Monday, July 25, 2016

Hot and Coldplay: Band Provides a Dazzling--If Not So Substantive--Feast for the Senses -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

(opening acts Foxes and Alessia Cara did not perform due to the weather)
Soldier Field, Chicago
July 24 (also played July 23)

I have to imagine that everyone who saw Coldplay at Soldier Field on Sunday night--especially in braving pre-show storms of "biblical proportions" in the words of singer Chris Martin--had a whole lot of fun in enjoying the British quartet's sound & vision extravaganza.

I certainly did. 

Say what you will about the band's music--and I'll get to such an appraisal shortly--but the band has made an art form of turning virtually every song into a spectacle akin to a Super Bowl halftime show.

This is a bit ironic given that Bruno Mars and Beyonce blew a relatively tepid Coldplay off my TV screen during Super Bowl 50's halftime show this past February, but with every fan armed with a wristband that lit up in various colors throughout most tunes, dynamic lighting and video cues, plus fireworks, confetti and three different stages, the home of the Chicago Bears was constantly filled with rather spectacular pageantry.

I'd seen a press blurb about a prior show on the A Head Full of Dreams tour that--in praising all the pumped-up pomp--said something to the effect of Coldplay "begins where most other bands end."

And indeed, after opening acts Foxes and Alessia Cara were precluded by monsoons for the second straight night--I'm still not sure if they were to play together or separate--Coldplay took the stage around 9:20pm, with a Maria Callas aria ("O mio bambino caro") and then Charlie Chaplin's humanitarian speech from the end of The Great Dictator blaring over the PA, wristbands aglow throughout the stadium and Martin jaunting down a long catwalk as "A Head Full of Dreams" exploded with color and light (and sound). 

Even more so in juxtaposition with the blitzkrieg from Mother Nature, it was a rather resplendent and buoyant way to start a concert, and the sensory smorgasbord carried through to the band's breakthrough hit, "Yellow"--complete with a rather obvious hue change--and 2011's "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall."

As on the concert's 4th song (not counting a snippet of "Sweet Home Chicago,"), the lovely piano ballad, "The Scientist" from 2002's A Rush of Blood to the Head--still the band's best album, IMO--Coldplay showed cognizance that occasional valleys were needed amid a 2-hour succession of songs mostly infused with "Can we top this?" flash and flourish.

It was undeniably fun and festive, and per my @@@@1/2 (out of 5) rating, I generally loved it more than not.

All the extravagance wouldn't have worked if Coldplay wasn't playing songs the sellout crowd enjoyed, and tunes both old--"Clocks," "Fix You," acoustic takes on "In My Place," "Don't Panic," and "God Put a Smile Upon Your Face"--and new or newish ("Princess of China," "Charlie Brown," "Adventure of a Lifetime") sounded swell amid the comfortable night air (the day's 90+ degree heat having been defanged by the torrential cloudbursts).

Coldplay has certainly built an impressive career--selling out multiple nights in U.S. football stadiums would seem to cement their standing as the biggest band to arise in the 21st century--with a solid canon of upbeat, positive songs. (See Sunday's Coldplay setlist here.)

And the ever-gracious Martin is an energetic, effervescent front man who aims to please, even to the point of bringing a kid at his first concert onstage to watch him play "Everglow" alone on piano from up close. (Except when Martin pointed them out, guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion were relatively inconspicuous most of the night.)

Whether visually spartan or grandiose, great concerts are typically about the "experience"--individually unique and hard to define as it may be--more so than just the music performed.

And to their credit, after a few tours I found to be fairly rote 90-minute performances, back in 2012 and again in the present Coldplay has amplified the visceral excitement of their shows by turning practically every song into a carnival of its own.

That said--with genuine admiration--during the concert there were times when I couldn't help but feel that A) all the pomp and circumstance was probably a bit too much and B) it served to mask the reality that there isn't a whole lot of depth, differentiation or sophistication to Coldplay's music, sonically or lyrically.

Back in 2002, when the terrific A Rush of Blood to the Head marked a clear leap forward from their fine debut album, Parachutes, and the band blew me away in a relatively intimate show at Milwaukee's Eagles Ballroom--they were already filling Chicago's UIC Pavilion at the time--it felt to me that Coldplay could well be destined to become "the next great rock band," of an ilk to rival U2.

But while they have released a few really good songs--including "Viva la Vida," a standout of Sunday's show--and several more nice-sounding ones, it is perhaps because Martin is seemingly a good, well-adjusted guy who even in splitting with ex-wife Gwyneth Paltrow hasn't reflected much turmoil in public or his music, Coldplay's songs seem rather facile as a base generalization.

There never seems to be much angst, social observation, personal reflection/revelation or ingenuity in their songs--"Clocks" still being their most musically vibrant--and perhaps they've knowingly ceded "the new U2" turf, at least qualitatively, to Arcade Fire.

And as such, the largely superb concert lacked the level of musical and emotional gravitas I embrace at the very best ones.

I don't doubt that many of the 50,000+ in attendance found the show absolutely phenomenal in all regards, and could be wholly dispassionate about acts I--and Martin, by the way--find remarkable, such as Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and Paul McCartney.

Many may consider this one of the best concerts they've ever seen, and I certainly wouldn't argue with their opinion.

But though I had a wonderful time with good friends, I don't share it.

I would concur the Coldplay has become one of the best in the concert business in delivering a dazzling show full of audiovisual wonder--and as someone who loves the art of performance, this isn't trifling praise. You don't delight 50,000 people by accident.

Yet while I like a good bit of it, their music rarely really matters to me.

And as further exemplified by a rather middling cover of David Bowie's "Heroes" that captured none of the song's pensive pathos ("Life on Mars" could have a been a better tribute given Martin's piano gifts) and three show-closing encores of new songs--"Amazing Day," "A Sky Full of Stars," "Up&Up"--offering rather trite sentiments amid confetti ("Politik" could have been a prime closer in this cantankerous election year), although this was a great concert, at the same time it reaffirmed my reluctance to consider Coldplay a truly great band.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Inspired by Black Lives Matter, Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre's #LOVESTORIES Educates, Illuminates and Inspires -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Inspired by Black Lives Matter
A play in 3 parts:
History Fair by Tania Richard
A Shot by Gloria Bond Clunie
Third Rail by Marsha Estell 
Conceived and Directed by Tim Rhoze
Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre
at Noyes Cultural Arts Center
Thru July 24

Theater, in general, provides me with a tremendous amount of cultural enrichment.

And each summer, for the past 3 years--though the troupe has existed for 37--the African-American themes and perspectives intrinsic to the productions by Evanston's Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre have provided me with considerable socio-cultural enrichment.

And enlightenment.

But also rather importantly and consistently, entertainment and enjoyment.

Not to mention a sense of community, with mixed audiences watching, thinking, laughing, feeling and applauding together, providing some sense of hope that one's skin pigmentation shouldn't present such an awful chasm--as it clearly does to many in our society.  

With FJT Artistic Director Tim Rhoze--also an actor on the stages of Steppenwolf, Goodman, Northlight, Broadway and beyond--warmly greeting each patron on the way into and out of the theater the company occupies at the hopping Noyes Cultural Arts Center, my mom, sister Allison, a close family friend and I have routinely relished our visits to Fleetwood-Jourdain.

I didn't get a chance to see A Song For Coretta, revolving around conversations among those paying
their respects to Mrs. Coretta Scott King--widow of Dr. Martin Luther King--but heard that FJT's first presentation of 2016 was excellent.

And even though I'm writing this just hours before the last performance of #LOVESTORIES, with little expectation that it will motivate anyone to rush over to the Noyes Center at the last minute--though tickets should be available at the door--I valued the experience of seeing it enough to want to document it anyhow.

Commissioned by Rhoze to artistically reflect on the Black Lives Matter movement, all-too-frequent deaths of African-American men and women at the hands of police, the scourge of gang violence and other weighty topics--including discrimination and violence by blacks against transgender members of their own community--#LOVESTORIES consists of three fine vignettes totaling roughly 80 minutes.

Though the subject matter and actors would render the triptych rather interrelated regardless, they are more overtly connected by the incisive vocalizing of spoken word artist Jackie Colquitt, who also appeared in the plays themselves Saturday night as an understudy for the absent Krystel T. McNeil.

The first of the pieces--probably not long or fully dramatized enough to be fairly deemed "plays" in a typical sense, though each quite compelling in its own right--is History Fair, written by Tania Richard.

It features the delightful Alexis Syncere, an Evanston Township High School student who aptly
personifies a pupil participating in a school History Fair (akin to a Science Fair).

Rather than speak about Abraham Lincoln, MLK or the newly buzzworthy Alexander Hamilton, Syncere's character of Amelia presents the egregious litany of slain police brutality victims, to whom the other cast members briefly give voice and remind that--whether Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, 12-year-old Tamir Rice or far too many others--"I was loved."

Along with it being imparted that there have been many such female victims besides Bland, we are told that the Black Lives Matter movement was begun by three mothers, in hopes of fostering a new system to "prevent this from happening to others."

As with everything I've seen by Fleetwood-Jourdain Theater and the remainder of #LOVESTORIES--including A Shot, in which a heartbroken and anxious grandmother threatens the life of a white politician--History Fair never bristles with militancy nor advocates violence, but rather portrays understandable frustration, incredulity and urgency, as when Amelia emotes, "What we need is radical empathy, radical change, radical reform, radical love."

In A Shot, written by FJT founder Gloria Bond Clunie, Cheryl Frazier is excellent as Nettie Morris, a grandmother who has seen her son killed in the street, has had a stray bullet pierce her window and--in noting that 1-in-3 black men do jail time, the math of which among next door neighbors would seem to earmark her grandson for incarceration--provides a young, white candidate (played by Max Downs) with an invoice for the cost of prison, in hopes that the money be better invested towards a more positive future.

Although few are likely to actually see this vignette, I'm still loath to convey all the specifics of what unfolds.

Yet it becomes rather riveting--and perhaps more so unsettling given the recent killings of cops (obviously after these works were written)--while seeming to honestly reflect the frustration and resentments of African-Americans over not only horrific injustices, but the unceasing spate of neighborhood murders the police and politicians seem unable (or unwilling) to curb.

The final piece, Third Rail by Marsha Estell, is the most dramatically ambitious vignette, but though terrifically acted by Syncere, Colquitt, Downs and Justin Wade--as a wishing-to-transition transgender black man--it was also the most challenging in terms of its message congealing in my mind.

It is more a slice of life, addressing not only LGBTQ issues--and intolerance from those often discriminated against--but also loss and love in various strains and forms.

But that I could empathize with all the characters in Third Rail, and in #LOVESTORIES as a whole, reiterated what I always knew.

That Black Lives Matter.

Not in competition or comparison to any other lives, just equally and--with an appreciation that each black life matters--every bit as specially.

Understanding that I haven't given readers much of a chance to get to the final performance of #LOVESTORIES, I thought I would advise that the Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre will be presenting Single Black Female by Lisa B. Thompson on the weekends between August 6-21 and will also be hosting a couple of concerts and a fundraiser. Click the link for details.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ours Go To 11: Volume 11, My Favorite Bruce Springsteen Songs

Hard to winnow down my very favorites of my favorite artist, but as of right now, these are my Best of the Boss:

1. Backstreets
2. Badlands
3. Thunder Road
4. Born to Run
5. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
6. The Ties That Bind
7. Darkness on the Edge of Town
8. The Price You Pay
9. Incident on 57th Street
10. Something in the Night
11. Born in the U.S.A.

And a few more

The River
My Love Will Not Let You Down

Here's a link to a Spotify playlist of these songs, and a player you can just listen to here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Diss and Makeup: Legendary Ladies Help Make 'War Paint' More Than a Cosmetic Success -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

War Paint
a world premiere musical
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 21

Of the myriad Tony Award winners and other musical theater luminaries I've seen over the years--Bernadette Peters, Sutton Foster, Idina Menzel, Kristen Chenoweth, Kelli O'Hara, Joel Grey, Chita Rivera, Audra MacDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Laura Benanti, Jane Krakowski, Joanna Gleason, Bebe Neuwirth, Harvey Fierstein, Mandy Patinkin, Michael Cerveris, Alan Cumming, George Hearn, Michael Crawford, Nathan Lane, etc., etc., etc.--I don't think there are any I hold in higher regard than Patti LuPone.

Hence, I feel quite fortunate to have seen her onstage 10 previous times, though only once in a full-scale production—as opposed to a concert or concert staging of a musical—which was in Gypsy on Broadway.

And I was thrilled when I learned that Chicago’s Goodman Theater, to which I have been a subscriber for most of this century—and where, it’s worth noting, I have seen Nathan Lane, Diane Lane, Brian Dennehy, Jeff Daniels, Victoria Clark, Jefferson Mays and other pretty esteemed names—would host the pre-Broadway world premiere musical, War Paint, starring LuPone and another two-time Tony winner, Christine Ebersole (who I had seen in Grey Gardens on Broadway).

Based on a dual biography of the same name by Lindy Woodhead, as well as a documentary called The Powder & the Glory, the musical War Paint focuses on the rivalry between cosmetics magnates Helena Rubenstein (played by LuPone) and Elizabeth Arden (Ebersole), who became two of the world's richest women by running the now disappeared or diminished empires that bore their names.

The creative team behind the 2006 musical Grey Gardens reconvened for War Paint, with Doug Wright penning the show's book, music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie and Michael Greif serving as the director, as he notably also did for the original production of Rent.

Based on seeing War Paint without any familiarity with the songs--given that it's a world premiere--nor much pre-existing awareness or even interest in Rubenstein, Arden or the world of women's beauty products, I can't say I yet perceive it as a truly great musical.

Or one that will, with a bit of touch-up, ever become one (even with a pretty solid foundation). 

While the narrative moved along quite deftly under the masterful Greif--whose Next to Normal was also brilliant--I wasn't entirely riveted by the stories of the two empresses, their companies and their right-hand men who switch sides throughout. (As the only two primary performers besides LuPone and Ebersole, John Dossett and Douglas Sills are terrific as Tommy Lewis and Harry Fleming, respectively.)

And while Frankel & Korie have crafted several fine songs to further the narrative--as they did with not only Grey Gardens but a musicalized version of Far From Heaven that I really liked in a local production earlier this year--in keeping with my feelings about those shows I imagine I'll be hard-pressed to long recall many of the tunes from War Paint. Writing this just two nights after seeing the show, the title song and Arden/Ebersole's "Pink" are the only songs I can specifically name without looking at the Playbill (although I noted several others as standing out in the moment).

So in assessing the material itself, it's possible that a decade or two along the theatrical life-cycle, when War Paint is presented with spartan sets in park district environs with community theater performers--not that I don't have great regard for them--the show might reveal itself as not all that superlative.

But not only are the professionalism and skill that went into this production abundantly evident--including notably from set designer David Korins--getting to see Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole sing and act makes War Paint something beautiful to behold.

LuPone has one of the greatest voices I've ever heard, which she delectably demonstrates on songs like "Back on Top," "Now You Know" "Forever Beautiful" and several duets with Ebersole and/or others: "A Woman's Face," "Hope in a Jar," "My American Moment," "If I'd Been a Man," "Face to Face," "War Paint," "Beauty in the World."

It certainly makes sense that LuPone dons a European accent, as Helena Rubenstein--who I had never heard of and whose namesake company is now part of L'Oréal with seemingly little brand presence domestically if at all--was born in Poland.

To artfully maintain the accent even when singing is impressive on LuPone's part, and helps maintain the dichotomy between the scientific Rubenstein and the more overtly image-creating, Ontario-born Arden, but I can't deny that it made some of the dialogue and lyrics difficult to catch and/or digest.

If seems part of the point of the portrayals of the business-women and even their brands to show that Elizabeth Arden--who Ebersole personifies with delightful sass and who at one point in time pretty much defined the color pink--is more outwardly endearing, but even with great regard for dramatic authenticity and the eminence of immigrants, I might suggest softening Rubenstein's accent, particularly in song, to let LuPone's brilliant vocal instrument majestically envelop the audience more naturally.

Winnetka native Ebersole, who is also a masterful singer, shines individually--and a bit more warmly--on songs such as "Better Yourself" and especially, "Pink," while "Behind the Red Door" is a swell group number.

At the Goodman, War Paint clearly provides an attractive look at great women, meaning LuPone & Ebersole and Rubenstein & Arden.

Even without knowing much of the biographical backstory or the once dominant brands--only the continued existence of Elizabeth Arden Red Door salons has slightly powdered my consciousness--the arc of Rubenstein and Arden's rise, bitter rivalry, personal triumphs/struggles, regulatory challenges, stubborn missteps and eventual declines doesn't offer a tremendous amount of surprise. (The inclusion of Charles Revson, founder of Revlon, provides a nifty business school parable, and Erik Liberman is fun in the role.)

But whether the creation of Doug Wright, writers of earlier material or the show subjects themselves, both LuPone and Ebersole are armed with plenty of sharp dialogue--I believe "There are no ugly women, only lazy ones" was a famed tenet of Rubenstein--along with enjoyable songs amid a musical whose fluid pacing is more demonstrable than most.

It's hard to imagine many who could care less about makeup than I do, but Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole could probably sing the ingredient list from a package of nail polish--I once had to proofread such--and merit a standing ovation.

And War Paint is considerably more alluring than that.

Until Hamilton rolls into town, this is probably the musical theater event of the year in Chicago, and though tickets are scarce and pricey--being a subscriber once again proved quite fortuitous--the run has been extended deep into August, so perhaps seats will become easier to score.

I don't imagine those well-versed in the genre will dub War Paint the best musical they've ever seen, but save perhaps for Broadway, this is presumably the best you'll ever see it.

And not just one but two of the best leading ladies the idiom has ever produced makes it a joy to witness face-to-face, even at first blush.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Great Depression -> Great Expression: Art Institute's 'America After the Fall' Rises Beyond Hopper, Wood, etc. -- Art Exhibit Review

Art Exhibition Review

America After the Fall:
Painting in the 1930s
The Art Institute of Chicago
Thru September 18

(Note: Clicking on images will enlarge them.)

I've always been stirred by the contemplative melancholy in the paintings of Edward Hopper, likely my favorite American artist.

So the inclusion of three borrowed Hopper masterworks--as shown nearby--was alone sufficient for me to visit, value and enjoy the Art Institute of Chicago's moderately-sized exhibition, America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s. (The AIC's own, brilliant Nighthawks by Hopper dates from 1942 so wasn't part of the exhibit in the Modern Wing, but is a must-see on any visit to the museum.)

But in addition to a nice curatorial bent--with informative wall text noting how following the stock market crash in 1929 that begat the Great Depression, painters re-examined American values, cast a spotlight on newfound hardships, looked back through depictions of American history and captured rural landscapes, urban entertainments, Dystopian visions and more--what made the exhibit quite worthwhile was the number of fine pieces by artists I'd never heard of, or only little knew.

It is cool that an artist like Grant Wood--who by virtue of his quirky American Gothic (1930) being a mainstay of the Art Institute's permanent collection well may be the first painter many Chicagoland schoolkids come to know--is also represented in the exhibit through at least five less-famed works (at least in these parts).

While patrons may see familiarity in Wood's Daughters of Revolution, works like Young Corn, Fall
Plowing and even the grisly Death on the Ridge Road show that he was just as much--if not more so--a landscape artist as a portraitist.

And although I've always assumed that American Gothic depicted an Iowa farmer and his wife, the placard accompanying the painting in the exhibit informed that the woman is rather the man's daughter.

With noted regional/rural American painters Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry also represented, it was fun to see Wood's landscapes accompanied by the whimsical Erosion No. 2--Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexandre Hogue, an artist with which I wasn't familiar.

Alexander Hogue, Erosion No. 2--Mother Earth Laid Bare, 1936,
The Philbrook Museum of Art
Similarly, while I relished seeing a Stuart Davis abstract I hadn't seen previously (see below)--even in compiling a fairly in-depth online exhibition about him--and works by Jackson Pollack, Georgia O'Keefe and Ivan Albright, my eyes were opened just as much by several far less known artists.

These included names I knew but whose oeuvres I haven't much surveyed--Marsden Hartley, Reginald Marsh, Archibald Motley, Charles Sheeler, Walt Kuhn--and several that were completely new to me, including:

Paul Cadmus, Federico Castellon, Aaron Douglas, Joe Jones, Helen Lundeberg and William H. Johnson, among others.

Peter Blume, The Eternal City, 1934-39, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
I'll include exhibition pieces by many of these painters below, but one of the works that most beguiled me was The Eternal City by Peter Blume, whose The Rock I've long loved at the Art Institute, but from whom I knew no other paintings.

It's probably hard to tell unless you click to enlarge The Internal City, but along with images of ancient Rome and much else, Blume surrealistically depicts Benito Mussolini as a green-headed Jack-in-the-Box.

Rather than taking up numerous galleries in the Art Institute's Rice Building like most of their major exhibition, America After the Fall fits into the Modern Wing's considerably smaller first-floor exhibition space.

Paul Cadmus, The Fleet's In, 1934, U.S. Navy Art Collection
Even those stopping to read all of the thematic and painting-specific explanations should get through all these fine works from the 1930s in an hour or less.

Which makes it about perfect for members to peruse if downtown for other reasons--as I was--or for tourists and other less-frequent visitors to comfortably add onto an exploration of the Art Institute's staggering and diverse permanent collection.

Not only should you get a good sense of the disparate tenors and themes depicted during a time of domestic turmoil between the the World Wars, you should discern that some of the most compelling artists to bring these perspectives to light are those about whom you--perhaps like me--have been kept largely in the dark.

Aaron Douglas, Aspiration, 1936, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Federico Castellon, The Dark Figure, 1938, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Helen Lundeberg, Double Portrait of the Artist in Time, 1935, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Reginald Marsh, Twenty Cent Movie, 1936, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Georgia O'Keefe, Cow's Skull: Red, White & Blue, 1931, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Stuart Davis, New York-Paris No. 3, 1931, Private Collection
Jackson Pollack, Untitled, 1938/41, The Art Institute of Chicago
William H. Johnson, Street Life Harlem, about 1939-40, Smithsonian American Art Museum
George L.K.. Morris, Indian Composition No. 6, 1938. Brooklyn Museum
Marsden Hartley, Mt. Katahdin (Maine), Autumn No. 2, 1939-40, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Joe Jones, Roustabouts, 1934, Worcester Art Museum

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Adele Has Me From "Hello" -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

United Center, Chicago
July 10
(shows also on July 11 & 13)

The most important and obvious ingredient in a great concert is great music.

But it's no coincidence that many of my favorite live acts are those who do quite a bit of talking from the stage (or, in the case of bands, whose lead singers do). 

I value when Bruce Springsteen orates about teenage conflicts with his father, when Bono recalls early U2 shows in Chicago or sheds light on humanitarian crises, when Eddie Vedder riffs on his love of Jose Cardenal, when Dave Grohl delivers meandering but charming soliloquys and when Paul McCartney shares recollections of his days with the Beatles and the first time he saw Jimi Hendrix.

It’s not that I want a concert hall to feel like a lecture hall, but when artists speak openly to the audience—beyond the trite “How you feeling, Chicago?” and requisite “Thank you”—it adds to my emotional connection with them and their music.

I know that the stage patter is often pre-planned and even rehearsed, not usually just ad-libbed. But unless it feels particularly rote and banal, it helps raise a concert's pathos and power beyond the quality of the music itself, while giving a sense that the crowds in Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia or even the next night in Chicago won't experience the exact same thing.

Sunday night at the sold-out United Center, Adele sang better than any female performer I've ever heard live in a pop vein.

And that statement may be true even sans the reference to her gender and genre.

But what made the concert truly resplendent, and even transcendent, is that Adele spent more time talking onstage than anyone I've ever seen (save perhaps for the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan on a night of especially long-winded harangues).

In doing so, the biggest-selling artist of our time--and on her first arena tour, following the phenomena of her 25 album, it feels like Adele is seizing her moment in history--came off as genuine, genial, gracious and all the more likable than I had previously perceived.

After opening the show with "Hello" while rising on a second stage in the middle of the arena floor, Adele soon mentioned how her friends give her crap every time she utters that greeting.

And throughout the night, rather that traipse in generic or banal diva talk, she spoke about:

- Having been in Chicago for a few days and eaten at The Girl & the Goat and Shake Shack, the latter of which she avoids in her hometown of London because the lines are too long.

- That before slowing down upon becoming a mother, she could drink anyone under the table. And intends to again. (She challenged the entire crowd.)

- Her desire to stop picking her nose, learn how to cook and be able to do the splits.

- That she came to love the music of Alison Krauss through the Raising Sand album with Robert Plant, and wanted to perform a few songs in a similar style (notably "Million Years Ago).

- In doing so while seated, she noted that "My bum is too big for the stool" and was afraid of tipping over and having video of it go viral.

- That she wasn't planning to perform on this year's Grammys, but agreed to do it, which turned into "the worst fucking performance," which she ascribed to technical snafus. (Based on how good her voice sounded on the same song, "All I Ask," at the UC, I believe her.) She said she didn't initially realize the performance was so bad, but when her manager informed her she "threw a beer across a room" and cried for two days.

She also spoke candidly about her relationships, past and present, and the wonders and challenges of being a mother, sharing how emotionally difficult it was for her to diminish her time with her child and devote so much time to making music again (after the long gap that followed 21, in part because of her pregnancy and motherhood).

In everything she said, she came off as appreciative--about the hearty applause and her huge success in general--and self-effacing, having noted up front that "My music isn't that fun; it's all about me."

So while all of Adele's blathering felt genuine, and was accompanied by bringing fans up on stage, taking selfies, cheekily twerking and more, it also speaks to her self-awareness that in wanting to deliver a special performance, she couldn't simply stand there and sing.

But when she did, it was sublime, with every song coming across marvelously. (See the setlist here.)

Highlights for me, just to name a few, included "Rumour Has It," "Skyfall," "Send My Love (to Your New Lover)" "Chasing Pavements," the massive crowd sing-along on "Someone Like You" and the ebullient closer, "Rolling in the Deep," complete with confetti.

Adele was onstage for more than 2-1/2 hours, and though probably 25% of that was spent talking, it added exponentially to my enjoyment of the concert and my appreciation of the artist.

I was sitting in the third level of the United Center, somewhat behind the stage, so I couldn't much see Adele's band thanks to an unnecessary curtain on the side--or even her straight-on most of the night--but the power of her voice, whether singing or simply speaking, was rather incredible to behold, and continues to resonate days later.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Genesis of a Policeman: Peter Gabriel and Sting Combine to Showcase Two Big Time Careers -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Sting & Peter Gabriel
United Center, Chicago
July 9, 2016

When Friend A recently heard from Friend B that we were going to see the partially reunited Guns N' Roses at Soldier Field, he supposedly scoffed at the idea of an old band with no new material touring for seemingly--at least in part--mercenary reasons.

His affinity for live rock 'n' roll seems to almost exclusively traipse in younger bands performing newer material in smaller clubs.

I generally respect Friend A's take on the creative arts, and realize that his way of thinking essentially spawned punk and indie rock, which I see as forever vital to the rock genre and my appreciation of it.

Yet I happily go to big shows by old artists who often haven't recorded anything great in the last 30+ years--and usually love them far more than the occasional new band I see. (There honestly haven't been many of the latter who have beguiled me.)

Friend A is certainly entitled to his opinion, and especially if one connotes rock 'n' roll--a bit anachronistically--as a strident cultural force and not just a wide-ranging music idiom, I don't strenuously disagree with his reasoning. The creation of something new, and perhaps socially relevant, is to be championed as a component of "artistry." 

But as I posited to Friend B, rock 'n' roll seems to be one of the only art forms that could be held to Friend A's standard.

People going to hear a symphony orchestra perform Beethoven's 9th likely don't complain that it's been around for nearly 200 years, nor would opera aficionados stay away from Tosca because Puccini hasn't written anything new (since dying in 1924).

While it's great that we're in a golden age of dramatic television, I don't think many would deride others for enjoying Seinfeld, All in the Family or Honeymooners reruns.

And I myself have heard Friend A wax poetic about the lasting brilliance of director Jean Renoir's twin cinematic masterpieces from the late 1930s: La Grande Illusion and The Rules of the Game. More so, in fact, than any recent movies I can recall.

So I don't quite understand why he feels modern, modest, possibly pure-of-art rock bands and remaining (or returning) stadium-filling stalwarts of an earlier age can't comfortably co-exist in the rock 'n' roll landscape. (Especially when, IMO, the geezers typically have far greater songs and catalogs.)

Which brings me, finally but relevant to the competing schools of thought, to a review of Saturday's joint concert by Sting & Peter Gabriel on their brief Rock Paper Scissors tandem tour.

Neither artist has released an album in the last 5 years and nearly all of the 27 songs performed, separately or together, predate the 1990s.

But in what Gabriel cheekily referenced as "Karaoke night at the United Center" at the ouslet, he, Sting and their excellent bands--often onstage en masse--delivered enough truly sterling renditions of songs I love for me to be largely delighted.

In their mid-60s, both Englishmen are still crisp of voice and offered plentiful glimpses of what made them not only legendary, but once upon a time rather visionary in ways that few modern rockers will ever approach.

Led by Sting's vocals and driving bass, The Police merged the urgency of punk--in real-time--with a romantic melodicism and reggae stylings, well-exemplified at the UC by songs like "Message in a Bottle" and "Roxanne."

Since his initial run with the Police, I have often been turned off by Sting's smug persona and annoying vocal affectations that even ruined 2007's Police reunion tour for me, but his unexpected dual outings with Paul Simon in 2014 and now Peter Gabriel have been good-natured performances showcasing the boatload of great songs he has written and sung. (I also liked the tunes he wrote for the The Last Ship musical, which didn't deserve to sink on Broadway as quickly as it did.)

And while they were written decades ago, the topicality and resonance of songs like "Driven to Tears" and "Fragile" couldn't be missed, even if Sting hadn't mentioned the killings in Dallas, Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Orlando.

Though Gabriel's groundbreaking theatricality while fronting Genesis in the early-to-mid '70s was only referenced by a snippet Sting sang of that band's "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight," despite his quip about karaoke and possible perceptions of this being a night of low-hanging greatest hits, takes on rather literate and/or activist tomes like "The Rhythm and the Heat," "Games Without Frontiers," "San Jacinto" and "Red Rain" suggested artistic integrity wasn't left at the door.

His crack band helped "Secret World" truly blister, and "Solsbury Hill" was the buoyant delight it always is, complete with Pete bounding around the stage.

Unlike the playbook of most tandem tours, which typically involve a few songs played together by both headlining acts, an hour or so separately and then some joint encores, I liked the way the Rock Paper Scissors tour was more consistently interactive.

Reference the setlist breakdown for a better sense of the itinerary, but neither Sting nor Gabriel was ever offstage for more than 2 songs in a row.

They performed individually with one or both bands, and often together, singing their own songs and sometimes each other's. And occasionally when they took turns in the spotlight, the other guy would contently join the chorus of background singers.

The one Gabriel song I didn't know, "Love Can Heal," was beautiful and particularly poignant as he dedicated it to recently murdered British MP Jo Cox, who he had met at some kind of summit.

Sting solo material "Hounds of Winter" and "Englishman in New York" came off with unexpected vibrancy, while old Police hits "Invisible Sun" and "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" sounded great.

And after an extended take on "In Your Eyes" ended the main set, great runs through "Every Breath You Take" and "Sledgehammer" closed out nearly 3 hours of mostly excellent music.

Yet while my @@@@1/2 rating denotes a first-rate concert in terms of the selections and performances--and I would like to think even Friend A would find some merit in the quality of the two stars' best material--I can't deny feeling the show was a bit too staid.

Given that all 14 musicians onstage had to quickly learn several songs with which they weren't intimately familiar, with arrangements, lighting and video cues having to be coordinated, I understand why the setlist needed to be pretty tightly scripted and the festivities couldn't allow for much spontaneity. (Being able to see a bank of teleprompters with song lyrics only added to my sense that this "rock concert" felt slightly like a Las Vegas revue.)

Thus while the rather winning Rock Paper Scissors tour validated my--and presumably Friend B's--feeling that great rock music, well-performed by the original artists, can be timelessly satisfying even devoid of clear urgency, the concert also suffered somewhat from the lack of it.

So I guess I would say to Friend A that though I'd take 150 minutes of cherished, classic songs over an hour of reckless-but-rote abandon any day, I'd stipulate that even the best music can greatly benefit from an infusion of insurgent energy.