“I’m so sick of cynics, I want something to trust in,” Ted Leo bemoans on the third track of “The Brutalist Bricks,” the band’s 2010 release. More than anything, the line captures Leo’s ability to effuse the enthusiasm and optimism inherent to punk kings like Joe Strummer and Ian Dury, while incorporating the eclectic influences that made them great. Certainly, recent years have seen him dialing back the style-hopping and indulgences of prior releases. Songs are streamlined, packing precise, catchy riffs into two minutes, where they would have taken twice that time on earlier releases. This only allows Leo to highlight one of the group’s greatest assets, succinctness. He can pack leagues of information into a few well-chosen, inch-long lines, and he proves it on “Bottled in Cork,” which entangles international politics and a startlingly detailed travelogue with a catchy hook. The song, which mentions cutting out political pork, could as easily be applied to the philosophy of the Pharmacists, who have cut away any fat still clinging to their lean sound. What’s left is propelled by the economic bass lines of new member Marty Key and the unimpeachable percussion of Chris Wilson. Yet, the band still manages to encompass influences from reggae to calypso (the album’s opener is fittingly titled for the Mighty Sparrow). Perhaps it’s due to the band’s constantly rotating lineup, but Ted Leo and the Pharmacists have yet to lose the enthusiasm essential to their appeal. Their most recent album opens with Leo singing about an explosion in a café, and he sounds more emphatic than ever. (Mike Gillis)
July 25 at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion, North Michigan and East Randolph, 6:30pm. Free.
This fully integrated South African band caught their first big break during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa when they shared the spotlight with Colombian singer Shakira on the multilingual “Waka Waka,” the official anthem for that event. Since then, global fans have gotten small glimpses of their music via their collaborations with Les Nubians and their first record to get full release in the US, “Radio Africa.”
The band’s songs have a catchy pop vibe and a sense of humor. For instance, “Pot Belly” talks about how time passes and couples age, “fat thighs, flabby arms and a pot belly still gives good loving”—something almost unheard of in body-image-obsessed American pop music. “Doo Be Doo” looks at an utopian time when people in the planet will finally be able to get along—a reflection on the changes in their own country, where Apartheid still ruled just a few decades ago.
Lead singer Zolani Mahola embodies the band’s attitude well. With almost a teenage-sounding voice, she has great confidence and a great stage presence—this can be seen on the “Waka Waka” video, when she almost steals the song from Shakira near the end. (Ernest Barteldes)
June 30 at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion, North Michigan and East Randolph, 6:30pm. Free.
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
By Dennis Polkow
Not since the Chicago Symphony Orchestra triumphantly returned from its first European tour some forty years ago and then-mayor Richard J. Daley hosted a parade in celebration has the CSO so dominated an event downtown.
Hopefully, you came early, because if you hadn’t, spaces were few and far between across a Millennium Park that eventually became so crowded Sunday afternoon, September 19, that the park was shut off to additional concertgoers.
“What a great day to be a Chicagoan!” exclaimed co-sponsor Bank of America’s Paul Lambert, to a sea of people waving small flags proclaiming “Festa Muti” so ferociously that if the celebrated Italian maestro were running for mayor, he would be a shoo-in.
Could the performance itself possibly live up to all of the hype and anticipation? By the time Riccardo Muti actually showed his face for the first time to the vast crowd as the tenth music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the crowd stood and went as ballistic as if Bono had walked onto the stage. Read the rest of this entry »
“Spanish Panda Bear” might be the most succinct way to describe the music of El Guincho (the recording alias of Barcelona musician Pablo Díaz-Reixa). But while Panda Bear seems poised to drift into guitar-based drone territory, El Guincho’s new “Piratas de Sudamerica” finds him continuing to revel in the tribal rhythms and reverb-washed samples that earned him innumerable comparisons to the Animal zeitgeist. “Piratas,” slated for a July 13 release, is the first in a series of EPs crafted around reinterpreting “various South American standards and lost classics.” The concept lends itself well to El Guincho, whose previous work has been deeply influenced by Brazilian Tropicália, and the songs have a relaxed sunniness at ends with the often-frenetic pace of “Alegranza!” Still, El Guincho manages to retain the tropical atmosphere that made his last album a cult hit, and “Piratas de Sudamerica” is likely to command many a boombox this summer. (Todd Hieggelke)
July 12 at Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park, Michigan and Randolph, (312)742-1168, noon. Free. And at Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, (773)525-2508, 9pm. $12.
Raucous and harmlessly brash, Portland’s The Thermals make the type of catchy, three-piece punk rock that had been conspicuously absent until their 2006 breakthrough “The Body, The Blood, The Machine” brought them widespread appeal. When a lot of bands used the studio to layer an infinite amount of tracks onto each mix, The Thermals reduced indie rock to its core of guitar-bass-drums-distortion, unleashing a scathing anti-Christian rant in the process. The band’s 2009 record, “Now We Can See,” unveiled a new polished pop attack, mixing downhearted lyrics, told from the point of view of a reminiscing corpse, with catchy, shout-out-loud choruses, fueled by bright guitar riffs. Lead singer Hutch Harris has a partially playful element to his voice–despite the frequently pissed-off lyrical material, his attempts at shouting will never come across as menacing, but the sincerity evident in each note will earn a listener’s respect nonetheless. (Andy Seifert)
July 5, 6:30pm, Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park, Michigan and Randolph, (312)742-1168. Free.
If you don’t know who “she” is, now is a good time to learn—singer/actress Zooey Deschanel makes up one part of indie-folk duo She & Him; her other half is singer and guitarist M. Ward, also of Monsters of Folk. Together, the two bring their insanely contagious sound to Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion.
Deschanel is one of the few lucky ones to overcome the actress/musician curse—yes, I’m looking at you Joaquin Phoenix. She writes almost all the songs, plays loveable characters in movies like “Elf” and “500 Days of Summer,” and looks adorable in everything she wears. The impossibility of ever being her friend makes me mildly bitter. Her sound though, is just the opposite: breezy and charming, the lyrics are pulled over M. Ward’s guitar like sweet taffy. Read the rest of this entry »
You’ve got to hand it to the folks behind the Downtown Sound: New Music Mondays. Along with booking topnotch up-and-coming talent, they’ve also excelled in creatively booking bands that missed their heyday, or perhaps were gone too soon and unjustly forgotten. Take, for example, the Feelies, who gave a fantastic performance last summer that surely won them new fans who had never heard their work before. Tonight’s headliner perhaps fits the same space, with Hum gracing the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Almost fifteen years ago, they were arguably the hardest-rocking band on a heavy-handed Champaign, Illinois indie-favorites bill at Metro (with Menthol and Poster Children) at the height of their Buzz-Binned MTV status, as the loud-quiet-loud buzz-saw attack of “Stars” propelled them to near-rock-stardom. And then, time went by, and Hum was mostly forgotten, discarded along with most of the grunged and alienated remains of the nineties. The great Pumpkin Corgan became a joke, trashing our formative years with his current abomination, somehow tarnishing an entire era, genre, scene… but then, someone started thinking, let’s sell Cadillacs with “Stars,” and somehow, the familiar adrenaline rush from that wall of distorted sound sounded really, really good again—even more striking than Kate Walsh’s slowburn grey eyes and CTS-hawking innuendo. What does this have to do, really, with Hum? Who knows? But what is clear is that tonight’s show will be the rockingest show to date at the Pritzker Pavilion, and it will be good to welcome back an old friend like Hum under the stars. But maybe “You’d Prefer an Astronaut?” (Duke Shin)
May 31 at Millennium Park, Michigan and Randolph, (312)742-1168. 6:30pm. Free.
You like Chicago’s ample and consistently successful free-music programming events like Blues Fest and Jazz Fest, plus seeing bands like The Feelies for nothing at Millennium Park? Check out this petition to keep music events off the chopping block when it comes to the city’s budget-slashing.
A decade ago when Carlos Kalmar became music director of the Grant Park Music Festival, hearing Mahler performed by the Grant Park Orchestra was a rarity. But one of Kalmar’s first concerts here was a stunning performance of the Mahler Second “Resurrection” Symphony and it was that extraordinary concert that led to his being hired for the post. Mahler remains a relative rarity at the downtown festival (no more than one work per season, tops) not only because of the huge amount of rehearsal time that these gargantuan works use up but also because of the immense street noise that always threatens to drown out the quieter sections, but not this time; Kalmar and the GPO are taking the Mahler Ninth Symphony—which contains some of Mahler’s most sublime music—indoors to the Harris Theatre for two weekend performances. Yes, as always, the concerts are free, but seats are unreserved so early arrival is recommended. Unlike the CSO, where you would have to fork out big bucks to experience Mahler, the price affords a rare recession-friendly opportunity to hear Mahler’s last completed symphony with all of its angst-driven farewell to life (Mahler had been diagnosed with a fatal heart condition and knew the end was near) without the additional worry of spending money to do so. Saturday night’s performance includes a 6:15pm pre-concert “Coffee Talk” discussion with Kalmar about this extraordinary work. (Dennis Polkow)
August 7, 6:30pm and August 8, 7:30pm, at Millennium Park’s Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, (312)742-7638. Free.
Grant Park Orchestra principal conductor Carlos Kalmar admits that, despite his being born of Austrian parents in Uruguay, the symphonies of Viennese composer Anton Bruckner do not speak to him. Kalmar has enormous affinity with Wagner and Mahler, but not Bruckner, a situation that is not unusual. Former Ravinia music director James Levine made his mark conducting Mahler symphonies, works that he had known since he was a teenager, but has never touched Bruckner, whose works he once described to me as “incomprehensible.” Read the rest of this entry »