Sunday, October 31, 2010

No Tricks, Just Treats: My Favorite Halloween Candy

Should an overstuffed, "where are they now?" version of Oliver Twist ring your bell tonight, here are the 10 pieces of candy that will make me ask, "Please, may I have some more?"


9. I'll need about 8 of these, since they're so small.




4. The Halloween-size Twix is paltry compared to the full twin-bar pack, so this isn't a value pick. But I like 'em.

3. If you don't have any Snickers, I'll take Milky Way or Mars, but no Three Musketeers please.


1. This is a relative newcomer to the candy bar scene, but its mix of chocolate, caramel, peanut butter, peanuts and a pretzel makes Take5 my favorite.

And that's what would make for a Sweet Halloween!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

'Speak Now' Impressively Taylored to Swift's Target Audience While Bespeaking Broader Possibilities -- Album Review

Album Review

Taylor Swift
Speak Now

OK, go ahead and snicker. A portly, middle-aged curmudgeon in a Ramones shirt without much previous passion for modern country or pure pop is reviewing--and awarding @@@@ (out of 5) to--Taylor Swift's new album.

Well, first of all, as reviews here--within just the past fortnight--ranging from Alejandro Escovedo, Jason & The Scorchers, Bob Mould and LCD Soundsystem to an opera version of Macbeth, a stage version of The Wedding Singer and Leonard Bernstein's Candide should indicate, I try to be diverse in the musical realms I know, like, explore and share.

Also, while in many ways I appreciate the individuality and intimacy of artistic expression and reception in the internet age--as illustrated by the fact that I'm writing a review you're reading, without my being a critic for the Chicago Tribune or Rolling Stone--I sometimes miss the unifying elements of mass cultural touchstones. The days of U2 and the Rolling Stones are pretty much gone except for them specifically (and a few other aging megastars). As the biggest musical artist in the world right now, at least in terms of moving product, and one fairly well acclaimed, Taylor Swift seems like someone with whom I should be familiar.

Plus, in listening to Swift's latest album, Speak Now--whose first week sales numbers are expected to be the biggest in years--and even her last one, Fearless, I don't really hear a lot of drawling country as much as power pop with big crashing choruses, not so unlike the kind Mutt Lange produced for Def Leppard before going on to do the same for Shania Twain. (The CMT Crossroads Swift did with Def Leppard a couple years ago reveals not only was she a big fan of theirs, but that she can sing Photograph better than Joe Elliott these days.)

I have genuinely been enjoying listening to Speak Now the last few days, and it clearly demonstrates the maturation in songcraft and vocal phrasing from a prodigiously talented 20-year-old woman. There are very few artists in any musical genre doing what they do better than Swift is doing what she does, which still seems to be writing personal and extremely melodic pop songs primarily aimed at (and enjoyed by) females aged 8-22, although her audience has assuredly stretched abundantly beyond.

That said, while I would heartily recommend it to my 10-year-old niece and stand by my @@@@ rating, I don't think that as weeks pass Speak Now will continue to be in my regular rotation. But then, neither have the past two albums by U2, Coldplay, Radiohead or much anyone else.

Swift's previous album, Fearless, which I'd heard before but really got to also know for this review, is chock full of teenage pop songs brimming with airy exuberance, and just seems more enjoyable overall than Speak Now. Though also a pleasurable listen--likely to become even more so after many of the tracks undoubtedly become ubiquitous--and a more accomplished album from a maturing artist, the new song cycle is a bit too weighted down by clear intent.

Except for rare moments of can't-help-myself curiosity, I don't read Us magazine or Perez Hilton, so I didn't know all of Swift's ex-paramours who she pointedly, if artfully anonymously, rebukes in many of the album's songs. In his review, albeit one of the few relatively lukewarm ones I've seen, Thomas Conner of the Sun-Times gives a good rundown the romantic wrongdoers, including John Mayer, that incur Taylor's rapier wrath, along with Kanye West, who famously stole her spotlight.

While I agree with how Conner chides Swift's overwrought handling of the Kanye incident in the song "Innocent," for the most part I have no problem with the autobiographical nature of her songs. Bitter breakups, hurtful rejections and even direct diatribes have been the subject of innumerable great songs and I respect Swift writing about her heartaches rather than, as she herself stated would be a less appealing temptation, the travails of fame, life on the road, etc.

In interviews, the precocious but sensitive Swift comes across as classy and I respect her for keeping her clothes on, unlike many other young female pop stars. Given the rare talent that has led to and sustained her popularity beyond mere celebrity or sluttiness, it seems somewhat beneath her to keep dissing on famous boyfriends who did her wrong, especially when she comes off as petulant and petty through lyrics like those bashing the "snotty little family" at an ex-love's wedding (in the title song).

And I don't know what John Mayer supposedly did to her, and don't absolve anyone being an asshole, but when Swift repeatedly asks "Don't you think I was too young to be messed with?" in Dear John, it feels like blaming the fire for your playing with it.

This is the album Taylor Swift needed to make now, and all things considered especially among what passes for mainstream entertainment these days, it's an excellent one. Her target audience--and I got the special Target exclusive version with extra tracks--should love it. So I in no way hold it against her that she didn't make an album with more societal commentary; she's not ready to tackle Wall Street malfeasance, counterproductive foreign policy or environmental destruction and to do so would be a dumb career move. Getting political certainly hasn't been great for the album sales tallies of the Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam or Bruce Springsteen.

So with due admiration, I'll hold my peace about Speak Now and how it might have been better. But once it sells over 10 million copies worldwide and she's even more set for life, maybe next time out Swift can comment about something beyond being jilted.

For she seems like one of the few popular songwriters today capable of artfully and intelligently tackling any subject, even difficult ones, and for me to become more of a fan, I hope she does.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

LCD Soundsystem a Sensational Sensory Blast, Even If It's Their Last -- Concert Review

Concert Review

LCD Soundsystem
with Hot Chip
Riviera Theatre, Chicago
October 26, 2010

Including last night's show by LCD Soundsystem, I have seen 19 rock concerts this year. All but three have been by artists I had seen (or could have) 10 years ago or more, and I had seen Muse and Keane--the only other relative newcomers----previously.

Thus, LCD Soundsystem is the only truly modern artist to newly inspire me to get a ticket and check them out. My decision to do so was fairly last minute at that, as although I have and like their last two albums (of a total of three full albums dating back to 2005, all highly acclaimed) and had heard they were very good at Lollapalooza this year, I wasn't about to put myself in the midst of a dance floor frenzy by attending Monday night's show at the Aragon. I didn't even know they were playing a second show at the Riv until I saw last Friday's Chicago Tribune article about setlists, which included LCD brainchild James Murphy discussing his set list strategy. (This is Greg Kot's rave review of Monday's show, including a setlist quite similar or exact to Tuesday's.)

Although the Riviera is also a general admission venue, there is a balcony full of seats, so I bought a ticket on Sunday for Tuesday night's show. As I'll explain, I really enjoyed it, but before I even got there, I read on the internet that Murphy plans to completely stop touring--and scale back LCD Soundsystem altogether--after it finishes a run of international dates.

So amidst an age where not a lot of new rock artists are exciting me, I finally get hip to one that does, and caught the last concert it will ever play in America. (At least theoretically, as musical retirements are rarely rock solid.) I'm glad I did, as it was one of the best concerts I've seen this year and far better than those by Muse and Keane in the realm of something current. And yet, if Murphy changes his mind and tours again in the next 2-3 years, I doubt I'd feel much need to see LCD Soundsystem again.

In a very generic sense, both LCD and opener Hot Chip seem to have taken the alternative rock/dance groove meld best exemplified by The Killers and Franz Ferdinand and swung the equation more in favor of the grooves. But while Hot Chip's hourlong opening set seemed to hinge on one continuously propulsive beat--they weren't bad, but were best on songs I knew like Over & Over and Ready for the Floor (video here, and yes, they sound a lot cooler than they look)--the talented Mr. Murphy has structured enough diversity into LCD that their mix of rock and electronica avoids sounding repetitive or derivative. I can hear echoes of acts like Talking Heads, David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, The Smiths, Kraftwerk and Prodigy without really being able to cite clear examples. 

While LCD boasts a strong and diverse arsenal of songs--including All My Friends, which Pitchfork ranked #2 among their Top 500 Tracks of the 2000s--I enjoyed them much more on a visceral and sensory level, as they lived up to the audiovisual duality of their name with a feast for ears, eyes and groove things (even an old fart like me was on my feet the entire show, though mainly because everyone else in the balcony was and I wanted to see).

If not my favorite concert of the year--as I just haven't become that deep a fan--it certainly was the coolest, despite the stocky Murphy continuing the trend of front men who look more like their fans than the rock gods of old. But the highest praise I can really give any performer is that they delivered a concert every bit as good as I could have hoped, and LCD Soundsystem did that last night.

But satisfied, not needing to hear any specific songs that might have been left out and not anticipating future shows would be all that different, I'm not ruing their live retirement all that much. Once was probably enough, and there's always YouTube (I'm glad there was a clip to share below, but also applauded when Murphy suggested to the denizens of  camera phone videographers--including me, I'll admit--"Why don't we try to just be here").

I just hope someone else comes along that captures my interest or pretty soon there will be no one for me to see, at least in a rock 'n' roll vein. Suggestions?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

To Be Perfectly Candid, I Didn't Love Candide -- Theater Review

Theater Review

directed and newly adapted by Mary Zimmerman
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Through October 31, 2010

Candide, an operetta originally created in 1956 based on an 18th century satire by Voltaire, features a beautiful score by legendary composer Leonard Bernstein. Over the years, the show has mutated through numerous revivals incorporating the efforts of various lyricists and a revised "book" by Hugh Wheeler in 1974. This is all very confusing to me too--you can read the Wikipedia article if you wish--but although Candide is a famous musical, it seems to commonly not be a critically-revered one.

I first saw it a couple years ago in a Porchlight Theatre Company production and really didn't like it much. Now, Goodman Theater has staged a version helmed by highly-acclaimed director Mary Zimmerman, who newly adapted the story from the original Voltaire. Basically it's the tale of a guy named Candide who is in love with a nobleman's daughter named Cunegonde but is excommunicated from the castle, so he bounces around the world in an attempt to reconnect with her and stumbles upon enlightenment in the process.

But long story short, despite the glorious music--including one of the most sublime overtures you'll ever hear--Candide still left me cold. To the point that despite all the talent involved, including a quite stellar cast, I found the arduous 3-hour performance less enjoyable than The Wedding Singer musical I had seen the night before.

Photo from
I don't know the Voltaire, or sufficiently remember the Porchlight production, to discern what Zimmerman changed, so I won't bother ascribing blame. It seems likely that something about the whole thing, in any form, just isn't that captivating to me. Perhaps, like many full operas I see, I have an appreciation for the pedigree and can feel the beauty in small doses, but on an acute enjoyment level, it just doesn't move me.

I would feel worse about not being all that enchanted--just the Bernstein music, plus great singing & costuming, still qualifies the Goodman production as "good" though I think a concert performance would've been as good if not better than this overlong, full-blown staging--but the Tribune's Chris Jones and many who wrote comments to his review also were lukewarm at best.

Oh well, can't love everything. Although based on what seems to becoming a disturbingly low "batting average" in terms my enjoyment of what I've seen there, I am beginning to re-think my Goodman subscription. But with four productions remaining in this season, I'm hoping they can convince me otherwise.

Take 'The Wedding Singer' To Be an Engaging Stage Musical? I Do. -- Theater Review

Theater Review

The Wedding Singer
a stage musical with original songs
Circle Theater, Oak Park, IL
Through October 31, 2010

I've only seen The Wedding Singer movie once, back near its 1998 release, but I remember generally liking it. In fact, it has the distinction of being the only Adam Sandler movie I recall fondly. The story wasn't profound, but kitschy fun.

Although it didn't exactly become major news and didn't come through Chicago on subsequent national tours, in 2006 a stage version of The Wedding Singer played on Broadway for about eight months. I didn't see it but heard the Original Cast Recording and found it to be better than I would've expected, especially as rather than recycle old pop hits such as those used in the movie, composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin wrote a brand new score.

This may not have been the most keen commercial choice, as The Wedding Singer closed on Broadway after only 285 performances despite earning five Tony Award nominations, yet in 2009, Rock of Ages--which similarly salutes the '80s but with well-known tunes from the era--opened on Broadway and is still running nearly 650 performances later (it also garnered 5 Tony noms).

I saw the Broadway tour of Rock Of Ages when it rolled through Chicago a few weeks ago and adequately enjoyed it (my review here), but even with my first viewing of The Wedding Singer being a local production by Circle Theater, and despite giving each performance a @@@1/2 rating, I credit Wedding Singer with being the superior show due to its daring to develop original music.

It won't make anyone forget My Fair Lady, West Side Story or Les Miserables, and even in terms of latter day comedic-movie-to-stage-musical concoctions, it's not as good as Legally Blonde or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, let alone Hairspray or The Producers. But as unveiled by the typically reliable Circle Theater--which has moved a few blocks east on Madison Ave. from its shoebox storefront in Forest Park to a performing arts center in Oak Park--it made for an entirely enjoyable evening of entertainment. And while a less-than-full house might suggest otherwise, I think more local theater groups should stage under-the-radar recent musicals rather than repeatedly trotting out the same old classics.

Of course, I had to have the misfortune of sitting next to an inconsiderate woman who had her phone on throughout the whole show; it didn't ring but she kept texting and using the light to read the program. I moved to a worse seat for Act II just to get away from her rudeness. Not only does the audience deserve better, but it was entirely disrespectful to the performers, all of whom did an admirable job.

Photo Credit: Bob Knuth
Eric Lindahl was excellent as the titular character, Robbie, even if his mullet wig looked a bit goofier than likely intended. Even better was Rachel Quinn, who as his love interest Julia, was quite well-sung and delightfully engaging in the role that Drew Barrymore played in the movie.

Also amply demonstrating that the depth of Chicago area theatrical talent extends to small suburban productions were Kelli LaValle, Shawn Quinlan, Nathan Carroll, Britni Tozzi and Patti Roeder, among others. 

A few songs in Sklar & Beguelin's score hewed too closely to pop songs from the movie--such as Spandau Ballet's "True"--while clearly not equaling them, but less derivative tunes like the opening & closing "It's Your Wedding Day" and "Not That Kind of Thing" stood up pretty well as pop-infused showtunes. And though in some respects I missed the magic that the show's director (and Circle artistic director) Kevin Bellie used to pull off when stuffing big production values into a tiny space, the staging, choreography and on-stage band all added to what I consider a strong rendition of satisfying, though not sensational, source material.

Only three performances of Circle's production remain and while perhaps not vital viewing, The Wedding Singer can make for a memorable occasion, especially with very affordable tickets available through HotTix


A personal note of gratitude for Circle management: I had bought a ticket through HotTix for Friday night's show, but when surprised by a friend's belated birthday present of last minute tickets to see Bob Mould, I called and asked if they might accommodate me attending on Saturday instead without having to buy another ticket. Instead of strictly enforcing a no-exchange policy, the ticket manager named Beth simply said "Yes." I very much appreciate this and wish all in similar situations would show such class. 

Now if only they could make sure the cell phones are really turned off ;-)

Monday, October 25, 2010

"The Giants Win The Pennant!", the Rangers Dust the Damn Yankees ... And I Feel Fine

I don't have any personal attachment to either the Texas Rangers or San Francisco Giants, but am glad both have made it to the World Series.

Before the League Championship Series, it seemed the common consensus was that the Yankees and Phillies would defeat the Rangers and Giants, respectively, to create a rematch of the 2009 World Series, won by the Yankees for their 27th championship.

The Phillies won it all in 2008 and both they and the Yankees had better season records than either the Rangers or Giants.

And according to Terry Boers--who along with Dan Bernstein hosts a Chicago sports talk show I enjoy on The Score 670--the Yankees vs. Rangers was the World Series that most baseball fans wanted to see. While Terry did indicate he wouldn't be surprised if the Rangers and Giants advanced, he certainly wasn't speaking for me in terms of the desired Series duo.

Although the Yankees and Phillies certainly appeared to be the strongest teams and are loaded with pitchers and hitters that would have made for great match-ups and drama, I'm happy to see two underdogs and relative newcomers reach baseball's final stage.

While the Giants were in the World Series in 2002 and almost won, that was amid the stench of the Barry Bonds era, and they haven't won it all since 1954, when they were still in New York. The Rangers have never been to the World Series, and going back to their days in Washington, DC, were the longest-running franchise to hold that distinction.

Though the Rangers vs. Giants isn't apt to be a national ratings bonanza, I won't be shedding any tears for Fox as I enjoy a World Series with welcome freshness and intriguing storylines. The Game 1 pitching dual between the Giants' Tim Lincecum and the Rangers' Cliff Lee--which theoretically can repeat itself in games 4 and 7--has the potential of being one for the ages (the two pitchers are pictured at top).

Lincecum, who at 26 looks like an undernourished skate park teen, has won the last two National League Cy Young Awards and is the ace of a fine young Giants pitching staff. He is 2-1 in the playoffs this year with a 1.93 ERA.

Lee seemed to get relatively little national attention when he went 22-3 in 2008 and won the AL Cy Young for the Cleveland Indians. But after being traded to the Phillies in 2009 and then, after starting 2010 with the Mariners, was acquired by the Rangers, he is in the midst of one of the most impressive postseason pitching runs in history (and due for a huge payday from someone at season's end). Over the past two postseasons, Lee has gone 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA and his teams have won all eight games he has started.

Offensively, the Rangers are led by MVP candidate Josh Hamilton, a former #1 overall pick whose career has been resuscitated after being derailed by substance abuse demons. For the Giants, it was nice to see ex-White Sox shortstop Juan Uribe hit the NLCS-winning homer on Saturday in Game 6 after driving in the winning run in Game 4 with a sacrifice fly. And catcher Buster Posey seems to have become the team leader and a primary offensive force in his first full season.

I was out at a show on Saturday night and didn't see or even hear Uribe's home run. But I was in the car for the ninth inning and was captivated by the action and the announcing of ESPN's Dan Shulman and Dave Campbell. The Giants, playing at Philadelphia, had a 3-2 series league and Uribe's home run in the top of the 8th gave them a 3-2 lead in the game. In the top of the 9th, they loaded the bases, but their closer Brian Wilson, who had entered the game in the bottom of the 8th, was due up.

Giants manager, Bruce Bochy--who to my own surprise was my pre-season pick for NL Manager of the Year, though I also predicted that the Rangers' Ron Washington would be the first manager fired this season and got much else wrong--resisted any possible temptation to pinch-hit for Wilson in an attempt to pad the lead. Wilson made an out and then proceeded to get into trouble in the bottom of the ninth. But with Shulman and Campbell keeping me properly riveted, Wilson faced the Phillies best hitter, Ryan Howard, with two outs and two men on base. Howard worked Wilson to a full count, and with a well-placed hit could have forced a Game 7, but Wilson struck him out--looking--on a breaking ball at the knees.

I still haven't seen it, but don't need to. That's the beauty of a great radio broadcast, and I couldn't help but think of the famed "The Giants Win the Pennant!" call by Russ Hodges in 1951. (This ending wasn't quite as dramatic, nor was the Giants' run to even make the playoffs, although they were 6 games out on August 28th).

That said, I intend to be watching when Lincecum and Lee take the mound in Game 1 on Wednesday.

Batter up.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Solidly Enjoyable Solo Set Cut From a Familiar Mould -- Concert Review: Bob Mould at Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago

Photo Credit: Noah Kalina
Concert Review

Bob Mould (solo)
w/ Tim Eriksen
Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, IL
October 22, 2010
(also performing 10/23 at The Montrose Room in Rosemont, IL)

As I wasn't musically hip enough in my teenage years to know Hüsker Dü during their 1980's existence, it wasn't until his next power trio--Sugar--that became aware and an avid fan of Bob Mould.

That was about 1993, and since then I have acquired almost everything he's recorded--with his bands and as a solo artist, which he has primarily been since 1996 and even between his days with Hüsker Dü and Sugar--and have seen him live, including last night, 6 times.

But I guess I haven't been following him too closely lately, as I never knew he released an album in 2009 called Life and Times, wasn't aware that he was largely on a musical hiatus while penning a forthcoming autobiography and was oblivious that he had two Chicago area dates booked this weekend.

So the surprise was manifold when my friend Amy called late yesterday afternoon and said she had just bought a newly-released pair of tickets to last night's show at the Old Town School of Folk Music as a belated birthday present, especially as I already had a ticket to a theatrical performance. But liking Amy, and Bob, as I do, I was fortunately able to switch my other ticket to this evening, and headed down to Lincoln Avenue.

Although Old Town hosts several full-band concerts--including a fully charged Graham Parker show Amy and I attended in April--I wasn't too surprised to find that Mould was performing solo, as Bob and band on full-tilt would likely make the stately venue crumble, which would be a particular shame as my sister Elyse was one of the structural engineers.

A folk singer with punk rock origins named Tim Eriksen delivered a decent solo opening set, although seemed to spend as much time introducing his songs as singing them. I had never heard of him, and would presume much of the crowd hadn't either, so his saying, "This is one you should know," about one of his own songs seemed strange, but his half-hour on stage was suitably pleasant.

In the midst of a brief jaunt through the Midwest, which includes a show tonight in Rosemont, Mould served as his own roadie before coming out for what would be a very enjoyable 90-minute set.

Especially with a full-band and when a bit younger--although I didn't know it until checking his Wikipedia bio just now, Bob celebrated his 50th birthday last Saturday, a day after I turned 42--Mould is one of the most intense live performers I have ever seen. And though there was plenty of intensity in his solo performance of songs of insight, introspection and, not so occasionally, rage, last night he appeared a bit more relaxed and affable, especially in talking about working on his book.

It was great to hear one of the best songwriters of the past 30 years mix some great solo work (Wishing Well, See A Little Light, Paralyzed) with classics by Hüsker Dü (Hardly Getting Over It, I Apologize, Makes No Sense At All) and Sugar (Your Favorite Thing, Hoover Dam, If I Can't Change Your Mind).

Accompanying himself with only an electrified acoustic guitar and later an electric one, Mould clearly showed the depth and quality of his writing across various incarnations. Still, his earlier band and solo work feels better and more unique to me than a lot of his later output and especially devoid of drums, bass, etc., a bit too much of Mould's set sounded a bit too similar, both within itself and compared to past solo shows of his I've seen.

As such the performance felt entirely enjoyable--and I'm very grateful Amy surprised me with the tickets--but didn't quite reach spectacular. Truth is, Mould--at least to me--is far more superlative, and almost singularly extraordinary, when performing a blistering, non-stop set with a band. I certainly understand that he may be getting too old to do that every time out and to his credit his solo gigs continue to draw well, especially in Chicago, which he called "the best city in his professional life."

Especially after his autobiography is published next year, which sounds like a 500-page tome of harsh, self-reflective candor, the (perhaps too) obvious suggestion would be to Dü a Hüsker reunion, assuming his old bandmates are healthy and game. After all, even if one can continue to provide pleasing solo performances to appreciative audiences, the last thing any artist--let alone such a groundbreaking one--should want is to get stuck in a Mould.

Bob Mould Setlist from October 22, 2010 at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music: 

1. Wishing Well
2. Hear Me Calling
3. Hoover Dam
4. See a Little Light
5. No Reservations
6. Hardly Getting Over It
7. Thumbtack
8. Sinners and Their Repentances
9. I'm Sorry Baby, But You Can't Stand in my Light Anymore
10. Life and Times
11. The Breach
12. Paralyzed
13. Again and Again
14. Circles
15. Your Favorite Thing
16. I Apologize
17. Could You Be The One
18. Celebrated Summertime
19. If I Can't Change Your Mind
20. Makes No Sense At All 

Here's a YouTube video of Mould in Rome last December, performing the two songs he closed with last night:

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sleek Scenery, Sexy Soprano Serve to Make Shakespearean Opera Sizzle -- Opera Review: Macbeth at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Opera Review

by Giuseppe Verdi
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Thru October 30, 2010

Shakespeare and opera are two art forms for which reverent appreciation has always outdistanced my acute enjoyment.

I have attended numerous performances of both, in attempts to indoctrinate myself, but to date had not rendered the previous statement untrue. Perhaps it is incumbent on me to do more homework ahead of time, but I've just never experienced the same kind of emotional connection to opera or Shakespeare as I regularly do upon viewing performances in rock, jazz, musical theater and other dramatic realms.

So although I still try to attend 1-2 operas per season at the Lyric, going to one based on a work of Shakespeare--and a play of his I've never read or seen at that--probably didn't seem like a great prescription for rapture.

But not only did I figure that seeing Macbeth as an opera would at least introduce me to a famous story I've never really known, the photos and clips I saw on the Lyric's website just looked really cool.

Photo Credit: Robert Kusel
As such, I got myself a typical nosebleed seat and went last night. And while still largely devoid of innate operatic devotion, I enjoyed Macbeth more than most operas I've experienced.

Directed by Barbara Gaines, the founder and artistic director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater who was helming her first opera, the production's scenery was inspired by Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park.

I love Gehry's architecture and appreciated the stage interpretation. I don't have any other Macbeths to compare it too, but liked what I saw. It also didn't hurt that unlike the "fat ladies" long associated with opera, as Lady Macbeth German soprano Nadja Michael was also quite sleek and sexy, even as seen through binoculars from six stories up.

While I am not astute enough to intelligently evaluate the comparative vocal abilities of opera singers, I definitely had no complaints about anything I heard from Micheal, Thomas Hampson as Macbeth or anyone onstage. And Verdi's score seemed to keep me engaged a good bit more than most.

Photo Credit: Dan Rest
I recognize that Shakespeare's genius is as much, if not more, in his language as in his storylines, but often it is a bit dense for me. So I didn't mind my introduction to Macbeth being devoid of it, especially as the narrative was superior to most operatic plotlines.

Even as a basic outline for operatic purposes, the scenario Shakespeare penned over 400 years ago still has great relevance as a tale of one's lust for power, the extent he (and his wife) will go to realize it and the consequences (real & emotional) that accompany its attainment.

So even if I still wasn't entirely captivated emotionally by the music or singing, considerable entertainment, enjoyment and enlightenment conspired to make my night at the opera quite enriching, and my initial exploration of Shakespeare's Macbeth a royal success.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Alejandro Escovedo Faithfully Rocks the True Believers; Jason & The Scorchers Still Burn A-Blazingly Bright -- Concert Reviews

Alejandro Escovedo; photo by Seth Arkin
 Concert Reviews

Alejandro Escovedo & The Sensitive Boys
with The Incurables
October 11, 2010
Lincoln Hall, Chicago
Jason & The Scorchers
with Stacie Collins
October 12, 2010
Double Door, Chicago

I feel safe in assuming that if I looked at your music collection, whether on iTunes, CD or vinyl, it would be split between artists I've heard of and artists I haven't.

That's what's so great about music; we typically have tastes that are communal with the masses, or even just our group of friends, and then there's stuff we love that seems like almost a secret.

Jason & the Scorchers at Double Door; photo by Seth Arkin
Alejandro Escovedo and Jason & The Scorchers have been two of my favorite "secrets" for quite some time now.

Although both have had lengthy and relatively successful careers, during which they've earned critical acclaim and adoring admiration among loyal fans, neither can exactly be considered a household name.

While I believe their music is so good as to merit a much larger audience, it was wonderful to see & hear both over the course of two consecutive nights in cozy & comfortable Chicago venues. Along with opening acts and special guests, Alejandro Escovedo--now recording & touring with a backing band dubbed The Sensitive Boys--and Jason & The Scorchers combined to provide over 6 hours of music for a sum total of $35 (perhaps I should be happy they're not more popular).

Escovedo played Tuesday night at Lincoln Hall, a venue I had first visited just last Wednesday for a Teenage Fanclub show. A meeting I attended in the Loop precluded me from arriving until midway through the set of the opening act--The Incurables, led by Jimmy Griffin--but I liked what I heard enough to pick up their CD after the show.

I came to know Escovedo via his excellent 1996 CD, With These Hands, and have seen him several times, although not nearly as often as Tribune writer Steve Johnson, who wrote of his unapologetically rabid fandom in this piece. But before becoming a solo act from whom I've liked almost everything I've heard, Escovedo was in bands since the mid-'70s, including The Nuns, Rank & File and the True Believers.

Three months shy of turning 60, about five years since Hepatitis C threatened his life and 35 years down the rock 'n roll road, Escovedo needed a few songs before his voice seemed to settle in, but he delivered an extremely satisfying 100-minute set split between old songs and cuts from his excellent new album--Street Songs of Love. His repetoire, culled from a tremedously deep catalog, was also nicely divided between hard-charging rockers like "Anchor" & "Always A Friend" and beautifully delicate ballads like "The Last To Know" and "Rosalie."

Backed quite strongly by The Sensitive Boys, Alejandro also introduced a new song called "My Name is Horizontal," that sounded very good, spoke of writing "Down in the Bowery" for one of his sons with whom he shares a love of The Ramones, revealed that his kid said he "plays old music for old people," and dedicated the instrumental Fort Worth Blue to the late Stephen Bruton, who had produced his first three solo albums.

Despite being championed by, among others, WXRT--which included him in this year's 4th of July concert at Taste of Chicago--and Bruce Springsteen, who has dueted with him multiple times on-stage and record in recent years, Escovedo--who comes through Chicago fairly regularly--didn't quite fill Lincoln Hall, which I believe has a capacity of 250.

His CD--one of the year's best--may rank #2,166 on Amazon, his website may have a paltry traffic rank per and you may not know his name. But I'm glad I do, as there aren't many much better--at writing great songs and playing them live--than Alejandro Escovedo.

And if crowd size on Wednesday nights a week apart is any indication, compared to Jason & the Scorchers, Escovedo's present popularity is positively Gagaesque.

But in terms of putting on an exciting show--as part of a thoroughly satisfying evening, excepting a personal technical snafu--Jason & the Scorchers were even more sizzling.

I didn't precisely count, but it seemed like about 40-50 people, tops, came out to the Double Door to see a band that hadn't toured for 12 years and to me defines the term "country rock" like no other. While the Austin-based Escovedo can also be somewhat considered as such, the Nashvillians led by Jason Ringenberg have significantly more country twang yet also rock a whole lot harder. (This is a link to a 1993 clip that illustrates this well)

I learned about and loved Jason & co. initially through their 1989 album, Thunder and Fire, but they had already garnered considerable acclaim through material that would be compiled on 1992's primer-set, Are You Ready For The Country: The Essential Jason & The Scorchers. I saw them in 1993 at a long-gone Chicago club called China Club and remember them being awesome, and didn't know they had reformed and released a new album this year until I saw the concert listing for last night.

Boy am I glad I did. Not only did they sound great, with two new members accompanying Jason and original guitarist Warner Hodges. Not only did a good helping new songs off Halcyon Times mix perfectly with a healthy dose of classics. Not only is Jason still an extremely warm, charismatic and kinetic frontman. Not only did they play for 2-1/2 hours and wisely had special guest Stacie Collins perform with them, rather than have her do a traditional opening set. And not only did Jason sign the copy of Halcyon Times I bought during a set break, as well as signing my ticket stub, but they even played one of my favorite songs--by anyone, ever--When The Angels Cry (from Thunder and Fire) as the first song of their encore, specifically because I had asked Jason to do so. And it sounded fantastic.

I could almost prove it to you, as I recorded When The Angels Cry on my iPhone, but after having caught basically the whole song, my iPhone informed me that I was out of memory and didn't save it. Bummer.

But I couldn't let that ruin an otherwise fantastic night--pair of nights at that--and was probably inadvertently saved from getting sued by the band for posting it on YouTube.

At right is a pic I snapped of Jason after the show and below is the CD he signed for me.

I don't expect, or even want, us to all have the same musical "secrets."

I just hope that when yours come to town, they satisfy you every bit as much as two of mine just did.
Fortunately, even though my iPhone crapped out and didn't let me save Wednesday night's version of When the Angels Cry, played due to my request, Jason & The Scorchers also played it a couple months ago in Sweden--they seemingly don't often--as caught in this clip:

This is a clip of Alejandro Escovedo covering the Rolling Stones' Beast of Burden with special guest Bruce Springsteen at a show earlier this year at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ. Minus the Boss, it was also one of Al's encore's on Tuesday.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Exploration and Discovery on Columbus Day (Movies, Thai Food, Billboards and more)

Fourteen hundred and ninety-two, yada, yada, yada. Although I didn't overtly try to explore new worlds on Columbus Day, and yesterday being such only really has relevance as an afterthought, I did enjoy some nice discoveries.

Chicago International Film Festival

With a relatively newfound passion for foreign films (as I wrote about here), I felt inspired to go to Chicago's famed International Film Festival for the first time in its 46-year existence.

Although it might have been cool to attend last Thursday's opening night premiere of "Stone" with Edward Norton in attendance or tonight's special presentation of Darren Aronofsky's latest, "Black Swan," or even some of the higher profile evening showings of international selections, paying $20 or more (including Ticketmaster fees required for advance off-site ticketing) to deal with large crowds in order to see movies I can soon watch for considerably less, wasn't particularly compelling.

Instead, I noted that all festival films showing on weekdays before 5pm cost only $5. Not willing to pay the jump to $10+ on Ticketmaster, I took my chances and headed down on the Red Line, got off at Grand and walked over to the AMC River East theater on Illinois St.

The Matchmaker (2010, Israel, directed by Avi Nesher; my review @@@@1/2)
This was the earliest film of the day, at 2pm, and only rush tickets were available when I got to the theater. Besides the film showings taking up 7 of the megaplex's screens for 2 weeks, there wasn't anything else to the "festival." No seminars, vendors, bookstore, food booths, etc., so fortunately I was able to get into the screening of The Matchmaker, while also buying an in-person advance ticket for the 4:20 screening of Sandcastle.

I had read the festival catalog's brief synopsis of the Israeli film, so I wasn't targeting it merely by chance, but didn't realize until afterward that it is directed by the same guy (Avi Nesher) who made The Secrets, an Israeli film I saw and enjoyed last year. The Matchmaker is an interesting drama with great characters, revolving around a late-1960's matchmaker in Haifa who befriends a teenager name Arik, for whom a coming-of-age story--including romance--develops. I gave it a "5" out of 5 on my festival ballot, where 1/2 increments didn't exist. There are additional festival showings which you can learn about here, and I also learned about the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema, coming up later this month.

Sandcastle (2010, Singapore, directed by Boo Junfeng, @@@1/2)
A beautifully shot film with a subject, scenario and tone Hollywood rarely captures, as a tech-savvy 18-year-old boy is sent to stay with his grandparents prior to facing obligatory enlistment into Singapore's army. Some dramatic events happen, prompting the teen to explore more of his parents' past. It got a bit slow at times--especially as my second film of the afternoon--nd wasn't as revelatory as it was tender, but as the first film I've seen from Singapore was quite a worthwhile look at a different culture. I gave it a "4" on my festival ballot.

While enjoying these two disparate, but both nicely character-driven, story-centric foreign films would seemingly spark a knock on Hollywood, I actually saw two American movies over the weekend that I found very worthwhile, It's Kind of A Funny Story (@@@@1/2) and The Town (@@@@).

Great Pad Thai at Dao (230 E. Ohio, Chicago)

I have loved Thai food, particularly Pad Thai and a couple of curry dishes, for a long time and have eaten it at myriad places. I recalled Dao as one of the best from years ago, so as a nearby dining option on the way back to the train after the film fest, I stopped in. I got Pad Thai with Beef and, excepting long ago visits to Dao or forgotten elsewheres, it was the best I've ever had. I like my Pad Thai a bit sweet, so if you don't, Dao's might not satisfy you quite as much, but I loved it.

A Billboard with an Air of Greatness

Just yesterday, I read about how Michael Jordan is allowing his likeness to be included in the new video game, NBA 2K11, and is on the cover of the game's case. And walking west on Grand, at Columbus, ironically, I saw this billboard and couldn't help but smile.

And Then I Saw Moses

Walking up Columbus (which actually is renamed Fairbanks Ct. at that point) to Ohio to get to Dao, I noticed the mural below on the side of a building, which is actually the Pritzker Military Library.

It is a 2D rendering of Michelangelo's sculpture of Moses, which I had seen in Rome's St. Peter in Chains church.

I'm not sure how long it's been there, but I've never noticed it before. It too made me smile.

On the subway ride back home, I sat next to a guy reading on a Kindle, which I'd never before seen being done in person. I noticed that he was reading Jonathan Franzen's acclaimed new novel, Freedom, which was interesting because I was reading a paperback version of Franzen's previously praised work, The Corrections.

The Kindle seemed cool, but I felt happier with my good old-fashioned version.

All in all, a pretty good Columbus Day.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A 'Huck' of a Good Time -- Theater Review: 'Big River' by Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

Theater Review

Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
a musical with music & lyrics by Roger Miller
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble
Performed at Theatre Wit, Chicago
Run Now Ended (Sept. 10-Oct. 10, 2010)

Ignorance may be bliss, if a well-known saying is to be taken at face value, but as was the case in taking in the musical "Big River" for the first time, discovery can be even better.

Other than having a faint awareness of its existence, until learning about and catching a fine local production on Saturday night I truly was ignorant about the musical version of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," a book I sadly must admit to never having read.

Nor do I consciously remember even knowing that Big River is based on Twain's novel or was scored by Roger Miller, as I had never seen it, heard the music or read anything about it. I didn't know it had won the Tony for Best Musical (and six other categories) in 1985 or that its original Broadway run lasted 2-1/2 years. Largely ignorant of Miller himself, other than knowing of his famed King Of The Road song, I didn't know he had written Big River's music & lyrics in a bluegrass & country vein, which was quite unconventional for Broadway, particularly amidst the Cats/Les Miz/Phantom mid-'80s era.

I hadn't noticed the show being performed around Chicagoland over the last 10 years--when I've seen more than 200 other musicals--and I didn't initially take much notice of its run at Theatre Wit (formerly the Bailiwick Arts Center) as a production by the Bohemian Theatre Ensemble.

But thanks to Chicago Tribune Theater Critic Chris Jones, who gave the show a nice review, and the discount ticket website, Goldstar, from which I was able to buy a ticket for just $12 + fees, now I know.

And I consider myself better off for it.

Since the run has now ended, I won't overdo a detailed review, other than to say that the show and music were delightful. Upon this initial foray, I won't move Big River to the upper echelon of my list of favorite musicals--I'll have to publish one soon--but I really enjoyed what I saw and heard. Although Miller's musical stylings are much different than most Broadway scores or most of what I typically listen to, many numbers were instantly quite catchy, which is more than what I can say about a lot of showtunes or rock songs these days.

Although I didn't have to read Huck Finn (or Tom Sawyer) in high school, I was basically familiar with the story, which made for enjoyable theater.

And while apologizing for any seeming incredulity that might make this sound like a backhanded compliment, the cast of the Boho ensemble served to again astonish me in regards to the depth of talent working in Chicago theater, even far beyond the most famed stages. Especially in presuming the cast members and musicians--and there was much overlap--probably have day jobs as well, I was truly amazed at how good everyone sounded.

Andrew Mueller was excellent as Huck, Courtney Crouse likewise as Tom and Brian-Alwyn Newland was well-sung as Jim. Sean Thomas and John B. Leen, who like many cast members played numerous roles, were particularly enjoyable as the King and Duke, respectively. And as seven of the cast members also played instruments at various junctures, their talents were all the more impressive.

With sparse scenery suitable for the small theater (one of three performance spaces in the nicely remodeled venue), I can only imagine how good Big River might have been on Broadway with a full-blown setting and fuller orchestra/band. (Interestingly, per Wikipedia, a 2003 revival featured both deaf and hearing actors performing together, with about half the characters, including the leading role of Huck, played by deaf or hard-of-hearing performers. All dialogue and lyrics were both spoken/sung and signed.)

But all I ever ask of a downsized local production of an old musical is that I go away feeling that I gained a fairly good appreciation for the source material. Clearly, in this case, I did. Blissfully.

'Detroit' Well-Worth Visiting Even If It Feels a Bit Too Safe -- Theater Review: Detroit at Steppenwolf Theatre

Theater Review

a new play by Lisa D'Amour
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 7, 2010

Although full of somber undertones, Lisa D'Amour's world premiere play, "Detroit," is the most overtly enjoyable and thought-provoking new work I've seen at Steppenwolf in some time, probably since August: Osage County premiered there in 2007.

As such, it's well worth your time and presuming you can get a discounted ticket through myriad options--Steppenwolf's Twenty for $20 program each morning at 11am (which I took advantage of, even at 12:30), their half-priced rush tickets, HotTix and Goldstar--your money.

It may be the going rate, but $53-$73 for a normal ticket (depending on the day) is not only antithetical to Detroit's theme of recessionary consequences, but is likely to blame for why on Friday night--with $60 the standard price--Steppenwolf had more empty seats than I'd ever seen. And this for a well-reviewed show starring Laurie Metcalf, a longtime ensemble member who's enjoyed considerable TV fame.

Suffice it to say that Detroit seemed significantly better for $20 than it would've felt for full price, and some folks in the after-show discussion expressed chagrin over what they had paid for the show they saw. Who knows if it's feasible, but this would be an ideal play for which to hold free or cut-rate "Newcomer Nights," especially if expressly marketed to a more culturally-diverse audience than was in the house on Friday night.

Photo Credit on all: Michael Brosilow
As it was, I was quite entertained by D'Amour's well-paced and accessible script, and especially fine performances by a full cast of Steppenwolf ensemble players, including Metcalf, Ian Barford, Kate Arrington, Kevin Anderson and Robert Breuler.

In playing a perplexed middle-class suburbanite, Metcalf's characterization as Mary couldn't help remind of her most famous role as Jackie on 'Roseanne,' and she was superb. Barford was typically great as her unemployed husband, Ben, the always-engaging Anderson was fun as ex-drug addict Kenny, who moves in next door with his also previously strung-out wife, Sharon, played with beautiful believability by Arrington, who has never been better. Breuler has a smaller role, but likewise plays it well.

With a very watchable and quite pertinent storyline--revolving around the relationship between the neighboring couples--, wonderful performances and impressive characterizations, "Detroit" well-deserves the @@@@ I am awarding it. And yet, I can't help but think that it could've been considerably better.

Mind you, many of my issues likely have to do more with the play I expected/wanted it to be, rather than flaws in what was presented. Between my own ongoing state of unemployment, the lack of Clash, Public Enemy or Nirvana-like beacons to shake (or at least loudly comment upon) our societal malaise and Chris Jones' Tribune review calling "Detroit" a "major new play about the soul-destroying layoffs [and] the collapse in real estate values," I went in hoping for a Howard Beale moment stretched over 95 minutes.

And given the connotations of Detroit, a city I actually like but that has been blighted for years by economic and racial strife, and which has seen recent strides devastated by the problems of the U.S. auto industry (and overall economy), I guess I was anticipating something a bit more specific and direct.

Not only is the play set in a "first ring" suburb rather than within Detroit itself, but D'Amour (via the Steppenwolf program) states that it doesn't even necessarily take place in the Detroit vicinity, as the neighborhood portrayed could exist on the edges of many other U.S. cities.

As such, if the play were called "Morton Grove" (a near first-ring suburb of Chicago) or "There Goes The Neighborhood," and if Jones' hadn't prepared me for more outright anger--to be fair, his review does detail some of the same shortcomings in tone that I found--I might have been entirely satisfied with its engaging portrayal of middle-class disconnect and, per the stated theme of the new Steppenwolf season, its take on Our Public/Private Self.

But assuming that D'Amour intended "Detroit" to be more strident a commentary on our tough economic times, I thought the overall tone felt a bit too facile and not infused with enough vitriol, daring or true sense of danger and consequence. I don't want to reveal anything that happens, and therefore it's hard to get specific about perceived shortcomings, but I just had a sense that there wasn't quite enough bleakness, desperation or overt tension in the situation being shown.

But this is very much a recommendation, so perhaps if you see the play, get in touch and we can debate whether 'Detroit' truly connected on all cylinders, or perhaps could stand to be a bit more revved up.


Two small things (these aren't really spoilers, but probably more apt after you've seen the play):

1. I think a moratorium should be placed on the utilization of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin.'" I enjoy the song and endorse its message, but it's been overused to the point of being trite. Given the play's supposed setting, why not incorporate some Seger or Motown? (Yes, I know DSB mentions South Detroit)

2. This is probably due to having recently re-watched the movie "Fight Club," but 'Detroit' is almost more fun if you consider Kenny & Sharon (Kevin Anderson/Kate Arrington) as merely Tyler Durden-esque characters in their relationship to Ben & Mary (Ian Barford/Laurie Metcalf).

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Celebrating the 70th Birthday of John Lennon

Photo by Seth Arkin
On October 9, 1940, John Winston Lennon was born  in Liverpool Maternity Hospital.

In March 1957, he formed a skiffle group, soon to become known as the Quarrymen.

On July 6, 1957, he met Paul McCartney at a party at St. Peter's Church (regarding which there's a cool book called The Day John Met Paul). Paul, and later his friend George Harrison, would join the Quarrymen.

In August 1960, The Beatles were so named, and included John, Paul, George, Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe would leave the band in 1961 and die from an aneurysm the following year. In August 1962, Ringo Starr replaced Pete Best on drums and on September 4, 1962, their first single, Love Me Do, was initially recorded.

On April 8, 1963, John and wife Cynthia had a son named Julian.

On June 6, 1963, John and Paul wrote She Loves You.

On February 7, 1964, the Beatles first arrived in America.

On February 7, 1964, they performed on the Ed Sullivan show for the first time, watched by approximately 74 million viewers—over 40 percent of the American population.

On October 21 & 22, 1965, John's composition, Nowhere Man--oft considered the Beatles first foray into social commentary--was recorded.

On November 9, 1966, the already married John met Yoko Ono. After his divorce from first wife, Cynthia, John and Yoko would marry on March 20, 1969. John soon added "Ono" as a middle name.

On April 10, 1970, the Beatles' break-up became public.

On October 11, 1971, John Lennon's most famous solo song, Imagine, was released as a single in the U.S.

On March 23, 1973, the Nixon administration ordered John Lennon's deportation from the U.S., but Nixon's own troubles (i.e. the Watergate scandal) precluded it from ever happening.

On  October 9, 1975, on his 35th birthday, John and Yoko had a son named Sean.

On November 17, 1980, John (along with Yoko) released his first album in 5 years, Double Fantasy.

On December 8, 1980, John was shot and killed outside his & Yoko's apartment building in New York by Mark David Chapman.

I think it's fairly safe to say that John Lennon's life and death have  impacted me (although both largely after the fact) more than that of any other person I haven't personally known.

While I can't help imagining what he might have done in the past 30 years, or any portion thereof, I also can't imagine the world without his being in it for the 40 years he was.

Below is a playlist of the 15 John Lennon songs (with and after the Beatles) that mean the most to me. If you get a chance to listen, I hope you enjoy them.

Happy Birthday John. And thanks.

Photo by Seth Arkin