By Robert Rodi
It’s hard to imagine it now, but a mere fifty years ago there were very few singer-songwriters beyond the folk milieu. Bob Dylan was still a relatively new phenomenon, and he not only owned the genre, he pretty much was the genre. These days, of course, you can’t swing a dead cat without thwacking half a dozen guitar-slinging bards (while Dylan, go figure, is covering Sinatra). On any given night, in clubs and pubs across America, countless brave-hearted balladeers climb atop stools and compete for the attention of the congenitally inattentive. And people say stand-up comedy is rough; try breaking through the noise of a bar in full clamor when you’re warbling about your last big breakup.
But, here’s the thing: a lot of these troubadours are pretty freaking fine. And in Chicago, I’m happy to report, we’ve got more than our fair share of them. A pair of recent releases prove my point: they’re both melodically original and lyrically ingenious, yet each one is a standout original.
Little Dave Merriman has long been a fixture on the scene, chiefly as a guitarist and vocalist for The Arrivals. “Odd Bird” is his first solo album—and when I say solo, I’m being almost entirely literal. He not only wrote all the tunes, he plays nearly every instrument as well. And these aren’t breathy, spare arrangements either; they’re full-throttle rock-band material—the better to support Merriman’s raggedly bravura, another-whiskey-will-kill-me-but-so-what vocals. Read the rest of this entry »
“The Stillness of Motion” opens with a guitar laying down a groove while a bassist takes the melody line. This is the reverse of how it’s usually done, and it’s a testament to Scott Hesse’s generosity and sense of ensemble. He’s one of Chicago’s most highly regarded guitarists, and yet in the first measures of his new record he gives the spotlight to a fellow player. Not that Clark Sommers, the player in question, requires charity; when Hesse steps back into the forefront, Sommers has no trouble maintaining his share of the musical dialogue. Ditto drummer Makaya McCraven, who manages to establish an intriguing voice of his own throughout the proceedings, especially on “Yardbird Sketch,” where he provides a percussive landscape as broad as a lawn, over which Hesse wanders searchingly, occasionally somersaulting into dreamily descending chords. Read the rest of this entry »
Vusi Mahlasela, Hugh Masekela
The long battle against the apartheid regime in South Africa, which culminated in Nelson Mandela’s election as president in 1994, was fought by the country’s musicians as well. Hugh Masekela and Vusi Mahlasela were two of the greatest; they helped give the movement its voice at a time when most of the world ignored the plight of the country’s blacks.
Masekela, whose career spans more than five decades, is known for his versatility as a flugelhornist and singer. Early in his career he worked primarily with jazz ensembles, but he also did a lot of session work with pop artists like The Byrds, and later toured with Paul Simon in support of his seminal album, “Graceland.” He is also the composer of “Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela),” which became the anthem for the movement calling for the release of the imprisoned activist. Read the rest of this entry »
Jimi Hendrix once famously said,”You’ll never hear surf music again,” presumably meaning that his brand of blisteringly complex guitar-god rock would put an end to twangy California valentines forever. You have to wonder what he would’ve made of the mongrel genius of the twenty-first century, and of the nascent genre known as dark surf. If that’s a new term to you, all the more reason to check out the collaboration by garage-punk guru John Reis and the Minneapolis trio The Blind Shake, who are coming to town to support their new album, “Modern Surf Classics.” This is dense, muscular, high-velocity stuff, with multiple guitars crashing through rolling, nasal-inflected hooks—like the surf music you grew up with, after washing down steroids with a twelve-pack of Red Bull. Read the rest of this entry »
Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Folk, Folk-rock, Interviews, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Singer-Songwriter, Vocal Music
Tobias Picker/Photo: Harry Heleotis
By Dennis Polkow
“I bristle at being called an opera composer,” says Tobias Picker, whose “Thérèse Raquin” runs at Chicago Opera Theater this month. “There are composers today and in the past who basically only write operas: Verdi and Puccini, that’s mainly what they did, and Wagner, too. It doesn’t apply to me because the majority of music that I write is not opera.
“Right now, I’m writing a Concerto for Orchestra for the Kennedy Center for the National Symphony. Between my last two operas I wrote a new string quartet, my second, a new piano quintet and a ballet. And I wrote some piano music and some other things I don’t remember… The operas are the biggest art form so they get the most attention and notice because they incorporate every other art form. But my orchestral tone poem ‘Old and Lost Rivers’ is more famous, more performed and more known than any opera I ever wrote.” Read the rest of this entry »
By Keidra Chaney
It’s an interesting time of year for live music in Chicago; it’s right before the spring and summer concert season, so many of us are preoccupied with summer-festival-lineup announcements or buying tickets for recently announced shows taking place in the upcoming months. At the same time, it’s smack dab in the middle of the worst part of winter, so many of us are suffering from major cabin fever and eager to leave the house for anything remotely interesting. Chicago’s musicians and venues often approach this time of year in novel and creative ways.
The 2015 Dunn Dunn Fest returns to Chicago February 19-21. In an indie-rock-heavy festival scene, Dunn Dunn Fest has traditionally stood out from the crowd by focusing more on American, folk and roots acts. Six venues will host this year’s event, including The Hideout (1354 West Wabansia), Subterranean (2011 West North) and Beat Kitchen (2100 West Belmont). While Dunn Dunn Fest started in 2013 as an intimate festival focused primarily on Americana, a closer look at the lineup this year reveals a much larger and more diverse list of forty-plus bands that don’t fall so neatly into that category. On February 19, Toronto alt-rock band July Talk plays Subterranean (8pm, $10) and on February 20 sunny indie-poppers Save the Clocktower play the Hideout ($10, 10pm). For more information on the full lineup, venues, times and ticket prices go to the Harmonica Dunn website. Read the rest of this entry »
Louis CK has said that this is the age of the artist-entrepreneur, and he might have said it about Meagan Hickman. An incredibly driven Chicago singer-songwriter, Hickman partially funded her second album, “Sightlines,” through an Indiegogo campaign, and is now supporting it with highly polished behind-the-scenes videos on her YouTube channel. Fortunately, her artistic energy is equally supercharged; “Sightlines” is an explosion of talent, its eleven tunes ranging stylistically from a straight-ahead rock anthem (the fantastic opener, “Seize the Day”) to sweetly twangy country-pop (“Not That Girl”); there’s even an R&B ballad (“Time Moves On”) that Aretha could’ve recorded (and what the hell, might yet). Read the rest of this entry »
On his debut recording as a bandleader, the Chicago-based pianist and trombonist showcases his versatility and stylistic dexterity on a CD that includes straight-ahead, Latin, contemporary, big band and light jazz. He is in the company of an impressive array of musicians, including Bobby Shew (trumpet and flugelhorn), Dave Hiltebrand (bass) and Paul Zimmerman (vocals). Though the music goes in various directions, it gives us an idea of where Cline has been over his long career as a sideman (he has played with R&B legends like Aretha Franklin and The Temptations, as well as led various bands while working for the Norwegian Cruise Lines). Read the rest of this entry »
By Corey Hall
In his imagination’s ear (earmagination?), tenor saxophonist Chris Greene hears this when Brazilian vocalist Ed Motta sings: “He sounds like what would happen if Chick Corea, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Stevie Wonder had a baby, raised him in Brazil, and made him listen to Gamble and Huff records. He’s got this Teddy Pendergrass voice, but he sings in Portuguese. He has these elaborate Chris Cross-Steely Dan arrangements, and he can get super funky, too.”
To honor this musical love child, Greene and his quartet—which includes pianist Damian Espinosa, bassist Marc Piane and drummer Steve Corley—recorded Motta’s tune “Papuera” for their independently produced double CD, “Music Appreciation,” their eighth album in ten years. The title is a reference to a sound bite from the seventies sitcom ‘What’s Happening!!,’ in which Raj, the lead character, tutors an athlete. Read the rest of this entry »
Afrobeat, Big Band, Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Experimental, Interviews, Jazz, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Vocal Music, World Music
Marie Daulne of Zap Mama
By Dennis Polkow
Marie Daulne, founder and lead singer of the Afropop female group Zap Mama, has always straddled two continents. She never knew her European father; he was killed at the hands of Simba rebels in the Congo, where Daulne was born and from where she, her mother and sisters escaped to live in her father’s native Belgium.
One of Daulne’s primary influences growing up was Afrobeat and Fela Kuti. “All Africans living in Europe listened to him,” she says. She even saw Kuti perform as a teenager and was delighted years later when she was living in New York and “Fela!” opened on Broadway. “Prior to that, the most African thing on Broadway was ‘The Lion King’! I returned to the show several times to see Antibalas perform.” Antibalas is the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat ensemble that arranged and performed all of the music for “Fela!,” modeled on Kuti’s own Africa 70 band. Read the rest of this entry »