Sunday, March 25, 2012

Nneka – Double Door – 3/21/2012

Sometimes I can be a real dumbass. Two years ago Nneka played the Double Door on Valentine’s Day. And I skipped it. Knowingly. It’s not like I had a date… have you seen my profile pic? I’m sure I had a valid excuse, such as having to draw mustaches on all the models in the latest issue of Vogue. Sure, it was hilarious, but I regretted that decision for two long years until Nneka gave me a second chance and returned to the Double Door. If I had come all the way from Nigeria and Cracky couldn’t make the effort to don his parka and go a few miles down the street, I’m not sure I’d give him another chance. But that’s because I’m a vindictive ass.

However, in my defense when I tried to get a ticket, Double Door asked if I could do a favor for one of their best customers, Admiral Clement Okon, and purchase his ticket by Western Union wire transfer, since he was currently away on an off-shore oceanic expedition without access to Internet, and he would pay me back at show along with an extra $10MM USD for the inconvenience.

I never heard back from General Okon, but I did make it to this show early and planted myself up front. Which was one of the better decisions I’ve made recently for two reasons.

First, holy crap, is she good. From the moment she walked on stage I was drawn to her in every way. Simple, natural, passionate, informative, grateful, professional, beautiful, confident. Oh, yeah, and talented. The music has a decidedly reggae feel, but has elements from hip hop, blues and soul. And the band she has assembled moves between styles and keeps up with her every step of the way. They pour it all into a Nneka branded blender and serve the music up like a socially-conscious smoothie. But unlike a large corporation plastering carefully-crafted slogans on their cups and bags just to make you feel good about buying their crap, these songs have meaning for Nneka. And she wants them to have meaning to you. Which brings me to my second reason I was happy to be up front.

Most of the crowd that showed up was not worthy of this woman and should have been tossed head first into an industrial slicer. Being up front put fewer of them between me and the band. First, people, shut the fuck up. I still have no clue why anyone pays ten, fifteen, twenty plus dollars for a concert ticket and then talks through the whole show. Here’s a consumer tip from your Uncle Cracky – stay the hell home and listen to the CD or go around to the corner to one of hundreds of taverns around Chicago which has been specifically designed for that purpose. Hey, I get it, this ain’t Carnegie or the symphony, but when you go to a bar offering live music and you pay to get in and the artist is trying to tell you what the song means to her or is serving up a quiet acoustic number, how about giving those vocal cords a rest, Slappy, before someone gives you a roundhouse kick to your flapping jaw.

Furthermore, maybe you won’t show your complete ignorance over what is going on, as witnessed from the following paraphrased exchange between Nneka and a crowd of people whom I am ashamed to call my fellow Chicagoans. Although I have a feeling poor Nneka encounters this in venues throughout America. She’s giving the intro to a tune called V.I.P. (Vagabond in Power), basically about the abuse of power and the high proportion of dickheads who end up in those positions. Except she’s a bit more eloquent than I.

Nneka: Corporations exploiting the resources of Africa… because they consider the people of Africa… unimportant.

Crowd: murmur, murmur, murmur, my drink is empty, murmur, what are you doing after the show? murmur, hey baby, murmur

Nneka: Western VIP’s….

Crowd: murmur, wait, what did she say? VIP’s? We’re all VIP’s!!!! Yay! Woo-hoo, VIP’s!!!! Yeaaaahhhh!!!!!! VIPeeeeeesssss!!!!!!! Woo!

Nneka: sigh

Sorry, Nneka, we’re all not that ignorant. Really. It just seems that way. But if it means anything to you, this was easily one of the best shows I’ve seen this year and I promise not to miss you ever again.

Cracky and Nneka, sitting in a tree.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Alabama Shakes – Reggie’s – 3/10/12

The Alabama Shakes hit my radar last year like a B1 Bomber entering urban airspace. So I was excited to find out they were coming to town last December to the small, yet inviting Hideout. And then I was disappointed to find out it was the same night as a Wilco show for which I already had tickets. But then I was excited to find out that they were doing a second show a couple days later at the sterile, seated, yet acceptable SPACE in Evanston. And then I was disappointed to find out it was the same night as my Christmas dinner for work. I considered blowing off dinner but since there were only eight of us, my absence might have been noticeable. I still considered it, but ultimately put on my bib and got down with some crab legs. But then I was excited a couple months later when they announced a return trip to Chicago for a gig at the venerable Lincoln Hall. And then I was disappointed to find out it was the same night Dave Alvin was in town. If you read my previous review, you’ll understand that missing Dave was not an option. Yet I was still tempted. And then I was excited to hear that they were doing a free WXRT show at Reggie’s the following day at high noon. Would Brittany finally be Cracky’s bride instead of his bridesmaid? Hell yes. I even shimmied down the retired dumbwaiter to gain early access to the hall and secure a front row spot.

Was she worth the wait? Hell yes. Can I do the rest of this review as a Q&A format? Hell yes. Did I really get that excited about a band that hasn’t even released their first full-length record yet? Hell yes. Check out YouTube. Okay, enough of that.

The music. It’s as if Otis Redding were born a woman and adopted by Mama and Papa Allman and raised along side Greg and Duane and then turned loose with a guitar and a notebook plastered with Zeppelin stickers.

Clothes make the man. So before you go making fun of my Wham! t-shirts, perhaps you’d be interested to know that vocalist Brittany Howard kicked this band thing off by inviting the weird kid in her psych class to play with her because she liked the band t-shirts he wore. They eventually found an additional guitarist and drummer and hatched this Alabama Shakes thing.

Brittany commands center stage, filling the place with her impassioned vocals and then attacking her guitar with similar vigor. It’s always nice to see a guitarist who knows more than the same three open chords that I do. But I digress.

The band stays largely in the background, recognizing that Brittany is the lobster in this bisque and they are the cream holding it together with just a dash of sherry to remind you that they’re there. It works. My only complaint is that the set clocked in well under an hour, but I'll shove that complaint up my own ass since it was a free show and the fact that they played less than 12 hours the night before and were due back on stage in Milwaukee later that day. Take care of that voice, Brittany, or else you'll end up like Drew Brees after that shoulder injury. And we all know how that turned out.

Bottom line: She’s fun to watch. They’re easy to listen to. You’ll dig the tunes. Cracky shakes his tailfeather.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Dave Alvin & The Guilty Ones - Fitzgeralds - 3/9/2012

This was Uncle Dave, telling some bedtime stories, except instead of fairy tales about princesses and ogres and make-believe crap, his stories are about lost friends, badass old-timers, runaways, barroom troubadours and the women who love them, and other assorted characters on the fringe of society that most of us rarely encounter, may not want to encounter, but can’t help being drawn to when introduced to us through Dave’s eyes. He brings the stories home with six strings, some of them stinging us with the pain of a lost soulmate, others coming together in chords that give us a glimmer of hope that the runaway girl just might find a place to call home for the first time in her life.

There will be no falling asleep, either. Uncle Dave comes to town and tells your parents he knows it’s your bedtime, but you revel in the dark side and get chills as you hear the buzz of his amplifier fill your room. There’s no sleeping when Dave comes to town.

His van is filled with his cohorts… a supporting cast of players who know the stories well, yet are ready for a new twist he may add any night, taking their cues from a slight hitch of the guitar, a look from the corner of his eye, a nod of his head as he turns the page on the next guitar riff. Chris Miller handles the other guitar duties, often taking to the slide as the set up man for Dave’s next verse or solo. Brad Fordham keeps things rumbling on the bass clef so Dave can focus his efforts higher up neck. Alvin is clearly the star here and commands your attention in his boots and jeans, leather jacket, ever present bandana and worn cowboy hat and swagger, but the ringmaster who pulls them all together is drummer and Guilty Woman Lisa Pankratz. In a show a couple years ago Dave credited her for keeping him in line since he claims to have no sense of timing, but it goes beyond just keeping the beat. She gives off a sense of hyper-awareness, often staring intensely in Dave’s direction. Not always getting those cues, but sensing exactly when and where Dave is going next. She can take the beat down while he ponders his next move or pauses to carry on the narrative, building tension with some steady, subtle rhythms, but then just as easily she can rally the beat and send Dave off crack-the-whip style into a climactic solo that will leave you tattooed with every emotion that song conveys.

This is the best band working on the road today. Dave is the real deal, and he surrounds himself with the top people in the business. I normally go off on some ridiculous tangent in these show reviews, but I have too much respect for this band. Cracky says you’re a fool if you miss an opportunity to see Mr. Alvin.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Punch Brothers – Park West – 3/1/2012

I thought Punch Brothers was a machine shop on the west side of Chicago or a bad improv group so I was less than intrigued when a friend invited me to see them. But I keep an open mind about stuff and found out that it’s a band led by Chris Thile. I wasn’t sure, but didn’t he play second base for the Mets back in the 80’s? No? Apparently he was in Nickel Creek, a band for whom several friends got raging boners, but left me feeling less than satisfied. However, I checked out some of the Punch Brothers stuff and found it, well, punchier than what I had expected. I’m also going through a bluegrass phase lately and have been debating whether to purchase a mandolin or a banjo so that I can rightfully suck at another genre of music. I’m leaning toward the mandolin since it’s much smaller and probably easier to carry around. I can also finally dust off that Hooters’ songbook that’s been sitting on my shelf since 1985. You remember The Hooters… that Philly band that did “All You Zombies” and “And We Danced” before they opened all those stupid Hooters restaurants? But I digress.

Sometimes I overestimate the number of friends I have and purchase 20 tickets for a show and end up having to sell 19 of them on Craigslist in exchange for faulty curling irons and used copies of Kirk Cameron’s autobiography. Recently, though, a friend has come through for me a few times so that I’ve only had to sell 18 extra tickets, so I decided to repay the favor and take one of her 20 tickets to the Punch Brothers.

I got there about halfway through the opener, Aoife O’Donovan, and was informed that she’s “pleasant”. An odd description but spot on. Too bad Scrabble doesn’t allow proper nouns because her name would be a killer play when you end up with a rack full of vowels. Just missing the U and sometimes Y. Ah, yes, back to the Punch Brothers.

So the Punch Brothers aren’t really brothers, they didn’t punch anyone or serve punch, and they don’t have a drummer. But they did bring an upright bass player, a guitarist, a banjo-ist, a fiddler off the roof, and Chris Thile, the said mandolinist.

Going to a Punch Brothers show is like watching the snowboarding events at the Winter Olympics, except it’s not as cold. The boarders all do some crazy shit and even though it’s a competition they’re out there partying, cheering each other on and all go apeshit every time someone nails a triple-lindy in the half-pipe. Same thing… individually the Punch Brothers are immensely talented, but as each one takes a solo or is featured in a tune the other four are dialed in and smiling in disbelief that they are in the same band with these other fuckers. Chris Thile flailed on that mandolin like I’ve never seen, and then takes a ringmaster role as he physically moves the music through and across all the other members. And they all deliver. But even more “pleasant” is how they all mesh on every song. Their timing is dead on, through the barnburners and the ballads, and they nail tempo changes and creative arrangements as if they’ve been playing together on the front porch all their lives. This was a fun show. Cracky drank the punch.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Diamanda Galas – Museum of Contemporary Art – 2/25/2012

Cracky got a Kindle from Kris Kringle for Christmas. And I also overdo the alliteration any time I get the chance. Between skee-ball tournaments and pickling hard-boiled eggs for the corner tavern, I stay pretty busy and lose track of any books I’m reading and where I left off. The Kindle has kept me more focused, more efficient and somehow even more hygienic. It’s truly a miracle device.

One of the books I’ve been reading is "Get In The Van" by Henry Rollins, which is essentially his journal from his days in Black Flag in the early 80’s. At this stage in the book, he’s living in a shed, largely withdrawn, and not talking to anyone very much. So, yeah, living just like Cracky. However, there is but one person with whom he likes hanging out, exchanging letters and even talking on the phone: Diamanda Galas. I had never heard of her, but I was intrigued enough to check her out and stalk her online. Since she has a Wikipedia entry and music on Spotify, it was much easier than stalking that woman on the bus. But I digress.

Allow me to quote three lines from Wikipedia:

Galás has been described as "capable of the most unnerving vocal terror", with her three and a half octave vocal range. She often screams, hisses and growls. Her works largely concentrate on the topics of AIDS, mental illness, despair, injustice, condemnation, and loss of dignity.


Fast forward a couple days and I’m flipping through Time Out magazine around 3 a.m. on a Friday night trying to find the best place in Chicago to get my chest waxed when who should I see peering back at me from the pages of the magazine but Diamanda Galas herself. She’s in town and performing on the 23rd! Shit, that was yesterday. Why couldn’t I have gotten the urge to wax my chest a couple days earlier? Wait! Another show on the 25th! Tomorrow. Sweet! Argh, sold out.

I decided to head down to the MCA early when the doors opened to get on the wait list, and when I arrived they had exactly one solitary ticket left. I pushed the sickly looking goths in front of me out of the way and threw my cash on the counter. Good thing I had turned down that transvestite on the corner who asked me if I needed a date.

It was my first trip to the surprisingly minimalist yet functional MCA theater. The lone grand piano, stool, and monitors on the simply lit stage were a perfect compliment to the space.

Diamanda came out in black tights and black fringed chemise, not nearly as goth as half her audience, yet reminding me of a Greek, slightly goth Beth Hart. She took a seat, got her sheet music in order and plowed right into the first chords. Oh, yeah, she’s a badass pianist. I would have paid just to see her play piano, probably because I don’t understand the value of a dollar, but I’m a sucker for piano music and women musicians the same way other people love kittens with baggies full of crack. Crack kittens.

But unlike the mythical crack kittens, Diamanda has experimented and trained her voice unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. I’d say her voice is a cross between Maria Callas, Nick Cave, Lydia Lunch, and John Lee Hooker. Her vocals are like a clown car… you can’t believe all those sounds are coming out of one human, or any human. The fact that it’s all happening while she’s pounding out these intricate melodies and rhythms on piano nearly made my head explode. I think I heard a couple heads explode in the back, after which they were asked to leave for disturbing the artist.

The songs ranged from covers of old spiritual tunes (“Let My People Go”) to original music set to early 20th century Greek poetry and Italian suicide poems to complete originals from her 80’s trilogy based on the AIDS epidemic.

I once worked on a job site where the risk of explosion was so high that the walls were cinder block, but there was a light tin roof above so that the force of any explosion would be directed upwards. Diamanda’s performances would work well in a room like this. If you’re feeling brave enough, step inside and be prepared to be blown away. Once you clear the tin roof, you might enjoy the ride. The rest of you may be better off staying on the other side of those walls. I went inside and Cracky’s alive. Very alive.