Introduction: Cheers! A British bartender reviews Chicago’s English pubs (Newcity)

Published October 5, 2011 (

By Ben Small

Trends come and go, change and evolve, but one thing has always remained a constant: what makes an archetypal English pub English. The taste of a hand-pumped cask ale; the sense of age and history, that if the walls could talk, they’d certainly have a few tales to tell; the worn-down Persian carpets that have a musky smell after absorbing years of spilt beer; the polished wood surfaces and overhead exposed beams that provide the source of many bumped and bruised heads; the wholesome experience of pub fare; that comforting feeling that you’re relaxing in a stranger’s front room. “Pub” is an abbreviation of “public house,” and that explains the crucial tenet of what makes a pub a pub, to feel a comfortable belonging in a place that feels like a home. If that means there’s a pub dog nestling up against your legs or that there’s a roaring fire to keep you warm in the winter, then so be it.

The county of Kent in south-eastern England, where I was born and raised, is a hotbed of “local pubs,” and whether in the countryside or a city center there is a familiarity among them all, a collective history. For as long as I can remember growing up, my parents would drive us out to visit pubs in different towns and villages around Kent for Sunday lunches. Then, when I turned eighteen, I started to pave my own, slightly more inebriated, way as I explored and sampled the variety of establishments on offer in Leeds, the city where I studied my undergraduate degree, a city notorious for its pub drinking culture. Now, almost twenty-three, I call Chicago home and bring the experiences I have drinking in and growing up around pubs in England to the imitation pubs in Chicago, the ones that desire to emulate the ambiance of what I know best. With that in mind, I visited a few to see how good a job they could do.


Preview: Fucked Up/Logan Square Auditorium (Newcity)

Published September 28, 2011 (

Fucked UpCanadian hardcore punks Fucked Up have had an intriguing rise to fame. In their early career, they released only very limited-run seven-inch records and played basement shows in their hometown of Toronto. Nowadays, they are receiving coveted Polaris Music Prizes and releasing modern interpretations of the rock-opera format with this year’s “David Comes to Life.” They’ve managed to become a “hardcore band for people that don’t generally like hardcore,”  as reflected in their signing to the indie-rock label Matador Records and their collaborations with the likes of Kurt Vile, Tegan & Sara and even Moby, who joined them on stage to perform a Ramones cover during the twelve-hour set they performed in New York City in 2008. Regardless, they have certainly earned this position at the forefront of modern hardcore. They did their groundwork in the underground scene before developing their music in such a progressive and expansive manner—refreshing when many modern hardcore bands are carbon-copy regurgitations of any Minor Threat or Black Flag song.

“David Comes to Life” tells the tale of David, a factory worker, falling in love with a girl named Veronica in the fictional town of Byrdesdale Spa in 1980s Thatcher-era Britain. Needless to say, not everything about the relationship goes as planned. The story is convoluted and as pretentious as any concept album that came before it yet, the ostentatious ideas of Fucked Up are second to their delivery throughout the eighty-minute opus. The six-piece can conjure multilayered onslaughts of carefully constructed noise or simpler pop melodies that continue to grow and build as songs progress. The only aspect that remains a reliable constant is the gruff shouting of vocalist Damian Abraham, a.k.a. Pink Eyes, which gives Fucked Up their instantly recognizable sound. It is Abraham who has remained the focal piece of Fucked Up’s live shows. It is through his larger-than-life build and endless energy and charisma that Fucked Up forged a name as a must-see band. He bounds around the stage, more often than not shirtless, picking up unaware crowd members to carry around. He eschews any notion of the stage as a place for performance, using every corner of the venue to bellow his lyrics. Abraham is certainly someone to behold. (Ben Small)

September 29 at Logan Square Auditorium, 2539 North Kedzie, (773)252-6179, 7pm, $15-$18.

Kevin Vodak Presents on Hate Crime Prosecution to Law Enforcement Officials (CAIR-Chicago)

Published September 26, 2011 (

By Ben Small

CAIR-Chicago Litigation Director Kevin Vodak presented the “Hate Crime and Bias Awareness” conference on September 15th, 2011 to discuss the ways in which law enforcement agencies can improve their procedures and techniques in addressing hate crimes. The conference, which took place at the Center on Halsted, an LGBT community center at 3656 North Halstead, was organized by the Office of Illinois Attorney General in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice and hosted both state and local law enforcement as well as state’s attorneys.

The consensus of the conference was that hate crimes are drastically under-reported. The FBI generates reports on both numbers and types of hate crimes from participating local law enforcement agencies nationwide. However, of the 14,422 agencies in the program in 2009, only 15 percent reported any kind of hate crime at all. This percentage misrepresents the amount of hate crime that transpires countrywide.

With regards to anti-Muslim incidents, there were 107 incidents in 2009, which was a minor increase from the 105 incidents reported in 2008. Evidence suggests that many anti-Islamic hate crimes go undocumented, whether due to the underreporting of incidents by the victims or the under-recording by law enforcement officials. The statistics for 2010 are expected to show large increases in anti-Muslim hate crimes due to rising Islamophobia stemming from high profile campaigns by popular anti-Islam hate figures such as Robert Spencer and Pamela Gellar. In particular, the controversy surrounding the Park51 Islamic Center near Ground Zero created a large amount of hateful fervor.

Vodak sat on a panel alongside two gay rights activists, Candice Hart from Illinois Gender Advocates and Lisa Gilmore from the Center on Halsted, as well as Matt Nosanchuk from the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division of the US Attorney General’s Office.

Vodak explained the story of Amal Abusumayah, a victim of a hate crime in Tinley Park in November 2009, as an example of how to effectively prosecute perpetrators of hate crimes. Abusumayah was shopping at a Jewel grocery store when Valerie Kenney, 54-year old banker, shouted derogatory remarks about Muslims, in reference to the recent Fort Hood shooting, before later trying to pull off Abusumayah’s headscarf. Initially Abusumayah was reluctant to press charges, “I just wanted to forget about the whole thing,” she had explained. “These things are quite common. I thought telling the police was enough.”

Upon later reflection she felt that women don’t report these crimes because they see no point and would rather let the incident slide. She then decided to press charges to send a message that actions such as those of Kenney are completely unacceptable. CAIR-Chicago advocated on behalf of Abusumayah and generated media coverage of the incident in order for her message to reach the general public.

On January 5, 2010, Kenney was charged with battery and aspects of the Hate Crimes Law sentencing guidelines were incorporated into her sentence. She was sentenced to 2-years probation, 200 hours of community service and a $2,500 fine. Furthermore, she apologized in court to Abusumayah, her family and the Muslim community.

The prosecution of Kenney is a strong example of how hate crimes should be prosecuted in order to educate against ignorance and challenge Islamophobia. Vodak hopes his suggestions to the law enforcement officials in attendance will be taken into consideration and used as a framework for action in both Illinois and nationwide.

Refreshed: DJ Shadow returns to form, sort of, with “The Less You Know, The Better” (Newcity)

Published September 23, 2011 (

By Ben Small

DJ Shadow“’The Outsider’ was a provocation; it was intended to pull the wheat from the chaff.” Josh Davis or, as he is more famously known, DJ Shadow, does not mince his words as he sits in his tour bus on the corner of Ashland and Lake discussing his soon-to-be-released fourth studio album during the steaming hot Saturday of this summer’s Pitchfork Festival. For those unacquainted with the music of DJ Shadow, he makes very experimental and progressive instrumental hip-hop that stems from his obsession with the genre during his childhood and formative years.

“The Outsider,” Davis’ last record, came out in 2006. With the release of that record his intention was to remove the deadwood of his fan base by writing a particularly confrontational collection of songs. There’s a resentful tone in Davis’ voice as he discusses those fans who dwell on his renowned 1996 debut, “Endtroducing.” These are the fans who want and expect a rehash of that record with each release. Rather than being a fan of DJ Shadow, they are rather a fan of the record. “It [‘The Outsider’] was my invitation to jump off the train,” Davis explains, “because I don’t want to stop my exploration of music.” He wants his music to progress and evolve and, most importantly, be what he wants to produce. He rejects the notion that his music career should be defined by a record he wrote fifteen years ago.

Now that Davis has made that statement with “The Outsider,” his new release was written by a much more relaxed figure, devoid of the frustrations that inspired the previous output. As a result, “The Less You Know, The Better” isn’t afraid to tread ground that bears resemblance to “Endtroducing,” albeit with a completely fresh take and many more years experience in making this style of music. The record was written in a secluded cottage in rural California where Davis could flourish free from distractions and truly immerse himself in his work. It was a cleansing process for him that was difficult at first. He explains that we, in the modern world, get subliminally addicted to our distractions: our cell phones, our hours endlessly browsing the Internet or staring blankly at the television. Once he broke free of all that, the music truly began to fly for Davis.

Despite the process of solitude, the record will not just be his work. He had initially intended to write it devoid of collaborations, unlike the collaboration-heavy nature of “The Outsider.” “As always when I set these personal rules for myself, somewhere in the process I realize that it would be a better record if I break my own rules,” Davis admits. It was a simple fact to Davis that a couple of the songs on the record would be improved with vocals. As such, the record features two collaborations: one with Tom Vek and the other with Swedish-based electronic band Little Dragon. The latter of the two Davis discovered on a record-buying binge one day; theirs was his favorite purchase. He liked it so much that he later got in touch to organize a collaborative piece, despite the animated rock band Gorillaz discovering and using their talent first on their 2010 release “Plastic Beach.” “Greatness will always rise,” says Davis. He wouldn’t let Gorillaz beating him to Little Dragon dissuade him from his own artistic endeavors.

Although the music of DJ Shadow is largely instrumental, it does not mean that it is devoid of a message. The promotional artwork of “The Less You Know, The Better” provides a social commentary on the way technology defines modern life, particularly in reference to how the music world has been completely transformed by the Internet. “I think there’s a strange duality to the Internet and the media in general,” Davis explains. “It’s supposed to be offering all these freedoms, yet everybody is supposed to do what they do in the same manner. I find that it’s reduced a lot of artists to used car salesmen.” He sees that a lot of music is just regurgitating other people’s work, and that whoever can shout the loudest and market themselves the best on the Internet are the ones that succeed. “I think that works for some people, but for others it’s undignified and embarrassing,” says Davis. “I think it minimizes the importance of having a bit of artistic autonomy.” It’s an interesting outlook from an artist who made his name by reusing others’ work through sampling. Yet, where some artists simply beat a dead horse, Davis reimagines the work of others to create something that sounds entirely fresh and different.

“The Less You Know, The Better” (Universal Music Group) will be released  October 4.

Preview: The Album Leaf/Bottom Lounge (Newcity)

Published September 13, 2011 (

The Album LeafThe lonesome recording artist Jimmy LaValle, a.k.a. The Album Leaf, is set to bring to life his ambient, dreamy electronica soundscapes at the Bottom Lounge with the help of a live band. The intricate pieces that LaValle creates on record are not simply reproduced straight from the studio, but rather added to and re-imagined with the help of the three musicians that tour with him. The songs are kept sounding fresh so that they may continue to evolve regardless of the fact they have been committed to record. When considering that the latest full-length release in 2010, “A Chorus of Storytellers,” took a whole three years to write and perfect, it is impressive that LaValle can find room for improvement and adaptation. While The Album Leaf is not exactly a shoegaze band, there is certainly ample amounts of shoe-gazing during its drawn-out, complex instrumentals, which does not exactly translate to an abundance of stage presence. Thankfully, the ebb and flow of The Album Leaf’s swooping compositions are subsequently aided by beautiful visual art and light displays that provide a unique backdrop to each of the songs, and give those in the audience with a little less attention span something to keep themselves occupied. What’s more, The Album Leaf has a policy that any fans inked permanently with their artwork have the privilege of getting into their shows free, so if you’re that dedicated a fan, prepare to bare skin. (Ben Small)

September 23 at Bottom Lounge, 1375 West Lake, (312)666-6775, 9pm. $14. 17+.

Preview: Vivian Girls/Empty Bottle (Newcity)

Published September 13, 2011 (

Vivian Girls

It can be incredibly patronizing to discuss a band by the prevailing gender of their members, but with Vivian Girls the 1960s “girl group” style that the band certainly draws inspiration from is an important crux of their sound. The harmonized vocals are at the forefront of their music, against a backdrop of steady beats and with a more contemporary take on a garage rock sound. Despite this influence, the lyrics of Vivian Girls eschew the formula of their 1960s foremothers, whose archetypal character in the lyrics was that of the desperate and dependent girlfriend rather than the dominant and often disrespectful male subject. Rather, they adopt a form of feminism that bears more resemblance to the riot grrrl movement that began in the early 1990s. On the band’s latest release, “Share the Joy,” when guitarist and vocalist Cassie Ramone sings “I don’t want to be like the other girls” in “The Other Girls,” there is a rejection of mainstream interpretations of women, a far cry from the “will you still love me tomorrow?” ethos of those before. Vivian Girls continue to exude the same energy that saw them explode onto the Brooklyn music scene back in 2008; a punk attitude and sound that their city kinsmen, Ramones, would be proud of. (Ben Small)

September 15 at the Empty Bottle, 1035 North Western, (773)276-3600, 9:30pm. $12.

Fall Music Preview 2011 (Newcity)

By Ben Small

Brendan Kelly
Kelly is best known for his shouty vocals alongside Chris McCaughan’s melodic singing in Chicago punk stalwarts The Lawrence Arms. Now that McCaughan has had some success going solo, Kelly is giving it his best shot, too. Expect drunken ramblings, stripped-down versions of The Lawrence Arms songs and Jawbreaker covers.
September 9 at Double Door

The Vancouver, Canada-based punk band is considered the founding fathers of hardcore after releasing the seminal album “Hardcore ’81″ back in the early eighties. Thirty years and twelve records later and the band may lack their earlier punch but the classics remain as important and influential as any Black Flag or Minor Threat song.
September 16 at Cobra Lounge

Japandroids describe themselves as a two-piece trying to sound like a five-piece and their music is certainly a testament to that statement. No Age are a clear comparison as they both thrash through expansive, discordant rock tracks that manage to sound strikingly controlled and precise despite the frenzied nature of their music.
September 23 at Schubas

The Album Leaf
The Album Leaf is the work of one man named Jimmy LaValle. He creates ambient, dreamy electronica soundscapes that are brought to life with a live band and an accompanying visual display to envisage the style and emotion of each song. Oh, and if you are dedicated enough to have a tattoo themed around The Album Leaf then you can get into the show free.
September 23 at Bottom Lounge

Riot Fest
Chicago’s premier punk festival enters its seventh year with scores of bands playing across four venues in the city over five nights. The big pulls this year include Weezer, Descendents, Social Distortion and a Danzig set that will see him playing classic songs from his former band, The Misfits. Hopefully Danzig can show that other band that goes around calling themselves The Misfits how the songs are meant to be performed.
October 5-9 at Congress Theater, Cobra Lounge, Bottom Lounge and Double Door

Minus the Bear
Minus the Bear celebrate their ten-year anniversary with what every long-term fan would give their pot of honey for: a performance of 2002’s “Highly Refined Pirates” in its entirety. The virtuoso finger-tapping guitar work of Dave Knudson and the “girls and/or drinking” subject matter of Jake Snider’s lyrics on their debut was what made them famous, and to miss the band relive those days would be a woeful mistake.
October 11 at Metro

The World/Inferno Friendship Society
The World/Inferno Friendship Society has the proud honor of being a successful cabaret punk band, which at first seems like a rather confusing concept. They blend jazz and soul styles with the energy and tenacity of punk that translates to live shows that wouldn’t be out of place at a circus.
October 14 at Reggies

Why not? Their contemporary and unique take on hip-hop certainly leans more toward indie and folk styles, but it is the unpredictable and intriguing rhyming schemes of Jonathan “Yoni” Wolf that makes the band stand out. The music oozes inordinate amounts of “hipster,” but there is something very addictive about the pretentious story-telling of Yoni’s flows.
October 15 at Museum of Contemporary Art

The Japanese noise-rock figureheads have been melting the faces (forget about bananas) of venues around the world for the last nineteen years, and it does not seem like they are going to let up. They’ve toned down the noise of late, and singer Yasuko Onuki has even begun to sing rather than just yelp, although the band now describing themselves as “pop” seems a little off the mark.
October 16 at Subterranean

Frank Turner
Calling Frank Turner a modern-day British Bob Dylan would certainly feed the ego of the rising folk-rock star, but there’s definitely some substance to that argument. He has an ability to tell personal stories with a genuine sense of honesty over the top of irresistibly catchy hooks with vocal parts that have you singing aloud after just a couple of listens.

October 26 at Bottom Lounge

Shoegaze? Dream pop? Electronica? Whatever you want to call it, Anthony Gonzalez’s musical output, M83, inspires both outrageous dancing and pensive contemplation simultaneously. It’s like a journey through space without the need for NASA or psychedelics, although the latter would probably help.
November 17 at Lincoln Hall