Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Offbeat: Renée Fleming Reaches Out From Opera, Blind Boys Modernize Their Message

Blues, Chicago Artists, Classical, Country, Holiday Music, Interviews, Jazz, News and Dish, Pop, Rock, Vocal Music No Comments »
Renée Fleming with KISS at the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade

Renée Fleming with KISS at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade

By Dennis Polkow

It’s a busy holiday season for the “People’s Diva,” Renée Fleming: not only has the soprano released her first-ever Christmas album, “Christmas in New York” (Decca), but PBS has produced a television special on the making of the album. As if that weren’t enough, Fleming sang at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and is opening a new production of “The Merry Widow” at the Metropolitan Opera on New Year’s Eve, with Lyric Opera music director Sir Andrew Davis at the podium.

Christmas itself, however, Fleming admits, will remain a family affair. “My whole family sings like crazy,” says Fleming. “When we decorate the tree, my daughters and I have a major impromptu scat-singing festival.” It’s this spirit that informs the eclectic approach of “Christmas in New York,” on which Fleming performs with guest artists Wynton Marsalis, Gregory Porter, Kelli O’Hara, Chris Botti, Brad Mehldau, Rufus Wainwright and Chicago jazz singer Kurt Elling.

For those expecting a killer rendition of “O Holy Night” or “Ave Maria,” think again. “That was my expectation as well,” laughs Fleming. “I just assumed when I would finally do a Christmas album, it would be that Karajan-Vienna Philharmonic-Leontyne Price template. But this came together in a different way and Universal had a different idea about it.

“I stayed away from carols for the most part, except for ‘Stille, Stille, Stille.’ I also went to my collaborators and said, ‘What would you like to do?’ I took their lead in many cases. Since this took about nine months to really finish up, I worried for a while about it coming together in a way that would make it feel like a whole, but it did. There was enough variety on it to enable it to have that sense of different things coming together.” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: The Secret Sisters/City Winery

Country No Comments »

secretsis

RECOMMENDED

A not-so-secret sister act from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Laura and Lydia Rogers meld Southern gothic style, gorgeous, longing melodies and an energy that seems a little bit indie rock, even though they are all country. And vintage country too, much more in line with Patsy Cline than Carrie Underwood. The duo recently re-released a special edition of their latest album “Put Your Needle Down”—through Cracker Barrel, no less—and made a buzz after a recent appearance on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” singing their ode to doomed love and murder, “Iuka.” Read the rest of this entry »

Music 45: Who Keeps Chicago in Tune 2014

Blues, Chicago Artists, Classical, Country, Electronic/Dance, Experimental, Folk, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Music 45, R&B, Rock, Soul No Comments »
Photo: Joe Mazza of BraveLux

Photo: Joe Mazza of BraveLux

Chicago, you are a big, bold, beautiful city of infinite complexity. Your historical heritage, your social and political upheaval, your segregation, violence and corruption have birthed an incredible wealth of musical expression. It’s by virtue of these artists that our community confronts and escapes the mistakes of our metropolis. And so our publication listens intently, offering a nuanced dialogue with the musicians who craft our culture. Yet, once a year, we redirect our approach to the opposing swing of the pendulum. We zoom-out where we would normally zoom-in. This list offers a broad-stroke survey of those Chicago musicians whose current cultural currency is readily represented to the city and to the rest of the world, living artists whose quantifiable influence echoes their effect. Some big names are missing, some rankings seem arbitrary, but it’s toward these acts, firmly Chicagoan, that we look when we seek out the spirit of home. Where our words might fail, the music will not. (Kenneth Preski)

Music 45 was written by Kenneth Preski, Dennis Polkow, John Wilmes, Jessica Burg, Robert Szypko, Eric Lutz, Keidra Chaney, Reilly Gill, Corey Hall and Dave Cantor

All photos taken on location at The Hideout by Joe Mazza of BraveLux. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “Eternal” by Jamie O’Neal

Alt-Country, Country, Country folk, Record Reviews No Comments »

RECOMMENDEDjo_eternal_cdcvr_final

Australian-born country singer Jamie O’Neal has had a pretty difficult relationship with Nashville labels since she arrived on the scene in 2000. Over the years, she has signed and parted ways with several of them, including Mercury and Capitol, until she decided to follow the independent route and start her own label, Momentum Label Group.

“Eternal” is a strong album, which brings together original songs alongside a handful of covers. Among those is a straightforward version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” a tune that was a hit for fellow Aussie Olivia Newton-John on her debut album and that was also covered by several other artists, including Elvis Presley and Gladys Knight. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Conor Oberst with Dawes/Metro

Alt-Country, Emo, Folk, Folk-rock, Indie Rock No Comments »

 

Conor Oberst 2Conor Oberst has miraculously survived the era of Bright Eyes despite the morose songs he wrote during his stint as the King of Emo. Oberst’s groups since the project have adopted a more western-folk influence, beginning with the aptly titled Monsters of Folk. He has also toured and recorded with the Mystic Valley Band, embracing the influence of an angrier Neil Young, and producing a full, clean, Americana sound. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Scott H. Biram/Reggies Rock Club

Bluegrass, Blues, Country, Metal, Punk, Rock No Comments »

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Though Texan Scott H. Biram has released a number of well-received albums and has been performing for more than a decade (amassing a considerable following in that time period) his latest release from Bloodshot Records (“Nothin’ But Blood”) is bringing new fans out of the woodwork. Biram calls his music “the bastard child of punk, blues, country, hillbilly, bluegrass, chain gang, metal and classic rock,” and for once this is not an example of an artist over-selling himself. Despite the first track on his latest album implying that he’s taking it “Slow & Easy,” Biram still preaches as much hellfire as he does redemption with both his lyrics and musical style, following loud, fighting-angry metal tunes like “Church Point Girls” with easy listening bluegrass ballads like “I’m Troubled.” Seeing Biram take the stage alone with his signature trucker hat, the uninitiated may expect a fairly typical country singer-songwriter—but once he gets going, it becomes clear why he’s also known as “The Dirty Old One Man Band.” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Justin Townes Earle/Concord Music Hall

Alt-Country, Festivals, Folk-rock No Comments »

RECOMMENDEDEarle

Easy tasks tend to lose value. Perhaps this is why the artistic legacy begetting Justin Townes Earle lacks luster among those seeking to place his work—it takes little skill to connect the dots of his lineage. One cannot escape mention of his father Steve Earle, nor his father’s mentor Townes Van Zandt. In turn, Van Zandt credited Lightnin’ Hopkins with a definitive influence on his guitar technique, while for Hopkins a chance encounter with Blind Lemon Jefferson forever altered his outlook on the blues. Thus through the output of Justin Townes Earle, listeners embrace a heritage that extends deep into the heart of American expression, spanning an entire century from the earliest blues to contemporary country, tracing the Mississippi River and its tributaries from Houston to Memphis and back again. It was wise then for the Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival to place Earle’s performance at the center of their programming. His presence evokes a certain timelessness, his lanky stature replete with stomp-ready boots the perfect echo for his steel-tinged voice, a hoarse timbre that owes as much to tradition as it does to drug use. Read the rest of this entry »

Molina’s Memorial: Fellow Musicians Mourn their Fallen Bandleader with Tribute Tour

Alt-Country, Chicago Artists, Country, Country folk, Rock No Comments »
Photo by Will Claytor

Photo: Will Claytor

By Dave Cantor

Jason Evans Groth handles a winding road headed out of the West Virginia mountains.

The freeway twists past seemingly endless trees as the guitarist discusses his tenure in Jason Molina’s Magnolia Electric Co., a group as mercurial as its frontman, spurning players and welcoming new voices when its leader felt it a necessity. Evans Groth remembers his friend—Molina died March 16, 2013, reportedly from complications related to alcoholism—as a talker. Someone who was capable of worldwide friendliness, but who was also an intensely emotional guy. People didn’t drift away from Molina; he just had shit to tend to and split. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: The Wailin’ Jennys/Old Town School of Folk Music

Bluegrass, Folk No Comments »

wailinRECOMMENDED

Hearing the Wailin’ Jennys stripped of artifice, unadorned by elements dropped in to make the trio sound more like a country rock band than anything else, is probably the best way to encounter these folk-singin’ Canadians. Spawned from a one-off gig at some music shop, the trio started touring and recording soon after. With its 2004 debut, “40 Nights,” ranking as the group’s most acoustic-focused affair, closing standard “The Parting Glass” best serves to explain the band’s talents. Initially a Scotch farewell song, something from about the same time Robert Burns was kicking around, the tune finds the original trio—Cara Luft’s since split-workin’ it out a capella. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: Putumayo Presents “Acoustic America” and “American Playground”

Alt-Country, Bluegrass, Folk, Record Reviews, Vocal Music No Comments »

acoustic_america_chimp_0 RECOMMENDED

There is some great American music out there, but you just do not hear it on Top 40 stations. It’s a world where Justin Bieber or Katy Perry have zero significance—it is the world of American acoustic music that you can only hear on local stations or maybe on NPR if you are so inclined. This is the music played by folksy types you sometimes hear in coffeehouses, but it really is the roots of what we call “Americana.”

Two new collections from Putumayo explore this often-ignored music, which ranges from folk, bluegrass and country-folk to zydeco. On “Acoustic America,” well-known classics mix with original songs—highlights include Clay Cumbie’s gorgeous “Here’s to The Journey,” an ode to the open road and the joys of traveling and Red Horse’s take on “Wayfaring Stranger.” Also notable are Guy Davis’ downtempo “Everything is Gonna Be All Right,” (whose lyrics actually suggest otherwise) and the Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee’s acoustic blues “I Was Born With The Blues.” Read the rest of this entry »