Caleb Willitz perpetually refines his pensive folk-rock sound by working with some of Chicago’s strongest improvisers | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

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Caleb Willitz perpetually refines his pensive folk-rock sound by working with some of Chicago’s strongest improvisers

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Singer and songwriter Caleb Willitz has forged a beguiling sound that seems like it only could have emerged from Chicago. With each performance he works with a shifting cast of musicians and ends up reshaping his poetic folk-rock songs. As with last year’s Home (Peace of Coal), most of his bands feature top-notch improvisational voices from the local scene who change the complexion of the music and frequently extend his songs into powerful meditations. Willitz himself isn’t a great singer, but he delivers his lines with unadorned sincerity that conveys melodies with disarming directness—which allows his frequent vocal foil Tara Smith to add sweetness and depth with her harmonies. On the recording he’s joined by cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and saxophonists Edward Wilkerson Jr. and Greg Ward, who deftly weave countermelodies across the chords laid out by bassist Tatsu Aoki, guitarist Rami Atassi, and Willitz himself. On “Apparently Alive” the entire band provides a fierce churn of licks and lines that create a boiling strain of psychedelic folk-rock. That’s followed by the plaintive ballad “Blade,” which features little more than Smith complementing his grainy voice with acoustic guitar arpeggios. For this evening’s performance Willitz is joined by guitarist Rami Atassi, drummer Raul Cotaquispe, and Ward, who rather than playing alto sax will sing through a loop station to produce wordless textures. In an e-mail Willitz told me this stripped-down approach tends to bring out a more aggressive, noise-driven quality to his songs.   v

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