Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Firmly Replanted, Soundgarden Flourishes at the Riv -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Riviera Theatre, Chicago
January 29, 2013

Soundgarden doesn't mess around.

Onstage, they do not showboat. They do not pander, pose (except as Jesus Christ, per the song), pontificate or politick. They do not prance, dance, climb atop speaker cabinets nor lead audience sing-a-longs. They do not gesticulate wildly or pad their sets with lengthy guitar and drum solos.

What they do, as an action verb but also high praise, is rock.

And unlike some rock ’n roll reunions, which seem more about the money than the music—and/or include just a fraction of the original band—based on Soundgarden’s fantastic show at the Riv on Tuesday (the first of 2 nights), which came 18 months after a tremendous performance at the UIC Pavilion, the four-man Seattle band’s second act appears to be rock solid.

Though their late 2012 album King Animal didn’t instantly seem on par with ’90s classics like Superunknown and Down on the Upside, I am continuing to appreciate it more and more, aided by the performance of five of its songs, which if not all setlist highlights, were neither glaring drags.

Obviously, every band will have some songs that are better than others—though I now realize I should have better refreshed myself with Soundgarden’s full catalog, as Tuesday’s setlist included songs from 7 albums, including deeper cuts from Superunknown and Badmotorfinger—but even the songs I didn’t recognize, and might not consider among their very best, still sounded great.

This goes back to where I started, as you can tell just by watching guitarist Kim Thayil on stage that the south suburban Chicago native is there to play loud, sonically distinctive music, not be a celebrity, cad or caricature. Likewise, bassist Ben Shepard and drummer Matt Cameron—who is also now a member of Pearl Jam—form a no-nonsense rhythm section commanding attention only for the phenomenal sounds they emit.

And while remaining one of the most vocally gifted singers the rock genre has ever produced, Chris Cornell—who I’ve dubbed “The Prince of Wails”—was eminently professional and gracious to the sold out crowd in a venue considerably smaller than those the band once played.

But the Riv fit Soundgarden well, and vice-versa, as the already peeling paint was freshly pulverized by thunderous versions of “Jesus Christ Pose,” “Blow Up the Outside World,” “Superunknown,” “Spoonman,” “Outshined,” “Rusty Cage” and “By Crooked Steps” (one of the best of the new songs).

With Cornell still in great voice, more graceful tunes such as “Fell on Black Days” and “Black Hole Sun” also sounded terrific. (A video clip of the former is at bottom)

Despite the setlist including new songs to which I haven’t fully acclimated and some older songs I didn’t recognize, the only tune I would have really liked to hear but didn’t was “Pretty Noose.” But not only was that played at the Pavilion show in July 2011, but on this tour of smaller venues, Soundgarden—akin to their friends in Pearl Jam—is mixing up their setlists nightly, something I strongly applaud.

So other than latecomers constantly congregating in the balcony aisle in front of me—both a nuisance and fire hazard—Soundgarden’s show left me with nothing to complain about. For awhile I thought perhaps it was a smidgen less glorious than the Pavilion gig, but even if so, it was a fantastically executed, well-paced concert that didn’t include a note I didn’t like over 140 minutes (including a feedback frenzy at the end).

At this point, Soundgarden’s band members are straddling 50. Yet not only are they sounding as good as ever—though the only pre-reunion show I saw was in 1996—but during the years they were disbanded (1997-2010), no better rock band has emerged (with apologies to three I really like: System of a Down, Arcade Fire and The Killers).

So while I won’t be at Wednesday’s show, Tuesday’s did exactly what a great concert should: it made me relish hearing (while screaming along to) the songs I know and love, it made me want to listen more intently to the band’s new album and its old ones and it made me look forward to the next time I get to see Soundgarden.

Perhaps best of all, at the end of many songs and the concert in full, it made me go, “Wow, that was great!”

And if there’s a band comprised of twentysomethings who can do likewise, I am unaware of them. All the more reason I can only hope that—even if they never return to reigning as one of the world’s biggest bands—Soundgarden continues to grow.

For a sense of how good Soundgarden sounded at the Riviera, here's a clip of “Fell On Black Days” posted on YouTube by "theairwaytostation":

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Noble Man Honors a King -- Harry Belafonte Talks About MLK, January 29 at Northwestern

“We’ve come to a time when we’ve abandoned radical thought. Radical thought is essential [to bring about change].”

It’s amazing how the things I often prattle on about sound so much more sage, and eloquent, when voiced by an international legend—and human rights hero—like Harry Belafonte.

While at 85, the resonant tenor of the man who had the first million-selling album has been reduced to a rasp, as the Keynote Speaker at a Northwestern University program honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Belafonte still spoke volumes.

Of course, the singer, actor and activist—who I learned much more about last year through the Sing Your Song documentary, and subsequently saluted in this birthday blog post—had plenty of history to draw upon, as he became a close confidant of Dr. King when both men were in their mid-’20s. Belafonte recalled how MLK initially called him and said, “I cannot do it alone.”

And to a Pick-Staiger Hall audience comprised largely of NU students, though also the general public, Belafonte’s speech had an underlying theme of devoting oneself to helping others, particularly the disenfranchised.

Though no longer the spry performer who enjoyed groundbreaking success in music, theater, film and television—at the very least, check out his Wikipedia bio—Belafonte began his talk by displaying the warm-spirited personality that once made millions of worldwide fans wild about Harry.

Following an impressive performance by the Northwestern Small Jazz Ensemble, a remarkably buoyant rendition of “Amazing Grace” by the Alice Millar Chapel Choir and remarks from Charles Whitaker—an NU journalism professor who co-chaired the event—and Evanston mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, Belafonte was welcomed to the stage by Victor Shao, president of Northwestern’s student government.

Harry noted that it was the first time he’d ever been introduced by a person of Asian descent, but that as someone who had long traveled the world, he had joyously experienced “thousands of Japanese singing Day-O.” Belafonte also shared how his grandkids had teased him when he told them—before flying to Evanston from his New York home—that he’d be making a 20-minute speech: 'Grandpa, you can’t say hello in 20 minutes.'

But as Belafonte got to the heart of his speech, relaying how he and King had worked together on the “Poor People’s Campaign” shortly before MLK’s 1968 assassination, and reflecting on how upon hearing JFK—who he also befriended and advised—urge “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” he focused on what it meant specifically for black people, I doubt anyone was glancing at their wristwatch (including me, who always does).

In looking at the notes I took on Belafonte’s speech, which was followed by a brief on-stage interview by a journalism student, I am struck again at how masterfully he wove together themes of affliction, action and hope with equal depth and acuity.

He spoke of financial inequity, crippling levels of incarceration among African-Africans—“we build more cells than classrooms”—the loss of our “moral compass” under George W. Bush, improvements yet not widely realized remedies under President Obama and the terrible scourge of guns, for which he advocated “a radical movement to challenge the second amendment.”

Despite walking with a cane, Belafonte looked good and sounded sharp, but acknowledged his own mortality while expressing that gun control was “what I’m committing to in the last days of my life.”

Yet his endlessly impressive devotion to activism was nicely balanced by Belafonte referencing how his wife—who I believe is his third—and family were the most important part of his life, and that their support and understanding as he traveled the world and sometimes championed controversial causes largely enabled him to do all that he has.

Particularly moving, especially given the occasion, was when Belafonte shared being privy to Dr. King’s moments of doubt. ‘In the quest for integration, we are integrating into a burning house,’ Harry cited Martin telling him, to which Harry replied, ‘Then we’re going to have to become firemen.”

Without any boasting or braggadocio, Belafonte also looped in working on behalf of Native Americans and having been the motivator behind “We Are The World” and related African-relief efforts.

I apologize for reprising another of my common kvetches, but in watching Harry Belafonte speak I couldn’t help but again be chagrined over the relative superficiality and societal insignificance of so many of today’s so-called celebrities and—since they’re increasingly not one and the same—artists.

Much to my contentment and cognitive validation, Belafonte espoused how artists need to do more to stimulate the masses to address injustices, such as Wall Street fraud. And that everyone—especially those within institutions of higher learning—needs to share in a commitment to radical thought, the path to which, Belafonte voiced, “was the first thing the oligarchy sought to stamp out.”

As someone who often thinks and writes about societal transformations,  plagues, inequities and the like, yet sometimes can’t help think that I’m just pissing into the wind, it was personally quite gratifying to hear similar concerns conveyed by someone with such stature, perspective and gravitas.

So while many people who might well benefit from learning about Harry Belafonte and listening to him speak about activism, accountability and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. will likely remain willfully oblivious, I greatly appreciated the salient sentiment as Harry acknowledged the choir standing on stage behind him, made a joke about preaching to it and shared the wise words once intimated by his friend:

‘Harry,’ Martin said, ‘you’ve got to preach to the choir. If you don’t, they’ll stop singing.’

Monday, January 28, 2013

Family, Politics Intersect Grippingly in 'Other Desert Cities' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Other Desert Cities
a play by Jon Robin Baitz
directed by Henry Wishcamper
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 17

What makes for a great, or at least thoroughly satisfying, play?

Over just the past 2 months, I have seen eight non-musical stage works that I awarded at least @@@@. One featured magnificent horse puppetry (War Horse); another was a series of mythological vignettes enacted in and around a swimming pool (Metamorphoses); the one I saw last Thursday—The Whipping Man—had a tremendously original premise about a Jewish Confederate soldier and his family’s newly freed slaves reconnecting at the end of the Civil War.

Compared to these, and others such as The School of Lies, a modern re-writing of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, and The Motherf**cker with the Hat, a profane drug-fueled look at love, loyalty and friendship, Other Desert Cities might seem to have a much more routine storyline and structure.

It is essentially a “family drama”—in the vein of August: Osage County, A Long Day’s Journey into Night and many less heralded works—complete with affluent Conservative parents, more Liberal, less successful children, issues of depression and substance abuse and a decades old family tragedy haunting the entire proceedings.

I wouldn’t blame you—or myself, upon entering—for having a sense of “been there, seen that.”

But in being demonstrably well-written and wonderfully-acted throughout, truly riveting toward the end and with plenty of beyond-face-value context and allegory to take home, Other Desert Cities wound up being even more fulfilling than any of the highly inventive works I’ve seen of late.

This isn’t all that shocking in noting that Jon Robin Baitz’ play, which ran on Broadway (closing just last June), was nominated for a Tony and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. But it does go to show that great artistic merit can come just as much—or more so—from the execution, rather than simply the concept.

With clear echoes of the Reagans—who are cited in the play as close family friends—Lyman and Polly Wyeth are stalwart Republicans spending their twilight years in Palm Springs. Played by veteran TV/film character actor Chelcie Ross (he played Conrad Hilton on Mad Men), Lyman is a former movie star turned politician, ambassador and GOP chairman. But while his politics are strongly to the right—at least as Republicanism was characterized before being co-opted by more extreme factions—Ross, and Baitz’ script, imbue him with a convincing amount of humanity and paternal empathy.

And as Polly, a Nancy Reagan doppelganger, Deanna Dunagan—who won a Tony and other awards for August: Osage County—shows she has not only cornered the market on embodying headstrong and abrasive matriarchs, but that she very well be the best actress I’ve ever seen on stage. Her nickname—à la a Chris Berman highlight-package narration on ESPN—should be Deanna “Amazing Work” Dunagan.

Polly is a former screenwriter who had once worked and bitterly feuded with her sister, Silda (Linda Kimbrough), now a reluctantly recovering alcoholic who lives at the Wyeth’s luxurious home (whose set design reminded me of David Hockney paintings, like this one).

The main crux of the Other Desert Cities patiently develops across the first act, as with Brooke Wyeth (Tracy Michelle Arnold) visiting her folks from Long Island on Christmas Eve, we are introduced to her recent struggles, including psychiatric hospitalization and having been unable to produce a follow-up to her first novel. Though there is much back and forth between Brooke and Polly from the get-go, there is also considerable humor, much of it supplied by Brooke’s brother Trip (John Hoogenakker), who makes his living as a reality TV producer.

I won’t go much deeper into the plot outline, other than to share that it primarily centers around Brooke announcing that she has completed writing a memoir about her family, in which she holds her parents accountable for the suicide of her beloved older brother. This, understandably, sets her folks afire.

What makes the play so good is that while some audience members—myself included—might be politically predisposed to side with the liberal Brooke in what becomes a vociferous debate, Baitz’ script doesn’t settle for knee jerk partisanship. Yes, Polly—and to a lesser extent, Lyman—is harsh, often detestably so, but more through actions (including having tended to Brooke through her troubles) than words, their parental love seeps to the surface.

And while as somewhat of a writer, I can empathize with what it means for the long-stagnated Brooke to have written a lengthy tome about an obviously deep-seated subject, the propriety of publishing a devastating rebuke of parents with whom she has maintained a nourishing relationship (at least in certain regards) isn’t so cut and dry.

Which Trip repeatedly seemed to espouse just moments after a potential retort to or question for Brooke came to my mind. Often in seeing plays, I have found my wonderments posed only in post-show discussions, so I was particularly impressed when my line of reasoning was consistently verbalized onstage.

Based solely on Act I, I may have given Other Desert Cities @@@@; excellent but not quite approaching phenomenal. But while I may be a sucker for acute intensity, I had to add points for an edge-of-my-seat denouement.

As I mentioned above, many recent plays have left me rather enriched, at times even dazzled. But to a much more overt extent, this one ended by engendering a staggering-off-the-roller-coaster “Wow!”

Clearly, I suggest you make your way to Other Desert Cities before it closes on February 17.

A note on affordable theatergoing:

In the month of January, I attended three plays at three of Chicagoland’s most venerable professional theaters: The Motherf**cker with the Hat at Steppenwolf, The Whipping Man at Northlight and Other Desert Cities at Goodman. I felt the local renditions were every bit as good as I’d hope to see in New York, where all three plays ran within the last 2 years. I got to see great actors, including a Tony winner and performers with extensive IMDB credits.

My total outlay for the three shows—including ticketing fees and even parking costs, as I didn’t incur any—was $66.

Whether you opt to become a subscriber—Goodman’s Sunday night series is a phenomenal bargain, as is my Broadway in Chicago balcony club plan—or have the pliability to take advantage of discount ticket offerings without much lead time—Goodman, Steppenwolf and Northlight all offer same-day ticket promotions, some for as low as $20/each, and often provide tickets to discount sellers HotTix and Goldstar—you can see a lot of amazing theater for a lot less than you might think.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

'The Whipping Man' Poses Stirring Questions on Post-War Civility -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Whipping Man
a play by Matthew Lopez
directed by Kimberly Senior
Northlight Theatre, Skokie
Thru February 24

I have seen hundreds of plays, many that I’ve liked—to varying degrees—and some that I haven’t.

While the subject, words, themes and structure employed by the playwright, and in concomitant—a recent addition to my vocabulary—fashion, the performance of the actors have an obvious effect on my enjoyment, I’ve never had a grasp on how much credit, or blame, should go to the director.

In enjoying The Whipping Man, a fairly recent play by Matthew Lopez now getting its Chicagoland premiere at Northlight, it seems worth noting that this was the fifth play Kimberly Senior has directed in recent years that I’ve very much liked. Especially in noting that Senior seems to be one of the busiest theatrical directors in Chicago—helming several shows beyond the ones I’ve seen—and recently directed a play at New York’s Lincoln Center, her going 5-for-5 in steering satisfying shows must be more than coincidence.

But it’s also possible that a good part of Senior’s skill is a knack for selecting not only compelling but topically unique plays to direct. The Pillowman and The Cripple of Inishmaan, both by Martin McDonagh, fit this description, as does The Overwhelming—a play by J.T. Rogers centered around the Rwandan genocide—and Amy Herzog’s After the Revolution, which weaves family politics with Communism, American-style.

And The Whipping Man has one of the most original premises I’ve yet encountered.

Based in April 1865, amidst the last days of the Civil War, the play opens with an injured Confederate soldier named Caleb (played by Derek Gaspar at Northlight) returning to his family’s Richmond home to find it deserted save for Simon (Tim Edward Rhoze), one of the family’s newly freed slaves. A second slave, John (Sean Parris), is the third character in this two-act drama.

Playwright Lopez, who according to program materials is an Episcopalian from the Florida Panhandle, the son of a Puerto Rican father and a Polish-Russian mother, adds the interesting wrinkle that Caleb is Jewish and so too have the former slaves been raised to follow Judaism.

The historical reality that many Southern Jews fought for the Confederacy—despite Jewish people having long faced ostracism and even slavery—is well-explicated in the program notes, and I was expecting this seeming contradiction to be a more prominent part of the play. Though questions of faith do factor in, and Act 2 features the best improvised Passover Seder I’ve ever seen—discovering that Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox fell on the first night was Lopez’ spark in penning the play—the narrative more acutely weaves issues of responsibility, loyalty and recompense through the three men’s relationship, with matters of faith being less at the fore.

Leading into and through the second act, Lopez throws in some theatrical twists, which while heightening the tension felt a tad too familiar in a play that had been exploring rather uncommon ground without such overtly rising action.

Nonetheless, Gaspar, Rhoze and Parris are excellent throughout and with an impressive backdrop forged by her scenic designer husband, Jack Magaw, to whatever degree Senior puts her own stamp on Lopez’ material, over 100 minutes The Whipping Man is never less than interesting to watch, and often quite gripping.

Yet while I consider The Whipping Man an excellent play that I would recommend to anyone—particularly if you can snag $20 Day-of-Show discount tickets that Northlight makes available—part of what prevents me from deeming it “absolutely phenomenal” and awarding @@@@@ is a sense that in some ways, the play itself isn’t quite as fascinating as some of the background material that surrounds it. In other words, though the play is terrific, it doesn’t quite match the brilliance of its setup.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: Whenever Siam in the Mood for Thai Food...

Ruby of Siam
9420 Skokie Blvd., Skokie

What I ate: Panang Kuay Tiew, Khao Soy, Pad Thai

I can’t precisely recall when I came to know and like Thai food. It doesn’t go back to my childhood, like my enjoyment of Italian, Chinese and Mexican food, but perhaps sometime in the mid-’90s a friend suggested we get some Pad Thai—a popular noodle dish—and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Over the subsequent years, I have probably dined out for Thai food more times—and at more different restaurants—than I have sought out any other international cuisine. But although the menu at Thai restaurants is usually pretty extensive, I primarily have ordered only two or three different entrees.

Pad Thai is my main staple. On the Ruby of Siam menu, it is described as: Stir fried rice noodles or bean thread noodles with your choice of protein. Prepared with tofu, bean sprouts, eggs, ground peanuts and green onions.

I get it with either beef or pork, and because I like it on the sweet and tangy side with a touch of spice, I typically ask for some tamarind or sweet & sour sauce and some chili paste that I add to it. And though it comes with ground peanuts, a little more never hurts.

Though I acknowledge that it’s pretty much Thai Food for Beginners, I like Pad Thai enough that I would pretty much be happy with it any time I eat at a Thai joint. But to switch things up a bit, I also commonly order beef with a curry sauce, either Panang or Mussaman, both of which have coconut milk at their base. Panang tends to have green peppers in its mix, while Mussaman has peanuts and potatoes; both are typically served with rice, and though one tends to be thicker than the other, even if I could remember which, I think this has varied from restaurant to restaurant.

For an appetizer, I often get either soft Spring Rolls or Satay, if pork or beef is available (as I’m allergic to chicken).

Though I have eaten at many different Thai restaurants around the Chicago area and beyond, Ruby of Siam is probably the one I’ve most frequented. Their Skokie location is closest to my home (and, IMHO, better than other Thai places in Skokie) and their Loop location on Washington is convenient for pre-theater dining.

The other night, inspired in part by having visited the Peanuts (as in Charlie Brown) exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry, my mom, sister and I once again dined at Ruby of Siam.

While in conducting my Chicago Dining World Tour, I certainly don’t mind highlighting some places that are longtime favorites, I did feel compelled to order something different than my typical Pad Thai, Mussaman or Panang.

I went with Panang Kuay Tiew, which falls under Noodle Dishes on the menu and is described as: Steamed noodles and bell peppers topped with panang curry prepared with choice of protein.

So I got the Panang flavoring that I like, with pork as my protein, a few peppers and some ground peanuts that I requested and added. But rather than the Pad Thai noodles, which are under 1/2 centimeter wide, the Kuay Tiew noodles were over an inch wide.

It was certainly tasty and nothing I really regretted ordering, but I can’t say I liked it more than Pad Thai or the Panang or Mussaman over rice.

I also sampled my sister’s Pad Thai with Tofu, which was good—though devoid of the extra sweetness and slight heat I like to add—and had some of my mom’s Khao Soy, shown at right (steamed egg noodles in a coconut curry soup topped with crispy egg noodles and onions prepared with choice of protein, in this case tofu). I liked the flavoring, as well as the mix of soft and crispy noodles, but even prepared “mild” it had a kick that was a bit too strong for me.

All in all, it was a typically satisfying meal at Ruby of Siam, even without any appetizer or dessert, but I imagine on my next Thai food excursion, I’ll go back to the tried and true.

What can I say, Siam what Siam.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

You're a Good Exhibit, Charlie Brown

Museum Exhibition Review

Charlie Brown and the Great Exhibit
Museum of Science and Industry Chicago
Thru February 18

Call me a child—or properly brainwashed when I was one—but like the great Disney, Warner Bros. and Muppets characters, Charlie Brown and his Peanuts pals never fail to bring a smile to my face (or at least my mind).

So although Charlie Brown and the Great Exhibit, now at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, doesn’t offer much in the way of scientific or industrial insight, I couldn’t help but enjoy it at (roundheaded) face value. Which isn’t to say it didn’t provide some genuine intelligence about Charles Schulz’ working methods and the 17,000+ Peanuts comic strips he personally created over 50 years.

Click image to enlarge
Organized by the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, CA, where the cartoonist lived and worked for the last 31 years of his life, the exhibit includes a replica of his studio and a couple of videos in which he speaks to his technique and inspiration. And referencing a TV interview in which, when asked what he wished he were asked about more often, Schulz replied, “my drawing,” the exhibit includes a fascinating wall of Peanuts strips accompanied by placards expounding on his drawing technique.

While this was likely the most compelling insight the exhibit provided—though I did enjoy learning that the term “security blanket” originated with Linus—besides the fun it provides for kids, the exhibition is well-organized and informational for patrons of any age. I would have liked a bit more in the way of educational information about Schulz, his worldview and how he worked, but between numerous strips on display and informative wall text/placards, I felt the exhibit was well-curated in terms of what it offered adults.

Just last week in a post decrying the relative lack of true greatness in our midst—while citing a couple notable exceptions—I mentioned Schulz as a past example of such.

Yet in not reading Peanuts with any regularity for years—though it still runs worldwide 13 years after Schulz' death brought new strips to an end; you can see daily Classic Peanuts strips here—I was happily reminded just how smart and universal Schulz' observations on life (through Charlie, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, etc.) were.

I think I read every panel of every strip displayed, and while I imagine only “great ones” were selected for the exhibition, virtually all of them brought not only a smile to my face, but a sense of recognition to my brain. Not because I recalled seeing any of these strips previously, but because the thoughts and feelings Schulz was expressing—whether in 1960 or 1999—felt quite contemporary.

So even had exhibit been comprised solely of Peanuts comic strips—rather than also including large figures of Charlie Brown, Snoopy (+ Woodstock) upon his doghouse, a purposefully paltry Charlie Brown Christmas Tree and a playable floor piano—it still would have been well worth the $5 it cost to see on one of the museum's free general admission days for Illinois residents. But much as the strips were all accompanied by brief but substantive information, two walls of Peanuts character bios (like the Pigpen one above) provided solid insight on the origins and personalities of each.

Mind you, if I hadn’t been able to take advantage of having Martin Luther King Day off work, the regular $20 MSI general admission + special exhibit cost, plus $20 per car for parking, might have made me wonder how worthwhile the exhibit was beyond simply reading an anthology of Peanuts cartoons.

For it would cost a family of four plus perhaps one grandparent over $100 before food is factored in. And though the museum has good permanent exhibits, the two best—the coal mine and the  U-505 submarine—also require additional admission.

So while I’m all for supporting Chicago's best non-art museum, you may want to see if you can get to the Museum of Science and Industry on one of its free days, so as to see Charlie Brown for just peanuts.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: Meat and Potatoes, Lebanese Style

Lebanese and Middle Eastern
3445 W. Dempster, Skokie
Yelp listing

What I ate: Beef Shawarma Sandwich, Garlic Potatoes, Baklava

In embarking on my Chicago Dining World Tour, I hope, and expect, to discover the differences in menus and meals across cultures.

But I'm also hoping to gain greater enlightenment about the similarities in how and what people of different backgrounds eat.

Located in Skokie on Dempster Street, east of Crawford and west of McCormick, Basha states on its menu that it serves, "Authentic Lebanese & Middle Eastern Food in its Original Taste."

The restaurant is just a few blocks east of Pita Inn, which presents itself as serving "Mediterranean cuisine." I have enjoyed eating at Pita Inn several times--it has been in Skokie since 1982 and has three other suburban locations--but do not know which country its cuisine most closely represents.

Though I certainly don't bring an expert perspective, in visiting Basha for lunch on Saturday--which was my second or third visit, but first in a good while--it seems that on the surface, its menu is pretty similar to Pita Inn's. Falafel, Hummos, Shawarma (Beef and Chicken), Baba Ghanouj and various Kabobs are mainstays at both places, though unlike Pita Inn, Basha does not seem to serve Lamb.

But while it's likely that at either place, you might order a beef, chicken or falafel sandwich on pita bread, I have found relatively substantive differences in how these are presented at the two places.

At Pita Inn, the sandwich ingredients are stuffed within a slit pita (unlike a gyros, which is put on top of a pita, which is then folded). Though the pita becomes plump, it basically looks round before you bite into it.

At Basha, where I have previously had a falafel sandwich and enjoyed a shawarma sandwich on my most recent visit, you are served a pita that--even when stuffed--is rolled up. Although my photo at right doesn't represent it well, since I unrolled the pita so as to show the shawarma beef, as served it looked like a tube in aluminum foil.

But it tasted good, as did the side order of garlic potatoes, though I suspect they were to blame for my meal taking considerably longer to be served than I would've thought.

On the Basha menu, Shawarma Beef is described as "Slices of fine beef marinated and broiled served with our special salad of vegetables, pickles, and basha sauce in a pita bread." Both the beef and chicken shawarma are cooked on spits, similar to the way gyros meat is prepared.

I ended my meal--just a quick $10 lunch--with a piece of baklava that was quite good. It wasn't as thick as baklava I've had elsewhere, but I really liked the consistency, as the layers didn't separate as I tried to cut through it.

Except for the length of food preparation time--which wasn't horrible, just longer than expected--Basha was quite pleasant. The service was friendly, the prices were cheap and the food was tasty.

It also was rather quiet, with only one other table occupied, unlike the chaos I typically encounter at Pita Inn. I'm not saying this is preferable for Basha's ownership, but in aiming to get a comfortable lunch on a Saturday afternoon, I appreciated it.

I'll continue to go to Pita Inn as well, but Basha again proved to be an agreeable alternative.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Seemingly, A Browsing Pastime is No Longer in Store

Of all the potential causes for personal and/or societal consternation, learning that the Best Buy near Old Orchard will cease to exist after February 3rd would not seem to be of grave concern (though the store does sit on land formerly belonging to a cemetery).

Not only am I not in the market for any new electronics or appliances, and whatever music and movies I still acquire in physical form can easily be shopped for online, but this leaves just four Best Buys within a 15-minute drive from my home (assuming none of those are also slated for closure).

While it was nice having a Best Buy—likely the store at which I’ve most shopped over the years—within 3 minutes of home, and I hope the store’s employees can be redeployed to nearby locations, I can’t
work up much vexation over an overexpanded retail corporation being forced to downsize.

But the news—and yes, I realize Best Buy sells much more than movies and music—bothers me on the heels of reading that the British music chain HMV, with 230 stores and 92 years in business, is “going into administration,” meaning that it has essentially collapsed financially and is looking for a buyer. None of its stores have yet closed, and perhaps can be saved, but I enjoyed browsing HMV in London, where—like in America—Tower Records and the Virgin Megastore went bust years ago.

I also read that Barnes & Noble began closing selected stores—in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Chicago, Austin, Manhattan and Dallas—after a slow holiday 2012 sales season. And it seems that the spectre of B&N completely evaporating, like its old rival Borders, isn’t far-fetched.
So I ask you, where is a guy supposed to go to kill some time—and yes, buy some stuff? Especially, a guy like me who doesn’t drink coffee or (much) beer, isn’t supposed to eat ice cream or donuts and enjoys browsing, and buying, books, magazines, movies and music.
I used to love going to Tower Records, where they had a huge selection of CDs and DVDs, many great discounts, listening stations and pretty much every magazine ever published. But they went out of business in 2006.

Though in Chicago, the Virgin Megastore wasn’t nearly as convenient, it was cool to browse whenever I was on North Michigan Avenue.

In either Borders or Barnes & Noble, I could easily kill an hour perusing their vast selections, including great shelves of bargain books, of which I bought many. I think I got a book containing large color images of every Van Gogh painting for like $20. So it pains me whenever I see an empty, or converted, Borders store and I’ll really rue the day Barnes & Noble disappears.

And though Best Buy’s inventory of CDs (at its stores) is far short of Tower’s or Virgin’s, it is, or at least was, far more extensive than what you could find at Target or Walmart. Their prices on new release CDs and DVDs (and Blu-Rays) are invariably lower than anywhere else, and beyond often going to Best Buy to purchase a specific new album or film, it is also a store in which I can simply browse.

Not just for music and movies, but also to see what may be new in computers or printers or TVs or stereo equipment, etc., etc.

Certainly I recognize the changes in content distribution, and the resulting economic realities, that have caused bookstores, record stores and DVD retailers to dwindle and perhaps eventually disappear (though Best Buy is likely a separate case as a full-line retailer of computers, electronics and major appliances).

Although I will always value attractive and imaginative packaging as part of the popular music art form, and am old school enough to just like having a physical CD (with artwork, liner notes and lyrics), DVD or book, I realize that the quarterians—my term for those age 25 and under—deal primarily in digital music, movies and books, with or without paying anything.

So it doesn’t take a genius to deduce why huge stores with high rents and vast inventories of physical books, music, movies and magazines are going the way of the dinosaur. Even though I loved going to these stores, I probably proportionately never spent enough to keep them afloat, and of late have not only been buying less media, but doing it more so on Amazon or even iTunes.

But just because I understand why stores, and chains, like Tower Records, Borders, Barnes & Noble, Virgin Megastore, HMV and Best Buy may no longer be viable—either at all or in their current form—doesn’t mean I have to like it. (Though I do understand and respect the perspective of independent book and record store owners who were harmed, or even decimated, by these retail goliaths. But I can't deny I liked going to the big stores.)

And while sounding like a fossil clinging to a past that no longer exists, I believe there are cultural and commercial ramifications.

First, I think we are losing our shared sense of place and lessening human interaction in ways that aren’t good, but I won’t belabor this thought here.

But I also can’t tell you how many books and CDs I’ve bought because I noticed them in a store, and it’s highly unlikely I ever would have come across most of them online. Sure, they’re available on Amazon, but I wouldn’t have known to seek them out. I still like browsing physical merchandise, which goes back to my penchant for distinctive packaging.

While acknowledging that younger people haven’t been as indoctrinated into browsing for physical books, movies, music, etc.—and therefore don’t know what they may be missing—I wonder if HMV’s high profile stores in London (and ones like them in other big cities) could conceivably still exist, but primarily to promote digital purchases.

Of course, this would mandate a change in retail economics. Instead of stores and chains simply buying product from record companies, movie studios and publishers and then reselling them as their means of existing, the manufacturers/marketers would have to subsidize the existence of an HMV or Barnes & Noble so that shoppers could become aware of new & intriguing books, CDs, DVDs—even if they prefer to download a file rather than buy items in the store.

Given the cost of store rents and employees and the realities of Profit & Loss statements and other fiscal management factors, this idea seems somewhat impractical. Unless Apple (and perhaps similarly, Google and Microsoft) gets involved.

What if Apple leased space in each of its Apple Stores for publishers, etc., to showcase their physical media in order to drive digital downloads, which could be done right in the store.

And as this article notes, Amazon has already been considering opening bricks 'n mortar stores, in part to boost its sales through what Jeff Bezos calls “me-too product offering(s).”

Something like this could be a potentially smart solution. For though I like my physical books, CDs, DVDs and magazines, I’ve gone to electronic versions in some cases and realize that there are environmental benefits to greatly eliminating the need for packaging materials.

But I’m still convinced there are marketing and cultural awareness benefits to capturing our attention and interest via products and/or displays we encounter, including in cursory and passive ways.

And at the very least, the continued—if modified—existence of stores in which I can browse would serve to give me someplace to go.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Greatness in Our Midst: Lionel Messi and Magnus Carlsen

I have a particular fascination with transcendent greatness, especially, but not only, within artistic realms. And I frequently find myself whining or pining over the relative scarcity of contemporary exemplars of such.

But just because I can’t cite a painter like Picasso, a saxophonist like John Coltrane or a cartoonist like Charles Schultz who exists within our midst, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t prime paragons of greatness, even genius, to be acknowledged and appreciated.

Last weekend, football fans got to watch two of the greatest quarterbacks who ever lived—Tom Brady and Peyton Manning—and perhaps the greatest linebacker, Ray Lewis (though I can't really say I admire him). This coming weekend, Brady and Lewis will square off.

In basketball, Lebron James--who just became the youngest player ever to amass 20,000 NBA points--and Kobe Bryant--who had held that mark and is poised to become the NBA's 4th all-time leading scorer this season--continue to play at historic levels.

But the purpose of this post is to focus your attention—and more of mine—on the superhuman accomplishments of Lionel Messi and Magnus Carlsen. At the age of 25 and 22, respectively, both have achieved transcendent greatness. And then some.

Photo credit: Christopher Johnson, Wikipedia
If you’re already well aware of both these men, you can probably stop reading here. I am admittedly not enough an aficionado of either of their realms—soccer for Messi, chess for Carlsen—to tell you anything much beyond what can be read on Wikipedia (Messi; Carlsen).

So yes, this brief tribute will be somewhat cursory in nature, but at a time when I whine and pine over a scarcity of true virtuosity (of recent vintage), it seems proper to expand my purview.

Lionel Messi is an Argentinean who has been playing top-level professional soccer for Barcelona since 2004 (when he was 17). For the past four years, he has won the Ballon d’Or, which honors the best “football” player in the world. In 2010, France Football’s Ballon d’Or (recognizing the European player of the year) and FIFA’s World Player of the Year merged into one award, but no previous player had earned either (or both) "player of the year" awards for more than 3 different years.

Messi has now been named the best player of the year for 4 straight years, and was the runner up for FIFA’s World Player of the Year the two prior.

Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about soccer to tell you what makes Messi so great, other than that he scores more than anyone else. Historically so. In the calendar year 2012, Messi scored 91 goals (including within La Liga (Spanish league) and Champions League games, as well as those played for Argentina), shattering the record of 85 that had stood for 40 years).

Thanks to the magic of YouTube, you can see all 91 of his goals from 2012—including 2 or 3 from the same game, several times—here (my favorite is goal #51):

And as this Bleacher Report article shares, Messi also gets more assists than almost anyone else. Though I know soccer can't be directly compared to hockey, I believe that's what made Wayne Gretzky so transcendent. Not just his ability to score goals, but to set up many, many more goals with his phenomenal passing ability.

I asked a friend who's an avid soccer fan what makes Messi so good. He couldn't cite any one specific thing, saying that Messi has phenomenal footwork and dribbling ability, but that so do a lot of guys who don't achieve as much. And though that Messi is a "once in a generation player" who outclasses--on the pitch and off--recent superstars like Ronaldinho, Zidane and Ronaldo, one shouldn't minimize the boost he gets from playing for Barcelona, which is consistently among the very best teams in the world.

I don’t pretend to have the perspective to intelligently suggest where Messi might place among the all-time best—Pele, Diego Maradona and Zidane being some names typically cited as such. My soccer fanatic friends are convinced that Messi has put himself into the “best ever” conversation, but articles I’ve read—including this one—seem to suggest that unless, or until, he wins a World Cup with Argentina, that will be held against him.

Barring injury he’ll have that chance in 2014, when the next World Cup is held in Brazil. But although his presence may make Argentina a legitimate contender, I don’t think many will be surprised if they don’t win.

I’ll leave Messi’s historical stature for others to argue. All I know is that what he has done, steadily now for 5+ years, has been astonishing, unprecedented and worthy of attention, no matter how much or how little, you (or I) may care about 'football.'

And even in America, I’d have to assume Messi is a household name compared to Magnus Carlsen.

I likely only know who Carlsen is due to a 60 Minutes piece (click here to see it) that called him “The Mozart of Chess.” But although I have never been much of a chess player, much less a student of the game, it is an arena that fascinates me. Chess, at the level that the best players play it, seems to combine scientific and artistic genius in ways that few other activities do.

And although it’s hard to imagine being as good as Tom Brady or Lebron or Tiger, it’s much much harder to imagine being as good as Magnus Carlsen.

Don’t ask me for the details—I know less about chess than I do about soccer—but chess players have their prowess compared according to rating system utilized by FIDE, the world chess federation. According to Wikipedia, as of November 2012, 809 chess players in the world have a rating above 2,500. Virtually of these, and others, have earned the title International Grandmaster, of which 1,380 now exist.

Any of these Grandmasters could likely play and win 20 simultaneous games against skilled recreational players, without looking at the boards. Yet from what I understand, only about 10 of them would have any chance of beating Carlsen—at least over a series of games—who at 22 has a FIDE rating of 2861, the highest ever.

Carlsen, a Norwegian, is not the World Chess Champion as he’s never played for the title (currently held by Viswanathan Anand, who he played to a draw just today in the Tata Steel Chess Tournament), but in December won the London Chess Classic for the 3rd time in the last 4 years. This is what boosted his rating to 2861, besting that of longtime champion Garry Kasparov, who many experts consider the greatest chess player of all-time.

Again, I have no idea if Carlsen is—or ever will be—better than Kasparov or Bobby Fischer. Or why.

But like Messi, for him to even be in that conversation at such a young age, means that he is doing something transcendent.

No, a brilliant chess player or even soccer player, does not brighten my existence the way a truly outstanding rock band or composer or comedian might.

But it is nice to know that there is still newfound greatness to be newly found—and celebrated—especially when from all I've gleaned, Messi and Carlsen seem to be good guys. Unlike some who are dominating the headlines these days.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: My Favorite Cajun Joint (and presumably the President’s)

Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop
825 Church St, Evanston, IL

Much of the intent behind my Chicago Dining World Tour is to prompt myself to discover, and explore, cuisines and restaurants that are foreign to me.

But as I explained in the piece inaugurating this gastro-ethnic excursion, my dining habits have routinely included various international and regional flavors, with a majority of restaurant meals being devoured at something other than a straightforward “American” restaurant.

So even without newfound “Global Dining” intent, some of the places I eat at will be restaurants with which I’ve long been familiar, and have even frequented and favorited. And as appropriate, I’ll include these in my blog series, for even if they aren’t all that novel to me, they still merit spotlighting.

One such place is the Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop in Evanston, which is my favorite Cajun restaurant in the Chicago area. (Though I actually might prefer the food and ambience at Maple Tree Inn in Blue Island, but it’s a bit pricier and much further from home, so I don’t get there nearly as often.)

The Dixie Kitchen also has a location in Lansing and used to have one in Hyde Park, which in 2001 was highlighted on WTTW’s Check, Please! by Barack Obama, then an unknown Illinois state senator. That show was replayed days shy of his presidential inauguration in 2009, and although I had previously dined at Dixie Kitchen—the one in Evanston—that was what started me going with greater frequency and fondness.

Over what by now much be at least a dozen visits, I have primarily ordered the same thing: Blackened Catfish from their Meat n’ Three portion of the menu, which comes with cole slaw, corn muffin and two side dishes. I almost always choose fried sweet plantains and mashed sweet potatoes.

But the other day when I visited Dixie Kitchen with my friend Dave before catching a movie at the nearby Century Evanston, I changed things up. I got Blackened Tilapia—largely because the catfish is no longer $1 cheaper—along with the cole slaw, corn muffin, fried sweet plantains and mashed sweet potatoes. It was good, although I prefer the consistency of the blackened catfish and think I will return to it on my next visit.

Dave went with his traditional choice, BBQ Peel N' Eat Shrimp off the Starters menu, and was once again quite satisfied. Of course, we both wolfed down plenty of johnnycakes, which are delicious cornmeal pancakes that Dixie Kitchen provides complimentarily to each table.

It was, as usual, a quite filling and fulfilling meal, to the point that I didn’t even consider getting any snacks at the movie.

Trying to be somewhat calorie conscious, I also didn’t order dessert, but have in the past enjoyed the pecan pie, peach cobbler and beignets, as well as a Bourbon Street Hurricane to drink. Other entrees I’ve had and liked include the Trout Pecan and Seafood Pasta, but the Blackened Catfish is my clear favorite.

Ironically, as I was writing this, I got an email from Dixie Kitchen alerting me that the Obama Check, Please! episode will be replayed on WTTW-Channel 11 at 8:00pm this Friday, January 18, in honor of his second inauguration. Incidentally, while an Obama quote from that show used to adorn the back of the t-shirts of Dixie Kitchen’s servers—something to the effect that DK offers good food at good prices—I noticed that the quote is no longer there.

So I can’t say for sure that Dixie Kitchen still has President Obama’s endorsement, but I assure you it continues to have mine. Stop in sometime and I’m fairly certain they’ll do right Bayou.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Digging 'The Motherf**ker with the Hat' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Motherf**ker with the Hat
a play by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 3

As one is well-reminded on every visit, Steppenwolf Theatre features an impressive ensemble including many marquee names—John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Joan Allen, Gary Cole, Laurie Metcalf, John Mahoney, William Petersen and more—the first four of whom haven’t been seen on its stage in many a year.

So it’s interesting that coming off a year in which Steppenwolf’s productions did not match the Goodman Theatre’s for star power—i.e. Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy and Diane Lane—in staging The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Steppenwolf opted to bring in noted TV actor Jimmy Smits to play the role of Ralph.

I’m not saying that Malkovich, Sinise, Cole or Petersen should’ve played the role; none may have been ideal for a character Stephen Adly Guirgis’ script seemingly imbues with urban flavor. But along with noting that on Broadway—where the show, like here, was directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro—Ralph was played by Chris Rock, after seeing the show at a Sunday matinee, it seems somewhat noteworthy that…

Jimmy Smits is not the star.

This isn’t to say that he isn’t good, nor physically imposing nor that Ralph doesn’t get substantial stage time. But considerably more central is the character of Jackie, played in Chicago by John Ortiz.

And while Smits is good, Ortiz is superb.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow,
This isn’t all that surprising when one notes that A) Guirgis claims to have written the role for Ortiz as part of New York’s LAByrinth Theater Co., which Ortiz co-founded with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and B) Ortiz can be seen doing terrific work as Bradley Cooper’s best friend in the Oscar nominated movie Silver Lining’s Playbook.

Competing with Ortiz for the best thing about The Mofo with the Hat—with no disrespect meant to Smits or the other three cast members, who are all demonstrably stellar, nor the script itself—is Todd Rosenthal’s amazingly inventive and functional set design, which seamlessly rotates and flips between three different apartment interiors.

The first flat is the one that Jackie—an ex-con and recovering addict—shares with his beautiful but drug-addled girlfriend Veronica, sassily played by Sandra Delgado. Their lives intertwine with Ralph (Smits), who is Jackie’s AA sponsor and married, tempestuously, to Victoria (Sandra Marquez). The third apartment belongs to Jackie’s cousin Julio (Gary Perez), who seems to be both outwardly gay and outwardly married to a woman, although we never see her.

The 100-minute play works as a series of dialogues—and occasional trialogues—between Jackie and Veronica, Jackie and Ralph, Ralph and Victoria, Jackie and Julio (and Ralph), etc., in the various apartments.

There is much humor and much profanity, and in presenting people suffering under the weight of addiction and the economy yet struggling for love, in modern-day non-Manhattan NYC, The Motherf**ker with the Hat is never less than entertaining. Especially if you can snag a $20 day-of-show discount ticket like I did—Steppenwolf still graciously offers 20 for each performance, even with a star like Smits in tow—I recommend that you see it.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow,
But on a first encounter with this piece, after which I valued Steppenwolf’s regular post show discussion, I’m not sure I properly appreciated whatever depth was beneath the surface. I understand that Guirgis is showing us that regardless of one’s station in life, the same issues with which we can all identify—love, friendship, loyalty, family, truth, etc.—still apply.

And I think I get the point that regardless of the reasons for the bleakness of one’s situation, it is pretty universal to fight through it. The problem I had with The Motherf**ker with the Hat is that although I liked all the performances, I’m not sure I liked any of the characters enough to really care what might happen to them after the play ends.

In other words, I liked the drama as it was unfolding, but wasn’t left with much to ponder afterwards. Which is why this Motherf**ker gets @@@@ and not more.

Monday, January 14, 2013

It's Nice To See Grant Hart 'Back from Somewhere' -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Grant Hart
w/ opening acts Jeremiah Webb and Ripley Caine
Red Line Tap, Chicago
January 12, 2013

I was born in 1968, so I didn't start paying much attention to music of my own accord until the late '70s, at which point John Lennon was pretty much laying low and Paul McCartney (with Wings) was releasing hit songs like "Silly Love Songs," "With a Little Luck" and "Goodnight Tonight."

So while I was already well-indoctrinated to the brilliance of the Beatles--though probably not yet spinning "Revolution 9" backwards at my friend Jordan's house--I have to admit that at the time Lennon was slain in December 1980 (shortly after releasing Double Fantasy), my wrongful perception was that McCartney had been  "the main Beatle."

Similarly, having not been aware of Hüsker Dü during their existence--sorry, but I was listening to the Scorpions, Ratt and Dokken in the mid-'80s (along with, more proudly, Springsteen, Zeppelin and the Kinks)--I think I first paid attention to their legacy after getting hooked on Bob Mould's great 1992 album with Sugar, Copper Blue, which I initially heard sometime in 1993.

In subsequently getting all of Hüsker Dü's highly acclaimed albums from the '80s, I expected to be wowed by much more of Mould's material. And I was. But I soon discovered that only half the songs were written and sung by him; the other half--with plenty of songs I liked just as much as Mould's--were composed and sung by Grant Hart, the band's drummer.

Though I have now noted that Hart went on to lead a band called Nova Mob and has released some solo albums, I have never heard any of his music outside of Husker Du and never noted any live appearances by him. Whereas I have seen Mould six times and have virtually all the music he's released.

So my eyes perked up when I saw a friend mention on Facebook that Grant Hart would be performing in Chicago on Saturday night. Especially in discovering that the venue--the Red Line Tap--was only about 20 minutes from home and tickets were just $10, I eagerly opted to check him out.

Based on the listing on the venue's website, I didn't know if Hart would be performing with a band or solo. I also expected him to look something like he does in the photo.

Turns out, he played alone with just an electric guitar--following enjoyable solo acoustic sets by Jeremiah Webb and Ripley Caine--and except for his singing voice, was largely unrecognizable compared to any old images I had seen.

Far be it from me to criticize anyone's appearance or fashion choices, but it looks like Hart might be borrowing Anthony Kiedis' stylist of late, albeit with more of a John Waters mustache.

But even if he didn't instantly look like a guy who helped to change the face of indie and alternative rock, over an 85-minute, 23-song performance Hart played enough Hüsker Dü chestnuts--plus some enjoyable other material--to provide an adequate reminder of his legacy.

While even Mould probably couldn't be considered a household name these days--if ever--he seemingly can sell out a show or two at the 1,150 capacity Metro anytime he comes to Chicago.

So to see his old bandmate--the McCartney to his Lennon, or vice-versa--performing in front of about 50 people for $10 a head was both a bit sad and stirring at the same time.  

Though there was nothing to suggest a lack of professionalism, the show felt less like a concert than just a guy playing some songs in a small room.

Hart opened with a song called "You're the Reflection of the Moon on the Water," which I didn't know, but a few songs in he pulled out the first Hüsker Dü song of the night (at least as far as I recognized, though merely by the lyrics), "The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill."

Occasionally Hart would ask the crowd if they had requests, which would bring a torrent of people shouting Hüsker Dü song titles. He played a few, and declined to do others (such as "Books About UFOs"). Other than "The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill," the Husker songs that I could identify were "She Floated Away," "Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely," "Green Eyes," "It's Not Funny Anymore," and the show closing "Never Talking to You Again."

But much else of what he played sounded solid as well, including songs such as "Admiral of the Sea," "California Zephyr," "Barbara," "Little Miss Information" and "My Regrets." Three of these--plus his opening song--came from 2009's Hot Wax album, which notes came after "years of addiction," but which served as an "overdue reminder that there were two excellent songwriters in Hüsker Dü."

So hopefully, Grant Hart is still getting back to where he once belonged, and it was heartening to know that, even at a rather rudimentary level, he remains active.

If you didn't arrive at the Red Line Tap with an appreciation of who Grant Hart was, you might not have been wowed; not only were his solo versions devoid of Husker Du's manic energy, but--though his voice was largely in good stead--some of his vocal phrasings recircuited the originals.

But I imagine that most people there were well aware of Grant Hart's history--and his place in rock 'n roll's--likely even more fervently than I. So while I can't proclaim it a truly outstanding rock concert--though for just $10 it was well worthwhile even at face value--in ways that went beyond the performance itself, it was rather robustly satisfying. Or I guess you could say, Grant's re-emergence was good for the Hart. And soul.

A brief snippet of Grant Hart performing Green Eyes, shot by me:  
A Spotify playlist of Husker Du songs by Grant Hart, as well as a few of his solo songs:

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: Enjoying a 'Taste of Cuba'

Taste of Cuba Cafe
3918 W. Touhy Ave., Lincolnwood

After inaugurating my newfound initiative to eat around the world in Chicago by visiting the Argentinean restaurant Tango Sur, the next stop on my local world tour wound up being Taste of Cuba in Lincolnwood.

This was my first visit to Taste of Cuba, a friendly storefront cafe with 6 or 7 tables, but not my first taste of Cuban food.

I have enjoyed the 90 Miles Cafe at both their Chicago locations, used to go to a now defunct Cuban restaurant at Kimball & Peterson and when in Milwaukee in September, liked a place there called Cubanitas. I've also enjoyed the food service counter in the back of La Unica, a Cuban bodega on Devon.

So I was somewhat familiar with Cuban cuisine, primarily in the realm of Lechon (roasted pork) and Cubano (ham, pork, Swiss cheese) sandwiches as well as some appetizers. And I was therefore aware that Cuban food is considerably less spicy--pretty much devoid--than I would have suspected.

On Friday night, I went to Taste of Cuba for dinner with my mom and we were both very pleased with our experience in all regards: food, service and price.

I ordered Ropa Vieja, which the menu cites as a House Specialty and describes as "Roasted steak braised in a slow simmered creole sauce with sweet peppers, onions and garlic!"

Though what I got, accompanied by sweet plantains (my choice of side) and rice, was tasty, it wasn't quite as exciting as I inferred from the menu. As shown at right, the Ropa Vieja is basically a pile of seasoned shredded beef, with some peppers and onions mixed in. It seemed to me that some accompanying tortillas--or the Cuban equivalent--would've been appropriate, or that Ropa Vieja might work well on a sandwich (I don't see one listed).

Nonetheless, it fit the bill as something I've never eaten before and found both interesting and enjoyable.

Even better was a Steak Jibarito my mom ordered and let me share. I'm familiar with the Jibarito as a Puerto Rican specialty I had loved at Taste of Chicago, and subsequently from Borinquen restaurant, but it's not surprising it also fits within Cuban cuisine.

A Jibarito is a sandwich that uses fried plantains in lieu of bread, with your choice of filling. The steak we had was terrific.

I think my mom would agree, that especially given the relatively low price, this was one of the best dinners out we've had in awhile. It was made even better by service that wasn't just fast, but positively cheerful.

Taste of Cuba is just steps away from what may be my favorite Mexican restaurant in the area, Wholly Frijoles, and I think I first noticed the former on a trip to the latter. But Taste of Cuba may well merit a return visit even before I circumnavigate the world of Chicago dining cultures, and I certainly would recommend it to anyone looking forward to Havana great meal at a good price.