Friday, June 15, 2018

Come and Get It: How and Why Joyce Isaacson Wrote a Fantasy Novel Inspired by Badfinger

Author Interview & Book Preview

Wish You Were Here, Badfinger
A Rock Fantasy
by Joyce Isaacson
Available via Amazon: Print | Kindle

Copies signed by the author, with bonus photo e-booklet, unpublished segment and drawing entry for a Joey Molland-autographed Badfinger LP are available by contacting Joyce at: sharonj0023@yahoo.com


To say I was surprised to learn that Joyce Isaacson was writing a now-published book inspired by the  British band, Badfinger--long-defunct in terms of its original incarnation--should not be seen as a reflection on her.

Rather it serves as a reminder--to me as much as anyone--that people often have a lot going on beyond what you know and might expect.

I've long loved learning that co-workers over the years were also exceptional painters, actors, musicians, comedians, writers, photographers and people who ran marathons, founded charities, made wood carvings and did myriad other impressive things.

And it's fascinated me to think about all the amazing talents, hobbies, passions and pursuits I haven't known about among people I did.

Joyce, now 56, has been married to a cousin of mine, Phil, for nearly 30 years. He's not a first cousin, but one I've known my whole life, albeit not too closely.

Until relatively recently, I hardly knew Joyce at all. And when she and Phil did join me and some other relatives at a dinner a few years back, she hardly seemed to speak.

Again, this isn't a knock on her, but I wouldn't have suspected that she and I have some rather similar passions.

And though Phil and I have been connected on Facebook since 2015, through which I have been further illuminated to his passionate love of rock music--he runs an internet radio station called Friendly Smile Frenzy Network, which also has a mobile app--it wasn't until the last few months that I even thought of "friending" Joyce.

Exacerbated by a chance encounter with her and Phil at a City Winery concert by The Zombies in March, upon which we had a nice conversation, my interest was piqued by a Facebook post by Phil alluding to the then forthcoming Badfinger book.

Titled Wish You Were Here, Badfinger and subtitled A Rock Fantasy, the book is not a biography of Badfinger--known for their early-70s hits, "Come and Get It," "No Matter What," "Day After Day" and "Baby Blue"--nor a work of non-fiction, but rather a novel inspired by the band, two of their ill-fated members and their loyal fans.

As it turns out, Joyce--now a grandmother--has been a rock fan since the 1960s, professing to have "never stopped loving the Beatles." (Badfinger was notably signed to the Fab Four's own Apple Records, with Paul McCartney having written "Come and Get It" for them, but Joyce was oblivious at the time.)

Per Joyce, her mom--who worked as a catalog model and had her at 18--actually met The Beatles, Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones, including Brian Jones, who died in 1969 and with whom Joyce has long been deeply fascinated.

Also from a young age, Joyce Isaacson (nee Margolis) loved to write, winning a poetry contest in grammar school, working on the high school newspaper at Chicago's Von Steuben and eventually handling various roles within the Chicago Tribune's Editorial Department over a 10-year stint.

Meeting Phil through a mutual friend, their first date was at the ALS Mammoth Music Mart, a used record sale that formerly was held annually at Old Orchard Shopping Mall. They also saw the Rolling Stones at Alpine Valley Music Theatre during their courtship, before getting married in 1990, and a shared love of music--even if not completely congruent--has always been part of their bond, according to Joyce

In 2013, Phil asked Joyce if she could put away some albums he had played on his radio station, one of these being The Best of Badfinger.

Though never a huge fan, through a friend in the mid-80s Joyce had gotten Badfinger guitarist Joey Molland--who maintained a latter-day version of the band, and still does--to sign a 45 of "Baby Blue" for her during an appearance at a Chicago club. Joyce tried to connect with Molland at subsequent shows, but never did.

So years later, she was struck by reading about him in the LP's liner notes, and also mesmerized and quite saddened to learn that two Badfinger members--singer/guitarist Pete Ham and bassist Tom Evans--had committed suicide, in 1975 and 1983, respectively.

And among other standout tracks, Joyce was particularly enamored by the Beatlesque "Rock of All Ages." (She now cites "I Got You" and "Sympathy" as favorites.)

Convinced by Phil to join Facebook, Joyce initially joined a group dedicated to Led Zeppelin--another iconic band I was surprised to learn she absolutely loves--and at some point in 2014, one comprised of Badfinger fans.

In doing so, she says, "I found everybody was hurting about Pete and Tommy."

As a Facebook Status Update, Joyce was compelled to write a story that imagined Ham and Evans in heaven, where they met other passed on rock luminaries, including Brian Jones. This received 562 user comments, most effusively positive. 

Soon after, Joyce was inspired to create her own Badfinger group, whose name now shares that of the book, Wish You Were Here, Badfinger: A Rock Fantasy by Joyce Isaacson (hyperlink is to the Facebook group).

She built a community of nearly 1,100 followers through active outreach, and for 4 years has added almost daily to a serialized story about Pete and Tommy in the afterlife.

Fans clamored for her to turn these writings into a book, and though initially reluctant--and faced with shortening 800 pages worth of material--she now has.

This is actually Joyce Isaacson's second published book, following the unrelated Parallel Journey in 2007.

Still, editing herself proved quite daunting, and after 8 rewrites on her own, she connected with editor named Dennis De Rose, who she says worked wonders for a rather reasonable fee.

I have purchased a Kindle copy for just $5, but have yet to begin reading it.

Softcover copies are also available via Amazon--presently for $19.07--and Joyce notes that through the site's "Look Inside" feature, one can freely read the first three chapters of Wish You Were Here, Badfinger before making a purchasing decision.

Those wanting a copy signed by Joyce Isaacson, for $25 and including a bonus e-booklet of rock 'n roll photographs, an unpublished segment featuring Marilyn Monroe and--for a limited time--a drawing entry to win a Badfinger LP signed by Joey Molland should email Joyce at: sharonj0023@yahoo.com.

Speaking to Joyce just days after the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain added poignancy to discussing a book concerning Pete Ham and Tom Evans, and her wish is that reading her novel may prove therapeutic to others, as writing it certainly was for her.

"Ideally, it can give hope to people in tough times," she expressed.

Nobly, Joyce will be donating 1% of book sales (or perhaps profits) to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

So while I look forward to reading Wish You Were Here, Badfinger: A Rock Fantasy when I get a chance--and a sequel is already in the works--I think just as cool is simply knowing that Joyce Isaacson wrote it.

And why.

Cher and Cher Alike: Pre-Broadway 'The Cher Show' Proves a Fun Night to Share with Friends, Not Sheer Brilliance-- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Cher Show
Pre-Broadway World Premiere
Thru July 15
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
@@@1/2

(Note: I attended the first preview as part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription. This somewhat brief review is my assessment of the show I paid to see, while offering the caveat that modifications and improvements will likely be made. It is not meant to dissuade anyone from seeing it.)

I have genuine appreciation for Cher as a multi-talented woman who has enjoyed an impressively long and diverse career.

I remember fondly watching The Sonny & Cher Show as a kid, and I like the couple's #1 hit, "I Got You Babe."

Beyond that, while not a detractor, I really can't call myself a fan.

I have never owned any music by Cher in any incarnation, her scantily-clad 1989 video for "If I Can Turn Back Time" tends to make me cringe, as does 1998's auto-tuned dance smash "Believe"--though both songs make for ear worms--and I haven't ever watched her Oscar-winning performance in Moonstruck (for no good reason).

To be clear, Cher is not in The Cher Show.
So I have to assume that aside from some fellow Broadway in Chicago subscribers, most who see The Cher Show--whether at the Oriental Theater or when it reaches Broadway this fall--will have considerably greater innate affinity for its namesake icon. (To be clear, Cher is not in this show, nor seemingly has much if any involvement.)

Given that--thanks to a superb cast, great costuming by the legendary Bob Mackie and several songs I can't deny enjoying--I was suitably entertained, I have to imagine Cher fanatics will be even more smitten (especially if some adjustments are made).

You'll hear "I Got You Babe"--with longtime Jersey Boys star Jarrod Spector making for a fine Sonny--and most other songs you'd expect, including "Dark Lady," "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves," "Half-Breed" (sung by the terrific Emily Skinner as Cher's mom), "If I Could Turn Back Time" and, of course, "Believe."

At times, there are 10 actresses on stage embodying Cher--in wonderful Mackie outfits--but three primarily split the part: Stephanie J. Block, Teal Wicks, Micaela Diamond, who represent, in descending order, more and less seasoned versions of the star, although they're also often onstage together.

All three are excellent, with Block and Wicks bringing impressive Broadway credits.

As one would hope, the singing in this show is superlative.

But while like director Jason Moore (Avenue Q) and Tony-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli (Newsies), book writer Rick Elice has a stellar pedigree--his script for Jersey Boys makes it the best jukebox musical ever from a narrative standpoint--at this stage The Cher Show feels too episodic, and as a result lacks depth and emotional engagement.

Certainly, there is much to cover in a biographical show about Cher, who met Sonny Bono when she was 16 and remains quite famous at 72.

I appreciated the glimpse into her early life with Sonny, and being reminded of how Cher's early stage outfits--before Mackie--had a great influence on hippie culture.

In addition to Sonny & Cher's rise, The Cher Show runs through their success in Las Vegas and on television, and also their marital discord, divorce, ongoing friendship and Sonny's death in 1998.

Cher's second husband, Gregg Allman (Matthew Hydzik), also gets stage time--and a song--as does Rob Camilletti (Michael Campayno), who she dated in the late '80s. Other lovers are also mentioned.

And Cher's successful theater and movie career is also significantly broached, with Robert Altman (Michael Berresse, who also plays Bob Mackie) making an appearance.

There's a lot to pack in, and the first performance ran nearly 3 hours (including intermission). I imagine throughout previews and even as the show preps for Broadway, the creative team will continue to tinker with what to keep in, take out and tighten.

So it's certainly possible that what I saw as a @@@1/2 (out of 5) musical will get better, but unless it's massively overhauled to allow for greater emotional heft, it's hard to see The Cher Show becoming more than a @@@@ jukebox musical that appeals to her fans more than to patrons who simply loves musicals.

At this point, it's not as theatrically stellar as Beautiful: The Carole King Musical or On Your Feet! about Gloria Estefan, two relatively recently musicals based around iconic female vocalists. (Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, is also now running on Broadway.)

As noted at top, true rapture for this show is something I'll probably never quite be able to Cher, but I have reasons to "Believe" others may love it, especially with some judicious nips and tucks along the way.

Monday, June 11, 2018

A Heartbreaking Recollection: 20 Years After Matthew Shepard's Murder, 'The Laramie Project' Remains a Harrowing Look at Homophobic Hate -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Laramie Project
by Moisés Kaufman and
members of the Tectonic Theater Project
directed by Derek Bertelsen
Aston Rep Theatre Company
at the Raven Theatre Complex, Chicago
Thru July 8
@@@@

Note: The first few paragraphs of this review cite historical facts that are central to the play The Laramie Project, first staged in early 2000 and now being produced in Chicago by Aston Rep. I believe that most of an age old enough to remember the 1998 incident will attend with at least a vague recollection, and the play is written with this presumption inherent. So this isn't really a SPOILER ALERT, but I felt I should provide the option to remain uninitiated. Know that I recommend the play, particularly to those unfamiliar with the horrific episode. 

On the evening of October 6, 1998, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student named Matthew Shepard met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, home to the college.

The two men decided to give Shepard--who was gay and of slight build--a ride home. They then drove him to an isolated rural area, where they pistol-whipped him, fracturing his skull, and further tortured him. Having also robbed Shepard, the men tied him to a fence and left him to die.

Photo credit on all: Emily Schwartz
Shepard was found by happenstance 18 hours later, alive but comatose and in grave condition. He would die a few days later.

McKinney and Henderson were subsequently convicted and remain imprisoned.

The incident received widespread news coverage, initially as Shepard clung to life, and about a year later during McKinney's trial. (Henderson had plead guilty.)

Matthew Shepard's brutal murder was--and remains--seen as one of the most horrific hate crimes perpetuated against homosexuals in the U.S.

It's hard for me to imagine anything more heinous being done to a human being by others of the human race.

Starting rather soon after Shepard death, Moisés Kaufman and other members of the NYC-based Tectonic Theater Project began traveling to Laramie to conduct interviews with local authorities, townsfolk, students, professors and others.

More than 200 interviews were conducted across 6 visits, and with Kaufman as the principal writer, dramatizations of the interviews and several of the provided accounts were turned into The Laramie Project.

While I had never before seen it onstage, in 2002 HBO commissioned a film and I did watch that at some point several years ago.

Specific recollections were vague, but I was certainly familiar with the basic facts before attending Aston Rep's opening night on Saturday.

Under the direction of Derek Bertelsen, 12 actors and actresses--all quite good--portray over 60 individuals, including members of the Tectonic Theater Project and those they interviewed.

Among others, Rob Frankel notably depicts Shepard's father, Dennis, and University of Wyoming President Philip Dubois.

Matthew Harris plays Kaufman, as well as a UW theater student.

Alexandra Bennett takes on the head of the university's theater department, and as CEO of the hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado where Shepard was treated, provides the press with updates on his condition. (In real-time, such updates happened before Tectonic came to Laramie.)

Demonstrably strong work is also done by Liz Cloud, Erin O'Brien, Ray Kasper and Sara Pavlak McGuire, and Dana Anderson, Roberto Jay, Amy Kasper, Peter Surma and Chelsea Turner are all quite meriting of praise.

A variety of accents and inflections are well handled, and many performers at times enact individuals of the opposite sex, without it ever seeming a big deal.

The crime's perpetrators, Henderson and McKinney are embodied, but Shepard himself never is.

While what happened to him, and perhaps why, is obviously referenced in a number of the respondent monologues, the scenario--and his sense of fear, horror, pain, etc.--preceding and through the attack is never explicitly depicted.

I'll leave this for you to encounter with more specificity--whether within the play or in reading about the actual events--but while it seems abundantly clear to me that the barbarism wrought upon Matthew Shepard was completely unwarranted, there was an allegation that he had propositioned one of his attackers.

Even if he had, it obviously wouldn't merit having his head bashed in and left dying on a fence, but some of the individuals depicted in The Laramie Project say things that should make any humane person cringe, no matter one's personal feelings about homosexuality, gay rights or the LBGTQ community.

Artfully, Kaufman and his colleagues opted to portray a wide range of responses they encountered in Laramie, reflecting hate, hope, love--all to varying degrees--and much else.

Those onstage within the Raven Theatre complex handle the diverse characterizations well, and there are also a few poignant musical numbers played live.

The truth behind The Laramie Project has much to do with why it remains so powerful, and 20 years after Matthew Shepard's murder, it is a good choice by Aston Rep, whose work I have come to consistently enjoy over the past few years.

I wholeheartedly recommend this play to almost anyone, as--especially for under $13 (+ fees) through HotTix, Goldstar or TodayTix--this well-crafted production is far more worthwhile than a mediocre movie.

That said, strictly from a theatrical standpoint, in 2018, I wasn't quite blown away.

Structured as it is to denote a variety of interviewees discussing an incident of which the sad details were relatively well-known to me--and as stated at top, presumably many presently in attendance--I found that The Laramie Project isn't as dramatically powerful as it is historically important.

I imagine when first staged less than 16 months after Shepard was killed, or to those young enough to find what was done to him almost literally inconceivable, the 2-act, 2-1/2 hour play would be extremely gripping.

Having seen the film, albeit long ago, and more recently having read Matthew Shepard's Wikipedia entry, perhaps made me note a relative lack of dramatic tension, and wish that the focus was a bit less on Tectonic's interviews with locals and more on the young victim himself.

And while, thanks in part to the stellar performances, The Laramie Project never dragged, I did sense that it could be tighter.

Apologies for not knowing the exact attribution, but someone at the opening/press night performance mentioned that the work has been heralded as one of the most important pieces of theater of the 20th century (or some similar acclimation).

I won't argue with this at all, but don't think I'd concur with it being dubbed one of the "Best Plays."

Still, in documenting the gruesome, spiteful murder of Matthew Shepard--presumably because he was a young gay man--it exposes the worst of mankind in ways that remain sadly relevant today.

Yet it also bespeaks tolerance, love and hope, which--being Pride Month or not--is why you should see it, even if you already know the abominable facts.

---
As a small side note, on Saturday night, only about 15 minutes into the performance, one of the lights above the stage burst, sending sparks flying, with smoke clearly apparent. Director Derek Bertelsen instantly halted the show, the auditorium was cleared and the Chicago Fire Department was called. Fortunately, any real danger was quickly averted and/or quelled, but kudos to Bertelsen, Aston Rep artistic director Robert Tobin, the Raven Theatre Complex staff and the CFD for deftly handling the frightful situation. And to the actors for smoothly stepping back into a rather serious play after this shocking occurrence and a 20-minute delay.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Make No Small Plans: Despite Grand Ambitions and Estimable Efforts, 'Burnham's Dream: The White City' is Mostly Just Fair -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Burnham's Dream: The White City
a world premiere musical
book & lyrics by June Finfer
music & lyrics by Elizabeth Doyle
Lost and Found Productions
at Theater Wit, Chicago
Thru July 1
@@@

One of my favorite things about Chicago is something that took place 75 years before I was born.

Although I have seen pictures, read books, watched documentaries and attended exhibits about the 1893 Columbian Exposition, it's still hard to fathom that the World's Fair filled Jackson Park on the city's south side with the resplendent "White City," with its symphony of classical, monumental buildings rivaling ancient Rome.

So while waiting for one of Chicago's great museums--particularly the Museum of Science & Industry, housed in the Fair's only major extant building; the others were created to be temporary and burned down shortly after--to create a true virtual reality replication of a day at the fair, I'm always happy for opportunities to explore the White City in new ways.

The Joffrey Ballet's 2-year-old production of The Nutcracker, conceived by Christopher Wheeldon as taking place amidst the building and beauty of the Fair, was an absolute joy when I first saw it last December.

And loving musicals as I do, I was excited to learn about Burnham's Dream: The White City, a world premiere created by Lost and Found Productions and now running at Theater Wit.

Especially as I was graciously accommodated to see the show despite a Press Night conflict, I would really love to relay that it was fantastic, nearly as glorious as the White City itself presumably was.

And while I can't truly rave about the show in full, I think it's more than fair enough to finely fill 2-1/2 hours for those who share my fascination with the Columbian Exposition and how it came to be in Chicago.

Even my issues with Burnham's Dream do not detract from genuine admiration for the efforts of composer/lyricist Elizabeth Doyle, writer/lyricist June Finfer, the crew who put it all together, a talented cast and a group of musicians performing new material.

It's quite an undertaking, and even with imperfections, the world premiere musical merits support.

This isn't a review that says "Don't see it" (check if ticket discounts exist on HotTix, Goldstar and/or TodayTix) but rather one that says this brand new, relatively small scale musical doesn't nearly equal two acclaimed favorites it reminded me of--Sunday in the Park with George and Ragtime--and could use considerably more joie de vivre.

With a nicely functional set by José Manuel Diaz-Soto--allowing for video scrims as needed--we are welcomed to the Fair before the show even begins, with some nice period music on the P.A. (A kind patron in front of me graciously identified a song as "Moonlight Bay," then Googled to find it was written in 1912.)

A solid group number, "We Gotta Get It" begins Burnham's Dream: The White City with the architect Daniel Burnham (played by Pavi Proczko) and other big shots within the burgeoning city on the prairie hoping their bid for the "1892" World's Fair--commemorating the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the New World--will prove successful.

Obviously, it did, though it would wind up opening the following year. 

Although Louis Sullivan (Daniel Leahy)  was among the noted Chicago architects hoping to head the Fair's design, the project was awarded to the business-savvy Burnham and his imaginative partner, John Root (Sam Massey), who belt out "We Are a Team."

Though nicely informative about the basics, the rather straightforward narrative shares how the monumental task and Burnham's steely-but-boorish resolve creates discord with his wife Margaret (Laura Degrenia), who opines in song, "Never Marry an Architect."

Also factoring in are Bertha Palmer (Genevieve Thiers), the wife of Chicago magnate Potter Palmer who demands that the fair's Women's Building be designed by a woman, and racial justice activist Ida Wells (Arielle Leverett), who wants more African-American representation.

Wells' song, "Sweet Land of Liberty," which wonders "is equality not meant for me?" is one of the better ones.

Act II covers, loosely, how the pioneering Ferris Wheel became the main attraction of the fair's Midway, deals with the deaths of a couple key individuals, finds Burnham struggling to get everything built on time and ends with a powerful choral finale amid pictures of the gleaming White City.

I appreciated some interesting architectural tidbits, such as that the White City's Court of Honor--whose buildings were designed by architects beyond Burnham & Root, including Sullivan and New York's Richard Hunt (Robert J. Brady)--maintained a sense of unity by having cornices at matching heights, per Burnham's dictum.

So there is considerable merit onstage, including most of the vocal timbres, and nice work by Proczko and Massey as Burnham & Root.

And I realize the folly of saying, "but unlike Sondheim" as everyone is unlike Sondheim in terms of lyrical sophistication.

But unlike Sondheim and other icons of musical theater songwriting, Doyle and Finfer--who have fine career pedigrees but haven't, per their listed credits, previously collaborated on a musical--have yet to master the art of weaving wit & charm into their songs, nor focused on how to make them about more than what's taking place onstage.

I say this with inherent appreciation for what they have done, for it far exceeds any talent I have, but for the most part the songs of Burnham's Dream are rather pedestrian, without levity, depth or universality.

In Sondheim's wondrous Sunday in the Park with George, revolving around the pointillist painter, Georges Seurat, the story and songs are about the artist, without only being about him. (e.g. "Finishing the Hat" from that show specifically pertains to Seurat painting a hat within his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, but it's far more universally about the life sacrifices an artist makes in the name of laser-like focus on his/her work.)

Though few songs in Burnham's Dream: The White City are complete duds and all move the story along, few made me smile, think or remember them afterwards.

And while there is knowledge to be gained for many attending this show--even if one can probably learn much the same info about Burnham, Root, Sullivan, the fair's genesis, construction, challenges, etc., via a good documentary or other vehicles--other than a bit about some Irishmen, including one named Michael O'Malley (Chase Wheaton-Werle) who becomes Burnham's assistant, we are never really given a sense of Chicago welcoming the world.

As I understand the Columbian Exposition and its impact on history--particularly Chicago history--getting it built was an obviously Herculean task, but in many ways it was really just the starting point. 

None of which means this show is bad or not worth your time.

It has a good conceit, obvious care and some inspired moments. Those enamored by the history will find enough to enjoy.

But overall, Burnham's Dream: The White City is mostly just Fair.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

These Slippery People Help Us Understand: With Brilliant Stage Fluidity, David Byrne Creates a 'Once in a Lifetime' Concert Experience -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

David Byrne
w/ opening act Benjamin Clementine
June 3, 2018 (also played 6/1 & 2)
Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
@@@@@

Think about any rock concert you've ever been to.

Forgetting the music for a moment, what do you see?

Amplifiers and speakers, a drum kit, microphone stands, perhaps some keyboards and/or a piano, a singer at centerstage, guitarist(s) and bassist on either side, maybe a video backdrop, or screens alongside the stage, a clearly apparent lighting rig, possibly some lasers, several roadies, lots of wires.

Onstage in support of his American Utopia album, David Byrne--famously the former lead singer and principal songwriter of Talking Heads--is surrounded by none of these.

That's right, none of these.

His concert Sunday night at the glorious Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, the third in three nights that he played there, happened to be the 750th rock concert I've attended in my life, save perhaps for a few that never made it into my concert database.

And I have never once seen anything quite like it in my lifetime.

I won't quite anoint it the greatest concert I've ever seen, but it was one of those works so brilliantly innovative that you gasp at its genius.

...while singing along to some of the smartest rock songs ever written.

For although Byrne's bare stage production with musicians constantly in motion--some gradually added to the mix, reminiscent of the Talking Heads show captured in Stop Making Sense, director Jonathan Demme's astonishing 1984 concert film--is extraordinarily clever, it could conceivably grow tiresome without the kind of music he continues to make.

This possibility, of high concept failing to engage, was illustrated by the night's opening act, a black British singer named Benjamin Clementine, who was unfamiliar to me.

Opening act Benjamin Clementine
For the first 10 minutes of his set, he methodically circled the darkened stage ringing a bicycle-type bell.

I try to cut any performer considerable slack, especially one hand-picked by David Byrne. But oh my darling did Clementine seem pretentious and boring.

Eventually, he sat at a piano--later accompanied by a guitarist--and while his songs weren't easily accessible, he was clearly a fine singer and talented musician. But between tunes, he returned to bell ringing.

Perhaps I'm to be faulted as a philistine, but what bothered me about Clementine's set wasn't that it was so peculiar--if nothing else, it should prove memorable--but that I sensed that he easily could have been positively sensational had he taken a somewhat more traditional approach.

Admittedly, the avant garde isn't something I easily embrace. On the same Auditorium stage a few months prior, I had trouble appreciating the Joffrey Ballet's modernist and surrealistic Midsummer Night's Dream.  

So it wasn't just the unique approach that made Byrne's concert so spectacular, it's that the ingenuity was in service to songs that fit the concept--and which I largely loved.

Around 8:45pm, without any preceding fanfare, Byrne began his performance sitting barefoot at a card table in the middle of an otherwise barren stage, holding a (presumably fake) brain as he sang American Utopia's final track, "Here."

I won't spell out the exact chronology of the singer being joined onstage by his bandmates, but eventually there were 10 other musicians--including several drummers essentially equaling the power and range of a drum kit--who also proved to be stellar dancers and backing vocalists. (Referencing the incredulity of a friend of his, Byrne assured the crowd that absolutely everything was being played live.)

The band-in-motion conceit--with Byrne eventually finding an electric guitar but never any shoes--proved delectable on 2004's "Lazy" and Talking Heads' "I Zimbra," but really made for a delightful visual pun on the Heads' "Slippery People."

Satisfying Heads-heads with 8 classics--including superb takes on "Once in a Lifetime," "Burning Down the House" and "The Great Curve"--while showing the strength of American Utopia (with 7 songs from it), Byrne also looped in songs from his collaborations with St. Vincent ("I Should Watch TV") and Fatboy Slim ("Toe Jam").

Without it ever being too overt--nothing represented 1989's Rei Momo--several tunes had undercurrents of Byrne's groundbreaking forays into world music.

And while several of the new songs are intentionally upbeat--"Everybody's Coming to My House," "Every Day is a Miracle," "I Dance Like This," "Dancing Together"--the poignant "Bullet" represented the damage one can cause.

Even more gripping was the closing cover of Janelle Monae's "Hell You Talmbout" with Byrne and his bandmates chanting the names of African-Americans controversially killed by the police, and asking the crowd to echo them.

Not only in its groundbreakingly innovative--yet deceptively simple, which is often how genius defines itself--structure, but in the music and messaging, this was a mesmerizing tour de force across 100 blissful minutes.

Though I would still love for him to reunite the Talking Heads--it seems clear he would do justice to the band's proud history--this was the next best thing, and in some regards even better.

Still making sense in ways few others can conceive, David truly Byrned down the house with matchless imagination.

---
Here's a brief snippet I shot of "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)," just to provide a better sense of this unique performance. No infringement intended.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

A Fine 'Reputation'': Taylor Swift Delivers a Fun Stadium Spectacle, Amplified by Its Quieter Moments -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Taylor Swift 
w/ opening acts Camila Cabello and Charli XCX
June 2, 2018 (also played 6/1)
@@@@

I like Taylor Swift.

I think she is a talented songwriter, and an artist who clearly puts considerable thought and effort into her music, overall presentation and concert performances.

For reasons beyond me, she seems to attract as much scorn--and a truly ridiculous amount of online hate--as she does admiration (and album and ticket sales). 

And based on casual observation of the crowd makeup at Soldier Field on Saturday night--where I might well have been the oldest male without kids in tow among the 62,500 people gathered (she also sold out Friday's show)--her cred among the 30+ population still seems to lag behind peers like Beyonce, Adele, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Pink and Halsey.

Heck, my top concertgoing pal, an avowed TSwizzle fan, refused to go with me for fear of feeling icky among so many prepubescent girls.

And to be honest, I did feel out-of-place, but not to any degree I really cared about.

At a time when guitar-driven rock 'n roll is in a death spiral--in terms of exciting new acts--Taylor Swift has been the world's biggest music star for a good decade, and I think that in itself merits my attention.

I enjoy live entertainment of many types--including Broadway musicals, plays, opera, ballet, Cirque du Soleil, etc.--and am not only a fan but a passionate & critical observer of concert performance. 

In addition to the classic and alternative rock bands that are my bread and butter, over the years I've made a point of seeing Madonna, Prince, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, the Dixie Chicks and others, most of whom I've rather enjoyed.

If I didn't see Taylor Swift on Saturday night--a day after seeing Depeche Mode, which precluded attending her Friday show--or David Byrne, who I'm glad added a third Chicago on Sunday, I likely would have excitedly gone to hear Diana Ross at Ravinia.

So I've established why I went to see Taylor Swift, even if I don't don't consider myself a "Swiftie" or like her current Reputation album as much as some past ones.

I had actually seen her once before, in Des Moines of all places, as she happened to be playing an arena there on a 2013 road trip I took through Iowa.

To be honest, I probably would have seen her more often by now if not for the relative hassle of getting to, in and out of Soldier Field, her sole Chicago venue on the past 3 tours.

But did I like her show?

Yes. 

Not quite on par with Depeche Mode, Byrne, U2--who I saw twice the previous week--or other of my true favorites (Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Pearl Jam, The Rolling Stones, etc.) but more than enough to be glad I went.

As you can see above, I'm awarding this Reputation Tour outing @@@@ (out of 5), but can readily imagine her more avid fans loving it even more. If you did, I have no quibbles.

Coming as it did among U2, Depeche Mode and Byrne--whose phenomenal show I'll review next--I can genuinely give the now 28-year-old Swift credit for similarly creating an audiovisual concert experience, not merely turning on the lights and singing songs (not that this can't often be great as well).

Sometime several years ago, I read that Swift--who truly was a teenage songwriting prodigy--was inspired by Broadway musicals to create concerts made up of multiple segments, vignettes and costumes.

Although on this tour there are several wardrobe changes, three stages and six "Acts" to the performance--see the setlist for a delineation--any sense of narrative storytelling seems less overt than on the Red Tour I'd seen in Des Moines, or the Sparks Fly Tour I've seen on video. (The 1989 Tour was Swift's most recent, but I'm not familiar with its approach.)

Rather, not so unlike a stadium extravaganza by Coldplay that I attended in 2016, Taylor Swift--along with her band, dancers, stage designers and other team members--puts copious time, talent, effort and production cost into making every song feel like an event unto itself.

After upbeat sets by Charli XCX and Camila Cabello--each of who have garnered close to or well beyond 1 billion Spotify song streams; Cabello having both a #1 album huge #1 single ("Havana") this year--at about 8:40pm, the home of the Chicago Bears began to rock as Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation" blasted over the P.A.

In a sparkly black leotard matching the fans' free electronic wristbands as they lit up the night sky, Swift opened the the show with Reputation's first song, "...Ready for It," followed by two other cuts from that album, "I Did Something Bad" and "Gorgeous."

All of these were well-delivered, complete with huge video backdrops and/or stage props.

But the Swifties really seemed to get excited by the medley of "Style / Love Story / You Belong With Me," even if some of the fans were younger than the last two of those songs (from 2008's Fearless).

Of 24 full or partial songs played, 14 came from Reputation, with only "So It Goes" not performed from the new album.

On one hand, I admire Taylor's chutzpah, having repeatedly noted her proclivity to quite heavily feature her newest material, leaving some fan favorites to past tours and DVDs.

But with the caveat that I haven't listened to it a ton, I haven't found Reputation to be Swift's best album, with only a few of the electronic-infused songs--and some nice ballads--among her finest.

While I fully realize that I'm not Taylor Swift's target demo, and respect that songs about longing for love, bad breakups and disses & grudges not only represent her experiences as a young woman but have made her a superstar of the grandest proportions, I would like to see her turn her vast talents to writing about more worldly issues.

So while noting that perhaps not every parent nearby was seemingly thrilled to have their young'uns hear it, I was delighted when Swift--seemingly deviating from her more rote stage patter--saluted June being Pride Month.

As quoted more fully by Rolling Stone, she said:

"I want to send my love and respect to everybody who, in their journey in their life, hasn't felt comfortable enough to come out. And may you do that on your own time and may we end up in a world where everyone can live and love equally and no one has to be afraid to be vulnerable to say how they feel."

This led into a nice take on the Reputation song, "Delicate" before "Shake It Off"--with Charli XCX and Camila Cabello alongside--shook the stadium.

The bombast on that one, and several other tunes, was fun, even for a crusty old curmudgeon like me, but I often even more so enjoyed when Taylor toned it down.

In a setlist slot that's been rotating across shows, she sang Red's "22" solo with an acoustic guitar.

Even better was a pairing of "Long Live / New Year's Day"--the latter a fine new song of hers, not the U2 anthem--during which it began to rain.

I genuinely mean this review as a predominantly positive one, and believe Taylor Swift truly delivered a fine show, even to a more middling fan.

She certainly needn't apologize for not yet being U2, Depeche Mode or David Byrne--and may not ever wish to be--and if she confidently loves all of her new songs more than I do, well, she should.

So I do not mean to be too damning or disparaging to say that there were several times--from my vantage point 100+ yards away, mainly watching the video boards, which didn't always feature live imagery--when I wasn't sure if she was singing live, or if so, perhaps only barely accompanying backing tracks.

This possibility, along with all of the (often fun) grandiosity of the evening--including some huge snake props supposedly representing all the "snakes" who hate her (including Kanye & Kim), which I kinda see as beneath her--gave seeing a woman singing in the rain while playing piano at the center of a packed stadium an elevated sense of realness.

Though it never quite poured until after the show ended, it was raining pretty steadily, so I also valued seeing Swift carry through her planned encores--"Getaway Car," "Call It What You Want" and a pairing of "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together / This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things"--while clearly getting soaked, on what had already been a somewhat chilly June night.

To be honest, I would probably prefer to see Swift in an arena--with much of the spectacle toned down--and likely with a generally older crowd that has come to recognize that she should also appeal to them, maybe considerably more so in years ahead.

But I have no problem recognizing why she's the biggest music star in the world, was happy to see the show she's put together this time around and have no hesitation calling myself a Taylor Swift fan.

Whatever it may do to my Reputation.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Just Can't Get Enough: With Astonishing Audiovisual Feast, Depeche Mode Puts Me in Delectable Mood -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Depeche Mode
w/ opening act EMA
June 1, 2018
United Center, Chicago
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To have seen Depeche Mode at the United Center a week after seeing U2 at the same venue puts an interesting wrinkle or two on--if nothing else--how I've opted to begin this review.

Originating in the late '70s--U2 in Dublin, Depeche Mode near London--the bands released their debut albums with a year of each other (in 1980 & '81 respectively), would achieve huge worldwide popularity within the next decade and have largely retained it all these years later.

U2's four members have remained intact since 1980, and while DM has had some lineup changes, singer Dave Gahan, guitarist/keyboardist/songwriter Martin Gore and keyboardist Andy Fletcher remain from that year.

Yet while I became a big fan of U2's anthemic rock by the mid-'80s, despite Depeche's fandom among high school and college classmates I was far more latent in my affinity for their electronic, dance-infused rock. (The idea of a rock bank largely devoid of guitars was averse for my Scorpions-loving teen self.)

But I've now loved them since around 1998, when I first made a point to see them in concert, and don't know why--unlike U2, who was elected in their first year of eligibility--they remain shunned by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, however nebulous that institution may be as an arbiter of musical greatness.

Depeche Mode has had hit singles, #1 albums and continues to fill football stadiums around the world (though more so arenas and amphitheaters in the U.S. of late).

And while perhaps never critical darlings--and rock critics seem to largely control the nominating and voting process for the Rock Hall--Depeche Mode were rather groundbreaking, in daring to bring dance beats to rock music.

Anyway, though I would classify myself a far bigger fan of U2, and gave their pair of UC shows @@@@@--I attended both and have now seen them 22 times--I actually liked Depeche Mode's concert a good bit more.

This despite sitting almost as far from the stage as one can get.

Since 1998, I also saw DM in 2005 and 2013, and had tickets to their show last year at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater in south suburban Tinley Park, but was bummed when I had to bow out due to a bout with something following an otherwise wondrous trip to India.

So it wasn't a secret to me just how good a live band Depeche Mode is. 

Though a dance beat is often prominent, they feature a terrific touring drummer in Christian Eigner, and rock a lot harder than the uninitiated might imagine. (Another keyboardist, Peter Gordeno, rounds out the stage lineup.)

And at 56, Gahan remains a fantastic singer, one who clearly learned the art of stage performance from such greats as Mick Jagger, Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. 

Friday's Chicago show on the band's Global Spirit Tour began with "Going Backwards," the opening track on the fine 2017 album, Spirit

Referencing our societal regression--"We are not there yet / We have not evolved / We have no respect / We have lost control" are just the opening lyrics--the song instantly dispelled any notion that Depeche Mode is just a feel-good dance band. (Heck, 1984's "People Are People" is as resonant as ever, though the band no longer plays it.)

I would have welcomed hearing more new songs than the three played, but really love "It's No Good" so can't complain that it took the second slot that Spirit's fine "So Much Love" held back in August. (See the Depeche Mode Chicago setlist from June 1, and note that nearly a third has changed from the Tinley Park show last August.)

I acutely enjoyed every song played, and give big props to whoever handled the sound design. Especially near the back and top of the big arena--home to the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks--Eigner's thick drumbeats could easily have sounded muddy, but they were consistently sharp and thunderous.

The propulsive "A Pain That I'm Used To" sounded tremendous, as did the poignant "Precious," both from 2005's Playing the Angel.

As always, it was nice to see Gore take his turn on lead vocals on "The Things You Said," "Home" and later--to open the encore--"I Want You Now," especially as these plaintive tunes provided a nice change of pace from the higher-charged repertoire sung by the whirling and twirling Gahan.

So you had great songs, strong acoustics, a bit of social stridency--including "Where's the Revolution," which had me asking the same question--and a well-paced setlist, from a veteran band that has clearly mastered the art of concert performance.

But this was a brilliant visual feast as well, with great lighting effects and some truly exceptional videos to augment certain songs.

"In Your Room" was backed by a video that initially seemed it might be depicting a sexual assault, but instead turned into a delightful ballet. (You can see it in this YouTube video from a prior show.)

And later, "Walking in My Shoes"--which I've long imagined Gore wrote as something of an exculpation for his pal Gahan's once notorious drug problems--featured a film clip depicting a heavily made-up Bowiesque musician likely to be loved onstage yet harassed (if not worse) on the way there.

While I never mind a bit of politics with my rock 'n roll--especially if I'm in agreement--I appreciate Depeche Mode powerfully getting their points across without ever actually verbalizing them. 

Sure, there were many great songs not played that I would have loved to have heard--"Policy of Truth," "Just Can't Get Enough," "Strangelove," personal favorite "Blasphemous Rumours"--but this bespeaks the depth of Depeche Mode's catalog, and the setlist was clearly culled quite intelligently.

And late-show blasts through "Everything Counts," "Stripped," "Enjoy the Silence," "Never Let Me Down," "A Question of Time" and the closing "Personal Jesus" were all absolute joys.

Rare is the concert--even great ones by heroes like U2--that I can't imagine being any better.

This was one of them.

And if I haven't made it clear, Depeche Mode most definitely and demonstrably belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, even if it doesn't really matter.


Monday, May 28, 2018

The Glamorous Life: Sondheim's 'A Little Night Music' is Sublimely Delivered by BoHo Theatre -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Little Night Music
BoHo Theatre at the
Greenhouse Theater Center, Chicago
Thru July 8
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Indulge and forgive me for opening this review with a bit of self-pride.

Last week I attended two concerts by the Irish rock band, U2, at Chicago's United Center, alongside 17,000 or so fans each night.

I have loved U2 since I was 15 and did once--er, twice--again.

It took until I was in my early 30s to develop a similar passion for Stephen Sondheim and the musicals he created.

And on Friday night--two days after the 2nd U2 show--among about 100 people at the Greenhouse Theater Center, I saw BoHo Theatre deliver a smashing opening night rendition of Sondheim's A Little Night Music

It was just as enriching, gratifying and consequential, as a component of my live entertainment diet and to my overall existence.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
And, a few months from turning 50, this is one of the things I most like about myself--and my life. 

Heck, in between seeing A Little Night Music and writing this review, I rather abruptly took note of and attended a Northwestern University Symphony concert.

Free of charge, featuring works by Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff and including--with two choruses--a couple hundred people onstage, it too was fantastic. 

So a little night music--and cultural enlightenment--can come in myriad magnficent forms.

Though not quite as often as I've seen U2--22 shows now--I've seen A Little Night Music onstage several times, and have always been enchanted. 

With Sondheim and book writer, Hugh Wheeler, inspired by the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film, Smiles of a Summer Night, the musical about love and marriage--which opened on Broadway in 1973, just three years after the maestro's Company covered similar themes, differently--features many phenomenal songs. 

And with a delightful set design by Evan Frank, allowing for four musicians to fit in rather naturally onstage, BoHo's production under the direction of Linda Fortunato is really rather exquisite. 

In fact, the only reason I considered giving it less than @@@@@ (out of 5) is because a couple of the vocal timbres didn't quite match what I would expect on Broadway or a cast recording. But not by much and maybe because they were a tad undermiked. 

Given that this is a relatively intimate, low-budget rendition, that seemed a silly detraction, given how demonstrably good virtually all of the performers are. 

Peter Robel well enacts the role of Frederik Egerman, an aging Swedish lawyer now married to an 18-year-old beauty, Anne (a delightful Rachel Guff, soon to graduate from Northwestern), who isn't ready to have sex with him. 

So when the couple see Frederik's former lover, Desiree (Kelli Harrington, who is fantastic), an actress appearing in a touring play, he seeks to resurrect relations.

This in turn angers Desiree's lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Christopher Davis, owner of a phenomenal singing voice on "In Praise of Women"), whose wife Charlotte (the charming Stephanie Stockstill) commiserates with Anne on the incredibly poignant "Every Day a Little Death."

Also factoring in are Frederik's son, Henrik (embodied with a nice smolder by Jordan Dell Harris), his maid Petra (Teressa LaGamba, delivering a strong take on "The Miller's Son"), Desiree's mother Mme. Armfeldt (an elegant Marguerite Mariama) and daughter Fredrika (Isabelle Roberts).

The cast, and most of the singing, is truly superb all the way through to five ensemble vocalists, most prominently Emily Goldberg, who factors into the narrative as well.

So individual songs--such as "Now" (by Frederik), "Later" (by Henrik) and "Liaisons" (by Mme. Armfeldt)--are a joy, and even more so, choral numbers like "The Glamorous Life," "Remember" and the especially droll, "A Weekend in the Country."

As usual, Sondheim's lyrics are brilliantly insightful and incisive, and the waltz-based music a delight.

And Harrington deftly reminds why "Send in the Clowns" isn't just one of the composer's most famous songs--it was a hit for Judy Collins--but also one of his best.

Every time I see a production of one of Sondheim's shows, I'm reminded anew of the breadth and depth of his genius.

And I feel not only culturally enriched yet again, but--at least for a moment--that much smarter.

So far in 2018, I've seen nice local renditions of Merrily We Roll Along and Company. Both were satisfying if not quite superlative.

But this rendition is really sublime, and deserves a rave recommendation--even to those who take in shows of many genres and price points. (Via Goldstar, you can see this great show for just $17.50 + service fees.)

It may just be A Little Night Music, but when done really right--as here--it's sheer delight music.