Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Best of 2008: Live Performances

In 2008, I attended approximately 150 live events, including concerts in small clubs and football stadiums and theatrical performances that ran the gamut from Chicago storefronts to summer stock in Sullivan, IL to the stages of Broadway & London. Beyond rock & roll, musicals and drama, my in-person experiences included jazz, country, blues, Irish folk, opera, classical, ballet, tap dance, modern dance, stand-up comedy, improv and other art forms. I also went to a smattering of athletic events, including games involving all of Chicago's major professional teams (Cubs, Sox, Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, Fire).

Here is a rundown of the best of what I saw:

Rock Concerts:

- Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band - I saw the Boss four times, and all 4 were excellent, with his 3-1/2 hour performance at Harley Fest in Milwaukee being the most memorable.
- David Byrne
- R.E.M.
- Steely Dan
- Bob Mould
- Ray Davies
- The Cure
- Radiohead - They were great at Lollapalooza, but I think I enjoyed their Indy show more, at least from a comfort standpoint.
- Van Halen
- Stereophonics
- Eddie Vedder
- Stevie Wonder
- Brian Wilson
- Robert Plant & Alison Krauss

I was also glad to have seen:
Tony Bennett
BB King
Willie Nelson

Though I saw a number of plays as well, my highlights are predominantly musicals:

- Billy Elliot - London
- The Visit - Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA
- Dangerous Beauty - American Music Theatre Project, Northwestern University
- In the Heights - Broadway
- Fiorello - Timeline Theatre, Chicago
- Les Miserables - Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
- West Side Story - Little Theatre on the Square, Sullivan, IL
- Legally Blonde - Broadway
- Avenue Q - Broadway in Chicago
- Million Dollar Quartet - Goodman Theatre, Chicago

Honorable Mention (Musicals)

- Gypsy - Broadway
- Sunday in the Park with George - Broadway
- Goodbye Girl
- Rent – Broadway
- Caroline, Or Change - Court Theatre, Chicago
- Gigi - Light Opera Works, Evanston, IL

Best Plays
Columbinus - Chicago, a small theater I can't recall
Amadeus - Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

Other amazing performances:

Ballet: Giselle - Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
Tap Dance: Savion Glover and Bare Soundz
Comedian: Chris Rock
Jazz: Joshua Redman w/ Branford Marsalis at CSO
Opera: Manon and La Traviata - Lyric Opera Chicago
Classical: Yefim Bronfman – Rachmaninov Piano Concerto 3 at CSO
Athletic Performance: Lebron James vs. Bulls 11/8/08
Other: Barack Obama acceptance speech, Grant Park, Chicago

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Sad Coincidence, or Something Worse?

When people speak of Cubs' Curses, they're typically referring to the team's penchant for perennial failure, even in the few years when they've made the playoffs or been in contention. But with today's news of the death of Dave Smith, a pitcher who was pretty good with the Houston Astros in the 1980s and rotten in 2 Cubs seasons in 1991-1992, I couldn't help but remark on the fact that 4 Cubs Pitchers of the 1990s have passed away prematurely within the past 2 years. In addition to Smith, who was 53 and supposedly succumbed to a heart attack, Kevin Foster, Geremi Gonzales and Rod Beck have all died either this year or last. And with Foster dying of cancer, Gonzales in a car accident and Beck having been known as a heavy-set, heavy drinker, it's hard to imagine any of these deaths had anything to due with the steroid era.

I don't really believe in curses, whether to blame of the Cubs' on-the-field woes or these more grim coincidences, but I'm officially rescinding my bid to buy the team. Even if it was destined to fall about a billion dollars short.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

'Tis the Season for Good Movies

I am a big movie fan, with my tastes covering many genres and running from low-brow to high-brow. Although I have a vast DVD collection, plus HBO and other cable choices, and via a home projector can watch movies on my wall about 12 feet across, at least from a technical standpoint I prefer to watch movies in theaters. I don’t particularly like waiting in long lines for popular first-run movies, nor sitting in packed theaters, and am often annoyed by other patrons talking, texting and doing whatever else. And while a pittance compared to what I often spend for live music or theater, $10 for a movie seems like a lot. So I tend to go to relatively few movies each year, though I realize that “relatively” is relative (I used to go to more when I lived near a second run, $3 per movie, cinema, but there are none of those near me now.)

I tend to average about one movie per month, but go to none in many months and tend to go in bunches during in the summer, when the blockbusters are released, and toward year-end, when many higher quality movies are released in hopes of earning Oscar nominations.

Although a couple of the summer blockbusters I saw this year—The Dark Knight and Iron Man—were actually very good movies and are making several year-end Best Of lists that I’ve seen, a couple weeks ago I saw a fabulous movie—Slumdog Millionaire (see my review in a post below) and this past weekend saw an even better one: Milk.

Milk, which I’d give @@@@@, is a bio-pic about Harvey Milk, who in 1977 became the first openly gay elected official in America as a San Francisco City Supervisor, only to be killed the following year. Directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Sean Penn, who gives a remarkable performance, Milk is the best movie I’ve seen this year.

But I’m hoping it’s given a run for its money by several of other highly acclaimed new or upcoming releases I hope to see by year-end or shortly thereafter, including Doubt, Frost/Nixon, The Wrestler, Gran Torino, Revolutionary Road and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And that’s just what I’ve already heard praise about. I’m especially looking forward to The Wrestler, starring Mickey Roarke as the down-and-out title character in what’s said to be a phenomenal performance in a role roughly paralleling his own story. The movie is directed by Darren Aronofsky, who did Pi and Requiem for a Dream, and features a great, newly written title song by Bruce Springsteen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A State of Embarrassment

With the caveat that people, even politicians, are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, if, as seems to be the case, recordings exist of Nimrod Blagojevich conspiring to auction Obama’s Senate Seat and perform various other egregious acts that make Alaska’s governor vastly preferable, well, he’s royally (expletive). And while I’m not entirely convinced that he’ll get quite what he deserves, for delusional megalomaniacs, the fall from grace is often ample punishment in itself.

I certainly don’t feel bad for him, and I think his profanely stated disdain for Obama’s unwillingness to “play ball” pretty much exonerates the President-elect from wrongdoing—not that it will stop Republicans from drawing a connection. Though no one seems to be clarifying the one question I have regarding Obama: Let’s say he, or his people, said to the Guv, “I really think Valerie Jarrett would be the best choice for my Senate replacement,” is there anything problematic in that in and of itself? If Obama isn’t offering or asking for special favors, just sharing his preference, is that legal and/or ethical? Or is Blagojevich’s decision-making process supposed to be devoid of any influence by anyone who can benefit in any way (and if Valerie Jarrett is a better Senate advocate than someone else would be, that is a benefit).

Anyway, though I typically don’t overindulge in civic pride, it pisses me off that Blagojevich has heaped worldwide humiliation on Illinois and Chicago at a time when we had been basking in the residual glory from Obama’s election. Around the U.S. and the world, Chicago has primarily been known as the home of gangsters (Al Capone style) and political corruption (vote early, vote often). Since the 1980s, Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey have become multi-national beacons for the city, and Obama is poised to outshine even them. And with his support, getting the 2016 Olympics certainly looked likely.

But with indiscretions that make Eliot Spitzer’s seem petty, and whatever shenanigans Mayor Daley may pull relatively run-of-the-mill and devoid of Rod’s brazen stupidity, Blagojevich has once again given Illinois and Chicago a black eye, which threatens to linger long into Obama’s administration.

Below are a few of today’s newspapers, beginning with the New York Daily News:

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

And You Thought This Was Scandalous

After taking this picture with the then-embattled, seemingly drunk but not yet completely disgraced Governor after a Cubs game back in July 2007, I had to insist that I wasn't giving him the "Loser" sign, but rather indicating that the Cubs were #1.

I guess I was just be prescient after all.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Here's to an Ace

Whatever led to Greg Maddux winning 355 games and being the best pitcher of my generation--both within a single season and over a career--it wasn't as obvious as Roger Clemens (even without the juice), Randy Johnson or even going back a bit further, Seaver, Ryan, Carlton or Palmer. Obviously, even if not overpowering, his talent had much to do with it, but more than with the others, his intelligence and preparation were fundamental to his great success.

Here are some numbers: 4 (straight) Cy Young Awards (+ 5 more times in the Top 5 in voting). 18 seasons with 15 or more wins, including 17 in a row. 9 seasons with 18+ wins. 10 seasons with an ERA of 3.00 or under, including 2 seasons under 2.00. 5008 innings pitched. And though he had many masterful seasons--including a few with the Cubs before they stupidly let him get away--I'll take his 1995 season, when he went 19-2 with a 1.56 ERA with only 23 walks and 38 earned runs allowed in 209 innings as perhaps the greatest of my lifetime (and he must have been hurt at some point that year, as he only started 28 games).

Anyway, I'm probably not saying anything others haven't said better, but most of all in an era where great athletes are quite often jerks or worse, Maddux always seemed like a good, classy guy.

Sorry Ron, but You Don't Belong

I feel bad for Ron Santo. He obviously feels he merits inclusion in Baseball’s Hall of Fame, and every couple years he becomes Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. Today, the latest voting of the Veterans’ Committee was announced, and though this was again heralded as Santo’s “best chance yet,” of 48 votes needed from 64 voters—living members of the Hall—he fell 9 votes short.
With due respect for the 39 Hall of Famers—including many Santo contemporaries—who believe that he belongs in their company, I tend to agree with the 25 who don’t. Now, I say this never—at least at a conscious level—having seen Ron Santo play. So while I know he won 5 Gold Gloves, I don’t know how close he came to Brooks Robinson in the fielding department. But in analyzing his offensive statistics, he just doesn’t warrant selection.

He was a great player for several years, whose total of 342 home runs—which rank him 80th all-time—came in a non-steroid era against the likes of Koufax, Drysdale, Gibson and Maracial. But with 3 members of the 1960s Cubs—who never won anything—already in the Hall, the best justification for his getting in is that others who may be even less worthy are enshrined.

But in 1980, his first year of eligibility, Santo earned just 15 votes of 385 ballots cast by baseball writers who surely were familiar with his career first-hand. The fact that over the years, he’s come closer to getting in (lately via the Veterans Committee) while simultaneously becoming the symbol of unwavering exuberance in his role as a (terrible) Cubs radio announcer, and also has suffered the loss of both legs after a life-long battle with Type 1 Diabetes, doesn’t change his deservedness.

In my opinion, Hall of Famers should be obvious; if it takes 30+ years and myriad voting panelists to determine if you are one of the very best professional baseball players who has ever lived, well, it’s time to stop trying to kick the football from Lucy’s hold (not that Santo nominates himself; he just sets himself up for emotional devastation).

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A Tale of Twin Cities

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Actually, my Thanksgiving weekend solo road trip to the Twin Cities wasn't really all that dramatic, though I did have a very enjoyable time that was (not overly) marred by a poor Bears performance vs. the Vikings in the Sunday night game I attended, and a surprisingly disappointing visit to the Walker Art Center, which I had heard good things about for years, but had virtually no worthwhile art on display (I'll post more on the matter separately).

Though my acute enjoyment was limited, a visit to the Mall of America on Black Friday cured (hopefully) a strange obsession. The Mystic Lake Casino Hotel, where I stayed and played, was a good choice on both accounts. I enjoyed attending a play at the new Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis acclaimed local theater, although I have mixed feelings about the play itself--Blackbird, by David Harrower.

Though it was a bit cold, I enjoyed seeing and photographing Peanuts sculptures in St. Paul (Charles Schulz was from the area) and while perhaps not world-class, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts was considerably better than the Walker and has one of the best Van Gogh's I've ever seen.

I even ate some good meals, including a $11.95 Prime Rib Dinner at Mystic Lake (the Prime Rib wasn't awesome, but was passable for the low price) and a solid Top Sirloin at Murray's, a Minneapolis staple since 1946.

The ride back home seemed a bit long, but traffic nor weather were ever an issue. All in all it was a good trip, the Bears notwithstanding.