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Tuesday, Sep 30, 2008
Words and Pictures by Kirstie Shanley.

My Bloody Valentine—a legendary band who epitomized the shoegaze genre, if not actually defined it in some sense—brought their own sound system to Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom, filling the space with raging cascades of sound. Channeling an ethereal sort of madness, the Irish four-piece played with a transcendent force that tore through the enraptured crowd.


As one might expect, a band like My Bloody Valentine does not conform to a typical stage presence. There is very little in the way of words or even spaces between songs. The stage was filled with drastic periods of alternating darkness and blinding light. Shielded from the front section of the stage with plexiglass sound barriers, bassist Debbie Googe stayed in the back next to drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig. Despite this obvious distancing, they worked effectively together to provide a building tension and edgy rhythm. Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher stayed in front but apart, visible at times only between shadows and strobes. The intensity of their impact lay not within any facial expressions but within the massive sound they created. 


Through all the grinding and swirling guitars provided by Shields and Butcher, the sweetness of Butcher’s vocals drifted across the audience throughout most of the night, helping to lessen the harshness with a strong feminine presence. The band, back after a prolonged hiatus (their last album was released in 1991), played many key favorites from Isn’t Anything and Loveless with a focus on the latter of the two. The audience stood transfixed as the band powered through “Feed Me with Your Kiss”, “I Only Said”, Only Shallow”, “When You Sleep”, and “To Here Knows When”. And while there were times when the noise climbed to such a height that it became impossible to distinguish a song’s separate element, these decibel-destroying occasions allowed the tunes to take on a new shape.


The pivotal moment of the set came during “You Made Me Realize”, which broke off into over twenty minutes of evolving noise that locked into a strange infinity. It was impossible not to feel like you were surviving something outside this world that was as heavenly as it was traumatic. In many ways, it felt like punishment served at the same time as salvation. Halfway through the sonic assault, audience members reached up in the air, grabbing the dissolving molecules of sound as if they were pieces of chocolate. This was the sort of pounding that might lead to blistering, but it was a welcome assault, and left the impression that, oddly enough, it was the silence that was too loud.



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Sunday, Sep 28, 2008
Words and Pictures by Kirstie Shanley.

Between bursts of spontaneous dancing and iconic poses, James’ frontman Tim Booth has the charisma and charm to make any set enjoyable. (He’s also the only lead singer I know that can pull off an outfit consisting of a suit jacket and pajama bottoms.) Along with his soaring vocals and spirited camaraderie, Booth is also able to inspire a fully adoring audience.


Playing a sold out show in support of their new album, Hey Ma, James could have very easily crafted a setlist from recent material. Instead, the band chose a well-rounded set of songs with a handful of favorites that only served to increase the audience fervor. Coming to the foot of the stage during “Out to Get You”, Booth let the many hands hold his legs and feet while he sang as if only to a few of us.


The band, which first formed in Manchester, England, in the early ‘80s, received standing ovations for many of their hits including, “Say Something”, “Sit Down”, “Top of the World”, and “Sometimes”. The only missing songs were the stellar tracks found on the brilliant Brian Eno produced Millioniares, which may have been left out due to the album’s unavailability in the States when it was released in 1999.


While James, as a band, deserves all the acclaim it gets, it’s clear that Tim Booth, who has an innate ability to balance pop songs with soft intimate lullabies, is the star of the show. Adept at creating choruses that people appear to instantly remember, he’s also a master at touching the very heart of the matters he speaks of. The audience members made this show a shared experience, singing along to many of the songs without any prompting. It was as if it was impossible not to sing along, even when the lyrics might sound sappy to an outsider as with fan favorite “Sometimes”. As Tim Booth sings, “Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul,” you can’t help but feel the sense of how heartfelt his words are. It seems that when Tim Booth sings something, it just ends up feeling right.


 


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Friday, Sep 26, 2008

Beginning appropriately with “The Night Starts Here”, Stars commenced to play their hearts out for ninety minutes. Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan filled the air with their usual lush male/female vocals, which alternate and culminate in swoons, creating a lullaby effect that’s filled with a soothing kind of chemistry.


Amy Millan of Stars

Amy Millan of Stars


This time around, Stars dropped their usual angst for a much more hopeful vibe. Missing from the setlist were politically-fueled songs such as, “Set Yourself on Fire”, “He Lied About Death”, and “In Our Bedroom After the War”. “Take me to the Riot” was the closest the band came to touching on this element. Even “Going, Going, Gone”, a song previously filled with personal vs. political anger, was reworked and slowed down and replaced with a much more melancholic feeling.


Torquil Campbell of Stars

Torquil Campbell of Stars


Though the five-piece hails from Montreal, they had much to say about how “happening” Chicago is as a city. Appearing humble, Campbell thanked the audience for coming out during hard times, saying how much the band appreciated it. He appeared just as moved by the experience as the starlit set of young eyes gazing from the front row, staring in awe at their favorite band playing on a stage adorned with roses.


Amy Millan of Stars

Amy Millan of Stars


Lyrically, the songs often come across as very intense and personal stories. Yet, they manage to transcend the inner personal domain and venture into the world of shared anthemic experience. Mainly, they accomplish this task by addressing issues that many can relate to. Such is the case for “What I’m Trying to Say”, which was a clear highlight of the set along with “One More Night”. Though at times the songs can take on an edgy tone, they are often sentimental and romantic, especially when the vocals shine strongly via dynamic duets.


Torquil Campbell of Stars

Torquil Campbell of Stars


Amy Millan of Stars

Amy Millan of Stars


It should also be mentioned how well rounded the band’s setlists are. Stars have been releasing music since 2001 with three full lengths and two EPs, and yet they always revisit that first release even while seeming eager to debut new songs. There’s an energy to them that is searching for progress but at the same time understands that it’s futile to ignore the past.


Amy Millan of Stars

Amy Millan of Stars



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Friday, Sep 26, 2008
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner.

As a revered musical institution of sorts I was expecting nothing short of great from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Pioneers of the contemporary New Orleans second line and brass band funk sound, they’ve traveled the world over exporting Bayou brass playing. But it seems that they are coasting these days, riding on the coattails of past successes.


Guitarist Jake Eckert, actually one of the strongest players in the group, opened the show with some funky guitar licks before the rest joined in, kicking off a marathon funk vamp that never seemed to quit. Its players did, though, at various intervals throughout, looking exhausted and more like they were begging coach to rest up on the bench rather than go out for another play. Only trombonist Revert Andrews showed enthusiasm, with unbridled energy and honky-tonk stomping.


Overall it was an awkward funk scenario where meandering solos were atonal and lacked any coherent theme, direction or melodies. Instead the players would only focus on the long ball—stratospheric notes—and get burned out quickly from the exertion. Rhythm (the bedrock of funk) was desperately lacking as the group derailed several times with each brass player playing in a different meter. Adding to the polyrhythmic implosion was a ubiquitous and dependably late wood block and a whimsical empty beer bottle.


When the monotonous funk machine ground to a halt—literally, the ending was as smooth as Manhattan cab ride—an onslaught of unremarkable covers ensued. “Get Up Stand Up” and “Superstition” (which we had already heard in its finer form on the house PA directly before the band went on) had the support of the crowd, but the band sounded disinterested. Some of the players appeared so apathetic—particularly trumpet and flugelhorn player Efrem Towns—that they didn’t even play in the finale “Dirty Old Man”—an awkward funk piece whose feature was a gaggle of uninhibited girls grinding with dirty old men. I guess I wouldn’t want to play either.


The only highlight of the evening was watching a congregation of old men who, despite the band, managed to boogie like caffeinated pogo sticks, albeit with a head of snow-white hair. And the biggest disappointment was that during “Dirty Old Man”, they weren’t even invited on stage! It was too bad they didn’t headline from the get go.


 


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Monday, Sep 22, 2008
by Sarah Zupko and Karen Zarker
Words by Karen Zarker and Pictures by Sarah Zupko.

The Mercy Lounge and its even bigger venue sister downstairs, the Cannery Ballroom, combine to provide great music venues. There’s lots of space on stage and off, but wear your comfortable shoes, as seats are few. Downstairs, you can sit on the other side of a brick wall to the Ballroom, a wall perforated with open windows to let the music through, and rest your aching mules while sinking in to a broken down vinyl seat at a table. There’s a whole string of ‘em along the wall.


We started our final evening of the American Music Fest diggin’ the Duhks, a powerfully talented stew of young Winnipegians. Watching this good looking group of young people started me thinking about how I (KZ of the SZ/KZ team, that is) like the food on my plate. (This will make sense in a moment.)  See, I like to mix things up. To the embarrassment of my mate when we dine at restaurants, I’ve gottta stir, swirl, and glop it all together—deee-lish!


That’s what the Duhks are like: a plate full of all the good stuff, all mixed up. You’ll get rock (with a violin that sounds like an electric guitar), cabaret (with that tinge of the dark, somewhat perverse, rather intellectual approach which makes for the best of cabaret), foot-stomping Celtic, and a spicy bit of Afropop (wherein the fiddle becomes a thumb piano). Sarah Dugas’ versatile pipes can belt out gospel with the best of ‘em, followed by some good ol’ Louisiana Cajun. Sarah and Tania Elizabeth will sing to you in French and sing to you in English, but the band’s instruments sing in more tongues than any mere multilingual human can.


Their rousing finale merged into Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”, no doubt a nod to Robert Plant, who’s been making the rounds at the American Music Fest this year. He and Alison Krauss won the Album of the Year for Raising Sand. As for “Whole Lotta Love”, we rather liked the Duhks version of this rock classic better. Sorry, Robert.


For those of you who like the piles on your plate all neat in their own places, think of the Duhks as a belly-busting buffet—you get it all, however you like it. Dig in.


Downstairs for the Glen Campbell tribute—with Jim Lauderdale, Chuck Mead, Raul Malo and many others—wherein the man himself came out and sang not only some of his own stuff—songs with that melted, gooey cheese dripping all over them—that is: songs that everyone loves (and everyone sings along with). The country star covered Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Live)”, as well. The man looks and sounds good. Indeed, he seems like he’s hardly changed over the years - such is the nature of old souls, aged yet ageless, somehow.


We squeezed our way back upstairs for Buddy Miller, who’d bring on Bonnie Bramlett for some rocking harmonizing. Standing right up front, tempted to take a sip from that cool, bottled water at Buddy’s feet, we were experiencing the Mercy Lounge/Cannery Row at its best: hot, crowded, and friendly. (The guy behind me was a hootin’ and hollerin’ in the manner of fan appreciation. Now that’s good company, unlike the guys at Day 1 at The Basement.) 


At Mercy and Cannery, the bartenders are friendly, the fellow out in the parking lot collecting the $3 parking fee is friendly (swear it’s the same guy as last year), the musicians who make their way unassumingly amongst you, give a nod and let you through, or mutter a simple ‘scuse me, when making their way—all unassumingly polite. You are in good company in these places.


Day 3 at the 3rd & Lindsley, Jim White sang that a bar was just a church that serves beer. Well, down here in the buckle of the Bible belt, we never set foot in a church - technically speaking, that is—but we shared hours and hours of sweet fellowship with the music-loving faithful.


God looked down and saw that it was good.


* * *


Our wish list for next year’s Americana Music Fest:


Give Casey Driessen a showcase (we caught up with him on our volition).


Bring Trent Summar back, and give him a Friday or Saturday night showcase. The few who saw him on a Wednesday, we think it was, last year, enjoyed him mightily. More Dale Watson too, please. You can never get enough Texas honky tonk. Less quiet, mellow stuff and more barn burners would liven these nights up even more.


Invite the stellar musicians that comprise BeauSoleil. Perhaps a Cajun night with the Red Stick Ramblers might be in order. Marcia Ball would fit in nicely there too to broaden the taste of the Louisiana stew.


And finally, we hope that Nashville doesn’t run out of gas at next year’s Fest. Driving downtown to meet up with folks, we passed lines of cars blocks long, waiting to fill at gas stations that were pumping painfully slowly. Cops were guiding traffic. People were standing outside their cars, waiting. It was a site reminiscent of the ‘70s gas crises, though unlike many of our compatriots who had to hitch rides to showcases, we were lucky that we had enough in the tank to get us to Kentucky, north of the crises, come the time we had to leave this lovely land that is Nashville, Tennessee.


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