Monday, June 24, 2019

Homecoming Queen: Back in Chicago's North Burbs, Liz Phair Puts on an Excellent Show -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Liz Phair
w/ opening act Juliana Hatfield 
Out of SPACE
at Temperance Beer Co., Evanston, IL
June 22, 2019
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I go way back with Liz Phair. 

Not quite to high school, as she attended New Trier while I attended Niles North, four miles and a socioeconomic class (or 2) south.

And I wasn't aware of any of her early recordings prior to the 1993 release of Exile in Guyville, which was almost instantly acclaimed as a masterpiece.

But the praise prompted me to buy that album soon after it came out. Finding the hype well-warranted, I’ve been a big fan ever since. 

On New Year’s Eve 1993 at Metro, I first saw Phair live, at a time when her stagefright was regularly cited in the press. 

But by 1998, when I caught her at the Vic, she’d become a much more comfortable performer, and
the next year I ventured out to DeKalb to see her play at NIU, my alma mater. A couple of close friends came up from Champaign to meet me there; hard to believe that was 20 years ago. 

In 2003, itself somewhat surprisingly now well in the past, I ever so briefly met Liz at an in-store signing at Tower Records on Clark Street in Chicago. This was at a time when her latest, eponymous album was being decried in many corners for being more pop sheen than indie queen.

Yet despite her supposed ire over the press bashing and a knack for acerbic lyrics, I found her to be quite sweet in person. 

We’re all a bit older now, with the 52-year-old Phair not having released a studio album since 2010. But from her opening quip of “It’s great to be home,” the concert she and her band delivered in the parking lot of an Evanston brewery on Saturday was sheer delight. 

The evening—part of the SPACE venue’s Out of SPACE series—got off to a swell start even prior to Phair taking the stage. 

Though I’m not nearly as indoctrinated to the music of Juliana Hatfield, she too is a legendary “alt-rock chick”—no degradation is meant to accompany the crude semantics—and with a band, she delivered a fine opening set. 

Reference Hatfield’s setlist here, but “Everybody Loves Me But You” opened the show, while her biggest hit—to my awareness—“My Sister” nicely concluded her time onstage. 

And having put out an album covering Olivia Newton-John songs last year, she included “Suspended in Time,” which isn’t an ONJ song I recognized. 

With four male bandmates—one more than Hatfield—Phair began her 85-minute set with “Supernova” off her second album, Whip-Smart. 

The show featured a nice range of material from across her career—setlist here—though it was great to hear nine songs from the still-remarkable Exile in Guyville, including “Never Said,” “6’1” and “Mesmerizing.” 

Incidentally, that album was sequenced as a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, but Liz made no mention of the Stones being in town. 

I couldn’t make out everything she said in the open air, but in introducing a new song—“God Loves Baseball,” which sounded good—she spoke of Wrigley Field and perhaps living or recording nearby. 

She also noted that her parents had moved away from the area, and jokingly asked if anyone had a room in which she could crash for the night. 

Phair and Hatfield both expressed excitement over their pairing in Evanston—on the grounds of the Temperance Beer Co., where I had a great Bratwurst Corn Dog from the Mad Moxie food tent—so it was great when Liz brought Juliana onstage. 

They played another Olivia Newton-John song unfamiliar to me, “Please Mr. Please” and then “Friend of Mine,” a Phair song Hatfield had previously covered. 

That song, like "Extraordinary" and "Why Can't I?", comes from the 2003 album, and I enjoyed hearing all three, so the grief Liz once took over being overtly melodic seems rather silly. 

Luckily, cloudy skies only let loose with a brief drizzle, and through the encores of "Explain It to Me," "Fuck and Run" and "Divorce Song," Phair's voice sounded as strong and distinctive as ever.

And especially in my having lauded Hugh Jackman's appearance in my previous review, I don't believe I'm being crassly sexist in saying that into her 50s, Liz Phair still looks fantastic.

It was great to see her rocking out a few miles from where she grew up--and 10 minutes from my current home--and as she frequently flashed an infectious smile to an adoring, sold out crowd, I clearly wasn't the only one having more than a Phair amount of fun.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Greatest Showman?: At the UC, Hugh Jackman Delivers a Huge Act, Man -- Chicago Theater / Concert Review

Concert / Theater Review

Hugh Jackman
The Man, The Music, The Show
United Center, Chicago 
June 21, 2019
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Anyone who doesn't admire Hugh Jackman at some level would seem to be actively trying not to.

At 50 (like me), the guy is incredibly handsome and absolutely ripped (unlike me).

He is a bona fine A-list movie star, whose films have grossed nearly $7 billion worldwide. As the X-Men's Wolverine, he has been a bankable franchise superhero, yet he's also starred in quality flicks like The Prestige, Prisoners and The Fountain.

Seemingly uncaring about any snickering perceptions regarding his sexuality, or how it might hamper his movie stardom, he has long been unabashed about his love of musical theater--starring on Broadway in 2004 as the gay icon Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz--which has led to his starring in movie musicals such as Les Miserables and The Greatest Showman.

Straight, though unafraid to flaunt flamboyant dance moves--and cheekily shake his ass for onstage closeups--he's been married to Deborra-Lee Furness for 23 years, and I don't recall ever noting any gossip or controversies. The Hollywood star lives in New York, but is clearly proud of his Australian heritage, also celebrating that country's aboriginal people.

Jackman has hosted the Tony Awards four times, the Oscars once and engages in delightful Twitter banter with his superhero pal, Ryan Reynolds.

And he just seems like a helluva nice guy.

Having seen him in The Boy From Oz and also the Broadway drama A Steady Rain, I've long been well aware of how talented Hugh Jackman is, across many realms.

With his current stadium tour, dubbed The Man, The Music, The Show--which landed at Chicago's United Center on Friday night--his diverse gifts and broad charm are even more greatly amplified.

At 7:15pm--fortunately the 14,000 ticket holders were forewarned that the show would start promptly, though a 15-minute cushion was provided--Jackman took the stage with "The Greatest Show," followed by "Come Alive," both from The Greatest Showman.

Backed by a large orchestra led by Patrick Vaccariello, with numerous dancers and backing vocalists, it was immediately clear that this was a well-planned and constructed show, directed by Warren Carlyle, who has helmed many a Broadway musical.

Throughout the night, Jackman would demonstrate remarkably dexterous skills as a singer, dancer, tap dancer, actor, pianist, drummer, emcee and more.

Amiable and glib, he recognized the UC as being not only where Michael Jordan had played, but also Luc Longley, an Australian who was the center on three Chicago Bulls championship teams.

Recalling his first stage audition, a successful one for Beauty and the Beast, he camped his was through that show's "Gaston," which segued into a tribute to his always-encouraging wife.

Noting that the Rolling Stones were playing at Soldier Field Friday night, Jackman told of Furness--who, per projected images, resembles his childhood crush, Olivia Newton-John--opting to hang with him early in their courtship, forgoing an invitation to party with Mick Jagger.

Sweetly, he dedicated the torch song, "All the Way"--and the entire show--to his wife, and told loving stories about his super-supportive father before mesmerizing with a magnificent rendition of "Soliloquy" from Carousel.

The star also wasn't afraid to share the stage, with the vast Windy City Gay Chorus & Treble Choir joining him on "You Will Be Found"--from the musical Dear Evan Hansen, composed by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, who also did The Greatest Showman--and later on a medley from Les Misérables. (See video on YouTube.)

Female vocalist Jenna Lee James dazzled in a solo on Greatest Showman's "This is Me," while another woman whose name I didn't catch and can't find sang "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miz about as well as could be imagined.

After a 20-minute intermission amid what would be two full hours of performance, Jackman came back onstage in character as Peter Allen, reprising not only songs but some of his shtick from The Boy From Oz.

Bringing a young girl up to the catwalk stage, he adorably charmed her, her parents and presumably everyone in the arena.

Jackman made a point of introducing, showcasing and at times engaging with all of the musicians onstage with him, and one of the most moving parts of the show featured aboriginal performers performing a pair of native songs.

One of them, an elder named Olive Knight, then delivered a moving statement, thematically coinciding with Pride Month's message of inclusion, respect and love (and with Hugh urging the crowd to put Australia's outback on their bucket list).

You can see the Chicago setlist here--save for a song or two, it remains static from show-to-show--with Jackman's medley of songs from movie musicals just one more highlight of a truly impressive performance.

Though it's a great tune, no reason was provided by Jackman--as opposed to many enlightening song introductions--about why he covered Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife" late in the show, and it puzzled a bit.

Clearly, everything performed was a number precious to the star, and that's good enough for me, but I would've relished "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" from Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma--in which Jackman notably starred onstage--and/or something representing his announced return to Broadway (in late 2020) in The Music Man.

Also, though a recorded bit of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" accompanied a tap dance routine along with some other rock songs, I'd be curious as to what Hugh might do in singing some Oz rock classics, such as Midnight Oil's "Beds are Burning" or INXS' "What You Need."

With fine staging, video screens and an enthusiastic, sold-out crowd, The Man, The Music, The Show fit well into the vast arena, but undoubtedly would've been even more enjoyable in a more intimate theater. So while I loved Jackman's performance and would recommend it to anyone--a Chicago encore is slated for October 11--from my perch up high in the back it didn't quite "get me" on par with the very best rock concerts or Broadway shows.

Still, excepting the likes of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Harry Belafonte and others from days of yore, it's hard to imagine any movie star (or even current Broadway performer) attempting a show & tour of this magnitude, let alone pulling it off with such panache.

I've heard nothing but great things about the Stones' show Friday night and I'm thrilled to be going on Tuesday, but it says a lot about my--now elevated--regard for Jackman that I was happy to be able to see him, even with "The World's Greatest Rock 'n Roll Band" also in town.

For if Hugh Jackman isn't the explicitly the Greatest Showman in our midst, he's undoubtedly the best theatrical-type performer who also happens to be a Marvel cinema superhero.

As he himself quipped, "Let's see Ryan Reynolds do that."


The Boss Heads in a New Direction, Beholding Beauty in the Setting Sun -- Album Review: Bruce Springsteen - Western Stars

Album Review

Bruce Springsteen
Western Stars
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Bruce Springsteen is my favorite musician by a considerable margin, even beyond the Beatles, who I almost literally worship.

I own virtually every piece of music Springsteen--a.k.a. The Boss--has ever officially released, excepting the complete swath of concert recordings of every show since 2014 and some of his live archival releases. (I have about 40 of these "official bootlegs" but far from all.)

And as will sound crazy except to the many Bruce fanatics who have seen dozens--or hundreds--more gigs, I have had the sheer pleasure of seeing him live 50 times, most with the E Street Band backing him, but not all, including his Springsteen on Broadway show.

On June 14, Springsteen--who will be 70 in 3 months--released his 19th studio album, Western Stars, the first since High Hopes (my review) in 2014.

So it seemed natural for me to review the new album, and some friends have actually asked me to do so.

I've now listened to Western Stars enough for its 13 songs to become familiar and comfortable, yet--as with all great albums--it will likely be weeks, months or even years before the tracks feel fully natural, devoid of any "breaking them in" dynamic, such as with shoes.

And given that the album represents something of a stylistic departure for Springsteen--including a prevalence of strings, rather than hard rocking guitars & drums--I perceive it very well be a record that continues to grow on me.

I'm enjoying the album, and there are no songs I dislike. 

If you, too, are a Boss fan, I suggest you buy it, or listen online--I've embedded a Spotify player below--and I think you will find much to appreciate, while being forewarned that this ISN'T Born to Run, Born in the U.S.A. nor even Nebraska or Tunnel of Love.

That's not to say the music and lyrics are unrecognizable.

As he has throughout his long recording career, Bruce sings about blue collar working men who feel some kind of longing. A wayfarer, an ex-actor, a former stuntman, a tavern owner, etc., with the somewhat unique commonality throughout Western Stars--the title is thematic--being a sense of the west, the rustic, the wide open spaces...as explored by the world's most famous New Jerseyan.

In interviews about this album--which has been in the works with Springsteen's co-producer Ron Aniello since before 2012 and supposedly completed a good while ago--Bruce cited the late-'60s "California music" of Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach as what stirred his songwriting.

Along with those influences, there is--one presumes, as the narrators in Springsteen's songs don't often represent him acutely; think "Born in the U.S.A."--candor about the singer's own psyche, which he wove into his 2016 autobiography, titled Born to Run, and the Broadway show that ran for over a year (catch it on Netflix). 

As do many people, of all levels of wealth, success, fame, fortune, etc., the Boss admittedly suffers from depression, and I imagine he's addressing familiar tendencies in lyrics such as these from Western Stars' first single, "Hello Sunshine":

You know I always liked my walking shoes 
But you can get a little too fond of the blues 
You walk too far, you walk away 
Hello sunshine, won't you stay?

Along with the lushly orchestral "Tucson Train," the melancholic "Moonlight Motel," the Roy Orbisonesque "There Goes My Miracle," the album's wistful title track, plus "Stones," "Sundown," and essentially all 13 cuts, "Hello Sunshine" is what I'd describe as quality song.

And an album full of quality songs is a quality album.

But the trick in trying to review--and rate, on my @@@@@ scale--Western Stars comes in comparing it to Springsteen's remarkable past output, considering it from the standpoint of a non-acolyte who may not give it the requisite time to congeal and wondering which songs I might relish hearing concert, even in lieu of some old favorites.

That's why, at this point, I've settled on @@@@, even though it's not impossible to perceive 1/2 or full @ more may be merited, particular with increased familiarity.

Western Stars feels well on par with recent music from other master songwriters, such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young, or the venerated oeuvres of Bruce Cockburn and Lucinda Williams, acclaimed singer/songwriters I've come to initially explore just in the recent past.

There has been no word yet on Springsteen tour plans, except for Bruce himself revealing in a recent interview that for the first time in years, he has--meaning in the past few months, not the Western Stars material--written a batch of songs suitable for the E Street Band to record and then tour behind, presumably in 2020.

Hopefully, he'll also opt to include some stuff from this album on an ESB tour, with "Tucson Train" and "There Goes My Miracle" perhaps the most obviously transferable choices.

And if Springsteen opts to do a small tour, either solo or with a few cohorts and a string section, I would be happy to hear any of the Western Stars songs in a live setting.

But with one of the greatest catalogs in rock history, Bruce Springsteen has put out dozens of fine songs that devoted fans may know, yet are far from "greatest hits" type tunes.

"Long Time Comin'," "Kingdom of Days," "My Lucky Day," "This Is Your Sword," "Long Walk Home" and "Jack of All Trades" are just a few favorites of mine in this realm, simply from the 21st century.

Plus, heck, he has many outtakes I think are masterpieces, starting with "Rendezvous," "Roulette," "Dollhouse," "Stray Bullet," "Save My Love" and "Be True."

So while Western Stars is filled with strong songs, how many would I put on a "Get to Know the Boss" 20-song playlist aimed at a non-Springsteen fan?

Probably none. Perhaps one, just because of the newness.

How many would I really want to hear in any given E Street Band show?

Three at most, though any of the 13 over time.

Even though I've heard "Born to Run" at virtually every show--46 of 50--would I be happy if it got skipped in favor of a Western Stars track?

No.  

And in not feeling @@@@@ is proper, despite really enjoying Western Stars, my point of comparison is to classics beyond Springsteen's own. 

Even once it really sinks in, do I perceive it as a Desert Island Disc, or as part of my core being beyond Zeppelin IV, Who's Next, Nevermind, etc.?

No, but then consider this: 

Has any rock artist ever put out music past the age of 40 that decidedly tops their pre-40 output?

I don't mean have veteran acts released good, even great music. I mean, if you could only hear music that was made before a musician (or band members) turned 40 or after, from whom would you select the latter output. 

My answer is no one, including my beloved Boss, still doing amazing things at 69. 

Which is a long way of saying that Western Stars is an excellent album, but I don't think it's a transcendent one.

---
But decide for yourself:

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Sell Your Soul: 'Human Resource(s)' Offers Sharp Satire, but Isn't a "Personnel" Masterpiece -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Human Resource(s)
a world premiere play by Sara Means
directed by Jen Sloan
Theatre Evolve
at The EDGE Off-Broadway, Chicago
Thru July 6
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The tyrannical boss, the overworked assistant, the neglected newbie, the misogynistic bro and the unseen "suits" with unfair expectations.

All factor into the satire of Human Resource(s)--a world premiere one-act play by Sara Means--along with sexual harassment, gender inequality, after work alcoholism and caffeine addiction.

Under the direction of Jen Sloan, an enthusiastic young cast sells it well, with the visceral intensity adding power to Means' at times quite pointed script. 

I remain delighted for the invitation to Theatre Evolve, an Edgewater troupe with which I was unfamiliar, and nothing I saw would dissuade me from checking out what they do down the road.

And for a reasonable price, Human Resource(s) can be well-worth 90 minutes of your attention. If nothing else, it will be hard to look away.

But I'm afraid this performance review won't be entirely positive, devoid of many checkmarks for "Exceeds Expectations."

Other than providing an ugly glimpse into a sales office with some unlikable people, who become more so when pushed to the brink of ultra competitiveness, the play doesn't really offer anything all that new or novel, and not just because it put Glengarry Glen Ross in my head from the word go.

Per the title, I was expecting more of an exploration of HR personnel, or the Human Resources function within a company, which can often be maligned. (I haven't always been a fan.)

But other than a gag that has the unseen HR Dept. giving new employee, Dylan (Jonathan Allsop), a foot-high stack of paperwork, this isn't the focus of Human Resource(s).

Instead, we get sales reps Matt (Trevor Strahan) and Sally (Jackie Seijo) treating the new guy badly, and the supervising sales manager, Trudy, being embodied by Andrea Uppling as a quintessential bitch. (To her credit, Uppling does a swell job of being detestable.)

Another sales manager, Laura (Anna Rachel Troy), is unseen-but-heard and is about as loathsome as Trudy.

Lest it seem that the play only portrays working women in a terrible light, Strahan's Matt--again with credit due to the actor's characterization--is a cocksure ass.

And the highest-ranking executive referenced is a man who creates a cockamamie sales contest, with the winner to get a promotion and the loser to be fired.

With or without such overt parameters, I'm sure such competitions truly exist--with Glengarry's Shelley Levene a clear fictional point of reference--but given what unfolds, all three sales reps in Human Resource(s) would seem to make themselves indispensable to the company's bottom line.

Certainly, the banality is part of Means' point, but depending on each viewer's own experiences, the maniacal extremes to which Dylan, Matt and Sally--as well as a martyr of an assistant named Alice (Shanna Sweeney)--are pushed by the contest, their bosses and gallons of high-octane coffee will either feel gruesomely over-the-top or grimly reminiscent...with the hyperbole mocking reality by a mere matter degrees.

In many ways, I liked the intensity onstage, because it makes Human Resource(s)--being presented in the nice, new EDGE Off Broadway--eminently watchable.

And there is something at the root of what the play is theoretically aiming to convey, as it seems most people in America hate their jobs and/or bosses--often in conjunction.

But once the work's underlying point seems to be established--that employees, some nice, some not so much, can be made to suffer by tyrannical superiors and unfair demands--the only evolving depth seems to be in physical ferocity elevating the satire.

Keeping in mind this is a world premiere, I give the actors, director, writer and crew considerable props for their efforts.

But in terms of offering thematic heft and fresh insights, Human Resource(s) still could use a good bit of work.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Sensory Overload: Too Many Threads Impair Memorability of Well-Crafted 'If I Forget' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

If I Forget
a recent play by Steven Levenson
directed by Devon de Mayo
Victory Gardens Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 7
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If I Forget playwright Stephen Levinson--who just turned 35 last month--has had a rather memorable past few years.

He wrote the book (i.e. script) for the 2017 Tony Award-winning musical, Dear Evan Hansen, earning his own Tony for doing so.

He became the showrunner for the FX TV series, Fosse/Verdon, which I've enjoyed.

And he's writing screenplays for a movie version of Dear Evan Hansen as well as a biopic of Rent creator Jonathan Larson.

So I was quite intrigued to see Victory Gardens' Chicago premiere of If I Forget, which ran Off-Broadway in 2017.

I found it to be nothing less than a professional piece of theater, abetted by a fine cast under the direction of Devon de Mayo, with a rather impressive set designed by Andrew Boyce.

But over its full 2-1/2 hours, the play seemed to pursue a few too many narrative threads and ultimately felt as though a quite talented writer was trying to explore a bit too much.

With Act I set in July 2000 and the second in February 2001--internationally prior to 9/11 for reasons not readily apparent to me--the entire play takes place within the well-appointed Washington, DC home of the Fischer family patriarch, Lou (the always great David Darlow).

We soon learn that Lou's longtime wife has passed fairly recently, and his own health is on the decline.

So visiting from New York are his son, Michael (Daniel Cantor), a Jewish studies professor, and Mike's "shiksa" wife, Ellen (Heather Townsend).

Mike's sister Holly (Gail Shapiro)—a wannabe interior decorator—and her successful lawyer husband, Howard (Keith Kupferer), seemingly also live in DC and are at Lou’s home, as is a another sibling Sharon (Elizabeth Ledo), who is apparently living there.

Holly and Howard’s son—actually his step-son—Joey (Alec Boyd), is also present although their daughter is not.

Mike and Ellen also have an unseen daughter, Abby, who suffers from anorexia & anxiety and is presently in Israel on a birthright trip amid rather tumultuous times.

So even without my wanting to spell out every narrative strain, If I Forget concerns itself with Lou’s health, squabbling siblings angling for their inheritance, various complications in their lives (including money issues), the departed mother and rather acute parental matters.

Given all the familial bickering that ensues, the play reminds of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County, certainly a worthy bar for Levenson to bound toward.

But most notably--and I would say compellingly--is the strain about Michael, his views about modern Israel & contemporary American Jews (keeping in mind its turn of the century setting) and the rather provocative book he is about to publish, even at risk to his tenure track.

Seemingly akin to how Levenson has drawn most of the Fischers, I am proudly Jewish but not particularly religious nor a lockstep defender of Israel's government.

As did Lou--a World War II vet--and other kin of Mike's, I disliked his proposed book title (which I won't reveal here) but I also found merit in some of his arguments, including the notion of being shocking to stimulate book sales.

Unfortunately, as this angle of If I Forget is just getting riveting, it largely gets left behind.

There's nothing wrong with a family drama, especially with good dialogue and fine actors.

Like Darlow, Kupferer is constantly stellar, one can truly feel Cantor bristle and Shapiro & Ledo are excellent at making Mike's older & younger sisters quite exasperating at times. (Or perhaps that's just how I saw it, being a middle brother myself.)

But though I thought the points Levenson--via Michael--was making about Jewish identity to be rather illuminating, I ultimately struggled to identify what the play was truly about, as it ventured in so many directions.

Even as such, If I Forget provides plenty to think about, and in liking it more than not, I considerably valued Victory Gardens' post-show discussion.

The abundant merits of play make it wrong to be wantonly dismissive, and I wouldn't dissuade anyone from coming to their own conclusions.

But I'm just thinking it could've hit harder for me--in the immediate and future contemplation--if some of the interwoven strands had simply been forgotten.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Quite Beneficial: Lucinda Williams Delights at Gala for Old Town School of Folk Music -- Chicago Concert Review

Chicago Concert Review

Lucinda Williams
with backing band Buick 6
Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago
Blue Jean Gala 2019
June 14, 2019
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The readership of this blog isn't all that vast, but it's not inconceivable that someone could come across this review and be like:

"I love Lucinda Williams. I didn't realize she was playing in Chicago."

To which I would somewhat sheepishly share that I ordinarily wouldn't have known either, not having been much of a fan--due to ignorance rather than distaste--of the 66-year-old singer/songwriter.

I have never owned any of Williams' albums, and until Spotifamiliarizing myself prior to this show, practically none of her songs.

Per Setlist.fm, I now see that Lucinda Williams has played at least 10 shows at Chicago area venues just since 2016, but none registered.

Speaking of registering, I haven't ever taken any classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music, though I greatly admire its mission and history, and have attended concerts in its auditorium (which one of my sisters helped design).

A close pal's family are generous supporters of OTSFM, and I was graciously invited to accompany them to the school's Blue Jean Gala, at which Williams was the featured artist. (I donated what I could.)

The gala was hosted onstage by longtime WXRT morning DJ, Lin Brehmer, who kindly chatted with me in the lobby for a bit.

Backed by three musicians she identified as being known as Buick 6, Williams' 90-minute set consisted primarily of a full play-through of her 1998 classic album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, with which I had become decently familiar by showtime.

She encored solely with "The Ghosts of Highway 20," title track of a 2016 album, which made this benefit performance a bit briefer than recent shows for the general public, but it fit perfectly into the Gala festivities.

Beyond a strong musical performance--it's easy to appreciate why Lucinda Williams is such a venerated songwriter--it was a delight to have her give VH1 Storytellers-type insights to the Car Wheels on a Gravel Road songs.

Before the title track, which is the album's second song, she spoke of her parents.

Her father was a poet, whose career as a college professor caused the family to move a lot, hence the song's memories such as:

"Cotton fields stretching miles and miles / Hank's voice on the radio"

Williams was also open about her mother's mental health issues and--leading into "Metal Firecracker"--wryly honest about her own romantic entanglements, such as a romance with a bassist on tour despite having a boyfriend, who also happened to be a bass player.

She also shared that "Drunken Angel" was written for a late Texas musician named Blaze Foley, and that "Lake Charles" was penned for another friend of hers from Texas, but who preferred to call her native Louisiana home.

With her voice strong though weathered in an evocative way, I enjoyed everything Lucinda Williams played with Buick 6, but especially noted late album tracks such as "Greenville," "Still I Long for Your Kiss" and "Joy."

Appealing video graphics accompanied everything performed, and as Lucinda noted, closer "The Ghosts of Highway 20" nicely touched upon the themes prevalent in the Car Wheels on a Gravel Road songs, from a more recent vantage point.

Being that this was a benefit show for Old Town School, and that I was kindly invited, I was only going to write a review if I really enjoyed Lucinda Williams' performance.

Hence, this stands as testament that I did.

As with Bruce Cockburn a few weeks ago, it was again a thrill to newly discover--in person--a master songwriter I should've known years ago.

And this time, it was genuinely beneficial in a multitude of ways. 

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Shuffling Off to Buffalo for a Fun "Wraparound" Excursion -- A Travelogue

Trip Recap / Travel Guide

Buffalo, New York
Niagara Falls, Ontario
Visited May 8-11, 2019

Although nearby Niagara Falls still seems to successfully attract travelers from near and far--and I did visit for a day and overnight--visual evidence did not suggest Buffalo to be much of a tourist mecca.

During the days and into the evenings, the city's downtown streets were eerily quiet--nearly desolate--and with apologies to many restaurants I didn't visit and some that I did, Tim Hortons was demonstrably the food emporium that most beguiled me. (We do not have any Tim Hortons "bake shop" locations near Chicago; I should also note that a lifelong allergy to poultry meant that I didn't seek out Buffalo Wings.)

Although I enjoyed my trip to Buffalo and Niagara Falls--and have long enjoyed exploring gritty, not-overtly-touristy American cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis, Grand Rapids, Milwaukee, Louisville, etc.--I'd hard-pressed to tell you Buffalo makes for a beautiful visit.

But in the right context, turning oneself onto "The City of Light" can be quite satisfying.

Being there without a car--I flew in on a Wednesday and home on a Saturday--meant I didn't much explore places that public transportation (NFTA, which worked well) or an economical Uber could easily get me to and from.

Hence, I saw just the edges of the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Delaware Park, and not the
adjoining and said-to-be-beautiful Forest Lawn Cemetery or Buffalo Zoo, only briefly and externally the Richardson Olmsted Campus--featuring a rather striking former sanitarium--and never Canalside and its old Navy battleships along the Buffalo River near Lake Erie.

I also noted some glorious architecture downtown and around Buffalo, and Niagara Falls is one of the most majestic sights on Earth, so I don't mean to imply that there isn't any striking scenery, more that you need to look for it.

And while there aren't a ton of "A+" travel guide attractions, I found that Buffalo worked quite well as a "wraparound destination."

As is the case for most of my domestic travel, my impetus for going to Buffalo at the time I did was a spectator event.

One of my favorite rock bands of all-time--The Who--played the city's KeyBank Arena early on their current Moving On Tour (accompanied by an orchestra) and though I would also wind up seeing them closer to home, I thought this would make a good jumping off point for visiting Buffalo.

I'd been to--or more accurately, through--the northern New York city twice before, in 1993 and 1999, having visited Niagara Falls both times, but had never before spent any significant time exploring Buffalo.

This time, I would also wind up seeing a musician I never had--Bruce Cockburn--and the city seems to regularly draw great concert acts at venues large and small. Cockburn played Asbury Hall at Babeville, which is in a converted church whose rebirth was overseen by Buffalo native, singer Ani DiFranco.

If you're a rock music lover like me, search the Pollstar.com website to see who's playing where and when--not just in Buffalo--while the city also appears to have a rather vibrant theater scene of local & touring shows. (See BuffaloTheatreGuide.com as well as the Buffalo News' guide to what's playing.)

Sports fans should already know that Buffalo is home to the NFL's Bills--who play at New Era Field in the suburb of Orchard Park--and the NHL's Sabres, primary tenant of the KeyBank Center.

Neither of those teams will be suiting up again for a few months, but minor league baseball's Buffalo Bisons are the AAA-affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays and play in Sahlen Field downtown, which looked pretty cool from the outside. (The team's origins date back to 1877.)

Throw in the venerable Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, which plays at historic Kleinhans Music Hall, and you should readily be able to find some kind of live event to stimulate you to shuffle off to Buffalo.

Many will imaginably wish to seek out Buffalo Wings--said to be invented at the still-existing Anchor Bar in 1964--while those with a sweet tooth (and a car, as I didn't get there) may want to check out Parkside Candy, which has stood since 1927.

But beyond the impetus of The Who, my reasons for wanting to visit Buffalo were essentially three-fold.

I primarily wanted to see the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Darwin D. Martin House by Frank Lloyd Wright--and also, if time allowed, which it did, Graycliff, another FLW house--and Niagara Falls.

A bit curiously, in 2015, I had learned about the existence and fine collection of the Albright-Knox Gallery--Buffalo's major art museum--during a visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Though the MAM has a fine permanent collection in its own right, it was hosting an exhibition titled Van Gogh to Pollock: Modern Rebels Masterworks from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which you can read about here.

Impressed by the strength of the traveling highlights, I was assured at the time that the Albright-Knox wasn't temporarily shuttered and maintained a strong collection beyond what it had let go for the show.

I've been to over 150 art museums worldwide and always like to take note of others I should visit, and the Albright-Knox instantly put itself on such a list.

After flying into Buffalo Wednesday morning and catching the NFTA #24 bus from Buffalo Niagara International Airport to my Hotel @ the Lafayette by Wyndham downtown--the ride along Genessee Street exposed me to some hardscrabble sections of the city, but I appreciated that--the first place I went after check-in and a brief stop at Tim Hortons was Albright-Knox (via bus #20).

Any chance to see great art is a life-enhancing joy, and I would unequivocally recommend that anyone visiting Buffalo stop by the Albright-Knox, but I can't say I was substantially more wowed by their collection than from the introduction in Milwaukee.

There were certainly some fine pieces I hadn't seen in that exhibition, but again a bit oddly, the best were paintings borrowed from the stellar Detroit Institute of the Arts, which I've visited multiple times. In Buffalo, these were part of an exhibition called Humble and Human: An Exhibition in Honor of Ralph C. Wilson, Jr.

Wilson, who passed in 2014 at age 95, was the longtime owner of the Buffalo Bills, and a native of Detroit who maintained his primary residence in that area. So the exhibit, which closed on May 26, honored him with paintings from both the Albright-Knox and DIA, including a great Van Gogh portrait.

Supposedly, Wilson had a rather valuable art collection and it would make sense for him to have been a benefactor of Albright-Knox, but I didn't note any of the paintings in the exhibit having been donated by him.

Still there was some great stuff, within the exhibition and beyond, though primarily in a modern art realm. And that which I had seen before.

Nevertheless, I'm glad I got to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, enjoyed my visit and am happy to note the museum will soon undergo a major expansion.

After visiting the museum, I strolled just a short ways into Delaware Park, but noted its beauty and took some photos of a replica of Michelangelo's David, albeit from afar.

I did not have time, on Wednesday or otherwise, to visit the nearby Burchfield Penney Art Center--which features the works of Buffalo's Charles E. Burchfield, known for his watercolors.

Also in the area but beyond my purview is the Buffalo History Museum, and while my Uber driver kindly took me past the Richardson Olmsted Campus to take a few quick pix, I'm sorry I didn't have time for a stroll nor tour.

Connected to the Hotel @ the Lafayette--said to be one of the country's grandest once upon a time, but now more solid than spectacular--was the Lafayette Brewing Company.

I didn't try their beer, nor as explained above, any Buffalo wings, but enjoyed their Beef on Weck sliders.

This sandwich is also something of a Buffalo tradition, featuring roast beef on a kummelweck roll, which is topped with kosher salt and caraway seed and accompanied by horseradish and au jus.

Right up my alley, and I enjoyed it enough to eat at Lafayette Brewing again the next night, when I had a Strawberry Salad.

Although I really only knew his name, and vague plaudits, I went to see Bruce Cockburn on Wednesday evening and very much enjoyed him and the Babeville venue. (See my review of the show here.)

Besides the Albright-Knox, the main thing I wanted to see in Buffalo itself was the Darwin D. Martin House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and completed in 1905. (website)
 
I'm a huge admirer of Wright's work, and have seen dozens of his homes from the outside, and taken tours of at least 30 houses and buildings that are (or were) open to the public.

The Martin House--created for an executive of Buffalo's Larkin Company--is said to be one of FLW's greatest creations, and my 2-hour tour included the Barton House on the same lot, a conservatory connected by a long pergola and a gardener's cottage.

Photos were not allowed within the houses, but the main home in particular is spectacular, and I very much valued my visit.

There was landscaping work going on, but I learned this was the last part of a years-long renovation project.

Fairly close to the Martin House Complex are two privately-owned Wright-designed houses, not open to the public. I saw the exterior of the Walter Davidson House but not the William R. Heath House.

Frank Lloyd Wright's first architectural employer, Louis Sullivan, is also represented in Buffalo with the striking red Guaranty Building downtown.

I'll include a photo at the bottom of this post, as well as one of the interior of Buffalo City Hall--seen at the very top of this article--which is one of most beautiful examples of Art Deco I've ever seen.

It was designed by John Wade and George Dietel and completed in 1931.

Other grand buildings in downtown Buffalo include the Erie County Clerk, St. Joseph Cathedral & Rectory, Buffalo Savings Bank (now a branch of M&T Bank) and The Electric Tower.

Thanks to the NFTA's #40 bus, running out of Buffalo's Metropolitan Transportation Center just around the corner from my hotel, getting to Niagara Falls took only $2.00 and about an hour.

The bus dropped me off at a Welcome Center on the USA side--I had booked a Howard Johnson's on the Canadian side--but though the weather was a bit cool and my backpack a tad heavier than idyllic, I valued my walk though the Niagara Falls State Park to and across the Rainbow International Bridge.

When I was there, on May 10-11, the iconic Maid of the Mist boat ride through the Falls from the U.S. side wasn't yet open for the season, but is now until early November (I've been on it previously).

But the state park offers a nice vista to see the American Falls close up, while once you cross the bridge to Canada, the view of both the American Falls and the Horseshoe Falls is majestic. (It is possible to stroll further on the U.S. side than I did.)

On the Ontario side, I did go into the Hard Rock Cafe, noted the Casino Niagara and eventually walked through the gauntlet of kitschy attractions on Clifton Hills (such as Ripley's Believe It or Not and a few wax museums).

But particularly with limited time, the best thing to do in Niagara Falls is to see--and appreciate--the waterfalls, and I took a long walk alongside the closest guardrail (from Rainbow Bridge to Table Rock Welcome Center), taking thousands of photos along the way.

For those far more intrepid than me, a Zipline seemed like it could be rather fun, and--particularly with no boats running--at Table Rock I did pay to visit the Journey Under the Falls, which provides an up-close glimpse of the Falls to really fathom their power (literally and figurative, in terms of the hydro-electricity).

After eventually making my way to my hotel, I ate at AG, one of just three restaurants in Niagara Falls that AAA rates 4-diamonds (there are no 5-diamond places).

I had an excellent 3-course meal including Charred Octopus Salad, Beef Tenderloin and a Sea Salt Toffee Crème Brûlée.

It was terrific and satisfying, if not quite as exquisite (or expensive) as past gourmet splurges.

Though I was sleepy, leg weary and somehow developed substantial pain in my right heel, I was convinced by the Howard Johnson's desk clerks that seeing the Falls lit up at night was worth the effort.

Heading down Clifton Hill, I decided to ride the SkyWheel, a giant Ferris Wheel with enclosed cars allowing for good views of the falls.

Unfortunately, once aboard, I had a scare with my digital SLR having a memory card error, but I made do with my iPhone.

The set-up wasn't that good for photography anyway, but it was still a nice ride. And the camera issue seemed to resolve itself post-trip, without losing any files.

I also walked to the edge of the falls at night, and again the next morning, which was much sunnier than the day before.

The #40 bus got me back to downtown Buffalo before Noon, with several hours before my evening flight home.

So although it wasn't cheap, I decided to take an Uber to the Graycliffe Estate, another Frank Lloyd Wright designed house about 25 minutes down the Lake Erie coast. (Buffalo doesn't have an Uber Pool option, though if it weren't the weekend, a NFTA bus could've gotten me close to Graycliff.)

Also designed for Darwin D. Martin about 25 years later, at a point when FLW was down on his luck and even wanted by the law, the 1928 house provided an intriguing contrast.

Wright trademarks like vast, sunlit interior spaces, earth-tone coloration and cantilevered overhangs were present, but there were no art glass windows and the front door was neither hidden nor ornate.

There are actually three separate structures on the property, but the main house was designed so that one could see through to the lake.

The house required a massive--and per some observers, impossible--restoration project in recent years.

So it was particularly cool that my tour happened to be led by architect Pat Mahoney, who was a principal member of the restoration team. I really enjoyed the insights he provided.

Sadly, one of Frank Lloyd Wright's most notable non-residential works, the Larkin Administration Building--of the company that employed Darwin D. Martin--only survived in Buffalo from 1906 to 1950. (A couple minor wall remnants still stand, but I didn't see them.)

Nonetheless, it was wonderful to be able to tour two related yet distinct homes designed by America's greatest architect.

All in all, it was a really enjoyable few days in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

This probably isn't the best-written travelogue, as I flirted with writing it as a personal travel recap and also as a more universal travel guide, and thus the tone may be imprecise in both regards.

But other than perhaps seeing the old navy ships docked at Canalside, catching shows that weren't in town when I was or eating Buffalo Wings, I can't think of much to recommend that I didn't myself do.

Though I guess on another visit, I'd explore the local history a bit more. 

It may not be the greatest place on Earth, and certainly not the most glamorous, but I truly enjoyed my time in Buffalo--including a brief jaunt to Niagara Falls--and with a somewhat similar "wraparound" itinerary, so might you.

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All photos by Seth Arkin, copyright 2019. Please do not repost without permission and attribution.