On Monday, Nov. 20, rising star Daniel Caesar brought his growing catalog of gospel-infused soul ballads to Reggies Rock Club in Chicago’s South Loop. The sold-out show was part of Red Bull Sound Select’s 30 Days in Chicago, an ongoing concert series that has hosted a roster of artists in high demand this November.
Caesar has had a breakout year, dropping his debut studio album Freudian in August and getting pegged as one of Apple Music’s Up Next artists. Hailing from Toronto, Caesar has started to build worldwide appeal by fulfilling a largely unoccupied niche for crooning RnB with inflections of gospel music. Freudian possesses universal appeal; it could be a hit on your local top 40 radio station, be a slow jam for your date night or be the soundtrack to your long drive home.
I get off at the Chinatown red-line stop, a short walk away from Reggies. It’s cold. Like really cold outside. When I arrive at the venue, I’m surprised to find only 6 other people in front of me waiting. I almost second guess if I’m at the right location until I see the glowing neon-blue sign that Red Bull has put up in front of the entrance to Reggies.
It’s 6:30 and the doors are supposed to open at 7. Where is everyone? A representative from Red Bull pokes her head out of the entryway and announces that doors are actually opening at 8. Did I mention it’s cold? There’s a shared groan of disappointment from everyone in line, dreading another hour outside in the 30-degree weather and the continual brisk, face-slapping gusts of wind.
As the line grows to around 30 people and the clock nears closer to 8, it becomes hard to ignore the fact that nearly everyone here is with a significant other. Confined to the outer walls of Reggies and snaking down a small stretch of sidewalk on State street, couples brace the winter chill together, sharing headphones, faces illuminated by phone screens to pass the time.
It only seems right that you go see Daniel Caesar with your boo. Freudian basks in the light of new love, providing a joyous depiction of the peaks of being in a romantic relationship. At the same time, Caesar also explores the pitfalls of heartbreak with striking honesty and self-reflection. The result is a vulnerable, emotional journey that listeners can connect with, while Caesar weaves in elements of his personal experiences.
A communal sigh of relief fills the air as doors open and people rush straight to the stage. Within 15 minutes, the tight 400-person space is nearly packed and the crowd starts to overflow onto the balcony.
The first opener, Cherrie (pronounced like “sherry”,) hits the stage shortly after. Hailing from Sweden and singing in Swedish, she’s an unfamiliar artist for most of the audience. However, by the end of her short set, she leaves a noteworthy first impression. Multiple times throughout the performance, she explains how she’s surprised that the Chicago audience still shows her love despite the fact that the vast majority of the room has no idea what she’s saying. Language barrier aside, Cherrie’s mix of electronic production and seductive pop melodies raise the hype level in the room significantly.
Burgeoning soul singer SiR takes the stage next. He starts things off with a set of downtempo, sensual love songs. It’s a somewhat unexpected change of pace from Cherrie, but the California native connects with listeners nonetheless. At times it gets hard to focus on his performance as everything gets drowned out in an overblown wave of bass. SiR’s silky vocals still come through in the end and hold the crowd’s interest, leaving everyone asking for more.
A four-person crew promptly gets the staged ready for Daniel Caesar, moving a DJ set off the stage and putting a white drum set in its place. A full band of instruments of the same pearly hue also gets brought on stage, with an electric Fender positioned front and center–Caesar’s guitar. When the crew finishes, the lights dim and it’s show time.
Caesar’s band gets behind their respective weapons of choice as a choir-sung interlude builds in the background. The steady first drum taps play, followed by the opening chords of “Japanese Denim.” Caesar graces the mic just in time to sing the first seductive notes, and the floor of the stage gets clouded in a layer of smoke. He grins through the first verse as bouts of applause and screams ensue.
The most powerful qualities of Caesar’s music get accentuated in his live set. The smoothness of his voice is more noticeable when he has free reign to hold out notes as long as he pleases, unconfined by a recording booth. Performing with a full band, the simple instrumentation gets elevated, each guitar strum more poignant and each kick drum more punchy. When Caesar straps on his own guitar and plays it interchangeably throughout the night, he navigates each song with confidence, nodding his head in approval of his own abilities. Caesar comes off like a seasoned veteran on stage, commanding the audience with relaxed finesse.
As the night winds down, everyone knows it’s not quite time to go home yet. Not until Caesar plays his biggest song to date, “Get You,” will the night feel complete. The song’s muddled bassline emanates and Caesar fulfills everyone’s anticipation. When he gets to the first chorus, the whole room joins in. He tilts the mic toward the crowd, bringing everyone together for the finale. Arms wave, faces glow and Caesar gives one last thank you as his band plays him out.
The lights come back on and clusters of people make their way outside, calling Uber’s and hustling to train stations. I hitch a ride with a couple of Loyola students, and we wait around the corner to be picked up. It might be even colder now than it was waiting for the show to start, but I don’t really notice. My mind is still inside Reggies, encapsulated in the wake of Caesar’s soothing melodies. The warmth resonates with me all the way home.
Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile played a sold-out show at Thalia Hall, or Tilapia Hall, as Vile calls it, on Friday. Thalia Hall was the first of three sold-out shows in Chicago beginning with Rockefeller Chapel and ending at the Empty Bottle. Barnett and Vile are touring North America with a rotating band, The Sea Lice, which featured Rob Laasko of The Violators on guitar, Katie Harkin of Sky Larkin, and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney on Friday.
Jen Cloher, a Melbourne-based singer-songwriter and Barnett’s wife, opened the show with a bold, independent performance with a compilation of songs from older albums including In Blood Memory and off of her newest album, Jen Cloher. Her raw, earnest renditions created an exceptional ambience for Barnett, Vile and The Sea Lice to take the stage.
The show was mostly comprised of songs off of their joint album, which features and highlights the best of the two artists. Vile’s laid-back, twang complemented Barnett’s deadpan vocals. Barnett’s role on the new album was more relaxed and acoustic than the more preppy yet intense rock style of her last album, Sometimes I sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. Barnett and Vile had clear musical chemistry, both on the album and on stage, replete with playful banter and witty guitar riffs.
The band provided a unique multidimensionality to the performance, without undermining or distracting from Barnett and Vile’s modestly unrefined style. Their apparent musical modesty, however, is not to suggest that the performance was lacking in any way. The complex interplay of instrumentals and vocals that could only arise from a collaboration as quirky as Barnett and Vile was both musically rich and unequivocally interesting.
One specific spotlight projects a circle of bright rays around Kamasi Washington. As this circle of light revolves around him in his painted, floor-length garb with abstract compositions and his tarnished, worn sax, a multitude of uniquely different sounds ooze from the stage, flooding the audience with rich, dense audio information; yet the audience is not overwhelmed by the technical complexity of this sound, as by the time each vibration hits the ear drum, the various textures are one. As the mind processes this harmony, the source of it becomes increasingly clearer: difference. And as one remembers hearing the harmony and then thinking the difference, the overpowering relief of finding Harmony of Difference hits like a high dose of endorphins. Bodies sway in euphoria as the human body that society constantly divides and mandates compartmentalized is all of a sudden realized as whole, all by an artist who refuses to be reduced to only one thing.
Following a three-disc debut album The Epic, this shorter EP Harmony of Difference continues to display Washington’s tireless dedication to maximalist compositions, spiritual performance, and existing outside but being of jazz. While The Epic can be interpreted as the grand entrance, Harmony of Difference is the preceding speech. Kamasi had already introduced himself, and now, it was time for him to deliver what he had to say —both the introduction and the main speech, of course, done in absolute grandeur.
To warm the audience up, opener Pho, a Twin Cities-based progressive funk band took to stage with their groovy, high energy tunes. With modern taste but classical influences, the funk collective started the musical discourse Riviera, Chicago had in store for its visitors that night. Throughout the opening segment, the two guitarists, Spencer Christensen and Joe Paris, faced and observed each other, coordinating their melodies to suit each other’s sound. The duo’s arrangement shifted in tangent with each other, constituting the backbone of the group’s combined sound, while the rest of the band contributed towards this neo-funk experience.
Part of the weight of Kamasi’s performance lied in the recurring theme of memorialization. “Henrietta Our Hero” and, later, “Malcolm’s Theme” — both songs dedicated to figures significant to Kamasi’s life— were musical shrines. One of the highlights of the show was when Kamasi brought out his father to perform Henrietta with the band. To preface the song, Kamasi quoted his late grandma, “It’s not about what you have. It’s about what you do.” Powerhouse vocalist Patrice Quinn belts out the tale of Henrietta —the first instance of the night when lyrics were sung in a song. As Washington and his compatriots performed the lyrical tale of Henrietta, her legacy is slowly laid out in front of the audience’s eyes. Washington’s father who is a flutist broke out into a solo towards the end of the song. As the accompanying band members all played the same melody, creating harmony, not in traditional chords, but in texture, the flutist riffed away, rendering the end of the song an emotional invocation of a mother and son’s bond. Like how one memorable lyric of the song asks, “Can you see her? Her light is here,” the musical resplendence of the song mirrored Henrietta’s soul helped the audience see her and bathe in the aura of her light.
Having set the stage as a space for memorialization, Kamasi ended his set with “Malcolm’s Theme,” leaving the audience with yet another facet to the act of remembering. Layering Malcolm X’s eulogy with loud minor chords, the piece started cleanly but continually and collectively built and got messier till it hit a screeching, chaotic cloud of sounds that defied not only jazz norms, but what is conventionally considered music. Yet as the vocalist literally shrieked on stage, overcome and completely vulnerable with grief, the disorder seemed natural in its brave exhibition of human honesty and was gut-wrenching and impactful beyond measure.
Beyond this musical shrine Kamasi built on stage, the venue also acted as a box of sound for Kamasi to experiment with. “Humility,” for one, was a track that acted as a canvas for Kamasi to splatter paint across. The song starts out simple with a steady beat, accompanied by an equally rhythmic melody. Once again, all band members were performing the same melody, harmonizing with their varying textures. Just as it steadily built to its maximalist peak, the tune dissembled and slowly dissolved into a round of individual solos. The layers that had piled upon each other removed themselves as seamlessly as they had inserted themselves and before one could notice, only one performer was playing. As each player displayed their musical genius on stage, other members stepped aside to observe and admire; as much as the audience was witnessing the band’s craft, the band members were also appreciating each other’s craft. This round of solos end with everyone returning to their positions on stage, reintegrating themselves into the musical formation of “Humility.”
Towards the end of the concert, as if giving the conclusion to a speech, Kamasi elaborated on the purpose behind Harmony of Difference. “I don’t think our diversity should just be tolerated. It should be celebrated,” said an empowered Kamasi, standing under a bright spotlight, looking onto the crowd, observing the very diversity he was speaking to. With that resounding message drifting in the air, Kamasi introduces Truth: the final track on the EP that consists of five difference melodies played at the same time. The song is the physical embodiment of Harmony of Difference and seeing it play out in front of one’s own eyes is parallel to seeing harmonious chaos function in action, proving its legitimacy and helping the audience fully realize its possibility and complex beauty. As the rich compositions rung through the concert hall, the people in Riviera coexisted despite differences. They collaborated in uniting to appreciating great music despite their differences. They were harmonious in their differences as they witnessed and internalized Harmony of Difference.
There will always be those bands whose sound varies wildly between studio recordings and live performances, for better or for worse. The Lemon Twigs are certainly one of those bands, though not because the music itself is any different—it is because of the energy they possess. The Lemon Twigs consists of brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario, only 18 and 20, hailing from Long Island, New York. These two bring retro rock-and-roll into the 21st century with their incredible musical talent and ability to put on a spectacular show.
The evening began with opening act The Symposium, a Chicago-based four-piece band. Their psychedelic pop rock music was fun, and a cool contrast to the electric presence The Lemon Twigs brought to the stage. The guys in the band were clearly local, and seemed to have brought a few friends out to support them that night, as there were calls of “I love Kevin!” between songs. All members were dressed very casually, another disparity between the bands, and the bassist spent his time between songs drinking a beer and smoking an e-cigarette he had gotten from somewhere in the crowd. The music had a similar vintage flavor to The Lemon Twigs, but nothing could have prepared the crowd for the main act.
Though The Lemon Twigs may not be well-known, they obviously have a very devoted set of fans. Just as the band took the stage, the group of women behind me went wild, and their enthusiasm didn’t wane as time went on. Throughout the night, the D’Addario brothers switched between playing the drums and performing on both guitar and vocals, something I’ve never seen a group do before. For this performance, they were also accompanied by a bassist and a synth player.
Brain and Michael were channeling looks that were en vogue several decades ago, with haircuts straight out of the 70s, open shirts and high-waisted pants. Even the old wood of the venue and the pale yellow lighting at the start of the show fit the retro air of The Lemon Twigs. Thalia Hall, located in Pilsen, seemed to be the perfect venue for the band. The well-worn hardwood floors of the ballroom and the tea lights strategically placed behind the bar, along with the denim and muted colors favored among the younger audience, became the perfect backdrop for the bold look and sound of the D’Addario brothers.
Brian started the show on guitar and vocals, kicking things off with the song “I Wanna Prove to You” from their first studio album Do Hollywood, released last year. Staying on guitar for “Haroomata,” another song off the same album, Brian took some time during the song to quite literally skip around stage and just jam on his guitar, showcasing his incredible skill.
Around half an hour into the show, Brian and Michael swapped places for the first time. Before this, Michael had been barely visible behind the drum set, but he seemed to be determined to make up for it. Michael’s performance gave away nothing of his young age, as he confidently made his way around the stage, showing off his abilities with some seriously impressive guitar solos that whipped the crowd into a frenzy. At one point, he even pulled out a pair of aviator sunglasses, nonchalantly claiming “I just found these, I don’t know. I just found them,” with the confidence of an experienced performer.
Throughout nearly the rest of the set, all attention was on Michael. With his strong voice and insane skill on the guitar, coupled with gravity-defying high kicks and jumps around the stage, he has the strut of a seasoned rock star. Nearing the end of the show, the band performed “As Long As We’re Together,” another song off their full-length record. The band then left the stage, only to come back for an additional few songs to close the evening. This last leg of the show featured a great rendition of “Light and Love,” a slower number off their new EP, Brothers of Destruction. Brian returned to vocals and guitar, delivering a much softer, more vulnerable performance than his brother.
As the crowd was exiting Thalia Hall into the cold October night, there was a look of joy on everyone’s faces. For one night, The Lemon Twigs had transported the audience back to some other era of rock music, a time full of inescapably bright colors, blistering guitar solos and iconic style. No one was ready for it to be over.
Six feet under the moon, The Metro in Northern Chicago is packed yet eerily silent. Blue lights shine down on a thin pale Archie Marshall. A single gold tooth glints between his lips as the rest of King Krule stands silently behind him awaiting the hit. Waiting to disrupt the simple beauty of Archie and his guitar, they watch with the crowd as his fingers slowly slip into position on the neck of his Fender Stratocaster. “This song’s about the sky” Archie mutters to the crowd. Like water from a dripping pipe the opening chords of the King Krule Ballad “Baby Blue” fill the concert hall. Shivers run down my spine as the lonely rasp of Archie Marshals voice scrapes against my bones. Its hallows eve, King Krule is making my ears bleed, and I love it.
Coming off the release of their brand new LP, The OOZ, an album full of ambient instrumentation and sound effects, King Krule worked seamlessly to mix and meld old and new material into a cohesive concert. With raw emotion propelling the show forward, anger and loneliness took center stage as Archie’s vocals hovered above the sounds of the band. Slowly building off of each other, the band was able to masterfully render their sound into moments of powerful chaos. Moments that without warning would suddenly dissipate into an intimate clarity of emotion as Marshall stood exposed and vulnerable to the greedy gaze of hundreds.
The tone of the show itself was set by the openers, Show Me the Body. With a sound like the love child of New York Punk and Death Grips, what truly sets their sound apart from the rest is their frontman Julian Pratt. Utilizing an electric distorted banjo, along with Noah Cohen-Corbett on drums and Harlan Steed on bass, the band left little time to breathe as they went from one hard hitting song to the next. Political and angry, Show Me the Body was unapologetic and blunt with its sound. Through combinations of electrically distorted bass, high pitched banjo, and screaming vocals, the air thickened as the intensity of the band reverberated throughout the crowd. Leaving the crowd sweating and energized, Show Me the body created the perfect atmosphere for the brutally honest intimacy of King Krule to shine through.
One of the highlights of King Krule’s set was their resident DJ, Connor Attanda. During the performance of the new track Half Man Half Shark, as Marshal repeated its opening phrase, “Half man and the body of a shark man,” Attanda silently sampled the vocals in the background. Playing the loop, it continuously accelerated and rose in pitch until suddenly the bass and drums struck like a locomotive and the song began. Utilizing the vocals of his band mates, Attanda sampled phrases and screams live layering echos of sound that seemed to come from nowhere. With the ability to effect the pitch and tone, echoes of Archie’s voice enveloped the concert hall and collapsed on themselves to create mind numbing climaxes of sound.
Any space left empty by Attanda was usually filled with the jazzy musings of Saxophone player Ignacio Salvadores. One of the additions to King Krule’s sound since their last release, 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, Ignacio’s saxophone enhanced already beautiful moments while maintaining clear lines of melody as the band’s sound ascended into chaos. Especially during the moments when the band around Archie cut out, Salvadores’ melodies rose along with Archies voice above the band to help give its aimless chaos direction.
As King Krule performed their final song, Easy Easy, I realized their music was anything but. Utilizing sound effects, live sampling, along with complex melodies and chord progressions, it made their performance all the more impressive. All of these factors came from different members of the band working to create a platform to elevate the poetry of Archie Marshall. At constant conflict with each other yet in perfect harmony, lonely and angry and blue, King Krule’s Hallows Eve performance gave me chills I’ve yet to shake.
With 50 years of existence under its belt, the Museum of Contemporary Art has consistently been an icon for modern creativity and expression. As someone who went into the event relatively blind and with only a vague understanding of what the artists were like, I came out feeling cultured, livened, and like I could do anything I put my mind to. This, arguably, is the essence of the Windy City itself, and the MCA brought every flavor of Chicago out for anyone to taste. From Avery R. Young and de deacon board’s funky mix of jazz with hymns reminiscent of a Southern black church, to Kaycee Ortiz proudly repping the modern sexually expressive woman.
This wide variety of music and diversity of artists rang true to the MCA’s mission to celebrate the present, pay respects to the past, and look forward to the future. The 50th anniversary event was one that not only was important in celebrating the museum’s existence of half a century but also crucial in shining a light on the up and coming artists from Chicago along with those like Lupe Fiasco whom have already found their way. Seeing these two sets of artists in the same venue brought out a sense of hope unlike I’ve ever experienced before.
Before headliner Lupe Fiasco, there was a number of performers all of which had their own unique sounds but yet maintained a common demanding stage presence that is unique to Chicago performers. First up was Avery R. Young and de deacon board in the theater. The angle of the seats compared to the stage was rather steep, and yet the moment the lights dimmed to a deep blue and Young came on stage to introduce every member of the group by name, the setting felt extremely intimate. Young put a clever funk spin onto classic black songs that many would recognize; songs like, “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” that resonated with the hearts of many in the crowd regardless of color. Even more so, the show took several spiritual turns like when one of Young’s backup singers, Megan McMill, had a solo in which she sung “If I Can Help Somebody” and for just a moment as the crowd yelled out encouragements like, “Yes Lord!” and “Sing the song baby!”, I felt like I had left a museum event and had stepped into church. Young and De Deacon Board took classic black Christian songs and turned them into something that everyone in the diverse crowd could understand even while celebrating black culture.
After the theater show, we moved up to the After Hours in the Atrium where DJ CaliXta played a few songs as the crowd well-dressed, relatively young audience trickled in excitedly, ready for the show. The stage here was relatively low to the ground, surprisingly small, and pretty accessible to the crowd. The atrium got packed fast and it wasn’t long until the crowd was getting antsy for the artists to start gracing the stage.
First up was Kaycee Ortiz who had an excellent stage presence and didn’t hesitate to interact with the crowd personally from the start. She started with 30 Dollar Coat which was enough for the crowd to start dancing around, sticking their hands up in the hair. Though the crowd wasn’t extremely hyped yet, Ortiz got them way more excited when she boldly asked, “Who likes to smoke weed?” which elicited quite a bit of response from the audience, so much so that I briefly forgot that recreational use of weed is only decriminalized in Illinois rather than legal. This interesting question was then followed by her unapologetic performance of “Tam”.
Following up was theMIND who took the crowd from jumping around and singing excitedly to a slowed down, more laid-back vibe with much more relaxed, alternative type of R&B. Unbothered by the fact that not everyone would know who he was or of his music, he played one of his more popular verses from, “Sunny Duet” with Noname. He then took the time to tell his touching story of how he had met Lupe Fiasco in an airport a few years ago and promised that someday he’d open up for him, and that his promise had been fulfilled as he was opening up for him now. It was with that that he strongly encouraged the crowd to chase after their dreams unapologetically before strongly wrapping up the stage and leaving the crowd dying for more.
The moment Lupe Fiasco stepped on stage, the crowd’s excitement shot through the roof, with nearly every person in the venue singing along to the songs he played and even throwing out a few suggestions of their own that he gladly took. He started out with his newer song, but nothing quite excited the crowd like his old songs and so when, “Superstar”, “Touch the Sky”, “Kick Push” and “Daydreamin” came on it was nearly impossible to hear Fiasco himself. He took great control of the crowd and stage, jumping around here and there, standing on speakers, and even pulling a couple of women on stage, though he deemed the first to be too young. The connection between Fiasco and the crowd was riveting and insanely personal as he even took the time to tell the story of how his father told him once that if they were to put all of the buildings of the Chicago skyline together it would form a transformer. Lupe then went on to mention that if they put all of the buildings together now the MCA would be a toe, and then Trump tower would be the penis, though he quickly switched back and claimed it’d be the asshole instead. Fiasco wrapped up with “The Show Goes On” which immediately gave the crowd one last boost of excitement.
All in all, I can’t help but give full props to the MCA for putting on such a well-rounded, and more importantly, diverse concert. There wasn’t a single lull during the concert, and it’s hard to believe that such an event was free. Each artist was amazing in their own right and showed a color of performance that is unique to Chicago, and one can only wonder about when such talented, diverse people will be under one roof again performing.
When I call a concert “intimate”, I’m typically referring to a barrier removal, where the performer connects with a (usually sparse) audience on a level that transcend your average spectacle and turns into something more cathartic. Such an experience is characterized by a sustained attentiveness projecting itself onto the space, where audience members are more likely to be caught gazing in awe than succumbing to the distractions that tend to arise when watching a band perform for over an hour. An atmosphere like this is not quite tangible, but when it is there, it is very obvious.
You probably get the message. Big Thief’s show at Thalia Hall was one of those performances. However, Big Thief took it one step further. Unlike the standard concert set-up, with everyone in the crowd facing the same direction, the stage was a square in the center of the floor, erasing any barrier between performer and audience. The band members had to walk through the crowd to get to the stage, and when they were onstage, crowd members could potentially smack the performers just by stretching out their hand (I did not see anyone try this, thankfully). It was a major win for people like me who had a direct view of all three members, but I couldn’t help but feel bad for the people who were limited to a view of the back of lead singer Adrianne Lenker’s, until she pointed out the beauty in it. “I feel like there are so many of you I can’t see right now,” she whispered, bending her head backwards. “But I feel like the energy in this room is so much deeper than vision.”
It was some #deep shit, but it was valid. Throughout a set that was a carefully curated whirlwind of cathartic outbursts and hushed, solemn instrumental mewling, the aura was so sustained, I almost felt guilty every time I made a comment to my friend, or glanced at my phone. Bands often capture your attention, but they don’t always lather themselves in it. Big Thief emerged onto the scene fairly recently with last year’s Masterpiece establishing itself as a polished, immersive statement in modern indie rock. However, it wasn’t until this year’s Capacity where they truly collected a diverse array of songs that managed to tiptoe the line between purgative and restrained so relentlessly. It all translated beautifully onstage, to the point where the set almost felt career spanning. Opener Mega Bog, who also fared wonderfully with the dimly-lit centered stage, introduced them as one of the “best bands of all time,” and while I’d never burden any new artist with such a grandiose claim, I must say that I was much more convinced by the time the left the stage.
That being said, it’s always impressive when a show transcends its gimmick, a term I’m hesitant to use because of how well the centered stage complemented Big Thief’s charisma. I left the show wondering why more artists don’t do that with their performances, but then I realized not all of them deserve it as much as Big Thief; when a show becomes this immersive, it’s extra satisfying when they bring the stamina to boot.
A community congregates Thursday nights at Elastic Arts. These are the same people you might see any given week here, the same who sit around the island, the same on the couch, the same sitting in the front row taking photos. Concerts at Elastic Arts have always felt like stepping into a family to me, a large disjunct family who all like weird, exploratory, awesome music. And no matter how long I spend outside, there is a sense of homecoming whenever I step throw those doors.
Homecoming, a word I would use to describe Paul Giallorenzo’s entrance to the stage on Thursday night. The newly ‘former’ executive director of Elastic Arts, took his seat at the piano on Thursday night to a crowd of friendly faces that would only grow throughout the night. Paul, along with Dave Rempis and Sam Lewis also in attendance, started Elastic Arts over 15 years ago in a converted church in Humboldt Park. Their location, and importance now as a fixture in the Chicago improvised and creative music scene is an extension of the network of friends and performers feeding energy into the space from the beginning to now. And so this is a homecoming for Giallorenzo, his album release could not conceivably be anywhere else, this is his space, this is his community.
The music starts with a motif common to many of the tracks on FLOW, Giallorenzo’s new record out on Delmark — an interlocked ostinato bass line between piano left hand and bass. There is a grounding in the ostinato, a grounding in Joshua Abrams solid repetitions, never wavering, always holding the music in place and pushing forward. Mikel Avery starts up his drum set and the trio moves as one, full force through the “rolling” lines of Giallorenzo’s coy right hand melodies. So often Thursday nights at Elastic are spacious, are astral moving through zones of free improvisation, and these three musicians are certainly no stranger to musics like this, but October 12th was something different, something more earthy, more grounded. As Abrams starts to walk, I try to remember the last time I heard a walking bass line in this space, and aside from the music played before the show, I honestly can not. The bass can be a grounding instrument, aligned with time. And that walking bass line of tradition itself is too a grounding force, something many struggle at a certain point in their musical lives to separate from (maybe that’s why so many of us have ended up with our heads in the clouds?) Giallorenzo’s is two feet on solid ground music, is rooted music in the tradition of piano trio music, in the sound and stylings of Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor. It’s refreshing to move your toes in the earth sometimes, to remember perhaps the jazz you first heard and first fell in love with.
It’s in this remembering these three musicians play, and you can see it on their faces as they smile on at each other, challenged by the music Giallorenzo has written. Writing music is a reduction of possibility, a constraining towards what cannot be, but without constraint what would we need creativity for? Avery smiles at Abrams, and on the second to last tune he breaks his G string, this is reduction too, and Abrams smiles on. There is a joy to operating within the construct within the tradition, there is a challenge to saying something new in a book with already so much written. And the Paul Giallorenzo trio does all of this, subtly, with restraint, all operating within the minimal. My head hangs on every note, every slightly disjunct tinkling piano line, every rattling snare hit responding to or prompting some boom or jab from Abrams. In so much jazz I hear or, tradition or innovation, and I am refreshed to hear and tonight. As I search for a ‘how’ in this supreme and I think of reserve and reduction, the careful attention of writing music, of constraint, of one note references and quiet clustered comping. I come to the word minimalism. In Ben Remsen’s liner notes to FLOW he mentions the minimalism of Giallorenzo’s playing many times. His playing and composing is an economy of speech, saying much with little, moving forward in small steps, and we as the audience are invited along for the ride with the smallest of gestures. And suddenly I know this is FLOW, this is piano trio, this is Paul Giallorenzo, this is Elastic Arts, moving forward with small steps in all directions.
FLOW is out now on Delmark Records.
A&O Blowout on Friday was everything it promised to be. The night began with MØ, whose upbeat performance came complete with flashing blue and purple lights and accompanying DJs. The Danish singer-songwriter started on the stage, but soon continued her performance into the crowd and alongside the balcony. She began with popular hits “Coldwater” – a song recorded with Justin Bieber and Major Lazer – and “Don’t Leave” – a collaboration with British music duo Snakehips. The crowd stayed vibrant the whole time, screaming out lyrics along with MØ while she bounced around the stage. Her songs “Nights with You” and “Drum” also had her signature electronic sound and didn’t disappoint either.
After MØ thanked the crowd, there was a stretch of an hour or so where the air buzzed in anticipation of Lil Uzi Vert (also known as “Lil Uzi”), a Philadelphia rapper whose extensive discography has no shortage of catchy and well-known songs. Some students wondered if he’d exclusively perform songs from “Luv is Rage 2,” Lil Uzi’s latest album, or an array of both old and new songs from other albums and mixtapes.
After over an hour of waiting, Lil Uzi took the stage with full energy, performing his old and new songs for an awaiting crowd. The screen behind him changed from a cartoon image of him, to a dancing skeleton, to his name written in a lightning bolt-like font. Mosh pits and dance circles formed in the pit, the room breaking out into full party mode. G Herbo, a Chicago rapper, also joined the headliner and performed a few songs.
With his iconic shoulder roll, Lil Uzi danced around the same with even more energy than MØ, starting on stage, moving towards the balcony, and even getting into the pit for a second. Before anyone could process it amid the star hits being performed, the rapper had made his way to the center of balcony facing the stage. Many thought he was poised to jump, but instead he made a request to the crowd below him: who knew all of the words to “XO TOUR Llif3,” one of the biggest singles from his latest album? Those in the pit quickly broke out into mayhem pointing at friends or themselves, eager to get Lil Uzi’s attention. Eventually, he dropped the microphone down and Chris Starr, a sophomore, rapped the song along with the music and the entire crowd.
To wrap it all up, confetti and balloons fell from the ceiling, signifying the end of A&O’s 2017 Blowout. It ended as yet another Northwestern night to remember.
At Bonnaroo Music Festival 2017, we had the opportunity to speak with Spoken Word musician, activist, and teacher Malcolm London. Malcolm, a Chicago native, pushes to improve the education system and combat social divides that exist within the city. By the age of 20 he already participated in a TED talk, and he continues to raise awareness about the many issues that exist within the overarching educational and social system, as well as work to eradicate these problems. On a personal note, my interaction with Malcolm was one of the most insightful artists interviews I’ve been fortunate to take part in. His passion, demeanor, and the goals he makes, which extend far beyond himself, motivate others to take part in his efforts. Our interview is below:
Marc: So starting off, I was wondering if you could speak up about where you’re from, and how that’s influenced you as both an activist and an artist. Coming from the Chicago area.
Malcolm: Ya man, I’m from Chicago, the west side of it, and born and raised in the Austin neighborhood. I grew up there, and I often say I got my education on the bus from there. You know in a city like Chicago it’s uniquely segregated, to put it in a nice way. So, ya man I think most young people in the city, folks I’ve grown up with, if you live in a city like Chicago you either become defeated by how it exists, or you become extremely fortified in trying to overcome.
Marc: So proactive? I guess speaking from that I was thinking about the fact that it seems like a city of neighborhoods.
Malcolm: Ya, which is its beauty and its fault.
Marc: I was wondering, what tensions do you think within the education system at large are especially problematic?
Malcolm: At large, I think where we get our education, even beyond the complexities of race and gender and class. Even the idea that a classroom still looks the same way that it’s looked since the early 1900s, and it’s 2017. We have a computer in our pockets. So you don’t learn in school how to define yourself, or to love yourself, or even taxes for that matter. I feel like we get it wrong with education and the biggest thing is, what does it mean? Does it mean that we’re coming to this space to be better human beings, or are we coming to this space to be obedient taxpayers? Or obedient in whatever sense of the word. I think at large that’s the first mistake, that we have folks who control the educational system, and the curriculum, and the classrooms who don’t give a sh** about the people inside them.
Marc: And it just compounds. So I’d read that you had given a TED talk, when you were 20, which is very impressive. I’m 22 so I’m like, oh man, setting the bar [some good laughs], and it was spoken word. Can you talk a little bit about the motivation behind it and how that happened, as well as what you discussed?
Malcolm: Ya, I talked about generally what we are talking about. The education journey, in a four minute Snapchat, a snapshot poem. It was kind of crazy how that happened. I had written the poem, called high school training grounds, interrogating what really is education, particularly in Chicago. Where there is segregation, there is class, and by happenstance it was invited to be a TED talk. Since then I think, my motivation behind that poem is really just telling my own narrative. and I think as an artist and as a poet, especially in Chicago, which is home of Louder Than A Bomb a poetry festival that happens every year. The need and necessary work of telling stories is important, especially in the city of Chicago, where silos exist. So it’s like, how do we come together and show each other, each other, and also interrogate each other with love and critique each other with love? If you can’t have honest conversations you can’t start the dialogue. I think poetry does that, hopefully, and also music.
Marc: Speaking of poetry, I know you were the winner of 2011 Louder Than A Bomb, and now you do a lot with the poetry community at large. Can you talk about how you went from working within [the competition] to teaching within it?
Malcolm: So that’s a big shoutout to Kevin Coval, who runs that space. It was kind of seamless, and now at 24 I still consult and visit classrooms, and talk to young people at juvenile detention centers, etcetera. It’s a beautiful space.
Marc: That’s awesome. So this question has a little bit of a different context, but how do you think your failures have changed your perspective. Would you be comfortable discussing them and how they’ve helped you grow, and how you’ve worked through the trials and tribulations of growing up in that system, as well as being an artist and spoken word author?
Malcolm: Ya, I think failure is the best thing that we can learn from. Tangibly, statistically, I graduated with a 1.9 GPA, I graduated with two arrests under my belt before I became an activist. I think, that particular lens is indicative of, like, I always say living in a city like Chicago, there’s a me in every jail cell and every graveyard. This just means that every young person is f**ing amazing, but because of the existing statistics that exists, they won’t make it or be alive. But I think, by failure we learn from our mistakes, and how to not do the same sh**. So I think, for me, the biggest thing is being able to have a community of people who can also hold you accountable to the things you want to do, and hold you accountable to your potential. I think that’s also what we should do, for politicians and people in power, is hold them accountable for what they say, and be hopeful I guess.
Marc: Absolutely, and I was wondering if part of that was the result of being frustrated by your education, because you saw this system at large. Was it like “why do I even try”?
Malcolm: Ya ya, absolutely, any kid or student feels like that. Like what is the purpose of this? You know, I can tell you every person feels that way. Go to most American high schools right now, and you tell me a young person loves his environment? Unless they go to [private or independent] school or something. It’s hard to find that space. I think that’s less on the young person and more on the system in place. Teachers have it hard, there is a bureaucracy of leadership, and all of that effects.
Marc: What do you think would be a key factor, for anyone across racial lines anywhere in Chicago, to create some impactful change or help become a positive force within the system, and support what you advocate for?
Malcolm: I’m a proponent of, [chuckle] maybe I’m a cynic and a pessimist, but there are so many problems. So many complex, very, very, hard problems that I do not have all the answers to. But I will say that, if you hear anybody who figures out a way to solve a problem, a solution, by all means tell more people. I think that, you make a mistake by believing there needs to be new ideas. We put people on the moon, we can figure out how to solve racism and sexism, we just need more people involved to do it. It’s not necessarily more ideas, so get more involved. We live in a mass information age, so follow up. Love yourself, figure out what that looks like. There are so many different solutions, which is a beautiful part of humanity.
Marc: And with exactly what you were talking about, your message, it sounded like you started with Spoken Word. What’s it been like, while similar, transitioning to being a musician? How do you utilize your previous artistry and bring it into this new context. Do you think that has really helped to project your message to a lot of people?
Malcolm: I think it’s just a different platform. The fun part is as a creative person, figuring out how to make music and learning about bars and measures, which I wish I had in school. But it’s fun, honestly it’s fun, and that’s the direction I want to go right now. It’s honestly just, I’m the same person just doing a different thing. So, you know, all of my experiences influence that, and it’ll make for a unique listening experience. Just having fun with it.
Marc: Ya definitely. Alright I have a couple more questions. So I was wondering, you have this album that just came out?
Malcolm: Ya Opia, it came out in October of 2016. Ya, we’re here at Bonnaroo.
Marc: It’s about to go down, and I was wondering there were quite a few people that helped out on the album. You’ve got Donnie Trumpet, Niko, started off with Kids These Days. Then you had Vic, Chance.
Malcolm: Ya Chance definitely heard the tape but he’s not on it. But he’s here at the festival, so we’re about to link up.
Marc: Ya so it seems like there’s a big Chicago movement to try and generate this positivity.
Malcolm: No absolutely, I mean we all come from the same space. I continually try to respect and love Chance for keeping that energy. He’s the most famous guy in the country right now, and still we have that open mike. So I appreciate that. But ya Opia came out, and we’re here at Bonnaroo. I went on tour not too long ago, and the tour was great. Ya man, wherever whenever, this is great.
Marc: Hell ya, and what does the album name mean for you?
Malcolm: Ya so Opia, I’m a word nerd I found it. It’s like a lost word, but it means the intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel both invasive and vulnerable. So I was like, you know, I don’t want to make the best rap bravado tape, I just want to make something honest. So when people listen to my project, they feel like they’re looking me in the eyes. That’s what I hope to accomplish.
Marc: So you’re bringing something to light that may be uncomfortable and invasive for others.
Malcolm: Ya, you gotta open your eyes.
Marc: So my last question, is there anything that you would like to project to both our listeners and our readers for our editorial? For University students who have the potential to really push and be activists.
Malcolm: Absolutely, especially those that are newer to Chicago. I love Northwestern, I love its campus, and I love the students. Ya man, I think, go to Chicago is the first, literally to those students. There are so many things and misconceptions about Chicago, and about its people, and if you take that lesson with you everywhere in the world, and you’ll begin to learn things. Look out for how the city is growing, and hopefully be apart of that, is my personal advice. Other then that I mean ya man, my name’s Malcolm London, try to remember that. Hit me up. I love talking to people, I love building with folks!