Monday, November 22, 2004

Wham Bam Amsterdam (Uh, No Thank You Ma'am)

I'm actually back in London, late Monday night. I never got a chance to blog from Amsterdam, as I spent all my time running around doing stuff, I didn't have Internet access at my hotel and there didn't seem to be any Internet cafes nearby. You know, there's something kind of about traveling around Europe as I have been, well not really surreal, it's just that you plan a trip like this months in advance and build up a sense that places like Prague & Amsterdam should be larger than life or something like that (though unlike London, Paris, even Sydney, my anticipation did not come with any specific visuals; I didn't see anything previously familiar, except for some paintings). But my point is that though my anticipation was somewhat gradiose, once you're there, there isn't really time to appreciate any sense of awe, you just figure out how to get to the hotel, how to get around, and then go here, there and everywhere. I certainly enjoyed many of the things I saw, specifically in Amsterdam, my activities included the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House, Heineken Experience (a pseudo brewery tour, kind of like Guiness in Dublin), and just walking around a lot of places, including the famed -- and a good bit creepy -- Red Light District. Adding to my meandering point is that of the 12 days on this vacation, only 7 allowed for real, full daytime activities. There's just a sense of dipping in for a whirlwind of sightseeing and then leaving, which is the only way it can be, but not as acutely exhiliarating as it should be. It's late, gotta go. Got back to London just in time to see one more musical, which I got a 1/2 price ticket for: Bat Boy, the Musical. It was nearly empty, but very enjoyable.

Bat Boy 11.22.04 London @@@@

Friday, November 19, 2004

Gilligan's Travels

Greetings from the lovely Internet access joint at London's beautiful Gatwick Airport. I got 3 minutes left for this blog. It's 3:55pm here, I'm waiting for a 7:15pm flight to Amsterdam, having had my flight from Prague delayed (read yesterday's blog for background) not due to snow, but some sort of logistical dispute between EasyJet and the Prague Airport. The delay was 1 hr 45 min so I had no chance to make my new flight (not officially a connection); that sucks but it's not as tragic as it could have been had I not been able to get a seat on EasyJet's 7:15 to Amsterdam, with no extra charge. Will try to blog from Amsterdam.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Putting Prague To Bed

Despite two chilly & rainy days (luckily, mostly a drizzle, not a downpour) I enjoyed Prague. I didn't really notice any of the "youthful vibrancy" that I recall hearing about, though admittedly I stayed largely in the central Prague tourist area. In fact, I wouldn't even know how, or where, to get out and about to "real Prague" but I guess it's that way for tourists who stay exclusively in downtown Chicago. It kind of reminded me of Brussels, the awe was in the beauty of the buildings, not really all that much in terms of wonderful activities or attractions. Today I schlepped up more stairs I've ever walked outside -- in the cold rain, mind you -- to reach the Prague Castle. In fact, the visually cool part of Prague Castle is a big church, St. Vitas Cathedral, and I've been to enough big beautiful churches already. The castle itself was a real dud, in that I got to see like three rooms, the main one of which had construction going on. Tonight, I attended an opera, The Bartered Bride, by Smetana, who was a Czech. I really actually enjoyed it, more probably than most of the operas I've seen at the Lyric in Chicago. Of course being in the 3rd row rather than the 5th level helped.

So much for Prague, hopefully. Tomorrow may be a bit hairy, as I'm supposed to fly into London Gatwick from Prague, arriving at 12:35pm and then fly out of London Gatwick on a separate flight to Amsterdam at 2:45pm. If all goes right, or close to it, I shouldn't have a problem getting my suitcase and re-checking in during this 2 hour window. But I saw on the weather (on the Internet) that they're expecting snow in Prague tomorrow morning. No sign of it yet, just rain tonight, but let's hope that doesn't delay my flight. If I can't get out, or get out to late to catch the other flight, well, that wouldn't be good. I think there's an evening flight from Gatwick to Amsterdam, which could be a fallback, but might require purchasing a new ticket. So keep your fingers crossed for me.

Celebration, What Celebration?

Perhaps you've read or seen about how yesterday, November 17 was the 15th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution (is that where Velvet Revolver got their name?) in Prague, marking the day Communism fell and the Czechs got their freedom. Supposedly there were speeches and marches and concerts in the streets and all kinds of celebrations. Well, I was out and about in Prague from 10am to 11pm and somehow missed all signs of any such things. I saw Frank Gehry's nifty Fred & Ginger Building (it resembles a pair of dancers). I walked on the famed Charles Bridge. I visited Old Town Square and saw the historic Astronomical Clock go off on the hour, I toured the Jewish Quarter with its many synagogues from centuries ago and reminders of the 80,000 (of 90,000) lives lost in the Holocaust, I attended a classical music concert, saw a Black Light Theatre performance and hung out for awhile at a Jazz & Blues Club. As for historic political celebrations, I was here, but somehow unaware. Guess I'll have to come back in 5 or 10 years.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Czeching In From Prague

Travel days are always a pain in the ass and today was really no different. Nothing particularly bad happened, but it was the usual schlepping, waiting, trying to figure out currency, trying to figure out maps, etc. Took a bus to a train to the airport in London, got off in Prague and took a bus to a train to a few blocks from my hotel in Prague, and initially walked the wrong way. Eventually got it straightened out and got here. The hotel seems nice; good to have a toilet & shower in the room again and there's free internet which I'm now on in the lobby. Had no plans for tonight, so I just walked around a bit. Went to the Old Town Square and had dinner and of course, Czech Beer (Pilsner Urquell). Found my way back with a map but navigating around still seems confusing. Hopefully in daylight (let's hope rain predictions prove false), everything will seem clearer. It's a good bit colder here than in London. Wish I packed a hat. Oh well. Till next time...

Monday, November 15, 2004

I Saw London

Tomorrow it's off to Prague. Here's a list to recap London.

Fire alarm
Oscar Wilde walking tour
Jerry Springer the Opera
Sushi for Dinner
The Woman In White
Abbey Road
Madame Tussaud's
Wallace Collection - art museum
Courtauld Gallery - art museum - great!
Walk across Waterloo Bridge & through Leicester Square
Indian food for dinner
Big Ben & Parliament - exterior only
Shakespeare walking tour with boat down Thames
Tower Bridge
National Gallery with Raphael exhibit
The Producers
Writing this blog
Off to sleep

Still In Full Bloom

Theatre Review
The Producers - London 11.15.04 -@@@@@

If you read in my last post that this was going to be the 6th time I've seen The Producers musical, it should be pretty obvious that I like the show. A lot. In fact, I'll state that it is the most entertaining show of any kind -- musical, play, concert performer, tv show, movie -- that didn't exist prior to the 21st century. I was fortunate enough to see it's world premiere in Chicago back in February 2001, and since them have become a self-professed Producers-ologist. I've seen it on Broadway (as in Chicago) with Nathan Lane & Matthew Broderick, in LA with George Alexander & Martin Short and in two touring productions without major stars. Some were better than others, in terms of various performances and such, but the show has always been great. Tonight's London show, just a week after it officially opened here, was supposed to star Richard Dreyfuss as Max Bialystock and a British actor named Lee Evans as Leo Bloom. But either because he was ill, injured or just bad, Dreyfuss got thrown to the sharks, so with a seat front row center, I had a close encounter once again with Nathan Lane, who was again fabulous. I still think Broderick is the best Leo I've seen, and the side-splitting humor hasn't been shocking since the first time, but the London crowd loved it and gave a standing ovation, which they didn't at the other two shows I saw. Obviously, I highly recommend The Producers to anyone who gets the chance to see it.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Musings On Two Musicals

So today I saw two musicals; perhaps not an ideal thing to do on the first day of an international trip, but London theaters are dark on Sundays and seeing shows was a major reason I wanted to get to London again. I saw Jerry Springer: The Opera, which isn't really an opera but a musical based on (more like spoofing) The Jerry Springer Show. I have no idea who the composer was; it starred David Soul of Starsky & Hutch fame, but has he been seen anywhere since?; plus there was an understudy for one of the main characters, whose normal actor won the British equivalent of the Tony. I also saw The Woman In White, a new musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by David Zippel, who happens to be the lyricist for the first show I saw in London 12 years ago, City of Angels, which I loved for it's wordplay. The star was Michael Crawford, the legendary original Phantom of the Opera. And , it's based on a classic novel, though I've never read it nor even heard of it.

So guess which one I liked more.

Wrong. Somewhat shockingly, even to myself -- despite Jerry Springer being delightfully profane, at times laugh-out-loud hilarious, well acted & sung, with genuinely tuneful and funny songs ... and despite Michael Crawford being unrecognizable in a fat suit and not even the main character, despite the fact that I recently saw and disliked "Phantom" and think Webber is likely overrated, despite Zippel's lyrics at times being painfully too clever (huh, what's that?), despite the lack of many songs that seemed truly wonderful and despite the fact that Woman In White used video imagery instead of physical set pieces, for the most part -- I have to say I think I enjoyed The Woman In White more. Though it was 3 hours, and perhaps didn't need to be, it was engaging, story-wise and music-wise; with great performances from Crawford and all the leads. I have to hear the music more (likewise with Jerry, which I also went into cold) to make a comparitive judgment, but I certainly liked Woman In White more than Phantom, and that's still running here after 18 years.

I gotta go, but just need to add that I did like Jerry, but after awhile it seemed like a one-joke-pony (albeit told in a variety of mostly funny ways).

I don't know that I could call either show must see, but am glad to have seen both. Of course, I'm seeing The Producers on Monday night, which despite having seen 5 times already, will still be better than either of these shows.

Jerry Springer: The Opera @@@1/2
The Woman In White @@@@

(Mostly) Alright For Starters

It is now Saturday night in London; I arrived last night and everything went smoothly. Well almost everything. Getting through O'Hare was a breeze; the flight left on time; except for some occasional minor turbulence, the flight was smooth; 7 hours went by pretty fast; the food on the plane was pretty good actually and the in-flight entertainment not bad; I arrived in London 20 minutes early and that was after circling Heathrow for about 40 minutes; getting through customs was fast & easy; my suitcase was waiting when I got to Baggage Claim; except for being a bit of a schlep, getting to and using the London Underground from Heathrow was simple and cheap; though I had to lug my luggage up some steps to get out of the subway, it wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been; and when I walked out of the Picadilly Tube station, never having had to switch trains, my hotel was literally right on the same corner.

Then I walked into my hotel, the Regent Palace, which I stayed at once before (the location is wonderful, but it's not first-class because it is too old to have air conditioning and most of the rooms do not have bathrooms in them; so it's not the best, but in general the trade-offs are worth the savings). As I entered, there seemed to be a lot of people in the lobby. And more coming. It quickly became apparant that the fire alarm was sounding and all the guests had evacuated their rooms. Luckily, after only about 1/2 hour, they announced that it had been a false alarm (revealed by a front desk clerk to be caused by someone smoking in a hallway). So I got my room, which I was told would be temporary (to be switched today, which it was), as it had 4 beds. Indeed, so the one I slept on was a twin (no great tragedy, but still); the room was freezing. I turned on the radiator, but the heat never really kicked into gear. Then as I buried myself under the covers and struggled to fall asleep, as 1am was only really 7pm to me, guess what. Another fire alarm. After swearing a bit, I threw on some shorts & a jacket over my t-shirt and made my way into the hallway to go downstairs (had it been a real fire and I had to leave the building, I would've have been frigidly underdressed. Fortunately, before I went down any stairs, the alarm stopped. I went back to my room & bed. But for the next 1/2 hour or so, there kept being alarms that sounded and then went off in seconds. I never left my bed again and eventually that stopped, though there seemed to be a propensity of people on my floor who didn't seem to realize shouting and slamming doors (not due to alarms; just as morons) at 2am isn't very courteous. Eventually, I fell asleep and got like 6 hours.

Today, I switched to a single room, which I haven't stayed in yet, but it seemed nicer and warmer in the 5 minutes I was there. So not an idyllic start, but a good story and no great harm done. Unless there's more alarms tonight.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

London Calling

Tomorrow I head out on a European vacation that will take me to London, Prague and Amsterdam. London is a city I've greatly enjoyed twice, and look forward to visiting again, while I've heard & read good things about Prague & Amsterdam. Suffice it to say, I'm expecting it to be fun, exciting, eye-opening and even a bit educational. Hopefully I will find some public computers from which to hop online and post blogs about my adventures. So check in often.

First Impression: Atomic "Bomb"?

I just heard the new U2 album "How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb," for the first time; they're playing it all the way through all day on WXRT. Hopefully, I'll like it more upon repeated listenings, but my first impression isn't particularly favorable. I remember saying about the song "Vertigo" a little while ago, that if it is the best song on the album, that would be a problem, but that U2's history has had them releasing a first single -- particularly, The Fly -- that wasn't necessarily the album's best track. On a first listen to the whole album, it sounds like Vertigo might be the best song; at the very least it's the most rocking. This album has been hyped as a "hard rocking" and "awesome" album. I'm about to hear it for the second time; let's hope I like it more. So far, not so good.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Second Wave Of Mutilation

Concert Review
The Pixies - 11.9.04 - Milwaukee Theatre

In case you haven't heard, The Pixies are back, and I don't just mean at the newly reopened Fannie May stores. One of the best and most popular bands never to achieve mass popularity, The Pixies are a group I came to know & like toward the end of their 1987-1992 heyday, but never saw in concert. Playing together for the first time in 12 years, The Pixies are enjoying a surprisingly succesful reunion tour -- that started back in April -- despite not recording any new music. Next week's 5-night stand at the Aragon promises to be a high point of the reunion, during which they will play to 10 times more fans in Chicago than they ever did during their original incarnation. Unable to see any of those shows as I will be in Europe, I caught The Pixies last night in Milwaukee at the plush, new (in an old building) Milwaukee Theatre, a far more comfortable venue than the Aragon (which isn't necessarily a good thing for the sake of a rock concert, but I didn't mind).

I enjoyed the show. The Pixies were very good, and easily could have been phenomenal. They sounded good and played virtually every song I would've wanted to hear, including Wave of Mutilation twice (one the normal rocking version, one a slowed down version as the first encore number). But while the music was first rate, the band and the show felt a bit cold and distant. More a band I appreciate for their unique & dynamic sonics than easily accessible songs -- which all seem to be less than 3 minutes; they must've played 20 songs in the first hour -- I wasn't expecting, nor did I get, captivating showmanship from The Pixies. But after a 12 year absense, more than 8 total spoken words from the band -- two Thank You's and a Thank You Very Much -- would've made them seem a bit less mercenary. Even musically, they were at their best when they did an extended jam at the end of Gigante, a nice change from the barrage of wham-bam-thank you-mam 3 minute blasts.

And the end of the show seemed a bit abrupt & disappointing. Though under 2 hours, they played long enough, but the encore consisted of the slow version of Wave of Mutilation, the mellowish Where Is My Mind and then -- rather than a rousing show closing, yet-unplayed rocker, like Dig for Fire, Allison or something like it -- they put down their instruments, said the last 4 of their 8 words (the only ones to come from Frank Black) and walked offstage. It seemed another encore was in order, but the house lights came up, giving a somewhat subdued ending to a good show that should've been masterful, but for a bit more warmth and one last blast to send us into the Milwaukee night.

I still recommend seeing them at the Aragon; hopefully the multi-night stand will loosen them up a bit.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Announcing My Discontent

It's Tuesday, November 9 and I still have a bad taste in my mouth. About the Presidential Election? Certainly, but what I'm referring to here is the Cubs. I still am acutely irked by the stupid way they played, their being a bunch of whiny jerks led by the ego-moronical Sammy Sosa and their parting company with their TV announcers -- Chip Caray & Steve Stone -- after a tempestuous relationship that I perceive being mostly the fault of the Cubs players & management including Dusty Baker. Now I just heard today that the 2005 Cubs Convention has already sold out in record time, so I guess legions of Cubs fans don't feel betrayed as I do, but to fans like me, who feel legitimately disgruntled about how things went down (and I mean down), the Cubs have a lot of work to do to fix things both in terms of fielding a truly World Championship caliber team on the field and restoring a positive public image; i.e. giving me a team I want to root for.

Now the reason for this blathering today is that I read that Bob Brenly will be the new color analyst on Cubs television broadcasts; the play-by-play announcer hasn't been selected yet, but the top contenders are all people I haven't heard of (one is a guy named Len Kasper, or something like that). This bothers me, though I actually really like Bob Brenly as an announcer. It might sound stupid, but I want my announcers to be "Cubs guys." Steve Stone played for the Cubs, albeit for just 3 years. Chip Caray is the grandson of Harry Caray, as legendary a Cubs figure as any non-player has ever been (and yes, I know Chip & Harry's "relationship" was negligible at best). But true or not, I got the sense that they were Cubs fans, which made listening in general more enjoyable and hearing them criticize the Cubs somehow more incisive. Don't get me wrong, I don't want my announcers to be blatant homers; I realize that a long tenure -- Vin Scully: Dodgers, Ernie Harwell: Tigers, Harry Kalas: Phillies -- can make an announcer seem more like part of the team than a short-lived playing career; and I don't want a terrible announcer calling the game just because there is a connection (a la Joe Carter). But I'm afraid listening to Len Kasper and Bob Brenly, if that's the tandem, will sound more like an ESPN broadcast than a local telecast. It may be good announcing, but at least for awhile, disconcerting to Cubs traditionalists like me.

Call Me Pathetic, Call Me What You Will

Concert Review
Green Day - 11.8.04 - UIC Pavilion

Back in 1995, when I saw Green Day for the first time, I felt old -- I was 27 and most of the crowd was in high school. Now I'm 9 years older, so are the guys in Green Day, but the majority of fans still seemed to be of high school age. If I was more insecure, my awareness of being seen as "that old dork by himself" might keep me from attending shows like this. But that would be a shame, because Green Day still is a really great band and they put on a terrific show at the UIC Pavilion last night.

Going in, I thought they would "perform" their excellent "American Idiot" concept album straight through as they had earlier in the tour. But after the initial 4-5 "AI" songs, they attacked some of their greatest hits like Longview, Basket Case, Brain Stew and Minority. For purity's sake, I think I would've liked the full "American Idiot" treatment, but everything they played sounded great and Billie Joe Armstrong is a tremendous frontman, showman, songwriter and guitarist who probably doesn't get his due. The crowd seem to really know & enjoy the two "latter day Green Day-esque" bands that opened the show -- Sugarcult and New Found Glory -- but other than their names, I was unaware going in and unimpressed coming out. But the lameness of these "posers" only further revealed to me what a truly top tier band Green Day is. And while I may admittedly be an old dork, if they keep rocking, so will I.

Obligatory Bemoaning Bush Blog

Note: This was written on Thursday, Nov. 4, but attempt to post didn't work. It's not really that good, but I am posting for history's sake.

Well Hallelujah! The stupid people of America have re-elected the stupid man they like having as their President. Who cares if there's no end in sight to our soldiers getting killed in Iraq, and to our military killing about as many Iraqi civilians as Saddam ever did? Who cares, Ohio, if millions of people are out of work with no new jobs on the horizon? Who cares if the people in areas most affected by 9/11 voted overwhelmingly for Kerry, seemingly debunking the myth that Bush is stronger on Terrorism? How could any of that possibly matter as much as the possibility that homosexuals might get married? Or that women might still be empowered to make choices affecting their own bodies & lives?

Moral Values, what a fucking joke. Beat on & cheat on your wife, smack around your children, raise them to hate blacks & Hispanics & Jews, drive drunk, bet on football and/or do a bunch of other crap, but maintain your holier-than-though attitude about anyone who isn't like you.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Where Have You Gone, John Kerry?

Friday night, I saw a free showing of Going Upriver, a documentary about John Kerry's service in Vietnam and subsequent protests against the war. The fact that I hadn't bothered to check it out until then was partially due to having had enough of the "propaganda" from both sides; I knew who I was voting for long ago, although except for a good showing in the debates, Kerry's candidacy has left me underwhelmed.

Well, Going Upriver really opened my eyes to the fact that John Kerry USED TO BE really cool. At 27, a genuine leader and decorated hero during the war, he showed amazing courage & conviction, passion & perspective, and even abundant charisma in spearheading the Veterans Again Vietnam group & rally in DC, and in speaking against the war in a U.S. Senate hearing. He really was quite impressive, and it made me think "What happened to him? Where did the fire go? Why is he so patrician, and seemingly unimpassioned, and prone to speaking in pre-programmed sound bytes?" I tried to think of a good analogy, someone who showed inordinate promise at an early age, and is still better than most, but just not the evolution you would have hoped. Another Kerry came to mind, as in Kerry Wood, but injuries are largely to blame for not fulfilling his wunderkind promise, plus he's only 26 now. This still may be weak, but John Kerry is like Elvis Costello. In 1978, Costello oozed anger and fire and brilliance, which you'll still see occasional glimpses of nowadays (which is why Sting wasn't my example; that would be too insulting to Kerry), but Elvis has veered too closely to middle of the road for my tastes, although I still like his current stuff more than 95% of today's music. I realize everyone gets older, changes priorities, is forced to make compromises, but if you're running to be the leader of the free world -- and you've shown that it's in you to say: THIS IS MINE, I'M TAKING IT -- it's just a damn shame that the fire still doesn't seem to have rekindled.

I sure hope John Kerry wins tomorrow, but I also hope he makes a better President than he does a presidential candidate. And if he wins, he certainly should thank Bruce Springsteen, Michael Moore, Al Franken, Eminem, Howard Stern, Robert Greenwald, Jim Gilliam, MoveOn,, Rolling Stone magazine, REM, Pearl Jam, Dixie Chicks, John Fogerty, Steve Earle, Bob Woodward, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, numerous others and John Kerry circa 1971, for they've all made a better case about why he should be President -- and done so with more balls -- than he himself has.

Weekend Reviews

Just to remind, @@@@@ is the highest rating.

Friday Night Lights - Movie
This well-made movie about high school football in Odessa, Texas -- and the accompanying fanaticism -- is notable for a lack of sheen and sentimentality, unlike Remember the Titans (though I also like that film). Although it takes a few creative liberties, it is based on a true story and told in it's straightforward, almost flat, manner, it feels pretty real.

Wilco - Auditorium Theatre - Sat. 10/30/04
The band rocked harder, and to me was loads better than in a dreary, overly folksy show I saw back in August 2002. In the Auditorium, Wilco sounded great and while as a fan of Being There and Summerteeth (even more so than their more recent albums, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot & A Ghost Is Born) I would've preferred a few more choice cuts from those albums, I certainly can't complain about the quality of what they played.

Sweeney Todd - Musical - Porchlight Theatre - Sat. 10/30/04
An excellent performance of Sondheim's macabre masterpiece. Though the grisly, unredeeming story is always a bit off-putting, the songs are first-rate and were wonderfully sung in this Porchlight Theatre production at the Theatre Building. Michael Aaron Lindner in the title role may have seemed a tad young for the part, but gave an excellent rendering nonetheless. Sondheim is such an icon of musical theatre, it is almost easy to take the genius of his music & lyrics for granted, but even if a song about making pies out of deceased humans sounds incredibly disgusting, Sondheim's wordplay is so adroit, you can't help but smile.

Going Upriver - Movie about John Kerry & Vietnam
This rating recognizes the quality of the movie; I'll talk more about my impressions in another post.