Thursday, June 28, 2012

Jah Wobble: May 11, 2001

Jah Wobble is a much more exotic moniker than the man's given name, John Wardle. The stage name is also a better fit for the music he creates. Starting off as the bass player in the most respected and influential version of John Lydon's post-Pistols group, Public Image Ltd., as a solo artist Wobble has experimented with sounds from around the globe. His biggest commercial success came with the 1991 album Rising Above Bedlam and the Sinéad O'Connor duet "Visions of You." 

In 2001 Wobble embarked on a very brief U.S. tour (just five cities) in support of his album Passage to Hades with a group dubbed Deep Space. The opener was Chicago's 8 Bold Souls, a respected jazz ensemble that nicely complemented Wobble's worldly, experimental sounds.

The porkpie-topped Wobble and his band, which included keyboards and winds, were all business. Of course, part of the lack of stage banter was due to the nature of the music. Here's what I wrote in a blog just after the show: 

Saw Jah Wobble at the Double Door with ----. He played one song for the entire show. Good, sexy music, but not exciting to watch. The highlight was the bad white people going "native" with their dancing. At one point, ---- turned to me and said, "I feel like Chicken Tonight."

So, yeah. Droning, experimental sounds that looped and loped into each other for about an hour or 90 minutes. And then a cheerful and sincere-sounding "thanks" and off he went. Being a sucker for a good hook, I guess I'd have preferred to hear more pop-structured songs, but I admire Wobble's experimentation and musicianship and am glad I got to see one of his rare American appearances.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Badly Drawn Boy: May 6, 2001

The career of Badly Drawn Boy (or Damon Gough, as he was born) started with a bang but has since trudged along in a fairly low key. After a few EPs, he caused a sensation with his full-length debut, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, in 2000. Since then Badly Drawn Boy has gone back and forth between releasing soundtracks and albums under his own moniker, working steadily but never quite generating the excitement or adulation he did with Bewilderbeast.

It was while riding that early momentum, which included winning a prestigious Mercury Music Prize in his native U.K., that Gough visited Chicago in May 2001. To give an idea of his profile at the time, consider that the Metro holds 1,150 patrons and seemed to be sold out or fairly close. (By comparison, he played a 500-capacity Chicago venue in December 2010.) I really had no idea what to expect, but figured that the show might be worthwhile, given all the buzz. And indeed it was.

Like the epic yet lo-fi music on Bewilderbeast, the gig managed to feel simultaneously large and small. The room contained the presence and energy of a large crowd but the intimacy and good humor of a small one. Gough was a compelling presence, an incongruous blend of confident singer/songwriter and genial dude next door. Also incongruous was his chain smoking while singing in a clear, pretty folk voice. Donning his ever present scruffy beard, wool cap, and cigarette, he created an approachable persona that made the mid-sized venue seem more like an intimate club.

It was a long show with lots of songs (quite lovely ones, too) and banter. At one point, Gough passed around a photograph of his newborn daughter. After passing through a thousand hands, the photo amazingly made its way safely back to him onstage. Sometimes people surprise you in the best ways, and that unexpected positivity is what I remember most when thinking back on this show.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Donna Summer: August 30, 2008

Ravinia is a scenic outdoor venue north of Chicago where the elaborate picnics of those with lawn seats are just as much of an attraction as the artist who happens to be playing. In fact, from most spots on the lawn the picnickers are all you see, as the stage is completely out of view. Usually my friends and I will  retreat to an area behind the pavilion briefly so that we can at least catch a glimpse of the performers. The lawn is a lovely sight, though, where far from "roughing it," people bring tablecloths, candelabras, real silverware and wine glasses, and elaborate foods. Behind the genteel facade, however, tensions are sometimes ready to bubble over. Maybe it's because of the venue's negative aspects: The lawn is oversold and overcrowded; because of the obstructed view, the lawn sometimes attracts partiers rather than people there to see the bands; the Metra trains that many patrons use to get home are overcrowded and prone to delays; people get really drunk.

On the way home from this show we were trapped on the top level of a very crowded Metra train with a few dozen boozy fifty-something women. Frankly, they scared me a little. Still slamming down vodka on the train, they apparently weren't the only ones at the show to get a little rowdy. The next day a news story appeared saying that two parties of picnickers had gotten into fisticuffs when one tried to steal the other's picnic space. It's not everyday you see the headline "Brawl At Ravinia" on the Huffington Post, but it is everyday (at least in the summer) that you can see patrons scrambling to claim space on the Ravinia lawn.

But when, you may ask, are you actually going to talk about Donna Summer? Well, I figure a description of the patrons is valid since it's a big part of the concert-going experience, and in the case of a show from the Ravinia lawn, the patrons are pretty much the main attraction. As for La Donna, she was touring in support of what turned out to be her final studio album, Crayons. She performed some songs from it along with other "newer" (i.e. not disco) songs and the material went over well since it was mostly upbeat and danceable -- just what the crowd wanted. She also sang many of her big hits from the '70s and '80s including "I Feel Love," "Bad Girls, "Last Dance," and "She Works Hard for the Money." She looked great decked out in an evening gown (we ventured down to the "holding pen" for a peek) and her voice was just as smooth and powerful as ever.

Hearing the quality of Summer's vocals, it was like time had stood still. Seeing the middle-aged crowd freak out whenever she launched into another disco hit, however, it was clear just how much time had passed. Ravinia was a long way from Studio 54, but you could see some of the audience going back in time, if only in their minds, if only for a few minutes. Maybe it is only because of nostalgia, but disco has withstood the test of time. And Summer, as the queen of the genre, has too. When she passed away in May 2012, it was clear from the many tributes to her in the media and on the web that she had earned the respect that was denied for too many years to artists slapped with the "disco" label.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Blur: October 2, 1995

It's still somewhat odd to me to think that while Blur reigned supreme in British hearts and charts, they were playing relatively small clubs in America. It makes sense, though, since their music of this period was almost insularly British. That's not to say Americans couldn't relate to it, but it took some open-mindedness and at least a slight understanding of Brit culture for Americans to find a point of entry.

This show took place just a few weeks after the release of The Great Escape, the follow-up to what is generally considered to be the band's masterpiece, Parklife. Expectations were high, and although it was a solid album, ultimately it would be considered a disappointment by most. At any rate its exploration of the dark side of middle-class life was a mostly somber listen and a harbinger of the '90s hangover to come. It also signaled time for a musical change, and Blur's next album would be a decidedly different affair that incorporated a grittier and more indie-influenced sound. Of course, none of this was on the minds of the crowd that night since we'd only had a couple of weeks to mull over the new album. In essence, the band and audience were still riding high on Parklife. A lot of the material was culled from that album, including an attempt at the title track (performed by actor Phil Daniels on the album) that resulted in Damon Albarn flubbing a few lines -- but he laughed it off. Several other songs from the set list were culled from The Great Escape and Modern Life Is Rubbish.

The Swedish outfit Whale opened, still coasting on their one and only semi-hit "Hobo Humpin' Slobo Babe," which is as atrocious as it sounds. (Time has not been kind to their debut album, We Care -- although I liked it at the time.) The show was all ages, and I'm surprised to see the door time listed as 8 p.m. on the ticket, because I recall it was still daylight out when we got there. Blur's American audience made up for in enthusiasm what it might have lacked in numbers. I remember the crowd as being very lively and it was a great night, even if it had to end before curfew.