Monday, June 30, 2014

More Than Zero: Star-Studded 'This Is Our Youth' Satisfies at Steppenwolf, but Doesn't Quite Reach the Highest Highs -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

This Is Our Youth
a 1996 play by Kenneth Lonergan
directed by Anna Shapiro
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 27

I felt quite happy, and relatively lucky, to be able to purchase a $20 Day-of-Show ticket to see This Is Our Youth at Steppenwolf on Saturday (by calling the box office promptly at 11:00am).

The vast majority of people who see this production--whether in Steppenwolf's intimate Upstairs Theater or after it moves to Broadway's Cort Theater in mid-August--will undoubtedly have paid quite a bit more.

In terms of "regularly-priced" tickets, topping out at $82, the Steppenwolf run is seemingly sold out, and only one performance has seats listed on StubHub, starting at $148.

Though I was not previously aware of it, This Is Our Youth is a seemingly well-known play--the first of note by Kenneth Lonergan, who would subsequently write several screenplays I've enjoyed--that ran in New York in 1996 and for quite awhile in London. Actors who have performed in the work include Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hayden Christensen, Anna Paquin, Casey Affleck and other notable names.

In Chicago, and destined for Broadway, the three-member cast consists of Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson.

Cera and Culkin (the younger brother of Macaulay) have multiple film credits, including Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, in which Cera plays the title character and Culkin his best friend and roommate.

Gevinson is a recent graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School who appeared last year in Enough Said with James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Her bio also notes that she founded the popular Rookie Magazine website in 2011.

Photo credits on all: Michael Brosilow
Directing the impressive young cast is Anna Shapiro, who won a Tony Award--and a whole lot of other kudos--for Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, which premiered at Steppenwolf. And set designer Todd Rosenthal, who also won a Tony for his work on that play, created the scenery at Steppenwolf, with the stage positioned between two banks of seats.

So although Steppenwolf typically stages stellar works with cast members you may see on screen led by highly-acclaimed directors, this kind of star-studded Broadway incubator production is a rather rare treat for the theater at 1650 N. Halsted.

Situated just 3 rows from the stage, and staying to partake in a worthwhile post-show discussion, my satisfaction--and appreciation for Steppenwolf offering such a generous discount deal when it obviously doesn't need to--was pretty much assured as soon as Cera and Culkin stepped onstage.

And with strong writing by Lonergan about affluent young Manhattanites in 1982, This Is Our Youth is certainly a worthwhile drama. Especially in paying just $20 for movie stars and Tony winners amid a sold-out run, I have nothing to complain about and am quite glad I got to see this show.

That said, if you don't already have tickets, try your darndest to avail yourself of Steppenwolf's "Twenty for $20" offer, but don't otherwise feel compelled to sell your first born to get to This Is Our Youth.

It is a very good, thought-provoking play that feels timeless in parts and dated in others, but only intermittently fantastic or essential.

All three characters are seemingly Jewish--Lonergan, whose mother was, makes some salty references to New York Jewish liberals--and college age though not enrolled (in real-life, Culkin is 31, Cera 26 and Gevinson 18).

Culkin plays Dennis, a narcissistic Alpha male who takes and deals hard drugs, lives in an apartment paid for by his "famous painter" father and bullies everyone he interacts with, including his dweeby, hangdog friend Warren, played by a closely-shorn Cera in keeping with his film persona.

The play opens with Warren arriving at Dennis' apartment after being thrown out by his dad, an affluent lingerie manufacturer. Along with a suitcase filled with collectible toys and record albums, Warren has a large wad of cash he took on his way out the door.

From there, This Is Our Youth is essentially a series of five dialogues among Dennis and Warren or Warren and Jessica.

Jessica, played terrifically by Gevinson who seems destined for considerable stardom, is pretty, insecure, opinionated and unsure, and I liked the play considerably more when she was on stage. Although overtly awkward young romance is pretty much Cera's stock-in-trade, it was here that Lonergan's script felt most authentic and universal.

At least to me. After I raised that opinion in the post-show discussion, another patron said he felt just the opposite, finding the relationship between Dennis and Warren much more compelling.

Certainly, there is much of interest with which This Is Our Youth presents audiences in 2014, from how different or similar things are now from the play's 1982 setting and 1996 debut--e.g. a landline phone factors in prominently--to the seemingly imbalanced friendship between Dennis and Warren to (as Chris Jones' noted in his Chicago Tribune review) the early '80s being the last bastion of the "player-dude," as the geeks would soon turn the tide, take over in Silicon Valley and get mega-rich.

Also quite central and directly voiced within the play is the question of whether Warren, Dennis and Jessica
of 1982 will be living entirely different lives 10, 20, 30 years hence--thus rendering their present predilections, personas and past-times largely immaterial--or if, as Warren suggests, "you basically get a set of characteristics and then they pretty much just develop in different ways."

My response to a post-show query about "Will they turn out OK?" was that it depends on one's definition of "OK."

Due to their families' affluence, their clear intelligence and Dennis' gift for hustling, I imagine all three characters will never want for material security, yet will remain uncomfortable--and perhaps, to varying degrees, unsatisfied--in their own shoes.

As it is, within the play, Dennis just seems like an ass. A very well-enacted ass, with deft work by Culkin, but an ass nonetheless.

And while Chris Jones might suggest that his brash type of entitled NYC rich-kid is an anachronism, if there was any truth to the recent TV show Gossip Girl, which depicted the same milieu, whether named Dennis Ziegler or Chuck Bass, the archetype--with due deference to the psychological causes and masked pains of such a churlish persona--doesn't seem all that distant, compelling or empathetic.

That Warren is friends with, and even worships, someone who so overtly mistreats him, is also worthy of consideration and discussion, but likewise not so foreign, whether from real-life or fictional drama.

Though Cera and Culkin are just about perfect in their roles--which they had previously played in an Australian production--I really think this This Is Our Youth could be much more interesting if the actors played against type and switched characters.

It would be fun to see Cera play a pompous jerk and Culkin the gawky misfit, and perhaps truer to perverting the existential riddle about our fates and personalities being predestined.

But even if This Is Our Youth feels a bit dated, there is much that remains relevant now and forever--including the espousing of the line "I'm restless"--even if the younger audiences the stars will likely attract can't recognize LPs, Trimline phones and life before Facebook, let alone appreciate references to The Honeymooners, Frank Zappa and Ernst Lubitsch.

Even if your youth isn't quite depicted--and many in the post-show talk seemed to suggest the characters were more akin to "people I grew up with"--this is a high-profile, high-quality production that is certainly worth seeing if you can.

And if you can't, watching Less Than Zero on Netflix just might satiate your desire to (re)discover the '80s through aimless youth with too much time, money and drugs on their hands.

A couple of trivial quibbles: 

- In the suitcase Warren shleps around are classic record albums, including one by Captain Beefheart. But I swear I saw a copy of The Kinks' State of Confusion, which though of titular relevance to the play and a personal favorite of mine, was released after This Is Our Youth's 1982 setting. 

- During the play, Warren makes reference to a baseball cap he owns that dates from the "opening of Weeghman Park in 1916." Though it is an early model Cubs cap and the team first played at Weeghman Park in 1916--it was renamed Wrigley Field in 1926--the venerable ballpark's 100th anniversary is currently being celebrated, as it opened in 1914 for original tenants, the Chicago Federals. I have no qualms with Lonergan's dramatic liberties, but couldn't help but notice. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

And the Beatle Goes On: With a Little Help From His Friends, Ringo Remains a Crowd-Pleasing Starr -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band
Chicago Theatre
June 28, 2014

Ringo Starr has been doing largely the same thing for a rather long time.

I don't merely mean that he's been a rock 'n roll drummer and occasional singer for 55 years, first--as he wryly noted at a sold-out Chicago Theatre on Saturday night--with Rory Storm & the Hurricanes, then of course with the Beatles, since which he's released several solo albums (on which he's done considerably more singing).

It has now been 25 years since Ringo embarked on first tour with an "All Starr Band," and he's performed such shows in 16 of those years (on 13 tours; details on Wikipedia)

I didn't see that first All Starr outing--which featured Joe Walsh, Dr. John, Nils Lofgren, Clarence Clemons, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Billy Preston and Jim Keltner--but bought the CD documenting it.

Though the names--besides the man born Richard Starkey--have changed, the playbook has remained much the same. Ringo typically sings lead on about half of 25 or so songs, and lets the All Starrs with him play 2-3 of their most famous songs, depending on the depth of the roster.

While the foremost of Ringo's famous songs with and following the Beatles are pretty much givens--"Yellow Submarine," "Boys," "It Don't Come Easy," "Photograph," "I Wanna Be Your Man," "Act Naturally," "With a Little Help From My Friends"--others slip in and out from tour to tour.

I had seen Ringo's All Starr show just once before, at the Rosemont Theatre in 2001--where his mates included Ian Hunter, Roger Hodgson of Supertramp, Greg Lake, Howard Jones and Sheila E--and haven't felt a great need to revisit him on subsequent tours.

But as with most of my prime rock heroes, Ringo is no longer a spring chicken--he turns 74 on July 7--and with the music I most love no longer sufficiently regenerating itself, I felt particularly compelled to get a pair of cheap tickets when Ringo Starr & His All Starr Band were booked into the wondrous Chicago Theatre.

Not knowing who the other players would be until just a few days ago, and not all that instantly enamored when I learned the lineup, I entered--accompanied by my friend Dave and another friend who sat separately--excited to see Ringo but with somewhat muted expectations.

Beginning exactly at the 8:00pm start time printed on the ticket, Ringo opened with Carl Perkins' "Matchbox," which he had sung with the Beatles, and then his own "It Don't Come Easy," a top 10 hit from 1971.

You can see the full setlist on, but all the standard "Ringo songs" I mentioned above were played, along with two nice cuts--"Wings" and "Anthem"--from his solid Ringo 2012 album.

Left out were "Back Off Boogaloo" (to Dave's dismay), "You're Sixteen," the "No No Song" and "Octopus's Garden," the latter which, oddly, doesn't look like it's ever been included in All Starr sets.

Any concert that enables me to sing along with a Beatle on "Yellow Submarine," "With a Little Help From My Friends" and other gems will automatically be rather mirthful, but what made this show especially superlative were the contributions of the rest of the All-Starr Band, both in backing Ringo and in playing their own songs.

Almost all were returning All Starrs from recent years and/or beyond, with the biggest name likely being Todd Rundgren.

Serving primarily as rhythm guitarist, Rundgren sang "I Saw the Light" from his 1972 masterpiece Something/Anything, revved up the crowd with "Bang the Drum All Day" and went with Utopia's "Love is the Answer" for his third turn in the spotlight.

I would have preferred "Hello It's Me" instead of the latter, or even in addition as Rundgren's songs were notably shorter than those of his cohorts.

But though I was familiar with the names Gregg Rolie and Steve Lukather coming in, I was considerably more impressed by the end of the 2-hour show.

Rolie is a keyboardist who was a primary vocalist in the early days of Santana, and also the first singer of Journey. Adding nice piano touches throughout the evening, he dazzled in delivering three Santana songs: "Evil Ways," "Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen" and "Oye como va" (written by Tito Puente).

If you're thinking "How good could Santana songs sound without Carlos?" not only did Rolie well-replicate his original vocals, and the All Starr Band of longtime professional musicians--including drummer Gregg Bissonette and multi-instrumentalist Warren Ham--performed the Latin soundscapes with considerable panache, lead guitarist Steve Lukather was superb in handling the Carlos Santana solos (and others throughout the evening).

Lukather is a top-tier studio musician who hit it big with Toto, and accompanied by Ham singing the high
notes, he delivered satisfying versions of "Rosanna," "Africa" and "Hold the Line."

Rounding things out was bassist Richard Page, best-known for fronting Mr. Mister.

Though not my favorite '80s band by far, they had two straight #1 singles--"Broken Wings" and "Kyrie"--which Page delivered in fine voice on Saturday night. He also sang a new song he recently wrote in Nashville, called "You Are Mine," which didn't detract even among a setlist of relative classics.

In their stage manner and patter, Rundgren, Rollie, Lukather and Page--who have likely known each other for years from the studio, touring and L.A. circuit--all seemed genuinely happy to be accompanying Ringo, who also was verbally gracious to his bandmates and the crowd.

As such, what could have felt like a bunch of old hands recycling a well-worn playbook and rehashing past glories instead had a really nice vibe and came off endearingly fresh.

I would have liked if the show occasionally went off-script--though musically strong, it felt a bit more like a revue than a concert--with perhaps Starr or one of his American All Starrs noting 2014 being the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first coming to America...and Chicago.

But at this point, Ringo certainly knows how to put on a crowd-pleasing show. And, to his credit, he doesn't look or sound markedly different than I remember from 13 years ago (he was even doing jumping jacks at show's end).

So, after a brief run through "Give Peace A Chance" followed "With A Little Help From My Friends" out the door--at pretty much 10:00pm on the nose--I would guess most in attendance went home quite happily, like me, to their yellow submarines.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: As It Enters the Knockout Stage, Jordan & Paolo Assess a World Cup Worth Sinking Your Teeth Into

Prior to the start of the 2014 World Cup, I posted a preview that predominantly included the insights of my soccer-loving friends Jordan and Paolo.

Now that the Group Stage has concluded and 16 teams--including the U.S.--have made it to the Knockout Stage (played in a one-and-done tournament format), I thought I'd get their assessments and perhaps revised predictions, while sharing some of mine.

Of the 48 games played in the Group Stage, I watched 16 of them, and followed most of the results, but Jordan has seen them all except one, and Paolo has seen most of the major ones.

I've largely been impressed, though--as seeps into some of my conversational-type questions here--I have been troubled by certain aspects, and not just Luis Suarez' biting incident, which I imagine has united the entire world in condemnation.

So rather than pontificate any further myself, I'll simply provide below the e-mail-based trialogue.

1. What are your thoughts on the World Cup so far? Mine, likely not uncommon, are that it's largely been great--good games throughout, several superb goals, surprises among teams that have been really good, good but not advancing and pretty bad, etc.--but marred significantly by the Suarez biting incident and some poor refereeing.  

Jordan: This World Cup has been fantastic. There have only been a handful of sub-par games. I've watched every game live except Spain-Australia.

Paolo: The play of CONCACAF and CONMEBOL has shown that the Americas have loads of talent, and a lot of it is playing in Europe but also in the Mexican league and even in MLS.

The new disappearing chalk that is being used to demarcate where the wall should stand and where the
ball should be on free kicks. Brilliant idea and not sure why it hasn't been used before. Also worthy to note that the ball has NOT been a distraction like it was in South Africa in 2010 and also that the vuvuzela has not really been replaced (although the Brazilians have something similar).
2. Weird things often seem to happen in the World Cup--e.g. the Zidane headbutt in 2006, handballs affecting games, etc.--but the cream of the crop (in terms of teams) frequently rise to the top nonetheless. Yet, for me--and I was no great fan of them coming in--what happened to Italy (knocked out by Uruguay after losing a player to a red card, the at-the-time non-penalized Suarez bite, a goal by Uruguay's Godin who arguably should have been red-carded against England and therefore not playing, the WC end for stars like Buffon and Pirlo) casts a bit of a pall over the rest of the Cup. How do you feel?

Jordan: Nah. No pall. Yeah, Italy got pretty screwed by a very debatable red card, Godin not getting a second yellow against England in the previous game, and the referee not seeing Suarez try to take a chunk out of Chiellini's shoulder, but as you note in your first question there were several bad decisions made by the referees throughout the group stage. Maybe Italy got it worse than others and maybe I would feel a little differently if I thought Italy was playing well but aside from being okay against England I didn't think they offered very much.

Paolo: The World Cup is a global celebration of the world's most popular game and also indirectly of our cultures. I find it fascinating to see how fans dress and cheer on their teams. So no pall.

But the Suarez incident, and some poor refereeing have impacted a few games. The Italians got screwed. 

3. Luis Suarez has now been banned by FIFA for the rest of the World Cup and beyond, for a total of 4 months (and 9 international games). Is this just? Should it have been worse?

Jordan: I don't know exactly what the scope of FIFA's authority is and I think I have heard some talk that they may be overreaching by suspending him from Premier League games for Liverpool. We'll have to wait and see about that.

I don't know if it's enough of a punishment. How many times can he be allowed to bite people? If he continues biting people at this rate he will next bite someone on January 18th, 2015 and by August 3rd, 2015 he will be biting a person every day. (Credit for those calculations goes to these tweets from Bootiful Game: 1, 2)

He needs to stop biting people but I've seen no evidence that he is going to. (Here is Suarez' lame defense of the incident, which was a particular shame given how well he showed against England, scoring 2 goals just a month removed from knee surgery.)

Paolo: I applaud FIFA for handing down a stiff sanction. Suarez has issues. I'm worried because Barcelona has been looking to add him. 

4. Let's talk about the U.S.A., who have advanced to the knockout stage. I didn't see the Ghana match, but heard the U.S. was outplayed despite winning; they were better than Portugal, but gave up a stunning goal to settle for a draw. They lost to powerhouse Germany--in the rain after playing in stifling Manaus--but surprisingly made it through the "Group of Death." Assess their play, success, chances and any revised world stature.

Jordan: You heard right about the Ghana game but part of the reason that game may have unfolded the way it did was due to Dempsey's goal in the first minute. The U.S. wasn't very good and Michael Bradley had the worst game I think I've ever seen him have. They were better against Portugal but Portugal was well below full strength and also not in good form. Germany didn't look great against them but they still seemed very dangerous and on a different level. Maybe Germany just felt like they didn't need to do too much more than they did.

I'm not trying to take away any credit (even though as I read what I just wrote it may seem that way). The U.S. fully deserved to advance. As for their chance against Belgium, they certainly have a chance. Belgium won all three of their games but did not look great in their first two. (In their third game they rested about half of their first team so I'm not really counting that one.) I do remember the U.S. playing Belgium in a friendly in May of 2013 in Cleveland and Belgium really smoked the U.S. 4-2 (you can read about that game here). The lineups will not be exactly the same when they play on July 1st, and Belgium is missing their star striker Chistian Benteke while the U.S. is missing Jozy Altidore. You can read about that game here:

If Belgium plays well I don't think the U.S. can beat them. I give the U.S. about a 30% chance of winning.

Paolo: The U.S. should be proud of advancing out of the Group of Death and making the knockout round for the second straight cup. They lost by a goal to the number 2 team in the world (Germany), and tied the number 4 team (Portugal). They said they had to beat Ghana and they did. They still haven't played a complete game, and I predict they will against Belgium. On paper Belgium wins, but who doesn't love an underdog better than Americans?

I say they shock everyone, beat Belgium and meet Argentina in the Quarters. There, however, the dream ends... but (Coach Jürgen) Klinsmann chose a young squad thinking about the next World Cup. I think the U.S. continues to make huge strides and wouldn't be surprised with a quarterfinal appearance in 2018. 

5. To paraphrase My Fair Lady, why has the reign of Spain gone mainly down the drain?

Jordan: Spain just finished an era of unprecedented dominance but their core players have gotten older. Their central defense especially was lacking. They also played two of the best teams in the world in their first two games. They have a lot of very good young players and there is no reason why they shouldn't be among the best teams again very soon.

Paolo: Spain's dominance over 8 years is unmatched in European football. Two Euro Championships sandwiched around the World Cup make them team for the ages and the tiki-taca football they invented is now used by many. But they got old, seemingly overnight. Casillas was a mistake in goal and the defense just plain didn't show up. But new blood is on the way and Spain will remain a world power. 

6. Which teams have impressed you, not just in advancing, but in the way they played. Jordan, I know you liked how Australia showed, even though they wound up with 0 points in the group stage.

Jordan: I was expecting Australia to get crushed but they were great in their first two games against Chile and the Netherlands (the same teams that Spain played). They easily could have drawn both of those. France was mostly awesome. Colombia was great and very entertaining, scoring some of the best goals so far. Costa Rica surprised me (and pretty much everyone) and was really solid.

Paolo: No one has looked AWESOME for all three games, but the Brazilians, Argentines, Germans, and Dutch look to be the most complete teams.

Chile, Colombia and Costa Rica have also impressed. And the Greeks and US and the Aussies showed some grit. Kudos to all of them. 

7. To my untrained eyes, no team has looked completely dominant. Obviously the Netherlands impressed against Spain, but not against Australia. Argentina went 3-0, but largely thanks to Messi and their defense seems suspect. Germany was strong but drew vs. Ghana. Brazil has been solid, but not awesome, and were fortunate to survive Croatia thanks to a terrible call. Costa Rica and Columbia were impressive, but probably far from favorites to win it all. How do you view the group stage play & results, and how it may foretell what happens in the knockout stage.

Jordan: Aside  from Spain getting knocked out the biggest surprises were probably Costa Rica, Greece, and Algeria advancing. France looked like a very, very good team.

Paolo: Agree. 

Follow match results at
8. 16 teams are now left in the tournament-style "knockout" stage. Who are your picks to advance to the semis, finals and win it all? I'll guess Brazil v Germany and Netherlands v Argentina. It can really go any way from there, but given the locale, would love to see Brazil play Argentina, with Neymar vs. Messi. I'd root for Argentina, but wouldn't be shocked if Netherlands or even Belgium were to beat them, let alone Brazil.

Jordan: I mostly agree. Even though Brazil have not been that good I can't pick against them. I wouldn't be that surprised though if they lost to Chile in the round of 16 or in their next game which I am guessing would be against Colombia. I think the Netherlands has the easiest route, playing Mexico (who I don't rate even though other people seem to like them) then, if they win that, would face the winner of Costa Rica-Greece. (I have heard the Netherlands have injury concerns with a bunch of their best players, including Robben, so that could affect things)

France looks so good (and don't look like they are going to implode) so maybe I would pick them to beat Germany and face Brazil in one semifinal, Argentina-Netherlands in the other. If I had to pick a winner I still think Brazil is the most likely. If I was going to pick a winner on how the teams look I'd take France. They have great depth as well.

Paolo: Seth, I think you have the 4 finalists. France looks better, but no way they beat Germany. 

9. Who have been the best players so far, and of those still in play, who should have the most impact? Besides strong play from Neymar (Brazil) and big goals by Messi (Argentina), I've been impressed by Robyn van Persie and Arjen Robben of the Netherlands, and Mexican goalie Guillermo Ochoa. But they've been pretty obvious, so feel free to go a good bit deeper.

Jordan: James Rodriguez from Colombia has been brilliant. Also on Colombia, Cuadrado and Jackson Martinez. And 38-year-old Mario Yepes on defense has been great. Mueller of Germany and Shaqiri of Switzerland each have a hat trick so they are kind of obvious. Benzema (France) has been excellent and is unlucky to not have more than three goals. Slimani, Halliche, and Feghouli on Algeria. Blind on Netherlands. Aranguiz and Diaz on Chile.

Paolo: Agree. 

10. Especially given the success of the U.S., and that of countries with large U.S. populations--Mexico, Germany, Greece, Dutch and others, it certainly seems like the World Cup is bigger in the United States now than throughout our lifetimes. Two questions related to this:

a) I've read about Americans complaining about games ending in ties, players flopping and/or faking injury and bad calls affecting outcomes. Will or should any of this impact future "football" fandom in the U.S.

Jordan: I don't know. If that's what people focus on not much can be done. I don't get what's wrong with a tie. They should have them in baseball. Sometimes the most representative result of a game is a tie. (And it's okay, you don't have to call it "football". The game is called soccer here (among other places)). 

Paolo: I think that the pendulum has swung in favor of soccer. Look at the crowds cheering the team on and it is obviously younger demographic. The old stuffy reporters who for decades have spoken about how much they hate the game, are being put out to pasture. Younger reporters who grew up around the sport understand its significance. 

Story at
b) It seems the media is speculating about the popularity of the World Cup spurring an increase in MLS popularity (there's a story on the front page of Thursday's Chicago Tribune but registration may be required to see it online). There seems to be plausibility in this, but the logic is a bit askew, as from what you've both previously imparted, MLS lags well behind the top leagues in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and likely elsewhere in terms of fielding the world's truly elite players at the peak of their careers. This sense of "second-tier" play also differentiates MLS from MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL. Please discuss.

Jordan: I hardly watch the MLS. The quality isn't great and I don't have any space left in my brain to follow it. There is just too much other (and better) soccer available to watch. That being said I wish I was able to see more of the league below the Premier League (called the Championship).

Paolo: Most of the U.S. squad and about another 15 or so members from other squads play in the MLS. While it is still not a European league, it is increasingly becoming a destination for players from Latin America. MLS will continue to grow as a result.  I'd also point out that teams playing well (France, Holland, Greece, Costa Rica, Mexico) have 2nd tier leagues as opposed to La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga, and the Premier League. While some of that talent does play in those leagues, a lot of it doesn't. They play in other leagues. 

11. Anything else you'd like to mention about what you've observed in World Cup 2014 so far, what you expect, what you've liked and hated, etc.?

Jordan: I expect the Brazil-Chile game to be a barn burner. In their last game against the Netherlands the Chile players did not cover themselves in glory with the way they conducted themselves. Brazil also has some players inclined to histrionics and I expect it to be a very difficult game to referee. England's Howard Webb will be the ref. Good luck.

It wouldn't be a World Cup without a team imploding and this year we have Ghana to thank. (Cameroon gets special mention as well) Ghana players threatened to strike unless they got their bonus payments in cash so Ghana's president flew $3,000,000 over to Brazil. Then, for whatever reason, Sulley Muntari physically attacked a Ghana official and was kicked off the team, as was Kevin Prince-Boateng for some type of verbal altercation.

Honduras was just trying to hurt people. Glad they're gone.

Outside of Spain, England, Ivory Coast, and Japan were very disappointing. Croatia and Bosnia generally did well but were unfortunate.

This has nothing to do with anything but two players have been kicked in the face. Dempsey got his nose broken and I don't believe a foul was even called. Von Bergen on Switzerland had his cheekbone/orbital bone broken (and is out of the World Cup) by a Giroud kick. In neither case was a card given when at a minimum a yellow was deserved and I don't know that a red would have been out of order.

One last note about the refereeing. I can complain about referees with the best of them but I think it should be remembered that it is a very difficult job. Many of the players, for lack of a better word, cheat. Ultimately they are the ones more to blame. It is one thing to exaggerate contact to draw attention to being fouled. It goes to a different level when players are trying to get an opponent carded. Then there is also the subject of pretending to be injured in order to waste time, which is also unsavory.

I'm not sure what the solution would be to cut down on that stuff. Diving is a whole other subject and in cases of diving I'm in favor of retrospective punishment. I know it is not always easy to conclusively prove a dive but sometimes they can (I'm looking at you, Fred), and when they can I think players should be suspended. I think that if the players knew that a suspension was a possibility it would at least somewhat curtail the diving.

Paolo: Hate the diving and shows of poor sportsmanship. Love the shows of solidarity and the time held tradition of trading jerseys with the team you just played.

Jordan brings up a good point about how blood can be drawn and no card be awarded? I also think that the goal line cam has been used well.

Well, there you have it. Thanks to Jordan and Paolo for all their great insights, provided quite expeditiously. Enjoy the rest of the World Cup even if your team doesn't "go to Rio."

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Pithy Philosophies #16

Yesterday I posted a review of Season 2 of Orange is the New Black. One of the things I remember most about the new episodes is the inclusion of this quote in one of them:

"Speak only if it improves upon the silence."

-- Mahatma Gandhi 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Continuing a Peel: Season 2 of 'Orange is the New Black' Retains--More Than Enhances--Its Colorful Insights -- TV Review

Television Review

Orange is the New Black
Season 2
13 episodes, now available

Orange is the New Black is the only television show I've successfully binge-watched for two seasons.

Of course, given that it appears on Netflix with 13 episodes dropping at once, "television" and "season" no longer quite mean what they once did, and the traditional broadcast cadence has been further rendered anachronistic.

In itself, noting the unique distribution model--shared with other Netflix original series and soon to be replicated by Amazon and others--does nothing to undermine the quality and appeal of Orange is the New Black

Jenji Kohan's creation, inspired by Piper Kerman's real-life recollections in a book of the same name (she serves as a consultant to the show) is compelling, revelatory and insightful, and--given that I watched the 13th episodes of Season 2 in roughly a week, similar to Season 1--it remains rather addictive. 

Yet I can't help wonder if I like Orange a good bit more as a lump sum ingestion than I would if I watched it weekly, the way TV used to be consumed before DVD sets, In-Demand or DVRs. (VCRs essentially served the same function as DVRs, but I don't think stockpiling episodes on them was nearly as common.)

Certainly, standard parameters for a "television show" have changed many times in many ways, with cable channels long having enabled producers and programs to address more risque subject matter with courser language than allowed on broadcast TV, even today.

So while in focusing on life within a women's prison, Orange includes rather graphic sex scenes and rather profusely spews euphemisms for genitalia that undoubtedly add to its incarcerational authenticity, I don't think it goes beyond what is permissible on HBO or Showtime, which have continued to air shows with a weekly cadence (for new episodes of the current season). 

With the caveat that I have not watched, with regularity as originally aired (and no more than a handful of episodes subsequently) such acclaimed series as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, any other "hot cable show"--excepting the first season of Homeland, in bulk, and half of the second more tepidly--or, going back further, The Wire or even The Sopranos, I somewhat doubt that if Orange is the New Black ran in old-school 23-episode seasons, it would hold my interest as it has in binge mode with just 13 installments. 

This is hard to explain with specificity as I do not want to reveal anything that happens in Season 2, for I was happy not to know. 

All I will share is that along with a somewhat humorous new character who is both under-utilized and overexposed, there is another more substantive new character who brings most of the tension to the season's narrative arc. 

Obviously, I kept watching, but I wasn't completely sold on, or perhaps engrossed by, the associated storyline. 

Certainly there continues to be intrigue around Taylor Schilling's Piper, ostensibly the show's main character, but her thread feels secondary in several episodes and perhaps even in sum. 

What the show continues to do an exemplary job of is letting viewers get to know each of the primary inmates (i.e. recurring characters). 

The backstory vignettes that explore a character's life before prison and what landed them there are still my favorite aspect of Orange, more than the chronicles of Piper, the division of inmates along racial lines, the conflicts among these groups, the machinations of the prison guards or staff members, the considerable humor or the dirty stuff. 

Several characters who didn't get the backstory treatment in Season 1 do so in 2, and though I wished a couple of the pre-prison scenes extended a bit further (and deeper), they continued to make the show even more satisfying in an eloquently expository sense--driving home the folly of assumption where individuals are concerned--than in terms of episode-to-episode suspense. 

Apologies for expressing this less than cogently, but it dawns on me that with Orange is the New Black, every episode is excellent but--perhaps even more so this season--only the last few minutes of each really made me eager to watch the next one. 

So while Kohan and her team of writers are to be highly commended for their ability to slyly craft serialized cliffhangers into each episode, the seeming truth that--per my foremost affinity--each installment stands somewhat alone (though more effectively once familiar with all the main characters) spurs my sense that I wouldn't automatically tune into every episode if watching on a weekly basis was the only option. 

But as it stands, my guess is that most viewers of Orange is the New Black watch each full season (if not, for latecomers, both) in rather rapid-fire succession. 

Certainly I have, and I enjoyed it. 

More than many shows, it has intelligently taken me into a world I never knew and given me insights I didn't readily consider. I don't know if Season 2 does so substantially beyond what Season 1 already had, but I definitely will tune into Season 3, presumably in another year.

But it would be a bit falsely exuberant to say, "I can't wait!"

Perhaps it's my own fault for devouring the new set of episodes so quickly, but I rather think I can handle sitting through Orange Is the New Black's second intermission--however long it may be--without any withdrawal symptoms.

I may be locked in, but feel a bit more compelled than excitedly eager--as after Season 1--to continue my sentence. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tour de Force of Nature: Bob Mould Makes the Most of His Time--and Mine--at Millennium Park -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Bob Mould (with band)
w/ opening act Split Single
Pritzker Pavilion
at Millennium Park, Chicago
June 23, 2014

To hear that Bob Mould was on stage for 80 minutes at Millennium Park Monday night might sound about right--especially as it was a free show that included a warm-up band and Pritzker Pavilion concerts invariably end before 9 PM--but perhaps not astonishing.

Yet here's the thing: somewhat akin to shopping in a country with a rather favorable exchange rate or weighing yourself on the moon, 80 minutes of Bob Mould in full-band mode is equivalent to at least two hours of almost anyone else.

To begin with, the man whose first recorded output was called Land Speed Record--with Husker Dü in early 1982--at 53 continues to play like an express train in top gear.

Mould's 80 minutes included 23 full songs (setlist here), most delivered without a pause between them. This has long been Mould's wont--though I regrettably never saw Husker Dü--possibly derived from a precedent set by the Ramones, and though he did offer gracious thanks, introduced his bandmates and said that he'd be playing "old songs, new songs and really new songs," I'd estimate about 79 of the 80 minutes were at full-tilt (besides the brief stage patter, there was a feedback-drenched half-minute between the main set and encore).

Usually when you hear the sound of a jackhammer, you expect it to stop. At least momentarily. With Bob Mould in full-band mode--accompanied here by bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster--it never does.

Reflecting the title of Mould's terrific new album, Beauty and Ruin, the effect is simultaneously brilliant and brutal. 

Funny thing is, though I was largely obvious to Husker Dü until well after the trio's glorious run ended in 1987, I caught onto Mould in his Sugar  days and--after seeing that trio in 1994--attended a Bob Mould + band gig on a 1998 tour dubbed "The Last Dog and Pony Show."

Just 37 at the time, Mould felt he was getting too old to continue delivering the blistering rage blowouts that had been his forte since his teens.

While he explored electronic music, wrote professional wrestling scripts and continued to perform solo acoustic and/or electric shows, by 2005 he reintroduced full-band, full-bore Bob.

And the world continues to be better off for it, so long as the fitter-than-ever Mould can handle the heat as he continues to bring it.

Opening with a trio of songs that began Sugar's wonderful 1992 Copper Blue album--"The Act We Act," "A Good Idea" and "Changes"--Mould, Narducy (who opened the show with his own band, Split Single) and Wurster (a wonderful drummer who was in Superchunk) were outstanding from the word go.

That the trio then blazed through 7 new songs--two from 2012's Silver Age and five from Beauty and Ruin--without a dip in power or quality is a testament to Mould's gifts and consistency as a songwriter.

These truths became even more self-evident as the rest of the show seamlessly mixed great songs from Sugar ("Helpless," "If I Can't Change Your Mind"), Husker Dü ("Hardly Getting Over It," "Chartered Trips," "Flip Your Wig" and the closing "Makes No Sense At All"), Mould's solo past ("Keep Believing," "Egøverride") and his present ("Tomorrow Morning," "Hey Mr. Grey").

Though Mould frequently covers the same sonic landscape, which he himself has acknowledged--at a stellar solo electric show in Schaumburg in January, after a blazing opening riff he wryly offered, "That could be any of about 14 songs"--it was with admiration that I turned to my friend Al (one of two at the show with me, along with those of other names) after "Tomorrow Morning" and said of the song off an album released just this month, "That could just as easily have been "Celebrated Summer"" (from Husker Dü 1985 New Day Rising).

While Mould and his band were terrific throughout, the combination of playing in sunlight to a seated crowd initially conspired to make me feel that the show didn't seem quite like the howler it would at a hot, dank and sweaty Metro or Riv. But not only was I a lot more comfortable, by the end of the 80 minutes, Mould had made Pritzker Pavilion feel like a packed club (he was sweating through his shirt even if I wasn't).

While Split Single's 45-minute opening set was enjoyable, it felt more solid than spectacular, causing me to wish they would cede the stage to the headliner a bit sooner. But again, Mould's blistering 80 minutes--even if 30 less than at his January solo gig--made me feel in no way cheated.

Split Single, the night's opening band, with Evanston's Jason Narducy on vocals
Even if I didn't pay a dime.

(Between the value of last Monday's superlative Richard Thompson gig and Mould, I feel like I owe Millennium Park about $100.)

Having noticed that most of the crowd, at least those devoted enough to arrive early for prime pavilion seats, were roughly in Mould's own demographic--or, like me, approaching it--I felt acute chagrin for younger rock fans who likely don't know or care about Bob Mould.

For I'm not sure how much longer he can play concerts that feel as if his face is on fire, and I really don't know if similar music--born from punk rock anarchy blended with melodic pop sensibilities and a bruising lyricism both incisive and insightful--will ever regenerate itself, let alone give rise to acts with a similar stage aesthetic.

So although, tritely stated, Bob Mould has been doing largely the same thing for 35 years--his solo gigs are only slightly less vehement, but to me, a tad less sublime for it--there really is no one who does the same thing any better.

He is a force of nature, and especially to his loyal and avid fan base, a national treasure.

And it doesn't get much better than hearing great music, for free, in a spectacular setting, on a beautiful night, in the company of good friends.

"Flip your wig," indeed.

Thanks to the City of Chicago and Millennium Park for two straight phenomenal concerts. Though I'm not as familiar with any other acts in this summer's Downtown Sound series, I'm inspired to come down for more shows. Perhaps on July 21 for The Both, which includes Aimee Mann and Ted Leo.

Here is a YouTube clip posted by theblackandbluepress of Bob Mould & band performing "If I Can't Change Your Mind" on Monday night:

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Sister Act 200 Years in the Making: Strong Performances, Impressive Lives Give 'Having Our Say' a Powerful Voice, or Two -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years
a play by Emily Mann
directed by Tim Rhoze
Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre
at Noyes Cultural Arts Center
Through June 29

Except for three years in L.A. in the early '90s, I have lived in the Chicago area my entire life (including 3 years of college in DeKalb, about 50 miles west).

While this past brutal winter likely challenged the resolve of even the most hardcore Chicagoans, and changes in weather systems and Arctic ice levels may foretell future months-long misery for us Midwesterners, I can still honestly say there is nowhere I would rather live than Chicago (with the caveat that I actually live in Skokie, a nearby suburb).

While this first and foremost has to do with family and friends, and with local favorites from cherished sports teams to Italian beef sandwiches, Vienna Beef hot dogs and deep dish pizza, high on the list of "reasons my life is better here than it likely would be anywhere else" is the Chicago theater scene.

Yes, New York and London are my favorite tourist cities because of the top-tier theater I can see in abundance on Broadway and in the West End. And from touring Broadway shows to local troupes to high school, college and community theater productions, I likely could see something worthwhile almost anywhere in the U.S. and most of the world.

But what distinguishes Chicago is the depth and expanse of the area's theatrical community, which I don't believe New York, London, Toronto or anywhere else quite matches.

I have subscriptions to Broadway in Chicago and the Goodman Theatre, get to many productions at Steppenwolf and Northlight (the latter in Skokie), and typically see something in a given year at Marriott Theater Lincolnshire, Drury Lane Oakbrook, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and/or Light Opera Works.

But I also have seen plays and musicals by dozens of other professional (and community) theater companies--most commonly at TimeLine, Court, Next, Redtwist and Profiles--and know that there are far more quality troupes than I've yet encountered.

So far in 2014, I have seen exemplary work in first-time explorations of Pride Films & Plays, Aston Rep and Theo Ubique, and on Saturday night added Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre to that list.

The Evanston-based troupe, which focuses on works highlighting the African-American experience, is celebrating 35 years of producing plays and programming workshops.

I have no excuse for never having noted any of their past productions--seemingly all staged during the summer, currently at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in a space utilized throughout the rest of the year by Next Theatre--but was alerted to their current season by my sister Allison.

She had noticed and recalled that Tim Rhoze, who did great work within the cast of Northlight's fine production of The Whipping Man--seen in early 2013--was, per the program, the Artistic Director of Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre.

Knowing that I am always happy to widen my artistic and theatrical explorations, upon hearing about it she clued me in to FJT's 2014 Summer Season, commencing with Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years (and continuing with Gee's Bend from July 12-27 and Why Not Me? A Sammy Davis Jr. Story in August; details here.)

Despite it being based on a 1993 book that was on the New York Times Bestseller lists for 105 weeks, I had never heard of Emily Mann's play, which ran on Broadway in 1995. (The sisters' story was initially chronicled in a NY Times article and turned into a CBS TV movie in 1999.)

But based on the work done by Rhoze--who directed the play and designed its attractive set--and his two-woman cast of Joslyn Jones and Jacqueline Williams as 103-year-old Sadie Delany and her 101-year-old sister Bessie, I certainly intend to get to Fleetwood-Jourdain's upcoming productions.

With just a 6-show run making the efforts of all involved all the more impressive, the 90-minute play consists entirely of the two sisters speaking to each other and, much more so, to the audience (and/or an imagined interviewer).

Believe me, I've been to enough theater to know that anything, even the most unusual, daring or convoluted premises, can be great given quality writing and acting, but the Delany sisters were far more engaging that I may have expected, even if they were embodied by fine actresses themselves well shy of the century mark.

And that's largely the point of Mann's piece; people so regularly defy expectations that it renders preconceived notions to be:

A) Asinine
B) Insulting
C) Proof of One's Own Ignorance
D) Racist
E) All of the Above

Even based on my relatively brief exposure, Sadie's and Bessie's biographies are impressive enough that I'll leave them largely for you to discover, whether at one of next weekend's closing performances, through the book or via other means.

But as the play essentially consists of the sisters--longtime Harlem residents, but originally from North Carolina--running through the highlights and lowlights of their lives, I'll share that they were 2 of 10 children of a former slave and his 3/4-white but defined as black wife.

Their father was a bishop and educator who stressed the importance of education and became a leader in the Episcopal Church. Sadie, the older of the two sisters who seemingly dwelled together for their entire lives, would become a longtime teacher with a Master's Degree while Bessie was a successful dentist who was one of the first women of color to attend Columbia University.

Their recollections describe their devotion ("All the things that made us strong came from the church"), their experience with abject racism, particularly from "Rebbie boys" (i.e. Rebels) and after Jim Crow laws segregated buses, water fountains, rest rooms, etc., their romantic dalliances though neither ever married and their interactions with leaders, activists & artists such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson and more.

As a chronological remembrance, Having Our Say doesn't offer much in the way of suspense or surprise, even for those who arrived uninitiated. Also lacking any acute tension or conflict--though Jones and Williams do a great job of making you feel the atrocities the sisters had experienced--it is not so much a wonderful play as a nice, very well-presented articulation of astonishing lives.

And in attending with my mom, sister and a close family friend among a mixed-race audience, it was hard not to appreciate the Delany sisters' foremost themes of family, pride, purpose (their father had imparted, "Your mission in life is to help somebody") and perseverance.

For even at the combined age of 204--they would each live several more years--Sadie and Bessie Delany seemingly derived their greatest pleasure from three things: each other's company, defying expectations (with Bessie pointedly stating "I never took a handout") and, through all the ups and downs, dancing.

If you have tickets to Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years for next Saturday, June 28, or had it noted on your calendar, please be advised that curtain time is now 8:00pm, not 7:00pm. On the 21st, we arrived for a scheduled 7:00pm start only to learn it would be delayed an hour. Graciously, however, the company and a group of guests provided pre- and post-show refreshments, and blues guitarist David "Chainsaw" Dupont performed during the delay.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Thank You for the Days: Celebrating Ray Davies' 70th Birthday ... and the Kinks

It's been a rather note-worthy few days for celebrating birthdays of some of rock 'n roll's greatest living songwriters.

On June 18, Paul McCartney turned 72, and Brian Wilson did likewise on June 20.

Today, June 21, another of my all-time favorites--Ray Davies, chief songwriter and singer of The Kinks--turns 70.

(BTW, though I have invariably called him Ray 'Day-veez' over the years, multiple sources in recent years corroborate that 'Day-viz' is more accurate.)

I hope he celebrates by further rekindling his relationship with brother Dave--the band's lead guitarist--and finally reuniting the Kinks after years of publicly longing to (with the caveat that original bassist Pete Quaife passed in 2010).

On April 9, 1983, a show by the Kinks at Chicago's UIC Pavilion was just the second concert I attended without a parent (Sammy Hagar was the first, about a month prior).

I would see the Kinks twice more, in 1987 and 1993, and since 2006 have seen Ray in concert five times, all featuring a heavy dose of Kinks Klassics.

Though I can't precisely cite what first got me into the Kinks in the early '80s--I was born in 1968--I'm pretty sure it wasn't Van Halen's cover of "You Really Got Me" even if it may have made chronological sense. The first Kinks record I owned was the double-live album, One for the Road.

I must have gotten this not long after its 1980 release, as I know I had it before 1981's Give the People What They Want., which rates nine Kinks albums 5 or 4-1/2 stars (out of 5) only gives One for the Road 2-1/2.

Yet, while I have long since come to appreciate the depths of the Kinks' greatness far exceeds that live set, One for the Road was undoubtedly one of the cornerstone albums of my music-loving life.

Sure, I loved the early classics that album included--"You Really Got Me," "All Day and All of the Night," "Where Have All the Good Times Gone," "Till the End of the Day," "David Watts"--and, of course, "Lola," but I also relished such relatively recent (at the time) gems like "The Hard Way," "Catch Me Now I'm Falling," "Low Budget," "Wish I Could Fly Like Superman" and "Misfits."

Perhaps most of all, I loved--and still do--the ode to Golden Age Hollywood, "Celluloid Heroes," from which I first learned of Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Rudolph Valentino and Bela Lugosi.

Whether in the late '60s when they released four straight 5-star (per AllMusic) masterpieces yet were banned from touring the U.S., to 1983 when even with Top 10 single "Come Dancing" they played a 9,000-seat arena in Chicago, to recent years when Ray Davies has repeatedly played but failed to fill the 3,880-seat Chicago Theatre, the Kinks have never enjoyed popularity like their fellow British invasion icons The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who.

Paul McCartney and the Stones regularly fill outdoor stadiums around the world, and with just Townshend and Daltrey representing the original Who, their tours still sell out basketball arenas.

Though I would definitely attend a Kinks reunion show anywhere near me--besides seeing Ray, last year I saw a Dave Davies solo show--my suspicion is that if the Kinks did a U.S. reunion tour, they would be lucky to fill the UIC Pavilion again. And perhaps even if they brought along a reunited Jam, Smiths and Blur, the United Center arena might be about as big a place as they could sell out (and that's in Chicago; packing arenas in places like Louisville and Charlotte would be considerably harder).

Nonetheless, anyone I know who appreciates good music likes the Kinks. And most who like the Kinks love the Kinks. Though I own almost all of their albums on CD--including largely forgettable late career works like Think Visual and UK Jive--I would be considered a middling Kink-o-phile compared to some of my friends, and conceivably many among the online community.

Yet while they deserve the hardcore devotion of the truly Kinky, the band can be considered great on so many levels, even to relative neophytes.

Any overview of the Kinks usually begins with "You Really Got Me," one of the cornerstones of the British Invasion and often cited as the song that begat hard (power chord-driven) rock and even heavy metal. It was soon followed by the similar "All Day and All of the Night."

These songs definitely influenced Pete Townshend at the time (Chicago-born Shel Talmy was the producer of both the early Kinks and Who), and myriad others since.

Many people, perhaps around my age, quite likely came to know "Lola" as a staple of late '70s rock radio (though it was originally released in 1970) and paid attention to the band's subsequent singles and accompanying videos at the height of MTV: "Destroyer," "Come Dancing," "Do It Again," "Working at the Factory."

Those familiar with the amazing Kinks' 1966-1970 output may simply know some of the most prominent singles ("Sunny Afternoon," "A Well Respected Man," "Till the End of the Day," "Tired of Waiting For You"), those a bit deeper ("I'm Not Like Everybody Else," "Waterloo Sunset," "Apeman," "Dedicated Follower of Fashion"), even more so ("See My Friends," "Set Me Free," "David Watts," "Dead End Street," "Death of a Clown," the latter written by Dave), select full albums (perhaps Something Else and The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society) or, among the truly avid, every song on all of them.

Those who don't know the Kinks of the '60s are less likely to know their '70s oeuvre, but there are numerous gems like "20th Century Man," "Celluloid Heroes," "Sweet Lady Genevieve," "Juke Box Music," "Live Life," "Low Budget," "Catch Me Now I'm Falling," "Wish I Could Fly Like (Superman)" and undoubtedly several songs that I don't know or appreciate as much as I should.

The Kinks never had a #1 hit on the Billboard singles charts in the U.S., and only five songs in the Top 10. The highest any of their studio albums charted in America was 1979's Low Budget at #11.

So we can see it as though the Kinks were never as popular as they deserved to be--and therefore Ray Davies not as widely regarded as he merits as one rock's greatest geniuses--or that the band likely holds the highest fan reverence to mass popularity ratio of all-time, save for perhaps the Ramones (whose best-selling album hit #38).

While I won't dig for examples now, I've long seen the Kinks cited by bands and musicians as being among their foremost influences.

And even if there is some credence to the Kinks being both too Anglo and literate in the subject matter of their songs to become huge in America, a similar thread clearly ran through--and inspired--The Move, The Jam, The Smiths and Blur, who are also among my favorites though never substantively popular in America.

So I salute Ray Davies on his 70th birthday, not just because he is a great and (sadly, today, just somewhat) famous musician, whom I have loved for 3/4 of my life.

It is not hyperbole to say that very few musicians have enriched my existence to a similar extent.

So Happy Birthday, Ray.

And thank you for the "Days," Mr. Davies.

Since the Kinks are strangely under-represented on Spotify, I have put together this YouTube playlist of 20 of my favorite Kinks songs. It should not be construed as a ranking, as I tried to select songs representative of the band's various periods. The video below runs through all 20 clips, but if you would like to see individual videos--or just the list of my selections--you can see the playlist contents here.

While I enjoy Ray's 2006/07 solo albums, Other People's Lives and Working Man's Cafe, I did not include any of the songs here, but the links will take you to the full albums on Spotify. Also worthwhile are the Kinks' duets and choral albums Ray put together in recent years. And while I have not yet delved into his 2013 autobiography Americana, one of the more remarkable aspects of his amazing life is his surviving being shot in New Orleans in early 2004.

Enjoy the songs below--and some rather historic videos, though a few are audio-only--and if you like what you hear, by all means, kontinue the exploration. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Hammering It Home: Rediscovering the Brilliance of Led Zeppelin Easy as I, II, III

Album Reissue Reviews
and Artist Appreciation

Led Zeppelin I - @@@@@
Led Zeppelin II - @@@@@
Led Zeppelin III - @@@@@

When I was less than three months old, Led Zeppelin released their eponymous debut album (in January 1969).

By the time I turned two, the British hard rock quartet had put out two more studio albums. (Being that prolific was once par for the course, but most artists today go at least two years, if not several more, between albums.)

I don't think my folks adorned my crib with black light posters nor played "Whole Lotta Love" the way some parents use Mozart as baby background music, so I wasn't really weaned on the great Zep and I was too young to follow them through the bulk of the '70s.

Yet I still remember my dad--a bit incongruently, given his preference for opera and Broadway--adding the paper sack-sheathed In Through the Out Door to the family's record collection soon after its release in August 1979.

And as I was already aware of at least "Stairway to Heaven"--due to it often claiming the top spot or taking silver behind "Hey Jude" in Greatest Songs of All-Time countdowns on The Loop, WLS and/or WMET--Led Zeppelin has never not been a major contributor to the soundtrack of my life once I first came to know of their music.

Even before I could find it online, the full-page Tribune ad announcing four Zeppelin shows at Chicago Stadium--published Sept. 25, 1980, the day drummer John Bonham would die and the band essentially end--has been vividly etched in my mind (though I was still too young to hope to attend).

I don't know if I've yet screamed louder than I did in alerting a friend that "LED ZEPPELIN'S ON!!!!!!!!!!!" during the LiveAid telecast in 1985 (Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones reunited to play three songs with a pair of drummers, including Phil Collins; full clip here).

When I took guitar lessons briefly as a teen, "Rock 'n Roll" was the first song I wanted to learn. (It was too difficult so I settled for "Born to Run.")

Led Zeppelin IV was definitely among the very first batch of CDs I bought, and if Zeppelin II wasn't, it wasn't far behind.

Led Zeppelin posters long adorned my bedroom at home, and in my freshman dorm room at NIU, a large band tapestry was the most conspicuous decoration.
And as a college senior in December 1988, I opted to blow off studying for a final exam in order to organize an excursion from DeKalb to Rosemont to see a Plant solo show for the first time (which included a number of Zeppelin songs).

So it's never been as though I really needed convincing or reminding to appreciate just how great Led Zeppelin was.

Which makes it all the more astonishing that each time something has prompted me to listen to Led Zeppelin more heavily or closely, my appreciation has only grown...considerably.

Though I had owned most of their 9 studio albums (including 1982's Coda, which I bought on vinyl as soon it was released) and The Song Remains The Same live soundtrack on LP, cassette and/or CD, when the Led Zeppelin box set was released in 1990--remastering and re-sequencing 4 discs worth of their songs--I bought and loved it. And I also bought the 2-disc complementary set that rounded out my having every one of their known studio tracks in an aurally sufficient form.

Or so I thought. But before I get to the audibly astonishing reissues of I, II and III, I'm having fun remembering all the times I was acutely re-Zeppelined.

Like both times I saw Page & Plant together in concert in the '90s, which included hefty doses of Zep in the set lists.
But even more acutely informing my regard for Zeppelin as a live act--The Song Remains the Same movie being marred by long, dreamy offstage vignettes--was the Led Zeppelin DVD set from 2003.

Even late-career footage from a performance at Knebworth in 1979 was mind-blowing, as were several earlier stage clips.

A live 3-disc compilation album--How the West Was Won--released around the time of the DVD was also tremendous, as was the remastered and expanded The Song Remains the Same soundtrack issued in 2007. The 1997 BBC Sessions set was also quite revelatory and delightful.

And in December 2007, the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin plus John Bonham's son Jason shook up the world by reforming for a concert at London's O2 Arena. Unfortunately I couldn't get there--good thing I didn't really try, as the initial scheduled date wound up being postponed by a few weeks--but reviews were rather laudatory and I got chills seeing clips of "Good Times Bad Times," "Stairway to Heaven," "Rock 'n Roll," "Kashmir" and more that hit YouTube the next morning.

Although supposed plans for a reunion tour have since been scuttled by Robert Plant's resistance--while I most definitely would attend, I respect his just letting the legacy be--the O2 concert was released on Blu-Ray, DVD and CD in late 2012 and showed the show to be truly sensational.

Around the same time, Led Zeppelin became Kennedy Center Honors recipients, and along with much else on the telecast, I loved this tribute rendition of "Stairway to Heaven" by Heart, Jason Bonham and two choirs that made Robert Plant weep. The following summer I would see Heart and Bonham pay more extensive tribute in a show at Ravinia (my review).

And though Zeppelin were relative latecomers to allowing their catalog to be heard through Spotify, when it appeared late last year, it enabled me to revisit each of their albums after more routinely having listened to box set and live compilations.

I was especially surprised by how much better Led Zeppelin III is than I ever knew.

Excepting the opening "The Immigrant Song," it largely eschews thunderous, heavy riff songs more prevalent on the band's earlier and later albums for several folksy acoustic guitar-driven songs.

So as a kid, and long since, I thought--or likely more so, assumed--that it was a lesser, more boring album.

Hearing it, intact, through Spotify helped remedy this ridiculous notion.

And my regard for Led Zeppelin III--which I now consider a masterpiece on par with any other of their albums--has only further blossomed with the brilliant sounding remastered CD recently released along with I and II. (The others will come later this year and next.)

I am rather certain that the three albums--I bought the deluxe (though not most elaborate) reissues, which each included a disc of bonus material--are individually and collectively better than any new music I will hear this year, and likely greater than releases of any vintage that I acquire in 2014.

Taking its title from an "Immigrant Song" lyric, Hammer of the Gods is a famed biography of Led Zeppelin by Stephen Davis. I've never read it, but find its title rather apt as from the first sledgehammer blow of "Good Times Bad Times" to open Led Zeppelin I, there is something almost otherworldly about how awesome the band was--immediately.

As I wrote about in this piece, the 1960s represents the Renaissance age of rock 'n roll, not just because of all the amazing music that was made, most of it holding up perfectly today. It was a time of what I call a "creative cluster" that had musical geniuses like Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson and Pete Townshend inspiring other geniuses like John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ray Davies to up their games (and vice-versa).

Jimmy Page, who was a top-tier session guitarist in London while still in high school and would play on records by the Kinks, Who and myriad others, was initially part of a creative cluster of guitar gods within just a single band.

Joining the Yardbirds after Eric Clapton quit, Page suggest his friend Jeff Beck also become a member. Page would write the proto-Zeppelin track "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" and outside the Yardbirds would record "Beck's Bolero" with a supergroup including Beck, Yardbirds' keyboardist Nicky Hopkins, Who drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Paul Jones, who was also a first-rate session man.

The "Beck's Bolero" sessions gave Page the idea to form a full-time supergroup. Refer to the Wikipedia entries on Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant for more detail on how the group's formation transpired, but in 1968 Page had asked a singer named Terry Reid to join his new band.

Reid recommended Plant, at that time an all-but-unknown 20-year-old singer in Band of Joy. Plant in turn suggested Band of Joy drummer, John Bonham. John Paul Jones rounded out Led Zeppelin.

Everything has to start somewhere, but from the first verse of "Good Times Bad Times," Plant already sounds like the quintessential hard rock vocalist for which he would become revered. And I've yet to hear a drummer as powerful as John Bonham. Looking at it now, Led Zeppelin seems like the perfect melding of four brilliant musicians, but who knows what would have happened if Terry Reid had accepted Page's offer.

So although the months preceding Led Zeppelin I's release on January 10, 1969 saw Jeff Beck's groundbreaking Truth album (with Rod Stewart on vocals), the debut of heavy rockers Deep Purple and advancements in guitar playing and production from Eric Clapton (in Cream) and Jimi Hendrix, there is still a sense that the sonic blast of "Good Times Bad Times" came out of nowhere.

While I would now rank I behind II and III, it is nonetheless one of the best, most auspicious debut albums in rock history.

Second cut "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" is also phenomenal, "Dazed and Confused" and "Communication Breakdown" remain classics and while Page showcases--and sometimes pilfers from--his love of Chicago blues on "You Shook Me," "I Can't Quit You Baby" and others, the acoustic instrumental "Black Mountain Side" and slow groove of "Your Time is Gonna Come" demonstrate his and the band's great versatility.

With "Whole Lotta Love," "What Is and What Should Never Be," "The Lemon Song," "Thank You," "Heartbreaker," "Living Loving Maid," "Ramble On," "Moby Dick" and "Bring It On Home," Led Zeppelin II remains perfect from beginning to end. And as with the other two reissues, the audio quality of the remastered CD makes the album sound better than ever.

In buying the CDs from Amazon, I got digital versions instantly. These sounded great, but the CDs are truly heavenly. Some may question why Page devotes so much time to remastering old songs--and the bonus discs are little more than a curiosity (the live set from Paris that accompanies Led Zeppelin I is the best, but not essential)--but not only did all three reissues debut in Billboard's top 10 last week, speaking as someone who has long known and owned all of the songs included on I, II and III proper, buying these albums anew were well worth my money and have provided considerable delight.

Perhaps most of all for how much I now like Led Zeppelin III. "The Immigrant Song" still sounds holy,
"Celebration Day" and "Out on the Tiles" show that the album isn't otherwise devoid of thunderous guitars and drums, acoustic tracks like "Friends," "That's The Way," "Tangerine" demonstrate Page's great dexterity and the bucking bronco that is "Gallows Pole" stands as one of the 10 best Zeppelin songs ever (along with "The Immigrant Song").

It's somewhat a shame to see Page and Plant throwing media barbs over the former's desire to play live and the latter's resistance to touring with Zeppelin.

Now 70, I think Page should just let it be. But as not only a brilliant guitarist, but Led Zeppelin's erstwhile producer, sonic architect and legacy preserver, I understand why he won't let go of the past.

It's that good.

Yet again.

(For a better explanation of the musical advances on Led Zeppelin I, II and III, see this Pitchfork review.