Friday, July 21, 2017

Quite a Ride: Drive-By Truckers Deliver a Fun Free-for-All -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Drive-By Truckers
w/ opening act Honeysuckle
Jay Pritzker Pavilion
Millennium Park, Chicago
July 20, 2017

I've paid to see the Drive-By Truckers a couple of times, in 2006 on a bill with the Black Crowes and in 2008 co-headlining with The Hold Steady.

But I can't say I've taken much note when they've rolled through town in recent years. With all the shows I see, of various ilks, my acute interest has just dissipated a bit.

Yet this isn't to suggest the Athens, GA-based band isn't still good; 2016's American Band album features some of my favorite DBT tunes to date.

So it was rather peachy when the Drive-By Truckers showed up on the schedule of Millennium Park Summer Music Series presented--free of charge--by the City of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE).

I've previously attended some fine free summer shows at the grand Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park--Dawes, Bob Mould, Richard Thompson, The Both--but hadn't noticed any acts prompting me to do so since 2014.

I'm glad my interest enticed my friend Brad, who--despite not knowing any Drive-By Truckers material--came away even more smitten than me.

Fortuitously, on a night when thunderstorms and/or high humidity seemed possible, the weather cooperated perfectly and the DBTs were nicely preceded by a 3-piece band from Boston called Honeysuckle.

By virtue of their employing a banjo, acoustic guitars and--at best, on select songs--just one bass drum, I will somewhat automatically employ the terms Americana and rootsy, but all their songs sounded pleasant, often with lovely 3-part harmonies. Speaking to this penchant, they played a cover song likely by Crosby, Stills and Nash, though I didn't recognize it.

Originals whose titles I caught--"Elvis Presley Blues," "Beautiful Rain," "Canary"--and even those I didn't were all quite good.

So I mean no disrespect to Honeysuckle or the DCASE scheduler who--in introducing them--noted that he had handpicked them to share this bill, but with the free 6:30pm shows having a 9:00pm curfew, I would have opted for 15 minutes less of the opening act's hour so the Drive-By Truckers could have gotten at least 90 minutes onstage.

As it was, their 75 minutes were well-spent, beginning with a rollicking "Surrender Under Protest," from American Band.

I only knew about half the songs, but they all sounded good, as founding members Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley traded off on lead vocals.

The songs sung by Hood--son of bassist David Hood from the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section--tend to be a bit more meditative ("Baggage," "Ever South"), while as with the first tune and "Ramon Casiano," another great one from the latest album, Cooley's tend to be punchier.

The Drive-By Truckers have been together since 1996--Hood and Cooley, longtime pals from Alabama, were also in previous bands--and with 12 studio albums, I know relatively little of their oeuvre.

And, as with jam bands and Bruce Springsteen--who I see as influences along with southern rock legends (Lynyrd Skynryd and the Allman Brothers)--they change up their setlists greatly every time out, so it was hard for me to really study up much ahead of time. (See Thursday's setlist here.)

But I knew that their Southern Rock Opera double album from 2001 largely pertains to Lynryd Skynyrd, and enjoyed from it "Ronnie and Neil," "Shut Up and Get on the Plane" and "Let There Be Rock," which references the AC/DC song of the same name.

With a BLACK LIVES MATTER sign on their equipment providing a good sense of where the DBTs stand politically, it was also a hoot to hear them romp through the Ramones' "The KKK Took My Baby Away," with bassist Matt Patton on vocals.

By their 15th and final song, "Hell No, I Ain't Happy"--which had many in the crowd singing along gleefully--the Drive-By Truckers seemed to just be getting warmed up. (One recent show ran 24 songs, including two of my favorites, unplayed here: "The Righteous Path" and "Gravity's Gone.")

So even though it was an excellent show--especially for the price, and truly abetted by Honeysuckle--another 4-5 songs might really have added to the delirium that was beginning to build.

I guess the next time the Drive-By Truckers come to Chicago, I will have to pay to see them.

With a terrific free show, they certainly earned as much.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

At Wrigley, a Taylor-Made, First-Raitt Double Play -- James Taylor & Bonnie Raitt -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

James Taylor
w/ opening act Bonnie Raitt
Wrigley Field, Chicago
July 17, 2017
@@@@1/2 (for each and both)

I've never owned a James Taylor album, not even his Greatest Hits.

Although he's been a popular singer for my entire life, his initial height of fame coincided with my infancy and toddlerhood.

And when in the late '70s, my dad (or I myself) saw fit to add new LPs by Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Steely Dan, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, David Bowie and others to the old icebox that served as the family's record cabinet, even as 1977's JT became Taylor's best-selling album, he didn't make it to our turntable.

I knew & liked a few of his ubiquitous songs--"Carolina in My Mind," "Fire and Rain," "You've Got a Friend," "Up on the Roof"--enjoyed his candid interviews with Howard Stern and respected his talent, popularity & longevity, but couldn't really call myself a fan. 

Last year, James Taylor played Chicago's Wrigley Field--my favorite place on Earth and now my favorite concert venue--with Jackson Browne, who I like considerably more, and I didn't feel compelled to go.

But with Monday's Wrigley show--opened by another legend, Bonnie Raitt--clearly not selling like Cubs World Series tickets, I couldn't pass on LiveNation's offer of $20 tickets during a promotion back in May.

Blessed with another beautiful night at the Friendly Confines--I've been extremely lucky across a string of outdoor shows--I very much enjoyed approximately 3 hours of stellar music by two old pros.

At about 7:15pm, Taylor surprised the gathering crowd by nonchalantly walking onstage first, the famed Red Sox fan adorned in a Cubs cap.

But at that point he served to simply offer a welcome and introduce his longtime friend, Raitt.

Backed by a fine band, Bonnie began with the first two songs off her 2016 Dig in Deep album, the fine "Unintended Consequence of Love" and a cover of INXS' "Need You Tonight."

As with Taylor, my fandom of Raitt is more passively appreciative than acutely intensive, but I quite liked her hour-long opening set.

Along with being an excellent guitarist, she has always heavily recorded songs written by others, and it was nice to hear her deliver Taylor's "Rainy Day Man" and John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery," both coming from her 1974 Streetlights album.

"Something to Talk About," a cover of Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House" and the title song of 1989's Grammy-winning Nick of Time--the latter accompanied by vocalist Arnold McCuller, who has long worked with Raitt but is touring in Taylor's band--were also delights.

It was cool of the headliner to join Raitt for her closing "Thing Called Love" about a half-hour before he and his "All-Star Band" took their places in center field.

So even before Taylor began his 2-hour show with "Carolina in My Mind," it was clear that at age 67 he remains in fine form, vocally and on guitar.

I had done a good bit of Spotifamiliarization based on recent setlists, and the legendary singer/songwriter largely hewed to what he's been performing on his current tour. (See the Chicago setlist here.)

Though both Raitt and he had openly referenced and congratulated the Cubs, it was a bit odd--yet also apt given the ballpark setting--that Taylor opted to perform his Red Sox tribute "Angels of Fenway," backed by video from Boston's drought-ending championship in 2004, but without any Cubs visuals tacked on to elicit a hometown roar.

And while it had been played last year at Wrigley and isn't a staple on the current tour, "Up on the Roof" would've seemed an obvious choice--heck, maybe even from a rooftop--but was omitted.

But otherwise, although James Taylor is clearly more mellow than most of my favorites--hence, for me, this show could never quite rival those by Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, U2, Paul McCartney, etc.--he is terrific at what he does, and the well-paced show was excellent.

I appreciated his good-natured comments and stories that included noting how playing "Something in the Way She Moves" for Paul McCartney and George Harrison got him signed to Apple Records and jump-started his long career. (The song, played after that intro on Monday, also inspired Harrison to write "Something.")

Accompanied throughout by nice visuals, Taylor and Co.--including Blues Brothers sax player Lou Marini and many other first-rate musicians and vocalists--sounded wonderful in the open air on "Sweet Baby James," "Fire and Rain," "Shed a Little Light," "Shower the People," "Your Smiling Face" and "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)."

For the encores, Raitt returned to help pay tribute to the recently passed Chuck Berry with a romp through "Johnny B. Goode," and after Taylor delivered a sublime "You've Got a Friend," Bonnie came back to end the night alongside James on "You Can Close Your Eyes."

Certainly, it would only make sense that my enjoyment wasn't quite on par with fans who have followed Taylor since his self-titled debut in 1968.

But while preferring a good bit more guitar crunch, as well as setlist "Tayloring" to befit the venue, my appreciation for both Taylor and Raitt was considerably heightened in seeing both live for the first time.

And in leaving my seat in the first row of the upper deck and heading down to exit the park, I encountered a group of fans gathered in front of a TV on the concourse, watching the Cubs trying to put away the Atlanta Braves in the 9th inning. Before I got there, a 4-1 lead had become 4-3 and closer Wade Davis wound up loading the bases.

But as the final out was recorded to seal the win, about a hundred of us cheered as if the Cubs had just won a playoff game, and walking outta Wrigley a spontaneous "Go Cubs Go" erupted.

How sweet it was, indeed.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Fine Revue: Fronted by Adam Lambert, Queen is Reverentially Enjoyable, If Not Quite Mercurial -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Queen + Adam Lambert
United Center, Chicago
July 13, 2017

By almost universal acclaim, when factoring in vocal ability, range, showmanship and songwriting, the late Freddie Mercury of Queen stands as one of--and perhaps the--greatest lead singers in rock history.

Although following his death from AIDS in 1991, Mercury remains irreplaceable, his legacy--and songs--deserve to live on, forever. 

I perceive Queen guitarist Brian May--who happens to hold a Ph.D. in astrophysics--to be a decent guy, and can't much deride him or drummer Roger Taylor for continuing to celebrate (or milk) their band's rich past.

But between a 2006 tour fronted by the generally stellar Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers--which I found to be rather mediocre in Milwaukee--and the disappointing We Will Rock You jukebox musical created with May & Taylor's cooperation, it seemed perhaps best to let the phenomenal Queen catalog "carry on, carry on" in recorded form only.

But for the last 5 years, Queen--without original bassist John Deacon as well--has been performing rather regularly with Adam Lambert on lead vocals.

Lambert was the American Idol runner-up in 2009 and while that ordinarily would mean little to me, a cousin visiting Chicago at the time shared that he is the son of a close friend of hers.

Having paid more attention to American Idol that season than ever before or since, I knew Lambert was a highly talented and versatile singer, though I'm oblivious to the solo albums he has made.

I had abstained when Queen + Lambert played the United Center in 2014, but noted that a friend lauded the show, and YouTube clips--including of the current outing--supported that the vocalist seemed to do a credible job with the rather impossible task of standing in for Freddie Mercury.

So the day before Thursday's show at the UC, I got myself a ticket.

And I wound up with about all I could really hope for:

A solidly enjoyable show, with Lambert proving to be rather good, some indelible guitar moments recreated by May and some clearly reverential nods to Mercury, who appeared on the video screens at various moments.

But never did it really feel like I was seeing Queen--who I was a bit too young to catch live in original form, despite being a fan since "We Will Rock You" thrilled my 9-year-old self circa 1978--but rather a really good tribute band, albeit with May and Taylor on hand.

With no opening act, the 2-hour show to a soldout crowd--which seemed to bridge long-standing Queen fans with more recent admirers of the 35-year-old Lambert--began with a brief tease of "We Will Rock You" before solid takes on "Hammer to Fall," "Stone Cold Crazy" and "Another One Bites the Dust."

Although these are great songs to which the singer and band--with three additional musicians largely shrouded in darkness--did justice, I can't deny experiencing a fair amount of cognitive dissonance.

Imagine seeing and hearing the Rolling Stones with a singer other than Mick Jagger.

Or Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic performing Nirvana concerts with someone in place of Kurt Cobain.

Though such shows would obviously include terrific songs played--and likely even sung--well, something would just seem odd, if not quite off-putting. 

To his credit, after thanking May and Taylor for allowing him the opportunity to perform such hallowed material, Lambert openly noted that there would only ever be "one Freddie Mercury."

And without ever attempting to imitate the icon, Lambert got to show his own campiness, wit and theatricality, including on a lusty "Fat Bottom Girls," while sitting upon a huge sculptural head (from the News of the World album cover) and riding a three-wheeler on "Bicycle Race."

Lambert's own "Two Fux" didn't compare to the best of Queen musically, but fit in well-enough, and I enjoyed hearing less-famed catalog gems such as "Don't Stop Me Now," "I'm In Love With My Car" and "Get Down, Make Love."

And also, "Love of My Life," sung by May sitting alone atop the guitar-shaped catwalk amid the arena floor.

When the video screen behind him juxtaposed Freddie singing along, I found myself getting a bit verklempt.

"Somebody to Love" well-fit Lambert's vocal style, as it had George Michael at the tribute concert for Mercury in 1992.

I'm surprised that recently-passed brilliant singer didn't get a mention Thursday, but Roger Taylor did make note of David Bowie before the drummer and Lambert dueted on "Under Pressure," perhaps the highlight of the show for me.

As until LiveAid in 1985, Queen largely disappeared from the American zeitgeist for a few years, I'm not sure songs like "I Want It All," "I Want to Break Free" and even "Radio Ga Ga" can really be called "hits," but I'm glad they were included, along with the #1 "Crazy Little Thing Called Love."

Delectably closing the main set was "Bohemian Rhapsody," but with classic video of the band singing the operatic middle part, and imagery of Mercury dwarfing Lambert near the end, it served to reiterate that this was more a scripted revue celebrating the past than it was a concert kicking my ass in the here and now.

Granted, I probably wouldn't be seeing an Adam Lambert headlining gig--unless his solo material should catch my fancy--and he's been doing a more-than-credible job filling in with Queen for five years now.

But whereas Sammy Hagar with Van Halen or Arnel Pineda with Journey--who replaced famed singers for reasons other than death--recorded new material soon after coming into the fold, Lambert unavoidably feels more like the singer in a Queen cover band than an actual member (although the "Queen + Adam Lambert" marketing moniker is probably as much a testament to his own popularity as it is a respectful reminder that it's not really Queen without Mercury.)

The encore couplet of "We Will Rock You"/"We Are the Champions" certainly felt at home in Chicago's primary sports arena, though I wished someone had found May--or Lambert--a Cubs jersey rather than just a Chicago flag t-shirt.

But it was thrilling to sing along with "We Are the Champions" with it being currently--and rather historically--true for my favorite baseball team.

Just another lasting moment to cherish from a concert that served as a ready reminder of transcendent greatness...

...without in itself achieving it.

But for what it was--basically a reminder of how singular Freddie Mercury remains--Queen + Adam Lambert was royally fun.

See the Queen + Adam Lambert Chicago setlist here.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

'Something Rotten' Isn't -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Something Rotten!
a musical
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 23

Dating back to my childhood affinity for MAD magazine, parody songs by Steve Dahl and the Spinal Tap mockumentary, I've long had an appreciation for satire.

Artistic creations that reference and lovingly--mostly--poke fun at other creations (and/or artists) can be tremendously imaginative, delightful and insightful in their own right.

Even if one only catches half the allusions, seeing how Scream sends up horror film tropes or The Onion apes "real news" can be a whole lot of fun, and worthwhile on various levels.

Hence, contrary to its title, Something Rotten--a musical satirizing Shakespeare and, even more so, other musicals--is wonderfully executed, quite engagingly mirthful and really quite delightful.

It is a hoot if you love musicals and know enough of them to catch many rapid-fire references, and while Shakespearean hijinks are a bit secondary, those who love the Bard--as well as showtunes--should be doubly delighted.

Photo credit on all: Jeremy Daniel
Yet, as with most satirical works, Something Rotten doesn't eclipse its reference points...for the most part.

It is meant as high praise to call it a highly entertaining musical; the show wouldn't have run on Broadway (for nearly 2 years) and earned 10 Tony nominations if it wasn't.

It's easy to recommend as it's hard to imagine many not liking it, even if few--perhaps including the clearly inspired brothers, Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, who conceived and largely created Something Rotten!--are apt to cite it among the very best musicals they've ever seen.

The Kirkpatricks wrote the music & lyrics, and from the opening "Welcome to the Renaissance," there are several strong numbers that revolve around the playwriting Bottom brothers--Nick, played by the terrific Rob McClure, who starred in Chaplin on Broadway, and Nigel, an excellent Josh Grisetti--who are tired of being topped by Shakespeare.

So although there is much fun had at the Bard's expense, the show's narrative by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell isn't strictly a parody of Shakespeare--as I was largely expecting--so much as a Renaissance-based musical satire in which Sir William and some of his works factor in.

On this first National Tour of Something Rotten!--directed and choreographed as on Broadway by Casey Nicholaw--Shakespeare is played, in dashing, rock star fashion, by Adam Pascal.

Pascal will always be Broadway royalty due to originating the role of Roger in Rent, so it's exciting to see him onstage here, and he remains a striking presence and excellent vocalist.

As the storyline is more so about the Bottom brothers, as well as Nick's wife Bea (Maggie Lakis) and Nigel's paramour Portia (Autumn Hurlbert), Shakespeare isn't really involved until late in Act I. So while Pascal shines on both "Will Power" and "Hard to Be the Bard," he actually seems a bit underutilized. (Christian Borle played Shakespeare on Broadway and won a Tony as Best Featured Actor, not the lead.)

Along with several funny lines and clever lyrics, Something Rotten! contains dozens of references to other musicals, from Annie and A Chorus Line to Les Miserables and Cats, and myriad more.

This obviously adds greatly to the fun of the whole affair, and reverentially so, but Pascal's presence also unwittingly serves to remind that despite being great for what it is, this gleeful satire doesn't reach the heights of Rent or other truly transcendent musicals.

Nonetheless, beyond plenty of humor, it includes a good dose of Broadway-caliber dancing (including group tap numbers) and several genuinely fine songs, including the spectacular show piece "We See the Light," "To Thine Own Self" and the title song.

I don't think there's any reason to give away any of the gags, as their surprise jousts are much of the fun--I had listened to the cast recording on Spotify but more so in the background so the jokes would be fresh; shame some women behind me kept talking over the songs--but without telling you his exact role in prompting the Bottoms to write a musical (or its subject matter), I'll just note that the jocular and hirsute Blake Hammond is clearly one of the show's highlights.

On Tuesday night, Something Rotten's first in Chicago, the rather full crowd at the Oriental bestowed a well-deserved standing ovation.

Upon exiting with my Broadway in Chicago co-subscriber Paolo, I surmised that this is a show musical theater aficionados should see and love--thanks to all it spoofs--and that those who rarely get to theater might also relish because of all the laughs and quite estimable production values.

But whether on Broadway--where the show won just one of the 10 Tony Awards for which it was nominated in 2015--or in Chicago, there will almost always be theater options that are simply better. (Currently I'd recommend Hamilton, Aladdin, Parade and The Bridges of Madison County more strongly for most, and some fine non-musicals as well.)

So whether this show is to be--or not to be--a priority is something for you to decide. But I'm confident that almost anyone who has the Will would agree...

It truly isn't Something Rotten!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

If Not Quite All-Powerful, Enjoyably Droll 'God of Isaac' Hits Quite Close to Home -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The God of Isaac
by James Sherman
directed by Dennis Začek
Grippo Stage Company
at Piven Theatre, Evanston, IL
Thru August 27

The God of Isaac--which premiered in 1985 at Victory Gardens--is a play containing plenty with which I can identify or readily relate.

A Chicago-area man named Isaac (originally played by playwright James Sherman and now by his son T. Isaac Sherman, both under the direction of Dennis Začek) is Jewish by birth, heritage, Hebrew school, Bar Mitzvah and certain traditions, but never strict observance. 

Non-practicing in adulthood, with a shiksa wife, he is compelled by horribly anti-Semitic actions--specifically the planned neo-Nazi marches in my hometown of Skokie in 1977-78--to seek a better understanding and embrace of Judaism.

Despite underlying references to the Holocaust, the 6 million Jews killed and Skokie's large community of survivors aghast at again having to see swastika-adorned uniforms in their midst--as portrayed in the 1981 made-for-TV movie, Skokie, the marches never took place within the village--The God of Issac is by-and-large a comedy.

Photo credit on all: Evan Hanover
The younger Sherman is quite good as he frequently breaks the 4th wall and engages in a good bit of "meta" dialogue with the audience and one member in particular.

References to the (now long-gone) Skokie delicatessen Sam 'N Hy's, the desirability of kosher salami--vs. the Oscar Mayer variety, even for those who don't keep kosher--and mothers who save piles of grocery bags to use as garbage bags clearly hit close to home. (Literally, in fact, as the Grippo Stage Company production is being staged in Evanston, just 15 minutes from both my current and childhood Skokie residences.)

I was in Hebrew school when Frank Collin enlisted the ACLU to fight for neo-Nazis' constitutional right to march near Skokie's Village Hall, so a bit younger than Isaac in the play, but I certainly remember the rancor.

And while I likewise haven't opted to attend synagogue with any regularity since my Bar Mitzvah at age 13, beyond a relatively inert sense of my religion tied to lox & bagels, holiday dinners and respect for my forebearers, I most ardently "feel Jewish" in solidarity against anti-Semitism, oppression, persecution, hate, stereotyping, ignorance, etc.

Hence, a Jean-Paul Sartre quote that Isaac hears from a rabbi he seeks out--"A Jew is anyone who can one day be called by his neighbor a dirty Jew"--also resonated strongly with me.

Along with the likable T. Issac Sherman--his character's full name is Isaac Adams, but as this is never enunciated in the play it gets a tad confusing when his wife Shelly (an excellent Annabel Steven) repeatedly seems to call him Adam rather than Isaac--what works best in The God of Issac is the agile and often LOL funny rotating of Brian Rabinowitz and Charles Schoenherr through characterizations of Hasidic Jews, Huckleberry Finn, Marlon Brando, Henry Higgins and others (best that I leave specific details for you to encounter).

Anita Silvert as Isaac's mother and Jolie Lepselter as his friend Chava also do fine work.

Even for those without ready points of reference--and the show's program provides a helpful glossary of Yiddish and other non-English terms--The God of Isaac is deft enough to serve as a night of enjoyably intimate theater, within the Piven Theatre space in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, just steps from Noyes "L" station.

But despite several pleasurable moments, a few inspired ones, a nice, rather unique tonality and strong performances, the 2-act, 2-hour piece ultimately feels more like a cute play than a ravishing one.

While audience members of any cultural or religious heritage should easily find personalized parallels with Isaac's exploration of being Jewish--within a community where "none of the Jews live like other Jews"--my sense is that this show will likely appeal considerably more so to "members of the tribe."

And while I appreciate the Shermans'--both writer James, who was in attendance Monday night, and his son onstage--ability to make The God of Issac a thoughtful yet lighthearted affair, I feel correlation with the planned Skokie marches could've been more tightly drawn.

Issac notes certain dates on which Collin or court decisions made news, and speaks with a Holocaust survivor in his quest for better understanding. But while a deep dive into the hate speech vs. freedom of speech divide clearly isn't the focus here, Isaac's identity questions might have connected more potently to the genocidal devastation wrought on Jews, including many--like him--much more assimilated into their country of residence than overtly religious.

As noted above, I was a bit narratively confused by the names Isaac and Adam(s) being used interchangeably for the same character, who added to the sense of dichotomy by--always in character, to a degree--speaking to the audience about the play he was starring within.

This conceit was generally clever and pulled off well, but in a play reflecting on tolerance, individualism, respect, learning, etc., Isaac seems to treat his non-Jewish wife Shelly with an odd whiff of superiority and condescension.

He berates her for a few uncouth comments--such as "Jew him down"--without seeming to consider that she is just a much a product of her upbringing as he is of his.

And though at one point he suggests that Shelly convert to Judaism, he never once asks about her faith, beliefs, spirituality or how religion may shape her existence, even if--as for him--faith seemingly isn't overt.

I have never been married, and though there is theoretically nothing that would curtail me from wedding someone of a different religion or background, I appreciate that what may not initially seem of great consequence can become complicated as circumstances, awakenings or offspring arise.

As such, I wish this was an aspect the largely appreciable God of Isaac handled a bit more adroitly.

Still, even if imperfect, the play offers more than enough to be well-worth your time (especially if you come across discounts on HotTix, Goldstar or TodayTix).

You needn't be from Skokie or--as referenced in the play--have spent a good amount of your youth at Kroch's & Brentanos in Old Orchard to enjoy some hearty laughs, common touchstones, a bit of introspection and a fair amount of reverence for The God of Issac.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Damon Daze: Under Albarn's Auspices, Gorillaz' Audiovisual Blast Creates Something of a Hyperkinetic Blur -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening acts Little Simz, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
Huntington Bank Pavilion
at Northerly Island, Chicago
July 8, 2017

Truth be told, the main reason I wanted to see Gorillaz--for whom I bought tickets when they went onsale in April, so this wasn't a last-minute whim--is because I love Blur.

Ordinarily it might sound rather strange to see one band due to an affinity for another, but in this case both acts are led by the same singer and chief songwriter, Damon Albarn.

Along with Oasis, Blur became one of the two top Britpop bands of the 1990s, but unlike their rivals they were primarily huge in the UK and, except for the "whoo hoo!" rush of 1997's "Song 2," never became superstars in America.

I was familiar at the time with heralded albums such as 1993's Modern Life is Rubbish, 1994's Parklife (Blur's masterpiece) and 1997's self-titled record, but not then smitten enough to try to see them as they hit the Metro, Riviera and Vic, or even the Congress Theater as late as 2003.

But at least since catching wind of--and then hearing and watching full concert videos of--massive reunion shows in the UK in 2009, 2012 and beyond, I've become a rather rabid Blur fan.

I know the band toured a good bit in 2013 and 2015--the latter in support of a fine new album, The Magic Whip--but never came closer to Chicago than Mexico City, Los Angeles or New York (in October 2015) and I wasn't in a position to travel to see them.

While vaguely familiar that along with comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, Albarn created Gorillaz--initially a band represented by the cartoon personas of Murdoc, Noodle, Russel and 2D--I really didn't pay attention to 2001's self-titled debut album or three subsequent ones prior to this year's Humanz.

I was oblivious to a 2002 Gorillaz show at the Aragon that supposedly had Albarn and other live musicians hidden behind a scrim of animated projections, and only rued not catching them in 2010 after learning that Clash legends Mick Jones & Paul Simonon were among the touring musicians, along with the now-passed R&B crooner Bobby Womack.

Yet while I came to understand that in incorporating hip-hop, rap, house, R&B and other musical stylings--and featuring numerous guest vocalists--Gorillaz is sonically quite unique from Blur, my high regard for Damon Albarn motivated me to get a pair of tickets with my pal Dave.

Though Saturday's show at Huntington Bank Pavilion is officially the first of the Humanz World Tour, a setlist from a June Gorillaz show in Germany suggested they might play the new album, largely in full and in order, along with just a few earlier tunes.

In good measure, Spotifamiliarizing myself along these lines served me well, as 10 Humanz songs were performed along the lakefront, including the catchy opener "Ascension," for which rapper Vince Staples was on hand to reprise his album vocals.

But accompanied by many fine musicians, background singers and guest vocalists--including British rapper Little Simz, who opened the show--Albarn mixed up the order of the new album's songs and played a number of other tunes unfamiliar to me.

You can see Gorillaz' Chicago setlist here, including a delineation of guest performers. Though some of the selections were undoubtedly more rabidly enjoyed by others in the sold out crowd--I doubt Blur would bring this many people out in Chicago--I liked a great deal of what I heard, augmented by striking visuals throughout.

If one never knew of Gorillaz' original animation conceit, other than occasional glimpses of Murdoc, Noodle, Russel and 2D on the video screens behind Albarn & crew there wasn't much to suggest this wasn't simply a traditional live concert, albeit with a lot of people, sights and sounds.

Though I was glad to see Albarn front & center for much of the night, he served more as a master of ceremonies, frequently ceding centerstage to singers such as Vince Staples, Jamie Principle (on the excellent "Sex Murder Party"), Pevan Edwards (on "Strobelight," another highlight from Humanz) and others.

But when Damon sang lead, particularly on more plaintive songs such as "Rhinestone Eyes," "Busted" and "El Mañana," I found my mind happily Blurring, or referencing Albarn's 2014 solo album, Everyday Robots.

Including encore renditions of "Stylo," "Kids with Guns" and "Clint Eastwood," as well as Albarn speaking quite graciously about Chicago--which he said infused a good deal of the new album--the hyperkinetic concert offered a whole lot for me to relish.

One of my favorite singers sounded in fine voice on some terrific tunes and--amplified by all those on stage with him--illustrated the great diversity of his songwriting and musical talents. While I rued Humanz' terrific "Momentz" being omitted from the setlist, much of the music was far different than what I typically hear in concert--but a welcome change of pace--and the sensory blast was often quite dazzling.

I am neither surprised nor dubious that the Tribune's Greg Kot,, Facebook friends and others at the show seemed to like it even more than I did.

It didn't help that, with unraised seats near the back of the grounds of the makeshift amphitheater, I was often hard-pressed to see and/or make out much of what was happening onstage.

Unfamiliarity with some of the music is no one's fault but mine, but I can't say I loved every minute of it and--perhaps due to all the guest vocalists and the imprecise pacing of a tour's first show--found my emotional connection a bit disjointed.

As such, I can't suggest that I relished my first live Gorillaz experience as much as fantastic recent shows by U2, Midnight Oil, Metallica and others.

Or, I feel safe in presuming, Blur.

I can't deny hoping that Albarn--who was loquacious throughout but only referenced his other work by saying he'd been "coming to America since 1990"--might see fit to ramp up "Song 2" in realizing it'd been a long time since Blur played Chicago, but that didn't happen.

And I wouldn't be shocked if most of the crowd didn't even know "Parklife."

So it's to Damon Albarn's credit that he's now quite clearly conquered America, and not just behind a cartoon alter ego.

For many, this Gorillaz show may have been all they ever wanted.

For me, that it was the next best thing--on both entry and exit--is good enough.

At least for now.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Stopping to Smell the Roses Makes Good Scents -- Photos from Chicago Botanic Garden (on July 1, 2017)

All photos by Seth Arkin, copyright 2017. Please do not use or repost without permission and attribution.