Thursday, April 30, 2015

On 'The Holy Bible' 20th Anniversary Tour, Manic Street Preachers Testify to Their Enduring Power -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Manic Street Preachers
with opening act The Kickback
Metro, Chicago
April 29, 2015

A variety of factors can play into one's enjoyment of any rock concert, beyond merely fondness for the artist, their songs and a quality performance.

The venue, your personal comfort, companions, expectations and more can all have much to do with how you perceive the show.

In deriving substantial delight in seeing the Manic Street Preachers for the first time, I have to thank not only the band, but, Spotify, the Metro, my friend Paolo and all the citizens of greater Chicago who were not interested enough to sell out the show ahead of time.

The Manics, as they're known in short, are a prime example of what I've dubbed a Hidden in the Isles band = one from the U.K. that has enjoyed exponentially greater success there than in the U.S.

Some years after its release, I got into the Welsh band via their terrific 1996 album, Everything Must Go, which made them superstars in England. I also have a few of their more recent albums, and have generally enjoyed what I've heard, but wouldn't say I've devoured their entire output, which, dating back to 1992, is plentiful. Or even all too often revisited what I had once known.

Although I now know that MSP have toured America--as lead singer James Dean Bradfield noted from the stage, this was their fourth time playing the Metro; most recently being in 2009--I never before had noted any Chicago area shows.

So I took notice when I saw awhile back that they would be in town on Wednesday night (as would one of my all-time favorite bands, The Replacements, on the first of a two night stand at the Riviera). 

Because I knew Paolo would really want to see Manic Street Preachers, I was able to get us Replacements' tickets for Thursday night, but didn't initially buy myself a Manics ducat.

Although the Metro is a storied, well-run venue that I've been to many times, it generally is standing room only...with fans usually packed onto the main floor like sardines.

I'm too old and fat to enjoy this type of situation, and experience genuine discomfort standing through entire shows. My last experience at Metro, a 2012 sold-out show by Garbage, reiterated my aversion to attending shows there, at least per typical circumstances.

But as the Manics' gig approached, and I had looked up some impressive concert clips on YouTube, I decided that I really did want to see them--and when else would I have the chance?

So just two weeks ago, I bought a ticket for just $35 as a band that plays to huge crowds in England didn't sell out the Metro. Then I half-jokingly told Paolo to see if he could get us one of the few seats in the balcony, which seemingly are allotted only to Press/VIP/Disabled.

To his credit, he reached out to someone at Metro, explaining both my desire to review the show and my discomfort in standing, and was graciously granted a table in the balcony for us.

At that point, I also tuned into--per recent shows listed on fact that Manic Street Preachers were continuing their 2014 tour celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the 1994 album, The Holy Bible, their last before guitarist Richey James Edwards disappeared forever. (He has never been found and is now officially presumed to be dead.)

It was supposed to be a terrific album--as I now can corroborate--but I didn't know it at all. But also noting that in addition to playing the album in full, MSP were playing the same other songs at each American tour stop, I made a Spotify Playlist and listened repeatedly.

I tell you all this because it would be one thing to convey that I saw a fantastic show at an intimate venue by a lesser-known (in America) band that I've long enjoyed.

But that would miss the point that not only am I extremely grateful to have had the comfort of a prime balcony seat, but that of the 21 songs the Manic Street Preachers played--this is a Toronto setlist, but it's the same--I really only knew one of them just two weeks ago (the magnificent, show-closing "A Design for Life" off Everything Must Go).

Thanks to my crash course, everything not only sounded phenomenal--the 3-piece band really has a thunderous sound and Bradfield is a terrific vocalist--but familiar.

Sure, I've only delved into Edwards' notoriously dark and sometimes twisted lyrics for The Holy Bible a little bit after the show. So unlike many undoubtedly more devoted fans, I really didn't know or care what Bradfield was singing about, I just loved the way it all sounded.

And yeah, I could wish they had played more songs I knew a bit better, and I always imagine it being preferable--even for the band itself--to change things up somewhat from show-to-show, but as a truly remarkable first live encounter with an extremely powerful, polished and professional band, I really can't bitch over the content they decided to deliver.

I'm also really glad I was forced to get to know The Holy Bible pretty thoroughly.

Almost all of the Manics' songs are dense enough to require some time to digest, but tunes like "Yes," "She is Suffering," "Revol," "Faster," "P.C.P." and others all sounded pretty tremendous.

I also now feel silly for never knowing "Motorcycle Emptiness" until this past fortnight, as the song from 1992 debut album Generation Terrorists was perhaps the best of a show filled with high points.

Yet "Walk Me to the Bridge," from 2014's Futurology--another album I must admit to not having explored--was also wonderful.

I'm probably not doing a good job of explaining specifically why Manic Street Preachers were so good, but really only the music itself can do that.

Certainly they have a fiery sound, a social consciousness and an energetic stage demeanor, and though Bradfield, bassist Nicky Wire and drummer Sean Moore are all original members dating back pre-'92--a touching moment came when Wire recalled the band, with Edwards, playing the Metro way back when--I didn't get any sense that I was seeing the Manics past their prime.

Suffice it to say, I found the Manic Street Preachers' performance to be extremely good.

And though it conceivably could have been a show where I hated standing, being smushed and listening to a bunch of songs I didn't recognize, thanks to Paolo, the Metro, and Spotify, it was far, far better than that.  

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Beautiful Evening Celebrating Jessie Mueller and Her Talented Family in Support of the Sarah Siddons Society -- Theater Recap

Theater / Benefit Recap

So Beautiful
The Sarah Siddons Society Gala Tribute
Honoring Jessie Mueller
Featuring Heather Headley
Saluting the Mueller Family
Performances by Jessie, Abby, Matt & Andrew Mueller
With Parents Roger Mueller & Jill Shellabarger
Special Guest: Deanna Dunagan
Special Musical Number by Stephanie Binetti & Jameson Cooper
Hosted by Bill Zwecker
Artistic Director: Dominic Missimi
Music Direction by Doug Peck
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
April 27, 2015
(This isn't really a review as much as a recap, but my pinnacle rating is nonetheless merited.)

Yesterday morning, the 2015 Tony Award nominations were announced. In addition to having seen a handful of nominated shows--in New York or Chicago--it was fun for me to note that I've seen 15 of this year's nominated actors and actresses onstage, whether in their nominated roles or merely somewhere, sometime.

Event photos by Seth Arkin /;
please provide attribution when reposting.
This got me to counting up 75+ Tony-winning performers I've caught in action at some point.

Including 2014 Best Leading Actress in a Musical Jessie Mueller, who I had the great pleasure of seeing Monday night at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, where she was bestowed the Sarah Siddons Society's 2015 Actor of the Year award.

There were numerous wonderful aspects to the evening, including superlative performances by Jessie, her extremely talented siblings--two of whom have also "made it to Broadway"--and 2000 Tony and Sarah Siddons Award Winner, Heather Headley.

But beyond the excellent entertainment value of the event--grandly put together by Sarah Siddons artistic director, Dominic Missimi, a longtime Northwestern professor and musical theater department chair, as well as director of numerous musicals at the host venue--what made the night special was the local-girl-made-good vibe in celebrating Mueller's accomplishments.

This was amplified by Jessie's graciousness--and that of her parents, brothers and sister, who were also saluted--as well as the great cause that was being supported: the funding of scholarships for musical theater students at Northwestern, DePaul, Columbia College and other local institutions.

So ahead of a rundown of what I saw and heard--and photographed, which was permitted--I'll just abet the local pride angle by noting that the Muellers are from Evanston, just one town over from my Skokie home.

And as I told Jessie when she kindly signed my program after the gala, in May 2011 I had seen her--and her brother Andrew, as well as others who have enjoyed nice successes since--in a rather intimate production of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along by The Music Theater Company a venue in Highland Park I'd never been to before nor since.

Less than half a year later, Jessie was starring on Broadway alongside Harry Connick, Jr. in a revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.

Following four more impressive New York credits, in January 2014 came her starring role as the subject of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, for which she picked up Broadway's most prestigious honor that June.

And her star continues to rise meteorically, with the lead in a new musical adaptation of the movie Waitress seemingly up next on her Broadway conquest.

So it's certainly understandable that the Sarah Siddons Society--which since 1952 has bestowed the same honor on such legends as Helen Hayes, Geraldine Page, Carol Channing, Bette Davis, Angela Landsbury, Lauren Bacall, Julie Andrews, Chita Rivera, Patti LuPone and many more--decided to recognize and fete Jessie Mueller, who in a brief acceptance speech admitted, "It still boggles my mind that somebody might know who I am."

Adding to my fun in attending the benefit gala is that in my years of passionately patronizing Chicago area theaters, I've also come to know who some of the other theatrical Muellers are as well

I most recently saw father Roger Mueller just this January in a sensational West Side Story at Drury Lane Oakbrook and still fondly remember Andrew's stellar turn as Huckleberry Finn in a 2010 rendition of Big River, which his brother Matt cited Monday night as his all-time favorite musical before the Mueller gang--including Matt's twin Abby, who is in Kinky Boots on Broadway--delivered a medley from that show.

(For the record, I now know I saw Jessie Mueller at least a couple other times in Chicagoland theaters--in Animal Crackers at Goodman and Curtains at Drury Lane Oakbrook, both in 2009--but her roles were too small to merit her inclusion in my Shows Seen database, and I can't say I acutely remember her performances.)

Attending the gala with my mom, it was touching to hear Roger Mueller and Jill Shellabarger--who works with musical seniors in Skokie--speak proudly about their children.

In fact, there were so many noteworthy moments Monday night, I think it best to run through them in bullet form.

● Bill Zwecker of the Sun-Times hosted the event after being introduced by Dominic Missimi.

● Heather Headley, who won her Tony for starring in the musical Aida, demonstrated the vocal exquisiteness of a Broadway leading lady--as did the night's honoree--albeit with a nice twist.

She sang songs that she "wasn't allowed to sing on Broadway" as they are performed by men in the shows they're from: "Maria" (West Side Story), "Bring Him Home" (Les Miserables) and "Make Them Hear You" from Ragtime, in which she starred on Broadway.

Headley, who now lives in Chicago, also noted that she got her first paycheck at the Marriott Theatre, and her Equity card. 

● Michael Hendricks, the Production Stage Manager at Marriott Theatre for 30+ years, was given the honor of introducing the Mueller family.

● Roger Mueller saluted the Sarah Siddons Society for its "so crucial" work and thanked the audience--and all theatergoers--for the "investment you have made in our family."

● Matt and Andrew Mueller sang a wonderful version of "Agony," a song sung by two brothers in Into the Woods. And they also sang "Sisters" from White Christmas in one of the evening's most fun performances.

● In introducing her rendition of Patti Griffin's, "Up to the Mountain," Abby Mueller noted that it had been introduced to her by Bernie Yvon--a great local musical theater actor who died last year in a car accident and to whom Monday's event was dedicated.

● As with Headley and most of the performers, Abby was accompanied by music director Doug Peck on piano, whose playing impressed all night.

● Jessie was highly praised in nice speeches by two local directors who had worked with her locally, Matt Raftery and Charles Newell.

● From the Marriott's current production of Anything Goes, Stephanie Binetti and Jameson Cooper sang "You're the Top" with new lyrics penned by Kingsley Day to salute Jessie while slyly referencing the shows she's been in and her success.

● Missimi illuminated the crowd on Sarah Siddons having been an 18th century Shakespearean actress in England--the Society took its name from a reference to the actress (and acting excellence) in the 1950 film All About Eve--who, like Jessie Mueller, had a father named Roger, a sister and two brothers.

● Deanna Dunagan, a 2008 Tony Award winner for her remarkable performance in August: Osage County, and a Sarah Siddons Leading Lady Award recipient--I also recognized other such past honorees, Paula Scrofano and Heidi Kettenring, in the audience--read salutes to Jessie Mueller that Missimi had elicited from Michael Mayer, Harry Connick, Jr., Audra McDonald, Chita Rivera and Carole King.

● Among many great sentiments, I noted Connick having called Mueller "truly one of the great artists with whom I have ever worked" and King lavishing high praise in conveying that "you so deserve this award."

● In accepting her Sarah Siddons award with a short speech that she admitted fazed her much more than reciting lines written for her, Jessie Mueller noted that "some of my favorite professional moments were created here," presumably meaning both the Marriott Theatre specifically and throughout the Chicagol area. She also made a point of thanking the Sarah Siddons Society for "supporting the next generation of artists."

● Demonstrating her remarkable voice, Jessie Mueller first sang "Being Alive," a Sondheim song from Company; midway through she deviated from a traditional interpretation to rather interestingly twist it into something of a country hoe-down, accompanied by a fiddler and guitarist.

● Mueller then delivered a truly awesome version of Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" from Beautiful.

● Sandwiched around the Big River medley by all the Mueller sibs, Jessie sang beautiful duets with sister
Abby and with Heather Headley.

● Lasting about 2 hours, the entirely enjoyable show ended with a full cast finale of King's "I Feel the Earth Move" on which both Jessie Mueller and Heather Headley truly dazzled.

● Following the performance, I wandered over to where some official photos were being taken and snapped a few of my own, while also speaking briefly with Jessie in seeking her autograph.

A few more of my pictures are below.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Wonderfully Enacted at Steppenwolf, 'The Herd' Has an Appealingly Multifaceted Mentality -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Herd
a recent play by Rory Kinnear
directed by Frank Galati
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 7

The Herd is a wonderfully written play, all the more impressive for being the first penned--or at least produced--by noted British actor, Rory Kinnear.

It premiered in London in September 2013, where reviews seem to have been middling. But at Steppenwolf, with a truly terrific cast under the direction of Frank Galati, it is a fast-moving and engrossing 105-minute one-act that touches effectively on numerous themes.

"The herd" essentially references the gathering of a family, to celebrate the 21st birthday of severely disabled son, Andy, who is never seen as his impending arrival is part of the storyline. Author Kinnear has an adult sister with the mental age of a baby, and clearly understands the numerous challenges in caring for--and acutely worrying about--such a child.

It is obvious how much effort, love and life Carol (Molly Regan) has devoted to her son, and though--at least per comments in the post-show discussion--her high-strung sense of martyrdom makes her a bit unsympathetic, I felt her affection not only for Andy, but adult daughter Claire (wonderfully played by Audrey Francis).

The always fantastic, even legendary, Lois Smith and John Mahoney are terrific here as Carol's parents, smart, sassy, protective, often laughter-inducing and far from the caricatures witty seniors can often be relegated to onstage.

Also routinely terrific, Francis Guinan plays Carol's ex-husband, estranged from daughter Claire in part because of acrimony over his diminished involvement in Andy's life.

Rounding out the cast is Cliff Chamberlain as Mark, a poet and possible paramour of Claire's.

Conducted with British accents, there is much scornful, acerbic, poignant and powerful dialogue in Kinnear's script, which despite not involving any scene changes, never drags a bit. Particularly artful is the way he maneuvers characters out of the family room scene so that a pair or trio of characters can have a private conversation. (The modern art-adorned set design by Walt Spangler of an suburban English house is striking if perhaps representing more comfort, affluence and worldly interests than Carol (the only one who truly lives there) seems to portray.)

Yet while a piece of Steppenwolf marketing for The Herd plays up the wildness of dysfunctional families that often makes for spirited, audience-identifying theater--"Three generations, two surprise guests and one unexpected evening"--not only did I not find the family involved all that dysfunctional, beyond the squabbles and the cackles I most liked observing the wrought-but-caring dynamic among Carol, Claire and, though unseen, Andy.

Carol's speech about constantly fearing Andy's death adds considerable dimension to the narrative, while as the sage if snarky center of the play, the tandem of Mahoney and Smith--as Brian and Patricia--provide much more than comic relief.

So I highly recommend The Herd--which runs through June 7--and would like to think that anyone who sees it at any price, with any level of theatergoing regularity (or lack thereof) should like it plenty.

A patron who I passed on Halsted after the post-show discussion couldn't help gushing, "Wasn't that wonderful."

And I agreed.

Due to Steppenwolf's extremely generous "Twenty for $20" day-of-show ticket discount promotion, I feel especially fortunate to have seen--from just the second row!--such a stellar piece of theater featuring longtime favorites such as Mahoney and Guinan, the delightful Smith, Chamberlain who I've seen onstage numerous times, the stellar Regan, and Francis, who I found to be outstanding.

Yet while the Chicago Tribune's theater critic Chris Jones awarded The Herd 4-stars out of 4, I was just a bit less smitten in deducting 1/2@ from my pinnacle rating.

There was nothing clearly wrong with Kinnear's excellent play, and neither he, the cast, Galati or Steppenwolf can truly be blamed for this, but The Herd just felt a bit too much like a flock of other shows I've seen.

Though neither Mahoney or Guinan did anything to change their status as my favorite Chicago theater actors, the reality is that I've seen each 10+ times before--often at Steppenwolf--and their roles in The Herd seemed a tad too readily familiar.

I was most directly reminded of a play called Tribes, by Nina Raine, which I saw at Steppenwolf early last year. It also featured a highly literate British family screaming numerous profanities at each other in a rather plush domicile, with Regan and Guinan playing the parents of a hearing-impaired son and an unsatisfied daughter.

Obviously, many plays can be similar, and with all I see at Steppenwolf, Goodman, Northlight and elsewhere, that I come across the same actors in somewhat similar roles it actually rather understandable.

In looking back at my ratings/reviews for recent shows that I may be unfairly lumping together in memory, it seems I liked The Herd as much or more than Tribes, The Birthday Party, Other Desert Cities, The Night Alive and other plays about combustible and/or affluent families I've seen in just the last few years, perhaps with Guinan and/or Mahoney in the cast.

So I guess it would be fair to say that, along with much else it gets right, The Herd rises above familiar ground, even if doesn't quite separate itself from the pack all that distinctively.

But this is a trifling criticism most fans of great drama--with considerable humor--should ignore.

Especially if you find yourself with a free evening or weekend afternoon, and ideally discount tickets at the ready, I think you'll savor being roped into following The Herd.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Jazz, Classical and World Sounds Intersect Delightfully at Corner of Golf & Skokie Blvd. -- Chicago Jazz / Classical Review

Jazz / Classical Review

Four Corners of the World
Orbert Davis' Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble
featuring Trio Globo
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie, IL
April 24, 2015
(Same program Sunday at Beverly Arts Center, Chicago)

On Friday night, music from "four corners of the world" was heard within the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, located just two major corners from my home.

And while I can't provide much in the way of scholarly analysis or expert assessment, I liked everything I heard.

Attracted by the word "jazz" on the NSCPA calendar--a relative rarity--I was able to easily get a ticket at the door. While there was no "day-of-show" or "rush" pricing lowering the $32 minimum for entry, after buying a ticket for the last row of the balcony but before heading up the stairs, I was "comped up" to a seat on the main floor. (And I was even told that photography without flash was permissible during the performance.)

I imagine I would have also enjoyed a more straightforward jazz performance, but though I was somewhat surprised by what I encountered--due to having done little reading about the slated program and perceiving it, in shorthand terms, as a "jazz show"--I was nonetheless quite pleased.

Headed by trumpeter Orbert Davis, the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic (CJP) is a 55+ piece symphonic jazz
orchestra that is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

However, as this concert featured the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble, only seven members of the CJP joined Davis onstage and all but a drummer played stringed instruments.

These included two violins, a viola, cello, acoustic guitar and standup bass. 

Though I presumed all the players were first-rate musicians--and had that well-corroborated--I was slightly chagrined at the outset to note no saxophone, by far my favorite jazz instrument.

But not only was Davis terrific on trumpet, the breadth of the jazz-classical hybrid was further expanded by being accompanied all night by the Trio Globo.

Comprised of noted harmonica player Howard Levy--who also showed himself to be an excellent pianist--cellist Eugene Friesen and percussionist Glen Velez, "founding father of the frame drum movement," Trio Globo seemingly took the CJP in new directions, and vice versa.

Per the program's title, "Four Corners of the World," music was performed representing Africa, India, Venezuela, other Latin cultures, Bohemia by way of Iowa (i.e. Dvorak) and various other global soundscapes. 

Trio Globo opened the performance with just Levy, Friesen and Velez onstage for a Levy composition titled "Lumbriga," but were joined by Davis and members of the Jazz Philharmonic by the second number, also by Levy--"Stephanie's Dance"--and the full chamber ensemble for the third onward.

It certainly seemed like a collaboration all were enjoying, onstage and in the audience. Davis was a rather amiable host, but as several pieces were written by members of Trio Globo, he graciously deferred to the composer to introduce their songs.

Two of the works written by Velez were especially tasty, as on "Tuppim" he explained that the title refers to the hand-held frame drums that are his specialty--along with some great soloing by him, I noted Levy playing a flute/recorder-like instrument I can't name--and cited that "Miriam's Prophecy" blends sounds of the Middle East and South India.

The unique and diverse instrumentation was certainly a pleasure to hear, including Davis dazzling on trumpet, Levy on harmonica, Friesen playing cello with a bow but also at times plucking as though it were a guitar, guitarist John Moulder having some really nice solos and the CJP string section adding lovely depth, even to more jazzy numbers.

In introducing "Amadeus Had a Dream," which Davis noted that he composed based on Mozart's "String Quartet No. 13 in D Minor, K.173, 3rd Movement," the trumpeter suggested that Amadeus' dream (as least per his imagination) was that there be no separation of musical genres.

I can cite several more pieces that I found particularly enjoyable--Friesen's "Maracaibo," Davis' "El Moreno," derived from Miles Davis' "Sketches of Spain," a new arrangement of Dvorak's New World Symphony by Davis & Levy, those two soloing back and forth on Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee," Levy's long solo (on harmonica) version of "Amazing Grace," the buoyant, show-closing La Cucarachaesque "Street Corner" written by Friesen--but unless you can get to the Beverly Arts Center for a 3pm performance today, this particularly program likely isn't something you'll be able to enjoy in exactitude.

Yet while other great artists have intertwined musical styles, whether in terms of genres or worldwide influences, Trio Globo meeting Orbert Davis' Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble at the corner of Golf & Skokie Blvd. made for a rather unique, euphonic and even euphoric intersection.

So if you can catch either, or both entities, or something similar somewhere down the road, I suggest you should, especially if it's just around the corner.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Recapping Another Ebertfest Expedition, Coinciding with Record Store Day in Champaign-Urbana

Last weekend, as I have now for 5 of the past 6 years, I traveled down to Champaign-Urbana to attend Ebertfest.

Developed and long-curated by the late film critic--who was born and raised in Urbana and graduated from the University of Illinois--Roger Ebert's Film Festival runs from Wednesday through Sunday at the historic Virginia Theater in Champaign, but as has typically been my wont, I ventured down I-57 to attend movies only on Saturday.

(In recalling that last year, I went down on Wednesday to see Steve James' great documentary about Ebert--Life Itself--on opening night (as well as films on Thursday) I'm saddened to note today's passing of TIME magazine's renowned film critic, Richard Corliss, who was featured prominently in Life Itself.)

I don't know why I didn't catch on to going to Ebertfest--originally officially dubbed Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival--years earlier, but I'm glad I saw Roger himself there in 2010 and 2011, even if he had already been robbed of speech by the cancer that took his jaw and eventually his life.

Accompanied by longtime festival director Nate Kohn and a dedicated staff connected to the university, Roger's wife Chaz has done a remarkably admirable job in continuing the fest and serving as host, including in 2013 just 2 weeks after Roger's death. It is a testament to her, as well as her late husband, that not only movie lovers, but noted directors and actors, continue to make C-U an April destination.

For me, along with the chance to soak in the spirit of a man I so admired, and see movies still largely congruent with the "overlooked" conceit Roger championed, going to Ebertbest also allows for a pleasant visit with Jordan, my best friend since kindergarten, and his wife Erin.

Their hospitality not only adds to the fun of attending Ebertfest--this year abetted by seeing a couple bands featuring friends of Jordan playing for free on Record Store Day--but abets my logistics.

Without having to worry about lodging availability or costs, I comfortably drove down on Friday afternoon and headed back north after brunch on Sunday.

Although timewise I could have fit in seeing A Bronx Tale on Friday night, with Chazz Palminteri on hand as a special guest--and now know, via YouTube, that his Q&A was moderated by Richard Roeper and Leonard Maltin--I was happy to spend the evening with Jordan & Erin, watching a soccer game and then the Blackhawks. (Not only did I expect to be able to see Palminteri on YouTube, but I'd seen him in a stage-performance of A Bronx Tale as well as the movie. Most, if not all, Ebertfest Q&A's can be found on YouTube, including one from Thursday night with actor Jason Segal, who was there for The End of the Tour, a film about another late & legendary Urbananite, novelist David Foster Wallace.)

The first movie I saw on Saturday was Wild Tales, an Argentinean black comedy by director Damián Szifrón.

In Spanish with subtitles, the film is comprised of six separate vignettes, with different actors and no common thread except for a revenge theme and--per the title--visually exuberant storytelling.

Struck by the common language of film, I was reminded of Roberto Rossellini's masterful Paisan, a 1946 Italian film that I'd only watched recently. It likewise features six distinct vignettes--as opposed to more linearly episodic films like La Dolce Vita and Holy Motors--albeit about war and far from the comedy that Wild Tales is.

So even as he's no longer alive, Roger Ebert continues to be responsible for much of what I know about cinema.

I think my favorite of the "wild tales" was one starring Ricardo Darin (of the great Argentinean film, The Secret in Their Eyes) as an explosives expert who becomes enraged at bureaucratic injustices such as being towed from an unmarked tow-zone and nevertheless having no option but to pay the fine. Without giving away any specifics, I think you might be able to imagine where this narrative might lead.

Although Szifrón's fertile imagination leads to several LOL moments--and a few rather gross scenes--what makes Wild Tales really work is an underlying realism in the scenarios to which most audience members can likely relate.

The director was not listed as a special guest alongside actress Julieta Zylberberg and casting director Javier Braier, but joined the Q&A via a Skype hookup that was occasionally technically troubled but still a nice touch.

You can watch the full Wild Tales Q&A here.

And if you have Netflix, you can actually watch the next two movies that were shown at Ebertfest on Saturday.

I didn't attend the 2:00pm showing of Ida, in part because I wanted to hang out with Jordan & Erin and see Lonely Trailer perform for Record Store Day at Exile on Main Street (more on this below), but also because no special guests were cited as accompanying the Polish film that I have seen twice.

I cited Ida as the best new movie I saw in 2014, and it's one of the best I've seen in recent years, so I highly recommend it, but didn't feel I needed to spend the time or $14 watching it again at Ebertfest. There was a Q&A with critics who contribute to, which you can watch on YouTube.

Despite skipping the 2:00pm screening, I nonetheless had trouble staying awake for the 5:00 movie, The Motel Life.

This isn't a condemnation of the film, directed by Chicago area brothers Alan and Gabe Polsky, which I was able to watch--it's only 85 minutes long--Sunday night on Netflix.

Still, even while awake, I would say I more liked than loved The Motel Life, which revolves around two hardscrabble brothers, well-played by Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff.

The brothers, who largely live together in motels, are forced to bond together even more so in refuge after a tragedy involving Dorff's character.

I would say it's worth a watch on Netflix, and being a bit over-ambitious in my ability to take in 3 movies in a day at Ebertfest has become something of a tradition that I don't even mind.

But while Alan Polsky participated in a Q&A (available here), Stephen Dorff was a no-show despite being listed in the program, which was only explained when an audience member queried the director.

So like anything else, film festivals have their highs and lows, and this was a relatively minor low.

Plus, being brief even with the Q&A, The Motel Life enabled me to easily catch another free Record Store Day, this time featuring Bookmobile!, before Jordan and Erin accompanied me to the 9:00pm film, 99 Homes.

The movie is directed by Ramin Bahrani (Wikipedia), a terrific young director of Iranian descent who was born (and I believe raised) in North Carolina.

Roger Ebert gave all four of Bahrani's feature films that he lived to see his pinnacle 4-star rating, and in this review of 2009's Goodbye Solo, called him "the great new American director."

With Roger being a great champion of Ramin's, the two became friends; Bahrani has attended several Ebertfests--this was my first time seeing him--and got substantive screen time in Life Itself.

Although I think I would give 99 Homes @@@@1/2 (out of 5)--as with Wild Tales, and perhaps @@@@ to The Motel Life--my guess is that Ebert would bestow his very highest rating.

While taste is certainly subjective--Jordan wasn't wowed by 99 Homes--the director is one of few making socially commentative films reflective of the challenges and injustices faced by many Americans, something I've oft rued as being far too lacking.

In 99 Homes, the always terrific Michael Shannon is again here as an arrogant real estate broker who has made a fortune by flipping homes that have been foreclosed upon. As the film opens, he accompanies two Florida sheriffs in evicting a construction worker played by Andrew Garfield from the house he shares with his mom (Laura Dern) and son (Noah Lomax, who was at Ebertfest along with Bahrani).

With its cinematic release not coming until this fall--after a brief film festival circuit--I don't think I'm giving too much away to reveal that after understandable indignation, through a creative twist Garfield's character becomes an associate of Shannon's. Essentially, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

But this is where the story begins, not where it ends, and the film is poignant not only for Garfield's struggle with what he has become--while faced with few better options--but for its depiction of people being kicked out of their homes. (In some cases, Bahrani employs real people, not professional actors, to embody the homeowners.)

I was reminded of Michael Moore's documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, where similar scenes--and even a predator similar to Shannon's character--were depicted in a non-fictional way.

Though I haven't revisited any of Bahrani's films after initially seeing them, I think I'm still most partial to the first two, Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, which have a strikingly unique tonality, different than most Hollywood films.

Understandably, as Bahrani has gained acclaim, his subsequent Goodbye Solo and especially At Any Price and now 99 Homes have felt more like bigger budget--as opposed to Indie, but still relatively small--films with known stars. As such, they lack the glossless appeal of his first two movies, but as I believe Ebert would proclaim, the director is still doing things better than most.

Though not amazingly revelatory, Bahrani's Q&A was probably the best of the three I sat through on Saturday, and is also available on YouTube.

Although Ebertfest itself doesn't offer much in the way of activities beyond the movie screenings--a few catering trucks and an underwhelming book/gift shop are about it--because of Jordan & Erin, coming down for the fest is always pleasurable for me well beyond the Virginia balcony.

Although I generally tend to like variety, I somehow prefer to be a habitual creature in Champaign-Urbana, and last weekend happily visited several places I've been to numerous times before (many being favorites of my hosts as well).

These include the Esquire Lounge, Mike & Molly's, Mirabelle (a fantastic bakery), the Jane Addams Book Shop and the Courier Cafe for Sunday brunch. We also, repeatedly, drove past Roger Ebert's childhood Urbana home, which is close to where Jordan & Erin live.

Once again, Jordan gave me a driving tour through much of the University of Illinois campus, and the nearby campus town, noting the newfound--and ongoing--glut of glitzy private student residence buildings, including high rises taller than had previously existed. On Green Street, there are now mostly national retail chains, rather than the localized (and sometimes orange-and-blue clad) businesses I remembered from visits over the years. (I attended NIU, but came down to see Jordan during and since our college days.)

I didn't actually make it to a Steak 'n Shake--not such an objective as there are now suburban Chicago locations, unlike years ago--but as the chain was a favorite of Ebert's, it was nice to see a SnS food truck outside the Virginia Theatre.

And yes, Virginia, I did partake.

Fortunately, unlike at least a couple previous years, Ebertfest weekend in Champaign didn't coincide with the Champaign Marathon.

Though the race always made for more of a theoretical hindrance than a real one, it was nice not to have to worry about avoiding the marathon route on the way to the movies.

Less cumbersome, if really just mentally, was Saturday also happening to be Record Store Day, across the nation (world?) and celebrated in Champaign at Exile on Main Street (as well as presumably, Record Service, which we didn't get to).

A pretty good record store with new and used merchandise, Exile on Main Street has now relocated just off Main Street in Champaign into the old train station (as opposed to both the new and oldest train station, all in a row along the tracks).

In commemoration of Record Store Day, Exile on Main Street had local bands playing every half-hour, alternating performances in the store with those on a nearby concourse.

I have long known of Jordan's affinity for Lonely Trailer, a band that began in the '80s and includes two good friends of his named Brian.

It was fun to see them play an afternoon set, especially as their power drowned out a freight train rolling by on the tracks above.

In the evening, we were able to catch a hard-driving punk set from Bookmobile!--featuring Jordan & Erin's friend Trevor--who must have played at least 20 songs in 30 minutes. 

All in all, it all worked out rather well.

Good movies, the typically pleasant Ebertfest vibe, cherished places, satisfying food, great friends, free music.

Thumbs up all around.

I hope to be back. Roger that.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

For Chicago Musician Colin Morris, Rock 'n Roll Success 'Could Be Anything' -- An Interview Ahead of His Martyrs' Gig, April 23

As I've frequently conveyed on this blog, rock 'n roll has immeasurably enriched my life--and continues to.

My upcoming concert calendar includes cherished artists that stand among the most legendary of all-time (The Who, The Rolling Stones, U2, Robert Plant), air guitar-inducing rockers forever rooted in my youth (Rush, Van Halen, AC/DC) and more personal favorites like Manic Street Preachers, The Replacements, The Waterboys and Paul Weller.

But with all of these acts--and most others that still excite me--dating back to the '60s, '70s or '80s, I often find myself ruing the scarcity of new, young(ish) rock artists who might provide similar satisfaction now and especially 10 years hence.

Still, reports of rock being dead are--seemingly and rather gratifyingly--greatly exaggerated.

And not just because of how much I like Arcade Fire.

While it's possible that the hard rock genre will never again generate a preponderance of zeitgeist-inhabiting artists such as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd or Nirvana, there should always be a sizable subset of the population plugging guitars into amps and making glorious noise.

The trick may be to find them, but the satisfaction can be all that much greater for finding the proverbial needle in the ever-fragmented digital age haystack.

And to come across enjoyable musicians you not only know about, but actually know, can make it all that more rewarding.

In recent years, I've had the pleasure of discovering that a co-worker in the next cubicle was the bassist for a band whose album I had recently bought and really liked (The Chamber Strings), and in another case was impressed enough by Todd Leiter-Weintraub of Hop on Pop--who I met on the first day of a short-lived temp gig--that I hired him to play a show in my mom's backyard.

In autumn of 2013, at another temporary stint that I repeated the following fall, I came across Colin Morris, who I now know had relocated to Chicago from Ohio--he's originally from Akron--just the previous year.

In spite of fairly frequent informal conversation, and despite his long hair and brightly colored pants, it took me several months to catch on that Colin was a rock star shrouded in the 9-to-5 guise of an account executive.

But especially as I'm always fascinated by people's special talents to which most co-workers likely remain oblivious, I was delighted when--after a conversation about his musical pursuits--Colin shared with me some demos of songs he was working on.

Impressed well beyond polite admiration for a friend's extracurricular efforts, and openly encouraging that his music merited public hearing, I was thrilled on St. Patrick's Day of this year when Colin celebrated his 28th birthday by releasing his first EP, Could Be Anything.

It can now be heard on Spotify (embedded below) and is available for purchase in digital and CD form on Bandcamp, as well as digital downloads via iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.  

Given that he not only wrote the four songs and produced & recorded them himself, but sang and played all the instruments, Colin had to find some musicians to help him debut the EP at a record release show March 17 at the Elbo Room--I attended and found an added potency to the material when played live--and for his gig this Thursday night at Martyrs' in Chicago.

Although he has been playing in bands for years, including recently one called Blindspt, Colin rounded out his current power trio--he plays guitar and sings--with bassist Stephen Mortenson and drummer Gabe Zunino, both of whom he found fairly recently in rather fortuitous fashion. 

Mortenson heads his own band, Shadow of the Titan, for whom Colin plays bass on tandem shows to promote both their new releases.

Wanting to interview Colin for a Seth Saith piece--about his new EP as well as insights on today's musical landscape for a young rock artist--timed to his Martyrs' gig, I sent him a list of questions which he quite graciously answered with considerable thought and candor.

I share the Q&A below verbatim, with only cosmetic editing.

1. You’ve clearly been learning, playing and teaching music for quite some time, but as I understand it, Could Be Anything represents the first release of music you created. What does this mean to you?
It means life got in the way while I let fear slow me down. I’ve been writing songs since high school, and I’ve been hungry to record and perform the whole time. I’ve had great experiences playing in bands, but these songs were in me the whole time. I finally realized over the past two years it was time to quit practicing and get them out there, because you have to start somewhere.

2. How and why did it come together now? How did you record and release it?
I didn’t have the budget to go into a studio, or rather, didn’t know how to use that time effectively. With this being my first release, I wanted to record it myself so I would have time to experiment and make mistakes without some engineer’s meter running. The result is a lot of imperfections, but a much more refined process of writing, arranging, and recording.

3. Why did releasing the EP in physical, CD form matter to you, vs. simply a digital release?
This is an endlessly fascinating time for the record industry. The reality at the time of this interview could be upended six months from now. I want my music to be available on the forms and places my new fans want to listen to it. For a lot of people, that’s Spotify, and that’s fine. For many others, they want to hold it in their hands, and I want to give that to people. Plus, it feels good to be able to touch what I’ve made. I would have made vinyl too if I thought my homegrown, bargain basement production quality merited it. Maybe next time.

4. For me, having grown up while LPs were still the dominant popular musical form, having something tactile accompany the music has always been important. So along with the songs, I very much admire not only that you had CDs pressed, but that you have a pretty cool, original cover design. Talk about the cover art of Could Be Anything, who created it, why you chose it, etc.
One of the lessons I learned in this process is to do as much by yourself as you can manage, and delegate the rest. I don’t even like to think about how this album would have looked if I’d designed it myself. Instead, I went to one of my favorite graphic designers in the world, who happens to be my cousin, Alex Eben Meyer ( He and I half joked about him making album artwork for a band I was in five years ago, but it took until now for me to call in the favor. I gave him almost no input, and couldn’t be more thrilled with his work.

5. Discuss your songs; they’re all unique but I’ve noted something of a “man vs. universe” theme, espousing some frustration, but also championing self-empowerment. This is probably most apparent on “Cubicle,” but also seems to factor into the others, especially “You Can’t Change.”
When you’re learning to write songs, it’s natural to be drawn to your strongest emotions, which is why so much pop music is romantic. That’s fine, and there are plenty of those in my repertoire, but part of the growth I’m proud to show on this EP is that my focus has shifted elsewhere: I’m in my late 20s, my life is good, but like most people, I’m unfulfilled, insecure, and unsatisfied with the world around me.

Those are strong, common feelings too, and it felt important to work through those for myself as much as for the listener. I didn’t set out to write a collection of songs with a single, cohesive message—this four-song EP started out as an eight-song LP that I edited down. But I do think the songs share the basic theme of accepting who you are, recognizing your shortcomings and those in your environment, and doing something extraordinary with the life you have.

6. I think all 4 songs are strong, but also liked “Tears and Laughter,” which you shared with me in demo form, and the new “When You Run,” with which you closed the set of your record release show. Is there a thought to develop enough songs to evolve Could Be Anything into a full album?
Those songs are both now part of my live set, actually. I owe a lot to my amazing band for being able to flesh them out and get them show-ready. And there’s certainly more where that came from—as I mentioned earlier, I left almost half of the material on the editing room floor while making this EP. So fans can expect to see these songs and more like them on the next release, hopefully early next year.

7. You wrote, arranged, produced, sang and recorded all the songs yourself, playing guitars, piano, bass and drums. How did you become proficient on so many instruments?
I started classical piano lessons when I was seven, and hated it. I was a lousy student. But once I caught the rock bug as a pre-teen, I wanted to play everything. My parents both play guitar, and my mom played professionally. It was a hard life for her, but they both encouraged me in music, especially after seeing me try sports.

But I also love drumming and taught myself on my dad’s old kit in the basement, and I love playing bass. Alt-metal hit its heyday right around the time I started high school, and all that over-engineering and compression made for some really delicious low end. But being a multi-instrumentalist has had its consequences. One is focus: I’m not a virtuoso on any instrument because I’m constantly switching as the need or whim arises. Another problem is overcoming the urge to micromanage every note in a song because I know just how I like each instrument to sound and contribute to the total experience of the recording or performance. But I’ve mellowed out in the past couple years, and I’ve found I actually really enjoy playing in other people’s bands, following their lead, and escaping the pressure of being up front.

8. I know you’ve played in several bands, but currently seem to be promoting Could Be Anything in tandem with Stephen Mortensen and his band, Shadow of a Titan. How did that come about, how’s it working out, and also talk about your drummer, Gabe Zunino, who you also met somewhat uniquely.
Stephen and Gabe are two gifts who fell into my life to varying degrees of serendipity. Stephen and I met in the musicians classified section of Craiglist. Stephen posted an ad seeking members for a touring band to support the release of his debut record, Translating the Veil, that he mostly made on his own, the way I did. His music is very compatible with mine, as is his personality, so we made this deal to play in each other’s bands, and sometimes at the same shows. The cross promotion has been good, but mostly it’s just been so fun and rewarding to spend that much time with such a dedicated and disciplined musician. He works really hard, he’s humble, and he’s got a good head on his shoulders. I really look up to him.

How I met Gabe is another matter entirely, and the more we work together, the more I like the guy and the story. I’d been on Craigslist for years, writing and replying to ads to find bandmates with little to show for it (my friendship with Stephen notwithstanding). It’s a lot like dating, and it can be just as much an emotional roller coaster.

Then one night, I went out dancing with some friends, got kind of drunk, and spotted Gabe across the crowded room when he came in. I still don’t know what drew my attention to him, because he wasn’t doing anything like air drumming to the music, the way I usually do because I can’t dance, or giving off any other signals. But I took one look at him and somehow just knew he was a rock drummer. I think I kind of freaked him out because I walked over and called him on it pretty aggressively. Just pointed in his face and shouted over the music: “DRUMS?”

He gave me that side-to-side look, like, “Who is this guy, and is he dangerous?” And then he asked how I knew. I should mention this meeting was extra fortuitous because I was already booked to open for Shadow of the Titan on a couple shows, and my drummer had just backed out to go play SXSW with another band. So I was getting a little nervous. But that turned out to be a huge blessing, and working with Gabe is a total dream.

9. In seeing you live, I was impressed by how good—and at times, ferocious—you were. But since I had heard most of the songs already, besides the stellar, closing “When You Run,” what surprised me was that you opened with a solo, seemingly non-ironic cover of Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.” I like the original and I really liked what you did with it. Talk about why you choose to play it; I imagine perhaps as an up-and-coming artist there’s something about resisting the slings & arrows that you may identify with?
People can say what they want, but Taylor Swift is awesome. That was partly my point in playing the song. I’m a big, unapologetic—and yes, unironic—fan of hers. She writes her own music, which is extremely catchy and well constructed, and often performs with a guitar in her hands. What more do you want? The double standard for female singer songwriters is still pretty gnarly, and unfortunately her success hasn’t made her an exception. But I digress.

But you also nailed it—slings and arrows are everywhere for an artist, and the worst part is that the ones most likely to hold you back come from within. I had to overcome a lot of fear to stop making excuses and finally release this little record, and it doesn’t stop there. Every show, every interview, every new experience is a little scary. But fear is usually part of doing anything worthwhile.

Have you tried sending your version to Taylor? Or recording and releasing it?
Maybe I’ll get it on YouTube one day, along with the 500 other covers.
{Note: Exclusively for SethSaith readers, here's that clip.}

10. Let’s do Rock Journalism 101 and talk about your influences. I know you’re a big Foo Fighters fan, and can see that in some of the music. Who else has been important to you?
I listen to a lot of electronic music and piano jazz trios. Tycho and Marian McPartland are two of my favorites. There’s plenty of rock I enjoy, and it obviously influences my writing and playing—the best artists steal, right?—but I like to branch out so that when I write, I know it’s me coming out and not just a facsimile of the riffs and fills and hooks I’ve been hearing all day.

I do really look up to Ben Kenny, who is a multi-instrumentalist and records all the parts on his records and performs as a trio, the way I do. He had a punk band in the 90s called Supergrub, but is better known as the former guitarist in The Roots and the bassist in Incubus for the last decade or so. My favorite bands are locals: Bailiff, Empires, and lately, Mason’s Case.

11. You’ve been playing several gigs lately, but have a big one coming up at Martyrs' in Chicago on April 23. What can people expect?
Two entirely new songs I’ve never performed live before, excellent sound, and sweaty hugs from me. Oh, and it’s a two-fer: I open the show at 9:00, then I play with Shadow of the Titan after The Runaway Five.

12. I recognize how passionate you are about making and playing music, and certainly admire not only the dedication, but the quality of your efforts. So I would never suggest that you limit your ambitions and aspirations, but also know the way music is made, released, heard and sold has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, seemingly not to the benefit of unknown artists in a rock ‘n roll vein. What do you like to think is possible? What does the rock ‘n roll dream presently look like; at least for you?
It’s an exciting time in the music business, to put it mildly. Plenty of people out there have written about this in more informed and enlightening ways than I can, so I’ll just say this: Yes, it’s scary that fewer and fewer people are paying for music. But it’s liberating to know that success is more the artist’s responsibility more than ever. There are more tools available online than ever before to help artists connect with audiences, and they’re getting simpler to use. Labels have less to offer, the playing field is more level—albeit more crowded—and enterprising artists have a better shot at building their own scenes, markets, and careers.

Are the odds any better at fame and fortune? No, I don’t think so. But I believe it’s possible to carve out a living as a musician and artist, especially if you can give people something to connect with, and I’m ready to try.

Thank you for your time and insights. For what it’s worth, to date you’ve provided living proof that rock isn’t dead, you just have to look for it in smaller places, on more personal levels. I certainly hope your career will continue to develop, and perhaps even boom, but I also hope just doing what you love is the most important measurement of success.  
Thank you!

Below is a clip I shot of Colin Morris and his bandmates playing "Could Be Anything," March 17, 2015 at Elbo Room in Chicago: