Sunday, April 29, 2012

Thanks to Another Fantastic Willie Nile Show, a Silver U2 Anniversary and a Mind-Blowing Tom Morello Guitar Solo (on stage with Springsteen), It's a Day to Celebrate What's Right About Rock 'n' Roll

My previous post here was about the relative sparsity of great rock artists to arise in the 21st Century.

The post seemed to generate pretty good traffic, but somewhat despairingly, I've received no feedback suggesting that I'm wrong, or ignorant to some decidedly superb band.

One friend hailed the White Stripes a bit more fervently than I did, and I respect that opinion as their albums were excellent, but I was disappointed both times I saw them live.

But as I pointed out, although I'm chagrined by the relative lack of much new and notable in the realm of rock music, there are still numerous artists that can keep me satisfied in terms of catching an amazing concert and forever enjoying phenomenal recorded material.

And today I'm particularly reminded of that for the following reasons:

1) Another @@@@@ concert by Willie Nile, backed by the Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra, at Fitzgerald's in Berwyn. 

Although I've only come to know about the 63-year-old New York rocker in the last 5 years, Nile has become one of my most consistent musical pleasures, both for his wonderful songs/albums (both new and old) and tremendous, high-energy live shows.

I won't write a full review of the show I saw last night at Fitzgerald's, for the one I penned about his gig last September largely holds true.

Playing at the same venue, for the same $15 cover charge, Nile was once again backed by Chicago's Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra (basically a 5-piece band), who opened the show with a solid set of their own. Rather than bring a band to town, Willie enlists Nick and his group to back him up, and as evidenced for the third time (including a 2009 show at Martyrs), the collaboration makes for a terrific night of music.

Perhaps because he and the NTO presumably play together but once a year, Nile's repertoire last night was largely the same as it was seven months ago, even if the setlist was somewhat shuffled. I'm a fan to an extent where any of a dozen or more different songs would've been welcome, but everything he played--including a new song called "Holy War"--sounded good. And my friend Dave, who was seeing him for the first time, seemed to very much agree that Nile is a terrific songwriter who puts on a great show with a sound that (as I wrote last time) marries Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to The Ramones and The Clash.

In sharing a video I shot of "One Guitar," off last year's excellent The Innocent Ones album, I'll mention Willie Nile's One Guitar Charitable Initiative, in which numerous artists record their own version of the song to help raise money for great causes. Anyone with the ability to do so can seemingly contribute their rendition of "One Guitar," so if you're musically inclined, please do and/or support the selected charities including the TJ Martell Foundation, John Lennon Educational Tour Bus and Light of Day.

2) Today, April 29, 2012 is the 25th anniversary of the first time I saw U2 live in (their own headlining) concert. 

Although I think I first came to know of U2 in 1983, it wasn't until The Unforgettable Fire tour in 1985 that I was interested in seeing them live. But though they played a pair of Chicago shows at the UIC Pavilion that year, a high school classmate petered out on his offer to include me in his ticket purchase. Scalpers existed back then even without StubHub, but sans a car or anyone to go with, well, I had to forget that fire.

Especially after U2's great LiveAid appearance made me a bigger fan, I rather fortuitously was able to get a ticket to see them on the Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope tour. But while it was awesome that on June 13, 1986, I also got to see the then-reunited Police, Peter Gabriel, Bryan Adams, Lou Reed and Robin Williams--and U2 was amazing to the extent I felt sorry for the Police having to follow them--their 8-song set didn't count as seeing a full U2 concert.

The next spring, with the release of The Joshua Tree, U2 would truly explode. The album went to #1 and just days before their April 29, 1987 show at the Rosemont Horizon (now known as the Allstate Arena), TIME magazine put them on the cover with the headline "Rock's Hottest Ticket."

On that same spring leg, U2 would play 5 arena shows in LA and 5 near New York, even three in Hartford, but booked just one in the Chicago area.

At the time, I was in my freshman year at Northern Illinois University with no easy access to a Ticketmaster outlet. But I was a member of the Jam Ticket Club, run by concert promoter Jam Productions, whereupon for an annual fee one could buy tickets to selected shows that Jam promoted.

So I was able to get a pair of tickets in the 21st row for face value, which you can see above was $16.50.

I still had no car up at NIU, but a friend from my dorm floor, Dave Palkovic--not the same Dave I saw Willie Nile with last night--had one and was happy to drive in order to accompany me to such a hot show.

And it was fantastic. I've seen U2 several times since, including just 6 months later when they returned to the Horizon for three shows (I saw just one), but I don't recall any as being any better or more meaningful.

Though my memory about many much more recent concerts is sadly quite dissipated, I still clearly recall the show-opening strains of "Where the Streets Have No Name" and Bono walking out on stage in a cowboy hat. It was pretty damn cool. (Lone Justice opened the show.)

Of course, I now have the advantage of virtual memory, for in addition to the Joshua Tree tour being immortalized in the Rattle and Hum movie, this YouTube clip from an Iowa City show that fall roughly depicts what the opening of the concert was like (indoors, the stage hue was blue for "Streets," not red as seen in Rattle and Hum and frequently since).

And just yesterday, I found online a full length audio bootleg of the April 29, 1987 show with remarkably good sound. I won't provide a link, but if I could find it you can--Google "U2 4-29-87"--and I've tremendously enjoyed hearing it over the past 36 hours. You can see the setlist for that show here, which still remains one of the most important landmark concerts of my lifetime.

3) Another version of one of the best guitar solos I've ever heard

As I've conveyed often--including in this recent review--Bruce Springsteen is my favorite musician. Bruce is probably underrated as a guitarist, but whenever he and the E Street Band have played in the L.A. area in the last few years, Rage Against The Machine's phenomenal guitarist--and like Bruce, one of today's ruefully rare rock activists--Tom Morello makes a guest appearance.

I've seen clips of Morello soloing on "Ghost of Tom Joad" now on several different occasions--this one without Bruce is particularly swell--and am never not amazed. The one he did Friday night--the second of two Springsteen shows on which he guested--is no exception. (If you think his first solo on the song is good, just wait until the second.) And since I'm citing reasons to still celebrate rock and roll, this seems well worth sharing:

Thursday, April 26, 2012

WANTED: The Next Rock Band To Change My Life (and Perhaps Even the World)

A few years ago when I was setting up a Google Profile page--I'm still not sure why--I was posed a question that now seems to have disappeared:

What are you searching for?

My answer was: The next Nirvana

To quote another great rock band, and one still in existence at that, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for." 

Perhaps I'm not looking hard enough--some people knew about Nirvana, and U2, at least 2 years before I did--although what I've found fills me with anything but great expectations.

For instance, I recently caught wind of a band called fun.--yes, the lowercase "f" and end period are part of their name--whose song "We Are Young" spent six weeks at #1 on the main Billboard singles chart, making it the biggest hit of 2012 and the biggest in quite some time by a "rock band."

But I don't care if the video has over 38 million hits--and fun. has been hailed in Rolling Stone as one of the "25 Best Things in Rock Right Now" and Entertainment Weekly as one of the "30 Greatest Artists Right Now"--the song is mediocre at best. I just picked a random, middle-of-the-pack Cheap Trick song, "I'll Be With You Tonight," and enjoyed it eons more than "We Are Young."

And if, unlike me, you are young and need to hear an anthemic song about it, check out "When You're Young" by the Jam or, for something more recent, "When You Were Young," by the Killers.

Not that the Billboard singles chart has ever really been a source for learning about rock songs I might like, but taking over for "We Are Young" at #1 was "Somebody That I Used To Know" by Gotye, an Australian who is also hailed the aforementioned Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly spotlights. To each their own I guess, but pop songs about our hidden selves used to be at least this good. Or, if your tastes run even a bit poppier, this good.

Now, believe it or not, I don't like sounding like a whiny old fossil. 

Thus, as I do fairly often, I've been actively seeking out new music, including some that friends and the music press recommend (since the radio is relatively useless these days), as well as stuff I just kind of stumble across.

I subscribe to Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and TIME, get Facebook feeds (and often read/listen to additional content) from Paste Magazine, Rock It Out! blog, NME magazine, and WXRT radio, among others, and frequently talk to music-loving friends about what they're listening to of late.

Though I don't listen to all that much music on the radio, I have myriad options on SiriusXM, will occasionally see who WXRT (among other Chicago stations) is playing & hyping and I sometimes check out online feeds from NME Radio, KROQ (from L.A.) and various stations through iTunes. I also sometimes use Pandora in hopes it will introduce me to something new (or even old, good and unknown).

I visit the great site virtually every day, check out charts and samples on Amazon (including for England), utilize Wikipedia for music research along with much else and have taken to utilizing Spotify for quite a bit of free sampling.
So it's not like I'm just sitting around waiting for the second coming of Led Zeppelin to rise up and smack me upside my headphones.
And while part of the dearth that I rue is the lack of "rock stars" and mega-bands that become part of the zeitgeist, I am not suggesting that a great band must reach the stature of Zeppelin, the Who, Nirvana, etc., to be considered as such.

J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. / Photo Credit: Francis Chung,
Due to the internet and perhaps cable TV, many art forms including music reach a much more segmented public nowadays. But less-than-household-name artists such as Dinosaur Jr., Jason & the Scorchers, Alejandro Escovedo and many others have long been among my favorites.

And one of my foremost passions has been seeking out and sharing bands who are/were big in England but not so much in America, from the Move to the Jam to Stereophonics, to the Automatic,  the Fratellis and the View (I still love this song from the latter).

So if I am ignorant about great rock artists--especially those achieving some degree of mass appeal--that have come to prominence (e.g. released an album) in 2005 or later, I am ignorant in the "I don't know" sense, not "I don't care."

Who have I been checking out lately?

Click image to hear "Jealous Girl" on YouTube
Recently, I have listened to new albums by: 

Alabama Shakes
Neon Trees
White Rabbits
Deer Tick
Ben Kweller   
The Menzingers
Cloud Nothings

All of them have some merit, with Kweller's "Jealous Girl" probably my favorite song so far in 2012. His album, Go Fly A Kite seemed quite promising for the first three songs, but I was fairly well bored by song #6.

Thus, when I refer to a great band (or solo rock artist), I don't mean one that has a catchy song or two, gets a bit of fleeting buzz and can play a decent 45 minute festival set.

There are several "good" bands out there, but there's a considerable distance between "good" and "great" that few are crossing.  

My criteria to consider a rock band "great" requires at least 3 of the following to be true:
1. I have bought an album of theirs
2. I expect to buy the next album they release and at least one other, past or future
3. I have seen them in concert as a headliner or would want to
4. I would want to see them in concert as a headliner at least three times (in different years)
5. I believe they can sell out a 15,000-seat arena or will one day
Click image to hear title track on YouTube
Although I've enjoyed music I've heard from dozens of artists, I consider only three post-2005 bands to be "great" per the above criteria. And given that two of them are largely unknown in America and the third is defunct and largely just a studio concoction of one guy, I realize I may be reaching a bit. But they are:

- Maximo Park - A British band whose 2005 album A Certain Trigger was my favorite of the '00s. Their fourth album, The National Health, comes out in June and the lead single/title track sounds good.
- The Len Price 3 - Another British band who had my favorite album of 2010, Pictures. For skeptics, here's a song called "I Don't Believe You."
- LCD Soundsystem - A "band"--primarily just James Murphy--that had three stellar albums and was great live, but have seemingly ceased to exist.

If I were to extend my time frame to bands that arose since 2000 (roughly), I could add:

Arcade Fire
- Arcade Fire
- The Killers 
- The White Stripes
- Coldplay
- Muse

Although, in truth, while they meet my criteria above, I consider Coldplay, Muse and The White Stripes to be good bands, not truly great ones. And while I very much like Maximo Park, Len Price 3 and LCD, I can't really cite any of them as life changing. So that leaves Arcade Fire and The Killers as the only new bands that have really mattered to me in the past dozen years.

Though I'm not fully a disciple of the Black Keys or My Morning Jacket, they have achieved impressive levels of popularity, and I think they're pretty good. But not great.

Fleet Foxes has had some pretty good songs, and I saw them in concert last year. But though the show was great at times, it also somewhat bored me. So while they meet criteria #1 & 3 above, I'm not even sure I'd care about their next album, let alone want to see them again.

In putting together my Best of 2011 CD compilation, I spent a good amount of time listening to albums by the Smith Westerns and Wild Flag, which I think were pretty strong. Other acts of recent vintage that I'd cite as a cut above the rest include the Decemberists, Florence & the Machine and Band of Horses. I only came to pay attention to the New Pornographers in the last year, though they've been putting out albums since 2000, but I now like much of what I've heard.

The Smith Westerns are a pretty good young band from Chicago,
but don't exactly exude the iconography of Led Zeppelin or Queen
So it's not like I'm saying there's no music of merit being put out. And though guitar-driven rock has always been my favorite musical genre, I have found a fair amount of enjoyment from Adele, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, recently minted artists who have reached the superstar level well beyond any recent rock bands.

It's also no coincidence that since 2000, I have developed a far greater appreciation for other musical genres, including Broadway, jazz and classical.

I further realize that hip hop artists like Kanye West and DJ/producers such as Deadmau5 have risen to the levels of fame, acclaim and success that many rock bands used to. And perhaps this isn't merely a coincidence. Guitar driven rock might not ever again be in vogue like it was in the '60s and '70s.

And though I've had hopes that the popularity of Guitar Hero games would breed a new generation of kids with an appreciation of classic rock, who then learn how to play real instruments, write killer riffs & hooks and form great bands, I've yet to see any evidence of a rock 'n' roll renaissance.

Still, I'm not saying that rock is dead; 
it just seems to have stopped giving birth.

Beyond my own vast music collection and what I can find at stores (including Amazon, iTunes, etc.) and libraries, Spotify--even if I don't quite understand the legality--has made it easy to check out almost any artist and album, from any time period. So despite all my kvetching, the truth is that there's more than enough enjoyment--and even discovery-- to be had in the rock music that already exists.

Photo Credit: A.M. Saddler,
And over just the course of 2011 and 2012, I have seen (or will/might see) many longtime favorite acts live in concert, including Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, U2, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Van Halen, Rush, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bob Seger, Ray Davies (of the Kinks), Peter Gabriel, Foo Fighters, Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd), Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Wilco, Garbage, Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, Dinosaur Jr., The Beach Boys, Smoking Popes, Alejandro Escovedo and Willie Nile. (Willie put on one of the best shows of 2011 and is again playing at Fitzerald's in Berwyn this Saturday.)

So there are many reasons why I still believe in rock 'n' roll...and should always be able to derive much enjoyment and nourishment, even if simply from old CDs or their digital substitutes. And discovering a stellar-yet-unknown veteran band--like I did with The Wildhearts around 2004; this song could be the Cliff Notes version of this article--or even a long extinct group I never heard of can be nearly as invigorating as having a great new one come on the scene.

But when Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, The Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Clash, U2, Metallica, Guns 'n' Roses, Nirvana and several others rose to prominence, they had a pronounced societal impact.

I don't notice that happening anymore and two great rock bands arising since the turn of the century just doesn't cut it (and even if you put the number at four, six or ten, the sentence still holds).

Here we are now, entertain us. Please.
So all this blathering can really be summed up by saying:

I miss the excitement of experiencing the next great rock band that can change the world. 

Or at least mine. 

If there are any great rock artists of relatively recent vintage you think I should know about but don't, please tell me. 

(I'm also happy to hear about anyone you suspect I'm obvious to from way back when. Here's a still rather accurate list of my 100 Favorite Artists of Popular Music.)

And here's what Rock 'n' Roll used to sound like:  

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

In the Spirit of Critical Congruency, Noting the Negativity about 'Ghost the Musical' on Broadway

(Note: This is not a review; I have not seen Ghost in New York, though I did see it in London)

As I hopefully make rather evident in my writings on this blog, I have tremendous regard and respect for the arts--and anyone who participates in them at any level.

So although I enjoy giving an honest appraisal of shows I see--and as I am not a professional critic, I actually pay to see them and am not compensated in any way for my reviews--I don't revel in being negative, nor nasty, about shows I don't like.

Even at the low level of reach and influence that Seth Saith enjoys, writing something unkind about a performance, and especially performers, would be to insult people who are far more theatrically, or musically, etc., talented than I'll ever be.

And bad professional reviews, particularly by New York theater critics about new Broadway shows, have caused many a show to close much earlier than planned. While this can be seen as a public service in saving audiences considerable money and time in seeing dreck, it also can cost many an actor, musician, stagehand, souvenir seller and ticket taker their source of income.

So I'm not hoping that Ghost the Musical closes quickly on Broadway in the wake of mostly scathing reviews after opening last night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York. But based on having found the show quite lousy when I saw it in London in late November with the same lead actors, I didn't feel it merited a Broadway production (unless the producers tremendously improved it).

Though I accept that my opinion of musicals, plays, concerts, movies, etc. may often differ from those offered by professional critics, I respect the judgments of theater writers like Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune and Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times enough to really wonder why they might have loved something I didn't (such as with Camino Real at the Goodman Theater; I found it almost unwatchable--as did many audience members who left early--yet Jones raved about it).

Thus, even as the half-assed critic that I pretend to be, or even just as an avid theater lover, I'm often quite curious about how Chicago and New York critics will review a show, particularly one I really loved or hated. I still recall how, after catching a pre-Broadway production of Hairspray in Seattle in 2003, I told my mom that it would win the Tony for Best Musical. And I felt appraisingly validated when it did (after garnering great reviews upon opening on Broadway).

Now, as proof that critical reviews don't always matter much to audiences, when in London last November with my friend Paolo, we opted to see Ghost--with half-price TKTS, mind you--despite it getting middling notices from the London critics. The show, based on the popular 1990 movie, had opened in July 2011 and is still running in London, so a cherished title can supersede negative reviews, and did so even in my case.

But by intermission, Paolo and I were in accordance that what we were watching just wasn't very good. Despite being written by Bruce Joel Rubin, who also wrote the movie that we both recalled favorably, the story and dialogue were hokey and shallow. And even with music by Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics) and successful pop songwriter Glen Ballard, few of the songs could even be termed tuneful, let alone memorable.

It took me awhile to post a review here, but within a recap of my London/Paris trip, I gave it @@ out of 5. I called it "pretty darn awful," but didn't waste a lot of space ragging on it. Especially as much of what made it subpar was in its tone, and thus difficult to expound upon. I also didn't expect many Americans to have a chance to see it anytime soon; though in theory the Hollywood-to-Broadway (via London) transfer seemed a natural, the show itself just seemed too slight to survive the New York press.

So when I noted shortly thereafter that Ghost the Musical would open on Broadway in April, I was rather shocked. Yes, popular movies turned into musicals have long sold tickets on name alone, but usually it takes their being rather good to really have legs (and thus recoup the investment): The Producers and Hairspray being prime examples, High Fidelity and 9-to-5 the opposite and Young Frankenstein and Shrek having fairly good but not fantastic runs despite mediocre reviews.

While the creative team of Ghost may have been pleased with the box office take in London, the lukewarm press had to be concerning.

The leads in London, Caissie Levy (Molly) and Richard Fleeshman (Sam)--who have reprised their roles on Broadway--were attractive and not completely unappealing, and noting above the trickle-down economics of a Broadway show, I wish the enterprise well. But I'm not eagerly anticipating the day, about three years from now, when Ghost shows up on my Broadway in Chicago subscription series.

And thus, when I awoke this morning and saw reviews that said things such as:
"[Ghost] may not be the very worst musical ever made from a movie. ... But it is just as flavorless and lacking in dramatic vitality as many that have come before."
-- Charles Isherwood, New York Times

"This musical suffers from a jerky tone and by putting a premium on high-tech over heart."
-- Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News
"The turgid score doesn’t boast a single decent hook."
-- Elizabeth Vincentelli, New York Post

"There is so much wrong with "Ghost," it's hard to know where to start."
-- Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune
...well, I can't say that I was surprised.

Still, box office receipts for Ghost on Broadway have looked solid during its preview weeks--although anyone so inclined in or heading to NYC should be able to find discounts at the TKTS booth or ahead of time through Broadway Box--so perhaps it will have a long and spirited run, after all.

Friday, April 20, 2012

"Don't Forget the Motor City" -- Detroit Offers Surprisingly Abundant Tourist Appeal (and not just in the suburbs)

All photos by Seth Arkin except where noted;
please do not use without attribution
It isn't hard for me to imagine the following conversation, with a man saying to his wife (let's assume they have kids and live in the Chicago area, but he could just as soon be saying this to any significant other or friend, anywhere):

"I think we should plan a weekend road trip, with maybe 3 or 4 days of sightseeing." 

"Alright, where are you thinking?"

"Somewhere with big city entertainment and restaurants, but also world-class museums, including a completely unique one about American history and ingenuity, as well as an outstanding art museum that does a tremendous job in making its art understandable.

It also has a museum dedicated to some of the best, most important pop music ever created, a highly acclaimed Holocaust museum, a number of historic homes open for tours and a zoo AAA calls one of the country's most modern.

"We could also tour a working truckmaking factory and/or see one of the very first auto plants ever created. Of course, I'm going to want to go to a ballgame, as they have a great team in a great stadium. It might also be fun to check out--or even stay in--one of their sparkling new casino hotels, right in the downtown area. And if we want, we can cross the border into Canada in just minutes."

"It certainly sounds like there'd be plenty to do and see; where is this place?"


(After a roll of the eyes) "Yeah, right. I don't think so."

If there is a more maligned city in the United States than Detroit, I don't know what it is. Although Wikipedia says that Metropolitan Detroit attracts nearly 16 million visitors annually, other than myself, area natives and people heading there for a specific sporting event, I can't recall ever hearing of someone saying that they were going to Detroit for a leisure trip.

It seems to me that any mention of going to Detroit, even for business, is usually met with laughter and/or a look of pity.

But having just gone there last week for a Bruce Springsteen concert--it was held at the Palace of Auburn Hills, way up in the suburbs, but I spent considerable time in the downtown area--I can honestly say, without being facetious, that I really like Detroit.

Certainly, the Motor City has been hard hit economically, largely a consequence of changes and downturns in the automotive industry. Though on this visit, things looked a little healthier along Woodward Ave. in the heart of downtown, there is still a distressing amount of empty, rundown storefronts. And like many places ravaged by economic struggles, the crime rate in Detroit remains higher than anyone would want it to be.

Yet there are many highly enticing reasons for tourists to visit greater Detroit--including the heart of the city, though several attractions are in the leafier suburbs--and having been there now on several occasions, I have never felt the slightest concern for my personal safety, or no more so than in many other cities with better P.R. (Which isn't to suggest one shouldn't be wary of their surroundings, but that's true anywhere, and going to the places I cite below shouldn't bring any problems.)

So although I have been planning to write a post highlighting several of the great reasons to visit Chicago--my hometown--I am compelled to spread a few good words about Detroit. Despite poignant city pride commercials by Chrysler during the last two Super Bowls (2011, 2012), Kid Rock's tireless efforts to support & champion his hometown (with songs like "Times Like These") and sure signs that things are improving, Detroit still seems to be a national punchline or synonym for "urban blight."

But it doesn't deserve to be and I encourage anyone with the time to check it out. What could be a more apt road trip destination than Motown...and a few more tourism dollars certainly couldn't hurt.

Similar to how I structured travel pieces on London and Washington, DC, the attractions below are listed in recommendation order. However, especially as I'm including some places I haven't personally visited, and others not too recently, take the rankings with a grain of salt.

Although downtown Detroit features an above ground People Mover, and the area has an extensive bus system covering both the city and suburbs, given the extent to which prime attractions are spread throughout the metro area--even all the way to Ann Arbor about 45 miles west--Detroit is, fittingly, best explored with the benefit of an automobile.

1. The Henry Ford (and Greenfield Village), Dearborn - This is my favorite non-art museum in the world--I ranked it as such here--and certainly among the most unique. The attraction consists of indoor and outdoor components; each can toured separately but a combo ticket is the best value.

The indoor museum--whose entrance replicates Philadelphia's Independence Hall--features collected treasures of American history and ingenuity such as the chair in which Lincoln was shot, the bus in which Rosa Parks refused to move to the back, several presidential limousines and a Dymaxion "house of the future" designed by R. Buckminster Fuller. Through September 30, 2012, Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition is a special exhibit requiring extra admission.

The outdoor grounds--known as Greenfield Village--have numerous notable (mostly invention related) structures imported from across the country and beyond, including the Wright Bros. bicycle shop where the first airplane was created, Thomas Edison's laboratory and Henry Ford's birthplace (the museum is near Ford's current headquarters in Dearborn).  The Henry Ford website

(Note that the Ford Rouge Factory Tour, which I recommend, departs from the Henry Ford, but I list it as a separate attraction below. The Automotive Hall of Fame is next door but not part of the Henry Ford attraction.)

2. Detroit Institute of Arts - I say this as someone who has visited well over 100 art museums around the world: I have never been to a museum that does a better job of making its art accessible. This isn't to say that the DIA collection is the very best, although it is superlative in several genres and includes one of the best Van Goghs I've ever seen. But along with wall cards offering concise yet informative text about each painting, the museum accompanies a number of works with highly enlightening displays, such as the one at right that helps one better understand the abstract painting by Kandinsky.

The roomful of Diego Riviera murals (largely depicting the auto industry) is sublime, as is the beautiful Kresge Court snack area. Especially as the museum recently underwent a major renovation, the $8 admission is a real bargain. (Art Institute of Chicago members--at certain levels--enjoy reciprocal entry privileges.) DIA website

3. Comerica Park / Detroit Tigers - Opened in 2000, the home of the Tigers--who appear to be quite good in 2012--is an entirely comfortable place to watch a game and is, I believe, the only ballpark to feature both a carousel and Ferris wheel on its concourse. There is also a new scoreboard with an even bigger video display than the old one.
Detroit Tigers website

3a. Red Wings, Lions and Pistons
The NHL's Red Wings are hugely popular in Detroit and often even better than they were this season (they just got knocked out of the playoffs); they play at the Joe Louis Arena downtown. The NFL's Lions made the playoffs last season for the first time in years and play at the domed Ford Field next to Comerica Park. The NBA's Pistons, who have struggled in recent years after enjoying glorious success, play at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

4. Motown Museum - Shown at top, Hitsville USA was the original headquarters and recording studio for Motown Records (and affiliated labels), started in 1959 by Berry Gordy, Jr. Just a few of the legends that recorded here include Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and Marvin Gaye, though one should also value learning about the Funk Brothers, who played on more hit singles than anyone in pop music history. Exhibits rotate at the museum, but tours are informative and the original studio is still intact (though not presently used for recording). Museum website

5. Ford Rouge Factory Tour - A rare chance to see an operating auto plant in action, including assembly of Ford F-150 pickup trucks. Tours depart from The Henry Ford (see #1 above) but admission is separate. Tour website

6. Riverfront / Renaissance Center / Joe Louis Fist Sculpture - Detroit is on the north side of the Detroit River--a strait between Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair--and Windsor, Ontario is on the south side. The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel connects the two countries, but even if you don't choose to drive across the border, the riverfront is worth a look, including a stroll along the Riverwalk.

The Renaissance Center, the second photo above, is Detroit's most gleaming building and the headquarters of GM. It features a hotel, dining, shopping and free tours. Nearby, "The Fist" (officially the Monument to Joe Louis) is just one of several sculptures worth noticing. Riverfront Wikipedia |
GM Renaissance Center Website

7. Holocaust Memorial Center, Farmington Hills - Opened in 1984, this was "America's First Freestanding Holocaust Memorial Center." Having read stellar recommendations, I tried to visit on my recent trip, but found it closed due to Passover. I believe the memorial center also serves as a museum about the Holocaust, and there are two additional museums within the property (which is designed to resemble a concentration camp): the Museum of European Jewish Heritage and the International Institute of the Righteous. Holocaust Memorial website

8. Casinos - I hope they do more to bring tourist dollars into the city than they deplete the cash flow of local residents, but Detroit has three gleaming casino hotels in or around the downtown area, plus a fourth just across the river in Windsor. I have not visited any of the new Detroit hotels since they opened in 2007 but they look nice from the outside, and all offer dining and entertainment in addition to gambling. MGM Grand Detroit | Greektown Casino Hotel | MotorCity Casino Hotel | Caesars Windsor

Photo from Wikipedia
9. Greektown - A vibrant district full of Greek restaurants, shopping and the Greektown Casino Hotel. Greektown website | Wikipedia

10. Belle Isle Park - Belle Isle, an island in the Detroit River, between Detroit and Windsor, will again host Grand Prix auto racing from June 1-3. Year-round highlights include the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum (a historic maritime museum), a variety of buildings and sculptures plus plenty of parkland. Belle Isle Park Wikipedia

11. Windsor - Apart from the novelty of crossing into Canada in just minutes--for which a passport is now required--the highlight of Windsor used to be the casino. With three now in Detroit--which I also didn't go into on my recent trip--I didn't feel much need to head across the border. But there is supposedly a decent nightlife scene, including numerous strip clubs. Also of note is Odette Sculpture Park.
Windsor WikiTravel | Caesars Windsor
12. Fox Theatre / Entertainment - Opened in 1928, the Fox is a highly ornate theater that holds a rather robust slate of concerts in various musical modes. The nearby Fillmore hosts many concerts, as do other venues around town and the suburbs. Broadway in Detroit, a slate of touring musicals, is held at the Fisher Theater. Although its new run at the City Theatre (next to the Fox) hasn't opened yet, I took note of Ernie, a play about legendary Tigers announcer  Ernie Harwell, written by Mitch Albom. Those with more classical tastes may be drawn to the Detroit Opera House and Orchestra Hall. Fox Theatre website | Broadway in Detroit | Michigan Opera Theatre at the Detroit Opera House | Detroit Symphony | Concert Listings on Pollstar |

13. Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History - Named after a physician who founded the museum in 1965, it holds the world's largest permanent exhibit on African American culture. A special exhibit on Nigerian musician Fela Kuti runs through mid-June and an art exhibition on Barack Obama begins in July. Museum website 

14. Historic Homes - The auto barons and other industrialists left behind several lavish mansions, some now open for tours, although the most famous--Fair Lane, the Henry Ford Estate--no longer is. But you can visit Meadow Brook Hall in Rochester, the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores and Cranbrook House and Gardens in Bloomfield Hills. The Whitney, the lavish Detroit home of a lumber baron, is now a restaurant.

15. Detroit Zoo, Royal Oak - AAA cites it as a "Gem" attraction and calls it "one of the most modern zoos in the country." Zoo website

Photo from
16. Model T Automotive Heritage Complex - Ford's Piquette Avenue plant is the birthplace of the Model T and largely unchanged from its 1904 appearance. Various Model T's and other historic cars are on display. Open from April through late-October. Website

17. Downtown Architecture - Downtown Detroit has a number of classic buildings, plus some more recent examples of interesting architecture. With links to their Wikipedia pages, these include the Fisher Building, Guardian Building, Cadillac Place, Cadillac Tower, Renaissance Center, One Detroit Center, Dime Building and Penobscot Building. There are also a number of noteworthy churches, mansions, the Cranbrook complex (listed below), the new casino hotels and a few Frank Lloyd Wright homes in the area. Tiger Stadium, home to the baseball team from 1912-1999 was demolished in 2009, but the actual playing field remains at Michigan Ave. & Trumball St. Architecture of metropolitan Detroit Wikipedia

18. Cranbrook, Bloomfield Hills - Cranbrook is an educational community whose Academy of Art was designed by famed architect Eliel Saarinen. The Saarinen House is part of the Cranbrook Art Museum; the Institute of Science is a natural history museum also open to the public. There is also the tourable Cranbrook House, a lavish manor home surrounded by gardens including many sculptures and fountains. Main Cranbrook website

19. Ann Arbor - 45 miles west of Detroit, Ann Arbor is home to the University of Michigan. The famed Ann Arbor Art Fairs will be held July 18-21, 2012, but year-round one may wish to see the Michigan campus, football stadium, art museum and the historic Michigan Theater. I made a point of stopping at Zingerman's Deli, a local institution since 1982, and am quite glad I did.

20. Walter P. Chrysler Museum, Auburn Hills - Walter P. Chrysler founded the automaker that bears his name in 1925, although origins date back to 1904 with Maxwell Motor Company. This museum on the headquarters campus includes more than 65 antique, custom and concept vehicles interspersed with interactive displays and historical exhibits. Museum website

21. Detroit Public Library - The main branch has stood at 5201 Woodward Avenue--across from the Detroit Institute of Arts--since 1921. The interior features murals, mosaics and painted glass windows, while notable collections include the Ernie Harwell Sports Collection, donated by the longtime (now late) Tigers' announcer. Library website

22. Tourist Restaurants - Those with a passion for hockey, or just sports in general, might want to check out Hockeytown Cafe--on Woodward across from Comerica Park--and/or Cheli's Chili Bar, owned by longtime Red Wing and Blackhawk Chris Chelios in a neat looking building nearby (there's also a location in Dearborn). Given Detroit's rich musical legacy, from Motown to Bob Seger to Eminem and Kid Rock, the Hard Rock Cafe may be well worth a look.

A Local's BBQ Recommendation - A friendly security guard at the art museum, who like many Detroit residents and natives I've met was quite proud of his hometown, spoke very highly of Slows Barbeque on Michigan Avenue a bit west of downtown, saying the BBQ was as good as some he'd had in Texas. I didn't get there, but hopefully next time.

With even its own Thinker, in front of the art museum, Detroit is a lot nicer place to visit than many might imagine. My mom and aunt recently went to Hawaii and I swear I'm much more exuberant about my two days in Detroit than they were about their week in Honolulu.

Not that I would turn down the chance to visit Hawaii, if just for the weather and scenery. But with two of the best museums in the world and several other worthwhile activities, if you've never considered Detroit an appealing place to visit...think again.

(Referencing back to the headline of this post, it seems apt to close with the Motown classic from which it comes, "Dancing in the Street" by Martha and the Vandellas)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What's So Funny (and Difficult) About Peace, Love and Understanding? -- or, Seth Saith: "This Is What I Believe"

How human beings treat one another is a subject I think about pretty much every day.

Lately however, I've been prompted to give even more acute thought to human sociology, from what famous people say publicly to how kids interact in schools to centuries-old international conflicts over about matters of race and religion.

I don't suggest that the recent stimuli I cite below, from news stories to notable anniversaries, are of congruent consequence, nor that all have direct linearity toward the statement that will follow.

But these are some of the factors contributing to me doing a lot of thinking about interpersonal propriety and the lack thereof:

- Ozzie Guillen's comments about Castro and the controversy that ensued (Viewpoint | Viewpoint)
Ashley Judd rebuking criticism of her appearance
(I should note that I still haven't seen any of the purported criticism of her, only stories about it and her response)
- Bully - a documentary about teenage bullying, including some tragic consequences. The movie is worthwhile though could've been better; the subject is one I think about often.
- Campaign trail discourse about gay rights and gay marriage
- A friend's Facebook post denouncing an incident of gay bashing she had witnessed
- Stories of racist tweets concerning The Hunger Games movie
- Bloodshed in Syria and continued debate about Israel and Palestine
- The ever increasing divide between Wall Street and Main Street and how the intent of the Occupy movement--as I understand it--often seems to be wrongly characterized; it's not about material envy or a hatred of capitalism so much as a disdain for criminal corruption, soulless greed and an unfair playing field
- April 15 being the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, a tragedy made worse by classism
- April 15 being the 65th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball's color barrier
- April 29 being the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots - I was living there at the time and remember when Rodney King went on TV and said "Can we all get along?"

Of course, what I'm about to say is always relevant (especially for those who agree with it). It doesn't take topical news or nasty tweets to make it so, though it is never hard to find reminders that the way I feel isn't shared by everyone.

And in a way, that's fine. While I'll never condone blind hatred, I also wouldn't want to live in a world where everyone agrees. Discourse and debate is important. Plus, while compelled to share my feelings derived from some of the topics above, having referenced the Ozzie Guillen situation I should clarify that the statement below is more about human rights and general decency, rather than directly concerning employee rights. While there should be some overlap, I understand that employers cannot always condone all behavior or affirm all freedoms.

I apologize if it sounds highfalutin' or trite or obvious or beyond my reach or already said much better or whatever, but...

This is what I believe:
Every human being, regardless of gender, age, appearance, race, religion (or lack thereof), color, wealth, political beliefs, sexual orientation, physical capacity, mental prowess, national origin, place of residence, social standing, language spoken or manner of dress, is equally entitled to live free of harm, harassment, fear, insult, indignity, hunger and discrimination while enjoying peace, liberty, comfort, courtesy, respect, privacy, opportunity, freedom of expression and the pursuit of happiness so long as they do not actively deny others this right.
Rules to live by:  
1) Feel proud but not superior 
2) Treat everyone with grace, dignity and kindness 
3) As said Gandhi: "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Show A Little Faith, There's Magic in the Night - Concert Review: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Detroit / Auburn Hills

Photo Credit: Mike Itchue, MLive Media Group
Concert Review

Bruce Springsteen
and the E Street Band
The Palace of Auburn Hills
in the suburbs of Detroit, MI
April 12, 2012

Some people have religion.

Some people have psychiatry.

Some people have controlled substances.

I have Bruce Springsteen.

Not that things are so bad in my life, although I have been frustrated by being unable to find work of late and chagrined by the ongoing chicanery in the world.

And not that I ever need a reason to see Springsteen in concert, especially when he tours with his erstwhile E Street Band. For those maintaining the tote board, this was my 39th Bruce show, the 33rd with the E Street Band.

But in case you were wondering why I opted to take a Thunder Road Trip up to the Detroit area to see him, well, the simple answer is that he isn't playing Chicago on the spring leg of his Wrecking Ball tour, although a September 7 date at Wrigley Field was just announced. But more metaphysically, to paraphrase The Cars (apt for the Motor City, though they're not from there), a blow-my-mind, restore-faith-in-mankind show by Bruce Springsteen was just what I needed.

And the Boss delivered. 

This isn't a surprise, nor should it be given my longstanding devotion. While all the culture and entertainment I often write about here offers emotional nourishment along with much else, and there are many great rock 'n roll artists that I truly love--I've seen well over 200 different acts in concert, more than 50 of them at least three times--I say this with no degree of whimsy:
As a performer, there is Bruce Springsteen and there is everyone else. 
Particularly in his full band shows with E Street, he is that good. With great regard for artists as cherished as Paul McCartney, U2 and Pearl Jam--all of whom delivered @@@@@ shows last year--no one else is close.

Photo Credit: John T. Greilick, The Detroit News
And with a magnificent 3-hour, non-stop show at the Palace of Auburn Hills on Thursday, he proved it all night (though the song that line references isn't one of the 26 he played).

Bringing his legendary band onstage to the recorded strains of Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street," he began with an Apollo Theatresque self-introduction--tongue firmly in cheek--as he copped to being the only performer in the world "who insists on introducing himself."

The band then kicked into "We Take Care of Our Own," a strident rebuke of democracy inaction from his excellent new Wrecking Ball album. Although Palace security was particularly vigilant about not letting patrons bring in cameras--I had to bring mine back to my car--they didn't stop everyone nor ban cell phones, so I found this clip of the intro and first song on YouTube. Shot from behind the stage, it gives a pretty cool perspective.

One of the first things I noticed was what was missing: Clarence.

I never before had witnessed an E Street Band show without Bruce's longtime saxophonist and main onstage foil, Clarence "Big Man" Clemons, who passed away last June after suffering a stroke. So without meaning to imply a similar gravity, seeing the band on-stage without his sizable presence was a bit like the first time I saw the Manhattan skyline without the Twin Towers.

Yet despite the vastness of the void in myriad ways--Clemons will forever be an intrinsic part of Springsteen's legend, lore and iconography--musically things were in good stead, as Clarence's nephew Jake Clemons is along on this tour and covers most of his uncle's sax solos with no apparent deficiency. Smartly, rather than position Jake stage right, acutely in Clarence's shadow, Bruce has Jake stationed on a riser in the back along with four additional horn players (there are also two backup singers and a second percussionist; even with Bruce's wife Patti Scialfa absent from the Detroit show, there were up to 17 people on-stage at a time).

Photo Credit: Mike Itchue, MLive Media Group
In taking his solos Jake stepped up into the spotlight, sometimes all the way to the front of the stage. On his first big solo, during "Badlands," I felt chills. Clarence is gone, but his shoes are well-filled, from within the family.

As for Bruce himself, although I initially saw him in 1984 on the Born In The USA tour, most of my shows have come since he reunited the E Street Band in 1999. Yet while he's now 62 years old, he doesn't seem any worse for wear.

His voice is still quite robust and his stamina and showmanship remain amazing. Though he's not the dervish he was on the legendary '78 tour, anyone wondering if it's too late to see the Boss at his best--or at least a highly acceptable approximation--shouldn't be disappointed.

But it's not just his showmanship, musicianship, endurance or plethora of sensational songs (including always several worthy new ones) that make Bruce Springsteen the best concert performer my world has ever known. I realize the believers already know this and cynics won't care, but along with the music and length of the shows, three things set Springsteen concerts apart:
  1. Bruce structures his shows to have a narrative arc. Reflecting the latest album's impassioned anger at Wall Street's malfeasance and mass destruction, with new songs like "We Take Care of Our Own," "Wrecking Ball," and "Death To My Hometown" coming early in the set, Springsteen was clearly aiming his wrecking ball at the Palace walls (in this case, literally). And in pairing "Jack of All Trades," a new song about just trying to survive, with "Trapped," his classic Jimmy Cliff cover about battling oppression, he maintained a palpable thread of social injustice. But along with chronicling societal hardships, Bruce's songs also champion hope on a personal level, and singing along with "Badlands," "The Promised Land," "Land of Hope and Dreams," "Waiting on a Sunny Day" and "Born to Run" helps to explain why the Boss is also my de facto therapist. 

  2. No two Springsteen shows are alike. Although every tour has a basic setlist structure--you can see the full Auburn Hills set on makes a point of ensuring each city, and each night's audience, gets its own unique show. That's why I and others like to see so many of them. Of the 26 songs played at Thursday's Detroit area show, just 16 of the same ones were played the next night in Buffalo (no I didn't get to that one).

  3. No one else has Bruce's exuberance. It's not just the length of the shows, nor that he goes into the audience and crowd surfs back to the stage, but from the great smile plastered on his face to the way he interacts with his bandmates to his banter with the crowd, its eminently clear how much he loves what he does. 
Thus, so do I. And though I could say this about at least a dozen shows, his performance in Auburn Hills was one of the best I've seen.

Springsteen paid touching tribute to both Clemons and late keyboardist Danny Federici; "if you're here and we're here, then they're here."

He and the band played amazing versions of rare old classics like "The E Street Shuffle," "Candy's Room," "Because the Night" and for the first time this tour, "Incident on 57th Street" (video below).

Photo Credit: Jarrad Henderson, Detroit Free Press
And although he's been including an "Apollo Medley" ever since his tour warmup gig at the legendary theater in  Harlem, two Motown songs -- "The Way You Do The Things You Do" and "634-5789" -- plus a nice spoken intro went over especially well in the suburbs of Detroit (the Palace of Auburn Hills is about 30 miles north of downtown).

Bruce danced with two young girls from the audience during "Dancing in the Dark," brought a boy onstage to help him sing "Waiting on a Sunny Day" and ended a 6-song encore that included "Thunder Road," "Out in the Street" and "Born to Run," with "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out."

At the part after he sings, "...a change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band," the band stopped playing, a spotlight shone on Clemons' steadfast stage-right spot, a video screen showed some great Clarence moments and the crowd cheered and cheered.

I still haven't stopped.

The only things that could have made this show any better would have been if Bruce opted to play "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)"--sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn't--and if he had brought his longtime friend and Detroit area legend Bob Seger on-stage to sing a song with him. I don't know if Seger was at the show or even in town, but he had brought Bruce up to duet on "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll" when Bob played New York's Madison Square Garden in December, so the possibility didn't seem that remote.

But that might have been a bit too unbelievable. And along with all else Bruce does for me, it's nice to have something I can still believe in.

This is a pretty cool video. After Bruce finishes crowd surfing to the stage at the end of "634-5789" he honors a sign's request to play "Incident on 57th Street." The video was shot by the father of the guy whose sign it was and provides a rather amazing vantage point.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Oh, What A Night: 'Jersey Boys' Still In Perfect Harmony -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Jersey Boys
Bank of America Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 3, 2012

Jersey Boys, the jukebox musical that tells the story of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, opened on Broadway in the fall of 2005. It went on to win the Tony Award, is still running quite successfully in New York--last week it played to over 90% capacity--and proved its appeal stretched throughout another tri-state area when it ran in Chicago from October 2007 to January 2010.

I saw it twice during that long Chicago stay and liked it very much. More so even, odd as it may sound, than the band the show is about.

Not that I don't like the Four Seasons; they had a number of true pop gems that provide the intrinsic appeal of Jersey Boys, but I rarely opt to listen to them outside of the show.

I wonder in a way if that's part of the secret of satisfying jukebox musicals (i.e. those using existing songs, often of a singular artist). I've found Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia eminently enjoyable, well-beyond any pre-existing reverence for the Four Seasons or ABBA. But even if they hadn't flopped on Broadway, I don't think I'd want to see shows like Lennon and Ring of Fire for fear they'd undermine my vast affinity for John Lennon and Johnny Cash. And though other factors were involved besides just the music, it might surprise some--including myself--that just this year I've liked Fela! far more than Green Day's American Idiot.

Anyway, the Jersey Boys are back in town--at the Bank of America (née Shubert) Theatre, the same venue the show played previously. But with another show booked from June 12, this time faux-Frankie and friends presumably won't be sticking around for years on end. Still, even a 9-week run is pretty impressive, though it helps that Broadway in Chicago included the show in its subscriber package for the second time in five years.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
But in being given the chance to once again see a superb touring production (with a different cast) of a superlative show for just $10--as part of my bargain Balcony Club subscription--I'm not complaining.

Especially given that just 3 years since the last time I saw it, I was struck by how fresh Jersey Boys felt.

Perhaps that says more about my eroding memory than the show itself, but this really is a first-rate piece of entertainment that holds up well to repeat engagements.

While I don't often think to play the many hits of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons--and honestly don't often think of them in the same vein as the Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Creedence, Cream or even the Beach Boys, Supremes, Hollies, Mamas & Papas, etc., as a defining group of the '60s--Jersey Boys certainly serves to remind that this is an oversight on my part.

Although the songs don't come as much of a surprise (particularly on my third viewing), the opening strains of any of the mega-hits--"Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," "December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night)," "Big Man in Town," "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You," "Rag Doll" and "Who Loves You?" just to name a few--always bring an anticipatory smile of excitement.

But what makes Jersey Boys a wonderful musical and not just a collection of great songs is its truly masterful book crafted by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, with direction by Des McAnuff.

I've always held this show in high regard--from hearing of its Broadway bow to rave reviews, to watching a production number on the Tony's, to seeing it in Chicago in 2007 and 2009--but there has also been something of an asterisk in my mind.

"Jersey Boys is great...for a jukebox musical," I've thought, "but even though it's wonderfully entertaining, because of the ready-made songs, it's not a work of artistic brilliance on par with The Producers, Avenue Q, Hairspray or Wicked" to name a few shows that topped my list of Favorite Musicals of the '00s, where I bestowed this one with Honorable Mention.

I still wouldn't leapfrog Jersey Boys to the top of that list, but it belongs in the Top 10 and I now realize that any mental asterisk is absurd. Especially after many lesser jukebox musicals have amplified that this is not only the best biographical rock musical yet created, but also works surprisingly well as a resonant piece of narrative theater.

Maybe, although specific comparisons fail me, the current Chicago cast is particularly stellar--Joseph Leo Bwarie is especially amazing as Frankie Valli, hitting the falsettos about as well as one could imagine--but I think the shortcomings of similar-type shows have helped me appreciate just how good the source material is here, well beyond the cascade of catchy songs.

I now more acutely recognize that in telling the story of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, Jersey Boys--like any good work of drama, whether fiction or non--tells a much more universal tale. Sure, just at face value, the biography of Valli, Tommy DeVito, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi would also serve a compelling Behind the Music episode, and the smart, funny script quite compellingly gives each of the four 'Seasons' their turn to narrate personal, shared and at times divisive recollections.

But even if one doesn't much care about this particular band hailing from Belleville, NJ, more than many other works of stage and screen I've seen, Jersey Boys emotionally engages as a story of friendship, of a time and place gone by, of struggle and triumph, of love, loyalty and loss, of the creative process and of much, much more.

If you've seen Jersey Boys before and liked it enough to see it again, the production and cast in Chicago is every bit as good as you'd hope (Preston Truman Boyd, John Gardiner and Michael Lomenda star alongside the aformentioned Bwarie).

And if you've never seen this show, but love well-written story-based Broadway musicals and/or the jukebox variety featuring glorious pop harmonies--like a friend who just saw it for the first time and is already planning a return visit with others--you won't want to miss it.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Relative Brilliance: With Six Straight Gems, Belgium's Dardenne Brothers Stand Among the World's Best Movie Directors

Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Quite a number of movies in recent years--including some of the most successful and/or acclaimed-- have been created by brothers working in tandem, as writer & director and/or co-directors.

Joel and Ethan Coen are responsible for No Country for Old Men, O Brother Where Art Thou, Fargo, A Serious Man, The Big Lebowski and a number of other notable films.

Many likely know that Christopher Nolan directed The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Memento and the forthcoming The Dark Knight Rises, but were you aware that that his brother Jonathan co-wrote them?

The Wachowski Brothers, Andy and Larry, made the Matrix trilogy, V for Vendetta and other films, though seem to no longer technically be brothers as Larry has become Lana. Their upcoming film, Cloud Atlas, is based on a novel my friend Dave really loves.

Check IMDB and you may be surprised by how many familiar movies have been made by the brothers Hughes, Farelly, Weitz, Zucker and Duplass. The Maysles have long been master documentarians and though Ridley and Tony Scott have only directed individually, they have produced films and TV shows in tandem. I was also referenced to the Polish brothers and Taviani brothers, and should mention the Ephron sisters, who have collaborated on You've Got Mail, Michael, Bewitched and more.

Over the last few years--thanks largely to recommendations from Dave, an even more fervid film buff--I've come to know the wonderful work of the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc.

The Dardennes are Belgian and make their films in French. According to IMDB, they have been making documentaries, shorts and narrative movies, together, dating back to 1978. But common consensus seems to cite 1996's La Promesse as their first feature film to garner international attention and acclaim.

Their latest movie is The Kid With A Bike, which is still playing at select theaters in the U.S. 

I saw it recently and very much enjoyed it, as I have all six of their films since La Promesse. Though I only caught wind of the Dardennes' long stellar work in recent years, I've had no trouble seeing all their movies thanks to the excellent World Cinema collection of the Skokie Public Library. Hopefully your local library is comparable, but I've noticed that The Son--my favorite Dardenne Bros. film to date--is on Netflix instant streaming, with Lorna's Silence available as a DVD selection. 

There are certainly similarities that run through the Dardennes' string of six superlative pictures--most revolve around troubled kids and/or low-grade criminals on society's outskirts; some of the same actors have roles in several films--but each stands entirely on its own, so don't feel you need to see them in order of release.

With the possible exception of Ramin Bahrani, no one in recent times has made such richly insightful films about basic humanity; thus the Dardennes' films should be readily understandable--on the surface and  considerably deeper--to any viewers who aren't afraid of subtitles (or are fluent in French).

These are not overly obtuse or abstract "foreign" films. In fact, the look of the movies--and often their storylines--can appear deceptively simple, akin to something a gifted film student might make with a handheld camera. But there is usually no soundtrack music and even a sparsity of sound other than dialogue, which itself is frequently taciturn in favor of unspoken expressiveness. Adding to the naturalism of their films, the Dardennes--who co-produce, write and direct each picture--frequently use only available light.

So if the movies you enjoy must be loud and flashy, with tons of special effects and big explosions, the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne will likely be off-putting, perhaps even boring. You actually have to pay attention for 90 minutes or so without much in the way of diversionary commotion. And don't expect typical Hollywood endings or formulaic feel-good narrative choices transparently determined by test screenings.

But if you can appreciate intimate stories of personal discovery that suggest universal truths about the human condition--not so unlike those found within great novels and plays--you're likely to walk out of the theater (or eject the DVD, close the browser, etc.) with more to think about than many films leave you with.

Yet while these aren't stuffy films by any means, because they're so different from what Hollywood or even independent American directors typically feed us, they might initially be a bit challenging to ingest. But that's OK; some of the best things in life--and art--can take a little time and effort to appreciate, especially if much of their merit comes from unconventionality.

While I would rate all six of these Dardenne movies at least @@@@ on the Seth Saith @@@@@ scale, The Son is the only one that I'd give a perfect score. Yet almost all of them have earned international plaudits and awards that go well beyond my estimable regard. Although I have watched or re-watched each of these movies within the past two weeks, it's not improbable that I would see even greater eloquence upon further exploration and perhaps better acclimation.

But if, like me, you value learning about (often lesser-known) artists who are doing great things in their field of endeavor, you'll be richer for having Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne on your radar. And other screens.

In production order, below are the six très bien films the Dardenne brothers have made since 1996--which have made them among the finest movie directors in the world. Especially as I prefer to let almost all plot points come as a surprise, I won't say much about the stories themselves, which often serve to address larger themes. The awards I cite aren't meant to be comprehensive, so consider this just a basic overview.

  • La Promesse (1996, English: The Promise, but seemingly never officially titled as such) - A teenage boy trapped in his father's criminal world involving the transporting of immigrants is faced with significant decisions of loyalty and integrity after a troubling incident. Among other accolades, La Promesse was named the Best Foreign Language Film by the National Society of Film Critics in the U.S. My rating: @@@@

  • Rosetta (1999) - The title character is a 17-year-old girl living in a trailer park with her alcoholic mother. She battles internal and external turbulence as she tries to find and keep a job she hopes can lift her above her circumstances. Rosetta won the Palme d'Or (the highest prize) at the Cannes Film Festival, where first-time actress Émilie Dequenne was named Best Actress. My rating: @@@@

  • The Son (2002, French: Le Fils) - A man named Olivier (played by Olivier Gourmet, who's in several of these films and won Best Actor at Cannes for his role in this one) teaches woodworking at a training center. His newest student is a teenage boy recently released from prison for having killed Olivier's son. Roger Ebert ranked The Son #7 on his list of Best Films of the Decade. My rating: @@@@@

  • The Child (2005, French: L'Enfant) - A young street thief and his girlfriend have a baby; he sees the child as a moneymaking opportunity and makes some decisions that aren't mutually agreed upon. The Child was the second Dardenne brothers film to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes. My rating: @@@@1/2

  • Lorna's Silence (2008, French: Le silence de Lorna) - Lorna is a young Albanian living in Belgium. Having arranged a fake marriage for Lorna so that she may obtain her citizenship, a local thug named Fabio is intent on bringing the marriage--to a hardcore drug addict--to a quick end so that he can marry Lorna off to another client. But things get complicated when Lorna comes to care for her husband more than she is supposed to. Lorna's Silence won Best Screenplay at Cannes. My rating: @@@@1/2

  • The Kid with a Bike (2011, now in U.S. theaters, French: Le gamin au vélo) - A young boy resists living in a foster care facility after being abandoned by his father, but encounters a woman who may be willing to care for him if he can avoid getting in his own way. The Kid with a Bike won the Grand Prix (the second most prestigious award) at Cannes. My rating: @@@@1/2