Summer Shuffle: Rock of Ages

Before there was glam rock, there was “progressive rock,” that nebulous genre that saw the music of ’60s psychedelia taken to new, expansive dimensions of lyrical poetry and symphonic instrumentation. The groundwork was perhaps laid by the sweeping sonorities of Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but if a single album were to have firmly established what “prog rock” was, that album was The Moody BluesDays of Future Passed. Combining innovative production and electronic instruments with interludes by the Decca label’s house orchestra, drawn together by a sequence of original songs describing the passing of a day, that “concept album” steadily seeped into the public consciousness—not unlike the way the songs themselves dreamily built up their ethos—until it became a landmark work in music history. On June 30, The Moody Blues will return to Ravinia to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Days of Future Passed by playing the iconic album in its entirety, along with some of their biggest hits that followed.

Among the hard-rocking guitar and keyboard–driven bands that proliferated across the airwaves in the ’70s and ’80s, few had as distinctive a sound as Van Halen, scoring an unbroken string of number-one records with Sammy Hagar at the microphone. In 2014, Hagar formed a new band, The Circle—comprising original Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony, drummer Jason Bonham, and guitarist Vic Johnson—so named because they not only play from Hagar’s catalogue, from Montrose through Van Halen and supergroup Chickenfoot, but the full circle of the other members’ work, including Led Zeppelin classics that Bonham has kept vibrant with the original band and his own touring (including a stop at Ravinia in 2013). Hagar and The Circle will make their Ravinia debut on June 19, and Sammy’s son, Andrew Hagar (a.k.a. Drew Hagus), will open the show.

Around the same time that Van Halen was shredding speaker cones with a combination of high-powered vocals and guitars, those same instruments took on an entirely different power in the music of John Mellencamp, who’ll be making his Ravinia debut over the nights of August 26 and 27. The Indiana-born singer-songwriter has worn a few hats (and names) over his career, from youthful pop hits like “Hurts So Good,” “Jack and Diane,” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” to fiercely personal and patriotic anthems like “Pink Houses,” “Small Town,” and “Paper in Fire,” but “he’s never inhabited traditional folk and blues-imbued settings as personally as on [his 2014 album, Plain Spoken]” (Rolling Stone) or the recently released follow-up, Sad Clowns and Hillbillies. “[Mellencamp’s] voice has become a bit gruffer over the years,” says the Portland Press Herald, “[but] that gives his tough and somber new material an edge.”

Out of the cauldron of culture that was ’60s and ’70s Southern California came some of the first waves of so-called blue-eyed soul that reverberated across the Atlantic and back, and one of those waves came from Boz Scaggs and the “slinky, disco-fied grit” (Rolling Stone) of Silk Degrees, from which “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle” are among “the sultriest snapshots of [the genre]” (BBC Music). On his latest albums, Scaggs has served up hearty helpings of Southern-fried soul, his “well-worn, textured voice deftly navigating the range of styles” (Rolling Stone). He returns to Ravinia sharing a bill with Dukes of September and New York Rock and Soul Revue collaborator Michael McDonald, the Doobie Brothers fill-in turned frontman who led the group through chart-toppings years with “Minute by Minute,” “What a Fool Believes,” and countless more songs. From those hits through his recent albums of Motown covers, McDonald is “determined to keep his music alive to the moment” (Los Angeles Times), and that moment will be on June 27, under the lights of the festival’s Pavilion stage.

The most famous “Blue Eyes” of them all, Judy Collins, will alight to the stage on July 26, sharing the spotlight with Stephen Stills, who wrote the landmark Crosby, Stills & Nash song suite about their brief relationship in the late ’60s. “Collins’s well-respected catalog is so vast that it’s hard to isolate her standout albums,” says Rolling Stone, “but we’d argue Wildflowers is among her best.” Not only did that record feature her Grammy-winning rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” but it also saw her spinning silvery threads with the music of Leonard Cohen, whose songs she gave “particular intensity,” said the New York Times, at Café Carlyle last winter after his passing, “surpassing her younger self in stamina and command.” In naming Stills one of the top 30 guitarists of all time, Rolling Stone cited his acoustic picking on “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” as “a paragon of unplugged beauty,” but he’s more than just that third of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers CSN, having also been inducted as a member of Buffalo Springfield, for which he wrote the iconic protest song “For What It’s Worth.” Opening the night will be Norwegian-Nigerian soul balladeer Numa Edema.

Though by and large still a male-dominated field, that is not to say that rock music keeps women in the background. Recent decades have seen several femme-fronted groups stand out above the throngs, and few more recognizably than Blondie. The group became a worldwide sensation with its third album, Parallel Lines, behind Debbie Harry, “a mannered and complex frontwoman, possessed of a range of vocal tricks and affectations … as at home roaming around in the open spaces of [the breakout hit] ‘Heart of Glass’ as she was pouting and winking through ‘Picture This’ and ‘Sunday Girl’ or working out the group’s more hard-charging tracks” (Pitchfork). That classic sound returns with new single “Fun,” which Consequence of Sound says “could have easily popped up on Parallel Lines,” and album Pollinator (due out in May), “a vintage blend of disco, new wave, and modern pop … elevated by [the many guest contributors, including TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, Sia, and Charli XCX].” Then, in the early ’90s, when the grunge scene was reeling from the sudden loss of Kurt Cobain, there appeared a glimmering pool of nectar in the darkness in the form of Garbage, whose sound “could hardly be more indicative of that decade … the fertile delta at the confluence of grunge, shoegaze, and trip-hop,” reflects Spin. “Garbage had radio-ready hooks and they had [magnetic singer] Shirley Manson’s wry, frosty purr.” Returning with Strange Little Birds last year, Manson likened the album to the group’s eponymous debut; as Slant observed, a clear comparison of spirit: “What the album lacks in cheeky wit, it makes up for in grit. This is a band very much alive and hungry … lamenting the absence of darkness and vulnerability in pop music of late.” Blondie and Garbage share a July 22 Ravinia bill, which will also feature the duo John Doe and Exene Cervenka, the singer-songwriters behind seminal LA punk-rock band X.

Unarguably one of the most imitated women in rock history, Stevie Nicks was ready to blaze her individual prowess as an artist even before the tightly tensioned chains of Fleetwood Mac finally snapped. She recalled to the New York Times that during the Tusk sessions she told her bandmates, “I am doing this because I have way too many songs. … One of you walks by me every time I sit at the piano and says, ‘Oh my God, there she goes writing another song. We only need three or four from you.’ So what am I supposed to do?” What she did was create the number-one hit Bella Donna, including the hits “Edge of Seventeen,” “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” and “Leather and Lace.” Those frenetic and fraught Mac years inspired a wealth of material, some of which emerged on her 2014 album, 24 Karat Gold: Songs from the Vault, bringing “one of romance and gypsy mysticism’s great ciphers” (Paste) full circle. The Gold Dust Woman makes her Ravinia debut with a two-night stand on September 9 and 10.

Continue reading the “Summer Shuffle”: Music Without Frontiers / Living Harmoniously / Some Kind of Blue / Songs for the Heart(land)