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 »
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 »
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 »
Tijuana-born Julieta Venegas is a multi-faceted singer-songwriter who is equally comfortable belting out acoustic-based, folksy tunes alongside more pop-oriented songs, as evidenced by her 2012 release “Los Momentos,” which she is promoting with an extended tour of the United States. ”Los Momentos“ showcases a more mature side of Venegas, who took a short break from performing following the birth of her daughter Simona three years ago. Her songs have a greater depth, and she has come to embrace traditional instruments with greater frequency. The title track has a touch of jazz, and the black-and-white promo video for the tune has a retro fifties feel that showcases her accompanied by a grand piano. Read the rest of this entry »
When the slightest degrees separate the coffeehouse hack from the gifted songstress, it’s no easy task being a woman armed with an acoustic guitar. Often too subtle for fame, and therefore too obscure to be relevant, singer-songwriters walk a tense tightrope between credibility and, well, dullsville. They are unheralded, they are unappreciated, they are the unloved stepchildren of the music world. For the fortunate few who manage to conjure their craft at precisely the right moment and for precisely the right audience, the gamble can pay off dividends. In this circumstance, the mode of expression has an effect few other ensembles can manage. There’s something mystically personal about the experience for the listener, as though the tunes were carefully handcrafted to the refined specifications of each individual. Take for instance Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” which will be covered in its entirety by Chicagoan Eiren Caffall as part of The Whistler’s “Playing Favorites” series. Read the rest of this entry »
“La Voce Toa” is among the best songs of Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino’s, and it happens to be the sole English-language tune on their 2012 album “Pizzica Indiavolata.” The vocal belongs to Piers Faccini, an English singer-songwriter who is currently touring the United States in support of “Between Dogs and Wolves,” his second release via San Francisco-based indie label Six Degrees.
Faccini’s style is a mix of folk, blues and acoustic rock with a heavy African influence and a dab of jam-band feel. But don’t expect him to get lost in endless guitar riffs during his performances. In fact, when playing Stateside he travels lightly, accompanied only by his own guitar and a percussionist, which allows fans to focus on his voice. His heartfelt delivery has a laid-back feel, and his reflexive lyrics set him apart from today’s shoegazing singer-songwriters. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve never readily accepted the music of Justin Vernon. Undeniably well-crafted as it is, irresistible and viscerally affective as his voice is, something’s missing. Or maybe there’s too much of something, perhaps too much of the saccharine. Or perhaps Vernon’s sincerity goes unchecked on his independent projects (Kanye West contextualized the singer’s talents masterfully on each of his last two longforms), and I’m just unable to sign off on what’s ultimately a glitch-painted form of plain old “Americana,” which occasionally performs infectious and fascinating dances between each of its instrumental layers. I could go on. I could probably compliment Vernon’s sonic engineering all day. He’s a textural master, he’s a king of the melodic gut-punch. He could probably make me cry for weeks and weeks if he took up residency with a guitar in my family room. Read the rest of this entry »
A decade after her smash hit “Thank You” put this English singer on the pop map and five years after 2008’s “Safe Trip Home,” Dido reemerges with this concise album that brings together all the nuances of her style, blending folk-rock, electronica and straight-ahead pop. The album opens with the acoustic ballad “No Freedom,” whose lyrics reflect on the necessity of allowing people to have freedom within the confines of a relationship. The title track makes a playful allusion to the lover “who got away,” the sort of utopian dream-like person who many of us were unable to keep by our sides. Read the rest of this entry »
“American Idol” might have brought us talent like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and then-unappreciated Jennifer Hudson, but there were many other promising artists who ended up vanishing even if they did well on the show. While some flamed out soon and wound up playing minor parts in off-Broadway shows, some used the exposure to create a niche audience and build a solid career once the cameras were turned off.
An example of this is Ohio-born Crystal Bowersox, who was runner-up during the show’s ninth season (defeated by Chicago’s Lee DeWyze) in 2010. Signed to Jive Records that year, she released “Farmer’s Daughter,” and despite positive reviews and reasonable sales, she was dropped after RCA disbanded her label. She has since signed with indie label Shanachie Records (which also includes Ruben Studdard—another “Idol” veteran—in its roster) and is in the works to put out her sophomore album “All That For This” under the production of Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin. Read the rest of this entry »