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Set List: Wilco [Riviera Theatre; Chicago; 12/13/11]

For those that don’t know, Wilco is in the midst of a 5 night residency in their home city of Chicago at the moment. They performed on Monday night at the Civic Opera House for Night 1. I was unable to get tickets to that show (or I should say, rejected the option of buying very, very bad seats), but was able to make it out for Night 2 at the Riviera Theatre. This isn’t a show review, and I’m not going to write one right now for a couple reasons. The first being we’re in the middle of Listmas here and I’m buried in things I have to write. The second is that there are still 3 more Wilco shows to go before the week ends. I will be attending two of those three. Next week, once all the Wilco shows in Chicago have wrapped up, I’ll throw something together that essentially recaps all of them. For now, I wanted those looking for it to have the set list for the Riviera show. Naturally, the new album “The Whole Love” was (and will remain) the focus for the time being, however what I find most interesting are the choices made outside of the new material. Will the band try and attempt vastly different set lists each of their 5 nights in Chicago? The Riviera show featured plenty of changes from the Civic Opera House one, so we shall see. I must say that I LOVE how much attention “A Ghost is Born” got, and whipping out little-heard songs like “I Must Be High” and “Just A Kid” (from the freaking Spongebob movie soundtrack) was truly inspired. Overall a spectacular night, to the point where they even made the typically horrid sound system of The Riv work some magic. Must’ve been because I was standing next to the soundboard. Anyways, I’ll have more info and some additional set lists from the Wilco shows on Friday and Sunday nights as well, not to mention a full writeup/recap coming early next week. Until then, here’s the set list from The Riv show.

Less Than You Think
Art of Almost
I Might
Black Moon
Bull Black Nova
Side with the Seeds
I Got You (At the End of the Century)
Born Alone
You Are My Face
Open Mind
I Must Be High
I’m Always in Love
Capitol City
Handshake Drugs
Can’t Stand It
Dawned on Me
\**ENCORE 1**/
Via Chicago
Whole Love
The Late Greats
Just A Kid
Outtasite (Outta Mind)
\**ENCORE 2**/
Spiders (Kidsmoke)
I’m A Wheel

Show Review: The Kooks + The Postelles [Vic Theatre; Chicago; 11/26/11]

Sometimes even the crappiest of bands makes for the most engaging of shows. That’s not to suggest The Kooks or The Postelles are crappy bands, but to put it another way, neither one of them will generate a huge amount of underground hype, largely because their music isn’t diverse or experimental enough. You don’t need such things to become successful, but they certainly do go a long way when looking to earn some respect from intense music lovers. If your songs are bright enough and catchy enough though, a fan base will come along with them in spite of loads of indications (i.e. bad press) you should ignore it. It boggles the mind sometimes how a band like Nickelback goes on to sell millions of albums while bands like Real Estate or Destroyer continue to live in relative obscurity. For The Kooks, their success is easy to hear as they’ve essentially provided a modern update to The Kinks’ Britpop stylings. Hell, change the “oo” in Kooks to “in” and you get Kinks. The band’s first two albums were lovely in how plainly catchy they were, and apparently two crappy reviews from Pitchfork means your third record gets entirely ignored. But they’ve also been getting steady radio airplay around the world, starting with “She Moves in Her Own Way” and branching out to “Always Where I Need to Be”, “Shine On” and most recently “Junk of the Heart (Happy)”. Their star continues to rise, in spite of some rather intense criticism. Similar things could be said about The Postelles, though their road to success appears to be a little tougher. Sonically their self-titled debut also updates a classic sound, that of 50s pop in the vein of Buddy Holly with the flourishes of The Strokes. It should come as little surprise that The Strokes’ Albert Hammond Jr. liked the band enough to put them under his wing and produce a portion of that first record. The Postelles may be having more difficulty getting people to listen to their record, but once they do so many are won over. It helps as well that the band has been touring almost non-stop in the last year and have been building an audience with some high energy shows. Their touring with The Kooks feels like a match made in heaven, given their somewhat similar sound and fun live sets. So in spite of having rolled through Chicago earlier in the month while touring with The Wombats, The Postelles returned to the Windy City on Saturday night, opening up for The Kooks at The Vic. It was one wild time.

First off, I want to give a quick shout out to the Chicago band Yawn. I like those guys quite a bit, and they were the first band on the bill Saturday night when doors opened. Yawn was actually joining The Kooks on tour as Saturday night was also The Postelles’ last night on tour with The Kooks. But I missed Yawn’s set and can’t very well write about it, but having seen them before and being familiar with their latest record “Open Season”, they’re well worth keeping an eye on. Have a look at their official website to learn more about them.

After dodging some seriously heavy raindrops on my way to The Vic, I arrived with just enough time to shake the water from my hair and catch the start of The Postelles’ set. The crowd was surprisingly heavy already, though it was a sold out all ages show, so perhaps parents dropping off their kids just wanted to get rid of them as soon as possible. Just kidding, there was a good mixture of older teens and 20-somethings on the whole, but nobody much older than that. Spending so much time at 21+ shows has ruined me in some ways I guess, because the energy and enthusiasm of the rather youthful crowd was intense. Everybody seemed intensely excited to be there, the bands included, and at times the screams got so intense I felt they were giving me hearing damage. I expected such raucous cheering when The Kooks were on stage, charming British lads as they are, but things were just as lively for The Postelles. It makes more sense if you know their music and have seen them live though, because the hooks suck you in easily and make it a breeze to sing along to as the band gets extremely playful and moves around the stage like they want to engage you in every way possible. They had no reservations about climbing atop the monitor speakers at the front of the stage for a quick guitar solo or intense vocal moment, and every time they’d do it, there would be screams of excitement from the crowd. Their 30 minute set saw them powering through much of their debut album, hitting particularly hard with singles like “123 Stop” and “White Night” along with deeper cuts like “Stella” and “Hey Little Sister”. There were people standing around me that had never heard The Postelles before but wound up singing the choruses to half the songs anyways because they’re so damn catchy, and with so many clapping along and jumping around you’d have to be a real Scrooge not to have had a great time. Towards the end of their set they polled the crowd as to whether they should cover Elvis or The Ramones, and it appeared to be a relatively even split, so they chose The Ramones because they’d done Elvis the two nights prior. Their cover of “Beat on the Brat” was remarkably good, and if you’re interested in hearing a version of it, there’s a covers EP available for free download below (email required) with that and songs by The Smiths, Joe Jones and Wreckless Eric as well. Before closing out their set, The Postelles played one new song that will likely appear on their next record. Naturally, it wasn’t a change in direction but a continuation of their already established sound. And yeah, that was pretty catchy and fun too. You might not walk away from a Postelles show sharply impressed with the material you heard, but if you can switch your brain to the “fun summer popcorn action movie” setting rather than the “intense drama award-winning movie” one, you’re almost guaranteed to have a blast.

The Postelles – Everyday (Buddy Holly cover)

The Postelles – 123 Stop

Buy “The Postelles” from Amazon

The Postelles Tour Dates:
December 6th – Bootleg Theater – Los Angeles, CA

By that same token, The Kooks have not only a lot of the same things going for them, but they’ve got more material and success to back it up. Their 90 minute set was a 21-song steamroller that struck a strong balance between old material and new, singles and deep cuts. They started their set with “Is It Me?”, one of the catchier numbers on the new record and a good slower, quieter build to a more energetic chorus. The crowd was into it, but perhaps that was more the result of general excitement over the band finally being out on stage. Cameras in the air everywhere, and Luke Pritchard hopping up on the monitors at the front of the stage really did the trick right off the bat. If that didn’t work out for them, they slammed into high gear immediately afterwards thanks to “Always Where I Need to Be”. Hands were in the air and people dancing like they just don’t care. That feels like a cliche thing to say, but it also happens to be true, so keep that in mind before you judge. The set list appeared to be designed as an effective parsing out of the band’s best known songs with a consistent atmosphere of energy in between. The middle of the set was when the crowd appeared most lost, what with a couple newer tracks and some deep cuts from earlier records. Pritchard’s solo acoustic version of “Seaside” was a definite highlight that provided everyone with a brief moment of calm before the second half of the set got even more nuts. The Kooks closed out their set with a 1-2-3 punch that built the crowd up to an extremely high point and naturally left them wanting more. The combination of “Ooh La”, “Shine On” and “Do You Wanna” was ultimately what pushed the show over from great to excellent, the band growing more ferocious and intense with every minute. Pritchard worked the stage like a young Mick Jagger, swaggering one minute and egging the crowd to cheer louder the next. There wasn’t a whole lot they could do in the encore to top what was accomplished during the main set, but it was smart of them to save a couple big ringers for last. Non-album cut “Saboteur” was an interesting choice to start the encore considering it was the only thing on the set list that wasn’t on any of the band’s three records. The title track and first single from “Junk of the Heart” scored big points given its constant radio presence in Chicago, and “Inside In/Inside Out” classic “Naive” ultimately closed out the evening. As the band quickly worked towards that finish, the crowd maintained their energy and enthusiasm the entire time. It was an amazing thing to behold, and probably a testament to both the band and their fans that so many just didn’t stop for a minute to catch their breath but simply jumped, danced and sang along like it was one of the greatest concerts they’d ever seen. For some of them, it probably was. I may not think the world of The Kooks’ music, but I have a certain appreciation for what they’re trying to accomplish. They may not be getting any better on record, but live they’re simply not to be missed. It wasn’t the best show I’ve seen this year, but it made me feel young and just a little bit…naive once again.

Buy “Junk of the Heart” from Amazon

Set List:
Is It Me?
Always Where I Need to Be
Sofa Song
She Moves in Her Own Way
Eskimo Kiss
If Only
Tick of Time
See the Sun
How’d You Like That
Mr. Nice Guy
Ooh La
Shine On
Do You Wanna
Junk of the Heart (Happy)

Show Review: Smashing Pumpkins + Fancy Space People + Light FM [Riviera Theatre; Chicago; 10/14/11]

As a music venue, the Riviera Theatre is one of the worst in the city of Chicago. In fact, it kind of borders on abysmal. I dislike it so much that I’ve had a personal ban on going to shows there for the last several years. That was a result of attending multiple shows there and having normally great live bands turn in terrible performances. The common denominator among them all was the Riv, so I imposed a ban, vowing to only break it in the case of a show so rare it’d kill me to miss it. This is why it has been close to 7 years since I last set foot in the venue. Naturally then, I was by no means excited to get back there, but a situation finally emerged that I could not pass up. The Smashing Pumpkins were returning to their hometown for the first time in a long time (not counting the charity show they played at Metro last fall), and The Riv just so happened to be the moderately small venue they chose to play. They could have sold out a venue at least 3x the size, which made the experience special. Not only that, but they’ve been putting a dent in their 44-song “Teargarden by Kaleidyscope” project and are set to unleash their ninth full length “Oceania” next month. So add in the chance to preview some of that and despite my apprehension about the venue along with how well this revamped lineup is doing, I felt it was something I needed to see at least once.

One other reason I was a bit excited about the show was that the band Light FM was opening. They’re out on their first national tour in support of their freshly released album “Buzz Kill City”. I’ve been listening to that super catchy, fuzzed out synth pop record quite a bit in the last couple weeks, and was interested to see how it translated in a live setting. There’s also a certain charm to see a band in a state of relative infancy (they’ve been around awhile but are just now gaining national attention) try to win over a whole new set of fans. Given that the start time was a prompt 7PM, The Riv wasn’t yet at full capacity when Light FM took the stage. The band was still grateful to those that did show up early, and in my opinion it was worth it. They breezed through a 20 minute set, giving them only enough time to perform a handful of songs, but making each one of them count. They may not be the most active band when on stage, something that might make sense given the sort of music they make, but sometimes those things need to be sacrificed to ensure the quality is there. Similarly, it’s comforting that Light FM take a very basic approach to their live show and are successful. There are so many bands that feel the need to dress up their performance with a gimmick to try and set themselves apart, but more often than not it’s a measure to try and counter mediocrity. One of the bands on this bill fits that description perfectly, and I’ll get to them in a minute. On the whole, Light FM’s set was pretty good, in spite of only getting a relatively brief snapshot of what they’re capable of. Those that were there seemed to enjoy what they heard too, even if they had just shown up to get as close to Billy Corgan as possible. This is a promising young band with plenty of growing left to do, and the more time spent playing live the faster that growth will occur.

Light FM – Mercy
Buy/Stream Light FM’s album “Buzz Kill City”

The two bands opening for the Smashing Pumpkins on Friday were hand-picked by Billy Corgan. That’s probably the only reason that Fancy Space People were on the bill. Corgan is essentially serving as a “mentor” for the band, pulling them from relative obscurity and working closely with them on the relatively small amount of music they’ve released so far. Their debut EP was released on Starry Records, which is directly connected with Coldwater Studios, both of which are owned and operated by Kerry Brown, of the former Chicago band Catherine. Corgan has known Brown from way back in the day when the Pumpkins shared a practice space with Catherine in Chicago. More on that connection later, but the point being Corgan has his fingerprints all over Fancy Space People. My initial impression of the 8-piece band that showed up on stage was one of odd curiosity. I wasn’t terribly far from the stage, but from my vantage point it appeared that this was an all-female band dressed to the nines in sparkly leotards. Upon closer examination however, and after noticing that one of the band members clearly had facial hair, I came to realize that at least half the band was wearing long-haired wigs and all sorts of makeup, effectively creating a gender-bending androgynous situation. That was the first oddity. The second was how committed the band was to staying “in character”. They consistently referred to the crowd as “Earthlings” and spoke of offering up intergalactic protection from forces that might otherwise threaten to harm us. The song lyrics also backed up the banter. It was pure theater, and entertaining as it was, the whole spectacle wasn’t enough to distract from the moderately poor quality of the music itself. First of all, having 8 members in your band for a sound that clearly doesn’t require it is simply excessive and it wouldn’t surprise me if a few of the parts were doubled over just to add some more power to the songs. Secondly, while there’s certainly a void in the glam rock/hard rock genre since Kiss has become less and less active over the years, is that a void that needs to be filled? Different strokes for different folks, I guess. There was nothing outright terrible about Fancy Space People’s set, but it’s clear these guys and girls need to work on their sound first and their stage presence second. Make some songs worth hearing and tone down the rhetoric a little and people will pay attention. It seemed to me that much of the crowd was apathetic towards the band or scoffed at how showy the whole thing was. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night though was how Fancy Space People effectively bridged the gap in sonic styles between Light FM and the Smashing Pumpkins. By incorporating the synths of Light FM and the psychedelics of the Pumpkins, the three-act bill ultimately made sense, and that’s at least something Billy Corgan got right.

Listen to and buy music from Fancy Space People

Prior to speaking directly about how the Smashing Pumpkins’ set at The Riv was, I’d like to issue a small disclaimer first. My history with this band has been a tumultuous one. The Smashing Pumpkins were a staple of my years growing up, and records like “Gish” and “Siamese Dream” were (and remain) essential listening for fans of 90s rock. So many people loved this band, which is why it was such a shame to see personnel like D’arcy Wretzky and James Iha go. When the Pumpkins broke up in December of 2000, that was the end of an era for me. In my opinion, the real Smashing Pumpkins died that day, and when Billy Corgan put out the call to re-establish the band in 2005 sans everyone but drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, to me it hasn’t been the same since. There have been multiple lineup changes since then, with the only constant being Corgan, and devoted fans will argue that’s all you need. After all, one of the main reasons people keep leaving the band is because Corgan takes on a dictator-like status, seeking to control every aspect of the Pumpkins sound and going so far as to re-record the parts of other members if he feels they are not good enough. Then there are the post-reunion live shows, which often find Corgan in a less than jovial mood and berating the crowd for getting upset the band isn’t playing more of the hits. It would seem that the Smashing Pumpkins version 2.0 are seeking to erase the legacy they developed in the early years. That’s what disappoints me the most I think. But I also give some modicum of credit to Corgan for some of the ballsy moves he’s made in the last few years. Projects like the 44-song “Teargarden by Kaleidyscope”, which has been getting released piece by piece since winter of 2009 is a daring and bold attempt to be different. As that song cycle continues to progress, the majority of those songs have also been released as free downloads, which is Corgan saying he hopes people will try them and be inspired to purchase a limited edition box of them packaged together. In the last couple years the live shows have gotten less angry and more devoted to the power of the music, likely because many of the old fans have quit following the band and the ones that remain truly believe in what he’s doing. I consider myself a purist, disliking much of what the Pumpkins have done recently but still intrigued enough to keep an eye and ear on them in case something brilliant happens. So with fingers crossed, my hope on Friday night at the Riv was to try and enjoy what would likely be a set heavy on post-2000 material. Believe it or not, Corgan & Co. managed to actually surprise me.

As the Smashing Pumpkins took the stage at The Riv, I immediately felt out of my depth. They launched into the epic “Quasar/Stella Polaris and the People Mover” and immediately backed it up with “Panopticon”, the trio of which kick off the upcoming Pumpkins record “Oceania”. Very few (if any) people have heard that upcoming record yet, and while the crowd was cheering because the band was on stage, there was a sense of bewilderment to it. You can’t sing along to these songs because you don’t know them and have no idea where they’re going. The first bit of genuine excitement came with the black curtain behind the band dropping to reveal two large, mirrored propellers and an intricate lighting rig. Yet that unveiling was marred by the lights all shining on full blast at once, effectively blinding the audience for a bit as their pupils played catch up. As to how good the new songs at the start of the show were, they’re far more psychedelic in nature than the older Pumpkins stuff, and The Riv’s shoddy sound system created a much muddier and uninspiring mix than the songs themselves probably deserved. My bet is they sound better on record.

The first surprise of the evening came four songs in, when the band played the 1992 “I Am One” b-side “Starla”. That one really separated the hardcore fans from the more casual fans, and it would turn out to be just the beginning of a night largely devoted to looking back. Many of the songs were distinctly old school, but it was about the farthest thing from a greatest hits parade that you could get. The first third of the set was rounded out via deep cuts from “Gish” and “Siamese Dream”, with “Mellon Collie…” single “Muzzle” sandwiched in between. There was a weirdly balanced mayhem as the set progressed, with a pair of songs from “Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, Vol. 3” getting played, but having the first two volumes completely ignored. Also completely ignored were “Zeitgeist” and both of the “Machina” records. Outside of about half the “Oceania” record, the main focus appeared to be on “Gish” and “Siamese Dream”, along with b-sides and outtakes from those records. It’s been so long since I’ve listened to “Pisces Iscariot”, the rarities compilation from the band’s earliest recordings, that I was fumbling to remember cuts like “Frail and Bedazzled” and “Obscured”. Yet there’s also something discomforting about the few oddities that the Smashing Pumpkins pulled out of their back pockets on Friday night. Those b-sides and outtakes were cut from the main records for a reason, even if they were put onto compilations later. Very few bands can claim their b-sides are nearly as good as their main catalogues, and the Pumpkins are probably not one of them. So why whip them out and why now? Well, turns out there will be deluxe reissues of “Gish”, “Siamese Dream” and “Pisces Iscariot” before the end of the year. So was it promotionally motivated? You bet it was. Does it make them any less interesting to hear? Not really, as much of it is better than the band’s later catalogue. As evidenced by their touring around “Zeitgeist” a few years ago, Corgan seems to have a distaste for any of the old Pumpkins singles. Hence only four made the cut for the evening, with “Muzzle”, “Siva”, “Cherub Rock” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” each clearly garnering the loudest crowd responses of the night and some intense sing-alongs. After the show I heard a few fans grumbling about the lack of easily recognizable songs in the set, but saying it was still “better than a few years ago, when they played even less than that”.

If there was one thing I learned from watching this Smashing Pumpkins set, it was that Billy Corgan is a much better guitarist than I’ve ever given him credit for. Sure, he’s been responsible for writing and composing almost the entire Pumpkins catalogue, but I always figured that he took the ideas of James Iha or whatever guitarist that was in the band and repurposed them for his own self-aggrandization. With more nameless and faceless personnel surrounding Corgan than ever before though, it’s less and less likely they’re writing these brilliant parts that he’s taking advantage of. They seem to be more about following his lead than challenging it. And you know what? It works for them. The dynamic allows for some give and take between all of the band members, even if they’re not as talented as those that came before them. The back-and-forth guitar lines between Corgan and Jeff Schroeder on “Siva” gave the song a little fresher life than it does on record. Bassist Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Mike Byrne both kept a strong rhythmic dynamic to most of the songs, and the former’s vocal harmonies intertwined remarkably well with Corgan’s nasal tones. You still should probably call this the Billy Corgan Show though, because whenever he wasn’t playfully sparring with his bandmates, he was off on some extended guitar solo. Over 2.5 hours, I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed somebody take more solos than Corgan did. It reached the point where it was excessive and also physically painful for Corgan himself. He cracked a smile through much of it, but there was a point during an intense version of “Silverfuck” that he had to shake his hand out because it had gotten so cramped up from all the soloing. All that intricate guitar work ultimately served a purpose, which was to unite the past, present and future of the Smashing Pumpkins under one large umbrella. He purposely chose the more prog-rock and psychedelic moments out of the older material to merge it better with the newer stuff that places distinct emphasis on it. On the couple songs that didn’t serve that unifying purpose, he forced them into it by drawing them out into longer arrangements, accented with more solos. And you know what? It wasn’t half bad.

At the start of the encore, Corgan came out to deliver some of the only stage banter of the entire night. After acknowledging his brother up in the balcony, he talked briefly about the early days of the band and how they shared a practice space on the North Side of Chicago with this great local band Catherine. Catherine broke up in the late 90s, but Corgan has remained friends with them and has been working towards getting them to reunite. So it was with great pride that he re-introduced Catherine to the world as they performed together on stage for the first time in over a decade. They played a two song set, with Corgan contributing some guitar, and it was some great post-punk rock that appeared to indicate Catherine hadn’t lost much of a step. “A fine wine we are not,” one of the guys in Catherine proclaimed before launching into “Broken Bunny Bird” off their 1994 record “Sorry!”. It was exciting that they were back together, but a younger-skewing crowd gave clueless stares and polite applause to the band as most were entirely unfamiliar with the material. Most likely many were disappointed that Corgan was giving the encore time to this other band rather than playing more Pumpkins songs. The truth is, it was a little shocking that Corgan yielded the stage to anyone given his love of the spotlight. To close out the night for good, he seemed to want to throw the crowd a bone and leave them wanting more by breaking out “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”. Ironically it was the one moment of the entire set where Corgan appeared to be uninspired. He raced through the song at a faster than normal pace, like he was trying to remove a band-aid that was stuck to a thick patch of hair. The hope was the pain would go away quicker if he just ripped it right off in one quick motion. The crowd was more than satisfied though, and smiles were easy to come by. For a night that was largely built on the unfamiliarity of new material, rarities and deep cuts, it was just a little surprising they were smiling at all.

Smashing Pumpkins – Owata
Smashing Pumpkins – Lightning Strikes

Set List:
Quasar/Stella Polaris and the People Mover (Oceania)
Panopticon (Oceania)
Starla (I Am One single b-side)
Geek U.S.A. (Siamese Dream)
Muzzle (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness)
Window Paine (Gish)
Lightning Strikes (Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, Vol. 3)
Soma (Siamese Dream)
Siva (Gish)
Oceania (Oceania)
Frail and Bedazzled (Siamese Dream outtake)
Silverfuck (Siamese Dream)
Obscured (Gish outtake, Today single b-side)
Pale Horse (Oceania)
Thru the Eyes of Ruby (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness)
Cherub Rock (Siamese Dream)
Owata (Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, Vol. 3)
My Love Is Winter (Oceania)
For Martha (Adore)
Idiot (Catherine song)
Broken Bunny Bird (Catherine song)
Bullet with Butterfly Wings (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness)

Remaining Tour Dates
Oct 17 Washington, DC 9:30 Club
Oct 18 New York, NY Terminal 5
Oct 19 Providence, RI Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel
Oct 21 Boston, MA Orpheum Theater
Oct 22 Philadelphia, PA Tower Theater

Show Review: Portishead [Aragon Ballroom; Chicago; 10/12/11]

The last time Portishead showed up in Chicago, the year was 1998. They are a temperamental band at best, taking their sweet time in creating new music and equally so in scheduling live shows. Every indication is that they don’t much care to do what’s expected of them, and in that way it also makes them a more compelling band. Case in point: Portishead’s last record Third was released 3.5 years ago. They only halfway toured to support it then, only really stopping by North America to play Coachella before leaving again. For whatever reason, and not because they’ve been working on new material or have anything in particular to promote, Portishead just now chose to come back to the U.S. for about a dozen dates. They rolled into Chicago last night for a sold out mid-week show, acting like a parent that abandoned you 12 years ago and suddenly shows up wanting to pick up right where they left off as if nothing had happened. The truth is, they’ve changed and we’ve changed in that massive gap, but by no means does either of us have to accept that fact. You make the best of the time you’re given.

Portishead started their set at the Aragon the same way most bands start their live show – with the first track off the last record they released. In this case it was “Silence”, and though the crowd was cheering loudly as the band emerged on stage, they let out an even louder roar once the spoken word intro to the song began to play. The band came more than prepared too. The main trio of Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley had a few utility players on hand to help recreate and/or supplement what they’ve done on record, with Barrow being the multi-instrumental crux upon which the rest of the band turned. He held down center stage but positioned himself behind Gibbons and her microphone. Barrow was more than solid from start to finish, but his biggest moments of shining glory came primarily in the second half of the set. On “Machine Gun” he pounded the drum pads with more precision and speed than on record, while on “Over” and “Cowboys” he showed off turntable scratching skills that would make most DJs jealous.

Gibbons certainly held her own for the duration too, as any lead singer tends to secure all the praise or blame for the entire band because he or she has a microphone and can engage with the crowd easier. Her vocals were strong and piercing, interacting playfully with the highs and lows and general tension the rest of the band provided. She tore through “The Rip” and prevented its slow pace from devolving into something that might have otherwise brought the set to a screeching halt. When the band got loud or harsh, as songs like “Threads” and “We Carry On” do, she always seemed to cut through the fray and act as a counterweight. Yet in spite of her warming presence amid icy melodies, Gibbons remained otherwise distant for much of the night, not really saying a word between songs and often turning away from the crowd during instrumental portions of some songs. The only point at which that gap was closed came courtesy of the final song of the night “We Carry On”, where during an extended outro she hopped off the stage and met the crowd at the barricade. It wasn’t quite crowd surfing, but the mental and physical breakdown of that wall seemed to be cathartic for everybody involved. Once that genie was let out of the bottle, there was no going back, which is probably why the band exited and the house lights came up immediately afterwards.

Choosing highlights from Portishead’s set is tough when everything they did was nothing short of excellent. Well except for the first half of “Mysterons”, where a malfunctioning speaker proved to be quite the annoyance. The extreme crackling was met with sheer disdain by the crowd, most of who began to shout in protest as it continued on for much of the song. Whether the bum speaker(s) was shut off or adjusted, a full recovery was eventually made, though the band either failed to notice or simply ignored it and continued to power through as if nothing had happened. Other than that, things went swimmingly. Essentials such as “Sour Times” and “Glory Box” remained vital and disturbing. Certainly one of the high, if not the highest point of the night came mid-set with “Wandering Star”. Reducing the band down to the core of Gibbons, Barrow and Utley, they radically reworked the track into an organic and slower-moving ballad rather than the eerie, electro-glitched toe-tapper classic. Gibbons’ vocal quivered through most of it as well, only adding to the quiet vulnerability of the song and keeping the crowd at full attention. It was an utterly fascinating choice to make, and one that proved just how immensely stimulating the band can be even when they break from their trademark sound.

In 90 minutes flat, Portishead was done. Over a decade of absence magically erased and bonds restored. Calling their influence drug-like is probably apt in this case. It was fascinating to see the sorts of people that turned out at the show, from a fresh generation of younger fans to a decidedly older crowd – most assuredly fans from the earlier period of their 20+ years together as a band. People with mohawks and people with comb overs may not have much in common, but the one thing they could all agree on Wednesday night was that Portishead put on one of the best shows of 2011 so far. If absence truly does make the heart grow fonder, here’s one band that’s playing their cards just right. Still, we can all hold out hope they don’t make us wait another 12 years before showing their faces in Chicago again.

Set List
The Rip
Sour Times
Magic Doors
Wandering Star
Machine Gun
Glory Box
Chase the Tear
We Carry On

Show Review: Paul McCartney [Wrigley Field; Chicago; 8/1/11]

Sir Paul McCartney is a living legend. Anybody that disagrees with that statement needs to have their head checked. You can argue (somewhat pointlessly) that The Beatles were not the greatest band of all time and absolutely get away with it, but you cannot fight against their impact on the world. John Lennon once said that The Beatles were “bigger than Jesus”, and while he was wrong on that count, he was making a salient point about the immense popularity of the band. It has been over 40 years since The Beatles broke up, and their records and merchandise still sell like hotcakes, while evolutions such as the “Rock Band: Beatles” video game and a stereo remastering of the band’s catalogue have introduced a whole new generation to the Fab Four. The tragedy is that half of the Beatles are no longer living, what with John Lennon’s unfortunate murder in 1981 and George Harrison succumbing to lung cancer 10 years ago. The two remaining Beatles of course are Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, and it’s not tough to figure out which one has had the greater career. Sure, Ringo has been putting out album after album of solo material, but unlike the rest of the band, he’s the only one that hasn’t been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his work as an individual artist. Really he’s more known for his work towards peace activism. As for McCartney, well, his post-Beatles output may be the best out of everyone’s. First as part of Wings and then eventually fully solo, McCartney’s catalogue is one few artists can match. He continues to gain significant attention and traction when it comes to generating new music, and he’s had at least two new songs get strong radio airplay in the last couple years. After re-releasing Wings’ seminal album “Band on the Run” (again) last fall and a couple of his solo albums this past spring/early summer, Sir Paul scheduled a relatively brief summer tour of U.S. ballparks in support of that. His grand show arrived at the historic Wrigley Field for two nights this past Sunday and Monday. I snagged a ticket to the second show on Monday, and it was a night filled with nostalgia and celebration of a true living legend.

If you’ve never had the privilege of seeing a Paul McCartney show before, particularly in the last 10 years or so, allow me to clue you in as to what you’re missing. This current tour is being labeled “On the Run” in easy reference to Wings, but a different way to look at it is to say it’s a “run” through 50 years worth of music in just under 3 hours. Yes, at age 69, Sir Paul is still playing 3 hour shows and with the energy of a man at least half his age. Perhaps it’s that vegan diet of his, or maybe he’s crafted a deal with the devil, but he spends so much of the time dancing around the stage and moving from various guitars to piano and back again like he’s been doing it all his life (which he has). One thing McCartney is not shy about is working the crowd, as virtually every song ended with him stepping away from the microphone and throwing his hands up in an apparent effort to encourage more cheering. Applause is the lifeblood of any performer, and even at his age it apparently still means quite a bit. Still, today’s crowds must seem passive to him compared to the heyday of the Beatles, where people would be screaming wildly through every single song. It’s that sort of fanaticism that caused the Fab Four to stop touring. The crowd at Wrigley Field for night two was likely more relaxed than night one, the thought being that the more hardcore fans snapped up tickets to the first show because the second show was only announced after the first sold out. According to a friend of mine that attended both nights, people spent far more time sitting down at the second show, something that he failed to understand given the incredible set list.

Speaking specifically to the songs played Monday night at Wrigley, the hits just kept coming one after the other. In the past, McCartney has often refrained from playing a lot of Beatles songs, preferring instead to focus on his many accomplishments since that period of his life. More recently though, it seems he has had a change of heart and perhaps has gained a greater appreciation for the Fab Four’s catalogue. If you’ve examined any of the set lists that Sir Paul has been playing as part of this “On the Run” tour, you’re aware there’s been very little in the way of variation from night to night and a clear dominance of Beatles hits. The full breakdown goes something like this:

Total songs played – 39 (counting the individual portions of the “Abbey Road Medley”)
Beatles songs – 25
Wings songs – 8
McCartney solo songs – 3
The Firemen songs – 1
Cover songs – 2 (Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon)

You can have a glance at the full set list at the very bottom of this post. Was it a perfect set list? Very few people will argue that it was, but with such a huge catalogue everybody and their mother has an idea of what constitutes perfection. Well-rounded is the best way to describe it. If you wanted to hear “Drive My Car”, Sunday night was the time to see that one. The same goes for “Day Tripper” or “Get Back”. Some of the more unique qualities in Monday night’s show compared to the night before were moments like “Got to Get You Into My Life” , “I’m Looking Through You” and “I Saw Her Standing There”. Really it was only a few Beatles songs that were exchanged with other ones that differentiated the two nights, and the main points/stage banter were nearly scripted. There was the seamless transition from “Let Me Roll It” into a brief instrumental version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady”, followed by a story of how McCartney went and saw Hendrix perform a couple days after the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, only to find out the guitar virtuoso had already learned how to play a couple tracks from that record and was impressively covering them at the show. There was one of the two moments where McCartney acknowleged his most recent releases by playing “Dance Tonight” on mandolin while drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. did everything from the macarena to the disco skywards point in the background. There were the tributes to his old friends Harrison (“Something”) and Lennon (“Here Today” and the cover of “Give Peace A Chance”), and the all-out explosive firewoked version of “Live and Let Die”. Naturally, the set came to a close with a crowd sing-along version of “Hey Jude” that absolutely sends shivers down your spine. The entire night McCartney had his immensely talented band backing him, the same band he’s been working with for so many years and has established a strong rapport with. They’re not only spot-on with their instruments, but have a remarkable knack for recreating some of the complicated harmonies of the Beatles catalogue. Considering that there’s absolutely no chance of The Beatles ever coming back, the show was about as close as one could get to the real thing.

Does it even need to be mentioned that going to see Paul McCartney perform at any time at any location is always recommended? That doesn’t just go for persons of a certain age either. While the crowd at Wrigley Field on Monday night was primarily middle-aged and older, there were plenty of younger people and even families with small children that attended the show. I’d like to think that everyone had a great time, though honestly temperatures were in the 80s and with everyone packed in like sardines the whole evening was a sweaty mess. But weather aside, you’re not going to do much better than Paul McCartney when it comes to large-scale shows these days. It is a gift that he is still making the rounds and touring no matter if it’s 2 dates or 200, and in spite of his youthful spirit one can’t help but wonder just how much longer he’s going to keep it up. He may have told the crowd on Monday night that he’d “see us next time”, but we are under no assurances that there will be one. Savor it while you can, my friends. There are very few genuine rock stars left in this hype-a-minute world, and Paul McCartney is one of them.

Set List:
Magical Mystery Tour (The Beatles)
Junior’s Farm (Wings)
All My Loving (The Beatles)
Jet (Wings)
Got to Get You Into My Life (The Beatles)
Sing the Changes (The Firemen)
The Night Before (The Beatles)
Let Me Roll It (Wings)
Foxy Lady Instrumental (Jimi Hendrix)
Paperback Writer (The Beatles)
The Long and Winding Road (The Beatles)
Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five (Wings)
Let ‘Em In (Wings)
Maybe I’m Amazed (McCartney)
I’m Looking Through You (The Beatles)
And I Love Her (The Beatles)
Blackbird (The Beatles)
Here Today (McCartney)
Dance Tonight (McCartney)
Mrs. Vandebilt (Wings)
Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles)
Something (The Beatles)
Band on the Run (Wings)
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (The Beatles)
Back in the USSR (The Beatles)
I’ve Got A Feeling (The Beatles)
A Day in the Life (The Beatles)
Give Peace A Chance (John Lennon)
Let It Be (The Beatles)
Live and Let Die (Wings)
Hey Jude (The Beatles)
\**ENCORE 1**/
Lady Madonna (The Beatles)
Birthday (The Beatles)
I Saw Her Standing There (The Beatles)
\**ENCORE 2**/
Yesterday (The Beatles)
Helter Skelter (The Beatles)
Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End (The Beatles)

Buy Paul McCartney music

Show Review: Death Cab for Cutie [Metro; Chicago; 5/20/11]

Prior to seeing Death Cab for Cutie play the Metro on Friday night, I had seen them on four separate occasions. The first two times they were supporting 2003’s “Transatlanticism” and the following two times they were supporting their major label debut in 2005’s “Plans”. Ultimately it amounted to four times in about three years, though two of them were headlining music festivals where they were up against poorer options. It also helped that I was obsessed with the band and felt that Ben Gibbard was one of the biggest songwriting prodigies of the last decade. Seriously, his lyrics seem to speak to me. But somewhere in the 3 year gap between Death Cab records, which was also a time period where I graduated from college, the band went down in importance in my mind. That their last album, “Narrow Stairs” was a bleak and generally poor quality piece of music only pushed them further from my radar. It’s easy to suggest that my slowly developed dispassion for the band was a result of their ascent in popularity and major label status. More likely it was a combination of a couple things: my own tastes in music changing along with the fact that “Narrow Stairs” really was a pretty bad album. It’s been another 3 years since that time, and the band is finally ready to put out a new album at the end of the month, titled “Codes and Keys”. In the weeks prior to its release, the boys decided to do a little tour, with the word “little” being the most important descriptor. Considering they regularly headline festivals and play for tens of thousands of people (and announced an arena tour for this summer), Death Cab booked a whole bunch of club dates at venues with capacities of under 2,000. So it was with the hope of reigniting my passion for the band and catching an early listen to a few songs from the upcoming album, in addition to seeing them perform in such a small and classic location.

One of the things that has always disappointed me about the Death Cab for Cutie live show is how neatly scripted it all is. They start with “The New Year”, make sure to play all of the singles from the “Transatlanticism” record and after, and then close with the song “Transatlanticism”. What really counts is the selection of songs that come between all those predictable moments. Breaking Friday night’s 25 song setlist down by album, the clear winner of the night was “Codes and Keys”, as the band played at least 6 (if not 7) songs from it, or over half the record. That’s to be expected, but it did leave the crowd in a bit of a spot. Playing a lot of new and unheard material can be fun to hear, but you can’t sing along to it nor do you know how good or bad it might be. My very early opinion on the new songs is that they’re a definite improvement over much of “Narrow Stairs”. On the whole they’re a little brighter and catchier too, though they stay largely true to everything we’ve come to expect from Death Cab. Both Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla have been trying to talk up the new album by saying it’s a lot more experimental in nature, with fewer guitars and more electronic dabbling, but that only appears true to a minimal degree. Maybe the live recreation is a little different than the recorded one. Also, though their sound is typically top notch and one of the best not only in Chicago but in the country, from the back corner position I was stuck in with the sold out crowd, much of the set came across as muddy and extremely bass-heavy. The band also screwed up/aborted/restarted two of the new songs, likely due to not having played them live many times before. They’re sweetly forgiven for those sorts of mini blunders. Anyways, the point about the new stuff is that it gives me just a sliver of hope that maybe the band will do as well or better than their previous peak. Call it a long shot still, but once I’ve heard the “final” versions of these songs I’ll be able to better judge.

As to the older material, it was excellent to hear the “FOrbidden Love” EP’s “Photobooth” early on in the set. Had the band released that song today, it’d likely be a big hit for them. The wealth of Death Cab for Cutie’s catalogue was actually spread out pretty well across the set, with a few minor issues. It may have been their previous album, but “Narrow Stairs” did not deserve to have four songs in the set. Of course they also could have done a lot worse than “Grapevine Fires” and “Long Division” in addition to the two singles from that record. Their most popular record to date, “Transatlanticism”, earned equal footing with “Narrow Stairs” in claiming four spots in the set, with the traditional starting and closing songs plus their two popular singles smashed in between. The dream matchup there would have been to try a deeper cut from the record such as “We Looked Like Giants” or “Expo 86” rather than the same old, same old. As far as “Plans” was concerned, that was another “all business” transaction, pulling the only three singles from that record and nothing more. The farther back they went the better it got though, which is why “A Movie Script Ending” and “We Laugh Indoors” felt so fresh and exciting even if they’re more “go to” picks from “The Photo Album”. Surely they would have done “I Was A Kaleidoscope” or “Blacking Out the Friction” had they been able to squeeze it in. Instead, three songs from “We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes” emerged from hibernation, with “Company Calls” being the biggest shocker. “405” is a classic and always a delight to hear as well. Finally, mid-way through the set came the lone “Something About Airplanes” song, “Pictures in an Exhibition”. An even more compelling choice would have been “President of What?”, but it’s a miracle to even get a single song from that 1998 debut so let’s consider it a win.

If I’m being highly or too harshly critical of Death Cab for Cutie and their choice in songs from Friday night, it’s because I care about their well-being as a band. The hope for any band is that they’ll continually evolve the longer they’re around, both on record and on stage. You pray for a solid catalogue from which they can pull any number of songs, including b-sides and not bat an eye. Perhaps as a band they grow tired of performing the same songs night after night and either allow their set lists to vary wildly or take the tracks we’ve come to know and love and tear them to shreds in new and invigorating ways. For a band that is close to celebrating 15 years together, they look awfully bored and awfully mellow on stage. Sonically there’s very little fault in their performance. These are songs they’ve played so many times they could do it in their sleep. You watch as Gibbard hits every note with that syrupy sweet voice of his while he bounces back and forth from foot to foot. You see Chris Walla bent over some machines or a piano. Nick Harmer moves around a bit as he’s slapping out his bass lines, while Jason McGerr remains trapped behind a drum kit as usual. It’s a little better than an Interpol live show, where the guys pretty much glue their feet to the floor and play everything straight (but their lighting rigs move!), but not much better. I stopped going to Interpol shows after seeing them five times and realizing they weren’t getting any better both on and off the stage. Now with my fifth Death Cab for Cutie show, a lot of those same feelings are cropping up. Will I ever feel the need to see them live again? Maybe if they put out a truly great new record and I want to hear songs from it. With the completely unfamiliar new material from “Codes and Keys” that seemed to dominate the set, I need more time and listens) to properly digest those tracks to see if the album will be truly great. Once I reach that point, the next best thing these guys can do is switch it up. They may be obliged to play (some of) their singles, but it’d be nice if they’d try and make a concerted effort to avoid pleasing all of their fans all of the time. Those that have stood by them for 10 years or more deserve a little more love than they’re currently getting.

One final note on the crowd and their reaction/behavior. It was a frat-tastic evening with plenty of strong-armed alcoholics trying to show how indie they are by attending a Death Cab show. If many of them weren’t making a trip to the bar, they were high-fiving and chatting through many of the songs. Please note that not everyone was like this, as there were a good deal of respectful and smart concert-goers that wanted to hear every note because they paid for it. Still, cheering and applause appeared to be very thin through much of the set (where new stuff dominated), and only near the end where it was hit-after-hit complete with sing-alongs did people start to get truly excited. “Aw man, they’re hitting their stride now”, some idiot next to me said during “The Sound of Settling”. What made it funny was that they ended their main set immediately after he said that. Still, the general lack of excitement from the crowd either impacted the band negatively or impacted my impression of the show negatively. Either way, the subdued reaction did not help. You saw Death Cab for Cutie at the METRO. They will likely never play a place that small ever again. At the very least, that was something to cheer about.

Preorder “Codes and Keys” from Amazon

Set List:
The New Year
Crooked Teeth
Some Boys*
Codes and Keys*
Company Calls
Long Division
Grapevine Fires
I Will Possess Your Heart
I Will Follow You Into the Dark
Title Track
You Are A Tourist*
Underneath the Sycamore*
Pictures in an Exhibition
Doors Unlocked and Open*
We Laugh Indoors
Soul Meets Body
The Sound of Settling
Home Is A Fire*
??? (New Song)*
Title and Registration
A Movie Script Ending

Death Cab for Cutie – Home Is A Fire

Death Cab for Cutie – Underneath The Sycamore

Death Cab for Cutie – Some Boys

Death Cab for Cutie – You Are A Tourist

Show Review: Paul Simon [Vic Theatre; Chicago; 5/16/11]

Much like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and even Jimmy Buffett, Paul Simon is one of those musicians worthy of the label “national treasure”. The guy has been making music for nearly 50 years now, first with his good friend Art Garfunkel and then on his own for much longer. There are so many legendary songs that you would most definitely recognize even if you didn’t consider yourself a Paul Simon fan, and he’s even largely credited with starting the musical movement known as Afropop. A band like Vampire Weekend wouldn’t exist today, or at the very least would sound completely different, if Simon and Afropop did not find one another. It’s also fascinating that he’s continued to endure all this time, because while the songs he writes and puts together are typically strong, his own vocals aren’t exactly a selling point. That’s not to call him a terrible singer, it’s more that you’d think Garfunkel would have been the one to hit it big in their duo. What’s written is written though, and we’ve gotten so many great and just delightful songs from Simon over the years. But as with any musician who’s been playing for most of their lives, the last decade or two has seen a significant slow down in progress. It’s been 5 years since his last album “Surprise” came out, and that was after a 6 year gap following “You’re the One”. But if you’ve been paying a reasonable amount of attention to the music scene in the last several weeks, or you just watched the last episode of “Saturday Night Live”, you’d know Simon put out his latest album “So Beautiful or So What” last month. It earned the sort of moderate applause you give to a national treasure, where respect comes first before an truly honest assessment of the music. Really though, it’s not a bad album by any means. In support of said new record, Simon and his 8-man wild cultural mix of a band set out on tour, which includes two stops in Chicago – one at the historic Chicago Theatre, and the other at the remarkably tiny and somewhat intimate Vic Theatre. To see him perform in a stadium or at a music festival is a treat unto itself, but at a 1,000 capacity venue is something truly special.

Setting the scene, after a weekend filled with rain and temperatures that were close to 30 degrees below normal, the sun came out to play but was on the verge of retiring on Monday evening as crowds gathered in front of The Vic in preparation for the sold out Paul Simon show. Shortly after the 8pm listed start time, the house lights went down, the spotlights went up, and the band emerged to thundrous cheering. Starting strong and with something recognizable is always a plus, and Simon did not disappoint with the positively lovely “The Boy in the Bubble” off the “Graceland” record. Light and airy and with an accordion-fueled energy, the dancing began right away for much of the audience. The one big thing you learn from listening to Paul Simon’s catalogue is that despite being credited for Afropop, that’s by no means the only style of music he plays. He, along with his band, are citizens of the world, and the live show is very reflective of that. What really binds us all together no matter where you’re from is rhythm, and so you can bounce from the African beats of “Dazzling Blue” off his latest record into a more funky folk of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” before running into reggae in a wild combination platter of Jimmy Cliff’s “Vietnam” and Simon’s own “Mother and Child Reunion”. From there it was a trip to Creole country courtesy of “That Was Your Mother”. Outside of a couple early set highlights, the biggest chunks of pure greatness in the set came closer to the end. “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” began completely a capella, as it does on the original “Graceland” version, but the end of the song, which featured a drummer face-off between Jamey Haddad and Jim Oblon, was where things really ran into the highly exceptional category.

At the start of the first encore, Paul Simon returned to the stage by himself, a spotlight the only thing illuminating the stage. He picked up his acoustic guitar and belted out a soulful, mournful version of the Simon & Garfunkel classic “The Sound of Silence”. Knowingly, 99% of the crowd became so quiet you could hear a pin drop. The two people that “Woo-ed” early in the song were quickly shut up. It became the most intimate moment of the entire evening, just a man and his guitar. I’d like to think that everybody paying strict attention during those few minutes felt a connection, as if the song was being performed for you and only you. Surely the smaller venue helped in that regard, as watching a tiny man from a balcony probably doesn’t have the same effect. But that was the real goosebump moment of the show, and honestly, I wasn’t the least bit bothered that nobody stepped in to try and recreate Garfunkel’s vocal harmonies on the song. After not hearing a whole lot of singing along for much of the set, it was a little surprising to me that “Kodachrome” was when people started to pipe up. It was kind of a party from that point onwards though, with some nice excitement when Simon whipped out a rendition of The Beatles classic “Here Comes the Sun” leading into one of his best and most popular tracks, “Late in the Evening”. The crowd had clearly not had enough after nearly two hours and a 5 song encore, so after exiting again, the band returned one last time for “Crazy Love, Vol. II”. There was more singing and more dancing and smiles abound. Prior to walking off the stage for the final time that night, Simon took a moment to give appropriate kudos to his band and introduce them one by one. Not enough performers do that these days, and the way they all embraced one another made it very clear they’re all like family to one another. A 9 man, multicultural family. For two hours on a Monday night, they let us sit in on one of their family gatherings. One can only hope they do something like that again real soon.

Click on “Read More” below to stream the entire new album “So Beautiful or So What”

Buy “So Beautiful or So What” from Amazon

Set List
The Boy in the Bubble
Dazzling Blue
50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
So Beautiful or So What
Vietnam (Jimmy Cliff cover)
Mother and Child Reunion
That Was Your Mother
Hearts and Bones
Mystery Train/Wheels (Junior Parker cover)
Slip Slidin’ Away
Peace Like A River
The Obvious Child
The Only Living Boy in New York (Simon & Garfunkel song)
The Cool, Cool River
Getting Ready for Christmas Day
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
The Sound of Silence (performed solo; Simon & Garfunkel song)
Gone at Last
Here Comes the Sun (Beatles cover)
Late in tne Evening
\\**ENCORE 2**//
Crazy Love, Vol. II

Show Review: The Arcade Fire + The National [UIC Pavilion; Chicago; 4/25/11]

On a rainy April night, not unlike the few that preceeded it, thousands packed into the UIC Pavilion to witness the third and final show from two of indie rock’s most brilliant stalwarts, The Arcade Fire and The National. Both are out in support of their latest records, The National with their highly acclaimed fifth album “High Violet” and The Arcade Fire with their 2010 Grammy-winning/list-topping third record “The Suburbs”. They’re only playing a select few shows together, basically spanning a couple dates in Missouri, the three in Chicago and one in Indianapolis. It’s an incredibly tough bill to turn down if you love your music, even at the markedly imperfect large venue. Of course the band not only sold out one night in a room that size, but they did it three times in a row, so clearly the demand is there. And better the UIC Pavilion than the even clunkier Allstate Arena or United Center. The first show announced was the Monday night show, which after selling out in a relative heartbeat was then backed up by the Friday and Saturday leading into Easter. Monday never seems to be the “right” day for a show, what with the start of the work week and the general depression that sets in with that. All the rain wasn’t helping either, so there wasn’t quite the electricity in the air you might hope for. The thing about bands is that they don’t exactly have “weekends” or “Mondays”, and if a crowd is not giving them what they need, they’ll either force it out of them or turn in a performance that’s equal with what they’re getting in return. Thankfully both bands seem to do the former, resulting in one of the most exhilarating live shows you’ll find not just on a rainy Monday, but on any day of any week.

This may come as a surprise to nobody, but The National are not the most upbeat band in the world. Songs about failed relationships, political strife and general depression are the norm for them, but they do it with class and style and sharp pop sensibilities, all of which lessen the lyrical pain contained within. Starting their set on Monday night with “Anyone’s Ghost” was perhaps not the most inspired choice. The hook is solid, but it’s a slow burner much like a lot of the band’s material. The standard for many artists is to start strong and draw people in, with most choosing to go with the opening track on their most recent release as it tends to have that same effect. Given that the UIC Pavilion was only a little more than half filled when they started their set though, a fair number of people there were probably fans of The National already, showing up on time to see one of their favorites from the very beginning. You don’t need to sell those people on your band because they’re already sold. Whipping out the “Alligator” classic “Secret Meeting” next, things picked up courtesy of the surging chorus that had singer Matt Berninger screaming by the end – something that you don’t get on the recorded version. In fact, a lot of the songs during The National’s set were brimming with a newfound life and intensity that they haven’t shown often before, evidence of how they’ve grown as a live act in the last few years. Their “hit” “Bloodbuzz Ohio” scored big with the crowd, as did the scream-filled take on “Squalor Victoria”. Arcade Fire’s Richard Parry joined the band on guitar and some backing vocals for “Afraid of Everyone” and “Conversation 16”, which was exciting for some but left a couple brilliant people remarking, “So wait…that guy is in Arcade Fire?”. One of the more random moments in the set was when the band whipped out the “Alligator” b-side “Driver, Surprise Me”, which is not only a challenge to find on record but also to catch a live performance of. Out on a limb, I’d wager about 2-3 people in the entire building knew the song, and the deafening silence in the room was evidence enough of that. The National finished strong though, with a four hit combo that was big on energy and one unplanned moment. The extended outro tacked onto “Fake Empire” was an additional kick in the pants that was earned and exciting. The place was all filled up and naturally went into a frenzy when Win Butler of Arcade Fire came dashing out during “Start A War” to contribute some backing vocals and harmonies. Berninger cracked a smile as Butler exited the stage, commenting, “I thought we said no improvising,” appearing to acknowledge that the appearance wasn’t wholly expected. In the band’s pre-“High Violet” days, “Mr. November” was their standard closing song (in particular to celebrate Barack Obama’s election), bringing energy to spare along with all the screaming promises of “I won’t fuck us over”. This time it was just shy of last, the coveted spot being turned over to “High Violet” opening cut “Terrible Love”. It’s the song they should have started on, but finishing on it was nearly as good. One hour after they took the stage, The National exited triumphant, with the crowd eating out of the palms of their hands and rippling with palpable excitement for The Arcade Fire. It may have been rainy and it may have been a Monday, but the crowd had turned to Saturday and sunny.

The National – Bloodbuzz Ohio
The National – Afraid of Everyone

Buy The National’s “High Violet” from Amazon

One of the more fun things about The Arcade Fire’s current tour is their stage set-up, which features both a classic light-up drive-in movie marquee and a projection screen. Somebody next to me said they didn’t understand how a marquee sign was supposed to relate to the suburbs. Given all the light pollution and the need for an open field, drive-ins theatres were restricted to suburbs and farm towns only, so that’s how the concept makes sense. Prior to their entrance on stage, there were a couple quick “Coming Attractions” that were some old previews for movies where evil comes to the suburbs, otherwise known as bratty, drug-using youths. It was a fun and funny way to put everyone in the mindset for the band’s set, which again dumped the unspoken “start with the first track off your new album” rule but opted instead for the much more energized hit single “Ready to Start”. Not only does the song have a stellar pace, but the title and lyrics tell you plainly that you’d best be fired up and set to get things underway. Like a continued punch to the gut, “Keep the Car Running” hit next and the energy level stayed at a high. People were jumping and singing along at the top of their lungs, giving back to the band exactly what they were shoving out to the masses in the first place. “Haiti” may have been a little more relaxed in its pace, but its tropical vibe mixed with Regine Chassagne’s pixie-like dancing kept the party headed in the right direction. One of the weakest moments on the new record is “Rococo”, primarily for its spiteful lyrics and the sheer ad nauseum number of times the song title is repeated. The dancing stopped and the mood got heavy at the show all of a sudden when that arrived, and it was like the band had shifted into a different gear. What made the live version of “Rococo” essential though was the way that Win Butler sang the song. There was such a raw intensity and spitfire anger pumping out of the speakers that you’ve got to give the guy credit for selling his art. “This is our last night of three in Chicago,” Butler said. “We’re leaving it all on the floor tonight”. The darker side of “The Suburbs” became a theme from that jumping off point, the heart of which was “Suburban War” and “The Suburbs” back-to-back. “Month of May” didn’t lose any of the intensity but picked the energy in the room back up significantly as the band got more heavy metal than at any other time that night.

The third phase of the show seemed to be a return to the “Funeral” days, and a trip through the numbered neighborhoods. As they’ve always done, the band went percussion crazy on “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)”, with everybody that had a free hand banging on whatever they could find with a drumstick. I do kind of miss the days when Richard Parry would strap on a helmet and people would drum on his head, but if they kept doing it the novelty might wear off. The most spirited performances of the evening were naturally saved for last. Win Butler came dangerously close to jumping into the crowd for “We Used to Wait”, but he seemed hesitant to do so after it looked like a few people were trying to grab his microphone cord and wrestle it away from him. They probably wanted to sing, but then again so did everybody. The amount of unsolicited singing and shouting in the crowd was intense, but that’s kind of how you want it to be, a communal experience that bonds everyone, not just the performers. Without a doubt then, the two biggest moments came courtesy of the set-closing “Rebellion (Lies)” and the creme in the encore cookie sandwich known as “Wake Up”. The songs were born to be played in stadiums to masses of people, as evidenced not only in their use via sports advertising, but at the actual shows themselves. Fists in the air, people jumping and shouting in the triumph of the moment. But they weren’t the ones standing tall up on that stage having vanquished a foe. Instead it was the band, and only the band that emerged victorious when it all finished. Like living vicariously through our favorite sports teams though, we’re left with unabashed pride and optimism when it’s all finished, overjoyed that the band we were all rooting for delivered either at or above our expectations. Sprinkle a little “Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains” on top, and serve it up with colorful ribbons and streamers. If you don’t walk away feeling exhilarated after a set like that, you’ve got some serious emotional issues. Weather and moods be damned, The Arcade Fire are your refuge and rock, and you’d be foolish to miss seeing them any chance you get.

The Arcade Fire – Wake Up

Buy The Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” from Amazon

The National – Set List
Anyone’s Ghost
Secret Meeting
Bloodbuzz Ohio
Slow Show
Squalor Victoria
Afraid of Everyone
Conversation 16
Apartment Story
Driver, Surprise Me
Fake Empire
Start A War (w/ Win Butler)
Mr. November
Terrible Love

The Arcade Fire – Set List
Ready to Start
Keep the Car Running
Empty Room
Suburban War
The Suburbs
Month of May
Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
No Cars Go
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
We Used to Wait
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
Rebellion (Lies)
Wake Up
Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains

Show Review: The Dismemberment Plan [Metro; Chicago; 2/19/11]

At this point in time, a full-on Dismemberment Plan reunion is still pending. Sure, you can call the several live dates the band has scheduled an effective reunion, but really it’s more like a collection of one-offs. As the guys describe it themselves, they’re going to play some dates, see how it goes, and figure things out from there. It has been close th 8 years since they broke up, though at least a couple of the guys have had their own musical projects since then. Travis Morrison went solo, which turned into failure on a massive scale, then formed the Travis Morrison Hellfighters, which went down in flames. That resulted in Morrison officially “retiring” from making music, touring, and other such things in 2010. Clearly that didn’t last too long. Additionally, Eric Axelson spent a couple years playing bass in the band Maritime before leaving to start up Statehood with former D-Plan drummer Joe Easley. At this point, Statehood is on a break, if not permanently disbanded due to the death of singer Clark Sabine. So with all the guys essentially not doing a whole lot these days music-wise, and with Morrison hopefully learning a thing or two from that slice of humble pie served to him courtesy of a not-so-hot solo career, The Dismemberment Plan is tentatively back, at the very least to maybe and briefly cash in on a legacy that was never properly heralded in its time. With reunions all the rage these days, why not? Really they’re claiming that the very few tour dates they’ve played (and the one more still scheduled for March) are more part of a celebration of the “Emergency & I” remastered vinyl reissue that came out last month. Anyways, after returning from a couple days in Japan, the band played two Chicago dates (their only Midwest shows) this past weekend. I was privileged enough to attend the first one on Saturday night, and here’s a brief recap of how that whole thing went down.

One of the really nice things that The Dismemberment Plan did for their Chicago shows was to recruit a couple of local bands to open for them on each of their two nights in town. Saturday night JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound along with Kid You’ll Move Mountains were the chosen ones. I’m familiar with and can recommend both of them, though unfortunately a tight schedule prevented me from seeing their sets on Saturday. Instead, I ran straight inside from the entrance doors just in time to catch The Dismemberment Plan emerging on stage and making a short introduction before launching into “Emergency & I” opener “A Life of Possibilities”. It was a fine choice, particularly considering that it’s a tradition for bands to open with the first track on the album they’re promoting. As the track itself goes, things started out just a little bit slow and sparse, but when the bridge finally hits, it explodes into something magical. And so it went, a pretty verbatim version of the track, if not slightly more energized and refined than before, and the crowd ate it up with the intensity and pleasure you might expect from seeing a great band for either the very first time or the first time in a very long time. Faring even better was “The Face of the Earth”, which haa a great energy about it that got everybody riled up, including the band. One gets the impression from the way the crowd reacted that even sub-par live versions of so many “classic” songs would have satisfied, but thankfully The D-Plan are a better band than that. Despite having only played a handful of shows in the last couple months after years apart, they sounded just about perfect, and every song was either album quality or better, with Morrison’s often bizarre stage antics and some ferocious guitar and drums work.

Speaking of Travis Morrison, his banter was typically witty, first dedicating the show to the union workers in Wisconsin currently staging protest, then demanding that everyone look at his new orange kicks (shoes) and refusing to play another song until everyone did and complimented them. So you know, a little of this, and a little of that. There was some rousing cheering for what amounted to perhaps the most amazing double tambourine attack I’ve ever seen (though it may also be the only double tambourine playing I’ve ever seen), and also a sing-along of Biz Markie’s legendary “Just A Friend” that started on stage between songs as just a joke before the crowd took over and made it something more. But of course there were highlights peppered all throughout the D-Plan’s set, as they pulled from all their albums and even the somewhat rare “The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich” off their split EP with the band Juno (the song is also available as a bonus on the vinyl reissue of “Emergency & I”). It was really damn exciting to hear thoroughly charged renditions of “Following Through”, “Superpowers” and “Gyroscope”, among others. Naturally though, the band’s most popular songs were the ones that sounded best, from a strong “You Are Invited” to “What Do You Want Me to Say?” and “Time Bomb”. I was exceptionally happy to hear “Ellen and Ben”, which is perhaps my favorite Dismemberment Plan song. They closed out the main set as they typically do, with an extended and oft-improvised version of “OK Joke’s Over” from their first record. Morrison went on and on about a number of things, naturally personalizing it for Chicago and sports and such, while also doing just a touch of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”. Excellent as usual, and that only extended into the encore. Tons of people got on stage for “The Ice of Boston”, and what shocked me the most about it was that it sounded absolutely perfect both instrumentally and vocally despite the everyone jumping around and singing at the top of their lungs. Moving from that to a scorching version of “The City” was the 1-2 knockout punch of the night. Really the encore handled every last D-Plan highlight you could have wanted that hadn’t already been played. Ending on the “Emergency & I” closer “Back and Forth”, complete with the crowd waving their hands in the air was just sort of a communal coming together and ultimate lovefest. There we all were, a sold out crowd together to celebrate the career of a great band and singing along every step of the way. For that two hour period, though nobody would openly acknowledge it, we were all family.

It is, without a doubt, wonderful to see The Dismemberment Plan together on stage once again and playing a majority of their stellar catalogue. Even if their final scheduled date in Seattle next month is their last, those of us that caught any of the shows in the past couple months hopefully will carry those memories with us for a long time to come. All the guys legitimately looked like they were having fun on stage and it really does sell the idea that they should keep this whole “reunion” train going. If they really wanted to, they could just pull a Pavement and play a bunch of shows over the course of the year before returning to their normal, everyday working lives. Or they could push for something more full time by writing new material and putting out at least one more record. Thinking about it now in the purest of retrospectives, I’ll be highly satisfied whatever they choose to do (or not do) from here on out. If they come back through Chicago I’ll be sure to see them again, and it’d be nice if people in cities other than the few they’ve played had a chance to see them too. If they release a new album, I’ll probably buy it sight unseen and note unheard. But if they want to legitimately retire from music, as Travis Morrison said he’d be doing last year (before any rumors of a reunion ever emerged), at least they popped their collective heads up for one quick go-around. It’s certainly better than the alternative of doing nothing.

Set List:
A Life of Possibilities
The Face of the Earth
Spider in the Snow
Following Through
You Are Invited
What Do You Want Me to Say?
That’s When the Party Started
Time Bomb
Memory Machine
The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich
Ellen and Ben
Do the Standing Still
Girl O’Clock
OK Joke’s Over
The Ice of Boston
The City
Pay for the Piano
I Love A Magician
Back and Forth

The Dismemberment Plan – The Face of the Earth
The Dismemberment Plan – Time Bomb
The Dismemberment Plan – Ellen and Ben
The Dismemberment Plan – What Do You Want Me to Say?
The Dismemberment Plan – The City

Buy the “Emergency & I” remastered vinyl reissue from Amazon

Click through the jump for more photos!

Show Review: Mister Heavenly + Screaming Females [Lincoln Hall; Chicago; 1/14/11]

It takes a lot of courage to buy a ticket to a show from a band that you haven’t heard one note from. Of course the comfort level is automatically increased if you know the band is comprised of members whose musical talents you trust. In the fall of 2009, I willingly purchased a ticket to see a little band now known as Them Crooked Vultures at their very first show ever. Nobody knew what kind of product the combination of Josh Homme, Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones would produce, but it turned out to be the start of something great. It was with that same shaky confidence that I made the decision to go see Mister Heavenly on Friday night. Unlike Them Crooked Vultures though, Mister Heavenly have already played a small handful of shows, all of which resulted in a whole lot of press coverage thanks to their very special guest on bass, the perennial awkward teen known as Michael Cera. But Cera had nothing to do with the formation of Mister Heavenly, nor is he an “official” member of the band. What makes this band attention worthy even without a celebrity presence is the collaboration between three great indie talents that are already well known in their own rights. Nick Diamonds is best known for his work as part of the band Islands and, formerly, The Unicorns. Honus Honus is better known as the frontman for the wild group Man Man. Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer helps to make this trio complete. The original intention was to just put together a one-off 7-inch instrumental single, but once the creative juices got flowing, an entire album poured out. As it was revealed at the show on Friday, that album will be released by Sub Pop this September (tentatively). Coincidentally though, Mister Heavenly chose to release their first two songs ever just hours before they were set to take the stage in Chicago. Outside of some rough YouTube videos filmed on some earlier tour dates, this was the first legitimate glimpse into the band’s material, which up until then bore only the description of a new genre called “doom-wop”. In a nutshell, it is intended to combine the classic doo-wop melodies with the tragic tales that are doomed love songs. More on that and the show in a minute, but first let’s talk opening bands.

The Mister Heavenly show was yet another part of the 5-night festival called Tomorrow Never Knows. Earlier in the week I saw a bill that included Lia Ices, Frankie Rose and the Outs, and The Besnard Lakes. The idea behind the shows, which take place at a couple different venues around Chicago, is to give exposure to a number of up-and-coming artists. Aside from Mister Heavenly headlining on Friday night, the bill was also shared by New York band The Dig, former Q and Not U/Georgie James member John Davis performing under the name Title Tracks, and New Jersey underground female-fronted punk band Screaming Females. As I was spending time with friends, I missed the first two sets of the night, though I have heard and can recommend both The Dig and Title Tracks as bands worth checking out if you haven’t yet. But speaking exclusively about Screaming Females, whose set I saw all of, if you’re not aware of this trio, you need to jump on them quick. Frontwoman Marissa Paternoster is a one person wrecking ball, and all of us are standing in her way. If she doesn’t take you down with her immensely skilled guitar playing, she’ll do so with a scream so intense that a microphone isn’t needed to hear it across a crowded room. Mike Abbate’s bass work is almost equally as good, strongly recalling the highly melodic work of Green Day’s Mike Dirnt. He might consider that comparison to be insulting, but personally I think that Dirnt is among the top 10 bass players active today. Then there’s drummer Jarrett Dougherty, who completely wails on his kit with little regard for common decency. Put these three powerhouses together and it makes sense as to why Screaming Females are a band very much on the rise. That they’ve done so almost entirely on their own terms without much support save from their tiny label Don Giovanni Records is even more impressive. They don’t need a marketing team – the music and the live shows speak for themselves. Sonically, the band holds strong ties to Sleater-Kinney, as Paternoster’s guitar and vocals are remarkably Carrie Brownstein-esque. The energy, the outrage and the pure, unadultrated guitar solos have the ability to send shivers down your spine. That was the case right from the beginning of their set at Lincoln Hall, as the large crowd went from a state of calm to a fever pitch in a matter of minutes. There may not have been any mosh pits, as with the punk rock there certainly could have been, but the reaction in pure applause and cheering was testimony enough as to how well they were doing. To put it another way, Mister Heavenly had their work cut out for them after such an inspired set by Screaming Females.

A high degree of “jockeying for position” happened once Screaming Females walked off the stage. People were looking for the best vantage points, most likely in which to see Michael Cera, so there was a bit of pushing and shoving and mean looks being thrown around at the sheer annoyance of it all. Looking around at the crowd demographics, it was close to a 50-50 male/female spread. Given that most indie bands draw a much higher percentage of men over women, you kind of knew what everyone had shown up for: the bass player in Mister Heavenly. The crowd cheered wildly as all four guys walked out on stage, though there was a rather funny moment right before they launched into their first song where a small group of people gave a shout-out to Honus Honus. Earlier show reviews seemed to emphasize the distracting nature of having Michael Cera on stage with the rest of the band, saying that the crowds kept yelling quotes from his movies before, during, and between songs. While that did happen once or twice, including a, “Let Michael tell us a story!”, for the most part people were respectful of the music and cheered appropriately for the songs themselves and not any one thing in particular (the cameras, however, were an entirely different matter). Speaking of the songs, the band opened with their self-titled track “Mister Heavenly”, which was one of the two songs they had released for free earlier in the day. I was unable to download and listen to them prior to going to the show, but apparently a lot of people were, to the point where they already had the lyrics memorized. There were at least three people I saw surrounding me that sang along for all of that and the other just-released song “Pineapple Girl” later in the set. Celebrity influence or not, hopefully this band is going to make an impact. Their “doom-wop” sound is interesting to say the least, largely coming off as what it’d sound like if one guy from Islands and one guy from Man Man got together and had a 1950’s-era musical baby. So there’s a hook-riddled pop edge to the songs courtesy of Nick Diamonds that’s balanced out by the experimental and odd quirks Honus Honus brings to the table. It’s all held together by Joe Plummer’s almost equally strong presence behind the drum kit. Cera is a capable bass player, but given he’s not an official member of the band and didn’t record the debut album with them, most anybody with strong knowledge of the instrument could have jumped in and done an equally excellent job. Of course not anybody can deliver an awkward punchline quite the way Cera can, which meant that some stage banter revealed some extra amusing moments. A sample:
Nick Diamonds: Hey Mike, what’s your favorite cheese?
Michael Cera: My favorite cheese? Oh, well I’d have to go with Havarti. Does anybody here love Havarti cheese?
(crowd cheers loudly)
The band then plays another song. After the song…
Nick Diamonds: Hey Mike, what’s your favorite cheese?
Michael Cera: I Havarti told you once.
(cue rimshot)
Jokes don’t get much cleaner than that. Nicely played. But beyond corny jokes like that one, Both Nick Diamonds and Honus Honus tried to give the crowd some insight as to how they came up with certain song titles and lyrics. For example, the song “Diddy Eyes” is apparently about the basketball player Rolando Blackman and how, in a photo they saw of him, his eyes looked just like Diddy’s (or P. Diddy or Puff Daddy or Sean Combs or whatever name he’s going by these days). That’s a weird and funny thing to write a song about, though it does leave me wondering if they were just kidding when telling that story. Another song was written in reaction to a series of sniper shootings that were happening around New York at the time they were writing the album. “The shootings happened on a night just like this. In a room just like this. From very high up, just like the balcony in here,” Diamonds said, messing with us. Outside of playing most (if not all) the songs slated to appear on the Mister Heavenly debut album, the band also brought out a cover or two. They did “Bad Man” by The Oblivions about halfway through the set, and for their encore totally rocked out to The Misfits’ “Hybrid Moments”. That legitimately started a mosh pit courtesy of about 5-6 people, leaving everyone else annoyed at all the intense pushing and shoving going on. But it was a fun way to end the night, which was also Honus’ birthday, as revealed at the start of said encore. He was wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey too, so more power to him for that, as well as coming out and talking to people after the show. The same goes for Nick Diamonds, who I was able to chat with briefly before finally giving up thanks to so many people jumping in and interrupting. Among the information I was able to extract was that A) Honus and Diamonds shared songwriting duties on the Mister Heavenly debut album, tentatively scheduled for release in September and B) Diamonds returns to his main band Islands next month when they’ve got some studio time booked to make a new record. He’s got about 35 songs written and they plan on picking the best ones for the album before doing an Islands tour in the late summer/early fall. No official word on future Mister Heavenly tour plans, but it can be assumed they’ll be back on the road together around the album’s September release.

So overall it was a very fun night, with the wild and technically impressive Screaming Females playing alongside the highly amusing and pleasantly catchy throwback style of Mister Heavenly. Both were great for entirely different reasons, and both are absolutely worth seeing, though they’ll never play together again methinks. Separately though, check them out. The biggest hope that I have from the night is that it inspired some people just showing up to see Michael Cera in person to actually become invested in either Mister Heavenly or indie rock in general. If it takes a Hollywood star to get you into this type of music, then so be it. The more people we have listening to challenging artists and bands, the better off we’ll be as a society. Now then, check out more photos, the set list, and download two songs from Mister Heavenly after the jump (click on a photo to view a slightly larger version).

Show Review: LCD Soundsystem + Hot Chip [Aragon Ballroom; Chicago; 10/25/10]

Three albums apiece, each of which is critically acclaimed. Two bands, both strongly representative of everything that’s right in modern dance music. One night, with one mirrored disco ball hanging overhead. This is the setup for one of the biggest double bills of the year, and if you’ve caught Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem on this tour prior to now, consider yourselves very lucky. They made their way to the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago on Monday night for a show that sold out so fast they added a second date tonight at the smaller Riviera (for which a limited number of tickets are still available). Both artists had already stopped in the Windy City earlier this year, with LCD Soundsystem headlining a night of the Pitchfork Music Festival and Hot Chip putting on an early evening set at Lollapalooza, but naturally, the thought of seeing these bands outside of an outdoor festival setting was more than enough to draw plenty of people in. So on a surprisingly balmy October evening that many might regard as the “calm before the storm” given the severe weather that has now struck the city, a massive crowd strapped on their dancing shoes ready for a hot and sweaty party.

As the opening band, Hot Chip was only given an hour for their set, which apparently had to be carefully timed due to somewhat strict curfew laws regarding weeknight 18+ shows. It’s a good thing they made the most of that time, blasting through songs at a remarkably fast pace while working to maximize the BPMs and keep bodies moving. Starting with “And I Was A Boy From School” was a smart move given it’s one of the strongest songs in their catalogue and is just barely quick enough to rev up the crowd for what’s to come. As one might expect, the set leaned heavily on their latest album “One Life Stand”, and about half the songs they played were from it. Earlier this year I lamented the lack of dance floor hits on that record, but the band brought new life to those songs and proved they can work just as well as the older material. So when the song “One Life Stand” was surrounded by “One Pure Thought” and “Over and Over”, there wasn’t a noticeable difference in quality, and the same goes for the 1-2-3 punch of “Shake A Fist”, “I Feel Better” and “Ready for the Floor” to close things out. It’s been three years and two albums since I last saw Hot Chip perform, and in that time they’ve only improved as a live act. The songs are tighter than ever and there’s rarely a moment when somebody doesn’t have an instrument in hand, be it a guitar, keyboard or tambourine. If that wasn’t enough to get feet shuffling, there was also Alex Taylor’s odd dancing on stage, which tends to look a lot like he’s jogging in place. He’s not exactly your stereotypical rock star, but then again neither is James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem.

So with the crowd completely warmed up both figuratively and literally, a plaid-clad, scruffy-looking Murphy came out with his band as they launched straight into “This Is Happening” opener “Dance Yrself Clean”. The song itself is a carefully considered exercise in restraint, slowly bubbling up under more intense heat until finally exploding under the pressure. As soon as that dam burst open, the entire Aragon went nuts in the best way possible. Limbs flailed, fists pumped, and the stage lighting added an extra dose of bliss to the entire thing. Moving from that into the single “Drunk Girls” only slammed things harder and everyone that knew the words sang along at the top of their lungs. If those early highlights weren’t enough, the rendition of “Get Innocuous” built to a startlingly intense conclusion that had Murphy attacking a pair of snare drums like they had just threatened his life. The guy has taken less of a role on stage fiddling around with instruments and electronic elements in order to focus on his vocals, but it was moments like when he went nuts on the drums that really stood out in a show filled with stand out moments. The triple combo of “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House”, “I Can Change” and “All My Friends” works well together, which is seemingly why they’re on every set list that way. It was during “All My Friends” though that the notoriously poor sound at the Aragon actually struck for a couple minutes, as the song headed towards its conclusion the mix got progressively muddier to the point where the entire thing was one big white noise mess, vocals included. There was only one other moment like that during the set, and that was for the intensely loud “Movement”, where the guitars rip through the head banging chorus. Outside of those two briefly annoying audio blunders, the rest of the show was surprisingly glitch-free. LCD Soundsystem chose to close their set with “Yeah”, another slow burner that builds until Murphy is screaming at the top of his lungs in dramatic and exciting fashion. And because the lyrics basically consist of repeating the song title over and over again, everyone started to yell in between jumping around like crazy. It was a pretty perfect way to wrap up the night, and had there not been an encore most everyone would have walked away satisfied. Not that the encore took away the intense feeling of satisfaction, but the band did play three songs that aren’t the most dance intensive in their catalogue. Still, songs like “Someone Great” and “Losing My Edge” are classics, so it remains a delight each time they’re played. And as a bit of a change up, the band is choosing to close out most encores on this tour with the song “Home” rather than the previous staple “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”. The positive to that is that “Home” is a more upbeat song with a relatively healthy beat that may not inspire dancing but feels less like the band is going gently into the night. So as each band member exited the stage with a wave or a bow, the stage lights shut down one by one until just the mirrored disco ball overhead spun and the last few beats of the song faded away.

James Murphy has gone on record saying that he plans to “retire” the LCD Soundsystem moniker once he’s done touring to support the latest album “This Is Happening”. Well, that doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be another LCD Soundsystem album or a handful of singles, really for all intensive purposes he means that he doesn’t want to have to tour anymore. Depending on who you talk to, that means this Aragon show could have been one of the band’s final two dates in Chicago. Of course since this isn’t being billed as a “farewell tour” and there’s talk of the band playing dates until next summer before officially calling it quits, there’s a high likelihood LCD Soundsystem will be back through at least once more in 2011. That is a great thing, because for a supposed “old man” and non-rock star, Murphy and his band put on a show that’s not only top notch, but seems to get better with age. The jumps in live show quality between 2007 and earlier this summer when the band headlined the Pitchfork Music Festival were huge, and even in the 3 months since then they’ve strengthened even further. If you love this music, along with an occasional dance party, you owe it to yourself to see LCD Soundsystem at least one more time before it’s all over. Given that they’re currently touring with Hot Chip that’s an added incentive to go see the show. Together they make up what’s probably the best double bill of 2010 with what just might be the best live show of 2010 as well. To my fellow Chicagoans, if you’re reading this in time, drop your plans for tonight and go see these two bands at the Riviera. Everyone else, I wish you the best of luck with tickets to a show near you if there is one. The main purpose of going to see these bands might very well be to have a great time dancing and rubbing up against other hot and sweaty bodies, but it’s also important to note that there’s a deep well of emotion hiding just beneath the music’s glossy surface and intense light show. Even if you’re the kind of laid back person that refuses to do anything more than simply tap a toe to the beat, this show has more than its fair share of wonderful moments for you as well. Let’s hope this whole retirement thing is just a momentary lapse in judgment.

Buy Hot Chip’s “One Life Stand” from Amazon
Buy LCD Soundsystem’s “This Is Happening” from Amazon

LCD Soundsystem Set List:
Dance Yrself Clean
Drunk Girls
Get Innocuous
Daft Punk Is Playing At My House
I Can Change
All My Friends
You Wanted A Hit
Someone Great
Losing My Edge

Show Review: Sufjan Stevens [Chicago Theatre; Chicago; 10/15/10]

Here’s what’s fascinating: when tickets for Sufjan Stevens at the Chicago Theatre went on sale a couple months ago, it had been a few years since he’d released any new music. Sufjan had gone on the record saying he wasn’t feeling particularly productive and began to question whether or not the album was a viable form of releasing music anymore. In other words, Sufjan announced tour dates and sold thousands of tickets, all on the assumption that he’d be playing virtually 100% old material. How quickly time flies. Less than an hour after tickets went on sale for the Chicago date of his fall tour (one week after most other cities), there was suddenly a spark of life that came in the form of the hour-long “All Delighted People” EP, immediately released in digital format via Bandcamp. So, suddenly the chances of Sufjan playing some new material on this tour increased exponentially. Then came the second surprise, the announcement of a new full length album, “The Age of Adz”, the release date of last Tuesday perfectly coinciding with the start of the tour. And so it was, over 2 hours of new Sufjan music released before his date at the Chicago Theatre, with the show pretty much sold out before most anyone was aware it existed.

So it was with another collection of very good album reviews and a certain measure of excitement that crowds packed into the Chicago Theatre last Friday night to see what Sufjan Stevens would do. With a sheer screen lowered at the front of the stage to somewhat hide the band, they emerged and launched right into an incredible version of “Seven Swans”. Given it’s extremely precious and sparse arrangement on the record of the same name, the full band rendition gave the song an entirely new life that was at least equal to, if not greater than, the original. Shapes and objects were projected onto both a screen behind the stage and the one in front of it, which was raised near the end of the song. Post-“Seven Swans”, Sufjan greeted the crowd and noted how he was excited to be able to perform some new songs for all of us. Whether or not the crowd was equally excited to hear them was another matter. What followed was 10 songs in a row, 8 of them from “The Age of Adz” and 2 of them from the “All Delighted People” EP. There’s servicing a new album, and then there’s SERVICING a new album. Sufjan chose the latter, and with the likely possibility that at least half the crowd hadn’t heard the majority if not the entirety of it. If you bought a physical copy of the album, you only had a couple days to become familiar with it, unless you streamed it online in the couple weeks prior to its release. Basically, this show was your full introduction to the new stuff, and Sufjan was more than happy to shove you in the pool without any life vest on.

While a majority of confused faces looked on, song after song passed by and Sufjan did his best to keep things lively and interesting. There were about 10 people in his backing band, two drummers, two horn players, two or three guitarists, a keyboard/piano player, and two women singing backup vocals and dancing. Sufjan himself switched around between banjo, electric guitar, keyboards, piano and a couple other instruments, and at one point simply grabbed the microphone and wandered around the front of the stage just singing. There were projections on the screen at the back of the stage the entire time, and occasionally the sheer front stage screen would come down and add more projections. Shapes and space and planets and UFOs all flew around haphazardly, and as Sufjan explained mid-set, it was all inspired by the little-known artist Royal Robertson, whose art graces the cover of “The Age of Adz”. Apparently during the last couple years when he was “creatively challenged”, Robertson’s art spoke to him and snapped him out of that slump. The guy was a paranoid schizophrenic and had some wild ideas about the end of the world, aliens and numerology. It also made for some interesting musical choices on Sufjan’s part, and either listening to the album or simply seeing it performed live will prove that to you. And though there was a clear disconnect between what the music happening on stage and the audience filling the seats, a few moments really did strike home. “I Walked”, the first “single” and a free download from “The Age of Adz”, hit hard probably for those exact reasons. Also, the sheer shock of thet 25.5 minute “Impossible Soul”, complete with Auto-Tune breakdown, caused an intense burst of enthusiasm from the crowd with applause and cheering that was at the level of about 5 songs combined, because that’s essentially what it was. If you’re going to play the city of Chicago though, and you’ve got a song with that exact title that turned into your biggest hit to date, people would have been near-riot angry had Sufjan not played it. Naturally, he saved it for the end of the set, and everyone got out of their seats and sang along. It was a rendition virtually verbatim with the one that appeared on “Illinois”, but when you’ve got the crowd eating out of the palm of your hand going off script into an extended version of a classic song isn’t the best route to take. So with the two older songs sandwiched at the beginning and end of the set and everything else new in between, Sufjan Stevens and his band said goodnight…but not without an encore first.

As Sufjan came out by himself for the encire, he played the lovely but brief “Illinois” piano track “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”. That was another straight version, before he brought his two backup singers out to do “Decatur”. As an introduction to the song, Sufjan pretty much said, “I hate this song, it’s a real tongue-twister, but we’re here so we have to do it.” That turned out just fine too, as did “Casimir Pulaski Day” right after that, The really questionable move he made was to play “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” solo to end the night. As great as that song is, part of the also-great “Illinois” album and a historical legacy of the state, one can’t help but wonder if there was a better, less depressing serial killer-ish choice that could have been made before walking off the stage. Instead it was a somber end to a night that in an ideal world would have been far more upbeat.

If you haven’t noticed by now, this isn’t a rave review praising Sufjan Stevens for his musical brilliance both on and off the stage. The fact of the matter is, the guy is so prolific and talented that he’s raised the bar to a point beyond which even he can reach. The one thing he’s failed to realize in this tour so far is that while people are excited to hear your new stuff, they’re still more passionate about the old stuff. In some recent interviews, Sufjan made some comments about leaving the “cutesy” days behind and presenting a far more mature show than he ever has before. Back in 2005, touring for a few months after the release of “Illinois”, he had cheerleaders and wore a train engineer’s cap and played the banjo. It was such a joyous and happy experience – clearly one he has no intention of repeating anytime soon. As nice of a guy as Sufjan is, and as great as his music might be, he’s very much started to take on the temperament of the tortured genius. Whether it’s the enormous pressure he’s felt from all the critical acclaim and mainstream success he’s achieved thus far, or it’s simply a matter of burnout, the smile seems to have been erased from his face. There was nothing technically wrong with his show at the Chicago Theatre last Friday, everything sounded exactly as it should and the new stuff is pretty excellent as well. A set list where the majority of the songs are from “The Age of Adz” and the “All Delighted People” EP isn’t necessarily frowned upon, but at these early stages when the new material is still seeping into people’s brains, perhaps more of a balance would leave the crowds more satisfied. Then again these are the perils that come from being a relatively popular musician, the pressure to give in and “play the hits” rather than try something new. Sufjan Stevens gets credit for largely ignoring what could have been a very eclectic and satisfying set by challenging the audience with all this new music. That doesn’t give much excuse for the relative disdain for which he played songs from “Illinois” during the encore, but better to play them halfheartedly than not at all. Once “The Age of Adz” and its companion EP have been around long enough to earn some genuine sing-alongs, Sufjan’s live show will reach solid ground once again. At the moment though, he’s running far ahead of the pack and refusing to slow down with the hope that everyone else will catch up with him eventually. Let’s hope that’s sooner rather than later.

Set List:
Seven Swans
Too Much
Age of Adz
I Walked
Now That I’m Older
Futile Devices
Get Real Get Right
The Owl and the Tanager
Impossible Soul
Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
Decatur, Or, Round Of Applause For Your Stepmother!
Casimir Pulaski Day
John Wayne Gacy, Jr.

Buy “The Age of Adz” from Amazon

Show Review: The Futureheads + The Like [Lincoln Hall; Chicago; 6-12-10]

The best surprises are always the ones that you never see coming. Well I suppose that’s the definition of the word “surprise”, but I’d also say that some supposed surprises are easier to predict than others, like a TV show’s season-ending cliffhanger where the hero is in serious danger of being killed. You may be surprised to learn that at the start of a new season, the hero survives and escapes the deadly situation. Of course there’s also the bad surprise, where your hopes are high and are met with ultimate disappointment. But the surprise I’m talking about is the sort where you’ve got little to no expectation at the start, only to be completely floored and blown away by something incredible. Rarely do such surprises happen, and that’s really what makes them so special and immensely difficult to capture. Such a surprise happened to me on Saturday night, and as part of this show review, I’m obliged to tell you about it. But first, some finer details.

The venue is Lincoln Hall, the newest (and one of the hottest…booking-wise) concert venue in Chicago. It’s a late show, and The Futureheads are headlining a bill with The Like and The Static Jacks. After arriving a little late, I learned that The Static Jacks had already finished and The Like was preparing to start their set. My history with The Like has been a short one that I can sum up in a quick sentence. They released a debut album in 2005, which like their band name I moderately liked. They’re now releasing their second record this week. They are an all girl group who make relatively inoffensive but moderately catchy rock songs that primarily deal with the subject of boys and romance. It’s all far more intricate and developed than the almost “Plain Jane” exterior it might come off as, especially if you’re fully aware that a couple core members of the band are daughters of music industry veterans. Ignore that point and just listen to the music, because it’s definitely good enough to have come from a group of clearly talented individuals. That said, as a live act, The Like aren’t half bad either. Boasting a slightly revamped lineup that was established last year, the girls came out and quickly kicked things into high gear. They powered through their set at a dizzying pace, rarely stopping even for an applause break. Stage banter was virtually nonexistent, except to thank the other bands on the bill and the crowd for coming. As for the songs themselves, they were decent. The Like performed them with pluck and aplomb and were mostly engaging in their delivery. There was nothing revolutionary or immensely exciting about how it all went down, but then again neither are their songs. It’s the sort of music you’d expect from these girls, and it’s also good enough to make you wonder why this band isn’t more popular. There’s a catchiness and general enjoyment to the songs, and I honestly believe that’s worth a lot. Most of the songs they played were new ones from their upcoming “Release Me”, and they had a solid 60’s girl group vibe to them. I’ve yet to hear the new record, but based on the live versions of the songs, it has potential. So does The Like’s live show. They may not have blown me away with their set, but I’m confident that as they continue to make new music and do plenty of touring, things will continue to improve. Best of luck, ladies.

Buy The Like’s “Release Me” from Amazon

To the strains of Cheap Trick’s “Hello There”, which prominently features the line “Are you ready to rock?”, The Futureheads emerged on stage prepared to do just that. Whether they’ve been using the song all tour or it was specifically chosen for Cheap Trick’s hometown, it made for an amusing start to what would be a show filled with fun little moments just like that one. “Hello, we are The Futureheads. Prepare to meet your doom,” said frontman Barry Hyde as the band launched furiously into the title track of their new album “The Chaos”. The song itself is much like a time bomb, filled with raw energy and featuring the countdown of “5,4,3,2,1”. As suddenly as it had started, less than 2 minutes later, the music abruptly stopped, and the band did too – frozen like statues in place while the crowd cheered up a storm. After a good few seconds of this, the band ripped through the chorus one last time. If that’s not the absolute right way to start a show, I don’t know what is. “Thank you very much, Chicago. This is the very last stop on our U.S. tour, and I want it to get messy in here tonight. I want you all to go to the bar, grab a bottle of vodka, pour it on yourself, and then set yourself on fire,” Hyde quipped. “That’s the spirit!” guitarist Ross Millard chimed in with the pun. And so it went, clear that not only would The Futureheads rip through their four album catalogue, but they’d do so in the most entertaining way possible. See, unlike so many touring bands today, The Futureheads have the oft-coveted characteristic known as stage charisma, and they’ve got it coming out their arses.

Of course the show wasn’t all about witty banter, even though it did include some great commentaries on the USA vs. England World Cup match earlier in the day (“our goaltender must have had olive oil on his gloves or something”) and Chicago (“I love the architecture here. You’ve got a lot of things that spiral, and that’s fantastic. I especially love your carparks [parking garages]. Chicago has the best carparks in the world.”). No, speaking specifically for the music, The Futureheads delivered a performance that was directly relational in energy to that of their songs. Fast, fun, upbeat, and markedly faithful to the original recordings. That is to say, the tempo and vocal harmonies weren’t off in the least, and that just made for a better show. The music itself kind of pushes you in that direction initially anyways, but the band and their great, loose energy drove it home. They also covered every necessary song in their entire catalogue thus far, and smartly pulling much of the material from their first album and their most recent one. Particularly great were renditions of “Meantime”, “Decent Days and Nights” and “First Day”, all of which held up to the lofty standards they presented on record initially. The new songs fared quite well too, in particular “Heartbeat Song”, “Struck Dumb” and “Jupiter” – though my favorite of the new stuff probably came with “The Connector”. In addition to that, crowd participation was heartily encouraged, whether it was clapping along with the beat, doing the “bouncy dance” (jumping up and down mindlessly), or splitting the room in half for a sing-along game to “Hounds of Love” that saw The Like and The Static Jacks returning to the stage to help out. More often than not, those “this side sings one part, and the other side sings another part” games are foolish ploys that never work out as well as you might hope. While the crowd-infused version of “Hounds of Love” wasn’t exactly perfect, it worked about as well as it could be expected to.

After powering through a 16-song set, The Futureheads said goodnight, but then naturally said they’d be back in a minute for an encore. True to their word, they weren’t gone for more than 60 seconds, and when they came back, they played the very first song they ever wrote, “Le Garage”. From the sound of things, the band only intended on playing a 2-3 song encore. What wound up actually happening was a different story. The venue might only have been 3/4ths full, but what crowd was there only wanted more. Given that it was the last night of their U.S. tour, the band looked like they didn’t want to leave the stage either, so they played a couple more beyond what they had originally planned for. It got to the point where they claimed they’d never done a 5-song encore before, but something that night coaxed them into it. They may have played 21 songs total, but given the speed at which they ripped through them, only about 90 minutes had passed and most of us were having the time of our lives. Still, all good things must come to an end, and after powering through “Man Ray”, The Futureheads called it a night once and for all.

At the beginning of this now lengthy piece, I talked a little bit about great surprises. The ones that sneak up on you when you least expect them and knock your socks off in a great way. The Futureheads’ live show was one of those moments for me, not just a stand-out highlight of my concergoing year thus far, but perhaps the most dynamic and fun time I’ve had at a show in a few years. This coming from a band that I had a moderate liking for going in and felt that if they just did their harmonies right that’d be good enough. Instead they went very far above and beyond any expectations I could have had and earned a spot among my favorite live acts. Their U.S. tour may be over, but if you’re from Europe and you’ve not yet seen The Futureheads, make sure to check and see if they’re coming to your city sometime soon. At the end of their set, Ross told the crowd that it was their first show in Chicago in four years. He also said they’d be back sooner than that next time. I certainly hope that’s true, because I’m now eagerly looking forward to the next time The Futureheads come to town.

The Futureheads – Struck Dumb
The Futureheads – Skip to the End

Buy The Futureheads’ “The Chaos” from Amazon

Set List:
The Chaos
Walking Backwards
Heartbeat Song
Struck Dumb
Decent Days and Nights
I Can Do That
First Day
Skip to the End
Back to the Sea
Sun Goes Down
The Beginning of the Twist
Carnival Kids
Hounds of Love
Le Garage
The Connector
Work Is Never Done
Stupid and Shallow
Man Ray

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