Monday, July 31, 2017

Ooh La La: Classy Blend of Gershwin, Ballet and Classic MGM Makes 'An American in Paris' Très Bien

Theater Review

An American in Paris
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 13

Last week was one in which several of my longest-standing passions quite directly reiterated themselves.

Likely by the time I turned 7 years old, my dad had introduced me to the Beatles (and other rock acts not long after), indoctrinated me as a Cubs fan (though one who never disliked the White Sox) and instilled a lifelong affinity for the great MGM film musicals starring Gene Kelly (Singin' in the Rain, On the Town, etc.).

And within another year or two, my parents would take me to live theater--including A Chorus Line and even The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas--with the rest of the family.

Last Tuesday, I attended a concert by Paul McCartney, with my mom and sister Allison. (My father passed several years ago.)

Wednesday I saw my beloved--and finally, World Champion--Cubs beat the White Sox at the latter's stadium, alongside a diehard Sox fan who is a close friend.

And Thursday, I went to see a touring rendition of An American in Paris, a recent Broadway musical inspired by the 1951 MGM film starring none other than Gene Kelly.

I can't say I liked the show quite as much as I did Sir Paul, but featuring several songs by George & Ira Gershwin, it too was rather melodically sublime.

And though there was something that seemed imperfect about the narrative of An American In Paris as it chronicles three men infatuated with the same woman toward a denouement that feels a bit forced, the incorporation of impressive ballet throughout makes it a musical more unique--and graceful--than most.

Long before it was an MGM musical, An American in Paris was a jazz-influenced orchestral piece that George Gershwin composed in 1928.

After attending a concert of the piece, movie producer Arthur Freed was smitten not only by the music but by the name, and pursued the idea of creating An American in Paris as an MGM film musical. George Gershwin had died in 1937, but Freed negotiated with Ira Gershwin for the rights to use several tunes for which he had written lyrics to his brother's brilliant music. 

The movie won the Best Picture Oscar for 1951--and five other Academy Awards--but wasn't transitioned to the stage until a Broadway-bound version debuted in late 2014 at Paris' Théâtre du Châtelet, helmed by noted ballet choreographer & director, Christopher Wheeldon. (The Englishman is also responsible for the Joffrey Ballet's new version of The Nutcracker.)

The stage version, now touring the U.S. following an 18-month Broadway run and an extant London production, retains three great songs from the movie--"I Got Rhythm," "'S Wonderful" and "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise"--while adding several other Gershwin tunes.

These include "I've Got Beginner's Luck," "The Man I Love," "Fidgety Feet" and "But Not for Me."

As in the film--which I've seen more recently than my childhood but won't claim to explicitly recall--there is a lengthy ballet set to George Gershwin's original "An American in Paris" instrumental piece.

And the ballet dancing is substantial and exquisite throughout, with both leads--McGee Maddox as Jerry Mulligan and Sara Esty as Lise Dassin--having impressive ballet credentials.

As for the story, at the end of World War II, Jerry has decided to remain in Paris to pursue his passion for painting (in the environs of Picasso, who the show references). He almost immediately sees the beautiful Lise, but doesn't interact with her until after befriending composer Adam Hochberg (nicely played by Etai Benson) and Henri Baurel (likewise by Nick Spangler).

Initially unbeknownst to Jerry, Henri--scion to one of Europe's wealthiest families--has long been dating Lise, but may well be gay (per multiple intimations within the dialogue) at a time when he cannot openly admit it.

Adam, who is enlisted to compose a ballet in which Lise will star, is also smitten by the ballerina.

And the attractive American philanthropist funding the ballet, Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti), is smitten with Jerry, who she engages to create designs for the new commission.

Henri's parents (played by Gayton Scott & Don Noble) also factor into the proceedings, and if it sounds like there's a lot going on, at times it did seem as though there were a few too many characters and threads.

This doesn't really matter because the music and ballet dancing are so good, along with impressive scenery evoking post-war Paris.

The cast members are all quite good, though despite being a handsome ballet dancer also blessed with the ability to sing and act, Maddox--who is fairly new to the tour cast--quite understandably doesn't match Gene Kelly for charisma and roguish charm.

From my seat in the very last row of the Oriental Theatre, I also didn't sense Maddox yet having tremendous chemistry with the winsome Esty.

So while I won't reveal how the love quadrangle unwinds itself, the characterizations seem to somewhat belie the way it does.

But whether you find yourself on Team Jerry, Team Adam or Team Henri, you'll find musical delight 'til the very end as the trio finely delivers the closing "They Can't Take That Away From Me."

And hence, despite some muddle with its storyline's arc, An American in Paris onstage is truly a triomphe.

Pulpit Bully: Why I Chose Not To See Roger Waters in Concert

I go to a lot of concerts, and the past two months have been especially fertile.

In June and July I attended 15 concerts, from huge football stadiums to arenas to free shows in local parks.

I saw old favorites like U2, Elvis Costello, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Paul McCartney, bands I've long liked but had never seen--such as Blondie--and those for whom my fondness is fairly recent (Tool, The Church, Echo & the Bunnymen).

Acts I enjoyed live, just over the past 8 weeks, have ranged from the massively loud Metallica to the far more mellow James Taylor.

Obviously, I can't--and don't, for various reasons--get to every Chicago area concert, even by artists I like. Virtually every day on Facebook I see friends posting from shows I'm not at, and frequently think, "I imagine that would be quite good."

Among those were a trio of concerts--July 22, 23 & 28--at the United Center by Roger Waters, who had been one of the primary forces behind Pink Floyd.

Although I love Pink Floyd (though not quite as much as some), saw Waters twice on his The Wall tour (in 2010 & 2012) and found last year's concert by his former bandmate David Gilmour to be not just one of 2016's best but almost spiritually sublime as Floydian classics were dusted off and wonderfully delivered, I opted not to see Roger Waters this time.

I could somewhat write this off as due to scheduling conflicts, as on the 22nd & 23rd, respectively, I saw Blondie/Garbage and Echo & the Bunnymen/Violent Femmes double bills, with all acts except Garbage ones I'd never seen live before.

And while I enjoy going to concerts, theater and ballgames in large volume, I'd done so 7 of the prior 9 nights--mostly deep into Chicago or to far outlying suburbs--so even with $55 tickets in plentiful supply at the UC box office Friday, I was physically and financially quite ready for a quiet night at home.

But the truth is, simply from a musical point of view, I would have eagerly gone to see Roger Waters, knowing that the show would be full of Pink Floyd classics set to some rather amazing visuals.

Reviews from friends and critics were largely quite positive--though not universally so--and I won't deny that I looked to see if dirt-cheap ducats could be had on StubHub. (No.)

Though I didn't know anyone who might be interested in attending with me--in part for the reasons I'll address--neither that nor $55 were great hindrances, and simply to abet my awareness, in general and in writing this article, perhaps I should have borne witness.

Plus, singing along to "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2," etc., etc., never grows old.

So to use a word Roger Waters seems to champion, I wouldn't quite say I was "boycotting" him.

But why I decided not to see him has far, far less to do with the music he had made--and seemingly continues to, live and on a well-received new album--than with my perceptions of the man himself.

I also believe it too simplistic--in multiple contexts--to say that I avoided seeing Roger Waters simply because I don't like his politics.

First, in terms of the overt Anti-Trump messaging seemingly hugely prominent on his Us+Them Tour--based on photos & videos I've seen and reviews I've read--I'm aligned with Waters, although I'm rarely a fan of being bashed over the head by political statements at rock concerts, at least to the extent he seems to be doing so.

Second, while I have serious reservations about Waters' overt condemnation of the state of Israel for transgressions against Palestinians--he is a prominent supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement--this was also the case back when I saw The Wall Tour twice, I've continued to quite contentedly see Elvis Costello, who has previously opted not to play in Israel, and while I'm not rushing out to see Kid Rock again anytime soon, an artist's political stances are not a litmus test for my fandom.

Certainly, my affinity for artists like Bruce Springsteen, U2, Pearl Jam, etc., has much to do with the humanistic bent of their lyrics, but having attended over 700 concerts, many have undoubtedly been by artists whose personal viewpoints may differ from mine.

Which is perfectly fine, even desirable to an extent. Though I believe what I believe because I think it is right--and some things are indelible, like not hating people due to the color of their skin--I'm very much a proponent of discussion, discourse and debate. To only listen to perspectives with which I agree would provide no room for new thought, consideration, learning or growth.

And the interesting thing is that denouncing Israel has become fairly popular among lefties and
liberals with whom I agree on many matters.

Although I am Jewish, I am not automatically nor ardently Pro-Israel. I visited the country in 2009 and found myself frequently harassed by security personnel, and perturbed by pushy cabbies. I am not eager to return, in part because while I am proud of my heritage, I am not a practicing Jew and did not feel welcome or comfortable in the Holy Land.

Regarding Palestine, the situation is quite complex, and I do not have a default position.

Sadly, I would assume some Palestinians who haven't sought to do any harm have themselves been harmed, even killed. This I can never condone.

And while aware of and revulsed by the mistreatment, oppression and slaughter of Jews (dating back centuries, decades and presently), inherently empathetic with Israel to some extent (with relatives who live there) and also understanding that offense can sometimes be a plausible means of defense, I am not much aligned with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, excusing of any egregious behavior nor theoretically opposed to a 2-state solution.

I harbor no antipathy against the Palestinian people--or Arabs or Muslims--appreciate their territorial consternation and am never comfortable with anybody being abused, as many have been in various ways.

In no way am I particularly knowledgeable about Middle Eastern politics, or even specifically Israel, and in trying to better understand the myriad perspectives and ramifications, do not disdain Roger Waters and others--including people I admire such as film director Ken Loach and Archbishop Desmond Tutu--simply for having and espousing opinions about Israel's supposed indiscretions.

Over the years I have had discussions with people I believe more sage about the Israel-Palestinian situation, including prominently with my friend Brad.

Brad is a staunch Democrat and liberal, with whom I agree on many societal and political matters. Like me, he is Jewish, but not Orthodox, and seemingly not actively observant or practicing. (I don't think he regularly attends synagogue; I do not.) He similarly regards Waters as an often brilliant musician, and his lauding of a recent film by another ardent BDS member--I, Daniel Blake, directed by Ken Loach--prompted me to see it and also find it terrific.

Even after conversations with him, and perusals of various sources, my understanding is admittedly still rather simplistic, but Brad has helped me see why Waters' underlying criticisms of Israel seem myopic.

This article is not meant as a staunch nor studied defense of Israel, but as I perceive it the Palestinian government is partially controlled by members of Hamas, which Jewish Israelis and others view as a terrorist organization.

Hamas denies the Holocaust ever happened and has historically been disinterested in a 2-state solution or much in the way of a peaceful compromise. I apologize for not being able to provide attribution toward the veracity of these claims, at least per my understanding, Hamas has wished devastation and even eradication upon the Jews, repeatedly attacked and killed Israelis, and when retaliated upon by Israel has used Palestinian civilians as human shields, which causes the military bombardments to appear even more barbaric and over-the-top.

Israel's President, Netanyahu, is a right-wing conservative, not to the liking of me, Brad or many in Israel, and seemingly staunchly opposed to the sort of compromises likely necessary if peace in Israel is ever to be a possibility.

So it's hard for me to too steadfastly condemn Waters for blasting Netanyahu, the policies he puts forth and the actions taken by the government and military he leads.

Yet as Brad suggests, Waters and the BDS are actually harming their own cause:
"The main obstacle to peace on the Israeli side is that they are currently governed by Netanyahu and a far right Likud coalition. When Labor is in power, they are more amenable to compromise. The goal of BDS is to isolate Israel on all fronts. Waters is the head guy on the cultural front. The theory is that it will force Israel to make unilateral concessions. This is naive. To the extent that BDS is successful--it isn't--isolation would lead to a more fearful Israeli populous, which would be more likely to elect right wing governments who (there as well as here) feed off that fear to advocate a more extreme agenda."
As I noted above, the situation is hugely complicated from all sides, and I recognize that strident action is often necessary to compel change.

Individuals now widely hailed as heroes may have earlier been regarded as nutjobs, and as someone who believes artists have every right to offer political statements, I do not disdain Roger Waters simply for making his, even if Brad suggests that the vehemence of Waters' anti-Israel views can't help but reek of underlying anti-Semitism.

Some may see this as splitting hairs, but my problem with Roger Waters is that he comes off as an insistent, intolerant prig.

And a jerk.

A recent, acute and untenable example of this is his condemnation of Radiohead for planning to play a concert in Israel, which they did in Tel Aviv on July 19.

As I understand it--with the caveat that there may be an element of "he said vs. he said" at play--is that after Radiohead set their concert, Waters tried to engage singer Thom Yorke in conversations (seemingly via email) that urged the acclaimed British band (also a favorite of mine) to reconsider.

According to Waters, Yorke angrily responded to him--apparently rejecting his entreaties to cancel the Israel show--before cutting off communication.

So Waters seemingly spearheaded a petition that he, Loach, Desmond Tutu, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and 50 prominent figures signed in order to up the pressure on Radiohead to cancel.

In a Rolling Stone article, Yorke responded:
"It's deeply disrespectful to assume that we're either being misinformed or that we're so retarded we can't make these decisions ourselves. I thought it was patronizing in the extreme. It's offensive and I just can't understand why going to play a rock show or going to lecture at a university [is a problem to them]."
In intimating that Radiohead had felt properly informed in making their decision to play Israel, Yorke
also noted that the band's guitarist Jonny Greenwood "has both Palestinian and Israeli friends and a wife who's an Arab Jew."

I will also add that just in June and July, Guns N' Roses, Britney Spears, The Pet Shop Boys and Tears for Fears are among the prominent Western artists to play in Tel Aviv without seemingly incurring such wrath from Waters and the BDS movement.

Essentially it seems, Waters asked Radiohead not to play Israel, Yorke rejected his overtures, so Waters organized a petition to reiterate his stance and Yorke took exception.

Still trying to plead his case, Waters then made his own statements to Rolling Stone, followed by Loach condemning Radiohead in an Independent article, to which Yorke responded via Twitter:
"Playing in a country isn't the same as endorsing its government. We've played in Israel for over 20 years through a succession of governments, some more liberal than others. As we have in America. We don't endorse [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu any more than Trump, but we still play in America. Music, art and academia is about crossing borders not building them, about open minds not closed ones, about shared humanity, dialogue and freedom of expression. I hope that makes it clear Ken."
After R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe offered a statement in support of Radiohead's decision to perform--while also saying "Let’s hope a dialogue continues, helping to bring the occupation to an end and lead to a peaceful solution," so not absolving Israel any more than Yorke had--the concert took place without overt incident.

"A lot of stuff has been said about this, but in the end, we played some music," Thom Yorke told the crowd.

As it was Radiohead's longest show in a decade, and they played "Creep," a song I love but haven't heard live in any of the 8 times I've seen the band--including in Kansas City in April--I would have been thrilled to be there, musically speaking.

In similar parlance, I imagine it would have been sublime to hear Roger Waters and his band perform "Time," "Welcome to the Machine," "Wish You Were Here," "Us and Them" and much more

Certainly I was tempted, and I neither condemn anyone who went nor feels differently about all of the above than I do.

Numb or not, I reached my decision comfortably.

And so too, it seems did Radiohead.

As for Roger Waters--albeit without having seen the concert--I'm not sure why he's advocating a boycott of Israel yet playing so many massive shows in the U.S. in which he openly attacks the sitting president.

What's the difference between advocating that many Americans should rebuke Trump but not allowing for the likelihood that many music-loving Israelis are not aligned with Netanyahu?

Could the answer be "Money"?

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

At 75, 60 Years Since Meeting John Lennon, Paul McCartney Continues to Dazzle, This Time in Tinley Park -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Paul McCartney
Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre
Tinley Park, IL
July 25, 2017 (also playing July 26)

I've now had the pleasure of seeing Sir Paul McCartney live in concert a dozen times, including 8 shows across the last 8 years.

Beyond my hometown of Chicago--where his previous performance, at Lollapalooza 2015, I only saw projected on my living room wall--I have caught Macca in such disparate places as Tulsa, Paris, Milwaukee and St. Louis (just last August).

This is the 5th McCartney show I've reviewed on Seth Saith, and have bestowed @@@@@ on each.

Even across 28 years--I first saw Paul at the Rosemont Horizon in December 1989, but not again until 2002--his concerts have been rather similar.

SPOILER ALERT for anyone who has yet to see Sir Paul live but is planning to, and wants to be completely surprised, but you can pretty much bet the house on a "Hey Jude" singalong, "Live and Let Die" pyrotechnics, "Let It Be," "Yesterday," "Blackbird," "Band on the Run" and several other staples mixed with a variety of other Beatles classics, Wings album tracks and new(ish) solo songs that may rotate somewhat from tour to tour, but quite little from show to show in the same year.

He even tells many of the same stories, about John Lennon, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix & Eric Clapton, meeting Russian diplomats in Moscow and his impetus & aim in writing "Blackbird."

Amazingly, at the age of 75, accompanied by four musicians who he has played with longer than the Beatles or Wings--I happened to notice Denny Laine will be at Evanston's SPACE Thursday night--McCartney continues to perform 40 songs (if one counts an instrumental romp through much of Hendrix' "Foxy Lady") over nearly 3 hours.

So I really don't have a lot to say about Paul McCartney's show Tuesday night at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre in Tinley Park that I haven't said before, especially as in terms of setlist, video graphics and anecdotes, it was nearly exact to the Busch Stadium gig I reviewed last year.

But although I've been a devout Beatles fan for as long as I've had conscious thought--which unfortunately came a few years after their supernatural run had ended--I can promise you that I do not keep seeing, and raving about, Paul McCartney strictly for sentimental reasons.

Sure, most of the songs are like scripture for me, but Paul and his stellar, stalwart bandmates--Rusty Anderson, Brian Ray, Paul Wickens and Abe Laboriel, Jr.--continue to deliver them sensationally.

Perhaps he's finally allowed some gray hair to appear, and to some ears isn't quite as crisp of voice, but 11  years down the road from when he was 64, I still need him more than ever.

My mom, sister Allison and I spent a good amount of money for pavilion tickets at the coldly utilitarian shed of many names over the years, and the drive there from Skokie took 2-1/2 hours, with nearly another 2 to get out of the parking lot and home.

But I believe I speak for all three of us--and presumably the majority of the 28,000 fans in attendance--when I say it was completely worth it, even though there was rather little truly new in the experience for me. (Though clearly not adverse to a McCartney double-shot, as I went both nights at Wrigley in 2012, and enticed by $20 lawn seats, I'm not going again tonight.)

Though it's certainly possible to watch full Paul McCartney concerts on DVD or even YouTube, and far cheaper and more convenient--and also nostalgically enjoyable--to see Beatles cover bands like American English, Cavern Beat, BritBeat, etc. at a local park, let alone just listen to the original albums on Spotify, any day that ends singing along to "Hey Jude" (and then a few more songs) with the man who wrote it is one to be cherished.

Clearly, even as Paul McCartney--along with the rest of us--has gotten older, seeing him on a concert stage, again and again, still has yet to get old.

Unless you want to be surprised, you can see Paul McCartney's Tuesday setlist here. Based on precedent, it seems 3 different songs will be played Wednesday night. Along with obvious choices and ones I won't divulge, I really enjoyed him reaching back for The Quarrymen's first recording "In Spite of All The Danger" and the Beatles' first single, "Love Me Do," especially as Paul met John 60 years ago this month.

Monday, July 24, 2017

On Chicago's Lakefront, Enjoyable Echoes of an Alternative '80s -- Chicago Concert Review: Echo & the Bunnymen and Violent Femmes

Concert Review

Echo & the Bunnymen
Violent Femmes
w/ opening act Ava Mendoza
Huntington Bank Pavilion
at Northerly Island, Chicago 
July 23, 2017
@@@@ (for entire show)

My ongoing mission to see many of the acts I missed--and largely ignored--during their 1980s' heyday continued Sunday night with Echo & the Bunnymen and Violent Femmes at Huntington Bank Pavilion on Northerly Island.

This came just a night after I finally saw Blondie (at Ravinia), a few weeks or months after initial forays to catch The Church and Hall & Oates/Tears for Fears and within a few years of first seeing Duran Duran, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, The Jesus & Mary Chain and The Fixx. (The Alarm and A Flock of Seagulls are coming up next month on a Backlot Bash double-bill in Skokie.)

Ava Mendoza, who opened the show with an
instrumental set showcasing fine guitar skills
My musical tastes in the '80s didn't completely suck, as I was already a big fan of The Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Bowie, Queen, Zeppelin, etc., got into Springsteen, Petty, Seger & Mellencamp pretty early, loved Cheap Trick, Aerosmith & Van Halen and was heavily into U2, R.E.M., Midnight Oil, The Replacements and Peter Gabriel by my first or second year of college.

I don't even rue liking, and seeing, the Scorpions, Ozzy Osbourne, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams, Ratt and Dokken.

But perhaps due to never being prone to unconventional hairstyles or the goth scene or whatever else, I largely resisted The Cure, Depeche Mode--both of whom I've now seen a number of times, but not until about 1998--and the other, primarily British, New Wave acts mentioned above.

It's possible I again have a blindspot when it comes to caring much about modern bands some may find wonderful, but without many new acts to embrace, in middle age I've been more expansively seeking out artists I tended to ignore as a teenager.

Hence, unlike for presumably many in Sunday's crowd, seeing Echo & the Bunnymen and Violent Femmes wasn't a nostalgia trip as much as a personal introduction.

Braving a rather ominous sky to reach the non-sheltered venue by the ticketed 6:00pm showtime--fortunately the storm clouds passed over the lake, never to return--my pal Paolo and I had to wait in long lines before the gates even opened.

And when the music started at 7:00pm, a Brazilian Brooklynite named Ava Mendoza played a solo guitar set for half an hour.

Though Mendoza is clearly talented--she subsequently played some songs with the Violent Femmes--her set hadn't been previously announced anywhere I'd seen, and I would've been just as happy for the dual headliners to have gotten started earlier.

At 8:00, four members of the Violent Femmes took the stage, although the roster would double by set's end.

I'm pretty sure I've long owned a Violent Femmes greatest hits collection, and I did some Spotifamiliarizing leading up the show, but my foremost affinity is for five songs.

Four of these hail from the Milwaukee band's 1983 self-titled debut album--"Blister in the Sun," "Kiss Off," "Gone Daddy Gone" and "Add It Up"--with the fifth being "American Music."

Among a 19-song, 70-minute performance, these five tunes were--for me and seemingly many, based on audience reaction--demonstrably the highlights.

Lead singer Gordon Gano--who appears far more likely to be presumed an accountant than a longtime rock star--sounded as vocally strong & unique as ever, and played acoustic/electric guitar, banjo and violin among a similarly dexterous band that included original bassist Brian Ritchie.

But as the Femmes' sound ventures more to bluegrass/folk/country territory than straightforward rock, and largely eschews bar chords and kick drums, the open air makeshift amphitheater didn't make for an idyllic place to best appreciate them.

Beyond the quintet of well-known songs good enough to sound delectable anywhere, tunes like the opening "Memory," "I'm Nothing" and "I Could Be Anything" well made the case for Violent Femmes' formidable renown, but I can't claim to have been relentlessly enthralled throughout the entirety of their time onstage.

I'm glad I finally got to see them, but if I do again it will hopefully be in a theater or otherwise intimate venue.

More so my reason for attending this concert--abetted by a $20 ticket offer from Live Nation--was to see, also for the first time, Echo & the Bunnymen.

The British band, formed in Liverpool in 1978, enjoyed UK and US success in the '80s, but beyond knowing their name I knew none of their music until the 21st century.

And even then, "Lips Like Sugar" was the only song I knew until Spotify simplified an exploration a few years back.

Now I consider them to rank among the Top 5 bands of the British New Wave scene, with singer Ian McCulloch's affected crooning and oblique lyrics nearly as era-defining as The Cure's Robert Smith.

(Last year there was a terrific movie called Sing Street -- now streaming on Netflix -- that imagined a group of Dublin teens in the 1980s trying out various musical and stylistic guises; McCulloch and Echo & the Bunnymen would seem to be clear points of reference.)

As McCulloch prefers to sing shrouded in darkness, it certainly aided Echo's set to begin after sundown.

Playing just a bit longer than the Violent Femmes did, on what turned out to be a beautiful night along the lakefront, McCulloch, original guitarist Will Sergeant and the rest of the touring Bunnymen made tunes like "Rescue," "Seven Seas," "Bedbugs and Ballyhoo," "Never Stop" and "Bring on the Dancing Horses" sound terrific.

Though the supposedly irascible McCulloch made several seemingly amiable, gracious and Chicago-praising comments--very little of which I actually deciphered--I gleaned a somewhat perfunctory "another night, another show playing the same old songs" vibe to the performance that didn't greatly detract, but kept it short of feeling truly special or sensational.

But snippets of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," The Doors' "Roadhouse Blues" and other classic songs added punch to Echo's take on "Nothing Lasts Forever" and "Villiers Terrace," with McCulloch & Co. seemingly demonstrating that their influences reached across the Atlantic.

The terrific trio of "The Killing Moon," "The Cutter" and "Lips Like Sugar" seemingly rounded out an enjoyable evening right up against the 11pm curfew, but even with the house lights coming up, McCulloch insisted on bringing the band back for a rendition of the melancholy "Ocean Rain" from Echo & the Bunnymen's excellent 1984 album of the same name.

I've already seen many great concerts in 2017, and while this one won't go down as one of the very best, I'm glad to no longer have missed out on Echo & the Bunnymen or the Violent Femmes.

Add it up any way you want, but while the double bill may not have seemed the most logical pairing, $20 undoubtedly provided a considerable sum of enjoyment to my ears and eyes.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

At Ravinia, a Swell Celebration of Women Who Rock -- Chicago Concert Review: Blondie, Garbage and Exene Cervenka/John Doe

Concert Review

John Doe & Exene Cervenka (of X)
Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, IL
July 22, 2017
@@@@1/2 (for entire show)

I certainly mean no slight nor disrespect to the many talented men who comprise the entirety of Blondie, Garbage and X save for those bands' iconic lead singers.

Clearly, Chris Stein, Butch Vig, John Doe and their male bandmates are excellent musicians, songwriters and/or producers who have helped fuel decades-long runs of success...and factored prominently into a terrific triple-bill Saturday night at Ravinia.

But while recognizing that it wouldn't have been much of a concert without men with instruments making music, it was a night to relish three of the best frontwomen in rock history--Debbie Harry, Shirley Manson and Exene Cervenka--who did nothing to diminish their legends.

First up at 6:30--shame on StubHub for listing the show as 7:00pm; fortunately my friend Dave and I arrived just in time to hear all the music--was Cervenka paired with John Doe, two members of the pioneering Los Angeles punk band X.

As noted from the stage, X is celebrating its 40th anniversary, with the other two original members--guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake--part of the current band but not participating in the opening slot on the Blondie/Garbage Rage and Rapture Tour.

X will presumably perform in all their punk glory as a quartet at Riot Fest in September, but here only John & Exene were billed and the duo played acoustically across a nice 30-minute set.

Joking that the performance represented the intersection of bluegrass and punk rock, Doe and Cervenka delivered stripped down versions of X songs such as "Burning House of Love," "In This House That I Call Home," "White Girl" and "The New World," along with covers of "If I Were a Carpenter" (made most famous by Johnny and June Carter Cash) and Flatt & Scruggs' "Give Me Flowers While I'm Living."

Since the somewhat unusual founding of Garbage in 1994, when Vig--famed as the producer of Nirvana's Nevermind--and two pals (Duke Erickson and Steve Marker) decided to form a band and discovered, then enlisted, Scottish singer Shirley Manson, the Madison, WI based act has been one of my favorites.

This was my 8th time seeing the band and while their (in Manson's words) "dark" music feels a bit more at home at the Metro, Riv and Vic than the posh suburban environs of Ravinia, especially before sundown, it seemed the energetic singer enjoyed having a larger stage on which to prowl.

Starting with the brand new "No Horses," the 75-minute performance by Garbage was anything but.

Four songs ("Queer," "Stupid Girl," "Only Happy When It Rains" and "Vow") came from the band's self-titled debut album--which I still consider their best--with 3 more great ones from the follow-up Version 2.0: "I Think I'm Paranoid," "Push It" and "Special." (See the Garbage setlist here.)

A trio of tunes from 2016's Strange Little Birds also complemented soundtrack singles "#1 Crush" and "The World Is Not Enough," and I was quite glad to hear the poignant "Cup of Coffee," which Manson introduced as a song chronicling a broken relationship due to betrayal.

Befitting a night showcasing great women of rock, Manson referenced another one--the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde--on the "Brass in Pocket"-influenced "Special," with a touch of "Talk of the Town" tossed in.

I also couldn't help noticing that prominently shown on Ravinia's big screens advertising upcoming shows were ones by Aretha Franklin and Stevie Nicks.

The loquacious Manson was quite gracious throughout, noting that Ravinia's hometown--Highland Park--shared the name of her favorite single malt whiskey, and also telling how the Garbage men first saw her perform at Chicago's Metro (with her old band, Angelfish) in 1994, and thus Chicago has always felt like a second home for the band.

Though she never did introduce her bandmates onstage--thus I'm not certain Jane Addiction's Eric Avery is still the touring bassist--Manson made a point of extolling Doe & Cervenka on their last night with this tour, and proclaiming the huge influence Blondie had on her band.

Thus I was especially glad that after nearly 40 years of being a fan, I finally got to see original members Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Clem Burke and the rest of modern-day Blondie.

At 72, Harry--who may well get my vote as the most attractive woman ever to be a rock star--remains quite striking, so it was a bit strange that she took the stage, to the blistering strains of "One Way or Another," wearing an insect mask.

It was only after she took it off after a second classic--"Hanging on the Telephone"--that she explained the prop correlated to the title of Blondie's current album, Pollinator.

To the band's credit, four songs from Pollinator--"Fun," "My Monster" (written by Johnny Marr), "Too Much" and "Long Time"--sounded quite strong among the hits of yore, including "Call Me," "Rapture," "Atomic," "Heart of Glass," "The Tide is High" and a closing "Dreaming."

If it was still 1980, when with a string of #1 singles Blondie was one of the biggest bands in the world, it's not hard to imagine some of the new tunes receiving ubiquitous radio play.

As it is, Debbie Harry remains cool and confident enough to perform wearing a leotard, and her voice sounded terrific throughout the 80-minute set.

Though the band had broken up between 1982-1997, meaning I was too young to have really seen them during their heyday, even in first catching them 43 years after their formation and 20 since their reunion, I feel that for the most part, I still got the quintessential Blondie experience.

So all in all, it was a really delightful night to celebrate women who rock--and their excellent bands--still very much in the present tense.

(See Blondie's setlist here.)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Quite a Ride: Drive-By Truckers Deliver a Fun Free-for-All -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Drive-By Truckers
w/ opening act Honeysuckle
Jay Pritzker Pavilion
Millennium Park, Chicago
July 20, 2017

I've paid to see the Drive-By Truckers a couple of times, in 2006 on a bill with the Black Crowes and in 2008 co-headlining with The Hold Steady.

But I can't say I've taken much note when they've rolled through town in recent years. With all the shows I see, of various ilks, my acute interest has just dissipated a bit.

Yet this isn't to suggest the Athens, GA-based band isn't still good; 2016's American Band album features some of my favorite DBT tunes to date.

So it was rather peachy when the Drive-By Truckers showed up on the schedule of Millennium Park Summer Music Series presented--free of charge--by the City of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE).

I've previously attended some fine free summer shows at the grand Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park--Dawes, Bob Mould, Richard Thompson, The Both--but hadn't noticed any acts prompting me to do so since 2014.

I'm glad my interest enticed my friend Brad, who--despite not knowing any Drive-By Truckers material--came away even more smitten than me.

Fortuitously, on a night when thunderstorms and/or high humidity seemed possible, the weather cooperated perfectly and the DBTs were nicely preceded by a 3-piece band from Boston called Honeysuckle.

By virtue of their employing a banjo, acoustic guitars and--at best, on select songs--just one bass drum, I will somewhat automatically employ the terms Americana and rootsy, but all their songs sounded pleasant, often with lovely 3-part harmonies. Speaking to this penchant, they played a cover song likely by Crosby, Stills and Nash, though I didn't recognize it.

Originals whose titles I caught--"Elvis Presley Blues," "Beautiful Rain," "Canary"--and even those I didn't were all quite good.

So I mean no disrespect to Honeysuckle or the DCASE scheduler who--in introducing them--noted that he had handpicked them to share this bill, but with the free 6:30pm shows having a 9:00pm curfew, I would have opted for 15 minutes less of the opening act's hour so the Drive-By Truckers could have gotten at least 90 minutes onstage.

As it was, their 75 minutes were well-spent, beginning with a rollicking "Surrender Under Protest," from American Band.

I only knew about half the songs, but they all sounded good, as founding members Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley traded off on lead vocals.

The songs sung by Hood--son of bassist David Hood from the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section--tend to be a bit more meditative ("Baggage," "Ever South"), while as with the first tune and "Ramon Casiano," another great one from the latest album, Cooley's tend to be punchier.

The Drive-By Truckers have been together since 1996--Hood and Cooley, longtime pals from Alabama, were also in previous bands--and with 12 studio albums, I know relatively little of their oeuvre.

And, as with jam bands and Bruce Springsteen--who I see as influences along with southern rock legends (Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers)--they change up their setlists greatly every time out, so it was hard for me to really study up much ahead of time. (See Thursday's setlist here.)

But I knew that their Southern Rock Opera double album from 2001 largely pertains to Lynryd Skynyrd, and enjoyed from it "Ronnie and Neil," "Shut Up and Get on the Plane" and "Let There Be Rock," which references the AC/DC song of the same name.

With a BLACK LIVES MATTER sign on their equipment providing a good sense of where the DBTs stand politically, it was also a hoot to hear them romp through the Ramones' "The KKK Took My Baby Away," with bassist Matt Patton on vocals.

By their 15th and final song, "Hell No, I Ain't Happy"--which had many in the crowd singing along gleefully--the Drive-By Truckers seemed to just be getting warmed up. (One recent show ran 24 songs, including two of my favorites, unplayed here: "The Righteous Path" and "Gravity's Gone.")

So even though it was an excellent show--especially for the price, and truly abetted by Honeysuckle--another 4-5 songs might really have added to the delirium that was beginning to build.

I guess the next time the Drive-By Truckers come to Chicago, I will have to pay to see them.

With a terrific free show, they certainly earned as much.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

At Wrigley, a Taylor-Made, First-Raitt Double Play -- James Taylor & Bonnie Raitt -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

James Taylor
w/ opening act Bonnie Raitt
Wrigley Field, Chicago
July 17, 2017
@@@@1/2 (for each and both)

I've never owned a James Taylor album, not even his Greatest Hits.

Although he's been a popular singer for my entire life, his initial height of fame coincided with my infancy and toddlerhood.

And when in the late '70s, my dad (or I myself) saw fit to add new LPs by Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Steely Dan, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, David Bowie and others to the old icebox that served as the family's record cabinet, even as 1977's JT became Taylor's best-selling album, he didn't make it to our turntable.

I knew & liked a few of his ubiquitous songs--"Carolina in My Mind," "Fire and Rain," "You've Got a Friend," "Up on the Roof"--enjoyed his candid interviews with Howard Stern and respected his talent, popularity & longevity, but couldn't really call myself a fan. 

Last year, James Taylor played Chicago's Wrigley Field--my favorite place on Earth and now my favorite concert venue--with Jackson Browne, who I like considerably more, and I didn't feel compelled to go.

But with Monday's Wrigley show--opened by another legend, Bonnie Raitt--clearly not selling like Cubs World Series tickets, I couldn't pass on LiveNation's offer of $20 tickets during a promotion back in May.

Blessed with another beautiful night at the Friendly Confines--I've been extremely lucky across a string of outdoor shows--I very much enjoyed approximately 3 hours of stellar music by two old pros.

At about 7:15pm, Taylor surprised the gathering crowd by nonchalantly walking onstage first, the famed Red Sox fan adorned in a Cubs cap.

But at that point he served to simply offer a welcome and introduce his longtime friend, Raitt.

Backed by a fine band, Bonnie began with the first two songs off her 2016 Dig in Deep album, the fine "Unintended Consequence of Love" and a cover of INXS' "Need You Tonight."

As with Taylor, my fandom of Raitt is more passively appreciative than acutely intensive, but I quite liked her hour-long opening set.

Along with being an excellent guitarist, she has always heavily recorded songs written by others, and it was nice to hear her deliver Taylor's "Rainy Day Man" and John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery," both coming from her 1974 Streetlights album.

"Something to Talk About," a cover of Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House" and the title song of 1989's Grammy-winning Nick of Time--the latter accompanied by vocalist Arnold McCuller, who has long worked with Raitt but is touring in Taylor's band--were also delights.

It was cool of the headliner to join Raitt for her closing "Thing Called Love" about a half-hour before he and his "All-Star Band" took their places in center field.

So even before Taylor began his 2-hour show with "Carolina in My Mind," it was clear that at age 67 he remains in fine form, vocally and on guitar.

I had done a good bit of Spotifamiliarization based on recent setlists, and the legendary singer/songwriter largely hewed to what he's been performing on his current tour. (See the Chicago setlist here.)

Though both Raitt and he had openly referenced and congratulated the Cubs, it was a bit odd--yet also apt given the ballpark setting--that Taylor opted to perform his Red Sox tribute "Angels of Fenway," backed by video from Boston's drought-ending championship in 2004, but without any Cubs visuals tacked on to elicit a hometown roar.

And while it had been played last year at Wrigley and isn't a staple on the current tour, "Up on the Roof" would've seemed an obvious choice--heck, maybe even from a rooftop--but was omitted.

But otherwise, although James Taylor is clearly more mellow than most of my favorites--hence, for me, this show could never quite rival those by Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, U2, Paul McCartney, etc.--he is terrific at what he does, and the well-paced show was excellent.

I appreciated his good-natured comments and stories that included noting how playing "Something in the Way She Moves" for Paul McCartney and George Harrison got him signed to Apple Records and jump-started his long career. (The song, played after that intro on Monday, also inspired Harrison to write "Something.")

Accompanied throughout by nice visuals, Taylor and Co.--including Blues Brothers sax player Lou Marini and many other first-rate musicians and vocalists--sounded wonderful in the open air on "Sweet Baby James," "Fire and Rain," "Shed a Little Light," "Shower the People," "Your Smiling Face" and "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)."

For the encores, Raitt returned to help pay tribute to the recently passed Chuck Berry with a romp through "Johnny B. Goode," and after Taylor delivered a sublime "You've Got a Friend," Bonnie came back to end the night alongside James on "You Can Close Your Eyes."

Certainly, it would only make sense that my enjoyment wasn't quite on par with fans who have followed Taylor since his self-titled debut in 1968.

But while preferring a good bit more guitar crunch, as well as setlist "Tayloring" to befit the venue, my appreciation for both Taylor and Raitt was considerably heightened in seeing both live for the first time.

And in leaving my seat in the first row of the upper deck and heading down to exit the park, I encountered a group of fans gathered in front of a TV on the concourse, watching the Cubs trying to put away the Atlanta Braves in the 9th inning. Before I got there, a 4-1 lead had become 4-3 and closer Wade Davis wound up loading the bases.

But as the final out was recorded to seal the win, about a hundred of us cheered as if the Cubs had just won a playoff game, and walking outta Wrigley a spontaneous "Go Cubs Go" erupted.

How sweet it was, indeed.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Fine Revue: Fronted by Adam Lambert, Queen is Reverentially Enjoyable, If Not Quite Mercurial -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Queen + Adam Lambert
United Center, Chicago
July 13, 2017

By almost universal acclaim, when factoring in vocal ability, range, showmanship and songwriting, the late Freddie Mercury of Queen stands as one of--and perhaps the--greatest lead singers in rock history.

Although following his death from AIDS in 1991, Mercury remains irreplaceable, his legacy--and songs--deserve to live on, forever. 

I perceive Queen guitarist Brian May--who happens to hold a Ph.D. in astrophysics--to be a decent guy, and can't much deride him or drummer Roger Taylor for continuing to celebrate (or milk) their band's rich past.

But between a 2006 tour fronted by the generally stellar Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers--which I found to be rather mediocre in Milwaukee--and the disappointing We Will Rock You jukebox musical created with May & Taylor's cooperation, it seemed perhaps best to let the phenomenal Queen catalog "carry on, carry on" in recorded form only.

But for the last 5 years, Queen--without original bassist John Deacon as well--has been performing rather regularly with Adam Lambert on lead vocals.

Lambert was the American Idol runner-up in 2009 and while that ordinarily would mean little to me, a cousin visiting Chicago at the time shared that he is the son of a close friend of hers.

Having paid more attention to American Idol that season than ever before or since, I knew Lambert was a highly talented and versatile singer, though I'm oblivious to the solo albums he has made.

I had abstained when Queen + Lambert played the United Center in 2014, but noted that a friend lauded the show, and YouTube clips--including of the current outing--supported that the vocalist seemed to do a credible job with the rather impossible task of standing in for Freddie Mercury.

So the day before Thursday's show at the UC, I got myself a ticket.

And I wound up with about all I could really hope for:

A solidly enjoyable show, with Lambert proving to be rather good, some indelible guitar moments recreated by May and some clearly reverential nods to Mercury, who appeared on the video screens at various moments.

But never did it really feel like I was seeing Queen--who I was a bit too young to catch live in original form, despite being a fan since "We Will Rock You" thrilled my 9-year-old self circa 1978--but rather a really good tribute band, albeit with May and Taylor on hand.

With no opening act, the 2-hour show to a soldout crowd--which seemed to bridge long-standing Queen fans with more recent admirers of the 35-year-old Lambert--began with a brief tease of "We Will Rock You" before solid takes on "Hammer to Fall," "Stone Cold Crazy" and "Another One Bites the Dust."

Although these are great songs to which the singer and band--with three additional musicians largely shrouded in darkness--did justice, I can't deny experiencing a fair amount of cognitive dissonance.

Imagine seeing and hearing the Rolling Stones with a singer other than Mick Jagger.

Or Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic performing Nirvana concerts with someone in place of Kurt Cobain.

Though such shows would obviously include terrific songs played--and likely even sung--well, something would just seem odd, if not quite off-putting. 

To his credit, after thanking May and Taylor for allowing him the opportunity to perform such hallowed material, Lambert openly noted that there would only ever be "one Freddie Mercury."

And without ever attempting to imitate the icon, Lambert got to show his own campiness, wit and theatricality, including on a lusty "Fat Bottom Girls," while sitting upon a huge sculptural head (from the News of the World album cover) and riding a three-wheeler on "Bicycle Race."

Lambert's own "Two Fux" didn't compare to the best of Queen musically, but fit in well-enough, and I enjoyed hearing less-famed catalog gems such as "Don't Stop Me Now," "I'm In Love With My Car" and "Get Down, Make Love."

And also, "Love of My Life," sung by May sitting alone atop the guitar-shaped catwalk amid the arena floor.

When the video screen behind him juxtaposed Freddie singing along, I found myself getting a bit verklempt.

"Somebody to Love" well-fit Lambert's vocal style, as it had George Michael at the tribute concert for Mercury in 1992.

I'm surprised that recently-passed brilliant singer didn't get a mention Thursday, but Roger Taylor did make note of David Bowie before the drummer and Lambert dueted on "Under Pressure," perhaps the highlight of the show for me.

As until LiveAid in 1985, Queen largely disappeared from the American zeitgeist for a few years, I'm not sure songs like "I Want It All," "I Want to Break Free" and even "Radio Ga Ga" can really be called "hits," but I'm glad they were included, along with the #1 "Crazy Little Thing Called Love."

Delectably closing the main set was "Bohemian Rhapsody," but with classic video of the band singing the operatic middle part, and imagery of Mercury dwarfing Lambert near the end, it served to reiterate that this was more a scripted revue celebrating the past than it was a concert kicking my ass in the here and now.

Granted, I probably wouldn't be seeing an Adam Lambert headlining gig--unless his solo material should catch my fancy--and he's been doing a more-than-credible job filling in with Queen for five years now.

But whereas Sammy Hagar with Van Halen or Arnel Pineda with Journey--who replaced famed singers for reasons other than death--recorded new material soon after coming into the fold, Lambert unavoidably feels more like the singer in a Queen cover band than an actual member (although the "Queen + Adam Lambert" marketing moniker is probably as much a testament to his own popularity as it is a respectful reminder that it's not really Queen without Mercury.)

The encore couplet of "We Will Rock You"/"We Are the Champions" certainly felt at home in Chicago's primary sports arena, though I wished someone had found May--or Lambert--a Cubs jersey rather than just a Chicago flag t-shirt.

But it was thrilling to sing along with "We Are the Champions" with it being currently--and rather historically--true for my favorite baseball team.

Just another lasting moment to cherish from a concert that served as a ready reminder of transcendent greatness...

...without in itself achieving it.

But for what it was--basically a reminder of how singular Freddie Mercury remains--Queen + Adam Lambert was royally fun.

See the Queen + Adam Lambert Chicago setlist here.