Monday, August 31, 2009

Ralph’s World - Pure Pop For Knee High People

Photo from

I’m not really sure what kind of kids music was available when I was a tyke. I only remember my Mom singing Betty Johnson’s 1958 hit “Little Blue Man” to me. The song was about a woman being stalked by the title character, who keeps proclaiming, “I wuv you!” Eventually the woman throws him off the top of a tall building.

These days, singer-guitarist Ralph Covert takes a more positive approach to singing to kids on his Ralph’s World CDs. I’ve enjoyed Covert as the lead vocalist of the power pop band The Bad Examples, but the only thing I knew about Ralph’s World was that we sold a lot of the CDs when I worked in the music department at Borders. So when Ralph’s World came to the Downtown Palatine Street Fest last Sunday, I walked over to check it out.

Similar to the stuff he writes for The Bad Examples, Covert’s Ralph’s World songs have catchy, guitar driven arrangements. But instead of singing about romantic relationships or surviving the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, he’s dealing with dancing animals and chocolate cake mountains. Working with a full band, he offers plenty of “Freddy Bear The Teddy Bear” and “Four Little Duckies” silliness, but several of his tunes are genuinely clever.

“Dinosaur Rumble” comes up with some funny consequences of playing with a prehistoric beast, like when he demolishes the swing set. “Surfin In My Imagination,” a fun Beach Boys style song, encourages kids to be creative, while “Happy Not My Birthday” suggests that you don’t always have to be the center of attention to have a good time. “The Coffee Song” pokes fun at Mom and Dad’s need for a daily dose of caffeine.

Part of the success of Ralph’s World must be that parents trust Covert not to create songs that will drive them crazy. The adults in the audience at Downtown Palatine Fest were having a great time singing, dancing, and jumping up and down with their kids. Covert gave them all quite a workout with shouted suggestions like “Let’s hop like frogs!” or “Let’s flap our wings like bats!” After an hour long set of breezy songs like “Happy Lemons” and “At The Bottom Of The Sea,” Covert invited kids and their parents to join him onstage for a rollicking finale that included a snippet of Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re An American Band” and a parody of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” called “Nap Time Action.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

CD Review: The Handcuffs - Electroluv

Brad Elvis Steakley, former drummer with The Elvis Brothers, first hooked up with vocalist-guitarist Chloe F. Orwell in the band Big Hello, and they continue to make top notch power pop as The Handcuffs. Electroluv, their second effort, also features guitarist Ellis Clark from the band Epicycle, as well as a few guest appearances from Brad’s former Elvis Brother, Graham on bass. Emily Togni plays bass on most of the other tracks.

The title track, a tribute to a vacuum cleaner, shows Steakley’s knack for writing songs that combine fun lyrics and strong melodies. The catchy “Baby Boombox” celebrates audio cassettes, 8 tracks, and turntables, while the very short “Russian or Polish Girl” is a micro-sized Gilbert & Sullivan opera. The only lyrics to “Gotta Problem With Me?” are “You gotta problem with me, I gotta problem with you” but Orwell’s feisty attitude and the energetic arrangement somehow make it work.

Not that everything on Electroluv aims for the funny bone. The mid-tempo “Wonderful Life” takes a bittersweet look at living alone, and “Turn It Up,” the only song written by Orwell, is more of a lush ballad. The various keyboards used on “Fake Friends” evoke a James Bond movie theme as Orwell sings, “Creatures like you make my skin crawl.” “Somebody Somewhere” may be the CD’s best track, an energetic blast of power pop at its best.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Smithereens Live: Master Craftsmen At Work

(Photo from The Smithereens Facebook Page)

Although they’re based in New Jersey, The Smithereens must be aware of Chicago’s unabashed love of power pop because their performance at the recent Lake View Fest was at least their fourth here in the past couple of years. They’ve been masters of the genre ever since their Beauty and Sadness EP received a rave review in Rolling Stone back in 1983. Generally, people think of Especially For You, which was released three years later, as the band’s first record since it brought them national attention via its irresistibly catchy songs.

The Smithereens opened their show at Lake View Fest (which was literally next door to Wrigley Field) with a rollicking version of “Behind The Wall Of Sleep,” one of the better tracks from Especially For You. The only time they slowed down over the next 90 minutes was for the somber ballad “Cigarette.” They also performed songs from Green Thoughts, Blow Up, and 11, all of which were well known to the audience judging by the applause and shouts of approval. “House We Used To Live In” featured some dynamic vocal give and take from lead singer-guitarist Pat DiNizio, guitarist Jim Babjak, and bassist Severo Jornacion and segued into the instrumental “Sparks,” from The Smithereens' recently released CD version of The Who’s Tommy. They also played “Acid Queen” and “I’m Free.” Jornacion, who replaced original bassist Mike Mesaros and is dubbed The Thrilla From Manila by DiNizio, propelled the band through the cult classic “Blood And Roses.”

DiNizio was in high spirits, recalling how he lived in the Wrigleyville area for a few years, and asking people to move closer to the stage. Babjak, a nice guy as well as a first rate guitarist, reached into the audience on a few occasions to personally hand someone a guitar pick. The Smithereens finished their show by leading a sing-along of The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” and afterwards, signed autographs and chatted with fans at the side of the stage.

Brehmer’s Bash: A Day In The Park

(photo from WXRT website)

Lin Brehmer, the morning DJ on Chicago's progressive rock station WXRT, has always assured his listeners that he’s their best friend in the whole world. On Friday, August 21st, he invited them to drop by the Arlington Park Racetrack to celebrate his birthday with a free live broadcast featuring musical guests.

For years, Brehmer has offered a refreshing alternative to the usual obnoxious mayhem served up by rock ‘n’ roll morning drive-time types. Whether he’s lamenting the Cubs’ frustrating season, relating how he mispronounced Bono’s name in an early interview with the U2 frontman, or recalling the time he brought Australian garage rock band The Hoodoo Gurus back to his house at 3AM much to his wife’s dismay, Brehmer exudes a one-of-the-guys persona.

The fans who showed up at Arlington Park greeted the DJ with hugs and handshakes. Most brought cans of food to donate to the Greater Chicago Food Depository, as he had requested. Once the live broadcast began, news anchor Mary Dixon introduced a series of recorded tributes that were supposed to be about Brehmer, but actually honored Bono, President Obama, or ex-president Bill Clinton. People who, Dixon teasingly pointed out, had actually done something with their lives. Kristin Kay, who joins Brehmer and Dixon each Wednesday for the Corporate Takeover, a promotion that involves bringing snacks to companies around Chicago, was also on hand.

Singer-guitarist Alice Peacock, joined by guitarist Danny Myrick, charmed the audience with an acoustic version of “City Of Angels.” The melodic song, in which she describes missing Chicago while working within the frantic environment of Los Angeles, is from her latest CD, Love Remains. Jon Langford, a world renowned musician as well as one of the hosts of WXRT’s weekly program The Eclectic Company, performed a trio of songs with his band, Skull Orchard. The biting, socially relevant lyrics and guitar-driven arrangements evoked the vintage U.K punk of one of Langford’s other bands, The Mekons. Afterward, he told me the three songs will be on a soon to be released CD.

Throughout the three hour broadcast - - which included recorded birthday greetings from media personalities -- Brehmer, Dixon, and Kay mingled with members of the audience, creating a casual, summer party ambience. Fittingly, the Brehmer Bash ended with the surprise appearance of an Arlington Park donated birthday cake big enough for everyone in attendance, and a spirited rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

Friday, August 21, 2009

CD Review: Crosby, Stills & Nash - Demos

As Crosby, Stills & Nash celebrate their 40th anniversary, Rhino Records gives us Demos, an archive of tapes recorded by the trio in preparation for joint and solo efforts from 1969 through the early 1970s. Most of the tracks present Crosby, Stills, or Nash performing alone on acoustic guitar, and the bare bones arrangements are in stark contrast to the way we’re used to hearing this music. But the strong melodies and those famous voices come through loud and clear, particularly when Stephen Stills blasts his way through “Love The One You’re With.” Graham Nash performs his politically charged “Chicago” on piano, and David Crosby weaves his way through the paranormal imagery of “Deja Vu” on acoustic guitar.

Demos also includes various combinations of these musicians, like on a spirited version of “Marrakesh Express” that has Nash singing lead and playing acoustic guitar, Crosby adding the harmony, and Stills playing bass. “Long Time Gone” features a bluesy vocal style from Crosby while some terse bass and drum playing by Stills emphasize the song’s counter culture message. The utopian “Music Is Love” is the only track that includes Neil Young, as he sings and strums guitar along with Crosby and Nash. Demos provides a fascinating behind the scenes look at how one of rock’s most influential groups created some of its best material.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hollus Brings Classic Rock To Martyrs' Club

Art taken from the Hollus Facebook Page

Hollus has a 9PM Roots Rock Evening show at Martyrs’ on Chicago’s north side this Friday, August 21st. The club is located at 3855 N. Lincoln Avenue, (773) 404-9494. As you might guess from the cool retro poster being used to promote the gig, this band is deeply into classic rock.

After I likened Hollus to early Rod Stewart in a preview of this year’s International Pop Overthrow that I wrote for the Illinois Entertainer, the band’s blog insisted that a more precise comparison would have been Stewart’s 1970s band, The Faces. Fair enough. Hollus rocked The Abbey club at their IPO appearance, winning over an audience that had come to hear power pop music. Lead vocalist Jamison Acker and lead guitarist Michael Lux-Sauer are an impressive one-two punch and the rest of the band provides solid support.

The group’s latest CD, Joker and the Queen has plenty of good material, which you can see Hollus performing live on videos at The clever Live On The Latest Show Ever clip for “Hold On” is particularly good. Hollus will also be at the Harvest Jam in Chicago on September 19th.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Abbie Fest Aftermath

Photo by Gavin Robinson, taken from Mary-Arrchie Facebook Photo Album

Mary-Arrchie Theatre presented Abbie Hoffman Died For Our Sins XXI over the past weekend, and this annual festival showed no signs of losing steam. Having only seen a fraction of the performances this year, it’s hard to make a fully informed assessment, but the opening ceremonies on Friday literally set the stage for what was to follow. Audience members clapped, stamped their feet, and whooped it up in anticipation of Artistic Directory Richard Cotovsky’s arrival in the persona of Abbie Hoffman. His political ranting, flavored with a touch of stand-up comedy and delivered from a makeshift soapbox, was highly entertaining.

Team Venture Productions had the difficult task of following this mayhem. Just Us Two, their gentle sci-fi comedy about two socially awkward virgins being whisked off to populate another planet, won over the audience with appealing performances from its cast.

The Plagiarists have a well-deserved reputation at the fest for intellectually stimulating comedy, and their new parody American Stage Sessions was both clever and laugh out loud funny. This is a group that bears watching closely, as they engage in several sight gags.

Bruised Orange’s show I Saw You fell somewhere between improv and sketch comedy as the group drew inspiration from the classified section of The Chicago Reader. It wasn’t clear if these were actual or fictional ads, or if the cast members had seen the ads before bringing them to life, but the results were very funny.

The cast of Red Ink Theatre showed their singing and dancing chops as they reeled off a series of provocative songs and sketches about our current president’s effect on the country in their revue Obama Nation. Their material brought laughs at the expense of liberals as well as conservatives.

Mary-Arrchie Theatre performs Gas Mask 101, a politically-charged comedy set at Southern Illinois University during the Viet Nam War, every year, and this goofy and touching play is a welcome Abbie Fest tradition.

On the Fest’s second day, my old comedy group Famous In The Future surprised me by going back to basics with its all new revue Loose Animals rather than performing the more elaborate song and dance routines of recent years. Much of the material was driven by current events, featuring sketches about animal rights and the slow economy. As an FIF cast member for several years, I can’t give an unbiased critique, so I’ll simply say I enjoyed the show.

Black Forest’s performance of their original piece The Drugs, which was inspired by David Bowie’s Low album, found James Moeller dressed in a long black coat and Carla Hayden decked out in a white pants suit. The imaginative and funny show included Moeller’s guitar playing and a blast of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” on the sound system.

The Mary-Arrchie's crew of actors and actresses, more accustomed to performing onstage than selling tickets, did a super job of keeping things running smoothly. Pictures and more information on this year’s Abbie Hoffman Died For Our Sins can be found on the Mary-Arrchie Theatre’s website ( Also check out the blog

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Album Review: White Wolf Sonic Princess - This Car Available

photo from White Wolf Sonic Princess MySpace page

White Wolf Sonic Princess is comprised of Carla Hayden and Jimmy M., who also founded the avant garde theater group Black Forest some years ago. In live performances, they’re often backed by other musicians, but on This Car Available, a digital album for sale on iTunes, it’s pretty much Carla on vocals and percussion, and Jimmy on vocals, guitar, bass, and percussion. They drift through 13 indie rock songs like a couple of hipsters.

In many ways, White Wolf Sonic Princess is a natural progression from the duo’s theater group. In recent years, Black Forest’s shows have morphed into multi-media affairs that combine drama with live music and film. Even when you weren’t sure what was going on in a Black Forest production, Carla and Jimmy’s engaging stage presence and clever dialogue pulled you in. This Car Available likewise offers consistently fun and imaginative word play, usually set to slinky, sparse arrangements. Carla does most of the singing, affecting a seductive drawl on the title track, while crooning beautifully on the acoustic “Surfer Boy From Illinois,” which also features Bacchus Blue on harmonica. Jimmy sings lead on the funny “My Baby’s In The CIA” as well as the Hollywood satire “Elston Gunn Is Banished From Eden,” a song taken from a Black Forest play. “Behind Closed Eyes” is the most theatrical track on This Car Available, spinning spiritual imagery via Carla’s spoken word delivery and a jazz arrangement.

Carla Hayden and Jimmy M. can be seen at the Mary-Arrchie Theatre’s Abbie Hoffman Died For Our Sins Festival, as Black Forest presents its newest production, The Drugs, on Saturday, August 15th at 7:50PM and Sunday, August 16th, at 3:45PM.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Hollies Reflect Back On Their Origins

Over four decades after emerging as one of the British Invasion’s top acts, The Hollies cast a nostalgic look back at their early days in the city of Manchester on the title track of their latest CD, Then, Now, Always. It’s the band’s second new release in recent years, after going twenty some years without recording anything new. Contrary to what most Americans might think, The Hollies never broke up, and still tour extensively throughout Europe. Their last visit to the States was a mini tour in 2002.

Drummer Bobby Elliott, one of the group’s two remaining original members, wrote “Then, Now, Always” with Mark Nelson, and it’s sung by Tony Hicks, the other original member. Hicks is a superb guitarist and has always played a key role in constructing the band’s legendary harmonies, but he’s on unfamiliar ground as a lead vocalist. “Pegasus,” from The Hollies mid-1960s flower power days, might be the only other track that features him as the main singer. Still, it makes sense for Hicks to take center stage here instead of current lead vocalist Peter Howarth, who has only been with The Hollies since 2004.

“Then, Now, Always” is a wistful song with a catchy melody, similar in style and sentiment to George Harrison’s “When We Was Fab.” It recalls growing up in an industrial city and playing in small clubs before gaining international fame with hits like “Bus Stop” and “Carrie Anne.” It might be a perfect song for The Hollies to sing at the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of fame if the band is ever inducted. Perhaps they could even get alumni like Graham Nash, Allan Clarke, and Terry Sylvester to join them.

Fest For Beatles Fans Returns To Rosemont

Fest For Beatles Fans has been making its annual visits to the Chicago area since 1977 and earlier this year was the inspiration for the original play Mop Top Festival at the Factory Theatre. The three-day celebration will bring celebrities, tons of merchandise, live music, and art to the Hyatt Regency O’Hara in suburban Rosemont August 14-16. Guests include Ronnie Spector, a Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame singer whose recordings with The Ronettes delighted The Beatles. Hudson Brothers Mark and Brett, who continue to find success as musicians and producers (particularly Mark who produced Ringo Starr) will also be on hand, along with former Wings drummer Steve Holley, and guitarist Earl Slick, who played on John and Yoko’s Double Fantasy album. Greg Hawkes from The Cars will play ukulele on songs from his new CD, The Beatles Uke.

Long-time master of ceremonies Terri Hemmert, whose Breakfast With The Beatles show airs on WXRT every Sunday morning, comes across as an avid fan as well as a skilled interviewer in her on-stage sessions with each guest. British comedian Martin Lewis is the quick-witted moderator of Musician’s Forum, a fun and informative free-form conversation and jam session. This year’s Forum will involve Holley, the Hudsons, Hawkes, and Slick. Liverpool, a Beatles cover band that dispenses with the usual theatrics of the genre but still sounds a lot like The Fab Four will perform each night and back Greg Hawkes on a couple of Cars songs. Steve Holley will be filling in on drums.

The Chicago Fest For Beatles Fans is an unabashed love-in for devoted followers as they don their favorite t-shirts; meet face-to-face with people who have worked closely with John, Paul, George, and Ringo; join sing-alongs; participate in trivia contests; and vote for their favorites in a Beatles sound-alike competition. Tickets are $28 for Friday, $42 for Saturday or Sunday, amd $88 for the entire weekend.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Graham Parker Live at Lincoln Park Arts & Music Festival

If Graham Parker was dismayed by the relatively small turnout for his 5:30PM set last Sunday at the Lincoln Park Arts & Music Festival, it didn’t show in his performance. He was after all, competing against the much more heavily hyped Lollapalooza, which was about a half hour’s drive to the south. Plus, the intimate setting, on a temporary stage in a parking lot on Racine Street, suited his one-man show perfectly.

Regarded as one of the original angry young men along with Elvis Costello, Parker came across as cordial, funny, and at times, brutally honest. He was also in great voice. Strumming his acoustic guitar, Parker sang an odds and sods collection of stuff he normally wouldn’t have done with a full band. Switching to electric guitar about halfway through the show, he started reeling off his better known songs, such as “Passion Is No Ordinary Word,” “Life Gets Better” (which he joked afterward was a stupid song because it wasn’t true), “Don’t Ask Me Questions,” and “Problem Child.” Surprisingly, he didn’t perform “Can’t Take Love For Granted.”

Noting that 2009 marked the 30th anniversary of the release of his critically acclaimed Squeezing Out Sparks LP, Parker claimed the milestone was being celebrated around the world, particularly in the northern-most part of Scandinavia. “In fact,” he added, seeming to ad lib as he went along, “this show is being simulcast there right now, so everybody wave to the cameras.” Several people in the audience went along with gag. It’s a safe bet that if the folks in upper Scandinavia had actually caught a simulcast, they would have thoroughly enjoyed it.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Linda Good Returns To Uncommon Ground

It was a successful homecoming for singer-songwriter Linda Good when she returned to Chicago August 9th for an intimate performance at Uncommon Ground on north Clark Street. Good hadn’t played the restaurant/club since the days when she and sister Laura led the local band The Twigs. Linda Good moved to L.A. 10 years ago to pursue a solo career, and her recent Windy City date was to promote her latest CD, Love is a Curious Thing.

Seated in front of an electric keyboard, she performed melodic new songs like “Love Is” and “A Dog Is A Dog” that brought to mind Brit songstress Lily Allen in their satiric views on romantic relationships. She switched to acoustic guitar for the more cutting edge “Drowning” and “Bullseye.” At one point, the singer called her sister up to the stage and the anticipated reunion of The Twigs did not disappoint. Linda and Laura had recorded two full CDs as The Twigs; the promising Bring Me The Head Of Eternity and the more polished The Universe Tonight, which found them successfully covering a variety of styles, from the sunny pop of “It’s Alright” to the more bitter hip hop of “Lucky.” For their reunion, they performed “Mrs. Green” from The Universe Tonight as well as a brand new song, and their harmonies were perfectly in sync. All in all, Linda Good’s Uncommon Ground show celebrated her past success with The Twigs, as well as her new solo material.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Mary-Arrchie Theatre Commemorates Woodstock With Abbie Fest XXI

photo by James Moeller

Mary-Arrchie Theatre, located on Chicago’s north side, will celebrate the anniversary of Woodstock on the weekend of August 14-16 with a virtually non-stop festival of drama and comedy. Over 50 groups are expected to participate. Long known for its in-your-face productions, Mary-Arrchie launched the first Abbie Hoffman Died For Our Sins Festival back in 1989, and has hosted the freewheeling event every year since. As usual, Mary-Arrchie Artistic Director Rich Cotovsky will channel the spirit of Abbie Hoffman. Decked out in full hippie regalia, he’ll spearhead a rally at Daley Plaza at 2PM Friday, and a march that will proceed north, eventually arriving at the theatre’s location near the intersection of Broadway and Sheridan Road.

Cotovsky/Hoffman will conduct the festival’s opening and closing ceremonies by ranting against the establishment; read selections from the Abbie Hoffman book, Readings From Woodstock Nation; and periodically materialize onstage to introduce acts. It’s believed Cotovsky doesn’t sleep for the entire three days, and he’s claimed in past years that he doesn’t get much rest during the week before the fest due to all the participants involved. Groups scheduled to perform include Famous In The Future, the only act that has been part of every Abbie fest. (Full disclosure: I was part of Famous In The Future for 20 years.) Some of the other groups are Factory Theater, Black Forest, Rare Terra, Democracy Burlesque, and Fury Theater. Mary-Arrchie itself will be performing Gas Mask 101, Wild Dogs, and Bitch with Rich, a late night, counter-culture talk show. Tickets for Abbie Hoffman Died For Our Sins are $10 for a day pass, $25 for a weekend pass. See or call 773-871-0442 for details.

The New Invaders Celebrate The 1960s

from The New Invaders website

August 2009 brings the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock festival so now would a perfect time to catch one of the outdoor concerts The New Invaders will be performing around Illinois this summer. The band covers 1960s rock from its early innocent days, through the British Invasion, right on to the politically charged hippie era. All six band members are accomplished singers, which results in airtight harmonies on covers of Crosby, Stills, & Nash, The Mamas & The Papas, The Byrds, and The Hollies. Melody Mallin, who initially performed with the band as a frequent guest artist, was rightfully granted full New Invaders membership for her spirited renditions of Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane songs.

In addition to playing well known artists like The Rolling Stones, The Monkees, Herman’s Hermits, The Doors, and Cream, The New Invaders honor lesser known acts, including Crazy Elephant, The Chambers Brothers, The Seeds and The Human Beinz. August dates include Palatine on the 7th, Bensenville on the 12th, Gurnee on the 13th, St. Charles on the 14th, and Wadsworth on the 15th. See the band’s website at for more info.

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