Our first set of the day was Tierra Whack, the rapper that Pitchfork booked after Earl Sweatshirt canceled on Monday. Whack was accompanied by her DJ, Zach, who warmed up the crowd by playing hits such as “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley and “Feel Good Inc” by the Gorillaz. After about 15 minutes, Whack came on stage, bursting with energy. Sporting a denim bucket hat and denim dress, she led the crowd in several call and response chants, including “Crack kills if it don’t get you Whack will” before playing “Toe Jam.” Her signature super fast flow was definitely impressive, but her efforts to get the crowd moving didn’t seem to be working. After playing “Pet Cemetery” off of her newest project Whack World to little response, she asked the crowd “Alright y’all, what do you wanna hear?” A group of people yelled back “Fruit Salad,” and Whack obeyed. Luckily, this helped to boost the crowd’s energy for the remainder of the set.
From the Westside of Chicago, Saba was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd (a “Saba” chant even broke out before he came on stage). Wearing his own merch and Adidas track pants, Saba flashed his charming smile and announced that this was “going to be a special show.” Saba opened with the first track on his new album Care For Me, “BUSY/SIRENS,” and the crowd sang along to the chorus. He then told the audience that this was his first time playing in Chicago this year, explaining why the show was so special. After playing a few more tracks off of Care For Me (“BROKEN GIRLS,” “CALLIGRAPHY,” “FIGHTER,” “SMILE”) he switched to his 2016 album Bucket List Project. “Stoney” was the highlight of the set, with Saba’s energy on stage being matched by the crowd. Towards the end of the set, he also made a tribute to his cousin and fellow member of Pivot Gang, John Walt, who was fatally stabbed last February. He ended the set with “LIFE,” which got the crowd jumping and yelling for more – resulting in him playing one more song to appease them.
“Today is all about Chicago and all about The Internet,” Syd said as she came on stage, winning lots of applause from the crowd. Although she has her own solo music, Syd is also a part of the band The Internet alongside Steve Lacy, Matt Martians and Patrick Paige II, whose album Hive Mind came out yesterday. However, at the start of her set Syd focused on her latest album, 2017’s Fin. She dedicated “Got Her Own” to “all the independent women out there,” and crooned her way through “Bad Dream/ No Looking Back.” Her performance was simple and effortless, and she even sat down on stage at one point to sing “Shake Em Off.” She then focused more on her collaborative projects, which was something I was not expecting but was grateful for. She played her hit song with Kaytranada, “YOU’RE THE ONE,” and even sang a little bit of “Take Me Away,” her feature on Daniel Caesar’s album Freudian. But this was not the biggest surprise that Syd had in store – after singing “Come Over” off of the newest The Internet record, Steve Lacy came out on stage to perform “La Di Da” and “Roll (Burbank Funk),” during which the rest of The Internet joined them. It was an extremely exciting end to an already impressive set, making it one of my favorites of the day.
Mount Kimbie performed at the blue stage, which felt like a whole different world compared to the crowds at red and green. The people waiting to see Mount Kimbie were a little bit older and more serious looking than those I had seen at Syd or Saba. You could tell they were purely there for the music. Mount Kimbie had an extremely impressive set, their ambient beats casting a spell over the crowd that resulted in a lot of head bobbing and trance-like dancing. The highlight of the set was “You Look Certain (I’m Not So Sure),” which was one of the few songs they played that involved vocals. The rest kind of all blended together, but in the best way. Their set definitely provided a much needed break from the crazy crowd that seemed to be the norm earlier in the day.
Speaking of a crazy crowd, pretty much everyone who was at the festival gathered shoulder to shoulder to see Tame Impala – and it was definitely a show. Tame Impala’s usual trippy visuals were heightened with lasers and strobe lights, and the band themselves played on a platform on the stage. They opened with “Let It Happen,” and an insane amount of confetti was released during the drop. However, after the excitement of that died down, some of the crowd began to get upset because the band’s equipment was pretty quiet. This sparked a “Turn it up!” chant that echoed throughout the crowd, but alas nothing was changed. As misty rain began to fall, they played “Mind Mischief,” “Elephant,” “Yes I’m Changing,” “Why Won’t You Make Up Your Mind?” and “Eventually.” During this, I witnessed a fight, a person wearing a panda costume crowd surfing, and an adorable 6-year-old boy sitting on his Cool Dad’s shoulders. Although all seemed right again when Tame played “The Less I Know The Better,” I couldn’t help but feel a little disconnected from the band itself. They didn’t stray far from their recordings, and the extra platform on stage and poor sound quality didn’t help.
Although musician Ian Ruhala – better known as Hala – may be young, what he lacks in age he makes up for in experience. The 21-year-old has been playing and recording his own music from his bedroom since high school. His EP Young Alumni was released in 2015 after graduation and full-length Spoonfed soon followed, produced during his first semester of college. This summer, he recruited band members and embarked on a 16-date tour, co-headlining with fellow indie favorites BOYO.
I crossed paths with Hala at their last stop of tour in Cleveland, Ohio. The basement of a bowling alley called Mahall’s Twenty Lanes served perfectly as the venue, complimenting Hala’s vintage vibe. The specific corner of the basement in which they played was dubbed “The Locker Room,” presumably due to the row of old beige lockers placed behind the band.
Sporting a grey Tommy Hilfiger shirt and a shoulder fanny pack, Ruhala took a seat on one of the vintage bowling benches to discuss his sound, tour life, and balancing college with music.
Ruhala said of his music that although he gets lumped into the “bedroom pop” genre, he doesn’t like to restrict himself to just that.
“I don’t really know how I feel about that term [bedroom pop], but I do record in a bedroom,” Ruhala said. “I don’t know if it’s really poppy. It’s just like guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll through the lens of recording at home, so lo-fi is sometimes attached – but I don’t know, I’m not purposefully trying to sound like shit.”
This tour being his longest and first time headlining in the U.S., Ruhala said that it has resulted in close friendships between the two bands – and surprisingly, a lot of nudity.
“Everybody gets naked, really,” Ruhala said. “We were in the car the other day and my guitarist was just playing his gameboy and then he felt the urge to get naked, so he stripped down.”
Other tour antics have included (sorta) trashing a hotel room.
“We kind of – not really – trashed a hotel room the other night, but we got really drunk and busted one of the beds,” Ruhala said. “It wasn’t like a Van Halen kind of trashing where things were actually destroyed; it was more like ‘sorry about this clean up that you gotta do.’”
However, Ruhala doesn’t always live such a lifestyle – he is also a college student, having graduated near the top of his high school class. A type A student in high school, he said that he has learned to relax in college and as a result, has been able to focus more on music.
“If you really wanna pursue music, in the moments that you have free you’ll find yourself gravitating toward your instrument and just playing it,” Ruhala said. “That could be at 2 a.m. after you study, it could be during the day, it could be playing a show. There’s always time.”
However, Ruhala said that instead of sitting down and trying to write a song, the songs tend to come to him.
“I’ll get a chord progression or I’ll have a sentence that could be a chorus line, and it kind of just happens. Usually it has to do with experiences and the song will find me. And sometimes you gotta do some weird stuff to find it,” Ruhala said. “You can’t write a song about heartbreak and not be heartbroken; you can’t write a song about drugs and alcohol without partaking in it. You don’t want to be a poser. And that’s what I’m big on, I just want to write songs that mean something to me and I don’t wanna write fluff, you know?”
Recording and production also play a large part in Ruhala’s creative process. Spoonfed was recorded entirely in an attic, which Ruhala said played an important role in the final product.
“I’ve done stuff in a studio with other bands, and I can just tell, when you bring an engineer in and pay them, most of the time they’re like ‘this isn’t my own stuff’ so they don’t really care,” Ruhala said. “I want to give [an album] the time that I think it deserves. I’m not too much of a studio wizard but I’m learning every time I do something, and I feel like if I’m happy with it, then that’s really all that matters.”
As the show approached, The Locker Room filled up with around 30 people. BOYO was on first, impressing the crowd with crisp guitar riffs and moody vocals from singer Robert Tilden. As they played, the band members of Hala placed themselves front and center, dancing wildly as a form of encouragement.
A few moments after BOYO’s set ended, Hala took over, and the members of BOYO replaced them in the crowd. Although suffering from a slight cold, Ruhala delivered great vocals and strummed his Epiphone Casino guitar with ease. Hala played six songs in total, contrasting “Problems” from his first EP with recent single “Keep on Loving” and of course, “What Is Love? Tell Me, Is It Easy?”. Midway through the set, Ruhala announced that his parents were in the crowd, having driven from his hometown of Detroit, Michigan. This just added to the already present feeling that being at his show was like being welcomed into a tightly knit group of friends. It was just the right amount of laid-back and intimate, and one couldn’t help but notice the smiles on the faces of almost everyone as they watched Ian Ruhala and his friends play music.
As for what to expect from Hala’s future, there is another album in the works, hopefully to be released next summer. Ruhala said that it will be recorded with all new gear in a different bedroom, and he is looking to change his direction stylistically as well.
“I just want to genre-hop as much as I can. I want it to be the most confusing and incoherent string of songs, but I still want them to blend in some way,” Ruhala said. “I wrote a country song, a sludgy hip-hop song and then I’ve got some poppier songs and some guitar songs. So I just want it to be a mixed bag of pretty much everything because that’s what I’m listening to right now.”
And what exactly is Ruhala listening to right now? Twin Peaks, Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, and Mason Ramsey (yep, the yodeling Walmart boy).
“I really appreciate [Mason Ramsey]. I don’t get why they’re recording him like they did on ‘Famous’ because if they were to record him in a way that was old school like he is, it would sound so cool,” Ruhala said. “I think probably when he’s like 20 and having a mental breakdown, he will make a fabulous record. And like, it will sound so sick.”
Well, if Ruhala’s prediction comes true and Ramsey does end up making that great record at 20, then I suppose they will have something in common.
Photo by Eli Watson
Pitchfork announced on Monday that Earl Sweatshirt has canceled his set at their festival. The elusive rapper also called off his European tour in June due to his struggles with depression and anxiety. This change comes just days before Pitchfork Fest begins on Friday, July 20th.
As a result, the set times of Saba and Syd have been shifted and rapper Tierra Whack will now be taking Sweatshirt’s place at 4:15 on Friday. You can find the updated schedule here.
Whack released her first album in May of this year, Whack World. With 15 songs each lasting a minute, to say the project is a wild ride would be an understatement. One would think that with such short tracks the album would play more like one cohesive song – but surprisingly, each is different enough to stand alone. From the silly “Cable Guy” to the more serious shift found in the following song “4 Wings,” Whack is able to show off her versatility in just two minutes. In fact, placing contrasting songs next to each other is a pattern throughout the album. However, that’s not to say that the songs don’t flow together well; Whack provides several impressive transitions, most notably in between “Silly Sam” and “‘Fruit Salad.” It’s as if she is trying on many different hats, never quite deciding on which one to choose. Almost all of the songs are intriguing, making the minute they last somewhat of a tease – but perhaps that was Whack’s very intention. To make the project even more interesting, she also released an audiovisual version on YouTube (view it below).
Although festival-goers are sure to be disappointed about Sweatshirt’s cancellation, Whack stepping up to the plate is definitely something to be excited about.
Cover art courtesy of Biker Gang Booking
Sara King is one of three new female artists recently picked up by talent agency Biker Gang Booking, known for managing bedroom pop favorites like Bane’s World, Inner Wave, and Michael Seyer.
A native of Dallas, King studied at her local School of Rock and began covering songs on YouTube, eventually forming her sound coined as “glitter pop” – catchy synths and drifting vocals, all supported by an indie pop backbone.
Her debut single, “Dreamz,” out today, seems to provide the perfect portrayal of this moniker. Essential guitar chords are hidden, but not disguised, with poppy beats and King’s ethereal voice. Her riffs on simple “do do do’s” are enough to transport the listener into a dreamworld, which, according to the lyrics, is also the only place King can be with her love interest. An ever-so-relatable topic in today’s world filled with social media and mixed signals, “Dreamz” is sure to resonate with its audience.
Although King’s sound is audibly influenced by the likes of Kali Uchis and Clairo, she seems to have a flair that’s all her own – something that is sure to be explored further when her EP HEAT drops later this month.
Listen to “Dreamz” below.
Courtney Barnett by Finn Hewes
Saba is just one of many Chicago-born-and-raised artists to be featured at the festival. After releasing several mixtapes, Saba made his debut with 2016’s Bucket List Project and collaborated with Chance the Rapper on “Angels” in homage to Chicago. On 2018’s Care For Me released in April, Chance returned the favor by featuring on standout track “LOGOUT.”
Listen if you like: Chance the Rapper, Mick Jenkins, Noname
Fav tracks: “HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME,” “Photosynthesis,” “LIFE”
Even if she hasn’t been singing on them, it’s likely that some of your favorite R&B tracks were produced by Syd. Starting out as an audio engineer, she was apart of Odd Future until 2016, then becoming the frontwoman of supergroup The Internet with former Odd Future bandmate Matt Martians. Although she is often collaborating with Tyler, The Creator, Daniel Caesar, and Steve Lacy, Syd put out a solo album in 2017, Fin. Up next for Syd is the release of The Internet’s highly anticipated comeback album, Hive Mind, on July 20th – the very day she is set to perform at Pitchfork Fest.
Listen if you like: Odd Future, Steve Lacy, Daniel Caesar
Fav tracks: “Body,” “Dollar Bills,” “Come Over” (The Internet)
One of the scene’s most elusive rappers, Earl Sweatshirt is making his return to the stage at Pitchfork Fest after canceling most of his recent European tour due to his battle with anxiety and depression. Like Syd, Earl was also a member of Odd Future and has since collaborated with the likes of Frank Ocean, Flying Lotus, Tyler, The Creator, and Vince Staples. With his last studio release being 2015’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, rumors have been swirling for a while now about a possible new album in the works. His set at Pitchfork should prove to be quite telling on that front.
Listen if you like: Kevin Abstract, Frank Ocean, Vince Staples
Fav tracks: “Sunday,” “Wool,” “Sasquatch”
Alt-rock darling and Pitchfork favorite Courtney Barnett is making a stop at Pitchfork Fest after touring her new album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, for the past few months. (We were fortunate enough to review her Chicago show in May, check that out here). Before her latest solo album, Barnett worked with Kurt Vile on a collaborative record, Lotta Sea Lice, released in 2017. The straight-to-the-point crooner is set to be a crowd pleaser at this year’s fest.
Listen if you like: Kurt Vile, Snail Mail, Angel Olsen
Fav tracks: “Over Everything” (with Kurt Vile), “Pedestrian at Best,” “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch”
Known for their lo-fi beats and unique instrumentals, British duo Mount Kimbie came to be known from 2010’s debut Crooks & Lovers. 2013’s Cold Spring Fault Less Youth saw collaboration with King Krule, and their most recent release, Love What Survives, features King Krule as well as James Blake on select tracks. Their chill vibe might prove perfect for laying on the grass and taking a breather from the fest.
Listen if you like: King Krule, James Blake, Bibio
Fav tracks: “William,” “You Took Your Time” (ft. King Krule), “We Go Home Together” (ft. James Blake)
Psych-rock legends Tame Impala are set to be headlining Pitchfork Fest’s Friday lineup. Amid a hiatus in 2017 and rumors of the band’s disintegration, Pitchfork will be Tame’s first show in the U.S. since last summer’s Panorama Festival. Although their latest album, Currents, came out in 2015, the band’s members have been keeping busy on side projects and released a collaborative single with ZHU titled “My Life” in March.
Listen if you like: Beach Fossils, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Pond
Fav tracks: “Yes I’m Changing,” “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” “Mind Mischief”
Another hometown artist, Paul Cherry’s bedroom-pop aesthetic is all the rage right now. On his first full-length work, Flavour, released in March, Cherry has seemingly become more experimental with his sound. Tracks like “Like Yesterday” and “This High” include jazz and pop influences while still sticking somewhat to his quirky roots. Cherry also appears to enjoy commentating on the struggles of everyday millennial life dealing with social media and relationships, which is portrayed perhaps most prominently in the final track of Flavour, “Cherry Emoji.”
Listen if you like: Triathalon, Clairo, Mac Demarco
Fav tracks: “Hey Girl,” “Like Yesterday,” “Cherry Time”
Although he only has one self-titled EP under his belt, Berhana has made a name for himself via his infectiously sweet voice and style. The LA-based artist recently released his own rendition of Wreckless Eric’s 1977 hit, “Whole Wide World,” giving it his own twist with slow, simple piano and delightful backing vocals. With several festival dates on the radar for him this summer, including Pitchfork, Berhana is definitely one to watch.
Listen if you like: Yellow Days, Mac Ayres, Masego
Fav tracks: “Janet,” “Grey Luh,” “Brooklyn Drugs”
With an incredibly powerful voice and an even stronger sense of lyricism, Moses Sumney has all the makings of an up-and-coming R&B superstar. 2017’s Aromanticism has some insanely beautiful songwriting, and his newest single “Make Out in My Car” has been remixed by James Blake and Sufjan Stevens. Proving to be perfect for both emotional nights and sunny summer days, Sumney’s set is guaranteed to be breathtaking.
Listen if you like: Kevin Morby, Sufjan Stevens, serpentwithfeet
Fav tracks: “Don’t Bother Calling,” “Plastic,” “Make Out in My Car”
Punk duo Girlpool is known for their soft garage-rock sound, honest lyrics, and often raw vulnerability. Reminiscent of 90s femme rockers such as Letters to Cleo, Girlpool has two LPs already under their belt since forming in 2013. They returned in February of this year with single “Picturesong,” a collaboration with Dev Hynes (Blood Orange), a seemingly unlikely combination possibly signalling a forthcoming change in sound.
Listen if you like: Frankie Cosmos, IAN SWEET, Adult Mom
Fav tracks: “Chinatown,” “Blah Blah Blah,” “Picturesong”
Singer, writer, and producer extraordinaire Dev Hynes has collaborated with A$AP Rocky, Haim, Solange, and Willow Smith among others. His own solo project, Blood Orange, has seen success with its 80s electro-pop flair and political commentary. A set of two singles titled Black History released in February has been Blood Orange’s most recent solo endeavor since 2016’s Freetown Sound. Also an accomplished dancer, this set is guaranteed to be a full-out performance.
Listen if you like: Toro y Moi, Perfume Genius, TOPS
Fav tracks: “Christopher & 6th,” “Instantly Blank (The Goodness),” “You’re Not Good Enough”
Dad-rock favorites The War on Drugs, formed in the early 2000s by Kurt Vile and Adam Granduciel, deliver consistently soft yet hard-hitting rock ballads. After Vile left the band in 2008 to pursue his solo career, Granduciel took over, releasing the critically acclaimed album Lost In The Dream in 2014. With their latest release, 2017’s A Deeper Understanding, The War on Drugs have continued to reign supreme amongst music fans.
Listen if you like: Dawes, Band of Horses, Deerhunter
Fav tracks: “Pain,” “Red Eyes,” “Thinking Of A Place”
Folk-rock champions Fleet Foxes are the headliners for Saturday’s lineup. Earning popularity and critical acclaim alike with their debut self-titled album in 2008, Fleet Foxes have since released two more albums, the most recent being 2017’s Crack-Up. Known for soothing vocals and harmonious instrumentals, their set should prove to be a calm end to Saturday’s madness.
Listen if you like: Iron & Wine, The Shins, Alt-J
Fav tracks: “Oliver James,” “Crack-Up,” “Lorelai”
Evanston’s own Kweku Collins has been a part of the Chicago music scene since 2015, producing music in high school and now having released an EP and two LPs – Nat Love and Grey – in the past three years. The singer and rapper seems to be a favorite of Pitchfork, having earned a rating of 8 on Nat Love and Best New Track for “Stupid Rose,” so it only makes sense that he’ll be playing their festival.
Listen if you like: Topaz Jones, Duckwrth, Jalen Santoy
Fav tracks: “The Continuation,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Love It All”
An alumnae of the Chicago High School for the Arts, 19-year-old Ravyn Lenae also started making music in high school. In 2017, she released EP Midnight Moonlight and featured on tracks with Noname, Mick Jenkins, Saba, and Smino. Collaborating with Steve Lacy, she put out EP Crush in February of this year and even stopped by Northwestern to preview it (check out the Daily Northwestern’s coverage of it here).
Listen if you like: Steve Lacy, Kali Uchis, Jamila Woods
Fav tracks: “4 Leaf Clover,” “Computer Luv,” “Free Room”
Japanese Breakfast, aka Michelle Zauner, provides a mix of lo-fi beats and indie pop accompanied by her sugary-sweet voice. 2016’s Psychopomp put her on the map, shortly followed by 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet. Zauner’s songwriting touches on themes of heartbreak, death, and celebrities, resulting in high levels of young-adult relatability.
Listen if you like: Alvvays, Car Seat Headrest, Soccer Mommy
Fav tracks: “Till Death,” “Road Head,” “Everybody Wants to Love You”
Chicago-born R&B powerhouse Noname got her start performing slam poetry and made it big after featuring on Chance the Rapper’s “Lost” in 2013. Her one and only release, 2016’s Telefone, features fellow Chicagoan colleagues and Pitchfork festival performers Saba, Smino, and Ravyn Lenae. With it being two years since Telefone, Noname has been hinting at new album Room 25 on Twitter, but no release date has been given yet.
Listen if you like: Saba, NxWorries, Goldlink
Fav tracks: “Sunny Duet,” “Diddy Bop,” “Shadow Man”
Alex G, or Alex Giannascoli, already has an extensive discography, having released five albums within four years. His brooding,“sadboy” sound gained him a loyal fan base, and his undeniable guitar talent resulted in him playing on a few tracks off of Frank Ocean’s Blond. His latest work, Rocket, was released in 2017 via Domino Records.
Listen if you like: Spencer Radcliffe, Florist, Starry Cat
Fav tracks: “Mary,” “Sandy (Bonus Track),” “Forever”
Seasoned garage rockers Japandroids returned in 2017 after a five year hiatus with eight-track album Near To The Wild Heart Of Life. Beforehand, they released three full-length LPs between 2009 and 2012. Known for their rowdy, DIY approach to live shows, Pitchfork fest is just one of many stops for Japandroids on their tour of the new album.
Listen if you like: Cloud Nothings, Wolf Parade, The Walkmen
Fav tracks: “The House That Heaven Built,” “Press Corps,” “Younger Us”
Queen of Soul Ms. Lauryn Hill is set to headline Sunday’s lineup at Pitchfork fest. Although it is her only LP, 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill proved to be a smash success. Nominated for 11 Grammys and taking home five, the album soon became a classic. Hill has not put out any solo music apart from a MTV Unplugged live album in 2002, but listeners may recognize her song “Ex-Factor” as the sample on Drake’s hit single, “Nice For What.”
Listen if you like: Aaliyah, Brandy, Mary J. Blige
Fav tracks: “Superstar,” “Ex-Factor,” “Doo Wop (That Thing)”
From his verse in “LAND OF THE FREE” criticizing America’s current political climate by calling out the president, claiming “Donald Trump is not equipped to take this country over,” to his collaboration with Jamaican Reggae artist Chronixx in “BABYLON,” in which the duo channels the pain of the murder of Freddie Grey and police brutality in America, rapping “Turn on to CNN, look at what I see again; It’s another black man, died at the white hand of justice,” Joey Bada$$ has established himself as an artist unafraid of representing the struggles in this country in his latest album ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$.
Joey’s use of his career and music as a platform to criticize America’s leadership and political trajectory rang clear in his performance at Concord Music Hall on May 23, during which Joey took a break to call Kanye out for his recent support of Trump. Taking moments like these to establish his own views and how they relate to his music is something that sets Joey Bada$$ apart from other rappers of his generation, and it’s part of why his fan base is so dedicated and passionate about his music, as made evident by his show in Chicago being sold out weeks before the performance.
Taking time out of his performance to pay tribute to his fans in the crowd who have been supporting his music career since his mixtape “1999” dropped in 2012, Joey emphasized his connection to longtime followers and his appreciation for the support they have shown him through the years. His gratitude was evident in his stellar performance, rapping mostly from his most recent album but also including much of his lesser known music like “95 Til Infinity” from his 2013 album Summer Knights. With a show filled with moments of connection with the audience and gratitude for his openers and DJ’s, Joey Bada$$ is an artist to look out for when it comes to using one’s status in the industry for constructive dialogue.
Originally the stage name for singer and guitarist Alejandro Rose Garcia, Shakey Graves has morphed into the four-piece, indie blues-rock band that took the stage at the Vic on May 22. Since signing with the Dualtone Music Group in 2014, Rose-Garcia has diversified his sound by adding more artists and instruments to his famous one-man guitar and suitcase act. His latest release, Can’t Wake Up, softens his upbeat Texan twang into a more whimsical, introspective rock set that relies less on Rose-Garcia’s showmanship and more on the depth of both his lyrics and his band.
Despite Rose-Garcia’s constantly expanding sonar vocabulary, his music—and stage presence— is still very uniquely his.Everything down to the construction of the set was overseen directly by Rose-Garcia, who darted around stage in a horned skeleton mask setting up props and instruments according to his liking before the performance. In keeping with the theme of Can’t Wake Up, the stage was set up as a Tim-Burton-goes-punk-esque dreamscape. Cotton ball clouds floated over an eerie, black and white city scape as cartoon sheep jumped between them, creating the ghost town of your best childhood nightmares. In the center of the setting was a conglomeration of outdated radios and televisions, playing a loop of cartoon static. And right in the very middle of the stage was Shakey’s iconic suitcase outfitted with a kickdrum and tambourine.
Traditionally, the stage going dark signals that the performance is about to begin. The audience anticipates the music to begin with a flash of light, the band storming the stage and commanding attention. It was surprising, then, that when Rose-Garcia walked on stage (this time without his mask), he was accompanied only by a soft, purple glow from the wispy clouds surrounding him and the static from the TVs behind him. From the audience, only his outline was visible. He slowly strummed his way into “Only Son” off his 2014 album And the War Came, which marked a transition point where Rose-Garcia branched out from his solo act to collaborate with other artists. This song, however, nodded to the old Shakey—just Rose-Garcia and his guitar, sitting on his funny little suitcase, having a blast.Each successive song added a little more depth to the set. The next one, “Foot of Your Bed,” invited the rest of his band on stage, linking the old with the new. I didn’t realize until the third song that the stage had been getting progressively lighter, the deep purple of the clouds lightening into pinks and oranges, the lights at the base of the stage flooding it with a soft luminescence. The sun was rising on Shakey’s ghost town, and Rose-Garcia was ready to greet it. The additional bodies on stage brought more energy to the set, and soon both the band and the crowd were dancing around to the rock-n-roll rhythms designed for this four-piece group. Rose-Garcia swapped his acoustic guitar out for an electric one and popped on a cowboy hat, only to swagger around in a wide legged stance and mime his own lyrics. In true Southern fashion, he was in no hurry to do anything but tell tall tales and enjoy himself.
The set was like a midsummer day dream—the sun rising lazily, heating up the ground and thickening the air until the clouds can’t take it anymore. Then they burst open for a late afternoon thunderstorm—or, in Shakey’s case, another solo bit where Rose-Garcia poured his heart out onto a six-string. He played several older songs, encouraging the audience to join him in his reverie, before parting the clouds for one last sunset. The band came back on stage, kicking up their heels to some of their more country-inspired pieces as the lights slowly reddened and dimmed. The final song that they played as a group was “Counting Sheep” off their latest album. At last, the sun had gone down on Shakey’s fantastical ghost town and it was time to rest. Rose-Garcia remained alone on stage under a spotlight to close the set with two of his most famous songs, “Roll the Bones” and “Late July.” Behind him, a retro-inspired sign flashed “Shakey Graves,” reminding the audience that at its core, Shakey Graves is the project of one scrappy little kid from Texas and his guitar. Even with the addition of other voices and talents, the two are inseparable.
It’s been a busy year for Courtney Barnett. After pumping out three new singles (one with an accompanying music video) in the first half of the year, Barnett released her long-awaited sophomore solo album through Milk! Records on May 18, 2018: just three days before I saw her live. Since April 29th, she’s been touring the US, and she played the last show on the U.S. leg of her months-long tour at Preston Bradley Hall inside the Chicago Cultural Center on May 21 before hopping the pond and kicking off another stint in Europe.
LALA LALA, a Chicago-area band, opened for Courtney, paying tribute to the garage/grunge rock she played with Rapid Transit to start her career. The all-female trio looked the part, sporting pink hair, tattoos, and edgy graphic tees. They played some matter-of-fact grunge rock and bopped around the stage unenthusiastically, mimicking the crowd’s response to their sound. I don’t think that they’re a bad band (in fact, I looked them up after the show and the three albums they have posted to their Bandcamp are decent), but seeing them live on stage, I would have never guessed it.I blame the crowd. Talk about some weird shit. People from all walks of life—from a group of screeching twelve-year-old girls to senior citizens wearing earplugs forty rows back while “resting their eyes” to the fifty-year-old guy in a paisley button-down and loafers who tried to fight me for “taking his spot” at a standing room concert—filled the scenic venue to the brim, and then there they stood. Motionless. After each song, they would scream. Lose their fucking minds, rather. But during the songs they didn’t so much as bob their heads. I’ve literally never seen anything like it and I probably never will again. It would have made an interesting study in human behavioral psychology; I felt like I was standing backwards in an elevator.
The LALA LALA girls picked up on the weird vibes and offered some half-hearted and monotonous gratuitous gestures when they saw fit before leaving the stage. They said things like, “Thanks Chicago,” and, “This is great.” It wasn’t.After 30 minutes of mulling around and checking out PBH’s breathtaking stained-glass dome ceiling and chandeliers, the crowd once again showed reluctant signs of life as Barnett took the stage. Now, I like her music. I really do. And I like her new album a lot. In the three days between its release and the show, I probably listened to it five times. But when I go see a musician live, I expect a live performance. Or maybe a good one. I was very disappointed with the show she put on for the Chicago crowd, and I was seemingly the only one.
The Australian leftie played her new album straight through. That was it. Not much pause between the ten songs, and not much variation from the studio versions. She played around with some divey guitar riffs that sounded unfamiliar during one or two of the solos, but for the most part it was a robotic reproduction of the studio album. She didn’t even change the order of the songs. If you liked the album you would have liked the show. I guess.
And I get it: it’s a brand-spanking-new album. But feel that I could have stayed home and written this review having never set foot in the building, and that’s not a good thing—in my opinion anyway. Overall, I respect her as an artist and, again, I really like her new album. But I did not enjoy the show. Had I paid to get in, I would have been pissed. But that’s just me.
She’ll be on the road through the end of July, meandering her way across Europe and then Canada, and eventually back through the US. Hopefully, she’ll figure out how to incorporate some variation and artistry to her live performances by then.
The Space in Evanston is a notoriously comfortable, intimate venue. When Caroline Smith played there on Saturday night, the venue was at its coziest–its floor filled with small, candle-lit tables and the stage covered with well-worn oriental rugs. There was no need for dramatics. Caroline Smith is a Minnesota based singer/songwriter who performed solo that night with only her acoustic guitar. She blends R&B, indie, folk, and pop elements into her music and her songs deal with love and life and even her beloved dog, Gracie. The setting was perfect for her intimate lyrics and laid-back stage persona.
Though Smith has not released an album since Half About Being a Woman in 2013, she still seems to have a strong resonance with her listeners. From the beginning of her set she established a light-hearted familiarity with the audience, opening with her satirical love song “Buy Me Something.” They all seemed in on the joke. She sang another song about love, and another—and then laughed and called herself out on it. “I don’t only sing about men!” she joked before transitioning into a cover of a song about growing up and exploring womanhood. She confessed to the audience that recently turning thirty has had a huge impact on her perspective, something they seemed to sympathize with. It struck me how honest and comfortable she was sharing herself with a room full of strangers, both through song and conversation. The mellow blue lights and her soft, full voice seemed to speak directly to the most vulnerable, human parts of the audience without transgressing any boundaries. Good songwriters like Smith have a knack for this. Even five years after her last release, people still identify with the ephemeral moments she captures in song and find themselves singing along.
Smith played quite a few tracks off her studio albums at the start of the set but took more liberty towards the end, taking advantage of her solo performance to play several new and in progress songs. She played three songs with Eric Mayson who had opened for her that night. The two have released one track together, “How Could You,” on Mayson’s 2015 album, Detail. Here you could really see the duo’s shared appreciation for soul and R&B, with Mayson playing keys and Smith losing her guitar in favor of stage mobility as she sang her heart out. Eventually Mayson retired off stage and Smith resumed her solo performance. After Mayson’s surprise appearance, the energy of the crowd ran high and Smith used this to round out her set with a mix of comedic and popular songs. The whole time, she was smiling. More importantly, so was her audience. For all her emotionalism, Smith never seemed sad or dreary. Good times, bad times, hard times, she rolls them all into song and keeps on singing.
Arriving right as doors opened for the Born Ruffians concert at Subterranean on Saturday, I was nervous to walk into an empty venue. It was the last show of their tour promoting Uncle, Duke & The Chief, the album they released in February, so I was expecting a better turnout at the start. By the time the opener, Little Junior, came on, only around 50 people were there.
The low attendance, however, didn’t stop Canada-grown Little Junior from leading with an incredible energy that put a smile on my face. Under a bright pink spotlight, the frontman, wearing red lipstick and a blue plastic necklace, literally glowed.
With songs dedicated to Ryan Gosling and a mysterious Michael, the frontman’s “enemy,” Little Junior filled their set with cheesy, coordinated headbanging and energetic guitar riffs. Their sound, reminiscent of the band Good Charlotte, transported me to a dark, crowded basement full of red Solo cups and beat-to-shit Converse, watching four guys bang out their angst with loud, overdriven guitar sound and emotional lyrics.
Despite the cheese, the band was more than enjoyable to watch. They were genuinely having a good time on stage, and couldn’t stop smiling and laughing at each other. Watching the hair of the bassist bounce up and down as he headbanged to every beat of every song made me so unbelievably happy. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a group genuinely enjoy performing as much as Little Junior did, and it was insanely refreshing and infectious.
By the time Little Junior closed out their set, Subterranean was packed. Both the balcony and the main floor were full of people ready to see Born Ruffians, composed of lead vocalist Luke Lalonde, bassist Mitch Derosier, keyboardist Andy Lloyd and drummer Steve Hamelin. The crowd was a mix of devoted fans who had been around since the first album’s release in 2008 and younger teens who had just started listening. I even spotted one young teen with her mom. Being pretty unfamiliar with their work, I was admittedly skeptical of the show I was about to see. The nice suit that Derosier wore didn’t help.
But by the end of the first song, I was hooked. The band led with “Hummingbird” off of their debut album, Red, Yellow & Blue (2008), and the energy of the crowd’s response to their classic hit was insane. Everyone was singing along and jumping, and when Derosier said to clap, they clapped. When he waved his hands, they waved back. This is pretty common at shows, but it’s rarely as enthusiastic as it was on Saturday.
After a few songs, Lalonde asked if anyone had been at their show in Chicago 12 years ago. Usually, there will be a few yells from the back when a question like this is asked. But in Subterranean, a solid third of the crowd responded to Lalonde. One of my favorite parts of the show was the dedication of the fans. Born Ruffians pulled from all of their extensive discography — “Forget Me” and “Love Too Soon” off of Uncle, Duke & The Chief, “& On & On & On” from RUFF (2015), and “Needle” from Birthmarks (2013) — but regardless of the song being played, the crowd knew every word.
The vibe of all of their music is laidback, easy-listening indie. I’d compare them to COIN, Circa Waves and ARIZONA, but with less synths and more of a natural sound. To me, this reflected Born Ruffians’ experience as a band. After having been around the block more than a few times, all four musicians were seasoned performers. They didn’t care much for gimmicks or unnecessary fluff, but instead preferred raw music and the joy of sound. It was refreshing, especially in an industry full of frontmen trying to out-hipster each other.
In addition to the actual sound of the show, the band was well arranged and matched the feel of the show. Lalonde and Derosier played off of each other beautifully. The stage was set up so that neither was in the middle, but instead each had their own side. Lalonde was calm, and stayed in his corner for the most part. Derosier, on the other hand, whipped his long hair all around the stage, taunted the crowd and jumped and danced around. The differences in energy among the bandmates gave everyone in the crowd someone to relate to.
After playing a few more songs, including “Ocean’s Deep,” and closing with “Miss You,” the band came back out with Little Junior for the last encore of the tour. Listening to the final song, “Working Together,” I was transported back to the Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes show I saw in 2016. It felt like church – the whole crowd was singing together with passion, shouting lyrics that they had lived by and jammed to for years.
With a fan base spanning 10 years, undoubtedly people there had grown up with Born Ruffians’ songs. It was an uplifting, calming experience that reminded me of the staying power of music, and proved just how essential music is to happiness and growing up.