Saturday, April 30, 2011

A List Carved in Stone...Or Not -- Now on Booth Reviews

Click here or on the image below to see my latest article featuring a photo slide-show of my favorite sculptors.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

'Next To Normal' Brings Unusual Depth To The Musical Form -- Theater Review

Theater Review

Next To Normal
a recent musical presented by Broadway in Chicago
Bank of America Theatre
Through May 8, 2011

Next To Normal is a recent Broadway Musical yet it earned the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Unlike a preponderance of new musicals, it isn't based on a popular movie, nor does it feature a score comprised of old rock tunes. It also doesn't include any of what one might expect in terms of traditional showtunes, costumes or choreography.

Although it enjoyed tremendous critical acclaim--besides the Pulitzer, it earned 3 Tony Awards, was nominated for 8 more and garnered excellent reviews in New York--and ran for nearly 2 years on Broadway, it's likely a show that isn't well-known by the general public. 

But with an original story--freshly written for the musical stage--revolving around a modern family in which the mother is struggling with bipolar disorder and depression, accompanied by a solid new score, it's a show that merits applauding even before it starts. Especially as its first national tour arrived in Chicago with Alice Ripley reprising her Tony-winning lead role.

And as an emotionally complex and compelling adult-oriented narrative that demonstrates great musical theater need not be upbeat and over-the-top, it well deserved the instant standing ovation it earned upon its conclusion.

Tuesday night--its first in Chicago--was my initial exposure to the show and I greatly enjoyed it, finding the gravitas of the material a welcome new tack in musical lexicon. Beyond being about a woman with emotional demons, it offers plenty of shrewd commentary on our times and lives.

Still, having read and heard so many great things about it, I feel like I must rationalize giving Next To Normal only @@@@1/2 instead of five. But I can't quite earmark it among the upper, upper echelon of favorite musicals (like those I cited here) and I agree with Billy Elliot having beaten it out for the 2009 Tony for Best Musical.

Certainly, Ripley is excellent--although from the balcony of the Bank of America Theatre her voice didn't seem quite as robust as I would've expected--as were all the cast members, including Asa Somers, Curt Hansen and Emma Hunton, all of great voice that served to elevate the mid-tempo rock score.

I am definitely not suggesting the music was subpar; it was more than passable but I felt that it could've used a bit more edge. An occasional screaming guitar lick and some angrier touches to the lyrics would've aptly paralleled the tumult enacted onstage.

While the songs serviced the storyline very well and included true highlights like "I Am The One" and "I'm Alive," not enough were superlative in their own right. I had listened to the cast album beforehand and yet nothing much has stuck with me two nights after seeing the show. I don't think the album is one I will return to simply for listening pleasure.

So no, despite all that was wonderful about it, I can't say Next To Normal is nearly as good--or at least as enjoyable--as Les Miserables or Wicked or West Side Story or The Producers or Rent, whose director Michael Greif is at the helm here. But he and the entire company clearly have done an estimable job in making a difficult storyline not only sing, but resonate.

Next To Normal is undoubtedly one of the best musicals you'll have an opportunity to see in Chicago this year--especially among those that have never played here before--with a cast and production every bit as good as you'd see on Broadway. If you love musicals, this show is not to be missed. And if you prefer drama, but also like music, you actually may like it even more.

A Rocking Good Time in Grand Rapids -- My Latest Travelogue on

Following my piece on Milwaukee a few weeks ago, I've had another travel article published on This one is on the surprisingly satisfying city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, which offers a historic core that has been recently augmented with numerous new buildings--and has a number of top-notch tourist attractions. I traveled there on April 2-3 to catch a concert by Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band (my review here) and enjoyed a world-class sculpture park, presidential museum, architectural treasure and more.

To read my piece on Grand Rapids, please click here or on the image below.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Perfectly Incendiary: Arcade Fire Puts On A Faith-Rekindling Performance -- Concert Review

Concert Review

Arcade Fire
with The National
April 25, 2011
UIC Pavilion, Chicago

Throughout my life, I have attended almost 500 rock concerts. Most have been acutely enjoyable but among the ones that stand out as most distinctly memorable are those that represent the first time I saw some of my favorite artists.

For the enjoyment that any great show can provide is amplified when accompanied by the thrill of discovery upon first experiencing just how phenomenal--dare I say life-changing--a certain act can be on a concert stage.

I can still vividly recall the first time I saw Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., U2 and Nirvana (actually the only time on that one). But with the pool of rock artists I really want to see for a "first time" having largely dwindled, in the past decade only initial concerts by Coldplay (who I've never liked as much since) and The Killers stand out as "Holy F*ck!" virgin musical moments (although LCD Soundsystem was also really good last October). 

So for reasons beyond simply having taken in a terrific show on Monday night, I am thrilled to add Arcade Fire to the list of acts that truly blew me away on a first exploration.

How good was their show--the third of three at Chicago's UIC Pavilion? Well, even semi-regular (and who isn't?) readers of this blog have probably picked up by now that even when I really like a performance, I usually have some quibbles. It is a very rare rock show when I don't gripe somewhat about the setlist or the show's length or the energy of the crowd or the acoustics in the venue or something. (OK, so the Pavilion's squashedtogetherseats were seemingly designed to fit small children, but I can't hold that against the band.)

Get ready to faint and start making snowballs in hell because I have absolutely no complaints with what I saw and heard from Arcade Fire, a band whose three albums I have liked more than loved, but who did what a great concert act should in elevating their recorded material in a live setting.

It was, quite simply, a perfect 97 minutes; all killer, no filler. And although the 8-member band played largely the same songs as the first two nights, they changed the sequencing and swapped in a couple different tunes--including "Empty Room," one of my favorites from their Grammy-winning album, The Suburbs--so we got our own show (and any repeat attendees got a different one). In the vein of Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Radiohead and other favorites, I like when bands do that, rather than follow the exact same script night after night. (Here's Monday's setlist, with easy access to all others).

And everything they played--led by lead singer Win Butler and his multi-instrumentalist & occasional vocalist wife, RĂ©gine Chassagne--sounded great, from the perfect opener, "Ready to Start" to a sublime "The Suburbs" to first-album, late-in-the-show powerhouses like "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" and "Wake Up."

Sure, Butler comes off a bit more intensely gracious than affably personable, but it's clear that this isn't a band from which one expects stage patter.

But when the music is this good, accompanied by some striking visuals, who needs it? Although opening act The National could themselves likely headline decent-sized theaters and were enjoyable in their hourlong set--even it was about twice as much as I needed--Arcade Fire was light years better than their relative contemporaries in the modern alt-rock strata.

By this point, I  imagine there are two types of readers of this article: those who have seen Arcade Fire and fully agree and those who haven't and remain skeptical. I don't blame anyone in the latter camp; I was there myself over the past 6 years and even through Sunday night when their concert broadcast on WXRT sounded good, but nothing all that transcendent.

And who knows, maybe Monday was a confluence of a great show and my needing to hear one. But after having been in a bit of a malaise lately, Arcade Fire's emotionally-charged, perfectly-paced performance was not only a treat for my eyes and ears; in reminding me of the redemptive power of rock 'n roll at its most potent, it was truly galvanizing for my soul as well.

As much as the first time can be phenomenal, looking forward to the next time isn't a bad feeling either.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Already Asked and Answered, but a Worthwhile 'Night' Nonetheless -- Theater Review; Night and Her Stars

Theater Review

Night and Her Stars
a play by Richard Greenberg
The Gift Theatre, Chicago
Thru May 1, 2011

The 1994 movie Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford, was one of my favorite films of the '90s. Based on true events, if not entirely historically accurate, it starred Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren, a college professor and member of a prominent literary family, who enjoyed a highly successful and popular run in 1956-57 on the TV game show Twenty-One.

With the aid of another, less telegenic contestant name Herb Stempel, an investigation was launched as to whether Van Doren had been supplied with the questions he would be asked, and a hoax perpetuated.

It's been awhile since I last watched Quiz Show, but I have a copy on DVD and thus can view it anytime. It is also available through Netflix and presumably many libraries, and I highly recommend it to anyone.

Considerably more so, in fact, that Night and Her Stars, a play written by Richard Greenberg in 1995 that covers largely the same ground. I saw the play last night in a fine production at Chicago's consistently good Gift Theatre, and while there were enough strong elements to merit your time if you can catch it in its final week, a free rental might suit you better.

Certainly, there's no crime in the same subject matter being covered in multiple creative forms--or even repeatedly within the same one. And in full disclosure, not only do I not remember Quiz Show in great detail, I had some difficulty keeping my eyes open--for reasons beyond the material--during parts of Night and Her Stars. But I believe I saw--and remember--enough to say that it didn't introduce me to much more than the movie already had and didn't feel sharp enough in dissecting the motivations of Van Doren or Stempel, nor the ramifications of their actions (and those of the show's producers & sponsors).

Many of the performances were quite good--particularly Danny Ahlfeld as show producer Dan Enright, Jay Worthington as Van Doren and Raymond Shoemaker as Stempel--and The Gift has created a stellar staging in its small space.

But without wanting to be overly dismissive based on anything I might have missed, this is the third play I've seen by the highly acclaimed Greenberg--after Take Me Out and The Violet Hour--and none of them have left me convinced.

In its own right, Night and Her Stars is a decent night of theater, but for me, with Quiz Show, the answer to any questions about this topic were already adequately supplied.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Foo For The Soul: 'Wasting Light' Burns Bright, Even If Its Permanence Remains to Be Seen -- Album Review

Album Review

Foo Fighters
Wasting Light

I have loved Foo Fighters since I first heard the first song ("This Is A Call") on their first album--actually a Dave Grohl solo project, as he played all the instruments--back in 1995.

Since then, I have bought every album they've released and seen them live numerous times. They are easily among the Top 10 concert acts I've ever seen and stand--along with Pearl Jam, Green Day and R.E.M.--as one of the last of the great American rock bands (at least among those of considerable stature, longevity and ongoing activity).

Like those other three bands, over the years they have released more than enough stellar songs to fill satisfying concert setlists and compilation discs (and/or iPod playlists), and have never put out any albums that I haven't found at least worthwhile--and better than much else that crosses my earwaves. But also similarly, much of the Foos' recorded output has somewhat blended together in my memory.

Foo Fighters "Live On Letterman" dressed as The Beatles;
see full-length concert performance here
To wit, Grohl and his now mostly static-for-some-time bandmates have put out seven studio albums, but except for the first two and the new one--which I've been playing frequently over the past week--I would be hard pressed to tell you which songs were on which record. 2002's One By One, 2005's In Your Honor and 2007's Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace have all been solid, or even good, but not spectacular to the point of standing out from one another.

Released in the U.S. on Tuesday, April 12, Wasting Light has gone straight to #1 on the Billboard album chart--a Foo Fighters first in America; the album also hit #1 in 11 other countries and no less a source than the BBC calls them Britain's Favourite Rock Band--and has been accompanied by many highly laudatory reviews.

Adding it to my collection was a no-brainer, but after the first few listens, I wasn't sure it was really anything special, relatively speaking. But its depth and quality have quickly grown on me. While I can't be certain that I will care too much about the entire record a few years from now, and don't think it quite rivals Foo Fighters or The Colour and The Shape, at this point I enjoy it as much as any of their albums since those first two.

More powerfully enjoyable than groundbreakingly brilliant--a good summation of the band overall--Wasting Light is infused with (per David Fricke's likewise 4 out of 5 review in Rolling Stone) more overt references to Nirvana and Kurt Cobain's suicide than Grohl has heretofore surfaced. (I doubt anyone reading this doesn't already know, but Grohl was the drummer in Nirvana before revealing his skills as a singer/songwriter/guitarist with Foo Fighters.)

This provides a depth of emotion that sometimes seems a bit lacking in the Foos arena-rock sound, and though new songs like "Arlandia" and "Back and Forth" are still a good bit glossier than early screamers "I'll Stick Around" and "Monkey Wrench," one senses a bit more of Grohl's heart & soul blasting through than has been consistently apparent over the past decade. And knowing "I Should Have Known" is unabashedly about Cobain--and features Krist Novoselic on bass--gives it a resonance even more powerful than the song itself.

While lead single "Rope" doesn't elevate much over other recent Foo singles like "The Pretender" or "Wheels," it is one of at least 7 songs on Wasting Light--of 11 total--that I would classify as very good or better, with even the filler fulfillingly solid. Bob Mould's guest spot on "Dear Rosemary" is a highlight and "Bridge Burning" and "Walk," respectively, open and close the set in strong fashion.

Although Foo Fighters and producer Butch Vig--he of Nevermind fame--haven't created a classic anywhere near the level of that Nirvana masterpiece, or even their own initial CDs, they've nonetheless put together a thoroughly engaging album that should rank as one of the year's best, sound great in concert and hopefully grow even more memorable over time.

To paraphrase AC/DC, for those who always rock, I salute Foo.

(Below is a video of Foo Fighters playing their new album, Wasting Light, live in its entirety.)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Remembering the Very Best of the Late Great Sidney Lumet -- Now on Booth Reviews

Click here or on the image below to see my latest slide-show post, honoring the work of Sidney Lumet over 6 decades. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Big in the U.K., Not So Much in the U.S. -- My Favorite "Hidden In the Isles" Bands, Now on Booth Reviews

My post for Booth Reviews today touches on one of my favorite topics: bands from the British Isles who have been highly popular in England but never really "cracked the American market" to any substantive degree. Click here or on the image below to see 11 of my all-time favorites in this realm.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Another Guest Post from my friend Ken, who's either a Nihilist, a Realist or a Satirist. Or all three.

Pay Your Fair Share
(or: No One Believed George Orwell Either)

As we all know, the dangerous state of our American deficit compels us to make some hard choices.

Entitlements that we have long considered sacred must now be cut. We must curtail future spending on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, etc.

But this will not be enough.

In order to protect the future of our children, cutting these entitlement programs can only be a minor beginning.

In the patriotic interests of mutual shared sacrifice among all Americans, I offer the following idea.

The 150 million or so Americans who work in offices need to consider slashing their entitlements too. If you work in an office setting, you know what I'm talking about. The dirty little secret we all carry around inside. The collective guilt we all know is there, but we never talk about. But the time has come.

It's time we step up and pay our fair share for our work places. And the services and amenities they provide.

We have been freeloading far too long.

Do YOU get free electricity at home? NO.
Do YOU get free computers at home? NO.
Do YOU get free internet access at home? NO.
Do YOU get free chairs at home? NO.
Do YOU get free desks at home? NO.
Do YOU get free phone service at home? NO.
Do YOU get free faxes at home? NO.
Do YOU get free heat at home? NO.
Do YOU get free air conditioning at home? NO.
Do YOU get free water at home? NO. 

Do YOU get free toilet paper at home? NO.
Do YOU get free pens and Post-It notes and paper clips at  home?
Do YOU get free space to exist in at home, without rent or mortgage or property taxes? NO.  

Our employers are paying for our heat, light, facilities, electricity, not to mention other expenses such as worker's compensation insurance, fire insurance, etc.

Because you pay for these services at home, you realize just how much our employers are paying to give us facilities to work within and resources with which to accomplish our daily tasks.

And what about parking? For those of us who park for free in company parking lots, don't you think our employers could use those parking lots more efficiently? Rightfully, we should be paying for our parking, too.

Now, you might think I'm just being wacky ol' sarcastic Ken, but think about it. Your employer isn't paying the $4.09 per gallon of gas (or transit fare) it takes to get to work. They're not paying for the shopping, laundry and/or dry cleaning required to maintain a business wardrobe. And most aren't paying for the Blackberry and monthly rate plan mandatory for 24/7 tethering. So why are you entitled to keep freeloading off their bandwidth and air conditioning?

How asinine is it to be expected to pay workplace usage fees when there are literally hundreds of people who would take your place in a second, even if it means bringing not just their own coffee to work, but file folders and notepads and a chair they can get cheap at Walmart?
If we began to pay our fair share of these ongoing workplace expenses...say, five to six hundred dollars a month...we would relieve our employers of TRILLIONS of dollars of unfair overhead expenses that they have been paying for YEARS.
Relieved of these enormous cost burdens, do you realize how many new JOBS our employers could create to help out our fellow unemployed Americans?

Also, all of us would be able to claim these work related expenses as legitimate TAX deductions. This would save all employed white collar employees BILLIONS of dollars of taxes. Do you have any concept of what a fantastic stimulus that would be to our ailing economy? It would be an absolutely extraordinary boost to all of us as consumers.

The place is right here, the time is right now. Let this be the beginning of the grassroots movement to "Pay Your Fair Share!"

Don't wait for a leader. Each and every one of you should go back to your place of employment and urge your fellow employees to examine their consciences, step up and demand to "Pay Your Fair Share!" Make sure you let your employer know that you are urging your fellow employees to "Pay Your Fair Share!" too. Your efforts will be appreciated and  rewarded.

It's your patriotic duty. Let the virtue of sacrifice guide your actions.

In the words of our beloved former president, John F. Kennedy, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." 

Or at least the corporations that run it.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Bob Seger's Old Time Rock And Roll Never Forgets to satisfy, but Still The Same setlist could stand to Turn the Page -- Concert Review: Bob Seger

Photo Credit: Darren Breen / Grand Rapids Press
Concert Review

Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band
Van Andel Arena
Grand Rapids, MI
April 2, 2011
(Chicago area show at Allstate Arena on May 14)

"You are here because you want the real thing. So let's bring it on. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band!"

With those words, the announcer effusively introduced Seger and his erstwhile band... 1975, as recorded on the excellent Live Bullet album released the next year.

But the sentiment still rings true today, and in fact was referenced in a pre-show announcement at the Van Andel Center in Grand Rapids on Saturday night. While Seger was never as distinctive as American contemporaries like Springsteen, Browne, Petty, Joel and Zevon, he turned being solidly satisfying into an art form. And though the song "Like A Rock" was forever ruined by being used in a commercial for pickup trucks, in a way, it is definitive of Seger himself. As a songwriter, singer, musical artist, concert performer and, as far as one fan can tell, decent human being, the man who still calls the Detroit area home is the real thing in a world increasingly overpopulated by artifice.

Certainly, Seger became quite popular in the late '70s--and perhaps not coincidentally, was the most populist among the aforementioned artists--but I don't know if he ever was really "hip" (whatever that means). And although in 2011, at the age of 65, he instantly sold out the 12,000 seat Van Andel Center, I texted a friend that--and I say this endearingly and inclusively--I felt like I was at a convention of old, ugly people.

But it was a fun, rip-roaring convention. Although no longer as fiery and kinetic as he once was, and a bit less forceful of voice, Seger and band--all told there were 15 people on stage--sounded sufficiently grand in delivering 140 minutes of greatest hits. Though he likely wrote "Old Time Rock and Roll" in homage to Chuck Berry and other revered pioneers, Seger has come to embody what he's singing about as well as anyone. Mining his deep songbook of AOR classics, Seger roared through his first hit, "Rambling Gambling Man," supplied goose bumps on a singalong "Turn The Page," brought added sagacity to "Against the Wind" and saw the Silver Bullet rip the "Travelin' Man"/"Beautiful Loser" combo (and particularly the segue) to shreds.

Bob never introduced the band members, but I presume all the core players onstage go back with him to the '70s, and the wonderfully named saxophonist, Alto Reed, sounded great while still looking ultra cool for a guy who must also be in his sixties.

While Grand Rapids might not sound like the coolest place on Earth to travel for a concert--especially on a weekend when my friend Paolo went to Lollapalooza in Santiago, Chile--I really enjoyed my visit (I'll be writing an overall recap soon) and would take seeing Seger over anyone Paolo saw in Chile.

And we even got a special guest. Before the last song of the main set, which had routinely been "Katmandu" on this tour and Seger's last one, he introduced fellow Detroiter Kid Rock, who came out to a huge ovation and dueted on "Real Mean Bottle," a track they recorded together on Seger's last album.

But when Bob didn't bother keeping the Kid onstage to A) sing "Katmandu" with him, which was omitted, B) sing "Born Free," Kid Rock's recent Seger-soundalike single or C) accompany him on an encore, it exacerbated the one problem I had with the show. Mainly that it was a bit too predictable, and at times, almost perfunctory.

Photo Credit: Karen Waite / Advance Newspapers
I know Seger is 65 and yes, he demonstrated that he still clearly knows how to put on a satisfying show for an adoring crowd. I also know he's never been overtly political, and in an arena named for an arch conservative co-founder of Amway, I wouldn't expect him to be. But there has long been considerable societal commentary amidst the lyrics of his best work, and I think he missed the chance to heighten his current relevance by playing things a bit close to the vest.

In addition to doing another song or two with Kid Rock, rather than hustling him off the stage to do the same pre-scripted encore--albeit one including four phenomenal songs--I also would have liked to see Seger take more of a detour from the very similar setlist he played on his 2006-07 tour (the only other times--in Chicago & New York--I've seen him).

This is what he played in Grand Rapids on Saturday; this was the setlist from when I saw him in January 2007 at Madison Square Garden. Except for songs from his then-new Face the Promise album, it's pretty much the same. Which is OK; it's full of hits and he played them well. But how about "Feel Like A Number," a great song of aggrieved affirmation as relevant today as when first released in 1978, or perhaps pulling "Still The Same," out of mothballs and dedicating it to Wall Street and Washington. Or even just re-ordering some of the hits. (It might seem silly to presume most of the crowd had also seen him on the last tour, but everyone I spoke to had.)

Stuff like that would have made an excellent concert by old men playing old hits feel that much more current and resonant, and along with another choice duet with Kid Rock, might have raised a @@@@ show into one meriting @@@@@.

But you can see for yourself; Seger and the Silver Bullet Band are due at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont on May 14. Come back baby, rock and roll never forgets.

Surprisingly, given the number of cameras in the audience, there aren't many clips from the show on YouTube yet. Below is one of Bob Seger and Kid Rock doing "Real Mean Bottle," albeit with lousy audio, and under that is an abbreviated and distant video of "Turn The Page."

Monday, April 04, 2011

Expanding My Blogosphere of Influence (or Lack Thereof) with a Weekend 'Guy'de to Milwaukee on

While continuing to write for and maintain Seth Saith as my primarily blog--albeit with some dry spells and occasional guest posts--and penning a piece every week for Booth Reviews, I will now be sporadically contributing to a travel website aimed at men called Mantripping.

I've come to know the proprietor of the site and in mentioning that I was going up to Milwaukee the weekend before last to see the Bulls play the Bucks, he invited me to write about it and offer some other "man-themed" Milwaukee tips.

So I did, which you can read by clicking here or on the image above. In addition to coming up with the recommendations--based on numerous jaunts north of the IL-WI border--and writing the text (except for the intro), I also supplied my own photographs. I didn't do the formatting or have control over the headline; my suggestion was: Catching the Bulls For Less Bucks and Enjoying a Good Man's Day in Milwaukee, but I imagine it was too long and didn't fit the layout.

But none of the article copy was altered and I think it holds up pretty well in making some good suggestions for things men--and even women & families--can do in Milwaukee, a city I've always enjoyed and have long visited several times each year. The Cubs will be playing the Brewers at Miller Park in both late July and late August this year, and there's already several great acts booked at Summerfest--heck, on the opening day alone, June 29, you could see Peter Gabriel, Buddy Guy, Meat Loaf, Matisyahu, Hall & Oates, Max Weinberg and/or several other acts.

So there's always a good reason to head to Brew Town and my suggestions can help you make a great day or weekend of it.

Having taken another trip this past weekend, to Grand Rapids, Michigan, I will be contributing to Mantripping at least once more rather soon, and then as time and topics allow. (If you really can't get enough of my writing, particularly in a travel vein, there's also my Seth The Tourist blog, which I haven't had occasion to update for a couple years.)

I'm looking forward to this new outlet, and hope you enjoy coming along for the ride.

Friday, April 01, 2011

My 11 Favorite Major League Ballparks, Present & Past -- Now on Booth Reviews

Sorry I've been too busy this week to post anything directly to SethSaith, but here's something new I just put up on Booth Reviews. Click here or on the image to see the article.