Summer Breeze: The University of Chicago’s annual music festival returns with a slew of classic favorites, hot new bands and hometown heroes

The Summer Breeze war is upon us–though, as usual, it isn’t much of a battle at all. Sometimes, we can all get along. For more than twenty years, the University of Chicago’s Major Activities Board (MAB) and WHPK 88.5 FM Chicago have staged springtime music shows on the same day. This year is no different, but the eclectic line-ups of both shows ensure that your ears can experience a sonic extravaganza.

WHPK’s concert is headlined by New York’s Talibam!, who plays improvisational free noise jazz (or whatever they’re deciding to call it nowadays). Also making an appearance are ‘HPK stalwarts Bird Names, whose psych-y tunes always make an interesting show. Wolfden and Dead Luke do garage material, and Animal Law creates sounds that are remarkable and truly singular. Don’t miss openers the Smith Westerns, Chicago high school students whose demo record has made them a favorite of the WHPK rock format.

MAB’s show, as always, tends towards more commercially viable acts. After all, they have to sell tickets. Their headliner, Cake, may remind you of middle school, and they haven’t released a record with new material since 2004, but who really cares about all of that? After all, they can still whip out talky songs with catchy hooks. Brooklyn’s Talib Kweli, who began his career in Black Star, now releases thoughtful, well-produced albums of conscious hip hop with diverse guest artists. Chicago’s Andrew Bird and the Cool Kids round out MAB’s roster with orchestral pop and old school hip-hop. Hope you like aural dissonance. (Rose Schapiro)

Andrew Bird

Next to recycled survivors like Cake, Andrew Bird will strike many as the obvious nod to the indie crowd in the Major Activities Board’s Summer Breeze lineup. Bird can be conveniently–and accurately–placed among the swollen ranks of multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriters favored by naïve undergraduates and the horn-rimmed set, where mediocrity marches alongside true talent. The complex layering, the pompous symphonic arrangements, the allusive lyrics that come dangerously close to overreaching: all of them can be found in Bird’s music. Yet Bird avoids the embarrassingly contrived cuteness of Sufjan Stevens and the monotonous nightmares of other Americana aspirants like Grizzly Bear thanks to honest-to-God musicianship. Something of a paradox in the autodidactic, DIY world of the music underground, Bird can make even the worst songs from his last full-length “Armchair Apocrypha” and recent EP “Soldier On” sound fresh by dint of experience and training. He was trained on violin and piano as a child, and his popular music grows out of his classical proficiency. Any popular musician can have an ear and every singer-songwriter requires one, but few have the kind of talent Bird evinces in pairing the lowest mellow tones of a bass with the whirling, melismatic cadences of his violin. Execution makes it all catchy and listenable. This kind of creativity makes Bird interesting on his records. How he reproduces it live is enough to make you want to see his show.

The best part of Bird’s appearance, however, may simply be its sentimental aspect. Along with the Cool Kids, Bird represents a hometown presence. Prior to the release of “Armchair Apocrypha,” he was something of a Chicago secret. The record was released during a spate of Americana-themed releases from the Windy City, including the spectacular “Roots and Crowns” from Califone. In the same vein as Califone’s record, Bird’s music carried a certain gravitas whose sincerity beat aside any possible accusation of melodrama. The evidence of its power lay in its reception: like Califone before him, Bird was thrust into indie stardom. Unlike the pale imitations from its Brooklyn cousins, instrumentalist American music from Bird seethes with the kind of transcendence born of bloody-lipped discipline–emotional release through technical prowess–you would only expect to find in America’s prairie metropolis. (John Thompson)

The Cool Kids
Think back to a time when MySpace didn’t have over a million profiles and when rapping about BMX’ing wasn’t “cool.” The rappers Antoine “Mikey Rocks” Reed and Evan “Chuck Inglish” Ingersoll from the Chicago and Detroit areas, respectively, met through MySpace in 2005 when Reed wanted to purchase a beat that Ingersoll had produced. The rest is pretty much history: the duo, dubbed The Cool Kids, generated so much buzz from the music they released on their MySpace page, they garnered a television commercial for Rhapsody and went on tour with the artist MIA even before their debut studio album was ever released. Although they’ve already made a handful of EPs, the duo’s highly anticipated EP “The Bake Sale” is due out on May 20th, 2008 by the independent Chicago label Chocolate Industries–once the label of Lady Sovereign.”The Bake Sale” will feature two of their biggest hits on MySpace, “Black Mags” and “88,” along with a handful of new songs.

The current popularity of The Cool Kids is hard to ignore when they’ve mixed and mingled with established DJs like Diplo and A-Trak. The story behind The Cool Kids’ fresh sound can be traced back to their mutual love for 1980s hip-hop. Citing the hip-hop duo Eric B. and Rakim as their main musical influences, The Cool Kids have established a strong musical identity of their own. Sometimes oddly referred to as “retro-rap,” some would say their music has a sense of nostalgia attached to it, but what their popularity comes down to is that The Cool Kids skillfully sample songs and mix beats in memorable ways. Their lyrics can be playful or educational and there is a lot of flexibility when it comes to their performance style. Their live shows are colorful and energetic–neon lights shine everywhere and the duo’s outfits stand out on the dim stage. It is apparent that both Reed and Ingersoll love to perform and to keep the crowd entertained. For instance, when the duo was on tour with MIA this past fall, they had a graffiti artist on stage drawing on an easel while they performed. Their love of music and the stage is easily channeled into the audience, which makes this hip-hop duo a must-see. The Cool Kids’ fresh style and fun beats will keep the crowd hanging on for more. (Tiffany Kwak)

Bursting from Brooklyn’s sprawl of experimental noise, art, and improvisation, Talibam! take their name from a New York Post headline about Afghan airstrikes and their sound from a simultaneous mixture of free jazz, prog rock, and tape hiss. But that description only begins to flesh out the duo’s uncommonly focused approach towards spontaneous music. Kevin Shea’s drums take an ecstatic, meticulous walloping, and Matt Mottel’s keyboards warble and suffocate in time. The results defy easy comparison. Sun City Girls’ globe-spanning influences and insatiable appetite are an obvious start, but there’s only so much mania that can fit in practiced songs. Or perhaps a multi-instrumental Sun Ra without the Pharaoh schtick or the Arkestra, though it’s hard to imagine Talibam! anything but reveres him. Maybe Minor Threat’s unrecorded drug album? The DIY spirit, exuberant attitude, swirling textures, and absence of psychedelia are all there. Gnidrolog gets haircuts and tries PCP? The harsh noise scene goes soft and makes friends while sewing matching neon jumpsuits? Talibam! makes a racket that speaks for itself. So does their pedigree. Shea and Mottel have played in plenty of zine-worthy bands, including Storm and Stress, Coptic Light, Mostly Other People Do The Killing, and Shadowmaps.

But they aren’t the only ones responsible for the diversity of their noise, if only because they haven’t enough hands. Talibam! has collaborated prolifically, and to that end they’ve pulled a hefty chunk of New York’s avant-improv scene, including trumpeter Peter Evans, saxophonist Ed Bear, and Swedish guitar abuser Matthu Stull aboard their flood of releases. 2008 will see seven more, released on a variety of labels (Azul Discografica, Pendu Sound Recordings, to name just two) and formats (lovingly hand-packaged CD-R, cassette, 7”, 10”, 12”). Previous years have been no less fruitful–since 2005, they’ve put out another ten releases, with equal diversity in format and label. Though they’ve regretfully dubbed their structured clatter “shitstorm skronk”, the most popular of current “noisy” bands are the ones that Talibam! is furthest from. Hella’s scree comes in one nubby, sax-less flavor, and while equally native to sweaty basements, only rarely does the Load Records catalog inject prog noodling and cheerful new wave synths to the usual guitar squeal and percussive rioting. With a Summer Breeze lineup heavy on the garage rock and indie pop, Talibam! promises to be a raucously welcome blast. (Michael Joyce)

The Smith Westerns
An interview with Chicago’s own garage rockin’ teenage troublemakers, the Smith Westerns.

Q. Just for the record: what are your names, and who plays what?
A. My name is Cullen and I play guitar and sing in The Smith Westerns. Cameron, my
brother, plays bass and Michael drums and Max plays guitar.
Q. You guys are all still in high school, correct? What are your ages? Do you all attend
the same school? What school(s)?
A. We’re all in high school. I’m 18, Max is 17, and Cameron and Michael are 16. We all
go to Northside [College] Prep together.
Q. When did you guys first get together to create the Smith Westerns? Where does the
name arise from?
A. My dad played guitar for a long time and was good and he got me a guitar. I played
a few chords for him and he said I sucked. So, I made a band to make him shut the
fuck up. We thought guns were really loud and can kill–which was what we wanted
to do to everyone; so I called it the Smith Westerns thinking that was what the name
of the gun was.
Q. How would you describe your music?
A. Todd Killings from Horizontal Action said we were a ‘randy and voracious slap-take
on modern punk, ran through a teenage meat grinder, and slathered with crazy
sauce.’ We agree.
Q. Your Demos disc received a good amount of airplay here at WHPK. When did you first “release” your demos? Also, I don’t remember, but did you ever play “Pure Hype” here at WHPK? If so, how was the experience?
A. My brother Cameron wanted to mail CDs out ’cause he plays bass so he doesn’t really
do anything. This way he got something to do so we all drew crayon pictures and sent
them out. We played WHPK and it was fun but Cameron got nervous and made a really
lame joke and we all make fun of him about it now cause he doesn’t do anything
but play bass.
Q. Inevitable question: what are some of your influences?
A. Inevitable answer: teenage punk fuckdom.
Q. What are some of the songs that you plan on putting on the HoZac [label] single? (and
don’t just say “the bad ones”) When is it going to be released? (ditto with a
full length…?)
A. ’Irukandj’ and ‘Crabman‘ are gonna be on the A side and ’Spiritus Sanctus‘ will be on
the B side. It’ll be coming out real soon cause we just finished the art work and
test pressings are going on now. We would like to make a full length album but
don’t know what to do.
Q. If it were a type of food, what would your music be?
A. I’d be a silly slice of pizza playing the piano and Michael would accompany me as a
hot hamburger playing on a haphazard harp. Cameron and Max would be dicks and
they’d suck each other.
(Sean Redmond)