Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Dazzling Array of Modern Master Pieces: Milwaukee Exhibit By Way of Buffalo Earns an "A" as Modern Art 101 -- Art Exhibition Review

Art Exhibit Review

Van Gogh to Pollock: Modern Rebels
Masterworks from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery 
Milwaukee Art Museum
Thru September 20, 2015

Over the years I've visited many renowned modern art museums, including the MOMA in New York, Tate Modern in London, Pompidou Centre in Paris, Reina Sofia in Madrid and the Guggenheim in New York, Venice and Bilbao.

This is in addition to prestigious comprehensive collections with vast modern art holdings, such as at the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Galleries in Washington, DC and London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and many others.

But by virtue of having only been in Buffalo, New York, for less than 2 hours some 22 years ago, I've never been to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and can't say I've ever known that it is regarded as having one of the best modern art collections anywhere.

But it must be pretty astonishing, especially if it can organize a traveling exhibition with prime works from nearly 70 modern art superstars--Van Gogh to Pollack: Modern Rebels--and not deplete its own holdings to the extent that it must demurely shut its doors to hometown patrons.

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973). La Toilette, 1906
Given that the Milwaukee Art Museum, where this excellent exhibit is on display, has itself temporarily shuttered its fine permanent collection while its older buildings undergo extensive renovation, the possibility came to mind that the Albright-Knox also has currently closed its doors.

But an exhibit guard asserted--and a check of the Albright-Knox website seems to confirm--that the Buffalo museum remains fully open to the public, who presumably aren't feeling too cheated despite how many great paintings have relocated to Milwaukee until September 20.

I like the MAM's multi-genre permanent holdings, but on an afternoon in Milwaukee preceding a Rolling Stones concert on the eve of Summerfest, the Modern Rebels exhibit was particularly perfect in size and scope within the spectacular Quadracci Pavilion designed by Santiago Calatrava.

Much to its credit, the Milwaukee museum has presented several terrific special exhibits over the past several years, including a truly outstanding Kandinsky retrospective last year and an eye-opening Impressionism show in late 2011.

While showcasing (much of?) the best of what can typically be seen in Buffalo is well-worth anyone's 90 minutes in Milwaukee--the museum is a short lakefront stroll from the Summerfest grounds, if you're heading there this week--the contents are almost exclusively curated by the Albright-Knox, save for a Kandinsky work the MAM owns.

Robert Delaunay (French, 1885–1941) Soleil, Tour, Aéroplane, 1913
And unlike the Kandinsky exhibition, which did a phenomenal job of educating me about the evolution and career arc of the Russian abstractionist, Van Gogh to Pollack: Modern Rebels has a relative sparsity of explanatory text, whether on the gallery walls or accompanying each painting.

Especially given the quality of the artworks themselves, and the swath of artists represented--including some lesser-known painters whose works were among my favorites--the paucity of illuminating contextual explanation doesn't constitute a major detraction, but would certainly be welcome.

Presumably, I could have been better clued in had I opted for an audio guide, but limited time combined with general aversion to regimented pacing precluded my purchasing one.

There are a couple cursory paragraphs introducing the exhibit, serving to note that per the Modern Rebels title, the exhibition:
"...features work by the great disruptors of the twentieth century--artists who questioned artistic and societal norms, threw caution to the wind, and created startling and frequently shocking new forms of art."
Throughout the numerous galleries, there are three panels with brief text on The School of Paris, Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting, but otherwise--except for patrons with headsets--the paintings pretty much speak for themselves.

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890)
La Maison de la Crau (The Old Mill), 1888
So other than the suggestion that the artists were "rebels" who broke new artistic ground, any thematic threads between artists and artworks were subject to one's own interpretation or pre-existing knowledge. (There is a brief video of Jackson Pollock's paint dripping technique, and I valued noting how New York replaced Paris as the center of Western Art mid-century, in part due to European artists emigrating because of Nazi persecution.)

Likewise lacking was any acute definition of "Modern Art," and while "Van Gogh to Pollack" in the exhibition's title gives an idea of the time frame, there are actually a good number of works well beyond Pollock's, including one dating to 1980.

Plus, while it was great to see terrific paintings by Van Gogh, Pissarro, Gauguin, Rousseau and Toulouse-Lautrec, I really don't know if these artists are truly considered part of the modern art milieu--I think of them as Post-Impressionists--or merely included as part of the impressive holdings of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Thus, whereas some art exhibitions shine as exemplary works of artistry in themselves, due to imaginative curation/design and thoroughly insightful text--sometimes even superseding the "wow factor" of the works contained within--this is an exhibit that sparkles simply because it gathers dozens of impressive paintings (plus a few sculptures) from sensational artists.

Max Beckmann (German, 1884–1950)
Hotel Lobby, 1950
With typically just one piece from each artist, excepting the MAM's extra Kandinsky and a pair of paintings each by Ferdnand Léger and Grace Hartigan, the show works as an excellent introductory survey--Modern Art 101, if you will--of several of the prime practitioners of (mostly) 20th Century Art.

For the most part, these were not paintings I had seen before, even in reproductions, but are largely first-rate illustrations of each artist's style, further heightening the exhibit's allure.

While the biggest of the "modern art superstars" are well-represented with exceptional examples--including Van Gogh, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard, Gauguin, Picasso, Chagall, Kandinsky, Modigliani, Braque, Gris, Léger, Matisse, Dali, Miró, O'Keeffe, Ernst, de Chirico, Kahlo, Davis, de Kooning, Gorky, Rothko, Bacon, Motherwell, Diebenkorn, Lichtenstein, Pollock, Warhol, Giacometti and more--I just as much appreciated the paintings by artists with a bit less fame and/or caché.

As showcased in this post, some of my favorite pieces from Van Gogh to Pollock: Modern Rebels are Robert Delaunay's Soleil, Tour, Aéroplane, Max Beckmann's Hotel Lobby, Arthur Dove's Fields of Grain as Seen from Train, Chaim Soutine's Carcass of Beef, Oskar Kokoschka's London, Large Thames View I, Hans Hoffmann's Exuberance, Sam Francis' Untitled and Helen Frankenthaler's Tutti-Fruitti.

And that's leaving out a good number of other great ones--and noteworthy artists, such as Horace Pippin, Yves Tanguy, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Agnes Martin and Jim Dine--which should provide a rather robust idea as to the depth of this exhibition.

A bit unusual for a special or traveling exhibit, but quite appreciated, photography without a flash is entirely allowed.

So I'll include several more of the artworks below, while strongly suggesting you make the trek to Milwaukee--unless you happen to live there--for this first-rate exhibit, and/or one day shuffle off to Buffalo.


Arthur Garfield Dove (American, 1880–1946) Fields of Grain as Seen from Train, 1931
Joán Miró (Spanish, 1893–1983) Carnaval d'Arlequin, 1924-1925
Chaïm Soutine (Russian; French, 1893–1943) Carcass of Beef, ca. 1925
Oskar Kokoschka (Austrian; German, 1886–1980) London, Large Thames View I, 1926
Hans Hofmann (American, 1880–1966) Exuberance, 1955
Sam Francis (American, 1923–1994) Untitled, 1956
Jackson Pollock (American, 1912–1956) Convergence, 1952
Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907–1954) Self-Portrait with Monkey, 1938
Amedeo Modigliani (Italian, 1884–1920) La Jeune bonne, ca. 1918
Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954) La Musique, 1939
Salvador Dalí (Spanish; Catalan, 1904–1989) The Transparent Simulacrum of the Feigned Image, 1938
Helen Frankenthaler (American, 1928–2011) Tutti-Fruitti, 1966
Grace Hartigan (American, 1922–2008) When the Raven Was White, 1969
Alberto Giacometti (Swiss, 1901–1966) Man Walking (Version I), 1960
Robert Irwin (American, 1928) Untitled, 1962-1963

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Visionary Look Back, Forward Creates a Must-See Show for U2 Believe -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

United Center
June 24 and 25, 2015
(also playing 6/28, 29, 7/2)

Spoiler Alert:
Those planning or hoping to see U2 and wishing to be surprised may want to avoid reading this--and seeing the photos--until afterwards. Just know that the show was musically, visually and thematically fantastic, and thus highly recommended. 

What is cool?

Hell if I know?

I actually thought it was really cool when Apple gave everyone U2's Songs of Innocence album last September, saving me from having to buy it (which I would've done even though I could have otherwise heard it freely on Spotify).

But given the overwrought backlash by people acting as if a gallon of the wrong octane milk just showed up in their refrigerator, perhaps well-past its expiration date, for awhile it seemed as though a vast portion of the world's population perceived U2 as anything but cool.

Headlines even proclaimed them, "The most hated band in America."

Well, the haters might be a bit puzzled by the Irish band still being able to play multi-night arena stands in cities around the world: 6 shows in LA, 4 in Montreal, 5 currently in Chicago, 8 upcoming in New York, 6 in London, etc.

None-too-shabby ticket sales for such a despised band, one who the naysayers often labeled as washed up, past their prime, out-of-touch, etc., while their album garnered generally lukewarm reviews.

As I wrote amidst the hubbub back in September, I still loved U2--finding their ambition and exploration of new avenues admirable, if at times imperfect or misdirected--and there was no way I was going to miss seeing them in concert, even (or especially) after having done so 15 times over 29 years.

When tickets went onsale back in December, for what is dubbed the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour--supposedly alluding to a Songs of Experience follow-up to Songs of Innocence, but also with rumors that each pair of shows would be markedly different; perhaps one electric and the other acoustic--I snagged "cheap seats" ($30 each + Ticketmaster fees) to shows 2 and 3.

But once the tour opened in Vancouver last month, I became aware that my seats were not only behind the main stage, but were "Limited View" due to a massive video screen running the length of the arena floor--along with a catwalk to a second stage--which I wouldn't be able to properly see. (The idea of highly-differing shows on consecutive nights didn't come to fruition.)

So a few days before Wednesday's first Chicago show, I snagged a ticket on StubHub for $32 (which had originally been $95 + fees) that although to the side of and a bit behind the main stage, would allow proper viewing of the huge video screen.

And perhaps to the disbelief of the seeming mass of U2 dissidents, I can share that it may well have been the "coolest" rock concert I've ever seen.

And damn near one of the best.


First of all, on Wednesday, and again on Thursday--when I didn't quite get the same visual impact, but with a smaller, simpler video screen and memories of the night before, didn't miss much--U2 simply sounded phenomenal.

Opening with the first song on Songs of Innocence, "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" as Bono initially appeared alone on the second stage, then meandered down the catwalk to his bandmates, the band next went back to their first album, Boy, for ferocious takes on "The Electric Co." (on Night 1) and "Out of Control" (on Night 2).

Though these, and the next two songs--"Vertigo" and "I Will Follow" (both nights)--preceded the dazzling video accompaniments that would reiterate what innovators U2 have been in terms of concert presentation, they served to remind that Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. have been a damned great rock 'n roll band for 35+ years.

In fact, I can't readily think of any other rock band in which only the original members have been together for such a long period.

As far as I understand it, the basic gestalt of Songs of Innocence is that the album forms something of a biographical look back to U2's early days in north Dublin.

As played both nights, forming a thematic, nearly theatrical core to the first half of the show--complemented by the band's actual early songs--are "Iris," a new song Bono wrote honoring his mom, who passed away when he was 14, and "Cedarwood Road," about the street in Dublin where the band members grew up.

During the latter, the long video screen depicted houses on a block, while Bono walked among them by virtue of a catwalk between the two sides of the screen (see photo above).

This was followed by "Song for Someone," newly penned for Bono's wife Alison, but enacted in combination with animation of the singer as a teenager, whose pursuit of her included the writing of such songs.

A new take on an old classic, "Sunday Bloody Sunday," fit in well, as it showed how terror and turmoil were omnipresent in Ireland during the band's formative years, which was reiterated by the similarly-themed new song, "Raised by Wolves."

If nothing else, the inventive way they were presented made the case for "Iris," "Song for Someone" and "Raised by Wolves," being better, more substantive songs than I initially perceived, and the concert never suffered the lull that new and/or lesser songs can often bring.

By the 5-minute intermission in which a recorded version of Zooropa's "The Wanderer" was sung on screen by an animated Johnny Cash, and especially after the end of the show, I came to realize why this wasn't a concert at which a wide variety of alternate songs could be interchanged--though I did hear 5 different ones Thursday (setlist) than Wednesday (setlist)--or why it would have been thematically disruptive for U2 to bring Mick Jagger onstage, although Bono announced he was there on Wednesday. Or the Stanley Cup for that matter, which was in Las Vegas, anyway.

Highly inventive video conceits essentially dictated that the intermission be followed by "Invisible" and "Even Better Than the Real Thing," although in terms of musical storytelling cohesion, "New Year's Day" could easily have picked up where "Until the End of the World" left off at the end of the first set.

A live-video-feed moment with a fan brought onstage during "Mysterious Ways" was a lot of fun, and pretty much emptied the big bag of audiovisual tricks at the point where it could have devolved into just one gimmick after another.

"Mysterious Ways" was followed by two revolving song slots that allowed me to hear "Elevation"--preceded by Bono's shout out to the Blackhawks--and "Ordinary Love" on Night 1 and "Angel of Harlem" and "Volcano" on Night 2.

A beautifully sparse Bono + Edge-on-piano version of the new "Every Breaking Wave" wonderfully led into a raging "Bullet the Blue Sky," and though Bono has a tendency to overly work references to current events into his stage patter, I can't deny I got chills when he mentioned Baltimore, Ferguson and Charleston in the as-powerful-as-ever "Pride (in the Name of Love)."

Though "Beautiful Day" and "With or Without You" were both glorious, I was especially delighted when "Bad" was slipped in-between on Thursday night.

And while first encore, "City of Blinding Lights," was illuminated by a plethora of light sticks, "Where the Streets Have No Name" blistered without any overt visual cues, and show closers "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" (Wednesday) and "One" (Thursday) further illustrated that U2 smartly understood when to let the music do all the talking.

In fact, it's the savvy balance that made this probably the best U2 extravaganza I've ever seen.

For after The Joshua Tree tour in 1987 thrilled simply through the power of the music, I felt both the Zoo TV (1991-92) and PopMart (1997) tours--though extremely innovative, groundbreaking and at times breathtaking--suffered for the way the visuals overshadowed the songs I loved.

On their 2001 and 2005 tours U2 scaled back, which was fine with me, and though the U2 360° outdoor stadium tour of 2009-2011 featured perhaps the most gargantuan stage ever created and some uber cool effects, it was the music itself that made it work amidst some forced and/or over-the-top visuals.

But on the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour, U2 seems to really get it right, using cutting edge visuals to augment and enhance the themes of the new album and spotlight the band's rich history--which includes regularly redefining what a rock concert can be--but knowing that at the end of the night, it's the songs that will connect far more emotionally than the animated visuals, no matter how brilliant and original.

Sure, sometimes what U2 does works better than others, and Bono--who glibly(?) referenced himself here as a megalomaniac--has made me cringe at times with his supersized ambitions.

But the fact that they could have sold the same number of tickets with nothing but a barren stage, and saved themselves loads of money, effort and occasional technological headaches, makes me admire more than ever that U2 has never been a band content to do what is easy and comfortable.

Or afraid to attempt the audacious. 

Even when they wind up getting ridiculed for it.

And that, like their current tour, is really damn cool.

I can't wait for Sunday night.

Here's a clip from June 24 posted to YouTube by atu2, that shows the ingenious way the video screen was used for "Invisible":


Thursday, June 25, 2015

Old, Milwaukee?: The Rolling Stones Deliver Satisfaction on 'Zip Code' Tour -- Milwaukee Concert Review

Concert Review

The Rolling Stones
w/ opening act Buddy Guy
Marcus Amphitheatre, Milwaukee
June 23, 2015

I first saw the Rolling Stones live in September 1989, when I was 20 and Mick Jagger was 46.

This was some 25 years after the Stones first garnered attention in America as part of the British Invasion.

Although quite legendary, they were regarded as an "old" band and I remember workplace discussion the next day among others who had seen them centered around how amazing it was that Jagger could still run around the stage with such boundless energy for a guy "his age."

Now it is 26 years later; I'm 46 and Mick is a month from turning 72. In far better shape than I can ever hope to be, he continues to prance around like a hyperactive teenager as the Stones rocked Milwaukee on the eve of Summerfest.

Of course, Jagger--with his voice sounding better than it had 20 years ago--isn't the only Rolling Stone defying the ravages of time, seemingly mosslessly.

At 74, drummer Charlie Watts remains as solid as an immovable boulder, while "new Stone" Ronnie Wood--who joined the band in 1975--is now 68.

And both a poster child and punchline for debaucherous indestructibility, Keith Richards seems genuinely happy and healthy as he holds down the rhythm with Wood, Watts and longtime touring  bassist Darryl Jones, accompanied by keyboardist Chuck Leavell. (It was sad to note the absence of erstwhile saxophonist Bobby Keys, who passed away last December.)

Taking centerstage for his two-song vocal turn that has been de rigueur at every Stones show since at least 1989, Keef glibly noted:

"It's good to be here. It's good to anywhere."

He then blazed through searing renditions of "Before They Make Me Run" and "Happy," reminding that he sang lead on some first-rate material. It was also fun to see Wood play slide guitar on the latter song.

Sounding terrific from the get-go on a picture perfect night, the Stones are relative youngsters next to their opening act, the legendary Buddy Guy.

Guy's scintillating guitar leads sounded as good as ever as he and his band powered through songs such as "Damn Right I've Got the Blues," "Slippin' In" and "Made in Chicago" to an appreciative crowd.

His was an excellent 45-minute set, with no time for long monologues that consume a good portion of his shows at Buddy Guy's Legends in Chicago.

When he played a fairly recent song called "74 Years Young," he admitted--as I suspected--that he is actually now 78, the song dating back four years.

Later, he joined the Stones for Muddy Waters' "Champagne and Reefer," a highlight of a show that had many.

Taking the stage around 9:15pm, the Stones launched into the perfect opener, "Jumpin' Jack Flash," followed by "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)."

Then came "Tumbling Dice" and a relatively new song, "Doom and Gloom," before the Stones harkened back to Sticky Fingers, which has just been elaborately reissued and--given the Andy Warhol album art, complete with workable zipper--is the basis for this 15-show outing being dubbed the Zip Code tour.

Though they would play "Brown Sugar" to close out the main set, the Stones' eschewed "Wild Horses" to mine the 1971 album more deeply with "Can't You Hear Me Knocking"--with new saxophonist Karl Denson dazzling on the parts long-played by Keys--and "Moonlight Mile."

Both these songs sounded great, followed by the duet with Guy--see the Rolling Stones' full Milwaukee setlist on  Setlist.fm--but the combination of somewhat esoteric material and imperfect personal comfort made me wonder if this wasn't a bit lesser of a Stones experience than my last one, in May 2013 at Chicago's United Center.

Though my reserved bleacher seat offered pretty good sightlines and proximity for far cheaper than pavilion seats, the "bum space" allotted for people my size and considerably larger was, let's just say, tight.

This wasn't a huge problem as I stood most of the show--providing its own discomfort, especially after having walked to and through a fine exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum that I'll write about separately--but a woman next to me kept arguing vociferously with one behind her about personal space issues.

And a bit offputtingly, the guy to the right of me sat motionless throughout the entire show.

As this was by far the smallest capacity venue of a tour that is otherwise playing football and baseball stadiums, the Stones themselves seemed a bit cramped, as their video boards and Mick's catwalk were downsized to suit the covered pavilion setting (on the Summerfest grounds).

Even so, there was no doubt in my mind at any point that this was a @@@@@ show; the Stones just sounded that good.

But a blitz of "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)--which won an internet request poll; I voted for "Rocks Off"--"Honky Tonk Women," the Keith duo, "Midnight Rambler," "Miss You," a blistering "Gimme Shelter," "Start Me Up," "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Brown Sugar" left no doubt.

For the encore of "You Can't Always Get What You Want," the Stones welcomed the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee concert chorale on a night where Mick had duly dropped references to Cheeseheads, bratwurst, Miller Lite, Bears vs. Packers, the sausage race and one of "Milwaukee's favorite sons," Liberace.

So as the show ended with "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"--recorded in Chicago 50 years ago--I indeed was fully satisfied, even in not getting home until 2:30am.

Though I had done so ten times before and will at least once more, I had seen "The World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band" still--rather astonishingly--damn close to the height of their powers.

I've been to Summerfest even more often, and though this may well have been the costliest, most-hyped show ever at the "Big Gig," the old Stones undoubtedly delivered one of Milwaukee's Finest.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

'A Work of Art' Paints Picture of War, Death and a Sister's Anguish a Bit Too Abstractly -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Work of Art
a world premiere play by Elaine Romero
directed by Henry Godinez
Russ Tutterow Theatre, Chicago Dramatists
Thru July 19

There certainly is something quite compelling at the heart of Elaine Romero's A Work of Art, world premiering at Chicago Dramatists after years of development there and initially at Goodman Theatre, which serves as an associate producer.

Exploring the devastating emotional toll on a woman who lost her brother in Vietnam, leaving her struggling to develop and maintain substantive relationships--romantic and otherwise--a decade hence, has an innate power and poignancy, not to mention an all-too-everlasting relevancy.

Jennifer Coombs--stellar here as she was earlier this year in Goodman's Rapture, Blister, Burn--stars as Sabrina, whose difficulties coping in the present tense (circa 1978) are most acutely and effectively felt in scenes with a colleague/suitor named Emiliano, whose empathetic yet resolute pursuit is adroitly embodied by Mario Moreno.

Sabrina and Emiliano's friendship and evolving-though-halting relationship, as she acutely misses and is haunted by memories of brother Kirk (Vic Kuligoski), theoretically offers enough dramatic enticement to drive an emotionally complex character study, but the storytelling feels too diffuse as the bulk of stage time is focused elsewhere.

Photo credit on all: John Sisson Photography
While appreciating Romero's rejoinder within the play itself that "linear thinking is for the unimaginative," Sabrina's interactions mixing real-time, hallucinations, memories and flashbacks--not only with Kirk but with their stepmother Carmen (Charin Alvarez), her best friend/his domestic lover and his Vietnamese wife (both played by Stephenie Soohyun Park), as well as real or imagined children, possible Viet Cong attackers and a libidinous hitchhiker--muddles both the narrative's momentum and emotional heft.

And though Regina Garcia's undefined set design--presumably born in part from spatial and budgetary considerations--well-serves the largely ethereal drama under the direction of Goodman Artistic Associate Henry Godinez, it didn't allay my confusion or abet the play's inability to really grab me from the get-go.

I have vast appreciation for the Chicago Dramatists' efforts in developing playwrights and other theatrical talents, loved their last production of Rohina Malik's The Mecca Tales, share the CD community's sorrow over the recent passing of longtime Artistic Director Russ Tutterow--for whom the training facility's theater is now named--and have estimable regard for the effort it took just for Romero's structurally ambitious play to reach a presentable form.

As someone who doubts I would demonstrate much aptitude in even the most introductory of Chicago Dramatists' playwriting classes, it is certainly with several grains of salt that Romero, Godinez or anyone else should take my suggestion that A Work of Art just has too much going on to be as cohesive, cogent and compelling as I wanted it to be.

I sense there is something really powerful to be explored, if perhaps a bit more simply and conventionally, and even the play's title, A Work of Art, may be unnecessarily obtuse versus one that more directly references Vietnam, war, the loss of a sibling, etc.

Similarly, while I enjoyed the use of Rolling Stones and Doors songs emblematic of the Vietnam era, I can't deny they drew my mind to Apocalypse Now and other examinations of a controversial war, rather than earmarking a new work with the potential to survey the casualties and repercussions with a fresh voice.

As it stands, this world premiere production frames some powerful concerns, and the performances--especially by Coombs and Moreno--are strong enough to merit attention.

But my impression is that this is A Work of Art that could benefit from more acute realism and less abstract expressionism in painting an engagingly empathetic picture of loss, longing, life and love.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

That's Entertainment, If Not Jam-Packed: Paul Weller Focuses Both Admirably and Obstinately on the Here and Now -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Paul Weller 
w/ opening act Hannah Cohen
The Vic Theatre
June 17, 2015

I mean what I'm about to say--about a show I liked much more than not--respectfully, appreciatively, judiciously and even constructively, rather than merely as a kvetch whining about wanting to hear "the old songs."

Now 57, Paul Weller has been writing, singing and recording terrific tunes since his teens, when he formed The Jam, who AllMusic.com describes as "the most popular band to emerge from the initial wave of British punk rock in 1977."

In other words, at their peak, in the UK, the Jam were bigger than the Sex Pistols, Clash, Police or anyone else on the nascent punk/new wave scene, even though they never made much of a dent in America and I didn't learn of--and come to love--them until years after their 1982 breakup.

At the peak of their popularity, when he was just 24, Weller pulled the plug on the Jam--reportedly much to the shock and chagrin of bandmates Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler--because he wanted to move in new musical directions he didn't believe the trio could embrace.

He then formed the Style Council, had some more hits and a bit more notice in the U.S., and has enjoyed a rather prolific solo career since 1990.

Though he certainly could make a mint from just a few UK festival shows if he were ever inclined to reunite the Jam, in every interview I've read or seen, Weller has steadfastly, often acerbically, scoffed at the notion of reprising his past.

What makes Weller's insistence on always moving forward all the more appreciable is that he continues to prolifically create stellar music.

That 2015's strong Saturns Pattern continues an estimable string of good-to-great solo albums every 2-or-3 years since 1992 is all the more impressive for the new sonic directions Weller charts, reiterating the artistic exploration he brings to each release.

So although I would unabashedly revel in a Jam reunion, and was thrilled a few weeks ago just by a random opening act covering their first single, "In the City," I assure you I didn't buy tickets back in February expecting--or even overly desiring--Paul Weller's concert Wednesday at the Vic to be laden with Jam gems.

Having seen him in 2003, 2005, 2008 and last year at Riot Fest, I knew sprinklings of his pre-solo past were sparse, but had heard him do such great Jam songs as "That's Entertainment," "The Eton Rifles," "In the Crowd," "Start" and "Town Called Malice."

Weller's 45-minute set at Riot Fest last September was all-too-brief, but remarkable for how well eight solo tunes and the Style Council's "My Ever Changing Moods" sounded before the set ended with the last two songs cited just above.

And while I won't apologize for loving his Jam material by-and-large more than the solo stuff--Weller is a prime example of my Rock 'n Roll Pauls pseudo thesis--my regard for his latter day artistry is such that despite learning via recent, largely static setlists that I would be apt to hear just one Jam song on Wednesday, I was still leaning toward attending even if it meant missing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. (See my last post about the Blackhawks' victory in 6 games.)

I'm glad I wasn't forced to make that choice, and was thrilled to get to the Vic early enough to get comfortable, close-up balcony seats with my friend Dave (pinch-hitting for my under-the-weather friend Paolo).

Unlike Dave, I knew several of Weller's past solo albums and hits--in the UK, anyway--and had Spotifamiliarized myself pretty thoroughly with Saturns Pattern and most other recently setlisted songs.

Yet Dave concurred that the ever-dapper singer/songwriter/guitarist/pianist and his five backing musicians sounded excellent from the get-go, even with 8 of the first 11 songs being from the new album or 2012's Sonik Kicks, along with an unfamiliar one called "The Olde Original," whose origins I couldn't ascertain.

"White Sky," "Long Time," "Going My Way" and "The Attic" sounded especially superb among the swath of recent material, and I loved hearing the wonderfully Jamish "Come On/Let's Go" and "From the Floorboards Up" from  2005's As Is Now.

Weller also reached back into the '90s rather powerfully for "Into Tomorrow," "Friday Street," "The Changingman," the great piano-based love song, "You Do Something to Me" and a gentler-than-the-original take on "Out of the Sinking."

So to be clear, nothing I heard on Wednesday night sounded subpar, and much was terrific.

Augmented by an opening set by the striking Hannah Cohen, whose somewhat hushed songs reminded of Lana Del Rey, Paul Weller delivered a solid, often impressive 100-minute performance that Dave also earmarked as meriting @@@@ (out of 5).

And believe me, though I've now heard him do it several times, and had noted it as a regular show closer on this brief American tour, I was ecstatic when--following a prolonged second encore break--Weller and his band came back to jam on "Town Called Malice." (See video below)

So I really don't mean to sound like a baby when I bemoan the fact that those of us who revere the Jam--or the Style Council for that matter, though I don't nearly as much--weren't thrown a few more crumbs.

But with redundant appreciation for the creative force Paul Weller remains today, I don't think I'm the only one who ponied up $50 expecting a few more blasts from his most glorious past. And though I didn't know his planned playlist until after I got my ticket--but still would have bought one if I did--my point isn't simply to bitch about what I wanted to hear but didn't.

As it was, the concert was one I enjoyed and appreciated, but with a few more Jam classics--especially ones he never seems to touch, like "Going Underground," "To Be Someone," "It's Too Bad," "Pretty Green," etc.--I likely would have been exhilarated.

With a relatively middling tune like "Brand New Toy"--which Weller mentioned he had recorded as a Record Store Day single a few years back--and a few other forgettable mid-tempo numbers played, but "That's Entertainment," "When You're Young" or even the Jam's cover of the Kinks' "David Watts" eschewed, the show felt a bit boilerplate and Weller stubbornly miserly.

Certainly, it's his right to play what he wants, and I genuinely like his ongoing oeuvre enough not to need an against-his-nature all out nostalgia fest.

But not only would the concert have been considerably better, IMHO, for balancing the best of Paul Weller, past and present--and not only does he profit from and occasionally otherwise promote continual Jam compilation releases--for all that one may admire his ever-ambitious, contemporary artistic integrity, the truth is that back catalog excursions from solo acts associated with great bands of yore are pretty much par for the course.

And dare I say, without putting too mercenary a spin on it, this only seems fair.

David Byrne, Paul Simon, Sting, Ray Davies, Lindsey Buckingham, Slash, Johnny Marr, Paul Westerberg, Bob Mould, Paul McCartney, Robert Plant, John Fogerty, Noel Gallagher, Steve Winwood, Roger McGuinn and Brian Wilson are all artists I've seen touring on substantive, often stellar solo albums/catalogs and/or with new collaborators.

Yet understanding that many fans have come to see them in part due to the bands with whom they made their first-known and typically most cherished music, all have given the people what they want to a much greater extent than Weller--even on past tours, but especially now.

And the concerts have invariably been better--or at least more personally satisfying--for it. (Heck, I've even thought Peter Gabriel would do well to trot out an old Genesis gem, not just to stun people, but to remind of the breadth of his brilliance.)

So take this for what it's worth, and what I mean it to be:

Admiration and applause for a treasured artist and enjoyable, entertaining concert, with honest, heartfelt, holistic--and sure, perhaps selfish--wishes that it would've been just a bit more of a Jam-packed affair.


"Town Called Malice":

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Our Cup Runneth Over, Again: A Self-Centered Appreciation of the Chicago Blackhawks

Congratulations to the Chicago Blackhawks.

And thank you.

Not just for beating the Tampa Bay Lightning to win the 2015 Stanley Cup, or for giving Chicago its third hockey championship in six seasons.

Certainly, I applaud, admire and appreciate the Hawks' players, coaches and front office for an accomplishment Deadspin notes is ever more amazing in the days of the NHL salary cap.

That the team has been able to retain 7 key players from the 2010 Cup champions--Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson--and augment them with a mostly revolving cast of players that helped to deliver two more titles is far more impressive than it may initially seem.

And now, at least one of the magnificent "Hat Trick Seven"--which doesn't include role player Bryan Bickell or star goalie Corey Crawford, who played just 1 game with the team in 2009-10--will supposedly be gone before next season, possibly along with other fan favorites. 

So I tip my own hat to the new, old and future constitution of a roster that has given Chicago sports bragging rights in a way not seen since the Michael Jordan Bulls (with due respect to the 2005 White Sox).

While also saying thank you to the Blackhawks for saving me from one moral dilemma and exonerating me from another.

See, I have tickets to a concert on Wednesday night--same as the potential Game 7--by Paul Weller, an artist I've long enjoyed and who doesn't tour America all that often.

I'm honestly not sure what I would have decided up against it on Wednesday--and imagine many of the 35,000 Chicagoans with Mumford & Sons tickets may have faced a similar dilemma--but appreciate the Hawks taking the quandary off my hands.

Especially as I theoretically would have chosen the concert.

After having missed the entire 2013 Stanley Cup Finals due to a trip to Europe.

At this point, I will defer to anyone who claims to be a more avid Blackhawks fan than me, and won't even deny being a bit of a bandwagon jumper. Still, I consider myself a pretty fervent follower rather than someone who only kind of cares.

I never played hockey, and as a fan it was definitely 4th among the major sports for me growing up. Unlike the Bulls, I never attended any Hawks games in the old Chicago Stadium.

Yet I'll never forget being in the 4th row of the United Center for a 1995 Conference Finals game against the Red Wings--the Hawks lost in double overtime--and averaged 2 regular season home games annually during the 1999-2008 span when the team generally sucked.

So I cared enough about the Blackhawks to get myself a ticket to their first playoff game in 2009--just their second postseason appearance in 11 years--and will never forget not seeing Martin Havlat's game-winner just seconds into overtime due to a woman next to me fiddling about in handing me back my binoculars.

And I was lucky enough to buy--through Ticketmaster for $105 + fees--a ticket to Game 1 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals, in which the Hawks beat the Flyers 6-5 en route to a 4 games to 2 win.

Face value for the same seat in 2015 was $335, so I've been priced out of the Finals, but I have a nice setup at home that allows me to watch television projected across the entirety of a living room wall. During this run, my mom and sister Allison have joined me for most games, with other friends for a few, for action truly larger than life.

While I've admittedly not watched all that many regular season games, I'd estimate having seen every Blackhawks playoff game of the 7-years-running "Toews-Kane-Q Era" not precluded by a pre-existing conflict.

Such as going to Europe in 2013, centered around seeing Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band at Wembley Stadium in London on June 15--while also getting to Krakow, Vienna, Budapest and Paris--so rescheduling the trip wasn't really an option I ever considered.

I was back in London on June 24, 2013, and upon checking out of my hotel in the wee hours of the next morning to head home, checked the Chicago Tribune website to learn of the Hawks' miraculous 2-goals-in-17-seconds Game 6 Cup-clinching win, which probably happened less than an hour earlier.

On one hand, I obviously wished I could have seen this--and technically, had I searched for the right London pub and stayed up all night, possibly could have--but in addition to being thrilled for the Blackhawks rather than wishing for a watchable Game 7, I felt quite content with the choice I had made.

Yet something--relatively minor, but undeniably present--stuck in my craw about that, convinced that my Hawks cred was forever tarnished.

So, while delighted to take in the entire Blackhawks playoff run of 2015--with a Game 4 of the Finals conflict divinely intervened on my behalf when Robert Plant got laryngitis and postponed his June 10 concert--I was acutely aware that my Paul Weller ticket (purchased long before the Finals schedule was determined, let alone the Hawks qualifying) fell on June 17, as would (if necessary) Game 7.

Forget that I've seen Weller four times, including just last September at Riot Fest, and that his setlists now seemingly only include one song--at best--from The Jam, his great band of yore that I truly love, more than his stellar solo oeuvre.

He's a cherished favorite, I have tickets with a friend and I would have rued missing the show.

So I'm not sure I would have.

Though as much as hating myself for missing the game, the thought of being at Belmont & Sheffield--location of the Vic Theatre--after a Hawks victory may have kept me home.

But now I don't have to decide.

So as much as I'm happy that the Hawks came through--for themselves, for Chicago, for fans everywhere and for history--I appreciate them coming through for me.

And if you think about it, the Blackhawks ability to "come through" when things looked iffy is the most astonishing aspect of their phenomenal accomplishment.

History will forever note the 3 Cups in 6 years and--with hopes for more to come--reference this Hawks era as a dynasty.

Yet as the fans can tell you, their dominance hasn't always been so obvious from game to game or series to series.

Dating back to 2009, the Hawks have found themselves trailing playoff series 2 games to 1 nine times--including the 2015 Finals--and have now won six of those series, all in 6 games. That's pretty amazing.

En route to the 2013 Cup, they were down 3-1 in a series against the Red Wings before winning 3 straight. And in that Finals against the Boston Bruins--matching this year's sequence--they won Game 1, then lost the next 2 before winning the following 3, the last game in about the most dramatic comeback imaginable. (Yes, I've long since seen it on YouTube.)

So as much as it might seem the Blackhawks have the best players, the best collection of great, cohesive players and the best coach--plus, of course, the best fans--their Hat Trick sure hasn't come easy.

Just a few days ago, when the Blackhawks trailed the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1, I told a friend who inquired about their chances that their recent history suggests that anything is possible--and that their players are steadfastly, even heroically, resilient--but that the Lightning had just looked better through 3 games.

And here I am toasting their 3rd title in 6 seasons.


And after seeing Paul Weller on Wednesday night, I think I might go to the Blackhawks parade and rally on Thursday, which I didn't do in 2010 or 2013.

Though I'm certainly not oblivious to the Hawks' vast support across Chicago, among fans of all ages, races (see this video) and demographics, I've always been a bit leery of ascribing too much communal importance to a sports team's success.

I think far too much was made of how the New Orleans Saints revitalized that city with their 2009 Super Bowl win.

One can tour large parts of New Orleans today, 10 years after Hurricane Katrina and its bungled aftermath, and see the city still decimated, with numerous residents remaining displaced if not devastated, and know the Saints didn't really change reality.

Neither will the Blackhawks in Chicago, where virtually ever day sees terrible news of killings in the streets.

Here in the suburbs, I don't have too many personal complaints, beyond not being able to attain steady employment, but the past 10 days have been rather grim, as I learned of one friend taking her life, another being in the hospital following a heart attack, a third struggling to regain footing through some tough times and a fourth who learned a close relative had cancer, then almost immediately that another had died suddenly.

This, unfortunately, helps me keep the Blackhawks victory in perspective.

I'm absolutely delighted for what I witnessed--and though they'll never let me hear the end of it, glad I shared it with Mom and Allison--but cognizant of sports for what it is.

A diversion.

And if I had to divert from watching Game 7 to attend the Paul Weller concert, I don't think I would have despised or deplored myself too much for it.

But I'm glad I don't have to find out.

As Weller sang years ago with the Jam: 

"I could go on for hours and I probably will 

But I'd sooner put some joy back in this town called Malice

Ooh, yeah"

So once again, thanks Hawks.