Sunday, November 17, 2019

Both Sides Now: I Generally Have Good Things to Say About 'The Niceties' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Niceties
a recent play by Eleanor Burgess
Directed by Marti Lyons
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru December 8

A smart, thought-provoking play can almost always feel relevant, even decades after being written.

Perhaps this is particularly true for a “two-hander,” a play with just two characters, whose dialogue often inherently constitutes an argument or debate, which ideally can have audience members taking, but then changing, sides, sometimes by the sentence.

Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties is a two-hander, which deftly—if at times a bit too calculatedly—feels like a closely-contested tennis or boxing match.

Chronicling a conversation that becomes confrontational between a well-regarded mature, white, female, feminist, left-leaning history professor and a politicized millennial student who feels her perspective as a young African-American woman isn’t being properly respected, the work theoretically should retain its resonance for many years to come.

But it is a new play, one that Burgess first wrote in the Spring of 2016, and in finalizing it after the election of Donald Trump that November, decided to keep it set earlier in 2016, before the successor to Barack Obama had been determined.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
But while I would say he’s exacerbated it, President Trump did not create the racial divide in this country, and with some knowing winks to what has transpired since 2016, The Niceties—which was first staged in 2018—certainly does feel topical.

Even more so for me given that—without knowing the subject matter of the play, which I would see Wednesday night at Glencoe’s stellar Writers Theatre—just this week I had done some Googling to learn more about the “OK Boomer” memes that has members of Generation Y (which comes after the Millennial Generation) razzing older folks for disparaging or belittling them.

Certainly the concerns Zoe (well-played here by Ayanna Bria Bakari) raises to Janine (the typically excellent Mary Beth Fisher) are more substantive than generational disconnect, but it was interesting to see the play just days after I became more tuned into the schism. (I happen to be a white, suburban Gen Xer, in many ways more in concert with those my age and older, but hoping to understand younger generations and deferential to those of differing backgrounds.)

And while theatrically, The Niceties reminded me of David Mamet’s professor-student two-hander, Oleanna, and Thomas Gibbons’ fine Permanent Collection, which also focuses on race-hinged misunderstandings among seemingly decent, sensitive, open-minded people, it mostly made me think of John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons.

In that incisive one-man show, Leguizamo shrewdly notes how the preponderance of U.S. History having been written by white men has substantially shortchanged the contributions and vantage points of Latinos and other minorities.

So in having read reviews of the play’s past stagings—initially in Boston, NYC and L.A. under the direction of Kimberly Senior, who has helmed many Chicago shows including at Writers, though the current production is directed by Marti Lyons—and then perusing the substantive articles surrounding The Niceties in the current production’s program, I was really quite eager to take in what it had to say.

Which, at the very least, was perceptive and penetrating.

The set-up is that Zoe, a pupil in Janine’s class focusing on historical revolutions (presumably at Yale, though it’s never quite specified) has come during office hours to discuss a term paper she has written.

I don’t believe it’s a “thesis,” per se, as Zoe is an undergrad, but that word is tossed around.

As best I understood, Zoe’s supposition is that rather than representing a radical movement toward democracy, the American Revolution was less universal an upheaval as it kept whites in power while blacks remained slaves.

I will be discreet about detailing their discussion, but in being initially dismissive of Zoe’s gist, Janine—supposedly a progressive thinker whose office walls (in a nice set design by Courtney O’Neill) includes posters depicting Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Emilio Zapata and George Washington—comes across as a mouthpiece for the patriarchal establishment, unwilling to hear near ideas challenging past slights. 

But as the discussion continues, Janine’s objections become more—understandingly, to a degree—academic.

She wants Zoe to incorporate sources supporting her arguments, and not just websites based in conjecture. To which Zoe counters that voices of the marginalized and oppressed weren’t often recorded for history.

This, like many of the points Zoe makes, seems valid. And while I felt Janine--through the words of writer Burgess, which didn't always seem to me what an experienced and savvy professor might say--comes of less sympathetically in the macro, she largely holds her own.

Artfully if imperfectly, The Niceties feels like a heated discussion and an argument, not a smackdown and surrender.

To the credit of Burgess, director Lyons and the two actresses, my attention was strongly held across nearly two hours, minus intermission.

And not only is much of the conversation shrewd, it's also--admirably--discomfiting, even to an avowed liberal like me, and those who appreciate, study and/or teach history.

Given that someone--Native Americans, women, indigenous people of many lands, immigrants from everywhere, African-Americans, Jews, homosexuals, etc., etc., etc.--has always suffered under the boot heel of somebody else, with it being either supported, condoned or conveniently ignored, it's hard to celebrate anyone in American or world history without, as Janine notes in the play, running through an untenable stream of disclaimers.

So as I said at top, The Niceties is certainly a smart play. And a good one.

But while truly admiring much of Burgess conceit and writing, I think there are times when what both characters do and say seems unrealistic.

Zoe arrives at Janine's office expecting positive feedback so the vitriol she works up so eloquently and expeditiously seems a bit extreme, and even in being put on the defensive, the character of Janine says things I'm not sure such a person might. Not to imply that anyone, no matter how seemingly admirable and progressive, can't have ugly moments and aspects, but The Niceties occasionally feels too much like a dramatic encounter and not a real one.

Still, it's timely, relevant, quite good and well-worth your attention. If nothing else, it should make you think about how "history" becomes so.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Unfolding 'A Map of Myself': Ahead of Sara Abou Rashed's Solo Performance, an Interview with Director Larry Smith -- by Ken Stasiak

Theater Preview and Interview

A Map of Myself: A 70-Minute, One-Woman Revolution on War, Immigration, Language, Home, History and Everything in Between
written by and starring Sara Abou Rashed
Stage 773, Chicago
November 16, 2019 | 7:30PM
Info and Tickets

Interview with play director Larry Smith conducted and written by Seth Saith contributor, Ken Stasiak

Larry Smith (Wikipedia bio) founded Smith magazine in 2006 and is the creator of Six Word Memoirs.

Not only a publisher, his writing has appeared in The New York Times, Popular Science, Men’s Health, Salon, Slate and other popular outlets.

He’s also my editor, having established the Six Word Memoirs website and books including The Best Advice in Six Words and Six Words Fresh Off The Boat, to which I have contributed.

So it was with some surprise I found out he was directing a new play, A Map of Myself, written and
performed by a 19-year-old Syrian poet named Sara Abou Rashed.

Not only that, but the play has received rave reviews.

Seeking to satisfy my curiosity ahead of seeing A Map of Myself at Chicago's Stage 773 this Saturday, I reached out to Larry who graciously granted me the following interview.

I was really impressed with Sara. She is mature beyond her years with a true poet’s sensibilities. How did you meet her? 
I first met Sara Abou Rashed in 2015 at the Thurber House, a nonprofit writing and literary center in Columbus, Ohio. Our storytelling connection started in a familiar way: with her Six-Word Memoir:
“Escaped war; war never escaped me.” 
I wanted to know more, and have been fortunate both to work with Sara to shape the story behind those six words, and get to know her as a person and an artist. Even at the age of 17, speaking in a new language, Sara was most talented natural storyteller I had ever met. She took part in a few of my Six Words Live shows in which storytellers start with a Six-Word Memoir and then share the backstory in about 10 minutes.

After a show at the Tenement Museum in New York City in December 2018, we went out for Sara’s first slice of New York pizza. I asked her if she thought she could do a whole hour about her life. She told me that was a dream of hers. We got to work, and now our show at Stage 773 will be our thirteenth performance of A Map of Myself.

I knew about your writing background but never knew you had a background in theater. Tell me more. Have you ever directed a play before? 
I don’t have anything approaching a formal background in theater. But I’ve worked with hundreds of storytellers to get them ready to share a story in 5 to 20 minutes, without notes, on many stages over the past decade. As I coach them, we work on elements of live storytelling like presence and body language. But for sure, a 70-minute play with lights and visuals was a whole new ballgame. I was lucky to have great theater mentors in Columbus, and many others who were helpful ears and eyes along the way

What did you find most challenging about directing and staging a one person show? 
Mostly time. Sara is a full-time student at Denison University and I have many hats running the Six-Word Memoir project, doing workshops with companies and in schools, and being a father and a husband. You need time to do anything, of course, but when it’s something like theater that was largely new to me, I needed both time and a lot of quiet among life’s daily chaos to figure out how to be a producer and director. You find the time for the things that matter; and so Sara and I both did.

Did you edit A Map of Myself? 
I worked with Sara on every part of the play — in person, on Google Docs, and via lots of hours on
Facetime. In terms of the writing, she wrote the play and I was her very involved and vocal editor. Sometimes we would talk for an hour and decide to change just two or three words of the script. I we both loved every minute of it.

What part of Map of Myself is most memorable for you and why? 
The talkbacks and audience discussion after each performance. Every one is different, every one is inspiring.

What has your directorial debut taught you? Would you like to do more theater? 
These three words: trust the process. And two more: trust yourself. In many ways everything I’ve been learning about storytelling my whole life led to directing Map. It was often scary and challenging, but, again, the generosity of the theater community kept me going and believing in myself and in Sara. I hope to be part of more theater experiences in the future.

In a sense this play is a follow up to Fresh Off the Boat. What fascinates you about the immigrant experience? 
Six Words Fresh Off the Boat: Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Coming to America was a book that I wanted to do long before this current administration. It came out a few months into the Trump presidency and of course took on a new urgency and importance. But the themes the book addresses six words at a time and that Sara digs into in her poetry and in A Map of Myself are timeless:
Who are we as a nation? How does my family’s journey to America tell the story of this country as a whole? What kind of America do we want to be?
Both Fresh Off the Boat (my book and ABC TV show I partnered with to make it) and A Map of Myself answer these questions — and many more — through great storytelling.

What’s next for A Map of Myself? 
We’re back to Ohio for a show at Otterbein University and then working on bringing it to more venues across America.

What’s next for you? 
Bringing A Map of Myself to more venues across the country so as many people as possible can experience it; working on a new Six-Word Memoir book around life at every age; continuing to do talks at conferences and leading workshops at companies and in classrooms.

As always, thanks so much for your time and support Larry. 

Sara Abou Rashed has provided us with an eye opening vision as to the immigrant experience. Come share it with her this Saturday and witness the performance of someone I think we’re going to see a lot more of in the future.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

A Rather Fine Twist: Marriott's 'Oliver' Will -- for the Most Part -- Have You Asking for More -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru December 29

Despite a magnificent score featuring several of the most delightful songs ever written for musical theater—“Food Glorious Food,” “Oliver,” “Consider Yourself,” “I’d Do Anything,” “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” “It’s a Fine Life,” “I’d Do Anything,” “Reviewing the Situation”—Oliver resides, in my mind, a notch or two below other brilliant classics of the Broadway canon.

This is in part due to somewhat ponderous pacing early on—more pronounced in the 1968 movie version, which actually won the Oscar for Best Picture—but primarily due to one other song by Lionel Bart, who wrote the show’s music, lyrics and book, based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist

Coming early in Act II is a song sung by Nancy, a young woman who is part of Fagin’s gang that the orphaned child Oliver falls in with in London.

While warm, even maternal towards Oliver, she is the girlfriend of the malevolent Bill Sikes, a particularly nasty but criminally successful confederate of Fagin’s. After Bill hits Nancy, she sings—and at Marriott, as delivered by Lucy Godinez, exceptionally well—a Stand By Your Mannish tune called “As Long As He Needs Me.”

Perhaps in 1830’s London (when Dickens wrote and set Oliver Twist) or even 1960 London (when the musical premiered in the West End), mores were somewhat different.

But I've hated that song since I saw a touring version of the show in 2004, and amid the #MeToo movement, it really feels ugly and obtuse (though musically, it’s beautiful).

So that—and the whole Bill/Nancy relationship, which actually devolves from there—is why I’ve never absolutely loved Oliver, even as I relished most of the songs.

This holds for a remarkably good production at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, under the direction of Nick Bowling.

A terrific cast—headed by young Kai Edgar in the title role at Wednesday’s Press Night; he alternates with Kayden Koshelev—wonderfully delivers all of the aforementioned songs and more, including “Where Is Love?” on which the 8-year-old Edgar shows formidable vocal chops.

William Brown makes for a fine Fagin, even if the gentleman sitting next to me didn’t find him menacing enough. I truly enjoyed his take on “Reviewing the Situation.”

The seemingly teenage Patrick Scott McDermott is a rather nifty Artful Dodger, and along with Godinez as Nancy, I really liked Ziare Paul-Emile as her friend Bet.

Marriott vets Bethany Thomas and Terry Hamilton are strong as Mrs. Corney and Mr. Brownlow, while Dan Waller is good as bad Bill Sikes.

And with at least a dozen young boys delivering a delectable “Food Glorious Food” to open the show, the vast ensemble cast comprised of kids and grown-ups is demonstrably superb.

In sum, even in a well-staged production that makes fine use of Marriott’s intimate, in-the-round Oliver still has its inherent issues. Along with “As Long As He Needs Me”—though Godinez’ rendition and reprise merited the lavish applause bestowed, including by me—I could also do without an early “flirtation” scene between the orphanage’s Mr. Bumble (Matthew R. Jones) and Mrs. Corney, which doesn’t do much besides hamper the pacing.

But so many of Bart’s songs are absolute delights—“Consider Yourself” and “I’ll Do Anything” especially had me humming along happily.

And how can you not like a show with so many talented kids?

So although Bowling’s production doesn’t overcome or circumvent the points of aversion I entered with, it renders them what they are: troublesome moments in an otherwise fantastic musical.

Consider yourself advised. Oliver isn’t perfect, but this excellent iteration at Marriott Theatre should provide young and old with a Dickens of a good time.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Muy Bueno: John Leguizamo Turns 'Latin History for Morons' Into a Compelling Contemporary Lesson -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

John Leguizamo
Latin History for Morons
Cadillac Palace Theater, Chicago
Run Ended (tour schedule)

"Latin history is American history," said John Leguizamo early in his latest one-man show--which I saw on Saturday night--and it rightfully garnered considerable applause.

Understandably, there was an appreciable Latinx turnout among the almost-full crowd, but even to someone without any Latin blood--you can tell by my dancing skills, or lack thereof--Leguizamo's history lesson hit home.

I have always enjoyed the 55-year-old actor, comedian and writer but haven't seen any of his one-man shows--Freak, Sexaholix, Ghetto Klown, Spic-O-Rama, Mambo Mouth--not even on TV.

So although Latin History for Morons--which ran on Broadway for a few months beginning in November 2015--wasn't part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription series, nor a show for which I got a press invite, I was happy to get a balcony seat for $26 (which Ticketmaster fees somehow turned into $46).

And it was really good, not just because Leguizamo is a likable performer or because the substance of what he imparts powerfully combats the moronic wall-building sentiments and shameful kids-in-cages realities of our times.

Although I was aware of some of the truths he shared--such as the Mayans, Incas and Aztecs having once had vast, enlightened and longstanding empires decimated by European colonialism--the Columbian-born, multi-ethnic star enveloped his teachings in plenty of humor, pathos and poignancy.

The framework for much of Latin History for Morons has Leguizamo trying to illuminate his son to help ward off bullies and succeed on middle school projects.

And it's clear that in writing this show, John has clearly done his homework, well-beyond all that he has likely long known well.

References are made onstage to several books--including 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann and Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States--often serving to establish that U.S. history textbooks have long been created by (and to serve) a white, patriarchal culture.

I won't reveal too much of Leguizamo's "lesson," as even though the brief Chicago run has ended, this shrewd show will conceivably make its way to TV at some point after the tour concludes, but just in terms of colonialism I appreciated his insights about how many European conquests could be ascribed far more to the spreading of disease than to military might.

And yes, some of the syphilis jokes made for some raunchy hilarity.

It also bespeaks Leguizamo's savvy that one of my favorite lines of the show had nothing to do with Latin history but rather how stealing music once meant waiting all day to tape an album off the radio and hoping the DJ wouldn't talk over much of it.

Though the two hours without an intermission went fast and were well-paced, I felt the end--in which Leguizamo cites U.S. military heroes of Latin descent and other notables--was a bit rushed.

Carlos Santana had been briefly name-dropped early on, but I wish more time was devoted to the
contributions of Latinos in entertainment, government and industry, among other fields.

Props to the New Yorker, however, for mentioning the Cubs' Javier Baez, along with icons like Frida Kahlo, Cesar Chavez and Sonia Sotomayor. 

And not only is Latin History for Morons a terrifically entertaining show, it's an important one.

Including, sadly, for those prone to ignore or deride it.

While folks adorned in "Make America Great Again" caps would undoubtedly find much to hate about this show--which does at times mock the president--they will, if open-minded, find a whole lot more to learn from it.

Late in the show, about those of Latin descent, Leguizamo imparts with palpable anguish, "We're so American it hurts."

Which is why it's so painful to realize the "cultural apartheid" he references exists merely due to ignorance (or xenophobia), which could be remedied if we all bothered to learn some Latin history. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Imperfect Visit: Despite Some Nice Touches, 'Kentucky' Doesn't Put Me in a Happy State -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by Leah Nanako Winkler 
directed by Chika Ike
Gift Theatre
at Theater Wit, Chicago
Thru November 18

It's hard to say precisely what left me lukewarm about Kentucky, as the two-act play contains some inspired ideas, decent writing and fine acting.

And there's enough promise in the premise for the piece to have potentially been strong throughout.

I've read that playwright Leah Nanako Winkler grew up in Lexington, KY and is half-Japanese like the like the two main characters, sisters Hiro (Emjoy Gavino) and Sophie (Hannah Toriumi).

So, without knowing quite how much of Kentucky is true to her own life, it's easy to imagine Winkler--in perhaps reflecting upon her own relocation--having love/hate feelings about the bluegrass state such as those exhibited by Hiro,

Photo credit on all: Claire Demos
But with Hiro now a marketing executive in Manhattan who repeatedly brags about making "$60,000 a year"--which I believe would barely allow her to cover rent in a Queens walkup--her visit home initially reeks of a condescending sense of superiority.

Having long stayed away due to a distressing relationship with her emotionally abusive father, James
(Paul D'Addario), Hiro ventures back to Kentucky due to Sophie’s impending wedding.

But it isn’t the chance to serve as Maid of Honor for her younger sister that brings her home, nor primarily to see her mom, Masako (Helen Joo Lee)—who Hiro loves but condemns for not leaving dad—Grandma (Emilie Modaff) and close friends.

Rather, believing that Sophie is, at age 22, making a brash and foolish mistake by opting to marry a born-again Christian named Da'Ran (Ian Voltaire Deanes)—who has also prompted her to become quite religious—Hiro comes, at a rather late hour, to convince Sophie to call off the wedding.

Before she even sees her sister, Hiro gets drunk and gets something going with Adam (Martel Manning), a handsome guy she had a crush on in high school.

So essentially—and this brief summary covers just the play’s first 10 minutes—Hiro sees herself as a moral voice of reason regarding her kid sister, but is a rather adrift hot mess.

Certainly, one can’t help empathize with Hiro given how brutally D'Addario embodies her dad, but I had trouble buying into her sense of righteousness from the get go.

And while part of Winkler’s point is clearly to reflect on Hiro’s “save Sophie” journey taking unexpected turns regarding herself, without giving anything else away about the narrative let’s just say it didn’t convince me.

Gavino—who reminded me of comedienne/actress Ali Wong—does a nice job playing Hiro even if I didn’t love the character, and Toriumi finds some nice nuance in Sophie.

And the concept of having Sophie’s bridesmaids (Ana Silva, Maryam Abdi) also serve as a singing
Greek Chorus is clever, especially as the actresses handle it with the right amount of cheeky glee. Silva also humorously fills the guise of Hiro’s NYC therapist.

There is also a funny portrayal of a cat best left without me saying more.

So Kentucky isn’t unwatchable. Under the direction of Chika Ike, the Gift’s production is an estimable effort and the entire cast does a nice job. 

But though I tend to share Hiro’s preference for big cities and marketing careers and understand her aversion to Sophie’s choices, her insistence is off-putting and Kentucky just never settles into a tonality that I found engaging.

And I didn’t really care any more for where it ends than where it begins.

As I intimated at top, that criticism is rather vague, but for whatever reasons—tangible and not—Kentucky just wasn’t a wonderful place to spend a couple hours on Sunday afternoon.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

With Autumn Closing In: As He (Finally) Turns the Page, Bob Seger Ensures Rock and Roll Never Forgets -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
w/ opening act Anthony Rosano & the Conqueroos
United Center, Chicago 
October 19, 2019

Until late 2006, Bob Seger stood as one of my favorite living rock artists never seen live in concert.

Since then, I have seen Seger—who is now 74 years old—and his Silver Bullet Band seven times in seven different years, including Saturday night at the United Center.

It was the fifth to last show of his Roll Me Away Final Tour, which began in Fall 2017 but had many gigs postponed for over a year due to Bob having a back injury. I caught a rescheduled show last December at Allstate Arena but couldn’t resist one last chance. (The tour concludes November 1st in Philadelphia.)

Even back in 2006, Seger’s hair and beard were fully white and he was a bit paunchy. His voice wasn’t as robust as in his heyday, and he wasn’t the same kinetic stage presence (per old clips). He didn’t delve as deep into his catalog as I would’ve preferred, nor mix things up much tour-to-tour let alone night-to-night.

But his songs remained great and the Silver Bullet Band—with some old members and some new—were superb.

He was a remarkably earnest and amiable presence and his voice was good enough to make for enjoyable shows.

Thirteen years later, that’s pretty much still the same, with Seger just as good on Saturday as throughout his entire latter-day touring resurgence.

Maybe even better, though if I’m really giving this show an extra ½@ for lifetime achievement, so be it.

His opening number, “Simplicity” isn’t a favorite of mine, but I was happy Seger was open to venturing away from the obvious.

I would say the same for “No More,” a song I didn’t recognize (and can’t find where it’s from), but it was nice that he dedicated to the late congressman Elijah Cummings. 

It took the place of setlist staple “Her Strut,” a better song but one I  really didn't need to hear again.

The somewhat rare “Shame on the Moon” and “You’ll Accompany Me” were nice touches, his use of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” to pay tribute to longtime pals Glenn Frey, Tom Petty and others was moving and while there are many other Seger songs devoted fans might wish to abet his encore choices, which have been the same since at least 2006—the guys behind me kept yelling for “Fire Lake”—no one could really blame him for dedicating “You Take Me In” to his wife before “Against the Wind,” “Hollywood Nights,” “Night Moves” and “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” closed out seemingly his last ever Chicago show. 

Seger has been playing the Windy City since at least 1968 (then with the Last Heard) and the core encore quartet and many of the other songs performed on Saturday—“The Fire Down Below,” “Mainstreet,” “Come to Poppa,” “We’ve Got Tonight,” “Travelin’ Man/Beautiful Loser,” “Turn the Page,” “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man”—have been heard here often over the years.

But that’s why I, and the rest of the sold out audience, was there.

Backed by the ageless, eternally cool saxophonist, Alto Reed, original Silver Bullet bassist Chris Campbell, pianist Craig Frost and many other fine musicians and singers, I think it's safe to say that Bob Seger clearly pleased the crowd.

Not in any new way, but with me particularly glad to have "Still the Same" included in this tour--after being MIA for years--the old man singing "Old Time Rock and Rock" was more than enough to accompany me and my memories out the door and into the night, movingly.

As he wrote and recorded in 1972:

"Here I am on the road again / There I am up on the stage / Here I go playin' star again / There I go turn the page"

To which for this show, all the others and much music that I'll always love, I saith:

Thanks, Bob.

Enjoy the next chapter.


Monday, October 21, 2019

Personal Favorite: Another Rockin' Night with Willie Nile and Band -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Willie Nile & band
w/ opening act Brad Ray
Evanston SPACE
October 19

There are a lot of rock acts I've seen and reviewed who wouldn't be considered super famous.

Alejandro Escovedo, Stereophonics, Maxïmo Park, Ash and The Waterboys are just a few "personal favorites" who aren't household names.

Of this ilk, I don't think there is anyone I've seen or championed more than Willie Nile, particularly in this decade.

Friday night at Evanston's comfortable SPACE venue, I saw Nile live for the 8th time.

This lags well behind the 50 I've seen his pal, Bruce Springsteen, but isn't bad for a 71-year-old rocker I only learned about around 2008 (via the Springsteen fan site,

I've caught Willie in various incarnations: backed by Chicago's Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra, solo
acoustic, paired with bassist Johnny Pisano and with his own touring band, which has varied over the years but includes Pisano.

Friday was a band gig with a quartet including Nile, Pisano, guitarist Jimmy Bones and drummer Jon Weber.

For whatever reason, SPACE had another show booked for the same night.

No offense to the later performer, singer/songwriter Anais Mitchell, who composed the current Tony Award-winning musical, Hadestown. I might’ve liked to have seen her, but her 9:30pm show was sold out. And it meant that Willie was only slotted from 7:00-9:00pm, including an opening act.

Smartly, the opening act, a young singer/guitarist from Georgia named Brad Ray, took the stage at about 6:50pm, allowing for about a 35-minute performance.

Playing acoustic guitar and singing some nice-sounding songs, he was accompanied by his dad, who played some fine licks on electric guitar and provided harmonies.

So Nile and his band didn’t take the stage until 7:40pm, and though they were terrific, the set did seem slightly curtailed, without room for an encore.

That, and—perhaps as a consequence—the show just feeling a tad less frenetic than Nile band gigs in the past accounts for my awarding “just” @@@@1/2 (out of 5).

But it was certainly good enough to be glad I went, as after opening with “Forever Wild,” Nile ripped through one of my favorites of his, “Run,” and was his usual gracious and loquacious self, dedicating “The Innocent Ones” to the Kurdish people and telling how his “This is Our Time” facilitated his meeting the amazing young activist, Malala.

From “All Dressed Up and No Place to Go” from 2018’s Children of Paradise to the rollicking “Heaven Help the Lonely” off 1991’s Places I Have Never Been, Nile demonstrated that he’s been writing great songs for a long time. (His self-titled debut came out in 1980.)

2006’s Streets of New York is the first album of his I came to know and love, and a highlight of Friday’s set was a gorgeous rendition of the title song, with Nile on piano.

The title track of 2009’s House of a Thousand Guitars was also delectable, as was a rocking cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” and a show closing “One Guitar” with the Rays joining Nile’s band onstage. shows that the night before in Michigan, there was an encore of The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” so the scheduling kept us from hearing that or some other gem.

Another 20 minutes or so would’ve been quite nice and—per past experience—likely quite phenomenal with the band fully revved.

But, another chance to see the great Willie Nile was appreciably fantastic nonetheless.

It’s somewhat a shame he remains one of my favorite "secrets," but undeniably one I’ve been very glad to know.