Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Why All the Long Faces? Appreciating the Art of Modigliani

On a recent meandering exploration of the Skokie Public Library--I know, it sounds anachronistic, but it was quite fun--my browsing brought me to the shelves filled with art books.

There, one on the 20th century Italian--and Jewish--painter Amedeo Modigliani caught my eye. I have long enjoyed his work and the book I found, called Modigliani: Beyond the Myth was actually a catalogue from an exhibition I had seen at the Jewish Museum in New York in 2004.

Although I already had a small but sufficient Modigliani book (part of the superb series by Taschen), I checked out the bigger book and have enjoyed perusing it, both as a reminder of the exhibition I had enjoyed and an overview of the great artist's brief career.

The book also spurred me to watch the 2004 biopic on Modigliani, starring Andy Garcia, which wasn't bad but seemingly a bit too fictionalized. I had also seen a play about "Modi" a few years back and, of course, have now read the Wikipedia entry. And, giving credit where it's due, the images adorning this post come from the excellent online Olga's Gallery.

Modigliani's biography provides an interesting complement to his art. He was born into a Jewish family in Livorno, Italy in 1880. His father's money-changing business had failed, but Amedeo['s birth saved the family from ruin, as creditors could not seize assets from the bed of a pregnant woman (upon which the family piled their most valuable possessions).

Modigliani had pleurisy, typhoid fever and tuberculosis as a child and teenager, but was subsequently taken by his mother to see paintings in Florence's Uffizi Gallery and Palazzo Pitti, and soon after he began to study painting.

In 1906, Modigliani moved to Paris, where he began to--probably more than anyone--define the image of the Bohemian artist living a penniless, self-destructive existence in Montmartre.

Despite the debauchery, including heavy indulgence in absinthe, hashish and women, Modigliani was by all accounts a dapper, handsome figure who befriended many fellow artists, including Maurice Utrillo, Chaim Soutine, Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso.

In 1917, at age 33, Modigliani met and fell in love with a 19-year-old art student named Jeanne Hébuterne, who he would go on to frequently paint (including the picture at top). Hébuterne's Roman Catholic family renounced her for having a relationship with a Jew, but though their affair was often quite publicly tempestuous, Jeanne stuck by Modi and they had a daughter together in 1918.

Although Modigliani sold some of his paintings during his lifetime, he never came close to being rich and drank away much of what he did earn. His health rapidly deteriorated and alcohol-fueled blackouts weren't uncommon. On January 24, 1920, Amedeo Modigliani died from an incurable case of tubercular meningitis at the age of 35.

Doubling the tragedy, two days after Modi's death, Jeanne Hébuterne--who was 9 months pregnant--threw herself out a fifth-floor window at her parents' home, killing herself and their unborn child.

While I find Modigliani's backstory to be somewhat fascinating--including being one of relatively few world-renowned Jewish artists--I find it quite secondary to his art itself.

Although his style looks relatively simple, it is quite singular, compelling and readily recognizable. And while his long-faces and stylized nudes might appear relatively easy to mimic, the attempts I have seen to imitate Modigliani's look have fallen far short of the originals.

Thus, Amedeo Modigliani remains one of the most distinctive of all 20th century artists and one of my very favorites. Below are a few more examples as to why.

Portrait of Chaim Soutine

A self-portrait close to his death.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Ike Reilly Assassination Blows Me Away With High-Powered Show: Concert Review

Concert Review

The Ike Reilly Assassination
with Pie-Eyed Pete
Fitzgerald's, Berwyn, IL
November 27, 2010

I often bemoan, mostly to myself, sometimes to my friend Dave, that I don't seem to be hearing a whole lot of new rock music that really excites me.

But the truth is that although I have a vast and somewhat diverse music collection, if I were to look at almost anyone else's collection, I would undoubtedly find a whole lot of music by artists I've never heard, or even heard of.

So while I would still love to hear of some great new bands coming along, and even getting popular, there's probably enough great rock music that's already been made to which I remain oblivious to satisfy my exploratory urges for many years to come. I just somehow need to find it.

Last night, I saw a tremendously satisfying concert by a band called The Ike Reilly Assassination at Fitzgerald's Nightclub in Berwyn. Reilly, who hails from Libertyville, and his gang played exactly one song that I recognized, and that was only because Dave--without whom I still probably would never have heard of the IRA and without whose brother Curt, Dave would still be in the dark--had lent me a couple of Ike Reilly CDs in the preceding weeks.

But even though I often have a hard time appreciating live music without being somewhat familiar with the recorded version, the hard-charging literate rock of the IRA transcended my ignorance to sound great even for the first time.

And while Reilly fits somewhat within the stylistic cross-section of artists that I know & like, from the famous--Dylan & Springsteen--to personal favorites--Willie Nile, Alejandro Escovedo--he and his band were unique enough for me to not write them off as derivative. They just played good music in a vein I like while being fresh enough to constitute something engagingly new.

And while like hundreds of other acts--some that I know, most that I don't--one can say that The Ike Reilly Assassination deserves to be more popular, the truth is that they fit so perfectly into a venue like Fitzgerald's (with perhaps a couple hundred people in the room) that it would be hard to imagine them translating to the Auditorium, let alone the United Center.

While I have seen many concerts in football stadiums, basketball arenas and outdoor amphitheaters, and have no aversion to doing so, this year I have also caught a number of shows in smaller venues. Along with the aforementioned Escovedo, these have included acts like Graham Parker, Bob Mould, Ray Davies, Teenage Fanclub, Jason & The Scorchers and John Prine. While I prefer venues where I can readily sit through all, or at least part, of a show, I tend to imagine that a higher percentage of future concerts will be by smaller acts in smaller rooms. And so it's nice to add to the Ike Reilly Assassination to the roster of artists that warrant my support, especially when last night's show cost just $20.

Although the sound of this clip I found from a recent IRA show doesn't really do Ike Reilly justice, perhaps it might whet your appetite to learn more. And if you know of artists that I should know but likely don't please feel free to let me know. Because I'll always be enamored by discovering what I haven't yet, and with songs like "Girls in the Back Room" and "Whatever Happened to the Girl in Me?" still ringing in my memory along with the lyric, "somewhere between dreams and fear is life" (from "Devil's Valentine"), it sure feels good to say "I Like Ike."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Modern Circus Provides Only 'Traces' of Exhilaration: Theater Review

Theater Review

a modern circus by 7 Fingers
Broadway Playhouse, Chicago
Thru January 1, 2010

Without a doubt, the six men and one woman that comprise the Chicago production of Traces--a modern, faux guerilla circus sort of like a more subdued Cirque du Soleil--did some truly amazing things on stage. Feats that I, and most humans, can't even imagine, including as shown in my fuzzy picture at left (photography was allowed, but no flash) balancing one one's head atop a chair atop a chair.

But while a number of acts in the 90-minute show were undoubtedly impressive, in sum Traces failed to truly captivate me.

There was no discernible narrative connecting the "circus acts," only canned music except for a couple sweet but innocuous musical pieces and though the acrobatics were superb, they didn't seem all that far beyond those seen at high school gymnastic meets 25 years ago.

Traces wasn't as good as most of the Cirque du Soleil shows I've seen and although I'm not going to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus while it's at the United Center this week, I imagine I would also enjoy that more.

I guess shows comprised of nothing more then incredible human tricks aren't really my thing, as I also didn't much care for Fuerza Bruta when it played at the Auditorium earlier this year. The Chicago Tribune's fine theater critic, Chris Jones, gave Traces four stars (out of 4) so if you think this is the kind of show you and your family might like, I'm not here to dissuade you from going.

I just honestly was far more enthralled watching Derrick Rose make one dazzling move after another in the Bulls' loss to the Lakers when I got home last night than I was in the audience at Traces.

In fact, as someone who enjoys myriad art forms--as this blog should attest--I'm not trying to be glib when I say that knowing what I now do, I would rather see any worthwhile rock concert, jazz concert, classical performance, blues show, opera, play, musical, comedian, improv act, ballet, modern dance recital, athletic contest, movie or even just a good TV show--or heck, just read a good book--than bother seeing Traces or something akin again.

And I'm glad my ticket to Traces was just $15 as part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription, because for $30-something, let alone the top price exceeding $100, I would really have been disappointed.

As the Broadway Playhouse was considerably less than full last night, if you do wish to see Traces, you should easily be able to do so for half-price through HotTix or, as the venue is rather small, the cheapest seats should be more than fine without breaking the bank (or likely paying Ticketmaster fees).

But if your tastes are akin to mine, it's probably not even worth your time to traipse down to Water Tower Place in the holiday season for nothing more than visceral Traces of enjoyment. At best.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Worthwhile, Well-Done 'Sweet Bird of Youth' Almost a Heavenly Chance Encounter: Theater Review

Theater Review

Sweet Bird of Youth
a play by Tennessee Williams
The Artistic Home, Chicago
Thru December 19, 2010

Like The Lonesome West, a play by Martin McDonagh I saw the night before and reviewed below, Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth is not the very best work by an outstanding playwright--or so I perceive after my initial encounter--but it is pretty damn good.

Especially in the hands of The Artistic Home, a Chicago production troupe whose work I was seeing for the first time and another in an apparently endless array of local venues where you can witness truly first-rate performances. The depth of theatrical talent in the Chicago area never ceases to amaze me; in 2010 alone, I have seen productions from 25 local companies--some in settings smaller than a soup can--and nearly all have been stellar, at worst.

While I didn't absolutely love Sweet Bird of Youth and neither Williams' narrative nor this rendition seemed note perfect, they both have plenty of readily apparent merits. I should probably see the 1962 movie starring Paul Newman and Geraldine Page--who also starred in the original Broadway production--to gain a better understanding of the source material. For while Josh Odor and Kathy Scambiatterra are both good here as gigolo Chance Wayne and fading movie star Alexandra Del Lago, the scenes with the two of them together were, for me, the least interesting in the play. Yet they seemed to be the most important.

With Chance accompanying Alexandra to his fictional hometown of St. Cloud, Florida (not to be confused with the non-coastal real St. Cloud, Florida) in hopes of rekindling his romance with Heavenly Finley (played here by Elizabeth Argus), without giving too much away, he runs afoul of her father and brother. And whatever psychological-study reason Williams had for diverting his script from any direct interaction between Chance and Heavenly or Chance and Boss Finley, I left the theater thinking that might have been more fulfilling than what I witnessed.

Obviously, The Artistic Home can't be held accountable for the decisions made by one of the greatest playwrights ever, and while most of their interpretation--from first-rate performances to a convincing set in a small space--was top-notch, something didn't quite click as well as I thought it should have.

As such, at this point I'd put Sweet Bird of Youth on par with Night of the Iguana, quite good but a step below Williams' masterworks, The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (which I've yet to see on stage but is currently running at the Raven Theater). But especially for less than $20 on HotTix, even if it's not quite a Heavenly-Chance encounter, The Artistic Home's production is well-worth Tennesseeing.

The Lonesome West Not McDonagh's Best, But Still Quite Leenane Tasty: Theater Review

Theater Review

The Lonesome West
a play by Martin McDonagh
The Gift Theatre, Chicago
Thru December 19, 2010

On the basis of having now seen and very much enjoyed three plays by Martin McDonagh--of the seven he has had produced and published  along with an excellent movie, In Bruges--the 40-year-old Irish playwright ranks as my favorite working today. Or at least the one whose full oeuvre I most hope to eventually see, even if his latest play--A Behanding in Spokane--opened on Broadway this past March to very disappointing reviews.

Over the last few years, I have seen The Pillowman, twice, including an outstanding rendition in January at Chicago's Redtwist Theatre, and the similarly superlative The Lieutenant of Inishmore, the second play of his second trilogy (The Aran Islands Trilogy, whose third play, The Banshees of Inisheer, has never been produced or published).

So I was very much anticipating seeing The Lonesome West, the Tony nominated last play of The Leenane Trilogy, on Saturday at Chicago's tiny Gift Theatre, where I had recently seen their highly acclaimed original work, Suicide, Incorporated. Although I have yet to see The Beauty Queen of Leenane or A Skull in Connemara, I was assured that they weren't prerequisite for understanding or enjoying Lonesome West.

I did enjoy it and, except for wishing for a bit of clarity regarding a plot point at the very end, I think I understood it, yet it didn't provide nearly the visceral thrill of Lieutanant of Inishmore or exude quite the brilliance of Pillowman. John Gawlik and John Kelly Connolly were both excellent as the feuding Connor brothers but it wasn't until the half-hour final scene that Lonesome West really started to rock. In fact, I thought the play may have been at it's end--like 'Inishmore' this one required quite a bit of stage mopping after multiple scenes--before the rollicking last scene came about.

Also like 'Inishmore' and I'd imagine many of his works that I've yet to see, I'm guessing McDonagh meant The Lonesome West as allegory about senseless, ongoing violence in Ireland and how "peace" may always be tenuous at best, especially when past destruction can never be fully forgotten. As such, like much of Arthur Miller's best work, The Lonesome West has a resonance that extends considerably beyond the action on stage.

So even if it isn't the very best example of McDonagh's unique talent--and according to Tribune critic Chris Jones something was lost in the Gift's tight space staging--especially with discount tickets typically available through HotTix, The Lonesome West still more than merits your heading in its direction.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Love, Success, Happiness Sadly Subvert Miranda Lambert's Rebel Soul: Concert Review

Concert Review

Miranda Lambert
with Eric Church and Josh Kelley
CMT on Tour
November 19, 2010
NIU Convocation Center, DeKalb, IL

A few years ago, after reading a feature story referencing Miranda Lambert as "sort of a one-woman Dixie Chicks"--an act I came to like and admire after their going rogue and remaining defiant resulted in  excommunication from the country music establishment--I discovered Lambert's excellent 2007 album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Whether best described as hard-rocking angry-girl country or countrified angry-girl rock (think Alanis Morissette or Liz Phair with fire & brimstone and a penchant for shotguns), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is an extremely engaging album bristling with rancor, wit and great riffs, and I'd count it as one of my favorites by a newish artist in any genre over the last several years.

Although I've never been drawn in by too much "new country," Lambert fit in perfectly with my appreciation for anything fresh, edgy and created with obvious passion & integrity. And while I might politically be at odds with the gun-totin' persona percolating through songs like "Gunpowder & Lead" (this is a good live clip from 2007) and "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," I appreciated the cleverness of her craftswomanship, which along with spunky verve, is also clearly apparent on her first album, Kerosene.

I really would've liked to have seen Lambert live around that time, performing tunes from her first two albums, but the only time I noticed her coming through Chicago was for a birthday show at Joe's Bar in November 2008. Full of rock & roll cover songs and appearances by family members and her boyfriend (now fiance), singer Blake Shelton, the concert further impressed me but left my hoping to see her play a full set of her own songs.

In late 2009, Miranda Lambert released her third album, Revolution to much critical acclaim. But while I too had great expectations, it didn't capture me like either of her first two albums did. Although there is certainly some quality writing and hard-rocking riffs, even the ballads aren't as quirky and distinctive as on "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." Revolution is a good album, but in my humble opinion--and that of AllMusic.com--not a great one.

So, of course, it has become the most decorated album in country music this year, recently winning "Album of the Year" honors at the CMA Awards, where Lambert also earned "Female Vocalist of the Year."

And while for whatever reason, Lambert has avoided a full-fledged headlining gig of late in Chicago, I noticed that last night she was slated to perform at my alma mater, Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

So happy for an excuse to head out to NIU, I stopped by the school's Career Services Center, Art Museum and Student Center, saw the stark memorial to the 2008 student massacre and grabbed a great gyros at Tom & Jerry's--a favored old haunt in downtown DeKalb--before heading to the show at the relatively recent Convocation Center. Although the show was nearly full, I was able to get a decent seat in person, therefore avoiding about $14 in Ticketmaster fees on a $25 ticket.

The "Convo," as it seems to be called, is certainly a step up from the high school gymnasiumish Chick Evans Fieldhouse, where NIU played its basketball games when I was a student, where I saw R.E.M. as a college freshman and where my graduation ceremony was held. But, and I know I haven't made much in the way of alumni contributions, it would have been nice if NIU had opted for something better than the cheapest possible, least comfortable folding-plastic seats imaginable. Luckily I was on an aisle so I didn't have to squeeze my fat ass between two others.

The crowd looked to be a good bit heavier in locals (plenty of cowboy hats) and, as later revealed, Chicagoans--some from Joe's Bar, to which Lambert gave a shout-out as her favorite place in the world to play--than students. (Campus itself seemed extremely sleepy, which I recall was often the case on Fridays.) But I thought I was in for a good night when the first song I heard on the arena's pre-show PA was Bruce Springsteen's, "Badlands" followed by music by Alejandro Escovedo, John Mellencamp, R.E.M., Outkast's "Hey Ya,' "In the Midnight Hour" and some twangy country songs.

Although I have no way of knowing if the mix tape was culled by Lambert, I hoped it presaged a show that was a fun mix of country, rock and disparate influences. And after first opener Josh Kelley delivered an innocuous 20-minute set, the arena raged with Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills" prior to second opener Eric Church coming onstage to a heavy metal guitar solo.

Despite paying homage to metal, Church--who I saw once before opening for Bob Seger--delivered a 50-minute set that, while seemingly crowd pleasing, to me with ripe with the cliches that are while I largely don't like modern country music. Song after song was an overt ode to things Church loves--America, beer, Jack Daniels, Jesus, the flag, NASCAR, his boots, even the great Merle Haggard--without seemingly offering any insight or introspection. Yecch.

Photo by Fred Blocher, Kansas City Star
All the more reason why I was hoping that Lambert would save the night and justify my country-fried expedition. And taking the stage after Steve Earle's "The Revolution Starts Now" blasted through the arena, Lambert started off great with a trio of songs from her trio of albums, including an ass-kicking version of "Kerosene."

But disappointingly, she soon settled into a fully-scripted arena show, focusing predominantly on muted love songs from Revolution. Along the way, she talked about her big night at the CMAs, showed off her engagement ring as she cooed about Shelton, proclaimed that she was a "longtime member of the NRA" and delivered a slick, soul-less rendition of Rick Derringer's "Rock & Roll Hoochie Koo."

"Gunpowder & Lead" sounded great at the end of her main set, but even that didn't seem to bristle like I hoped (or like the roadside bar rendition I linked to above). She omitted "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," anything other than the title track from Kerosene and much else to remind me why I was so looking forward to seeing her. And though she was perfectly cheery and adequately gracious--and played just enough good songs to qualify the show as such--she seems to have smoothed out her rough edges to the precipice of dullness.

As Lambert repeatedly reminded the crowd, she just turned 27 last week. While she is an extremely talented woman, writing most of her own songs, based on what I saw last night I hope her best days aren't already behind her. If you like mainstream, plaintive country music within the realms and norms of the Nashville establishment, the Texas-bred Lambert is still well above average in that vein. But even if she only ever seemed like a rogue outsider, raging with pistol-and-innuendo-packing vitriol, it appears that as she has achieved professional success and personal happiness, her art is suffering for it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Big 'Thumbs Up' for Roger Ebert (and his new book: The Great Movies III)

I can't remember the last time I paid full price for a new hardcover book. And to do so for a book from which I can easily read virtually the entire contents online for free may seem especially foolish and unnecessary, particularly for someone without a regular job.

But such is my eminent esteem for Roger Ebert that when I saw that he would be signing copies of his new collection of film essays, The Great Movies III--I already own volumes I & II, despite being able to access the essays on his great website--at the Barnes & Noble in Old Orchard in Skokie on Thursday night, I made a point of going. And as buying the book there for $30 was the only choice if I wanted him to sign it (even though it's available for about a third less on Barnes & Noble's website), well, pony up I did.

And even though I had Roger personalize my copy--thereby ruining any possible re-sale or auction value--I feel absolutely no compunction about doing so.

Because not only do I so greatly admire Roger and cherish having a tome of movie essays autographed by him, but especially as I have evolved in my exploration of film (which you can read about here), Ebert and his writing have greatly expanded my understanding and appreciation. Just today, I watched a beautiful 1974 German film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder called Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and followed it by reading Ebert's piece on it in The Great Movies I (and available here, although just because you can get something for free doesn't mean it's not worth buying).

This past April, for the first time, I attended one day of Roger's annual Ebertfest--comprised of overlooked films he favors--in Champaign-Urbana. You can read my recap here, in which I also tried to articulate why my fondness for Roger Ebert goes far beyond his role as movie critic, especially as he has battled thyroid cancer which has robbed him of his ability to speak and, as he had repeatedly joked, his "good looks."

As I mentioned to a Northwestern journalism grad student who was at the signing and interviewed me--as well as to the lady in line next to me, up to the point that Roger himself interrupted and shook my hand as he made his way to the book signing table--without his voice Ebert now speaks louder than ever. Going far beyond reviewing the latest movies, he writes at length about myriad topics through his online journal and in frequent Facebook and Twitter posts.

I absolutely loved when he shared this photograph on Facebook a few weeks ago, just because he came across something he liked, and agree with most of his well-reasoned, left-leaning political/societal commentary. I think it's cool that Roger Ebert was born on the exact same day as Paul McCartney--June 18, 1942--and in addition to being a huge Beatles fan, like me, he's also an ardent admirer of Howard Stern, of whom he tweeted on Monday: "Howard Stern is the best interviewer in the business. He asks everyone what you really want to know."

Aside from liking what Roger writes, writes about, what he cherishes, the courage he has demonstrated and the views he espouses, Ebert also means a lot to me simply by being one of the last remaining vestiges of an era of Chicago--and local media icons--gone by.

From Ebert's longtime TV partner, Gene Siskel, who passed away in 1999, to people like late longtime newspaper columnist Mike Royko and sports anchor Tim Weigel, even Steve Dahl who is off the air in radio limbo-land, most of the local media stars who kind of defined Chicago when I was growing up have passed--or at least moved--on. And, not only as a consequence of the Internet age, there doesn't seem to be stalwarts of quite the same ilk to have taken their place.

When I was about 14, I wrote to Ebert and Siskel requesting an autographed photo and received back the one at right (I did likewise for Steve & Garry (Meier), Weigel and a few others). As you can see, I've kept it in pretty good condition after all these years. And though I expect to put The Great Movies III to much greater use, I will likewise cherish having Roger Ebert's John Hancock on it. For as I've hopefully expressed amidst this rambling, it symbolizes a lot more than the signature of America's most famous movie critic.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Get Ready To Flip! 'Once Upun A Time' returns laughter quite a smile (or: Wanna buy my new calendar of pun cartoons?)

(Note: To skip the backstory below and simply see & order calendars, visit OnceUpunATime.com)

Once upun a time, or more precisely, one score and no years ago, I was an aspiring screenwriter working as a bank teller in Encino, California.

To fill some downtime when there were no customers, I started drawing--more like barely sketching--cartoons featuring puns that came to mind. I'm not sure if it was the absolute first, but a very early one was of Oliver Twist as a world-conquering imperialist asking, "Please sir, may I have Samoa?"

As you can see by clicking here, it wasn't exactly a work of high art. But it inspired me to draw many more pun cartoons and compile them into a calendar--it helped that I was working nights at Kinko's--that I gave to family and friends for the holidays heading into 1991.

Although my illustration skills never reached much beyond rudimentary, I refined some of my production values in creating another weekly calendar for 1992 and went on to make a Once Upun A Time calendar for all the remaining years of the '90s, comprising more than 400 original cartoons.

The calendars seemed to be highly appreciated and complimented by friends, relatives and co-workers who received them (typically 60-100 per year were given out). At various points, I sent copies to Tribune Media Services--after the retirement of Gary Larson's The Far Side--and Recycled Paper Products, but despite being told several times that "you should sell these," I never found a way to do so. And except for an occasional cartoon for a greeting card--another favorite pursuit as you can see here, but using a different type of punnery if at all--I put aside this hobby before the new millennium rolled around.

Until a flood in my condo basement washed away my surplus copies in late 2007, I occasionally shared some of my old calendars with new friends. One of these was my friend Amy who I had met in 2006 when we both lived in Glen Ellyn and worked on some political campaigns together. But honestly, I had forgotten I had ever given her back copies.

Cut to late August of this year. Out of the blue I received a call from Bob Peickert, a mutual friend of both Amy and me, who said that Amy--in the midst of clearing out clutter so she could put her home up for sale (if you want a house in Glen Ellyn, IL, leave a comment and I'll connect you with Amy)--had shown him my calendars and he absolutely loved them. And even better, that he wanted to produce and market them to clients of his Minuteman Press print shop in Glendale Heights, IL.

We had a meeting and it sounded great to me. So I spent the next month drawing a batch of new cartoons just to make it feel somewhat fresh to me; though I certainly could have culled enough decent old cartoons that most people have never seen and the few who did long ago forgot, I still wanted the new edition to have a mix of old and new punography.

Weekly page sample; click to enlarge
In addition to a pun calendar in the style of the weekly desktop planners that I had previously done--with 52 black & white cartoons for 2011 (most years don't begin on Sunday and end on Saturday, so 53 images are more typical); the cover is basically the same as on the monthly version shown at top--Bob asked me to put together a monthly version in color, as many business clients prefer distributing calendars that clients and associates can hang on a wall.

So I added color to some of my favorite cartoons and--with the help of Bob and the staff at his shop, which is handling all orders--I am pleased to re-introduce Once Upun A Time to the world in both Weekly and Monthly editions for 2011. Now available for purchase and sure to make great holiday gifts and/or imprinted business giveaways.

Monthly sample; click to enlarge
Individual copies of each version are just $10--cheaper than most of my mass marketed competition found in bookstores--and drop to as low as $5 per piece for commercial customers ordering in bulk (logo imprinting on the cover is included free on all orders of 25+ calendars).

Please visit OnceUpunATime.com to see some additional examples and place an order. Or you can just call Bob's Minuteman Press shop at (630) 871-6393.

(If you have suggestions for other avenues to sell my pun calendars online or offline, please be in touch.)

Thanks for indulging this self-serving sales pitch and remember to...

Have Plenty of Pun in the Year Ahead!

Once Upun A Time, all cartoons and calendars are the exclusive intellectual property of Seth Arkin. Please do not reproduce without written permission. ©2010. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

By Focusing Spotlight on Brian Jones, Stones Musical 'Aftermath' Provides Tremendous Satisfaction: Theater Review

Theater Review

a new musical play by Ronan Marra
featuring songs by the Rolling Stones
Signal Theatre Ensemble, Chicago
Thru December 12, 2010 (unless extended)

If Keith Richards is to be believed--and it seems his recent comments are already being contradicted--The Rolling Stones will record and tour in 2011. If it happens, it will mean--somewhat astonishingly--that Keith, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts will still be working together 49 years after the band's formation in 1962.

With current second guitarist Ron Wood having joined in 1975 and original bassist Bill Wyman having put in 30 years before retiring in 1992, it's easy to consider guitarist Brian Jones--an original member who was dismissed and soon after died in 1969--a footnote to musical history. But the still ongoing story of the Stones could never have been written without him, and not just because he was the one who chose their name.

As Ronan Marra writes in the program notes of Aftermath--a new work he wrote and directs for Chicago's Signal Ensemble Theatre, of which he is co-founder and co-artistic director--coming across a magazine article on Jones decades after his death was eye-opening.
"To me and anyone else I knew the leaders of The Rolling Stones had always been Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. To find out the band wasn’t even founded by these two legends was definitely news to someone who considered themselves a pretty serious rock fan. ... This article initiated my fascination with Jones. I came to learn that he was not only the band’s lead guitarist, but was also the one responsible for bringing many non-traditional instruments to their rock/R&B landscape."

Years later, Marra was inspired to write Aftermath, which Signal initially produced and staged in May; after a sold-out monthlong run--likely spurred by this glowing review from the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones and much other praise--the show has now been remounted. And is again entirely sold out. 

Fortunately, acting quickly after Chris Jones mentioned the show's revival, I was able to buy one of the last remaining tickets and went on Thursday night. Living up to the hype, Aftermath is one of the best pieces of theater I've seen this year. (Though it may seem pointless to write or read a rave review about a show for which no tickets remain, there is a waiting list for each show that you can get on an hour before curtain--I was told they try to be accommodating as possible--and the possibility also exists that Aftermath will get extended past its slated December 12 closing date; it would seem kind of silly if it isn't.)

And while it may be a bit tricky for any producer to take Aftermath to New York, given that the Stones have yet to officially endorse the show which features live renditions of about 5-6 of their songs (and even one by the Beatles), this is clearly a work that deserves an even wider audience.

Given the recent glut of "songbook" musicals using old rock songs, relatively few of which have been good or successful, the thought of a Rolling Stones musical might sound a bit garish. But although Aftermath features the talented cast performing late '60s Rolling Stones songs live on stage, it feels less like a musical akin to Mamma Mia--in which ABBA songs narrate the story--than simply a biographical drama with Stones songs as accoutrement. The program--actually a mock "backstage pass" that Signal cleverly substitutes for both ticket and program--calls Aftermath "a new play by Ronan Marra," rather than a musical.

Not to get too bogged down on this point, but it seems that a play with live music is technically "a musical." But even compared to stellar songbook stage affairs like Jersey Boys and Million Dollar Quartet, where the songs simply accompany biography rather than move the story along, Aftermath seems to avoid gathering musical moss, or gloss, by doing away with any dancing (other than Mick's gyrations) or over-the-top production numbers.

I realize that I'm probably not doing a very good job in describing why Aftermath is so good, and in a way, it's a show that is a lot better than the sum of its parts. The biography was interesting, but not all that revelatory beyond what one can learn on Wikipedia (although I'm glad it inspired me to do so). The Stones songs are great, but only a handful are played in the 90-minute show, and not only are just of few of those--Paint It Black, Sympathy for the Devil, Satisfaction--particularly well-known, singer/actor Nick Vidal looks a lot like Mick but doesn't really sound like him vocally. And the rest of the actors/musicians--even Aaron Snook who is excellent as Jones--aren't exactly spitting images of the other Stones.

All "Stones" imagery in the theater substitutes the actors' pix.
Yet, it all works. Wonderfully. Perhaps because the show is--much like the Stones--a bit scruffy and unkempt.

In staying focused on Jones during period from 1966-69--only slightly touching on his death, which many still believe was a murder--Aftermath strikes an incredibly engaging, entertaining and enlightening balance between biographic theatrical drama and a showcase for some of the greatest rock music ever made. 

And for just $20 if you're lucky enough to get one, it's not only the hottest ticket in town, but one of the best.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hey, Hey, My, My: Celebrating Birthday #65 For Neil "May He Always Be" Young

AP Photo/Tony Avelar
On November 12, 1945, Neil Percival Young was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

By the time he was 20, he had met both Stephen Stills and Joni Mitchell, written "Sugar Mountain" and toured Canada as a solo artist.

Subsequently, he formed Buffalo Springfield with Stills, recorded solo and with Crazy Horse as his backing band, and added himself onto Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Ever since he has hopscotched across modalities while creating some of the best rock music ever made (even if Rolling Stone has tended to overrate many of his later albums). In doing so, he has inspired countless bands, most notably Pearl Jam, and has raised millions for the Bridge School--the Northern California facility that assists children with severe physical impairments and complex communication needs--through his annual star-studded Bridge School Concerts. He also helped start FarmAid and continues to perform in their yearly benefit shows.

And the man who sang "and I'm getting old" when he was looking for a heart of gold in his late 20s doesn't seem to be slowing down much at 65. Even through a life that has seen band mates die, two of his children stricken with cerebral palsy, another battling epilepsy like he has and just yesterday, a fire that destroyed a warehouse with much of his memorabilia, rather than burning out or fading away, Neil has remained quite Young indeed.

While a Southern Man might not have needed him around, as Lynryd Skynyrd jested in "Sweet Home Alabama," I for one, am glad he's still "Rockin' In The Free World."

So as I say Happy Birthday #65 to Neil Young, here are some great videos I found on YouTube from throughout his amazing career. (Note: The last video is a compilation of all the others that runs continuously; easier for those who just want to hear the music.)

This is a compilation cycling through all the above videos.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Last Glimpse of the Eye and other iPhonetographs

OK, so having a camera on my phone isn't exactly news, or even new. But whereas the picture capability was convenient on cell phones past, in many ways it was a mirage. For the image quality was so lousy, you could barely define the result as a photograph, especially for someone who appreciates the virtue of SLR photography.

Nowadays, the photographic quality from my iPhone 4 still isn't quite as good as I might have hoped. Even when not lugging around my first-gen Digital Rebel, I still generally prefer my 6mp Canon point-and-shoot to what I get from the iPhone.

But the other day, I was walking around downtown Chicago before a meeting and took the pictures below with my iPhone. While not high art, I'm pretty pleased with the quality, especially as I've done no cropping and virtually no image enhancement (just a touch of lightening on a couple pix).


The Eye. I took this on Tuesday, November 9, 2010 and later read that the next day would be the last that the sculpture by Tony Tasset would be on display. But according to this article, it might be back in the spring.

The words on the stairs of the Art Institute are an installation by Indian artist Jitish Kallat. You can read more about it here.

After being stored away while the Modern Wing was being built, Marc Chagall's America Windows are back on display in the Art Institute, although in a different place than before. More info here.

The Art Institute's Modern Wing, which I still find to be a beautiful waste of space. Taken from the bridge crossing into Millennium Park.

Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park.

The Bean, or more precisely, Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor. Although there are always tons of tourists nearby, you can't buy a postcard or sculpture of the Bean due to licensing agreements. You'd think a city in the red might try to work that out.

The Crown Fountain, designed by Jaume Plensa.

Two holiday window displays at Macy's on State Street.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Happy Birthday Mom!

As you might have deduced from the title of this post, today is my Mom's birthday. I won't say how old she is, but she's young for her age.

In her honor, I spent all day putting together a collage video and trying to upload it. Which I've now done, as best as seems to work. The image below is supposed to be the first thing you see, but although it is on my source video, YouTube's conversion somehow has 86'd it. And the ending is clipped a bit too. But otherwise, enjoy. Especially my Mom.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Today's Weighty Topic: The Best Cupcakes in Chicago

According to Wikipedia, cupcakes date back to at least 1796. So in one shape or another, I imagine that gourmet cupcake emporiums have been around for ages. But I have only been aware of trendy little cupcake cafés popping up around Chicago for about the last 2-3 years.

For the preservation of my arteries, the relative recency of the cupcake craze is probably a good thing. Because in the category of "Sweet treats that I shouldn't eat but sometimes still do," cupcakes have surpassed Eli's cheesecake, Portillo's chocolate cake, Krispy Kreme donuts (are they still around anymore?), pecan pie from Baker's Square and pretty much everything else as my gluttonous fix of choice.

Unlike the aforementioned sweets, for which I have a very specific favored purveyor (not that I refuse chocolate cake, pecan pie, donuts or cheesecake from most elsewhere), having a cupcake--and where from--is a choice predominantly based on convenience. For although there seem to be several more cupcake joints around town than there were five years ago, most bakeries have just one location and if I am in the neighborhood of any at a time that I can justify--er, rationalize--the cost and calories, I typically find the experience truly scrumptious, whether it's one place or another.

That said, there are three cupcake shops that so far rank as my favorites in the Chicagoland area. This shouldn't be taken as a comprehensive survey, as I haven't been to all that many places and at least one that I liked has already come and gone. But rather than embark on a comprehensive cupcake gorging expedition, let's consider these the best of what I've found so far--of shops visited at least twice, so as to sample a variety of flavors--and I'll be sure to update you if I discover anywhere else that truly "takes the cake."

Before my three medalists, let me give a shout out to three other cupcake bakers. Mrs. A's Cupcakes & Cookies at Old Orchard Mall in Skokie doesn't really create the same type of beautifully-decorated gourmet cupcakes as the top three, but does an excellent job with the basics, including chocolate fudge and red velvet varieties. Foiled Cupcakes is a delivery only cupcake bakery in Naperville, so you can't just stop in, but their creations were provided at a Meetup I attended and the two cupcakes I had were phenomenal. Their delivery reach is pretty extensive and the proprietor does a great job of promotion via Twitter, so keep them in mind for your next event. Although Sweety Pies Bakery is in my hometown of Skokie, I have yet to visit, but they have gotten some good reviews on Yelp and if their home page photo (above) is to be believed, they make the most beautiful decorated cupcakes I've ever seen.

But now that I've whet your appetite, and mine, here are my choices for "The Best Cupcake Places in Chicago," in reverse order (to be clear, I'm ranking establishments, not specific flavors of cupcakes):

#3. Molly's Cupcakes - 2536 N. Clark, Chicago
This popular Lincoln Park café certainly fills the bill in making delicious cupcakes in a variety of flavors. But with nearby parking often hard to find, popping in for a cupcake isn't always all that practical except for those who live in the neighborhood. And compared to my top two choices, Molly's cupcakes are somewhat small and pricey, not particularly original and on at least one visit, not exceptionally moist.

So although it's pretty hard to make a truly bad cupcake and Molly's certainly doesn't, I've had cupcakes just as good at the now-gone Chicago Cupcakes (on Briar Place, near Broadway) and would expect to find similar quality or better at other cupcake bakeries, including Phoebe's (3327 N. Broadway), which I think may be run by the same proprietors as Chicago Cupcakes. What I do really like about Molly's is that it's a comfortable place to sit for awhile and they have sprinkle-shakers with which to adorn your cupcake. And I most recently had a cookie dough cupcake that was pretty awesome.

#2. More Cupcakes - 1 E. Delaware Place, Chicago
Chicago Magazine gave this Gold Coast emporium a couple of citations, including noting their launch of a cupcakemobile, a good idea if I've ever heard one. Helped by a "15 minute loading zone" in front of the shop, which has scant or no seating (I can't recall), I've stopped in a few times now. I would have to say that More takes the cake in terms of originality, combining sleekly designed cupcakes like the red velvet at left, with unique flavors such as "salted caramel" and over-the-top extravaganzas like their version of cookies & cream, one of many varieties that feature a creamy filling.

More is clearly the most gourmet of the cupcake places I've visited, with the industrial design of their single-serve cupcake boxes rivaling the ingenuity of Apple (I've been tempted to tell the clerk, "just throw it in a bag; it'll be gone in about 37 seconds"). But despite the prevailing wisdom that it's impossible to be too rich or too pretty, I've occasionally found both to be somewhat true at More. While beautiful, the red velvet cupcake in particular wasn't quite as heavenly or unique as I was expecting (although it was certainly more than adequate). So while this bakery is excellent and well worth several More visits, at least in my humble opinion, their cupcakes can be topped.

#1. Sensational Bites - 3751 N. Southport, Chicago
Located up the block from the Music Box Theatre, this accurately-named "dessert cafe"--two of my friends rave about their chocolate caramel brownie--has benefited from my relatively newfound affinity for world cinema and I've enjoyed sampling a new cupcake (or sometimes two) on each visit.

While neither their flavors or designs are as unique or elegant as More's, they have a good assortment of cupcakes both basic and fancy, including a few with fillings. I've had their red velvet, cookies & cream, marble (at left), orange dreamsicle and a couple of others and have never been disappointed. Especially as their cupcake prices range from $2.50-$2.75, about dollar less than anything at More and most choices at Molly's. I've occasionally found their counter help to be a bit gruff, but nothing to keep me from coming back and enjoying Sensational Bites again and again (in moderation, of course).

If there are any places I haven't yet tried (or just didn't include) and should particularly know about, by all means don't keep your favorite cupcakes under wraps. As time and my blood sugar levels will allow, I'll be happy this investigation open. Preferably with a glass of milk.