Chicago Concert Reviews: Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, and More

Note: For several years, I covered Chicago live music for That site eventually folded, but I’ve preserved many of my articles here. They include concert reviews for Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Aretha Franklin, Paul McCartney, Alison Krauss, Dresden Dolls, Sigur Ros, and more.

Concert review: Bruce Springsteen rocks at Wrigley Field

September 8, 2012

From a fierce opening number that kicked off with a three-minute-long guitar solo to a final encore of “Twist and Shout” featuring guest vocals from Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Bruce Springsteen’s concert Friday night (Sept. 7) at Wrigley Field in Chicago was a remarkable display of showmanship, stage presence, and superb musicianship from the Boss and a revamped E Street Band that included Jake Clemons standing in for his late uncle Clarence on saxophone.

Over the course of 28 songs covering a staggering three hours and 25 minutes, Springsteen delivered quite simply one of the greatest concerts Wrigley has ever witnessed, deftly mixing hits with newer material and playing to the crowd throughout the set.

Appropriately, Bruce and his band opened with “Prove It All Night,” which they proceeded to do as they rocked until nearly midnight. “Hungry Heart” was an early highlight, with fans eagerly providing the hook while Springsteen went as deep into the audience as the barricades would allow.

Drummer Max Weinberg shined on “We Take Care Of Our Own,” Springsteen’s latest piece of social commentary, which was a fitting early-set selection just one night after it was heard at the Democratic National Convention.

Songs blended from one into the next with no breaks. It was a full 70 minutes into the concert before the music actually stopped between songs for a brief pause. “My City of Ruins” shifted the spotlight to Jake and the rest of the brass section, as well as the backup singers who gave the song a gospel feeling.

Vedder strode on stage to duet with Bruce on “Atlantic City,” followed by an excellent “Lonesome Day” and a version of “I’m Goin’ Down” with a stripped-down intro.

Springsteen won points from fans for inviting an adorable small girl on stage to help sing “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.” “With all these kids out here, I think I’m starting to steal Justin Bieber’s audience,” he later joked.

Morello came out for “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and traded solos with Springsteen until the former Rage guitarist ended the tune with a mind-blowing solo that incorporated the scratching sounds that were a signature of Rage songs.

The encore began with “We Are Alive,” followed by “Thunder Road.” When all the lights in the stadium came on for “Born to Run,” it seemed as though Bruce was ready to call it a night. But remarkably, he still had another half hour of music left in him.

Next came “Dancing in the Dark,” during which Springsteen obliged a man who had a sign reading, “Please dance with my wife!” He plucked her out of the crowd, just as he did Courteney Cox in the classic music video.

“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” provided the most touching moment of the evening. When Bruce sang the line about the “Big Man,” the music stopped abruptly and the entire band turned to the video screen, which displayed a minute-long montage of video images from Clarence Clemons’ career.

Finally, Springsteen and company brought back Morello and Vedder for a spirited cover of “Twist and Shout” to “send you home dancing,” as Bruce said.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform at Wrigley again tonight (Sept. 8). They’ll have their work cut out for them when it comes to trying to top last night’s stellar performance.

Check out the complete set list for the Friday night Wrigley Field concert below.

Bruce Springsteen Set List Wrigley Field Sept. 7, 2012
1. Prove It All Night
2. My Love Will Not Let You Down
3. Out in the Street
4. Hungry Heart
5. We Take Care of Our Own
6. Wrecking Ball
7. Death to My Hometown
8. My City of Ruins
9. Spirit in the Night
10. Trapped
11. Jack of All Trades
12. Atlantic City
13. Lonesome Day
14. I’m Goin’ Down
15. Darlington County
16. Shackled and Drawn
17. Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
18. None But the Brave
19. The Ghost of Tom Joad
20. Badlands
21. Land of Hope and Dreams

22. We Are Alive
23. Thunder Road
24. Born to Run
25. Dancing in the Dark
26. Jungleland
27. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
28. Twist And Shout

Concert review: Madonna disappoints with uneven show at Chicago’s United Center

September 21, 2012

Madonna’s Thursday night (Sept. 20) concert at Chicago’s United Center, her second there in as many nights, was a surprisingly hit-and-miss affair that placed way too much emphasis on material from her latest subpar album, “MDNA.”

It’s hard to begrudge an artist the opportunity to play songs from her most recent album in concert. After all, that’s the record she just spent the last few years putting together.

But in Madonna’s case, opening the show with “Girl Gone Wild,” perhaps the single worst song of her entire career, was not the way to get things off to a flying start. Nor was following with “Revolver,” which featured an absurd amount of Auto-Tune and a Lil Wayne video screen cameo, or the third track, “Gang Bang,” which found Madge ripping off Slim Shady-era Eminem as she ran around the stage with a gun, screaming, “Die b—-, die!”

Though the first 30 minutes were entirely worthless, things finally warmed up about six songs in when Madge and her dancers put on the marching band uniforms and performed the classic “Express Yourself.” But she ruined it near the end when she sang part of “Born This Way” and then said four times, “She’s Not Me.”

The obvious Lady Gaga diss was unwise for two reasons: First, by and large, Madonna’s fans are Gaga’s fans, so she’s not going to get a ton of support for ripping the “Born This Way” singer.

Second, bringing up Gaga at all just reminds everybody how Gaga has blown past Madonna in terms of relevance and current chart success. When Madonna sang, “She’s not me,” the proper response was, “No, she’s not. She’s better.”

There were a few highlights, including an exotic, mystical-sounding version of “Open Your Heart,” a fantastic vocal performance on the ballad “Masterpiece,” and a nifty medley of two of her most underrated tracks, “Erotica” and “Human Nature.”

Madonna’s dancing was stunning throughout the set, and her excellent closing pairing of “Like a Prayer” and “Celebration” was exactly the kind of moment everyone showed up for. But then she disappeared without an encore, leaving fans to head home feeling unfulfilled, having only heard a tiny portion of the singer’s many hits.

Opinion: Lollapalooza must step in to stop ticket resellers

April 14, 2013

Despite a tepid lineup featuring retread headliners like the Killers and Phoenix – is anybody out there excited about seeing either of these bands? – Lollapalooza 2013 sold out in record time. Both 3-day passes and single-day passes are already gone.

Two years ago, single-day passes didn’t sell out until July, a few weeks before the event. Last year, tickets were available until late May. So what’s different about 2013? Did millions of people feel an overwhelming urge to see Vampire Weekend and Grizzly Bear yet again?

Nope. What happened is that the scalpers are stepping up their game. As Lolla has continued to grow in popularity, scalpers – pardon me, ticket resellers – have taken advantage of the situation by buying up as many tickets as possible so they can resell them at a massive profit later.

That’s part of the reason why regular folks can’t buy secret sale and earlybird passes anymore. Within 60 seconds, they’re all sold out, and that cannot be attributed solely to legitimate consumer demand.

This happens with all concerts, of course, but it’s become a huge problem for Lollapalooza, and if event organizers truly care about their fans, they will take steps to correct the problem.

But unless there’s a massive outcry from the public, Lolla won’t change a thing. Lolla organizers have no motivation to do this, quite frankly. Scalpers actually help Lolla, because now the festival can claim it’s more popular than ever: “Look how fast our tickets sold out!” Lolla organizers don’t care who is buying the tickets, only that they get purchased by someone.

Is there a solution? Sure, if Lolla is willing to pursue it. Just look at popular U.K. festival Glastonbury. Ticket buyers must submit an online photo of themselves when purchasing, which then must match their photo ID (and their actual face, of course) when they show up to enter the venue. There is literally no way for scalpers to beat this system. Every ticket is bought by someone who actually intends to attend the fest.

In this way, Glastonbury ensures that only real fans get their hands on tickets. Lollapalooza could do the same thing… if they truly cared about their audience.

Concert review: Sigur Ros deliver stunning performance at Auditorium Theatre
September 30, 2013

Icelandic trio Sigur Ros came roaring into Chicago last night (Sept. 30) for a show at Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre and delivered perhaps the finest concert in the Windy City this year.

Singer Jonsi and company were joined by an 11-piece band as the atmospheric pop act tore through some of its most recognizable songs, from the beautiful (“Glosoli”) to the poppy (“Hoppipolla”) to the fierce and powerful (“Saeglopur,” which garnered some of the loudest applause of the evening when the crowd heard the opening piano notes.)

The live band included a horn section that added new sounds to old favorites like “Vaka” and livened up new tunes such as “Hrafntinna,” an early-set highlight with its clattering percussion. Sigur Ros played six of the nine songs from their latest album, “Kveikur.”

While one could lodge numerous complaints against the Auditorium Theatre – don’t worry, we’ll get to those in a moment – one thing the venue had going for itself was fantastic sound. All the way to the top of the balcony, six floors up, the audio was clear and sharp.

And if there’s one band for which you want quality audio, it’s Sigur Ros, who craft their complex songs with everything from horns to xylophones to Jonsi’s trademark guitar playing using a violin bow.

The final moment of the concert was the best, a lengthy rendition of “Popplagið,” the closing track on the group’s untitled 2002 album. The song has always been a part of the group’s setlists, but the guys took it to a new place by extending the slow build to the final crescendo of crashing drums. It was a mindblowing finish to an outstanding show.

The band left the stage after that and came back to take multiple bows but did not perform an encore. How could they? There was no way to top what they had just done.

As for the venue, the Auditorium Theatre left a lot to be desired, and we’re not just talking about its ancient, tiny, uncomfortable seats. Incomprehensibly, the venue made the decision to close its upper balcony and move everyone who had purchased tickets there to a different seat. The result was a line around the block at showtime, as fans who had purchased legitimate tickets were kicked out of the venue after passing through security and told they had to go back and wait in line at the box office to pick up tickets to their newly-assigned seats.

The fiasco kept dozens, if not hundreds, of concertgoers from seeing most of the set from opening act Julianna Barwick, though that wasn’t a big deal since every one of her dreamy soundscapes and vocal loops sounded the same.

The 20 Best Concerts I saw in 2013

It’s time for my annual recap of the best concerts I saw in Chicago. In 2013, more than half of my Top 20 list is composed of Lollapalooza bands, but two very different non-Lolla veteran acts top the countdown.

1 Sigur Ros, Auditorium Theatre, Sept. 30
The acclaimed Icelandic act may have dropped the ball on their past couple of albums, but they’re still one of rock music’s best live acts. Singer Jonsi and company were joined by an 11-piece band as the atmospheric pop group tore through some of its most recognizable songs, from the beautiful (“Glosoli”) to the poppy (“Hoppipolla”) to the fierce and powerful (“Saeglopur.”)

The closing number, a lengthy rendition of “Popplagið,” featuring a slow build up to the final crescendo of crashing drums, may have been the best performance of an individual song we’ve ever witnessed.

2 Tony Bennett, Ravinia Festival, Aug. 22
In a world in which many performers can’t hit the high notes after they turn 40, Tony Bennett is still a magnificent singer at age 87. He performed 27 songs in 75 minutes, dedicated a song to his friend Lady Gaga, sang a song about Chicago (not the Sinatra tune), and ended with Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” Let’s hope he keeps scheduling his annual Ravinia performances for years to come.

3 Nine Inch Nails, Lollapalooza, Aug. 2
Trent Reznor hasn’t let all his instrumental film scoring soften him up. That was apparent to anyone who watched NIN blast their way through “March of the Pigs,” “Wish,” “Terrible Lie,” “Head Like a Hole” and “The Hand That Feeds.” Ending with the tender “Hurt” was a stroke of genius. Read full review

4 The Cure, Lollapalooza, Aug. 4
Robert Smith may be looking a bit rough these days, but he sounded as good as ever. The band knew exactly what to do at a music festival – play the hits. They crammed 26 songs into their two-hour show, including “Lovesong,” “Just Like Heaven” and “Friday I’m in Love” in the first hour alone, while “Close to Me” and “Boys Don’t Cry” had to wait for the encore.

5 Band of Horses, Lollapalooza, Aug. 2
“No One’s Gonna Love You” is one of the best love songs of the 2000s. It’s the indie rock “You Light Up My Life!” It was very cool to hear that song live, plus many of the other songs that have made BoH one of the top rock acts of the past decade or so.

6 Emeli Sande, Lollapalooza, Aug. 2
Sande worked the mainstage like a pro while showing off her hooks and her pipes. By the time she closed her set with “Next to Me,” she had already won over the crowd.

7 Tegan & Sara, Lollapalooza, Aug. 4
The ladies were back in Chicago with a mix of their new pop music with their previous alt-rock work, and everything somehow blended together nicely.

8 Tom Odell, Schuba’s, May 4
The talented and British pianist’s set was short, but it showed why he’s one of the most promising male singer-songwriters around. “Another Love” was a standout.

9 New Order, Lollapalooza, Aug. 2
New Order were in fine form as they rolled out “Bizarre Love Triangle,” “True Faith,” and an extraordinary extended version of “Blue Monday” to an audience that featured a surprising number of young people dancing around as if they were hardcore New Order fans.

10 The Postal Service, Lollapalooza, Aug. 3
Ben Gibbard’s side project officially called it a career with their Lolla set and headlining show at Metro the following night. They ended on a high with a solid performance. Classics “Such Great Heights” and “Brand New Colony” took fans back in time to the early aughts.

11 Mumford & Sons, Lollapalooza, Aug. 3
Marcus Mumford and friends have pulled off the impossible task of turning banjo music into bro music. Now a permanent fixture in the mainstream, the guys delivered a solid Lolla headlining set.

12 Lianne La Havas, Lollapalooza, Aug. 4
For some reason, the Lianne La Havas bandwagon hasn’t caught on yet, and that’s a shame. Her set emphasized her soul leanings, which came through on the delicate ballad “Lost & Found.” The energy of “Forget” and “Is Your Love Big Enough?” was captivating.

13 Fun., Grant Park, July 10
The biggest name among the Taste of Chicago performers, Fun. didn’t disappoint when it came to playing the hits everybody came for – “Carry On” and “We Are Young” were highlights.

14 Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & Dawn McCarthy, Dawson City Music Festival, July 20
Who would’ve thought there was a folk music festival in the Yukon territory? When I found myself there in July – it’s a long story – the team of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Dawn McCarthy captivated the crowd with a brilliant set.

15 Ellie Goulding, Lollapalooza, Aug. 3
Ellie got her first taste of the mainstage and took advantage of the opportunity. It was great to hear her single “Burn,” which should have been an even more massive hit than it was.

16 Matt & Kim, Lollapalooza, Aug. 3
Matt and Kim will always be a Lolla favorite, and their adorable pop songs once again energized the crowd, although it seemed weird to see them on the concrete Petrillo stage where moshing and dancing were a little more difficult.

17 Sophie B. Hawkins, Wells Street Arts Festival, June 8
The “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” singer has always been one of the most underrated vocalists around. She consistently churns out passionate live performances, and this was no exception. The concert thankfully drew heavily from her excellent debut album, “Tongues and Tails.”

18 Icona Pop, Lollapalooza, Aug. 2
The electropop duo was an early festival highlight, especially when they played the song everyone was there to hear, “I Love It.”

19 Cults, Wicker Park Fest, July 27
The sound quality was atrocious – hopefully whoever was working sound that night will not be invited back next year. But Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion still managed to captivate with their stage presence and solid batch of songs from their first two albums.

20 Wilson Phillips, Market Days, Aug. 10
The vocal trio is still touring to pay the bills – and they have an entertaining reality show worth checking out. Wendy, Carnie and Chynna played all those classic pop hits, including “Hold On” and my personal favorite, “Impulsive.”

The 20 best concerts I saw in 2012

My favorite concerts of 2012 included a legendary rock band, an experimental pop newcomer, and a Cirque du Soleil tribute to the King of Pop. Here’s my Top 20 list.

1. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, Wrigley Field, Sept. 7

Bruuuuuce! The Jersey rocker’s unforgettable show at Wrigley featured 28 songs over three and a half hours. With his legendary band, featuring the late Clarence Clemons’s nephew Jake on sax, Springsteen played hits like “Hungry Heart,” “Atlantic City,” “Born to Run,” “We Take Care Of Our Own” and “Dancing in the Dark.”

2. Sigur Ros, Lollapalooza, Aug. 5

The ethereal Icelandic troupe had only an hour to perform in the hot Lolla sun, but they still managed to transport listeners to a dream world with their lengthy post-rock compositions. The best of the new tracks was “Varuo,” from the group’s Valtari album.

3. Radiohead, First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre, June 10

They’ve kept a low profile for the past few years, but Radiohead still rock like few other acts can. Their stellar show included mostly newer tracks but also some classics like “Street Spirit” and “Myxomatosis.”

4. Rodrigo y Gabriela with C.U.B.A., Chicago Theatre, Apr. 12

Talented Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela brought along the jazzy Cuban orchestra known as C.U.B.A. for their latest Chicago appearance. The two acts meshed wonderfully, bringing exciting new life to Rodrigo’s acoustic tunes.

5. Prince, United Center, Sept. 26

The Purple One’s three shows at the United Center were so-so, but on the final night, Prince stepped it up a notch, delivering memorable renditions of “Little Red Corvette,” “Raspberry Beret,” “Jungle Love,” and an epic 14-minute “Purple Rain” with four false endings.

6. Tune-Yards, Lollapalooza, Aug. 4

On the stormy day at Lolla when other anticipated acts were canceled, Tune-Yards fortunately got a chance to perform. Ukelele-playing singer Merrill Garbus built her captivating songs around looped vocal and drum parts.

7. Black Sabbath, Lollapalooza, Aug. 3

Ozzy! Led by Ozzy Osbourne and Tony Iommi, perhaps the greatest metal band ever capped off opening night at Lolla with a fierce performance that culminated with the classic “Paranoid.”

8. Florence + the Machine, Lollapalooza, Aug. 5

Florence Welch accented her majestic pop sound and even added some dance beats to some of her music during a terrific Lolla set. She played “Breath of Life” live for the first time and sang all the hits for the appreciative crowd.

9. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lollapalooza, Aug. 4

“Snow (Hey Oh)” from 2006’s “Stadium Arcadium,” was an early highlight, while a trippy bass solo from Flea led into “Otherside.” The band played many of its hits, though we wish they would have focused more on some of their funkiest songs. Read full review

10. Frank Ocean, Lollapalooza, Aug. 4

At the same time the Chili Peppers were rocking the south stage, Frank Ocean was opening his set with a beautiful cover of Sade’s “By Your Side” and following up with performances of “Thinkin Bout You” and “Pyramids” that showed why he was the year’s biggest critical favorite.

11. Sleigh Bells, Pitchfork Music Festival, July 14

Made amends for poor ’10 Pitchfork showing with energetic, loud performance

12. M83, Lollapalooza, Aug. 3

Electropop band brought down the house with sax-infused “Midnight City”

13. Of Monsters and Men, Lollapalooza, Aug. 5

The year’s best new band impressed with their creative Icelandic pop

14. Amanda Palmer, Metro, Nov. 10

Played “Missed Me,” “Girl Anachronism,” and nearly her entire new album

15. Outasight, Lollapalooza, Aug. 5

Dance singer of “Tonight is the Night” far surpassed our modest expectations

16. Jack White, Lollapalooza, Aug. 5

The former White Stripes frontman carried the show on his own

17. Michael Jackson Cirque du Soleil, United Center, July 20

The Cirque du Soleil troupe did MJ’s memory and music justice

18. B-52s, Charter One Pavilion, July 5

The kooky pop band keeps carrying on with new songs just as good as “Love Shack”

19. Air Supply, North Central College, Mar. 31

The ’80s pop duo played all their cheesy guilty pleasures Read full review

20. Amadou & Mariam, Lollapalooza, Aug. 5

Blind African married couple have a unique blend of rock and world music

Concert Review: Alison Krauss Delivers Polished Performance at Chicago Theatre

September 9, 2011

Alison Krauss and Union Station provided an excellent display of vocal skill and musicianship at the Chicago Theatre on Friday night. Still, it just fell short of being one of the top concerts of the year in the city.

The country-bluegrass band opened with “Paper Airplane,” their new single and one of the most beautiful songs in their repertoire. The band was brilliant, with dobro player Jerry Douglas and guitarist Dan Tyminski especially standing out, the latter on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” hit “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.”

Krauss got a good response from “Baby Now That I’ve Found You,” an early-set highlight. She engaged in a lot midly entertaining banter with her band, mentioning that she visited the Museum of Science and Industry earlier in the afternoon.

The concert might have been the most technically proficient performance I’ve ever witnessed in my 600+ concerts. It was a stellar, workmanlike display from a rock-solid group of musicians.

My quibble is that everything felt a bit restrained. Normally when you go to a concert, there are peaks and valleys, and it’s the peaks, those huge crescendos, that you remember most. This concert was one giant flatline.

It was an awesome flatline, of course, with tremendous displays of musical skill, but it was still a flatline. One of the problems is that the solos were too short. Just because a solo is only a few seconds long on the album doesn’t mean you can’t extend it for the live show!

When the musicians took their solos, they showed off for about 10 seconds, and then retreated back into the shadows, instead of maintaining the solo for 30 or even 60 seconds, which would have brought down the house. In that way, a bunch of potential peaks were dulled.

The only moment that truly ignited the theater was the encore, when the entire band gathered around a single microphone and performed a medley that included “When You Say Nothing at All” and “Whiskey Lullaby.”

There’s no denying the show was fantastic, but it was just missing that extra spark that would’ve taken it from very good to unforgettable.

Paul McCartney dazzles on Monday night at Wrigley Field in Chicago

August 2, 2011

For the second straight night, Paul McCartney took the stage at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, and once again, a stadium full of people went home marveling at what they saw.

Sir Paul performed 36 songs over three hours, stopping only twice during the encore breaks, and he fit in most of the Beatles’ biggest hits.

McCartney took the stage in regal-looking attire, with crisply pressed black pants, a white button-down shirt and a rich red blazer, which he removed after a few songs since it was so hot.

“We’re gonna have a party here tonight at Wrigley!,” he exclaimed early on, and he was right about that. Fans danced wildly in the aisles during the combo of “Band on the Run,” which rocked harder than anything else on this evening, the rollicking “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and a furious “Back in the USSR.”

The setlist was very similar to Sunday’s show, with a few Beatles songs interchanged. Instead of “Hello Goodbye,” “Drive My Car” and “Get Back,” Monday fans were treated to “Magical Mystery Tour,” “Birthday” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” The last choice was particularly mind-blowing – how often do you get to see a nearly 50-year-old song performed live by its original artist?

The final hour was one massive high after another. Certain elements of a Paul McCartney concert are predictable, like the “na na na na” stadium sing-along of “Hey Jude.” But that didn’t make them any less spectacular. For “Live and Let Die,” Macca brought out pyro and fireworks, creating sensory overload.

For “Yesterday,” which opened the second encore, Paul said he was performing the song on the same guitar he played on the Ed Sullivan Show years ago, although, for some reason, it’s now adorned with Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins stickers.

A medley of “A Day in the Life” and “Give Peace a Chance” brought John Lennon to mind, and Paul honored George Harrison with a ukelele rendition of “Something.”

The early-show highlights were the new-ish “Sing the Changes,” which had a nice guitar groove and “whoa-oh” backing vocals, and a solo acoustic version of “Blackbird.”

All in all, McCartney looked and sounded far younger than his 69 years. Who knows – maybe he’ll actually live up to his word to come back to Chicago and see everybody “next time.”

Concert Review: Aretha Franklin Wows Chicago Theatre Audience

May 19, 2011

Six months after recovering from an unspecified condition that made her seriously ill, Aretha Franklin wowed the crowd at her Chicago Theatre concert tonight with a set including most of her biggest hits.

It was quite a turnound from December, when some news reports speculated that Franklin was gravely ill and in dire condition.

Accompanied by a 21-piece orchestra and looking positively regal in a purple gown, the Queen of Soul kicked off the show with the Northern soul classic “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” originally performed by Jackie Wilson.

It was the first of several old R&B covers throughout the set. She even sat down at the piano to play a rollicking version of “You Send Me” by Sam Cooke, whom she referred to as “my mentor.”

Her voice sounded fantastic. She earned the first of multiple standing ovations with her stunning vocal operatics at the end of the ballad “Angel.”

As the show continued, alternating between slower and up-tempo songs, Franklin made a few passing references to her illness. She said, “My grandma said it’s not about going in when you’re in the operating room – it’s about coming out.”

The diva shook her ample backside suggestively on “Giving Him Something He Can Feel.” Later, after introducing the Reverend Jesse Jackson, one of her many guests, Aretha performed a gospel number while dancing around the stage in heels, a stunning feat for a 69-year-old woman.

By the time Aretha left us with “Freeway of Love” and “Respect,” she had had enough. She was done hitting the high notes – she let the audience do it for her. She took off her heels and bathed in the admiration, and then departed into the night.

Behind the scenes at the Chicago auditions for Simon Cowell’s X Factor

May 21, 2011

Former American Idol judge Simon Cowell is starting a new singing competition show this fall called X Factor, and on Friday he and the rest of the X Factor judges were in Chicago for a taping of local auditions.

The show won’t air until the fall, but we can give you a behind the scenes look at what went down.

The Chicago X Factor tapings were held at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates. We attended the last of four 3-hour tapings took place on Thursday and Friday.

X Factor hosts Nicole Scherzinger (of the Pussycat Dolls) and Steve Jones arrived first and greeted the crowd. Then, the judges were introduced: Record exec LA Reid, singer Cheryl Cole, and Cowell and Paula Abdul, the dynamic duo who are back together where they belong.

Each performer auditioned for a couple minutes, after which the judges gave a yea or nay vote about whether they should make the cut for the next round. Three yes votes were necessary to move on.

The first performer to arrive was a girl named Dana. She belted out an old soul number and had the crowd cheering, but the judges give a unanimous thumbs down. Cowell was his usual snarky self, telling her she was hopelessly stuck in the past. He told her to lose the gown, lose the wig, and come back later as herself.

The next performer was a young Chris Brown-lookalike who had a good voice but seemed awkward in his attempts to fire up the crowd. He didn’t seem to have much of a chance, but Simon saw his raw talent and provided the deciding vote when he said, “Because this is a mentoring show, I’m going to say yes.”

That performer was the first of seven acts who were sent through to Hollywood. A total of 21 people auditioned during the three-hour set, meaning that 1 in 3 were successfully passed through.

The biggest failing most performers had was being stuck in the past. The judges were clearly looking for something contemporary, yet many singers performed songs from the ’60s. If a performer was asked which current artists he or she listened to, and couldn’t name any, that was a sure sign they weren’t going to be picked.

A quartet of singers who called themselves the Staples Sisters (not to be confused with Mavis Staples and the Staples SIngers) sang a couple of by-the-numbers standards, and though the harmonies sounded great, Simon wanted more.

He reminded them that X Factor is about taking old songs and giving them a new spin, not just repeating them as originally recorded. He said the Staples’ performance was a missed opportunity, telling them, “If you had come out and applied your harmonies to a Lady Gaga song, you’d be all over YouTube right now.”

One of the more interesting reminders that this was all made for television came when a performer wanted to sing a Bob Dylan song and Simon hesitated because he wasn’t sure if they could get the legal rights to air a Dylan song on tv. “Can we clear Bob Dylan?,” he asked, before giving the performer the go-ahead.

None of the 21 performers really blew us away. The crowd favorite was a young R&B trio who tossed glitter in the air and danced and sang to Usher’s “OMG.” Though they were more style than substance (because dancing doesn’t matter in a singing competition), the judges sent them through, while cautioning, “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Simon was particularly hard on a few contestants, like Dana. When the poor girl came back out as herself an hour later, everyone was rooting for her. But Simon cut her off during her rendition of Rihanna’s “Unfaithful,” telling her, “Maybe you should put the wig back on.”

The judges were entertaining. Besides Simon’s nasty self, Paula was fun as usual. Cheryl Cole turned out to be another Paula, going easy on the contestants, while LA Reid was actually the harshest critic of all. He told one boring-but-great-sounding group, “I’m a cold-hearted record exec, and I don’t know how I could sell you.”

Other fascinating performers included a 45-year-old from the Inglewood section of Chicago who went by the name Power. She wore a revealing kimono and touted her past credentials appearing in music videos and working with Prince. But when it came time to sing, she didn’t have the goods, offering a laughable self-penned track about life in the ghetto.

There was also an androgynous young performance artist named Dwayne who roared a David Bowie rock song but clearly wasn’t meant for a singing competition, and an 18-year old named Ariel who was about to be cut after her version of “To Make You Feel My Love” went flat, but won over the judges after she begged for another 30 seconds and sang a song she wrote herself.

X Factor airs this fall on FOX. Footage from the Chicago auditions will be shown during the first few episodes along with footage from other auditions around the country.

Ranking every concert I saw in 2013 from 1-93

Here’s the ranking of all 93 bands I witnessed in 2010. Most of the top acts were from Lollapalooza, but a few smaller shows snuck in as well.

I’ve been doing these annual concert rankings for four years now, so where applicable, I’ve included previous years’ rankings for each band.

1 Jonsi, Vic Theatre, April 27
The Sigur Ros frontman provided a multimedia spectacular with the best songs from his solo debut and not a single track from his former band. Playing guitars and xylophones with cello bows, Jonsi and his band were experimental but true to the original versions of the songs. Their two-night stand was so successful, they came back in November.

2 Dresden Dolls, Vic Theatre, November 17
Performing for the first time in more than two years as part of their 10th anniversary mini-tour, the Dresden Dolls were as ferocious as ever, beating the crap out of their instruments as they delivered their punk cabaret classics. “Sex Changes,” “Missed Me,” “Half Jack” and covers of “Mein Herr” and “War Pigs” were terrific.

3 Mavis Staples, Lollapalooza, August 6
Seventy-year-old gospel legend Mavis Staples delighted the crowd by bringing out Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, who played guitar as Staples sang “You Are Not Alone.” Staples was energetic and her music full of life, especially on a cover of The Band’s “The Weight” and the closer “I’ll Take You There.”

4 Gogol Bordello, Lollapalooza, August 7
(2008 rank: 5 & 11)
(2009 rank: 10)
Every year I see these crazy gypsy punks and every year they excite and entertain. “Start Wearing Purple” and “Pala Tute” had the crowd jumping.

5 Frightened Rabbit, Lollapalooza, August 8
(2009 rank: 43)
Last year I thought Frightened Rabbit were a bit dull during the first half of their Pitchfork set, but this year they were great from the start. The emotional group was more rocking and up-tempo than expected but closed with the beautiful “Keep Yourself Warm.”

6 Arcade Fire, Lollapalooza, August 8
The Arcade Fire showed why they’ve become an arena rock band with an electrifying show, concluding with an audience sing-along of “Wake Up.”

7 Lady Gaga, Lollapalooza, August 6
After all the hype, Gaga delivered a better-than-average pop concert with plenty of costume changes and interesting set pieces. “Just Dance,” “Monster” and “Bad Romance” showed the girl wasn’t just flash – she can sing her butt off as well.

8 Matt & Kim, Lollapalooza, August 6
(2008 rank: 40)
(2009 rank: 8)
Another fun, energetic set including “Cinders” and “Good Old Fashioned Nightmare.” Interestingly, I saw the duo in 2009 as well and they ranked in the exact spot on my list.

9 MGMT, Lollapalooza, August 8
(2008 rank: 35 & 99)
(2009 rank: 17)
The Brooklyn psych-rock duo’s latest album was a sharp left turn from their previous one, but when they perform live, the songs all blend together seamlessly. They’ve gotten much better as a live act, leaving fans happy with “Brian Eno,” “Handshake” and “Kids.”

10 Rodrigo y Gabriela, Ravinia Festival, August 28
(2007 rank: 4)
The amazing Mexican instrumental acoustic guitar duo thrilled a massive crowd at Ravinia. Rodrigo shined on the band’s tribute to Pink Floyd, “11:11,” when he played slide guitar with a beer bottle.

11 Neon Indian, Pitchfork, July 18
The band’s synth-pop effects often resembled carnival ride sounds, adding a burst of happy energy to what had been a mostly low-key day to that point.

12 Titus Andronicus, Pitchfork, July 17
Roared onstage with the best performance at P4k Friday. The New Jersey band augmented its rock songs about the Civil War with a horn section that made the five-piece feel much larger.

13 Lightning Bolt, Pitchfork, July 18
Lived up to their name with a performance that could likely be heard from three blocks away. Drummer Brian Chippendale performed wearing a mask with a microphone underneath so he could produce the screechy vocals.

14 Empire of the Sun, Lollapalooza, August 7
Australian duo rocked the house with catchy electro songs and an eye-popping visual show with choreography and dancers who sported skin-tight bodysuits with swordfish masks.

15 New Pornographers, Lollapalooza, August 6
(2008 rank: 8)
Thankfully offered several songs from their best album Twin Cinema, including two of the set’s first four songs: “Sing Me Spanish Techno” and “Jackie Dressed in Cobras.”

16 Robyn, Pitchfork, July 16
Livened up Pitchfork’s first day with a set featuring “Dancing On My Own,” “Fembot” and “Cry When You Get Older.”

17 The National, Lollapalooza, August 8
(2008 rank: 39)
(2009 rank: 13 & 19)
I wish I’d seen more of their set. “The Runaway” was a lethargic opener, but “Mistaken for Strangers” and the new “Bloodbuzz Ohio” made things right.

18 Caribou, Millennium Park, July 12
A free show that was part of the Millennium Park concert series. The indietronica artist provided captivating music in a scenic environment.

19 Robert Randolph & the Family Band, Taste of Chicago, July 4
The funk-blues-rock band provided a memorable show at Taste of Chicago. The fact that it was free made it that much better.

20 Giving Tree, Millennium Park, October 9
I’d heard good things about this Chicago country band, but they exceeded my expectations with a rollicking set at the Country Music Festival.

21 She & Him, Millennium Park, June 7
Nice show, their guitar songs were fun & dancier than I expected
22 Passion Pit, Taste of Chicago, July 4
Acclaimed band played alt-rock with an energetic vibe
23 LCD Soundsystem, Pitchfork, July 17
(2007 rank: 66)
A fun way to end P4k Saturday, but closing with “New York, I Love You” was weird
24 Holy F—, Wicker Park Fest, July 31
(2008 rank: 31)
Sizzling but short set at Wicker Park Fest
25 Girls, Mr. Small’s, April 5
Mellow but engaging rock n roll before an appreciative audience
26 Mucca Pazza, Vic Theatre, November 17
Thirty piece marching band was captivating to the eyes and ears
27 Evelyn Evelyn, Park West, June 2
Fake conjoined twins were creative & entertaining Review
28 Jewel, Millennium Park, October 9
She’s a country singer now but played most of her pop hits
29 Amanda Palmer, Park West, June 2
(2008 rank: 25)
Solid solo set highlighted by “Runs in the Family” and “Astronaut”
30 Sleigh Bells, Pitchfork, July 18
Innovative rock duo was a bit shaky live & even lip-synched at times
31 Hockey, Lollapalooza, August 8
Lively set of grove-infested pop songs like “Rebels Marry Young” and “Work”
32 Titus Andronicus, Reckless Records, March 13
Rocking in-store performance sounded great
33 AFI, Lollapalooza, August 7
Closed on a high with “Silver and Cold,” “Miss Murder” and “Love Like Winter”
34 Neon Hitch, August 8
Newcomer to watch turned “Seven Nation Army” into an exotic, mystical pop song
35 Los Amigos Invisibles, Lollapalooza, August 6
Livened up their set with bits from popular ‘80s and ‘90s hits
36 Good Charlotte, Soldier Field, June 12
Played all their hits and solid new single “Like It’s Her Birthday” Review
37 Smith Westerns, Pitchfork, July 17
Talented up and coming Chicago group starred at Pitchfork
38 Alejandro Escovedo, Taste of Chicago, July 4
Roots guitarist was one of four solid acts who played for free on the 4th of July
39 Chely Wright, Borders Books, June 26
Played three beautiful acoustic songs during an in-store performance
40 Tortoise, Millennium Park, July 29
Good jazzy mood music, didn’t get to focus on the music as much as I would’ve liked, though
41 BBU, Lollapalooza, August 6
Impressed with a noon-time set featuring “Do This for My Culture” and “Chi Don’t Dance”
42 Warpaint, Lollapalooza, August 7
L.A.-based girl band’s sound varied by song, from dreamy pop to edgier rock
43 St. Vincent, Pitchfork, July 18
(2008 rank: 28)
(2009 rank: 27)
Annie Clark’s lush pop sounded good as always
44 Why? , Pitchfork, July 17
Showed a lot of promise with their sound that encompassed catchy pop, experimental rock and quirky rap with a nerdy delivery.
45 Phoenix, Lollapalooza, August 7
Pleasant set opened with “Lisztomania” and included most of their Grammy-winning album
46 Wakey! Wakey!, Lincoln Hall, November 4
Earnest alt-pop from One Tree Hill star
47 Dum Dum Girls, Mr. Small’s, April 5
Female rock band I’d never heard of, but they impressed me
48 Young Buffalo, Lincoln Hall, November 4
Wakey Wakey openers had a cool (if slightly dated) alternative sound
49 Jay Brannan, Subterranean, December 10
Jay is one miserable bastard, but that makes his personal lyrics more interesting
50 Third Eye Blind, Soldier Field, June 12
No longer relevant, but “How’s it Gonna Be” and “Jumper” are still cool
51 Sxip Shirey, Park West, June 2
Sxip is the king of unusual instruments
52 Team Bayside High, Lollapalooza, August 8
Local DJs sparked an early-afternoon dance party
53 Big Boi, Pitchfork, July 18
Rolled through “So Fresh, So Clean,” “Ms. Jackson” and “B.O.B.” in the first 20 minutes
54 Soundgarden, Lollapalooza, August 8
“Spoonman” was cool, but the songs ran together, providing a reminder of why grunge died out
55 The xx, Lollapalooza, August 7
Low-key sound too low-key for a major festival
56 Mission From Burma, Wicker Park Fest, July 31
I don’t remember a whole lot; I was trying to navigate the insane crowds
57 Budos Band, Millennium Park, July 12
Caribou openers weren’t memorable but weren’t bad
58 Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, Lollapalooza, August 7
Sounded best on the folksy “Home,” a male-female duet with a whistling hook
59 Ike Reilly Assassination, Lollapalooza, August 8
(2007 rank: 17 & 38)
Terrific rock band didn’t excite the small crowd this time around
60 Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Presented a lively shot of old school rock ‘n roll.
61 White Rabbits, Metro, April 25
(2007 rank: 27 & 36)
(2008 rank: 68)
“Percussion Gun” is one of the best songs of the 2000s
62 Girls, Pitchfork, July 18
Hit or miss set delivered with seeming indifference
63 Delorean, Pitchfork, July 17
Electro dance rock got the crowd bouncing, but too many lulls during the set
64 Chromeo, Lollapalooza, August 6
(2008 rank: 14)
Way too much dead time between songs and not enough reaching out to the massive audience
65 Yeasayer, Lollapalooza, August 8
(2009 rank: 60)
Suffered from a bad mix; the bass was louder than the vocals again
66 Taylor Dayne, Pride Festival, June 26
Brought crowd back to 1990 with “Prove Your Love” and “Tell it to My Heart” Review
67 Liars, Pitchfork, July 16
I love this band but they lost the crowd with too many weird, spacey songs
68 Jenny Owen Youngs, Lincoln Hall, November 4
Her “eccentric artist” persona seemed completely fake and contrived
69 Beach House, Pitchfork, July 18
Mellow, breezy girl-boy pop
70 Modest Mouse, Pitchfork, July 16
Quite a letdown from a band I really like
71 Pavement, Pitchfork, July 18
I can’t believe their music was ever considered “alternative” – this was completely mainstream rock
72 Jason Webley, Park West, June 2
Good set but he wasn’t given enough time to shine
73 Leslie & the Lys, Subterranean, February 12
Gem sweaters! She sang to a backing track – it was ridiculous, in a good way
74 LMFAO, Soldier Field, June 12
Visually appealing show included dancers dressed as giant Lego pieces
75 Michael Showalter, Pitchfork, July16
Comedian had a few good jokes but thought he was bombing
76 Cut Copy, Lollapalooza, August 7
Singer Dan Whitford‘s awkward dancing style wasn’t endearing; it was just weird
77 Dragonette, Lollapalooza, August 7
Decent but they have a long way to go to earn their hype
78 X Japan, Lollapalooza, August 8
Japanese metal band shrieked wildly for 45 minutes
79 Panda Bear, Pitchfork, July 17
Big boring letdown from popular Animal Collective member
80 Hot Chip, Lollapalooza, August 6
Sounded like they do on record – some songs were killer and others utterly boring
81 Switchfoot, Lollapalooza, August 8
I can’t believe someone invited them to play at Lolla
82 Dodos, Lollapalooza, August 8
Brought out Neko Case but shockingly only allowed her to harmonize
83 Broken Social Scene, Pitchfork, July16
(2008 rank: 106)
Maybe the most overrated band in America; I have yet to hear a single hook in any of their songs
84 Carney, Taste of Chicago, July 4
Rock band’s early afternoon set was alright
85 Boys Like Girls, Soldier Field, June 12
(2009 rank: 50)
Too much falsetto and too many pauses during the acoustic “Thunder”
86 Minus the Bear, August 8
Non-descript rock failed to move the Lolla masses
87 Big Pink, Lollapalooza, August 6
Only their closing song “Dominos” was worth hearing
88 Here We Go Magic, Metro, April 25
Openers for White Rabbits were less than stellar
89 Hellogoodbye, Soldier Field, June 12
Made a funny reference to Bill O’Reilly’s infamous “We’ll do it live!” outburst
90 El-P, Pitchfork, July 16
Why was he even on the bill, again?
91 All Time Low, Soldier Field, June 12
Unremarkable set cut short by technical difficulties
92 Forever the Sickest Kids, Soldier Field, June 12
Unimpressive alt-emo at Bamboozle Road Show
93 Death Vessel, Vic Theatre, April 27
Jonsi’s opener was boring and monotonous. We mostly spent the entire set debating whether the singer was a guy or girl. Our consensus was girl, but further research revealed we were wrong. The voice was strange and the songs weren’t interesting.

Dresden Dolls rock delicious crowd at Chicago’s Vic Theatre

November 18, 2010

You sound delicious,” Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer told the sold-out audience at Chicago’s Vic Theatre last night during a two-hour set that showed why so many people were excited to hear the Dolls had reunited for a tour celebrating their 10th anniversary.

Palmer called the concert “one of the best shows of the tour so far,” and it’s hard to imagine how many could have been better. Palmer, on keys, and Brian Viglione on drums attacked their instruments for two hours, playing their best songs and a satisfying mix of covers before a rabid audience.

The Dolls opened with a cover of T Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer” with Viglione on guitar before moving into familiar numbers “Good Day” and “Sex Changes.” One of the early highlights of the show came when Viglione and Palmer switched instruments for the first half of “Missed Me,” leading to awkward but endearing moments as the musicians worked out the parts on the spot.

Palmer mentioned that a local fan had invited her via Twitter to visit her apartment before the show and Palmer took her up on that offer. Turns out the fan had a toy piano, which she allowed the band to borrow for the gig. That resulted in the first live performance of “Perfect Fit” with a toy piano “since our record release party in 2003,” according to Palmer.

Local singer Molly Robison joined the band for “Delilah,” perhaps the best song in the band’s catalog. The performance was spot-on, with Palmer in fine vocal form and the climactic tune sounding as impressive as it ever has. Viglione shined on a 10-minute performance of “Half Jack” and the Dolls closed with the vicious “Girl Anachronism,” the song that earned the band the “punk” part of its “Brechtian punk cabaret” designation.

For the encore, Palmer wandered into the balcony for “Mein Herr” before the group closed with a cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” a song the Dolls have nearly perfected after playing it live for so long.

Having seen the Dolls live five times now, I agree this was the band performing at close to its absolute peak. I personally would’ve loved to see them play “Sing,” the dramatic sing-along I’ve yet to see them play live, just because it would’ve gone over so well in the sold-out auditorium, but no reasonable person could quibble with the set list or the performance. The Dolls rocked it hard.

The full set list is below.

Dresden Dolls Set List
Vic Theatre, Chicago
November 17, 2010

Cosmic Dancer
Good Day
Sex Changes
Mrs. O
Missed Me
Pirate Jenny
The Kill
Perfect Fit
The Time Has Come
Coin-Operated Boy
Half Jack
Girl Anachronism

Mein Herr
War Pigs

Last Updated on February 5, 2024