Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Quite a Pair-o'-Sox: Wishing Ozzie Well, Hoping Buehrle Will Stay

I'm a Cubs fan. I'm also a White Sox fan. I know that sounds like heresy and blasphemy to those with allegiance to either side, and antithetical to one of the unwritten bylaws of Chicagoism--like putting ketchup on a hot dog or parking in a space someone else shoveled--but I don't care.

Should the day come when pigs fly, hell freezes and the Cubs and Sox meet in the World Series, again, I will be rooting for the North Siders. Until then, I wish both teams nothing but success and revel when either achieves it.

I have a number of close friends who are avid Sox fans, including one with prime season tickets, so I typically get to more games at the Cell than at Wrigley. And though I didn't attend any games during the White Sox World Championship playoff run in 2005, I was elated when they won and attended the victory parade (at which I was nearly crushed to death). Mind you, the high wasn't quite as high as the low when the Cubs blew Game 6 (which I did attend) and 7 of the NLCS in 2003, but it was damn cool to see a Chicago baseball team win it all for the first time in more than two of my lifetimes.

Therefore, I appreciate the job Ozzie Guillen did as manager, in 2005, in sum over the past 8 seasons and--despite occasional eye roll-inducing actions, decisions and statements--in serving to remind that whatever the inflated economics, baseball is still a game and fun should always be part of it.

He wasn't perfect, he wasn't always successful, he often wasn't politically correct--including perhaps in how he orchestrated his departure--but more than not Ozzie Guillen was good for baseball, good for the White Sox and good for Chicago.

I'll let others pontificate about how much he was to blame for this year's disappointing season and some others, but with generally favorable impressions, I wish him well as he goes off to manage the Florida Marlins in their new stadium.

Speaking of the Marlins, at this moment, Catching Hell, a new documentary about the "Bartman incident" is on ESPN. I imagine it is well-made and I am recording it on the DVR, but I'm not watching it and not sure I really want to. Even beyond not being anxious to relive the moment, I'm not sure I want to learn anything more about Mr. Bartman's ugly and unjust victimization.

But more imminently, as I write this, I've decided to catch what may be the last game Mark Buehrle ever pitches in a White Sox uniform.

In the last season of a 4-year contract that paid him $56 million--matching his uniform number (times a million)--Buehrle may not be back next year, after 11+ seasons in a White Sox uniform. And through the 5th inning, he's pitching another gem, which could give him his 161st win (against 119 losses) in a game where he went over 200 innings pitched in a season for the 11th time. He's also started 9 opening days, pitched a no hitter and a perfect game (I was lucky to be at the former), made 4 All-Star teams, won two Gold Glove awards (for fielding excellence), was a pivotal member of the 2005 champions and has pretty much been the White Sox cornerstone since his first full season, 2001, when he went 16-8.

Following a relatively mediocre season last year--you can see Buerhle's career stats here--he has been strong again this year.

So although attendance hasn't been so hot on the South Side this year, hopefully Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and GM Kenny Williams will find the money to re-sign the team's best pitcher over the last decade--Buehrle's still just 32--and hang onto one of the better left-handers in the game.

For if Buehrle takes his talents elsewhere, the White Sox'--and Chicago's loss--won't just be of innings pitched and games won. No, if Buerhle goes, I will just as much rue the loss of one of baseball's finest paragons of class and humility.

In an era where we all too often hear of athletes'--and other public figures'--misdeeds, arrogance and much else, I've never heard or read anything negative about Buehrle. I certainly don't pretend to know him, but everything I've observed--from his sliding on the tarp during rain delays to his joyfully catching most ceremonial first pitches at U.S. Cellular Field to his gracious demeanor at an autograph show years ago to just how much his teammates (and Guillen) seem to love him--suggests that Mark Buerhle isn't just a great pitcher.

He's a great guy.

As I write this, Buerhle just walked off the field to a standing ovation. Let's hope it's not his last in a White Sox uniform.

But if it is, even Cubs fans who hate the Sox should wish him well.

Here's to a true Mark of excellence.

(The White Sox just won, giving him the victory. And in the postgame interview, Buehrle said he wants to stay. Let's hope he does.)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Well-Developed 'Snapshots' Mines Compelling New Memories From Stephen Schwartz' Celebrated Musical Past

Theater Review

Snapshots: A Musical Scrapbook
a new musical with old songs (and some new lyrics) by Stephen Schwartz
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Through October 23

From an early age, Stephen Schwartz had estimable success as a Broadway composer and lyricist.

By the time he was 26, he'd written three hit musicals--Godspell, Pippin and The Magic Show--that at one point in 1974 were running simultaneously in New York.

Other noteworthy shows would follow--The Baker's Wife, Working and Children of Eden among them--as would successful collaborations (he mostly wrote the lyrics) on musical films such as Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Prince of Egypt and Enchanted.

But though I've seen a smattering of his work, the only Schwartz creation with which I am truly familiar is his 2004 megahit, Wicked.

So it should come as high praise that I found Northlight's world premiere of Snapshots: A Musical Scrapbook--which utilizes songs from throughout Schwartz' career in the service of an original storyline--entirely enjoyable and entertaining even without recognizing most of the source material. Press about this show has revealed that Schwartz has re-written some of his lyrics to fit the new narrative, but other than noting such changes in a couple tunes from Wicked, I have no idea what was altered or to what extent.

I imagine Schwartz afficionados will enjoy Snapshots as a clever twist on the revue or jukebox musical, but I was impressed that it also works as something entirely new. For if it were simply a celebration of Schwartz' past, I would rue the relative sparsity of Wicked numbers. But with what Schwartz, book writer David Stern and director Ken Sawyer are able to pull off, it doesn't defy logic that they wouldn't shoehorn in "Defying Gravity."

Longtime Chicago stage veterans Susie McMonagle and Gene Weygandt, both boasting Broadway and national tour credits, are very good as a married couple stuck in a middle-aged rut, and they are strongly supported by a quartet of actors--Megan Long, Jess Godwin, Nick Cosgrove and Tony Clarno--playing their younger selves and assorted other characters.

A few of the songs felt a little forced-to-fit the tale of marital strife and the challenges & consequences of the couple's past, present and future, but for the most part the entire thing came off as though the songs and story were organically conceived & created anew.

No, Snapshots isn't as good as Wicked or perhaps some of the other Schwartz shows I'm not equipped to judge (a number of nice songs came from Pippin, which I'd like to see after having missed a Goodman Theatre production some years ago). But it's not hard to imagine a producer taking this show to Broadway for a successful staging in a smaller venue, and Snapshots will undoubtedly become a property snapped up by regional theaters looking to give its audiences something new and brand-named at the same time.

I was able to get a discount ticket through Goldstar and Northlight offers some other nice discount options, so especially for an affordable price, Snapshots is well worth taking a look.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Senator Russ Feingold Preaches to the Faithful, but Finds Some Ideological Dissension Among The Congregation at Northbrook's Beth Shalom

Lecture Recap

Russ Feingold
U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, 1993-2011
Congregation Beth Shalom, Northbrook, IL
September 22, 2011

Although I have been somewhat politically active for the past several years, and have heard many progressive friends champion the efforts of ex-Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, I have had relatively little direct knowledge of his beliefs, activities or senatorial voting record.

To my recollection, I had also never heard him speak, not even on C-SPAN.

So while I didn't know exactly what he stood for, everything that had filtered through suggested that he was one of the "good guys" in a political system run amok, perhaps all the more so because he had been voted out of it.

Although she didn't give me much forewarning nor exactly invite me, this past Tuesday my mom mentioned that she was going to hear Senator Feingold speak at a synagogue in Northbrook on Thursday. While I have become somewhat cynical about what anyone in either party is going to do to wrest America back from the corporatocracy, I felt it would be worthwhile to hear what he had to say.

The event, part of the Distinguished Speakers Program at Congregation Beth Shalom, was open to the public, but my sense was that the packed sanctuary was comprised primarily of the temple's constituents and others in the community with some sort of connection. In other words, it was a roomful of mostly older Jews.

Feingold himself is Jewish and beyond opening his speech by referencing his northward allegiance for Sunday's Bears-Packers game--while admitting to being a White Sox fan--he mentioned that his uncle had been a noted Rabbi in the Chicagoland area (the crowd seemed to recognize the name) and that his sister Dena Feingold has been a Rabbi in Kenosha for more than 25 years after becoming the first female Rabbi in Wisconsin.

But though the topic of Palestinean statehood was clearly the elephant in the room that got unleashed during the Q&A at the end of his speech, the primary focus of Feingold's lecture did not revolve around religion.

Rather, the senator addressed "three dangerous trends in our country that are weakening our democracy and security." With apologies for some misplaced notes--mine, not his--and therefore a good bit of paraphrasing, these were:

1) The State of Wisconsin Politics - Feingold did not reference his loss last fall to Republican Ron Johnson, but began his remarks by explaining that politics in Wisconsin had previously been rather genteel, especially compared to what goes on in Illinois, and that this relative civility had long reached across party lines. While sharing kind words about former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, a Republican, Feingold noted that Thompson had "never pulled a stunt like happened this year."

With that, Feingold went into a blistering explanation of current Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's actions earlier this year to decertify the public employee unions, observing that the resulting protests were far larger and more fervid than the Vietnam War protests he'd seen in his youth. I can't cite his exact words, but Feingold was not tepid in expressing a hope that Walker will eventually be recalled, while suggesting that a scandal might speed up the process.

2) The Rising Dominance of Corporate Money - I wasn't really planning to ask the senator a question, but if I had, it would have been about how we can ever untether our political system from corporate campaign contributions in hopes of a government that serves the interests of 99% of the public rather than a few Wall Street tycoons.

With his scathing remarks about the influence of special interests, which has been further exacerbated by the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case essentially allowing corporations to make unlimited campaign contributions (largely negating 2002's McCain-Feingold campaign reform act), Senator Feingold effectively broached the topic most on my mind.

Noting that to undo the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling will require changing the makeup of the court, Feingold stressed the importance of re-electing President Obama, even if one differs with him on many issues. While his acknowledgement of the vice-like stranglehold of Wall Street was disconcerting, as is the fact that he was in large part a victim of his "common good" beliefs, it was at least nice to know that somebody somewhat "gets it."

In February, Feingold formed Progressives United, "a movement whose mission is to: Empower Americans to stand up against the exploding corporate influence in Washington, especially since the Citizens United decision; Hold our representatives accountable to every constituent, regardless of economic class or insider access; and support national, state, and local candidates who stand up for our progressive ideals."

3) Failure to Stay Focused on Foreign Policy and Fighting Terrorism - Promoting his forthcoming book, While America Sleeps--which was in part inspired by similar writings of Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy and deals with "failures of government domestically and abroad since the 9/11 attacks"--Feingold expressed concerns about the considerable security risks the United States continues to face.

Saying he supported our initial actions in Afghanistan while decrying the Iraq War--as well as our failure to divorce our troops from either quagmire--Feingold suggested that "trivializing foreign policy" is part of the Republican and Tea Party campaign strategies.

According to the ex-senator, in its bid to drive Obama from office, the GOP is focusing very narrowly--and stringently--on the economy.

"The Republicans have stopped talking about social issues--guns, gays, God--and also about foreign policy," he stated.

"After we got Osama Bin Laden, they act like it's over. I don't think it's over."

Feingold also told the congregation that whenever President Obama says something like, "We need to better understand the Islamic world," the opposition retorts, "There he goes, apologizing for America," and also likes to spew the sound bite suggestion that "Obama wants to take us into socialism."

"It's a dumbing down of our process," offered Feingold about the hyper-polarized political climate, which one elderly audience member suggested was worse than any he'd ever seen.

From the Midwest to the Middle East, Questions Without Easy Answers

Fielding several questions from the audience, some a bit cantankerous, Feingold stated that he has supported Palestinean statehood since the '70s, but feels it folly to let Palestine become a country while it refuses to recognize Israel as one. Though he differs from some of Obama's stated views on Israel-Palestine and in general, he strongly supports the president and said "I believe Obama is a strong supporter of Israel and won't do anything to harm it."

While some, if not many, in the room likely disavow any advocacy for Palestinean statehood, Senator Feingold made a convincing argument--at least to me--that to continue with the current state of perpetual strife is not a viable solution for Israel's lasting security.

And if there was an overarching theme to Feingold's 75-minute appearance at Congregation Beth Shalom, it was that highly complex issues aren't going to lend them to simple, sound bite solutions. If we want to move forward as a country--and as a planet--we need to get away from knee-jerk dissension & venom, "re-unify" our sense of shared responsibility, return to a seemingly progressive notion of respectful discourse and work together through challenges occasionally demanding unpopular decisions.


With a Fantastic Show at Fitzgerald's, Willie Nile Continues to Flow Upstream -- Concert Review

Concert Review

Willie Nile
with the Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra
September 23, 2011
Fitzgerald's Nightclub, Berwyn, IL

Yesterday, September 23rd, was the 62nd birthday of my favorite musician, Bruce Springsteen. Besides walking on my treadmill to one of his concert DVDs and posting a brief tribute to the Boss on Facebook, the best way I could think of to celebrate was to attend a club show by an artist I only know because of Bruce.

Although Willie Nile is a year older than Springsteen and has been a recording artist of some renown since his self-titled 1980 debut, I've only come to know him over the past decade due to mentions on the great Springsteen fansite, Backstreets.com. Willie has appeared onstage with Bruce & the E Street Band on a number of occasions, but I really took note when his 2006 album, Streets of New York got praised on Backstreets and elsewhere.

It's really a wonderful album, with 2009's House of a Thousand Guitars just a little lesser, and a show I saw at Martyrs in '09--on which Nile was backed by Chicago's Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra--was fabulous.

So when I noticed that same pairing would be playing at Fitzgerald's on Friday night, I couldn't help but make the trek down to Berwyn.

Boy am I glad I did, because this one was fabulous too.

Within the erstwhile venue with origins in the 1920s and operating as a great music club under present ownership since 1980--and at which tables & chairs made it more comfortable for those of us no longer fanatic about standing for 3 hours--the Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra (essentially a soulful rock band led by its affable namesake) opened the night with a highly enjoyable hour of its own material before backing Nile for a 90-minute set that was pretty much perfect.

With a sound that marries Dylan and Springsteen to the Clash and Ramones, Nile opened with one of my favorite songs of the last several years, "Run," and amplified by the stellar musicianship of the NTO, blazed through 14 more songs without a wrong note (setlist here, posted by me).

After ripping through his brilliant rebuke to terrorism, "Cell Phones Ringing in the Pockets of the Dead," Nile introduced "Singin' Bell," the first song off his forthcoming album, The Innocent Ones, by suggesting it bridges Pete Seeger-style messaging with rawness reminiscent of the Ramones and Social Distortion.

Like two other songs played from the new album--which I was able to buy and have Willie sign after the show--"Singin' Bell" sounded great amidst a mix of songs from Nile's recent and more distant musical past. Commenting throughout the night about how much fun he was having playing with the Nick Tremulis Orchestra--another combo show takes place tonight in Valparaiso, IN--Willie asked that someone film "Singin' Bell" and send him the video, so I hope he appreciates the clip below despite some weak production values at the outset.

Although Nile could have swapped nearly all 15 songs in the set--including covers of the Stones' "Satisfaction" and Jim Carroll's "People Who Died" as the encores--for others in his repertoire and still delivered a performance every bit as good, virtually the whole show was a highlight. His new single, "One Guitar" has clear Clash influences and sounds great, and his ever-pertinent "Hard Times in America" was taken to the stratosphere by scintillating guitar work by the five axmen on stage. Here's a clip of most of it:

Excepting years highlighted by multiple Springsteen shows, the past 6-month span has been one of the most glorious stretches of my concertgoing life. I've seen great shows by cherished favorites that everybody knows--Bob Seger, U2, Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney, Arcade Fire, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, The Cars, Rush--but just as fulfilling have been the phenomenal performances I've caught by personal favorites like Roger McGuinn, the Ike Reilly Assassination, Alejandro Escovedo, Smoking Popes and now, once again, Willie Nile.

It's a shame that most of these artists are getting a bit long in the tooth, as I'm not aware of many ready replacements of either ilk.

Especially in a week that has seen the retirement of R.E.M. and a year in which Clarence Clemons passed away, it could be easy for me to rue intelligent, hard-hitting rock 'n' roll as an endangered species.

But on the 20th anniversary of the release of Nevermind, there's always hope that the next Nirvana will somehow rise like a phoenix and thrash us out of our collective ennui.

And as long as I can still see rock shows as good as the one Willie Nile and the Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra put on last night--especially for just $15--the hard times in America won't seem quite so bad.

Friday, September 23, 2011

It's the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Sad ... and Appreciative ... and Fine -- A Tribute to R.E.M.

"It's easier to leave than to be left behind"
-- R.E.M., "Leaving New York" (2004)

"A wise man once said--'the skill in attending a party is knowing when it's time to leave.'"
-- Michael Stipe, as part of Wednesday's online announcement of R.E.M.'s retirement

Twenty years after becoming international megastars with the success of Out Of Time, R.E.M. is.

That album, featuring the hit "Losing My Religion," came 11 years after the band's formation in Athens, Georgia, and followed a r.e.m.arkable 6-album (plus an EP and rarities collection) run in the '80s when they almost singlebandedly defined the genre of "college rock."

In doing so, they helped inspire the next generation of great bands, including Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Radiohead, and along with '80s peers like U2, The Cure and Depeche Mode, begat the explosion of "alternative rock" in the '90s. After Out of Time came the album many--but not I--cite as the groups's artistic apex, 1992's Automatic for the People. But as pontificated by many of the critics and pundits who weighed in after Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills "decided to call it a day as a band," R.E.M.'s creative prowess sank sharply after drummer Bill Berry left in 1997.

While I concur that their subsequent albums were generally lesser, and their songwriting not nearly as inventive as during their ascent, I take umbrage with opinions such as the one that Miles Raymer shared on the Chicago Reader blog espousing that "1997 would have been a fine place for the band to end." This implication that--in reference to Stipe's quote above--R.E.M. stayed at the party way past propriety, seems to be a common thread in several articles I've perused. In this piece on his own blog, Jim DeRogatis describes the band's post-Automatic years as a "sad decline toward corporate nostalgia act" while ruing "the potential the group once held but ultimately betrayed."

As an avid fan of R.E.M. since 1986--yes, I should have caught on 2-3 years sooner--yet one who didn't exactly gush over this year's Collapse Into Now album, I find suggestions that the band sold out, milked it into mediocrity or foolhardily carried on without Berry to be unduly harsh.  

Of the 9 times I saw the band live in concert, 6 were since 1999, and even as someone who can tend to be critical and nitpicky--as many of my reviews here will attest--I have never been disappointed. Each of the shows I caught were excellent or even better, and I've never perceived that the band members were going through the motions or somehow cheating me.

Also, given the relative dearth of new musical acts that have excited me and/or shown any staying power--especially in a rock vein--mediocre R.E.M. has still been more welcome in my world than much else out there. Some of their releases have been better than others--2008's Accelerate is a truly fine album even if not quite among their very best--but even a relative dog like 2004's Around the Sun has superior songcraft than most of what passes for modern rock. While I wasn't wowed by Collapse Into Now, I'd still rather listen to it than more heralded albums by Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver or Mumford & Sons (and those are bands I somewhat like).

But even if we want to stipulate that the legendary band has been running on fumes since 1997, I don't really get the reasoning that suggests they should have walked away. Sure, artists should always aspire to greatness,  but even if they less frequently achieved it, I never got the sense that Michael, Peter and Mike were dogging it. Maybe they didn't correctly gauge just how vital Berry's drumming, input and influence were to their earlier brilliance and consistency, or maybe they just slowed down a bit as they aged, but I really don't think they were being disingenuous or deceitful. The concerts I saw over last decade cost no more than $75 per ticket, less than a third of what peers like U2 and Madonna were commanding for the best seats. And it's not like Michael, Peter & Mike ever forced anyone to buy their latest album or to attend a show.
In a world where millions are unemployed, underemployed, underpaid or just unhappy in their worklife, why do we condemn artists and athletes for continuing to do what they love--for considerable recompense and adulation--even if they may never be as great as they once were?
If Brett Favre still wants to play football and can find a team to pay him, if Francis Ford Coppola still wishes to direct movies and can get them produced (even with his own money), if U2 and the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen want to play old hits to packed stadiums, why is this cause for such consternation? Jim DeRogatis may never be as good a rock critic as he was with the Sun-Times or write another book as good as Let It Blurt, but does this mean he should shut down his blog and stop writing books if the will and demand are still there?

Believe me, there are plenty of bands and other creative artists I once really liked for awhile and subsequently stopped caring about--the Goo Goo Dolls are but one example--but I would never suggest they cease to exist. Vote with your obliviousness, but to condemn anyone for continuing to do what they enjoy just seems awful sanctimonious.

On this note, just today Steve Van Zandt was quoted as saying that Bruce Springsteen and the surviving E Street Band members would soon discuss how to carry on after the death of Clarence Clemons. I'm sure many so-called pundits are already sharpening their sabers to rebuke any upcoming tour (and the Machiavellian motives behind it), but as Stevie very simply explained, they will still play music until the end because "that's what we do."

And call me a fanatic, but I still enjoyed what R.E.M. did. To the point that when I heard they had called it quits, I felt chagrin that they wouldn't be touring again and thus I wouldn't have another chance to see the act that ranks third among my all-time favorite artists of popular music.

Perhaps R.E.M. isn't quite going out on top, but it's close enough for rock 'n roll, and that's good enough for me.

Thanks guys.

Below are YouTube videos of 20 of my favorite R.E.M. songs (beginning with a compilation video that you can let run sequentially through all the songs, set roughly in chronological order).

And I've now posted 11 additional videos of favorite latter-day R.E.M. songs, in this piece on Booth Reviews.

Continue viewing the post below if you want to see each of the 20 videos of my favorite R.E.M. songs.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Show of Force as the Fighting Foo Rock St. Lou -- Concert Review: Foo Fighters

Concert Review

Foo Fighters
w/ Rise Against, Mariachi El Bronx
September 17, 2011
Scottrade Center, St. Louis, MO

When you take a 6-hour bus ride to attend a concert, you appreciate when the band you went to see plays for nearly 3 hours and is supported by a pair of solid opening acts.

But 16 years down the road from being hatched as Dave Grohl's post-Nirvana solo project--as celebrated in James Moll's fine recent documentary, Back And Forth--the Foo Fighters are one of the surest things in rock 'n roll.

Seeing them for the first time back in 1996 and several times since, I have never been disappointed by Grohl & Co. as they have consistently delivered ferocious, fan-friendly concerts. They are pretty much an automatic in terms of wanting to see them anytime they hit Chicago, and their new album, Wasting Light, is one of their best in years (my review here), even if it covers much of the same territory as their past 6 records.

Having appreciated how the band has grown in popularity over its surprisingly enduring career--who would've foreseen Grohl fighting Foo for more than 5 times longer than his Nirvana tenure?--it was cool to see them hook the Sunday night headlining slot at this year's Lollapalooza festival. However, my days of comfortably standing in a field for hours have long since passed--even without withstanding thunderstorms, as occurred during Foo's Lolla set--so I took a pass on Foo Fighters' only Chicago-area appearance (aside from a pre-Lolla set at Metro). Plus, Lollapalooza tickets were about $90 + fees for a single-day pass; opting instead to catch Foo Fighters' arena show in St. Louis, I spent less than that for the show and the Mega Bus to get there and back.

Mariachi El Bronx, an outfit that blends hard rock with mariachi music (while dressed in mariachi uniforms) opened they show. Although clearly quirky, it was soon apparent that the musicianship went beyond the gimmick, and the half-hour set was rather enjoyable. 

Then came Rise Against, a Chicago-based punk(ish) band, that has enjoyed a fair amount of success, but with whom I was largely unfamiliar. What I had heard before the show sounded fine, but well short of fantastic, and I would categorize their 45-minute set the same way. Another concertgoer who I had met on the Mega Bus had raved about Rise Against and the depth & social awareness of their lyrics, but especially in a hockey arena, the songs and any messages were largely indistinguishable to the uninitiated. Rise Against rocked hard and seemed earnest and appreciative, but this song was the only one I kind of knew. If there's something phenomenal about this band, I haven't caught onto it yet, but for a support act, they were sufficiently solid.

A little after 9:00pm, the Foo Fighters took the stage. And other than the encore break, they didn't leave it until 11:50pm.

As Dave Grohl said from the stage, "We're not one of these bands that plays for just 90 minutes."

I'm not sure why such proclamations need to be made, rather than simply proven, but for all his eternal alt-rock cred, Grohl does at times venture into arena rock parody. But as Foo Fighters' humorous videos would attest, Grohl doesn't take himself too seriously and his silly stage patter is much more amiable than irritating.

Plus, Grohl proved the power of a good laugh the day before in Kansas City (I wasn't there) when in the face of having the Foo Fighters' show there picketed by the nutjobs of Westboro Baptist Church, the band did this:

So, cheap tickets, long shows and a band that is clearly a force for good add up to rock 'n roll that is worth traveling for. Onstage, Foo Fighters delivered a fairly standard setlist--I wish they would mix things up a bit more and bring back "I'll Stick Around"--but what they lacked in spontaneity was made up for aplenty by good old fashioned firepower.

Old songs like "My Hero," "Learn to Fly," "Monkey Wrench" and show closer "Everlong" blended nicely with tracks from Wasting Light such as "Bridge Burning," "Rope," "Arlandria," "Walk" and "Dear Rosemary." Ironically, the quietest of the new cuts, "I Should've Known," in which Grohl is supposedly singing about Kurt Cobain, came off as the most powerful.

Which gets to the one weakness of the show, which is that although the Foo Fighters delivered their music about as well as I could have hoped, I couldn't avoid noting the relative lack of depth and diversity among their many fun-yet-facile songs. The Foo do what they do better than 99% of their peers, but two weeks after seeing Pearl Jam and in a year when I've also given @@@@@ to concerts by Paul McCartney, U2, Soundgarden, Arcade Fire and Roger McGuinn, the 1/2@ deduction is more substantial than it may seem and due not to onstage execution, but to the relative simplicity of the songwriting.

For all his myriad talents--one of rock's best drummers ever, a highly successful singer & guitarist, an extremely personable front man and a seemingly all-around good guy--Grohl could stand to dig quite a bit deeper as a composer and lyricist. But perhaps to get closer to Nirvana, he'd have to go to places in his psyche he'd rather not mine or reveal. Few things are as potent in rock 'n roll as a tortured soul, and while in most ways it's a good thing he seemingly doesn't have one, Dave Grohl's art is suffering for it.

So while this Foo Fighters show may well make my year-end list of favorite concerts of 2011, it won't be all that close to the top. But it will definitely go down as the best show I'll see in St. Louis. And as the impetus for a rock 'n roll road trip that included going to the top of the Gateway Arch and to the St. Louis Art Museum, it was well worth going "Back and Forth."

Here's to Foo; may you keep fighting the fight.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

On the Road Again, Literally

This is the first blog post I've written while in motion. Fortunately I am not the one driving.

At the moment I am on I-55, about 2 hours south of Chicago aboard a Mega Bus heading for St. Louis. Supposedly we will be stopping in Normal, but I'm not sure how far short of it I am.

Actually, as deduced first by checking Google Maps and then by looking out the window, we have entered Normal. It doesn't feel any different and looks perfectly, well, you know, except that we just passed a Kroger and a Hardee's, which are abnormal for Chicagoans.

We already had a potty stop, so I am not disembarking here, in some seemingly random parking lot.

Recently, my mom and a friend took a Mega Bus to Ann Arbor--which is how I learned of the cheap alternative to Greyhound and well, driving--and although she spoke quite favorably of the cost and the comfort, she reported that the drop point was a parking lot in the middle of nowhere (or at least seemingly so to a non-local). Seems to also be the case in Normal.

After passing through the campus of Illinois State University, which had all of five students walking around on a beautiful Saturday, the Mega Bus--too much, the Mega Bus, too much, the Mega Bus, oops sorry, got it confused with the Magic Bus--is leaving Normal.

But the grapevine going 'round the upper deck--inside--is that we will be stoppin again in 20 minutes. That'll be three in an hour, seems a bit excessive.

I have resumed listening to the Clash--Clampdown has followed Death or Glory on random mode--and it seems the poker game going on behind me has broken up in favor of sleep. But as the game followed an inspired discussion on the legalization of marijuana--sounded like a one sided debate--it's not shocking that some Zzzz are in order.

Although road trips are far from uncommon for me, this is the first time I have ever taken a bus as a mode of leisure transportation in America. And I've never taken a domestic Amtrak-type train either.

I've taken buses and trains in Europe, Israel and elsewhere, but other than a Greyhound I took back & forth from college in DeKalb in the mid-'80s, and a bus down to Daytona Beach during freshman Spring Break, this is the first domestic coach I've been on. (Speaking of NIU, in walking in downtown Chicago to catch the bus near Union Station, I saw a bunch of Huskie fans heading to the big game at Soldier Field vs. Wisconsin. Might've considered going if I hadn't left town.)

And we've stopped again. At the Dixie Truck Stop. I remember this place.

Back on the bus. I resisted buying a Route 66 shot glass, since I already have a few but in defiance of my diet--I've lost 8 lbs. in 3 weeks--I succumbed to a Stuckey's pecan log, but just a mini one, not the footlong.

A lady who just moved to a seat near me is now chomping on Garrett's popcorn--good smell bad sound--so I put my headphones back on, swapping out the Clash for St. Louis most famous musician, Mr. Chuck Berry.

Maybelline why can't you be true?

Which brings me to why I'm on this Mega Bus and heading to St. Louis. Or at least the impetus. I'm off to fight Foo. Against the 'Arch' rivals.

In English that means I'm going to a Foo Fighters concert at the Scottrade Center in downtown St. Louis. And will be staying the night at a hotel right by the Gateway Arch.

I have loved the Foo Fighters since the first time I heard them back in 1995 and have seen them several times. Led by Dave Grohl, they are one of the best live bands I've ever seen. Touring in support of their fine new album, Wasting Light--on the mobile Blogger app, I can't put in a link to the review I
wrote, but if you care you can search for it--their only Chicago area show was headlining Lollapalooza. I'm too old and fat--but working on the latter--to stand in a field all day, but still love a great rock show. St. Louis was the Foos closest tour stop, at least on a weekend, so I bought tickets months ago.

At the time I did, I presumed I would drive to St. Lou, but having learned of Mega Bus from my mom, it seemed like a good option.

From their website--again imagine a hyperlink--it seems Mega Bus originated in the UK, which often has more sensible ideas than the US. Trip fares--there are numerous routes from Chicago, mostly in the Midwest--are priced based on demand.

I bought my tickets awhile ago and the outbound trip cost just $10; checking the other day it jumped but just to $25. The bus is far from empty but well short of full. My return leg tomorrow afternoon cost $31.

$41 to & from St. Louis, or about 2/3 a
tank of gas on a trip that would take at least two. Of course, not driving limited my lodging options; the Motel 6 in Collinsville was out of the question.

But I found a good AAA rate at the Drury Inn at the Arch and unless it pours in the morning, I'll go up the Gateway Arch--implied hyperlink to my most recent post--and I've learned how to take public transit to the St. Louis Art Museum.

The bus ride--now in its final third--has been perfectly nice and if I were driving I couldn't have written this.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Oh, the Sights You'll See -- Picturing My Favorite Man-made U.S. Landmarks, now on Booth Reviews

Click here or the image below to see my latest post on Booth Reviews, featuring my own photographs.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

London Beyond the Werewolves: A Personal Travel Guide

I recently learned that my friend Wendy and her significant other will be going to London in late October for the first time.

Having been to the British capital on a half-dozen occasions--often at the tail of other European travels--and believing it to be, along with New York, the world's best tourist city, I offered to write this guide.

Although many of my recommendations will be fairly traditional for an initial London visit, they reflect not only my proclivities, but those I share with Wendy. We both love art, theater and rock 'n roll--here's a piece on "songs of London" I wrote for another friend's visit--and given the plethora of other options, are likely to skip the Natural History and Science museums, especially with easy access to great ones in Chicago.

I believe Wendy and her boyfriend will be spending roughly five days in London, which is plenty of time to see plenty, yet not nearly long enough to see everything of value. On my various visits, I've probably enjoyed 20 full days in London and haven't even gotten to all the things I'm suggesting for Wendy. And like New York, and even Chicago, London is a city where you could just pick any direction to walk--or a random Tube (subway) stop to exit--and discover untold pleasures, from the truly historic to the more modern and mundane, but no less enticing.

Before I get to a list of 20 things to see and do in London--and then some other options--here are a few websites that can be particularly valuable, before and even during the trip:
London Theatre Guide - londontheatre.co.uk
Official London Theatre Guide - www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk
TKTS Discount Listings (booth in Leicester Square) - www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk/tkts/whats_on_today/
London Walks (Great guided tours on various topics) - www.walks.com
London Underground (Tube) system - www.tfl.gov.uk
London Eating - www.london-eating.co.uk
(concert listings; great for any city anywhere) - www.pollstar.com
National Rail - www.nationalrail.co.uk
Cheap Continental Flights from London - EasyJet.com and RyanAir.com
Rick Steves - My favorite travel writer; on London and Great Britain
Top 10 London - A great travel guide, which Amazon lets you freely peruse
Currency Converter - www.xe.com/ucc/
And as for other other tips that can prove quite helpful? Realize that the Tube can easily get you anywhere, is safe at all times (though wariness never hurts) and can easily save you over $100 getting to and from the airport. I haven't ever used an Oyster Card (multi-ride card for visitors) but it seems like it can be a good deal. Note that in terms of Tube "zones" only the airport will be in Zone 6; most other places tourists are likely to go will be in Zones 1 & 2.

Also, though they are ubiquitous to the point of being largely ignored by locals and repeat visitors, "Mind the Gap" and "Look Right" are two phrases that demand your attention and conscious thought. Anyone who's ridden a subway anywhere shouldn't have much difficulty minding the gap between the train and platform, but for American pedestrians, "Look Right" always seems perfectly quaint until the first time they're flattened by a bus coming from the right, not left, as they step into traffic. That's why it's written on the ground at every crosswalk; pay attention to it. And note that occasionally you're told to "Look Left."

OK, so here is a list of 20 things that I think Wendy, or anyone, might enjoy seeing and doing in London. Some of these things could take all day; others probably just call for a few photos. A few are really just areas to walk around, which as I referenced above, could be the bulk of a great trip to London. (Hyperlinks below are to the most helpful point of reference I could find.)

1. Big Ben / Houses of Parliament - Probably the quintessential London sight; I find Big Ben to be one of the most attractive man-made structures in the world. Non-UK residents are restricted from climbing the Clock Tower, but can attend parliamentary debates. I've never timed it right to do so.

2. Buckingham Palace / Changing of the Guard - Completely touristy and probably only essential once, but fun and interesting to see. There is no public entry to the palace after October 3, but the Changing of the Guard takes place at 11:30am, on even numbered days in October.

3. Tower of London - It's not really a tower, but an old fortress and castle dating back to the 11th century. I find it rather fascinating.

4. Tower Bridge - The most beautiful bridge in the world--and likely what the guy in Arizona thought he was buying in 1968. I've never gone to the exhibition inside, though I have walked across it.

5. National Gallery - I don't know that it's touted like the Louvre, Uffizi, Prado, Hermitage or Met, but the depth and breadth of its collection is as good as any I've any seen. And it's free. There's tons to see, but don't miss the roomful of Raphaels, Seurat's "Bathers at Asnieres" or some of many the great Reubens. Here's the museum's own guide to 30 of its highlights.

6. Westminster Abbey - Even if you don't care about royal weddings or funerals, the abbey is a must see for its design and all the famous souls who are buried within.

7. Theater - London's West End is the world's only rival to Broadway in New York. Shakespeare's open-air Globe Theater will be closed for shows by late-October, but knowing Wendy's preference for dramas over musicals, War Horse and The Kitchen look like well-reviewed possibilities. For star power, Driving Miss Daisy is featuring Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones. And in its 49th year, Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap is always fun.

8. St. Paul's Cathedral - A bit separated from most other tourist sites, Christopher Wren's masterpiece is worth the effort to get to it, and even the walk to the top of the dome.

9. Piccadilly Circus / Leicester Square / Covent Garden - As I've mentioned, London has lots of great areas to just stroll around, but this is where I'd start. You'll be at the heart of the theater district (and not coincidentally, something of London's Times Square). Begin at the Statue of Eros and head west on Coventry Street to Leicester Square, and be sure to walk to and through Covent Garden.

10. Abbey Road - It's not all that easy to get to (St. John's Wood tube stop, not one called Abbey Road which is nowhere near the studio), the famed crosswalk has long been re-painted, the intersection is often busy and treacherous, and the studio is never open to the public. But for Beatles fanatics, a trek here is essential. You might consider taking a Beatles tour, which takes you to Abbey Road, and/or other London rock tours. Or perhaps even a day trip to Liverpool, less than a 3-hour train ride away.

11. Churchill War Rooms - Formerly known as the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms, I found this museum to offer tremendously interesting insight to the great Prime Minister and Britain's actions during World War II. (For Americans not heading to London anytime soon, you may be interested to note that a fabulous Churchill Museum exists--within a Christopher Wren-designed church--in Fulton, Missouri, not far from St. Louis.)

12. Tate Modern - London is filled with wonderful museums and the Tate Modern is one of the best collections of modern art in the world. Its location in a former power station is rather distinctive in its own right.

13. Hyde Park / Kensington Gardens / Marble Arch - Great cities have great parks and Hyde Park is one of the most famous anywhere. Look for Speakers' Corner near the northeast corner, the Serpentine lake and other sites of interest, including Kensington Gardens. Marble Arch is a monument, located near Speakers Corner, that will remind you of its Roman inspiration (and possibly the Washington Square Arch).

14. Shakespeare/Dickens Walk / Globe Theater - As I mentioned above, you won't be able to see a performance at the Globe, but can take a tour. And the guided London Walks tour on Shakespeare/Dickens is "not to be" missed, as it offers the best of times. It seems to operate on Wednesday and Sunday. Even if you don't go on a tour, try to get to The George, a medieval pub supposedly patronized by the Bard.

15. British Museum - I haven't been here since my first London visit in 1993, but it is one of the world's great museums. Home to the Rosetta Stone and much else.

16. Trafalgar Square / The Mall - Highlighted by Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square is one of London's great public spaces. It is essentially the "front yard" to the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery. Heading southwest from the square is "The Mall" which is actually a road that leads to Buckingham Palace.

17. Madame Tussauds - Kitschy as hell, but this is the original wax museum, dates back nearly 200 years old and can be not only fun, but somewhat informative as well.

18. Courtauld Gallery - A fabulous and relatively intimate art museum, highlighted by some sensational Van Goghs and this notable Manet.

19. Chinatown / Soho - Sadly, Lee Ho Fook's, sung about by Warren Zevon in "Werewolves of London" is no longer--I really did once get a big dish of beef chow mein--but Chinatown is worth a walkthrough and perhaps a meal. Soho is a larger district, still a bit tawdry, but not too risque. I'd basically stroll up Shaftsbury Avenue from Piccadilly Circus; Soho is to the north; Gerrard St., which intersects with Wardour St. just south of Shaftsbury, is the main stretch of Chinatown.

20. Baker Street - Although Sherlock Holmes no longer lives a 221B Baker Street, there is a plaque above the door, the above statue nearby and even a museum at his supposed residence. The Baker Street tube station is one of London's oldest and decorated with Sherlock. The area is quite charming even beyond the Holmes' connection and Madame Tussauds is right around the corner. I imagine it also inspired this song.

Other Museums

National Portrait Gallery

Wallace Collection - Another outstanding art museum, in an old mansion. Great pre-Impressionism French and Spanish.

Victoria & Albert Museum - World's largest museum of decorative arts and design

Tate Britain - Turner, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Constable, Bacon, etc.

Royal Academy of the Arts - Features an exhibit on Degas and the Ballet

British Library - The main location is St. Pancras. Used to be part of the British Museum, so current library building is much newer than you'd expect.

Natural History Museum - Admission is free, as it is for the...

Science Museum

Saatchi Gallery - A contemporary art gallery, with free admission

Jewel Tower - There are no jewels, but an exhibition on the history of Parliament (no word on Funkadelic) 

Charles Dickens Museum - Hope you didn't have great expectations, since this museum will be closed from September 19 to November 7. But after then, some may find Chuck's one-time home to offer a fine Twist.

The London Dungeon - A total tourist haunt, but may be fun in the spirit of Halloween. Offers discount tickets in combination with Madame Tussauds.

Snap Galleries - A rock 'n' roll photo gallery in the Piccadilly Arcade. I haven't been here, but they seem to have cool stuff.

Royal Residences (besides Buckingham Palace)

Kensington Palace - This one is within London, near the west end of Hyde Park; Wikipedia

Hampton Court Palace - Famed for its shrubbery "maze" this palace is southwest of London and requires taking a train from Waterloo Station; Wikipedia

Windsor Castle - To get here, take a train from Waterloo Station to Windsor. I've never visited the castle, but imagine it's pretty impressive if you're impressed by that kind of thing. Wikipedia

10 Downing Street - OK, this isn't really a royal residence, as it's the home of the Prime Minister. Although I've read that David Cameron actually lives at Number 11. But you can get a glimpse of if you walk south on Whitehall from Trafalgar Square. 

Quick Overviews

Double Decker Bus Tour - A bit pricey, but not a bad way to get to many of the sights in one fell swoop. Plus, I believe the regular double decker buses are largely obsolete, so a hop-on/hop-off tour bus may suffice in that regard.

London Eye - I've yet to go on this, as it's never really appealed to me, but Paolo lauds it.

Spectator Events besides Theater

Soccer Game - Chelsea, Arsenal, Fulham, Queens Park Rangers and Tottenham Hotspur are all London-based English Premier League teams. This is a league schedule for October. Perhaps if Wendy is still in London on Saturday, October 29th, she can catch Chelsea play Arsenal at Stamford Bridge stadium, though I imagine tickets aren't cheap.

Rock Concerts - Given England's great musical legacy, it could be fun to see a band in the capital, with something at Royal Albert Hall a real treat. Pollstar.com is the best way to check who might be in town; I noticed that Wilco will be at the Roundhouse on October 28 & 29. Tickets here

Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club - Located in Soho, London premier jazz club has operated since 1959.

Football Game - No, not a soccer game, an NFL matchup between the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Wembley Stadium on October 23. Not sure if Wendy will be there by then, but I wish I was. Tickets here.  

Other London Walks of Note (see full schedule here)

The London of Oscar Wilde
Jack The Ripper Haunts
The Literary London Pub Walk
The Blitz
Rock & Roll London
The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour
Hidden London

Modern Buildings

The Shard - Designed by Renzo Piano, it will be the tallest building in the European Union. Still under construction but may be worth a look. Or hard to miss.

The Gherkin - Designed by Norman Foster and so nicknamed due to its pickle-like shape, it kind of looms over the Tower of London

2012 Olympics Site
- Most of the stadiums are pretty far along; not sure how easy it is to check any of them out, but it seems you can take the Tube to the Stratford station and walk around. London Walks also has an Olympics Walk

Neighborhoods not yet mentioned

Chelsea - Once was bohemian and later swinging, now seems largely upscale. Kings Road was the epicenter of its fashion district and the Sex Pistols were formed at Malcolm McLaren's SEX shop at 430 Kings Rd., but it's long gone.

Notting Hill - I've never been here, but I did see the movie. The area is said to be affluent & fashionable, but where isn't?

Oxford St. / Carnaby St. - Oxford is one of London's major streets and Carnaby, a 3-block pedestrianed stretch in Soho, was once the center of Swinging London


Harrods - Probably the most famous department store in London, with origins dating back to 1824

Savile Row - Famous for all its tailor shops. The Beatles' Let It Be rooftop concert took place atop 3 Savile Row.

Eating & Drinking

Pubs - There are supposedly over 7,000 pubs in London, offering a culture far different than typical American bars. Hanging out and chatting with locals in a pub should be part of any London visit. Here's a list of some of the more popular pubs.

Hard Rock Cafe - This was the chain's first location, now celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Indian Food - I don't remember too many thrilling meals in London, but know I got some great Indian food. Many options abound.

Gordon Ramsey - I've yet to splurge on a high-end meal in London, but hopefully will one day try one of the establishments of this popular TV chef


See Red - They may still seem somewhat ubiquitous and obvious, but be sure to acutely note the red double decker buses, phone booths and mail boxes, as these are things largely evaporating from London, and in basic essence, everywhere. Also enjoy the old style taxis.

OK, so this should probably provide a first-time visitor to London with abundant options of intriguing things to do, see and experience, though I imagine one could really do very little of this and still have a great time. Hopefully others who have enjoyed London as I have, or even more so, will weigh in with other tips and suggestions.

Have a great time, Wendy, and remember, Mind the Gap and (almost) always, Look Right.

In case anyone cares, I wrote a similar guide to San Francisco some months ago.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Quinn Offers Mighty Insights of Historical--and Often Hysterical--Import -- Theater/Comedy Review: Colin Quinn, Long Story Short

Theater/Comedy Review

Colin Quinn: Long Story Short
Broadway Playhouse, Chicago
Thru September 10, 2011

Not too long ago, if asked to list comedians I would hope to see live on stage, Colin Quinn wouldn't have made my list.

Which isn't to say I haven't found him funny. Although I rarely watched Remote Control back when the Brooklyn-born comic hosted it on MTV, I somewhat liked Quinn on Saturday Night Live, especially when hosting on Weekend Update, even if not as much as his predecessor, Norm Macdonald. And in recent years, Quinn has demonstrated great wit in guest appearances on Howard Stern's radio show and as a participant on various celebrity roasts. Still, I wasn't exactly seeking him out, on TV, let alone the local comedy club circuit.

But especially given that the tenor of his Stern appearances has often been about being down on his luck, personally and professionally, it's nice when a skilled comedian--or anyone for that matter--has friends in high places. Although I didn't see it--it was said to be awful--Quinn was included in the 2010 movie Grown Ups with his higher-profile SNL mates Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, David Spade and Rob Schneider.

Also in 2010, another of Quinn's friends, Jerry Seinfeld, convinced Colin to do a one-man show, offered to direct it and undoubtedly helped get backing for it to bow on Broadway last fall. It had a nice 135-performance run and is now touring the country.

This is the second week of Quinn's show Long Story Short at Chicago's Broadway Playhouse, with two shows tonight and tomorrow concluding the run. While the show has already been televised on HBO and catching a rerun there would likely be sufficient, I would certainly recommend that anyone so inclined get down to Water Tower Place to see Quinn's intelligent insight on the follies and foibles that have linked almost all cultures throughout world history.

Perhaps because I went into the show believing that greed and self-centered motives have accounted for man's downfall--though rise as well--recently and for much of time, I found Quinn's material to be agreeably shrewd as he gave "the history of the world in 75 minutes." While it was more akin to the best college lecture you ever could imagine rather than chock-full of laugh out loud lines, Quinn enjoyably traversed time and space from ancient Greece and Rome to British Empire to a present day where survival of the fittest means we "came from the pricks, not the nice guys."

Some of Quinn's best jokes were the seeming throw-away lines at the end of a run about an era's idiocies, and I probably missed a few. But thoughts such as one about "why is Marxism so called if Marx and Engels worked on it together and equality is a key premise," show the depth of Quinn's intelligence. Another great strain was one where Quinn compared Julius Caesar and his reign over Rome to that of a mob boss.

As enjoyable as it was, I don't know that I liked Long Story Short too much better than I would have a standard Quinn stand-up routine, and there was little overtly Seinfeldian about it. But whereas Jerry is a genius when it comes to the absurdity of life, Quinn's take on the absurdity of life over the course of  history was definitely well worth an evening of mine.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Are You Ready for Some Football? -- The 11 Greatest Players I've Ever Seen, now on Booth Reviews

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

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Pearl Jam Puts on Quite a Celebration for Their Fans and Themselves -- Concert Review

Concert Review

Pearl Jam
with Mudhoney, Queens of the Stone Age, The Strokes
PJ20 Destination Weekend
September 4, 2011
Alpine Valley, East Troy, WI

It's rather impressive just that Pearl Jam has been together long enough to celebrate its 20th anniversary, as it did with the "PJ20 Destination Weekend" this past Saturday and Sunday at Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, WI. (I attended on Sunday only.) As noted by special guest Chris Cornell, the Soundgarden singer who sang four Temple of the Dog songs each night, not many bands make it to 20 years.

Of their 1990s' alt-rock brethren, including Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, Jane's Addiction and Stone Temple Pilots, only Radiohead and Green Day have steadily stayed intact for a similar duration (sorry, Nine Inch Nails doesn't count). And in those 20 years, Pearl Jam has released 9 studio albums and, somewhat remarkably, has now toured--or at least played a handful of live shows--in 18 of 21 years (including '91 and '11). Besides their studio albums, hundreds of concerts have been released as official bootlegs and many can be heard for free at PearlJamLive.com.

But as they showed during a 190-minute performance on Sunday (following one of similar length the night before), longevity isn't all that remains impressive about the Seattle quintet.

With four of five original members--singer Eddie Vedder, bassist Jeff Ament and guitarists Stone Gossard & Mike McCready--plus Soundgarden's Matt Cameron as their permanent drummer since 1998, all of who are now in their mid-to-late 40s, Pearl Jam still sounds as good as ever.

No, they're not as hirsute nor as frenzied onstage as they were in their youth, but they are still incredibly tight as they deliver completely a unique shows at every gig. And despite being an erstwhile smoker, Vedder remains one of the best vocalists in rock history.

Temple of the Dog reunion with Chris Cornell
I don't know if there was anyone from Antarctica at PJ20, but I'm pretty sure every other continent was represented. I wasn't aware of festival passes being sold as each day featured the same lineup of Pearl Jam-chosen bands--The Strokes, Queens of the Stone Age, Mudhoney and more--but of people I spoke with, to have made the pilgrimage "just from Chicago" and for only one day seemingly put me in the great minority. 

Although I have all their albums, several of the "official bootlegs" and have now seen Pearl Jam 14 times (plus a solo Vedder show), among this crowd I'd probably count as a casual PJ fan. Thus, though I probably would have appreciated Saturday's show, where the setlist dug deep into lesser-known album cuts and cover songs, I certainly relished the more hit-filled show I attended on Sunday (setlist).

Though a good number of relative rarities--"Pilate," "Satan's Bed," "Red Mosquito" among them--were sprinkled into the 33-song set, the band seemed to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their debut album, Ten (to my mind, still their best) by playing "Even Flow," "Jeremy," "Black" and "Alive."

As an avid Soundgarden fan who loved their reunion tour show in Chicago this July, I certainly wasn't unhappy to get a redux Cornell appearance. But other than "Hunger Strike," sung with Vedder, I was largely unfamiliar with the Temple of the Dog material Cornell had recorded in 1990 with Ament, Gossard, McCready and Cameron following the death of Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood (Ament & Gossard had also been in MLB).

Along with numerous guest appearances on songs by other festival performers--including The Strokes' Julian Casablancas, Dhani Harrison (George's son) of TheNewNo2, John Doe, Liam Finn and Glen Hansard--the Temple of the Dog material somewhat diluted the pacing compared to a regular Pearl Jam show. But as the band flew past a presumed Midnight curfew to play "Alive," a guest-loaded "Rockin' in the Free World" and their classic set-closer "Yellow Ledbetter," I really have nothing to complain about.

Well, actually, that's not true. Though this gripe has nothing to do with the  music itself. Each day of the festival was set up so that the four top acts played on Alpine's main pavilion stage starting at 5:30 or 6:00, but with numerous other artists playing on two adjoining stages on the concourse. After hitting a lane-closure bottleneck getting into Wisconsin, I didn't get to Alpine until 2:50 and caught just the end of TheNewNo2, with Dhani Harrison looking and sounding eerily like his dad.

Though I would have liked to have seen--or even just heard--sets by Liam Finn, Glen Hansard and John Doe, I got into line for the Pearl Jam Museum, a collection of band artifacts and such that was housed inside Alpine's indoor expo center. It took 2 hours to get through this line and while I enjoyed what I saw, I also rued the music I missed. And even had I arrived at Noon, I would have faced this unfortunate choice.

But anyway, at right is yours truly next to the woodcut of PEARL JAM used for the Ten album cover.

And this is a link to a YouTube clip of Vedder singing Falling Slowly with Hansard, which I didn't see.

But other than this little snafu, as far as celebrations go, this was a pretty damn good one. And Pearl Jam certainly did their legacy proud with a concert for the ages. Here's to another 20 years. Let's hope we're all still "Alive."

And here's a bit of "Jeremy" shot by me:

Friday, September 02, 2011

Videos of My 11 Favorite Pearl Jam Songs -- Now on Booth Reviews

On Sunday, I'm heading up to Alpine Valley to see Pearl Jam as they celebrate their 20th anniversary with the "destination weekend." I wrote a bit about the fest and the band on Booth Reviews, accompanied by videos of my 11 favorite Pearl Jam songs. You can access the post by clicking here or on the image below.

For Shear (Macabre) Delight, Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd -- Theater Review

Theater Review

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
A musical by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Rachel Rockwell
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace, IL
Thru October 9, 2011

By shear coincidence, on the same day that I posted a blog article saluting my hometown of Skokie and citing a couple notable natives among a relative lack thereof, I attended a superb performance of Sweeney Todd starring Broadway-trod Skokie scion Gregg Edelman in the title role.

Although I must confess to not having previously heard of Edelman, despite him being a fellow Niles North alumni and me an avid musical theater fan, he impressively has 15 Broadway shows--and 4 Tony nominations--to his credit. (I learned of his Skokie connection through the Niles North Wikipedia entry.)

That his co-star Liz McCartney (as Mrs. Lovett) has seven Broadway credits bespeaks the type of talent that Drury Lane Theatre now regularly showcases at its 971-seat venue in Oakbrook Terrace, the last of what once was a small chain.

In fact, with a cast that included a plethora of Chicagoland musical luminaries--many ensemble members were performers I've seen in leading roles--the size of the stage and set design were the only things that suggested this production wasn't Broadway caliber. This was the first local show I'd seen following four on the Great White Way (reviews contained in this post) and the performances and overall timbre seemed every bit as good.

Yes, catching a matinee accompanied by hundreds of attendees of the Senior Living Expo, taking place in the adjoining hall, meant too many crinkling plastic bags and undue conversation during the performance. But this only slightly diminished the raw power of Stephen Sondheim's masterful score and the macabre delight as Sweeney Todd--the former Benjamin Barker--exacts revenges on those who ruined his life, abetted by lovelorn Mrs. Lovett.

I enjoy so many of Sondheim's musicals to such an extent that it's hard to call any one his masterpiece. Ironically, though he is a wondrous composer, likely my favorite, his two very best shows are the ones for which he wrote only the lyrics: West Side Story and Gypsy. But of the many shows for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics, there is arguably none any better in sum than Sweeney Todd.

Which isn't to say that the darkness of the whole affair doesn't leave me a bit adrift somewhere near the end of Act 2. While I fully respect that Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler chose not to end the score and narrative with any kind of uplift--such as Les Miserables would employ--I think it accounts for why I can't bestow a full @@@@@ on such a ravishing rendition. But that's really a 1/2@ quibble on a truly razor-fine affair.

In addition to outstanding acting and vocal performances by Edelman and McCartney, local stalwarts Kevin Gudahl, George Keating and Heidi Kettenring are superb as Judge Turpin, Pirelli and the Beggar Woman, respectively. William Travis Taylor sings Sondheim's sublime "Johanna" as well as one could hope and Emily Rohm embodies her beautifully. Young Jonah Rawitz is also notably good as Tobias Ragg.

As I referenced above, a slew of area actors with impressive leading-role resumes--including George Andrew Wolff, Larry Adams, Natalie Ford, David Girolmo, Cory Goodrich, Catherine Lord, Patrick Gagnon and James Rank--round out an incredibly deep cast. There literally wasn't a wrong note to be heard and the choral pieces, such as the opening "Ballad of Sweeney Todd," resounded with vilifying venom that rose well above the bag crinkling and chattering around me.

Under the direction of Rachel Rockwell--who after helming an exquisite Ragtime at the same venue last year seems to be on a Gary Griffin sort of career arc; I wouldn't be surprised to read of her directing Broadway productions fairly soon--if this isn't the best production of Sweeney Todd you'll ever see, or the best local musical production of 2011, it sure cuts it close.

Drury Lane Oakbrook offers relatively affordable ticket prices to begin with--certainly compared to downtown Chicago or Broadway venues--but nice discounts available through TheaterMania.com (I took advantage of this one) and Goldstar shave off even more. To see a show this good for $25 is a real steal.