Music series returns to Millennium Park with stalwart indie bands
04/20/2011 10:00 PM
The New Music Mondays series is approaching its third year as a summer fixture in Millennium Park’s musical offerings. Of all Mayor Daley’s pet projects, it bears the closest resemblance to an urban utopia: free admission, BYOB, temperate weather, the lake breeze from the east, our skyline backlit by a summer sunset to the west, freshly shorn summer grass and the mesmerizing threaded steel canopy suspended above Pritzker Pavilion.
It’s an ideal context for background music. However, the 2011 lineup is filled with a caliber of artists that demand no less than the foreground. A wandering attention span may usher the sounds straight into the aural periphery.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy (a.k.a. Will Oldham, a.k.a. Palace Music) opens the series on May 23. Chicago’s own Drag City released his 20th record last year, and like pretty much every one of his prior releases — over 40 including EPs and live records — it has earned some of the most coveted adjectives a troubadour anti-folk songwriter could ever want. His 1999 album I See A Darkness earned a highly elusive 10.0 rating from influential indie music site Pitchfork Media. Yet in a live setting, he is just as much a theatrical, left-of-center goofball as he is an enrapturing and evocative force on stage.
Low (June 27) may as well have named themselves after the profile they aspired to maintain. Despite 17 years of international cult success, a Gap commercial, and tenure with two of America’s most prestigious indie labels — Sub Pop and Kranky — many people have never heard of the little Minnesota band that could. Yet Robert Plant wasn’t surprised when the two Low songs he covered aided in his 2011 Grammy nominations.
Low can be easy to dismiss. They are quiet. Subtle. Subdued. Reserved. They’re also beautiful and honest, with a reputation for majestic live performances. Do a little research and you may very well learn they’re your favorite band’s favorite band.
Blonde Redhead (July 18), who could arguably justify a headline slot at the Near West Side’s Pitchfork Music Festival, were born and raised in the birthplace of all things good and bad about everything “indie”: New York City. What sets them apart from the Brooklyn indie-band manufacturing plant to the south is their penchant for staying one step ahead of the rest.
Ten-piece Milwaukee funk warriors Kings Go Forth (June 20) have been around for a mere three years, yet have managed to make a name for themselves garnering accolades from key taste-making folks like All Things Considered, World Café and David Byrne. They’re prone to be branded as ’70s soul revivalists, though they sound like they were actually transplanted from the ’70s to show us what it must’ve been like to experience Curtis Mayfield or The Isley Brothers. You can skip going to the gym and probably dance off a week’s worth of calories at this show. Warning: they don’t let up.
Other artists of note include steadfast godfather of indie-punk Ted Leo (July 25), steel-guitar-wielding blues and gospel sextet Campbell Brothers (June 13), master lo-fi folk whisperer Iron and Wine (June 6) and Americana antihero Justin Townes Earl (May 30).
With all these great bands, a gigantic picnic may be the least favorable setting to experience such great talent. Contrary to the festival’s name, the lineup is comprised mostly of artists who have long thrived in one underground canon or another. The music is so rewarding and demands so much from the listener that seesawing between conversing, snacking, slurping, and the mundane din of other lawn dwellers’ chatter will surely leave the listener with that “meh” feeling.
Listeners’ appreciation of the bands will depend entirely on how much work they put in to paying attention — hardly appealing on a lazy summer evening. “Work?” But therein lies the reward. Put in the effort, and you’ll be likely to hear echoes of attendees saying “I can’t believe what I just saw was free.”