I appreciate the fact that the BEST series enables us Editors to wax a bit personal, because with this article, my tenure as Music Editor for Smile Politely comes to an end. It was only a year, but over this last simultaneously long and short year, I’ve gotten to see and experience the intricate and diverse world of music in C-U in much detail. The crazy serendipity of my last week perfectly aligning with BEST week is something I couldn’t do again if I tried. As a C-U transplant, I am so fortunate to have played any sort of hand in this scene and to help those that are in it, in whatever tiny capacity that I may have done so. So yeah, I’m going to go ahead and use this paragraph as my chance to thank you all for the experience. Thanks, everyone.
One of the very first articles I oversaw at Editor was BEST Music 2016. Much of my contribution to that piece came from my point of view as a showgoer. Since then, I’ve obtained a slightly more behind-the-scenes perspective, and it’s changed things. I’ve become personally invested in the music activity here. An impressive first single by a brand new band is exhilarating, just like how a pretty terrible show from a veteran group is disheartening. I've lived here for just over two years now, and this stuff has become super close to my heart. I know that no matter what happens, I’ll still be checking in on this scene. Because here, we have the perfect storm of elements coming together to make up the music community: Young music from college kids and local youth, expertly crafted music from skilled older professionals, determined DIY booking and houses, built-from-scratch labels and studios, and so, so much more. Because, even though there are probably as many bad tunes as there are good ones, in my opinion, C-U music is still some of the very BEST.
Check out some of the highlights from this past year below. — Julia McAnly
BEST new DIY space
Blips and Chitz
It’s no secret that Blips and Chitz has been pretty much owning the DIY music scene ever since the basement show space opened its doors last summer. Veronica Mullen has been crazily consistent in keeping her basement filled with music every week, and sometimes even churns out two or three shows in a 7-day period. Hungry bands want to play, and Blips and Chitz gives world-wary touring bands a stopping point along their trek through the Midwest. It also gives local bands a reliable, safe space where they can play among friends. This combination creates solid shows that have made Blips and Chitz a staple in the C-U DIY music diet, and a lot of the music scene revolves around that. In fact, Blips and Chitz is so important for local music right now that it’s possible that without this house, there might not even be much of a local DIY scene at all. (JM)
BEST music cause to gain steam
Girls Rock C-U
Ever since the Girls Rock Camp Alliance established a local branch, C-U locals have proven their commitment to the cause. The non-profit organization aims to cultivate the desire to play and be involved in music in young women across the world, and Girls Rock! C-U has really grown over the last year. This is thanks in part to contributions from local musicians willing to donate proceeds of their projects and shows to the cause, and also to everyday local folks who just think girls should do more rockin’. Due to them, within a year, GR!CU has grown enough to be able to host two workshops this coming summer, and their inaugural camp date is on the horizon. Let's keep up the good work! It's up to all of us to keep this cause thriving. Donate. (JM)
BEST true and complete venue
The Iron Post
Look at this calendar, folks.
Someone give Paul Wirth a goddamned trophy and a hug. The Iron Post turns 17 this year, and his venue is still the most complete and consistent venue in town.The music is almost always decent, with most of it being super good to great.
At its heart, it's a jazz club, but open to interpretation. The place just works.
More than anything, though, the calendar is full. Every night. Literally, every night, there’s something to enjoy. The same cannot be said for anywhere else in town. And it’s been that way for a long, long time.
Do yourself a favor and just walk in any ol’ night. Pay the usually small cover charge ferchrissakes. What you will earn in return is a great show. Intimate, tight, and usually better than anything else playing in town that night. That’s a promise. (SF)
BEST night of nostalgia
In the early 90s, there was a music venue called Mabel’s that existed in Campustown where Brother’s bar is today. The place hosted a slew of excellent acts from that time like The Elvis Brothers, The Martyrs, Vertebrats, and many more, and became a mainstay in the C-U music scene that people still talk about today. Enough people, in fact, that some of them got together for a throwback show in that space. Mabel’s Night included performances by many bands and their members from the Mabel’s days, and brought fans of Mabel’s together again for an evening of reminiscing and friendship. Musician and filmmaker John Isberg helped put together the event, and recorded part of it for use in his upcoming documentary, thus adding brand new memories to hold dear, right next to the old ones. It was a completely unique event, never to be duplicated, and it will be talked about almost as much as Mabel's itself. (JM)
BEST scene comraderie
Hogchute Opry + Harvest
The amount that Hogchute has grown over the course of the past few years is pretty remarkable — the Spring's version, the Opry, has been augmented now by the fall version, the Harvest, leading for twice the viewing/listening/camping pleasure over the course of a year. I can't say I'm remotely surprised at how much the scene has rallied around it. Where Hogchute succeeds is its intimacy — it strips away everything and makes the shows super accessible and fun for anyone. Thankfully these events how happen twice a year, at a minimum, at one of the best places the region has to offer (The Kalyx Center, located right next to Allerton Park, just outside of Monticello). It provides a lot of the best of what this scene has to offer. (PS)
BEST week night jam sesh
One of the most underrated events (anywhere in C-U) takes place on Monday nights at the Rose Bowl: Urbana Hootenanny. It is most definitely the most approachable scenario you could imagine: you walk in, you order a beer or three, and the folks on stage play their tunes. Every Monday night, the Rose Bowl is the place for a low-key hang that is worth some attention. (PS)
BEST underused music venue
I for one was thrilled at the announcement of Allerton Park’s inaugural Prairie Sky Music Festival happening this August, because a park this beautiful and historic really does not host enough music events. The creation of and excitement surrounding the festival is proof enough of that. Allerton’s mere handful of concerts each season could easily expand to one every other weekend and garner lots of attendance, because everybody loves Allerton, and everybody loves outdoor music. I’ll go ahead and volunteer to help with ideas. Just imagine: What if the annual C-U Folk and Roots Walk expanded, travelled to Monticello (still the C-U “region”), and took place in the park? It would definitely be an adventure. (JM)
BEST perseverance of a music event
Canopy Club (formerly Cowboy Monkey) Open Mic
The Cowboy Monkey Open Mic was, and still is, an institution around here, although under a different name. Mike Ingram and co. have been keeping the weekly event going for almost fifteen years now, which makes it the longest running open mic in the C-U area. A few months ago, assorted issues and creative differences ultimately lead to the halting of Open Mic Night at Cowboy Monkey. This did not mean the end of the event for this crew, no. The producers of the Open Mic simply relocated it to Canopy Club. It perseveres and thrives there, and now takes place every Monday night at eight, even during the summer. I’ll sidestep the drama, but I’m not afraid to say that the spirit of the Cowboy Monkey Open Mic evolved and outgrew its venue. Hundreds of both excellent and terrible local musicians cut their teeth on that stage, and now they’ll do the same on another. Some noise about broken bottles won’t stop this legacy. It lives on. (JM)
BEST music video
Emily Blue, “No Pain”
Tara Terra’s Emily Blue released Another Angry Woman this year, her first solo effort. Everything about the album was a statement, especially the single “No Pain” and its accompanying video. With it, Blue blatantly confronts the topic of sexual violence, as do several victims and allies that are featured in the piece. The void-like black background serves as a shadowy abyss for them to emerge from, and they are vibrant and shameless. They tell their stories with simple black markers on white posterboard, obscuring nothing. Blue and her participants make sexual violence everybody’s business, and they're all bold as fuck. This video is intense and difficult and important, and I still get goosebumps from watching it. (JM)
BEST randomized collaborative event
The C-U Band Lotto
Back in February of this year, a couple musicians from the DIY scene came up with a fun idea: “How about we and our friends put our names in a drawing and start a band with whomever we’re matched up with?” So, several groups of people were put together. Some of them barely knew each other, and some of them barely played music. They practiced a couple songs for a couple months and then rocked out in their new bands at a cooperative, non-competitive benefit show. Some of the makeshift bands still play together now, and everyone involved walked away with new talents and new friends. This is the kind of sporadic camaraderie that keeps music a dynamic, constantly changing entity, and we need more of that in our community. (JM)
BEST new(ish) shredder
Teddy Lerch — ZXO
This venerable young axe master has found focus. Point blank: watching him on stage is never boring. He’s filling the stage with licks and riffs that very few, if any, in town can match right now.
And it seems he’s found his stride with his work in ZXO. At a recent concert (Austin Duncan’s Expressions series) I witnessed him finger tap a solo, and quite frankly, I haven’t slept the same since.
He reminds me of a young Kim Thayil, but he seems to want to channel Nick McCabe from The Verve — the early stuff, A Storm in Heaven and Gravity Grave E.P.
I dunno. It’s really good. Really, really good. (SF)
BEST show encore
Twin Peaks at The Accord
The Twin Peaks “dudes” played The Accord in March of 2016, and then they returned to play the venue again last November. The Chicago band has played around the area a handful of times, but in the nine months between those two gigs, the guys blew up. While riding on the back of a successful album into the release of a new one, they’ve garnered radio play, played larger shows, and hopefully earned a bit of cash. But when I saw them again in November, they were the same guys. Of course, they had grown a bit - their sound had evolved a little, and their instrumentation was tighter - but it was still the same fun-loving, rowdy, slacker rock kids sweating bullets and whipping up a good ol’ mosh pit. They ripped through much of their latest release and also played several crowd favorites that got everyone dancing and chucking drinks. Yes, it was indeed a show where I felt my thirty years of age, but although I did get a little bit curmudgeonly as some points (mostly thanks to an ice cube right to the eyeball), it was still fucking awesome. It was like the glorious return of some good old friends. That kind of momentum never lasts forever, but as long as these guys can keep it going, I hope they keep coming back. (JM)
BEST on-stage drama
Smash Mouth at Urbana Sweetcorn Festival
During Smash Mouth’s performance at Urbana Sweetcorn Festival 2016, frontman and everybody’s favorite Guy Fieri doppelganger Steve Harwell apparently wasn’t having an all-star day. Near the end of the group’s set, Harwell plopped down in the middle of the stage and called over his roadies to help him out. He ended up leaving the stage and being taken away in an ambulance. People still speculate about what happened to him. Was it a heart attack? Was he too drunk? Was it heatstroke from too much walking on the sun? Or, did he just remember that he was a member of Smash Mouth and had to get the hell out of there? We never really found out. In any case, Harwell’s reps later announced that he was fine, and we all had a hearty laugh at someone else’s expense. Insert other terrible Smash Mouth jokes here. (JM)
BEST local release in 2017 thus far
Bashful Youngens — Influorescent
I spent a significant amount of time listening to this release over this past spring, which we are still in, lest you forget. Something about it seems to foretell the coming of summer. This E.P. is a soundtrack for that.
But beyond that, what really has my tick tock tickin’ these days is watching them realize it all on stage, full band, showcasing talents in what appears to be close to perfect harmony. Seriously, this band is tight.
The song Tennessee is the sort that sticks with you long after you hear it, and makes you itch for another listen, one right after another:
Sal Nudo’s review earlier this month summed up the recording session nicely. At the same time, he basically invited the band to move to Nashville, like so many before them, simply because they "sound" like they'd do well there.
I'd like to extend an invitation to the band to simply stick around, and keep it up, and tour like motherfuckers. So, there. That's what I want to say. (SF)
BEST Kickstarter success
Skot Weidmann and his Hyve Synth
Perhaps one of the best-kept secret projects of this past year was Skot Weidmann’s incredible Hyve Synth machine, a handheld synthesizer that responds to touch and movement. It’s extremely user-friendly and comes with the capability to be hacked and thus customized. Weidmann, an engineer and musician, created a Kickstarter page to fund his instrument, and blew away his $20,000 goal within five measly hours. The page took off, and by the end of the campaign, over $100,000 had been pledged. Wow. The campaign got this awesome instrument into the curious hands of many musicians, and that is a Kickstarter success indeed. (JM)
BEST set of young pipes
Watching Crofton Coleman, and his band The Amber Sky, had me in tears the first time I saw it. Listen, I was going through some shit, some real family shit, you know? That painful shit, but anyhow, I watched him perform, and I was moved to tears, OK? Good. It's good to cry. It's so healthy. Music should make you cry.
Anyhow, I immediately went and searched for tunes to listen to online, and I found this one:
Listen, folks. I didn’t grow up listening to much of this sort of music. My hippie ass Jewish parents gave me The Beatles and Bob Dylan, Genesis and Tears for Fears. Later, my brother and I discovered butt metal and early hip hop by way of MTV. After that, it was grunge and shoegaze, and that's what it was for me.
Early R&B, Motown cuts, straight soul — it wasn’t our culture. Yes, we obsessed over the Jacksons like anyone else, and fell in love with the classic oldies pop singles, but the deep cuts, the heart of Barry and Otis and Luther! and the rest of the crooners were just not in my purview.
Please, someone tell me if I am missing something here, but is this not the best fucking song in this genre you’ve heard since Champaign put out “How ‘Bout us?”
If so, let me know. I want to hear it. Immediately. I love this when it’s good. How can’t you? (SF)
BEST cover set
Yakuza Triad as Ghost
When I saw Yakuza Triad as Ghost at TGCU, I didn’t know much about Swedish metal. I also didn’t know much about Yakuza Triad. All I really knew was what I was saw: a handful of guys on stage in ostentatiously ornate costumes which were menacing and ghoulish in theme. Most members were shrouded in black, with the exception of the lead vocalist, who was dressed as what Internet describes as a “Pope antichrist.” Unsurprisingly, the group proceeded to unleash some pretty epic proggy death metal upon the unsuspecting attendees of The Great Cover Up, who are a bit more used to the likes of, you know, alterna-rock accompanied by feather boas and silly hats. (And I mean that in the best way.) If you Googled it, you’d learn that this band had gone completely all out to BECOME their subject. They caught the audience completely off guard and turned their set into a spectacle, and it was truly an unholy sight to behold. (JM)