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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

J. Geils harmonica legend Magic Dick, young guitar sensation Shun Ng team up, will perform at SPACE


Although 45 years separates J. Geils harmonica legend Magic Dick and electrifying guitarist Shun Ng, they are of the same musical mind in many ways.

They put that shared musical vision into their new album, "About Time," which features their interpretation of songs by some of their favorite musicians. They are sure to perform a few of those songs when they play Oct. 30 at SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston.

The show starts at 7 p.m. and tickets are available at 

I had the chance to talk to the both of them about the new album.

Great talking to you again, Magic Dick. We last spoke in 2007, when you were playing at the Clearwater Theatre in West Dundee. Chicago's own Ronnie Baker Brooks was part of the bill.

MD: Yes I remember playing with Ronnie on that one. What a blast that was!

Q - Magic Dick, you had said that one of the reasons that you and Shun work so well together is because you are both minimalists at heart. Could you elaborate on that? How do you think at Shun's voice blends with your style of harmonica playing?

MD: Shun and I believe that musically speaking, less is more. I think it's easier and clearer to convey our musical concepts with fewer instruments.

Guitar, harmonica (both diatonic and chromatic) and our two voices are the direct and bold approach we prefer. It's a great challenge and fun to work this way!

Shun's voice has shades of James Brown and Michael Jackson with his own twists. For both of us, our roots run parallel and deep, in blues, R&B, rock, soul, jazz and pop.

I love the range of Shun's influences which mesh perfectly with mine.

Q - That question is also for you Shun. How do you think Magic Dick's style of harmonica playing blends with your voice?

SH: I think our blend is great, the guitar and the harmonica duo format has been around for many years. We spend a lot of time arranging our music and making sure we get just the right feel and that we are in a groove together. 

Q - This question is for the both of you - How did you go about choosing the tracks for the CD? In sitting down to make the CD, what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them?

MD: We chose the songs for the CD to showcase how we sound live and for the challenge. As artists, we have the highest ambitions and it is always a challenge to materialize them.

This selection of songs was a natural process of experimentation and growth. Each song, when performed live, is a vehicle for expression and improvisation. These are all in the key of "being in the moment."

Q - One of the tracks is a version of the J. Geils Band crowd favorite, "Whammer Jammer." Magic Dick, was it your idea to put that song on the CD? How did you try to make it stand out from the J. Geils Band version?

MD: The idea to record "Whammer Jammer," done in a duo format, was something we both wanted to do. It was a great challenge to update and revise "Whammer" to reflect the essentials of the song in a new and startling way.

It stands out from the J. Geils Band version by virtue of melodic and rhythmic reinvention.

Q - Shun, I know that you performed for Quincy Jones in his living room. In talking about you, he said, "You won't believe your eyes nor your ears - he belies all stereotypes, all premonitions. I was simply blown away by both his soul and his science - his creativity and his uniqueness is astounding."

How does it feel getting a compliment like that?  Did he give you any advice? What have you learned from him?

SH: It was incredible getting to meet Quincy Jones, he's a real hero of mine, not just in his musical genius but in his philosophy towards creating music. I feel so blessed to have met him and spent time with him, it changed my life. 

One thing I'll never forget is when I asked him, "How do you know if a song a good, how would I know if I'm doing it right or not?" and his advice to me, was to "Follow the goosebumps, cause if you don't get the goosebumps how can you expect anyone else to?"

The day he told me that, it changed me. Since then I've made it a mission to follow what excites me and what gives me goosebumps, chase the music that inspires me and makes me feel good, and I've been so happy.
Q - Shun, I understand that you were challenged by a friend to play all the parts of Michael Jackson's song "Billie Jean" at the same time on the guitar. What compelled you to want to take that challenge? How have you tried to set yourself apart from other guitarists?

SH: There is nothing more exciting to me than a challenge, learning to do something I've never been able to do before. It is so exciting to me to test the limits and explore what an instrument can do.

Every time I write or arrange a new song, I try to do something I've never done before, I write and arrange beyond my current competence so that if I want to perform it, I'd have to learn something new, push myself and create something fresh for my audience. It keeps me improving and pushing musical boundaries.

To me, that's the joy of music, the perpetual potential for growth, both as a musician and a person. I have a sound in my head I want to get out, I've never consciously tried to set myself apart. I've just focus on being myself, finding my voice and searching what it is I want to say with music. 

Q - Magic Dick, you have said that you and Shun have learned from each other. What has he taught you?

MD: Shun has taught me the joy and results that come from a very open, positive attitude, with zero negativity. Each day, working with Shun brings the coolest musical surprises!

Q - Magic Dick, you played with such Chicago blues legends as Buddy Guy and Junior Wells when the J. Geils Band was first starting out. What was that experience like? Have you been influenced by the way Junior Wells played the harmonica?

MD: Meeting and playing with Junior Wells and Buddy Guy was the greatest experience at that point in our lives. We loved those guys!

Junior's harp and vocal stylings were very influential on me and they were both so sharing of their knowledge and skills. For me, Junior and Buddy were the definition of stage presence and sonic creativity without the use of any gimmicks.

Q - The J. Geils Band did its "Houseparty Tour" last year. What's the current status of the band, Magic Dick? Do you see the band going back to the studio anytime soon?

MD: The J. Geils Band has just been nominated for the fourth time to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I don't know about the future, but perhaps we will record and tour again.

Q - This question is for the both of you - So where do you see this collaboration going from here? Would you like to do more projects together?

MD: I feel that we are just getting started. There are no limits to what we can do from here. We will do more projects and touring because we believe in what we are doing and we love to play and perform!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Security Project releasing new album, playing in Chicago as part of Progtoberfest II


It's a busy month for The Security Project, a band which celebrates and reimagines the work of Peter Gabriel.

The band's second record, "Live 2," is being released on Oct. 15, and The Security Project this month will begin touring with its new lead singer, Happy Rhodes. 

The Security Project, which features members who have recorded and toured with Gabriel and King Crimson, will perform on Oct. 22 at Reggies, 2109 S, State St, Chicago as part of Progtoberfest 11.

I had the chance to talk to Security Project member Trey Gunn, who toured and recorded with King Crimson for 10 years, about the upcoming show.

Q - It seems like this is a busy month for Security Project. "Live 2" came out this month, and you are touring with Happy Rhodes starting this month as your lead singer. I know that you have known Happy for a while and her husband, Bob Muller, was in your band, The Trey Gunn Band.

How do you think that is going to change things on the tour, playing live?

It's going to change a lot. I think it is going to change a lot.

Happy's voice is not an emulation of Peter's. We're changing some keys, we're changing some arrangements. We're going to change how we're approaching some of the pieces.

And then we're going to be adding about five or six new pieces. We have a lot of material. We have way more material than we need.

So in rehearsals, we're just going to go through it all and figuring out what is the primo stuff, and compose our set around that.

Q - But do you think Happy is a good choice moving forward? 

Unbelievably great choice. She has such a unique character to her voice and she's a brilliant singer.

Q - Your previous lead singer, Brian Cummins, has a voice eerily similar to Peter Gabriel. Was that one of the reasons you picked him in the first place?

Of course, yeah. We had another singer before him who also did a very good emulation of Peter's voice.

And when Josh Gleason couldn't continue working with us, we went out and found Brian. And now we're going a different way.

Most of the show is going to be Peter's material. It will just be interpreted more than recreated. That's the way I see it.

Q - How do you view the band's interpretation of his songs and what do you think the band's role is in interpreting these songs?

Well, this material no one plays. Nobody plays the material from Peter's third and fourth records.

And we have the original drummer, Jerry Marotta.  He represents so much of the feel of those records.

And then we just meticulously worked the material to find out what's the essence of the sound and the essence of the arrangement and what we wanted to keep and how much we wanted to change and interpret and adapt for ourselves.

I feel like we kind of pulled the timelessness part out of the material, and we represent that on stage. There's not really any comparison, nobody else is doing this material.

Even most of this material Peter doesn't play any more, so we're kind of the ones holding the flag up on it. 

Q - What makes you excited about being part of The Security Project? 

A couple of things. One, I've always loved this material. Peter's third record just blew my head open when I first heard it. I had no idea what I was listening to. Was I hearing guitars? Were those keyboards? Were those voices?

And the music was really strong and powerful, so the chance to kind of dig into it and look underneath the hood and kind of rebuild the car and be able to drive that car was really exciting.

That and combined with how much I love playing with Jerry. He's just got an incredible pocket in his groove that's just wonderful to play with.

And I've always wanted to work with Happy Rhodes. So it's really a combination of just wanting to play with these people and that we get to play this awesome music. That's why I'm excited about it.

Q - Of course, you've done so much in your career, most notably, being part of the band King Crimson. King Crimson has always been seen as such an adventurous band. What did you see your role in the band and what did you think made the band so groundbreaking and adventurous? 

Well, I suppose it's always been groundbreaking and adventurous because that was Robert Fripp's aim. And when the band was about to become stale, he usually killed the project for up to 10 years at a time.

There was a 10-year gap right before I joined. He kind of just puts gas in that thing only when it's really ready to tackle something.

I knew Robert about 10 years before I joined the band. His approach is about taking an idea and going further and further with it.

You are not concerned about whether the audience can go with you or not. And eventually you end up going off the deep end, which is why it's so powerful.

Q - Would you regard Robert Fripp as one of your mentors?

Yeah, I guess so, for that time period, for sure. 

Q - As far as mentoring, what did he teach you? 

It's really kind of hard to say. Whenever you play with somebody, you're feeling their relationship with music.

It was no different with Robert. He has a very unique approach, and I got to step inside of that.

Q - It seems like you've done so much in your career. Do you have any dream projects or collaborations? 

Not at the moment. Because I have so many different projects, I really don't get to spend enough time with the ones that I want to explore that I already have.

I probably have like five different performing projects at the moment, and I'd be happy to get to spend time with more of them. This one is taking up most of my time at the moment.

I have another project with two other bass players, 3Below, and that's one really fascinating and fantastic. And we just don't get enough time together.

So I'm hoping that will change.

Q - It seems like the music industry continues to change. What are you doing to try to continue to get your music out there?

I have my own record label, 7d Media, which is the label that Security Project is on. It's pretty essential, I think, these days.

And I do everything that you could possibly do. I have visual files. I do it all.

I do so much that I get to spend very little time being a musician, unfortunately. But that's what the independent musician does these days.

Q - I guess that's good in one way that you have total control, right?

Total control is not that much of a virtue. It's just necessity. I'd rather be writing and playing music than making Instagram posts and writing invoices, to be honest.

But I do what I need to do.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Chicago harmonica player Matthew Skoller takes listeners on journey on latest album, "Blues Immigrant"

Photo by Al Brandtner

There are many musicians who carry the Chicago blues torch as proudly as harmonica player/songwriter/singer Matthew Skoller.

Skoller collaborated with his brother Larry on the Grammy nominated historical project "Chicago Blues: A Living History" and co-produced and played on Volume Two, "The (R)evolution Continues," which won "Traditional Album of the Year" at the Blues Awards in 2012.

His latest album, "Blues Immigrant," was released in September. To celebrate the release of the album, Skoller will perform Oct. 19 at Buddy Guy's Legends, 700 S. Wabash Ave., Chicago.

The show starts at 10:30 p.m. and tickets are $10, available at the door.

I had the chance to talk to Skoller about the new album.

Q - Great talking to you. Of course, your latest album, "Blues Immigrant" was released on Sept. 23. In sitting down to make the album, what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them? 

My approach to making an album is one of discovery. The album is already in me and I have to find it and listen to its assertions and follow the program. 

First, songs appear and some are harder to dig out than others and then (hopefully) a concept or theme organically takes shape and it’s my job to steer it and arrange it a bit, but I think the best work is a product of the artists’ subconscious. 

That said, I did want a kick ass, very personal and original blues album (redundant phrase: blues should always be very personal and original or else it is simply not blues), with sonic qualities that embraced new technology and old beautiful room sounds. 

I wanted a CD that reflected decades of collaboration with most of the musicians on it and think we accomplished all of that. 

Q - The title track talks about how you came to embrace the blues. Despite everything that you have done and the fact that you worked with the likes of such legendary blues musicians as Big Daddy Kinsey and Big Time Sarah, it seems like you are still worried that you haven't paid your dues. Do you think that there are too many blues purists out there who won't take a musician seriously unless they have Mississippi roots? 

I will assume “Mississippi roots” is a euphemism for being “black.” To me, my 35 years of playing blues music with black artists doesn’t get me any closer to really knowing what it is like to be a black person in this country. 

Or what it is like to be a descendant of American slavery. That is where the blues comes from: American slavery. 

You state that it seems I am “still worried” that I haven’t paid enough dues. I assume because I ask the rhetorical question “have I paid enough dues…?” 

Remember the resolution: “…I need a green card…to play the blues.” Now there is more than a bit of humor there, no? 

I have come across recent songs by white and black artists that talk about all the great blues legends they played with in an apparent effort to authenticate themselves. One’s work is the only real authentication there is. 

What I am doing in this song is calling attention to the proverbial “elephant in the room.” Something that all non-African American blues artists should do from time to time whether it is in their work or in their own inner dialogue.

Because the history of this music is so important to its evolution and that that history is one of the most brutal, enduring and heinous stories in all of recorded human history, it is important to study it and know what you are entering into. 

Am I worried that I have not paid enough dues? No. Do I feel a closeness to this music due to all of the apprenticeship I was generously afforded by wonderful blues artists and all the hard work I put in learning the dialogue? Yes but that doesn’t change my relationship to the music which will always be different than that of an African American blues artist, whether they are from L.A. or Mississippi.

Sterling Plumpp, the great poet, wrote in a poem written for this project (that is printed on the back of the CD booklet): "For there is no need for credentials. Anywhere if you inherit agonized radio. Stations of the cross, ties of blood.”

It’s a beautiful poem, I encourage your readers to get the CD and read it in full!

Yes, there is a purposeful self-consciousness in these lyrics as well as humor. It opens a dialogue and looks the elephant in the eye. 

Q - Of course, you also worked with Jimmy Rogers, a well-known Chicago blues singer, guitarist and harp player. What was that experience like and what did you learn from the experience? 

It was short, deep and sweet. After his harp player Little Joe Berson died in 1988, I got a call one evening a couple of weeks later from Jimmy asking if I would come down to Lily’s to play with him and his band.

It was around 7 p.m. and I had fallen asleep in my Ukrainian Village apartment and I heard the phone ringing, I jumped up (like all hungry musicians do at that time of night when the phone rings!) and I said, “Hello” the voice on the other line said, “Hi, can I speak with Matthew?” “This is Matthew who is this?” “This is Jimmy Rogers and I need a harp player for tonight.” “Yeah and I’m Muddy Waters, quit fucking with me, who is this?”

There was a long pause and he said “Jimmy Rogers.” Without a chuckle, I said, “excuse me sir, and, “Yes, it would be an honor to play with you.” So I went down to Lily’s and I passed the audition and did several gigs with him.

His band had Big Moose Walker on piano, Ted Harvey on drums, Jimmy’s son, Jimmy Lane on second guitar, and Right Hand Frank Bandy on bass. During this time, I was being pursued by Big Daddy Kinsey, who had heard me play and he was out on the road with his son’s band, The Kinsey Report, and he wanted to hire me to be his harp player and record his next CD.

That was a $100 bucks a night (really good for 1988!) and a whole lot of really high profile gigs. The Kinseys were the hottest group around back then!

So I discussed it with Jimmy and he told me I should go with Big Daddy as he was not traveling with a band much at that time and they mostly would be local gigs. So I did, with Jimmy’s blessings.

What did I learn? I just soaked up that groove he laid down with Moose and Ted and let the music happen. I was doing a lot of driving the band with the harp and Jimmy really liked it, so I tried to be assertive without getting in anyone’s way. It was a great vibe.

I will never know exactly what I learned and it will be with me forever. 

Q - You talk about the blues music industry in the song "Only In The Blues." What kind of changes would you like to see in the blues music industry and the music industry in general? 

Uh oh…here’s where I need to be really careful, lol. Changes? I’d like to see musicians get paid a living wage for their work.

I’d like to see a more professional infrastructure in the industry. The fact is that blues Music has always been a niche and has always been marginalized, because of this it doesn’t attract very many truly professional folks in areas like management, publicity, photography, booking, graphic art and all the other ancillary professions and art forms that help inform and strengthen the infrastructure of the industry.

No money, so-o-o: “His girlfriend is his manager and his brother books the gigs/ex-ole lady does the website and supports his only kid…" 

Q -The album features a number of guest musicians, including Eddie Taylor Jr., the son of guitar legend Eddie Taylor. Did you handpick the musicians on the album and what do you think they bring to the table? 

Yes I hand picked them. We have all been working together for years and years.

The choice to bring Giles Corey in was the only choice that seemed to some who know my live shows as a little out of the norm. I chose Giles because he not only has a lot of blues knowledge, but he has knack for coming up with cool and original guitar parts that really serve the song.

His knowledge of roots rock and jazz-rock is formidable and it all came together to keep my songs fresh and original.

Equally as creative but deeply attached to the Chicago blues tradition by commitment and legacy is Eddie Taylor Jr., who kept the project firmly rooted in the music that inspired me to play music: Chicago blues.

In the tradition of his father, Eddie weaves shuffle rhythms and voicings seamlessly through the songs, keeping them grounded deep in the tradition without sounding “archival.” The balance between the two guitarists is just what we were looking for.

As for Felton Crews, I have worked more on than off with him for 20 years now and his amazing bass sound and his endless ideas that keep blues songs fresh and relevant is part of the foundation of many projects I have been involved in. He is a huge part of the team.

And his work with multiple blues legends combined with his jazz knowledge (three albums and two years on the road with Miles Davis!) make him one of the most accomplished members of the world blues scene.

Marc Wilson is simply one of the solidest and most creative drummers playing blues music today and his lush tones and sophisticated grooves really steal the show on this record! He is my favorite roots and blues music drummer anywhere.

Johnny Iguana and I have been working together since we met in the late '90s. He had just finished his tenure with the Junior Wells Band. I think he is easily the deepest and most creative young (er) blues keyboard man on the set. Actually a bit of a genius.

He channels Otis Spann in a totally unscripted manner and brings everything from jazz to punk rock sophistication to the table.

Special guest Carlos Johnson on guitar (on two songs) brings Chicago blues guitar royalty to this project. He is one of the most powerful contemporary blues guitarists alive.

The guest appearance of Brian Ritchie (Violent Femmes) on the Shakuhachi on the song “Story Of Greed” is masterful. He adds an epic quality to the song and his tones, note choice and soulfulness is spot on. 

Lastly, I had two of the most respected vocalists in Chicago supplying background vocals - Mike Avery and Stevie Robinson. Mike, who is the first cousin of blues legend Magic Sam, has been on all my CDs and has helped enormously in my development as a vocalist.

Q - You worked with your brother on "Chicago Blues: A Living History" and Volume Two, "The (R)evolution Continues." The project received much acclaim and Volume Two won "Traditional Album of the Year" at the Blues Awards in 2012. What were your goals for the project?

 First of all, Volume One was nominated for a Grammy award that we are all very proud of. The concept, which was the brainchild of my brother Larry Skoller (he has produced three Grammy nominated albums in the last six years), was to take songs from the Chicago blues songbook from 1940 to present day and have the greatest living bluesmen interpret them.

Firmly staying in the tradition by using their own voices and ideas in lieu of photocopying the original versions. I think that was accomplished beautifully. 

My other goal was to blow some solid and relevant harmonica on the songs I was on. It was a wonderful experience and we toured several times all over Europe with this huge ensemble. 

Q - Do you have any dream projects or collaborations? 

At this point in my career, I just want to focus on my writing, playing and singing, to tell my stories and have a creative flow. 

This is what is most rewarding to me as an artist.  

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Musical "Love in the Mangroves" to open Oct. 6 at The Public House Theatre in Chicago


After a hiatus, director Frank Hunter makes a triumphant return to Hollywood, ready with the next hit song-and-dance spectacle, “Love in the Mangroves.” But the year is 1959, and no one is making those films anymore. 

Hunter finds himself and his crew embattled in an industry where his vision doesn’t fit, and a rapidly changing world where he himself may have to find a new place. That's the premise behind “Love in the Mangroves," a musical set to take the stage soon at The Public House Theatre, 3914 N. Clark St., Chicago. 

“Love in the Mangroves” will open on Oct. 6, and will run at 8 p.m. on Thursdays until Oct. 27. Tickets are $10. 

The musical comes from Not Your Mother’s Baby - a production team headed by The Public House Theater ensemble members Travis Marsala and Adrienne Teeley. Their most recent work was the comic noir, “The Matter at Dead Oak Hollow.” 

I had the chance to talk to Marsala about "Love in the Mangroves."

Q - What was your inspiration for writing “Love in the Mangroves?” What would you like the audience to come away with from the production? 

I think it was several things. I'm turning another decade older this month and even though I'm only turning 30, I feel like the world is changing far faster than I can keep up.

What must it have been like in the late 1950's? Coming out of that "age of innocence?" (Actually, "willful ignorance," but that's a topic for another time.)

Movies like "The Artist" and "Singing in the Rain" cover these fluxes of transition, but they are based around a technical innovation. What happens when we are forced to confront a shift in the cultural zeitgeist?

I hope people leave the theater finding fulfillment in whatever their passion might be. That they go home and create whatever it is they've been longing to create and not wait for someone to give them permission. 

Q - Your recent production “The Matter at Dead Oak Hollow" was also set in the 1950s. Is there something about that time period that you are drawn to?

Again I think it's that feeling of a nation waking up. I think a lot of people long for a simpler time when the jokes were cleaner, TV families were more wholesome, and people dressed nice every day.

But we simultaneously know it was all a facade for a gritty American underbelly. This is all very serious talk for two comedies . . . and not that either show is very political - but when people say "Make America Great Again," this is most often the time era they are pointing towards.

It's fun to take that model of perceived perfection and start peeling away the layers. One of the characters in this show is a recovering alcoholic, one has their marriage falling apart, and they all curse like sailors - but they're going to put an image of perfection on the screen.

Also, my writing partner, Adrienne Teeley, and I just love detective stories in general so the '50s is obviously the best place to tackle the genre in "Dead Oak Hollow." 

Q - What do you think the cast of "Love in the Mangroves" brings to the production? 

It's been wonderful working with this group. For "Dead Oak Hollow," the cast was comprised of improvisors and comedians.

This show has actors with more of a theatrical background, so they bring a very different flavor. They all love the time period, too, and you can see them incorporate how acting in film and theater has changed over the years.

They understood right away that even though we're doing a comedy, there's a lot of serious material here too. 

What do you like about being part of the Public House Theatre and how do you think your theatre group differs from other theatre groups in the area? 

The Public House is the best place to try. When I first joined the ensemble over a year ago, Byron said to us, "I want this to be your 'yes' place" and both he and Sasha have lived up to that promise.

This year, I got to try three very different styles of shows - and because of their openness to Adrienne and I experimenting with different forms and genres we have grown a lot both as individuals and as a writing team.

Although she didn't co-write this show with me, she read it over many times to give me notes.

I think the production company I have with Adrienne - Not Your Mother's Baby - stands out because we love existing in the reality of genres. I'm still formulating how I describe this to people . . . I feel like a lot of comedy these days is a wink and a nod to the audience - almost like the characters exist outside of their own story and are letting the audience know that they know what they're doing is ridiculous.

What Adrienne and I try to do is exist in a reality and be ridiculous within it. We may throw out a joke now and then, like "Okay! Everyone off the stage!" but it's never a wink to the audience - it feels different. A perfect moment of the two styles is in "Airplane" - EVERYONE in that movie is living in the reality of their world even though they are doing the stupidest things.

Then you get to the end of the movie and that guy in the control tower is living in a completely different world - "I can make broach, I can make a hat" - he's not existing within the reality of the story and it's extraordinarily jarring.

If this doesn't make any sense, feel free to cut it. Or print it. Either way works for me. 

Q - Which do you like best, writing or acting? Or do you need both in your life? 

I enjoy writing the most. I often act to protect what I wrote (learned that from the Monty Python boys).

But in any production I've helped write, once we start approaching the end of the rehearsal process, I find myself getting the fidgets. I know I'm better than when I first started and start feeling eager to begin the next project. 

Speaking of which, we got some awesome stuff coming up next year, so like Not Your Mother's Baby on Facebook! But that being said, I see the value in acting in it - I get to put the words I wrote into my own mouth and feel how it is to be an actor saying them.

That's been an invaluable experience.