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: Billy Strayhorn Lived a “Lush Life” Beyond Duke Ellington

Big Band, Blues, Chicago Artists, Classical, Festivals, Interviews, Jazz, News and Dish, Pop, Vocal Music No Comments »
Duke Ellington (left) and Billy Strayhorn

Duke Ellington (left) and Billy Strayhorn

By Dennis Polkow

When Bruce Mayhall Rastrelli first came up with the idea of devoting an entire concert to the music of Billy Strayhorn more than a decade ago, the first question was often, “Billy who?”

“It was for a gay chorus that I directed for eight years in Los Angeles,” recalls Rastrelli, “and they had a tradition of doing single composer concerts: Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerry Herman. I wanted to move beyond doing composers that were obvious. I wanted to challenge the chorus and the community with things they didn’t know, specifically jazz, and especially a black composer who was out and gay at a time when that was not at all typical.”

Strayhorn is best known for his near thirty-year association with Duke Ellington, from the time they met in 1938 until Strayhorn’s early death from cancer in 1967 at the age of fifty-one. Often given direct credit, sometimes not, Strayhorn is estimated to have composed and arranged some forty percent of the entire Ellington catalogue and was, as Ellington himself put it in his autobiography, “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.” Read the rest of this entry »

Raw Material: Post Festival Season, Local Acts Shine

Alt-Rock, Chicago Artists, Hip-Hop, Indie Rock, New Wave, Pop, Rock No Comments »


Once a chill gets in the air and many of us recover from our Halloween activities, there’s a bit of a lull in live music until the December holidays and New Year’s Eve. That’s OK, though; I think it’s a wonderful time to check out some of the bands, artists and venues that may not have gotten the love they deserved during the busy summer festival season, and there’s always plenty going on. When it comes to this month’s Raw Material, be sure to catch up with the art-pop ensemble Roommate at Burlington Bar (3425 West Fullerton) on Friday, November 6. The Kent Lambert-led project has endured for well over a decade with an evolving lineup, and released a full-length album, “Make Like,” in June of this year. This may or may not be the group’s last recording, but nonetheless Roommate has had a busy summer of performance, including a residency at the Hideout that culminated in a multimedia collaboration with Chicago Film Archives. Roommate’s Burlington set will be opened by Strange Weather Records labelmate Thomas Comerford and Minnesota-based singer-songwriter Luke Redfield. The free, twenty-one-plus show starts at 9pm. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Here We Go Magic/The Empty Bottle

Alt-Rock, Indie Rock, Live Reviews, Pop, Psychedelic No Comments »



I call it “needle-drop bliss”—that moment when you lower the tone arm onto an LP, and after the first few burps of vinyl, you hear something that induces immediate euphoria. That isn’t quite the case with Here We Go Magic’s new album, “Be Small”—the first cut is a thirty-second squall of feedback that sounds like a jet engine with a head cold—but when it snaps into “Stella,” you might as well sit down, wherever you are, because you’re not going anywhere soon. This is pure pop magic: a breezy, bouncing groove that churns happily away beneath a languorous melody line. And what lovely, evocative lyrics: “But if you trip on every fashion / Fall into every pile of bull / You’ll only smell of empty mansions / Once, maybe once you were full.” It’s a rare thing, to find a band that’s both lyrically and harmonically adventurous; and HWGM manages to sustain it throughout the length of the album. 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 »

Offbeat: Sinatra Jr. Is Perfectly Frank on the Man Behind the Legend

Big Band, Festivals, Interviews, Jazz, News and Dish, Pop, Vocal Music No Comments »
Frank Sinatra Jr.

Frank Sinatra Jr.

By Dennis Polkow

“There is a lot of traffic out there in this kind of show for this year,” admits Frank Sinatra Jr. on the myriad of Sinatra salutes happening throughout 2015, the centennial of his father’s birth. “Many, many people have taken it upon themselves to do this kind of thing. They can, of course, recreate the music. But because this is the one-hundredth anniversary, I felt it was very important that people also learn something about the individual.

“We’re no longer talking about a man who is a famous performer, a famous movie star. Now we’re talking about somebody who is being time-honored with a century of recognition. For that reason, I think it’s time to know that person. We already know his accomplishments, now let’s concentrate on the person.”

From the beginning of his own career some fifty years ago, Frank Jr. always performed “at least a song or two of Sinatra,” as he calls the public figure, “but I worked hard to have my own identity.” Read the rest of this entry »

Lolla Day 3: Riders On the Storm

Alt-Rock, Electronic/Dance, Festivals, Hip-Hop, Indie Rock, Pop, Rap, Rock, Uncategorized No Comments »
Photo: Brian Hieggelke

Photo: Brian Hieggelke

By Craig Bechtel

Festivalgoers receive their tickets and passes with the caveat that the shows will go on “rain or shine.” But there’s always the caveat that if high winds and lightning pop up on the radar, all bets are off, and attendees of Lollapalooza Day 3 had to wrestle with the forces of Mother Nature, not once, but twice.

Sunday started hot and humid, and skies were sunny as Australian trio DMA’s treated those in attendance at the Pepsi stage to their jangly, echoey guitar pop. DMA’s are clearly inspired by the mid-nineties Britpop tradition, à la Oasis, Blur, Happy Mondays, etc., who themselves were born of NME C86 influences like The Mighty Lemon Drops, The Shop Assistants and The Wedding Present. Whether this was apparent to the crowds enjoying their set at the Pepsi stage was unclear—they may have been there based on the strength of the band’s “Laced” single, which has garnered some airplay on local AOR radio station WXRT, was a song of the week for KEXP and garnered a review in Entertainment Weekly last fall. Read the rest of this entry »

Sunday at Lolla: Hometown Heroes and Wild Weather

Alt-Rock, Chicago Artists, Dance Pop, Festivals, Indie Rock, Live Reviews, Rock No Comments »

Twin Peaks

By Robert Rodi

Sunday afternoon I had my first concentrated dose of Twin Peaks. I’m not generally drawn to this kind of act—you reach a certain age, you find your appetite for brash young guitar bands has been satiated almost to the point of aversion—but I love a local success story, and these Chicago natives have had an amazing year since they slashed their way to stardom at Pitchfork last year. Their album “Wild Onion” became both a critical and commercial success, launching them on an extensive national tour, and now they’d returned home in triumph to play Lollapalooza.

It was easy to see they were stoked. Almost from the moment they took the stage, they were hurling themselves around like sock puppets. I’ve heard enough of “Wild Onion” to know that there are some wryly rueful and even mildly cerebral tunes in their repertoire, but for their Lolla set it was pretty much power-chord overload. Their fans—who were many—seemed to love it, and the guys fed on that energy so that their performance rapidly went from propulsive to convulsive. Seriously, there was so much thrashing and pounding and leaping around, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the entire Sprint stage had shifted a few inches during their set. 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 »

Offbeat: James Conlon Bids Farewell to Ravinia, Says “Si” to Italy

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Festivals, Interviews, News and Dish, Orchestral, Pop, Rock, Vocal Music No Comments »
James Conlon / Photo Courtesy of Ravinia Festival

James Conlon/Photo: Ravinia Festival

By Dennis Polkow

“After I became music director eleven years ago,” says Ravinia Festival music director James Conlon, “it was so interesting how many people I would meet around the country, or Americans I would meet in Europe, that would say, ‘You know? I heard my first concerts at Ravinia.’ I started to think that everybody grew up on the North Shore of Chicago and somehow or another moved to another place in the world. It is astounding how many people of all ages were formed there, from twenty-year-olds to eighty-year-olds, and how many people Ravinia has been able to reach in its way and introduce classical music to them. Of course, the trump card of the Chicago Symphony is the best way you can do that. It was very striking to me and I am very proud to be a part of that tradition and process and hope it will continue on forever.”

Nonetheless, Conlon announced last August that the 2015 season would be his last as Ravinia music director, and that 2016 would also end his music directorship of the Cincinnati May Festival after thirty-six years. Instead, he will become the first American to ever become principal conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai in Turin, Italy. Read the rest of this entry »