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The List: January 27-February 2, 2011

Critics' Choices and other notable shows



>Critic's Choice< Jayhawks
King Tuff, Hex Dispensers
Nellie McKay
>Critic's Choice< Mitsuko Uchida
Mars Williams & Mike Reed


Claire Chase & Jacob Greenberg
>Critic's Choice<
>Critic's Choice< ?Uestlove
>Critic's Choice< Mitsuko Uchida


>Critic's Choice< Mitsuko Uchida


>Critic's Choice< Acid Birds
Olafur Arnalds
John Hammond
>Critic's Choice< Tyvek


>Critic's Choice< Mitsuko Uchida


JAYHAWKS It's been more than 15 years since singer-guitarist Mark Olson left the Jayhawks, the Minneapolis alt-country act he cofounded with singer-guitarist Gary Louris, but lately it seems the two of them have realized they do their best work together. They've been playing shows again for a few years, and in 2009 they released a duo record, Ready for the Flood (New West); the classic Jayhawks lineup has also returned to the studio, and will release a new album later this year. The band managed to make decent music after Olson's departure, even without the gorgeous vocal harmonies he and Louris created, but that trademark sound will be front and center at these shows celebrating the new Sony Legacy reissues of the Jayhawks' two greatest albums: 1992's Hollywood Town Hall and 1995's Tomorrow the Green Grass. The band pushed past the Flying Burrito Brothers/Byrds template of their midcareer records on Hollywood, going for something more rocking, and though their decision to admit the perfectionism of a producer like George Drakoulias into the process was odd for an alt-rock band of that era—they even went so far as to replace original drummer Ken Callahan with a session musician for the recording—the results are magnificent. Tomorrow, its follow-up, is even more full and lush: subtle strings, the addition of keyboard player Karen Grotberg, and some of Louris's most exciting guitar playing help create a denser sound. The band will play the entirety of Hollywood Town Hall tonight and Tomorrow the Green Grass tomorrow, and both shows will include a selection of songs from throughout the Jayhawks' history. This engagement is part of a five-city North American tour, and the band features Olson, Louris, Grotberg, original bassist Marc Perlman, and drummer Tim O'Reagan. See also Friday. 8 PM, the Vic, 3145 N. Sheffield, 773-472-0449, $30, 18+. —Peter Margasak

KING TUFF, HEX DISPENSERS Kyle Thomas, Vermont's leading underground visionary, has put in time with freak-folky outfit Feathers and stoner-metal band Witch (which also counts J. Mascis among its members). But he's at his best when working under the nom de rock KING TUFF. His 2008 album Was Dead (Colonel) generally gets filed under "garage rock," which makes some sense given its fuzzy fidelity and Thomas's slack-motherfucker persona. But the album's rooted less in three-chord stomp and more in the Dexedrine bubblegum of vintage glam and power pop—the hooks are plentiful and clever, and the lyrics focus on girls, telephones, drugs, and girls.

The four members of Austin's HEX DISPENSERS have played in about 40 bands that you probably haven't heard of unless you lurk obscure garage-rock message boards and/or spend a lot of time in their hometown. Given how divided their attention must be, it makes sense that their 2009 album, Winchester Mystery House (Douchemaster), doesn't sound all that thought-out. That's not a knock, though—the way it kicks and churns sounds impressively off-the-rails, and its menacing vibe brings to mind the Misfits and the darker moments of the Murder City Devils.

King Tuff headlines and the Hex Dispensers open. 10 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600, free with RSVP to —Miles Raymer

[photo of Nellie McKay]
  • Nellie McKay

NELLIE McKAY Singer-songwriter Nellie McKay took a bit of a left turn on last year's Home Sweet Mobile Home (Verve), dramatically altering her career-definining sound—a modernized combination of Tin Pan Alley and other prerock pop, which cloaked her barbed lyrics with upbeat ebullience. The album opener, "Bruise on the Sky," matches the dourness of its sentiments ("But what I hoped would be my rainbow / Was just a bruise on the sky") with brooding midtempo alt-rock, and a couple more tunes on the album are just as downcast. But McKay hasn't turned into a mopey rocker just yet. A bunch of the record's songs draw on reggae grooves—her emulation of Jamaican-style singing is both ridiculous and kind of charming—and there are flashes of Dixieland and New Orleans R&B, elements new to McKay's work. Still, she's lost some of her old show-tune-style charm. Previously she's communicated her politics with a dollop of biting humor, disarming the listener before delivering the gut punch, but on "Unknown Reggae," she sounds like a typical preachy vegan ("Eatin' that torture / Don't you let your conscience harm you?"). She hasn't totally lost her way, though, and most of the album is fun—I just hope she's not abandoning her coy, witty songwriting for a more sober and "mature" sound. Ian Axel opens. You can also catch McKay on Wed 1/26 at 9 PM at Lincoln Hall. 8 PM, SPACE, 1245 Chicago, Evanston, 847-492-8860, $20, $17 in advance. —Peter Margasak

[photo of Mitsuko Uchida]
  • Mitsuko Uchida

MITSUKO UCHIDA Though Mitsuko Uchida is inextricably linked with the piano music of Mozart, she has a remarkably wide-ranging repertoire that extends through Schoenberg to Pierre Boulez, with whom she's frequently collaborated. For the first portion of her two-week residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, however, she'll bring her inimitable Mozart: elegantly phrased, exquisitely refined yet with a varied touch, with equal parts intellect and passion. Watching Uchida conduct from the piano can be breathtaking, even if you don't agree with her interpretive choices—her total immersion in all aspects of the music making while going for broke is riveting. Tonight Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday she'll conduct and play two Mozart concertos, the bright, youthful no. 11 in F and the eloquent no. 21 in C, the latter nicknamed "Elvira Madigan" because its andante movement was used in a 1967 Swedish film of the same name. Between those two pieces, members of the orchestra will play Mozart's Divertimento in B-flat for Strings. The following week she'll join conductor Riccardo Muti as he returns to the CSO for the first time since his illness this fall, to perform Schumann's rapturous Piano Concerto; the composer's Fantasy in C and Davidsbündlertanze, the latter in particular, are excellently rendered on her latest CD, released by Decca in September. The program also includes Cherubini's Overture in G and Shostakovich's powerful Symphony no. 5. Those concerts take place Thu 2/3 and Sat 2/5 (8 PM), Fri 2/4 (1:30 PM), and Tue 2/8 (7:30 PM); tickets range from $23 to $249. 8 PM, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, 312-294-3000, $28-$233. —Barbara Yaross

MARS WILLIAMS & MIKE REED Reedist Mars Williams has a CV that dates back to the 70s, and it's nothing if not diverse. He's played polystylistic groove music with Liquid Soul, MTV pop with the Psychedelic Furs, and various strains of over-the-top jazz with Hal Russell, Peter Brötzmann, and Wayne Kramer. He hasn't backed away from this range of interests, but after hearing his recent versatile work with the quartet Extraordinary Popular Delusions, his outrageous treatment of Christmas carols with Witches & Devils, and his splendid performance with Kent Kessler and Paal Nilssen-Love at the beginning of January, I believe he's at the top of his free-jazz game. He uses clarinet, tarogato, and at least three different saxophones to cut hurtling lines through the densest barrages his partners blast his way, in the process infusing even the most frantic music with bluesy gravity. Williams and drummer Mike Reed have played as a duo just once before, but Reed has a history of playing in such combos. His 2006 album, In the Context Of (482 Music), confirms that duets are a great way to hear the imaginative use of wide-open space that he tends to keep under wraps in his regular groups, as well as the responsiveness he brings to every setting. A duo of bass clarinetist Jason Stein and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz opens. 10 PM, Elastic, 2830 N. Milwaukee, second floor, 773-772-3616, $10 suggested donation. —Bill Meyer


CLAIRE CHASE & JACOB GREENBERG Flutist Claire Chase is one of contemporary classical music's most imposing figures. Beyond meeting the technical demands of classical musicianship, she manages to find time to be one of its most relentless administrators and curators, most notably as the founder and executive director of invaluable New York-Chicago music collective the International Contemporary Ensemble. But it would be a mistake to allow her role as the public face of an organization as prestigious as the ICE to distract you from her dazzling skill as a player—she was the standout performer in both of the ICE programs I heard this fall. Tonight she'll be joined by excellent pianist Jacob Greenberg for a concert billed as a response to Gerhard Richter's painting Ice (2). The program is dominated by 20th-century duets for flute and piano: Ives's beautifully austere and melancholic "Thoreau" (from his Piano Sonata no. 2), Boulez's grueling Sonatine, and Franco Donatoni's swerving, melodically serrated Fili. It also includes two local premieres: Salvatore Sciarrino's flute adaptation of Bach's ubiquitous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Augusta Read Thomas's Euterpe's Caprice, composed for Chase. 6 PM, Fullerton Hall, Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan, 312-575-8000. —Peter Margasak

JAYHAWKS See Thursday. 8 PM, the Vic, 3145 N. Sheffield, 773-472-0449, $30, sold out, 18+.

POMEGRANATES At first listen this Cincinnati band sounds like a familiar, unremarkable kind of indie rock—sweet, upbeat, slightly off-kilter guitar pop. Yet though Pomegranates are only a four-piece, they manage to capture the expansive, orchestral sound of the Arcade Fire and distill it into hyperactive songs short enough for the radio. On their third full-length, the October release One of Us (Afternoon), they stick to compact, epic-sounding tunes but dial up the punk sensibility that comes out when they play live: the onslaught of sharp, sugary harmonies gets a ragged edge of dissonance and a bit of grit and mud. It's still indie rock, but it's hardly the kind you automatically tune out at Urban Outfitters. Young the Giant headlines; Pomegranates and Moxie Motive open. 10 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, 773-525-2508, sold out, 18+. —Leor Galil

?UESTLOVE Sorry to crush everyone's dreams, but there's no way any of us is ever going to be a fraction as cool as Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson. In fact, even if you disregard everything he did before last year—releasing a clutch of bona fide classic albums with the Roots, playing an untold number of roof-burning live shows with same, backing up Jay-Z for his Unplugged set, producing D'Angelo's Voodoo, appearing on Chappelle's Show, producing a Broadway tribute to Fela Kuti, earning a rep as the best session drummer in hip-hop and R&B, and having one of the most recognizable Afros in pop music, among God knows what other rad shit—you still can't compete. In 2010 he put out two well-regarded albums, sat in with a bunch of great bands on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (including Liquid Liquid, whom he joined for a stunning rendition of "Cavern"), and maintained one of the most popular, entertaining, and prolific accounts on Twitter. Obviously we all need to work on our productivity. Oh yeah, he's also a killer DJ whose crates are the stuff of legend among music obsessives. So he's got that going for him, too. Major Taylor and Intel open. 10 PM, Smart Bar, 3730 N. Clark, 773-549-0203 or 773-549-4140, $20. —Miles Raymer

MITSUKO UCHIDA See Thursday. 8 PM, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, 312-294-3000, $28-$233.


MITSUKO UCHIDA See Thursday. 8 PM, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, 312-294-3000, $30-$239.


ACID BIRDS On their Facebook page, Acid Birds call themselves "psychedelic free jazz," a category almost broad enough to contain their improvisations' wild swings between meditative and chaotic. The free-jazz elements are mainly the work of drummer Andrew Barker and reedist Charles Waters, New York-based cofounders of the long-running but now mostly dormant Gold Sparkle Band, and the psychedelic flavors come from Jaime Fennelly of weirdo-improv trio Peeesseye, who recently moved to Chicago from the Pacific Northwest and adds harmonium drones, warped tape manipulations, and inscrutable electronics. On the group's brand-new second album, Acid Birds II (Sagittarius A-Star), they might begin a piece with quiet long tones or rip straight into screeching flurries of clarinet—you can be sure they'll travel from peak to valley and back again, but it's never obvious what route they'll take. Fennelly's moody mix of somnolence and freneticism provides a foundation throughout, a sonic constant that makes it easier for Waters and Barker to transition from high-intensity workouts to bright, fractured coloristic splashes. Opening the show is Apiary, a quartet consisting of bass clarinetist Jason Stein, guitarist David Daniell, percussionist Steve Hess, and electronicist Joseph Mills. 10 PM, Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont, 773-935-2118, donation requested. —Peter Margasak

OLAFUR ARNALDS Sigur Ros has taken fellow Icelander Olafur Arnalds on the road as an opening act, and it's easy to hear why. The pianist and composer makes pretty, quasi-classical instrumental pieces by heaping melancholy strings atop a hybrid of postminimalist music and pop. His albums, like the recent . . . And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness (Erased Tapes), sometimes sound like the parts that Icelandic string quartet Amina adds to Sigur Ros's records, played in isolation—though he takes a more dramatic, sweeping orchestral approach. His music privileges softness—plush textures, meditative tones, gentle dynamics—and only occasionally revs up into a slow-building and somewhat predictable crescendo. Repeated rhythmic figures shift gradually into and out of phase with one another while repeated melodic phrases subtly change shape—it's pretty easy to hear the influence of postminimalism—and the structures remain reliably simple and accessible. It's undeniably beautiful, but I've had little luck remembering any of it once it's over. For these performances, Arnalds will play keyboards, joined by a string quartet. Paul Giallorenzo opens the MCA show.  3 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, 312-744-6630. Also 7:30 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, 312-280-2660, $15, $12 members. —Peter Margasak

JOHN HAMMOND You might know bluesman John Hammond because he's the son of legendary A&R man John Hammond, who discovered the likes of Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan. But John the Younger's biggest musical influence wasn't his dad but rather the youthful time he spent with old blues records and his guitar. On many of Hammond's best albums he pays tribute to the artists he admires most, like Tom Waits and Robert Johnson; a devoted and energetic reconstructionist, he plays acoustic barrelhouse blues with the gravitas of a statesman and the drive of a rutting goat. On 2009's Rough & Tough (Chesky), which he recorded live at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in New York, he pummels the stage with his feet and, to paraphrase Captain Beefheart, gets the stink all over it. Ernie Hawkins opens. 7 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln, 773-728-6000, $22, $20 members, $18 seniors and children. —Monica Kendrick

TYVEK In the early aughts, Buffalo transplants the Tyrades borrowed a line from San Francisco protopunks Crime, calling themselves "Chicago's First and Only Punk Band." Thing was, they exploded in such an intense fireball of kinetic, cathartic violence onstage that I had no problem thinking of them as the World's Last Punk Band. And for a while it seemed like they might be. Since the Tyrades split, a few groups have kept the spark alive, making music that's at least moderately interesting and sometimes almost transcendent, but quote-unquote punk rock has clearly been abandoned by the kids who traditionally discover it anew every generation—half the lineup on the Warped Tour is guylinered teenybopper hokum. Then along came Detroit's Tyvek, whose latest LP, the 12-song, 26-minute Nothing Fits (In the Red), proves there might be a few more heartbeats in the old broad just yet. If any current band can muster the kind of everything-at-once cyclone the Tyrades did, it's Tyvek. Front man and guitarist Kevin Boyer sings in a crude, delirious Everynerd yelp that heightens the mania of what's already a pounding, frenetic album filled with howling, barking, anthemic art-klang. From the catchy hop-on-pop Wire-isms of "4312" to the lead-pipe-to-the-skull scream of the title track to the death-ray boom-chick of "Kid Tut," Nothing Fits is one of the most essential rock records of 2010. Running and Heavy Times open. 7 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401, $3. —Brian Costello


MITSUKO UCHIDA See Thursday. 7:30 PM, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, 312-294-3000, $23-$218.


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