Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Cooler Near the Lake: A Fun, Free Night with Aimee, Ted and the Both, Together at the Remarkably Communal Millennium Park -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Both (Aimee Mann & Ted Leo)
w/ opening act Pillars & Tongues
Pritzker Pavilion
Millennium Park, Chicago
July 21, 2014

The Chicago Tribune recently ran a series of articles commemorating--and largely saluting--the 10th anniversary of Millennium Park. 

The overall gist, which I agree with, is that despite being completed more than 4 years late, with accompanying cost overruns, the park instantly became--and certainly remains--one of Chicago's crown jewels, with its architecture, sculpture, greenery, communal spaces and entertainment programming making a great city even greater.

I have been to the park a good number of times over its first decade, whether simply strolling through to look at the Bean (a.k.a. Cloud Gate), observing tourists and locals splashing around among the electronic face pillars (a.k.a. the Crown Fountain), walking the bridge to the Art Institute or catching shows of various types at the Pritzker Pavilion, as well as at the Harris Theater along Millennium Park's northern border.

While I relish Cloud Gate, the Crown Fountain, the Lurie Garden, the two bridges, the colonnade in the NW corner and temporary art installations--a current one of large face sculptures by Jaume Plensa, designer of Crown Fountain, is particularly engaging--Pritzker Pavilion is by far my favorite feature of Millennium Park, both because of the architectural flair of Frank Gehry's design and the numerous fine performances I've seen there, for free (excepting a paid-entry Wilco show in 2007, and one by Tori Amos in 2005).

I've caught Grant Park Symphony Concerts with famed piano soloists, a Stephen Sondheim tribute with Broadway luminaries, jazz legend Sonny Rollins and, last summer, a fine concert by folk-rock band Dawes.

But if the City of Chicago's Downtown Sound series has ever been as strong as it has in 2014, it's to my detriment that I never noticed.

Already this summer I've seen phenomenal shows by Richard Thompson and Bob Mould, not just for free but with up-close pavilion seats (by virtue of arriving early).

I've also heard good things from others about Robbie Fulks, Omar Souleyman and Joe Pug, and it was on a friend's recommendation--complementing my high regard for the amazing venue, superb series and beautiful weather--that on Monday night I was compelled to check out The Both, after having familiarized myself with their stellar debut album.

Once again I was rewarded with a superlative show on a lovely night in the company of friends, without having to spend a dime for performers who easily could charge $40+ at other venues.

Seems Millennium Park may be a keeper.

Especially as, although I've long known of Aimee Mann--dubbed the ultimate indie rock chick by my friend Paolo--and had heard of Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, prior to preparing myself for Monday's show I could have named just one song by either Mann or Leo, who have joined forces as The Both.

And that song, "Voices Carry," was one Mann wrote and sang in 1985 as part of the band 'Til Tuesday.

So not only has Millennium Park supplied me with three terrific rock concerts thus far this year, it spurred my familiarity with The Both's excellent self-titled debut album--I downloaded it from Amazon; it doesn't appear to be on Spotify--as well as some of Mann and Leo's extensive back catalogs. (I also didn't know all that much of Richard Thompson before seeing him there in mid-June.)

On Monday night, backed by drummer Matt Mayhall, Mann and Leo played all the songs from their album, reiterating how strong an effort it is.

Every song was notably good, with opener "The Gambler," "Volunteers of America," "The Inevitable Shove," "Bedtime Stories" and "Milwaukee"--which chronicles seeing this Fonz statue--cited as highlights only in lieu of naming all 11 tracks from the album. (See the full setlist on Setlist.fm)

From song to song, but also within many of them, Mann and Leo traded vocals and also harmonized rather nicely.

Leo, who comes from a harder rock vein, impressed on guitar, while Mann, who still looks terrific at 53, played a strong bass most of the night, switching to acoustic guitar for a few songs sans the drummer.

One of these was a song from her long solo career, "Save Me," which she noted she had played at a non-partisan political event last year, to the seeming delight of both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

Leo amiably contradicted Mann's recollection, saying that Bush had only exchanged niceties with them due to a delay in accessing a rest room.

Steady banter between Mann and Leo added to the fun of the evening, with the South Bend-born, Notre Dame grad Leo citing that it was "cooler by the lake" seemingly befuddling the Boston-bred Mann, and making for several subsequent "it's ____ by the lake" references.

Leo also noted that the Both was born last year in a Chicago hotel room, where the two first discussed a collaboration, leading to the "first song we wrote," the then-played, "You Can't Help Me Now."

Drawing attention--and video screen cameras--to a beetle that had parked on his pant leg, Leo made an arcane U2 Rattle and Hum reference that I appreciated, and later imitated KISS' Paul Stanley addressing the crowd.

Having earlier played a new song of his own called "Lonsdale Avenue," Leo followed Mann's "Goodbye Caroline" by closing the main set with "Bottled in Cork," from Ted Leo and the Pharmacists' 2010 album, The Brutalist Bricks.

With "Both" harmonizing on each other's pre-tandem songs, all fit well within the concert's flow, and the duo's fledgling canon.

Though it seems clear that there is a 9:00pm curfew on the Downtown Sound shows, the Both's nearly 90-minute, 16-song set matched their club shows at earlier tour stops.

Fortunately, time allowed them to fit in two encore songs, a cover of Thin Lizzy's "Honesty is No Excuse," which appears on The Both album, and a crowd-pleasing rendition of "Voices Carry," of which I've included a clip below.

Lately, I've been having some discussion about how I do, or perhaps should, determine ratings on my @@@@@ scale. How much is acute enjoyment reflected vs. artistic merit, should I rate shows in comparison to each other or based on how well my expectations are met for any given performance, should I rate coming down from @@@@@ or going up from @@@, should how much I paid or others might weigh into the ardor of my raves, critiques and recommendations?

Certainly it is not an exact science, and as I am not a professional critic who wields much influence, I take my best guess.

On a perfect night at the perfect price, preceded by a solid if a bit hypnotic opening act named Pillars & Tongues, The Both were every bit as good as I could have imagined them being.

Their show was not as blistering as Bob Mould, nor as eye-opening as Richard Thompson at the same venue--Leo himself paid homage to the two legends his picture appeared among on the Downtown Sound schedule--nor in terms of personal meaning and musical stature can I really compare a new act (albeit comprised of long-respected professionals) to recent concerts by Billy Joel and Paul McCartney.

So who knows if @@@@1/2 is right, or why?

All I know is that I applaud the Both for a delightful performance, highly recommend their album, look forward to more music from them and salute the folks behind Downtown Sound for allowing me to "check them out" for nada, nothing, zilch.

For if I were simply rating it in terms of value, the free Both concert at Millennium Park could easily merit @@@@@@.

Though not really representative of the excellent new music The Both are making, here is the show-closing "Voices Carry" from Monday night at Millennium Park in Chicago:

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