Chicago band performs orchestral-pop sound


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In Canasta’s hit song “Slow Down Chicago,” the skyline and El trains of the Windy City are described as having a mind of their own.

“The city is very inspiring, but if you get caught up in yourself and start thinking that you are more valuable than the city, Chicago will leave you,” said singer and songwriter Matt Priest.

Priest is a fan of the Windy City because of its opportunities for musicians. Chicago remains a place in which diverse genres such as blues and electronic music can thrive and a six-piece orchestral-pop group, such as Canasta, can succeed.

The band will perform its sentimental lyrics alongside Skypiper and the Half-Hearts at 9 p.m. Friday at the Mill, 120 E. Burlington St. Admission is $6.

Over the years, Canasta band members have hailed from Illinois suburbs and faraway cities, yet each felt a special connection with Chicago. Unlike music scenes in places such as New York City and Los Angeles, members feel that the Midwest metropolis focuses more on the instrumental craftsmanship as opposed to an image.

“We’re more straightforward and honest as opposed to other cities,” violinist Elizabeth Lindau said. “Midwestern values come through our songs.”

The group began as a result of an economic downfall. In 2002, Priest was laid off from a job at a technical-consulting firm. The loss helped the theater major realize he hadn’t chosen a career path that was emotionally enriching.

“Some people were really upset and depressed,” he said. “I sort of had a smile on my face.”

With his newfound freedom, he decided to gather a few friends and play music.

“We had one rule — if you didn’t have an instrument in the band, you could play,” he said.

He went back to his high-school marching-band memories and continued playing the trombone.

Friends with violins, keyboards, and guitars followed suit. Soon, the casual get-together turned into a regular routine. The musicians wrote music collectively as a group, with an individual bringing a new guitar riff or simple melody to the mix. No one in the group knew what he or she wanted to sound like, yet the members all agreed a natural knack for playing was shining through.

“We saw that there was a real place in Chicago for this music,” Priest said.

The following year, Canasta released its first EP, Find the Time, which received good reviews from the local press and nearby college radio stations. Two years later, the band produced its first full-length CD, We Were Set Up. Priest began networking with music venues, booking gigs with such groups as Grizzly Bear, Wilco, Devotchka, and White Rabbits. The band was soon touring nationwide, with only a little time to explore a unique restaurant in between.

“Touring is fun because you’re sleeping on the floor and just have enough to cover expenses,” Priest said. “Afterwards, you really feel as if you’ve been through something together.”

In May 2010, Canasta released its 11-track album, The Fakeout, the Tease, and the Breather.

“Everything they create is based with the concept of the ‘ensemble’ in every sense of the word,” said manager Neptali Figueroa. “Their songs are crafted with every member in mind, and their sound changes keys and tempo at the drop of a note.”

As in previous albums, songs on The Fakeout, the Tease, and the Breather keeps Canasta’s reputation of sentimental lyrics and Chicago flavor.

“At the end of the day, the song isn’t really done until every moment of the song is sort of memorable for one reason or another,” Priest said.

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