Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Even in a More Pedestrian Locale, 'Avenue Q' Retains Its Mastery of Puppets -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Avenue Q
a local production directed by L. Walter Stearns
Mercury Theater, Chicago
Thru October 26
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With the Mercury Theater's self-produced staging--complete with an original set of puppets created just for this production--Avenue Q is finally getting the extended run Chicago has long deserved but was foolishly deprived.

Obviously inspired by and indebted to Sesame Street but in no way officially affiliated with the historic PBS children's show, the brilliantly irreverent musical featuring occasionally raunchy puppets and an impishly tuneful score opened on Broadway in July 2003 after a brief off-Broadway run.

I saw Avenue Q in New York in May 2004, shortly before it upset Wicked for the Best New Musical Tony Award--in my eyes deservedly so (and I love Wicked as well). 

It switched back from Broadway to Off-Broadway at some point in 2009, but is still running in the Big Apple.

Usually any new show that is hugely successful on Broadway comes to Chicago on a national tour within the next year or two and--as with Wicked, Jersey Boys, Billy Elliot, Motown and others--may stay for months or even years.

But until the Mercury's local production, Avenue Q--which has run virtually nonstop in New York for 11 years and counting--was only in Chicago for a total of three weeks on two separate tour visits. And not until much later than it should have been. (I am admittedly fuzzy on the process and seemingly variable timetable for a show transitioning from only being presented across the country by its original Broadway producing team to being licensable for regional theaters to create their own productions.)

In a decision that certainly didn't work out as well as planned, hot off Avenue Q's initial Broadway success, rather than launch a typical National Tour and/or book a dedicated Chicago "sit-down" (i.e. long-term) production, the show's producers decided instead to open a longstanding (in theory) Las Vegas production at the then-new Wynn Hotel & Casino.

I made a point of seeing it in Vegas in 2005 and loved it again, as I did when a tour finally came to Chicago in 2007--for a still absurdly short two weeks--and again in 2010 for just one.

It's a shame that a review of an excellent homegrown Chicago version of what remains one of the 21st century's best musicals has to begin with a recap of Avenue Q's shortsighted business history, but in this proud theater town it's somewhat part and parcel to rue that the Q never put down lengthy roots here before.

Especially as all the reasons thousands likely would have filled a downtown theater for months on end in 2005 or 2006 still largely apply, even if the show's daring invective feels a bit dated and even docile in an age where internet snark is epidemic.

But at a time when the economy and the employment market remain in shambles for far too many--despite whatever deceptive statistics are trotted out--early Act I songs like "What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?" and "It Sucks to Be Me" still strike a hilarious but all-too-resonant chord.

The terrific score by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx--the former going on to collaborate on The Book of Mormon and the smash Disney movie Frozen--is not only fiendishly funny, but with songs like "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," "The Internet is for Porn" and "I Wish I Could Go Back to College," the lyrics make many sly and striking statements.

Even without listening to the Original Broadway Cast Album anytime recently, I knew every lyric and much of the dialogue upon catching a performance last weekend, so even if I didn't guffaw as profusely as others or in the past, I could discern that the Mercury players replicated the singing, acting and puppetry extremely well.

The show chronicles residents of the fictional Avenue Q in New York--a real one does exist--some of whom are puppets whose mouths and (partial) bodies move in unison with onstage actors/puppeteers who do the speaking and singing. But other neighborhood denizens are simply human beings, with no doppelgänger puppets involved. And some puppets need two puppeteers to operate them.

The Mercury Theatre in Chicago, just up Southport Avenue from the Music Box Theatre, isn't tiny--though just a fraction of the Broadway in Chicago theaters downtown--and multiple extensions have given Avenue Q a healthy run that will end on October 26.

But though longtime Chicago theater director and current Mercury artistic director L. Walter Stearns likely factored in the local sparsity of Avenue Q before mounting this production--which he directs--the quality of this rendition is even more estimable given that such a long run wasn't assured when it opened in the spring.

While I--or you--could be forgiven for imagining that some of Avenue Q's fine points might be diminished on a street other than Broadway, Randolph or the like, and without the original puppets created by Rick Lyon, that isn't the case.

The source material may not feel quite as fresh, or even revolutionary, as it once did, but the production values at the Mercury Theater are first-rate all the way. If you've never seen Avenue Q, or even if you have, you should genuinely love this version without any disclaimers. (Find tickets through the box office here or check on commonly-available discounts through HotTix.)

With the note that Avenue Q actually works far better in a smaller theater than a mammoth one, the scenic design by Alan Donahue--essentially consisting of a series of 3-flats--compares sufficiently to anything I remember on Broadway, Vegas or downtown Chicago stages, and slyly incorporates custom-made video accoutrements that don't shortchange the original ones.

The cast is terrific throughout in all phases of their on-stage duties--including acting and singing while imbuing the puppets with congruent expressions--and with Stearns having commissioned puppets from a company affiliated with the late, great Jim Henson (of Muppets fame), all those "on hand" are Broadway-caliber.

Though Avenue Q is largely-known and oft-promoted for being rather risque in its language and themes, not only is there a whole lot of intelligence in its irreverence, but there's also a lot of heart.

So while I knew all the songs, jokes, gags, etc.--including the continued characterization of a comedic TV actor who in real-life passed away since Avenue Q was created--what especially makes the Mercury's take work anew is how well the story's love story is handled.

I never like to reveal too much, but will share that in both operating and personalizing puppets named Princeton and Kate Monster who quickly become romantically-inclined, Jackson Evans and Leah Morrow are really superb.

Both are strong of voice, but also demonstrably good in creating empathy for their puppet and human selves. I'd be lying to suggest I specifically remember the nuances of previous performers who have "played" Kate, but it's hard to envision anyone doing it as engagingly as Morrow.

Without implying that Evans or others in the cast aren't also deft at this, she seemed to perfectly echo every one of Kate Monster's movements and emotions with her own (and/or vice-versa).

At the end of this century's first decade, I declared Avenue Q my second favorite new musical of those 10 years (behind only The Producers); that remains true, and I don't think anything has overtaken it since 2010.

So even if the impudence has lost just a bit of punch a good bit down the road, and even as it has moved to less-famed theatrical neighborhoods, Avenue Q is still a joy to revisit.

The Mercury Theater makes for a fine address at which to catch an exemplary and reasonably-priced staging that does justice to the original, while proving that previous decisions to delay and limit the show's local delivery clearly never made much street sense.

Monday in the Park with Pippin, Annie and Dee: Photos of the Broadway in Chicago Summer Concert at Millennium Park

Monday night, the pavilion and lawn in front of Pritzker Pavilion were packed, far more so than at free concerts by notable rock acts Bob Mould, Richard Thompson and The Both that I attended earlier this summer at Millennium Park.

Without comment on its full, supposedly less than robust, financial picture, the City of Chicago is to be commended for all the superlative live music it provides for free--across many genres--especially as the glorious Millennium Park celebrates its 10th anniversary.

With the Chicago Jazz Festival coming up at the end of this month, on Monday the complimentary attraction was Broadway in Chicago's annual summer concert.

This can be a showcase for shows that are currently running in BIC theaters as well as upcoming ones, but the only "now playing in Chicago" musical represented in the 2014 iteration was Million Dollar Quartet, which has been running for years at the off-Loop Apollo Theater and not known to be under the BIC auspices. (It isn't listed on the Broadway in Chicago website.)

So it is to Broadway in Chicago's credit that their impressive pedigree--and the city's renown as a theater town--are able to bring in Broadway-caliber performers just to sing a song or two from shows that in some cases won't hit local venues for well over a year.

And that a capacity crowd of 11,000, plus supposedly a good bit of overflow, came out to hear them.

As a Broadway in Chicago subscriber, I was invited to avail myself of a prime pavilion seat without waiting in line, and took advantage of my proximity to take numerous photos (and some video) of each performance. As you'll see, the performers predominantly weren't in costume.

This isn't intended to be a review, in a critiquing sense, but merely a recap of what I saw and heard. (The performers listed in the captions are based on pre-show text upon the video screen, and may not be complete or precise.)

A pre-show dance-along performance to "On Your Feet" representing the forthcoming
pre-Broadway musical of the same name about Gloria & Emilio Estefan

A well-sung National Anthem by two award-winning high school students, Julia Lindsay Whitcomb and Jonah Rawitz

Million Dollar Quartet did a medley of songs by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Performers included Marc Ededstein, Robby Kipferl, Kelly Lamont, Adam Lee, Lance Lipinski, Vance Okraszewski & Shaun Whitley

ABC-7 television personality Janet Davies was the concert's emcee and participated in a performance by
Kevin James (no, not that one) of The Illusionists: Witness the Impossible

From Evil Dead the Musical, coming soon to the Broadway Playhouse, Andrew di Rosa, Callie Johnson and David Sajewich
sang a fun song seemingly called "Candarian Demons"

Representing Pippin, which won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Musical Revival, were Ariana DeBose and Kyle Selig

Both with solid Broadway credits, Josh Young and Erin Mackey sounded strong on songs from the upcoming world premiere
of Amazing Grace, including the famous title tune. Young's was the most impressive voice of the night.

A new musical of Hansel and Gretel, coming to the Broadway Playhouse, seems to be aimed at kids, but
I was impressed by the song performed by Navi Afshar and Jack Ball, perhaps titled "Always Me and You"

The sun was shining on Monday night, but Adia Dant and her dog Macy--from Annie--assured that it would come out "Tomorrow"

Who crashed the musical theater party but none other than the leader of Twisted Sister, who has concocted
Dee Snider's Rock & Roll Christmas Tale. Dee himself previewed a mash-up of "We're Not Gonna Take It"
and famous Christmas Carols, as shown in the video below:



Apart from the above, Newsies is probably the most anticipated musical of my upcoming BIC subscription series.
Adam Kaplan did a nice job on a song from it, but a bit more representation might have been nice.

Before the show started, I happened to notice the woman above on the edge of the crowd and thought, "Wow, she's a beauty."
Turns out I was right in more than just leering opinion, as Hilary Maiberger, with Derick Pead, represented yet another touring production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

Following its Fall 2012 pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago en route to Broadway and a Best Musical Tony, Kinky Boots
will stop in Chicago next summer on its first national tour. Ellyn Marie Marsh was on-hand Monday night to sing a song.

A performance from Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella by Paige Faure and Andy Jones ended in charming fashion.

Seems Chicago will never get enough of Jersey Boys, which will be back yet again. As Frankie Valli, John Michael Dias
belted out "My Eyes Adored You" and "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You"

Next spring, Chicago will get a pre-Broadway run of First Wives Club: the Musical, based on the movie and seemingly
featuring a score combining Motown classics and original songs. Becca Kaufman, Megan Murphy and Bethany Thomas
sounded good backed by the Monet Motifs Choir.

A surprise ending to Monday's concert came with two songs from Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which will hit
Chicago in late 2015. Rebecca LaChance performed fine versions of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" and "Beautiful."
I sat up close in the pavilion but took this from the lawn--which had already largely emptied--afterward,
as I never fail to marvel at Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion, especially when bathed in light.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

English (League Soccer) for Americans: Jordan and Paolo Tackle the EPL as the "Football" Season Gets Rolling

Contrary to the notice of numerous North Americans, soccer isn't only played once every four years, during the World Cup.

In fact, club soccer leagues comprised of privately-held teams have existed in England since 1888, over 40 years before the first World Cup (the most prestigious tournament within the realm of "International Soccer" played among countries, as opposed to "Club Soccer," primarily played among teams within a given country).

Almost every country you can think of around the world has its own league--or several, at different tiers of quality--of professional "football" teams. As common among U.S. baseball, basketball and hockey teams, club soccer teams aren't limited to players from their home country, and per a club's ability to attract players based on money, location, team prestige and other factors, rosters often include a mix of players from many nationalities.

Fans' fervor for their local or favorite soccer club(s) can be far more intense than even their passion for their country when playing in International tournaments. As a fan of hockey's Chicago Blackhawks I can relate to this, for I care more about their competing for the Stanley Cup than I do about U.S. Hockey in the Winter Olympics, especially as the latter--like the World Cup--happens only every 4 years.

Because of the continuity of club soccer teammates playing full seasons with each other--and perhaps also in competitions with teams from other countries--the quality of play for elite club teams can often be better than one may see in the World Cup.

In the United States, Major League Soccer (MLS) is the premier professional league, but the lower-level North American Soccer League (NASL) and United States Leagues also field teams in sizable cities.

World soccer league rankings by Dave Clark of SB Nation/Sounder at Heart
See story and data tables here.
Yet in terms of popularity within their home country, prestige around the world, ability to attract top tier players and the money involved--in terms of team value, player contracts & transfer fees, sponsorships, merchandising, etc.--the top club soccer leagues in England, Germany, Italy, Spain and elsewhere far outrank MLS, in that order per in-depth data compiled by one soccer blogger. (The International Federation of Football History and Statistics concurs on the top four leagues, but orders them Spain, England, Germany, Italy.)

The English Premier League, in which 20 teams compete each season, is the top league for soccer--or locally, football--in the United Kingdom, and among the most elite worldwide. With due deference to the top Spanish, Italian and German leagues, and other other leagues I know less about, the EPL is the world league of which I'm most aware. (Many of its games are now televised on major U.S. outlets.)

The table (i.e. standings) for Barclays Premier League (the EPL, Barclays Bank
is the sponsor) after one game of the 2014-15 season. From premierleague.com
But I am not nearly the avid fan or follower that my friends Jordan and Paolo are, so with the 2014-15 EPL season having begun this past weekend, I thought I would engage them in some analysis, as I did for the World Cup. (You can find those three articles on Seth Saith--1, 2, 3--but I've also set up a Futbol Fanatical blog to compile any soccer pieces, including this one).

As you'll see, I posed some questions that they responded to; Jordan provided his answers before the first EPL games were played last Saturday, and Paolo mostly provided a bit of color off of Jordan's responses on Sunday .

Thanks to both of them for their detailed insights.

As I explained to them in asking the questions, I am hoping this piece may be of interest avid fans of English soccer but perhaps just as much enlighten relative newbies to the EPL.

1. Is the English Premier League still the world's premier soccer league? If so, why?

Jordan: If you are asking if it is the best soccer league in the world you'd have to define what you mean by "best." Some people would say the Bundesliga (Germany) is best and some would say La Liga (Spain) is the best. Those two along with England would likely be the main three leagues that anyone would cite as the "premier" league for varying reasons. I think the Premier League is the most exciting.

Paolo: The EPL is probably the most watched and followed league in the world - helped in no great part in recent years by satellite TV deals that beam it across the globe, including the U.S. In terms of depth of competition I think that currently it is the top world league - and the game is played faster than in any other league. Both La Liga and the Bundesliga are the world's other top leagues (with Serie A in Italy a distant third) but all lack the overall global exposure of the EPL. 

A match between Manchester United and Real Madrid at Michigan Stadium
on August 2 drew 109,318 fans, the most ever for a soccer game in the U.S.
2. U.S. interest in soccer seems to be peaking, given ratings for the World Cup and attendance for games among European powers, such as the record-setting Manchester United-Real Madrid match at Michigan Stadium. But with the MLS and club soccer teams around the world that people in America may follow based on cultural or previous residential allegiance, why should the EPL demand the attention of "football" fans looking to build on their interest?

Jordan: I think the league is very exciting and interesting. For me I think part of the reason I follow the Premier League closer than other leagues is the fact that there is so much coverage of it and it is all in English and therefore easy to follow.

Paolo: Well frankly, for the U.S. neophyte, the attraction should be natural. The game is in our language, and despite some linguistic and cultural eccentricities, the spirit of the game is readily accessible to the U.S. fan. Americans are great sport fans, and as witnessed by this year's World Cup, they are beginning to understand the beauty and poetry of the world's game. 

3. Please clarify how and when EPL games will be televised in the U.S. I saw an ad saying all the games (in English) would be on NBC or NBCSN, but I saw the ad on ESPN-TV. Is ESPN or Fox still involved?

Jordan: All Premier League games are on some form of NBC. Usually that will mean NBCSN. Some games might be on NBC. Every game is available to watch live streaming and most are available to watch online throughout the week after the games have aired. No games will be on Fox or ESPN. Most games are on Saturday and Sunday mornings (United States central time) with occasional weeks having games on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday afternoon.

Paolo: Jordan explains the US broadcast perfectly. The games are all available in different configurations, but I was disappointed yesterday that only one game was available on free TV.

4. As we've discussed, although I'm not nearly the fan of the game itself that you are, I like the global majesty of the EPL and--sans the hooliganism--the football culture that pervades the U.K. (and most everywhere else). The one game I've been to in London, a Chelsea match with Paolo, was a lot of fun. 

But a couple aspects seem to be at odds with my American-ingrained sports fandom: 

a. The EPL itself seems to only have a "regular season" with the champion being the first-place team, not a tournament winner as in the American sports. The Brits--and you--seem perfectly fine with this. Help us philistines preferring a "knockout stage" better embrace this longstanding tradition. 

b. During any season, there seems to be a lot going on beyond each team trying to win the most EPL games. In any week, teams can not only be playing games against other EPL teams, but also clubs from lower English divisions (is this the FA Cup?) and from across Europe (if qualified for the Champions League or Europa League). During the same week, their players may play international matches for their country (i.e. England, Spain, Germany, etc.), which may be World Cup or Euro Cup qualifiers, but possibly just friendlies. Yet club teammates from opposing countries are expected to play hard against each other, even if injuries can be devastating to their club's prospects. Plus, a team's EPL rank determines Champions league qualification and also the possibility of Relegation.

Jordan: I have come to prefer no postseason. It is logical. The team that wins the most games is the winner. It's pretty simple. Playoffs are much too small a sample and random things are bound to happen that can cause the best team to not win. Following soccer has changed my thinking to the point that I can't get as excited as I used to about the World Series because to me the best team is the one with the best record at the end of the season. And don't even get me started on hockey where a team can sneak into the playoffs in 8th place or something then go on to win the championship. What's the point of playing the regular season? (Another advantage that soccer has is that everyone plays the exact same schedule.)
A photo from the one EPL game I've (Seth) attended, with Paolo.
Chelsea v. Wolverhampton at Stamford Bridge in late 2011


Paolo: The regular season championship - fairly standard across world football leagues - allows the entire season to be meaningful either by winning the league, qualifying for UEFA or Europa Cup slots, or avoiding relegation. U.S. style playoffs de-emphasize the best team record being declared the victor. There seems to be something not quite fair about that.

Jordan: But if you want tournaments, in England there are four of them that run concurrent with the season. The two English tournaments are the League Cup and the FA Cup and they are knock-out tournaments that every club from all levels throughout the country are entered in. (The Premier League clubs don't enter these tournaments until later rounds)

Then for the best teams there are the Europe-wide tournaments (maybe somewhat confusingly referred to as "leagues"), the Champions League and the Europa League (in order of prestige; teams play in one or the other). This "tournament running concurrent with the regular season" thing has often seemed to be the most difficult thing for non-fans to grasp.

All Champions League (and some domestic Cup matches) are played mid-week (meaning Tuesday or Wednesday). Europa League games are played on Thursdays. International qualifiers and friendlies recently changed the days on which they play. Now they are usually on Thursday/Friday and Monday/Tuesday.
The Champions League is actually a tournament of club teams
that qualify based on their season finish in the EPL and leagues
in several other European countries. Learn more here.
The number of teams from each country's top league that qualify for the Europa League and the Champions League is not set in stone. It depends on a lot of complicated calculations (UEFA's coefficients) designed to determine the relative strength of each league. The stronger the league the more spots they get in Europe. Right now England gets four Champions' League spots. The top three finishers in the Premier League automatically qualify right into the group stage. Whoever comes in fourth has to play a two-legged qualifier to get into the group stage. Arsenal came fourth last year so they will be playing mid-week games against Besiktas, a Turkish club, in the first two weeks of the season. 

Qualifying for Europe (especially the Europa League because the games are on Thursdays and many of the opponents can be in far Eastern or Northern Europe) can be detrimental to a team's home league campaign. One of the reasons Liverpool did so well last year was that they did not have to play in Europe so they had more time to practice and were also able to stay fresh. Many people expect Everton and Hull to struggle this season because they are in the Europa league. In recent years both Swansea and Newcastle were badly affected by their European exertions.

5. OK, let's look at the 2014-2015 EPL season itself. Action begins with a slate of games on Saturday, August 16. How many games do each of the 20 teams play in a season and when does it end?

Jordan: Each team plays every other team once at home and once away, so 38 games. The last day of the season is May 24th. 

6. Who do you expect to wind up on top, and why?

Jordan: I expect Chelsea to win because they spent a gabillion pounds, have one of the two best squads, and may be hungrier than Manchester City.

Paolo: Chelsea should win the league, challenged by Liverpool, Arsenal, Man City and Tottenham. Man U will suffer another terrible season. Overall Chelsea has the best squad, both balanced offensively and defensively. 

7. Who will the next 3 finishers (and thus, Champions League qualifiers) be?

Jordan: Manchester City, Arsenal, and....uh... tough one. I'll go with Manchester United partly because they don't have to play in Europe this season because they stunk to high heaven last season.

Paolo: Arsenal, Liverpool, and Man City (with Tottenham nipping at their heels). 

8. Who else has a good shot?

Jordan: Liverpool and Tottenham. Some people think Everton, and I am rooting for them, but I think they'll end up 7th. (I must note that Ross Barkley just injured his knee and could be out 6-8 weeks. That will seriously harm Everton.) 

9. Which trio of teams are likely to finish at the bottom and be relegated?

Jordan: Burnley, West Brom, and.... again, tough call. A bunch of teams could be down there. Likely candidates for me are Hull City, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, and Leicester City.

Paolo: Crystal Palace, Hull City and West Bromley. 

See Wikipedia for more information.
10. Who might surprise, one way or the other?

Jordan: I was going to go with Crystal Palace but their manager just got canned so now I think they'll be battling relegation. I don't have any predictions for surprises. If Tottenham finish fourth (or above) that would be a big surprise. Their new coach is well respected and it will be really interesting to see if he can get a club used to disappointment to the next level. I expect a lot of congestion in the bottom half of the table.

I don't know if Stoke will exactly surprise but they are in the process of changing their style from a big, bruising, physical team to a much more skilled and attractive to watch team.  

11. If not previously chronicled, please discuss Manchester United and how they look this year. They're coming off a very subpar season, finishing 7th in the EPL, and replaced their Manager (head coach). What's going on?

Jordan: They look decent so far. Their new manager, Louis Van Gaal, is a real piece of work and should be very entertaining. He has a lot of experience as well, having previously managed Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Ajax.

He has already made tons of changes, including to going to a 3-5-2 formation (3 defenders, 5 midfielders (two of which are wingbacks), and 2 forwards) which looks like it is putting Rooney and Mata in their ideal positions. They still need to strengthen the defense. They are lacking in quality and experience there.

Paolo: Simply, they need more defense, and didn't really strengthen. 

12. Name some great players to follow, including any notable Americans. I think Tim Howard is still the starting goalie for Everton, right?

Alexis Sanchez
Jordan: The flashiest new player to the league is Alexis Sanchez on Arsenal. He starred for Chile in the World Cup and has been on Barcelona the last few years. He's very good. My only problem with him is that he often does this with his shorts and I have no idea why, but I do know that I don't care for it. (see nearby photo)

I'm not even sure where to start with players to follow. I guess if you're talking about players exciting to watch and/or who will score goals here are a few: Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, Phillipe Coutinho (Liverpool), Eric Lamela, Christian Eriksen (Tottenham), Diego Costa, Eden Hazard, Oscar, Willian (Chelsea), Ross Barkley, Romelu Lukaku (Everton), Marko Arnautovic, Bojan Krkic (Stoke City), Wilifried Bony, Gylfi Siggurdson (Swansea City), Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Loic Remy, Junior Hoilett (QPR), Siem DeJong, Remy Cabella (Newcastle)

There aren't many Americans, I don't think. Jozy Altidore is on Sunderland but it's safe to say his career is not on the upswing. Goalkeeper Tim Howard on Everton was great last season (and in the World Cup). Goalkeeper Brad Guzan was Aston Villa's player of the year last season. He was really good but it should tell you something when a team's player of the year is a keeper. Geoff Cameron is a defender/midfielder on Stoke and was good last year but it's not clear if he has lost his starting spot to new signing Phil Bardsley. 

Yaya Toure
13. Best guesses for the EPL's Player of the Season and Golden Boot (top scorer). (Last season, Luis Suarez won both while playing for Liverpool, but he's now with Barcelona in Spain's La Liga.)

Jordan: If Yaya Toure can come close to what he did last season he will be player of the year. Otherwise probably someone from one of the big clubs. Maybe Wayne Rooney or Vincent Kompany.

Golden Boot: Edin Dzeko (Manchester City), Aguero (but he probably can't stay healthy), Olivier Giroud (Arsenal), Sturridge

Paolo: Player of the year? Alexis Sanchez or Kompany.
14. Tell me about some interesting or potentially intriguing storylines involving teams, players, managers, owners, etc.
Jordan: The top seven teams look pretty well set, and the top three are pretty much agreed on as well. Some order of Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal followed by Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham, and Everton. The battle for fourth place will be intense. 8th is a place where Newcastle often ends up but they have made a number of changes and some people think they are weaker than last year. I think Newcastle and Stoke are most likely for 8th/9th. After that is almost a complete free for all. Any one of the other teams could just about finish anywhere.

Jose Mourinho, Chelsea manager
Man U's new manager Van Gaal is going to say all kinds of interesting things and between him and Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho (who can also be referred to as "The Devil") they are going to cause all kinds of mischief. Though the two supposedly get along well Mourinho has already started trying to cause trouble by making derogatory comments about Manchester United's signing of Luke Shaw. Van Gaal didn't rise to the bait.

I shouldn't let Mourinho get to me but I am often unsuccessful in my attempts to ignore him. My standard description of him is that he is a disingenuous jackass who brings the game into disrepute basically every time he opens his mouth. As I'm writing this I just read some more garbage that he said today which I won't even dignify with a response. He's a bad person.

Southampton was fantastic last season but they have been stripped of their manager (Mauricio Pochettino, who is now at Tottenham) and many of their best players, most of whom went to Liverpool. Southampton is known for having a great youth academy but it is likely they are going to struggle this season.

Hull City (or Hull Tigers, depending who you ask) were promoted last year and amazingly qualified for the Europa League by virtue of making it to the FA Cup final. I expect that the extra competition will stretch their squad and if they don't get relegated I wouldn't be surprised if they barely survive. Last season the owner, Assem Allam, didn't get support for additions he wanted to make around the stadium so he said he wanted to change the name of the club from "Hull City" to "Hull Tigers" to generate more revenue (don't ask me how a name change would do that). (They have long been known by the nickname of "Hull City Tigers" but taking out the "City" and formally changing the name was a huge deal and many of their supporters freaked out. That sort of thing is just not done over there. Last year the owner of Cardiff City changed the team's home shirt color from blue to red and people went nutso over that) Allam, who is a businessman who has lived in Hull since the 60's (as opposed to being a absentee/distant foreign owner) did all manner of deceitful things in order to effect the name change. I think as it stands now they are technically "Hull Tigers" but don't know how permanent it is. People are still fuming.

Old Trafford, home of Manchester United
Aston Villa has traditionally been one of the biggest clubs in England but have fallen on hard times and barely stayed up last year. The manager, Celtic legend Paul Lambert, did well in his previous job at Norwich but has been struggling at Villa. He has brought in the notorious red-ass Roy Keane (who is also currently the assistant coach of the Ireland national team) as an assistant to try to fix things. We'll see what happens. It seems like a volatile situation.

Manchester City has extended the contracts of Aguero, Silva, and Kompany but has just announced they are not extending Yaya Toure's contract. This could prove troublesome as Toure has some history of being a little, shall we say, sensitive. Right after last season ended he expressed his displeasure about the club's substandard happy birthday wishes and threatened to leave.

The manager of Crystal Palace quit two days before the season started because he wanted more control. What looked like a team with a chance at finishing around 10th place is now likely looking at a much worse finish.

15. How might a new-to-the-EPL fan choose a team to root for, and how should they follow them?

Jordan: I have no idea how to pick a club. I still don't even have one club I root for. It is all relative and can depend on all kinds of things, from the manager to the players. The only constant is that I always root against Chelsea no matter what.

Following a club is easy nowadays. I used to not be able to see any games and followed via a once a month magazine from England. Twelve years ago my local ABC affiliate did not show the World Cup final; instead they showed the farm report. Eleven years ago I had to drive over 100 miles (and pay $20) to see the UEFA Cup (now called Europa League) final. Now soccer is all over the TV and internet. 

Paolo: Unlike Jordan I'd say root for Chelsea. Seriously, unless you are Manchester-centric, pick a London club to root for. You'll find more overall coverage for these clubs. 

16. I like following match results and standings on the FotMob app that Jordan introduced me to. There's also a FotMob.com website and ESPN has great coverage on ESPNFC.us. Another good site (and related app) is Goal.com. Anything else you recommend?

Men in Blazers, formerly of ESPN, now on NBC and NBCSN
Jordan: I don't use many apps but I do listen to multiple podcasts throughout the week. My favorites, Men In Blazers, just got signed away from ESPN by NBC. I think they will be having a show on NBCSN.

For up to the minute news I often listen to Talksport Radio via the TuneIn app.  

17. If a newly devoted American soccer fan travels to England and wants to see a match, where should they?

Jordan: No idea. Never been there. But I guess if you went to London you'd have several choices. Selhurst Park (where Crystal Palace plays) looks awesome to me. And they sing "Glad All Over" before every match. 

Selhurst Park, south of London, home to Crystal Palace
18. Anything else you would like to add about the new EPL season?

Jordan: Nah. I'm running out of time. The season starts soon and I have to get my fantasy team in order.

The one thing I haven't mentioned yet is that a lot of my predictions could change to some degree depending on what happens in the next few weeks. I don't like the way it works but teams are allowed to continue to buy and sell players until two weeks after the season has begun. The deadline is August 31st. After that date teams have to stick with what they have until January when there is another window for them to acquire players. There are still a lot of rumors that Manchester United is going to add some big-name players. 

19. What other global soccer leagues do you follow closely?

Jordan: Serie A and La Liga.

Paolo: I'd add the Bundesliga to Jordan's list. I also personally follow a bunch of Central and South American leagues (all in countries I lived in). 

20. When should I check back about the Champions League getting hot & heavy or anything else major in the soccer year?

EPL play began on Saturday, August 16. Among the surprising results
were league newcomer Leicester City tying Everton 2-2 (shown above)
and Manchester United losing to Swansea City 2-1.
Jordan: I don't know the dates yet. In a few weeks they will know all the teams that made it into the final 32 and will have a draw to split them into 8 groups of 4 teams. The group stage will probably start in September or October and it is run sort of like the World Cup. Each team plays each of the other 3 teams in their group but in this tournament they play two games against each team, one home and one away. The top two teams from each group advance. Once they get down to the last 16 teams they have a draw and it is a knockout tournament from there with each round except for the final being two games where each team plays one at home and one away. 

Thank you very much for taking the time to provide some great insight and opinions. Enjoy the season.

Jordan: That's what I'm here for. You, too.

Paolo: Jordan covers things very well, I'm just adding color. :-)

Monday, August 18, 2014

Supernatural Santana Dominates Double-Bill with All-Too-Smooth Rod Stewart -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Rod Stewart
Santana
Allstate Arena, Rosemont, IL
August 16, 2014
@@@ for Rod Stewart
@@@@@ for Santana

"People keep asking me, 'What do you have in common with Rod Stewart?'

"We both love to make women crazy."
-- Carlos Santana, from the stage

In addressing how his namesake band wound up on a theoretically co-headlining tour--though they always play first--with Rod Stewart, the great Santana was clearly being cheeky, but perhaps also intentionally coy.

He certainly could have referenced how he and Stewart are both musical legends whose careers have lasted non-stop since the 1960s, with their (critical) glory days of roughly 1968-1973 earning them regard as one of rock's greatest guitarists and vocalists, respectively, of all-time.

And though the classy Carlos Santana, still one of the coolest people in the world, hands down, clearly wouldn't have been course enough to defame his tour mate--whom he also described as a good friend--he could well have referenced his band's early classic "Soul Sacrifice" in suggesting that Rod, comparatively, at least from a musical sense, had long ago lost his.

That's undoubtedly more my opinion than Santana's, who spoke repeatedly from the stage about how his generation was one that valued, embraced and championed peace and love.

But though I was delighted to have only paid $39.50 plus ticketing fees for over three hours of music from two icons I had previously seen just once each, theirs was clearly a mismatched pairing. (Reviews from other tour stops corroborate my opinion.)

The shame is, it really didn't have to be.

Having received an email that the show would start promptly at 7:30 as ticketed, with no additional opening act, my friend Paolo and I were in our seats at the back of the Allstate Arena comfortably before then, following a ritualistic dinner at the nearby IHOP. 

I routinely aim to get to any show well before the start time, even if the opening act is one I don't know, but there were fans undoubtedly still shuffling in from the parking lots and buying their first rounds of beer (there would be a constant parade past our lack-of-legroom seats all night) when the lights went down and Santana--the band and the man--came onstage at, per my watch, 7:27pm.

Though years of attending concerts at the United Center makes the Allstate Arena feel considerably smaller than it did in my youth (when it was known as the Rosemont Horizon), it has long been notorious for poor acoustics.

But even with three drummers playing simultaneously, including one on bongos, the mix was superb, and from note one the band sounded fantastic.

Although I have long enjoyed Santana's unique fusion of rock 'n roll and Latin (and other worldly) rhythms in recorded form, as was reiterated instantly and thoroughly on Saturday night--reminding me of my similar take upon seeing them for the first time, in Milwaukee in 2003--as a live act they are truly, even surprisingly, phenomenal.

Not only at 67 is Carlos Santana clearly still one of the world's greatest musicians--it was an absolute joy, again and again, to hear him play guitar--but the musicality and sonic quality of the entire band was demonstrably astonishing. (Refer to the Santana website for the current lineup that seemed to be present in Rosemont, although Wikipedia notes that the classic lineup was recently reunited. A few weeks ago, I enjoyed original Santana vocalist/keyboardist Gregg Rolie as part of Ringo's All-Starr Band.)

As of this writing, there is not yet a setlist posted on Setlist.fm for Saturday's show, but as per this recent show, I believe "Touissant L'Overture" was the opener, and the typical tour set largely followed.

Notably, August 16, 2014 was the 45th anniversary of the day Santana played Woodstock and although I think they left off "Soul Sacrifice" on Saturday (it's been played in the encore at most recent shows, but wasn't here; if slipped in earlier I was oblivious), both "Jingo" and "Evil Ways"--the latter not a recent setlist staple--harkened back to the historic festival, where I believe Santana first really came to fame.

A pair of male singers, Andy Vargas and Tony Lindsay, aptly recreated the vocals of Santana's past glories, from "Black Magic Woman" and "Oye como va" to "Maria Maria" and "Smooth," and not only were the three drummers notably superb, a fourth--Carlos' wife, Cindy Blackman Santana--replaced one of them for a brief spurt that included a terrific drum solo.

After their 90-minute set, near the end of which Carlos urged the crowd to "Make every day the best day of your life," I turned to Paolo and said that Rod Stewart would need to be incredible to top, or even compete with, Santana's performance.

Appreciating the unusually large contingent (for a rock concert in Rosemont) of older Hispanic fans--clearly drawn by Santana, whose leader is one of the greatest cultural heroes of Mexican descent--I wondered if Rod might deliver a show more in line with his bawdy and grittier rock roots than his foppish pop leanings since the late '70s.

Nope.

Unlike Carlos Santana, who with his band had taken the stage with no fanfare nor even a spotlight, the Rod Stewart show began with the raising of a curtain to reveal his dandily-dressed band (eventually including  a trio of shimmying female singers and a similarly-adorned brass section) as the Magnificent Seven theme blared, followed by a Motownish vamp as Rod ambled onstage.

I hoped this meant he would open with "This Old Heart of Mine," as he occasionally has, but more to his recent wont he opted for the disco-ish "Infatuation" from 1984.

If not one of my favorite songs, it was a hit and likely one many who came mainly for Rod were happy to hear. But rather than following up Santana's sizzling set with, say, a blazing "Every Picture Tells a Story"--which opens his 1971 masterpiece album of the same name--Stewart showed from the get-go that his would be a Vegas-type act largely in a pop and adult contemporary vein.

I understand that this is what Rod Stewart does, and has long done, and he sells out arenas worldwide doing it. And, going in at least, the setlist I noted seemed preferable to one laden with pop standards from Rod's multiple Great American Songbook albums--and seemed to speak more to a rock 'n roll show.

But my problem wasn't so much with the songs that were included (or left out) than with the way they were delivered. (It also didn't help that the sound mix was initially rather poor, though it subsequently improved.)

Although on paper, the trio of tunes that followed "Infatuation"--Sam Cooke's "Having a Party," "You Wear It Well" (from 1972) and a cover of Bonnie Tyler's Stewart-sounding "It's a Heartache"--seemed solid enough, I couldn't help jotting down notes that said "no soul," "too slick" and "Vegas act."

And this was before Rod's two costume changes.

Things got a bit better with "Tonight's the Night" and Stewart's bringing Santana on-stage to accompany him on Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind," though the choice not only failed to let Rod roar like he once did alongside Jeff Beck, it reiterated how much more awesome Carlos Santana is at this point than Rod Stewart.

Still, at age 69, Stewart, his voice and his legendary hair are all in great shape, and it was fun to hear him sing "Stay With Me" after mentioning that he and Ronnie (Wood) often talk about a Faces reunion, that "still might happen."

Later in the show, with a Chicago-based string section brought onstage for an acoustic set, not even Stewart's schmaltz could ruin moving takes on "The First Cut is the Deepest" (by Cat Stevens) and "Have I Told You Lately" (by Van Morrison).

A new song, "Can't Stop Me Now," off 2013's Time album was actually one of the best of the night, for in acknowledging that many--including me--had never heard it before, Stewart made a point of really selling it.

Coming off considerably worse, in my eyes, was Rod's singing "Rhythm of My Heart" as the video screens behind him showed images of war. He had led into the song by dedicating it to the American, British and Canadian soldiers of World War II, but rather than delivering it as a stark Scottish march complete with bagpipes, it sounded like pop pap very much at odds with the gripping graphics.

Though Rod repeatedly reminded the crowd that he had played Chicago not long ago--last October at the United Center, with Steve Winwood more as an opening act than co-headliner; I wasn't there--and kept saying he would "play some different things," in looking at that setlist, it seems the most significant change is that we didn't get to hear "Reason to Believe."

As it was, a main-set closing singalong of "Maggie May" was the only song performed from Every Picture Tells a Story. Before that, he booted soccer balls into the audience during "Hot Legs," with the video screens dutifully letting us know that he had hand-signed every one.

I certainly wouldn't be shocked, or even offended, if some serious Rod Stewart fans who were at the show stumble across this review and scream profanities at it (and me), along the lines of "You effing idiot, this is what Rod has been doing for years, and he's still effing fantastic."

Honestly, if you love latter-day Rod Stewart, I sincerely hope you loved his part of the show.

And perhaps it's to his credit that he didn't feel any need to change his act in deference to the current double bill.

But not only was he fuzzy about others' rock 'n roll history--in introducing a nice rendition of his cover of "I Don't Want to Talk About It" by Crazy Horse, Rod said they were a band that "Neil Young used to be in," which isn't exactly true--in my estimation, he continues to considerably shortchange his own. 

Not that AllMusic.com is the be-all, end-all, but of material released from 1968 through 1976, eleven Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck Group or Faces albums (on which he sang) are rated 5 or 4-1/2 stars out of 5 on that site.

After that period, only a single Rod Stewart album--1981's Tonight I'm Yours--is given even 4 stars, and 23 are given 3 stars or less, several no more than 2.

So while I can't deny that I stood and danced during the show-closing "Do You Think I'm Sexy," I'm not the only one who feels Stewart hasn't created much of substance since 1978, or perhaps even including the year of that lightning-Rod of a #1 hit.

And though I'm also not saying that I--or likely all that many in the sold out arena--would have wanted him to mine his early material all that deeply, given the Santana twin-bill less than a year after his last solo gig in town, it would seem to have made sense for Rod to deliver a harder-edged rock show.

Give me "Every Picture Tells a Story," (I Know) I'm Losing You," "Gasoline Alley," "Handbags and Gladrags," one or two more Faces romps (perhaps "Miss Judy's Farm" or "Pool Hall Richard") and maybe Carlos Santana replicating Jeff Beck on "Shapes of Things," "Spanish Boots" or a great Chicago blues cover, and Rod Stewart could easily have dazzled me every bit as much as Santana.

Or close enough for rock 'n roll.

As it was, my $39.50 was well-spent after just 90 minutes of music that would extend for another 100.

So it wasn't as if seeing Rod Stewart was much of a sacrifice, it's just that my soul was only further enriched for about a third of the time he spent onstage.

Which, of course, ended with a glitzy curtain coming down.

---
Here's the best Santana clip from Saturday that I could find on YouTube: