Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Music 45 2015: Who Keeps Chicago in Tune

Music 45 3 Comments »


Our biannual behind-the-scenes look at Chicago’s thriving music community gets a little more complex every year. Performers are easy enough to pin down; they’re front and center, by definition. But it can take some digging to excavate the driving forces behind the city’s rich tapestry of orchestras, festivals, music venues and record labels. On the other hand, a certain kind of celebrity has attached itself to bloggers, promoters, radio announcers, artistic directors and journalists, that puts them almost on an equal footing to the artists they’re here to support. So we find ourselves, in this year’s Music 45, ranging wide across the city’s musical landscape, reacquainting you with names and faces you may know almost as well as your own, while introducing you to several newcomers who have labored, if not quite in obscurity, then without the recognition their endeavors have earned them. What they all have in common, is that your life—yes, yours—is a little bit richer because of them. (Robert Rodi)

Music 45 was written by Robert Rodi and Dennis Polkow
With additional contributions by Keidra Chaney, Corey Hall, Robert Loerzel, Dylan Peterson and John Wilmes

Cover and interior photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux on location at Metro Chicago Read the rest of this entry »

Less Successful Numbers: The Money of Local Music

Chicago Artists, News and Dish 5 Comments »
Illustration: Ray Noland

Illustration: Ray Noland

By David Safran

I am a solo artist who performs live music in Chicago. Urban Dictionary, the summit of our English language, has a few definitions of “solo artist.” The second is fitting: a musician who works on “material/songs in a primarily solo state.” But I prefer the first definition: solo artists are musicians so skilled at masturbation that “they take it to the level of an art.”

At any rate, I write songs and perform them live. I use my own name—a tricky sell in 2015—and I hire musicians to accompany me on stage. These musicians are professional and skilled—and expensive. It’s a costly process, taking on a show. Each musician gets about $100-$150 for the performance. I reimburse the band for travel expenses. Sometimes they request separate payment for rehearsals. I also rent space for our practices. If I perform one local show, I need at least $450 to break even.

Occasionally I get offers to open for touring solo artists. Over the past couple of years, talent buyers have contacted me about support slots not because the music matched or the headliners (and their agents) were David Safran fans, but because I could “add heft in ticket sales.” Those headliners—all global and careered and acclaimed—were, for whatever reason, having a tough time selling tickets here. Per-show booking fees for artists I’ve supported have all been in the thousands. My guarantees have been meager. For example, City Winery paid me $300. Lincoln Hall paid me $200. In October, SPACE offered me $100 with the expectation to bring the crowd; the headliner had only sold twenty-five tickets. SPACE is a music room in the back of a suburban pizzeria. You’d think its talent buyer, Jake Samuels, was booking La Scala. Yet I couldn’t get a guarantee higher than $100. I turned down his show offer. Read the rest of this entry »

In Memoriam: Gwen Pippin

Chicago Artists, In Memoriam, Vocal Music No Comments »
Gwen Pippin

Gwen Pippin

By Robert Rodi

On Sunday night Chicago’s music community lost Gwen Pippin, a mainstay of the city’s cabaret scene and a longtime vocal instructor at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

In her decades as a performer Gwen played virtually every club, lounge and piano bar in town; most recently she was the Saturday-night attraction at Davenport’s on Milwaukee Avenue, a gig she held from the venue’s opening in 1998.

But it was as a teacher that Gwen established her most lasting legacy. She was a fierce opponent of what I call the professionalization of singing. She was born into a world where people routinely gathered around the piano to make their own music, before the omnipresence of world-class singing on radio, LPs and TV intimidated the less gifted into silence. Gwen was not having that. She dedicated herself to helping ordinary people fulfill their need to sing—“and it is a need,” she would insist. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Amanda Martinez/Old Town School of Folk Music

Flamenco, Indie Pop, Latin, Pop, World Music No Comments »


What happens when you get an MBA in international business with the objective of working for a major financial corporation? Do you leave it all behind to pursue the uncertainty of a musical career instead? This is precisely what happened to Canadian singer Amanda Martinez; she was bitten by the music bug after passing an audition in a small jazz club in her native country–and she has not looked back since.

Since then, she has recorded three albums and was a featured performer during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa–where her mother was born. Martinez’s music is very Latin-influenced, as heard on “Mañana,” her third album, and the first to be released in the United States. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: John Cale/Old Town School of Folk Music

Experimental, Folk, New Music, Pop, Punk, Rock, Singer-Songwriter No Comments »


Every list of John Cale’s achievements begins by cementing Cale’s role as a founding member of the Velvet Underground. At the onset of the group, Cale’s avant-garde and contemporary classical credentials lent a grounding circuit to the proceedings, with songwriting credits second only to Lou Reed. The spark in a song like “Venus in Furs” was summoned forth via his viola flourishes, or by his piano playing in “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Cale has continued to be a ceaseless experimenter, ever curious, always listening, and dead set on playing his own version of what’s next. The method has yielded a storied collection of recordings, with some unforgettable songs, including “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend,” an anxiety twitch of a tune that sounds good no matter who sings it. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: The Wailin’ Jennys/Old Town School of Folk Music

Bluegrass, Folk No Comments »


Hearing the Wailin’ Jennys stripped of artifice, unadorned by elements dropped in to make the trio sound more like a country rock band than anything else, is probably the best way to encounter these folk-singin’ Canadians. Spawned from a one-off gig at some music shop, the trio started touring and recording soon after. With its 2004 debut, “40 Nights,” ranking as the group’s most acoustic-focused affair, closing standard “The Parting Glass” best serves to explain the band’s talents. Initially a Scotch farewell song, something from about the same time Robert Burns was kicking around, the tune finds the original trio—Cara Luft’s since split-workin’ it out a capella. Read the rest of this entry »

Irish Icon: Paul Brady Brings his Celtic Celebration Stateside

Blues, Chicago Artists, Folk, Folk-rock No Comments »
Paul Brady

Paul Brady

By Mark Roelof Eleveld

Irish singer-songwriter and rocker Paul Brady has been doing it well for almost half a century. “Chicago is a very educated crowd, they know their music,” says Brady about his November 1 show at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music with local stalwart John Condron opening. Brady says that the blues played a large part of his set when he was younger. “I have about eighty percent of my solo set down when I get there, and depending on the audience, perhaps some of the Irish tunes, or maybe some old blues; there is always this ‘bleeding noise’ from my past songs saying, ‘hey, what about us?’”

Brady’s catalog is substantial. With more than fourteen albums, including his most recent double-CD compilation “Dancer In The Fire–A Paul Brady Anthology,” Brady’s style is hard to pigeonhole. From Northern Ireland, he is one of the island’s most enduring contemporary musicians. Fellow Irishman Bono of U2 offered that Brady is, “The iron fist in the velvet glove of Irish music,” and no less than Bob Dylan revealed, “Some guys got it down, Leonard Cohen, Paul Brady, Lou Reed, secret heroes.” Read the rest of this entry »

Music 45: Who Keeps Chicago in Tune 2013

Chicago Artists, Classical, Electronic/Dance, Festivals, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Music 45, Rock No Comments »
Cover by Colin Denney

Cover by Colin Denney

Music is alive and well and living in Chicago.

While that once might have meant records and radio and bands being signed to major labels, it’s a much more complex score these days, with artists and venues more entrepreneurial than ever. But at the core is the shift in emphasis from recorded to live music, and it’s a change that’s made Chicago a town of festivals, from the city’s bedrock blues, jazz, gospel and world music festivals, to Lollapalooza and Pitchfork, to the new electronic dance music festivals—Spring Awakening, Wavefront and North Coast—as well as the explosive growth of an old one, the Chosen Few DJs Picnic. With these shifts, the players are changing too; since we last made this list of the behind-the-scenesters, the power list if you will, most of the list has changed. This year’s forty-five include twenty-six folks who were not on the list that last time in 2009. (Brian Hieggelke)

Music 45 was written by Brian Hieggelke, Dennis Polkow and Kenneth Preski, with additional contributions by Dave Cantor, Keidra Chaney, Dylan Peterson, John Wilmes and B. David Zarley. See previous years here. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Buika/Old Town School of Folk Music

Flamenco, Folk, Latin No Comments »
Photo: Javi Rojo

Photo: Javi Rojo


Though best known for her work as a flamenco singer, Palma de Mallorca-born Concha Buika has broadened the genre through her very personal interpretation and also by taking the music in unusual directions. In 2011, she collaborated with Anoushka Shankar on the sitarist’s genre-bending “Traveller” (Deutsche Grammophon), an album that mixed influences both from Indian and Flamenco into one package.

On her new release, “La Noche Mas Larga” (Warner Latina), Buika offers a collection of self-penned songs and a handful of covers—including a great update of Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away” that features a rollicking electric bass line by Alain Pérez that serves as a backdrop for the percussion and piano. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: The Creole Choir of Cuba/Old Town School of Folk Music

Afro-Cuban, Folk, Genre, World Music No Comments »
Photo: Sven Creutzmann

Photo: Sven Creutzmann


The descendants of Haitian immigrants that settled in Cuba until the late fifties, The Creole Choir of Cuba is a ten-piece ensemble of voices and percussion who sing the music of their ancestors in a highly personal manner. Singing in Creole (Haiti’s second language), their lyrics speak about their history and heritage. Some songs were written centuries ago, while others, like “Tande,” were composed to talk about the cruel years of the Duvalier regime. Read the rest of this entry »