Friday, October 7, 2011

Bob Shiel's “Half Measures Avail Nothing” Spreads Hope 100% Full of Music

by Hannah Frank with additions by Bob Shiel

This CD, “Half Measures Avail Nothing” is more than a collection of 18 songs-- it's a gift of creativity from the heart. A percentage of proceeds benefit The Mankind Project Chicago, an international network of personal development programs for adult men. Shiel has been involved for over twenty years and is on the board. The CD also benefits the Alano Club of the North Side of Chicago, which offers addiction recovery services. Shiel already donates annually to these organizations.

The original songs share touches of 60's country folk music as well as poetic rock and roll, bluegrass, gospel and Dylan-like commentary. Hypnotic psychedelic memories are punctuated with clear-headed blues and comfortable reminiscing with lilting Spanish rhythms. Production and song styles vary yet maintain a message of peace, journey and renewal. Like real life, it includes a gamut of rough and smooth edges.

As a young man, Shiel appreciated the non-Western culture of Micronesia, a group of small islands where Shiel served as a Peace Corps volunteer. He was the only non-native sharing an island with about 225 people who ebbed and flowed with relaxed, slow lives full of farming, fishing, cooking, church-going and making the most out of what they had. Islanders used fishing line as guitar strings. Shiel performed folk music on birthdays and at weddings and even funerals for the natives. He believes it “got him in touch with indigenous people and mother earth.” He saw and helped the islanders build a humble church up from the ground with concrete mixed with sand from their Pacific beaches.

Shiel took this spirit of resourcefulness to the making of his album. Using new skills with digital recording, and tapping thirty years of writing songs, the tunes reflect on topics that likewise seem foreign to American life, but maybe shouldn't be so odd: brotherhood, praying, friendship and unity.

This is peppered with more “hardcore” experiences facing the modern world, and how people handle it-- references to smoking a skinny, drinking gin all night or making a commitment to pray for Barack Obama. There are also nods to 20th century figureheads like Muddy Waters and Elmore James with a tongue-in-cheek line, “hoping to get lucky, want to make a killin', trying to be cool like Elvis and Bob Dylan.”

All the songs are not about Shiel, but about people he's met on his path, ranging from a relaxing Latin love ballad for Marianela from Peru, a girl whose “eyes ain’t blue”, to a 12-bar blues with pounding organ about a fellow teaching comrade at Truman College, where Shiel has taught ESL to immigrants who want to go to college since 1987, in Earl Silbar's Rag, about a Jewish man who grew up amidst social inequities on the south side of Chicago and went on to a lifetime of devotion to working class and union causes.

Shiel had been writing songs for years and this CD was the next logical step after hooking up with a group of supportive artists, The Mens Art Forum, and gaining confidence in his skills as he explored digital recording. He decided to contribute proceeds to the Mankind Project and the Alano Club. Humble in person, Shiel says as a drug and alcohol addict, he would be dead if it were not for these groups.

Most songs are laced with imagery that is post-sobriety. Of track 2 Angels In The Morning he says, “its [a] dark...hellish song...that's what life on drugs and alcohol was for me….but the song is about hope.” Getting sober was like “coming out of pain and darkness...coming back to life from the dead,” shares Shiel. Track 13 What I Pray is “literally my prayer every time I pick up my pipe and pray...a lot of this is very spiritual,” says Shiel, who also teaches yoga and is steeped in Native American spirituality. The title “Half Measures Avail Nothing” is a gentle reminder to give one hundred percent.


Shiel is healing and with this CD, gives back. He gives back in full measure to life for what he has been given by his parents Josephine and John, the fellowship of men, women, and recovering addicts, and the 20th century musicians who make him tick. Half Measures Avail Nothing, indeed.

Purchase CD Online or In Person

Visit: for digital purchasing
Email: for hard disk copies

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Album Review: The Plastic Boots/The Plastic Boots Psychedelically Fierce Blues-Rock Brings the Party

The Plastic Boots keep it down and dirty, fronting a universe recalling Buck Cherry, Black Crowes, Zappa and the Toadies. Rock grows thick and swampy with distorted guitars, B3 organ, electronic funk, bar-rock lyrics and a head-expanding psychadelic groove. It's hyper, bold music for when all you have is smokes, the taste for whiskey and a good night out.

The Chicago four-piece relishes in packing venom and raunch into a caucophony that squeezes parts like party-goers jamming into a small car. Crunchy guitars ooze like fire alarms next to head-banging toms that hit hard while cymbals are fat and brassy. Vocals boogie with Led Zepplin-era aplomb, paying homage to action. Psychadelia is held in check with tight, purposeful solos tucked into the dense sonic arrangements.


There's some space to breathe in “This Ones for All the Bitches”, which showcases the players' chops. Greater than the sum of its parts is dance-infused “Stripper Soul”, held down by keys while guitars grind and twirl. Flexing straight-forward riffs, “Dig That Twang” wears classic blues-rock on its sleeve. The band takes a break from ripping your face off with “Abraham's Falafel,” which reads like an electronica song where the distorted vocal mic becomes one more element in a sound collage; an extended vamp that recalls Zappa's “Help I'm a Rock”.

On their debut LP, The Plastic Boots retain an edgy, tweaked sound that swirls in a trippy telescope and hits like a wrecking ball, handled from the ground up with well-mixed drums. With relentless fervor, songs pack as much punch as possible and lean on groove and excitement rather than verse-chorus formula. Hypnotizing like a burning building, with densely layered parts that push and pull, The Plastic Boots deliver the sonic equivalent of upbeat claustrophobia of a hot party. Disorienting and dynamic, it breaks new ground while staying tight with its roots.

Check out their upcoming show Saturday Sept. 17, 2011 at Elbo Room in Chicago.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Left Turn at Albuquerque: Worth the Detour

Left Turn at Albuquerque

Layered pop/rock music that's epic, tasteful, quirky and robust-- and that's just the first verse. With a sense of humor and rich life stories, lyrical depth joins forces with musical prowess. Multi-instrumentalists harmonize poetic lyrics as rhythmic jamming takes delightful, unexpected turns. The result is solid songcraft with elements of jazz, pop, bluegrass, folk and roots music. The group's first full-length album, In Broad Daylight (Twitter @leftturnalbuq #inbroaddaylight), produced by Chicago's CAUDog Records, is set for release this month. Take the detour and check out LTAA at Bottom Lounge June 26th at 7:30pm where they are joined by Aaron Williams Band, 3 in Counting and Trevor McSpadden and the Peacekeepers.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Matthew Morgan – Red Silhouettes


While Chicago artist Matt Morgan's visual art pares images down to basic shapes, simplifying objects into blocks of color, his recent music album is just the inverse of that-- it turns the sweater of life inside out and shows us the fascinating patterns, loops, twists, turns and strings behind it. He does this through simplicity, complexity and through a word not often used outside overly-serious law firm advertisements, yet is in “Red Silhouettes” in spades: integrity.

Why might you need integrity in music? Perhaps to combat the disc's biggest charm- and notably not its achilles heel- the fact that Matt records and plays nearly all of the instruments in the DIY spirit and reality that marks independent music as a slightly different breed than its glossy Billboard chart counterparts. It might have been easy to worry that, as bands or artists obtain a few pieces of gear and rush to make an album, that Red Silhouettes may walk about with a scarlet “DIY” on the chest.

In fact, it should. The DIY creation helps the album at every turn. This home-spun album is peppered with detail and salted with a quirky charm that make it surprisingly complex, entirely original and fit like a perfect hat. It makes it unexpected, bitter and tasty; warm and conversational, light-hearted as tea and dark as strong whiskey, and as eye opening as a cup of coffee or transcendent as a peek at a the perfect ray of sun.

Bell-like gongs, electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards and jiving organs mingle with triangles and harmonica. The collection of sounds and the way they are placed in arrangements keep the album's head high above water in what could otherwise be just a splash in the folk/country ocean. The variety in the choice of instrumentation has a “Where the Wild Things Are” vibe or the color half of The Wizard of's a new reality. Red Silhlouettes is grounded in experience from real life- the stories are of battles, soldiers, and friends.

The lyrics, in part, are loosely based on letters from the Civil War. Within ear-shot of a folk fan, this mere idea could easily become sentimental, either full of reverb or heart-bleeding sonic memorabilia from the glory days of Alan Lomax- but this doesn't go in that direction. Instead, due to the number of different and unexpected sounds, there is musicality and sense of adventure. The battles can be war or personal battles.


The illustration on the album cover is based on brass buckeles from different insignia in the Civil War. The idea for the imagery of album was based on tintype pictures from the war, as Morgan looked to the era initially simply for ideas for lyrics. Morgan has found that starting with a story from another source is a way he can invent lyrics. In fact “My Country's Son” is attributed to J.D. Flowers, who is not a songwriter but a soldier that lived over 100 years ago. Matt came across his letters, as well as those of another soldier, a 12-year-old boy who ran away from home to join the regiment, and who “Drummer Boy” is loosely based on. The battles throughout the album are tempered with graceful realizations and a life-affirming energy.

Rather than dwelling on war, the album is more a commentary about life in general. Morgan states, “One pervasive theme is facing the demons in front of you-- taking your flag and going to the front of the line, [saying] “I'm gonna face this down, I'm gonna take charge of life and be who I am” and make your life into how you want it to be.”

The arrangements are fresh, ebbing and flowing through verses and choruses with musical moxie. The instrument sounds are modern, well-crafted digital simulations at times, but the energy with which variety is entertained with helpless aplomb keeps the disc raw. The combination of sounds creates a backdrop of sonic texture that raises up like braille (Inside the Bone). Morgan's steady voice is the constant, which presides over the tracks like a violin, as his phrasing mirrors the way a violin can hit a note and play it the length of the bow, drawing out the sound. It's low, deep and somehow sounds selfless- but it's entirely confident and lyrically wise. When it arrives, it settles in like a pendulum.


Matt's rich tenor voice pulls the album out of folk trenches and adds to the musicality. Melodies are hypnotic and Gregorian-chant-like at times, cresting and falling in waves. There's a reggae vibe all over “Be Good” including a fife (a small flute circa 1776). It's as if the sounds of two revolutions (Jamaica's and the Revolutionary War) come together. The Civil War theme is just part of the album, which is overall about life's struggles and wisdom gained.

In the same way that some movies are loosely based on real events, the word “transcendence” is loosely based on a real human experience that may be overshadowed by our busy lives. The term itself can be eclipsed by new-age feel-good lingo. Within the sonic adventures of these songs, like a ship with its sails set on something real, transcendence is returned to a tangible feeling.

Transcendence comes from a general sense of triumph-- sometimes subtle, and sometimes overt. Triumph in lyrics “like bells in the wind, you rise up for your song to begin…”(Last Song) and "search for my triumphant day" (For All This Time). The latter song calmly leans like the giant arm of an oak tree. Background vocals by Anita Chase (½ Mad Poet) add a full aural experience. The violin is a feat of soaring country fiddle: lush, full and never itchy. The tone is haunting and rich, like a dark wood bookcase talking.

What you'll find in this album is something that makes you feel good. Red Sihlouettes is upbeat and melancholy. The acoustic guitar, ranges from deliberate single note picking, to strumming, full of dissonance and hungry, appearing even gospel-like in its movement. You can hear in the details it's clearly a labor of love- neither quick nor drifting. The album is easy to champion as simply an “indie musician makes good” but it's more than that. Novelty in sounds keep it fresh from without while lyrical substance for the soul makes an impression within. Together, you've got unique musical integrity ripe for repeated listens.

The CD Release show will be Friday February 25, 2011 at the Jackson Junge Gallery (1389 N Milwaukee Ave.) from 8pm - 11pm. Admission is free.


Red Silhouettes is available for download on all major digital distribution websites (iTunes - Amazon - Napster - LastFM) and is available for purchase in physical format on CD Baby here: LINK

Matt's website:

To learn more about the people, musicians and organizations that contributed to Red
Silhouettes, check out Matthew Morgan's blog:


Thursday, February 17, 2011

New Bio for Jane Thatcher

OnAxis Music recently completed a new bio for Jane Thatcher a CAUDog Recording Artist. I really enjoyed interviewing Jane and learning more about her life. We all have such interesting stories to tell! OnAxis is also working with Jane on a blog about helping young girls buck social pressures and achieve great things. In the meantime...



Jane Thatcher is a whirling dervish of dreamy pop with firecracker-like spunk and kinetic stage energy. With one taste of her chocolate-flavored voice, foot-stomping rhythms and heartfelt lullabies, you'll see why she stirs the souls of audiences at large clubs and intimate stages.

Originally from Salt Lake City, Utah her musical accomplishmets have spread like wildfire once landing in Chicago. Highlights include large festivals and venues including Widow's Peak, Lincoln Hall and Loyola University-- in addition she's created a professional music video for the song “Good Reasons” and an new full-length album with CAUDog Records, “Poundin' A Heartbeat”.

Considering this has all occurred within a year and a half, she is creating a whilwind of support for her music. Her rhythm guitar and original music is an adventure in high spirits and positive energy.

As a solo performer she is enchanting, and she has stacked the deck for her music career by also teaming up with a band of talented musicians. Her high-octane group The Steadfast Acrobats, which appears on the album, offers a solid retro-rock pulse that creates polished, poppy Americana for the masses.

Raised in a community built around the Mormon faith, she saw from an early age that she had different beliefs and spent years in a metapmorphasis that had finally resulted in her life in Chicago with an emphasis on music. Jane has been composing songs, singing and creating albums since high school, and is currently working on the entire musical score for a World War ii-themed musical by James Drake.

As a social worker working with disenfranchised people, families and children she sees another perspective to the culture we all live in and strives to make a positive difference. A singer-songwriter initially inspired by Jewel, as well as artists from the 1960's and 1970's with passion for social change, Jane sees music as art that allows people to experience a new reality.