By Kenneth Preski
In a moment of monumental historical import, this past summer President Obama slipped a National Medal of Arts around the neck of Allen Toussaint. Two centuries into America’s existence, the nation’s most prestigious artistic ceremony provided the backdrop for a scene of reckoning. The highest political authority in the land, a position formerly held by twelve different slave owners, was now embodied by an African-American for the very first time. President Obama warmly greeted his cultural counterpoint in Allen Toussaint, the epitome of the port city New Orleans, former epicenter of America’s slave trade.
Whereas the horrors of history would seem to have rendered the momentous encounter impossible, Toussaint offers some unique insight into the occasion, “Everything has its origin, and its birth. Just like the birth of a child, there’s really excruciating pain before the miracle happens, and then when the miracle happens, whatever pain that was, it was worth it all, whatever that seemed to have cost.” Read the rest of this entry »
There’s a tendency to attach the catch-all label of “world music” to any artist or band with non-Western musical influences. Accurate? Not always. But it’s a simple description to categorize and define a band’s sound. That being said, to classify the music of Slowbots as “world music” or “multicultural” is to immediately confine it to labels that don’t fully reflect this Chicago music collective’s varied influences. Slowbots’ moody ballads owe as much to the Velvet Underground as they do to the traditional Urdu singing that vocalist Yasmin Ali was trained in. In Slowbots you can hear strains of shoegaze, trip-hop, and folk with spacey, fuzzed-out guitar lines weaving their way through the soulful vocals of Ali and Angela Salva’s plaintive violin, all anchored by the R&B-influenced percussion work of Katie Chow. Read the rest of this entry »
When contemporary critics call art “outsider,” it is meant to refer to an artist who has learned outside of the reach of institutionalized instruction. Outsider artists tend to be self-taught, those who learn by doing, often marginalized for their lack of refinement. With luck, the rawness of the outsider artist becomes a tremendous asset, able to sharpen the focus of the expression by privileging the power of the message over the style of its messenger. To the listener, the insight is registered as a singular voice, a signature style. The challenge for artists of this ilk is to avoid becoming so outsider as to feel alien. Willis Earl Beal, for instance, was born in Chicago, but it doesn’t feel like he’s from anywhere at all. He’s signed to Britain’s XL Recordings, the same label that put out the latest Radiohead album. They released the final Gil Scott-Heron LP as well, a much better point of comparison for Beal’s work, whose sophomore effort “Nobody knows.” [sic] is a marked departure from the bedroom recordings and loose-leaf drawings that defined his initial approach. Read the rest of this entry »
When George Duke succumbed to leukemia on August 5, he had already left behind a gigantic legacy in the music world through his innovative vision as a keyboardist, singer and composer. However, he still had something to say, and that was what turned out to be his final album, released just a couple of weeks before his untimely passing at age sixty-seven.
The album came after a long hiatus brought by the death of his wife in 2012, but the break served his music well—the album is a piece of art that encompasses the sounds of his four-decade career, beginning from the aptly titled title track, which has touches of psychedelics and funk, going to the jazz fusion groove of “Stones of Orion,” a tune that features one of the genre’s heroes, bassist Stanley Clarke. The cut just fizzles with electricity thanks to the chemistry between the two veteran musicians. “Change The World” begins with recordings of various speeches, and then various singers share the message of hope and understanding. Read the rest of this entry »
Soul music was born of the friction between pious and secular ecstasy. Many of the genre’s greatest artists came to know impulsive jubilation as children through the gospel. That this same joy is accessible in everyday experience essentially marks the epiphany of the soul singer, perhaps music’s most perfect muse. In the truest sense, D’Angelo is a direct descendant of the tradition. Love, pleasure, pain and redemption radiate through his weathered voice with a sense of ultimate vulnerability. It’s been more than a dozen years since D’Angelo’s name last sat atop a marquee in Chicago. Do not miss him this time around. Read the rest of this entry »
As the best-known proponent of the sacred steel, despite becoming a bit more secular than the church-going set might like, Robert Randolph stamping his name on anything warrants a bit of attention. With or without his blessing, the Slide Brothers would have pursued a music with tendrils slinking back to the 1930s and Pentecostals’ enthusiastic proclamations on its self-titled 2013 disc. Comprising Aubrey Ghent, Calvin Cooke and Chuck and Darick Campbell, the Slide Brothers rave up the most unholy devotional music since blues began. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Jody LIndscott
By Ernest Barteldes
The eruption of volcano Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 disrupted the lives of many—flights were grounded on both sides of the pond and, to make matters worse, blizzards on the Eastern Seaboard at around the same time just made flying across the Atlantic a near impossibility.
Among those who couldn’t get on a plane were the members of Swing Out Sister, who were supposed to go on an acoustic tour across the US. The disruption inspired them to go back into the studio and record the arrangements they were supposed to take to the road, and the result was “Private View” (Shanachie, 2013), which contains a selection of reinvented takes on some of their greatest hits and a handful of covers—we reviewed the album back in January on this site.
The much-delayed tour (fingers crossed!) is finally happening, and the band led by vocalist Corinne Drewery and pianist Andy Connell are making a number of stops Stateside, beginning right here in Chicago.
We caught up with Drewery over an extended phone interview during the week of June 24, when she talked about the music and also with her concerns about how we as individuals have a responsibility toward the environment. Read the rest of this entry »
On this summer-themed release, saxophonist Dave Koz teams up fellow reed players Gerald Albright, Richard Elliot and Mindi Abair to revisit songs that marked their youths, giving them a contemporary flavor. The record kicks off with a funky take on Ronnie Laws’ “Always There” that features individual moments from all four players and sets the tone for the disc. A soul-tinged take on the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” follows, one of the few songs ever recorded by the Fab Four to actually feature a horn section. The arrangement here is a bit closer to Earth Wind & Fire’s 1978 single, and the players seem to have a ball with it, swapping solos around the basic melody. Read the rest of this entry »
In 2008, British soul singer Alice Russell caught the attention of critics and fans alike with her catchy “Got The Hunger” the lead single from her US debut, “Pot of Gold” (Six Degrees, 2008). She seemed to tag along with her country’s embrace of young female singers like the late Amy Winehouse and Adele, who capture the essence of American soul and use it in their own way—apparently drawing more inspiration from Motown than more current stuff made here.
On her new record, “To Dust,” Russell goes further by incorporating gospel sounds and more organic instrumentation instead of the previous disc’s predominantly electronic sounds. For instance, “A to Z,” is a powerful guitar-driven tune with smart vocals and a very catchy groove. Read the rest of this entry »
While musicians, labels and the media in America brand and rebrand music to fit some kind of niche audience, our brothers and sisters across the pond just go ahead and bring everything together to make the best music they can from the influences they hear.
One of the most recent examples of this is British singer-songwriter Charlie Winston, who has a penchant for blending funk, soul and the classical music he was initially trained in. If you are thinking “Here comes another Freddie Mercury,” that would not be a bad comparison, but Winston is not in any way associated with glam rock. Read the rest of this entry »