Monday, July 28, 2008

Five great places to see a show in Chicago

A venue can make or break a show. There are so many factors during a concert experience independent of a band and its music, including venue sound, layout, atmosphere and crowd. Chicago is home to a healthy amount of venues - big and small - so any local live music enthusiast is sure to have a list of personal favorites.

Below is a list of, in my opinion, five of the coolest and most satisfying places to see a show in the city. Admittedly, I've not been to every venue, so if your favorite isn't on this list be sure to comment with where you love to go and why.

1. Schubas (3159 North Southport Ave in Lakeview) - Schubas is pretty much the ideal place to catch a band in Chicago. It's intimate and relaxed, but features a diverse roster of musicians that includes both local favorites and more widely-known, national acts. On top of that, the sound is great, the prices are good and the staff is always friendly. What more could you want?

2. Hideout (1354 West Wabansia in Noble Square) - One of the main reasons to see a show here is the sense of personal satisfaction you get when you finally locate the blasted thing. Yes, the Hideout really does hide out. So much so that the first time I went there it resulted in a rather confused and strained relationship between me and my cab driver. That aside, once I made it inside I found a comfortable, unassuming place that serves as an ideal setting for checking out some of the many awesome indie acts that call Chicago home.

The Chicago Reader and its readers agree - they recently selected it as the city's finest rock venue. What the Hideout crew had to say for itself says it all:

"Of course the secret to our success is not a secret at all. It is a friendly staff, made up mostly of musicians, and artists, that are not only concerned with our community but actually participate in civic minded activities. Add amazing bands and cheap beer and you’ve got a great party."

3. The Vic (3145 North Sheffield Ave in Lakeview) - When it comes to a happy medium between huge venues and small venues - as well as the huge and small acts that go with them - the Vic is very effective. Every time I've been there the sound has been great, you can choose whether you want to sit or stand and it's easy to get to via public transportation. Did I mention the sound is great?

4. Park West (322 West Armitage in Lincoln Park) - Just been to Lollapalooza and still trying to scrub strangers' sweat and cigarette smoke off your skin? It's time for a more relaxed, intimate show. Lincoln Park's Park West is the perfect place to go for a more chilled-out (but often still quite rocking) evening in a unique, classy atmosphere. This venue is generally frequented by more thoughtful, singer-songwriter and veteran acts, which means you probably won't have to deal with trashed indie kids annoyingly preventing you from hearing or seeing the show.

The theater has been around since the 1920s, but turned into Park West in 1977. Since then, it has provided a welcome antidote to one too many consecutive dive bar shows.

5. Metro (3730 N Clark St in Wrigleyville) - Metro isn't a perfect venue, but it's undeniable that it's a mainstay in the Chicago music scene and usually features a strong selection of music that spans popularity levels and genres, including small, large, legendary and new acts. Plus, you get a good view pretty much anywhere you stand.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The 1900s scheduled for TV performance, weekend shows

One of Chicago's finest bands, melodic folk rock outfit The 1900s, is scheduled to appear tonight, July 23, for an interview and live acoustic performance on WTTW's "Chicago Tonight." The show will air on channel 11 at 7 p.m., and will precede two Saturday performances by the band in Wicker Park.

Last year, The 1900s released their critically-acclaimed debut LP, "Cold and Kind" (reviewed here), a gorgeous mix of 60s, Zombies-style melodies and indie pop a la Belle and Sebastian. As the band works on its next release, the TV spot and two Wicker Park shows - which will take place July 26 in-store at American Apparel at 1 p.m. and later at Wicker Park Fest at 4 p.m. - could be the last opportunities to see them perform for a while.

For a taste of the band's sound, you can download one of "Cold and Kind's" standout tracks, "When I Say Go," on their official site.

Friday, July 18, 2008

BRAAM - Damn the Dream Killers

Chicago's Braam have been releasing records for nearly a decade, and the band's new release, "Damn the Dream Killers," is a testament to their longevity. On the record, brothers Tom, Scott and Mike Braam - along with drummer Dave Ashdown - deliver an ambitious collection of 17 songs that are as melodic and captivating as they are no-nonsense, stripped down rock 'n' roll.

Opening with the gentle "Finds You Well" and quickly moving into hard-edged garage rock territory with "Mama I'm Scared," the brothers Braam make it known from the start that they are fully capable of both quiet beauty and full-fledged rocking out. The third track, a jangling, hooky tune called "She Can't Take It," proves they can also master the middle ground with ease.

Between singer Tom Braam's gravelly, impassioned voice and the band's ability to truly rock without sacrificing accessibility, it's difficult not to make a comparison to the Replacements. When the smoky "Right Train, Wrong Town" starts playing, hints of early R.E.M. rush in, while the upfront guitar and strong melodies throughout the disc bring to mind Badfinger. When you can stir thoughts of three bands as great as the Replacements, R.E.M. and Badfinger in the course of a single record, there's no doubt you're doing something right.

Elsewhere, the mid-tempo, sadly beautiful "Blackout" is the kind of song that would be a radio smash in a perfect world, while "4th of July" is one of the best politically-charged songs I've heard in a long time. "1126 S. Austin Blvd." is an irresistible rocker that scores extra points for repeatedly name-dropping the Windy City, and "State Bank of Cheyenne" is possibly the greatest example of Braam's' clever, left-field lyrics (although "Sneakin'" boasts my favorite lyric on the record in "Recorded my record and I wrote about my life/It was like Leonard Cohen doing ''A Hard Day's Night.'").

If you've recently found yourself mourning the decline of true rock and roll, look into the Braam brothers and "Damn the Dream Killers." You'll likely find it a much needed dose of faith.

Braam plays Double Door Friday, July 18, to celebrate the release of "Damn the Dream Killers." Click here for details.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Plan Your Weekend at Pitchfork

Pitchfork Music Festival kicks off Friday in Union Park with evening performances by Mission of Burma, Sebadoh and Public Enemy, but goes into full swing Saturday and Sunday with bands starting sets from 12:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on each day. Single day passes for Saturday and Sunday have sold out, but those of you who already have them or plan to somehow hunt them down will need to figure out how to spend your time at the fest, which features three stages. Here's a few of the acts not to miss:

Saturday, July 19

- The Ruby Suns - New Zealand's Suns blend psychedelic indie pop with sounds from around the world, creating a unique vibe worth checking out in a live setting. Balance Stage, 4:15 p.m.

- Vampire Weekend - It seems people either love this band or discount them as uninteresting or unoriginal. I choose the first, and as evidenced by how quickly their debut record gained momentum, so do a lot of people. This is fun, slightly Afro-inspired indie pop that boasts instantly memorable hooks. If you're like me and missed their April show at Metro, here's your chance to make up for it. Aluminum Stage, 5 p.m.

- Elf Power - If you did happen to catch Vampire Weekend's Metro show or subscribe to the latter school of thought above, check out the lo-fi indie pop of Elf Power, who perform on a different stage at a conflicting time. Balance Stage, 5:20 p.m.

- The Hold Steady - The brash, Springsteen-esque sounds and highly energetic performances of Craig Finn and company have made them a popular choice among indie rock fans over the past few years, and the band's newly released LP, "Stay Down" is sure to bring them even more buzz. Aluminum Stage, 7 p.m.

- Animal Collective - The experimental noise pop of this New York City-based band translates to an unpredictable live show that often features improvisation and a bevy of bizarre sounds. Aluminum Stage, 9 p.m.

Sunday, July 20

- Mahjongg - These locals cook up a quirky and random mix of tribal beats and dancey indie rock, some of which has drawn comparison to Talking Heads. Balance Stage, 12:30 p.m.

- The Apples in Stereo - Like Spoon, The Apples in Stereo have been around for a while, offering up hooky, 60s-inspired pop since their debut record in 1994. Aluminum Stage, 3 p.m.

- Cut Copy - This Aussie trio marries dancey electro with traditional pop and rock elements for a sound that will help keep you energized in the July heat. Balance Stage, 8:25 p.m.

- Spoon - When it comes to indie rock you really can't get better than Spoon, who have most recently been in the spotlight for last year's oddly titled LP "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga," which spawned irresistible singles in "The Underdog" and "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb." Aluminum Stage, 9 p.m.

@chicagorock: Bands on Twitter

Chicagorock is looking up Chicago bands on Twitter.

ReaderX @chicagorock: There are bands on Twitter?

Chicagorock @readerX: Yeah!

ReaderX @chicagorock: Cool. What exactly is Twitter all about, anyway?

Chicagorock @readerX: I dunno, but check out that awesome whale!

Those of you who have jumped fearlessly into the wild world of Twitter might be able to make some sense of the above conversation, fabricated for the purposes of this post. As for the rest of you, what I'm trying to say is that I’ve cracked and signed up for the latest online social networking craze - and so have some local bands.

Not so long ago, pretty much the only ways to check out a band were to buy their music or go to one of their shows. Then came MySpace and Facebook, and suddenly I not only could listen to almost any band at any time, some of them even wanted to be my friend (OK, if only for promotional reasons…)! Now, it seems indie bands have a new promo outlet in Twitter, a site that allows you to “follow” what your network of friends is doing and also let them know what you’re up to at all times.

Don’t get what makes it so special? I'm not sure I do either, even after playing around on it for a while and listening to multiple people try to tell me all about what makes it so cool. But one thing’s for sure - Twitter is undeniably addictive. It’s a simple concept, yet it's somehow satisfying to let all 3 or 12 or 2000 people in your network know that you’re “totally stoked for the show tonight!,” for example. Apparently, you can even do so wherever you’re at via your cell phone.

Immediately after I joined (“chicagorock” – let's be friends), I searched for “Chicago bands” and “Chicago music,” and actually found that more than a few local musicians have gotten in on the act. I am now “Tweeting” with some of them, including braam, Marty Williamson, Lucid Ground, Overman and Loyal Divide.

Will Twitter become a truly valuable promotional tool for musicians? I’m not so sure, as the novelty of a cool band Tweeting at you might wear off if the site becomes flooded with them a la MySpace. It does seem to be the most simple way to let groups of people know about shows and record releases because users seem more likely to read all their Tweets than they are bulletins or group postings on other networking sites.

What do you think? Is it worthwhile for bands to jump on the Twitter bandwagon? Are you open to discovering new music through the site?

STAR Does Chilton, Noise Pop Style

Local indie noise pop trio STAR have great taste in music. A while ago they previewed a sweet cover of "I'll Do It Anyway" by the Lemonheads on their MySpace site, and now they've put up their brand new take on a rather obscure track by Big Star frontman Alex Chilton called "Rock Hard."

STAR's 2007 album "Devastator" - an exploration of wall of sound and shoegaze somewhere in-between The Jesus and Mary Chain and The Ronettes - was one of my favorite records of the year. Particularly notable were the dreamy vocals of Shannon Roberts, whose detached, commanding lows and angelic highs gave the tunes an extra ethereal feel.

Roberts and the band take a slightly more playful approach on the under-two-minute "Rock Hard," which does just what its title suggests and offers up some noisy fun you'll want to put on repeat. If the song is any indication of what's on tap for the band's upcoming second album, "Violence Against STAR," there's a lot more to look forward to.

Download "Rock Hard" on STAR's MySpace site, and catch them live July 19 at Quenchers and July 26 at the Abbey.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

SCATTEREDTREES to give away new EP at Beat Kitchen

Local five-piece Scatteredtrees is playing Beat Kitchen this Thursday with Welsh band People in Planes, and will offer a new live EP for free at the show. The band's sadly beautiful songs, propelled by the expressive vocals and songwriting of Nate Eiesland, sound something like a mix of Wilco and Aimee Man at their most low-key.

Scatteredtrees gained recognition last year when their track "Sparrow" was included on the Starbucks compilation "Off the Clock, Vol. 1," which sold more than 30,000 copies. The band signed to 4AM records the same year and released an EP titled "Heart of Glass," but have since gone indie.

Check out "Sparrow" and three tracks from the new EP - "You Said That You'd Wait," "I Will Say This Twice" and "Reason to Stay" – on the Scatteredtrees MySpace page.

Lions and tigers and...Blondie at Lincoln Park Zoo

Seasoned new wave rockers Blondie played Lincoln Park Zoo (yes, the zoo) Friday night as part of a tour honoring the 30th anniversary of their classic LP, "Parallel Lines." Iconic front woman Debbie Harry must have felt one with the animals, as she purred, roared and prowled the stage throughout the band's 90 minute set, which began with the 1978-released album in its entirety.

The zoo features bands throughout the summer as part of its "Jammin' at the Zoo" series, and surprisingly functions as a decent venue. The sound was great and the setup allowed for those who wanted to stand to do so, which, having never "jammed at the zoo," was my main concern.

The crowd was energetic and surprisingly youthful, including more than a few teenaged girls screaming with joy at the sight of Harry as if it were 1964 and the Beatles had just come on to the stage - a refreshing sign suggesting that the pop music apocalypse might not be as near as I thought.

Harry fed off the energy, abandoning her trademark cool indifference for a truly enthusiastic performance. Along with the band, which currently includes two other original members - guitarist Chris Stein and drummer Clem Burke - she delivered fresh, energetic versions of genre-hopping classics such as "Heart of Glass," "Call Me," "Rapture" and "The Tide is High." Harry really came alive, though, during boisterous, seldom-played album cuts such as "11:59" and "I'm Gonna Love You Too," as well as two hard rocking tracks from her 2007 solo release, "Necessary Evil." The band even tore through a punk cover of the sappiest of all pop ballads, "My Heart Will Go On," featuring an especially fierce performance by Burke to which Harry exclaimed, "He's an animal!"

It seems animal behavior was the theme of the night.

Upcoming Lincoln Park Zoo shows include Fastball with Blind Melon on July 25 and Soul Asylum on August 22.