Chicago Music Society brings the bluesy goodness of Califone to Ida

By Nicholas Buchholz

It is probably among the most under-recognized bands in Chicago and even in America, given its history, quality of work, and uncompromising inventiveness. Califone’s unique brand of blues-steeped, electro-American music is the perfect soundtrack to Chicago’s hard-working, industrial South Side and its rural midwestern hinterland. There are pulses of steel-string banjo and guitar, toy pianos, Number 2 pencils tapped hard against mandolin necks, and Tim Rutili’s unmistakably smooth, dry voice, which naturally cuts into the mix like fine grit sandpaper rubbing onto hard oak. Given such disparate instrumentation, Califone produces very beautiful and cohesive music that brings together raw, old-fashioned Americana and technological gumption into imaginative songwriting that always gets under your skin.

Despite having toured this year and last around the nation with Wilco and the Sea and Cake, the members are largely unrecognized by the public. Joining with local label Thrill Jockey Records and headlining their own European tour over the past six months hasn’t hurt their popularity any. Califone has also garnered phenomenal critical response for the band’s most recent record Roomsound, which ranked number one on’s editors choice list for 2001 and prompted the tour with Wilco, and this year’s record Quicksand/Cradlesnakes, which led to being signed by Thrill Jockey.

Califone members Tim Rutili and Ben Massarella, along with Tim Hurley, Matt Fields, and Brian Deck, were originally known as Red Red Meat. RRM released three records on popular Seattle label Sub Pop and earned a spot opening for the Smashing Pumpkins. Over time, Red Red Meat evolved from a bluesy, straightforward rock band to a more inventive and stripped-down group whose eclectic influences and experimental instrumentation compose some of Sub Pop’s best recordings to date. It turns out the mid-’90s label heads at Sub Pop were more interested in finding the next Nirvana than paying attention to promoting RRM. Thus, after the band’s final album There’s a Star Above the Manger Tonight, RRM split with Sub Pop and began releasing material under the name Califone on their own label, Perishable Records. The band began with a clean slate and settled back into their studio near Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood and recorded a self-titled LP, which became somewhat of a rough draft for the band’s distinct sound. Shortly after this, Califone released a five-song EP, also self-titled, which examined not only its capacity for the bare-bones and bone-dry Americana of “Don’t Let Me Die Nervous” and “St. Martha Let It Fold,” but also their electronic tendencies, using sampled loops of their own live performances and thumping studio production in tracks like “Dock Boggs,” a tribute to the Appalachian banjo legend of same name.

With 2001’s Roomsound, Califone’s second full-length LP out on Perishable Records, the band has mastered the very techniques they invented. The album begins with “Trout Silk,” which bounces sharp and bluesy acoustic guitars and dense, reverberating piano beats against whopping bass drum thumps and intermittent mallet hits on what sounds like deflating pieces of scrap metal.

“Wade in the Water” begins sounding like Dire Straits playing live at the bottom of a lake. It then quickly morphs into chunks of raw guitar rhythms and distorted swells of a choir-background before revisiting the beginning theme with 10 times the force. Califone’s most recent Quicksand/Cradlesnakes LP was the first to be released on Thrill Jockey. On the record, the band branches out in many new directions. “Million Dollar Funeral” and “Mean Little Seed” add the skillful violin work of new member Jim Becker, who normally plays banjo in the group. His bouncy, syncopated banjo-playing complements the music like barbecue sauce over ribs. Other cuts like the slow-burning “Slower Twin” and the energetic “Vampiring Again” are among some of the bands most rocking tracks yet, powered by Ben Masarella’s hard-pounded skins and Becker and Rutili’s dual electric guitar work. In addition to Quicksand/Cradlesnakes, the band has released two CDs of music to silent films by various local filmmakers, titled Deceleration One and Deceleration Two. Helon King Blues is Califone’s upcoming album due early next year on Thrill Jockey.

This Saturday, November 22, The Chicago Music Society welcomes Califone to Ida Noyes Hall, where they will perform with Perishable label-mates Sin Ropas, fronted by ex-Red Red Meat guitarist Tim Hurley. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show will begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the door for $10 with a valid UCID and $12 for all others.