Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Gunter Glieben Glauchen Globen" - 'Rock of Ages' Nothin' But A Good Time, For Better or Worse

Theater Review

Rock of Ages
a musical of pop-rock songs from the '80s
Bank of America Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 3, 2010

With a nearly nonstop medley of 'hair metal' hits being the mane attraction, in service of a cheesy Sunset Strip fairy tale, "Rock of Ages" is not Shakespeare, Sondheim or Springsteen. It is not as good as Billy Elliot or several other things you can see in Chicago (or New York, where it continues to run on Broadway) and not even the best piece of theater I've see this week.

As a songbook musical, it is not as good as Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys or The Million Dollar Quartet and as a glam band rock concert it's not as fulfilling as seeing Bon Jovi (which I did this summer) or the Def Leppard/Poison tour of last year. It celebrates a musical style that makes for nice nostalgia but isn't my favorite, and doesn't even include the best of it (despite the title, no Def Leppard--they couldn't get the rights--nor Scorpions, Van Halen or Guns 'n' Roses; this Tribune review includes the song list, but Paradise City is erroneously listed as far as I could tell).

Rock of Ages can't fairly be called brilliant and despite some funny moments, I didn't find it hilarious. It's not a show I would recommend to my mother, nor is it a musical suitable for young kids. And although it was nice to see the Bank of America Theatre pretty well packed, with Rock of Ages' tour opening two-week run ending Sunday seemingly being far too short, this really isn't a show that anybody absolutely has to see.

But even with all that it's not, Rock of Ages is a lot of fun. Banal fun, but with enough self-awareness to make the schtick perfectly pleasurable for those willing to go with it.

The touring cast that hit Chicago stars Constantine Maroulis, who originated the lead role of Drew on Broadway and earned a Tony nomination (the show itself was nominated for Best Musical). The Tribune's Chris Jones called Maroulis "the rare American Idol alum who can actually act as well as sing" and I remember seeing him do a nice job in Rent long before he was on Idol (which I've never watched).

Joining Maroulis is Rebecca Faulkenberry, who is engaging and well-sung as Drew's love-interest, Sherrie, and Patrick Lewallen, who draws some of the night's biggest laughs as Lonny the narrator. In addition to large, enthusiastic cast, an on-stage band does a good job of pulling off the power chords.

Despite an overload of saccharin and schmaltz, Rock of Ages is creative and cheeky enough to count as a credible piece of musical theater, rather than just an '80s cover band. I appreciate that it brings people to the theater that might not ordinarily go, and even for those of us who are fans of more traditional (and predominantly better) musical theater, there's is nothing really all that wrong with it.

If, to quote Poison for the first time in my life, you "ain't lookin' for nothin' but a good time," head down to Monroe & State before Rock of Ages hits the road. And don't forget to bring your lighter for the power ballads. (Rock of Ages U.S. Tour itinerary)

Below is a clip of Rock of Ages' Broadway Cast (including Constantine Maroulis) on the 2009 Tony Awards. And since it reminded me, this is a link to a clip of Poison's Bret Michaels getting clotheslined at the end of a ROA-themed performance at the top of the Tonys.

And in case anyone is wondering, here's a list of My Top 10 Hair Metal Bands of the '80s:

1. Van Halen
2. Guns 'n' Roses
3. Def Leppard
4. Scorpions
5. Dokken
6. Bon Jovi
7. Whitesnake
8. Ratt
9. Cinderella
10. Poison

Purists might say that Van Halen, Scorpions and GNR don't belong in this category (I didn't include Metallica or Iron Maiden for that reason), so three more "pretenders" are Twisted Sister, White Lion and Night Ranger. I never was much of a Motley Crue fan and didn't know enough Tesla. And hmm, should I have included Triumph? But being Canadian, I group them with Rush, who I don't consider 'hair metal.'

And to be clear, Rock of Ages includes a healthy dose of what I more consider '80s pop-rock (REO Speedwagon, Journey, Foreigner, Survivor) as well as songs by true hair metal acts like Whitesnake, Poison, Twisted Sister and Quiet Riot.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

You Never Sausage A Thing! -- Why Hot Doug's Is Chicago's Greatest Food Phenomenon

Restaurant Spotlight and Review

Hot Doug's
3324 N. California, Chicago

One of the dictionary definitions of "insanity" is: something utterly foolish or unreasonable. In telling you that on Saturday a friend and I waited in line for 100 minutes--in unseasonably chilly weather--to get a hot dog, I would be hard pressed to plead not guilty to being insane. 

And to admit that the wait was excessively long, as I was expecting it to only be half that time or less, doesn't really go all that far to mitigate the seeming absurdity of queuing up down the block simply to stuff one's gullet with sausages.

Now, as someone with more than enough meat on my buns already, this isn't something I'll be doing every week, and it's hard to even say it was worth it--especially as the line seemed to move particularly slowly compared to prior visits--but I will say this:

Hot Doug's is unlike anywhere else on Earth.

Sure there are hundreds of other hot dog joints around Chicago, and--though any not using Vienna Beef products are second rate--far beyond. And there are even other relatively decent, though considerably lesser Hot Doug's imitators, like Chicago's Dog House on Fullerton and fRedhots & Fries in Glenview, who similarly serve wild game and other exotically concocted sausages, without the excessive waiting.

But there are also several very good reasons Hot Doug's engenders the hardcore devotion that it does. As the mock Magritte adorning the men's room--here's what it's imitating and a second version of sur'meal'ism--attests, this is not a hot dog. It's an experience.

And except for activist vegetarians (although there is a Veggie Dog on the menu) and those with only a half-hour for lunch, there's something for everyone to love.

First, the food.

On the back of Hot Doug's T-shirts--including some cool new ones--is the saying: There are no two finer words in the English language than "encased meats," my friend. And Doug Sohn, a trained chef who opened the current--and only--location at 3324 N. California after an earlier one burned down in 2004, takes his encased meats seriously.

In addition to a variety of humorously-monikered links on the standard menu, every week Hot Doug's features a dozen rotating specialty sausages, including a "Celebrity Sausage" and "The Game of the Week."

On Saturday, I opted for a "Ribeye Steak Sausage with Horseradish-Garlic Cream Sauce and Crispy Fried Onions," as shown above, and a "The Marty Allen" (formerly the Don Rickles), a Thuringer made of beef, pork and garlic, topped with the standard dog condiments, which at Hot Doug's include carmelized onions. My friend Dave got the same two choices, but without any toppings, and we shared a heaping order of "duck fat fries," which are fries cooked in, well, duck fat. (For those who know that I'm allergic to poultry, somehow I didn't drop dead.)

Especially after the long wait made us ravenous, everything tasted fantastic. I've eaten at Hot Doug's probably about ten times now and have tried to sample a variety of sausages, and have never been disappointed. Although I'm not as obsessive about the duck fat fries as others seem to be; they're great, but to me, not better enough than the standard fries to warrant a weekend trip (they're only served on Friday & Saturday) or even the extra expense.

But it's not just the food. 

If you know me, or have read anything else on this blog, you should know how much I love creativity in various forms. Beyond my own blog writing, advertising copywriting, photography, cartooning and more, I spend much of my time enjoying works of theater, art, music, film, television and more. So even more than the food itself, for me the greatest appeal of Hot Doug's is imagination. 

From all the different sausages Doug and his staff conceive, concoct and artfully adorn, to the numerous cheeky decorations throughout the rather compact space, Hot Doug's has clearly taken the venerable Chicago-tradition of neighborhood Vienna Beef hot dog stands and turned it into an art form of the highest order.

Despite the tremendous success, at least as indicated by lines down the block, Doug seems dedicated to doing things his own way rather than succumb to expanding Hot Doug's in a manner that might not be as self-satisfying. While I would prefer not to wait as long, I actually find this bit of iconoclasticness to be quite endearing.

Sohn could obviously move to a larger space, build additional locations or be open more hours than 10:30-4:00 Monday-Saturday, with the whole enterprise frequently shutting down for a week or two at a time. When you think about the common assumptions of capitalism, to not do any of these things is a lot crazier than expecting satisfied patrons to wait in line. Doug is always at the front counter, cheekily greets every customer and even advises dine-in customers to get smaller-sized sodas since there are free refills.

Plus, I've never been to any restaurant where every staff member is as nice as they are at Hot Doug's.

So maybe I won't be waiting in line for hours every weekend, but barring any unforeseen calamities, I'll certainly be back. Not only is Hot Doug's a place that every Chicagoan should know about--I'm grateful to a former colleague who turned me onto it a few years ago--but even more than other local favorites like Al's Italian Beef, Lou Malnati's, Gino's East, great BBQ joints, top steakhouses and super-swanky places like Alinea and Charlie Trotter's, it is the distinct dining experience that I'd most recommend Windy City tourists make a point of discovering.
And compared to flying in from Hong Kong or driving in from Duluth, waiting in line for 100 minutes doesn't seem all that insane.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Green-Lighting the Degredation of America, At Our Behest -- Theatre Review: Speed-the-Plow at American Theater Company

Theater Review

a play by David Mamet
American Theater Co, Chicago
Thru October 24, 2010

In the theater just before the start of "Speed-the-Plow"--David Mamet's 1988 play about Hollywood decision-making--a classic Rolling Stones song was playing. At first I thought it was Sympathy For The Devil, but it was actually Gimme Shelter.

I don't know if the pre-show music was specified in the stage directions, was acutely chosen by this production's director, Rick Snyder, or was just what the folks at American Theater Co. felt apt.

But while Gimme Shelter certainly set the tone, on my way home after the show on Sunday afternoon I couldn't help think of one of the most incisive lyrics in rock history, from 'Sympathy': "I shouted out 'Who killed the Kennedys?,' when after all, it was you and me."

At least on the surface, Speed-the-Plow is about a studio executive named Bobby Gould wrestling over whether to "green-light" (i.e. approve to get made) a lousy movie with a big star involved or a likely much better but less bankable film. And while the typically acerbic Mamet, who had directed his first movie--the wonderful House of Games--the year before Speed-the-Plow premiered on Broadway, is seemingly lampooning the "Hollywood suits" for both embracing and epitomizing stupidity, he's also shrewd enough to make clear what the smarter business decision would be. As well as to imbue Karen, the secretary who pushes to Gould green-light the good film, with ulterior motives of her own, even if they're not quite as overt as those of film producer Charlie Fox in championing the morally-bankrupt blockbuster.

In his program notes, ATC Artistic Director PJ Paparelli writes, "In the shadow of the 1987 Wall Street Crash, Speed-the-Plow illuminates the universal struggle over doing what is right or what is profitable." But the brilliance of the play, or at least what I took from my first encounter with it, is that the parable isn't that simple.

Hollywood gets blasted by those of us who appreciate higher-quality films for putting out an overload of recycled drek, but the American public shelled out $161 million this summer on the latest poorly reviewed Adam Sandler film, Grown Ups, while the critically-lauded The Kids Are All Right--which was fairly successful for a movie of its type--has grossed $20 million. So in an industry called show "business" for a reason, how much can Hollywood be demonized for feeding us the crap we love to eat.

(On a similar note, not to get too far off-topic, a health group recently put out this video blaming McDonald's for causing heart attacks. I don't know about you, but Ronald McDonald hasn't ever broken into my home and stuffed a Big Mac down my throat. Let's not absolve ourselves of the detrimental choices we consciously make. I mean it's not like I was brainwashed in my youth to crave two all beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun.)

This was a Mamet play I needed to see, in more ways than one. For although I've long considered him my second favorite playwright--behind Arthur Miller but ahead of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill--that's really on the strength of just Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo. I liked Oleanna (which I didn't see at ATC in its dual run with Speed-the-Plow and likely won't based on a much lesser review from the Tribune's Chris Jones), but didn't care much for "A Life in the Theater" or two of his more recent works, "Romance" and "November." In fact, my love of two of his written & directed movies, House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner (and to a lesser extent, Heist and State & Main) probably imprecisely aids my regard for Mamet's stage canon.

With excellent performances from Darrell W. Cox (who adroitly adapts and refines the "manic aggressive" act I've seen him do in several roles at Profiles Theatre), Lance Baker and Nicole Lowrence, this rendition of Speed-the-Plow felt like a first-rate take on Grade A-minus Mamet. Not as evocative, multi-faceted or delightfully profane as 'Glengarry' or as subtle in its as allegory as American Buffalo, Speed-the-Plow is fun to watch and has considerable depth beyond its surface. And with as much resonance today as in 1988, it's certainly worth--in a half-baked attempt at Mametian language--your f-ing time and attention.  

(Discount tickets for many performances should be available thru HotTix as I was able to get one for just $17.50.)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Led Time For Bonzo - Commemorating the 30th Anniversary of John Bonham's Death with My 10 Favorite Led Zeppelin Songs

I can still recall seeing the full-page ad at left in the Chicago Tribune on September 25, 1980, advertising four Led Zeppelin concerts at the Chicago Stadium, with tickets--amazingly topping out at just $15 for the biggest band in the world--available only by mail order.

A few weeks shy of turning 12, I was already a big Zeppelin fan, but not quite a concertgoer. It wouldn't have mattered anyhow, for that same day, 30 years ago today, the band's powerhouse drummer, John Bonham, died at the age of 32. After ingesting 40 shots of vodka in the previous 24 hours, he wound up choking on his own vomit. Not exactly a lovely way to go.

Devastated by the death of 'Bonzo,' who knew Robert Plant and Jimmy Page before the band was formed, Led Zeppelin canceled their Fall 1980 tour and, except for a handful of special events, would never again play together .

You can read a bit more about the circumstances at, where I found the ad at left and which sells unused tickets from the Chicago Stadium concert.

As Led Zeppelin has always remained one of my favorite bands, with remastered recordings, newly released live albums and their phenomenal DVD set serving only to remind me of not only how great they were, but to illustrate their astonishing power as a concert act. They are the one band I wish I had seen live in their prime, even more than the Beatles, but I am content that despite sounding great at a reunion gig with John Bonham's son Jason taking his dad's place on drums (as demonstrated by this Stairway to Heaven clip), the band has not toured as sixtysomethings. Though if they do, I'll be there. (And I did see Page & Plant twice and Plant solo several times.)

But in remembering the sad significance of this date, I give you:

My 10 Favorite Led Zeppelin Songs
Most of these are live clips, not just because they're more readily found on YouTube, but because they showcase the Zep's mammoth live power. A "Playlist" clip, with all 10 videos playing sequentially, is below my countdown.

10. The Ocean

9. What Is and What Should Never Be

8. Houses of the Holy - a slim choice over Trampled Underfoot

7. Stairway to Heaven - Almost too ubiquitous in my youth, and the lyrics are silly, but I can't deny its power

6. Kashmir

5. Black Dog

4.Over the Hills and Far Away

3. The Song Remains The Same

2. Immigrant Song

1. Rock and Roll

Playlist video including all 10 above:

A Thoroughly Delightful Evening With Sutton Foster -- Concert / Theater Review with Setlist

Concert / Theater Review

An Evening with Sutton Foster
Broadway Playhouse, Chicago
Thru September 26

I wouldn't be surprised if you aren't familiar with Sutton Foster. Although she has originated five leading roles on Broadway in the past decade, won one Tony and was nominated for three others, I imagine her Q rating (i.e. level of mass recognition) on a national level is less than many reality TV stars.

That's reality--and I doubt the winsome Foster is anything but grateful for her considerable success in the musical theater realm--but also a shame. For as she demonstrated last night at Chicago's new Broadway Playhouse, as well as on the Great White Way, Sutton Foster is one of the most appealing and vocally talented performers I have ever seen. She really should be a true American idol.

And in a previous age, Foster might have been Julie Andrews, Mary Martin or a young Ethel Merman, Broadway leading ladies who became well-known across the country and later transitioned into Hollywood.

Even though my most avid theatergoing friend in Chicago had never heard of her, for those who pay close attention to Broadway itself, Foster's '42nd Street'-like rise from a chorus girl in an out-of-town run of Thoroughly Modern Millie to leading lady by the time it hit New York has been well-told. She had already some nice credits to her name--including Broadway revivals of Grease, Annie and Les Miserables--but 'Millie' made her a Broadway star and the 2002 Tony Award winner for Best Leading Actress in a Musical.

I saw her in that show--although it took two trips to New York in 2003 do so due to a writers' strike the first time I had tickets--and was instantly smitten. Sutton was thoroughly magnificent and I was further enamored when she fulfilled a request to autograph my ticket by mail.

Subsequently I had a ticket to see her on Broadway in Little Women, but it closed before I got there, I saw her in The Drowsy Chaperone and I saw Young Frankenstein with her in the cast, but got an understudy. She also starred in Shrek the Musical which I never got to in NYC (and though I read of a possibility she would come to Chicago with the touring cast, that didn't happen).

So though I should've seen her a good bit more then the twice I already had, this explains why I joined a solid but not sold-out crowd at the Broadway Playhouse, which Broadway In Chicago has modernized from the recently built but more ostentatious Drury Lane Theater at Water Tower Place.

And it should also explain why it wasn't a surprise that Foster was fantastic in interpreting a range of songs in different styles, from "Up On The Roof" (made famous by James Taylor) to "Defying Gravity" from Wicked, a song that was picked from a jar as one of five possible choices in that slot.

About half of Foster's setlist, which I jotted down as best I could and have included below, was comprised of numbers on her new album, Wish. And from reading some reviews from elsewhere on her tour, as well as the Tribune's glowing review of Thursday night's performance, it seems for the most part it's a pretty standard set.

No reason it shouldn't be, as accompanied by great arrangements by music director and pianist Michael Rafter, Foster does a remarkable job on songs she clearly loves and demonstrates tremendous range and  dexterity across them all. Having read that she recently went through a divorce, it was apparent that she's unafraid to show vulnerability and wistfulness in songs like "My Heart Was Set On You" and "Once Upon A Time." But in relaying a story about how a flight from Seattle to New York had to make an emergency landing in Chicago, and a hard one at that, Foster showed through a song like Sondheim's "Being Alive" how irrepressible she is in looking forward.

And her take on "Show Off" from The Drowsy Chaperone was loads of fun, as she effectively downsized what was a big Broadway production number into a cabaret setting with just a microphone, but still managed to include an onstage dress change and other imaginative bits.

All in all, it was a thoroughly delightful evening, though as one minor lament, at 80 minutes it was a bit short. I was thrilled to get a ticket for just $25 at the door (and thanks again to the cute girl in the box office for letting me know they would be releasing more), but had I paid nearly $100 with Ticketmaster fees for one of the top seats, I might have felt a tad shortchanged.

And while Foster has put together a great set of music showcasing her new album, which I look forward to getting, I think she would do well to extend beyond her comfort range. Her ability to tackle diverse showtunes and easy listening pop songs is so great that I would love to hear what she might do with a Beatles song or something even more less obvious.

But in a year in which I've seen showcase performances including Broadway legends like Patti LuPone, Mandy Patinkin, George Hearn and Audra McDonald, the fact that Sutton Foster's concert was the best of its sort--and one of the most pleasing of any type--says a helluva lot. As she said in a shout out to her high school drama teacher from Troy, Michigan, who was in the audience, "You did good." (Tickets should be available for her performances tonight and Sunday afternoon, through Ticketmaster or at the venue). 

Sutton Foster set list from 9/24/10:

1. Something's Coming - from West Side Story
2. NYC - from Annie
3. Up On the Roof - James Taylor song by Goffin/King
4. Air Conditioner - by Christine Lavin
5. Warm All Over - from The Most Happy Fella
6. Show Off - from The Drowsy Chaperone
7. Supposin' / Say That - outtake from Thoroughly Modern Millie
8. More to the Story - outtake from Shrek
9. My Heart Was Set On You - by Jeff Blumenkrantz
10. I Like The Sunshine - by Duke Ellington
11. Defying Gravity - from Wicked
12. The Late, Late Show - by Alfred/Berlin
13. Sunshine on My Shoulders - a John Denver song
14. Anyone Can Whistle - from Anyone Can Whistle
15. Being Alive - from Company
16. Come the Wild, Wild Weather - by Noel Coward
17. Once Upon A Time - from All American
18. Gimme Gimme - from Thoroughly Modern Millie

To serve as a better introduction to Sutton, here are a couple old videos of songs she sang last night:

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Fun Film For Dedicated Followers of The Kinks, But Not A Heroic Piece of Celluloid - Movie Review: Do It Again

Movie Review

Do It Again
a documentary written by & starring Geoff Edgers about his quest to reunite The Kinks; directed by Robert Patton-Spruill

I would like to presume that among most rock historians and avid fans, the Mt. Rushmore of British Invasion bands would include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks (yes, I know it'd be hard to fit all the members on a mountainside and that The Who didn't surface until '65, a trifle later than the others).

But ever since introducing themselves to American audiences in 1964 with the great 1-2 punch of "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All the Night," The Kinks have lagged far behind their brethren in popularity, despite a comparable output of phenomenal, critically-revered music (as their discography attests).

I became a big Kinks fan in the early '80s and had the pleasure of seeing them three times ('83, '87, '93) while never quite grasping why they were relegated to playing small arenas and half-filled outdoor amphitheaters as The Stones, Who and Paul McCartney continued to fill football stadiums. I don't recall ever hearing of an official Kinks break-up, but whatever hiatus they may have initially been on soon became permanent, as they stopped touring and putting out albums. And when I heard that guitarist Dave Davies suffered a stroke in 2004, after his brother Ray--the head Kink--got shot on the streets of New Orleans (but fortunately wasn't critically wounded ), I pretty much presumed The Kinks would never be whole again.

But despite putting out a pair of stellar albums over the past five years, better in fact than his latter-day Kinks output, and touring solo (see my review of his stellar Chicago show in March), Ray Davies had recently been rather vocal about his desire to reunite the Kinks. Yet while this Rolling Stone piece from Sept. 2008 spoke to the possibility, it became apparent that the band, for one reason or another, just wasn't getting back together. At least not the four original members, who were all still alive until bassist Pete Quaife died this past June.

So when I heard about a new movie called Do It Again, billed as "one man's quest to reunite The Kinks," it sounded a day late and a dollar short. But I still had to see it, for any movie about the Kinks can't be all that bad and I had read some pretty positive reviews. The Chicago International Movies and Music Festival ( seems to largely be an event taking place next April--held a showing last night at the Metro, long one of Chicago best live music venues.

My friend Dave and I arrived for the only known showing in the Chicagoland area--a region of over 8 million people--and found a total of five fellow Kinks fanatics already there. The audience swelled to about 18 once the film began, but somewhat debunking the movie's premise, or at least its stated purpose, it doesn't appear that the general public is really clamoring for a Kinks reunion. Ray Davies didn't sell out the 2,500 capacity Riviera in March and my guess is The Kinks today might draw at best 10,000 fans in Chicago--make it a festival with a reunited Jam, Smiths & Blur and perhaps 20,000 folks might join me--so imagine the crowds when The Kinks would hit Kansas City and Des Moines.

The film, somewhat properly a 'Low Budget' affair,' was written by and centers around Geoff Edgers, an arts writer for the Boston Globe, who decides it's his mission to try to reunite the Kinks. I applaud his passion to shed greater light on one of the most criminally under-appreciated bands in history, and overall the movie was enjoyable. But it did seem that:

A) It was more about Edgers wanting to make a documentary about trying to reunite the Kinks than showcasing any real legitimate aim, expectation or reason to bring them back together.

B) Its only real appeal is to hardcore Kinks fans, unlike great documentaries that are compelling even to those uninitiated to its subject matter. I really can't recommend this film to non-Kinks aficionados, not even as a way to generate new fans, as a decent Behind The Music episode would tell anyone considerably more about the Kinks and their music.

C) Hearty Kinks fans like me were left with more of a distaste for Ray's personality and his treatment of Dave over the years than I really wanted to know about.

So without a truly viable or even novel mission--as Ray had beaten him to the punch in terms of pining for a Kinks reunion but being unable to make it happen--and negligible appeal for anyone other than ardent Kinkophiles--as the mid-life crisis, bickering wife, job troubles in this economy, seeking a sense of purpose story Edgers tells about himself has been better told elsewhere--what we are left with is a movie of Edgers conducting interviews with people who generally have great things to say about the Kinks.

Some of this is a lot of fun. Interviews with musicians like Paul Weller (of the Jam), Warren Zanes (Del Fuegos), Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Robyn Hitchcock (the Soft Boys), Sting (the Police) and singer-actress Zooey Deschanel--who is included because she was seen having a large, Kinkless record collection in Almost Famous--shed some enjoyable insight, as do talks with early Kinks producer Shel Talmy, record mogul Clive Davis and a smattering of original and replacement Kinks (I won't give away who chooses to participate in the film or Edgers' attempts to bring them together).

Buck, along with R.E.M. touring sideman Scott McCaughey, makes a good point about how R.E.M. has always functioned as a democracy with shared songwriting credits, but that bands in which one person is the clear leader and chief songwriter invariably run into the same problems most autocracies do.

And while Edgers' attempts to get many of his interview subjects to sing Kinks songs with him comes off a bit obnoxious--especially when he was told in advance of their unwillingness--it is great when he gets Sting to play a Kinks Klassic, and Buck/McCaughey's sweet take on "Get Back into Line" redeems the previous scene in which Edgers--seemingly out of nowhere--is seen complaining about his union after having to accept a pay cut.

I don't think I'll be giving away the movie's ending to say that as of this writing, The Kinks have not reunited. And given Quaife's passing, the original lineup obviously never will. While I would love to Ray and Dave back onstage again, the truth is that it doesn't seem like that great, or necessary, an idea. The Kinks had a 30+ year run, the last decade of which was clearly their worst. Dave ( seems to relatively healthy, happy and active while Ray ( is making great music on his own and plays plenty of Kinks songs when he tours solo. His newest project, See My Friends, a collection of duets on Kinks tunes with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, Jackson Browne, Jon Bon Jovi and Billy Corgan, sounds intriguing. And as he once so eloquently sang: 

I know you've got a lot of good things happening up ahead
The past is gone it's all been said
So here's to what the future brings,
I know tomorrow you'll find better things

The Kinks will always be a @@@@@, Absolutely Phenomenal band. The movie, Do It Again, is @@@, Good But Not Great. See it if you're a Kinks fan--if you can find it; for now it's sporadically playing festivals and isn't yet available on DVD, although the screening I saw was just a DVD, not celluloid--but probably skip it if you're not.

Although you should be. And since you're here, these are just a few of my favorite Kinks songs:

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Born to Run in the USA, Somewhere in the Swamps of Jersey -- Birthday Tribute: Bruce Springsteen (b. Sept. 23, 1949)

Photo credit: A.M. Saddler, from
Even for those of us still sitting on the proverbial sidelines when it comes to full-time employment, today is a day to celebrate The Boss' birthday.

For along with much else that can be--and has been--said about Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen, born this day in 1949 in Long Branch, New Jersey, he has captured the hopes and hardships of working-class people better than any other artist in rock history.

Springsteen became my favorite singer around 1980 and has never come close to giving up the title--despite, as he has admitted, some relatively "lost years" in the 1990s, during most of which his stalwart E Street Band was dormant.

Bruce tops the list of My 100 All-Time Favorite Artists of Popular Music (as well as that of My Favorite Entertainers of the '00s) and I recently wrote a long piece here about him, centered around the upcoming reissue of his 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town album, complete with plenty of extra material.

So especially as today I've already penned and posted an article commemorating my all-time favorite jazz musician, the late John Coltrane, who shares Bruce's birth date, I'll refrain from into a long-winded dissertation on Bruce. Suffice it to say I have all his officially released material and a few things beyond, I've seen him live in concert 38 times and can't wait for more, and with no disrespect to anyone who relies on  religion, psychiatry or even controlled substances for emotional reinforcement, all I've ever needed was Springsteen's music to get me through some tough times.

So to celebrate The Boss turning 61--I celebrated #60 with him in person, last Sept. 20 at Chicago's United Center, when he first played my favorite album, Born to Run, all the way through--I'll do something I've never actually done before: Rank and count down my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs.

I thought I was going to do my Top 10, but couldn't quite narrow it down below 12, so that'll have to suffice. There are easily well over 100 songs of his I actively like, and very few I don't, so this wasn't all that easy. And though nothing post-1982 made the cut, I largely enjoy most of what Bruce has put out over the last 10 years and as a live act, he has remained as good as ever (and IMHO, leaps & bounds better than any other concert performer).

So without any further ado, here are...

My Top 12 Favorite Bruce Springsteen Songs

(Note: For those who want to hear the music but don't have time to click through all the videos, the final video below is a "Playlist" that will automatically cycle through the clips I've chosen.)

12. Atlantic City -The acoustic version on Nebraska is great, but I love the full-band live rendition, such as this one from 1985. He opened with it when I saw him play in Atlantic City in 2003.

11. Candy's Room - Probably the least prominent song from Bruce's canon in this list, but also one of his most sonically unique. Original version is on Darkness but this is a live version from 2007.

10. Darkness on the Edge of Town - A phenomenal song about choices and consequences, without condemnation. His closing lyrics on this one are among my very favorite, "Tonight I'll be on that hill 'cause I can't stop / I'll be on that hill with everything I got / Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost / I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost / For wanting things that can only be found / In the darkness on the edge of town" This is a cool live clip from 1978.

9. The River - One of his most strident songs about the effects of a bad economy. The line, "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true or is it something worse?" is among his most poignant. This is a great version from the No Nukes concert in 1979 and subsequent film.

8. Jungleland - With the Born to Run album being my favorite, its songs will figure prominently here. Jungleland is the closing cut on the record, done here in London last June.

7. Incident on 57th Street - Like Jungleland, an almost operatic epic about lives and loss. Originally on his second album, The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, this live clip is from 2000.

6. The Ties That Bind - A rocker that opens The River album. A quick and direct summation of many of his recurring themes. The transition before the last verse is one of my favorite musical moments.

5. Born to Run - So ubiquitous--it's the one song all Bruce fanatics know will be played at every E Street show--that it's easy to forget how great it is.

4. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) - Similar to Born to Run, 'Rosie' is such a favorite of even casual Springsteen fans that it seems almost too obvious, but I just love it. And a great bootleg clip from '78.

3. Thunder Road - This is like Bruce's Casablanca, full of lines people can readily recite. When I saw him at the United Center for 2 nights in October 2007, he hadn't played it the first night or previously on the tour. So this is a sentimental clip, even if the perspective and sound isn't the best; plus, my vantage point that night was quite similar.

2. Badlands - Also a staple of just about every E Street Band show, this is one song that best provides a boost when I need one. "Badlands, you gotta live it everyday / Let the broken hearts stand / As the price you've gotta pay / We'll keep pushin' till it's understood and these badlands start treating us good."  (Even the somewhat random renditions of many of these songs readily found on YouTube should show how good he and the band have sounded in recent years.)

1. Backstreets - My all-time favorite song by anyone. And though they were before my concert-going time, his 1978 versions are his best ever. That said, this clip--the only one of the full song I found from that era--isn't the greatest, but should sufficiently capture one of the most majestic rock songs ever written. (You can freely listen to the studio version here and below the video is an audio clip of the best live version I've ever heard.)

As I said above, this is just a "Playlist" that automatically rolls through the 12 videos above, for the ease of those who prefer to have the music playing in the background.

Happy Birthday Bruce and thanks for all the phenomenal music!

The Tenor of His Saxophone Remains One of My Favorite Things -- Birthday Tribute: John Coltrane (b. Sept. 23, 1926; d. July 17, 1967)

I know and like a fair amount of jazz, particularly the legendary musicians and composers--Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Dexter Gordon, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins (who I saw earlier this year)--but am not quite an aficionado and 'Miles' short of being an expert.

But by far, my favorite jazz musician has long been saxophonist John Coltrane, whom I became aware of when Bono namechecked him--and Miles Davis--in Angel of Harlem, U2's 1988 song about Billie Holiday

'Trane' is typically cited just below 'Bird' (Charlie Parker) in the annals of all-time sax men, but I've liked him best since first hearing him and have come to own most of his major recordings.

More like Parker than their contemporary Rollins, whose career has stretched over 60 years, Coltrane's time in the limelight was rather brief. Born on this day in 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina, he first became known in 1955 as a sideman to Davis, and then Monk, recorded his own first album in 1957 and didn't form his "Classic Quartet" until 1962. Although he had kicked his heroin habit years earlier, Coltrane died of liver cancer in 1967 at the age of 40.

I can't really speak too intelligently about his innovations or influence--the Wikipedia article on Coltrane does so briefly and Lewis Porter's biography on him is quite good--I just like the way he sounds, particularly when he blazes through solos. And even a dilettante like me can tell that his playing is different than almost everything that came before, and even after.

There is really no bad place to start exploring Coltrane's music, as I haven't heard much that isn't phenomenal, across various styles, but his Ken Burns Jazz disc is a pretty good compilation and Giant Steps, Blue Train, My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme are the albums I--and most essential.

In honor of what would have been John Coltrane's 84th birthday, below are four clips from YouTube that go a short but considerable distance in showing why 'Trane continues to blow my mind.

(Note: For those who want to hear the music but don't have time to click through all the videos, the final video below is a "Playlist" that will automatically cycle through the clips I've chosen.)

My Favorite Things - Although most Coltrane records as a group leader primarily include original compositions, his 1961 take on Rogers & Hammerstein's classic from The Sound of Music stands as one of his signature tunes. The audio on this clip isn't quite perfect, but it's worth watching just to see the master at work. And though Coltrane is most famed as a Tenor Sax player, here I think he is playing an Alto Sax. Coltrane's pianist, McCoy Tyner, is also masterful here and I've had the pleasure of seeing him perform several times in the last decade.

Giant Steps - This is a really cool video someone put together for what is probably my single favorite Coltrane track. According to Wikipedia, "The composition is a milestone for jazz musicians' progress, given the difficulty of improvising its rapid progression of chord changes that progress through three keys (see Coltrane changes) shifted by major thirds, creating an augmented triad."

Blue Train - An astonishing Coltrane composition from 1957. This is the studio version accompanied by a nice photo collage.

A Love Supreme - Mentioned in Angel Of Harlem, A Love Supreme is a four-part suite considered one of the greatest recordings in jazz history. This is a brief clip showing Coltrane playing Part 1: Acknowledgement in 1965. The full studio recording of Acknowledgement can be heard here.

As I said above, this is just a "Playlist" that automatically rolls through the four videos above, for the ease of those who prefer to have the music playing in the background.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

All in All, Roger Waters Reconstructs a Solidly Entertaining 'Wall' - Concert Review: Roger Waters: The Wall Live in Chicago

Concert Review

Roger Waters: The Wall Live
Monday, September 20, 2010
United Center, Chicago
(Performances also 9/21, 23, 24)

We all have differing opinions about what constitutes quality, worthwhile entertainment. But to be fairly obvious, any performance that's enjoyable enough to justify the money and time we spent seeing it would seem to qualify.

And by that measure Roger Waters: The Wall Live--celebrating (and cashing in on) the 30th anniversary of the landmark Pink Floyd album for which Waters was the chief creative force and primary singer--was more than sufficiently satisfying. If you're thinking of trying to catch one of the three remaining performances at Chicago's United Center this week (Ticketmaster link), or when The Wall hits your town, there is no reason why you shouldn't, especially as you're just as apt to enjoy it from $55 seats as from the $250 seats. (In fact, an usher came by and said that we could move from the upper-300 level to the 200 level, and we didn't take him up.)

For with the 67-year-old Waters supported by an anonymous band--though I think one of the guitarists was G.E. Smith, the old Saturday Night Live musical director--replicating the sound of Pink Floyd, appreciating  the visual spectacle and sonic flashbacks certainly didn't require being up close and personal.

Photo credit: Scott Strazzante, Chicago Tribune
And as a seminal album from my youth was reproduced reasonably well live on stage--not that I would've been old enough to go in 1980, but the very limited original Wall tour never came to Chicago--with Waters sounding roughly like his old self, a stand-in for David Gilmour covering his vocal parts sufficiently in limited doses and an actual wall going up, and being torn down, before my eyes, I was much more delighted than not, even if the show won't rank as one of my all-time best.

Knowing going in that Waters would be playing The Wall in its entirety, and nothing else, I didn't expect a whole lot of spontaneity (here's the setlist for those who don't know the album by heart). And while I can't say I've ever fully grasped the profundity of Waters' rock-star-craving-isolation epic, I liked that he brought the album's anti-war messaging more to the fore with several blatantly compelling visuals including photos of soldiers lost in recent battles and, quite prominently, this Eisenhower quote: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed."

Modernizing the "propaganda" certainly helped make Waters' Wall reconstruction feel a bit less like pure nostalgia, nor merely a way for him to collect the kind of paychecks his former bandmates did when they continued to tour as Pink Floyd without him from the late-80s through mid-90s. If nothing else, you have to credit Waters' understanding of the marketing power of The Wall, one of the five best-selling albums ever in the U.S.   In 2007, Waters toured the states playing Dark Side of the Moon and other classic songs. Although I may have enjoyed that show better than this one, I didn't bother to go when he played a single night at the United Center. But embarking on The Wall 30th Anniversary Tour earned him 4 nights of adoring fans at the UC.

As I said up top, enjoyable entertainment is enjoyable entertainment. And if you try to remain too pure about things, you won't have anything to see.

Yes, on some level, last night's show felt wrong for not being a full Pink Floyd reunion (now impossible since keyboardist Rick Wright died in 2008), though to be fair, seeing PF without Waters in 1987 also was amiss. And yes, in large part, the fully scripted and synchronized performance came off more as theater than a buoyant, super-charged rock concert--and don't be surprised if The Wall doesn't soon become a Broadway show, with someone replicating Waters almost as effectively as his substitutes for Gilmour, et al.

But yes, it was well worth my $55 (and those in the expensive seats didn't seem to be booing either).

I loved hearing the classic tunes, I sang along, I had a great time with the friend I was with, I felt sentimental, I appreciated what Roger Waters was trying to say, I applauded, I went home happy. And thus, although it wasn't the most emotionally fulfilling concert I'll ever see, I'm certainly in no position to tear down The Wall. 

(Here are a couple clips already on YouTube. Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2 and Run Like Hell.)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Traveling Back to 1985 with the YouTube Time Machine

It hasn't been lost on me that a number of things I've written about here hearken back to my childhood, in one way or another. From concerts I've seen & reviewed by favorite acts since my youth--AC/DC, Rush, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith--to pieces about or involving childhood icons like Evel Knievel, Mark Fidrych and Ernie Banks to a review of a new play--The Invasion of Skokie--about late-'70s events in my hometown, I've done a good bit of looking back. My long piece on saving ticket stubs was also fueled, in part, by a sense of nostalgia.

Even beyond what I've blogged about, there have been trips down memory lane, including visiting my junior high school (Old Orchard) when it had an Open House celebrating its 50th anniversary--at which I spoke with several former teachers--and reconnecting with a number of long-lost friends and classmates on Facebook.

But while I am now less than a month from turning 42, I am not acutely aware of being in the midst of a mid-life crisis (though I guess few really are). Although I hope to soon again be working more regularly and would certainly accept some financial, romantic and physical improvements if they came with no strings attached, I don't consciously feel any particular sense of unrest, unhappiness or longing. I am grateful for what I do have, content with who I am and, all things considered, wouldn't trade places with anyone.

Yesterday, after watching the Bears' surprising victory over the Cowboys, I watched 'Hot Tub Time Machine,' a 2010 movie in which John Cusack and friends are magically transported back to 1986, with some unclear assistance from Chevy Chase. It was OK but not wonderful and even those nostalgic for the '80s would probably be better served just watching The Sure Thing, Say Anything or National Lampoon's Vacation.

But it was a bit of fun being taken back in time, with references in the film to Duran Duran, Miami Vice, Alf, Cassette Walkmans, "Where's the Beef?", leg warmers, Super Mario Bros. and "Safety Dance" (quick, name the band). I also liked the nod to Back to the Future with a bit part by Crispin Glover.

The once & future idiot, circa 1985. And no, I can't play guitar.
So largely with the help of YouTube, I set out to create my own (virtual) time machine.

As you can see at top, I set my DeLorean gauge for 1985. The following year, when I graduated high school and entered college, may have been a bit more notable, even in terms of major news events, but as a silver anniversary ago and more of a midway point of the '80s, 1985 seems more apt. Plus, '85 was the year Marty McFly went back to the future.

Now as I share some of my favorite moments & memories of 1985, I'll first note a number of things that have pretty much remained the same.

In 1985, I lived in Skokie, Illinois. Although I didn't for about 18 of the next 25 years, in 2010 I live in Skokie, Illinois. Two of my closest friends were/are Jordan and Mark. My favorite singer was/is Bruce Springsteen, with The Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who, U2, Tom Petty and those named above being others spanning 25 years and beyond. Sartorially speaking, I favor(ed) concert t-shirts and blue jeans. I liked eating at local joints like Poochie's and Sarkis', and still do. I wore a Casio digital watch and have never since worn a different brand (it recently dawned on me that Casio is the brand, of any kind or category, to which I've been most loyal).

And though many tastes & passions have come along since--art, theater, photography, travel, etc.--in 1985, as I do now, I liked rock music (though I wasn't yet that tuned into R.E.M., Husker Du, The Replacements, The Cure or some others I should've been), sports, movies, TV and writing (I was the Sports Editor for my high school newspaper).

As such, the videos below collect only things that I knew about and actively liked at the time, not in retrospect. And while it may seem like I'm not really broaching on major news events, even in doing a bit of research, there wasn't a whole lot of unforgettable stuff in that regard. Reagan began his second term, there were number of major plane crashes and natural disasters that killed thousands worldwide and the most famous deaths were probably those of Rock Hudson--the AIDS epidemic was just coming to the fore--and Leon Klinghoffer, an American killed aboard the hijacked cruise ship, Achille Lauro. (Orson Welles, Yul Brenner (both on the same day, October 10), Marc Chagall, Anne Baxter, Roger Maris, Ruth Gordon and Flyers goalie Pelle Lindbergh also died in 1985, as did an actor mentioned below.)

So fasten your seatbelts and get ready as the YouTube Time Machine takes us back to 1985.

My favorite TV show in 1985 was Cheers. Its third season was 1984-85, and sadly, Nicholas Colasanto who wonderfully played Coach, died on February 16 at age 61. The clip below is just a random one I found, but sums up Coach and Cheers pretty well. Colasanto's replacement, Woody Harrelson as Woody was great also, from fall 1985 on, but I always missed Coach.

It's not a show I ever revisited in reruns or on DVD, but the early days of Moonlighting--which debuted on March 3, 1985--were fantastic.

1985 wasn't a fantastic year in movies, but here are a couple quick clips that may spark some memories.

1985 was a very good year in sports, both locally (in Chicago) and nationally.

I saw Michael Jordan play in person for the very first time. This is a clip from the actual game, March 9, 1985 against Utah.

The NCAA Tournament ended with a huge upset I'll never forget when Villanova beat Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown (though it's a bit less famous than NC State beating Houston 2 years earlier).

This was probably the greatest round in boxing history:

On Sept. 11, 1985, Pete Rose got hit number 4,192 to break Ty Cobb's record. I was at the game 3 days earlier at Wrigley when he got hits 4,190 and 4,191, in a game that ended in a 5-5 tie.

The World Series was also noteworthy, as the Kansas City Royals beat state rival St. Louis Cardinals in 7 games, aided by a blown call in Game 6. And Dwight Gooden had what may have been the best pitching season in my lifetime (as I was born after McClain & Gibson's seasons in '68. Although Guidry, Maddux, Pedro and Clemens might provide some argument).

But the biggest sports story in 1985 were the Chicago Bears, who went 15-1 on their way to winning their only Super Bowl in January 1986, with the greatest defense--those who enjoyed the Bears victory over the Cowboys today, check this out--and best collection of personalities the NFL has ever seen. I don't think anyone around at the time will ever forget the Super Bowl Shuffle.

In the realm of music, some of my tastes from 1985 have aged better than others, with Talking Heads, John Mellencamp, Dire Straits (Money for Nothing video), Bryan Adams and The Hooters and, yes, Ratt, being among some of my favorites not already mentioned. I'm not so proud of it, but I loved this song and video:

The biggest musical event of 1985 was Live Aid. I still vividly remember watching much of it and was blown away by this performance by U2.

And I can still hear myself shrieking, "Led Zeppelin's on! Led Zeppelin's on!" when a reunited (3/4 at least) took the stage for the first time since John Bonham died in 1980.

As for concerts I attended, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Soldier Field on August 9, 1985 was by far the biggest one. I couldn't find any clips from that show, but this is pretty close:

Finally, outside any of the above areas, here's a little reminder of a great idea that didn't work out so well.

Well, thanks for reminiscing with me. Admittedly, this was a post I enjoyed more myself than I imagine many others will, but it could be fun to replicate it in your own way for whatever year may be suitable.

Time to head back to 2010, as tonight I'm going to a concert I'm really looking forward to: Roger Waters re-creating the Wall on the 30th anniversary of Pink Floyd's landmark album. Another glorious memory of childhood, and I don't even need a time machine to see it. Just some binoculars.

NOTE: A commenter let me know of a website he created that takes this idea a whole lot further. Check out to see videos that take you back to the year of your choice, all the way to 1860. A really cool site.