Monday, March 22, 2004

Concert Recommendation: Ted Leo/Pharmacists, Logan Square Auditorium, Tuesday, March 23

Admittedly, this was a more enticing show when Radio 4 was scheduled as an opening act, but Ted Leo is a worthy draw in his own right. For starters, "Ballad of a Sin Eater" is the catchiest song about ignorance of world affairs ever written (rather like Elvis Costello's "Veronica" being the catchiest song about senility, in part because there's not much competition). "Sin Eater" isn't completely representative of Leo's much-lauded latest album Hearts of Oak, but there's a pleasant Joe Jackson-esque quality to it. And a few years back, the band outshone Dismemberment Plan when opening for them at the Metro. This show is presented by the Empty Bottle, so more information is at their web site.

Ted Leo/Pharmacist play with Perfect Panther and Electrelane at the Logan Square Auditorium, 2539 N. Kedzie, Chicago, 773.276.3600, at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 24.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony airs in about half an hour on VH-1 (and reairs another 2 hours after that, but probably not for the last time). It's not as exciting a crop of inductees as the last couple years. In other words, there probably won't be any speeches as good as Tom Morello's allusion to Steinbeck in lauding the Clash or Anthony Kiedis's observation that when he started listening the Talking Heads, "I wanted to have sex with a lot of librarians."

But there is still Prince, the only shoo-in among this year's batch. A guitar virtuoso who has always remembered that a great guitar solo doesn't matter if the song as a whole doesn't make you want to shake your butt. He created the funkiest music of the '80s. His appeal crossed racial barriers, especially since the very concept of a black rock and roll guitarist had largely died with Jimi Hendrix.

Most of all, Prince rules because it's all about the music with him. He kept his acceptance speech at the ceremony short in favor of playing; he reportedly skipped the ceremony's after-party to go play a set at another club. The backstage reports from his appearance at the Grammys last month was that he put in long hours of rehearsal, a tactic that clearly paid off. The most persistent rumor about Prince isn't some strange scandal in his personal life but that he has thousands of songs stockpiled at Paisley Park, that the guy writes and records far faster than the industry knows how to get the material out to the public. Unlike Madonna, who probably timed her pregnancies to maximize the publicity synergy with her commercial projects, he really does keep his private live private, not merely claiming to do so while exploiting it at opportune times. While he's kept his love life quiet, it appears that his way of proclaiming his ardor for a woman is to write her a hit single. By reverting to his given name from the unpronounceable symbol, he's put the focus back on his talent and maybe managed to get the word out about why his having done so was an act of protest against his stifling record label (see above about stockpiled recordings.) And, at least according to the proclamation of one of my friends in 1984, he made one of the greatest movies ever with Purple Rain; she may have changed her mind since then, and I wasn't buying the argument, but Purple Rain is undoubtedly recorded one of the greatest movie soundtracks ever.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Concert review: Elvis Costello & Steve Nieve, Oriental Theatre, March 16

Elvis Costello's new album North clearly reflects his divorce from Cait O'Riordan and marriage to Diana Krall; it was impossible to listen to "Alibi" on 2002's When I Was Cruel without wondering if his previous marriage was dissolving. Since North is a collection of orchestral ballads, it made sense for him to go with more stripped-down arrangements for its supporting tour. For most of the songs, he played an acoustic guitar or nothing at all while Steve Nieve joined him on grand piano. The setting showed off his skill as a songwriter, the unique timbre of his voice and his ability to show off his songs without mimicking the recorded versions of them. For example, he took advantage of the Oriental Theatre's superior acoustics by ending "This House Is Empty Now" by walking away from the microphone a singing unamplified.

Not that it was an entirely hushed evening. Particularly for his some of his older songs and others off the "loud" When I Was Cruel, he hauled out a hollow body Gibson, noting that the other Elvis used the same model for his '68 comeback special, although Costello used distortion pedals that Presley didn't. The audience provided hand clapping as percussion for "Pump It Up."

The audience did include one heckler, who started out by yelling, "You fag!" and only getting worse from there. As Elvis's one-time TV costar Lisa Simpson pondered, "Why would they come to our concert just to boo us?" Especially when tickets started at around $50. Elvis challenged him from the stage, but security escorted the buffoon out. As for other interaction with the audience, he was perhaps too humble to respond to the woman loudly proclaiming her love for him, but he did suggest to the person whose cell rang that they should have their ring tone set to one of his songs to guarantee hearing something good.

He ended the 2 1/2 hour show with some new songs, which he claimed were from his next album South; it wasn't clear if he was being facetious about the title. But he did acknowledge preferring the more intimate setting to last summer's Taste of Chicago appearance, expressing gratitude to not be surrounded by hot dogs and bees.

Monday, March 15, 2004

I know that the big music news tonight is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions, but I only just found out that Dave Blood of the Dead Milkmen committed suicide. The obituary from the Philadelphia Inquirer includes quotes from Howard Kramer, curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, formerly of the Milkmen's management firm and a really friendly, outgoing guy.

I think it was the summer of '85 when I got to meet Dave. Big Lizard in My Back Yard was a hit on college radio, which I had just discovered. My father's law firm, where I was working for the summer, was handling some copyright matters for the band. I was probably the only employee who was a fan, let alone had even heard of them. So I was awestruck to get introduced to the bass player during a meeting. Our brief conversation wasn't nearly as memorable as merely having the opportunity.

The Milkmen were indirect disciples of the Ramones. What they lacked in technical proficiency, they made up for in spirit. They rode the fine line between stupid and clever; although some would accuse them of being sophomoric, there was clearly a lot of intellegence behind their humor. And the band toured and played constantly. In the late '80s, they played their home town of Philly several times a year, and I rarely missed them. At one show, I was mashed upfront at the Chestnut Cabaret, the lip of the stage driving into my hips with every surge of the audience. At the time, I thought I might be destroying my ability to ever bear children, but I didn't care because I was having too much fun. I wish Dave could have maintained that sense of fun for himself instead of taking his life.
Concert Recommendation: Elvis Costello and Steve Nieve, Oriental Theatre, Tuesday, March 16

As I mentioned in my review of Elvis's show at the Taste of Chicago, as happy as I was to witness his free show attracting a broader demographic than would pay to see him, I missed a more concentrated affair. I prefer to be packed in closer who are there specifically to see him, rather than scattered across the lawn where his performance, for many, is merely incidental to drinking beer. Here's your chance to see one of our greatest songsmiths ply his wares in a more intimate setting than Grant Park. He is joined by Attraction/Distraction keyboardist Steve Nieve.

Elvis Costello and Steve Nieve play the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago at 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday, March 16. Tickets purchased for the postponed March 1 show will be honored.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Concert Review:  The Church, House of Blues Chicago, March 12

Marty Willson-Piper's looks may be starting to fade, but his status as underappreciated guitar god only grows. Your stereotypical guitar god is way too cerebral about his craft (and it is a wanky male trait), grimacing through the chords to show just how hard he's working to wrest those sounds from his instrument. But Marty's face conveyed only ecstasy, absolute joy in playing. When he hit his extended intro to "Tantalized," all the pain I'd been experiencing from too much time on my feet magically disappeared. His playing was transporting him to another reality, and he taking the audience as passengers along with him. As they wrapped up their performance and he broke yet another string, the roadies exchanged exasperated yet amused looks; clearly Marty breaks strings faster than they can replace them.

Oh, yeah, the rest of the band was good, too.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Concert Recommendation:  The Church, House of Blues, Friday, March 12

How great a live band are the Church? Great enough to make me reconsider my career plans. In October, 1998, I was fed up with the music industry. My love of music was embittered by trying to make a living with it, specifically in seeing too many stupid people success. So I was embarking on a new career by going to library school. But in the middle of an intensive weekend of grad school classes, I saw the Church. I'd seen them several times previously but not in about eight years. To use a bad pun, it was a religious experience, utterly transformative. I altered my job plans and became determined to incorporate music into my career in librarianship, which I have done successfully.

A year later, they were back in Chicago. Guitarist Marty Willson-Piper was once again absolutely on fire, but the band's performance as a whole didn't coalesce. A few days later, lead singer/bass player Steve Kilbey was busted in New York for buying heroin. Draw your own conclusions.

Best known for their 1988 hit "Under the Milky Way," that is hardly their best song or even the best song on Starfish, the album it came from. I'd have to go with "Reptile," which couples an original analogy with a sharper guitar lead. To resurrect one of my own better analogies, I'll copy what I wrote about the band in B-Side Magazine in 1990:
Gold Afternoon Fix is a walk across a velvet blanket spread over a bed of rounded stones. The surface is lush and inviting, but conceals a convoluted terrain underneath, unexpected but never too jagged. Dense and slightly impenetrable, the Church's music stands up to or requires repeated listening. No "I'm in love with her and I feel fine" simplicities here. Like mental New Year's Eve confetti, it soars immediately and ultimately finds its way into unlikely nooks in the mind; months later, those bits of pastel paper caught in one's shoe or pocket recall that blurry, forgotten celebration.
The Church play Sea Ray at the House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn, Chicago, 312.923.2000 at 9 p.m. on Friday, March 12.