Few forms of music and dance embody raw emotion as exquisitely as flamenco. This formidable and quintessentially Spanish art form fuses elements from Jewish, Arab, and Roma cultures and distills the essence of grief, tragedy, fear, and joy into every note, gesture, and stomp. Hosted principally by the Instituto Cervantes, the first half of the 18th annual Chicago Flamenco Festival (part two is promised this fall) consists of ten performances, an art exhibit, workshops, and a wine tasting over the course of a month. The carefully curated events focus on all three essential elements of flamenco: song (cante), dance (baile), and musicianship (toque). The bill includes artists from France and Spain as well as the U.S., including local favorites Clinard Dance Flamenco Quartet, featuring Wendy Clinard as principal dancer, Steve Gibons on violin, Marija Temo on vocals and guitars, and Jose Moreno on vocals. San Diego flamenco dancer La Chimi will perform with dancer, percussionist, and guitarist Oscar Valero and guitarist Jose Manuel Alconchel at the opening-night ceremony on Thursday, February 27, and then the next night with her ensemble, Luna Flamenca, at the festival’s first full-length performance. Among the other artists are Jose del Tomate, a 21-year-old guitarist born into a long dynasty of acclaimed flamenco musicians, and dancer Nino de los Reyes, who has performed with international jazz and pop superstars Chick Corea and Paul Simon and recently became the first-ever dancer to win a Grammy; he contributed rapid-fire footwork and clapping to the 2019 Corea album Antidote (Concord). Rather than showcase the sort of glam-pop flamenco popularized by superstars such as Rosalia, the fest focuses on straight-to-the-jugular flamenco whose undiluted power may allow the audience to experience duende–the mystical force and passionate, enrapturing spirit of flamenco. In either case, these performances will undoubtedly heat up Chicago’s winter nights. v
Guitarist-vocalist Julia Steiner and guitarist David Sagan met as first-year students at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, and they’ve since become ingrained in Chicago underground rock. Under the name Ratboys, they made themselves a home in the emo scene in the mid-2010s, playing country-flecked indie songs and drawing in a couple prolific collaborators to fill out their live sets: drummer Marcus Nuccio of Pet Symmetry and Mountains for Clouds and bassist Sean Neumann, who makes delightful indie pop as Jupiter Styles (he’s also a Reader contributor). This rhythm section bolsters the Ratboys’ third album, the new Printer’s Devil (Topshelf), a soothing reflection on growing older and bittersweet farewells. Steiner and Sagan wrote it in Steiner’s childhood home in Louisville, Kentucky, as her parents went through the process of selling the house. When she gently sings, “I just had a thought / ‘What if I never came home?'” at the beginning of the taut, straightforward single “I Go Out at Night,” you can feel the thrill and sadness in her voice as she processes her growing sense of dislocation. The sweet, wordless vocal harmony that rises up in the middle of “My Hands Grow” suggests that relief can be found in the homes we make for ourselves–and Steiner has thankfully fashioned her own anchor with her band. v
The alternative-rock boom of the 1990s resulted in lots of outre musicians landing major-label deals that would’ve been unthinkable in any decade before or since. Chicago four-piece Cupcakes, who emerged in 1996, both exemplify and transcend that era. On their sole album, 2000’s Cupcakes, released on Dreamworks, they mold arena rock bombast, power-pop hooks, and dance ecstasy into freewheeling jams whose clean polish glistens even when the songwriting doesn’t quite shine. Front man Preston Graves frequently busts out a show-stopping falsetto that kicks the songs into hyperdrive, a vocal feat that stood out in a time of postgrunge front men who were more likely to bellow than croon. But Cupcakes’ idiosyncratic ingenuity comes out most strongly in their blend of rock and electronic music–every so often an arpeggiating guitar line that evokes a trance melody cuts through to accentuate the interstellar panache in Graves’s lyrics. Cupcakes have been dormant for most of the past two decades, but they decided to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their only album with a reunion performance. Even if Graves can no longer hit the high notes on the semi-acoustic ballad “Cosmic Imbecile,” this is a don’t-miss show. v
The works of Ganavya Doraiswamy and Rajna Swaminathan offer a highly personal take on Carnatic music (South Indian classical music) that seamlessly blends ideas from different time periods and genres. On Doraiswamy’s debut album, 2018’s Aikyam: Onnu (Yattirai), the vocalist and composer suffuses jazz standards such as George Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” with a spirit all her own, singing in a mix of English and Tamil, using styles beholden to the tradition of vocal jazz as well as to Carnatic music, and interweaving the material with Tamil anticolonial songs and Indian spirituals. The eloquence with which she merges these systems highlights her interest in addressing caste-based oppression and makes a provocative invitation for us to consider the commonalities between different cultures. On her 2019 album Of Agency and Abstraction (Biophilia), Swaminathan plays the mridangam, a traditional double-headed drum, with an ensemble that sometimes includes Doraiswamy, creating jazz pieces that draw from Carnatic music to bolster their restless tension and invigorating energy. At their duo performance at this year’s Frequency Festival (booked by former Reader staff writer Peter Margasak), Doraiswamy and Swaminathan will fluidly move between their own original compositions, devotional poems, Buddhist texts, and jazz standards. Their music tackles historical systems of oppression, and they aim to explore these social realities in a manner that provides opportunities for healing. Expect musically and thematically multifaceted works that open up a space for deep contemplation. v
The history of improbably successful and long-lasting 70s prog band Nektar is a complicated one. The story starts in 1968, when four British lads–guitarist-singer Roye Albrighton, keyboardist-vocalist Allan Freeman, bassist-singer-Mellotron player Derek Moore, and drummer Ron Howden–met at the Star Club in Hamburg (where another group of British lads, the Beatles, famously cut their teeth). They’d been playing in different bands in Germany since 1965, and they bonded over their mutual love of the Fab Four and the new avant-garde directions rock music was taking. They formed Nektar in 1969, and by the following year they’d added fifth member Mick Brockett, who operated their heady light show and occasionally helped with lyrics and titles. Their first LP, 1971’s Journey to the Center of the Eye, remains a fine example of the psychedelic concept album: its single epic song, which fills both sides of the album, is about an astronaut given vast knowledge by aliens (naturally) and verges on what many would call “experimental Krautrock” these days. The 1972 release A Tab in the Ocean furthered Nektar’s cult appeal while streamlining their sound into more conventional psychedelic-progressive rock a la Pink Floyd and Yes. In the mid-70s, as Nektar became more melodic–even touching on funky rhythms–they found some commercial success while still exploring sci-fi themes. They broke into the top 20 on U.S. charts with 1973’s Remember the Future, and the following year Down to Earth landed in the Top 40. The entire band moved to the States in 1976, but before and after releasing their slick 1978 major-label debut, Magic Is the Child, they underwent a series of lineup changes, and in the early 80s they called it quits. Now fast-forward to the year 2000, when Nektar re-emerged with a new album, The Prodigal Son. The next year, the classic lineup headlined the popular prog festival NEARfest. After a zillion more personnel changes and tours with various members, Albrighton died in 2016, but Moore and Howden (both based in New Jersey) and Brockett (in Pennsylvania) nonetheless vowed to celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary. Last year they holed up and tackled some old demos as well as some new tunes for a new LP called The Other Side, which suffers slightly from overly tasty playing and production but still hints at their monumental past glories. On their current tour, Nektar are rumored to be revisiting sounds from their earliest LPs. With former Fireballet guitarist Ryche Chlanda back in the band (he joined briefly in 1978, as a 21-year-old wunderkind) and Brockett resuming his old-school live-light-show duties, this show promises to be once-in-a-lifetime heady space-prog trip, so climb aboard while you can. v
The members of Detroit art-rock group Saajtak met at the University of Michigan in the early 2010s, when all four participated in an improvising ensemble called the Creative Arts Orchestra. They’ve since carried the experimental traditions they explored as students into their work in Saajtak and into their individual creative pursuits–each has developed such an impressive career that their CVs could fill a chapbook. Bassist Ben Willis composes music for dancers in a theater troupe called Nerve; percussionist Jon Taylor reframes ancestral Eastern European Jewish songs in new-music compositions as part of the ensemble Teiku; electronics maestro Simon Alexander-Adams has presented his multimedia art at Coachella; and vocalist Alex Koi has performed at the Toronto Jazz Festival. In Saatjak, they build off improvised sessions to create bristling, quasi-operatic recordings that feel primed to shift unexpectedly and travel down an entirely different path at any moment. They’ve made a point of documenting their creative possibilities and showcasing their open-minded attitude in the process; 2019’s self-released If You Ask EP includes two original songs, three remixes, and an acoustic interpretation of the title track. On the original “If You Ask,” Saajtak transform a minimal, undulating rhythm and an avian vocal harmony into a thunderous, dramatic rock symphony led by Koi’s acrobatic powerhouse singing; it enlivens the song’s most fragile moments with a feral energy that could power a fleet of lesser bands. v
Memphis musicians enjoy a well-deserved reputation for having more going on beneath the surface than they initially let on. Alex Chilton, Tav Falco, and Jim Dickinson are known for putting a trashy stamp on roots music in their songwriting, but they also incorporate outside influences at unpredictable times. Such is also the case with the Reigning Sound, led by singer-guitarist Greg Cartwright–a founding member of the Oblivians, a trio that deconstructs blues and punk until they sound nearly avant-garde. Though the Reigning Sound, which Cartwright launched in 2001, are far more earthbound, they also have many dimensions. Where the Oblivians use the blues as a touchstone, the Reigning Sound draw on Memphis’s soul legacy, and much like the garage bands that came from the city in the 1960s (the Gentrys, the Box Tops), they can incorporate that influence without camping things up. On their most recent studio album, 2014’s Shattered, Cartwright’s vocals sound like Van Morrison circa 1967, after he left Them but before the jazzy textures of Astral Weeks. While soul is front and center, a folk-rock strain runs through a significant portion of the record–and remarkably, it never sinks into lazy introspection. Cartwright’s message to the world sounds powerful even confined to a record, and he burns like a candle onstage. v
Psalm Zero have been playing a hybrid form of industrial metal informed by the noisier side of dark and electronic music since forming in New York in 2012. Originally the duo of multi-instrumentalist Charlie Looker (a classical composer and cofounder of experimental bands Extra Life and Zs) and guitarist Andrew Hock, the group showcased synth-heavy avant-rock compositions on their first two albums, 2014’s The Drain and 2016’s Stranger to Violence (both on Profound Lore). But shortly after the release of Stranger to Violence, Looker parted ways with Hock after Hock was accused of sexual assault. That decision forced Looker to cancel several previously scheduled tour dates, but he retained the Psalm Zero name and continued to write material for the band while occasionally collaborating with friends. The band’s new album, Sparta (on Looker’s Last Things imprint), features bassist Ron Varod and drummer Keith Abrams, known for their work with New York avant-garde/progressive metal group Kayo Dot (who headline this tour in support of their own new full-length, Blasphemy). Sparta feels more clear-hearted and intentional than Psalm Zero’s earlier records, perhaps as a result of Looker reassessing his approach after Hock’s departure. Whatever the reason, Sparta is an evolution: though the band’s roots in industrial metal and darkwave are still perceptible, a stronger sense of storytelling comes through on tracks such as “Return to Stone” (with guest vocals from Kristin Hayer, aka Lingua Ignota) and “Animal Outside.” Looker’s earnest-sounding singing on the latter recall Violator-era Dave Gahan, and make me wonder if this could’ve been an alternative-pop chart hit had it been released in 1990. It seems likely that Psalm Zero are just going to grow from here, so this show is a good chance to see them on their way up. v
The Chicago Bears released a pair of veterans on Friday. Here’s why the moves were the right decision.
It turns out the freezing temperatures aren’t the only thing leaving Chicago this weekend.