Monday, April 28, 2014

A Year After Roger's Death, Ebertfest a Celebration of Life Itself

"When I go to the movies, I have an out-of-body experience. If the movie is working for me, to some degree I am that person on the screen. I forget my social security number, I don't know where I parked my car, I am having vicariously an experience that happened to someone else, and that makes me a better person--or it can make me a better person.

I sincerely believe that to see good films, and to see important films, is one of the most profoundly civilizing experiences that we can have as people."

-- Roger Ebert
   From a video clip screened before every film
   at the 16th Annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival
   in Champaign, Illinois April 23-27, 2014

In 1997, Roger Ebert--at that point well-known as the longtime film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times and co-host of a syndicated movie review TV show (under various names) with his Chicago Tribune counterpart, Gene Siskel--hosted a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Virginia Theater in Champaign, IL, near the campus of his alma mater, the University of Illinois. This correlated to a connection between the U of I and 2001's HAL computer, which you can read about on Wikipedia.

After that screening, per suggestions from the school, Ebert began an annual film festival at the venue, which is also close to Roger's hometown of Urbana. 

It was initially dubbed Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival, as Ebert hand-picked movies that he felt deserved greater attention. 

Although my best friend has long lived in Urbana and I've visited him and his wife in many different years, I never thought to travel to the festival until 2010.

That was a few years after cancer and several unsuccessful jaw surgeries had left Roger disfigured and unable to eat, drink or speak. 

By that time, "Overlooked" was dropped from the title of Roger Ebert's Film Festival and it seemingly became more colloquially known simply as "Ebertfest." (Festival website)

According to Wikipedia, this didn't really reflect a change in philosophy so much as eliminated the need for explanation when films that didn't exactly fit the definition of "overlooked"--such as movies shown prior to their official release--were included.

But in my mind, simplifying the name just more directly honored the hometown hero, especially as he courageously faced daunting health challenges.

In the face of those challenges, Ebert astonishingly increased the volume of his voice, even though unable to speak.

While writing even more movie reviews than he had before, Roger became a prolific blogger about many personal and social issues, utilized Facebook and Twitter better than anyone else I've yet observed and wrote an acclaimed biography, Life Itself (which I haven't read in full).

In other words, by the time of his death on April 4, 2013, Roger Ebert had gone from a highly popular, esteemed and Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic famous for his harangues with Siskel--who died in 1999--to one of America's most astute and important social commentators, one who I sorely miss. Though I also acutely miss him as a film critic, for there is no other reviewer I read and respect with regularity.

Ebert also came to serve as the epitome of a public figure dealing with a debilitating, disfiguring illness with the utmost in dignity, courage, grace and openness.

Not only did he continue to write, more and--by many accounts--better than ever, but through a cover story in Esquire magazine, an interview with Oprah, appearances at Ebertfest (where I saw him in 2010 & 2011) and even a book signing I was lucky enough to attend, Roger was not afraid to show his mangled, jawless face, which amazingly always seemed to have a smile on it.

This transparency continued with the filming of a documentary based on his autobiography, Life Itself. Acclaimed director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) didn't begin with thoughts he would be documenting the last month's of Roger's life, but rather recapping Ebert's impressive career, compelling biography, inspiring perseverance and the love & support of his remarkable wife, Chaz.

But more bad news about the recurrence of cancer continued to get worse during James' filming, and yet Roger and Chaz continued to let the cameras capture many scenes that would be hard for anyone to watch even had Ebert remained alive.

And though Chaz bravely emceed Ebertfest last year, just three weeks after Roger had died, opening the 16th Annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival 2014 with Life Itself was incredibly poignant, touching, sad, celebratory, inspirational and also a truly magnificent movie. 

The festival has typically run from Wednesday night through Sunday afternoon, but though I had attended Ebertfest in 2010, 2011 and 2013, I had always gone down to Champaign-Urbana merely in time to catch a couple movies on Saturday.

Certainly I missed out on many great movies, and top tier special guests who would speak both before their films and more extensively after, but I just enjoyed being there, for the movies I did see, the experience and to pay homage to its host and namesake. (Though last year this became just the latter, Chaz has continued on as a wonderful host.)

This is true again in 2014, but instead of going on the weekend--when there was also a marathon happening in town--I decided to get there for the opening of the fest, and Life Itself.

I'm glad I did.

I would give the documentary @@@@@, and the same to Short Term 12, the second of three films I saw on Thursday before heading home Friday morning.

That 2013 movie stars Brie Larson, who gives an outstanding performance as a young supervisor of a group home for troubled kids.

Larson was at Ebertfest for the screening along with co-star Keith Stanfield, enthusiastically snapped pictures of the audience to share with her director (Destin Daniel Cretton) and participated in a couple of panel discussions at the Illini Student Union, which I didn't attend.

Almost all of the movie introductions by Chaz, post-show Q&A sessions and panel discussions can be viewed through the Ebertfest YouTube Channel.

So in addition to the guests I saw live--including James, Larson, Stanfield, director Jem Cohen of the movie Museum Hours and comedian Patton Oswalt, who accompanied Young Adult--I've now watched director Bennett Miller discuss Capote starring his close friend Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Spike Lee who was there in part to salute Ebert for being an early champion of Do the Right Thing. I also intend to watch Ebert friend and favorite, Ramin Bahrani, who directed fest selection Goodbye Solo, and Oliver Stone, who was there with Born on the Fourth of July.

It was certainly fun to see the hilarious Oswalt speak at length about Young Adult and his reverence for Ebert, who (to paraphrase) "inspired young actors and filmmakers in a way Velvet Underground and early Metallica demo tapes had spawned a new crop of rock musicians."

I didn't much care for one of Oswalt's rather humorless interviewers, and while I never saw a healthy Ebert serve as a moderator for his guests, I perceive the post-show discussions as an area in which the ongoing festival needs to improve.

I clearly can forgive Chaz for being overcome with emotion after Life Itself, but too many of the conversations felt slapdash or just not all that interesting.

Meaning no disrespect, this included the one with Jem Cohen, whose Museum Hours is a quality film, but a bit too slow and non-narrative for me to really love. And I was truly hoping to, given that it revolves around a security guard at Vienna's Kunsthiorisches art museum, which I visited last summer.

In full disclosure, I had trouble staying awake during the 1:00pm Thursday screening, but I suspect that may be more causal than coincidental, given that I was fine for the later showings of Short Term 12 and Young Adult.

But despite this being the first Ebertfest that Roger had no part in programming, Museum Hours felt like a movie he would have enjoyed and endorsed. ( contributor Kevin Lee certainly did, and was part of the post-show discussion.)

Thus I valued seeing it at Ebertfest, even if I can't say I loved it on a first viewing. For now I'll give it @@@1/2.  

I had seen Young Adult once before, and think Charlize Theron (along with Oswalt) is terrific in it, and not quite as despicable as often described in playing a prom queen who cluelessly returns to her hometown in hopes of reprising a high school romance. I'd probably give it @@@@.

Even with some better than others, all 4 movies I saw, plus Do the Right Thing, Capote, Goodbye Solo and Born on the Fourth of July, which I've seen previously, definitely deserve a Thumbs Up. (I also hope to soon see another fest entry, Wadjda, from Saudi Arabia.)

Though not huge hits, and the sort of movies made too infrequently now, Do the Right Thing and Born on the Fourth of July probably can't be considered overlooked. And Steve James is still prepping Life Itself for a theatrical release.

But even without Roger's warmhearted acuity in identifying films deserving of greater attention, and perhaps an increasing inclusion of big names and better-known movies, Roger Ebert's Film Festival should be in good hands for years to come, namely those of Chaz Ebert and Festival Director Nate Kohn.

For more than any other theme or rationale for inclusion, it seems the movies of Ebertfest 2014 were predominantly about, appropriately, life itself.

And if this continues in future years, as I have to imagine it will, the incredible spirit of Roger Ebert will live on.

And not just at the movies. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Discovering Columbus, plus a Basket Building & More in Newark, Ohio, and the Birthplace of Aviation in Dayton

I recently took a road trip to Columbus, Ohio.

Actually, it was a Thunder Road trip, as I was motivated primarily by the chance to see a Bruce Springsteen concert. I am a huge fan and so far the Boss has not booked any shows in Chicago in 2014. You can read my review of his Columbus show here, which includes several statistics about the number of times I've seen Springsteen and other entertainers.

I drove to Columbus from my home near Chicago on a Tuesday, and other than checking into my motel, didn't do anything much that day except get to the concert at Nationwide Arena, and see a bit of the Arena District and the Short North area, which has some fun exterior artwork.

Wednesday morning I drove about 40 miles east to Newark, Ohio, primarily to see and photograph the Basket Building, which is the headquarters of the Longaberger Basket Company.

But in wandering to downtown Newark, I was pleasantly surprised by a charming courthouse square that not only had a grand old courthouse in which I was allowed to view a courtroom, but a beautifully-renovated classic old theater, the Midland, and a small Louis Sullivan-designed building for the Home Building Association. I lucked my way into being able to see and photograph the interior of both of these.

Back in Columbus, I ate at Katzinger's Deli in German Village, where I also got some pastries at the Pistacia Vera bakery, which is the #1 rated restaurant in Columbus on TripAdvisor, despite not actually being one.

I took a brief drive through the campus of Ohio State University and prior to visiting the Columbus Art Museum, which was solid if not spectacular, I loved visiting the nearby Topiary Park, which has recreated my favorite painting (Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte, housed at the Art Institute of Chicago) in shrubbery.

I also took some pictures of Columbus' replica of Columbus' Santa Maria ship, which currently seems to be moored in a construction zone, as well as the Ohio State Capitol.  

That evening I had dinner with a friend I've known since Kindergarten, who now lives in the Columbus area with his family. We ate at a local chain called the Rusty Bucket, which was pretty good.

The next day I went to Dayton, for the first time, which is a bit over an hour east of Columbus.

I was intending to get home that evening, which I did, so didn't stop at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, which I had read good reviews about, nor Frank Lloyd Wright's Westcott House in Springfield, Ohio, which I didn't know about until I got home.

But as it was, I spent considerably more time in Dayton than I was intending, but I really liked what I saw.

This included the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, with a museum housed in a building in which the Wright Brothers ran a print shop, and one of the brothers' bicycle shops, though not the one in which they devised the first airplane (that one is at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan).

Even better was the Carillon Historical Park. This features a collection of historic buildings signifying Dayton's past, including one housing the Wright Flyer III, the first plane to achieve sustained flight. But there is also a terrific museum that educated me on Dayton's proud history of industrial achievement, including companies that became NCR and Delco, and the creation of the pop-top can. The animatronics production featuring the Wright Brothers and other early industrialists was one of the best I've ever seen.

Much like the Toledo Museum of Art, the Dayton Art Institute is a much better art museum than one might suspect in a city the size of Dayton.

I ran out of time to visit Shapiro's Deli in Indianapolis, but all-in-all it was a really good trip, even beyond another sensational show by Springsteen. And I even left myself reasons to return.

I'll put my photo gallery of Columbus, Newark and Dayton after a page break, so click below if you want to see it but can't.

All photos by Seth Arkin. Please do not re-post without attribution. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Musically Supreme 'Motown' is Well-Worth the Temptation, but Not a Truly Great Musical

Theater Review

Motown: the Musical
written by Berry Gordy
Oriental Theater, Chicago
Thru August 9

The music of Motown is the stuff of Miracles. 

And Temptations, Four Tops, Supremes, etc., etc., etc.

And with plenty of it performed, well, over the course of nearly 3 hours, by talented young singers and dancers emulating--if understandably never quite matching--Smokey, Diana, Martha, Marvin, Michael, Stevie, et. al.--Motown: the Musical can't help but provide considerable delight.

When it opened on Broadway just over a year ago, reviews hailed the wonderful, oft-infectious music, but noted that even for a "jukebox musical," the book (i.e. narrative) was flimsy at best.

But the fans didn't care, making Motown a huge hit in NYC.

And now out on tour, where night one in Chicago was filled to capacity and an extension already announced, it seems the public just can't get enough of the classic sounds of Motown.

Well, the fans are right and the critics are right.

If you love Motown, the music of the legendary Detroit record label--and really, if you don't, I'm not sure what's wrong with you--you'll spend a good part of the evening at Motown: the Musical singing, dancing and clapping along. 

But especially if you are a regular and somewhat discerning theatergoer, you'll also note that the narrative--written by the man much of it is about, Motown founder Berry Gordy--lacks much depth and novelty as the biography of Motown is told in rather cursory fashion.

At the end of Act I, I thought Motown felt like a @@@@ (out of 5) musical, with so much great music as to be thoroughly entertaining--with strong performances by Clifton Oliver as Berry Gordy, Allison Semmes as Diana Ross, Nicholas Christopher as Smokey Robinson, Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye and groups of performers embodying the Temptations, Four Tops, Contours, Supremes, Martha & the Vandellas and others--but a rather flimsy book. I learned almost nothing about any of the artists themselves, or the context in which the music was created in Detroit in the 60s.

But Act II, though shorter, really tended to drag on with far too much focus on the business struggles of the Motown label in the late 70s/early 80s, well after Gordy had moved the company to Los Angeles.

Leon Outlaw, Jr. was terrific as a young, Jackson 5 fronting Michael, Elijah Ahmad Lewis reminded us how great Stevie Wonder is and Semmes was well-sung as Diana Ross--who will be around the corner at the Chicago Theatre next week--but even the narrative about Berry and Diana's romantic relationship didn't do all that much to inform or excite. It all kind of felt like Behind the Music Lite.

And to be honest, despite more than 60 songs (many only performed in part), I left the theater thinking of many more I would have liked to have heard, perhaps instead of some performed. This doesn't even count Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," which was recorded for Epic and though the clear highlight of the Motown 25 TV show--which opens and closes Motown: the Musical--wasn't included or even referenced.

The bottom line is that for just $10 as part of my Broadway in Chicago upper balcony subscription, Motown was well worth my time and money, and I'm glad I saw it. If you can get a ticket at a price you can live with, there's enough to like--even love--that you shouldn't regret it.

But I think the truth is that if Motown: The Musical was set up as simply a pair of imagined performances--from say 1965 and 1973--featuring the best of Motown, with just a bit of biography, it would have been even more satisfying.

Or if Gordy had deferred to another book writer to turn his legendary story into a truly compelling musical. 

Happy 100th Birthday, Wrigley Field! -- Celebrating a Century of Splendor (and Futility)

Today, April 23, 2014 is the exact 100th anniversary of the first game played at Wrigley Field.

Except that the stadium wasn't named Wrigley, and the Cubs weren't involved.

The ballpark was initially named Weeghman Park, and its first home team was the Chicago Federals (a.k.a. the Whales) of the short-lived Federal League.

The team was owned by Charles Weeghman, who had the park built, only to have the league and his team disband after the end of the 1915 season.

He would then buy the Cubs, who had already existed for several years but had played at West Side Park, and moved them to Weeghman Park for the 1916 season.

Weeghman's fortunes declined and by 1919, William Wrigley owned the Chicago Cubs. But their home field would officially become known as Wrigley Field until the start of the 1927 season. (Wikipedia: History of Wrigley Field)

And the rest is history.

Much of it sad, from a baseball standpoint, as the Cubs would never win a World Series there, at least not yet--since moving to Wrigley they played in 5, but lost all of them.

Weeghman Park, 1914
Still, Wrigley Field is still unabashedly one of my very favorite places on Earth, and among the top places
I'd recommend to Chicago visitors.

I won't be at the game Wednesday, but did go this past Sunday, when the Cubs got crushed by the Cincinnati Reds.

A selection of photos I took--most to commemorate the 100th anniversary--is below.

But first I will regale you with some of my favorite memories of Wrigley Field.

These are specifically tied to being at the park, not just rooting for the Cubs. A few are of specific games, but since I have nowhere near the majestic memory of my friend Dave--who can recall dates and scores of games across several decades--only in extreme cases are my memories of acute results or star players I may have gone to see. And as you'll see, there are many eras cited, rather than specific days.

Wrigley Field in 1970
These aren't ranked, but are roughly in chronological order.

-- My First Game - I don't have a ticket stub or anything approaching certainty, but I believe I first (at least knowingly) went to Wrigley Field in 1975, at the age of 6, with my maternal grandparents for a doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates. I don't recall it being the 4th of July, but per Baseball-Reference, that was the only doubleheader against the Pirates not conflicting with the school year. So I'll go with July 4, 1975 as my first (and second) Cubs game at Wrigley. The Cubs won both.

-- Early Games - I have no evidence until a ticket stub from July 27, 1983 ($3.00 for bleacher seats) but
know that I went to a good handful of Cubs games before that with my family, school field trips, camp outings and, likely by the age of 11, with just my friend Jordan via the Skokie Swift and Red Line. A highlight came in '77 or '78, when at a game thanks to either my dad's workplace or the B'Nai Brith, we got to go on the field after the game and meet Ernie Banks (by then retired) and Cubs pitcher Ray Burris, who both gave me autographs.

-- 1984 - Unlike most Cubs fans, I was never raised to dislike the White Sox, and was delighted to finally see a Chicago team make the playoffs in 1983. But 1984 was a special season for Cubs fans, as the team made the playoffs for the first time in 39 years. According to my ticket stubs, I went to 5 regular season games. A couple undoubtedly were with Jordan, but that summer I worked as mailroom messenger for a Loop law firm and my supervisor took me to a game on August 6, where we sat right behind the Cubs dugout. The Cubs beat the Mets and Dwight Gooden 9-3.

-- The Vending Years (1985-89) -- During high school and college, I sold Pepsi and peanuts as a seat vendor at Wrigley (and also Comiskey). I was a pretty lousy vendor, not only because I would watch part of the games, but when it was hot and I sold Pepsi, I couldn't help but make over $100 per game, which wasn't bad for a teenager. There was a good camaraderie with other vendors, including my high school friend Mark. He started vending in 1984, prompted me to sign up and though now a teacher, still vends most weekend Cubs games. Four specific vending-era memories follow:

-- Pete Rose Ties Ty Cobb - September 8, 1985 - In a game against the Reds that ended 5-5 (called on account of darkness as there were no lights), Pete Rose had two hits that gave him a career total of 4,191, tying Ty Cobb's longstanding record. A few days later (not at Wrigley) he would break it. 

-- Michael Jordan scores 63 against the Celtics - April 20, 1986 - Though vending, I spent a good chunk of the Cubs game watching the Bulls on a TV at a beer stand atop the first base grandstand section.

-- Let There Be Light - 8/8/88 and 8/9/88 - It was pretty cool to be at Wrigley for the first ever night game, even though the one on August 8 started, stopped due to heavy rain and never counted. But as a vendor, I was back the next night, for the first official game under the lights.

-- The Playoff Game I Didn't Get To - October 4, 1989 - I graduated from college in May 1989, but unable to find employment in my field, continued to vend that summer until taking a job as a bank teller in Evanston. In advance, I asked my boss if I could leave early on the night of the first Cubs/Giants playoff game, but was told "No" because I had asked him in front of other employees. After my shift that day, my parents tried to drive me to Wrigley, but due to traffic we were too late for me to get in the vending gate. The next day's game was a 3pm start, so I didn't go to that one either.

-- The Harry Caray Years - 1982-98 - Likely more significant for watching the games on TV, but Harry's rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" was always fun.

-- 1998 and the Sammy Sosa Years - In retrospect, I'm sheepish about how wholeheartedly I rooted for Sammy Sosa in 1998 and in following seasons, but I can't deny that I did. And chemically-enhanced or not, it was pretty awesome to see his mammoth home runs. I recall seeing a pair on June 20, 1998, a Cubs playoff season.

-- Kerry Wood's First Comeback - May 6, 2000 - After striking out 20 in just his 5th game in 1998 (I wasn't there) and winning Rookie of the Year, Wood spent the entire 1999 season on the Disabled List. I was there for his first game back.

-- Roger Clemens' Bid for 300 Wins - June 7, 2003 - This was a Saturday game, and the one before was the first time the Yankees had played at Wrigley since 1932, when Babe Ruth called a home run shot. So the Yankees being in town was big in itself, but Roger Clemens was aiming for his 300th win and pitching against Kerry Wood and the second-place Cubs. There was palpable excitement, but the game was marred when Cubs first baseman Hee-Seop Choi got hurt on a popup and lay motionless for minutes. It wasn't much fun watching a game thinking I may have seen someone die. And I can't recall my emotions when the Cubs came back to beat Clemens and deny his historic win. It would've been a big victory for the Cubs and I've come to despise Clemens, but it would have been history.

-- Game 6 - October 14, 2003 - You can read this recollection I wrote on the 10th anniversary of what may be the saddest moment in Wrigley history (aside from actual tragedies). But the feeling I had around the 7th inning is likely the best I've ever felt at Wrigley. I should note that I had attended Game 3 of the Division Series at Wrigley, in which Mark Prior and the Cubs beat Greg Maddux and the Braves. And I also went to Atlanta for Game 5, which turned out to be the Cubs only playoff series clincher since 1908. Still, Game 6 of the NLCS hurt.

-- Cubs vs. Sox - I like the Cubs more than the White Sox and would root for them to win a Crosstown World Series. Short of that I am also a Sox fan, heretical as it may be. So though I innately cheer for the Cubs against the White Sox, there have been times when I haven't minded the Sox winning if more beneficial to their overall season. I've been to 13 Cubs/Sox games overall, including 9 at Wrigley. The Cubs have won 6 of these.

-- Opening Day - April 12, 2010 - This is the only opener I've been to at Wrigley Field.

-- Anthony Rizzo Walk-off Homer - July 29, 2012 - Though since two straight 3-and-out playoff appearances in 2007 & 2008, the Cubs have been perpetually lousy, I still enjoy going to a handful of games each season (after my vending years, I've never gone to all that many). One of the more memorable of late came when Anthony Rizzo beat the Cardinals with a walk-off 2-run homer. 

-- Concerts - Given how much I relish Wrigley, it not surprisingly has become my favorite venue for
concerts since it began hosting them in 2005. I've seen The Police (2007), Billy Joel & Elton John (2009), Paul McCartney (2 shows in 2011), Roger Waters (2012), Bruce Springsteen (2 shows in 2012; on night 2 I touched both the ivy and Bruce) and Pearl Jam (2013), which because of rain the show ended at 2:00am, perhaps the latest there has ever been public activity at Wrigley Field.

-- April 20, 2014 - As I mentioned above, I went to Wrigley for the first time this season on Sunday, with my friend Dave. There was nothing special about the game; the Cubs looked awful. But it was a beautiful day, the kind that reiterates that there is no place I'd rather be. And I took these photos (and a few of those above):

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Alone in a Paradise, Neil Young Captivates the Faithful -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Neil Young
Chicago Theatre
April 21, 2014

Rock is my religion.

I say this--as I have for years-- somewhat facetiously and mean no disassociation with Judaism (my genetic religion) nor disrespect to any other faiths and followers.

But beyond merely reflecting the fact that I have been to infinitely more concerts than services, the truth is that music has more so provided many of the things people derive from religion.

Community, camaraderie, comfort, contemplation, ethical insights, emotional sustenance, inspiration, motivation, joy, solace, hope, faith and a sense of transcendence have all been genuine aspects of what I've gotten from rock 'n roll (and also from other art forms).

And though over the years, Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles have been my foremost rock 'n roll deities, in seeing Neil Young on Monday night at the Chicago Theatre, it felt like I was in church.

Although I have only been in church for services a few times--in the name of tourism or curiosity--I say church and not temple because most synagogues aren't as lavishly ornate as the Chicago Theatre.

Designed by Rapp & Rapp, the 1921 movie palace is truly magnificent and its intricate carvings remind me of those in great cathedrals. It is one of Chicago's greatest treasures and I really should make a point of taking a tour.

Before Neil took the stage--himself, with more than a minion of guitars and pianos--the crowd was instructed that any videography would result in ejection and that flash photography was not allowed.

So other than a few idiots who needed to hear themselves be heard screaming down toward Neil, occasional obnoxious guttural shouts, a guy who felt compelled to let the whole theater know that the Blackhawks won and a drunk guy sitting behind my friend Ken--who was sitting separately from me and my friend Paolo--it really was the quietest, most respectful concert crowd I've ever experienced.

I took a few photos for this review, but very sporadically and no video, and it seemed most others in the house had their cameras and cell phones tucked away.

Dare I say, it felt reverent.

Young opened with "From Hank to Hendrix"--he would later tell us that one of the acoustic guitars he was playing had once belonged to Hank Williams--from 1992's Harvest Moon. He would subsequently play the title song from that album, but nothing any more current. This was an evening dedicated to his historic catalog going back to his Buffalo Springfield days ("On the Way Home," "Mr. Soul").

Highlights were many, including achingly beautiful renditions of "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," "Harvest," "After the Gold Rush" and "Heart of Gold," among others.

A plaintive version of "Someday" from 1989's Freedom was also a great treat.

As a wonderful complement to his own classics, Young paid homage to heroes like Tim Hardin ("Reason to Believe"), Phil Ochs ("Changes") and Gordon Lightfoot ("If I Could Read Your Mind"), and these covers were all notably terrific.

Given how reverently Neil spoke about Ochs, it wasn't hard to imagine that the '60s folksinger's strident politicism had somehow influenced Young to write "Ohio" (with CSNY) and "Southern Man," which he delivered Monday night in staggering succession. (See the full setlist on

After opening the second set by treating the crowd to a few verses of poetry, he played "Pocohontas"--whose lyrics cite Marlon Brando--and then spoke of how Brando had opted to have a Native American woman accept his Oscar for The Godfather. A great "Cortez the Killer" came next.

Young never conversationally sermonized, at least not overtly, instead speaking endearingly loopily about things like sleeping habits, how his daughter had painted his piano and that the show was "sponsored by water."

But with his incredible musicianship--he played all the instruments onstage--and especially the brilliance of his lyrics, there was true soulfulness and even spiritual moralism on both a micro and macro level, in keeping with how I introduced this review.

From being reminded that only love can break your heart, to having it expressed why a man needs a maid, to "give me things that don't get lost" to "thinking about what a friend had said and hoping it was a lie" to "don't forget what the good book said," I likely garnered more from Neil Young than I ever have from clergy.

Of course, given the vastness of his material and the acoustic nature of the evening, there were a whole lot of great Neil Young songs that didn't get played.

But as this show came just 18 months after I saw a barn burner at the United Center with Crazy Horse in tow--I also gave that performance @@@@@--this was a perfect complement in demonstrating how great Neil Young remains in his upper 60s. And yes, his voice still sounds terrific.

If you read this in time to get to Tuesday night's show at the Chicago Theatre, I highly recommend perusing StubHub.

I can't promise you a religious experience. Only a musically superlative one.

But quoting Neil Young quoting Tim Hardin, "Still I look to find a reason to believe."

And Neil, like many a legendary rocker who reminds of a time when artistry had an inherent earnestness and urgency, continues to provide one.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

With a Pair of Great Performances in Fine Irish Play, 'Chapatti' Has Me Dublin My Pleasure -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a world premiere play by Christian O'Reilly
directed by BJ Jones
starring John Mahoney and Penny Slusher
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Run Ended

This won't be a barrage of statistics like my last review, but I feel it worth noting that I have now seen John Mahoney on a theatrical stage 9 times--at Northlight, Steppenwolf and once at Ravinia.

Truth be told, this is probably more than the number of Frasier episodes I've seen--I never liked the show nearly as much as Cheers, from which it was spun off--despite Mahoney playing Martin Crane, terrifically, in 263 of those.

According to IMDB, he has appeared in a number of TV episodes since Frasier ended in 2004, but I believe it true to say that rather than seek continued fame & fortune in Hollywood, Mahoney has opted to focus primarily on stage acting in Chicago, where he joined Steppenwolf at the age of 37, soon after deciding to become an actor.

He is now 73--just 14 years older than his TV son, Kelsey Grammer--and it was great to note that in Chapatti he appeared a good bit heartier than he has in recent years.

It is always a joy to see him on stage, yet while he is delightful in Chapatti--a play he directly helped to facilitate a world premiere at Northlight--his only castmate, Penny Slusher, is just as terrific in a rather warmhearted piece.

I saw the show's last performance in Skokie, so won't spend much time on a detailed review, but do highly recommend it--with the same cast--to those lucky enough to be at the Galway Arts Festival in July.

Past Northlight productions with Mahoney have been staged at the Ireland theater fest, and Chapatti is actually a co-production of Northlight and the festival born from Irish author Christian O'Reilly getting his script to Mahoney, who got Northlight Artistic Director BJ Jones interested.

Jones directed the Skokie production and will do likewise in Galway.

There, the one troublesome aspect of Chapatti shouldn't be a problem. Mahoney and Slusher each adopted Irish accents, and while I don't think I missed much of the dialogue, the couple next to me audibly tried to discern what was said on several occasions.

Given Northlight's generally older audience base, I might suggest that the play should have been presented here devoid of any brogue, even if a fair amount of authenticity would have been lost. I have to assume other audience members might have had some trouble comprehending all that was said, although this may have been satiated a bit by the fact that much of it was monologue, not dialogue.

Even though the play revolves around two older Dubliners who come to intertwine, writer O'Reilly cleverly has both Dan (Mahoney) and Betty (Slusher) talking to the audience--though not all that overtly--rather than to each other, much of the time.

This enables a deeper familiarity with each character, which makes their eventual interaction richer.

The title of the play, Chapatti, is that of Dan's dog, while Betty has several cats. None of the animals are seen, but the unique structure makes them an integral part of the piece.

I imagine the work would best be classified as a drama given some weighty themes, but it has enough humor to possibly be considered a comedy.

And it is touching enough--without being maudlin--to resonate with audience members of all ages, although perhaps particularly the more mature folks who fill most of the seats in Skokie.

Yet anyone who has the chance in Galway should cherish seeing a true Chicago treasure in Mahoney, and the wonderful work of Slusher, who is every bit his equal in Chapatti.

The play itself is good enough to work well with other fine actors, so it'll be worth your time, one day, if you missed it here and won't be getting to Galway.

But though a one-line synopsis may say that Chapatti is a Dublin-based play about a late-in-life dog lover and cat person who come to find commonality, at its core it is simply a piece about humanity.

Which John Mahoney and Penny Slusher embody just about perfectly.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Crunching Numbers for the Boss (and Reasons to Believe Bruce Springsteen is the Greatest Entertainer of Our Time)

Concert Review, Recap and Reverence

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Nationwide Arena, Columbus, OH
April 15, 2014

"You may be backstage, you may be tired, you maybe want to go to sleep, but that walk, whatever it is, 25 yards from the dressing room to the stage, it's never failed me. Something turns on between those two points."
-- Bruce Springsteen, March 2014

Tuesday night in Columbus, Ohio, I saw Bruce Springsteen live in concert.

For the 44th time.

It was my first Springsteen show in 2014, and my first in Columbus. I live in the Chicago area, where I first saw Bruce 30 years ago, at the Rosemont Horizon on July 17, 1984.

38 of the 44 shows have been with the E Street Band, including 36 since Bruce reunited with his longtime mates in 1999. Overall, I have seen him 40 times since 1999, including in 13 of 16 calendar years.

I have seen Springsteen 15 times in Chicago (or Rosemont), and 8 times in Milwaukee (just 90 minutes away). I saw him twice in Los Angeles when I lived there in the early 1990s.

Which makes 19 Springsteen shows in 10 different cities away from home, counting New York City (Madison Square Garden) separately from nearby East Rutherford, NJ, where I saw him at the now-demolished Giants Stadium 7 times.

Besides Columbus, I've also traveled to St. Louis, Indianapolis, Atlantic City, Detroit, Cleveland, Louisville and London.

With help from, I know that I have seen Bruce play 1,122 songs, including 218 different ones.

And with an average of 3 hours per show being a safe estimate, I've seen Bruce Springsteen onstage for about 132 hours, or 5-1/2 days.

Now, all of this simply suggests that I am a Springsteen fanatic, which was established long ago.

And certainly, everything about entertainment enjoyment is a matter of opinion, and what I am soon to opine is merely mine.

Some may wholeheartedly agree, some may see merit but have debate, others will vehemently disagree and many will frankly not give a damn.

But as this is an indulgent exercise that I'm enjoying, I feel it worth mentioning that Bruce Springsteen is far from the only performer I greatly relish seeing live and in person.

Give or take a few, I have attended 591 rock concerts in my life (on Tuesday I turned 45.5 years of age), by more than 200 different headline artists. 

This includes seeing Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks (or a Davies brother)--all "past their prime" but IMHO still great every time--a total of 37 times.

U2, R.E.M., Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins a combined 56 times.

Wilco, Radiohead, Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Soundgarden: 33 

Bowie, Clapton, Dylan, Elton and Neil Young (including this coming Monday): 26

Alejandro Escovedo, Willie Nile, Dinosaur Jr. and Bob Mould: 26

Seger, Mellencamp, Petty and Billy Joel: 21

AC/DC, Metallica, Rush, Van Halen and Cheap Trick: 28

Foo Fighters 12 times.

And Nirvana just once, but it was glorious (though notoriously one of their "worst shows.")

I've also seen Prince and Madonna a combined 7 times, but never Michael Jackson. (He never played Chicago when I lived in the area, excepting the Jacksons' Victory Tour of 1984.)

I never saw Led Zeppelin, and it doesn't look like I will, but I've seen Robert Plant 6 times, including 2 in tandem with Jimmy Page.

I've seen over 50 rock artists at least 4 times each.

Aside from the Springsteen shows, I have attended 119 concerts outside Chicago, in more than 25 different cities. (It's incomplete, but you can see my concert stats at

So it's not like the Boss is the only rocker I love.

And it's also quite true that rock 'n roll also isn't the only form of live entertainment I love.

Primarily including musicals and plays, but also classical and jazz concerts, comedians, improv, opera, ballet and more, the number of live performances beyond the rock (and blues) realm that I have seen totals:


This includes seeing The Producers--my favorite Broadway musical--12 times, including 3 times with the great Nathan Lane, who I saw on stage 4 other times.

I've seen Les Miserables live 9 times, including on Broadway and in London.

I've seen over 200 different musicals and more than 200 plays. Of 112 new musicals and plays nominated for Tony Awards since 2000, I've seen 81 (including 11 on Broadway). I've attended 53 total works on Broadway and in London's West End.

I've seen the great Broadway star Patti Lupone 6 times, highly decorated Broadway favorites Sutton Foster and Audra MacDonald a combined 10 and the legendary Chita Rivera 4.

In addition to theater stars like Joel Grey, George Hearn, Michael Crawford, Bernadette Peters, Harvey Fierstein, Topol, Theodore Bikel, Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth, Norbert Leo Butz and Elaine Stritch, onstage I've seen several Hollywood stars including Denzel Washington, Hugh Jackman, Antonio Banderas, Billy Crystal, Martin Short, John Lithgow, Daniel Craig, Diane Lane, Jason Alexander, Teri Hatcher, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie Perez and Matthew Broderick, among many others. (This Pinterest board compiles many of the theatrical luminaries and famous stars I've seen on-stage.)

Locally, I've seen John Mahoney (of Frasier fame) 9 times, Brian Dennehy 7 times and--being a bit young for his Steppenwolf heyday--John Malkovich once.

I've had the pleasure of seeing the mind-blowing tap dancer Savion Glover--recent review here--on 5 occasions, and have seen such legendary musicians as Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, McCoy Tyner, Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Evgeny Kissin, Tony Bennett, Buddy Guy (7 times), B.B. King and numerous notable opera singers, in nearly 50 different operas. (I never saw Sinatra.) 

I've also seen many of the most esteemed comedians, including George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Steven Wright, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Gilbert Gottfried, Colin Quinn, Jackie Mason and Joel McHale.

And in Chicago and Las Vegas, I've seen 6 official Cirque du Soleil productions, and at least that many other shows of a similar ilk, as well as Riverdance and other showcases of spectacular talent.

As with rock and roll, I've seen theater and other types of shows in many different cities and venues, including 25 locales beyond Chicago, from a Spanish guitar showcase in Barcelona, to summer stock theater in Sullivan, IL, to jazz in New Orleans, to tango dancing in Buenos Aires.

This doesn't include sporting events I've attended, but with a small margin for error, I've had the pleasure of witnessing 1,441 live entertainment performances in my lifetime, with 90% of these coming since 1999, after the age of 30.

So while many--excepting those who have been following Phish around for years, and even more voluminous Springsteen attendees (and there are several)--may think my seeing Bruce 44 times, and continuing to go on Thunder Road trips, may be fanatical and then some, the Boss has really only accounted for 3% of my live entertainment intake.

And while I fully cop to being a Springsteen sycophant, disciple, acolyte, etc., all of the above is meant to substantiate that it is not simply as a devout E Street fan--or without plenty of points of comparison--that I state this:

Bruce Springsteen is the greatest live entertainer of my lifetime. 

Still, now, today. At the age of 64.

And as was wondrously reiterated on Tuesday at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, any time, money and effort I've expended in seeing Springsteen so many times has not only been worth it, but has been paid back several times over.

Sure, except sometimes for the driving itself, the road trips have been tremendously rewarding, as I love to explore and on this trip discovered much to enjoy in Columbus and nearby Dayton; I will be writing a separate travel recap in the days ahead.

And I've had many fun conversations with other Springsteen fans and diehards.

But I'm not really referencing either of these aspects. I'm talking about the man himself. The Boss. And his great band.

Besides the shows I've seen, I've heard hundreds more dating back to the early 70s, and while I love all the Springsteen eras--including the hallowed '78 and '80/'81 tours which were phenomenal if a bit before my time--I honestly think Bruce still sounds as good as he ever has.

For his 2014 shows--in South Africa, Australia and the U.S.--he has begun selling online downloads. I own six (and will buy the Columbus show when available) and like them as much as any shows I've heard from years past.

In Australia, Bruce had fun opening shows with songs of local relevance, including AC/DC's "Highway to Hell," the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" and the Easybeats' "Friday on My Mind," and also covered Lorde's "Royals" in the singer's home country of New Zealand.

In Dallas for a show tied to the NCAA Tournament, he opened with Van Halen's "Jump," and in Virginia Beach on Saturday night he paid tribute to a local musician by covering Bill Deal & the Rhondels' 1969 single "May I."

So there was fan speculation that Bruce would open in Columbus with "Hang on Sloopy," not because the McCoys were from there, but because the song has long been a fixture at Ohio State football games and thus highly connected to the city.

But he opted for "High Hopes," the title track from his latest album. Not quite as fun as a surprising cover, but fine with me as Bruce tends to avoid what everyone expects.

With the mighty E Street Band--which has expanded to include a horn section, percussionist and backup singers, as well as Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, but is currently without Steve Van Zandt, who is filming Lilyhammer in Norway--he went on to play "Adam Raised a Cain," "Hungry Heart," "Blinded by the Light," "Trapped," "The River" and "Prove It All Night" with the extended '78 introduction.

And that was just within the first hour.

We also got great versions of newer songs, a rare "Light of Day," a typically great "The Ghost of Tom Joad," with a monster solo from Morello, "Badlands," "Born to Run" and much more. There was nothing that wasn't good, and that would have been true if 26 completely different songs were played.

With the setlist already terrific, even for someone who has seen Bruce so often, to open the encores Bruce delighted me with my favorite song of all-time--not just by him--"Backstreets." It was an awesome version.

Although Springsteen's closing the show with his solo cover of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" clearly confused some of the Columbus contingent, I enjoyed hearing it in lieu of "Thunder Road" yet again.

All told, Bruce Springsteen was onstage for 3 hours with no break, played 26 songs, crowd surfed through the audience, danced in the dark with both young and old fans, sweated through his shirt entirely and made me completely forget that it had taken me basically all day to drive to Columbus to see him.

And though he didn't do much overt talking in Columbus--a city in which he had campaigned for Obama, twice, as well as John Kerry--he's one of the few artists who dares to comment on the state of the world.

Sure, he's 64, but IMHO he's still as great as ever (or close enough) and yes, I still need him. Hopefully he'll come to Chicago this fall, but right now there are no tour dates beyond May 18 in Connecticut.

No, I won't be there.

But for now I've gotten my fix. Who needs drugs, alcohol or even religion when you've got the Boss?

And if I haven't convinced you that Bruce Springsteen is the best performer of any artistic type over the past 40 years--at least--I just hope that your hero satisfies you just as much. 

From YouTube, here are videos of "The River" and the beginning of "Backstreets" in Columbus.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Arun's Delivers an Exquisite If Not Quite Extraordinary Thai Dining Experience -- Chicago Restaurant Review

Restaurant Review

Thai, Prix Fixe
4156 N. Kedzie, Chicago

I don't recall anyone I know ever speaking about Arun's, I can't remember reading a specific review of it and I know I had never driven by it.

Yet I have been aware of the upscale Thai restaurant for many years, and due to it being consistently exalted as one of the best restaurants in Chicago--it is one of just seven awarded five diamonds by AAA--as well as perhaps the very best Thai restaurant in America, I have long been intrigued.

So in the wake of having loved my prix fixe--set price, preset menu--meal at Picasso in Las Vegas in January, I decided to devote a weekend's dining and entertainment budget to an $85 (+ drink, tax & tip) dinner at Arun's, and ate there on a Saturday night in March.

I wouldn't say that I was disappointed as everything about the meal and experience was first-class, but I also can't say that I was blown away. 

Not only did Arun's not thrill like pricey prix fixe indulgences like Picasso, Alinea and Charlie Trotter's, but just in terms of Thai food--while wanting to be deferential to the obvious imagination of chef and owner Arun Sampanthavivat, who has concocted excellence nightly for nearly 30 years--I've probably been more overtly pleased by a great rendition of Pad Thai for around $7.95.

In writing this up a few weeks removed from my visit, I have to refer to my notes and photos to recall what I had and liked. And I know that even the night of my meal, nothing truly set me ablaze with delight.

As one would expect, the service being excellent--despite being given the wrong check at the end--with a rotation of servers patiently describing each course as I took notes on my phone.

And though I was seated in an area with more low-key art, there were walls gorgeously covered with the elaborate paintings by the owner/chef's brother, Anawat.

I was allowed to freely peruse and photograph them all, which was thrilling in itself.

And no doubt about it, I definitely enjoyed a unique, savory and substantive meal. Just not one as historic or euphoric as I was hoping.

Twelve courses were served: 6 appetizers, 4 entrees and 2 desserts. 

Soon after making my reservation through Open Table in mid-January, I received a confirmation phone call from the restaurant in which I was asked about any food restrictions. I informed them about my poultry allergy, so no chicken, duck or turkey.
But there was no menu on the table, or current one online, and no indication of what I would be served. Although I'd had prix fixe meals before, this was the first one that was truly blind.
I did not order any wine and there was no salt or pepper on the table.

Here's a rundown of the 12 courses I enjoyed at Arun's:

1. Winter Rice Porridge with seasoned pork & fried dough - Excellent
2. Oyster Pancake with garlic chives, bean sprouts, spicy mayo - Terrific 
3. Steamed Rice Dumpling filled with shrimp & jicama and sweet chili vinaigrette sauce - Good, sauce really good
4. Meekati - thin noodles (vermicelli), with mint prawn, black bean coconut sauce, tofu, garlic chive and a flat omelette - Very good

5. Tom Yum Soup - pork hock, herbs - OK

After this course, my main waiter indicated that I had had 6 courses, but luckily I had notes as I was only done with 5.
6. Yum Makrua - Fried eggplant, carved cucumber cup with Thai salad; would have been chicken instead of eggplant - Good, spicy
7. Lobster Tail with garlic sauce - Good
8. Basil Tilapia with corn and zucchini (usually chicken instead of tilapia) - Fair, nothing special
9. Three-flavored Fish - sweet/spicy/sour sauce and Nemo made from a carrot - Good
10. Beef Mussaman with string potato - Good but not sensational
11. Kibosha Squash, sweet black rice and beans, tapioca bubbles, coconut milk - Traditional Thai dessert - Good
12. Mixed Sorbet - Lichi and orchid blossom with poached pear & raspberry sauce - Excellent