By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The last time I spoke with Ian McCulloch, leader of Echo & the Bunnymen, he was typically humble. "I've got the best voice in the history of time," he said. "That's how people know my music is real, that I'm not lying to them. I'm not singing for the sake of it. I've got one of those voices that tells you it's the truth."
Echo & the Bunnymen features his dark, brooding and now a bit croaky Jim Morrison-ish voice plus the often wild and tortured sounds Will Sergeant wrings out of guitars.
The two modern-rock collaborators regrouped in 1994 after a sizzling spat and now have been together longer than the first go-round from '78 to '88. Now they return this week with one of those album concerts — playing the entirety of their first two, "Crocodiles" (1980) and "Heaven Up Here" (1981).
During this chat from his home in Liverpool, McCulloch was just as modest and more reflective ...
Q. We spoke last year when you were touring "The Fountain," which you said was the best record you and Will had made since "Ocean Rain." Does that opinion still stand?
A. "What Are You Going to Do With Your Life?" (1999) is also up there as a great Bunnymen-sounding record. That isn't to discount "Siberia" (2005). "Flowers" (2000) is not me favorite.
Q. What makes "a great Bunnymen-sounding record"?
A. The ingredients that made "Crocodiles," "Porcupine," "Ocean Rain." The lyrics and melody and sound of this band, combined. Time helps. Time can give you that insight into what you're about. Doing these "Crocodiles" shows we see, ah, these songs really are as good as we thought and a lot of people thought. The gigs are a master class in rock 'n' roll.
Q. They must be long, too.
A. 30 songs. We're approaching Springsteen territory.
Q. Time has improved the songs, you say, but how has it changed them?
A. Well, it doesn't seem that long ago. It's mad to think that between whatever demos John Lennon did in 1960 to 1970, this is three times that amount of time. Some of these songs — it's the first time we've played them since we played with the drum machine. They sound like we've just written them. We tried not to make records with clichéd sounds of the time. Synthesizers sound horrible.
Q. So why start at the beginning with these two albums?
A. We thought of this before we did the "Ocean Rain" shows [in Britain]. Some of it was to throw down the gauntlet and say, "Which of the bands out there could play their first two records and they'd still ring true?" ... We'll have to wait 20 years to do "Siberia" and "The Fountain" when people realize how great they are.
Q. So what are you getting out of this experience?
A. An extensive "I told you so," as much as anything. Of course, we're preaching to the converted.
Q. Do you find that you're carrying yourself in some way that is different?
A. They're very intense gigs. There's not a lot of "Howdy, folks." It reminds me how I used to be on stage — that important thing of attitude.
Q. Will you tour other albums?
A. Maybe. We could do "Porcupine." Tough one, that. The best way to do that one is with headphones on loud and very much in the dark.
Q. What about the final, self-titled album? It always gets a bad rap.
A. I'm pleased that it looks like it at least got out there a bit, but a lot of it I couldn't listen to. In some ways, it's the one type of Bunnymen with "The Game," but in others, with "Lips Like Sugar," there are so many songs that don't feel like us. A lot of people bought it and loved it. I have mixed feelings. Obviously, it's the one that made me think we should call it a day.
Q. When you write new songs, do you try to reach back to whatever well you drew these early ones from?
A. Whatever inspiration for "The Killing Moon" is also there on "The Fountain" in "The Idolness of Gods." If anything, I've gotten much better. I'm still trying to find that best-ever song. People say "The Killing Moon" is the best we song we've written. Nothing lasts forever, and as important as that song is to us, I try to always think of that next song that strips another veil away. It doesn't weigh on me mind. Every day I've got a head full of tunes.
ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN
performing "Crocodiles" and "Heaven Up Here"
with Kelley Stoltz
• 7:30 p.m. May 17
• Vic Theatre, 3159 N. Sheffield
• Tickets: $30, (800) 514-ETIX, jamusa.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago's suburbs are lousy with angry young pop-punk bands, but few maintain the tight musicianship and walk-it-like-you-talk-it ideals that eventually make them stars.
Rise Against has both, and it's put them on top. They've made albums shouting down the Bush administration and the wars in the Middle East, and they've supported veganism and straight-edge living. Meanwhile, those albums keep climbing the charts — "Siren Song of the Counter Culture" (2004) cracked the Billboard 200, "The Sufferer and the Witness" (2006) made the top 10, then "Appeal to Reason" (2008) reached No. 3 and the new album, "Endgame," debuted at No. 2 early this year.
They've become so big that this weekend their heroes — Bad Religion, a veteran punk band that was formed in 1979, the year Rise Against leader Tim McIlrath was born — are their opening act.
"I know, right?" McIlrath says, amazed. "It gives me goosebumps just to hear you say it."
"We opened for them five years ago, at the Riviera, and we've been friends ever since. At some point, those guys said, 'Hey, we should go on tour sometime.' They were the first ones to say, 'You're getting pretty big. We'll go out with you.' They're the band we put on a pedestal. We never considered them as support. It speaks to our respect of them and how much we want to introduce our young fans to them. There's not much out there currently that we have an affinity toward, so this is perfect."
We caught up with McIlrath to chat about his band's success, its fierce social messages and how those translated to a crowd of protesters on the steps of the Wisconsin state capitol in February.
Question: You just got back from a tour in South America. How does your music go down there? I would think your message is popular, but I don't hear about too much South American punk ...
Tim McIlrath: Those parts of the world are hard to figure out. They're way more into dance music than rock. A guy like me screaming into the microphone is a minority. The dance music scene there is massive. But, yeah, progressive things and social justice in that environment are way more common. The right wing party in Brazil is treated with the same attention level as the Green party here. The only question in their politics is how left wing you are.
Q: You recently joined Tom Morello in Madison to sing for the protests against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's bill against collective bargaining for unions. How'd that happen?
TM: I was in Denver when that started happening. I got a call from Morello and flew back home. I went from O'Hare right to Madison. It was incredible, and it was right in my own backyard, this attack not just on the people of Wisconsin but on the Midwest ideology or the working class. ... I was grateful for the opportunity to play for them. As someone from Chicago, I don't find myself arm-in-arm with people in Packers jackets very often.
Q: Have you much experience as a protest singer — at an actual protest?
TM: No, I've gone to protests but have never played before. I said yes before I thought about it. I kind of leaped before I looked. We've got six records, I can figure something out. Then I get there on the capitol steps, it's freezing, with my guitar in hand. My friends are doing all these union songs I'd never heard before. I look at the crowd, and this is not a Rise Against show. There are not a bunch of kids waiting for me to play. There are people from all walks of life, and they need inspiration. I had to energize this crowd. I felt like some of the songs I could have played wouldn't translate. I started to rethink my strategy. I need something that would bridge the gap between me and this audience. The two songs I thought of were "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills & Nash and "Who'll Stop the Rain?" by CCR. As I played that one, it started to rain a little.
Q: You've been playing "Ohio" in concert. Why that particular protest song?
TM: I read about its inception. Neil Young rushed in with it, said, "Here, it's tracked," and got it out. He said, "This song needs to be out right now." In the recording, you can hear it. It's not complicated. In the few words he says, he gets his point across. ... It's a song about a governor who goes too far. I didn't want it to be irrelevant to what was happening in Wisconsin, and I didn't want to somehow compare [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker to people being shot and killed, but I thought maybe it would express that this kind of thing has happened in the past and people have fought it in the past — that we can fight and win.
Q: The new Rise Against album, "Endgame," is apocalyptic and seems pretty bleak. Am I wrong?
TM: "Endgame" is my strategy to find a different approach to attack a lot of the same societal ills. Instead of being a guy tugging on your shirt sleeve, saying, "Check out what's going on in the world. Let's do something!" I imagined a character who says, "OK, I've tried tugging and begging you. Now let's paint a picture of the repercussions of our actions." So it's a story, kind of, that shows where the world is headed in the event of a financial or environmental collapse, war, worldwide poverty. Let's paint a picture of what that looks like — and then imagine the world that could be born from those ashes. You get people to picture that future possible world, and they can learn from their mistakes right now.
Q: It's pretty much a concept album.
TM: I shy away from "concept album." There are songs on this record that don't talk about this. But the "Endgame" concept does pop up in several places.
Q: Lyrically, it has a kind of "Life After People" tone to it.
TM: Yeah, we're not reinventing the wheel here. "The Road," "Life After People," we've got apocalypse on the tip of our tongues right now. It seems like the world is ending, there's a lot of doom and gloom. We've tried many approaches to get people to wake up. This is a different one.
with Bad Religion and Four Years Strong
♦ 7 p.m. May 13 and 14
♦ Aragon Ballroom, 1106 W. Lawrence
♦ Sold out
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Ezra Furman knows you probably haven't heard of him, and he's not terribly worried about it. Make no mistake, he'd like you to hear his music — I recommend it highly, it's damn good — but he's more concerned about making that music, and making it good, than he is about spending time marketing himself. He wouldn't even know where to begin.
"I'm not worried about being rich and famous," Furman says. "I see a lot of rich and famous people in our culture, and most of them are jerks. I wouldn't want to be them. I'm not saying it's bad — I dream of greatness, you know — I just want to be good at what I do, great at making songs. I'd rather be the starving artist who goes unrecognized. I'd rather be Van Gogh than Jack Johnson. I want to be one of those guys who does it for a long time, who after a while just doesn't quit. They make great records and nobody listens to them and then suddenly they're a cult hero. I could do that."
He's nothing if not quixotic. Stammering in his speech but blistering in his singing, Furman idealizes the artist as idealist. He's having this chat with us from the living room of his parents' Evanston home, where his band rehearses because they can't afford anywhere else. He mentions several times how poor he and his bandmates, the Harpoons, are despite having met each other at Boston's private Tufts University.
"Sometimes it gets a little dicey," Furman says. "I've been a little too poor sometimes. Now may be one of those times."
But his confidence in his music is well placed. Whether its existence attracts money or not, Ezra Furman & the Harpoons — guitarist Andrew Langer, bassist Job Mukkada and drummer Adam Abrutyn — make rootsy rock 'n' roll that's fiery, fierce and, above all, honest. The songs on their third and so far best album, the new "Mysterious Power," are at once familiar and exciting. Furman's not doing anything we haven't already heard from Dylan in the early '60s or Neil Young across the span of the '70s or the Violent Femmes in the mid-'80s, but he's doing it with such ferocity and abandon that makes him an individual stylist rather than a mere imitator. You don't have to reinvent the wheel in rock 'n' roll just to get it rolling.
Question: You seem pretty cavalier about claiming to walk the poverty line.
Ezra Furman: It's the life of an artist. It's fine with me. My only real goal is to be good at this. I've idealized all these people who were never very successful. I don't know. Maybe I should care a little more. I'm getting by. ... I don't need much money. I like the 99-cent loaf of bread better than the $3.50 one.
Q: Who's one of those not-very-successful people that you idolize?
EF: Paul Baribeau, for one. Nobody's heard of him, and he's the best songwriter in America, basically. He's always playing people's houses or basements. He's in his 30s. He's such a heart-stopping, great songwriter and performer. He can write a really passionate song, and he mostly just plays acoustic guitar and screams. He's my No. 1 evangelical project.
Q: So what would success look like for you?
EF: My version of success is someone finding my album in a bargain bin one day and falling in love with it. Beyond that, everything else is a bonus.
Q: What could lead you to the point of "selling out"?
EF: I don't think I'll get there. I was reading this article recently by the guy from OK Go [singer Damian Kulash, in the Wall Street Journal] all about how making money in the music business is different from what it used to be. He's talking about selling music to corporations for commercials and all kinds of stuff, and how it's not selling out anymore. Nobody sees this as impure anymore. He was so cavalier about it — just do it, this is how you get rich now, and you wanna get rich, right? I was like, shut up, stop. Not everybody is in this just to chase money.
Q: You're chasing, what, gratitude, affection, artistic credibility?
EF: Just some sign that what we do is good. I know how I feel about my favorite records. I want people feeling that about us. To be somebody's favorite record, at least for a period in their lives — that's the ultimate success in being a musician. What could be a greater honor than to always be in someone's car stereo? I'm not going to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. F—- that. I'd rather be in someone's stereo.
Q: The new record, "Mysterious Power," sounds more energetic and cohesive than the previous two, which is saying something. What's behind that?
EF: We just had more time. It's a more carefully chosen album. The first ones were slapped together pretty quick. Each one was done in five or six days, like, "This is our band, this is how we play songs live, there you go." We didn't have a record label, no one was asking for the album. We made the album and then found a label for it. We spent time on it, and some songs I thought were throwaways wound up being turned into some of the best ones simply because we had time to find out.
Q: Give me an example. Which songs followed that course?
EF: "Bloodsucking Whore" is a good example. That was a bitter joke. That was me in a messed-up relationship, and I was, like, listing off Buddy Holly songs. I wanted to write some simple, classic Buddy Holly ballad. I just threw it out and didn't think much of it. It was a joke to me. But the Harpoons, believe it or not, they're musicians. People probably don't know that enough about this band. I'm just sort of a strummy, singy guy. I write these songs and the Harpoons know what to do with them. They picked that one out and masterminded the sound of it. It's one of the best on the record.
Q: What compels you to keep writing songs?
EF: Dissatisfaction with what I've already done, I guess. I listen to so much music. The real answer is I listen to so much and I'm like, "Oh, man!" It's a healthy sort of jealousy. It's like the competition. The past year, I started getting into the Replacements. The things they got away with. I think, "I could do that better than he does!" Or some great record like [the Beach Boys'] "Pet Sounds" — man, I could totally pull off my own version of this.
Q: What are you recognizing in this other music? What makes a great album great?
EF: Well, that's just it. They didn't know they were making a great record when they were making it. They didn't think they were capable of writing the greatest album ever. That's what keeps me going. Who knows what could happen if I keep writing? Maybe I'm about to drop a total masterpiece if I keep pushing myself. I see some sort of potential in myself. You just never know. You should always write another song.
EZRA FURMAN & THE HARPOONS
with Tristen and the Apache Relay
♦ 9:30 p.m. April 23
♦ Subterranean, 2011 W. North
♦ Tickets, $10-$12, (773) 278-6600; subt.net
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Ezra Furman & the Harpoons
Ezra Furman & the Harpoons have been knocking around this area for years, Furman being the young but oft-cited "unappreciated genius." The first couple of records, "Banging Down the Doors" (2007) and "Inside the Human Body" (2008), bristled with energy and potential. They drew a lot of Violent Femmes, Neil Young and Bob Dylan comparisons and were clear proof of a burgeoning, visceral talent, even if they weren't convincing of the "genius" tag quite yet. With the third outing the comparisons will keep coming (he's a snotty Roky Erickson, an amphetamine-jacked Chris Kowanko, a not-so-childlike Daniel Johnston), but the argument that Furman is a brilliant individual with his own searing voice will be much easier to make. "Mysterious Power" is revelatory — a joyous racket, a splintered confessional, an anxious thrill ride with the top down next to a fidgety poet who's crazy in love.
"Mysterious Power" opens simply, with Furman strumming his acoustic guitar and singing a mournful love letter to "Wild Rosemarie," something he has to get off his chest before the rest of this record can get going. He baptizes his regrets, using water metaphors to describe how the things he longed for turned against him — "How it had drowned us after all / how we used to thirst for it to burst forth from the sky and start to fall" — and when the second song rumbles to life, Furman has been reborn. He spits determined, one-note verses as the piston-packing Harpoons rev their indie-roots rock engine into second, then third gear. "I Killed Myself but I Didn't Die" is an explanation of the miracle that must have followed his post-Rosemarie depression, and a new declaration: "I hate pop music and I hate 'The Duke of Earl'!"
After that, more anti-pop, anti-"Duke" pokes in the eye, each one with a power-pop hook embedded within a thoroughly scrambled punk, rockabilly or "Zuma" song. "I am nothing but a boy in my room," Furman laments in the title track, thinking aloud over a pokey, Muppet-like piano part. But in "Hard Time in a Terrible Land" he's not so furtive, spewing biblical wisdom, careening through the crack band's bluesy boogaloo and preaching, "You've got rats in the water and bugs in the wood / Listen up, son, you better do what you should!"
The album staggers between angular quips and plaintive yearning, between the Modern Lovers and "Modern Love." The song "Bloodsucking Whore" actually is a breathless plea to be said whore; he surrenders his dignity long before the end to allow Andrew Langer's tortured guitar to finish begging on his behalf. Most songs are intensely personal dumping grounds for Furman's candor about his maladjustment, including his failure to understand love, his carefully articulated passion to keep trying and the frustrated rage that inevitably ensues. "I can't tell what I am gonna do next," he says in "Teenage Wasteland" (not a Who cover). "I'm gonna self-destruct / I don't see a problem with it."
"Mysterious Power" turns into a road album midway through, around "Don't Turn Your Back on Love," Furman's walk with Woody Guthrie down a dusty road contemplating the author of the song "America the Beautiful." His lyrical advice works both ways: don't give up on love, but don't ignore its dangers, either. "You idiot, you fool, don't you do it," Furman honks in his gritty, high-sinus voice. He keeps traveling through "Portrait of Maude," rolling out to California chasing "a cowboy-movie kind of love," and then brings it all home for "Wild Feeling," a quintessential album closer slowly considering all that's just happened and how it's all going to end — returning to his water motif: "The streams that take us to the sea / will overflow and that will be / the end, the end, the end" — as he almost absent-mindedly strums his guitar. It is a righteous conclusion, and it deserves an amen.
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
The party game should have been called The Six Degrees of Joe Boyd.
A now-legendary music producer, the American-born Boyd (right, above) was a central figure in London's music scene during the mid-'60s. He ran Elektra Records' office there as well as the famed UFO club. In both capacities, he worked with artists such as Eric Clapton, the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Nico, Nick Drake and Pink Floyd. He's loaded with stories about many of rock's iconic figures and watershed moments. Before London, he was a part of the folk revival in the states, working with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. When Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Boyd was the guy who plugged in his guitar.
While Boyd was shepherding seminal music in the '60s, Robyn Hitchcock was hoarding it as a gangly teen and aspiring rocker. Within a decade, the eccentric and occasionally loopy Hitchcock was reproducing those sounds in his own music — in the Soft Boys in the '70s, with the Egyptians in the '80s, on his solo albums still.
Now the two have joined forces for a short tour. Boyd tells stories, some of which he reads from his superb 2007 memoir White Bicycles, and Hitchcock chimes in with songs to illustrate a point, pop a punchline or simply revel in '60s nostalgia.
They've performed the show together a handful of times, at South by Southwest and other festivals, but it's hardly rehearsed.
"No, no, we wing it," Boyd said in an interview from London. "Robyn was actually worried about committing to too many of these shows, afraid they'd start to get rehearsed and structured. One night in Portland [Ore.], they'd scheduled a second show, as we have in Chicago, and some people from the first show said they'd buy tickets and stay for the second if we'd do different stuff. We cobbled a whole new show together in 10 minutes. It helped convince him we could keep this spontaneous and loose and not let it calcify."
"We decide before each show which episodes he's going to tell, then I select the songs accordingly," Hitchcock said in a separate interview. "Joe tells his stories very well. There's so much. This is Joe's story, and I come in as the winged messenger singing the songs he midwifed into existence and asking persistent questions about Syd Barrett. He's very good, and the camera loves him. We're filming the Chicago shows, in fact, to make an amalgamated compound version for video."
Spontaneity, after all, has been the hallmark of Boyd's producing career. "I'm always in favor of not rehearsing too much," he said. "I try to do things as live as possible in the studio."
This, he said, is one of the reasons his producing career has slowed to a trickle in recent years. Boyd rarely picks up producing gigs anymore. "The people that do call me up, I say, 'Well, if I really like the music, would you be up to doing it live in the studio? A week to record and a week to mix?' They look at me like, uhhhh. 'A week, is that all?' Why would anyone need more? What are you going to do in there with more than a week other than overthink it? They say they'll get back to me, and they don't. ... The recording process has been demystified now. Many artists think, probably rightly, Robyn included, that they don't need a producer. In the '60s, groups would come in wide-eyed and need someone to show them what to do. I still think that process was a good one. I'm not sure the ProTools and democratizing of the process has really empowered artists as much as they think."
Boyd revived his producing duties in the '80s, tackling emerging bands such as R.E.M. ("Fables of the Reconstruction"), 10,000 Maniacs ("The Wishing Chair") and Billy Bragg ("Worker's Playtime"). Boyd and Hitchcock first met in London while Boyd was working on R.E.M.'s album, Hitchcock said.
I asked Boyd for an '80s story instead of a '60s one. He told one — by way of last year's remastered anniversary reissue of R.E.M.'s "Fables."
"I always had a problem with those mixes. The group was unhappy, I was unhappy," he said. "No one liked the room we were mixing in. Michael [Stipe] was always saying, 'Turn me down, turn me down,' and Peter was saying, 'Turn me down.' How could you mix a record if everyone wanted to be turned down? Peter's the one who brought me in on this in the first place. He was a big Nick Drake and Incredible String Band fan. So when it came time for the 25th anniversary, I approached the group — we're still good friends — and said, 'Let me try remixing a couple of tracks, see what you think. If you like it, we'll do the whole record.' So we did, and I was kind of thrilled by it. It sounded great. Everyone agreed it finally sounded really good — but at least one person in the group felt the moment is the moment, that the mixing is part of the art, and he was uncomfortable remixing it. I understood, I didn't disagree. Normally I would never suggest remixing a record. We'd all agreed that this decision would have to be unanimous, and since there was some resistance, I said fine and left it. Then they remastered it, and somehow they managed to do not everything but some of the things I was trying to accomplish in the remix. It sounds much better."
But this show, titled "Live & Direct From 1967," concentrates on that formative era.
"It's all about the '60s, really, which technically started in about 1965," Hitchcock said. "This is when Joe was tour managing and intersected with Bob Dylan. He's putting his coat into a room at a party, and there's a guy on the floor serenading two young women. It's Dylan singing 'Masters of War' and 'Hard Rain.' You can imagine his voice muffled by all the coats but somehow still hypnotizing them. ... If the world went into color in 1965, the color were defined by '67. There was pop music sounding very different, and people were getting very hairy. Something changed in the molecular structure of society, and a lot of it had to do with music. Music either symbolized or caused it, I don't know which. I was changing myself. I was 14. I'm emblematic of it. That change is part of my DNA."
"This show only works because of Robyn's connection to the music I had a hand in, and it's a deep, unfathomable connection," Boyd said. "Here's somebody whose music is completely original — you couldn't possibly accuse him of being derivative — so out and completely Robynesque, and yet it's so in the spirit of the '60s. He didn't absorb much into the '70s. The loam in which his curious musical plants grow is very much the rotting — and now I'm sounding like Robyn, I've been around him too much — the rotting carcasses of the '60s are the loam in which his fruits grow."
Boyd's roots reach all the way to the soil here, in fact. His musical career might not have taken off without what he calls his "turning point in Chicago."
"Chicago was very important to me, and I've hardly been back there since," he said. "I had some cousins who lived there, and I'd come out to visit with my father. We discovered Bob Kester and the Jazz Record Mart, and Delmark Records. We'd hang out at that shop, and Kester was amused by our precocity as teenagers. He would allow us to thumb through his 78 [rpm record] collection. It was great to get to go to Chicago because we got to hang out at Kester's. After my freshman year at Harvard, I decided to take a year off and go to work at a record company. Kester gave me the introduction to Les Koenig at Contemporary Records [a jazz label in California]. After that, I became a distributor back in Boston for Delmark and others. Then I happened to hear about [blues musician] Paul Butterfield, and told [producer] Paul Rothchild what I'd heard. He went to Chicago, saw Butterfield, signed him to Elektra. I suggested adding Mike Bloomfield, too, and that worked out so well that's how I got the job offer from Elektra to go to London. So the key things in my life happened in Chicago, and since 1965 I've barely been back."
ROBYN HITCHCOCK & JOE BOYD: 'LIVE & DIRECT FROM 1967'
7 and 10 p.m. March 19
Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $31-$35, (773)728-6000, oldtownschool.org
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Revered '90s emo band the Dismemberment Plan has re-membered.
The quartet (singer Travis Morrison, guitarist Jason Caddell, bassist Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley) is back together for one more go-round, a tour celebrating a classy vinyl reissue of the band's best artistic achievement, 1999's "Emergency & I."
That does not mean they'll be playing the whole album in concert.
"I hate that! I hate that!" Morrison cries. "Who would want to see that? Who, who would want to see that? I don't want to go see a band play the album start-to-finish. What kind of parlor trick is that? Why not pay $30 to hear them play longest to shortest, or alphabetical, or group them by key? Part of the joy in seeing a band live is seeing all the places they've been over time all scrambled up. Hearing them young next to old — I love that. What they have to say now adjacent to what they were doing then. Any band that reads this that does that album-in-concert thing: I am no longer a fan!"
It's so like the Plan to tour behind an LP release of a 12-year-old album. Granted, it's a supreme package: four bonus tracks, color photos, new and in-depth liner notes, a gatefold, and the whole thing's pressed on 180-gram audio-nerd-grade vinyl. "Oh, yeah," Morrison says, "if it weren't for the vinyl, we wouldn't be doing this [tour]."
This was a band, after all, that practically skipped through its career as if everything was a lark, and then abruptly shut down eight years ago, eventually tossing out a belated retirement announcement. The band, Morrison insists, was always an excuse to travel the world (they just returned from another week playing in Japan). The lack of ambition created a more creative space in which they were able to spice their jagged post-punk with dub and dance without too much worry over commercial concerns. That lost them a record deal, of course, but it also then produced "Emergency & I."
In conversation, Morrison is easygoing and remarkably carefree, and here are his takes on a few salient points ...
On looking back over the band's catalog: "I think we're lucky. Yeah, lucky. Lucky that we wrote songs that don't totally embarrass us at this point in our life. I think [they have] emotional intent that we're comfortable with. I don't want to get too pompous about it. We wrote songs we can still relate to. Not all, some are really juvenile. The more emo ones from later on seem a little much to me. But for the most part there's a core of songs that we still feel good about playing, and that's what keeps us together when we come back together."
On vinyl and the reason for the tour: "We had always been longing to do vinyl, but vinyl was a dead medium for about 10 or 15 years. Then people started to bring it back to life. We always pined to do vinyl, always wanted to hear our music and I think just really hold a vinyl record with our music on it. It's such a great medium to hold and feel and lick, if that's the kind of person you are. It's beautiful. It flatters anything that's on it. The offers we got while the medium was on life support were not attractive; they needed money to pay for half the production, and it just never appealed. Then vinyl came back and we started talking to people and were suddenly able to consider things we'd never been able to before — gatefold, double vinyl, liner notes. Then we had this beautiful product [from Barsuk Records] that cost a lot of money. We owed it to the people paying for it to help them sell it. I mean, that's not the only reason we're playing shows. If shows felt like a root canal, we wouldn't have done it and would have scaled back the product. But it was easy to say, 'Of course,' if playing some shows gives us the opportunity to put this out."
On why the band ceased: "We weren't too keen on the songs we were writing. We could feel the call of real life at that point in each of our lives. One of the things I've been proudest of is that we made that decision. You know when a group of musicians is on fire? It's phenomenal: You walk in and leave with four incredible new riffs and grooves, and you come back the next day to work on those and come up with four new things. That's the head space bands should be in when they're writing. Some bands shoulder through because they're committed to the life choice and want to find their way over that hump and regain their creative chemistry, by hook or by crook. For us, it just felt like when that energy waned it was better to stop."
On the chance new music will be written: "Uuuhhhhhhhh ... no. [A beat.] No, no, no. I think we are enormously focused on playing the old stuff well. There's been none of that head space. If we were to enter that head space, we would all go for it. But we're not going to will it into being just to have a fifth thing to sell."
On his obsession with Gladys Knight: "She's a very emotionally intelligent singer. I just think she's great. I always learn so much from her. Those songs are really smart, yet they don't sacrifice emotional resonance. People who think analysis has no place in art, especially rock 'n' roll, that the conscious mind has no place in rock — you want both. You want the feeling and the analysis. It's a challenge to make art that has analysis but also a visceral thrill. So many of her songs are these incredible, intelligent analysis of human relationships. Not many people have that going on. It's more common in country. She's really a country singer. For that reason, I've always locked onto her heart."
THE DISMEMBERMENT PLAN
with JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound and Kid You'll Move Mountains (Feb. 19); Maritime and the Forms (Feb. 20)
♦ 9 p.m. Feb. 19, 7 p.m. 20
♦ Metro, 3730 N. Clark
♦ Sold out
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
David Lowery has a way with the college kids. A quarter century ago, his first band, Camper Van Beethoven, kept '80s college radio stocked with smart stoner songs ("Take the Skinheads Bowling," "Pictures of Matchstick Men"). He capitalized on that formula for the upper classmen with his next band, Cracker, dipping a toe into the mainstream ("Teen Angst," "Low"). He still tours — with both bands, frequently at the same time — and this week he releases his first solo album, "The Palace Guards," out Tuesday.
But now he's back talking to college kids again — only this time, there's going to be a quiz.
This spring, Lowery is teaching a class on pop music business at the University of Georgia. He previously had been a guest lecturer in the school's music business certificate program. When we caught up with him, he was making his lesson plan, and he said something that's pretty much all an aspiring musician or label exec needs to know: "I can make more money teaching than playing live shows, in general."
Even as concert ticket prices have begun to approach the levels of college tuition, Lowery has written eloquently on his own blog (300songs.com) and others in recent months about the real struggles of working musicians. Sure, as was recently reported, Dave Matthews made half a billion dollars during the last 10 years, much of it from constant touring. But, as Lowery points out, not everyone is Dave Matthews, nor do they want to be. The valid and valuable musicians playing for fewer than a guaranteed several thousand ticket buyers each night still have to crunch the numbers to make it work.
"As an artist, you have to really learn about this stuff in order to make a living. But I tell students, the model doesn't really work based on live stuff. First, there are not enough slots for people to go out and play live — everybody can't be on the road at once — and expenses are really high. There are a lot of holes for the money to go down. There are buses and hotel rooms, and you figure that — we don't do this, but a typical artist does — you're giving 20 percent to a manager, 10 percent to an agent, and 5 percent to a business manager. That's 35 percent of your gross to start with. The actual cost if you go into a theater starts out around $10,000 just for the staff and the PA and the security. ... When we go out with Camper, we're taking 10 people with us every night. You do make money, but you've got to be smart about it."
Lowery is smart about it. His California college career focused on math and business. This isn't the first time he's explained his independent music business strategies to college classes. He's got a head for business all the way around, in fact — Lowery was on the board of advisors for the company that eventually became America's newest online buzz word, Chicago-based Groupon.
In December, Lowery explained how it began in a letter to Bob Lefsetz, who writes a popular online column about the music business: "In 2008, I was appointed to the board of advisors of a small web startup called thepoint.com. The site, the brainchild of Andrew Mason, was a 'tipping point' mechanism, a social networking site that allowed people to 'commit' to taking group action. In particular the hope was they would take group action for social change. The investors quietly noted there was not a clear way to monetize Andrew's experiment. However, they hoped that by watching the way users used the tipping point mechanism, a viable way to monetize this website would present itself. I was asked to start a campaign on thepoint.com, 'to get a feel for it.' Not being very socially conscious, I decided that I wanted to use The Point for my own narrow self-interests."
He used it to gauge fan interest in a festival that the two bands, Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, put on each year in a remote part of California.
"I was in the right place at the right time. That's the case with my music career, too," Lowery said. "I mean, here we are talking about all this business, but it's inevitable. It's also fine to drive around in a '78 van eating mushrooms outside the university in Columbia, Mo., but eventually you have to figure out what's going on and make a business. I got more serious and learned about these things. I still find time to smoke pot."
Lowery describes "The Palace Guards" the way most bandleaders do of their solo albums. It's just a batch of songs that didn't feel like they fit with the band. Each member of Camper Van Beethoven has made his own solo record over the decades, but Lowery's been building up to it gradually. Even with two bands, Lowery said, "eventually I stopped trying to fit songs that didn't naturally work with either of them into the box." The leftovers collected until they looked like an album.
One of Lowery's other business moves years ago was to establish his own studio, called Sound of Music, in Richmond, Va. He has a base of musicians there that help with the studio's projects, which have included the Sparklehorse debut. Some of the same players were recruited to be "The Palace Guards." The title song sounds like an Elliott Smith nursery rhyme. "Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing to Me" could have fit into the Cracker box just fine, save maybe for its soft, psychedelic refrain. "I Sold the Arabs the Moon" might have been a nice foil to Camper's "Sweethearts."
"The songs here are softer, a little more mad — as in crazy," he said. "I mean, not always softer, because I do a lot of screaming on 'Palace Guards' and 'All Those Girls,' but softer as in sort of introspective in tone. More Skip Spence than Syd Barrett."
The bands have fallen prey to the concert industry's latest gimmick. At a recent joint show, Camper played the "Key Lime Pie" album in its entirety while Cracker played "Kerosene Hat."
"We just wanted to do something different on these dates we traditionally play in the Northeast in the dead of winter," Lowery said. "People have been calling for Camper to do 'Key Lime Pie' for a while. Cracker's played 'Kerosene Hat' before. We tried to figure out if there was an anniversary with it. I think it was the 21st for 'Key Lime Pie.' That doesn't sound as good as the 25th. But the band used to have this obsession with the Illuminati [a legendary secret society]. On the blog, we were joking about the formula that makes a Camper song. It has to refer to the Cold War, or communists or a dictator, or acid and psychedelic drugs, or a conspiracy theory of some kind like the Illuminati. Their number was 23, so maybe we should tour on the 23rd anniversary. That would be a very Camper thing to do. Great business move, don't you think?"
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Liz Phair knows the indie-rock party line. She's heard it stated and restated for coming up on 18 years: Her first album, 1993's landmark-knighted "Exile in Guyville," was feminist rock 'n' roll genius on every level — and everything else she's ever uttered since, as speech or song, is utter crap.
Perhaps that's because "Guyville" is such a strong, confident statement from a Wicker Park woman who seemed quite uncompromising, and each follow-up record has seemed unsteady, whimsical and quite compromising. When Phair surprised fans last summer with a new album, "Funstyle," released through her website, the wrath returned. Critics were universally dumbfounded by the album's tuneless talent, dreadful rapping on one track ("Bollywood") and wide-of-the-mark execution, few more colorfully than those around her adopted hometown. The A.V. Club called "Funstyle" a "box of dirt." Pitchfork said it was "horrible on just about every conceivable level." The Reader said listening to it gives you a good case of the "douchechills."
But unlike Phair's stab at mainstream pop in 2003, much of the vitriol flung at "Funstyle" was tempered ever-so-slightly by an underlying fascination. In my own review, I held out hope that Phair was in on her own joke (one song, "U Hate It," foretold all the bad reviews, and the music was posted with a note explaining "How to Like It"). It's a difficult work of art but, for better or worse, it's certainly daring. When we consider art outside the typical commercial, consumerist frame of pop music, that trait is usually respected, if not always revered.
Before she started another tour this month — on which she and a full band will indeed perform songs from "Funstyle" — we caught up with Phair to find out just WTF is going on.
Q. You've taken another beating over "Funstyle." How does this one rate?
Liz Phair: I feel less beaten up about this than on previous things. The first two weeks of press was so, "Blah blah, I'm freaking out, why wasn't I told?" My career has been riddled with controversy, which I never fully understand. I don't know why it surprises people that I surprise them.
Q. Your intent then was to spring something wacky on us?
LP: It was really done in the spirit of good-hearted fun. ... That's part of why I wrote the little blurb to go with it. I didn't expect people not to get that. I called it "Funstyle." I was trying to be direct. The first round of reviews — I don't think they even got that it was funny. Really, you think I'm actually trying to start a rap career now? It stopped me in my tracks, like when you're at a party and someone says something and you just don't know how to respond to further the conversation? It's, like, OK, I'm going back to the bar to get another drink now ...
Q. And this isn't just your damage-control explanation now — ha ha, it was a joke, get it?
LP: No, I've been as consistently clear about this from the very beginning of the project. I don't see how it could be clearer.
Q. So what was the beginning of the project?
LP: The stuff on "Funstyle" came from two things. First, there's stuff influenced by my TV scoring career. [Phair's day job these days is scoring television shows. Her music has set the mood for episodes of "90210" and "In Plain Sight," winning her an ASCAP award for composing.] You spend long, long hours in a studio messing with soundscapes, and you get slap-happy. So you try to have fun with it, you try to crack yourself up. And there's a mania that develops having all this stuff, these sounds, at your fingertips, which I tried to put into a quasi-serious but mostly tongue-in-cheek piece of work. ... The other part was born in very natural jam sessions and a friendship with Dave Matthews. [Phair was briefly on Matthews' record label, ATO. Some of his playing appears on "Funstyle."] I would fly around and piggyback on various recording sessions he does when he's on the road when he wants to get ideas down. It was truly just two artists meeting and wanting to make music together. It was very simple on my end.
Q. Dave wasn't thrilled about the results, I guess. You just lost your ATO deal and your management — directly as a result of "Funstyle"?
LP: Yeah. ATO is a lovely label, but the guy that signed me left, and you know what that does. There's a reassessment, and suddenly the new people don't know who you are or care. And the stuff I was doing, they didn't know what to do with. My management said, "Hell no, I am not taking a rap song into a radio station! It's the stupidest thing I ever heard." I said, "Really? I think it's the funniest thing." I took it hard. I loved my management team. But sometimes it's time to part ways.
Q. So you wind up with this batch of songs, you know they're going to throw people for a loop. How much thinking about the situation did you do before posting?
LP: I waited a year sitting on this stuff. I wasn't trying to blow this up. I waited to see if I liked it as much as I thought I did. Now I'm writing a more mature and serious record, but it felt really wrong to skip over this. It's who I am intrinsically as a person, someone who puts it all out and takes a chance with an unbroken chain and doesn't stop to make sure I look just so before I leave the house.
Q. You're unfiltered. You think: Why not only try rapping but let's even display the results?
LP: Sure. It's about the journey and the process. I do things because I love doing them, or trying them. I'm less invested in protecting or even developing a brand. Obviously. ... And who cares if it's outside your comfort zone? I've always been a little daring. My parents like to joke that if there's something I'm totally unqualified for, that's of course what I'll be doing next.
Q. Can there be a Liz Phair album other than "Guyville, Part 2" that will please the masses?
LP: Uh, no? To do "Guyville 2" because I'm supposed to do it or because it's the only thing people like feels — meh. I'm writing stuff now that's really touching me, some stuff that's actually made me weep. I don't know if it's "Guyville 2," but it's off-kilter and very heartfelt and very personal, directed at a single person. It feels authentic, maybe in the same way.
Q. Does this free-wheeling spirit you're describing have anything to do with raising your son, who's now in his teens?
LP: He's just 14. All parents gush about what it's like to be a parent. I love it. His little world — he's basically sound, he's independent, and I enjoy him. There's kind of a rock 'n' roll way a 14-year-old boy thinks, and there's definitely a resonance between my job and what his brain is like. It's partly uncomfortable and partly really inspiring. He keeps me in touch with that part of myself.
with the Horse's Ha
8 p.m. Jan. 22
Metro, 3730 N. Clark
Tickets: $25, (800) 514-ETIX, metrochicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
John Mellencamp wants to go back and start again. He doesn't want to become Johnny Cougar again — God, no. He has nothing but contempt for his own early work as a late-'70s/early-'80s, floppy-haired heartland poster boy. When he speaks of his first eight albums of pandering pop-rock — full of Top 40 hits, mind you, like "I Need a Lover," "Hurts So Good," and signature songs like "Jack & Diane" and "Pink Houses" — it's with a scoff and a sneer.
He's tried to reboot several times. The name change, for one — Johnny Cougar, then John Cougar Mellencamp, cat-free since '91. The turning point came when Mellencamp, a native of Seymour, Ind., released 1985's "Scarecrow," a transitional album that gave us "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." but also rootsy, populist tracks like "Small Town," "The Face of the Nation," "Justice and Independence" and "You've Gotta Stand for Somethin'." It was a bid for critical respect, and it worked. (That same year, he helped found Farm Aid with Neil Young and Willie Nelson.) Each album since — an admirable catalog of a dozen more records with a thoroughly Midwestern blend of Friday-night fun and corner-diner speeches — has received various and consistent acclaim.
But people at the shows still expect him to do the splits.
"I talked to my next-door neighbor this morning," Mellencamp, 59, said during our recent interview from his Indiana home. "She was at the show in Bloomington [Ind.]. She said, 'Really, I like the old John better.' And I said, 'Well, Cathy, that guy doesn't exist anymore.' It'd be foolish of me to try and do at my age now what I was doing at 32. It's not dignified. Jumping off an amp at my age would be stupid. Singing 'Hurts So Good'? Please. If people are coming to see 'The Coug,' they should stay home."
If he could erase parts of the past and start over, he said he would. And this is what much of our conversation was about: looking to the past without being nostalgic, back-tracking through decades of "progress" to a point further back — and taking a different route from there. Anything, he said, that might detour around, say, 1983's "The Kid Inside."
Q. You have pretty clear contempt for your early work.
A. I did what I had to do. I did what people told me. There was no way those folk songs were ever going to get anywhere unless I had hit records.
Q. By denouncing those early records, aren't you also insulting your fans?
A. Am I worrying about insulting people? Well, there's no winning that. No matter what you do, someone's going to be insulted. Playing "R.O.C.K." tomorrow night would certainly be insulting. To me.
Q. If you played it like you did in 1985, perhaps.
A. The only thing to do is to try and figure out a way to get to people who want to hear songs like "Easter Eve" [a new, nearly seven-minute song] and do a good job at it. I'll play "R.O.C.K." again, but not in a way you'll imagine. Last night during a show [at Nashville's storied Ryman Auditorium] during a slow, quiet section, someone yelled out, 'Jack and Diane!' I said, 'You're impatient.' I play it, but you don't know what it is till I start singing it. It's the first time I've enjoyed playing it in 20 years. It's a brand new song. It's the folk song it always meant to be. It doesn't sound anything like that version on radio. I always looked at that song like a graphic novel, and now it takes on a whole new seriousness I never realized existed in it.
Mellencamp's new album, "No Better Than This," showcases his desire to rewind and replay. Released in August on revered folk label Rounder Records, its 13 new songs were recorded at three historic locations, and in mono. Much of the album was captured in single takes at Sun Studios, the Memphis storefront where Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash made landmark debuts. Other songs were taped at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga. (the first stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War), and Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in downtown San Antonio, where a young Robert Johnson sat and recorded 16 now-legendary blues songs (including "Sweet Home Chicago") this week in November 1936.
"The only song written especially for one of the locations was 'Right Behind Me,'" Mellencamp said. "I looked at the songs I'd written and realized I hadn't written a song about the devil. How do you walk into Robert Johnson's house without a song about the devil? So I wrote 'Right Behind Me' real quick." The song's narrator is off to see his baby ("She in Chicago"), and the devil's over his shoulder. "He thinks he's got me / but he ain't got me," he sings — either victorious or overconfident, it's never clear.
Mellencamp sees demons all around him, mostly technological ones. CDs? "A con," he said. MP3s? "A terrible way to listen to music." This lead into a lengthy rant that peaked with his favorite declaration: "The Internet is the most dangerous invention since the atomic bomb." Before this, he had some choice things to say about the recent election, such as: "I love it when the right starts talking about all they've done — referring back to World War II and what their grandparents did. You weren't even born, what the f—- do you have to do with it?"
The world has progressed, he says, but in the wrong direction. So for "No Better Than This," he wanted to go back — sort of, not to relive and re-create, but to start anew from back there. Or at the very least steer back to the path that could have been. As he talked about the new record and his choices of location (interest first, ability to reach them while on tour with Willie Nelson second), Mellencamp insisted he "wasn't trying to go back" by using the old methods and sites. He "looked at this as a forward move."
"Calling something progress doesn't make it better," he said. "That's what the song 'The West End' is about. Things are worse now than they've ever been. There's a line that says, 'Look what progress did / Someone lined their pockets / I don't know who that is.' This is not some old guy hanging on to the idea that things were better when he was a kid. F—- that! I'm not nostalgic at all. I just think we went the wrong way with progress back when we had the chance."
Still, he describes his new tour as "a modern-day vaudeville show." Each concert begins with the showing of a documentary by photographer Kurt Marcus about the making of "No Better Than This." Mellencamp and his band play on "a wild variety" of acoustic instruments, then Mellencamp plays solo for about 40 minutes. The concert closes with a full electric band, all-out rock 'n' roll.
Q. So you still give a little of the old John, rocking out some hits in the end?
A. I'm playing the songs I want to play. At this age, to be doing anything else would be a waste of time.
Q. "Pink Houses," I'll bet.
A. All I've gotta do is start playing that song in the show, and I don't have to sing a note. People know every word to that song. Of course, that song was totally misunderstood when it came out and wound up related to some kind of community, or having pride, pride in ourselves, which is not what it's about but is what people took from it. That can't be bad.
Q. You won the Woody Guthrie Award back in 2003. His songs have been misunderstood more than a few times. Ever thought about writing new music to some of his old lyrics the way others have done?
A. Nora [Guthrie, Woody's daughter and keeper of the Woody Guthrie Archives] has sent me hundreds of lyrics. The fact that so many people have done that is exactly why I won't do it. I wouldn't even pretend I would know what to do with his words. But Wilco and — what's his name? the British guy? — Billy Bragg, they did a hell of a job. ... The world sure needs more music like that now.
Q. Because of hard times?
A. When times are good, you end up with stuff like the Charleston, that kind of music, light stuff, "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?" When times are tough, you turn to what is stable, what makes the backbone of this country. Music from the land.
Q. The "heartland"? Do you claim that kind of identity?
A. Years ago, I was fussing around, worrying about what to wear on stage. My wife looked at me and said, "John, put on a pair of blue jeans and get out there. You're a blue jeans man. Don't mess with that." That's what people come back to. People don't need smoke and mirrors. I'm an old pair of brown shoes — worn out, but comfortable. Things like that, you just sometimes don't appreciate till later on.
6:30 p.m. Nov. 26 and 27
Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
Tickets: $42.50-$125, (800) 745-3000, ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Writing about these power-pop gods, it demands two posts each time. You need one for the guys — and they're almost always guys — who actually know who you're writing about. That's usually, let's see, you, you and definitely the guy in the back with the jean jacket and Chuck Taylors. Then you need one for everyone else, the one where I try in vain to inform without proselytizing and wind up practically berating you, dear reader, for not having discovered this genius before, you slacker.
Rock is littered with underappreciated pros, from Shoes and the Spongetones to Jason Falkner and Brendan Benson, and power pop is its landfill. Dwight Twilley is a name you might even have heard of, once upon a time. Try his biggest hit, 1975's "I'm on Fire" ("and you ain't, you ain't, you ain't got no lover!"). Or his next one, 1984's "Girls," with Tom Petty singing backup. Album after album of this stuff continued well into the '90s, beautifully crafted post-Beatles guitar pop with the consistent affectation of a rockabilly slapback on the vocals.
Twilley 2010 sees the arrival of the "Green Blimp," another dozen tracks Abbey Road-meets-Sun Records rock. (Sun's Sam Phillips was the first to give Twilley a break.) By now, he's got his formula down.
"It doesn't take me much time to write songs anymore," Twilley said in a recent interview from his Tulsa, Okla., home and studio. "Once I have the idea, it's a done deal. It can be done usually in a day. I get the body of the song in about 15 minutes. Then it's a matter of walking by it every once in a while, changing a lyric, teetering with the arrangement. ... We just have gotten better and better at what we're doing, more comfortable with the studio."
That's Big Oak Studio, a converted garage behind his midtown Tulsa home. The "we" included Twilley's wife and recording partner, Jan, plus original Dwight Twilley Band guitarist Bill Pitcock IV and, on this album, guests Susan Cowsill and Rocky Burnette.
The "Green Blimp" title track is very "Yellow Submarine," a dreamy, childlike tale about a fantastic dirigible domicile. "It's kind of a hats off to 'Yellow Submarine,' sure," Twilley said. "It's a fictional kind of thing, a kind of shelter" — Twilley's band started out on Leon Russell's Shelter Records — "a warm and fuzzy thing about floating above the clouds where everything's peaceful. The album itself ends up having that theme, a kind of anti-war theme, an anti-violence message. The 'Green Blimp' lyrics go, 'All the fighting beneath us / if we're lucky won't reach us.' It's about drifting through the clouds and not worrying about being robbed or hit by a bomb. A lot of the songs carry that same message. It just happened that way. It's been on my mind. It's not like I'm a protest singer but, for the love of God, we've got two wars going on. Yesterday on the TV they said 350 kids were killed in one day. That's a lot of kids. I don't feel comfortable talking about that. I'm not a political-type person. But I can say, hey, we could all be a little less violent."
"Green Blimp," Twilley's first studio disc since 2005's "47 Moons," includes real rockers ("Speed of Light," "Stop"), breathy acoustic ballads ("Let It Rain"), some swampy boogie ("Witches in the Sky"), all of it clocking in just under four minutes. The production might sound dated, but Twilley's consistency over the years is as much an advantage in his music. And he's as forward-looking in his business model as he is in his lyrics. "Green Blimp" is available as a free download at dwighttwilley.com and in as-needed batches of CDs. His Facebook page keeps the faithful informed and raises funds for the recordings.
Of which there are plenty more on the way. "I don't want to be one of those guys who retires. I want to make records. I've got a new one and another one almost done," he said. That includes music for an upcoming film about him, a documentary being filmed by Youngblood Productions. "I have no control over the film," Twilley said. "Every now and then, they come by and do an interview. I saw the proposal, and I heard them talking about hiring someone to score the thing with music that sounded like mine. That didn't sit well with me at all. I perked up, said why don't I do the music for you? It's the only thing I have control over. The soundtrack will be done and out before the film ever surfaces.
"And it's different, it's interesting. I'm doing stuff on a biographical slant. I'm thinking about the things I did with [late music writing partner Phil] Seymour, how we got started. It's a damn good excuse to make another record. There's one song called 'Tulsa Town,' another called 'Bus Ticket.' That one tells the story of how Phil and I, these dumb little kids, just drove through Memphis with our little cassette, looking for a record company, and some guy named Sam Phillips listened to it, and we had no idea who he was or what Sun Records was. He was just this guy who sent us a bus ticket to come back and record."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Elton John & Leon Russell
Writing in the liner notes of his new CD collaboration with Leon Russell, his musical hero, Elton John details his U.S. debut in 1970 with Russell in the audience, how the two of them struck up a kinship, toured together and enjoyed initial parallels of fame as rock 'n' roll pianomen. "Anyway," John writes, "then I lost touch with Leon and our paths kind of went different ways."
That's an understatement. By the mid-'70s, all the world knew of John's crocodile rock. His body of work, it was announced last week, has earned him an entire Elton John channel on Sirius XM satellite radio.
Russell, meanwhile, served as maestro of Joe Cocker's notorious Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, had a big hit with "Tightrope," knocked everyone out with a fiery performance at the Concert for Bangladesh — and then almost all of us lost touch with Leon. He took a hard right and recorded a straight-up country album ("Hank Wilson's Back," 1973), then turned left for some avant-garde self-exploration ("Stop All That Jazz," 1974). He never stopped recording or touring, but while John eulogized princesses, became the belle of Broadway and sold out in Vegas, Russell was rolling his broken-down bus into tiny bars in small cities.
After a personal revelation last year about how deeply Russell influenced his music, John sought him out after 40 years. They reconnected, made plans to record. It could have been just another hokey duets album for John, 63, but to his credit "The Union" (out Tuesday) reunites the two piano-pounders under his stated and restated intention of injecting Russell, 68, back into at least a tributary of the mainstream.
"There's no point doing this record if it doesn't bring his work to light," John recently told Billboard. "I want him to be comfortable financially. I want his life to improve a little."
Fortunately, the resulting record amounts to something significantly greater than a charity project. It's a marriage of true love and admiration, much like "Road to Escondido," Eric Clapton's 2006 reunion with J.J. Cale. (Cale and Russell are both icons in their native Oklahoma as pioneers of the easygoing "Tulsa sound," which influenced performers from Tom Petty to Garth Brooks.) While "The Union" sags slightly under the weight of each performer's latter-day penchants, it ultimately succeeds because of the youthful energy they rediscover with each other's aid.
For this union to take place, John had to step back a bit from the obese, overwrought records he's made of late, which he seems to have done with relief and glee. "I don't have to make pop records any more," he told Billboard, indicating that "The Union" marks a new, less commercial chapter in his career. Huzzah!
Meanwhile, Russell — frail and sometimes in ill health, including brain surgery just as recording sessions began in January — had to step up his game, return to something resembling form. Russell's concerts the last decade or more have been static, lifeless affairs. He'd sit nearly motionless before a tinny little electric piano, a snow-white Cousin Itt with sunglasses, and mash out a rushed string of once beautifully arranged gems.
But he turns it around for these recordings. John, in his liner notes, celebrates the moment Russell "suddenly got his confidence again and started to play the grand piano instead of the electric piano, and all this great piano playing came flooding back and we made this incredible record."
The kick-back from real piano keys as opposed to the plastic of an electric keyboard — that simple physical resistance, that subtle artistic challenge has been what Russell's needed for years. He faces it here and comes alive again, opening the album with "If It Wasn't for Bad," as classic a Leon track as we thought we'd never get again. Over a touch of gospel and that moseying Tulsa pace, he seems to address his own criticisms in the song's central pun: "I know that you could be just like you should / If it wasn't for bad you'd be good."
Eight of these songs were penned by John and his writing partner of 43 years, Bernie Taupin. The first, "Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes" voices John's own perspective on his hero: "Your songs have all the hooks / You're seven wonders rolled into one." From then on, the pair play piano and sing side by side, volleying like two tennis players trained by the same coach. Russell's feline yowl adds grit and growl to John's "Monkey Suit" (as "honky" as this cat's been in decades), while John's creamier voice leavens the slow regret of Russell's "I Should Have Sent Roses." For Russell, the proceedings often return to gospel, especially near the end of "The Union" as he shuffles through "Hearts Have Turned to Stone" with four churchy backup singers, then closes the album with the personal, organ-driven hymn "In the Hands of Angels."
"The Union" is filled out by a mutual admiration society of musicians who couldn't help but drop by the studio once they heard Russell was in town. Neil Young sings on the Civil War ballad "Gone to Shiloh." Brian Wilson sings and arranges some of "When Love Is Dying." Jim Keltner (another Tulsan!) plays drums throughout, and producer T Bone Burnett expertly guides and reins in the whole asylum choir.
Look for John and Russell on the road together this fall, starting with Tuesday's show at the Beacon Theatre in New York. Bonus: Cameron Crowe filmed the recording of "The Union"; he plans to screen a documentary in February at the Sundance Film Festival.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Chrissie Hynde and JP Jones are slumped in a suite at Chicago's Dana Hotel, utterly discombobulated. Granted, these are rock stars, and it's mid-morning, but Jones — a feline Welshman, neatly groomed but, he admits, hungover — and Hynde wear the vacant, resigned stares of natural disaster refugees.
"I don't know what the f—-'s going on," Hynde says, running a hand through her trademark black mane. "Every day I look around and go, f—-, what is going on? We came over to spend two weeks here, now we're living here. I've never had anything catch fire like this in my career."
She's referring to some intense media and fan interest in her first-ever side project, a rootsy new band called JP, Chrissie & the Fairground Boys. It's a departure from Hynde's three decades leading rock's defiant Pretenders, a moniker that still exists solely because of Hynde's stubbornness and determination in the face of personal tragedy and commercial whim. Last May, without a record even being finished — the CD "Fidelity!" is finally released this Tuesday — she and Jones were trotting across the country, including a stop in Chicago, teasing fans with short sets of the new songs.
But the whirlwind promotional tour was even getting to a seasoned road warrior and expatriate like Hynde.
"I'm totally displaced," she says. "I don't know where I am most of the time, or where I'm supposed to be. I don't know if I'm man or woman. I don't know if I'm American or British. I don't know where I live. ... Men think I'm a man. The guys treat me like one of the guys."
"I treat you like a woman, don't I?" Jones asks.
"I don't know," Hynde replies.
The silence that follows that exchange is beyond awkward, but very telling. Everything there is to know about the mournful music and sighed laments on this record is communicated just as effectively in those several seconds of uncomfortable staring at boots. The union of Hynde and Jones is a dynamic musical partnership, but it's based on a star-crossed, May-December romance.
Jones, 31, met Hynde, 58, in a bar in late 2008. (Yes, gents, you can still meet people like Chrissie Hynde in a bar. Still wanna call it a night?) There was chemistry, then there were text messages. There was a spur-of-the-moment getaway to Havana, where their personal relationship flamed and fizzled. But it fueled a musical collaboration, and they wrote the 11 songs for "Fidelity!," each of them a naked confessional of an irresistible romance that they say could never really be.
"We made a record that is, yes, very honest. It's some pretty gut-wrenching stuff," Hynde says. "All the songs are written to each other, about each other. ... You know, a lot of people fall in love with people they can't be with. That's what this record is about. It's about falling in love with someone and realizing you can't be with him. He wants kids and a family. I'm too old. It's too late for me."
Right away, over the lilting, sad guitar of the opening song, "Perfect Lover," Hynde and Jones get to explaining what Hynde calls their "unrealistic" love:
Hynde: I smoke and drink and eat too much and other things I shouldn't
(JP: That's why I love you, baby)
I'd like to think I'd never touch what other women wouldn't
(You're not like the others)
I'm a hotbed of addictions, contradictions rule my day
(You're just like me)
I know it's wrong, but the pull's too strong, Lord, help me walk away
I found my perfect lover, but he's only half my age
He was learning how to stand when I was wearing my first wedding band
"Music is a distillation of love and pain," Hynde adds. "Everyone's suffering something. I was crying when I wrote some of this stuff. I mean, it's not that serious. The nature of rock — if you're watching a rock band, you should be laughing at least half the time. We didn't make an album to depress people."
The thoughtful Jones pauses, mulling that over during another strange silence. Finally, he wonders aloud, genuinely worried, "F—-, maybe we have."
A little 'fairground luck'
Hynde, Jones and a supporting guitarist, Patrick Murdoch from one of Jones' former bands, trotted into the Near North studios of JBTV last May, hitting the stage before a small audience of maybe 50 fans. But the instant Hynde appeared under the lights, someone shouted a request for the Pretenders' hit ballad "Night in My Veins."
Hynde's face fell. She hadn't even sat down yet. With a little of the sneer that's endeared her to rock fans for 30 years, she laid down the law for the evening: "Anyone else who says something like that tonight will be ejected from the premises."
Not that the song would have been inappropriate for this pair ("He's got his hands in my hair and his lips everywhere / It feels good, it's all right / even if it's just the night in my veins"), but Hynde is determined to prevent her rock star status from overshadowing her new project with Jones. She was insistent about the billing: JP first, no Hynde.
The relationship began, after all, musically. "I just liked his songs," Hynde says, a little sheepishly, which is saying something for this typically brassy woman. They originally bonded over a discussion of fairgrounds. Hynde has a lifelong love of them, and Jones grew up on the one his parents owned in Wales.
One night, Jones texted Hynde to wish her well before a Pretenders show, on tour supporting the band's last album, the country-rock set "Break Up the Concrete." He said he was sending her some "fairground luck." Hynde liked that phrase and replied, instructing him to write a song called "Fairground Luck." Two days later, it was in her in-box.
"I sent her the song, and she liked it," Jones says. "When she got off the tour, she said, 'Hey, you wanna go to Cuba?' We took guitars to Havana and wrote the basics for the album."
"Fairgrounds just always meant freedom to me," Hynde says, recalling her youth in Akron, Ohio. She's lived primarily in London since the early 1980s. "I loved these fairs that would show up, like, in a strip mall parking lot. I loved that. I loved the gypsy nature of it. The way these people showed up and then moved on to — somewhere else. It was very romantic. And I knew I had to keep moving like that. I left when I was 22 and moved to London. I just left. I feel like I'm still doing that."
Jones had been in a band called Grace, once groomed by EMI as a next-big-thing. It fell apart after two years, and when he met Hynde he'd been fronting a band called Big Linda. Many of those players are now rechristened as the Fairground Boys.
"I was offered a development deal through Universal before all this came about," Jones says. "They were going to put me with, like, 10 big-name songwriters. When a record label wants to put you with 10 different songwriters, how can any truth come out of that? How can you communicate who you are? I felt very pushed, pulled and manipulated. They wanted me to wear certain things, dye my hair. Chrissie and I got together and wrote our album, and it felt so much more natural. I found myself musically through her. She's my muse. I just walked away from it all."
"I didn't encourage that," Hynde interjects. "I didn't want to be that guy."
Jones laughs. "That guy!"
'The kids are safe'
Hynde and Jones returned to Chicago early this month for a 20-minute set at Lollapalooza — on the children's stage, following Dan Zanes. With old fans and tiny tots watching them play their naked songs about cross-generational lust, Hynde was open about the pair's difficult dynamic. She explained the new album was about "when a woman meets a much younger man and they realize they don't have a future together."
"But don't worry," she added, "the kids are safe as long as I'm on this stage."
The frustrated desire plays out across the span of "Fidelity!" In the first single, "If You Let Me," Jones' coarse, scoured voice warns, "If you don't want me to come in, you'd better lock this door." Hynde describes their first encounter in "Australia," her amazement ("I was propping up the bar on my own / Mostly, guys like you say goodbye to me") as clear as her submission ("OK, pal, take me outta here"). The songs are tuneful, built on guitars and a more pleasing variation of the Americana leanings Hynde explored on "Break Up the Concrete."
That album, she says, didn't get the grassroots interest this one has. But while the promotional efforts have been exhausting, she finds the response exciting. She's especially glad they came to America.
"There's nothing happening in music over there right now," Hynde says. "It's all pop crap. ... We came over here five weeks ago looking for interest. People don't do it like this anymore. There's still all this waiting and planning a strategy. I just wanna get on with it. Why not? I mean, we met in a bar.
"When the Pretenders started, we were in the '70s, coming out of that dreadful prog-rock period. And then punk happened, which was so refreshing in so many ways. It was like bands started being taken seriously without all this posing and styling. They were just themselves. I mean, later today we have to go to some photo shoot for Women's Wear Daily, and they told me to bring four different 'looks.' You know, that is just so not me. This is my look." She gestures to her high, black boots, jeans and black T-shirt. "There's just one, really. But even with that, it just feels fresh now. We've been taken seriously based on our music ever since we came ashore six weeks ago. The whole industry has collapsed, and people are finding an audience without all the trappings and the corporate strategies. Today feels more like 1977 than ever."
But after the flush of new romance is gone, both personally and commercially speaking, what will happen next? Hynde says she and Jones have enough material for a second album, but she hedges.
"A second album would be of a different nature," she says. "We were each other's muse on this album. The next one — I dunno." A beat. "Things have changed."
And they both fidget through another lengthy silence.
JP, Chrissie & the Fairground Boys are scheduled to perform Oct. 10 at Chicago's Park West, with Amy Correia. Tickets, $25.
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Lollapalooza 2010 starts, rocks and raps with B.o.B.
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 12:23 PM
11:30 a.m. in the sun, and the sixth annual Lollapalooza in Chicago's Grant Park is under way. Already people are lined up at the bars, and the faint breezes are redolent with sun lotion, damp lawns and — there it is — a little marijuana smoke.
The first act of the day is one who doesn't deserve the crappy time slot: B.o.B., a chart-climbing hip-hop newbie with one of the year's best-selling records. He's a double-edged attack — one minute spitting quick, punchy rhymes at the growing crowd, the next playing guitar like an indie rocker, even covering a little of Vampire Weekend's "The Kids Don't Stand a Chance." (There's a cynical joke in there somewhere about the kids about to be assaulted by corporate shilling for three days ...) Atlanta's B.o.B. can deliver something for everyone. "Letter From Vietnam" is a guitar ballad, a '60s — or maybe just Lenny Kravitz-like — protest song. He picked up a guitar for it, then asked permission to keep playing it, as if he were breaking some rules to crossover back and forth. He held up his hip-hop, taunting us with "Past My Shades" and making the women in the crowd smile with "Nothin' on You" ("Beautiful girls / all over the world ..."). He mixed the rock and the rap in "Don't Let Me Fall." Fun, cheery, a good opener to the weekend's smorgasbord.
The fields are filling up, and be warned: They're not completely dry from the rain earlier in the week. Several spots are still squishy, with the potential for turning into complete pudding once the weight of thousands squeezes the water out. Don't wear your favorite shoes.
Lessons in old-school from the Walkmen, Raphael Saadiq
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 3:45 PM
Mid-afternoon Friday in the south field at Lollapalooza was about being old-school.
The Walkmen have been together 10 years. They manage to sound relatively fresh while drawing upon sounds and song styles much older than themselves, namely the squeezing, wheezing Dylanesque singing of Hamilton Leithauser, the 1950s-echoed guitar of Paul Maroon and the eerie cocktail organ of Walter Martin. Here's a band that began — born from the ashes of short-lived but explosive Jonathan Fire*Eater — all about creating certain instrumental tones. But the acquisition of Leithauser wound up deepening not only the sound but the songwriting. The new songs played from the band's upcoming next album, "Lisbon," due Sept. 14, are rich tales of wary living ("You're one of us or you're one of them," Leithauser shouted over and over) and worn romance ("There's a girl that you should know / she's from my not so long ago"). In a white button-down shirt, with sleeves rolled up, and a black tie, he leaned into the microphone, plungering his tenor through the very top of his sinuses for an incredible elongated moment during "All Hands and the Cook." One wonders how he maintains his voice over the course of a tour, but he sounded great here. Looking forward to the next disc.
After that, as Chicago's Mavis Staples took the stage in the north end of the field, a younger soul icon brought his own lessons in old-school on the main Parkways stage: Raphael Saadiq. Once a pioneer of New Jack Swing (we can now justifiably giggle at that label) in the group Tony! Toni! Tone!, Saadiq now looks like a traveling education in classic soul, complete with almost 12 band members in black Blues Brothers suits. He can lay down smooth, supple grooves, with a band that sounds as if they could back B.B. King later tonight, and talk sexy to the crowd simply singing, "Yeah, yeah, yeah," and then punch it up with a rock 'n' soul hit like "So Lady."
Are we not men? Well, they are still Devo!
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 6:47 PM
Is Devo sympathizing with humanity's plight, or just making fun?
In what was surely the most subversive set at Lollapalooza today — Lady Gaga's still to come, but she seems merely flashy and bawdy rather than really subversive — 1980s icons Devo blasted their modern folk songs about the plight of the working man and the diminishing of humanity in our automated world. Jogging on stage in gray uniforms and "Phantom of the Opera"-like half-masks, these plainly old men seemed to be rolling with the wonderment of being back at Lollapalooza, which they played years ago when it was a traveling festival (and even then were the quaint ol' vets). "It's 2010!" said Bob Casale, midway through a dynamic, multi-media set. "And we're here to f—-ing whip it again!"
Singer Mark Mothersbaugh leapt about the minimalist stage — just a drum set, two synth stands and guitars, spaciously arranged — looking extra robotic, wearing mirrored shades over his mannequin mask. But though their music has the rhythm of machinery, these are songs about the sad and worsening state of man. Even an old hit like "Girl U Want" has Mothersbaugh singing, "Look at you with your mouth watering ... she's just the girl you want." It's a common theme to Devo songs, blippy and innocent as they may appear on the surface. Look at yourself, they say. Be aware of your "Uncontrollable Urge," fight against "Going Under." Pay attention, because Madison Avenue is exploiting your urges and your apathy to make you buy things. And, hey, so are we.
As they sang "What We Do" ("breeding, pumping gas, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, do it again"), silhouetted images of various product icons flashed on the screen behind the stage, icons like the PlayStation controller and other basic "necessities" being hawked several hundred feet behind the crowd amid a forest of logos. It's machine music about reminding ourselves that we are men, not necessarily de-evolving, and it sounds as important today as it did in 1980 when computers and synthesizers were newfangled. After all, as Mothersbaugh sang to close the set — after jumping around with pom-poms, again either cheering this downward slide for our species or trying to empower us to reverse it — "A man is real! Not made of steel!"
Devo was bookended late Friday afternoon in the south end of the field by opposite ends of the energy stream. The Big Pink played beforehand, defining dullness. A limited grayscale instead of a declaration of color, they whined through a short set of electronic drone and drudgery ("fall like dominoes, fall like dominos," zzzzz). After Devo, however, came the perkiest kids in indie-rock: Matt & Kim. Every now and then, one of these coupled drum-and-something duos comes along, but never as relentlessly cheery as Matt Johnson (vocals, keyboards) and Kim Schifino (vocals, drums). Opening with one of several instrumental fanfares they'd play, Johnson asked both Schifino and the crowd, "Are you ready to get wild?" It takes some doing to pump up a festival-size crowd when you're only two strong, but these two have tactics. Schifino smiles so wide and so hard its almost threatening, the kind of unwavering grin you can only learn in realty school or have drilled into you by Sue Sylvester. Johnson doesn't allow the keyboard to hem him in; he jumps, he kicks, he climbs, he strikes Grecian urn poses. He had to catch his breath after only the third song. The songs — "Good Old-Fashioned Nightmare," "5K," "Light Speed" and, yes, "Lessons Learned" (the one with the video of them stripping down in Times Square) — with Johnson's plunky, piano-lesson melodies, don't always live up to the party vibe of the hosts, but they throw a lively one nonetheless.
Lollapalooza centers on Lady Gaga's Broadway bluster
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 11:53 PM
Early this year, Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell said Lady Gaga's performance would be the "centerpiece" of this summer's sixth annual concert festival in Grant Park. He said $150,000 was spent on the staging for the pop star's Monster Ball Tour theatrics.
In a conversation backstage Friday afternoon, Farrell said, "Did you see how many trucks she has? 18! And one of them is just for her wardrobe."
At this point, after a rise in the pop culture that defines meteoric, Lady Gaga is the centerpiece of any space she inhabits. Her gravity sucked most of the total crowd — estimated by Farrell at 80,000 strong Friday — from Friday's other headliner, the Strokes. The guy standing next to me throughout Gaga's show? Wearing a Strokes T-shirt.
So rock is dead, and somehow Broadway won. Lady Gaga's performance was a highly scripted, bewildering, bedazzled psychological drama, with production values right off the Great White Way.
Her two-hour set played like a jukebox musical — a bunch of Gaga hits strung together with a loose story line about kids in a broken-down car trying to get to the Monster Ball.
Our Lady first appeared in silhouette, singing "Dance in the Dark" in the first of many outlandish costumes fresh off the semi, including enormous shoulder pads, a nun's habit with a see-through plastic suit, a huge fringed lampshade, even the same disco-ball bra she wore when she played a Lollapalooza side stage for a small crowd as an unknown in 2007. She tackled all the hits — "Just Dance," "Love Game," "Poker Face," an encore of "Bad Romance" — from her two albums.
But the songs themselves seemed inconsequential next to Lady Gaga's evangelism. If you've ever been picked on, scorned, denied or in any way counted out, Lady Gaga wants you to know, she understands. Numerous litanies — frequently punctuated with unusually hoarse, throaty, Courtney Love screaming to get her point across — hammered this point, even if the songs only do indirectly. Born Stefani Germanotta, she was picked on in school, which she mentioned four times. Her conquering of pop culture and filling of Grant Park, she seemed to conclude, is vindication and validation. And you can have this, too. Let your freak flag fly with pride and you, too, shall be saved!
Someone's gotta say this to every generation, and it might as well be her this time around. She's just not adding a whole lot to it other than an overload of drama. Girl kinda needs to get over herself.
The attitude behind this is very aggressive, too, and you can see it in the choreography — all punches and thrown elbows and monster claws. Everyone on stage frowns and sneers. The band members flip each other off. The bassist is dressed like a military commando. Gaga's expletive-laced homilies end with screams that say, in essence, "F—- you, world!" She rips her stockings, she smears herself with blood, she's seen in a video dressed in delicate chiffons — and a gas mask. She strives to obliterate every convention of beauty, and she says she's doing it so we can "be FREEEEEEEE!"
"What I really hate," she added, "I hate money." (spit take!) Then the ridiculous scream again: "I don't want your money, I WANT YOUR SOOOOOOUL!" This before she tried to out-sacrilege Madonna (a profane prayer, a bleeding angel statue, comparing herself to Jesus) and added, in possibly her truest statement (despite also explaining that, next to money, she really "hates the truth"): "I don't care who you are or what you believe, all I care about is what you think of me."
What I think of her: She's an incredible talent, but she's buried it in all this showy nonsense that she seems to think has grand, transcendent meaning. When things quieted down and she sat at the piano, alone, she was stunning and truly entertaining, holding the crowd in the palm of her hand with greater power than the dancing and the mugging and the light show. She's got a helluva voice and can control or dish the vibrato with a master's skill. "Speechless" easily leaves a listener just that way, and a new song, "You and I," was a killer ballad with meat on its bones. She sounded like Bonnie Raitt when she sang it, and she certainly left us all something to talk about.
These piano ballads were also the only time we saw a sign of real humanity from Lady Gaga. She smiled. Before and after these two moments, she strutted through her performance with an eerie lack of facial expression, a completely vacant face, even when screaming. Here, she gave a shout-out to her dad. She brought out her former partner, Lady Starlight, for a brief dance routine to Metallica's "Metal Militia." She laughed. As she pounded out "You and I," she looked moved, awestruck, impassioned.
But the humanity disappeared once back on script. Then it was little more than cues and costumes and ... fireworks. It was "family night" with the Chicago Bears tonight at Soldier Field. Just as the curtain went up for Gaga's third act, a barrage of fireworks went off directly behind the stage (and over Soldier). A lot of people in the crowd wondered if this was part of Gaga's show — understandable given the aforementioned $150K spent, her obvious penchant for production excess and, hey, the fireworks lasted exactly as long as it took for Gaga & Co. to dance their way through "Monster."
No, they were really just an omen. See those, Stef? See how brightly they burn, and how quickly they fade?
Making it work with Wild Beasts, Stars, Soft Pack
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2010 5:17 PM
Saturday lunch hour and the north field of Lollapalooza is lurching and leaning into the straightforward rock of the Soft Pack. This San Diego quartet effects nonchalance — "Here's a new song. Whatever." — but plays like they mean it, filling the park, already packed with reddening bodies, with a grinding, fat-bottomed sound. They're the Fall, no, now they're the Hives. Matt Lamkin is as exciting singing lazy "all right's" and "oh yeah's" as he is roaring with conviction that you should "Answer for Yourself." Basic and emboldening, the way a Saturday morning should be.
In the park's Petrillo Band Shell, next came the Wild Beasts. Such nice blokes, these British boys. Not beastly at all, thanking us kindly for our attention and wishing us a wonderful day. And the music, all chiming guitars and soaring vocals. Just beautiful.
Until you start hearing what they're singing about. There are tales of hoodlums running wild in the streets, "scaring the oldies into their dressing gowns." There are serious threats against "any rival who goes for our girls." The title track of the British band's sophomore CD, "Two Dancers," recounts almost "Clockwork Orange"-like violence: "They dragged me by the ankles through the street / They passed me round them like a piece of meat." The disc's opening track, all humming synthesizers and beautiful bass lines and wood-block rhythms, finds singer Hayden Thorpe, sounding like a demented Jimmy Somerville, howling, "This is a booty call ... my boot, my boot, my boot up your ——hole." Alas, there was no one posted to the sign language station for this show; demonstrating those lyrics would've been added entertainment.
But the Mercury Prize-nominated Wild Beasts are a surprisingly great festival band, their cinematic songs and layered effects luring half-interested fans to the sun-baked pavement in front of the band shell. The sun is warm today but not brutal, and occasional relief from clouds add to the dreamlike feeling, especially with the right music. Thorpe sings mostly in an airy falsetto, a rare treat in modern rock, and it's more than a gimmick. It's difficult to imagine this music wrapping around another kind of voice, not with that light, vibrating timbre to the bass, not with that ringing Johnny Marr-ish guitar. Yes, there's the Smiths reference. Listening to the Wild Beasts, it's not unrealistic to trace the family tree of their leering, melodic style back through Gene (the Smiths of the '90s) to the debut of Morrissey, another daring high-scale singer. Bassist Tom Fleming takes occasional lead singing duties, too, alternating between a low bellow and his variation on the upper register as he did on "All the King's Men," from "Two Dancers." Earlier material had more spunk, a livelier step ("Brave Bulging," "The Devil's Crayon"), but the show came to a big, satisfying finish with the new "Hooting and Hollering."
Some bands, though, struggle to present themselves well in the heat of the afternoon sun. Canada's Stars tried to puff up their delicate sound, making themselves seem larger — good advice if encountering a bear in the woods, but as successful if encountering thousands of expectant fans in an urban park. This is a band that crafts intelligent mini-suites about romantic intrigue, led by two singers (Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan) with thin, soft voices. With the tracks carefully separated on CD, it's moving and magical. Live, it's sometimes a challenge, moreso outside of a dark club or theater. The band started slowly on Saturday, moving in slo-mo for some kind of effect and showering the crowd with white roses and the mylar debris of several hand-held confetti cannons. But that couldn't quite fill the void. Millan was sometimes hard to hear, intoning almost at a whisper (on "One More Night"), and Campbell forced his voice a little too hard in an apparent effort to be heard, though often he wasn't, either. When they joined together for "We Don't Want Your Body" — a new song that one of my companions said sounds alarmingly like a Debbie Gibson comeback effort — they at least began to pick up steam, charging to the end of the hourlong set with ripping takes on "I Died So I Could Haunt You," "Take Me to the Riot" and the closer, "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead."
Green Day plays on ... and on and on
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2010 10:29 PM
Friday night, Lady Gaga enjoyed the surprise addition of fireworks to her show, courtesy of a fortuitously timed barrage from the Bears' family night at Soldier Field directly behind Lollapalooza's main stage in the south end of Hutchinson Field in Chicago's Grant Park. Saturday night, pop-punk trio Green Day brought their own.
In a two-hour-plus set, singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool filled the stage with good ol' rock 'n' roll stage antics. Here's a band that has actually gone Broadway, creating a stage musical out of their hit concept album, "American Idiot." But instead of loading down their show with scripted theatrics, they relied on the basics — pyro, fireworks, pulling people on stage and endless exhortations to fans to put their hands in the air.
Note to Green Day fans: Want to get close to Billie Joe? Your chances aren't slim. Study the attention-getting tactics of audience members on game shows such as "The Price Is Right" and "Let's Make a Deal," because that's what a Green Day show has become. Armstrong spends much of the show shopping for fans to bring on stage. Five times, in fact, starting with a student from France, Matthew Sauvetre. He'd been waiting against the barricades all day, and he took the stage during "Know Your Enemy" waving a French flag. After that, Billie Joe pulled a young girl (not older than 10, who he then proceeded to ask, "Keira, do you want to start a f—-in' war?!"), an older woman to help him sing "Are We the Waiting," a small crowd of people and, near the end, a young guy to sing the entirety of "Longview."
Classic gimmicks and a program of three-minute rock songs, however, necessitates brevity. Green Day dragged it on and on. Here's to the simple joys of rawk blown up bigger than life, but by the time we crossed the two-hour mark with the same shtick — pop! roar! OK, my hands would like to lay still for a while — it was beyond wearying.
Thirty years ago, in the heyday of the Ramones (whose recording of "Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio?" played before the show started), we never could have dreamed that a handful of power chords could propel one band to such heights — 65 million records sold, four Grammys, a Broadway show, headlining Lollapalooza before tens of thousands (Saturday's crowd was again estimated at 80,000 total). An inevitable loss of edge occurs at those altitudes. A decent catalog of socially conscious material was presented Saturday night mostly as mere fun, then devolved into time-filling quotations of hard rock hits (from Ozzy to GNR) and, yegods, "Hey Jude." What WAS fun was when Billie Joe ripped through the power-chorded nuggets with abandon, like "Nice Guys Finish Last," which he finished with a quick, self-satisfied grin.
Pack your poncho, and other reading
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2010 11:33 AM
Uh oh, rain. A swath of light rain stretches form Chicago due west, with storms in northwestern Illinois. It's all drifting to the southeast and might not trouble the bulk of Lollapalooza's afternoon. But it will heat up today, reaching into the 90s for the first time this weekend. So pack your poncho (no umbrellas, please, people behind you want to see the band) and your water bottle, and look for the booths where you can fill your water bottle for free.
Beyond this blog, other reading for today ...
Soundgarden plays tonight, reunited after 13 years. But their first show was Thursday night at the Vic.
An interview with Yoshiki from X Japan, playing at 4 today.
You dudes and your bandanas.
Lollapalooza takes over Grant Park, so tourists visiting Chicago this weekend are denied seeing one of our most famous landmarks: Buckingham Fountain.
Which, of course, means that when it heats up today, we can jump in it.
Plus: more food options!
It's the Cribs, not the Smiths
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2010 3:48 PM
How did the Smiths' Johnny Marr become indie-rock's hired gun?
Since the dissolution of the Smiths, Marr has played with a lengthy list of other stars — from the Pretenders and Neil Finn to Modest Mouse and now the Cribs. They don't seem to pick him as much as he picks them up, sidling up to them like a swinger and telling them how much he loves their music. His cred — the ringing, complex guitar he contributed to the Smiths, not his proximity to Morrissey — makes them salivate and, voila!, Marr stays employed.
His work with the Cribs in their early-afternoon set Sunday at Lollapalooza sure seemed like that: work. It's not like he's adding much more than muscle to this band, a trio of brothers before Marr joined a couple of years ago — no distinctive Rickenbacker, no skipping "This Charming Man" kinds of melodies. Just good, hard grinding with the other Jarman boys (singer-guitarist Gary, bassist-singer Ryan and drummer Ross). Which is no complaint; he holds the line solidly — doing his bit on the side of the stage with confidence and a general lack of expression — while Gary and Ryan are free to caterwaul and fling themselves (and their melodies) all over the stage. His chords underneath the desperate squeals of "Cheat on Me" certainly sounded like the Marr we (older fans, that is) could easily recognize, and then finished with use of the whammy bar and a slide. But as the last song disintegrated in feedback, with Gary and Ryan rubbing their instruments on their amps for maximum noise, Marr was putting his jacket back on. Shift's over.
A focus on Marr, however, is just another tragic result of a Gen-X Smiths fan at the helm of this particular report — an unjust diversion from a perfectly good, punkish rock band. The front Jarmans are the real entertainment, Ryan of the bowl haircut and spit-out lyrics, Gary of the pigeon-toed, neck-straining leaps toward the mic. For "Men's Needs," Ryan leapt to a lower platform, pricking a brief solo before the girls in front (wearing Smiths T-shirts). The Cribs lash out at their own songs, yelp-singing and thrashing around, knocking over mic stands without a hint of script. A labored "Be Safe," with jagged video accompaniment of some guy whining about "the complacent ones" (eye rolling here), completely stalled the band's momentum midway through the set, but they rallied.
Arcade Fire brings the heat at the end
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2010 11:15 PM
Twitter, if you haven't learned this by now, is full of lies. Sunday night, for instance, the Twitterverse was full of cruel rumors aimed at festivalgoers at either end of the park during this final night of Lollapalooza 2010. First, news spread that Eddie Vedder was in town. The mind reeled — maybe we'd get an appearance with south-field headliners Soundgarden, maybe a duet with Chris Cornell on "Hunger Strike"? Nothing happened. Then came word that David Bowie was going to appear with Arcade Fire, headlining the park's north side. He's done it before, albeit a few years ago. Again, alas, nothing doing.
But who needs Bowie? Arcade Fire emerged onto the stage from a bath of amber lights, underneath a video screen showing sunsets, horizons, billowing clouds. Then they launched into "Ready to Start," a song from their acclaimed new CD "The Suburbs." The band's return to Lollapalooza could be likened to Lady Gaga's — once on a smaller stage (in 2005), they now return as triumphant, headlining scenesters. Sunday's performance proved it was no fluke.
Arcade Fire lays down bombastic hootenannies, squeezing every ounce of drama from its dense, epic arrangements and lyrics of challenge and hope. Win Butler, grandson of lounge-era bandleader Alvino Rey, and Regine Chassagne led the large ensemble through an hour of what the Waterboys used to call "the Big Music." An hour and a half set built slowly, full of little pop suites that crept around the stage and eventually exploded with the propulsive force of, um, the band's fiddles, accordions and hand percussion.
From the machine-gun rhythms of "No Cars Go" to the encore of "Wake Up" (what was, in previous years, the Bowie moment), the band cemented its updated art-rock thesis, attributing the previous work of Talking Heads and Mercury Rev but also more mainstream bluster like Springsteen and, especially when Butler sang "Rococo," Neil Young. Somehow, Arcade Fire gets away with everything, no matter how high the moon they're shooting for, and Sunday night's set ended with a distinct ring of validation.
Before Arcade Fire, the National filled the north end of Lollapalooza with its stark but gently applied folk-rock. Sounding like U2 on a bender, or pretty much every American Music Club album, the band was joined early on by Arcade Fire's Richard Parry (introduced as "Richie from Soundgarden") on "Anyone's Ghost." National singer Matt Berninger (right, photo by AP) is a surprising rock star, sheepish, doting, poking his deep voice into mushy staccato singing, while the band hums and plods behind him in its abrasive drone. It all built to a studied squawking and yowling before Berninger plunged himself into the crowd. Despite the racket, though, there's a lot going on in this band; they'd benefit from a more focused showcase here, like (hint, hint) a Millennium Park show.
X Japan makes U.S. debut, wins converts
By Thomas Conner on August 9, 2010 12:20 AM
The other night, referring to the small crowd for the Strokes and the triumph of Lady Gaga, I quipped that rock is dead. I stand corrected.
Making its U.S. debut — after forming in 1982 and re-forming in 2007, with massive popularity in its home country — X Japan took to the Lollapalooza main stage Sunday afternoon and delivered a spectacular, almost operatic performance of big ballads and speed metal.
Given the circumstances of the premiere, a small knot of hardcore fans clustered down front for the show, some of whom traveled from all over the country for this event, dressed to the nines in X Japan's glam-anime style called "visual kei." But by the end of the show, even the mildly curious were won over by the infectious rock drama. Fists were pumping, guys were playing air guitar, people were chuckling at themselves while following suit, making the X Japan sign by crossing forearms in the air. One guy in front of me was so involved in his air guitar, he sloshed beer all over nearby fans.
X Japan only played six songs, but the theater — on the same stage where 36 hours earlier Lady Gaga had brought her bawdy Broadway peep show — was captivating. Bursting to life with plumes of pyro, the quintet launched into "Rusty Nail" with a driving rock melody that dissolved into synthesized strings. Such is the duality of X Japan, moving between hard rock and classical structures sometimes within the same measure. A new song, "Jade," opens with a kind of rumbling guitar attack that would make Metallica take notice, then it's a lumbering power ballad, then it's chugging at a breakneck pace, finally erupting into a guitars vs. drums battle. All the while singer Toshi Deyama — he looks like Roy Orbison and sings with a pinched high tenor like Steve Perry — wails away unlike a man who'd been virtually out of commission for a decade before the group re-formed.
The band's late guitarist, Hide, was able to make the debut, too, several years after his suspicious death. He appeared on the video screens while Toshi sang a slice of "Kurenai." The heart of the band, composer and drummer Yoshiki Hayashi, pounded and rolled his drums (wearing a neck brace to protect himself following drumming-related back surgery) and occasionally moved to a see-through grand piano for transitional music or to kickstart top-heavy ballads like "I.V."
At the end, Toshi asked, "Are you ready to rock?!" But the question wasn't too late, because the crowd, swept up in the frenzy, finally had an answer. "We are!" band members began shouting. The answer was to cross your forearms, marking the sign of X Japan. Over and over, this call and response continued. Once he realized he'd converted the Lollapalooza throng, Toshi changed the chant to "You are!" And we were.
Company of Thieves and other final notes
By Thomas Conner on August 9, 2010 9:45 AM
Some bands from the last loose pages of the notebooks ...
Sunday morning was surprisingly delightful and refreshing for several reasons, which were focused in one area of the park. Rain showers and breezes cooled things down briefly, the Sony Bloggie Stage benefited from this more than most because of its tree-lined, green surroundings, and one of the first acts to grace this stage was Chicago's Company of Thieves. Playing to a remarkably full crowd at this small side stage, the Company played hard. With her band giving its all behind her, singer Genevieve Schatz danced all over the stage, wailing with abandon — throaty in her range, breathy above it, never stopping to think about which was which, just going for it. This isn't a complex band, they play pretty basic pop-rock, but they were certainly spirited Sunday morning, closing with "Oscar Wilde," a popular download from their latest album, "Ordinary Riches." They were joined on the final number by pirouetting youngsters from Framework Dance Chicago; it was a little "Fame," but fun. When the show wrapped, the people around me gave it three "wow's" and a "holy crap." I heartily agreed.
Company of Thieves was on "Live From Daryl's House" once. Some other pals of Hall & Oates, Chromeo, played in the south field Friday evening just before Lady Gaga. Hearing this gig, I wouldn't put them next to Hall & Oates, though. Klymaxx, maybe, or Rick James, Sylvester, certain corners of the Prince catalog. This Montreal duo gets a not-quite-disco groove on, but it never builds a full head of steam. Even the duo's last song, their new single, "Don't Turn the Lights On," sounded like warm-up music on the PA.
Sort of like Switchfoot, ick. The Christian-mainstream band's early Sunday set didn't sound like a live band, just a modern-rock radio station cranked really loud, all pinched and compressed. "Can you hear me? / This is the sound of the desperation bound," they sang in their penultimate song. Yep.
Dawes, midday Saturday on the Bloggie stage, is a curious new artifact. An L.A. quartet of young bucks, they play a dusty genre of country rock harking back to the 1970s Laurel Canyon days (Jackson Browne, CSN, etc.). Their debut disc is called "North Hills." It's bizarre: here's an up-and-coming indie-rock band — young ones, no one's older than 25 — plying a style of music redolent of some of the industry's most bloated corporate-rock indulgences. Just further proof that everything comes back to us. Dawes is good at refreshing this sound, though, a meaty band with a guitarist, singer Taylor Goldsmith, who knows how to punch and pull his lines (just what the world needs, a new Waddy Wachtel). When they harmonize on "Love Is All I Am," they sound not like Crosby, Stills and Nash or Fleetwood Mac but the branch of country music that listened to them. After moseying through "When My Time Comes," I expected an encore of "Magnet and Steel."
Biggest crowd, plus no sitting on the fence at Lollapalooza
By Thomas Conner on August 9, 2010 2:20 PM
Lollapalooza's attendance for 2010 marks its biggest yet in Chicago: 240,000 — that's 80K each day — filled Grant Park this weekend, topping last year's three-day record of 225,000 for the weekend.
The extra bodies had extra room, too. The festival grew 35 acres this year, filling 115 acres. This allowed for significantly easier traffic flow north and south, turning Columbus Drive into a mile-long sidewalk, and avoiding the bottleneck around Buckingham Fountain that caused so many missed sets in previous years. Perry's Stage, for DJs and electronic acts, grew considerably, as did the food area.
Still, the increased space allowed for up to 95,000 participants a day. Festival organizers C3 Productions said they capped attendance at 80,000 this year to "focus on flow and room for the patrons" in the new layout, according to C3 spokeswoman Shelby Meade.
Bigger space also meant more fenceline to patrol — and more opportunity for jumpers who don't want to pay admission.
We watched this happen all weekend long. Anders Smith Lindall reported on one breach involving 30 to 60 jumpers; he got photos of others.
Saturday evening, three young guys rolled over a fence and seemed startled to find themselves behind a bar. They scattered, and security personnel went after them. I saw one apprehended, a teenage boy in a black-and-white checked shirt. He was handcuffed and led out of the fence by security. More than a dozen jumped over the fence Sunday night into the media area. Security later said 15 had been rounded up from that breach. They then sat down and compared wounds — a cut hand for one, bruised leg for another. They chalked it up to "kids being kids."
That said, as of Sunday morning, Chicago Police said they had made just 27 Lolla-related arrests, most of them for fence-jumping.
The extra bodies also mean more money for Chicago's parks.With three-day passes costing $215 this year, the added capacity was expected to bring more revenue to the parks, which get 10.25 percent of receipts.
Last year that meant about $1.9 million for the district's fund-raising partner, Parkways Foundation. The money helped pay for everything from repairs to Buckingham Fountain to scholarships for some of the city's neediest kids to go to park district camps, said Brenda Palm, Parkways' executive director.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
'Twas an esteemed watchdog of modern society who once said, "I say, whip it. Whip it good!"
The music of Devo is chirpy and chilly, perky and punky, and the pioneering synthesizer band's early hits are enshrined in the seeming fluff of 1980s pop culture. But when Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale assembled the band in the late '70s, they had serious social commentary in mind.
The name itself is a shortening of "de-evolution," an idea that humankind actually regresses as it moves forward in time, instead of evolves toward an ever-brighter enlightenment. In the cold but still tuneful medium of electronic new wave, Devo was able to match the message to the medium, producing catchy but often controversial songs about the apeman on the train next to you ("Jocko Homo"), the perils of having "Freedom of Choice" and a rockist-riling cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction."
The latest revival of the Devo brand came this year with a new studio album, the lively and toothy "Something for Everybody," and a new tour, which includes a stop this weekend at Lollapalooza in Grant Park.
Mothersbaugh spoke with the Sun-Times about the band's revival of misfortunes, how they have tried to use advertising against itself and the pitiful state of the world overall:
Q. What drew you back to the studio after 10 years?
A. We're old-timers, and we forgot what made us stop in the first place. Kidding. Actually, we met with our label [Warner Bros.] and instead of pontificating to us about what a record company is and what an artist does, they said, "We're trying to reinvent ourselves. Maybe you can help us."
Q. The brave new world you've been singing about has arrived. Why join them on their quest?
A. We always want to be a part of something new and changing. The Internet has changed the way musicians and artists create art, and the way audiences experience it. It's even changed what art is. I like it. To me, YouTube is much more interesting than MTV ever was. For what you lose in some sort of quality, just the idea that you can watch this incredible encyclopedia of all sorts of music and art and information, well, I think it would be a really great time to be 20 years old and thinking, "I want to be an artist, but I don't know what to do."
Q. Your first experiences with Warner Bros., I'm guessing, were not open, round-table discussions.
A. [Laughs] There was a marketing meeting when we first landed at Warner [in 1977]. We're sitting around a table with these guys, and one guy goes, "Here's the marketing plan for your music: We're going to put life-size cut-outs of you in every major record store in the country." And then he just leaned back and smiled and the other guys tipped their coffee cups. We looked around. That was it. We said, "How much will that cost?" $5,000. "Can we have that money to make a film instead?" They were like, "A film? What can we do with a film?" We took the $5,000 and made the "Satisfaction" video, and they indeed had no idea what to do with it. We mostly showed it on a screen before we started our shows. But we kept talking about sound and vision, sound and vision. Then along came MTV, and instead of killing rock outright it kind of propped it up for another 10-15 years.
Q. Why is Devo always wrapped up inextricably with marketing and advertising?
A. It goes back to our beginnings. Gerry [Casale, the other Devo co-founder] and I were at Kent State in 1970, protesting the Vietnam War. Gerry was there the day they shot the kids on campus. I was protesting because, OK, they're commies, I don't care. They can have bad government if they want; I don't want us to be napalming them for it. After the shootings, everyone went quiet. So the first thing we learned was: rebellion is obsolete in capitalist culture.
Q. Even though that's the founding image of rock 'n' roll.
A. Exactly, but look how they all change. The Sex Pistols turned into groovy fashion statements. Anything political they were about was turned into a way for capitalists to make money. We wondered: How do affect change in a democracy? Who does it best? Even then, it was Madison Avenue. They don't do it by attacking, they do it by hugging you to death. So while we don't like most of the things they sell us — it's mostly conspicuous consumption and mindless consumerism — the techniques they use work. So we thought: What if we use those techniques for good instead of evil?
Q. You had this conversation with a major record label?
A. This time we did. They wanted us back. We said, "On one condition: Let us use an ad agency for marketing instead of you guys." We talked them into hiring Mother [a new ad agency in Los Angeles], and we talked to them about marketing a brand that had been off the marketplace for 25 years. We did focus groups, color studies, all kinds of things. We wound up using advertising techniques to skewer themselves but also advance our cause, so to speak.
Q. Haven't Devo songs have been used in ads for years, hawking all manner of products?
A. We've licensed Devo songs a thousand times, always have, always wanted to. "Whip It" has been "flip it" and "strip it" and Swiffer, I think, made it "Swiff it." To me, if that stupid commercial puts Devo in your head, and some kid who doesn't really know the song hears it and makes a connection to Devo, maybe he'll be proactive to find out what we're all about, hear the real lyrics, make it more important. It's like when "Freedom of Choice" gets used in a beer commercial. I don't drink beer, but if a beer drinker hears the lyric and it makes him think, "What do they mean by that?" that's better than not thinking it.
Q. You play both sides of this game. You write a lot of music for TV commercials. You even used to slip in subliminal messages, right?
A. I did do that early on, yes. I'd sneak in Devo catchphrases, like "Duty now for the future" and "Be like your ancestors or be different." If I didn't like the product, I'd put in "Sugar is bad for you" or "Question authority." It's easy to do. I lost interest after about 40 of them. It's funny, though, when you're unveiling these things in meetings, and you get to the part where you can barely hear "Choose your mutations carefully." I have to be careful not to blush.
Q. Why did you stop?
A. It's not necessary anymore. More people believe in our original concept of de-evolution than ever. Years ago, they thought we just had a bad attitude. We're just about the Captain & Tennille at this point. Honestly, I didn't think de-evolution would happen so soon. But here we are waiting in incredibly long lines at the airport for incredibly old planes with not enough food or water or air, and we have way too many people and no one is talking about the biggest problem on the planet, which is overpopulation. I never thought it would be like this so quickly. But, hey, we do have portable cell phones.
WITH DIRTY PROJECTORS
• 7:30 p.m. Thursday
• Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee
• $35-$100; congresschicago.com
• 4 p.m. Friday
• Grant Park, Michigan and Congress
• $90-$850; lollapalooza.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Jon Bon Jovi is standing up.
The only reason that's news is because he blew out a calf muscle on stage July 9 during a concert at New Meadowlands Stadium in his home state of New Jersey.
"I got another leg," he told the crowd. "I don't need this one."
He hobbled back to the microphone and finished the show with "Livin' on a Prayer."
"The leg's back now, miraculously, with all the rehab I've had," Bon Jovi told the Sun-Times in an interview Wednesday. "If I was a football player, I'd say I'm 'probable' to play. Really I've just nursed all the sympathy I could get at home, and now I've gotta go back to work."
Work is a prominent theme on his latest record, "The Circle." Bon Jovi's job has looked the same for nearly 30 years — playing one massive stadium show after another. This weekend, he returns to Chicago for two nights at Soldier Field. After that, more stadiums and arenas in 30 countries for the next two years. Again.
The Circle Tour already is the top-grossing tour in North America. Bon Jovi's last tour also had that distinction, in 2008. Amid all the reports of canceled shows and trimmed-back tours this summer, Bon Jovi's stadium gigs emerge as one of the few winners. Thus far in 2010, he's played 38 shows, selling half a million tickets and banking $52.8 million, according to Pollstar.
Since long before the band hit it big with the 1986 album "Slippery When Wet" ("Livin' on a Prayer," "You Give Love a Bad Name," "Wanted Dead or Alive"), Bon Jovi has been playing the big venues. "It's what we've done since the inception of this band," he said during a conversation that reflected on the first stadium shows, the new music business and writing a song about Jennifer Hudson.
Q. These tours are clearly huge undertakings. Do you have a limit? What would be too big for you?
A. Well, I was the guy quoted saying that I wanted to play and sell out the desert — more than once. I've always been very comfortable in the big venues. It's not an issue of being too big as long as it's manageable, for us and the fans, and the business calls for it. And we're having fun, which we still are.
Q. Do you remember the first arena you played?
A. Yes: 1983, opening for ZZ Top at Madison Square Garden. Talk about a daunting venue — this was before we'd even released a record. It took courage, but we did it. ... It was really only daunting inasmuch as this was the fabled Madison Square Garden, a place where heroes have walked. Every kid out there thinks that tennis racket is going to turn into a guitar and they're going to have the chance to speak to someone. We got there. We got in trouble, too. We had more people backstage than ZZ Top had times 10. We invited everyone. There was one case of beer between about 150 people. We didn't even get to meet ZZ. It was a fantasy.
Q. Do you still get nervous at all?
A. Not so much nerves, but anticipation. I ask: "Are you prepared?" I've never had stage fright, if that's what you mean.
Q. What do you attribute that to?
A. If you really want to dissect it, it goes back to the drinking age in New Jersey being 18 back in the '70s, which meant you could sneak into bars as young as 16. You'd get to see bands, and you thought that was the big time. And every step along the way, that was the big time. From the dance to the club to headlining a club to theaters and stadiums — every step on that path you said, "This is it! I've made it!" ... It all goes back to that naivete or innocence at 16. I didn't have to go to the service, and I was young enough I could live at home, and I didn't have a family to support, so I could chase this dream. When the drinking age changed to 21, it changed the opportunities for the next generation of kids. Now you had to get to about 19 before you could sneak in and see a rock band, and by then things can be different.
Q. In the '80s, you had the quintessential success story: make a record, hand it to a DJ, he plays it, it catches on, sign the record contract. Could you pull that off today?
A. Yeah, but in a different way. The public spaces are on the Internet now, and the audiences aren't as big. "The Loop" [Chicago's WLUP-FM] had a voice back then. There were places like that where DJs had influence and were style makers. There are a couple of those guys still in the world. Pierre Robert in Philadelphia [at WMMR-FM] is a throwback to that. He guides you through what's going on, including some social activism. But if a kid like me walked into a Clear Channel chain now ... no one's going to come out and say, "Sure, let's spin this on the air in Chicago!" He'd get his ass whooped.
Q. When did you realize that had changed?
A. One day in Chicago. I remember walking Michigan Avenue — right? where all the stores are? — to that huge Virgin Megastore that was there until three or four years ago. I'd go there whenever I was in Chicago. I'd buy DVDs and CDs and whatever junk, anything and everything. I walked down there one day to see it all gone and thought that's the beginning of, not the end but — it was definitely my nose slamming into the face of the record business and thinking, "Well, the new generation better find us a trick, because the old generation has given away the keys to the kingdom."
Q. Puts "7800 Fahrenheit" in a new light, eh?
A. You know, I had a conversation with Doug Morris, now the head of Universal [Media Group, Bon Jovi's current record label]. He was president of Atlantic Records when they tried to sign me in 1983. There we were in a meeting with [Atlantic founder] Ahmet Ertegun and Doug and all these guys trying to sign me, and we didn't sign. I did my deal at Polygram. But Doug wound up at Unversal, and I asked him, "What would have happened if I'd signed with Atlantic?" He said, "To tell you the truth, I don't know if we'd have made 'Slippery When Wet.'" I said, "Why?" He said, "You know, your first two albums did OK, but chances are we wouldn't have given you that third shot. That's the way Atlantic used to think. If you're not headlining after two records, move on." And now here he is the president of my label, saying, "Sure glad we didn't drop you."
Q. I'm guessing this is why you remain in at least some contact with aspiring bands, putting contest winners on your stadium bills [like Chicago's 7th Heaven, opening Friday's concert].
A. I've been doing the opening band contest for years. I love it. I want them to get the opportunity to go out there and see what it would be like on Christmas morning, the way we lived. If anything, it's a motivation tool. When they've tasted that ZZ Top moment, they go back home and work harder and figure out things, whether it's soliciting fans in the aisles with fliers they've made or giving away CDs 'cause they've made 500 of them or calling the newspaper and telling them what you do, getting an article written about you. My day or this day, you've got to work hard at it.
Q. How's "The Circle" doing?
A. Well enough, in this day and age. I think it's a fabulous album that says a lot.
Q. You do seem to be tackling topical matters more than ever here. How do you approach current events without crossing the line into folk music?
A. We think universally and timelessly. Case in point: the song "Bullet." One Sunday morning Richie [Sambora, guitarist] was at my house, and I'm watching "Meet the Press," and it's about Jennifer Hudson's brother-in-law, what's his name? The guy who killed her family members on a rampage? [On Oct. 24, 2008, actress-singer Hudson's mother, brother and nephew were murdered on the South Side. Hudson's estranged brother-in-law, William Balfour, has been charged with the murders.] He's this guy going, like, "Why didn't I get mine?" Awful. But instead of sitting down and writing a song with his name in it or hers, with a specific day and date, you make your case because this same situation is going to happen again in five years somewhere else. You speak to the larger issues. You ask whether the song will stand up 20 years from now and is the message going to be clear.
with Kid Rock and 7th Heaven (Friday)
with Kid Rock and the Worsties (Saturday)
7 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Soldier Field, 1400 S. Museum Campus Dr.
Tickets: $36.50-$500; ticketmaster.com (Friday is sold out)
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Pitchfork Music Festival opens ... sounding pretty folkie
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 4:40 PM
Bright sun, water bottles, brooding singer-songwriters — this must be the sixth Pitchfork Music Festival. The annual hootenanny is now under way in Chicago's Union Park ... and it sounds like a hootenanny. The fest opened Friday afternoon with two fine strummers that made the venue sound more like a folk festival than the go-to shopping mall of indie rock.
Sharon Van Etten had the daunting job of not just kicking off the afternoon's music but doing so by squinting and singing directly into the July sun. Van Etten warbled her shy solo tunes. The crowd gathered. A warm-up indeed.
But it was the Tallest Man on Earth, aka Kristian Matsson, who brought the first real musical heat. Skinny, scruffy, charging boldly around the stage with his small-body acoustic guitar, Matsson played some fine folk songs. Opening with the title track to his new CD "The Wild Hunt" and strumming hard through to "King of Spain," Matsson growled and howled through a set of easy chords and pastoral lyrics in the tradition of America's best traditional music. Which is all the more impressive since he's here from Sweden. Small wonder he was so enthusiastically received at the Sasquatch Music Festival earlier.
This weekend each year I'm often instead at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. Both Van Etten and Matsson could swing hard on the folk fest circuit. The fact that they are welcomed so warmly in the heart of indie rock — Matsson numerous times thanked the crowd "for being so lovely" — hopefully is a pleasing portent for the "genre."
Pitchfork Music Festival: Believing in the Liars
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 6:06 PM
Ain't no folkie fest no more.
Angus Andrews, singer for the Liars, is prowling the Pitchfork main stage, shrieking over the band's fractured, stop-start rhythms. The cacophony he's raising is terrible and terrifying. His vocals — a series of owl cries and electronically distorted yowls — rise and fall over guitar lines played carefully just a half tone off where they should be, and the bass lurks and dodges in the lengthening shadows. This doesn't sound like a 10-year-old band. The Liars are still throwing in everything and the kitchen sink, like an underpracticed, angry Supergrass, though they've definitely ramped up the intensity of their caterwaul since the release of this year's "Sisterworld." "The devil's in Chicago at motherf—-in' Pitchfork!" Andrews shouts. Then, in his lovely British accent, he politely and demurely says, "Thanks so much for having us" and preaches for a second about not throwing water bottles. I knew it was all an act.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Stay cool with cheaper water
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 9:28 PM
Friday's late-afternoon start to the Pitchfork Music Festival was certainly hot in Chicago's Union Park. But it's been hotter, and staff reported no unusual increase in heat-related medical care. Just to be on the safe side, however, the festival decided Friday to cut the cost of water in half. Bottled water is now available for $1, and will remain so throughout the weekend.
"Out of concern for the heat, we're trying to be proactive," said Pitchfork staffer Anders Smith Lindall. This came shortly after an announcement from the main stage that water would be handed to concertgoers pressed against the front barricades, where some fans had already been pulled and treated for heat exhaustion.
Music starts earlier in the day Saturday and Sunday, meaning more time for fans to be under the sun. A high of 90 is forecast each day.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Rockin' Robyn!
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 10:46 PM
Who knew the best performer of the day would be a blonde bombshell spinning Euro-disco? Robyn — another Swede on Friday's bill and a former child star who's fought hard to regain her own artistic control — came out fighting, throwing punches in the air when she wasn't doing that elbows-high, shoulder-leaning dance all '80s female singers used to do.
Feisty, sexy, spunky Robyn opened with the virtues of being a "Fembot," assured us that love hurts "With Every Heartbeat" and sang flawlessly through new single "Dancing on My Own" in front of a band dressed in all white, twiddling knobs and pounding synth-pad drums. The latter really exploded at the end of "Cobrastyle," with Robyn showing some kick-box dancing. Her Pink-ish feistiness reached its zenith in "Don't F—-ing Tell Me What to Do," during which she led some kind of aerobics class (sporting a totally Pat Benatar green beret, too).
And she was the crowd favorite.
Go figure. I had grown to assume this was a fairly rockist crowd, and I was originally surprised by the booking of this talented but very dance-pop artist on the venerable Pitchfork bill. But she embodies the spirit of whatever "indie" started out to mean. She debuted at 16 as an R&B starlet, and she's faced consistent and constant stumbling blocks in her business dealings which have kept her from the States. Even back in 2003, she was collaborating with experimental synth-pop outfit the Knife while her label was releasing a sugary best-of over here. She bought herself out of her record contract and started making the kind of music she wanted, and suddenly she won Grammys (in Sweden). Now she's doing her thing, releasing three "Body Talk" EPs — the second one's due Sept. 7 and might include a collaboration with Snoop Dogg! — and finally making an impact in the United States. Just last night she was singing at the Arvika Festival in Sweden, and after Pitchfork comes a North American tour, co-headlining with Kelis.
Judging by the diversity of the people dancing determinedly to her songs tonight, it should be a great tour.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Broken Social Scene, Modest Mouse
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 11:18 PM
Sundown slowed down with Broken Social Scene, a sprawling Toronto collective with a few Chicago roots. This band makes a lovely sound, even if the songs don't always gel behind the chiming guitars and palpitating drums.
Thirty-one musicians appear on the band's latest CD, "Forgiveness Rock Record," recorded in Chicago under the guidance of John McEntire from Tortoise and the Sea & Cake. McEntire himself played a second drum set on stage Friday night, adding needed extra heft to gauzy arrangements that tend to sag if not tended carefully.
This loosey-goosey ensemble, which tends to trade instruments among each other, was most engaging when they got the pulse going, rollicking through "Texico Bitches" and the rumbling furnace of "Cause = Time," which featured five guitars. The set ended in a see-sawing riff with strings that evoked the most intense Poi Dog Pondering drones.
Alas, the evening wrapped with Modest Mouse, a rodent of a band whose major-label indie rock (work that phrase out for a while) deserves the restraint implied by its name.
Now that the trinket of ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr is being worn by another indie-rock sweetheart (the Cribs) — though new guitarist Jim Fairchild did a helluva job filling those shoes, particularly during "Satellite Skin" — Modest Mouse is just a tuneless junkyard of discarded song parts. Frontman and the band's sole constant Isaac Brock is one of the most difficult singers to enjoy in rock and roll, and when he picks up that banjo for "The Devil's Workday" and sings about hanging himself for treason, well, hey, we got some rope. The God-awful funk beats of "Education," the stand-up bass — they're just a dissonant Dave Matthews Band, and the neo-hippies in the crowd were twirling in their calico prints to prove it.
Pitchfork Music Festival: In a Delorean, plus Dam-Funk
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2010 6:40 PM
Delorean in the summer heat is a weird and wonderful experience. Hitting the stage switched on, they build layer upon layer, loop upon loop — dreamy synth sounds that build and build and then ease off, one tune blending into another. That has the effect of inducing a dreamy state, which coupled with the blaring sun on your neck could induce a crazy euphoria. Or, like the guy behind me, you could just complain, "They've been playing this same song for half an hour." But listen closely, behind bassist Ekhi Lopetegi's thin vocals, and there are intricate patterns in the sampled piano and the vox humana. Despite the scraggly page-boys and beards, this band is not grounded in rock but draws more from the Balearic house music of their native Barcelona, Spain. Lopetegi's bass, though, and Guillermo Astrain's guitar bring enough vibration to a rock crowd to keep it on its feet. Primal Scream, we hardly knew ye.
California's Dâm-Funk (DJ Damon Riddick) got a late start on the shady balance stage, but in no time he laid down some fat beats and was advising us, "You gotta keep your hood pass intact, y'all." Dâm-Funk (it's pronounced "dame") mostly just turned on sounds and rhythms, then stalked the stage singing like a lost DeBarge. Then he pulled out the keytar and started into his trademark, slow, mostly instrumental jams. Joined by a live drummer and an extra synth player, Dâm-Funk updated '70s and '80s urban soul, and he stayed classy even when the shouts from Wu-Tang's Raekwon intruded from across the park. Since he was late starting, he even cut his set short. "We gotta respect the other bands, y'all," he said, removing the keytar. "We got four more songs, but f—- it. Peace!" Such consideration! Only at Pitchfork.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Titus Andronicus is no tragedy
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2010 6:47 PM
Best band of Saturday afternoon: Titus Andronicus, a blazing band from Glen Rock, N.J., a location that has allowed them to absorb the best of bombast from Springsteen, the fire of post-punk from New York and possibly even a little Philly soul. "I'm sweating like a pregnant nun talking to the pope," said frontman Patrick Stickles after lurching out of another of the band's nihilistic songs, "No Future, Part 3." But their outlook isn't completely bleak. The song hammers a refrain, "You'll always be a loser!" over and over before concluding: "But that's OK." The quintet was augmented by a few support players, piano and strings and horns; the extra players weren't necessary, but Titus Andronicus songs are multi-level, architectural creations with a capacity for a lot of extra decor. This is band that can write as well as it rocks, and God does it rock. At one moment Stickles is picking a spidery melody on his guitar, next the kinetic Amy Klein is crunching into the tune, and — as in the sprawling "Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ" — it all builds to a triumphant bashing. Near the end the guitars screeched in harmony and hit a northern highlands rhythm like they were Big Country. Then they turn around with the panache and the chops to introduce the band via a jump-bluesy tune, "And Ever." Brutal and friendly, vicious and tender, Titus Andronicus has it all.
Pitchfork Music Festival: The rain doesn't really help
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 2:00 PM
Day 3 of the sixth annual Pitchfork Music Festival, which began in 2005 as Intonation, is under way in the sultry summer heat. A noontime thunder shower moved through quickly, cooling things off for a matter of moments before the sun returned and added the evaporated rain to the day's humidity totals.
Water remains at half price, a dollar a bottle. Still, the line for the free water is longer than that for the bottled variety. Pitchfork staffer (and occasional Sun-Times contributor) Anders Smith Lindall says festival workers are handing out water bottles to distressed concertgoers when the line gets excruciatingly long.
Those who don't mind earning their reward — and helping to keep the park clear of debris — can earn one beverage ticket (worth a buck, for one bottle of water) for every 10 discarded plastic cups collected and returned to the recycling booth.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Best Coast is the best
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 3:30 PM
Sunday's music at the Pitchfork Music Festival began with dessert. Between the dull, thudding chords of Cass McCombs and the first laconic and then tortured feedback of the Girls, a fresh, sunny new pop band called Best Coast held down the Balance stage — the "small" stage, under the trees — with a workmanlike attitude and a handful of cheery love ditties. Ultimately unpretentious, Best Coast (Bethany Cosentino and two pals) ran through songs from the debut "Crazy for You" CD, filled with bright major chords and lyrics like "I'll try to make you mine" and "that's just not your deal." The crowd got a big chuckle when she sang, "I lost my job / I miss my mom / I wish my cat could talk." She closed with the trendy single "When I'm With You," the repeated refrain of which is, "When I'm with you, I have fun." So true.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Local Natives are fleet and foxy
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 5:19 PM
Seattle's Fleet Foxes brought beautiful harmonies back to modern music, rescuing three-part tenor singing from the vaults of Crosby, Stills & Nash. But as beautiful as "White Winter Hymnal" can be, the band hasn't yet jumped up and shown any oomph.
Orange County's Local Natives have seized that opportunity, and Sunday afternoon at the Pitchfork Music Festival they delivered a set of exciting, rhythmic music laced with the energy of post-punk as well as those sweet, core harmonies. Much of their music is built around what their voices can achieve, and the fact that they achieved it the brutal July Chicago heat is impressive. But these harmonies have teeth. Kelcey Ayer took charge of most of the proceedings, hitting beautiful high notes while bashing the bejesus out of his small stand-up drum kit. The beats he added to the regular drummer's rhythm — sometimes Ayer would play keyboard with his left hand and drum with his right — made songs like "Airplanes" blast like a jet engine. "Camera Talk," the evolving "Shape Shifter," the cover of the Talking Heads' "Warning Signs" — it was all fleet and (dig guitarist-singer Taylor Rice's stache!) very foxy.
Earlier, clouds provided sweet relief from the heat just as Beach House began its Sunday afternoon set. Mother Nature knows how to set the mood. Despite the summery name, Beach House makes cool — no, chill — music. With piercing vocals and a hushed, daydreamy tone to the hypnotic sounds, Beach House is made for a little less light.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Major Lazer, Big Boi
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 10:41 PM
Saturday evening began with the digital dub attack of Major Lazer, a computerized dancehall project of Diplo — marking a return to Pitchfork — and Switch. For an hour they assaulted the adoring crowd with very little music, mostly just bleats and blasts that sound like various industrial park alarms. The noises dodged and moved — a frenetic mess for the ADHD set — and Diplo spent most of his stage time shouting the name Major Lazer (at least four dozen times) and begging the crowd for hands in the air.
Big Boi doesn't have to beg.
Strutting on stage with one of his Atlanta MCs, the other half of hip-hop's acclaimed Outkast starting flinging syllables, eventually firing fastfastfast through "Ghetto Musick" over a machine-gun beat. A relentless hourlong set featured several Outkast hits (a snappy run through "Ms. Jackson") and a few guests, ranging from guest singer Neil Garrard for the tuneful "Follow Us" to a trash-talking youngster. The set dragged on and the beats became monotonous, but when he launched into "ATLiens" and hollered, "Put your hands in the air!" it was superfluous. They'd been up for a while.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Pavement resurfaces
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 11:45 PM
Pavement has worn all three tags hung on this music. Here's a band that was serviced to college radio, came to define a certain smoky corner of alt-rock and now is lionized as indie heroes with a worldwide reunion tour and headlining slot at the Pitchfork fest. The band's much-anticipated set couldn't have begun more appropriately — first with a long, meandering introductory rant by Drag City's Ryan Murphy about the contrasts between this festival and Lollapalooza, among other topics, and then a false start to the opener, "Cut Your Hair." The band that worked hard but looked like slackers is still in perfect non-form.
Band leader Stephen Malkmus played facing stage left, and other band members frequently played with their backs to the crowd. Malkmus kept throwing sidelong glances at his old mates as if he wasn't sure what came next. As he maintained a carefree composure — all casual smirks, air drumming and lazy twirls — multi-instrumentalist Bob Nastanovich jumped around most of the time like a devilish imp, hollering through "Debris Slide" and rapping, if you call it that, through "Unfair," which built to such caterwauling mayhem that guitarist Scott Kannberg even tried a scissor kick.
One minute it was amazing the whole thing was still on the rails, like they should be following the Smith Westerns on the B stage, the next — such synchronized beauty and cacophony. The end result being, hey, Pavement has a serious legacy, after all. The echoes we've been hearing at this festival, this weekend and years past, they all came together in one joyfully sloppy master class of indie rock.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
By David Byrne
Viking, 303 pages, $25.95
On the Talking Heads' 1979 album, "Fear of Music," the disembodied, hesitant voice of singer David Byrne runs down the virtues and disadvantages of the world's metropolises in the song "Cities." "I'm checking them out," he says of various spots, from London to El Paso. "I got it figured out / There's good points and bad points / But it all works out."
Such might be the epigram for this innovative musician's latest foray into publishing. Bicycle Diaries is a spruced-up bundle of Byrne's personal journals, focusing exclusively on his observations on a variety of subjects inspired by his travels. The chapter titles — "London," "Berlin," "Istanbul," "Baltimore, Detroit, Sweetwater, Columbus, New Orleans, Pittsburgh," etc. — are evidence of a man who gets around. Their content shows a keen, nonjudgmental intellect with occasionally intriguing insight into modern life and the things we construct to live it in.
For about 30 years, Byrne has been riding bicycles as his primary means of transportation. He two-wheels it around New York City (a brave man) and packs folding bicycles when he travels around the world to perform concerts or curate art exhibits or speak at various cultural events. He keeps a renaissance man's schedule, and by cycling from the hotel to the museum or the venue, he experiences cities up-close and sees their architecture in great detail and gains a feeling for the character of the pedestrians that's more savory and, sometimes literally, in-your-face than that experienced behind the windows of a car, bus or train. "In a car," he writes from Detroit, "one would have sought out a freeway, one of the notorious concrete arteries, and would never have seen any of this stuff."
However, other than infrequent mentions of odd bicycle lanes or public policy related to cyclists, Bicycle Diaries is not about cycling at all. It's about the stuff. It's not a series of diaries about bicycling; it's about the places where Byrne happened to be pedaling and the things along the way that turned his head. But it's not even really a travelogue, either, though he does provide a general sense of place for each city he discusses. His observations of the urban environment are usually little more than occasional mentions of how difficult or easy it is to bike there, or superfluous-but-colorful notations like this: "Sydney. Hooley freaking dooley, what a weird and gorgeous city!" He only brings up "the cycling meme" as a means of explaining, usually offhand, why he's seeing the things he's seeing.
Instead, this is a cheerfully rambling stream of sentience about such wide-ranging topics as censorship, self-censorship, the uses of music, art (a lot of art, complete with many intriguing photos), "the morbidity of beauty," post-9/11 angst, gentrification, the fauna of Australia, suburban sprawl, PowerPoint and other miscellany. Like his music, the prose is easygoing, fluid, a quick read. There's no central thesis, but it's a nice ride with interesting scenery.
Byrne, famous as a pop singer, drifts naturally in and out of his subjects and only occasionally discusses music. Again, the concerts he's in town for are his raison d'etre for taking a bike ride and ending up in a seven-page discussion of, for instance, Imelda Marcos. Often his musical observations are not his at all, but he claims them by repeating them, such as this astute point of view from an acquaintance in Buenos Aries: "Nito said that rock and roll is now viewed as the music of the big companies, as it emanates from the large, usually northern, wealthy countries, and therefore is no loner considered to be the voice of the people — not even the people where it comes from." (In a later chapter, he opines a bit on hip-hop, calling it "corporate rebellion," and noting that Chicago hip-hopper R. Kelly's " 'Trapped in the Closet' is one of the wackiest and most creative video pieces I've seen in years.")
In many of these chapters, Byrne seems intrigued and slightly fascinated by the foreigner's clearer — and always wiser — perspective on our own American culture. But in his account of Buenos Aries, that tide turns when he discovers that the natives hardly listen to their native music and are surprised when Byrne's own band begins playing salsa-flavored melodies and samba rhythms in concert.
These are simply the diaries of an insightful fellow with his eyes open, moving a bit more slowly through your town. A more fitting epigram, in this case, might be a line from a song by Chicago band Poi Dog Pondering. In "The Ancient Egyptians," Poi Dog singer Frank Orrall describes the many human civilizations that expanded and thrived despite the lack of automobiles. When friends insist on jumping into a cab or car, he sings, "But I say no, no, no / and didn't you know / you get to know things better when they go by slow."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Lindsey Buckingham is attempting to explain why his on-again, off-again megastar band, Fleetwood Mac, is on the road again without an album to support. Nothing to sell. Just the classic band (himself, Stevie Nicks, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood — still no Christine McVie), together again, playing the hits. He provides lots of deeply considered reasons, yadda yadda — but then he says something extraordinary.
"Maybe someone came to the conclusion that it might not be a bad time to go out and do some dates to use as hang time, as a proving ground," he says. "It's an inverted model, for sure, but there's something to it."
Proving ground? What could Fleetwood Mac — author of one of the biggest-selling albums of all time, 1977's "Rumours" — possibly have to prove at this point?
Buckingham chuckles. He's used to people straining to square his massive insecurities with his equally massive successes.
"In a general sense, every time you get together to do something new, you have to start thinking after all these years there are still things for us to work out emotionally, historically. We are a band of couples who broke up and got through it living in various states of denial and never getting closure — at least from my perspective — and it leaves a lot of stuff hanging out there.
"I took off in '87 to regain my sanity, and the band died a slow death without me. That didn't make me feel too bad," he snickers. "Without sounding too vindictive, it was nice to know they needed me. ... But we're still a work in progress in terms of those interactions. There are still things that need to be worked through."
Kind of amazing, isn't it? More than 30 years after Buckingham and Nicks split up at the dawn of the band's success, the "issues" remain that palpable between them. He still considers the band a "band of couples who broke up." And that was always part of the appeal — the telenovela-like drama and tension between two of the fiercest artistic personalities in Southern California.
Buckingham, at least, still hopes to harness that tension for more musical magic. He and the other members seem to be viewing this tour as a casual way for the quartet to settle a bit, to get back into some kind of rhythm that would produce a new record.
It's the elephant in the room that each member treads carefully around.
"There have been discussions, for sure, that we would love to make some more music," said founding drummer Mick Fleetwood, during an earlier teleconference with the band. "I think it's really down to the whole sort of biorhythms of how everyone is feeling and what's appropriate."
They're still so careful when speaking of each other, except Nicks, who remarked — with discernable astonishment — how well they were all getting on so far and added, "Lindsey has been in incredibly good humor since we started rehearsal. When Lindsey is in a good humor, everybody is in a good humor."
They still look to him, take their cues from him, and he remains the band's creative linchpin. The last few Mac albums he was on — you know, the successful ones — each began as Buckingham solo projects that the record label and the band begged to turn into band efforts. "Tango in the Night" sounds like his crystalline solo work with a few warmer Nicks and McVie songs added. Buckingham had asked Fleetwood and bassist John McVie to back him on another solo album that, with the addition of four Nicks songs, became Fleetwood Mac's 2003 comeback CD, "Say You Will."
But he'd like that pattern to change.
After "Say You Will," Buckingham told the band to leave him alone for three years, during which he exorcised two back-to-back solo discs: the quieter, almost indie-rock outing "Under the Skin" in 2006, and last year's slightly harder rocking "Gift of Screws." As a result, Buckingham says he feels refreshed and at the height of his creative powers.
"Having accomplished what I wanted to do with both solo albums, I'm really in the best place I've been artistically," he says. "I tapped into things I wanted to get to for a long time. And I have a lot of new material — I could drop another solo album at any time — but no one's talking yet about a new Mac album, at least for a while. Still, I'm pointedly not fleshing out my new stuff, so that I might be able to show it to the band and let it take on a life in the context of that.
"The way we used to do it, we'd each have rough ideas and would get together and the songs would get formulized and brought into some sort of life for the first time through a set of Fleetwood Mac eyes. More often than not, over the last few experiences it's been my solo material that had to be slightly altered to make it feel more Fleetwood Mac-like. So I'd really welcome the chance to come to these people with things a little less fleshed out, something that might be born as Fleetwood Mac rather than being just ... painted like it."
So he speaks of this tour as a "way to create a level of ferment" among the band again, and adds uncharacteristic optimism of "bringing things to light in a more organic way by being together without a real reason."
The question is: Do you want to pay $50 to $150 for a ticket to watch four grizzled but talented music makers "hang" and "ferment"? Buckingham says the band is not using the tour as an expensive woodshed.
"We've very pointedly stuck to catalog for this tour," he says, adding, "There is still validity in looking at this body of work, the irony being that this is what most people want to hear from us, anyway. I figure, let's make our mantra just hanging and working on the rough edges in terms of personal interactions with band members. That in itself will be part of the preparation for making an album, whenever that does happen."
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday
Where: Allstate Arena, 6920 N. Mannheim, Rosemont
Phone: (312) 559-1212
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Speaking with Mark Eitzel, it's always surprising how cheery he is. His music, and that of his band, American Music Club, is soft and sad, stirring and smoky. "Brooding" is an overused adjective for it. He's often written off as a grump, a depressive. And while he certainly has a record of behavior and lyrics to convict him of those charges, he's more often a smiling, self-deprecating goofball.
"It's a real bore," Eitzel says of the assumptions about him. "People think I'm so morose, but I'm not. My music honestly is a reflection of what I see in people's eyes. Which, yeah, is morose. In San Francisco, take the bus — I mean, c'mon, it's morose. Unless someone's yelling 'Cracker!' at you, which happens every time I ride the bus."
And soon he's laughing and spitting out two other facts that are still a surprise about him.
"Yes, I'm turning 50, but I'm a gay man, so I can say I'm perpetually 29." He laughs some more. Really. "I'm a middle-aged gay man, which is one step away from being a grande dame."
It's not usually the same personality that sighs through supple songs such as "All My Love," "Decibels and Little Pills" and "I Know That's Not Really You" on American Music Club's latest album, the second since they reunited a few years ago, "The Golden Age."
There are also two songs aimed at his heralded hometown: "All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Francisco" and "The Grand Duchess of San Francisco." (Not the grande dame, ahem.) Always a booster for the City by the Bay, these two San Fran titles may have been a reaction against the city in which "The Golden Age" was actually recorded: Los Angeles.
"I'm not one of those San Franciscans who hates L.A., though. I love L.A.," Eitzel says. "That's a big thing: Everyone in L.A. hates San Francisco and vice versa. It's a bore. I have a lot of friends down there ... but I'm not gonna live there. I need city. I need a downtown that's not full of stupid violent people and one I can walk across. I don't want to always be driving, driving, driving."
But surely the change of locale altered his songwriting perspective, as has happened for countless rock bands who relocate to an L.A. studio, from Steely Dan to Folk Implosion.
"Well, with Steely Dan, my God, that much coke use would change anyone," Eitzel says. More laughing. "And, sure, it had its effect. I wrote my first song there beside a kidney-shaped swimming pool with a view of the city. You can't help but love it. It's a mirage on sand. It's completely fake. But it's great. And I like having stupid conversations, really. L.A. is comforting that way. You don't have to think too hard."
Eitzel spent his last two solo albums twiddling knobs more than strumming guitars, especially the disc "Candy Ass," which is not his most beloved outing.
"That was never supposed to come out," he says. "I did it for the money, honestly. I kinda hate it. I was rushed and I didn't use the good stuff."
American Music Club will never slip down the electronic slope, he promises. "AMC is very much a guitar band. Nothing else."
But Eitzel is still stretching his musical experience. He's writing a musical.
"I'm collaborating with [British playwright] Simon Stephens," Eitzel says. "It's going really well. It's a non-narrative kind of musical, a little bit odd. The songs and the action go together in a very elliptical way. We tried some of them out on some opera aficionados, and they hated it, which is good. They can suck on my big f—-in' butt. You can print that."
He's really laughing now.
AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB
- 10:30 p.m. Saturday
- Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
- Tickets, $15
- (773) 525-2508
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Storms: My Life WIth Lindsey Buckingham and Fleetwood Mac
By Carol Ann Harris
Chicago Review Press,
400 pages, $24.95
So maybe you've heard that the members of Fleetwood Mac did a little cocaine in their heyday? Well, make no mistake, they did a lot of cocaine. Unbelievable amounts. All the time. Everywhere.
Carol Ann Harris — girlfriend of Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham from the 1977 release of the band's megahit album "Rumours" through Buckingham's second solo album in the early '80s — recalls how each band member took a powder before, during and after nearly every concert. In her new memoir, Storms: My Life With Lindsey Buckingham and Fleetwood Mac, she recalls the first night of the "Rumours" tour, when the road manager "J.C." ordered Buckingham, singer Stevie Nicks and the rest of the band to line up backstage a few minutes before show time.
"They seemed to know what came next," she writes. "Like obedient schoolchildren, the band formed their line, holding out their fists. J.C. poured a small pile of cocaine onto each wrist. 'Two minutes! Let's toot and get those roses in your cheeks, Stevie!' "
The artificial stimulants continued throughout the concerts, too, with roadies supplying bottlecaps full of blow to tables in the wings. "During the show, the band would fade back to the speakers at every opportunity and give themselves a bottlecap pick-me-up," Harris writes. "On Christine and John's [McVie] side of the stage, vodka tonics were replenished as needed, and on Lindsey's side ... his roadie always kept a joint going."
In this book, that's supposed to be the fun part. Then the domestic violence begins — sudden bursts of fury from Buckingham that would vanish as quickly as they appeared but leave behind physical and mental wounds — and what first seemed to Harris like a fairy-tale romance in swingin' '70s Los Angeles turned into a downward spiral of monstrous abuse and fear. Now, 30 years after it all began, Harris is finally publishing her candid account — and a rare glimpse — of life inside the band.
Q. So why write this book now?
A. I actually started writing in 1990. Everyone assumes I just sat down and wrote it this year. It originally started as some writing for myself. I decided to start writing about what I went through, going through all my journals and tapes. By 1991, I had about a thousand-page manuscript. A friend helped me organize it, and we started paring it down. The fact that I was a battered woman really kept driving me, but that's such a small part of the book. It's mainly just a story of what it's like to be with the band. I've been asked a million times, "What was it like?" So I tried my best to give an eyewitness account.
Q. How aware was the band that you were working on this, and what have the reactions been?
A. Sarah Fleetwood [wife of drummer Mick] and I remained best friends for years, so she knew from the very beginning, from the first page. I'm friends with John Courage, too ["J.C."], and made sure the band knew. They've known for years. I don't know how they feel about the finished book, but I hope they like a lot of it.
Q. You haven't heard anything from them?
A. No reactions. It's been very silent. I fully expected feedback — these are not people who stand by quietly for anything.
Q. OK, so the cocaine. Wow. That was a lot of blow.
A. People are shocked by this. I thought everyone already knew that. It was funny at the time, though it was a sheer miracle we weren't busted. It was everywhere. The band never tried to hide it.
Q. Why do you think the drugs were such an integral part of this particular group — or was it like this with every other band, too, and Mac just gets the press about it?
A. I didn't tour with other bands, but you know, members of the Eagles have spoken publicly about drug use. From my experience, it's so exhausting and just such pressure [to be a touring musician]. These people going out on the road singing the same song night after night, doing three cities in three days, and doing it all for a year at a time — it's exhausting. The cocaine kept them going. And four members were in relationships that crumbled, so having to perform night after night with someone you'd like to never see again, and singing songs about that very fact, well, it drives you to crazy things.
Q. Do you think the music would have been different without the drugs?
A. There's a new article in Classic Rock [magazine], an interview with [Fleetwood Mac producers] Ken Calliat and Richard Dashut talking about that. The band was so high on blow that they made music that was edgier and more powerful. But then, who knows how great it could've been without the cocaine?
Q. This is a cliched question of abused women, I fear, but I think the tension in this narrative begs it: Why did you suffer abuse for so long before leaving Lindsey Buckingham?
A. It was not like you've probably heard or seen domestic abuse portrayed. I never got the apology the next day, the bouquet of flowers and the "Sorry, I'll never do that again." I got up the next day and he refused to speak about it, like it never happened. It never seemed to happen for a concrete reason. It's not that I was out too late or had done something or was being punished. It would happen out of the blue. It didn't make sense, so I thought it was my fault. I'm not a good enough girlfriend, I'm not relieving his pressure. I blamed it on the pressure of the music, this album or that album, being on the road.
Q. What finally led you to leave him?
A. That episode at the end of the book, when he'd really hurt me and I went to Century City Hospital so badly injured. And I had to say it out loud: This was done, I was injured. That doctor — what I wrote was verbatim, I never forgot what he said — saying, "You have to leave him." It was a huge wakeup call.
Q. Lindsey and Stevie broke up before you two were together, but their romantic tension endures to this day, at least in the view of the public. Why is that?
A. Because their relationship is trapped in those great songs that are still played over and over, and which mean something to so many people still. It's interesting to me that when most people break up, people cease to see you as a couple. For Christine and John, and especially for Stevie and Lindsey, they'll always be a couple. The public will always see them as Romeo and Juliet because they still perform together and sing those songs.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
"Live: All Access"
(Digital Music Group)
The liner notes to Dwight Twilley's first live record include a mention of who provided the limos. This is hilarious for two reasons. First, it tells you everything you need to know about how Mr. Twilley remains a legend in his own mind. Second, I spent several years covering Twilley in his hometown of Tulsa, Okla., and the idea that anyone rode in a limo to The Venue, the plain-Jane club where this rollicking show was recorded last year, is akin to a tuxedoed prom stud helping his date out of a stretch Hummer for dinner at Chili's.
But that's the uncompromising beauty of Twilley. Relocated back to what fellow hometowners Hanson dubbed the "Middle of Nowhere," Twilley's regal air has never waned. He had just two Top 20 hits, ferpetesake — 1975's "I'm on Fire" and 1984's "Girls" — and I'm willing to bet you can't hum either of them. More's the pity, frankly, because (a) they're killer rock singles, especially the first, and (b) Twilley's defiant (stubborn?) maintenance of his Rock Star stance is a thrilling anachronism in an age in which the reports of rock's death are not greatly exaggerated. His voice is finally showing signs of wear here, but he charges hard through a criminally overlooked catalog of rockabilly-fueled rockers and McCartney-dreamy ballads. It's a helluva show, kids, swinging from the boogie of his own "10,000 American Scuba Divers Dancin' " to Larry Williams' chugging 1958 classic "Slow Down."
Rock on, brother D., and tell the driver to keep the champagne cold.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
AND THEY ALL SANG: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey
By Studs Terkel
New Press, 336 pages, $16.95
GIANTS OF JAZZ
By Studs Terkel
New Press, 224 pages, $14.95
Let's — just this once — not refer to Studs Terkel as an oral historian. It's a title even he probably finds a bit dubious and, for the purposes of this article at least, it doesn't work. Oral historians sit and talk to one person for 12 hours, the reel-to-reel whirring all the while, and it all gets typed up for a dissertation shelved in a university library. Sure, Terkel wound up making a helluva career by popularizing something along these lines, but he started out as a disc jockey. He chatted with guests for hardly more than an hour. He probed their creative process and apparently applied some of it to his own published work. That is, he found the common threads — the melody — in American life, and like a true folk musician he used his talents to remind us that we're all part of something bigger than ourselves.
This seems to have been his goal, conscious or not, right out of the gate, as illustrated in two new paperbacks hearkening back to the chattier, tuneful dawn of Studs. And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey is last year's round-up of conversations Terkel conducted with musicians on his Chicago-based radio show, largely from the '50s and '60s; and Giants of Jazz is yet another reprint of Terkel's first book, comprised of 13 concise and compelling biographies of the pioneers of American jazz.
"Your jazz is something more than just something invented," he tells singer Betty Carter in a 1989 interview from And They All Sang. "It's part of a continuity." This is the overall Terkel Thesis, and it formed here among these early considerations of music. His life's work has been looking at individuals and how they relate to the whole messy mass of society, and American popular music is expertly adept at reflecting that very relationship. (These books focus on jazz and classical music, mostly, which were, believe it or not, once the popular music of the country.)
And They All Sang gets opera singers, composers and even a young, already-evasive Bob Dylan discussing who they are by means of who inspired them. Giants of Jazz, though, is expertly structured to illustrate this. For example, the chapter on Louis Armstrong is sandwiched between the one about King Oliver (who mentored young Louis) and Bessie Smith (who was affected by the sound of Louis' horn); Smith's bio mentions the moment Bix Beiderbecke heard her sing, a moment that left him in awe — and which figures into his own chapter, the next one. These links build a chain throughout the book — mashing up with full force when Count Basie and Charlie Parker hit Kansas City, and then when Dizzy Gillespie meets Bird — and they leave the impression that, yes, each individual was a formidable talent but, no, the opportunity for that talent to succeed did not present itself in a vacuum. These musicians were a part of something greater than themselves, and their own personalities amplified the human race as a whole. It's all part of a continuity.
That idea succeeds in these texts not only because of the way Terkel assembles and sequences the Jazz bios, but also by virtue of the space he allows his subjects — both in the spotlight he gives them in Jazz and in the airtime he allowed them on radio. Then again, throughout the interviews in And They All Sang, Terkel's subjects speak freely not only because they have some time to talk but because their interviewer clearly is a musical autodidact. He's not just well-informed but wide open to all forms of music, asking questions of Janis Joplin (they talk about primitive inspirations vs. new technologies) and Keith Jarrett (they discuss his piano technique) that are as thoughtful and insightful as those he lobs at Sol Jurok (the impresario discusses singer Feodor Chaliapin) and Leonard Bernstein (the two share a moment of discovery about Terkel's performance as Editor Daily in "The Cradle Will Rock").
In other words, Terkel's not just a fan with a chat show. He listens, in every sense of the word. And that's the rare talent that made his own career worthy of countless media interviews.
But again, this is not oral history. This, at least in the case of And They All Sang, is transcribed radio where conversations, driven by time constraints, often are incomplete. And sometimes they make a difficult read. Sitar player Ravi Shankar, for instance, discusses Indian music this way: "Based on this scale, this raga has its own ascending, descending movements. I'll just give you a little example. [He plays] This is equivalent to the major scale, for instance. [He plays] On each of these scales, we have got hundreds of ragas. [He plays] What I'm playing actually are the skeletons of the ragas, known as the ascending and descending movements." Bet those brackets sounded great on the air, but they're hardly enlightening on the page.
Jazz, however, is deceptively alluring, presenting itself as dry facts but carefully crafted so as to suck you into the intoxicating brew of history — and its meanings. Sitting down with this book and an iTunes account makes for an exciting survey course in jazz music, which continues to evolve. But Terkel, who wrote the book in 1957 and updated it in 1975, explains at the end, in the final chapter "Jazz Is the Music of Many," why he chose these 13 players and singers: "In a number of cases the lives and careers of these men [and women] intertwined. In all cases their music did. For the story of jazz cannot be confined to one era or to one style. It is a story of continuous growth. . . . Jazz is one long chain. The lives and the music of these 13 artists are among its major links."
By Thomas Conner
© The Chicago Sun-Times
The fastidiousness of Donald Fagen is well-documented among his band's considerable contributions to rock 'n' roll. In the studio for Steely Dan records, six-hour sessions were common just to polish 12 bars of rhythm guitar. Noted session musicians would be brought in at great expense to play jazzlike guitar and sax solos — solos Fagen already had written and carefully notated for them. This control freakishness gave Steely Dan's hits and album tracks their celebrated (and sometimes derided) slickness and meticulous swing.
Saturday night at the Chicago Theatre, however, Fagen — at 58 and on his first ever solo tour — showed signs of mellowing with age, of letting go of the little stuff. At least he made it look that way.
Midway through his less-than-two-hour set, he paused and slumped at his center-stage electric piano. "What do we do now?" he asked. It was a rhetorical question, but the lively audience was quick to answer by shouting requests. "Oh, right there, I heard it!" he said, then turned to his band and seemed to call the next tune ("Third World Man"). Donald Fagen appeared to — gasp! — take a request.
It may have been an act (though given the varied set lists I've seen from the tour thus far, probably not), but it was indicative of Fagen's feistiness while free of his longtime Steely Dan cohort Walter Becker. By himself, Fagen clearly wants to get his groove on. His solo albums (one per decade since 1982) have been driven by backbeats more prominent than on most Dan albums before the turn-of-the-century reunion.
This was clear Saturday night whenever the set veered from solo work — powered by metronomic drummer Keith Carlock's sparse kit and Freddie Washington's gurgling bass — to a handful of Dan album tracks, each of which opened up the full range of Fagen's nine-piece band. The Dan tunes breathed a bit more, the sound was fuller, richer, broader, and the ensemble sounded like an ensemble. That was the goal of Steely Dan, after all — to combine '50s R&B with the careful arrangement of Ellington's big bands. Fagen on his own, though, tends to shrug off the Ellingtonia and get down to basics.
That's not a criticism of his solo work, just a distinction — hopefully a helpful one, given that so many critics write about Fagen's solo outings as indistinguishable echoes of Steely Dan. Every time I've seen Steely Dan live, Fagen has slunk onto the stage, a sheepish member of a large band. Saturday night, though, he strutted onto the stage, plopped down at his keyboard and, raising a single finger high into the air, jabbed down the first notes of "Green Flower Street" like a call to order, or arms. The tight interplay of the rhythm section on that song set the tone for the evening. This was a groove-centric rock 'n' soul revue.
Most of Fagen's song selections were delightful surprises — "Teahouse on the Tracks," "Home at Last," "Goodbye Look," "FM," even a left-field cover of "Mis'ry and the Blues" from 1930s Oklahoma City-Chicago musician Charlie LaVere. The new CD, "Morph the Cat," was represented but not dwelled upon (just "Brite Nitegown," "Mary Shut the Garden Door" and "What I Do," featuring Chicago harmonica player Howard Levy). His encore was just one song — again, Fagen slumped and seemed unsure what to play. "I feel like just playing something fast," he said and launched the band into Chuck Berry's "Viva Viva Rock 'n' Roll" with a scorching solo from guitarist Jon Herington.
Therein, too, lies another sign of Fagen's relaxed grip. Of the two guitarists onstage Saturday night, Herington and Wayne Krantz, only the former seemed up to Fagen's previous finicky standards. Krantz's solos often went too far afield of the melody, even the countermelody, and filled the theater with a dizzying number of notes. His delivery seemed clumsy, too, as if his left fingers were bandaged. Herington, though he didn't get as many solos, was superb — clean, crisp, remarkably fluid and with a more rockin' tone that suited the somewhat restless spirit of the set. His playing was sharp enough to inspire hopes he'd romp into "Reelin' in the Years." Alas, no.
The show was so groove-tastic, though, that two attendees remarked after the show that they wished the tour was playing smaller venues — so they could have danced. Here's to Fagen's return next time in Uptown — the Aragon? the Green Mill?
at Chicago Theatre
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The black-clad, tattooed viking of a singer stomps around the stage with a microphone clenched against his spittle-spewing lips. Calling this guy a "singer," you realize, is generous — a job title not quite accurate to the duty he performs, which is more shrieking, roaring, growling and screaming. And whether you respect the catharsis of these "death metal" bands or shake your graying locks at these kids today, you ask the same question: How does that guy do that night after night and not completely shred his vocal chords?
One woman has the answer — a short, cheery red-headed PTA mom in suburban New York. Her name is Melissa Cross, but you can call her the Scream Queen.
"I am not your mother," she says by way of introduction on her new DVD "The Zen of Screaming: Vocal Instruction for a New Breed," though she is parent to a 5-year-old boy. "He certainly knows how to scream," she added during a recent phone interview from her home. "He's imitating me all the time."
Cross, 48, is not a physician, but she's the Dr. Feelgood for the latest wave of hard-core bands tagged with such descriptors as "death metal," "death grunt," "grindcore" or "doom rock." She coaches these young men — they're almost always male, though she just picked up a girl from the band Arch Enemy — on how to communicate their passion without destroying their voices.
"They were getting hurt," she says of the bands she saw screaming their lungs out onstage, "and as the genre became more popular and these kids were getting picked up by major labels, I was suddenly the only voice teacher that tolerated them."
Those major labels sought to protect their investments, so they put Cross on speed-dial. She now has a client roster that looks like the soundtrack to the latest big-budget horror franchise, performers such as Andrew W.K. and former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, and bands such as Lamb of God, Shadows Fall, Thursday, Killswitch Engage, the Agony Scene and Sick of It All.
Many of these singers give testimonials in "The Zen of Screaming" (now in stores from, appropriately, Loud Mouth). One confesses, "We're no Pavarottis."
Corey Taylor isn't, either. But his band, Slipknot, just won the Grammy for best metal performance. Taylor trained with Cross last year.
Learns to warm up
"It was such a revelation," he said of Cross' vocal techniques. "It's all about movement, warming up the muscles as well as the voice. A lot of times you go out onstage and you haven't done anything with your body, so even if you have a voice that night it just feels dead. Practicing all this stuff all together before I go out lets me hit the stage with everything, ready to go."
Taylor told of an earlier vocal injury, which he suffered after screaming too hard onstage. One of his vocal chords swelled; the injury looked more serious than it was, and for a time Taylor feared his meteoric rock career would end prematurely.
"I would just scream and get the craziest sound I could to vent the emotion. It was destroying my voice," he said. "I've lost a lot of range from doing that, actually. It kind of bums me out."
Cross led her own punk band while training in Shakespearean theater and opera at school in England; she even opened for Black Flag and X. But when she got back to the States, a friend began introducing her to many of the new hard-core bands he was producing as the styles emerged in the mid-'80s. By 1990, she was teaching classical voice full time.
But the rockers kept asking her questions about technique. She decided to turn her informal lessons into something bigger.
Word of mouth
"I had the education to deal with it, so I took them on. They ultimately became well-known — one called Overcast, one became Shadows Fall, another one went to All That Remains. I had Killswitch Engage back then. One client was from Hatebreed, and he never showed up to his lesson. But he told a bunch of people he was coming, and word got around."
Cross has the definition of a sunny disposition. Rosy cheeks, fair skin, and she has lots of tapestries and crafty things lying around. Into her cozy studio walk these hulking tattooed guys.
"Ironically, most of the kids are very soft-spoken and, I would say, repressed," she said. "That's why they do what they do. They're up there screaming because they have to. Their lives are so messed up, and they need the release. Most of them are very humble, polite and idealistic — not the monsters they play onstage."
They come to the Cross studio not so much for technical training but for behavior modification. The key, she said, is to teach them how to channel their emotion — which is the key in these genres — through different physical processes.
"There's always a light bulb moment," she said. "I see it every day. It's a change in the imagery, the ability to divorce the emotional aspect out of the throat. It's like an acting gig: You feel something, but you have the control not to let it permeate the muscles you need to do the work and make the sound. You dissociate somewhat. You feel anger and passion, but you don't make it feel like it sounds. So you can still be in the moment but utterly in control of your instrument."
The passion is what draws her to this music, anyway.
Enjoys passion, power
"I like any music that has integrity. I'm not exclusively a fan of this stuff. I like opera and Beethoven and the Bulgarian Women's Choir. What I really like is the honesty of a performance. This music is full of it. It's theatrical, Shakespearean. At Shakespeare plays they used to throw blood and guts from the stage. It's reality TV onstage. But it can only move you if the performers have what they need to perform — over and over and over. No artistic voice deserves to be silenced just because they felt things too strongly."
A second "Zen of Screaming" instructional video is already in the works. This first installment, oddly enough, contains little actual screaming; Cross promises the sequel will have more. After that, it's "The Zen of Speaking" — tips for "stock traders, aerobic leaders, tour guides, anyone who has to speak loudly for a living."
In the video "The Zen of Screaming: Vocal Instruction for a New Breed," voice coach Melissa Cross knows how to speak to her young rock 'n' roll audience. A sample of some of her vocal techniques, which probably aren't in the conservatory curriculum:
The Strapless Bra
In explaining how to expand the rib cage for maximum air supply while singing, Cross tells a female student about the "Strapless Bra" posture. "You know, if you have one on that's too big, and you have to expand your diaphragm to hold it on while you rush to the bathroom?" Strike that pose.
'Above the pencil'
Cross places an ordinary pencil between the teeth of her students, teaching them the difference between projecting the voice seemingly over it and under it. Over it is the goal, and the difference is clarion.
Or "the brown note," a colorful term for the flexing of a certain group of muscles also employed during, er, gastric evacuation. Is that diplomatic enough?
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.