Standing central amidst his musical collaborators of over fifteen years, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon bobs and weaves like a boxer in the ring. His fluid virtuosity and effortless command over the instrument shine through in flurries of melody and quick, rhythmic jabs. This past weekend, Zenon brought his longtime quartet, featuring Luis Perdomo on Piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, and Henry Cole on drums, to the Jazz Showcase in support of their newest release, Típico (2017). The album is an homage to the comradery that this group has developed over the course of almost two decades working together. Zenon, who prefers a conceptual and researched approach to writing music, constructed pieces to accentuate the strengths of each band member, and his measured style yielded exceptional results.
Zenon’s quartet represents modern jazz in its most thorough and refined form. There are no music stands, elaborate cues, or momentary hesitations. There is quiet confidence and trust in every beat, but there is also slight rigidity to the music, and that lack of uncertainty and risk-taking prevented me from becoming fully enveloped in its performance on Thursday evening. Even so, Cole’s shrouded swing feel and talent for bridging rhythm and melody on the drum set, Glawischnig’s firmness and ability to find and fill the music’s open crevices, and Perdomo’s virtuosic and blues–inflected modern jazz harmony synthesize the perfect backdrop for Zenon’s unique musical vision.
The night’s most special moment came during a duet performance between Zenon and Perdomo. The two played a beautiful, wistful introduction to “Las Ramas,” bringing the room to a complete standstill. I was particularly struck by the way the two interwove melodic fragments and seemingly merged into a single performer. The jazz world would surely benefit from a duo recording from these two.
We were fortunate enough to catch up with Miguel and pick his brain about Típico, the value of longtime musical collaborations, and his approach to composition and role in jazz education.
We are now very happy to welcome the wonderful saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Miguel Zenon to the “J Word.”
L: Miguel – welcome to the show.
M: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be on this morning.
L: So, this quartet you are playing with at the Jazz Showcase, the same group on your new record Típico, are some of your longest musical collaborators. You four have been playing together for over fifteen years. I’m wondering how the musical vernacular of the group has changed throughout that time period?
M: Well we started playing in 1999 or 2000, and at first we were getting together basically to try out things I had written and, you know, just in a casual jam session format kind of thing. Eventually we got enough tunes that we decided to get some gigs and then eventually put some of that music on record. So, at the beginning it was more about getting together with friends and people who’s playing styles I liked, and trying this music out, eventually, once we started making records and touring it became more about us getting used to the idea of being a band. By that I mean, getting used to interacting together and learning about each other in terms of their musical personalities and focusing on music that would bring that to the forefront. In a lot of ways this new record is a showcase for that attention and learning, but a lot of the music I’ve written through the years, having been playing with these people for so long, also comes from that perspective.
L: Yeah, so this record Típico is a tribute to many of the things you’ve been talking about, being in a band with people you are friends with and that you actually like. I’m interested to hear your approach to writing the music, as it pertained to bringing out the strength of different members of the band?
M: In terms of thinking about the strengths of the different players in the band, I definitely felt from the get-go was looking to write music for specific personalities. Especially when thinking about the idea of rhythm and what that means, and a specific way of feeling rhythm. I was trying to find musicians who were like-minded, who would have a deep understanding with the music of Latin America, who could already feel that rhythmic sense intuitively, so that when we dove into that zone, I didn’t really have to explain things for them. Of course, I’m also thinking about their individual personalities and the things they bring to the plane. After playing for so long, I’ve gotten an idea of what each of them can do comfortably, and with the band being in some sense a vehicle for my own compositions, I’m trying to use them as the platform for that, but also give them space to be who they are. I think for me that is the key about this all. When I started writing music, I never really thought about it from the perspective of having my own band or anything, it was more that I just needed a platform to try out some ideas. Eventually when I found that platform, it made sense to keep that the same and compose music on that constant platform.
B: I think you can definitely hear that on this record, and how that platform allows the music to speak. Listening I was struck by the compositions, the complexity of the compositions, but also the space allowed for each individual performer. I wanted to ask what you would say the process behind a Miguel Zenon record entails? I’ve noticed listening to your discography over the years that each one seems to explore a different topic or a different style or theme. It seems like there is an aspect of research that goes into many of records, could you speak to that?
M: Speaking about the records themselves and the way I approach the thematic material on each record, I do think about them as independent projects. A lot of them, especially the ones where I’ve delved more deeply into a musical idea or theme, like some of the music from Puerto Rico etc. they have been sort of like research projects. I’ve gone deep into one theme and explored that and ran out certain elements that I then used to write music. Típico was a little different because I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it on a grander conceptual scheme, I was thinking about going back to focusing on the sound of the quartet and music for us. When we make records usually the process is pretty similar, it always starts with the four of us building the foundation for the music itself, and playing the music a lot in rehearsal and live before going into the studio. We like to make sure the music is flowing well before we press record and that was certainly the case for this record, we laid down the whole thing in maybe like a day and a half. And then we take it on tour, and usually at some point on the road we will start writing new things and starting the cycle again.
M: For a while now, ever since Alma Adentro, I’ve been looking for a unique look that identifies our recordings and I’ve kind of fallen in love with this vintage photography that deals with the idea of Puerto Rico. For this recording specifically, I was looking for something that was musical, connected to Puerto Rico, and connected to an older, more folkloric idea of what music is. This picture jumped out at me because it had all those qualities, but also it had four individuals in the picture, connecting to the quartet. Reflecting on what típico means to me, growing up in Puerto Rico, usually when someone says típico or musica típica, they are referring to something that you can identify to a very specific group of people or musicians. In this case I was thinking about the music as being something that I identified with, so when I say típico, I’m thinking about music connected to us, the quartet. And the cover to me exemplifies that.
B: Another track on the record “Academia,” referring to school and perhaps your own experience as an educator, you’re at the NEC correct?
M: Yeah, I’m a teacher at the New England Conservatory. I’ve been teaching there for about five years now and one of the things that I really like about the program is that it’s very loose and wide open in terms of how you put the curriculums together for the students. I mostly teach private lessons, and because it’s not exclusively focused on saxophonists, I have to come up with a specific curriculum for each student. A lot of the time I end up coming up with specific exercises, or short compositional ideas for them to work through during the semester. Many times those ideas find their way into my other compositions, fitting them together using the same creative process. And so “Academia” kind of built on that, using some the compositional ideas from time with my students and writing them into a composition.
L: That track in particular speaks to the previous two things you were saying. You are interested in tradition, whether jazz or Puerto Rican, but your music is also very modern sounding and forward looking. And maybe this is also because you spend so much time around young students, but I’m wondering how you think about balancing that interest in tradition and doing something really new and modern at the same time?
M: That has sort of always been the kind of balance I have been looking for. As I get older and interact with younger musicians, I’m realizing how much of a difference there is between my generation going to school 20 years ago and the generation I am interacting with now. The interests are different, the approach is different, their approach to what a jazz musician should be is totally different. So it’s interesting for me to see that and try to react to that in a way. At the same time, I’ve always been very clear about what that means to me and what the importance of that balance means to me. Ever since I got into this music, first off coming from Puerto Rico and not growing up with jazz, I realized early on this music wasn’t a native or first language to me. With any kind of music I learned it was the same, going to the roots, studying it almost from an academic point of view. That process helped me to realize that anything I could become would have to be tied very deeply to tradition. As I have studied the musicians I admire, I’ve realized they all went through a very similar process as well; they connected with a specific musician that came before them and used that connection and study as inspiration to develop their own identity. I’ve sort of made this my mantra ever since then – we need to know what came before us in order to be able to develop into a well-rounded personality.
B: Certainly. One last note we would like to touch on, if you would like to talk about it, the Caravan Cultural, bringing jazz back to Puerto Rico. Can you explain what that organization does and how it has shaped your music making as well?
M: Caravana Cultural is a project I started six years ago in Puerto Rico. The idea behind it is that we organize a series of free jazz concerts in rural areas that don’t have that much cultural activity, or stuff coming from the outside. Part of it is trying to widen the audience of jazz in my country, but also the grander purpose is to use culture and cultural activity as an investment towards everything going on there and to paint a picture that music is an important thing in society that should be available to everyone. So what we do is put together a concert focusing on a specific historical musician. I put together a band and bring it down there, and we usually organize a group of students from the community to play with us at the end of the evening. That is really the most special part of the event, as the music becomes a real connection with the community. We also do pre-concert talks, making it an educational thing touching on jazz history and improvisation. We also started giving out a small scholarship to one of the musicians playing to help them buy musical equipment. Overall this started as a small one-time thing, and now we’ve done about twelve concerts. It’s definitely been the most rewarding thing I’ve done with music and I’m trying to keep it going for as long as I can.
It’s often said that when you have an experience, you are most likely to only remember the beginning and the end. While this might be true for most events, the triple bill at Lincoln Hall on January 13th, featuring Overcoats, Caroline Smith, and Xenia Rubinos, peaked in the middle. A trifecta of dynamic, soulful songstresses congregated for the Tomorrow Never Knows festival, but Rubinos, billed as the second act of the night, pierced through with wonderful untamed energy.
Opening things up, the New York duo Overcoats mixed soaring harmonies and sparse instrumentation with cool blue and purple lights. Minneapolis-based Caroline Smith closed the night with sparkling, lovelorn soul. Luminous presences on stage, both Smith and Overcoats charmed the audience with effortless vocals and a sleek, cool aesthetic.
By the end of the night, though, it was clear how Rubinos stood in contrast to her bill-mates. Making her way on stage to the slinky dueling bass lines of “Lonely Lover,” she gave the impression that the audience was in for another agreeable set leading up to Smith’s headlining slot. In short order, though, Rubinos broke things wide open with a dense, confrontational take on “Just Like I,” a fiery anthem off her most recent album Black Terry Cat. Rubinos wasted no time diving into the audience for the first of several times that night, singing “I’m just like your sister, your brother, your mother” urging them to see for themselves.
Xenia Rubinos’ first album, Magic Trix, was released in 2013 and made for a disheveled and disarming entrance into the New York music scene. With her sophomore release out this past year, her musical style has taken on more polish, but her live show has not lost its characteristic spunk, humor, and energy.
With Rubinos, every lyric requires an exertion: a punch of the fist, a bend of the knees, a shake of her shoulders. She’s like an antenna that takes every nuance in her music and broadcasts it to the listener through a rhythmic stream of gesturing hands, flailing arms, and bulging eyes.
Throughout the night, Rubinos moves from material that is dense and driving to that which is more funky and atonal. She closes the night with a highlight: the defiant, dance-worthy groove “Mexican Chef,” whose potency lies in its social acuity and humor.
Rubinos’ performance isn’t as “effortless” as Smith’s or Overcoats,’ but I think this is where Rubinos’ appeal lies. She tries, and she tries hard. Her vocals are not without their flaws and her melodies are often more confrontational than agreeable, but it’s clear that she believes in every word she’s singing. And if the audience doesn’t, she’ll dance her way through each song until they do.
I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard a song by Into It. Over It. I was in my friend’s passenger seat and his iPod cued up “Midnight: Carroll Street.” Within the hour, I had downloaded and fallen in love with the album Proper, one that would soundtrack much of that summer and my freshman year of college. Into It. Over It. started as an outlet for the incredibly prolific songwriting of Evan Weiss, a Chicago-based punk singer-songwriter who had written and recorded upwards of 65 songs under the Into It. Over It. moniker before putting together the first full-band lineup to record Proper. As soon as I saw the announcement that Proper was going to be played in full January 13, I knew I had to go. I’d missed several other chances to see Into It. Over It.; I wasn’t going to miss this one.
The first band on the bill was Mother Evergreen, a five-piece mixing indie-folk vocals with atmospheric post-rock. The twinkling guitars and hazy keyboards give the songs a decidedly Midwestern feel; they evoke nights spent inside with your friends while a storm rages on outside. Their set was incredibly tight, made even more spectacular considering it was their first ever performance, and it closed with the epic sleigh-bell-infused “Endful,” the closer number from their self-titled LP. Next up was Pianos Become the Teeth, a band I actually discovered by reading an Into It. Over It. interview. The Baltimore-based group played a mix of styles from across their career, including the intense post-hardcore from Lack and the more melodic, restrained rock from their Keep You album.
Finally, Into It. Over It. took the stage and began playing the first notes of album opener “Embracing Facts,” after which Weiss laughed and warned the audience that he would be switching guitars between pretty much every song. One of the hallmarks of Into It. Over It.’s guitar playing is Weiss’s use of self-created open tunings, giving the music an echoic quality. Apparently, Proper was recorded before Weiss was “smart enough” to write a whole album in similar tunings, or at least that’s what he says. From there on out, the band never let up.
“Discretion & Depressing People” was fast and loud, and “No Good Before Noon” sounded anthemic after three years of struggling to get up for morning classes. However, nothing could have prepared me for how transcendent “Midnight: Carroll Street” was as a live experience. The recorded track starts quietly with a pulsing guitar riff and Weiss’s voice; on this Friday night at The Metro, it seemed as if every audience member sang every lyric with rapture, each word reverberating through the venue.
Before playing the title track, “P R O P E R,” Evan went into a long list of people he wanted to thank, including managers, producers, engineers and musicians who had played with Into It. Over It. The crowd laughed along, applauding the names they recognized, and shouting some that they expected to hear but didn’t. This list of thank-yous was emblematic of the homecoming nature of this show. The audience gathered for the performance was of such an intimate nature that they even knew the names of people the band had forgotten to thank. Here was an ensemble that was so deeply tied to the city of Chicago, who had made it big and been around the world, performing a fan favorite record that helped put them on the map. Weiss returned tonight as a conquering hero, reporting to raucous cheering that the Proper show was the biggest they had ever played in their hometown of Chicago. To end the night, the band played a second-half set of requests from the audience, collected by Weiss through a didactic method of hand raising and writing on a clipboard. Crowd favorites from both of the bands’ other studio albums, Intersections and Standards, as well as early cuts from various EPs and splits, were played to enthusiastic sing-alongs. One particular highlight was 52 Weeks’s acoustic jam “Pinky Swear,” about using heavy traffic to think about the trajectory of one’s life. This kind of lyrical introspection is a hallmark of Into It. Over It.’s music, and this particular song ends with Weiss asking listeners to make a promise with him that neither will allow themselves to waste the opportunities life affords them. For a brief moment, as everybody quoted those final words alongside the singer who wrote them, it seemed as though audience and performer would be able to keep their promise.
Marquis Hill’s performance this past Thursday evening at Constellation was, in many ways, a homecoming for the young trumpet virtuoso. The awards and accolades which sprung him out of this city go without saying for any fan or frequenter of the Chicago jazz scene, and his current residence in New York is one which surely makes those same fans proud. In coming home, Hill left his current ensemble project, The Blacktet, in New York (with the exception of Joshua Johnson) and instead chose to play with Chicago mainstays Makaya McCraven and Joshua Abrams. The bill, correspondingly, was not simply Marquis Hill, but the names of each in the quartet. In the spirit of this non-permanent ensemble, the feeling of a relaxed homecoming pervades. On Thursday night, the homecoming seeped through in the familial interaction between the four musicians on stage, celebrating the return of their friend, but also, in the sense of the overall connected American jazz culture, asking the question: did he ever really leave? We live in a time, and an international Jazz culture in which Chicago’s tentacles of influence and musicianship extend all around the world. Be it Wadada Leo Smith and Nicole Mitchell in Los Angeles or the annual Doek Festival in Berlin celebrating the ongoing collaboration between musicians from Berlin, Amsterdam and Chicago, Marquis Hill has joined the ranks as a continuing force in/of the Chicago jazz scene, regardless of where he calls residence.
After three flowing and fairly free compositions each with distinct moments of freedom and rehearsed starts and stops, Hill took to the mic for the first time to thank the audience for coming. In doing this he also expressed his motives for coming home “to play some creative music, to play some improvised music.” This statement from him, a declared connection and homage to the AACM tradition in Chicago, set the tone for the rest of the concert, which featured mostly loosely composed, freely improvised extended pieces. For a musician like Hill, who tends to stay more “in” than his AACM forbearers, the choice to play a set of mostly free material was, if nothing else, a bit surprising. But with this surprise there also came a treat, as the sold out room experienced an ensemble and a sound rarely heard from one of the city’s contemporary greats.
These free compositions were structured around the individual sounds of those making up the group. Each took their turn beginning a tune with an open solo, and seemingly dictated the nature of the improvisation to follow from there. The standout player of the night for me, and for many others, talking as they left the club, was Makaya McCraven. Another Chicago staple, McCraven has been playing and recording his unique brand of fast rhythmic “beat-jazz” for some time now. The distinctive and virtuosic voice he brings to the instrument was one which lent itself very well to the creative music sound Hill seemed to be reaching for on Thursday night. There were certainly moments of rhythmic cloudiness and indistinguishable pulses, but to my ears, what made Hill experiment novel was the fairly continual rhythmic underpinning McCraven provided. Halfway through the concert, Hill brought out a friend from New York (via Houston), the young and supremely talented James Francis, who sat down at the piano for the rest of the concert. With the addition of the piano, the group took on a different sound, suddenly tethered to a more complex and harmonically-driven rhythm instrument. Francis, like Hill, plays a more ‘in’ style of jazz than the AACM creative music of the mid-sixties, but nonetheless embraced the genre and experiment with tact and open ears.
Those two descriptors, tact and open ears, for me really sum up the night. In saying “creative music” Hill acknowledged his experiment and the footing he and the rest of the band would be taking outside of their comfort zones. This experimentation and paying homage was admirable for a proper homecoming, but also as an audience member, enlightening to hear musicians playing outside of their primary musical focuses. Frankly, the creative music of the quintet on Friday night pales in comparison to the Wadada Leo Smith and Roscoe Mitchell shows I saw in the same room last year. Maybe that is an unfair comparison, to the true masters and legends of Chicago creative improvised music, though it certainly reflects the conundrum musicians encounter when they take a moment to step outside their sound. While it would be easy, and perhaps commonplace, to tell a musician to stick to what they know, it was above all refreshing to hear musicians at the level of Marquis Hill experimenting and expanding the range of their sounds together in respect for the great Chicago jazz tradition. As with any style of music, there is good and bad free jazz, and as far as I can tell that distinction has to do with respect. Do the musicians approach the tradition with tact and open ears? In the case of Hill, McCraven, Francis, Abrams and Johson on Thursday night, that answer was yes and the resulting experiment was successful because of it.
Catch a show at Constellation soon! Full calendar here: http://www.constellation-chicago.com/calendar/
Summing up Wadada Leo Smith and John Lindberg’s Oct. 29 performance at Constellation in words seems to be an almost impossible task. Somehow translating the night’s journey into words. Words, words, words. Does that word even mean anything now? What if I say it 100 more times? A thousand?
My girlfriend is in an acting class right now, and she tells me the Greeks used words impeccably. In their writing, words weren’t hollow signifiers, they moved and felt and had intentionality, had courage. Courage- what a word. I can’t say I fully understand what it means, or that I know how to use my words impeccably. She might be able to give you a better picture. But I walked out of Constellation that night feeling like I maybe understood that word “impeccably” a little better, because it’s really the only way I can sum up how Lindberg, Smith and Mike Reed performed: impeccably.
Having an appropriate attitude towards fear.
Smith put the horn to his lips and there was fear. Fear of music maybe, or fear of the power he assumed in front of the audience. But there was also a disposition to that fear. An awareness. Awareness of the power behind each note he played and, equally important, each note he didn’t.
Suddenly there was the first note and the performance began. In that beginning there was a courage and a sincerity in playing for more than just the reason that people paid to come see him do just that. There was an urgency to say something, a courageousness to jump into the relative unknown. And so they began, Lindberg with fluttering arco work on his bass and Reed sensitively moving around the kit. Soon Wadada leapt in with the spirit of a man half his age, with sharp attacks and blaring lines cascading across the energetic soundscape. Sometimes there were wrong notes and sometimes silence was the only right note. Music means something more when you play with courage, because suddenly that note and that silence mean something.
No one was hiding on stage as the timbre shifted and Smith growled airily through his brass pipe, while Lindberg and Reed accompanied with solid strokes and crashes. The three musicians followed the path of Smith’s “Malachi Favors: The Monarch of Making Music” for over 30 minutes. There were points of congruency throughout- Lindberg peeked over his stand at Wadada, recognizing they had reached a landing point together; Smith and Reed suddenly changed together, like magic. But, in their case, magic was really trust and awareness. I saw trust in their glances that night, so their ears could better navigate. I heard trust in the deep groove that permeated the entire performance. The groove that night was not something you could tap your foot to or line up with a metronome. It was a spiritual groove because of the faith they had in each other.
Each musician had their solo. Lindberg, in the second set, played to the bewildered eyes of Reed, who at one point just gave up trying to play along and sat smiling wryly at the master before him. Wadada played lines and wiggles and journeyed through his horn to places of imagination. Reed captivated me with his downbeat that paid absolute attention to everything happening around him and everything in between. Each star shone individually that night, but in many ways it was the collective combination of the light and courageously-played meaningful notes that elevated the music beyond.
The music or creative spirit that surrounds us always. Like wind moving the air or atoms warring around and against your body.
It felt like Smith, Lindberg and Reed captured a creative force and followed it to loud places and some of the softest places I’ve heard in awhile. The brilliant way Smith and Lindberg write music moves congruent to these forces rather than perpendicular. It’s an impeccable awareness to the true forces behind music. Improvisation often serves as a route along this undercurrent and it did the same in Lindberg and Smith’s composition. Each musician seemed to sensitively pick up on the energy that passed through the room and expressed in as few soft words as possible exactly what they were trying to say. Smith leaned into the mic as the trumpet softly cried its brassy warbles through the cup mute in response to Lindberg’s flautando bowing less than ten feet away. Behind this, Reed sat with brushes in hand, moving slowly around the kit, locking into the quietest pocket for a few measures. Impeccable was all around us.
Acknowledging the tradition of music in the language of the future.
I don’t think it’s worth it to start a discussion concerning the roles of tradition and progressivism in jazz music today. As my good friend and co-D.J. Leo often jokes, jazz seems almost as divided as American politics with real right-wing Wynton supporters in constant tension with the various left-wing parties from the realms of fusion, free and beyond. It’s a discussion I’ve had too many times and one that a truly great musician deflects and proves the ultimate futility and, really, childishness of. (Maybe it’s not so different from American politics after all.) After this show, I’m convinced one of those musicians is Smith. Impeccable requires knowing the intricacies of your language. Jazz as a language came from the blues. Not the twelve-bar-standardized-by-W.C. Handy blues, but the feeling. Wadada, who grew up in Mississippi in the late 50s and 60s, knows this blues well. The spirit of the blues lives deep inside the core of the enigmatic man with a soft smile and quiet eyes. Deep blues, like deep groove, will not be expressed in licks containing flat fives and 4/4 meter. Deep blues exists in the ether and the feeling of how a note is played rather than what that note is. And from that deep blues grows swing, which again doesn’t live within how a musician treats their eighth notes. Smith, Lindberg and Reed don’t need basic and educationally-simplified signifiers to base their music within the jazz tradition; their connection is a deeper one that arises from an internalization of the tradition. By discipline and respect towards the past, they create an impeccable language for the future that assimilates the past without any ball and chain attached to it. As the profile of Wadada arched back on Lindberg’s composition “Feather and Earth” to a burst of fiery lines exiting his horn, I couldn’t help seeing Miles and hearing the future.
“Sometimes when you’ve made art or done something like turning buildings into pancakes or whatever you do, it can be hard to just walk out and leave the room,” Wadada said as the concert wrapped up. He walked out into the audience not as a the incredible performer and cultural force that he is, but as a humble human, seemingly searching for another human to bring him back to existence. To help him walk out and leave the room.
If you haven’t seen a show at Constellation yet, please do yourself a favor and go now: http://www.constellation-chicago.com/
Tracks from Erykah Badu’s Worldwide Underground fill Evanston’s SPACE tonight as audience members mill about in anticipation. An older man parades by in a straw hat, a floor-length gingham tunic and a distressed denim jacket. Another audience member leans up against the bar wearing a white tee and a grey vintage military officer’s hat. Clearly the crowd here tonight is one with an appreciation for the aesthetic; they embrace pairing old with new, familiar with foreign.
KING, an alternative R&B trio made up of sisters Paris and Amber Strother and their “musical sister” Anita Bias, rolled into SPACE on October 11 as part of their two month long tour across the country. Riding high on a wave of critical acclaim for their February 2016 debut We Are KING, the LA-based group has been touring on-and-off for the past nine months, making a stop at SPACE less than a week after the album’s initial release. After their first EP, The Story, came out in 2011, KING slowly gained attention, acclaim, and avid followers as they released several more singles over the next five years. With excitement surrounding each step of KING’s musical journey, it was clear that the crowd at SPACE was eager for Paris, Amber and Anita’s signature lush, soulful grooves.
After a tight, sample-laden set from up-and-coming crooner Nick Hakim, KING floated on stage wrapped in beautiful, intricately quilted floral robes. Opening up with “Mister Chameleon,” the trio fueled audience excitement with their upbeat melodies, hand-clapping, and vigorous bass lines. They continued the pace with an audience favorite, a sure-footed, sleek version of their single “The Greatest.”
It is tempting to refer to the group as the KING sisters—their smiles and encouraging glances convey a unity and mutual admiration that only sisters could have. Often referring to themselves as “musical sisters,” it is this familial love that translates into tight harmonies and intricate vocal arrangements.
The night progresses with more songs from We Are KING: “In the Meantime” and “Love Song,” KING’s favorite song off the album according to Amber Strother.
Taken together, the two songs truly show the depth of KING’s influences. Their twinkly synths and echo-y, distorted vocals sound like things you might hear on an R&B or funk song from the 80s’ or 90s.’ Later, they cover “Computer Love,” the 1985 hit from Ohio-based funk band Zapp, long-time champions of synth-laden, bass-heavy music.
Despite the clear connections to music from earlier decades, though, KING manages to avoid sounding dated. Their music transports you to a hazy dreamland infused with the music of the 80s’ and the heat of the tropics. Dense and lush, their songs possess a familiarity brought about by musical elements from the past, but one that is inviting rather than stifling.
With bright, jewel-toned lights shining on their floral robes, Amber Strother, Anita Bias, and Paris Strother clearly have a grasp on how to translate the images and ideas from their music into a sleek, multi-sensory live experience.
What makes KING’s show so alluring, though, is the love they have for each other and the appreciation they have for their audience—it adds a warmth that no amount of colorful lights or cool outfits could replicate.
Armed with a sense of identity and self-assuredness that only longtime “musical sisters” could possess, KING knows where they came from and where they are going. With the warmth and love they radiate to their listeners, it’s clear that fans will follow them wherever they end up.
I went to Riot Fest this year, and it was a great time. It was conveniently timed the weekend before classes started, and it was great to move back into my apartment and catch some shows before I had to start going to school again and all that lame shit.
From 2005 to 2011, Riot Fest was a multi-venue punk festival, where bands would play at the standard rock venues around the city. They still do a little bit of that; this year the Violent Femmes played a show at Concord Hall in mid-July through Riot Fest. But that’s not really what Riot Fest is anymore. It’s a much bigger, three day outdoor event that plays acts from a wide range of genres. Hip hop, metal and indie rock are all heavily represented.
So sure, it could be said, and it has been said, that Riot Fest has lost its identity. Whatever. If you’re a bitter, aged Chicago punker, you and your extensive knowledge of ‘83 Naked Raygun setlists might be better off staying at home. But as for the rest of us, Riot Fest is a place where you’re probably gonna have a good time. This year’s Friday lineup with Ween (Ween!) and the Flaming Lips back to back was fantastic.
But even on Friday, I saw dozens of people walking around in Misfits shirts. The Misfits played on Sunday. Just walking around the grounds, it was very clear that this festival was about. This was the festival with the Misfits reunion.
Yeah, Misfits played at Riot Fest. The real Misfits. Not Jerry Only and some random guys, not a bunch of ex-Black Flag members carrying the torch. It seems a moderate amount of communication, a momentary casting aside of legal beef, and lots and lots of money were able to get Glenn Danzig, Jerry Only, and Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein on the same stage together for two shows this fall, one at Riot Fest Denver, and the one in Chicago.
To those mostly in the dark about the Misfits and their music — yes, the Misfits were the band on the shirts of all the Hot Topic kids in middle school. They also used to be really really good. They emerged in the New York punk in the late 70’s, their music a original mixture of b-movie horror and sci-fi themes and melodic hardcore punk. By 1983 singer and songwriter Glenn Danzig, and bassist Jerry Only absolutely hated each other, and they broke up. During the band’s existence they were known within the punk community, but held little notoriety beyond that. Interest in the band accumulated over the following decade with widespread release of their recorded material, and in the mid-90s Jerry Only re-formed the Misfits with Doyle and without Danzig, who was uninterested. This incarnation of Misfits, with Jerry Only mostly on vocals, and a different, heavy metal sound, have been performing with some lineup or another up to present day. They are not very good. Yet, the Misfits’ popularity, and interest in their 80’s work has only increased with time.
As anyone who’s ever frequented a Hot Topic knows, when Glenn Danzig left the band, he didn’t just leave behind albums of fantastic material. He left behind a handful of incredibly well designed, very marketable logos. The merchandizing of the Misfits is the main source of their legal battles. When Only re-formed the Misfits, he acquired a large share of the merchandising rights for these logos. Only and Danzig have been in and out of court since the mid-90s, in large part due to Danzig attempting to get larger cuts of this merchandising revenue.
So that’s all really boring and lame, right? But that’s the environment that these two shows came out of. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Jerry Only said that the idea of a reunion was conceived of and agreed to during a court date. The motives of these guys couldn’t have been more obvious — they hate each other, and they are only doing this because they are going to make a ton of money. And you know what? The show was really really good.
Things started off a little rocky when Danzig’s wireless mic malfunctioned and he kept bitching about it, but someone gave him a new mic and further friction was avoided for the rest of the set. Their setlist totaled 26 songs, all from their Danzig-era years, and mostly off their three classic albums Static Age, Walk Among Us and Earth A.D./Wolfs Blood. The crowd was huge and very into the set. The Misfits’ logos flashed on the giant screen behind them while two huge, evil pumpkins with glowing green eyes guarded either side of the stage. “You guys like our fuckin’ pumpkins?” Danzig yelled at the crowd at one point, “Pretty fuckin’ sweet huh?”
One thing I found interesting was that, though they weren’t playing any of their newer, heavy metal material, the metal guitar tone lingered. It wasn’t overtly metal, but it wasn’t plug ‘n play punk guitar tone by any means. Regardless, the set was packed with their best material. You give the people “Death Comes Ripping”, “20 Eyes” and “I Turned Into a Martian” back-to-back-to-back to start the show and the people get going. The set was great. And most importantly, these reunion shows have let tens of thousands of Misfits fans experience the band they love live for the first time in decades, or for the first time ever.
Much has been made about the recent trend of bands reuniting and cashing in on the festival circuit. There is no doubt that that is exactly what this concert was. And it was amazing anyway. We would all love for musicians to care about their music, to engage with their fans and enjoy playing with their bandmates. But sometimes musicians are greedy, narcissistic pricks, and in that case giving them a bunch of money and shoving them out on stage works pretty well too.
Ellis Paul is an American singer-songwriter and folk musician. Born in Aroostook County, Maine, Paul is a key figure in what has become known as the Boston school of songwriting, a literate, provocative and urbanely romantic folk-pop style that helped ignite the folk revival of the 1990s. His pop music songs have appeared in movies and on television, bridging the gap between the modern folk sound and the populist traditions of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Paul came to perform at Evanston S.P.A.C.E. on February 28 and WNUR was there to cover it.
As a self-diagnosed folk music addict, I was pretty stoked that a staple in the industry for more than 20 years, Ellis Paul, was coming to Chicagoland. Over his lengthy career, if Paul has perfected one thing, it’s the art of engaging his audience. He did everything from mock Donald Trump while tuning his guitar for a new song to give us a detailed account of his obsession with “The Walking Dead.”
“I’m going to play two sets tonight, but I need to get home before ‘The Walking Dead’ starts at nine,” he said to kick off his show, as he started strumming the opening chords for “Ain’t No Jesus.” It wasn’t just his banter that kept the audience engaged during the rainy Sunday evening show, upbeat jams like “3,000 Miles” also did the trick to get everyone tapping their toes and clapping along. Paul even broke out a harmonica for his catchy love song, “Rose Tattoo.” (But is it even a folk concert without a harmonica?? I think not.)
Paul is a four-piece band wrapped into one: He expertly mimics the sound of a drum set with his guitar while simultaneously creating enticing chord progressions, he sings and blows his harmonica at the same time. “I’d like to introduce the band. They’re really impossible to work with,” he joked before breaking into one of his most popular songs, “The World Ain’t Slowing Down.”
My favorite song was one he claimed to have written on the drive to Evanston from his previous night’s show in Columbus, evidenced by the book he showed us that he had scrawled the lyrics onto and tentatively titled “You Ain’t From These Parts.” Indeed, I can confirm that he had been furiously writing in aforementioned book when I went backstage to interview him before the show.
“It sounds like a folk song right? Well it’s still green. It’s gonna be a rap song by the end,” Paul teased from the piano bench as he played generic-sounding intro chords. But it ended up being anything but ordinary. It was hilarious, poking fun at all the crazy town names found around America and the unusual connotations that come with them.
Midway through Paul’s first set, WNUR photographer Steve Seong leaned over to me and said, “He really seems like he enjoys what he does.” That is what summed up his show for me more than anything: enjoyment. Not only did Paul enjoy himself on stage, but the audience obviously enjoyed it too. And what more can you ask for from a musician, really?
WNUR: How did you get into the music industry in the first place? You grew up on a potato farm and you wanted to be a social worker, right?
Ellis Paul: Yeah, I mean I didn’t really want to be- I was an English major and it just kind of happened by default. I was playing open mic nights and that’s where I got my start I guess.
Where did you get your inspiration for your song writing?
Paul: Well you know I listened to people’s stories. I feel like everybody’s got some nugget story that kind of defines who they are in the big picture. It might be a chance meeting with somebody or an accident or maybe they won the lottery. This one little nugget story can encapsulate someone and that’s what has me interested in songwriting, because all of my songs are about people.
Do you use your own personal stories too or do you prefer to focus on other people?
Paul: Yeah. If I’m writing about other people, it’s going to be tainted by my own experiences. It’s like if Van Gogh is painting a field of sunflowers, it’s still a field of sunflowers but we see his personality in the painting even though there’s no person in the painting. There’s no way to escape our fingerprint even when you’re writing outside of yourself and your experiences.
Do you have any musical inspirations?
Paul: Like heroes? Well, you know there was an era of music between the mid- to late-sixties up until the mid-seventies where there were a lot of sing-songwriters. Jim Croche, early Billy Joel, Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Neil Young. There was sort of a heyday of folk rock when it was the hippest music. It’s not that way anymore. It’s not like hip-hop or R&B. Not that it’s nonexistent… There was a time when folk music was predominantly in the pop world and heard everyday. That era is what I liked most.
How has that change in popular music culture influenced your work, if at all?
Paul: Well, you know, I keep an eye out for what’s happening, and I listen to people’s music. I bought the Adele record; I bought the Taylor Swift record. And anytime I hear something I like, I try to follow up and see what’s happening. I try to keep up with what stuff I like and try to get inspired. That includes people who aren’t in the popular vein of music, struggling songwriters who are living out of the back of their cars and travelling around the country. Those people are sometimes just as talented as the people on the pop charts. I try to keep an eye out for anybody.
You’ve been in the industry for a while. Do you have something that you consider to be the highlight of your career? What has been your favorite moment so far?
Paul: Tonight is going to be my favorite moment. [laughs] At least that’s what you hope! I don’t really have one; I’ve had a lot of great experiences. I got to go into and write music to a Woody Guthrie lyric, like my music was put to his words. That was a really big highlight. But any night when all cylinders are firing and the audience is completely captivated, it’s a highlight. And I’ve got lots and lots of those.
You’ve written a couple of books, too…
Paul: I’ve written two children’s books and I’ve got one that’s for adults. It’s kind of a sci-fi.
What was that writing process like? Was it similar to your writing process?
Paul: Well the language is kind of the same. It’s really just me spilling my guts on something. It’s not that the medium is that different, but it is drier. When you put music to words, it’s like techicolor, not just black and white. Music is a little more emotional than books, but books are great. I love writing in any medium really.
What’s next for you?
Paul: I just started writing songs for my next project. It might be a year away. It’s going to take a while to get 20 songs, and then we pick the best of the 20. So it’s definitely going to happen, but likely not until the end of the year.
Here’s a moment of complete honesty: I hate change. I get sad when I return from a few months away at college to find that my parents have painted one wall in my childhood home a different color. But let me tell you, in the case of Hey Marseilles, change has been nothing but good.
With the Feb. 5 release of their third full album, the self-titled “Hey Marseilles,” the once folksy band has exposed its fans to a whole new side of its persona. A side that lead singer Matt Bishop says has a “shiny kind of aesthetic.”
What changed? The group brought in a producer, Anthony Kilhoffer, who has won four Grammies for his work, among which are producing Yeezy’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and John Legend’s “Get Lifted.”
Don’t get me wrong though, Hey Marseilles has kept their essence. Their unique use of the cello, played by the talented Sam Anderson, was what initially attracted me to their sound. And they have seamlessly incorporated just as many string solos into tracks from their new album as they did in 2013 when I first encountered their music.
Hey Marseilles’ Jan. 29 concert at Lincoln Hall blended their two styles just as faultlessly as their album did. Because their album hadn’t dropped yet at the time of the show, there were moments when the crowd wasn’t able to sing along to all of the lyrics. Nonetheless, the crowd’s enthusiasm was palpable whenever an old favorite was played, most notably when they began “Rio,” and Anderson tossed a maraca into the crowd.
The woman directly in front of me caught it- not that I’m salty about that or anything. But it was still a great time for us non-maraca-players, which can be attested to by the woman who grabbed my hand and forced me to do a twirl as we belted the lyrics, “Love is a hazard in lower Manhattan/You cannot escape, and mustn’t be saddened/By men who abandon your eyes for another’s/There are always Brazilian boys to discover.”
The band played several new tracks such as “Perfect Okay,” their catchy opener, “Crooked Lines” and “West Coast,” their latest single. All of the songs seemed well received, but they always brought it back to the beginning, closing out their encore with “To Travels and Trunks,” a favorite from their first album.
Despite my hesitance to embrace change, especially Hey Marseilles’ newfound lack of an accordion, I think I’ve learned a valuable lesson from their speedy stylistic transition. While switching things up to find their identity was ultimately a great decision, sometimes it’s okay to take comfort in the familiar, and it’s always okay to embrace both.
WNUR: From listening to your latest single, it feels like you guys are going in a completely different direction now.
Bishop: We used to be more folksy, but I don’t even play acoustic guitar anymore. We’re working with a producer for the first time; Anthony Kilhoffer is his name. He primarily works in R&B and hip-hop and is based out of L.A., but he’s actually from Chicago. He definitely comes from a pop music world, and this is the first time we’ve had that kind of influence. [Our music] is a little bit more focused now.
Why did you decide to work with a producer?
Bishop: We’ve been a band for nine years and it’s the same core five of us. With the songwriting process, it can feel like there are too many cooks in the kitchen, you know? On our first couple of albums, we have a couple of songs that are six minutes long, and they have all this layered instrumentation. We really wanted to challenge ourselves by doing the “less is more” kind of formula. So that was the basic idea. Having a producer allows us to have one person make final decisions instead of having five people arguing.
You guys have been together so long. Don’t you get sick of each other?
Bishop: It’s kind of like a family. I grew up with four siblings, so that’s what it reminds me of. You see the best parts and the worst parts of everyone, and you learn to accommodate that.
You guys are based out of Seattle, and it seems like a lot of your lyrics have references to the West Coast…Are you homesick? What is it?
Bishop: Yeah, we’re not very creative…it’s mostly just when we’re writing songs, and we look up and see what’s around. I really need to stop using the words mountain and ocean and gray and city. But there’s also part of that that’s intentional. That’s the experience that we come.
What do you want people to take away from your music?
Bishop: I just want them to like it. [laughs] When you’re an independent musician, you just want to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible, but you also want the people you respect, the musicians and music critics, to find something challenging and unique about your music. So I think that if we challenge people to hear it and go, “Huh. I want to hear that again,” then we’ve done our job.
What’s been your favorite part of touring?
Bishop: We are on the road a lot. I’ve ruined a lot of relationships that way, which then I turn into songs. [laughs] But it’s definitely hard being on the road so much. Our favorite part is probably just meeting people…. Every time we go to a different city, we have people that we hang out with who are genuinely nice consumers of music and it’s really fun to make those connections.
What was it like recording with NPR for a Tiny Desk Concert?
Bishop: It was the best. I’m a big “All Songs Considered” fan. Bob Boilen and Stephen Thompson and all of those guys are kind of heroes in my mind. That was really cool
and definitely a highlight of our career so far.
Your new album, “Hey Marseilles,” [came] out February 5th. What should we expect from that? [Is it] more toward the style of your previous albums or your recent singles?
Bishop: The singles that we’ve released are pretty representative of the album as a whole… It’s a bit more produced and has more a shiny kind of aesthetic. They’re shorter songs with more electronic beats and less accordion.
How do you feel about having evolved so much stylistically?
Bishop: I love it. I mean I’m a singer/songwriter… So for me, the beauty of a well-written song is in its simplicity. I think our songs are still nuanced and complicated, but they’re not as overthought.
What’s your song writing process like?
Bishop: For this record, everybody wrote songs on their own time. It used to be that other people would write the music and then I’d write the lyrics and melodies on top of it. This time we each have three or four songs on the record and we came together to make sure they all sound aesthetically similar. But it brought diversity to the experience. I got tired of writing about, like I said, mountains and gray and oceans. Hearing what other people are writing about and having them engage in the entire process brought out some hidden talent and has been good for us all.
What do you expect for the future of Hey Marseilles?
Bishop: When you’re an independent musician, this record is kind of make or break. So hopefully, it’ll do well and we’ll make more following this same trajectory. It’s hard to know. We tend to make records every two or three years, so we’ll see if we’re still making music in that time frame. Right now, we’re focusing on this album and it feels fresh for us and for all of our fans. It’s hard to look past that.
The Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers are a small-town Wisconsin band that plays old-school country, ragtime and vaudeville-style music. The guitar/fiddle duo released their sophomore album, Ocooch Mountain Home, a combination of covers of 1920’s folk songs and original work, in 2015. They played Honky Tonk BBQ in Pilsen Nov. 14, and WNUR chatted with them via phone the next day.
After learning that The Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers, a guitar and fiddle duo known for their old-school country jams, were playing a venue called Honky Tonk BBQ in Pilsen, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But come the night of the show, it all made sense.
Honky Tonk’s rustic, Western-style wood paneled walls were covered with murals of icons like Frida Kahlo, and perfectly complemented the Sapsuckers’ toe tapping fiddle tunes. In the beginning of their second set, fiddle player and vocalist Nikki Grossman even broke out into folk songs by renowned Spanish-American guitarist Lydia Mendoza.
The pair played three sets, covering songs from their two albums while also incorporating covers of other artists. Grossman, along with Joe Hart, a vocalist and guitarist, kept the crowd guessing by mixing their upbeat tunes such as the instrumental “Toothbrush Ho-Down” with slower, more heartfelt songs.
One of the highlights of their performance was “The Crazy Rag,” a song from their recently released sophomore album, Ocooch Mountain Home. In an interview, Hart confessed that he wrote the love song for Grossman and joked that it “sealed the deal” for her.
In “The Broke (Ass) Waltz,” the duo complained about being struggling musicians, “The money’s run dry/ The money’s run dry/My pockets stay empty no matter how I try/Can anyone say how I’m gonna get by?”
But to keep the mood light despite the sometimes heartwrenching lyrics, Hart broke out the kazoo for a few rousing solos, all of which were crowd pleasers.
No matter the tempo of the song, audience members were dancing. Couples square danced and slow danced—even made dances up. A particularly drunk man was even dancing up and down the stage stairs during “The Crazy Rag” while clapping offbeat.
As evidenced by their band name and song titles, The Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers clearly have a sense of humor. One could tell they are the kind of people you would want to invite to a party and they had audience members dancing and laughing all night long.
Both band members have unique vocals and immense talent and the duo’s onstage banter was a clear indication of how compatible they are.
Keep an eye out for them, because if they’re returning to Chicago you don’t want to miss it.
WNUR: What were your impressions of playing in Chicago, as it was your first time playing here?
Nikki Grossman: That particular place [Honky Tonk BBQ] it seemed like there were a lot of people that go there not exactly knowing who the band playing will be but knowing that they’ll be good, which is always a really good sign. There were a lot of people that really appreciated our music for various reasons and came up to us really friendly, so that was great.
Joe Hart: It seemed like people were really familiar with the kind of music that we were playing, which helps.
How did The Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers originate?
Hart: I had another band, and my fiddle player had to bow out for a little because he had a new baby. Nikki and I knew each other from playing in the old music scene. People just kind of know each other and we had played together before in social settings. I had a couple weddings coming up I needed a fiddle player for, so I hired Nikki. We really hit it off. We make a good team and decided to make it official.
You’ve been commended in the past for your unique band name; is there a story behind “The Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers”?
Grossman: Early on when we decided to be a band and we needed a name, we were trying to think of things we had in common that we were passionate about. One of those things was making maple syrup. We had been trying to think of a name related to that, with like sap and stuff. And we were like, “I don’t know, what about Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers?” And we liked it. Because it’s goofy and we don’t take ourselves too seriously, so this is gonna be our band name. (laughs)
Ear to the Ground Music named you guys one of their “Five Americana Bands You Have to Hear to Believe.” What was your reaction to that?
Grossman: We couldn’t believe it! (laughs)
Hart: It’s always great to be recognized. We worked really hard on that record, [Ocooch Mountain Home], and we had a really good support team in place to help us do it. The guy that recorded and engineered, Tom Herbers, is a really well known Minneapolis producer and engineer. Our friend Patrick Harrison who played accordion with us helped a lot as well. It was a great process and it’s awesome to see it recognized in the press and know that other people like it, listen to it and enjoy it.
You definitely have influence from the 1920’s country scene, but in a press release you called yourselves a modern country band. How do you find the balance between these two distinct identities?
Hart: I guess when we call ourselves a modern country band we mean that we’re alive and we’re writing music. (laughs)
Grossman: It’s been a little confusing to people that we say that, so we probably shouldn’t say that as much, (laughs) but we mean it!
Hart: If you look at the music industry, the way it’s structured today, you obviously see that top level of star people, but there are thousands and thousands of musicians underneath them, like us, that are making a living and writing good material. As far as I’m concerned, that’s as much modern country as a country song on the Top 40.
What are your biggest musical influences?
Hart: We have a really eclectic taste. We listen to everything from the obvious 1920’s Brother bands and country western.
Grossman: The Blue Sky Boys and The Louvin Brothers are two of the big ones.
Hart: We cover a lot of those kinds of bands. But we also listen to hip-hop. We love the 70’s British folk scene…
In the beginning of the second set, Nikki, you had some amazing solos, some in Spanish. What were the influences behind those?
Grossman: Yep! Oh man. First of all, I don’t have any Latino heritage at all, just to straighten that out. (laughs) I just kind of accidentally stumbled on that kind of music at one point and got obsessed with it, particularly one artist called Lydia Mendoza. She was American but spoke and only sang in Spanish. She played a 12-string guitar. Actually the guitar I was playing is a replica of one of her guitars. It was made by a friend who lives in Madison. I got into her music and I learned enough Spanish so that I could learn the songs. I was having a lot of fun with it, and then our friend later made that guitar for me. Ever since, I’ve been trying to incorporate her songs into our sets. I always get a good reaction and the songs are beautiful.
Hart: It’s also very parallel to the other kinds of music we like to do…
You guys just released Ocooch Mountain Home this past year, but what do you see as coming up next for you?
Hart: Right now we’re really focused on booking our summer. We would really love to play more festivals. They have a really good family-centered vibe, and they’re a lot of fun. We’ll start thinking about recording in the fall of next year. We don’t have a solid plan yet, but we’ve kicked around a lot of ideas.
To keep up with The Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers, visit their website.