Thursday, June 23, 2005

Wired NextMusic @ Vic Theatre (6/22/2005)

WIRED magazine gave the public a preview to their 2005 "NextFest" at the Vic Theatre last night. Chosen by WIRED to curate the "NextMusic" event was Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. The show mixed a taste of the gadgetry to be expected at the fair, which begins Saturday and runs till Sunday at Navy Pier, but also an evening of music that Tweedy organized.

It made sense when WIRED announced Tweedy as the curator of their launch party being that the magazine is aimed towards innovation and the future. The very essence of Wilco's career has been about the next step, breaking the rules, and ignoring boundaries. At the magazine's 2003 Rave Awards, Wilco's 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot earned the award for "Best Musician." It was clear that WIRED recognized something in Wilco that fit with their own reputation. But what did they think Tweedy had in store for them when it came time to put the show together?

Technology can be a blessing or a curse to music. Remember the overblown use of synthesizers in the early 1980's? Funny how things come full circle in 2005. What Tweedy and company have managed to do is what the really great bands figure out at some point in their careers--they explore the studio technology far enough to open new doors for their music, giving their art fresh life. The key to music's future will not be the lastest multi-track studio or digital sound systems. Instead, it will be the most basic human elements that no computer could possibly touch with a microprocessor. In Tweedy's words, "Great melodies and great songs."

And so Tweedy picked two artists that were the most removed from the computer age: harpist Joanna Newsom and The Handsome Family. Ok, so The Handsome Family had a laptop computer on stage with them. The extent of its use was to just provide a backing beat.

The billing must have rattled the brain of some attending the show. Juxtaposed to Tweedy's show was the work of a Northwestern University graduate student. The premise behind the visual project was allowing a computer the chance to experience music the way humans do. In our minds, we can paint our imagination the the words and sounds of the music we hear. Using songs by artists like Wilco, The Shins, Bright Eyes, Postal Service, and Radiohead, the computer compiled all the information available (artist, song title, lyrics), searched for random images it associated with key words in the songs, and projected its interpretation of the songs on a video screen located on stage. "It's like Power Point," joked a woman in the crowd. Her very blunt observation didn't seem unwarranted as the computer's selection of images repeated themselves during the songs.

Space & Time: Jeff Tweedy @ Vic Theatre 6/12/2004 (Photo By: Chris Castaneda)

A harp, an acoustic guitar, a banjo, and a harmonica. These were the instruments to humanity's future in the mind of Tweedy but maybe not so much the future WIRED had in mind to put on display. Curator Thom Yorke for the 2006 "NextFest"?

Clearly it wasn't a farce performed by Tweedy on the good people of WIRED, but you had to wonder what they must have thought when roadies brought out a harp after a computer just shared with a crowd what it visually thought of a Shins song. As far as the overall show went, Tweedy succeeded in arranging a show that truly was innovating in its own way. The Handsome Family sang songs about drowning and the pro-coyote takeover of society, while the pixie-like Joanna Newsom made the Vic Theatre her own secret forrest.

As the former co-owner and talent buyer for the long demised and much beloved Lounge Ax, Tweedy's wife, Sue Miller, would have been proud of the show her husband put together. Hey Jeff, harps on the next Wilco record?

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Oasis @ UIC Pavilion (6/20/2005)

The Man With The Masterplan: Noel Gallagher of Oasis (Photo By: Chris Castaneda)

"Oasis have always been at their best when they didn't give a fuck."

That remark serves as an introduction to the latest Oasis tour program. What it should probably say is, "Liam and Noel Gallagher have always been at their best when they didn't give a fuck." The main message behind the program is that Oasis have been reborn. This has been the main message for the past five years since 2000's Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants. With their sixth album Don't Believe The Truth debuting at #12 on Billboard (the band's highest debut on U.S. charts since 1998's Be Here Now), their largest U.S. tour in seven years highlighted by a sold-out date at Madison Square Garden, and brothers Gallagher already at each other's nerves a month into their current tour, Oasis seem to be up to their old tricks during their best success in years.

Before returning to Chicago for a sold-out show at the UIC Pavilion, fans in Italy and Belgium had the unfortunate opportunity to be in the same room during classic Oasis stage drama. It was reported that during a June 4th stop in Brussels a displeased Noel Gallagher lectured his younger brother, singer Liam, in-between songs which later led to Liam's exit. Just a week later at the Heineken Jammin' Festival in Imola, Italy, Liam departed during "Champagne Supernova" and left it to Noel to keep the show together. Both times Liam left the shows fans described his demeanor on stage as drunk.

"I carry madness everywhere I go," sang a snarling Liam as Oasis lit up the stage while their Chicago-Anglophile worshipping contingent bathed in the glow of "Turn Up The Sun." After recent events and past tour sins, that opening line really captured the stormy cloud of uncertainty that follows Oasis from album to album, tour to tour. The band stacked up seven songs from Don't Believe The Truth in their primary set while past glories from 1994's debut Definitely Maybe and 1995's (What's The Story) Morning Glory? filled out the rest of the show. Liam did his usual stroll around the stage when his presence wasn't required at the microphone or took a seat off to the side of the stage when it was Noel's turn to lead in song. Liam was in a chatty mode but whatever that was said was most likely lost to the rest of the crowd as it indiscernibly echoed out to every corner of the venue.

(Photo By: Chris Castaneda)

The band's Spinal Tap luck with drummers continues as the offspring of Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, Zak Starkey, took to the kit, replacing longtime drummer Alan White. Starkey has been The Who's drummer since 1996 and joined Oasis after White was asked to leave by the band in January 2004 while recording sessions were underway for a new album. Starkey made his debut with Oasis on June 23, 2004 at the Poole Lighthouse in England. Bringing his own kind of flare to the band, Starkey attacked the songs with a furious excitement. Guitarist Gem Archer (Heavy Stereo) and bassist Andy Bell (Ride) have filled into their roles since being brought into the whirlwind world of Oasis over 4 years ago. Then there was Noel Gallagher, still a performer of very little steps during a song, who was almost at a distance as if making sure the ship was being steered in the right direction.

Liam Gallagher (Photo By: Chris Castaneda)

The band's live performances are often criticized for its lackluster attempt to "mach shau," to make a show for the crowd. Nowhere does it say bands need to give blood on stage or set themselves on fire to provide entertainment. But fans are smart enough to detect when a band is bored with their songs. As amped up arena stompers like "Cigarettes & Alcohol" and "A Bell Will Ring" pounded with volume, the energy behind them felt almost precise with little sense of adventure. The Gallaghers alone have never been an easy read. What sweat they do work up during a song could either come from them giving it their all or trying to keep up.

If there were any moments that gave the evening a taste of something different to an Oasis show, they were Noel Gallagher's sung "The Importance Of Being Idle" and "Mucky Fingers" from Don't Believe The Truth. "Mucky Fingers" was the Dylan-pop friendly take on the Velvet Underground's "I'm Waiting For The Man" while the mid-tempo breeze of "The Importance Of Being Idle" scored with an element that has been missing in their creative output over the years: melody.

Gem Archer (Photo By: Chris Castaneda)

The rest of the show fell back on the band's classics like "Champagne Supernova," "Wonderwall," and "Don't Look Back In Anger." To say it was the kind of setlist that covers the band's catalog would be a lie--any material from the band's third album Be Here Now was a no show as if in Noel Gallagher's mind it was an album that some other band made, not Oasis.

Liam's voice never wavered, and Noel never lectured his singing brother. Musically, each member was the best at what he did and made the band as solid as a wall, but the bricks that have made this wall what it is today, the songs, still haven't come in any new shape. As St. Liam stepped towards the edge of the stage balancing his tamborine on top of his head during the end of "Rock 'N' Roll Star," you almost knew that all the overbearing self-assurance and self-righteousness in his mind about Oasis was still strong.

Madferit In Chicago (Photo By: Chris Castaneda)

For the fans who packed the UIC Pavilion, Oasis' largest headlining show in Chicago since 1998's Rosemont Horizon date, they applauded every note and every word the band produced. Whether or not a few fans whole-heartedly accepted the truth Oasis was singing about, it couldn't be heard over the roar.

When asked if it was worth the wait to hang out by the band's tour buses for a possible autograph a security guard replied, "There's two after parties. They're getting fucked up. Shows you how much they give a fuck about their fans." Perhaps that's the average assessment of Oasis today. Maybe that's what broke the backs of fans who gave their time and money to this band at the height of the popularity almost ten years ago. But the measure of appreciation for their fans isn't how many autographs they sign or how available they make themselves to others, it rests on the shoulders of their music.

In a 2002 special edition of the English magazine Q, a list was compiled of the Top-50 Oasis fan favorites. It's kind of telling that the #2 choice, "Acquiesce" (a B-side), was described as, "one of Noel's greatest songs because it's one that borrows least from The Beatles, or from anyone." To some fans that have stuck with the band this far into their career, through lineup changes, cancelled shows, breakup rumors, and overblown arguments between brothers, they may still be waiting for Oasis to make a real Oasis song for a change. The sold-out crowd inside the pavilion still begged the question: has the image of Oasis overshadowed the music? Is America missing something that the United Kingdom knows about Oasis? Or is America just quick to say, "Enough is enough," when its heard one too many songs that sound the same?

The music should always be the focus; not the tired, old antics of two brothers in a band.

Friday, June 17, 2005

A Calm Center, A Growing Circle

Wilco In Stride: (l to r) Pat Sansone, Glenn Kotche, Mikael Jorgensen, Nels Cline, Jeff Tweedy, and John Stirratt

The year has reached its half way mark and Wilco are riding a momentum that perhaps no one could have imagined. In a career where artistic success is measured much higher than commercial accolades, Wilco seem to have finally become an over night success story during an age where over night success is almost an expectation placed on the shoulders of bands by the record industry.

"I'm a Grammy award winning artist," said singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy during a benefit show in Chicago just this past March. "Very weird." It definitely is new turf for Tweedy, the primary architect of Wilco. A month prior to his solo show at the Vic Theatre for the Kawasaki Disease Benefit fund the group received two Grammy nominations for their fifth album A Ghost Is Born. They were previously nominated in 1999 for the Woody Guthrie project Mermaid Avenue with partner Billy Bragg. This year's Grammys saw Wilco sharing the "Best Alternative Album" category with veterans like Bjork and PJ Harvey along with buzz groups Franz Ferdinand and Modest Mouse. Wilco walked away with the prize as well as in the "Best Recording Package" category.

Some may argue that it was the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA) way of making up for the zero nominations Wilco's 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot received. It's not like it hasn't happened before in the history of the Grammys. Metallica was considered a lock for the 1988 Grammys in the category of "Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental." To their shock and even the victors of the category, Jethro Tull landed the Grammy win. But the next year Metallica was given the award for "Best Metal Performance." The refusal by Wilco's former label Reprise Records to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot made it the most talked about album of the year. It was not only thought of as Wilco's masterpiece but also as one of the best albums deserving of recognition. The album recently became the band's first Gold album (500,000 copies). Not bad for an album that spent almost a year on the Internet download circuit before finally achieving an official release with Nonesuch Records.

Down time seems to be few and far between for Wilco and its members. Now in a more comfortable position, Wilco could afford to take a year off from performances, but just when you think they've played their final note they come back with additional shows. There's almost a sense that there is an awareness among the band that their window of opportunity, artistically and commerically, could very well close at any moment. So, it's in their best interests to enjoy what they have now while not being blind to the bigger picture that Wilco can not last forever as a band.

During his first of two solo shows in Chicago since a trio of shows in January of 2003, Jeff Tweedy lent his services and his songbook to assist the Children's Memorial Hospital in early March. The benefit for the Kawasaki Disease fund at the Vic Theatre carried a heavy connection to Tweedy and his family. His oldest son, Spencer, was treated for the heart disease. The average child's age treated by Children's Memorial for the disease is 20 months. Begun in 1985, the Kawasaki fund earned $45,000 from Tweedy's performance. According to a representative from the Children's Memorial Foundation, James Lynch, "A great majority of the funds will be used for supplies and equipment in the lab that is working to find the cause for Kawasaki disease."

The two nights at the Vic Theatre was in many ways a stroll down memory lane for Tweedy and fans. After performing his Uncle Tupelo contribution "Gun" on the second night, Tweedy remarked, "Geez, that song's like 12 years, 13-years-old now." The body of work he has accumulated over the years amazed even Tweedy. It was like watching Tweedy not as the performer but as the fan. From the innocence of "Pecan Pie" to the seasoned heart of "Wishful Thinking," Tweedy laid out the true portrait of the artist.

In the first week of May, Wilco returned to the Vic Theatre with director Sam Jones to film four consecutive nights for a concert film. Reunited with Jones--director of the Wilco documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (2002)--Wilco bashed out a total of 121 songs over the four nights. Each night had their little unique moments like Tweedy revealing his nicotine patch on the second night to prove he had given up smoking and a stage diving Tweedy on the final night. Whether or not the cameras caught the magic of this current lineup on stage will be made clear upon its release as a DVD/CD package in the fall.

So far, the year has been good to Wilco. Since being treated for his dual diagnois condition over a year ago, Tweedy has remained in healthy spirits and it shows within the band. Fans anxiously await for new material to begin creeping into the band's setlists as possible glimpses of their next album. It's unthinkable what this band could do to excel past the accomplishments they have achieved thus far, but you never know with Wilco.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Futureheads @ Metro (6/10/2005)

Full Steam Ahead At Metro: (l to r) Ross Millard and Dave Hyde of The Futureheads (Photo By: Chris Castaneda)

There was a buzz inside Metro that you could almost touch with your fingers. For the Futureheads, a return to Chicago meant proving themselves, again, but this time it would be on the stage of one of Chicago's most prominent club where bands such as R.E.M., Nirvana, the Smahing Pumpkins, Oasis, and Pearl Jam made their marks early in their careers. Now it was time for the Futureheads to either carve out a niche for themselves, laying the seeds of a promising career, or be forever trapped by hype.

With names like XTC and the Jam already being associated with this band, the Futureheads attracted an all ages crowd that in strong numbers filled Metro. To an average person in the crowd, whether or not the Futureheads were the next Jam might not have really mattered. What did was this band from Sunderland, England that just blew a gust of sound like some explosion going off on stage. The opening song, "Decent Days And Nights," was an earthquake of shifts and shakes, something that really defines the style of play the band creates on stage. The band mixed up their self-titled debut album which kept the energy level of the crowd on a high. Bassist Jaff and drummer Dave Hyde were interlocked the whole night. Next to the band's extraordinary tightness was their vocal attack. The call and return movements that singer/guitarist Barry Hyde (older brother of Dave) shared with guitarist Ross Millard, and sometimes the whole band, were aggressively melodic--reminiscent of the vocal tag team of the Jam's Paul Weller and Bruce Foxton.

"Robot" and "Trying Not To Think About Time" rattled the crowd with its several spastic twists. There was nothing linear to the band's songs. Each instrument, be it vocals or guitars, took the crowd into ten different directions that all led back to same destination. The confidence the band performed with was equal to their humble nature, constantly thanking the crowd for their support. All the praise and recognition that they have gained thus far doesn't appear to have gone to their heads.

A moment where the band had to stand back and soak in the night occurred with the song "He Knows." What could have been another crowd participation opportunity turned into something very genuine, which the band highly enjoyed. After the song, the crowd began singing back the simple chant of "Ohh" that band had haromized during the song. What began small in spots took over the entire club. It must have made the band feel like they were back at one of their local English pubs. If there were ever a clearer picture of how much the crowd was hanging on every note the band played, it was right then and there.

From the insecurities of "Hounds Of Love" to the rawness of a new song "Area," the Futureheads passionately proved how wide of a range their songs and sound have. Behind the manic delivery was a joyfulness that served as the bridge between the band and the crowd. It was about having fun on a Friday night. It was far more than just a decent night for the Futureheads.