Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions - We're a Winner - A real uplifting springtime joint from the undisputed king of Chicago Soul, Curtis Mayfield. This tune is one of those rare treasures where all of the elements work perfectly together to create a perfect jewel of sound. The slack jazz guitar, vibes, crowd vocals, syrupy bass, and the tub thumping drums combine to create something of pure beauty. This track also represents the beginning of the "message" music that Mayfield would embrace in the later half of the 1960s. Mayfield grew up in Chicago and was well aware of the injustices and brutality of racism, and he used his voice to help those around him strive for something better. This tune is all about working for equality at a time of immense change, and Mayfield's words and voice bring that message home.
Young Holt Unlimited - Hey Pancho - A funky little soul strutter from the Young Holt Unlimited. Young Holt created some of the most iconic Chicago soul music ever recorded, scoring huge hits with tunes like "Whack-Whack" and "Soulful Strut". The group began as a trio and played funky, cabaret style piano grooves that were popular in the Chicago's many cocktail lounges in the early 1960s. Organ and piano trios were the staple of the Chicago lounge scene, and The Young Holt Trio, and Ramsey Lewis were the kings of the genre. On this track the Holt gets pretty funky for their album of Curtis Mayfield composed Superfly covers. The track is a loose, funky soul number with hard electric piano, drums and a fierce groove. The Holt was getting a bit long in the tooth when this was recorded, but these old cats played the funky new stuff with confidence and hustle.
Major Lance - Um Um Um Um Um Um - This tune is the quintessential Chicago soul number. Cut in 1964 for the Okeh label, the track was penned by Curtis Mayfield and delivered by Major Lance. From the beginning bass drop in the first measure of the tune, a slinky mood is set, and it doesn't relent throughout the two minute masterpiece. Mayfield's loose, funky guitar style can be heard throughout the track, and the latin percussion and jazz influenced horns in the bridge scream Chicago. In the early sixties, immigrants from Latin America were just beginning to migrate to midwestern industrial centers like Chicago, and as they came, they brought with them fierce rhythms and percussive elements. This tune incorporates those rhythms and layers them with the Chicago blues and jazz feel that was popular at the time. While the music is impeccable and lovely, this tune's message is kind of radical for a pop number. This is a tune about an old cat who is still taken aback by the beauty of a fine female, and a young man who is just beginning to understand what romance is all about. This is a song about sex for sure, but it's also about wisdom, understanding, and how somethings in life just never change.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
The women who work at Ideal Pastry are mean, but then again, kindness is overrated. Nobody needs a pleasant 'hello' when indulging in pastry consumption. Sometimes a look of derision is well deserved when you’ve just purchased a bag overflowing with chocolate bismarks, danish, and kolaches. The Polish women who man the counter at Ideal Pastry in Jefferson Park might not be the most welcome hostesses in the donut game, but they get the job done. They’ll tell you all about the special croissants, pastries and breads for sale at the bakery, but they will never love you.
A Jefferson Park staple for decades, people have been flocking to Ideal for donuts, bread and coffee cake for generations. On weekend mornings the place is filled with plump old men in high wasted pants and fedoras ordering coffee cake and turnovers. The place still does a brisk business from new clientele and a dedicated contingent of regulars. The bakery has switched ownership a few times, and the once traditional American bakery, now has a strong Polish flavor. The new owners expanded the store front on Milwaukee Ave. to accommodate a Polish style deli and ethnic food shop. While these offerings are enjoyable and eclectic, Ideal’s baked goods are still the real stars. The unassuming shop makes some of the best European style bread in Chicago, and people have been rumored to travel far and wide for a loaf of their Lithuanian rye bread. The bakery also makes traditional rye, pumpernickel, rustic wheat and multi grain breads, as well as excellent croissants. Those seeking sweeter fair will enjoy Ideal's bismarks, which have a slightly chewy raised dough, rich dark chocolate, and a custard filling that can only be described as 'inappropriate'. The bakers use only the highest quality ingredients, and the attention to detail comes through in their work. The fruit in the kolaches, donuts and danishes is slightly tart and never saccharine or gummy, and the pastries are just buttery enough to drive someone completely mad with desire. People interested in American style bakery products, or chipper, overtly enthusiastic customer service, might be a little out of luck in this north side establishment. But make no mistake about it, what this bakery lacks in a kind "howdy do", it makes up for with some of the best baked goods in Chicago.
So when you arrive at Ideal Pastry and get painfully dismissive glances and shouts of “next!” from the elegant Polish lady behind the counter, just remember - you have a paper bag filled with chocolate, custard, and powered sugar, and in a few seconds, your day is going to get awesome.
4765 N Milwaukee Ave
Chicago Illinois, 60630
Sunday, February 13, 2011
Even back in the 1940's Chicago was a bustling metropolis filled with working people, tycoons, and hustlers. The city also looked a little rough around the edges, and you can see the evidence of the city's rural past folding into the more industrialized corners. This was a city that still had farm houses and prairies in its vicinity.
This film, shot in color film, documents a city hustling around and wrapped up in day to day life. Adverts scream in vivid hues of vague racism, americana, and traditionalist ideas. This is a world where doctors recommend smoking Chesterfields and drinking Schlitz Beer. Much of this world no longer exists. It's interesting to see North Ave. and State Street with shoppers in three piece suits, mink coats and fedora hats. There are certain sequences in this film that look like they were taken in another reality, but there are the occasional, surprisingly familiar moments that look like they were captured yesterday.
Friday, February 11, 2011
The music industry is a fickle mistress. Making, selling, and promotion music in 2011 is at times a daunting pursuit. The accessibility of internet file sharing, cultural disinterest, and dispassionate consumers has decimated large swaths of the once thriving independent music industry. Chicago’s Thrill Jockey Records remains one of the few labels thriving in this difficult musical landscape. The label, founded in 1992 by owner, Bettina Richards, has been releasing well packaged, beautifully recorded, eclectic independent records since its inception. The label has never wavered in its commitment to musical innovation, and has always cultivated artists pushing the limits of sound.
In the early 1990’s independent music was booming all across the globe, with indie bands releasing a flurry of 7inch records, LPs, CDs and mix tapes. For a a while, it seemed like people everywhere were making and recording music. Chicago was a main cultural hub for artists looking to collaborate, meet other music makers, play out, and promote their recordings. People from all over the country were making the pilgrimage to Chicago to be a part of its thriving music scene. Cheap rent, a close knit community, and popular record labels were just a few of the reason artists made the trek to the city of big shoulders. Chicago bands of the period experimented with punk, jazz, funk, soul, dub, and it was not unusual for these bands to combine this multitude of influences in the music they were making. The city in the early 90’s was bubbling over with musical innovation and a jubilant creative spirit. Thrill Jockey Records came out of this time when it seemed like anything was possible in independent music. In an early release, such as the self titled debut by the Chicago band Tortoise, the label’s genre bending aesthetic and creative spirit are completely evident. Tortoise’s sound was revolutionary, and the band’s mix of soundtrack music, dub, jazz, and post punk was unlike anything being recorded at the time. Thrill Jockey packaged the band’s debut in hand silk screened covers on brown chipboard, beginning a hand made trend in music packaging that would continue for years to come. The label continued to release strikingly creative music throughout the 90’s by bands like The Sea and Cake, Sam Prekop, Eleventh Dream Day, Tortoise, Bobby Conn, Gastr Del Sol, Rome, Mouse on Mars, Freakwater, Califone, Oval and Trans Am.
Thrill Jockey still cultivates unusual artists from all over the musical map. The label has never had a definitive musical style, and the only connective thread between its artists is the consistent quality and innovative nature of the work. Releasing everything from the folk, psychedelic chug of a band like Arboretum, to the elegant African guitar minimalism of an artist such as Sidi Toure, there isn’t a style of music that Thrill Jockey hasn’t touched. The label has managed to stay ahead of the digital music malaise by providing digital downloads, purchasable on their website, alongside their CDs and LPs. Although digital downloads might be the future of music, it hasn’t stopped the label from releasing beautifully packaged recordings. Each recording put out by Thrill Jockey is a wonderfully considered piece of sonic art. Everything from the recording process, mixing, and packaging reinforces the label's strong aesthetic rationale.
In a world that sees independent music labels shutting down on an almost daily basis, it's nice to know that a Chicago treasure like Thrill Jockey Records is still sourcing great artists, and releasing some of the most consistently adventurous music around.
For information on Thrill Jockey artists, recordings, and merchandise, please visit their site at www.thrilljockey.com
Sidi Touré - "Taray Kongo" with Jambala Maiga from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.
Tortoise - Prepare Your Coffin from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Lee Balterman is a photographer for such publications as Life, Fortune, Time, and Sports Illustrated. This short film captures his personal documentary work focusing on Chicago, its people and nightlife. The photos are hazy, immediate, and capture Chicago's working class ethos and eccentric spirit. Balterman's photos show a city filled with soldiers, factory workers, jazz clubs, taverns, and line cooks. They show a city that rolled up its sleeves, woke up early, and drank away the blues.
Monday, February 7, 2011
|Hound Dog Taylor illustration by Tom Vadakan|
The first time I heard Hound Dog Taylor it felt like I got hit with a seventy pound hammer. I was in a downtown office sorting files and a coworker had placed the cassette tape into a cracked boom box. When the sound poured around the small space, I stood stunned, unable to place exactly what I was hearing. I stopped sorting for a few minutes and listened to the raw, see-saw swing of Hound Dog’s thunderous guitar boogie. The tune was “She’s Gone” off of the Alligator Record’s 1971 release entitled, Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers. The sincerity and passion of the tune smashed me in my face, and sat proudly in the pit of my stomach.
Growing up in Chicago in the 1980’s, blues music was something of an afterthought. The blues was no longer the siren’s song of the Southside, it was relegated to sports bars, and towny taverns filled with fat, white mustachioed men. Growing up I’d listened to Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf on late night radio programs and heavy vinyl records. I had always liked the blues, but as I got older and more cynical about music, the blues seemed to get placed on the back burner. As I grew older it seemed like the blues was more the music of beer drinking white guys, than prophetic black storytellers. Somewhere in my mind the blues had become a parody of itself, devoid of real feeling or expression. That was until I heard Hound Dog and his guitar that sounds like it’s being played through a can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup.
Born in Natchez, Mississippi in 1915, Taylor’s personal bio reads like an imaginative, American folkloric legend. Crazy stories buzz around Taylor like bumble bees in springtime. It has been said that he was born with six fingers on each hand, and that he was kicked out of his father’s house at gunpoint when he was only 9 years old. While these stories are speculative at best, he did go to live with his older sister when he was a young boy, God only knows if this was because of a shotgun toting father. He began learning guitar in his teens, but didn’t start playing seriously until he was in his twenties. As a young man he toured all across the Mississippi Delta, playing guitar and piano, and performing on notable programs like the King Biscuit Flour Radio Show. In 1942, Taylor found his way to Chicago after a brush with the Ku Klux Klan and an irascible white woman. While in Chicago he gave up the blues in favor of stable employment, and worked for the next 15 years in various odd jobs. In 1957, he decided to become a full time blues man and hone his unique slide guitar style. Known for his boisterous live performances, Taylor soon became a big hit on the burgeoning Chicago electric blues scene. Influenced by the raucous style of fellow bluesman, Elmore James, Taylor gigged religiously and was often said to play “all-nighters” in any number of smoky Chicago clubs. Taylor’s guitar tone was legendary, and it was said he could create distortion and feeling like no one else, partially due to the fact that he only played through cheap guitar amps. The combination of the crackly speakers with Taylor’s passionate style garnered the bluesman a dedicated following in a cutthroat scene. In 1969 Hound Dog met a record store clerk named, Bruce Iglauer while playing a gig at a Chicago blues bar. Iglauer would become Taylor’s manager and help him record and release his debut album.
That debut album was what I heard pouring put of those speakers. Hound Dog Taylor wasn’t just a bluesman, he was more of a blues alliteration. A man who soaked up music like a thirsty towel and lived in a world of his own creation. On that afternoon, after hearing Taylor rip through his bars with more passion than a loose bull, and more grit than an asphalt black top, I redefined the blues for myself, and I haven’t looked back.
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
The compilation is the work of record collector Dante Carfugna, and every track is taken from Carfugna’s deep 45 rpm record crates. Each track is a gem of strange fuzzed out psychedelic guitar, hard as nails drums, and vocals about wine, women, drugs, and tribulation. The mix of tunes highlights Chicago at its meanest, blackest, and funkiest. The tune “Yeah, Yeah” by the group Blackrock captures the compilation’s ethos perfectly, with its haunting introductory chant, menacing piano, soul guitar and pounding syncopated drums. Other tunes like, “Corruption’s the Thing”, by Creations Unlimited, highlight the vibrant psychedelic rock scene that was happening in Chicago’s far flung neighborhoods. More than a few of the tracks borrow from other midwestern bands like Grand Funk Railroad and The MC5, but the aggression and psychedelia is dipped in a thick soulful sauce that is pure Chicago. Some of the artists in this collection are not Chicago natives, but the sounds they produce represent Chicago's grimy, work a day shuffle perfectly.
Word on the street is Carfugna gave up record collecting a few years back, and has since gone down the proverbial straight and narrow path. Thankfully, he dug into his crates and gave the world Chains and Black Exhaust before he felt it was time to get out of the game - The world is better for it.