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 »

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 »

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 »

Offbeat: Sir Andrew Davis Traverses Continents and Genres

Chicago Artists, Classical, Interviews, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Vocal Music No Comments »
Photo: Dario Acosta

Photo: Dario Acosta

By Dennis Polkow

“The thing about me is that I haven’t had a lot of jobs,” admits Lyric Opera music director Sir Andrew Davis, “but the ones I’ve had, I’ve had for a long time: twelve years in Glyndebourne, seventy-five to eighty-eight in Toronto; the BBC Symphony from eighty-nine to 2000; Chicago since 2000, and now Melbourne since 2013.” Only Glyndebourne and Chicago have been opera-related, the others—including Davis’ most recent post as principal conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra—are orchestral posts.

One fringe benefit of Davis spending so much time in Chicago is that he does get the occasional opportunity to conduct non-operatic repertoire, as he will do this week with superstar Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at a special gala concert.

“I love working with the [Chicago] Symphony. Kissin is rather fussy about conductors and he likes working with me. I did all of the Beethoven concertos with Kissin and the CSO about five or six years ago, all in a week. The first time we worked together was the last year I was with the BBC and we did the Rachmaninoff Two. He did everything that should happen in that concerto but rarely does. Rachmaninoff is extraordinarily complex and contrapuntal but a lot of times people just put down their pedal and it’s a big mush. There was a clarity with him which makes it so much more moving and emotionally much more complex.” Read the rest of this entry »

Spins: State-of-the-Art Genre Bending from Two Chicago Acts

Alt-Country, Alt-Rock, Bluegrass, Chicago Artists, Country, Country folk, Indie Pop, Indie Rock, New Wave, Pop, Pop Punk, Rock No Comments »


By Robert Rodi

Marrow calls its new album “The Gold Standard,” which for sheer chutzpah just about jumps the shark; maybe it’s a surly old music-critic thing, but my knee-jerk reaction was, “I’ll be the judge of that, children.” But in fact I was won over; I wouldn’t quite call “The Gold Standard” the gold standard, but given the way the band seems intent on synthesizing the various genres of their callow youth into something entirely distinctive, they’re probably inventing some new kind of currency anyway. Singer-songwriters Macie Stewart (who plays keys) and Liam Kazar (guitar) are ably abetted by bassist Lane Beckstrom and drummer Matt Carroll. The album’s opener, “She Chose You,” is a pretty sweet introduction to the quartet; it’s jangly and infectious, one of those gorgeously up-tempo tunes about misery and heartache that are the hallmark of postwar pop. “Toll to train underwater / Selfish savage, try to dream her happy,” Kazar sings, with the kind of white-boy-catch-in-the-throat Kurt Cobain added to the rock singer’s repertoire, especially when he follows up by actually groaning, “Without you,” like he’d forgotten he was in the middle of a song or something. Read the rest of this entry »

Spins: Ambitious Jazz from a Youthful Duo, Relaxed Swing from a Seasoned Trio

Chicago Artists, Jazz No Comments »

Copy of SACREDRUBBLE_cover

By Robert Rodi

Sun Speak is a pair of young free-jazz players, Chicagoans Matt Gold (guitar) and Nate Friedman (drummer). Despite their relative youth, the pair have been working together for long enough to develop the kind of telepathy you find only in the most accomplished duos, and their new EP, “Sacred Rubble,” is filled with ideas that bounce between them faster than you can register on first listening. From the opening cut—“Solar Beast”—they manage to sound like a much larger ensemble, not only by the density and energy of their playing, but by a judicious use of multi-tracking. Though in fact this first cut does also boast a single guest, sax player Ben Schmidt-Swartz, who’s also used with admirable restraint. After a coolly lilting guitar theme, the drums barrel in to give the line a sudden, driving insistence. The sax picks up the theme, giving it a new, more reflective resonance—but the drums don’t let up, so that in his searing, blitzkrieg solo, Schmidt-Swartz’s playing has a life-or-death urgency to it, like he’s trying to outrun a lava flow that’s hot on his heels. The drums eventually fade, leaving that gorgeous theme upfront again—though this time taken up by both guitar and sax. It’s a ravishing ride. Read the rest of this entry »