Reflecting on a year marked by terrorism and racial tension, it is sometimes hard to divert focus from the dark side of the force and concentrate on the things that have made this a very good year. A family gathering. Helping a person in need. Hanging out in the sun or having a great meal with great wine and a great friend. Letting it all hang out on the dance floor–are all reasons to be cheerful.
When I look back on a year of music performance I can still see and feel excitement, hope and renewal (with a bit of anger) from both the stage and the audience. I don’t know about you, but there seemed to be more and more people at big shows having huge conversations during the band. Hello–aren’t we here to see/hear this show?! But, take a couple of steps away and you (that’s the royal “you”–me) can still be the one swaying, pogoing, dancing, thrashing and hopefully enjoying the pleasure of the individual and collective connection with the music. experience. Getting to know and bounce off your neighbor while enjoying the music and also making sure that the people around you are ok. A knowing nod of the head and smile. Girls (or shorter people) to the front! Thank goodness that with all the ideals shedding around us–some conscientiousness is still there!
While festivals can seem to dominate a year–and the performances at Riotfest, Pitchfork and even Lolla–thankfully delivered great and surprising (though again often literally, sonically and figuratively muddy) moments, the most indelible etchings in my brain come from intimacy and surprise.
Seeing the best punk bands from Chicago and Providence at a literally and figuratively underground diy music space in an unfinished basement in Pilsen. Walking up and asking the band members where to buy beer (a Hispanic market nearby), entering what might have been in earlier decades a shooting gallery, then tromping carefully downstairs to the basement–watch your head! Then to get blown away by two of the best new bands in the country (while continuing to watch your head-no pogoing!)–beats virtually all the big time corporate stuff.
The power of the Internet, happenstance, and a crowdfunding contribution brought a dark wave band from Copenhagen, Denmark to my living room (after I made them dinner) for an intimate show before they headed to the Burlington. Morten, the drummer used a snare drum and covered his luggage with a tablecloth to make an atmospheric sound, and I felt compelled in the moment to break out some percussion so the four person audience could participate.
Johnny Thunders probably said it best–“You can’t put your arms around a memory” –but I guess like surviving statesmen Mick and Keith, I’ll try (tra, tra, tra, tra, try that is)–at least this time to bearhug bits of my year.
Here are some of the memorable performances I was able to encounter by plan or luck in 2015.
SLEATER-KINNEY (Spokane, Boise, Milwaukee, Chicago (Riviera and Pitchfork) and Brooklyn (2) February- December).
There is 4 dimensional excitement born from experiencing something new. Which is why I headed to Spokane and Boise to see Sleater-Kinney do their first shows after a nine year hiatus. During that time Carrie Brownstein became an NPR icon, a TV celeb and an American Express commercial feature as well as performing in the great garage band Wild Flag. Janet F’ing Weiss played with Steve Malkmus as well as Wild Flag, and Corin Tucker had her own band and raised her two kids. The density of expectation about what the resumption of Sleater-Kinney would bring was paralyzing. What I found in all 7 shows was a band that was hungry, furious and excited to play to a new generation of fans as well as its long term followers. This was anything but a greatest hit tour to cash in. Corin has not lost any of her brilliant howling voice, and Carrie and Corin’s guitars continue to smash and play off and around each other while leaving space while Janet remains one of rock ad roll’s fiercest drummers. Their only concession to age or success is bringing on a fourth member to play guitars, keyboards and some drum–which makes the rest of the bands’ job easier but sometimes clutters the sound. They can have fun, too, finishing the year with covers of the Ramones’ Merry Xmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight) while featuring a menorah on stage, and Rock Lobster, with Fred Armisen playing Fred Schneider. Most importantly, S-K’s new songs are fearless, filled with Clash-infused quick reggae, Gang of Four angular slashing, challenges to individual relationships and society but most importantly, presenting in lyrics and performance the joy of banding to play rock and roll together-again.
ALGIERS (Schubas, June 15).
An amazing genre mashing band from Atlanta and London that combines gospel, work songs, Motown, claps and post-punk . The music is assertive, restless, and yet ready to explode. Lead singer Franklin James Fisher channels the soulfulness of Curtis Mayfield and the Temptations with a somber, soulful yearning that matches the strain on his face, reflecting on past and present racial struggles. Seeing them on the night the Black Hawks won the Stanley Cup created a haunting, surreal dichotomy of the range of euphoria, struggle and the violence both can bring to fruition.
PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED (Concord Music Hall, November 18).
Sometimes I wish I had the power to clue a younger, dance-oriented crowd to hear a progenitor band. In the case of Public Image Limited–they probably played the best dance set I heard all year. The psychedelic saz played by Lu Edmonds overlaying a pulsing thick-chest banging dub bass propelled the crowd into a trance making this the dance show of the year, while Johnny Lydon (Rotten) –looking like an escapee from a chain gain for the sunburnt obese chanted club classics like This is Not a Love Song and rants on society like Religion.
FOLLAKZOID (Empty Bottle, May 13).
Hard to believe that the most trans-euro krautrock band around comes from Santiago, Chile. But coming from German parents and being raised on Can and Kraftwerk, the dark, pulsating psychedelic droning does not stop with each mindblowing 10 minute song. Coincidentally, and not that you can’t trust me, but I was talking to a Williamsburg blogger at the great bar Sycamore in what, by day is a flower shop in Ditmas Park. He saw more than 160 shows this year and said his favorite was Follakzoid!
WIDOWSPEAK (Chop Shop/First Ward, October 13).
Ethereal waves flow from Molly Hamilton’s voice and Robert Earl Thomas’ guitar. You want to sway and follow along with them as they walk through dark forests to find that space of sunlight the tall pines cannot block or cross the river gurgling just over the rocks or to a small waterfall. Some light and sometimes edgy surf or atmospheric guitar, some Mazzy Starr-esque vocals and you have the zen you have been looking for.
NELS CLINE (Constellation February 21).
Better known today as guitarist for Wilco, Nels Cline has a world wide reputation as an avante garde/noise musician. This cool performance group included the incredible cellist Fred Lonborg-Holm, drummers Mike Reed (who deserves a standing “o” for bringing back Hungry Brain) and Wilco’s Glenn Kotchke. As hard as it is to explain most music in words, the atonal staccato chaos with harmony and symmetry when you least expect it can be appreciated even by an old punk like me–even though it is not in my “sweetspot.” The most unusual piece de resistance was artist Norton Wisdom who created temporary pieces throughout the show inspired by the music. That’s something more bands might try, it adds another visual dimension to performance and perception.
NEGATIVE SCANNER (Cole’s, Empty Bottle, Mt. Happy, probably somewhere else I can’t remember)
Chicago’s best live band continues to put on thirty minute shows of propulsive frenzy of energy. The short, sharp and cutting chords and bellowing vocals of Rebecca Valeriano-Flores go straight from the gut and in your face, but it is the collective force of the entire group’s sound that makes you want to bounce and jump some cars. They put out its first record this year–check it out!
GANG OF FOUR (Park West March 13, Thalia Hall)
While Andy Gill is the only remaining original member of the band–he can pretty much carry the essence of the sound such that it does not seem like a simulacrum. I’m no gun enthusiast, but I’ll let Andy play his searing submachine gun blasts over the chugging, churning bass engine that provides the dual sensation of frenetic dance fever and brain piercing needles. With his new band of youngsters they could re-release To Hell With Poverty and probably have a dance hit.
An aside. Actually, one of my best moments of the year-dj-wise–was playing To Hell With Poverty at a private party sponsored by a very large software company. With a bunch of blue shirts in the crowd, and after having been told by the “party planner” in a fake British accent “I really like what your going to play, except the punk” -I stuck it to them just a bit with To Hell With Poverty and The Bush Tetras– Too Many Creeps!
MPV (Cole’s, January 29)
This grungy, rock and roll trio gives you the kind of sound you’d expect from Detroit. Bluesy, hard, grinding riffs. Lead singer and guitarist Elise McCoy combines a Joan Jett attitude, sunglasses, headbanger hair and sultry and savage vocals which distinguish them from the pack. One of the best opening bands of the year.
MEKONS (Square Roots Fest, Hideout July 11-12)
Exemplifying very quickly that the Mekons considered this year’s Chicago shows to be seriously important. Sally Timms announced that anyone interested in on-stage banter could purchase a CD of banter from the merch booth–which was true! Over the last decades that (pseudo husband and wife business) banter between her and her fellow UK escapee and Chicago resident Jon Langford was humorous, but often detracted from the music. Dispensing with the conversation meant that the Mekons launched into some of their best and strongest songs without any time outs, segueing their honky tonk punk songs–merging guitars, saz (Lu again!) violin and, accordion to create a driving alt-punky/country-ish sound to put on their best show in more than a decade, grab on to their legacy and show that they are not ready to be put out to pasture.
THE FOREIGN RESORT (My house and The Burlington, October 19)
Channeling new wave bands like The Cure, Simple Minds, New Order, U2 and The Bravery, this trio from Copenhagen synthesizes it all to create something meaningful and new. Alternatively plaintive or insurgent vocals from Mikkel Jakobsen ride the dark wave with emotional takes on excess, loneliness and relationships. They’ll be back in Chicago in March on their way to SXSW.
WIRE (Thalia Hall, June 12)
For some reason, I have never been that into Wire. Even though many of the bands that I admire consider them to be a major influence. As part of their 3 day Drill Festival, they opened for themselves as The Fly and put on a fast, raw, scathing, staccato guitar fest that put me into believer mode.
JULIE RUIN – Pitchfork
Back on the road after cancelling a tour due to her recurring Lyme Disease the Original Riotgrrl Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, Le Tigre) played on a side stage–which was kind of ironic since her Sleater-Kinney students were the headliners–but who really cares. Kathleen struts her stuff–ranging from Polystrene/X Ray Spex punk to sultry soul, without losing her sense of humor or political bent.
IGGY POP– Riotfest
Iggy is one of the seven wonders of the modern world. At 68, he is still totally ripped–in muscularity and music (and who knows, probably mentally), but is one of the most charismatic performers in music of any day. Pulling out the stops, his leather jacket was off almost immediately–giving a no bs onslaught of No Fun, I Wanna Be Your Dog, The Passenger and Lust for Life–right off the bat. He could have stopped right there and given one of the best shows of the year-but he kept kicking butt–as I hope we all will be able to do.