Although 2018 started with a brutal arctic blast, there were many shows in the area that made it feel like a Chicago summer. Shockingly for this town, January was surprisingly eclectic, with DIY bands as well as multiplatinum-selling acts and storied legends playing gigs in packed houses. It was all I could do to cover it all, but here it goes.
Alen Kahn, the front man for Bad Bad Meow, has a knack for surrounding himself with musicians who can articulate his bug-eyed fury while playing with surgical finesse. With new members Anthony Perez ( drums ), Geno Alesandrini ( trumpet ) and Justin Neese ( bass ) joining Kahn, Greg Peerbolte ( guitar ) and Joey Lieberman ( keyboards ), the band now resembles a runaway Ferris wheel spinning out of control with a horde of mental patients strapped in and enjoying every second of it. For starters, the new Fake News ( on bandcamp ) is not exactly punk or country ( the band labels itself "country punk" ) but a boiling brew of inane ideas, straight-up raw bama-lama and cheeky humor. The opening track, "The Most Beautiful Piece of Chocolate Cake," sounds like a warped lullaby with the faked emotion of an '80s power ballad. The misleading intro on "Russia vs. Antartica" slyly swirls into a percolating surf-rock rave-up while the first single, "Scientists and Lawyers Agree to Disagree," is a big, meaty slice of tart funk.
On stage in front of a packed house at The Hideout on Jan. 13, Neese and Peerbolte circled around each other like sharks as Alesandrini's horn blurted and Perez's pounding forced Kahn to up his game. It was a thrilling set, with the newer material blended in with as yet unrecorded music ( the hilarious "Pizza Boy" ) and old favorites. ( "Drink and Regret" provided the nights biggest blast of ecstacy, as the one hundred or so audience members ripped through the chorus of, "I said it, we never, should have gone to bed with each other!!!!" in sloppy unison. )
If Bad Bad Meow seems to enjoy being rowdy and rambunctious, German trio Milky Chance ( Clemens Rehbein on vocals and guitar, Antonio Greger on guitar and harmonica, and producer/DJ Philipp Dausch ) seemed to tamp their music down to a fault. Granted when their debut, Sadnecessary ( on Lichtdict Records ) dropped in 2013, it quickly established the band with its swirling and gentle mix of EDM, light funk, American Blues, hard rock, and reggae. Hits like "Stolen Dance" and "Down by the River" may have sounded like something new, while the downside was that the band never seemed to catch fire while all those interesting ingredients faded into the wall paper. The new Blossom ( on Lichtdict Records ) is more of the same, but it took a sold-out show at The Riviera Theater on Jan. 26 to make the band's concoction come to life.
Opening the show was Scotland's Lewis Capaldi on a stripped-down personal note. Midway through his acoustic set of ballads, he apologized for specializing in heartbreaking tear-stained confessionals, saying that Milky Chance has "lots of happy songs." It may have been a sly move to let Capaldi open the show, since his arresting voice instantly enraptured the rowdy crowd and his songs ( "Mercy," "Lost on You," "Bruises" ) showed a skilled young talent on the rise. ( He is 23. )
Then, Milky Chance got on stage and blew my bitchy snippiness out the door and wowed the house. Opening with a chunk of Blossom, Rehbein came out strumming and bobbing his head like he was in a cyclone. With the addition of a percussionist and a drummer onstage, "Cloud," "Ego" and "Doing Good" roared with an abrasive edge missing on the recordings. The live setting also gave me a chance to fully appreciate Rehbein's lazy, smoky blues-tinged voice with it being mixed right up front and him enunciating with a hidden nimbleness I hadn't caught before. For any other band, that million-dollar light set up would not have added muchbut here, with the muscular playing and fiery passion, "Cocoon ( which positively burned with Greger's harmonica rave up )," "Firebird," "Bad Things" and "Fairytale" had an altogether different effect. Even "Stolen Dance" had a different favor and tone when it popped up near the close of the show, and it felt new again.
This year has every indication of not being the floater that 2017 was...
Heads-up: As it has been well-publicized, Elton John is retiring from touring ( his shows here are in October at the United Center ) but there are oodles of queer faves hitting the stages this year. Joan Armatrading plays a five-night stand at City Winery on June 9-14, genderfluid rocker Ezra Furman lands at Thalia Hall on Feb. 26 and blues legend Bettye LaVette plays The Old Town School of Folk Music on April 13. Also, although Rostam's show at Lincoln Hall on Feb. 10 is sold out, the new video "Bike Dream" is now streaming.