As an extremely casual jazz fan, Kamasi Washington’s three hour epic aptly titled Epic is the first jazz record I’ve listened to non-stop in probably five years. For those unfamiliar, Kamasi Washington is an L.A. saxophonist with a laundry list of great recording credits, including work for Snoop Dogg, Flying Lotus, Ryan Adams, Gerard Wilson, Lauryn Hill, Chaka Khan, Broken Bells, and of course, stamping his fingerprints all over the album of the year, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Fellow LxLer Todd and I caught Kamasi Washington and his band – filled with musicians Kamasi has played with for over 20 years – at the Bottom Lounge, and it officially ruined the rest of the rock shows we go to this year.
I hadn’t previously been to the Bottom Lounge, but was impressed by the beer selection, atmosphere, and sound of the venue. Before the show, we met Kamasi’s keyboardist Brandon Coleman and trombonist Ryan Porter while hanging out at the bar. Both had some pretty awesome stories from their touring travels with Kamasi – whom they have known and played with since they were kids – and other acts including Alicia Keys and Earth, Wind, & Fire’s Al MacKay. Stories from their childhood and and travels, including a call to the Austrian president to get a band-mate out of jail in time for a gig, were pretty incredible and promising for the show to come.
Drummer Makaya McCraven served as the opener with his band, with extremely powerful but swift drumming. He plays sort of like a hip hop drummer forced to play jazz, a pretty unique style to experience live.
Kamasi then came on stage, fielding two drummers (Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner), a stand-up bassist (Miles Mosely), female vocalist (Patrice Quinn), trombonist (Ryan Porter), and keyboard and keytarist (Brandon Coleman). Kamasi’s father Rickey, who was running the merch table, also joined the band for about half the set, playing soprano sax and flute. The band’s life-long familiarity and friendship plays into the comfort and fluidity with which the band plays.
Kamasi opened with “Change of the Guard”, the Epic opener that perfectly captures the politically-charged America we currently live in. Kamasi’s style of jazz is fused with hip hop and funk, but definitely channels the spiritual and spacey sounds of John Coltrane. Other highlights included the soulful salute to his grandmother, “Henrietta Our Hero”, the smooth lounge sway of “The Rhythm Changes”, and the fluid “Final Thought”. While Kamasi certainly plays with incredible dexterity and power, it’s the golden tones he consistently strikes with his saxophone that really takes his playing to a new level.
Todd and I definitely learned the hard way when you are used to going to rock shows, the musicianship of a jazz show can certainly make everything else look like child’s play. Kamasi is a force that has not only infiltrated the hip hop and rock world, but will likely be delivering great jazz records for years to come.
There are very few musicians that are the total package quite like Janelle Monae. The Kansas-City born entertainer fuses funk, R&B, psychedelic rock, hip hop, and a dose of theater to make her own blend of timeless pop. On stage, she channels James Brown and Michael Jackson, truly standing as one of the best performers currently on the planet. Monae has even become a White House favorite, playing for the President and his family more than 15 times. On record, she’s released three ambitious and varied concept records about her as an arch-android hero named Cindi Mayweather, exploring not only every corner of the pop spectrum but also themes of discrimination, tolerance, and everything in-between. Monae has even become an important cultural voice, speaking out against gang violence, police brutality, and discrimination of all kinds. Monae is now spreading her influence to a group of artists at her Wondaland label, a diverse group of artistic outcasts making urgent, interesting, and entertaining pop music. This collection of artists put out the Eephus EP, and are putting on a free tour thanks to Toyota. After a near two hour wait to get in, I caught them as they rolled through Chicago last week, and like Monae herself, it was both entertaining and significant.
Upon entering the venue, we received “The Eephus Commandments”, ten instructions from the artists to having a good time. This includes everything from commandment #1: “The Eephus is a state of being; it is an individual, a collective, an idea, an action, an equal and opposite reaction” to commandment #10: “Please be aware that children conceived during the show or within 48 hours thereafter may be born with an excessive desire to eat carrots and play baseball as a one-person team.” These sort of weird commandments well-capture the strangeness of these artists and also their desire to make each and every show an experience: certainly something everyone longs for when they attend a concert.
The Wondaland crew touring together consists of rascal rockers Deep Cotton, soul crooner and guitarist Roman GianArthur, gentle folk duo St. Beauty, the dapper rapper Jidenna, and of course the Electric Lady herself, Janelle Monae. Each artist in one way or another is a Prince disciple, black art school kids who are interested in one facet or another of the pop icon. Purple lighting illuminated the stage for much of the night, and in Purple Rain fashion, the group kicked the show off with “Let’s Go Crazy” and plenty of confetti. The show was structured in a way that each artist would take their turn doing a song or two of their own – sometimes partnering with other members from Wondaland – and were backed by Janelle Monae’s dynamite house band, led by the always-entertaining lead guitar player Kellindo Parker. I was surprised how well this worked, as each artist slipped in and off stage smoothly. While there was the occasional letdown from going from say Janelle Monae blowing the roof off performing “Q.U.E.E.N.” and “Electric Lady” to St. Beauty doing their more downbeat love songs, but for the most part, no artist overstayed their welcome.
While every musician in the Wondaland crew is talented in their own right, Jidenna is the one artist outside Monae with true star power. Jidenna, born in a small town in Wisconsin, is one of the more handsome performers around and owns his look completely. With a full head of ginger, hair, he wears a throwback three-piece suit, including a pocket watch and cane to complete the effect. Jidenna has thrown his way onto the radio this summer, being featured on a guest rap verse on Janelle Monae’s “Yoga” and his own single and manifesto, “Classic Man.” Jidenna dominated both those songs and two others live, with the help of his side man who also sported a three-piece suit and used his handkerchief as a dancing prop. The two combined for a humorous yet authoritative hip hop set.
Janelle Monae only played four of her own songs, but she sure went for the heavy hitters: “Q.U.E.E.N.”, “Electric Lady”, “Tightrope”, and her big summer single “Yoga.” Each Monae performances is like a snowflake, with her busting out new moves and new call-and-responses. While she has now been on the scene for eight years, her energy level certainly hasn’t dropped a bit.
While protest over police brutality is rampant over social media and in a number of hot-button cities, there hasn’t been a song for protesters to rally around. That’s no longer the case with the Wondaland gangs’ “Hell You Talmbout”, a powerful protest song that makes known the names of those that have been killed unjustly in a primal shout. Seeing the Wondaland crew cry out each name and repeat their rally cry is as powerful as it comes. Here’s to hoping “Hell You Talmbout” catches on as the theme for the movement against police brutality, and artists as unique and entertaining as the Wondaland crew keep getting a platform.
As I said last week, Taste of Chicago’s best gift to the city is its free live music. Spoon headlined the Saturday rock showcase from 93 XRT, the long-tenured Chicago FM station that has been bringing quality rock acts to Taste for 28 years. Spoon themselves have been at it for nearly 20 years, and all that time, delivering time and time again with all eight of their albums. Saturday, was by no means the best Spoon set I’ve seen (technical difficulties and minor gaffes wouldn’t allow for it), but still showed why they are a dominant force in rock today.
The mother-son duo of Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear (Madisen’s mother Ruth Ward) opened the showcase by playing some very tender, down-home roots music that’s hard not to get behind. Madisen’s quivering blues bellow is a lovely compliment to the low-key, nearly percussionless songs which could just as easily be sung around a campfire as in front of thousands in the heart of Chicago. The deep, sage harmonies of Ruth Ward definitely take the band beyond your ordinary folk act: a special connection formed over Madisen’s 26 years.
A shared love of rock ‘n’ roll is clearly what brings the second act Houndmouth together: a Louisville four-piece that share the stage equally. Houndmouth is much like Dawes in that they follow the collective spirit of the Band: all sharing vocal duties, spotlight, and creative input. The band really knew how to boogie down: wailing four-part harmonies, blazing guitar solos and big anthemic choruses. I was especially impressed by drummer Shane Cody who looked the part of Ringo Starr with his mustache and coke-bottle glasses and played with the joy and enthusiasm of him as well.
Finally, Britt Daniel and his fine Texas mates took the stage and got off to a pretty rough start. They opened with “Rainy Taxi”, the ominous piano-led track off of their latest album They Want My Soul, but with a poor mix that pretty much drowned out Britt’s lead guitar and most of his vocal, it made it pretty difficult to really sink into the show. More sound problems followed including a broken string on “Don’t Make Me A Target”, pretty much removing the last solo from the song.
As the set went on the sound did improve, and some surprises began. The band played “The Ghost of You Lingers”, one of, if not, my favorite song in all of Spoon’s catalog, and turned it from a haunting call to a past love made perfect for a set of headphones into an experimental, dance-able crowd-pleaser. The band then pulled out a new song called “Satellite”, a song that employed that spooky silent movie organ they started playing with on Transference to great effect.
Finally, Spoon encored with a cover of “TV Set” from the spooky garage punk of the Cramps. Britt ramped up the echo on his vocal and distortion on his guitar to make the cover into a rockabilly tune from your nightmares. Closing also with crowd-favorites “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” and “The Underdog” aided the band on ending on a major note after what was a really tough start. Unlike others, Spoon didn’t let issues get the best of them, and instead chose gratitude for the incredible opportunity to play Taste of Chicago (Britt mentioned remembering his hero Paul Westerberg of the Replacements playing Taste when he lived in Chicago long ago). That sort of attitude and spirit is what keeps a band relevant and respected for 20 years.
Taste of Chicago is promoted as “the nation’s premier outdoor food festival showcasing the diversity of Chicago’s dining community.” That may be how they or outsiders perceive the festival, but really it’s pretty far from the truth. It’s overcrowded, overpriced, and it features nowhere near to Chicago’s finest food. I mean, there is a Wingstop truck and a Spam truck. Let me say that again, there is a Spam truck, like the fake bologna food my dog wouldn’t eat, and she eats goose poop. Continue reading “Erykah Badu Show Review: Taste of Chicago”→
Chicago’s big free summer series to its residents is Downtown Sound, a concert series displaying all genres of popular music every Monday and Thursday in June and July in the heart of the city, at Jay Pritzker Pavilliion in Millennium Park. This summer’s draw included sincere singer/songwriters (Hayes Carl, Andrew Belle), ambitious composers (San Fermin, Active Child), punchy indie rockers (Matthew Sweet, London Souls), and world music explorers (Poi Dog Pondering, Sierre Leone All Stars). Last week’s combination of classic soul revue with Sonny Knight & the Lakers and the straight-up filthy Afrobeat funk of Antibalas was one of the best shows I’ve seen in Millennium Park: a giant dance party for all ages, races, and shapes in the city of Chicago.
Sonny Knight & the Lakers follow in a long-line of recent soul rediscoveries, taking old soul acts that never got their full shot, backing them with a young (often white) band, and injecting new life into their music for a new audience. Think Charles Bradley, Lee Fields, and Sharon Jones. The Lakers were dressed like the Beatlesmania Beatles in their gray suits and blackties, a group of sharp young musicians probably straight out of jazz school. Sonny Knight recorded his first single at age 17 as Sonny Knight and the Cymbols, and now at age 67, Sonny has a new lease on his music career, but stays as cool as a musician whose been around for 50 years. Sporting a white leisure suit, Sonny Knight keeps it more low-key, without the flamboyance of Bradley or full-on belting of Fields. Still, Knight & the Lakers are super fun live, from doing the “Caveman” to bringing a funky take of the Beatles “Daytripper”.
Antibalas are a 12-member Afrobeat collective from Brooklyn, and the band is appropriately as diverse as you may expect. I’ve heard fine things about Antibalas live, but what I heard certainly sold the band short. They aren’t just a rehash of classic Afrobeat music, but actually push the genre to dirty, distorted, and interesting new corners. The band has now been around 15 years and play like it, but they seem to find a new enthusiasm each night. Like Afrobeat itself, the whole night played like slightly-political party music.
Front man Duke Amayo, a British-born singer with Nigerian ancestry, certainly brings the energy with his bejeweled white suit and face-paint, with the rest of the band serving as the perfect backbone. However, it’s not a matter of the front man having all the fun, as the band members get around the stage, playfully intermingling with each other, and also getting the audience interacting.
The biggest highlight for me came with their take on “Crosseyed and Painless”, the Talking Heads live classic. Antibalas served as the house band in Brooklyn for a Talking Heads tribute in March, and I really don’t think there is a better band on Earth suited to play this role. There’s plenty of Talking Heads cover bands (like This Must Be The Band) playing fun tributes and re-enacting Stop Making Sense scene for scene, but I would pay much more to see Antibalas play through the Talking Heads catalog. The band also rocked a cover of the one-hit-wonder 80’s classic “Sombody’s Watching Me” by Rockwell – which famously had Michael Jackson singing the chorus – sung by percussionist Marcus Farrar, a song obviously more relevant today than Rockwell probably ever expected. Thanks Obama.
Other highlights included the defiant “Dirty Money” and closer “Gold Rush”, where the horn players literally went digging for gold all around the stage before delivering their grand melodic statement.
As fun as watching the band was watching the crowd itself, as people of all ages, races, shapes, and dance styles got up and moving. From fathers dancing with daughters, old couples mamboing up and down the aisles, to stoner hippies (in for the weekend for the big Grateful Dead reunion) shaking their fists and hula hoops up in the air. Outside the church, it’s rare to see such a diverse group of people get up, have fun, and celebrate together. For that, we have the city of Chicago to thank (for the free show of course), and Sonny Knight and Antibalas themselves. Good on you.
Can’t Miss: “Crosseyed and Painless”, “Dirty Money”, “Gold Rush”
Much of the talk surrounding Chicago comedian John Mulaney over the past year has been about his much-maligned FOX sitcom Mulaney, a show that looked the revive the multi-cam glory days of Friends and Seinfeld but fell tremendously short in its first season and was cancelled despite an incredibly talented cast (including Martin Short, Nassim Pedrad, and Elliott Gould among others). However, what can’t be forgotten is Mulaney, still only 32 years old, remains one of the finest stand-up comedians on the scene. Like Louis C.K. and other comics before him who have experienced failed sitcoms and movies, I wouldn’t quit on Mr. Mulaney anytime soon. Seeing him live in Indianapolis proved his complete command of the stage, standing as maybe the best stand up I’ve seen live. Continue reading “John Mulaney Show Review”→