Saturday, March 26, 2011

My 11 Favorite Martin Scorsese Movies -- Now on Booth Reviews

Click here or on the image to see my piece and my picks.

Add caption

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Here's To Growing Old and Fat, Like Elizabeth Taylor

What did you think of when you heard that Elizabeth Taylor had died?

Did you think of young Liz, a child star who grew into a woman considered among the world's foremost beauties, and a wonderful actress who earned two Oscars and three more nominations by the time she was 35?

Or did you think of old Liz, who had largely stopped acting, grown quite large and become a punchline for her excessive weight, odd friendship with Michael Jackson, eight marriages and often peculiar behavior?

For those old enough to have witnessed Taylor at the peak of her film stardom and sex appeal, I'd imagine thoughts of "young Liz" were substantive if not predominant. And not coincidentally, the vast majority of U.S. newspapers today feature a photo of her from at least 50 years ago or so.

But for those of us under 50, the sad truth is that the prevailing public image of Elizabeth Taylor during our lifetime has been that of a freak show, not a once exquisite screen legend aging gracefully. It would be natural for many of us to remember Liz more so as tabloid fodder and the subject of late-night jests--I still recall a Joan Rivers joke from at least 25+ years ago ridiculing Taylor for having "more chins than a Chinese phone book"--than as a "Hollywood goddess."

Yet no matter what age you are, from 12 to 104, I imagine the images conjured up by the name "Marilyn Monroe" are primarily that of a sexy, albeit long-dead, starlet (even if her--nor Taylor's--body type was never akin to today's fashion model barometer for feminine beauty).

So in living to age 79, much of the last half of it not so glamorously, Elizabeth Taylor largely decimated her youthful iconography. After all, you don't see ubiquitous posterized images of Liz like you do of Marilyn or Audrey Hepburn.  

Taylor isn't alone in illustrating that for the famous, living a long life can be considerably worse for one's public image than dying young.

James Dean died at 24, shortly after filming Giant with Taylor and Rock Hudson. He's forever remembered as he looks at left.

Yet while Marlon Brando certainly continues to be held in high regard as one of the greatest actors ever, his legacy was somewhat tarnished by getting old & fat and having had 12 children by at least 5 women (some of the mothers are still unidentified), with one of his kids killing the lover of another, who then killed herself. So like Taylor, Brando's obituaries had to devote space to some less than savory aspects of his later life.

Being forever frozen in time isn't only limited to Hollywood stars. In music, you can die young and be  worshipped forever like Jim Morrison, Gram Parsons and Duane Allman or stay alive to be largely forgotten and/or besieged by struggles like Sly Stone, David Crosby and Gregg Allman. Even Elvis, who died relatively young at 42, is commonly derided for his old, fat and drug-addled years.

But while I imagine it's not too much fun being reminded of how young and gorgeous you once were, I would think Elizabeth Taylor should've been thrilled to be her, rather than Marilyn. Or even Audrey, who died at 63 or Natalie Wood--an oft-forgotten contemporary--who drowned when she was just 43.

After all, according to an article I read today, Taylor--who was one of the first public figures to decry and raise money to fight AIDS--raised more than $270 million for AIDS prevention and care. She is survived by four children, ten grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. And with the click of a button, Netflix subscribers can instantly be reminded how great she looked and acted in Giant, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Cleopatra, with many other movies--like her Oscar winning roles in Butterfield 8 and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?--available on DVD.

Thus, so what if the last half of Elizabeth Taylor's life wasn't as outwardly attractive as the first half? So what if she long ago lost the chance to be immortalized in quite the same vein as Marilyn Monroe? So what if she didn't go out on top? At least she got the chance to fade away, which in my book, at least for the one doing it, beats burning out any day.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

'God of Carnage' a Fine Farce, but Leaves Me Agnostic About Any Deeper Meaning or Merit -- Theater Review

Theater Review

God of Carnage
a play by Yasmina Reza, directed by Rick Snyder
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 17, 2011

God of Carnage is a farce. I don't mean that as an insult, but as a genre description of a play whose absurdity--in the tradition of Albee and Moliere--is presumably part of the point.

The comedy, another global smash written by Yasmina Reza--who enjoyed similar success with Art--is also one of the most decorated new plays of the last few years, having won the Tony in 2009 and the Olivier (for London theater) before that.

I found it enjoyable, and even laugh-out-loud funny at times, but if it winds up being the best play--of any vintage--I see in 2011, I'm not getting out enough. Actually, it already isn't.

Certainly the fact that I was solidly entertained for the whole show--albeit a 75-minute one-act quickie--says much about Reza's (and translator Christopher Hampton's) gift for dialogue and, well, appealing absurdity.

But if, even just two days after seeing it, God of Carnage is supposed to have any lasting resonance--as a truly great play should--it really doesn't. 

The show features a four-person cast comprised of two married, well-to-do couples who get together at one of their posh Brooklyn homes to discuss a schoolyard fight between their 11-year-old sons. The conversation takes various twists and turns, changes up "debate partners" and becomes about more than the relatively minor impetus, but none of the characters are particularly appealing, interesting or empathetic.

When God of Carnage opened on Broadway, the couples of Michael & Veronica and Alan & Annette were played by James Gandolfini & Marcia Gay Harden and Jeff Daniels & Hope Davis. Given that I would pay to overhear those four having a conversation over dinner, I imagine the casting not only lent largely to the play's success, but to its acclaim.

In Chicago, where Goodman Theatre is staging the initial production after a Broadway tour was scrapped, four very good actors star in the play. David Pasquesi is typically excellent as Alan, a smarmy lawyer with annoying cell phone habits. Beth Lacke, as Alan's wife Annette, Mary Beth Fisher as Veronica and Keith Kupferer in the Gandolfini role of Michael all do solid work under the direction of Rick Snyder.

But none of them are what the world at large would call "stars." And without star power to amplify one's enjoyment of self-righteous squabbling amongst shallow, self-absorbed people, what's left is a farce without any forceful purpose.

With some great moments, God of Carnage--as presented at the Goodman--is suitably entertaining, in a manner not unlike a good episode of Modern Family. But in simply spoofing a stereotype--which presumably matches many in the target audience--Reza's latest smash just doesn't compare to other highly-lauded plays of the past decade, including Proof, Doubt, Frost/Nixon, The Pillowman and August: Osage County.

If you're a Goodman subscriber like me, you'll probably be glad just to get a glimpse of something so recent as part of the season. I imagine this show would likely make a decent choice for date night, particularly at a discount. But with stellar choices almost always on the boards in Chicago, this much-heralded 'God' really doesn't merit too much reverence.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

My Most Indelible March Madness Memories -- Now Posted on Booth Reviews

Click here or on the image to see my latest post on Booth Reviews.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

'The Merchant of Venice' Pays Off With Modern Staging But Remains A Tough Sell -- Theater Review

Theater Review

The Merchant of Venice
by Shakespeare
Bank of America Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 27, 2011

As with opera, ballet and much quality television, Shakespeare is an art form for which--for me--impassive appreciation far outweighs emotional affinity. Especially on a somewhat exhausted weeknight, Sir William's dense, poetic language, multi-faceted plots and myriad supporting characters can prove challenging for me to comprehend.

So when The Merchant of Venice appeared in town this week as part of my Broadway In Chicago series, which is comprised primarily of musicals, it was nice to note that at least an Oscar winner was starring in it.

I haven't seen F. Murray Abraham in much, or perhaps anything except a guest stint on The Good Wife, since he earned the Best Actor award for playing Salieri in Amadeus. It seems he's largely worked on stage and in Europe since then, and I was surprised to read just now on Wikipedia that he grew up in El Paso and was a gang member as a teenager.

He starred as Shylock, which is the lead but not title role in Merchant of Venice, and even from the balcony of the Bank of America Theatre, his acting prowess was readily apparent.

While I have seen several Shakespeare plays in a variety of stagings, and can appreciate the beauty of traditional garb, I also was initially pleased--and ultimately quite satisfied--with this rendition of Merchant being done in modern dress. Although it may sound ghastly to Elizabethan purists, the stage was adorned with Apple laptops & flat screen TVs, the character of Launcelot (right) was quite streetwise and the action was accompanied by a significant use of jazz.

With the inclusion of a very attractive woman--Kate MacCluggage--playing the primary female role of Portia, an heiress who welcomes numerous suitors, if I'm going to sit through Shakespeare for nearly three hours on a weeknight, this was about as user-friendly a version as I'm likely to get.

And for the most part I enjoyed it, except for the fact--or, well, my opinion--that The Merchant of Venice is a very ugly play with few likable or redeeming characters. I really don't know, and Wikipedia suggests it's an eternal debate, whether Shakespeare was commenting on anti-Semitism, simply reflecting it or perhaps even participating in it.

Certainly, Shylock, a moneylending Jew, is rather despicable for demanding a pound of flesh from Antonio, the titular merchant who is late in repaying him 3,000 ducats. Although the way Shylock is treated, before, while and after insisting on collecting on his debt with a sharp blade--even though the play is over 400 years old, I feel it wrong to reveal what happens--is also deplorable, and in the end unnecessarily degrading, I was just as puzzled by the great Sir William's need to tack on twenty frivolous minutes after what should have been a highly dramatic ending.

To me--and I'm obviously no Shakespearean scholar--the silly androgeny-based conclusion of the drama is as insulting as anything that precedes it, and actually undermines what had been quite compelling, although  troubling. If Shakespeare was indeed intending this play as a study of prejudice, the end only amplifies my belief that ignorance is no excuse for it.

But who am I to question Shakespeare? Even with some flaws, The Merchant of Venice is still a great play. Abraham is excellent and recites the famous "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech with panache, power and--given recent anti-Semitism spewed by John Galliano and (arguably) Charlie Sheen--particular resonance.

With all the caveats above, this is one of the most enjoyable productions I've seen of a Shakespearean work, so catching it during its brief Chicago run is certainly worth your while.

But that doesn't mean I hath not a few criticisms.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Though Still Quite Worthwhile For Fans, 'Collapse Into Now' Falls Well Short of Band's R.E.M.arkable Then

Album Review

Collapse Into Now

I believe R.E.M. belong in the very upper echelon of best rock bands ever (as you can see here), with their recorded output having been a greater part of the equation than live performances.

So although the erstwhile Athens, Georgia group's 15th studio album, Collapse Into Now, undoubtedly ranks among the bottom third of their remarkable discography, I highly doubt there will be 10 other albums released in 2011 that I care about, listen to or like as much.

Although there is too much proof to the contrary to argue that R.E.M.'s creative brilliance hasn't subsided sharply--whether causally or coindentally--since drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997, Peter Buck, Michael Stipe and Mike Mills are still putting out high quality music 30 years after the release of their first single, "Radio Free Europe." Not only has R.E.M.'s quantity of new material outdistanced contemporaries like U2, The Cure and Depeche Mode over the last decade, so too has their quality in sum.

And while Collapse Into Now fails to truly compete with R.E.M.'s best albums, I genuinely like it better than The King of Limbs, the latest release from Radiohead (even though I gave both records @@@1/2; see my review of King of Limbs).

So in comparison with nearly everyone but themselves, R.E.M. circa 2011 remain quite worthy of your bandwidth, and there is no reason why longtime fans shouldn't purchase and enjoy Collapse Into Now. Although in harkening to the past, the album seems to echo New Adventures In Hi-Fi (the band's last album with Berry) far more than their truly adventurous early discs--in truth, the latest album by The Decemberists, The King Is Dead, on which Buck plays guitar, sounds more like early R.E.M. than anything here--new songs like "Discoverer," "All The Best," "It Happened Today" (featuring a guest appearance by Eddie Vedder) and especially, "Mine Smell Like Honey," should resonate with the faithful.

But were I asked to put together a 20-song "Best of R.E.M." playlist, only the last song above would even merit consideration, and not necessarily make the cut. This is, of course, a testament to the band's past greatness, but doesn't suggest that the uninitiated start with the latest album nor that those who fell off the R.E.M. bandwagon years ago will hear 'Collapse' as a return to glory (although 2008's Accelerate was the band's best post-Berry release, and though the new one isn't quite as good, it's close).

In listening to not only the new album several times, but many of the ones I love--Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Life's Rich Pageant, Document, Out of Time--it seems that what's been left behind is the unbridled sense of "let's try anything." While Stipe's rich vocals always provided a unifying element, even before he began enunciating, there is true stylistic divergence between "Begin The Begin," "Fall On Me," "The Flowers of Guatemala," "What If We Give It Away," "Swan Swan H," and much of what came before or since--and all those songs were all on the same album (1986's Life's Rich Pageant).

While none of the songs on Collapse Into Now are bad, and that's a greater achievement than it may seem, neither do any of them brim with the brilliant originality of "It's The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," "Losing My Religion," "Man on the Moon," or "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" Given that Mills-sung songs like "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville," "Superman" and "Texarkana" used to shake things up a bit, it's strange that he hasn't contributed lead vocals for several albums.

The college kids of Chronic Town are now graying fifty-somethings, and although Buck/Mills/Stipe remain professionals who take their craft seriously, they seem to have lost some of the playfulness that took their collective (along with Berry) sonic imaginations to levels few others have ever reached.

Of course, despite my long treatise the other day on how songwriting singers  named Paul (but not only) seem to suffer when they leave bands to go solo, maybe the reality is really that even musical geniuses (together or apart) only have a finite amount of sheer ingenuity in them. For whatever combination of factors may be to blame, most rock songwriters' best work has come before the age of 35, even if they remain active far beyond.

With Collapse Into Now, R.E.M. has nothing to apologize for--except perhaps their decision not to tour behind the album--but anyone hoping that Accelerate would push them into a higher gear, one being both R.E.M.iniscent of the past and, not coincidentally, nothing like anything they've ever done before, should just enjoy the 'Now' while R.E.M.aining grateful for all that was "then."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Rock of the Irish -- Now on Booth Reviews

Click image or here to see my piece on Booth Reviews about Irish music.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Rock 'n Roll Thesis: The Power of Paul is Greater in Groups

If you should have a son and hope that he may grow up to become a skilled and successful rock 'n roll singer and songwriter, you really might want to name him Paul.

Buy him a guitar, encourage his interest in music, indoctrinate him with a sense of wry, witty wordplay and by all means, let him join a band.

And, should he enjoy considerable success and/or acclaim within that band (or at least a duo) and then come to you one day saying that the band is splitting and he's going solo, talk him out of it.


And, should young Paul plan on being a solo act from the very beginning, tell him to instead consider a career in acting--where Messrs. Newman, Scofield, Sorvino, Giamatti, Dooley, Walker, Rudd, Bettany, Hogan, Reubens, Robeson and Reiser have all made quite a name for themselves--or even painting, where Cezanne, Gauguin, Signac, Seruisier, Klee and Delvaux have all demonstrated a great Pa(u)lette.

For other than accomplished singer/songwriter Pauls in an easy listening vein--Anka, Williams--the only semi-successful singing Pauls known primarily as solo artists (that I can come up) with are Paul Davis ("65 Love Affair," "Cool Night") and Paul Young ("Come Back and Stay," "Everytime You Go Away").

But this story isn't about Paul Young. Nor is it about Pauls considered virtuosos at guitar (Gilbert), synthesizer (Hardcastle) or DJing (Oakenfold).

No, this rock 'n' roll thesis is about singer, songwriter Pauls who were clearly a principal--and often the primary--force behind the best rock band ever, the best British band never to make it big in America, the best duo ever, the best indie band ever and some other highly successful groups. And yet, despite reaching heights that will forever rank them high among my favorite musicians ever, and even enjoying considerable success and longevity as solo artists (and/or in subsequent bands)--typically for many more years than with their original group--their artistry never consistently, and in sum quite rarely, reached the strata that they enjoyed as part of their prevailing joint entity.

Indeed, as I will elucidate, The Power of Paul is Greater in Groups. As illustrated by...

Paul McCartney - Sir Paul has now been a solo artist (and/or a Wing) for more than four times longer than he was a Beatle. While his post-Beatles career often seems to be derided for its pop fluffiness, it is also highlighted by masterworks like "Maybe I'm Amazed," Band on the Run and "Live and Let Die." I also find his current string of albums since 1997--Flaming Pie, Run Baby Run, Driving Rain, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, Memory Almost Full and Electric Arguments (released under The Fireman pseudonym) to be consistently stellar, or even better.

I never mind hearing a selection of non-Beatles songs when seeing McCartney live, but when he pulls out "Eleanor Rigby," "Penny Lane," "Day Tripper," "Hello Goodbye," "We Can Work It Out," "Can't Buy Me Love," "Helter Skelter," "Get Back," "Yesterday," "Hey Jude," "Let It Be" and myriad other Beatles classics he wrote (despite official credit to Lennon/McCartney), he reminds that he is probably the greatest songwriter rock 'n' roll has ever known. To me the only argument is not Bob Dylan, Ray Davies, Pete Townshend or Brian Wilson, but John Lennon. And while I won't debate anyone who argues that John was "the best Beatle," to me, his distinction over Paul is very slight. In fact, I think, Paul's up & down solo career has prompted some decay in how his stature within the Beatles is viewed, but if you think about it, Lennon's solo career was just as up & down, if not more.

Paul Simon - Yes, Simon has had a marvelous solo career, with numerous Grammy's for Graceland, classics like "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" and "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" and six albums gives 5 or 4-1/2 stars (plus Rhythm of the Saints, which it gives 4 and that I really like). He has remained an outstanding songwriter, but I much prefer his string of hits with Simon & Garfunkel to the bulk of what came since. And it seems I'm not alone. On his own, Simon seems to play theaters, such as he's booked into on his upcoming tour. On S&G reunion tours, he and Artie play basketball arenas for multiple nights, or fill up Central Park. Supposedly, they were supposed to tour and hit Wrigley Field in 2010, but it was canceled due to problems with Garfunkel's vocal cords.

So again, the work done by a Paul after his initial group (or in this case, duo) incarnation is nothing to sneeze at, but IMHO has not quite recaptured the heights of "Mrs. Robinson," "The Sounds of Silence," "The Boxer," "Cecilia," and the rest of the Simon & Garfunkel canon, even though Simon wrote virtually everything in it.

Paul Weller - If you are a fan of The Clash and Elvis Costello but have never heard of The Jam--as most Americans didn't during their 1977-82 run or in large part since--the band Paul Weller started while still in his teens is probably the best rock artist of which you are unaware. From what I've read, they were every bit as popular in their native England as the Clash, Police or Costello during the same span and in my mind, they were every bit as good (at least in consistency, if not quite matching the high water marks of the other three). Weller wrote virtually all the Jam songs and seemingly decided the group's direction, taking them from punk to Motown-influences in a span of just 6 years, never with a major dip in quality. Some of my favorite Jam songs include "Going Underground," "In the Crowd," "Eton Rifles," "Man About Town," "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight," and "It's Too Bad." (Start with The Jam - Greatest Hits, but all six studio albums are great, especially All Mod Cons and "Setting Sons."

Despite phenomenal early success, Weller's ambitions grew beyond the Jam, and he disbanded the group in 1982 to form Style Council. Though the duo had some success, I don't like any of their stuff as much as that of The Jam. And while "The Modfather," as Weller is reverently referred, has subsequently put together a stellar and successful career as a solo artist, including many first-rate albums like 2010's Wake Up the Nation--which was my 4th favorite of last year-- here too the pattern plays out. For it's not that these Pauls have been failures after their initial joint successes; quite the contrary and I've continued to support them. It's just that in my mind, they never consistently reached the same pinnacle. And the same thing can be said about...
Paul Westerberg - Given that R.E.M. far surpassed their indie roots in a way that The Replacements never did--despite the latter also eventually getting signed to a major label--I consider the Westerberg-led 'Mats' the best indie band ever (their Minneapolis brethren Husker Du are a close second). And Westerberg's masterful, witty songwriting supplied the brilliance that the band's legendary drinking, discord and debauchery could never completely debunk. Tunes like "Hold My Life," "Unsatisfied," "Never Mind," "Alex Chilton," "Little Mascara," and "I'll Be You," were some of the best of the '80s, even if you've never heard any of them. (Start here but explore much further).

After the Replacements disbanded, literally on-stage at Grant Park on July 4, 1991, Westerberg initially showed the same sort of brilliance in his two contributions to the Singles soundtrack: "Dyslexic Heart" and "Waiting on Somebody." Although Westerberg has now put out numerous solo albums, including under the pseudonym Grandpaboy, almost all of which have some merit--Mono is my favorite--and several fine songs, give me his Replacements output any day. For whatever reason, even though the last official Replacements album, All Shook Down, was said to be largely a Westerberg solo effort, without the band name--at least--behind him, his writing just hasn't had the same consistent wit or appeal. 

Paul Rodgers - Long considered one of rock's great vocalists, Rodgers doesn't quite hold to my "Paul Thesis" in the same way the first four do. He isn't quite one of my personal favorites on a level like the others, he was in two successful bands--Free and Bad Company--before subsequent inconsistency and although he did co-write most of the major songs for the aforementioned groups, he wasn't composing on his own to the extent of McCartney (after the early collaborative John & Paul days), Simon, Weller or Westerberg.

But after having success with Free, whose "All Right Now" remains an FM staple, and forming Bad Company, whose first album is considered a classic, Rodgers' subsequent output, whether in Bad Company or since, has been largely mediocre. He's stayed relatively active, from forming so-so 1980's supergroup, The Firm, with Jimmy Page, to touring with Queen in the '00s as a substitute for Freddie Mercury, to releasing a smattering of solo albums to revisiting Bad Company. But you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who'd suggest his best work has consistently come after 1975. 

Paul Smith - I'll excuse you for going, "Who?" but Smith is the lead singer for one of my favorite British bands of the last decade, Maximo Park. I even chose their 2005 debut, A Certain Trigger, as My Favorite Album of the '00s. Even though their next two albums weren't quite as good, hopefully they're still a going concern. But they skipped out on a 2009 stateside tour and Smith released a solo album called Margins in late 2010. I never bothered to seek it out and you can't even find a review of it on nor readily purchase it in America. Hopefully he pays attention to the Paul Thesis. 

Paul Kelly - I hadn't heard of him until my friend Dave cited him when I queried about additional famous singing Pauls, but after Dave mentioned Paul Kelly & the Messengers, I liked what I found on YouTube enough to order two albums (already liking Comedy very much). Although AllMusic indicates that the Australian Kelly has released solid solo albums since disbanding the Messengers in 1992, Dave wasn't familiar with of any of them and I get the sense that the group phase was Kelly's commercial apex.

Paul Kantner - Although Kantner did release a well-regarded solo album in 1970 called Blows Against The Empire, he is the only member to have remained constant throughout both Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship, for whom he wrote and sang several songs. So it seems safe to assume he too is better off in a group setting.

Paul Carrack - The journeyman singer is the voice on "How Long" by Ace, "Tempted" by Squeeze and "The Living Years" by Mike and the Mechanics. He's also been a member and session vocalist for other groups in a career of 40 years, but "Don't Shed A Tear" is likely the only solo song of his you might know.

Paul Stanley - The man born Stanley Harvey Eisen has been almost exclusively the lead singer of KISS, but in addition to a 1978 solo album (released at the same time as those of his bandmates), Paul Stanley also released an album called Live To Win on his own in 2006. I never heard of it until looking him up just now, and if nothing else, it seems to prove that he does better with his makeup on.

Paul Hewson - Better known as Bono, he hasn't ever really strayed from the confines of U2 other than to write & record "Silver & Gold" for the Sun City anti-apartheid benefit album. Well that, and to occasionally save the world.

Paul Simonon - I only know of one song on which The Clash bassist sang, but "Guns of Brixton"--which he also wrote--is a pretty good one. Plus, he was the subject of the greatest photo in rock history, the one that made the cover of London Calling. He's done stints in Gorillaz and Damon Albarn's other supergroup, The Good, the Bad and the Queen, but nothing solo of which I'm aware.

So, as you can see, the Power of Paul is indeed greater in groups.

Still, I'm not really claiming that this proves anything; I am merely pointing out the coincidence that at least four of my favorite singer-songwriters are named Paul and have followed roughly similar career regressions. Plus, that almost all successful singing Pauls can be found within bands, rather than without.

Despite my abiding thesis about the Pauls--particularly McCartney, Simon, Weller and Westerberg--I realize that the trajectory of tremendous group output (and often success) followed by a substantial but lesser solo career is not limited to songwriting singers named Paul.

David Byrne, Sting and John Fogerty all became strong solo acts yet never quite equaled their work within Talking Heads, The Police or Creedence Clearwater Revival, despite their being the chief songwriters within those groups. And I'm sure you can think of others who fit the profile.

In fact, I find it a bit harder to come up with solo careers that were better than the (noteworthy) groups left behind, with Peter Gabriel (Genesis), Neil Young (Buffalo Springfield and CSNY) and Van Morrison (Them) being the only real obvious examples. You can argue amongst yourselves whether Lou Reed (Velvet Underground), Ozzy Osbourne (Black Sabbath) and Morrissey (The Smiths) were better alone or within the bands that made them famous; I lean toward the latter. Rod Stewart doesn't count, because although he had some great solo records, the best came during the period that he was also the frontman for The Faces. And because I'm focusing on rock performers, I'll leave Beyonce out of the equation, although she seems more popular on her own than with Destiny's Child (I don't know enough to make a qualitative judgment).

So I guess my rock 'n roll thesis is best stated as:
Singing Pauls are almost always better in bands, and should never leave a successful one behind, but that's likely a bad decision whatever your name may be.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Unruly 'Hair' Provides Only Strands of Enjoyment -- Theater Review

Theater Review

Touring production of Broadway revival
Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre
Thru March 20, 2011

I realize the extent that Hair changed the face of Broadway when it first let the sunshine in--following an off-Broadway run the previous year--in 1968. Sex, drugs, rock 'n roll, nudity, racial harmony, hippies and peace protests all must have seemed pretty radical, at least within the theaters at the time.

As such, given its topical relevance and revolutionary bent in both sound and style, I imagine the relative lack of structure (and to some extent, substance) was not only forgiven, but admired. Broadway always needs mold-breaking musicals, and I would guess that Hair was one of the most pronounced successes in that regard.

Prior to seeing a touring version--albeit with a non-Equity cast--of the 2009 Broadway revival at Chicago's beautiful Ford Center/Oriental Theatre, I'd only seen Hair onstage once, at a very low-level community theater production. I wasn't overly enamored, but I recall it as a good showcase for exuberant young actors, with high energy in a low-rent setting a workable mix given the loose construction of the show.

But in a huge downtown Chicago theater, as part of my Broadway in Chicago series, I expected a bit more. And while I can envision that particularly stellar lead actors can potentially elevate the material beyond its flaws--and perhaps this explains the Tony Award earned by the Broadway revival--the young, nondescript cast in Chicago couldn't compensate for a musical clearly showing its age and limitations.

Although the politics and characters of Hair are strongly tied to the show's '60s origins, a lot of the messaging remains resonant and I don't think modern irrelevance is the culprit. Rather, especially after seeing subsequent mold-breaking musicals that are just much better overall--including Rent, Spring Awakening and In The Heights--I had a hard time seeing past Hair's sketchy book, lack of scenery, minimal choreography, underdeveloped characters and, despite a few marvelous songs, only a so-so score.

Yes, it was fun to hear "Aquarius," "Hair," and "Let the Sunshine In," but other than "Manchester England" and the lovely (though kinda unnecessary) ballad, "Frank Mills," nothing else really caught my ear, even in listening to the cast recording beforehand.

Act I has some nice moments in introducing the numerous characters, few of which really stood out from one another (even the two leading  characters, Berger and Claude, seemed relatively similar, at least as embodied in Chicago), but in full wasn't all that engrossing. And when Act II featured a 40-minute acid trip, it seemed unfair that the audience had to watch it without any chemical enhancements (except, I guess, for those who took LSD on the way down).

By the time of the extended finale of "Let The Sunshine In," complete with audience members on-stage--the ones who had paid nearly $100 for orchestra seats--Hair was feeling much like a parody of itself, despite a rather emotional ending.

Although I had perceived Hair as a classic musical going it, and was high with anticipation given the plaudits for the Broadway revival, there just didn't seem to be enough show to fill the Oriental stage, nor the 2-1/2 hour running time. To be fair, it was officially a preview performance, so although I highly doubt I would find this production (with a cast devoid of anyone with any Broadway credits) superlative on any occasion, maybe I just happened to catch it on a bad Hair night. 

Monday, March 07, 2011

'Sex With Strangers' Well Performed, But Not All That Fulfilling -- Theater Review

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow,
Theater Review

Sex With Strangers
A new play by Laura Eason
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru May 15, 2011

Very impressively staged in Steppenwolf's upstairs theater, Laura Eason's Sex With Strangers is a play whose parts are better than its sum.

The two-character drama stars Stephen Louis Grush and Sally Murphy, both first-rate performers who are typically excellent here.

Grush plays Ethan, a 24-year-old blogger who writes openly about his sexual exploits and has turned his blog into a book that shares its title with the play. Murphy's Olivia, pushing 40, is a novelist who hasn't published anything in years but is working on her second book as the show opens.

There are many possibilities here, and perhaps that's the problem. For while Sex With Strangers is about several potentially compelling topics--romance between people of different ages & perspectives, the art & emotion of writing, the immediacy and openness of blogging vs. the deliberate nature of authoring long-form fiction, the way publishing and technology has changed, the voyeuristic nature of the Internet, the propriety of compromise, and more--the result was too much of a hodge-podge for me to care very much about any of it.

Often feeling like a scenario better suited for a mediocre romantic comedy movie, Eason's new work--which was first presented at Steppenwolf's 2009 First Look Festival--has a narrative that seems too compressed and contrived to hold real emotional heft or provide societal insight, and despite the talents of the actors, neither of the characters are fully realized nor particularly empathetic.

This is subject matter with potential and there are a few laughs and enough to think about to make the post-show discussion worthwhile. If, like I did, you can grab a $20 day-of-show ticket, 'Sex With Strangers' may be worth experiencing, despite its flaws. It's quite possible that you may find something there that just didn't connect with me.

But in the end, it just doesn't add up to any all that fascinating, or despite its name, even titillating (one guy in the post-show discussion complained that the stage went dark for all the sex scenes). Despite an attractive couple of partners, this 'Sex' just ain't all that great.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

My 11 Favorite Guitarists of All-Time - Now on Booth Reviews

Click here or on the image below to see my latest post on Booth Reviews. Some of My 11 Favorite Guitarists of All-Time may surprise you, as will some of those left out.