Monday, September 30, 2013

A Superb Jazz Set From the Ravi Coltrane Quartet, as the Son Shines -- Chicago Jazz Review

Jazz Review

Ravi Coltrane Quartet
Jazz Showcase, Chicago
September 29, 2013 | 4pm set

It's easy to imagine the double-edged sword that likely accompanies footstep-following offspring of transcendent musical geniuses.

On the one hand, they may well have inherited rare gifts, and might get heightened notice due to their surname. But no matter how skilled and successful they may be, the likes of Jakob Dylan, Julian & Sean Lennon, Jason Bonham, Ziggy Marley and Roseanne Cash will never be favorably compared to their famous and phenomenal fathers.

Ravi Coltrane is a jazz saxophonist whose father, John, not only was likewise, but stands as a bebop icon and--to my admittedly non-expert purview--one of the greatest, most groundbreaking musicians to ever live (check this out). Ravi's mother, Alice Coltrane, was a gifted jazz pianist, and she and John named their son after another musical virtuoso, Ravi Shankar.

Having seen Ravi--who was just under 2 when his dad died in 1967--perform for the first time Sunday at a matinee set at the erstwhile Jazz Showcase, I won't imprudently judge him in relation to John Coltrane, given my dilettanteish jazz vocabulary. Nor do I have the perceptivity to say how Ravi Coltrane's tenor and technique rivals the few other sax players of his generation I've come to know and like: Joshua Redmon, Branford Marsalis, Miguel Zenon, etc.

All I can really say is that I tremendously enjoyed everything I heard over an hourlong set.

With its leader beginning the performance on tenor sax, the Ravi Coltrane Quartet--rounded out by Johnathan Blake on drums, Dezron Douglas on bass and David Virelles on piano--did nothing to avoid the legend staring at them from across the room in the Jazz Showcase's 5th permanent home since 1947.

They opened with a pair of John Coltrane compositions, which I didn't recognize and whose titles I didn't note, but they sounded great.

Ravi's playing sounded equally sublime when he switched to a soprano sax--I thought it was an alto but asked him afterward; he couldn't be nicer in signing an autograph and posing for a photo--and later an even higher sopranino sax.

A mid-set ballad took awhile to excite, but after it had Coltrane noted that it was called, "For Turiya," and was a work Charlie Haden had written for Ravi's mother, Alice.

And though every piece played, including a composition by bassist Douglas, could be considered a highlight, the closing number--Charlie Parker's "Segment," played in front of a big Bird backdrop--was absolutely phenomenal with both Coltrane and drummer Blake demonstrably superlative.

I certainly don't mean to slight Douglas or pianist Virelles, who also showed they are obviously first-rate musicians.

But on a beautiful afternoon in Chicago, with the sun beaming into the Jazz Showcase, it was a particular joy to watch Ravi Coltrane harmoniously demonstrate--no matter how large his father's great shadow looms--that the son also rises.

Ravi Coltrane's weeklong engagement at Jazz Showcase has concluded, but in addition to highly recommending the venue no matter who else might be playing there, I'll note that Ravi's latest album is called Spirit Fiction. In Howard Reich's similarly praising Tribune review of Coltrane last week, he calls the album one of the best of 2012. I've been enjoying it on Spotify as I wrote this.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

'It's a Sin'-tillatingly Sensory -- If Not Quite Animalistic -- Evening with the Pet Shop Boys – Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Pet Shop Boys
Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
September 28, 2013

When I told my friend Dave that I would be seeing the Pet Shop Boys at the Auditorium on Saturday, he—despite being well aware that I've attended hundreds of concerts by everyone from Metallica to Madonna, Depeche Mode to Def Leppard, as well as virtually every Broadway musical of note—seemed surprised and said, "That doesn't seem like your type of thing." 

Granted, despite having a collection of albums—on CD and/or MP3—in the thousands, I have never owned anything by the Pet Shop Boys. Nor have I seen them previously in concert. 

But not only have I enjoyed the PSB songs that have pervaded the American mainstream--"West End Girls," "It's a Sin," "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)" and more—I appreciate music across many forms and formats by anyone who is really good, and seemingly genuine, about what they do. And as this blog should convey, I just love to see great shows. 

My friend Paolo, with whom I attended the Auditorium show, heralded the Pet Shop Boys—still comprised of Neil Tennant and Chris Loweas a live act, and YouTube clips I'd seen from their last tour, featuring dazzling video, lighting, costumes and more, certainly bespoke what I was in for.

In more ways than one. 

For while I loved the spectacle, and several of the songs, being there in person didn't feel all that different from watching a video. 

Over 100 minutes I was never bored, and though on a visceral level I likely would have considerably more enjoyed longtime favorites, The Stereophonics--who had announced a show at The Vic after I already had gotten Pet Shop Boys tickets--I'm not ruing that I went to this show instead. 

I can't say I derived much meaning or symbolism from the two people in weird costumes dancing around on stage--and they were distinct from Tennant and Lowe, also often adorned in weird costumes--but the sensory combination of the lights, video, dancing, music (much likely canned) and singing was impressive. 

And several production numbers, for lack of a better term, were terrifically creative, such as when Tennant and Lowe's cloaked heads were joined by video projections of lithe dancers (see photo).

While Tennant's brief stage patter seemed rather sparse and perfunctory for a guy who has been a bit of a media personality in Britain, his singing was strong. 

In addition to the hits cited above, highlights included "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Type of Thing," "Domino Dancing," "Thursday"--from 2013's Electric album--and their covers of "Always on My Mind" and "Go West."

A bit ironically, the last two songs cited were also heard the last time I was at the Auditorium, for the Broadway musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

In a way, this show felt more like theater than a rock concert, and not just due to the inclusion of "Somewhere" from West Side Story, complete with a couple doing ballet. ("Somewhere" followed "West End Girls"; continuing the directional theme "Go West" should have been next, but came several songs later as the main set closer.)

But--without meaning to imply I didn't like the performance; I did, but just didn't love it--not only did the Pet Shop Boys fall far short of matching the emotional impact recently provided by Depeche Mode (an "electronic" band some might perceive as similar), but they also didn't stir my soul like an outstanding Broadway musical does. 

Or, as I said to Paolo at the end, I very much enjoyed the spectacle and several of the songs, but unlike many a truly great concert, this one didn't change my life. 

So perhaps Dave was right, after all.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

How Sirius Stupidity is Preventing Me from Hearing Howard Stern

I love Howard Stern and I make no apology for it.

I realize he isn't everybody's proverbial cup of tea--though I believe the aversion of many is due to inaccurate presumptions--but I have listened for much of my adult life and have derived great pleasure...and even considerable enlightenment.

A couple years ago I wrote a long piece on my fandom, and also wrote about seeing him at an America's Got Talent taping this spring. So this isn't primarily about Howard himself.

If anything, it's to Howard himself.

For I know from years of listening how much Howard Stern appreciates his listeners--and doesn't like them being taken advantage of.

So as I have gotten nowhere with SiriusXM Listener Care, Customer Service, et al., I thought I would take the tack to air this here.

I can't say I really expect much, but if nothing else, I feel like sharing it.

When Howard Stern announced in the fall of 2004 that he would be leaving terrestrial radio for Sirius in January 2006, I became a Sirius stockholder.

And in June 2005, I became a Sirius subscriber, purchasing a Lifetime subscription for $500.

I also bought a JVC Sirius receiver unit at Best Buy and had it installed in my 2004 Dodge Stratus, which I still have.

Although years ago, the LED display on my unit conked out, I didn't really need it, because I knew where Howard 100 & 101 were preset.

I also came to really like the E Street Radio channel dedicated to Bruce Springsteen, Little Steven's Underground Garage and later Pearl Jam Radio, but Howard Stern was 100% the reason I became a Sirius subscriber and 90% of what I listened to on it over the years.

When Sirius merged with XM, my Sirius stock tanked, but I retained the channel lineup I had all along, and also could hear it over the internet.

In recent months, my JVC receiver--which was distinct from my in-dash car stereo but connected to it--perpetually displayed an "Acquiring Signal" message and wouldn't play any audio. This was annoying, but when it initially happened, I wasn't steadily working so would listen to Howard at home over the internet.

But I recently started in a new job assignment (i.e. a finite gig) and though I am really only driving to & from a train station, I missed hearing Howard (and rare Springsteen concerts) on my commute.

So I called Sirius, a few times, first to see if they could remedy the technical issue, and when they couldn't, in hopes of getting a replacement radio at a reasonable cost. The prices they quoted for a new plug-and-play (i.e. not in-dash) radio always seemed to be higher than what I was seeing on Amazon or, and SiriusXM customer service never could answer how I was supposed to remove my old unit and utilize the "Vehicle Kit" they said would accompany a Starmate 8, Status 7 or Stratus 6.

The fact that the unit Sirius was trying to sell me--and the prices--kept changing with each call also made wary, so one day last week I just went to Best Buy.

The purchase and installation actually wound up taking 3 trips to Best Buy, but I'll condense the story.

Best Buy had some plug-and-play docks, but they all seemed to be marked as "XM" units. I was aware that getting Howard Stern is an extra charge to those who were originally XM--and not Sirius--subscribers before the merger.

So I looked at In-Dash units, and though several indicated they were "SiriusXM Ready" only the Alpine CDE-SXM145BT included the Sirius tuner required to actually receive the satellite programming.

The unit was $199.99, but this particular week installation was included in the price (though not all necessary parts). I also liked that I would be able to plug my iPhone & iPod into the receiver, so that helped to justify an upgrade to an otherwise working in-dash car stereo.

I asked the salesperson at Best Buy if I would be able to transfer my Sirius Lifetime Subscription to this Alpine unit, and he said yes. I also called SiriusXM and was told the same thing, and was also told this by the Best Buy installer.

As the stereo was being installed, I called SiriusXM to get service switched to my new radio. For the first time, I was told there was a $75 transfer fee for doing so. I argued about this (I don't recall it being cited when I bought my "Lifetime" subscription), but after explicitly asking if all the same channels would switch over and being told "Yes"--even upon them asking me if I listened to Howard Stern--I paid it, after being transferred to a billing person, with whom I further reiterated this confirmation.

So the first thing I do after getting in the car and leaving the Best Buy audio dock is try to dial up Howard 100.

And I didn't have it.

So I called SiriusXM again, talked to an account rep who explained that I now had an XM Radio and would have to pay another $100 to get XM Premium to hear Howard Stern.


I wound up talking to a supervisor named Daniel Alfonse, who agreed that the situation and policy was unfair, but all he was able to do was offer to waive 50% off the fee, so I'd have to pay $50.

This still seems ludicrous, as not only did I purchase the only in-dash car stereo sold by Best Buy that was equipped to receive SiriusXM, but the only reason I did so was so I could continue to hear Howard Stern.

And as you can see in the photo above, nowhere on the box--or even in the manual--does it indicate that this is an XM-specific radio.

I even subsequently had an online chat--with a guy named Joseph--and another call with a rep named Christine, and neither could cite a stereo I should have bought instead.

And now, get this, I can't even get Howard on the Internet anymore because I'm considered as having XM equipment!!!

So to summarize: I've been a lifetime Sirius subscriber since 2005, wanted to keep listening despite my radio conking out, bought a stereo I was advised would work, had this confirmed repeatedly by SiriusXM, was belatedly informed (and paid) a $75 transfer fee, lost my ability to hear Howard Stern and was told I need to pay $100--or $50 as a "solution"--in order to do so. And I also lost my ability to at least listen on the internet.

Suffice it to say, so far I haven't ponied up the extra $50, but feel stupid for the $335 I already paid to not get what I want.

This doesn't just seem unfair, it seems fraudulent. Or, one might say, like Sirius bullshit.

So I hope Howard hears about this. I think he'd agree it's a stupid way for him to lose a loyal listener and avid fan.

Hey now!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Pithy Philosophies #10

Seth Saith:

Enjoy life for 
what it is, 
not what
you think it 

should be.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: Hearty Grub at a Local Irish Pub

The Curragh
8266 Lincoln Ave., Skokie

What I ate: Bangers & Mash, Guinness Cheese Soup, Harp beer

It's been 13 years since my one and only trip to Ireland and I still recall it quite fondly.

Other than having Shepherd's Pie at a pub in Carlow called Teach Dolmain--I only know the name because I have pictures--I don't specifically recall what I ate...or where.

But I know I visited several pubs, including on a Literary Pub Crawl in Dublin. Although I never acclimated--nor have since--to the taste of Guinness (despite loving the brand & marketing), I enjoyed the ambiance of genuine Irish pubs.

Given Chicago's huge Irish population, I imagine there are a good number of fairly traditional pubs dotting the landscape, but I've never really looked for any. I've been to Fado, which is a big one downtown and part of a national chain.

I had noticed another, the Moher Public House, in the Edgebrook neighborhood, and thought I might try it as the Irish entry on my Chicago Dining World Tour. But the other night, the Curragh in Skokie proved a rather opportune place to meet my friend Ken.

He had already eaten, but I was looking for a full dinner, so I was glad to note that the Curragh--to which I hadn't yet been, despite it being in Skokie for a number of years--had a rather robust menu including Irish favorites and several types of burgers.

It seemed like a perfect night to eat outside on the patio, but though it looked like there was room despite several occupied tables, we were told a large party was on its way and we couldn't be accommodated al fresco.

So we stayed inside, which even with an Irish flag and several Guinness signs seemed to have a somewhat Americanized Irish feel. I can't really explain exactly what I mean, but let's just say I didn't feel like I was back in Dublin or Carlow or Kilkenny.

But it was pleasant enough, and while not feeling exploratory enough to again try a Guinness--or even a black 'n tan--I did order myself a pint of Harp, while Ken got a Kaliber.

Fortunately, the stout taste of Guinness did not overly pervade my Guinness Cheese Soup, which the menu describes as Irish sausage, roasted peppers and caramelized onions in Wisconsin cheddar, spiked with Guinness.

It was rather good, as was, reportedly, the Beef Vegetable Soup that Ken ordered as his only food item.

While a burger likely held greater appeal, I felt obliged to try more traditional Irish fare, and as I recalled having Shepherd's Pie once, 13 years ago, I opted here for Bangers & Mash (Irish sausages with mashed potatoes and beef gravy).

I'm glad I ordered Bangers & Mash, once, but doubt I ever will again, as I assume the Curragh's version was a pretty solid representation of a dish that filled me much more than it thrilled me.

I've never been big on getting gravy atop my mashed potatoes, and the sausages were akin to breakfast sausage links, but a touch softer. I ate it all, but can't say I loved it.

No offense to an otherwise wonderful culture, but I'd have to say that for the most part--albeit with limited exposure--Irish cuisine has never quite left me in clover.

The Curragh had some desserts, including a couple that sounded interesting--Homemade Rum & Raisin
Bread Pudding and Profiteroles (choux pastry stuffed with whipped cream and served with chocolate sauce). I've had the latter elsewhere, and especially as its origins are French not Irish, Ken and I resisted the indulgence, opting instead to satisfy our sweet teeth with frozen yogurt at Red Mango.

It was certainly nice to be reminded of Ireland, and I definitely wouldn't mind returning to the Curragh, but when I do, I think I'll order a Cajun Bacon Burger.

Even if it doesn't sound all that authentically Irish.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Color Me Ecstatic: For 80 Glorious Minutes, The Replacements Show There is Still No Substitute -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Replacements
at Riot Fest
other acts seen: The Pixies, AFI
September 15, 2013
@@@@@ (for Replacements)

Precious are those moments in life when you're struck by the realization that there is literally no place on Earth you would rather be at that particular instant than right where you are.

I've been fortunate to have had such a feeling a few times this year, including--a bit incongruously--Sunday night while standing at the back of a muddy field with 35,000 other people and no seating options in sight.

Sadly, my days of comfortably attending standing room only concerts--let alone festivals--are behind me, as though I still love great rock and roll, my legs, feet and back no longer share the romance if I'm unable to sit at least for a bit during a show.

This didn't miraculously change, nor did I expect it to in buying a Sunday ticket for Riot Fest in Chicago's Humboldt Park. There were also acts I love at the festival on Friday and Saturday--Smoking Popes, Bad Religion, Blondie, X, Dinosaur Jr., Violent Femmes--and even earlier on Sunday (Mission of Burma, Bob Mould), and while I would've loved to have seen them, I knew I would regret it physically.

So, truly, the only reason my friend Dave and I got tickets was because of the reunification of the Replacements, at this point specifically for Riot Fest at its three locations (Toronto before Chicago and Denver after).

I caught onto the Replacements in 1987, while in college and inspired by stellar reviews for Pleased to Meet Me, the album after the one I now consider their best--Tim--which itself followed Let It Be, oft cited in Best Albums of All-Time lists.

I whiffed at a chance to see a late-80's Mats--a moniker derived from Placemats, which itself derived from Replacements--show at the Aragon, but saw them open for Tom Petty at Poplar Creek in 1989 and while living in LA saw a show on their final tour at the Hollywood Palladium in early 1991. I was actually in Chicago over 4th of July that year, but with other holiday plans did not attend the free WXRT show in Grant Park that would end with the Replacements breaking up onstage. (I did hear it, as you can here.)

In the intervening years, I've seen singer and chief songwriter Paul Westerberg on various solo outings, during which he would play a few Replacements songs. But though his solo output was solid, even stellar at times--2002's Mono, released under the Grandpaboy moniker, is a highlight--he was a prime example of my The Power of Paul is Greater in Groups thesis.

I'd also seen bassist Tommy Stinson once as a latter-day Guns N' Roses sideman (a bit shockingly, he has been accompanying Axl Rose since 1998).

And given that original guitarist Bob Stinson (Tommy's brother) left the band in 1986 and died in 1995, his replacement Slim Dunlap suffered a stroke in 2012, original drummer Chris Mars either wasn't asked and/or interested in reuniting and his replacement Steve Foley passed away in 2008, this was really only half a Replacements reunion.

But it was good enough for me.

Great even, even if I was no more comfortable standing than during the preceding set by the Pixies (a bit more on that later).

With drummer Josh Freese, a veteran of NIN, GNR and A Perfect Circle, providing a solid backbeat and Dave Minehan sounding strong on guitar, it's quite possible this version of the Replacements is musically superior to the notoriously often-drunk-and-sloppy college radio favorites who never quite made it big.

Although the Replacements opened their 9:15 show a couple minutes early with a couple songs I didn't recognize--"Takin' a Ride" and "I'm in Trouble"--they sounded terrific, as did the outdoor acoustics, unlike for the Pixies, who had played on a stage in an adjoining field.

And once they started rolling through old chestnuts--largely from Tim and Pleased to Meet Me; see the setlist on was rocking out rather demonstrably, in part to supersede some discomfort in my feet. But truly, to quote another legendary band, wild horses couldn't drag me away.

The Mats' take on "Favorite Thing," "Color Me Impressed," "Achin' To Be," "Merry Go Round," "Left of the Dial," "Alex Chilton," "Kiss Me on the Bus," "Bastards of Young" and more were every bit as good as I could have hoped.

Though Westerberg was communicatively-conscious throughout the set of the scheduled festival-ending time of 10:30pm, the band delivered a couple wonderful encores that took them 5 minutes past. Though I was hoping for "I'll Be You," "Hold My Life" was an even better surprise (neither was played in Toronto, though the setlists were otherwise nearly exact) and the show came to a delightfully rollicking end with "I.O.U."

Particularly because at the time finding post-show transportation seemed ambiguous at best--it proved to be a relative breeze--I was fine with just an 80-minute set (that saw 25 songs played), and so were my feet, back and legs. But if need be, I would have happily suffered through another hour of classic Mats material if they had continued to play.

The steady rain earlier in the day turned out to be a blessing in disguise as rather than aim for a Noon or mid-afternoon arrival, Dave, I and another friend got to the Riot Fest grounds at about 7:25pm. We caught a bit of AFI, a band I knew by name only. They sounded good, playing on the stage the Replacements would take over, but were vaguely similar to a bunch of other bands that seem OK but not Earth-shattering.

Though they were a perfect complement to the Replacements as another seminal '80s band with whom the alternative revolution may not have happened, the Pixies were plagued by a seemingly muted sound system, exacerbated by a few songs I didn't know (Pixies setlist here) early in the show.

But though bassist Kim Deal has left the band, Uncle Festerish-singer Black Francis looks and sounds much the same as he ever has, and indie rock gems like "Wave of Mutilation," "Monkey Gone to Heaven," "Debaser," "Here Comes Your Man" and "Gouge Away"--the song Kurt Cobain feared "Smells Like Teen Spirit" too closely resembled--were a pleasure to hear. Ironically, the sound was a lot louder after Dave and I wandered further back and found some softball bleachers on which to sit for awhile.

Taken as essentially a Pixies-Replacements double bill, rather than a full day or weekend extravaganza, Riot Fest was pretty cool, though I have no idea why they had a bunch of carnival rides and midway games, as only concert ticket holders were seemingly let onto the grounds.

But even in a pretty remarkable concertgoing year, one in which I've seem astonishing shows from the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney, caught a Springsteen concert at Wembley Stadium and have greatly enjoyed Soundgarden, Leonard Cohen, Bob Seger, Green Day, Brian Wilson, Fleetwood Mac, Depeche Mode and others, to see another of the greatest rock bands of all time--even if not yet rightfully acknowledged by the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame--for the first time in 22 years, this one made for memories likely to be irreplaceable.  

Here are YouTube clips of "Hold My Life" and "IOU" posted by dephot, from whom you can find nearly a full concert playlist

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: Israeli Culinary Excursion is Holy Worthwhile

Taboun Grill
8808 Gross Point Rd., Skokie

I can easily envision how people—especially gentiles (i.e. non-Jews to a Jew) but not just—could perceive Israeli food and Jewish food as being pretty much the same thing.

But they're not, although there is some overlap, especially as a consequence this common perception.

You'll have to look to someone much more anthropological to explain the cultural culinary origins of each, but whereas a bagel with lox and cream cheese may be the quintessential “Jewish food,” a pita with falafel, hummus and chopped vegetables within it is much more emblematic of “Israeli food.”

Which means that--although the restaurant is kosher and thus largely frequented by observant Jews--the Israeli cuisine featured at Skokie's Taboun Grill has more similarities with other eateries featuring Middle Eastern or Mediterranean food than it does with a typical Jewish delicatessen. (I've already spotlighted one of the latter.)

This isn't all that surprising, given Israel's location and the fact that the country has many Christian,
Muslim and Jewish inhabitants, including within the Jerusalem's Old Town, a place considered an extremely holy place by all three religions.

A bit confusingly, the other day I visited a restaurant called Old Jerusalem in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood, which the menu hailed as featuring Lebanese cuisine.

And on the menu of Taboun Grill were a few Moroccan dishes, including Moroccan Fish, Moroccan Eggplant Salad and, as an appetizer, Moroccan Cigars (Spicy ground beef in crispy wrapper served with hummus).

I ate at Taboun on a Sunday night with my mom and sister. It was a first visit for all three of us, and we were impressed by the artwork on the wall (seemingly for sale). We also liked the complimentary plate of pickles and pickled beets that began our meal.

In addition to having a selection of sandwiches that one might expect-—falafel, shish kabob, chicken shwarma, etc., available on pita or a lafa flatbread and priced under $10 each--Taboun Grill, which derives its name from that of a traditional clay oven used for baking pita,  also has a number of entrees above $25. Mostly meat selections, these include Rib-Eye Steak, Skirt Steak, Lamb Chops and Prime Rib.

For an appetizer, we shared a small portion of Baba Ghannouj = classic creamy salad made from tangy
roasted eggplant), accompanied by fresh pita bread. It was tasty, though I still prefer hummus as a pita bread dip. But I was intent on trying things not so familiar, which carried through to my main dish.

I enjoy falafel, and recall having a good sandwich within the Arab section of Jerusalem's Old Town, as well as at various places around Chicagoland. But as the aim of my internationally-local dining initiative is not only to explore different ethnic cuisines, but to try new things, I ordered a Fish Pita.

This pita sandwich featured a sizable, pan-fried piece of tilapia, topped with hummus, tehina (ground up sesame seeds) and Israeli salad (essentially chopped tomatoes, onions & cucumbers). It was good, although I think I've reached the conclusion that I don't like hummus as a sandwich condiment, only as a dip. For the hummus gave the fish pita a bit of a sour taste that wasn't entirely pleasing to my palate.

My mom and sister each ordered a Veggie Pita, which the menu describes as delectable layers of hummus, Israeli salad, and eggplant with a touch of tehina. They both claim to have liked their selection, declaring it "a nice change of pace from falafel," which they order at Pita Inn, whose Skokie location is a common lunching destination.

The lack of novelty--despite a definite fondness--is what kept us from ordering Baklava for dessert.
Made with phyllo dough, nuts and honey, Baklava seems to be a staple accompanying many Mediterranean cuisines. And while Chocolate Mousse Cake and Sesame Cookies also sounded good, we were good and abstained.

There is no shortage of stellar Middle Eastern dining options in the Skokie area--besides Pita Inn, I've also enjoyed Basha (a Lebanese restaurant I wrote about) and the Naf Naf Grill--let alone Chicagoland.

But it's nice to know there's another one, with the Taboun Grill serving up satisfying (and kosher) Israeli cuisine.

Friday, September 13, 2013

While Not Quite Achieving Its Title, 'Brilliance' is a Smart Read -- Book Review

Book Review

a novel by Marcus Sakey

I can't provide any attribution on this, but I recall Marcus Sakey being referenced somewhere as the best Chicago-based contemporary crime fiction writer.

I have to imagine that anyone who has bestowed such praise on Sakey is not only more familiar with his work than I, but also that of local practitioners in the same realm.

For while I might also grant him that accolade, it's because I really don't know many other Chicago-based crime fiction--or suspense, thriller, etc.--authors.

There's one writer, Sam Reaves, who I met at the Printers' Row Lit Fest a few years ago and from whom I bought a signed copy of Mean Town Blues, which I liked. And Sara Paretsky seems to have a higher profile than Sakey, but I haven't read any of her works.

But though I am giving Sakey's latest, Brilliance, @@@@ (out of 5) and proclaiming it a worthwhile read from a talented author, based on his work that I do know it appears that others--including many reviewers on Amazon--hold him in considerably greater esteem.

A few years ago after having him come to my attention, I started to read his 2006 novel, Good People. But it never really hooked me and I gave up on it midway through.

And while I liked Brilliance, it wasn't a blaze-through-it-in-a-week-or-less page turner like books by favorites Lee Child, Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay. Towards the end of Brilliance, I couldn't wait to keep reading, but though it kept me interested enough throughout to stick with it, I wasn't all that enraptured for the first 300 pages or so.

Brilliance is based in the present day, but its title refers to human beings who are--to my awareness--science fictional in nature. In what seems like a metaphor for any number of minority groups, Sakey surmises a significant, though quite relatively small, population of people who are exceptionally gifted in different ways. Not as piano prodigies or math whizzes, nor as super-strong beings--though I couldn't help think of the X-Men--but with less obvious advanced capabilities.

The book's protagonist, Nick Cooper, is a "brilliant," or--as more disparagingly referenced since they represent a threatening minority to those without special gifts--an "abnorm" or a "twist." He is blessed with extraordinary "patterning" powers, which lets him instantly deduce what someone is thinking or about to do by their gestures, most commonly subconscious ones.

Working for a covert government organization--something akin to a Black Ops division of the CIA--Cooper is charged with tracking down "twists" who have engaged in terrorist behavior. I won't reveal too much else, but there are plot twists that reminded a bit of the TV shows 24 and Alias. That's not a bad thing, but one of the reasons I don't feel Brilliance is absolutely superb is because it doesn't feel entirely new.

And though I agree with the let's-all-live-together-with-tolerance-and-respect ideals that I believe are behind Sakey's metaphorical narrative, at times the messaging--and proselytizing--feels a bit too obvious and heavy-handed.

Still, simply as a thriller, Brilliance manages to be inventive and works rather well.

Not well enough to quite meet the promise of its title, nor even enough to inspire me to read the preview of Book 2 in the series that I discovered at the end of this one. But the writing is sharp with a number of shrewd observations, the overall theme is worthwhile (if excessively overt) and the action is crisp if not quite Usain Boltish.

So, long story short, if you're reading a great mystery, thriller, suspense novel, detective story, crime fiction book, etc., it may well be as good as this one, if not even better. But if you need a suggestion--particularly for a new release that's only $4.99 for a Kindle download--you could probably do a lot worse than pursuing Brilliance.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Play About Julia Child is Tastefully Seasoned, but Never Quite Sizzles -- Chicago Theater Review

Chicago Theater Review

To Master the Art
a play by William Brown & Doug Free
A TimeLine Theatre Production
Broadway Playhouse, Chicago
Thru October 20

With my last post being a 2500+ word essay imparting the importance of learning about people & topics that may extend beyond one's natural tendencies or predate one's own existence, I must sheepishly admit to entering To Master the Art with rather scarce knowledge about its subject, Julia Child.

Sure I'd known her name and general claim to fame as far back as I can remember--and her distinctive, high-pitch voice, which made me assume she was British--but I don't recall ever specifically watching any of her TV shows, reading her cookbooks or exploring her biography, nor have I seen the 2009 movie, Julie & Julia.

But before I arrived at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place on Tuesday night--where I was greeted by a pair of chefs from Le Cordon Bleu Chicago sizzling up some savory Crepes Suzanne--I looked Child up on Wikipedia and viewed one of her cooking demonstrations on YouTube.

Though barely much of a foray into familiarity with a woman who lived nearly 92 years and was famous for over 40, this brief research essentially made everything that I saw onstage in To Master the Art feel redundant.

For though it is plenty long enough at nearly 2-1/2 hours and features an outstanding performance by Karen Janes Woditsch as Child--which may well be worth the price of admission in itself--the play is essentially a biologue (biography + travelogue) that touches on a number of touchstones without delving deep into any of them.

These include Child's early life as an American spy (before the action in the play begins), her time in France and her inspiration for learning French cooking, her husband Paul's job as a diplomat charged with promoting American culture in France, Julia's strained relationship with her father, her & Paul's friendship with a woman who winds up victimized by McCarthyism, the issue of American Communism in itself, Julia writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking with a couple friends, the strugle to get it published and finally, though only referenced slightly, her TV fame.

Any one of these topics could likely have made for a fine play in itself. But with each only dabbled on, I never got a deep glimpse into any part of Julia Child's life, and stuggled with comprehending certain aspects before the next topic got broached.

Thanks to Woditsch and a terrific cast throughout--including Craig Spidle as Paul, TimeLine Theatre stalwart Terry Hamilton in dual roles and Heidi Kettenring, a great local musical theater star who here shows her deftness for drama as Jane, the Childs' leftist friend--To Master the Art certainly makes for an enjoyable night of theater; it's just not a brilliant piece of it.

Great writers and directors can likely make anything work--and Willam Brown and Doug Frew's piece was definitely crowd-pleasing--but biographical plays trying to cover a subject's full life, or a wide expanse of it, often wind up like this, i.e. somewhat sketchy due to the time constraints.

As this production is part of my Broadway in Chicago series, staged in collaboration with TimeLine Theatre, the great local troupe that debuted the play in 2010, I can't help recall TimeLine's much better rendition of a biographical play about Beethoven, called 33 Variations.

That drama, by Moises Kauffman, focused only a relatively small aspect of Beethoven's life--while weaving in a modern day narrative about a mother and her daughter--and as I wrote in my review, I tend to find that bio-dramas work best when the are more explicitly about someone in the micro, not the macro.

In sum, To Master the Art is worth savoring because Julia Child merits knowing about, and because
Woditsch and her colleagues are terrific. I wouldn't dissuade anyone from seeing it, and having loved what TimeLine has done over the years, I'm thrilled they're getting a more prominent showcase--and already an extension.

But in terms of providing any greater depth or insight to Child, beyond what you can learn by quickly perusing Wikipedia and watching her on YouTube, this tasteful play doesn't quite master the art of drama. Or, one might say, it could use a good bit more flavor. 

Sunday, September 08, 2013

The Erosion of Associative Learning (and Its Detrimental Effects)

Many moons ago, back before anyone had the ability to do anything, because cell phones, smartphones, the internet, email, text messaging, Facebook, personal computers and cable TV had yet to be invented, or were still in their infancy, I was a high school freshman.

I don't remember much about freshman year except for my friend Jordan being thrown out of Ms. Hall's Algebra class, and he'll probably say I have the story wrong. So this is representative, not explicitly real, but bear with me.

Let's say in my World History class I was assigned to do a report on Belgium.

Since the high school library was reserved for playing origami football, which consisted of folding sheets of paper into triangles that could be flicked for field goal attempts, this would involve riding my bike through the streets of Skokie to the library on a Saturday morning.

Along the way, I would likely stop to get something to eat and also visit Record City, to see what new albums were on the racks.

Once at the library, on route to the collection of encyclopedias at the back of the second floor, I would pass numerous books on display and on shelves, and probably be prompted to check something out, which has dual connotations in a library.

While World Book was always my encyclopedia of choice, there was also Encyclopedia Britannica, Funk & Wagnalls and several other multi-volume sets.

Even if I took merely the “B” volume of World Book back to a table, before or after I honed in on Belgium, it was certainly within reason that I might notice entries on “The Beatles” or “bees” or “baseball” or “Barcelona” or “Beethoven” or “Harry Belafonte” or “ballet” or the “Battle of Gettysburg” or “bass guitar” or—well, you get the idea.

Nowadays—and I should give the caveat that without kids of my own, my speculation certainly lacks much acute awareness of today's teenage tendencies, but is based a bit on observations of a niece and two nephews—kids doing a report on Belgium would presumably just go to Wikipedia or Google or other online resources (I was surprised to learn that World Book has an online encyclopedia for which schools can secure access) and search for “Belgium.”

And though information on millions of other subjects is instantly accessible, unless teens—or even adults—are prompted for a reason to explore something they weren't looking for, they probably won't.

Hence, while more information is more instantly available to more people than ever before in history, my sense is that this is actually resulting in people generally knowing less, not more.

Technology, in Itself, Isn't a Bad Thing, but...

Let me say, before I completely convince you that I'm a curmudgeonly technophobe, that I love modern technology, at least on a personal level.

I love the expediency that text messaging can provide. I like being able to watch entire television series with nothing more than a few clicks. I like always having “my music” with me. I like sharing my blog posts on Facebook and occasionally offering some witticism that makes me feel glib. I like using the Kindle app to read books on the train. I like buying replacement ink cartridges for my printer in 1-click. I like referencing IMDB during movies (at home).  And not a day goes by when I'm not looking something up on Wikipedia.

I also understand that most people are going to embrace the technology that is available—and the simplicity it often brings—and that young people who have grown up with such omnipresent technology aren't going to actively seek out the “analog” predecessors to the digital age.

There is not much reason I can think of to tell a 16-year-old to use a phone book, physical road map or—except for those really interested in learning the nuances of photography—a film camera. Many things that once were ubiquitous are now largely obsolete, and no tears need to be shed in the name of progress, even for us sentimentalists.
But my guess is that most 16-year-olds, unless imparted with certain passions by their parents, cannot name the four Beatles, or likely a Beatles album.
They probably don't recognize the names Sandy Koufax, Joe Louis, Milton Berle, Leonard Bernstein, Humphrey Bogart, Stan Laurel, Ian Fleming, Jonas Salk, Shirley Temple, Scott Joplin, Orson Welles or Louis Armstrong.
“So what?” you might say, “those were all people of a different age.”

Yes, but that's my point.

The heyday, if not full lifespan, of everyone I named was largely before “my time.” Yet, I'm pretty certain I knew who all of those people were before I went off to college at 17. And while I certainly came to know about many more people, topics, interests & pursuits in, and since, college, I don't know how many of those—or similar—once household names would even be recognized by the average 30-year-old today.

The Lack of Personal Passions Can Have
Not-So-Superfluous Repercussions

Before I ramble on, let me throw out a few caveats. I have always had a curiosity about entertainment, culture and creative arts, and I don't mean to imply that in order to have a fulfilling life, people—of any age—must share my passions. Though I do believe having a passion for something—astronomy, birds, fashion, architecture, tennis, the Civil War, Scrabble, etc., etc.—can not only be quite gratifying, but even emotionally nourishing.

And though I believe—without a shred of scientific research—that modern technologies have likely detrimentally impacted what I have termed “associative learning,” i.e. discovering something of interest you weren't intentionally seeking, even with this erosion seeming particularly acute among younger generations never weaned on roaming through record stores (see this somewhat related piece) or flipping through physical dictionaries, I'm not saying that the internet is solely responsible.

Also, while I don't think they provide quite the same type of peripheral information-ingesting and interest-prompting that physical encyclopedias, book/record stores, newspapers, magazines, bulletin boards, etc. once did, I should note that websites like Amazon, Pandora, Netflix, Spotify and, less actively, Wikipedia do try to turn users onto things not overtly sought.

And, theoretically, Facebook, Twitter and other web vehicles have exponentially mushroomed the concept of "word of mouth." Though I can't recall the last time I've seen anyone recommend a good book.

Hopefully, in this day of ubiquitous text messaging, status reporting and headphone wearing, people--including parents and kids--still occasionally communicate verbally...and even share interests and ideas.

For interpersonal interaction can be even more influential than encyclopedias, magazines, etc. in introducing one to possible new interests and passions.

Parents, aunts, uncles, teachers, other adults and even friends of the same age can hugely influence a child's sphere of interests, and even their interest in having interests. It's no accident that the early-twentysomething daughter of a friend of mine older than me loves Cream and Hendrix and old blues players.

My father certainly influenced my interest in baseball, Broadway musicals and more, and introduced me to Bridge on the River Kwai before I hit high school. And an aunt who always seemed to be traveling the world is undoubtedly part of why I so love to do so. Her apartment was always filled with books and travel mementos, and I directly trace my desire to visit Australia—which I did in 2001—to having seen a photo of the Sydney Opera House in one of her Time-Life books over 20 years earlier.

But, without being a parent nor having much conversation about this with those who are, my perception is that even interpersonal enlightenment seems not to burn as bright as it once did.

The reasons for this could likely fill a whole other essay, and I won't dig deep into them here. Certainly the advent of electronic communication, personal entertainment devices and myriad distractions have likely cut down on verbal interaction--and overt bonding moments--between parents and teenage children.

It's hard to imagine a dad influencing, perhaps even passively, his kids to watch, say, The Honeymooners, as it would have been 30 years ago, when reruns would've been on 1 of 10 available VHF or UHF channels, not a lot harder to find among hundreds of cable channels and infinite other viewing options.

I also think there's something to entertainment choices being so abundant, and thereby fractionalized, that fewer things become part of the mass zeitgeist, or at least noticed by a hefty portion of the population. Parents who grew up with Elvis, the Beatles, Stones and/or Dylan would be conceivably more likely to introduce their kids to their--and in some ways, everyone's music--than, say, 40-year-old parents of teenagers today. Because with the parents being teens between '86-'92, perhaps they don't feel the need to expose their children to Ratt or Extreme or The Outfield or Fine Young Cannibals or Bananarama or Milli Vanilli or whoever they were listening to. And all of those artists were in heavy rotation on MTV, and thus fairly mainstream. With music options in the internet age even far more individualized, there's likely to be even fewer common touchstones passed down from generation to generation.

How Cultural Literacy Can Provide a Psychological Foundation

Shocking, I know, but I never spent much time going to high school parties, or hanging out on Chicago's Lincoln Avenue (or other bar-besieged “hot spots”) or even dating a whole lot. Thus, I had plenty of time and some kind of "chicken or egg" inclination to read books, watch old movies, listen to—and constantly explore--music and otherwise indulge my creative curiosities.

Hypothesizing that some of the popular and/or stoner kids, frat boys and bar sceners may now be blissful, well-adjusted adults, I'm not saying that the only route to “happiness” involves exploring the various components of the “Paul is Dead” hoax from years ago. Especially as it's rather difficult to spin an MP3 backwards.

But I don't believe it's coincidence that despite not having, in the past and/or present tense, many of the
traditional trappings of happiness, success, fulfillment, etc.--popularity, romance, great jobs, wealth, a wonderful physique, big house, fancy car, spouse, children or even a pet—I have generally been pretty happy and, without meaning to suggest there is anything wrong with doing so, have never used psychiatric or recreational drugs, nor indulged much in alcohol.

Understanding that behavioral health issues have myriad underlying factors, I don't mean to over-imply that the seeming dearth of associative learning--and the resulting lack of life-sustaining pursuits and passions--is a significant factor in tragic number of suicides, substance addictions, cases of depression or even just insecurities and self-esteem issues among teens, young adults and, well, everyone.

But it's quite likely I wouldn't be here if I didn't have Bruce Springsteen or a good book or a classic movie to turn to when things weren't going so great, or even when I would've otherwise just been bored.

i.e., There's nothing wrong with Facebook in itself, but if it's all you have, life can be a bit harder to face, particularly through the tough times.

Encourage Looking Beyond the Instant to Find Other Interests

I certainly can't turn back the clock, and I'm not suggesting all households start subscribing to physical newspapers again (though it couldn't hurt) or that physical bookstores be supported by the government if no longer fiscally viable.

But though I admittedly have more consternation than answers, I do think there are ways to encourage a re-acclimation to associative learning.

With apologies to parents and teachers and librarians and others who are already actively trying to expand the “field of focus” among young people, I believe moms, dads and educators need to expressly stimulate additional interests, as the days of seeing other encyclopedia entries or perusing record stores is long gone.

Part of this whole diatribe was prompted by hearing that one of my nephews had to do a report on a famous person. I forget who his subject was, but I thought this was pretty cool, even if his point of reference was But when I asked if he would be reading his report to the class, he said no, that wasn't part of the assignment.

So instead of learning about 30 great, famous and/or interesting people, he learned about just one. The solution to this seems pretty obvious, though I'm not naïve enough to think that if kids hear a classmate's report on Charlie Parker, they're instantly going to become bebop afficianados.

But if you know a teen who loves 'The Hunger Games,' recommend that they look up Wilma Rudolph or Jesse Owens on Wikipedia.

If they like Jay-Z or whatever rap star I should be naming, suggest they seek out Grandmaster Flash, or even Gil Scott-Heron, on Spotify.

If they go to high school football games, bring up clips of Walter Payton, Jim Brown and Joe Namath on YouTube.

If they've seen Wicked on stage or liked the Les Miserables movie or watch Glee, show them Singin' in the Rain, My Fair Lady and West Side Story, or even take them to other live shows. 

If they love seeing the latest superhero blockbusters, find a Bruce Lee movie on Netflix or Amazon.

And if they spend excessive time staring into space--when not staring at their phones--download a book by Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawkins to their smartphone. 

You see, the tools to support associative learning are more readily available—and easily accessible--than ever.

What needs a good bit of updating for the digital age, however, is the power of suggestion.

If You Want to Know...Learn

In the spirit of stimulating associative learning, I thought I'd conclude this by throwing out 30 names that I'm glad I've come to know.

I'm not saying these are all people that everyone needs to know--and certainly not teenagers, as my awareness of many came much later--nor necessarily the foremost practitioners in their respective fields.

But depending on your age and interests, there may be several names below with which you're unfamiliar; as they have all enriched my existence to some degree, perhaps you'd like to learn more about some.

Each name is linked to their Wikipedia entry, with an additional "(more)" link that provides examples of their work. I've also written about many of these people here, so just use the search field at right if interested in what I had to share.

In turn, in addition to providing comments on my thoughts above, I'd be happy to hear of people and topics that I may be oblivious to, especially as my focus is heavily on practitioners of entertainment and athletic arts. And even in those fields, I'm either largely or completely unaware of any active painters, poets, sculptors, cartoonists, columnists, jazz musicians or classical composers I should be paying attention to.

So feel free to bookmark this, and return to expand your horizons--and mine--when time and inclination allow. And, just maybe, share it with your kids.

Gary Larson (more)
Norman Lear (more, "All in the Family")

Susie McMonagle and Superb Castmates Render 'Next To Normal' Next to Perfect -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Next to Normal
Drury Lane Oakbrook
Thru October 6

As firmly reiterated by a terrific local production at Drury Lane Oakbrook, coming just two years after I saw the first National Tour (which came to Chicago just months after the show closed on Broadway and featured the original star), Next to Normal is a great musical.

Despite not meeting my #1 prerequisite for great musicals.

So perhaps I should more accurately say that Next to Normal is a musical that is a great piece of theater, even if not quite a great musical in terms of its score. 

Typically, the foremost criteria for me to consider a stage musical truly superb is for it to have great music, including several songs that rise above being tuneful & narrative to the point of being hummable and memorable.

A show can be funny, touching, well-acted and terrifically choreographed--and even abundantly enjoyable in the moment--but without a number of really terrific songs, it generally can't compare to the really classic musicals. This is true, IMHO, about several musicals I've seen, even just this year, including Catch Me If You Can, Big Fish and Flashdance the Musical.

And as I opined two years ago in seeing the national tour with Alice Ripley in it, Next to Normal has a strong set of storytelling songs, but only two or three you're likely to remember the next day.

This was particularly notable Saturday afternoon in the unusually undersold Drury Lane Oakbrook, where classic musicals with oodles of songs well-known to the older crowd (that comprises a large percentage of subscribers and group attendees) are standard fare.

But while Drury Lane and its artistic director William Osetek, who helms this production, clearly took a chance in scheduling such a dark, non-normal, modern musical, I applaud them for it, as literally did everyone in the house in instantly bestowing a standing ovation at the end of Next to Normal.

For while it may be a far cry from My Fair Lady, with only "I Am the One" and "I'm Alive" being truly standout tunes, Next to Normal is one of those rare musicals that works as drama.

Written expressly for the Broadway stage (i.e. not based on a popular movie) Next to Normal tells the story of the Goodmans, a modern-day family in which the mom, Diana, has been beset by behavioral health problems for several years--and remains in crisis throughout the show.

Susie McMonagle stars as Diana, the role originated by Ripley, who ironically also starred on Broadway in Side Show, a local production of which first brought McMonagle to my attention back in 2000.

I've seen her in several musicals throughout Chicagoland since then--from playing the lead in Evita, to key roles in touring versions of Mamma Mia and Billy Elliot, to originating the lead in Snapshots, a brilliant revue of Stephen Schwartz showtunes set to a new story in a world premiere production at Northlight--and she has always been superb, in both her acting and singing.

But I don't recall McMonagle being any better than she is here, and while I remember Ripley also being outstanding--she won a Tony for the role on Broadway--my much closer vantage point in the more intimate Drury Lane Theatre (vs. the Bank of America, nee Shubert) helped me to really appreciate the nuances an actress must bring to Diana, a role I imagine it could be tempting to overact.

But the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal is far from a one-woman show, and the six-member, mostly Equity cast in Oak Brook is sensational throughout. Local veteran Rod Thomas is terrific as Diana's steadfast husband, Dan, and with the performances given by Callie Johnson and Josh Tolle as their children, one wouldn't suspect they are both recent college grads in either their first or most prominent Chicago-area roles.

Johnson is especially convincing--and well-sung--as Natalie, a 16-year-old girl dealing both with her mother's increasing instability and a first-time romance, with Henry (Skyler Adams, who is also excellent).

And for reasons I won't divulge, Tolle's take on playing the Goodman's son is even trickier, and he pulls it off quite well. 

Colte Julian rounds out the cast in dual roles of Diana's therapists, and his recent turn as Jerry Lee Lewis in The Million Dollar Quartet serves him especially well in one number here.

While the serious themes and narrative are what truly elevate Next to Normal, I don't mean to imply that the music is bad. It's actually pretty strong, just not Leonard Bernstein or Richard Rogers strong. 

So while this is a marvelous musical that takes the art form in a dramatic new direction, the Drury Lane Oakbrook rendition is likely as good a production as you'll ever again be able to see and I liked it to the point of eagerly anticipating standing to applaud at the end, the stellar-but-not-scintillating score is what prompts me to deem Next to Normal right next door to perfect, but not quite there.

(As with my review in 2011, I feel it necessary to explain why I didn't give Next to Normal a full @@@@1/2.)

Still, especially if you haven't seen NTN elsewhere, I strongly suggest you get to Oak Brook before October 6. Particularly as discounted tickets seem to be available for every performance on Goldstar.