Thursday, July 11, 2019

Come See About Me: At 75, Diana Ross Remains a Supreme Entertainer -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Diana Ross
w/ opening act Rhonda Ross
Chicago Theater
July 10, 2019
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Over the years, my perceptions of Diana Ross have not always been positive.

In fact, beyond the indelible string of hits she made with the Supremes, and then on her own, I would say I haven't really liked her.

She seemed to define "diva" in the worst connotations, with a out-sized ego, megastar affectations and what appeared to be an odd friendship with Michael Jackson.

Yet the woman always could sing.

And in my not only having seen many of the surviving male legends of the '60s, but in 2017 the similarly legendary Aretha Franklin, plus all kinds of musical theater and a number of tribute shows by the Black Ensemble Theatre, it was time for me to see Diana Ross.

...who turned 75 on March 26 and has embarked on a tour to celebrate the milestone.

Whichever of my perceptions may have had whatever degrees of truth underneath, none detracted in any way from Monday's show at the Chicago Theatre, which was thoroughly delightful.

As was Diana herself.

Until the encores--when Ross sat onstage and fielded questions from the audience--she didn't speak much  as she ran through a cavalcade of hits.

Oh, but what a cavalcade.

"I'm Coming Out"--appropriately to start--"More Today Than Yesterday," then four Supreme classics ("Stop! In the Name of Love," "Come See About Me," "You Can't Hurry Love," "Love Child") over the next five songs.

Proudly mentioning that she'd lost 20 lbs. from drinking lots of water, Ross looked great and her voice sounded terrific, backed by crack musicians and a quartet of vocalists. (The singer's daughter, Rhonda Ross, opened the show with a nice half-hour of her own, including covers of Aerosmith and Adele.)

On a few occasions, Diana would head offstage to put on another astonishing dress, but this gave the band some showcase time in extending "Love Child" and "Ease on Down the Road." (See the setlist here.)

"Upside Down" was a clear highlight as Ross not only urged the crowd to dance while shaking her own hips, she brought a few patrons onstage to dance with her.

Later she would also venture out into the crowd.

While I would've loved a few more Supreme cuts--"You Keep Me Hangin' On," "Baby Love," "I Hear a Symphony"--her rendition of Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain" was lovely. (Ross notably played Holiday in the Lady Sings the Blues biopic.)

"Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To)," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and a cover of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" nicely wrapped up the main set.

Though she hadn't spoken extensively throughout the show, Ross was far more gracious and pleasant than haughty or pretentious. But she really endeared herself during the brief Q&A after the encore break.

Asked who she would like to duet with but never had, Diana cited Jennifer Hudson, believing the Chicago native to be in the house.

Despite excited applause, Hudson was seemingly not to be found, and the performance appeared to end with "Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand" after about 90 minutes.

But with some of the crowd already headed to the exits, Hudson then came onstage. 

At Ross' behest, the pair sang a good portion of "Endless Love," originally a duet Diana did with Lionel Richie.

Hudson sounded great but was clearly in awe of the living legend, and her surprise appearance made a cool evening even more so. 

I make no bones that beyond concerts by longtime favorites, I'm also trying to see several other esteemed performers before the opportunity disappears. (I'll soon be seeing Barbra Streisand in a similar vein.)

But seeing Diana Ross wound up going well beyond reverence, curiosity or just wanting to cross her off my list.

While still not quite ranking with my all-time favorites--though she's nearly as legendary as anybody--she proved, abetted by a warm smile throughout the show, that she truly is Supremely entertaining.
Play Vid



Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Just One Off-Note: Sheer Delight of Goodman's 'The Music Man' Lessened by Central Casting -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Music Man
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 18
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It’s somewhat astonishing to note that West Side Story—clearly one of the greatest musicals ever created—didn’t win the Tony Award for Best New Musical when it was eligible in 1958.

Personally, I consider WSS my third favorite stage musical of all-time, behind The Producers and Les Misérables, both of which came decades later.

But my fourth favorite musical is the one that beat West Side Story for that 1958 Tony:

The Music Man

As with WSS, and my likely #5, My Fair LadyCabaret, Hamilton and Sunday in the Park with George are also in the mix—I was first indoctrinated to The Music Man as a movie, starring Robert Preston, Shirley Jones and Buddy Hackett and released in 1962 (long before I saw it).

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
Thanks to Preston, Jones, Hackett and composer/lyricist Meredith Willson, I have relished many of The Music Man’s infectious songs since before I was a teen:

“Rock Island,” “Iowa Stubborn,” “(Ya Got) Trouble,” “Goodnight, My Someone,” “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Pickalittle (Talk-a-Little),” “Marian the Librarian,” “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” “Shipoopi,” “Lida Rose,” “Gary, Indiana” and “Till There Was You,” the last of which was actually covered by the Beatles on their famed first Ed Sullivan Show appearance.

Strictly as a collection of catchy show tunes, I don’t know that any musical tops The Music Man.

Though going back to a high school production when I was a student, I have seen the show onstage five other times, unlike terrific Broadway, touring and renditions of West Side Story--and most other great musicals--I'd never experienced a truly astonishing live version of The Music Man.

Until now.

Mostly.

Under the direction of the rightfully esteemed Mary Zimmerman, Goodman Theatre's current staging is predominantly terrific and I had a smile plastered to my face most of Monday night.

As proven yet again with Lookingglass' The Steadfast Tin Soldier last Christmas, Zimmerman is a master when it comes to whimsy, and her take on this classic musical included some inspired physical humor.

I refrained from singing out loud but demonstrably enjoyed each of Willson's mirthful melodies and lyrics as they danced into my ears, courtesy of stellar performers such as Monica West (Marian), Jonathan Butler-Duplessis and Heidi Kettenring (Eulalie MackecknieShinn).

To have Zimmerman cast Geoff Packard as "the music man," Harold Hill, after he had been in her Goodman musical productions of The Jungle Book and Candide, also bespeaks his considerable talent.

But without wanting to be too harsh given Packards's estimable effort, I didn't care much for his take, which seemed bland, too softly sung and devoid of any (crucial to the show) chemistry with West's Marian.

Initially, when his tonality on “(Ya Got) Trouble” was considerably different than Preston's, the variance was no big deal. And to be clear, Packard is a professional performer and quality singer.

But more so than his being the centerpiece, this Music Man was most joyful on the ensemble numbers--“Iowa Stubborn,” “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” a wonderfully choreographed (by Denis Jones) “Shipoopi,” led by Butler-Duplessis.

Ideally, West might've made for a tad more distinctive Marian, but her vocals were exquisite on “Goodnight, My Someone,” “My White Knight” and “Till There Was You.”

With impressive--but at times oddly minimalist--scenery by Daniel Ostling and costuming by Ana Kuzmanic the show was a visual delight, and the 12-piece orchestra under the direction of Jermaine Hill sounded fantastic.

So in many key ways, this was the caliber of Music Man I've long wanted to see and those not nearly as critical may well deem Zimmerman's production to be magnificent. (I know I haven't really described the plot, but for the uninitiated, a shady salesman comes to an Iowa town intent on selling band instruments and uniforms, and winds up unduly smitten with the town librarian and piano teacher. And there's a bunch of great songs.)

@@@@1/2 out of 5 means I really, really enjoyed the show, but that I found it just shy of perfect.

So this is effusively far more of a recommendation than not, and I'm glad to note that the Goodman's run has already been extended to August 18.

But having recently read that Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster will star in The Music Man on Broadway beginning in Sept. 2020, I'm now even more hopeful I might be able to see that production.

Or, at least sometime, a rendition that--even more than Goodman's largely exquisite one--fully matches my love for The Music Man.

A Bittersweet Mix: 'Darling Grenadine' Nicely Offers Something New at Marriott, but Not Quite Deliciously So -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Darling Grenadine
a world premiere musical
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru August 18
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Especially in being a new musical that the venerated Marriott Theater is presenting to its large, loyal subscriber base--which presumably includes many fans of the classics that are in the theater's stock in trade--Darling Grenadine is good

The premise is good, the book, music and lyrics all written by Daniel Zaitchik are good and the performers are good.

It’s certainly an estimable effort all the way around. From Marriott lead artistic director Aaron Thielen opting to schedule and direct this piece, to the excellent and likable leads—Heath Saunders and Katherine Thomas—to a number of fine, wonderfully-delivered songs, such as "Swell," "Party Hat," "No Good for Me," "Grenadine" and "Paradise."

There's even an ingenious depiction of a labrador, with Phillip Huber doing some delightful dog puppetry.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
But whatever it is that tangibly—and probably even more so, intangibly—takes a musical from good to great, IMHO Darling Grenadine doesn’t, in full, achieve that elevation.

Essentially we have a Manhattan love story, with Saunders’ Harry a hip composer who has struck it rich with a commercial jingle, yet a guy who can be considered underachieving—in part due to being an alcoholic. 

Smitten by Louise (Thomas), an ensemble member and lead actress understudy in a Broadway musical, Harry hits on her at the Stage Door, successfully. 

They start dating, but despite a loving brother named Paul (Nick Cosgrove) and a devoted dog with the same name, Harry’s addiction begins to become a problem. 

Rounding out the cast are Allison Sill and Brandon Springman, who rotate through various roles, while trumpeter Mike Nappi often appears at the fringes of the in-the-round stage. 

In terms of the small cast size and lack of big production numbers or much choreography, this is a more intimate musical than Marriott typically stages. 

This isn’t really a detriment, and there isn’t much I will cite as being “wrong” about Darling Grenadine.

As stated above, it's good, but it just didn’t wow me on par with many better musicals, even among similar chamber pieces. 

Just to mention it, I was reminded of They’re Playing Our Song, The Last Five Years and Marry Me A Little, the latter a show featuring Stephen Sondheim outtakes that—in a 2017 Chicago production by Porchlight Theatre—happened to star Katherine Thomas’ sister Bethany Thomas. 

With some of Darling Grenadine’s songs catching my ear considerably more than others, it dawned on me that I could theoretically like this show a good bit more with repeated viewings or the benefit of a cast recording. 

But that’s a hurdle new musicals are required to clear, and at which Zaitchik’s modern score proves
less adroit than some. 

While I applaud Marriott serving this new work to subscribers and a la carte patrons--and despite some puzzling small video graphics, scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec helps Thielen make it fit well into square auditorium--it’s also possible it would come across stronger in a smaller, more traditional or perhaps cabaret-type theater. 

Although the show has been workshopped and developed elsewhere, this production constitutes a world premiere, and even with the imperfections, its strengths warrant that Darling Grenadine find its way to stages around the country and world, perhaps with some additional refining. 

So despite a somewhat middling review, I’m not writing it off, dissuading you from checking it out or am disinterested in ever seeing it again. Not only is Darling Grenadine good, it's quite admirable.

But at this point, it’s just not great.

Delectably Off-"Beat": 'Head Over Heels' Takes Go-Go's Music in Ambitiously Intriguing Directions -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Head Over Heels
a musical featuring Go-Go's songs
Kokandy Productions
at Theater Wit, Chicago
Thru August 25
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When I first saw a synopsis of Head Over Heels--in Chris Jones' Chicago Tribune review of the Broadway opening--it sounded like an unnecessarily obtuse affair.

In being a "jukebox musical" with songs by The Go-Go's, the show doesn't provide a biography of the band or directly celebrate modern womanhood in light of the all-female group having several big hits in the 1980s.

Rather, it uses the songs--"We Got the Beat," "Our Lips are Sealed," "Vacation," "Head Over Heels" and many more--in a contemporary adaptation of a piece of 16th century literature, The Arcadia, by Sir Phillip Sidney.

There's nothing wrong with creative ambition, and the show's book writer, Jeff Whitty, handled the same duties for the masterful Avenue Q, but from Jones' review and some other lukewarm notices, it seemed like a case of overreach.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Having now seen the show, which opened on Broadway less than a year ago but whose closure in
January--with no subsequent national tour--allowed it to go-go onto local productions rather swiftly, I can say Head Over Heels works considerably better than I might've imagined.

It's a lot of fun and quite worthwhile, even if it still doesn't strike me as a concept I'd invest my money in.

In other words, I really liked it, but I can understand why it wasn't a box office smash on Broadway.

Having never before heard of The Arcadia, I can’t speak to how closely James Magruder's adaptation hews to Sidney’s original prose poem, but my comprehension was aided by reading the Head Over Heels plot synopsis on Wikipedia beforehand.

In the kingdom of Arcadia, where—naturally—everyone's got “the Beat,” Philoclea (Caitlyn Cerza), the daughter of the haughty king Basilius (Frankie Leo Bennett) is in love with Musidorus (Jeremiah Alsop), an old pal deemed beneath her station, while her supposedly gorgeous sister Pamela (Bridget Adams-King) pines for love. 

The kindly Queen Gynecia (Liz Norton), a gender-fluid oracle named Pythio (Parker Guidry) and Mopsa (Deanalis Resto), a woman beguiled by Pamela, also factor in. 

Stretching the songbook to include some Belinda Carlisle solo hits, Musidorus belts out “Mad About You” for Philoclea, while some clandestine romances demand “Our Lips are Sealed” prior to proclamations of falling “Head Over Heels.” 

In a variety of ways, the somewhat campy musical celebrates LGBTQ+ romance, and it’s easy to see why—despite the Broadway failure—it’s garnered a cult following. 

In the lobby pre-show, I spoke with a patron who’d come from Georgia after seeing Head Over Heels six times on Broadway, a tally considered so paltry by other devotees as to get him ridiculed. 

As Jones intimated in his review of the Broadway show, the Go-Go’s—still the only all-female band to have a #1 album—might well have merited having their own story told in a musical featuring their songs, but for those willing to go with the originality, Head Over Heels is a blast.

And as someone who really only knew the Go-Go’s (and Carlisle’s) big hits, I relished the show—and the Broadway Cast Recording—introducing me to such catchy tunes as “Beautiful,” “Get Up and Go,” “Good Girl,” “How Much More” and “Lust to Love.” 

Carrying out its conceit to have the characters speak in an Elizabethan tongue, Head Over Heels is quite shrewd, but it also becomes a tad much and I couldn’t help wonder how much more pleasing it truly was than a tribute concert featuring the same songs—including Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth”—might be. 

Because for all of Whitty’s wittiness, nicely showcased at Theatre Wit under the direction of Derek Van Barham & Elizabeth Swanson, much of the buoyancy of Head Over Heels is to be found in the songs themselves. 

Certainly, it’s clever how they get woven into the epic romance, updated to celebrate inclusiveness--which the casting nicely furthers, with multiple roles filled by talented people who might may not seem like obvious choices--but at the end of the night, the show tops out at terrifically fun, rather than truly phenomenal. 

But especially given where my perception of this musical began, by all means consider this a recommendation for you to Go-Go.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Smile Like You Mean It: The Killers Delightfully Blow Away Vast Summerfest Crowd -- Milwaukee Concert Review

Concert Review

The Killers
w/ opening act Death Cab for Cutie
American Family Insurance Amphitheatre
Summerfest, Milwaukee, WI
July 5, 2019
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I've gone up to Milwaukee's Summerfest more than 20 times from my suburban Chicago homes over the years, and though I always enjoy the multi-stage musical extravaganza, I can't say I still relish the effort of getting there and back, typically on my own.

Last year, to see Arcade Fire, I took an Amtrak and stayed at a hotel.

And to catch the Killers--whom I perceive as Arcade Fire's only peers as a great live band arising this century--on Friday I took a somewhat meandering driving route through some southern Wisconsin farmland. (To be fair, I also like Coldplay as a live act, an undeservedly under-the-radar British band, Maxïmo Park, and lately the Struts, but the new millennium remains rather "meh" for substantive new rock bands I know.)

Having worked part of the day--I don't get paid if I don't--by the time I reached the Summerfest grounds I had missed some bold name 4:00pm performers: Berlin, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, The Spinners, Jesus Jones.

But my tack is to park at the U.S. Bank building downtown--I got a $2 meter spot on the street--and enter the fest from the north end and work my way south.

After getting a Klement's Sausage, I sat at their comfortable cabaret-style stage to see a bit of a band called Vivo--I think I caught them last year, too--but their sound was overpowered by an act coming from the U.S. Cellular stage.

So I wandered over there, where a really enthusiastic crowd was enjoying Leonid & Friends, who I've learned are a large Russian troupe that plays songs by the band Chicago really, really well.

I only caught them finishing their set with an Earth, Wind and Fire classic, "September," but was impressed enough to "Like" their Facebook page and keep them in mind.

Puerile or not, I can't say it hurt that their lineup included one of the most attractive women I've ever seen.

Before getting to the mainstage at Summerfest, now dubbed the American Family Insurance Amphitheater, the only other act I saw a bit of was called Cerfus Project, who played cover songs. I vaguely think I also saw them last year, or else someone rather similar. 

Opening for the Killers was Death Cab for Cutie, a veteran alt-rock band whose 2003 album Transatlanticism I liked a good bit, but whom I haven't paid much attention to after 2005's Plans.

Still led by the now slimmed down singer/guitarist Ben Gibbard--I had only before seen DCFC in 2004, opening for Pearl Jam on the Vote for Change Tour in Toledo--the band made for a solid warmup act.

But beyond the few tunes I knew--"The New Year," "Crooked Teeth," most prominently--I can't really say they thrilled me.

From note one however, The Killers did.

Actually even before note one, as before coming onstage they shrewdly let the PA blast "American Music" by Milwaukee heroes, The Violent Femmes, on the 4th of July Weekend.

With far more personnel than the original quartet--only two of whom still tours--the Las Vegas band led by dynamic singer Brandon Flowers kicked things off with "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine," from their 2004 debut, Hot Fuss.

From a good seat in the pavilion, it sounded great, as did the subsequent "Somebody Told Me" and "Spaceman."

Flowers joked that the Killers' previous gig, headlining England's massive Glastonbury festival, was simply a rehearsal for Milwaukee, and throughout the night they did nothing to disprove my sense that the outdoor, beer-soaked, festival setting would serve them quite well.

They've often played Lollapalooza and other fests around the world, but although this was my fifth Killers show, it was my first outdoor experience with them.

Far more than Chicago's south suburban Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, I generally like the Milwaukee shed--which was long-known as the Marcus Amphitheater--and have seen many great shows there over the years at Summerfest, dating back to 1987 with Bruce Hornsby & the Range.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Santana, Rush, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Pearl Jam, The Rolling Stones, Rush, KISS, Eagles, Smashing Pumpkins, Steve Winwood, Milwaukee's own BoDeans and last year's fantastic Arcade Fire show.

The Killers delivered a performance that fits well into that pantheon, and made me glad I made the trek.

In part I did so because the last time I saw the band, in January 2018 at Chicago's United Center, I was somewhat disappointed.

This might sound backasswards, but having then sensed that they had hit a rut, marred by the lackluster Wonderful Wonderful album, and with guitarist Dave Keuning and bassist Mark Stoermer opting not to tour, I wanted to see the Killers blow me away again.

Touring bassist Jake Blanton and guitarist Ted Sablay--alongside Flowers and the permanent powerhouse drummer Ronnie Vannucci, two other side musicians and four female backing vocalists--no longer feel like temps at a new job (believe me, I know the feeling) and perhaps realizing that Wonderful Wonderful wasn't, the band played just two tracks from it rather than six soon after its late 2017 release.

Of course, this is something of a double-edged sword, as with the Killers' last two studio albums decidedly being their worst two of five, it's not like they're creating anything new and amazing. (Flowers recently turned 38, but this recent blog post of mine may well be apt.)

Hence, the same staples from the Hot Fuss, Sam's Town and Day & Age fill the setlist--you can see it here--but most are great delights and Flowers remains an excellent singer and frontman.

After welcoming a fan onstage to play bass on "For Reasons Unknown"--"Hannah from Milwaukee," who acquitted herself so well that I couldn't help think she should replace Blanton on future tour dates--I felt Flowers showed a lack of agility in not having her stick around for another song to the crowd's delight

But at least he audibled into "This River Is Wild," a tune from Sam's Town that I love.

Later, noting that touring guitarist Sablay is a Fond du Lac, Wisconsin native whose first concert attended was INXS at the same Marcus Amphitheater, they played a sweet cover of "Never Tear Us Apart," but this cool moment also ended a tad too abruptly.

But other than the lack of great new material, these were the only, rather minor blips.

And the show-closing run through "Read My Mind," "All These Things That I've Done," "When You Were Young," "Human" and "Mr. Brightside" was a truly blissful blast. (A day late, Flowers even paid birthday tribute to Bill Withers by working a bit of "Lean on Me" into "Read My Mind.")

In the same venue a year apart, I can fairly say that though they sold far more tickets, the Killers aren't quite the mind-blowing live act that Arcade Fire is, in part because they don't offer a comparable sonic and visual onslaught. (Not that they didn't have a fine light show, good sound and a palpably kinetic intro to "All the Things That I've Done.")

And though AF's last album, Everything Now is weaker than most before it, the Canadian outfit continues to excite me more with their recorded output.

But with a dearth of contemporary rock bands I really love, I was glad to find some redemption from the Killers after feeling a tad victimized by the last time 'round.

Even with a long and winding drive home--after delightedly catching .38 Special do "Caught Up in You" and "Hold On Loosely" on a side stage--they amply rewarded me opting to give them another shot.

Friday, July 05, 2019

Like the Way I Do: Elk Grove Village Provides a Freely Festive Live Introduction to Melissa Etheridge -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Melissa Etheridge
Rotary Green
Elk Grove Village, IL
July 4, 2019
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My list of living, active rock 'n roll performers I'd like to see in concert but never have is rather low...and dwindling.

On the 4th of July, this list dropped by one as I saw Melissa Etheridge and her band, for free, at the Rotary Green in Elk Grove Village.

I've been a fan of Etheridge since her self-titled 1988 debut album--it remains my favorite of hers--so I really don't know what took me so long.

But despite the messiness of having to deal with the throngs at a free suburban holiday event--somewhat ameliorated by arriving 2+ hours ahead of showtime--I'm glad I went.

Etheridge recently played a show at Ravinia--on a double-bill with George Thorogood--but to have been on the lawn there, without a view of the stage, would've cost $38; twice that to be in the pavilion.

In Elk Grove Village, I wasn't right up close, but I could see Etheridge onstage and hear reasonably well.

There was no opening band, nor preceding Independence Day festivities--i.e. no food booths--but
after camping out in the hot sun since 5:20pm, I was glad when she and 3 band mates took the stage promptly at the announced 7:30.

I ain't really gonna bitch about being part of a generally genial and well-mannered crowd at a free outdoor show on America's birthday.

I'm grateful for being able to park both my car and my sling chair in pretty decent spots, never felt less than comfortable and got to see a long-admired artist for the first time, without paying a penny.

But the show, at least initially, was a tad marred by things beyond Melissa's control.

Out in the open air, she and her band weren't loud enough, and though "All American Girl" was an apt opening, it and the next two songs were unfamiliar to me and seemingly much of the nearby crowd, some of whom opted to carry on conversations.

As I recognized "I Want to Come Over" and "Don't You Need" while the sun began to set and the loudmouths quieted, things began to gel.

I'd only done a bit of listening to Etheridge's new album, The Medicine Show, but welcomed hearing the title track and "Wild and Lonely."

And late-show renditions of "Come to My Window," "Bring Me Some Water" and "I'm the Only One" were terrific.

After 90 minutes, Etheridge & Co. left the stage for an encore, but were clearly made aware that post-show fireworks wouldn't begin until 9:30pm.

So on her own, Melissa covered Janis Joplin's "Mercedes-Benz," then she and the band turned "Like the Way I Do"--my favorite tune of hers--into a 25-minute romp, including Etheridge playing the drums for a bit.

I'm guessing Ravinia didn't hear a version quite like that, nor get a 2-hour performance from Etheridge.

So while in some ways, a similar setlist might've come off considerably better at the Chicago Theatre, the festive-yet-rambling setting did offer some benefits as well.

I owe it to myself, and to Melissa, to see her in a more intimate, indoor venue; the acoustics and vibe would probably amp things up at least 1/2@ if not more (on my @@@@@ rating scale).

But particularly when paired with a rain-free evening and a fine fireworks show afterward, I'm happy to be able to now say that I've seen Melissa Etheridge live in concert. 

Go Ahead, Name a Rock Artist Whose Best Recorded Music Was Made After Age 40

Over a recent 35-day stretch, I saw concerts by three artists who would cover 3/4 of my “classic rock Mt. Rushmore”:

The Who, whom I actually saw twice in May.

Paul McCartney, representing The Beatles, being as close as I'll ever get.

And the Rolling Stones.

(hyperlinks are to my reviews of the concerts)

The fourth slot would be taken by Led Zeppelin, who I was too young to ever see. But I have seen lead singer Robert Plant several times—most recently in February 2018—including twice, in the ‘90s, with Zep guitarist Jimmy Page.

My favorite musician, Bruce Springsteen, would get his own mountain carving, kind of like Crazy Horse (the Native American warrior, not the band, best known for backing Neil Young, who I’ve also seen plenty).

From the above—even without my adding that I’ve seen the Who, Stones, McCartney, Springsteen, Plant and Young a composite 100+ times—you should get the gist that I enjoy seeing legendary, and yes, old, musicians in concert. Of this bunch, only Springsteen has yet to turn 70, and he will on Sept. 23.

And even though I consider another batch of six favorites—U2, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters, Wilco, Bob Mouldwho I’ve also seen a combined 100 times, to be of younger generation, they’re essentially all in their 50s, if not 60. 

I myself am 50, and embrace greatness and vitality in anyone of any age.

Yet while older artists can be phenomenal concert acts well into their 70s, at some point I hit upon this realization:

There is no one I can think of in a rock vein—and largely in other musical genres and even many other artistic idioms—who has created (i.e. written & recorded) consistently better music after the age of 40 than they did before it. (In the case of bands, I’m referencing the ages of the core members, not the longevity of the group.)

Can you think of anyone who refutes this?

Again, I don’t mean 40+ artists we might call “great” simply for their live performances and legacies.

Nor am I saying that no one over 40 has put out terrific music. 

I’ve liked several albums by Springsteen, McCartney, Plant, Bob Dylan, Ray Davies (of the Kinks), David Byrne (of the Talking Heads), Paul Weller (of the Jam), Elvis Costello and many other veteran acts, in recent decades.

But there isn't any album--and very few songs--from their latter periods that prefer to their early output.

In my @@@@ (out of 5) review of Western Stars, the recently released album by Springsteen, his first of new work since 2014, I said that I've genuinely been enjoying the record, finding it to be something rather different yet excellent by my hero.

But I was also forthright in saying that it's not nearly as great as early Springsteen masterpieces, like Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska and Born in the USA, nor even compilations of outtakes from those albums.

Is it better than 1987's Tunnel of Love? I don't think so yet, but maybe once Western Stars truly sinks in I will.

But to be clear, that's not my thesis. Though still less than one might imagine, artists over 40 have undoubtedly made some music that's better than some they made before it.

But no one's best post-40 stuff is better than the best of their younger output.

Or almost no one's.

Though I had never really known her music, last month I was invited by a friend to a concert by Lucinda Williams.

Ostensibly splitting the difference between rock, folk and country, Williams is now 66. She released her first album in 1979, but 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road seems to widely hailed as her finest work (she performed it in full at the show I attended).

Doing the math, she would've been over 40 when writing and recording this Grammy-winning album. 

I don't know enough of her earlier oeuvre to say definitively, and she isn't really the type of "rock act" of which I'm thinking, but she could be a name cited in opposition to my hypothesis.

But I wouldn't even say that NO rock artist has made better music post-40, just that it's exceptionally rare.

So think about it; who might you name?

It might seem natural to think about acts who were in a band or duo but then went solo.

McCartney, Plant, David Byrne, Sting, Paul Simon, Paul Weller, Paul Westerberg, Phil Collins.

Make your argument if you want, but I would say that there talented folks were not only better younger, alongside others, but that even their solo material was generally better before they hit 40.

Interestingly, when discussing this topic with a friend, he said, "What about Picasso?"

Obviously, he wasn't a rock star, per sé, yet someone who remained prolifically brilliant throughout much of his 91-year-life.

But while Guernica, painted at 55, can be seen as a high water mark, and there was remarkable ingenuity and beauty long after October 1921--when Pablo turned 40--I love his impressionistic stuff from around 1901 (see nearby painting), the Blue Period, Rose Period, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and invention of cubism (circa 1910) as much as anything that came after. 

OK, you say, switching gears, what about moviemaking. That hasn't traditionally been a young person's domain.

I certainly wouldn't argue pre-/post-40 creative predominance in film as exhaustively as in rock (Hitchcock, Wilder, Hawks, Kurosawa and others would debunk my theory), but look at the birth dates & filmographies of directors like Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, Welles, Tarantino and Truffaut. Most of their best work preceded their 40th birthdays.

But while similar examples might be cited in fine art, film, literature and more, I am really only stating my theorem in the realm of rock music.
In terms of music known to me and/or a reasonable subset of "the masses" virtually nobody has created superior material after the age of 40 than before it.

As to why, that's a different blog post, but most artists spend their whole life creating their first album--i.e. the songs that get them signed to a recording contract--but perhaps 18 months, while on tour, writing the follow-up. 

Many geniuses--and I don't think that's the wrong word--have several superb albums in them, but by 40 they've either become mega-rich superstars or have had their day before fizzling out.

And while several--huge, middling and minor--will keep creating and releasing music for years, or decades, on end, only in the rarest of instances will it surpass what's already been done.

Monday, July 01, 2019

I Like His Style: Final 'Last Comic Standing' Winner Clayton English Makes Me Laugh in Schaumburg -- Chicago Comedy Review

Comedian Review

Clayton English
w/ openers Mike Maxwell, Rudy Ruiz
Improv Comedy Club
Woodfield Mall, Schaumburg, IL
June 30, 2019 (also performed 6/29)
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It may not be obvious to readers of this blog, but comedy—and specifically stand-up comedy—is one of my favorite art forms.

Each year, I tell myself that I should get to more comedy shows, but besides Second City, I largely haven’t.

A quick search of Seth Saith reminds that since 2010—when I started to review nearly everything I attend—I had written about Steven Wright in 2016, Joel McHale in 2013 and seemingly no other stand-up reviews.

Granted, prior to that, I had seen several of the greats: Chris Rock, Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, George Carlin, Jackie Mason, Jon Stewart, Joan Rivers, Don Rickles, Bill Maher, Gilbert Gottfried, Martin Short, some—as with Wright—repeatedly.

I’ve also seen a guy I liked at Zanies—Michael Palascak--once or twice, and in Las Vegas in 2014 caught Ben Morrison, who was pretty good.

But the point is that I haven’t seen as many stand-up comedians of late as I should. In part, this can be explained logistically, as though I don’t mind attending shows alone, I’m less inclined to attend a cabaret-style comedy club without a friend or date alongside (as opposed to a theater).

And between some of the big names above (and other favorites) having passed away, and others either not touring much or being too pricey for sets that may soon show up on TV, my active support of the stand-up art form is considerably less than my appreciation of it.

Just the other day I was talking to a friend about how brilliant one must be—genius even—to be a truly first-rate stand-up comedian.

And while the legends are one thing, just to be a headliner at clubs around the country would earmark you as pretty damn good.

All of which brings me to having seen a comic named Clayton English Sunday night at the Improv comedy club within Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg.

Neither his name or work were familiar to me, but though I’d only been to the Improv once—to see McHale with workmates six years ago—the comfortable club seems to draw pretty good comedians. (Only the Zanies locations seem to get comparable talent, excepting theater shows.)

So wanting to see some stand-up comedy, I went to see some stand-up comedy.

$22 + fees + 2 menu items seemed to be a reasonable price, although I could’ve saved a few bucks by being faster on the draw for a Goldstar discount offer.

The 7:00pm performance was opened by Rudy Ruiz, followed by Mike Maxwell and then English, and qualitatively, the pecking order was proper.

The bald Ruiz had fun quips about his alopecia—lack of eyebrows—and a clever bit about ordering via the McDonald’s drive-thru while both high and rather aggrieved amidst his second divorce.

Maxwell, who spoke of being happily married with two kids, made me laugh with a joke referencing Tetris, and especially one about how his C-section born toddlers had trouble putting on sweaters.

Rather than going straight into jokes, or funny observations as per the common domain of stand-up comedy, headliner Clayton English—hailing from Atlanta, living in L.A. and adorned in a Chicago Bulls pullover—began with a laid back approach, heavy on audience interaction.

He touched on Chicago food favorites such as deep dish pizza, hot dogs with all the trimmings and dipped Italian Beef sandwiches, but his comments about these usual suspects came off rather fresh. 

And while the tall African-American comic had some LOL quips regarding his living in Los Angeles’ Koreatown—where he's experienced earthquakes, has has trouble finding his beloved grits and saw his Mexican neighbor slyly cover for him when the police came calling—as much as any specific material, I enjoyed English’s demeanor and style.

Unlike some extremely gifted comedians who are likely wallflowers at a party, English struck me as a guy who’d be a hoot to chat with. And even in joking about some pretty serious stuff—police brutality against blacks, the inanity of our current president—he did so in a way that was more wry, and sly, than overtly in-your-face.

English had won NBC’s Last Comic Standing competition in 2015—its final season—and has a few film/TV writing & acting credits.

So it’s not like he’s a complete unknown, and he nicely filled the room at Improv on Sunday night after playing a pair of shows on Saturday.

Understandably, given the names I cited above and my regard for many of their performances, he won’t rank high among the very stand-up comedians I’ve ever seen.

But for a guy I took a flier on just because I wanted to see some stand-up, he was really enjoyable, with his set of about 45 minutes nicely abetted by the two openers.

So I end where I began, with Clayton English serving as a fine testament:

I really should see some more stand-up comedy.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

One Man's Pursuit: Tom Dugan's 'Wiesenthal' Powerfully Explores the Famed Nazi Hunter -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Wiesenthal
written & performed by Tom Dugan
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie, IL
Thru June 30
Also presented nationwide 
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"We must speak of all genocides to prevent all genocides."

This is just one of the incisive statements uttered by Tom Dugan as the title character in his one-man play, Wiesenthal.

Certainly there are others with which I could have begun this review, such as "Shame is the most dangerous force in all human life," or as a universal thought in reference to the bookish but malevolent Adolf Eichmann:

"If an average man is capable of such things, then so am I."

But while Dugan delivers his well-acted 90-minute monologue specifically in the guise of Simon Wiesenthal--a Holocaust survivor who dedicated the remainder of his life to hunting Nazi war criminals--nearly as harrowing as the history shared are the rejoinders that resonate in the present tense.

Dugan wrote Wiesenthal in 2011 (or sometime prior) and I didn't sense any obvious modern additions or ad-libs.

But when he cites Adolf Hitler as a charismatic public speaker who appealed to downtrodden Germans by demonizing Jews, well, I couldn't help but cringe at similar scapegoating of Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans in modern day America.

While the play avoids delving in into allegations of exaggerations, inconsistencies, etc., in Wiesenthal's own recollections and autobiographies, it's to the credit of Dugan--an Irish Catholic from New Jersey--that he doesn't make it too narrowly about Jews and Nazis, repeatedly pointing out that 5 millions non-Jews also perished in the Holocaust.

Especially as nothing happens onstage other than Dugan speaking in character, I found Wiesenthal to be quite well-paced, with the conceit of Simon talking to visitors to his Austrian office, on his final day of work in 2003--two years before he died at 96--broken up nicely by various mannerisms and the occasional phone call.

Though there are many ways you can learn about Simon Wiesenthal, the horrors he endured, the Nazi officers he pursued & captured, his family, film depictions, etc., I'll respect Wiesenthal as a fine work of theater by not revealing much more in this review.

Although the current run at Skokie's North Shore Center is ending today, you can track future productions on the WiesenthaltheShow website, and per the intriguing post-show discussion Dugan conducted, he often performs the play for high school and college students.

Certainly, the story of Simon Wiesenthal is about much more than his life and quite literal pursuits, and in the play Dugan artfully addresses the issue of some modern audiences being dubious about the heinously grim realities of the Holocaust, as well as young viewers potentially unable to grasp the depths of mankind's depravity.

In the name of lessons moving forward, the kindly Mr. Wiesenthal notes that he didn't consider all Germans, soldiers or even SS personnel to be bad, and had encountered some Jews who definitely were.

In a Program Note, repeated in the post-show discussion, Tom Dugan shared that he was inspired to Wiesenthal by his own father, a quiet blue collar man who rarely discussed having been a decorated war hero who had helped liberate the Langenstein concentration camp.

Dugan writes:

"I said 'Boy, Dad, you must really hate Germans.' His answered surprised me. 'Nope, there are all types of people, good and bad. I don't judge them by what group they belong to. I judge them by how they behave.' 

It was that rejection of collective guilt that first drew me to Wiesenthal's story."

And though learning about Simon Wiesenthal, the Holocaust, Nazis, Adolf Eichmann, etc., etc., should make many want to see Wiesenthal for the education it provides, Dugan's adroit, balanced writing and acting are what make it a theatrical treat.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

It's Only Rock 'n Roll...: The Rolling Stones Hit Some Bumps Tuesday Night, but So What? -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Rolling Stones
w/ opening act Whiskey Myers
Soldier Field, Chicago
June 25, 2019
(Stones also played 6/21)
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"Ladies and gentlemen, the Rolling Stones!"

It truly makes me tingle every time.

Proudly ecumenical when it comes to live entertainment, I genuinely enjoy the art of performance at all levels, from free programs at local libraries to community & storefront theater to unknown bands playing in local parks, all the way up to Broadway musicals, arena rock concerts and, well, the Rolling Stones in a football stadium.

Other than having gone to the 2016 World Series--the one won by my beloved Chicago Cubs--I don't think I've attended any spectator events I would consider "bigger" than seeing the Stones in concert.

Not Bulls playoff games with Michael Jordan (I never went to an NBA Finals game). Not Game 1 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals, won by the Blackhawks for the first time in nearly 50 years. Not Paul McCartney in various ballparks or even--just a few weeks ago--Green Bay's famed Lambeau Field.

Historically, perhaps I should cite being part of the Grant Park throng for Barack Obama's victory speech in 2008, but I mostly just saw him on a video screen.

Now, when I say "biggest," I don't  mean qualitatively the best.

I've liked many Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band concerts more than most Rolling Stones shows, and McCartney at Lambeau was decidedly better than the Stones this time at Soldier.

I also don't mean quantitatively, as I've been to several other football stadium concerts where a comparable number of tickets were sold (U2, Metallica, Guns 'n Roses, Coldplay, Bon Jovi, even Taylor Swift.)

But in terms of buzz and excitement and history, no one matches the Stones.

Although to a simple "Beatles or Stones?" query I'd always vote the former, and McCartney remains terrific live--playing several Fab Four classics at any show--in concert on his own he isn't "The Beatles."

Nor for that matter is Robert Plant--who I've seen 9x including twice with Jimmy Page--"Led Zeppelin."

I've now had the pleasure of seeing the Stones live 13 times since 1989 (same as McCartney, one more than the Who, both of whom I first saw in that year, and most recently within the past 2 months. I've seen Springsteen 50 times, and U2, Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins at least 20.)

So although the Rolling Stones aren't quite my favorite artist of all-time, that they:
- were the Beatles' greatest rivals during the "British Invasion" and throughout the '60s
- have had core members Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts remain intact since 1962 (Ron Wood has been in the band since 1975, and Darryl Jones has been the tour bassist since 1993)
- have regularly sold out huge stadiums around the world
- have traditionally created oversized concert extravaganzas
- have the greatest logo ever created (certainly in a rock 'n roll realm)
and
- have produced tons of the most indelible music ever
... makes it hard not to take their self-proclaimed moniker as "The World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band" as pretty damn accurate.

Even in the present tense.

Seeing the Stones is always a big deal, and though this was the 13th time, my excitement was palpable for months, weeks, days, hours and minutes leading into Tuesday's show.

When announced last November right after Chicago's June 21 date sold-out faster than I could get tickets, Tuesday's show was the last scheduled on the No Filter Tour.

And with the band's mainstays well into their 70s, one has to imagine this might well be the last Stones tour.

Though, of course, I've heard the same thing said for 30+ years.

In late March, the start of the 2019 tour--scheduled for April 20--was postponed because Jagger had to have a heart valve replaced. The Chicago dates stayed the same, but became the beginning of the tour that is to end in Miami on August 31.

Hence, there were additional reasons for my eager anticipation.

Which was mostly met. Wondrously.

After a decent but forgettable--and not loud enough--opening set by a band called Whiskey Myers, and preceded by a brief introductory video, the Stones took the stage to the simple but scintillating announcement atop this post at a bit past 8:50pm.

And ripped right into "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

They followed with "It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I Like It)" and I turned to my erstwhile concert pal, Paolo--he was seated right behind me in Section 438, rather than next to me--and said, forthrightly:

"Life doesn't get much better than this."

And truly--despite some hiccups in the Stones' performance that made it not quite as good as some past ones--seeing such a legendary, cherished band in a huge stadium with a close friend on a picture-perfect night is rather hard to top.

As I would say to someone at work, "Any day that ends with me singing along to "Satisfaction" has clearly provided plenty."

Yet, while it would be fairly easy to bestow a full @@@@@ on this concert simply because of who the Stones are, how much I love them, the inherent quality of the songs played and how supernatural Mick Jagger was in prancing around a humongous stage just a couple months after heart surgery, as a discriminating fan and self-professed "critic," I feel compelled to offer a candid critical assessment.

Certainly, this was only the second night of the tour, and Tuesday's 20-song setlist featured seven tunes not played on Friday (also 20 songs).

Due to these realities and that the boys are approaching 80--Watts, the eldest, is 78--I'm certainly willing to cut the Stones considerable reverent slack.

And straight up, it was a show far more fantastic than it wasn't, with delectable renditions of "You Can't Always Get What You Want," "Honky Tonk Women," "Start Me Up," "Brown Sugar" and "Gimme Shelter" among many highlights.

Though I'd have loved to have heard--as played Friday--"Street Fighting Man," "Let's Spend the Night Together, "Angie" and "Dead Flowers," the Stones did exactly what I think bands should by mixing things up a bit during a multi-night stand. (I would've gone Friday if I didn't have another show to see and could've scored a reasonable ticket.)

They certainly have the catalog to support divergent setlists, and Tuesday-only selections like "Bitch," "Monkey Man," "Play With Fire" and "Sweet Virginia"--the latter two acoustic on the "B-stage"--came off well.

Though Jagger may have slowed just tad from his dervish days of yore, he remains astonishing, vocally and as a constantly-in-motion stage presence.

At the home of the NFL's Chicago Bears, he also cheekily poured salt into our "double doink" playoffs-exiting wound.

And despite great weather and decent--if far from spectacular--stadium acoustics, there were a few distractions far beyond the band's purview.

As usual, there was a constant stream of people going out of and back into rows, and beer vendors working the aisles during the show.

I used to be a stadium vendor, have friends who still are and champion anyone's need to earn a buck.

But for heaven's sake, a beer seller was camped out next to Paolo and me during the entirety of "Sympathy for the Devil" AND loudly arguing with patrons over the payment owed.

I don't mean this facetiously nor sacrilegiously, but I treat a Rolling Stones show at Soldier Field with
the reverence many do a religious service.

I guess that's not the norm, as there were also chatterboxes conversing loudly throughout.

But beyond anything I can tangibly explain, this just didn't feel like the Stones at their best, nor a show truly meriting @@@@@ (which I bestowed the last three times--1, 2, 3--I'd seen them).

Some of the music seemed out of sync, out of tune or just not quite right, which also seemed true of Keith Richards.

He's normally sported an infectious, Cheshire cat grin through shows, bespeaking one of the coolest--and most indestructible--people on the planet.

But on the big screens and through my binoculars, Keef looked uncomfortable, even grim, sullen or ashen at times. And, despite hair again dyed brown, all of his 75 years.

As a rhythm guitarist he's often let Wood do the heavy lifting, but something just seemed off with Richards...and his playing.

And this was before he botched the opening of "Paint It Black" by playing "Midnight Rambler"--the next song--instead.

Sure, this might sound like I'm letting my imagination run away with me, and presumably many didn't notice anything other than the World's Greatest Rock Band playing brilliant songs across two hours.

To reiterate, without grading on a curve, the Rolling Stones were great and seeing them again was a joy.

I wish there was another convenient tour date, as I'd readily see them again.

But whether compared to Stones shows in fairly recent years or the gigs I just saw by their peers--Paul McCartney and The Who--the performance and/or the vibe just felt somewhat lesser. Enough so to merit a 1/2@ deduction.

I ascribe it to them finding their stage legs again--and hopefully Keith was bedeviled by nothing more serious than perhaps overindulging in Chicago-style pizza--but just maybe the Rolling Stones are finally beginning to gather some moss.