If there was any doubt that summer had not arrived here, The 32nd Annual Chicago Blues Festival, held in Grant Park from June 12-14, doused that notion with a vengeance. Yes, the chilly rain came pelting down the night I went ( June 13 ) and bedeviled the overflow crowd, but it did not sully the spirit.
Petrillo Band Shell opener Toronzo Cannon ripped through his set with fiery licks and eye popping humor all the same. LGBTQ fave and saucy hometown queen Shemekia Copeland, who subbed for an ailing Taj Mahal, tore through "Lemon Pie" and "Dirty Water" with the kind of pointed fury that no one wants to hear from a lover. By the time Copeland left the stage, the heavens were in full hissy-fit mode, but the packed crowd was not having it. Damn the weather and the discomfort: This Saturday night was all about hardcore Chicago blues and headliner Buddy Guy and, yes, the "faithful" were rewardedbig time.
With the recent passing of B.B. King, and with this edition of the festival dedicated to the centennials of Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters, Guy has inadvertently become the last great living blues icon,and the rowdy crowd would not let him forget it. Guy joked, hurled and punched his way through a set loaded with classics ( "Strange Brew" by way of Cream, "Damn Right I've Got the Blues," an extended jam through "I Just Wanna Make Love to You" ), but what stuck was the joy emanating from him that telegraphed that he clearly loved being there as much as his soggy audience.
At an altogether different love fest, alt-rockers Imagine Dragons played to a sold-out audience in support of the band's sophomore CD, Smoke + Mirrors ( Interscope Records ) at the Allstate Arena on June 15, and gave the word "bombast" a whole new meaning. As one in a flood of newer bands that have seemingly sprung from nowhere and broken wide on an international scale, this Vegas bunch seems to love crafting intricate pop songs, while overstuffing them with studio trickery that makes hearing them on their terms ( as in very LOUD ) akin to being clobbered senseless by some nutter with a sock filled with wet sand. Granted, it's pretty clear that there are an awful lot of listeners who want to be clobbered with that sock since the breakout single, "Radioactive," has sold more than 9 million copies.
Sadly, what sounded fresh and invigorating on the debut, Night Visions ( Interscope Records, 2013 ), sounds pretty tired now. Vocalist and hyperactive/super-sincere stud Dan Reynolds can't be blamed since he whacks his big bass drum and sings with all the soul-searing gusto a mere mortal could possibly muster ( onstage Monday night he all but flung himself into the crowd with sacrificial fury ), so the fault lies with the band and co-producer Alex da Kid.
"I Bet My Life" and "Smoke + Mirrors" started out as engaging songs but then those massive choruses come barging in, obliterating what charm they originally had. It's as if these guys can't create music without contrived drama telegraphed as thunderous production or a bottomless echo, and they seem to think music sounds better if it is made to feel like it was recorded in a crater on the moon. With all the amplified studio gimmicks, Imagine Dragons has become a predictable bore ... and, as this is full-length album number two, that is NOT a good thing.
Oddly enough, the finest moment on Smoke + Mirrors comes with "Polaroid," an un-fussy, catchy, plain pop song that tumbles and twirls like a happy bouncing rubber ball. "Polaroid" actually proves that Imagine Dragons can create and caress a sweet quality pop song and it makes you wonder how the rest of the CD got turned into a turnip and them into ... fakers.
The antithesis of Imagine Dragons and all their manufactured angst would appear to be Mumford & Sons, whose laid-back, Brit-based, low-fi alt-Americana has won the band just as large a following in as short a time ( even winning the Grammy for Album of the Year two years ago ). Playing a long "sold-out" show at Montrose Beach June 19, it was clear that the fans have forgiven them for their third full-length, Wilder Mind ( Interscope Records ). Although this new offering features synthesizers and an up-to-the-minute high-tech feel ( one friend described it as sounding like Coldplay ), Wilder Mind is still a good recordjust not for this particular band.
For anyone hoping for something as organic or prickly as "Little Lion Man," well, you are out of luck here and Wilder Mind comes off as too "modern" to a fault. On "The Wolf," all the signature string strumming and acoustic filigrees are swept aside by a cool foamy wave of unfeeling synths and the song feels faceless and canned. "Believe" is a compelling pop pleasure and the video ( which features a gay teen romance ) actually accentuates that. Though that disturbingly clean sheen permeates the song, Marcus Mumford's pleading lead vocal makes it the kind of heartfelt, bracing drama that an over studio dependent band like Imagine Dragons can't handle. Then the largely acoustic "Snake Eyes" and "Wilder Mind" pop up, offering quiet allure but turning generic at the mid-point.
The majority of Wilder Mind forces the listener to wonder if Mumford & Sons forgot what made the band so original and refreshing, and it cannot be blamed on the decision to go from low-tech to high-tech. ( Sorry, dudes; this is NOT Dylan going electricthis is YOU going formulaic. ) Had Wilder Mind been the debut, it would not have left such a funny taste in the ears of fans. Now that the world has embraced the organic version of Mumford & Sons when there was nothing to lose, it feels like a sham that they now sound like any other "alternative" rock band on AM radio.