Monday, August 29, 2016

A Hue's Who on the Streets of Skokie: Blue Öyster Cult, Living Colour Make Past Enjoyably Present at Backlot Bash -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Blue Öyster Cult
August 26, 2016
Living Colour
August 27, 2016
Backlot Bash, Skokie, IL
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I grew up in Skokie, a suburb north of Chicago, and after some time out west--Los Angeles, Glen Ellyn--have lived in a condo there for the past 9 years.

As such, there are many fine things I can say about my hometown.

After having previously been a largely Jewish enclave, with a sizable number of Holocaust survivors--several who remain present and active with the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center--we are now a proudly multicultural community that openly celebrates diversity.

Although always comfortable and safe, Skokie lacks the ostentation of more affluent towns up the North Shore, while offering easy access to/from Chicago via the Edens Expressway and CTA Yellow Line.

We boast one of country's oldest and best shopping malls in Old Orchard and an outstanding library, nationally-recognized schools and the lively North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, home to Northlight Theatre, where I have witnessed many a Broadway-caliber play.

But for all the good I can say about Skokie, and my happiness in living there, I can't pretend it offers the hip vibe of Chicago itself, nor even nearby Evanston or other more cosmopolitan suburbs.

There are several restaurants in Old Orchard, within the Village Crossing shopping complex on Touhy and elsewhere--including fine Thai, Afghan, Jamaican, Russian and Latin American options--but I can't say Skokie has a great dining scene beyond excellent hot dog and/or gyros joints like Poochie's, Hub's, Herm's Palace and Dengeos (and terrific bagel shops New York Bagel & Bialy and Kauffman's, also a beloved deli).

And as for a year-round music scene, other than some good Sunday afternoon programming at the Skokie Public Library, often in a classical vein, I can't say I've noticed much of one.

But for 10 years now, the Backlot Bash--the village's annual festival, so named due to silent films being made in the area in the early 20th century--has been a terrific treat in late-August.

It's not of the size & scope of other suburban festivals like Naperville's Ribfest, Lisle's Eyes to the Skies, Arlington Height's Frontier Days, etc., but that's part of its charm.

You can park nearby, walk on over, grab some food (Real Urban BBQ's brisket sliders were great; glad to know they'll open a Skokie outpost next year), get a seat (or bring your own), play some bingo--I remain 0-for-Ever--and hear some good bands you likely haven't heard of (such as The Cells this year) before some rather notable headliners.

The Backlot Bash is presented under the auspices of the Skokie Park District. I've never known who does the talent booking for the mainstage, but I offer high compliments.

Though no admission fee is charged, the Bash has consistently been able to book rather unique and interesting  headliners, including several bands I haven't noted playing elsewhere in the area for years or didn't realize still existed.

Over the years, I've seen Fastball, The Fixx, Lonnie Brooks, The Smoking Popes, Spin Doctors, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Tributosaurus doing showcases of The Who, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, The Cars and more. (This year they "became" The Police on Sunday night, but I was otherwise booked.)

In years past, I also would have liked to have seen Cracker, the English Beat, Psychedelic Furs and more, had I not been precluded by other concerts or commitments. (See the musical history of the Backlot Bash here.)

This year, I saw two bands I've long liked but had never seen in full on their own: Blue Öyster Cult and Living Colour, Friday and Saturday night respectively.

Though both bands are years past the height of their fame, I felt they each represented themselves quite well across solidly enjoyable 90-minute shows.

I still fondly recall listening to BÖC's live album Some Enchanted Evening--and most specifically "Godzilla" and "(Don't Fear) The Reaper"--with a junior high school friend way back when, but can't say I've ever sought out the band to see live or have know anything else besides 1981's "Burnin' for You."

A couple years ago, I caught a bit of their set at Milwaukee's Summerfest, but recently had my interest piqued by someone who doesn't actually exist.

Namely, Robert Galbraith, the nom de plume of J.K. Rowling, under which she's now written three
detective novels centering around a recurring character called Cormoran Strike.

I enjoyed the first two of these, The Cuckoo's Calling and The Silkworm, but found 2015's Career of Evil to be even better.

For reasons unknown--other than that Rowling must be a fairly avid fan--the latter takes it title from a Blue Öyster Cult song, all of the chapters are introduced by a BÖC lyrical snippet and the band is referenced throughout the story.

This prompted me to do some latter-day exploring of BÖC on Spotify and Wikipedia--I was surprised to learn Patti Smith was an early collaborator--and though the trio of songs I knew remained my favorites, I was happy to notice the band on the Backlot Bash schedule and make a point of attending.

BÖC's two most prominent original members, Buck Dharma (real name Donald Roeser) and Eric Bloom, continue as mainstays 44 years since the band's debut album, with both guitarists alternating on lead vocals.

After opening with a song I didn't know--"The Red & the Black," rather than "This Ain't the Summer of Love," which showed me to as a recent opener--the band played "Golden Age of Leather" before rocking through "Burnin' for You."

With Dharma sounding strong vocally and playing some wonderful guitar solos, and Bloom handling his vocal takes with aplomb, Blue Öyster Cult made 90 minutes go by pretty quickly, and impressed well beyond a late-set pairing of "Godzilla" and "(Don't Fear) The Reaper," the latter now of "more cowbell!" SNL fame.

The rest of the 5-piece band included Richie Castellano on guitar and keys, Jules Radino on drums and--at least for this show--Danny Miranda on bass.

I was somewhat surprised that no mention was made of the recent passing of Sandy Pearlman, the man who was instrumental in the band's creation and long served as their manager and frequent producer.

But having finally gotten around to seeing Black Sabbath earlier this year, I was glad to have opportunity to catch their onetime Black & Blue Tour companions, within the town I call home. (See Blue Öyster Cult's Backlot Bash setlist here.)

Although I had seen Living Colour way back in 1989 on the Monsters of Rock tour at Alpine Valley, I only ever knew a few of their songs and can't say I was aware they still existed.

But vocalist Corey Glover, guitarist Vernon Reed and drummer Will Calhoun remain from the original quartet, while bassist Doug Wimbish dates back to 1992.

And all still sounded in quite fine form.

Even after a good bit of Spotifamiliarization, there were a number of songs played that I didn't recognize, but Glover is a strong, energetic singer and the three others proved demonstrably excellent musicians.

Reid remains a brilliant guitarist who flashed some stupendous solos--most notably in the band's biggest hit, "Cult of Personality"--while Wimbish and Calhoun shined in extended instrumental turns in the spotlight.

"Ignorance is Bliss" and "Type" were among other highlights, while the 15-song set included three covers: Talking Heads' "Memories Can Wait" (which was the opener), a rock version of the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Who Shot Ya"--Reid spoke passionately throughout the set about the need to curb violence--and a finale of The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go" that found Glover atop the steps of a church alongside the Oakton Street stage. (See Living Colour's Backlot Bash setlist here.)

Living Colour was one of the first hard rock bands comprised entirely of African-Americans (excepting the terrific but little-known band called Death).

Hearing them sound superb at the Backlot Bash, I couldn't help but imagine that they influenced Rage Against the Machine and many others, and honestly don't know why they didn't enjoy a greater run of impressive success.

But they certainly helped Skokie seem a whole lot hipper, if only for a night.

And along with another NYC-bred band on the preceding night, they provided a colorful blast from the past that sounded great in the present tense.

A couple videos I shot: "Burnin' For You" by Blue Öyster Cult; "Cult of Personality" by Living Colour

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