Saturday, July 28, 2012

Weezer Justifies Place in History, Trek to Out-of-the-Way 'Venue' -- Chicago (Hammond) Concert Review

Concert Review

The Venue at Horseshoe Casino
Hammond, IN
July 27, 2012

Although I have most of their albums and like almost everything on them, Weezer has long been something of an afterthought for me.

I rarely think to listen to their music and, until Friday night, I'd seen them live just once, primarily because they were on a double bill with the Foo Fighters in 2005.

While I believe Weezer belongs in the class photo of "alt-rock superstars of the '90s," especially among those that still remain active today, they haven't consistently elicited the active affinity I have for contemporaries like Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, Soundgarden and other alternative rock luminaries. (Check out my list of the 100 Best Alternative Rock Bands of the Past 25 Years, which I put together largely to assess just how highly I regard Weezer.)

I won't say that I owe Weezer an apology, as I have supported them over the years and when I had seen them in '05, not only were they far lesser than the Foo Fighters, but I even liked opening act the Kaiser Chiefs a bit better.

But on the basis of Friday night's concert at the Venue at Horseshoe Casino--a comfortable but rather sterile setting for a rock show--and a rather thorough re-exploration of their catalog beforehand, they certainly deserve to be more prominent on my mind's shortlist of the world's best extant bands. And not simply for their mid-'90s glories--their debut "blue album" and follow up, Pinkerton--as their set included songs from across their eight studio discs, all of which have their moments.

After a solo acoustic opening set by Jason Jeka of Chicago band Fivestar Deluxe, which showed some nice songwriting talent to a crowd that didn't seem to much care and would've been well served with a couple cover songs, Weezer took the stage with "Undone - The Sweater Song" from their debut.

I've never been clear if singer and band leader Rivers Cuomo is really as geeky as he looked in videos or simply plays up a nerdy persona; I still don't know, but it seems the former may be true. In a sweater over an Oxford shirt, he certainly appeared overdressed for the occasion, but as he says in the great "Pork and Beans" off 2008's "red album," "I ain't gonna wear the clothes that you like." More power to him as Harvard geeks everywhere are inheriting the Earth.

Other than their sparkly W that mimics the Van Halen logo and some nice lighting, there wasn't much to the Weezer show besides about 80 minutes filled with hard rocking songs featuring great hooks. Cuomo barely spoke to the audience and although he made mention of being in Indiana, he didn't acknowledge the Illinois contingent that had driven to Hammond to see Weezer's only area show.

This wasn't much of a detraction as I'll always take great music over silly stage patter, but while Weezer sounded ever bit as good as I could've hoped--despite a terrific run, they still should have much life left in their career--the intangibles that can make an excellent concert truly transcendent weren't readily apparent.

While the relative brevity wasn't as rueful as it would've been for other bands--2-1/2 hours of Weezer would frankly be too much, given the stylistic similarity of their songbook--I would've appreciated about 10 more minutes, perhaps with "No One Else" as a more satisfying closer than "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived." (You can see the full Hammond setlist here).

But highlights were many, including "We Are All on Drugs," "Island in the Sun," "Hash Pipe," "Surf Wax America," "Buddy Holly" and a fun, seemingly reverent cover of Poison's "Talk Dirty To Me" to open the encore.

While it entails paying to cross the Skyway, the Venue isn't really any farther from downtown Chicago than the Allstate Arena or Akoo Theater in Rosemont, and if it wasn't for lane closures on the Dan Ryan I would've made it home to Skokie in about 40 minutes.

I am also glad Weezer played there rather than the Aragon, which they commonly do, as I relished the ability to sit down throughout the concert. That said, the Venue isn't a venue I am likely to frequent and although I had long noted the Weezer date, I wasn't intending to go until a friend noticed that discount tickets were available through Goldstar.

It turned out he wasn't able to go, but after delving deep into my Weezer albums, I realized this was a band--if not quite an all-time great, pretty close to it--that I really should catch again.

I'm glad I did.

While I still hope to discover new bands that I really like, it's nearly as gratifying to re-appreciate old ones.

The 100 Best Alternative Rock Bands of the Past 25 Years

Last night I saw Weezer. It was an excellent show and I should post my review later today or tomorrow.

Despite Weezer being, arguably, one of the few alt-rock superstar bands of the '90s still in existence--and one whose music I've always enjoyed--this was only the second time I'd seen them, and the first was only because they were on a double-bill with the Foo Fighters.

So it got me thinking about where I'd place them in the pantheon of alternative rock bands. Thus, I started making this list.

Initially I was only thinking in terms of acts from the '90s, but in being unsure if I should also consider music made since then, I decided to go back 25 years.

Even this, like all list making attempts, is of course imprecise.

First of all, what defines alternative?

It seems that once Nirvana rolled around, alternative music became the mainstream. And nowadays, "alternative" seems to be a dead moniker, with alternative rock stations--like Chicago's Q101--having bitten the dust.

But, as a rough qualifier for inclusion on this list, the following artists (mostly bands, but not just) are ones I would have expected to hear on an alternative rock radio station (with new music) over the past 25 years. Thus no Guns 'n Roses, Metallica, Bruce Springsteen or presumably Adele, but a pretty wide swath otherwise. And if you're unclear what makes Elvis Costello, post-87, any more "alternative" than Tom Petty, you've got a pretty good point. As I said, this is imprecise.

Though the 25 year span largely covers the rise of alternative era--from the origins of The Pixies and Jane's Addition through the grunge explosion, the birth of Lollapalooza and everything since--it too is an imperfect demarcation, as it leaves out much punk, which I tend to consider alternative.

Though the whole list is obviously based on my own preferences and whims, I tried to gauge artists only by the music they made within the 1987-2012 range. Thus I left out otherwise extremely deserving bands like The Smiths, Husker Du, Talking Heads and Ramones, who were either on their last legs by '87 or no longer producing their best music. For included acts whose careers pre-date 1987, I tried to only reflect their work since them, not their overall output. In many cases, I was able to factor in the band as a live act, but some I've never seen.

And since this is my list, I could only include artists whose music I know pretty well and enjoy, so no Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, My Bloody Valentine, Ministry, Tool, Guided by Voices, Built to Spill, Sleater-Kinney, Portishead or others that you might include (additional "also-rans" are included after the top 100).

So take it for what it's worth--if I made the same list tomorrow, it would likely be ordered slighly differently--but this is how I rate the 100 Best Alternative Rock Bands (and Solo Acts) of the Past 25 Years:
1. Nirvana
2. U2
3. R.E.M.
4. Pearl Jam
5. The Smashing Pumpkins (+ Zwan)
6. Radiohead
7. The Replacements (+ Paul Westerberg solo)
8. Midnight Oil
9. Green Day
10. Soundgarden

11. The Cure
12. Foo Fighters
13. Red Hot Chili Peppers
14. Dinosaur Jr.
15. Nine Inch Nails
16. The Pixies
17. Arcade Fire
18. The Flaming Lips
19. The Beastie Boys
20. The Wildhearts (check out this song)

21. Depeche Mode
22. Blur
23. Wilco
24. The White Stripes
25. The Killers
26. Weezer
27. Bob Mould (including Sugar)
28. Jane's Addiction
29. System of a Down
30. Stone Temple Pilots

31. Paul Weller
32. Rage Against The Machine
33. Elvis Costello (remember, this is '87 onward)
34. Phish
35. Smoking Popes
36. Stereophonics
37. The Waterboys
38. Garbage
39. Beck
40. BoDeans

41. Maximo Park
42. Ash
43. Social Distortion
44. Oasis
45. Sonic Youth
46. No Doubt
47. Coldplay
48. Counting Crows
49. Teenage Fanclub
50. Material Issue

51. Pulp
52. Moby
53. LCD Soundsystem
54. Alice in Chains
55. The Lemonheads
56. Screaming Trees
57. Everclear
58. The Hives
59. The Wallflowers
60. Faith No More

61. Stone Roses
62. Liz Phair
63. Snow Patrol
64. Hole
65. Urge Overkill
66. Supergrass
67. Manic Street Preachers
68. Pavement
69. Mudhoney
70. Cracker

71. Muse
72. Incubus
73. Live
74. Alanis Morrisette
75. Franz Ferdinand
76. The Strokes
77. The Cranberries
78. The Wedding Present
79. PJ Harvey
80. The Jesus and Mary Chain

81. Blink 182
82. Suede
83. Placebo
84. The Charlatans UK
85. Matthew Sweet
86. The Tragically Hip
87. Fishbone
88. Dave Matthews Band
89. The Fratellis
90. Local H

91. The Decemberists
92. Kaiser Chiefs
93. Bush
94. The Offspring
95. Sponge
96. TV on the Radio
97. Son Volt
98. The Hold Steady
99. Feeder
100. Soul Coughing

Assorted Others in No Particular Order

Primal Scream
Arctic Monkeys
My Morning Jacket
Soul Asylum 
Linkin Park
Mission of Burma
The La's
Uncle Tupelo
Goo Goo Dolls
Gin Blossoms
Toad the Wet Sprocket
Queens of the Stone Age
Death Cab for Cutie
My Chemical Romance
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
My Bloody Valentine
Guided by Voices
Built to Spill

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Marriott's Original Musical 'Hero' Is Very Good and Rather Admirable, If Not Quite Super -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a world premiere musical by
Aaron Thielen and Michael Mahler
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire
Thru August 19

The Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire is a very-well established in-the-round venue with a huge subscription base comprised largely, from the looks of things, of patrons over the age of 75. It also, I presume, does considerable business accommodating group outings from nearby retirement and nursing homes.

Thanks to its vast audience base, the theater has been able to program early regional renditions of recent (and/or long-running) Broadway hits, such as The Producers, Hairspray and Les Miserables.

In recent years, Marriott has also commissioned and/or self-created new musicals such as The Bowery Boys, Once Upon a Time in New Jersey and For The Boys. While I admire their gumption in doing so, these originals--or their reviews, word of mouth, etc.--have never prompted me to attend as have the recent hits and the venue's real bread & butter: classic musicals.

My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Damn Yankees, 42nd Street, Evita and Funny Girl are just some of the shows I've seen there--along with the first three cited above--almost all to terrific enjoyment.

Given all this, although I was intrigued upon hearing about it, I wasn't sure I cared enough to see Hero, a world premiere musical produced in-house, until the Tribune's Chris Jones gave it a positive review, as did a family friend who saw it.

I'm glad I did, even if it wasn't as fantastic as any of the all-time great musicals that are the Marriott's forte. But beyond being an admirable attempt by the Marriott to do something new, with a show whose young-skewing conceit and language are not entirely congruent with the preponderant clientele, Hero is genuinely entertaining throughout.

While I heard decidedly mixed reactions from older audience members--some seemed to really like it, though one man offered his wife $20 if they could leave at intermission--more telling was that the 5:00pm Sunday crowd was the smallest I've ever seen at the Marriott Theatre. And if part of the motive behind Hero was to bring younger fans to the theater, achieving this mission wasn't readily apparent as I seemed to be the youngest person there, by at least 30 years for the most part.

Despite its name and use of comic book imagery, Hero isn't actually about a superhero or anyone who aims to be one, which I think may disappoint any teens or twenty-somethings who are enticed to check it out.

Instead, the fictional, Milwaukee-based story--conceived and written by Marriott's lead artistic director, Aaron Thielen--is about a 28-year-old man named Hero (played by Erich Bergen) who lives with his father (Don Forston) and works at his comic book store while harboring dreams of becoming an illustrator within the genre.

Two cousins, a kooky older one (Alex Goodrich) who serves as Hero's "wing man," and a wise-cracking 12-year-old (Jonah Rawitz) also factor in, as does an ex-girlfriend, appealingly embodied by Marriott stalwart Heidi Kettenring.

The show's music and lyrics were crafted by Michael Mahler, who has done other impressive work as a composer/lyricist and an actor. Most of his songs here are overtly-thematic--including "My Superhero Life," "Phone Booth," "By Our Powers Combined" and "Powerless"--but for the most part come off as witty without being overly hokey.

But though they moved the story along well while being melodic and somewhat stylistically diverse, only a couple tunes sounded like they really might resonate on their own. I don't mean this as a harsh criticism for a musical score--unlike most I hear--that I was experiencing for the first time, but perhaps more strikingly so within a venue where most shows are packed with classics, the songs of Hero felt appreciably lesser than those by Bernstein, Sondheim, Lerner & Loewe, Andrew Lloyd Webber, etc. But then, so does most everything else.

Storywise as well, Hero engaged much more than it ever dragged, but a bit oddly, Kettenring's Jane was more overtly heroic than the title character, who faced adversity with aplomb but not much verve. The romantic aspect was sweet if a bit slight and trite, and comic relief by cousin Kirk and two store regulars couldn't help but to harken--with much less zest--to Jack Black's turn in High Fidelity. A secondary romance between Kirk and a repressed friend of Jane's named Susan (Dara Cameron) offered some laughs, but was largely predictable.

Still, while I didn't enjoy Hero quite as much as I did Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, it was better--in some cases considerably--than several other recent new musicals with original scores, such as Ghost, Bring It On, 9 to 5, Little House on the Prairie, Shrek and even (IMHO) the Tony-winning Memphis.

So Thielen, Mahler and the entire Marriott cast & crew have much to be proud of, even if Hero's story and songbook may need to go back to the drawing board before any Broadway aspirations seem warranted (though there's no reason why they couldn't be).

The in-the-round limitations of the Marriott Theatre, well overcome on the classics by imaginative directors (including David H. Bell, who helms Hero), seem a bit constraining here. And while I'm not looking for spandex tights, a bit more animated action and songs of greater ebullience could add to the appeal as this show evolves.

Also, especially given the sparse crowd on Sunday, the Marriott would do well to offer some ticket discounts, on its own or through HotTix or Goldstar, which it seemingly never does.

Though tickets in the $40-$55 range (depending on performance) are low for a mostly Equity show compared to top end Broadway or Loop prices, they're about twice what I typically pay for most theater I see.

I was willing to spend a bit more to explore a well-reviewed world premiere, but if the Marriott really wants to reach fan boys in addition to its graying fan base--as well as anyone unsure about taking a chance on something new--it really should make tickets available in the $25 range, particularly for undersold performances. They might even go so far to offer free tickets to anyone under 25 years of age.

Otherwise I suspect this admirable--if still evolving--new show won't reach its target audience: new fans for a first-class theater that is expanding its repertoire, likely with some concern about who will be filling its seats 10 years down the road.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Wilmette's Starlight Theatre Still Shines Bright With Brigadoon

Community Theater Spotlight

a classic musical
by Lerner & Loewe
Wallace Bowl, Wilmette, IL
Thru July 28

One of the great perennial delights of summer in Chicago's north suburbs is the annual free musical production presented by the Wilmette Park District's Starlight Theatre.

A week after my first visit to Chicago's Theater on the Lake--an indoor venue that has held summer productions since 1953--I attended Starlight's production of Brigadoon at a venue more fitting my perception of "theater on the lake," especially as I've seen shows there since childhood.

Set within Gillson Park along the Lake Michigan shoreline, Wallace Bowl is an open air amphitheater that has been presenting summertime entertainment since the 1940s.

Though a variety of concerts are presented as well--you can see the full schedule here--I am familiar with the unique, Romanesque venue almost exclusively through Starlight's staging of classic musicals. Shows are typically presented--free of any charge--over the course of three weekends, usually in July.

Given the bowl's setting amidst a cluster of evergreens just steps from the beach, this summer's selection of Brigadoon--which tells the tale of a village in the Scottish Highlands that magically appears for one day every 100 years--is especially idyllic.

I don't like to really review or rate community theater productions--especially free ones comprised largely of teenage performers--but there was nothing about the quality of this version of Brigadoon that suggests you won't have a terrific time out under the stars.

Having seen an exquisite version of Brigadoon just last summer by Light Opera Works in Evanston, I was enlightened to the lush beauty of the score by Frederick Loewe with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Although the collection of songs--first heard on Broadway in 1947--isn't quite as brilliant as the duo's subsequent masterpieces--My Fair Lady and Camelot--it's not too far shy.

Starlight's rendition wasn't quite as scintillating as Light Opera Works' more professional production, but with a wonderful vocal performance by Nellie Shuford as Fiona and a large cast backed by a live orchestra, it was a pleasure to hear such songs as "Down on MacConnachy Square," "I'll Go Home With Bonnie Jean," "Come to Me, Bend to Me," "Almost Like Being In Love" and others.

The combination of cicadas, occasional microphone problems and the orchestra sounding a bit soft served to remind of the obstacles that accompany musical theater al fresco, but given the comfortable weather, enjoyable performances, enchanting setting and ideal admission price, the hindrances were slight compared to the delights.

Especially if you're trying to indoctrinate children into the joys of musical theater, Starlight offers an exceptional, cost-free introduction. Thus, I was somewhat chagrined that among a sparse crowd overall, there were rather few families. I'm not aware of any place else in the area akin to the Wallace Bowl, so even if you can't make it to Brigadoon, you should certainly take note of this local treasure.

But you still have three chances to see Brigadoon--without waiting 300 years--as it will end its summer run with performances this coming Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Bring your own chair, but based on Saturday's attendance, you should have no problem finding a spot to sit even if you arrive close to the 8:00pm showtime. Parking is free and plentiful in nearby lots and a pre- or post-show stroll along the beach, through the park or past the beautiful Baha'i Temple nearby can only add to what should be an entrancing evening.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

On the Aurora Movie Massacre and What We Can Do

The first thing I heard about when I awoke on Friday morning was the horrific tragedy that had taken place just hours before at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.

I instantly wanted to put my head back under the covers and hope that this was just something I had misheard, but sadly there was nothing fictional about this nightmare.

During a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, a heavily armed man--subsequently identified as James Holmes--entered the theater and, as gunfire took place on screen, he began shooting helpless victims. 12 people died and 58 were reported injured, some of whom remain in critical condition.

Along with being horrified and shocked by this incident--which I guess somehow speaks to the fact that such episodes are still relatively rare--I couldn't help but feel a certain degree of helplessness.

Not that there's ever a good time, place or way for anyone to die, but it feels so incongruous that so many people could lose their lives, be grievously injured or forever be traumatized simply because they chose to attend a movie in suburban Denver.

With other mass killings and/or acts of terrorism--I'm not so sure of the distinction nor the importance of it--having taken place in high schools, colleges, shopping malls, business offices, post offices, clothing stores, restaurants, Army bases, children's camps, airplanes and other seemingly innocuous locations, we have once again been brutally reminded that the assumption of safety is but a hope we like to believe.

Especially as the alleged perpetrator in this instance--based on information yet reported--was seemingly a quiet, intelligent 23-year-old who had been enrolled (until recently) in a doctorate program at the  University of Colorado School of Medicine. That Holmes doesn't seemingly have known--or publicly shared--connections to hate groups or terror cells, nor was obviously shunned by society, kicked out of school (he supposedly withdrew voluntarily) or thought to be specifically targeting anyone (such as an ex-girlfriend), makes the randomness of his act all the more chilling.

People can conceivably think, "I'm not going to such and such area at such and such time because there has been an unfortunate amount of gang violence," but how would anyone ever surmise "I'm not going to a crowded midnight movie because a Ph.D. candidate might come in and blast away with four guns?"

In addition to providing whatever solace is possible to the families of the victims, the focus for many going forward will be in understanding why Holmes did what he did and how such a horrific act may be prevented from happening again.
This is obviously important for law enforcement officials, but the likely reality is that such depraved acts can't entirely be prevented.
With due respect and great appreciation & admiration to everyone who dedicates themselves to trying to ensure the public safety, I have long felt--perhaps since 9/11 or possibly dating back to Columbine and Oklahoma City--that "security measures" largely mean keeping one's fingers crossed and hoping nothing bad happens.

For while I am certain--and certainly grateful--that the police, FBI, CIA, TSA, Bureau of Homeland Security and other bodies have thwarted and deterred numerous acts of destruction that the public has never heard about, it also seems that security procedures often focus--at least at face value--on stopping incidents of the type that have already happened.

But anyone evil enough to want to kill other human beings, especially in mass numbers, is likely to devote undue time and energy to figuring out how to beat the system that's in place. Heck, if they watch a couple episodes of Burn Notice, they'd likely discover a few deadly schemes that don't involve metal devices and seem quite plausible to me.

This article on by Larry Barton, an FBI threat management expert, poses the daunting question about if people will ever feel safe in crowds again. He gives a few tips about heightened awareness, but doesn't say much to disavow the possibility that something terrible could, fairly easily, happen in an arena, ballpark, festival, etc.

As someone who goes to many highly-populated events this scares me. But not enough to not go, and not enough to want airport-style security screening to be instituted at stadiums and theaters.

I am very tolerant of any inconvenience I may endure at the airport, including long lines and body scans. If it's going to keep us all safe, arriving a few minutes earlier is a fair price to pay (and personally, I'd be in favor of banning all carry-on luggage bigger than a purse or laptop case).

Within reason, I'd be open to sensible security measures that experts might deem prudent elsewhere. No bags or backpacks and having to endure pat downs and metal detectors (more so at concerts/sports events than at movies) aren't such awful inconveniences if they deter the nutjobs.

Though I understand it adds to some patrons' fun, steps now taken by theaters to ban masks, costumes and fake weapons also seem sensible, even if unlikely to really stop "the bad guys."

But if I have to undergo a full-body cavity search just to see a movie, well, I think I'll read the book instead. But then, how much security protection is there in the library? Seems there's always somewhere I could potentially be at risk. Yet I can live with that (at least I hope I can).

While I want to be as safe as the next person--and do support discussions about gun control, mental health services, a more equitable society and other topics that may address both root causes and acute motives of mass killings--at a certain point I think you might have to say that along with the great upsides of living in a free society are the downsides that come with such freedoms. Such as potentially being slaughtered in a supermarket. While I obviously don't want this to happen to anyone, I also wouldn't want to wait in a 30-minute security queue just to buy some strawberries.

As I thought about the Aurora tragedy Friday morning, I wondered if perhaps Warner Bros. would or should postpone the movie's opening until next weekend, or that moviegoers might abstain from going out of respect for the dead, a sense of sorrow or even trepidation about copycat acts.

But I quickly decided the best thing we could do is not to alter the course of our lives due to the still relatively slight chance of being killed by a deranged gunman, terrorist act or even just a freak accident, like a concert stage collapsing.

Sadly, due to terrible people or tragic accidents, some of us won't get to live full lives. But if we compromise our sense of freedom and stifle our pursuit of happiness, none of us will.

As trite as it may sound, especially to anyone who has lost a loved one or friend to senseless violence, the only real way to fight back against bad things is to do as many good things as you can.

Treat others, and yourself, well. Tell people you love that you do. Enjoy each day as best you can. Read more books, watch more sunsets or spend more time doing the things that make you happy.

Live, Love, Seek, Find, and hope for the best.

Or, as Walter Payton supposedly said toward the end of his life from illness (I don't think he originated the quote):

"Never take life for granted, because tomorrow isn't promised to anyone."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Hat's Entertainment: Buoyant Musical Numbers Help 'Crowns' Brim With Joyful 'Hattitude' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a musical with story written
and directed by Regina Taylor
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 12

Theoretically, I could easily regard Crowns--a gospel-infused musical based around southern African-American women who take pride in the elegant hats they wear to church on Sunday--as simply a show for which I am not the target audience.

But that's silly.

Although it's certainly legitimate for artistic creations to hew more closely to the inherent tastes and interests of people of a certain gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, etc., etc., a truly enjoyable show--especially if included in a subscription series--should be just that: enjoyable regardless of who's watching it.

And when the stellar cast sang and, more occasionally, danced, I found Crowns to be terrifically enjoyable. Perhaps all the more so because it was different than what I might naturally opt to attend.

Given the standing ovation the show earned on Sunday night at the Goodman, from a crowd slightly more diverse than normal but not nearly as racially mixed as one might hope, it seems I wasn't the only one who enjoyed the relative uniqueness of Crowns (despite the current run being a slightly revised reprise of a 2004 Goodman production).

While the strong musical numbers and terrific costuming--including much magnificent millinery work--served to make Crowns sufficiently engaging and at times sensational over its 100 or so minutes, it was considerably less enjoyable for me when the singing and dancing stopped.

Written and directed by the talented Regina Taylor, who was inspired by a photographic book of the same name, Crowns struggles to make its contemporary narrative as compelling as the musical numbers that introduce and reflect the show's resplendent "hat queens."

Taylor builds her story--supposedly a bit more pronounced than in earlier versions of Crowns, though I can't cite specifics--around a street tough young woman named Yolanda (played by Marketta P. Wilder, in green at right) from Chicago's Englewood neighborhood. As the show opens, Yolanda's brother has been slain, and after rapping about her pain and her proud ties to her home turf, she moves to South Carolina to live with her Grandma, Mother Show (played by the great Chicago actress/singer Felicia Fields).

Along with other women in the community, including one played E. Faye Butler--another dynamic performer I've often enjoyed on local stages--Mother Shaw introduces Yolanda to the soulful life lessons that can accompany the selection, and showcasing, of a lady's luxuriant headwear.

But while Yolanda's tale and evolution would seem to have much gravitas, the narrative feels like simply an excuse to transition from one song to another, whether solo spotlights and ensemble pieces.

Wilder does a nice job embodying Yolanda's transformation, but the dramatic arc is not the reason to see this show. As the character of Velma (warmly played by Jasondra Johnson, below) conveys, it's all about the 'hattitude.'

As well as, of course, the songs--largely traditional and gospel numbers from various composers & lyricists, performed with accompaniment from a 7-piece band--which are plentiful enough for Crowns to be firmly categorized as a musical.

And while it won't rank among the very best musicals I've ever seen, it was certainly a satisfying way to top off a stellar Goodman season (with the exception of the awful Camino Real, but Red, Race and The Iceman Cometh were all excellent or even better).

I won't quite call Crowns a must-see, but especially if you can avail yourself of one of the Goodman's generous discount programs (or HotTix), you'll be hard-pressed not to find find the performances delightful.

Certainly, if I had one, I'd end this review by doffing my hat.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Saturday Night, Live, with Prime Time Comedy and a Stellar Musical Act -- Review: TJ and Dave, plus Ike Reilly

Theater / Improv / Music Review

TJ and Dave (an improv duo)
with opening act Ike Reilly (a singer)
July 14, 2012
Theater on the Lake, Chicago

As this blog reflects, I've been to many types of performances at a great number of venues in and around Chicago (and beyond). But until Saturday night I had never been--or even ever seriously considered going--to one of the city's most venerable theatrical spaces: Theater on the Lake.

Although I had long presumed that this was some kind of small outdoor amphitheater, the theater space is inside a building just east of Lake Shore Drive at Fullerton.

Built in 1920 as a sanitarium--not for insane people but babies with tuberculosis--the red brick structure has presented summer Theater on the Lake programming since 1953. At least in recent years, if not longer, it seems TOTL stages productions by various local theater groups, typically works those troupes have presented during the past theater season.

I've seen some shows that have been reprised at TOTL, but Saturday was my initial visit to the lakefront venue for a summertime production, and rather than a play or musical, I took in an improv duo preceded by a rock/folk singer.

As the program notes indicate, TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi have been performing as TJ and Dave for over 10 years. They can be seen weekly at iO Chicago--where I caught them once--and every other month in New York at the Barrow Street Theatre.

Rather than take any suggestions or stimulus from the audience, they simply play off each other for the better part of an hour, seemingly with a central scenario around which tangential dialogue revolves and occasionally intersects.

Saturday, their primary strain of improvisation was a job interview, including preparing for it, arriving at the office, being greeted by an employee and finally being interviewed by a manager, in the company of the greeting employee. That TJ and Dave each at times played the interviewee and the manager, while TJ also played the "greeter," should give some indication as to how quick and adaptable these guys are.

I rarely found it laugh out loud funny, as the woman next to me did seemingly non-stop, but much of it was quite humorous. Especially in the far too warm Theater on the Lake, I was glad TJ & Dave didn't go on much longer than they did, but they made for a worthy enticement to check it out.

Especially with Libertyville's Ike Reilly playing a solid half-hour set accompanied only by his acoustic guitar. I came to know of Reilly a few years back and have been tremendously impressed by full-band gigs I've seen by The Ike Reilly Assassination. Ike wasn't quite as exciting on his own, but certainly reiterated that he's a gifted songwriter and singer.

Highlights included "Devil's Valentine," whose lyrics come from a poem Ike's late father had written in 1942, a new song whose title I didn't catch and the closing "Commie Drives a Nova"

The same combination--TJ & Dave with Ike Reilly--performed at Theater on the Lake Wednesday through Sunday. Although you've missed this run (unless you didn't), either act--let alone both--is well worth your time for an enjoyable evening of entertainment.

As for Theater on the Lake, I'm glad I went, but am not planning to rush back real soon. That might be more the fault of the crazily hot weather than the programming--a couple other shows on their schedule did catch my eye--but although it was a satisfying evening, a bit more A/C would've been nice, or, on a cooler evening, simply the outdoors.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Smaller, but Still Quite Appetizing, Taste of Chicago

Although it remains, I believe, the Windy City's biggest communal event and the world's largest food festival, in 2012 the Taste of Chicago is operating at somewhat less gastronomical proportions.

Rather than running 10 days as it has in years past, the Taste is open just 5 days this year, and not wrapping around the 4th of July. Closing this coming Sunday after opening on Wednesday, the Taste also has fewer participating restaurants. There are now just 40 food booths, including three "pop ups" that will be manned by different restaurants each day. This is down from 59 booths last year and previously more than 70. 

While I doubt the downscaling will do much to alter the aversion of folks who disdain the claustrophobic gathering of people stuffing their faces in steamy, sweaty weather, it also shouldn't diminish the Taste's appeal for those who enjoy the populist mix of people and the chance to savor favorite and/or less commonplace foods.

If I haven't been to the Taste of Chicago every year it's existed--excepting 3 years when I lived out of the area and perhaps some early years after its 1980 origin--I haven't missed many. Some years I've gone a couple times, especially if there were artists I wanted to see at the Petrillo Music Shell (Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, Ray Davies, Midnight Oil and the Stereophonics are among some favorite acts I've seen for free; $25 is now charged for seats, but the lawn is still free).

The shorter duration is likely to limit some people's ability to get to the Taste, but once there the experience is essentially what it's always been. However, fewer booths mean there is only a single row of vendors along the south side of Columbus, rather than the previous four-packs of stands down the middle of the drive.

On Thursday afternoon, this made the throng along the main drag less dense, and Columbus should be less densely packed even on busier days. The lines I experienced at the food booths were short or non-existent, but it seems possible that with fewer booths, many may be considerably more crowded on Saturday or Sunday.

But for me, the key to the Taste, on any day, is to take it casually. Although I enjoy Thursday's musical act, Death Cab for Cutie, I had no intention of making my visit a six-hour affair. I got 2 strips of food tickets ($8 for 12 tix) and spent roughly 80 minutes strolling around, seeing what appealed to me and having a pretty robust lunch for $16. I didn't even have to spend on beverages, as free Sierra Mist and Pepsi Next promotional booths adequately fulfilled that need.

In other words, I like to treat it as a nice walk with some unique food (and perhaps some free entertainment, though I didn't view any this year), rather than concern myself with the enormity of the event. So while some people hate the Taste, I love it.

My Tasting strategy also includes availing myself of "Taste" portions, which only require 3, 4 or 5 tickets, rather than the 8 or more many regular portions entail. This allows me to try more things for my $16. I also tend to stay away from pizza and ribs, which I can easily get elsewhere throughout the year, and though Eli's cheesecake is a perennial choice, the Taste is the only place I eat it.

So what did I eat? Glad you asked. (Warning: hardcore vegetarians may want to look away at this point)

Tortilla Encrusted Tilapia Taco
Carbon Live Fire Mexican Gril
4 tickets
Rating: @@@@@
Slow Braised Beef (Taste Portion)
Inspiration Kitchens
(a Pop-Up one day vendor)
5 tickets
Pork Filled Banana Dumpling
Sabor Latino

4 tickets
(I also enjoy their Steak Jibarito, which I've had in past years)
Chocolate Frozen "Baby" Banana (Taste portion)
The Fudge Pot
3 tickets

2 tickets
Mini Chocolate Chip Crunch Dipper
Eli's Cheesecake
5 tickets
1 ticket remaining

And for good measure, a nice shot of Buckingham Fountain:

Click here for more information on the Taste of Chicago, including participating restaurants and entertainment schedules.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

High Notes Make For an Enjoyable, If Imperfect, Evening with Idina Menzel at Ravinia -- Concert Review

Concert Review

Idina Menzel
accompanied by Marvin Hamlisch
and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
July 8, 2012
Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, IL

Following a week where 100 degree temperatures made being outdoors, day or night, rather uncomfortable, Sunday evening at Ravinia the weather was picture perfect.

Unfortunately the star attraction, Idina Menzel, was feeling a bit under it, as she conveyed early in her performance.

Menzel, most famous for starring in the original Broadway productions of Rent and Wicked, explained that she had been rather ill the night before in Minneapolis, but didn't want to cancel her Ravinia gig given her great regard for the storied venue at which she was making her first appearance.

Had she not provided that disclaimer, I doubt that I would've observed that she was sick--especially from my vantage point out on the lawn, though I did sneak some peeks from alongside the pavilion--as she was onstage for nearly two hours, accompanied by legendary composer Marvin Hamlisch conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

However, given her soldiering on, as well as the quite reasonable $10 lawn ticket price, the beautiful weather, pleasant company and a 'loverly' opening set from Hamlisch and the CSO--including "One" and other snippets from his Chorus Line score, as well as a sizable chunk of My Fair Lady--I'll be a tad less critical than I might have otherwise been of Menzel's own performance.

Yes, her stage patter was a bit excessive, making for subpar pacing, her renditions of pop tunes such as Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" were less compelling than selections from her Broadway catalogue, and even the best of those--"Defying Gravity" from Wicked, "No Day But Today" from Rent--weren't quite as full-throated and spectacular as they might have been on another night. 

Had I paid $90 for a pavilion seat or endured a steamy 100 degree evening, it's likely I would've been a bit more disappointed. But Menzel, who I had the pleasure of seeing in Wicked on Broadway, showed why she was capable of drawing a large crowd to Ravinia without, conceivably, having that high a Q rating among the general public.

She did a nice enough job with "The Wizard and I" from Wicked, as well as in channeling Barbra Streisand on "Don't Rain on My Parade."

On Rent's "Take Me or Leave Me," she elicited some vocally impressive audience members to accompany her, making for a cute moment. Based on setlists from prior tour dates, this was seemingly a pre-planned gimmick, but when she brought a woman and daughter from the audience--perhaps friends of hers--to help hit the high notes on "Defying Gravity," it was clear we weren't getting Idina at her very best.

So my @@@@ (out of 5) rating may be a tad generous, but in factoring in several impressive moments--including the stellar CSO set with the affable Hamlisch--and a surprisingly long show, it sufficiently reflects my overall enjoyment of the evening, especially for the price I paid, if not all that precisely Menzel's technical merits on this particular night.

A few weeks ago, Menzel's Wicked co-star Kristin Chenoweth postponed a Chicago concert due to illness, and made it up a couple weeks later. I didn't go to it, but this begs the question: Would you rather have performers--particularly vocalists--reschedule or even cancel if they're not 100%? In other words, can you easier forgive the inconvenience of postponement than accept that on some nights singers may not be at their very best?

Saturday, July 07, 2012

A Quick, If Not Exactly Quixotic, Trip to the Quad Cities

Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa
Unlike some other travel recaps I've written, not just about London, Paris and New York, but less glamorous locales like Grand Rapids and Detroit, you can take this one more as merely an overview of what I did in the Quad Cities, rather than a recommendation for your next road trip.

It isn't that I had a terrible time or that any of my activities were unpleasant. I sufficiently enjoyed myself to justify the 3-hour drive each way and the cost of a couple nights at the Motel 6 in Moline.

My last post, in which I reviewed a Wilco concert that took place at the Adler Theatre in Davenport, clues you in to my impetus for heading west this particular week, and I'm glad I did.

But in assessing the tourist appeal of various attractions I visited--and the area as a whole--well, there's likely a good reason the Quad Cities isn't often cited as an exceptional vacation destination. Rather than finding anything particularly engaging or surprisingly intriguing, much of what I saw could be termed either mediocre or lackluster. Again, not just in comparison to Paris or New York or London, but as opposed to highlights of Grand Rapids, Detroit, Toledo, Indianapolis, Springfield, IL, Madison and most other semi-sizable places within a 5-hour drive of Chicago.

Maybe I missed the really good places, but taking my cues from the AAA Tourbook and some internet research, this is what I did between mid-day Monday and Wednesday morning:

Driving from the Chicago area west on I-88, I first stopped about 65 miles shy of Moline in Dixon, IL, long known as the hometown of President Ronald Reagan, but now semi-famous for having a comptroller who allegedly embezzled $53 million from the town over 22 years. I didn't run into Rita Crundwell or her 300+ horses, but I did the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home.

Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home, Dixon, IL
I'm not a ardent admirer of Ronnie, either as an actor or a president, but have enough curiosity about history and biography to take a look for the $5 fee for a home tour.

The tour guide was perfectly pleasant on a terribly hot day, and I learned a few interesting tidbits, but none of the furnishings in the house is original to the 1920-23 period when the Reagans lived there. And while the 8 minute video in the Visitors Center gave a nice overview of Reagan and Dixon, I can't say I learned all that much.

After a quick drive-by a few other Reagan sites and the ever-exciting downtown Dixon business district on a 100 degree afternoon, I carried on (wayward) toward the Quad Cities.

Finding my motel without much trouble or trepidation, I ventured out to a minor league baseball game between the Quad Cities River Bandits (an "A" affiliate of the Cardinals) the the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.

Modern Woodmen Park
Located in Davenport, next to the Mississippi River, Modern Woodman Park (named now for a local bank) dates back to 1931. Excepting the heat, it was an enjoyable and comfortable ballpark, and a day-of-game ticket cost just $5. The concessions were generally major league prices, but freshly-made smoothies made for something a bit different.

As you can see at left, down the left field line, there is a small corn patch--perhaps an homage to Field of Dreams--and the Centennial Bridge makes for a lovely vista.

Still, beyond the relative novelty--for me--of watching minor league baseball, I can't say that the stadium or the experience was anything all that phenomenal.

The River Bandits lost 9-2, but I must admit I left after the end of the 7th, when it was just 8-2.

My first stop on Tuesday morning--well, after McDonald's for breakfast--was something called the River Music Experience in downtown Davenport. I had gleaned from the website that it was primarily a place for music lessons and live performances, but some museum exhibits were also cited.

I was hoping to learn--or at least see--something pertaining to Bix Beiderbecke, a pioneering jazz musician and Davenport native. But besides an enlarged album cover of a posthumously-released record, there really wasn't anything about him at the RME.

There were a few decent things to look at, like a Wah-Wah petal purportedly used by Jimi Hendrix at a Davenport concert and a collection of concert photographs supplied by the Quad Cities Times, but I took in pretty much everything in under 20 minutes.

After stopping by the Adler Theatre to pick up a ticket for the Wilco show, I went to the Figge Art Museum, shown at top. Designed by a noted British architect named David Chipperfield, the Figge opened in its current form in 2005 but has roots dating back to 1878.

Looking at the Figge's Wikipedia page just now, it cites artworks by Whistler, Chase, Homer, Wyeth, Warhol, Rembrandt, Matisse, Renoir, Braque, de Chirico and Soutine. I swear I walked through every open gallery and saw every painting currently on display, and I saw nothing by any of these artists.

My visit would've been considerably more engaging if I had, for while there was enough to explore to fill 90 minutes, the only "brand name" artists on display were Picasso, Chagall, Beckman, Leger, Jawlensky, Miro, Motherwell, Stuart Davis (all with just one piece each, excepting Beckman's triptych) and Iowa native Grant Wood. Most of these were actually part of the University of Iowa Art Collection, which is on display at the Figge because of a flood at Iowa's gallery (in 2008, so the arrangement seems semi-permanent).

My favorite painting was the one at right by Leger. A display of Frank Lloyd Wright windows and furniture was also nice, and the glass sculptures of corn cobs (below) were fun.

The galleries were quite spacious and comfortable and the art was well-presented with informative wall text accompanying each piece.

For a metro area under 400,000, the Figge is a rather impressive art museum, a bit more so as a building than a collection. If you are in the Quad Cities, it is likely the attraction most worth visiting. But overall, even compared to other Midwestern art museums beyond Chicago--such as those in Milwaukee, Toledo, Indy, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Detroit--it falls a bit short of spectacular.

Nonetheless, the Figge was substantially more interesting to me than the Rock Island Arsenal Museum. This is a free museum that's part of the Rock Island Arsenal, a historic and still operating army weapons facility that occupies much of its own island. The entirety of the Arsenal and its surroundings was pretty impressive, including an old clock tower, a mansion that once served as commander's quarters, the 19th century home of Col. George Davenport, a memorial park of old tanks & howitzers, an old confederate cemetery and the Rock Island National Cemetery.

Going into the museum, I wasn't sure if it would be a showcase of the Arsenal's history, U.S. military history or weapons history. I'm still not entirely sure, as it was kind of an amalgamation of the three, but mostly it seemed to be the latter. The main, and most impressive (in sheer magnitude) display was a wall of guns that went on and on and on. To the right is just one section of it; the whole display is about 6 times as long and includes plenty of rifles, machine guns and more.

If you are fascinated by different makes and models of guns, you certainly should check out the Arsenal Museum. But I really can't say that I am, and while there was some information about the Arsenal itself and military battles, this was rather limited, making my overall enjoyment likewise.

I'm also not all that interested in farm equipment, so although I imagine the John Deere Pavilion in Moline would have blown my mind when I was 4, it wasn't worth more than a brief walk-through.

I actually had been here at least once before, and perhaps twice, but when I inquired at a Visitor's Center in Davenport about places to see, the John Deere Commons--which basically includes a couple hotels and a few restaurants, along with the Pavilion--was the top suggestion.

I did have a pretty good lunch--an Italian Beef sandwich made with shaved prime rib and served by a pretty waitress--at Johnny's Italian Steakhouse, next to the Pavilion and the John Deere Store.

But after all this, it was only about 3:00pm, and the Wilco show didn't start until 7:30.

I considered going to the Putnam Museum in Davenport, which is a natural history museum with an IMAX-type movie screen. Including an exhibit on Ancient Egypt, it seems like it could be a nice resource for families in the community, especially with just a $7 museum admission. But I didn't feel it was essential for me to squeeze in.

Likewise, I didn't feel I had to get to the Niabi Zoo, particularly in the sweltering heat, when the animals would presumably be sleeping in.

So after taking a a drive through downtown Rock Island and chuckling at the sculpture at right, I drove back to downtown Davenport and killed a half-hour reading magazines in the library.

After 5:00pm, I found a parking spot where I could leave my car for the evening's concert, and headed over to the Rhythm City Casino, one of three riverboat gambling choices in the Quad Cities.

While I enjoyed the chance to play blackjack at $5 minimum tables, the dealers were friendly and I sufficiently occupied an hour without much damage to my wallet, there also wasn't anything particularly special about this particular casino.

So then it was time to head to the Wilco show, which I've reviewed here. The Adler Theatre is a fully-restored Art Deco venue dating back to 1931, so it was a pretty cool to see a concert, even if not as ornate as I may have imagined. Though the concert was the highlight of my trip, it also wasn't quite as good as it might have been.

Which pretty much sums up my entire visit to the Quad Cities; enjoyable but far from extraordinary. If you have reason to be there, some of the above might occupy your time--I really don't know of any other places to suggest--but if you're in the Chicago area and looking for a nice road trip destination, there are several others I'd more highly recommend.

Nonetheless, it was a nice jaunt. And on my way home, along I-80 this time, I stopped in Princeton, IL at a Burger King for breakfast. As I pulled into the lot, I was a bit surprised to park next to the car below. Later, I watched as the elderly couple that owned the car--I don't suppose they had bought it new--drove it out of the lot and down the road. On the 4th of July.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

In "Taking Advantage of the Acoustics," Impressively, at the Adler Theatre in Davenport, Wilco Plays It a Bit Too Obscure -- Concert Review

Concert Review

with Kelly Hogan
July 3, 2012
Adler Theatre, Davenport, IA
(Hogan's opening set: @@@@1/2)

Prior to Tuesday night, I had seen Wilco in concert 8 times, all within the Chicago city limits.

This stood as the most times I had seen any one artist without any of the shows being beyond the Chicago metropolitan area. (This Pinterest board runs down many of the acts I've seen multiple times.)

While this certainly might sound trivial, and isn't specifically what spurred me to drive to the Quad Cities--I wanted to see the Figge Art Museum, and the chance to also see Wilco made this an opportune time--I was curious as to how Jeff Tweedy and company might adapt outside their home base in Chicago (or even another big city where fawning fans are in abundant supply).

Within the Windy City, Wilco sells every ticket they put on sale (although a few seem to remain for Sunday's show at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in west suburban Geneva) and several of shows I've seen have been within multi-night stands. The gig I caught last December at the Riviera was fantastic, being heavy on harder guitar-driven songs, but other sets I've seen have included a hefty helping of more atmospheric numbers. It's possible, at least in my mind, that the band mines their catalog a bit deeper when playing to crowds more likely to be filled with hardcore devotees.

In Davenport, I bought a ticket on the day of the show in the seventh of the balcony, with most of the 15 rows behind me completely empty. I wondered if being away from their home turf, where they might actually have to win over fans, could cause Wilco to opt for a more conventional and accessible setlist.

But demonstrating why they're Wilco and I'm not, for much of their set the band played a selection even more obscure and atmospheric than any I readily recall in Chicago. Even though I have all of Wilco's albums and have seen them numerous times, several of the songs they played--particularly during the first half of the show--were beyond my recognition. (See for the full Davenport setlist.)

Not that they didn't play them well. The six-piece band is amazingly  proficient at replicating intricate studio sounds live on stage, and Glenn Kotche's typically thunderous drumming helped ensure the music never really dragged.

Midway through the show, with "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" the only near-populist song to that point, Tweedy explained that they hadn't been playing a lot of theaters and thus were "taking advantage of the acoustics."

So it seems that playing a half-full venue in a small Midwestern locale didn't affect Wilco's song choices nearly as much being indoors--in a lovely old theater--did.

Although I much preferred the Riv show, I appreciated this one as a nice complement. Now 15+ years into their career, Wilco has likely established itself as one of the top 30 American bands of all-time. They have an impressive wealth of material, and like Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Phish and relatively few other live acts within my familiarity, they substantially change up their setlists every show. While I prefer their rockier side, I wouldn't be much of a fan if I couldn't also enjoy them at their more idiosyncratic.

Fortunately, the latter part of the set and encores included more crowd-pleasing--at least for me--stuff such as "I'm Always in Love," "Heavy Metal Drummer," "I'm the Man Who Loves You," "A Shot in the Arm," "California Stars" and "Can't Stand It."

Of course, unlike at other recent tour stops, they didn't end the night by playing a four-song second encore including early gems like "Monday" and "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" off 1996's Being There (still my favorite Wilco album). Rather, they left the stage after playing just one more tune, and one I didn't know at that ("Dreamer in My Dreams").

It was that kind of night. Excellent and enjoyable in its own way--highlighted perhaps by a sensational opening set by an adult-styled singer named Kelly Hogan--but for my Wilco tastes, a bit more obscure than optimal.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Hives Break Out a Rashly Thunderous Performance, with Plenty of Cleverly Creative Fun -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Hives
with Fidlar and Flesh Lights
The Vic Theatre, Chicago
June 30, 2012

It's unfair to the Hives that I probably hold the Vines and the Strokes against them.

Not that the latter two bands didn't have their moments, as obviously did the White Stripes, who were also part of the garage rock revival that reared its head in the year 2000.

But with the other "revival" bands now extinct or running on fumes, I can't say I've given the Hives much thought in recent years.

Although I bought 2000's Veni Vidi Vicious and 2004's Tyrannosaurus Hives around their release, I completely ignored 2007's The Black & White Album--which my friend Dave feels is the Hives' best album--and only knew about the recently released Lex Hives and the band's Chicago appearance because of Dave.

But in catching them at the Vic with Dave, after familiarizing myself with Lex Hives, I was reminded of what a fun and ferocious band the Hives remain. And though this was my first time seeing them live, I feel safe in suggesting that few rock acts--especially at the club or small theater level--give as much thought to putting on a performance (rather than just a rag tag rock show) than does the Swedish quintet.

As you can see in the photo above and the video at bottom, The Hives took the stage in top hats and tails, with a backdrop suggesting they were controlled by a puppeteer.

But while the band's coordinated costuming is a fun touch and the hyper-loquacious Howlin' Pelle Almqvist is a fantastic frontman, what really makes it all work is the music. Nearly all of The Hives' tunes have a similar frenetic energy, and 90 minutes of it was certainly adequate, but though the set was heavy on songs from Lex Hives, the potent live renditions further showed that the new album is packed with gems. (The setlist from the Vic isn't yet up on, but was similar to this one.)

New tunes like "Come On!," "Go Right Ahead," "Wait a Minute" and "Patrolling Days" sounded great, as did older ones such as "Main Offender," "Tick Tick Boom" and "Hate To Say I Told You So."

Almqvist provided engaging banter between each song, and while this is part of what made the show so fun, I thought that at least a couple of times he should have muzzled himself and let the band roll from one song to the next, Ramones style. Sometimes Howlin' Pelle couldn't help but get in his own way.

Yet even though there wasn't much in the way of stylistic variance, everything the Hives played sounded terrific. Almqvist's brother, Niklas, one of the band's two guitarists, provided the only other real focal point, as despite their matching uniforms--which were peeled off throughout the sweaty show--the rest of the band largely kept to the background.

But that was fine, as Howlin' Pelle hogged the spotlight like Mick Jagger or Steven Tyler on amphetamines. The end result was one of the best shows I've seen this year, and one of the most impressive in recent memory by an artist I had never seen before. It sounds strange to say--intentionally, of course--but if you can catch the Hives, you really should.

Two bands opened the show, starting with a trio called Flesh Points from Austin, TX. They were impressive in their aggression and volume, but the lack of obvious melody in their songs reminded me how special bands like The Ramones, The Clash, Husker Du, Nirvana and Green Day were in their ability to blend noise and speed with enjoyable ear candy. Second band, Fidlar, from L.A. showed they had a nice gift for melody and harmony, but too much so in the service of silliness. They sang of cheap beer, getting high and being wasted while the singer spoke of partying and rolled around on the stage. To his credit, he noted that just a few weeks ago his band was playing at house parties, but perhaps they should have toned down the dumb to better capitalize on a nice opening slot.

Speaking of opening, here's a video I found on YouTube of how the Hives took the stage, with most of their first song, "Come On!"