By Chris Newton
Autumn in Chicago: the weather, the colors, the White Sox, the music. The past few weeks have been a wonderful time to live in the city of wind. Sandwiched between the humid summers and biting winters of the Midwest is Chicago's fall season, a time when the year is mature but still young at heart, and with it this year has come a slew of unbelievable acts. Far too many good shows have come through to be able to see them all, so here are reviews of some of the many excellent performances that have recently graced Chicago.
Lotus, at Subterranean, Friday, 10.21.05: It had been over a year since I last saw Lotus, a Philly-based live electronica quintet, and it was quite obvious that they had done some serious fine-tuning. Everything was stepped-up from the last show I saw: the musicianship and sound quality were polished, the light show was beefy, and the vibe they brought was very inviting while remaining extremely professional. They welcomed a nice size crowd to the Wicker Park haunt; the place looked pretty full, but there was enough room to feel comfortable and to move around. Musically, it was a two-set dance party, consisting of a few jazzy drum-and-bass tracks surrounded by lots of their trademark funky-house. Precise guitar melodies were accentuated by solid beats and samples held together with fluid Fender Jazz basslines. Think Grant Green sitting in with St. Germain after listening to Air. Lotus seems to have matured a lot and apparently has discovered the secret to musical success both on stage and off: patience. They are very focused and confident, both as a five-piece ensemble on stage and as a larger touring unit, and with their sights set on the future, they are in no rush to overlook the present moment.
Digable Planets, at Park West, Friday 11.04.05: In 1995 I was a junior in high school and delivered pizzas part time, a job that enabled me to listen to A LOT of music. One day, one of my boys told me I had to hear this hip-hop CD and handed me a purple and black disc (this was before the days of CD burning) called Blowout Comb. I recognized the name of the group from their huge hit "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," and casually popped it in. I took it out of the player about a week later, reluctant to give it back to my friend. In the early 1990s, I had heard a lot of rap, not just gangsta but progressive groups like De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest, but this was different. Never before had I listened to a hip-hop track and thought, "What a sick jazz guitar solo!" I've always thought of hip-hop as an evolution of jazz music and culture, and nowhere is that more evident than with Digable Planets.
Now, fast-forward ten years, and I hear rumors of a reunion. After regrettably missing this year's Lollapalooza (where they performed), I noticed they were slated to play the Park West, a venue that I'd never been to but had heard good things about. Needless to say, I was very excited to see these hip-hop legends that I'd been listening to for a decade but had never seen live, so I made a few calls, assembled the crew, and off we went. Openers Crown City Rockers got things warmed up nicely with tight beats and positive rhymes, and after a fairly short intermission, the DP MCs (Ladybug Mecca, Doodlebug, and Butterfly) took the stage supported by a four-piece band and a DJ. Almost immediately, I became frustrated with the sound. Their DJ was not loud enough; the beats were clear, but the BUMP seemed to get lost in the concave dome ceiling in front of the stage. Also, it was obvious that the band members were all very talented but not the same musicians used in the studio. I was hoping for an upright bass, small jazz kit, quiet guitar, and a Rhodes, but the band was more of a rock band than a jazz combo: electric bass, cymbal-heavy rock kit, Fender-esque guitar, and full-on keyboards. Each band member soloed throughout the set, allowing for a chance to display their enormous individual talents, but I was there to see ground-breaking, jazz-infused underground hip-hop, and the band was a let-down.
With that said, the show was off the hook nonetheless. We were all there to see Digable Planets, not their back-up band, and the three MCs did not disappoint. In fact, they threw a really dope hip-hop party, drawing from both of their albums, a few new cuts, and a freestyle session at the end that saw Ladybug Mecca steal the show. All three MCs are extremely talented, but she clearly stands out. Not only is she stylish, attractive, and intelligent, she is also, in my experience, the first female MC whose lyrical content was matched only by her fresh, flirty delivery. Their stage interaction gave no sign of any disdain within the group. They all seemed to enjoy themselves and to have fun with each other on stage. Hopefully they can continue to make music together and take underground hip-hop to the next level of creativity and positive evolution. Only next time, please bring a different band!
Zilla, at Subterranean, Saturday 11.05.05: Having lived in Boulder, CO for several years, it is strange that I had never heard the music of Zilla, but that was the case upon heading back to Subterranean on a rainy early-November Saturday night. I recognized all three musicians, most notable of course was SCI's drummer Michael Travis, as well as famed hammered dulcimer and percussion extraordinaire Jamie Janover, and bassist/guitarist Aaron Holstein. All three have had very accomplished careers thus far and are renowned heavy hitters around the bustling Boulder scene. I must admit I was skeptical before the show as I do not enjoy Travis' other band (SCI) very much, but instantly I was quite literally blown away by Zilla. The music is improvised electronica and very rarely ventures anywhere close to the happy-mountain-dippy-bouncy sound I was expecting. Instead, it is a conversation between three excellent musicians who are all well equipped on stage and have been around the block when it comes to performing and touring. They all play everything: literally, there are dozens of instruments on stage. Travis and Janover handle most of the beats and percussion, Janover and Holstein handle most of the melodies, and Holstein and Travis handle most of the bass; and they all weave samples in and out of the mix. Everything is cyclical, and nothing is set in stone, which I suppose can be both the beauty and the downfall of an all-improvised band. On this night, however, the band sounded magnificent and excited to be out on tour playing fresh new music every night. They throw an unbelievable dance party and are very entertaining to watch. And on a personal note, it was very nice to have a piece of Boulder (a city I love dearly) touch down in my hometown of Chicago for a few hours.
The Meters, at House of Blues, Friday 11.11.05: Undeniably the funkiest band on the planet, The Meters have for decades given listeners booty-shaking funk while representing their hometown, New Orleans. It had been about twenty years since all four members of the original Meters played together in Chicago. Several incarnations of the band — like the Funky Meters — had come through, but never a group containing all four original members. Friday night was the first of a two-night stand at Chicago's House of Blues. I was expecting a sellout, but it seemed to be half-full, probably because of high ticket prices (apparently Saturday night's crowd was larger). They played about a two-hour set, keeping things consistently funky as they gave us their own unique takes on New Orleans standards in between the crowd-pleasing Meters material. You can always count on simple old school slow funk to put you in a good mood, but on this night, it was just as much about a party in honor of New Orleans as it was a reunion of such a legendary band. It felt good to be in the audience, comfortable in the usually-too-packed HOB, dancing with friends, and knowing that a lot of the $70 ticket price will be donated to assist victims of the hurricanes. Musically, there were no surprises, but this was the kind of show where predictability is a good thing. My mind was not blown, but it was great to contribute to a worthy cause while witnessing musical history.
Seba at Dynamite!, a drum-and-bass party at Sonotheque, Saturday 11.12.05: Bass By The Pound, Chicago's leading drum-and-bass promoters, throws a party on the second Saturday of each month called Dynamite! at Sonotheque, a classy, modern, but unassuming and casual club near Wicker Park. This monthly event has a consistent crowd of loyal drum-and-bass fans who cannot always make it out to the weekly party (Wednesday nights at Lava Lounge) but jump at the chance to spend a Saturday night dancing to the freshest drum and bass DJs from around the world. Recently, the party was headlined by drum-and-bass pioneers LTJ Bukem and MC Conrad in September. Former top-of-the-bill performers include Andy C and Ed Rush and Optical. Constantly changing yet remaining consistent in quality, the headlining talent never fails to disappoint. This most recent go-around featured Seba, a Swedish DJ/producer who got his start in 1993 on Bukem's notorious Good Looking Records and now releases cuts on several labels including Bassbin and Hospital. Throughout the night, his mixes and track selections were tight as all the big drops cascaded down on the eager crowd. For those that don't know, drum-and-bass music is a fast-paced arsenal of syncopated drum beats, lush and at times jazzy chord progressions, and swells, centered around subsonic bass lines that provide the climax of any particular track. Drum-and-bass is the existential bastard child of hip-hop and reggae, a lab rat born in a test tube and given life via electricity. Seba rocked the party til around 3:00 a.m., providing the necessary vibrations to recharge your soul until the next time.
Sonotheque :: Chicago, IL
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey with Exit Clov, at Subterranean, Saturday 11.19.05: Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey is no stranger to JamBase and its readers. For about a decade, this Tulsa, OK group has relentlessly toured the country, impressing audiences with their virtuosity at first as a larger ensemble, and later as the brilliant trio of Brian Haas on piano and Rhodes, Jason Smart on drums, and the most exciting bass player on the planet these days, Reed Mathis. JFJO has recently been seen a lot around Chicago, having played the Wicker Park Fest earlier this summer, then a few acoustic shows at Hothouse, and last week, the late night electric show at Subterranean. Openers Exit Clov, who hail from Washington DC, got the show started with their beautifully original indie-pop rock. The two female lead vocalists harmonized wonderfully around piano and violin arrangements as well as the more traditional rock setup. After Exit Clov wowed the early crowd, JFJO took the stage to an enthusiastic response. The first thing I noticed was that Mathis was sitting down, an observation that struck me as odd as this was an electric show, but after looking closer I realized why. He was using not just one but two expression foot pedals to alter his tone as he played, and it would have been impossible for him to stand. It was incredible. He was playing an electric bass, which sounded like a guitar and clavinet combination, and using foot pedals as if it were a piano. This was truly inspiring, creative, and ground-breaking musicianship. Haas and Smart are no slackers on their instruments either, stepping up to several solos that took you out of your body and into a conversation with your mind, heart, and soul, only to realize the whole time you are always just talking to your self. JFJO continues to take jazz through uncharted territory with each performance, utilizing their enormous level of talent and imagination.
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
JamBase | Chicago
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