Riot Fest’s 2013 initial lineup is a doozy

While some may…question…who gets top billing on its poster, there’s no denying that this year’s Riot Fest has a whole hella lot of big-name pull.

This year’s edition will be held for the second time at Humboldt Park in Chicago from September 13-15, and the initial lineup includes Motörhead, Public Enemy, Violent Femmes, Atmosphere, Rancid, Dinosaur Jr., FlagBad Brains, Against Me!GWAR, Bad Religion, DeVotchKa, Dessa, Reggie and the Full Effect, Saul Williams, The Dismemberment Plan, GlassjawChuck Ragan, and many more — to go with more carnival acts and games.

Tickets went on sale Wednesday night and prices are jumping up quickly. Go get yours now and keep an eye on the fest’s Facebook and Twitter for more artist announcements.

Riot Fest Initial Line-up 2013


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Contest: Win eight general-admission tickets to Summerfest 2012

Now on its 45th go-round, Milwaukee’s massive Summerfest returns from June 27 to July 8, offering 11 days of high-profile and independent musicians performing around the 75-acre Henry Maier Festival Park along Lake Michigan. This year, our favorite performers include The Hives, Foo Fighters, Ben Folds Five, Devotchka, The Promise Ring, Galactic, Collections of Colonies of Bees, Atmosphere, The Roots, Common, Thievery Corporation, Mayer Hawthorne, and Lupe Fiasco.

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50 Unheralded Albums from 2011

In just one more trip around the sun, another swarm of immensely talented but under-recognized musicians has harnessed its collective talents and discharged its creations into the void. This list is but one fraction of those dedicated individuals — admittedly, based mostly in the Western world — who caught our ears with some serious jams.

For us, 2011 was another year of taking in as much as we could and sharing the best with you. Next year, however, will be a homecoming of sorts, a return to rock-‘n’-roll roots. We’ll soon be able to share the projects that we have in store — across multiple mediums — but for now, dig into this rock-focused list of must-own albums.

Presented in chronological order.

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DeVotchKa: Gypsy-Fusion Quartet Hits the Big Time

A Mad and Faithful TellingDeVotchKa: A Mad and Faithful Telling (Anti-, 3/18/08)

When DeVotchKa landed a Grammy nomination for its contribution to the soundtrack of 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine, it was a welcome vindication. The Denver-based quartet had been waging an uphill battle for recognition since the late ’90s, when bandleader Nick Urata (vocals, guitar, trumpet, piano, Theremin) put together the first version of the band with largely different personnel.

“It took a long time to find the right quartet,” Urata says from his Denver home, where a blizzard rages outside. “I was a sideman for my whole life, so at the beginning [of DeVotchKa] I was having such a good time doing my own songs with my own band, I let anyone who wanted to play join in. When we finished the first record (Supermelodrama, 2002), everyone was done with school and needed to move on. [Multi-instrumentalist] Tom Hagerman was one of them, but in the long run it was good. It forced me to find people who wanted to play for a living. Finding Jeanie [Schroder] and Shawn [King] is a long story, but eventually Tom came back and we convinced him to stay.”

Urata grew up near New York City in a large Italian family. “My grandfather was a musician and had a great influence on me,” he says. “I began studying trumpet at age eight and was exposed to music from all over the world. There was always talk of Gypsies in our bloodline. As I got older, I began to pine for those old-world sounds.”

It’s those old-world sounds that make DeVotchKa so unique and hard to define. The band is tagged with blurbs like “Gypsy mariachis playing funky boleros at a Greek taverna” or “Eastern Bloc cabaret rock,” but its blend of rock and world music is part of a burgeoning new style one could call global pop. DeVotchKa’s mash-up of American R&B, Gypsy, spaghetti western, Argentinean tango, surf guitar, odd Balkan back beats, and angular funk sounds eccentric and strangely familiar, even to those unfamiliar with the band’s myriad influences.

“Music-business people are always telling me there’s no place for [DeVotchKa],” Urata says. “But the fans are saying, ‘Give me more, and the wackier, the better.’ Almost every label in America turned us down. One of them, after a long courtship, walked away because we were too ethnic. Nine months later, right about the time they would have put our record out, we were featured in Spin as part of the hottest new trend in music.”

Undaunted, the band created its own label, Cicero Recordings, and followed up Supermelodrama with two more excellent recordings: Una Volta (2003) and How It Ends (2004). When the directors of Little Miss Sunshine put tracks from How It Ends on their soundtrack, it brought the band some well-deserved mainstream recognition, as did its one-off EP, Curse Your Little Heart, for independent label Ace Fu.

Enter Anti- Records, the adventurous LA label that’s home to Tom Waits, Merle Haggard, Billy Bragg, and Nick Cave. “We were interested in Anti- because they have Tom Waits,” Hagerman says. “They finally came to a show and signed us.”

A Mad and Faithful Telling, DeVotchKa’s new album, is their most ambitious yet, featuring ten luxuriously produced tracks that brim with international rhythms, lush orchestrations, and Urata’s soulful croon. The band produced the album with Craig Schumacher (Calexico, Giant Sand), who also helped with Una Volta and How It Ends.

“Craig has great musical ideas and keeps us from hurting ourselves when we record,” Urata jokes. “He’s good at placing mics for maximum effect and coaching a good performance out of us.

“There was an urgency when we wrote and recorded the last two albums. This time we were more ambitious musically and little more relaxed. I felt like we could sit back and let this one be itself without trying to interfere with the creative process. We left a lot to chance, with more improvisation and input from the other members — more spontaneity. The last few I had mapped out before we recorded, due to financial constraints and lack of confidence.”

The tunes on A Mad And Faithful Telling are marked by a clear, clean mix that gives every instrument its own distinct voice. “Basso Profundo” begins the album with Latin-influenced spaghetti-western sounds before moving into a Russian Gypsy jam during the coda. The backing vocalists sing a merry wordless hook that instantly embeds itself into your brain, while Hagerman’s fiddle goes into overdrive, zooming through the mix like a hummingbird on nitroglycerine.

“For me, playing violin is the most potent musical expression.” Hagerman says. “Communicating an emotion through a wordless musical phrase is really powerful.” Hagerman also shines on “Comrade Z,” an instrumental rave-up that’s part Balkan brass, part Gypsy fiddle insanity, with a driving, irresistible bass line. “We tried to cram as many notes into the motif as possible,” Hagerman says of the tune’s frenetic pace. “It’s a tune we started a long time ago. The string quartet we use on that tune gave us more choices in orchestration. I like arrangements where the strings take over the melody or rhythms that are usually played on guitar.”

“The Clockwise Witness” showcases DeVotchKa’s growing confidence in the studio. Toy piano and staccato strings set up the rhythm while Urata’s guitar, Schroder’s bass, and King’s drums counter with a dance-rock groove.

“Tom came up with the toy-piano riff a couple of years ago,” Urata explains. “We played a different version of it on the road, but when it came time to record, Tom wrote an amazing arrangement for strings and oboe. The new arrangement has a strict metronomic beat and reminds me of the seconds of our lives ticking away. The lyrics ask, ‘Is there redemption in living the straight life, or should we just trample everyone in our way for immediate gratification?”

Another dark track is “Blessing in Disguise,” a military waltz with a lyric of lost love and regret, with a lot of swing in the drums and string charts despite the martial tempo. “I wrote this on my own,” Urata says. “I was having a terrible time writing and couldn’t find anything good for months, then it wrote itself all at once. I tried to explain that process in the lyrics. In those rare moments of clarity, you realize that losing love or facing death, although extremely painful, can lead to profound changes. I wanted it to be somewhere between a wedding and a funeral march, so we brought in marching band instruments and recorded it all live in the same big studio room.”

“Undone” sounds like Roy Orbison fronting a Gypsy band while singing the tango; “Strazzalo” employs an odd oompha waltz; “Transliterator” features rocking disjointed funk that sounds vaguely like the Talking Heads, one of Urata’s favorite bands during his youth.

A Mad And Faithful Telling takes its title from a line in Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, perhaps fitting because the lyrics Urata has crafted for the album are full of his usual concerns: mortality, lost or unattainable love, and the brevity of happiness. His vocals, which combine David Byrne’s uneasy yelp with Orbison’s powerful but restrained croon, often float free in the mix, adding another element of mystery to the music.

“I try to get across a mix of conventional wisdom and poetry, portraying emotional experiences with enough poetic license to make it interesting,” Urata says. “I like songs that are a little bit ambiguous. One day it means one thing, the next day it means something else, the way conversations you’ve had in the past can come back to you in a whole new context. The best stuff comes subconsciously; it has nothing to do with me. Once they’re finished, songs become their own entities that have nothing to do with you anymore. The vocal mix is dictated by what the song or that particular performance needs. Sometimes the band has to overpower the vocalist. I am a bit shy about putting the vocals way up front.”

Urata and DeVotchKa traveled a long road to achieve their current success, never compromising their sound or vision. Now that they’ve arrived, they find themselves lumped with other bands that are exploring Eastern European tonalities like Balkan Beat Box and Gogol Bordello, part of a so-called “Gypsy wave.” It’s a pigeonhole that has mixed blessings.

“We have been type cast as a Gypsy band from the beginning,” Urata agrees. “In our case, it was a positive thing. As we got to know other like-minded bands like Gogol Bordello, we started telling people that Gypsy music has been going on for a long time, so where were you ten years ago? In fact, the Gypsy influence has been shaping music all over the world for hundreds of years. To say it’s some new anomaly is kind of laughable.”

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Concert Photos: DeVotchKa @ House of Blues (Chicago, IL)

Last fall, when experimental Balkan-pop quartet DeVotchKa played a show in Chicago, it was at Lincoln Hall in support of its 2008 release, A Mad and Faithful Telling. Since then, the band has released a new album, 100 Lovers (Anti-, 3/1/11), and embarked on a new tour, this time playing with Nashville seven-piece Kopecky Family Band in support. Photographer Wallo Villacorta caught the multi-instrumentalists at a recent stop at House of Blues in Chicago.


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DeVotchKa: New Direction from Rejection

DeVotchKa: 100 LoversDeVotchKa: 100 Lovers (Anti-, 3/1/11)

DeVotchKa: “100 Other Lovers”

[audio:|titles=DeVotchKa: “100 Other Lovers”]

Nick Urata very much is a kid — prone to theatrics, fascinated by time travel, good at nearly everything he does but still humble, as if he doesn’t yet know how to be arrogant. But Urata is increasingly faced with grown-up responsibilities as one of Hollywood’s go-to composers and a member of label-defying Denver quartet DeVotchKa.

Fortunately, the frontman is also a seasoned musical veteran. Urata grew up in New York City, part of a Sicilian immigrant family full of musicians. He lived and busked in Cicero, a Chicago village also populated by immigrants, before moving to Denver, where he finally pieced together DeVotchKa. Accompanied by violin and accordion virtuoso Tom Hagerman, bass player and Sousaphonist Jeanie Schroder, and drummer Shawn King, Urata fills in the eclectic mix with guitar, trumpet, piano, and Theremin.

The band found a tipping point with its Oscar-winning soundtrack for Little Miss Sunshine in 2006. Scored by DeVotchKa and Mychael Danna, the film didn’t so much open doors for the band as it opened windows — all of the windows in the house, letting the world hear the wondrously exotic and melancholy sounds that the musicians had been making all along.

Five years later, the band is poised to release its latest album, 100 Lovers, on Anti-, set to drop March 1. In addition, Urata has added a few more films to his repertoire, the most recent of which is I Love You Phillip Morris, the story of a gay con man (Jim Carrey) trying to spring the love of his life (Ewan McGregor) from prison.

For Urata’s childlike soul, though, a growing list of responsibilities can be grueling. “Films are very demanding, and you must write, write, write,” Urata says, admitting that the sheer amount of creativity he burned through while writing under deadline was, in fact, vital for the new record.

“A lot of these songs were things I wrote for films that got rejected,” he says of the tunes on 100 Lovers, “or were born because I was chained to my desk and couldn’t go to the bar. As painful and isolating as it can be, it can result in directions you never would have gone.”

Directions, plural — an accurate assessment of 100 Lovers. Listening through, it’s a bit of a Tilt-A-Whirl: rising, falling, spinning ’round, a new vector every track. Yet you’re not throwing up — a testament to the band’s musical prowess.

“A lot of these songs were things I wrote for films that got rejected, or were born because I was chained to my desk and couldn’t go to the bar. As painful and isolating as it can be, it can result in directions you never would have gone.”

DeVotchKa’s penchant for vintage equipment meant that some new directions were unplanned: “We used a lot of old tape delays,” Urata says, “and the fact that they were kind of broken made for some moments we could never duplicate in a million years.”

The always dapper, GQ-meets-Bohemia frontman opts out of “captain” responsibilities when it comes to the band. Urata describes himself instead as a kind of helmsman / lookout, running back and forth from the crow’s nest to the ship’s wheel. “My role has always been to steer the ship — and yell stuff when we’re about run into the rocks,” he says. Of course, it’s also his job to write the words, and though DeVotchKa’s musical philosophy is one of indiscriminate openness, its linguistic approach is fairly restricted, concerned mostly with the subjects of love and loss. Note the album title.

When asked about his writing, Urata, perhaps predictably, says that he reads a lot of poetry. “All the great writers and musicians say their best stuff has been beamed to them from some benevolent keeper of the collective unconscious,” he says. “I’ve had it happen a few times in my humble existence. You never know if it’s going to happen again, but with great poets you can see it happening on the page in front of you, and that’s why your eyes well up.

“I got turned on to Rainer Rilke a couple of years back,” he continues, “and…he’s really comforting, because in the most eloquent way he lays it out: we are all fucking bat-shit crazy, and love makes you even crazier.”

Early detractors said that Urata was crazy. Few in the mid-’90s thought that adding a tuba to a rock-and-roll band was a good idea. It turned out that it was, and now 100 Lovers upholds this adventurous audacity. “You always hope to expand and discover new territory,” Urata says. “There were a few songs that might have gotten thrown out with the bath water because of over-thinking, but we followed our gut and kept digging, and the results were really exciting to work on. At this point, we look at [an album] as a large empty space that we have to fill with something that will entertain the listener. Anything that can fill the void in an interesting way is welcomed with open arms.”

Anything means anything. As a jumping-off point, the new songs use the vibrant array of musical styles on 2007 album A Mad and Faithful Telling. With a less overt gypsy sound — despite a recent tour with Gogol Bordello — the band welcomes new friends into the family. Musically: ’80s new wave, African influences, grungy electric guitar, a children’s choir. And literally: several members of Calexico, as well as Mauro Refosco, who plays regularly with David Byrne and Thom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace. “We met Mauro when we toured with David Byrne,” Urata recalls. “We were in awe of his playing, and we became friends and always bugged him to play with us. That’s him playing most of the percussion on the record.”

What holds this pastiche together is where DeVotchKa didn’t depart from its charted course. Once again, the band returned to Craig Schumacher at Wavelab Studios in Tucson, Arizona. “The desert is still very exotic to me, a New York kid,” Urata says. “It always brings us back to a very romantic time when our band was taking its first baby steps and a room of ten people was a fucking event.

“Wavelab is in a section of town in a building that is frozen in time,” he continues. “The studio is piled with vintage gear, and there have been a few times when I was alone in there that I really started to feel like I had traveled back in time — it was just a hallucination, but it was so comforting.”

Moments of comfort were to be enjoyed while they lasted. As DeVotchKa endured the tedium necessary to bring the album to fruition, the exhilaration of discovery was tempered by a feeling of loss.

“The thing that sucks about working on albums and films is you spend so much time tinkering with them that you can’t enjoy them as art ever again,” Urata says. “So I suppose for us, the one window is right when you start mixing—the album never sounds that good again.”

The band isn’t back to where it started though. The album is a record of its travels, its discoveries, and, most of all, its perseverance. “We should have called this record ‘Doubt,’” he says. “We had all these songs that we couldn’t finish for like two years. Every time I thought I had a good lyric, the next day it would seem ridiculous. But we pressed on, and all our wheel spinning and false starts actually led to the songs developing into something that would have never happened if things went smoothly.”

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100 Unheralded Albums from 2010

Among the thousands of under-appreciated or under-publicized albums that were released in 2010, hundreds became our favorites and were presented in ALARM and on  Of those, we pared down to 100 outstanding releases — from the progressive-industrial madness of Norway’s Shining to the folk-hop rhymes of Sage Francis to the orchestral Italian oldies of Mike Patton‘s Mondo Cane project.

As usual, ALARM leaves no genre unexplored in our list of this year’s overlooked gems.

Presented in chronological order.

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Concert Photos: DeVotchKa @ Lincoln Hall

The indefatigable DeVotchKa, with its distinctive brand of Eastern European and Southwestern pop music, rolled through Chicago recently, playing a show at Lincoln Hall. The long-independent, critical foursome — Nick Urata, Tom Hagerman, Jeanie Schroder, and Shawn King — was supported by Angus & Julia Stone and Scotland Yard Gospel Choir. The band’s most recent album, A Mad & Faithful Telling, was released on March 18, 2008 on Anti-.


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