Saturday, February 25, 2006

The M's @ Empty Bottle (2/24/2006)

The M's wasted no time in getting their record release party for Future Women underway at the Empty Bottle. The clock may have read 12:30am, but to The M's, it was by no means bedtime.

With just two albums under the band's belt (the latest being released three days prior), The M's are already in a class of their own. The quartet is considered to be one of the top up and coming bands in Chicago and have quickly captured the praise of their peers (Wilco, Broken Social Scene). They may not be an overnight success story, but for The M's it's better to have a career of substance than to suddenly become everybody's IT band. The M's seem to find the right step to take them forward.

In concert, The M's definitely know how to create a show. You never know when a giant robot may suddenly appear in the crowd. For this special night, The M's invited local musicians to add some extra color to their sound. Backed by a horn and string section, The M's took advantage of all the space they could find on the cramped stage; Poi Dog Pondering violinist Susan Voelz and Poi Dog alumnus Dave Max Crawford on horns led their respective sections.

Drawing greatly from their latest album Future Women, The M's racked up a setlist that brought the album to life on stage.

The band sounded eager and excited as it launched into the first new song, "Mansion In The Valley." Drummer Steve Versaw almost seemed like a chariot rider with Josh Chicoine, Joey King, and Robert Hicks as the band's horses; the harder Versaw worked his drums, the more his three bandmates responded with furious interplay.

"Never Do This Again" transported the crowd inside the Empty Bottle back to 1976 with its T.Rex take-no-prisoners guitar assault; the band's mini-orchestra took the spotlight during the acoustic "Light I Love," by far the band's best song from Future Women. Just as the band has grown, so to has the band's early material like "Banishment Of Love" and the soulful epic "Break Our Bones."

The vocal trio consisting of Chicoine, King, and Hicks never missed a beat. The Redwalls, favorite sons of Deerfield, IL, may get the attention with their almost pitch perfect Beatle-esque harmonies, but The M's give those British Invasion harmonies a twist, making The M's a more captivating, devilish sound with edge and less imitation. The M's hooked the crowd and never let them go. Fans screamed out requests for new songs like "Trucker Speed" and "Underground." It was a true sign that whatever The M's are doing, they are certainly turning heads with their music.

The M's may not have Chicago and the rest of the world in the palm of their hands, but they sure played like they did.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Friday, February 24, 2006

Autumn Defense @ Schubas (2/23/2006)

On their second to last show of a winter tour, John Stirratt and Pat Sansone brought Autumn Defense back to Schubas for a sold out evening. The duo have been road testing new material for a follow-up to their second album Circles (2003).

With Wilco on break, Stirratt and Sansone found the time to put together a small 14 city tour. Over the years, Autumn Defense has become a hot ticket at Schubas. People lined up from the showroom entrance to the bar's front door, some even asking patrons sipping their drinks if extra tickets were available.

By 10pm, Autumn Defense strolled onto the cluttered stage and began their set. The band, mostly a three-piece on this tour with drummer Greg Wiz, welcomed John Pirruccello on pedal steel and Steve Tyska on trumpet. The inclusion of these musicians definitely made for a richer sound on stage. Seated upon wooden stools, Stirratt and Sansone were in fine form. "The Sun In California" provided some warmth to a crowd that has endured another Chicago winter. It was fitting that a song like "Written In The Snow" soon followed.

The band hit its stride during a performance of "Bluebirds Fall." The song originated from a split EP called Birds, Beasts, & Flowers (2004) that the band was featured on along with the Brooklyn-based band Hem. At the time of its release, "Bluebirds Fall" really displayed the band's most ambitious arrangement. Stirratt and Sansone's vocals beautifully balanced one another, moving together as if dancing.

The band spread out about seven new songs throughout the set, each well-received by the crowd. Of the new songs, one in particular called "Feel You Now" rose above the rest. If you were to close your eyes, Stirratt's voice could have been mistaken for singer Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie. But it was that small twist by Stirratt that gave the song a fresh performance.

The band continued the running joke that every band is faced with when playing the small stage at Schubas: there's nowhere to disappear to before an encore. Wiz remained at his drums as the rest of the band moved towards the stage steps. He was thinking what most of the crowd was thinking--play one more song. Sure enough, with time permitting, Autumn Defense returned and gave the crowd a song from Stirratt's Wilco past to send them into the night. Reaching back to Wilco's first album A.M., Stirratt led the band through "It's Just That Simple," the only Wilco song on which he has ever sung lead vocals.

The evening served as a perfect preview to what Autumn Defense has in store for its fans in the coming months. Stirratt and Sansone manage to keep on making the quietest, romantic noise you'll ever hear.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Play Or Nay

The M's - Future Women (Polyvinyl)

The M's are quickly becoming the Dr. Strangelove of rock music. Like the many personalities brought to life by Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film, The M's grab hold of the voices and set them up against music that is as butt-shakin' as it is menacing.

The Chicago band's sophomore album Future Women takes leaps forward from their 2004 self-titled debut. The M's don't run away from their strengths here, but the hunger to branch further out musically takes center stage. The three-part vocals by guitarists Josh Chicoine and Robert Hicks and bassist Joey King come more into their own, providing even more muscle to the band's wall of sound attack. What each voice brings to the microphone transforms into this singular discombobulated head with drummer Steve Versaw stampeding from behind.

Future Women maintains that drunken looseness from the debut album but spotlights some maturity. Some might say, "I don't want my band to become mature." Well, the lucky bands find a way to ride maturity towards new roads they never thought possible. The bands that try and fight it are really kidding themselves and soon fall off the map. Grow up or die trying, and The M's welcome the growth. Two prime examples of this are "Light I Love" and the album's title track "Future Women."

On "Light I Love," string arrangements by Dave Max Crawford (formerly of Poi Dog Pondering) turn this simple acoustic-driven tune into possibly the best song on the album. It's a gentle, bittersweet tune, featuring violinist Susan Voelz of Poi Dog Pondering that showcases more of the acoustic side of The M's. Rivaling that song is "Future Women," a song just as good as anything The Flaming Lips have written. For some reason, the image of Humpty Dumpty marching along a road in Hell to a strip joint comes to mind when listening to this song. Twisted? Sure. Fun? Definitely. The M's paint a dreamy world filled with these strange yet welcoming sounds that somehow all make sense.

But The M's don't hold back on the nastier rockers. "Never Do This Again" turns back the clock to T. Rex and Cheap Trick; the guitar bombardment comes from every angle. "Underground" can sum up any crazy Saturday night in Chicago onboard some late night El train. It sort of pays homage to The Jam's classic song "Down In The Tube Station At Midnight" with its train-like guitar rhythm.

The fuzzed up potential The M's showed on its debut album has become reality on Future Women. The songwriting team of Chicoine, King, Versaw, and Hicks has to be considered one of the best out there in music right now among young bands finding their feet. Future Women wraps up imagination, mystery, and sheer joy all into one, something any good album should deliver from the first note to the final fade.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Extra! Extra!

The following is a link to my published review of last night's Jeff Tweedy show at Otto's Niteclub in DeKalb, IL:


Saturday, February 18, 2006

Bob Mould @ Old Town School of Folk Music (2/17/2006)

The concert hall at the Old Town School of Folk Music on Lincoln Ave. provides a very intimate and relaxed atmosphere for concertgoers. For Bob Mould, the hall was completely removed from the rock show experience. Armed with an acoustic and electric guitar, Mould delighted the crowd with a passionate performance that not only was inspiring, but raw.

The small setting inside Old Town puts the performer closer to the audience; it's like a large living room. Every move the performer makes on that stage can be heard in every corner of the hall. It also sets a mood where the performer feels the audience almost as if they too were on stage. After a two-night run at Metro last September, Mould returned to Chicago unaccompanied by a band. As he began his show, Mould scanned the venue with wide-eyed amazement. He was thirsty. Had there been no microphone on stage with him, the way in which Mould attacked with his voice would have been enough to reach every seat.

Mould tapped into his wide catalog of songs, ranging from Hüsker Dü and Sugar to his solo work. But for anyone in the crowd that attended any of Mould's Metro shows, the setlist didn't veer too far from the standard set Mould has been performing. Still, Mould hit the ground running from the beginning.

Mould barely spoke a word at Metro, since each song came blasting one after another. As he stood at the microphone inside Old Town, a completely different Mould turned up. His voice lumbered through "Hoover Dam" and "See A Little Light." His bouncing good spirits came across not only through his command on stage but his talkative banter with the crowd. Mould let down his guard and opened up to the crowd. He joked about his recent troubles with airlines handling his guitars and praised the work of an Evanston music shop for designing a brand new case. He also poked fun at himself. Mould mentioned he noticed a concert date for Richie Havens to appear at Old Town soon. Mould spoke highly of Havens as a guitarist, especially with a 12-string acoustic. The joke was clear as Mould tuned his own acoustic and programmed his effects panel to reproduce the sound of a 12-string acoustic.

The stripped down feel to songs like "High Fidelity" and Hüsker Dü's "Hardly Getting Over It" glowed perfectly in the room. You could see it on Mould's face that even he knew he was having a good night.

He soon switched over to his blue Fender Stratocaster for a mini-electric guitar set. Mould openned the set with two songs from his latest solo album Body Of Song. "Circles" and "Paralyzed" cut the air like razors, changing the mood of the room. It was like watching Mould go from painting to gearing up a chainsaw. The electric guitar brought out the defiant punk full of fire that still boils hot inside him all these years later. After mixing it up between Sugar tunes ("Your Favorite Thing," "If I Can't Change Your Mind") and a Hüsker Dü favorite ("Celebrated Summer"), Mould soon bowed down before the standing ovation from the crowd and exited the stage.

Mould continues to make growing up sound really good.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Friday, February 10, 2006

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club @ Metro (2/8/2006)

Lin Brehmer, veteran DJ of WXRT, stood at the microphone like a pillar of musical integrity before a sold-out audience at Metro. "Right now, awards are being handed out for the worst music America has to offer," said Brehmer sternly. What he was referring to was the 48th annual Grammy Awards that was currently underway out in Los Angeles, CA, the music industry's big night out. It was clear from the volume of cheers that the audience knew exactly what Brehmer was talking about. "Here's the best rock 'n' roll America has to offer," said Brehmer about the band about to take the stage. That band was Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

It was just five years ago when this San Francisco band was considered to be one of the hottest rock bands on the scene. On the trio's 2001 self-titled debut album, the buzz was ignited with the take-no-prisoners attack of "Whatever Happened To My Rock 'N' Roll (Punk Song)" and further backed up by songs like "Love Burns" and "Red Eyes And Tears." The band was later handpicked by Noel Gallagher of Oasis to fill the support slot on Oasis' 2002 tour. But following the band's second album, Take Them On, On Your Own (2003), Virgin Records, the band's label, released Black Rebel Motorcycle from their stable of artists. In the blink of an eye, Peter Hayes, Robert Levon Been, and Nick Jago were without a record label and were faced with the looming question mark surrounding the band's future.

2005 saw the band return with Howl (RCA), a major detour from The Jesus & Mary Chain swamp of fuzz soaked guitars that dominated Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's first two albums. In many ways, Howl was the breath of fresh air that the band desperately needed if they were to continue as a band. Who knew a couple of acoustic guitars, a touch of piano, and a trombone could rescue a band from a creative dead end?

Making it evident that B.R.M.C. is a changed band, the set's first four songs came from Howl. There was a cryptic mood in the room as "Restless Sinner" opened the night; the stage lights were barely raised to a level that would make the band members completely visible. The hymn-like song cried in the shadows of Metro, uncovering a well of soul that was always there within the band but went unnoticed beneath the chainsaw frenzy of guitars. The band balanced a strong mix of new and old favorites making their stage presentation a much more full experience. The stomp of "Ain't No Easy Way" in all of it's Led Zeppelin-esque glory steamrolled with Hayes blowing away on harmonica; "Love Burns" prowled like a stalker; "Promise" tapped into the essence of Sam Cooke's blend of gospel with the same passion they put into their trademark anthem "Whatever Happened To My Rock 'N' Roll (Punk Song)."

A smile crossed Hayes' face during "Sympathetic Noose" as he looked over at Been during a solo, a rarity for Hayes whose brooding demeanor almost never waivers. It was as if they could sense the new freedom provided by the path they choose to take musically. The dark times were behind them. Now, they were having fun being a band. A roadie dressed up in a bear costume and ran across the stage to change guitars for Hayes. Been caught a glimpse of the roadie, cracked a laugh, and took a friendly swipe at the roadie with his leg. It was a lighthearted moment that anyone watching the band five years ago probably would not have seen.

Call it a reinvention of sound, but what B.R.M.C. demonstrated was a fearlessness to explore what maturity could offer as inspiration. The influences go beyond just The Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. Before the band even played a note, Johnny Cash could be heard playing throughout Metro's speakers. If that's not enough of a sign B.R.M.C. have embraced their other musical tastes that were overlooked by critics and listeners, then who knows what would be. Almost encapsulating this fresh chapter of the band's career, Been started off the encore with a B-side called "Mercy," a song which Been admitted to never before playing live. Alone on stage with an acoustic guitar, Been sang with such gentleness and care you would almost forget this was the same man whom thrashed on his bass during "Six Barrel Shotgun."

Five years ago, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club asked whatever happened to their rock 'n' roll. What eventually happened was they became faced with themselves and were forced to question what they had become instead what happened to the music they loved. It seems now, years later, they have found their answers and their true rock 'n' roll.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Extra! Extra!

The February issue of Chicago Innerview is now available online.

I have contributed three articles for this issue. The first is a special feature article with Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune and Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times. The other two are write-ups on Bob Mould and Autumn Defense. The links to each page are provided below:

Kot & DeRogatis:

Bob Mould (scroll down):

Autumn Defense (scroll down):