Tag Archives: Live

Jenny Toomey: Beauty, Pt. II

Jenny Toomey at Schubas, Chicago, 10/16/01

It was a regular independent music hoedown inside Schubas music room Tuesday night, as Jenny Toomey brought her solo act to Chicago, building out from her indie rock roots with a backing band that showcased not only Toomey’s trademark voice, wit and lyrics, but the challenging interaction of keys, cello, bass, violin, and even some castinets.

Throughout the 1990s, Toomey played and sang in great bands like Tsunami, Grenadine, and Liquorice. If that wasn’t enough, she was also the creative force behind Simple Machines Records, which functioned both as a source for amazing music by such groups as Rodan, Autoclave, and Lungfish, as well as an incubator/how-to manual for anyone wishing to put out records and generally give the Record Biz the big kiss-off. Toomey and Simple Machines partner Kristin Thomson’s 24-page record-making guidebook is at least as legendary as their label’s stellar music releases. And Toomey’s literate punk rock approach to the DIY aesthetic only grew. After A Brilliant Mistake, Tsunami’s 1997 swan song, the rocker and Georgetown grad formed the Future of Music Coalition, a group dedicated to artists’ rights in the brave new world of digital music and even bigger Big Business.

Toomey returns in 2001 with Antidote (Misra), an ambitious double-disc set that offsets the traditional tools of rock with instrumentation like vibes and strings. One thing that hasn’t changed throughout her career though is Jenny Toomey’s self-confident, sardonic, and extremely straightforward view of all things love and life. And Tuesday night in Chicago, those sensibilities were in full-effect, fronting her crack backing band. With Franklin Bruno on keys, Amy Domingues doubling up on cello and electric bass, Jean Cook’s violin existing as fiery monster or sidling accompaniment (sometimes both at once), and Jay Tobey’s understated, genre-bending percussion, Toomey’s new material came off as a potent mixture of moods, and a brightly-toned illustration of just how far independent music has come since the days of Simple Machines’ first few 7″ recordings.

Recorded in both Nashville and Chicago, Antidote‘s songs give Toomey an opportunity to furthur showcase her wonderful pipes, while still putting forth plenty of observation into not only love and relationships, but just what the hell we’re all supposed to be doing here. Touches of her more rocking past surfaced here and there Tuesday, but it was the deeper material that gave she and her band a real opportunity to show off their chops. With Cook’s violin meshing with both the keyboards and the bass, Toomey was content to fill in with her guitar while really relishing her vocals. An appearance by Chicago’s own Edith Frost (also a collaborator on the record) on backing vocals was a real treat, as was The Coctails’ Marc Greenberg sitting for Bruno at the ivories for a few songs. And Domingues might have stolen the show with her cello, playing deliberate lines that followed the ebb and flow of Toomey’s fiery/funny/sad/jazzy vocal delivery.

Mixing instruments not necessarily in concert with one another is nothing new. But sometimes it can seem like a cliché, like in the context of an artist’s first solo work, and especially if that album is a two-disc affair. But Antidote is quite the opposite. Toomey recorded much of the Nashville material with members of Lamchop, that city’s fine collective of musicians that have been melding soul, country, bluegrass, and rock together for over ten years. And she also collaborated with Calexico, another group that has made great music with their stylish cocktail of southwestern and country/western influences. At Schubas’ on Tuesday night, it was actually the more instrumentally diverse material that had the most resonance, which would have silenced any blowhards in the crowd, had they shown up to, say, heckle the band featuring funny instruments. So at the end of the show, when Toomey told a funny story about buying a pair of antique castinets in a junk store, and Domingues produced the very items from her bag of tricks, strapping them to her fingers and taking position with her hands by the mic, no one thought anything was out of the ordinary. And then Jenny Toomey and her band performed a wonderful Spanish-tinged number from Antidote, castinets and all, and it rocked just as much as any rock band would.

Artists have the right to create whatever music they want. And when it happens to be really amazing, that’s even better.

JTL

The Strokes: Fell in Love with You before the Second Show

The Strokes Blow Up The Spot (And That’s No Hype!)

On Friday night at Metro, the Strokes ran every route in the rookie rock star playbook. They played the waiting game with their sold out crowd, booked an impossibly shitty band as an opener, performed behind a shroud of smoke, and even fell off the stage, just like alleged burgeoning rock icons should. Thusly, you could call them prima donnas. You could even be like the dude in front of me, and scream out “You make me hate rock and roll!”

Or you could have shut the fuck up about the hype, the hair, and the RCA cheese, and reveled in the series of real rock moments that the NYC quintet tossed off with casual efficiency and genuine dedication – just like real rock icons should.

The Strokes don’t just wear their influences on their sleeves – they went to St Vincent DePaul and scrounged up the whole damn suit. And so what? When they finally emerged from backstage about 2am, and Julian Casablancas keeled over his mic stand, promptly misjudging the lip of the stage during the set opener, all of their Velvet Underground tendencies and New York accoutrements mattered little. The band that has J.Lo’s PR types scratching their skulls detonated their own hype and kicked the debris into the balcony, right in the faces of all the pretty people politely cheering with their pinkies raised. An obviously inebriated Casablancas could give a shit about celebrity guests or the slicked-back gold card humps that clogged the cramped environs of Metro. Performing their bare-bones catalog in 45 sweaty, tightly-wound moments, Casablancas, dueling guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr, drummer Fab Moretti and bassist Nikolai Fraiture pretty much made each of their 12 songs sound like a true anthem. Casablancas’ vocal – a sandpaper-y cross between Lou Reed and Morrissey – weaved in between the two guitars’ soloing and the rhythm section’s admirable groove, even as his motor skills failed him to the point that he must have leaned on each of his comrades at least twice during the set.

Towards the end of the set, Our Fair Singer pushed the dirty, sullen mop out of his eyes. Introducing “New York City Cops,” a track removed from the forthcoming Is This It? LP in the wake of September 11 (subsequently pushing the release of the record back to October 9), Casablancas was sincere through his drunkenness. “People have been writing some shit about this next song,” he slurred. “Yeah, well, we were fucking there, man, we were fucking there, okay? [And all we’re trying to do] is be confident!” With that, The Strokes launched into “New York City Cops,” a song that would only be misconstrued as offensive by those who tend to make decisions without even hearing the music. The number burned like white phosphorus, and followed up by “Take It Or Leave It,” The Strokes left the stage with a one-two punch of hard-edged, REAL rock and roll that showed their true colors as passionate musicians and — perhaps — future rock icons.

Too much has been written about the Strokes’ stylish pedigree, both by this website and other outlets (Hello, Rolling Stone.) But if Friday night’s show proved anything, it’s that the band can talk the talk. The group’s reverence for its NYC rock forbearers is obvious, both in print and in person. But what about Albert Hammond, Jr’s stage moves on lead guitar, those that recalled Joe Perry, or even Slash? Those guys aren’t New Yorkers. What about the obvious New Wave influences in the precision of the songs and Valensi’s high strung, frenetic rhythm guitar? I swear I heard the Housemartins floating around in there. And the whole band’s underlying groove of booze, love, and anger remind me as much of Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” as they do of Television or The Ramones. There’s the rub: For months, we’ve been hearing all about the Strokes, without really hearing – really listening to – the music itself. Though the group’s fantastic plastic hype machine will undoubtedly help it sell records, it’s fire-in-the-belly performances like what took place on Friday night that will really make them rock stars. After all, something’s going down in music these days. Pop is dead, Nu Metal is over, and Hip Hop’s wack clown princes are marginalizing the form’s true artists. Rock and Roll never died, but a group like the Strokes – with their energy, simple enthusiasm, and of course their drunken antics – can certainly help the Rock get back on track, and reap the benefits of what it has sown.

JTL

Note: Sting will be glad to hear that I officially hate Moldy Peaches more than he and his soulless corporate whore yuppie rock. Moldy Peaches are a duo from New York City who I had the nauseous fortune to stand through while waiting for The Strokes to take the stage Friday. Remember that geeky neighbor kid that always tried to hang out with you and your friends growing up? The one that copped all your bits, tried to hang but couldn’t, and had food stuck in his braces? Well, New York City’s Moldy Peaches are that kid, if he listened through the wall while Beat Happening, The Vaselines, Frank Zappa, and The Flaming Lips practiced. A bastardized, shitty version of these venerable artists, The Moldy Peaches are the worst thing I’ve paid money for since dollar dances at the Ypsilanti Déjà Vu. Kimya Dawson and Adam Green, two dopes riding a very different New York pedigree than that of the Strokes, came off like The Frogs or Ween if those groups put their wicked senses of humor in a cryogenic chamber and received a year of free lobotomies. Unfunny, unoriginal, and utterly horrible, The Moldy Peaches are the worst thing to happen to music since Fred Durst had kids. You’ve been warned.

JTL

Love: American Style

Glorious Noise is happy to introduce a new member to the team. Kristy Eldredge is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her new feature article reports from New York on her finding true love in the arms of Quasi. Be sure to welcome her to the group and post your thoughts in the discussion section.

Continue reading Love: American Style

Live Music Is Better? Lucinda Williams in Ann Arbor

Live Music Is Better?

Lucinda Williams

Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor

Sept. 19, 2001

As Neil Young’s rabid hyperrust.org fans have long proclaimed, “Live music is better.” I’ve always bought into the notion, but for the first three-quarters of Williams’ two-hour set, I was beginning to question it. Sitting in the beautiful, yet sterile Michigan Theater, sitting for way longer than I’d think someone who pays $28 to see a show would want to, I started to get antsy. Is this show ever going to rock?

Well, it did rock, eventually, and I left satisfied. I never did get up out of my seat, and neither did anyone else. No dancing in the aisles, and of course, no smoking or drinking in the theater—only in the lobby or outside on the street could one indulge any vices. Which brings up a point far more important than any analysis of Lucinda (in a nutshell: She’s sexy, she can play, she’s got a great band, and her voice is far more amazing live than it even sounds in her very good recordings). What are we doing going to see musicians play in stuffy theaters, bland concert halls, and venues that don’t allow the sex and drugs? Is this rock and roll, man, or what?

The thing that makes rock rock is that it’s inherently dangerous. Not necessarily violent dangerous (which it can be), but dangerous like it might shock you or bring about unintended consequences. In a good way—cause you to get up out of your seat, move a little bit, have another beer, shake your ass, dance with a stranger, break a sweat. Rock might just exceed your expectations, it might sound better than it did on that CD. It might make you stop and say, “Damn, I oughtta quit my job, buy a guitar and move to Austin.” Now we all know we’re not going to do that, but we might just have a flash of fantasy where we consider leaving the wife and kids and the mortgage payment. . .

So Lucinda is a prime candidate to bring those emotions, those vibes, to even the most corporate-free-ticketed yuppie type. Hell, that’s what her songs are all about. And with a pretty damn near full house, a lot of enthusiastic fans, during an emotionally-charged week, this was rock and roll waiting to happen. But we all just sat there, politically-correctly clapping enthusiastically after each song and then fading to a silence, waiting eagerly for the next track on the, err, set list. Two second pause. The band resumes playing. Why is this happening?

I can blame it partly on Williams. I realize she’s got to warm up those pipes, but to come out and play the first two songs on Car Wheels in order, sounding exactly like the album, well, that wasn’t such a good way to set the tone. Especially when you figure she’s got a lot of slower songs and ballads, and she’s obviously not going to let the band loose on every joint. So for the first hour and a half, the rocking numbers that could have whipped up the crowd kept getting deflated by the next song. Great tunes all, but the set was seemingly designed to inspire passive listening, as if two songs in a row with guitar solos might have caused civil unrest. (A thought, perhaps more true than it might seem.)

Now you might be thinking that I’m being hard on Lucinda, just bitching about a set list that wasn’t in my preferred order. Or wanting her to be something she’s not, a reckless rock and roller the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn. But that’s not it at all. Get this: Williams comes out for the encore, tells the audience that the next song is the best explanation of her “feelings” that she’s ever heard; it was written by Bob Dylan. And as I whisper, “Masters of War,” she starts to strum the opening chords. The audience goes wild and she and the band deliver the statement I’ve been looking for all night: This is a dangerous lady; she wants peace.

I’ve been thinking about Williams’ performance all day now, and I keep wanting to compare it to when I saw Neil Young’s Ragged Glory tour. It just so happened that we were in a similar state of political unrest when I trecked out to Auburn Hills to see Neil play with Crazy Horse in 1991. He came out of the darkness with a distorted guitar note that rippled into another of Dylan’s songs, “Blowing in the Wind.” Charging up the crowd from the draw, he and the Horse told it straight: Support the troops, think twice about the war. Not unlike Williams, his set had some slow numbers, some rockers, some electric, some acoustic. But we didn’t sit on our hands, because Neil had given us reason to stand in patriotic pride, in defiance, in awe. Williams may have given us just as much, but she was already half out the door when the message came. And part of me doesn’t blame her, because part of me doesn’t think the audience or the promoter would have wanted it differently.

After all, just one more song and it was eleven o’clock—time for the respectable people to go home and return the babysitter—and the lights came on. Lucinda had delivered, at truly the eleventh hour. We were all happy, but as I scanned the crowd, there were a few that had the same look in their eyes as I did. Again: What are we doing here? We should have been sitting down at the bar right now, trying to carry on a conversation over the ringing in our ears, debating the merits of Essence and Sweet Old World. We should at least have been able to light up, smoke that after-climax biscuit, and rub our weary eyes.

And this problem is not just here at this show, but everywhere. Good old venues are disappearing, replaced by clean and corporatized places in neighborhoods where people with good jobs aren’t afraid to park. Promoters aren’t willing to take any chances, and when the non-mainstream, usually-NPR-backed artists do tour nationally they all seem to get stuck into a sort of pre-fabbed concert experience that’s about as exciting as going out to get a frappucino. Williams’ statement is downright daring in this climate. Even in a place as supposedly progressive as Ann Arbor, there’s just no space for the sort of venue or band that might push the limits of social acceptance. Don’t believe me? Ask Chris Robinson why he plays in neighboring Ypsilanti when he comes to town now and whether it has anything to do with the Black Crowe’s “no-enforcement” of marijuana laws requirement at their concerts.

Audiences are perhaps even more to blame. I remember going to see Johnny Cash at a county fair a few years ago and being told to shut up by some jackass in front of me because I was singing along to “I Walk the Line.” That guy seems to turn up more and more with every show I attend. He paid his Ticketmaster service fee* and damn it, that gives him a right to sit on his ass and be pissed at anyone who wants to Stand Up and Shout. Considering that everyone can already “see” the artists on VH1 and MTV, the ostensible reason to come to the show is to see and hear something bigger, something more than what you can find on the recordings. Yet it’s almost as if a sizeable chunk of the people come to shows to sit and listen with the expectation that things will be “as seen on TV.” Are artists afraid to fuck with a song (in the fashion of Wilco’s amazing “punk” version of “Passenger Side”) because some radio-listener might not recognize it? Tell me it ain’t so. . .

There’s trouble everywhere in the music biz these days, from radio banality to blockbuster-oriented sales tactics to independent record store failures to ridiculously-priced pay-TV mega-concerts. Add the deterioration of the local live concert to the list. If things continue this way, I might just have to move to Austin…

*My ticket was bought at the box office without paying Ticketmaster one red cent in service fees. Fuck Barry Diller.

Jay Bennett’s Big Night Out

September 16, Schubas, Chicago IL (opening for Allison Moorer)

By Phil Wise

Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy casts a long shadow. His former songwriting partner in Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar, is still living with comparisons some seven years after the two parted ways. Now, just weeks after announcing his split from Wilco, guitarist/songwriter/keyboardist Jay Bennett presented a set of ten songs in 30 minutes ranging in style from Elvis Costello-inspired pop to goofy country bumpkin sing-alongs.

Nursing a severely cut finger, Bennett enlisted the help of fellow Chicago scenester, Edward Burch (playing the very same Epiphone guitar featured on the cover of Wilco’s sophomore release Being There), to accompany on guitar and vocals. The two meshed onstage together like a partnership should with Burch providing not only levity in his stage banter, but inspiring vocal harmonies pulled straight from the Paul McCartney playbook. It made for the most musically rewarding half-hour I’ve experienced in ages.

Debuting selected cuts from his someday-to-be-released solo album (some three years in the making), Bennett and Burch ambled through a set peppered with bitter sweet love songs, the best of which was “Mirror Ball,” co-written with Bennett’s friend Sherry Rich. Bennett made several cracks about his Wurlitzer electric piano sounding too “Billy Joel,” but the stark accompaniment provided startling renditions of these soulful and melodic songs.

But it wasn’t all kisses and tears. Bennett and Burch also played a rousing rendition of the Woody Guthrie-penned “They’ll Be No Church Tonight,” presumably from the Mermaid Avenue sessions, and a rambling country knee-slapper “Watching Junior Drive,” which brought a rousing applause and caused Bennett to quip, “It’s always weird when the stupidest song you’ve ever written gets the biggest applause.” Bennett struggled honorably through the flat picking of the latter with his injured finger and still managed to amaze me with his playing.

Though never prominently featured on a Wilco recording, Bennett’s vocals were surprisingly strong and soulful. His voice is low and gravelly, sounding a bit like Elvis Costello doing his best Leonard Cohen impersonation. And while his voice may not be as distinct as Tweedy’s (ah, so the comparisons begin), it’s strong and possesses its own quality.

Jay Bennett was a key player in the evolution of Wilco’s sound and instrumental in the songwriting as evidenced by the credits from Being There through to the anxiously awaited Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and I was sorely disappointed to hear of his departure from the band. While I was confident Jeff Tweedy would carry on and continue to create great music, I was afraid Bennett would slip away into the darkness and the wake left by Wilco’s front man. After last night’s performance I think it’s safe to say that I’ll not soon lose track of Jay Bennett as long as he’s willing to step out of the shadows.

Missed this show? Catch Jay Bennett and Edward Burch at The Hideout in Chicago, September 24.

Cheap Trick at the Double Door: We’re All Alright

Cheap Trick at the Double Door, Chicago

By Phil Wise

In the past year I’ve seen the two groups most associated with power pop. One developed the archetype in the 60s with songs like “Can’t Explain” and “Glow Girl” and the other perfected it in the 70s with “Surrender” and “The Dream Police.” Now, I saw both of these groups well after what would be considered their prime, but I couldn’t help but wonder if they were still viable performing an art form so tied to youth in their 50s and 60s. Is power pop only the domain of the young?

Cheap Trick played an unannounced, invitation-only show last night at the Double Door in Chicago to a crowd of around 300. I, along with GLONO founder Jake Brown, was on that guest list and we made our way to Wicker Park expecting rehashed old tunes from the 70s from face-lifted has-beens in their 50s. Perhaps a spotting of the nefarious Real World cast would inject a bit of youth into this most perplexing of oldies tours.

But what we found was a group at its best; rocking and sweating, not to the oldies, but to an entire set of new material, fresh with power chords and youthful lyrics that would make Dave Grohl cry.

Cheap Trick took the stage at 8:30 sharp and rocked for over two hours, showcasing new material that would officially debut in their upcoming tour. Despite the fact that drummer Bun E. Carlos was enjoying his first show back with the band after back surgery, the group pushed comfortably through a set of original material that spanned a range of sounds from their proto-punk beginnings to their sappy “Flame” sound of the mid-80s. To see a 50-something Rick Nielsen hopping around and slashing out riffs like a 19-year old Rivers Cuomo was truly inspiring. The energy and enthusiasm was apparent in ¾ of the band, if not in lead singer Robin Zander himself, who seemed a bit nervous at times struggling with lyrics he hasn’t yet memorized and looking eerily like Kurt Cobain.

Cheap Trick perfected the sound that has stood as the blue print to current pretenders like Blink 182, Green Day, Jimmy Eat World and Foo Fighters. And tonight they reclaimed their rights to Raise Hell in a sweaty club on a Monday night like thousands of bands mimicking their sound across the country.

Marshall Crenshaw: Before the Whole Thing Crumbles to the Ground

Marshall Crenshaw at The Ark, 15 August:

Before the Whole Thing Crumbles to the Ground

“Thank God there are some people here.”

With those words, Marshall Crenshaw sat down on a stool with an acoustic guitar on the stage of The Ark. There were, oh, maybe 200 people there, many of whom paid $17.50 to hear a man whose career should have been made solely on the basis of “Cynical Girl.” But consider the number of people on-site. Consider the fact that Crenshaw was essentially playing to a home-town crowd (his mom and dad were in the audience: “My mom and dad are here tonight,” he announced during his encore [“A standing-O at The Ark. . . I’ll have to add that to my list of. . .accomplishments.”], adding, “I guess I wouldn’t be here tonight if it wasn’t for them”). Consider “Someday, Someway.” Consider “Little Wild One (No.5)” (“I recorded the demo for that in a basement in Ann Arbor.”). Consider that he stated that his forthcoming live disc, “I’ve Suffered for My Art. . .Now It’s Your Turn,” is being handled by Borders, which is headquartered a couple blocks away from The Ark, and based on the applause that the Borders reference generated, it was clear that a not-insignificant portion of the crowd probably didn’t pony up the full price of a ticket.

“Thank God there are some people here”?!?!?

If there is any indication that musical success is a matter of marketing, then the fact that a man who has been working it on vinyl since 1981 and who has crafted some of the best pop, period, is playing to that size crowd nails it. (I saw Crenshaw perform once before, in a bar in Royal Oak, in the early ’70s—and the crowd was about the same, but we were there for the drinks; the entertainment was secondary for our reason for being there, but it became a hell of a lot more memorable than the Stroh’s.)

Like probably many of you, I’ve had this sense that if a musician “makes it,” as in becoming exceedingly popular, that musician has somehow become less—sold out, or something. Which is probably asinine and is certainly elitist. Even cynical. But the only way that I can justify the lack of appreciation for Crenshaw is to cop to the notion that the taste of the masses is a mess.

The man was produced by people including Steve Lillywhite and T-Bone Burnett. He had the wit to put out a single, “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time,” accompanied by The Handsome, Ruthless & Stupid Band—he played all of the instruments. He included in his set at The Ark rockabilly curios “The Girl on Death Row” and “Endless Sleep,” both from ’59. Talking about writing “He’s a Dime a Dozen Guy,” he cracked that he had heard “Livin’ La Vita Loca” while driving and then “followed a rule of songwriters,” “When in doubt, steal from Desmond Child.” A rule of songwriters with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

The guy is far too clever for his own good.

II

Fame Is A Whore; She’s Nobody’s Mistress

In retrospect, the foregoing is wrong. Crenshaw is not too clever for his own good. He is simply clever.

Do I—or anyone else—want to go see a performer who is standing on a stage in a big auditorium such that he or she appears to be about the size of a Coke bottle, or do I want to be in a place where I grab a seat and actually see the guy?

Does Crenshaw, or any other musician, want to play in a mammoth hall with the acoustical properties of a cave?

It is unfortunate that I have fallen into the trap of believing that success for performers equates to mass popularity—if the person isn’t on the radio ad nauseum, if his or her mug isn’t on the cover of Rolling Stone or People or whatever, if the recording isn’t touted in the Best Buy supplement, then that person hasn’t arrived. Which is nonsense.

After writing the first half of this piece, I did some checking on Crenshaw’s career. He has bookings running over the next several months. Not stadia, but various clubs in the U.S. and even in Japan.

Presumably, Crenshaw is working as much as he needs to be working. He is clearly concentrating on his music (over the years, his recordings have gotten better without losing the freshness that is quintessential to his sound). He is not, evidently, worried about the trappings that are now associated with “Rock Stardom.” (Oddly enough, the start of the whole rock stardom phenomenon can be associated with the Beatles, and Crenshaw actually played as Lennon in “Beatlemania” for a couple of years before actually forming a band. Crenshaw quit what was probably a pretty lucrative, certain gig to take a flyer at his own music.)

As I think about what he is up to, I think about what goes on at this site. So at the risk of coming off as self-serving (and trust me, I am not talking about me but about the others who make this all possible and who keep me honest with their work), let me use GloNo as an example. Although it is proclaimed in the box on the upper left-hand corner of this page “If we were professionals we wouldn’t be here,” it seems to me that the level of thought and writing on this page tends to be of a quality that far surpasses what would be acceptable for so-called “professional” musical/cultural analysis. The mainstream wouldn’t accept it.

Don’t be misled. There is no correlation between popularity and what’s necessarily good. Sometimes it happens (arguably the Beatles are an example). More often than not that’s not the case. Focus on the performance, the words, the quality of the work. At the end, that’s all that matters.

WHITE STRIPES PAINT THE TOWN RED

Chicago’s Empty Bottle doesn’t spend a lot of time feng shui’ing itself. The décor – mostly old handbills and spray paint – gathers on the walls like ancient gardening equipment in your parents’ garage. Scattered, tired versions of those adhesive stars that glow in the dark put up a good fight, but they can’t compete with the fog from 300 Lucky Strikes. A dilapidated bar leans in one room; another features a pool table sharing space with uprooted thrift store couches. In the far corner of the venue lies a triangular stage, adorned with colorful drapery seemingly pilfered from an Italian matron’s special “company” living room. Though tinged with grime after years of sweat, heat, and Rock and Roll, the drapes can still glimmer when the drummer’s fan blows their gold fringe around.

On a recent evening, the raiment was further accented by the flag of Detroit City. In its four corners lie the colors of France, Great Britain, and America, the three nations that have ruled the city. The city’s seal takes up the middle, with the slogan in Latin: RESURGET CINERISUS. ‘It Shall Rise From the Ashes’ – A statement that refers to Detroit’s vaunted musical history as much as to the crumbling city itself. On Friday night, D-Town’s own White Stripes brought their slash-and-burn blues rock to The Empty Bottle, and represented the vibrant, beating, resilient heart of their hometown.

Jack White plays guitar and sings. Meg White plays the drums, facing her counterpart as he leaps between two microphones. Dressed in matching red and white outfits, with their instruments continuing the motif, the duo’s look is almost Scandinavian in its plainness. Indeed; their sophomore effort, 2000’s De Stijl, shares its name with a 20th century Dutch art movement advocating pure abstraction and simplicity. This focused approach carries to the music. Clean lines of guitar flow out in an arc; Meg’s drumming is like Neal Peart with half his limbs. Their music is blues-based, but its suprising sonic punch is all Rock and Roll. Elements of and references to country & western, Brill Building pop, and even Cole Porter show up in Jack White’s guitar and lyrics, as well as his passionate vocal delivery. With his drummer follwing faithfully along, he pries torrid streams of notes from his fleet of guitars, singing along with himself in a voice that sounds almost childlike when he hits the high notes. Too many influences? Maybe. But think of the source. Detroit, a midwestern city linking two great lakes, has always been a crossroads. 3 nations have ruled it; 3 corporations now control it. The soul and groove of Motown Records shares space with the aggression of The MC5 and The Stooges, and Ted Nugent’s cock-rock soloing ties it all together. White Stripes hear all of this. Jack White spews it out of himself while Meg lays down a beat as straightforward as a Midwestern highway. And the sign reads MEMPHIS – 700 MILES.

Chicago’s music-watching community is notorious for standing still. The fellow in the big glasses and skinny pants in the front row could be seeing his favorite band of all time, and you’d only detect a barely perceptible nodding of the head. White Stripes destroyed this apathy in a wash of red, white, and reverb guitar. After propelling themselves along for almost an hour, Jack and Meg returned for an encore that reached for a third gear. With a quick “Thank You” and an embarrassed, flattered bow, Jack was gone to the green room. Meg sat down on the drum riser, lit a smoke and took in the cheers and whistles. It certainly was a sight – 200 jaded Chicago music scenesters screaming and clamoring for more of White Stripes’ stripped-down, re-built Rock and Roll. After a pep talk, Jack White returned to the triangular stage, crushed out his cigarette (had to be Marlboro – red and white), placed his feet beneath his city’s colorful flag, and with a nod to his bandmate began a final encore of aggressive, plaintive blues rock that made those drapes shimmer.

And Detroit Rock rose from the ashes.

JTL

Fugazi, Shellac, and The Ex: Sound Of Impact

PUNK ROCK TEARS THE ROOF OFF THE CONGRESS THEATER

Six dollars and your best thrift store gear got you through the door to Chicago’s Congress Theater on Sunday night to watch Fugazi, Shellac, and The Ex unleash guitar tones seemingly designed to tear the marble wainscoting from the theater’s elegant, aging walls. In the finale of two nights’ worth of vintage Hardcore Punk, all three bands proved that being an iconoclast doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t be funky, rock wild, or have the best-sounding guitars of all time.

The Congress isn’t your average punk rock venue. Over its almost 70 year existence, the old movie palace has been the site of almost every kind of event, excluding demolition derbies and rodeos. Still going strong in 2001, its domed roof and gilded Classical Revival-meets-Italian Renaissance trappings looked Sunday upon a legion of Indie Rockers, who descended on one of the Summer’s biggest shows. By this point in their storied career, Washington DC’s Fugazi might as well be the elder statesmen of Hardcore Punk, having among their ranks innovators of not only the early 80s movement that propelled that genre, but also the brains behind bands that years later have come to influence “Emo”: Embrace and Rites of Spring. Together with Brendan Canty (drums) and Joe Lally (bass), guitarists/vocalists Ian Mackaye and Guy Picciotto have honed Fugazi’s propulsive post-core groove, continually pushing and challenging their music, as well as their own emotional boundaries. Their uncompromising stage show is legendary – as Canty and Lally build a watertight vibe, Picciotto flails and pikes, while Mackaye’s bald head reveals veins barely containing his rage. Though their set Sunday night would find them in a more relaxed mood, it was still enough to drive the faint of heart from stage front.

But before Fugazi could lie waste to the room, it was The Ex’s chance to crack some tile. The Dutch quintet’s swirling, chain-driven approach to agit-prop rock was downright scary. Sounding at times like a funkier Sonic Youth fronting the Velvet Underground’s rhythm section, the band hurled out more freaky melodies and beats than a 50s Crypt-Rock revival night. With vocalist GW Sok swaying robotically at the mic, chanting his liberal socialist tirades, two guitarists and a bassist plodded and hopped about the stage like the zombies of Re-Animator, all along emitting skittering, distorted guitar lines that complimented pounding, incessant percussion. 4/4 time was meaningless to The Ex; instead, they became the musical equivalent of a Hydra, placing beats or squalls of distortion at points normally intended for rest. Part improvisation, part manic dedication to noise, and entirely engaging, The Ex definitely delighted the ghosts holding court in the Congress Theater’s arching red dome.

Don’t hate him because he hates the human voice. Hate Steve Albini because his guitars will always sound better than yours. Watching Albini and cohorts Todd Trainer (drums) and bassist Bob Weston assemble their gear, it became clear that Shellac’s set would be a study in jarring sound economics. Trainer’s simple 4-piece kit crouched between two stainless steel boxes that looked like an industrial design student’s attempt to build the perfect Martian amplifier. And after the obligatory Weston-led question-and-answer session, Shellac embarked on a sardonic, screed-filled sonic journey that probably shook loose more of the Congress’ ancient plaster than Fat Man and Littleboy combined. Whatever you think of Albini or his band’s uncompromising music, his impossibly treble-y skronk has to make you shake your head in admiration. (But I agree with PJ Harvey: He still mussed up Rid of Me…)

After Shellac’s remorse-less set, It was nice to see Ian Mackaye smile. As he and Fugazi took the stage, he was concerned more with how many fans had been at both night’s shows than delivering one of his infamous anti-moshing tirades. Joshing aside, it was time to rock, as the band launched into “Do You Like Me” from 1995’s Red Medicine. Because of their staunchly underground career path, Fugazi’s ability to straight up kick out the jams might be underestimated. But here were four musicians locking into a tight mix of upbeat hardcore that seemed ready to bust out of its cage at any moment. While Mackaye has lost none of the anger that filled his voice so long ago in Minor Threat, he has learned to use it as a foil to Picciotto’s more protean vocals. Mackaye’s rebel yell is still a one-trick pony. But in the arsenal of Fugazi, it’s a real howitzer.

While there were no shortage of anthems (“Promises;” “Lockdown”), the band took time to showcase their more atmospheric side, which has been evolving over their last few records (as well as on the soundtrack to Instrument, Jem Cohen’s film about Fugazi). At times the group almost sounded like Tortoise as they built and dismantled the instrumental interludes from Medicine and 1998’s End Hits. This is not a stretch. Fugazi has always been a groove-based band, even during their most angry or ear-splitting moments. And there’s a good chance Guy Picciotto would make a great R & B singer, with his pliant vocal chords and shimmying stage moves, suggesting Prince with no spine. Fugazi may indeed be moving in a more studied, less punishing direction with their forthcoming material. But the great thing about Sunday’s set was the band’s ability to move between experimentation (including giving the ever-silent Joe Lally the mic for a few numbers) and sheer, sonic power. And they didn’t even need Martian amplifiers to do it.

JTL

WHO’S AFRAID OF ELENI MANDELL?

Eleni Mandell

Martyr’s, 4/17

WHO’S AFRAID OF ELENI MANDELL?

Me.

Imagine the punk rock offspring of Tea Leoni and Corin Tucker, raised in LA on a diet of PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, and Nina Simone and you’re getting close to what Los Angeles-based singer Eleni Mandell brings to the table. Oh, and did I mention she’s like a lion tamer, whipping her charges with cat-and-nine-tails barbs as hot as the Mojave sun and just as sexy as a desert sunset?

Tuesday night at Martyr’s, Mandell owned the crowd, and only with the power of her voice, solitary acoustic guitar, and sheer presence. With her dark eyes like rubies peering out into the club, Mandell brought to life her dusty, musky tales of love, lust, and the 2K1 human condition.

Her smoky delivery and she-devil lyrics bring to mind the sultry-like-a-fox erotica of a PJ Harvey, but Eleni Mandell is not simply the American version. There isn’t the same rage in her sound. “Too Bad About You” brings together a pretty Lulu/ Brenda Lee vocal with summers-day plucking and a sidelong, knowing glare that keeps the guys guessing. “My Bradbury dreams won’t keep me from seeing the truth,” she sings. “You should have come with me. Too bad about you.” It’s Sci Fi, LA, and lovelorn cock-tease wrapped up in a fish taco package too tough and too dusty for even the shady-eyed fool at the end of the bar who thinks, “Yeah, she digs me.” Watch out boy, she’ll chew you up.

On Thrill (Zedtone), her second album, “Too Bad About You” is followed by “1970 Red Chevelle,” which lets you know that this girl sees right through the big engine posturing of the lost souls driving through the LA night. On Thrill (as well as Wishbone , her self-released 1999 debut), Mandell fleshes out her song stories w/ touches of marimba, percussion, and bass. But the albums retain her live set’s dusky feel, like a mirage shimmering off a desert highway on an all-night drive to Los Angeles and all the potential (for love and loss) that that city harbors beneath its smog.

At times on Tuesday, the vibe was almost cabaret-like, as Mandell’s offhanded sashaying behind her worn acoustic guitar melded with beautiful vocal key changes. Quiet to loud to throaty to sexy all in one measure. The crowd stood silent, enraptured. (Whispered to the barkeep) “I’ll take a Miller High Life, please…” Something needs to cool this room down.

Mandell’s vocals remind me a lot of Paula Frazer, another west coast chanteuse with the ability to move between notes with sultry fluidity. Frazer’s work with her band Tarnation always seemed to be drenched in the light of a distant fire. Both women’s voices conjure plenty of imagery: speakeasy flappers; backroom deals; Americana murder ballads; and the Moulin Rouge on a more wild night. The fact that Eleni Mandell can bring all of this out with only her voice and a guitar proves the ability that left her audience’s collective jaw scraping the floor Tuesday night at Martyr’s.

JTL