Thursday, August 25, 2016

Ours Go to 11: Volume 16, U.S. National Parks I've Visited (In Honor of the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service)

I noticed on Wikipedia that today is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, which was created on August 25, 2016.

So it made me think about the National Parks I've visited over the years.

I'm much more an urban traveler, but have gotten to some great National Parks over the years, including in other countries.

Focusing on just the U.S., I wondered if I'd been to 11, but if counting official National Parks--of which there are 59--and not National Monuments, National Historical Parks and other entities under the NPS, I seem to have only visited 8.

So I had to include a few of the other types of protected areas to round out my list.

(See the full list of areas under the domain of the U.S. National Park Service here.)

1. Bryce Canyon, Utah
2. Badlands, South Dakota
3. Grand Canyon, Arizona
4. Rocky Mountain, Colorado
5. Zion, Utah
6. Olympic, Washington  
7. Petrified Forest, Arizona
8. Redwood, California
9. Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming
10. Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, Ohio
11. Independence National Historical Park, Pennsylvania

Statue of Liberty National Monument / Ellis Island, New York

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Alive, All the Way: Pearl Jam Knocks a Pair of Prodigious Blasts Out of the Friendly Confines -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Pearl Jam
Wrigley Field, Chicago
August 20 & 22
(both shows attended)
@@@@@ (for each & both)

Pearl Jam's phenomenal first album, Ten--the uniform number of the band's original namesake, Mookie Blaylock--was released 25 years ago Saturday, on August 27, 1991.

Though I recall reading a Rolling Stone article around the time of the album's release, I didn't pay much attention or acquire the CD until after Nirvana's Nevermind broke open grunge--and alternative music for that matter--upon its release on September 24 of that year.

Living in Los Angeles at the time, I'm pretty sure I bought Nevermind and Ten in the fall of 1991, as I was familiar with both bands when they co-opened for that Red Hot Chili Peppers that December at the L.A. Forum (foolishly, I didn't attend).

So I was well "into" Pearl Jam as Ten became a blockbuster and "Alive," "Even Flow" and "Jeremy" became staples on Alt Rock radio and MTV.

I believe I bought their second album, Vs., immediately upon release in October 1993 (a month after Nirvana's In Utero) and likewise got all their subsequent albums rather instantly.

Having moved back to the Chicago area by then, I acutely rued not being able to get a ticket to a March 1994 concert at the old Chicago Stadium not long before it got torn down, but beginning in 1995--in Milwaukee, not the Soldier Field show on the tour short-circuited by the band's battle with Ticketmaster--I've now seen Pearl Jam 18 times.

Including shows on both Saturday and Monday at Wrigley Field.

This makes them the longest running band that I've loved, in real-time, from their first album on.

(I didn't get into U2 until at least War or Under a Blood Red Sky, having been oblivious to their debut, Boy and follow-up October. Similar scenario with the now disbanded R.E.M., and while I've been a big Green Day fan since they broke with 1994's Dookie, that came not only after Ten but two of their own indie releases. Living in L.A., I didn't hear of the Smashing Pumpkins' 1991 debut Gish, though became a big fan with 1993's Siamese Dream.)

So I didn't need much convincing about how great a band--and concert act--Pearl Jam remains even after all the members have turned 50, especially as their October 2014 show in Milwaukee was one of the best I've ever seen.

But I got a double dose of proof at my favorite place on earth, made all the more special by how great the Cubs are playing this year and Eddie Vedder being one of the most prominent diehard Cubs fans (he was born in Evanston).

And though I'd seen Pearl Jam at Wrigley in July 2013 and will never forget sticking around until 2am after a rain & lightning delay of nearly 3 hours, these shows went a good bit smoother.

In terms of pacing, Saturday's show felt a tad uneven--perhaps exacerbated by my having a seat somewhat obstructed by the soundboard tent--but lasted 3 hours and 20 minutes, ending with Vedder singing his ode to Cubdom, "All the Way" alongside his favorite player from childhood, Jose Cardenal and 3 children of Ron Santo, before a final blast through the Who's "Baba O'Riley."

Cheekily referencing their 2013 show at Wrigley, I loved the early cover of the Beatles' "Rain," and smiled at "Bee Girl," saluting the star of Blind Melon's "No Rain" video.

Along with several boisterous ballpark singalongs to anthems such as "Jeremy," "Alive," "Black," "Even Flow," "Better Man," "Corduroy" and a cover of Cheap Trick's "Surrender"--all repeated on Monday, which otherwise featured 29 songs not played on Night 1--the show included several wonderful non-musical moments.

A soldier and his girlfriend were brought onstage and a marriage proposal unfolded; former NFL player Steve Gleason, beset by ALS and the subject of a new documentary, spoke electronically and quite life-affirmingly; Vedder dedicated "Light Years" to Gord Downie of the Canadian band the Tragically Hip, who were playing their last show the same night due to Downie being beset by terminal brain cancer.

Of the 34 songs played Saturday, 8 were covers--including the Ramones' "I Believe in Miracles," Bob Dylan's "Masters of War," Little Steven's "I Am a Patriot" and Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" beyond those already mentioned--but not only couldn't anyone say they were cheated, this coalesced with an evening in which Vedder clearly was reveling in childhood heroes, both baseball and musical.

Though 20 minutes shorter in heeding to Wrigley's 11pm concert curfew rather than blowing past it, Monday night's show was more of a musical tour de force.

After "Oceans," "Footsteps" and "Off He Goes" provided a slow-groove opening triptych, the band began rocking at full-tilt far earlier than on Saturday, with early reprises of "Better Man" and "Corduroy" leading into "State of Love and Trust," "Why Go," "Animal" and "Given to Fly."

Subsequent highlights included "Wishlist," "Mind Your Manners," "Got Some," "Rearviewmirror" and guitarist Stone Gossard handling lead vocals on "Don't Give Me No Lip."

Both nights seemed to find the band relaxed and enjoying themselves in a venue sacrosanct to Vedder--and me--and as on Saturday, Monday brought many reminders of why I relish Pearl Jam well beyond their music.

Routinely verbose and gracious, Vedder delayed the music for about 5 minutes twice, first in highlighting several charities the band was supporting with a portion of ticket sales--and matching donations from Cubs Care and Theo Epstein's foundation--and then in reading letters he'd received conveying how much the band meant to certain attendees suffering from great illnesses and hardships.

Prior to "Man of the Hour," he noted that Monday would have been the 49th birthday of another famed Seattle frontman, Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, who passed in 2002 after long battling serious demons.

And amid the band's most fervent rocker, "Lukin," Eddie stopped the song cold to point out a jerk in the audience who was harassing a woman and have him tossed.

Unless it was some kind of weird dream, I also think Dennis Rodman showed up onstage, and even cradled Vedder in his arms.

All in all, it made for a pretty amazing couple of nights. Each show was fantastic in its own right--you can view Saturday's Pearl Jam setlist here, and Monday's here--but in varying greatly, the two-night stand validated my double-dipping. (This marks the 5th time I've seen Pearl Jam in pairs.)

Saturday night I went solo and and enjoyed sitting behind home plate next to an ardent Pearl Jam follower in from Toronto; Monday I was accompanied in the upper deck by my most frequent concert companion, Paolo. Both scenarios and perspectives considerably abetted my delight.

In one of the odd ways that music is a constant thread throughout my life, on Monday in the baseball stadium of the team in first place in the NL Central, Pearl Jam ended the show with a cover of the Beatles' "I've Got a Feeling." This seemed like a strange choice, but I now believe Eddie was slyly referencing the Cubs and what seems like a great chance to win their first World Series in 108 years.

And just 8 days a week earlier, Paolo and I saw Paul McCartney play the same song in another NL Central ballpark, Busch Stadium in St. Louis. (Presumably without the same agenda.)

It's also true that on Monday before I left work for the concert, I learned that my current stint as a contractor will be coming to an end sooner than anticipated. While far from tragic and nothing I haven't experienced before, it was news for which yet another phenomenal concert by one of my favorite artists provided an emotional antidote.

And when, nearing 11:00pm, I sang along heartily as Pearl Jam blazed through Neil Young's, "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World," I could help but consider it my reason for being.


And someday we'll go all the way.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Sunday in the Park with Wilco: Local Stalwarts Make for a Beautiful Night Under Chicago Stars -- Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act Twin Peaks
Jay Pritzker Pavilion
Millennium Park, Chicago
August 21, 2016

When I bought my tickets to "see" Wilco Sunday night at Millennium Park--way back in February--I presumed I would be precluded from actually seeing the band onstage.

At the time I wasn't employed, and though I imagined it would be fun to catch Chicago's foremost band--at least until the original Smashing Pumpkins reunite, if rumors prove true--with my sister Allison and friend Paolo, lawn tickets for $30 + fees seemed far more reasonable than pavilion seats starting at $75 + fees.

And on a supremely beautiful night amid one of the city's most sublime public spaces, Wilco sounded terrific--thanks, I think, to the speaker system on Frank Gehry's lawn lattice, though I couldn't be certain the speakers were even on.

As you can deduce from the photos I took, on occasion I was able to walk down nearer the stage, see the band and snap some pix, and even watched the last 30 minutes of a nearly 2-1/2 hour show from a visual vantage point.

So in catching a fine performance from a band I've long liked--this was my 10th Wilco concert, plus a benefit gig by lead singer Jeff Tweedy in a living room--with a couple companions on an August night sans thunderstorms or even humidity, it would seem I have no complaints.

And I don't in terms of what and how Wilco played.

Yes, I would have expected more setlist variance from other shows on their 2016 summer tour, but this is the only one I attended so I fully enjoyed the well-paced mix of six songs from 2015's Star Wars album, two from the forthcoming (on Sept. 9) Schmilco--"If Ever I Was a Child" and "Locator"--and several gems from across the past 21 years.

These included "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," "Hummingbird," "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," "Heavy Metal Drummer," "I'm the Man Who Loves You," "I Got You (At the End of the Century)" and "Outtasite (Outta Mind)." (See the full setlist here.)

It's hard to be a Wilco fan and not appreciate their folksy side, but as the songs I cited above bespeak, I like it best when they rock out. The hard/soft, fast/slow collided brilliantly on the apt, "Via Chicago," with the mostly low-key tune interrupted by thunderous blasts of sound and light (as best I could see).

The slow-build but ultimately fevered multi-instrumental buzz of "Art of Almost" had Paolo and I concurring about just how great a band Wilco is, in terms of the obvious skill all the members bring to their craft.

So while it was atypical for a band to close their show--and a big homecoming one at that--with a 8-song unplugged second encore (after having rocked pretty hard in the first encore), it demonstrated, impressively, that Wilco is confident enough to do whatever the hell they want.

And having songs as good and beloved as "War on War," "Passenger Side," "California Stars" and the closing "Shot in the Arm" certainly didn't hurt in mellowing out the appreciative crowd before sending them home happy.

Which all made for a really good show that well may have merited @@@@1/2 had I been able to see more of it.

As I said above, I didn't expect a spot on the lawn to provide a sightline to the stage. But having been to many a free concert at the Pritzker Pavilion where a video screen was employed, I expected that to have been the case in ponying up about $40 (with fees).

I imagine not having any video screen may have been Wilco's choice, especially as a pretty elaborate light show comprised their stage backdrop. (Hence the impracticality of a screen right behind them, as was used at a Bob Mould concert in 2014, among others.)

But between the promoter, park district or whoever oversees these things, I think something should have been devised to let fans on the lawn readily see the happenings onstage. I recall when Gehry designed the visually dynamic bandshell, he reasoned that video could be projected on the top front of it, but I've never seen that done.

I know that, especially for area concertgoers enamored with Ravinia, the idea of going to a concert and simply hearing the band isn't that unusual, but it has never been my preference. (I like that Ravinia has added a lawn video screen but now try to only go if I can get an affordable pavilion seat.)

No offense to Tweedy, guitarist Nils Cline, drummer Glenn Kotche, bassist John Stirratt and the other band members, but Wilco isn't the most exciting band to look at, so it was far from a waste of time to primarily just hear them. In fact, it was often cool just to stare at the sky and appreciate the music.

But next time, a video screen or two would definitely be welcome, particularly if I'm not in a better position to put myself in a better position.

Opening the show was a far newer Chicago band called Twin Peaks, devoid of any obvious homages to
David Lynch.

A music-loving friend of mine has championed them, and it turns out that guitarist/vocalist Cadien Lake James is the son of a Facebook friend of Paolo's.

I had familiarized myself a bit via a Spotify Session the band had done, and everything sounded good out in the park, including "Walk to the One You Love," a single from their third album, Down in Heaven, released in May.

Paolo suggested Twin Peaks sounds like the Dandy Warhols, while I sensed some familiarity with Weezer, with a bit of discordance reminiscent of Sonic Youth and references to the Velvet Underground and Rolling Stones.

Showcases like this one should only help the band build their presence, and while they'd be quite fortunate to build a career with the breadth, depth and fan loyalty of Wilco, it's not impossible to imagine one day I could see Twin Peaks headlining the Pritzker Pavilion.

Or at least hear them.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Ours Go to 11: Volume 15, Still Active Concert Acts I've Never Seen But (At Least Kinda) Want To

Except for those that allow no opportunity to sit down--even if just for a few intermittent moments--I still love going to rock concerts.

And by month's end I will have attended nearly 700 in my lifetime, by numerous different artists.

Presumably, anyone who knows me knows that I've seen Bruce Springsteen dozens of times, and have repeatedly caught acts like Paul McCartney, Pearl Jam, The Who, U2, The Rolling Stones and others.

There are a few classic rock acts I've recently seen for the first time--Bryan Ferry, Chicago, Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael McDonald--and live performers I've caught at least once range to include Barry Manilow, Adele, Taylor Swift, Madonna, Metallica, Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett, Al Green, Neil Diamond, Miranda Lambert and Keith Urban.

So who, of still-existing acts--mostly in a rock vein, but not only--haven't I ever seen but want to? The following are all I could come up with, and includes some artists I've repeatedly passed on seeing, even recently or upcoming. And bands such as Blur, Pulp, ELO and the Hoodoo Gurus haven't played Chicago in ages, if ever.

So it's not like there are a bunch of burning desires left (except for great new artists I don't yet know or who don't yet exist).

I realize that not knowing everyone I've seen in concert could be a hindrance to appreciating my omissions, or to recommending others I "should see." As noted, I've seen everyone else I've knowingly cared to (including the few current acts that interested me: Arcade Fire, The Killers, LCD Soundsystem, The Black Keys, Fleet Foxes) but certainly could be oblivious to some tremendous concert performers.

Unseen "current" concert performers that interest me most:

1. Blur
2. Mumford & Sons
3. Tool
4. Electric Light Orchestra
5. Blondie
6. Pulp
7. Echo & the Bunnymen
8. Beyoncé
9. Hall & Oates
10. Journey
11. Hoodoo Gurus 

A few others

Cat Stevens
James Taylor
Bonnie Raitt
The Allman Brothers
Frankie Valli 

Reunions I'd like to see (of bands I didn't)

Led Zeppelin (have seen Page + Plant and Plant solo several times)
Talking Heads (have seen David Byrne play Heads songs)
The Smiths (have seen Johnny Marr)
Dire Straits
Rage Against the Machine (have seen Audioslave and Tom Morello solo)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Ticket to Ride Brings OverArching Enjoyment: Recapping a Rockin' Weekend in St. Louis -- Travelogue

An aspect of my life that makes me proud and happy is having had the opportunity to travel a good deal--to great places.

To illustrate this quickly, I would probably cite destinations like London, Paris, Vienna, Venice, Barcelona, St. Petersburg, numerous other European cities, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Australia, San Francisco, New Orleans, some great national parks and several trips to New York.

But though the locales may sound far less glamorous, my existence has also been considerably enriched by 50+ aggregate visits to cities within a 6-hour driving radius of my home near Chicago:

Indianapolis, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Cleveland, Columbus (OH and IN), Cincinnati, Dayton, Green Bay, Toledo, Canton, Louisville, Minneapolis/St. Paul, St. Louis, Springfield (IL), Madison, Des Moines, the Quad Cities, Dubuque, Galena, Hannibal (MO) and Champaign/Urbana (where my best friend has long lived).

(This doesn't include more than 50 trips to Milwaukee alone, which unlike the above doesn't typically include an overnight stay.)

And if I can exude a bit of self-esteem, one of my favorite things about myself is that I can find as much fun and fulfillment in a mid-sized Midwestern city as I can in European capitals.

Such was the case, again, on a quick weekend trip to St. Louis.

In a couple key ways, this excursion was a bit different than most prior:

1) Instead of driving, I went by train and 2) I was accompanied by a friend, Paolo, rather than traveling solo.

But it also hewed to many regional treks in that it involved a rock concert, baseball stadium, art museum, history museum, local monument, appreciation of architecture and good food with a local flavor.

The impetus for this trip was a concert by the legendary Paul McCartney at Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals. In my previous post, I reviewed the show, which was phenomenal.

This was my 7th time in St. Louis in the past 20 years (most recently in 2011) so some of the other things we did--and didn't--over roughly 25 hours in the city, I had done previously.

Still, starting with the decision to travel by train, pretty much everything about the trip was acutely enjoyable.

Although I have taken several long-distance trains in Europe, I only recall going from New York to Boston in 2000 as involving a U.S. train ride of more than an hour or so.

But with the concert on Saturday night, there was no reason for me to take an unpaid day off work on Friday or Monday, and driving roughly 5 hours in each direction on consecutive days didn't hold much appeal.

I suppose I could have explored flying or taking a Greyhound or MegaBus, the latter of which I used to go to & fro St. Louis in 2011 around a Foo Fighters concert, but without explicitly comparing options or schedules, Amtrak just seemed like a good idea. This was probably exacerbated by sentimentality for the Beatles' movie A Hard Day's Night, which largely involves the lads on a train trip and whose title song Sir Paul has been opening with on this tour.

It was interesting and enlightening for me simply to wait for the train after getting a ride down to
Union Station and discovering that the old, classical structure is now really just an empty husk with some out-of-the-way benches; the train tracks and passenger lounges now being under a building on the east side of Canal.

We were taking the 303 Lincoln Service, which stops in Joliet, Pontiac, Normal, Springfield and a few other locations along the way to St. Louis, so in the waiting area--along with three pigeons that kept flying around inside; I imagined eating a donut and getting Tippi Hedrened--included a mix of students, farmers, Amish folks and Cardinals fans (the Cards played the Cubs at Wrigley Thursday-Sunday).

I learned that having reserved seats on the train didn't mean assigned seats, but there was enough room in the Coach cars for Paolo and I to each have our own pair of seats in front of one another.

Over the roughly 5-1/2 hour ride, I mostly dozed and fiddled around on my phone, while Paolo engaged in a long conversation with a man across the aisle from him, who was a farmer formerly in the Black Ops. He wasn't from St. Louis itself, but corroborated a BBQ tip Paolo had received from a friend, which we followed.

Lincoln, IL
There weren't many amazing sights to see along the way, but I enjoyed noticing the quaint downtown of a city named Lincoln, going right past the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, catching glimpses of old Route 66 alongside much of the train route and seeing the Gateway Arch in the distance as we came upon and across the Mississippi River.

In downtown St. Louis is an old Union Station that I knew had become a popular shopping mall years ago, but I figured trains still arrived there (or essentially there) and had booked a nearby hotel called the Pear Tree Inn by Drury through

Turns out our train came into the Gateway Transportation Center about 4 blocks away, which wasn't a big deal as we'd packed light for an overnight trip, but caused a bit of initial directional confusion.

After checking in, we walked about 15 minutes west to the recommended barbecue joint, Pappy's Smokehouse, where we both got a half-slab of ribs with a side portion of brisket, a fried ear of corn and sweet potato fries for me and potato salad for Paolo.

With a quartet of BBQ sauces on the table to try, we both found the ribs to be fantastic, loved the corn and potatoes but found the brisket (sliced not chopped) to be somewhat dull. Burnt Ends probably would've been better than the sliced brisket, but was sold out for the day when we got there around 4pm.

I also enjoyed two bottles of locally made Fitz pop, in cream soda and black cherry flavors.

We took an Uber to the main riverfront area of downtown, and as with four other St. Louis Uber drivers utilized, we enjoyed chatting with the guy behind the wheel. It's always fun to gain the perspective of locals, from how Cardinals fans feel now that the Cubs are dominant, to whether or not St. Louis denizens consider themselves part of the South, and the Uber rides were consistently enlightening.

Downtown we saw (externally only in both cases) the beautifully domed Old Courthouse dating to 1828 and the Wainwright Building, designed by Louis Sullivan with his trademark resplendent terra cotta adornments.

With the McCartney concert ticketed for 8:00pm, on the train down I had purchased a pair of Gateway Arch "Journey to the Top" tram passes for 5:50pm. I had ridden to the top of the Arch previously, and knew it wasn't that brilliant an experience, but Paolo never had and I felt it something he should do at least once.

With much of the tourist area of St. Louis a construction zone--including major renovations at Union Station and a downtown plaza completely torn up--the Museum of Westward Expansion under the arch is also undergoing a wholesale re-creation. I don't know when it will reopen, but it looks like it will be awhile.

So all of the beautiful riverside grassland that surrounds the Gateway Arch as part of National Park Service's Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is currently obliterated, making for getting to the arch more cumbersome than normal.

But in arriving by 5:30pm given airport-like security procedures, buying tickets in advance was proven wise as we sped past many waiting patrons.

Until we didn't.

Having gotten in line based on a signboard telling us to do so, we were barked at by an Arch associate that only those with tickets for 5:10 tours should be in line, as they were running behind due to too many people being clustered at the top of the arch.

With no ready waiting area, benches or indication about when we should check back, the yelling lady was really pissing me off.

We were able to get into the free movie about the building of the arch halfway through--the feats of architect/engineer Eero Saarinen and dozens of planners & workers was really rather amazing--and got back in line around 6:10, still officially too early but thanks to a cool employee who listened to our rationale about having to get to the concert

We were able to move to a subsequent queue for the tram about 6:30, and finally got on one--in a tiny, claustrophobic compartment--about 20 minutes later.

Once atop of the arch, we took photos for about 10 minutes through long rectangular windows, and then had to wait to come back down.

So even with a timed ticket, we wound up spending about 2 hours at the Gateway Arch for only 20
minutes of being inside it, including the rides up & down. Especially given the annoying yelling lady--who would have delayed us even 20 minutes longer than her kinder colleague--it was much more stressful than it needed to be, and though a St. Louis staple and gloriously beautiful structure, it wasn't really worth the hassle.

Though it was only a 15-minute walk to Busch Stadium, it was about 7:50pm before we got in and to our seats in Section 447. An A/V presentation including recorded versions of Beatles songs by other artists started by 8:00, but Sir Paul and his band didn't take the stage until 8:27pm.

The next 2 hours and 40 minutes or so was pretty damn phenomenal, and you can read my review of the show here.

We walked about a mile back to our hotel afterwards, but stopped at an open-late restaurant we happened to pass called Maurizio's Pizza & Sports Bar.

Paolo got Chicken Wings and declared them among the best he's ever had, while I ordered Toasted Ravioli, vaguely recalling that it had first been created in St. Louis. (This was later corroborated.)

I found my room at the Pear Tree Inn to be perfectly comfortable--Paolo was in the room next door but I presume he felt likewise--and have written a brief review for

In the morning he utilized the Fitness Center and me a whirlpool, before we enjoyed the complimentary breakfast together.

Though a bit disappointed there was no bacon, I was delighted to find DIY Belgium wafflemakers, and we both felt it quite classy for the hotel's GM to stop and chat with all the guests at breakfast.

Max Beckmann, Acrobats, 1939.
Outside, we encountered something I have almost never experienced on vacation going back 16+ years: Rain.

But it's not that I've never seen rain while traveling, just that for as long as I can remember it hasn't
ever interfered with my plans for a given day. And this held true in St. Louis. On Saturday when I was going to an outdoor concert, it didn't rain; on Sunday when we were planning to be inside museums much of the day, there were some showers that didn't affect us much.

Within the vast Forest Park, which also contains the Saint Louis Zoo, the outdoor MUNY theater and a golf course, we went to the St. Louis Art Museum and the Missouri History Museum, both excellent and free of charge.

Jean-Leon Gerome, The Sentinel at the Sultan's Tomb
Even in both being thoroughly acquainted with the wonderful Art Institute of Chicago, and having visited dozens of other acclaimed art museums, we found the SLAM collection to be world-class.

Particularly striking was a roomful of paintings by German expressionist Max Beckmann--SLAM is said to have more of his works than any other museum--and four stupendous Van Goghs hanging next to each other (and another nearby).

There was also great stuff by Picasso, Chagall, de Chirico, Modigliani, Renoir, Degas, El Greco, Rodin, Chuck Close and many others, as well as excellent Chinese and Egyptian holdings.

I also found myself wonderfully bemused by a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (shown nearby) in which a decorative chest reminded me of the Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building that we'd seen the day before.

The rain precluded us from walking across the park to the Missouri History Museum, but an interpark
trolley took us there for a $2 fare.

I knew from their website that special exhibitions currently include ones on Little Black Dresses and Route 66, both proving enjoyable to peruse.

We also walked through the permanent collections covering the history of St. Louis, and a gallery pertaining to the World's Fair held in Forest Park in 1904 (incredibly, the Olympics were also held there concurrently).

There was also a replica of Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis plane--plus a newspaper gallery commemorating his famed transatlantic flight--and a large statue of Thomas Jefferson, tying to his facilitating the Louisiana Purchase that brought the U.S. acquisition of Missouri.

A particularly engaging Uber driver enlivened the ride to Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, a local institution several people had pointed us to. I ordered a "Concrete" with caramel, pineapple and pralines, which was great but not so much more so than similar concoctions I had elsewhere. Paolo didn't quite get the concept of "mix-ins" and wound up simply with chocolate custard.

Still needing an actual lunch-type meal--around 3:30 at that point--we were going to check out an Irish pub called Maggie O'Brien's near Union Station, but logistically deferred to eating at Syberg's in our hotel, where we had returned to retrieve our held bags.

After a Reuben for Paolo and fish 'n chips for me, we Ubered back to the Gateway Transportation Center, caught a 5:30 Amtrak back to Chicago's Union Station and Ubered our respective ways home.

We didn't get to the Budweiser Tour, but both have done so previously, and were told by multiple Uber drivers to check out the City Museum, an outdoor playground at which architectural remnants are supposedly gathered for kids of all ages to climb upon. The Missouri Botanical Garden was also cited, but I've visited it before.

Someday I'd like to check out the ornate interior of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, and though
I've been to largely Italian community known as The Hill and seen the houses where Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola lived across the street as boys, given that both have passed within the past year, I wouldn't have minded another pilgrimage. (I remain unclear on the ability to call Uber audibles.)

But for the most part, it was a weekend rather perfectly spent: riding the rails, savoring food, history, culture, architecture, a few minutes in the Arch and a Beatle, in the company of a good friend.

Though it was just a quick weekend visit, I feel it was a pretty satisfying (re)exploration of St. Louis.

Still, I imagine at some point I may even "Get Back."

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A Good Day's Knight: In Rocking St. Louis' Busch Stadium, Paul McCartney Provides a Magical History Tour -- St. Louis Concert Review

Concert Review

Paul McCartney
Busch Stadium, St. Louis
August 13, 2016

Other than family, friends and a few other people I've personally known, I don't think it's too rash or hyperbolic to suggest that Paul McCartney has positively affected my life more than anyone else alive (save perhaps for Bruce Springsteen, and like many, his musical career descended from the Beatles' arrival in America and appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964).

Given my lifelong love of rock 'n roll--including quite specifically and deeply The Beatles--and my appreciation for just how broadly four lads from Liverpool forever changed the world, the above thought would probably have validity based solely on what Paul did (alongside John, George and Ringo) before he turned 22--and prior to my being born.

It would be hard for me to overstate my regard and reverence for the Beatles' recorded output that--with due deference to Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and other rock pioneers who influenced the band--I consider the Holy Grail of popular music, and among the very greatest artistic achievements in history.

With Paul just 21 when the Beatles performed on Ed Sullivan to the largest TV audience to date--having already written (with John Lennon) and recorded "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," "She Loves You," "All My Loving," "I Saw Her Standing There," "Please Please Me," and other classics--and only 28 when the Beatles disbanded in 1970, he was integral in creating a discography that has provided me with immeasurable enjoyment, enrichment and emotional nourishment.

But Sir Paul--he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1997--has also tremendously entertained me live & in-person via 11 concerts I've attended since 1989, the last 10 coming in this millennium.

Certainly, his legacy and songbook--including from the Beatles, Wings and lengthy solo career--were enough to draw me the first few times.

But I keep coming back--and since 2009 have seen him in such disparate places as Tulsa, Paris, Milwaukee, Chicago's Wrigley Field and now St. Louis--for reasons that extend far beyond nostalgia, sentimentality and historical appreciation.

Even at the age of 74, Paul McCartney and his band--of four others (Brian Ray, Rusty Anderson, Abe Laboriel Jr. and Wix Wickens) who have played with him for nearly 15 years--still put on one of the best concerts you're liable to see or hear.

To the point that although I expected him to be great at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, I repeatedly found myself rather awestruck at how awestruck I was yet again.

Or maybe, amazed.

McCartney isn't playing Chicago this year--and I skipped seeing him in 2015 at Lollapalooza--so I decided to take an Amtrak down to St. Louis with my friend Paolo.

Over the course of about 25 hours in the city, we also enjoyed great BBQ at Pappy's Smokehouse, went to two superb museums, rode to the top of the Gateway Arch, enjoyed famous frozen custard at Ted Drewes and more. I will try to write a bit of a travelogue in coming days, but the clear impetus and highlight of the trip was the opportunity to see "Macca."

Certainly, I could sufficiently justify the excursion, effort and expense simply by saying that Sir Paul sang 38 songs over the course of nearly 3 hours, that his voice sounded strong on a beautiful night and his band typically robust, and that it was a treat for a pair of Beatlemaniacs to sing along heartily to some of the greatest tunes ever written.

That probably won't convince the skeptics, and even fellow fans couldn't be blamed for going, "Yeah, of course he's great, but you've seen him 10 times before, how different or special could it be?"

But while I would certainly concur that 21st century Paul McCartney concerts have largely followed a similar outline, with several of the same staples showing up each time out, thanks to I can tell you that I've heard him play 115 different songs over the years, most of them rather terrific.

And even though a humid summer night in a NL Central ballpark with Paolo alongside in roughly comparable upper-deck-behind-home-plate seats might make this Busch Stadium gig seem congruent to a July 2013 show at Milwaukee's Miller Park, 15 of the 38 songs varied. (See Saturday's St. Louis setlist here.)

Especially given the train ride down--all that was missing was Paul's "grandfather"--it was sublime to hear McCartney open with "A Hard Day's Night," a song he's never played on previous tours.

From there, he mixed in several Beatles songs that haven't been regular concert selections--"Can't Buy Me Love," "Here, There and Everywhere," "You Won't See Me," "The Fool on the Hill," "Birthday"--while omitting several that have been ("The Long and Winding Road," "Paperback Writer," "Get Back," "Day Tripper," among others).

It was fun to hear him include the Beatles' debut single, "Love Me Do," from 1962 and an even older song--"In Spite of All The Danger," which was the first original composition McCartney, Lennon and Harrison recorded as The Quarrymen in 1958--while also performing "FourFiveSeconds," his 2015 collaboration with Kanye West and Rihanna. (Before you scoff, note that it has been played on Spotify over 325 million times, tenfold that of any Beatles' song.)

Even the somewhat odd inclusion of 1980's electro-pop "Temporary Secretary" served to illustrate just how much rock's greatest living legend still enjoys making things fun for himself...and his audience.

I used to criticize Sir Paul for too much sameness in his shows, but while he prefers to keep his setlists static on each tour--and regularly play "Back in the USSR," "Let It Be," "Live and Let Die" (complete with mega pyrotechnics) and "Hey Jude" to round out the main set--I've come to appreciate the way he switches things up from tour-to-tour or year-to-year.

And I will never tire of hearing "Blackbird," "Eleanor Rigby," "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," "We Can Work It Out," "Maybe I'm Amazed," "Band on the Run" and the songs cited in the paragraph above.

Honestly, that would be enough for a rather spectacular and delightful concert.

But what made it even better was the inclusion of enough disparate Beatles songs to blow my mind anew at just how supernaturally great they were--and reiterate my belief that Paul was John's equal from a songwriting standpoint.

This--along with Wings songs like "Letting Go," "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five" and "Hi, Hi, Hi," as well as worthwhile recent tracks ("Save Me," "My Valentine," "Queenie Eye," "New") that demonstrate that Paul McCartney still loves to make music and perform it for people--made the concert a religious experience for me. (More so than most actual religious experiences, truth be told.)

Sure, I've long heard many of the same stories Paul has shared from the stage--about how he saw Jimi Hendrix play "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in London on the Sunday after the album was released on a Friday, and Jimi cheekily asked Eric Clapton to tune his guitar; about performing in Russia and having government officials tell him they learned to speak English from Beatles records--but he seemed to clearly get that some devoted fans may have heard them before.

And yes, I've heard him pay tribute to departed mates John (with McCartney's "Here Today" being about a conversation he wished they'd had) and George (with the Harrison penned "Something" begun with Paul playing ukelele) in much the same way several times.

And for the 11th time in my life, I sang the "na-na-na-na" part of "Hey Jude" with all the men in the audience, before Paul beckoned "now just the ladies" to do likewise.

But once again, I loved it all.

And especially in a year that has shown the mortality of rock 'n roll superstars perhaps more than any other, it greatly warmed my soul to see Paul McCartney playing a phenomenal, energetic, often hard-rocking show in a packed stadium.

...that stands just feet away from where, at the former Busch Stadium, the Beatles performed one of their last concerts 50 years earlier, on August 21, 1966.

I can't really say it was a hard day's night, as only frustrating delays at the Gateway Arch just prior to the show brought any hint of stress to an otherwise pretty enjoyable day in the life. 

But for the 11th time live--plus countless evenings enlivened by vinyl, Memorex, radio, CD, MP3s, Spotify, Beatles' movies and more--the magnificent, then & now, Sir Paul McCartney made for a truly unforgettable knight.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Ours Go to 11: Volume 14, Some Books I Recommend

I am not a great nor vociferous reader of books; I spend far more time reading newspapers and magazines and internet articles.

And when I do read books, I'm fairly predictable, as I've read virtually the entire oeuvres of page-turning novelists Harlan Coben and Lee Child--and always look forward to their newest efforts. (I've also read multiple works of other authors, most recently Jonathan Tropper.)

But I think I've read enough good books of various ills and writers to cobble together a list of 11 that I would recommend to almost anyone.

I will keep it to one title per author, but especially in the case of Coben,  Child, Tropper and also Michael Lewis and others, you may well enjoy almost anything they have written.

This is not a ranked list nor a "Best Books" survey; just a smattering of books I've found worthwhile. All should be readily findable at most public libraries, in paperback and in e-book form. 

1. Six Years - Harlan Coben
2. A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway
3. Flash Boys - Michael Lewis
4. Echo Burning - Lee Child
5. The Book of Joe - Jonathan Tropper
6. The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)
7. Predator Nation - Charles H. Ferguson
8. The Art Forger - B.A. Shapiro
9. Joyland - Stephen King
10. Griftopia - Matt Taibbi
11. Trust Your Eyes - Linwood Barclay

And a few more

Basket Case - Carl Hiaasen
Finishing the Hat and Look I Finished a Hat - Stephen Sondheim
Born to Run - Bruce Springsteen (being released 9/27/16)