New Bloomington-Normal music blooms in 2021 after unexpected pandemic downtime
The pandemic brought the live music scene in Bloomington-Normal to a screeching stop in 2020. But many artists took advantage of the unexpected downtime to create new albums that bloomed in 2021.
Backyard Tire Fire
The pandemic was actually a contributing factor to Edward David Anderson and his wife Kim moving from Bloomington to rural Havana, Illinois. He said the need to save money was “classic life.”
“You could let it own you or you could turn it on its head and try to make something out of it, and that’s what Kim and I have tried to do," said Anderson.
Anderson dove into what became a thriving solo career when the Bloomington-based band he led — Backyard Tire Fire — went on hiatus in 2011. But he brought the band out of its recording mothballs when he felt a new batch of songs lent themselves to the bigger Tire Fire sound, including a dream-inspired tune about his music hero.
“The idea was to get in there and make a recording. I didn’t know it was going to take quite as long as it was going to take and be as complicated as it was going to be, but I didn’t realize we were going to be in the midst of a world pandemic trying to do it,” said Anderson of the album “Black Dirt Blue Sky,” which was assembled after each band member recorded their parts separately in their own home studios.
The song “Little Wren” documents Anderson’s time harmonizing with a new friend.
“I would basically wake up before my wife who was pregnant (and our dog) and they would hang out upstairs. And this little bird just appeared one day, and it kept appearing. It got to a point where I would go downstairs expecting to see and hear this little guy, and it was singing this beautiful song and hang out with me,” said Anderson.
Backyard Tire Fire and Chicago Farmer & the Fieldnotes play a double bill New Year’s Eve at The Castle Theater in Bloomington.
The Something Brothers
The Something Brothers returned to recording in 2018 after a nearly 30-year layoff with the well-received 10-song “Apollo” album. But nothing prepared fans for this year’s 60-song explosion covering 3 albums.
“It was kinda a COVID thing,” said lead singer and lyricist Scott Wilson. “We started recording, and then the proverbial stuff hit the fan. So, we said, ‘Well we can’t play any shows, we’re in no rush to get this thing out.’ So, we kept recording, and recording, and recording, and more recording, and some more recording and the next thing you know we have all these songs … you start doing the math and we went ‘well there’s nothing here we really want to cut … so there you go.”
“Blind” from the first disc and “Money Socks” two songs later are two of the catchier songs on the album, but neither capture the essence of the entire album, named “FLAK,” which was produced by bandmate Edwin Pierce with a feast of rock sounds, and flourished with short music interstitials, including the title track that’s all of 8 seconds.
As Wilson accurately reminds fans, listening with headphones is the best way to capture the spirit of "FLAK."
This is the most fun, personally, I’ve ever had creating any sort of art,” said Wilson. “It was just a hell of a lot fun.”
Stone & Snow
The title song on Stone & Snow’s 2021 full band release, "We Were Made for These Times," is only partially a nod to the pandemic. That song and the others on the new offering from Karen Bridges and Clint Thomson was written in 2017, along with the material for their last album.
Bridges told WGLT's Charlie Schlenker in October that many of the songs had a long development period.
“And then when the pandemic hit, we kind of knew that that song was gonna be the song, based on what we've all been through,” she said.
“I didn’t give in to that pressure because I didn’t feel like it was happening,” laughed Bridges. “It felt like too much. I can’t always write while I’m going through things. I have to give it time and process it before I can say what I want to say about it.”
“Coulda Been A Good Thing” is another standout on this album — a worthy follow-up to their 2019 album “Love is a Weapon,” whose title track won an international songwriting contest.
Darius Williams dropped his debut album in 2021 after teasing fans with a few singles. He told WGLT in June that the deeply personal “Left Alone” was essentially self-therapy.
“Every song was like a weight being lifted off my shoulder. Most people know me as ‘the funny guy,’” said Darius, who uses his first name only professionally. “But they’re not used to, ‘Woah, you deal with hardship the same way as I do.’ This entire album was me venting. And it was so therapeutic, and I loved it.”
And when asked if the album had a story arc from front to back, he surprisingly replied, “It's funny that you said that because the project is meant to be played backwards. ’Skeletons’ is my intro to the listener, right? I've never dropped another body of work that's been as intimate and personal as this one," said Williams.
He said he was intentionally being vulnerable. “And it's building up to the rest of the album. It's the intro of the album, but if you play it backwards, it's the ending,” explained Williams.
“So, if you play it backwards, ‘Joy Comes’ is basically me waking up and feeling vibrant, refreshed, energized, and happy. And when you finally get to the ending of the album, which is ‘Skeletons,’ I've been through all this stuff. And now ‘Skeletons’ is the final prayer that I came to.”
The female vocal on “Skeletons” as well as “Drowning” on Darius’ album is University High School student Adie Mendez, who frequently collaborates with him. And though she hasn’t released her debut album this month as she had hoped when talking with WGLT last summer, she did give an exclusive sneak preview with the song “In a Daze.”
“It’s kind of a screenshot in time where you take a moment and, in this moment, you’re like, ‘I’m so in love with where I am in my life.’ It doesn’t have necessarily have to be another person. It could be part of your life and that’s what I wanted to replicate in this song,” said Mendez
With “Daze,” it’s obvious Mendez, like her friend Darius, is dipping into 60s and 70s retro soul. When the album drops in 2022, you will hear it on WGLT.
Americana artist Brett Conlin has released a few albums in the last couple years, including two in 2021. The most recent is the debut of “Brett Conlin & the Midnight Miles.” It’s mostly a nostalgic look at growing up in Kewanee. That time included his punk rock touring days, which he detailed with some humor and brutal honesty on “Thanks for the Gas Money.”
I was 19 in a punk rock band
Didn't care much for making plans
We found our salvation in basements, bars, and burned out living rooms
The guitar player he couldn't play so well
And the singer just kind of stood there and yelled
I don't think I impressed anyone
Hitting every note you could play on a fifty dollar bass
"It’s a fun song and I like singing it,” said Conlin. “Once it gets to the bridge it brings it up to current speed. ‘Thanks for coming out to the show / Thanks for sitting around staring at your phone / Thanks for paying attention at all / Why am I still doing this?”
Indeed, why would the guy who stays quite busy with a family and running Lone Wolf Barber Shop in downtown Bloomington need to continue writing and performing his music?
“I think it’s important to make music. I think it’s important to make art. It doesn’t have to be dollar, fame, or success driven. Just like when you’re a kid and you do things with your friends in your rooms. You do them because they’re fun, you don’t do it because you think anyone is going to show up and give you some reward for it,” said Conlin.
Swim Ignorant Fire
Stephen Holliger said his latest project with collaborator Ian Sheridan under the banner of Swim Ignorant Fire blossomed during the pandemic. He told WGLT in September "Swim Ignorant Fire" is a nod to his grandfather who was a pastor.
“He was a pillar of salt for me … kind of like the last … really good guy the older he got. As his health degraded, Swim Ignorant Fire created more of a metaphor for him as far as what men will do with their faith and what they're willing to do,” said Holliger.
Previous SIF albums generally lean into atmospheric ambience where percussion is an accent. But this album, “Bufo Alvarius,” is heavy on the African rhythms found on the four albums he picked up at Bloomington’s Reverberation Vinyl Record Store.
"I've been really obsessed with African music, West African music, the rhythms, the guitar playing,” explained Holliger. “It's been an obsession over the last five, six years.”
Without a full band due to the pandemic, he brought out his Roland SP202 sampler. “It’s notorious for 12 bitting … kind of bit-crushing things, making things sound a lot older,” said Holliger.
The isolation of the pandemic allowed him to experiment more than he might have in the past. “I turned this into kind of a missionary trip gone wrong,” he said. “The first six songs were exactly what I was seeking to do with this extremely lifting positive, joyous chant-work.
"As I started to get more of a narrative in my head, I wanted things to go a little bit of a left turn towards the end. And so that's kind of got me thinking of the general sense of a missionary trip gone wrong.”
“Lost” following the title track is where you can definitely hear the album take a turn.
Here’s hoping we hear more from Holliger in 2022.
Bloomington’s Stefen Robinson — also known for his left-field music — out-did himself in 2021. He used a 50-minute recording of a wind chime as the center of his latest three-album project.
The mandolinist for the instrumental quartet Disorganizer and multiple instrumentalist for his solo vehicle Yea Big asked friends and members of the various bands he’s part of to record an improvised piece around the wind chime, using their instrument of choice.
He intended to produce it as a single recording.
“But what happened was, everybody sent me back their parts and it sounded like different albums,” said Robinson. “So, three or four of the people would send something back and they would work together really well. That became the record called ‘Spiritual Emptiness,’ which was the second in the series.
“All the guys in the band Shoshin Trio sent back their improvisations. And they all seem to fit together. That was the first one (album) that was called ‘The Shape of Emptiness Now.’”
"Then all the guys in Disorganizer … the stuff they did … fit together. So that became the third in the series, which is called ‘An Emptiness Supreme.’
As prolific as Robinson is with his various projects, more … much more … is sure to come in 2022.
The pandemic-fueled EP “Onward” from Bloomington’s Old Smoke is musically similar to their 2018 rockin’-blues LP “In My Own Time.” But this time, background singer Jessica Wheet moved to lead vocals. Guitarist and former lead singer Adam Humphreys said having Wheet up front changed the dynamic of the band, which is clear on the standout “Doctor Doctor.”
“She has a huge range, so that changes the kinds of songs that we can do,” said Humphreys in April.
It also changed song construction.
“This was very organic. We just wanted to write new stuff with her at the helm. And they were easy. I would write a riff and send it to her. And we would ping-pong back and forth. And next thing I would know, we'd show up to practice and she already had the lyrics written. Then all we had to do was go through it. And we would play it the next show,” said Humphreys.
“I Got the Same Old Blues” is the one cover song on “Onward.” It comes from J.J. Cale’s classic 1974 album “Okie.”
"When it came time to cover this, we had big shoes to fill. And we really wanted to keep the same idea but kind of move and try to get that kind of smoky, sultry, kind of sitting on a piano in a bar kind of feel. That's really what we were after when it came to the recording studio," said Humphreys.
Band members said they haven’t been playing since Humphreys move to Georgia this year, but said they still enjoy writing together and have some songs ready to release soon.
Thoughts Detecting Machines
Rick Valentin says dreary central Illinois winter weather is why he began writing and recording new music in January 2020. But that exercise for his solo vehicle, Thoughts Detecting Machines, evolved into an album that became a coping mechanism when the pandemic hit.
The Bloomington-based frontman for the punk outfit Poster Children says "That Was the Year That Wasn't" is a compilation of 8 singles — each with an A-side with vocals and an instrumental B-side.
“A lot of times, what I'll do is I'll write all the music, and then I'll have bits and pieces of lyrics,” said Valentin. “And then I'll have a moment where it's like, oh, I have to finish the lyrics for eight to 10 songs, then I'm spending a month and a half really upset, because it’s hard for me.”
The album title comes from the old TV show, “That Was the Year That Was.”
“It kind of illustrated those mixed feelings, where this year existed, but we don’t want to relive it obviously. And we don’t want to think too much about it, we want to get beyond it, but it’s still an important part of our lives. And it has profound effects on all of us and we’re going to see how it changed us all as the years move on,” he said.
Family took center stage on Dan Hubbard's five-song EP “Fall in Love Again (Quarantine Lullabies)”.
The Bloomington-based singer/songwriter said his wife and kids were not just the inspiration for the intimate acoustic recording. They became part of it.
“While I was doing overdubs, I guess I was doing this guitar solo for one of the songs. And you could hear my boys fighting in the background like brothers do. And as I listened back, I was just like, ‘That sounds cool,’ it sounds like it's a happy accident,” said Hubbard.
The album opens with “Power Wheels,” which Hubbard said was the impetus to flesh out the EP. It was written specifically for then 6-year-old son Emery, as Hubbard said his daughter and other son already had songs written for or about them.
“And so, we're in a pandemic, and we're so uncertain about everything. One night, Emery just said, ‘I don't want to die. I've got too many things I want to do like drive a Power Wheels.’ That's the true lullaby song of the album, just trying to comfort my kids through all this and everything else kind of sprang from there,” said Hubbard.
Bloomington singer-songwriter Nolan Kelly said the release date for his 6-song album "It's Gonna Be OK" coincided with the 10-year anniversary of his best friend's death by suicide.
And though the longtime member of the now-defunct Bloomington psych-rock band Flaccid said his friend clearly weighed heavily in many of the songs, the album's broader theme is about "loss."
“Personally, I really like to write songs as open ended as I can,” said Kelly. “So that no matter who you are, what approach you want to take from the song, you have something to take from it.”
Kelly’s Flaccid bandmates even appeared on the song “No Doubt.” He believes Flaccid breaking up saved those friendships.
“That relates to the strife of losing somebody … like I don't know who I would be without my best friend that I'd mentioned and losing him. I also don't know who I would be at all without going through the difficult times of losing him. It's also defined me just as much as the entire time knowing him,” he said.
V8 Vast Change
Dominique Stevenson has been a ubiquitous activist who uses his music to spread a message of unity and encouragement. He was on the front lines of social justice marches in 2020 and founded the youth-based advocacy group Next Gen Initiative.
The hip-hop artist known as V8 Vast Change has been equally prolific in the recording studio, releasing a full length album and two EPs in 2021.
Stevenson said his February 4-song EP "Life" was as much a pick-me-up for himself as it is encouragement to others. You can hear on the song “Passion” he’s at a crossroads but doesn’t quite know how to move forward.
“But one thing I do know is I can do what I’m passionate about,” said Stevenson. “And believe if I’m doing what I’m passionate about, other things are going to work themselves out.”
He also released a stunning single in video form in late October titled “Waiting For Tomorrow.” In it, he admonishes the town of Normal for taking down a painting of the late ISU student Jelani Day and calls out others who insist he died by suicide.
Stevenson and his friend Darius are ready to drop a collaborative album, tentatively scheduled for next month. You can hear the first single by listening to WGLTs Highway 309.
2020 was a difficult year for nearly everyone. For Joe Borbely and another member of the newly formed CAPS LOCK, it was an especially difficult personal year.
Borbely is best known musically for his role in the Twin Cities cover band Jack Dupp & the Empty Bottles. He said he bottled that personal stress by diving head-first into writing what became most of the music and lyrics for the four-song EP “Higher Standard of Deviation.”
Understanding the unlikelihood of a self-described Progressive Space Rock band having a hit song, the hooky-as-all-get-out “Incontinental Congress,” would be the one on this EP.
“I don't shy away from hooks,” said Borbely of the melodic song that would sound right at home on a classic Foo Fighters album. “You can be as artistic as you want. But at 44 I'm running out of time. So, I just kind of I write with some pop sensibilities, I guess.”
Borbely said the creative outlet that became the EP got him through the pandemic.
"A big part of happiness is having something to look forward to. And when everything shut down … there's not a lot going on, you know, there's not a lot to plan for. This gave us something to work together,” he said before pausing intermittently.
"It was … this project was everything. … it was the biggest thing … this year.”
You can hear these songs and others from Bloomington-Normal and Peoria area musicians when you travel Highway 309. Listen 24/7 at WGLT.org, and weekends on 89.1 FM.