Monthly Archives: February 2013

Open Mic Night at The Mill in Iowa City

The Mill, an Iowa City staple, has been around for over 50 years. The restaurant doubles as a concert venue where live music can be heard almost any night of the week. Every Monday night, The Mill hosts a well-attended open mic night. I asked Joanne, a waitress at The Mill who works most Monday nights, about the acts she sees every week. “Well the sound guy is always the same and he opens and closes every week with his own set,” said Joanne. She added that there are usually four or five new artists in addition to the three or four performers who attend open mic night on a regular basis.

The “sound guy” Joanne is referring to is J. Knight, creator of open mic night at The Mill. I got to ask him about the origins of open mic night and what motivated him to create such an institution. “I started this open mic in 1981,” J. said proudly. He continued, “I was playing music as a singer-songwriter and I had come to Iowa City the year before. The Mill was the main place that I played in town and Monday was kind of a musician’s night off – they’d usually play on the weekends and be back for Monday. So I talked to the owner about doing an open mic on Monday nights.”

I then asked J. how often he plays his own set during open mic night. He replied, “Not always, but if there’s time!” J. explained that his open mic nights are usually fully booked two to three weeks in advance, but he is “always ready” to fill extra time or replace an act that fails to show up.

When I asked who his favorite artists are, J. had an interesting response. Chuckling, he said, “All the people who come and play at my open mic! Those are my favorites!” J. went on to say that as a musician, he does not listen to other musicians very often. Instead, he listens to National Public Radio. He then said that he plays a lot of Hoyt Axton and Johnny Cash songs. Sure enough, J. closed his set with a Johnny Cash number from the 1950’s.

If you are a musician, open mic night at The Mill is a great way to get your music heard. Open mic night is every Monday at 8pm, and admission is free for audience members.

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If you like Mumford & Sons, then you’ll like The Head and the Heart

No matter how old you are or what type of music you like, you have heard of Mumford & Sons. They’ve put a refreshing spin on mainstream music and have proved that not all hope has been lost to auto-tune and Rebecca Black. The London natives recently won the Grammy for “Album of the Year” for their latest release, “Babel”.

Mumford & Sons performing at this year's Grammy Awards -

Mumford & Sons performing at this year’s Grammy Awards –

Mumford & Sons has a distinctive sound. Their folksy, almost bluegrass-like rock is full of lively guitar and banjo, layered vocals, and passion. Their music ranges from foot-stomping anthems like “I Will Wait” to slow, heartfelt tunes like “White Blank Page”.  Their vocal harmonies are perfect and haunting.

The Head and the Heart, a group from Seattle, has a similar set of qualities with one major difference – their vocal harmonies are comprised of both male and female voices. The band’s sound is more reliant on piano than guitar, but the feel of their music is akin to that of Mumford & Sons.  Both groups have an incredible amount of soul.  They sing about love, loss, and longing, and they do so in a way that makes you feel what they are feeling.

The Head and the Heart -

The Head and the Heart –

Having self-released their album “The Head and the Heart” in 2009, The Head and the Heart should have had a slow start. However, since the album’s release, they have opened for artists like Dave Matthews and The Decemberists as well as appeared at music festivals like Lollapalooza. The band has a pop-folk sound, relying heavily on the vocals of Josiah Johnson, Jonathan Russell, and Charity Rose Thielen. All three sing separately as well as together, giving the group a dynamic sound and a lot of room for variation in their songs.

Check out my favorite The Head and the Heart song below:

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If you like Kid Cudi, then you’ll like The Knux

Kid Cudi has become quite popular since the release and subsequent success of his single “Day ‘n’ Nite” in 2009.  The Ohio native’s music has been defined by some as “hipster hop,” an indie rock-inspired form of hip-hop/rap.  The musical aspect of Kid Cudi’s songs seems to be just important as the lyrics, whereas traditional rap songs place more emphasis on the lyrics.

The Knux, a duo from New Orleans, also fall into the “hipster hop” category.  If you’ve ever been to Lollapalooza or a similar music festival, you know that there’s always downtime between the bands you want to see.  During that time, you can eat, take a nap, or watch an artist you’ve never heard of.  In the summer of 2009, this third option is how I came to discover The Knux.

The Knux -

The Knux –

I saw The Knux perform on a little side stage during my first year at Lollapalooza in Chicago.  My friends and I had never heard of them but were immediately drawn in by their infectious energy and catchy rhythms.  Brothers Kentrell “Krispy” Lindsey and Alvin “Joey” Lindsey leapt and danced across the stage as they rapped enthusiastically, encouraging the crowd to join in and even teaching us their easier choruses.

As the show went on, the crowd grew to the point where people had to stand among the trees flanking the stage.  Oddly enough, Kid Cudi was also performing at Lollapalooza that year.  In 2011, The Knux released a track called “Run” that features Kid Cudi.  It has been the duo’s most successful song yet.  “Run” reflects Kid Cudi’s distinctive groove, though The Knux provide a bit of flair.  While it’s a great track, the video for “Cappuccino” is a more accurate portrayal of The Knux and their style.  Check it out:

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If you like Fleet Foxes, then you’ll like Real Estate

When you hear the term “indie”, not many mainstream or popular artists come to mind.  While the genre has remained fairly underground, Fleet Foxes have risen to prominence over the past few years.  The catalyst was the release of their album “Fleet Foxes” in 2008, which was named “Album of the Year” by Billboard’s Critic’s Choice.  The group performed on Saturday Night Live and embarked on a worldwide tour as a result of the album’s fantastic impact on the public.

Fleet Foxes is known for their lilting, almost haunting melodies and vocal progressions.  Real Estate, a band from New Jersey, has a very similar sound.  Both bands utilize vocal harmonies and have a distinct “indie” sound.  In addition, twangy guitar riffs are often the center of their songs.

Real Estate's album "Real Estate"

Real Estate’s album “Real Estate” –

Real Estate is what I would call a “surf rock” band. They are Bon Iver mixed with the Beach Boys. They are the type of band you would listen to in a convertible while cruising down the California coast.  Real Estate has released one EP, “Reality”, and two albums, “Real Estate” and “Days”. They have performed at Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago on two separate occasions.  Most recently, Real Estate played at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in the summer of 2012.

Fleet Foxes has a more commercialized sound than Real Estate, which is to be expected.  Real Estate is not signed to a major label and has not made many big-time public appearances other than Coachella and Pitchfork.  However, I think their independence is what makes them able to have such a unique sound.  Lazy guitar picking and echoing melodies define Real Estate’s songs. While I wish nothing but success for the band, I hope they maintain their style.  Check them out below:

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If you like Bob Dylan, then you’ll like Joe Pug


Bob Dylan –

I am a gigantic fan of Bob Dylan.  Whether or not you can stand the sound of his voice, you have to admit that the man can write a song.  Furthermore, he’s made a colossal impact on the music community.  While I feel no artist can quite live up to the greatness that is Bob Dylan, I’ve come across a man who emulates him quite well.

Joe Pug

Joe Pug –

Joe Pug began his career in Chicago.  He has released two EPs and two studio albums thus far.  While he is not necessarily “new” to the music scene, Pug is underrated and underrepresented.  I like to refer to him as “a contemporary Bob Dylan”.

Pug’s voice is gravelly yet crooning; similar to Dylan’s, but far more pleasing to the ear.  He plays guitar and harmonica on most tracks. Oddly enough, his music has progressed in a similar way to Dylan’s.  Pug’s first EP, “Nation of Heat”, is composed solely of acoustic tracks.  However, his studio albums both feature full bands and electric guitar in many of the tracks.  The only difference is that Joe Pug was not met with the opposition faced by Dylan in ’65 when he broke out his electric guitar – but that’s another story.

While Dylan is known mostly for his protest songs, Joe Pug’s lyrics do not reflect that style or subject matter.  In fact, Pug’s lyrics are more comparable to those Dylan wrote for his albums “Blood on the Tracks” and “Blonde on Blonde”.  “Blood on the Tracks” includes songs about heartbreak, longing, and loss, while “Blonde on Blonde” is more of a quintessential rock album.  A meandering, riddle-like style is something the two artists’ lyrics certainly have in common.  Check out my favorite Joe Pug song below:

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Fun. Wins “Best New Artist” at the Grammys

The 55th annual Grammy Awards aired this past Sunday, showcasing great artists spanning multiple generations and genres.  One of the most coveted awards, “Best New Artist”, was given to the band Fun.  Fun. burst onto the scene this year with hits like “We Are Young” and “Some Nights”, catching the attention of listeners with their unique style and catchy tunes.  The group’s songs appeal to a wide audience and their instant classics have an eternally happy, anthem-like feel.


Fun. at the Grammy Awards –

Fun. was up against Frank Ocean, Alabama Shakes, Hunter Hayes, and The Lumineers for the Grammy.  While all of the nominees made a significant impact on the musical community this past year, Fun. prevailed.  “I totally agree with the results,” said Danny Yocius, 20.  The University of Iowa sophomore continued, “I’ve been a fan of Fun. for a while now and I think they deserved it.  They got crazy popular crazy fast.”

Making it as a new artist has never been easy; being named the “best” new artist is even harder.  Many fans believe Fun.’s one-of-a-kind nature is what helped them come out on top.  The band is a cheery blend of Queen-inspired harmonies and chant-like singing.  Their lilting, memorable melodies are reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac and The Beach Boys.  Fun. frontman Nate Ruess told Spin Magazine that his other major influences include Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Smashing Pumpkins, and Kanye West.


Fun. performing live –

Although being unique can be an advantage, trailblazing is not always easy for a new artist.  “It’s the fans that make it work,” said Michael Hilger, a talent scout at Mighty Toad Studios. “The artist just needs to get the music to the right people.”  Jennifer Vaile, 19, was not happy with Fun.’s win at the Grammy Awards.  “I guess I’m just more old-fashioned,” the University of Iowa sophomore said, “But I would have liked to see The Lumineers or Alabama Shakes win it.  They just seem more raw to me and more of what the music industry needs right now.”

Hilger, having worked with new artists, described how gratifying it is to finally see all of the nominees enjoy success after inevitably difficult beginnings: “You don’t have a lot of capital to work with [when you first start out] but you will do whatever you can to get your music out into a public space.  You will have your die-hard fans, who are amazing and will support you with everything you do.  But it’s the rest of the public you want behind you.  It’s not easy, but when you finally get there, it’s amazing.”

What do YOU think of Fun.’s win at the Grammy Awards?

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