Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Spins: Atomic Ragtime and Radiant Folk, Chicago Style

Alt-Rock, Blues, Chicago Artists, Folk, Folk-rock, Jazz, Record Reviews, Record Store Day, Singer-Songwriter No Comments »


By Robert Rodi

I’m just a hair late to the party when it comes to “No Hotel,” the new album by Chicago’s own neo-vaudeville barnstormers, The Claudettes; but the album (which came out in September) is definitely one you should be spinning, streaming or otherwise ingesting whole. It’s the work of just three players—pianist Johnny Iguana, drummer Michael Caskey and (intermittently) vocalist Yana—but there’s enough energy going on to power your average Third World airport.

The opener, “Big Easy Women,” is full of a barreling, hyper-saloon piano banging, with a bridge that playfully evokes silent-movie peril. But it’s the second cut—“California, Here I Come”—that really makes you sit up and take notice. The Claudettes knock the hoary old Al Jolson tune into a minor key, transforming it into a wittily downbeat comment on the cruelty that so often accompanies the go-west-young-man dream. Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Billy Strayhorn Lived a “Lush Life” Beyond Duke Ellington

Big Band, Blues, Chicago Artists, Classical, Festivals, Interviews, Jazz, News and Dish, Pop, Vocal Music No Comments »
Duke Ellington (left) and Billy Strayhorn

Duke Ellington (left) and Billy Strayhorn

By Dennis Polkow

When Bruce Mayhall Rastrelli first came up with the idea of devoting an entire concert to the music of Billy Strayhorn more than a decade ago, the first question was often, “Billy who?”

“It was for a gay chorus that I directed for eight years in Los Angeles,” recalls Rastrelli, “and they had a tradition of doing single composer concerts: Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerry Herman. I wanted to move beyond doing composers that were obvious. I wanted to challenge the chorus and the community with things they didn’t know, specifically jazz, and especially a black composer who was out and gay at a time when that was not at all typical.”

Strayhorn is best known for his near thirty-year association with Duke Ellington, from the time they met in 1938 until Strayhorn’s early death from cancer in 1967 at the age of fifty-one. Often given direct credit, sometimes not, Strayhorn is estimated to have composed and arranged some forty percent of the entire Ellington catalogue and was, as Ellington himself put it in his autobiography, “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.” Read the rest of this entry »

Raw Material: Horn of Not-Quite-Plenty

Alt-Rock, Chicago Artists, Indie Rock, Jazz, Live Reviews, Rock No Comments »

Mark Farina

It’s always a bit of a challenge scoping out shows around Thanksgiving because it’s a time period that seems to be overlooked for live music. The presumption is that everyone is out of town and/or spending time with family for the weekend. For those “Thanksgiving orphans” that stick around, or plan to head home early, there’s some good live music to look forward to in the coming weeks, as well as a few unusual and non-performance-based music events that are worth checking out.

Metro offshoot Smart Bar (3730 North Clark), early home of Frankie Knuckles and launching pad for Ministry, is approaching middle age. To celebrate, on Friday, November 20, Smart Bar cleverly celebrates its “33 1/3 Anniversary” with an A-list lineup of DJs and taking up both the Smart Bar and Metro spaces. The show includes Mark Farina, Colette, DJ Heather, Justin Long, Michael Serafini and Garrett David. Tickets are $24 in advance, $30 at the door. The 21+ show starts at 10pm at Smart Bar, 11pm at Metro. Read the rest of this entry »

Worldview: Turkish (and Greek) Delights

World Music No Comments »

Eleni Vitali, George Dalaras, Glykeria

By Robert Rodi

One of the features we associate most closely with Eastern music is melismatic singing and playing—i.e., running a sequence of notes during a single syllable. Granted, this is a hallmark of Western music as well; it’s standard in both baroque opera and American R&B. (It’s also been pushed to absurd extremes by the current trend of “oversouling,” practiced by pop singers who can’t sing a single phrase without sprinting up and down the scale like maniacs.) But Eastern Europeans do it differently; there, melisma doesn’t involve a run of notes over a syllable, but a continual bending and reshaping of a single note, to incantatory effect. It’s how you instantly recognize Arab and Turkish music; but it’s a big part of Greek music as well—the Greeks having picked it up during their centuries of Ottoman rule. The difference is chiefly that where Arab and Turkish melisma has a spiritual quality, the Greeks are best at using it to convey earthiness and sexuality.

This month, the Harris Theater hosts a memorable night featuring three singers who have been labeled “the Holy Trinity of Greek music”: Glykeria, Eleni Vitali and George Dalaras. Each is a virtuoso handler of the more sophisticated, relaxed Greek melisma that evokes the pleasures and pains of the material world.  Read the rest of this entry »

Knowledge Drop: ProbCause is Drifting With Intent

Chicago Artists, Hip-Hop, Interviews, Rap No Comments »


By Craig Bechtel

Chicago’s nascent hip-hop scene offers myriad rising stars, but it would probably be a bad idea to discount ProbCause. Because he has matured beyond his years since he was voted onto the North Coast Music Fest lineup in 2011, because he has come into his own as a producer, collaborator and rapper, because he has demonstrated lyrical intelligence, rhythmic talent and dope flow, the Evanston native should not be overlooked.

Reached via phone on a recent Monday afternoon, the rapper born Colin Grimm detailed how he got into hip-hop, how his new record “Drifters” differs from his previous output, the novel perspective he brings to the table as a borderline suburbanite, and what’s next in the near and long term. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: The Strayhorn Fringe Festival/Old Town School of Folk Music

Bluegrass, Chicago Artists, Festivals, Funk, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Live Reviews, World Music No Comments »


This is Billy Strayhorn’s centenary, and it’s been heartening to see so much attention paid to a songwriter whose gifts are almost in inverse proportion to his fame—i.e. the former stratospheric, the latter microscopic. Part of the problem is that Strayhorn is so closely associated with Duke Ellington, who was one of the more flamboyantly extrovert of the past century’s geniuses. Another part is that Strayhorn himself was quite happy to reside in Ellington’s shadow. The result is that today people are surprised to learn that tunes indelibly associated with Ellington—such as “Lush Life,” “Chelsea Bridge” and “Take the ‘A’ Train”—are in fact Strayhorn’s compositions. It’s hard for us to think of them in a new way; they’re so bonded to our DNA. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Somi/The Promontory

Jazz, Live Reviews, Soul, World Music No Comments »



Jazz has always been a meritocracy, in the sense that hooks matter more than looks. But that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate a concentrated dose of oomph when it’s right there in front of us. Peggy Lee worked it. So did Nina Simone. And the New York singer-songwriter Somi (born in Illinois to Ugandan and Rwandan parents) has the same kind of high-voltage charisma. She also has an absolutely exquisite instrument—graceful, gorgeous and under her complete control. In the fifties, she’d have knocked ‘em dead in supper clubs; today, she’s slaughtering digitally, in ravishing videos like her simmering R&B ballad, “Ginger Me Slowly.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Raw Material: Post Festival Season, Local Acts Shine

Alt-Rock, Chicago Artists, Hip-Hop, Indie Rock, New Wave, Pop, Rock No Comments »


Once a chill gets in the air and many of us recover from our Halloween activities, there’s a bit of a lull in live music until the December holidays and New Year’s Eve. That’s OK, though; I think it’s a wonderful time to check out some of the bands, artists and venues that may not have gotten the love they deserved during the busy summer festival season, and there’s always plenty going on. When it comes to this month’s Raw Material, be sure to catch up with the art-pop ensemble Roommate at Burlington Bar (3425 West Fullerton) on Friday, November 6. The Kent Lambert-led project has endured for well over a decade with an evolving lineup, and released a full-length album, “Make Like,” in June of this year. This may or may not be the group’s last recording, but nonetheless Roommate has had a busy summer of performance, including a residency at the Hideout that culminated in a multimedia collaboration with Chicago Film Archives. Roommate’s Burlington set will be opened by Strange Weather Records labelmate Thomas Comerford and Minnesota-based singer-songwriter Luke Redfield. The free, twenty-one-plus show starts at 9pm. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Allos Musica/Old Town School of Folk Music

Chicago Artists, World Music No Comments »



Old Town School of Folk Music is hosting the Allos Musica quartet on one of its upcoming World Music Wednesdays. Which is a bit of a cheat, because the group is made up entirely of local boys. Its prevailing genius, in fact, is James Falzone, who’s so active in Chicago jazz, classical and early music circles that you can’t swing a dead cat without clipping his clarinet. Yet while Allos Musica doesn’t have to hop an ocean to get here, the inspiration they carry onstage with them has a pretty extensive global pedigree. Besides Falzone, the group boasts Ronnie Malley on oud and harmonium (he occasionally sings as well), Jeremiah McLane on accordion and Tim Mulvenna on hand drums and percussion; and when they sit down together and launch into a tune, the time zones drop away—the centuries, too. Their repertoire is highly distinctive; there are shimmeringly sinuous Arabic numbers, around which Falzone’s clarinet circles like smoke rings; but there’s French music, as well—maybe not as strange a pairing as it first appears, given the history of French colonialism in places like Morocco and Senegal. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Here We Go Magic/The Empty Bottle

Alt-Rock, Indie Rock, Live Reviews, Pop, Psychedelic No Comments »



I call it “needle-drop bliss”—that moment when you lower the tone arm onto an LP, and after the first few burps of vinyl, you hear something that induces immediate euphoria. That isn’t quite the case with Here We Go Magic’s new album, “Be Small”—the first cut is a thirty-second squall of feedback that sounds like a jet engine with a head cold—but when it snaps into “Stella,” you might as well sit down, wherever you are, because you’re not going anywhere soon. This is pure pop magic: a breezy, bouncing groove that churns happily away beneath a languorous melody line. And what lovely, evocative lyrics: “But if you trip on every fashion / Fall into every pile of bull / You’ll only smell of empty mansions / Once, maybe once you were full.” It’s a rare thing, to find a band that’s both lyrically and harmonically adventurous; and HWGM manages to sustain it throughout the length of the album. Read the rest of this entry »