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.