Monday, March 29, 2010

Lost in the 'Flood'

Theater Review

A True History of the Johnstown Flood
A new play by Rebecca Gilman
Goodman Theatre, Chicago

In 1889, over 2,200 people in Johnstown, PA lost their lives when the town flooded after a man-made lake at a resort in the Allegheny Mountains--created so that 60 wealthy members, including Andrew Carnegie, could catch imported fish--broke through a dam following a torrential rainstorm and picked up tons of debris as it raced down the mountain and hit the town.

As told on Wikipedia and undoubtedly more in depth elsewhere, the story is both tragic and compelling for--similar in some regard to what happened with Katrina in 2005--what may have seemed like an Act of God was actually in large part caused by man. And in the aftermath of the Johnstown flood, there were attempts to hold the resort--the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club--and its members accountable, but while these did create changes to liability laws, there was no direct recompense for the city, its victims or survivors.

Unfortunately, despite its title, A True History of the Johnstown Flood gets too awash in the fictional devices Rebecca Gilman chooses to tell the story. Despite a lavish production by director Robert Falls & set designer Walt Spangler and solid performances throughout, Gilman's take goes ambitiously awry to the point of making the 2-1/2 hours spent in the theater less enriching and enlightening than the 15 minutes it took to read the true account of the flood in the program notes beforehand.

While Gilman is clearly a talented writer, perhaps that's the problem here. Instead of taking a more conventional approach, in telling the tale through a fictional family of actors who come to the resort for a performance on the precipice of the flood, she tries to do too much and winds up with a story more convoluted than compelling. Any in turn, any clear modern day allegory is also, um, cast adrift.

In itself, Gilman's commentary on the uncomfortable mix of art and commerce isn't a disaster, but perhaps it should have been a different piece. Because far too much of the audience's time is taken up with fake plays within the play, bickering among the siblings, Marxism-infused self-righteousness, a creepy romance and undue sentimentality over a horse-head stage prop. Not only are we never introduced to anyone who actually lives in Johnstown, I'd imagine if someone was brought to this play by their spouse, unaware of the title, they likely would have spent the first 70 minutes with no clue that it had anything to do with the Johnstown flood.

All of which doesn't really matter, for atypical creative choices are to be applauded and can often work far better than they might sound. But sadly, they don't here. Skip the theatrics and spend a few minutes learning the "true history."

'Pilots' Soar Above Weiland's Turbulance

Concert Review

Stone Temple Pilots
Riviera Theatre, Chicago

I wouldn't want Scott Weiland dating my sister. The STP singer is a notorious heroin addict with numerous arrests, rehab stints and relapses to his name.

But--and perhaps not coincidentally--he is an excellent vocalist, front man and rock star, something we don't have enough of these days. And along with his three bandmates--who've put up with an unenviable amount of Weiland's crap, including his ditching them to join Velvet Revolver in 2004--he put on a really remarkable show at the Riv Saturday night. 

I was never a huge STP fan back in their early-to-mid '90s heyday, thinking them a lesser version of Pearl Jam and not on par with several other contemporaries. Even now, they would not quite make my Top 10 Bands of the 90s (1.Nirvana, 2.Pearl Jam, 3.Smashing Pumpkins, 4.Radiohead, 5.Green Day, 6.Nine Inch Nails, 7.Soundgarden, 8.Foo Fighters, 9.Blur, 10.Oasis, with STP probably coming next above Alice In Chains, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine and Counting Crows). Other than a greatest hits compilation I once put together, I've never owned any Stone Temple Pilots album in any form. I rarely even listen to their hits and have never felt compelled to explore their music further.

But when it comes to a balls-to-the-wall, 90-minute rock concert, even in 2010, STP is flat out incredible. Having realized, a bit after the fact, that while STP was a bit derivative and not truly brilliant, they were a pretty darn good rock band at their best, I had seen them at the Riv in 2002 and was quite impressed with the power of their show at a small venue. And 8 years later, they sounded every bit as good and probably no worse than they would've been in 1994.

Among their 17-song setlist, they played a few new cuts from their forthcoming self-titled album, which didn't sound out of place but didn't dazzle on first listen either. And if Weiland wasn't stoned--he's perpetually "said to be clean"--almost all of his stage banter was still seemingly incoherent, at least from my vantage point in the Riviera's balcony. And while the energy never sapped, 90 minutes was more than enough, with only about half of that truly impeccable. So I can't quite award @@@@@, but with songs like Vasoline, Crackerman, Interstate Love Song, Sex Type Thing, Trippin' on a Hole in a Paper Heart ideal for a good ol' hot, sweaty, testosterone-fueled rock concert, and STP delivering with all the primal ferocity one could want--accompanied by an impressive video backdrop--it made for a show as good as I could have hoped, and one of the best I've seen in awhile.

Set List
1. Vasoline
2. Crackerman
3. Wicked Garden
4. Hollywood Bitch
5. Between the Lines
6. Hickory Dichotomy
7. Big Empty
8. Sour Girl
9. Creep
10. Plush
11. Interstate Love Song
12. Bagman
13. Huckleberry Crumble
14. Sex Type Thing
15. Dead And Bloated
16. Lounge Fly
17. Piece of Pie
18. Trippin' On A Hole In A Paper Heart


One sour note that had nothing to do with the band itself, but with a security hassle upon entrance. I happen to carry what I can best call a "just in case" assortment of over-the-counter medications in a prescription bottle, for headaches, stomachaches, heartburn and other potentially inconvenient maladies. Perhaps this is neurotic and unnecessary, but there's nothing illegal and I've never been hassled about it, despite having gone through numerous security checkpoints at venues and airports around the world. Nor was there an issue at the Riv three weeks ago at the Ray Davies' show. But on Saturday, I was asked to show it upon being patted down on entry and was told it wasn't allowed in. Or actually, the first checker told me to talk to someone else, who did likewise and after dealing with four different people about an assortment of Tylenol, Pepcid, Immodium, Benedryl, etc., they let me in with it--I had already been long-separated from my friend who didn't know what was happening--but told me it wouldn't be allowed "next time." But nobody told me what policy I was violating. Is it illegal to have non-prescription (but not illegal) medicine in a prescription bottle without a prescription label? And why only at the Riviera Theatre among all places on Earth?

Friday, March 26, 2010

He Brought Music Into Greater Focus

Jim Marshall
Music Photographer

I didn't know the name Jim Marshall--well, not as a famous rock photographer, only as the Minnesota Viking with the wrong-way touchdown--but I've certainly seen many of his photographs over the years. So in seeing on that he passed away this week, I've just looked at many of his iconic photographs, a few through the Rolling Stone piece (reprinted from Marshall's latest book, Trust) and many more on Marshall's own in-depth website,

If you love rock 'n roll, as well as Jazz, Country, Soul and other musical forms, I suggest you take a look at some of Jim Marshall's remarkable pictures through the links above. I've taken the liberty to copy a few of my favorites to post below. As I said, I really didn't know of Jim Marshall until he died, but he certainly had a gift for capturing some of music's greatest icons, often in very unique fashion.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Year Since My Promised Landing

A year ago today, on March 25, 2009, I arrived in Israel for the first time. I still remember the ride in the Sherut--a shared taxi--from Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv to my hotel in Jerusalem. And I remember walking from my hotel to the Old City and being a bit baffled about how to get in. And once in, how to get to the Wailing Wall.

I remember a lot about the trip, which also took me to Petra in Jordan and into Egypt to see the Giza Pyramids. I saw a lot of amazing things, but also had numerous hassles, from security personnel, taxi drivers and others that made the trip not one of my favorites.

Although at a Passover Seder this Monday, I will undoubtedly read a prayer hoping for "next year in Israel," but I won't really mean it. Perhaps one day I'll go back, but I'm not itching to anytime soon.

But along with the memories--and a detailed travelogue that is still the most recent series of postings on my Travel Blog; if you're gluttonous enough to want to read it, start from March 25, 2009--I have plenty of photos. Like thousands plenty.

I long ago posted some of the very best, which you can view by clicking here, but to commemorate the anniversary of the trip, I quickly looked through many digital files and somewhat randomly chose 10 photos that I hadn't before posted to do so now.

The one above is what you see upon entering the Old City in Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate (I think), and below is a food cart nearby. I bought one of the raising things; it was pretty dry.

This falafal was a bit better. I think I bought in the Arab section of the Old City and was eyed suspiciously when trying to access the Jewish Quarter.

These are some old famous tombs in Jerusalem, but I can't quite recall whose.

This is from the top of Mount Masada.

This is in Eilat; the mountains in back are in Jordan.

This is along the boardwalk in Tel Aviv.

This in in Old Jaffa, now part of Tel Aviv.

This is in the Old City at Acre (Akko).

This is in Zefat (Safed); note the people with baskets on their heads.

I figured I would just stick to some Israel pictures here; perhaps in the days ahead I might uncover some more of Egypt and Petra, but the best ones can be found here, with the best of Israel.

'Marriage' A Wonderful Farce, but

Opera Review

The Marriage of Figaro
Lyric Opera Chicago

With a sublime score by Mozart--including an overture that stands as one of the maestro's most famous works--The Marriage of Figaro is on many a short list of the best operas ever written. With the music itself making for an rewarding evening's entertainment, augmented by the Lyric's typically impressive scenery and a top-notch (as far as I could tell) assemblage of international talent, it would seem silly for me not to award @@@@@ for artistic merit.

But in terms of my own acute enjoyment, I must admit I liked the previous night's entertainment, Beauty and the Beast, a good deal more. Even after a decade-long, 40-opera attempt to indoctrinate into the art form, all I can do is appreciate it; unlike rock, Broadway and some jazz and classical, I never "feel it."

I also have found that I have opera amnesia; although I saw and enjoyed both Tosca and The Merry Widow this past January, I can't tell you anything that happened in either opera, let alone recognize the music and especially the lyrics as anything I've heard before. And for all that was great about The Marriage of Figaro, including quite a bit of humor--it is a comic opera after all--I could have been quite satisfied with about an hour's worth, rather than the nearly four I dedicated to a story line worthy of Gossip Girl.

So especially this being the last of the Lyric's productions for 2009-2010 and only Carmen among the best-known works on their slate next season, I think I'll probably step away from opera for awhile, or at best attend just one performance per year. The experience has been worthwhile, but if the question is, "Do you love opera?" unfortunately not even The Marriage of Figaro can make me say "I do."

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

'Beauty' Enchants This Beast

Theater Review

Disney's Beauty and The Beast
Cadillac Palace, Chicago

As a Broadway in Chicago subscriber, each season brings a few shows I really look forward to seeing and 1-2 others that I probably wouldn't go to if not part of the package. And typically in each season, my enjoyment of at least one show, if not more, turns out to be inverse to my anticipation.

Such was the case with Beauty and the Beast, which I saw last night at the premiere performance of its 2-week run at the Cadillac Palace. Not that I didn't expect it to be good, for I had seen and liked it on a tour through Chicago back in 2001, and almost any show that runs for 13 years on Broadway is usually not awful.

But though I knew some of the music was stellar and the version I'd seen in 2001 had some of the best production numbers I'd ever seen, I didn't know why it was coming to Chicago again, three years after the Beauty and Beast took their final bows on Broadway. Sure, many kids who might like it weren't even born the last time it toured America, but for many adult BIC subscribers, it wasn't the marquee production of a season in which Billy Elliot is playing down the street. 

Well, I would be lying if I said I didn't thoroughly enjoy it, far more than many a show I've more greatly anticipated. Although it was a non-Equity production, meaning no union actors--a cost-cutting measure employed by more tours these days--in terms of vocal timbre and acting performance, I really couldn't tell that the cast didn't include any Broadway veterans. Justin Glaser as the Beast, Liz Shivener as Belle, Nathanial Hackman as Gaston and the rest of the large ensemble were all quite good.

Without being able to cite specifics, I know the production wasn't quite as lavish as when I saw the show in 2001--which was already its 3rd tour--but it was still mighty impressive. The original Broadway director, choreographer and costume designer are participating in this touring production, so the look and feel were first rate throughout. The songs, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman & Tim Rice, were originally written for Disney's animated movie, but they work very well on-stage. Particularly fun were Gaston, Be Our Guest and Human Again.

Last month, I saw and reviewed 101 Dalmatians, a musical also aimed at children, but not a Disney production. While I surmised it probably was pleasing to small children, it was really a dog for the rest of us. But Disney's Beauty and the Beast should delight not just the kids, but anyone who enjoys musicals with plenty of fun (and a good dose of pun as well).

(Here's a YouTube clip of Be Our Guest from the movie, just to remind you of the quality of the material. If you want to sing along, by all means, be my...)

Monday, March 22, 2010

"What are we gonna do now?"

Theatre Review

Harper Regan
A play by Simon Stephens
Steep Theatre, Chicago

My headline to this post comes from the song "Clampdown" by The Clash. I posted a video of it below as perhaps you'd like to listen to it as you read my review of Harper Regan. For while the play isn't directly about punk rock, the music of the title character's youth imbues her quiet spirit as she faces a series of mid-life challenges (though likewise being 41, it's hard to accept that Harper is truly "middle-aged").

Music by The Jam, Elvis Costello and other Brit punks of the late '70s is heard before the play begins and during scene changes, although in the program's Director's Notes, Robin Witt cites Springsteen's "The Ties That Bind" as the song that permeated her mind throughout rehearsals. But while that song certainly fits the show's themes, in my mind, the rhetorical opening of Clampdown, "What are we gonna do now?" really echoes the essence of this excellent play by Simon Stephens, getting its American premiere at Steep Theatre, a storefront under the Berwyn L station.

I'll purposely avoid many specifics about the play, which takes place in London and elsewhere in England, because although my attendance was entirely spurred by the 4-Star review (out of 4 on his scale, my 4 Stars are out of 5) given by the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones, very little that happened in the play was what I expected. So on the recommendation that you check out Harper Regan yourself--after multiple extensions, it runs through April 25--I'll keep things rather vague so you can be similarly surprised.

As I mentioned, Harper is a 41-year-old woman with a love of punk rock in her past. During the course of three days, she deals briefly but substantively with all of the following: her boss, husband, daughter, father, mother, a younger man, an older man, another younger man and a few more minor characters. Keep in mind that 11 actors work through 11 scenes taking place in 9 different indoor & outdoor settings, all on a stage that never changes. Great theater doesn't require elaborate staging.

While Harper faces considerable strife and struggles, the subtle beauty of the play is in what doesn't happen. I kept waiting for Harper to stage her own "punk rock rebellion" but where playwright Stevens, director Witt and the excellent Kendra Thulin as Harper take the story is a probably a whole lot richer and true to life than Letts-like hysterics, if less viscerally exciting.

Keep in mind that British accents abound, although I never had difficulty understanding the dialogue. And while I won't rave quite as highly as Chris Jones did, this is a play well worth your time and, especially for just $22, your money. Tickets can be purchased here.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

This Note's For You: A Guide To Free Online Music

(Note: This is quite long, so you might want to first scroll to the middle to be able to play some music as you read)

For as long as I can remember, music has been my foremost passion. Unfortunately not in terms of performing it myself, but in listening to and learning about artists--from upstart to legendary--in a vast array of genres and eras. And for about the last 15 years or so, the Internet has greatly enhanced my ability to enjoy music.

I love that I am able to instantly learn about artists and their work, primarily through the amazing, but also through Wikipedia,, online magazine sites such as Rolling Stone, Billboard, Spin, NME, Q, Uncut, Mojo, artist-specific websites, and music blogs, such as The Audio Perv.

Quite easily now, but really almost impossible before the Internet age, I can see where bands will be performing, anywhere in the world (Pollstar), buy tickets without waiting in line (Ticketmaster), find aftermarket ticket deals (Craigslist, eBay, Stubhub) and see what songs were played ( plus artist-specific fansites like Backstreets, Two Feet Thick, Green Plastic and U2Tours).

I have purchased a lot of music online--in CD, DVD and MP3 form--through iTunes, Amazon and (downloads for just 9-19¢ per song), do the bulk of my everyday music listening through iTunes, iPod or iPhone (mostly of music imported from CD) and have a Sirius satellite radio subscription that allows me to listen online. (Click here for a great comparison of online music stores on Wikipedia).

But relatively speaking, I have never done a ton of listening to music online, meaning not just on my computer but through web-based services. But in an age where I no longer listen much to terrestrial radio--even Chicago's best, WXRT, has become watered down--, where MTV and VH1 stopped playing music years ago, and where record companies rarely "break new artists" anymore, I have found myself missing the ability to readily discover something new. (On my new Google Profile, under the heading of 'Something I still can't find on Google,' my answer is "The next Nirvana.")

Maybe, as I tend to suspect, there really isn't that much truly new that I'd really want to find, at least among artists that promise to have a substantive shelf-life. But the truth is, that even with a musical awareness that runs pretty deep, the possibility exists for me to hear and like a song I never before knew, every day for the rest of my life.

So for the past week, I took it upon myself to take a pretty deep dive into the world of online music sources, mostly in the realm of rock music. Although even within this genre my tastes are pretty broad--from Buddy Holly to Talking Heads to Metallica--I often used less mainstream favorites like The Kinks, The Jam and The Replacements to see which sites not only suited me, but offered a pretty deep selection.

Although I came across several "pay to play" sites that seem to offer reasonable monthly fees for unlimited online listening, because of my extensive collection, existing Sirius subscription and primary desire to find new music, I stuck to sites that are free to use. Some may have pay options, often to broaden the selection or eliminate commercials, but all the sites listed below didn't cost a cent, at least not in the way I used them (with the ability to hear full songs, not just snippets, a baseline criteria).

And while I will almost forthrightly admit (unless the RIAA is reading this) to possibly having used Napster, and then Kazaa, to download free music back in their heyday--although honestly, primarily as a replacement for radio in terms of listening before buying or to hear live bootlegs that weren't commercially available--I long ago gave up peer-to-peer sharing (beyond the legality, often poor sound quality and rampant viruses proved prohibitive), so you're on your own about options like LimeWire, BitTorrent and whatever else the average 12-year-old likely knows about.

While I sometimes worry that (mentioned above) is too cheap to be true, although I've never heard of legality issues nor had a problem, all of the sites cited below are completely legitimate, as far as I know, at least in terms of personal usage without worry.

There are essentially three types of sites, though several overlap and some on my list don't quite fit any of these:

a) "Connective Radio" (my term) sites such as Pandora, and others that play songs similar to the artist or song you use as an entry point to create your own stations.

b) Online Radio sites - Some of these are individual, online-only stations, others may be websites of terrestrial radio stations that offer free streaming, and most listed are portals to quickly access numerous stations across many genres.

c) Free Play sites, such as MySpace Music, Playlist and Lala, where you can hear (and share) pretty much anything you want, some with limitations on number of listens, some without.

Rather that separate them by category, I'll list below my 10 Favorite Free Online Music Sites (plus some others I've found), as of today. Just like with music itself, I'm sure there are many more sources than I know about, or was able to find, and would love to hear about any I missed.

The 10 Best:

1. Pandora - To my knowledge, the original "connective radio" website, and with several refinements over the years, seemingly still the best. Basically you create your own "stations" by entering an artist or song you like, and Pandora plays that artist and other songs by similar artists it thinks you should like. The algorithms for songs that get played work better with some artist/song entry points than others, especially for a listener who would prefer to be fed the obscure along with the obvious. For instance, entering The Kinks gave me The Beatles, Who, etc., but never The Creation, The Pretty Things, The Move, Small Faces or other more obscure artists from '60s Britain. But I really like that you can now email or share (Facebook/Twitter) songs or stations that you think others might like, although you seemingly cannot save songs to hear again later. The depth of information about each artist & song, including lyrics, is great, making Pandora excellent for active exploration or background listening. The Pandora iPhone app is also really good.

2. - I like that I can almost instantly find and hear songs that I want, can make playlists to share (Facebook, email, many other options) and can easily find playlists by others who like the same artists I do. Below should be a Playlist I made of some songs I like. You can find some of my other Playlists here. Only drawbacks seem to be that you can't find every song, especially the more obscure, and audio quality is occasionally deficient.

Get a playlist! Standalone player Get Ringtones

3. NME Radio - Run by England's NME Magazine, this is probably the best online radio station I've found, in terms of playing songs in a vein I like, mixing up songs/artist I know with those I don't and seemingly not having any commercials. It also clearly lists what song is currently playing, and the last 5 that did. Q Radio, from Q Magazine, is also good, but the songs being played aren't listed, at least in my browser.

4. MySpace Music - I've never used MySpace for personal networking, but for sampling full songs, and often whole albums, for free, without constraints on number of listens, there is almost nowhere better. You don't have to be a MySpace member, nor Login to do so. It's biggest negative is that it can be a bit confusing, as most artists have "pages"--such as, on which you can hear 4-6 full songs of the artist's choosing--but if you search for Coldplay on, you can find and hear any of their albums in full, as often as you like. You won't find everything, though with a bit of digging, you'll see that the selection is pretty extensive. There are also ways to save and share playlists, but I didn't try it.

5. Wolfgang's Vault/Concerts - Free listening--although you can also pay to download--to classic concerts by about 30 artists (including Springsteen, Bowie, The Who, Neil Young, Pink Floyd and more). It's part of a bigger site with memorabilia; you have to become a member to hear the concerts, but its free. Not vast, but great stuff. Also a great iPhone app.

6. YouTube - If you want to hear a song, instantly, including myriad live versions, YouTube is probably your best bet for finding it, even it was never released in video form.

7. - On this site, you can find instantly play almost anything--in full album form--such as the new live White Stripes release, but seemingly can only do so once without paying. But while you can download the full album on MP3 for roughly what it costs on iTunes or Amazon, you can pay only about 10¢ per song to save it as a "web album." You can follow the selections heard by friends who connect with you and even see and hear what strangers are listening to. A great way to hear things, once, before buying and getting ideas about what you might like. This is My Lala page.

8. AccuRadio - A portal of AccuRadio's own online radio stations, in many genres, including BritPop, Classic Rock, Modern Rock, Sixties, Eighties, Classical, Jazz, Broadway, etc. While there are plenty of portals to radio stations with online streaming, AccuRadio has great variety, no commercials (that I've yet heard, although they do have banner ads) and tells you the last 3 songs played (with links to learn more and buy on Amazon).

9. - A multi-faceted site with blogs and music news, live performance videos of select artists and a portal to the CBS Radio stations that offer live streaming (same as on AOL and Yahoo). But what I like best is their Listening Party section, where you can choose to hear full albums (multiple times) from about 13 choices. Right now, I'm listening to the new Drive-by Truckers album. Sometimes a limited number of choices are easier to deal with than infinity.

10. Naxos Classical Music Library - As a cardholder of the Skokie Public Library--and I imagine something similar is available through many other libraries--I can access this classical musical database of over half-million recordings, including 40,000+ full CDs by every imaginable composer, and instantly listen for free online to whatever I like. Through the library's Music Resources page, there is also a Naxos Jazz Library that patrons can also access, as well as another Classical database and a bunch of informational links. Without library access, individual subscriptions to Naxos Classical Music Library are $225/year, but even if you're not a Skokie Resident, look for something similar through your local library (although I don't readily see anything comparable on the Chicago Public Library website).

Also of Note:

NPR Music Streams - A portal to dozens of NPR stations that have free online streaming in Rock, Pop, Folk, Classical, Jazz and Blues genres. At the bottom of the page, there are also links to hear recent concerts and many other musical resources. - To use Rhapsody's unlimited listening service on an ongoing basis costs $12.99/mo., but all registered users get 25 free listens per month to anything. Their library is as deep as any I've found, so if I need to hear a particularly song or album I don't own, this is usually the best option. Strangely, the Search function isn't obvious on their home page, but just click any artist name you see anywhere, and you'll get to a page with a Search Box on top.

iTunes Radio - Beyond housing the music you import or download, iTunes--which operates as a program on your computer, not web-based--has a Radio service (6th down under Library on the left) which allows you to stream radio stations worldwide. A couple favorites are LA's KROQ, under Alternative (you can also listen live thru and Radio Caroline (also under Alternative), which was the basis for the Pirate Radio movie. With most stations, you will hear the local commercials, which is why I tend to avoid local radio., Songza and Jango - With the popularity of Pandora, it shouldn't be shocking that similar "Connective Radio" sites exist., Songza and Jango are the best of these that I've found.'s interface is a bit confusing and I don't like that a commercial plays before you hear any music. I did like that it fed me unfamiliar bands like The Feelies and Superchunk on my Replacements Radio Station. It also seemingly saves all tracks played into MyLibrary to hear on subsequent visits, but I don't think you can really hear anything on demand. Songza has a much simpler interface than and has some preset Mix Stations (such as Indie Buzz), but its feeds for Replacements Radio were much more obvious: Paul Westerberg and Sugar. Besides, there is also, the old version which essentially lets you find YouTube videos. I don't like Jango's interface and likely won't use it much; it does have one nice feature: the ability to switch to songs other listeners are hearing in the vein of your "station."

YahooMusic - You can probably hear, and see (through myriad videos) almost anything, but finding it--particularly on demand--isn't nearly as easy as I would prefer. The best bet here is probably the Radio Station portal powered by CBS Radio, which does the same for AOL Radio and - A portal to thousands of online and terrestrial (with live streaming) radio stations in many genres. Many choices for free, but VIP membership gets you more choices and no commercials. Stations included here seem to be different than CBS Radio offerings, which power both Yahoo and AOL.

BBC Radio One - The main radio station for music in England, but their playlist has been veering more to Top 40 pop than the BritPop that I prefer. - Relatively few songs by unknown artists, that seem to start automatically upon entering the site, but some sounded decent. - Also focuses on unknown, unsigned artists, but Charts section helps you give you some sense of what to sample.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Well Respected Man Celebrates Kinky Past

Concert Review

Ray Davies
w/ The 88
Riviera Theatre, Chicago
March 13, 2010

I've been to over 450 concerts and what makes the great ones great are a preponderance of excellent songs and a healthy (but not exhaustive) dose of interaction between performer and audience that goes beyond the music itself. The former might seem stupendously obvious and the latter might sound unnecessary, but my favorite shows almost always meet both criteria (and sometimes a third, which I'll speak to in a bit).

On Friday and Saturday nights I attended two rock concerts that were about as different as can be, with their relative merits, IMHO, illustrating the above statement. Friday I saw Muse (review here), a current, relatively young British trio that filled the United Center. They had a multimillion dollar stage set up, impressive visuals including lasers & lights galore and a powerful sound that I really enjoyed, in part. Unfortunately after 10+ years and 5 albums, they only could fill about half (at best) of their 100 minutes onstage with truly top-notch material. And they virtually never spoke to the audience.

Saturday, I saw one of rock's true legends, Ray Davies, former lead singer, principal songwriter and rhythm guitarist for The Kinks, an original British Invasion band elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. The Kinks' heyday was clearly the 1960s; on a 5-star scale, the great AllMusic website gives 5 or 4-1/2 stars to seven Kinks albums released between 1965-1971, but the same distinction to just one studio album (1978's Misfits) from 1972-1994. But while comparatively not quite as brilliant throughout the rest of a mostly non-stop Kinks and solo career, not only has Davies remained an excellent songwriter into his 60s, he had accumulated a songbook as deep as nearly anyone's by the time he was 27 years old.

And I, and nearly everyone at the Riv, came out to hear a heavy dose of Kinks Klassics.

After a likable but unremarkable opening set by a 4-piece band from LA called The 88, Ray took the stage with acoustic guitar in hand, accompanied by only one other musician, a guy named Bill Shanley who alternated between acoustic and electric guitar. After they played about 22 songs, all but 2 being Kinks chestnuts, The 88 joined them for 5 full band tunes.

Unlike Muse, no arena rock show, no lasers or fancy risers or video. But also unlike Muse, and most other artists for that matter, from any era, every song played was excellent. And as the guy who basically invented VH1 Storytellers, Ray told stories, spoke of Kinks history, introduced several songs and did more than enough to ensure we knew he knew he was in Chicago, not Cleveland.

As one of a few minor quibbles, referencing my third criteria for a truly great concert--which is making every night unique in some way, typically by changing up the setlist a la personal favorites Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam--Ray seemed to play essentially the same set list as on other stops of his current tour. And especially as someone who's seen him 4 times now in the last 4 years, he could easily sprinkle in many more different Kinks Klassics (and even solo songs) than have routinely filled his performances of late. Though to be fair, he did freshly turn me onto I Need You, Nothin' In The World Can Stop Me Worryin' 'Bout That Girl and dug pretty deep into the Kinks Kanon.

So aside from mixing it up a bit more to appease hardcore fanatics who check setlists and have seen him multiple times--though believe me, I doubt I'm the only one when it comes to the small but devoted fanbase of Kinkophiles --Ray Davies put on an entirely engaging & enjoyable performance, filled with wonderful songs. Sometimes less is more and more is less. More or less.

This is the set list from last night (with possibly a couple omissions):

This Is Where I Belong
You Really Got Me
I Need You
Where Have All The Good Times Gone
Till The End Of The Day
In A Moment
Dedicated Follower of Fashion
20th Century Man
The Tourist
Two Sisters
The Hard Way
See My Friends
I'm Not Like Everybody Else
Too Much On My Mind
Nothin' In The World Can Stop Me Worryin' 'Bout That Girl
A Well Respected Man
Sunny Afternoon
Tired Of Waiting For You
Set Me Free
All Day And All Of The Night
---Encore (with The 88)
You Really Got Me
David Watts
Dead End Street
Low Budget

Video of Where Have All the Good Times Gone from the other night in Scranton:

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Muse Fails to Fully Inspire

Concert Review

w/Silversun Pickups
United Center, Chicago
March 12, 2010

I first saw, heard and liked Muse before I or very many people, certainly in America, knew who they were. Ten years ago this month, on a day when the University of Wisconsin coincidentally made the Final Four for the first time in decades, I ventured to the Dane County Coliseum in Madison to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers with the Foo Fighters opening. I didn't know there would be a third band truly opening the show, and although they were quite young and clearly derivative of Radiohead--with a lead singer who sounded much like Thom Yorke--I really liked them.

So I later learned the band was named Muse and I bought & enjoyed their debut album, Showbiz. I've since bought all their subsequent albums and--as I'm quite fascinated by bands that become huge in England but remain largely unknown or much less popular in the U.S, from The Jam to Blur to Stereophonics to Razorlight--I took note as Muse steadily built a sizable stateside fan base.

But while each of their albums has had a few good songs, I've kind of felt their popularity kept growing roughly in reverse order of their artistic merit. So now that they have, somewhat surprisingly (as many of my friends still have no idea who they are) reached the level of selling out the United Center--keep in mind that in the UK, they sold out Wembley Stadium twice (over 140,000 tickets) on their last tour--I felt that I had to see them, but didn't even love them when I saw them at the Aragon in 2006.

As I kind of expected, last night's show was a mixed bag. I don't fully consider it a good thing that "arena rock" has largely become a thing of the past, and there are several worse bands that American teens to twentysomethings could have latched onto. And with an elaborate stage set up, laser lights galore and myriad sonic references--which long ago moved beyond Radiohead--Muse reminded me of many a show gone by at which I burned myself in trying to hold up a Bic lighter. But though they riffed on Zeppelin and AC/DC, and sounded at times like Queen, Rush, Def Leppard, and other arena rock icons, Muse isn't nearly as good as any of those bands.

At their best, and last night that meant a strong opening, about 6-8 really good songs (setlist here) and perhaps 40 minutes (out of 100) worth of truly impressive music and visuals, Muse can be quite enjoyable, though still a musical pastiche and not particularly meaningful. The rest of the time, they play a lot of songs that sound somewhat alike, put forth a bloated hodge-podge of other people's ideas--including a cover of Nina Simone's Feeling Good--and represent the worst of prog rock excess.

Plus, without ever saying hello to the crowd, barely a thank you until the end, and playing much of the show on individual risers, the band kept quite a distance from each other as well as from the crowd. This might have been partially due to being in the very last row at the top of the UC, but there seemed to be something very cold and calculated about the whole affair.

I imagine many in the arena loved it, having seen some comments accompanying the video below on YouTube, and I'm glad they did. But I have seen much better, even from Muse itself. (Opener Silversun Pickups might be a decent band, but it was hard to discern their live merits with unfamiliar tunes lost among the UC's muddled sound mix.)

This is a video of Muse from 2000, playing a song called Fillip from their first album. They didn't play it last night, but it remains my favorite of theirs.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Another Bloody Take on Tarantino

Brilliant. Confounding. Groundbreaking. Underachieving. Audacious. Predictable. Transformative. Overrated. Incomplete.

Given the kaleidoscopic pastiche of ideas that comprise any one Quentin Tarantino film, let alone his entire body of work, it shouldn’t surprise that a smorgasbord of adjectives, and even antonyms, come to mind in trying to describe him and assess his career to date.

Before my thesaurus and I continue on with an off-the-cuff analysis that is sure to be quite meandering, let me Cliff Note this for the skimmers by saying that my opinion of Tarantino is predominantly positive. In order of theatrical release, this is how I would rate the films he has written and directed (except where noted, he has always done both), on a @@@@@ scale:

Reservoir Dogs (1992)
True Romance* (1993)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
From Dusk Till Dawn** (1996)
Jackie Brown (1998)
Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003)
Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (2004)
Death Proof*** (2007)
Inglourious Basterds (2009)

*Screenwriter only. Directed by Tony Scott
**Screenwriter and lead actor. Directed by Robert Rodriguez
***Originally released as part of Grindhouse, with Rodriguez writing & directing the other feature-length segment. Available separately on DVD.

Although his oeuvre is imperfect, chronologically top heavy in merit and may not quite place him in the very top rank of all-time filmmakers, I will stipulate up front that he qualifies to be called a “great director,” if based only on the brilliance and influence of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

But while keeping in mind that Tarantino will turn just 47 on March 27, and should be able to considerably augment his filmography, does he deserve a free pass to eternal canonization, seeing how—in my eyes, and not just—he has never come all that close to replicating the groundbreaking originality of his first two directorial efforts? Although, to be fair, the legendary stature of Fellini, Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas is based on careers that are similarly front-loaded in terms of their very best films (though not necessarily referencing just their first two features).

I Wonder What My Neighbors Thought

…over the past 2-3 weeks as I held my own Quentin Tarantino Film Festival within the confines of my condo. With floorstanding speakers and the volume pumped to be heard over the heat running, I’m surprised no one called the cops given the propensity of profanity and gunshots as I revisited Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill (Vol. 1&2) and Inglourious Basterds, and watched Death Proof and From Dusk Till Dawn for the first time.

While I have never had a celluloidic memory when it comes to clearly recalling plots or dialogue from movies I last saw years--or sometimes even months--ago, let alone how much I liked a certain film or the precise reasons why, I was a bit surprised at how closely the re-viewings reiterated my recollections of the quality & virtues of each film.

Most of the movies I had initially seen in theaters upon their release, except for Reservoir Dogs, which in ratio to Pulp Fiction is a lot like Nirvana’s Bleach to Nevermind, in that only after the second release blew everyone’s mind did most real people get hip to the first. Even though I was living in Los Angeles when Reservoir Dogs was released in 1992, I didn’t see it and really don’t recall any hype about Tarantino being the new wunderkind.

In fact, while Reservoir Dogs has likely become nearly as revered and influential as Pulp Fiction, it opened on 19 screens nationwide, never played (in its first run) on more than 61 screens nationwide per week, and grossed $2,687,008. Not awful for an independent film with an estimated $1.2 million budget, but not exactly a blockbuster.

But regardless of its initial box office, Reservoir Dogs remains a remarkable artistic achievement, especially for a first-time director who not only didn’t go to film school, he never finished high school. (Just for circumventing the traditional path to the director’s chair, Tarantino is to be admired. As the former video store clerk once said, “When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them 'no, I went to films.'")

It’s interesting to read now that back in October 1992, Tarantino said that he was basically making a heist movie along the lines of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. Having recently watched this 1956 classic myself, as well as other old caper flicks like Rififi and Touchez pas au Grisbi, it becomes clear that the heist itself is usually the least interesting part of the movie, far less engaging than the planning or repercussions. So Tarantino had the brilliantly original (as far as I know) idea to make a heist film without ever showing the heist. Even after parodies on The Simpsons and elsewhere, it holds up wonderfully.

So does, to a bit lesser extent, True Romance, which was the first full script Tarantino finished and sold. Watching it in 2010 for the first time in years—far after Tarantino’s influence has changed what movies look and sound like—it didn’t feel quite as “new” as it might have when released in 1993, but it is quite fun, particularly with a wonderful cast that includes Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Bronson Pinchot, Saul Rubinek, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Michael Rapaport and Tarantino favorite, Samuel L. Jackson.

Sometimes in measuring a work’s, or artist’s, merit in retrospect, it can really hard to properly gauge originality, innovation and freshness in comparison to what came before. Whether the creation predates your awareness or has blended into the background of an era gone by, it’s easy to lose track of something (or someone) being truly ahead of its time.

While I certainly don’t claim to be a film scholar, and won’t broach much here on things like subtext and symbolism (as to paraphrase Mark Twain, I’d rather be thought a fool than open my mouth and prove it), I do recognize that influence—on an art form or even culture as a whole—is one of the greatest barometers of artistic achivement. It’s easy to imagine a 16-year-old listening to Bob Dylan, even his early stuff, and not being wowed by his nasally voice or seeming linguistic overload. But “not liking” something on a surface level is a whole lot different that realizing how different popular music sounded before and after “Like a Rolling Stone,” or how enduring “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are-A Changing” remain almost 50 years later.

With this said, while still completely marvelous in numerous ways, Pulp Fiction didn’t blow my mind in quite the same manner as when I first saw it. But since that’s largely due to all that it has spawned, it really should be taken more as a compliment than a criticism. I remember first seeing it in 1994 and really being thrown, and ultimately dazzled, by the non-linear narrative. Watching it now, after time shifting has become fairly commonplace and “Tarantinoesque” has become part of the vernacular--due to dozens of imitators yet few who have really replicated his essence; as a playwright friend of mine once said, "Stringing together a bunch of swear words doesn't make you David Mamet"—the circular structure didn’t seem nearly as revolutionary as it once did.

But beyond his inclusion of a “brick” cell phone—and I’ve noticed that old school cell phones unfortunately date many of his films—Pulp Fiction holds up remarkably well, even if the novelty wore off long ago. Two Tarantino staples, compelling dialogue and wonderful use of music, are at their very best here, and it’s easy to forget how dead John Travolta’s career was before Tarantino resurrected it. (Along with Christoph Waltz, who just won the Oscar for Inglourious Basterds, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Pam Grier, Robert Forster and the late David Carradine are among those who should forever thank Quentin for putting them on, or back on, the map.)

While I have read about a lot of films that influenced Pulp Fiction, and many homages are front and center—including to a bunch of movies I’ve never seen—in watching this time around, I couldn’t help but reflect on one I recently watched but have never heard referenced in regard to Tarantino: La Dolce Vita. There are no obvious allusions to Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece, at least none that I could discern or have read about, except that both movies weave together seven scenes, or episodes (although in La Dolce Vita’s case, there are really 14, seven day and seven evening episodes).

But while a film’s technical merits usually have to so superlative as to slap me in the face, in order for me to acutely appreciate things like cinematography, in both La Dolce Vita and Pulp Fiction I was truly enchanted just by how gorgeously composed every frame of film was. Viewing La Dolce Vita helped me realize that sometimes style can be the substance, and I think beyond the language, structure, characters, story and even violence of Pulp Fiction, what really resonates is simply how amazing it looks.

From Travolta dancing with Uma at Jackrabbit Slims (slyly referencing Saturday Night Fever) to Travolta & Eric Stoltz reviving Uma by punching a needle in her chest (though, just like we never see Madsen actually cut the guy’s ear in Reservoir Dogs, we never see the needle hit her) to Bruce Willis spotting the gun on the kitchen counter, each scene is fascinating and every shot within a work of art.

So Then What Happened?

It’s no embarrassment that Tarantino has never again matched the brilliance of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, as very few filmmakers ever have. And not only can I cite several examples of directors whose best work came during their “early years,” I can say the same thing about many rock bands, playwrights, authors, athletes and other creators & performers.

The blaxploitation homage, Jackie Brown, was actually pretty good. Kill Bill started kind of simplistically in Vol. 1 but wound up generally solid, and almost endearing, by the end of Vol. 2. Death Proof was a surprisingly strong take on an allegory so simple I got it (or so I think). And Inglourious Basterds was impressive in its ambition and had plenty of imaginative moments, but for me (as it did earn Oscar noms for Best Picture and Director) fell far short of true glory. A film buff friend said it was more about war films than war, but I'm not sure what Tarantino was really trying to do in re-writing history, or more exactly, why.

If nothing else, every Tarantino film is eminently watchable, even enjoyable, and with more than a few true clunkers from nearly every notable director with a substantial output, that’s saying quite something. But during the ’00s, I think Quentin has become analogous with lead guitarist who is a wizard at playing white hot solos but neglects to write truly great songs around them. Even virtuosity gets boring if it seems like one is just showing off, but not really growing.

While I see Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction as artistic visions that also manage to dazzle, Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds feel more like artistic exercises by an extremely talented filmmaker, but one who isn’t reaching quite as high as he could. I know this may seem contrary to my "style is the substance" statement earlier, but that only applies when the style is truly groundbreaking and extraordinary. While I enjoy a good kung fu scene, a truly great movie needs to be more than an action sport.

(I'm not sure if this is an official poster, and kind of doubt it)

Who knows what Quentin has up his sleeve next. While IMDB lists three films as “In Development,” only Kill Bill, Vol. 3 is listed as “In Production” under his Director credits, and is cited as a 2014 release. I sure hope he gives us something before that. I won’t harp on his relative lack of productivity, for his 7 directorial features between 1992-2009 equals Scorsese’s output in the same period and is only 1 and 3 behind contemporaries like Kevin Smith and the Coen Brothers, respectively (although Steven Soderbergh has directed 14 in the same period, according to IMDB).

As I said many paragraphs ago, I think Quentin Tarantino is a great director. He made at least one, if not, two movies that rank among the best ever. He made movies a lot more naturalistic in language (i.e. profane, but that’s only part of it), vivid in violence and fun to watch, and inspired much that followed, and not just in cinema. He put his stamp clearly on all his films, in doing so paying homage to his love of movies, and can fairly be considered an auteur.

But sitting here, on March 9, 2010, I think he still has quite a way to go if he wants his career canon to truly rival that of the all-time greats, such as Scorsese, Spielberg, Hitchcock, Coppola, Wilder, Hawks, Kubrick and Fellini. And given the stellar work of late by Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, the Coens, Spike Jonze, Ramin Bahrani and others, he might be a good ways down the list of top directors working today.

I guess the verdict is still out, or as the song (by the Stealers Wheel) says in this immortal (albeit grisly) scene, I'm stuck in the middle.


A Towering Figure in Chicago Architecture

Bruce Graham, 1925-2010

I cannot recall the Chicago skyline without it being bookended--from left to right for us north surbanites--by the John Hancock Center and the Sears Tower (now officially the Willis Tower).

Thus while I never saw Bruce Graham, heard him speak or read anything written by him, his work as architect of the above mentioned buildings and many others--while part of the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill firm--has been part of my awareness for as long as I've had one.

For much more on Graham's life, architecture and passing, read this obituary and appreciation by Blair Kamin from the Chicago Tribune.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

A Prine Introduction

Concert Review

John Prine
Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago
March 6, 2010

Other than knowing his name, until last night I was almost completely unfamiliar with John Prine.

Clearly my loss.

Although I don't know that I'd ever heard any of his songs, couldn't name any of his albums and had no clue that he had a show scheduled at the Old Town School of Folk Music, based on a sense that he was generally well-regarded, I was smart enough to take up a friend's offer when he called with a free ticket to last night's show, which was actually a pricey benefit for Old Town, where Prine had cut his teeth in the '60s.

After spending the day checking out else something largely unfamiliar at a friend's suggestion--audio documentaries at the Third Coast Filmless Festival--I was pretty exhausted and on my way home to a relaxing evening when Dave called with the Prine offer. Not knowing that I should instantly jump at it, I didn't, but quickly realized that it would be silly to pass up the chance to hear a revered musician of whom I had been ignorant.

Coupled with it being a benefit gala, in the course of learning before and after showtime that Prine is 63, a good deal overweight and had a good chunk of his neck removed along with a cancerous growth a few years back, I expected it to be a rather short performance. But Prine, accompanied by another guitarist and bassist, played for more than 3 hours and was completely engaging, musically and in introducing his songs with amusing stories and anecdotes.

In downloading and listening to some of his music today, his voice is now a far cry from what it once was, but his singing is still quite expressive and his songs are wonderful. And given the high esteem in which the former "Maywood Mailman" is held, I certainly should've caught on earlier, but am glad I have now.

Before getting to a video I'll post of a 2008 performance of the song "Sam Stone" from his acclaimed first album, consider this paragraph I was compelled to pull in full from his Wikipedia bio:

{ Prine has taken his place as one of the most influential songwriters of his generation. In 2009, Bob Dylan told the Huffington Post that Prine was one of his favorite writers, stating "Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. All that stuff about "Sam Stone," the soldier junkie daddy, and "Donald and Lydia," where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that." In Johnny Cash's autobiography Cash, he admitted "I don't listen to music much at the farm, unless I'm going into songwriting mode and looking for inspiration. Then I'll put on something by the writers I've admired and used for years (Rodney Crowell, John Prine, Guy Clark, and the late Steve Goodman are my Big Four)..." When asked by Word Magazine in 2008 if he heard Pink Floyd's influence in newer British bands like Radiohead, Roger Waters replied "I don't really listen to Radiohead. I listened to the albums and they just didn't move me in the way, say, John Prine does. His is just extra-ordinarily eloquent music—and he lives on that plane wit Neil Young and Lennon." Prine received the Artist of the Year award at the Americana Music Awards on September 9, 2005. The award was accepted in his name by awards host and long-time friend Billy Bob Thornton. }