Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dave's of Our Lives: Reflecting on David Letterman's Retirement and Other Rued Endings

Later tonight--though already taped as I type--David Letterman will say good night to a brilliant run on late-night television stretching 33 years--initially on NBC and since 1993 on CBS.

If Variety is to be believed, when he signs off for good, the Indianapolis native will have presided over 6,028 broadcasts.

During Dave's time on the air, there has been no late night host I've liked more--save perhaps Johnny Carson at his best, and his Tonight Show was never on opposite Letterman--nor watched as often.

I exponentially preferred Letterman to Jay Leno, and attending a taping of The Late Show on January 25, 2007--an episode celebrating 25 years of Dave in late night, with frequent guest Bill Murray--is something I'll never forget. (As it was right before the Bears played Dave's hometown Colts in Super Bowl XLI, I submitted my own Top 10 List that I assume was roundly ignored.)

So it is not being disingenuous to say that I truly like David Letterman, his ingenuity, his irreverence, his wry monologues, his Top 10 lists, his patter with Paul Shaffer, his oft-bemused interviews, his taste in musical guests and his consistent presence.

And that I will miss him.

With the caveat that I didn't really watch him all that often.

Though I routinely enjoyed the shows I did catch, tuning into Letterman--whether at 11:30pm Central or 10:30pm since August '93--never really became habitual, at least not until the past month or so. 

And of 6,028 broadcasts, I would guesstimate that I've seen no more than 300 full shows, if that.

Yes, that's less than 5%.

Of course, since the advent of the internet and online video, I've also seen a good number of clips of Top 10 lists, newsworthy interviews and cherished or heralded musical guests.

But even if we're talking simply parts of shows, I'm guessing my intake has still been considerably less than 10% of Letterman's Late Night/Late Show output.

This relative sparsity has never been due to dislike, active disinterest, the late hour (especially after Dave moved to CBS and 10:30 Central) or preferring competitive programming with any consistency.

It would be too blanket a statement to say I haven't frequently cared about Dave's guests or whatever they were promoting--especially as part of his charm is that he often, quite obviously, didn't either--but for one reason or other, I only tuned in rather sporadically.

So while I will definitely miss having the option to watch The Late Show with David Letterman, and perhaps hearing about it the next morning, I can't forthrightly suggest my life will be acutely altered or my day-to-day enjoyment actively much diminished.

Incidentally, I have similar feelings about Jon Stewart, who will be exiting as host of The Daily Show on August 6. I think Stewart is brilliant, hilarious and almost universally "right on!" and have greatly relished each time I have caught him on the 10pm (Central) broadcast--or more often, snippets posted to Facebook the next day.

But he's been on The Daily Show for 4 nights per week since early 1999, and I've maybe seen 50 full episodes--which is again probably an overestimate.

I realize I may sound like a lummox who doesn't support the things I like, or just is lackadaisical about liking anything with a passion.

Hopefully those who peruse this blog with any frequency believe otherwise, but to share that since 1999 I've likely seen Bruce Springsteen live in concert--involving in places like New Jersey, London, St. Louis, Detroit, Columbus, etc.--more times than I've tuned into Jon Stewart from the comfort of my bed doesn't really abet my rebuttal.

Nor will my admission that I never really "got into"--beyond watching a handful of episodes each--universally acclaimed TV series that many hold sacrosanct, including The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men.

But I really do love entertainment and culture and television and those increasingly rare creations and artists and personalities that unite us in the ever-more-fractionalized "zeitgeist."

Like David Letterman.

And Jon Stewart for that matter.

Still, while I often write--or just verbally kvetch--about the seeming erosion of transcendent artistry that bridges demographics and provides common touchstones to the masses, I find myself pretty accepting when a treasured performer or practitioner decides to call it a day.

As George Harrison sang on the title song of the 1970 album he released in the wake of the Beatles' breakup, "all things must pass." And maybe I'm a "glass half full" kind of guy, but I find it better to appreciate what's been given than bemoan what's been taken away.

Or, looping into these thoughts on retirement the far grimmer finality of death--and gauchely quoting myself--"weep for all that's been lost, smile for all that's been gained" is a philosophy I try to espouse, especially when the deceased has clearly lived a long, estimable and memorable life.

Bringing this back to being strictly about retirement, I also admire when people are able to go out on their own terms. This was the gist of an article I wrote when Doug Sohn announced he would close his inordinately popular Chicago sausage emporium, Hot Doug's, last year. (Incidentally, though Hot Doug's has arisen in 2015 for two temporal special events, I haven't been interested in partaking, partly in the name of letting the past stay past.)

So in the same vein, I'm glad Dave is heading off into the sunset, whether to devote more time to his son Harry, become a competitive cliff diver or to pursue anything else he may wish to do.

Thank you, David Letterman, for all the years and all the laughs.

Even when I wasn't watching.  

---
There are articles galore about Letterman's denouement, but two I recommend are Paste's compilation of 25 Top Musical Moments from his shows and this Salon interview with R.E.M. Mike Mills, who memorably performed on the show and publicly broke the news of Dave's retirement.
---

Inspired by David Letterman, here is my list of the...

Top 10 Retirements and Other Endings I've Most Rued (Not Including Deaths)

Unlike the Late Show's Top 10s, this list isn't meant to be humorous, but rather to recall the artists and creations I've truly missed after they came to an end. This won't include reference to anyone I've known personally nor endings due to death (e.g. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams, Nirvana).

Citations include only people/things that I've acutely enjoyed in real-time during my lifetime, and which have ceased to exist, typically due to retirements, though in some cases because of breakups or cancellations.

And while I miss all of the following--notwithstanding reruns, YouTube, recordings, etc.--it may not quite be accurate to say I've "rued" their endings. This isn't just because of the outlook I cited a few paragraphs up, but because their "time" had appropriately run its course. (This logic is why I don't mind leaving off R.E.M., The Kinks, Cheers, etc.) 

10. Johnny Carson
9. Hot Doug's
8. Beavis & Butthead
7. Tower Records (and all large record stores)
6. The Replacements (though they've kinda come back) 
5. Seinfeld
4. Steve Dahl & Garry Meier as a radio duo
3. Michael Jordan, retirements #2, 1 & 3 in order
2. The Far Side - Gary Larsen 
1. Calvin & Hobbes - Bill Watterson

---
I obviously look forward to watching the last Late Show with David Letterman in less than 3 hours--with appreciation and wistfulness but not too much chagrin. Though the guest list hasn't been officially shared, it's been revealed that the Foo Fighters will be the last musical act, fitting as Dave loves them and had them play on the show following his return from heart surgery in 2000.

But as I'm all about the Boss, and as Bruce Springsteen was Letterman's hand-picked "most wanted guest" for his last NBC show in 1993, I'll end this with my favorite song about leaving the past behind...and looking forward. (From a concert I attended, to boot.)

Monday, May 18, 2015

Goodman Production of 'The Little Foxes' Provides a Solid, If Not Especially Sly, Introduction to a Classic -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Little Foxes
a play by Lillian Hellman
directed by Henry Wishcamper
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 7
@@@1/2

Except for one lower-level Introduction to Theater college course nearly 30 years ago, I've never had any formal education to accompany, abet or amplify my theatergoing experience.

Thus in becoming something of an aficionado over the past 15 years, in addition to attending numerous musicals and contemporary plays, I've made some attempt to indoctrinate myself to many classic works and writers.

This has included seeing multiple plays each by Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Edward Albee, Neil Simon, Harold Pinter, David Mamet, August Wilson, Lanford Wilson and other playwriting legends, as well as Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, Awake and Sing by Clifford Odets and Our Town by Thornton Wilder, among other canonical works. 

Although Lillian Hellman is seemingly of a stature to fit among those storied names, I've only now seen two of her plays, with the first--which was her first, 1934's The Children's Hour--coming just last year, after never having noted earlier opportunities.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
I greatly enjoyed that play, in part because of a terrific performance by a friend and others in the cast of a rather intimate production, but also because in revolving around two schoolteachers who are accused of lesbianism by a malicious student, it felt quite topical, even contemporary, 80 years after it was written.

I had similar hopes for The Little Foxes, seemingly Hellman's quintessential work, which is now being staged at Chicago's Goodman Theatre under the direction of Henry Wishcamper.

As part of my subscription series, the play--written in 1939, set in 1900--was worth my time, even in clocking in at a hefty 2:45 including 2 intermissions.

Particularly after having seen The Children's Hour, I was glad to expand my familiarity with Hellman. And as enacted by a fine cast within an exquisite set design by Todd Rosenthal encompassing the interior of a Southern mansion, the writer's tale of greed, heartlessness, manipulation, contrivance, malevolence, misogyny and worse--within the confines of a single family--certainly didn't feel entirely unfamiliar in 2015.

Shannon Cochran stars as Regina Giddens and seems to well-handle a role embodied by such luminaries as Talullah Bankhead (who originated it on Broadway), Bette Davis (who starred in the 1941 movie), Anne Bancroft, Elizabeth Taylor and Stockard Channing.

Regina is the wife of the infirm but genteel Horace Giddens (John Judd), mother of Alexandra (Rae Gray) and sister of her neighboring brothers Ben and Oscar Hubbard (Larry Yando, Steve Pickering, both terrific), the latter married to Birdie (Mary Beth Fisher), with Leo (Dan Waller) being their son.

The Hubbard siblings, including Regina, are essentially a trio of rich assholes, who act atrociously to all around them--including each other--as they scheme to get richer through a lucrative business deal for which they need Horace's participation. Such hasn't been forthcoming, in part because Horace has been hospitalized at Johns Hopkins for months due to a grave heart condition, but he's eventually cajoled to return home.

On both a macro and micro level, the dexterity of Hellman's writing is apparent, with her scorn for avarice consistent with the leftist political leanings for which she would become well-known.

Yet while I applaud the underlying themes of The Little Foxes--whose title comes from a line in the Bible; see Wikipedia for details--and found the acting at Goodman to be typically first-rate, I appreciated the play mostly on an academic awareness level and would recommend it primarily to those seeking likewise, rather than truly riveting 21st century entertainment superior to myriad other local options.

For all of the drama's fine points, it essentially takes the better part of three hours to convey the notion that treating others like crap--from one's kin onward--is not only deplorable but ultimately non-fulfilling. 

And while it's a pleasure to watch Cochran, Pickering and especially Yando enact Hellman's script in costumes and accents of yore, their characters are so despicable--openly racist, classist, wife-beating and rather close to murderous, in addition to being just cold, greedy bastards--that watching a dated play revolve around them just isn't all that acutely enjoyable.

It seems silly to assail Hellman's legendary scenario--as The Little Foxes stands as one of America's greatest melodramas and morality plays, according to the Tribune's Chris Jones--but assuming the playwright meant for the characters of Horace, Alexandra, Birdie and servants Addie and Cal to counterbalance the vileness of Regina, Ben, Oscar and the wormy Leo, the former aren't given quite enough heft or stage time to make the polemic on good and evil feel properly weighted.

And the ending--which I won't reveal--isn't weighty enough in light of the considerable wait for it to arrive.

While Wishcamper's choice to bookend each scene with blasts of melodramatic classical music--such as in Golden Age B-movies--adds a bit of whimsy to the rather frosty proceedings, I predominantly found the obtuse strings to be excessively campy and unnecessary, even off-putting.

All told, I'm glad to have seen The Little Foxes and would be happy to discuss it with those who undoubtedly have derived much more from the hallowed piece.

But on a first viewing, I can't say I perceive it on par with Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, A Long Day's Journey into Night or other staples of the theatrical universe, with all of those just cited also centered around imperfect familial interactions.

And among my still-sparse familiarity with Lillian Hellman, I continue to prefer my previous foray into her first play, The Children's Hour, a good deal more than my introduction to this, her most famous one.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Kids, of 70, are More Than Alright: Celebrating Anew as The Who Rock Rosemont -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Who
w/ opening act Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
Allstate Arena
May 13, 2015
@@@@@

Back in October 1982, early in my freshman year of high school, The Who played the Rosemont Horizon--now known as Allstate Arena--on what was dubbed their "Farewell Tour."

This was back when Pete Townshend had a full head of brown hair, jumped around like a whirling dervish and didn't knowingly suffer from a constant ringing in his ears (a.k.a. tinnitus).

When Roger Daltrey "could still sing a razor line, every time" and presumably--unlike Wednesday night--wasn't asking pot smokers to kill their buzz because he was allergic to the smoke.

And although it was 4 years after original drummer Keith Moon died, it was 20 years before bassist John Entwistle would pass in a Las Vegas hotel room with hookers and blow.

Theoretically, that tour was the end of the real Who--one of rock's greatest bands, which had a phenomenal run since 1964--and was calling it quits "before I get old."

But as I hadn't yet turned 14, and couldn't get tickets, I didn't go. My best friend Jordan did, and I remember it being a huge deal, as the Who were one of the most revered groups among those I knew--it obviously didn't hurt that they sang about "teenage wasteland," or that they were known as the "World's Loudest Band" for playing at 127db or something crazy like that.

The Who had another concert at the Horizon that December, and I remember being just a few callers away from winning tickets in a radio giveaway.

Like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, I figured I had missed out on The Who, being born just a few years too late.

But while 1982 might have marked the end of the true Who--which many would argue had come with Moon's death in '78--"Farewell" didn't really mean forever.

After the Who reunited in 1985 for LiveAid, they would seemingly eventually realize that there was nothing better--or at least more lucrative, in terms of both money and adulation--they could do than be Who they had been.

I first saw the Who in 1989 at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin (thanks to my mom coming to the rescue when a friend got ill). Then again, at other venues, in 1996, 1997, 2000, 2002--just 2 weeks after Entwistle's death--2006, 2007 and 2012.

Most of the time they were really good, or at least good enough for me. With 6 musicians--including Townshend's guitarist brother Simon and drummer Zak Starkey, son of Ringo--now rounding out the sound around Townshend and Daltrey, as long as Pete's guitar playing was energized and Roger's voice was strong, it was always a joy to hear the songs from the Who's glorious catalog.

Such was also the case Wednesday night at the Allstate Arena, formerly the Rosemont Horizon...

...33-1/3 years after I thought I had missed the Who forever.

As The Who Hits 50! tour rolled into town, perhaps a year past true accuracy, what could have simply been a sentimental celebration was truly a kick ass rock concert showcasing one of the best acts in history.

Yes, at 71, Daltrey's voice is far from the brilliant instrument it once was, and in an anti-rock star move, he asked those "smoking Mother Nature" to please extinguish their joints, but like when I saw The Who in late-2012, I found his singing surprisingly good (having found it faltering on earlier tours).

And sure, as he'll turn 70 on May 19, Townshend recently told Uncut magazine: "The shows? I don’t like them. I don’t find them fulfilling. But I’m brilliant at it. I find it incredibly easy. I drift through it."

Which might not be what those paying $154 for prime seats want to hear--though Allstate's cheaper seats were the ones much more sparsely filled, indicating the Who playing Rosemont isn't quite the story it was in 1982.

But if Pete doesn't care, and Roger's roughing it out, and Keith & John are sorely missed, and The Who Orchestra seems a bit at odds with the roar the foursome once made, and it isn't 1982, or 1971, or 1967, you know what kids?

The Who are still alright. And even--compared to most bands today if quite not their old selves--fantastic.

The show started promptly at 7:30 with a terrific opening set from Joan Jett & the Blackhearts.

Now in her mid-50s, Jett is herself a rock 'n roll pioneer, having been in the all-female Runaways while still in her teens. Her set included two songs from that group--"Cherry Bomb," "You Drive Me Wild"--and originals or covers she made famous while fronting the Blackhearts.

These included "Bad Reputation," "Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)," "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," "Crimson and Clover" and "I Hate Myself for Loving You."

I enjoyed that she did "Light of Day," which Bruce Springsteen wrote for her 1987 movie of the same name with Michael J. Fox, and would have enjoyed Jett's newest tune, "Make It Back," if the oft-repeated lyric "I hope this train don't fall off the track" didn't make me squeamish a day after the tragic train derailment in Pennsylvania.

But in full, Jett's 40-minute set was quite fun, and the Who took the stage at 8:45pm, opening with "I Can't Explain."

Though their setlists aren't varying much from show to show--see Wednesday's here--The Who have put together an impressive survey of their remarkable catalog.

Having seen Quadrophenia played in full in 2012--and also 1996 & 1997--with just a few greatest hits at the end, it was a pleasure and a great complement to hear the Who mine their full (well, 1964-1982) past with songs like "The Seeker," "Squeeze Box," "Join Together" and "A Quick One (While He's Away)," Townshend's first stab at writing a rock opera.

With Daltrey sounding strong--at times perhaps even too strong--in present tense the Who amply illustrated the brilliance of their past.

Not only were we reminded that Townshend pioneered the rock opera--with bits of Tommy and Quadrophenia including a guest appearance by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder on "The Real Me"--but that as in the case of "The Kids are Alright," "My Generation" and "I Can See For Miles" he penned '60s pop classics as good as anyone before taking leaps forward.

My favorite Who album, Who's Next, was represented by great takes on "Bargain," "Behind Blue Eyes" and the magnificent show-closing tandem of "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again."

Beyond just playing a bunch of songs I loved, this Who concert served to reiterate that this was truly one of the top handful of bands rock has ever seen (and I couldn't help but think about 1966-69 London when the Who, Stones, Beatles, Kinks, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and others were pushing each other to continually break new ground).

I'm not suggesting that this was close to being among the greatest concerts I've ever seen, and it undoubtedly won't wind up being my favorite of 2015.

But over the past couple weeks, I loved--and bestowed @@@@@ or @@@@1/2 on--shows by Manic Street Preachers, The Replacements, the Jesus & Mary Chain and The Waterboys, and I enjoyed The Who well beyond any of those.

I'll always be dubious, but it's been suggested that this might be the last large-scale Who tour. But they're already booked to play Chicago at least once more, on October 15 at the United Center.

Especially as that's my birthday, I might have to be present. For the Who have been a gift that keeps on giving.

Long live rock, and long live the Who.

"Join Together" with the band...

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

"I Really Didn't Say Everything I Said": Celebrating Yogi Berra at 90

90 years ago today, in "The Hill" section of St. Louis, one of the greatest of American legends--and yes, heroes--was born Lawrence Peter Berra to Italian immigrant parents. 

And within an assisted living facility in New Jersey, where he has lived for more than a year, one hopes the man forever known as Yogi--thanks to a teenage nickname that will accompany him long into immortality--can enjoy a celebration worthy of his rich life to date.

Even if he utters but a few words that don't seem to make sense but assuredly do, such will only add to the incomparable legacy of Yogi Berra.

As you can learn from Wikipedia and far more in-depth elsewhere, Berra grew up across the street from another future major leaguer, Joe Garagiola, now 89.

While playing in American Legion baseball, he was nicknamed Yogi by friend Bobby Hofman who said he resembled a Hindu yogi whenever he sat around with arms and legs crossed waiting to bat or while looking sad after a losing game.

During World War II, while still a teen, Berra served in the U.S. Navy, where he served as a gunner's mate on the USS Bayfield during the D-Day invasion of France.

Yogi would play 17 full seasons as catcher for the New York Yankees, winning 10 World Series titles and 3 American Leage MVP awards (with four additional seasons finishing in the Top 4 in voting, and seven more in the Top 25).

He was an 18-time All-Star (thanks to some seasons in which 2 games were played), first ballot Hall of Famer, member of the All-Century Team and, with due deference to Johnny Bench, widely-regarded as the greatest catcher of all-time. (See his full statistics at Baseball-Reference.com.)

Berra won 3 additional World Series rings as a Yankees coach, and in 1973 managed the New York Mets to the National League Pennant.

Until she passed in March 2014, Yogi and his wife Carmen were married for 65 years.

Yet even with all these amazing accomplishments, on the field and off, Yogi Berra may be best known
today--and perhaps otherwise forgotten save for serious baseball fans--for his "Yogiisms." (Or for inspiring the name of Yogi Bear.)

Throughout his playing career, and long since, Yogi had a tendency to offer up quips that defied logic, but were often surprisingly sage because of it.

With apologies for slight phrasing variations that differ from source-to-source, and the possibility that Yogi was credited for some sayings he didn't actually originate--himself noting that he "really didn't say everything I said"--below are several of my favorite Yogiisms.

Happy Birthday #90, Yogi. Thanks for all the brilliance.

And, circuitous as it may often seem, wisdom. 

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

"If you can't imitate him, don't copy him."

"It's like déjà vu all over again."

"You can observe a lot just by watching."

"Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

On being told by the New York mayor's wife that he looked cool in his new summer suit:
"Thanks, you don't look so hot yourself."

"We were overwhelming underdogs."

"I knew I was going to take the wrong train, so I left early."

"You've got to be careful if you don't know where you're going, 'cause you might not get there."

Referring to a Steve McQueen movie: 
"He must have made that before he died."

When asked if he wanted his pizza cut into four or eight slices:
"Four. I don't think I can eat eight."

"90% of the game is half mental."

"Slump? I ain't in no slump. I just ain't hitting."

"We made too many wrong mistakes."

 "You can't think and hit at the same time."

"A nickel ain't worth a dime today."

"Why buy good luggage? You only use it when you travel."

"If people don't want to come to the ballpark, how are you going to stop them?"

"The only reason I need these gloves is 'cause of my hands."

On the acquisition of fleet Ricky Henderson:
"He can run anytime he wants. I'm giving him the red light."

Photo credit: Kathy Willens, AP
"If the world were perfect, it wouldn't be."

"It's not too far, it just seems like it is."

"I usually take a two-hour nap from 1 to 4."

On being honored on Yogi Berra Day in St. Louis in 1947:
"Thank you for making this day necessary."

"It ain't over 'til it's over." 

"The future ain't what it used to be."

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Sublime Way with a Steinway: Lang Lang Shines in Lyric Recital, At Least (to a Neophyte) When He Really Lets Loose -- Chicago Classical Review

Classical Review

Lang Lang
solo piano recital
Lyric Opera of Chicago
May 9, 2015
@@@@1/2

"Tomorrow is a special day," Lang Lang reminded the full house from the stage of the Lyric Opera Saturday night.

"It's Mother's Day."

And the Chinese piano prodigy, now a month from turning 32 and seemingly the world's preeminent concert pianist, beamed when he pointed out that his mother was in the crowd.

I don't know quite how rare a happenstance this is, but shortly after acknowledging her near the end of almost 2 full hours onstage, alone with a Steinway piano, Lang Lang delivered a mirthful take on a piece I recognized.

Or thought I did. 

I initially thought it may be something by Mozart, perhaps the piano melody of his 40th Symphony, but then I assumed it to be Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee."

But the following morning, I'm now again not sure, which clearly illustrates how little I know about classical music. (Note: Thanks to John von Rhein's review in the Chicago Tribune, I now know the piece to have been, "Rondo alla Turca" from Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K.331.)

Without any acuity to assess Lang Lang's technique, tonality, clarity or anything else true aficionados might use to compare one rarefied world-class pianist against another, this review reflects merely my own sense of enjoyment and entertainment, not a technical critique.

And as I've often written, when it comes to types of musical virtuosity for which I have fond but far from thorough appreciation, I am typically most dazzled by sequences performed loud and fast.

Thus, while I certainly enjoyed Lang Lang's playing from the moment he walked onstage, in performing Tchaikovsky's The Seasons--12 short pieces more aptly titled The Months--and even Bach's Italian Concerto BMV 971 in F Major, I didn't sense enough "OMG!" gasp-inducing flourishes for my neophyte mind to be blown.

At least not comparably to my recollection of hearing Evgeny Kissin play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, or even demonstrably more impressive than top-notch college students or other great but not Lang Lang-level pianists.

Attending the recital with my friend Paolo, who sees many more classical performances than I do, he intimated being able to appreciate emotion and nuance in Lang Lang's playing that he sensed to be superior to other pianists he heard.

I certainly couldn't argue that point, nor assess how well the artist interpreted each piece he played, but at intermission--which followed a couple unlisted works that I certainly couldn't identify--I would have bestowed @@@@ (out of 5), perhaps reflecting a muted level of amazement and relative entertainment value rather than any astute performance critique.

But although Lang Lang's solo recital undoubtedly brought genuine piano aficionados--and even musicians--out in force to the Lyric, perhaps able to better gauge the brilliance in his subtleties, there also were likely a good number of classical music dilettantes like me, looking to be dazzled by perhaps the most famous artist of his ilk.

Thus, I'm pleased to report--at least for other like-minded rubes--that Lang Lang did dazzle the heck out of me after intermission, with Chopin's Four Scherzos as the listed piece, but clearly several others played in addition (if not even in lieu, as the order and timing of listed pieces became a bit confusing).

Other than the one piece I still can't precisely identify, I didn't know what I was hearing, I just liked it (accompanied by two video screens showing close-ups of Lang Lang's hands on the keyboard).

As regular readers of this blog should clearly know, I go to a lot of shows, most typically in a rock 'n roll, musical theater or dramatic realm. But I admire, even relish, virtuosity in virtually any vein, and have made a point of seeing jazz and classical greats like Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Itzhak Perman, Yo-Yo Ma, Pinchas Zuckerman, Yefim Bronfman and Evgeny Kissin, as well as phenomenal tap dancer, Savion Glover.

I had never seen Lang Lang despite numerous appearances in the Chicago area over the years, and am glad a Saturday night recital at the Lyric finally gave me a workable opportunity.

And even if my expectation of being quite acutely and obviously astonished, amazed and enthralled was rather superficial in the sense of artistic exploration, I can't deny being pleased that it was--ultimately--fulfilled.

To end with a bad pun reflective of proper pronunciation, I think it may be a Lang Lang time before I see another pianist quite so remarkable.

Even if it took me until the second half of the performance to realize it. 

Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Waterboys are Refreshingly Good as 'Modern Blues' and 'Fisherman's Blues' Intersect at the House of Blues -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Waterboys
w/ opening act The Blue Bonnets
House of Blues, Chicago
May 6, 2015
@@@@1/2

Believe me, I am self-conscious about how highly I rate numerous shows, especially those close together.

To repeatedly bestow @@@@@ or @@@@1/2 on the Seth Saith rating scale--essentially meaning "I loved it!"--can theoretically risk stretching credulity and straining credibility. 

Not everything can really be fantastic, can it?

Although in terms of rock concerts I pretty much only see artists I knowingly like, and predominately ones I have seen previously, over the past week I have given @@@@@ and @@@@1/2, respectively, to the first concerts I've caught by Manic Street Preachers and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

I also gave @@@@1/2 to a fun yet excessively sloppy show by The Replacements, abetted by a great opening set from the Smoking Popes.

While the entirety, and consequence, of such concerns undoubtedly exists only within my brain, I was conscious of it in watching The Waterboys at the House of Blues on Wednesday.

Although I truly enjoyed the full 2 hours Mike Scott & Co. spent onstage, plus a delightful opening set by The Blue Bonnets--an Austin-based female quartet including Kathy Valentine of the Go Go's, who impressed enough to prompt me to buy a signed CD--there were times during the show when I wondered if @@@@ might be merited, whether in comparison to the other recent shows or due to half the songs coming from the Waterboys' new album, Modern Blues.

But despite just two days of Spotifamiliarizing myself with the new material, much of it sounded stellar, even if it rocks more straightforwardly than the stylistically-diverse Waterboys of old and doesn't take much advantage of electric fiddler extraordinaire, Steve Wickham.

Scott still has one of the coolest voices in rock and I admire him spotlighting the new album as much as he did--even if a tad overabundantly--with songs like the opening "Destinies Entwined," "November Tale," "Rosalind (You Married the Wrong Guy)," "The Girl Who Slept For Scotland" and a long, fervent take on "Long Strange Golden Road" to close the main set. All were welcome components of a well-paced show that never dragged.

With my love of the band dating to 1991, when I discovered The Best of the Waterboys and then the bulk of their preceding material, it was a thrill to hear old gems like "A Girl Called Johnny," the wondrous "The Whole of the Moon"--among my favorite songs ever, by anyone--and a show-closing romp through "Fisherman's Blues."

As the latter song comes from 1988's Irish folk-influenced album of the same name--the Waterboys' first to feature Wickham--it wasn't surprising to hear it make delectable use of the fiddler's talents, as did "We Will Not Be Lovers," a song I was gladly reintroduced to from the same album.

Always the core Waterboy, the Scotland-born Scott relocated the band throughout the British Isles during their initial 1980s iteration, and in this one it was interesting to note a keyboardist from Memphis (Paul Brown, quite the frenzied presence), guitarist from Austin (an impressive Zach Ernst) and drummer from London (Ralph Salmins), along with the Irish Wickham.

Somewhat surprisingly, the mature-looking bass player among the generally veteran crew was none other than David Hood, who played on some of the greatest songs in history as part of the Swampers studio band of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. (He is featured in the excellent Muscle Shoals documentary and is the father of Patterson Hood of Drive-by Truckers.)

The global swath of first-rate musicians impressively executed the Waterboys diverse instrumentation, most ebulliently with Wickham at the fore. As such, I would have loved for Scott to have reached back just a bit deeper, perhaps with "All the Things She Gave Me" or "Church Not Made of Hands."

Left out after appearing in some recent setlists (see Chicago's on Setlist.fm) was a cover of Bob Dylan's "Girl From the North Country," which I largely missed due to the coincidence of my pal Paolo hearing Crosby, Stills and Nash cover it just blocks away at the Chicago Theatre, and because Dylan was a noted admirer of "The Whole of the Moon" (and hero of Scott's).

Still, I'm guessing this may well be the only concert I'll ever see to include covers of both W.B. Yeats--via the Waterboys' musicalization of his "Song of Wandering Aengus"--and Prince, whose "Purple Rain" was played as a delicious encore, highlighted by Wickham replicating on violin Prince's guitar solo. (The more low-key rendition in this BBC Radio 2 video is simply sublime.)

The demonstrably literate-in-his-lyrics Scott was content to mostly let the music do the talking, but it was fun to hear him reminisce about first playing Chicago, at the Aragon in 1984, then subsequently at Park West and The Vic (where I saw the Waterboys in 2001).

Before launching into "Purple Rain," he offered the guise of this being the world's best Waterboys tribute band, comprised of members from America's south--as three of them actually are--and teased the Prince classic by glibly introducing as a Lynyrd Skynyrd hit.

Other than a couple more oldies I might have swapped in, or simply added--while noting that Scott and Wickham's gentle duet on "Don't Bang the Drum," originally quite a rocker, was another great highlight--there was nothing about the show I didn't enjoy. I was even granted a stool to sit on at the typically SRO HOB, so I was comfortable as well.

So while I can't quite deem this a @@@@@ show, I make no apologies for coming pretty close.

I enjoyed the show from beginning to end--and even before, having been bewitched by The Blue Bonnets, who seemed to be having a blast in belting out songs like "60 Punishing Minutes," "Psychometer," "Have a Nice Day" and the classic "Treat Her Right"--and would happily see the Waterboys the next time they come through town.

And if I appear to feel that way about the vast majority of concerts I see, well, that's really only a good thing.

---
I didn't capture any full songs on video, just some snippets, mainly to abet my own memories. I've uploaded a few to YouTube, but haven't titled them in a searchable manner. You can find them by clicking 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

And you can also access a Spotify playlist of some of my favorite Waterboys' songs by clicking here.