Last year there were many memorable/euphoric experiences, some that came when I least expected it. Like when walking out of an art party in Hong Kong where I was drinking beet and pomegranate juice mixed with vodka and served in blood bags (ok–it was an apocalyptic party), I just happened to look at the list of performers so I could see if the DJ I heard of was someone famous–he wasn’t, but lo and behold the next performers were Rebuilding the Rights to Statues–Beijing’s Number One post-punk band. So, of course, I told my friends that I was staying and heard a short and great show of Gang of Four-inspired angst, B52s dance, with some electronica mixed in. Crazy. Or the Danish dark wave dance band that just happened to post on Facebook that it was looking for a gig in Chicago that night.
And, just as you remember both great and shitty meals, or particularly excellent or poor service, indelibly etched in my mind are the 12-18 inch globs of mud I trudged through at Riotfest and the very scary salmon-walking upstream necessary to navigate and escape Riotfest–so bad it came very close to turning me off large festivals entirely (not to mention the bad time and 30 minute time slots for The Buzzcocks and Kurt Vile). But as Tuff Darts said it best–It’s all for the love of rock and roll.
Here are some of the memorable performances I was able to encounter by plan or luck in 2014.
PERFORMANCES BY “OLD” BANDS
THE SONICS Double Door –February 27.
Formed in 1963 (and breaking up for the first time in 1967) this originally Seattle-based band still has 3 of its founding members, including singer/piano player Gerry Roslie. While they have influenced artists ranging from The Cramps, The Clash and The Fall all the way to Nirvana, The White Stripes, Japandroids and LCD Soundsystem–what really counts is that they can still deliver the goods live. At 70 years of age Roslie belts out his lyrics like Little Richard at a sock hop and Larry Parypa lays out the sharp dirty chords that inspired generations of guitarists. This grungy and garagey band can still send out shivers of frenetic dance waves. From “The Witch” you can hear the origins to the main riff in “Should I Stay or Should I Go” from “Strychnine” a long line of songs about recreational substance abuse, and their authenticity can even make the frat rock standard “Louie Louie” palatable and fun again, to give us all hope for our future.
TELEVISION- Bottom Lounge, September 14
Playing Guiding Light, my second least favorite song from Marquee Moon, Tom Verlaine launched into perhaps the best guitar solo I have ever seen. I looked at the two friends I was with–one of whom is an excellent guitarist in his own right–and they were looking at me with the same expression of awe. Verlaine remains one of the most creative guitarists, bending strings and creating sounds ranging from space to jazz, to noise and back to staccato bullets. Now that the new version of the band has been playing consistently for over a year they are able to give transformative vibrance and free improvisational reign Verlaine which adds new life to these vintage arty, punky and proggy compositions.
NEW ORDER Aragon Brawlroom–July 1
While I admit to being a Joy Division purist (or “snob” perhaps?) it is great to have the opportunity to suspend my earthly existence and just flat out let go. The thickest and best sound I have ever heard at the Aragon was New Order’s. It is actually amazing how fresh Temptation (the lead song from my soundtrack of the Summer of 1982) felt. These guys’ performance (and that of Kraftwerk below) show what dance music should be like. Definitely the sweatiest/danciest show of the year for me.
KRAFTWERK Riviera–March 27.
How could 4 old German dudes standing almost motionless behind consoles be SO EXCITING?! Pulsive rather than propulsive, you could just feel the sound that influenced 40+ years of trance/dance music to follow. There was a cool 3D light show with angular lights and symbolistic graphics for each song, but you could also just close your eyes and take your own intergalactic journey instead of the autobahn being provided.
PETER HOOK AND THE LIGHT–Metro November 14
Original Joy Division and New Order bassist Peter Hook has created a simulacrum to compete with his former compatriots. On this tour they played a Joy Division opening set (curated by Joe Shanahan) and then moved on to New Order. While an excellent cover band, in my mind they do a much better job of pulling off Joy Division than New Order in terms of the respective bands’ sound. Hook mugs and shouts for the crowd while sometimes playing the lead bass riffs that formed the foundation of JD’s sound. Of course, no one can replace Ian Curtis in sound and action which makes Hooky’s job quite difficult. But, his energy and enthusiasm, together with great and unique lead bass playing keeps the experience at a level of quality and comfort well above Las Vegas cocktail lounge impersonation.
BRYAN FERRY –Chicago Theater–September 21
At 69, he does not make women swoon as much as when I saw him at the Uptown in 1978, but he still is one of the most charismatic crooners around, striking poses with his lanky profile and dancing with an economy of motion when not behind the piano. His band didn’t have Manzanara or Mackay type virtuosi, but turned out lush versions primarily from the Roxy Music catalog with some of his original solo stuff and packed a little bit of punch, making you wish the theater had more room to sway.
JONATHAN RICHMAN- Space –June 16
Just like when the Ramones were constantly touring and semi-ubiquitous, I think you can take Jonathan for granted sometimes. But this progenitor of punk turned troubadour, Jonathan is still curious and engaged as he half talks and half sings his sincere and often whimsical odes to bygone times other cultures and relationships, both of the interpersonal relationships and even our own intrapersonal ones. In “Let Her Go Into the Darkness” he catches his feet walking into his old girlfriend’s neighborhood and scolds himself, while in “Bohemia” he transports himself back to being a 16 year old pretentious artist who his parents let hang out in Harvard Square. There are not too many artists that can make you laugh and cry so much in one show.
STIFF LITTLE FINGERS- Concord Music Hall–September 12
Still punk and political after all these years. In between an afternoon Riotfest gig and a show in Cleveland the next day, this second wave punk band led by now Chicagoan Jake Burns delivered a blistering opening set in a Riotfest aftershow. SLF reminded us of how reggae beats supported the punk ethos hitting hard with viscous 30+ year old anti-war (Tin Soldiers, Nobody’s Hero) and anti-discrimination (Roots Radicals Rockers and Reggae and the Specials Doesn’t Make it Alright) songs. Even their song from their new album (and first in 11 years) sounded vibrant and meaningful. It reminded me of when I used to call Green Day a Stiff Little Fingers cover band.
THE CLEAN-Lincoln Hall–August 18
This cultish band from of all places New Zealand band specializes in a pulsing beat combined with driving harmonic, chiming and sometimes dissonant guitars. The weirdest finish of any show this year occurred when guitarist David Kilgour refused to come out for the encore and his brother Hamish successfully solicited singers and ultimately an awesome guitarist from the audience to finish up the song–totally breaking down the barriers between performer and audience in the ultimate DIY performance.
YOUSSOU N’DOUR-Vic Theater–September 20
Perhaps the most famous singer alive–at least according to Rolling Stone–N’Dour is barely known in the US apart from a collaboration with Peter Gabriel In fact, most of the members of the audience were Africans dressed to the nines in wild prints and neon suits. Youssou and his huge band delivered a 2 + hour set of booty shaking percussive world dance music combining the traditional music from his native Senegal with influences from samba to hip hop. After every few songs he would ask the audience if they had had enough, and sure enough we wanted more–and he kept delivering.
Only performing for 22 years, makes this Pittsburgh based punk band almost “newish” by comparison. Unabashedly political yet community oriented, they see everyone as human beings–stopped the show to make sure that the mosh pit was safe, and had everyone introduce themselves to their neighbors. Ultimately, they moved their drum set to the middle of mosh pit and finished their show from there.
PERFORMANCES BY “NEW-ISH” BANDS
FEAR OF MEN -Empty Bottle–April 28
Hypnotic, swirling, dreamy rhythms of the band supported Jessica Weiss’ visceral poetry and ethereal vocals. Many songs start off slow but build in intensity carrying you up and away with the repetitive spirals of sound. Reflections on depression and difficult relationships never sounded so beautiful and haunting.
CEREBRAL BALLZY -Riotfest-September 14
Part chaos, part poseurs and part punks. These hard core slacker kids from Brooklyn are amazingly fun to watch and thrash to. They have a fresh energy and are a throwback to the original punk ethos. Writing songs about not having enough money to get on the subway. In between songs, lead singer Honor Titus gave shout outs to the Art Institute girls.
THE JULIE RUIN–Lincoln Hall– April 9
Original Riotgrrl Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, Le Tigre) struts her stuff–ranging from Polystrene/X Ray Spex to sultry soul, without losing her sense of humor or political bent. She had to cancel her Pitchfork performance because of her Lyme Disease, but will hopefully make a full recovery and be back here soon.
JUAN WAUTERS–Empty Bottle–June 18
This Brooklyn based troubadour is better known as the lead singer of the Beets, but solo he wields his guitar and flashed a lightbulb against himself and the backdrop of an American flag to create very cool simple imagery and claim lineage to being a hipster Woody Guthrie or Billy Bragg.
COSMONAUTS–Hotel Vegas–March 15
You have to like any band that calls their album Persona Non Grata, but these slackers from Orange County have two separate speeds, droney shoegaze and driving chiming psychedelic pop. Somehow both speeds come with different varieties of disaffected stoner vocals and rhythms that make your head nod.
THE FOREIGN RESORT—Burlington October 21
This was the surprise of the year! Playing Daytrotter, this band from Copenhagen Denmark put a note on Facebook that it could use a gig THAT NIGHT in Chicago, and wow–Thank you Burlington! This trio drilled post punk dark wave dance right out of the Sisters of Mercy school with some New Order in there too.
ETERNAL SUMMERS–Bottom Lounge –May 18, Promontory–October 12
This indie rock and power pop trio from Roanoke, Virginia reference various phases of the Cure really well but substituting strong female vocals. Nothing wrong with any of that plus bouncy dance music and anthemic power chords to boot.
THEE OH SEES–One Eyed Jacks–November 12, Empty Bottle–November 25 and 26
Jon Dwyer has (unfortunately) replaced his entire band. His new stripped down power trio sometimes sounds like a cover band, but still brings on grungy, raunchy, psychotic and fast rock and roll music to stomp to.
DUM DUM GIRLS–Bottom Lounge–July 19; Empty Bottle–March 31
Ranging from surf-edged girl group guitar infused indie pop to resolute or unresolved ballads of love, loss and failure, no matter how many times I see Dee Dee Penny (6 times this year alone) I marvel at her strong stage presence. She has the ability to provide a stoic dark glare yet conveys so much lyrical and vocal emotion. Ultimately, like all of us she just doesn’t want to fade, she just wants to shine. Her band (with the addition of a Dum Dum guy this time around) helps to traverse darkness to light and sometimes back again. The emotion hits you along with the beat, and when the beat picks up you smile.
PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING SYSTEM–Gypsy Lounge–March 12
This band is a pretty cool audio-visual mix of driving dance music (a bit faster than Kraftwerk or EDM) comprised of drums, electronics, keyboard, guitar and banjo interjects combined with vocal samples and images from old UK public information films around. The anachronistic images gel with the music create a unique sensory experience.
HABIBI–Bottom Lounge–September 18
Combining surf and psychedelic, and Middle Eastern, indie pop rhythms, this elemental all female Brooklyn based band (with members also from Detroit) entrances with a chiming, retro-sensual beat.
TOP LOCAL BAND PERFORMANCES IN 2014
NEGATIVE SCANNER—Promontory, Burlington, Owl, Saki, Cole’s, Empty Bottle- you name it.
It is hard to find a more power packed 30 minutes than the howling, scathing post punk assault you get.
BARE MUTANTS– Schubas January 17, Empty Bottle July 11
Living somewhere in a narrow harmonic hazy space between The Velvet Underground and Jesus and Mary Chain, the thick layered shoegaze and noise transcends space and time.
TWIN PEAKS –Pitchfork, July 19
These brats delivered the goods with a rollicking, chaotic and fun set of trashy garage rock. It was made even better by the fact that guitarist/singer Cadien Lake James was flying around in a wheelchair.
NEFARIOUS FAT CATS–Liar’s Club, December 14
This local punk super group comprised of members of Stiff Little Fingers, Local H, Peg Boy and others gets together for charity during the holiday season and in addition to collecting a ton of toys and some $ has a lot of fun black and deckering through songs by Thin Lizzy, The Ramones, SLF and more.
LURRIE BELL (w/guest Eddie C. Campbell)–City News Café– January 31
This second generation blues guitarist/harpist played solo acoustic in a small coffee shop at a newsstand in Portage Park, playing guttural Southern blues, only to be joined by his godfather Eddie C. Campbell who, after a little cajoling, belted out a song from a table in his first public performance since a stroke suffered while on tour in Germany in February 2013.
NRG ENSEMBLE –Hideout– June 14
This kick ass all star band features the amazing cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, international star reedist, Ken Vandermark and (sometime Psychedelic Fur saxophonist) Mars Williams among others. Chaotic free form noise to straight ahead bop, even an old punk can appreciate.
JIM PETERIK AND THE IDES OF MARCH–House of Blues–May 31
50 years and counting, the pride of Berwyn, Illinois still keeps rolling with its original members. Vehicle, their Number Two hit from 1970 still sounds fresh with one of the greatest horn riffs in rock and roll history. And, while classic rock is not my genre, the litany of hits that Jim Peterik has authored (e.g. Eye of the Tiger, Hang On Loosely) is impressive and his stories and music amply entertaining.