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Adele: 2009 concert review

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in The Daily Southtown on January 20, 2009.

The British invasion of pop music never really stopped after the Beatles set foot on these shores, but we seem to be in the midst of yet another musical attack from England.

The invading troops this time are young ladies belting out soul music. Adele, who performed Monday night at Chicago’s Park West, is the just the latest of these brassy Brits. She may be only 21, but she showed on Monday that she’s already a talent to reckon with.

She arrives here in the wake of Amy Winehouse, who brought old Motown sounds back to life before her life turned into a tabloid nightmare, and Duffy, another English vocalist influenced by a retro record collection. Adele stands out from the others by mixing the sound of early ‘70s soul ballads with the mellow vibe of more contemporary singer-songwriters.

Greeted by an adoring audience at Park West, Adele waved at her fans, wriggling her fingers. She pointed to people in the crowd as if she were spotting old friends.

Her hands remained animated as she sang. She almost looked as if she were conducting an orchestra as she moved her hands up and down, but if she was conducting anything, it was just her own voice.

She sang in a cool, straight tone, saving her vibrato for only the occasional flourish. Adele demonstrated her ability to leap effortlessly all over the scale, nailing every note with ease and precision.

All that was impressive, although at times it felt a bit too much like Adele was just proving what she can do. Let’s chalk that up to her youth. As she matures as an artist, maybe she’ll feel less need to show off.

In between songs, Adele demonstrated a disarming sense of humor as she bantered with the audience. When some rowdy Park West patrons started yelling at each other in the middle of a quiet song, “Daydreamer,” the crowd tried to shush them. Adele joined in with her own good-natured “Shhh!” and the audience laughed. Somehow, she managed to continue performing the song flawlessly despite the huge distraction.

Adele has a band of talented musicians playing behind her, but some of the arrangements were treacly and generic. (That was also a problem with opening act James Morrison, who was technically accomplished but rather bland.) When Adele’s two keyboard players mimicked the sounds of strings and horns, it just made you wish for the real thing. However, whenever the music got spare — just one or two instruments and Adele’s voice — it was lovely.

It was especially nice to hear Adele play three songs all by herself. On two of them, she played acoustic guitar. On the third, “Best For Last,” she sang while playing an acoustic bass guitar.

Adele’s original songs sounded strong, but she obviously doesn’t have enough of her own material to fill a concert at this point in her life. A highlight on Monday was Adele’s cover of the 1997 Bob Dylan song, “Make You Feel My Love,” which appears on her debut album, “19.” In Adele’s hands, the tune sounded like a classic ballad by the likes of Roberta Flack or Gladys Knight.

Adele also covered the Raconteurs’ “Many Shades of Black” and Etta James’ “Fool That I Am.” Introducing that song, Adele said, “My favorite singer ever is Etta James.”

Adele isn’t yet at the level of Etta James, but she obviously has good taste. And she’s still young.

Nick Cave: 2008 concert review

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in The Daily Southtown on September 30, 2008.

Performing Monday night at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre, Nick Cave repeatedly leaned into the crowd, pointing his finger and intoning his lyrics like some mad preacher.

Cave, an Australian-born singer-songwriter with some 20 albums, is not the only rock musician who borrows stage moves from old-style evangelists — the sort who shouted the word of God in revival tents and inspired their followers to speak in tongues. Cave is a scary sort of preacher, and he prowled the stage with barely concealed sexual energy, his white shirt completely drenched with sweat.

It was a remarkably fiery performance by Cave, who came to Chicago with his stellar backup band, the Bad Seeds, to promote his latest record, “Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!” Although Cave has been making music for almost three decades, he shows no signs of flagging energy or creativity. In fact, he’s on a hot streak right now, with several top-notch albums in a row.

In addition to his music, Cave has written novels and screenplays, proving his literary talent. And many of his songs are practically bursting with witty, dense and profane words, which Cave tosses out with wild abandon. Before launching into one of the best songs on his new album, “We Call Upon the Author,” Cave gave a classy nod to Chicago literature, dedicated the song to legendary local author Nelson Algren.

With two drummers, guitar, bass, keyboards and few other assorted instruments, the Bad Seeds deftly covered the gamut of Cave’s musical styles Monday, from brooding Gothic rock and hard-charging punk to piano ballads and gospel. Cave played songs from throughout his career, including fan favorites from his early days such as “Red Right Hand” and “Deanna” and more recent tunes like “Get Ready for Love.”

Cave’s outing last year with a side project called Grinderman seems to have inspired him to play guitar more often, and he picked up the instrument several times Monday night, casually cranking out some loud chords. Cave also went back to the piano for one song, “God Is in the House,” bringing the raucous concert down to a hush as he whispered the line “If we could all hold hands and shout … hallelujah!”

Cave closed his encore with “Stagger Lee,” his updated version of the old blues song about a killer. Leaning over the crowd one more time, Cave began to clap his hands slowly to the beat, with a swaggering swing in his arms. By now, his shirt was practically translucent with perspiration. The crowd clapped along with Cave, and then he leapt back onto the stage and let loose a blood-curdling scream.

Leaving the stage, Cave let the audience know how long they’ll have to wait to see him again in Chicago. “See you in a couple of years,” he said. Cave’s acolytes will have trouble waiting that long.

An enthusiastic female bartender at the Riviera, who’d experienced a Nick Cave concert for the first time on the previous night, proclaimed, “I’ve discovered God, and he wears a mustache!”

Photo by Robert Loerzel

Cat Power: 2008 concert review

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in The Daily Southtown on February 11, 2008.

Cat Power, the singer also known as Chan Marshall, was once notorious for abandoning songs or entire concerts before she was halfway through finishing them.

When she played at Chicago’s Vic Theatre two years ago, she gave an erratic performance, with some brilliant moments and lots of awkward silences. She was back at the same venue Sunday night, but this time she exerted complete mastery over the music.

Although Cat Power is a strong songwriter in her own right, she focuses on cover tunes on her new album, “Jukebox,” and those songs dominated Sunday’s show. She chose a diverse lot of songs, ranging all the way from the Frank Sinatra hit “New York, New York” to Joni Mitchell’s meditative “Blue.”

Marshall showed a jazz singer’s sense of timing, letting her words drop behind the beat or run ahead of it. She almost always sings in a breathy tone, but she knows how to sing in a way that’s strong and breathy at the same time, pulling the microphone away from her face on the more forceful notes.

Freed from playing guitar or piano, Marshall seemed to feel an uninhibited freedom to roam the stage with her peculiar pantomime-like dance moves. She often crouched down low as she sang, making gestures with her hands that sometimes acted out the words of the songs – or just reflected one of her fleeting whims. She held her hands in prayer, she flicked her fingers with a fish-like motion, she pretended she was clicking a remote control, and she circled a finger next to her head (the universal sign for “crazy”).

One of the reasons Marshall probably felt so free on Sunday was the excellent band acting as her safety net. Billed as Dirty Delta Blues, the four-piece group plays a bluesy, rootsy style of rock music that evokes the days when Bob Dylan first went electric or the Rolling Stones recorded “Exile on Main Street.” The band also knows how to play simmering, quiet grooves — perfect for Cat Power’s ballads.

In addition to the tracks from “Jukebox,” Marshall and the band indulged themselves in several other cover songs, including George Jones’ “Making Believe,” Patsy Cline’s  “I’ve Got Your Picture” and James Carr’s “Dark End of the Street.” It was only late in the concert that fans got a chance to hear Cat Power do some of her own songs, including the new track “Song to Bobby” — apparently, a letter of sorts to Bob Dylan — and a few songs from her popular 2006 release “The Greatest.”

Cat Power may have mastered the personal demons that caused trouble at her past concerts, but she still refuses to play by all of the rules. Instead of doing the usual routine of leaving and coming back for an encore, she remained onstage as the band left, spent several minutes tossing T-shirts into the crowd, basked in the applause and then disappeared.

Photo by Robert Loerzel

Buddy Guy Q&A

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in The Daily Southtown on December 24, 2006.

For years, Chicago blues fans could count on one thing happening every January — Buddy Guy would play a marathon series of concerts at his Chicago nightclub.

But when Guy, an Orland Park resident, performs 18 shows next month at Buddy Guy’s Legends, it could be the last time he ever does it.

Guy has owned Legends, 754 Wabash Ave., since 1989, but Columbia College owns the building and wants to use it for a new student center. Guy expects to move out this spring, and he’s uncertain whether Legends will live on elsewhere. [Note: Four years after this article appeared, Buddy Guy’s Legends moved into a new space at 700 S. Wabash, where Guy continues his tradition of playing a string of concerts every January.]

Columbia College spokesman Micki Leventhal said Guy’s lease ends in May, though the college is willing to be flexible. “We’re not going to throw him out the second the lease is up,” she said, adding that Columbia gave Guy an honorary doctorate last year.

“Dr.” Guy — who celebrated his 70th birthday this year — grew up in a family of sharecroppers in rural Louisiana before coming to Chicago in 1957. He played guitar for many blues legends, including Muddy Waters and Koko Taylor, and won acclaim for his own music, becoming a favorite of 1960s British musicians like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton.

A new three-CD set, “Can’t Quit the Blues,” covers Guy’s entire career, from a demo he recorded in Baton Rouge in 1957 up through 2005 sessions with Richards, John Mayer and Shemekia Copeland. The box set also features a DVD with the documentary “My Time After Awhile” and films of Guy performing 11 songs at various concerts between 1974 and 2004.

Guy has eight children, and some of them are pursuing musical careers. His daughter Shawnna performs hip-hop; his son Michael has created beats for rapper Ludacris; and his daughter Carlise leads the NuBlu Band, which will open some of Guy’s Legends shows next month.

Guy spoke by telephone earlier this month.

Q: It was surprising that you wanted to do this interview early (at 9 a.m.). Most musicians like to sleep late.

A: Not this one.

Q: Have you always been an early riser?

A: Man, I was born on the farm. I’ve never lost that yet, man. I was having coffee at about 4:30. I always go back to sleep around 2:30 in the afternoon. Even on the road, it just works perfect — about 2½ hours in the afternoon and about four at night.

It’s been like that all my life. Especially in the spring, when the birds are singing, man, and when daylight breaks, I can’t sleep, and I don’t care if I drank a bottle of wine, I wake right up. Never had an alarm clock in my life, never been late for nothing — not by sleep.

Q: Is Legends closing or moving soon?

A: I’ve gotta to get out of there by June or July. The college owns the property. We tried to work something out so I can stay there. They just decided they didn’t want to do it.

Q: Are you looking for another location?

A: Well, I’ve been looking. But over the last 15 or 20 years — man, it used to be blues clubs all over the city of Chicago. Since they started the DUI, why the guy used to come spend five or six dollars in Robbins or Joliet, man, he’s afraid to drive that now. If you’re not downtown, I don’t think a club’s going to be too successful. I don’t know what’s going to happen.

Something may happen, and I wouldn’t say no if I get the opportunity to go in another place. It’s so expensive now to rent a place. People don’t drink that much no more … compared to what it used to be.

Q: In the new documentary, you talk about your early days in Chicago, when there were blues clubs and record stores at almost every other door as you walked down the street.

A: Yeah, on both sides of the street. Before I met Junior Wells and Muddy Waters and all those great blues players, I’d go walking. There wasn’t no air conditioning, they had the blues clubs open. And you would think it’s Muddy Waters. You walk in on them and it’s a three- or four-piece band sounding just like him.

So I never did make it where I was told to go, because I thought I was missing something if I passed and heard this band playing, on 47th, 43rd, 63rd, Indiana — oh, man, I could go on. You go on the West Side, it was 12th Street, Madison Street. Oh, man. It was 99.9 (percent) all blacks listening to blues in those days.

Q: If you go into a blues club now, a lot of white people are listening.

A: It’s completely turned around. Me and B.B. King tried to figure out what went wrong. Matter of fact, we were doing a show in Memphis one day and a black lady ran up (and said), “They done took this music from us.” B.B. looked at her and said, “No, lady, you just quit listening to it.”

We have a few black people come in — not the young ones. Once in a while, one young guy comes around. They’re into the hip-hop. You know, I guess they’re keeping up with it. It was the same when Muddy Waters and them amplified the harmonicas. I guess they was looking at it the same way.

Q: What do you think the future is for blues?

A: It’s scary. My children are grown, and all of my children didn’t know who in the hell I was until they turned 21 and they came in that club. And all of them cried, my daughters and sons, said, “Dad, I didn’t know you could play like that.” For some reason, they got us hid behind the curtain. We’re not on television, our records don’t blast on the radio like everybody else’s.

What you hear on the big AM and FM stations now, it’s nothing but superstars. You turn your radio on, you’re not going to hear nothing but Madonna, Britney Spears, Rod Stewart and people like that. And they give you that rotation over and over. You know, my record never would get in there.

It’d be nice to just pop in a Muddy Waters or a Howlin’ Wolf or a T-Bone (Walker) every once in a while, you know? It’s like, I don’t know what your favorite meal is, but if they give it to you every day for six weeks, sooner or later, you’re going to say, “Buddy Guy, bring me some of them red beans and rice. I’m tired of this turkey.” So that’s what time it is now.

When we had all the AM stations, you could make a record and take it up to a disc jockey who had the right to play it. Now days, you’ve got program directors that give the disc jockey the records to play, and they’d better not play nothing but what they was told to play.

Q: You’re an exuberant performer onstage. Where did you get that from?

A: Guitar Slim. I saw him play, and I saw B.B. King. I said, “Well, I would like to sound like B.B. King, but I will always like to act like Guitar Slim, just wild and crazy.” It makes sure someone plays attention to you. I was just putting on a show.

Q: Most guitarists played sitting down in those days?

A: When I came to Chicago, all of the blues cats was sitting down. That’s what made people pay attention to me. … I just walked out on the bar and started kicking people’s whisky over. They said, “I don’t know who this is, but tip him.” I just jumped off the bar with the 100-feet cord, and somebody thought I joking then. Because, first of all, they say that guitar wouldn’t come through that much long cord, but I saw Slim do it, so I bought me one.

Q: There’s a story that your very first guitar was a contraption you made when you were a kid.

A: Yeah, a lighter-fluid can, with a little flat board, and I tried to strip all of the screen from my mother’s window and tried to make string. I just tightened it up and picked away at it. Matter of fact, I first was picking away at a rubber band from two nails in the wall before I realized the screen would make a more guitar type of sound.

Q: Can you put into words the way you come up with your guitar solos?

A: No. I just play whatever comes to my mind, man. A lot of times, I’ll be onstage and I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do myself. I only give you just enough of it to make you love me more.

Q: You’ve said that the producers you worked with in your early days discouraged you from playing guitar as wildly as you did in concert. And then British rock musicians like Eric Clapton had hits with similar sounds.

A: Right. Leonard Chess (of Chess Records), he sent Willie Dixon to my house. … Willie Dixon said, “Put on a suit, he wants you in his office.” I had never been in his office before. He had found out the British cats were coming in with those guitars ringing, including (Jimi) Hendrix.

And he said, “I want to you kick me in my (expletive), because we’re the dumbest (expletive) you’ll ever want to know. You’ve been trying to give us this stuff, and we were too (expletive) dumb to know it would sell, and this is the hottest (expletive) out there. Now, you can come in and make a record and turn the amplifier up.” I was on my way to Vanguard (Records) at that time.

Q: Are there songs on the box set that you hadn’t heard in a long time?

A: Hadn’t heard in a long time. Actually, I haven’t heard it now, because I’ve got to get the people to send me one. I know I’m going to play my club the whole month of January, and I’m sure somebody’s going to ask me to do a few of them, so I’ve got to rehearse myself on them.

Q: Wait a minute — you don’t have a copy of your own box set?

A: No. People visit my house, man, they look at me and just take it. I said, “Man, you can’t — that’s my record.” They say, “Well, you just sing it.” I hardly ever do listen to myself, because I can’t learn what I already know.

Tom Waits: 2006 concert review

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in The Daily Southtown on August 21, 2006.

As Tom Waits and his musicians approached the Auditorium Theatre’s stage Wednesday night, their shadows loomed high on the curtains, like specters in a haunted house.

Even in the flesh and blood, Waits seemed supernatural. Twitchily gesturing with his outstretched fingers, Waits looked as if every hoarse note emerging from his throat required maximum exertion – the cords in his neck and the muscles in his face bulged with strain.

And what notes they were. Of course, skeptics will tell you that Waits can’t sing to save his life – or that his gravelly vocals are a gimmick. His singing is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but on Wednesday he once again showed that he’s a master at what he does, barking like a dog with a bad case of the blues and howling high notes like a forlorn feline.

Waits doesn’t come around very often, so this was a major event for his fans. His last Chicago concerts were in 1999, and the ones before that were in the late 1980s. And Chicago was lucky to get him on this tour, a quirky itinerary that skipped New York and Los Angeles while hitting more obscure towns like Asheville, N.C., and Akron, Ohio.

Maybe Waits has a soft spot for Chicago, though he said he was disappointed that the city’s Cows On Parade had disappeared since his last visit.

At one point, he reminisced about staying in a rundown hotel at Belmont and Sheffield. “The lady behind the counter was the mother of the Marlboro Man,” he noted, adding how disappointed he is when the colorful places he recalls from years ago have become generic and gentrified.

“Now you say, ‘9th and Hennepin’ to someone in Minneapolis, and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, my wife got some sandals there.’ Sandals? I got shot there,” Waits cracked.

Waits, who’s famous for telling shaggy-dog stories and surreal jokes, was less talkative than he has been in the past. He didn’t linger very long at the piano, either, playing only two songs there – 1985’s “Tango Till They’re Sore” and 1976’s “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” which brought enthusiastic shouts and whistles of appreciation from the galleries.

For the most part, Waits was playing the role of blues-band front man, occasionally picking up a guitar but leaving most of the playing to his crack band, which included his son, Casey Waits, on drums.

The band stripped some of the junk-shop clatter from the songs off Waits’ most recent album, 2004’s “Real Gone,” making them sound more like lean blues songs. Performed in this context, they weren’t all that different from the seemingly more conventional songs Waits recorded in the late ’70s.

For his first encore, Waits played acoustic guitar for the first time all night, bringing a gentle touch to “Day After Tomorrow,” a song that closes “Real Gone” with lyrics about a soldier’s letter home.

Applause broke out as Waits sang: “You can’t deny the other side don’t want to die anymore than we do. What I’m trying to say is, don’t they pray to the same god that we do? And tell me, how does God choose? Whose prayers does he refuse?”

Waits came back for one more encore, closing with the wistful “Time” on acoustic guitar. And then, even though the crowd made an unholy racket of clapping and foot stomping, Waits was really gone.