Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

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 »

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 »

Preview: Scott H. Biram/Reggies Rock Club

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


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

Bluegrass, Folk No Comments »


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 »

Family Dawg: David Grisman, Andy Statman Strung Together By Roots and Culture

Bluegrass, Folk No Comments »
(credit Jon Sievert)

Photo: Jon Sievert

By Dave Cantor

“Is there such a thing as a straight jazz band?” David Grisman wonders.

If there’s an answer—and the mandolin player is correct in making such a query—he’s certainly never performed in one.

Beginning in the wilds of New Jersey, the man who’d become known simply as Dawg came of age during that time in the 1960s when players stopped cordoning off musical genres. But the difference between Bill Monroe and acts like the New Grass Revival pertain more to attitude than song selection and improvisation. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Peter Rowan/Old Town School of Folk Music

Bluegrass, Country, Folk No Comments »
credit Ronald Rietman

credit Ronald Rietman


Carving out a career spanning the nation’s coasts, autochthonous musics and several decades makes Peter Rowan a reasonably unique performer. Coming from the northeast folk scene and counting Eric Von Schmidt among his contemporaries—yeah, the same guy Bob Dylan shouts out on his first album—Rowan gigged in rock and folk groups before winding up in the company of the Bluegrass Boys and Bill Monroe in Nashville. But that was only a situation that would last a few years, and soon enough, the guitarist was immersed in the Bay Area’s developing hippie scene. Performing alongside David Grisman in Muleskinner led to an eventual alliance with Jerry Garcia in Old & In the Way, both early newgrass supergroups. And while each ensemble only issued a handful of songs, one of Rowan’s contributions—“Midnight Moonlight”—has become something of a standard, winding up on assorted albums, including work by New Riders of the Purple Sage (there’s a seven-minute version with Tony Rice on their “Quartet” recording from 2007). Serving for so many years as an adjunct to fascinating musical company, Rowan eventually struck out on his own during the late 1970s. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Del McCoury & Sam Bush/Old Town School of Folk Music

Bluegrass, Country No Comments »


Pairing Del McCoury and Sam Bush is at once a perfect match and somewhat antithetical. The older guitarist who made a name for himself in bluegrass before Bush had even touched an instrument is completely rooted in the music’s historical resonance—Americans struggling through the depression and then working through the building of this country’s middle class. Bush, on the other hand, is included in the crop of players influenced by that early wave of performers but also sixties counterculture. Musically, the duo share an affinity for the traditional, although Bush and his mandolin have been seen cutting up stages posed as a rock star. McCoury, a guy who’s been around long enough to tour and record with a band comprised of his children, still hedges toward traditional lyrical topics, issuing a 2006 album made up of devotional tunes. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: James McMurtry/Park West

Alt-Country, Bluegrass, Country folk, Folk, Folk-rock No Comments »


Listening to “We Can’t Make It Here” from the 2005 album “Childish Things” immediately makes you respect James McMurtry: his lyrics are a direct indictment of the hypocrisies of the right and also of big-box discount stores like Walmart who encourage companies to ship jobs overseas in order to reduce costs to their customers.

The son of novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry, McMurtry has been part of the folk-rock scene since John Mellencamp produced his debut “Too Long in the Wasteland” back in 1989. He has since collaborated with the likes of John Prine and Dwight Yoakam (in the “supergroup” Buzzin’ Cousins) and has regularly recorded and toured with his backing band, the Heartless Bastards—though the band is no longer billed in that manner because of confusion with the Ohio-based band of the same name. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Old Crow Medicine Show/Riviera

Alt-Country, Bluegrass, Blues, Country, Country folk No Comments »


Whether Old Crow Medicine Show would be an engaging group of players without a blueprint laid out by the best country and string-band players isn’t an easy call. The ensemble has done everything it can to recreate the past, going so far as to pull in producer Don Was for collaboration. But issuing five discs’ worth of high-test tunes in just about a decade is no mean feat. 2008’s “Tennessee Pusher” even reads like an album’s worth of songs lazily telling a story about hawking drugs in the South, using I-65 as its main drag. Read the rest of this entry »