Schubas' Tomorrow Never Knows festival, now in its fifth year, has quickly become a proving ground for indie buzz bands. Lasting five days and hosting just 20 bands, the event is certainly miniscule in comparison to similarly minded fests like New York City's CMJ and Austin's South By Southwest. But TNK—named for the Beatles' first foray into psych-pop—does have one significant advantage: scheduling. Its midwinter date offers music-hungry fans an off-season chance to discover previously unknown sounds (or as "unknown" as you can get in these days of internet hype). Artists like The Ponys, Bon Iver, Tapes 'n' Tapes and The M's have found their way to recording contracts and best-of lists via recent stops at the fest. Here's your primer on the next big things taking the Schubas stage this year.
Wednesday, January 14 The Soft Pack
may rip off The Stooges (and The Strokes), but the San Diego group (formerly The Muslims) is set to tear up alternative-radio charts with its lo-fi, invigorating garage rock. Kansas City crew The Republic Tigers
follows in the footsteps of Brit-pop standard bearers like Coldplay and Keane, making things a bit more melancholy along the way. Bear Hands
, although "from Brooklyn" (no one's really from Brooklyn) pulls hooks from a West Coast pop treasure chest, and then proceeds to dominate ears with everything from post-punk to dance rock. Boston's Lost In The Trees
, meanwhile, plays the Andrew Bird
card, assembling hits on classical and orchestral arrangements, before taking genius aim at rock.
Thursday, January 15
As many bands are learning that somebody, somewhere, has already produced the sounds that they want to create, experimental pop has become the new frontier. Grizzly Bear took that path in 2007 with the successful Friend EP, and singer/guitarist Daniel Rossen's other band, Department of Eagles, did the same in the fall of ‘08. The quirky New York duo's live show is a never-ending forest of surprise, thanks to tons of atmospheric space and lofty harmonies. Chicago dominates the other 75 percent of the night, starting with two minimalist groups, Disappears and The Poison Arrows. Both offer disaffected vocals and bare-bone guitar parts, as well as hearty obsessions with reverb and sludgy pedal effects. Alla, meanwhile, declares itself the "mark of a new revolution in psychedelic pop music," backing it up with a hodgepodge of everything from Motown to German Krautrock.
Friday, January 16
Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson
Tim Kasher's been red in the face with heartache since the late '90s, leading Saddle Creek horn-blasted punk outfit Cursive
, and he's only gotten more refined and harrowing with age. Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson
, though aided by fellow New Yorkers Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio and Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear, virtually appeared from nowhere in '08. His debut record is steeped in break-ups, drug dependence and homelessness, but the songs feel universal, inviting comparisons to Neil Young. Oklahoma-bred Colourmusic
's Polyphonic Spree-meets-Unicorns sunshine pop appears oddly placed amidst the other self-deprecating bands playing tonight, but this is thinking-man's music, too; the group's latest album is based, appropriately, on the ability to see colors from music. Atlanta's All The Saints
militantly obeys brooding rock, sometimes with organ-led ballads, other times with trenchant metal fuzz.
Saturday, January 17
Maybe it's because clubs and raves are played out, but one day in recent music history the line separating electronica and rock just up and disappeared. And 90,000 people of all tastes dancing like fools in Grant Park is what happened. Chicago's Hey Champ didn't ignite those feet. That was Daft Punk. But Hey Champ follows suit with a.) the best MySpace bio ever written and b.) a sonic circus that appeases both DJ and musician. Toronto's Thunderheist sticks close to sultry bass and synth, and appears poised to make “Jerk It” the next awesome bit of hipster lexicon. Hometown DJ Bald Eagle takes a pseudo-Girl Talk approach to his performances, which has earned him multiple spots at Lollapalooza. Also from Chicago, Pretty Good Dance Moves are not to be missed. Vocalist Genevieve Schatz is a dead ringer for Leslie Feist, offering a stark contrast to the band's innovative, Postal Service-type Moog synth tinkerings.
Sunday, January 18
Slightly dusty choral arrangements, token keyboard fills, at least one unconventional percussion apparatus—these are the bread-and-butter ingredients of indie-pop. Bishop Allen is nothing if not a rule-follower—and you can expect that when Apple finally launches a camera line, the Brooklyn group will be in the background with "Click, Click, Click, Click." The Donkeys aren't as easily marketable. The San Diegans are borderline psychedelic, with touches of doo-wop and southern rock. Tulsa (from Massachusetts, incidentally) recalls an earlier, sunnier My Morning Jacket, from back when the band used to make its records in barns.
Tomorrow Never Knows takes place at Schubas, 3159 N. Southport. All shows are at 9 p.m., and cost $15 each (a five-day pass is $55). There will be DJs playing upstairs every night, and special all-ages School of Rock shows at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday ($10 adv/$12 door). Call (773) 525-2508 or visit schubas.com for more information.