Friday, April 30, 2010

A Friend's 'Trust' Proves Remarkably Rewarding

Theater Review

a new play by David Schwimmer and Andy Bellin
Lookingglass Theatre, Chicago

In the first four months of 2010, I have seen--and reviewed here--13 plays. Almost were written by either legendary or highly esteemed current playwrights--including Eugene O'Neill, Samuel Beckett, Clifford Odets, John Patrick Shanley, David Mamet, Tracy Letts, Rebecca Gilman and others--with productions directed by acclaimed directors like Robert Falls, Amy Morton, Anna Shapiro, Rick Snyder and BJ Jones.

Contrary to a much more hit-or-miss reaction to plays I've seen in the past, I have found almost all the plays I've watched this year to be highly enjoyable, giving all but two at least @@@@ (out of 5). But there have only been two productions I awarded @@@@@--Mamet's American Buffalo, directed by Amy Morton at Steppenwolf and Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, directed by Kimberly Senior at Redtwist Theatre--and thus found more entertaining and/or enriching than Trust, co-written and directed by David Schwimmer at Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre.

Although Schwimmer founded Lookingglass over 20 years ago, well before rocketing to fame and fortune on TV's Friends, and has directed and/or acted in many theatrical productions, he seemingly does not have any prior writing credits for the stage, screen or TV.

Long involved with Santa Monica's Rape Treatment Center, he had the idea for Trust--about a 14-year-old girl who interacts online with an older man (i.e. a cyberstalker) and winds up meeting him and agreeing to a sexual encounter--and initially directed it as a film (seemingly for release next year) written by Andy Bellin and Rob Festinger. Bellin is credited as Schwimmer's co-writer on the stage version, with Lookingglass Artistic Director of New Work Heidi Stillman co-directing the inaugural theatrical production now extended until May 9.

Especially with many performances now available at half-price through HotTix, I strongly suggest you get to it. For not only do Schwimmer and his collaborators create a disturbingly engrossing, thought-provoking play, wonderfully acted throughout (especially by Allison Torem, a 19-year-old who convincingly plays Annie, the emotionally-conflicted victim), they have produced one of the most modernistic dramas I have ever seen.

Perhaps the use of internet chat rooms, text message conversations, iPhones and other current contrivances--all displayed on a huge video backdrop, which also serves to innovatively illustrate a variety of settings--will one day date this take on a subject that long predates the internet age (Lolita anyone?) but right now it seems completely fresh, original and extremely topical to the point that a rape counselor is present in the lobby at every performance.

While Schwimmer and Bellin's writing is pretty straightforward--nothing really happens plot wise that you wouldn't expect--they do throw in a few inspired subtextual nuggets like the fact that Annie's dad is a partner in an ad agency creating campaigns featuring scantily-clad young models (think Calvin Klein) or that his middle-aged partner openly lusts after girls much closer to Annie's age (albeit technically "legal") than his own.

And as the very talented playwright Rebecca Gilman unfortunately demonstrated in the recent Goodman disaster, A True History of the Johnstown Flood, sometimes aiming for something overly artistic or allegorical can result in a night of theater far less rewarding than a more modest approach to a compelling subject.

For although in subject matter and even its characters, Trust is never all that far from feeling like a Lifetime movie or an after-school special of old, and I'm not suggesting that Schwimmer can now claim to be a playwright on par with Mamet, Shanley, Letts, Gilman or any of the legends, it isn't a stretch to say that he, Bellin, Stillman and all others involved have created the most compelling new dramatic work I have seen this year--and considerably beyond, probably dating back to when I saw Doubt in 2007.

That sounds a bit strange and excessive even to me, as it would rank Trust above August: Osage County, A Steady Rain, The Overwhelming, Harper Regan, The History Boys, Graceland, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, Rock 'n Roll, The Seafarer, Superior Donuts and many other critical smashes, most of which I liked tremendously.

But in truth, my only doubt about Trust is why I'm not giving it a full @@@@@ instead of 4-1/2. I can't acutely explain it, because it didn't deviate far from perfection, but @@@@1/2 just feels a bit more apt. Even if only among Friends.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Fratellis Commit Career Fratricide

Especially if the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup--a tough task even after moving onto the second round with an elimination win over Nashville yesterday--the above song, Chelsea Dagger by The Fratellis, will be one of the most beloved tunes in town. For it is what is played at the United Center after every Hawks goal.

But although it would seem to be just the thing to raise the Fratellis' profile in America--which remains rather nominal even after considerable UK success, a high profile iPod commercial featuring one of their songs and opening dates for The Police Reunion Tour in 2007--when it comes time for a victory parade, the Fratellis will seemingly not be there to play Chelsea Dagger live in person.

For according to a news item I first saw posted by Paste Magazine, the Fratellis have broken up.

OK, now that I have given you time to get back in your chair and compose yourself, I will try to convey why I am dismayed by this news. Because at a time when, to once again contradict Rolling Stone's 40 Reasons to Be Excited About Music, there has been relatively little to excite me about rock 'n roll, especially in terms of anything new, the Fratellis have been one of my favorite bands over the past five years.

I came across the 3-piece band band from Glasgow--whose members, a la The Ramones, took the guise of brothers: Jon, Barry and Mince Fratelli--in 2006, when their debut album, Costello Music, was about to be released in the UK. It was near the top of the bestsellers even before it came out, and after waiting until I could download it, I loved it immediately.

I remember listening to it repeatedly, including songs from it in my Best of 2006 and Hidden in the Isles (comprised of UK phenoms ignored in the US) compilations and trying to share it with anyone who might listen.

I saw the Fratellis for $10 in Milwaukee in 2007 and thought they were phenomenal, and while I didn't love their 2008 follow-up album, Here We Stand, nor their subsequent concert at Chicago's House of Blues, nearly as much, both efforts were still solidly enjoyable. 

In December 2009, when I ranked My Favorite Albums of the '00s, I listed Costello Music second, behind another phenomenal debut album, Maximo Park's A Certain Trigger from 2005.

While The Fratellis may not have remained top of mind in the past few months, I consistently went back to their first album, found a bit more merit in the second and was looking forward to what they would do next.

But according to a recent forum posting from singer/guitarist Jon Fratelli (John Lawler) on the band's website, "We have no plans to work together right now. Sometimes things just work out that way. Mince, Baz and I are working on music but not with each other for a while."

That's too bad, for as I'm trying to communicate, I thought they were pretty great. They had one of the best sounds going; just the right mix of quirky fun and solid, hard rocking backbone. I guess I'll be interested if I hear what the members are doing next--particularly the singer/guitarist--and like the Blackhawks, I hope they achieve their goals.

Long live the Fratellis. At least on my iPod.

(If it works right, here's a playlist of the Fratellis' entire first album, Costello Music--except for one missing song--and one tune from their second.)

Get a playlist! Standalone player Get Ringtones

Ebertfest: A Beautiful Day "At The Movies" in Mister Roger's Old Neighborhood

I have enjoyed reading, watching and listening to Roger Ebert as far back as I can remember. Although my family was--and I remain--exclusively a Chicago Tribune subscriber, I have always preferred Ebert's movie reviews in the Sun-Times and his opinions on TV--dating back to Sneak Previews on PBS--more than those of his Tribune counterparts, most notably Ebert's longtime TV partner, the late Gene Siskel.

But while Roger has always been a presence in my life, I'm probably not the only one who never fully appreciated how much I enjoyed what he had to say until thyroid cancer and post-surgical complications cruelly robbed him of his speaking voice.

But though Ebert's health problems as detailed in this excellent Esquire article have deprived him--and us--of the ready wit and insight he brought not only to his own shows but to numerous engaging talk show appearances and a few wonderful DVD commentaries (most notably on Citizen Kane and Casablanca), he is still saying more than ever.

I mean this both literally--in addition to the numerous weekly reviews that populate the Sun-Times and his excellent website, he prolifically blogs and tweets about politics, society's foibles, his life and much more--and figuratively, as I can think of very few public figures who have been as open, and even visible, after the type of disfigurement that Ebert has endured. But as he has joked, he was never that beautiful to begin with and more seriously has stated, "If we think we have physical imperfections, obsessing about them is only destructive."

So not only does Roger Ebert remain America's foremost movie critic, he continues to demonstrate courage and character far more extraordinary than anything found in most films he reviews. And while he would never postulate such a lofty stature, I have found that somewhat akin to Muhammad Ali, in his speech-bereft infirmity, Roger has assumed an import that seems almost mystical.

With such regard for the man, my trip down to Champaign on Saturday for Ebertfest--as the marquee above shows, it ran for five days and no, I can't explain why I never went in the past 11 years--was about more than the chance to see a pair of good, "overlooked" (per the fest's original thesis) movies, or to take in post-show panel discussions, or to see an attractive movie star (Michelle Monaghan) in person, or to enjoy the short expedition with my movie buff friend Dave or to have an opportunity to visit with longtime friends in Urbana.

As much as any of the above, going to Ebertfest was a chance to celebrate Roger himself and to share in his unbridled love of movies, particularly ones that the mainstream might not know about.

After getting into Urbana well-past midnight (because I saw this performance in Chicago), and unknowingly driving past Roger's boyhood home (which now has a plaque in front of it and about which he reminisced here) on my way to my friends' house, and in the morning stopping at one of my favorite bakeries anywhere, Dave and I caught Saturday's first movie at 11:00am: I Capture the Castle (IMDB listing; Ebert's review).

A British film about a quirky family that moves into an abandoned castle only to become impoverished, setting up the central plot about two sisters and their romantic entanglements with two wealthy American brothers whose family owns the castle, this is a movie I had never heard of prior to making plans to attend Ebertfest 2010 and probably would never have otherwise seen.

It wasn't perfect, but I would give it @@@@ (out of 5) and appreciate why Ebert championed it (he programmed all the festival films).

Disappointingly, star Bill Nighy was unable to attend the post-show discussion due to the European flight ban in the aftermath of the volcano in Iceland; as a friend relates in this blog post, another planned guest--Apocalypse Now sound designer Walter Murch--had the same difficulties earlier in the week.

Confined by the deliberateness of his computerized speech system, Ebert also did not participate in the panel, which was comprised primarily of contributors to Ebert's website. I found the discussion heavy on opinion yet short of insight, which exacerbated my dismay that Nighy couldn't make it.

Previously opting to pass on the 2pm showing of Vincent: A Life In Color--not about Van Gogh but a rather unique Chicago performer--Dave and I had lunch with my friends Jordan and Erin at a place called Farren's, where I had a good cheeseburger as we watched the beginning of the Blackhawks and White Sox games (but not what turned out to be exciting endings to both). Former Illinois governor Jim Edgar came in and sat at the table next to us. It was nice to see an ex-Gov not in jail or on trial, but I was convinced not to tell him that.

On the way back to the Virginia Theatre--which dates back to 1921 and is beautifully restored--we stopped at the Jane Addams Book Shop, a used book palace worth bookmarking.

There was a good backup getting into the 4:30pm showing of Trucker, which was preceded by Roger's wife Chaz bringing Roger onstage--to great applause--to introduce (via his computer voice) an unlisted short film called Plastic Bag, written and directed by the outstanding young director Ramin Bahrani and narrated by acclaimed German director Werner Herzog. It wasn't quite as great as the talent involved, but worthwhile nonetheless, and you can see the whole thing here on YouTube.

Following the short, Roger "spoke" about his love for Trucker (see video below) and he & Chaz welcomed to the stage writer/director James Mottern and star/executive producer Michelle Monaghan. The pair, sans the Eberts, would return after the screening for a panel discussion.

Named one the Best Movies of 2009 by Ebert (his review; IMDB listing), Trucker stars Monaghan as Diane, a pretty yet gritty over-the-road driver who is forced to care for Peter, the 11-year-old son she had abandoned a decade earlier, after his cancer-stricken father (Benjamin Bratt) no longer can. Jimmy Bennett as Peter, Nathan Fillion as Diane's platonic best friend, Bratt and Joey Lauren Adams as his new wife all give strong performances, but Monaghan, who is in virtually every scene, carries the film and easily could have been nominated for an Oscar.

I enjoyed the movie very much and thought Mottern made some nice choices to keep it from being formulaic or cloyingly sentimental, though perhaps went too far at times in making Diane intensely anti-maternal and might have provided a bit more of her backstory.

I give Trucker @@@@1/2 and note that Netflix has it available for instant streaming and it is also widely stocked at RedBox.

With Monaghan and Mottern joining two moderators, but not Ebert, for a lengthy discussion, this post-show talk was much more satisfying than the one after I Capture the Castle. I still can't say I learned all that much more about the movie or the choices made by its creators, but Monaghan came across as quite likable (she's a Midwesterner hailing from Winthrop, Iowa) and Mottern was justifiably proud about his debut directorial effort and candidly expressed disappointment that the movie did not get wider distribution.

Before making the trek back home, Dave and I met up with Jordan and Erin once again for some pizza at Jupiter's. Among other topics, most notably baseball, we talked a good bit about movies and it seems I really need to catch up on the oeuvres of British directors Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. And from a check of his site, it seems Ebert--whom I neglected to mention above is a University of Illinois alum in addition to being an Urbana native--would fully endorse both.

So all in all a very worthwhile jaunt down I-57, and back up again, during which Dave noted that it was all a really enjoyable experience.

Roger that.

Or in other words--famously trademarked by its esteemed host, programmer and namesake--Ebertfest gets an enthusiastic "Two Thumbs Up."

Monday, April 26, 2010

Joshua Redman's New Project Strikes Exciting Tenor

(Note: Scroll down for a video to play as you read)

Concert Review

James Farm
a jazz quartet featuring Joshua Redman (sax), Aaron Parks (piano), Matt Penman (bass) and Eric Harland (drums)
with Anat Cohen Quartet
Orchestra Hall, Chicago
April 23, 2010

On April 9, I had the pleasure of seeing saxophonist Sonny Rollins at Chicago's Orchestra Hall and in my review referenced him as the most legendary living jazz musician.

Exactly two weeks later at the same venue, I saw Joshua Redman who--albeit with a somewhat sparse sphere of awareness--is my favorite current jazz musician.

I've now caught Redman in Chicago once per year over the past three, with a variety of combo arrangements, and find him to be a saxophonist--mainly tenor, with some alto--that while not quite on par with classic Rollins, John Coltrane or Charlie Parker (based on recordings) is at least in the ballpark in terms of how he sounds to my untrained ears.

For though I enjoy the sound of a saxophone enough that a player need not be all that acclaimed or accomplished to impress me--I'm sure a decent high school band member could--and am not musically astute enough to explain what makes Redman so good, I've liked what I've heard enough to keep revisiting him more than any other contemporary player.

Now 41, Redman--the son of late saxophonist Dewey Redman--has been a recording artist since 1993 and has built a enough of a following to headline Orchestra Hall, although Friday's show was a good deal less than full. Originally promoted as a Joshua Redman performance, with the Anat Cohen Quartet as openers, in the program Redman was listed simply as a member of James Farm, a collaborative band that "infuses traditional acoustic jazz quartet instrumentation with a progressive attitude and modern sound."

After a 45-minute set by Israeli clarinetist (now living in NYC) Anat Cohen and her quartet, which was quite enjoyable but served to remind me how instrumental a tenor sax is to the jazz I most relish, James Farm delivered an extremely fresh and inspired performance.

Led by Redman but with Eric Harland providing drumming as propulsive--and at times idiosyncopatic--as any I've heard in a jazz setting and Aaron Parks offering some distinctive piano textures, the quartet played compositions of varying styles, with even the slower ones sounding quite pleasing.

But it was when several songs climaxed into cacophonous crescendos that James Farm became edge-of-your-seat exciting, more so than almost any jazz performance I can recall and beyond quite a few rock shows.

More than any of Rolling Stone's rather nebulous 40 Reasons to Be Excited About Music--which I also decried for ignoring Broadway's rock revolution being further amplified by American Idiot (which did engender a rave review on Farm, as Redman himself has for years, provided genuine cause for excitement.

Not incidentally, rock is listed first among James Farm's influences beyond jazz. So while they are ostensibly a jazz combo led by one of today's best players, they are also another reminder that rock 'n roll isn't dead, it's just living beyond its old boundaries.

I think I would have enjoyed James Farm even more within the immediacy of a jazz club rather than from the upper reaches of Orchestra Hall, which was a bit too staid a setting for their progressive and provocative set. Redman seems to regularly change up his combos and collaborators, so who knows if this iteration will come through town again, and they don't yet appear to have an album, but especially if like me you're always looking for new "music to your ears," James Farm is clearly worth finding and following--and not just on Facebook.

(This is a James Farm clip from YouTube, not of the Chicago show, but of a performance from earlier this year. I think it does a pretty good job of illustrating what they're about.)

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Enduring, Unveiled Genius of Raphael

On a recent trek to Milwaukee centered around the gloriously low art of an AC/DC concert (see my review here), I also stopped to take in the gloriously high art of Raphael's La Donna Velata (The Woman With The Veil), a visiting one-painting exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

I also had time to take in a very good photography exhibit called Street Seen (closing on Sunday), quickly browse the museum's solid permanent collection which I have seen many times (this is a fun favorite) and as always, just enjoy being within Santiago Calatrava's glorious museum addition.

But it was the chance to see just one Raphael painting--which I'd probably seen in 2002 at its home in the Palatine Gallery of Florence's spectacular Palazzo Pitti, but had long since forgotten--that inspired to spend $12 to enter the museum for only about 90 minutes before AC/DC shook me all night long.

Accompanied by some good background information, which said that La Donna Velata was once considered the most famous painting in the world, Raphael's masterpiece was remarkably resplendent--especially in the fine detailing of the woman's silken garb. I was, however, a bit perplexed about just how long I was supposed to look at this one painting, how closely, from how many angles, etc., and how I would know if I had noticed everything I was supposed to.

I mean, given that this one woman--said to be Raphael's mistress, Margherita Luti, who he depicted in another masterpiece, La Fornarina (the bakeress), pictured at right and which I had seen in its own one-painting exhibition in Indianapolis in 2005--had traveled over 4600 miles and nearly 500 years to get to Milwaukee, what was the proper amount of time and attention to allocate?

I probably spent about 30 minutes in total--not just in front of the picture, but also reading the wall text and watching a 12-minute video--but whatever time you may spend, a visit is probably well worth it.

Especially as there are very few paintings by Raphael--one of greatest of the greats; I consider him the Mozart of visual arts--in American museums (primarily just the National Gallery in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York).

And while it might not seem news--or even blog--worthy to write about the genius of Raphael, who has been considered as such since during his lifetime (1483-1520), I remember that when I went to Italy in 2002, already a rabid art lover (though primarily infatuated with Impressionism at that point, prior to the appreciation travels to Italy, Spain and Holland would greatly expand) and jonesing with anticipation to see Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, I really had no knowledge of who Raphael was when the Vatican tour guide stopped at the stupefyingly-spectacular Stanza della Segnatura prior to entering the Chapel. In fact, although instantly in awe, my greatest point of intrigue was that Raphael's School of Athens fresco, just below, was partially mimicked on Guns 'n' Roses' Use Your Illusion album covers.

I imagine my collegiate Art History course must have covered Raphael, but without any first-hand familiarity with his works, I really was clueless about him--who like a good handful of my favorite artists (Seurat, Van Gogh, Caravaggio, Modigliani) died before age 40--until I was well into my 30s.

So don't feel too silly if you love art but are largely oblivious about Raphael, although he is certainly an artist you should know. As a public service, I will conclude with a good smattering of some of my favorite works by a master whose unveiled genius endures, and until June 6 can be seen--through one beautiful portrait--in Milwaukee. 

St. Catherine of Alexandria, 1507
National Gallery of Art, London

Self-Portrait, 1504-06
Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Portrait of Agnolo Doni, 1505-07
Palatine Gallery, Pitti Palace
Florence, Italy
Madonna della sedia, 1513-14
Palatine Gallery, Pitti Palace
Florence, Italy

Portrait of Pope Julius II, 1511
National Gallery, London

Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, 1514-15
Louvre, Paris, France

The Sistine Madonna, 1512-14
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany

 You can find many more Raphael works online through Wikipedia or Olga's Gallery. I'll conclude with one more fresco from the Vatican stanzas, titled The Parnassus (1511)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The (Green) Day Broadway Went Punk

(Note: This is not a review. I have not gotten to NYC to see American Idiot on Broadway, but hope to at some point. For opening night reviews, which are almost all quite positive, see the NY Times, Post, Daily News, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, Chicago Tribune, TheatreMania and BackStage)

Being cool has never been much of aspiration for me and I'm sure many will attest to my not achieving this lack of a goal, which I consider an entirely empty and needlessly restrictive ambition.

But while I never cared, and generally preferred except for occasional bouts of gym class bullying, that I was not one of the popular kids in high school, I also did not feel compelled to overtly seek out ostracism.

So although, or likely in part because, my father often played Broadway musical recordings in my house, way back when I never had--and certainly didn't express--much fondness for showtunes. Sure, Singin' in the Rain always brought a smile, but I was a rock 'n' roll kid at heart.

In the mid '80s, I went to see Springsteen, The Kinks, Ozzy, The Scorpions, Rush and Ratt, but when my parents took my two sisters to see Cats and Evita at downtown theaters, I had no interest. Even in the college dorm, where individuality was a bit more accepted, I blared U2, R.E.M. and the Outfield, not the Phantom of the Opera cast album. I don't think I was ever consciously concerned with the insinuations of homosexuality that--sadly but likely still--accompany a male's penchant for musicals, but I'm sure this subconsciously infused my disinterest, and even disdain, for the art form.

Though I saw a handful of musicals in New York, London and Chicago throughout the '90s, it wasn't until 1999--when I saw a touring production of Cabaret with Teri Hatcher, as well as Rent for the first time--that I really became a devout fan of musicals. Since then, possibility somehow freed of any lingering reservations after the passing of my father, with whom I had a somewhat tempestuous relationship, I have attended nearly 300 performances of stage musicals at all levels in various locales, have dozens of movie musicals on DVD and am in my 14th season as a Broadway in Chicago subscriber (there's often more than one season per year).

And while I enjoy musicals of many varieties--including classic showtune showcases like Annie Get Your Gun, My Fair Lady and The Music Man--given the prevalence of rock music in Broadway scores over the last 17 years, on the morning after the Broadway opening of a musical created by the world's best punk band throughout that span--Green Day, whose 2004 album American Idiot is now a show of the same name--I'm here to tell anyone, of any age, something that has become increasingly obvious:

Broadway Rocks!

For not only has legendary rock music been utilized in popular Broadway shows like The Who's Tommy, Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages, Million Dollar Baby and myriad other "songbook" musicals, not only has rock (and hip hop) powered groundbreaking Tony Award winners from Rent to Spring Awakening to In the Heights, not only has rock legend Elton John scored the hugely successful Billy Elliot plus past mega-hits like The Lion King and not only is Green Day now represented--and its show a critical success--on the Great White Way, soon to be followed by U2's Bono and the Edge (unless money woes forever derail Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), but whereas rock was once the domain of music about individuality, rebellion, self-empowerment, alienation and rage, it has been far usurped even in this regard by Broadway.

This week's Rolling Stone magazine is a special issue on the State of Rock, with a supposed "40 Reasons to Get Excited About Music." I eagerly read it, but was excited by almost none of the reasons--except for the fact that Chuck Berry still plays regular club shows in St. Louis--and was perplexed both by the heavy focus on MGMT, despite the magazine giving their new release just 3-out-of-5 stars and calling it "a hazy, hit-and-miss album," and the complete exclusion of the rock revolution that's happening on Broadway.

Much more astute and satisfying was Entertainment Weekly's preview of American Idiot, in which the show's co-creator and director Michael Mayer, who also directed the wonderful Spring Awakening, states, "It's time again for Broadway to have music that is what people are listening to now."

Quite admittedly, I'm not really sure what people are listening to, especially those considerably younger than me. There are so few platinum-selling or arena-filling artists, outside of a few old rockers and aging rappers, that I kind of doubt that there are many consensus favorites on the confiscated iPods of a high school classroom. But I have an inkling that musicals still engender the same "no way"--if not a more deplorable "how gay"--response among your average 14-24 year-olds, particularly males, as they did when I was in that demo.

Sure, the Chicago run of Wicked always saw a decent turnout of kids, and I'm sure Billy Elliot will entertain more than a few, but my guess is that only those in the Drama Club and others happily "doing their thing" will openly admit an interest. Even with the popularity of the High School Musical films and the TV show, Glee, musicals are likely far from mainstream fare for most high school and college kids. After the cast of American Idiot performed on the Grammy Awards, I heard someone convey the perception that Green Day had "sold out."

Given my own youthful predilections, as cited above, I can't castigate teens, or anyone for that matter, for not having an appreciation for Broadway, or even an open ear. But whereas the stigma of "liking musicals" was silly even when it was referencing Ethel Merman, the Jets & Sharks snapping away, surreys with fringes on top and singing Cats, that perception of Broadway is now almost completely archaic.

While the conversion of popular rock songs into Broadway numbers has only occasionally worked spectacularly--and shouldn't completely render the composition of traditional showtunes obsolete--anyone who doesn't believe that the music, and message, of original, rock-influenced shows like Spring Awakening, Avenue Q, Hairspray, In the Heights, Passing Strange, Next to Normal and Billy Elliot haven't been better than most of what passes for popular, even youth-oriented, music and movies these days, clearly hasn't been paying attention.

Back on July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan "went electric" by playing with an electric blues band for part of his set at the Newport Folk Festival. He was instantly booed and for awhile folk fans were up in arms, but popular music was forever changed for the better. Last night, Broadway went punk, and per the many positive reviews that I've read, American Idiot promises to further amplify the new directions being taken in musical theater.

I just hope that people who might truly love what they once ignored, or even scorned, realize there is--more than ever--no reason why they shouldn't change their tune.

Here's a video off YouTube of the song American Idiot from the final Broadway soundcheck on March 23.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Parker Worth More Than a Graham of Your Attention

Concert Review

Graham Parker and the Figgs
w/ The Figgs (opening)
Old Town School of Folk Music
April 17, 2010 - 10pm Show

Among frenetic, hyper-literate British singer/songwriters that emerged in the late-'70s, Graham Parker ranks a clear second.

But to call him a poor man's Elvis Costello--who actually followed Parker to the fore--is to understate the penetrating richness of his writing. For while my familiarity with his 20+ album career is limited primarily to his 1979 masterpiece, Squeezing Out Sparks, in seeing Parker live for the first time last night at Old Town, the quality of his songs was readily apparent even in hearing them largely for the first time.

Even without Parker and his current backing band The Figgs--who also opened the show with a pleasant set sans Graham--playing any tunes off the one album I truly knew and loved (on which The Rumour backed GP), there wasn't any moment in the nearly 2-hour show that wasn't thoroughly enjoyable.

Sure I would have loved to hear Discovering Japan, Passion Is No Ordinary Word or Local Girls (video from a recent show below), the last of which I think was played at Saturday's 7pm set, but everything I heard sounded pretty darn good. I can only name a few songs--Chloroform, Mercury Poisoning, Soul Shoes--and several of the selections came from a new album I didn't even know he had (Imaginary Television, right) but I was more than sufficiently impressed, and quite satisfied in return for my $22 ticket. (It sure is a lot easier to check acts out when they aren't charging $50 and up, plus another 40% in ticketing fees.)

Even on the cusp of 60, Parker's distinctive--albeit still Costelloesque--voice sounded strong and he offered a good bit of good-natured stage banter, aware that he hasn't achieved the popularity nor maintained the stature of some of his contemporaries. But where he was once categorized as an "angry young man," at Old Town--which Parker repeatedly praised along with Chicago in general--he came off more as an insightful yet appreciative artist who still deserves to be heard.

This video is from a recent show with GP & the Figgs; the song is Local Girls, which I didn't hear last night, but is one of many stellar cuts off Squeezing Out Sparks.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Admitting One's Obsession Over Ticket Stubs

Last Monday, I went to the Cubs' home opener at Wrigley Field. To the best of my ever dissipating recollection, it was the first time I had attended an Opening Day of any major league team, despite being a lifelong Cubs fan and also a longtime fan of the White Sox.

My friend Paolo graciously treated me to the game, it was lots of fun hanging out with him, we had enjoyable conversations throughout the game with the fans on both sides of us, the ballpark food tasted good and though a bit overcast and not real warm, the weather was much better than it could have been. We got all the pomp and circumstance of Opening Day including full-team introductions, and I took lots of pictures for a Photo Essay that you can see here. As for the game itself, the Cubs hit three home runs, jumped out to an 8-1 lead, and despite some shaky moments, held on to win 9-5.

It was a great day, good game and thoroughly enjoyable experience. Except for one thing:

I didn't really have a ticket.

I know how that sounds and sure, I wrote it that way for a wee bit of drama, but it's not that I wasn't really in the ballpark or that I snuck in or that writing this blog has earned me a press pass or that I have signed up to be a ballpark vendor once again.

But in my mind, what I said isn't a lie. Although I did have an official means of entry to Wrigley Field on April 9, 2010, I didn't "really have a ticket." Instead what I had is what you see at right; a black & white printout of something approximating what a ticket might look like.

I know this might sound silly, especially to members of the Millennial generation, who not only spend an average of  nearly 4 hours per week texting (see report), but have likely never used a printed phone book, rarely see actual newspapers (except perhaps for the RedEye) and doubtlessly never knew the thrill of bringing home Pink Floyd's The Wall (or any other record) as a double-LP, complete with cover art, accompanying graphics, lyrics and liner notes. 

Things change, I get it. 

And while I still get and enjoy physical newspapers, magazines, books, CDs and DVDs, I understand, appreciate and often utilize the convenience of their electronic equivalents. And though somewhat wistful about film photography, I went completely digital years ago and can't deny how much it has saved me in money & time (for film and processing) and space (for photo storage).

But when it comes to tickets--which according to Wikipedia's rather sparse entry have been used for event admission dating back to ancient Greece--I have an emotional attachment to the good, old fashioned, printed-on-small-rectangular-cardstock variety. Not coincidentally, I have saved and scrapbooked nearly every ticket stub from just about every ballgame, concert, play and other ticketed event (except for movies) I have attended dating back to my teenage years.

This ticket collection comprises well over 1,000 tickets saved in five binders, with a binder now being sufficiently filled every 2-3 years.

Taking my obsession even further, when I attend a free or general admission performance for which no actual ticket is given, I usually create my own ticket to scrapbook.

So suffice it to say that although Ticketmaster--about whom I could write oodles conveying considerable appreciation and even greater disdain, but won't here--has been offering their TicketFast print-at-home option for several years now, I have never chosen it over receiving regular "hard" tickets by standard mail. And hopefully never will have to.

Although I appreciate the convenience TicketFast--now replicated by Ticketmaster's few competitors--can offer to those without any sentimental attachment to hard tickets, I also avoid the option because, confoundingly, it adds an extra $2.50 per order on top of all of Ticketmaster's other usury fees. I imagine it costs Ticketmaster less to email me an image than the manpower, ticket paper, envelope and postage involved in mailing me the tickets, so why do they charge more for this option?

Anyway, as I was explaining, the ticket I had for the Cubs opener was of the print-at-home variety. And as Paolo bought them aftermarket from someone over the Internet who mailed him two pieces of paper printed in black & white, the seemingly "next best option" of printing the pseudo ticket in color and scrapbooking it wasn't a possibility either.

Ironically, Paolo is the one person I know who not only attends more events than I do, but is just as insistent about getting--and fastidious about saving--actual tickets.

With his likely 1,500-2,000 ticket stubs preserved in boxes and arranged, at least in part, "autobiographically" (a la John Cusack's record collection in High Fidelity), Paolo eloquently expresses his affinity for hard tickets.

"A ticket is something real, tangible, a physical bookmark of what I've done and where I've been. I save all my stubs and periodically look through them, which is like a time machine. Each ticket transports me back to the show or game it was from and prompts me to remember who I went with."

Since meeting two years ago, Paolo and I have attended numerous events of all varieties together, and no matter who's done the purchasing, we've always gotten hard tickets. But in availing himself of tickets for the long sold out Cubs opener being offered online for just $30 each, Paolo was at the mercy of the seller, a guy based in San Francisco no less. While I would've assumed the guy could have e-mailed Paolo the print-at-home message from, so we could have at least printed them in color, he simply mailed Paolo two B/W prints. (Ironically, the only time I ever prefer virtual tickets is to get "electronic delivery" when buying on StubHub, rather than pay exorbitant shipping costs. But even with virtual tickets, the guy chose to mail them to Paolo, rather than e-mail.)

Given my delight at being at the game and gratitude for Paolo's generosity, I couldn't really grouse too much, but we did commiserate about the lack of actual tickets to add to our collections. Which for me dates back to the first concert I attended without my parents:

Sammy Hagar at the UIC Pavilion on March 12, 1983. 

For the record, I think the first concert I ever attended was Pablo Cruise on the Main Stage at ChicagoFest on August 1, 1980, with my whole family. I don't have a ticket stub, but I doubt one even existed as I believe the main stage headliner was included in admission to the festival.

On June 17, 1981, I saw my first concert by choice, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers at the Rosemont Horizon (now officially Allstate Arena). This was a "free show" sponsored by The Loop (WLUP), but tickets were distributed so you knew where to sit. My dad went with me, which I'll never forget, but alas I did not keep the ticket stub.

But for Sammy Hagar, the first concert I went to with a friend, I cared enough to save the stub, as I have for over 450 concerts since. Ironically, a couple of my most cherished concert stubs are among the few on which the ink has almost completely faded away.

The one at left, from the only time I saw Nirvana--on October 25, 1993, a show I still recall as one of the best I've ever seen, despite Kurt complaining about how much the Aragon's sound system sucked, not playing Smells Like Teen Spirit and calling it "the shittiest show on the tour" in a post-show interview with Rolling Stone's David Fricke--isn't completely illegible.

But much worse is the one at right, from one of the 38 times I've seen Bruce Springsteen, but the first time I traveled to New York or New Jersey to see him. Somewhat amazingly, I bought a ticket for the June 17, 2000 Madison Square Garden show over the phone from my home in the Chicago suburbs, when it and 9 other shows of the stand went on sale, and wound up in the 10th row, dead center. The experience of being that close, in MSG all all places, is still palpable in my memory, which in this case is holding up better than the ticket ink.

Although I had been to several Cubs games and a handful of White Sox games prior to 1983, I never saved the stubs prior to doing so for concerts. So this Cubs ticket from July 27, 1983--just $3.00 for a bleacher seat!--is the earliest in my collection.
I also have a White Sox ticket from 1983--their Winning Ugly season--and among 4 Cubs stubs (plus a hand-written one for a game I attended but lost the proof) from 1984 is one reminding me that on July 17, I sat in a 7th row box seat before going to my first Springsteen concert that evening.

Unlike Paolo, I haven't been to any World Series games--or Super Bowls, World Cups or Olympics for that matter--but know that when it comes to  playoff games, the tickets themselves are pretty cryptic for they are almost always printed and sold before the actual date or opposing team is known.

So although this is one of my most cherished-yet-depressing ticket stubs, it doesn't really tell you that it is for the infamous Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS, played on October 14 and often referred to as the Bartman game.

Similarly, Paolo's most treasured stub reveals only that it is for the St. Louis Cardinals World Series Home Game #2 in 2004, with the fact that his beloved Red Sox won their first championship in 86 years on October 27 etched merely in his memory.

This ticket stub is also special for less than obvious reasons. No, it's not that I dated the girl pictured on it, and while eternally grateful that my friends Jordan & Erin invited me to a bone-chillingly cold White Sox game on April 18, 2007, the ticket's significance goes far beyond those I attended with.

For on that frigid night, against the Texas Rangers, Mark Buehrle pitched his first no-hitter and the only professional no-hitter I've ever seen in person.

Regrettably, I was not at Buehrle's perfect game, which took place on a Thursday afternoon last July against Tampa Bay, but I was at the Sox-Rays game the night before.

I've also been to at least one game at 37 major league baseball stadiums, present and past, and have a ticket stub from each of them, except for San Francisco's Candlestick Park, where I attended another very cold game with Jordan & Erin in July 1992. I think it was July 8. I'm not sure why I don't have the stub, but I guess I wasn't quite as anal about saving sports stubs during my time living in Los Angeles between 1990-92, as I also don't have a stub from a Bulls-Clippers game I attended in November 1991, nor all the stubs from Dodgers-Cubs games I went to in LA.

The ticket stub at right is not only in French, it is from a game of a team that no longer exists, the Montreal Expos. Perhaps not monumental, but looking at it now also reminds me that I almost didn't get to Montreal because of a blackout across much of Canada. I had to fly into Burlington, Vermont and take a bus up, getting there in time to miss just one song of a Radiohead concert for which I had a ticket. See, these things tell stories, even beyond themselves.

So great is my attachment to ticket stubs, and the ingrained memories, that I usually make my own tickets if the event I attended didn't have any because it was free (such as the Stevie Wonder concert at Taste of Chicago, left) or used a ticketless cover charge as means of entry (as with New York's famed Village Vanguard, below).
Several of Chicago's smaller theaters don't always distribute hard tickets, instead accepting online or phone reservations, then giving out a show program for proof of entry. And I once had to submit my show ticket at a downtown parking garage in order to get the discounted parking rate; I haven't parked there since.

Speaking of theater tickets, my all-time favorite show is The Producers, which I first saw in its pre-Broadway Chicago run in February 2001. I know no one cares but me, but my ticket stub is proof that I saw the 14th ever public performance of a musical that has now been done umpteen thousand times. As my Producers Ticket Montage attests, I also saw the show on Broadway, in Los Angeles, London, on tour and at the regional theatre-level.

With another of my hobbies--though now largely dormant--being autograph collecting, I have been able to put the two together at times, getting signatures of some of my favorite artists on ticket stubs of events I attended.

I have upwards of 20 signed stubs, from personal favorites like Buddy Guy, Paul Westerberg and Liz Phair (left), but also from big stars like Billy Crystal and Denzel Washington (above), who I asked upon Broadway stage door exits.

Recently, my 10-year-old niece was in a local children's production of Alice in Wonderland and I had her sign the ticket stub afterwards, which has found its place into my ticket album.

Certainly, I realize this ticket obsession has much to do with personal sentimentality, which understandably in some regards--economics, environmental concerns and the thwarting of scalpers--is being usurped by automation and pragmatism.

Paolo told me that his sister, who is a season ticket holder for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, doesn't even receive any actual tickets. Instead, she gets a credit card-sized pass that is scanned upon entry to each game. While this may be more practical in that she doesn't have to keep track of tickets to 10 games, but rather just carry a small card, not only does it do away with the notion of sacrosanct ticket stubs, but I imagine allowing friends or clients to attend certain games in her stead is a lot more complicated than it used to be.

Similarly, the last time I saw Springsteen, in November 2009 in Milwaukee, I was able to purchase through Ticketmaster one of the best seats I've ever had for him. But I had no option but to accept a Paperless Ticket. Instead of receiving a paper ticket for this event, at the arena I had to present my credit card and a photo ID, upon which I got the small printout at left.

As undoubtedly happens with any in-demand performer, The Boss' last tour was dogged by ticket fiascos, with Ticketmaster funneling purchasers to its resale subsidiary in a blatant bait & switch ploy, and the scammers behind the recently indicted Wiseguy Tickets were able to buy half of the choicest seats for Springsteen shows at Giants Stadium.

So I applaud both Bruce and Milwaukee's Bradley Center for trying to ensure as many real fans as possible were able to purchase tickets--especially the prime ones--for the face value price. But as such a fan, who had steadfastly saved my stubs from 37 previous Springsteen shows, wasn't I at least entitled to something showing the venue name?

Knowing that the thing above wasn't going to look right in my ticket scrapbook, I asked some folks after the show if maybe someone wasn't so attached to their hard ticket. One nice guy did give me his, which is now secure in my album, but it obviously doesn't represent the seat in which I sat.

Needless to say, I hope Ticketmaster, TicketsNow and all the rest never completely eradicate the option of getting hard tickets. For while I may be a kook, I'm not the only one.

Right now, this unused ticket from a Beatles show at Sox Park in 1965 is selling for $591 on eBay. There is also an Elvis Presley ticket stub listed at $1,795.

I haven't ever bought, or otherwise acquired, ticket stubs for events I didn't actually attend,
though I did save the one at left despite not getting into the game. But that's because the ticket for which I paid $80 to see Michael Jordan's last game in New York, in March 2003, turned out to be a fake.

Fortunately, that's the only time that's happened.

But Paolo explained to me how one of his most cherished ticket stubs is for a concert he was too young to attend. It was for The Who, with The Clash opening, at Shea Stadium in New York in October 1982. His sister, who instilled in Paolo all sorts of good musical tastes, went to it and subsequently gave Paolo her ticket.

The stub at right isn't it, but is one I can buy on eBay for $13. Mmmm.

And lest you think I'm the only psychotic making my own tickets, I came across this website that exists to allow people to create their own professional-looking tickets and stubs, not to use or sell, but simply for safekeeping purposes. (I used it to make the fake ticket at the top of this post.)

So how did I get this way? I'm not entirely certain, but I do know that I was introduced to the world with my very own ticket.

That's right, when I was born, my parents knew someone who made birth announcements that looked like event tickets (and yes, hard as it is to believe if you see me now, but I was only 4 lbs., 5 oz. at birth). And I certainly hope nobody who received one has thrown it away.

Which brings me back to the Cubs' opener. I really wanted a real ticket, but the people to my left were an older couple from Baton Rouge, in Chicago from the first-time, and keeping score. So I knew even if they had hard tickets, they probably weren't giving them up. But Paolo, and less so I, had been chatting the whole game with a guy to his right, who was there with his Mom.

I asked if he had an attachment to his ticket, and not surprisingly as he seemed a pretty knowledgeable fan, he did. I was out of luck. But a few minutes later, he gave me his Mom's ticket, saying she didn't care about saving it. And Paolo, once again graciously, let me have it.

So here it is, to be printed and saved. In living color. Like any ticket should.