During the great COVID-19 shutdown of 2020 we have plenty of time to ponder all sorts of things. Such as what does Chicago sound like? In the early days, Chicago sounded like the blues and jazz. By the 1960s, Chicago’s rock scene included bands such as The Buckinghams, The Cryan’ Shames, Shadows of Knight and New Colony Six. Named for the city, Chicago went on to become one the biggest bands in the world during the `70s and beyond. Other `70s acts included Styx, The Ides of March, Cheap Trick and REO Speedwagon. The Chicago music scene lost ground to other cities (Boston, New York and Los Angeles, for example) during the 1980s, but made up for it in the 1990s with acts such as Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, Veruca Salt and Urge Overkill, as well as the thriving house music scene.
Since the mid-1990s, Chicago has sounded a lot like Wilco. Under the leadership of Jeff Tweedy, Wilco morphed from an alt-country band into one the defies categorization. Don’t be misled by the title of Ode to Joy (dBpm), Wilco’s 11th studio album. There’s not much joy to be found, but there are plenty of gorgeous, experimentally accessible songs including “Before Us”, “Quiet Amplifier”, “One and a Half Stars” and “White Wooden Cross”. The poppiest numbers, “Everyone Hides” and “Love Is Everywhere (Beware)”, would be hit singles in a perfect world.
On its debut LP Jarvis (Coach House Sounds), produced by the legendary Brian Deck, the band Young Man in a Hurry sounds like it has benefited from some of the groundwork laid by Wilco. The 10 songs, written by front-man Matt Baron, have an immediate energy that draws in the listener for a pleasing audio experience. Standout tracks include “Give Me Patience”, the colorful “A Blue and Red Taxi and Bernie”, the shape-shifting “Tired of the Telephone”, the galloping “Larkin” and the layered rock of “Many Things”.
Whitney’s 2016 debut album Light Upon the Lake was a gorgeous, out of left field record that earned the band (led by Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek formerly of the Smith Westerns) a devoted following. Forever Turned Around (Secretly Canadian) maintains the standard set by its predecessor with ease. If there was ever a time right for a soft rock revival, it’s now, and Whitney deserves to be at the forefront. Opener “Giving Up” is a gorgeous as it is adventurous, beautifully setting the mood. Equally marvelous are the horns on “Before I Know It” and the instrumental “Rhododendron”, the piano on “Valley (My Love)”, the soulful harmonies on “Day & Night”, and the subtle country pop of “Friends of Mine”.
The Claudettes have a (maybe not so) secret weapon in their arsenal that none of the other bands in this column can claim. They have a gay member! Bassist and backing vocalist Zach Verdoorn (who donned gender fuck drag for the “Naked on the Internet” music video) is an out and proud member of the community. The Claudettes also have a fierce female lead vocalist – Berit Ulseth – who also gives the band its firepower on its second album, the ironically titled High Times in the Dark (Forty Below), released before the current COVID-19 situation. Continuing to promote it lightly bluesy brand of pop, The Claudettes light up the room with “Creeper Weed”, “I Swear to God, I Will”, the thirst-quenching “One Special Bottle”, the dramatic “You Drummers Keep Breaking My Heart” and a pair of stunners – “I Don’t Do That Anymore” and “The Sun Will Fool You”.
A Private Picture (Fire Talk), the debut album by the band Fran would have fit in well in the Chicago music scene of the 1990s. It recalls both the Wicker Park alternative rock sound as well as the cowpunk of early Bloodshot Records releases. Lead vocalist and songwriter Maria Jacobson brings all the drama of her theatrical training to the fore. It’s as effective on the rockers (“So Surreal”, “Company”) as it is on the more relaxed material (“In My Own Time”, “Time and Place”).
The music world suffered an irreplaceable loss when singer/songwriter Steve Goodman succumbed to leukemia at the age of 36 in 1984. Live ’69 (Omnivore) was recorded by Rich Warren, host of the legendary radio show The Midnight Special, in November 1969 in Champaign, Illinois at the University of Illinois Auditorium. It’s an early glimpse into the genius of Steve Goodman (listen to his cover of Tom Paxton’s “Ballad of Spiro Agnew”). Recorded before the release of Goodman’s legendary self-titled 1972 debut album (containing the original song “City of New Orleans”), Live `69 highlights his skills as an interpreter of other people’s songs.
Known as a sideman for Richard Thompson and Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco, of course!), James Elkington makes enduring folk music on his new album Ever-Roving Eye (Paradise of Bachelors). Elkington comes across as a musical descendant of Nick Drake and Bert Jansch, offering hope that a folk music revival may be waiting in the wings.
Whistling multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird doesn’t live in Chicago anymore (he relocated to Los Angeles in recent years), but you can still hear the sound he perfected while living in the Second City on his new album My Finest Work Yet (Loma Vista). Bird, who sounds like a combination of Nilsson and Father John Misty, effortlessly strikes a balance between humor and tragedy from start to finish, thereby delivering on the promise of the album’s title.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of Fifty Degrees (Seven Kitchens, 2016), selected by Ching-In Chen as co-winner of the Robin Becker Chapbook Prize. Other books by Shapiro include the short story collections How to Whistle (Lethe Press, 2016) and Lincoln Avenue (Squares and Rebels Press, 2014), the chapbook GREGG SHAPIRO: 77 (Souvenir Spoon Press, 2012), and the poetry collection Protection (Gival Press, 2008).
He has work forthcoming in the anthology Reading Queer: Poetry in a Time of Chaos (Anhinga Press, 2018). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBT and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.