The Lilacs Help Lead an International Pop Overthrow in Chicago

The Lilacs play International Pop Overthrow festival at the Heartland Cafe in Chicago. April 21, 2018 (Photo by Kevin Sanders)

The International Pop Overthrow festival landed in Chicago this past weekend as David Bash — the Bill Graham of powerpop — brought a few dozen bands together for four-chord harmony-laden guitar pop. The festival is in its 18th year and has conquered over a dozen cities (including Stockholm, Vancouver, Liverpool and Tel Aviv). Still, Chicago holds special allure for IPO, since the very phrase “International Pop Overthrow” was created by Chicago pop trio Material Issue, who coined it as both the title of their breakthrough 1991 debut and a classic song on that record.

My band The Lilacs got in on the action on Saturday night. We played the 10 pm slot and the Heartland Cafe came alive to support us. Feel free to accuse me of shilling here — you won’t be the first! — but I’m telling you, every band on the bill that night was excellent.

The action started with Phil Ajjarapu. I gather he’s like a music teacher in Portland, but he started out in Chicago and although he doesn’t quite look like what you picture when you think “pop star,” the guy can just plain write and sing delicious pop hooks. The sign of a well-crafted pop song is when you can remember it a few days later after hearing it live just one time. The first time The Lilacs heard Material Issue play Diane was at a soundcheck at Cubby Bear before we opened for them and Dave and I looked at each other and said, “that’s a hit.” A year later, we were watching them perform it on MTV Spring Break. Ajjarapu’s song Every Day passed that test—I downloaded that one and Kimberly and have been singing them ever since.

Next up was Rainy Day Crush. If the phrase “power trio from Kenosha” doesn’t quite conjure up a truly rocking little outfit, then you need to clean out your ears. WOW! Led by guitar-piano-singer-airkick guy Matt Specht, this band just completely ruled the stage. I had actually run into their drummer Mike Wynn on the street before the gig and he was so friendly and nice that I was like, “aw shucks, these guys probably won’t rock.” Which just proves it’s me who has to stop jumping to conclusions.

The Devonns provided a really tasty and unexpected jazzy break from the cacophony and were exactly the kind of “let the dust settle before you kick it up” act I was hoping for before The Lilacs came on.

And I gotta be honest here … we totally fucking ruled. I know I cannot be objective, but I think I’m pretty brutal on The Lilacs when we’ve underperformed. (I shall not be posting the recordings from two nights earlier in Milwaukee, for example.) I gave the guys a pep talk before the show and made everyone say our three esses, and I am sure they think that stuff is ridiculous but … from the opening chords of Do You Remember Me to crushing it when John P sat in on Again and Seems Like Years to covering Diane as a tribute to Jim to killing it on Pointless and Stanza to finishing up by spitting into the same mic for Love Disaster, The Lilacs just killed.

A ton of people at the show sent me their iphone photos and in every single one, we’re bringing the rock. Plenty of mistakes, no doubt, and now that I’m seeing some video, some are nearly unforgivable. Seriously, our songs are ludicrously simple — how do we mess them up? But our energy was beyond reproach.

Right after the show, Dave and I were kind of having a moment, telling each other that our mistakes and technical imperfections couldn’t undo the essence of the really good show we had just played and just then the Rainy Day Crush drummer came up to us and said exactly that. Then another guy came up to me to say, “Man! The LYRICS! I didn’t slash your tires. I didn’t make crank calls. I kissed you for the very last time!!!! I love you man!!!”

As I near 50, every time The Lilacs play could easily be the last. Only hashem can say for sure. But if this was our final performance, it was an honorable exit.

David Levinsky and Ken Kurson perform The Lilacs song Love Disaster at the Heartland Cafe as part of the International Pop Overthrow festival, April 21, 2018 (photo Larry Gross).

At about 11, Rose Cora Perry & The Truth Untold came on stage. They were like a punk rock Heart and they totally ruled. Things have changed so much in the rock scene since the 1990s, and many of those changes are for the better. For example, bands now routinely all share the same drums and amps. In the olden days, it was ridiculous. These loser bands would all haul a full drum kit and gigantic amps into Phyllis’ Musical Inn or whatever. The audience would have to wait about a hundred hours for everyone to set up and at bigger places it was even worse cuz all the stuff had to be re-mic’ed. Now everyone shares and no one’s a dick about it.

But a more meaningful way that things have improved is that 25 years ago a band that looked like The Truth Untold would have been really surly. Even if they weren’t really, that would have had to be their stage persona or else no one would believe they could rock. These two women and one fella from Ontario were just really cheery and positive and still totally brought it. Their own songs were great, especially this sort of operatic long last number and their covers were funny (Offspring and Adele) but not played for laughs — they did them the right way.

Appropriately, the final band was called The Stick Arounds. They had three guitar players, leading at least one audience member to wonder aloud whether they’d been influenced by Moby Grape. By the looks of things, that wasn’t the only influence they were under. Still, they soldiered on, even as the crowd started to thin a bit after midnight. They began their set by boldly announcing, “We’re the Stick Arounds and we’re the best band you’re going to see this weekend.” Confidence works! They have that thing where there’s a big tall center guy but it was the quiet dude on stage right whose songs were the catchiest.

A great night for International Pop Overthrow and by all lights, the ongoing festival—it lasts through next Saturday evening, April 28—has just as much talent to come. I know The Blind Leaders must have killed it on Monday because I saw their leader (not blind) taking notes on Saturday night and vowing to outdo what he’d witnessed. I couldn’t stick around to see them but if they played their hit Englewood’s All Right, I know that Rogers Park rolled.

The Lilacs have a special connection to International Pop Overthrow. Material Issue founder-singer-songwriter Jim Ellison was my close friend. We worked on cars and listened to endless pop records in his house in Addison or my apartment in Old Town—that’s where he first played me “Kim the Waitress” by Green Pajamas, which MI eventually covered. We would go to Cubby Bear to watch the bands and then stagger up Clark Street to do karaoke duets.

After I left Green, Jim took an intense interest in mentoring my rock efforts. I recruited Dave and John to join me, and Dave brought Tom from Indiana. It was Jim who named us The Lilacs. He produced our first record and even played on it — that guitar bit with the toggle switch on “It Seems Like Years” is him. He refused to charge us and even saved us money by recording over old Material Issue demos — who knows what gems were forever lost because of that fateful decision.

I was devastated when Jim committed suicide in June 1996. I wrote a long obituary about him for New City and I spoke to his mother shortly afterward, but even now, 22 years later, I just can’t get my head around it — the guy was as full of life as anyone on earth.

Actually, the Green-Material Issue connections were broad and deep. We played together all the time. But did you know that Jim briefly played rhythm guitar for Green? It was he who introduced John Valley to Jeff Lescher in the first place, and Material Issue used to cover “If You Love Me” from time to time.

So there you have it. Rocking near 50. Everything still works.

An appreciative Chicago crowd greeted The Lilacs at International Pop Overthrow, April 21, 2018. Festival organizer David Bash is in the fedora.



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Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of the Globe suite of sites. He is also the founder of Green Magazine and and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership.

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