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The synths of summer; Saying goodbye to Chicago Bar
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Tucson sounds

The synths of summer; Saying goodbye to Chicago Bar

  • The Chicago Bar Maquee in better times.
    Clinton SmithThe Chicago Bar Maquee in better times.
  • Neon Prophet at the Chicago Bar in Tucson
    Carol TracyNeon Prophet at the Chicago Bar in Tucson

Creativity either thrives under pressure, or it doesn’t. 

Some of us (this reporter included) spend hour after hour staring at a blank screen or an empty notebook. Avoiding what seems to be the judgmental gaze of one’s musical instruments, as they slowly gather dust in the corner. Diving into one more chapter of a rock biography or one more episode of a streaming TV show or one more agitated political thread on social media with promises that “after this, I’ll write/play/create.” Add in other byproducts of isolation, such as loneliness, stress and depression, and the sum total is a sort of pandemic-induced creative limbo as Quarantine Spring becomes Quarantine Year. 

And that’s what I did with MY summer vacation.

Luckily for Tucson’s creative community, not everyone’s creative engines work this way, so while folks like me might be moping, hibernating and struggling to put pen to paper, a host of our talented peers have been making great use of the opportunity to slow down, focus and hone their craft. While I can’t say that I’m not a tiny bit jealous at their productivity, I’m damn impressed with the results. 

Which, at long last, gives me something to write about again. It’s the creative circle of life. Or something.

Joshua Butcher: 'RetroBotic'

First up, the ever prolific Mr. Joshua Butcher, a vital part of a host of local bands including Little Cloud, the Muffalettas, the Tangelos, the Lucky Ones,  and Loveland. 

Butcher’s latest project, "RetroBotic," marks a radical departure from the folk and Americana inspired multi-instrumental music his other bands are best known for.  Partly inspired by Radiohead frontman Thom York’s solo album “The Eraser,” this record dabbles in moody film soundtrack territory on “Dreamtime” and tiptoes into modern indie pop electronica on “Over and over and over again.” But at its absolute strongest points, "RetroBotic" evokes the synth-driven, vocal-centric “Northern Soul” and Motown-inspired British new wave of bands like Yaz. And that’s a serious plus, in my book. 

Sharkk Heartt: 'More Than This

Speaking of film soundtracks, I offer up for your consideration (and the academy’s) the latest track by Lara Ruggles’ project Sharkk Heartt. A simple anthem about holding steady in the face of trying times, “More Than This” features sparse electronic piano and a virtual church choir of harmonies underscoring Ruggles’ rich folk soul vibrato. It’s the stuff that heartwrenching summer blockbuster finale scenes are made of. 

Sapphocracy: 'Song of Sappho

Sapphocracy’s “Song of Sappho” is a goreous and artful tribute to Pride Month, with vocalist Erin Celeste weaving fragments of poetry by the group’s Ancient Greek namesake, Sappho herself, into a sweet but strong, jazz-infused vocal performance, set against a pulsing swell of violin, courtesy of the ever talented Samantha Bounkuea.

The Rifle: 'The Joy Of Missing Out

No one turns the mundane into magic quite like Rifle front woman Nelene De Guzman, and this track is no exception to that rule. A leisurely, introspective ode to being shut inside with the weight of one’s own thoughts, underscored by De Guzman’s dreamy surf-pop guitar, Kevin Conklin’s hypnotic, melodic bass and the subtly chimey, waves-crashing-softly-on-the-shore percussion of drummer Nicholas Cobham-Morgese. 

Marianne Dissard: 'Dirty Work

With a couple of  new releases already under her belt this summer, Tucson’s favorite international filmmaker/memoirist/chantuese has been pretty creatively prolific during her unplanned Tucson quarantine “exile.” 

Meanwhile, pretty much no one in town has been as creatively overachieving post-pandemic as Midtown Island proprietor and head Resonar Matt Rendon, who’s used the time in isolation to write and record a track by track double album, producing expertly engineered garage pop gems in the time it takes most of us to decide what to make for lunch. 

So, what could be more fun than hearing a team up between these two? Recorded just before the “plague” of COVID-19 forced Midtown Island to shut its doors to the public, Dissard’s cover of Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” is a gorgeous bit of ear candy. With Thøger Lund on bass, Connor Gallaher on guitar, Raphael Mann on clavinet, Terry Edwards on sax (whatever happened to rock and roll saxophone, anyway?) and Rendon himself on drums and vocals, the track combines the spirit of a faithful tribute with a hint of '60s French ye-ye pop.

The Resonars: 'Extended Play'

If you did get a chance to check out the serial releases of new Resonars material this past spring, consider yourself a tad blessed. The two-volume set “Blindside 2020” has now gone dark on the web pending a planned Burger Records /Midtown Island LP release in January of 2021.  The recent implosion of Burger means that release is a bit up in the air. Until then, fans can content themselves with the “Extended Play” EP. Compared to the slightly heavier, garage rock songs on 2019’s “No Exit,” the tracks on “Extended Play” feature the Resonars in delicate '60s melodic pop mode, no doubt with more than a little Hollies inspiration in the mix. The EP is available for digital purchase via Bandcamp, but recently had a limited color vinyl run on Hidden Volume Records.

Max Parallax: 'No Time For Caution'

While it might have seemed cold and futuristic at one point in time, in these dystopian days, the complicated science fiction soundscapes of math rock, prog rock and Devo-esque '80s new wave are, frankly, kind of comforting when compared to the actual news. Pair those stylings with a love of both genres and some serious talent and you end up with something like Max Parallax. Fronted by talented vocalist-keyboardist Uma De Silva and bolstered by a solid lineup of veteran local players, including Troy James Martin on bass, Daniel Thomas on drums and Neil Denneau on guitar, the band’s maiden EP is a deliciously proggy, synth-heavy romp through a slightly more forgiving universe.

Chicago Bar Blues

Over the last four decades, a number of Tucson live venues have made their mark on the local scene, but few have had the staying power of the East Side landmark the Chicago Bar, which closed its doors last month after 42 years of business.

Housed in a small, blue and orange decorated brick building along East Speedway, the spot was pure dive bar through and through with linoleum, wood paneling and a couple of pool tables in the back, a roughly tacked on patio and a weathered stable of daytime regulars, and a reliable clientele of Chicago expats who dropped by often to catch live Bears, Bulls or Cubs games on the TV with fellow Windy Cindy natives.

But the most remarkable thing about the Chicago Bar was the music. One of Tucson's few outlets for old school blues and reggae bands, Chicago Bar hosted live performances almost every night of the week, even as other bars in towns nixed live gigs in favor of DJ mixes or pub trivia. 

Over the years, the venue played frequent host to a notable assembly of Tucson music legends such as the late Sam Taylor and his son Bobby, local reggae legends Neon Prophet, various members of the Ronstadt family, and Dan "Deacon" Bunnell, who brought his long running weekly local blues jam to Chicago Bar after another venerable local spot, Berkey's, went out of business some years back.

While Chicago Bar always seemed to attract its regulars, Tucson's bar scene has changed greatly in the last couple of decades, with much of the live music scene centering on Downtown and a proliferation of sports bars populating strip malls across the city. Times have been tough for local neighborhood bars and the pandemic couldn't have come at a worse time for the folks who run them. 

A week long statewide curfew just as the bar was beginning to reopen proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back, financially speaking, and the bar's current owner, Jennifer Lorraine, made the difficult decision to close early last month, announcing the move in a Facebook post on June 8.

While the days of catching some old school blues or a Neon Prophet show at Chicago Bar are now a thing of the past, the venue still lives sharply in the memories of local bands and long time patrons, and a few of them shared some memories with your friendly local scribe.

Coming Attractions...

Your friendly local music scribe may have been out of commission for a few while, but now that she's back, she's back for good.

Next week, Tucson Sounds gets serious as we explore the fall of indie music label Burger Records and the larger topic of how to deal with abuse and predatory behavior in the music community. Also, stay tuned for more new music in the coming weeks, including new tracks from Watercolor, John Paul Marchand, Michael Mendoz, and Golden Boots, plus some thoughts on performing live in COVID times and notes on a variety of upcoming performances by a number of bands, both live and virtual.

Local music links and resources

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