The sounds of the Fourth


July 1, 2005


While many casual music fans may opt to stay glued to their TV sets over the weekend, watching highlights of the much-hyped Live 8 concert, the holiday always has meant two things for discerning lovers of live music in Chicago: The free July Fourth concert in Grant Park sponsored by WXRT (93.1-FM), now celebrating its 18th year, and the American Music Festival, returning to FitzGerald's in Berwyn for its 24th holiday weekend.

XRT hasn't presented such an impressive lineup since Wilco headlined and performed much of its then-unreleased "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" album in 2001. This year's star attraction is techno godfather turned pop craftsman Moby, but just as promising is a performance by rootsy singer and songwriter John Hiatt, with backing from the best young blues band to emerge in the last decade, the North Mississippi Allstars.

Recording his 21st album in Memphis at the legendary Ardent Studios, Hiatt drew musical support from the North Mississippi Allstars' guitarist and drummer, Luther and Cody Dickinson, and tapped their father Jim Dickinson (whose credits range from Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones to Big Star and the Replacements) to produce.

Given the younger Dickinsons' fiery spirit, it's surprising that Hiatt's new "Master of Disaster" is a relatively quiet and understated affair, full of soulful, nostalgic yearning. It's a fair bet, though, that the always enthusiastic holiday crowd and the spectacular setting of the Petrillo Band Shell will kick the author of "Thing Called Love" (among dozens of other hits for himself and others) into high gear, and the Allstars are a group capable of grooving harder than any band Hiatt has ever fronted.

For his part, Moby never fails to rise to the occasion before a big outdoor crowd -- his Area1 and Area2 concerts remain at the top of the list of the best amphitheater shows I've ever seen -- and he is touring behind "Hotel," an album full of electronic pop gems.

Performing at the Riviera Theatre in April, the former Richard Melville Hall of Darien, Conn., seemed even more energetic than usual as he interacted with guitarist Daron Murphy and backing vocalist Laura Dawn, highlighting a catalog that is one of the strongest of the last two decades, from the undeniable techno drive of his early hit "Go," through "Hotel" standouts such as the giddy pop of "Beautiful" and the sing-along David Bowie tribute "Spiders," not to mention the signature tracks from his breakthrough album "Play."

The concert starts at 3 p.m. with Blue Merle and Stereophonics, but if you're reluctant to leave the backyard barbecue, it will also be broadcast live on the radio.

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald's, 6615 W. Roosevelt Rd. in Berwyn, has once again outdone itself by booking a veritable Who's Who of the best names in modern blues and roots-rock for its American Music Festival, which kicked off yesterday and continues through Sunday.

Shifting between two stages, one inside the club and the other in an outdoor tent, the music starts at 5 p.m. today and includes Roots Rock Rollercoaster, Paul Thorn, Dallas Wayne and Redd Volkaert, Jon Dee Graham, Anders Osborne, Brave Combo and the Jeff & Vida Band, though the standouts are Ian McLagen, the Small Faces and Rod Stewart veteran currently fronting his hard-driving Bump Band (9:30 p.m. in the club), and the sassy, sultry Louisiana/Texas chanteuse Marcia Ball (10:15 p.m. in the tent).

Saturday's highlights are the blues band the Kinsey Report (8 p.m. in the club), the deft and adventurous local cover band Tributosaurus (performing as the Band at 8:30 p.m. in the tent), native daughter turned rising national act Cathy Richardson (9:45 p.m. in the club) and the always entertaining Chicago songwriter and raconteur Robbie Fulks (10:30 p.m. in the tent), who is riding high on his new Bloodshot album "Georgia Hard."

Saturday's lineup, which starts at 2 p.m., is completed by the John Burnett Orchestra, Grey Delisl, Kevin Gordon and Jennifer Nicely, Eh La-Bas, Patterson Hood, the Lee Boys, Dallas Wayne and Redd Volkaert, the Gourds, and the Jeff & Vida Band.

The festival wraps up on Sunday starting at 2 p.m. and includes the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, Del Rey, Eh La-Bas, Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas, the Gourds, King Wilkie, Marcia Ball, the Subdudes, Switchback and the Jeff & Vida Band, though this day's must-sees are Sleepy LaBeef (6:30 p.m. in the tent), the veteran blues, country, gospel and rockabilly musician who has performed with Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, and the Charlottesville combo the Hackensaw Boys, the insanely energetic old-time bluegrass band that assaults its banjos, mandolins, washboard and dobro with punk-rock fury and intensity.

Admission to the festival is $25, with a $5 discount before 6 p.m. today and before 3 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday, and kids under 13 admitted for $5 before 10 p.m. For more information and specific set times for all of the acts, call (708) 788-2118 or visit


Rock critics live for list-making, and since the Fourth of July weekend marks the halfway point of 2005, here is my list of the 10 best albums of the year to date.

1. Common, "Be" (GOOD/Geffen): It ain't homerism, it's simply one of the strongest, most inventive and most honest hip-hop discs I've ever heard.

2. Coldplay, "X&Y" (Capitol): The backlash is well under way (the New York Times called it "insufferable"), but it's a mystery how anyone can resist pop music this accessible that draws from underground influences (Brian Eno, Kraftwerk) this cool.

3. LCD Soundsystem, "LCD Soundsystem" (DFA/Capitol): Cutting-edge dance grooves paired with vintage art-punk energy and invention. Irresistible.

4. The Black Eyed Peas, "Monkey Business": Hands-down the good-time, party groove disc of the summer.

5. Moby, "Hotel" (V2): The lovable chrome dome has been the subject of the second most vitriolic backlash of the summer (serves him right for doing all those commercials), but he has produced another pop gem.

6. The White Stripes, "Get Behind Me Satan" (V2): No one else in rock consistently does so much with so little.

7. Spoon, "Gimme Fiction" (Merge): Another art-punk classic, less dance-oriented, but with rhythms that are just as hard to deny.

8. Gorillaz, "Demon Days" (Virgin): A darker, trippier effort than their debut, but it holds up even better under repeated listenings.

9. Billy Corgan, "The Future Embrace" (Warner Bros.): No, it's not more homerism, nor is it evidence of a special love for bald guys -- just an impressive, heartfelt collection of electronic songs about the desire to be loved.

10. Damon & Naomi, "The Earth Is Blue" (20/20/20): Heartbreakingly beautiful psychedelic folk-rock from the veteran rhythm section of Galaxie 500.