From Page to Stage
When Pete Toalson was hired to help book music at the Empty Bottle in November of 1999 he was clear about the kind of acts he wanted to bring in, and he says the British music magazine the Wire had a lot to do with his vision. “I’m a fan of the magazine, and when I took this job I kind of used it as a model for what I thought I would like to do here,” says Toalson, 31. “They have this overwhelming sense of inclusiveness on the one hand, but they’re also very selective, and the things they cover are the best from each genre.” So the Adventures in Modern Music festival, copresented by the Empty Bottle and the Wire and beginning at the club Wednesday, is as close as a talent buyer may ever get to feeling like a musician jamming onstage with the band that first inspired him to start playing.
The five-day festival includes 20 acts–many of whom have played the Bottle before, some of whom are making their Chicago premieres. United only by its performers’ collective history of avoiding orthodoxy and pushing boundaries, the roster shows off the ambitious range of genres both the magazine and the club have promoted: the vanguard electronica and techno of Adult. and Stewart Walker, the free jazz and improv of Fred Anderson and John Butcher, the off-kilter funk of !!! and James Chance, the warped hip-hop of Themselves and former Anti-Pop Consortium MC High Priest, and the assaultive rock of Lightning Bolt and Black Dice. There’s also an exhibition of visual art by Kim Hiorthoy (a Norwegian electronic-music artist who performs Wednesday), an audio installation piece by British artist Janek Schaefer, and film screenings Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
The Wire began as a jazz publication 21 years ago, but by the early 90s its focus had broadened to include rock, electronic, hip-hop, contemporary classical, and international artists. The monthly–with a circulation of about 18,500–suffers from the distinctly British compulsion to chase and identify the latest trends, displaying little more restraint in its own highbrow way than a rag like NME. (It was in the Wire’s pages that critic Simon Reynolds first floated the term post-rock.) On the other hand, the Wire has championed lots of superb acts when they’d yet to be appreciated elsewhere, and it regularly devotes generous space to reassessments of overlooked veterans, from classical composers like Bernard Parmegiani and Charlemagne Palestine to art-rockers like Soft Machine and Faust. Beyond its role as a shaper of opinion, the Wire is also simply an excellent source of underground music information, putting out the word on hundreds of obscure releases from around the globe in each issue.
Toalson first contacted the Wire about three years ago to propose some kind of collaboration with the Bottle; he didn’t have anything specific in mind, he admits, and he got turned down. But after the magazine celebrated its 20th anniversary last year with festivals at venues in Paris and New York, Toalson decided to make another pitch. This time editor in chief Tony Herrington went for it.
As it did for the other festivals, the Wire’s staff assembled a wish list of 25 or so performers, and in July Toalson began putting together a lineup. “I worked furiously for two weeks,” he says, “and I nearly lived alongside my laptop the whole time, feverishly exchanging details and information with artists all over.” He ended up booking seven of the performers on that initial list–Anderson, Black Dice, Lightning Bolt, Portland-based improv rockers Jackie-O Motherfucker, local heroes Califone, ex-Swans leader Michael Gira, and drone merchants sunn0)))–but he consulted regularly with the Wire’s editorial staff about the rest of his choices. “As far as we are concerned, the lineup is to die for,” Herrington writes in an e-mail interview.
“Hopefully,” he continues, “what events like this do is demonstrate that the Wire is an active part of the culture, that we don’t just sit back and comment on what other people are doing, but that we are getting out there, promoting the music, trying to make things happen by means other than just publishing the magazine every month, although obviously that remains our core operation.” Herrington and four other staffers will come over from London for the event; they’ll set up a booth at the Bottle where they’ll sell the magazine and, he says, “meet and talk to whoever wants to meet and talk to us.”
The Wire is paying its people’s airfare and advertising the fest in its new issue; the club is covering all other expenses. With the exception of Black Dice, none of the out-of-town performers are currently on tour, so Toalson had to arrange to get them here, and while general goodwill toward the club made most of them willing to play for reduced guarantees, the Bottle will still have to sell a lot of tickets to break even. “It’s a significant financial undertaking for sure, but it’s calculated,” says Toalson.
Tickets for each show are $15 and passes good for all five nights are $60; both are available at www.emptybottle.com.
One man’s underground is another man’s mainstream: Brent Gutzeit–owner of the Boxmedia label and member of the laptop trio TV Pow–has scheduled the Under the Wire festival as a counterpoint to the event at the Empty Bottle. Why? “Because if I read another Wire article about Chicago talking about Rob Mazurek and Tortoise I swear I’ll fucking kill someone,” he writes via e-mail. “There are so many more bands in Chicago that never get any outside press, and we’d like to change that.” Under the Wire also runs Wednesday through Sunday, with music from 3 to 8 PM; curious Wire staffers and others will have plenty of time to get back over to the Bottle, where the sets start at 9. The lineup includes figures from the city’s overlapping underground rock, improv, and electronic scenes, including pianist Jim Baker, noiseniks Panicsville, bassist Jason Ajemian, flutist Nicole Mitchell, laptoppers Mora and Vertonen, and sound artist Olivia Block. Shows are at Heaven Gallery, 1550 N. Milwaukee; there’s a $5 cover for each. Check Fairs & Festivals listings for more info.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saverio Truglia.