Sunday, September 14, 2014

It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times: A Tale of Two Riot Fests in One Muddy Day

Concert / Festival Review

Riot Fest
Humboldt Park, Chicago
September 13, 2014
(Fest ran 9/12-14)
Fest rating: @@@1/2

Artists seen:
Paul Weller @@@@1/2
Afghan Whigs @@@@@
Buzzcocks @@@@
Television @@@1/2
Tokyo Police Club @@@@
Face to Face @@@@
The Flaming Lips @@@ (Partial)
The Get Up Kids (Very Partial)
The Orwells (Very Partial)
Wu-Tang Clan (Very Partial)

Even with me attending just one of its three days, on Saturday Riot Fest served to reinforce why I still--and theoretically always will--love live music, and why I still largely hate festivals.

Funny thing is, the reasons I haven't loved Lollapalooza when I've attended the Chicago festival in years past largely didn't apply to Riot Fest.

I am not physically comfortable standing up for extended periods, and particularly among large crowds with no seating options, I prefer not to do so. But at Riot Fest, I found enough fences to lean against that physical discomfort in this regard wasn't a major issue.

At Lollapalooza, reinforced by friends that went this year, my perception is that at 45, I am at least twice if not three times the age of a large portion of other attendees. I never care much about feeling out of place, but I have typically sensed that many "fans" are there primarily for reasons well-beyond the music, often seemingly just to be seen and/or get wasted.

With apologies for a gross generalization, but one that others have corroborated, huge festivals often unavoidably include a substantial contingent of jackasses, if not outright assholes.

But I can honestly say that I didn't encounter--or even perceive--anyone at Riot Fest who was demonstrably uncool; in fact, just the opposite as with a crowd far closer to my demographic, I had a number of nice conversations with others waiting for bands to take the various stages. Most people seemed to be there mainly for the music.

Which makes me wonder why the organizers of Riot Fest waste space--and presumably, ticket cost contributors--on multiple Ferris Wheels and other carnival rides that seemingly almost no one even thinks of boarding.

But much more meriting condemnation were a slew of other piss-poor logistics of the Fest, one that is celebrating its 10th anniversary, but only its third held in Humboldt Park.

When I arrived after 1:00pm--the fest grounds were open by Noon--with my friend Brad, we had to initially get into the longest line I've ever seen (except for one at Lollapalooza in Buenos Aires, in which I waited for 3 hours).

Luckily, this wasn't nearly as bad as that; just dumb, for as soon as we walked perhaps a quarter-mile to get in the back of the line, the line started moving until reaching a chaotic mass of people at the entrance gates. So it's like someone decided to have everyone get in an orderly line, then just as soon decided against it. 

Appreciating that the organizers have no control over the weather, and that friends who went on Friday night faced rain and far colder temperatures than I experienced on Saturday, the physical conditions of the park were beyond atrocious, give huge amounts of mud everywhere.

There were 7 stages and you could barely walk to any of them, let alone find a place to stand, without being several inches deep in mud, on a day that was sunny and in the 60s.

A few places were roped off due to egregious amounts of mud, but almost everywhere else was absolutely uncomfortable.

This turned from a nuisance to a hazard at one point when, in trying to exit a field to get to food booths that lined a pavement path, there was no option but to wade through thousands of people essentially shoving their way through each other in both directions. All it would have taken is for someone to slip in the mud to have a catastrophe on our hands.

As it was, in the melee--more a massive scrum than a riot--I was separated from two of the friends I was with, never to see them again for the rest of the fest.

Which brings me to another gripe: completely crappy cell phone reception, which made even texting iffy at best.

I know I'm not the first to raise this issue, and I don't know what factors come into play, but it sure would have been nice to be able to contact my friends via text, phone, Facebook messenger, carrier pigeon, etc.

Ironically, in trying to find Brad after receiving a text from him that I couldn't return, I saw my friend Paolo--who I had been texting for hours to no avail--happen to walk by.

Though I still have to recap the music I heard previously, Paolo and I went over to see/hear the Flaming Lips, only to have their soundsystem blow after the first song--it was later revived--as we stood in deep mud. We soon gave up on that.

Though many of the acts sounded good, with strong audio volume heard from across large fields, punk icons the Buzzcocks' 30-minute set was largely ruined by subpar amplification.

And in trying to access a Porta-Potty around 6pm, I found lines of 15 people deep, clearly indicating the rest room facilities were far too paltry.

I decided I could wait until later.

To some readers, I imagine this may sound like an old guy whining, and to others it may sound like absolute hell.

But despite all that sucked about Riot Fest, much of the music I heard was really good, including some by acts I really didn't know except by name.

The first act Brad and I tried to see was Tokyo Police Club, which is a band of white guys from Canada. I didn't know of them until Brad had noted them before the fest, and their 2014 album Forcefield (Spotify link) sounds pretty strong.

Before they started playing, we saw and heard The Orwells perform on a nearby stage. I just now realized I had them confused with The Redwells, another band hailing from the Chicago suburbs. But what I heard sounded good enough, if not particularly memorable.

For Tokyo Police Club, we found a good spot next to the soundboard, with some matting to stand on rather than mud. In the mid-day sun, the music sounded really good and at that point, I had no complaints.

I was able to find my friend Dave before two iconic bands playing consecutively on adjoining stages: the Buzzcocks and Television.

Neither was quite as great as we hoped. For whatever reason, the Buzzcocks just weren't loud enough, though classic songs like "Autonomy," "What Do I Get," "Ever Fallen in Love" and "Orgasm Addict" were nonetheless great fun to hear.

Television--one of the great CBGBs bands alongside the Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie--sounded good on songs from their 1977 classic Marquee Moon, but others that I didn't know seemed to waft in the air as I was stuck in the mud. 

After that, Dave and I found an almost dry patch of grass to sit on that didn't allow us to see a band called Face to Face--unknown to me but touted by a friend--and their punkish set sounded good.

In truth, the primary reason for my attending Riot Fest on this day was a relatively rare Chicago appearance by Paul Weller, who was the lead singer of a band called The Jam--superstars in England from 1977-82, but never big in the U.S.--who was also in the Style Council and has had a pretty stellar solo career.

More on him in a moment, but in waiting by the stage at which Weller was to play on from 5:15 to 6:00pm--far too short--we heard the Afghan Whigs playing at a stage across the field.

I've long heard of the Whigs but have never been captured by any of the music I've heard. But Brad--who at that point was not with Dave & I, but would find us for Weller--said they were great live.

Boy were they.

I can't say I loved any of their songs as much as Weller's, but just in terms of the way they sounded, the Afghan Whigs were the best act I saw all day.

Even from at least 100 yards away, they sounded absolutely phenomenal.

If it wasn't for the harrowing crush I found myself in after the Weller set, the Whigs and Weller would have in themselves offset any other inconveniences of Riot Fest.

And while finding fault with much, I have to give kudos to the Riot Fest organizers for attracting so many terrific bands.

Including the Modfather, as Paul Weller has long been known. (The Jam being the biggest and best of the London "Mod" bands of the late '70s).

This was my fourth time seeing Weller, and even with his limited time--which he himself referenced repeatedly--he was as good as I've ever seen him.

Jam-ish solo songs like "From the Floorboards Up" and "Come On/Let's Go" were terrific, the Style Council's "My Ever Changing Moods" was fun and the Jam's "Start" and "A Town Called Malice" had me feeling like a pig in, well, mud.

The extended jam of "Porcelain Gods" seemed a bit prolonged given the time constraints, but everything Weller played was as good as could be.

Another 15 minutes would have been wonderful.

Then came the crowd clusterfuck as Dave, Brad and I tried to make our way to food booth row, having no option but to force our way through the overflow crowd for the Wu-Tang Clan.

I'm not a big rap fan, but I have no complaints about what I heard, other than nearly dying while hearing it.

Finally making my way to a less congested area near the other field--after getting a corn dog--I liked what I heard from the Get Up Kids, another band with whom I'm not all that familiar.

As noted above, after losing Brad and Dave, I coincidentally connected with Paolo. But even beyond the mud and the power outage, we were both disappointed with what we heard from the Flaming Lips, a band we've both long loved.

Their set seemed self-indulgent and boring, and even in finding dry pavement where we could hear but not see them, we decided to call it quits before their set ended with a cover of The Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."

I was originally intending to stay through the end to hear The National and catch a ride back with Brad to my car parked on his street.

But by that time I had had enough, and in departing with Paolo, I was able to take a bus and train and get back to my car.

After a few texting attempts, I was able to confirm that Brad got word that I had left. He was planning to stay for the National, but within 15 minutes of their taking the stage, I got a text from him saying that they were boring and that he had left.

In sum, I'm delighted to have seen Paul Weller, was blown away by the Afghan Whigs, enjoyed much else I heard but am quite unlikely to return to Riot Fest next year. 

Unless there's, say, a Talking Heads reunion. Or a Jam one.

---
Here's video I shot of Paul Weller performing "A Town Called Malice." Unfortunately the audio is subpar.


And a bit of the Buzzcocks' "Ever Fallen in Love":

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Immutable Footprints: Photos of the 9/11 Memorial in New York
















St. Paul's Chapel







All photos by Seth Arkin. Taken in March 2014, before the accompanying museum opened.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

A Story of Friendship that Begins on the First Day of Kindergarten, 1973

Anyone who reads my blog posts with any degree of regularity should be able to learn a good deal about me, for most of my reviews of music and theater or discussions of other subjects not only convey my tastes and tendencies, but typically include a long-winded introduction that provides a good amount of  background, biography and opinion beyond the topic at hand.

So I have certainly mentioned several friends and relatives, and shared numerous recollections involving many, but very rarely have I written directly about personal matters, such as relationships with those I know and love (or once did).

But today seems like a good day to do so.

Especially as last night was a relatively rare Saturday not spent at a performance of some sort (such as Billy Corgan, Tom Petty/Steve Winwood and Rod Stewart/Santana over the past three).

Rather, I had dinner with a friend and his family.

While always agreeable, this might not sound particularly noteworthy or newsworthy, especially as the restaurant--the original Chinatown branch of Lao Sze Chuan--was one I featured last year in my Chicago Dining World Tour series. (The service last night was still a bit spotty but not nearly as bad as I wrote about then, and the food remains first-rate.)

Even to say I was celebrating a friend's birthday would not ordinarily seem like anything worth documenting for history, or even the cyberspace black hole that this blog represents (hence the Seth Saith nameplate design at top).

But in celebrating the 46th birthday of my friend Jordan, I was also celebrating a friendship that has now lasted 41 years--since we met in Kindergarten at Highland School in Skokie, Illinois in the fall of 1973. 

And while the active friendship and Jordan himself in the present tense merit greater celebration than the accumulation of years, the continuity our friendship represents is undoubtedly one of the most intrinsic parts of my being. 

Though I can't specifically recall our initial encounter, as pictured at top Jordan and I were in the same Kindergarten class--along with a handful of other kids I'm connected to on Facebook plus another with whom I've stayed in fairly regular touch--and so I assume we met on the first day. 

After all, what do you do on the first day of Kindergarten if not meet all the other kids? (And the teacher, Mrs. Boaz.)

In the early years, our friendship revolved around going to each other's house after many a school day...and a lot of baseball. 

Jordan sets the record--over 400,000 points--on my family's
pinball machine, circa 1978. Like our friendship, the record
and the machine still stand.
We played in Little League together, traded baseball cards, spent numerous hours competing in Intellivision Baseball--I still recall one time when things were going more my way than his in the video game, Jordan chucked the console across his family room--and went to Cubs games together, taking the Skokie Swift and the Howard L likely as young as 10 or 11 years old. 

After a junior high graduation party that had us each drinking more hard liquor than either of us ever have since--and Jordan tripled my intake of Jim Beam--high school escapades include hijinks in freshman Algebra, Geometry (or was it trigonometry?) and Mr. Jackson's AP U.S. History Class, in which I recall us clandestinely listening to Game One of the 1984 NLCS in which the Cubs beat the Padres 13-0.

...on their way to a ball rolling under Leon Durham's Gatorade soaked glove and a Game 5 loss that gave the Padres the pennant.

I don't think that's when Jordan switched allegiances and became a White Sox fan, but who could blame him?

It was at some point during junior year at Niles North High School that in a library study room Jordan and I used primarily for flicking folded-paper "football" field goals, he told me he was moving to New Mexico to live with his dad and would not be spending senior year in Skokie. (Jordan's dad had taken us to my first Bulls game ever--circa 1978--and had been our Little League coach during our best season, but had moved to Taos at some point.)

Though Jordan would spend summers back in the Chicago area before and during college--which we didn't attend together--once he wound up in Champaign-Urbana in 1988, we haven't ever lived in the same vicinity. 

So in being proud of maintaining a close friendship over 41 years, I can't help but be self-impressed that roughly the last 2/3 of those years have not been abetted by geographical proximity.

I typically only see Jordan 2-3 times per year; usually when he and his wife Erin come up for a birthday dinner with family--his mom, step-dad, sister and brother-in-law have long been like a second family to me--and again on Christmas Eve, which I have spent every year for decades at a party hosted by his mom & step-dad.

And in most years, I have ventured down to Urbana at least once; lately to attend Ebertfest in late-April.

We have gone to a handful or two of ballgames over the years, and a few random concerts, but our friendship has primarily been maintained through a monthly phone call of good length.

Although the multitude of small moments are more important than the amplitude of overt experiences, well-worth mentioning is how Jordan and Erin (early into their enduring relationship) drove a car I bought from another Skokie friend out to me after I moved to California in early 1990.

And how I went to Ireland along with a small group of family members and other close friends when Jordan and Erin decided to get married there in 2000.

Or that just days after I got fired from a job in October 2005, I went down to Urbana and watched the White Sox win the World Series in Jordan & Erin's company, furthering my conviction that personal connection & continuity trump periodic ups & downs in shaping one's being. (And yes, I was delighted the Sox won, having long been a fan of both Chicago baseball teams, however heretical it may be.)

Nowadays, the retention of real, long-distance and/or tenuous relationships is a lot easier given one's Facebook community, but Jordan has opted to abstain--not incomprehensibly--from social media, and it is not lost on me that I literally know more about the daily activities and thoughts of fleeting co-workers from years ago than I do of my best friend since Kindergarten.

But I know that he reads nearly everything I write on Seth Saith--which means more to me than traffic stats that suggest over 20,000 people stumble across something here each month--and he has closely followed all of my travel adventures, which I have incessantly shared in recent years on a dedicated travel blog.  

As Jordan has developed into the most avid soccer aficionado I know, he has helped further my fandom of the sport--though still not nearly to his level--and I was delighted to share his insights in some recent World Cup and English League Soccer posts here. (Best seen in sum here.)

This love of soccer is what suggested this year's edition of my annual self-made birthday card for Jordan, shown nearby, which he and his family got a big kick out of (at the expense of Luis Suarez).

I still genuinely and acutely enjoy every occasion on which I see or speak to Jordan, and interactions with the wider circle that includes his family and Erin provide a warmth that I elsewhere only derive from my own family and a few other close friends.

But just as important to my existence has been 41 years of knowing simply that he is there.
"You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead"
-- The Beatles, "Two of Us"
The above lyric comes readily to mind as rather apt, and I can't help thinking of it without a sense of happiness and pride, but also--as he has turned 46 and I will in about 5 weeks--a suspicion that its sentiment could well be literally true. (I'm also reminded of the days Jordan and I would spin Beatles records backwards, searching for the "Paul is Dead" clues.)

One never knows what the future, let alone each day, will bring, and we've all been given numerous reasons not to take anything, or anyone, for granted.

But all you can do is the best you can, for as long as you can, and along with much else my friendship with Jordan has meant, I see it as proof that I have at least done one thing right.

So, thanks and love.

And, of course, a song by the Boss, my favorite of any about friendship.

Despite the fact that you aren't much of a Springsteen fan, the lyrics don't largely fit our relationship and that this clip of "Bobby Jean" was from a different London concert than the one I attended in 2013, well, Jordan, this one's for you:

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

NFL Preview 2014: What Seth Saith Will Happen...I Guess

I have always been a football fan--much more of the NFL than college--though the extent of my fandom has largely consisted of watching and following the Chicago Bears. And the Super Bowl. Which have mostly been mutually exclusive.

Sometimes I throw away money in weekly football pools, but I have never played Fantasy Football, rarely watch regular season games in which I have no rooting interest and would be hard-pressed to name many players beyond the big stars and members of the Bears.

So I can hardly think of anyone less-equipped to make NFL predictions with any degree of expertise and acuity.

But last season, rather than bother with a Football Picks Post on Seth Saith, I simply threw up a couple guesses on Facebook.

And glory be, I was exactly right. The Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl and the Bears finished 8-8.

So now I feel obliged to offer up a slightly more comprehensive football forecast prior to the 2014 NFL Season kicking off Thursday night in Seattle with the Seahawks taking on the Packers.

Mind you, my predictions will not be accompanied by any expert analysis, as I don't pretend to possess any, and unlike my other "football" (i.e. soccer) forecasts, I couldn't loop in any friends that do.

So if you need intelligence with your NFL predictions, refer to ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports,
your local newspaper or myriad other outlets.

But, as surprise teams seem to spring up every year, chances are many "expert" picks will wind up being just as wrong as mine.

So without further ado, here are my, um, guesses for the divisional standings, conference champions, Super Bowl Winner and league MVP:

NFC North
Packers 
Bears 
Lions 
Vikings

NFC East
Giants 
Eagles 
Cowboys 
Redskins

NFC West
49ers
Seahawks 
Cardinals
Rams

NFC South
Saints
Bucs
Falcons
Panthers

NFC Wild Cards
Seahawks
Bears -> record: 9-7

NFC Champion
Saints

AFC North
Ravens 
Steelers 
Bengals 
Browns

AFC East
Patriots 
Dolphins
Jets 
Bills

AFC West
Broncos
Chiefs
Chargers
Raiders 

AFC South
Colts
Jaguars
Titans
Texans

AFC Wild Cards
Chiefs
Dolphins

AFC Champion
Colts

Super Bowl Champion
Saints over Colts

NFL MVP 
Andrew Luck

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Strong Performances, Spry Songs Power Not-Quite-Legendary Portrait of 'Clemente' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Clemente: The Legend of 21
written & directed by Luis Caballero
with music by Harold Gutierrez
presented by Night Blue Performing Arts Company
at Stage 773, Chicago
Thru September 14
@@@

A few weeks ago--on August 18 to be exact--I noticed on Wikipedia that it would have been the 80th birthday of the late, great Roberto Clemente.

Although I was too young to ever see the legendary Pittsburgh Pirates rightfielder play, I asked on Facebook if any others had, and was pleased to note a couple nice remembrances.

For like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks and others, Clemente was one of those hallowed names whose careers preceded my baseball fandom, but whose brilliance continued to engender reverence throughout my youth--and ever since.

But Roberto Clemente was particularly venerated, given the tragic plane crash that took his life on the last day of 1972, while on a humanitarian mission to Nicaragua. His heroic exploits, off-the-field and on--known to me largely through Cubs rain-delay highlights of the 1971 World Series, in which Clemente batted .414 to lead the Pirates to the title--were divinely punctuated for the history books by his career having ended with exactly 3,000 hits.

In having noted his birthday and watching some clips on YouTube, I reflected that it would probably be valuable to watch a documentary of Clemente--though I don't know of a particular one--or even to delve into the David Maraniss biography of him that has long collected dust on my bookshelf.

Though not usurping the benefit of the above, just a few days later I heard--via my baseball-loving friend Dave--of the Chicago premiere of Clemente: The Legend of 21, a stage work recommended by Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss.

All the more intrigued in learning that Clemente is a musical--or, whatever the delineation, a play with music, as the singing is live but not always narrative and the music is pre-recorded--I got a discounted ticket via HotTix and attended on Sunday afternoon.

I was impressed by the size of the cast and my inference that some in it likely traveled from Clemente's homeland of Puerto Rico just for this production, which is being presented by the Night Blue Performing Arts Company at the Stage 773 theater complex on Belmont, just west of Racine.

Under the direction of author Luis Caballero, the staging employs good use of video to accompany Clemente's biography--though not enough baseball footage, IMO--and the good handful of songs by Harold Gutierrez are largely enjoyable, the best part of the show.

But there aren't enough songs to drive the story, only accompany it, and though I had no problem with the choice of the tunes being sung in Clemente's native Spanish--with English supertitles, also used for a great deal of Spanish dialogue--my lack of fluency didn't aid my ability to follow the script, which seemed somewhat cursory and disjointed.

As the adult Clemente, Modesto Lacén is really good, as is Jonathan Amaro Ramos as teenage Roberto, and Lorraine Velez is quite pleasing and well-sung as the slugger's wife Vera.

Clemente: The Legend of 21 is a work I wanted to like a lot more than I did, and even with its flaws should be worthwhile, valuable and appealing for many, so I don't wish to harp on its shortcomings.

But I was rather confused by a seemingly central character named Ramiro Martinez, who with a huge mustache and quasi-buffoonish persona reminded me all-too-much of Andy Kaufman's Tony Clifton alter ego. Not only was I unsure of his connection to Clemente, but tt was also hard at times just to understand what he was saying; I wished for supertitles even though he was speaking in English.

In itself, this wasn't a debilitating detraction, and nothing about Clemente is unwatchably bad, just not theatrically superlative. Though again, in dotting a narrative that stretches too far without delving too deep, and feels like a sequence of episodes rather than cohesively or acutely explanatory, the Latin-infused songs are truly pleasurable.

So even in being happy to consider Clemente for whatever illumination it added to a hero I should know more about, I can't say I learned all that much about the man and even less about the ballplayer.

I don't mean any disrespect to the admirable efforts of the cast, crew and creators, but given the baseball milieu I can't help but recall the exhortations of "Nice cut!" I would hear in Little League when I swung and missed.

Sure, it would have been preferable if I actually hit the ball, but to miss with a fair amount of aplomb, well, I guess it counts for something.

Monday, September 01, 2014

It's the Great Pumpkin, as Billy Corgan Delivers a (Mostly) Smashing Showcase at Ravinia -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Billy Corgan
w/ opening act Katie Cole
Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, IL
August 30, 2014
@@@@1/2

I first saw the Smashing Pumpkins 20 years ago, as the headliners--originally slated to be Nirvana--of Lollapalooza 1994, the only traveling version of the fest I ever attended. (I should have gone in 1993 when I got tickets for a co-worker friend to see the Pumpkins at the Aragon, but I abstained.)

At that point, the band consisted of singer/songwriter/guitarist Billy Corgan, guitarist James Iha, bassist D'arcy Wretzky and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain.

You can refer to Wikipedia for the breakdown of how the Pumpkins' personnel changed over the years, but Corgan has always been the main creative force and most defining element. With no disrespect to any of the other members, past or present, for better or worse Billy Corgan basically is the Smashing Pumpkins. Perhaps more akin to how Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails than analogous to most "bands."

After Saturday night, I have now seen Corgan in concert 25 times, whether fronting the Smashing Pumpkins of various incarnations, leading a short-lived band called Zwan that followed the 2000 breakup of the "original" Pumpkins or billed under his own name, as he was at Ravinia.

Emphatically, I enjoy the Smashing Pumpkins' music, at its best and best-known, but even a good bit deeper, as beyond the official albums the über-prolific Corgan has literally released hundreds of additional songs via online albums, outtake collections, deluxe versions, etc.--and I've paid a fair amount of attention, even in recent years.

But the truth is that there is far too much "Smashing Pumpkins" material out there than I will ever be able to digest, and by-and-large what I like most is the premier material released on their main albums from 1991-2000.

Not "just the hits," but also the hits, not apologetically.

In concert, Corgan and "the Pumpkins" have always been a mixed bag, usually for maddening reasons caused by Corgan's seeming inability to stay on the right side of the line between "challenging the audience" and vexing them. (Similarly, in likely trying to be analytical and introspective in interviews, he's too often come off as insufferable.)

When Corgan blazes away on his electric guitar and rages through songs like "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," "I Am One," "Cherub Rock," "Zero" and others, there are few sounds that have ever been more pleasing to my ears.

And I have seen some glorious shows that I'll never forget, from a packed Rosemont Horizon amidst a 3-night stand at the heights of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness fame in 1996 to a small club show in Detroit in April 1999 that was among the last to include the 4 original members (after Jimmy Chamberlain returned from a drug-related ousting, and before D'arcy would depart) to "near-the-end, part I" arena shows in late 2000 in both Paris and Chicago.

Such is my regard for the sounds Corgan can make--especially in tandem with Chamberlain--that the initial Zwan shows at the Double Door in April 2002 are still among the most exciting of any in memory, as they debuted great songs that almost no one had previously heard. (The sole Zwan album, Mary Star of the Sea, is rather stellar.)

But all too many shows that Corgan has fronted have balanced ecstasy with agony, or something approaching it, whether due to challenging setlists that went well-beyond esoteric, lengthy diatribes in which Billy would berate or just bore the audience, 15-minute feedback wails that took the place of 4 good songs and assorted other WTF? antics.

I felt the need to explain this leading into a review of the Ravinia show, because while I like a lot of Corgan's music a whole lot, and truly do admire him, I have left far too many of his concerts far more perplexed that I would have liked.

Saturday night I didn't.

While his 28-song setlist--sans the VIP songs I wasn't there for--included only 8-1/2 of the 20 tunes I suggested in my "Dream Setlist" submission (see my previous blog post; the "1/2" is because he played "Tonight Tonight" rather than the "Tonight Reprise"), most of the 150 minutes Corgan spent on stage were acutely entertaining, many even mesmerizing.

Even though there were a fair number songs that I didn't know, none sounded bad and only a few were real head-scratchers. And Corgan's stage patter was gracious and polite, at times even affable, and included no lengthy harangues.

But it's not as though I'm grading on a curve just because Billy was on "good behavior" and seemingly determined to be somewhat "crowd-pleasing" at one of the sparser Ravinia gatherings I've ever seen. (I got pavilion ticket for half-price on Goldstar just days prior.)

Dressed in a black suit, Billy took the stage, alone, a little after 8:00, following a pleasing 1/2 hour set by an Australian singer with quasi-country stylings named Katie Cole.

Opening at the grand piano, Corgan started the night with a song called "Chicago," written about a decade ago for a never-released project and never performed until a recent WGN-TV news concert preview

So though this was, for most, an unknown song, it was a lovely way to begin--especially on piano, as he'd used a guitar on WGN.

"Today" and "Disarm," two well-known MTV hits from 1993's Siamese Dream, followed, showing that the enigmatic star wasn't intending to be completely obscure in his selections, even if I was clueless on his next two songs (per setlists: "Lonely is the Name," "As Time Draws Near").

Both of the latter sounded like quality tunes and especially after Corgan was joined by current Smashing Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schoeder for a fine take on a Zwan song called "For Your Love"--and for the rest of the night--even the more arcane material was always well-played.

I relished hearing "Let Me Give My the World to You"--an Adore outtake also on the Machina II online album--for the first time live. It reiterated that among Corgan's vast trove of relatively buried treasures are some really great songs; if released at the height of Pumpkinmania, "Let Me Give..." could have been a huge hit. (video snippet below)

Though at their apex the Pumpkins filled much larger places, Corgan--who lives in a Highland Park mansion and runs the  nearby Madame Zuzu's tea shop--seemed genuinely proud and respectful of playing Ravinia for the first time.

Early in the show a fan in the pavilion yelled, "Let's go, White Sox!" at the well-known Cubs fanatic.

To which Corgan wryly lamented, "On my special night," and then went on to tell Schroeder--who he introduced as not a baseball fan but a hockey fan...of the L.A. Kings--that the Cubs were something like 0-100 this year.

Later, as Billy again sat at his grand piano in the middle of the show, another dick screamed out, "Freebird!"

"There's that White Sox fan again," Billy retorted in perfectly smashing fashion before playing a gorgeous version of "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," the piano interlude to the double album of the same name.

That would begin an 8-song Mellon Collie section that would include several of the show's true highlights.

"To Forgive" and especially "Muzzle," played on piano and delicately sung by Billy, were sublime, "Tonight Tonight" with Corgan and Schroeder on side-by-side acoustics was a delight and it was cool to hear album tracks like "Galapagos" and "Thirty-Three" alongside a hit like "1979."

Billy also introduced a song called "Methusela" that he wrote about his father during the Mellon Collie period, but had never even played for his bandmates or producers.

It sounded good, and I imagine it was the tune that had avowed archivist Pumpkinheads most excited.

Warmly accepting a long and luscious standing ovation shortly earlier, Corgan demurred that "You haven't heard the second half of the show yet."

And, though it never devolved into rants or even discordance, the show's denouement was rather abstruse. Look at the end of the setlist to see what I mean without my naming every song, but after drummer Matt Walker--who played with the Smashing Pumpkins during Chamberlain's exile--joined Corgan and Schroeder for a fine, relatively uptempo version of "Ava Adore," the specter of a brief full-force gale turned out to be a mirage.

With a trio of backup singers he introduced as members of the Ex-Cops--a band he's been working with--Billy opted to end his main set with three obscurities out of four ("Stand Inside Your Love" being the exception.)

And lest anyone think he might hit up "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," "Zero," "Mayonaise" or "Drown" to mollify the masses--although I didn't mind the mysterious selections too much up close in the pavilion, I can only imagine how the rarities were going over on Ravinia's can't-see-the-stage lawn section--Corgan opened the encores by creating about 5 minutes worth of ambient beats leading into a song called "The World's Fair," whose title I known only in seeing it listed afterward.

And for the grand finale of this unique night--which I truly did largely and greatly enjoy--Billy brought onstage the roster of the Resistance Pro Wrestling organization that he runs and let the crowd know that there is an event coming up in Chicago on Sept. 12.

Billy's brother Jesse was also onstage, but rather than play Siamese Dream's "Spaceboy," which was written about him, or send the "low hanging fruit" fans (like me) deliriously into the night with "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," "Cherub Rock" or the like--drummer Walker was still onstage--we got a Zwan song called "Of a Broken Heart."

While I found some of the later choices a bit odd, I actually admire Billy Corgan for remaining true to his iconoclastic self, especially as his stage presence throughout was cordial and never irritating.

And even if about a third of the 150-minute show contained material I never would have voted for, not only was little of it truly off-putting, but if you had told me going in that I would hear 100 minutes of mostly terrific, sometimes transcendent music from the progenitor of one of my all-time favorite bands, I would have been happy.

Thus I was.

It wasn't quite perfect nor as entirely gratifying as other low-key, mostly acoustic showcases I've seen this year from the likes of Neil Young and Elvis Costello. And I imagine Billy's set was far too arcane for some and perhaps too populist for others.

But for the most part, on this night, for me, the Great Pumpkin really did appear.

---
Here are a few videos I shot, although the first two are snippets, not full songs.

"Let Me Give the World to You"

"Muzzle"

"Tonight Tonight"

Saturday, August 30, 2014

My Perfectly Smashing Suggested Setlist for Billy Corgan Tonight, Tonight at Ravinia

My interest admittedly abetted by half-price pavilion seats available through Goldstar, tonight I will be seeing Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins do a solo show at Ravinia.

Through his multiple incarnations with the Pumpkins, Zwan and on his own, this will be the 25th time I have seen Billy live on stage--more than anyone than except Bruce Springsteen (with 44 attendances).

So it's not that I am an "only with cheap seats" fan of his, but between having seen him so many times and--though I won't delve deep into it here--Corgan's tendency to exasperate even devoted followers with head-scratching antics, actions, statements and setlist choices, going tonight wasn't a slam-dunk decision (especially being the birthday weekend of my best friend since Kindergarten, but he's now coming to town next weekend).

But along with an abiding curiosity, a true love of much of the music he's made, a desire to get to Ravinia at least once this year and a great ticket deal, a few things acutely prompted my decision to see Billy Corgan tonight. (I'll hopefully post a review here tomorrow or Monday.)

First of all--though for prose purposes this isn't quite in chronological order--I noticed that a Facebook Friend named Jim Ryan, who is a music blogger and local radio & TV traffic reporter/anchor/host, had done an extensive interview with Corgan on his Rock 'n Roll Radio Program and spoke highly of Billy's amity and candor.

I've only heard the first of two parts so far (which you can do here, or read a transcription here at Jim's Chicago at Night blog). Jim does a nice job with the interview and Billy doesn't come off too badly, but I don't think he ever helps himself by talking at length.

Honestly, if all Corgan ever said was "I take my music seriously and try to write songs of substance--some appealing to the casual fan, some that may only reach a few in this increasingly fractionalized musical universe--and just hope to leave a mark," I think he would remain much more popular and relevant, with much less fan attrition since the Pumpkins' '90s heyday. (Heck, he's even lost the 3 other original Pumpkins.)

I also enjoyed hearing--because someone had posted it to Jim Ryan's Facebook wall--Billy perform a never-before-played song called "Chicago" that he debuted recently in promoting the Ravinia show on WGN-TV news. 

If nothing else, this reiterates what a gifted songwriter Billy Corgan is.

But my interest was also peaked by seeing that Corgan had posted (on the Smashing Pumpkins website) an invitation for fans to submit a 20-song "Dream Setlist" for his show at Ravinia.

I didn't really care much about the prize of a private Meet & Greet with Billy--if Jordan had come up for his birthday, I would have skipped the show altogether, even if I had won the contest--but thought it made for a fun exercise.

At the time of entry, I didn't know that Billy was intending to play acoustic, or at least sans band (current Smashing Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schroeder will be joining him) so I didn't really draft this proposed set with that in mind.

But knowing that this was a solo show, at which material spanning his entire oeuvre was likely, including some lesser-known songs, I tried to make my list fan-friendly to both the hardcore and casual. After all, he is playing Ravinia--in his adopted hometown of Highland Park, where he also operates a Tea cafe called Madame Zuzu's--which is notorious for chatter on the lawn overpowering even the most famous songs, let alone rendering rarities rather colorless. (I'll be sitting in the pavilion, but have experienced music "wafting over the lawn" more than enough.)

Rather than really expecting to win, or even sway Billy, my submission more so represented what I would like to hear tonight. More on this below the setlist, but I didn't win; also, Billy has said he will actually be playing 27 songs, not 20.

Also below the setlist, I have embedded a Spotify playlist of most of the songs I cited; a few aren't on Spotify, so if possible I've provided a YouTube link. All are Smashing Pumpkins' songs, except as noted.

As entered in the contest, here is my suggested setlist for Billy Corgan on Saturday, August 30 at Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL:

1. Tonight Reprise
2. Stand Inside Your Love
3. Cast A Stone  (a never released Zwan song; YouTube)
4. Drown
5. Daphne Descends
6. Bullet With Butterfly Wings
7. Riverview (from a planned but never released solo album about Chicago; YouTube) 
8. Disarm
9. Let Me Give The World To You (a great Pumpkins outtake from Adore, later released on the Machina II online album; still one of Billy's best songs. YouTube)
10. Tarantula
11. This Time
12. The Chimera
13. Today
14. Declarations of Faith (one of several great songs from the only Zwan album; YouTube)
15. Mayonaise

Encore
16. Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness
17. Muzzle
18. Cherub Rock
19. 1979
20. The Last Song



After having heard "Chicago," I would also include that one.

But as I said above, I didn't win. Though I thought I was being deferential to some of the more serious fans, if Billy saw my list he likely laughed it off for being far too populist.

As Billy revealed here, nearly 1,000 entries were submitted and the winner was Gustaf Bjorlin whose setlist--"although quite different than the one I plan to play"--was as follows:

THE CELESTIALS/OF A BROKEN HEART/THE ROSE MARCH/PERFECT/WHIR/STUMBLEINE/THAT’S THE WAY MY LOVE IS/VIOLET RAYS/MINA LOY/THINK YOU KNOW/LET ME GIVE THE WORLD TO YOU/RHINOCEROS/FOR MARTHA/PINWHEELS/ROCKET/UNTITLED/WITH EVERY LIGHT/MEDELLIA OF THE GREY SKIES/DROWN/1979

Obviously Mr. Bjorlin is a dedicated fan, and there's plenty of "Gustaf" included in his setlist, but it's far too esoteric for my tastes.

Honestly--another great Zwan song--on what should be a nice night, I'll be happy to hear whatever one of my musical heroes wants to play, especially given the unique setting and format.

Plugged-in and gloriously overamplified, my setlist would be "Perfect," at least to me.

But even in an acoustic vein, I hope I get to hear some of the above, "Tonight Tonight."

I'll let you know.