Monday, August 31, 2015

Sonic (Highways) Blast: With Local Influences in Tow, Foo Fighters Fervently Rock Wrigley -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Foo Fighters
w/ opening acts Cheap Trick,
Naked Raygun and Urge Overkill
Wrigley Field, Chicago
August 29, 2015
(for Foo Fighters and full show)

With one of my favorite bands of all-time playing for 2-1/2 hours in my favorite place on Earth, preceded by a classic band I like even more and two other storied local acts, a @@@@@ concert review seems almost automatic.

And even with hyperkinetic Foo king Dave Grohl relegated to sitting on a throne of his own design (see pictures below) after breaking his right leg falling off a stage earlier this summer, the Foo Fighters successfully translated the combination of fun, power and ferocity that has long made them one of my favorite live acts--I first saw them at the Riv in 1997 and now 12 times since--to a completely full Wrigley Field, which Grohl noted as the first stadium they sold out in America.

Having launched their Sonic Highways HBO series--the name doubling as the title of the band's latest album--last October with an intimate gig at the Cubby Bear bar across the street, forever cherished by Grohl as the place where he saw his first rock concert, at age 13, with his Evanston-based cousin Tracy and by nascent Chicago punk rockers Naked Raygun, the Wrigley show was clearly a special one for the Foos.

And me.

I didn't particularly rue not getting to go to the Cubby Bear show, but the concert at Wrigley Field--home of my beloved Cubs and, over the past decade or so, my favorite live music venue--sold out nearly as fast and tickets remained rather exorbitant on the secondary (e.g. StubHub) market.

So I was thrilled to be able to score a single, face value, really good upper deck seat when a small allotment of extra tickets were put onsale just a few weeks ago.

Keeping with Sonic Highways' theme of spotlighting bands that inspired Grohl & co. in 8 cities across America, the outdoor extravaganza featured three opening acts with deep Chicago ties: Urge Overkill, Grohl's treasured Naked Raygun and Cheap Trick, who technically hail from Rockford.

Taking advantage of an atypically unmobbed souvenir stand in the upper deck to buy an exclusive Foo Fighters & Guests @ Wrigley Field t-shirt--for $15 less that the standard concert t-shirt rate, yet another reason to love Dave Grohl--I took my seat just as Urge Overkill took the stage at 5:30pm, with a light rain throughout the night never more than a minor nuisance.

Launching into "Positive Bleeding" from their great 1993 album, Saturation, UO played a brief but terrific set with original members and co-vocalists Nash Kato and Eddie Roeser sounding swell years after splintering and more recently reuniting.

Even with a 2011 album, I hadn't noticed Urge since their cover of Neil Diamond's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" was featured in Pulp Fiction, so it was great to hear that one and two other Saturation gems ("Back On Me," "Sister Havana") among their seven song selection.

Next up was Naked Raygun, a band I've long heard of thanks to their great name and Grohl's reminisces perhaps going back to his days as the drummer in Nirvana, but whose material I've never really known. Had I, I may have been effusively rocking out at the front of the upper deck like a nearby fan, but as it was I appreciated what I heard, even without a direct connection or being able to name the songs (though you can see the setlist here)

Although I would consider myself a rather serious, longstanding Cheap Trick fan--Cheap Trick at Budokan being the first record I ever bought, in 1979--they prompted "WTF?!" marvel (in both a confused and admiring way) by beginning their highest profile Chicago set in ages with 3 songs I didn't recognize, one I barely did ("Stiff Competition") and a Velvet Underground cover ("I'm Waiting for the Man") that was sung by bassist Tom Petersson.

Lead vocalist Robin Zander resumed his duties as he, guitarist Rick Nielsen, Petersson and Nielsen's son Dax--now playing drums in place of Bun E. Carlos--placated the crowd, or at least me, with stellar runs through "I Want You to Want Me," "Dream Police" and "Surrender," followed by the lengthy "Gonna Raise Hell," during which Zander dared to tred down the Foos' catwalk.

All of this made for a rather tasty appetizer before the main course, and a comfortable seat allowed me to savor the sonic blasts much more than I would have in a festival setting.

With the stage still shrouded by a FF curtain, Grohl's delirious screams foretold a wild night as the Foo Fighters began their set with "Everlong," a tune long used to close concerts (and, recently, David Letterman's late-night run). From the same 1997 album came another favorite, "Monkey Wrench," followed by a third pre-2000 gem, "Learn to Fly."

It was a rather tremendous way to open a concert, with the flip side being that little of the subsequent material outshone the opening salvo, even with abundant highlights.

As on the Sonic Highways album and TV episode, Rick Nielsen accompanied the band on "Something From Nothing," the best cut from a so-so record that lent just two other tracks to the setlist. (See the Foo Fighters' full Wrigley Field Chicago setlist on

Four songs from 2011's Wasting Light--most demonstrably "Walk" and "Arlandria"--revealed that to be a much stronger effort than the current album, and while Grohl has penned a good sprinkling of 21st century songs (such as "The Pretender," "Times Like These," "All My Life" and "Best of You") that enable the Foo Fighters to remain one of the few contemporary bands capable of rocking a stadium in 2015, the band's relative lack of songwriting progression or variance was reiterated.

I said much the same thing last time I saw & reviewed the Foos (in 2011), suggesting that "Grohl could stand to dig quite a bit deeper as a composer and lyricist. But perhaps to get closer to Nirvana, he'd have to go to places in his psyche he'd rather not mine or reveal."

Thus, while it was a wonderful evening and in most aspects a terrific headlining performance, for me it didn't match the emotional resonance I've felt in seeing U2, Pearl Jam and Arcade Fire over the past year, or Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney and Pearl Jam in the same revered (and friendly) confines.

But that's rather heady comparison, so giving the show @@@@@ isn't overdoing it even with some shortcomings revealed or rehashed.

And though the Foos' catalog hasn't become considerably more hallowed since their days playing the Metro, Riviera and Aragon, it was undoubtedly an emotional and nostalgic night for Grohl.

Noting early on that "if it wasn't for your fucking city I wouldn't be here right now," Grohl later brought not only his cousin Tracy to their stage, but his mom Virginia (which also happens to be his home state) as it was both their birthdays--and the adoring crowd properly serenaded.

Though only drummer Taylor Hawkins complements Grohl as a focal point (especially from the top of a baseball stadium), the fondness the singer/guitarist has for those who have long fought Foo with him--bassist Nate Mendel, guitarists Pat Smear and Chris Shiflett, keyboardist Rami Jaffe and Hawkins--was readily apparent. While a bit hackneyed, it was fun to hear snippets of multiple Van Halen songs, Yes' "Roundabout" and Alice Cooper's "School's Out" during the band introductions.

It seemed a bit askew when, at about the show's 2-hour mark, the loquacious Grohl received the crowd's fervent blessing to ditch the "stadium rock show" for "keg party" vamping, only to abruptly revert to the former after a run through the Rolling Stones' "Miss You."

I also thought Grohl missed the perfect chance to jam with several members of the opening acts or even welcome other Chicago legends like Buddy Guy or Steve Albini, who both were featured in Sonic Highways. (Albini produced Nirvana's In Utero, was in Big Black with Naked Raygun members and recorded "Something From Nothing" in his Chicago studio.)

And while I was glad to hear "This Is a Call," the first song on the Foo Fighters' 1995 debut--derived from demos Grohl had recorded during downtime with Nirvana--I wish it was followed as on the album by "I'll Stick Around," long missing from setlists despite being one the band's best songs.

Regardless, I appreciated Dave Grohl graciously thanking those who have stuck around in supporting the Foo Fighters over a rather remarkable 20 years--he also mentioned Nirvana having played the nearby Metro and, as attended by yours truly, the Aragon--and I couldn't help but be a bit verclempt myself when he got choked up in introducing show-closer, "Best of You."

Though Grohl has rarely traipsed in the political and social onstage commentary espoused by his contemporary Eddie Vedder--preferring to champion the power of rock 'n roll itself--there was a clearly identifiable subtext to his explanation about why he didn't let a broken leg abort the current tour:

"I actually like my job."

And I actually loved the job Grohl and his band did on Saturday night in the old ballpark.

I would prefer for them to write some killer new songs, perhaps with a deeper sense of distinction and self, but I nonetheless look forward to seeing how good the Foo Fighters can be yet again.

Especially when Dave is back on his feet.

To paraphrase the next band I'll see at Wrigley Field, "For those about to rock--intensely, despite injury--we salute Foo."

Friday, August 28, 2015

Let's Rocket!: 'October Sky' Musical Mines Familiar Territory Rather Tunefully -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

October Sky
a World Premiere musical
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru October 11

In a close-knit coal mining community, where young men follow in their fathers' footsteps for generations, a boy harbors interests and talents well-beyond the norm in a warmhearted musical based on a somewhat cultish but beloved movie from around the turn of the century.

With the mine in decline and union battles brewing, the townsfolk are initially quite dismissive and derisive about the boy's actions and aspirations--most vehemently his proud but closed-minded father, himself a mining lifer.

But with support from an empathetic teacher, who once held divergent ambitions of her own, the enterprising youth is encouraged to follow his heart and pursue his passions.

No, I am not describing Billy Elliot.

Or I kinda am, but also the current world premiere musical October Sky, whose opening night I attended on Wednesday at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.

Although the show's creators--book writer (and Marriott Lead Artistic Director) Aaron Thielen, composer/lyricist Michael Mahler and director Rachel Rockwell--are to be commended for creating an engaging and entertaining new musical, they clearly must be aware that similar plotlines have already been musically mined.

In addition to Billy Elliot--the 2000-movie turned 2005-musical that the 1999-movie turned 2015-musical seems to reference in a lyric citing "every boy who couldn't learn to dance"--The Full Monty, Kinky Boots and The Last Ship are just a few fairly recent stage musicals about people going against the grain in gritty industrial towns, usually in trying to get out of them.

Though Mahler's strong batch of tunes stand on their own and give October Sky artistic validity because of it, the show begins with a song of miner solidarity--"Marching Into Hell"--that clearly reminds of Billy Elliot's opening "The Stars Look Down" (and also Les Misérables' "Work Song").

As worthwhile entertainment, especially laudable for Marriott Theatre's willingness to create something new and inherently risky, the genial October Sky isn't greatly undermined by similarities to Billy Elliot or other shows, even if it isn't quite as good as Billy or the cream of the Broadway classics long enjoyed by the country's largest subscription base.

But with Broadway ambitions innately iffy given subject matter that skews young, male and rural, it seems interesting that from a vast list of Universal Pictures movies to potentially develop into a musical--as presented by Christopher Herzberger, a Chicagoland actor turned Exectuive of Live Theatricals at Universal--artistic director Thielen would, even as an avowed fan of the film, gravitate to a project certain to invite inevitable comparisons. 

I've never seen the movie, nor even recall having heard of it, and was unfamiliar with Rocket Boys, Hiram H. Hickam, Jr.'s 1998 memoir on which it was based.

In creating the movie, Universal opted for the anagram October Sky to widen appeal, feeling that women over 30 would be resistant to the book's title.

But according to Wikipedia, Rocket Boys "is one of the most often picked community/library reads in the United States," so perhaps the original title would better sell this show to a young, male, non-traditional theater-going audience that might well enjoy it, perhaps via many subsequent regional productions if not ever on the Great White Way.

Because for all the stellar aspects of the new musical, it is a rather straightforward tale of geeky high school dreamers told with a bit too much "golly-gee" earnestness for me to perceive it doing boffo business on Broadway, where an ironic edge or comedic causticness seems largely requisite of late (along with abundant tourist appeal).

Aside from ready comparisons or NYC potential, the lack of any edginess--even in Mahler's otherwise strong score and often witty lyrics--stands as one aspect of October Sky that renders it, at this point, more an excellent effort than a truly superlative musical.

Based on Hickam's true life account, October Sky centers around teenaged Homer (well-played and sung by Nate Lewellyn in originating the musical role) and three of his friends--Roy Lee (Patrick Rooney), O'Dell (Ben Barker) and Quentin (Alex Weisman)--as they attempt to build a small-but-launchable rocket in the wake of the Soviets sending Sputnik into space in 1957.

Homer's father, named John here for clarity (rather than the actual Homer Sr.) and played by David Hess, is the manager of the mine in Coalwood, West Virginia. Even before Homer becomes a space case, John dotes far more on older son Jim (Liam Quealy), who is the town's football star.

Much more in tune with Homer, who voices his aspirations through one of Mahler's best songs--"Look to the Stars"--are the two women in his life, his mom Elsie and a teacher named Miss Riley, warmly and wonderfully embodied by local stage stalwarts, Susan Moniz and Johanna McKenzie Miller, respectively.

Two Act I songs Mahler has penned for Elsie, "Solid Ground" and "The Man I Met" illustrate the breadth of his skills--and Moniz' vocal gifts--while showing October Sky to already be a musical with a rather solid foundation.

Even if you haven't read the book, seen the movie or know Hickam's basic biography in becoming an aerospace engineer, it's fairly easy to guess where the narrative is going to go. So it's much to the credit of Mahler, Thielen, Rockwell, the cast and a whole bunch of quality songs that October Sky earned a standing ovation on opening night.

If not a masterpiece, it is definitely a likable show and much like 2012's Hero, likewise an original creation by Thielen and Mahler, I greatly appreciated seeing it among Marriott's more tried-and-true material. In fact, I acutely enjoyed October Sky more than some supposed classics and many higher profile pre-Broadway musicals that have had downtown Chicago tryouts.

So especially for those who, like me, get a particular kick out of seeing World Premieres, I recommend you get to the in-the-round Marriott Theatre for October Sky before October 11 comes around.

In addition to those already noted, first-rate songs include "Never Getting Out Alive," "If We Get It Right," first act closer "Hey Did You Hear" and as the most ebullient number of a musical largely devoid of dancing, "Moonshine," rendered as an Appalachian jig with fine singing by James Earl Jones II.

In press for October Sky, both Mahler and Thielen have noted that part of the project's appeal is the timeframe and setting, which allows early rock 'n roll and Appalachian folk sounds to infuse the score.

And while Mahler's compositions are stylistically diverse, some of the show's missing "edge" could be sharpened by more obvious musical allusions to Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and other rock 'n roll pioneers who, not so unlike Homer and friends, challenged the status quo and parental tolerance in the late 1950s.

Though I realize the narrative must largely hue to the movie and Hickam's accounts, it feels like the storyline could benefit from some shrewd subplots to accompany the skyward aims of Homer & pals, the backing of his beloved teacher and the ongoing miner quarrels. (It was fun to see longtime favorite Terry Hamilton as the union head, and I should also note Derek Hasenstab as a mine machinist who aids Homer in building rockets.)

In a show predominantly about teenagers, there is a noticeable dearth of romantic interaction (or young women with much prominence) and while I don't suggest such themes should be shoehorned in cheaply, auxiliary commentary on racism, gay rights, women's rights, oppression, depression, parenting and other serious and sensitive matters is part of what made Billy Elliot, Hairspray, Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde and other screen-to-stage adaptations (and musicals not based on movies like Wicked and Spring Awakening) work so well and remain so relevant.

Yes, Homer and his friends speak and sing about being misfits and how academic achievement is largely overshadowed by athletic accomplishments in high schools, communities and even families.

So it's not that October Sky doesn't share any of the societal sensibilities and outcast pride of the aforementioned shows.

But as good as it is, the admirable new musical could be that much better if it felt a bit more intense and incisive in reaching for the sky.

Even while justifying its own existence in the miners-and-dreamers milieu, October Sky includes nothing close to the ingenuity of Billy Elliot's "Solidarity," a number that brilliantly intertwines striking miners and children in a dance class.

As such, Marriott's newest self-developed musical is--again, like Hero--an impressive yet relatively straightforward success. And there's nothing wrong, and much right, with that.

Unless it truly wants to shoot for the stars.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Stuart Davis: Modern Before His Time -- an Art Exhibition in a blog post (on a groundbreaking American painter)

Stuart Davis, Self-Portrait, 1919
If I ran the Art Institute of Chicago, or any other major art museum that I myself could easily get to, I would organize an exhibition on Stuart Davis.

Although works by the American painter, who lived from 1892-1964, adorn many of the country's, and world's, top museums, I have never seen--nor even noticed the contemporary existence of--an exhibit focused on Davis, excepting an upcoming one next year at the Whitney in New York City.

And while a good smattering of art literate friends seem to know and like Davis' oeuvre--at least the latter, more iconic examples--the artist's renown seems to lag behind American contemporaries like Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe and the abstract expressionists (Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, etc.).

One cannot find an in-print, recent book on Stuart Davis on Amazon, save for a $300 box set. (I recently bought, for $9.00, a nice catalog that accompanied a 1997-98 exhibition, which you can still find through Amazon.), my go-to art reference website, has just a small sampling (19 pieces) of Davis' voluminous output, while another thorough art website--Olga's Gallery ( none.

Even a Google search for "Stuart Davis Exhibition" reveals few retrospectives of any recency, though it does bring up a nifty PDF Catalog from an Art Institute of Chicago exhibition in 1965, just a year after the artist's death at age 71.

Stuart Davis, Self-Portrait, 1919
And Googling "Greatest American Painters" brings up an image strip of over 50 "artists frequently mentioned on the web" without including Davis.

So even though there was fairly little to be easily found on Stuart Davis online, I decided to delve a bit deeper into an artist whose works always bring a smile when I see them, as I did most recently at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, which has a piece titled New York Mural from 1932 (see images below).

Fortuitously, I was able to find the 1997-98 catalog on Amazon, and along with providing a good amount of illumination, it helped me find many Stuart Davis paintings online, made much easier once I knew the titles.

Though I've long appreciated how most of the artists we may think of as abstractionists or otherwise minimalists--Miro, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Rothko, de Kooning, etc.--painted rather wondrous realist or more traditional works before they distilled down to their famed styles (see this this post of mine on the topic), I was rather impressed by Davis' evolution.

While I love quintessential Davis--the vibrant, brightly-hued, jazz-influenced abstract paintings that seem to predate both abstract expressionism and pop art--I was tickled to note pre-1921 Davis paintings that seem to hint at what Hopper would do a bit later and Roy Lichtenstein much later.

With some help from the book and Wikipedia, here's a bit of biographical background: 

Stuart Davis was born in Philadelphia in 1892; his father was art editor of the Philadelphia Press and his mother was a sculptor. Beginning in 1909, Davis trained in New York under Robert Henri, the leader of the Ashcan School, through whom he befriended John Sloan and others.

In 1913, Davis was one of the youngest painters to exhibit in the Armory Show, where he displayed five watercolor paintings in the Ashcan school style, and was exposed to the works of Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso and many other artists.

His early works often reflected cubism and modernism while his 1920s development led to abstract still lifes, landscapes and "proto-Pop" paintings of cigarette packages.

In 1928, he visited Paris, where he painted street scenes, and in the 1930s he became increasingly politically engaged with a state goal was to "reconcile abstract art with Marxism and modern industrial society."

His most famous, jazz-influenced abstract style seems to predominantly date from the late 1930s onward, although hints of the colorful abstracts began to appear a few years earlier.

Stuart Davis, Men Without Women, mural at Radio City Music Hall
In 1932, Davis was commissioned to paint a mural for New York's Radio City Music Hall, titled Men Without Women (to his own distaste, and said to be an allusion to Hemingway that I don't get)--some surmise it helped to inspire Picasso's Guernica--and in 1945, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held a retrospective exhibition on Stuart Davis, who would remain rather active until his death from a stroke nearly 20 years later.

I admit that I haven't read all of the copious text that the book includes--and believe that Davis' paintings themselves, as I'll present chronologically below, do an ample job of pronouncing his stylistic progression--but there is a good essay by Ben Sidran called "The Jazz of Stuart Davis," which can actually be read online through the hyperlink.

Sidran notes that at age 20, Davis and a pal were checking out jazz in Newark, when the music was probably called "barrel house" or "honky tonk" and had yet to be recorded:
"What is remarkable is that, at the time, there was no jazz available on phonograph records (this was still several years off) and there was virtually no way a couple of young white boys could even know about its existence, let alone its power. But these rough bars in Newark became the crucible from which the soul of a young artist was cast. It was here in the heat of the creative moment that the real world and the world of abstraction came together for Stuart Davis."
Sidran goes on to intimate that Davis was smitten by the lack of distinction between high or low art in the protean world of jazz and believed that in art, as in jazz, "any preconceived ideas about racial, national or class superiorities could not thrive in its atmosphere."

Quoting bits and pieces from the Sidran essay:
"Stuart Davis went beyond a mere egalitarianism to see the world of black music as a kind of metaphor for the plight of the arts in America. ... Often, during key moments of his career, Davis returned to the imagery of jazz to describe his situation. ...  To Davis, jazz was a paradigm of modern creation. One could speculate that jazz might literally have acted as a catalyst for him, particularly the music of pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, his favorite musician from the late 20s until his death. Hines’ flashing, angular lines, and especially the clusters of colors and trills that he threw off so effortlessly, had their analog in the high key colors of Davis’s work.

"And Stuart Davis did, on occasion, connect his own painting directly to various jazz techniques.

"For example, of the painting Hot Still-Scape In Six Colors -- Seventh Ave. Style, [Davis] wrote that "six colors were used the instruments in a musical composition might be, where the tone-color variety results from the simultaneous juxtaposition of different instrument groups."
Stuart Davis, Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors - Seventh Avenue Style, 1940
The work shown nearby is the one about which Sidran quoted Davis, sharing that his visual composition wasn't so unlike a musical one.

What strikes me as an avid but unstudied art lover is that I can't conjure any obvious artistic antecedents that may have led Davis to creating this kind of work in 1940.

Perhaps some might see echoes of the abstract geometrical vibrancy of Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky or Joan Miro, but Davis' piece preceded citable abstract expressionist examples by Jean Dubuffet or Arshile Gorky, among others. And the Pop Art of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol was still more than 20 years away from prominence.

So while I really love Stuart Davis' art for the way it looks, even in an amateurishly academic regard, it would seem that his career achievements and innovations merit considerably more exploration in the museums and bookstores of America, and of course, across the internet.

If nothing else, it would seem a slim, user-friendly tome on Stuart Davis by Taschen would fit well into the art publisher's forte.

But it's cool that the Whitney Museum of American Art, in its fancy new New York building, will present Stuart Davis: In Full Swing for over three months next year--it'll be even cooler if I can get to it--and the exhibition looks to travel to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC from there.

It would be nice if the Art Institute would bring the exhibit to Chicago, but I realize such decisions are usually made when the exhibition is being organized, so I'm not holding my breath.

Hence, I've taken it upon myself to organize this Stuart Davis retrospective within the confines of Seth Saith.

Other than captioning the paintings with titles and dates--except for a few that eluded me--I won't provide any more elucidation that you might get in an actual exhibition, but I hope you enjoy:

Monday, August 24, 2015

Make Me Smile: Sunday in the Pavilion with Chicago -- Chicago / Ravinia Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act Isabella Nanni
Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, IL
August 23, 2015 (also played 8/22)

The band Chicago's origins--like my own--date to the late 1960s on the north side of its namesake city.

But by the time I was born at Weiss  Hospital in October 1968, the eight bandmates--six of whom met at DePaul University, with four remaining in the current lineup--had departed for Los Angeles, while still initially monikered The Big Thing.

The band would soon rechristen themselves Chicago Transit Authority, release a self-titled debut album and--under threat of legal action by the actual CTA--shorten their name to Chicago.

Though some members have changed over the years--I still recall hearing the tragic news of guitarist Terry Kath accidentally killing himself with a gun in 1978--Chicago has continuously been a recording and touring entity, with a number of ubiquitous classics I couldn't help but know and love ("Saturday in the Park," "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is," "25 or 6 to 4"), a minor hit that has always held a special place because I had the 45 as a kid ("Alive Again") and a spate of schmaltzy pop hits generally corresponding to my high school years ("Hard to Say I'm Sorry," "Hard Habit to Break," "You're the Inspiration," "Look Away").

But though I have attended over 650 concerts by hundreds of different acts, mostly in my hometown--having lived in the metropolitan area my whole life except for 3 college years 50 miles west in DeKalb and 3 years a bit further west in Los Angeles--until Sunday night at Ravinia in Highland Park, I never had seen Chicago.

I've undoubtedly had numerous opportunities, and likely should have caught one of Chicago's co-headlining jaunts with Earth, Wind and Fire in recent years, but while I've never turned down a specific chance to attend a gig, the truth is that it's hard for me to say I've ever been that much of a fan.

I have never owned a Chicago album in any format and other than the unavoidable hits, have only known a small fraction of their vast output. Until studying up for the show, I don't know that I've ever even looked up any of their songs on Spotify except maybe "Alive Again" for old times sake and "Saturday in the Park" on some 4th of July. (This was my Spotifamilization primer.)

Perhaps it was last year after they played Ravinia--a rather common venue--that I started to think of Chicago as a band I should see at least once, but even with a pair of weekend shows long on the 2015 schedule, I only got myself a ticket this past Friday.

And I acted largely because I found a $100 (+ fees) pavilion ticket on StubHub for just $29.

Thus, if you're hoping for this to be an expert review from a Chicago aficionado who knows every note from Chicago Transit Authority through Chicago XXXVI--though most Chicago albums are numerically named, there aren't really quite 36 of them--and "if so I can't imagine why," well, this won't be one.

Although original vocalist/keyboardist Robert Lamm still looks and sounds strong at 70 and founding saxophonist Walter Parazaider, trombonist James Pankow and trumpet player Lee Loughnane seemed to be having a heckuva time in powering Chicago's unique rock-with-brass soundscape, I certainly can't tell you how Chicago circa 2015 compares with any other incarnation over the past 48 years.

Part of the band himself since 1985, bassist Jason Scheff sings the Peter Cetera ballads admirably close to the originals, although these--including "If You Leave Me Now," a #1 hit in 1976--are far from my favorite kernels of the Chicago canon.

Knowing that Lamm is the only representative of the band's initial trio of vocalists (including Cetera and Kath), I liked it best when he was on lead vocals, and his take on "Beginnings"--playing acoustic guitar rather than his usual keyboards--was a definite highlight.

But with 9 musicians onstage, it was cool how Chicago rotated through lead vocalists, with keyboardist Lou Pardini handling most of the singing duties when Lamm and Scheff didn't, and the horn players and guitarist Keith Howland also taking turns at the mic.

"Questions 67 & 68" and "Dialogue (Part I & II)" sounded great early on, and I was thrilled to hear "Alive Again" after noticing it missing on some recent setlists. (It was played Saturday, which seems to have had the same set as Sunday. See Chicago's Ravinia setlist on

Along with songs already mentioned, other delights included "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon"--with "Make Me Smile" and "Colour My World" inclusive in the suite--"Old Days," a propulsive extended take on Spencer Davis Group's "I'm A Man" and main set closer, "Feelin' Stronger Every Day."

With the pavilion crowd finally brought to its feet on the "Get Away" coda of "Hard to Say I'm Sorry" before "Saturday in the Park," they stayed that way for encores of "Free" and "25 or 6 to 4."

All told it was a generous nearly 3 hours worth of music, including a brief but nice opening set from solo songstress Isabella Nanni.

Chicago's diverse instrumentation, with not only brass but two (or more at times) drummer/percussionists--bongos included--sounded wonderful in full force, or even split up to highlight fine horn, drum and guitar solos.

There was nothing I didn't like, and especially at a bargain, my seat offered good comfort, sound and sightlines on a pleasant evening.

I've recently given a bit more thought to my distinctions between concerts I award @@@@, @@@@1/2 and @@@@@, with all representing shows I enjoyed and am glad to have witnessed. It's certainly not an exact science, but bestowing above @@@@ typically entails performances I would emphatically suggest others see and those by performers I can't wait to catch again.

Perhaps properly reflective of an act I've long neglected live, I found Chicago to deliver a show with a lot of fine music, well-played, but without quite the excitement of the very best concerts on my calendar.

As a first-time experience, I liked the show far more than not, but with all the revolving spotlight moments among the singers and players, there did seem to be something of a "by-the-book" sensibility to the proceedings, with nothing particularly special--save a few gracious mentions--for the city that bore the band and inspired its name.

Still, it was about time I got to Chicago.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Not Quite the Time of My Life, but 'Dirty Dancing' Onstage is Rather Likable, With Few Missteps -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Dirty Dancing
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru August 30

In terms of true artistic merit, Dirty Dancing has little reason to exist onstage.

Though technically a musical, it offers no newly-written songs, too few of the old ones are sung live and the show makes no pretense of using the music and lyrics to drive the onstage action. 

Billing itself as "The Classic Story on Stage," it is much less a theatrical reinterpretation than merely a live re-enactment of a beloved film.

In the apparently non-Equity production now playing at the Cadillac Palace in Chicago--where it ran "pre-Broadway" in 2008 (though never got there) following West End success in London--none of the performances are notably deficient, but neither are the leads particularly distinctive or charismatic, at least as discerned from my upper balcony perch.

I doubt avid fans of the 1987 Dirty Dancing film starring Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze would espouse that the stage version outdoes it, and especially given the entertainment value-to-cost ratio, watching the movie would seem sufficiently satisfying for most.

That said, I found myself enjoying the live version of Dirty Dancing much more than I expected.

Photos by Matthew Murphy; male star depicted not the same as in Chicago cast.
Though not a great musical by any means, and no substantive enhancement on the movie--despite a few non-film scenes that worked in the Civil Rights movement and added some depth to the family dynamics--for what it is, Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage is well-done and even rather likable.

I can't recall specifics of the show in 2008, and am surprised that I had last seen it that long ago, but remember not liking it much--as substantiated by the low rating in my theater database--perhaps largely due to the abundance of recorded music and video projections.

So it may be due to a general watering down of the production values of many newer musicals, and an overabundance of mediocre stageworks based on popular movies, that Dirty Dancing now seems relatively pleasing in comparison.

If nothing else, it is considerably better than the other stage production based on an iconic Patrick Swayze movie: Ghost: The Musical.

It never made me want to get up and dance, but given the well-paced script by Eleanor Bergstein--who also wrote the movie, based on her own experiences--attractive performers, impressive footwork and some excellent singing (on too rare opportunities), Dirty Dancing never stoked my ire or made me wish I hadn't made the trek to the Loop from Skokie for the Broadway in Chicago presentation.

Christopher Tierney, a veteran of Chicago's Hubbard Street Dance company, looked good and danced well in the Patrick Swayze role of Johnny Castle, a dance instructor at a Catskills resort in 1963. (I've long been fascinated with the rise, existence and fall of the Borscht Belt and just watched a good documentary on Kutscher's, the resort--along with Grossinger's--said to be the inspiration for Kellerman's in Dirty Dancing.)

Gillian Abbott makes for a likable and believable Baby, while former Joffrey member Jenny Winton is a pleasurably striking presence to watch on dance numbers with Tierney.

But just as impressive as the actual stars of the show are the supporting players who vocalize the sparse selection of live tunes. These include Jerome Harmann-Hardeman as Tito (the longstanding crooner at Kellerman's), Jennilee Shallow, John Antony and Doug Carpenter.

Between them, separately and together, they belt out strong versions of "Do You Love Me?," "You Don't Own Me," "In the Still of the Night (I'll Remember)" and the movie's signature song, "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," accompanied by a live band onstage.

The program notes that the show includes songs not in the movie--such as "Save the Last Dance for Me"--that Bergstein had wanted but couldn't secure for the screen.

So the material and music is far from awful, and with some nice segues--aided by the use of video projections in lieu of much physical scenery--the pacing is good.

And though most of the dialogue echoes the movie--which I had watched the night before for the first time in ages--it does work in more references to MLK and Civil Rights, which are generally welcome if a bit slight (though the listening to the "I Have a Dream" speech at a campfire mid-show is chronologically suspect, as Dr. King's delivered it on August 28, 1963 rather than in midsummer).

I'm not sure if Bergstein simply restored scenes she had initially wanted to be in the movie, but though seemingly used in part to pad Act II, I felt a few moments between Baby and her mom (Margot White) were nice additions, as well as a bit more interaction between Baby and her sister Lisa (Alex Scolari).

The late-show exchange between Baby and her father (Mark Elliot Wilson) feels like it could be well-supported by a song--even if a newly-written one--and also suggests that Dirty Dancing might make for a fairly decent traditional musical if not so theoretically boxed in by the expectations of movie aficionados.

As it is, Dirty Dancing onstage is something of a strange theatrical hybrid, and as it neither equals its source film nor stands as a stellar musical or play, it's hard to really recommend it.

But if you have a soft spot for the movie, and understand going into the theater that this isn't a Hairspray or Billy Elliot-type screen-to-stage musical adaptation but largely just the movie unfolding live before your eyes, I think you may actually enjoy it.

The material is what it is, as is the conceit, but everyone onstage at the Cadillac Palace enacts it well--and rather buoyantly.

So while you may not have the time of your life, and might even imagine how this Dirty Dancing could well be a good bit better, you wouldn't be disingenuous to get up on your feet at the end and bestow a standing ovation, as did much of the crowd on the show's first night in Chicago.

If it's not nearly the best thing ever to take centerstage, well, nobody puts Baby in a corner, either.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Poetically Divine: With 'Maya's Last Poem,' Fleetwood-Jourdain Creates a Well-Versed Tribute -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Maya's Last Poem
written and directed by Tim Rhoze
Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre
at Noyes Cultural Arts Center, Evanston, IL
Thru August 23

I didn't become aware of Evanston's Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre until last year, it's 35th anniversary of presenting works highlighting the African-American experience.

But having seen and enjoyed all three of its presentations in 2014--Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, Gee's Bend and Why Not Me? A Sammy Davis Jr. Story--I was glad to be back at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center on Saturday for Maya's Last Poem.

As with Why Not Me?, which was reprised this year, Maya's Last Poem was written and directed by Fleetwood-Jourdain Artistic Director Tim Rhoze, who is also a fine actor I most recently enjoyed seeing in Airline Highway at Steppenwolf before the show and Rhoze transferred to Broadway.

The new work is an hourlong one-act piece that imagines a conversation between Maya Angelou--the famed poet, author, actress and more, who passed away in May 2014 at the age of 86--and God, upon Maya's arrival in heaven.

Jacqueline Williams plays Maya Angelou in Maya's Last Poem
Or at least heaven's library, which serves as something as a portal that enables Maya, wonderfully played by Jacqueline Williams, to chat about common interests, inspirations and much more with the deity embodied by Cheryl Lynn Bruce.

It would seem that Rhoze's script--more expository piece than traditional narrative play--is shrewd enough that God could conceivably be enacted by a performer of either gender or various races/ethnicities, but even to someone without much spiritual bent, Bruce's mature black female holiness felt rather believable and meriting of reverence.

Browsing God's library before they meet, Maya is initially greeted by the pretty and effervescent Petra (Antora DeLong), who serves as something of a heavenly executive assistant.

Reference is made to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou's 1969 autobiography whose title comes from a line in a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem; Dunbar is repeatedly cited in Rhoze's work as a favorite of Angelou's--and God's--along with Shakespeare, Poe, Langston Hughes and others.

When God compliments Maya's work, the poet responds cutely that such an honor makes her feel "as though she's died and gone to heaven."

Though a touching tribute to Angelou and her uplifting beliefs--"The power of hate is no match for the power of love" being just one penetrating statement I jotted down--Maya's Last Poem certainly broaches on rough times in the poet's life, including being raped as a child by her mother's brother and encountering ugly racism throughout her life.

The play isn't a heavy-duty biography--and it's brevity combined with a 7:00pm Saturday start time made for a rather fleeting night of theater--but it tells enough about Maya Angelou to make one want to know more.

And her interaction with God serves as more than simply a conversational conceit, as it not only reflects Angelou's faith but allows for interesting parallels regarding creation--whether of a poem or the world.

Rhoze, the three actresses and the Fleetwood-Jourdain team deserve particular praise for crafting a worthwhile world premiere work that is only being performed 6 times (although Maya's Last Poem should hold strong appeal elsewhere, including in scholastic settings).

You probably want to wrap a meal and some discussion around it--a post-show reception was a nice accoutrement on the night I went--but those in the vicinity (the venue is steps from the Purple Line's Noyes stop) could do worse than to catch an enlightening conversation between two remarkable women this Saturday night or Sunday afternoon.

I'm glad I did.

As the nearby graphic shows, along with one more weekend of Maya's Last Poem, Fleetwood-Jourdain will be hosting two upcoming concerts and a black-tie gala.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

An Hour of Illumination on Historical Racism Can Be a Good Start Toward Understanding the Ongoing Effects of Redlining, Housing Discrimination, Stop-and-Frisk and More

The Black Power Salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos
took place at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City
on October 16, 1968, one day after I was born.
In the wake of a tragically distressing summer--and well beyond--that has amplified the depths, ugliness and polarization of America's racial divide, I have been wanting to write a blog post about racism.

Without wishing to preach, lecture nor absolve myself from complicity in this societal scourge, I have been hoping to share my (admittedly rather scant) familiarity with some of the underlying historical factors that have left the U.S. deeply segregated--physically, financially and otherwise--to this day.

But I've been having trouble trying to figure out how to frame such a post, as a white suburbanite who (despite being Jewish) has never felt like a minority and will never really know what people experience in this country and elsewhere simply because of the color of their skin.

Certainly, like many, I have been absolutely horrified by the brutal, senseless deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Samuel DuBose, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo and myriad others over recent months and several years.

While noting that not all of the above cases are precisely parallel, and in no way meaning to condemn all police officers, I have been outraged by what appears to be an epidemic of barbaric and prejudicial behavior on the part of authority.

But as angry as these and similar incidents have made me--exacerbated by the assumption that the viral videos represent but a small fraction of everyday episodes nearly as flabbergasting if not ultimately deadly--I've been almost as troubled by the brazen bigotry that has manifested online following the above cases, resultant protests and the horrible Charleston church massacre (and pursuant Confederate Flag condemnation).

Given that my Facebook community is comprised almost exclusively of real-life friends, I have fortunately not experienced much first-hand vitriol. Even among friends who aren't closely aligned in their politics or perspectives, there tends to be respectful discourse rather than heinous hate speech (which I wouldn't tolerate).

But in looking at Facebook posts from CNN, the Chicago Tribune and other outlets about the aforementioned stories and others akin, I can often barely believe the comments some people will write under, presumably, their own names.

I understand that since the stain of slavery on this country's history, some people have hated--and far worse--individuals of a different pigmentation.

Facebook comments on recent CNN posts regarding the
Charleston massacre and the Sandra Bland
and Samuel DuBose incidents.
Even 150 years after the Civil War abolished the abomination of slavery, and millions of immigrants of all ethnicities have come to America due to its promise of freedom--albeit engendered by the genocide of Native Americans--many citizens seemingly wish to maintain the anachronistic notion that the United States = White + Christian.

While I will never condone or accept that way of thinking, given the immeasurable enrichment I've derived from the great melting pot of Chicago (as well as Los Angeles, New York and other urban and progressively non-urban centers), what I have trouble comprehending essentially comes down to this:

Whites who blame blacks for their base treatment and victimization by police (while almost blanketly absolving white officers), and who condemn protests turned mildly violent by spewing words such as "thugs" and "those people," often seem to adhere to an argument along the lines of:

"Slavery was 150 years ago, discrimination was outlawed over 50 years ago, why can't 'they' just improve their lives devoid of crime, drugs, poverty, gangs, teen pregnancy, welfare, etc., etc."

This strikes me almost as blatantly racist as calling someone the n-word, as it ignores the eternal oppression of blacks by a white system that has purposely undercut equality in regards to financial, educational, environmental, cultural and political opportunities--with repercussions every bit as acute today as they were in times of segregated schools, bathrooms, buses and lunch counters.

Yet while trying not to engage in such philistine behaviors, as I said above I am not absolving myself.

I do not believe in my superiority or others' inferiority, firmly believing that individuals of any skin color or religion are equally "good" and as entitled to opportunity, wealth, health, dignity, respect, kindness, housing, employment, security, etc. as I or anyone else.

See article; see poll
Though largely superfluous to real issues of racism, many of my greatest cultural heroes--athletes, actors, musicians, comedians, now the U.S. President--are African-American. Incidentally, just yesterday an aunt mentioned that she had a crush on Johnny Mathis in 1955, furthering my sense that my parents, grandparents, other relatives and close friends growing up never seemed to reference race as a barrier or being black as something negative.

Perhaps that's why--along with some illuminating experiences, such as working in a law firm mailroom at 15 with a bunch of really cool black guys--I've never cared if African-Americans (or Latinos, Muslims, Asians, East Indians or other seemingly often-disparaged minorities) lived in my neighborhood/building, went to my schools, worked for my employers or any others, made lots of money, married white people, etc., etc., or why I can honestly say that I've never uttered a racial epithet.

But I realize that this is only dime-store decency.

So far, I have not been part of the solution, so I must be part of the problem.

And the truth is that there have been times when I've said "that's a bad area," essentially meaning that it is heavily black or Hispanic with a substantially higher rate of crime than where I live.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't sometimes wish there were more white people riding the subway with me late at night or that I haven't put my hand on my wallet (or at least wanted to) when a young man wearing a doo-rag got on the same elevator.

Not to rationalize this away with a bit of musical humor, but I'm reminded of the song "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist" from the musical Avenue Q, which I believe made some good points.

Which brings me to what I was hoping to do with this article. Although I have always tried to be cognizant of racism and its repercussions and respectful of the root causes of racial inequality, in recent weeks and months I've come across--via my own exploration and as shared by friends--books, articles and A/V clips that have furthered my understanding of some of the historical factors involved.

Certainly, there is an almost infinite realm of similarly enlightening material, and I would be delighted to have you share such pieces with me.

But save for the books, which obviously will take you a bit longer to digest, the material cited/included below should take you about an hour total to read, hear and watch. Knowing that the subject of racism demands far more thought, consideration, discussion and action, I believe it will be an hour well spent.

1) First is a video that may appear rather rudimentary but does a good job of quickly outlining several of the factors that have historically created racial inequality, some of which are covered in greater depth in the other content.

2) Next is an article that an African-American friend shared on Facebook, titled I, Racist. It is a sermon--in written form--that a black man named John Metta delivered to a white congregation, in which he cites a white aunt being aggrieved by charges of racism from her black niece:
"She is still hurt by the suggestion that people in New York, that she, a northerner, a liberal, a good person who has Black family members, is a racist."
3) To better understand why there seems to be inherent distrust of the police among African-Americans and Hispanics--which likely played a part in the tragic Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and Samuel DuBose incidents--I highly recommend a book called The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by one of my favorite writers on societal wrongs, Matt Taibbi.

Along with decrying why none of those responsible for the subprime mortgage crisis and economic collapse of 2008 have gone to jail, Taibbi enlightens on routine police procedures such as Stop-and-Frisk, which essentially involves detaining blacks and Hispanics for dubious reasons (pot, broken taillights, standing in the wrong spot, etc.). Some get arrested to eventually fill for-profit prisons with low-risk criminals, while others merely get harassed, yet often quite scared and scarred.

Eventually, the book tends to reiterate its basic points, but Taibbi makes a key one early on as he writes about a Stop-and-Frisk victim named Tory:
"Way back in 1977, New York City decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, the law being that if you had less than 25 grams on you and smoked your weed in private, the police weren't supposed to arrest you.

But then in the 1990s the city began implementing this stop-and-frisk program, where police could stop and search just about anyone for any reason. And stop-and-frisk provided the city police with a magic spell they could use to circumvent the lax marijuana law.

In 2011, the year before Tory got arrested, another year when exactly nobody on Wall Street was arrested for crimes connected to the financial crisis, New York City police stopped and searched a record 684,724 people. Out of those, 88 percent were black or Hispanic. The ostensible justification for the program is looking for guns, but they find guns in less than 0.02 percent of the stops. More often they make people empty their pocket and find nothing at all."
The Divide can be bought in various formats on Amazon, but I found it at my local library and even though the Overdrive app for free e-Book library loans.

If you search "Stop and Frisk" on YouTube, you can find several clips that illustrate just how scary, unfair and dehumanizing the practice is. This is one such clip where a high school senior talks about his stop-and-frisk experiences.

4) I admittedly haven't finished reading it, but a new book on the black experience that has been widely praised is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Written in guise of sharing his life experiences and its lessons with his teenage son, Coates provides this telling passage:
"But you are human and you will make mistakes. You will misjudge. You will yell. You will drink too much. You will hang out with people you shouldn't Not all of us can be Jackie Robinson--not even Jackie Robinson was always Jackie Robinson. But the price of error is higher for you than it is for your countrymen, and so that America might justify itself, the story of a black body's destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined--with Eric Garner's anger, with Trayvon Martin's mythical words ("You are gonna die tonight"), with Sean Bell's mistake of running with the wrong crowd."
5) Last year, when a recording of (now-deposed) L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling was released that captured him chastising a female friend for an Instagram photo she had taken with Magic Johnson, revealing Sterling to have said:

"It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people", and, "You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want", but "the little I ask you is ... not to bring them to my games."

...of all that was written and discussed, I felt the following audio commentary from radio host Bomani Jones was the most potent and powerful.

Part of the context is that in 2006, Jones had written about Sterling being sued by the Department of Justice for housing discrimination, a practice for which he was also sued in 2003 by 19 plaintiffs who accused Sterling of trying to drive blacks and Latinos out of buildings he owned in Koreatown. Though terms were not disclosed, in the 2003 case Sterling was ordered to pay a massive settlement, including $5 million just for the plaintiffs' attorney fee.

But as Jones points out in his brilliant rant below, barely anyone--least of all the NBA--batted an eye over racist actions that directly affected many people (with the general practice of housing discrimination affecting millions more), making a mockery of the media/public outrage over Sterling's ugly comments

6) Though it is a bit longer and more involved, I very much suggest you listen to this discussion with historian Richard Rothstein on NPR, as passed along by a close friend.

As referenced both in the Systemic Racism for Dummies video and Bomani Jones' comments, the practice of redlining--essentially banks refusing to give mortgages to black lenders, prohibiting them from moving to white areas in the 1940s and 1950s, severely limiting generational wealth--along with other housing discrimination methods, some facilitated by the U.S. Government, has been one of the most crippling reasons why African-Americans have been relegated to segregated communities with lesser schools and greater challenges.

The professorial Rothstein does a nice job of explaining the racist practices and their detrimental effects, including blacks having but 5% of the wealth of whites despite now having 60% of the income.

7) Often when one discusses racism or simply racial issues, the unfortunate preponderance of black-on-black crime gets mentioned. I don't condone criminal activity of any kind, especially when innocent bystanders get tragically harmed, but a terrific 2011 documentary called The Interrupters--available through Amazon or likely at your local library--provided thought-provoking insights into gang life and merits your attention along these lines.

8) Finally, for now, I thought this Tweet (part of a series) from Orange is the New Black star Matt McGorry was a good rejoinder to those responding to the #BlackLivesMatter movement by stating that #AllLivesMatter.

Certainly, this blog post isn't going to do much to curb or solve the longstanding issues of racism. But I hope it may shed some light on matters of import that go well beyond what is happening today.

I definitely need to learn, and do, more about racism and look forward to discussions on the difficult topic. Appreciative of anything you can share with me, perhaps some or all of the above is insightful to you.

Monday, August 10, 2015

SoBe It: A Hot and Humid Midsummer Jaunt to Miami, including Miami Beach, West Palm Beach and Key West (over 4 days) -- Travel Recap

Why would I go to Miami in the middle of the summer?

It's a fair question.

And for those who have never known me to spend much time on a beach, by a pool or engaging in outdoor recreational activities, it may seem sensible to wonder why I would go to Florida at all.

Certainly, that I have lived nearly 47 years--and traveled fairly far and wide--without ever venturing to South Florida would appear to validate incredulity over my recent excursion, especially at a time when daytime temperatures hovered above 90 degrees with stifling humidity.

While I do seek uncharted places to explore and at some point estimated Miami to be the most prominent U.S. city I had never visited, that was only a relatively minor motivator.

And though Miami somewhat fits in with my southward, Latin-cultured expeditions of late--Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Mexico City--this was largely coincidental.

There was, however, a thematic impetus for this trip, one more overarching than imminently acute:


Or more specifically, baseball stadiums.

Throughout my life, though more voluminously over the past 15 years, I had attended games in 38 major league ballparks--before this trip--including 28 of the 30 in current use.

The only two I had not been to were Marlins Park in Miami and Tropicana Field in Tampa/St. Petersburg.

So I have long envisioned one day traveling to Florida long enough to allow me to see a Marlins game in Miami and--along with other sightseeing--then drive through the state to get to a Tampa Bay Rays game. (In 2003, I had taken a somewhat similar Texas trip, taking me to Astros and Rangers games, while visiting Houston, Dallas/Arlington/Ft. Worth, San Antonio and Austin.)

And I could have done so in a full week, but a variety of factors financial and otherwise prompted me to decide to do 4 days centered around Miami, while leaving Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Florida Southern College in Lakeland for a future trip.

Not only does this leave me something to aspire to, but I wouldn't even mind if the Rays move out of Tampa or get a new stadium before I get there, as the Tropicana Dome is supposed to be the worst stadium in baseball.

Anyway, not that the Marlins game was the only reason for going to Miami, nor wound up being the best thing I did--I didn't expect it to be especially as the Marlins are terrible and missing their best player--but that's why I had to go during the summer, not the winter as is much more the Midwesterner's norm.

And though I wouldn't cite Miami anywhere among my very favorite cities visited--I've added it to the lower regions of this list--I did enjoy my time there.

For while there are aspects of the environs I didn't relish or indulge much in--heat, beaches, nightclubs, etc.--by putting together four days that combined culture, palm trees, architecture, art, creativity, baseball, wildlife, dining, ocean scenery and plenty of photography, I sculpted a rather pleasurable trip.

Here's a recap.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

I arrived in the late morning with no problems, and after a rather exhaustive trek involving elevators, walkways, people movers, a lack of clear signage and more, I reached the Dollar counter to pick up a rental car I had paid for as part of my flight package.

I don't think I've rented a car since at least 2005, and was reminded that the transactional phase is rather emasculating and exasperating, given the attempts to convince you to accept add-ons of dubious--but presented as sage--necessity.

Though I declined any insurance coverage--and even there was confused by the agent--I was swayed to pay $50 for 4 days of electronic toll coverage, on the basis that some tollways don't accept cash and one can be charged up the wazoo for blowing off tolls in a rental car.

Although I was planning to take one drive up to West Palm Beach--and did--I really don't think I passed through any toll booths on my entire trip.

Out of the rental car center, I got caught in a vortex of service roads before pulling over at the first chance to figure out where I was, where I needed to go and how to connect my iPhone to play through the stereo (and enable the Google Maps GPS).

Although I had initially thought of making Opa-Locka my first stop--based on intriguing Moorish architecture I had seen in the 1969 Maysles Brothers' documentary, Salesman--research had suggested that it is now a rather dilapidated, high crime area perhaps not worth 30 minutes of driving each way for a few hasty snapshots.

Thus I first headed to Versailles, a famed Cuban restaurant on Calle Ocho (8th Street) near Little Havana.

The Cubano sandwich didn't entirely agree with me--I couldn't even finish half, and later wound up losing my lunch in a Marlins Park bathroom--but the sweet plantains were good. And I don't mean to imply that the sandwich was bad, just a bit boring and perhaps not ideally digestible.

I took a drive down Calle Ocho, stopping for an occasional photograph but likely not giving Little Havana the time it deserved, before heading--with much help from the GPS--to Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.

Vizcaya is a huge mansion built between 1914-1922 by Chicago businessman James Deering, an executive with International Harvester.

Though the estate's acreage is much less than it originally was, vast gardens still remain along with the house, which is a museum through which I took a guided tour. (No internal photography is allowed.)

Deering and his designers had collected artwork and furnishings throughout Europe and the home is certainly quite opulent, if not quite on par with actual palaces I've visited. But the gardens are also rather impressive and Vizcaya is an attraction I'd recommend to any Miami visitor.

The primary guidebook I relied on--Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Miami & the Keys--noted as highlights a couple of posh Miami neighborhoods, Coconut Grove and Coral Gables, but was a bit vague on what exactly a random tourist was supposed to do there.

...particularly in the case of Coconut Grove, which had me driving past an outdoor shopping mall--Coco Walk--unable to find parking and then driving through some nearby residential streets.

So I moved onto Coral Gables, beginning with the opulent Biltmore Hotel--I actually went inside--and nearby Congregational Church, both designed by Coral Gables' planner and architect, George Merrick.

I also saw the beautiful Venetian Pool, some amazing Banyan Tree-lined streets and an area of Chinese-styled homes that Merrick had created.

After this, I made my way to Marlins Park, parked in some guy's driveway for $15 and bought the cheapest ticket I could, which essentially let me sit wherever I wanted.

Even in sitting in a better section than my ticket, an usher came up to me and told me I was free to move up. Although attendance was cited as around 20,000, in trying to count approximate numbers of fans in each section, I only got around 5,000.

As noted above, the Marlins are bad, superstar Giancarlo Stanton was on the disabled list and their opponent, the San Diego Padres, are also rather desultory. So although I was glad to check the stadium off my list--and appreciated learning the weird centerfield sculpture is by Red Grooms, an artist I enjoyed learning of through an exhibit at Chicago's Cultural Center some years back--I didn't care all that much about the game.

This was exacerbated by twice finding myself having to vomit, which after a day in which I had awoken at 4:45am and flown to Miami, had me leaving the game in the 7th inning with the Padres ahead 5-2 (they won 5-3).

Thus I don't have too much more to report about the game, stadium or food at the park, but will note the glass display Bobblehead Museum on the concourse behind home plate as being rather unique.

With the help of the GPS, I queasily drove across the bridge to Miami Beach to reach my hotel, the Thompson Miami Beach at 41st and Collins.

I managed to check in and go to bed with just one more upset-stomach incident, fortunately the last of the trip.

Sunday, August 2

Although I had selected the Thompson because it had offered one of the best deals of any beachfront hotel in Miami Beach, I think it may well have entailed--especially if you include the unavoidable $39 daily valet parking charge--the highest average nightly rate of any hotel in which I've stayed.

And though it could well be argued that what I did mostly may have been accomplished a good bit cheaper from a Motel 6 or other inexpensive lodgings I often find quite accommodating, I wanted to stay on Miami Beach--and am glad I did.

So even if I couldn't tell you where the hotel spa was located, didn't patronize either of the the indoor & outdoor cocktail lounges, didn't get a massage, spent less than 45 total minutes in the pool area and on the hotel-designated beach area and didn't even turn on the TV in my room, I was generally happy with my choice of hotel, just for the location and quality of the room. (The bed was great, though I only accessed hot water in the shower seemingly by accident as the controls confused me.)

My hotel was at 41st St., so a good hike from the more famed South Beach area around 5th-20th. But it provided access to the Miami Beach Boardwalk, so not feeling too badly Sunday morning, I intended to take a long walk south along the Boardwalk.

But I unwittingly began my hike by going north, which I really only discerned by recognizing the Fountainebleau Hotel (at about 45th) from photographs.

After turning around, my board-walk was then curtailed by construction that cut off Boardwalk access somewhere in the 30s. 

So I took a cab down to the News Cafe, a famed 24-hour outdoor cafe at 800 Ocean Drive, and had a bagel and orange juice.

I then spent some time exploring and photographing several Art Deco hotels on Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue, as well as the former Miami Beach City Hall and the exterior of the Villa hotel in the former Versace Mansion.

On the way back to my hotel--eventually abetted by a cab that I had take me past the Holocaust Memorial--I stopped into the Delano hotel because the tour book noted it has original Dali and Gaudi furniture, but I forgot to look for it amidst the modern but nondescript lobby.

Back at the hotel, I put on my swim trunks and headed to the pool area. I had an attendant set up a lounge chair with a towel, took a quick dip and laid out for about 5 minutes before I was bored.

So I went to the beach, and briefly into the Atlantic Ocean, having last been in it off Copacabana Beach in Rio.

I then went to lie on a chair, but was soon interrupted by an attendant, who asked if I was a hotel guest.

I said I was--showing my room key card--and was told that as a guest I was entitled to two towels and two chairs (both on the beach and by the pool) but that an umbrella (as attached to my chair and dozens of other empty ones) was $19.

Dumbfounded, I quickly switched to a non-umbrella chair and soon departed the beach altogether. That a watered down cup of Diet Coke at the pool bar cost me nearly $7 including tax and included tip only furthered my annoyance at the hotel's ticky-tack add-on pricing, even if it is probably standard for the locale.

Sunday afternoon I drove up I-95 to West Palm Beach a little over an hour away.

I drove a bit through WPB and Palm Beach to the famed Breakers hotel, but couldn't see the inside since
the only non-guest parking option was $25 valet service.

But my real target in WPB was the Norton Museum of Art, which had an excellent collection that well-warranted the drive.

Arriving around 3:00, I found the museum cafe closed and a small refreshment stand featuring only rather nebulous options: some kind of vegetable chip mix, trail mix and a bag of small wrapped candies.

That was it. So despite starving, I abstained.

The artwork, however, sated my appetite. 

There were strong, previously unseen (even in books) examples by cherished artists--Hopper, de Chirico, Monet, Pissarro, Picasso, Stuart Davis and more--and some real nice paintings by names I didn't much know, including Gertrude Fiske and Walt Kuhn.

There is also an interesting sculpture by musician Nick Cave and, currently, a special exhibit on transportation imagery and an excellent photography exhibition, Summer of '68: Photographing the Black Panthers.

Featuring photos by husband & wife, Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion, the exhibition was illuminating for the way it--as opposed to mainstream media at the time--showed the tranquil, familial side of the Black Panthers, including leaders like Huey P. Newton.

I didn't get to the Boca Raton Museum of Art, nor any museums in Miami--despite both the Bass Museum of Art and the WolfsonianFIU being nearby in Miami Beach--so I have nothing to compare the Norton to, but an art museum would have to be really for it not to be the best art museum in Miami outstanding (though I have read great things about the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota).

I really enjoyed my visit, and liked the reiteration of how great art renders time & place rather meaningless while serving as a unifying thread throughout travels to disparate locales.

With an 8:30pm dinner reservation back at my hotel, I took a leisurely drive back from West Palm Beach along A1A, which allowed me to see the ocean and numerous shorefront mansions while going through such towns as Delray Beach, Pompano Beach, Hollywood, Ft. Lauderdale and Boca Raton.

The latter was the only town I briefly deviated from A1A to drive through a bit. I mainly saw a central square area surrounding Mizner Park, which interested me because Addison Mizner's development of Boca Raton was chronicled in Stephen Sondheim's Bounce musical (later renamed Road Show).

Having not been able to secure a reservation at a restaurant that interested me at Fountainebleau, I had made one at Seagrape within the Thompson.

This worked out well, as the restaurant run by a Miami celebrity chef named Michelle Bernstein proved comfortable comfortably within the lobby of my own hotel.

Though I was prepared to enjoy something of a vacation dinner splurge, the thought of paying $5 for another Diet Coke annoyed me to the point of asking the waitress how much one would cost.

She initially imagined $3 but in checking confirmed the $5 price with incredulity.

As with many other Miami restaurants, Seagrape was participating in a promotion called Miami Spice, akin to Restaurant Week in Chicago or New York. For $39 I got a 3-course meal beginning with Pork Rillet--essentially ground pork that could be spread on bread, accompanied by mustard--then a Pan Seared Snapper Filet which was rather delicious.

So too was the dessert of Lemon Pudding Cake with berries and sorbet.

And fortunately I had no further stomach issues, as I had to awake at 5:45 the next morning to catch a 6:30am tour bus to Key West.

Monday, August 3

Through an online tour broker called Viator, which I had successfully used to book a tour to Teotihuacan while in Mexico City, I had booked a Key West Day Trip, also pre-paying for a Hop On/Off Trolley Tour.

The tour was operated by Grayline, and though I didn't think to check before booking, pricing is the same through Viator or Grayline.

Although I was happy to have someone else do the driving to & from Key West--Highway 1 is a single lane in each direction most of the way--what I got from Grayline/Viator could really be described more as a bus ride than a tour, as nothing guided was provided in Key West.

There was a woman at the front of bus providing some information as we rode through the Keys. Nothing was deficient about what she was doing, but she was more the trip facilitator--checking travelers onto the bus from various hotel stops--than a provider of great insights.

And I thought it was kind of lame that though Viator had charged me $31 for the Trolley Tour, the guide didn't have such a ticket for me ahead of time, but made me wait 10 minutes as she went to purchase the same pass I could have bought on my own for $10 less.

As it was, I wound up barely using the Trolley, adding to the rental car toll option, hotel parking and beach/pool access (factored into my room rate) as money spent without nearly equal value coming back.

But oh well, that's vacation life for you. And just as I was happy with my hotel choice, so too was I glad to visit Key West without having to do my own driving.

The bus dropped us off near Mallory Square--kind of tourist central on Key West--around Noon and would pick the group up in the same spot at 5:30pm.

Some of the group opted to pursue parasailing and/or snorkeling options, but my primary focus was the Hemingway House, where Ernest lived from 1931-1939.

Before getting there, I almost by accident came across the Little White House that President Harry S Truman used as a vacation home and functioning White House from 1946-52. Several other Presidents have also utilized the house.

I didn't take a tour but enjoyed freely seeing a small room of Truman memorabilia.

After seeing a rooster wandering down the sidewalk and then crossing the road, I then walked down the main tourist drag of Duval Street, stopping into the Hard Rock Cafe for a look around and a Diet Coke--only $3 including tip and a refill!

Among other sights, I enjoyed seeing a local movie theater with a Marilyn Monroe statue out front, a cool rock 'n roll photo gallery called the Pop Culture Vault, a Walgreens housed in an old movie theater, the oldest house in Key West and a striking old church.

I eventually crossed over to Whitehead Street and came upon the Hemingway House, which I was told was the largest in Key West (and standing on the most acreage).

The home had been built in 1851 by a guy named Asa Tift. Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline, had been renting living space in Key West since 1928 when she came upon it in 1931 and purchased it for $8,000 with family funds.

A tour guide from Boston gave a pretty good tour, although focusing less on particulars of the home than on Hemingway's four marriages, general biography and the myriad cats on the property, most 6-toed descendents of Hem's beloved Snowball.

I made a note of this comment from the guide, regarding not only the cats but the author's love of hunting:

"Hemingway had a lifelong affair with animals; he either sheltered 'em or shot 'em."

Along with the main house, I enjoyed seeing Hem's writing studio--he wrote some of his best works there--along with a swimming pool and a urinal from Sloppy Joe's bar that Ernie converted into a yard feature providing water for the cats.

After the tour, I walked past the Key West Lighthouse on my way to the Southernmost Point in the United States, and also saw the southernmost house before finding the Hop On/Off Trolley that I had paid for.

Time didn't allow me to take the trolley around the entire island, but I valued the narrated trip through the historic district. The driver pointed out the Mile 0 sign that she said was the most photographed sight on Key West.

Back toward Mallory Square, I stopped into Cap'n Tony's, one of two bars that claim to have been frequented by Hemingway, with Sloppy Joe's being the other.

The latter offered food, and getting a Sloppy Joe seemed apropos. The latter bar also had a larger collection of Hemingway photos and artifacts, and a nice waitress provided some good information, including about a trove of Hem's photos found on the premises long after he had lived in Key West.

Given the connection to the Keys, whose limes are its key ingredient, getting a slice of Key Lime Pie at a nearby shop seemed mandatory.

I could sense that it might have been nice to spend a bit more time in Key West, perhaps staying overnight, as the vibe was definitely more mellow than in Miami Beach.

On another visit, perhaps as a cruise ship excursion, I would probably check out the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum and/or the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservancy.

Though I would stop by Hem's again, too.

As it was, I think I got a decent feel for Key West and believe it nicely enhanced my Miami vacation.

The bus didn't get back for me to do much but go to sleep, which leaves just a few hours on Tuesday to recap.

Tuesday, August 4

Content to sleep as late as I could, in the morning I strolled up Collins Ave. to the Fountainebleau, not only because it is the largest resort hotel on Miami Beach, but because my mom and her family had stayed there--in an earlier incarnation--in her youth.

I liked walking through the property and stopped at a fine bakery called Chez Bon Bon to get a delicious Cherry Almond Financier (a type of pastry).

Having not indulged in the famed club scene of South Beach, I wanted to take a gander at LIV, the club within Fontainebleau that I had noted online as being one of Miami Beach's hottest (albeit in a 2013 article).

With its entryway serving as a luggage storage room in the daytime, I was allowed to take a look at the large, multi-level club but forbidden from snapping photos.

Curious, I asked how much it would cost for a jamoke like me to patronize the club had I opted to do so on a Wed.-Sun. evening. I was told that it depends on what DJ is playing, but the cover is $40-$80 and four guys together often get a booth with bottle service for $1,500.

To each their own, but I felt good about not having gone "clubbing, " especially as it would have consisted of me sucking on a Diet Coke--$10(???)--and watching people dance.

I was also told--by a cool employee who led me back to the Boardwalk even though I didn't have pool access as a non-guest--that LIV is about to undergo a $2 million renovation because it's not hip and new enough anymore.

I couldn't help think how much money might be spent on more important things, but SoBe it (although technically the Fountainebleau and Thompson are Mid-Beach).

After checking out of my hotel and retrieving my red Chevy Cruze, my final tourist destination was a zoo-type attraction called Jungle Island. Although in a different location, it dates back to 1936 when it was called Parrot Jungle and per Wikipedia was one of the first tourist attractions in the Miami area.

As you can see, I submitted to having my picture taken with a trio of parrots as part of a staged souvenir photo that cost me $30.

Several more beautiful parrots were perched throughout the park, but not in cages as were most of the more wild animals.

I attended one show that featured three tigers, including a cub and a white one, and though the attraction was certainly touristy, my love of animals--and photographing them aplenty--surpassed my general disdain for the concept of zoos.

All told, I sufficiently enjoyed my trip to Miami, which included Miami Beach, West Palm Beach, Key West, a nice drive and a good ride.

Even though I didn't relish the oppressive heat & humidity, it didn't really put a damper on things, and despite largely abstaining from beaches, pools and nightclubs, I found enough of what I enjoy--baseball, art, architecture, history, Hemingway, etc.--to make it well worth my time.

At least once.

Though by 3:00pm Tuesday, with my flight not until 8:00pm, I essentially ran out of things to do in Miami.

So I headed to the airport in hopes of catching an earlier flight home, but couldn't as I opted not to spend $75 to catch a slightly earlier departure.

But I've been home for nearly a week now, and didn't necessarily mean to write up everything I did in Miami, but guess I have.

Hope you enjoyed my trip, too.

Here are a bunch more photos: