Tag Archives: pioneer press

Waco Brothers release first album in 11 years

Pioneer Press, February 16, 2016 — The Waco Brothers used to make studio records at a fairly brisk pace — releasing seven albums from 1995 to 2005 with their rousing mix of punk guitar riffs and country twang. “We thought it was a really solid string of records,” recalls Jon Langford, a singer-guitarist in the Chicago-based band. … Read more at Pioneer Press.

Photo by Paul Beaty

‘Now Arriving,’ a new book on Chicago airports

Pioneer Press, August 20, 2015 — There was a time when you could walk into airports without worrying about metal detectors. You could greet friends — or even celebrities — as they exited airplanes, coming down stairs right onto the tarmac. “It breaks my heart that that era has vanished forever,” says Christopher Lynch, who grew up near Chicago’s Midway Airport… Read the story.

Photo: Rotunno Family Collection

Sharon Jones interview

Pioneer Press, June 19, 2015 — Soul singer Sharon Jones sounded and looked as vibrant as ever when she returned to concert stages in 2014, less than a year after learning she had cancer. She’d had six months of chemotherapy. Told by her doctors that she’d beaten the bile duct cancer, she wasted no time getting back on the road with her killer band, the Dap-Kings — not even waiting for her hair to grow back. Read the interview.

Mekons: 2011 feature

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on September 29, 2011. See Underground for longer transcript of my interview with Sally Timms. 

Which rock band would open a concert with short slideshow lectures, talking about obscure topics like “various breeds of pigs, real and imagined”?

Which rock band begins the recording process by looking through a pile of history books?

Which group includes musicians spread out across two continents, including two in Chicago and others in England? Who’s been together 34 years, with 26 albums but not a single hit? Who is “better than the Beatles,” according to the late legendary rock critic Lester Bangs?

The answer to all these riddles is the Mekons, who started out as a punk band in Leeds, England, then evolved into a honest-to-goodness collective of musicians playing their own singular blend of country, folk, punk and rock.

The Mekons have just released their first album in four years, “Ancient and Modern: 1911-2011,” and they’re playing an acoustic concert Tuesday (Oct. 4) at Evanston S.P.A.C.E. — the show will indeed feature an opening set of slideshow talks by the various Mekons. The following night, the Mekons play an electric show at Lincoln Hall in Chicago.

In addition to a whole lot of wistful melodies that stick in your head, as well as a charging anthemic rocker, “Space in Your Face,” the new album is filled with fascinating lyrics that look back at what the world was like in the years just before World War I.

“The Edwardian period was considered very shallow,” says singer Sally Timms, a Mekon who lives in Chicago (and has a day job at an Evanston law firm). “It was an almost superficially comfortable lifestyle, but underneath it there were plenty of cracks and things were degenerating.”

Timms and other members of the Mekons — especially singers Jon Langford of Chicago and Tom Greenhalgh of Devon, England — see parallels in today’s world. Timms says it feels like we’re living in “the tail end of the modern world.”

“Space travel is finished,” she says. “Are we really dreaming those ideas any longer?”

Timms says Mekons songs emerge out of discussions on these sorts of topics.

“Jon will come in with books. Tom will come in with ideas,” Timms says. “We don’t really write songs separately. That doesn’t happen. No one comes in with a finished song. … With the Mekons, we always make the rule that we do the work when we’re together.”

For “Ancient and Modern,” the recording and writing began in a rented house near Greenhalgh’s home in the English countryside.

“It looked like something out of ‘Lord of the Rings,’” Timms says. “It’s a thatched cottage nestled against a giant cliff by a tiny river, just over a stone bridge … in the middle of nowhere.”

While Timms sings lead vocals of three of the new songs, she says listeners shouldn’t assume she had more of a hand in writing those tunes. Each song is a collaboration by the whole band, she says. Timms says she often plays the role of editing what the rest of the Mekons are coming up with.

“I’m good at looking at the overview and the shape of things,” she says, adding that she also handles the mundane logistical duties that no one else in the band wants to do, like booking airplane flights. “So I play a sort of servant role, with occasional intellectual pluses,” she says, laughing. “But then, I’m in a bad mood about this today.”

The Mekons trade humorous gibes at every concert. It’s clear that this is more than a rock band. Even if they live thousands of miles apart, they’re a tight-knit group of old friends. Maybe that’s the secret to their longevity.


Richard Thompson Q&A

This article by Robert Loerzel was originally published in Pioneer Press and the Chicago Sun-Times on September 1, 2011.

In case you doubted Richard Thompson’s impressive credentials as a singer, songwriter and guitarist, he now has an official stamp of approval — from England’s Queen Elizabeth.

The British musician … received the Order of the British Empire in a June 28 ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Thompson spoke with us in a phone interview.

Q: What was the OBE ceremony like?

A: You get to dress up like a 19th-century British prime minister — a top hat and tails. You get your 15 seconds with the queen. She said, “Oh, you’re a musician. That must be marvelous for you.” It’s a great honor.

Q: So this doesn’t make you “Sir Richard”?

A: No, that’s up another three levels or something.

Q: Of course, you’ve had had other awards — and Grammy nominations.

A: I’ve been nominated two or three times, but I haven’t won yet. I’m in the wrong category. I knew I should’ve stuck to polka.

Q: Richard Thompson music is almost a genre unto itself.

A: Exactly. There should be a category just for me, so I can win every year.

Q: Why did you record your most recent album, “Dream Attic,” live?

A: A lot of the feedback I get from the audience is that they prefer the live performance to the recorded performance. So I thought, ‘Well, what if we just cut out the middle process here?’ It’s quite a hard thing to do. The band has to rehearse and learn 80 minutes, flawlessly — or well, a few flaws, just to show we’re human.

Q: Your current tour is solo. How is that different?

A: You can create more stillness in the room. You can pull the audience in towards the music more. And you can put across lyrics better.

Q: You’ve written 400 songs?

A: I think so. Compared to some people, that’s good. Compared to Cole Porter, who wrote 2,000, that’s a bit lazy.

Q: What are the differences between how you play acoustic and electric?

A: If I’m playing solo, then I’m trying to be as orchestral as possible. What I’m trying to do is to render a band performance from a record in a solo format. I’ve never been happy with just going, “strum strum strum.” I’ve always thought the acoustic guitar should hold more possibilities than that.

Q: Is it possible to put in words how you create a guitar solo?

A: Uh. How many hours do you have?

Q: We’ve got about three minutes.

A: That’s tough. That’s a very large question. A small, quick answer would be: You practice shorter phrases. And then when it comes to soloing, you’re putting those bits and pieces together. And you’re inventing links between them. And then if you’re inspired, you’re also playing new things that you haven’t played before. You have the basic vocabulary that you learn through practice. And then when it comes to the actual solo, you’re applying some of those — you could almost call them clichés, but they’re your own clichés. What you’re trying to do is pile these clichés on top of each other in a new and interesting and meaningful way.

Q: Are those the special moments for you, when you realize you’re playing something new?

A: Yes. It’s when you feel that the music is playing itself or the music’s just flying, without you really having to think about it. But we’re talking about very intangible stuff here. The difference between success and failure in a solo is very, very subtle — and possibly can’t be described in our allotted three minutes. (Laughs.)

Photo by Robert Loerzel (2014)

Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz discuss ‘The Interrupters’

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on August 11, 2011.

Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz live just a few blocks from each other in Oak Park. Both have been acclaimed for their heartfelt, thoughtful portrayals of people coping with problems such as poverty and crime. James portrays his subjects in documentary films including “Hoop Dreams.” Kotlowitz portrays his subjects in books including “There Are No Children Here.”

“We’re kindred spirits,” James says. But until now, these neighbors have never worked together.

Their first collaboration is a stunning and stirring film about “The Interrupters” — former gang members who try to talk current gang members out of committing acts of violent revenge on Chicago’s streets. After months of buzz and ovations at film festivals, the documentary opens Friday, Aug. 12, at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

“I hope it gets people thinking about the violence, in a way they hadn’t before,” Kotlowitz says. “And I hope it spurs some conversation about the profound and deep poverty in our cities.”

“The Interrupters” should accomplish those goals, but it doesn’t do it with voice-over narration or any direct message.

“The film has a lot to inform you about, but we also want it to be entertaining and shocking and funny,” James said. “What we’re trying to do is present this complicated reality and have you grapple with it. You give the viewer credit for intelligence — to look at it and draw their own conclusions.”

James and Kotlowitz spent 14 months tagging along with the CeaseFire organization’s violence interrupters, focusing on three charismatic figures who have overcome troubled pasts to do good: Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra. As the film shows them giving gang members streetwise advice and straight talk, it doesn’t seem like any film crew is present.

In fact, two or three people were hovering nearby: James was running the camera, acting as cinematographer, as well as director, producer and editor. Kotlowitz was observing and taking the lead during interviews, serving as producer. And co-producer Zak Piper was handling the microphone. “The Interrupters” is billed as a “film by” James and Kotlowitz. Normally, that credit goes to the director alone, but James said he wanted to emphasis just how much of a role Kotlowitz played.

“He was in the trenches with us throughout the entire process,” James says.

The film was inspired by a 2008 article Kotlowitz wrote for The New York Times Magazine about CeaseFire’s efforts to stem Chicago’s tide of murders.

“We already had a significant level of trust because of the groundwork that he had laid,” James says.

“The key to this kind of storytelling is building relationships with the people whose stories you’re trying to tell,” Kotlowitz says. “Part of that is being absolutely frank and straightforward with them about what you’re doing. And part of it is being patient.”

The film’s subject matter sounds grim. Kotlowitz says he and James braced themselves for a grueling year.

“But I’ve got to tell you, I’ve never had so much fun working on anything before,” he says. “Hanging out with Ameena, Eddie and Cobe, I think we were surprised how much we were inspired by them. The film is, if not uplifting, at least filled with promise and filled with humor, amidst all the grief that you see.”

“The Interrupters” will open at ICE Theaters on Chicago’s South Side after its two-week run at the Siskel. James said he hopes it will be seen by people who rarely venture into violence-stricken neighborhoods, as well as people who live there.

Kotlowitz says, “What could be more affirming or make you feel less alone than to know that other people are grappling with the same issues?”


David Cromer Q&A on ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on April 29, 2010.

In the last few years, David Cromer has been one of Chicago’s most critically acclaimed directors, working on plays including “Our Town,” “Picnic” and “The Adding Machine.”

After a stint in New York, Skokie native Cromer is back at one of his favorite theatrical homes, Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, directing Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” As rehearsals got under way, he discussed his approach to directing.

Q: What sort of experiences have you had with this play?

A: I taught acting for many, many years at Columbia College, and I would give it to students to work on. The outcome of that was everything from disastrous to brilliant. When you hear something over and over again in that context, you can get so sick of these scenes you do in class. … But the more I would be exposed to it in this tedious work situation, the better it got. It just kept demanding that we spend time on it.

I feel like I’ll wrestle a lifetime, trying to get my hands around how (Williams) was able to write naturalism and poetry so simultaneously — something that was practical and so conversational and so believable, while having all these images and all these metaphors and all these things that lined up so beautifully and echoed back and forth and spoke to each other.

Life is too short not to work on that kind of stuff every minute you can.

Q: You’ve downplayed the idea that you have some ingenious way of interpreting familiar plays.

A: There’s a misconception among artists, where you believe that your artistry comes from how you decorate something that’s there — what you decide to do with it. I think someone’s actual work is more subconscious.

My approach is merely to do what the play tells me it wants. And I don’t mean that the plays speak to me in the night and I light a candle. Just, it’s there. You base it on everything: How it’s laid out on the page. Why he chose this word over that word.

Q: You’ve worked many times with Natasha Lowe, who plays Blanche DuBois. Why did you think she’d be good in this role?

A: I knew her when I used to run around in Chicago as a teenager. And then we ended up going to Columbia College together. She and I fell into working together. I just fell in love with her rawness and depth. She has this enormous emotional reservoir, and she doesn’t flaunt it or exploit it. She can go anywhere.

From a standpoint of self-preservation, if you keep great actors in your shows, you have less to do.

Q: Have you and Matt Hawkins, who’s playing Stanley Kowalski, been thinking much about Marlo Brando’s performance in that role?

A: I haven’t thought about it. We’re looking at little black marks on a page, and we’re doing that. … We have to go out of our way to decide that the ghost of Marlon Brando is bothering us.

Because here’s the thing: Marlon Brando, who is revelatory and spectacular in that role, is playing the role exactly the way it’s written. He did not elevate a nonexistent piece of writing with that performance. He is submitting himself to that writing. You don’t read that play and go: “Oh, wow, Brando really fleshed this out.” It’s there. It’s in the writing.

Q: It doesn’t seem like you were particularly crushed when “Brighton Beach Memoirs” closed so quickly on Broadway after getting good reviews.

A: I try not to be crushed by anything other than death and heartbreak. It is a commercial venture. And I have done enough commercial theater to understand that it is a crapshoot. … Enough people either say yes or no to it, and you move on. It’s the life.

Q: You’re a high-school dropout, from Evanston Township High School?

A: I was a high-school flunk-out. They didn’t throw me out the door. I just kind of stopped going.

Q: Did you know you wanted to go into theater?

A: I was headed for theater from the time I was 10 and was in the school play. Looking back on my earliest memories, almost everything I did — every game I played, every silly hat I put on, the way I played with my friends, saying, “You walk over here. You do that” — it all seems to point to the job I ended up in.