a God-awful racket of their unfocused, rambling electronic jams. On a stage full of flashing lights and papery backdrops, the individual members of the band — longtime friends and collaborators Avey Tare (David Porter), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), Deakin (Josh Dibb) and Geologist (Brian Weitz) — were lost as they cranked out a lot of music fans hadn't yet heard, since the band's last album was 2009's "Merriweather Post Pavilion" and they've since been working on film scores and other projects.
Industrial clanking, monotonous rhythms and lengthy, noodling transitions between songs made for a noisy, messy performance. Only a few moments came close to gelling — a frenetic calypso waltz early in the show with wild static noises sliding up and down the scale, and an easygoing "A Long Time Ago" — but most of the music was scattered. I know the Guggenheim has bestowed some overvalued art-rock cred on them, but while their drifting, shiftless sounds may constitute art it doesn't constitute a good time.
"Were you here for Panda Bear last year?" asked the woman next to me. Alas, yes I was. She joined me in rolling eyes. "My friend and I were rolling on the ground in the fetal position begging God to make it stop." Lather, rinse, repeat.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Battles interview and set
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 12:11 AM
A chat with the members of Battles (about two of the three's Chicago days) shortly after their Friday evening show:
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Somewhere between the knob twiddlers and the hardcore rockers is Battles, a New York trio (down from a quartet) whose members are not averse to describing their music as "math rock." Their cacophony was established so quickly and loudly that it interfered with the sometimes more delicate music of tUnE-yArDs clear across the park.
Mixing loops and ferocious live drumming from former Helmet basher John Stanier, Battles ably re-crated the tunes from their new and acclaimed "Gloss Drop"; that album employed various vocalists, none of whom were on stage Friday evening, though a few showed up on video screens. Sometimes the crushing beats reverberated across the park like the live/looped signal sent by the aliens in "Contact," with former Chicago guitarists Ian Williams and Dave Konopka working sometimes together, sometimes at cross-purposes on, under and around them.
There were moments the music was both punishing and pretty, a strange but exciting experience.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Guided by Voices and Neko Case
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 12:14 AM
Stubbornly prolific band Guided by Voices returned to Chicago for the fest, still going with its reunited "classic" '93-'96 lineup last seen here at the Riviera Theatre last October (the band's "final" show was New Year's Eve 2004 at Chicago's Metro). But the longer this rascally band trundles on, the more fun they get. Lead singer Robert Pollard is growing into his natural curmudgeoness, and Friday evening's set was 45 minutes of pure kicky, catchy rock.
Pollard took the stage with a confident "1, 2, 3, kick it!" and opened with "Echos Myron," joined by Neko Case singing harmony and shaking a tambourine. Clutching a tequila bottle ("He's probably pretty hammered," one fan noted mid-set) and dangling a cigarette, Pollard and his jittery leg led the band — with the rip-roaring twin-guitar attack of Tobin Sprout and Charles Mitchell — careening through an oldies but very good set. It was the kind of rock and roll that actually sounds bettered by the off-key, absurdist warblings and occasional feedback from the PA. Not much was going to slow these guys down.
Alt-country queen Case seemed in a relaxed, cozy mood Friday night, playing a set of mostly ballads and slow belters. You know, the stuff that best showcases That Voice — songs like "The Pharaohs" with its long, patient phrases about being "your blue, blue baby," or her tiger empathy in "People Got a Lot of Nerve." With accordion, banjo and frequent brushes on the drums, Case commanded a steady set and reminded Chicagoans how much we miss her being a resident.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Cold Cave on a hot day
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 4:42 PM
One thing I never thought I'd get at a Cold Cave show: a sunburn.
There was the New York darkwave trio, all pale and wrapped in black leather (pleather?), defiant in the fierce Saturday afternoon sun early on day two of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival. I would have welcomed an environmental catastrophe that would've blacked out the sun and plunged these moody bastards into the dark where they belong, but the contrast emboldened their presentation.
At heart, Cold Wave takes mid-'80s synth pop (New Order, OMD) and moves it forward — just beyond the reach of nostalgia. Their most successful tactic for doing so: scratching it up, getting it dirty, just around the edges. Nearly every song started with a wall of harsh sound — a piercing electronic whine, blaring white noise, glitchy static — from which would suddenly spring bouncy, flouncy keyboards, courtesy Dominick Fernow (Prurient from Madison, Wis.), and pounding beats. Before launching into "I've Seen the Future and It's No Place for Me," singer Wesley Eisold simply hissed into the microphone at length, satisfying a compulsion to begin every song with amelodic clatter of some sort. Like Cold Cave's album, "Cherish the Light Years," it was noise vs. melody, brashness vs. shyness, a singer using the word "outside" a lot when he probably didn't intend it so literally today.
Eisold hangs on the microphone and pouts (very Ian McCulloch), blurts out in his tuneless baritone (very Peter Murphy), sometimes pulling the neck of his T-shirt off his shoulder to show off his ink; during "Confetti," he pointed to a large "23" on his left shoulder. Meanwhile, Fernow could barely contain himself behind his decks, occasionally breaking free during a loop to dance about the stage with the most inspiring and embarrassing moves.
Pitchfork Music Festival: No Age, Off!
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 6:11 PM
Los Angeles drum-and-guitar duo No Age bashed out punkish songs on Saturday's Red Stage in a set that just got more chaotic as it went. Drummer Dean Spunt is also the duo's singer, and watching him flail at his kit and still try to keep his mouth on the mike is entertainment alone. Meanwhile, guitarist Randy Randall ping-ponged back and forth on the stage, nearly toppling over during oldie "Neck Escaper."
Throughout the No Age set, water — and water bottles (empty, the ones I saw, thank goodness) — flew everywhere, in impressive fountains shooting straight up from the crowd or in thrown spray. Later, at the Blue Stage, Keith Morris of the punk band Off! advised his similarly inclined crowd: "Don't throw stuff around! That's not cool. DRINK the water. Stay hydrated."
After an opening homily — in which Morris warned, in the understatement of the day, "We're gonna bring a different flavor to the party today" — Morris and his band, a supergroup offshoot of the Circle Jerks, bashed out a ferocious set of hardcore and speed metal. Rare was the song that passed the two-minute mark, propelled down the fast lane by riffy guitarist Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides) and bassist Steven Shane McDonald (Redd Kross). The particular flavor added by Morris was his occasional off-the-cuff homilies ("F—- people" from a guy who actually seems so nice ...) and unearthly caterwauling.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Dismemberment Plan, Twin Shadow
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 8:17 PM
I'm not sure I've ever seen Travis Morrison this giddy.
Always a self-satisfied performer — and a wicked-nerdy dancer — Morrison's shows at the helm of the still-reunited Dismemberment Plan are never stiff, but Saturday he seemed exceptionally loose and free-spirited. We last saw D-Plan in February at the Metro; the band ceased activity in 2003 but reunited late last year to tour in support of a classy vinyl reissue of their 1999 masterpiece "Emergency & I." The tour finished, this was the only remaining show on the band's books. It's last? Again?
Maybe that's why Morrison was riding high even as he squinted into the late-day sun. The band certainly sounded crisp — throughout this tour they've been sharper than ever, with bassist Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley strutting as one of rock's sharpest rhythm sections — and dished out more wordy, jerky faves, still heavy on the "Emergency & I" tracks. In the outdoor summer heat, they hilariously started into their most anthemic song, "The Ice of Boston," a tale of cold New Year's Eve loneliness that in concert traditionally finds Morrison inviting fans to join him on stage during the song. "No, you can't come up on stage," Morrison said Saturday, noting the impossibility of crowd access to the festival stage, "and, frankly, I'm relieved. I don't need the microphone in the teeth, as usual."
After a troubled and delayed sound check — a frequent occurrence all day today on the Blue Stage — Twin Shadow finally got under way, playing its lush, moody 1980s-inspired pop.
George Lewis Jr., the Domincan-born, Florida-raised, motorcycle-loving enigma leading this group, is a born crooner and plays guitar as if he learned it directly from Hall & Oates records. The '80s shtick laid on pretty heavily, though, and sometimes — unlike the records — leaned more toward hotel-lounge Spandau Ballet than anything justifying the band's acclaim thus far. Lewis announced that the band's fifth song, the title track to the new album, "Forget," would be their last, so perhaps the sound check delay robbed them of the momentum of a full set.
Pitchfork Music Festival: DJ Shadow, Fleet Foxes
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 11:02 PM
It's pretty funny watching a field full of people all staring at the same thing — nothing.
DJ Shadow, the highly influential mixmaster Josh Davis, performed his turntable set from inside a large white globe. On the Red Stage on Saturday evening sat the globe, with various psychedelic projections hitting its surface (not the full array he's given to other crowds in the dark, however), and inside — allegedly, at first — was Davis, knitting together his breakbeats and samples. The crowd cheered, and stared at the white globe. On a video screen to the east, cameras within the sphere showed Davis hard at work spinning his tables, toggling switches, cradling headphones to one ear and syncing up the next sound, beat or piece of music.
His mixes are exciting, no doubt — the thumping bass must have vibrated windows in Lakeview — pushing funk, rock, slow jams, jazz, ambient music, whatever works through the stacks. But the gimmick was a strange gambit in a penultimate slot before nearly 20,000 people. Midway through the show, the back hemisphere of the globe spins around, revealing an opening and showing Davis to the crowd for the rest of the set. (A good thing, too, otherwise you couldn't help but wonder if Davis wasn't lying on a beach in Brazil, sending just the globe, a reel-to-reel of the music and that synced video out on tour.) The fourth DJ Shadow record in 15 years, "The Less You Know, the Better," will be out this fall, and here's hoping we next see him indoors and in the dark.
The transition from DJ Shadow's club atmosphere to the sweet, earthy folk of Saturday night headliner Fleet Foxes was a radical shift, emblematic of the catholic tastes of Pitchfork fans ...
Fleet Foxes leader Robin Pecknold joked early in his band's set about playing the Pitchfork festival three years ago, saying it was "super fun" and they followed rapper Dizzee Rascal, who handed off the set by saying, "F—- that folk sh—!" Pecknold chuckled, then straightened up. "I hope he'll be making a return appearance, too," he said.
The fact that Fleet Foxes not only returned to Pitchfork this year but held down the Saturday night headliner slot — mightily successfully — says much about how they've come along as a band. When they played here in 2008, they were still linked musically and lyrically to the "Blue Ridge Mountains," but the follow-up — the dense and tightly woven "Helplessness Blues" — is more worldly, with a greater diversity (and proficiency) of instruments. That mass of music, as opposed to just a set of pretty harmonies, made for a rich and rewarding set that employed mostly acoustic instruments for repeated crescendos and thundering.
Those trademark harmonies were a lynchpin to the show, of course, but now the band frames them within each song — using them to open a song ("Drops in the River") or to spotlight a heartfelt moment in the middle (the breathtaking pause in "Bedouin Dress"). But even the signature vocal rounds of "White Winter Hymnal" gave away the band's newfound confidence as players — of acoustic guitars, mandolins, upright bass, some organ — as well as singers; the song on Saturday stepped out with a stride not heard before, a new eagerness to strum harder and chug faster and get where it was going — which was, of course, a similarly urgent "Ragged Wood." In "The Protector," they again started softly, carefully, with their traditional and subtly churchy singing, but by the time Pecknold sang, "You run with the devil," they'd clearly abandoned their hymnal for the excitement of that ragged wood. Hallelujah.
Want more Pitchfork fest? Fly to Paris this fall
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2011 7:00 AM
Lollapalooza expanded internationally this year, launching Lollapalooza Chile in April. Now Chicago's own Pitchfork Music Festival has announced it's also going abroad.
Pichfork Music Festival Paris will premiere Oct. 28 and 29 in that city's Parc de la Villette. The lineup thus far includes Bon Iver — who not only plays Oct. 29 but also selects the other bands on the bill — as well as Wild Beasts, Cut Copy, Kathleen Edwards and more.
Tickets are 79.90 Euros (roughly $115), available via digitick.com.
Pitchfork has previously collaborated on performances at Britain's All Tomorrow's Parties festival and the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona, Spain.
Pitchfork Music Festival: The heat is on
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2011 8:00 AM
Beginning Sunday, a mass of hot air arrives in Chicago — and we don't mean all the pundits debating the worth of Odd Future.
It's going to be hot, hot, hot — the start of possibly the biggest heat wave here since 2006. The National Weather Service calls the impending heat "massive."
The forecast highs on Sunday are in the mid- to low-90s, but with humidity the heat index will make it feel near or over 100 degrees.
The heat will be around all week, but right now we care about Sunday in Union Park (and other festivals around town).
At the Pitchfork Music Festival ...
— There is at least one CTA cooling bus on the grounds, parked at the end of Flatstock, and if needed, there will be an additional cooling bus at Ashland and Washington.
— The first 6,000 attendees through the gate each day will get a free bottle of water.
— On Saturday, the festival hooked up some free water fountains, the better for you to keep your water bottle filled. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
Another rock writer and festival veteran taught me a nifty trick for these things: a wet washcloth in a Ziploc bag. Add a little cool water here and there, wring it out, wipe your face, neck, arms. Or, as one of the Pitchfork publicists was doing Saturday, simply wear it on your head.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Odd Future
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2011 2:42 PM
For controversial rap group Odd Future, Sunday afternoon at the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival began with a little damage control.
Less than an hour before taking the stage in Chicago's Union Park, members of the group delivered boxes of cupcakes to the anti-violence organizations on site — the same organizations manning booths and handing out paper fans containing domestic violence resource information specifically to counter what they saw as dangerous expressions of hate, violence and homophobia in Odd Future's music.
"They took some of the fans, too," said Amanda Wapiennik with Family Shelter Service. "One of them said, 'See we're nice.' I said, 'We never said you weren't.' ... That's exactly the kind of dialogue and exchange we're looking for."
It was nice while it lasted.
Odd Future's set, at the height of Sunday's swelter, was rife with the usual foul language and appalling exhortations to violence and misogyny — lots of "smack you, bitch," "f—- the police," "f—-in' ho," happy tales of "punches to the stomach" and advice to "shoot that f—-in' nigga, aim for the head," and I lost count of the number of times someone shouted "f—-in' bitch!" — even while they gave lip service to opposing voices. Group leader and breakout solo star Tyler the Creator, his left leg in a cast for a broken foot, said, "A big shout out to the domestic violence groups out here." This came as the echo of the latest "f—-in' bitch!" died away and right before the next song, "I Got a Gun (You Better Run)."
Shock tactics simply are in the young group's DNA and their 15-song set was thick with the confrontation that's caused such a fuss all year around their mostly free online recordings and raucous live shows. Problem is, the shock and awe is all they brought. Odd Future knows how to engage a crowd with nasty talk, stage diving (even Tyler, in his cast) and the mystical bond between crowd and performer created by the middle finger, but musically the 45-minute set was a very average hip-hop show. (Big Boi, on this same stage and nearly same slot last year, brought so much more.)
Members Left Brain and Hodgy Beats opened the show, dishing up a song from their reissued MellowHype album "Blackendwhite." DJ Syd Tha Kid provided most of the beats and musical backing, thin as it usually was; Odd Future's recordings sound much more inventive. At times, five members were prancing back and forth at the lip of the stage or diving over it. The whole thing was like watching a "Chinese fire drill," but the often monotonous beats and hate speech was more like listening to Oi! (a punk subgenre) without guitars.
In the end, though, Odd Future wanted us to know, as they repeated over and over, that they don't care what you, me or anyone thinks of them. Before launching into "Pidgeons," with its refrain of "Kill people, burn sh—, f—- school," Tyler dedicated "this beautiful song to everyone who don't like me, every protestor ... everyone writing a faggot-ass review of this show." There was extra, unprintable advice for the latter, even though reviews like this one and other articles about the group's controversy are likely the chief reason Odd Future has seen a spike in sales. Even Hodgy Beats, a member of Odd Future and half of MellowHype, in our interview last week, admitted: "I'm honestly not mad at the media. They help sell records, I guess."
But of all the hot air, the most absurd thing the group shouted during that song may have been this: "I'm radical! I'm f—-in' radical!" There's really nothing radical about their potty mouths and juvenile gross-out humor. If anything, it's old.
If Odd Future's doing anything noteworthy, it's forcing another occasional re-evaluation of language. I've seen much high-minded discussion of how Odd Future is determined to soften if not break down the sharpness of certain language and how they cleverly define their particular audience with prescient knowledge of who will get the joke and who won't. I think this ascribes way too much forethought to teenage kids who are cranking out hip-hop with incredible speed and spontaneity, but that doesn't mean they're not achieving a result. If there's anything academic in Odd Future, it's the simple fact that they're a bellwether to a generation that's absorbed some slightly different cultural standards, mainly from video games (which sell nearly four times as much as music) — many of them violent and all of them, thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision, freely available to all ages — that does not necessarily see the same gravity in words or depictions of rape, murder and violence.
At the end of my chat with Hodgy Beats he said, "There's gays running around and sh—, but when you call someone a faggot people think you're talking about a gay person." It could be simply a matter for the linguists. Faggot used to mean a bundle of sticks, a meatball, and in today's slang it's still a common pejorative for a gay man. But what does it mean to the youth of Odd Future? By the time I asked for clarification as to how else he might define and employ the word "faggot," he'd hung up.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Yuck, How to Dress Well, Kurt Vile
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2011 10:48 PM
London quartet Yuck has been one of the biggest hypes this year — the lines to see each of several showcases last spring at SXSW were long and futile — and while they couldn't hope to live up to it, their '90s Shoegaze Fanclub shtick is growing on me.
Curly-haired Daniel Blumberg plays guitar and sings with a permanent crick in his neck, often stooped as he grinds out Lush swells on guitar. His longtime mate and fellow guitarist Max Bloom fills whatever spaces Blumberg doesn't — he added a great slide solo to "Suicide Policeman" — and the parts make for a pleasant whole. They were more laid back Sunday, swinging between the riffy fun of "The Wall" and a few songs so easygoing and with melodies so loping I half expected Jackson Browne to join them. In March I said "it should make for a harmless summer '90s revival," and voila.
How to Dress Well, aka Tom Krell, was the latest casualty Sunday afternoon of sound check delays at the Blue Stage. Leading the group as singer only, just a drummer/keyboardist and a string section (complete with conductor), Krell didn't quite gel. HTDW's music has lit up blogs based on its ephemeral nature, the ghostly ways he weaves his R&B-inflected vocals underneath subtle samples and gossamer synth sounds. At Pitchfork, the soft strings and simplistic drums weren't enough to support Krell's ambitious, quivering falsetto. His so-far signature tune "Ready for the World" came on too strong, and "Decisions" didn't make enough. "We're still working out the kinks," Krell said midway through.
Philadelphia singer-songwriter Kurt Vile — he of the shaggy long hair, like almost everyone in the band — returned to Pitchfork with a bigger, bolder sound. Vile was at this festival last year, when he was still getting the Nick Drake comparisons. Sunday's set, full of muscled guitar and songs about trains, strove for Springsteen, complete with a sax solo on "Freak Train."
Pitchfork Music Festival: Cut Copy, TV on the Radio, Deerhunter
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2011 11:21 PM
Cut Copy was the hit of the Pitchfork Music Festival's third night, delivering a set of its '80s-inspired dance-rock that had Union Park jammed and jumping.
They're just four clean-cut Australian blokes in nice shirts. But in the middle of "Saturdays," just as the sun was fading out a broiling afternoon, Dan Whitford called out a simple arena-rock, crowd-juicing trick — "On the count of three, I want you to go crazy! One, two, three, go!" — and craziness ensued. It is a beautiful, beautiful thing to watch a crowd of nearly 18,000 people jumping and waving hands in time, freaking the frack out, throwing inflatable things around and spraying water, with wide eyes and smiles from ear to ear.
The crowd was putty in Whitford's hand, a dynamic performer who makes up in audience engagement what he lacks in his pinched voice. Whitford commands the stage with a kind of authority that produces results; when he sings about something "in the sky" and points toward it, you look up.
Cut Copy is not a complicated band — this is basic pop with disco grooves and lyrics about reaching for the stars, holding onto your dream and trying to get you on the phone — and the crowd was full of fans, people who knew when to "ooh," when to "yeah!" and who cheered the songs they recognized just from the first synthesizer note. The band pulled from its whole catalog, including tracks from the latest album, "Zonoscope," and the new single "Blink and You'll Miss a Revolution" (a song from 2010, though it gained some note during the Arab Spring, so now it's a new single out July 25, packaged alongside a remix by fellow Pitchfork performer Toro Y Moi). When they started "Lights and Music," a propulsive tune with dissonant synths and the bassline from the Pretenders' "Mystery Achievement," the park went crazy without being told. Even Whitford was taken aback by the crowd's enthusiasm, blurting a "Wow!" when the song ceased.
As acts compete to fill the void left by LCD Soundsystem, the Oprah of indie dance-rock, Cut Copy might have a chance for a breakthrough.
Before Cut Copy was Deerhunter, Atlanta's wall of noise rock band. Deerhunter recently covered a band that gets to its root influences, fellow Georgians Pylon, and their Sunday set was an irresistible and daring mix of the same dance rhythms and guitar drone. The quartet opened with several minutes of guitar wash and cymbals before collapsing into "Desire Lines," a song of tightly controlled jangle, an evolving rhythm and several showcases for guitar scrapes within guitarscapes — towering leader Bradford Cox ringing one chord for what seemed like days, while guitarist Lockett Pundt worked up and down scales. Reverb drenched the instruments and the vocals, so eventually everything was ringing, ringing, ringing. The band let layers of sound pile up, and often left them there — buzzing on for several minutes, while the rhythm section kept it afloat, until the tension was almost too much. "Little Kids" crumbled into waves of feedback. "Nothing Ever Happened" snaked through its verses before stretching itself to the breaking point. Occasionally they dabbled in barroom stomps and slow, Red House Painters narcotics, but mostly it was walls and walls of sound.
After Cut Copy was Brooklyn's revived funky bunch, TV on the Radio. The band released the acclaimed "Nine Types of Light" on April 12, eight days before bassist Gerard Smith died of lung cancer. Sunday night they were just as eclectic as ever, mixing up Southern boogie, post-punk, electronica, blues and balladry, sometimes in the same song. Their headlining set seemed extra funky, at least at first, tripping explosives in "New Cannonball Blues" before going slow jam for a few tunes. "The Wrong Way," however, was a hot soul stomp utilizing the competitive vocals of both Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone to conjure the revelatory dream the song's poetry describes. Such a swampy mix of music: they're indie-rock's Little Feat.
Pitchfork and Odd Future: At least we talked about it
By Thomas Conner on July 20, 2011 4:32 PM
One of the first things you learn to do in journalism school is rewrite press releases, but when they come along as eloquently written as this one that arrived today — from Between Friends, the Chicago domestic violence preventative organization that was one among several advocacy groups at the Pitchfork Music Festival last weekend trying to counter the frequently hateful message in the lyrics of rap group Odd Future and their Sunday performance — I say run the thing verbatim.
It's a fine coda to an odd moment in a great festival ...
CREATING THE DIALOGUE FOR A SAFE FUTURE NOT AN ODD FUTURE
CHICAGO (7/20/11) — The odd choice of Pitchfork Music Festival organizers to include Odd Future, known for their misogynistic lyrics, provided the perfect platform for creating a dialogue that was heard around the world about violence against women and the LGBTQ community. Colleen Norton, Prevention & Education Manager at Between Friends, where we focus on building a community free from violence against women, enlisted the help of several other organizations - Rape Victim Advocates, the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, Center on Halsted, Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation and others, and created a successful campaign to raise awareness about how such violence is often glorified, minimized or ignored.
This campaign generated a huge response from the local, national and international community. One woman wrote: "I'm from Australia and I've been very concerned about Odd Future's lyrics and performances. Even if they're meant to be 'ironic or protesting in some way against all the toxic rubbish in the media, I absolutely oppose their approach...so I just wanted to send a message of support to you for your awareness-raising campaign at Pitchfork. If I was in Chicago that day I would definitely join you!" Back in Chicago, as we ran out of the 7,000 fans passed out to concertgoers. A young woman, who took one, came back after reading it and told us, "It really means a lot. Thank you for being here." More telling are the numbers of concertgoers that came to us after Odd Future's performance, voicing their discomfort with the lyrics and asking for the fans we used to decorate our booth!
Others completely missed the objective of the campaign by questioning the "lack of protest". Maybe we are watching too much reality TV to understand the art of generating real conversations that lead to a shared understanding? Media regarding Odd Future being booked at Pitchfork was indeed a catalyst for us to seek a presence at the festival. However, picketing Odd Future's performance would have been shortsighted and distracting from our real goals. Instead, our fans were in the hands of 7,000 supporters waving the message: Cool it! Don't be a fan of violence.
So what did we accomplish? We mobilized others to: 1) Think critically about how violence against women and the LGBTQ community is portrayed in their community through music, art, and the media,
2) Talk about ways to end such violence, and 3) Seek help from the resources provided. The conversation spread quickly with every online article, blog, picture, and comment posted engaging everyone in the dialogue both locally and around the world!
Between Friends and our partners thank the thousands of you who supported this campaign and helped us achieve our goals! Now we encourage you to continue the dialogue - wherever that takes you! Hear more online at our Facebook page - http://www.facebook.com/BetweenFriendsChicago.
About Between Friends
Between Friends is a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization dedicated to breaking the cycles of domestic violence throughout Chicagoland. Between Friends offers domestic violence survivors resources and support to help them rebuild their lives and move into safer and healthier situations. In addition, Between Friends addresses domestic violence as a community issue and offers extensive education and training programs for groups throughout the Chicago area to help prevent domestic violence before it begins. For more information visit www.betweenfriendschicago.org.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
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
Mr. Robotic released a debut CD in February — begrudgingly.
The Chicago rapper, aka Columbia College student Marcas Harris, has been writing and recording high-energy, club-ready songs for several years, and he claims to be making a full-time living from it. But the Benjamins haven't been coming from album sales ("Boy in the Band: A Love Story," a six-song EP, is his first physical offering) or iTunes downloads (though a small set of his tracks first appeared there last year). Instead, Mr. Robotic plugged his fledgling career into the other side of the music business: licensing songs to movies, TV shows, advertising and much more.
"I don't necessarily think the album is dead; I'm just not sure I need one to be a full-time, working recording artist," Harris says. "For me, I've got a commercial this week, a TV show next week. ... The people I work with getting commercial placements, they just need songs — and, you know, they're hungry."
"Commercial placements" — that means more these days than just hearing your song playing on the car radio while handsome doctors drive around on "Grey's Anatomy," or even landing on a movie soundtrack. Mr. Robotic songs have been sold for both of those uses — he was on the soundtracks to a couple of B-flicks last year ("Skyline" and "Stomp the Yard 2: Homecoming"), and his songs have been used on "Jersey Shore," "The Hills," "Greek," "The Beautiful Life" and more — but he's also written a theme song for a sports drink and an exclusive song for a national chain of yogurt shops. A Mr. Robotic song was used as background for a LeBron James highlight reel on ESPN's "SportsCenter."
Each time a musician places a song in one of these spots — ka-ching! It may not be a loud ka-ching, but in a troubled economy and a music business whose revenue model has been dismantled and decentralized, every little ka-ching counts. Websites, in-store promotions, social-media campaigns, smart-phone apps, you name it — businesses have myriad new opportunities to try to turn our heads with a catchy tune, and they pay for each one.
Those new and revitalized sources of income represent a seismic shift in a musician's business plan. As Damian Kulash — singer for Chicago's OK Go, which just unveiled its theme song to Morgan Spurlock's upcoming documentary about product placement — wrote in a thoughtful December essay about these issues for the Wall Street Journal, "So if vanishing record revenue isn't being replaced by touring income, how are musicians feeding themselves? For moderately well established artists, the answer is increasingly corporate sponsorship and licensing — a return, in a sense, to the centuries-old logic of patronage. In 1995, it was rare for musicians to partner with corporations; in most corners of the music industry, it was seen as the ultimate sell-out. But with investments from labels harder to come by, attitudes toward outside corporate deals have changed."
Bob DePugh handles music licensing at Chicago's Alligator Records. He's been with the label for more than 20 years, and he started making licensing deals for the label about a decade ago. Two songs by Hound Dog Taylor, for instance, are slated for "The Rum Diary," another Hunter S. Thompson story made into an upcoming movie starring Johnny Depp. DePugh even does extra work on the side. He's placed songs for artists at Chicago's Bloodshot Records, too — the Deadstring Brothers in "Sons of Anarchy," Justin Townes Earle in "Justified," the Sadies in "CSI: NY."
"It became more and more my full-time job as the market really grew for it," he says. "Of course, 10 years ago way fewer people knew about this scheme, so the fees you could get were much higher. About five or six years ago is when it really took off, once shows like 'The Gilmore Girls' and that ilk became highly driven by the soundtrack. The floodgates kind of opened. That was also about the time that CD sales began to drop, so it became more important [for artists]. A lot more people are now chasing this income, and by a lot more I mean everyone."
Licensing songs, however, is a crapshoot, DePugh says. Live performance is where the income is for today's musician, followed by album sales and single downloads. He's mystified by the notion of artists who include placements as part of a business plan.
"You can't rely on this income, not really at all," he says. "It's very fickle, and you're dealing with a lot of people. The music supervisor might take your song to the editor, and it might not work, or the director won't like it, or the budget will change — there are a lot of factors that make it very unreliable. It's great as found money, but you can't balance your budget assuming you're going to win the lottery."
One of those music supervisors scouting songs for TV is Evan Frankfort. He's won a Daytime Emmy for his soap opera scores and is a frequent collaborator with Chicago native Liz Phair writing TV music (he helped Phair craft her now-notorious "Funstyle" album while both were in the studio working on TV shows). Through his Los Angeles post-production music company, Would Work Sound, he also helps connect musicians with television directors looking for the right song for the right moment.
But while sealing the deal for a song in a primetime drama can feel satisfying for the artist at first, Frankfort says, the check usually is only as big as the artist. "Fees range from $500, if no one knows who you are, to maybe $10,000 if you have a following," he says.
Lyle Hysen, a New York-based music broker who works on commission with labels such as Chicago's Thrill Jockey and Drag City, has seen higher. "'Grey's Anatomy,' that could get you some money," he says, "but shows like that are usually exclusively dealing with a particular label. But that level of placement could get you $30,000 [all in]. New shows and cable networks don't have that kind of money, maybe $2,000, $5,000 or $20,000. It's not huge, and it's not consistent, but it's money the band doesn't have to load up the van for."
"A theme song, that's the ultimate goal," says Michael J. Mallen, a Los Angeles music broker who has scored Mr. Robotic many of his placements. "When we talk about this stuff, people usually think of the Rembrandts. Nobody knew who they were, then they wrote the theme song for 'Friends.' At that level, you're talking millions of dollars."
Most TV musical appearances, though, are disappointing for the musicians. Programs need theme songs and dramatic soundtracks, but they mostly need music for the background of a scene. Usually deep background.
"Most placements, I'd say three out of four, you won't even know your song is on the show," Frankfort says. "Everyone wants that final placement [like] at the end of 'Six Feet Under,' when the music plays over the drama, but it's usually at the bottom of what's going on. A guy I just did a record with had a song on a show this week. It was his first placement, and he was very excited. He e-mailed everybody. Not only was the show a big pile of sh—, he didn't even know where the song was. He called and said, 'I guess you didn't use it, after all.' I said, 'Yeah, we did, it's in the bar scene.'"
"I've listened to some placements on TV four or five times, cupping my ears down by the speaker, till I get a hint of the steel guitar lick that tells me, 'Oh, yeah, that's the track,'" DePugh says. "Sometimes the tenor of the singer's voice barely comes through. It can be that nuanced. It may not be that thrilling for the artist, until the check clears."
Frankfort has co-written with Chicago-area pop-punk band the Plain White T's, another band that has recently taken to the music licensing route to keep some money coming in. In August, the T's went on a tour not of public concert venues but of TV network boardrooms, playing mini acoustic shows for music supervisors in an attempt to market their music for primetime placements. Singer Tom Higgenson told Billboard: "With our band, our strong points are our lyrics, our melodies, our harmonies. ... We can strip our music down to bare bones and it's still just as effective."
It worked. Plain White T's songs have since been used in promos for NBC's "Parenthood," ABC's "Private Practice," Showtime's "Californication" and a two-month slot on ABC Family's "Secret Life of the American Teenager."
"Plain White T's are just so damn good in that environment," said Disney Music Group vice president of licensing Dominic Griffin. "Especially with 'Rhythm of Love.' It's such a great song with a universal message; it certainly has made it easier to accomplish our goals."
Those goals can range widely, but the bottom line is always there. "Usually, it's supervisors asking, 'Do you have anything that sounds like the Black Keys? Or Coldplay?'" Hysen says. "They want something that sounds hot and current, but something they can clear. Good supervisors don't give me the 'I need something that sounds like a rainy Tuesday.' Most of it's fairly targeted. ... Lyrical cues are pretty big. There's a lot of home, hey I wanna go home, I'm home — a 'home' theme is good. Seeing is a big one, too — happy to see you, good to be seen, maybe a medical show where someone gets their sight back. The werewolf/vampire things are pretty on-target these days. Don't mention fangs but maybe sing about internal love, undying love. Most good love songs do that, anyway."
Does any of this actually sell records or concert tickets?
Only if flashing the musician's name is part of the deal. A few years ago, the late Nick Drake plunged back into the zeitgeist when one of his songs was artfully used in a Volkswagen commercial; CD sales and downloads spiked because the Volkswagen site mentioned the artist for interested viewers who went hunting it. Several months ago, Hyundai helped boost the sales of an unknown pop duo, Pomplamoose, by using several of their Christmas songs in a series of TV ads and correspondingly naming them on their site. Mr. Robotic saw a small sales boost on iTunes after his "Jersey Shore" appearance, because as the song played in the show it included his name and song title in the corner of the screen. Also, that yogurt shop and that sports drink — they both placed links to his songs on their websites.
That doesn't happen when the song's playing in a coffee shop behind the main characters on "The Vampire Diaries" or when it flies by in a commercial promo.
"The good thing about TV music is that you can do a lot of it. The bad thing is that it has an air date," Frankfort says. "The music lives and dies very quickly, sometimes anonymously."
For an unknown, indie artist, music licensing affords them connections that could lead to other things, as well as the occasional check for a song placement. Oddly enough, indie artists even have a leg up on snaring these movie and TV show deals.
"I'm working mostly with unsigned people, independent artists," says Mallen, Mr. Robotic's broker. "If you're signed to a record company, that means there's publishing tied up in the deal, too. It complicates things. In films, often they want something that's available free and clear. It's quicker for them, it's cheaper, but the artist gets their name out there, for whatever it might be worth. I mean, Mr. Robotic can say he was in the Netflix Top 100. That's at least something."
"Most shows don't have budgets for big acts," Frankfort says. "Cable shows, commercials, they're all looking for cheap buys. One band's cheap, though, is another band's payday. Plus, even TV shows that blow their wad on a Fleetwood Mac song probably still need 10 other songs for cheaper."
Chicago balladeer Brad Smith has no illusions about his brush with international fame by virtue of a single song placement. "There's no doubt I was cheaper to get than Bruce Springsteen," he says.
Smith, a 30-year-old unemployed actor and a local musician seemingly unconcerned with his low profile, landed a song, "Help Yourself," on the soundtrack of the acclaimed and Oscar-nominated George Clooney film "Up in the Air" in 2009. How'd he do it? A combination of luck and, you know — it's not what you know but who.
"A friend of mine from high school is [director] Jason Reitman's brother-in-law," Smith says. "He played my CD for this guy, who forwarded it to Jason while he was in pre-production for that movie. I was told this, and then I heard nothing for almost a year. Then one day, Jason calls me up. He wants to use the song, but he doesn't know anything about me, so he's asking questions, like where I regularly played music. I said I didn't very often. He asks, 'What do you do?' I said, 'I read a lot and drink coffee. I'm unemployed.' He says, 'What do you live on?' I said, 'Frankly, if you weren't using this song, I don't know what I'd be doing. I'm about to lose my apartment.' ... That made for a good story. He plucks this guy from obscurity who has no money and puts his song into a movie that's about unemployment."
But despite the song's fairly prominent appearance in an Oscar-nominated movie (in the wedding scene) and on its internationally sold soundtrack — Smith wouldn't say how much he was paid for the deal — Smith remains ensconced in relative obscurity. His soft, acoustic-based songs draw easy comparisons to Elliott Smith, but he didn't receive the same landmark Oscar performance moment.
"There was a lot of talk in the beginning about awards, and Paramount was very confident the song would get lots of nominations, but that didn't happen," Smith says. "In the end, it hasn't done much [for me] at all. My Facebook and MySpace pages got messages from people in Uganda and Romania. That was cool. I got a couple of calls from a company asking me to do a cover of 'Slip Sliding Away' for a commercial, which thankfully didn't end up happening. They wanted to put 'Help Yourself' in that show 'Hung' [on Showtime], but I don't own the song anymore, so I forward those calls to Paramount. ... And I didn't move to Hollywood to pursue this, so things just died back down."
What he did get from the experience is less tangible, certainly less bankable. After taking part in some publicity for the film, he came back to Chicago and finally put a band together. He got serious about songwriting. Early this year, he celebrated the release of a new full-length album, "Love Is Not What You Need," with a show at Schubas, followed by participation in a songwriters series at Metro.
"The biggest thing I took from it was the realization I could take this seriously," Smith said. "My parents, too. It comforted them about what, in their eyes, was something of a hobby, something that wasn't putting them at ease about my security. Now I'm trying to get my legs, as far as my live performance goes. And now I've got some contacts. I much prefer the slow build to sudden stardom, but maybe this will actually work out."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Johnny Mathis is more versatile than you think, but he knows where his bread is buttered. He could branch out and try different styles of music — and he has, read on — but why mess with the mushy, easy-listening crooner formula that has given him nearly 80 top-40 hits over the course of a half-century singing career?
The Mathis hit parade started in 1957 with "Chances Are," "It's Not for Me to Say" and "Wonderful! Wonderful!" and continued for decades, mostly in the same vanilla template — soft strings, tender arrangements, the unequaled smoothness of Mathis' voice, lulling and languid — through "A Certain Smile," "Gina," "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late" and all that Christmas music. His greatest-hits album, one of the first, logged a staggering 490 weeks on the Billboard albums chart (that's nine-plus years), a record beaten only by Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon."
But Mathis himself at least once tried to rock.
"Well, yeah, when you're young and starting out, you want to do everything. I tried it all, believe it or not," Mathis says, adding a laugh. "I was fortunate at the beginning of my career to have a lot of hits right away. That gives you a little clout as far as the record company is concerned. Plus, in that day, as an artist, you made a lot of records." Mathis released four albums annually in both 1958 and 1959. "So you were always looking for material, and I used to go in to my producer and say, 'Check this out!' I'd show them a James Brown song. They'd say, 'You know, John, that's great, but let's try something else.' And thank goodness."
Does that mean in a record vault somewhere are tapes of Johnny Mathis throwing down like James Brown?
"Unfortunately, yes," Mathis says, no longer laughing. "I keep wondering when they're going to rear their ugly head. Fortunately, most of that stuff is well buried."
Then he starts chuckling again, remembering some of his off moments. There have been a few.
"One of the first songs I sang was a Burt Bacharach song," Mathis recalls. "Burt is a task master, always has been. He wants you to do it exactly as he hears it in his head. ... But I wasn't taking direction well. The song is called 'Warm and Tender'" — Mathis sings a few bars, sounding creamy and light even over the cell connection from his California home — "and I ended up sounding like Frankie Laine. It was so bad. It's on the other side of one of my biggest records, 'It's Not for Me to Say,' which sold a million copies. I hear it and think, 'How could he possibly have let me do that?'
"There's a lot of that. I made a few songs years ago under the care of a doctor who gave me amphetamines, and that didn't sound good, either."
Mathis, who tours only occasionally now at age 75 and spends most of his time at home and playing golf five days a week (he now boasts an impressive seven holes-in-one), credits his very straight-and-narrow style to a small group of good advisers, most notably Gil Reigers, his guitarist for more than 40 years.
But despite the gentle but firm guidance, the Velvet Voice occasionally has veered off the sweetened path, from trying his hand at Brazilian music ("The one place I'd like to get back to is Brazil," he says, "because I fell in love with the people there and their music, and I still sing a lot of Brazilian songs") to making frequent guest appearances with the Muppets (his duet with Rowlf the Dog on "Never Before, Never Again" during a 1979 TV special is worth YouTubing).
Two recent projects, in fact, have brought his varied tastes full circle.
Late last year, a Jewish organization called the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation compiled an intriguing CD, "Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations." The album rounded up rare instances of notable black singers taking on Jewish music, such as Cab Calloway mixing Yiddish into his scatting during "Utt-Da-Zy" and Eartha Kitt's orchestrated delivery of "Sholem."
The society also dug up a relevant Mathis recording. One of the four albums he recorded in 1958 was "Good Night, Dear Lord," a collection of religious songs dedicated to his mother. Amid the expected Christian music — from spirituals ("Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Deep Night") to formal pieces ("The Rosary," two versions of "Ave Maria") — were three Jewish songs: the Yiddish hymn "Eli Eli"; a song about a Warsaw ghetto, "Where Can I Go?"; and the Yom Kippur prayer chant "Kol Nidre." The latter appears on "Black Sabbath."
"People ask me to explain why someone like myself would get involved with religious Jewish music," Mathis says. "It's the way you're brought up. Me, growing up in San Francisco, I had this extraordinary opportunity to listen to all kinds of music and studied voice for seven or eight years with a wonderful teacher. She first introduced me to it. As a singer, when you hear something extraordinary like that — and a lot of Jewish music is musically quite challenging — you want to sing it, you want to at least try it, to see if you can do it."
Back to his roots
Mathis' latest album, also released last fall, is off-track, too — "Let It Be Me: Mathis in Nashville." A good friend of the late Ray Charles, it may have been inevitable that Mathis — a native of Texas — would tackle a country record. But Mathis says this actually has more to do with his roots in rock 'n' roll.
"The first music I heard was country music. My father sang it for me," Mathis says. "That's the reason I started singing. This country album is really a throwback to what my dad taught me, and it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. Over the years, I've performed with extraordinary people always in the background of my arrangements, especially the guitar players. This time, they're in the forefront. It's a guitar record! It's such a joy to listen to the recordings when I stop singing and hear this extraordinary guitar music."
So he made a record that kinda rocks, after all?
"Is it so hard to believe?" Mathis asks, laughing again. "My little brother [Michael], you know, had a band and did mostly rhythm and blues. He did stuff with Sly Stone there in San Francisco. Michael got me involved with a lot of rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. But I studied, as I mentioned, with a classical teacher, and most of the music I heard was pretty much Broadway and classical, and that's what I got involved with. In the household, my dad was singing country and Michael was playing rock 'n' roll, and I had six other brothers and sisters bringing in other stuff. If the slightest thing had changed, who knows, I could have been a rock 'n' roll star."
• When: 9 p.m. April 30
• Where: Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Rd., Rosemont
• Tickets: $65-$75, (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
AUSTIN, Texas — Hanson returned this year to the festival that made them famous — and then they got all Bob Geldof on us.
The three Oklahoma brothers first came to SXSW 17 years ago, strolling the streets as under-age hopefuls, singing for anyone who would listen (and getting kicked out of the Four Seasons lobby for doing so). One guy did, and the rest is "MMMBop" history. Now grown up, married, each with kids, they look around Austin and Zac, 25, sighs and says, "South-by definitely put a mark on us."
This year, the Hanson guys returned to SXSW to play a showcase — only their second time to do so — in support of last year's spot-on pop-soul record, "Shout It Out," their eighth. But then something else happened. Maybe it was the presence of Geldof, but Hanson decided to whip together, in the span of about two days, a telethon to raise money for the recovery efforts in Japan following the massive earthquake there and subsequent nuclear power threats.
"When we got to South by Southwest, we expected to see more of a unified effort," Zac said Friday afternoon from a makeshift base camp in an office building on North Congress Ave. "It was like, all we've got going is four tables at the convention center? That's not great. ... All these important people are here, from IFC to CNN, arts and culture people who should be talking about this, and no one really was. So yesterday we decided to throw this thing together, and started calling everyone we know to participate."
"And everyone we don't know," added Isaac Hanson.
The result, they hope, is a 12-hour live stream from noon to midnight Saturday, viewed at sxsw4japan.com (a different address from sxsw4japan.org, but related), featuring live and pre-recorded performances and messages from a variety of musicians. It was still early when I spoke with them, but on board a day ahead were Widespread Panic, the Boxer Rebellion, Ben Folds and the Courtyard Hounds.
"Even if we raise $12, we just felt something had to be done — by someone, and if we could step up and be those people, OK," Zac said. "We don't want to be so jaded and say, 'Well, we helped out with Haiti, and that was pretty recent ...' I've heard people say, 'Well, it's Japan, they've got money.' It didn't seem right."
Money raised through this awareness project will be via text messaging and go directly to the Red Cross.
Hanson will oversee the stream and appear several times. When it's over at midnight, they head to Antone's for an all-ages showcase at 12:30 a.m.
"Live Aid was put together in two weeks," Isaac said. "We can do this in two days." He looked at Zac. A beat. "Right?"
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
Rolling into town for SXSW, so is Jack White's Rolling Record Store
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2011 4:58 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — When I first attended South by Southwest, the annual pop music conference and festival in Austin, Texas (the music industry's spring break), it was 1996, just shy of the event's 10th anniversary — and everyone was already complaining about how big it had gotten. Too many bands, too much press, too much traffic. The film fest had barely started.
This year is the 25th anniversary of SXSW's music showcases, which are now preceded by SXSW Interactive and the SXSW film festival. The whole things stretches on for 10 days, with a lot of entertainment, a lot of media and a ton of traffic — and now most of the complaints about size and impact have shifted to Interactive. But we're all down here because SXSW still has a rep of previewing the films, music and online experiences that we'll be geeking out about for the rest of the year.
It starts the moment you get off the plane, where a brave singer-songwriter strummed her guitar on a makeshift stage at the airport bar next to the baggage claim escalators. For the next four nights, the Texas capital will echo with more than a thousand musicians hoping to turn the heads of writers, talent agents, music supervisors, film directors, label execs and more.
Jack White was first into the fray this afternoon ...
White's in town to unveil his latest venture after his recent confirmation that the White Stripes are no more. White is on a mission to salvage the experience of record buying for a generation of iTunes downloaders. He's put together the Third Man Rolling Record Store — basically a food truck that peddles vinyl LPs, T-shirts and such, plus a sound system. Wednesday afternoon, White worked that system, playing a set in front of the Rolling Record Store, which had set up outside Frank's Diner. He played a handful of songs solo, including a Buddy Holly cover, plus the White Stripes' "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground."
The mobile shop rolled here from Nashville for SXSW. White says he plans to travel the country with it, hitting the summer festivals.
SXSW Wednesday: Colourmusic, Wolf Gang, the Kickback, Admiral Fallow, Pete Wentz's Black Cards
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2011 2:56 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — SXSW is basically a musical March madness. Here's one man's brackets at the end of Wednesday night's series of showcases:
BRONCHO: When in doubt, follow Martin Atkins. The famed drummer for Public Image Ltd. and Pigface led a spirited panel Wednesday afternoon advising newbies to the music business, then started his evening at the Oklahoma showcase, seeing BRONCHO. Funny about that name: it's in all caps, for some reason, and it's pronounced so it rhymes with honcho. Tulsa's BRONCHO is the latest project from Ryan Lindsey, who manages to meld his experience in the alt-country band Cheyenne and early indie-rock hopefuls the Starlight Mints into a sweaty mix of loping cowpunk and Stiff Records guitar aggression. Atkins was bobbing his head, anyway.
Colourmusic: Another Okie quartet, Colourmusic, hoisted the freak flags over Austin's Sixth Avenue early, unleashing a squall of early Flaming Lips feedback, general high-pitched shrieking and, surprisingly, some meaty funk grooves. This is some serious evolution for a band that started as a more folk-driven, Britpop act (see their more accessible debut, the cumbersomely titled "F, Monday, Orange, February, Venus, Lunatic, 1 or 13") — and then they met the Lips' Wayne Coyne. Underneath the Brainiac-like furor, though, are some solid, funky rhythms. One fan was moved enough to tear off his shirt, jump on stage and dance ecstatically for all to see.
The Kickback: Guitarist-singer Billy Yost quipped between songs, "If you work in the entertainment industry and would like a hot record to put out, boy would we like to talk to you!" Here's hoping they had their chat. Chicago's the Kickback is a fierce power trio within a quintet — Yost, his brother Danny Yost on drums and bassist Zach Verdoorn. Tighter than a flea's undies, these three plow through every dynamic, from sweetly tuneful to apoplectic fury, buttressed by Billy Yost's apparent natural edginess (his stage banter was taut, nervous, like he was spoiling for a dust-up) and a vein in his neck that bulged whenever things got really good and really loud. It was almost like seeing David Garza at SXSW all those years ago.
Admiral Fallow: Here's the next Scottish band to watch. In the tradition of Belle & Sebastian, but with a more rock edge and a significantly grandiose songwriting perspective, Admiral Fallow is fertile with song styles and instrumentation. Opening their set late with a quiet tune, a lyric buoyed by rhythm guitars just for atmospherics, not melody, this six-piece played pastoral pop for those who've also been turned on to Mumford & Sons or their own countrymen, Frightened Rabbit. I heard the urgency and persistent rhythm of Dogs Die in Hot Cars (a fabulous but, with that silly name, defunct Scottish band), as well as a lyrical landscape of losers and big spaces that reminded me of American Music Club. With their flutes, clarinets and big drums in addition to the guitars, they could be Scotland Music Club, and they should start opening for the National immediately.
Black Cards: A small crowd waited for Pete Wentz to shag it from the mtvU Woodie Awards across downtown and finally debut his new band. He jumped on stage early Thursday morning with a crazy fur hat on and cranked up a fairly dime-a-dozen set of dance-rock. Black Cards is led by Bebe Rexha, a personable newcomer who comes off vixenish without being too affected. She's got a great voice, but Black Cards are still waiting for a full house. The groove-based music is deftly led by Wentz's bass, much the way John Taylor's bass was at the forefront of Duran Duran early on, but in the end it was sub-Garbage, especially when the songs took on a reggae flavor, which suited neither Wentz's nor Rexha's strengths. Clutching his Miller Lite, Wentz mubled some stage patter about how "weird it is when you do something different and people are like, 'That's lame.'" In that sense, yeah, this was weird.
Wandering Sixth Street: In addition to the smorgasbord of music down here, Chicagoans, it's also in the 70s. Strolling the main music row thus makes for easy shopping, with a band neatly framed in the open windows of most clubs. Practically next door to the Colourmusic show was another band with British spelling: Chicago's own Secret Colours, which turned in a set diametrically opposite of Colourmusic's brave frenzy; Secret Colours plays a tender swirl of '60s autumnal folk and '90s shoegaze. Down the way, Ha Ha Tonka smartly showed its Ozark roots in some ripping country-rock, featuring a mandolin player with a harmony voice as high as his instrument and a rhythm section with a driving backbeat. These Missouri boys had the crowd clapping along — and this was the SXChi showcase, sponsored by Chicago's JBTV and Threadless. Around the corner at Latitude, the unofficial British embassy for the duration of SXSW, Lonndon's Wolf Gang drew a crowd. Here's a band that looks like an anachronism — Spandau Ballet's wardrobe, Adam Ant's earring — but sounds timeless, luring a dancing mob on the street with rich melodies and crisp playing. A fellow next to me was lured away from another showcase by the sound. "American music is so muddled," he said. "This is so British — so clean and clear and, I don't know, some kind of tune to take away with you."
SXSW keynote: Bob Geldof pleads for rock's continuing social conscience — 'Say something to me!'
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2011 2:25 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — A fine new biography of Queen by Mark Blake, Is This the Real Life?, was recently published. The first chapter details the band's performance at Live Aid in 1985, as fine a piece of stadium showmanship as you'll ever see. It inspired me to drop the cash on a used set of Live Aid DVDs, the four-disc set that was finally compiled a few years ago. Watching the whole spectacle over a long weekend while the spouse was away, I finally came to terms with the fact that, sure, Dylan was there, but so were Spandau Ballet and the Style Council (themselves the picture-perfect illustration of style trumping substance in the mid-'80s). It happened when Elvis Costello came onto the stage. He had one song. He didn't pick one of his own, he didn't push the hit, he instead sang "All You Need Is Love." Live Aid is peppered with such moments, when the music itself reminds us of why we're here — much moreso and certainly more effectively than the marathon concert's occasional news reels about the African famine — and what we should be talking about.
This is exactly the kind of thing Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof says is lacking in current music — or, if it's there, at least the democratization of the Internet has prevented him from finding it.
Surprising and inspiring, more optimist than doomsayer, Geldof began Thursday's keynote address at SXSW 2011 with a pleasant ramble but focused his remarks on pop music's history of affecting social change, however indirectly, and the future of that crucial power.
"I don't think the American revolution is over," said the activist-musician. He didn't mean 1776. "The music of the American revolution was not fife and drum. It was rock 'n' roll. It is entirely understandable to anyone in the world. That's why Live Aid worked."
Geldof recalled his youth in "cold, damp, gray" Ireland and the personal (which, once he took action by joining a band, inevitably later became social) revolution that occurred when he first heard rock music. His realization, he says, was, "I can use this thing." He saw the music as a tool to change his own circumstances, and then to have a voice in the world.
But it's the nature of that voice that Geldof focused on. What kind of voice, and through what medium will it come? The Internet isn't enough, he said. "We can talk these things through, which is the limitation of the web," he said, salting his impassioned speech in several places with his distaste for blogs and for the ability of anyone to shout their views unmanaged into cyberspace. An increase in the quantity of voices has drowned out those with quality — "Everybody's got the means to say anything they want, but nobody has anything to say," Geldof said.
No, blog screeds and even Woody Guthrie-esque didacticism are not going to keep the American cultural revolution alive and growing. For music to have any impact, he said, "it must suggest, not state ... It has to be about society. The revisiting of context is crucial. When rock becomes about the height of the platform boots and the size of one's country manor, it's meaningless." He called rock music a "vivid, livid argument with the constituency," adding, "This thing we call content now is about the conversation society has with itself."
The power of shaping ideas still lies in the music, he said, though finding it and experiencing it has grown more difficult without clear arbiters and filters online. "Where are the Ramones of today, the Sex Pistols?" he asked. "They're out there, but will they be found? That's the point."
To the musicians at SXSW, Geldof pleaded: "Say something to me!" He also encouraged them not to be taken in by the illusion of community offered by the Internet and to realize that "a fan club is more powerful than 6,000 [Facebook] friends." Then he started to get angry, exactly in the way he wanted musicians to be. "I don't hear it! I don't hear that rage! I don't hear the disgust in music" -- and this after a laundry list of injustices, including the Wall Street scandals and the new McCarthyism of Rep. Peter King (whose hypocritical former ties to the IRA brought real color to Geldof's cheeks) -- "and I need to! It doesn't have to be literal. Ideas are shaped in music. That's why music is dangerous, and always has been. Rock 'n' roll is the siren cry of individualism acting together."
Individualism acting together. Nice. Sounds like America to me. And the voice of that collective individualism is still desperately needed throughout the world, Geldof said without even citing the examples of current uprisings through Africa and the Middle East. "We still need you. Still the voice of the American revolution must pound on."
Amusing postscript: In the Q&A that followed, one questioner brought up contemporary outspoken punk bands and focused on Chicago's Rise Against, who Geldof seemed familiar with. But their name is too literal, he complained. "I really don't think pop should be that literal," he said. "I suggest that they ... move to transliterating what they're feeling."
That said, it should be interesting to compare the directness of lyrics on Rise Against's new album, "Endgame" when we finally hear Geldof's new album, "How to Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell," this spring.
SXSW Thursday: The Strokes fill an amphitheater on autopilot, plus Abigail Washburn, Yelawolf and more
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2011 12:43 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Ringing in the second full night of music at SXSW, as they rang in the 21st century, New York City's venerated Strokes plodded into a set cherry-picked from their retro-hipster catalog. In the early stages of a tour that appears to be dreadfully duty-bound, supporting the band's first new record in five years, "Angles," these once refreshing rock revivalists played a free concert for a capacity crowd at Austin's Auditorium Shores outdoor amphitheater. (Capacity of the outdoor venue is listed at 20,000; by mid-show, the entrances were closed to incoming fans, some of whom then knocked down the fences to get in.)
While the evening was temperate and breezy, the music wasn't quite the same. Opening the show with a wink-wink choice for this "comeback," singer Julian Casablancas slumped onto his microphone and wheezed, "I want to be forgotten / and I don't want to be reminded / You say, 'Please don't make this harder' / No, I won't yet." But it's not easy listening to a band that sounds so talented and proficient — and so bored. The Strokes' Thursday night set clearly thrilled the mob of fans, but it sounded like "Angels" does — labored, merely capable, not completely forced but close. Bob Geldof in his keynote Thursday morning said, "America, you look exhausted." Case in point: Julian & Co., not exactly a festival band (see last summer's Lollapalooza) playing-by-numbers and trying to determine what cultural contrast existed that made them sound genuinely fresh and exciting a decade ago. In the new single, "Under Cover of Darkness," Casablancas sings, "Everybody's singing the same song for 10 years."
I bolted and hit the west side of downtown to explore some unknowns — the founding purpose of SXSW — before closing the night with some other known quantities ...
Curiosity led me into the ACL Live at the Moody Theater, a new venue attached to the W Hotel and reflective of its clean lines and modern personality. It's a great, three-decked theater, and the band on stage was, I'll say it, smokin'. The New Mastersounds is a quartet with a formidable keyboardist, Joe Tatton, dancing up and down the ivories of a Hammond organ and a Fender Rhodes. The rhythm section is pure New Orleans backline, and singer Eddie Roberts calmly played an intense guitar solo at the end of the set — smiling to himself when he was done because he knew he'd nailed it. Hot funk, and you'd never believe where they're from while you're standing there doing the chicken dance like you're at Mardi Gras. They're from freaking Leeds.
Abigail Washburn, a k a Mrs. Bela Fleck, struggled against the room at Antone's, kicking off a strong night sponsored by the Americana Music Association also featuring Emmylou Harris and the Old 97s. Washburn, an Evanston native, is a crafty clawhammer banjo player, and she leads a very adult and understated Americana quintet that includes upright bass and pedal steel. Washburn's voice is cool and salty, and her songs are supple and slow-building, like little Appalachian operettas — not the best fit for a big beer hall. But she easily steered several songs into brief breakdowns that caused couples to dance and Washburn to try out her clogging while crying, "Eeee-yeah!"
The Austin Music Hall was smoky with a fiery hip-hop bill. Trae the Truth, a Houston collective built around Trae (born Frazier Thompson III), had manic mouths and big beats, rapping about "the South Side" and getting a lot of crowd participation with exchanges like this:
Trae: "You ain't sh-- if you ain't ever been..."
Crowd: "...screwed up!"
Brooklyn's Yelawolf hit the stage with several times that energy, jumping from side to side in his grungy plaid shirt and ridiculous pom-pommed stocking cap. He juiced the crowd while spewing redneck raps that change gears suddenly between regular time, double time and triple time. Born Michael Wayne Atha in Alabama, Yelawolf is signed to Eminem's Shady Records; he sounds like a Southern Shady, but with much less to say. Yelawolf just wants to par-tay. After Trae joined him on stage for some more call-and-response with the crowd — the youngest and across-the-board most diverse I've seen here yet — Yelawolf got introspective for the briefest moment, stalking the stage and talking about a girl who left him "for some Abercrombie motherf---er." Then he started singing, soft and fluttery, "Love is not enough" — before shrieking, "F--- that bitch! I just wanna party!"
More SXSW Thursday: S.O.S. for B.o.B., Wiz Khalifa and Janelle Monae
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2011 12:43 PM
The first SXSW S.O.S. went out Thursday morning, after Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco — a buzzed favorite on the schedule especially since his controversial "Lasers" album just went No. 1 — canceled his show, as did Cee Lo Green after him, both for undisclosed reasons. They were scheduled headliners at the Atlantic Records showcase at La Zona Rosa, but Atlantic has plenty of hot commodities to choose from right now. The new lineup became: B.o.B., Wiz Khalifa and Janelle Monae.
B.o.B. impressed me playing the very first set at Lollpalooza last summer in the brutal morning sun, mostly because this 22-year-old from North Carolina is a triple threat: a rapper with flow, a capable singer and a pretty hot guitarist. All three talents we on stage Thursday night, but showing some wear. Two of his biggest singles from last year's "The Adventures of Bobby Ray" are collaborations, and since Rivers Cuomo and Bruno Mars can't follow B.o.B. on tour to sing their melodious parts of "Magic" and "Nothin' on You," respectively, B.o.B. simply plays their tracks and dances while their voices dominate the chorus. He's got a half dozen guys on stage with him; one of them can't fill in for the live concert? When he straps on that guitar, thou, he's hot, as he did to rip through "Don't Let Me Fall" and "Electric."
Wiz Khalifa, whose "Rolling Papers" CD, due March 29, is one of the year's most anticipated, moseyed on stage and filled the interim with a hazy set. Hardly polished, this sub-Snoop Dogg rambled about the stage, looking like a deer in the headlights but raising the temperature of the place with his carefree party raps, mostly along these lines: "If you don't smoke, I don't know why." Surrounded by members of the Taylor Gang, Khalifa ping-pongee back and forth, laughing to himself and transmitting a generally slap-happy vibe, which the crowd picked up on and rolled with. Before closing with his hit "Black and Yellow" (go, Steelers!), he freestyles a tribute to the late Nate Dogg.
Janelle Monae has announced a spring tour with Bruno Mars (May 27 at the Aragon), and just this week announced some dates opening for Katy Perry. But if the public finally latches onto her in a bigger way, she's already prepared to handle her own headline. A tiny thing (the pompadour adds at least half a foot), she proved Thursday night she can command the stage. Backed by a tight eight-piece band, Monae hit the stage in a flowing cape while three dancers in monk robes knelt around her. She quickly went into her thesis, "Dance or Die," moving the crowd with the tight-tight-tight funk (sometimes that rhythm section was even a little overpowering) and prodding their minds with the sci-fi concepts from her fascinating debut album, "The ArchAndroid." Midway through, she cooled things down with a rendition of Judy Garland's "Smile," then brought the show to a close with the hit, "Tightrope," expanded into a Vegas-jazz marathon with about seven endings. Didn't bother those of us who didn't want it to end.
Let's put on a show! Hanson throws together online telethon for Japan earthquake relief at SXSW
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2011 5:01 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Hanson returned this year to the festival that made them famous — and then they got all Bob Geldof on us.
The three Oklahoma brothers first came to SXSW 17 years ago, strolling the streets as under-age hopefuls, singing for anyone who would listen (and getting kicked out of the Four Seasons lobby for doing so). One guy did, and the rest is "MMMBop" history. Now grown up, married, each with kids, they look around Austin and Zac, 25, sighs and says, "South-by definitely put a mark on us."
This year, the Hanson guys returned to SXSW to play a showcase — only their second time to do so — in support of last year's spot-on pop-soul record, "Shout It Out," their eighth. But then something else happened. Maybe it was the presence of Geldof, but Hanson decided to whip together, in the span of about two days, a telethon to raise money for the recovery efforts in Japan following the massive earthquake there and subsequent nuclear power threats.
"When we got to South by Southwest, we expected to see more of a unified effort," Zac said Friday afternoon from a makeshift base camp in an office building on North Congress Ave. "It was like, all we've got going is four tables at the convention center? That's not great. ... All these important people are here, from IFC to CNN, arts and culture people who should be talking about this, and no one really was. So yesterday we decided to throw this thing together, and started calling everyone we know to participate."
"And everyone we don't know," added Isaac Hanson.
The result, they hope, is a 12-hour live stream from noon to midnight Saturday, viewed at sxsw4japan.com (a different address from sxsw4japan.org, but related), featuring live and pre-recorded performances and messages from a variety of musicians. It was still early when I spoke with them, but on board a day ahead were Widespread Panic, the Boxer Rebellion, Ben Folds and the Courtyard Hounds.
"Even if we raise $12, we just felt something had to be done -- by someone, and if we could step up and be those people, OK," Zac said. "We don't want to be so jaded and say, 'Well, we helped out with Haiti, and that was pretty recent ...' I've heard people say, 'Well, it's Japan, they've got money.' It didn't seem right."
Money raised through this awareness project will be via text messaging and go directly to the Red Cross.
Hanson will oversee the stream and appear several times. When it's over at midnight, they head to Antone's for an all-ages showcase at 12:30 a.m.
"Live Aid was put together in two weeks," Isaac said. "We can do this in two days." He looked at Zac. A beat. "Right?"
SXSW Friday: Cool Kids, Mac Miller, Yuck, Wild Flag, A Lull
By Thomas Conner on March 19, 2011 11:45 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Chicago's Cool Kids, Chuck Inglish and Mikey Rocks, show the folks gathered for SXSW just how much the music business has changed. Since popping up in 2007, the talented rap duo has yet to record a proper album. Instead, they've built a sturdy career on blog-loved singles, EPs, mixtapes and remarkably solid performances like their stand Friday night at Austin's La Zona Rosa. They're doing well enough that Mikey Rocks can strut the stage in a red Neiman Marcus tank top and rhyme about his "new pair of shoes," his "ATM credits," how he swaggers around "with a little bit of gold and a pager" and, finally, snorts derisively: "You shop at the mall!" Still there's talk of an album being recorded, but who cares? The crowd was singing and shouting and dancing wildly. Chuck and Mikey brim with confidence, pacing the stage while calmly but firmly delivering their lines — not too wacked-out, but none of that rapid-fire stuff — over rocking beats and minimal electronic sounds. But it's not all about the coin. "They say if you ain't got no money take yo broke ass home," Chuck said in "Basement Party," the closer. "I say if you got you two dollars, then come through to my party."
Next up was a rapper to watch: Mac Miller. Backed by a DJ scratching actual vinyl, this 19-year-old white rapper from Pittsburgh stumbled into his SXSW debut in a grubby sweatshirt and backwards cap looking and acting every bit the stoner guy from "Clueless." "Anyone drunk or f---ed up?" Miller asked the crowd, which roared the affirmative. "Man, there's so much sh-- backstage," he chuckled, smacking his cheek in amazement. Whatever his state of mind, Miller warmed into an engaging and occasionally goofy set of quick rhymes (he tends to rap on the same note for long stretches). He's got flow, but his set doesn't. He stopped after every song to stumble around some more and yammer on about partying and generally being a good-natured doofus. ("I love to party," he said, then added his thesis: "You gotta goof around a little bit." Someone in the audience said no, you don't. He responded, "Well, I do.") Expect to see him on college campuses all year long — or, with his feisty "Nikes on My Feet" ("Lace 'em up, lace 'em up, lace 'em up, lace 'em / Blue suede shoes stay crispy like bacon"), on a shoe commercial soon.
Earlier in the week, I saw Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, hosts of public radio's "Sound Opinions" show. The subject of Yuck came up — possibly the buzziest of buzz bands at this year's SXSW — and the two instantly broke into their Siskel & Ebert dynamic, with DeRo claiming Yuck was just retreaded shoegaze rock and Kot disagreeing, saying he hears a lot of Pavement. They're each right, depending on the song. Sometimes, as on "Holing Out," the guitars from Yuck's Daniel Blumberg and Max Bloom are wonderfully lush and streamlined (kinda shoegazey). Sometimes, as on "Get Away," the melodies take sharp turns and the bass line gets up and runs around the room (kinda Pavementy). In all, it's a pleasant sound that washes over you without leaving behind much sediment. Yuck, a quartet from London, has played here, there and everywhere this week; Friday's showcase at the Kiss & Fly lounge had a line a block long waiting to get in. It's not really worth all that, but it should make for a harmless summer '90s revival.
Those fans should have been in line for Wild Flag. Amazingly, there was no line for the most exciting revival of the night — from Carrie Brownstein, formerly of Sleater-Kinney and currently a co-writer and actor on the buzz-worthy IFC sketch comedy show "Portlandia." Her new supergroup — featuring singer-guitarist Mary Timony (ex-Helium), keyboardist Rebecca Cole (ex-Minders) and Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss — played a rollicking set Friday night, with Brownstein ping-ponging around the stage in a red dress. This is not Sleater-Kinney — it's much more fun. Pop hooks rule, with spirited vocals from the whole band (including a lot of girl-group ooh's and ahh's in the back), and only occasionally (but thankfully) does a darker S-K undertone show up, particularly in Brownstein's guitar breaks, which thrash about in the pop pool making welcome waves. Cole is the band's secret weapon, though, laying down determined organ lines that give Brownstein and Timony a steady something to cling to. A debut disc is due later this year on Merge.
I capped the night next door with Chicago's A Lull, which crammed onto the closet-sized stage at the Bat Bar with four members playing drums. Digging into the most primal corners of rock, A Lull (Nigel Evan Dennis, Todd Miller, Ashwin Deepankar, Aaron Vinceland and Mike Brown) has released recordings that utilize any available sound they think hits hardest, including hitting drums with microphones and beating things against a wall. Friday's showcase was less destructive physically, but pretty pummeling otherwise. With two drummers, a bassist also occasionally hitting drums and a bongo, a guitarist with drums and a xylophone, and a singer lurching over repeating keyboard whims, A Lull was hardly a pause in anything. But the pounding compositions possess shape and texture and bode well for their full-length album, "Confetti," due April 12.
'American Idol's Crystal Bowersox plays lively SXSW showcase with John Popper
By Thomas Conner on March 19, 2011 1:07 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — The way "American Idol" runner-up Crystal Bowersox and Blues Traveler frontman John Popper were getting along on stage at SXSW, you'd think they'd been BFFs for a long time. But they met just 30 minutes before the show.
Bowersox explained that she had contacted Popper online via a mutual friend (see below for geeked-out backstory) and asked the harmonica virtuoso to play during one song at her showcase Friday night in the Victorian Ballroom of Austin's Driskill Hotel. Popper wound up playing the whole set with Bowersox and her country-rock band.
The two played off each other nicely — Bowersox's acoustic strumming and strong, soulful voice balanced by Popper's high-pitched harp solos. Sometimes Popper (in town with his own band, John Popper & the Duskray Troubadours) went a bit too far, egged on by the applause, and threatened to overshadow Bowersox's first SXSW spotlight. As great a player as he is, he's never one for playing few notes or leaving the slightest space between them. But he added to a rich performance, seeming to enliven mandolin player Charlie King, bassist Frankie May and, for "Mason," Bowersox's husband Brian Walker.
Bowersox, who lives in Chicago, sang and played like a veteran, clearly in command of the band. Each player watched her for cues and chords, as she fearlessly played a set that included carefully constructed folk-pop like "Mine All Mine" and revved-up soul-rockers like "On the Run" and "Kiss Ya." All original, too, thank heavens. Her "Idol" experience is well on the way to becoming a footnote in her bio. "You might know me from a certain television show," she said early in the set. "... 'Extreme Makeover.'"
The show turned into as much a comedy set as a musical one, with Bowersox and Popper veering into a bizarre, slap-happy run of poop jokes. It began when Walker joined her on stage for "Mason," their wedding song, wearing a white shirt and jeans. Bowersox wore the same combo, and she quipped, "Even our poop is starting to smell the same." The scatological humor kept on throughout the set. Backstage afterward, Popper said, "I've never met another singer with such soul and fecal humor."
When will Bowersox finally play a full gig in Chicago again? She didn't know. She and Walker live on the North Side. Walker, however, plays April 7 at the Bottom Lounge, and she'll be backing him up.
** How Crystal met John: If you watch "American Idol" closely, you might have heard Bowersox say something odd during a post-performance interview during the finals in May 2010. She said, "Meow is the time." It was a bet, she said, between her and a friend, Steve Lemme, an actor who was in the 2001 comedy "Super Troopers." In that movie, Lemme's character, State Trooper MacIntyre Womack, is wagered by his buddy to say the word "meow" 10 times during a traffic stop. "Meow is the time" counted as one. Lemme also knows Popper. Bowersox made the original connection online via Lemme. When she hit Austin on Friday, she texted Popper and he came right to the venue. It's a small festival, after all.
Kanye West, Jay-Z, John Legend and more party late into the night for SXSW diversion
By Thomas Conner on March 20, 2011 12:28 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — A rare, full "super moon" shone over the Texas capital Saturday night, but only one music star was big enough to eclipse not only that but nearly all of the annual South by Southwest music conference and festival: Kanye West.
Announced via a cryptic online video weeks before SXSW (with the audience enticed via a Twitter/texting RSVP, which the sponsoring company admitted failed terribly, with hundreds turned away) West hogged the spotlight on the festival's final night and set up shop in an unusual venue, a decommissioned downtown power plant. By early Saturday morning, fans were already lined up for the midnight show; at showtime, a mob of ticketless fans mashed the barricades outside, hoping to get in. The venue's capacity is just over 2,000; the event guest list received more than 10,000 requests in its first hour.
From 1 to 4 a.m., West trotted much of the roster of his G.O.O.D. record label across the stage, including Mos Def (who was surprisingly basic and dull), Pusha T (his "Fear of God" mixtape is due Monday) and Kid Cudi (a crowd favorite and a snappy dancer). Most blended in, one after the next, except the arresting Cyhi Da Prince (whose crazy-fast rhymes were paired with the masked Mad Violinist for "Sideways") and the aberrant Mr. Hudson (a bleach-blond white singer who sounds like Midge Ure and covered Alphaville's "Forever Young"). The concert was filmed for an online broadcast scheduled for April 22 — Good Friday.
West himself slipped on stage without pomp and launched a set that swung between brilliant and boring.
Fiery as he is — and certainly was in hot flashes during "Gorgeous" and "Hell of a Life" — the concert benefited most when he added extra theater, such as the cymbal-flipping marching band that joined him (a la "Tusk") during "All of the Lights," John Legend leavening the mood with elegant piano playing (first during "Christian Dior Denim Flow" and "Blame Game," then for his own "Ordinary People") and the big-guns set of the night — Jay-Z showing up for six of the set's 19 songs. When Jay-Z is on stage, Kanye actually looks humbled, standing there with not much to do while Hova roared through "Big Pimpin'." Alas, no announcement of a release date for or even the status of the pair's teased collaboration album, "Watch the Throne."
Ultimately, though, this concert merely crashed the party. Assembled and promoted by an online video service, not the festival itself, West's parade of salesmanship only managed to draw a crowd away from aspiring bands that came to SXSW, one of the few opportunities they have to possibly be heard without the ruckus of Kanye-sized competition.
Kanye & Co.'s set list Sunday morning: "Dark Fantasy," "Gorgeous," "Hell of a Life," "Can't Tell Me Nothing," "Christian Dior Denim Flow" (with John Legend), "Blame Game" (with John Legend), "Ordinary People" (John Legend), "Power," "Say You Will," "Runaway," "All of the Lights" (with marching band), "H.A.M." (with Jay-Z), "Monster" (with Jay-Z), "Swagga Like Us"(with Jay-Z, but cut short when Kanye laughed and confessed, "I forgot that thing"), "PSA" (Jay-Z), "So Appalled"(with Jay-Z), "Big Pimpin'" (Jay-Z), "Lost in the World" (with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon), "Good Life" (with the G.O.O.D. crew).
Violence and crowd control problems cause SXSW to consider limiting events
By Thomas Conner on March 21, 2011 1:01 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Injuries and incidents of violence pockmarked this year's SXSW music festival in the Texas capital, causing organizers to consider scaling some things back for 2012.
At a 1 a.m. Saturday show by '80s pop band OMD, a camera boom broke and fell into the crowd. Four people were taken to the hospital with moderate injuries.
SXSW director Roland Swenson called the accident "disheartening" and added, "This is our 25th year, and we've never had anyone permanently injured."
On Friday night, Chicago pop-punk band Screeching Weasel's show in east Austin was cut short when singer Ben Weasel (Ben Foster), after lengthy diatribes between songs and some taunting of the audience, ended up in a brawl after someone threw an ice cube that hit him in the eye.
Crowd control was a problem at several concerts.
Late Saturday night, a throng of fans unable to get inside pressed against an alley fence at the venue where reunited Canadian noise-rock band Death From Above 1979 was playing. Eventually, the fence was pushed down, "inciting a mini riot" according to the venue.
"Some kid came over the top [of the fence], as soon as he came over the top the fence kind of went and everybody started coming in," the bar owner said.
Police on horseback intervened and cleared the alley, allowing the show to continue.
Thursday evening, the Strokes filled the downtown Auditorium Shores amphitheater to its 20,000-person capacity. When the gates were closed to any new concertgoers, several climbed the fence and jumped off the tops of portable toilets to get in. Minor injuries were reported.
Late Saturday night, crowds mobbed an unusual downtown venue, a decommissioned power plant, where Kanye West had scheduled a midnight show.
This concert was not an official SXSW event, and it was free — to anyone who saw a tweeted promotion and RSVP'd via text message to the concert's organizer, the online video service Vevo. The company reports receiving 15,000 texts within the first two minutes after announcing the show. Capacity at the venue was 2,500.
Things soured when several thousand people who had received text messages saying they would be admitted to the show then received a second message apologizing and adding that they did not have a ticket, after all. Vevo issued a public apology, admitting "we missed this up" and saying they were "asked by the Austin Police Department" to limit the size of the crowd. (Kanye himself was uninvited to a fashion show earlier in the week.)
Despite that — and the fact that entry would be granted only to those with a confirmed RSVP or other VIP access — fans began lining up outside the venue early Saturday morning. Crowd control, I can tell you, was poorly planned and managed, with hundreds of hopeful and some angry fans pressing against a barricade demanding entry and shouting at police and security personnel.
MTV reports a spokesperson for SXSW says the festival will reexamine its approach to free events, "which appear to have reached critical mass," plus Austin city officials plan to limit permits next year for free shows.
In the video below from Austin's KXAN, Swenson attributed the restive attitude at some events this year on too many free events, which "attract an element of people who are troublemakers."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
In describing her most recent stage production, "Peaches Does Herself," Peaches (aka Tornoto-born Merrill Beth Nisker), said she wanted it to be a show "that Broadway would never be able to present." A jukebox musical of songs from the pop singer's last 10 years of suggestive dancefloor hits, from "F--- the Pain Away" to "I Feel Cream," the show premiered in Berlin and featured simulated sex acts, dancers in plush vagina costumes and prosthetic penises, and lots of parading by a 6-foot-5 nude transsexual. Peaches herself undergoes a sex change during the show.
Broadway might shy away from that. Peaches, however, doesn't shy from Broadway. The button-pushing, gender-defying, self-described "stage whore" brings her latest show to Chicago this week just in time for Christmas: a solo performance of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical "Jesus Christ Superstar."
Given that she bills the show as "Peaches Christ Superstar," the mind reels as to what she's done to the popular rock opera about the Christian messiah. "What's the Buzz," with hair clippers? An instructional and graphically acted-out "I Don't Know How to Love Him"? Something that out-Herods Herod?
Actually, the most shocking element of this show is just how normal it is.
"It's played completely straight," she said in her recent conversation with the Sun-Times. "I've had this in mind since I was 15. I knew a lot of musicals when I was a kid, from my parents, but not that one. It was mostly 'West Side Story' and 'Hair' or whatever. Then someone gave me a tape" — she laughs — "literally, a cassette! I got obsessed with it, with the idea of being in a rock opera. It was '70s rock music I could relate to. It was easy to get obsessed by it. I would sing all the parts by myself, and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool to do the whole thing myself one day?' Even then I knew it was a ridiculous thought, but I really wanted it to happen."
Peaches, 44 (the moniker comes from the end of Nina Simone's song "Four Women," when Simone shouts, "My name is Peaches!"), was contacted early this year by the historic Hebbel am Ufer Theatre in Berlin, where she now lives. "They were fishing for a production, and I said, 'I've got one!' I pitched this, and they said great. Then I thought, uh-oh — now I actually have to do this. Because when I'm alone and I sing this show, I skip all the high notes I can't sing, all that white-man Jesus metal voice. So now I had to dig deep into it and make it sound good, make it into something I could sing."
At first, the company that held the rights to the musical balked. The premiere shows planned for March were canceled when Peaches was refused performance licenses for the songs.
She immediately took to Twitter to voice her anguish. "[They] claim that this project is of no interest to them due to its unconventional form," Peaches wrote in a series of tweets. "It's a shame that the authorities feel threatened by this fresh approach. I know a lot of people who really love the music and would appreciate this stripped-down solo performance. I have so much respect for the music and lyrics from the original score and this was my way of honouring that."
"It's because of who I am, and I understand," she told the Sun-Times. "But it was never my intention for this to be a campy performance at all. It's a tribute."
Eventually, composer Webber and lyricist Rice cleared the way for "Peaches Christ Superstar." (Perhaps they felt a kinship with Peaches: "Jesus Christ Superstar" was controversial when it first appeared in 1971 and was banned in some countries.) Rice himself attended one of the first Berlin performances.
"Before the show they told me, 'Tim Rice is on the guest list tonight.' I was like, yeah right. I'll believe that when I see it. Then they're like, 'Tim Rice is here!' Oh God. What if I get a lyric wrong? Which I did — I sang 'king of God' instead of 'son of God' once. I was so nervous. He came backstage after the show and said, 'I can't believe they wouldn't let you put this on.'"
"Peaches Christ Superstar" is, aside from pianist and longtime collaborator Chilly Gonzales, a one-woman show. Peaches sings every part of each song herself — the characters of Jesus, Judas, Pilate, Herod, Mary Magdalene and more.
"The song 'Everything's Alright' — that has Jesus and Judas and Mary in it, and I didn't want this to seem like I'm singing to imaginary people," Peaches said, explaining that she crafted the show so it wouldn't seem that she had a multiple-personality disorder. "I found that if I trusted the music the way it's written, it's naturally clear who's singing through me each time. It's not like I put on an extra piece of hair when Mary's lines come up, or a beard for Jesus. I wanted the emotion of the song to bring that out. I wanted my minimal Peaches approach to strip this down — like Peaches, not like a stripper — and show the raw emotion that exists naturally and plentifully in these songs."
As most reviewers noted about the March 25-27 premieres in Berlin, this performance shows off something we don't always pay attention to when Peaches is slinging double and triple entendres over dance and hip-hop tracks: She has a great voice.
"People are surprised by my singing," she said. "In a Peaches show, I'm jumping around, jumping on you, screaming, yelling. This is straight. ... Sure, a lot of people are expecting a lot of different things, but when we did it in Berlin some people wound up very emotional and crying. People were saying, 'What the hell? I didn't expect Peaches to do that to me!'"
She just hopes the audience at the Portage Theater is more easygoing than the group she encountered years ago at Park West.
"We opened for Elastica there [on Sept. 27, 2000]. This is back when M.I.A. was their videographer. We had this crazy little thing where we decided to play every song we knew through the course of the tour. Chicago was the fifth night, and we'd already gone through 40 or so songs. So we got there and it was — I wouldn't say we were at the bottom of the barrel, but we were making stuff up. The crowd wasn't having it. It was a rough night, but I thought it was the funniest place to do that. All of Chicago's not that uptight, is it?"
'PEACHES CHRIST SUPERSTAR'
• 8 p.m. Dec. 14
• Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee
• Tickets: $25, (773) 736-4050, portagetheater.org
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
In September 2008, a crew of 40 artists, poets, architects, actors and musicians boarded a science vessel and set sail for Greenland. Their destination — apropos for the musicians, which included Laurie Anderson, Robyn Hitchcock, Jarvis Cocker, Martha Wainwright, beatboxer Shlomo and others — was Disko Bay.
The journey was part of the Cape Farewell project, an organization that puts artists and scientists together, hoping the latter will be inspired by the out-of-the-box thinking of the former. Really, though, the goal is to get the artists to "communicate on a human scale the urgency of the global climate challenge."
"What I saw was a gigantic world of ice and water," says Ryuichi Sakamoto, another participant in the Greenland voyage and a pianist who operates in both rock and classical worlds. "The landscape, the wild nature — it just blew my mind. Giant chunks of ice crashing into the sea. We saw much, we learned much.
"I'm still concerned — climate change is going to be even more harsh in the future — but on the other hand, I'm kind of calmed down. This nature, this planet — it will be OK whether we are concerned about it or not. The planet will be here. Maybe some ice will be melted, but it will be back in 200 years. You get to see the big picture of it. It's gigantic. The way we talk about it — the problem of global warming is not nature's problem, it's our problem as human beings. What I'm concerned about is not the planet or nature but the harsh environment for my children and grandchildren. Nature will be OK, just fine. We're hurting ourselves, not nature."
Sakamoto, 58, is the first artist from the trip to express his Greenland experience through his music. (KT Tunstall claims the voyage inspired the "nature techno" approach of her new album, "Tiger Suit," released a month ago.) If the others get around to doing the same, they'll likely make more of a racket than Sakamoto. His two new albums are ambient, delicate affairs.
"Playing the Piano" features solo piano re-readings of some of his own greatest hits: pieces of music from his days in the Yellow Magic Orchestra (once hailed as the Kraftwerk of his native Japan), his solo albums (particularly from the early '80s, when he was collaborating with pop figures from David Byrne to David Sylvian) and film music (the title theme from "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence," in which he starred alongside David Bowie, and the Oscar-winning music for "The Last Emperor").
But it's the second of the two new discs that features sounds drawn, sometimes directly, from Disko Bay. The dozen compositions on "Out of Noise" blend soft melodies and manipulated noise to create some very discreet music. Sakamoto's career has drawn as much inspiration from Brian Eno and Alva Noto (with whom he's collaborated on three recent CDs) as from Steve Reich, John Cage, even Debussy or Satie. Here, Sakamoto turns a piano phrase into a chopped-up round ("Hibari"), weaves stringed instruments over an electronic piano background that sounds like Eno's Bloom iPhone app ("Still Life"), rings Asian bells alongside electronic transmission noises ("Tama"), even employs recordings he made of the environment itself in Greenland ("Ice," "Glacier"). It all sounds chilly and cold, icy and isolated.
"I was inspired by the sounds I captured there," Sakamoto says. "The sound of the water, of the glacier, of the ice — they are used on this CD. ... There were hours sitting in front of the computer, listening to the recordings of the ambient sound from the Arctic Sea. Hours and hours and hours, carefully listening. I found some good moments. Then I repeated them, looped and looped. Then I started trying to find the nice musical elements on top of it, going along with those ambient sounds. That's how I designed the tracks. Sometimes it was a guitar sound or a piano sound — whatever spoke from the water or the ice."
He had hoped to include native music from the arctic island, he says. To his dismay, he found none.
"I asked the local people, the Inuit, to give us a chance for us to hear their music," he says. "They arranged a party, and they started singing. I was blown away. I was sad. It's almost church music. I expected something maybe a little bit Asian. Those Inuit people came from Siberia; we Japanese and Inuit are brothers and sisters genetically. But the music they sang was almost pure church music. That was sad. Their culture — at least their musical custom — is totally Christianized and Westernized."
Sakamoto's first musical inspirations came from another island. Growing up in 1960s Japan, he was captivated by the wild, hyper-ethnic instrumental sounds of lounge musicians like Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny — the ones based on or frequenting Hawaii.
"Martin Denny was big in Japan," Sakamoto says, remembering that the first piece of music YMO tackled was Denny's broadly drawn "Firecracker." "He kind of imitated Japaneseness, and it was easy to imitate him." He laughs. "In a way, [the Yellow Magic Orchestra] kind of followed his method of imitating the image of Japaneseness. That might have been the wrong image. It's like you see in old Hollywood movies, that in-between Chinese-Japanese-Vietnamese, mixed image of the Asian person. We loved it at the time. Misunderstanding is always interesting. It's good, funny and fun. Creation is always misunderstanding, maybe."
He says he experienced similar feelings of misunderstanding when going back through his own catalog, selecting pieces for "Playing the Piano."
"Every time I listen to an old song, I'm surprised at how wild or powerful it is. I don't always understand it, or at least how to recreate it. Most of it I'll never be able to do again at this age. It's the youth. Youth has its own character, in a way. I'm getting older, so there's something I can do now which young Sakamoto couldn't."
He pauses for a moment, thinking.
"One clear example is, I play piano much more festively, more carefully, more deeply in a way. I was much more technical when I was young. And stronger, more powerful. My piano playing is much more delicate now and in a way more deep."
In concert on this tour of American theaters, Sakamoto is alone — but with two pianos. Often, he plays a segment on one of the pianos, which a computer records and plays back at intervals while Sakamoto continues on the other.
"It's a duet with myself," he says. "I wish I could add a 3-D image on the second piano, a hologram of myself. ... After the ice melts, maybe that will be all that's left of me, a hologram playing the piano."
• 8 p.m. Tuesday
• Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield
• Tickets: $45, jamusa.com, (800) 514-ETIX
By Thomas Conner
© Obit magazine
We can talk about Eddie Fisher’s singing career, if we must. In fact, don’t we have to, at least a little? Fisher’s obituaries move quickly through the two dozen hit songs to get to the scandalous affairs, the drug addiction, the good stuff. Headlines last week included “1950s Singing Star Was Brought Low by Scandalous Love Life,” “The Tabloid Legacy of Eddie Fisher” and “Eddie Fisher: The Man Who Put a Gun to Liz Taylor’s Head.” But if we’re really going to talk about Eddie the Slimeball — which, of course, is what whets our contemporary media appetites — we have to discuss Eddie the Singer.
Fisher was a pioneer of tabloid notoriety; he became best known for entertaining us not with his stiff old traditional songs but with his randy new romantic exploits — a mid-century turning point for the entertainment industry. Today, fame can be achieved in Napoleonic fashion, simply by declaring oneself famous, and contemporary celebrities suffer their falls from grace from lower and lower heights. But Fisher was beloved before he was belittled, earning a level of fame equal to his eventual infamy. He wouldn’t have had so much of the latter without surrendering so much of the former.
The popularity of Fisher’s recording career confounds modern ears. His consistent run of hits from 1952 to 1956 included million-sellers “Any Time” and “Tell Me Why,” plus “(You Gotta Have) Heart,” “Wish You Were Here,” “I Need You Now,” “Oh! My Pa-Pa” and “Cindy, Oh Cindy.” It’s starchy, sentimental stuff. Most Fisher records today sound positively antediluvian, moreso than his contemporaries (Sinatra, Crosby, Como, Bennett). The strings are syrupy, the rhythms plod and they’re presided over by Fisher’s self-described “lyric baritone,” which had more in common with Scarlatti than sock hops. The melodrama of “Oh! My Pa-Pa” is smothering — it’s the kind of record we’d expect to hear in “The Godfather,” played on a Victrola by a momentarily wistful mobster just before he whacks or is whacked.
But the timing was right for the crooners to heave one last gasp. Frank Sinatra lost his record deal in 1952, and Elvis Presley wouldn’t walk through the door at Sun Records until August 1953, so Fisher lead the charge with a parade of post-war pandering. “Tony Bennett, Perry [Como], Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole even Bing Crosby, they all cared about creating a legacy, a catalog of songs that meant something. … I didn’t,” he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, Been There, Done That. “I recorded pretty much whatever they put in front of me.” One of those songs was “I’m Walking Behind You,” which Fisher recorded April 7, 1953. By June, it was a No. 1 hit. Frank Sinatra recorded his version five days before Fisher. Sinatra’s take hit No. 1 in October. The song’s lyric delivers a leering love letter from a groomsman who’s stalking the bride: “If things should go wrong dear / and fate is unkind / look over your shoulder / I’m walking behind.” Fisher — a fresh-faced teen idol even though a twentysomething, and admittedly not caring what the words meant anyway — delivers his reading dispassionately, by rote, like someone singing a foreign language phonetically. Sinatra’s reading is considerably coyer. He’d learned two years earlier how to hop out of one marriage and into another, ditching his first wife for twice-married Ava Gardner. Fisher’s similar lessons, in love as well as fame, were still to come.
By 1955, Fisher was on TV, starring on his own show with a soft drink sponsor, “Coke Time with Eddie Fisher.” (That he was later addicted to cocaine for many years must have made that title quite the joke around the glass-topped coffee table in the Fisher living room.) He had seven Top 20 hits that year, starting with “A Man Chases a Girl (Until She Catches Him),” an uncredited duet with Debbie Reynolds, she of the sweet and sunny face who’d become a movie star in 1952 with her turn in “Singin’ in the Rain.” Their marriage that same year boosted their visibility in the press and marked the point at which their artistic careers became a sideshow to their more entertaining personal lives. Two winsome smiles, two wholesome careers — Fisher and Reynolds became an idealized celebrity couple, the Brangelina of their day. They starred in a film together (“Bundle of Joy,” 1956), started a family, became known in the movie magazines as “America’s Favorite Couple.” By 1958, Fisher was named Father of the Year by the National Father’s Day Committee (Congress had just made it a holiday in 1956) and was photographed smiling with toddlers Carrie and Todd on his lap. That month, Fisher was singing a six-week engagement at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas. Reynolds invited their good friend Elizabeth Taylor to stay with them there; Taylor was still grieving the loss of her husband and Fisher’s friend, Mike Todd. On Father’s Day weekend, no doubt to the eventual dismay of the National Father’s Day Committee, Fisher and Taylor fell in love.
What happened next hijacked Fisher’s public image for the rest of his life. News of the affair hit that fall. On May 12, 1959, Fisher finalized his divorce with Reynolds and, three-and-a-half hours later, married Taylor. His celebrity stock plummeted — but his headline count remained steady. For five years, magazines such as Photoplay, Modern Screen and Confidential splashed the various love triangles across their covers — a smiling Reynolds with the kids in a stroller, headline: “Debbie answers her daughter’s question: Won’t Daddy be with us all the time?”; Fisher and Taylor in formal attire next to a limo, headline: “How Eddie is saving Liz from her honeymoon jinx”; eventually, a photo of Taylor and her new lover, Richard Burton, and my favorite headline: “A Rabbi & Three Ministers Discuss: Love … Lust … and Liz!”
As Fisher’s ignominy increased, his singing career fizzled. “My career had leveled off to simple stardom” is how Fisher described it. The hits stopped coming in 1957, rock and roll had arrived, and Fisher wisely did not try to adapt. His recordings became infrequent and, he said, “Eventually the music simply became a means to the drugs and the women.” But the freak-show factor remained, and his nightclub and occasional Vegas bookings remained somewhat consistent. His new career was that of tabloid sensation — at which he proved to be as successful an entertainer as he was at the microphone. Celebrity rags launched in the ’20s were now going mainstream, and Fisher reliably helped fuel their new genre of inadvertent entertainment. Once Taylor eventually (and inevitably) dumped Fisher, he began a lengthy string of headline-baiting affairs — Marlene Dietrich, Ann-Margret, Judy Garland, Juliet Prowse, Michelle Phillips, Peggy Lipton, Mia Farrow, Angie Dickinson, Kim Novak, Dinah Shore, Stefanie Powers — and married three more times to Connie Stevens, Miss Louisiana Terry Richard and businesswoman Betty Lin.
He wasn’t the first high-profile celeb to indulge in a reckless personal life, but he was one of the first whose tabloid infamy eclipsed any actual artistic achievements he might have started with. “It isn’t the music that people remember most about me, it’s the women,” Fisher admitted. Granted, the music wasn’t that memorable, but without it Fisher’s life story wouldn’t possess the narrative that makes all falls from grace, from the bookstore literature shelves to the supermarket checkout stand, so satisfying, for good or ill.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Much can be made of Janelle Monae's fantastic soul music — its Afrofuturist revival, its wacky narratives, the timing of its critical success during the administration of America's first black president — and something will be made of it right here in this column. But the most important thing to understand about this exciting rising star is this: Don't deconstruct it, just dance.
Any enlightenment to be had will come eventually. Monae works both sides of the truism offered by fellow space cadet George Clinton: "Free your mind and your ass will follow." She's got big ideas behind her words and music, but she doesn't preach. She dances, usually spontaneously.
"I don't choreograph pretty much anything I do," she said last spring in a BET interview. Watch the video for her hit "Tightrope"; she clearly has a relative idea of how she wants to move, but she's also clearly making much of it up as she pivots down that asylum hallway. "So I'm merely creating art right in front of my eyes and the audience's eyes. It's like a spiritual, out-of-body experience. I feel very possessed." She added, in an AP interview: "I want them to allow the music to transform them as much as it's transformed me."
Get them moving, and their minds will follow.
"The ArchAndroid" (pronounced "the ARK android"), Monae's universally acclaimed debut CD, is a highly theatrical statement. When I refer above to her soul music as fantastic, this is not merely a superlative. Drawing from the same wells of other musicians who've used sci-fi and fantasy as African-American allegory, Monae claims a wild backstory to her songs: She is an inmate of the Palace of the Dogs Art Asylum. She has time-traveled here from the year 2719, and her DNA has been used to create an android freedom fighter named Cindi Mayweather, sent to free the citizens of Metropolis from an oppressive group called the Great Divide.
"I believe we're going to be living in a world of androids by 2029," she told the Guardian newspaper, apparently with a straight face. "How will we all get along? Will we treat the android humanely? What type of society will it be when we're integrated? I've felt like the Other at certain points in my life. I felt like it was a universal language that we could all understand."
That capitalized Other — the stranger in a strange land — is a common sci-fi theme and has shown up throughout the legacy of Afrofuturist music, from DJ Spooky's trip-hop back through Dr. Octagon's "Earth People," Digable Planets' "Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)," Afrika Bambaataa's scratch-cut classic "Planet Rock," even Herbie Hancock's own android assembly in "Rockit." Before that, Clinton's Paliament/Funkadelic launched the "mothership," and the first contact with black aliens occurred right here in Chicago, where Sun Ra landed with his Arkestra in the mid-'50s and eventually claimed "Space Is the Place."
Gerald Majer, in his Beat-like recollection of Chicago's avant-jazz scene, The Velvet Lounge: On Late Chicago Jazz, attempts to describe the tug-of-war between black American history and sci-fi futurism exploding from Sun Ra's early '60s concerts here, enigmatically concluding: "Space is the place: you move in, you move aside, you dance where it divides."
The divide between sanity and madness is central to Monae's cosmology. Her vision of the future is not optimistic, singing in "Locked Inside": "When I look into the future, I see danger in its eyes / Hearts of hatred rule the land while others left outside / Killing, bleeding Citizen, while music slowly dies / and I get frightened, see, I get frightened." The love of her man, however, will keep her from "going crazy."
"So many people deal with so many obstacles every day that they need to relieve some of that stress," Monae said in a recent Vibe interview. "So 'Tightrope' deals with balance and not getting too high or too low. So I just really focused on creating art, songs that I felt would connect to people."
Her musical journey started when Janelle Robinson left her native Kansas City for New York City to study theater. She wanted to be a Broadway star. When that dream faded a bit, she relocated to Atlanta, where she met like-minded artists, like Chuck Lightning, and formed the Wondaland Arts Society (which releases her music, now distributed through Sean "Diddy" Combs' Bad Boy label). Outkast's Big Boi discovered her and began pushing her on his compilations, even slipping her into the Outkast movie "Idlewild." (He guests on "Tightrope"; she appeared on his solo debut this year, too.) The theatrical flair continues — videos are planned for each song on "The ArchAndroid," as well as a graphic novel and, yes, a musical.
So, free your mind — it will come back to you — and trust yourself to just enjoy the groove. Monae's voice is clear and strong. Her music is Motown sharp and James Brown funky. She dances like someone who knows how but doesn't spend a month rehearsing. Last time she was in town, she opened for Erykah Badu and completely upstaged her. (Word so far on this tour is the same is true of her Georgia friends in Of Montreal.) Let the very human beats and belts carry you away, then chat about the big ideas on the way home.
with Janelle Monae
• 7 p.m. Saturday
• Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine
• Tickets, $23, etix.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
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Listening to Jimmy Webb's stable of once-upon-a-time hit songs — "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" — you'd think he had a GPS in his writing room.
The Oklahoma-born songwriter left home at age 16. In short order, he was writing songs for artists in the late '60s and early '70s, songs that became big hits, like "Up, Up and Away" for the Fifth Dimension and "MacArthur Park" for Richard Harris, Waylon Jennings and Donna Summer. Those other hits all belong to Glen Campbell.
Webb, 64, is on the road again, out playing some dates this month to support his first CD in a few years, "Just Across the River." The album features many of Webb's hits reborn in loose new arrangements and featuring guest singers such as Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Jackson Browne, Lucinda Williams, Campbell and more.
"We're in Chicago in a few days, then playing Largo in L.A. — I've got five sons and a daughter out there, plus my father, who's 87 — then Seattle, Nashville. I thought it was just a bunch of gigs, but I guess that's a tour," Webb says in his easygoing Oklahoma drawl. He's chatting from his home on the north shore of Long Island, N.Y., where he says he's really a homebody. But in order for home to have real value, you have to be glad to see it again.
Q. Why are you still traveling and touring?
A. Mainly because the alternative is to ossify and die. It sounds corny as hell, but music is my life. I've been lucky that I got away with this for so many years, that I've been able to do something I love doing and sometimes even get paid for it. To be honest, making music is not a real job, not like running a metal press on an assembly line somewhere. It's full of great moments of joy and passion, and interaction with the audience — which I enjoy more and more. Shaking hands, signing autographs, collecting anecdotes from people who've spent their lives on the other side of the speaker listening to what I have done and what my friends have done. I take a lot of energy from that. ... But at the same time, there's no place like home.
Q. Once Glen Campbell and the others had hits with those geographical songs, were you pegged as Rand McNally?
A. Success begats a certain kind of success. If you do a certain kind of photograph and it's successful in an ad campaign, you become known for that kind of photograph. It's like typecasting in movies. When I started writing about places, it was because I wanted to. I remember being a little uncomfortable once people started asking me to do it. [He pauses.] I started to say I don't do that anymore, but on Judy Collins' new album, which came out the same day as mine, she's got my new song "Paul Gauguin in the South Seas." So there I go again.
Q. Can you just not help yourself?
A. It's something at a very deep level in my consciousness. I tend to relate to places. I have a backlog of cinematic images and of places I've seen that I fall back to.
Q. Are your geographical references essential to the lyrics? Could the song have been "By the Time I Get to Seattle"?
A. It wouldn't have been a hit. [Laughs.] In that case, the location was important because I was in a real circumstance of having trouble in a romantic relationship, and I had decided to pack it in and drive back to Oklahoma. That whole song is about that trip back to Oklahoma, even though I never got around to making that trip. Phoenix is on Route 66, as is Albuquerque and Oklahoma City. I was born on Route 66 in a little town called Elk City. ... It had to be Phoenix for that song.
Q. Because you say, or because the song demanded it?
A. Sometimes these things, they make their own decisions. They take a certain line and you follow along and keep up because the song knows where it wants to go. Sometimes it's too good to be true and writes itself. Sometimes it's like scaling Mt. Everest, or being born and dying and being born again. ... "Gauguin" was a very difficult song to write. I knew the story was in there, and I knew I knew that story. I knew what it was like to work and have it unappreciated and want to run away from all the trappings of civilization. I Still sometimes pull my hair out with frustration at the whole urban groove and the rut we allow ourselves to get into, how hard it is to break out, how silly it is when you're sitting in, say, a place like Lanai, Hawaii, and thinking about New York. That's silly. But by the time you negotiate security and get yourself back on the plane, you've slowly indoctrinated back to the discipline and rigidity of the confines, the prison-like atmosphere of the urban areas we live in.
Q. So what places do you escape to?
A. Part of me is still an Okie. I like wide-open spaces. I like to get on my boat ... [On my end of the conversation, a siren screams through north Chicago streets. Webb pauses, hearing it, and says, "Speaking of the urban prison."] I like to have a nor'easter rattling my front teeth. I like to see nature acting out.
Q. You've revisited your catalog before, particularly in concerts. Why take the celebrity-guest approach on the new album?
A. It was never intended to have a lot of celebrity artists with it. That's a fact. If we discussed it at all it was to say let's not have celebrities involved. ... The main purpose of this album was to shed all the affectations of urban life, including the southern California pop roots I have. I at least have some capillaries. Some aspirations of my recording career have included the desire to make big production albums along the lines of Elton John or Billy Joel. Now that's silly. It's been done and done well by guys who will always do it better than I can. Freddy Mollin [the album's producer] said, 'We should go to Nashville, get top-line musicians, literally the very best, line 'em up and work it out so we're all in the studio on the same day.' These are busy guys. 'We'll cut 13 tracks in two days, and you'll have an epiphany. You'll have the most joyful time you've ever had in the studio.' He said, 'Just go back to the kitchen table in Oklahoma with your father sitting there strumming his old steel-string Silvertone guitar, singing "Red Sails in the Sunset," ... and let it go. It's the way you sound best.' I've learned Freddy is right most of the time. ... Sure enough, we had a ball. ... It was a nostalgic plunge into the swimming pool of memory and sentiment and the DNA of growing up as a country kid.
7 p.m. Saturday
Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $25, lincolnhallchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Nearly everyone in the Wainwright family writes and performs songs, often about each other. So when one of them passes away, one of the stages of grief is to write an album about the loss. Loudon Wainwright III, the patriarch of this postmodern Carter family, reflected on the death of each of his parents in an album each (1992's "History" after Loudon Wainwright Jr. died, 2001's "Last Man on Earth" after his mother died).
Friday night, two of Loudon's kids were on stage at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre. Daughter Martha Wainwright opened the show with her powerful anti-love songs, and she acknowledged the new grief hanging over the family following the death of their mother (Loudon's ex-wife), Canadian folk icon Kate McGarrigle. "My songs are already pretty depressing," Martha said, promising she wouldn't be delivering any songs about the loss of her mother. "I don't want to subject you to what might come out now."
Rufus Wainwright, however, though he might rankle at this suggestion, is more his father's son than he realizes. He has no qualms about laying bare his grief and despair before a paying audience, though he's usually less direct, and the first act of Friday night's concert was a highly artistic, touring funeral service.
Before Wainwright arrived on stage, the theater audience was instructed that this first act would be presented as a song cycle — no applause until the very end, please. (This announcement came before everyone was in their seats, however, so a few enthusiastic latecomers were confused and possibly mortified when they clapped and hooted after the first song, and were shushed.) Wainwright then entered the stage, backlit, walking one step at a time and dragging a 17-foot black train mounted with feathered shoulders, designed by Zaldy Goco, a costumer for Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga, among others. He lowered himself at the piano with somber face and began playing the entirety of his new album, "All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu."
An album of complex solo piano songs, "All Days Are Nights" has a smartly sequenced ebb and flow and thus succeeds in a beginning-to-end presentation. The accessible pop of the first few, however, gives way to some fairly complex playing, which during "The Dream" became so technical Wainwright lost focus on his singing. His notorious tenor, almost all sinuses, requires focus even when he's not running up and down the keyboard, but the occasional dissonance between the two heightened a sense of unease — even moreso than the sleepy blinking eyes hovering over him, video visuals courtesy Scottish artist Douglas Gordon.
Except for the three Shakespeare sonnets in the middle (momentum killers, all three), many of these songs are infused with just such unease, with restless thoughts and grief, written as they were in the months that McGarrigle's cancer worsened (and after he completed work on his first, semi-acclaimed opera, "Prima Donna"). The musical answering machine messages about her declining condition in "Martha" are briefly combated with the spirited lashing out and jaunty parlor piano of "Give Me What I Want and Give It to Me Now." It all marches toward the end, with "Zebulon," another song that mentions his mother's illness — but one that she liked so much that Wainwright played it at her funeral. Friday night, he clanged the song's chords slowly, slowly, like mournful church bells, and hesitated in the last lyric, "We'll have some tea and ice cream," just enough to transform it into: "We'll have some tea, and I ... scream." Then the processional, in retreat.
The second act, with Wainwright back and smiling, fresh and plucky in a peach-colored patterned suit, was a life-saver. Now he played as he did in the first fumbling years of his career, as a saloon singer, banging out grand, sweeping tunes on a piano and telling the occasional amusing story. But this set was suffused with loss in its own way, including "Memphis Skyline," a song he wrote about the death of singer Jeff Buckley, and his old stand-by, the hymn-like cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
And like those creepy blinking eyes, McGarrigle was watching over this set, too, a song cycle of its own that opened with "Beauty Mark," a song celebrating McGarrigle from Wainwright's acclaimed self-titled debut CD, and ended with one of McGarrigle's own tunes, "The Walking Song." Introducing the latter, Wainwright spoke of his mother for the first time, thanking fans for their outpouring of support and referring to his current circumstance as "a very treacherous game of life." The song nears its end with, "We'll talk blood and how we were bred / talk about the folks both living and dead / This song like this walk I find hard to end."
Wainwright has filled his career with tributes to things he says he misses, though often they're things he was barely around to experience, anyway — the Judy Garland concerts at Carnegie, a heyday of opera, even Buckley, with whom he spent just a few hours. He falls in love with the hindsight of them, and his yearning is similarly rose-tinted. The loss of his mother, though, is a stark experience he sees clearly and is working out the only way a Wainwright, not so much a McGarrigle, knows how. As such, his grief feels less shared than inflicted, but this concert seemed to marry his dreams and realities in slightly pretentious but exciting new ways. Bring on a new opera.
Martha's opening set cannot go unmentioned. She appeared onstage five minutes early, grabbing her guitar and launching into an example of her own, serrated approach to baring her heart in song, "Bleeding All Over You." Like her brother, she overstylizes her singing so much that it's often difficult to understand her, but she possesses a voice so powerful that her Dolly Parton crescendos draw yelps and whoops despite the words. Thankfully, she included a few songs from her new, hard-to-find (but oh-so worth the dig) plainly titled CD, "Martha Wainwright's Edith Piaf Record," further proof that hearing her belt in any language is a treat. She received her own standing ovation.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Rufus Wainwright has been busy. Lordy, has he been busy.
In the three years since his last studio album, "Release the Stars," he's ping-ponged from one ambitious project to the next. He performed sensational tribute concerts to Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere. He wrote music for 24 of Shakespeare's sonnets and performed them for a theatrical production, "Sonette," with director Robert Wilson in Berlin. He sang Berlioz's "Les Nuits d'ete" in New York. He even composed an entire opera, "Prima Donna," which enjoyed a successful premiere in Britain.
So perhaps it's not surprising that for his return to the recording studio, he sought to back off, downshift, quiet things a bit. "All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu," released this spring, finds the sweeping, murmuring singer-songwriter sonically naked — just his voice and piano.
"I threatened to do this a while ago," Wainwright says in an interview from a brief oceanside respite before beginning a U.S. tour. "Unfortunately, I needed the proper life circumstance in order to dig into it. Given the sad opportunity with my mother's passing and the exhaustion from working on the opera, the lone piano became my cocoon, shield and confessional."
Rare is the news article about Rufus Wainwright that doesn't allude to the musical dynasty from which he sprang. The mother that passed — that's Kate McGarrigle, beloved Canadian folk singer, who died of cancer in January. His father, still kicking, is rascally American folk singer Loudon Wainwright III. His aunt, Sloan Wainwright, writes and records, as does his sister and omnipresent backup singer, Martha Wainwright.
But Rufus and Martha were raised by Kate in Montreal, and Kate's death is an occasional and prominent lyrical thread on these 12 new compositions. They're not pop songs. They're sometimes complicated odes to grief, love and the tempest of life. In "Zebulon," it all begins piling up on him: "My mother's in the hospital / my sister's at the opera / I'm in love but let's not talk about it / there's so much to tell you."
"It all happened in concert," Wainwright says. "This album was finished right before she passed away and was released after her death.
"As Mom was passing, I had to face myself and the possibility of being alone. We had been so close. The piano was her main instrument, a vision I always acquainted with her presence. The technical difficulty of this enterprise was synonymous with the grief itself."
In "Martha," he puts music to plaintive phone messages for his sister, as if turning his father's song "OGM" inside out:
Martha, it's your brother calling
Time to go up north and see mother
Things are harder for her now
And neither of us is really that much older than each other anymore
Martha, it's your brother calling
Have you any chance to see father
Wondering how he's doing
And there's not much time
For us to really be that angry at each other anymore
"It is like something my father would write," he says, "perhaps as a kind of directness and slight aggression there, too, which he's well-known for." He laughs. "But I just hit 37. I'm well past the youthful bohemia I once inhabited so grandly."
The current tour presents a show in two acts. The first half contains the entire new album as a song cycle, with Wainwright at the piano and no applause. Then Wainwright returns for the second act "and we have fun and sing the old favorites."
Part of the first act, though, includes some of the Shakespeare sonnets, a project he says he tackled as a theatrical warm-up ahead of his opera. Wainwright includes three of them on the new album, including "Sonnet 10" ("For shame deny that thou bear'st love to any / Who for thy self art so unprovident") — the "gay one."
"I think of it as gay, anyway," he says. "For me, it reeks of a drunk old queen who's gone a little too far in one of his histrionic lessons. I can visualize it. You can definitely tell the poet has overstepped his bounds emotionally with this young man and shown a little more than he intended through his affection." A discussion of Shakespeare's sexuality follows.
"Shakespeare got it," Wainwright concludes, meaning he understood two sides of sexuality, but then he chuckles the punch line: "He probably gave it, too."
Wainwright returns to Carnegie Hall on Dec. 29, around which time he promises an "exciting" announcement related to a U.S. production of "Prima Donna."
• 8 p.m. Friday
• Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe
• Tickets, $46-$56
• (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Lollapalooza 2010 starts, rocks and raps with B.o.B.
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 12:23 PM
11:30 a.m. in the sun, and the sixth annual Lollapalooza in Chicago's Grant Park is under way. Already people are lined up at the bars, and the faint breezes are redolent with sun lotion, damp lawns and — there it is — a little marijuana smoke.
The first act of the day is one who doesn't deserve the crappy time slot: B.o.B., a chart-climbing hip-hop newbie with one of the year's best-selling records. He's a double-edged attack — one minute spitting quick, punchy rhymes at the growing crowd, the next playing guitar like an indie rocker, even covering a little of Vampire Weekend's "The Kids Don't Stand a Chance." (There's a cynical joke in there somewhere about the kids about to be assaulted by corporate shilling for three days ...) Atlanta's B.o.B. can deliver something for everyone. "Letter From Vietnam" is a guitar ballad, a '60s — or maybe just Lenny Kravitz-like — protest song. He picked up a guitar for it, then asked permission to keep playing it, as if he were breaking some rules to crossover back and forth. He held up his hip-hop, taunting us with "Past My Shades" and making the women in the crowd smile with "Nothin' on You" ("Beautiful girls / all over the world ..."). He mixed the rock and the rap in "Don't Let Me Fall." Fun, cheery, a good opener to the weekend's smorgasbord.
The fields are filling up, and be warned: They're not completely dry from the rain earlier in the week. Several spots are still squishy, with the potential for turning into complete pudding once the weight of thousands squeezes the water out. Don't wear your favorite shoes.
Lessons in old-school from the Walkmen, Raphael Saadiq
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 3:45 PM
Mid-afternoon Friday in the south field at Lollapalooza was about being old-school.
The Walkmen have been together 10 years. They manage to sound relatively fresh while drawing upon sounds and song styles much older than themselves, namely the squeezing, wheezing Dylanesque singing of Hamilton Leithauser, the 1950s-echoed guitar of Paul Maroon and the eerie cocktail organ of Walter Martin. Here's a band that began — born from the ashes of short-lived but explosive Jonathan Fire*Eater — all about creating certain instrumental tones. But the acquisition of Leithauser wound up deepening not only the sound but the songwriting. The new songs played from the band's upcoming next album, "Lisbon," due Sept. 14, are rich tales of wary living ("You're one of us or you're one of them," Leithauser shouted over and over) and worn romance ("There's a girl that you should know / she's from my not so long ago"). In a white button-down shirt, with sleeves rolled up, and a black tie, he leaned into the microphone, plungering his tenor through the very top of his sinuses for an incredible elongated moment during "All Hands and the Cook." One wonders how he maintains his voice over the course of a tour, but he sounded great here. Looking forward to the next disc.
After that, as Chicago's Mavis Staples took the stage in the north end of the field, a younger soul icon brought his own lessons in old-school on the main Parkways stage: Raphael Saadiq. Once a pioneer of New Jack Swing (we can now justifiably giggle at that label) in the group Tony! Toni! Tone!, Saadiq now looks like a traveling education in classic soul, complete with almost 12 band members in black Blues Brothers suits. He can lay down smooth, supple grooves, with a band that sounds as if they could back B.B. King later tonight, and talk sexy to the crowd simply singing, "Yeah, yeah, yeah," and then punch it up with a rock 'n' soul hit like "So Lady."
Are we not men? Well, they are still Devo!
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 6:47 PM
Is Devo sympathizing with humanity's plight, or just making fun?
In what was surely the most subversive set at Lollapalooza today — Lady Gaga's still to come, but she seems merely flashy and bawdy rather than really subversive — 1980s icons Devo blasted their modern folk songs about the plight of the working man and the diminishing of humanity in our automated world. Jogging on stage in gray uniforms and "Phantom of the Opera"-like half-masks, these plainly old men seemed to be rolling with the wonderment of being back at Lollapalooza, which they played years ago when it was a traveling festival (and even then were the quaint ol' vets). "It's 2010!" said Bob Casale, midway through a dynamic, multi-media set. "And we're here to f—-ing whip it again!"
Singer Mark Mothersbaugh leapt about the minimalist stage — just a drum set, two synth stands and guitars, spaciously arranged — looking extra robotic, wearing mirrored shades over his mannequin mask. But though their music has the rhythm of machinery, these are songs about the sad and worsening state of man. Even an old hit like "Girl U Want" has Mothersbaugh singing, "Look at you with your mouth watering ... she's just the girl you want." It's a common theme to Devo songs, blippy and innocent as they may appear on the surface. Look at yourself, they say. Be aware of your "Uncontrollable Urge," fight against "Going Under." Pay attention, because Madison Avenue is exploiting your urges and your apathy to make you buy things. And, hey, so are we.
As they sang "What We Do" ("breeding, pumping gas, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, do it again"), silhouetted images of various product icons flashed on the screen behind the stage, icons like the PlayStation controller and other basic "necessities" being hawked several hundred feet behind the crowd amid a forest of logos. It's machine music about reminding ourselves that we are men, not necessarily de-evolving, and it sounds as important today as it did in 1980 when computers and synthesizers were newfangled. After all, as Mothersbaugh sang to close the set — after jumping around with pom-poms, again either cheering this downward slide for our species or trying to empower us to reverse it — "A man is real! Not made of steel!"
Devo was bookended late Friday afternoon in the south end of the field by opposite ends of the energy stream. The Big Pink played beforehand, defining dullness. A limited grayscale instead of a declaration of color, they whined through a short set of electronic drone and drudgery ("fall like dominoes, fall like dominos," zzzzz). After Devo, however, came the perkiest kids in indie-rock: Matt & Kim. Every now and then, one of these coupled drum-and-something duos comes along, but never as relentlessly cheery as Matt Johnson (vocals, keyboards) and Kim Schifino (vocals, drums). Opening with one of several instrumental fanfares they'd play, Johnson asked both Schifino and the crowd, "Are you ready to get wild?" It takes some doing to pump up a festival-size crowd when you're only two strong, but these two have tactics. Schifino smiles so wide and so hard its almost threatening, the kind of unwavering grin you can only learn in realty school or have drilled into you by Sue Sylvester. Johnson doesn't allow the keyboard to hem him in; he jumps, he kicks, he climbs, he strikes Grecian urn poses. He had to catch his breath after only the third song. The songs — "Good Old-Fashioned Nightmare," "5K," "Light Speed" and, yes, "Lessons Learned" (the one with the video of them stripping down in Times Square) — with Johnson's plunky, piano-lesson melodies, don't always live up to the party vibe of the hosts, but they throw a lively one nonetheless.
Lollapalooza centers on Lady Gaga's Broadway bluster
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 11:53 PM
Early this year, Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell said Lady Gaga's performance would be the "centerpiece" of this summer's sixth annual concert festival in Grant Park. He said $150,000 was spent on the staging for the pop star's Monster Ball Tour theatrics.
In a conversation backstage Friday afternoon, Farrell said, "Did you see how many trucks she has? 18! And one of them is just for her wardrobe."
At this point, after a rise in the pop culture that defines meteoric, Lady Gaga is the centerpiece of any space she inhabits. Her gravity sucked most of the total crowd — estimated by Farrell at 80,000 strong Friday — from Friday's other headliner, the Strokes. The guy standing next to me throughout Gaga's show? Wearing a Strokes T-shirt.
So rock is dead, and somehow Broadway won. Lady Gaga's performance was a highly scripted, bewildering, bedazzled psychological drama, with production values right off the Great White Way.
Her two-hour set played like a jukebox musical — a bunch of Gaga hits strung together with a loose story line about kids in a broken-down car trying to get to the Monster Ball.
Our Lady first appeared in silhouette, singing "Dance in the Dark" in the first of many outlandish costumes fresh off the semi, including enormous shoulder pads, a nun's habit with a see-through plastic suit, a huge fringed lampshade, even the same disco-ball bra she wore when she played a Lollapalooza side stage for a small crowd as an unknown in 2007. She tackled all the hits — "Just Dance," "Love Game," "Poker Face," an encore of "Bad Romance" — from her two albums.
But the songs themselves seemed inconsequential next to Lady Gaga's evangelism. If you've ever been picked on, scorned, denied or in any way counted out, Lady Gaga wants you to know, she understands. Numerous litanies — frequently punctuated with unusually hoarse, throaty, Courtney Love screaming to get her point across — hammered this point, even if the songs only do indirectly. Born Stefani Germanotta, she was picked on in school, which she mentioned four times. Her conquering of pop culture and filling of Grant Park, she seemed to conclude, is vindication and validation. And you can have this, too. Let your freak flag fly with pride and you, too, shall be saved!
Someone's gotta say this to every generation, and it might as well be her this time around. She's just not adding a whole lot to it other than an overload of drama. Girl kinda needs to get over herself.
The attitude behind this is very aggressive, too, and you can see it in the choreography — all punches and thrown elbows and monster claws. Everyone on stage frowns and sneers. The band members flip each other off. The bassist is dressed like a military commando. Gaga's expletive-laced homilies end with screams that say, in essence, "F—- you, world!" She rips her stockings, she smears herself with blood, she's seen in a video dressed in delicate chiffons — and a gas mask. She strives to obliterate every convention of beauty, and she says she's doing it so we can "be FREEEEEEEE!"
"What I really hate," she added, "I hate money." (spit take!) Then the ridiculous scream again: "I don't want your money, I WANT YOUR SOOOOOOUL!" This before she tried to out-sacrilege Madonna (a profane prayer, a bleeding angel statue, comparing herself to Jesus) and added, in possibly her truest statement (despite also explaining that, next to money, she really "hates the truth"): "I don't care who you are or what you believe, all I care about is what you think of me."
What I think of her: She's an incredible talent, but she's buried it in all this showy nonsense that she seems to think has grand, transcendent meaning. When things quieted down and she sat at the piano, alone, she was stunning and truly entertaining, holding the crowd in the palm of her hand with greater power than the dancing and the mugging and the light show. She's got a helluva voice and can control or dish the vibrato with a master's skill. "Speechless" easily leaves a listener just that way, and a new song, "You and I," was a killer ballad with meat on its bones. She sounded like Bonnie Raitt when she sang it, and she certainly left us all something to talk about.
These piano ballads were also the only time we saw a sign of real humanity from Lady Gaga. She smiled. Before and after these two moments, she strutted through her performance with an eerie lack of facial expression, a completely vacant face, even when screaming. Here, she gave a shout-out to her dad. She brought out her former partner, Lady Starlight, for a brief dance routine to Metallica's "Metal Militia." She laughed. As she pounded out "You and I," she looked moved, awestruck, impassioned.
But the humanity disappeared once back on script. Then it was little more than cues and costumes and ... fireworks. It was "family night" with the Chicago Bears tonight at Soldier Field. Just as the curtain went up for Gaga's third act, a barrage of fireworks went off directly behind the stage (and over Soldier). A lot of people in the crowd wondered if this was part of Gaga's show — understandable given the aforementioned $150K spent, her obvious penchant for production excess and, hey, the fireworks lasted exactly as long as it took for Gaga & Co. to dance their way through "Monster."
No, they were really just an omen. See those, Stef? See how brightly they burn, and how quickly they fade?
Making it work with Wild Beasts, Stars, Soft Pack
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2010 5:17 PM
Saturday lunch hour and the north field of Lollapalooza is lurching and leaning into the straightforward rock of the Soft Pack. This San Diego quartet effects nonchalance — "Here's a new song. Whatever." — but plays like they mean it, filling the park, already packed with reddening bodies, with a grinding, fat-bottomed sound. They're the Fall, no, now they're the Hives. Matt Lamkin is as exciting singing lazy "all right's" and "oh yeah's" as he is roaring with conviction that you should "Answer for Yourself." Basic and emboldening, the way a Saturday morning should be.
In the park's Petrillo Band Shell, next came the Wild Beasts. Such nice blokes, these British boys. Not beastly at all, thanking us kindly for our attention and wishing us a wonderful day. And the music, all chiming guitars and soaring vocals. Just beautiful.
Until you start hearing what they're singing about. There are tales of hoodlums running wild in the streets, "scaring the oldies into their dressing gowns." There are serious threats against "any rival who goes for our girls." The title track of the British band's sophomore CD, "Two Dancers," recounts almost "Clockwork Orange"-like violence: "They dragged me by the ankles through the street / They passed me round them like a piece of meat." The disc's opening track, all humming synthesizers and beautiful bass lines and wood-block rhythms, finds singer Hayden Thorpe, sounding like a demented Jimmy Somerville, howling, "This is a booty call ... my boot, my boot, my boot up your ——hole." Alas, there was no one posted to the sign language station for this show; demonstrating those lyrics would've been added entertainment.
But the Mercury Prize-nominated Wild Beasts are a surprisingly great festival band, their cinematic songs and layered effects luring half-interested fans to the sun-baked pavement in front of the band shell. The sun is warm today but not brutal, and occasional relief from clouds add to the dreamlike feeling, especially with the right music. Thorpe sings mostly in an airy falsetto, a rare treat in modern rock, and it's more than a gimmick. It's difficult to imagine this music wrapping around another kind of voice, not with that light, vibrating timbre to the bass, not with that ringing Johnny Marr-ish guitar. Yes, there's the Smiths reference. Listening to the Wild Beasts, it's not unrealistic to trace the family tree of their leering, melodic style back through Gene (the Smiths of the '90s) to the debut of Morrissey, another daring high-scale singer. Bassist Tom Fleming takes occasional lead singing duties, too, alternating between a low bellow and his variation on the upper register as he did on "All the King's Men," from "Two Dancers." Earlier material had more spunk, a livelier step ("Brave Bulging," "The Devil's Crayon"), but the show came to a big, satisfying finish with the new "Hooting and Hollering."
Some bands, though, struggle to present themselves well in the heat of the afternoon sun. Canada's Stars tried to puff up their delicate sound, making themselves seem larger — good advice if encountering a bear in the woods, but as successful if encountering thousands of expectant fans in an urban park. This is a band that crafts intelligent mini-suites about romantic intrigue, led by two singers (Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan) with thin, soft voices. With the tracks carefully separated on CD, it's moving and magical. Live, it's sometimes a challenge, moreso outside of a dark club or theater. The band started slowly on Saturday, moving in slo-mo for some kind of effect and showering the crowd with white roses and the mylar debris of several hand-held confetti cannons. But that couldn't quite fill the void. Millan was sometimes hard to hear, intoning almost at a whisper (on "One More Night"), and Campbell forced his voice a little too hard in an apparent effort to be heard, though often he wasn't, either. When they joined together for "We Don't Want Your Body" — a new song that one of my companions said sounds alarmingly like a Debbie Gibson comeback effort — they at least began to pick up steam, charging to the end of the hourlong set with ripping takes on "I Died So I Could Haunt You," "Take Me to the Riot" and the closer, "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead."
Green Day plays on ... and on and on
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2010 10:29 PM
Friday night, Lady Gaga enjoyed the surprise addition of fireworks to her show, courtesy of a fortuitously timed barrage from the Bears' family night at Soldier Field directly behind Lollapalooza's main stage in the south end of Hutchinson Field in Chicago's Grant Park. Saturday night, pop-punk trio Green Day brought their own.
In a two-hour-plus set, singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool filled the stage with good ol' rock 'n' roll stage antics. Here's a band that has actually gone Broadway, creating a stage musical out of their hit concept album, "American Idiot." But instead of loading down their show with scripted theatrics, they relied on the basics — pyro, fireworks, pulling people on stage and endless exhortations to fans to put their hands in the air.
Note to Green Day fans: Want to get close to Billie Joe? Your chances aren't slim. Study the attention-getting tactics of audience members on game shows such as "The Price Is Right" and "Let's Make a Deal," because that's what a Green Day show has become. Armstrong spends much of the show shopping for fans to bring on stage. Five times, in fact, starting with a student from France, Matthew Sauvetre. He'd been waiting against the barricades all day, and he took the stage during "Know Your Enemy" waving a French flag. After that, Billie Joe pulled a young girl (not older than 10, who he then proceeded to ask, "Keira, do you want to start a f—-in' war?!"), an older woman to help him sing "Are We the Waiting," a small crowd of people and, near the end, a young guy to sing the entirety of "Longview."
Classic gimmicks and a program of three-minute rock songs, however, necessitates brevity. Green Day dragged it on and on. Here's to the simple joys of rawk blown up bigger than life, but by the time we crossed the two-hour mark with the same shtick — pop! roar! OK, my hands would like to lay still for a while — it was beyond wearying.
Thirty years ago, in the heyday of the Ramones (whose recording of "Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio?" played before the show started), we never could have dreamed that a handful of power chords could propel one band to such heights — 65 million records sold, four Grammys, a Broadway show, headlining Lollapalooza before tens of thousands (Saturday's crowd was again estimated at 80,000 total). An inevitable loss of edge occurs at those altitudes. A decent catalog of socially conscious material was presented Saturday night mostly as mere fun, then devolved into time-filling quotations of hard rock hits (from Ozzy to GNR) and, yegods, "Hey Jude." What WAS fun was when Billie Joe ripped through the power-chorded nuggets with abandon, like "Nice Guys Finish Last," which he finished with a quick, self-satisfied grin.
Pack your poncho, and other reading
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2010 11:33 AM
Uh oh, rain. A swath of light rain stretches form Chicago due west, with storms in northwestern Illinois. It's all drifting to the southeast and might not trouble the bulk of Lollapalooza's afternoon. But it will heat up today, reaching into the 90s for the first time this weekend. So pack your poncho (no umbrellas, please, people behind you want to see the band) and your water bottle, and look for the booths where you can fill your water bottle for free.
Beyond this blog, other reading for today ...
Soundgarden plays tonight, reunited after 13 years. But their first show was Thursday night at the Vic.
An interview with Yoshiki from X Japan, playing at 4 today.
You dudes and your bandanas.
Lollapalooza takes over Grant Park, so tourists visiting Chicago this weekend are denied seeing one of our most famous landmarks: Buckingham Fountain.
Which, of course, means that when it heats up today, we can jump in it.
Plus: more food options!
It's the Cribs, not the Smiths
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2010 3:48 PM
How did the Smiths' Johnny Marr become indie-rock's hired gun?
Since the dissolution of the Smiths, Marr has played with a lengthy list of other stars — from the Pretenders and Neil Finn to Modest Mouse and now the Cribs. They don't seem to pick him as much as he picks them up, sidling up to them like a swinger and telling them how much he loves their music. His cred — the ringing, complex guitar he contributed to the Smiths, not his proximity to Morrissey — makes them salivate and, voila!, Marr stays employed.
His work with the Cribs in their early-afternoon set Sunday at Lollapalooza sure seemed like that: work. It's not like he's adding much more than muscle to this band, a trio of brothers before Marr joined a couple of years ago — no distinctive Rickenbacker, no skipping "This Charming Man" kinds of melodies. Just good, hard grinding with the other Jarman boys (singer-guitarist Gary, bassist-singer Ryan and drummer Ross). Which is no complaint; he holds the line solidly — doing his bit on the side of the stage with confidence and a general lack of expression — while Gary and Ryan are free to caterwaul and fling themselves (and their melodies) all over the stage. His chords underneath the desperate squeals of "Cheat on Me" certainly sounded like the Marr we (older fans, that is) could easily recognize, and then finished with use of the whammy bar and a slide. But as the last song disintegrated in feedback, with Gary and Ryan rubbing their instruments on their amps for maximum noise, Marr was putting his jacket back on. Shift's over.
A focus on Marr, however, is just another tragic result of a Gen-X Smiths fan at the helm of this particular report — an unjust diversion from a perfectly good, punkish rock band. The front Jarmans are the real entertainment, Ryan of the bowl haircut and spit-out lyrics, Gary of the pigeon-toed, neck-straining leaps toward the mic. For "Men's Needs," Ryan leapt to a lower platform, pricking a brief solo before the girls in front (wearing Smiths T-shirts). The Cribs lash out at their own songs, yelp-singing and thrashing around, knocking over mic stands without a hint of script. A labored "Be Safe," with jagged video accompaniment of some guy whining about "the complacent ones" (eye rolling here), completely stalled the band's momentum midway through the set, but they rallied.
Arcade Fire brings the heat at the end
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2010 11:15 PM
Twitter, if you haven't learned this by now, is full of lies. Sunday night, for instance, the Twitterverse was full of cruel rumors aimed at festivalgoers at either end of the park during this final night of Lollapalooza 2010. First, news spread that Eddie Vedder was in town. The mind reeled — maybe we'd get an appearance with south-field headliners Soundgarden, maybe a duet with Chris Cornell on "Hunger Strike"? Nothing happened. Then came word that David Bowie was going to appear with Arcade Fire, headlining the park's north side. He's done it before, albeit a few years ago. Again, alas, nothing doing.
But who needs Bowie? Arcade Fire emerged onto the stage from a bath of amber lights, underneath a video screen showing sunsets, horizons, billowing clouds. Then they launched into "Ready to Start," a song from their acclaimed new CD "The Suburbs." The band's return to Lollapalooza could be likened to Lady Gaga's — once on a smaller stage (in 2005), they now return as triumphant, headlining scenesters. Sunday's performance proved it was no fluke.
Arcade Fire lays down bombastic hootenannies, squeezing every ounce of drama from its dense, epic arrangements and lyrics of challenge and hope. Win Butler, grandson of lounge-era bandleader Alvino Rey, and Regine Chassagne led the large ensemble through an hour of what the Waterboys used to call "the Big Music." An hour and a half set built slowly, full of little pop suites that crept around the stage and eventually exploded with the propulsive force of, um, the band's fiddles, accordions and hand percussion.
From the machine-gun rhythms of "No Cars Go" to the encore of "Wake Up" (what was, in previous years, the Bowie moment), the band cemented its updated art-rock thesis, attributing the previous work of Talking Heads and Mercury Rev but also more mainstream bluster like Springsteen and, especially when Butler sang "Rococo," Neil Young. Somehow, Arcade Fire gets away with everything, no matter how high the moon they're shooting for, and Sunday night's set ended with a distinct ring of validation.
Before Arcade Fire, the National filled the north end of Lollapalooza with its stark but gently applied folk-rock. Sounding like U2 on a bender, or pretty much every American Music Club album, the band was joined early on by Arcade Fire's Richard Parry (introduced as "Richie from Soundgarden") on "Anyone's Ghost." National singer Matt Berninger (right, photo by AP) is a surprising rock star, sheepish, doting, poking his deep voice into mushy staccato singing, while the band hums and plods behind him in its abrasive drone. It all built to a studied squawking and yowling before Berninger plunged himself into the crowd. Despite the racket, though, there's a lot going on in this band; they'd benefit from a more focused showcase here, like (hint, hint) a Millennium Park show.
X Japan makes U.S. debut, wins converts
By Thomas Conner on August 9, 2010 12:20 AM
The other night, referring to the small crowd for the Strokes and the triumph of Lady Gaga, I quipped that rock is dead. I stand corrected.
Making its U.S. debut — after forming in 1982 and re-forming in 2007, with massive popularity in its home country — X Japan took to the Lollapalooza main stage Sunday afternoon and delivered a spectacular, almost operatic performance of big ballads and speed metal.
Given the circumstances of the premiere, a small knot of hardcore fans clustered down front for the show, some of whom traveled from all over the country for this event, dressed to the nines in X Japan's glam-anime style called "visual kei." But by the end of the show, even the mildly curious were won over by the infectious rock drama. Fists were pumping, guys were playing air guitar, people were chuckling at themselves while following suit, making the X Japan sign by crossing forearms in the air. One guy in front of me was so involved in his air guitar, he sloshed beer all over nearby fans.
X Japan only played six songs, but the theater — on the same stage where 36 hours earlier Lady Gaga had brought her bawdy Broadway peep show — was captivating. Bursting to life with plumes of pyro, the quintet launched into "Rusty Nail" with a driving rock melody that dissolved into synthesized strings. Such is the duality of X Japan, moving between hard rock and classical structures sometimes within the same measure. A new song, "Jade," opens with a kind of rumbling guitar attack that would make Metallica take notice, then it's a lumbering power ballad, then it's chugging at a breakneck pace, finally erupting into a guitars vs. drums battle. All the while singer Toshi Deyama — he looks like Roy Orbison and sings with a pinched high tenor like Steve Perry — wails away unlike a man who'd been virtually out of commission for a decade before the group re-formed.
The band's late guitarist, Hide, was able to make the debut, too, several years after his suspicious death. He appeared on the video screens while Toshi sang a slice of "Kurenai." The heart of the band, composer and drummer Yoshiki Hayashi, pounded and rolled his drums (wearing a neck brace to protect himself following drumming-related back surgery) and occasionally moved to a see-through grand piano for transitional music or to kickstart top-heavy ballads like "I.V."
At the end, Toshi asked, "Are you ready to rock?!" But the question wasn't too late, because the crowd, swept up in the frenzy, finally had an answer. "We are!" band members began shouting. The answer was to cross your forearms, marking the sign of X Japan. Over and over, this call and response continued. Once he realized he'd converted the Lollapalooza throng, Toshi changed the chant to "You are!" And we were.
Company of Thieves and other final notes
By Thomas Conner on August 9, 2010 9:45 AM
Some bands from the last loose pages of the notebooks ...
Sunday morning was surprisingly delightful and refreshing for several reasons, which were focused in one area of the park. Rain showers and breezes cooled things down briefly, the Sony Bloggie Stage benefited from this more than most because of its tree-lined, green surroundings, and one of the first acts to grace this stage was Chicago's Company of Thieves. Playing to a remarkably full crowd at this small side stage, the Company played hard. With her band giving its all behind her, singer Genevieve Schatz danced all over the stage, wailing with abandon — throaty in her range, breathy above it, never stopping to think about which was which, just going for it. This isn't a complex band, they play pretty basic pop-rock, but they were certainly spirited Sunday morning, closing with "Oscar Wilde," a popular download from their latest album, "Ordinary Riches." They were joined on the final number by pirouetting youngsters from Framework Dance Chicago; it was a little "Fame," but fun. When the show wrapped, the people around me gave it three "wow's" and a "holy crap." I heartily agreed.
Company of Thieves was on "Live From Daryl's House" once. Some other pals of Hall & Oates, Chromeo, played in the south field Friday evening just before Lady Gaga. Hearing this gig, I wouldn't put them next to Hall & Oates, though. Klymaxx, maybe, or Rick James, Sylvester, certain corners of the Prince catalog. This Montreal duo gets a not-quite-disco groove on, but it never builds a full head of steam. Even the duo's last song, their new single, "Don't Turn the Lights On," sounded like warm-up music on the PA.
Sort of like Switchfoot, ick. The Christian-mainstream band's early Sunday set didn't sound like a live band, just a modern-rock radio station cranked really loud, all pinched and compressed. "Can you hear me? / This is the sound of the desperation bound," they sang in their penultimate song. Yep.
Dawes, midday Saturday on the Bloggie stage, is a curious new artifact. An L.A. quartet of young bucks, they play a dusty genre of country rock harking back to the 1970s Laurel Canyon days (Jackson Browne, CSN, etc.). Their debut disc is called "North Hills." It's bizarre: here's an up-and-coming indie-rock band — young ones, no one's older than 25 — plying a style of music redolent of some of the industry's most bloated corporate-rock indulgences. Just further proof that everything comes back to us. Dawes is good at refreshing this sound, though, a meaty band with a guitarist, singer Taylor Goldsmith, who knows how to punch and pull his lines (just what the world needs, a new Waddy Wachtel). When they harmonize on "Love Is All I Am," they sound not like Crosby, Stills and Nash or Fleetwood Mac but the branch of country music that listened to them. After moseying through "When My Time Comes," I expected an encore of "Magnet and Steel."
Biggest crowd, plus no sitting on the fence at Lollapalooza
By Thomas Conner on August 9, 2010 2:20 PM
Lollapalooza's attendance for 2010 marks its biggest yet in Chicago: 240,000 — that's 80K each day — filled Grant Park this weekend, topping last year's three-day record of 225,000 for the weekend.
The extra bodies had extra room, too. The festival grew 35 acres this year, filling 115 acres. This allowed for significantly easier traffic flow north and south, turning Columbus Drive into a mile-long sidewalk, and avoiding the bottleneck around Buckingham Fountain that caused so many missed sets in previous years. Perry's Stage, for DJs and electronic acts, grew considerably, as did the food area.
Still, the increased space allowed for up to 95,000 participants a day. Festival organizers C3 Productions said they capped attendance at 80,000 this year to "focus on flow and room for the patrons" in the new layout, according to C3 spokeswoman Shelby Meade.
Bigger space also meant more fenceline to patrol — and more opportunity for jumpers who don't want to pay admission.
We watched this happen all weekend long. Anders Smith Lindall reported on one breach involving 30 to 60 jumpers; he got photos of others.
Saturday evening, three young guys rolled over a fence and seemed startled to find themselves behind a bar. They scattered, and security personnel went after them. I saw one apprehended, a teenage boy in a black-and-white checked shirt. He was handcuffed and led out of the fence by security. More than a dozen jumped over the fence Sunday night into the media area. Security later said 15 had been rounded up from that breach. They then sat down and compared wounds — a cut hand for one, bruised leg for another. They chalked it up to "kids being kids."
That said, as of Sunday morning, Chicago Police said they had made just 27 Lolla-related arrests, most of them for fence-jumping.
The extra bodies also mean more money for Chicago's parks.With three-day passes costing $215 this year, the added capacity was expected to bring more revenue to the parks, which get 10.25 percent of receipts.
Last year that meant about $1.9 million for the district's fund-raising partner, Parkways Foundation. The money helped pay for everything from repairs to Buckingham Fountain to scholarships for some of the city's neediest kids to go to park district camps, said Brenda Palm, Parkways' executive director.
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.