Dabbling In the Black Arts With Nicholas Tremulis: The Chicago Way

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I normally don't take jobs from artists. The request to supply blurbs or write liner notes usually comes with that implied sneaky little handshake with the bills folded in the palm and a wink that says, "No one needs to know, right?" The expectation is that for a hundred bucks or so, a writer will produce scribblings drenched in adulation and praise, burying any blemishes in passionate purple prose and a landslide of neon-light superlatives.

A wise journalistic friend of mine refers to this type of writing as "the black art," and it is in most cases. So I was hesitant to take on the task of writing the back-jacket notes to the Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra's new album, For the Baby Doll, dropping June 18.

The question in my mind: "Why me? Why not someone else?"

Tremulis's comeback was that what I had written about the band over the years always seemed to be on target.

"And I just like the way you write."

He sent me over a 20-page narrative he'd written about his time in New York City. Filled with edgy characters, dope deals, topless dancers, crazy New York scenes, I found it mesmerizing. That was actually what sealed the deal for me.

MP3: Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra, "You're Too Much But Never Enough"

So we reached an agreement. I would write the notes, really just one long explanatory paragraph about the music and the place where Tremulis was coming from when he wrote the songs, which celebrate a period in his life when he was learning what creativity is.

The kicker: I wouldn't get paid.

Here's what I wrote:

For The Baby Doll is a loving, stomping, hell-raising remembrance that literally screams the old Willie Dixon trope, "I live the life I love, I love the life I live." Nick Tremulis' accounts, both written and musical, of his life journey from the 'burbs of Chicago to New York City and back play out like many real artist's journeys -- unless they were born with a trust fund.

He makes the usual stops: Greyhound stations, storied artist havens like the Chelsea Hotel, hip scenes like Max's Kansas City, couches in girls' apartments, fly-by-night record labels, basement recording studios, strip joints, and dark alleys.

Where Tremulis separates himself from the pack is in the retelling and reforming of his past. A suite of songs built around a tiny but memorable topless bar known simply as The Baby Doll that became a focal point for Tremulis and his artistic friends in New York City, the little joint and the characters who inhabit it come to stand for all that is good and sweet and true.

Tremulis's gift is taking the blemishes and bruises and putting them on a pedestal, cherishing them, holding them close, harvesting the life force they offer to anyone curious enough to search. Surrounded by his honking band of full-grown big-beat rockers, Tremulis graces us with a beautiful love song of youth and exploration, and along the way points out to us what we've lost in the modern rush towards gentrification and exclusivity. Like fellow Chicagoan Nelson Algren's A Walk On the Wild Side, For The Baby Doll is a blast of electrifying balm for the soul.

Tremulis and his Mongol gang ride into town Thursday for the first time in three years, and former Bob Dylan guitarslinger Charlie Sexton is riding with them. The Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra -- drummer Larry Beers, bassist Derek Brand, guitarists Rick Barnes and John Pirucello -- will do a set and play most of the new album.

Then they'll back up Sexton, who has been recording his next album in Louisiana, for a set that Tremulis guarantees will rock and rock hard. He and Sexton recently taped a show at Chicago's City Winery that will be available to public television soon.

The clips I've seen are pretty smoking. Four -- count 'em -- electric guitars. "Once in a lifetime" is an overused phrase in most instances. Not in this one.

The Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra and special guest Charlie Sexton perform at 8 p.m. Thursday, June 6, at Under the Volcano, 2349 Bissonnet. Cover is $10.

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