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TODAY

Saturday, April 20

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Airbags

Singer-songwriter Robert Rial arrived in Chicago in 2000 and began to put the pieces together for a band that would continue a musical direction he started at college in southeastern Ohio. A fan of early twentieth century musical genres, Rial chose players for his new band who would best bring these genres to new life: Bob Kessler (clarinet, harmonica), Jason Grey (percussion, accordion) Dick Unetich (trumpet, rhythm guitar), and Ariel Bolles (upright bass, trombone). Rial himself plays tenor guitar and tenor banjo, and uses a stand up megaphone to better emulate the singing style of pre-microphone era singers. He chose the name Bakelite 78 because many of the musical genres he's a fan of were originally released on 78 r.p.m. records, which were made from an early form of plastic called Bakelite. It's a Sin, Bakelite 78's debut release, contains six original Rial songs and seven vintage favorites composed by Billy Mayhew, Clarkson/Van Steeden, Leadbelly, Ernest Rodgers and others. WXRT's Local Anesthetic said of the release, "Reverent without being adoring ... A distinctly American kind of groove ... with a Tom Waits kind of eclectism and passion... Very nice!" To find out more about Bakelite 78, their upcoming gigs, and to hear excerpts from and purchase It's a Sin, visit www.bakelite78.com.

Q: Wendell Berry, a Kentucky poet, novelist and essayist, wrote an essay way back in 1987 entitled "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer," and after it was printed in Harper's the editors there were barraged with letters accusing Berry of being old-fashioned. Berry's response letter to the male feminists and technology fundamentalists that sent in the angry, personal-jabbing letters is a fantastic little piece of literary resistance (the essay, letters and response can be found in Berry's What Are People For?), which ends with these very simple sentences: "Finally, it seems to me that none of my correspondents recognizes the innovativeness of my essay. If the use of a computer is a new idea, then a newer idea is not to use one." In embracing musical genres of the past, have you ever found yourself defending your musical choices against the opinion that such reaching back might be an act of novelty rather than one of art? What would your defense against such an accusation be?

Rial: Every artist is working within historical context. My choice to work within musical styles of the early twentieth century was made not only as a songwriter, but more importantly as a vocalist. It struck me in college that true singing talent is not required to be a successful "vocalist" in today's popular music. As a talented singer I have a responsibility to my culture and to posterity to carry on traditions that are vanishing. Relatively few singers perform like classic pre-microphone era crooners and blues shouters. This does not make it novelty. It makes it quality. When I turn on the radio and hear the airwaves dominated by people who cannot even play an instrument let alone sing, it really makes me want to bring back the old days when talent and good writing were valued.

Q: A logical extension of the first question: A recent box set has come out that places the rockabilly of the '50s in the context of punk rock. Your voice and songwriting aspire to emulate such distant musical genres as vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley and jazz, and I'm wondering if in your work with these genres you have discovered an edge to them that belongs to the contemporary world? Have you discovered an explosiveness to these past genres that their innovators may not have been privy to?

Rial: I am working with genres that have a hell of an edge to them. The traditions of jazz and blues singing are rife with rich, dark, explosive potential, though I would argue that their innovators were completely aware of it. Just listen to Cab Calloway or B.B. King wail and you know that they are aware of it. The way I am taking these traditions and writing songs with contemporary themes gives them a fresh flavor, but the traditions themselves contained just as much edge.

We play completely acoustically most of the time. I sing through a megaphone for the crooning numbers and into the open air for the blues tunes. If all electricity stopped tomorrow, I would still be kicking more ass without a microphone than most of these plugged-in "singers." Is that punk rock?

Q: I stay away from asking folks in these interviews about individual pieces of work, but I have to here. "Homicide Survivor's Abomination Wail" seems to me to be one of the more authentic threats I've heard on CD in a long time. What's the story behind the song? Or, how'd you get yourself in the position to write it?

Rial: The song "Homicide Survivor's Abomination Wail" is both a murder ballad and a highly personal blues dirge. It was a catharsis for me following the traumatic 2004 brutal murder of my Aunt at the hands of her husband. It is a reaction to the murderer's deed and to the justice system. As a revenge fantasy, it did the job, though I have plans neither to perform this song ever again nor to commit any acts contained therein. However, I hope that anyone who has ever experienced the domestic murder of a loved one can appreciate its sentiment.

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About the Author(s)

John Hospodka is a life-long Chicagoan, and today lives with his wife in Bridgeport. He does not profess to be an expert in anything; he's just a big fan of the arts and is eager to make more sense of them. Direct comments or suggestions for interviews to tqf@gapersblock.com.

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