Review: Red Bull’s Peak Time Radio Catches Up with Chicago’s Underground Music Labels and Artists

On a blustery November night in Chicago, Young Chicago Authors (youth literary arts organization and host of Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam) opened its doors to Red Bull Radio for part two (of three) of Peak Time Live from Chicago, part of the Red Bull Music Festival. Vivian Host sat down for candid conversations with Rob Sevier, co-founder of the Numero Group record label; soul-disco-jazz fusion group Universal Togetherness Band creator Andre Gibson; Alex Fruchter and Mike Kolar of independent hip-hop label Closed Sessions; and local star-on-the-rise Tasha for a two-hour live radio show captured within a dimly lit, exposed-brick space on Milwaukee Avenue.

Syl Johnson’s groovy 1968 “Soul Drippin’” kicked off the night—one of many hits spun off the Numero Group label. Rob Sevier and partner Ken Shipley founded the archival-based operation in 2003 with a mission to resurface a catalog of forgotten, underplayed songs and the stories behind them. They don’t agree on a lot when it comes to musical taste, but Kate Bush’s career and Dinosaur Jr. are shared favorites. The label boasts over 275 titles in varying formats ranging from LPs to cassettes to DVDs, many with accompanying books documenting the life and times of the artist of interest. Genres have no limit: soul, folk, power pop, gospel, electro-samba and even “isolated mom-and-pop recording outfits.”

One-half of Numero’s behind-the-scenes team was present tonight, and Rob was a bold presence brimming with tales of his musical discoveries over the years. Numero operates with a numbering system and the main line is up through “079,” but it’s recently been dipping into the “200” line including Hüsker Dü and Blonde Redhead. “We’ve started working backwards to get to the ‘80s,” Selvier explained. Host chimed in: “Record label trickery.”

Sevier first heard Syl Johnson in 1991 on WBEZ Live at Taste of Chicago. “I was still going to the library as a poor 13-year-old. I got a crude recording [at] the interlibrary loan … thus was the first brick in a really significant wall of learning about soul music.” Sevier recalled getting a call from Syl while laying in the grass in Los Angeles, sick as a dog after enduring a grueling overnight bus ride. Syl proceeded to sing three-minute songs through the phone, and it was “surreal” and clearly unforgettable. Host described Sevier as “part private detective, archivist [and] journalist … Not only are you engaging in the music but shedding light on the people, going on a hunt for who made this record.” He told of finding treasures in unexpected places: faded tapes that are barely legible in estate sales (Penny & The Quarters) and Harold Washington Library (Calvin Harris).

Andre Gibson was Host’s next guest, clad in a charming fire-engine-red ensemble complete with matching shoes. He even handed out Twizzlers to the audience before his segment. Universal Togetherness Band was his pet project, formed as a Columbia College student in 1978. The philosophy of the band was “we’re going to perform our material. Who we are. All original material.” When they came onstage, they had a certain presence, thanks in part to Gibson’s mom who handcrafted their colorful satin and fringe outfits. UTB played until 1982/1983 and even turned heads at Mercury Records but fizzled out without any releases: only dusty boxes of master tapes stored in Gibson’s garage. By the time Numero Group discovered them, they’d been disbanded for over 30 years, and it took another seven for Sevier to successfully get in touch with Gibson.

Today, Gibson and his wife are fixtures in the Chicago Stepping scene. Or as Sevier called it: “You’re like the mayor of those parties.” It started around the 1950s as a type of urban dance and according to Gibson, now it’s a whole culture—you can find steppers in every city. “Universal Togetherness was a party, but as I’ve gotten older and I like stepping … [my] wife is my stepping partner and my music reflects my interest in that groove.”

Local singer, activist and poet Tasha took the stage next, seated on a stool with a guitar in hand. She toured last year with Jamila Woods and will be joining her for this festival’s last show on November 30. Tasha’s new “self-healing” record Alone at Last released October 26 and is a collection of mellow “bed songs” all about figuring out how to take care of oneself. “My bed became a very sacred place,” Tasha described with a laugh. The first song “Take Care” opens with spoken word: “…I believe in my bed. I love my bed…” Noting Lianne La Havas and Amy Winehouse as influences, she talked about being immersed in the city’s radical political landscape and finding solace in its black, brown and queer groups. Tasha closed her too-short set with “Winter Song IV,” a slow-moving song with a punch that started as a voice memo in her phone recorded in Chicago’s cruelest season after coming home and crashing into bed.

Closed Sessions’ Alex Fruchter and Mike Kolar closed out Peak Time describing their unlikely pairing and comical run-ins with characters in the universe of hip-hop. According to Mike, Alex’s Ruby Hornet rap blog “gave an outlet to the city’s music scene” and was the start to it all. Back before social media, people got all their new music from blogs and the key was to be first to post songs, Alex said. Him and Mike decided to bring in rappers to record an exclusive song only available to 25 people in a room. “[That was the] nexus of our name: just getting artists into the studio to create,” Alex said. Mike added that “it’s easy in this town to be an amazing host for people who have never been here.”

Curren$y’s “Rapper Weed” was the “aha moment,” but others soon followed for Closed Sessions: Danny Brown, Raekwon and Action Bronson, to name a few. Mike and Alex cracked up reminiscing about Rae Kwon’s ability to drink “like three gallons of pineapple juice a day. It was incredible.”

The Red Bull Music Festival has events across the city all month, wrapping on November 30 with Jamila Woods at Harold Washington Cultural Center.

Jessica Nikolich
Jessica Nikolich

Jessica Nikolich was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs. After going to journalism school in Columbia, Missouri, and working at a small-town Michigan newspaper on the banks of Lake Huron, she’s back for good to soak up as much live music, culture and craft beer as humanly possible. Her writing can be found in Chicago magazine and Chicago Innerview Magazine. In the real world, Jessica is a marketing specialist at a law firm and survives her CTA commutes binging podcasts.