Sunday, December 10, 2017

Chicago bands to perform as part of holiday clothing drive


Once again, a group of local musicians are getting together to help make this holiday season a little merrier for those who are economically disadvantaged.

In 2011, musician Matthew Kayser started Warm, Safe & Sound, a concert and clothing drive that will be held Dec. 21 at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave., Chicago. The concert will feature North by NorthSecret ColoursMonomaniaThe Handcuffs, and Star Tropics.

Tickets to the show are $10, or free with a coat donation. The organization that will receive the clothes is Cornerstone Community Outreach.  Tickets are available at

I had the chance to talk to Kayser about the benefit.

Q. Great talking to you again. You started Warm, Safe & Sound in 2011. Has it lived up to your goals? What goals do you have for this year's event?

Thanks for reaching out. I've been very pleased with what we've accomplished with Warm, Safe & Sound.
We've been able to gather thousands of coats and sweaters for our fellow Chicagoans. This year should be even better.
My goal is to gather 250+ pieces of clothing. Between the top-notch lineup, the legendary venue (The Empty Bottle), the timely cause, and the assistance of the fine folks at Cornerstone Community Outreach, I'm confident that we will top our goal.
I'm thrilled at the prospect of helping some of our homeless neighbors. 

Q. How did you go about putting together this year's lineup of bands? How do you think this year's lineup stacks up to past years?

In the past, I focused primarily on booking bands that fit a certain style of music. This year I booked local bands that I knew would draw extremely well.
To be honest, this time I wanted Warm, Safe & Sound to offer the best of both worlds. I believe it will, as I was able to build a bill that features buzz bands North by North, Secret Colours, The Handcuffs, and Star Tropics, all of whom are capable of packing out Chicago venues on their own.
Having them all on the same bill and excited about the show is a godsend. 

Q. Congratulations on being a new dad. How is that going? Has that been a balancing act?

Thank you! This pregnancy was exceptionally difficult for my wife, and we had our share of scary moments.
Unsurprisingly, she was amazing throughout, and now we are beyond blessed to have a healthy son. He's our fourth child, but it's been 10 years since our last one. We are having to quickly relearn all the tricks of parenting an infant.
It's slowly but surely coming back to us. And yes, it is always a balancing act. But I adore my family, my teaching career, and my music, so making time for everything is not as difficult as it might seem. 

Q. What can we expect from your latest musical project, Monomania, in the future?

I am beyond excited about Monomania. I have reunited with Joe O'Leary, who was my guitarist in The Bright White, and our good pal Curtis Schreiber.
Monomania is all about triumphant and driving rock n' roll, with a bit of jangle and a whole lot of energy. We are inspired by early R.E.M., Television, and Guided by Voices.  
Monomania is a brand new project, though, so we're still hashing out our goals. We do want to record in the early part of 2018.
We will be making our live debut at Warm, Safe & Sound, so I can't wait to reveal the band to everyone. Good times ahead.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Paramount Theatre creates holiday magic with "Elf: The Musical"

Photo by Liz Lauren

The Paramount Theatre's production of "Elf: The Musical" is everything that a holiday musical should be – and more.

Brightly colored sets, catchy songs, sparkling choreography and a stellar cast combine to create a joyful production that leaves audience members full of good cheer.

The musical is based on the 2003 movie "Elf." For those not familiar with the story, "Elf: The Musical" tells the story of Buddy the Elf, who finds out that is actually human and goes to New York City in search of his father.

In her director notes, director/choreographer Amber Mak took note of the challenge to live up to the audience's expectations, given the film's popularity. In her capable hands, Mak puts a fresh face on the production, as she did in presenting stellar versions of "The Little Mermaid" and "Hairspray."

Kyle Adams, who is new to the Paramount stage, captures some of that wild-eyed enthusiasm that Will Ferrell brought to the role of Buddy in the film "Elf." He also has the vocal power and strong stage presence the role requires.

We discover his love for Christmas during the rousing opening number, "Christmastown." But the production is full of outstanding performances, including Roger Mueller's hilarious take as Santa Claus. Samantha Pauly also turns in a fine performance as Jovie, Buddy's love interest.

Pauly understands the complexity of her role as she transforms from someone who is not a fan of Christmas to one that embraces the wonder of the holiday. Kudos also go out to 14-year-old Oliver Boomer, who makes his Paramount debut in the role of Michael Hobbs. He already has an extensive theater resume under his belt, and his performance in this production will hopefully lead to bigger roles in the future.

Sometimes, theatrical productions can suffer from a drop in energy level, with the second act not living up to the energy of the first act. That is not the case with this production.

It's almost like the first act was just a warm up for the cast. Case in point – the rousing song and dance number "Nobody Cares About Santa," which opens the production's second act.

Start off your holiday season right by seeing "Elf: The Musical" at the Paramount Theatre."

"Elf: The Musical" is being presented at the Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd. in downtown Aurora, through Jan. 7. For tickets, go to or call 630-896-6666.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Blues musician James Armstrong releases new album, will play at Buddy Guy's Legends


Decades after he first broke into the music business, the blues continue to be good to James Armstrong.

Armstrong, 60, formed his first band in the 7th grade, and by age 17 he was touring around the country. On his latest release, "Blues Been Good to Me," the Springfield resident works with legendary producer Jim Gaines.

Gaines, who serves as associate producer on the album, helped Armstrong rediscover himself after he was stabbed in a home invasion in 1995 that resulted in permanent nerve damage to his left hand.

Amstrong will perform Dec. 2 at Buddy Guy's Legends, 700 S. Wabash Ave., Chicago.
Chicago musician Paul Filipowicz also is on the bill.

The show starts at 9:30 p.m. There also is a free acoustic set from 6 to 8 p.m. featuring Nigel Mack.

Tickets to the show are $20 and are available by going to

I had the chance to talk to him about the new CD.

Q – I imagine that you will be playing a lot off the new CD at your upcoming show.

Armstrong – Right. The new CD is called "Blues Been Good to Me." Right now, I think it's #6 on the Living Blues radio charts.

Q – Are you surprised that it's doing so well?

Armstrong – I really am, I really am. You always hope that they do well, but this one is doing well and better than we all expected, so we are really happy with that.

Q – Of course, the CD is called "Blues Been Good to Me." Is there a story behind the album's name?

Armstrong – Yeah, there really is. A friend of mine named Andrew Blaze Thomas, who is an incredible drummer and is playing drums on this CD, was asked one day about playing the blues.

Him and I, like many other players, have traveled the world, we make money, and life is really good. So it's not all about having a bad life playing the blues. A lot of people think the blues is depressing and not any fun.

But for us, it's been pretty successful. The blues have been really good to us.

Q – So the album title kind of sums up your career?

Armstrong – Exactly. 

Q – And I know that Jim Gaines was associate producer on the album. And I guess he really pushed you, huh?

Armstrong – Yeah, Jim is just great. I had another CD called "Guitar Angels" that he co-produced. After my injury, there were a lot of things that I literally thought I could never do again. And I just stopped trying.

He had me start to try them again, and we were able to pull some of them off. He inspired me very much to just try new things.

Q – I noticed on the song "Second Time Around" you start out with a riff from "Secret Agent Man." Is there a story behind that?

Armstrong – When we recording, just in between songs, the rhythm guitar player, Johnny McGhee, he did that lick and I don't know, a couple of hours later, the drummer said, "I've always wanted to put that lick in a song." And so we kind of picked the song and a place to put it. We just decided to throw it in right there.

Q – The transition is cool.

Armstrong – Yeah. 

Q – I understand that in making the CD, you were much looser than you usually are.

Armstrong – I'm really anal when it comes to recording. I like to have everything in order. 

But at the beginning of the year, we were in Europe a lot and we were extremely busy. So I didn't have time to prepare with demos as much I usually do. 

I didn't have things in mind head like I wanted them and I was really nervous. I wasn't sure how it was going to come out.

We just went in and played it by ear, in a way. It was like, "Let's try this, let's try that." And I had never done that before.

Q – You are quoted as saying that this was the most exciting album you have done in years. Do you think that approach was the reason why?

That's one of the main reasons. Like I said, I kind of always have an idea how it's going to turn out in my head. On this album, I had sort of an idea, but not much.

So when we were recording, it was so much freer. When we sat down to listen to everything afterwards, it just turned out to be so much looser. 

We were all kind of having fun with it, compared to some of my other projects, where it's a little more serious. 

Q – You have a very soulful voice.

Amstrong – It's interesting. My music gets called soul-blues a lot, but I never thought of that.

I think the reason I get called soul-blues is because of the voice. I'm not a screamer, and I think a lot of blues guys yell and scream, and I never did that.

I didn't start off playing blues. I started off playing country. And then I went to rock. I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix when I was young. I didn't want to be B.B. King or Albert King.

But over the years, I realized how important the blues was to me, and so I just kind of wanted to bring it back to the table. 

I hear all different types of genres in my music, but everything I do, I think it sounds bluesy to me.

Even if it's a country song, I try to make it bluesy.

Q – On the album, you cover Robert Palmer's song, "Addicted to Love." Was it just the right time to do the song?

Armstrong – Yeah, because I had been doing it live for a little bit. I wasn't totally sure we were going to put it on the CD, but it's been coming off really well live. It was perfect timing to have that one on the CD.

Q – And of course, you also cover the song "How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You."

Armstrong – Yeah, and it's interesting. Marvin Gaye made a hit out of it, and so did James Taylor.

But I remember James Taylor's version more than I remembered Marvin's. It was just really nice for me to put a swing on it. It was a lot of fun.

Q – And you also do a new version of your song "Sleeping with a Stranger." What made you want to do a new version of the song?

Armstrong – "Sleeping with a Stranger" was my debut song when I got hired by HighTone Records.

I've been asked to do that song probably a few thousand times, and I just never did. I wanted to retrack and see how it turned out. I wasn't sure if we were going to use it.

Q – How do you think this version stands up to the original version?

Armstrong – It's cool. It swings a little but more. The other version has more of a pop-rock feel, and this one, it swings a little bit more.

It has a little bit more of a blues feel to it. The lyrics were always really strong, and I think I wrote a really good groove back in the day, so it still works today.

Q – Of course, several blues legends have unfortunately passed away in the last several years. What do you think the future of the blues is?

Armstrong – Let's put it this way. It seems like the face of the blues is changing.

That's evolution. Everything does change. Rock is not the way it used to be, country's not the way it used to be.

Blues is a guitar based music, as we all know. And it seems like a lot of the guitar is changing to rock style, and it's more speed than feeling.

That kind of bothers me. It's not that I can't play like that anymore, but it's the point that the whole feeling of the music is changing.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Local musician Greg Boerner releasing fifth album, will perform at Kiss The Sky in Batavia

Photo by Chuck Bennorth

On his fifth album, "Solid Sender," local musician and Aurora resident Greg Boerner veers in a slightly new direction.

While his past albums have been somewhat sparse musically, he opted for a fuller sound on his latest CD. Boerner will celebrate the release of the album – as well as his 50th birthday – by performing at 7 p.m. Nov. 29 at Kiss The Sky record store, 180 W. First St. in downtown Batavia. Joining Boerner on stage will be Patrick Moynihan on upright bass, Justin O'Connell on drums and Mary Lou O'Brien on vocals.

I had the chance to talk to Boerner about the new CD.

Q – You produced "Solid Sender" with Patrick Moynihan and recorded, mixed and mastered the CD at his Waveform studio in Batavia. What was the process like working with him? 

Boerner – I am not a big fan of the studio. I enjoy playing live and I enjoy the freedom of that. The studio is a little bit of a chore to me, because I'm pretty critical of what I'm doing.

I like it when it's all done. I love listening to the results, particularly if I think I've done a really great job. Patrick was great in the studio as far as keeping it loose and keeping it fun.

He was a great cheerleader, to keep me going and to keep me feeling good about what I was doing. And that's hard, because there are times where you can easily get down on yourself. It's nice to have someone in your corner rooting for you.

He was just as invested in this CD as I was, and that's a beautiful thing. Most engineers and producers and that kind of thing are not always as invested. How can they be? 

Q – I understand that with this CD, you were trying to create more of a fuller sound. 

Boerner – I've always had those ideas, but with this one in particular. I wanted to add stand up bass, and I wanted to add some background vocals that I didn't really have before.

I didn't want rock drums, but I wanted somebody on brushes or something similar, kind of moving the songs along but not overtaking the songs. And then Patrick had a Fender Rhodes electric piano from the '70s era. 

I love that sound, and it really fit on a couple of my tunes. We picked our moments.

I don't need a Fender Rhodes electric piano on every song. I didn't need extra guitars on every song.

But some songs just seemed to beg for it, and others seemed to say, "Nope, live me alone. This needs to be a solo piece."

So there's a nice mix. There's about seven tunes with certain accompaniment, either full or slightly augmented, and then there's like four that really don't have anything. It's just me and the guitar.

Q – The CD does seem like a good mix of folk and blues and a little jazz too. 

Boerner – Yes, it's kind of all those things. The new catchall word is Americana. If someone asks me what my genre, that's what I would say. 

Q – So you will be moving to Nashville soon. 

Boerner – In the middle of January, I'm moving to Nashville. And it's nothing really to do with music. 

I reconnected with my friend, Annie. We had always been friends, nothing more, and romance blossomed over the phone.

And she says, "I need you here in Nashville." And I said, "I'm on my way." It's as simple as that. 

Q – You will have to come back for the Blues on the Fox festival in Aurora. 

Boerner – My plan is to come back kind of every three to four months. I planning on coming back because I do have gigs here and let's face it, I don't know about making a living in Nashville. I don't know how that's going to go. We'll see.

I will feel the need to come back here and reconnect with fans, people who are interested in what I do, and also make a little bit of money. I think it might be a better thing, because if you are here in the Fox Valley area and you're playing every weekend, people tend to kind of take that for granted.

They don't come out to see you because they can always see me the next weekend. But if I'm gone and four months later, I come back for one night, I'm hoping that maybe people will think that's a bit more of a special thing and will show up for that.

That's what I hope.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

"Unplugged: A Survivor's Story in Scenes & Songs" to be presented at City Winery Chicago


In an all too familiar story, "Unplugged: A Survivor's Story in Scenes & Songs" tells the tale of a 27-year-old rock star struggling with depression and post-traumatic stress in the wake of childhood sexual abuse.

The musical, based on a novel written by Evanston author/performer Paul McComas, will be presented Oct. 22 at City Winery Chicago, 1200 W. Randolph St., Chicago. Doors open at noon and the show starts at 1 p.m.

Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 the day of the show, available by going to  Eighty-five percent of proceeds from ticket sales will benefit RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network)’s National Sexual Assault Hotline, and The Kennedy Forum, which works to eliminate the stigma around mental illness and enforce parity for behavioral healthcare.

Playing the part of lead character Dayna Clay is co-creator Maya Kuper. The album is being released on CAUDog Records, a label connected to Chicago Acoustic Underground.

I had the chance to talk to Paul and Maya about the project.

Q – Do you feel yourself identifying with this character?
Maya – I have found myself identifying more and more with this character. I didn't at first, and I've been working on this character for a few years now. 
Dayna Clay has some pretty serious mental health issues, and she's also a trauma survivor. She was a survivor of childhood rape. What I've learned from working on this character is that there are parts of her experience that I can relate to. 
The idea of being in a relationship where you are not treated with respect is something that many, many people can relate with. It doesn't have to domestic abuse or sexual violence, but emotional abuse is I think way more common than a lot of people realize because it's enough not talked about. 
And a lot of times people don't realize it's happening to them. And so, that part of Dayna is something that I relate to. And the parts of Dayna that I don't have experience with, like the fact that she's suicidal and is dealing with serious post traumatic stress, those are things that I've learned a lot about from working on this character.

I lost a friend to suicide a few years ago. I almost feel like everyone knows someone or has someone in their circle – a family member, a friend, a colleague, who either has been suicidal or they lost somebody to suicide.

And it's often not talked about. It's often swept under the rug. There's the fear that talking about it can actually push somebody over the edge.

But in my opinion, we need to talk about it more. Because if it's true that one in five Americans deals with a mental health issue in any given year, than it's an epidemic.

And it's something we need to talk about more and more. Because the only way we are going to reduce that stigma is by speaking about it out loud.

And so the more we talk about it, the more we make it OK to talk about.

Q How did the death of Kurt Cobain affect you and inspire you?

Paul – I was a fan of the man and of the music. There seemed to be a lot of talk about the heroin abuse, as if he had died of an overdose. He put a gun to his head. The heroin abuse was a symptom of the depression that killed him.

I founded this music project called Rock Against Depression with some other musician friends. We all felt like honoring Kurt while at the same time trying to steer young fans away from the path that he took.

Halfway through the five-year run of this project, it occurred to me that I was addressing these issues through someone else's work, but haven't done so through my own writing and music and performing. And that was sort of the genesis of "Unplugged." 

Q Is Dayna Clay supposed to be a female version of Kurt Cobain?

Paul – Not really. She's supposed to be her own person, and she is.

But Kurt was definitely an inspiration, and you can see the elements, I think, of him in her, in terms of attitude and excessive empathy regarding the pain of other people, which is a classic symptom for some people struggling with depression. I say this as someone who does struggle with depression. I say this as a depression survivor myself.

After I had recovered from depression, I started working on the novel. His death was a major inspiration for writing the book.

I wanted to write about someone similar, not the same but similar, who was able to step back from the brink in a way that he was not permitted to do. She has an opportunity that he does not get.

Q – As far as putting the novel to music, did you always envision that you would be putting on a show like this?

Paul – Maya was the one who said she always wanted to write a musical. I was working on a song in this character's voice while I was working on the novel. 

I didn't have in mind a full-fledged 90-minute two act musical. This is a whole other animal, what we're going here and now.

Maya – I would say that it started out as what you might call a song cycle, with songs that were written in the voice of the character. When I started working with Paul on this material about four years ago, I had this rich novel of source material to draw from and these ideas to fill in the blanks.

Q – Even though there is a 20-year age difference between the two of you, it seems like you guys have a musical kinship. Is that right?

Paul – She's my kid sister that I never had. I was the youngest of four and I always wanted a kid sister. It took a while, but I finally got one nine years ago.

Maya – Brother and sister is a good way to describe it, because we do pick fights all the time. He has things that I wouldn't have thought of, and I have things that he wouldn't have thought of, and that's why it's a good collaboration. We feel in the blanks for each other.

Q – What would you like people to get out of the project?

Maya – What I want people to get out of this show is that it is OK to talk about mental health issues, it's OK to talk about traumatic events in your past. And what's more, it's good to talk about them. It's healing to talk about them.

It's necessary to talk about them in order to reduce the stigma and raise awareness. We'll never get better if we do not speak out loud.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Chicago band The Obleeks releases debut album, will perform Oct. 23 at Schubas


You can call The Obleeks' debut album a happy accident.

The Chicago power-pop band didn't set out to record an album when it contacted Amos Pitsch of the Wisconsin band Tenement to record a few songs. Pitsch ended up recording, mixing and recording the album at his Crutch of Memory studio in Appleton, Wis. He also also designed the cover and all of the artwork for the album.

To celebrate the release of the new self-titled album, The Obleeks will perform Oct. 23 at Schubas Tavern, 3159 N. Southport Ave., Chicago.

Also on the bill are Terriers and Dan Durley. The free show starts at 8 p.m.

The band is comprised of brothers Andy and Lee Ketch along with Nick Harris. I had the chance to talk to the Andy and Lee about the new album.


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

Andy – This album came about very strange way. There was never a moment when we decided that we were going to record an album.

It came about very incidentally. Originally, we contacted Amos to record a few songs to test if we wanted to record at Crutch of Memory for an album with a different band the three of us are in, Mooner.

On talking about it more, we realized the Crutch of Memory sound wasn’t quite right for Mooner, but since Amos had agreed, we decided to record four songs for The Obleeks over a weekend, not sure what we were going to do with them.

They turned out really well, and so a couple of months later we went back up to Appleton to record five more songs.

The only thing we had in mind for the record was that we wanted to record in a way we never have before. When we would go up there, we would record basics for two songs the first day, basics for another two or three songs the second day, and then all of the vocals/overdubs on the third day.

I have been personally inspired by albums like "In the City" by The Jam, and "L.A.M.F." by The Heartbreakers, and always wanted to make a record like that – very stripped down and recorded as fast as possible. I think we all saw this as our opportunity to do that, in a way.

Q – How did you hook up with Good Land Records? How do you think you fit in with the other artists on the label? It seems like the majority of the acts on the label can be described as power pop bands.

Andy – Amos got us in contact with them! We have never, ever had any luck with labels, but he finally broke us through into the big time.

We’ve always been a fan of a lot of their artists (Dwight Twilley, Midnight Reruns, Tim Schweiger). We had a chance to play with Tim when we went up to Green Bay last year, and had a great time.

We are very lucky to have a relationship with some bands in Milwaukee and throughout Wisconsin, and actually are pretty envious of what they have going on up there. I would say we fit right in without doing anything special.

Q – What was it like working with your brother on the album? Do you a share a musical kinship?

Andy – I loved it. As Lee’s younger brother, he greatly influenced my musical tastes growing up (introducing me to Wilco, Big Star, etc.), and so we end up thinking about music in similar ways.

My favorite thing about sharing a foundation is that we both have built off of it in different ways – I gravitate more toward the punk side of things, while Lee is more interested in songwriting and production, which I think are the essences of power-pop.

I think the result is a record which stays in the realm of power-pop, but has enough variations within that genre that (I hope) the listener can appreciate.

Also, Nick Harris, the bassist/songwriter/singer, was indispensable for the album. He brought a lot of the poppiest stuff to the record (and the best song), and was very much an integral part to the whole process.

This was very much a surprise, because Lee and I are very much nepotistic when it comes to music, and we both were very happy to find we could share a kind of deep music kinship with someone outside of the family (but we have since married him into the family for the sake of nepotism).

Lee – It was great. Whenever Andy wouldn’t play a drum fill, I would just noogie him into submission. Less luck with Nick.

Q – Will you be touring to support the new album? Is there a meaning behind the band's name?

Andy – Uh, we hope so. We very much want to go up to Wisconsin, Ohio, and Nashville, but no concrete plans as of yet.

It looks like it will be mainly long-weekend mini-tours for us.

Nope, but I suspect Lee wanted to sneak his name in there somehow.

Q – Do you see The Obleeks as being a one-time project or would you like to make more records with the band as well as tour?

Andy – We absolutely want to keep making more records and play more shows. It is a great outlet for us.

But, like every other band out there, we’re just fitting it into our schedules with work and what not.

Q – What do you think of the Chicago music scene and how do you see The Obleeks fitting into it?

Andy – We love it. This album wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the DIY scene here. We had a lot of encouragement from them, and playing our first shows at places like Club Soda and Auxiliary helped us feel much better about what we were doing.

Lee – Our first show was at a show space called the Auxiliary in Avondale. The music room is heavily carpeted. Right after we went on a crust punk band called The Fuckers played and their fans poured dozens of beers onto the carpet, making for a very squishy show.

Andy – The Fuckers were great and scared me a lot.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Chicago musician Dan Rico injecting freshness, energy into local music scene


On his new single "Flesh and Bone," Chicago musician Dan Rico updates the rawness and energy of '70s glam rock for a new generation.

Rico will celebrate the release of the single with a show on Oct. 14 at the Cafe Mustache, 2313 N Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. Shenandoah Davis also is on the bill, and the music starts at 9 p.m.

I had the chance to talk to Rico about the new single and how he sees himself fitting into the Chicago music scene.

Q – Great talking to you. You have a new single, "Flesh and Bone." In sitting down to make the song, what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them? Is there a story behind the song's name?

The main riff and most of the lyrics to “Flesh and Bone” I’d been sitting on for a number of years. I actually have an older recording of this song that almost went on my first album, "Endless Love," that’s a little sludgier and more intense.

I’m a huge T-Rex fan and eventually just decided to embrace the T-Rexness of this track and try to reproduce some of the tropes I love about their songs.

I think there’s a very fine line between rip-off and homage, and I’m very interested in the history of rock music and recycling/redefining old ideas the way you see commonly with sampling in hip hop, etc. This particular track is one of my first endeavors into this field, with more to come. 

The title itself, “Flesh and Bone,” takes the attitude that though the narrator may be hurt or slighted by a romantic encounter, experiences of pain confirm our very humanity. And it’s good to be human. 

Q – How did you hook up with Shit in Can Records and how do you yourself fitting on the label?

Shit in Can found me on a music blog and contacted me about releasing some music. I think the punk roots of the music put me in their wheelhouse, and the songwriting got me on the roster.

Q – I understand that your two favorite producers are Prince and David Bowie. What did you learn from them? How have you been influenced by their music?  

Both were just filled with ideas. On the one hand there’s the idea that you should be able to dance to guitar music. They really embrace the dance qualities of rock and pop music. 

Prince specifically has some really cool guitar solos and isn’t afraid to take some of the arrangements to the extreme. David Bowie had a unique take on background vocals and arrangements that I found really accessible as a rock producer.

Q - There is a freshness and energy to glam rock and garage rock that other genres lack. What drew you to the genres and how have you tried to incorporate them in your music?

I like that glam rock is theatrical. In a sort of post-grunge-indie era when bands are still wearing t-shirts and flannel to perform, I like the imaginative costumes and grandiose bandstand stage set-ups; the idea that rock musicians can be larger than life.

Now that the (rock) genre is so oversaturated and in decline in mainstream popularity, I think it’s beneficial as an artist to celebrate its finer points and what originally made it so impressive and charming. 

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

The Chicago music scene has thousands of artists and bands. Many of these can be stratified geographically into different scenes.

I operate in a part of the city called Logan Square and play there frequently. In Logan, there’s a big rock/garage scene and I definitely grew up in and fall within that category. 

Like the city of Chicago itself, the sad truth is that the music scene has a strong racial segregation. It wasn’t until I spent a lot of time in southern cities like New Orleans and Atlanta that I realized how different Chicago is in this way.

Once you begin to notice that almost all the audience for any rock show is white it’s hard to un-notice. A lot of people have a “that’s just the way it is” attitude.

My hope in the future is to evolve beyond these barriers, to create music that all different people - white, black, brown, yellow, young, old, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, atheist - can enjoy and get down to.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Paramount Theatre produces electrifying version of "Million Dollar Quartet," show runs through Oct. 29

Photo by Liz Lauren

Paramount Theatre’s 2017-18 Broadway Series opener "Million Dollar Quartet" stars, from left, Gavin Rohrer as Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Scott Sheets as Johnny Cash, Kavan Hashemian as Elvis Presley and Adam Wesley Brown as Carl Perkins. The show will run through Oct. 29 at the Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd. in downtown Aurora.


There aren't many musical moments bigger than the one that occurred on Dec. 4, 1956, when Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley – who were all in their early 20s at the time – came together for a jam session at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee.

The Paramount Theatre, located at 23 East Galena Blvd. in downtown Aurora, recreates that night in electrifying fashion in its joyful version of "Million Dollar Quartet," which runs through Oct. 29. Thanks to an immensely talented cast, it doesn't take long for the audience to be pulled into the magic that is being made on stage. 

The audience is made to feel like they are part of that moment through the interaction the cast members have with the audience. Standout performances abound, including that of Gavin Rohrer, who is making his Paramount debut in the role of Lewis. He brought the energy early with a unrestrained version of "Wild One."

Rohrer is dazzling behind the piano and and is just as impressive in imitating Lewis' frantic stage antics. Kavan Hashemian's dead-on performance as Presley shows he studied Presley's concert footage in order to give a performance as authentic as possible. Not surprisingly, he was named "The World's #1 Rock 'N Roll Elvis by the BBC in a television competition filmed in London.

But standing taller than even their performances is Bill Scott Sheets' take on Cash. He embodies the sound and spirit of Cash, right down to his rich bass-baritone voice.

Apart from the music, it is the interaction between the characters that makes this production so entertaining. Because most of us have only seen these musicians perform on their own, it is interesting to see how they got along with each other (or didn't, in some cases.)

The Paramount Theatre produces another win with its version of "Million Dollar Quartet." Tickets are available by calling the Paramount at 630-896-6666 or visiting its website,

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Chicago musician Chip Ratliff takes funk, soul to new heights on new album, "Resilient"


Chicago musician Chip Ratliff is dedicated to taking funk and soul to new heights. He takes another step in that direction on his new album "Resilient," his first full-length album in more than 10 years. 

He will celebrate the release of the album by performing at 7 p.m. Aug. 26 at Shorefront Legacy Center, 2214 Ridge Ave., Evanston. There is a $20 donation.

I had the chance to talk to him about the new album:
Q – Great talking to you. "Resilient" is your first full-length album release in more than 10 years. Have you been writing these songs for a while? Was this just the right time to release a new CD?

Thank you for having me! A lot of the tunes on “Resilient” are songs that have been in the hopper for a while. A couple are brand new.

For instance, the dance tune “DirtyBlu” was actually the first song I wrote after Prince’s death. It was the first groove I played when I picked up my bass.

After going through a lot of challenges the past few years, I really felt that it was time to share my gifts and make sure I leave some kind of legacy. I really felt it was time to put something out that reflected my love of funk and my blues roots. 

Q – Do you see the album as a natural progression from your last album, "Electric Chittlin' Stew"?

Not so much a natural progression from the last album, but more of a natural progression for me personally and as an artist.  When I did “Electric Chittlin’ Stew” I felt the need to be everything to everybody, which is why it has such a broad range of material: funk, R&B, rock, Santana style Latin-rock… a little bit of everything, like a stew! “Resilient,” on the other hand, is more of me having a great time being me! I wanted to put together an album that if you came out to a Chip Ratliff show, this is what you would hear.

Q – What would you like people to get out of the album? I understand that the album's title refers to overcoming any obstacles and challenges in one's way. Have you had to do that in your own musical career?

I’m hoping that it not only entertains, but also inspires. [I hope that it] inspires people to keep moving forward, regardless of the obstacles that are in front of them.

The title “Resilient” actually comes from something one of my doctor’s said to me on a follow up visit. He said, “Mr. Ratliff, you are one of the most resilient patients I have ever seen!”

It is a testament to God and the strength that he gives me. As I say in the title track, “The Creator is brilliant…through Him, I am resilient!”

Q - You come from a musically rich family, including being the cousin of Chicago blues singer and guitarist Lefty Dizz (I watched a YouTube video of one of his shows at the Checkerboard Lounge and he put on quite an energetic show), along with the fact that your grandfather, Herman Ratliff Sr., played guitar in Memphis clubs with legends B.B. King and Muddy Waters in the 1940s. Was it inevitable that you would become a musician? What kind of support did you get from your family?

Yeah, entertainment is definitely in my DNA! I’ve actually been entertaining all my life, in one way or another.

I was the kid who would get up at the drop of a dime and do my spot-on Michael Jackson or Elvis (yes…I was an Elvis fanatic!) impersonation for the entire family...or whoever wanted to watch! I actually call myself the first Michael Jackson impersonator!

But as for my family, yes, music and entertainers were all around me. My uncle Fernando (Jones) and I would play our instruments (me on bass, him on guitar) in his mom’s (my grandmother’s) living room all day on Sunday afternoons!

His brother, my other uncle Greg, would teach us songs that he liked. Then we would play them all afternoon!

The only reason that no one stopped us was because we sounded pretty good! So, yeah, it was pretty inevitable. 

Q - You shared the stage with Lefty, along with your uncle, Fernando Jones, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon and others. What did you learn from playing with musicians of this caliber? What advice did they give you?

Playing with those guys allowed me to sit at the feet of some of the greatest musicians and performers of all time and learn! I learned about showmanship, timing and, most of all, TO BE YOURSELF!

One of the best pieces of advice I got was from Fernando. He said, in so many words, that the way you make people remember you is to be yourself. Be genuine.

Q - I understand you wrote your first song when you were 5, a duet with Jones (who was 6 at the time) called "Get Out Of Here." Does writing songs come easy for you?

One thing I’ve found is that you constantly have to keep practicing and honing your craft. I always say that songwriters “tune in” to the gazillions of songs that are out there in the air.

Not everyone can hear them…but they’re there. Now…I don’t mean to be all deep, but the more you stay in tune, the less difficult it becomes to channel the songs.
Q – You are president of the board of directors for Shorefront. Is it an honor to be associated with such an organization?

It is an amazing honor to be the President of the Shorefront. Shorefront is a non-profit organization that collects, preserves, and educates about Black history on Chicago’s suburban Northshore.

I have learned so much about Black history in general, and the importance of preserving heritage and using it as a foundation to move our community into the future.

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

The Chicago music scene is not as open to new, original music as I and others would like for it to be. Even with that said, it is a major city, and it affords opportunities to create your own opportunities.

That’s what I’m trying to do…not just sit and wait for things to happen. Make them happen! Create opportunities for myself and others!

Q – What is on your plate for the rest of the year?

Well, more live performances to celebrate the release of the new album. I’m looking to get my music heard by as many people, not only locally but nationally and internationally, [as possible].

I’m also looking to my move forward with the “Practice Your Purpose™” initiative. The mission is to inspire the global audience to find and practice their purpose on a daily basis. 

Leave your legacy!