Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Magic in the Night, 35 Years Burning Down the Road: Remembering My First Springsteen Concert

(Note: This was originally published on the 30th anniversary, July 17, 2014; updated only to fix some links and stats)

It was the summer of 1984.

I was 15 and heading into my junior year of high school. Although I had a close circle of good friends--some of whom I still maintain--I was never part of the in-crowd, a jock, popular with girls or even involved in any school groups, such as student government, theater, Mathletes or chess club.

I wasn't an unhappy kid, but back then--as now--I frequently filled in the blanks with rock 'n roll.

I had already become a pretty heavy fan of The Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Led Zeppelin and David Bowie, but also around that time relished several (quasi-)heavy metal acts such as Ozzy Osbourne, The Scorpions, Def Leppard, Rush, Triumph, Sammy Hagar and AC/DC. (My tastes haven't changed all that much, though I've long since embraced artists like R.E.M., The Ramones, Husker Dü and Metallica, who I wasn't hip or adventurous enough to care about at the time. In fairness, none were played on radio stations I listened to.)

Other than babysitting a couple times, I hadn't ever worked prior to that summer, but my Aunt Mickey, who was a longtime secretary in a large downtown law firm, helped me get a job in the firm's mailroom. This largely entailed serving as an on-foot messenger, delivering packages throughout the downtown Chicago area from the office at 208 S. LaSalle.

Along with indoctrinating me to the Loop's streets--from a geography perspective; I was only 15--the job was fantastic for expanding my experiences well-beyond white, Jewish, teenage suburbia.

I worked with men, not boys; mostly African-Americans who made skin color, age, social strata and much more forever immaterial in terms of comfort, camaraderie and assumption.

That summer was wonderful for Cubs fans, many whom had never before witnessed a winning team. I was taken by my boss--Wallace Winburn was his name, if I remember correctly--to a couple games, with some lawyer-donated seats in the first row behind the Cubs' dugout. I especially recall being at a game where the Cubs beat the Mets and Dwight Gooden (which I mentioned in this Wrigley Field 100th Anniversary post).

But in terms of singular events that summer, one stands out above all others.

On the first leg of his Born in the U.S.A. tour, Bruce Springsteen came to the Rosemont Horizon on July 15, 17 and 18, 1984.

I was already a big Boss fan--since The River album in 1980, from which I scoured backwards and forwards, buying Born in the U.S.A. (on cassette) upon its release in early June '84--but had been too young to attend any previous concerts of his.

And though I had already gone to some concerts the year before with friends, and even Rush at the same venue just a few weeks prior, no one else I knew was into the Boss and I, of course, was too young to drive, let alone own a car.

Tickets had long since gone on sale and sold out, but I really wanted to see Bruce.  

I can't recall why the Sunday night show on July 15 wasn't the one I targeted--now I would attend all three--but for whatever reason I focused on the second of Springsteen's 3-night stand, on Tuesday, July 17.

So one day at lunch--it may have even been the Monday before the Tuesday night show--I walked to a hotel on north Wabash Avenue called the Oxford House, which had a ticket broker office inside.

I paid $35 for a single ticket that had a face value of $15. My folks weren't thrilled about this, but I was spending money I had earned.

On the 17th, I worked downtown, but upon getting home that evening my mom and dad drove me to Rosemont. (Then called the Rosemont Horizon, the venue is now dubbed Allstate Arena.)

And after the show--which lasted nearly 4 hours, past midnight or close to it--they picked me up. I think they even took me to the nearby McDonald's afterwards.

Touring with the E Street Band--with Nils Lofgren having taken over for Steven Van Zandt--Bruce
was every bit as good as I could have hoped.

And more.

This isn't my jersey, as I don't know what became of it,
but I had one just like it.
You can see the setlist from that night here, but the only songs I explicitly remember being played are "Born in the U.S.A." (which opened the show), "Jungleland" (which I knew but didn't instantly recognize, hence why it's stuck in my memory) and a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man."

But however much my memory may have eroded, I instantly knew that I was seeing someone absolutely incredible and unique.

And, to me, a hero.

Perhaps even a god. 

I've now seen over 800 concerts in my life--by at least 350 different artists--many of which I've found fantastic.

Yet since July 17, 1984--and reiterated 49 more times, including the following summer but mostly within these past 20 years--there has been one truth:
In terms of live rock 'n roll performers--or really, those of any ilk, IMHO--there is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and then there is everyone else.
Who knows how much that night changed my life?

My Bruce Springsteen concert log, as of July 17, 2019. Click to enlarge.
Perhaps I still would've become as much of a Springsteen fanatic, and seen him just as often once the internet made tickets easier to buy, tours easier to track (leading to numerous Thunder Road trips) and concerts easier to get to. (See graphic nearby for my current list of Springsteen shows attended; click to enlarge it.)

It's possible that my tendency to turn to art--including not only rock music but eventually a much broader spectrum of entertainment and culture--rather than alcohol, drugs, self-pity or depression during times of loneliness and adversity was already begotten by the time I got to the Horizon, or more holistically, developed long thereafter.

And perhaps it wasn't just that evening that made me comfortable going to concerts, many other events and even around the world all by myself, although it helped that the adults next to me were nothing but nice.

Likely it was as much the mailroom job itself that helped me acclimate to people and surroundings different from what I was accustomed, or perhaps not always perceived as "perfectly safe."

But for numerous reasons, I'm obviously glad I went to that Springsteen show on July 17, 1984, and happy that my parents helped get me there.

For whatever sentimentality, nostalgia, rite of passage pathos or pseudo psychology this recollection is dripping with, the truth is it was Springsteen's performance itself--quite possibly, with Michael Jordan's Bulls debut still months away, the best I had ever seen anyone do anything--that mattered most.

Let's hope I never forget I was there, but even if I should, my initial Springsteen concert experience and what it's meant to my life, will remain part of me.

To paraphase a famous lyric from "Thunder Road":

Show a little faith, there's still magic in that night.

Thanks, Bruce. Thanks, Mom and Dad. Thanks, Aunt Mickey, who like my father is no longer with us. Thanks, mailroom colleagues at Altheimer & Gray in the summer of 1984. Thanks, ticket broker long since gone from a hotel that no longer exists. Thanks, fellow Springsteen fans, who treated a kid with kindness and made a solo concertgoer feel forever part of a "tramps like us" community.

Thanks for that night and the 35 years since.

Thank you for reading this; I hope you have a similar story. 

And wherever you may be, Rosie come out tonight:

(This video is from a show a week after the one I attended, at which "Rosalita" was also played)

Thanks for reading. Since initially writing this remembrance, in 2014, I had the opportunity to briefly meet Bruce in November 2016 on his book tour. You can read about that experience here.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Repeatedly Brilliant: Again in Chicago, 'Les Misérables' Remains a Perpetual Delight -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Les Misérables
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru July 27

Do what brings you joy, as often as you can.

Seems a rather sage philosophy, one that everyone should theoretically be able to agree on.

And even in keeping this to specific things, done during waking hours, we probably all have things we’ve done quite happily and repeatedly.

Such as “I’ve seen Star Wars 87 times” or “I’ve been to 120 Chicago Bears games” or “I’ve eaten Lou Malnati’s pizza at least 5 times a year for over 30 years,” with only the latter potentially being true in my case.

So when I share that I’ve now seen Les Misérables live onstage 13 times, it might sound odd or exorbitant, but probably not next to your frequent pursuits.

And in the realm of theater, it’s less than I’ve seen The Producers, the only show I consider more of a favorite. And it’s far fewer than the 50 times I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen in concert, and less than a few other cherished acts.

But Les Misérables, the musical itself as well as most productions I’ve seen, is absolutely
phenomenal and I won’t apologize for seeing it any chance I get.

A friend I worked with some years ago, who was older then than I am now, had impressed me by saying she’d seen Les Mis over 20 times, but now it doesn’t seem crazy--in a certain parlance--that I might one day catch her, unless she has continued to attend (I've lost touch).

So, yes, on Sunday night I saw Les Misérables once again, at the Cadillac Palace in Chicago.

This came just 21 months after I last saw it at the same venue, with several of the same touring cast members. 

Then, as now and most times I’ve seen any production of the show--even locally-generated ones--I awarded a full @@@@@. And I posited, “What can I say about Les Misérables, the musical, that I haven't said before?”

So I’m not going to make this an in-depth review.

The show remains phenomenal in all the ways it should. Even with an understudy--Christopher Viljoen--playing the lead character, Jean Valjean, in place of Nick Cartell, who I saw last time. Even without the famed stage turntable of old, and some other downsizing measures (it’s still a bigger physical production than almost any other touring musical). Even with my having a limited view seat--a bargain off to the far right side of Orchestra Row H--while fighting a cold, terribly sore throat and a bit of fatigue.

Though Viljoen isn’t the most powerfully-voiced Jean Valjean I’ve heard--including Hugh Jackman, who played the role in the 2013 movie version and sang some songs in his recent concert--he was quite good, particularly on “Bring Them Home.”

Running through several of the musical’s other great songs… Mary Kate Moore (as Fantine) is terrific on “I Dreamed a Dream,” Jimmy Smagula and Allison Gunn (the Thenadiers) are a hoot on “Master of the House,” Josh Davis (Javert) delivers a sparkling “Stars,” Joshua Grosso and Jillian Butler (Marius and Cosette) pair on a poignant “A Heart Full of Love,” Paige Smallwood (Eponine) emotes wonderfully on “On My Own” and Matt Shingledecker (Enjolras) helps power several fantastic choral numbers, such as “The People’s Song.”

Several performers carried over from 2017, while some are new(er) to the ongoing tour.

Notably, the performance I saw on Sunday came just “One Day More” after the original production closed in London after 34 years.

It’s not really leaving the West End, just taking a hiatus while the Queen’s Theatre gets renovated--and renamed the Sondheim Theatre--but I believe it will henceforth be akin to this touring production, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell.

Thus, no more turntable anywhere--which I had seen in the original Broadway production in 1998 and in London in 2018--but there’s nothing wrong with putting a new spin, or lack thereof, on things.

With or without comparison to any others, the current touring production of Les Miserables, in Chicago for two more weeks, is brilliant in every way.

Though I prefer The Producers as a personal favorite, I believe Les Miserables is the greatest work of musical theater ever created, and it remains phenomenal.

I recently saw stellar Chicago productions of my 3rd & 4th favorite musicals--West Side Story, now closed at Lyric Opera, and The Music Man, recently opened at Goodman Theater--and while both reiterated how sumptuous their source material is, neither got it as richly right as this touring Les Miz.

So if you’ve never seen the musical onstage, by all means, do so.

And if you have, there’s nothing wrong--and a whole lot right--with seeing it yet again.

And again.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Come See About Me: At 75, Diana Ross Remains a Supreme Entertainer -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Diana Ross
w/ opening act Rhonda Ross
Chicago Theater
July 10, 2019

Over the years, my perceptions of Diana Ross have not always been positive.

In fact, beyond the indelible string of hits she made with the Supremes, and then on her own, I would say I haven't really liked her.

She seemed to define "diva" in the worst connotations, with a out-sized ego, megastar affectations and what appeared to be an odd friendship with Michael Jackson.

Yet the woman always could sing.

And in my not only having seen many of the surviving male legends of the '60s, but in 2017 the similarly legendary Aretha Franklin, plus all kinds of musical theater and a number of tribute shows by the Black Ensemble Theatre, it was time for me to see Diana Ross.

...who turned 75 on March 26 and has embarked on a tour to celebrate the milestone.

Whichever of my perceptions may have had whatever degrees of truth underneath, none detracted in any way from Monday's show at the Chicago Theatre, which was thoroughly delightful.

As was Diana herself.

Until the encores--when Ross sat onstage and fielded questions from the audience--she didn't speak much  as she ran through a cavalcade of hits.

Oh, but what a cavalcade.

"I'm Coming Out"--appropriately to start--"More Today Than Yesterday," then four Supreme classics ("Stop! In the Name of Love," "Come See About Me," "You Can't Hurry Love," "Love Child") over the next five songs.

Proudly mentioning that she'd lost 20 lbs. from drinking lots of water, Ross looked great and her voice sounded terrific, backed by crack musicians and a quartet of vocalists. (The singer's daughter, Rhonda Ross, opened the show with a nice half-hour of her own, including covers of Aerosmith and Adele.)

On a few occasions, Diana would head offstage to put on another astonishing dress, but this gave the band some showcase time in extending "Love Child" and "Ease on Down the Road." (See the setlist here.)

"Upside Down" was a clear highlight as Ross not only urged the crowd to dance while shaking her own hips, she brought a few patrons onstage to dance with her.

Later she would also venture out into the crowd.

While I would've loved a few more Supreme cuts--"You Keep Me Hangin' On," "Baby Love," "I Hear a Symphony"--her rendition of Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain" was lovely. (Ross notably played Holiday in the Lady Sings the Blues biopic.)

"Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To)," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and a cover of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" nicely wrapped up the main set.

Though she hadn't spoken extensively throughout the show, Ross was far more gracious and pleasant than haughty or pretentious. But she really endeared herself during the brief Q&A after the encore break.

Asked who she would like to duet with but never had, Diana cited Jennifer Hudson, believing the Chicago native to be in the house.

Despite excited applause, Hudson was seemingly not to be found, and the performance appeared to end with "Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand" after about 90 minutes.

But with some of the crowd already headed to the exits, Hudson then came onstage. 

At Ross' behest, the pair sang a good portion of "Endless Love," originally a duet Diana did with Lionel Richie.

Hudson sounded great but was clearly in awe of the living legend, and her surprise appearance made a cool evening even more so. 

I make no bones that beyond concerts by longtime favorites, I'm also trying to see several other esteemed performers before the opportunity disappears. (I'll soon be seeing Barbra Streisand in a similar vein.)

But seeing Diana Ross wound up going well beyond reverence, curiosity or just wanting to cross her off my list.

While still not quite ranking with my all-time favorites--though she's nearly as legendary as anybody--she proved, abetted by a warm smile throughout the show, that she truly is Supremely entertaining.
Play Vid

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Just One Off-Note: Sheer Delight of Goodman's 'The Music Man' Lessened by Central Casting -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Music Man
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 18

It’s somewhat astonishing to note that West Side Story—clearly one of the greatest musicals ever created—didn’t win the Tony Award for Best New Musical when it was eligible in 1958.

Personally, I consider WSS my third favorite stage musical of all-time, behind The Producers and Les Misérables, both of which came decades later.

But my fourth favorite musical is the one that beat West Side Story for that 1958 Tony:

The Music Man

As with WSS, and my likely #5, My Fair LadyCabaret, Hamilton and Sunday in the Park with George are also in the mix—I was first indoctrinated to The Music Man as a movie, starring Robert Preston, Shirley Jones and Buddy Hackett and released in 1962 (long before I saw it).

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
Thanks to Preston, Jones, Hackett and composer/lyricist Meredith Willson, I have relished many of The Music Man’s infectious songs since before I was a teen:

“Rock Island,” “Iowa Stubborn,” “(Ya Got) Trouble,” “Goodnight, My Someone,” “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Pickalittle (Talk-a-Little),” “Marian the Librarian,” “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” “Shipoopi,” “Lida Rose,” “Gary, Indiana” and “Till There Was You,” the last of which was actually covered by the Beatles on their famed first Ed Sullivan Show appearance.

Strictly as a collection of catchy show tunes, I don’t know that any musical tops The Music Man.

Though going back to a high school production when I was a student, I have seen the show onstage five other times, unlike terrific Broadway, touring and renditions of West Side Story--and most other great musicals--I'd never experienced a truly astonishing live version of The Music Man.

Until now.


Under the direction of the rightfully esteemed Mary Zimmerman, Goodman Theatre's current staging is predominantly terrific and I had a smile plastered to my face most of Monday night.

As proven yet again with Lookingglass' The Steadfast Tin Soldier last Christmas, Zimmerman is a master when it comes to whimsy, and her take on this classic musical included some inspired physical humor.

I refrained from singing out loud but demonstrably enjoyed each of Willson's mirthful melodies and lyrics as they danced into my ears, courtesy of stellar performers such as Monica West (Marian), Jonathan Butler-Duplessis and Heidi Kettenring (Eulalie MackecknieShinn).

To have Zimmerman cast Geoff Packard as "the music man," Harold Hill, after he had been in her Goodman musical productions of The Jungle Book and Candide, also bespeaks his considerable talent.

But without wanting to be too harsh given Packards's estimable effort, I didn't care much for his take, which seemed bland, too softly sung and devoid of any (crucial to the show) chemistry with West's Marian.

Initially, when his tonality on “(Ya Got) Trouble” was considerably different than Preston's, the variance was no big deal. And to be clear, Packard is a professional performer and quality singer.

But more so than his being the centerpiece, this Music Man was most joyful on the ensemble numbers--“Iowa Stubborn,” “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” a wonderfully choreographed (by Denis Jones) “Shipoopi,” led by Butler-Duplessis.

Ideally, West might've made for a tad more distinctive Marian, but her vocals were exquisite on “Goodnight, My Someone,” “My White Knight” and “Till There Was You.”

With impressive--but at times oddly minimalist--scenery by Daniel Ostling and costuming by Ana Kuzmanic the show was a visual delight, and the 12-piece orchestra under the direction of Jermaine Hill sounded fantastic.

So in many key ways, this was the caliber of Music Man I've long wanted to see and those not nearly as critical may well deem Zimmerman's production to be magnificent. (I know I haven't really described the plot, but for the uninitiated, a shady salesman comes to an Iowa town intent on selling band instruments and uniforms, and winds up unduly smitten with the town librarian and piano teacher. And there's a bunch of great songs.)

@@@@1/2 out of 5 means I really, really enjoyed the show, but that I found it just shy of perfect.

So this is effusively far more of a recommendation than not, and I'm glad to note that the Goodman's run has already been extended to August 18.

But having recently read that Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster will star in The Music Man on Broadway beginning in Sept. 2020, I'm now even more hopeful I might be able to see that production.

Or, at least sometime, a rendition that--even more than Goodman's largely exquisite one--fully matches my love for The Music Man.

A Bittersweet Mix: 'Darling Grenadine' Nicely Offers Something New at Marriott, but Not Quite Deliciously So -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Darling Grenadine
a world premiere musical
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru August 18

Especially in being a new musical that the venerated Marriott Theater is presenting to its large, loyal subscriber base--which presumably includes many fans of the classics that are in the theater's stock in trade--Darling Grenadine is good

The premise is good, the book, music and lyrics all written by Daniel Zaitchik are good and the performers are good.

It’s certainly an estimable effort all the way around. From Marriott lead artistic director Aaron Thielen opting to schedule and direct this piece, to the excellent and likable leads—Heath Saunders and Katherine Thomas—to a number of fine, wonderfully-delivered songs, such as "Swell," "Party Hat," "No Good for Me," "Grenadine" and "Paradise."

There's even an ingenious depiction of a labrador, with Phillip Huber doing some delightful dog puppetry.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
But whatever it is that tangibly—and probably even more so, intangibly—takes a musical from good to great, IMHO Darling Grenadine doesn’t, in full, achieve that elevation.

Essentially we have a Manhattan love story, with Saunders’ Harry a hip composer who has struck it rich with a commercial jingle, yet a guy who can be considered underachieving—in part due to being an alcoholic. 

Smitten by Louise (Thomas), an ensemble member and lead actress understudy in a Broadway musical, Harry hits on her at the Stage Door, successfully. 

They start dating, but despite a loving brother named Paul (Nick Cosgrove) and a devoted dog with the same name, Harry’s addiction begins to become a problem. 

Rounding out the cast are Allison Sill and Brandon Springman, who rotate through various roles, while trumpeter Mike Nappi often appears at the fringes of the in-the-round stage. 

In terms of the small cast size and lack of big production numbers or much choreography, this is a more intimate musical than Marriott typically stages. 

This isn’t really a detriment, and there isn’t much I will cite as being “wrong” about Darling Grenadine.

As stated above, it's good, but it just didn’t wow me on par with many better musicals, even among similar chamber pieces. 

Just to mention it, I was reminded of They’re Playing Our Song, The Last Five Years and Marry Me A Little, the latter a show featuring Stephen Sondheim outtakes that—in a 2017 Chicago production by Porchlight Theatre—happened to star Katherine Thomas’ sister Bethany Thomas. 

With some of Darling Grenadine’s songs catching my ear considerably more than others, it dawned on me that I could theoretically like this show a good bit more with repeated viewings or the benefit of a cast recording. 

But that’s a hurdle new musicals are required to clear, and at which Zaitchik’s modern score proves
less adroit than some. 

While I applaud Marriott serving this new work to subscribers and a la carte patrons--and despite some puzzling small video graphics, scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec helps Thielen make it fit well into square auditorium--it’s also possible it would come across stronger in a smaller, more traditional or perhaps cabaret-type theater. 

Although the show has been workshopped and developed elsewhere, this production constitutes a world premiere, and even with the imperfections, its strengths warrant that Darling Grenadine find its way to stages around the country and world, perhaps with some additional refining. 

So despite a somewhat middling review, I’m not writing it off, dissuading you from checking it out or am disinterested in ever seeing it again. Not only is Darling Grenadine good, it's quite admirable.

But at this point, it’s just not great.

Delectably Off-"Beat": 'Head Over Heels' Takes Go-Go's Music in Ambitiously Intriguing Directions -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Head Over Heels
a musical featuring Go-Go's songs
Kokandy Productions
at Theater Wit, Chicago
Thru August 25

When I first saw a synopsis of Head Over Heels--in Chris Jones' Chicago Tribune review of the Broadway opening--it sounded like an unnecessarily obtuse affair.

In being a "jukebox musical" with songs by The Go-Go's, the show doesn't provide a biography of the band or directly celebrate modern womanhood in light of the all-female group having several big hits in the 1980s.

Rather, it uses the songs--"We Got the Beat," "Our Lips are Sealed," "Vacation," "Head Over Heels" and many more--in a contemporary adaptation of a piece of 16th century literature, The Arcadia, by Sir Phillip Sidney.

There's nothing wrong with creative ambition, and the show's book writer, Jeff Whitty, handled the same duties for the masterful Avenue Q, but from Jones' review and some other lukewarm notices, it seemed like a case of overreach.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Having now seen the show, which opened on Broadway less than a year ago but whose closure in
January--with no subsequent national tour--allowed it to go-go onto local productions rather swiftly, I can say Head Over Heels works considerably better than I might've imagined.

It's a lot of fun and quite worthwhile, even if it still doesn't strike me as a concept I'd invest my money in.

In other words, I really liked it, but I can understand why it wasn't a box office smash on Broadway.

Having never before heard of The Arcadia, I can’t speak to how closely James Magruder's adaptation hews to Sidney’s original prose poem, but my comprehension was aided by reading the Head Over Heels plot synopsis on Wikipedia beforehand.

In the kingdom of Arcadia, where—naturally—everyone's got “the Beat,” Philoclea (Caitlyn Cerza), the daughter of the haughty king Basilius (Frankie Leo Bennett) is in love with Musidorus (Jeremiah Alsop), an old pal deemed beneath her station, while her supposedly gorgeous sister Pamela (Bridget Adams-King) pines for love. 

The kindly Queen Gynecia (Liz Norton), a gender-fluid oracle named Pythio (Parker Guidry) and Mopsa (Deanalis Resto), a woman beguiled by Pamela, also factor in. 

Stretching the songbook to include some Belinda Carlisle solo hits, Musidorus belts out “Mad About You” for Philoclea, while some clandestine romances demand “Our Lips are Sealed” prior to proclamations of falling “Head Over Heels.” 

In a variety of ways, the somewhat campy musical celebrates LGBTQ+ romance, and it’s easy to see why—despite the Broadway failure—it’s garnered a cult following. 

In the lobby pre-show, I spoke with a patron who’d come from Georgia after seeing Head Over Heels six times on Broadway, a tally considered so paltry by other devotees as to get him ridiculed. 

As Jones intimated in his review of the Broadway show, the Go-Go’s—still the only all-female band to have a #1 album—might well have merited having their own story told in a musical featuring their songs, but for those willing to go with the originality, Head Over Heels is a blast.

And as someone who really only knew the Go-Go’s (and Carlisle’s) big hits, I relished the show—and the Broadway Cast Recording—introducing me to such catchy tunes as “Beautiful,” “Get Up and Go,” “Good Girl,” “How Much More” and “Lust to Love.” 

Carrying out its conceit to have the characters speak in an Elizabethan tongue, Head Over Heels is quite shrewd, but it also becomes a tad much and I couldn’t help wonder how much more pleasing it truly was than a tribute concert featuring the same songs—including Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth”—might be. 

Because for all of Whitty’s wittiness, nicely showcased at Theatre Wit under the direction of Derek Van Barham & Elizabeth Swanson, much of the buoyancy of Head Over Heels is to be found in the songs themselves. 

Certainly, it’s clever how they get woven into the epic romance, updated to celebrate inclusiveness--which the casting nicely furthers, with multiple roles filled by talented people who might may not seem like obvious choices--but at the end of the night, the show tops out at terrifically fun, rather than truly phenomenal. 

But especially given where my perception of this musical began, by all means consider this a recommendation for you to Go-Go.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Smile Like You Mean It: The Killers Delightfully Blow Away Vast Summerfest Crowd -- Milwaukee Concert Review

Concert Review

The Killers
w/ opening act Death Cab for Cutie
American Family Insurance Amphitheatre
Summerfest, Milwaukee, WI
July 5, 2019

I've gone up to Milwaukee's Summerfest more than 20 times from my suburban Chicago homes over the years, and though I always enjoy the multi-stage musical extravaganza, I can't say I still relish the effort of getting there and back, typically on my own.

Last year, to see Arcade Fire, I took an Amtrak and stayed at a hotel.

And to catch the Killers--whom I perceive as Arcade Fire's only peers as a great live band arising this century--on Friday I took a somewhat meandering driving route through some southern Wisconsin farmland. (To be fair, I also like Coldplay as a live act, an undeservedly under-the-radar British band, Maxïmo Park, and lately the Struts, but the new millennium remains rather "meh" for substantive new rock bands I know.)

Having worked part of the day--I don't get paid if I don't--by the time I reached the Summerfest grounds I had missed some bold name 4:00pm performers: Berlin, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, The Spinners, Jesus Jones.

But my tack is to park at the U.S. Bank building downtown--I got a $2 meter spot on the street--and enter the fest from the north end and work my way south.

After getting a Klement's Sausage, I sat at their comfortable cabaret-style stage to see a bit of a band called Vivo--I think I caught them last year, too--but their sound was overpowered by an act coming from the U.S. Cellular stage.

So I wandered over there, where a really enthusiastic crowd was enjoying Leonid & Friends, who I've learned are a large Russian troupe that plays songs by the band Chicago really, really well.

I only caught them finishing their set with an Earth, Wind and Fire classic, "September," but was impressed enough to "Like" their Facebook page and keep them in mind.

Puerile or not, I can't say it hurt that their lineup included one of the most attractive women I've ever seen.

Before getting to the mainstage at Summerfest, now dubbed the American Family Insurance Amphitheater, the only other act I saw a bit of was called Cerfus Project, who played cover songs. I vaguely think I also saw them last year, or else someone rather similar. 

Opening for the Killers was Death Cab for Cutie, a veteran alt-rock band whose 2003 album Transatlanticism I liked a good bit, but whom I haven't paid much attention to after 2005's Plans.

Still led by the now slimmed down singer/guitarist Ben Gibbard--I had only before seen DCFC in 2004, opening for Pearl Jam on the Vote for Change Tour in Toledo--the band made for a solid warmup act.

But beyond the few tunes I knew--"The New Year," "Crooked Teeth," most prominently--I can't really say they thrilled me.

From note one however, The Killers did.

Actually even before note one, as before coming onstage they shrewdly let the PA blast "American Music" by Milwaukee heroes, The Violent Femmes, on the 4th of July Weekend.

With far more personnel than the original quartet--only two of whom still tours--the Las Vegas band led by dynamic singer Brandon Flowers kicked things off with "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine," from their 2004 debut, Hot Fuss.

From a good seat in the pavilion, it sounded great, as did the subsequent "Somebody Told Me" and "Spaceman."

Flowers joked that the Killers' previous gig, headlining England's massive Glastonbury festival, was simply a rehearsal for Milwaukee, and throughout the night they did nothing to disprove my sense that the outdoor, beer-soaked, festival setting would serve them quite well.

They've often played Lollapalooza and other fests around the world, but although this was my fifth Killers show, it was my first outdoor experience with them.

Far more than Chicago's south suburban Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, I generally like the Milwaukee shed--which was long-known as the Marcus Amphitheater--and have seen many great shows there over the years at Summerfest, dating back to 1987 with Bruce Hornsby & the Range.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Santana, Rush, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Pearl Jam, The Rolling Stones, Rush, KISS, Eagles, Smashing Pumpkins, Steve Winwood, Milwaukee's own BoDeans and last year's fantastic Arcade Fire show.

The Killers delivered a performance that fits well into that pantheon, and made me glad I made the trek.

In part I did so because the last time I saw the band, in January 2018 at Chicago's United Center, I was somewhat disappointed.

This might sound backasswards, but having then sensed that they had hit a rut, marred by the lackluster Wonderful Wonderful album, and with guitarist Dave Keuning and bassist Mark Stoermer opting not to tour, I wanted to see the Killers blow me away again.

Touring bassist Jake Blanton and guitarist Ted Sablay--alongside Flowers and the permanent powerhouse drummer Ronnie Vannucci, two other side musicians and four female backing vocalists--no longer feel like temps at a new job (believe me, I know the feeling) and perhaps realizing that Wonderful Wonderful wasn't, the band played just two tracks from it rather than six soon after its late 2017 release.

Of course, this is something of a double-edged sword, as with the Killers' last two studio albums decidedly being their worst two of five, it's not like they're creating anything new and amazing. (Flowers recently turned 38, but this recent blog post of mine may well be apt.)

Hence, the same staples from the Hot Fuss, Sam's Town and Day & Age fill the setlist--you can see it here--but most are great delights and Flowers remains an excellent singer and frontman.

After welcoming a fan onstage to play bass on "For Reasons Unknown"--"Hannah from Milwaukee," who acquitted herself so well that I couldn't help think she should replace Blanton on future tour dates--I felt Flowers showed a lack of agility in not having her stick around for another song to the crowd's delight

But at least he audibled into "This River Is Wild," a tune from Sam's Town that I love.

Later, noting that touring guitarist Sablay is a Fond du Lac, Wisconsin native whose first concert attended was INXS at the same Marcus Amphitheater, they played a sweet cover of "Never Tear Us Apart," but this cool moment also ended a tad too abruptly.

But other than the lack of great new material, these were the only, rather minor blips.

And the show-closing run through "Read My Mind," "All These Things That I've Done," "When You Were Young," "Human" and "Mr. Brightside" was a truly blissful blast. (A day late, Flowers even paid birthday tribute to Bill Withers by working a bit of "Lean on Me" into "Read My Mind.")

In the same venue a year apart, I can fairly say that though they sold far more tickets, the Killers aren't quite the mind-blowing live act that Arcade Fire is, in part because they don't offer a comparable sonic and visual onslaught. (Not that they didn't have a fine light show, good sound and a palpably kinetic intro to "All the Things That I've Done.")

And though AF's last album, Everything Now is weaker than most before it, the Canadian outfit continues to excite me more with their recorded output.

But with a dearth of contemporary rock bands I really love, I was glad to find some redemption from the Killers after feeling a tad victimized by the last time 'round.

Even with a long and winding drive home--after delightedly catching .38 Special do "Caught Up in You" and "Hold On Loosely" on a side stage--they amply rewarded me opting to give them another shot.

Friday, July 05, 2019

Like the Way I Do: Elk Grove Village Provides a Freely Festive Live Introduction to Melissa Etheridge -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Melissa Etheridge
Rotary Green
Elk Grove Village, IL
July 4, 2019

My list of living, active rock 'n roll performers I'd like to see in concert but never have is rather low...and dwindling.

On the 4th of July, this list dropped by one as I saw Melissa Etheridge and her band, for free, at the Rotary Green in Elk Grove Village.

I've been a fan of Etheridge since her self-titled 1988 debut album--it remains my favorite of hers--so I really don't know what took me so long.

But despite the messiness of having to deal with the throngs at a free suburban holiday event--somewhat ameliorated by arriving 2+ hours ahead of showtime--I'm glad I went.

Etheridge recently played a show at Ravinia--on a double-bill with George Thorogood--but to have been on the lawn there, without a view of the stage, would've cost $38; twice that to be in the pavilion.

In Elk Grove Village, I wasn't right up close, but I could see Etheridge onstage and hear reasonably well.

There was no opening band, nor preceding Independence Day festivities--i.e. no food booths--but
after camping out in the hot sun since 5:20pm, I was glad when she and 3 band mates took the stage promptly at the announced 7:30.

I ain't really gonna bitch about being part of a generally genial and well-mannered crowd at a free outdoor show on America's birthday.

I'm grateful for being able to park both my car and my sling chair in pretty decent spots, never felt less than comfortable and got to see a long-admired artist for the first time, without paying a penny.

But the show, at least initially, was a tad marred by things beyond Melissa's control.

Out in the open air, she and her band weren't loud enough, and though "All American Girl" was an apt opening, it and the next two songs were unfamiliar to me and seemingly much of the nearby crowd, some of whom opted to carry on conversations.

As I recognized "I Want to Come Over" and "Don't You Need" while the sun began to set and the loudmouths quieted, things began to gel.

I'd only done a bit of listening to Etheridge's new album, The Medicine Show, but welcomed hearing the title track and "Wild and Lonely."

And late-show renditions of "Come to My Window," "Bring Me Some Water" and "I'm the Only One" were terrific.

After 90 minutes, Etheridge & Co. left the stage for an encore, but were clearly made aware that post-show fireworks wouldn't begin until 9:30pm.

So on her own, Melissa covered Janis Joplin's "Mercedes-Benz," then she and the band turned "Like the Way I Do"--my favorite tune of hers--into a 25-minute romp, including Etheridge playing the drums for a bit.

I'm guessing Ravinia didn't hear a version quite like that, nor get a 2-hour performance from Etheridge.

So while in some ways, a similar setlist might've come off considerably better at the Chicago Theatre, the festive-yet-rambling setting did offer some benefits as well.

I owe it to myself, and to Melissa, to see her in a more intimate, indoor venue; the acoustics and vibe would probably amp things up at least 1/2@ if not more (on my @@@@@ rating scale).

But particularly when paired with a rain-free evening and a fine fireworks show afterward, I'm happy to be able to now say that I've seen Melissa Etheridge live in concert. 

Go Ahead, Name a Rock Artist Whose Best Recorded Music Was Made After Age 40

Over a recent 35-day stretch, I saw concerts by three artists who would cover 3/4 of my “classic rock Mt. Rushmore”:

The Who, whom I actually saw twice in May.

Paul McCartney, representing The Beatles, being as close as I'll ever get.

And the Rolling Stones.

(hyperlinks are to my reviews of the concerts)

The fourth slot would be taken by Led Zeppelin, who I was too young to ever see. But I have seen lead singer Robert Plant several times—most recently in February 2018—including twice, in the ‘90s, with Zep guitarist Jimmy Page.

My favorite musician, Bruce Springsteen, would get his own mountain carving, kind of like Crazy Horse (the Native American warrior, not the band, best known for backing Neil Young, who I’ve also seen plenty).

From the above—even without my adding that I’ve seen the Who, Stones, McCartney, Springsteen, Plant and Young a composite 100+ times—you should get the gist that I enjoy seeing legendary, and yes, old, musicians in concert. Of this bunch, only Springsteen has yet to turn 70, and he will on Sept. 23.

And even though I consider another batch of six favorites—U2, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters, Wilco, Bob Mouldwho I’ve also seen a combined 100 times, to be of younger generation, they’re essentially all in their 50s, if not 60. 

I myself am 50, and embrace greatness and vitality in anyone of any age.

Yet while older artists can be phenomenal concert acts well into their 70s, at some point I hit upon this realization:

There is no one I can think of in a rock vein—and largely in other musical genres and even many other artistic idioms—who has created (i.e. written & recorded) consistently better music after the age of 40 than they did before it. (In the case of bands, I’m referencing the ages of the core members, not the longevity of the group.)

Can you think of anyone who refutes this?

Again, I don’t mean 40+ artists we might call “great” simply for their live performances and legacies.

Nor am I saying that no one over 40 has put out terrific music. 

I’ve liked several albums by Springsteen, McCartney, Plant, Bob Dylan, Ray Davies (of the Kinks), David Byrne (of the Talking Heads), Paul Weller (of the Jam), Elvis Costello and many other veteran acts, in recent decades.

But there isn't any album--and very few songs--from their latter periods that prefer to their early output.

In my @@@@ (out of 5) review of Western Stars, the recently released album by Springsteen, his first of new work since 2014, I said that I've genuinely been enjoying the record, finding it to be something rather different yet excellent by my hero.

But I was also forthright in saying that it's not nearly as great as early Springsteen masterpieces, like Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska and Born in the USA, nor even compilations of outtakes from those albums.

Is it better than 1987's Tunnel of Love? I don't think so yet, but maybe once Western Stars truly sinks in I will.

But to be clear, that's not my thesis. Though still less than one might imagine, artists over 40 have undoubtedly made some music that's better than some they made before it.

But no one's best post-40 stuff is better than the best of their younger output.

Or almost no one's.

Though I had never really known her music, last month I was invited by a friend to a concert by Lucinda Williams.

Ostensibly splitting the difference between rock, folk and country, Williams is now 66. She released her first album in 1979, but 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road seems to widely hailed as her finest work (she performed it in full at the show I attended).

Doing the math, she would've been over 40 when writing and recording this Grammy-winning album. 

I don't know enough of her earlier oeuvre to say definitively, and she isn't really the type of "rock act" of which I'm thinking, but she could be a name cited in opposition to my hypothesis.

But I wouldn't even say that NO rock artist has made better music post-40, just that it's exceptionally rare.

So think about it; who might you name?

It might seem natural to think about acts who were in a band or duo but then went solo.

McCartney, Plant, David Byrne, Sting, Paul Simon, Paul Weller, Paul Westerberg, Phil Collins.

Make your argument if you want, but I would say that there talented folks were not only better younger, alongside others, but that even their solo material was generally better before they hit 40.

Interestingly, when discussing this topic with a friend, he said, "What about Picasso?"

Obviously, he wasn't a rock star, per sé, yet someone who remained prolifically brilliant throughout much of his 91-year-life.

But while Guernica, painted at 55, can be seen as a high water mark, and there was remarkable ingenuity and beauty long after October 1921--when Pablo turned 40--I love his impressionistic stuff from around 1901 (see nearby painting), the Blue Period, Rose Period, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and invention of cubism (circa 1910) as much as anything that came after. 

OK, you say, switching gears, what about moviemaking. That hasn't traditionally been a young person's domain.

I certainly wouldn't argue pre-/post-40 creative predominance in film as exhaustively as in rock (Hitchcock, Wilder, Hawks, Kurosawa and others would debunk my theory), but look at the birth dates & filmographies of directors like Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, Welles, Tarantino and Truffaut. Most of their best work preceded their 40th birthdays.

But while similar examples might be cited in fine art, film, literature and more, I am really only stating my theorem in the realm of rock music.
In terms of music known to me and/or a reasonable subset of "the masses" virtually nobody has created superior material after the age of 40 than before it.

As to why, that's a different blog post, but most artists spend their whole life creating their first album--i.e. the songs that get them signed to a recording contract--but perhaps 18 months, while on tour, writing the follow-up. 

Many geniuses--and I don't think that's the wrong word--have several superb albums in them, but by 40 they've either become mega-rich superstars or have had their day before fizzling out.

And while several--huge, middling and minor--will keep creating and releasing music for years, or decades, on end, only in the rarest of instances will it surpass what's already been done.