Saturday, August 27, 2005

Malcolm Holcombe @ Schubas (8/26/2005)

His beer glass was filled to the brim, except it wasn't beer that sat in his glass, instead, it was coffee. Malcolm Holcombe took drag after drag on his cigarettes before he would fall under the spell of acoustic guitar. He was possessed by every note, wavering between soul searching harmony and life torn ferocity.

Holcombe and his two acoustic guitars shared a bond, visible on the surface--they both had signs of extreme wear and tear, but the sound they made together was jaw dropping. A native of North Carolina, Holcombe was seated on the stage at Schubas almost as if he were some pan handler asking for change on a street corner. His face was the pure definition of rustic; the body seemed frail under his clothes, but his eyes conveyed a toughness in his soul that could not be broken. What started as three people in a room for an early 7:30 P.M. show turned into a strong group of fans that entered the room the second his voice hit the microphone. The captive audience hung on every word Holcombe sang in his gravely, baritone voice, weathered by age. To those that follow the country/folk scene, Holcombe is highly regarded as a fascinating poet schooled in the blues, bluegrass, and Appalachian song traditions.

The thirty years Holcombe has been playing music came across with each song he picked out of his head. He had no setlist made. He simply asked the soundman to yell out when his set time was almost up and that was it. Someone in the audience would yell out a request ("Dressed In White") and Holcombe would deliver. There was no arrogance about him. He was clearly grateful for the warm applause that showered him after each song and each voice that spoke up from out of the darkness to request a song.

If there is beauty to sadness, then Holcombe has his finger squarely on its pulse. The muse that speaks to Holcombe is not a single voice. Between songs Holcombe would talk about the voices that he hears in his mind. The audience laughed but there was a feeling that Holcombe wasn't quite joking. He talked about these voices as one hundred naked women. "My mind plays tricks in the silence," confessed Holcombe during "I Never Heard You Knocking." With those words, Holcombe painted the picture of a person that would "mumble" and "stutter" in the night. It was a moment where the artist really reflected the art. The music provided his own sort of sanity. Each song became a kind of escape into a story, a different world, and then, after the last note, Holcombe would return to the audience a quiet, humble man.

The song that really captured Holcombe as a person and a musician was a sweet song of thankfulness called "Doin' His Job." Its message was simple and to the point, "Thank you sweet Lord for my job." His voice carried a weariness that could be felt throughout the room. But it wasn't a tale of struggles or defeats. As Holcombe sang each line, you felt as though he was letting off a sigh, proud of the work he has done and aware of the chances he's been given. Whatever was insurgent country about Holcombe that night was unnoticeable. His style of play, inspired and sharp, and manic vocals were not revolts against what would be thought of as country establishment; they were just the roots of a genre that has been glossed over for commercialism. If Tom Waits, John Prine, and Bob Dylan had lived during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, then Malcolm Holcombe would be the culmination of all three.

Malcolm Holcombe was just doing his job playing music without any reservations. When the night concluded, he and the audience had made a special night.

Monday, August 22, 2005

John Wesley Harding's Love Hall Tryst @ Schubas (8/20/2005)

Leave it to the English singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding to make just another Saturday night into something much more. The troubadour from Hastings, East Sussex was joined by two of Chicago's finest female voices, Nora O'Connor and Kelly Hogan. Along with vocalist Brian Lohmann, Harding presented Songs Of Misfortune, an album which serves as a musical accompaniment to his debut novel Misfortune, written under his given name Wesley Stace.

What sets this latest album apart from the rest of Harding's previous albums is the style in which the album is presented--a cappella. Harding provided a small preview of the album while it was still in its early stages when he first returned to Chicago last January with two sets at Schubas and a night at the Hideout. During those shows, Harding was joined by O'Connor and Hogan. The three would dish out covers like John Prine's "If You Don't Want My Love" and Conway Twitty's "It's Only Make Believe," showcasing to audiences the trio's gorgeous vocal harmonies. It seemed like a no-brainer that the three should make an album together. The end result was a collection of original material by Harding (minus Leonard Cohen's "Joan Of Arc (The Ballad Of La Pucelle)") in the vein of Olde English folk songs that told tales of murder and love in accordance to the relevant chapters in Misfortune.

Over the course of two sets, a 7 P.M. and 10 P.M. time slot, Harding and company let their voices be their only instruments. As if aware that an all out a cappella set would be a strecth for some fans who are used to the singer taking requests and strumming his guitar, Harding eased both audiences with a mini-set of favorites before introducing the Misfortune set. Then, like some campfire setting, the quartet of vocalists gathered on stage and let out this unified, melodic voice. Harding found a terrific balance among the other three vocalists; O'Connor and Hogan as the two angelic singers and Lohmann as the bass. If the voices didn't impress, then surely the mouthful of lyrics that they committed to memory should have. The complexities of the words definitely tested each singer's ability, but they never faltered.

Though all the songs of Misfortune flow together as part of a larger story there was one that stuck out as a song that could stand on its own two feet in Harding's songbook. Sung by O'Connor and Hogan with Harding finger picking on acoustic guitar, "Shallow Brown" became the heart of the set; a gentle, yet, somber song that filled the room like a heart broken hush. Other songs, such as "Lambkin" and "The Sanguinary Butcher" (based on an actual murder in 1742 near Harding's home), remained true to the old oral traditions of telling stories through song. They were songs befitting of the Crusades or some Medieval period in history.

The audience bought the performance and allowed themselves to follow Harding's latest project with great interest. While there are elements to a John Wesley Harding show that could be considered typical from show to show, there was a clear decision by Harding when he made Songs For Misfortune to bring something new to his shows. How The Love Hall Tryst, the name the quartet went by, approached Songs Of Misfortune was somewhat reminiscent of how The Who handled their 1969 rock opera Tommy. In order to make sense of things, Harding had to tell the whole story by performing the album in sequence and it certainly worked. To provide some insight into Harding's a cappella direction, Harding included a song by Lal (Elaine) and Mike Waterson called "Bright Phoebus" in the encores. The brother and sister came out of the English folk scene of the late 1960's where they formed a group with their other sister, Norma, and second cousin, John Harrison, called The Watersons, whom Harding described as The Beatles of English folk music. It was the group's unaccompanied vocal style that Harding cited as an inspiration for the album. Not only was this a sign of Harding's appreciation for the folk music of the past, it was also a display of his deep knowledge of the music's great contributors.

Harding surrounded himself with the right pieces to his vocal puzzle and managed to get his story across without sending his fans into a state of confusion. Songs Of Misfortune gave Harding's show a needed change of pace and gave his fans an experience that was far from just going through the motions. It was a labor of love that Harding was delighted to see take shape on a stage, and with Nora O'Connor, Kelly Hogan, and Brian Lohmann, he achieved so much more.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Monday, August 15, 2005

Can You Hear Us? How The Beatles And Shea Stadium Created A New Arena

On this day, forty years ago, The Beatles drew a record breaking 55,000 at New York's Shea Stadium for what was the largest gathering of people to witness a single performing group. It marked a new beginning for The Beatles but also an end.

In the music business world, The Beatles at Shea Stadium marked a whole new avenue to be explored in terms of concerts. The Beatles gave birth to what would become stadium rock. The highest price for a ticket that day was $5.65. No service charge? Well, how about a Federal Tax of $0.40 tagged onto a City Tax of $0.25? Go on, gather your wits and take a deep breath as you read over those numbers again. By today's concert grossing numbers, the $304,000 earned at Shea Stadium ($160,000 of that to The Beatles) is mere pocket change to the likes of The Rolling Stones or even to Sir Paul McCartney. It's easy to imagine the field day that promoters and Ticketmaster would have had if The Beatles were still present in 2005. The Beatles raised the artistic and commercial bar for others to try and equal. To this day, The Beatles hold the record for the highest album sales in the U.S. with Garth Brooks holding second place.

The performance at Shea Stadium is often remembered as an event rather than a performance simply because of the fact that the incredible volume of the audience drowned out the 30 minute set by The Beatles. Backed by the upgraded Vox AC-100 amplifiers (specially made by Vox for the 1965 tour to replace the band's 30 watt amplifiers) and the stadium's PA system, The Beatles tried everything they could to combat the deafening screams. The little club band from Liverpool, in a way, lost their innocence that day. The kind of shows they were used to giving, where people came to hear the music, were suddenly wiped away. The Beatles probably could have gone on touring without ever plugging their instruments in again. By August 30, 1966, The Beatles would perform their last ever concert in front of a paying audience at San Francisco's Candlestick Park. Although The Beatles would return to Shea Stadium one more time on August 23, 1966, it is the 1965 performance that is remembered the most.

The Beatles Setlist At Shea Stadium - August 15, 1965:
Twist And Shout
She's A Woman
I Feel Fine
Dizzy Miss Lizzy
Ticket To Ride
Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby
Can't Buy Me Love
Baby's In Black
I Wanna Be Your Man
A Hard Day's Night
I'm Down

In the years following the break up of The Beatles, other acts in rock music would rise and go beyond the accomplishments of the band in the realm of concerts. The band's Shea Stadium record would be broken in less than ten years by another U.K. act known as Led Zeppelin. From baseball fields to football fields, Led Zeppelin thought bigger and their popularity had such clout that on May 5, 1973, the band attracted 56,800 to Tampa Stadium in Florida. At the height of The Who's career, the band scored a milestone by being the first band to perform inside Detroit's Pontiac Stadium on December 6, 1975, in front of a crowd of 75,962 that paid $8.00 a ticket.

Led Zeppelin would later visit that same venue almost two years later and surpass The Who's record with an attendance of 76,229. Ticket cost? $10.50. But in the end, it is a Beatle who holds the record for the largest paying audience ever. Before he was a knight of the British Empire, Paul McCartney was twisting and shouting on April 21, 1990, in front of an estimated crowd of 180,000-184,000 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Since The Beatles at Shea Stadium the ticket prices have risen and the venues have gotten bigger. Shea Stadium and The Beatles opened new doors for concerts, for better and for worse--a face value of $450.00 and some Ticketmaster service charges allows you the opportunity to see The Rolling Stones at Chicago's Soldier Field. The sacrifice of The Beatles live show led to new creative heights in the recording studio. While it is easy to wonder "What if?" with The Beatles, it is nice to know that in the end the world of music got a body of work still unparralled today.

Coldplay @ Alpine Valley (8/13/2005)

The lights went down and a countdown began on the massive widescreen video monitor behind Coldplay's set. Chris Martin's silhouette appeared walking along side the monitor towards a microphone. "Square One" pulsated while the roar of the capacity crowd at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin matched the intensity building on stage. In perhaps the band's biggest concert of the summer, Coldplay gave all the evidence they needed to prove their worthiness of all the accolades they've received thus far in their young career.

"Some bands are talented. Some bands are handsome. We're neither," joked singer Chris Martin to the audience. Modesty is still alive in a band that's inarguably one of the major acts of today's music scene. They are musicians with a purpose and the sounds they create together make them quite the unique band. Their latest album X&Y has propelled the band into new creative realms, both refreshing and exciting. Could they become the next U2 since they are often compared to the Irish rockers? Well, for starters, the multi-media show the band presented on stage was just one step down from U2's famously extravagant Zoo TV tour of 1992. So many other similarites could be drawn between the two bands. Chris Martin's frontman persona to make a statement, like his "Make Trade Fair" logo on the side of his piano, shared characteristics with Bono's global spokesman stage presence. Even the other individual members of Coldplay could be linked to their musical counterparts in U2. Jon Buckland's understated guitar work knew when to tone down and when to take the lead. Bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion make for a deadly rhythm duo. All four pieces were completely interlocked with one another, but, at the same time, demonstarted how loose they can flow together.

The show was filled with its share of cathartic moments; the jazzy feel of "Everything's Not Lost," the romantic somberness of "The Scientist," and the choir flavor of "In My Place." But not to take themselves too seriously, Coldplay had fun. A prop malfunction during "Yellow," just the third song of the night, brought out the laughs from the band and the crowd as bright, yellow balloons meant for the end of the show fell from the pavilion's rafters. Martin gave the audience the job of popping the balloons so they could carry on with the show.

While "The Scientist" faded into silence the band and stage crew went into action to transform the set. The acoustic guitars emerged, and the band treated the audience to a set stripped down from their electronic powered show. In a salute to the late Johnny Cash, Coldplay performed "Til Kingdom Come," a song written by the band for Cash to record before his death. For this set, the band's versatility came more so into the spotlight as Will Champion traded his drums to sing and perform behind the keyboard. Berryman put down his bass to add small harmonica parts as Martin and Buckland strummed their acoustic guitars. Even more fitting was following the song with Cash's own "Ring Of Fire," which received a huge applause from the audience.

Coldplay could do no wrong throughout the cool night. "Thanks for giving us the best job in the history of the world," said Martin to the audience. Coldplay succeeded on so many levels and still managed to show promise for even more greatness. The piano driven "Clocks" packed more of a punch as Champion stampeded behind the drums. "Speed Of Sound" was the perfect under the stars song, weaving space and color with sonic sophistication. Coldplay's accomplishment was evident after the final note of "Fix You" floated out into the night air. Coldplay turned the Alpine Valley Music Theatre into their own field of dreams. With just the right songs performed by just the right musicians, the people came in great numbers from different towns and different cities. Coldplay provided the soundtrack for an extraordinary night and were rewarded with one of their best triumphs yet.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Friday, August 12, 2005

Green Day @ Allstate Arena (8/10/2005)

Green Day rolled up their sleeves as they took over a sold-out crowd at the Allstate Arena on Wednesday night. On the latest leg of their North American tour, Green Day returned as conquering kings still riding a wave of confidence with their Grammy award winning album American Idiot. During a show that packed its share of explosiveness from the songs to the pyrotechnics, Green Day pulled out every arena rock cliche in the book but showmanship factored into the band losing their focus on delivering the real goods--the tunes.

As guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong slashed the opening chords of the band's pledge of allegiance "American Idiot," the band's no mercy attitude flooded the arena just as if it had been boiling for hours backstage, waiting for release. The atmosphere from the very beginning breathed of resistance with banners hanging all around of red fists and the crowd responding in unison to every move Armstrong made. It was the anti-rally of all political rallies. The band appeared on a mission as they fired off song after song in the early moments of the show, sometimes punctuated by song ending explosions. Then the early warning signs began to appear. Armstrong did his best Bono impersonation by breaking out a hand spotlight to shine over the crowd during "Holiday." It was a popular stage act that Bono would perform at U2 concerts during "Bullet The Blue Sky." Armstrong, borrowing from Ozzy Osbourne's bag of stage tricks, later armed himself with a water gun and showered the crowd in mad delight. The Kiss-esque stage presentation was one thing, but Armstrong overextended his frontman position by constantly leading the crowd into chants. Five minutes would be spent on which side of the arena could be louder than the other, thus breaking up the momentum of the show. Even the band's drawn out introduction took up more space than needed to be taken.

If there was indeed a moment where the band-crowd interaction lived up to more than just a routine, it came in the middle of the show when Armstrong orchestrated the formation of a band made up of fans in the audience. One by one, he picked out teenagers (no older than 18 years old) to take up the band's instruments. "Have you ever been laid?" asked Armstrong to his young guitar playing prospect. "Well, you will after tonight." With that remark Armstrong had the young man pulled from the crowd and onto the stage to meet his two new bandmates already holding down a beat. Armstrong became the teacher as he coached his replacement what chords to play. As he counted down the final beat, the fan excitedly launched into the chord and struck his best guitar pose before the cheering crowd. The trio of teens made the most of their once in a lifetime moment and were a beautiful reminder of rock and roll's true, uncorrupted spirit. The fan band went their separate ways but one fan walked away with much more. Armstrong had chosen a girl from the crowd to play Mike Dirnt's bass. He called for her before she departed the stage and presented her with his guitar and a kiss.

When the band found their direction again they hit the ground running. The old glory of songs like "Longview," "She," and "Basket Case" from their 1994 breakout album Dookie still resonated brightly and fiercely as they did ten years ago. Perhaps the most poignant song of the night was "Wake Me Up When September Ends." Already stirring a buzz as a music video depicting a couple affected by the boyfriend's decision to join the U.S. miltary effort in Iraq, the song's statement of disillusionment seemed almost lost to a crowd that slowly waved their lighters and their cell phones--the new lighters of the 21st century--in the air. This wasn't some overblown Maroon 5 or Journey ballad. This was a conscious statement about the time and place the world now finds itself in, but, like all songs, the meanings they are meant to carry can become entirely something else to the ears of a new listener. Regardless, the band pressed on as masters of their arena domain. Armstrong sensed an importance about the sell-out show and often thanked the crowd for their continued support in Chicago; citing the tour has the best the band as ever had and reminiscing about their first ever visit to Chicago as openers for local punk legends The Effigies. Without doubt Green Day has worked their way into becoming an important voice in rock music. What their show at Allstate Arena proved was that Green Day have the seasoned tools to handle the big shows. As they worked their songs with unrelenting conviction, they worked the crowd even harder. In that sense, their concert is truly a shared experience between the band on stage and the people in the seats. But like any band that reaches the levels of the arena, Green Day now have to consider how much theater is too much and recognize when they've gotten too close to surrending their songs for the mirrorballs. The second they cross that line they suddenly become the American idiots they sang against, the bloated rock shows filled with glitter and no magic. For now, Green Day has deservedly earned their top spot in the rock world. Next time just remember to leave the fireworks behind.

All Photos By: Barry Brecheisen

Monday, August 08, 2005


Peter Jennings: 1938-2005

How many six-year-olds could say that they sat down during dinnertime to watch prime time news? Probably not many but I could. To a child of that age, the act of turning on the news to learn of the day’s top stories seems so adult, a grown-up thing. For me, the news served as a transition from afternoon cartoons to much more serious global topics.

The report of Peter Jennings finally succumbing to lung cancer that I caught late Sunday night had an effect on me. As the lead anchor on ABC’s World News Tonight, Jennings was the face and voice I sat in front of at the dinner table for many years of my youth. With two working parents, I was often under the care of my great-grandparents. Living in the same two-story apartment all I had to do was grab my blanket and walk up the stairwell to be with them. As they passed on before I entered grammar school, my mother’s parents were given the responsibility to baby-sit me until my parents’ time at work was done. My grandparents took on extra duties once my younger brother started attending the same grammar school as I. Be it summer days or school days there was always a routine to our day at their home. Naps were few and far between. We were young; we weren’t supposed to be tired. What was a constant was dinner. Around 5 P.M. my grandmother would start to prepare dinner for my grandfather who generally came home from work at the steel mill at 5:30 P.M. or so. By six o’clock, my grandfather would take control of the remote control and turn on the news. This majestic music would pour out of the television followed by a smooth greeting from the anchorman. Next to my grandfather, Peter Jennings was the only other person who could command the dinner table’s attention. Just as my brother and I weren’t allowed to complain of any sort of fatigue at our age we weren’t allowed to interrupt my grandfather’s focus on the news.

In a way, I think my grandfather was trying to make me an informed person regardless of how old I was. He could have easily treated me as a child, but, instead, he treated me like an adult; expecting me to behave in a respectful manner and opening my eyes to what was going on in the world around me. From U.S. politics to international tugs of war, economical debates to interest stories, the Canadian-born Jennings was the window to worlds within worlds. He gave the news a level of sophistication that was pure. If Jennings was reporting it, then it was something I needed to know about. His voice flowed with ease. His very stature on the news set breathed of professionalism.

During the course of my life, twenty-four years, Jennings had served as the lead anchor of World News Tonight for twenty-two years. It always amazes me when I think of the years of service people place into their particular profession. As I’ve watched the various media tributes to Jennings, from Larry King to Ted Koppel, I’ve been reminded why I enjoyed watching Jennings in the first place. Most importantly, I’m reminded of the news era that I’ve lived through. Jennings' death has brought the retirement of Dan Rather at CBS Evening News and Tom Brokaw at NBC Nightly News into a much sharper light to me. News has changed. This very web blog is evidence enough of how people get their news. Television news, like radio, is almost a dinosaur in an era of cable news and the Internet. Journalists have taken the back seat to political pundits and radio talk show hosts that use the television medium as an extension of their agendas. A person’s politics now plays more of a role in the type of news that is being reported—liberal media versus conservative media, the Left versus the Right. Shouting matches have been dressed up as journalism.

Objectivity never looked more graceful than with Peter Jennings. He had the looks of Roger Moore’s James Bond character, something I had never thought of before it was mentioned. The words he spoke danced with elegance and intelligence. The gravity of the news directed how he would handle its delivery. The story came first. If there’s anything that I as a young journalist can take from Jennings and what I saw in him every evening, it is that the measure of quality means more in journalism than vanity. The spotlight could never diminish the quiet dignity Jennings displayed behind the ABC desk. He never forgot that he was performing the duties of a journalist and not a television news anchor. He worked to serve the public and not conglomerates. He asked rather than demanded for our attention; as an audience, we paid him with our trust, a commodity vital to any journalist. He didn’t have to tell the audience that he was looking out for them or that he strove to make sure each story he reported was fair and balanced. His work spoke louder for itself than he could possibly imagine. For all the charm and flare he brought to journalism, Peter Jennings strove to push his abilities to their limits in order to give the best news the public could receive. In the eyes of Jennings, the bar of journalistic excellence could never be allowed to look down, it had to keep looking beyond each horizon it approached. He did his best to ask the tough questions, and he tried as hard as he could to make sense of a world that didn’t always have the most transparent answers. To inform and to educate—they are the two pillars of journalism that often get lost among today’s news media, but, in the hands of Jennings, were always handled with care and respect.

Peter Jennings was 67 years old.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Extra! Extra!

The August issue of Chicago Innerview is now available on-line. The website format has expanded from just feature interviews to include short band write-ups.

I contributed a write-up on Green Day, who will be performing at the Allstate Arena on August 10.