Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Raw Material: The Best of 2014? Possibly Yet to Come

Alt-Rock, Chicago Artists, Holiday Music, Indie Rock, Interviews, Live Reviews, Metal, Prog-rock, R&B, Rock, Shoegaze, Soul, Space Pop No Comments »
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Forgotten Species

By Keidra Chaney

Here we are at the end of the year, and while most music journalists will inflict their top-ten bands/albums/live shows of 2014 lists on their readers, I’ve decided to spare you. There’s still enough time, after all, to catch the best show of the year, or even check out a new band or album that might be your favorite. There have been two or three times that my favorite concert of a given year took place during the last six weeks on the calendar (I’m looking at you, St Vincent!). This is especially true with the holidays approaching; Chicago is fond of its Christmas and pre-New Year’s live music showcases and events. Either way, there’s still a lot going on in the city when it comes to live music. Here are a few standouts.

The Empty Bottle (1035 North Western) is all up in Christmas this month, with a whole slew of Christmas and Christmas-ish events to celebrate the holiday. On December 12, they’re throwing their second annual Bottle Hop to raise money for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. It’s an old-school rock ‘n’ roll/soul/R&B shindig, which makes it a perfect opportunity to dress kinda fancy. The lineup includes badass throwback soul band The Congregation (on the verge of very big things, I predict), fifties rockers The Tenders and western swing outfit The Chandelier Swingers. The show is $10 and starts at 9pm.

A week later, on December 19, space-y collaboration Quarter Mile Thunder throws a “Xmas psych party” (which also doubles as an album release party) with the Record Low. The following night features holiday-themed Chicago supergroup Snow Angels (comprising members of Mannequin Men, Johnny and The Limelites, Vee Dee and Automatic Stinging Machines), who reconvene for their annual holiday performance; they say it’s been twelve years since they started.

If that’s too much live music for you, the Bottle also hosts a pair of lunch-hour events in time for Christmas shopping: a poster sale on December 14 and a pop-up holiday market on December 20. Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Renée Fleming Reaches Out From Opera, Blind Boys Modernize Their Message

Blues, Chicago Artists, Classical, Country, Holiday Music, Interviews, Jazz, News and Dish, Pop, Rock, Vocal Music No Comments »
Renée Fleming with KISS at the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade

Renée Fleming with KISS at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade

By Dennis Polkow

It’s a busy holiday season for the “People’s Diva,” Renée Fleming: not only has the soprano released her first-ever Christmas album, “Christmas in New York” (Decca), but PBS has produced a television special on the making of the album. As if that weren’t enough, Fleming sang at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and is opening a new production of “The Merry Widow” at the Metropolitan Opera on New Year’s Eve, with Lyric Opera music director Sir Andrew Davis at the podium.

Christmas itself, however, Fleming admits, will remain a family affair. “My whole family sings like crazy,” says Fleming. “When we decorate the tree, my daughters and I have a major impromptu scat-singing festival.” It’s this spirit that informs the eclectic approach of “Christmas in New York,” on which Fleming performs with guest artists Wynton Marsalis, Gregory Porter, Kelli O’Hara, Chris Botti, Brad Mehldau, Rufus Wainwright and Chicago jazz singer Kurt Elling.

For those expecting a killer rendition of “O Holy Night” or “Ave Maria,” think again. “That was my expectation as well,” laughs Fleming. “I just assumed when I would finally do a Christmas album, it would be that Karajan-Vienna Philharmonic-Leontyne Price template. But this came together in a different way and Universal had a different idea about it.

“I stayed away from carols for the most part, except for ‘Stille, Stille, Stille.’ I also went to my collaborators and said, ‘What would you like to do?’ I took their lead in many cases. Since this took about nine months to really finish up, I worried for a while about it coming together in a way that would make it feel like a whole, but it did. There was enough variety on it to enable it to have that sense of different things coming together.” Read the rest of this entry »

All I Want: Another Misanthropic Christmas Essay

Holiday Music No Comments »

spike-jones-xmas-spectacularBy Eric Lutz

The worst English-language song ever recorded—worse than the Brad Paisley/LL Cool J collaboration “Accidental Racist,” that U2 song about Joey Ramone, and the whole of the fun. catalogue—is a Christmas song called “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.”

Covered by numerous artists over the years, including noted musical genius Count von Count of Sesame Street, it was originally—and most famously—performed by Spike Jones and His City Slickers. Like all its iterations, Jones’ version of the holiday hit is willfully obnoxious, combining the grating sonic palette of the Chipmunks (who covered this crime against music in 1963) with the jejune comedic stylings of a bad Three Stooges flick (unsurprisingly, Larry, Curly and Moe recorded a version of the song as well). Opening with a brief skit in which the song’s protagonist is relieved of his incisors in a careless bicycle accident, trumpeter George Rock—singing as the toothless adolescent—laments his newfound inability to pronounce sibilants without whistling. It is a ridiculous song, and I hate it.

The first time I heard it, it was on this tape of Christmas music my grandfather had dubbed off the radio and his old, immaculately kept records. He played this tape every year and, more than snow, corner Santas and the mathematical elimination of the Bears from the NFL playoff picture, it signaled to me the arrival of the holiday season.  Read the rest of this entry »

Raw Material: Plenty of Live Music to Be Thankful For

Festivals, Holiday Music, Pop Punk, Post-punk, Rock, Soul No Comments »
omys

The O’My’s

By Keidra Chaney

For the musically inclined, the week of Thanksgiving can be a bit of a dead period. Since so many people head out of town for the week, many venues avoid booking shows during this time; in addition, they’re usually gearing up for whatever Christmas holiday events they might have planned. Bands try to squeeze in as many shows as they can before the holidays become a distraction for their followers, so traditionally it’s an uneven time for live music—unless you’re really keeping an eye out.

Which I’m here to do for you. And in terms of national acts, this Thanksgiving actually offers a pretty good weekend of options. The beloved Lucinda Williams comes to the Vic (3145 North Sheffield) on Friday, November 28, while her spiritual offspring Lydia Loveless is ironically playing Lincoln Hall (2424 North Lincoln) at roughly the same time. Saturday brings the gorgeous harmonies of Missouri roots rock band HaHa Tonka to Subterranean (2011 West North), and indie-rocker Angel Olsen (who once called Chicago home, albeit for a short time) returns to play Thalia Hall (1807 South Allport). Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Epic Holiday Treats from Turin, Joey DeFrancesco and Music of the Baroque

Blues, Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Holiday Music, Interviews, Jazz, News and Dish, Orchestral, Vocal Music No Comments »
Gianandrea Noseda

Gianandrea Noseda

By Dennis Polkow

For the first time, Millennium Park’s Harris Theater is presenting an opera independent from Chicago Opera Theater, a mainstay of the venue since it opened more than a decade ago. The one-night-only event features a rare, complete concert performance of Rossini’s “William Tell” by Teatro Regio Torino (Turin, Italy), in the company’s North American debut. This is the first time an Italian opera house will tour a complete opera in North America. Chicago is one of only four stops on the tour, which also includes Carnegie Hall. Baritone Luca Salsi sings the title role, with soprano Angela Meade as Matilde and tenor John Osborn as Arnoldo. The Teatro Regio Torino orchestra and chorus is conducted by the company’s music director, Gianandrea Noseda, who was just chosen as Musical America’s 2015 Conductor of the Year.

“Grazie,” says Noseda, congratulated by phone in Munich, where at press time he was guest conductor at the Bavarian State Orchestra. Ironically, although Noseda’s season-long engagements with Teatro Regio Torino were never in question, reports had surfaced that he’d stepped aside as music director due to highly publicized artistic differences with the company’s general manager. “I am still there,” he reassures me. He calls the mutual striving for both sides to come to an understanding “a work in progress,” and adds, “There are new people coming in [to the company], who I think will make all the difference. We will find our way. At least that is my wish, my hope.” Read the rest of this entry »

Motown Christmas: Supremes’ Mary Wilson and Four Tops are Here for the Holidays

Holiday Music, Pop, R&B, Soul No Comments »

By Dennis PolkowMaryWilson2011

Nearly fifty years after she became an international sensation as an original member of the Supremes, Mary Wilson still knows how to light up a room. As she hosted a cocktail party to talk about her upcoming holiday show, all heads were turning when she made a star’s entrance, complete with accessorized golden gown.

Wilson mingled and posed for photos before sitting down to talk about her long career. “It didn’t come easy,” says Wilson. “We had seven flops before catching on. The Marvelettes had five consecutive number-one hits and so [Motown president] Berry Gordy decided to put us with the same songwriting team.”

Originally formed as the Primettes in 1958 as a female version of the popular Detroit male-singing group the Primes, it was Wilson who recruited her classmate Diane Ross—who would be later called Diana at Gordy’s direction—to join what was originally a quartet, becoming a trio in 1961. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Reviews: New Takes on Holiday Classics

Big Band, Holiday Music, Jazz, Orchestral, Pop, Record Reviews, Vocal Music No Comments »

nnennafreelonandjohnbrowIt’s that time of year again, when artists of pretty much every genre do everything possible to grab your attention with new recordings of holiday classics. From major stars like Kelly Clarkson to obscure indie bands—everybody wants a piece of the holiday action. Last year, my roundup contained quite a few compilations and original releases, but this time I will keep it short and point out two favorites that came across my desk during this joyous season.

First on the list is Grammy-nominated jazz veteran Nnenna Freelon, whose “Christmas” collection features familiar favorites like “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night,” but man, does she swing those tunes, freely improvising around the melodies with the help of the John Brown Big Band, who expertly add their own nuanced grooves. This is not your traditional singer-backed-by-a-big-band disc. In tracks like “Spiritual Medley,” the arrangements are quite subtle, while things get hot with Duke Ellington’s “I Like The Sunrise,” and even “Silent Night,” is subjected to a Gospel treatment. The album closes with a New Orleans take on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” that immediately gets your feet tapping. Read the rest of this entry »

Separating the Holly from the Poison Ivy: Christmas Record Wrap-Up

Holiday Music, Record Reviews No Comments »

With the season that kicks off this week with Christmas tree lightings, caroling at Cloud Gate and, of course, the decorated windows at department stores comes the onslaught of holiday records, which range from reissues from long-gone crooners and divas like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald alongside records from fading (or faded) pop artists and symphony orchestras. Some are great, others are good background music while others are simply forgettable. (When was the last time you spun Cyndi Lauper’s “Merry Christmas… Have a Nice Life”?)

Some, however, are really worth your time. Among these is the fourteenth installment of “Broadway’s Carols For A Cure,” an annual compilation of newly recorded songs from the casts of various shows from the Great White Way that benefits AIDS research (available through through BC/EFA at broadwaycares.org). As someone who has followed the collection almost from the start (I own copies starting from the sixth edition), I must say that this is one of the most enjoyable so far. Read the rest of this entry »

Spotify This: A Rock ’n’ Roll Holiday Playlist for the Ages

Holiday Music, Rock 2 Comments »

By Anne K. Ream and R. Clifton Spargo

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment that a good idea becomes a trend, the trend becomes a cliché and the cliché thereafter morphs into an irresistible marketing opportunity. The rock ’n’ roll holiday record is as old as the October 1957 release of “Elvis’ Christmas Album,” which yielded several fine tunes, including the King’s unforgettable, bluesy rendering of “Blue Christmas.” But somewhere between the well-intentioned, if wildly uneven “A Very Special Christmas”—a multi-platinum 1987 benefit album—and this year’s perfectly even and perfectly predictable “A Very She and Him Christmas,” featuring M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel, the rock ’n’ roll Christmas record became less concept album, more hackneyed concept—often nothing but a crass attempt to cash in on the spending frenzy that is the holiday season. So, in the distinctly 2011 spirit of making do with what we already have, here’s a modest proposal for stadium rockers, indie phenoms and music industry bigwigs of every sound and stripe. Let’s lay off holiday albums for a few years. And don’t worry about us during your hiatus; we’ll be taking musical stock and listening to the too-often-unheard gems that already exist. Henceforth, our favorite rock ’n’ roll holiday songs: Read the rest of this entry »

Record Reviews: Everyday Holiday Music

Celtic, Folk, Folk-rock, Holiday Music, Jazz, Pop, R&B, Record Reviews, Rock, World Music No Comments »

During this time of year, music stores and their online counterparts get filled with rereleases that range from remastered versions of holiday classics from Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra to not-so-great offerings from the likes of Christina Aguilera and even former Beatle Ringo Starr (who made a whole album about a decade ago). And then again there are those faux-humorous songs about daddy getting drunk at Christmas while grandma was run over by a reindeer. While some of these examples are genuinely enjoyable, many are better left where they belong—in the bargain bin.

But the truth remains that for many people a Christmas party is not quite complete without holiday music, so there definitely is always a market for these albums—even if we have been hearing them day in and day out at the local grocery store since late October. In spite of that sensory overload, some new
releases deserve to be checked out, especially for artists who decide to present these classics from a different perspective. Read the rest of this entry »