November 9, 2001
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
Three great shows in town this weekend; three Live columns for the price of one!
I t's a short list of rock legends who have been able to span several decades while continuing to remain vibrant, creative forces instead of lapsing into nostalgia acts.
The Isley Brothers certainly qualify. From their recording of the primal rock record "Shout," in 1957 through the release of the "Eternal" album in August, the group has been a consistent presence on the pop and R&B charts of every era.
"Let's just see if somebody who's on the Billboard charts today will have a No. 1 record in 2060," vocalist Ronald Isley says with justifiable pride.
With no slight to his guitarist brother Ernie (still the newcomer who joined in 1969), Ronald's incredible voice has been the main constant through every phase of the Isleys' career, from the early rock days to their brief stint with Motown, and from the psychedelic soul of the early '70s, to the disco era, into the present, when a Who's Who of modern R&B (Jill Scott, Raphael Saadiq, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and Chicago's own R. Kelly) eagerly agreed to lend a hand in crafting the platinum hit "Eternal."
How has the recording process changed over that period?
"I'll tell you how," Ronald says with a laugh. "R. Kelly alone--and he's a real friend of mine-- R. Kelly alone cost $175,000! Jimmy Jam was the same thing; he was about $150,000, and we go back a long way."
In contrast, "Twist and Shout" was recorded in a few hours for $400. But you won't find Ronald pining for "the good old days."
"We yield to the new way," he says. "We know that whatever is happening now is important. We bring our experience to it, but you've got to have change--that's how we went from the horse and buggy to Ford and Buick. If we could have sampled records back then when we were having trouble with drummers and that sort of thing, we'd have had us a machine with our own drum beat, and we wouldn't have had to hunt for a drummer or worry that this guy wasn't going to show up."
The one thing that was arguably better earlier in the Isleys' career was radio. Today, a rock station may play the group's older hits, but it won't play the recent "Contagious," and "dusties" stations are the only place you'll hear "It's Your Thing" or "Fight the Power."
"For the people who really get into music, there are no boundaries in time or genres," Ronald says. "If you listen to the music and it's something you like, it's gonna go into your system. That's why we'll do remakes of something like the Chicago tune, 'If You Leave Me Now,' which is on our new album. You sing it and you sing it your way. Music has no boundaries if you sing it and do it the way you want to do it."
The Isleys perform at 8 tonight at the Arie Crown Theatre, 2301 S. Lake Shore Drive. Tickets are $36.50-$55 through Ticketmaster, (312) 559-1212.
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Legendary and long-running in a somewhat different realm, the Butthole Surfers have made more news in recent years for their feuds with record companies (including Capitol and the Chicago indie Touch & Go) than for the sort of insanely entertaining and wildly inventive noise-rock that filled classic albums such as 1988's "Hairway to Steven," "Pioughd,"(1991) and "Independent Worm Saloon" (1993).
Issued by Disney-owned Hollywood Records(!), "Weird Revolution," the Buttholes' first release in five years, is a major disappointment for longtime fans. Continuing in the vein of the alternative/industrial hit "Jesus Built My Hotrod," the group leans on canned electronic rhythms, hokey vocal effects, kitschier than usual pro-drug lyrics, and a celebrity cameo from Kid Rock.
On the bright side, the group (which still includes mainstays Gibby Haynes on vocals, Paul Leary on guitar, and King Coffee on drums) is reportedly in rare form onstage, playing material from throughout its gonzo career. So, how did the band get to this point?
"It obviously took way too long to put out this record," Coffee says. "It was complicated by a manager who was suing us and a label that wouldn't let us go and wouldn't let us release the record; we were really in a position where they were just trying to shut down the band. It turned out to have taken years to overcome all of that."
Still, the group never considered pulling the plug. "We worked so hard for so long just to have a stupid record label kill us," Coffee says. "Plus, we felt we had made a cool record, and it was a grand experiment on our part to attempt a computerized record when in fact we're rock 'n' roll morons."
Therein lies the source of the Buttholes' enduring charm. "We just make sounds that appeal to our own retarded needs and limited wants," Coffee says.
"We never really had a sound; we never recorded in one genre. On any one of our records, the sound kind of goes from style to style. It's just our own sense of what makes us laugh and what's scary or humorous at the same time. And after this long a time, I'm incredibly grateful to be involved in a band with such funny people and such killer ideas."
The Butthole Surfers perform at 7:30 tonight at the Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield. Tickets are $20 at the box office, (773) 472-0449.
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Finally, Nebula, one of the leading forces on the so-called "stoner-rock" scene of punked-out psychedelic jam bands, returns to the Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee, (773) 489-3160, at 10 p.m. Saturday ($10 cover charge). The group's new Sub Pop album "Charged" is a stronger and more varied effort than 1999's "To the Center." But the band's real forum remains the stage, where its giant flaming gong can be best appreciated.
Like every stoner-rock band, Nebula isn't crazy about the genre's moniker. "I guess it's just the aesthetic of the name that people aren't agreeing with--like 'grunge,' " says guitarist Eddie Glass. "Or 'punk rock'; what the hell is that? I think it's just the end-of-the-century version of rock 'n' roll. The music we're all playing is very electric, high-energy, and everybody puts their own twist on things. Some bands are more metal-based, some are more punk 'n' roll, some have a bit more psychedelia in them."
Nebula is essentially Pink Floyd circa "Ummagumma" meets the Stooges, with a dollop of Cream.
"We're always going to be a power trio live," Glass says. "We've tried out a four-piece before when we had a friend with us, and in the studio we overdub a lot of keyboards and stuff to make it more interesting. But on stage, that power-trio thing is what it's all about."