All posts by Helen Wilson

Please Kill Me! Interview with Legs McNeil

Contributing writer Helen Wilson tracks down the O.P. (original punk), Legs McNeil, co-founder of Punk magazine and author of Please Kill Me: The Oral History of Punk Rock. Legs and Helen discuss the OP’s tormenting of Lester Bangs, the misplaced accusation of racism in the original punk scene, and the similarities between punk and porn.

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Something a Little Different: Belle and Sebastian

Our gal on the spot checks back in with a review of Scottish lovelies Belle & Sebastian…

Belle and Sebastian Captivates the Crowd at the Congress Theatre, Chicago

The last time I saw Belle and Sebastian perform was at their U.S. debut at the College Music Journal (CMJ) Festival in New York in September 1997. Performing at an old synagogue in Greenwich Village, the troop was a timid group of kids from Scotland, who despite remarkable talent as artists and musicians, seemed a bit unsure of themselves as performers. At Saturday night’s performance at the Congress Theatre in Chicago, part of Belle and Sebastian’s second-ever east coast tour [since when is Chicago the east coast? – ed.], they demonstrated significant growth as performers and put on a show equaling their beautifully-crafted music.

Belle and Sebastian’s first album, Tigermilk, originally only released on vinyl, was produced as a project for a music business class in early 1996. Since that time, this pop ensemble from Glasgow has released 4 LPs and 6 EP/singles, created the musical score for Todd Solondz’s recent film Storytelling, accumulated a massive cult following, and become one of the most inspired musical groups of the twenty-first century. Rather than buckling under the weight of these achievements, Belle and Sebastian have embraced their rise in acclaim and have developed into a team of extraordinary performers as well as artists.

At the Congress Theater, Belle and Sebastian put on a true performance of the kind that is rare among contemporary four-piece pop music. Making up Belle and Sebastian’s extensive cast are Stuart Murdoch, Stevie Jackson, Sarah Martin, Chris Geddes, Mick Cook, Richard Colburn, Bob Kildea, and Isobel Campbell (who unfortunately stayed home this tour), and an entourage of back-up musicians, including a full violin section. Five years ago at the CMJ show, vocalist and front man Stuart Murdoch was a shy poet-singer who had a hard time remembering his own lyrics and seemed a bit intimidated by the crowd. By contrast, Stuart entered the stage Saturday night sporting a Cubs hat and jersey, in honor of the Chicago crowd, and demonstrated a control of the crowd that only a few possess.

And yet, despite his impressive development as a performer, he has lost none of the humble and unassuming quality presented 5 years ago. To win over his audience, he needed no showy pretense or gaudy showmanship but merely a natural ability to connect with the crowd. Like the fitting line from “Too Much Love” – “But underneath I am the same as you” – during which he pointed at several audience members, he came across less a rock star than as one of us. Stuart could be the guy next door or an old friend from school you’d grab a beer with on Saturday night. His eyes seemed to twinkle in response to cheers from the crowd, and he encouraged audience participation, pulling a couple of girls on-stage to help out during the opening number and turning the microphone over to group near the stage during another number. Demonstrating the fuzzy line between audience and performers, Stuart encouraged an on-stage wedding proposal by an audience member. The newly engaged couple (she accepted of course) was invited on stage for a song, after which Stuart shook their hands and kissed the bride-to-be on the cheek. Throughout the show, the audience responded to the performance as they sang, danced, and clapped along to poppy numbers, such as “Judy and the Dream of Horses,” but fell utterly silent during a lovely performance of “You Made Me Forget My Dreams.” The human quality of the performers in the context of their elaborate and tightly executed performance made the show wonderfully engaging.

Especially for the windy city, Stuart and singer/guitarist Stevie Jackson broke into an impromptu and humorous rendition of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now,” leading Stevie to comment “it’s as if punk never happened,” which was not far from the truth Saturday night, as Belle and Sebastian’s melodic pop harkens back to 60s pop and folk music. With complex musical composition and truly poetic lyrics, Belle and Sebastian weave songs that are much more substantial than the average pop/rock tunes we typically hear. To prove they have some rock and roll in them, however, they closed the show with a cover of “The Boys are Back in Town.” In a rare and admirable gesture, Belle and Sebastian declined to play an encore, and though many may have been disappointed, I thought it showed an unusual integrity. Stuart aptly stated during the show, “We usually do something a little different,” and Saturday’s performance was definitely something a little different.

Rockin’ and Wheelin’

Long-time friend of GLONO and frequent discussion contributor, Helen Wilson, dusts off the four-wheelers for a good cause…

Rockin’ and Wheelin’

The WLUW Indie Rock Prom Brings Back Childhood Memories

As a past DJ and board member of a struggling college radio station that lost its antenna in a hurricane, I am all for attending any events that support college radio. The Loyola University Chicago radio station, WLUW, learned last fall that for the first time in its 24-year existence it would no longer be fully funded with tuition dollars. Due to the shaky funding situation, the station has launched a prolific fundraising initiative, including a Christmas show at Schubas, a series of shows at the Hideout, and the first annual “indie rock prom” at the Rainbo Roller Rink last Thursday.

In addition to being an advocate of college radio, I just couldn’t resist an event including indie rock and prom in the same phrase, and, moreover, that involved roller-skating. According to Shawn Campbell, Program Director, the event was concocted after she attended another fundraiser at the Rainbo and thought it would be fun to get people to dress up AND roller skate. A creative event, the indie-rock prom featured live music from three local bands and college kids dressed in thrift-store formal attire or costumes from various time periods. I went without a costume, but the chance to revive my long-retired roller-skating skills took me way back in time.

DJ and Student Liaison Mike Stephen gets ready to Shoot the Duck at the WLUW Indie Rock Prom.The event brought back memories of the countless evenings I spent at Sparkles Skating Rink in Atlanta between the years of first and fifth grade. Roller-skating parties are probably a vivid aspect of many of our grade school years and were certainly one my favorite activities. The public school I attended had a monthly fundraiser at the skating rink, including prizes for the class with highest attendance, couples skates with disco lighting, and the hokey-pokey. Besides these monthly roller-skating nights, of which I missed very few, birthday parties at Sparkles were quite popular. Despite all the time that I spent roller-skating as a kid, I hadn’t put on a pair of roller skates in at least 15 years. I quickly learned, however, that much like riding a bike, you don’t forget how to roller skate. Racing around the rink to the 80s pop music played between live sets made me especially nostalgic for my childhood days at the roller rink.

The roller rink was among my earliest venues for hearing popular music as a kid. Growing up with parents who didn’t listen to popular radio stations, discouraged MTV, and whose record collection was limited primarily to classical music and a few Dylan and Beatles’ albums, I didn’t have a lot of access to the music other kids my age were listening to. The roller rink was where I discovered Cyndi Lauper, Prince, and Michael Jackson. Favorite hits from my roller skating days include “Thriller,” “The Heat is On,” and “Man Eater.” And I can clearly remember rockin’ out air-guitar style to Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” during breaks from skating. Perhaps my lack of musical knowledge as a 10-year-old and my under-appreciated skill at the air guitar explains my inevitable lack of a partner during the couples skate, but I think those nights at the roller rink had to have contributed to my passion for rock music.

For information on future WLUW fundraising events, check out their website at Donations can be sent to WLUW, 820 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611.

Rites of Spring

Long-time poster and GLONO friend, Helen Wilson, conjures up a little spring fever at Chicago’s beloved Old Town of Folk Music.

Rites of Spring

The power of music and the change of season breathes new life into the dead of winter.

I never thought I’d be rockin’ out to Sheryl Crow on a Saturday night, but there I was in a circle of complete strangers belting out “If it makes you happy” and playing a bongo drum. I was at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music All-Night Party.

We arrived around 7:30, in time to catch “Who wants to Be a Music Critic?” – a game show of sorts where local characters, including Pete Margasak and Tim Tuten of the Hideout, battled it out over music trivia, and name-that-tune to Robbie Fulks’ music samples. After laughing our asses off at these music critics stumbling over questions such as “What’s a funeral pyre?” or “Which of the following bands has Kelly Hogan NOT played in?” and me forming a crush on Pete Margasak, we headed upstairs to check out the rest of the party.

On the elevator, we were serenaded by live singers doing their version of cheesy elevator music. The all-night party was a sort of progressive where guests moved between small, often crowded rooms and participated in the singing and playing of music ranging from country/western, to bluegrass, to American roots, to pop. Our favorite room included a pile of percussion instruments in the center of the floor, where you could grab a shaker, a drum, or a pair of wooden sticks and join in. The themes in this room rotated every two hours, and included “Cat, Van, and Paul” (Stevens, Morrison, and Simon), “Carly and Carole” (Simon and King), and “Rockin’ Babes” featuring songs from Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, Concrete Blonde, and the Pretenders among others. In other rooms, we sang along to the music of Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Prince, Elvis and Madonna, Neil Young, and Abba. A room in the basement featured an all-night “Beatles Ensemble” where hits from the Fab Four were played from 6pm to 6am. We also joined a drum circle where I got lost in the rhythms until my hands were raw.

Throughout the hallways of the school, people hung out drinking beers from cans, or forming their own informal circles of guitars, banjos, whatever. Around 2am, we wandered into the main auditorium and found EE (Environmental Encroachment) on the stage. I’m not sure if this ensemble plays other venues or just came together for the night, but they were about 12 musicians dressed as bunny rabbits, Easter baskets, etc., emanating a hypnotic fusion of drums, horns, guitars.

A bunch of us got up and danced at the front of the stage – at this point I had beaten drums, sang “Joey” at the top of my lungs, and I was not above letting loose to this freakishly wonderful music. It was completely surreal – on stage one guy was playing the drums in a rabbit mask, and another guy in a tall pointy red velvet hat was simultaneously playing a trumpet and a trombone. And the rest of us were flailing our arms and swinging our hips to the sounds. This Alice in Wonderland-esque scene could have been a really good acid trip, yet I had hardly had two beers all night. It was at this moment I realized that I hadn’t felt this completely un-self-conscious in a long time.

I can’t sing, I’ve never played the drums, and I’m a mediocre dancer, but none of that mattered. I’m used to seeing live shows where I’m the spectator and someone else is performing, but Saturday I experienced music in a completely different way. No one was performing, and the songs didn’t belong to anyone in the room. The music was suddenly stripped of much of what I usually associate with it, and I was able to shed my usually critical perspective; Tori Amos and Tom Waits were all the same. It was about experiencing music rather than performing, listening to, or evaluating it. And the whole event was refreshingly unpretentious and un-“scene”-like. There were kids, old people, musicians and music appreciators of all levels, ages, demographics, shapes and sizes. It was a truly exhilarating and cathartic experience.

This season is about celebration and rejuvenation of life, about cleansing the soul, out with the old, on with the new. From the symbolism of a bunny rabbit bearing colored eggs and fuzzy new chicks, to the Christian mythology of Christ rising from the dead, to the Greek Dionysian rites of spring, this time is about shedding the baggage of the past year and purging the spirit in preparation for a new life cycle. The utterly raw experience of music, shared primarily with strangers, brought to awareness the vitality and spontaneity of life that is so often lost in the stresses of daily existence. Some people go to church on Easter Sunday, but this was exactly the kind of religious experience I needed.

– Helen W. Wilson