Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Sly Way of Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone reading this blog, even if it's just one of you. I'm off tomorrow morning for a road trip to the Twin Cities, highlighted (let's hope) by Sunday night's game between the Bears and Vikings. Don't know if I'll have a chance to blog along the way or even quickly after my return, so I leave you with this...

Honorable Mansion

Theatre Review (Musical)
Grey Gardens
Northlight Theatre
Skokie, IL

Much as when I saw the original Broadway production last year, Northlight's rendition of Grey Gardens was an impressive production of a solid musical with an interesting story featuring an excellent leading lady. But due to the music itself being workable yet not particularly memorable, the show, as in New York, fell short of being outstanding.

Based on a 1975 documentary of the same name, Grey Gardens tells the story of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie, the aunt and cousin of Jackie Onassis, who wound up living in filth in their once glorious but fallen into disrepair East Hampton mansion named Grey Gardens.

The first act of the musical shows the Beales when they were ostensibly high-on-the-hog yet still somewhat delusional, about to celebrate Edie's engagement to Joe Kennedy in 1941. I won't reveal plot details, but the fact that Act II showcases their lives in 1973, shared with 52 cats--luckily not onstage, as I'm allergic--should indicate that not everything went as planned.

Noted Chicago actress Hollis Resnik plays Edith in Act I and Edie in Act II, and while not quite on par with Broadway star Christine Ebersole, she is very good. As are all her castmates. And just as an introduction to a historical side show of sorts, on both the highest and lowest levels, the show is worth seeing. For what it is, it is well done, and I'd give the performance itself @@@@1/2. But a performance is always at the mercy of its source material, and it's quite unlikely you'll come away humming any songs or seeking out the original cast recording.

So as an evening of theatre, it gets my vote. But to describe it as a truly great musical, well the cats' got my tongue.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Forgettable Bond; An Enriching Experience

Movie Reviews:
Quantum of Solace @@1/2
Slumdog Millionaire @@@@1/2

I saw two extremely disparate movies this weekend, in terms of content and quality.

Quantum of Solace, the new James Bond movie, was eminently watchable due to a lot of action and Daniel Craig, who is a very good Bond. But its story line was lacking and I expect, so too will be its lasting impact. Quantum is ostensibly a sequel to Casino Royale, the first Craig as Bond film, which while not quite awesome, was thoroughly enjoyable, in part due to the relationship between Bond and Vesper Lynd, played by the fabulous Eva Green. STOP READING HERE if you don’t want to know that Vesper died at the end of Casino Royale, and supposedly Quantum is about Bond getting revenge. But just how the bad guys are connected with the past circumstances is tenuously explained at best. Especially without Eva Green around, even in flashbacks, they should’ve just started over with a whole new premise. New Bond girls Olga Kurylenko and Gemma Arterton are attractive but eminently bland. Basically, Quantum—surprisingly directed by Marc Forster, whose body of work is much more unique and impressive than what he did here—is a decent “popcorn movie” and not the worst way to spend 2 hours, but the premise, plot, villains and women all fell far short of fabulous, and as some critics have argued, the action sequences may have been far too extensive for what Bond is supposed to be. Craig may have resurrected the Bond franchise, and even my interest, but whereas Carly Simon once sang “Nobody Does it Better” about James Bond, for my money, Jason Bourne now does.

Quite different, and considerably better, was Slumdog Millionaire, a limited-release gem from acclaimed English director Danny Boyle depicting life in the slums of India. Thoroughly original, engaging and eye-opening, Slumdog Millionaire opens with Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) about to win 20 million rupees on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” but instead is arrested and tortured on suspicion of cheating. In telling the police how he came to know the answers, Jamal describes his life on the outskirts of society and how he made his was through as something of a Dickensesque urchin, driven by a desire to save his childhood friend Latika, who upon adulthood—as played by Freida Pinto—is about as attractive a woman as you will ever see. Some reviewers have complained that she is too beautiful for the purpose of the story, and there does seem to be a bit of contrivance to the whole thing, but in the age of ubiquitous hyper-action blockbusters (i.e. Quantum of Solace) and other stupid pedestrian fare, Slumdog Millionaire is far different—and better—than almost anything else you can see these days. It’s being listed as a favorite for a Best Picture Oscar nomination, and deservedly so.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What the Boss has been working on

It certainly isn't Springsteen's greatest song, but I still like it. As the title tune of his new album, due out January 27, Working on a Dream (which you can listen to by clicking) fits in well with the hopes for a better tomorrobama.

Smashingly Surprising, almost in full (with a twist)

Concert Review
Smashing Pumpkins
November 21, 2008
Auditorium Theatre - Chicago

Having attended Wednesday's "Night 2" Smashing Pumpkins concert at the Chicago Theatre (see post below) and being highly impressed until it went off the rails, but also having read about Tuesday's "Night 1" show which was seemingly likewise a solid show marred by a late barrage of musical droning and Billy Corgan's berating of the crowd, I went into the Night 1 show at the Auditorium with both anticipation and trepidation.

What I got was a surprisingly good show throughout, that never really went off the rails, albeit by accident.

I won't go on again about the propriety of the current semi-reconstituted Smashing Pumpkins, and taking the music simply at face value, for a big fan of their best music, getting to hear stellar versions of Tonight Tonight, Today, Bullet with Butterfly Wings, Siva, Mayonnaise and even the new Tarantula and G.L.O.W. was undeniably enjoyable (though I still say original SP guitarist James Iha brought something to the sound that is now lacking).

Even when the Pumpkins went into long instrumental passages, they were largely rocking and/or melodic, not indulgent droning as in Wednesday's show. But according to the reviews of Tuesday's show, the worst came in the encore. So when the Pumpkins ended their standard Night 1 setlist with their long, droning cover of Pink Floyd's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun," it provided a nice bathroom break after 2 hours of solidly enjoyable music.

And while I was kind of looking forward to witnessing the largely pre-planned, show closing Billy meltdown for myself, Billy did something even more shocking. He walked off the stage and didn't come back for an encore, despite fans screaming for one for 15 minutes with the house lights up.

As it turns out, I guess he was sick, or vocally exhausted, as the Night 2 show on Saturday (which I was not planning to attend) was postponed. He hadn't really taken the criticism from Tuesday night (and other tour stops) to heart and decided to stop the show before he descended into madness and pissed off some of his adoring fans.

But while not happy that Corgan became ill, and curious about what I didn't get to witness, I'm actually glad it ended when it did. Billy didn't have the chance to diminish an otherwise excellent show; he should end there all the time.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Surprisingly Smashing, but only in Half

Concert Review
Smashing Pumpkins
November 19, 2008
Chicago Theatre

I have been a big Smashing Pumpkins fan for a long time and have seen them more live than any other artist except for Bruce Springsteen. And though I frequently find head Pumpkin Billy Corgan to be confounding, even maddening, I also think he is enormously talented—even underrated—as a songwriter and guitarist. So while I don’t know if I quite get or fully endorse how Billy and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain—minus the other two founding Pumpkins, plus seven additional musicians—can legitimately sell the notion of a reunited Smashing Pumpkins (Billy & Jimmy also were the core members of Zwan, which they created after the Pumpkins broke up in 2000), I like the music they used to create and even their recent output enough not to care too closely.

But while Billy can seemingly endlessly write enjoyable 4 minute songs, he, Jimmy and—likely without much say in the matter—their current hired hands also seem to have a great affinity for what I’ll call “sonic tornados.” Though they officially begin as songs, they really aren’t recognizable as such, nor are they really jams or solos, and singing is virtually non-existent. These sonic tornados can best be described as swirling blasts of music that go on for 10 minutes or more. Due to Billy & Jimmy’s formidable craftsmanship on their instruments, the tornados can be enjoyable in moderation and even phenomenal in spurts, but they now tend to take over at least half of a reconstituted Pumpkins show, last night being my 3rd since 2007.

And depending on one’s own comfort level at a given show, sitting through an hour or more of these sonic tornados can range from tolerable to tedious to interminable, especially if accompanied by angry rants from Corgan, as I read about happening at Tuesday night’s show. Given that, as well as the fact that when I saw the Pumpkins this past August in Hammond, IN and also last year at the Voodoo Music Experience in New Orleans they were only truly great for about 40 of 120+ minutes, I was somewhat leery about what I would discover at Wednesday night’s show (featuring a White Crosses setlist; the first night is Black Sunshine).

Well, what I found was that for the first 90 minutes, the Smashing Pumpkins (as they now exist) were excellent. Billy seemed relaxed and almost amiable, and even with a number of unfamiliar acoustic songs in the setlist, everything sounded good. Though especially for the harder tunes, like Cherub Rock, Zero and I of the Mourning, the sound could’ve been much louder. And while the 9-piece band was solid, all could have been replaced by machines for all the stage presence the brought to the show. Although Ginger Reyes did fill Billy’s requirement of always having an attractive female bassist to his right. And while not a huge loss, I did miss James Iha a bit; he used to add great guitar fills that went underappreciated.

Anyway, if after 90 minutes, the band played one more major hit and walked off-stage, it would’ve been a great show. But rather, after announcing that he had a cold, chatting aimlessly about the Cubs & White Sox (he's a Cubs fan) and doing a nice version of Disarm, Billy and the Pumpkins went on to play another 80 minutes, primarily filled with sonic tornados, any 10 minutes of which would’ve been fine, but in sum was way too much. The more they played, the more they diminished, rather than enhanced, what was shaping up as a triumphant performance.

Of course, just as I could not stay away from the Pumpkins as they played in Chicago for the first time since 2000, I am also going to see them on Friday night, the first night of a 2-night stand, still in Chicago, but at the Auditorium Theatre. I’ll get a completely different setlist than last night, and out of nearly 6 hours of music, I’ll theoretically will have seen 3 hours that were wonderful.

And then, after 15 Smashing Pumpkins shows and another 7 Corgan/Zwan performances, I think I can move on. But don't hold me to it.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I Guess One Year is All It Takes

What do Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior, Jon Lieber, Kevin Tapani, Mike Bielecki and Rick Sutcliffe have in common?

Well sure, they've all pitched for the Cubs, but they're also all pitchers who, over the past 25 years, won at least 17 games in a season for the Cubs. Once. (Greg Maddux did so 3 times)

So on the one hand I understand the Cubs desire to resign Dempster, as announced today, to a 4-year, $52 million contract. He had a great season, going 17-6, with a 2.96 ERA, and though he flopped in the playoffs, such pitching campaigns clearly aren't an every-year occurrence for the Cubs. And as a Free Agent, he probably got from the Cubs what he would've gotten elsewhere.

On the other hand, based on history, he's probably not likely to repeat himself. Though I realize, he's seemingly now fully recovered from a devastating arm injury that derailed his career--at least as a successful starter--several years ago. And he's still only 31.

But like any sensible Cubs fan, I will assume the worst until proven otherwise.

Little Ditty about John and Barack...

In light of their meeting yesterday, the Chicago Sun-Times is having a caption contest based on the above photo.

This was my entry:

"Now tell me, Sarah Palin, what was that really about?"

I know, kind of obvious. But the one I wanted to use is unfortunately about 15 years too old:

"So did you see the one where Beavis lights Butthead's hair on fire? Heh-heh, heh-heh."

Got any better suggestions?

Monday, November 17, 2008

I I Think Think It It Was Was Good Good

As another stop on my ongoing quest to appreciate others’ brilliance, on Saturday afternoon I saw acclaimed Chinese pianist Lang Lang at Orchestra Hall. Since it was special “family” performance—a bit more talking than normal, only 1:15 in length—of what was already a non-traditional program mostly highlighting Chinese music, I won’t give it a formal review but I enjoyed it very much. And while not well-qualified to judge the relative merits of a concert pianist, from what I can tell Lang Lang—who has garnered both glowing and scathing critiques, according to his Wikipedia article—was outstanding.

But then, so was Kate Liu, a 14-year old Chicago-area piano student who won an audition to accompany Lang Lang on a piece by Schubert (the only Western composer featured). And so too, at least in her own realm, was Soyoung Kee, another area pianist who gave a recital at the Skokie Public Library yesterday. Her past credits, while impressive (doctorate in piano, seemingly noted as a local teacher, some performances worthy of mention but not with any major symphonies) pale in comparison to someone like Lang Lang, and to my untrained ear, his playing was significantly superior, but perhaps that was as much due to the choice of pieces than the performances itself.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that unlike rock and roll and even Broadway, where my familiarity with various artists/composers is pretty vast, when it comes to other art forms that I’m still dabbling in exploring—classical, opera, jazz, even some forms of dance—all I know is what I like, and typically my exposure is primarily to performers who have already been highly acclaimed. You wouldn’t be on the stage at Orchestra Hall unless you were great, at least to some level, but if and when critics degrade Lang Lang, I’m almost certain to have no comprehension as to what they’re critiquing. Plus unlike popular music, where I can somewhat appreciate nuance and texture, generally in the less familiar modes, the faster and louder it is, the more I like it. And that sort of judgment probably isn't fair to the performers or the art forms.

What should I be listening for to better appreciate just how good (or even not so good) someone is?

A Wonderful Night at the Beach

Concert Review:
Brian Wilson
November 16, 2008
Chicago Theatre

Lest anyone forget that Brian Wilson may be America’s greatest living pop music composer—though I didn’t realize that he rarely wrote the lyrics to his songs—Sunday’s performance at the Chicago Theatre was a forceful reminder. And not just because of the hour-and-a-half of Beach Boys classics, half of which were not of the super famous (or even familiar to me) variety; these included Girl Don’t Tell Me, Salt Lake City, All Summer Long, Please Let Me Wonder and more, in addition to California Girls, I Get Around, God Only Knows, Good Vibrations and other pure chestnuts (setlist here).

With the childlike Wilson sitting behind a keyboard he rarely touched and never seriously played, all the Beach Boys stuff sounded great, thanks to Wilson’s still fine voice and an excellent backing band of 14 strong (including a string section). But while not quite as good as his ’60s touchstones, Wilson and his band’s performance of his new album, That Lucky Old Sun, in its entirely, was extremely enjoyable and demonstrated that even at 66 years of age, after 40+ years of mental illness and difficulties that derailed his creative output in its prime, Wilson still knows his way around a melody better than most people who have ever lived.

Unlike his last release, Smile, which was the resurrection of one of rock’s most mythical lost albums—though to me, not nearly on par with Pet Sounds, nor Sgt. Pepper’s—TLOS (as the album is referenced in the setlist) is entirely new and written with one of his much younger current bandmates (interesting story behind it here). And while not representing the sonic genius and sheer creativity of Smile—which per a documentary I watched after getting home last night, didn’t go over well with the other Beach Boys, got scrapped and contributed to and/or coincided with Wilson’s descent into depression—for pure listening pleasure, That Lucky Old Sun is more accessible and enjoyable.

It’s a shame that from the late-60s to mid-90s, Brian Wilson was largely “missing” in terms of extending a superlative creative legacy that was pretty much halted at age 24. But even earlier in his days with the Beach Boys, Wilson had stopped performing live, and it seems for whatever reason—legacy, therapy, enjoyment—he has significantly resumed doing so over the past 10 years.

I’m glad he has and I’m glad I went to see him. He not only did his stature proud, he truly put on a completely enjoyable show that demonstrated that, at least in part, he still is what he once was: a musical genius.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The North and South of Modern American Music

Concert Review
Drive-By Truckers @@@1/2
The Hold Steady @@@1/2
November 14, 2008
Riviera Theatre Chicago

Two acclaimed modern American rock bands sharing a co-headlining double bill called "Rock and Roll Means Well." Just $26.50 ($40 after all the Ticketmaster insanity) in a relatively small venue, but one where I could sit comfortably all night. One band currently based in Brooklyn, The Hold Steady, and the other from Athens, GA, Drive-By Truckers, both--as you can see from the links to All Music Guide--with several highly-rated albums, the two most recent of each band I have and like. Both with a solid reputation as live acts (I had seen the DBTs in an opening slot once before and enjoyed them).

So you'd think it would be an absolutely wonderful evening, right? Well in one regard, sure, it was highly enjoyable. The bands combined to play for 3 hours, both seemed to genuinely love what they were doing, both had unquestioned integrity, both were very good and were rabidly received by the sold-out crowd. So just as an evening of music, a good time so to speak, I'd give it a big thumbs up.

But the problem was, much as I wanted to, I couldn't call either band truly great. Drive-by Truckers were solid, occasionally inspired, but in the end, somewhat lacking in "oh wow!" moments. The Hold Steady were highly energetic with a number of fun, crowd-pleasing songs. But honestly, a half-hour would have been enough. Lead singer Craig Finn's spastic, even dorky, rock moves, unique voice and quirky songs grew tiresome after awhile (Here's a YouTube video from a recent show, not Chicago, that may give you an idea of what I mean. Especially if you watch it and others for over an hour).

OK, so it was a good show, but not awesome. Going in, would I have expected it to match or top other concerts I've enjoyed this year, by Springsteen, REM, AC/DC, The Cure, Van Halen, Ray Davies, Steely Dan or The Eagles? Probably not, so what's the problem?

Well, as someone who cares about the state of rock and roll, even specifically the state of American rock and roll, and even at 40 would love to keep seeing rock shows as long as I comfortably can (which typically means in places with at least some seats), I've been wondering who's going to replace the geezers like those mentioned above.

And if the Hold Steady and Drive-By Truckers, who openly cite Springsteen and the Replacements as influences, who are already 4 and 8 acclaimed albums into their careers and who I generally like, are--by a great distance--subpar as live acts to bands whose members are all well over 50--and even getting long-in-the-tooth grunge-era remnants like Pearl Jam, Radiohead and Foo Fighters--it seems that rock and roll as I know and like it, may soon be dead.

And that, much more than this specific show in itself, is very disappointing.

My only hope is that the Guitar Hero phenomenon, which clearly explains the number of kids under 12 at the recent AC/DC show, will forment a new wave of bands that may ultimately resurrect American rock and roll.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Kerry Wood Out the Door

Yesterday it was announced that the Chicago Cubs had decided to part ways with Kerry Wood after 11 seasons. Wood was the longest tenure current Cub and at least since the 1930s, the only Northsider to make 4 trips to the postseason.

I primarily liked Kerry, but due the perpetual injuries that dissipated--and all but devasted--what could have been a truly historic career, it was difficult to sustain much of a positive fervor for him.

Although I didn't see it live (even on TV, though I did see a replay), I remember his 20 strikeout game in just his 5th major league start as perhaps the greatest pitching performance I've ever seen. Perhaps that anyone has ever seen. His curveball just made hitters look stupid.

I remember getting his autograph on a baseball at an appearance at Marshall Field's in Skokie soon thereafter (sadly, and somewhat ironically, his signature--with a Sharpie--has almost faded away).

I remember how he came back from injury, perhaps unwisely, to pitch in Game 3 of the 1998 NLDS, and how he wound up missing the entire 1999 season.

I attended his comeback game in 2000 and remember him winning, though I forgot he also homered in his first at bat until I read about it this morning.

I remember his solid 2003 season, in which he led the league in strikeouts, won 2 games in the NLDS--including Game 5 which I attended in Atlanta--and homered in Game 7 of the NLCS after the Game 6 implosion, but eventually failed to hold the lead and put the Cubs in the World Series.

I remember him being generally a good and stand-up guy, but also part of the silly baby 2004 Cubs who berated their announcers for speaking the truth. And I remember when in 2005 he mocked Steve Stone's now proven correct suggestion that he and Mark Prior needed to adjust their deliveries or be forever doomed to injuries.

I remember year-after-year of "wait until Wood and Prior" come back.

I remember being glad this year when he accepted the closer's role and stayed healthy, and got the last outs of the division clincher.

I remember a guy who should've won more than 77 games, but never for lack of wanting to.

I also remember, though everyone else seems to have forgotten, that he was once reported to have a hole in his heart that could eventually be life-threatening. I certainly hope that that issue never resurfaces.

It's a shame injuries did what they did to Kerry Wood, and to whatever extent the Cubs, their managers, the desperation of the fans and even Kerry himself were culpable.

But somewhat amazingly, he's still only 31 and part of the reason for his leaving is because he can get far more money, for longer, than the Cubs are willing to give.

So with a bit of wistfulness, but without real sadness, anger or questioning of the decision, I wish Kerry Wood well and appreciate all--if not enough--of the great moments he provided.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Worth Discussing Over T

I think John Kass' column in today's Tribune is pretty interesting. It's about a 14-year-old girl from Oak Park who wore a self-made "McCain Girl" t-shirt to her school, which was largely liberal and Obama-supporting. The girl is the daughter of a liberal Mom and conservative Dad, and wore the shirt as a test; the next day she wore "Obama Girl."

On the day she wore the McCain shirt, her classmates were cruel to her, not only telling her she was stupid but even that she should die. Even a teacher expressed her disappointment.

Interesting world we live in. I guess tolerance isn't always a two-way street. And I'm not absolving myself; believe me, when I see a car with a McCain bumper sticker, or worse, Bush, I can't help but have negative thoughts. Though in my defense, I never really consider running them off the road or even flipping the bird. It's one thing to disagree and another to be a dick.

Not a perfect transition, but a couple interesting remembrances come to mind. One is of talking to a colleague when I lived in LA in the early '90s -- Mark Vallen, a great guy and extraordinary artist who has a great website called Art-for-a-Change. As you can see on the site, Mark was an avid follower and artistic chronicler of the emergent LA Punk Scene in the late '70s. Though when we worked together Mark's appearance was pretty straightforward, he told me that back in the day, he had a mohawk and otherwise punk fashions. I once asked him, "What if I had showed up in a punk club with a regular haircut, no leather, etc., while still fully appreciative of the music and scene?" And he essentially told me that "they" would have kicked my ass and/or kicked me out; at the very least I would've been ostracized. So basically, the archetype anti-conformists were in actuality, completely insistent on conformity.

Somewhat similarly, my friend Steve grew up in the midst of Amish Country in Northern Indiana, though he is not Amish. Years ago, relatively soon after I returned to Chicago after abhorring the excessively crass materialism I witnessed in LA, I visited his parents' home and initially thought something like, "it's kind of cool, even beautifully quaint, that the Amish are doing their own thing, outside of what America expects, devoid of superficiality and materialism." Steve and his folks soon clued me into the reality that the Amish were quite judgmental about who was high-Amish vs. low-Amish, who had a newer, larger buggy, who was physically attractive, etc. Maybe they didn't drive Mercedes or own Gucci handbags, but they really weren't all that different from the rest of us.

I'm also occasionally reminded that some of the people who hate Jews the most are indeed other Jews, as the more Orthodox often have devout disdain for those who aren't as religious. And are vocal about it.

It's great to believe you're right, but it's almost never healthy to believe you're superior. Even having too many people (in power or otherwise) who think like me begins to scare me. Democrats can be dolts too; just look at the Blagojevich administration.

Can't we all just get along?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Extraordinary Feet

Performance Review
Savion Glover and Bare Soundz (Tap dance trio)
11/11/08 - Naperville, IL

As someone who avidly admires people who define brilliance in a given field -- and typically warrant the "genius" label -- the past few days have been especially enjoyable as I have savored the culinary creations of Grant Achatz, arguably one of the world's premier chefs, and witnessed the heroics of Lebron James, probably the best basketball player on the planet right now.

Last night, I saw another performance by someone else easily worthy of elite acclaim: Savion Glover, who, if not the world's best tap dancer, is almost certainly the best known. I know I can't name any others--except a few who dance alongside him in his shows, and even then momentarily--and from what I saw last night (the 4th time I've seen him), it's hard to imagine anyone being any better. Perhaps at anything.

Glover--probably best known for Bring In The Noise, Bring In Da Funk and appearances on Sesame Street--is currently touring with a production called Bare Soundz. It primarily features him and two other dancers, Marshall Davis Jr. and Maurice Chestnut (no, I wouldn't have known them without a program and still don't know which was which); last night there were also two guest dancers.

Rather than dancing to music, Bare Soundz essentially features the three dancers--sometimes in unison, sometimes solo--making music through their tapping. It was thoroughly enjoyable throughout and everyone on stage was great, but even amongst other tap dancers seemingly in the same league, Savion Glover was mind-blowingly phenomenal. Apart from the quality of what he can do, just the physicality and endurance to do it, almost effortlessly, for close to 2 hours is hard to conceive.

Though not from last night's performance--Glover nearly berated a fan he thought was "YouTubing" him--below are a couple of clips I found. The first (a link, since embedding was disabled) shows what Bare Soundz is like; the other is a bit more traditional Savion. Again, these don't nearly do him justice, as like the Energizer bunny, he keeps going and going (yet each number is distinctive enough that it doesn't become boring).

Enjoy, and if you get the chance to see him live, don't miss it. He's that good.

Bare Soundz in KC (link to You Tube)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Saluting Our Veterans

One of the arguments that annoys me most in our polarized country is when people say, “If you speak out against the war, how do you think that makes our troops feel?”

What I hope the brave men and women serving in the military, especially in a war zone and specifically in Iraq would understand, is that my opposition to the war is primarily because I don’t want anyone to have to sacrifice their life or well-being for a war that at best isn’t essential and at worst is duplicitous. Although I’m not big on bumper sticker logic, I think “Support Our Troops, Bring Them Home” says it pretty well.

So on Veteran’s Day, let me state how much I personally admire the bravery, courage and conviction of everyone who has ever served in the U.S. Armed Forces (excepting those with ill intent) and appreciate their dedication and sacrifices. For anyone who is presently stationed in harm’s way, as well as their families at home, along with my thanks, I offer my strongest wishes for a safe and speedy return.

Below are a few pictures I took this past Memorial Day of war memorials in Washington, DC: the Vietnam Wall, World War II Memorial, Women’s Memorial and Korean War Memorial.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Who's More Popular - George in the U.S. or Rex in Chicago?

I just saw a story on that says President Bush -- who finally has a reason to get out of bed in the morning thanks to today's White House meeting with Obama -- has the lowest approval rating of any president since such ratings have been ascertained.

But sadly, my guess is that if George were running for re-election today against a candidate who openly supported gay marriage or professed to be an agnostic or athiest, he would win anyway. We're moving forward in this country, but not all that far.

Happy Birthday Mom!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A Few Flurries, but Nothing That Really Sticks

Album Review:
Snow Patrol
A Hundred Million Suns

If you're reading this blog, you likely already know that I have an affinity for bands from the British Isles whose success at home far exceeds their renown in the U.S. With their new CD debuting at #9 on the Billboard Album Chart, Snow Patrol can no longer be considered an American secret, although having sold out Chicago's Aragon Ballroom on their last tour was still just a fraction of their 'multiple nights at Wembley Stadium' success in the UK.

On A Hundred Million Suns, the Northern Ireland quintet follows a pattern basically set with their first four albums, especially the last two. With their usual quotient of overtly anthemic if a bit mushy tracks -- a la past hits "Run" and "Chasing Cars" -- mixed with a few harder-driving rockers, the album sounds good at first blush or as music playing in the background. But a number of plays in the car revealed several ponderous, "hit skip" songs and even the better tunes don't seem to say much or define themselves as essential listening. 

The album opens relatively strong with "If There's A Rocket Tie Me To It," "Crack the Shutters" and "Take Back the City" all sure to sound good in concert and on an eventual Best Of set. But the remaining 8 songs are largely hit or miss, including the 16 minute final track which is both. "Please Take These Photos from My Hands" and "Disaster Button" are also worth mention.

In sum, if you're already a Snow Patrol fan, this is a worthwhile if unspectacular addition. If you don't like SP, this album won't convert you. And if you have no clue who Snow Patrol is, this probably isn't the best place to start. Or at best, just download tracks 1, 2, 3, 6 and 10.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Cavalierly Amazing

Went to see the Bulls play Lebron James tonight. And lose. Sure, officially the ticket said Chicago Bulls vs. Cleveland Cavaliers, but not only was Lebron the reason for my attendance, but as far as I could tell, the Cavs have no other players. It's basically Lebron and a bunch of nobodies. Of the top 4 scorers in the game, 3 were Bulls, who actually played pretty well and held the lead at halftime and going into the 4th quarter. But Lebron led a 15-0 Cavs run to open the 4th and just as the Bulls were again making it close late, James--still not a great outside shooter--casually drained two three-pointers to lock it up for the Cavs.

Now, it's easy to make comparisons between James and Michael Jordan based on how spectacular Lebron is, but where I saw the comparisons tonight was in how unspectacular he was.

Sure, he had some spectacular moves and a couple of dunks, but without doing all that much particularly mindblowing for much of the game, he just wound up with 41 points and 13 points and again, without much help from his teammates, did what was needed to ensure his team won. Like drop two straight 3's in crunch time.

What is mind-blowing is that Lebron James is still only 23 years old. And he's seemingly developing the 'let the game come to you' poise and almost casual brilliance that defined MJ in the later stages of his career, when he was leading the Bulls to 6 championships. If only he had some players around him.

As for the Bulls #1 pick Derrick Rose, he looked good, but like Bulls top scorer Ben Gordon, his relative lack of height may keep him from being a true go-to guy in crunch time, like MJ, Kobe, Lebron and other greats. And until the Bulls know who will be "the guy" when the game's on the line, and that guy can come through with regularity, they're not going to do much. Put Rose and Lebron together, now then you'd have something.

A Meal of Gastronomical Proportions

Restaurant Review

Last night, as yet another mutual celebration of our 70th and 40th birthdays, my Mom and I went to Alinea, a Chicago fine-dining restaurant that is recognized as one of the best in the world by several publications, including Restaurant magazine in its annual top 50 list. It's owner and chef, Grant Achatz has also gotten considerable press, not only for such culinary excellence while only in his mid-30's, but for his battle with tongue cancer that in addition to threatening his life, in a Beethovenesque twist, threatened to rob his sense of taste.

Fortunately, his cancer is reported to be in full remission and he works at Alinea, still his only restaurant, almost every night. Except of course, last night. We were told he was in New York for some events, including a joint dinner he's preparing with Thomas Keller, a famed chef of The French Laundry in Napa Valley and NYC's Per Se.

Obviously, he left the place in good hands, because the meal was as phenomenal as advertised. There is no ordering your food at Alinea; they serve a prix fixe meal of either 12 courses (tasting) for $145 or 24 (tour) for $225. We both went with the tasting menu, and though offered a full wine accompaniment for 3/4 the food cost, my 1 glass of white wine was the only extra we got. Our total cost was $400.

Was it worth it? Who's to say. Certainly, I could eat a cherished Char-Chedder Polish, fries and Diet Coke at Poochie's for about $6, and if ever offered a last meal, would likely choose it over what I got at Alinea (although running 3 hours, the Alinea meal would keep me alive longer;). But far more than I probably even appreciate, eating at this level is about far more than flavor and getting full (though neither disappointed, I assure you). It's about creativity, artistry, originality, food science, presentation and much more.

And except for a visit to Chicago's equally famed Charlie Trotter's in 2005 -- which I recall enjoying but not quite to this extent -- of all the meals I've eaten over 14,634 days, this was easily the most unique, was completely delicious and offered flavors and textures I have tasted before. So that's gotta be worth something, and if the tab is $200, so be it.

So what did we eat? This will give you the full rundown and I'll provide some pictures and descriptions below. Beyond my pix, which are underlit because I couldn't use a flash, check out Alinea's gallery.

We started with what they call Trout Roe, but to me was just a shot glass of airy fuzzy stuff with incredible flavors underneath (I didn't take a picture). In one bite, I knew we were in for something special. Then came Califlower, though unlike any califlower I've seen or eaten. There were 3 cubes or creamy califlower with various coatings, in some kind of soup. Might not look like much, but it was great.
Next came Lobster, or what could better be described (as the waiter said) as the dish about butter. There was butter, a dish long ribbon of liquified popcorn, lobster and much else. A bit different than a cheddar Polish or piece of steak.
Then came Rabbit, a piece of rabbit meat wrapped in tempura. I could say this about several of the course, but it might have been the most tasty single thing I've ever eaten. As you can see, it was attached to a stem; you just picked it up and ate it in a bite or two.
After Rabbit, came Turbot, a piece of fish in an incredibly artful presentation with a bunch of acoutrements.

Then we got Wagyu Beef, a piece of almost raw Japanese beef that supposedly puts Kobe Beef to shame. It was great, but I recall the flavor of the mushroom it sat on to be even more incredible.

Next, we merrily had a little Lamb. The most tender cubes imaginable, accompanied by some other tasty (albeit a bit weirdly squishy) stuff.

That we learned, was the end of dinner. The rest was dessert. It was by then to get good pictures of much of it, but below is a piece of Pumpkin and a Chocolate concoction that was incredible when it all worked together. We also had a few other dessert items, including an eyeball-looking thing in a shot glass that broke apart in your mouth into a symphony of flavors and powdered Caramel that congealed in your mouth.

All in all it was truly scrumptious and perhaps surprisingly, quite filling. I don't think I could have handled the 24-course Tour, even if my bank account could. Three hours were long enough, though the chairs were incredibly comfortable.

The only thing that wasn't magnificent was the appearance and disposition of the servers and other staff we dealt with. There was nothing really wrong with the service--everything was well-explained and nothing particularly diminished our pleasure--but from a purely critical point of view, the visuals and temperments were a bit lacking for a place of this stature. I know this sounds weird, and believe me, I'm a liberal all in favor of individuality, but there were guys with weird mustaches, bad hair and a decided lack of affable elegance, such as I've encounted in the few other high-class restaurants I've visited. The place itself was beautiful, as was the hostess, and the service was nothing to downgrade the experience, it just didn't elevate it. Maybe we were just in the wrong room, and perhaps it's the economy, but there was an empty table next to us all night.

I don't know if I would've been able to talk to or get a picture with Grant Achatz even if he were there (I got one with Charlie Trotter), but a shot of the lobby and kitchen (downstairs, the dining room was upstairs) is below.

Pretty Dumb (but Kinda Fun)

Get Smart
Movie Review

Was this a great movie? No. Was it particularly funny or suspenseful? No. Was it enriching or memorable? No. Will it make anyone who remembers the Get Smart TV show forget it? No. But was it worth $1 for a RedBox rental and 2 hours on a Saturday morning? Sure, why not.

Thanks to a good cast, including Steve Carrell, Anne Hathaway (admittedly the impetus for my rental), Dwayne Johnson (formerly known at The Rock), Alan Arkin (no relation) and Terence Stamp (I wouldn't know the name either, but he's been in tons of stuff), Get Smart was entirely watchable and not nearly as bad as the reviews made me think it would be when it was released in theaters this summer (though shockingly, as I just discovered, Roger Ebert gave it 3-1/2 stars (out of 4); that's a bit generous).

The quirky Carrell as Maxwell Smart and the beauteous Hathaway as Agent 99 had a fun banter if not particular chemistry; Arkin was great as always in a supporting role (as the Chief). Nothing you particularly need to see, but not bad as a "why not" rental, especially if like me, you see Hathaway evolving into (almost) a modern day Audrey Hepburn.

Friday, November 07, 2008

In Moving Forward, I Re-Verse

Back in my younger, more idealistic days when I wrote poetry (or at least rhyming verses), I penned this poem on the day after Bill Clinton defeated George Bush the First in 1992. I don't know that it holds up as particularly good poetry, but the sentiment pretty much remains the same. So instead of writing anew or revising, I merely reprint. So to speak.


I see arrival
A bright new dawn
I see departure
A black cloud gone

I’m no fool expecting
Miracles to occur
But it’s cool rejecting
The way things were

Some may be glad
Some may be pissed
Under what we had
Not all seemed to exist

The United States
Has been divided too long
How can you keep people weak
While you strive to be strong

America found
It was time for a change
Let’s tear things down
And rearrange

Who knows what I’ll say
Four years from now
But my hope of today
The past wouldn’t allow

So bye bye GOP
So long Mr. Bush
Yes, mine were two of the feet
Kicking your tush

Can he move in today?

Given today's news about the highest unemployment in 14 years and gigantic losses for GM and Ford, do we really need W playing out the string? January 20 can't come soon enough.

Theater Review: A House With No Walls

Rating: @@@
Location: Timeline Theatre - Chicago
Author: Thomas Gibbons
Link: A House With No Walls

A few years ago, I saw Thomas Gibbons’ play, Permanent Collection, and still view it as one of the best plays I’ve seen. It centered around a fictionalized version of the Barnes Foundation, a phenomenal privately-endowed art museum just outside Philadelphia, and controversial decisions by a new African-American museum director. It provided a great debate, and much post-show thought, over the “race question” and was really well done.

So I was very much looking forward to seeing A House With No Walls, Gibbons’ third in his race trilogy (Bee-Luther-Hatchee was the first; I haven’t seen it. FYI: Gibbons is white), especially because Timeline, which utilizes an old church on Wellington as its performance space always puts on stellar shows and provides a lot of interesting backstory in its lobby displays and programs.

A House With No Walls also concerns itself with another real-life, Philadelphia racial controversy that developed over the discovery that the new Liberty Bell Center was being built on ground that once held a house in which George Washington lived while President, and more pointedly, his slave quarters (see more here). The play juxtaposes a somewhat fictionalized modern day argument over proper commemoration—between a liberal black activist (a la Jesse Jackson) and a conservative black academic on the center’s advisory panel—with the story of Oney Judge, one of Washington’s slaves who escaped to freedom.

The play was very well staged and performed, but I felt that the sheer polarization of the central characters was a bit too contrived and didn’t provide the palpable tension that I recalled with Permanent Collection. It was good, worth seeing (for just $16.60 through HotTix) and valuable for what I learned, but ultimately a good bit short of great.

I Believe in the Promised Land

Though I really do respect people with different viewpoints -- so long as they're not morons -- it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that most of my friends & family share my political views, as do many of the performers I admire.

So here's a picture I really like of Bruce Springsteen meeting Barack Obama's family, particularly his younger daughter Sasha, and below, video of R.E.M. celebrating the election results during a concert in Santiago, Chile and performing their song "I Believe."

Tuesday in the Park with Barack

Being an avid Obama support, as well as a (suburban) Chicagoan and longtime Democrat, it was thrilling to be at Grant Park on Election Night to witness his victory (via CNN on a big screen), his acceptance speech and the throngs of people there to share in the celebration.

Although I was fortunate to get a ticket and being the exclusive (to 70,000 people) ticket-holders area, as you can see, I was still quite far from the stage. I was glad to get a spot up on a ridge on the NW side of the field, from where I (and my sister Allison) could see the stage--being vertically-challenged, this wouldn't have been possible from within the throng itself--and even lean up against a railing for the 4 hours I was there. And as this time lapse video shows, even if we had gotten there way early, we couldn't have really gotten up close to the stage.

Although highly appreciative of the opportunity simply to witness such a historic moment, I think I would have liked a bit more of an overt celebration, perhaps somewhat similar to what I witnessed at the Stevie Wonder show at Taste of Chicago in June. With Obama capturing key states so early in the night, and winning far earlier than most elections are decided, the whole event seemed over and done a bit too quickly; a Cubs World Series celebration would've gone all night.

But a colleague made a great point; this was Chicago's (i.e. Mayor Daley's) opportunity to show the world (i.e. Olympic committee) that we could handle an event of this magnitude without incident. Thus, no alcohol (a good thing), no live music (some may have been fun) and no big celebration after Obama spoke.

Anyway, though you can obviously find a complete, and much closer up, version elsewhere, here is the video I shot of Obama's Acceptance Speech. I edited out about 10 minutes in the middle to fit it on YouTube, but despite the distance, you'll see that the sound was good.