Thursday, September 03, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot Glass: Highlighting a Vast Collection Built 1.5-oz. at a Time

Earlier this year, I had problems with my Comcast service and the first technician who came to my home  indicated that he would need to access the cable outlet feeding into my condo unit.

This probably doesn't sound like an unreasonable request, but the jack was behind two bookcases that had been set in place for 7+ years, filled with books and abundantly adorned with souvenirs, art pieces, satellite speakers and much else.

But my biggest chagrin was due to each of the bookcases--and a third, which I wouldn't need to move--holding hundreds of shot glasses.

As expected--and necessitating the initial tech leaving and another service call having to be scheduled for a different day--it took me several hours to take down and safely box 500+ shotglasses I have been collecting for 20 years, so that I could sufficiently move the bookshelves to allow access to the outlet.

Although order was restored months ago now, I took my time putting the shot glasses back on the shelves, in part for fear that recurring technical difficulties would require follow-up visits from Comcast, but also so that I could photograph several groupings of the 1.5-oz. glasses, many which wind up hidden 2, 3, 4 and 5 rows deep on their shelf and stacked up to 5 glasses high.

One of my most recent acquisitions.
I can't tell you exactly why I collect shot glasses, especially as I rarely drink hard liquor and have never actually used any of myriad souvenirs that I have purchased around the world--or which friends and relatives have brought back for me from their expeditions.

But I'm pretty sure that beginning my collection--largely on a whim--dates to the fall of 1995, when I moved into an apartment in Glen Ellyn, IL.

This was after I had graduated from college, lived in Los Angeles for 3 years, returned to my parents' home for more than 2-1/2 years and went to Europe (mainly London and Paris) for the first time in 1993...without bringing home any glasses.

I guess in having a new home I wanted something to collect and display, and while to a lesser extent I've gathered refrigerator magnets, emblazoned golf balls, souvenir baseballs, t-shirts and various other tchockies from my travels, shot glasses are what I have most regularly and steadfastly sought and bought on domestic and international trips--a good handful always wind up rolled within shirts and slacks in my suitcase on return--or even just from local restaurants and attractions that sell souvenirs.

But especially with my own acquisitions slowed a bit due to spatial limitations, I'd guess that at least 20% or more of my collection represents places I've never actually been, thanks to others who are kind enough to keep me in mind when venturing somewhere cool (and often perhaps finding themselves wishing to rid themselves of leftover foreign currency at the airport).

A couple recent gifts from Memphis, a (Pro Football) Hall of Fame shot glass
and a shot glass from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for I don't recall my benefactor
I'm not as obnoxious about requesting that jet-setting pals bring me back a shot glass as I once was, but until the book shelves actually begin to crack--believe me, they've been sagging for years--I'll be more than happy to welcome any new additions into my collection.

And much as I spotlighted my collections of neckties and autographed Playbills earlier this year, I'm glad to share a good smattering of my shot glasses online--many of which even fairly frequent visitors to my condo would never see.

It's been awhile since I took the photos, and besides 10-20 new acquisitions that I haven't bothered including, I seem to recall aborting initial attempts to photograph shot glasses grouped by themes. And other than a massive "full shelf shot," I never bothered with the glasses on the 3rd bookcase.

Yet I'm hoping to depict not only that I have a lot of shot glasses--if not quite 1,000, close to it--but also have tried to feature many that I think are fairly unique or otherwise notable.

Hopefully this won't be a kena hora (Yiddish for "jinx" or something close to it) but not only have I never used one of my souvenir shot glasses, to date I've never broken any.

Anyway, without further ado, here are:

The Shot Glasses Herded Around the World
(Click on photo to enlarge)












Monday, August 31, 2015

Sonic (Highways) Blast: With Local Influences in Tow, Foo Fighters Fervently Rock Wrigley -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Foo Fighters
w/ opening acts Cheap Trick,
Naked Raygun and Urge Overkill
Wrigley Field, Chicago
August 29, 2015
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(for Foo Fighters and full show)

With one of my favorite bands of all-time playing for 2-1/2 hours in my favorite place on Earth, preceded by a classic band I like even more and two other storied local acts, a @@@@@ concert review seems almost automatic.

And even with hyperkinetic Foo king Dave Grohl relegated to sitting on a throne of his own design (see pictures below) after breaking his right leg falling off a stage earlier this summer, the Foo Fighters successfully translated the combination of fun, power and ferocity that has long made them one of my favorite live acts--I first saw them at the Riv in 1997 and now 12 times since--to a completely full Wrigley Field, which Grohl noted as the first stadium they sold out in America.

Having launched their Sonic Highways HBO series--the name doubling as the title of the band's latest album--last October with an intimate gig at the Cubby Bear bar across the street, forever cherished by Grohl as the place where he saw his first rock concert, at age 13, with his Evanston-based cousin Tracy and by nascent Chicago punk rockers Naked Raygun, the Wrigley show was clearly a special one for the Foos.

And me.

I didn't particularly rue not getting to go to the Cubby Bear show, but the concert at Wrigley Field--home of my beloved Cubs and, over the past decade or so, my favorite live music venue--sold out nearly as fast and tickets remained rather exorbitant on the secondary (e.g. StubHub) market.

So I was thrilled to be able to score a single, face value, really good upper deck seat when a small allotment of extra tickets were put onsale just a few weeks ago.

Keeping with Sonic Highways' theme of spotlighting bands that inspired Grohl & co. in 8 cities across America, the outdoor extravaganza featured three opening acts with deep Chicago ties: Urge Overkill, Grohl's treasured Naked Raygun and Cheap Trick, who technically hail from Rockford.

Taking advantage of an atypically unmobbed souvenir stand in the upper deck to buy an exclusive Foo Fighters & Guests @ Wrigley Field t-shirt--for $15 less that the standard concert t-shirt rate, yet another reason to love Dave Grohl--I took my seat just as Urge Overkill took the stage at 5:30pm, with a light rain throughout the night never more than a minor nuisance.

Launching into "Positive Bleeding" from their great 1993 album, Saturation, UO played a brief but terrific set with original members and co-vocalists Nash Kato and Eddie Roeser sounding swell years after splintering and more recently reuniting.

Even with a 2011 album, I hadn't noticed Urge since their cover of Neil Diamond's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" was featured in Pulp Fiction, so it was great to hear that one and two other Saturation gems ("Back On Me," "Sister Havana") among their seven song selection.

Next up was Naked Raygun, a band I've long heard of thanks to their great name and Grohl's reminisces perhaps going back to his days as the drummer in Nirvana, but whose material I've never really known. Had I, I may have been effusively rocking out at the front of the upper deck like a nearby fan, but as it was I appreciated what I heard, even without a direct connection or being able to name the songs (though you can see the setlist here)

Although I would consider myself a rather serious, longstanding Cheap Trick fan--Cheap Trick at Budokan being the first record I ever bought, in 1979--they prompted "WTF?!" marvel (in both a confused and admiring way) by beginning their highest profile Chicago set in ages with 3 songs I didn't recognize, one I barely did ("Stiff Competition") and a Velvet Underground cover ("I'm Waiting for the Man") that was sung by bassist Tom Petersson.

Lead vocalist Robin Zander resumed his duties as he, guitarist Rick Nielsen, Petersson and Nielsen's son Dax--now playing drums in place of Bun E. Carlos--placated the crowd, or at least me, with stellar runs through "I Want You to Want Me," "Dream Police" and "Surrender," followed by the lengthy "Gonna Raise Hell," during which Zander dared to tred down the Foos' catwalk.

All of this made for a rather tasty appetizer before the main course, and a comfortable seat allowed me to savor the sonic blasts much more than I would have in a festival setting.

With the stage still shrouded by a FF curtain, Grohl's delirious screams foretold a wild night as the Foo Fighters began their set with "Everlong," a tune long used to close concerts (and, recently, David Letterman's late-night run). From the same 1997 album came another favorite, "Monkey Wrench," followed by a third pre-2000 gem, "Learn to Fly."

It was a rather tremendous way to open a concert, with the flip side being that little of the subsequent material outshone the opening salvo, even with abundant highlights.

As on the Sonic Highways album and TV episode, Rick Nielsen accompanied the band on "Something From Nothing," the best cut from a so-so record that lent just two other tracks to the setlist. (See the Foo Fighters' full Wrigley Field Chicago setlist on Setlist.fm)

Four songs from 2011's Wasting Light--most demonstrably "Walk" and "Arlandria"--revealed that to be a much stronger effort than the current album, and while Grohl has penned a good sprinkling of 21st century songs (such as "The Pretender," "Times Like These," "All My Life" and "Best of You") that enable the Foo Fighters to remain one of the few contemporary bands capable of rocking a stadium in 2015, the band's relative lack of songwriting progression or variance was reiterated.

I said much the same thing last time I saw & reviewed the Foos (in 2011), suggesting that "Grohl could stand to dig quite a bit deeper as a composer and lyricist. But perhaps to get closer to Nirvana, he'd have to go to places in his psyche he'd rather not mine or reveal."

Thus, while it was a wonderful evening and in most aspects a terrific headlining performance, for me it didn't match the emotional resonance I've felt in seeing U2, Pearl Jam and Arcade Fire over the past year, or Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney and Pearl Jam in the same revered (and friendly) confines.

But that's rather heady comparison, so giving the show @@@@@ isn't overdoing it even with some shortcomings revealed or rehashed.

And though the Foos' catalog hasn't become considerably more hallowed since their days playing the Metro, Riviera and Aragon, it was undoubtedly an emotional and nostalgic night for Grohl.

Noting early on that "if it wasn't for your fucking city I wouldn't be here right now," Grohl later brought not only his cousin Tracy to their stage, but his mom Virginia (which also happens to be his home state) as it was both their birthdays--and the adoring crowd properly serenaded.

Though only drummer Taylor Hawkins complements Grohl as a focal point (especially from the top of a baseball stadium), the fondness the singer/guitarist has for those who have long fought Foo with him--bassist Nate Mendel, guitarists Pat Smear and Chris Shiflett, keyboardist Rami Jaffe and Hawkins--was readily apparent. While a bit hackneyed, it was fun to hear snippets of multiple Van Halen songs, Yes' "Roundabout" and Alice Cooper's "School's Out" during the band introductions.

It seemed a bit askew when, at about the show's 2-hour mark, the loquacious Grohl received the crowd's fervent blessing to ditch the "stadium rock show" for "keg party" vamping, only to abruptly revert to the former after a run through the Rolling Stones' "Miss You."

I also thought Grohl missed the perfect chance to jam with several members of the opening acts or even welcome other Chicago legends like Buddy Guy or Steve Albini, who both were featured in Sonic Highways. (Albini produced Nirvana's In Utero, was in Big Black with Naked Raygun members and recorded "Something From Nothing" in his Chicago studio.)

And while I was glad to hear "This Is a Call," the first song on the Foo Fighters' 1995 debut--derived from demos Grohl had recorded during downtime with Nirvana--I wish it was followed as on the album by "I'll Stick Around," long missing from setlists despite being one the band's best songs.

Regardless, I appreciated Dave Grohl graciously thanking those who have stuck around in supporting the Foo Fighters over a rather remarkable 20 years--he also mentioned Nirvana having played the nearby Metro and, as attended by yours truly, the Aragon--and I couldn't help but be a bit verclempt myself when he got choked up in introducing show-closer, "Best of You."

Though Grohl has rarely traipsed in the political and social onstage commentary espoused by his contemporary Eddie Vedder--preferring to champion the power of rock 'n roll itself--there was a clearly identifiable subtext to his explanation about why he didn't let a broken leg abort the current tour:

"I actually like my job."

And I actually loved the job Grohl and his band did on Saturday night in the old ballpark.

I would prefer for them to write some killer new songs, perhaps with a deeper sense of distinction and self, but I nonetheless look forward to seeing how good the Foo Fighters can be yet again.

Especially when Dave is back on his feet.

To paraphrase the next band I'll see at Wrigley Field, "For those about to rock--intensely, despite injury--we salute Foo."

Friday, August 28, 2015

Let's Rocket!: 'October Sky' Musical Mines Familiar Territory Rather Tunefully -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

October Sky
a World Premiere musical
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru October 11
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In a close-knit coal mining community, where young men follow in their fathers' footsteps for generations, a boy harbors interests and talents well-beyond the norm in a warmhearted musical based on a somewhat cultish but beloved movie from around the turn of the century.

With the mine in decline and union battles brewing, the townsfolk are initially quite dismissive and derisive about the boy's actions and aspirations--most vehemently his proud but closed-minded father, himself a mining lifer.

But with support from an empathetic teacher, who once held divergent ambitions of her own, the enterprising youth is encouraged to follow his heart and pursue his passions.

No, I am not describing Billy Elliot.

Or I kinda am, but also the current world premiere musical October Sky, whose opening night I attended on Wednesday at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.

Although the show's creators--book writer (and Marriott Lead Artistic Director) Aaron Thielen, composer/lyricist Michael Mahler and director Rachel Rockwell--are to be commended for creating an engaging and entertaining new musical, they clearly must be aware that similar plotlines have already been musically mined.

In addition to Billy Elliot--the 2000-movie turned 2005-musical that the 1999-movie turned 2015-musical seems to reference in a lyric citing "every boy who couldn't learn to dance"--The Full Monty, Kinky Boots and The Last Ship are just a few fairly recent stage musicals about people going against the grain in gritty industrial towns, usually in trying to get out of them.

Though Mahler's strong batch of tunes stand on their own and give October Sky artistic validity because of it, the show begins with a song of miner solidarity--"Marching Into Hell"--that clearly reminds of Billy Elliot's opening "The Stars Look Down" (and also Les Misérables' "Work Song").

As worthwhile entertainment, especially laudable for Marriott Theatre's willingness to create something new and inherently risky, the genial October Sky isn't greatly undermined by similarities to Billy Elliot or other shows, even if it isn't quite as good as Billy or the cream of the Broadway classics long enjoyed by the country's largest subscription base.

But with Broadway ambitions innately iffy given subject matter that skews young, male and rural, it seems interesting that from a vast list of Universal Pictures movies to potentially develop into a musical--as presented by Christopher Herzberger, a Chicagoland actor turned Exectuive of Live Theatricals at Universal--artistic director Thielen would, even as an avowed fan of the film, gravitate to a project certain to invite inevitable comparisons. 

I've never seen the movie, nor even recall having heard of it, and was unfamiliar with Rocket Boys, Hiram H. Hickam, Jr.'s 1998 memoir on which it was based.

In creating the movie, Universal opted for the anagram October Sky to widen appeal, feeling that women over 30 would be resistant to the book's title.

But according to Wikipedia, Rocket Boys "is one of the most often picked community/library reads in the United States," so perhaps the original title would better sell this show to a young, male, non-traditional theater-going audience that might well enjoy it, perhaps via many subsequent regional productions if not ever on the Great White Way.

Because for all the stellar aspects of the new musical, it is a rather straightforward tale of geeky high school dreamers told with a bit too much "golly-gee" earnestness for me to perceive it doing boffo business on Broadway, where an ironic edge or comedic causticness seems largely requisite of late (along with abundant tourist appeal).

Aside from ready comparisons or NYC potential, the lack of any edginess--even in Mahler's otherwise strong score and often witty lyrics--stands as one aspect of October Sky that renders it, at this point, more an excellent effort than a truly superlative musical.

Based on Hickam's true life account, October Sky centers around teenaged Homer (well-played and sung by Nate Lewellyn in originating the musical role) and three of his friends--Roy Lee (Patrick Rooney), O'Dell (Ben Barker) and Quentin (Alex Weisman)--as they attempt to build a small-but-launchable rocket in the wake of the Soviets sending Sputnik into space in 1957.

Homer's father, named John here for clarity (rather than the actual Homer Sr.) and played by David Hess, is the manager of the mine in Coalwood, West Virginia. Even before Homer becomes a space case, John dotes far more on older son Jim (Liam Quealy), who is the town's football star.

Much more in tune with Homer, who voices his aspirations through one of Mahler's best songs--"Look to the Stars"--are the two women in his life, his mom Elsie and a teacher named Miss Riley, warmly and wonderfully embodied by local stage stalwarts, Susan Moniz and Johanna McKenzie Miller, respectively.

Two Act I songs Mahler has penned for Elsie, "Solid Ground" and "The Man I Met" illustrate the breadth of his skills--and Moniz' vocal gifts--while showing October Sky to already be a musical with a rather solid foundation.

Even if you haven't read the book, seen the movie or know Hickam's basic biography in becoming an aerospace engineer, it's fairly easy to guess where the narrative is going to go. So it's much to the credit of Mahler, Thielen, Rockwell, the cast and a whole bunch of quality songs that October Sky earned a standing ovation on opening night.

If not a masterpiece, it is definitely a likable show and much like 2012's Hero, likewise an original creation by Thielen and Mahler, I greatly appreciated seeing it among Marriott's more tried-and-true material. In fact, I acutely enjoyed October Sky more than some supposed classics and many higher profile pre-Broadway musicals that have had downtown Chicago tryouts.

So especially for those who, like me, get a particular kick out of seeing World Premieres, I recommend you get to the in-the-round Marriott Theatre for October Sky before October 11 comes around.

In addition to those already noted, first-rate songs include "Never Getting Out Alive," "If We Get It Right," first act closer "Hey Did You Hear" and as the most ebullient number of a musical largely devoid of dancing, "Moonshine," rendered as an Appalachian jig with fine singing by James Earl Jones II.

In press for October Sky, both Mahler and Thielen have noted that part of the project's appeal is the timeframe and setting, which allows early rock 'n roll and Appalachian folk sounds to infuse the score.

And while Mahler's compositions are stylistically diverse, some of the show's missing "edge" could be sharpened by more obvious musical allusions to Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and other rock 'n roll pioneers who, not so unlike Homer and friends, challenged the status quo and parental tolerance in the late 1950s.

Though I realize the narrative must largely hue to the movie and Hickam's accounts, it feels like the storyline could benefit from some shrewd subplots to accompany the skyward aims of Homer & pals, the backing of his beloved teacher and the ongoing miner quarrels. (It was fun to see longtime favorite Terry Hamilton as the union head, and I should also note Derek Hasenstab as a mine machinist who aids Homer in building rockets.)

In a show predominantly about teenagers, there is a noticeable dearth of romantic interaction (or young women with much prominence) and while I don't suggest such themes should be shoehorned in cheaply, auxiliary commentary on racism, gay rights, women's rights, oppression, depression, parenting and other serious and sensitive matters is part of what made Billy Elliot, Hairspray, Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde and other screen-to-stage adaptations (and musicals not based on movies like Wicked and Spring Awakening) work so well and remain so relevant.

Yes, Homer and his friends speak and sing about being misfits and how academic achievement is largely overshadowed by athletic accomplishments in high schools, communities and even families.

So it's not that October Sky doesn't share any of the societal sensibilities and outcast pride of the aforementioned shows.

But as good as it is, the admirable new musical could be that much better if it felt a bit more intense and incisive in reaching for the sky.

Even while justifying its own existence in the miners-and-dreamers milieu, October Sky includes nothing close to the ingenuity of Billy Elliot's "Solidarity," a number that brilliantly intertwines striking miners and children in a dance class.

As such, Marriott's newest self-developed musical is--again, like Hero--an impressive yet relatively straightforward success. And there's nothing wrong, and much right, with that.

Unless it truly wants to shoot for the stars.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Stuart Davis: Modern Before His Time -- an Art Exhibition in a blog post (on a groundbreaking American painter)

Stuart Davis, Self-Portrait, 1919
If I ran the Art Institute of Chicago, or any other major art museum that I myself could easily get to, I would organize an exhibition on Stuart Davis.

Although works by the American painter, who lived from 1892-1964, adorn many of the country's, and world's, top museums, I have never seen--nor even noticed the contemporary existence of--an exhibit focused on Davis, excepting an upcoming one next year at the Whitney in New York City.

And while a good smattering of art literate friends seem to know and like Davis' oeuvre--at least the latter, more iconic examples--the artist's renown seems to lag behind American contemporaries like Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe and the abstract expressionists (Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, etc.).

One cannot find an in-print, recent book on Stuart Davis on Amazon, save for a $300 box set. (I recently bought, for $9.00, a nice catalog that accompanied a 1997-98 exhibition, which you can still find through Amazon.)

WikiArt.org, my go-to art reference website, has just a small sampling (19 pieces) of Davis' voluminous output, while another thorough art website--Olga's Gallery (abcgallery.com)--has none.

Even a Google search for "Stuart Davis Exhibition" reveals few retrospectives of any recency, though it does bring up a nifty PDF Catalog from an Art Institute of Chicago exhibition in 1965, just a year after the artist's death at age 71.

Stuart Davis, Self-Portrait, 1919
And Googling "Greatest American Painters" brings up an image strip of over 50 "artists frequently mentioned on the web" without including Davis.

So even though there was fairly little to be easily found on Stuart Davis online, I decided to delve a bit deeper into an artist whose works always bring a smile when I see them, as I did most recently at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, which has a piece titled New York Mural from 1932 (see images below).

Fortuitously, I was able to find the 1997-98 catalog on Amazon, and along with providing a good amount of illumination, it helped me find many Stuart Davis paintings online, made much easier once I knew the titles.

Though I've long appreciated how most of the artists we may think of as abstractionists or otherwise minimalists--Miro, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Rothko, de Kooning, etc.--painted rather wondrous realist or more traditional works before they distilled down to their famed styles (see this this post of mine on the topic), I was rather impressed by Davis' evolution.

While I love quintessential Davis--the vibrant, brightly-hued, jazz-influenced abstract paintings that seem to predate both abstract expressionism and pop art--I was tickled to note pre-1921 Davis paintings that seem to hint at what Hopper would do a bit later and Roy Lichtenstein much later.

With some help from the book and Wikipedia, here's a bit of biographical background: 

Stuart Davis was born in Philadelphia in 1892; his father was art editor of the Philadelphia Press and his mother was a sculptor. Beginning in 1909, Davis trained in New York under Robert Henri, the leader of the Ashcan School, through whom he befriended John Sloan and others.

In 1913, Davis was one of the youngest painters to exhibit in the Armory Show, where he displayed five watercolor paintings in the Ashcan school style, and was exposed to the works of Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso and many other artists.

His early works often reflected cubism and modernism while his 1920s development led to abstract still lifes, landscapes and "proto-Pop" paintings of cigarette packages.

In 1928, he visited Paris, where he painted street scenes, and in the 1930s he became increasingly politically engaged with a state goal was to "reconcile abstract art with Marxism and modern industrial society."

His most famous, jazz-influenced abstract style seems to predominantly date from the late 1930s onward, although hints of the colorful abstracts began to appear a few years earlier.

Stuart Davis, Men Without Women, mural at Radio City Music Hall
In 1932, Davis was commissioned to paint a mural for New York's Radio City Music Hall, titled Men Without Women (to his own distaste, and said to be an allusion to Hemingway that I don't get)--some surmise it helped to inspire Picasso's Guernica--and in 1945, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held a retrospective exhibition on Stuart Davis, who would remain rather active until his death from a stroke nearly 20 years later.

I admit that I haven't read all of the copious text that the book includes--and believe that Davis' paintings themselves, as I'll present chronologically below, do an ample job of pronouncing his stylistic progression--but there is a good essay by Ben Sidran called "The Jazz of Stuart Davis," which can actually be read online through the hyperlink.

Sidran notes that at age 20, Davis and a pal were checking out jazz in Newark, when the music was probably called "barrel house" or "honky tonk" and had yet to be recorded:
"What is remarkable is that, at the time, there was no jazz available on phonograph records (this was still several years off) and there was virtually no way a couple of young white boys could even know about its existence, let alone its power. But these rough bars in Newark became the crucible from which the soul of a young artist was cast. It was here in the heat of the creative moment that the real world and the world of abstraction came together for Stuart Davis."
Sidran goes on to intimate that Davis was smitten by the lack of distinction between high or low art in the protean world of jazz and believed that in art, as in jazz, "any preconceived ideas about racial, national or class superiorities could not thrive in its atmosphere."

Quoting bits and pieces from the Sidran essay:
"Stuart Davis went beyond a mere egalitarianism to see the world of black music as a kind of metaphor for the plight of the arts in America. ... Often, during key moments of his career, Davis returned to the imagery of jazz to describe his situation. ...  To Davis, jazz was a paradigm of modern creation. One could speculate that jazz might literally have acted as a catalyst for him, particularly the music of pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, his favorite musician from the late 20s until his death. Hines’ flashing, angular lines, and especially the clusters of colors and trills that he threw off so effortlessly, had their analog in the high key colors of Davis’s work.

"And Stuart Davis did, on occasion, connect his own painting directly to various jazz techniques.

"For example, of the painting Hot Still-Scape In Six Colors -- Seventh Ave. Style, [Davis] wrote that "six colors were used ...as the instruments in a musical composition might be, where the tone-color variety results from the simultaneous juxtaposition of different instrument groups."
Stuart Davis, Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors - Seventh Avenue Style, 1940
The work shown nearby is the one about which Sidran quoted Davis, sharing that his visual composition wasn't so unlike a musical one.

What strikes me as an avid but unstudied art lover is that I can't conjure any obvious artistic antecedents that may have led Davis to creating this kind of work in 1940.

Perhaps some might see echoes of the abstract geometrical vibrancy of Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky or Joan Miro, but Davis' piece preceded citable abstract expressionist examples by Jean Dubuffet or Arshile Gorky, among others. And the Pop Art of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol was still more than 20 years away from prominence.

So while I really love Stuart Davis' art for the way it looks, even in an amateurishly academic regard, it would seem that his career achievements and innovations merit considerably more exploration in the museums and bookstores of America, and of course, across the internet.

If nothing else, it would seem a slim, user-friendly tome on Stuart Davis by Taschen would fit well into the art publisher's forte.

But it's cool that the Whitney Museum of American Art, in its fancy new New York building, will present Stuart Davis: In Full Swing for over three months next year--it'll be even cooler if I can get to it--and the exhibition looks to travel to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC from there.

It would be nice if the Art Institute would bring the exhibit to Chicago, but I realize such decisions are usually made when the exhibition is being organized, so I'm not holding my breath.

Hence, I've taken it upon myself to organize this Stuart Davis retrospective within the confines of Seth Saith.

Other than captioning the paintings with titles and dates--except for a few that eluded me--I won't provide any more elucidation that you might get in an actual exhibition, but I hope you enjoy:


Monday, August 24, 2015

Make Me Smile: Sunday in the Pavilion with Chicago -- Chicago / Ravinia Concert Review

Concert Review

Chicago
w/ opening act Isabella Nanni
Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, IL
August 23, 2015 (also played 8/22)
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The band Chicago's origins--like my own--date to the late 1960s on the north side of its namesake city.

But by the time I was born at Weiss  Hospital in October 1968, the eight bandmates--six of whom met at DePaul University, with four remaining in the current lineup--had departed for Los Angeles, while still initially monikered The Big Thing.

The band would soon rechristen themselves Chicago Transit Authority, release a self-titled debut album and--under threat of legal action by the actual CTA--shorten their name to Chicago.

Though some members have changed over the years--I still recall hearing the tragic news of guitarist Terry Kath accidentally killing himself with a gun in 1978--Chicago has continuously been a recording and touring entity, with a number of ubiquitous classics I couldn't help but know and love ("Saturday in the Park," "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is," "25 or 6 to 4"), a minor hit that has always held a special place because I had the 45 as a kid ("Alive Again") and a spate of schmaltzy pop hits generally corresponding to my high school years ("Hard to Say I'm Sorry," "Hard Habit to Break," "You're the Inspiration," "Look Away").

But though I have attended over 650 concerts by hundreds of different acts, mostly in my hometown--having lived in the metropolitan area my whole life except for 3 college years 50 miles west in DeKalb and 3 years a bit further west in Los Angeles--until Sunday night at Ravinia in Highland Park, I never had seen Chicago.

I've undoubtedly had numerous opportunities, and likely should have caught one of Chicago's co-headlining jaunts with Earth, Wind and Fire in recent years, but while I've never turned down a specific chance to attend a gig, the truth is that it's hard for me to say I've ever been that much of a fan.

I have never owned a Chicago album in any format and other than the unavoidable hits, have only known a small fraction of their vast output. Until studying up for the show, I don't know that I've ever even looked up any of their songs on Spotify except maybe "Alive Again" for old times sake and "Sunday in the Park" on some 4th of July. (This was my Spotifamilization primer.)

Perhaps it was last year after they played Ravinia--a rather common venue--that I started to think of Chicago as a band I should see at least once, but even with a pair of weekend shows long on the 2015 schedule, I only got myself a ticket this past Friday.

And I acted largely because I found a $100 (+ fees) pavilion ticket on StubHub for just $29.

Thus, if you're hoping for this to be an expert review from a Chicago aficionado who knows every note from Chicago Transit Authority through Chicago XXXVI--though most Chicago albums are numerically named, there aren't really quite 36 of them--and "if so I can't imagine why," well, this won't be one.

Although original vocalist/keyboardist Robert Lamm still looks and sounds strong at 70 and founding saxophonist Walter Parazaider, trombonist James Pankow and trumpet player Lee Loughnane seemed to be having a heckuva time in powering Chicago's unique rock-with-brass soundscape, I certainly can't tell you how Chicago circa 2015 compares with any other incarnation over the past 48 years.

Part of the band himself since 1985, bassist Jason Scheff sings the Peter Cetera ballads admirably close to the originals, although these--including "If You Leave Me Now," a #1 hit in 1976--are far from my favorite kernels of the Chicago canon.

Knowing that Lamm is the only representative of the band's initial trio of vocalists (including Cetera and Kath), I liked it best when he was on lead vocals, and his take on "Beginnings"--playing acoustic guitar rather than his usual keyboards--was a definite highlight.

But with 9 musicians onstage, it was cool how Chicago rotated through lead vocalists, with keyboardist
Lou Pardini handling most of the singing duties when Lamm and Scheff didn't, and the horn players and guitarist Keith Howland also taking turns at the mic.

"Questions 67 & 68" and "Dialogue (Part I & II)" sounded great early on, and I was thrilled to hear "Alive Again" after noticing it missing on some recent setlists. (It was played Saturday, which seems to have had the same set as Sunday. See Chicago's Ravinia setlist on Setlist.fm.)

Along with songs already mentioned, other delights included "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon"--with "Make Me Smile" and "Colour My World" inclusive in the suite--"Old Days," a propulsive extended take on Spencer Davis Group's "I'm A Man" and main set closer, "Feelin' Stronger Every Day."

With the pavilion crowd finally brought to its feet on the "Get Away" coda of "Hard to Say I'm Sorry" before "Saturday in the Park," they stayed that way for encores of "Free" and "25 or 6 to 4."

All told it was a generous nearly 3 hours worth of music, including a brief but nice opening set from solo songstress Isabella Nanni.

Chicago's diverse instrumentation, with not only brass but two (or more at times) drummer/percussionists--bongos included--sounded wonderful in full force, or even split up to highlight fine horn, drum and guitar solos.

There was nothing I didn't like, and especially at a bargain, my seat offered good comfort, sound and sightlines on a pleasant evening.

I've recently given a bit more thought to my distinctions between concerts I award @@@@, @@@@1/2 and @@@@@, with all representing shows I enjoyed and am glad to have witnessed. It's certainly not an exact science, but bestowing above @@@@ typically entails performances I would emphatically suggest others see and those by performers I can't wait to catch again.

Perhaps properly reflective of an act I've long neglected live, I found Chicago to deliver a show with a lot of fine music, well-played, but without quite the excitement of the very best concerts on my calendar.

As a first-time experience, I liked the show far more than not, but with all the revolving spotlight moments among the singers and players, there did seem to be something of a "by-the-book" sensibility to the proceedings, with nothing particularly special--save a few gracious mentions--for the city that bore the band and inspired its name.

Still, it was about time I got to Chicago.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Not Quite the Time of My Life, but 'Dirty Dancing' Onstage is Rather Likable, With Few Missteps -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Dirty Dancing
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru August 30
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In terms of true artistic merit, Dirty Dancing has little reason to exist onstage.

Though technically a musical, it offers no newly-written songs, too few of the old ones are sung live and the show makes no pretense of using the music and lyrics to drive the onstage action. 

Billing itself as "The Classic Story on Stage," it is much less a theatrical reinterpretation than merely a live re-enactment of a beloved film.

In the apparently non-Equity production now playing at the Cadillac Palace in Chicago--where it ran "pre-Broadway" in 2008 (though never got there) following West End success in London--none of the performances are notably deficient, but neither are the leads particularly distinctive or charismatic, at least as discerned from my upper balcony perch.

I doubt avid fans of the 1987 Dirty Dancing film starring Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze would espouse that the stage version outdoes it, and especially given the entertainment value-to-cost ratio, watching the movie would seem sufficiently satisfying for most.

That said, I found myself enjoying the live version of Dirty Dancing much more than I expected.

Photos by Matthew Murphy; male star depicted not the same as in Chicago cast.
Though not a great musical by any means, and no substantive enhancement on the movie--despite a few non-film scenes that worked in the Civil Rights movement and added some depth to the family dynamics--for what it is, Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage is well-done and even rather likable.

I can't recall specifics of the show in 2008, and am surprised that I had last seen it that long ago, but remember not liking it much--as substantiated by the low rating in my theater database--perhaps largely due to the abundance of recorded music and video projections.

So it may be due to a general watering down of the production values of many newer musicals, and an overabundance of mediocre stageworks based on popular movies, that Dirty Dancing now seems relatively pleasing in comparison.

If nothing else, it is considerably better than the other stage production based on an iconic Patrick Swayze movie: Ghost: The Musical.

It never made me want to get up and dance, but given the well-paced script by Eleanor Bergstein--who also wrote the movie, based on her own experiences--attractive performers, impressive footwork and some excellent singing (on too rare opportunities), Dirty Dancing never stoked my ire or made me wish I hadn't made the trek to the Loop from Skokie for the Broadway in Chicago presentation.

Christopher Tierney, a veteran of Chicago's Hubbard Street Dance company, looked good and danced well in the Patrick Swayze role of Johnny Castle, a dance instructor at a Catskills resort in 1963. (I've long been fascinated with the rise, existence and fall of the Borscht Belt and just watched a good documentary on Kutscher's, the resort--along with Grossinger's--said to be the inspiration for Kellerman's in Dirty Dancing.)

Gillian Abbott makes for a likable and believable Baby, while former Joffrey member Jenny Winton is a pleasurably striking presence to watch on dance numbers with Tierney.

But just as impressive as the actual stars of the show are the supporting players who vocalize the sparse selection of live tunes. These include Jerome Harmann-Hardeman as Tito (the longstanding crooner at Kellerman's), Jennilee Shallow, John Antony and Doug Carpenter.

Between them, separately and together, they belt out strong versions of "Do You Love Me?," "You Don't Own Me," "In the Still of the Night (I'll Remember)" and the movie's signature song, "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," accompanied by a live band onstage.

The program notes that the show includes songs not in the movie--such as "Save the Last Dance for Me"--that Bergstein had wanted but couldn't secure for the screen.

So the material and music is far from awful, and with some nice segues--aided by the use of video projections in lieu of much physical scenery--the pacing is good.

And though most of the dialogue echoes the movie--which I had watched the night before for the first time in ages--it does work in more references to MLK and Civil Rights, which are generally welcome if a bit slight (though the listening to the "I Have a Dream" speech at a campfire mid-show is chronologically suspect, as Dr. King's delivered it on August 28, 1963 rather than in midsummer).

I'm not sure if Bergstein simply restored scenes she had initially wanted to be in the movie, but though seemingly used in part to pad Act II, I felt a few moments between Baby and her mom (Margot White) were nice additions, as well as a bit more interaction between Baby and her sister Lisa (Alex Scolari).

The late-show exchange between Baby and her father (Mark Elliot Wilson) feels like it could be well-supported by a song--even if a newly-written one--and also suggests that Dirty Dancing might make for a fairly decent traditional musical if not so theoretically boxed in by the expectations of movie aficionados.

As it is, Dirty Dancing onstage is something of a strange theatrical hybrid, and as it neither equals its source film nor stands as a stellar musical or play, it's hard to really recommend it.

But if you have a soft spot for the movie, and understand going into the theater that this isn't a Hairspray or Billy Elliot-type screen-to-stage musical adaptation but largely just the movie unfolding live before your eyes, I think you may actually enjoy it.

The material is what it is, as is the conceit, but everyone onstage at the Cadillac Palace enacts it well--and rather buoyantly.

So while you may not have the time of your life, and might even imagine how this Dirty Dancing could well be a good bit better, you wouldn't be disingenuous to get up on your feet at the end and bestow a standing ovation, as did much of the crowd on the show's first night in Chicago.

If it's not nearly the best thing ever to take centerstage, well, nobody puts Baby in a corner, either.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Poetically Divine: With 'Maya's Last Poem,' Fleetwood-Jourdain Creates a Well-Versed Tribute -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Maya's Last Poem
written and directed by Tim Rhoze
Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre
at Noyes Cultural Arts Center, Evanston, IL
Thru August 23
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I didn't become aware of Evanston's Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre until last year, it's 35th anniversary of presenting works highlighting the African-American experience.

But having seen and enjoyed all three of its presentations in 2014--Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, Gee's Bend and Why Not Me? A Sammy Davis Jr. Story--I was glad to be back at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center on Saturday for Maya's Last Poem.

As with Why Not Me?, which was reprised this year, Maya's Last Poem was written and directed by Fleetwood-Jourdain Artistic Director Tim Rhoze, who is also a fine actor I most recently enjoyed seeing in Airline Highway at Steppenwolf before the show and Rhoze transferred to Broadway.

The new work is an hourlong one-act piece that imagines a conversation between Maya Angelou--the famed poet, author, actress and more, who passed away in May 2014 at the age of 86--and God, upon Maya's arrival in heaven.

Jacqueline Williams plays Maya Angelou in Maya's Last Poem
Or at least heaven's library, which serves as something as a portal that enables Maya, wonderfully played by Jacqueline Williams, to chat about common interests, inspirations and much more with the deity embodied by Cheryl Lynn Bruce.

It would seem that Rhoze's script--more expository piece than traditional narrative play--is shrewd enough that God could conceivably be enacted by a performer of either gender or various races/ethnicities, but even to someone without much spiritual bent, Bruce's mature black female holiness felt rather believable and meriting of reverence.

Browsing God's library before they meet, Maya is initially greeted by the pretty and effervescent Petra (Antora DeLong), who serves as something of a heavenly executive assistant.

Reference is made to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou's 1969 autobiography whose title comes from a line in a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem; Dunbar is repeatedly cited in Rhoze's work as a favorite of Angelou's--and God's--along with Shakespeare, Poe, Langston Hughes and others.

When God compliments Maya's work, the poet responds cutely that such an honor makes her feel "as though she's died and gone to heaven."

Though a touching tribute to Angelou and her uplifting beliefs--"The power of hate is no match for the power of love" being just one penetrating statement I jotted down--Maya's Last Poem certainly broaches on rough times in the poet's life, including being raped as a child by her mother's brother and encountering ugly racism throughout her life.

The play isn't a heavy-duty biography--and it's brevity combined with a 7:00pm Saturday start time made for a rather fleeting night of theater--but it tells enough about Maya Angelou to make one want to know more.

And her interaction with God serves as more than simply a conversational conceit, as it not only reflects Angelou's faith but allows for interesting parallels regarding creation--whether of a poem or the world.

Rhoze, the three actresses and the Fleetwood-Jourdain team deserve particular praise for crafting a worthwhile world premiere work that is only being performed 6 times (although Maya's Last Poem should hold strong appeal elsewhere, including in scholastic settings).

You probably want to wrap a meal and some discussion around it--a post-show reception was a nice accoutrement on the night I went--but those in the vicinity (the venue is steps from the Purple Line's Noyes stop) could do worse than to catch an enlightening conversation between two remarkable women this Saturday night or Sunday afternoon.

I'm glad I did.

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As the nearby graphic shows, along with one more weekend of Maya's Last Poem, Fleetwood-Jourdain will be hosting two upcoming concerts and a black-tie gala.