Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Music without walls

Miles of Aisles
Back in my record retail days, I used to joke with my colleagues that if we owned the store, it would be one big A-Z section. The impetus was often something like a new Prince CD, or (then) Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor Daniel Barenboim recording an album of tangos. An inventory tag was always attached that we were sworn to obey. Prince could rock out, but the directions said file under R&B. Plenty of music borrowed from multiple sources: funked up jazz, poppy disco, Celtic rock. Still, the categories served a function, guiding curious explorers to the section where they were likely to find a concentration of the artists and titles they might like. There's a problem with this, though. In a relational sphere, James Brown and Fela Kuti were spiritually much closer together than, say, James Brown and Michael Jackson. But they weren't in the same section, so how would you know?

Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events just created their all encompassing A-Z section. They took a handful of formerly separated free music series at Millennium Park and combined them. One of them, called Music Without Borders, was retired a few years ago. Its focus was that curious category called 'world music', which pretty much meant anything originating from somewhere other than the United States. I loved it. It was for me. Implicit in that, though, was a thorny problem: Is the United States not part of the world? What, then, of James Brown and Fela Kuti?

I loved Music Without Borders so much that, for the life of me, I can't remember what was on the stage during the other nights of the week during it's 8 week summer existence. I do know that, if I have my chronology right, two distinct series emerged in its wake, the mostly rock Downtown Sound and the mostly experimental new music Loops and Variations. Downtown Sound occasionally presented world music artists, and when they did I took the train downtown to attend some pretty memorable concerts. But I was inconsistent, and I never went to Loops and Variations. It was not, um, my thing. Sometimes we think we know what something is about before we even check it out. Sometimes, we're wrong.

Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park
It, perhaps, wasn't a lot of people's thing. For 2015, the label has been retired. Instead, the city has greatly expanded Downtown Sound and essentially put these three seemingly divergent categorizations on equal footing. In the process, they seem to have made a conscious decision to breach a few walls and, if the saints are willing, this move will expose a lot of Chicagoans to music that isn't their thing.

All of it, at cursory listen, sounds engaging and fun. I know this because the internet is a wonderful thing and an enterprising person named Bryan Kevton built what appears to be an unofficial website guide to the whole series, which very helpfully lists all dates and artists in chronological order that is easy to read on your phone and includes one Soundcloud track for each artist.

Go through it. Date by date. Artist by artist. Listen by listen. All 31 of them. You'll probably find a thing or two that you don't particularly like, a few things that you love, and a fair number that lie somewhere on a continuum between the two and that you'll hopefully be curious about.

David Wax Museum
It's already happened to me. On July 23, the ultra traditional Mexican son jarocho group Los Cojolites are headlining over the Boston based indie rock band David Wax Museum, who borrow heavily from Mexican music. My old employer would have filed them on opposite ends of the store, but as a double bill it's a brilliant conception. Los Cojolites grabbed my attention first, but now my universe has suddenly expanded as I learn more about David Wax Museum.

Third Coast Percussion
The summer is full of nights like that. Poi Dog Pondering, a favorite of my young(ish) adulthood that transformed itself from a multi-ethnic folk group to a multi-ethnic dance party upon migrating to Chicago in the early 1990s, is preceded by a woman from Minneapolis named Caroline Smith that has a rootsy folk-jazz sound that is absolutely beguiling. The eclectic yet highly listenable Snarky Puppy, whose world jazz (uh-oh, another hybrid category - where the hell am I going to file them?) reminds me a bit of everything from highly polished L.A. studio fusion to NOLA groove to Afropop, will be preceded by the avant-classical ensemble Third Coast Percussion interpreting composer Terry Riley's seminal minimalist work In C. (Easy, file in the most obscure corner of the classical department.)

Or how about this one? The kick ass retro R&B of Sonny Knight and the Lakers opening for Antibalas, who carry on the AfroBeat tradition in both the musical and revolutionary sense. Yep, it's that James Brown-Fela thing again.

It's like this, over and over. San Fermin creates multi-layered and slightly unsettling chamber pop that is nonetheless pretty damn catchy and is paired on this gig with a barely melodic percussion quartet. The Very Best samples and cross-purposes various sounds in an African context that brings to mind So-era Peter Gabriel, yet to get to them you will be treated to the electro-disco wonderland of Glass Lux. Not so sure about that last one, but I'm going. The London Souls are loud hard rock (my inner AC/DC can't wait to hear an electric guitar crunch coming from that hallowed stage) but I'll be sure to get there early for the quirky Czech (my people!) pop of Eggnoise. Matthew Sweet's Time Capsule collection is a CD I would want with me if stranded on that proverbial desert island, but the DIY pop of Sweet's opener In Tall Buildings has its charms as well. There's even a reggae night featuring the legendary Mighty Diamonds. Pass the kouchie from the left hand side, just watch out for security.

And I haven't even mentioned the single (for me) most anticipated show of the year, the long awaited Chicago debut of Colombian / British collective Ondatropica. But even here, the opener is another 'world music' artist that so far hasn't excited me much, Helado Negro. People far smarter than me like him quite a bit though, and now I get to hear him live and maybe reevaluate my previous stance.

There was one thing about the old Music Without Borders that made it special, and that was the city's sincere efforts to make sure that the ethnicities and nations represented on stage were represented in the audience as well through tireless outreach. There is something about Downtown Sounds that has the air of being for the cool kids. And that is cool, no doubt about it. Cool kids have pretty good taste. But I also hope to see, for example, when King Sunny Ade strolls on stage, a large contingent of African expats in the audience, thirsty for a taste of home. That's where the joy begins.

Chicago music fans will have the opportunity to tear down a few walls this summer. We'll see if they do.

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