Thursday, March 31, 2005

Exploring The New World: Poi Dog Pondering Joins The Chicago Sinfonietta

New Turf: Frank Orrall At Symphony Center

On June 7, 1970, The Who performed an afternoon and evening show at the Metropolitan Opera House. The famed New York hall known for housing performances of Mozart and Beethoven became the unlikely spot for the band's rock opera Tommy. At the time, it was an unprecedented move for a rock band to take the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, a symbol of classical music and the high society establishment.

Jump ahead to March 21, 2005 when Poi Dog Pondering unites with the Chicago Sinfonietta to hold a concert at Symphony Center for a performance of 19th century composer Antonin Dvorak's "From the New World" Symphony No. 9 in E minor. Skepticism is always quick to arise when news spreads of a rock band collaborating with a symphony. The very notion of rock mixing with classical have been generally viewed as a pompous experiment--an attempt to win validation as musical visionaries. But in the case of Poi Dog Pondering, the idea of the band working with a celebrated classical group just made sense. For almost 13 years, Poi Dog Pondering have held a special place in the Chicago scene as being a constant sea of creativity, always changing, and never remaining still. Rock. Folk. Electronica. Dance. There isn't a single style of music this band hasn't adapted into their sound. Since forming in Hawaii it has been nearly 19 years of realizing dreams for singer Frank Orrall and Poi Dog Pondering.

The band was never a stranger to the classical world. As the only original member still working in the band, Susan Voelz provided the classical touch with her talents on the violin. Voelz received a classical partner a few years ago with the addition of cellist Alison Chesley whose resume included the duo Jason & Alison and the once promising rock band Verbow, led by Evanston native Jason Narducy. Poi Dog Pondering was designed in many ways as a self-contained orchestra capable of making musical ideas a reality. Many of their fans also know that the Symphony Center show was not the first time the band had shared a stage with an orchestra. In 1996, the band was backed by the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra to perform their album Pomegranate in its entirety at the Petrillo Band Shell.

Conductor Paul Freeman and the Chicago Sinfonietta approached Poi Dog Pondering about working together. "He's notoriously adventurous," said Orrall about Freeman. Orrall had done a remix edit of Dvorak's "New World" about 4 years ago with his electronic side project 8 fat fat 8. "I just heard it on public radio one day," said Orrall. "I was really involved in sampling at the time. I took a lot of stuff for 8 fat fat 8, and I heard a lot of tones and musical passages that I wanted to grab as samples."

Through the Dvorak piece Orrall had chosen the bridge that could link the two groups together and rehearsals soon began to formulate a reinterpretation of "New World." Voelz and fellow member Paul Von Mertens combined their efforts to make the classical piece fit with Poi Dog Pondering.

For several people attending the show at Symphony Center, it was quite possibly their first time inside a classical venue. It was a far cry from a Labor Day weekend stint at an air conditioned crippled Double Door. Freeman and the Sinfonietta started the evening with material by composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor before leading into a performance of "New World" in its original version. After giving the audience a taste of Dvorak's work, Poi Dog Pondering assembled on the stage to a rousing applause. Looking out to the audience Orrall took to the microphone, "It's a real blessing to be here." Opening with "Angelika Suspended," the band used the instrumental song as a transitional device in the show. Scaled down from their club shows the band took the all acoustic arrangement to provide their own reinterpretations of songs from their catalog like "Pulling Touch," "Bury Me Deep," and "Simple Song." Orrall specifically points to "Bury Me Deep" as a song that needed to be performed. According to Orrall, "We thought it would thematically fit with the end piece."

Building up further to "New World" the Sinfonietta joined the band for performances of "Catacombs" and "Big Constellation." The sheer volume of the non-amplified Sinfonietta married with the amplified band was something that Freeman pointed out as one of the exciting challenges the collaboration posed. Finally, "Fantasy and Remix of Themes from Dvorak's New World Symphony" was introduced. Always one to touch every human sense, Orrall supplied a film to coincide with the performance, bringing Dvorak to the music video era. From life to death, the video projected aspects of today's world; a world of high tech industry, business, communication, fashion, love, and hate. It was Orrall's visual concept of what Dvorak might have thought the new world to be.

With the addition of the Sinfonietta, Poi Dog Pondering masterfully raised the artistic level of their songs to possibly some of the most breathtaking musical peaks ever. "It's a career high point," said Orrall when reflecting on that night. "It strecthed us."

Taking a chance is what Poi Dog Pondering lives for, and their success at Symphony Center is a testament to years of dedicated work to their craft. The venue certainly shed new light on the band and audience members maybe walked away with a stronger appreciation for the type of magic the band produces with every show they perform. "It was very different," said Orrall about performing at Symphony Center. "One thing that was nice is that it changes the dynamic in a certain way where I think everyone listens a little deeper." Dvorak's "New World" may very well have opened a totally fresh avenue for Poi Dog Pondering's future."I think we're going to try and add this to our set list," said Orrall. "I think we can do a version by ourselves."

If there ever was a time and place where music captured emotion, made you feel absolute joy, then Poi Dog Pondering, on that very night, did just that. They demonstrated once again why they are a beloved treasure in the Chicago music community.

The Soundtrack of our Lives @ Metro (3/28/05)

A Swedish Riot: The Soundtrack of our Lives Tear Metro

"It's just another manic Monday," jokingly said Ebbot Lundberg, lead singer of the Soundtrack of our Lives. Regardless if it was a Monday or not, the Swedish sextet stomped out another manic performance as they returned for their second Chicago visit this year.

It seemed like it was yesterday when the Soundtrack of our Lives arrived in a harsh Chicago blizzard. In mid-January at the Double Door, the band unveiled their fourth album Origin Vol. I to a sold-out audience more than willing to be snowed in if the situation arose. With the snow gone and their new album officially released in the U.S., it was business as usual for the band as they continued their current tour through the states.

When the Soundtrack of our Lives take a stage it's without mercy. The stage is where this band shines, and they have the songs to back up their swagger. There isn't a stage big enough for them. They stood before the Metro crowd as if they were playing Wembley Stadium. Their showmanship is a display of rock and roll's past coursing through their veins. Unoriginal? The Who they may never be, but their natural energy can not be questioned. If there is one thing to walk away from an experience like a Soundtrack of our Lives show, it is that they leave no stone unturned. Nothing is off limits. Nothing is impossible.

Anticipation was everywhere, from the balcony to the dance floor. The band steadily rolled and tumbled with the opener "I Believe I've Found," and, like lightning, struck with "Infra Riot." Guitarists Mattias Barjed and Ian Person unleashed a column of power chords behind the tribal opening beats of drummer Fredrik Sandsten's attack. Lundberg moved with the uninhibited force of Iggy Pop combined with the steps of James Brown, and there was still plenty of show to be played.

However much the band leveled the crowd with their sheer volume they also added a mix of twists and turns. Behind the keyboards, Martin Hederos provided spectacular moments that gave extra dimensions to the band's performance. One such highlight came when he, Lundberg, and Barjed on acoustic guitar gave a moving rendition of "Song For The Others." The somber quietness of the song laced with piano and Lundberg's raspy, soulful vocals spoke louder than any other song in the set. It was proof enough of how much versatility is at work in the band.

Between Sandsten and bassist Kalle Gustafsson Jerneholm, the band maintained a concrete foundation. "Sister Surround" was too irresistible a groove for the crowd to succumb to and "Transcendental Suicide" was a rock epic in every respect, from the grabbing chorus of "We're gonna last forever" to the rapturous solo. As the second and what seemed final encore reached its peak, Lundberg began singing the opening lines to "Instant Repeater '99" to the pleasant surprise of the band. Before long Lundberg departed the stage to perform from the floor of Metro, parting the crowd as he strolled by singing. The band and crowd were in a unified frenzy.

Like the great showmen that they are, the Soundtrack of our Lives left the stage like they were the biggest band in the world and an audience demanding for more. A show like this leaves any attendee believing that these Swedish rockers could last forever.

Extra! Extra!

The April issue of Chicago Innerview is now available on-line:

I contributed a feature piece on Queens of the Stone Age:

As well as a Q&A piece with Tim Butler of the Psychedelic Furs:

Monday, March 14, 2005

Extra! Extra!

Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot examines the long awaited Chicago Music Commission and how this impacts the local music scene.

City, music scene to unite benefitting concert-goers
By Greg Kot
Tribune music critic

March 13, 2005

After years of mistrust, fear, fines and music-club shutdowns, punctuated by the 2003 disaster at the now-shuttered E2 nightclub that claimed 21 lives, the City of Chicago and its music scene are for the first time taking tangible steps toward building a mutually beneficial relationship.

A multifaceted dialogue involving city officials, club owners, record-company and studio owners and music-industry veterans has created the Chicago Music Commission, which aims to raise Chicago's profile internationally, turn its musical variety into a major tourist attraction and bring millions of additional dollars into city coffers and businesses.

One city official called it the Chicago cultural equivalent of the Czech Republic's "velvet revolution," in which the communist regime quietly gave way to the coun-try's first free elections in 40 years.

"It feels like this silent change, where the work of a couple of individuals has quietly spread into the music community and the city over the last year, and now you've got people on both sides working together to make something positive happen," says Mike Orlove, planning director of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs. "It's a real turning point."

The ultimate beneficiaries will be Chicago's music fans.

"On a grander scale, if the city and the music community are on the same page, it creates a better quality of life for everyone in Chicago," says Chris Schneider, owner of Pressure Point recording studio on the South Side and one of the music-industry veterans who has been most intimately involved in discussions with the city. "There will be more things happening, a more open atmosphere for good things to get done. Musicians and people working in the industry are going to benefit, and that's going to be a great thing for the city as a whole."

In the works is a Web site that will serve as comprehensive information source for music lovers looking for everything from record stores in a particular neighborhood to the starting times of all the bands at a summer street festival. "For the consumer, this is an awesome prospect," Orlove says.

It all kicks off officially April 19, when an umbrella association representingall aspects of the Chicago music industry--including musicians, club and label owners, recording engineers and studio proprietors, booking agents,entertainment lawyers and publicists--will be launched during a concert and party at Martyrs' on Lincoln Avenue. The board of the Chicago Music Commissionis made up of local music veterans representing a cross-section of the scene, including Schneider, photojournalist Paul Natkin, Alligator Records President Bruce Iglauer and Martyrs' owner Kate Hill. It has been meeting for nearly a year and aims to become a resource, advocate and lobbyist for all things involving Chicago music. To many observers, it's a long overdue answer to music commissions in Texas and Louisiana and a companion group to the League of Chicago Theaters.

"It's a necessary entity, and the speed with which it has come together in just the last year proves it," says Julie Burros, a city official with the Department of Cultural Affairs who has been consulting with the commission since its first meeting last winter. "When you look at how much the League of Chicago Theaters has done to raise awareness of that community, the merits of a music-industry group were really obvious to the city."

Chicago can legitimately claim to be the incubator for musical genres ranging from jazz, gospel and urban blues to house and industrial, as well as being a major national presence in classical music, alternative country and hip-hop. But the city has long ignored its music scene, and in recent years seemed genuinely hostile toward it, with ordinances cracking down on everything from the rave scene to rock clubs. "The result is that great stuff happens here, people get noticed, a certain energy happens, but because there's no infrastructure to support it, the second city syndrome takes hold and the success is never exploited," Schneider says. "It never translates into Chicago being recognizedas a music town on par with Los Angeles, New York, Nashville or even Austin[Texas]."

The goal of the commission is to provide a central focus for a vast, fragmented scene that rarely shares information or pools resources, and to act as an advisory board for a city that in the past has missed opportunities to nurture its indigenous music resources.

It is expected to hire a salaried executive director, open a music office in Chicago and begin recruiting dues-paying members at the April 19 Martyrs' show. Membership will include not only music-industry professionals, but those who aspire to a career in music. Its mission will be similar to the League of Chicago Theaters, a 26-year-old alliance that promotes its industry around the world while working with 170 theaters, ranging from store front companies to multimillion-dollar operations.

"We're building a community that will cross every musical genre," Natkin says. "People in the music business by nature are self-contained. But if the musical pie here is made bigger, everyone gets a bigger piece."

The commission will be designated a delegate agency, meaning that it will function as a private, self-governing non-profit group that will work inconjunction with the city and could be partially funded by the city. In that respect it differs from other agency groups such as the Texas and Louisiana music commissions, which are fully funded arms of state government.

"We believe the music commission should be run by music-industry professionals, because we feel we know best what the interests of the music community are," Iglauer says. "At the same time, to move forward we need a formal relationship with the city, and need to work with them hand in glove."

That unprecedented step was green-lighted by Mayor Richard Daley last summer ina meeting with Iglauer, and the commission's early liaison efforts with a widerange of city officials have been shepherded by his chief of staff, Sheila O'Grady. Meanwhile, a group of some of the city's most prominent club owners and promoters has been holding regular meetings, and has had face-to-face discussions with O'Grady and members of all the city's licensing departments in an effort to improve a relationship that was in tatters only a year ago.

'Monumental' moment

"It's monumental," says Metro club owner Joe Shanahan. "A group of licensed music-club operators are sitting in a meeting with city commissioners and having a dialogue. This is the first time something like this has happened in the morethan 20 years that I've been running a club in this city, and I can't applaud more loudly that it has finally happened."

Marguerite Horberg, owner of HotHouse, a respected club briefly shuttered by the city in 2003 for having an improper license, strikes a more cautious tone, but is also optimistic. "We're just at the very beginning of trying to establish some kind of trust, and it's still premature to see how the city will play it," she says. "But Sheila O'Grady sent a strong message setting up that meeting. It indicated to me that there was interest and willingness to have a dialogue, whereas I thought the relationship was adversarial before."

Only a year ago, if the owner of a music club in Chicago found herself in the same room with a bunch of city commissioners, it could be for only one reason: A penalty, ranging from a fine to a complete shutdown, was about to be meted out. E2 sent a chilling message heard by all club owners: Upgrade safety, or else. But veteran club owners also felt they were being scapegoated, branded as troublemakers even though they had operated for years, if not decades, with a clean safety record.

The pressure from the city was so intense that several prominent club owners contemplated closing, and the future of one of the best live music towns in the country became clouded.

"I wouldn't recommend that anybody try to open a club in Chicago now," said one blues club general manager last winter amid a wave of city inspections. "I'd like to own a club someday, but I'd never do it here."

"It was so easy to have everything taken away from you," says Kate Hill, co-owner of Martyrs', speaking of the mood across a city music scene scarred by the E2 disaster. "There was a feeling of fear that rolled its way through a lot of music venues, that at any given time you could be shut down."

Weekly visits by inspectors representing fire, police, building, liquor licensing and other city departments doubled. In 2003, the fire department alone conducted more than 2000 spot night inspections and closed 16 clubs at least temporarily, most for exceeding occupancy limits.

Martyrs' found itself facing a city hearing last winter when a concert by the Spanish band Ojos de Brujo was shut down for alleged overcrowding. The club wasfined $2,500.

But in the months since then, Hill says, the tide has been turning. "In past years, if a club owner was going through a problem, you felt alone," she says. "Now, we're all starting to realize that we face many of the same problems. We're getting organized and we've found someone in Sheila O'Grady at the highest levels of city government who is adamant about working together with us and finding solutions. We're trying to clarify and streamline the process of working with the city, and create a better business atmosphere that can benefit everyone."

Better for everyone

Orlove watched as inspectors shut down the Ojos de Brujo show, one his city department sponsored. "Both sides [the city and the club owners] made mistakes, and something like this club owners group needed to happen years ago," he says. "But I'm happy it's happening now. The fact that club owners sat with all the regulatory agencies indicates there is some serious intent on both sides to clear the lines of communication. That the club owners are organizing to voice their concerns in a collective way is long overdue, and something that the city will appreciate."

The group aims to provide a voice for the best-run clubs, the lifeblood of the city's night life and a destination for millions of music fans and tourists annually. "It's an indication that the city understands the importance of live music to Chicago, that the city wants to keep it going," Hill says.

The club owners plan to expand their group to include other venue operators soon, and aim to continue meeting regularly to discuss mutual problems. Indealing with everything from day-to-day business to a crisis, the group aims to act as a sounding board for club owners and work directly with a yet-to-be-named City Hall liaison to streamline communication, arrive at solutions and exchange information.

In addition, they are working with O'Grady to schedule at least one meeting a year with city commissioners. "We needed a dialogue, and we got one," Shanahan says.

Much of the agenda for the club-owners group and the music commission is still being determined. "A lot here is unpredictable and in a fragile state," Iglauer acknowledges. "We're still in the process of defining ourselves." O'Grady declined to be interviewed for this report because she said through a spokesman that the projects were still in their infancy, and that she preferred to wait until "plans become more concrete."

But there are signs that progress is being made. Already on the docket is a series of six nuts-and-bolts educational seminars for music-industry novices beginning in the fall at the Cultural Center that will be co-sponsored by themusic commission, the city and Columbia College Chicago. In addition, the city and the commission are collaborating on a massive Web site that will serve as a central information source for music events citywide, "the Google of the Chicago arts community," as Natkin describes it.

"It will be very fan interactive," he says. "Tourists and music fans will be able to find out where and when every show and festival in town will be playing, what the nearest `L' stops are, where to park, where to eat, discounts on nearby hotels, the names of nearby record stores."

In addition, musicians and others interested in joining the business or working their way up will find information on everything from rehearsal space and auditions to a guide on how to get a show in every club, he says. "It'll be one-stop shopping for all things music in Chicago."

The commission also plans to tackle a massive economic impact study with Columbia College to determine the financial benefits that the music scene brings to Chicago. Though arts-related tourism pours $300 million a year into Chicago, there has never been a comprehensive study of the economic impact music has on the city. There's little doubt that the figure is in the tens of millions, and could be increased with greater promotion and exposure. Among the items being discussed are a music conference spotlighting homegrown talent, promotional CDs of Chicago's finest music in all genres, and a broader presence at international festivals such as the annual MIDEM trade show in France.

"We're juggling about 20 balls, and if we catch 10 of them we'll be in great shape," Natkin says.

For Iglauer and other longtime members of the city's music community, the commission's juggling act is a necessary risk. "We are faced with declining record industry numbers [CD sales for the first two months of 2005 are down 10 percent from last year], a lot of clubs have closed, club business is down, and the summer concert business is way off," Iglauer says. "I think it's not only possible that we build a better relationship between the city and the music industry here, but that it's essential that we make it happen. We need to do this to nurture our industry, because our industry needs help."

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Extra! Extra!

The March issue of Chicago Innerview is now available on-line:

I contributed a feature piece on the U.K. band The Futureheads:

On Track

John Prine - "If You Don't Want My Love"
Bruised Orange (Oh Boy Records)

With a voice quickly compared to Bob Dylan, the folkster John Prine sings, "If you don't want my love/I know who I'll give it to."

Moving on and remaining on both of your feet; two moments that confronts you when the love you try to give to someone else just doesn't work out. Maybe you tried too hard? Or maybe you opened up too easily and laid yourself open to have your heart walked over? To try and love again is never a simple path that anyone can take.

With angelic backing vocals floating in and out, a relaxed drum beat, and the soft touch of a slide guitar, John Prine captures the confidence that comes with love. There is strength in a song that declares if the love you have to offer isn't wanted then it will be given to someone who will want it, and that person will be the luckiest person in the world. We all have thought at some point or another that our love can never be beaten by another. They can be a husband, a wife, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, an optimistic crush, or just a friend.

Prine conveys a quiet shrug of the shoulders. It's almost like a point of no return as if he is saying to someone else, "If you don't want me now, don't try looking for me later." No games. Prine is ready to take back his love and walk off into the sunset without looking back or saying long goodbyes. This is a song of acceptance. It is the acceptance that another's heart can not be told to feel a certain way. It is the acceptance that two hearts sometimes can not find a common ground no matter how hard the two try. It is this acceptance that Prine comes to realize in "If You Don't Want My Love," and it is this realization which proves to be as equally challenging as moving on with your heart.