The desire for relevancy beckons the artist. The present moment continually challenges consciousness to work with care for contemporary concerns. Musicians whose creative spirit can adapt to the times are afforded the ability to alter perspectives, to change minds. Neil Young cultivates truth in his songs; lyrics sung, then settled by the strum of a guitar. Even when the subject matter is unsettling, Young makes beauty out of understanding. His words and voice are straightforward, and his playing sturdy and confident. He represents a highly relatable, highly skilled simplicity, turning folk music into something timeless instead of old-timey. Young will sing about anything that matters to him, in the present tense, no matter his age or health, plain enough for anyone to understand. Read the rest of this entry »
Every list of John Cale’s achievements begins by cementing Cale’s role as a founding member of the Velvet Underground. At the onset of the group, Cale’s avant-garde and contemporary classical credentials lent a grounding circuit to the proceedings, with songwriting credits second only to Lou Reed. The spark in a song like “Venus in Furs” was summoned forth via his viola flourishes, or by his piano playing in “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Cale has continued to be a ceaseless experimenter, ever curious, always listening, and dead set on playing his own version of what’s next. The method has yielded a storied collection of recordings, with some unforgettable songs, including “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend,” an anxiety twitch of a tune that sounds good no matter who sings it. Read the rest of this entry »
Had Ryley Walker pursued any other art form, say painting for instance, “The West Wind” would have been met with universal acclaim, a minor masterpiece announcing the arrival of an immense talent promising a tremendous wealth of future creative output. That Walker’s dedication to formalism yielded a recording indistinguishable from the sixties British folk it pays homage to is remarkable not only for its achievement of authenticity, but for its singularity at this historical moment. No other artist in Chicago or anywhere else offers an accurate comparison for Walker’s unique voice and playing style, a commitment to a time and place far removed from his peers, an unmistakable presence that transcends music scenes littered with land-mines laid by careerists in the name of contemporary cool. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
The most common revelation upon hearing Bill Orcutt play is that the acoustic guitar has never sounded this way before. Backwoods blues at such a frenetic pace is nowhere to be found in the history of recorded music. Orcutt turns improvisation into instant songwriting. One can hear him struggling to work out the melody in his own voice, note by note, guided by a phantom precision lasting milliseconds, before the moan from his four-string guitar or his throat greets the listener with the force of a fire truck; the sound of which whirls by in “When You Wish Upon a Star.” That’s Orcutt calling from a distance, sitting alone in a wooden windowed room, minimal recording equipment by his side as he rails out the new American songbook.
The approach coalesced on this year’s “A History of Every One,” Orcutt’s take on the hackneyed songs of yore. “White Christmas” and “Zip A Dee Doo Dah” are among the tunes showcased, chosen by the artist to juxtapose two competing threads in American popular culture: bourgeois privilege and the legacy of slavery. Side A closes with the aforementioned “White Christmas,” the best-selling single of all time as sung by perennial crooner Bing Crosby; and Side B opens with “Zip A Dee Doo Dah,” a 1946 Oscar-winning tune from Disney’s “Song of the South,” a film steeped in enough racial controversy to prevent the corporation from ever releasing it on home media. Read the rest of this entry »
Julie Meckler’s voice is soft and pleasant, and it floats over her acoustic guitar with the familiar, idyllic buoyancy of a rowboat. Left in the wake of her playing are strains of precious and patient melodies, alternating throughout her debut long-player “Queenshead,” most affectedly on the a capella tune “The Cigarettes Song.” The spontaneous results of a throwaway moment—”we were smoking cigarettes in the snow in Chicago”—have a raw majesty missing from the rest of the album, which by way of contrast seems too carefully composed. The listener faces a dilemma: this could be any other release by any other up-and-coming singer/songwriter stuck in the cafe tropes that garner paying gigs. Fortunately, Meckler has an ear for detail that bats those banal qualities away. Field recordings of ambient noise—the traffic in Chicago, the sound of whirling wind—these attributes create a density and purpose that continually ground the carefree melodies, something especially impressive given the inclusion of a bonafide reggae tune in “Bitch.” Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
After dabbling with electronic music in collaboration with Karsh Kale on “Breathing Under Water,” and then pursuing flamenco-fusion on her own “Traveller,” sitarist Anoushka Shankar returns to her classical roots with “Traces of You” while still keeping other genres within arm’s reach. The opening track “The Sun Won’t Set,” for instance, is a beautiful ballad recorded in collaboration with her half-sister Norah Jones, and is much closer to Jones’ alt-folk style than to Indian music.
Though much of the disc is dedicated to Indian ragas, some of the tunes venture into completely different directions. “Metamorphosis” brings together traditional and modern sounds, including electronics and electric bass, while the soft, piano-centric ballad “Fathers” has elements of modern jazz. Read the rest of this entry »
By Mark Roelof Eleveld
Irish singer-songwriter and rocker Paul Brady has been doing it well for almost half a century. “Chicago is a very educated crowd, they know their music,” says Brady about his November 1 show at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music with local stalwart John Condron opening. Brady says that the blues played a large part of his set when he was younger. “I have about eighty percent of my solo set down when I get there, and depending on the audience, perhaps some of the Irish tunes, or maybe some old blues; there is always this ‘bleeding noise’ from my past songs saying, ‘hey, what about us?’”
Brady’s catalog is substantial. With more than fourteen albums, including his most recent double-CD compilation “Dancer In The Fire–A Paul Brady Anthology,” Brady’s style is hard to pigeonhole. From Northern Ireland, he is one of the island’s most enduring contemporary musicians. Fellow Irishman Bono of U2 offered that Brady is, “The iron fist in the velvet glove of Irish music,” and no less than Bob Dylan revealed, “Some guys got it down, Leonard Cohen, Paul Brady, Lou Reed, secret heroes.” Read the rest of this entry »
By Kenneth Preski
“The only reason Bottomless Pit exists is because Michael died.”
From the impetus for creativity in the face of insularity, to the soft underbelly of Steve Albini’s legacy, a conversation with Tim Midyett eight years since his hiatus from interviews offers a remarkable entry point for insight into contemporary American artistic expression; though it is clear that the discussion about his post-Silkworm work with Bottomless Pit can only begin one way, and that’s by confronting the death of former bandmate Michael Dahlquist. A few months shy of his fortieth birthday, Silkworm drummer Dahlquist was one of three musicians killed while idling at an intersection in Skokie. Their vehicle was struck by a Ford Mustang traveling 90mph down West Dempster around noon on a Thursday, the wheel helmed by a suicidal twenty-three-year-old woman. Her only injury was a broken ankle. She was charged with three counts of first-degree murder, later reduced to reckless homicide by reason of insanity. She spent four years in prison for the crime.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t have anything to say about that, but I had a lot to say about it, and I wanted it to be real specific, and exactly the way I wanted to say it. All that stuff came out in our records.” Read the rest of this entry »