Monday, September 01, 2014

It's the Great Pumpkin, as Billy Corgan Delivers a (Mostly) Smashing Showcase at Ravinia -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Billy Corgan
w/ opening act Katie Cole
Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, IL
August 30, 2014

I first saw the Smashing Pumpkins 20 years ago, as the headliners--originally slated to be Nirvana--of Lollapalooza 1994, the only traveling version of the fest I ever attended. (I should have gone in 1993 when I got tickets for a co-worker friend to see the Pumpkins at the Aragon, but I abstained.)

At that point, the band consisted of singer/songwriter/guitarist Billy Corgan, guitarist James Iha, bassist D'arcy Wretzky and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain.

You can refer to Wikipedia for the breakdown of how the Pumpkins' personnel changed over the years, but Corgan has always been the main creative force and most defining element. With no disrespect to any of the other members, past or present, for better or worse Billy Corgan basically is the Smashing Pumpkins. Perhaps more akin to how Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails than analogous to most "bands."

After Saturday night, I have now seen Corgan in concert 25 times, whether fronting the Smashing Pumpkins of various incarnations, leading a short-lived band called Zwan that followed the 2000 breakup of the "original" Pumpkins or billed under his own name, as he was at Ravinia.

Emphatically, I enjoy the Smashing Pumpkins' music, at its best and best-known, but even a good bit deeper, as beyond the official albums the über-prolific Corgan has literally released hundreds of additional songs via online albums, outtake collections, deluxe versions, etc.--and I've paid a fair amount of attention, even in recent years.

But the truth is that there is far too much "Smashing Pumpkins" material out there than I will ever be able to digest, and by-and-large what I like most is the premier material released on their main albums from 1991-2000.

Not "just the hits," but also the hits, not apologetically.

In concert, Corgan and "the Pumpkins" have always been a mixed bag, usually for maddening reasons caused by Corgan's seeming inability to stay on the right side of the line between "challenging the audience" and vexing them. (Similarly, in likely trying to be analytical and introspective in interviews, he's too often come off as insufferable.)

When Corgan blazes away on his electric guitar and rages through songs like "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," "I Am One," "Cherub Rock," "Zero" and others, there are few sounds that have ever been more pleasing to my ears.

And I have seen some glorious shows that I'll never forget, from a packed Rosemont Horizon amidst a 3-night stand at the heights of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness fame in 1996 to a small club show in Detroit in April 1999 that was among the last to include the 4 original members (after Jimmy Chamberlain returned from a drug-related ousting, and before D'arcy would depart) to "near-the-end, part I" arena shows in late 2000 in both Paris and Chicago.

Such is my regard for the sounds Corgan can make--especially in tandem with Chamberlain--that the initial Zwan shows at the Double Door in April 2002 are still among the most exciting of any in memory, as they debuted great songs that almost no one had previously heard. (The sole Zwan album, Mary Star of the Sea, is rather stellar.)

But all too many shows that Corgan has fronted have balanced ecstasy with agony, or something approaching it, whether due to challenging setlists that went well-beyond esoteric, lengthy diatribes in which Billy would berate or just bore the audience, 15-minute feedback wails that took the place of 4 good songs and assorted other WTF? antics.

I felt the need to explain this leading into a review of the Ravinia show, because while I like a lot of Corgan's music a whole lot, and truly do admire him, I have left far too many of his concerts far more perplexed that I would have liked.

Saturday night I didn't.

While his 28-song setlist--sans the VIP songs I wasn't there for--included only 8-1/2 of the 20 tunes I suggested in my "Dream Setlist" submission (see my previous blog post; the "1/2" is because he played "Tonight Tonight" rather than the "Tonight Reprise"), most of the 150 minutes Corgan spent on stage were acutely entertaining, many even mesmerizing.

Even though there were a fair number songs that I didn't know, none sounded bad and only a few were real head-scratchers. And Corgan's stage patter was gracious and polite, at times even affable, and included no lengthy harangues.

But it's not as though I'm grading on a curve just because Billy was on "good behavior" and seemingly determined to be somewhat "crowd-pleasing" at one of the sparser Ravinia gatherings I've ever seen. (I got pavilion ticket for half-price on Goldstar just days prior.)

Dressed in a black suit, Billy took the stage, alone, a little after 8:00, following a pleasing 1/2 hour set by an Australian singer with quasi-country stylings named Katie Cole.

Opening at the grand piano, Corgan started the night with a song called "Chicago," written about a decade ago for a never-released project and never performed until a recent WGN-TV news concert preview

So though this was, for most, an unknown song, it was a lovely way to begin--especially on piano, as he'd used a guitar on WGN.

"Today" and "Disarm," two well-known MTV hits from 1993's Siamese Dream, followed, showing that the enigmatic star wasn't intending to be completely obscure in his selections, even if I was clueless on his next two songs (per setlists: "Lonely is the Name," "As Time Draws Near").

Both of the latter sounded like quality tunes and especially after Corgan was joined by current Smashing Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schoeder for a fine take on a Zwan song called "For Your Love"--and for the rest of the night--even the more arcane material was always well-played.

I relished hearing "Let Me Give My the World to You"--an Adore outtake also on the Machina II online album--for the first time live. It reiterated that among Corgan's vast trove of relatively buried treasures are some really great songs; if released at the height of Pumpkinmania, "Let Me Give..." could have been a huge hit. (video snippet below)

Though at their apex the Pumpkins filled much larger places, Corgan--who lives in a Highland Park mansion and runs the  nearby Madame Zuzu's tea shop--seemed genuinely proud and respectful of playing Ravinia for the first time.

Early in the show a fan in the pavilion yelled, "Let's go, White Sox!" at the well-known Cubs fanatic.

To which Corgan wryly lamented, "On my special night," and then went on to tell Schroeder--who he introduced as not a baseball fan but a hockey fan...of the L.A. Kings--that the Cubs were something like 0-100 this year.

Later, as Billy again sat at his grand piano in the middle of the show, another dick screamed out, "Freebird!"

"There's that White Sox fan again," Billy retorted in perfectly smashing fashion before playing a gorgeous version of "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," the piano interlude to the double album of the same name.

That would begin an 8-song Mellon Collie section that would include several of the show's true highlights.

"To Forgive" and especially "Muzzle," played on piano and delicately sung by Billy, were sublime, "Tonight Tonight" with Corgan and Schroeder on side-by-side acoustics was a delight and it was cool to hear album tracks like "Galapagos" and "Thirty-Three" alongside a hit like "1979."

Billy also introduced a song called "Methusela" that he wrote about his father during the Mellon Collie period, but had never even played for his bandmates or producers.

It sounded good, and I imagine it was the tune that had avowed archivist Pumpkinheads most excited.

Warmly accepting a long and luscious standing ovation shortly earlier, Corgan demurred that "You haven't heard the second half of the show yet."

And, though it never devolved into rants or even discordance, the show's denouement was rather abstruse. Look at the end of the setlist to see what I mean without my naming every song, but after drummer Matt Walker--who played with the Smashing Pumpkins during Chamberlain's exile--joined Corgan and Schroeder for a fine, relatively uptempo version of "Ava Adore," the specter of a brief full-force gale turned out to be a mirage.

With a trio of backup singers he introduced as members of the Ex-Cops--a band he's been working with--Billy opted to end his main set with three obscurities out of four ("Stand Inside Your Love" being the exception.)

And lest anyone think he might hit up "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," "Zero," "Mayonaise" or "Drown" to mollify the masses--although I didn't mind the mysterious selections too much up close in the pavilion, I can only imagine how the rarities were going over on Ravinia's can't-see-the-stage lawn section--Corgan opened the encores by creating about 5 minutes worth of ambient beats leading into a song called "The World's Fair," whose title I known only in seeing it listed afterward.

And for the grand finale of this unique night--which I truly did largely and greatly enjoy--Billy brought onstage the roster of the Resistance Pro Wrestling organization that he runs and let the crowd know that there is an event coming up in Chicago on Sept. 12.

Billy's brother Jesse was also onstage, but rather than play Siamese Dream's "Spaceboy," which was written about him, or send the "low hanging fruit" fans (like me) deliriously into the night with "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," "Cherub Rock" or the like--drummer Walker was still onstage--we got a Zwan song called "Of a Broken Heart."

While I found some of the later choices a bit odd, I actually admire Billy Corgan for remaining true to his iconoclastic self, especially as his stage presence throughout was cordial and never irritating.

And even if about a third of the 150-minute show contained material I never would have voted for, not only was little of it truly off-putting, but if you had told me going in that I would hear 100 minutes of mostly terrific, sometimes transcendent music from the progenitor of one of my all-time favorite bands, I would have been happy.

Thus I was.

It wasn't quite perfect nor as entirely gratifying as other low-key, mostly acoustic showcases I've seen this year from the likes of Neil Young and Elvis Costello. And I imagine Billy's set was far too arcane for some and perhaps too populist for others.

But for the most part, on this night, for me, the Great Pumpkin really did appear.

Here are a few videos I shot, although the first two are snippets, not full songs.

"Let Me Give the World to You"


"Tonight Tonight"

Saturday, August 30, 2014

My Perfectly Smashing Suggested Setlist for Billy Corgan Tonight, Tonight at Ravinia

My interest admittedly abetted by half-price pavilion seats available through Goldstar, tonight I will be seeing Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins do a solo show at Ravinia.

Through his multiple incarnations with the Pumpkins, Zwan and on his own, this will be the 25th time I have seen Billy live on stage--more than anyone than except Bruce Springsteen (with 44 attendances).

So it's not that I am an "only with cheap seats" fan of his, but between having seen him so many times and--though I won't delve deep into it here--Corgan's tendency to exasperate even devoted followers with head-scratching antics, actions, statements and setlist choices, going tonight wasn't a slam-dunk decision (especially being the birthday weekend of my best friend since Kindergarten, but he's now coming to town next weekend).

But along with an abiding curiosity, a true love of much of the music he's made, a desire to get to Ravinia at least once this year and a great ticket deal, a few things acutely prompted my decision to see Billy Corgan tonight. (I'll hopefully post a review here tomorrow or Monday.)

First of all--though for prose purposes this isn't quite in chronological order--I noticed that a Facebook Friend named Jim Ryan, who is a music blogger and local radio & TV traffic reporter/anchor/host, had done an extensive interview with Corgan on his Rock 'n Roll Radio Program and spoke highly of Billy's amity and candor.

I've only heard the first of two parts so far (which you can do here, or read a transcription here at Jim's Chicago at Night blog). Jim does a nice job with the interview and Billy doesn't come off too badly, but I don't think he ever helps himself by talking at length.

Honestly, if all Corgan ever said was "I take my music seriously and try to write songs of substance--some appealing to the casual fan, some that may only reach a few in this increasingly fractionalized musical universe--and just hope to leave a mark," I think he would remain much more popular and relevant, with much less fan attrition since the Pumpkins' '90s heyday. (Heck, he's even lost the 3 other original Pumpkins.)

I also enjoyed hearing--because someone had posted it to Jim Ryan's Facebook wall--Billy perform a never-before-played song called "Chicago" that he debuted recently in promoting the Ravinia show on WGN-TV news. 

If nothing else, this reiterates what a gifted songwriter Billy Corgan is.

But my interest was also peaked by seeing that Corgan had posted (on the Smashing Pumpkins website) an invitation for fans to submit a 20-song "Dream Setlist" for his show at Ravinia.

I didn't really care much about the prize of a private Meet & Greet with Billy--if Jordan had come up for his birthday, I would have skipped the show altogether, even if I had won the contest--but thought it made for a fun exercise.

At the time of entry, I didn't know that Billy was intending to play acoustic, or at least sans band (current Smashing Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schroeder will be joining him) so I didn't really draft this proposed set with that in mind.

But knowing that this was a solo show, at which material spanning his entire oeuvre was likely, including some lesser-known songs, I tried to make my list fan-friendly to both the hardcore and casual. After all, he is playing Ravinia--in his adopted hometown of Highland Park, where he also operates a Tea cafe called Madame Zuzu's--which is notorious for chatter on the lawn overpowering even the most famous songs, let alone rendering rarities rather colorless. (I'll be sitting in the pavilion, but have experienced music "wafting over the lawn" more than enough.)

Rather than really expecting to win, or even sway Billy, my submission more so represented what I would like to hear tonight. More on this below the setlist, but I didn't win; also, Billy has said he will actually be playing 27 songs, not 20.

Also below the setlist, I have embedded a Spotify playlist of most of the songs I cited; a few aren't on Spotify, so if possible I've provided a YouTube link. All are Smashing Pumpkins' songs, except as noted.

As entered in the contest, here is my suggested setlist for Billy Corgan on Saturday, August 30 at Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL:

1. Tonight Reprise
2. Stand Inside Your Love
3. Cast A Stone  (a never released Zwan song; YouTube)
4. Drown
5. Daphne Descends
6. Bullet With Butterfly Wings
7. Riverview (from a planned but never released solo album about Chicago; YouTube) 
8. Disarm
9. Let Me Give The World To You (a great Pumpkins outtake from Adore, later released on the Machina II online album; still one of Billy's best songs. YouTube)
10. Tarantula
11. This Time
12. The Chimera
13. Today
14. Declarations of Faith (one of several great songs from the only Zwan album; YouTube)
15. Mayonaise

16. Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness
17. Muzzle
18. Cherub Rock
19. 1979
20. The Last Song

After having heard "Chicago," I would also include that one.

But as I said above, I didn't win. Though I thought I was being deferential to some of the more serious fans, if Billy saw my list he likely laughed it off for being far too populist.

As Billy revealed here, nearly 1,000 entries were submitted and the winner was Gustaf Bjorlin whose setlist--"although quite different than the one I plan to play"--was as follows:


Obviously Mr. Bjorlin is a dedicated fan, and there's plenty of "Gustaf" included in his setlist, but it's far too esoteric for my tastes.

Honestly--another great Zwan song--on what should be a nice night, I'll be happy to hear whatever one of my musical heroes wants to play, especially given the unique setting and format.

Plugged-in and gloriously overamplified, my setlist would be "Perfect," at least to me.

But even in an acoustic vein, I hope I get to hear some of the above, "Tonight Tonight."

I'll let you know.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Pithy Philosophies #19

Seth Saith:

Life is fun. Have it. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

With Unrelenting, Unrivaled Audiovisual Barrage, Arcade Fire Proves Themselves Singular -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Arcade Fire
w/ opening act Devo
plus DJ Dan Deacon
United Center, Chicago
August 26, 2014

Before going to the United Center on Tuesday night for Arcade Fire's first of two concerts there, I thought--having seen them twice before--that I might open this review by opining that they are the best band to arise in the 21st century.

Following the show, not only has that status been resoundingly reaffirmed, but I would even suggest that Arcade Fire has established itself as one of the best live acts in rock history.

Heady praise, I know. Perhaps hyperbolic. 

And if propagated by a post-show haze, so be it. (Though several hours have now passed.)

But, if anything, these acclamations may be more acute and constrictive than they need to be.

Even in loosely defining "arising in the 21st century" and with due respect to the White Stripes, Coldplay, the Killers, Black Keys, System of a Down and others--all of whom I like--it's not as is there have been a plethora of really great contemporary rock bands, especially among any still extant.

And while, at least today--specifically--I would give Arcade Fire the nod over any of the aforementioned, due to a combination of recorded and concert prowess (and consistency), none of their songs or even albums would likely rank among my Top 50, or even 100 or more, favorites of all-time.

Which oddly helps to connote why I have found them--once again--to be such a magnificent live act.

The band--more like an orchestra as there were up to 12 members onstage at a time--certainly have many terrific songs from four good-to-great albums, but it's not as if their catalog compares to that of Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Billy Joel, U2 or most of the "legacy acts" that now largely comprise my concert calendar.

But not only is there something inherently entrancing about seeing a band clearly in their prime--something I ruefully rarely am inspired to do these days, given the sparsity of new acts I know and like--but as concert performers, the Montreal-based collective goes exponentially beyond what their recorded oeuvre would suggest.

In other words, with clearly well-planned, practiced and presented stagecraft, Arcade Fire greatly amplifies their material--in multiple contexts.

I have attended hundreds of concerts in arenas, most frequently sitting in the highest level, but until Tuesday night I don't recall sitting in the 3rd deck of the United Center and having my seat rattle throughout the show.

In terms of sheer sonic force, I can't readily think of any concerts that have--well, rocked--me to the same extent.

AC/DC and Metallica come to mind, but those are basically power chord, bass and drum assaults.

With pianos, horns, violins, bongo drums and the typical rock gear, Arcade Fire's blast is one of instrumentation with greater depth and breadth than anyone--not even Springsteen with the mighty E Street band is as aurally rich and thunderous.

It's hard to describe, especially as while one can readily imagine many influences--Talking Heads, David Bowie, Springsteen, LCD Soundsystem, punk bands and much more--Arcade Fire isn't readily comparable to anyone else. But perhaps try to imagine a Wilco-Nirvana mashup and you may get a sense of what Arcade Fire sounds like live.

And with a variety of visual accoutrements--including costumes, masks, background videos, elaborate lighting, even a group of men proudly dancing in effeminate fashion during "We Exist"--Arcade Fire made their concert feel almost like a party.

Speaking of parties, I was rather late to discovering Arcade Fire's power & prowess as a live act.

I liked their much-acclaimed debut album, Funeral, and got their second, Neon Bible, but even in appreciating 2010's The Suburbs and seeing a full streaming concert around its release, I really didn't know "what the fuss was all about" until seeing them in April 2011 at the UIC Pavilion.

My review of that show was rather similarly fawning to this one, so although I can identify with any skepticism of those who have never seen Arcade Fire--especially indoors--I wasn't all that surprised by how good they were at the United Center.

Yet I was still awestruck astonished.

Of 20 songs played over a near 2-hour show, seven were from 2013's Reflektor, which being a double album with a prevalent dance vibe, isn't as thorough satisfying as earlier albums. For other bands featuring so much new material might have seemed dubious.

But not a single song dragged and the title tune, "Joan of Arc" (restarted after a technical snafu), "Afterlife" and "Normal Person" were among the show's highlights.

Of course, "Neighborhood 3 (Power Out)," "Month of May," "The Suburbs," "Keep the Car Running," "No Cars Go," "Ready to Start," "Rebellion (Lies)," "Sprawl II" and "Wake Up" were also tremendous.

(See the full 8/26/14 setlist for Arcade Fire in Chicago on

After bringing David Johansen, David Byrne and Marky Ramone onstage at recent New York shows--exacerbating Arcade Fire's trend of playing a locally-relevant cover--it was a bit disappointing that Tuesday night brought no special Chicago guest, merely a rendition of "Who Do You Love?" by Bo Diddley, who I've never much identified with the Windy City (wrongly, per Wikipedia).

But while I will feel a twinge of envy if I hear that Billy Corgan or Dennis DeYoung showed up on Wednesday, in a way Arcade Fire was so good on their own that a gimmicky special guest may have felt a tad unnecessary or even off-putting. (Note: Mavis Staples joined the band Wednesday for a version of the Rolling Stones, "The Last Time," which has no obvious ties to Chicago, not having been recorded at Chess Records' studios.)

For as it were, in terms of getting satisfaction from my ticket purchase back in late 2013, Arcade Fire had me at "Devo."

Though I've always known of the Ohio-based artsy punkish band--largely via their flowerpot hats and ubiquitous 1980 single "Whip It"--I now realize they are a band I should have seen live long before their opening stint for Arcade Fire.

Running through a terrific set of songs--I had done some pre-show Spotifying but not much--that included "Girl You Want," "Whip It," "Uncontrollable Urge," "Mongoloid," "Freedom of Choice," "Jocko Homo" (a.k.a. "We are Devo") and "Beautiful World--while undergoing three costume changes without leaving the stage (except for lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh), Devo sounded incredible.

In between their set and Arcade Fire, a DJ named Dan Deacon led a variety of audience-participation dance-offs on the General Admission arena floor.

On another night, having seen two fans in frog costumes dancing for the masses may have merited mentioning a bit earlier, or even a photograph. Heck, I haven't even mentioned that Arcade Fire took the stage after walking through the crowd on the floor.

There's actually a number of things I've left unsaid, including naming any of the band members. 

But I'm ready for bed and I think you've gotten the point.

Though--as with Springsteen, still my favorite ever performer of any ilk--one won't really get it until they see for themselves.

While it won't nearly do being there justice, here's a clip of the show closing "Wake Up" that I shot, which includes lead singer Win Butler's shout-out to Derrick Rose: 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Petty Criticism: Early Rockers Too Sparse, but New Songs Lift Heartbreakers Above Mid-Tempo Groove -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
w/ opening act Steve Winwood
United Center, Chicago
August 23, 2014

The first rock concert I attended of my own volition was by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on June 17, 1981, when I was just 12 years old.

As part of a radio promotion, The Loop--WLUP 97.9 FM, which still exists today--bought all tickets to Petty's concert at the Rosemont Horizon (on the Hard Promises tour) and gave them away.

By virtue of standing in line at the FlipSide at Lincoln Village, I got a pair, and my dad took me to the show.

Although I was happy to be there--though dissuaded from buying a $12 concert jersey--I remember thinking how much older my dad seemed than everyone else there.

He was just a year older than I am now, and 18 years younger than Tom Petty is.

And by the looks of the crowd at Saturday night's show at the United Center, I am not the only one who is growing old with the Heartbreakers.

Though a bit oddly, unlike my dad, I was on the young side of the full house.

Including last night, I have now seen Tom Petty and his erstwhile band eight times since 1981 and, while with the last being in 2008 I have never before written a review, they would all largely have had the same gist as this one...

That while I love the man, his band and their music, enough to see them every time they tour--and have always liked them in concert--I haven't loved Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as a live act as much as I want to.

Tour after tour, and again Saturday night at the UC, Petty includes several of the same mid-tempo songs from 1989-1993 as staples: "I Won't Back Down," "Learning to Fly," "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and "Free Fallin'"

All of these are good songs individually--and clear singalong crowd pleasers for most--with the latter being one of my favorites of Petty's entire catalog.

But with three of these songs among the first 8 played, along with a lesser-played one of similar era and ilk--"Into the Great Wide Open"--and two covers ("So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Star" and "Baby, Please Don't Go"), it was hard for me to "get into" the show early on as much as I wanted.

And a similar vibe weighted down a good portion of the rest of the 2-hour show, as well. (See the full Tom Petty Chicago setlist on

This is largely because the great Mr. Petty, while showing he has written many a catchy pop song, wasn't letting one of the greatest American rock bands of all-time rock.

Yes, the band burned on the tail end of "Baby, Please Don't Go" and sounded invigorated in showcasing songs from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' really terrific new album, Hypnotic Eye, their best since the 1980s. 

"American Dream Plan B," "Forgotten Man," "U Get Me High" and "Shadow People" all came off well and showed--like other favorites Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam--that despite being hugely successful for decades, Petty still has common-man empathy and is emphatically (and melodically) angered by the financial & societal injustices that continue to proliferate.

But though in one way it's a great testament to Petty & his band (including Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair, Steve Ferrone and an additional sideman, Scott Thurston) to say that his newest songs were among the concert's highlights--and this is without their playing my three favorite Hypnotic Eye tracks: "Fault Lines," "Red River" and "All You Can Carry"--there's also a considerable quibble that it exposes.

For years I have been telling anyone who would listen--mainly just me--that I really wish Petty would mine his great pre-1983 catalog much deeper in concert.

Album tracks like "A Thing About You," "Straight Into Darkness," "Change of Heart," "Kings Road," "One Story Town" and "Runaway Trains" (the latter from 1987) are among TP & the HB's best songs, along with better-known cuts "I Need to Know," "Listen to Her Heart," "Don't Do Me Like That," "Even the Losers," "The Waiting," and "You Got Lucky"  that were included on their 1993 Greatest Hits album. (Check out My Petty Setlist on Spotify.)

Yet none of these were played on Saturday night, and many never or rarely at Petty shows I've seen.

And just when I began to think that maybe I was being a Petty douchebag for getting frustrated at one of my favorite artists playing what he wants to play rather that what I'd prefer to hear--especially as he's still filling stadiums at 63 and Saturday's crowd was raucously appreciative--he and the band ripped through Hard Promises' "A Woman In Love (It's Not Me)."

Per, this was just the second time this tour the 1981 song was played, and it sounded really fantastic. Validating--along with stellar renditions of early hits but longtime concert staples "Refugee" and "American Girl"--my sense that it would intensify Petty's concerts, my emotional investment and my satisfaction if he would occasionally throw in a few of the songs I cited a few paragraphs back.

Certainly I understand that Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers long ago earned the right to play what they want to play, and--given the full house and great applause, for which Tom effusively expressed his gratitude--they're obviously still doing a whole lot right.

Including, in the eyes of many--whether seeing the band for the first time or repeatedly like me--trotting out "Learning to Fly" and "Mary Jane's Last Dance" again and again in lieu of ripping through more MIA early rockers.

To Petty's credit, relative rarities "Rebels," "Angel Dream (No. 2)" and "Yer So Bad"--played consecutively, with beautiful, sparse acoustic takes on the first two--sounded wonderful, further reiterating the benefit of mixing things up a bit.

And my @@@@ rating (out of 5) genuinely means to connote that I liked the show much more than I didn't.

But in a year in which I've seen several all-time favorites--Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Elvis Costello, John Fogerty, Paul Simon (+ Sting), Ringo Starr, Bob Mould--plus artists whose oeuvres I know & like considerably less than Petty's (such as Santana, Richard Thompson, New Order and Barry Gibb), in being truthful I must admit that I enjoyed his performance less than any of theirs.

Though I will say that in addition to sending me out into the night rather buoyantly with a closing run of "Refugee," "Runnin' Down a Dream," "You Wreck Me" and "American Girl"--with a cover of The Monkees' "(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone" also in the encores--Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers made sure the first hour was quite pleasing by enlisting the legendary Steve Winwood as an opening act.

At 66 and sporting gray mutton chops, the man who sang "Gimme Some Lovin'" at 16 (with the Spencer Davis Group) still sounds strong of voice, and is an extraordinary musician on piano/organ and guitar.

Winwood's hourlong opening set was a bit more relaxed than emphatic, but with a pair of drummers, a sax player and a guitarist, some truly fantastic songs--Spencer Davis Group's "I'm A Man," Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home," Traffic's "Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys," "Empty Pages," "Dear Mr. Fantasy" and Winwood's solo hit "Higher Love"--were done adequate justice, and once it filled in, the crowd bestowed a well-deserved ovation.

I would have loved to have heard "While You See a Chance," but Winwood was good enough in exploring his past glories--if only in small part--to make me wish to see him do another headlining show.

He also played with Petty in 2008 at the United Center, and with Eric Clapton the following year.

But if he wants to hit the Chicago Theatre or a similar venue with his fine band, I'll be there.

And I'll probably be back the next time Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers come through town.

Still hoping to hear more of the old...and more of the new. 

Here's Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' terrific version of "A Woman In Love (It's Not Me)" posted to YouTube by ZepCowboy:

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Fun Night 'On the Town': Initial Local Docking of Classic Musical Should "Shore Leave" You Smiling -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

On the Town
a classic musical never before
professionally-staged in the Chicago area
Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire
Thru October 12

I likely have more sentimentality for On the Town than for any other musical that--prior to Wednesday night--I had never seen onstage.

That's because, being a favorite of my father's, the classic MGM movie version of On the Town--starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller and others--was probably aired in my childhood home more than any musical besides Singin' in the Rain (and perhaps Guys & Dolls). 

But since I began attending live musicals with regularity in 2000, I have never seen On the Town, nor even noted it being staged anywhere prior to its current run at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. (A new Broadway revival is set to begin in October.)

In fact, I can't say I ever knew that On the Town began its existence as a 1944 stage musical, rather than an MGM film from 1949, as was the case with Singin' in the Rain (in 1952).

Perhaps this is because--as astonishing as it was to learn from the program when I arrived at the Marriott Theatre--no professional production of On the Town has ever been staged in Chicago or the vicinity. 

Supposedly there was a national tour soon after the Broadway run 70 years ago, but it didn't play Chicago, and there are no records of any other professional staging in the area. 

In reading about the show, and movie, on Wikipedia before arriving at the Marriott Lincolnshire on Wednesday night, I learned that while two of the songs I fondly recalled from the movie--"New York, New York" (the "it's a helluva town" one, not "Start spreading the news..," though both have Sinatra in common) and "Come Up to My Place"--came from the stage musical, for the most part MGM had new songs written for the film. 

Supposedly, many of the tunes composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green--future Broadway legends creating their first musical, as with choreographer Jerome Robbins--were considered too operatic in nature for Hollywood and movie screens across America. 

So an intriguing panoply of factors were at play when I took my seat Wednesday night: a classic title that I--and likely many in the senior-heavy audience--regarded fondly, yet a work never before seen locally in live form, featuring a score far less familiar than initially imagined. 

And while I have seen numerous musicals at Marriott and other relatively congruent regional theaters over the years, making for casts often filled with familiar faces, that was not the case here. 

To meet the dance-heavy needs of the show, director David H. Bell and choreographer Alex Sanchez conducted extensive auditions in Chicago and New York, resulting in three lead actors I had never before seen. (A couple other cast members were familiar.)

Expanded from an idea that began as a ballet by Robbins with music by Bernstein, On the Town centers around three World War II U.S. Navy sailors on shore leave who explore New York City for the first time, for just one day. 

As Gabey, Chip and Ozzie, respectively, Max Clayton, Seth Danner and Jeff Smith are all engaging, well-sung and fine dancers, though considerably less charismatic and distinctive than Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin (the same could be said for nearly everyone in history, at least regarding the first two, though Munshin was also great in the movie). 

From the first notes of the overture, Bernstein's score is delightful, including fine renditions of the songs I knew well--Danner and Marya Grandy (as Hildy) are great fun on "Come Up to My Place"--as well as those I was likely hearing for the first-time, such as "Carried Away," "Lonely Town," "Lucky to Be Me" and "Ya Got Me."

In doing an excellent job as Hildy, a romantically aggressive cabbie who becomes Chip's love interest--played in the movie by Betty Garrett--Grandy also delivers a pleasing rendition of "I Can Cook," a well-known song from the musical that didn't make the movie.

Alison Jantzie is endearing as Ivy, who in being featured as the NYC subway system's "Miss Turnstiles" drives the narrative, as Gabey--with help from his friends--pursues her, initially trying to locate her within a city of millions based on seeing a poster.

Also quite good are two actresses I have seen in past shows, Johanna McKenzie as the punnily named Claire DeLoone, the love interest of Ozzie despite being engaged to a dweeb named Pitkin (Alex Goodrich), and the always fabulous Barbara Robertson, who gives the show's most memorable performance as Madame Maude P. Dilly, a vocal coach working with Ivy.

I was pleasantly surprised at how LOL funny the 70-year-old dialogue is at several points, even beyond the comic relief characters of Pitkin, Madame Dilly and Hildy's roommate Lucy Schmeeler (Brandi Wooten), who has a sinus condition akin to Niagara Falls.

Not surprisingly, given the consistently high standards of quality at Marriott Theatre--said to boast the largest subscriber base of any U.S. theater--everything about the inaugural production of On the Town was impressive.

Beyond the score, songs, some wonderfully witty lyrics and humorous dialogue, Sanchez' choreography, Nancy Missimi's costumes, Thomas Ryan's scenic design and a large ensemble cast under Bell's direction are all demonstrably good. Particularly notable for when the show was written, multiple ballet and/or group dance numbers and substantive use of brass in Bernstein's score are quite pleasing, and Bell's staging of a scene in the Museum of Natural History is tremendously inventive.

Yet at the end of the night--and even at the end of Act I, which like Act II, concludes rather abruptly with little emotional uplift--my sense was more of thorough enjoyment than effusive wonderment.

There is nothing specific I would cite as deficient, but whether it was the pacing or perhaps the show's charming-but-atypical near complete lack of modernity, something about On the Town didn't congeal perfectly.

The sum, in sum, somehow wound up being somewhat lesser than its many wonderful parts.

Still, anyone who embarks on Chicagoland's maiden voyage of a legendary but exceedingly rare musical, whose creators would go on to create shows such as West Side Story and Wonderful Town, is almost "shore" to leave more than abundantly entertained--and even enriched--from their night On the Town.

It's a helluva time.

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

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 being presented across the country only by its original Broadway producing team to becoming licensable for regional theaters to create their own productions, but the latter seems now to be the case whereas the former was seemingly in effect until recently.

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 show'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 more gracefully and engagingly than 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.