Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Raw Material: Horn of Not-Quite-Plenty

Alt-Rock, Chicago Artists, Indie Rock, Jazz, Live Reviews, Rock No Comments »

Mark Farina

It’s always a bit of a challenge scoping out shows around Thanksgiving because it’s a time period that seems to be overlooked for live music. The presumption is that everyone is out of town and/or spending time with family for the weekend. For those “Thanksgiving orphans” that stick around, or plan to head home early, there’s some good live music to look forward to in the coming weeks, as well as a few unusual and non-performance-based music events that are worth checking out.

Metro offshoot Smart Bar (3730 North Clark), early home of Frankie Knuckles and launching pad for Ministry, is approaching middle age. To celebrate, on Friday, November 20, Smart Bar cleverly celebrates its “33 1/3 Anniversary” with an A-list lineup of DJs and taking up both the Smart Bar and Metro spaces. The show includes Mark Farina, Colette, DJ Heather, Justin Long, Michael Serafini and Garrett David. Tickets are $24 in advance, $30 at the door. The 21+ show starts at 10pm at Smart Bar, 11pm at Metro. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: The Strayhorn Fringe Festival/Old Town School of Folk Music

Bluegrass, Chicago Artists, Festivals, Funk, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Live Reviews, World Music No Comments »


This is Billy Strayhorn’s centenary, and it’s been heartening to see so much attention paid to a songwriter whose gifts are almost in inverse proportion to his fame—i.e. the former stratospheric, the latter microscopic. Part of the problem is that Strayhorn is so closely associated with Duke Ellington, who was one of the more flamboyantly extrovert of the past century’s geniuses. Another part is that Strayhorn himself was quite happy to reside in Ellington’s shadow. The result is that today people are surprised to learn that tunes indelibly associated with Ellington—such as “Lush Life,” “Chelsea Bridge” and “Take the ‘A’ Train”—are in fact Strayhorn’s compositions. It’s hard for us to think of them in a new way; they’re so bonded to our DNA. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Somi/The Promontory

Jazz, Live Reviews, Soul, World Music No Comments »



Jazz has always been a meritocracy, in the sense that hooks matter more than looks. But that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate a concentrated dose of oomph when it’s right there in front of us. Peggy Lee worked it. So did Nina Simone. And the New York singer-songwriter Somi (born in Illinois to Ugandan and Rwandan parents) has the same kind of high-voltage charisma. She also has an absolutely exquisite instrument—graceful, gorgeous and under her complete control. In the fifties, she’d have knocked ‘em dead in supper clubs; today, she’s slaughtering digitally, in ravishing videos like her simmering R&B ballad, “Ginger Me Slowly.”  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 »

Preview: Kurt Vile/Thalia Hall

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



Kurt Vile takes his time. His last two Chicago concerts were Pitchfork’s rain-shortened fifteen-minute endeavor, and Riot Fest’s insane thirty-minute time slot. But KV still locked into his lazy, shimmery, stoner groove for seven minutes; if it was going to be a three- or four-song set, at least each song would have the chance to fully inhale, hold and exhale. Kurt Vile also likes to repeat himself, lyrically, harmonically and thematically. For his new album “b’lieve i’m Goin’ down,” Kurt turns on his own language; phrases like, “I woke up this morning (and) didn’t recognize the man in the mirror,” “give it some time” and (on the pre-release single) “believe I’m going down” are drawled repetitively, but—like stories told by disoriented people—as if being communicated for the first time. Each repetition is altered, as if the words or riffs are being played entirely anew, or for a new purpose. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Oddisee & Good Company/1st Ward at Chop Shop

Hip-Hop, Live Reviews No Comments »



We all know hip-hop has a deeper, softer, more meaningful and altruistic side. East Coast, Maryland-born emcee-producer Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, otherwise known as Oddisee, embodies that nurturing and uplifting spirit—what we used to mean by hip-hop. In a past life Oddisee might have been a lesser-known jazz musician, an accompanist to someone great; now in this reincarnated life he’s an appreciative and positive rapper, content with an authentic and kind approach to music-making and lyricism. He’s a steady producer and lyricist who for years has settled into the music industry without overcompensations or flamboyant, ego-driven, meaningless gestures. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Spektral Quartet/Curtiss Hall

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Live Reviews, New Music No Comments »

Spektral Quartet


Like most current chamber ensembles, Chicago’s Spektral Quartet carefully anchors its programs of new music with pieces from the standard repertoire; the theory, I’m guessing, is that the players feel obliged to reward audience members for sitting patiently through difficult, dissonant modern works by offering them a familiar bit of Schubert or Schumann—the same way you’d toss a tasty biscuit to a dog who’s successfully held a sit-stay. But Spektral is better than most at conveying how those earlier pieces fit on the same continuum as the newer ones—often conjuring the sense of disorientation and even danger that their original audiences would have heard in them. For the opening of its new season, however, the Quartet is throwing itself an extra curve by adding a spatial element to its performance. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Vincent Davis Percussion Plus/Constellation

Chicago Artists, Jazz, Live Reviews, New Music No Comments »



Jazz is a collaborative art form, but you can hang out on the scene a long time before you hit a happening where one of the collaborators is a visual artist. When that occurs, odds are the collaborator in question is Lewis Achenbach, who’s spent the past few years turning painting into a performing art by improvising on canvas alongside the city’s most adventurous jazz and new-music players. For Chicago Artists’ Month, Achenbach once again has the good fortune to hook up with Vincent Davis Percussion Plus, an ensemble of topflight free-jazz players. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Bottoms/The Hideout

Chicago Artists, Drag, Hip-Hop, Live Reviews, Pop Punk 1 Comment »



The screamcore reputation of Jake Dibeler, the gutter drag performance artist, lyricist and lead singer of Bottoms, totally precedes him. If the gritty photos of this unique vocalist—writhing and singing on venue floors in pumps and a red wig like a drugged-up mermaid—don’t entice you, then maybe the dreary dance vibes of this electroclash-inspired trio will. In the short amount of time since their “Goodbye” EP release in January, this rather bent art-punk trio has completely swept the Internet and all of New York off their feet. With JD Samson’s stamp of approval and a quick signing to budding label Atlas Chair, the band seems to have adamantly set their pulsating and playful agit-noise toward global domination. Well, maybe that’s an overstatement, but some form of sub-dom subversions will definitely be aroused if you check out Bottoms for Chances Dances’ ten-year anniversary month of festivities and exhibits. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Ibeyi/Thalia Hall

Live Reviews, World Music No Comments »

Ibeyi's self-titled debut album comes out Feb. 1


Chicago is blessed with the return of global sensations Ibeyi (pronounced ee-bey-ee), for a second performance in one year. French-Cuban twins Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz, who sing in both Yoruba and English, are the daughters of late Cuban percussionist Miguel “Angá” Diaz of Irakere and Buena Vista Social Club fame. Angá died in 2006 when the twins were only eleven; tragedy stuck again in 2013 when they lost a sister, Yanira. They grew up mostly in Paris and credit their French-Venezuelan mother, a singer, with inspiring their love of West African Yoruba culture (brought to Cuba by slaves in the 1700s). Naomi plays percussion, mixing hip-hop and Afro-Cuban beats on the cajón and Batás, and handles production while Lisa, the primary vocalist, plays piano and concentrates on composition. Read the rest of this entry »