Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Truly Outstanding Boss: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band Rock the United Center for 3-1/2 Impeccable Hours -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
United Center, Chicago
August 28, 2016

Last weekend, with my beloved, first-place Chicago Cubs playing the Dodgers in Los Angeles, I made a point of listening to the L.A. radio feed through the MLB At-Bat app so that I could hear Vin Scully announce the first 3 innings of each game.

After 67 years of broadcasting Dodgers baseball, dating back to their years in Brooklyn, the 88-year-old Scully is retiring at season's end.

So barring a meeting in the postseason, Sunday marked the last time the legendary announcer would call a ballgame involving the Cubs.

Hearing Scully once again was an absolute joy.

Working solo--i.e. without a color commentator--he regaled fans with his trademark storytelling between pitches, and was as brilliant as ever. (Sunday he also simulcasted the 3rd inning on Comcast Sports Net in Chicago, so geared his narrative toward Cubs fans.)

Belying his years, he sounded sharp, vibrant, buoyant and much the same as he always has.

As I remarked on Facebook, I believe Vin Scully has done his job better than anyone else I know of has done his or hers.

On an ongoing basis.

I say this with tremendous regard for many other superb baseball announcers, superlative artists and musicians and writers and others I regularly praise on this blog, as well as for the millions and billions busting their tails in obscurity.

I'd have to assume that, in truth, there may be others who do what they do as well as Vin Scully announces baseball games.

Certainly, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt just reiterated that they deserve to be considered the greatest ever in their respective fields.

But especially if you factor in longevity and age, there's only a handful of people I would put in the same ballpark as Scully; two that come to mind are Stephen Sondheim and Paul McCartney.

Yet while I will eternally cherish, admire and appreciate the songs those men have written--and just 3 weeks ago saw Sir Paul prove that at 74 he remains one of the world's best concert performers--when it comes to the art of playing live rock 'n roll, there is no one who comes close to Bruce Springsteen.

I say this after not only seeing & relishing McCartney yet again, but just a week after attending two phenomenal shows at Wrigley Field by Pearl Jam, a band that exudes Boss-like earnestness and shares his affinity for changing up the setlist every night.

As regular readers of this blog know, I see a lot of concerts, and love most of them.

I don't bestow my highest, @@@@@ rating as easily as some may think, but have felt Pearl Jam, Paul McCartney, U2, the Rolling Stones, AC/DC and several others have readily earned it.

But on my 5@ scale, what Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band did Sunday night at the United Center--my 48th time seeing him, and 4th this year--truly merits @@@@@@.

Less than a month from turning 67, Springsteen--with most of his band in the same demographic--played for over 3-1/2 hours without leaving the stage.

This came just days after shows at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey clocked in at 3:52 and 3:59, so the fine citizens of Chicago--and those who traveled from Europe and elsewhere--could theoretically feel a tad shortchanged.

But beginning with a nearly 15-minute "New York City Serenade" lushly augmented by a guest string section--Bruce had opened the NJ shows likewise--all 32 songs played sounded tremendous.

Obviously, I love Springsteen and have for 35 years, and know all the lyrics to all his songs--like much of the crowd. I also own every studio album and concert DVD he has ever released, and a good number of the live recordings he has begun to release in recent years, of all current shows and specially-culled past highlights going back to 1975.

And still I can't wait for the chance to buy the "official bootleg" of Sunday's Chicago show. The selections played were that terrific, and Springsteen & E Street still sound as good as ever.

Although the current run of shows are still being promoted as part of The River Tour 2016, unlike the initial U.S. leg earlier this year they do not include a full playing of The River, a double album from 1980 re-released last year with 30+ outtakes as The Ties That Bind: The River Collection.

Eight of The River's 20 original songs were performed Sunday at the UC, including "The Ties That Bind," "Hungry Heart," "Out in the Street," "Cadillac Ranch" and the title track, but not sequentially.

Although I greatly enjoyed the full River shows for what they were--and even wished more of the outtakes were included--this was a much more free-form affair, very cool for me to see due to having no clue what might come next for most of the show.

As on tours over the last decade, Springsteen selected signs from the audience to determine ad hoc song choices. These included "The Promised Land" and a beautiful "Racing in the Street"--with brilliant piano playing by Roy Bittan--plus the rare Born in the U.S.A. outtake, "None But the Brave," and "Mary's Place."

The latter is a song from The Rising that became a setlist staple in 2002-03, and isn't a particular favorite. But Bruce clearly loves playing it, and coming unexpectedly, it was really fun to hear.

Similarly, The River's "Sherry Darling" isn't a song that would ever make my "What do you want to hear him play?" list, but the way the band delivered it made it a true delight.

I loved hearing "My Love Will Not Let You Down" and was completely thrilled that my favorite song--by anyone--"Backstreets" opened the encores (by sign request).

Springsteen has always written songs about economic disillusionment, blue collar struggles and other social issues, but has become much more strident about his humanitarian beliefs in the second half of his career.

With a word spoken about it, his activism was most appreciable during a quintet of songs mid-show:

"Death to My Hometown," "The River" (centered around his brother-in-law losing his job), the recent ode to working class dignity amid Wall Street malfeasance, "Jack of All Trades"--resplendent with the string section brought back onstage--followed by "American Skin (41 Shots)" chronicling a death at the hands of the police (saxophonist Jake Clemons poignantly stood with his hands up throughout the song) and with considerable resonance in Chicago, "Murder Incorporated."

The boundless energy expounded by The Boss and his bandmates--including drummer Max Weinberg, guitarists Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, bassist Garry Tallent, Bittan, Clemons, keyboardist Charlie Giordano and fiddler/singer Soozie Tyrell--was again rather astonishing to behold,  and one of my favorite moments came 3-1/2 hours into the show when Bruce flashed a huge grin during the closing "Bobby Jean."

In additional to youthful exuberance, at any age, actual youth was also celebrated as Bruce repeatedly noted a boy in the crowd (and made a point of shaking his hand), brought a young girl onstage to sing along with "Waiting on a Sunny Day" and danced with other youngsters during "Dancing in the Dark."

It made me happy to know that parents (and grandparents) are still introducing kids to the wonders of Bruce Springsteen, even live and in person.

And as I sang along, badly but loudly, to "Badlands," "Born to Run," "Rosalita" and much more, it made me ecstatic to witness such a spectacular performer once again.

One who has brought immeasurable joy--and much more--to my life.

With a nod to the similarly singular Vin Scully, nobody does it--or just about anything--better.

And per the second song played, it was truly blissful to see Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band once again "Prove It All Night."

(See Bruce Springsteen's full Chicago setlist here and read more about the show at Backstreets.com)

Monday, August 29, 2016

A Hue's Who on the Streets of Skokie: Blue Öyster Cult, Living Colour Make Past Enjoyably Present at Backlot Bash -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Blue Öyster Cult
August 26, 2016
Living Colour
August 27, 2016
Backlot Bash, Skokie, IL
@@@@ each

I grew up in Skokie, a suburb north of Chicago, and after some time out west--Los Angeles, Glen Ellyn--have lived in a condo there for the past 9 years.

As such, there are many fine things I can say about my hometown.

After having previously been a largely Jewish enclave, with a sizable number of Holocaust survivors--several who remain present and active with the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center--we are now a proudly multicultural community that openly celebrates diversity.

Although always comfortable and safe, Skokie lacks the ostentation of more affluent towns up the North Shore, while offering easy access to/from Chicago via the Edens Expressway and CTA Yellow Line.

We boast one of country's oldest and best shopping malls in Old Orchard and an outstanding library, nationally-recognized schools and the lively North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, home to Northlight Theatre, where I have witnessed many a Broadway-caliber play.

But for all the good I can say about Skokie, and my happiness in living there, I can't pretend it offers the hip vibe of Chicago itself, nor even nearby Evanston or other more cosmopolitan suburbs.

There are several restaurants in Old Orchard, within the Village Crossing shopping complex on Touhy and elsewhere--including fine Thai, Afghan, Jamaican, Russian and Latin American options--but I can't say Skokie has a great dining scene beyond excellent hot dog and/or gyros joints like Poochie's, Hub's, Herm's Palace and Dengeos (and terrific bagel shops New York Bagel & Bialy and Kauffman's, also a beloved deli).

And as for a year-round music scene, other than some good Sunday afternoon programming at the Skokie Public Library, often in a classical vein, I can't say I've noticed much of one.

But for 10 years now, the Backlot Bash--the village's annual festival, so named due to silent films being made in the area in the early 20th century--has been a terrific treat in late-August.

It's not of the size & scope of other suburban festivals like Naperville's Ribfest, Lisle's Eyes to the Skies, Arlington Height's Frontier Days, etc., but that's part of its charm.

You can park nearby, walk on over, grab some food (Real Urban BBQ's brisket sliders were great; glad to know they'll open a Skokie outpost next year), get a seat (or bring your own), play some bingo--I remain 0-for-Ever--and hear some good bands you likely haven't heard of (such as The Cells this year) before some rather notable headliners.

The Backlot Bash is presented under the auspices of the Skokie Park District. I've never known who does the talent booking for the mainstage, but I offer high compliments.

Though no admission fee is charged, the Bash has consistently been able to book rather unique and interesting  headliners, including several bands I haven't noted playing elsewhere in the area for years or didn't realize still existed.

Over the years, I've seen Fastball, The Fixx, Lonnie Brooks, The Smoking Popes, Spin Doctors, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Tributosaurus doing showcases of The Who, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, The Cars and more. (This year they "became" The Police on Sunday night, but I was otherwise booked.)

In years past, I also would have liked to have seen Cracker, the English Beat, Psychedelic Furs and more, had I not been precluded by other concerts or commitments. (See the musical history of the Backlot Bash here.)

This year, I saw two bands I've long liked but had never seen in full on their own: Blue Öyster Cult and Living Colour, Friday and Saturday night respectively.

Though both bands are years past the height of their fame, I felt they each represented themselves quite well across solidly enjoyable 90-minute shows.

I still fondly recall listening to BÖC's live album Some Enchanted Evening--and most specifically "Godzilla" and "(Don't Fear) The Reaper"--with a junior high school friend way back when, but can't say I've ever sought out the band to see live or have know anything else besides 1981's "Burnin' for You."

A couple years ago, I caught a bit of their set at Milwaukee's Summerfest, but recently had my interest piqued by someone who doesn't actually exist.

Namely, Robert Galbraith, the nom de plume of J.K. Rowling, under which she's now written three
detective novels centering around a recurring character called Cormoran Strike.

I enjoyed the first two of these, The Cuckoo's Calling and The Silkworm, but found 2015's Career of Evil to be even better.

For reasons unknown--other than that Rowling must be a fairly avid fan--the latter takes it title from a Blue Öyster Cult song, all of the chapters are introduced by a BÖC lyrical snippet and the band is referenced throughout the story.

This prompted me to do some latter-day exploring of BÖC on Spotify and Wikipedia--I was surprised to learn Patti Smith was an early collaborator--and though the trio of songs I knew remained my favorites, I was happy to notice the band on the Backlot Bash schedule and make a point of attending.

BÖC's two most prominent original members, Buck Dharma (real name Donald Roeser) and Eric Bloom, continue as mainstays 44 years since the band's debut album, with both guitarists alternating on lead vocals.

After opening with a song I didn't know--"The Red & the Black," rather than "This Ain't the Summer of Love," which Setlist.fm showed me to as a recent opener--the band played "Golden Age of Leather" before rocking through "Burnin' for You."

With Dharma sounding strong vocally and playing some wonderful guitar solos, and Bloom handling his vocal takes with aplomb, Blue Öyster Cult made 90 minutes go by pretty quickly, and impressed well beyond a late-set pairing of "Godzilla" and "(Don't Fear) The Reaper," the latter now of "more cowbell!" SNL fame.

The rest of the 5-piece band included Richie Castellano on guitar and keys, Jules Radino on drums and--at least for this show--Danny Miranda on bass.

I was somewhat surprised that no mention was made of the recent passing of Sandy Pearlman, the man who was instrumental in the band's creation and long served as their manager and frequent producer.

But having finally gotten around to seeing Black Sabbath earlier this year, I was glad to have opportunity to catch their onetime Black & Blue Tour companions, within the town I call home. (See Blue Öyster Cult's Backlot Bash setlist here.)

Although I had seen Living Colour way back in 1989 on the Monsters of Rock tour at Alpine Valley, I only ever knew a few of their songs and can't say I was aware they still existed.

But vocalist Corey Glover, guitarist Vernon Reed and drummer Will Calhoun remain from the original quartet, while bassist Doug Wimbish dates back to 1992.

And all still sounded in quite fine form.

Even after a good bit of Spotifamiliarization, there were a number of songs played that I didn't recognize, but Glover is a strong, energetic singer and the three others proved demonstrably excellent musicians.

Reid remains a brilliant guitarist who flashed some stupendous solos--most notably in the band's biggest hit, "Cult of Personality"--while Wimbish and Calhoun shined in extended instrumental turns in the spotlight.

"Ignorance is Bliss" and "Type" were among other highlights, while the 15-song set included three covers: Talking Heads' "Memories Can Wait" (which was the opener), a rock version of the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Who Shot Ya"--Reid spoke passionately throughout the set about the need to curb violence--and a finale of The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go" that found Glover atop the steps of a church alongside the Oakton Street stage. (See Living Colour's Backlot Bash setlist here.)

Living Colour was one of the first hard rock bands comprised entirely of African-Americans (excepting the terrific but little-known band called Death).

Hearing them sound superb at the Backlot Bash, I couldn't help but imagine that they influenced Rage Against the Machine and many others, and honestly don't know why they didn't enjoy a greater run of impressive success.

But they certainly helped Skokie seem a whole lot hipper, if only for a night.

And along with another NYC-bred band on the preceding night, they provided a colorful blast from the past that sounded great in the present tense.

A couple videos I shot: "Burnin' For You" by Blue Öyster Cult; "Cult of Personality" by Living Colour

Friday, August 26, 2016

Fortunate Son: With Offspring Alongside, John Fogerty Shows He's Still Quite Ready to Play, Today -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

John Fogerty
Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, IL
August 25, 2016

Just a few minutes past the ticketed time of 8:00pm, John Fogerty walked onto the Ravinia stage with his band, looking much like he's always looked and--sounding much like he's always sounded--summarily ripped through "Travelin' Band," "Green River," "Born on the Bayou," "Who'll Stop the Rain" and "Looking Out My Back Door. "

These tunes all harken back to Fogerty's brilliant run fronting Creedence Clearwater Revival from 1968-72, and along with a handful of solo tunes, CCR classics dominated the 21-song set over 105 minutes.

There were no background videos, no hyperkinetic lighting displays, no opening act, no backup singers.

It was a rather straightforward affair, not much unlike three previous Fogerty shows I attended--most recently in 2014--or a concert DVD I own.

But other than, for me, some sense of "Deja Vu (All Over Again)"--a song of his not played Thursday--none of this uniformity was a bad thing.

Over an astonishing 4 years with Creedence, Fogerty created one of the most hallowed catalogs in rock history, and it's much to his credit that he still sings and plays the old songs as good as ever.

And even through binoculars from a pavilion seat--for just $35 on StubHub--Fogerty at 71 doesn't look markably different than he did in 1985 when I first came to know him via the Centerfield solo album (after many years of lying low).

Though not nearly as prolific on his own as he was with CCR, 2013's "Mystic Highway" demonstrated he can still write a great tune, while "Joy of My Life" was a nice love song for his wife that I hadn't heard before.

I wouldn't have minded a few more solo cuts--"Deja Vu," "Rock and Roll Girls," "Almost Saturday Night"--and even the Creedence cavalcade could benefit from some variance, given the amazing depth.

I missed "Up Around the Bend" and would've relished "Hey Tonight," while "Someday Never Comes" is strangely one that Fogerty has almost never performed on his own.

Though often played, he also skipped "Susie Q" in his first-ever concert at Ravinia.

But along with the aforementioned, "Midnight Special," "Have You Ever Seen the Rain," "Down on the Corner," "Fortunate Son," "Bad Moon Rising" and  "Proud Mary" were absolute joys, as well as solo hits "Centerfield"--complete with a baseball bat-shaped guitar--and "The Old Man Down the Road." (See the full setlist here.)

While it well may sound like this was a concert comprised of many superlative old songs, you--and even I--might well imagine that it provided standard issue enjoyment, great for the North Shore set who hadn't seen Fogerty in their midst before, but nothing that demanded my attendance yet again.

But though Fogerty is decidedly old-school, he comes across as a genial, genuine guy who simply loves to perform, which always abets the delight of seeing him.

Though not extremely verbose onstage, beyond being gracious he tells stories that remind of his scintillating history, including one about showing up at Woodstock for a 9:00pm CCR slot and not playing until 2:30am, following a particularly trippy Grateful Dead set.

He also surrounds himself with outstanding musicians, including one of my all-time favorite drummers, Kenny Aronoff, a particularly dynamic keyboard/organ/accordion player named Bob Malone and as one of two side guitarists, his own son Shane Fogerty.

All of the players were given opportunities to shine in the spotlight with extended solo turns, but it was particularly cool to see John Fogerty and his fortunate son raging side-by-side on a reworked version of "Lodi" and, appropriately, "The Old Man Down the Road."

As in 2014, Fogerty astonished me with unassuming guitar prowess to match the magnificence of his songwriting, and though not one of his lyrical masterworks, "Keep On Chooglin'" was one of the night's highlights due to a feverish multi-instrumental workout.

It was also great to hear a lesser-known CCR gem, "Ramble Tamble."

While I can't say that younger generations were much represented in Ravinia's crowd, the high profile presence of one of Fogerty's children onstage amid other stellar sidemen helped make the whole affair feel more like a revival than merely a sentimental jukebox.

Like a proud papa, John even made a point of telling the full pavilion--and a good-sized lawn crowd despite no video screen--that Shane had graduated from USC, with a 4.0 grade point average.

And augmented by a couple chestnuts Fogerty didn't write--"I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "New Orleans"--the concert made for a pretty convincing master class in rock 'n roll history.

I may have heard it all before, but when the music is this good--and played with such obvious and unmitigated ardor--it never gets old.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Ours Go to 11: Volume 16, U.S. National Parks I've Visited (In Honor of the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service)

I noticed on Wikipedia that today is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, which was created on August 25, 2016.

So it made me think about the National Parks I've visited over the years.

I'm much more an urban traveler, but have gotten to some great National Parks over the years, including in other countries.

Focusing on just the U.S., I wondered if I'd been to 11, but if counting official National Parks--of which there are 59--and not National Monuments, National Historical Parks and other entities under the NPS, I seem to have only visited 8.

So I had to include a few of the other types of protected areas to round out my list.

(See the full list of areas under the domain of the U.S. National Park Service here.)

1. Bryce Canyon, Utah
2. Badlands, South Dakota
3. Grand Canyon, Arizona
4. Rocky Mountain, Colorado
5. Zion, Utah
6. Olympic, Washington  
7. Petrified Forest, Arizona
8. Redwood, California
9. Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming
10. Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, Ohio
11. Independence National Historical Park, Pennsylvania

Statue of Liberty National Monument / Ellis Island, New York

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Alive, All the Way: Pearl Jam Knocks a Pair of Prodigious Blasts Out of the Friendly Confines -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Pearl Jam
Wrigley Field, Chicago
August 20 & 22
(both shows attended)
@@@@@ (for each & both)

Pearl Jam's phenomenal first album, Ten--the uniform number of the band's original namesake, Mookie Blaylock--was released 25 years ago Saturday, on August 27, 1991.

Though I recall reading a Rolling Stone article around the time of the album's release, I didn't pay much attention or acquire the CD until after Nirvana's Nevermind broke open grunge--and alternative music for that matter--upon its release on September 24 of that year.

Living in Los Angeles at the time, I'm pretty sure I bought Nevermind and Ten in the fall of 1991, as I was familiar with both bands when they co-opened for that Red Hot Chili Peppers that December at the L.A. Forum (foolishly, I didn't attend).

So I was well "into" Pearl Jam as Ten became a blockbuster and "Alive," "Even Flow" and "Jeremy" became staples on Alt Rock radio and MTV.

I believe I bought their second album, Vs., immediately upon release in October 1993 (a month after Nirvana's In Utero) and likewise got all their subsequent albums rather instantly.

Having moved back to the Chicago area by then, I acutely rued not being able to get a ticket to a March 1994 concert at the old Chicago Stadium not long before it got torn down, but beginning in 1995--in Milwaukee, not the Soldier Field show on the tour short-circuited by the band's battle with Ticketmaster--I've now seen Pearl Jam 18 times.

Including shows on both Saturday and Monday at Wrigley Field.

This makes them the longest running band that I've loved, in real-time, from their first album on.

(I didn't get into U2 until at least War or Under a Blood Red Sky, having been oblivious to their debut, Boy and follow-up October. Similar scenario with the now disbanded R.E.M., and while I've been a big Green Day fan since they broke with 1994's Dookie, that came not only after Ten but two of their own indie releases. Living in L.A., I didn't hear of the Smashing Pumpkins' 1991 debut Gish, though became a big fan with 1993's Siamese Dream.)

So I didn't need much convincing about how great a band--and concert act--Pearl Jam remains even after all the members have turned 50, especially as their October 2014 show in Milwaukee was one of the best I've ever seen.

But I got a double dose of proof at my favorite place on earth, made all the more special by how great the Cubs are playing this year and Eddie Vedder being one of the most prominent diehard Cubs fans (he was born in Evanston).

And though I'd seen Pearl Jam at Wrigley in July 2013 and will never forget sticking around until 2am after a rain & lightning delay of nearly 3 hours, these shows went a good bit smoother.

In terms of pacing, Saturday's show felt a tad uneven--perhaps exacerbated by my having a seat somewhat obstructed by the soundboard tent--but lasted 3 hours and 20 minutes, ending with Vedder singing his ode to Cubdom, "All the Way" alongside his favorite player from childhood, Jose Cardenal and 3 children of Ron Santo, before a final blast through the Who's "Baba O'Riley."

Cheekily referencing their 2013 show at Wrigley, I loved the early cover of the Beatles' "Rain," and smiled at "Bee Girl," saluting the star of Blind Melon's "No Rain" video.

Along with several boisterous ballpark singalongs to anthems such as "Jeremy," "Alive," "Black," "Even Flow," "Better Man," "Corduroy" and a cover of Cheap Trick's "Surrender"--all repeated on Monday, which otherwise featured 29 songs not played on Night 1--the show included several wonderful non-musical moments.

A soldier and his girlfriend were brought onstage and a marriage proposal unfolded; former NFL player Steve Gleason, beset by ALS and the subject of a new documentary, spoke electronically and quite life-affirmingly; Vedder dedicated "Light Years" to Gord Downie of the Canadian band the Tragically Hip, who were playing their last show the same night due to Downie being beset by terminal brain cancer.

Of the 34 songs played Saturday, 8 were covers--including the Ramones' "I Believe in Miracles," Bob Dylan's "Masters of War," Little Steven's "I Am a Patriot" and Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" beyond those already mentioned--but not only couldn't anyone say they were cheated, this coalesced with an evening in which Vedder clearly was reveling in childhood heroes, both baseball and musical.

Though 20 minutes shorter in heeding to Wrigley's 11pm concert curfew rather than blowing past it, Monday night's show was more of a musical tour de force.

After "Oceans," "Footsteps" and "Off He Goes" provided a slow-groove opening triptych, the band began rocking at full-tilt far earlier than on Saturday, with early reprises of "Better Man" and "Corduroy" leading into "State of Love and Trust," "Why Go," "Animal" and "Given to Fly."

Subsequent highlights included "Wishlist," "Mind Your Manners," "Got Some," "Rearviewmirror" and guitarist Stone Gossard handling lead vocals on "Don't Give Me No Lip."

Both nights seemed to find the band relaxed and enjoying themselves in a venue sacrosanct to Vedder--and me--and as on Saturday, Monday brought many reminders of why I relish Pearl Jam well beyond their music.

Routinely verbose and gracious, Vedder delayed the music for about 5 minutes twice, first in highlighting several charities the band was supporting with a portion of ticket sales--and matching donations from Cubs Care and Theo Epstein's foundation--and then in reading letters he'd received conveying how much the band meant to certain attendees suffering from great illnesses and hardships.

Prior to "Man of the Hour," he noted that Monday would have been the 49th birthday of another famed Seattle frontman, Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, who passed in 2002 after long battling serious demons.

And amid the band's most fervent rocker, "Lukin," Eddie stopped the song cold to point out a jerk in the audience who was harassing a woman and have him tossed.

Unless it was some kind of weird dream, I also think Dennis Rodman showed up onstage, and even cradled Vedder in his arms.

All in all, it made for a pretty amazing couple of nights. Each show was fantastic in its own right--you can view Saturday's Pearl Jam setlist here, and Monday's here--but in varying greatly, the two-night stand validated my double-dipping. (This marks the 5th time I've seen Pearl Jam in pairs.)

Saturday night I went solo and and enjoyed sitting behind home plate next to an ardent Pearl Jam follower in from Toronto; Monday I was accompanied in the upper deck by my most frequent concert companion, Paolo. Both scenarios and perspectives considerably abetted my delight.

In one of the odd ways that music is a constant thread throughout my life, on Monday in the baseball stadium of the team in first place in the NL Central, Pearl Jam ended the show with a cover of the Beatles' "I've Got a Feeling." This seemed like a strange choice, but I now believe Eddie was slyly referencing the Cubs and what seems like a great chance to win their first World Series in 108 years.

And just 8 days a week earlier, Paolo and I saw Paul McCartney play the same song in another NL Central ballpark, Busch Stadium in St. Louis. (Presumably without the same agenda.)

It's also true that on Monday before I left work for the concert, I learned that my current stint as a contractor will be coming to an end sooner than anticipated. While far from tragic and nothing I haven't experienced before, it was news for which yet another phenomenal concert by one of my favorite artists provided an emotional antidote.

And when, nearing 11:00pm, I sang along heartily as Pearl Jam blazed through Neil Young's, "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World," I could help but consider it my reason for being.


And someday we'll go all the way.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Sunday in the Park with Wilco: Local Stalwarts Make for a Beautiful Night Under Chicago Stars -- Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act Twin Peaks
Jay Pritzker Pavilion
Millennium Park, Chicago
August 21, 2016

When I bought my tickets to "see" Wilco Sunday night at Millennium Park--way back in February--I presumed I would be precluded from actually seeing the band onstage.

At the time I wasn't employed, and though I imagined it would be fun to catch Chicago's foremost band--at least until the original Smashing Pumpkins reunite, if rumors prove true--with my sister Allison and friend Paolo, lawn tickets for $30 + fees seemed far more reasonable than pavilion seats starting at $75 + fees.

And on a supremely beautiful night amid one of the city's most sublime public spaces, Wilco sounded terrific--thanks, I think, to the speaker system on Frank Gehry's lawn lattice, though I couldn't be certain the speakers were even on.

As you can deduce from the photos I took, on occasion I was able to walk down nearer the stage, see the band and snap some pix, and even watched the last 30 minutes of a nearly 2-1/2 hour show from a visual vantage point.

So in catching a fine performance from a band I've long liked--this was my 10th Wilco concert, plus a benefit gig by lead singer Jeff Tweedy in a living room--with a couple companions on an August night sans thunderstorms or even humidity, it would seem I have no complaints.

And I don't in terms of what and how Wilco played.

Yes, I would have expected more setlist variance from other shows on their 2016 summer tour, but this is the only one I attended so I fully enjoyed the well-paced mix of six songs from 2015's Star Wars album, two from the forthcoming (on Sept. 9) Schmilco--"If Ever I Was a Child" and "Locator"--and several gems from across the past 21 years.

These included "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," "Hummingbird," "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," "Heavy Metal Drummer," "I'm the Man Who Loves You," "I Got You (At the End of the Century)" and "Outtasite (Outta Mind)." (See the full setlist here.)

It's hard to be a Wilco fan and not appreciate their folksy side, but as the songs I cited above bespeak, I like it best when they rock out. The hard/soft, fast/slow collided brilliantly on the apt, "Via Chicago," with the mostly low-key tune interrupted by thunderous blasts of sound and light (as best I could see).

The slow-build but ultimately fevered multi-instrumental buzz of "Art of Almost" had Paolo and I concurring about just how great a band Wilco is, in terms of the obvious skill all the members bring to their craft.

So while it was atypical for a band to close their show--and a big homecoming one at that--with a 8-song unplugged second encore (after having rocked pretty hard in the first encore), it demonstrated, impressively, that Wilco is confident enough to do whatever the hell they want.

And having songs as good and beloved as "War on War," "Passenger Side," "California Stars" and the closing "Shot in the Arm" certainly didn't hurt in mellowing out the appreciative crowd before sending them home happy.

Which all made for a really good show that well may have merited @@@@1/2 had I been able to see more of it.

As I said above, I didn't expect a spot on the lawn to provide a sightline to the stage. But having been to many a free concert at the Pritzker Pavilion where a video screen was employed, I expected that to have been the case in ponying up about $40 (with fees).

I imagine not having any video screen may have been Wilco's choice, especially as a pretty elaborate light show comprised their stage backdrop. (Hence the impracticality of a screen right behind them, as was used at a Bob Mould concert in 2014, among others.)

But between the promoter, park district or whoever oversees these things, I think something should have been devised to let fans on the lawn readily see the happenings onstage. I recall when Gehry designed the visually dynamic bandshell, he reasoned that video could be projected on the top front of it, but I've never seen that done.

I know that, especially for area concertgoers enamored with Ravinia, the idea of going to a concert and simply hearing the band isn't that unusual, but it has never been my preference. (I like that Ravinia has added a lawn video screen but now try to only go if I can get an affordable pavilion seat.)

No offense to Tweedy, guitarist Nils Cline, drummer Glenn Kotche, bassist John Stirratt and the other band members, but Wilco isn't the most exciting band to look at, so it was far from a waste of time to primarily just hear them. In fact, it was often cool just to stare at the sky and appreciate the music.

But next time, a video screen or two would definitely be welcome, particularly if I'm not in a better position to put myself in a better position.

Opening the show was a far newer Chicago band called Twin Peaks, devoid of any obvious homages to
David Lynch.

A music-loving friend of mine has championed them, and it turns out that guitarist/vocalist Cadien Lake James is the son of a Facebook friend of Paolo's.

I had familiarized myself a bit via a Spotify Session the band had done, and everything sounded good out in the park, including "Walk to the One You Love," a single from their third album, Down in Heaven, released in May.

Paolo suggested Twin Peaks sounds like the Dandy Warhols, while I sensed some familiarity with Weezer, with a bit of discordance reminiscent of Sonic Youth and references to the Velvet Underground and Rolling Stones.

Showcases like this one should only help the band build their presence, and while they'd be quite fortunate to build a career with the breadth, depth and fan loyalty of Wilco, it's not impossible to imagine one day I could see Twin Peaks headlining the Pritzker Pavilion.

Or at least hear them.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Ours Go to 11: Volume 15, Still Active Concert Acts I've Never Seen But (At Least Kinda) Want To

Except for those that allow no opportunity to sit down--even if just for a few intermittent moments--I still love going to rock concerts.

And by month's end I will have attended nearly 700 in my lifetime, by numerous different artists.

Presumably, anyone who knows me knows that I've seen Bruce Springsteen dozens of times, and have repeatedly caught acts like Paul McCartney, Pearl Jam, The Who, U2, The Rolling Stones and others.

There are a few classic rock acts I've recently seen for the first time--Bryan Ferry, Chicago, Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael McDonald--and live performers I've caught at least once range to include Barry Manilow, Adele, Taylor Swift, Madonna, Metallica, Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett, Al Green, Neil Diamond, Miranda Lambert and Keith Urban.

So who, of still-existing acts--mostly in a rock vein, but not only--haven't I ever seen but want to? The following are all I could come up with, and includes some artists I've repeatedly passed on seeing, even recently or upcoming. And bands such as Blur, Pulp, ELO and the Hoodoo Gurus haven't played Chicago in ages, if ever.

So it's not like there are a bunch of burning desires left (except for great new artists I don't yet know or who don't yet exist).

I realize that not knowing everyone I've seen in concert could be a hindrance to appreciating my omissions, or to recommending others I "should see." As noted, I've seen everyone else I've knowingly cared to (including the few current acts that interested me: Arcade Fire, The Killers, LCD Soundsystem, The Black Keys, Fleet Foxes) but certainly could be oblivious to some tremendous concert performers.

Unseen "current" concert performers that interest me most:

1. Blur
2. Mumford & Sons
3. Tool
4. Electric Light Orchestra
5. Blondie
6. Pulp
7. Echo & the Bunnymen
8. Beyoncé
9. Hall & Oates
10. Journey
11. Hoodoo Gurus 

A few others

Cat Stevens
James Taylor
Bonnie Raitt
The Allman Brothers
Frankie Valli 

Reunions I'd like to see (of bands I didn't)

Led Zeppelin (have seen Page + Plant and Plant solo several times)
Talking Heads (have seen David Byrne play Heads songs)
The Smiths (have seen Johnny Marr)
Dire Straits
Rage Against the Machine (have seen Audioslave and Tom Morello solo)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Ticket to Ride Brings OverArching Enjoyment: Recapping a Rockin' Weekend in St. Louis -- Travelogue

An aspect of my life that makes me proud and happy is having had the opportunity to travel a good deal--to great places.

To illustrate this quickly, I would probably cite destinations like London, Paris, Vienna, Venice, Barcelona, St. Petersburg, numerous other European cities, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Australia, San Francisco, New Orleans, some great national parks and several trips to New York.

But though the locales may sound far less glamorous, my existence has also been considerably enriched by 50+ aggregate visits to cities within a 6-hour driving radius of my home near Chicago:

Indianapolis, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Cleveland, Columbus (OH and IN), Cincinnati, Dayton, Green Bay, Toledo, Canton, Louisville, Minneapolis/St. Paul, St. Louis, Springfield (IL), Madison, Des Moines, the Quad Cities, Dubuque, Galena, Hannibal (MO) and Champaign/Urbana (where my best friend has long lived).

(This doesn't include more than 50 trips to Milwaukee alone, which unlike the above doesn't typically include an overnight stay.)

And if I can exude a bit of self-esteem, one of my favorite things about myself is that I can find as much fun and fulfillment in a mid-sized Midwestern city as I can in European capitals.

Such was the case, again, on a quick weekend trip to St. Louis.

In a couple key ways, this excursion was a bit different than most prior:

1) Instead of driving, I went by train and 2) I was accompanied by a friend, Paolo, rather than traveling solo.

But it also hewed to many regional treks in that it involved a rock concert, baseball stadium, art museum, history museum, local monument, appreciation of architecture and good food with a local flavor.

The impetus for this trip was a concert by the legendary Paul McCartney at Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals. In my previous post, I reviewed the show, which was phenomenal.

This was my 7th time in St. Louis in the past 20 years (most recently in 2011) so some of the other things we did--and didn't--over roughly 25 hours in the city, I had done previously.

Still, starting with the decision to travel by train, pretty much everything about the trip was acutely enjoyable.

Although I have taken several long-distance trains in Europe, I only recall going from New York to Boston in 2000 as involving a U.S. train ride of more than an hour or so.

But with the concert on Saturday night, there was no reason for me to take an unpaid day off work on Friday or Monday, and driving roughly 5 hours in each direction on consecutive days didn't hold much appeal.

I suppose I could have explored flying or taking a Greyhound or MegaBus, the latter of which I used to go to & fro St. Louis in 2011 around a Foo Fighters concert, but without explicitly comparing options or schedules, Amtrak just seemed like a good idea. This was probably exacerbated by sentimentality for the Beatles' movie A Hard Day's Night, which largely involves the lads on a train trip and whose title song Sir Paul has been opening with on this tour.

It was interesting and enlightening for me simply to wait for the train after getting a ride down to
Union Station and discovering that the old, classical structure is now really just an empty husk with some out-of-the-way benches; the train tracks and passenger lounges now being under a building on the east side of Canal.

We were taking the 303 Lincoln Service, which stops in Joliet, Pontiac, Normal, Springfield and a few other locations along the way to St. Louis, so in the waiting area--along with three pigeons that kept flying around inside; I imagined eating a donut and getting Tippi Hedrened--included a mix of students, farmers, Amish folks and Cardinals fans (the Cards played the Cubs at Wrigley Thursday-Sunday).

I learned that having reserved seats on the train didn't mean assigned seats, but there was enough room in the Coach cars for Paolo and I to each have our own pair of seats in front of one another.

Over the roughly 5-1/2 hour ride, I mostly dozed and fiddled around on my phone, while Paolo engaged in a long conversation with a man across the aisle from him, who was a farmer formerly in the Black Ops. He wasn't from St. Louis itself, but corroborated a BBQ tip Paolo had received from a friend, which we followed.

Lincoln, IL
There weren't many amazing sights to see along the way, but I enjoyed noticing the quaint downtown of a city named Lincoln, going right past the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, catching glimpses of old Route 66 alongside much of the train route and seeing the Gateway Arch in the distance as we came upon and across the Mississippi River.

In downtown St. Louis is an old Union Station that I knew had become a popular shopping mall years ago, but I figured trains still arrived there (or essentially there) and had booked a nearby hotel called the Pear Tree Inn by Drury through Booking.com.

Turns out our train came into the Gateway Transportation Center about 4 blocks away, which wasn't a big deal as we'd packed light for an overnight trip, but caused a bit of initial directional confusion.

After checking in, we walked about 15 minutes west to the recommended barbecue joint, Pappy's Smokehouse, where we both got a half-slab of ribs with a side portion of brisket, a fried ear of corn and sweet potato fries for me and potato salad for Paolo.

With a quartet of BBQ sauces on the table to try, we both found the ribs to be fantastic, loved the corn and potatoes but found the brisket (sliced not chopped) to be somewhat dull. Burnt Ends probably would've been better than the sliced brisket, but was sold out for the day when we got there around 4pm.

I also enjoyed two bottles of locally made Fitz pop, in cream soda and black cherry flavors.

We took an Uber to the main riverfront area of downtown, and as with four other St. Louis Uber drivers utilized, we enjoyed chatting with the guy behind the wheel. It's always fun to gain the perspective of locals, from how Cardinals fans feel now that the Cubs are dominant, to whether or not St. Louis denizens consider themselves part of the South, and the Uber rides were consistently enlightening.

Downtown we saw (externally only in both cases) the beautifully domed Old Courthouse dating to 1828 and the Wainwright Building, designed by Louis Sullivan with his trademark resplendent terra cotta adornments.

With the McCartney concert ticketed for 8:00pm, on the train down I had purchased a pair of Gateway Arch "Journey to the Top" tram passes for 5:50pm. I had ridden to the top of the Arch previously, and knew it wasn't that brilliant an experience, but Paolo never had and I felt it something he should do at least once.

With much of the tourist area of St. Louis a construction zone--including major renovations at Union Station and a downtown plaza completely torn up--the Museum of Westward Expansion under the arch is also undergoing a wholesale re-creation. I don't know when it will reopen, but it looks like it will be awhile.

So all of the beautiful riverside grassland that surrounds the Gateway Arch as part of National Park Service's Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is currently obliterated, making for getting to the arch more cumbersome than normal.

But in arriving by 5:30pm given airport-like security procedures, buying tickets in advance was proven wise as we sped past many waiting patrons.

Until we didn't.

Having gotten in line based on a signboard telling us to do so, we were barked at by an Arch associate that only those with tickets for 5:10 tours should be in line, as they were running behind due to too many people being clustered at the top of the arch.

With no ready waiting area, benches or indication about when we should check back, the yelling lady was really pissing me off.

We were able to get into the free movie about the building of the arch halfway through--the feats of architect/engineer Eero Saarinen and dozens of planners & workers was really rather amazing--and got back in line around 6:10, still officially too early but thanks to a cool employee who listened to our rationale about having to get to the concert

We were able to move to a subsequent queue for the tram about 6:30, and finally got on one--in a tiny, claustrophobic compartment--about 20 minutes later.

Once atop of the arch, we took photos for about 10 minutes through long rectangular windows, and then had to wait to come back down.

So even with a timed ticket, we wound up spending about 2 hours at the Gateway Arch for only 20
minutes of being inside it, including the rides up & down. Especially given the annoying yelling lady--who would have delayed us even 20 minutes longer than her kinder colleague--it was much more stressful than it needed to be, and though a St. Louis staple and gloriously beautiful structure, it wasn't really worth the hassle.

Though it was only a 15-minute walk to Busch Stadium, it was about 7:50pm before we got in and to our seats in Section 447. An A/V presentation including recorded versions of Beatles songs by other artists started by 8:00, but Sir Paul and his band didn't take the stage until 8:27pm.

The next 2 hours and 40 minutes or so was pretty damn phenomenal, and you can read my review of the show here.

We walked about a mile back to our hotel afterwards, but stopped at an open-late restaurant we happened to pass called Maurizio's Pizza & Sports Bar.

Paolo got Chicken Wings and declared them among the best he's ever had, while I ordered Toasted Ravioli, vaguely recalling that it had first been created in St. Louis. (This was later corroborated.)

I found my room at the Pear Tree Inn to be perfectly comfortable--Paolo was in the room next door but I presume he felt likewise--and have written a brief review for Booking.com.

In the morning he utilized the Fitness Center and me a whirlpool, before we enjoyed the complimentary breakfast together.

Though a bit disappointed there was no bacon, I was delighted to find DIY Belgium wafflemakers, and we both felt it quite classy for the hotel's GM to stop and chat with all the guests at breakfast.

Max Beckmann, Acrobats, 1939.
Outside, we encountered something I have almost never experienced on vacation going back 16+ years: Rain.

But it's not that I've never seen rain while traveling, just that for as long as I can remember it hasn't
ever interfered with my plans for a given day. And this held true in St. Louis. On Saturday when I was going to an outdoor concert, it didn't rain; on Sunday when we were planning to be inside museums much of the day, there were some showers that didn't affect us much.

Within the vast Forest Park, which also contains the Saint Louis Zoo, the outdoor MUNY theater and a golf course, we went to the St. Louis Art Museum and the Missouri History Museum, both excellent and free of charge.

Jean-Leon Gerome, The Sentinel at the Sultan's Tomb
Even in both being thoroughly acquainted with the wonderful Art Institute of Chicago, and having visited dozens of other acclaimed art museums, we found the SLAM collection to be world-class.

Particularly striking was a roomful of paintings by German expressionist Max Beckmann--SLAM is said to have more of his works than any other museum--and four stupendous Van Goghs hanging next to each other (and another nearby).

There was also great stuff by Picasso, Chagall, de Chirico, Modigliani, Renoir, Degas, El Greco, Rodin, Chuck Close and many others, as well as excellent Chinese and Egyptian holdings.

I also found myself wonderfully bemused by a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (shown nearby) in which a decorative chest reminded me of the Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building that we'd seen the day before.

The rain precluded us from walking across the park to the Missouri History Museum, but an interpark
trolley took us there for a $2 fare.

I knew from their website that special exhibitions currently include ones on Little Black Dresses and Route 66, both proving enjoyable to peruse.

We also walked through the permanent collections covering the history of St. Louis, and a gallery pertaining to the World's Fair held in Forest Park in 1904 (incredibly, the Olympics were also held there concurrently).

There was also a replica of Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis plane--plus a newspaper gallery commemorating his famed transatlantic flight--and a large statue of Thomas Jefferson, tying to his facilitating the Louisiana Purchase that brought the U.S. acquisition of Missouri.

A particularly engaging Uber driver enlivened the ride to Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, a local institution several people had pointed us to. I ordered a "Concrete" with caramel, pineapple and pralines, which was great but not so much more so than similar concoctions I had elsewhere. Paolo didn't quite get the concept of "mix-ins" and wound up simply with chocolate custard.

Still needing an actual lunch-type meal--around 3:30 at that point--we were going to check out an Irish pub called Maggie O'Brien's near Union Station, but logistically deferred to eating at Syberg's in our hotel, where we had returned to retrieve our held bags.

After a Reuben for Paolo and fish 'n chips for me, we Ubered back to the Gateway Transportation Center, caught a 5:30 Amtrak back to Chicago's Union Station and Ubered our respective ways home.

We didn't get to the Budweiser Tour, but both have done so previously, and were told by multiple Uber drivers to check out the City Museum, an outdoor playground at which architectural remnants are supposedly gathered for kids of all ages to climb upon. The Missouri Botanical Garden was also cited, but I've visited it before.

Someday I'd like to check out the ornate interior of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, and though
I've been to largely Italian community known as The Hill and seen the houses where Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola lived across the street as boys, given that both have passed within the past year, I wouldn't have minded another pilgrimage. (I remain unclear on the ability to call Uber audibles.)

But for the most part, it was a weekend rather perfectly spent: riding the rails, savoring food, history, culture, architecture, a few minutes in the Arch and a Beatle, in the company of a good friend.

Though it was just a quick weekend visit, I feel it was a pretty satisfying (re)exploration of St. Louis.

Still, I imagine at some point I may even "Get Back."