Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Extra! Extra!

The November issue of Chicago Innerview is now available online. I have contributed a feature article on the German group Mouse On Mars. Follow the direct link to read the article:

*Expect updates this weekend on Getting In Tune.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Jenny Lewis & The Watson Twins @ Vic Theatre (10/4/06)

Every artist reaches a point of transition, but who knew that for Jenny Lewis it would take singing twins and some acoustic guitars to make that happen? The lead singer of Rilo Kiley returned to Chicago in support of her solo debut Rabbit Fur Coat, showing off how much she’s grown in the seven months since her last performance at Park West.

In March, Lewis was the unproven “solo artist,” taking the stage with her backing band and decked out in an outfit taken straight from Loretta Lynn’s closet. As much as the spotlight was on Lewis, it was really about the collection of songs that shed new light onto a performer known mostly for her sweet pop voice, girl-next-door good looks and acting career as a young girl in the 80s. But Lewis succeeded that night by proving to many in the audience that she was more of a presence with substance than just a vessel for sound.

Those that nearly filled the Vic Theatre were treated to a show that not only raised the bar a bit from Lewis’ previous visit but also showcased new songs that were teasingly flavored with mischief…and Vegas, honky-tonk fun?

Gone was the Loretta Lynn look that completely covered Lewis at Park West. Instead, Lewis appeared from the shadows in a sleek, black dress, which had many in the audience cheering. It was as if Lewis suddenly became the Audrey Hepburn of rock ‘n’ roll. As her voice carried throughout the theatre, it wasn’t the sensuality that Lewis was displaying that jumped out the most—it was the confidence. “The Big Guns” and “The Charging Sky” stomped with a new found purpose to the road worn songs.

Halfway through the show, Lewis and the Watson twins (Chandra and Leigh) left the stage while the band played on during the standard “Let’s introduce the band” jam. If the elegant black dresses worn by Lewis and the twins weren’t enough, then the Vegas-styled glimmering outfits the ladies re-appeared in certainly shook the roof of the Vic. Lewis now entered her Tina Turner phase. With the crowd roaring, Lewis became a whole other performer as she strutted out some dance moves with the Watson twins and sang with a flirtatious wink in her eye.

New songs, “Fernando,” “Jack Killed Mom,” “Acid Tone” and “Carpetbagger” (possible working titles), gave a glimpse of what might be in the works for Lewis’ follow-up album. The songs were lively in their catchiness, soulful, and took an entirely different road from the country-esque path that Rabbit Fur Coat cruised. The band held an extra sense of excitement as they really let loose with songs still finding their footing on stage. The latest material was enough to inject much-needed life to a show that could have easily become a mirror image of Lewis’ show at Park West in March.

As the encore opened, Lewis stood alone with an acoustic guitar strapped across her shoulder. The angelic songwriter under the white light stepped to the microphone and almost whispered the opening lines to the title track of Rabbit Fur Coat. Verse after verse, the crowd stood in a hush as they hung on every word Lewis sang, as if listening for clues to solve some mystery.

By the time Lewis and company hit the final note to the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care,” the house lights came up and fans slowly accepted the disappointment that the show had reached its end. It was another night in the books for Lewis, but the look on her face as she departed the stage was enough to suggest that it’s just the beginning for Lewis…it’s just the beginning.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Extra! Extra!

The October issue of Chicago Innerview is now available online. I have contributed a special feature piece for the issue, which focuses on entertainment lawyer Jay B. Ross and the issue of digital royalties.

This feature piece is ONLY available in the print version of the magazine. I will scan the article soon and make it available here on Getting In Tune for those who live outside of Chicago.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Poi Dog Pondering @ Metro (9/29/06)

Metro owner Joe Shanahan called the evening a “love fest” as he stood on stage beckoning Poi Dog Pondering to play one more encore, rallying the support of the audience still buzzing from the two hour plus show they just experienced.

For Shanahan to ignore the scheduled show time and demand an extra set, you know Poi Dog Pondering hit one of their grooves that take the band on another musical plane. In close to twenty years, Poi Dog Pondering has made it a habit of putting on performances that not only marvel audiences, but also find a way to go an extra mile to make something special. The band’s loyal fans made it a sold-out affair at Metro on Friday night, packing every inch of the club, leaving enough elbow room for dancing and drinks.

Poi Dog Pondering has been working on a follow-up to their 2003 album In Seed Comes Fruit and received some well-deserved recognition by being chosen to be one of the top acts to represent the Chicago music scene at this summer’s Lollapalooza fest in Grant Park.

In their first major local performance since then, singer Frank Orrall and company were all smiles as they each took to their stage positions. Guitarist Dag Juhlin strapped on his Fender Stratocaster and soon the trippy, water drop opening to “Pomegranate” cast out over the crowd. Orrall’s voice lurked throughout Metro while violinist Susan Voelz served as a beacon of light under the dim blue lighting, her violin strings sounding like some setting sun in the great distance.

The biggest surprise of the night was the number of new songs the band threw into the set, making up the bulk of the show. There was a sense of liberation to the band’s performance as the night went on. Juhlin would jack hammer his guitar into his amplifier during solos or stand at the edge of the stage, sending his right arm into Townshend-esque windmills. Bassist Ron Hall and current drummer Dan Leali locked gears and gave the band a pulse that intensified with every beat.

Songs like “Sticky” and “Butterfly” were direct in their song structures, and not as orchestrated as previous songs in the band’s backlog. “Candy (Rock Candy)” and “Supertarana” pumped with a brashness that hasn’t really been heard much from the band since perhaps the songs of Volo Volo (1992). “We’re going to start recording on Monday, so, we better get this shit right,” laughed Orrall as the band missed a cue to another new tune. Perhaps the two best Poi Dog Pondering songs in years followed another in the set. “Space Dust” must have come out of listening to plenty of Pink Floyd, a touch of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and post-Ok Computer era Radiohead because it was not a song the average fan would expect to come out of a band like Poi Dog Pondering, a band that developed its organic, folk pop, soul infused melodies from the ground up. If “Space Dust” took you past the rings of Saturn, then the song that followed—possibly called “Satellite”—took you outside the Milky Way.

The night proved to be a test, not just to those in the crowd who came to hear the usual show stoppers like “Complicated” (like the woman standing next to me who seemed would have rioted if the band didn’t play the song), but to the band. After recycling what has been the general set list for the past 3 years and maintaining a stable band lineup for even longer, it was time for the band members to challenge themselves again and really open a new door.

As Orrall, Juhlin, and Volez converged to centerstage to share vocals on the climactic “Bury Me Deep,” there was an energy on stage that hadn’t been felt before, something that felt unfamiliar, yet positive. It was that X-factor, the thing you can’t quite put your finger on but know is there right in your face. Maybe everyone who stayed until the final note faded got a friendly reminder that in this life anything is possible. For Poi Dog Pondering, it was a show that made a statement, that after twenty years the possibilities are still limitless.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Friday, September 01, 2006

Extra! Extra!

The September issue of Chicago Innerview is now available online. This month also marks the 3rd anniversary of the magazine.

I have contributed a write-up on Elf Power and some words for the special wrap up of Lollapalooza 2006.

The latest issue of Chicago Innerview serves as a guide to the Hideout's 10th Anniversary Block Party, which will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of Touch and Go Records. Also check out the Hideout's website for the FINAL schedule of the three day party, along with ticket information.

Happy anniversary to the good people at the Hideout, Touch and Go Records, and Chicago Innerview.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

In The Crowd

Lollapalooza 2006 has wrapped up its 3 day residency in Chicago. It was 3 days of lots of music, lots of people, and lots of walking.

Here are a few choice shots taken throughtout Grant Park.

Guitarist Dag Juhlin of Poi Dog Pondering.

Poi Dog Pondering hits the stage.

The wild rock 'n' roll circus of the Flaming Lips.

Wilco returns home.

All Photos Taken By: Chris Castaneda

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Extra! Extra!

Time to get back to business!

Getting In Tune has been on hiatus for the past month. For those you have been checking the site for new material, sorry things were quiet around here but I appreciate your interest. Yes, there will be a review of the Radiohead/Auditorium Theatre show from June, as well as my review of Athfest 2006 in Athens, Georgia.

Since it's a brand new month, how about a brand new issue of Chicago Innerview? This month's issue is THE guide to the upcoming Lollapalooza festival, which is taking place here in Chicago from August 4-6. I have contributed write-ups on Poi Dog Pondering, 30 Seconds To Mars, Panic! At The Disco, Catfish Haven, and the Secret Machines.

In addition, Getting In Tune will be strolling the backstages of Lollapalooza as well as bouncing with the crowds throughout Grant Park. A massive report will follow which will include coverage from the fest and late night club shows happening after the fest.

Check back soon!

*On a funny note: The cover of Chicago Innerview uses a photo taken from last year's Lollapalooza. If you happen to grab a copy, you'll spot me wearing the floppy hat in the photo pit looking up at Perry Ferrell.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Extra! Extra!

The July issue of Chicago Innerview is now available online.

This month's issue serves as a guide to the 2006 Pitchfork Music Festival (July 29-30). I have contributed write-ups on The Futureheads, Glenn Kotche, and the Jeff Parker-Nels Cline Quartet. I have also contributed a feature article on The Futureheads.

Here are direct links to the pages containing these articles (be sure to scroll down to spot my write-up pieces on each page):

The Futureheads (Feature):

The Futureheads (Write-Up):

Jeff Parker/Nels Cline Quartet (Write-Up):

Glenn Kotche (Write-Up):

*Coming soon are late additions to Getting In Tune, which include reviews of Radiohead at the Auditorium Theatre (6/20) and coverage of AthFest in Athens, GA during a recent vacation.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

In The Crowd

Before embarking on a summer tour, John Stirratt and Pat Sansone took time away from Wilco to perform as their band Autumn Defense for a Friday night at Schubas.

Along with drummer Greg Wiz, the trio soothed the packed audience with their '70s folk bliss and pitch perfect harmonies.

The trio also filled their hour-long set with new material from their upcoming third album, which is set for release in October.

Even more buzz than the band's next album was the news about Stirratt adding the title of "newlywed" next to "singer/songwriter/bassist/guitarist".

Photo Taken At Schubas (6/2/2006) By Chris Castaneda

Friday, June 02, 2006

Extra! Extra!

The June issue of Chicago Innerview is now available online.

I have contributed write-ups on the Stills and We Are Scientists. I have also contributed a feature piece on the Stills. The core of the issue focuses on the upcoming Intonation Fest (June 24 & 25).

Here are direct links to the pages containing these articles:

The Stills (Feature):

The Stills (Write-Up):

We Are Scientists (Write-Up):

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Pearl Jam @ United Center (5/17/2006)

Allow this writer to speak from the first person for this particular review…

I was just ten years old when Pearl Jam’s first album Ten was released. Up to that point music had always been a part of my life but it hadn’t yet become my life. When Pearl Jam began its rise as one of the biggest rock bands in the world I began to listen more closely…but I kept missing the shows. I had my chances to see Pearl Jam in 1994 at the old Chicago Stadium (tickets became available at the last minute but I had no ride) and then the following year at Soldier Field (the same day as a family BBQ). It wasn’t until the 1998 show at the United Center—the sports arena that replaced Chicago Stadium—that I was able to finally see the band in concert.

Pearl Jam’s back-to-back nights at the United Center (5/16 & 5/17) marked the first time since 1994 that the band extended its stay in Chicago. The mini-residency in Chicago must have felt like being back in Seattle for the band. Grey skies, on-and-off rain, hail, brisk winds and very little sun blanketed Chicago. It was just the seventh show on the first leg of the band’s world tour in support of its latest self-titled album Pearl Jam (J Records), an album that debuted at #2 on the Billboard charts.

It would seem a new page has been turned in Pearl Jam’s career. The band split ways with Epic Records after having spent over 15 years there and supplying multi-platinum albums for the label. Instead of re-signing with Epic, the Seattle-based quintet opted for J Records, a subsidiary label under the RCA Music Group umbrella. Industry giant Clive Davis, founder of Arista Records, created the relatively young J Records in 2000. The 74-year-old Davis has often been criticized for having less of a music ear and more of a business ear. Simply put, he’s made a career of discovering the blandest music that could be easily packaged and processed for the consumer. He was greatly responsible for Carlos Santana’s comeback album Supernatural (1999). Had he been in the studio with George Martin and the Beatles in 1966 while making Revolver, he probably would have told the band to be less experimental with their sound and record songs that were more like “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” So, why would Pearl Jam associate itself with a man more interested in sculpting the careers of American Idol winners? Business.

It wasn’t a question if the band’s two United Center shows would sell out, but how fast they might sell. Clive Davis certainly doesn’t have to convince people to come out to a Pearl Jam show, but he might have had a hand in securing a deal with Ticketmaster to provide the option to purchase the new album along with your concert ticket. Hmmm? In the current issue of Chicago Innerview, I wrote a concert write-up on the band’s Chicago dates. Just as people have a right to question their elected officials, fans have every right to question the artist they have invested time and money in. My $15.99 may not have provided a roof over Eddie Vedder’s head or a new Gibson SG double-neck guitar to satisfy the Jimmy Page fan within Mike McCready but it definitely hasn’t hurt the end of the year figures. I did something I never did before, either among friends or in print—I criticized the band.

The point I tried to make was that I felt Pearl Jam had gone as far as the guitar-bass-drums formula could take it and that change was needed. “It’s easy to meet expectations when it comes to stadium rock,” I said in the article. “The question is whether or not Pearl Jam has unknowingly slipped into the corner of aging rock band fighting the keep the fire alive.”

The double-album Live At Benaroya Hall was a breath of fresh air. Released in 2004, the album captures the band’s mostly all-acoustic show on October 22, 2003 at a Seattle symphony hall. Pearl Jam toyed with the idea of incorporating an acoustic set into its shows during the 2003 tour for Riot Act. One such show took place in Mansfield, MA on July 11, 2003 when the band made the first half of the show a 12-song acoustic set. Couldn’t the band take a break from the arenas and pick up the acoustic guitars instead of giving fans the rock show they’ve come to expect from the band? Wouldn’t the band performing acoustically make for a more interesting show at this point in its career? Well, I guess not.

So, when I walked into the United Center for Wednesday night’s performance, I was a little nervous. I found the new album, Pearl Jam, to be musically lazy after I purchased it weeks prior to the concert. From the band’s hit single “World Wide Suicide” to “Gone,” there’s not one song that doesn’t feel as if it were written during sleep. Some critics declared the album a return to form, harking back to the days of Ten. But to a band that has been more focused on moving forward than recycling itself, wouldn’t these reviews be cause for concern?

I stood in the photo pit has the band ripped into 3 straight songs off the new album (“Severed Hand,” “World Wide Suicide,” “Life Wasted”). Guitarist Stone Gossard showed some teeth as he attacked the riffs behind “Life Wasted.” The whole band stormed the audience with a level of force it lacked the last time it was under the United Center roof in 2003. Then as I moved to my seat I watched a band that clearly knew it was going to have an amazing night.

“So, this is Chicago. Night Two,” said Vedder to the roaring audience. “This was the night we were looking forward to.”

During “1/2 Full,” Vedder took his guitar and transformed it into a spotlight as he angled the guitar to reflect the stage lights onto the crowd. Along with “I Am Mine,” Pearl Jam gave these two Riot Act songs new life, beefed up with a crushing sound. Although the energy was there for new songs like “Inside Job” and “Marker In The Sand,” what came across was how these songs ranked slightly below their predecessors. If anything, the latest material that Pearl Jam brought to the stage worked better there than on record; it’s the old “Better live than on the album” criticism. The pace never deteriorated, but the crowd’s allegiance would sort of pause until the next song. It was almost like the crowd was politely saying to the new material, “Yeah, good song, guys. By any chance is ‘Brain Of J’ next?”

Saying it was a transcendent night might be stretching it a bit, but Pearl Jam made me eat my words with the show they put on. As Vedder picked the opening notes to “Betterman,” the crowd sang in unison the song’s intro, the verse and chorus filling up every corner of the United Center. I stood there and smiled because I realized how special little moments like that are at a concert of this size.

As the first encore began, Pearl Jam delivered a couple of gems like the haunting “Footsteps” and possibly the best version of “Alive” I’ve ever heard the band perform. The outro to “Alive” has often fueled some fantastic jams by the band with McCready test-driving new guitar solos. But the outro became the song’s climax and the crowd recognized the moment. On every beat drummer Matt Cameron slammed on his snare drum, the fans thrust their fists as one while shouting “Yeah!” The arena lights would brightly flash on cue with the crowd’s actions. It was a sea of fists rising to the air. Vedder, who was facing the back of the stage, turned and laughed at what had been going on behind him. Suddenly the showman became the fan as he stepped up to his microphone to follow the crowd’s lead by throwing his fist into the air.

Surprises weren’t limited to the setlist. Fans were treated to a fun rendition of the Wayne Cochran song “Last Kiss,” which the band made popular as a single for the benefit album No Boundaries (1999). Vedder managed to sneak his way to the soundboard area near the back of the arena and sing from the station. The delay between his voice and the band back on the stage was noticeable, but they managed to keep the song together. “We like to play this one for special occasions,” said Vedder before the band unveiled the Mother Love Bone song “Crown Of Thorns,” a song Vedder admitted Pearl Jam had never performed at previous shows in Chicago.

In what have become standard closing numbers to a Pearl Jam show, Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World” and “Yellow Ledbetter” put the final touches on a night that lived up to the band’s stage reputation and set me straight about the band trying to keep the musical fire burning. Vedder, the Evanston native, would still lose himself in his apelike go-go dancing; McCready and Gossard are still a formidable guitar duo; and Cameron and bassist Jeff Ament maintain their rhythm section dominance. Keyboardist Boom Kasper had a more limited role this time around than on the 2003 tour, but his contributions never went unnoticed.

So, where was I wrong?

After Wednesday’s performance, I’m left to wonder if Pearl Jam’s brilliance on stage is reason enough for the band to go on being an unstoppable monster rock band or if I’m being selfish in hoping that one of my favorite bands takes the chance to do something different with its show. Can a Pearl Jam show ever become typical?

I’ll still stand by my opinion about Pearl Jam, but I have to appreciate the fact that after all these years Pearl Jam can still walk onto a stage and release a sound that won’t ever be replicated again.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Play Or Nay

Cheap Trick - All Shook Up (Epic/Legacy)

Between 1977 and 1979, the pride of Rockford, Illinois known as Cheap Trick released five albums: the band’s self-titled debut Cheap Trick (1977), In Color (1977), Heaven Tonight (1978), the monumental live album At Budokan (1979), and Dream Police (1979). An album run such as this is rarely ever seen in today’s music world, especially if the albums are artistically solid. The closest to this might be R.E.M. between 1982 and 1988 with seven consecutive album releases.

But for as many hits Cheap Trick has achieved over the course of thirty years they have also experienced its fair share of misses, both in the music business and on record. During the '80s and '90s, the band barely saw success. Of the eight albums they released during that period, only twice did the band score commercially with gold (500,000 copies) and platinum sales (1,000,000 copies); the band also performed the instrumental track “Mighty Wings” for the movie Top Gun. What truly suffered the most was the band’s creative juices, showing an inconsistency of artistic edge buried in a sea of mediocrity. But if there had to be a choice of which album in Cheap Trick’s catalog took the most chances musically and pushed the band’s songwriting abilities to the peak, it would have to be the band’s fifth album, 1980’s All Shook Up.

Up to this point, Cheap Trick had only worked with two producers: Jack Douglas and Tom Werman. Douglas, known for his work with Aerosmith, tried to capture Cheap Trick’s road seasoned live sound while bringing out the band’s Beatle-esque pop sensibilities on the group’s 1977 debut. After Douglas, Epic Records assigned producer Tom Werman to the band. Werman sought to polish the band for radio play while sacrificing the band’s raw power. There always seemed to be a division created by Werman behind the producer’s chair: Cheap Trick as the studio band and Cheap Trick as the live band. Then came producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick into the picture.

It was almost fate that the famed producer of every Beatles album should partner up with Cheap Trick. No other rock band at that time in the late ‘70s harnessed the melodic colorfulness and pop arrangements of the Beatles the way Cheap Trick did. Martin and Emerick (engineer on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) helped lead Cheap Trick to their full artistic potential; guitarist and principle songwriter Rick Nielsen had the space to really flex his muscle as a songsmith; Robin Zander continued his climb as one of the most identifiable voices in rock music, and the rhythm section of bassist Tom Petersson and drummer Bun E. Carlos was superb.

Opening with “Stop This Game,” Cheap Trick pays homage to The Beatles with the sound of a piano drone fading in as the song builds, the same sort of drone The Beatles used to fade out with on “A Day In The Life” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Zander’s voice carries above the drone before stepping aside for slicing violin strings and Carlos’ sharp hits on the drums. Petersson’s bass parts flow as Martin gives his bass some color reminiscent of Paul McCartney’s work on The Beatles’ single “Rain.” Nielsen plays it simple with little flash as he crunches along on his guitar. Going one step further is the sinister “Just Got Back.” Carlos takes center stage as he is surrounded by 24 tracks of percussion parts. It’s a drummer friendly song that John Bonham and Keith Moon would have signed up to play on. If ever Nielsen wrote a song that recaptures the “they’re-coming-to-get-me” attitude of “Dream Police,” then “Just Got Back” would be the song. “Baby Loves To Rock” borrows a bit from Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That A Shame” but with the maximum R&B muscle of The Who.

An aspect of the band that often is under-appreciated is Cheap Trick’s way with arrangements. Without the right arrangement for a song, then details like a chorus or verse simply won’t work. In this sense, Martin and Cheap Trick made a perfect pair. On “Can’t Stop It But I’m Gonna Try,” Zander howls and seethes with the venom of a lover fighting obsession. Nielsen hits his mark with “World’s Greatest Lover.” Zander adopts his best John Lennon voice and delivers a fantastic performance, while Nielsen crafts one of the finest guitar solos of his career (some portions later pop up in “Mighty Wings”).

“High Priest Of Rhythmic Noise” would contend to be one of the earliest examples of industrial rock. The distorted effects over the lead vocals create a robotic vibe to the song that any Atari fan at the time would have appreciated. Nielsen credits the death of AC/DC singer Bon Scott as the inspiration to “Love Comes A-Tumblin’ Down.” The song is a fitting tribute to a band and a singer that Cheap Trick often applauded. Nielsen’s fiery solo is a nice nod to schoolboy-dressed guitarist Angus Young. “I Love You Honey But I Hate Your Friends” combines the best of Lynrd Skynrd and The Faces. The song’s title and chorus plays on Nielsen’s wit to always add a twist inside a song. The band bashes out the tune as if they were back playing at some dive bar in the Midwest.

Cheap Trick literally uses every trick in the book on the frantic riff fest “Go For The Throat (Use Your Own Imagination).” According to Nielsen in the October 1996 issue of Guitar World, “That song would have been tricky even for Rush to execute properly!” Here was another example where Martin’s experience benefited the band. Said Nielsen in the same interview, “George (Martin) really pushed us to go the extra mile in our songwriting, arranging and playing. For example, we never would have attempted a song as complex as ‘Go For The Throat’ without his encouragement.”

All Shook Up closes not with a swift knockout punch but with a laugh. “Who D’King” is the band’s “Yellow Submarine,” a ridiculously good time where Cheap Trick busts out into a conga line. The song adds some tongue-in-cheek flavor to an album hell bent on being the best rock album it can be, and without a little nonsense thrown in it wouldn’t live up to what a Cheap Trick album is all about.

The fact the band managed to keep it together while bassist Tom Petersson had his eye on leaving Cheap Trick (which he did following the album’s completion) is a testament to the band’s survival instincts. Although the band would reach commercial highs with 1982’s One On One and 1988’s Lap Of Luxury, All Shook Up remains to be the last Cheap Trick album that was consistent with its artistic mission.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Secret Machines @ Metro (5/13/2006)

For many standing in line outside Metro at 10:30pm, their Saturday night really hadn’t begun. While others headed towards the local bars up and down N. Clark St. these people waited in the unseasonably chilly May weather to see one of rock music’s up-and-coming talents known as the Secret Machines.

The New York-based band arrived in Chicago supporting its new album Ten Silver Drops (Reprise), an album that explores the band’s melodic touch and steps back from the bombastic wall of sound heard on its acclaimed 2004 debut Now Here Is Nowhere (Reprise). On this sophomore attempt by the Secret Machines, Ten Silver Drops pushes the band’s songwriting to the forefront, an aspect that has developed nicely, merging the traditional pop song mentality, the trip factor of psychedelic rock, and the hard rock assault.

By 12:06am, the three-piece band—consisting of Josh Garza, and brothers Brandon and Ben Curtis—appeared out of the darkness and headed towards their respective instruments. There was something mythical about the band as their silhouettes stood on stage. Filling the air were these swirling organ notes, bunched together, like musical tidal waves crashing into one another and taking shape as the opening song “Alone, Jealous and Stoned.” Brandon Curtis’ hushed voice swept the crowd, while the storming presence of drummer Josh Garza added weight to his performance behind the keyboard. And in the middle of the two was guitarist Ben Curtis meticulously picking his notes, working back and forth from his many effects panels. The great care given to the song’s details was unmistakable.

The song gave way to a surge of synthesized guitar notes building up into “The Road Leads Where It’s Led.” The transition was like floating in space only to be rocked by a supernova. The sight of Garza’s bass drum steadily beating looked as if it would burst at any moment. The song would rise as Brandon and Ben Curtis joined together for the refrain. As if possessed by the words, the brothers’ voices led the anthem of “Blowing all the other kids away” with the crowd.

Few words were said by any member of the band, either among themselves or to the crowd. To many whom have watched the band live, they know the Secret Machines are not the most talkative band with a crowd. For some, this may come off as being distant, but to others that see past this minor detail of showmanship it is the band’s collective performance that matters the most. In this regard, the Secret Machines were flat out flawless.

The band’s set ran for an hour and a half, but it was still enough time for the band to live up to its reputation as a powerful force on stage. Songs such as “Pharaoh’s Daughter” and “Daddy’s In The Doldrums” provided all the pyschedelia one could want. Pulled from the 2005 EP for “The Road Leads Where It’s Led,” the Secret Machines almost demolished the Metro stage with by far its deadliest up-tempo song called “Better Bring Your Friends.” How that song didn’t make the cut for either album is anyone’s guess. The warm melodies that filled “Lightning Blue Eyes” from Ten Silver Drops exemplified the band’s strengthened sense of injecting pop elements into its mammoth sound.

After a riveting performance of the band’s most notable single, “Nowhere Again,” the band took a break that probably lasted no more than five minutes before returning for an encore. As if really wanting to go for the crowd’s throat, the Secret Machines saved its best punches for last. The uninhibited performances of “Sad And Lonely” and “First Wave Intact” unlocked every facet of the trio’s ferocity. Garza reduced his drumsticks into tinder, probably to later serve as candles to celebrate his birthday. Ben Curtis was a sonic wizard with his guitar, and his physicality on stage really channeled the spirit of the band’s music. Then there was singer Brandon Curtis, a voice deserving to be recognized. His vocals would creep up behind you like some mysterious stalker or stand tall with conviction.

Without the music, the night would have been merely filled with an impressive light show and a smoke machine that emitted a maple syrup scent in the air. Any doubts that band could not live up to the expectations created by Now Here Is Nowhere were eradicated. The night belonged to the Secret Machines.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Office @ Schubas (5/2 & 5/8/2006)

Once in a while, you might catch a band performing at the local club that you haven’t seen before or know much about, and you’ll leave the show on some incredible high like you’ve just solved the meaning of life. You depart the club so impressed with what you witnessed that you begin to think, “That’s a band that deserves a fifteen year career!” For the Chicago-based band Office, this scenario would ring loudly as true.

On May 2, the four-piece band took up residency at Schubas, which will house the band on every Monday for the rest of the month as part of the club’s “Practice Space” series. Comprised of Scott Masson (lead singer/guitar), Alissa Noonan (bass), Erica Corniel (drums/vocals), and Tom Smith (guitar/vocals), Office is progress in motion.

Listening to the band on stage a number of possible influences come to mind. Elements of Cheap Trick, The Church, New Order, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, Echo and The Bunnymen, and R.E.M. all seem to swim in this perfect harmony that comes across as being more a fresh spin than being flat out derivative. Guitarists Masson and Smith at times channel the sonic touches of Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth) and Peter Buck (R.E.M.). Bassist Alissa Noonan and drummer Erica Corniel lock gears and provide Office with a steady, pulsing dance groove underneath the guitar waves.

The band’s image on stage is just as engaging as the music. In this department, they borrow a page out of Cheap Trick’s book that even guitarist Rick Nielsen would tip his baseball cap to. Wearing business clothes the four members may look like extras in the movie Office Space, but the look plays as a fun novelty to the overall presentation. Office delivers a full package made up of deliciously arranged pop songs and lively imagery with a sense of humor (the band also incorporates one or two women on stage to act as secretaries complete with typewriters).

Building on the buzz of its self-released album Q&A and a successful spot at this year’s South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, Office is winning over audiences, one show at a time…you know…the old school way. There’s no hip music video to show on MTV’s Subterranean to get the word out there about the band nor is there some major record label putting its money behind Office to succeed on a grand mainstream level. This is a grassroots band that was conceptualized in 2000 by Masson while studying abroad in London.

Designing art sculptures inspired by the typical business environment of the office, Masson took the office theme and translated it into music. The result was an album recorded by Masson called Office. What followed a year later was The Ice Tea Boys and the Lemonade Girls, which Masson recorded with friends in Chicago as a full band effort. By 2005, Office became a reality.

The band’s first night at Schubas was a tease. Although the show was solid from start to finish, there was a hovering feeling that Office had something else up its sleeve. Sure enough, the following week the band stepped up even higher, playing with boosted confidence. The look in their eyes was that of a band thirsty to put on a great show. The excitement was there from the beginning as concertgoers directly in front of the stage broke out in dance. Once again working from material off of Q&A, songs like “Oh My” and “Wound Up” had hips shaking along with every beat. Dance partners locked hands for a friendly sway to the Chicago love tale on the CTA Blue Line train called “Until 6pm.” The packed room responded not only with their approving cheers but also with their energy, fueling Office throughout the show.

Masson could be as sweet as he could be menacing behind the microphone, occasionally breaking away and entering these robotic convulsions. Noonan would shyly avoid eye contact with the crowd, either focusing on her play or staring off at her surroundings. But she would offer assurances that she was in fact having a good time by smiling to audience praise directed at her or by dancing along to the music she and her bandmates were performing.

Smith was the type of guitarist that you want to seek out after the show to have a couple laughs or, if you happen to play guitar, would want to join him on stage and play cover songs of The Who and The Cars. The smallest member of the band happens to also be the biggest member as the band’s drummer. Corniel goes by the book on the drums but she’s no pushover. If your head became her snare drum, she would beat it in pretty damn good.

All these characteristics together make up a band that you wouldn’t want to take your eyes off of or miss a single note. Office will complete its Schubas residency on May 22. Plans are also being finalized for the band to appear at this year’s Lollapalooza, a festival already packed with some of the best representatives of Chicago’s diverse music scene like Wilco, Kanye West, Common, Poi Dog Pondering, The M’s, Cameron McGill, and The Redwalls.

For more information on Office, check out the band's website:

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda
(1st & 2nd Photos Taken 5/8 - 3rd Photo Taken 5/2)

Monday, May 01, 2006

Extra! Extra!

The May issue of Chicago Innerview is now available online.

I have contributed a write-up on Pearl Jam. Here is a direct link to the page:

Scroll down the page to find the write-up.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Sounds @ Metro (4/20/2006)

Attitude and swagger are two ingredients to a good rock ‘n’ roll band. Relying on just those two elements isn’t enough to survive on unless there are engaging songs to back up the talk.

The Sounds made their Chicago return for an all ages show at Metro to the tune of Journey’s ‘70s hit “Don’t Stop Believing.” For better or for worse, the song has a rejuvenated life in Chicago since being associated with the Chicago White Sox and their run for baseball’s World Series title last year. Whoever made the decision to use the song as the band’s introduction should have considered the fact that just a few steps south of Metro is Wrigley Field—the home of the Chicago Cubs. You can give the Swedish band some credit for trying to tap into the city’s sports scene; they certainly aim to please.

To the all ages crowd that was squeezing and elbowing to get a little closer to the stage, it didn’t matter if it were Journey or the 1985 Chicago Bears performing the “Super Bowl Shuffle” over the club speakers; they came to experience the rock ‘n’ roll they’ve come to accept from the Sounds.

The 5-piece band ripped through a set that lasted just under an hour and a half. Every note played and every move made by the band was simply eaten up by the crowd. Even the banter of lead singer Maja Ivarsson worked the crowd up; she must have gotten equal applause for the number of times she snarled “Fuck” to the crowd as she did singing. She was a fitting image of the stereotypical female Swedish goddess to every man and woman inside Metro. She combined the glamour and toughness of Blondie’s Deborah Harry with the prowling stage presence of the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger.

The band’s creative growth may not have taken a massive leap forward between their debut Living In America (2003) and their latest Dying to Say This to You, but they have become better at fusing the raw power of punk and pop chorus hooks with grinding dance grooves on stage; that alone is one of their best musical strengths. In that regard, the Sounds were on top of their game at Metro. New songs like "Queen of Apology" and "24 Hours"
opened the night with furious enthusiasm. Ivarsson showed no fear as she dove into the crowd during “Living In America.” The band kept the show’s pace on high with each song and gave no indication of slowing down. This was evident when the band performed “Night After Night” from Dying to Say This to You. On record, the song appears as two versions: the first as a slow, piano driven take and the other as an up-tempo hidden bonus track. The band opted to perform the “rock” version of the song instead. Proving there was still plenty of kick to their older songs, the Sounds shook up matters even more with vibrant renditions of “Seven Days A Week” and “Hope You’re Happy Now.”

During the show’s encore, the Sounds reached their peak at just the right time. With a three-song punch of “Dance With Me,” “Fire,” and “Ego,” the band delivered the goods and a set designed to keep the body moving. The Sounds might be a one trick pony (god only knows rock music today has plenty of those types of bands), but it’s the band’s persistent desire to maintain a sense of fun for themselves and their music that deserves applause.

What was perhaps the best moment of the night didn’t occur during the show but afterwards. As the crowd left Metro, a family of four huddled off to the side of the dance floor near the back, waiting for their chance to merge with the traffic of people. The parents held their young children close to them, their kids appearing to be between the ages of 10 and 12. All four had looks of shock and confusion. Who were these men with eyeliner and spiked hair? Why were these teenage girls—wearing more make-up than a Las Vegas showgirl—trying to squeeze out cleavage that wasn’t there yet? Was this an all ages concert or some pubescent orgy?

To the Sounds, they would call it a good night.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Death Cab For Cutie & Franz Ferdinand @ Aragon Ballroom (4/19/2006)

The Aragon Ballroom may not be considered the best sounding venue in all of Chicago, but it certainly has a long history of musical legends that have performed under the painted starlit sky ceiling. Bands like the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and R.E.M. have all taken on the bass boomy ballroom and survived to see another day.

On Wednesday night, Death Cab For Cutie and Franz Ferdinand brought their co-headling tour to the Aragon for a sold-out all ages show. The initial news of the two bands touring together created a lot of buzz. The tour presented two bands on the rise. In Franz Ferdinand, you had a band out of Glasgow, Scotland, that stormed the world with its 2004 self-titled debut album and pile driving single “Take Me Out.” In Death Cab For Cutie, you had a band from the indie rock circuit of the late ‘90s that was finally having the spotlight come to them on their own terms.

For Death Cab For Cutie and lead singer Benjamin Gibbard, the band from Bellingham, Washington, was capping off a sentimental day in Chicago. Earlier in the afternoon at Schubas, an intimate sized club with a playing room fit for about 150 people (a far cry from the 4,500 capacity Aragon), the band performed for the “Live From Studio X” series sponsored by local radio giant WXRT. It was a chance for Death Cab For Cutie to revisit the stage where they first made their Chicago debut almost six years ago.

“I wish we could play longer, but that curfew is a bitch,” said Gibbard to the audience before the band’s encore performance at the Aragon. The issue of time was one of the drawbacks from a co-headlining show like this. Both bands had just over an hour to put on their best. In some ways, it worked out perfectly for Franz Ferdinand and the tempo of its show. The Scottish four-piece geared up their North American tour behind their second album You Could Have It So Much Better (2005) at the Aragon this past September and played for the same amount of time they were scheduled to have on Wednesday night: one hour. But for two bands that genuinely seem to respect and enjoy each other’s music, it was enough time to have some fun.

Franz Ferdinand proved that although it wasn’t a typical Friday night people could still work up a sweat to the right beats and rhythms any day of the week, even at 7:30pm on Hump Day. After the frantic opener “This Boy,” the band laid down the bricks with a raucous performance of “Do You Want To.”

Franz Ferdinand was brimming with confidence. Singer/guitarist Alex Kapranos may have been the eye candy, flashing winks and coy smiles to the crowd, but it was lead guitarist Nick McCarthy who pushed the musicality of the band to its peak, jerking each note and chord for all they had. Songs like “Walk Away” and “Eleanor Put Your Boots On” provided smooth transitions from the raw, high-speed, dance grooves to showcase the depth of the band’s songwriting and ability to slow matters down. But when Franz Ferdinand jumped back into the fray, there was a sense that the race was coming to a close. “Take Me Out” got the dance floor bouncing, arms began to wave in unison during “The Fallen,” and, finally, the band sprinted across the finish line with the closer “This Fire.”

It was night and day between the end of Franz Ferdinand’s set and the start of Death Cab For Cutie’s set. The stage was barely visible, almost covered in a blanket of low blue lighting, as Gibbard took to the piano and guitarist Christopher Walla picked out guitar notes that echoed throughout the ballroom like distress calls for the band’s opening tune “Passenger Seat.” Although the band’s set took a time detour from the types of shows it normally performs as a main headliner, what remained consistent with this set was the band’s touch as musical painters with sounds and words, splashing songs like “The New Year” and “Why You’d Want To Live Here” with purpose onto a larger canvas.

The crowd’s clamor for “Crooked Teeth” and “Soul Meets Body” dispelled the criticism the band faced with its major label debut Plans (2005), as if the band’s songwriting capabilities would suddenly turn into hollow pop songs because of Atlantic Records. But for all the textures and colors the band crafted throughout its set, it was Gibbard who elevated the show to another realm with a solo acoustic performance of “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.”

The song’s theme of accepting mortality and shedding the fear that comes along with the idea of death created a hush in the Aragon. Gibbard stood stoically in the light with his acoustic guitar as his lips pressed against the microphone with the lines, “Love of mine, someday you will die/But I’ll be close behind and I’ll follow into the dark.” The voices in the shadows joined with Gibbard’s as each line was sung; it was a testament to Death Cab For Cutie’s success of staying its own course as songsmiths and not compromising to gain cheap popularity.

After the encore finale, “Transatlanticism,” Gibbard said to the roaring audience, “See ya at Lollapalooza. We’re playing with Beck. It’s going to be ultimate.” Fans exiting the Aragon must have started their countdown to August when the 3-day festival takes over Chicago’s Grant Park. For all their differences, artistically and stylistically, Death Cab For Cutie and Franz Ferdinand turned a brief evening into an evening filled with moments that were as soul searching as they were exhilarating. Variety was indeed a spice to a Wednesday night.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Monday, April 17, 2006

Yeah Yeah Yeahs @ Riviera Theatre (4/14/2006)

“Sometimes I think I’m bigger than the sound,” wailed Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as she sang in the heat of the band’s sold-out show at the Riviera Theatre. The front woman, dressed like a cross between a go-go dancer and a geisha girl, truly lived up to the lyric during “Cheated Hearts” as her voice carried throughout the theatre with power.

The band from Brooklyn, New York returned to Chicago for their second visit in two months behind their second album Show Your Bones. The hype that surrounded the band after their 2003 debut Fever To Tell has died down but in its place stands a level of credibility the band has rightly earned.

The band’s manic style on stage proved to make a clear connection with the crowd. Fans that packed the dance floor of the Riviera Theatre either jumped up and down in unison to the songs or tossed their bodies into each other, forming sporadic mosh pits during the show. For a show that only lasted an hour and twenty minutes (minus sets by two opening acts), the Yeah Yeah Yeahs never once took a wrong turn.

While Karen O embodied the physicality of the music, it was guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase that brought the cyclone of sound down onto the audience. From the outset, the band dove into their new album. “Turn Into” and “Way Out” set the hard-hitting tone of the night; “Fancy” brought a crushing Black Sabbath blow through Zinner’s chainsaw guitar riffs. The trio incorporated a multi-instrumentalist who played bass, acoustic guitar and keyboards to alleviate Zinner’s guitar duties, which created a much more realized sound and texture. But at the center of everything was Karen O.

Her confidence was as bright as the gold hot pants she strutted around in on stage. Men and women hung on her every move—if she jumped, they jumped; if she sang with venom, the crowd’s intensity would manifest itself into moshing. But through it all, Karen O had some fun, giving fans a quick wink or enticing by revealing her bra straps as a mini-strip tease.

The musicianship of the band continues to blossom, counterbalancing instruments like acoustic guitars and keyboards with their sonic arsenal, but it is the band’s raw touch where they gain much of their strength. “Gold Lion” swam like a great white shark on the hunt, ready to strike at any moment. When they weren’t in a complete frenzy, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs revealed their more reserved side to take a breath and slow matters down while maintaining an edge. After the fuzz jangle pop of “Dudley,” Karen O showed off more of her vocals with the soft, yearning “The Sweets.” The crowd may not have understood the message most of the time behind the band’s songs, but that didn’t seem to matter. Repetitive lyrical phrases are nice tricks to have in songs, but if the audience identifies the emotional push behind the songs, they will sing along with every note.

The band made quick work of their two encores. The audience roared as Chase played the opening drum parts to “Maps,” probably the best known hit by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. After “Black Tongue” tore up the stage, the band pulled another track from Fever To Tell, the hidden track “Poor Song” to close out the evening. The sheer abandonment the band performed with not only commanded the stage but the fans as well. It was that intangible that no one in the room could really put their fingers on but could definitely sense. This wasn’t a band trying to act the fool; this was a band that just wasn’t afraid. On this night, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs arrived and departed as everyone’s number one band.

Dying To Sound Off: Q & A With Johan Bengtsson Of The Sounds

Once in a while, the American musical landscape gets an injection of new life from outside the country’s borders.

Most famously the British Invasion of the 1960s, led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, had such an immense impact on American popular culture that over the course of forty years the music of the past still resonates in the music of today.

In 2002, rock music, thought to be dead and stale since the demise of Nirvana in 1994, exploded once again, bringing down the pop groups that saturated much of American radio. This time around it was the land of Sweden coming to the rescue. These bands somehow found what American rock bands couldn’t seem to find or quite sustain—passion. The band that lit the match with its single “Hate To Say I Told You So” was the Hives. Suddenly other Swedish acts, veterans in their home country, were sharing the spotlight like they just formed a week ago, bands such as the Soundtrack of Our Lives and the Hellacopters.

Among those Swedish groups was the dance infused rock band the Sounds, who made their U.S. debut with 2003’s Living In America. Propelled by the hooky “Seven Days A Week,” the 5-piece band from Helsingborg became a hot buzz band whose energetic live shows worked concertgoers into a hot, sensuous sweat like they had just experienced the raunchiest sex they’ve ever had.

With the band’s sophomore album Dying to Say This to You now released, the Sounds have embarked on their latest tour of America. In an interview with bassist Johan Bengtsson prior to the band’s U.S. tour, the 26-year-old musician discussed the evolution of the band’s new album, his musical calling as a youth, and the push towards the decade mark for the Sounds.

Chris Castaneda: How was it recording Dying to Say This to You after the time off since releasing and touring behind the debut album, Living In America?

Johan Bengtsson: The album was easier to make than I thought it would be. We didn’t write on tour. The time gap between the first album and this album has been quite long. When we got off tour we were like, “Can we really write again?” since we hadn’t written any songs in a long time. But when we actually started to write, the process was pretty quick.

It wasn’t two years, really. We did the Warped Tour and then we turned down a lot of offers. We could have kept on touring but we had to stop it somewhere so we could go back and write a new album. So, after the Warped Tour, we took maybe two, three months off and then started writing. By the summer, we recorded it.

CC: Did Jeff Saltzman’s work on the Killers’ debut album Hot Fuss capture the band’s attention when it came time to start working on a new album?

JB: It was definitely the album. When we started talking about him, I didn’t know he produced the Killers’ album. We flew over in March and had meetings with different producers. We didn’t meet him at the time, but we heard he was really interested. He said stuff like, “I’d drop everything to work with you guys,” and, “I’d cancel all my projects just to make this album with you guys.” That was appealing to us. Then we got the good deal and he said, “Come up to my studio. We can work as long as you want.”

Recording in America rather than Sweden was something we wanted to do for this album. It was more Jeff choosing us than us begging him to make our album.

CC: What was the recording process like this time around?

JB: We had almost unlimited time whereas the first album we did in maybe two weeks. We didn’t have any experience of being in the studio prior to the first album. This time we had time in the studio to actually work with Saltzman and the songs to make them even better songs.

It’s a really good sounding album, and I think he’s a big part of it. Not only is he a good producer, he’s a good engineer, too.

CC: On Living In America, each song was running on all engines. There’s a song on Dying to Say This to You that really goes in a different direction from the first album formula, the slow tempo song “Night After Night.” In fact, there are two versions on the album. As a bonus, you’ve included a faster tempo version of the song. How did that song develop originally?

JB: The fast version was the original version. It was in the studio and Saltzman was saying, “I think this album needs a slower song.” And we were like, “We can’t write slow songs.” We have no idea. He said, “No guys, seriously, you need to write a slow song and this album will be great.”

We couldn’t come up with anything. We just tried and tried. Then late one night we were in the control room and Jesper (Anderberg) was playing the piano. Jeff (Saltzman) was like, “What’s that?” I said, “It’s that other song we’re working on.” Jeff said, “Ok, we got to record it, we got to record it!”

We recorded the piano and then add stuff after that like the drums. We recorded kind of backwards. It turned out really great; it still gives me the chills.

CC: Has the band performed the song live yet?

JB: We only played it once. The first time we ever played any new songs live we did it in our hometown in Sweden. We haven’t played it since then, but we’re planning on playing it as soon as the album comes out.

CC: The Sounds have been together for about eight years, just around the corner from that ten-year mark…

JB: I know. It’s kind of scary [Laughs]. We’ve all been in bands prior to this band, but since day one when we all got together in the rehearsal space there was some weird chemistry between us. Everyone felt, “We don’t have a single song, but I know this is the band that’s gonna make it.”

I think that’s the essential key to having good bands stay together. We’re all a bit different now than we were a few years ago. We’re all getting older; we’re growing older together. We respect each other in a whole other way now. We’re entitled to have private lives that we didn’t have before. I have a kid, a 4-year-old son, and I need time to spend time with my kid; people realize that now.

CC: I noticed James Iha, formerly of the Smashing Pumpkins, had a hand in the album. What was that like?

JB: He and Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne were in for two sessions; one in the beginning and one in the end. They really helped out a lot. We’ve known James for a few years now; I respect him as a musician. Adam is a great songwriter. It’s good to have those older people who’ve been around for a while and have been in successful bands with us in the studio to ask them for advice.

CC: What inspired you to become a musician or be in a band?

JB: I started playing acoustic guitar when I was a little kid. I found a guitar in the attic of my parents’ house, and I’ve been playing since. I’ve been playing in bands since I was 12.

CC: Was there any particular band that really hit you the hardest that drew you into music more?

JB: I’ve listened to all kinds of music; it’s gone through phases. At one point, I was listening to Metallica a lot as a kid; on the other hand I was listening to Nirvana and the whole Seattle scene when that was going on. I was in seventh grade and playing in bands listening to Nirvana.

CC: See, I was in class doing homework while you were in bands, and you’re just a year ahead of me [Laughs]. So, what memories do you have from your 2003 show at Metro?

JB: We’re good friends with another band from Chicago—Kill Hannah. They opened up for us when we did the headline tour for the first album at Metro. Chicago has always been nice to us; Metro is a really good venue. We like playing there.

CC: Do you have any favorite songs on Dying to Say This to You?

JB: I really like “Tony the Beat.” It’s a really good pop song with a more experimental vibe to it.

CC: Now, the band shares the songwriting duties in what seems to be a pretty democratic way. Is it pretty fair to say that any idea that gets brought to the table gets a chance to grow?

JB: Actually, that’s exactly how it works. The process was different on this album, though. The first album was written over a long period of time before we even knew we would release an album. We kept on writing songs and kept on trying to get a record deal while playing live as much as possible. All those songs from the first album were played tons of times live before we even recorded them.

On this album, we didn’t have the time to just write forever. So, we built our own studio, a small area where we write. Everything is pretty much written in that studio in Sweden before we take it to the rehearsal place and play it together as a band. So, the process has been different in that way. It gives us time to analyze it more. The songwriting is better now than it was on the first album because it’s more thought through.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Brunettes @ Schubas (4/4/2006)

Hailing from the city of Auckland, New Zealand, the Brunettes have carved out a career spanning eight years. Listening to the Brunettes, one might hear a doo-wop band buried inside a melodic pop band buried inside a garage rock band; each layer is as interesting as the last.

Plus, a rock band that incorporates an ironing board with their stage setup has to know something about putting on a good show.

After an opening slot the previous night for up-and-comers Clap Your Hands Say Yeah at Metro, the Brunettes took an evening to headline a show at Schubas. The band’s return to Chicago held some sentimental value since it was in Chicago at the Elbo Room, almost a year to the day, that the band made their first stateside appearance.

A trumpet, saxophone, banjo, lap steel guitar, keyboards, xylophones, and noise shakers that produced duck quacking were just some of the instruments that cluttered an already small stage for the six-piece band. The band’s leaders, Jonathan Bree and Heather Mansfield, tiptoed their way through the stage, smiles on both faces eager to get the show underway. The crowd that was once standing in the middle of the room during the night’s two openers now huddled the stage.

The soft, innocent voice of Mansfield soon commanded the room the moment “Baby” started off the show; its ‘60s pop tones harkened back to early Beach Boys. From 2004’s Mars Loves Venus (Lil’ Chief Records), the lighthearted confessional “Loopy Loopy Love” scored with its catchy hooks and melodies.

Here was a band that was completely of a different musical era but had a strong enough sense of that music that they never came off as a novelty act. The Brunettes ran into the occasional bump in the road; technical issues with Bree’s guitar slowed the momentum of the show and it was clear that Mansfield was fighting a hoarse voice. These problems still weren’t enough to hold the band back. It was at these times when the garage band aspect of the Brunettes revealed itself.

Mansfield found her voice during a new song, a sweet tune bridging the Beach Boys and the Carpenters called "If I." It was during the menacing “Best Friend Envy” when the Brunettes really shined the brightest. Bree and Mansfield traded off haunting vocal parts that made the head spin and the body dance.

The songs played more as conversations with the crowd and less like stories; sometimes the dialog between Bree and Mansfield evoked the boy/girl melodrama the Brunettes are known for crafting.

In what had to have been the evening’s most amusing moment, the band showed off their theater skills by donning masks of two of America’s beloved flavors of the month: Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. The song, “Mary Kate & Ashley,” was as hilarious as it was slightly disturbing. You kind of stop listening to the lyrics when six people wearing either a Mary Kate or Ashley Olsen mask are dancing around playing instruments on stage. But to the crowd the joke was well received.

The Brunettes charmed and delighted the crowd with their energy and genuine excitement. Clever songs and intriguing sounds make the Brunettes more than just your average band. As waves of disappointment were voiced throughout the crowd over the band’s decision to not perform a second encore, Bree shrugged his shoulders and frowned as he waved goodbye from the stage. Albeit a small gesture, it summed up the type of evening people had with the Brunettes; they simply didn’t want it to end.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Monday, April 03, 2006

Robert Pollard @ Metro (3/31/2006)

“Fuck Coldplay,” scowled Robert Pollard from the stage inside Metro. Nearly twenty minutes south, Coldplay was ending its two-night residence at the United Center as the weekend's hottest ticket. But to the longtime leader of Guided By Voices, there was only one real show in town that night, and it was his.

Guided By Voices may be no more, but the arrogance and “what you see is what you get” attitude of that band lives on in the man that embodied the spirit. Bringing his solo show to Chicago for the first time since Guided By Voices disbanded on New Year’s Eve 2004 at Metro, Pollard came ready with a personal bucket of twenty-four chilled bottles of Miller Lite, a bottle of Jose Cuervo, and a brand new cast of characters to give sound to Pollard’s latest musical vision From A Compound Eye. Any notions that this new band was just a revamped version of Guided By Voices were quickly dispelled by Pollard. “This ain’t GBV,” said Pollard to the packed audience. “Now it’s whatever.”

As the group tore through songs like “I Surround You Naked,” “Maggie Turns To Flies,” and “I’m A Widow,” what was evident was the musicianship Pollard surrounded himself with: veteran popster Tommy Keene on guitar and keyboards, Dave Phillips on guitar, bassist Jason Narducy (Verbow, Rockets Over Sweden), and drummer Jon Wurster (Superchunk) brought a fresh dimension to Pollard’s massive catalog of songs. Pulling a track from Pollard’s 1998 album Waved Out, the assembled group gave new color to the song “Make Use” and transformed it into a rolling trance-like wave of power chords.

The 48-year-old Pollard still pulled off his teenage kicks, Pete Townshend leaps, and Roger Daltrey microphone twirls like there was no tomorrow. “It’s not a show,” declared Pollard, “It’s a fucking drunken wreck.” He even got security on edge as he defied the city’s no-smoking ordinance (aimed towards bars and clubs) by accepting lights from the front row and packages of cigarettes tossed onto the stage.

That statement may have been true in Pollard’s case (who actually took his drinks in moderation), but it wasn’t for the band. Over the course of two hours, the charge from song to song never let up a second. During “Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft,” described by Pollard as his favorite new song, the band took off on the song’s Cheap Trick-esque stomp a la “High Roller.” Narducy locked in with Pollard for some of the most soulful vocal moments of the night. As Bob Mould’s bassist on his recent solo tour, Narducy provided Pollard a plate of harmonies that always seemed elusive in Guided By Voices.

The banter was still classic Pollard. At one point, Pollard took shots at the Flaming Lips for their cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It was a crime in Pollard’s eyes what Wayne Coyne and company did to the song, but then let the crowd in on the joke by mentioning his love for Coyne. “I’m allowed to rip on anyone who sells more records than me,” explained Pollard to the crowd.

After an endurance fest of over thirty songs, Pollard returned for an encore to reward those who came to the show hoping for a little blast from the Guided By Voices past. “Girls Of Wild Strawberries” got the crowd’s lips wet, fists were thrust into the air to applaud “Gold Star For Robot Boy,” and fans threw arms around each other to sing along to “My Valuable Hunting Knife.”

The show’s finale seemed ironic since it was also the last song that Guided By Voices performed over a year ago under the same roof. Still, “Don’t Stop Now” filled every corner of Metro with voices singing in unison. In some ways, it has been Pollard’s musical mantra and as he proved on stage, he’s not even close to stopping.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Extra! Extra!

The April issue of Chicago Innerview is now available online.

I have contributed a write-up on the Swedish rock band The Sounds. Here is a direct link to the page:

For those in and around Chicago, the magazine will sponsor its monthly release party at The Darkroom on April 7. For more information, click "HAPPENINGS" on the magazine's main web page. The event is free.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Forever A Fan

On July 9, 2002, I first met Jim DeRogatis, rock critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, in a darkened parking lot outside one of the most beloved radio institutions in Chicago, WXRT. I could never have imagined that four years later I would call this gentleman from New Jersey a mentor and friend.

The introduction was simple: I was allowed to visit “Sound Opinions,” hosted by DeRogatis and Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, to offer my thanks for an autographed copy of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that I won in a contest sponsored by the WXRT show. The day I actually got the call from the show’s webmaster, Jason Saldanha, I was suffering from food poisoning. I was probably the least excited sounding winner over the telephone that he’s ever had to call.

On the previous week, before my first visit to the studio, I had called the show to defend the latest Oasis album Heathen Chemistry. Both Jim and Greg took the album to town, trashing it as a waste of time. I’d like to think I held my own by defending the album, even refreshing Jim’s memory about the final track on the band’s debut album Definitely Maybe. So, when I arrived to the WXRT studio, Jason was the first to greet me. It felt like a few seconds later when I met Jim. I shook his hand and mentioned the Wilco album I won in the contest. To put a voice with a face, I state I was the caller from last week who defended Oasis. “Well, somebody has to,” says Jim. That was the first remark he ever said to me; it wasn’t “Nice to meet you,” or “Thanks for listening to the show.”

My impression of Jim, notwithstanding the Oasis comment, was slightly shaped by a review of an R.E.M. concert in August 1999 at the New World Music Theatre (now some other god awful corporate name). I still remember reading the review in my kitchen and slamming my fist on the dining room table, exclaiming, “What fucking show did this guy see?” I still have the article in my closet. I’ve been meaning to have Jim autograph it for me…one day.

Meeting Jim face to face took me back a little. I was just starting out as a writer for my college newspaper at DePaul, and here I was meeting this seasoned veteran of journalism that’s already put down one of my favorite bands. It was intimidating to say the least.

Well, the evening with Jim and Greg turned out better than expected. I was invited to stay during the two-hour show and sit with them in the actual studio. Having been a listener to WXRT since I was probably seven years old I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Based on the fact I didn’t freak out Jim and Greg during the show, I was given the OK by executive producer Matt Spiegel to come back and visit anytime. Since that time I’ve become part of their worlds just as they became part of mine.

It was probably because I showed up so much—sometimes with Rice Krispy Treats or bootleg CDs—that after a year I was offered the title of production associate with “Sound Opinions" (Jim’s original title for me was Chief Aide de Camp) and given a spot on the moderating team for the show’s online message board. Greg honored me with a research assistant credit in his very first book called Wilco - Learning How To Die, a story about the Chicago-based rock band. Following the release of Greg’s book, Jim e-mailed me about a special project he wanted to involve me with. I printed out his e-mail and kept it folded in one of my textbooks as I went about my day of classes at DePaul. When it came time to finally call Jim and learn what this project he had in mind for me, I was cooking ham at my then-girlfriend’s apartment. “How are ya, Chris?” asked Jim over the phone. “I’m just cooking some ham,” I replied. “Well, you’re in college. You gotta eat something,” said Jim.

It was then when Jim asked me to be part of his book about the Flaming Lips, to transcribe interviews and fact check material. It wasn’t work I felt was beneath me. My work with Greg consisted of gathering specific Wilco bootlegs for his research. Here, I would be more involved in the writing process by working with Jim’s interviews with band members (past and present) and various associates of the band.

Working with Jim was always interesting. I probably learned more about him and from him while chatting with him as I sorted his mail bins of press kits. The first time I actually rode my bike from my home on the south side to Jim’s home near Wrigley Field continues to be a moment that doesn’t go away as a joke (“Hey Chris, did you ride your bike here?”).

Jim always seized the moment to educate me about a band or artist that he loved and that I needed in my collection. One such instance was when he went into complete shock that I wasn’t very familiar with John Cale, formerly of the Velvet Underground. “You call yourself a R.E.M. fan and don’t know John Cale?” exclaimed Jim from his desk. I was filing CDs into his vast library of a music collection when this discussion about John Cale came up. He proceeded to change the CD that was playing to Cale’s live album Fragments Of A Rainy Season within a split second. Suddenly this beautiful song filled the basement office area and my ears perked up. It was a song I once heard on an episode of The West Wing, a song performed by the late Jeff Buckley called “Hallelujah.” I learned that the song originated from Leonard Cohen and that, according to Jim, the Cale cover is far superior to Buckley’s version. Naturally, Jim made a copy of the CD for the simple reason I needed it in my life. Being the former record store employee, I could relate completely to what he must have been thinking the second I admitted to having never heard the Cale CD, “This is a great album that needs to be heard and you should have a copy.”

If I had to choose one lesson to take from my time spent with Jim, it would be that honesty is not always popular, and to say that Jim is blunt with his opinions would be sugarcoating things a little bit. The disagreements readers may have with his opinions stems from the fact that he’s being honest about what he thought about an album or a concert. You’re not doing your job as a critic if people are always agreeing with you 100% of the time. I’m sure Jim has his share of hate mail to prove to that point.

On the night of his Flaming Lips book party at the Abbey Pub, Jim showed yet another side of himself that I never really experienced. I showed up in support of the book I had a hand in and to offer Jim my congratulations for achieving his dream. I have to tip my hat to him; Jim’s had the opportunity to write about his rock critic hero, Lester Bangs, and one of his favorite bands in the Flaming Lips. If that’s not living the dream, then I don’t know what is.

Upon my arrival I discovered from another a fellow DeRo intern, Jenny Grandy, that Jim would be performing with a Lips tribute band called the Satellite Hearts. The band was selecting songs from the '80s and '90s era of the Flaming Lips that are never performed anymore. I was also brought onboard to handle a balloon drop that Jim would signal during one of the songs. Balloons aside, I was simply transfixed by the thought of Jim fronting a band instead of sitting behind the drums. For Jim, this is how he wanted to celebrate the book, through music instead of chapter excerpts.

But when Jim finally took to the stage with the band a little after midnight I readied myself from my side of the balcony. He transformed into exactly what he wrote about in the book; he became a fearless freak.

The microphone was gripped tightly in his hands as he launched into the first song. His voice was bellowing throughout the club, not containing a single care if he was singing out of key. It was like watching Jim pretend to be Wayne Coyne for a night. Whether it was screaming through a bullhorn or firing off confetti into the air, Jim proved he had strong notes when it came to recreating Coyne’s showmanship. I could tell from the crowd’s reaction to each song that Jim was going for the deep cuts that they’ve longed for the Lips to perform again. “Kim’s Watermelon Gun,” “Hit Me Like You Did The First Time,” “Turn It On,” and the show’s closer “She Don’t Use Jelly” were just some of the moments that caused a celebratory frenzy in the crowd.

I smiled as I watched Jim lean down from the stage and pitch the microphone to a fan standing directly in front. He had been singing word for word along with Jim the whole show. That gesture revealed the true spirit of the Flaming Lips that Jim tapped in to—that the band has remained an equal to their fans.

Jim is a constant reminder that no matter who—whether it's the band just a week old or the million-dollar band with private jets—there’s no such thing as free passes. If you speak with conviction and are honest with the facts, the readers will decide on their own whether the music is good or bad. Question his opinions, but what can never be questioned is his passion for the music. And for that I stand and applaud him wholeheartedly.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda (Taken At The Abbey Pub, 3/25/2006)
Concert Artwork By: Chris Martiniano

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Minus 5 @ The Abbey Pub (3/22/2006)

Elbowroom was tight inside the Abbey Pub for the return of the Minus 5. Touring in support of the band’s latest, a self-titled album being referred to as The Gun Album, the Minus 5 delivered a set that celebrated all the band’s strong points after ten years together, from catchy lyrics to sweltering guitars.

For Scott McCaughey, the band’s mastermind and resident mad scientist of rock, it was his first time back to the Abbey Pub since Wilco supported McCaughey as the Minus 5 for two shows in April 2003 promoting Down With Wilco. McCaughey's return with the band also fell on a special day. Not only was it the birthday of McCaughey’s daughter, Nadine, but also the birthday of the one and only William Shatner…Captain Kirk! It was surely a sign that the stars were aligned to make the evening with the Minus 5 a good one.

Over the years, the Minus 5 lineup has included several notable musicians such as Robyn Hitchcock, John Wesley Harding, Wilco, and Robert Pollard. But Peter Buck of R.E.M. has remained the senior member of the band next to McCaughey. Along with guitarist John Ramberg and drummer Bill Rieflin (Ministry, R.E.M.), this current incarnation of the Minus 5 had plenty of muscle to flex at the Abbey Pub.

The band appeared loose on stage; hoots and hollers from the crowd would only fuel the band more. The celebratory air of “Twilight Distillery” later gave way to the somber “Where Will You Go?” McCaughey’s stage banter kept things lively in between songs. Before “Retrieval Of You,” he discussed the origin of the song, recalling that Jeff Tweedy of Wilco came up with the lyrical hook from a local store supposedly called DJ Mini Mart. “Is this true?” asked McCaughey. Someone from the crowd yells out in response, “He’s a liar!” Laughing, McCaughey seizes the moment by saying, “This song’s called ‘Jeff Tweedy Is A Liar!’”

The band’s newest material was given the rock ‘n’ roll treatment on stage. Songs like “Out There On The Maroon” and “With A Gun” became under-three-minute pop rockers. On record, Jeff Tweedy handled the guitar solo to “With A Gun.” McCaughey picked his sunburst Les Paul with ease as he played Tweedy’s part and made it his own.

“I finally got to show off my chops on lead guitar,” said McCaughey after the song. “There was an article when we played in Portland a couple of weeks ago that said I had ‘chops.’ Never has an article been so wrong.”

If they weren’t blasting on all cylinders on songs like “You Don’t Mean It” and “Ghost Tarts Of Stockholm,” the Minus 5 would detour with covers by the Undertones (“Teenage Kicks”), Johnny Cash (“I Still Miss Someone”), and Bob Seger (“Mary Lou”). Ramberg and McCaughey would push each other on guitar, striking up manic solos; Rieflin would sound like a pack of elephants stampeding the African terrain while Buck played it cool and calm on the bass (a completely different side from his role in R.E.M.).

What was undeniable throughout the show was how much fun the band was having on stage. After the speeding “Aw Shit Man,” the Minus 5 made the encore their last stand. Kicking off with “Circle Sky” by the Monkees, the Minus 5 smoked through “Over The Sea” before going utterly insane with the 60s garage classic “Strychnine” by the Sonics.

On a Wednesday night, the audience was loud, the drinks were flowing, and the Minus 5 simply rocked. As McCaughey put it in song, “I never want to lose the days of wine and booze.” Cheers!

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Monday, March 20, 2006

In The Crowd

Peter Buck
The Minus 5 @ Mercy Lounge
Nashville, TN

Photo By: Chris Castaneda

Saturday, March 18, 2006

In The Crowd

Wilco @ Ryman Auditorium (3/17/2006) Nashville, TN

Photo By: Chris Castaneda

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Jenny Lewis & The Watson Twins @ Park West (3/14/2006)

It took seventeen years, but I finally stood in the same room with Jenny Lewis.

Surrounded by mostly young women at the Park West, I had to set aside the boyhood crush I had on Lewis back when I was eight years old, watching her co-star with Fred Savage in the Nintendo inspired movie The Wizard (1989). I was now the critic, and she was the seasoned musician on stage.

As the front woman for the L.A. group Rilo Kiley, Lewis has steadily gained respect in and around the indie music scene as being the real deal, not just another former Hollywood star trying to be the rock star. And on her first solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat, Lewis has proven herself capable of standing on her own two feet. She has removed herself from her Rilo Kiley songwriting partner, Blake Sennett, and has written a collection of songs that not only play to her vocal talents but also shed more light on her strengths as her own songwriter.

Strolling out under the lights inside Park West, Lewis resembled a young Loretta Lynn from head to toe, decked out in a dress straight out of Coal Miner’s Daughter with Sissy Spacek. Following behind Lewis were Chandra and Leigh, the Watson twins. In matching black v-neck dresses, the Watson twins took their positions behind their microphones almost as if they were levitating on air. The response by the capacity crowd brought a look of modest surprise to Lewis' face. It was as if her recent success going solo was still sinking in. As soon as she opened her mouth and that voice filled the room, the crowd was in her hands.

Drawing on much of her solo album, Lewis and her band performed with such high intensity that any thoughts they might slip into old routines from previous shows were erased.

“The Big Guns” caused the dance floor to suddenly erupt with stomping feet; the coy wink of “The Charging Sky” flooded the crowd with random thoughts ranging from the “sure fire bet” of death to a father “growing Bob Dylan’s beard.” The backing vocals by the Watson twins were by no means a gimmick; they could have easily been the showcase equivalent of the dancing entourage that follows Gwen Stefani. The twins brought out different colors to the songs and gave them a dreamy atmosphere that provided Lewis with plenty of room to stretch the music.

One such moment where Lewis really let loose was during a new song, described by Lewis as a “love story,” called “Jack Killed Mom” (the woman certainly has some wit). Lewis sat behind a keyboard and took this soulful tune for a ride with the band, transforming it into a powerhouse song that was textbook Ray Charles.

Jenny Lewis didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to transform herself into a pop-country artist backed by twins; this was music already inside her soul. What she accomplished at the Park West was introduce a brand new facet to her creativity that may not have been given an open road in Rilo Kiley to freely roam. She’s not asking the listening audience to take sides. She’s merely saying, “Hey, I can do this, too.” With a beer in one hand and an acoustic guitar in the other, Jenny Lewis took one step closer to becoming the complete artist that she’s working to be.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda