Archive for the ‘Live Music’ Category

Punk done good and LOUD

October 31, 2007

The Tyrades: Tyrades

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Bands like the Tyrades are why I wish I went to more rock shows than I do these days. Not big stadium rock events, but loud, raw shows in small venues like Empty Bottle, Metro or the much missed Fireside Bowl. Places where how close you get to the band is determined by how much you’re willing to push through the crowd. And where, even if you dutifully wear earplugs, your ears will probably ring for a few days after.

I only saw the Tyrades a handful of times—in getting ready to write this piece, I was sorry to learn that they’ve broken up—but they blew me away every single time. Their live performances were filled with the explosive energy and hint of danger that makes punk so exciting to me. Jumping, spazzing and careening around often tiny stages, they seemed perpetually ready to crash into one another or just fly apart right there in front of you.

The video below is actually made up of still photos, but it captures a lot of that explosive energy. It was shot, edited and produced by Chicago-based punk rocker and photographer Canderson.

Energy is one thing, though. The music has to deliver too. And it does. It’s been dubbed garage rock and old-school California punk. Whatever you call it, it’s what I look for these days in rock music: fast and LOUD. Short, punchy songs that get in, get out and don’t pull any punches—the nine songs on the self-titled album clock in at under 23 minutes. Lead singer Jenny reminds me a bit of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O, but with any girly tendencies stripped away. The guitar, bass and drums are tight, but not so locked down that you don’t get the sense that they could veer out of control at any moment. And that’s a good thing. The album’s songs are stylistically cohesive as a group, but not repetitive—not a given in punk music. There’s real musicianship here, also not a given.

The video below suffers from the same maladies that affect most amateur concert videos: poor sound quality [particularly in Jenny’s vocals] and a single point of view, for the most part. But it’s worth watching just for getting a sense of their live performances. Including how they dispensed with the “onetwothreefour” or drumstick hits to count off songs—the bass player would just shout “Go!”

The Tyrades may not have been “Chicago’s first and only punk band” as they were dubbed by their onetime label Big Neck Records, but they came damned close to living up to that charming bit of rock hyperbole.

Sad days for opera and punk music

September 12, 2007

Legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti died last week. The New York Times called him “the great male operatic voice of his generation” in their thoughtful obituary. Quite simply, he set the standard for male operatic singers with his clear, ringing voice—his nickname was “King of the High Cs.”

More than that, though, he is credited with bringing opera to the masses, as some have put it. I think more accurately, he made many, many people who might not have otherwise, care about opera.

Partly he did this with a winning personality and natural charm. Partly he did it because he felt it was important to do so. Not everyone approved of how he went about it, least of all music critics. In the 1980s he began his Three Tenors projects with fellow tenors Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, a wildly successful franchise that sold millions of recordings. Later, he performed with a bewildering array of rock and pop stars—Jon Bon Jovi, Lou Reed, the Spice Girls, Barry White, Celine Dion and even the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown. It didn’t matter to critics that many of these rock performances were charity concerts—he was still seen as cheapening his talents. Of course, his rock starlike fame also brought tabloid journalists out, with tales of missed concerts, his ongoing weight loss struggles and his dietary extremes when he failed.

Many wrote him off with the kind of dismissal that the apparent “wasting” of such a great talent often inspires. I’m afraid I bought into it—well, as much as I paid attention to opera at the time.

Thinking about it now, I realize that Pavarotti’s rock star adventures and popularity were key to his bringing so many unlikely candidates to opera. He made opera approachable, made it likable, by being that himself.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to that amazing, singular voice. Without that, nothing else would have come together. As I said, by the time I got around to embracing opera [thanks largely to following Marion’s lead], I had already dismissed Pavarotti as someone who had pissed away a considerable gift. Imagine, then, how humbled I was to hear the incredible recordings that have filled the airwaves since his death. Currently on his website is a quote of his, both in Italian and English: “I think a life in music is a life beautifully spent and this is what I have devoted my life to.” It was a life beautifully spent indeed.

 

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The music world lost another great recently, although this passing occurred with much less fanfare. Hilly Kristal, the founder and owner of the legendary New York Bowery punk rock venue CBGB, died August 28 of complications of lung cancer. He was 75.

He started the club in 1973 as a country, bluegrass and blues club called CBGB & OMFUG—“Country, Bluegrass and Blues” and “Other Music For Uplifting Gourmandisers.” The name stuck but the music format didn’t. Instead, it became the birthplace and epicenter of the mid-1970s punk movement. The band Television persuaded Kristal to let them play the club and thus became the first rock band to do so. CBGB went on to serve as a launching pad for the Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie, the Talking Heads and so many others.

Kristal was a folk music fan at heart and pretended not to care for some of the bands he booked, but in the New York Times’ excellent obituary, Patti Smith remembers it differently. “There was no real venue in 1973 for people like us. We didn’t fit into the cabarets or the folk clubs. Hilly wanted the people that nobody else wanted. He wanted us.”

Indeed, his musician-friendly approach to running his club served as the model for countless venues around the country. Here in Chicago, two venues that spring immediately to mind are Empty Bottle and the Fireside Bowl back when it booked all-ages shows.

In doing this, Kristal shaped rock music as much as any musician who graced his stage. Perhaps even more so. Some might say it was him being at the right place at the right time. But it was more than that. Despite his protestations, he understood that this music was important. And as a business owner, he knew that there was money to be made. Crowds poured in, drawn by punk’s irresistible energy. Record label execs soon followed. Careers and fortunes were made. Music changed.

By the time I finally made it to CBGB for the first time, it’s time had passed. They still had music every night, but the scene had moved on to other clubs. But you could still feel the energy, the history, the ghosts in this long, narrow, divey joint that had remained as resolutely scruffy as its now gentrifying Bowery neighborhood had been when it opened. And that was as it should be. Rock music needs to feel subversive and at least a little bit dangerous. So do its venues.

Thank you, Hilly. Rest in peace.

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Lost sleep and no regrets

August 1, 2007

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There’s just something about seeing music played live, especially in an intimate setting. Up close, you can catch all the nuances—musicians coaxing sounds from their instruments, interacting with one another as solos are handed off, feeding off each other’s direction and energy. Sure, you can sometimes sense this in recorded music, but there’s something absolutely magical about watching it happen.

So when I got an email that there was going to be a concert at the Jazz Loft, I was ready. The Jazz Loft isn’t a full time music venue—actually, it’s some guy’s Wrigleyville apartment. In the couple/few years we’ve been seeing shows there, the place has changed hands a couple of times. But each time it’s rented to someone new, there’s an understanding that jazz shows will occasionally happen there.

The shows themselves aren’t so much concerts as they are jazz parties. There’s no cover, it’s strictly BYOB, and the scheduled start time for sets is really more of a suggestion than a hard number. The music is always avant garde and usually features local musicians. But sometimes, touring musicians in town for a paying gig will be included in the line-up.

There were two acts scheduled for this past Saturday’s show. I got rolling later than planned and ended up trawling for parking for more than half an hour. So by the time I made it to the Loft around midnight, I’d missed the first set. The second act, The Engines, was just setting up to play. The members of this quartet are all major figures in Chicago’s improvised music scene, playing in numerous groups and projects and, especially in the case of saxophonist Dave Rempis, organizing music events such as those at the Jazz Loft and Elastic. Trombonist Jeb Bishop, drummer Tim Daisy and bassist Nate McBride round out the group.

The Engines’ set was a satisfying mix of apparent chaos and intricate structure, with energetic outbursts and quiet, introspective passages. Sometimes the Jazz Loft parties are packed. At this one, the audience barely outnumbered the musicians—but everyone there was totally into the music.

The show was being recorded. After the set, D Bayne, former Loft tenant and continuing host of the parties, told me it would eventually be released as part of an ongoing project of his. He’s doing small pressings—just 100 disks each—of ten shows. An artist friend is hand painting the CD clamshell cases. This fact alone could launch me into a discussion of how increasingly cheap, increasingly sophisticated hands-on technology is making such cool things possible, but I’ll save it for another time.

After the musicians had packed up, no one was quite ready to leave. Various conversations swirled around the room, sometimes overlapping and converging, much as the music had done earlier. When I finally headed out, it was around two in the morning. I had a ten-block walk back to my car ahead of me and knew we had plans for a family breakfast out in about eight hours that would mean no sleeping in [as if we ever sleep in]. All in all, it sounded like a fair price for the night I’d just had.

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Leroy Pierson—Delta blues, well done

June 27, 2007

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Some people think of St. Louis as a southern city. I think of it more as a city at the top edge of the South, shaped and informed by it, but not of it. Even more so, it is shaped by the Mississippi River that flows along its eastern edge. Up that river has come some of the finest food the South in general and New Orleans in particular have to offer.

St. Louis is also the northernmost city where one can routinely hear zydeco music, both from traveling acts and local bands, again thanks to the river. Jazz came up that river too. And while it’s not as pervasive there as it once was, St. Louis had a hand in shaping this most American art form. Scott Joplin. Clark Terry. Miles Davis. Oliver Lake. They all called St. Louis home at one time or another.

And then there’s Delta blues. Born in the cotton fields of Mississippi, it too traveled up the river and found a welcome home in St. Louis. Even when it’s electrified, it hangs on to its country roots and takes you back down to the Delta. And when it comes to modern masters of Delta blues, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example than St. Louis’ own Leroy Jodie Pierson.

Leroy didn’t pick up his chops from no books or DVDs. He and fellow student Bonnie Raitt [yes, she was an amazing, fiery blueswoman before she finally started to make real money with pop songs like “Something To Talk About”] studied and traveled with Delta blues legend Mississippi Fred McDowell. In fact, the first time Leroy played in public was at a blues festival in Wisconsin or maybe Iowa. He had taken Fred there to play and was standing in the wings during Fred’s set. Suddenly, Fred walked over to Leroy, pulled him out onto the stage and handed him his guitar.

For years, when Leroy played the Broadway Oyster Bar in St. Louis every Saturday night [and Marion and I were there for more Saturdays than we can count], at some point in the evening, he would strap on a big red hollow-bodied electric guitar that Fred had willed him.

national_style_o_ad.jpgThese days, he mostly plays a couple of National guitars—the Style O or the ResoLectric. And where he plays them every Thursday and Friday night is BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups. Whenever we make a trip to St. Louis, we try to get there for his Friday night performance, 7:00 to 9:30. If we lived in St. Louis, we’d be there every Friday night. Yes, he’s that good.

As BB’s name implies, they also do food there. In addition to burgers and other standard bar fare, they serve up rice and beans, gumbo and other cajun delights almost as authentic as the Delta blues Leroy serves up.

leroy_album.jpgLeroy hasn’t done nearly enough recording. Rusty Nail, his most recent release, came out in the 90s. Its ten tracks are a wonderful, seamless blend of traditional tunes, songs by Fred McDowell and others and a few tracks by Leroy. Last time I checked, there were six copies available on Amazon. He has a new CD ready to go, though. Should be out later this summer. When it comes out, I’ll let you know.

In the meantime, if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in St. Louis on a Thursday or Friday night, fill up on some gumbo and amazing music at BB’s. You can thank me later.

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The kitchen boombox goes out

April 18, 2007

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Last week I wrote about my favorite avant garde jazz group, The Vandermark 5. This past weekend, they played at the Green Mill. Even though they’re based in Chicago, they rarely play anywhere locally these days, and here they were playing my favorite jazz venue in the city. I of course went.

The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge sits squarely in the heart of Chicago’s Uptown, on Broadway at Lawrence. Both the bar and the neighborhood have seen their share of ups and downs. Now, both are on the upswing again but stubbornly maintain just the right amount of seediness. Probably the neighborhood more so than the Green Mill, to be honest. But despite owner Dave Jemilo’s best upgrading efforts, the place has a welcoming scruffiness to it.

The place has been a bar for about a century now, but it hit its stride as a jazz club as a Depression-era speakeasy. Notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone frequented the place, and one of the partners allegedly helped orchestrate the Valentine’s Day Massacre in a southside garage. A door in the floor behind the bar now leads down to a beer cooler. During Prohibition days, it led to a tunnel that would deposit guests on the sidewalk some distance from the bar in case of raids.

All cool, interesting history, but what keeps me coming back is the music, seven nights a week. Weekends are usually for national acts—or local performers of national stature, like The Vandermark 5. Local [but internationally renowned] vocalists Patricia Barber and Kurt Elling have standing gigs Mondays and Wednesdays respectively when they’re not touring. I’m generally not big on jazz vocalists, but Kurt Elling is amazing—singers are sometimes described as using their voices as musical instruments. He is one of the few I’ve heard who live up to that description. And at the Green Mill, you can catch all three sets of this magic for seven bucks.

Tuesday nights feature the Deep Blue Organ Trio—after falling out of favor for a while, the Hammond B3 has made a huge comeback, and this group makes good use of it. Thursdays, the Alan Gresik Swing Shift Orchestra transports the audience [complete with enthusiastic dancers] back to the big band swing era. Fun music, but with a slightly self-conscious earnestness to it all, not unlike Civil War re-enacters. Sunday nights, music starts late as the Green Mill hosts the Uptown Poetry Slam, run by the originator of poetry slams, Marc Smith. Haven’t made it there for that yet, but everyone who does loves it.

Going to the Green Mill. A few tips for visiting this must-see club for jazz fans. First, bring cash or an American Express card, the only forms of currency accepted there. Second, get there for the first set. For some reason, the place fills up later with hipsters who don’t seem to give a rat’s ass about the music, but just want to make the scene—loudly. Then they get indignant when the door guy and the owner shush them. Still, their cover charges and drinks help keep the doors open, so I just tolerate them for the most part. And if you sit anywhere but way down front, assume that at some point, people will be standing in front of you and you won’t see the band. For that reason, I generally choose to stand.

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But most of all, go. Friday night, Ken Vandermark smiled as he talked to the audience from the bandstand about playing there. He called it the best jazz gig in Chicago. He was right.

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