July 2016 ~ Encountering Another Chicago

RP Boo - Party Motion I'm pretty sure that before this summer, whenever I've heard the music associated with footwork (a Chicago-originated style of dance) I've dismissed it as repetitive, simplistic junk. That all changed the moment I I saw the dancers onstage with RP Boo at this year's Pitchfork festival. To be clear, the music is repetitive and simplistic. Out of context it's even a little grating. But when you see the dancing that goes along with it, when you understand what the music is for -- wow. Footwork is like nothing you've ever seen before. Describing it doesn't do it justice, and even while you're watching it there's a level of disbelief, kind of like watching a magic show - it looks real, but a part of you knows it can't be. 

In this excellent 2010 primer from the Chicago Reader, Miles Raymer describes it this way: 
"In contrast to breaking, footwork is less about raw athleticism and acrobatics and more about quickness and fluidity. The dancers' legs go crazy—when I'd only seen it on video, I had a hard time believing some of the footage hadn't been subtly sped up—but their heads and shoulders are sometimes almost still, seeming to float above the action. You might see graceful tap-dance-style spins or elbows-out arm pumping borrowed from African dance, but in general only feet touch the floor—no headstands, no flares, no hand hops. In a battle setting each routine is maybe 20 to 40 seconds of knotty, rapid-fire motion—like a soccer player juggling a ball or Michael Jackson in his best years, except even faster—with the tension broken only by, say, a pause en pointe or, if a dancer's feeling really cocky, a playful but firm shove to the chest of an opponent."

I found myself being incredibly moved by RP Boo's set at Pitchfork (watch an excerpt here). It wasn't just the screwball insistence of the music, or the joyful vehemence and collective energy of the dancing, or the giant smile on RP Boo's face the entire set. It was getting a glimpse into a genuine Chicago, an organic and utterly unique expression of culture from a part of the world that is reliably portrayed in the negative. Obviously, counter-balancing the evening news isn't the motivating force behind footwork, but on that afternoon it felt like a clear and forceful refutation of the idea that all Chicago's south and west sides have to offer the world is violence and poverty. And, considering how the originators of footwork make clear that they see themselves building on the legacy of house music, it serves as a reminder that cultural innovation (with global implications) is nothing new where they are from. 

Watch a short film (a music video, really) of dancers at Chicago's annual Bud Billiken parade, set to RP Boo's "Bangn On King Drive."

Digable Planets - Pacifics (Sdtrk "N.Y. Is Red Hot") In my experience, it's always questionable whether reunited nostalgia acts are going to be any good. Easily the highlight of my one day Pitchfork escapade this year, Digable Planets answered that question with a resounding "Hell yes." In fact, even though I never saw them back in the their heyday, I'd be willing to bet they are better now than they ever were back then. A full (and fully smoking) band, crisp vocal delivery with lots of interplay, and a little bit of Ishmael Butler's latter day Shabazz Palaces voodoo. Plus a concise political message to boot. So great when the past and the present can agree. 

Xenia Rubinos - Mexican Chef I really loved Xenia's debut album Magic Trix, which came out in 2013. Its mix of indy rock grit, Latin sabor, and hip-hop attitude hits just the right way. The new Black Terry Cat leans more towards the hip-hop spectrum, but still with an organic bedrock, courtesy of the live, simply-miced drums (by Marco Buccelli) and bass (here by Xenia). Reckoning with the openly racist vibe of Trump and (even more difficult) the number of people who are attracted to it, this song is a superb fuck you - bringing things back to reality (you know, "brown" makes the country run) with humor and righteous attitude. 

Mudhoney and Sir Mix-A-Lot - Freak Momma I got to thinking recently about the Frankenstein marriage of rap and rock that has resulting in some truly terrible music. These days, that particular branch of pop music has cycled through enough generations that a lot of the lurching, bolt-necked awkwardness has been smoothed out. Back in the early '90's though, there were plenty of reanimated golems roaming the landscape. Inexplicably, the soundtrack for the otherwise forgettable movie Judgement Night, pulled off a neat trick - pairing a series of rock bands with rap groups, with a pretty high percentage of gems. The self-conscious humor of this cut is representative of why I think it works - the bands and rappers are under no illusions that they are doing anything that makes organic sense, and find ways to jimmy rig the pieces together without sacrificing what makes each great. I love the idea that Sir Mix-A-Lot lost some "street credibility" by doing a song with fellow Seattlites Mudhoney, and that he doesn't seem to give a shit. 

PWR BTM - 1994 PWR BTTM have been getting a ton of love from NPR's All Songs Considered crew, and this barn burner from 2015 is good evidence why. The 40-year old in me loves the '90's throwback vibe - which, well, I guess makes sense given the song's title. 

William Bell - The Three of Me Another NPR discovery, this time from Fresh Air. I'm not sure I knew who Bell was before hearing the review of his new album, although it's likely I read about him at the Stax Museum in Memphis. Good goddamn I love the production on this - so warm and crisp all at the same time, creating the perfect place setting for the delicious meal that is Bell's voice. This song is so well written, too - ringing in perfect harmony with the age and experience in that voice. 

Eric Bachmann - The Old Temptation Recently I've been thinking about a personal classification of music I like, which I call the "More Than Ten Timers," being albums I've listened to more than ten times. The Crooked Fingers' album Dignity and Shame remains squarely on that list. There was a period when I listened to it every day, probably for several months, and their show at the Congress Hotel in Tucson is burned brightly in my memory as a transfixing affair, with a motley crew of musicians making a mighty soulful sound. Eric Bachmann's unmistakable voice, that distinctive phrasing, and gorgeous songwriting were always at the center of that group, so it's only natural that this song from his new solo outing tickles some sympathetic vibrations in me. 

Zammuto - It Can Feel So Good - A neat little puzzle from Nick Zammuto, harkening back to his cryptological days in The Books. I can't be sure, but I think the central sound here, that kind of hollow percussive tone, is the product of this crazy PVC pipe thing that Nick is doing in the video below, roughly from around 2:48-4:41. This whole doc is worth watching, actually. A kind of mad scientist mixed with he world's best hippy dad. 

King Sunny Ade - Ja Funmi King Sunny Ade was supposed to play Millennium Park last year, but due to some visa business wasn't able to make it. Whew, it was worth the wait. I'd heard rave reviews of his live show from my dad. I was excited to see him, but wondered if age would have diminished him at all. Well, from the moment he appeared onstage, shimmying like a 20-year old, that worry was washed away. What a terrific performer, full of joy and energy and with a great band. The mellowness of this song doesn't do justice to the energy of a lot of the music, but it does capture the experimental spirit that I think helped distinguish Ade in the first place. One of the best parts of the show was hanging out in front of the stage completely engulfed in Nigerian expats, singing along, joking and reuniting with giant hugs and hand slaps. 

Yeasayer - Ambling Alp Yeasayer was not afraid to point out the irony of playing an official Lollapalooza "after-party" the night before the festival started. No problem for me, since seeing a band like this in a intimate club rather than among the sweaty throngs is way better. I was curious to see how they would pull off their dense sound live, and assumed it would require having some extra musicians onstage. Nope. These guys do it all. The prime revelation for the evening was just how astonishingly good bassist Ira Wolf Tuton is. Like, whoa. Like, why are you playing indy rock? So glad he is though, 'cause these guys find a way to let everyone's talents shine. 

The Frightnrs - I'd Rather Go Blind This month the NYTimes published a short, but tremendous profile of The Frightnrs, a retro reggae band from Brooklyn with an album coming out on Daptone records. It's like a match made in heaven - stellar, soulful playing and that special Daptones production pairing to honor and update a classic sound. The cherry on top is singer Dan Klein's sweet-as-sherry voice. Sadly, part of what makes the story so poignant is that Klein passed away from ALS before the record could ever come out. Listen to the record though. A terrific talent.

La Santa Cecilia - Nunca Más In honor of Gabe's love for Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, I bought us tickets to go to Ruido Fest, a festival of alternative Latin music that is new to the Chicago festival circuit. Playing as we arrived, LA's La Santa Cecilia was easily a highlight of the day. 

Savages - T.I.W.Y.G. Savages was the other big revelation of Pitchfork this year, blowing back the hair of everyone in the place. So fierce. So GD loud!!