Monday, September 14, 2009

Concert review: Elephant Gun, The Teenage Prayers, and Brother George at Morseland 9/4/09

Tucked away in Rogers Park, the Morseland has a mid-size pub/restaurant atmosphere with a decent number of live music offerings throughout the week, and there was a particularly choice show featuring three local and independent Americana/rock bands on the evening of September 4th.

The evening opened with Chicago-based quartet Brother George's set of old-timey vocal harmonies, folk/Americana influences, and plenty of instrument-swapping as various band members traded guitars, drums, and bass while taking lead vocals. One of the stand-out sounds from the songs in the set was often-doubled lead guitar and bass riffs. The hummable melodies and choir atmosphere gave the band's electric live sound (the band's studio recordings are acoustic) a friendly, collaborative feel.

Embarking that evening on a seven-city tour with Brother George, New York's The Teenage Prayers had a classic rock/Americana feel (at times during the set, one could compare their sound to The Band). Again, collaboration seemed to be the overriding vibe from the set; everybody onstage seemed to join in on the choruses of songs, and the band's welcoming sound drew you in to the fold.

The evening's headliners were Elephant Gun, a rather large rock/Americana outfit from Chicago, and honestly, with seven people on the stage and a big, lush live sound to match, there are very few contemporary acts in (or out of) the area that could have followed their performance Friday night. The songwriting is solid, the melodies are memorable, but a big part of the appeal of seeing this band perform live comes from the energetic and visually entertaining stage show; the way the members of this band play their instruments is entertaining on its own. It is obvious watching Elephant Gun that the musicians love what they are doing, and that there isn't any place they'd rather be, which infects the audience with the same energy. By the end of the night, they had gotten a lot of people up on their feet and dancing to their frenetic countrified rock. Elephant Gun's new album, Beartime Stories, is due out in October.

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This article also appears on Chicago Indie Rock Examiner and Windy City Rock.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Concert review: Free Energy, Old Fake, and Village at Schubas 9/2/09

Ex-Living Blue frontman Stephen Ucherek's new project, Village, has already produced some good material, as evinced by his solo set last Wednesday at Schubas. The new sound carries the psychedelic sound of The Living Blue's most recent album, Walk Talk Rhythm Roam, a bit farther, featuring reverb-heavy vocals and jangly guitar strum-riffs. Although there were definitely moments during the set that could have benefited from a full musical outfit, Ucherek's hypnotic solo appearance as Village was surprisingly rich.

Another promising new addition to Chicago's local music scene comes from Old Fake, whose live sound combined 60s pop songwriting forms with the bombastic flair of garage blues-rock. The set was loud and got the hump-day audience up on their feet and moving to the music.

Philadelphia's Free Energy had some tough acts to follow Wednesday night, and although the ex-Hockey Night band members looked like the most egregious victims of hipster fashion when they took the stage, they at least played an enjoyable set of 70s-inspired glam/prog rock. Highlights of their live set included the bell-like clarity of the frontman's vocals, sparkling guitar fills, and a downright bizarre Q-and-A session between the audience and the band while their bassist replaced a broken string in order to finish the set. It was worth sticking around for.


Old Fake will be playing Sunday, September 20 with Wavves and Ganglians at The Empty Bottle.

Village will be playing downstate in Champaign-Urbana Friday, September 18 as part of the Pygmalion Music Festival.

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This article also appears on Chicago Indie Rock Music Examiner and Windy City Rock.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Concert review: Roman Candle, The Rikters, and Phonograph at Schubas 8/30/09

The indie rock offerings this past Sunday at Schubas Tavern lived up to the beloved Chicago venue's reputation for live music.

The evening started with two members of Brooklyn-based Phonograph playing a set with a pared-back texture of guitar and piano that still managed to have a rich (albeit mellow) sound. The songs were harmonically interesting with solid chord progressions, and frontman Matthew Welsh's soulful voice was well-suited to the mood of the songs. The band has a new album, OKNO, due out at the end of the month.

Chicago's own The Rikters have developed a solid following in the local music scene, and if last Sunday's lighthearted performance was typical of their live show, it's easy to see why. Although the band's mainstream alternative sound wasn't particularly well matched with the folk/Americana stylings of the other bands on the bill, nobody really seemed to mind. Fans in the audience danced to the songs and laughed with the band between songs.

Headliners Roman Candle were an absolute delight from start to finish, delivering a set full of frontman Skip Matheny's homey anecdotes and wry, life-embracing songs. The Chapel Hill band's rich sonic fabric can be likened to a patchwork quilt: familiar, comforting, and vibrant. I highly recommend seeing their next show in Chicago.

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This article also appears on Chicago Indie Rock Examiner and Windy City Rock.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Concert review: Andrew Bird at Schubas 8/6/09

Chicago's own Andrew Bird played an absolutely stunning live set at Schubas Tavern yestrerday night. The gentle indie-folk songster wove intricate musical tapstries onstage for an enraptured audience at the intimate venue. The special sold-out event benefitted the Rock for Kids charitable organization, and was the first part of a two-day sendoff (the other appearance being none other than a set at Lollapalooza) to the Chicago-based singer-songwriter, who leaves this Saturday on a three-and-a-half-week European tour.

Minneapolis-based opening act Alpha Consumer included, along with a set that ranged from solid rock grooves with a mild psychedelic feel to quirky folk-influenced Americana, a few good-natured digs directed at Mr. Bird's unique musical style. After a very brief set change, Mr. Bird took the stage along with long-time musical associate Martin Dosh and members of Alpha Consumer in tow.

Regular attendees of Andrew Bird's live shows are already citing the performance as one of his finest to date, and he was certainly in fine form yesterday night. The set, primarily comprised of recent material off his 2009 release, Noble Beast, also included early material and several highly entertaining storyteller-style introductions and explanations that were especially endearing.

From the reedy tenor of Bird's voice, to his cheerful whistle and glockenspiel, to the intricate bowings, pluckings, and strummings of his violin and guitar work, the music itself was utterly breathtaking. Except for occasional mid-song cheers that just couldn't be held in any longer, the audience seemed to be held spellbound for the entire set. The music was soulful and lovely and the energy in the room was electric. My personal favorite of the evening was a hair-raising rendition of “Imitosis”, the penultimate song of the regular set. Responding to overwhelming audience applause, the musicians returned to the stage for a two-song encore, including the nearly-acappella “Some of These Days” accompanied only by strummed violin.

It is performances like these that inspire people to start playing music themselves, and reinforces just how deserving Mr. Bird is of his status as one of the finest independent musicians around—not just in Chicago, but worldwide, as well.

Andrew Bird, “Oh No” at Schubas 8/6/09

Andrew Bird, “Masterswarm” at Schubas 8/6/09

This article also appears on and Windy City Rock.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Festival Review: Pitchfork Music Festival 2009

Amid the masses of hipsters with carefully-selected thrift-store t-shirts, cleverly ironic facial hair, and tailored-looking skinny jeans, there were some fine musical offerings at the 2009 Pitchfork Music Festival. Thanks to overcast skies and unseasonably cool weather this past weekend, the fest in Chicago's Union Park was more comfortable than summer festivals in our city tend to be.


Although the weekend lineups dwarfed Friday's concert of just four bands, the Pitchfork people came up with an interesting way to get people in the door for Friday night's show. “Write The Night”—where fans have the ability to vote on their favorite songs to be included in each band's setlist—wound up being a success, with plenty of people in the crowd whooping and cheering when their favorites were played during each band's set.

Although festival opener Tortoise occasionally got solid jazz-funk-rock grooves going, they abruptly killed them with poorly-conceived and clumsily-executed minimalist and avant-noise sound experiments. There were many in the crowd during the set who seemed pleased, but the band left this reviewer unconvinced.

From the start of Yo La Tengo's trippy opening number, through the slinky shoegaze and straightforward rock of the other tunes in their set, the band entertained (and for me, this was when the music festival really started). The band gave an energetic set, and the fans were clearly getting into the swing of things by the end of it. The extended guitar-distortion solo by Ira Kaplan toward the end of the set looked and sounded as if he was trying to make love to his guitar, and in general, the tasteful sound experiments Yo La Tengo engaged in were quite similar, in substance, to what Tortoise was trying to do, but with better results.

“Shut the f*ck up” was the surly greeting to timid audience applause by midlifing frontman David Yow of The Jesus Lizard as the band took the stage Friday at dusk. By far the most entertaining act of the night, The Jesus Lizard are not aging gracefully. Yow's seemingly drunken shape-throwing, stage-diving, crowd-surfing, and inappropriate, innuendo-laced gestures were juvenile and hilarious. The stage persona may have been tongue-in-cheek; at one point in the set, after getting the audience to sing along with him to an acappella rendition of “Michael Row The Boat Ashore,” Yow quipped, “Wow, you're even stupider than I am.” The band came back onstage to do a few songs as an encore, much to the satisfaction of crowd-surfing fans and thrash-dancing children in the audience.

Day One's final act, Built To Spill lived up to their headliner status, closing the night with a stunning, virtuosic set of beautiful, folk-influenced indie rock that, like the band's albums, has a vaguely nostalgic feel to it. In all, the evening was satisfying as a stand-alone concert, but hardly worth the “festival” designation.


In spite of myriad sound and setup problems (which caused the B stage to wind up horribly behind schedule by the end of the day), Saturday's main-stage headliners and supporting acts could not hold a candle to the energy and enthusiasm that came from the performers scheduled on the somewhat isolated B stage.

The Dutchess and the Duke played a passionate set of indie folk early on Saturday afternoon. It was visceral and lovely music, and made it worthwhile to get to the festival in time for the early acts. Bowerbirds did a melodic set of breathy indie folk. Inflected with the nasal whine of an accordion, it was beautiful music for a lazy Saturday afternoon. In spite of rain intruding on the start of Wavves' set Saturday afternoon, the duo delivered an upbeat set full of reverb-heavy vocals, jangly garage guitar, and just plain sweet, pulsing drums. Even LindstrΓΈm performed a surprisingly engaging electronic DJ dance set Saturday evening; his songs had forms, merged one into the next, slowly morphing the danceable grooves during the course of the set.

To my ears, Beirut's music always has a sort of moody, brooding European flavor thanks to an accordion playing waltz and other old-worldy rhythms that make up the band's core pulse. The harmonized brass instruments sound surprisingly delicate, thanks in part to the wheezing of the supporting accordion and the sweetness of the plucked and bowed strings. Like the band's albums, Beirut's live performance on Saturday was acoustically rich; stunning and beautiful, they are the musical equivalent of a knockout, but the festival setting and musicians projected on giant screens seemed far too impersonal a setting to really engage with such intimate-sounding music.

Drum and keyboards duo Matt and Kim had an infectiously high-energy, big sound that kept the audience going even toward the end of a long day. Again, there were problems with the sound during this B stage act's set: toward the end of the set, Matt's keyboards lost power in the middle of a song; the band kept the rhythm going until they were back in commission. Briefly stealing Matt's microphone, Kim commented “This brings us back to our early days of house parties in Chicago...if somebody knocks a plug out of the wall, you plug that sh*t back in, and keep playing.” Matt and Kim certainly did.

By far the most satisfying set on Saturday night came in the form of B-stage headliners The Black Lips, who closed the evening with an adrenaline rush. When, at the end of the first song of the set, the guitarist smashes his guitar and throws the pieces to the audience, you know you're in for a fun evening. The Black Lips rock hard the way you've always heard bands did in the old days, before musicians got too polite for their own good and forgot what rock was all about. With a sound that you can relate to on an almost primal level, punctuated with wicked howls from vocal effects pedals, the Black Lips grabbed its audience by the balls and kept them dancing and rocking all night, even encouraging audience members to make festival security “earn their money” by moving in close to the stage (a few even jumped up on stage and danced with the band during the last numbers of the night).


Being familiar with Blitzen Trapper's folky studio sound, I have to admit, I was a bit surprised at their live sound on Sunday afternoon, which had a sort of southern-rock feel to it. It really worked for them, though, and they held the fort on the main stage with some excellent music, including a truly blazing set closer.

A shirtless, slightly psychedelic set awaited the audience at The Killer Whales' performance on the B stage. The drummer got some good beats going, and had plenty of catchy, rhythmic guitar riffs for fans to sink their teeth into. I had certainly hoped that by the third day of the festival, the B stage's sound problems (whatever the cause) would be over, but Women's set proved this to be a false hope. The instruments had a big, booming sound, and you could really feel the pounding of the drums, but the vocal balance was so far off that you couldn't hear the singer at all in the mix, and in general, I just wasn't feeling it with their live set.

The Thermals, on the other hand, played a super-high-energy set on the main stage that reached all the way to the back of the park. Although they performed a few well-chosen covers that generally fit in well with the band's originals, it was the Thermals' own songs like “Pillar of Salt” and “Here's Your Future” that seemed to entertain the audience the most. The Walkmen played a set of intense music with a big sound and a passionate, gut-wrenching quality. The occasional addition of brass to some of the songs added a sweetness to the harmonies, and the performance was, on the whole, an enjoyable set of heartbreaking music.

I have never been particularly impressed by M83's recordings, so I was quite surprised at how engaging their live electronic-influenced set was. They were clearly working hard, and the crowd was clearly digging it. Grizzly Bear had, by their own account, several reasons to celebrate at this year's festival (including their drummer's birthday and having shared their stage at the festival with The Walkmen). Although they, too, had some sound problems (apparently their monitors kept going out), they kept the set going instead of stopping until the issues had been resolved. They played anyway, and well. In particular, the last song of the set was amazing—it was poignant, gorgeous, and had a good groove that got the audience moving.

I had always heard that The Flaming Lips put on a good show, but I honestly had no idea just how good their shows were until I saw them live at Pitchfork. There was a semicircular light/projector screen that illustrated the band's set, even at the very back of the park. The show opened with a video projection of a naked (but artistically blurred thanks to camera and lighting effects) woman who moves around, eventually lying down and opening her legs as a big, flashing tunnel of lights pulsated from between her legs. From a conveniently-placed door at the center of this projector/lightscreen/backdrop, the band members emerged, obviously alluding to birth. Frontman Wayne Coyne was present in his giant inflatable bubble, which was rolled out over the crowd as the band started to play. Confetti, streamers, giant balloons, and spouts of fog punctuated the opening and closing numbers of the band's set, which included women dressed as cats and men dressed as frogs dancing on either side of the stage. After nodding to Pitchfork's status as the “coolest” festival of the year, Coyne checked the crowd's ability to make “animal sounds” at the end of a very long weekend, riding on the shoulders of a man in a big-headed gorilla costume during one number. Although the “Write the Night” concept was primarily for Friday's bands, The Flaming Lips also participated, letting the audience know which number (ranked by popularity) each song they played was (no. 7, no. 12, no. 2, and so on), and trotting out fan favorites, including “Fight Test”, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots”, “She Don't Use Jelly”, and set closer “Do You Realize”. The Flaming Lips wowed the audience with lush music and visually opulent stage spectacle, closing this year's festival with a very big bang. It was probably good that they were the final act of the festival; I seriously doubt anybody else on this year's lineup could have followed that stage show.

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This review also appears on the Windy City Rock music blog.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Album Review: Elsinore, "Nothing For Design" (Green St Records)

2006 CU Music Award write-in winner for Best Live Act elsinore has been doing more than just putting on energetic, enthusiastic, and otherwise darn good live shows all over town. They also have a brand-new album for your listening pleasure. Recorded in town at Pogo Studio and produced by none other than Mark Rubel, Nothing for Design is the band's follow up to 2005's congenial live album On Display. And this new effort is nothing to sneeze at, either.

From the first notes of the opening "Mind, Space, and Time" through live favorites like "Vampire in My Town" and "The Rise," the band captures the listener's attention with the very best that the Americana genre has to offer - engaging lyrics and a sound that feels like coming home.

The exciting ostinato chord progression of "Kate" allows the listener to latch on to the core of the music from the beginning and gives its listener the freedom to notice the intricacy of the band's instrumentation. Ryan Groff's vocals throughout are clear and brilliant like polished glass. The mellower sound of percussionist Dave Pride's congas and bongos is a welcome change from the more traditional drum kit sound, and Mark Woolwine's piano parts add a sparkling veneer to the group's sound. Accompanying these is the unassuming bass playing of Chris Eitel and steadiness from Groff's rhythm guitar.

Aside from the vaguely unsettling "Rossville" with its delicate guitar work and forebodingly effect-laden voices that sound like ghosts in, well, a room with a guitar, elsinore welcomes the listener in with open arms. With vitality and sincerity, Nothing for Design is music for a sunny day, and well worth a listen or twenty. And if you haven't seen elsinore live yet, go see them already!

elsinore will be performing their album release show at Cowboy Monkey this Saturday, April 29 at 10 p.m. with opening acts Gentlemen Auction House and The Wandering Sons. $5 cover.

Originally Published Apr 27, 2006, Buzz Weekly (Champaign-Urbana, Illinois)
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Album Review: Keller & The Keels, "Grass" (SCI Fidelity)

Jam band darling Keller Williams is at our throats again, but this time, he has a little help from his friends - Larry and Jenny Keel, featured on guitar and bass. As the title suggests, Grass is a bluegrass album (not another type of grass you may have been wondering about), and a very fun one at that.

Grass gives the listener a glimpse at some of the stylistic influences that have been a part of Keller's guitar virtuosity all these years, as well as a peek into his newest experiment - standard rock mixed with improvisation. With only two guitars and a bass - not the typical bluegrass instrumentation which includes banjo, mandolin and fiddle - Grass is a more palatable introduction to the genre for newcomers than its twangy, "pure" version.

Like any other Keller Williams album, Grass has its own individual, quirky vitality. However, this particular release lets die hard fans down with its lack of Keller originals. Grass is dominated by bluegrass covers of an atypical variety of songs, far removed in origin from bluegrass (i.e. Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" and Tom Petty's "Mary Jane's Last Dance" transposed into "Mary Jane's Last Breakdown").

The originality of the material Keller infuses into the covers keeps the songs from becoming stale too soon, but with a 3:7 original to cover ratio, the album leaves its listener wanting more of Keller's own songwriting touch. Especially in wake of his hit concert DVD Sight released last summer, which showed Keller at his best - thriving in a live full-house setting, the album settled itself below expectations in terms of vibrancy. All in all, the studio effort of Grass, although competent, is much more pale than Keller's previous livelier work.

Originally Published Mar 30, 2006, Buzz Weekly (Champaign-Urbana, Illinois)
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