Sunday, June 24, 2012

Dinosaur Jr. Reminds Me Why I'm Glad They're Not Yet Extinct (and that J Mascis remains one of the greatest guitarists ever) -- Concert Review

Concert Review

Dinosaur Jr.
Green Music Fest, Chicago
June 23, 2012

At this stage of my concertgoing existence, I don't like--or more accurately, my legs and back can't tolerate--festivals and/or shows where I have no choice but to stand for the duration.

So the fact that I went down to Bucktown on Saturday night for the Green Music Fest along Damen Ave.,  just to see Dinosaur Jr., should provide ample indication of how much I like them.

Mind you, it was a relatively low-key festival and Dino Jr. played just 90 minutes, but my physical discomfort was enough to feel grateful that the band's roaring set was good enough to be worth my effort in catching it.

Refer to Wikipedia and for a fuller history and background of Dinosaur Jr., but my familiarity with them dates back to 1991. Living in the San Fernando Valley at the time, perhaps I'd heard their song "The Wagon" on "world famous" KROQ, but I think I was rather uninitiated when I saw their Green Mind album at Tower Records in Sherman Oaks, CA.

I can't recall if I heard a sample or was just intrigued by the cover art, but amidst the glorious year of Nirvana's Nevermind, Pearl Jam's Ten, R.E.M.'s Out of Time, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik, U2's Actung Baby and other now legendary releases, Green Mind quickly became one of my favorite albums.

Then, as now, Dinosaur Jr. is led by J Mascis, the guy on the left in the photos above and below. I reverently describe him as a guy that looks like he spent years living in a basement, crawled out into the light, strapped on a guitar and--imaginably with Matrix-like expertise implants--plays with godlike abilities that blend Eddie Van Halen with Neil Young.

I don't say this lightly, as I admire a wide range of six-string geniuses and have seen many of them live -- Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Eddie Van Halen, Buddy Guy, Tom Morello, Kirk Hammett, Carlos Santana, Joe Walsh, Trey Anastasio, Mike McCready, George Lynch and many more -- but there is no one whose solos sing to me more than Mascis. His speed can rival anyone's, but I also cherish the feeling he evokes.

Originally, starting in Amherst, Massachusetts in the mid-'80s--by the way, having seen Aerosmith, my favorite band from Boston, on Friday, it dawned on me that with due respect to The Cars, Pixies, J. Geils, Boston, Mission of Burma and others, and with some geographical liberties, I was seeing my second favorite "Boston band" the following night--Dinosaur Jr. was Mascis, bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph.

Though they experienced a fair amount of indie success before I heard of them, by the time of Green Mind--their major label debut--Mascis would kick Barlow out of the band, and Murph would subsequently leave as well.

Mascis continued on as Dinosaur Jr. with assorted bandmates until 1997 and I generally prefer the '90s material to the earlier stuff. But with the original trio having reformed in 2005, the reunion shows I'd previously seen were, understandably, heavy on songs created by Mascis, Barlow and Murph.

Which is my typically longwinded way of explaining that I really liked their gig at Green Music Fest--which requested just a $5 entry fee!--because along with earlier album songs like "Little Fury Things," "Freak Scene" and their cover of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven," they also played a few of my later-era favorites, such as "The Wagon," "Out There," "Feel The Pain" and "Thumb" (though not the aptly titled "Green Mind").

And with whatever acoustic sacrifices to be ceded for standing amidst a sweaty throng, they sounded damn good to me. Macsis' laconic drawl has always held a certain appeal, but as his vocal gifts would never be mistaken for Roger Daltrey's, any deficiencies his singing has suffered as his hair has grayed are largely insubstantial.

And as a guitarist, he's still astonishing. If only I had a bit more room around me, I would've been in air guitar heaven.

As it was, 90 minutes of what could've been hell was made a whole lot happier due to one of my favorite--if always somewhat under the radar--bands delivering a ferocious set of thunderous songs and blistering guitar solos. And for only $5 at that.

Here's hoping Dinosaur Jr.--whose new album, I Bet on Sky, drops September 18--has several more great years in them before they go the way of their namesakes.

Here's a clip of "Out There" from last night that someone posted on YouTube, followed by a Spotify playlist of some of my favorite Dinosaur Jr. songs:

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Joys in the Static: Aerosmith and Cheap Trick Deliver Classic Arena Rock Enjoyment -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

with Cheap Trick
United Center, Chicago
June 22, 2012
(overall rating, but also for each band)

Unlike presumably some of those who robustly filled the United Center on Friday night, I can honestly say that Steven Tyler being on American Idol had absolutely no bearing on my attendance.

For I have been a fan of both Aerosmith and Cheap Trick since the age of 10, if not a trifle earlier. If there are any two records I purchased prior to Live Bootleg, by the former, and At Budokan, by the latter, I do not recall them.

Thus, there are no two still-active rock artists for whom I've had a more enduring fandom (unless you count The Rolling Stones as active and allow Paul McCartney to represent The Beatles).

But with that said, opting to go to last night's double bill wasn't as obvious as it may seem. I've seen Cheap Trick several times, and while I will never tire of hearing their classics, as the opening act their influence on my decision to attend was substantive, but secondary.

And my desire to see Aerosmith was largely fueled by having been disappointed the two prior times I'd attended a concert of theirs. The first time, after years of their being high on my list of "favorite rock bands I've never seen live," was in 2004--with Cheap Trick as the opener--and for that I had to drive up to Green Bay. The bands were good, if not fantastic, but I was made rather uncomfortable by rude interactions with obnoxiously drunk cheeseheads (male and female) throughout the show.

And in August 2010, I with some friends got $10 lawn seats to see Aerosmith at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park. Again, the music itself was enjoyable enough, but the sound was utterly atrocious, as I wrote about in my review. Plus, at the time, the band was in particularly intense turmoil, with Joe Perry having recently pushed Steven Tyler off a stage, and even from the lawn it looked like no one was interacting nor having much fun onstage.

That whole introduction serves to basically explain that I went to the UC last night in hopes of finally catching a first-rate Aerosmith show, and because I love Cheap Trick as well.

As Aerosmith sings in their earliest hit, "Dream On," from 1973, "dream until your dreams come true." Fortunately--in terms of getting an Aerosmith/Cheap Trick arena rock show as good as I hoped--they pretty much did.

Waiting until just this week to buy my ticket, through Ticketmaster, I got about the best cheap seat imaginable; 3rd row of the 3rd deck, straight away.

From there, except for through my binoculars, the members of both bands didn't look over 60--as most of them are, or close to it--and they sure didn't sound it.

Going on promptly at 8:00pm, before the house was full but with a number of fans--myself included--adorned in Cheap Trick t-shirts, the Rockford quartet played a terrific hourlong set.

Longtime drummer Bun E. Carlos no longer tours with the band, replaced by guitarist Rick Nielsen's son, Daxx, but with singer Robin Zander still sounding great, Cheap Trick delivered as-good-as-ever renditions of "Ain't That A Shame," "Surrender," "I Want You To Want Me," "Dream Police" and several other great oldies (see their full setlist on

As a CT fan to the extent I am, I certainly could say I wish they'd played this or that, but I was actually surprised Aerosmith allotted them a full hour and for an opening set, it couldn't have been any more satisfying.

Aerosmith opened their set in pretty cool fashion--as you can see in this video from a recent show--with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry rising up together through a lift at the end of a catwalk as the band ripped into "Draw the Line."

Perhaps it was just for show, but within the first five minutes, Steve & Joe seemed more amicable with each other than during the entirety of their 2010 gig. (Perhaps that's why Aerosmith has dubbed this "The Global Warming Tour.")

The rest of the original band--guitarist Brad Whitford, bassist Tom Hamilton and drummer Joey Kramer--also seemed engaged and in sync. And while the United Center can be acoustically-challenged at times, everything sounded good enough for me, eons better than at the shed in Tinley.

Having become an Aerosmith fan in the late '70s, I still prefer their output from that decade to anything that came after (the same can be said for Cheap Trick as well).

So I was happy to hear powerful renditions of "Draw the Line," "Last Child," "Mama Kin," "Sweet Emotion," "Walk This Way" and "Train Kept a Rollin.'" I certainly would have also preferred to hear "Toys in the Attic" and/or "Back in the Saddle" instead of schmaltzy '90s ballads "Crying," "What It Takes" and "I Don't Want to Miss A Thing," but I get that Aerosmith expanded its fan base with that stuff and has to play it. If anything, the crowd seemed more revved up about the '80s and '90s tunes than most of the ones I loved from the '70s.

To their credit, Aerosmith played at least a couple new songs that fit in well, as well as a few older songs and/or covers that I didn't know, but sounded good (see Aerosmith's Chicago setlist on I could have stood for Kramer's drum solo to be a bit shorter, but as Tyler noted and the crowd saluted, it was the drummer's birthday.

With his voice still solid at 64, Tyler remains one of rock's best frontmen and now that he's seemingly playing nice with his bandmates, it's possible that Aerosmith is better they've been for years, and conceivably just as good if not better than they ever will be again .

Especially with Cheap Trick to open the evening, I'm glad I got another chance to catch them. And for anyone who rues missing them, the same double bill will appear at Milwaukee's Summerfest on July 7.

"Dream On" from the United Center, as found on YouTube:

Friday, June 22, 2012

'Oceania' Doesn't Quite Bore Me Out of My Gourd, But It's Not Truly 'Smashing' Pumpkins

Album Review

The Smashing Pumpkins

The other night, when I was listening to Oceania for about the 5th time, still not hearing anything that really jumped out at me, I thought of a song called "Cast a Stone."

This was a song that head Pumpkin Billy Corgan wrote and performed under the auspices of Zwan, but which didn't make it onto that band's lone album in 2003.

Having heard it a couple times live and liked it, but not in over 10 years, when it came to mind I was able to find a version through the magic of YouTube.

I paused Oceania and listened to "Cast a Stone." While I wouldn't say it stands among the very best songs Corgan's ever written, it is, as I remembered, more acutely enjoyable than anything I've heard on Oceania.

In a nutshell, that's the problem with the new album.

It's not that it's bad; Corgan is too talented a songsmith to put out complete dreck. And to be fair, Oceania has been getting some of the best reviews the Pumpkins have ever enjoyed (see a gathering on Metacritic). But as a longtime fan who, unlike most reviewers, won't spend much time dissecting Corgan's often exasperating persona nor lamenting that he's the lone remaining original Pumpkin, I just don't find myself fawning over the album.

For though it's not a terrible listen--and perhaps better swallowed as a whole since there are few hit single type standouts--there just seems to be little here that exceeds, or even matches, much else that Corgan has already done.

Though I can't help but occasionally be turned off by Billy, I am an ardent admirer of his talent. So more than many casual observers, I'm familiar with the breadth of what he's written and recorded. I own pretty much everything he's released; all the official Smashing Pumpkins albums, the internet-released Machina II and Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, the B-sides collections Pieces Iscariot and The Aeroplane Flies High, the Zwan album (Mary, Star of the Sea) and his 2005 solo album.

I've also seen Corgan onstage more times than any artist except Bruce Springsteen; 23 times in all including seven different incarnations of the Smashing Pumpkins.

So I've come to accept that he pretty much is the Smashing Pumpkins and always was, even if I don't think it's necessary for him to incessantly insult his old bandmates in interviews. And while part of my appreciation for the Pumpkins went well beyond their greatest hits--Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was especially strong throughout--much of Corgan's gift has always been in combining roaring guitars with sly hooks.

On Oceania, the hooks are missing.

Opening track "Quasar" rocks a bit like "Siva" (off Gish) or "Cherub Rock" (off Siamese Dream), but without any musical or lyrical twists that really rope you in. And though the songs on Oceania vary in tempo and tonality, the same criticism can pretty much apply to all of them. A few of these would quite well accompany riff & hook laden songs--such as with the "filler" on Siamese Dream, Mellon Collie or Machina--but I can't recall any Corgan album (including the B-sides and rarities collections) so devoid of anything that qualifies, in a good sense, as ear candy.

Many of the reviews intimate that Oceania is easily the best thing Corgan has done since the '90s. But, at least at this juncture--and I've listened enough for the album to feel comfortable, if not yet engaging--I much prefer 2000's Machina and Machina II, the Zwan album and probably even 2007's Zeitgeist.

Devoted Pumpkinheads will probably be adequately reminded of the band they love to sufficiently enjoy Oceania, but there truly isn't a song from it that I would pick to say, "Listen to this, it sounds amazing."

Yet beyond "Cast a Stone" and far beyond "Today" or "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," just in terms of lesser known, 21st century Corgan, I would reference you to "This Time," "Let Me Give The World To You," "Rivers We Can't Cross," "7 Shades of Black" "Lightning Strikes" and many other songs as being more engagingly enjoyable than anything on Oceania.

In interviews, Corgan has called the new disc--intended to be part of a larger Teargarden by Kaleidyscope collection--a "do or die" album, but I tend to believe that regardless of the public acclaim or commercial success it garners, in a couple years he'll be back with another Smashing Pumpkins album that he heralds as the best thing he's done in a long time.

And I'm fairly certain I will buy it.

But in the case of Oceania, I don't feel it's the best thing he's done, even of relatively late. If he still loves what he does, he's still good enough at it to keep doing it--under any name, with any crew--but I suspect he'll not only never reclaim the level of rock stardom he enjoyed in the mid-'90s, but is unlikely to top himself as a rock songwriter.

My advice to Billy at this point would be to team up with a good young playwright and create a Broadway musical with a rock score. Not only has Broadway been going in that direction, but with Corgan's love of dramatically rich music & lyrics and astonishing songwriting proficiency, musical theater would seem to be the natural next step.

Instead of taking another backwards-looking one.

LeBron James and the Heat Win NBA Title, World Doesn't End

The New York Post rubs LeBron's first title in his face.
I'm happy to wake up most mornings, but when I opened my eyes today and confirmed that things were largely as I'd left them last night, I was particularly grateful.

Given the outpouring--and especially the vehemence--of animosity over LeBron James, from friends, on Twitter and as otherwise referenced and reported, I couldn't help but sense that, for some, LBJ winning the NBA crown was akin to the world ending.

Well, if it is the end of world as we know it, I feel fine.

Which isn't to say that I'm happy the Heat won the NBA Championship, defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder in 5 games. Not only am I a Bulls fan who rues that Derrick Rose's injury curbed their chances in such a distressing way, I was rooting for the Thunder and would have preferred any team winning the title over than the Heat.

Although I can't help but admire his talent, I am also not much of a LeBron fan. While I believe the haters are being a bit extreme, I understand--to an extent--why LBJ is so disliked. From "The Decision" to the decision itself (to leave Cleveland and join Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh on the Heat), to perceived instances of arrogance and petulance, to sometimes disappointing play in big games and the seeming truth--at least to date--that while he may be a more gifted athlete than Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, his accomplishments are inarguably worse. One can't say, and even he doesn't, that he's a better player.

But for me, that's it. That's all the vitriol and venom I can work up.

At a time when a college football coach is awaiting his verdict on charges of child rape, which was seemingly condoned by a greed-fueled cover-up, and legions of Wall St. banksters continue to suffer no repercussions for corrupting the financial outlook for everyone but themselves, and corporations continue to own & operate our political system, in which the presidential campaign feels more and more like pro wrestling with its staged bluster, and millions of people in America and around the world remain unemployed or underemployed, of all the things I can be aggrieved about, LeBron James and the Miami Heat winning an NBA title is pretty low on my list.

As I wrote in this piece when LeBron signed with the Heat (I read it again last night; it holds up pretty well today):
For whatever faults LeBron may have, I've yet to hear him referenced in regards to domestic violence, nightclub brawls, DUIs, guns, drugs of the illegal or performance-enhancing variety, gambling or other issues that have plagued many athletes (and everyday citizens) of a much-lower profile.
As far as I know, that all remains true two years later, despite whatever challenges--and widespread hate--he brought upon himself when he relocated his career to Miami.

Certainly I understand that one of the great things about sports is how passionate it lets people get about things that don't really matter. So if you want to root against LeBron or even express that you don't like him, no harm, no foul.

But let's keep things in perspective.

And with a healthy DRose, who knows?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Maxïmo Park's 'The National Health' Feels Darn Good To Me -- Album Review

Album Review

Maxïmo Park
The National Health

Whenever I see a rave review of an album by an artist I've never heard of--or perhaps just never been overly impressed by--I'm intrigued, but also rather skeptical.

Although mainstream popularity, especially in an age of ever more segmented masses, is not necessarily a barometer of quality, I often can't help but think--antiquated as the reasoning may be--"if this is so good, why is it so far under the radar?"

In the case of Maxïmo Park, it also doesn't help that as of this writing, the British band's fourth studio album, The National Health--which came out last week in England and Europe--hasn't officially been released in America. You can't download it through iTunes or Amazon, and to buy the CD through currently entails paying a steep import price of $23.58 (you can get it for a bit less through the marketplace sellers, for roughly what I paid through, where it runs about $17 including shipping to the U.S.).

Especially if you are unfamiliar with Maxïmo Park, I don't blame you for being a bit cynical about the praise I'm bestowing on The National Health. Even in England, where the Newcastle-bred band is somewhat popular but far from mega-stars, the album has received mixed reviews--for every rave one I've seen, there has also been a rather lukewarm notice.

Certainly, there's no guarantee or even expectation that you will enjoy this album as much as I do. While Maxïmo Park's 2005 debut A Certain Trigger remains my favorite album of the '00s, their two subsequent albums--though not terrible by any means--were considerable stepdowns in quality.

The band has not released a new disc since 2009's Quicken the Heart, and with rather little that excites me in terms of new rock 'n roll these days I have very much been looking forward to The National Health, hoping it would represent a return to form. But lest you think this is merely an over-anticipatory and resultingly excessive review, I think I've been rather candid in expressing my relative disappointment in the latest releases by longtime favorites such as Alejandro Escovedo, Garbage, R.E.M. and Radiohead.

Of 16 albums I've rated on this blog over the past few years, I've only given other one--Pictures by the Len Price 3--a full @@@@@. So believe me, I was hesitant to give this one my top rating, for in doing so I don't mean to suggest that it rivals Sgt. Pepper's, Who's Next, Born to Run, etc. in terms of heft and depth.

But in being a thoroughly delightful listen, again and again, I really do think Maxïmo Park's The National Health is that good. There hasn't been an album released in 2012 that I've liked any more.

Produced by Gil Norton, who has notably worked with The Pixies and Foo Fighters among others,
The National Health does offer a bit of commentary on the state of our world, something I often rue as sorely lacking. But I like it much more simply because song after song sounds good--it's guitar-driven rock that's a bit left of straightforward, with strong vocals by Paul Smith--rather than having yet digested any particularly sage or forceful insights about the global financial crisis or its repercussions.

The album's title song opens by suggesting that "England is ill and it is not alone," but the the powerful angularity of Maximo's music speaks to me as much as the lyrics, and "Hips and Lips," "The Undercurrents" and "Write This Down" do not suffer because they deal with interpersonal relationships rather than larger crises.

There really isn't a bad song on The National Health, and several standouts. But realizing that nothing I can say will truly convey why I like the album so much, fortunately I can share the preview below that allows you to hear at least a minute of all of the songs (as well as an audio-only YouTube playlist underneath that has full versions of seven songs, though a couple are live acoustic versions. You can also find all Maxïmo Park albums, including the new one, on Spotify).

So give it a listen--it may take a few to catch on--and see if you like what you hear. I very much do and am happy to know that Maxïmo Park remains, for me, a relatively rarity: a recent rock band very much worth paying attention to. They're booked for a Chicago gig at Lincoln Hall in September and yes, I plan to be there.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Reverent Evening With Al Green At Ravinia -- Concert Review

Concert Review

Al Green
with the Chicago Children's Choir
Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, IL
June 15, 2012

On a picture perfect evening at Ravinia, for less money than some dupes paid to see That's My Boy--the latest Adam Sandler debacle--with a couple refreshments, I heard (and occasionally saw, as I was on the lawn) one of the most legendary living soul singers sing some of the best songs ever written.

It was my first time "seeing" the Reverend Al Green, and although it will doubtfully wind up being among the very best shows I see in 2012, I couldn't have wanted it to be much better.

Although an encore of "Take Me to the River" would've been nice.

But following an enjoyable performance by the Chicago Children's Choir--including a Michael Jackson medley and "Seasons of Love" from Rent--Al Green delivered an engaging 75-minute showcase of his own hits ("Let's Stay Together," "Tired of Being Alone," "I'm Still In Love With You," "Love and Happiness" and others) as well as (often quick) takes on other classics such as "Oh Pretty Woman," "I Can't Help Myself," "My Girl," "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" and "What A Wonderful World It Could Be."

Although at 66, Al no longer looks as lithe as he did on the cover of his 1975 Greatest Hits album--ranked #52 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All-Time" and from which his cover of the Bee Gees' "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" was another Ravinia highlight--Green's voice is still an amazing instrument.

Though my glimpses of stage were fleeting, Green--constantly clutching and/or handing out roses--seems to still very much love what he does. And as evidenced by their grooving together and singing along, those within the large, quite racially-mixed crowd apparently felt likewise.

Along with a solid band, Green was well-augmented by a choir (I assume it was, at least in part, the same Chicago Children's Choir that opened the show), most noticeably on "Let's Stay Together."

Not surprisingly, given how relatively little I know of his vast output, Al sang a few songs I didn't recognize, but pretty much everything sounded good. And while "Take Me to the River" would seemingly have made an ideal encore and show closer, in terms of its quality and sensibility how can I argue with "Love and Happiness" wrapping up a great, and deservedly reverent, night out on Ravinia's green.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Redtwist Provides Commendable Treatment of 'The Cripple of Inishmaan' -- Theater Review

Theater Review

The Cripple of Inishmaan
a play by Martin McDonagh
directed by Kimberly Senior
Redtwist Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 1

Excepting perhaps David Mamet--though more so for his work through 1992--Martin McDonagh is my favorite contemporary playwright.

I have not yet seen his most recent play, A Behanding in Spokane, which received disappointing reviews when it opened on Broadway in 2010, but after taking in a strong rendition of The Cripple of Inishmaan at Chicago's Redtwist Theatre, I have now seen five of McDonagh's stage works--as well as a film, In Bruges, that he wrote and directed--and have very much liked them all.

I'll let Wikipedia supply you with McDonagh's bio--he's an Irishman who grew up in London--and the full chronology of the plays he has had published and produced; of these, other than Behanding, I have only yet to see A Skull in Connemara.

First produced in late 1996, The Cripple of Inishmaan is one of McDonagh's earliest works, written when he was in his mid-20s (or perhaps even earlier). It is the first play of his "Aran Islands Trilogy," although the third in the series was never published or produced.

Set in 1934, the play is set in the small Aran Islands community of Inishmaan off Ireland's west coast. It revolves loosely around the filming of a real (yet fictionalized) documentary called Man of Aran, which is a pretty big deal to the local residents including the play's titular character, a young man named Billy--well-played by Josh Salt--who is partially deformed.

Although The Cripple of Inishmaan is neither as laugh-out-loud funny or overtly violent--two McDonagh trademarks--as the subsequent The Lieutenant of Inishmore, it does contain a substantial amount of dark humor, ribald language and interpersonal viciousness.

Photo Credit: Kimberly Loughlin
But along with being a highly entertaining character study of a collection of Irish villagers--over the course of 2 hours, McDonagh's script richly embodies 9 characters--The Cripple of Inishmaan succeeds due the substantial heart at its core.

As usual, Redtwist makes optimal use of its adaptable storefront space, with the audience members practically within Inishmaan themselves. And as with her masterful production of McDonagh's The Pillowman in the same space, director Kimberly Senior--who also has helmed several other excellent plays I've seen--draws highly believable performances, including understandable brogues, from the top-notch cast.

Salt's Billy is equal parts victimized, vulnerable and resilient, while as his pretty, brash crush Helen, Baize Buzan helps the audience sense the rationale behind and the longing beneath her salty exterior. Brian Parry is also terrific as Johnnypateenmike, who peddles news about the town's residents to its other residents.

Offering plenty of face value entertainment, including some surprising twists, complemented by appreciable depth and insight, The Cripple of Inishmaan is a first-rate play by a terrific writer, and Redtwist's stellar production provides a perfectly formidable introduction.

Based on the other local productions I've seen of McDonagh's oeuvre, I think I like Inishmaan a bit less than Lieutenant of Inishmore or The Pillowman, and a bit more than The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West. But I'm entirely glad I got this chance to see it, and even without HotTix availability, Redtwist's admission prices are quite reasonable.

This type of "storefront theater" is truly one of Chicago's most distinguishing cultural attractions--I'm not sure even New York or London offer similar quality by so many resident troupes--with this play and production serving as a prime example. I can imagine that even among people driving or walking east along Bryn Mawr, the Redtwist Theatre can easily be missed, but having been extended until July 1, The Cripple of Inishmaan deserves not to be. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Cute Little, uh, Donkey, and Other Amazing Creatures Photographed at Lambs Farm

Following my invigorating recent visit to the Chicago Botanic Garden--
some photographic highlights of which you can see here--
I was in the mood for another outdoor excursion with camera in hand.

So for the first time in many years, I took a ride up to the wonderful Lambs Farm in Libertyville (Rt. 176 @ I-94).

Providing education and developmental employment for individuals with disabilities, the entire complex--including a bakery, restaurant, pet shop, gift shop and more--is fantastic, but my favorite part is the farmyard, where one can see, and even interact with animals such as these:

Monday, June 11, 2012

Radiohead Excels at Being Radiohead, Which is (Mostly) a Good Thing -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre
Tinley Park, IL
June 10, 2012

When it comes to Radiohead, I must cop to a certain amount of cognitive dissonance.

Especially amidst an age of artifice, I very much admire, respect and applaud the British band for staying true to themselves. Which, since the year 2000, has meant a preponderance of their recorded material--and concert setlists--has been infused with electronic textures and minimalist beats, rather than more conventional guitar and lyric driven songs.

This music, which is more disparate than my brief description conveys, is often brilliant and invariably amplified on stage by powerful instrumentation and dazzling lighting displays. Over the years--often quite beyond the initial release of each new album--I've come to appreciate the beauty, and even melodicism, of what at first can sound avant garde, jarring and/or droning.

But while Radiohead is great because they excel without making easily-digestible ear candy, before the new millennium came about their music--while still quite innovative--was a good bit more stylistically traditional. 1995's The Bends and 1997's OK Computer remain my favorite Radiohead albums; I just enjoy them more than last year's The King of Limbs or other 21st century releases, excellent as several of them are.

So without wanting to sound like a philistine, I wish they would play a little bit more of the old stuff.

Much to their credit, Radiohead's experimental, arguably anti-populist musical proclivities have not hurt their popularity. After headlining the Bonnaroo Festival on Friday night, the band drew what looked like a full-house (perhaps 28,000 or so) to the inconveniently-located First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Chicago's south suburbs.

Having seen Radiohead on seven previous occasions and routinely checking their live setlists (you can see Sunday's on, I was well aware before I bought my tickets that their shows are always heavy on their latest material, with perhaps just 2 or 3 more traditional, theoretically crowd-pleasing '90s songs sprinkled in.

Led by lead singer Thom Yorke, Radiohead is still fantastic at what they do, as they amply demonstrated again in Tinley Park at a venue I've long abhorred (fortunately, I had pavilion seats rather than the often acoustically-challenged lawn). My friend who had never seen the band and knew very little of their music was tremendously, and a bit surprisingly, impressed with the concert.

While I anticipated nothing less, the six musicians onstage made wonderful noise over 130 minutes that--despite "Karma Police" and "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" being the only sing-along "oldies"--never dragged.

Every song played was well-presented and several were pretty astonishing, including a few that go back to early in the '00s: "Myxomatosis," "Idioteque"  and "Everything in Its Right Place."

In sum, Radiohead delivered the show I was expecting and as my @@@@ rating should suggest, I liked it far more than I didn't.

But where my dissonance comes in is that I really think their concerts would be more satisfying--at least for me, but probably not just--if the band weren't so stingy in exploring their exceptional back catalog.

"Creep" (which I've never heard live) and pretty much everything off The Bends and OK Computer are among the best, most intelligent rock songs written in the past 20 years. I understand the band's--and especially Yorke's--desire to move in different directions when they head into the studio, but I can't help but want to hear more of their great older material. And given the money, time and effort invested getting to any show--but particularly this one--I don't think it's unjust to want to hear what I want to hear.

I respect their right to play what they please, especially if the adoring crowds keep turning out, and wouldn't really want them to compromise themselves by putting on a pandering, greatest hits performance. But I can't deny that Sunday's concert wasn't as fun, or as enjoyable, as it would have been if Radiohead played 3-4 more well-placed early gems.

Given how the crowd sang along lustily with "Karma Police" and cheered the show closing "Spirit Street," I don't think anyone would've minded if the band decided to give us "Fake Plastic Trees" or "No Surprises." Even setlist stalwart "Paranoid Android" was MIA.

Certainly, an imagined retort of "Don't complain about it; just don't go. You know what you're getting." isn't entirely unreasonable. But to reiterate, it's not that I didn't like Radiohead last night; I very much did. And I would not hesitate to see them deliver a similar performance again.

But that doesn't mean I can't wish they liked their old stuff as much as I do.

In Sunday's encore, Radiohead debuted a new song called "Full Stop," in the vein of their recent material. This is a clip I found on YouTube:

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Towering Blast Off The Wall at Wrigley -- Concert Review: Roger Waters: The Wall Live

Concert Review

Roger Waters
The Wall Live
Wrigley Field, Chicago
June 8, 2012

Despite the preponderance of disappointment and misery I've experienced within its often unfriendly--for the fortunes of the Cubs--confines, Wrigley Field is one of my favorite places on Earth.

I realize this might reflect a certain amount of homerism--though it's not like I'm lavishing praise on Soldier Field--but having been to 37 major  league ballparks, I genuinely believe that Wrigley, with its ivy covered outfield wall, manual scoreboard and neighborhood setting with (long since corporatized) rooftop perches, is the best, and most unique, stadium in which to watch a baseball game.

This isn't to say it couldn't use a bit of rehab, or a better team, but there are few places I would rather be on a beautiful day--or since 8/8/88, night--and although the five concerts I've now attended there are all by artists I would, and have, seen at other venues, I can't deny that being within the Friendly Confines only adds to the experience of seeing a great show. 

Last summer, I saw Paul McCartney there, twice, and though I later caught him at an arena in Paris, which was pretty damn cool in itself, the Wrigley shows were considerably more so. A Beatle was, literally, playing center field.

Later this summer, my favorite musician, Bruce Springsteen, will be there for two shows with the E Street Band, and although I've seen him 39 times at 17 different venues and would love to have the resources to see the current tour in additional locales--other than the Detroit show I caught in April--there is nowhere I'd be more excited to see The Boss than at Wrigley. I can't wait 'til September 7.

So although I had seen Roger Waters stage The Wall at the United Center in 2010, on what was then the "30th anniversary tour" of Pink Floyd's landmark album, and found the audiovisual spectacle to be extremely cool and quite enjoyable--if innately bereft of spontaneity--seeing the wall go up, and come down, in the Wrigley outfield was that much cooler.

I hadn't bothered to buy a ticket when they went on sale last year, but a little over a month ago was able to find a pair of $35 seats that were labeled as Limited View. As you should be able to see from my photos, there were really no obstructions, except for a deranged dancing lady who insisted on gyrating wildly as everyone around her sat.

Musically, as I expected, there weren't any surprises, as Waters--playing occasional bass--was backed by a mostly anonymous band who sounded strong in replicating the 1980 double album. Although they didn't make me forget that Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, Nick Mason and the late Richard Wright weren't there, Gilmour's guitar solos and lead vocals on certain songs were sufficiently mimicked. On a picture perfect night at Wrigley, the 69-year-old Waters sang solidly, and acoustically I had no complaints in how The Wall was rendered.

As with the 2010 show, I felt the play-through of the album with virtually no deviation--Waters added a short coda after Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2, in honor of someone (perhaps a foreign dissident?) who had lost his life--made the evening a bit more like theater, rather than with the surprise elements and emotional heft of the best rock concerts.

Especially after the intermission, during which I was unfortunately showered from the upper deck, it was hard to focus on much nuance or subtlety of Waters' narrative regarding the album's largely autographical Pink character. Particularly with the woman acid-tripping (or otherwise loony; she wasn't just having a good time but was obnoxiously addled) in front of us. OK, so Wrigley isn't always so fantastic in terms of some of the people who go there.

And, while I don't deny The Wall's place in history as one of the five best-selling albums ever in the U.S. and one of the most memorable of my childhood, there are some parts on its second half where things begin to languish just a bit.

But if such factors prevent me from bestowing a full @@@@@ on The Wall at Wrigley, all in all it was a pretty fantastic evening, highlighted by great songs such as "Comfortably Numb" and "Run Like Hell" and a myriad of amazing visuals. 

Although The Wall has always had anti-war themes--Waters' father died World War II--on this tour Waters has brought them more to the fore to augment and modernize his tale of Pink's self-created isolation. But within the surroundings of Wrigley, I wasn't quite able to focus on them as I had in an indoor arena setting.

I also couldn't help but note the irony that--per Wikipedia--the concept for The Wall was initially hatched from Waters' hatred of playing huge outdoor stadiums on Pink Floyd's 1977 tour, and here he was recreating the album for the masses in a ballpark.

But Waters himself commented on this, noting that unlike "young Roger," he has come to cherish the mass adulation such as he received from the nearly full house at Wrigley.

Suffice it to say, I enjoyed myself. As any Cubs fan knows, 2012 is a rebuilding year (or just a lousy one). So it was metaphorically nice to have Wrigley's foundations rocked as The Wall went up in the outfield--I thought Waters missed a great opportunity to visually adorn it with ivy--despite the inevitability, given the setting, of its eventual collapse.

I took some good video, but this is someone else's clip of Another Brick in the Wall, Part II, that I found on YouTube:

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Ho-Hum, Another Excellent--But Not Surpassing--Album From Alejandro Escovedo -- Album Review: Big Station

Album Review

Alejandro Escovedo
Big Station

At 61, Alejandro Escovedo has had--and continues to have--a career that many musicians would find enviable.

Although I didn't come to know of him until 1996 with the release of With These Hands, he had already had--as detailed on formidable run dating from the mid '70s. He co-founded a pioneering punk band--The Nuns--and was part of another--Rank and File--before creating and leading the True Believers, an acclaimed band from Austin, TX.

With 1992's Gravity, Escovedo began a solo career that has never been less than stellar. I think he has officially released 11 studio albums in the last 20 years, but setting aside those featuring reissues of earlier songs and other special projects, the new Big Station is the eighth of his primary studio works. And it makes 8 of 8 to which All Music awards 4 stars or more (on a 5-star scale), with other critical acclaim--and my enjoyment--pretty consistent as well.

Yet despite a recorded output that can rival anyone's over the same span, routinely superb, high-energy live shows, steady promotion from WXRT in Chicago and a few recent on-stage appearances with Bruce Springsteen that have helped to raise his profile a bit, Alejandro Escovedo is still not a household name.

Having beaten a life-threatening case of Hepatitis C a few years ago, I have to assume that achieving mass stardom isn't among Alejandro's main objectives at this point, especially as not everyone can continue to put out well-received records and tour to a loyal following.

But while I didn't really expect Big Station would be the album to convert the masses, my initial conclusion is that--while it's another solid set of music from a master craftsman--it doesn't deserve to be.

After seeing particularly strong reviews of Big Station by the Tribune's Greg Kot (3.5 stars/4.0) and (4.5/5.0), I bought it presuming that I would champion it as an album any rock music lover should buy while expressing chagrin that its marketplace impact would not match its merits.

However--with the caveat that my listening life-cycle is still in its infancy--although I hear considerable quality in Big Station, would recommend it to any existing Escovedo fans and am happy to have it in my collection, it is not an album that I really can suggest should convert the uninitiated.

Like Escovedo's last two albums, Real Animal and Street Songs of Love, this one is produced by Tony Visconti, who did likewise for several David Bowie and T. Rex albums, and an impressive list of others. Similar to Alejandro's past couple--and pretty much all his discs--the new album bridges a variety of styles, from rollicking hard rock to introspective country ballads. "Man of the World" and "Big Station" lead off the album solidly in the former realm, while "Bottom of the World" and "Never Stood a Chance" demonstrate Escovedo's deft touch with songs of despair.

If you've never listened to Alejandro Escovedo, Big Station certainly wouldn't be a bad introduction. But even among the Visconti-produced trio, at this point it feels like the "Show horse." And I also like earlier albums--With These Hands, Gravity and A Man Under the Influence--a good bit more.

While the depth and diversity is impressive, there's nothing here that jumps out like "Always a Friend," "Sister Lost Soul," "Anchor," or "Silver Cloud," off Real Animal and Street Songs of Love.

It's undoubtedly a double-edged sword to be so good for so long that it becomes hard to top yourself, or even to create something notably different from what you already have. Calling Big Station just another excellent Alejandro Escovedo album but not among his very best--or my favorites--isn't to negate that many singer-songwriters would be thrilled with creating an album this solid, nor to imply that most listeners who give it a chance shouldn't find a whole lot to like or that I don't expect it to grow on me.

But if I'm trying to tell the world that Alejandro Escovedo is an artist that still represents what's right about the dying genre of rock 'n roll, while his latest album might qualify as further evidence, Big Station isn't where the heretofore oblivious should get on board.

Monday, June 04, 2012

A Good Day for the Roses

Someone somewhere once said that every now and then one should just stop and smell the roses.

While in truth, my sense of sight was more exuberantly engaged than my sense of smell, this is essentially what I did on Saturday, as I took a stroll through the bloomingly beauteous Chicago Botanic Garden with my mom.

I wasn't overtly seeking emotional rejuvenation or spiritual awakening, but after day after day spent
applying for jobs, coping with interconnected challenges (of both a tangible and cosmic nature), being consistently disillusioned by the corrupt economic and political system and--as if I needed any more affirmation that things are really screwed up--noting the atrocious jobs report released on Friday, well let's just say that on myriad levels it was good for me to walk outside on a picture-perfect day and soak in the sumptuousness of nature.

As the photos below should connote, it's an idyllic time of year to visit the Botanic Garden, located in Highland Park, as roses of many colors are in bloom. In addition to the flowers, plants, trees, ponds, luscious landscapes, etc., I also enjoyed seeing the Railroad Garden, populated by sculptures of U.S. landmarks similar to the Chicago-centric ones in the Wonderland Express indoor exhibit last winter. Following the floral pix, I've included some of the Railroad Garden as well.

Adding to any overt and covert emotional nourishment, my mom and I followed our Botanic Garden jaunt with some great BBQ at Real Urban Barbecue in downtown Highland Park. Then on Sunday, another day of glorious sunshine, I took an excursion with my friend Ken to Oak Park, for a rare chance to tour the home where Ernest Hemingway grew up and hear great stories from a guy who knew Hem's family. And I once again enjoyed some great BBQ, at the erstwhile Russell's (in Elmwood Park).

Now it's Monday again and I'm back at my desktop, with the obstacle course of life again offering considerable encumbrances. Nothing has really changed in regards to what is wrong with the world, but it certainly was nice--and beyond--to have been, via such a kaleidoscopic spectacle of nature, reminded what is right about it.

And here are the pictures to prove it:

As mentioned above, below are a few photos of the Railroad Garden, featuring sculptures--all made with natural materials--of local and national landmarks.

A couple Bonzai trees below, and a family of swans.