Antibalas Live Review

Antibalas and Sonny Knight & the Lakers

July 2nd, 2015

Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park

Chicago, IL


Photo: Michael Orlosky

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”

Can’t Hit: none


Joe Pug and Hurray for the Riff Raff Show Review

Joe Pug and Hurray for the Riff Raff

July 7th, 2014

Millennium Park, Chicago, IL

Joe Pug in Millennium Park Show

Easily one of the biggest perks of summer in Chicago are the many free concerts in Millennium Park and Grant Park. From the free and world-renowned Chicago Blues and Chicago Jazz Fests, to summer-long series like Loops and Variations (Thursday night electronic music) and the Grant Park Music Festival (classical music), these free shows almost make you forget the steep premium you pay to live in the greater Chicago area. We finally got downtown this Monday night for the Downtown Sound series for Austin by-the-way-of-Chicago folkie Joe Pug and New Orleans up-and-comers Hurray for the Riff Raff.  It was a lovely evening of folk music that helps you breathe in the summer air.

First was Hurray for the Riff Raff, the New Orleans-based outfit who adheres to a traditional country-folk sound but lyrically and visually subvert many of the stereotypes of traditional roots music. The band looks younger than me (I still get a lot of suspicious eyes when carded 10 years after the fact) and they does not fit that macho, white-bred look that one often thinks of when you hear country-folk. Hurray for the Riff Raff is Alynda Lee Segarra, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx, identifies as queer and tours with a band that appears friendly to the LGBTQ community. The band’s transgender fiddler Yosi Perlstein is also queer, and the band as a whole holds to a pretty androgynous persona.

Hurray for the Riff Raff: Subverting Country-Folk One Song At A Time
Hurray for the Riff Raff: Subverting Country-Folk One Song At A Time

The band subverts the murder ballad on “Body Electric” and other aspects of traditional folk music, but make no mistake about it, the band loves and embraces the South in all its bumps and bruises. Segarra and company were energetic, pleasant, and a real delight for the whole crowd. It was one of those rare instances where the opener captivated the crowd more than the headliner, which is saying a lot since Joe Pug has a long history in Chicago.  Hurray for the Riff Raff even pulled out an encore (which is super unusal for an opener) by performing the two-men-and-a-fiddle doozy “Fiddlesticks”. All-in-all, I came away really impressed with the band and I’m sure we will hearing more and more from them.

Joe Pug on the other hand, caught me a bit cold at first before warming me to him. Pug reminds me of Taylor Dawes (lyrically, musically, and in appearance), the singer/songwriter behind the band Dawes,  trying to reveal some meaning behind life with every new verse. It’s a style of folk that follows in Dylan’s reflective footsteps, but doesn’t hold a lot of appeal for me. Neither did the seemingly put-on folksy charm Pug put on between songs. However, the sincerity at the heart of the songs and Pug’s gratefulness to be back in Chicago (he recently moved to Austin) was hard to deny, and after the set, I would call him a guy I’m rooting for.

It was a really pleasant summer folk show for two budding folk singers, and not a bad (or unpatriotic) way to follow up the Independence Day weekend.


My Morning Jacket Chicago Show Review

My Morning Jacket with Band of Horses
Jay Pritzker Park Pavilion in Millennium Park
Chicago, IL
August 22, 2012

My Morning Jacket live in Chicago August 22nd live show review

I wasn’t planning on writing on this show – or even going to this show for that matter – but a last second cheap pair of tickets and a deep love for my morning jacket has caused me to do the opposite on both friends. Alex Thompson wrote an extensive review of a My Morning Jacket/Band of Horses show for our blog a couple weeks ago, so feel free to look at that. I will keep my thoughts short and specific to the Chicago show.
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Charles Bradley Show Review

Charles Bradley and Abigail Washburn

Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park

Chicago, IL

July 16th, 2012

Charles Bradley Show Review in Chicago
Screaming Eagle of Soul

One usually goes into a free show being excited about the price of admission but rarely that excited about the act you are actually seeing. That’s because it always seems to me most free shows are that way for a reason – they either are a lesser known local band you are seeing for nothing or the artists seem random and rarely catch my eye. Last Monday’s free show as part of Millennium Park’s concert series broke both of those things bringing Charles Bradley and Abigail Washburn – two known great performers who I have never seen. While I have only heard Abigail Washburn’s cultured folk and bluegrass a time or two, I have been knee-deep in Charles Bradley 2011 classic soul debut No Time For Dreaming since the beginning of this year. The two made for easily the best free concert I have ever been to and Charles Bradley’s performance was the most soulful I have ever seen.
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