w/ Lili K, Woo Park, and >>Radiant Devices<<
Let me first say that Saturday was a great night for trying a new genre combination = jazz + soul + hip-hop + funk. Let me also say that it was a great night for female vocalists. And it was yet another great night for Chicago musicians.
Also, this show was special because I got to go with a collaborator and new friend from Radio One Chicago, Hex Hernandez, who has been helping FYMS get into shows and establish connections with local musicians and venues. He took some amazing pictures of all the bands and I can't wait to go to more shows with him! Check them out here on the Radio One blog or visit the Media page >> http://radioonechicago.com/sidewalk-chalk-at-metro-2-7-15/
>>Radiant Devices<< opened the night with a bang. This four-member band is best described by the words "experimental", "poetry", and "rock". Definitely unafraid to go beyond traditional instruments and song structures, the Chicago group is led by female vocalist Mojdeh, who shifted between singing punk-angry-loud verses and yelling lines of poetry into a megaphone throughout the set. The band also includes Fyodor Sakhnovski (guitar, bass, percussion) and Mason Payne (drums), and for this show, Mike Bibby (electronics, synths). >>Radiant Devices<< definitely has the experimental vibe going for them - Mojdeh put on an almost theatrical performance while banging away on various items posing as pieces of percussion, like metal pipes, a propane tank, and a metal chain/garbage can lid combo. I was slightly afraid at one point that a drum stick or metal chain link might fly off into the audience's faces, but thankfully, that didn't happen! While this band wasn't necessarily my cup of tea, I find it difficult to negatively judge such an out-there band because they're just doing something so completely different. I give them a lot of credit for that - so props to >>Radiant Devices<< for doing what they love and standing out from the crowd.
Woo Park came on next - a five member band made up of Emily Nichols (vocals), Parker Grogan (bass), Christian Zwit (keys/synth), Luke Sangerman (drums), and Brian Sanborn (guitar), I was pleasantly surprised by this group of talented musicians. I admit, when I first did some YouTube research earlier that day, I wasn't impressed. [Also, if you search for "Woo Park" on YT, a lot of Asian videos show up...ha ha! But this is actually the band, in case you were wondering.] Anyway, I can admit when I'm wrong - and boy, was I wrong here! Emily Nichols took the stage singing smooth, soulful lyrics with impressive control, while the band grooved away behind her. There's definitely a bit of a grungy feel to Woo Park, which I think is what threw me off at first (Christian's outfit was definitely something), but after a few songs, I really came to appreciate the band's chemistry and how well they all jammed together. Brian Sanborn was incredible on guitar, playing with an almost tangible passion that could make anyone in the audience nod in appreciation, and when he really got going with Christian Zwit on keys, the two were just something else entirely. They call themselves "psychedelic soul", which you don't hear too much of these days, but they are well-grounded with some amazing musicians and are worth taking a listen >> check out their debut EP called Smokes (2014) and get to a live show if you can!
The final opener was Lili K - a 23-year-old graduate of Columbia College Chicago who is steadily making her way as a jazz vocalist. Lili K has an incredible voice - it's just enough old-school jazz but with a sass that, for some reason, reminds me of Lily Allen (maybe it's the name resemblance too..). But anyway, it was hard to not be immediately drawn in by Lili K's voice, which has that signature jazzy vibrato - but it isn't overdone. Her backing band includes Erik Hunter (bass), Cullen Bogan (guitar), Myron Cherry (drums), William Kurk (keys), and Drew Fridge (keys) - though there were only five there that night. Some of the setlist included "Pour Some Sugar", "One Mo' Time", a solid cover of T. Pain's "Buy U A Drank", and her most recent single, "Tommy". Lili K also invited Harold Green out on stage who performed a piece of slam poetry/rap with the band. She has released a number of EPs in the past (with Peter Cottontale), but her debut (and self-produced) album called Ruby is scheduled for release on April 21, 2015. This young artist has such a mature voice with impeccable control, and it was really refreshing to see and hear someone with that amount of talent from an often over-looked genre.
I'm not quite sure how I first came across Sidewalk Chalk, but I do know that the first song of theirs that I heard was "Grocery List" - and I was immediately hooked. Seriously - the horns riff on that song is ridiculous, and it'll get stuck in your brain for the rest of the day.
Sidewalk Chalk is an 8-person band - and yes, that is a really large number for a band these days. But everyone has an integral part in a sound that plays off of influences from hip-hop, jazz, soul, and funk. [If you've heard of Native Tongues, then you're getting closer.] The group is made up of Rico Sisney (MC), Maggie Vagle (vocals), Charlie Coffeen (keys), Garrett McGinn (bass), Tyler Berg (drums), Jumaane Taylor (taps), Sam Trump (trumpet), and David Ben-Porat (trombone) - and these guys are just about as diverse a group as you can get. Sidewalk Chalk met during their time at Columbia College and came together organically, eventually ending up with the sound that they have now.
Aside from the fact that they have a rockin' horns section, Sidewalk Chalk also has a double edged sword in Maggie with her sultry jazzy vocals and Rico with his steady flow of rap lyrics, that really sound more like the stuff of poetry. The two styles balance each other out, with Maggie belting out hooks and choruses while Rico delivers the rhythmic rap patterns of the verses. And just to further confirm how talented Rico is (in case you doubt me), he invited the audience to bring random items up to the stage, for a game he called "I Spy", and then proceeded to freestyle rap about each item - from a baseball hat to a jacket to a concert ticket to a cowboy boot to a passport. Check the video proof. Seriously. So impressed.
Oh, and by the way, were you wondering what taps is? Yup, you heard me. This group has its own tap dancer - Jumaane Taylor - who lends additional beats to the tracks and gets his own little wooden platform mic'd up for live shows. I've never known a band to incorporate that sound before, but it definitely adds extra showmanship to the performance. Not to imply that there was a shortage of energy onstage at all! The horns section had some pretty awesome dance moves, and you could feel the passion and genuine enthusiasm from every single person on stage - always a great thing to witness as an audience member!
Sidewalk Chalk's setlist included songs from their first and second albums, Corner Store (2012) and Leaves (2014) - like "Birds of a Feather", "There She Goes", and "C.B.R" (which borrows lyrics from the Serenity Prayer); and their encore was "Grocery List". Of course, the show was an album release show for their latest, Shoulder Season (2015), so they played a lot of new material, like "Don't Cry", "So Close", "Get It Right", "FiveTWELVE", and my favorite, "Them, Us".
The band recently released a music video for "Them, Us", which features footage from demonstrations held on the CTA Red Line stops (Chicago's public transportation train system). According to this article in the Chicago Sun Times, the demonstration was meant to highlight the racial tension that has been especially prevalent since the Ferguson protests and Michael Brown case. The group is not only diverse in its sound and musical styles, but also in its members' racial backgrounds, religions, and genders. "Them, Us" is an incredibly powerful song that makes some very important points about race and diversity and the way that we still treat each other today.
This third album is mature in sound and concept, and also unique in that it's a compilation of live performances, recorded during shows in 7 (mostly) Midwestern cities - Fort Wayne, Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville, St. Louis, Louisville, and of course, Chicago. For a band that really shines its brightest during a live performance, it was extremely smart for Sidewalk Chalk to make this one a live album - there are some musicians out there for whom studio recordings just don't do proper justice. For the rest of February and through the first week of March, Sidewalk Chalk will be taking their incredible talent and live performance magic towards the East coast, then up to Canada for a few days, and then back to the Midwest. If you're open to trying something new, definitely go see a show. The hiphop+jazz+soul combination will keep you grooving, and the energy and joy of everyone up on stage is infectious - you're guaranteed to leave with a happy musicsoul!
Also big thanks to Sidewalk Chalk and Charlie Coffeen for getting us comp'd into the show!
Cover photo courtesy of Ropeadope Press. All other photos by Hex Hernandez.