Thursday, October 23, 2014

Eleven on a Scale of 'Ten': Truly Epic Pearl Jam Yields an Old Milwaukee Classic -- Concert Review

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Concert Review:

Pearl Jam
BMO Harris Bradley Center, Milwaukee
October 20, 2014
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If you've ever seen Pearl Jam in concert over their 23 years together, you probably know that calling them one of the great live acts of all-time isn't hyperbole.

But just two songs into their show Monday night in Milwaukee, both from their good-but-not-great 2013 Lightning Bolt album, that acclimation was not only reiterated but amplified.

Gloriously--as in I can't readily recall them ever sounding better--amplified.

And things only got better from there, over the course of a 3-hour-and-15-minute show that was--not in a trite, overused, co-opted by mediocrity sort of way--truly epic.

Certainly, I've long known how great a band--and concert act--Pearl Jam is. There is no other extant band who I've followed closely from their first album onward over as long a span.

Although I now rue--and to an extent did then--not seeing Pearl Jam (along with Nirvana!) open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the LA Sports Arena in late 1991, nor attending the second traveling Lollapalooza at which they played in 1992, and being unable to get a ticket for their show at the Chicago Stadium in its waning days in 1994, I have now seen the band 16 times since first catching them live at Milwaukee's Summerfest on the greatly abridged (due to their anti-Ticketmastet crusade) 1995 tour. 

(I wish I also went to their Soldier Field show in '95.)

Having seen them many times in Chicago--including on both nights of 2-night stands multiple times--and
in such disparate places as Madison Square Garden, the Toledo Sports Arena and an outdoor amphitheater in Cincinnati, I've never not loved Pearl Jam live, and have often found them to be fantastic.

But honestly, if they have ever been better than they were on Monday, I'm glad I don't recall it, for I had--anew, perhaps--one of those absolutely rapturous "this is one of the greatest concerts I've ever seen" sort of evenings (for at least the 4th or 5th time this year).

It's easy to say the length of the show had much to do with my ecstasy, but as they tore through "Mind Your Manners" as the second full song--following "Pendulum" which was preceded by the brief instrumental "Red Bar" that would factor in later--I turned to my friend Paolo and exhorted, "They sound fucking phenomenal!"

After a blistering "Corduroy" and the title track off Lightning Bolt, Eddie Vedder brought on a special guest "from the great state of Illinois."

This was Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, who had just appeared at the Cubby Bear on Friday night with the Foo Fighters (I wasn't there but Paolo was) and featured heavily in the first episode of the Foos' Sonic Highways show on HBO.

Rather than rip through "Surrender," Nielsen strongly abetted Pearl Jam's scintillating take on The Who classic, "Baba O'Riley." This is a song PJ has long done as an occasional late encore, but one of the best songs in rock history was delivered only 5 tunes into the show.

I thought the following "Brain of J" was a rather rare (though welcome) choice, but must admit I didn't catch on that the band was playing 1998's Yield album front-to-back until midway through; I just enjoyed the interesting song selections--"Faithful," "No Way," "Wishlist," "Do the Revolution," "In Hiding," etc.--and how good EVERYTHING sounded. (The "Red Bar" instrumental comes from Yield, which is why it began the show; it was not played again in album sequence.)

I've always liked Yield quite a bit, but that Pearl Jam could play 12 straight songs from it without a noticeable lull served to showcase not only how many quality songs the band has written, but that even with Vedder two months from turning 50, bassist Jeff Ament & drummer Matt Cameron past it and guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready getting close, the band remains as powerful, potent and professional as ever, maybe even more so.

Clearly still at the height of their powers--and with Vedder in phenomenal voice--Pearl Jam delivered searing, sensational versions of "Even Flow" and "Rearviewmirror" (video below) among the songs that closed out the main set.

Thirteen more songs would still follow.

I won't name them all as you can see Pearl Jam's Milwaukee setlist here, but along with a number of quieter cuts with the band seated, it was a joy to hear four great ones from Ten--"Jeremy," "Porch," "Black," "Alive"--their 1991 debut that remains my favorite.

But even citing how good the band sounded, how long they played and how strong their material is still doesn't quite capture why this was such a superlative show.

It's hard to convey this aptly in writing, but the group--and especially Vedder--just seemed to be having the greatest time in the world, which added to why shlepping to and from Milwaukee sandwiched between nights of 4-5 hours of sleep was completely worth it.

Among other mirthfulness, Eddie saluted Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, who was on hand but never on-stage, took a jibe at Bears quarterback Jay Cutler--Evanston native and huge Bears fan Vedder declined to don a cheesehead thrown at him, though did later put on a #10 Packers jersey--nostalgically recalled that Old Milwaukee was the first beer he'd ever tasted (at the age of 8), dedicated a song to an audience member whose lover was away in Korea tending to her ailing father and noted that bassist and huge basketball fan Jeff Ament thought the #10 of ex-Bucks star Bobby Dandridge should join the retired numbers hanging in the rafters.

And at one point, Vedder even waded out into the center of audience on the main floor.

Anyway, I could go on and on about how good Pearl Jam was, but it's three nights after the show and their tour has ended, so it's not like this review is acutely actionable.

I won't even bother trying to assess where the show ranks, this year or among all the concerts I've ever seen.

All I know is that it is among the rare ones that was absolutely perfect.

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This video won't really give you a sense of what it was like to be at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, but it's a great clip--posted to YouTube by NMAfreak--of Pearl Jam's blistering version of "Rearviewmirror."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

David Bowie Is...a Fascinating, Revelatory Fusion of Sound & Vision -- Museum Exhibit Review

Exhibition Review

David Bowie Is
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Thru January 4, 2015
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David Bowie is an artistic genius.

This was well-established for me before I became a teenager, probably first from hearing "Space Oddity," though obviously well after its 1969 release--I was born just the year before--or even its mid-70s re-releases.

In the late '70s, "Changes," "Rebel Rebel" and "Suffragette City" were still also FM radio staples, and at some point I bought the ChangesOneBowie greatest hits LP.

When "Let's Dance"--the song, album, video, etc.--exploded in 1983, I was still only 14, but I really wanted to attend Bowie's Serious Moonlight Tour in Chicago (but was left out despite a friend going).

So I've never known of David Bowie and not been a considerable fan.

Note: No photography is allowed in the exhibit;
pictures here are from the V&A Museum website
and may not depict exact items or layouts in Chicago
But even in finally seeing him live in 1990--at Dodger Stadium--on the Sound & Vision Tour that was to represent the end of him playing his greatest hits, I primarily knew his most popular songs, the Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars and Let's Dance albums and his reputation for being a creative chameleon, vis-à-vis the Ziggy, Aladdin Sane and Thin White Duke characters.

It probably wasn't until Bowie played three shows at the Rosemont Theatre in January 2004--I attended two of them, plus one in Milwaukee a few months later--that I really did a deep dive that raised my appreciation to a far greater level.

From the brilliance of early albums like The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane and, of course, Ziggy Stardust, to the epic slow-burn track that is "Station to Station" and the album named for it, to his staggering German period that produced Low, Heroes and Lodger, it's quite possible that simply from a musical standpoint no one had a more consistently and comprehensively remarkable '70s (with apologies to Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan and others who were sensational throughout the decade).

And I've liked all the albums Bowie has released in this millennium, including 2013's rather surprising--after years of his being completely silent--The Next Day.

But what I loved most about David Bowie Is, the extensive exhibition on Bowie now running at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art--it was organized by the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum in London, where I saw it last year as well--is how it augments what I already knew and loved about its subject in ways that substantially amplify my appreciation of just what a genius David Bowie Is.

Most acutely--though reiterated through numerous artifacts (most from Bowie's own archives) across several galleries--the exhibit does this by illustrating how thoroughly he has provided or overseen the creative direction for every aspect of his career and multiple personas.

Even when he was 16 and in a band called the Kon-rads, Bowie (then still David Jones) was creating stage-set designs and paying close attention to fashion.

And from his unique stagewear to album covers to tour themes to music videos and more, nothing about Bowie's one-of-a-kind imagery happened outside his control.

Yes, he collaborated with highly innovative fashion designers such as Kansai Yamamoto, Ola Hudson (incidentally the mother of Slash from Guns 'n Roses), Mark Ravitz and Alexander McQueen, as well as musical compatriots like Lou Reed, Brian Eno and Iggy Pop, but Bowie was seemingly completely on top of everything.

And even more compelling to me than its insights into his collaborators is the way David Bowie Is showcases the artist's vast influences.

This is personally heartening because--as this blog hopefully somewhat conveys--I think cultural literacy is vitally important for myriad reasons (not the least being emotional sustenance) and rue that between the here-and-now superfluous nature of the digital age and scholastic de-emphasizing of humanities and arts curriculum, art forms from painting to jazz to poetry to theater to classic cinema to classical music, etc., etc., etc., are being digested by the masses and especially the young less and less...to great detriment.

For as the exhibit makes clear, David Bowie didn't just wake up and become David Bowie.

Not too surprisingly, especially given that they incidentally share January 8 as their birthdays, Elvis Presley helped inspire the young Londoner's musical bent.

But just as much, to my enlightenment, so did Little Richard.

Then there was the inspiration provided by teachers who further fueled Bowie's artistic curiosity--most notably Owen Frampton, who, in just one of the nifty coincidences the exhibition reveals, is the father of Peter Frampton. The latter's early band, Humble Pie, was one that David Bowie opened for while a fledgling performer in the late '60s.

But beyond the several names I've already mentioned, rather conspicuous to those who take the time to read most of the exhibit's text are myriad influences from the fairly obvious--the Beatles, Andy Warhol--to a host of others, some well beyond my familiarity.

Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Bill Haley, Jimi Hendrix, Stanley Kubrick--Bowie saw 2001: A Space Odyssey several times before writing "Space Oddity" and was highly influenced by A Clockwork Orange--J.G. Ballard, Frank Sinatra, Fritz Lang, Metropolis, Erich Heckel, Bertold Brecht, Marlene Dietrich, the musicals Oliver and Cabaret, Christopher Isherwood, Philip Glass and Jim Henson are just some of the people and works cited as influencing (or intersecting with) Bowie.

The exhibit repeatedly notes Bowie's love of "art, films, theater, the avant garde and all music genres," and in the one room specifically devoted to his songwriting, the accompanying text shares that:
"As he layers influences form music, theater and art, he devises his songs 'so that you see something new each time.'"
Yet while I enjoyed having my incessant whining about the importance of artistic exploration validated, at least in regards to Bowie, whose "influence on contemporary culture is perhaps greater than that of any other musician of his generation" (per the exhibit's introductory text), those more interested in rock memorabilia and other eye candy won't be disappointed, either.

The numerous fashions from Bowie's various phases are plentiful and fascinating, and--especially in the case of those by Kansai Yamamoto--flamboyantly fun.

A display devoted to costumes Bowie and his bandmates wore for a 3-song Saturday Night Live appearance in 1979 is clearly one of the exhibition's overt highlights.

There is also an ample section about the time Bowie spent in West Berlin from 1977-79, creating a trilogy of albums and sharing a flat with Iggy Pop; this gallery has some fine paintings Bowie made, including of Iggy.

And the exhibition doesn't sugarcoat the effects of Bowie's mid-70s cocaine addiction, with a cocaine spoon being one of its artifacts.

Yet I imagine it would be hard for anyone to adequately tour the vast exhibit--my friend Dave and I spent 2-1/2 hours there--and not come away with a greater appreciation of just how influential David Bowie has been.

From being a pioneer in bringing theatricality (and makeup) to the concert stage, to his acting in several notable plays and movies, to the way the androgynous and/or effeminate aspects of Ziggy Stardust and other personas were a boon to the nascent Gay Rights movement, it becomes clear that to think of David Bowie simply as a "rock star" greatly undermines all he has brought to the world, far beyond radio stations and record stores.

Yet anyone who--not wrongly, IMO--thinks "Sure, I appreciate all that 'David Bowie Is,' but I mostly just love his music" will undoubtedly enjoy hearing plenty of Bowie tunes through headphones that accompany the exhibition (for no extra charge beyond the $25 admission), seeing a variety of videos including a great one of "Starman," a full gallery showcasing concert appearances and several MTV clips, flipping through LP covers and reading numerous hand-written lyrics to such songs as "Oh! You Pretty Things," "Five Years," "Ziggy Stardust," "Rebel Rebel" and "Fame."

Oddly, I got a kick in noting how Bowie always dotted his "i's" with circles.

It may seem strange to some that an art museum is hosting an exhibition on a rock musician.

But not only have I never much cared for most contemporary art nor the MCA's permanent collection--the entirety of non-Bowie stuff on display took all of 20 minutes to see, and nothing dazzled except a lobby wall of punk-era portraits--I would really be hard-pressed to name a contemporary artist (to any connotation of the word) more innovative, influential and inspiring than David Bowie.

Whether you're a huge fan of his or an artistically-curious neophyte--or anywhere in between--David Bowie Is...well worth your time, and (despite $25 being a bit steep) your money.

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Although David Bowie's music is certainly a major thread of the exhibit, the genesis and greatness of his songs and albums themselves are secondary to more visual aspects of his career. Yet his music merits ongoing exploration, from his hit singles to nearly the full entirety of his oeuvre. This Spotify setlist I put together when it was "David Bowie Day" in Chicago tries to cover his output to various depths (across just 22 songs). 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Tender is the Night, Debased: Jackson Browne Showcases His Artistry as (Some) Fans Demonstrate Their Idiocy -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Jackson Browne
Chicago Theatre
October 14, 2014
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"Have you ever been to a concert before?" 

So sneered the asshat behind me, shortly after I had politely asked if he and others nearby could quiet their talking during the songs Jackson Browne was singing. To which he retorted, "No, I can't."

I didn't bother to answer his question then, but will now.

Yes, fuquad, I've been to a concert before. In fact, I've been to 620 of them, primarily because I enjoy hearing what the artists onstage are singing and playing.

And just because I keep track of these things, Tuesday night's show at the Chicago Theatre was the 1,500th live performance of almost any kind--except athletic--I've attended in my life, at least as entered into my Filemaker database.

So I certainly understand that people attend shows--and specifically rock concerts--for various reasons, from varying perspectives.

Many--and I am not being derisive about this, if the enjoyment of others isn't terribly impinged upon--go primarily to "have a good time," or to hang out with friends, or to be seen, or to consume considerable amounts of alcohol (and/or weed).

I certainly hope to have a good time at any performance I attend, often in the company of a close friend or relative, occasionally several.

And I don't wish to deny others their pleasure--however achieved, unless rudely--any more than I want them to corrupt mine.

But there is not a single rock concert I've ever gone to where my primary objective has not been to hear, see the performance of and appreciate the music. (Even on the Lawn at Ravinia, notorious for chatterboxing, I feel the performers deserve to be heard by anyone who has bought a ticket with that intent.)

As I've often said, not facetiously, rock is my religion. And probably my therapist as well.

And even in the nosebleeds where I typically sit, most rock concerts are far from cheap.

Perhaps because I have gone to so many concerts by myself, where conversing with a companion wasn't an option, I may be a bit oversensitive to people talking around me. Though I try to keep this in mind before getting overly irritated.

And though Jackson Browne, even in playing with a band, focused heavily on new and/or more delicate songs from his vast repertoire, I am not saying the theater needed to be funeral silent. Or even as quiet as at a theatrical performance.

But the dick behind me, and a few others either with or near him--I never did turn fully around--just wouldn't shut up DURING the songs.

These included, in order from the onset, tender takes on deep cuts from Browne's catalog ("The Barricades of Heaven" and "Looking Into You"; the latter from his 1972 self-titled debut) followed by two tracks off his brand-new album Standing in the Breach, and then an introspective early classic, "These Days."

I enjoyed all of these songs, especially as I had studied up for the show by listening to the new album and several of the tracks I had noted on preceding setlists. (See Jackson Browne's Chicago Theatre setlist here.)

The main jerk behind me was avowedly there hoping for a glut of greatest hits--I don't blame him much for that; I would've welcomed a few more myself--but before the show I had even shown him the recent setlist on my phone to suggest that, especially early on, easy ear candy would be sparse.

Yet even he--apparently, as he voiced his every thought--appreciated the warm beauty of Browne's still-supple voice, keen lyricism and adroitness on guitar and piano.

But as he and his pals incessantly talked through every song, the distraction certainly detracted from, if not quite ruined, the first set of the show for me. 

So after a wondrous take on "These Days," during which the guy enunciated at least four times how much he liked the song, I was compelled to turn and request the chatter be quelled. His obnoxious retort, and the then-increased rudeness, prompted an older man sitting next to me to even more vociferously tell them to shut up.

Things threatened to get ugly, and adding to my discomfort was that my friend Paolo, who had bought the tickets as a birthday present, was caught up at meeting and didn't arrive until 8 songs into the 10-song opening set. So even to move to some empty seats a section over was precluded by not wanting Paolo to arrive and not find me.

When he did get there, he got a taste of the bullshit behind us, and rather than pick a fight I just insisted that we move to empty seats at intermission. Musically, the break was preceded by a lovely "Fountain of Sorrow."

But in addition to the very acute rudeness that directly affected my enjoyment, I felt the show was marred by many other imbeciles who felt the need to shout song requests at Jackson--even amidst his introductions to other songs--and other obnoxious guttural utterances.

As Browne noted from the stage, when he plays completely solo he's more open to heeding fan requests, but just a few shows into this tour with a new band, he's sticking mostly to his planned playlist.

Plus, aware that he was indulging the audience with several new songs, he commented that "I've been working on these songs for six years, I need to play them."

So I was perfectly fine hearing what he wanted to play, especially as I knew that "Doctor My Eyes," "The Pretender," "Running on Empty" and "Take It Easy" would be coming late in the show.

That said, although all the cajoling was crap, and when Browne did give into it and asked "What do you want to hear? all he got was an aural blur, it was nonetheless opportune--performance-wise--for him to call an audible and play "In the Shape of a Heart."

And--while greatly appreciating the artistry on abundant display--given the austerity of a bit too much of the material, a blast through "Lawyers in Love" or "Somebody's Baby" would have interspersed rather well.

In fact, we almost got the latter, for as Jackson was about to play "For a Dancer" per his norm on this tour, screams for "Somebody's Baby" prompted him to ask which one the crowd wanted to hear.

But then, perhaps justly annoyed, he played neither, going right into "Doctor My Eyes," which like the hits that followed, was a delight.

Though I somewhat felt during "The Pretender" and "Running on Empty" that the band didn't sound quite as fluid as it will once it fully gels.

I was afraid the audience had cost us a song, and a great one at that, but we got an extra one to end the encores: "Before the Deluge" from Late for the Sky.

It sounded good, though I would have preferred the title track from that classic 1974 album, or even more so, "The Load Out/Stay" combo.

But heck, I was just happy to hear Jackson Browne sing without having morons talking over him.

A bit hard to believe, but this was the first time I was seeing him as a headliner (I'd seen him open for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in 2002).

He was good enough that I'm happy I went, and perhaps even deserving of @@@@1/2 if the disruptions didn't detract, though I think balancing his set with a few more rockers and/or favorites ("Red Neck Friend," "Boulevard," "You Love the Thunder," perhaps, though I should note he did play "Rock Me on the Water") would have seemed appropriate and advantageous.

As it was, I would have enjoyed Jackson Browne a whole lot more if not for his fans.

At least the worst of them.

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So as not to seem too much a hypocrite, as this blog shows I take a good number of photos during any concert. I also take some notes on my phone for review purposes. Some fans nearby may find either or both of these emissions of light annoying and distracting; I certainly might. 

But not only do I try my best to be courteous--including dimming my phone's brightness--if someone informs me that I am impinging on their enjoyment of the show, I comply without discussion.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Pithy Philosophies #20

Seth Saith:

Beyond whatever lessons or reveries the past can provide, looking backwards is usually a waste of time. 

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Despite Sparkling Critical Acclaim, Goodman's 'Smokefall' Fails to Light My Fire -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Smokefall
a recent play by Noah Haidle
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 26
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The theater critic I most read and respect--the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones--absolutely loves Smokefall, a drama by Noah Haidle that he called the "best new play in Chicago" in 2013 and now likes even better as the work has been re-staged by the Goodman in their larger Albert Theatre.


Especially given my regard for the Goodman Theatre, I feel it only fair to begin my review by sharing that much more knowledgeable and esteemed critics enjoyed Smokefall far more than I did.

For in telling you that the piece largely left me cold and uncaring--despite the wondrous 90-year-old Mike Nussbaum being entirely wondrous, a good amount of silly humor and points to Haidle for originality--it's entirely possible that I just missed the brilliance, beauty and profundity.

Not that I couldn't sense that there was some of each there.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
In crafting a strangely-structured parable about a Grand Rapids, MI family across multiple generations, Haidle--along with Goodman director Anne Kauffman--incorporates such novel aspects as a narrator who recites footnotes onstage, a mute girl who eats Earth and drinks paint, a pair of in utero twins who engage in slapstick dialogue and sing Sondheim, and over 150 years worth of characters named John, principally embodied by Nussbaum.

Yet in spite of the inventiveness, or perhaps, given the weirdness, because of it, Smokefall--which I entered excited to see and remained attentive to throughout--never sufficiently engaged me in its characters, storytelling or significance.

I don't think that I'm giving much away to suggest that it's a story about life, love, perseverance and continuity, none of which are trifling matters.

Clearly they resonated with Jones, Weiss and enough audiences in the Goodman's Owen Theatre for the work to be uniquely re-presented at the top of the flagship subscription series in the Albert.

But for a show so supposedly fantastic, it was notable that while the Sunday night crowd bestowed appreciative applause, not a single audience member I saw rose to give it a standing ovation.

Perhaps also reflecting a dichotomy between critical acclaim and audience reaction, on the TimeOut Chicago website, the current production of Smokefall is given 5 stars by critic Kris Vire, but the User Ratings reflect just 3 stars.

Through conversation with friends and relatives who have also seen the play, and in hearing comments of audience members after the performance, I further sense a more muted or mixed response seemingly more akin to mine.

Which isn't to dissuade the curious from seeing for themselves, nor to disavow those who were enraptured. 

Any chance to witness Mike Nussman act upon a local stage is, in itself, entirely worthwhile, while all the actors do a fine job enacting this strange play. I found Katherine Keberlein particularly engaging in the role of Violet.

And I have no reason not to hope that if you do check Smokefall out before it closes 3 weeks hence, you'll absolutely love it--like many clearly have.

But suffice it to say, rightly or wrongly, I didn't.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Fleetwood Mac 'Don't Stop' Delighting on the Christine McVie Comeback Tour -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Fleetwood Mac
United Center, Chicago
October 3, 2014 (also played 10/2)
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On Thursday, the night before I saw Fleetwood Mac at the cavernous United Center, I saw Robert Plant--of Led Zeppelin, one of my five favorite rock acts of all-time--at the relatively intimate Riviera Theatre.

That rapturous show left me absolutely euphoric--see my review here--but also got me home at 12:30am following some late-night CTA delays, and a 3-block walk to my car in the rain.

So working on just 5 hours of sleep, I was crazy tired but nonetheless felt compelled to have a couple of beers at a post-work Social Hour before taking the bus to the UC.

For both me and my friend Paolo, this would be our 3rd concert in 4 nights, and 4th in seven. Opting for the cheapest possible way in, our tickets were for seats in the very last row of the top level behind the stage.

While I am a longtime Fleetwood Mac fan--after the Eagles' Hotel California, their 1977 Rumours was the first zeitgeist album of my conscious awareness (Saturday Night Fever would soon follow), and I even had a FMac poster on my bedroom wall at one point--and am happy that Christine McVie is back in the fold after 17 years away, I am more so a fan of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who we had seen on a Fleetwood Mac tour in the same venue just 18 months previously.

I have also seen Fleetwood Mac--whose two other "classic lineup" stalwarts are Mick Fleetwood and John McVie--twice more over the past 11 years, and Buckingham on his own once during that time.

Christine's return would allow for the reappearance of a few songs with her on lead vocals, but the band hasn't created a full new album in any guise since 2003's Say You Will.

So if there was ever a concert that might suffer due to comparison, personal exhaustion, repetition and lousy seats, this would seemingly be it.

But the first miracle happened even before the show started.

Likely selecting us because we had the worst seats in the house, a guy named Mike randomly came up to us and--with an explanation I still don't fully understand--offered to exchange two 100-level seats, for which he paid $189 each, with ours, wanting nothing in return. (He didn't sit in our seats, but just needed the ticket stubs; I feared some kind of scam, but it's not like we couldn't have returned to the top deck if need be.)

Although our new seats were technically further from the stage than our old ones, the vantage point was much better and the straightaway perspective was perfect.

With no opening act, the celebrated quintet came onstage at 8:15--with a pair of both additional musicians and backup singers blended into the background--and launched into their longstanding ode to brotherhood (and sisterhood), "The Chain."

Hopefully, even with Christine McVie back onstage with the band, the world will be safe from galactic catastrophe, as back in December 2012 when asked by Rolling Stone about the possibility of merely a McVie guest spot, Stevie Nicks was quoted as saying:

"There's no more a chance of that happening than an asteroid hitting the earth. She is done."

But, as Christine herself told Rolling Stone this past May, "It was an epiphany because I suddenly knew I wanted to join the band again. ... I just thought, "I got to go for it. I can’t just sit here in the country rotting away. I have to do something, and something special.""

Nicks, Buckingham and Fleetwood all spoke onstage about how happy they were to have Christine back with them, and despite being diagnosed and treated for cancer last year, her ex-husband John McVie was steady as a rock on bass all night, continuing a 47-year-run in the band named for him and Fleetwood.

So it was appropriate, touching and musically mirthful that a Christine McVie written and sung song, "You Make Loving Fun" followed "The Chain."

Several more of her songs, including "Everywhere," "Say You Love Me," "Over My Head" and "Little Lies" did well to spotlight how integral her contributions have been--and did much to distinguish this year's Mac tour from 2013's and other 21st century outings.

Yet while I very much like McVie's songs, and even more so those of Nicks (who, as I noted to Paolo, may well be the most iconic extant female rock vocalist)--including "Dreams," "Rhiannon," "Gypsy" and "Gold Dust Woman"--I was again reminded just how much I love Lindsey Buckingham as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. 

His considerable gifts in all three regards were in ample display.

Along with his "Second Hand News," "Never Going Back Again" and "Go Your Own Way" from Rumours--9 of that disc's 11 songs were performed--I especially enjoyed hearing the rollicking "I Know I'm Not Wrong" from Tusk, which I only really know because Buckingham spotlighted it during the solo show of his I saw in 2006.

Though the night featured a clear rotation of Lindsey songs, Stevie songs and Christine songs, unlike tours past I didn't note any obvious tension among the band members--particularly Buckingham and Nicks, perhaps rock's most storied former lovers. 

Stevie & Lindsey's tandem "Landslide" (video below) felt especially touching, while more collective group numbers like "Tusk," "World Turning" and "Don't Stop" sounded ebullient.

Even back when the bandmates were notoriously feuding and/or merely tolerating each other for a sizable payday, Fleetwood Mac has never been less than  enjoyable in concert, due to their prideful professionalism and plethora of great songs.

But whether talk of continuing collaboration (past this tour) and rejuvenated kinship proves true or not, at least for this night I believed in the harmony.

That said, near-the-end extended takes on Nicks' "Gold Dust Woman" and Buckingham's "I'm So Afraid" were clear highlights while showcasing how collaboration and competition have long gone hand-in-hand within Fleetwood Mac.

This was further illustrated as Lindsey's written-about-Stevie "Go Your Own Way" ended the main set, while Stevie's written-for-Rumours-but-left-off rebuttal "Silver Springs" (which was resurrected during The Dance reunion tour) finished off the first trio of encores rather than the more obvious "Don't Stop."

Though it was far from the most buoyant way to end a concert, there was an appreciative grace to Christine McVie returning to the stage, alone, for a rendition of "Songbird"; she was eventually accompanied by Buckingham on guitar, and the rest of the band came out for bows.

All in all, it was a superb concert that featured 24 really good to truly wonderful songs by a band that seems newly reinvigorated in their late 60s. While it didn't leave me quite as ecstatic as the Robert Plant show the night before, I couldn't imagine it being much better than it was.

And it really didn't suffer by point of comparison; I just like Led Zeppelin better than Fleetwood Mac, but the latter more than almost any current band (save perhaps Arcade Fire, live).

So although the full houses of fans largely much younger and hipper than me that loved the Black Keys at the UC last weekend may never believe it, the five old farts in Fleetwood Mac not only played an hour longer than the Keys, but IMHO--and Paolo's--they were infinitely better in every regard.

And I liked the Black Keys show.

As Mick Fleetwood exclaimed in somewhat an unnecessary monologue after the music ended (Nicks had one too):

"The Mac is back!"

Fully.

---

Below is video I shot of "Landslide"; sorry for the parts where Paolo and I sing along.

Whole Lotta Love...and then Some for Robert Plant as He Blisters the Riv with Past, Present Glories -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Robert Plant 
and the Sensational Space Shifters
w/ opening act The Last Internationale
Riviera Theatre, Chicago
October 2, 2014
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You know what makes me happy?

Well sure, great friends, righteous music and Led freakin' Zeppelin, all of which will factor into this review.

But one thing that always makes me really happy is seeing people who love what they do.

And who, in the process, bring joy to others--and seemingly themselves--for reasons far more holistic than materialistic.

Without pretending to know his exact reasoning, in seeing Robert Plant at Chicago's Riviera Theatre on Thursday night, I felt like I completely understood--and admired--why he has resisted much clamoring for a Led Zeppelin reunion tour, including from Jimmy Page himself (who along with John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham--son of drummer John Bonham, who's 1980 death ended the band's initial glorious run--has seemingly been ready to go since 2007).

Led Zeppelin, arguably the biggest band of the 1970s, has over-the-years had occasional one-off reunions of the three original members, the most recent in 2007 at London's O2 arena with Jason Bonham on drums.

As documented in the marvelous Celebration Day DVD and CD, the band was still a phenomenal live
act and, according Guinness World Records, the show generated the "Highest Demand for Tickets for One Music Concert."

Supposedly, 20 million ticket requests were submitted online for the approximately 20,000 available.

So it isn't just hardcore fandom hyperbole that suggests a Led Zeppelin reunion tour would be the highest grossing ever, likely generating over $1 billion if enough dates were booked.

But Plant has rebuffed all entreaties, and now touring with a musically and ethnically diverse band dubbed the Sensational Space Shifters, rather than selling out, say, 6 nights at Soldier Field with Led Zeppelin, on Thursday night he played the 2,500-capacity Riviera Theatre.

The show wound up being a sellout, but I was able to get tickets for me and my friend Paolo long after they initially went on sale.

But not only in his stage demeanor did Robert Plant not seem the least concerned about the millions he had foregone, he struck me as all the more blissful and contented for it.

Obviously set for life monetarily and still receiving plenty of adulation--as bestowed here by a crowd that, as several fans remarked upon, was demonstrably old--the man who became a rock 'n roll archetype at the age of 20 and is oft-regarded as the greatest lead singer in rock history just seems incredibly comfortable in his own skin at 66.

No, he can't wail away on the high notes as he did in 1971, but whatever his still supple and emblematic voice has lost in register is largely made up for by a richer depth and more inventive phrasing.

After a fine set by a New York-based band called the Last Internationale--notable for pretty, powerful singer Delila Paz, former Rage Against the Machine member Brad Wilk on drums and a strong political bent--Plant let the Sensational Space Shifters take the stage briefly before he ambled to the mic.

"Close the door, put out the light / 
You know they won't be home tonight"

With the opening of the 1973 Zeppelin classic, "No Quarter," it was clear we were in for a magical evening.

And a euphoric one, that included from me an obnoxious amount of air drumming, guitar playing and more random spasms.

Though I have seen Plant six previous times--including twice on late '90s tours with Page--and have heard him sing most of the Zeppelin stalwarts, there was something both holy and orgasmic about witnessing him deliver spectacular renditions of "Ramble On," "Going to California," "What Is and What Should Never Be," "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" and "Whole Lotta Love."

Given the diverse musicality with which Plant has long surrounded himself, and how stellar the true-to-their-name Senational Space Shifters were--members include West African musician Juldeh Camara, guitarists Skin Tyson and Justin Adams, drummer Dave Smith, keyboardist John Baggott and bassist Billy Fuller--it was hard to imagine the actual Zeppelin, now, sounding any more pleasing.

Not that I wouldn't be there in a heartbeat.

But "there" would undoubtedly be in the back rows of a stadium or at least an arena, while even in the balcony of the Riviera I was far closer to one of the greatest of rock legends than I should have been.

Making the acoustics, and the experience, all the more special.

But to focus simply on the Zeppelin material--a folksy encore version of "Nobody's Fault but Mine" rounded it out--would be a disservice to Plant and the choices and music he has made since then.

His latest album, Lullaby and...the Ceaseless Roar is excellent in a lower-key way, and it was truly a delight to hear several of its songs--"Poor Howard," "Rainbow," "Turn It Up," "Arbaden (Maggie's Baby)," "A Stolen Kiss" and the show-closing "Little Maggie"--complement the Zeppelin treasures and a few blues covers. (See the setlist for Robert Plant at the Riviera in Chicago here.)

As I noted to Paolo, in the context of quintessential classic rock singers and wunderkind musical genius guitarists, it's easy to think that--historically--Plant is to Page as The Who's Roger Daltrey is to Pete Townshend.

But with no disrespect meant to Daltrey, in Zeppelin Plant was far much more of a songwriting collaborator, and after the band's demise, Robert--unlike Roger--has had a rather distinguished solo career.

I can't say I acutely missed anything amidst a show that will rank among the best concerts of my year--and the one that likely fostered my most exuberant exhilaration in quite some time--but beyond the Zep classics and fine new tunes, it's almost a shame past solo gems like "Tall Cool One," "29 Palms," "Other Arms," "In the Mood" and "All the King's Horses" couldn't also illustrate how Plant has stood the test of time while constantly moving forward. (Check out my Solo Plant Spotify playlist.)

I think I've rambled on enough, and there's no way I can adequately convey how it felt to hear the "Dunnunt, dunnunt, de, dunt, dunt" mid-song guitar riff of "What Is and What Should Never Be" smacking me in the face or the epochal denouement of "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" blissfully blowing my head off.

But rock 'n roll--and life--doesn't get much better. Or, for me, more religious.

To quote Paolo in stealing back a word far too co-opted for superfluous mediocrity...

"It was epic." 

And in keeping with where I started, if Plant had decided to close the 90-minute show with "When the Levee Breaks" (given its "going to Chicago" refrain) or, as he did at a Taste of Chicago I heard but didn't attend last summer, my all-time favorite Zeppelin song, "Rock and Roll," or God forbid, "Stairway to Heaven" (which he only ever seems to sing under Led Zeppelin billing), my pants would have undoubtedly wound up rather sticky, yet there was something even fittingly cooler about his ending with a new song ("Little Maggie"), effusively expressing his appreciation to the adoring crowd and taking bows with the band.

This was a man doing what he loves, on his own terms.

And, aptly given the multiple stairways to our balcony perch at the Riv--which was absolutely sweltering, by the way--it was nothing short of heavenly.

---
The show was so sublime, I didn't want to miss much of it by shooting video. But here's a snippet I took of "Ramble On" to give you the idea:

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

As Main Attraction, Pianist Steve Nieve Keys Further Appreciation of Elvis Costello -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Steve Nieve
plays Elvis Costello
with special guest Tall Ulysse
City Winery, Chicago
September 30, 2014
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You can't really be a fan of rock music without a love of guitar, bass and drums.

But perhaps due to my fanaticism for Bruce Springsteen, and Born to Run being my all-time favorite album, I relish when rock songs abundantly feature piano.

Not surprisingly, the E Street Band's Roy Bittan has long been my favorite rock pianist--outside singing piano men like Elton John and Billy Joel--with Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers) and Craig Frost (of Bob Seger's Silver Bullet Band) being other great piano-playing sidemen.

Another of the very best is Steve Nieve, a constant collaborator of Elvis Costello's, dating back to joining the Attractions in 1977.

Tuesday night at a City Winery show of his own, Nieve told the story of his audition and selection after answering an ad while an 18-year-old student at the Royal College of Music in London.

To hear this and other anecdotes--including a charming one about selecting just the right Steinway piano to use on Costello's North album--was rather fascinating for longtime Elvis fanatics. I also liked learning that at the height of the London Punk era, both Costello and Nieve had an abiding love of ABBA.

And hearing the prodigiously fluent Nieve decorate Costello gems such as "Shipbuilding," "Accidents Will Happen" and "Veronica" with 88-key flourishes was even more of a joy.

Attending with my friend Paolo--an even bigger Elvis Costello fan--with tickets that were just $11 + fees thanks to a Goldstar discount for the undersold show, I didn't need much more than the above for it to be an enjoyable and worthwhile evening. Though we're still not sure how a drink and a burger each amounted to a $70+ tab.

After beginning the show with a non-Elvis piano piece of his own--"Muriel on the Beach," which Nieve noted was named for his wife--he played a few Costello interpretations alone before bringing a guest vocalist named Tall Ulysse on-stage.

The true-to-his-name lanky Frenchman accompanied Nieve on a nice version of Costello's most obvious piano-laden song, "Almost Blue," another of the night's clear highlights.

There was nothing unpleasant about anything else Ulysse or Nieve did--and I didn't arrive expecting merely Elvis' Greatest Hits on piano--but new songs written by one or both of the men onstage, a tune sung in French and some more obscure Costello works that neither Paolo or I recognized didn't emotionally enamor like the famous melodies.

As Nieve--who proved a rather engaging raconteur--proffered from the stage, in mounting a brief Steve Nieve Plays Elvis Costello tour, an artistic aim was to demonstrate that his longtime mate was not only a brilliant lyricist but a gifted melodicist.

This was certainly accomplished in part, but with as much time devoted to non- and obscure Costello songs as those readily familiar--and I own virtually every album Elvis has released, so don't just mean "Alison" or "Watching the Detectives"--I wasn't so much enlightened as simply entertained.

Nieve sounded terrific playing anything, but along with some more recognizable material, I would have appreciated being told what some of the less-obvious selections were. I actually asked Nieve to clue me in about one after the show; turned out it was "The Loved Ones."

Having seen Costello himself do a rather intimate solo show in June at which he did performed some beautiful piano-and-vocal renditions, this unique gig was--aptly, given Nieve's long and collaborative partnership--a fine accompaniment, but far from as scintillating throughout.

I was hoping for something a bit more akin to what classical pianist Christopher O'Riley has done with his interpretations of Radiohead songs: showcase known tunes in a new light to highlight the possibly deceptive melodic depth that was always there.

Although this show was openly promoted to primarily attact Elvis Costello devotees, I perceive--and even respect--that Steve Nieve wanted to do more than simply mine the best material that the man born Declan MacManus has put into the world.

But while we were sent out happily into the night with a fun audience singalong of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," I think Nieve strayed a bit too far from what would have been more obvious and--likely, for me--pleasing.