Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Another Mind Numbing Mindset List (and My Attempt at Some Alternate Entries)

Beloit College recently released its latest Mindset List, an annual exercise ostensibly aimed at pegging the proclivities of its incoming freshman class--in this case, the Class of 2016.

I applaud the presumed intent of the list--beyond getting national press each year for the small liberal arts college--which is seemingly to note how our world changes, and with it, the reference points of 18-year-olds.

As an advertising copywriter, it is important to remind myself that younger generations may be rather oblivious to touchstones that are second nature to me, whether the names of the four Beatles, the notoriety of Oliver North, the exploits of Refrigerator Perry or simply "the Yellow Pages."

But as I ranted about in depth two years ago upon release of the Class of 2014 Mindset List, with several laudable exceptions--and this year's rundown seems a bit stronger than some recent ones--I believe the Beloit list makers miss their mark in large part.

Although the introduction to the list describes it as "an internationally monitored catalog of the changing worldview of each new college generation," to me, too many of the items included fail to be substantive earmarks of how society has shifted.

I get that part of the point of the list is to alert the older crowd to things that teens are likely not tuned into, so it's okay to cite some things that adolescents may never have heard of. I also realize the difficulty of citing truly transformative changes that are native to a single year any more so than the few before or after it. And noting the preponderance of Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, iPhones and texting is not only a bit too obvious, but now somewhat dated.

But--as pointed out by a critique of this year's list that I enjoyed--per #4 on the Beloit list, does anyone really consider Michael Jackson's family American royalty? Or, per #37 (see the whole list here), has the fact that "Martin Lawrence has always been banned from Saturday Night Live" really affected a generation's mindset? Or anyone's? And per #39, has the fact that "The Metropolitan Opera House in New York has always translated operas on seatback screens" truly altered the consciousness of your average teen?

While insights like #13--"They can’t picture people actually carrying luggage through airports rather than rolling it"--and a number of others are rather astute and reflect a difference between the proverbial then and now, too much of Beloit's list consists rather flaccidly of simply "Things that happened in 1994" (i.e. the birth year of most new freshmen).

Yes, in 1994 or early 1995, (#10) the movie Dumb and Dumber was released, (#36) Steven Breyer joined the U.S. Supreme Court, (#43) the World Series was cancelled, (#44) Aleve first became available, (#49) the World Trade Organization was formed, (#50) L.L. Bean changed the name of their hunting boots, (#64) Robert Osbourne has been hosting films on TCM and (#75) The Sistine Chapel ceiling was cleaned, but I fail to see how these things--and several similar examples--have genuinely affected the mindset of teens. Or that their ignorance to some of these things really differentiates their outlook from those of people a bit older.

For other reasons, I also have a problem with two of the list's football tidbits. (#14) says "There has always been football in Jacksonville but never in Los Angeles." This would be rather shrewd if the word "pro" was added before "football." As it stands, #1 ranked USC might take offense. And given that Beloit is in Wisconsin, I get the appeal of (#19) "The Green Bay Packers have always celebrated with the Lambeau Leap." But given that those born in 1994 would be acutely oblivious to anything that occurred before 1998 at the earliest, I think something such as "Aaron Rogers is the only quarterback they've seen lead the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl victory," would be a bit more telling. Noting that Brett Favre's greatest glories--relatively recent for many of us--are almost a full lifetime ago for college freshmen is, IMHO, more revelatory than the Lambeau Leap inception date.

Anyway, with the caveat that my suggestions below are also imperfect, partially because I could easily have repeated many of the 20 things I cited in my 2010 post--such as noting that Generation Z has likely never used a physical phone book or map, will never speak to a travel agent or open a car door with a key--here is Seth Saith's list of things that might significantly distinguish an 18-year-old's mindset from my own, soon-turning-44, worldview (I should note that I don't have kids and am rarely around teenagers, making many of these more presumptive than observational):

1. They never saw (or don't recall seeing) Michael Jordan play basketball, except possibly with the Washington Wizards.

2. They don't remember when Apple made products that didn't begin with a lowercase i.

3. Many have likely never ridden in a car that didn't have airbags.

4. Lollapalooza is known to them only as a festival held in Chicago.

5. They have never seen a good new Keanu Reeves movie.

6. They have never personally asked to sit in a smoking or non-smoking section.

7. They are unaware that Dave Grohl was in a band before the Foo Fighters.

8. The Curse of the Bambino means nothing to them.

9. They have never looked for movie showtimes in a newspaper.

10. Eddie Murphy's claim to fame is as the voice of Donkey.

11. The alternative to Internet Explorer has never been Netscape Navigator.

12. They have never used a cassette and likely never seen one.

13. They don't know how Princess Diana died or who she was with when she did.

14. They have never used a card catalog in a library.

15. They couldn't pick Al Gore out of a lineup.

16. Friends and family have always been reachable, even while driving.

17. They have always been able to see Olympic events in real-time. Err, scratch that.

18. They don't know what 35mm refers to.

19. Steroids have always been more prominent in baseball than Astroturf. 

20. They have always been able to see openly gay characters on prime-time network TV. 

21. They have never licked a stamp, and possibly never used one.

22. The most successful golfer of their lifetime is (half) black. The most successful rapper is white.

23. They don't remember the squeak of a 56K modem.

24. They have never used a pay phone.

25. UFC is a credible sport covered on SportsCenter; boxing is a joke in which the best fighters avoid each other.

26. They may not realize that George Bush declared war on Iraq in 1991, before his son did in 2003.

27. Julia Roberts isn't all that famous.

28. Any prime-time programming they've seen has potentially included ads for Viagra and other erectile dysfunction medications.

29. The best player in baseball today was a high school senior when they were freshmen.

30. Dracula was once the only significant pop culture vampire (until the Interview With A Vampire movie was released in 1994?)

31. The Kardashians. Enough said.

32. They've probably never gone to a store named Kinko's.

33. Jeremy Piven has always been more famous than John Cusack. 

34. They've never laughed at The Far Side.

35. Only Christian Bale has been Batman.

36. They know the songs from Wicked better than those from The Wizard of Oz.

37. Being able to see satellite imagery--and street views--of your home is no big deal. 

38. The futuristic Guggenheim museum designed by a visionary architect named Frank is in Bilbao, Spain, not New York City.

39. They don't know how astonishing it is that Keith Richards is still alive. Or who he is. 

40. They have never waited in line to buy tickets. 

41. Paul Newman is known as a purveyor of pasta sauce and salsa, not one of the greatest movie stars ever. 

42. One day they'll be surprised to discover that Words With Friends is a lot like Scrabble. 

43. They don't find it strange--still--to see the Manhattan skyline without the Twin Towers.

44. Stadiums have always been named for corporations. 

45. They seemingly don't realize that jeans were once designed to cover one's behind.

46. The Jersey Shore has always been represented by Snooki, not Springsteen. 

47. Many have read every Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games book, but not The Da Vinci Code and nothing by Stephen King. 

48. They have never seen a Woolworth's store or a Service Merchandise catalog. 

49. Most have never tried to see 3D images in a Magic Eye illustration.

50. They have never needed to use a 9-volt battery.

They may not be able to fill in many of the following blanks:

51. Roget's ____________

52. _______ & Ebert at the Movies

53. Calvin & _________

54. Ross, ________, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe and _________

55. ________ Expos

56. Hootie & the _________

57. Hanging _had

58. The ______ Gretzky

59. "MMM____" by Hanson

60. The _ _ _ Bug that was supposed to strike at the turn of the century.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Getting My Fixx on the Streets of Skokie -- Concert Review

Concert Review

The Fixx
Backlot Bash, Skokie, IL
August 25, 2012

I can't say that I've ever really been a fan of The Fixx.

Though the British band had a string of hits in the 1980s that couldn't help but breed familiarity, I've never owned an album, seen them live nor could name any of their members.

And at this time a week ago, if asked to name every '80s band I wouldn't mind seeing live--even for free at a local fest--I never would have named the Fixx.

But after discovering (in writing this article) that they would be headlining on Saturday night at Skokie's Backlot Bash--at which I was looking forward to seeing Tributosaurus as Tom Petty on Friday night (which I did) and Local H on Sunday night (which I missed due to the rain)--I made a point of going to see The Fixx and am glad I did.

Without a point of reference, I can't comment on how they compared to their early days, but in his mid-50s, singer Cy Curnin cuts a dashing, engaging figure and still sings well. And if Wikipedia is to be believed, the rest of the band still consists of the classic lineup.

Just among the audience sitting near me, it was clear that some attendees were hardcore Fixx fans who had come to Skokie specifically to see a cherished old favorite, yet one that is still putting out new albums. So I can't blame The Fixx for delivering much the same setlist they had played the other night at a paid admission gig in Milwaukee, with the greatest hits one would expect but also a number of new songs.

I--and presumably many with a "check out anyone who's presented for free" festival mindset--didn't recognize any songs until "One Thing Leads to Another" 10 tunes into the set, leading me to think that perhaps the band should have adjusted their setlist for thr Backlot Bash crowd. But Curnin & Co. confidently gave the throng on Oakton Street their current Fixx.

With the title song of their new Beautiful Friction album and five other new tunes, The Fixx made a strong case that they are still putting out quality music more than a generation beyond being in heavy MTV rotation.

And really, they didn't have that many hits that a casual observer such as myself would know. Really, just "One Thing Leads to Another," "Saved By Zero," "Stand or Fall," "Red Skies" and "Are We Ourselves," the first four of which were dutifully--and well--played.

More ardent Fixx fans likely also appreciated hearing "Deeper and Deeper," "Driven Out," "Secret Separation," "How Much is Enough" and "Less Cities, More Moving People," which also appear on the band's hits collections.

For the price paid--nothing--on a very comfortable night in Skokie, this was a performance that delivered adequate enjoyment to slight Fixx fans--and given my appreciation for their top hits, I guess I should count myself as one--and probably considerably more so to serious ones.

I wasn't overly enthralled by the songs I didn't know and can't say that I was dazzled throughout the entire performance. The Fixx were enjoyable if not quite--at least for me--sensational.

But as the Backlot bash organizers did with Fastball last year, this was another case of being reintroduced to a band that proved to have a deeper history--and more impressively perhaps, ongoing & current activity--than I ever knew or appreciated.

One thing leads to another, indeed.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

One Thing Leads to Another Backlot Bash, This Weekend in Skokie

Click image to access BacklotBash.com
On behalf of the Village of Skokie and my fellow residents--err, scratch that; on behalf of no one but myself but with the presumed blessing of the aforementioned--I invite one and all to come to town this weekend for the annual Backlot Bash.

Actually, scratch that too. While I think the music, movie, food and additional offerings of Skokie's premier festival are well worth your time, and our village is marked by a multicultural spirit of inclusiveness, one of the things I like best about the Bash is that it's comfortably populated, not overly besieged by burgeoning masses.

So feel free to attend--and yes, it's free to attend, unlike Naperville's Ribfest, which wanted to charge me $25 just to get enter the grounds--but preferably not in droves that will preclude me from easily parking nearby or getting a prime seat for the headline musical acts, as I have in years past.

Located along Oakton Street in downtown Skokie, alongside the Village Green that separates the library from village hall, the Backlot Bash is so named because the area once served as a backlot set for silent films between 1907-15, including those made by Chicago's Essanay Studios. As such, standup cutouts of Charlie Chaplin typically decorate the Bash, although there is no evidence that Chaplin ever filmed in Skokie. (Some may enjoy this piece I wrote, which cites Charlie's ties to Chicago.)

Although, for me and seemingly many others, the musical acts are the centerpiece of the Backlot Bash, there is an abundance of activities for attendees of all ages, including--tying in to the festival's theme--screenings of silent films at the historic, now nicely renovated Skokie Theatre.

These will run between Noon and 5pm on Saturday and Sunday; this page lists the films that will be shown, albeit without exact showtimes. I am also unsure if the films will be accompanied by a live pianist, as they have in prior years; I hope so as this was a real treat.

At 10:30pm on Friday, the Skokie Theatre will host a special screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show to benefit the Les Turner ALS Foundation. Details and a link to buy tickets can be found here.

Although the food booths have tended to offer typical festival fare, I do recall some nice offerings by Myron & Phil's, so hopefully they'll be there again. The Backlot Bash website doesn't list food vendors, but notes that this year its "extended beer tent will be offering beer, wine and hard lemonade."

Other activities include the 5K Backlot Dash and Kids' Run, Carnival Rides, a Bingo tent, a Classic Car Show and a Pancake Breakfast.

And especially for a free-of-charge, relatively sparsely attended local fest, I've been quite impressed by the caliber of musical acts the Backlot Bash has offered.

In the past, I've seen the Smoking Popes, Fastball, American English, Tributosaurus, Lonnie Brooks, Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials and others. The talent buyers for the Bash seem to really do their homework, because even the unknown bands I've caught there have typically been very good, and a band like Fastball showed last year that they remain terrifically enjoyable, even if they're not exactly top of mind anymore.

So I'm really looking forward to seeing how The Fixx--the inspiration for this post's title--are on Saturday night, and local favorites Local H on Sunday. On Friday night, the always great Tributosaurus will become Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers; hopefully they'll play personal favorites like "A Thing About You," "Straight Into Darkness" and "Change of Heart" that Tom himself has long since forgotten about.

I'm not sure how much else I'll get to, but am also intrigued--see the full musical roster here--by The Steepwater Band, The Handcuffs and a Brazilian guitarist named Paulinho Garcia.

Should be quite a hot time in the city--err, village. Hope you can make it; although perhaps not everyone all at once. Without a preponderance of homerism, I do feel the Backlot Bash deserves to attract more people than it often does, but I would hate for it to swell to the size of this sage Yogi-ism: "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded."

But until then, come one, come all. On the imagined behalf of my hometown, Seth saith, "Welcome to Skokie."

Speaking of Skokie pride, this is a t-shirt I designed, but never did much to mass produce or market. But if you would like to order one--or better yet, a thousand--feel free to get in touch or leave a comment to that effect.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Titan of the Clash: Commemorating the 60th Birthday of the Late, Great Joe Strummer

On August 21, 1952, John Graham Mellor was born in Ankara, Turkey, the son of a British diplomat and a Scottish nurse. In the mid-to-late '70s, he would become better known as Joe Strummer, co-founder, lead vocalist, guitarist and lyricist of The Clash.

Although I liked the Clash from the first time I heard "London Calling," around the time of the album's release in 1980, for a long time I mistakenly thought Mick Jones was the band's main singer and de facto leader, likely because of his subsequent success with Big Audio Dynamite while Strummer laid relatively low.

And even by the late '90s, when Strummer was releasing pretty good albums with the Mescaleros, I foolishly never made a point of trying to see him live, even though a number of Clash songs were part of his set.

Sadly, in December 2002, shortly after he and Jones had their only post-Clash on-stage reunion at a Mescaleros charity gig in London, Strummer died suddenly at the age of 50 from a congenital heart defect.

Since then, via a couple fine documentaries--The Future is Unwritten and Let's Rock Again--and a near constant exploration of the Clash's extraordinary musical output, I've come to appreciate--well beyond I had during his lifetime--just how great, important and influential Joe Strummer was. He was, with due respect to Joey Ramone and Johnny Rotten, probably the greatest punk rocker ever, all the more so because of how far the Clash transcended "punk."

So while he's not around to celebrate his 60th birthday, beyond just the power of YouTube--from which I include a number of choice videos--Joe Strummer indeed lives on, as he conceivably forever will.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

System of a Down Tears It Up in Rosemont -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

System of a Down
with The Deftones
Allstate Arena
August 15, 2012

Why don't Presidents fight the war?
Why do they always send the poor?

More than anything else, that incisive lyric from System of a Down's brilliant, Grammy-winning 2005 song "B.Y.O.B."--on my shortlist of the 21st century's best--is what made me realize how much the band transcended most of the Nu-Metal genre with which they'd been lumped.

Although SOAD released their first album in 1998 and the smash Toxicity in 2001, due to my aversion and/or indifference to bands such as Korn, Linkin Park, Tool and Limp Bizkit, I didn't pay much attention, even to the glorious single, "Chop Suey."

I can't recall what prompted me to explore Mesmerize, the first of sibling albums in 2005 (along with Hypnotize), but when I did, I found the title apt.

The music and the lyrics were wildly inventive, fused with heavy metal volume, punk protest and rap topicality, but in a style all System's own.

Seeing SOAD live in 2005 further blew me away and, in rueing the relative lack of contemporary bands that are releasing socially commentative music in the wake of economic meltdown, I've looked to System as a paragon of rock activism and hoped they would re-activate.

Last year, without releasing any new music, the So. Cal quartet re-emerged to play a number of international festivals, and have now embarked on a U.S. tour that brought them back to the Allstate Arena on Wednesday.

After a solidly entertaining opening set by the Deftones, another acclaimed nu-metal band, yet one whose music I've never explored, System of a Down once again showed that they are a powerhouse live act as they dazzled the not-quite-full "Horizon" crowd with their unique style of hyperkinetic songcraft.

Tunes like "B.Y.O.B.," "Psycho," "Chop Suey," "Bounce," "Cigaro," "Sugar" and many more kept the throng on the floor in a state of perpetual frenzy and those of us with seats never needing to use them over a 90-minute barrage. (Full setlist here)

While it was cool to see the crowd react to "B.Y.O.B." and other Mesmerize/Hypnotize songs as classics, rather than the new songs they were on the last tour, given the topical insight that has elevated System's music, it was a bit amiss to not hear any new material.

With the state of affairs in the world being what they've been over the past few years, I am eager to hear SOAD's spin on Wall Street malfeasance, corporate corruption, political impotence and all the rest. With the caveat that singer Serj Tankian and guitarist Daron Malakian have released solo projects in the intervening years that I haven't explored--and may well have plenty of politicism to them--it felt a trifle lacking for such an incendiary voice of enlightened dissent to run through a greatest hits set, as enjoyable as it was.

And perhaps slightly as a result, along with the fact that band members--and I--are now 7 years older, Wednesday's show didn't seem quite as ferocious as I recalled the 2005 gig being.

Yet, based on post-show reactions from the audience, it seemed no one was disappointed with what was a tremendously entertaining performance by what remains a great band. In fact, on the way to my car I witnessed one exuberant--and perhaps overserved--fan humping a tree while exclaiming, "That show was so awesome!"

Even without quite that abandon, I was certainly glad to have System in a Down back in action and giving their new and old Chicago fans a potent reminder of their rare power and panache, both musically and viscerally, albeit without any of the gimmickry accoutrements that characterized Coldplay's great show last week.

Given the band's stretch of dormancy, it wasn't too surprising to see almost an utter lack of teenagers in the house, but here's hoping that younger fans will again come to realize the greatness of an act that not only provides such an animated assault, but actually has something to say.

Here's a taste of "Chop Suey" from Wednesday night in Rosemont (video not shot by me):

Friday, August 10, 2012

By Amping Up The Theatrics, Coldplay Raises Their Game -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

with Carli XCX and
Marina & the Diamonds
United Center
August 8, 2012

Even after my friend Paolo--who attends more concerts than I do--told me that Coldplay's performance on Tuesday was the "best show I have seen all year," I remained skeptical about how much I would enjoy their show Wednesday night at the UC.

Although I had picked up a $29.50 behind-the-stage ticket the other day, due to wanting to see--and yes, review--the latest tour by arguably the biggest band going at the moment, I had been underwhelmed by Coldplay's 2006 and 2008 concerts at the same venue.

I have enjoyed the British band's music to varying extents over the years--I still believe their second and first albums (of five primary studio discs) remain the best, in that order--and loved them the first time I saw them live, at the relatively intimate Eagles Ballroom in Milwaukee, in 2003.

But especially for a band that had hit the highest of commercial heights, their past United Center shows had seemed rather tepid; 90-minute by-the-book affairs that offered a few nice songs and lighting cues, but were rather devoid of spontaneity or anything to put them over-the-top.

Though many artists have delivered superlative concerts without rearranging their nightly setlists, not coincidentally my favorite live performers--notably Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam, among others--are those that provide a unique show every evening in every city, even if only by swapping a few songs in and out.

I realize that it seemingly shouldn't affect my enjoyment of a Coldplay show in Chicago to know they played the exact same one in Cleveland, Detroit and Indianapolis (per se), or even on the previous night in Chicago, but this sense of scripted regimentation made their gigs seem relatively lackluster.

But while Wednesday night's show was filled with undeniably scripted elements--including light-up wristbands that fans received on arrival, a ton of confetti and huge balloons bounding through the crowd, all by the fourth song--all the theatrics (i.e. gimmicks) served Coldplay terrifically well.

By turning every song into an event--in addition to the above, the band played on a B-stage in the middle of the arena, a C-stage near the back of the stands, employed all sorts of lights & lasers, and more--the band correspondingly amped up their own performance. Or at least it felt that way, which is good enough.

Singer Chris Martin never stopped bouncing around his considerable terrain and in providing the backbeat to this three-ring circus, Will Champion's drumming sounded particularly powerful.

Although for another band, all this jazz might have come off as overbearingly hokey, to Coldplay's credit, they quite satisfyingly figured out how to go from merely performing a concert to thoroughly putting on a show from beginning to end.

Yes, their best songs remain those they played in 2003--"In My Place," "Yellow," "Clocks," "The Scientist," "God Put A Smile Upon Your Face"--but all the bombast pumped life into so-so cuts from 2011's Mylo Xyloto and helped to ensure the 100-minute show never dragged.

And after reading that on Tuesday, Martin tried to honor a fan request to play "Amsterdam" (from A Rush of Blood to the Head) only to abort it after the first verse, it was nice that on Night 2 in Chicago, Coldplay played it in full for the first time since 2005. A few more random acts of inspiration would do them good, and they certainly have the catalog to do it ("Politik," "Shiver," "Everything's Not Lost," "Talk," "Moses" and "Til Kingdom Come" are just a few unplayed old favorites they could easily sprinkle in).

You can take a look at Wednesday's setlist on Setlist.fm; other than "Amsterdam" it matches almost every other show they've played in 2012. But rather than feeling like they were going through the motions, Wednesday's performance (and apparently Tuesday's) seemed like something special, and not just because Martin kept proclaiming his love for Chicago or name-dropped Michael Jordan in his "What a Wonderful World" intro to "Fix You."

Although I was hoping for the best, going in I was expecting to write about how Coldplay delivered a good, but far from great show. That I believe they delivered a fantastic one only makes me sense how satisfying their performance must have been to much more fervent fans.

And while a lot of people seemingly decry "arena rock" and might cringe at the thought of such a populist show, sitting in the third deck, behind the stage at the United Center was infinitely more comfortable--and thus enjoyable--than being crammed in at the Metro, which I was for Garbage on Tuesday night.

To get a sense of all the festivities, look for any live Coldplay clip from 2012 on YouTube. But since this song was only played in full on August 8, I'll leave you with a video of "Amsterdam" (not shot by me):

Opening the show were two acts featuring pretty, innocuous female singers from Britain, Carli XCX and Marina & the Diamonds, who impressed most with their tight bare midriffs. At least in 2008, I got Richard Ashcroft (of The Verve). Kudos to you, Coldplay, for a superb show, but next time bring along Maximo Park, Kaiser Chiefs or someone else that deserves greater American exposure.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

A Shirley All-Too-Hot and Steamy Night of Impressive Garbage -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

with White Mystery
Metro, Chicago
August 7, 2012

Almost as soon as Garbage took the stage at Metro Tuesday night, I couldn't wait for the show to end.

This doesn't mean that their performance was bad nor even that I didn't find the music highly enjoyable.

And I realize that this might sound like the kvetching of an fat old grump who knowingly no longer enjoys standing throughout general admission concerts--and typically avoids them.

But although this isn't the fault of Garbage themselves, I can't say I had much fun at their show. 

While I salute the Metro in celebrating its 30th year as one of Chicago's most notable concert venues, the rare exception I made in going to a concert hall without any non-VIP seating options will become even more rare.

Ironically, as I found a post in the back of the room to lean on, discomfort due to standing for the show's duration wasn't even the problem. But even at the very back of the Metro's extremely full main floor, I was packed in like a proverbial sardine and--without any noticeable air conditioning or fans near me--I found myself sweating with about the same profuseness I would in a sauna.

Plus, I was next to a woman with a beer cart who was a bit neurotic about anyone crowding her space, and also had hundreds of people squeezing by me on their way to and from the beer.

So while I should focus more on Garbage itself--which I wish I could've done more pleasurably at the show--it's unavoidable for me to take measure of their performance without noting how the surroundings mitigated my enjoyment.

Mind you, that I would even--at this juncture--purchase a G.A. ticket to see Garbage at Metro should indicate how much I've liked the Madison, WI-based band over the years.

And based upon what I saw and heard, they still do what they do very well, if not any better than they did years ago.

Certainly, I still relished hearing the band, led by  dynamic singer Shirley Manson, rip though songs like "Stupid Girl," "Special," "Push It," "Only Happens When It Rains" and "Vow."

But in noting that all five of these songs come from the band's first two albums, and that cuts from their recent 5th studio disc, Not Your Kind of People, fit in well but weren't as great as the early stuff, I suspect that even from a seat in the balcony of the Riv or Vic this still would've registered as a @@@@ performance, not quite an absolutely phenomenal one.

As Manson noted from the stage, it's admirable that the band formed in 1994 by noted producers Butch Vig, Duke Erickson and Steve Marker--who first met with Shirley at the Metro--is still an active entity in 2012. Now in her mid-40s, the Scottish Manson remains likely the most ferocious--and perhaps the very best--frontwoman I've ever seen. Her singing was strong and the band--abetted by former Jane's Addiction bassist Eric Avery--sounded great. Though I didn't see him well from my vantage point, Vig is an impressively powerful drummer, along with his other talents.

Thus, if you like Garbage's music and have a convenient chance to see them live, there's no reason not to. They are still one of the best live acts going, even if they're not really breaking new ground.

But given my distaste for my suffocating and sweltering experience at the Metro, it's hard to say that taking in this Garbage concert was worth the effort. Although I'll forever love live music in a conducive fashion, as they sing in one of their best songs--from their debut album and not played on Tuesday--"This is not my idea of a good time."

Opening the show was White Mystery, a coed duo with lots of energy and hair that was more impressive in their tenacity than their songcraft.


See the full setlist for Garbage at Metro on Setlist.fm and click here for a decent YouTube video of "Only Happy When It Rains" from Tuesday night.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Merle Haggard is Okie (From Muskogee) Dokey; Sound, Heat at Congress Theater Are Far From It -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Merle Haggard
with Jamey Johnson
Congress Theater, Chicago
August 1, 2012

I never saw Johnny Cash perform live, and never even considered doing so when the opportunity may have existed, but now I wish I had.

Having come to realize that greatness transcends genres, despite a general apathy for country music, a few years ago I made a point of seeing Willie Nelson for the first time. I also began exploring the music--mainly the many hits--of Merle Haggard.

I had seen Haggard in 2005 on a bill with Bob Dylan--a pretty cool pairing of legendary songwriters--but never as a headliner. Noting the cheap ticket prices for his Wednesday concert at the Congress, and not knowing how much longer the 75-year-old will be touring, I made a day-of-show decision and bought a cheap ticket at the door.

Preceding Haggard was Jamey Johnson, a country singer about half his age who embodies the low-key, no-nonsense songs of gravity--almost a white southern blues, if you will--approach to country music that is what I enjoy about Johnny, Willie, Merle and Waylon much more than many latter-day purveyors of twangy songs about cars & bars, beer & whiskey.

I'd checked out Johnson's critically-acclaimed albums, That Lonesome Song and The Guitar Song, at some point, but not enough to really recognize anything he played. He certainly seemed like a substantive performer exuding integrity rather than buffoonery, although there was perhaps a bit too much low-key sameness for me to get too excited about his hourlong set.

A nice moment came late in Johnson's performance when he brought a young girl--perhaps his daughter but I couldn't hear his introduction--on stage to sing with him on "In Color," which Spotify lists as his "Top Hit."

At about 10:00pm, as Haggard took the stage--looking a bit like his name, but seemingly in good spirits--it dawned on me that the average age of the headline performer at the last three shows I'd witnessed at the Congress Theater is 79, having seen Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis there in 2011.

I was also soon reminded that the 85-year-old former movie theater--imposing but not particularly ornate and far from refurbished--in not exactly the best place to see a concert, even if the price is right.

First of all, on a warm but not sweltering evening outside in Chicago, inside the Congress it was plenty hot. Not quite "I think I'm gonna leave" hot, but with no air conditioning or cooling fans apparent, rather sweatily uncomfortable up in the balcony.

Even worse was the audio quality during Haggard's performance. A couple times early in his set, he stopped the music, called a roadie onstage--who never seemed to check anything--and spoke to the crowd about the subpar sound. And from the second row of the balcony, I had a tough time hearing his vocals.

I obviously can't know if the problems were with Haggard's microphone & equipment, his technicians or possibly even his singing, but the issues made me recall that both Berry and Lewis were also demonstrably troubled by audio issues at the Congress. Without specifically knowing where the blame lies, I can't help but be terribly disappointed by my concert experiences at the venue.

From what I could tell, Merle's voice was in good stead and I enjoyed hearing him (as best I could). "Mama Tried," "Okie From Muskogee," "Pancho and Lefty" and Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" were the only songs I recognized, but the crowd's response indicated that a number of others were notable Haggard chestnuts. (I don't yet see a setlist posted on Setlist.fm.)

Toward the end of his 75 minute performance, Haggard brought Johnson on-stage to duet on a song I also couldn't name. In addition to not being able to discern much of what Haggard was singing--the band itself was loud enough to hear, but their volume could have used a boost as well--I absolutely couldn't make out anything he said from the stage. That's a shame because he seemed to be relatively affable and verbose.

So I suspect that my @@@1/2 rating may be a 1/2@ shy of reflecting the performance Haggard gave, and more accurately gauges--and perhaps even overrates by 1/2@--my enjoyment of it, which was substantially diminished because of factors seemingly beyond Merle's control. Nothing I heard was bad except for the way I heard it.

I knew going in that this was a show I would have to enjoy without the luxury of already knowing and liking many of the songs. I was fine with that and am glad I got to see Merle Haggard while the opportunity still exists. If only I could have heard him a good bit better.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

51 Years On, The Zombies Still Roam the Earth, Melodically -- Concert Review

Concert Review

The Zombies
Viper Alley, Lincolnshire, IL
July 31, 2012

My Mt. Rushmore of British Invasion bands has always been the Beatles, Stones, Who and Kinks.

But with due respect to the Animals, Hollies, Yardbirds, Searchers, Herman's Hermits, Dave Clark 5, Mannfred Mann, Gerry & the Pacemakers and anyone else--not counting Cream, Zeppelin, Sabbath, Traffic or Deep Purple, who came later--over the past decade I've come to appreciate that The Zombies likely rank fifth in this exalted category.

For a long time before that, I didn't give the Zombies much thought and when I did, it was likely in reference to one of these three songs: "She's Not There," "Tell Her No" and "Time of the Season."

I don't think it was until 2003, when the inclusion of Odessey and Oracle at #80 on Rolling Stone's list of "The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time" prompted me to explore that 1968 masterpiece--released after the Zombies had initially disbanded--and more of their great early singles, that I came to appreciate the breadth and brilliance of the band formed in 1961 by Rod Argent, Colin Blunstone, Chris White, Paul Atkinson and Hugh Grundy while they were schoolboys in St. Albans, England. (For a sampling of The Zombies beyond their three biggest hits, you can listen to the Spotify playlist I embedded at the bottom of this post.)

The timing of my Zombie awakening was fortuitous, for in October 2004 I was astute enough to attend a Park West double-bill with a reconstituted Zombies (keyboardist Argent and singer Blunstone have long been the mainstays) and another terrific, underappreciated '60s band, Love, whose leader Arthur Lee would pass away in 2006.

I recall that show being very good and although I haven't heard much about the Zombies' activity in the intervening years--completely missing that they released a well-reviewed album, Breathe In, Breathe Out in 2011--when I noted that they would be playing Viper Alley, a new club in Lincolnshire, I was eager to see them again. (The Zombies also performed at the Mayne Stage in Rogers Park on Wednesday.)

The concert was a very enjoyable reminder of a legendary band's great legacy, as Argent and Blunstone--accompanied by bassist Jim Rodford, a friend of theirs from '61 and a latter-day Kink, drummer Steve Rodford (Jim's son) and guitarist Tom Toomey--ran through 105 minutes of Zombies' singles, a collection of songs from Odessey and Oracle, tunes from their post-Zombie careers and a number of cuts from their latest album. (See the full setlist below.)

Ironically, while I particularly treasured hearing Odessey gems like "A Rose For Emily," "This Will Be Our Year" and "Beechwood Park," on these songs of delicate beauty it was all the more apparant that Blumstone's voice--though still a fine instrument at age 67--is a good step less supple and sublime than it once was.

Thus, in terms of technical merit, renditions of the new songs, a singalong of the Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?" and a powerful rendition of Argent's (Rod's eponymous '70s band) "Hold Your Head Up," were more faithfully delivered. Guitarist Toomey, who's only been with the Zombies for three years, especially impressed along with Argent & Blunstone, who despite pushing 70 are both--incidentally--still blessed with great hair.

Without quite the high notes for Colin to not quite hit, "Tell Her No," "Time of the Season" and "She's Not There" were robustly and satisfyingly rendered, and I couldn't help but be awed at how ahead of its time the latter song--supposedly just the second one Argent ever wrote, according to Wikipedia--was upon its release in mid-1964. Who else was incorporating electric piano runs at that point? If you think about how rock 'n roll went from "Peggy Sue" (1958) to "Purple Haze" (1967) in 9 years, it's not hard to imagine "She's Not There" being something of a catalyst.

Over the past year or so, I've had the pleasure of seeing several of Argent & Blunstone's exalted 1960s' contemporaries: Paul McCartney, Ray Davies (of the Kinks), Roger McGuinn (of the Byrds) and the Beach Boys with Brian Wilson; though the Zombies' performance was a little lesser--as is their legacy--they quite enjoyably reaffirmed that they very much belong in the same run-on sentence.

This was my first visit to Viper Alley, and to my recollection, the first time I've seen a rock concert at a venue with table seating, which seems to be coming more into vogue.

It was comfortable enough, even if the layout has 2/3 of the crowd seated off to the right side of the stage, without any obvious speakers pointing that way. For the right performer I'd go back, but more despite the venue--whose food menu seemed kind of pricey--than because of it.

A local band called Thrift Store Halo opened the show with a set of originals and a few choice covers. Though I've never heard of them, they seemingly had a bit of success in the '90s and reunited to handle this opening slot. They sounded a bit like the Gin Blossoms and provided a pleasurable warm-up.

This is the Zombies setlist from Viper Alley, followed by a Spotify playlist offering a number of great songs:

I Love You
Can't Nobody Love You
Breathe Out, Breathe In (new)
I Want You Back Again
What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted
Miracles (Colin Blunstone song)
Show Me the Way (new)
Any Other Way (new)
A Rose for Emily
Care of Cell 44
This Will Be Our Year
Beechwood Park
I Want Her She Wants Me
Time of the Season
A Moment In Time (new)
Whenever You're Ready
Tell Her No
Old And Wise (Blunstone song from The Alan Parsons Project)
Hold Your Head Up (Argent cover)
She's Not There
God Gave Rock And Roll to You (Argent cover)
Summertime (Gershwin)