Friday, November 30, 2018

"On Big Shoulders" celebrates Chicago's rich musical history


Old Town School of Folk Music teacher and fiddle player Matt Brown set out to educate himself about Chicago's rich musical history.

That mission turned into the album "On Big Shoulders." A CD release party for "On Big Shoulders" will be held at 7 p.m. Dec. 2 at Old Town School of Folk Music's Gary and Laura Maurer Concert Hall, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.

Tickets are $20 for the general public and $18 for Old Town School of Folk Music members, available online at

I had the chance to talk to Brown about the album.

Q – What was your inspiration to make the album? 

It had two facets that were originally unrelated. In my teaching at Old Town School of Folk Music, I do a certain amount of class preparation.

One week, I was looking for a song for my early country guitar class. I had success teaching a Delmore Brothers song. They were a duo from rural Alabama who played on the Grand Ole Opry in the 1930s.

One of my colleagues suggested another Delmore Brothers song called “I’m Mississippi Bound." I went to do a little research just so I could tell my class about it, and discovered that The Delmore Brothers had recorded several of their songs, including the two that we learned, “I’m Mississippi Bound" and “Brown’s Ferry Blues,” in Chicago in 1933.

That blew my mind. And it got me thinking about who else might have recorded here. And it turned out that Bill Monroe, when he first recorded with the seminal formation of the Blue Grass Boys that included Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt and Chubby Wise on fiddle, they also recorded here in Chicago in the Wrigley Building on Sept. 16, 1946. And that blew my mind.

And then I had an idea of putting together a lot of my favorite Chicago artists into an all-star band, not to tour, but to make a record that would fall into the genre that we now call Americana. And I put those two ideas together, that I could assemble a crew of some of my favorite singers and musicians and have them play songs that either were originally recorded in Chicago or also cover artists who are from Chicago.

On the album, we have a Wilco cover and we have a Sam Cooke song. He lived here for a formidable part of his life and career.

Q – I understand that Chicago musician Robbie Fulks contributed a new song to the album. Why did you want one of his songs represented on the album?

He's beloved here in town and around the country. I travel a lot as a musician and there are a couple of people who always come up when I say I'm from Chicago. People always bring up Robbie Fulks.

I asked him to write us a song and he did. He delivered this absolute gem that I love. It's right in the middle of the record. It's called "How Lonely Can You Be?"

He knew that Steve Dawson was going to sing it on the album. And he and Steve go way back. I feel like that is one of the highlights of the record.

Q – Did the record turn out the way you envisioned? What kind of feedback have you been getting so far about the record?

It definitely turned out the way I envisioned.  I have to say, I wasn't really certain what the record would sound like, I just knew that I would like it.

My co-producer, Liam Davis, also sings on the album and plays keyboards on a couple of songs. But he did all the editing and mixing and he injected some incredible arrangement ideas and sonic ideas that weren't part of my original conception.

Liam created this great arc in how he mixed and edited the album and also how he sequenced the tracks that wasn't anything that he and I discussed. So I'm thrilled with how it turned out and I keep listening to the album and keep discovering and appreciating it.

The feedback I've been getting has been very warm and a lot of people are surprised by the album, surprised by the diversity of the songs and the genres represented and I think that's a good thing. 

And hopefully they're learning that all these great musicians that maybe they didn't associate with Chicago either spent time here as residents or came here to make their records.

If they like the sound of the record and if they've learned a couple of things by hearing the record, then our mission is thoroughly accomplished.

Q – Is part of your mission to educate people about Chicago's musical history?

Totally. And honestly, this started out just educating myself about Chicago's musical history. I'm from Pennsylvania. I've lived in Chicago for seven years and I'm still just barely scratching the surface of my own awareness of all the great art that's been made here when it comes to music as well as all other art forms.

The process of researching this music was initially one to educate myself so I could educate my students at the Old Town School. And then it became this larger mission to make good music that anyone could enjoy but also educate an audience just a little bit so that they could be reminded that Chicago isn't only a hub for the electric blues.

And we didn't get into other genres that are so important to Chicago's history, like house music and hip hop and gospel. But I feel like we still did a good job with the musicians involved of showing the breadth of musical experiences that goes beyond the electric blues that fits within our wheelhouse.

Q – Do you think this album could kind of kick off a music series celebrating Chicago's music?

I would love that. I actually have another 30 or so songs or at least artists that I want to pay tribute to should this one album turn into the first of several or the first of many.

I'm not done educating myself about Chicago's history and what I've discovered is that there are so many great musicians living and working as musicians here in town. I'd love to get them back together and get new collaborators involved to continue to celebrate Chicago's history but also our contemporary songwriters.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Chicago band The Differents to release new album, will perform Nov. 21 at Schubas Tavern

The title of Chicago band The Differents' new album, "It's All Too Beautiful," is a nod to a band considered one of the most influential mod groups of the 1960s – Small Faces.

The Differents, which has carved out its place in the Chicago music scene, will celebrate the release of "It's All Too Beatiful" with a show Nov. 21 at Schubas Tavern, 3159 N. Southport Ave., Chicago.

The Safes, Baby Money and the Down Payments and The Marcatos also are on the bill. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets are $12, available at Schubas' website at

I had the chance to talk to guitarist and vocalist Lou Hallwas about the new album, which will be released Nov. 23.

Q – Great talking to you again. Congratulations on the release of your new album, "It's All Too Beautiful." Is the album's title a reference to the song "Itchycoo Park" by Small Faces? How has that band influenced your music?

Of course! Ha ha! To me, the Small Faces were the perfect band. They just had everything!

They weren’t contrived. Their output is just incredible! Just under four years together! Insane!

Their inspiration for us is the concise songwriting. An R&B foundation – Black American Music!

No matter whom I’m influenced by, it’s going to come out like me no matter what I do, so I don’t dwell on “Am I copying so-and-so?” I just let things come and shape them as I do.

Our drummer, Dan Garrity, came up with the title and already had the album cover in mind before we even started recording! I don’t think he was aware that the lyrical content in a lot of the songs would be perfect for his vision.

I love how things like that work out. It’s going to provide returns when you don’t overthink or over-control!

Q – In sitting down to make "It's All Too Beautiful," what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them?

The goal was to record a great album. We had a few new songs and picked tunes that were in the arsenal that weren’t recorded yet and a few songs we had recorded before, but we wanted to give those a new look.

To me, ten songs is the perfect length for an album, and I think this record is just about half an hour long. We’re really gelling as a band these days!

We’ve been writing tunes together and we just need to focus and finish them. I’m more excited about getting back to recording the new stuff!

Q – The Differents have been around since the early '90s. What's the chemistry like between the members?

Dan and I have been playing together since 1994. It just works. For as different as we are as people, we have similarities and hearts that bind us together.

When we play music, it’s just total feel and instinct and we just happen to lock in together without much effort. We’ve played together long enough to trust it.

Gary Stier came in to our sphere back in 2002, I want to say. We even joined his band for a time. A few years back, Dan and I were in our usual place of needing a bass player, and he volunteered. It was a no-brainer to me.

We’re like family. We don’t take each other’s friendship for granted, even though there’s not much said about it. We have each other’s best interests at heart.

Gary got us to the next place we needed to go, and he’s a songwriter and singer himself and I look forward to him getting more of his songs in there, as well as writing tunes together.

Q – The album was recorded by Adam Yoffe, the drummer in one of your other bands, Penthouse Sweets. He also is the director of broadcast and studio operations for WBEZ, correct? What do you think he brought to the project?

I love Adam like the day is long. I would hope WBEZ loves him too!

We have an instinctual musical relationship from playing in the Penthouse Sweets together. We’re like a comedy duo sometimes. Ha ha!

I love his drumming, and he’s a great bass player too! You would think that the rhythm section would be his main focus, but he’s more well-rounded than that!

He’s such a great arranger of ideas! He really helped me trim the fat! Recording the last Penthouse Sweets record was such a joy and a really great overall experience.

It was easy to decide on Adam as the producer and engineer for our album. He’s basically the fourth member of the band on this record.

He’s playing percussion and he and I even played piano together on “Read The Rights” – he covered the bass end of things and I was in the higher registers.

Q – Speaking of Penthouse Sweets, do you think both bands complement each other? It seems like strong melodies are an important part of both bands.

I think both bands have the same focus. It’s all about the song!

It’s the song you’re serving. That’s the most important thing! Having fun with stretching out and extending things in a psychedelic manner became the playground for the Penthouse Sweets. It was a natural evolution we went with.

Andy Hansen’s songs allowed us to add or subtract things that boosted the feel of the songs he was bringing in. With The Differents, we’re still growing together. We’re all about economy – hitting and running.

Hopefully leaving people wanting to hear more. Though I’m the main songwriter in The Differents, that’s evolving too! Gary and I have been writing together, and he’s started to bring in his own tunes.

Q – Of course you are also part of a honky tonk/rockabilly band, Decoy Prayer Meeting. Does each band satisfy a different part of you?

I love to play. That’s really the bottom line. My role differs in all the bands I’ve played in.

Decoy Prayer Meeting was and is a real educational thing for me. I’m no piano player, but I can contribute to the songs we do.

I’m not flashy by any means, but I can provide solid rhythmic support as well as melodic support in the higher registers. It’s a gas to learn all of these songs by Web Pierce, Hank Cochran, Jimmy Webb, Faron Young and the like; excellent songwriting, and that’s what I’m all about trying to do and be.

A Fab Songwriter man!!!

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Sonically adventurous Chicago band The Thin Cherries releases new album, will perform at the Debonair Social Club


There is no question that The Thin Cherries is one of the most sonically adventurous bands in the Chicago area.

The band's newly released sophomore album – "The Thin Cherries on Moose Island" – is further proof of that. To celebrate the release of the album, The Thin Cherries – headed by Chicago music veterans Steven Delisi and Mark Lofgren – will perform on Nov. 2 at the Debonair Social Club, 1575 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.

The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets are $10. I had the chance to talk to Lofrgren – who is also a member of psychedelic band The Luck of Eden – about the new album.

Q – Great talking to you. Congratulations on the release of your sophomore album. In sitting down to make "The Thin Cherries on Moose Island," what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them? 

We really wanted this album to be a collaborative endeavor. For the debut album, Steven Delisi and I began by writing all the tracks on acoustic and/or electric guitars and gradually fleshed out the demos with drums, keys and additional instruments. Gabe (drums) and Birdie (keys) essentially joined the band at the tail end of the first albums release. 

Gabe played on a few tracks, but most of that first album was Steven, Darren Shepherd and myself playing all the instruments.

For "The Thin Cherries on Moose Island," we set out to work out the tracks as a live band before we went into the studio. Most of the basic tracks are live takes with all of us playing together at Kingsize Sound Labs, augmented by some vocal overdubs and additional instrumentation.

Thanks to super producer Mike Hagler, I think the whole album has a more organic, unpredictable feel and really represents how we’ve gelled as a band. Really, the only exception was the first single, “I Don’t Know You All,” which Gabe and I came up with in his basement studio.

We still tracked live drums and guitars to it, but that song was structured on the fly in one drunken night.

 Q – It seems like there should be a story behind the album's name. Is there? 

Steven came up with the album title track and this idea of a mythical island somewhere where we all lived together and played music; a weird David Lynch-like town with quirky locals and unusual wildlife, and one diner where all the townsfolk congregated in to discuss their daily lives.

My friend, Jim Laugelli, a great artist, did the cover painting of "On Moose Island."

Q – I understand that the two of you have known each other for more than 20 years. Would you say you have a musical kinship? What was the idea behind forming The Thin Cherries?

Steven was actually a student of mine when I taught digital video at a design college way back when. He was a bit of a late bloomer and we were roughly the same age and hit it off.

When I directed an indie feature years ago, I used one of his bands' songs in the movie. I really liked Steven’s musical sensibilities and voice, which reminded me of David Byrne.

When I was taking a break from my main band at the time, The Luck of Eden Hall, and recording a solo album, Steven heard some of my tracks and suggested working on songs together. Around the time when Steven and I were working on demo tracks, multi-instrumentalist and all around impressive guy Darren Shepherd offered to play drums and additional guitars.

And the rest is, as they say…not so ancient history.

Q – How have the influences in your other projects found their way into The Thin Cherries? Did you not want The Thin Cherries to sound like your other bands?

The Luck of Eden Hall is firmly rooted in psychedelia and has a nice following in Europe and a cult following here in the states, but I wanted this band to be more fluid and genre-shifting. There are psychedelic elements in some songs, but there’s also some straightforward pop and electronica, as well as some alt-country touches.

Having multiple songwriters and instrumentalists helps keep things fresh, too.

Q – Is The Thin Cherries your primary musical focus these days? Will you also be working on other projects as well? 

I’m still an active member of The Luck of Eden Hall, and Greg Curvey and I will be working on new songs this winter, but The Thin Cherries is my primary focus. Drummer Gabe Palomo is a well known electronica DJ and Darren also plays in the longstanding Chicago band Belmondos.

Keyboardist Birdie Soti is classically trained and puts up with the rest of our rock and roll musical failings with humor and grace.

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

I love the variety of music you can hear in Chicago on any given night, from blues to folk to hardcore punk. There are too many great Chicago artists and bands to mention and the scene is always inspiring.

I really have no idea how we fit in; we’re just trying to have fun and play music we love.