Monday, September 2, 2019

Chicago band Kid Bear to celebrate release of new album with show at FitzGerald's




By ERIC SCHELKOPF

Chicago musician Matt Neuroth experienced a life-changing moment when he was living in New York City and the legendary Steve Earle stopped in the store he was working at, Matt Umanov Guitars.

"He picked up an acoustic guitar and just started strumming some chords," Neuroth related. "And…I don’t know how to put it except to say that, when he played G and C, it was every country song ever written. When I played G and C, it was just a couple of chords. But, when he did it, it was deep; it had soul and groove and power. It really blew my mind. I’d been touring with all these loud rock bands (including Oh My God) and had all these chops, but he had the song in every strum. I’ve been chasing that ever since."

These days, Neuroth is releasing music under the name Kid Bear. Earle's influence can be heard on Kid Bear's latest release, "EP 2." To celebrate the release of "EP 2," Neuroth and his band will perform Sept. 5 at FitzGerald's, 6615 W Roosevelt Road, Berwyn. 

Also on the bill is The Claudettes. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door, available at ticketweb.com.

I had the chance to talk to Neuroth about the EP and other topics.

Q – Great talking to you. In sitting down to make "EP 2," what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them? 

Great talking to you, as well! 

It’s an interesting question with this EP because, in a lot of ways, my goals for this EP were really more personal than musical. For most of my career in music, I’ve really struggled with perfectionism. 

I would make recordings and then decide they weren’t good enough for one reason or another and then I’d just basically bury them and move on to the next one. Predictably, this has meant that I’ve done a super horrible job of getting anyone to listen to the music or to care.

They never even had the opportunity because I guess I was just too afraid of failure to really put it out there.

So, this EP is different for a few reasons. The first is that it’s a mix of new songs and some older ones that, with the distance that time brings, I decided actually might be good enough and that I wanted to share wit people. And secondly, we’ve actually hired a publicist and are going to try and see if we can get some attention.

So yeah…I mean, I care a ton about the craft of songwriting and of record making and I could talk about that for hours. But I also just want to push myself and find out if anybody other than me actually might like my music.

I’ve never really had any sort of fan base and I’m simultaneously terrified and super excited to find out what that might be like and whether my music could actually mean something to people other than my family and friends.

Q – The first few chords in the song "A Simple Thing" sound like they could be in a Steve Earle song. How much of an impact did Steve Earle have on this EP and your music in general?

If I’m getting anywhere close to sounding like Steve Earle, I must be on the right track! It’s funny…in a way, I don’t actually spend a ton of time listening to Steve Earle himself (although I really enjoyed his recent "So You Wannabe an Outlaw" album), but he had a really huge influence in the sense that he just really opened my ears to the power and importance of the song. 

Of course you need a good song, but I’d always kind of been drawn to big, complicated songs – Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Radiohead. Even if the songs were simple chordally, they had big riffs or complicated arrangements or were hard to sing. Or all of the above! 

But just hearing in-person the power of a couple simple chords really opened my ears to all this old country and folk music. My personal style still has a lot of rock and roll in it, but I just fell in love with trying to do more with less and thinking about songs from a place of groove and melody and storytelling rather than fancy riffs. 

The opening track from my new EP, “A Simple Thing," for instance, is just those same three chords throughout with no real variations.  But those old country songs…they’re not flashy, but they’re DEEP. 

I think I used to chase flashy and now I’m trying to dig deep. 


Q – So can you still remember the day that Steve Earle stepped into Matt Umanov Guitars in Greenwich Village? What do you remember about that day? How did you feel following his performance?

Well, I’ve simplified the story a bit for the purpose of the bio because I actually worked at Matt’s and Steve was a regular customer. So, my first impression of him was just how friendly and absolutely hilarious he is.

He’s a fabulous storyteller in-person and just very charismatic in a down-to-earth kind of way, which intrigued me immediately. But I absolutely remember the first time I experienced him just conjuring up a whole song in a single chord.

There was a rack of less expensive guitars in the middle of the sales floor and he picked up a little Seagull guitar. They’re like $300 guitars and great for the price, but it’s not some vintage Martin or something.

He picked it up, strummed a G chord for a minute – BOOM magic! – and then put it down and said, “those are really great little guitars.” He left a couple minutes later and I picked up that guitar and…ya know…just a G chord.

No magic. He summoned like a whole genre and I summoned…a G chord. Nothing special at all. 

That just blew my mind because it was such a stark contrast: same chord, same exact guitar…and the results were so stunningly different. I still enjoy playing lead guitar and such, but that really redirected my head.


Q – Do you think it was fate that you happened to be in the store at the time? What kind of music do you think you would be making these days if that encounter didn't happen?

When I moved to NYC, I had actually decided that maybe I should “grow up and get a real job” or something and try to quit pursuing music so seriously. But I needed a job – any job – in order to actually move and it just so happened that I walked into Matt Umanov’s about an hour after one of their sales people had just said he was quitting.

So, they pretty much hired me on the spot and then I ended up working there for three years and getting to meet a lot of my heroes and finding new heroes and just generally getting inspired all over again. And it wasn’t just Steve Earle, but some of the most significant relationships and experiences of my life came directly out of that store, including my wife, some of my current bandmates, lifelong friends, crazy tour adventures, ill-advised nights in the bar and all the rest.

So yeah, I think it was fate in a lot of ways and, without it, I might not be making music at all!


Q – What do you think of the Chicago music scene and how do you think you fit into it? 

Great question and my honest answer is that I’m still trying to figure it out.

I moved back to Chicago from Brooklyn in 2012 and then my wife and I welcomed a couple little kids into our lives, so let’s just say it’s been a lot harder to have the time and energy to really get out on the scene like I did in NYC. 

That said, I think this show we have coming up at FitzGerald’s on 9/5 is a clue. FitzGerald’s is such a great venue and certainly a real home to so much Americana and traditional American musical styles. 

And it’s right down the street from where I live! And we’re playing with The Claudettes, who have a unique take on blues, ragtime, punk…well…you just gotta hear them. 

I played with their chief madman and piano player, Johnny Iguana, in his old band, Oh My God, and we’ve been friends for years. And I knew the guitarist in my band, Dave Mendez, in college here in Chicago.

A place like New York is so full of change and excitement, but it’s harder to have roots there. But Chicago is just so full of amazing musicians who are lifers, ya know?

Actors, musicians, etc. Chicago makes it possible to be a serious artist and still afford your life and that’s something I think is amazing. 

And the kids sleep through the night now, so my wife and I can actually get out of the house once in a while and I’m excited to explore the scene in a lot more depth.

Q – What is the significance of the band's name? 

My real name is Matt Neuroth, which nobody can spell, pronounce, or remember. So, we needed a name!

I used to go by “Matt Lenny” (long story), but I wanted a band name because I’m not usually a solo acoustic act. Then one day, my son was talking to me about bears (he’s five now, so bears are pretty interesting) and he asked me about “kid bears” because he didn’t know the word cub.

It just kind of stuck with me as a phrase and I like the way it could sound kind of indie or kind of folky and also that it came from my kid and something he was excited about, so I went with it. Like I said at the beginning, I’m trying to overthink things less and just roll with it.

Q – I understand that you work for a software company. How do you juggle that job with being a musician as well as a husband and father?

It’s not easy! And I say that in a “first world problems” kind of way.

I mean I’m incredibly lucky to have the life that I do and it’s a hell of a lot easier than mining coal or something. But yeah, I think the biggest thing is that I married well.

My wife really understands that music is something I viscerally need to do or I just can’t function. She’ll periodically say to me, “Your brain is breaking! You’re awful to be around. Go play guitar!” which is simultaneously accurate, kind of insulting, and a huge relief! 

And then it’s a combination of commitment – I get up at 5 a.m. a lot of days to go play music in my little home studio – and just making it a priority. At my job for instance, one of the reasons I decided to work at my current company is because they were OK with me keeping a guitar in the office and taking music breaks periodically when inspiration strikes.

Tech can definitely have hard hours and stressful situations, but they do also place real value on creativity and they understand that me playing guitar for 30 minutes might allow me to be twice as effective for the rest of the day. But I had to ask for that, which was kind of hard to work up the courage to do.

It’s also had good effects that I didn’t really expect. For instance, I recorded and mixed “A Simple Thing” entirely at home out of sheer necessity.

Between not having enough hours in the day and having real-world expenses that eat up my money, I couldn’t hire a producer and go to the studio with the band like I would have in the past. So, I just had to learn to do it myself and, while it was not easy and I’m still not gonna win a Grammy for “best mix” or anything, it’s pretty empowering that I can make professional sounding records at odd hours in my own house!

Q – Do you have any dream projects or collaborations (perhaps working with Steve Earle?)

I think I’d be afraid to work with Steve Earle, but also pretty excited. He’s the real deal as a songwriter and I kinda think he might think my songwriting isn’t up to snuff…I mean he learned from Townes Van Zandt!

But it would be an amazing learning experience to write a song with him.

I’d love to make a record with Dave Cobb in Nashville. I love the old school way he works – live in the studio, no pre-production - and he just keeps producing some of my favorite current records. 

That’s actually a goal of mine that I blogged about a while back. It’s not just that the recording process would be awesome, but I’d give up a lot to be part of the scene in Nashville he seems to be at the center of – Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, John Prine, Brandi Carlile, and on and on.

The music is great and they all seem like super cool people, too.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Spirit of Woodstock on display at The Venue as it celebrates festival's 50th anniversary

Channeling Joe Cocker, Chad Watson performed at The Venue in Aurora on Aug. 16 as part of a festival celebrating the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Joining him on stage is guitarist Scott Tipping.

By ERIC SCHELKOPF

Woodstock showed how the power of music could bring together almost half a million people.

The spirit of that festival was in full display during The Venue's celebration of the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.

The Venue is fast becoming a place where musicians and music lovers can come together and enjoy the bond they share. Those who attended the first day of the festival on Aug. 16 were able to experience that sense of community the festival created.

Here are some highlights from the first day of the two-day festival:


Scott Tipping provided much of the energy during the night.


Audience members added to the ambience of the night.




Channeling Joe Cocker, Chad Watson performs "With a Little Help from My Friends" on Aug. 16, 2019, at The Venue in Aurora as part of a festival celebrating the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.



Lisa G & the Lucky Ones with special guest Mirabelle Skipworth perform Crosby, Still, Nash and Young's song "Long Time Gone" on Aug. 16, 2019, at The Venue in Aurora as part of a festival celebrating the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. 


Emily Tipping performs "Me and Bobby McGee" on Aug. 16, 2019, at The Venue in Aurora as part of a festival celebrating the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.



Mick Ducker performs Aug. 16, 2019, at the 50th anniversary celebration of Woodstock at The Venue in Aurora.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel coming to House of Blues in Chicago, on tour with The Alarm, Modern English



By ERIC SCHELKOPF

The strong songwriting that propelled Gene Loves Jezebel to the top of the charts in the '80s and '90s is is abundance on "Dance Underwater," the first studio album of new material by Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel in 14 years.

The band is currently touring the country with The Alarm and Modern English, which will make a stop on Aug. 16 at the House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn St., Chicago. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. and general admission tickets are $30, available at houseofblues.com/chicago.

I had the chance to talk to Jay Aston about the tour and the band's latest activities.


Q – Of course you are on tour with The Alarm and Modern English. Your guitarist, James Stevenson, also plays with The Alarm. How does that work?

It just worked out that he gets to two sets, which is a little unusual.

Q – So he's actually playing with The Alarm on this tour as well?

Yes, you get the full spectrum of his abilities.

Q – He must be tired at the end of the night.

You would think so. But he's just loving it so much. It's a long night for him, yeah.

Q – Besides that, how has the tour been going? Do you think playing with The Alarm and Modern English is a good fit?

 It's worked out really well, actually. We all do our own kind of thing.

We're all from the U.K. and two of us are from Wales. It's been great fun. We're actually enjoying it.

Q – And I see that some of the shows were sold out, so obviously people want to see you guys.

It's a good bill. It's a great chance to see three bands that normally don't tour together. 

Q – And of course you're touring in support of 2017's album "Dance Underwater," the band's first studio album of new material in 14 years. In making this album, what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them?


The goal was that if we were going to do an album, let's do it properly. We wanted to get a good producer, so we used Peter Walsh (who has worked with everyone from Peter Gabriel to Stevie Wonder).

It was just a wonderful album to make. It was special.

Q – Have you been doing audience requests on the tour?

A lot of songs pick themselves. Obviously we are going to play "Desire (Come and Get It)," and we're going to do "The Motion of Love" and "Twenty Killer Hurts." There are certain songs that we always loved.

And we also do an acoustic set with Mike Peters from The Alarm playing tambourine. It's like the Rolling Thunder Revue in 2019. It's great fun.

Q – And you and your bandmates have been playing together for so long? What makes you work so well together?

We all give something that is unique to the thing that is Gene Loves Jezebel. The reaction has been fantastic. 

You can just see it in people's faces. Their eyes are wide open and they can't believe we're actually on stage, which is great. 

Q – I suppose you see a lot of old fans, but do you see new fans as well?

Yeah, we do. It's quite weird. We were at one gig and there was an older gentleman and a young girl and I said to the girl, "Oh, I guess your dad made you come, did he? And she said, no, no, I made him come."

Q – When you originally formed the band, what was your goal?

Just to be different, not to sound like anyone else. I think we achieved that. We don't sound like anyone else.


 We really don't fit into any particular genre, do we? And we're not in any particular box. And lots of different kinds of people like us.

So I think we achieved that. That was the goal.

Q – Of course, your brother has his own version of Gene Loves Jezebel. Have your heard if people are seeing both bands or what have you heard?

Well, let me just say that I've never heard anything positive about my brother's version of the band and let's leave it at that.

None of the members of his band are actually featured on any of our music, so it's an odd little cash cow for him, really.

Q – So what's your next goal after this tour?

I'll be doing some acoustic stuff in the United States after this. 

Q – So you are going to be going on your own tour?

Yeah, which I can't talk much about yet. There are many different sides of me.

I love the Gene Loves Jezebel shows. They're so high energy. My solo stuff is very introspective and it's very much in the moment. 

You never know if I'll make it to the next chord. It's much more living on the edge. And I enjoy that for very different reasons.

Q – Talking about high energy, I was watching some of your videos and people were commenting on the fact that you are still very animated on stage, you're still dancing around a lot. And so you enjoy doing that?

I get to express both sides of my personality with my music. You never know what may happen tomorrow. So we celebrate each gig.


Sunday, August 4, 2019

Singer-songwriter Jeff Brown returning to Chicago area with new album in tow



By ERIC SCHELKOPF

With a new album in tow, former Chicago musician Jeff Brown will be returning to the area for a couple of shows in mid-August.

Brown will perform at 8 p.m. Aug. 9 at Ranger Recording Studio, 450 Dominic Court, Franklin Park. 94 Proof and Phil Circle also are part of the bill.

He will return to Ranger Recording Studio at 8 p.m. Aug. 10 to play with his band the New Black The Hannah Frank Trio also is on the bill.

I had the chance to talk to Brown about his latest musical endeavors.


Q – Great talking to you again. Your second album was called "Cutting Ties" and you did just that, moving from your longtime home of Chicago to the Shenandoah Valley area of Northern Virginia.

I saw what you did there.

Q – The title of your latest album, "1000 Ways,” is inspired by the saying that, ''when you are at your most lost, there are always at least 1,000 ways to come home again." Do you feel like you are at home these days?



It's certainly been an adjustment – I spent the last 22 years in Chicago, and to go from a metropolis to the country took some getting used to. I was a little reluctant to the change at first, but now after almost a year in Virginia, I feel like it's starting to feel more like home.

Chicago will always be the city that made me who I am, but it gets harder to call it home anymore.  I still miss a lot about it – mostly people, food, and ease of accessibility of basically everything.  

Virginia has been sneaking its way into my heart pretty steadily.

Q – How did you go about choosing the musicians on the album? I see you share vocals with Chicago musician Liz Chidester on three songs. What do you think she brings to the album? Is it just a coincidence that she is originally from Virginia and now lives in Chicago?

Ha, I'd like to think it was all part of my master plan, but the truth is, I wanted Liz on my album before I knew I would be moving, so it was more of a pleasant coincidence.

I was fortunate enough that of everyone I asked to join me on the album, only one person wasn't able to, and even that ask was a bit of a long shot.  The only thing I really knew was that I wanted a bit of separation between this project and my band, so none of them were a part of this particular recording. 


As the recording process began, I typically have pretty solid notions of arrangement and how I wanted the songs to sound – so from there, it's a matter of filling in the spaces and reaching out to people whose work I love and respect.

Liz is certainly one of those people that everything she touches becomes even more beautiful.  It's always a pleasure to work with her.  Her level of vocal control is maddening.

The lines she added to "Weather These Storms" were delicate and other worldly and completely perfect. And it's not just her: Laura Glyda's vocals are heart-wrenchingly emotional in all the right places.

I've been blessed to be surrounded by so much talent in my friends that it seems like a tremendous error to not try to include as many as I can in my own art.

Q – In sitting down to make the album, what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them?

I remember sitting at Schuba's with Rick Riggs (who recorded the album), and he asked me the same question as we were getting set to start work on the album.  Ultimately, I think that every musician sets out to make an album that they're proud to have their name on.

Something that they can hand to someone else and say, "I made this, and I love it."  I absolutely accomplished that. 

I'm proud of my first two albums, but this is definitely the best that I've done to date.  And I expect that I'll be able to say that about future albums.


I knew that at some point, I wanted to release music of mine on vinyl, and the more this album started to take shape, the more I felt that this would be the right project for that. A good album isn't just a collection of songs, but an experience that you can go on – and that's one of the things I love about vinyl. 

You start at the beginning, and then you see it through until the end.  I'm glad that these songs felt able to do that.

On a slightly more selfish note, I'd be lying if there wasn't the hope that this album could serve as "my break" – the album that gets people's attention and moves me up to the next level in this industry.  I remember as I was starting to record this, I went and saw Damien Rice at an outdoor amphitheater.

I had second row seats, and at one point, I turned around and saw a sea of thousands of faces, and thought to myself, "Every one of them would probably like my music." That moment has constantly been at the back of my head, and I would have loved for this album to be the one that would show all of them why.

Q – How are you settling into the music scene in Northern Virginia? How would you say the music scene there compares to the Chicago music scene?

It's taken a while, but I think I'm starting to figure out the music scene here. When I started in Chicago, I really didn't feel like I knew what I was doing, and didn't know who I really was. 

Now, I have all of that experience and history that I can hit the ground running in a new place.  The big thing with everything here is that Chicago is more compact.

There's opportunity everywhere because it's a major city and everything is everywhere. Things are much more spread out over here. Washington, D.C. is an hour and a half away, and it's the closest big city to where I'm at, so I have to work a little harder to find things out here.

There are a lot of places to make music close to where I'm at, but a lot of them are wineries that are looking for three or four hours of music on a Sunday afternoon, which can get exhausting alone. 

I think the biggest difference between the music scene in Chicago and the scene out here is that everything in Chicago was centralized because it's a city. Out here, I'm basically dealing with the music scene of an entire region, which gets tricky and requires a lot of driving. 

The town I'm living in doesn't have a music scene.  It doesn't even have enough people to fit in the Metro.

I have started working with another Virginia singer-songwriter, though. I'm super excited to see where that goes, and it's been nice to start making friends out here and creating the network of musicians that I felt like I was missing since I left Chicago.

Q – You reached your goal in your crowdfunding campaign to fund "1000 Ways." Does it make you feel good that so many people contributed to the campaign to ensure the album's release?

It's one thing to make a Facebook post and get a bunch of likes and whatever, but quite another to have people make an effort to support me and what I love. Every time somebody ordered a copy of my album felt like them saying, "Dude. I believe in you."

There are days when I barely believe in myself, so having someone tell you that they do is basically magic.  There isn't a way to fully express how good a feeling that is.


That said, I have to give it to my fans, friends, and family – they sure know how to make a guy sweat. The campaign wasn't fully funded until the evening of the last day.

I'll be honest, my self-esteem can be woefully inadequate on good days, so I spent at least 90% of that month trying to figure out how I was going to make everything work without the funding.  All of that made reaching the goal that much sweeter when it did happen.  

Q – Along with your new solo album, I understand your band The New Black is working on a new album. Has a release date been set? What should people expect from the new album?

It's true!  Although it's a bit of a more disjointed process since I don't live in Chicago anymore. 

As it stands, the drum tracking is completed, so it'll be a little while yet. I'm looking forward to more work on the band project.


Being in a rock band is a blast, and it'll be nice to work on a full on rock project after two albums of acoustic folk.  Expect a lot of big guitars, and more uptempo songs.

This will be the album to play in your car on an awesome road trip somewhere for sure.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Chicago blues legends come together to celebrate the power of music

Chicago blues guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks, left, and Chicago blues harmonica player Billy Branch, right, perform together Aug. 1 as part of the Chicago Plays the Stones show at McAninch Arts Center's Lakeside Pavilion at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.
By ERIC SCHELKOPF

It's rare to have so many Chicago blues legends performing together on the same stage. But that indeed happened when John Primer, Jimmy Burns, Billy Branch, Ronnie Baker Brooks and Omar Coleman came together on Aug. 1 at McAninch Arts Center's Lakeside Pavilion in Glen Ellyn as part of Chicago Plays the Stones. The show put the force of these musicians on display along with the power of the blues.



Chicago blues musician John Primer performs The Rolling Stones' song "Let It Bleed" on Aug. 1, 2019, at the McAninch Arts Center's Lakeside Pavilion at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. Joining him are Chicago blues harmonica player Billy Branch and Chicago blues guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks.



 Chicago blues musician Jimmy Burns performs The Rolling Stones' song "Dead Flowers" on Aug. 1, 2019, at the McAninch Arts Center's Lakeside Pavilion at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.



Chicago harmonica player Billy Branch performs The Rolling Stones' song "Out of Control" on Aug. 1, 2019, at the McAninch Arts Center's Lakeside Pavilion at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. 


Chicago blues guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks performs The Rolling Stones song "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)" on Aug. 1, 2019, at the McAninch Arts Center's Lakeside Pavilion at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. Joining him is Chicago blues harmonica player Billy Branch.



Chicago blues harmonica player Omar Coleman performs The Rolling Stones' song "I Go Wild" on Aug. 1, 2019, at the McAninch Arts Center's Lakeside Pavilion at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. Joining him are Chicago blues harmonica player Billy Branch and Chicago blues guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks.


Chicago blues musician Jimmy Burns performs with fellow musicians John Primer, Billy Branch and Ronnie Baker Brooks as part of the Chicago Plays the Stones show on Aug. 1, 2019, at the McAninch Arts Center's Lakeside Pavilion at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Harmonica player Billy Branch to perform at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn as part of "Chicago Plays the Stones" show



By ERIC SCHELKOPF

Billy Branch not only learned how to be a better harmonica player while he was touring with Chicago blues legend Willie Dixon, he also learned more about how blues music has shaped our culture.

Branch will perform with Ronnie Baker Brooks, John Primer, Jimmy Burns and Omar Coleman at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 1 at McAninch Arts Center's Lakeside Pavilion as part of "Chicago Plays the Stones," a project that celebrates the deep relationship between world’s biggest rock band and the electric blues of Chicago. A full 50% of all profits from sales of the CD go to Generation Next, a music education and youth mentoring program under the aegis of the Chicago Blues Experience Foundation and supporting the next generation of Chicago blues artists.

The show is being presented by WDCB as part of the Lakeside Pavilion Free Outdoor Summer Series. Lakeside Pavilion is located on the College of DuPage campus, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn. 

Food and beverages will be available for purchase. Outside alcohol, as well as coolers, kegs, umbrellas, tents and skateboards, is not permitted onto the property. More information is available by going to atthemac.org.

I had the chance to talk to Branch about the upcoming show:

Q – As far as wanting to be part of this project, "Chicago Plays the Stones, what made you want to be part of it?

It was produced by Larry Skoller and I've been part of several of his other projects that he did, notably, "Chicago Blues: A Living History."

This project was a novel idea. As far as I know, I don't think anybody else has taken on such a project. It was kind of like full circle, since The Rolling Stones started out with the blues, emulating their blues musician heroes.

Q – But in turn do you think people will kind of get a history lesson and realize that The Rolling Stones – if they didn't know already – were heavily influenced by Chicago blues artists?

Yeah, you could definitely look at it from that perspective. 


Q – As far as the songs that you're featured on, like "Sympathy for the Devil,"for instance, how did you try to change it up?

Again, you're always challenged when you are embarking on re-recording iconic or classic tunes associated with a famous group like The Rolling Stones. I had nothing to do with the arrangement, but my challenge was giving it a suitable and hopefully dynamic interpretation of it.

While evoking the sentiment of the original, you still have to find a way to kind of make it your own. 

Q – You've been touring as part of this project since late 2018. Have the crowds all responded well?

Yes. We've heard comments that they like some songs better than the original.

Now that I was able to absorb all of the actual lyrics, I discovered more depth to their writing. For example, "Sympathy for the Devil" is essentially a history lesson.

In learning all of these lyrics, I have newfound respect for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as songwriters. I was surprised at how deep that song is and the historical references they make in "Sympathy for the Devil." There's a lot of specific historical references.



Q – At the College of DuPage show, you're also going to be playing songs from your album on Alligator Records, "Roots And Branches – The Songs Of Little Walter." Was that an album that you always wanted to do? 

Last year, we produced a tribute show on the main stage at the Chicago Blues Fest marking the 50th anniversary of Little Walter's passing. Between my wife and Little Walter's daughter, this became a natural segue in terms of recording an album.

Q – As far as paying tribute to Little Walter on this album, what were you looking for this album to do?

We wanted to adequately capture the spirit and stylings of Little Walter and at the same time, bring a freshness and put our own stamp on it as a group, as the Sons of Blues, which was challenging in its own right. Because Little Walter was truly the greatest blues harmonica player and one of the greatest harmonica players in any genre.

And he's the most influential. Traveling around the world, even in China and in the Andes Mountains, I've encountered people trying to play like Little Walter. So we were challenged to present some of his time-worn classics and present them in a fresh way, if you well, without sacrificing or diminishing the integrity of his artistry.

Q – You just talked about Little Walter being one of the greatest harmonica players ever. Did you feel a little intimidated to even try to tackle something like this?

 I've been playing Little Walter's songs for many decades. But there was a challenge because you don't want to do anything that comes off as inferior or that you are just copying him.

So the challenge was to make this fresh and vibrant and original, but yet, capture the stylistic feeling of the old songs. So it was challenging.

Q – How have you tried to set yourself apart from other harmonica players?

Over the years, I've developed my own style, although I closely followed and practiced and learned the styles of many harmonica players, including Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter. And I learned first hand from Junior Wells and James Cotton, Carey Bell and Big Walter Horton, who were Little Walter's peers.

And so though I missed Little Walter (he died in 1968), I did get to learn from the greatest living artists at that time. My style is a reflection of my musical influences.



Q – You've been leading your group, Sons of Blues, for more than 40 years. You celebrated your 40th anniversary a couple of years ago. I was reading a story from a couple of years ago saying that you've been playing tribute to elder statesmen of the blues for so long that you've actually become one. Do you see yourself as an elder statesmen of the blues?

Well, whether I see myself as an elder statesmen or not, apparently, that's how others see me. The sad part about that is that of course, so many of those great, great, original artists have passed on.

The fortunate part was that I got play and record with so many of them. I was in Willie Dixon's band for about six years. And then I played with Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Son Seals, Magic Slim, David "Honeyboy" Edwards and Otis Rush.

During those learning years, I took it very seriously. I was very humbled by their musical prowess and I was very serious about trying to learn this music to the best of my ability.

So now that they have passed on, this is how I am being characterized in some circles.

Q – When you started touring with Willie Dixon's Chicago Blues All Stars, how old were you?

Oh, I was probably about 24 or 25 years old.

Q – You've done a lot for only being 67 years old. You're a young elder statesman.

Well, that's one way of looking at it.

Q – What were the biggest things that you learned when you started touring with Willie Dixon?

The main things I learned from Willie was about the immense scope of the blues and I acquired a deeper love and respect for the music. Willie was a guy who was a philosopher as well as a great poet and writer.

He realized and was constantly preaching about the importance and significance of the blues in an historical, social and political context. I'll give you an example. Even before officially joining the band, he shared with me a letter that he sent to the FCC and every member of Congress.

This letter stated that there was a conspiracy to keep the blues off the radio. He drew a correlation between marginalizing the blues and racial discrimination.



The blues, of course, is first and foremost African-American folk music. And the culture is embedded in it. It's like the soundtrack of this African-American existence in this culture.

By exposing more people to the blues, his reasoning was that then you expose them to their history. And then when you start investigating their history, you start really realizing the many contributions and accomplishments that they have made. And that decreases your ability to discriminate against them.

And then musically I learned so much, of course. I became a much better player. I thought I was good when I joined the band and I quickly discovered how much I did not know.

But Willie had a lot of faith in me. He just kind of nurtured me until I really got up to speed. 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Jazz Up Glen Ellyn serves up many tasty musical treats

 The Geof Bradfield Quartet was one of several acts that performed at Jazz Up Glen Ellyn on July 13. 

Those who braved Saturday's heat were treated to several top notch band performing a vibrant blend of musical styles during the fourth annual Jazz Up Glen Ellyn festival in downtown Glen Ellyn.


 

High-Hat Second Line parades through downtown Glen Ellyn on Saturday.

 Chicago artist Lewis Achenbach interpreted the music and atmosphere of Jazz Up Glen Ellyn during his Jazz Occurrence.
   
 

 

                               High-Hat Second Line performs Saturday at Jazz Up Glen Ellyn.



 Geof Bradfield Quartet performs Saturday at Jazz Up Glen Ellyn.


Ernest Dawkins New Horizons Ensemble performs Saturday at Jazz Up Glen Ellyn.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Coco Montoya to bring searing guitar playing, soulful vocals to Blues on the Fox festival


By ERIC SCHELKOPF

In making the switch from being a drummer to a guitarist, Coco Montoya turned to the best teacher he knew – legendary blues guitarist Albert Collins.

Collins would always tell Montoya, "don’t think about it, just feel it." Montoya continues to follow that advice to this day.

Montoya will perform as part of the 23rd annual Blues on the Fox festival taking place June 14 and 15 at RiverEdge Park in downtown Aurora.

Gates open at 6 p.m. June 14 at 360 N. Broadway (Route 25). At 7 p.m., blues guitarist and singer Ana Popovic will take the stage, followed by the legendary Taj Mahal at 9 p.m.

Gates open at 2 p.m. for the second day of Blues on the Fox on June 15. Up-and-coming Chicago blues guitarist Jamiah Rogers will perform at 3 p.m., followed by Chicago-born musician Ronnie Baker Brooks at 5 p.m., Montoya at 7 p.m., and Robert Randolph and the Family Band at 9 p.m.

General admission tickets cost $20 per day. Children 12 and younger are admitted free to Blues on the Fox, but must be accompanied by an adult age 18 or older.

For tickets and information, visit RiverEdgeAurora.com, call the box office at 630-896-6666, or stop by in person at RiverEdge's satellite box office, the Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

I had the chance to talk to Montoya about the upcoming show.
  

Q – I was trying to remember the last time we talked. I know it's been a while. You used to be a regular at Chord on Blues in St. Charles, correct?

Yeah, I haven't heard that name in a while. That was a really cool place.

Q – It was a cool place. It's been closed for several years now. 

Q – You are playing at several blues festivals this year, including at the WC Handy Blues and Barbecue Festival the day before Blues on the Fox. I see that Ronnie Baker Brooks will be part of the Chicago Plays The Stones show at that festival, so you will be seeing him two days in a row since he will also be at Blues on the Fox.

As far as playing festivals, is that one of the things you find enjoyable, performing with people you might not play with as part of a club date?

Yeah, it's always nice seeing other players that you know and respect. Ronnie is definitely one of those. I've known him for many, many years and I was pretty close to his father as well.

It's going to be wonderful to see Ronnie and watch him perform. Hopefully we'll be able to get together ourselves and maybe do something [together] if time allows.

Q – So you guys might jump on stage together?

You never know. It's always better when you don't have to plan too much. It's just something that you take advantage of if the opportunity presents itself. 

Q – I know you have a new record coming out on Chicago-based Alligator Records, "Coming in Hot," on Aug. 23. During Blues on the Fox, will you be playing any songs from the new album? 

I think we're going to do one. We do have one that we want to feature and show everybody. 

Q – The album is going to be called "Coming in Hot." Does the album's title express the tone of the record? 

You know, I don't know if it really does. It's still kind of new to everybody.

The album comes from an emotional place as opposed to really thinking it out too much.

Q – Your latest record on Alligator Records, 2017's "Hard Truth," received a lot of acclaim. What were your goals for the album and do you think you accomplished them? 

Once again, I never approach a project with any kinds of goals in mind. It's just honest music that can stand on its own merits.

That's the main agenda for me – to go out and play the music that I like and let it stand for itself. I just want to feel it. I just want to feel it and enjoy the music that I play.

If the audience is going to like it, great. I would love that. You just kind of have to be true to yourself. The fans will embrace it or not embrace it. 



Q – Because isn't that one of the things that Albert Collins kind of taught you? He would always say, "Don't think about it. Just feel it."

That is absolutely true. There were no borders, no gates, no fences for him. He played what he felt like playing.


It's definitely something I live by. I'm going to play the music I enjoy playing and hopefully the people will like it.

Q – "Hard Truth" marked your return to Alligator Records. Why did you want to return to Alligator Records? 

Everything just kind of fell into place. Alligator is a really great label. It has a great promotional team.

The amazing part of that label is the people that work there. They work hard to promote an album. They really do.

Q – And of course, you also played in John Mayall’s band for 10 years. When he picked you to play with him as part of the reformed Bluesbreakers, what were your thoughts and did you feel any pressure at the time?

Well, yeah. It was quite exhilarating but there was a lot of pressure because I held Eric Clapton and Mick Taylor and Peter Green in high esteem.


I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now if it wasn't for John.

Q – I saw a photo posted on your Facebook page showing you standing with Charlie Musselwhite, B.B. King, John Mayall, Deacon Jones and Water Trout.

To look at this picture today and see yourself standing with these blues greats, does it still boggle your mind that you were able to stand with these people?


Oh, yeah. You are just covered in gratitude. Me and Charlie are good friends. And Walter and I are very close.

B.B. King was always wonderful to me. I first met him back in the '70s.

He was always very kind. We used to have some great conversations. I miss him a lot.

Q – It is sad that we are losing more and more blues legends. What do you think of the blues music scene today? Do you think it's thriving?

I'm not so sure that it's thriving like it once was. It's evolving.

I think that's pretty much a better word for it. It's evolving. We're getting many different kinds of players.

There's so many bands and not enough venues to go around. But yeah, the blues is still alive.

Q – You fell in love with the blues after seeing Albert King opening up a Creedence Clearwater Revival/Iron Butterfly concert in 1969 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. What was it that made you want to become a blues musician?

I said, ah, this is something that I can feel. It was a totally emotional event.

Everything that I ever liked was all about emotion. The blues brought me everything I wanted.

I gravitated to that after seeing Albert King play live. I realized that was something I wanted to know more about.

Q – What keeps you going?

Paying the bills and making sure my wife has a room over her head. This is the only thing I know how to do. This is the best thing I know how to do, anyway.

And I love playing. As I get older, it gets harder. My hands get stiffer.

I'm still enjoying it. I have some great musicians with me on this tour. I'm very grateful to have them.

Q – Just looking at your schedule, you've been busy all year. As far as playing live, is that the best part of what you do?

It's the ultimate best part of what I do. I'm out there playing live in front of an audience. There's no other reward that even comes close, in my opinion.


I'm not into awards. That's not my thing. My thing is being out in front of an audience that's enjoying the show and going out and shaking a few hands.

I'd rather being doing that than anything else.

Q – It seems like you have a lot of diehard fans. I've been scrolling through your Facebook page and there's picture after picture of fans with you. Is it a great feeling to be able to meet your fans and find out what they like about your music?

It always feels good to be that close to your fan base, to be able to give them a few minutes here and there. At every show,  I like to shake a few hands, sign a few posters and take some pictures.

I really have no problem in doing that, because if it wasn't for them, I'd have no work.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Venue brings intimate music experience to downtown Aurora

Missy and Heine Andersen perform June 2 at The Venue in Aurora.

By ERIC SCHELKOPF

Missy Andersen and her guitarist/bandleader/husband Heine Andersen, brought their Soul Americana style on June 2 to The Venue at 21 S. Broadway Ave. (Route 25) between Galena Boulevard and Downer Place in downtown Aurora. The Venue is an intimate music space run by the nonprofit Fox Valley Music Foundation.

For more information, go to The Venue's website at themusicvenue.org.



Missy Andersen brought her soulful vocals and playful spirit to The Venue stage.



The Venue opened its doors on June 1 and will present local, regional and national acts.


Friday, April 19, 2019

Chicago festival to entertain, educate on benefits of marijuana



By ERIC SCHELKOPF  


If you're wondering where Waldo is this weekend, he along with many other Waldos will probably be at the Waldos Forever Fest on April 20 near Dispensary33 at 5001 N. Clark St. in Chicago.

For the second year, Do312 is organizing the event, with the Chicago Cannabis Alliance being the co-sponsor of the event. The festival will run from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and the event is free to those who RSVP at do312.com/waldosforeverfest.

4/20 is slang in cannabis culture for the consumption of cannabis, especially smoking cannabis around the time 4:20 p.m. The festival will feature a variety of entertainment, including headliner Big Freedia, known as the Queen of Bounce.

Chicago acts Tatiana Hazel, Air Credits, White Mystery and Akasha will also perform. The festival will also feature DJ and comedy sets and drag performances. Chicago-based Verano, will be sponsoring The Chill Lounge, a relaxed setting outside of Dispensary33 where festival-goers can take a break from being on their feet and enjoy some free swag and other perks. 


I had the chance to talk to Scott Cramer, founder of Do312 and Richard Park, a member of the board of directors for Chicago Cannabis Alliance, about the festival.


Q – Great talking to you. This is the second year of the Waldos Forever Fest. What was your vision for putting on the festival in the first place?

Richard: The Chicago Cannabis Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to educating people about qualifying conditions to receive a medical cannabis card in Illinois and helping Chicago patients access the medicine they need, saw legalization of cannabis in Illinois as an opportunity to destigmatize cannabis by educating people about it.




We partnered with Do312 to create the event in a streetfest format that Chicagoans love. The premise is a the celebration of cannabis culture and all the benefits of cannabis that we can now share openly.

Q - Did last year's festival meet your expectations and what are your expectations for this year's festival? For those who are attending the festival for the first time this year, what should they expect?

Scott: Yes.  In our first official Waldos Forever Fest, we had approximately 1,500 attendees. This year we are expecting 3,500 to 4,000 attendees.

Chicago is famous for its street fests and we believe Waldos Forever is very much in this tradition, but with a unique cannabis-themed flair.

Richard: Ironically, this is a 4/20 celebration where cannabis cannot be consumed on site, but we want to share information about cannabis, unite cannabis fans to celebrate advancements in legalization and destigmatize it.



Major cannabis cultivation companies are rolling out the “green” carpet with Cresco Labs’ lush green entrance giving way to the high energy music sets crossing rap, bounce, hip hop and more genres, outrageous comedy and drag acts interspersed with trips down memory lane with the Grassroots Gaming Tent with vintage video arcade, and the Verano Chill Lounge, complete with a larger than life walk-in igloo.

Vendor booths will run the gamut of providing information regarding every aspect of cannabis and specific products to offering clothing and accessories sure to appeal to cannabis fans. The festive atmosphere wouldn’t be complete without lots of munchies in the Food Truck court and giveaways of swag throughout the day.

Q – This year's festival seems to feature a pretty diverse lineup of artists. How did you go about planning this year's lineup?

Scott: Booking the acts is based around being as intersectional and eclectic as possible.  We want to make sure that all the artists we select really “get” cannabis culture.




We don’t pay attention to whether they are underground or mainstream, but instead look at whether they are entertaining and represent the full spectrum of cannabis users.

Q – There also will be other entertainment as well, including comedy sets, drag performances and DJ sets. Were you trying to have something for everyone attending the festival?

Scott: Yes.  Cannabis cuts across all demographics, cultures and political and sexual orientations so we looked to showcase an intriguing, playful mix that will entertain everyone.

Q – What do you hope people will get out of the festival?

Richard: For those already using cannabis, it is a time to share  stories about their favorite products and what it has done for them, as well as celebrate  how far we have come in the battle for legalization.  For those curious or new to cannabis, it provides an open, welcoming environment to explore and get answers to all the questions they might have about using cannabis and dispel some of the falsehoods perpetrated by society under prohibition.

Ultimately, this is an event where people from all walks of life can set aside their differences and come together to learn about and celebrate all that is good about cannabis.

Q – Do you anticipate the festival will grow every year and will become as much of a tradition as Taste of Chicago or the Chicago Blues Festival? 




Scott: Chicago is in its infancy for 4/20 festivals compared to some other areas. With pending legalization of cannabis around the world, we see it becoming more of a national or international festival – perhaps on the scale of  Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day or New Year’s Day, where the celebration grows to cross geographic and cultural boundaries and provide an outlet for expression for everyone who wants to join the fun.