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: “Halo” Composers Collaborate with Paul McCartney

Ambient, Blues, Chicago Artists, Festivals, Folk, Interviews, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Pop, Rock, Singer-Songwriter, Vocal Music No Comments »
Paul McCartney, Martin O'Donnell, Michael Salvatori

Paul McCartney, Martin O’Donnell, Michael Salvatori

By Dennis Polkow

Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori have been friends back to their college days in the 1970s when they were in rival bands in the western suburbs. “We’ve always been very competitive with one another,” Salvatori recalls. “Marty came in to record five songs with his band, so of course, I had to write better songs and record those as well.”

While Salvatori was working for his father’s printing company, O’Donnell was painting houses to put himself through music school. “They were shooting a television commercial and Marty was painting the set. The director found out that he was a composer and offered him five hundred dollars if he would write some music for it. I had just taken out a loan for a basement recording studio setup and Marty called up and said, ‘If you let me record there, I’ll split everything with you fifty-fifty.’ We put ourselves out there on a handshake and collaborated on the commercial as O’Donnell-Salvatori, like Lennon-McCartney. It has been that way ever since.” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Ryley Walker/Subterranean

Alt-Rock, Chicago Artists, Folk-rock, Indie Rock, Rock No Comments »

Photo: Dusdin Condren


It may be a good marketing move for an artist to invite comparisons to Van Morrison, Nick Drake and Richard Thompson. The only problem is that people will then, go figure, compare you to Van Morrison, Nick Drake and Richard Thompson. So before you take that leap, be sure you can measure up. Fortunately for Chicago singer-songwriter Ryley Walker, the title track of his new album, “Primrose Green,” is one of those shimmeringly perfect folk-rock tunes that only comes along every dozen years or so. (It easily stands next to Morrison’s “Moondance,” despite being nothing like it.) Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: From Lt. Dan Band to Symphonic Salutes, Kimo Williams Serves Those Who Served

Blues, Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Folk, Interviews, Jazz, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Pop, Rock No Comments »
Kimo Williams (left) and Gary Sinise with Lt. Dan Band

Kimo Williams (left) and Gary Sinise with Lt. Dan Band

By Dennis Polkow

“When I tell people I’m a Vietnam Vet, I hear, ‘Thank you for your service,’ ” laments composer and guitarist Kimo Williams. “There’s a time, there’s a place for saying that. It just rolls off of people like a painful cliché and you’re forced to react or respond. Do you know what my service was? Do you know what I did? Hear my story, then if you want to thank me, fine.”

Williams has spent a lifetime of service to those who have been in service, starting with his own stint in the military that brought him to Vietnam in 1969. “I was a combat engineer and my job was to provide supplies to fix the dossiers that would clear land mines. Two friends of mine and I had decided one morning that we were going to see ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ that night. It got to be the end of the day and I’m getting the popcorn but was told, ‘They didn’t make it.’ That was the first time that it hit me. I was so naïve I said, ‘What do you mean?’ It hit me hard, this was forever. That’s it? I went to the movie and you do continue on. It numbs you.” Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Lang Lang Dresses Up and Down for Chicago, Sixties Rockers Hold Summit for Musician’s Musician

Blues, Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Country, Folk, Folk-rock, Interviews, Jazz, News and Dish, Pop, Prog-rock, Psychedelic, R&B, Rock, Singer-Songwriter, Soul No Comments »
Lang Lang  Photo: Neale Haynes

Lang Lang

By Dennis Polkow

Although Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang is calling from London, where he’s just given a recital at Royal Albert Hall, he is thinking ahead to Chicago. “I need to buy a new suit, I had my big breakthrough there,” he recalls, a reference to when, at conductor Christoph Eschenbach’s encouragement, he stepped in as a last-minute, unknown replacement for an indisposed Andre Watts at a 1999 Ravinia Festival Chicago Symphony Orchestra Gala, and became an overnight sensation at the ripe old age of seventeen.

Eschenbach, then Ravinia music director, was a mentor to Lang Lang, as was then-CSO music director Daniel Barenboim, so that Chicago was like a second home. He was the first artist to offer a piano recital at the Civic Opera House in 2012, and was so impressed with the sound of the venue, that he returns there this month. “When you see such a big hall, you always worry about, ‘what is the sound like?’ But it has perfect sound. I remember last time, I was playing Mozart, it was so beautiful, so precise, so intimate. It’s a miracle to see such a big space have such an intimate sound.” Read the rest of this entry »

Art > Commerce @ SXSW 2015: A Survivor’s Story

Alt-Rock, Chicago Artists, Dance Pop, EDM, Electronic/Dance, Festivals, Folk-rock, Garage Rock, Indie Pop, Live Reviews, Post-Rock, Rock No Comments »
Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks

By Bart Lazar

“To hell with poverty,” Gang of Four tells us, “we’ll get drunk on cheap wine.” The only problem is that the band is playing at SXSW on a stage sponsored by dozens of global megabrands and funded by tens of thousands of trade show attendees, each of whom has shelled out thousands of dollars to attend. But just like the song, SXSW has an irresistible beat you can dance to, so that art, entertainment and fun ultimately trump commerce. Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Cristina Pato Takes a Bagpipe “Voyage” and Bruce Tammen Pursues His “Passion”

Celtic, Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Folk, Interviews, Jazz, Latin, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Pop, Vocal Music No Comments »
Christina Pato

Cristina Pato

By Dennis Polkow

Spanish bagpiper and pianist Cristina Pato realizes that there are lots of concertos for various solo instruments and orchestra out there—but bagpipes? “I don’t have the ability to be able to compose an orchestra piece,” she admits, “but I do have the ability to commission a composer and to open the interest of orchestras to play it.” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Hugh Masekela and Vusi Mahlasela/Old Town School of Folk Music

Folk, Jazz, Reggae, World Music No Comments »

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 »

Offbeat: Tobias Picker Does Not Live By Opera Alone, Peter Yarrow Still Hammering All Over This Land

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Folk, Folk-rock, Interviews, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Singer-Songwriter, Vocal Music No Comments »
Tobias Picker/Photo: Harry Heleotis

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 »

Raw Material: For Live Music, a Not-So-Bleak Midwinter

Alt-Country, Alt-Rock, Chicago Artists, Electronic/Dance, Festivals, Folk-rock, Indie Pop, Indie Rock No Comments »

July Talk

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 »