Category Archives: Concert Reviews

One Minute Critic: Americanarama Festival 7/12/13



Even though I had a blast at the Americanarama Festival last night, it just reinforced why I much prefer club shows to stadium concerts (for a variety of reasons). Unsurprisingly, Wilco‘s  hometown set was easily the evening’s highlight, though Richard Thompson and My Morning Jacket were stellar too. As expected, the sound quality was less than exceptional at Toyota Park (home of the Chicago Fire soccer team), but the three supporting acts managed to rise above the issue for the most part- especially Jeff Tweedy and company. I had spied set lists for the previous tour stops and was really hoping the Chicago crowd would be treated to “California Stars” and Wilco/MMJ’s rendition of “Cinnamon Girl.” I received both of my wishes; thankfully the sun had set, making it easier to conceal my emotional responses to the two tunes.

The greatest disappointment of the night was the headlining Dylan. Even though he sounds like three-parts Tom Waits and one-part Bob nowadays, his voice isn’t what let me down. It was the altered arrangements to much-loved songs like “Tangled up in Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate,” which rendered those and other standards nearly unrecognizable. I didn’t expect the performances to sound exactly like the album versions or resemble Dylan’s classic live shows. However straying too far away from the songs’ original visions created a palpable discontentment that seemed to envelope the entire stadium. Please save the rearranging for bonus tracks or other artists covering the songs. Despite my criticisms I am still glad I got to see Dylan again, though I will embrace my memories of his 1994 show tighter than last night’s.


(Not Quite a) Concert Review: Birds of Chicago 6/27/13



The following post was originally a status update on my personal Facebook page concerning my excitement about the Birds of Chicago concert I attended the night before. The more detailed the update became, the more it sounded like a concert review. What’s missing, of course, is specifics about the band’s song choices that evening, among other things. As stated in the entry, however, the gig was recorded for a live album that will tentatively be released in August or September. Besides a few minor changes, I decided to leave the rambling mostly intact. Hopefully there is enough meat on the bone to whet your appetite and pique your interest in some incredibly talented artists. Without further adieu…..

Still flying high from the Birds of Chicago show we attended last night! I would say it was the perfect evening, but it didn’t quite start out that way.

Our journey started in a van that lost its AC a few days prior. We thought, “no big deal, windows down, we’ve got this!” That was until we had been on the road for an hour and it began to rain.  Experiencing precipitation sixty minutes into a seventy-four mile trip would normally not be an issue either except our excursion took three hours due to heavy traffic. With little ventilation and a lot of humidity, we had to leave the windows at least partially down. That might explain why you received a damp hug, Mahra. 🙂 Again, getting a little rain-soaked wasn’t anything to fret about. We would dry off eventually and it actually felt kind of nice when a strong gust of wind made its way through the vehicle.

The greatest difficulty we endured was my rising anxiety as the hours continued to pass and I thought for sure we would get lousy seats due to arriving well after the doors opened. I kept telling myself that Evanston SPACE is one of the best venues to attend a concert and even the worst seat is not too far away from the stage. While this is one hundred percent true, I REALLY wanted to be as close to the action as possible. It should be noted that SPACE offers reserved tables in addition to the general admission seats we had purchased, so there are guaranteed seating options.

We finally arrived around thirty minutes before the show started. I dropped my wife off in front of the venue while I parked the van a few blocks away (YAY, FREE PARKING!). Since we got there fairly close to starting time, I had to park a little farther away than my previous trips to SPACE. So I called the Mrs. to let her know why I was delayed, as I briskly made my way to the concert hall. When she answered I could tell by the giddiness in her voice that she had something exciting to share. I thought maybe she ran into my friend Mahra, talked to the band or something to that effect. Nope! Despite our tardiness she was able to secure two front row seats with a perfect view of the entire stage!

The same building that houses SPACE also has an excellent Italian joint named Union Pizzeria. From our previous outings we started the tradition of ordering a pizza and dining before the show. SPACE allows you to bring the pie over to their half of the building and partake in it, which makes for a spectacular opening act before the headliners grace the stage. After we gobbled down some sausage and pepperoni goodness that was out of this world (Get it? We were at SPACE? *THUD!*), we had a brief encounter with Mahra, whom I hadn’t seen for almost a year. In fact, that fateful evening in 2012 was not only our initial introduction to one another but also marked the first time either one of us had seen Birds of Chicago, at that very same location.

At last, it was time for the band to take the stage. Although they have played gigs as a duo,  multi-instrumentalists JT Nero and Ali Russell chose to include a flock of seven other gifted musicians, as this was a very special occasion: their first live recording for an album to be released later this summer or early fall. Adding to the festivities was the couple’s recent announcement that they are tying the knot on July 6 and expecting a baby bird in December!

As was the case the previous time I saw them, BoC reached into my soul and caressed it with songs about love, hope and strong affections for their adopted Windy City. Their sound is not easily labeled but the following excerpt from the band biography is a nice starting point: “Nero’s fractured country-soul voice wrapped in Russell’s silver and gold tones is a fine thing. Not too perfect, not at all saccharine, you’ll hear echoes of mountain gospel, street corner doo-wop, classic soul. Accompanied by just a banjo and a guitar, it’s chilling. Fired by a full band, it’s a full tilt revival.”

What’s not included in that description is the chemistry and playful banter that I had previously only witnessed between other musician-couples such as Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler of Over the Rhine. There’s a lot to be said for the unique bond that a husband and wife act have, not only with each other, but the way that union enhances their relationship with the audience. No longer does it feel like there’s the band on one side of the room and the fans on the other, divided by an invisible, albeit see-through wall. Instead it feels like a gathering of like-minded friends who love spending the evening together. Of course an intimate venue like SPACE lends itself to such dynamics, though it also takes a willingness on the band’s behalf to bridge the gap that would ordinarily exist.

After treating the crowd to two long sets and a two-song encore, the Birds had meaningful conversations with all of the people who hung around afterward. Just like the care in which they approach their craft, JT and Ali (and really the entire backing band, which includes Nero’s brother Drew) took time to genuinely connect with anyone who approached them. Again, it was not an “OMG, I met the band” groupie situation, but instead an interaction between individuals who share a common, passionate interest.

While waiting to talk to Ali and JT we had another opportunity to speak with Mahra, at which time she graciously offered to take our picture with BoC. To say the couple are tremendously humble and kind is an understatement. They were as happy to see us as we were them and expressed their appreciation many times over. I asked them to sign the setlist I snagged from the piano, which they were glad to do. I also had JT sign a couple of CDs we purchased too. I know those actions scream “GROUPIE!” but trust me, it just isn’t like that.

Thankfully our drive home was much shorter than our earlier travels and contained a limited amount of rain. All we could talk about the whole time was how extraordinary the evening turned out to be and our love for Birds of Chicago.

In closing, I would be remiss if I didn’t explain that my worries about getting to the concert on time had started to melt away the moment we arrived. As I sat down next to the love of my life, much of the burden was lifted. It was completely gone by the time the band took the stage.

I also realized that although I mostly kept my composure in check, I was making a big deal over nothing. Whether we were ten feet from the stage or one hundred, I was very fortunate to be amongst friends (ones I was acquainted with and many I wasn’t), with a woman I adore, at a venue I love, witnessing a magical event only a select few were able to attend. That was something that traffic, rain, lack of air conditioning and anxiety couldn’t take from me. A perfect evening indeed!


Concert Review: Doug Mains & The City Folk 1/16/13


One of the fringe benefits of being traveling musicians is the opportunity to escape to more desirable climates as the seasons change. Such was the inspiration behind the travels of Doug Mains & The City Folk, who rolled into Valparaiso, Indiana January 16th for the first of twenty-four shows on a tour aptly named “South For Winter ’13.” Though not far enough away from their native Michigan to experience fun in the sun just yet, they have gigs that will soon take them to warmer places as Nashville, TN, Athens, GA and Durham, NC.

Touring for the first time since the departure of longtime violinist Kelly Pond, Cornucopia Coffee Company played host to a trio consisting of Doug Mains (vocals/acoustic guitars), Josh Michels (cello/accordion) and Rob Germeroth (percussion). Noticeably absent was upright bassist/vocalist Kim Wren for reasons unknown to this author. While the presence of Pond and Wren would have provided a warmer, fuller sound, the three men managed to hold their own with what can best be described as low-key, though high energy, folk music. With authoritative, yet soothing vocals reminiscent of an Irish gentleman more than twice his age, the twenty-five year old Mains delivered lamentations about the human condition, but not without expressing faith and hope for brighter outcomes. In “Stones Awakening,” Mains sang, “Words over head drop like bricks to the earth / Shaking the ground, my feet and my worth” before declaring, “But where we find brokenness, we’re sure to find grace / And grace leads us onward to seat with the saints / Grace leads us onward to seat with the saints.” Similar to many of the evening’s offerings, the song started out quietly, slowly gaining momentum before a heartfelt plea of “Oh, rejoice not over me, Oh, my enemy” was belted out as the cello, drums and acoustic guitar were played ever more fervently. Like Sufjan Stevens before him, Mains also sang of Detroit’s transformation from bustling metropolis to city of ruins in “Broken Windows:” “Hate starts with ignorance / And ignorance is bliss / If you are happy with the dangers inside of you / If you let it grow / Then the things you’d otherwise know / Will be the very things that come to destroy you.” It was evident by his carefully-crafted words that Mains has been touched by the plight of the Motor City and longs to see it prosper once again. The same conviction could be found in the other half-dozen or so songs the band performed as well.

Mains’ understated vocal approach and soft guitar strumming were eloquently complimented by Michels’ effortless transitions from cello to accordion-often within the same song-and Germeroth’s solid drumming. No musician overshadowed the other and their passionate craftsmanship was the perfect backdrop for Mains’ gift of insightful, well-penned lyrics. On a personal note, I find my mind drifting toward thoughts of loved ones when my soul is stirred by a musical performance. That evening was one of those occasions.

Even though winter had shown its true self in the form of frigid temperatures, it was obvious by the audience’s reaction that Doug Mains & The City Folk had warmed their hearts, highlighted by an impromptu singing of “Happy Birthday” to the bandleader/birthday boy. Here’s to hoping the weather reciprocates and provides the balmy temperatures they are seeking.

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