Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Best of Foo: A Wrock 'n Wroll Delight at Wrigley, as Foo Fighters and The Struts Bounce Me Off the Walls -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Foo Fighters
w/ opening acts The Struts, Melkbelly
Wrigley Field, Chicago
July 29, 2018 (Foo also 7/30)

Foo Fighters are a fantastic live band, as they've been since I first saw them in 1996.

They invariably deliver a thunderous, generous and crowd-pleasing show, so I would assume that fans who have seen the current Concrete and Gold tour in, say, Casper, Wyoming or Hamburg, Germany or Perth, Australia, etc., were abundantly pleased--and that I would likewise be in any locale.

But there is something extra special about seeing them in Wrigley Field, due not just to what the old ballpark means to me--as the home of my beloved Chicago Cubs--but what the Wrigleyville neighborhood has meant to the Chief Foo Fighter, Dave Grohl.

Unlike that of Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder--a Chicago-area native and lifelong Cubs fan who similarly moved to Seattle in the early '90s to find grunge superstardom--Grohl's connection has nothing to do with baseball.

As well-documented, including in Episode 1 of the Sonic Highways HBO series--which chronicled the band's ties to and/or influences from various cities--the first rock concert Grohl ever attended was at The Cubby Bear bar across from Wrigley.

While the Virginia native was staying with family in Evanston, IL in the summer of 1982, his cousin
Tracy--herself in a teenage band called Verboten--took him to see Chicago punk pioneers Naked Raygun.

In Grohl's own words, that night would forever change his musical direction.

"I want to do that," he recalled thinking.

After playing in a Washington, DC punk band called Scream, in 1990 Grohl would become the drummer for the already-existing Nirvana.

In October 1991, just a few weeks after the release of the world-changing Nevermind album, Nirvana played the Metro, just up Clark Street from Wrigley Field. That show is notable, as it was where Kurt Cobain's romance with Courtney Love supposedly began.

Foo Fighters' first two Chicago shows were at Metro--in May and October of 1995--and though I didn't attend those, I would see them four times in 1996-97, including at the Riviera and Aragon, about a mile away from Wrigleyville.

Even as their popularity well-outgrew the Metro, the Foos would return to play intimate shows at the storied club, and in 2014 they accompanied the premiere of Sonic Highways with a gig at The Cubby Bear.

In August 2015, Foo Fighters would play Wrigley Field for the first time, with Naked Raygun among the opening acts, along with Cheap Trick and Urge Overkill.

That sold out show was awesome, even though--due a broken leg from a stage mishap earlier that year--Grohl was forced to play sitting in a specially-made throne.

Now definitively one of the biggest rock bands in the world, Foo Fighters easily sold out two concerts at Wrigley Field this past Sunday and Monday.

I went on Sunday and pretty much loved everything about it.

As I was a huge fan of Nirvana--I saw them at the Aragon in 1993, six months before Kurt took his
life--I've paid attention to the Foo Fighters since they were little more than a rumor.

The self-titled 1995 debut album--which Grohl wrote and recorded by himself--remains my favorite of theirs.

I also relished the 1997 follow-up, The Colour and the Shape, but several Foo albums since have largely been hit or miss, with their latest, Concrete and Gold, mostly the latter.

So qualitatively, in terms of their recorded catalog, I consider Foo Fighters considerably lesser than Nirvana, and not quite on par with Pearl Jam, their superstar rock brethren who will also pack Wrigley twice this summer.

But led by the hyper-kinetic Grohl--out front as the lead singer and rhythm guitarist--Foo Fighters have long been one of my favorite live bands.

Sunday was my 14th time seeing them, and even from the upper deck at Wrigley, they sounded as good as ever.

Opening act The Struts
It was a truly "epic" show, in the way that word should be used, or at least, mammoth.

Including, to my pleasant surprise, even before the Foo Fighters took the stage. 

Unlike 2015, there wasn't a stack of opening acts well-known to me, and with The Breeders opening Monday but not Sunday, it would seen I got the short end of the stick.

But along with the Chicago outfit Melkbelly--who I only heard for a few minutes as they played before the 7:00pm ticketed showtime--a British quartet called The Struts "warmed up" the crowd.

As far as I can recall, I had never heard of the Struts until just last week noting their slot on Sunday's show. (They've been opening for Foo Fighters for months, but Sunday was the last time.)

But even with just a day or two of Spotifamiliarization, I really liked what I heard from The Struts, and their opening set only amplified this, substantially.

With hair and stagewear quite reminiscent of Queen's Freddie Mercury, and some moves like Jagger, lead singer Luke Spiller clearly wears his influences on his sleeve (perhaps literally, as Wikipedia notes he's had outfits made by Mercury's former costumer, Zandra Rhodes).

But while also reminding a bit of Stevie Wright from the Easybeats--it's possible only my pal Dave, alongside on Sunday, will get this reference, but that's OK--Spiller is armed with an energetic and amiable stage demeanor, a truly powerful voice and several delightful Struts songs.

With only one full album to their credit--Everybody Wants, from 2014 but not released stateside until 2016--plus a few singles as they prep a new release, the Struts remind not only of classic rock legends, but The Darkness, another retro band that had some success in the '00s.

I liked the Darkness' debut album, but they were ultimately too derivative, and I'm hoping the Struts will soon forge more of their own sound.

But with very few new rock bands exciting me these days, for the Struts to clearly win over fans down on the Wrigley outfield while having me tell Dave I also sensed a bit of a Faces groove along with T-Rex glam, at the very least they're quite damn fun.

It won't mean much for me to cite song titles, but I enjoyed everything they played (check out the setlist here).

There are many bands who shouldn't want to follow the kind of raucous and rollicking opening set delivered by the Struts, but from the first notes of "All My Life" it was clear the headliners were there to decimate any foo that needed fighting within the Friendly Confines. (BTW, fuck the asshole who assaulted a woman in a porta-potty at the show. I certainly hope he gets caught, convicted--if the facts hold--and incarcerated for quite some time.)

I had read some suggestions that all the years of screaming had taken their toll on Grohl's voice, but it sounded strong as the Foos rolled through "Learn to Fly," "The Pretender," "The Sky is a Neighborhood" and "Rope."

Nothing has ever clued me into Grohl being a noted baseball fan, so as he led into a singalong of "My Hero" by speaking of his Wrigleyville history, there was no need for him to don a Cubs jersey nor explicitly speak of Cobain or even Tom Petty, who I believe was one of his heroes (and who'd I'd seen rocking Wrigley just 13 months prior).

But as I belted into the beautiful night sky, I certainly thought of them.

Some musical heroes were more overtly worshiped during a band introduction segment, as bassist
Nate Mendel gave a taste of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," guitarist Pat Smear (something of a punk legend himself) led a blast through the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" and keyboardist Rami Jaffee played John Lennon's "Imagine" as Grohl sang the lyrics of Van Halen's "Jump" over it. (I probably could have done without this mashup.)

Foo Fighters' drummer Taylor Hawkins--one of the best in the world but second best in his own band--came out front to sing Queen/David Bowie's "Under Pressure," accompanied by the Struts' Spiller as Grohl thundered on drums, ending with a tease of "Smells Like Teen Spirit"'s iconic opening drum salvo.

Then, with Hawkins happily sporting a Cheap Trick t-shirt, that band's Rick Nielsen showed up for a romp through "Ain't That a Shame," with Grohl still on drums.

I wouldn't have minded it being followed by "Surrender," but with an absolutely thunderous "Monkey Wrench" the Foos reminded that this was their show, and they do have some pretty damn great songs of their own.

You can see everything they played on Setlist.fm; I actually had to add "Ain't That a Shame" to the otherwise fully-posted setlist, which is funny only because I had said to Dave that many in the crowd might not have known that At Budokan tune. 

"Best of You" ended the main set before the encores--"Big Me," "Times Like These," "This is a Call" and "Everlong"--took the 160-minute performance right up to what I believe is an 11pm curfew for concerts at Wrigley.

The setlist wound up being pretty similar to what Foo Fighters have played at most recent tour stops, and even on Monday night.

I had a theater performance to go to then, but probably wouldn't have returned, in part because--unlike Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen and some other favorites--Foo Fighters don't mix things up greatly from show-to-show.

But while I rue that "I'll Stick Around" off the debut album is no longer a staple, the band clearly still knows how to put together an amazing concert.

Like me, Dave Grohl is now almost 50.

Though some may always think of him first as Nirvana's drummer, for years he's been playing to  50,000+ people a night all around the world with the Foo Fighters.

I think the band needs some better new material, but that's true of nearly everyone I see.

And as long as he and the Foo Fighters keep coming around, I'll keep showing up.

This really was a perfect concert for a glorious summer night, all the more so because it was at Wrigley Field.

I wish I saw more teenagers and twenty-somethings in the crowd that roughly seemed twice that in terms of average age.

Ideally, bands like the Struts will resurrect rock 'n roll, but at least it continues to survive.

And on a night like this, there was truly nowhere else in the world I would rather have been.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

A Little Respect: With Fun Songs Old and New, Erasure Puts on a Danceably Enjoyable Show -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act Reed & Caroline
Chicago Theatre
July 27, 2018 (also played 7/28)

Friday night marked the first time I'd ever seen the British duo Erasure live in concert--and really the first time I even considered doing so--despite the band enjoying success since the late '80s and regularly playing Chicago.

To so latently first be seeing such a veteran act whose music I had never really known--until a recent bit of Spotifamilarization--may strike some as a bit odd. 

But in loving the art of concert performance and having repeatedly seen most artists I knowingly
cherish, I've been making a point of broadening my musical horizons.

Over the past five years or so, concert acts I've seen for the first time include New OrderEcho & the Bunnymen, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Duran Duran, Violent Femmes, A Flock of Seagulls, Blondie, The Alarm, Pet Shop Boys, Hall & Oates, Tears for Fears, Johnny Marr, The Fixx, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Bryan Ferry, The Church, Journey and Judas Priest. (Hyperlinks are to my reviews.)

So I've been catching up on the 1980s, particularly within the realm of the British New Wave. 

In this context, taking a chance on Erasure--who once released an EP of ABBA covers, including "Take a Chance on Me"--probably makes a bit more sense, especially as the gorgeous Chicago Theatre is my favorite indoor concert venue. 

And my foremost concert pal, Paolo--long a fan of Erasure's dance-oriented rock--was going to be going anyway, so I had him buy a second ticket for me when they went on sale. 

Although I haven't to date seen any of Erasure's aforementioned brethren a second time, I sufficiently enjoyed each--to varying extents--and was happy for the exposure.

And though likewise not all the way back to the '80s, I have seen The Cure and Depeche Mode several times each.

The latter is especially pertinent here as Vince Clarke--who has been Erasure's sole musician and chief songwriter since joining with singer Andy Bell in 1985--initially formed Depeche Mode in 1980.

He would leave DM after just one album, moving on to form Yazoo and then the Assembly before Erasure, but wrote the early singles, "Dreaming of Me," "New Life," "Just Can't Get Enough" and almost all of the first Depeche Mode album, Speak & Spell.

As such, including his subsequent work, I don't know anyone who should be considered more seminal in incorporating an electronic, club dance beat into rock music. (I consider disco a genre unto itself, with the Bee Gees, Chic, KC & the Sunshine and many others seemingly having less crossover "rock" appeal, though the Bee Gees began in a more Beatlesque vein.)

I've never been one to frequent dance clubs, and other than 1988's "A Little Respect," I really couldn't name an Erasure song until I began my recent crash course (though I found "Chains of Love" and "Sometimes" vaguely familiar).

So my perspective in writing this review of Friday's show--Erasure also played. on Saturday--is different from that of most attendees and most concerts I attend.

Though most of the 20 songs played were familiar enough by the time I heard them live, none have been part of my existence for decades.

And while I understand and appreciate that Andy Bell is a gay icon in part due to his openness about his homosexuality since Erasure's origins--and that the duo has a vast and fervid LGBTQ following--for me a sense of pride, culture, community, kinship and heroism didn't directly factor in.

I was happy to be among such a rapturous and reverent crowd, but I was really just there to check out Erasure as a live musical act.

And I genuinely enjoyed myself.

I thought most of the songs were lots of fun, with some--"Ship of Fools," "Breathe," "Always"--truly quite moving.

I found the new songs off 2017's World Be Gone--especially "Just a Little Love" and "Love You to the Sky"--to hold up quite well among several great oldies (the opening "Oh L'Amour," "Phantom Bride," "Love to Hate You" and "Stop!" to name a few; see the full setlist here).

I got a kick out of Bell's effervescent energy, appreciated Clarke's multi-instrumental mastery, enjoyed what the two sharply-dressed & coifed backing vocalists added to the festivities and liked the lighting display.

I shook my moneymaker--in decidedly non-moneymaking fashion--and happily sang along, most effusively on the closing "A Little Respect."

It was a really good concert that expanded my familiarity with Erasure and their music. I would imagine much more avid fans--including Paolo--loved it even more.

If not for my pretending to be something of a critic, this is likely all I would need say about it.

But I can't quite dub the show phenomenal or sensational for a few reasons, beyond any inherent limitations of my fledgling fandom.

Following an opening set by Reed & Caroline--a coed duo that did nothing bad but didn't much excite--Erasure's 90-minute set was a tad brief.

While everything played, and Bell's voice, sounded good live, Clarke's synthesizer--filling in drum parts and other instruments in lieu of live musicians--lent itself to something of a programmatic vibe, and there were moments that felt almost rote.

Despite the danceable undercurrent throughout--making me imagine some of the songs truly delighting within sweaty European discotheques--I thought at times the music should have reached a more frenzied, rave-like level, but even with some dynamic lighting effects it really never did.

In no way did Erasure match the audiovisual brilliance of the awesome Depeche Mode show I saw last month. The breadth and depth of Depeche's songs, abetted by some compelling videos (Erasure didn't employ any) just made that concert--and past DM shows--feel far superior.

Even compared to some '80s acts for whose concerts I likewise needed a crash course--Duran Duran, New Order, Echo & the Bunnymen, Jesus & Mary Chain--Erasure didn't dazzle me to the same extent.

While I imagine I may continue to explore their catalog a bit more--both the now-known and still unfamiliar stuff--I wasn't turned into an Erasurehead (if that isn't an existing term, it should be).

But even if this winds up being the only occasion on which I see Erasure, I'm happy for the foray.

Along with a good deal of awareness and appreciation, I undoubtedly gained "A Little Respect."

Here's about half of "A Little Respect," shot by me from the balcony.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Welcome to Ricky's Place: 'Rick Stone: The Blues Man' Delights as a Showcase of Musical Talent -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Rick Stone: The Blues Man
written and directed by Jackie Taylor
starring Rick Stone
Black Ensemble Theatre, Chicago 
Thru August 26

The two previous shows I had seen at the Black Ensemble Theater paid tribute--as have many of their offerings over the years--to household-name legends.

Highlighting Sammy Davis, Jr. and Chuck Berry through famous songs well-delivered by several excellent singers and crack musicians, both were highly entertaining affairs.

Yet while appreciating and avidly applauding the entertainment value--and understanding that matching the structural heft of a stellar Broadway musical wasn't the point--I found that both shows suffered for only skimming the biographical surface (and historical context) of their hallowed subjects.

As "theater," BET's current show, Rick Stone: The Blues Man, offers even less in terms of storytelling elements.

And yet I enjoyed every minute of it.

Perhaps because Stone is neither an American icon nor otherwise notable blues musician--and much more the star than the subject of his namesake showcase--I was less bothered by not learning all that much...

...other than a bit of a musical history lesson across 33 songs.

With the theater's ushers greeting guests with an enthusiastic, "Welcome to Ricky's Place," the conceit was that we were attending a blues club run by Rick Stone, and the impressive set design by Bekki Lambrecht provides a rather genuine feel of one.

There were even some couples sitting at the club's tables, onstage.

The Black Ensemble Theater has a beautiful auditorium with permanent seats, but for this show, one kind of wishes tables could be set up throughout, with patrons truly made to feel as if they're at Buddy Guy's Legends, Kingston Mines or another of Chicago's great blues clubs. 

As it was, musicians Mark Miller (bass), Adam Sherrod (keyboards), Gary Baker (guitar) and Robert Reddrick (drums) affably walked through--and talked to--the audience before taking their places on the bandstand.

Rick Stone then took the stage in a resplendent salmon-colored suit and subsequently welcomed six other singers--one a harmonica wizard named Lamont D. Harris--to Ricky's Place.

Other than a note in the program from Jackie Taylor--the show's writer/director and BET's longtime Artistic Director--that she and Stone "grew up together in the Cabrini Green projects" and that he had performed at the theater for 30 years, the audience is never really given a clear understanding of who the title star is.

Within the show, Stone speaks of his long friendship with Taylor, some tragic deaths in their families and his love for his longtime wife--who happened to be sitting two seats from me--but at intermission I found myself asking his sister (she was next to me and had introduced herself as such) whether Rick had long played in local blues clubs.

"No," was her answer.

So while Stone is a gregarious onstage presence and sang some songs terrifically--including "Need
Your Love So Bad," dedicated to his wife--just as a point of clarification, he seemingly isn't "The Blues Man" as a full-time occupation.

And while there are songs representing several great blues legends--Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, B.B. King--Rick Stone: The Blues Man does not attempt to give a brief dossier on any of them.

While the show is content simply to entertain musically, without telling a story or providing biographical information, there is a certain amount of illumination to be had due to some song selections and introductions.

Theo Huff channels Otis Redding so fantastically on "I've Been Loving You Too Long" that anyone wanting to argue that Redding wasn't a blues singer would have a hard time enunciating why his wasn't just a different type of blues. (If BET hasn't done an Otis Redding tribute show in the recent past, they really should center one around Huff.)

And though Rhonda Preston joked that her take on the Broadway standard, "The Party's Over," was a bit out of place, it really wasn't, especially given the soulful rendition.

No, it wasn't really clear within the context of the show why all these talented performers would be singing essentially among the audience at Ricky's Place on not onstage with the band.

And the concept of each singer showing up at Ricky's, being warmly greeted by Stone and others already present, and then proceeding to deliver a fantastic tune is pleasant enough, but seemed to oddly start over from scratch after intermission (with the onstage "patrons" having cleared out for no clear reason).

All that really passes for any kind of narrative thread in Rick Stone: The Blues Man is one of the singers--Dwight Neal--having an off-stage dalliance with a young lady, with his pals riding him not just for robbing the cradle but for cheating on his wife.

His risk of getting caught is a bit of a mystery weaving itself through both acts, but largely a low-key and lighthearted one, primarily allowing for Neal to sing Muddy Waters' "19 Years Old."

So there are a number of aspects keeping me from absolutely raving about Rick Stone, highly enjoyable as it is.

But simply as musical performance, virtually every song is a highlight.

Cynthia F. Carter repeatedly sizzles, on "Wild Wild Woman" and Koko Taylor's "I'm a Woman."

Harris truly dazzles with his harmonica playing while also singing "Help Me."

Kelvin Davis shines on "Call My Wife" (...to come downstairs and open the door for me.)

And Stone shows he's not just an affable host on the smoking, "Howlin' for My Baby," while Huff's rendition of "Just Enough Rope" is among several Act II gems.

Is Rick Stone: The Blues Man as thoroughly inspiring as the stellar Color Purple tour now in Chicago? Does it delight on par with seeing the great Buddy Guy at Legends? Will you learn what you might from a fine blues documentary?

You can probably guess my answers to those questions, but the truth is, I can't assume yours.

Different people love different types of entertainment to varying extents, and I'm just delighted to see so many different estimable works.

What I can confidently impart is that anyone who watches Rick Stone: The Blues Man should do so with a smile pretty much plastered to their face.

Sometimes it's nice not to over-analyze and just enjoy things for what they are.

And as this show often blissfully reminds, the blues really can be joyous.

I'm not sure if it will accompany every performance of Rick Stone: The Blues Man or just the opening one that I attended, but I enjoyed seeing an exhibition of paintings by Keith David Conner in the second floor lobby of the Black Ensemble Theater and Cultural Center. Most depicted African-American musical legends, including Whitney Houston, Prince and, as shown here, Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy. While I couldn't afford an original painting, I did purchase a replica "diva" figurine Conner had designed, and spoke to him about hopefully profiling him on Seth Saith in weeks to come. You can view more of his art at KCart1.com.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Wildcats Take on the Fighting Irish: Of Rockne and the Gipper, 'Something in the Game' Gives It the Old College Try -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Something in the Game
An All-American Musical
American Music Theatre Project
at Northwestern University
Josephine Louis Theater, Evanston, IL
Thru August 5

Ten years ago, I ventured to Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana to see a world premiere musical called Knute Rockne: All-American.

Already a rabid musical lover and avid theater attendee throughout Chicagoland, neither catching a world premiere nor patronizing TATC was all that unusual, though the combination was a bit novel. 

But other than Damn Yankees, sports-themed musicals are particularly rare.

Still, as I'm not a Notre Dame fan nor intrigued much beyond the basics about its storied coach of yore, it was more the allure of a world premiere and some decent reviews--I wasn't yet blogging my own with regularity--that prompted the drive out to NW Indiana.

Though I only have vague memories and my Shows-Seen Database to reference, while I appreciated the effort I didn't find Knute Rockne: All-American all that winning.

Photo credit on all: Justin Barbin
And if the show has been staged again locally or elsewhere in these intervening years, I am not

Still, I was glad to note a new mounting of the show--now christened Something in the Game--as part of the American Musical Theatre Project at Northwestern, and even happier to be invited to see and review it on Opening Night.

My understanding in that the work has been considerably revamped, with composer/lyricist Michael Mahler adding and/or substituting a number of new songs into the score. (Director, choreographer and AMTP Artistic Director David Bell also collaborated on the lyrics. The show's book is by Buddy Farmer.)

I'm unable to cite specific modifications, and even with the new title, Something in the Game remains largely a musical biography of Knute Rockne.

And per the rating recorded in my database from 2008, I can't say my opinion has greatly changed a decade later.

The show--featuring some talented NU students and starring several stellar area pros--has superb performances, several strong tunes and some genuine highlights.

As demonstrated across multiple original musicals--Hero, October Sky--Mahler is a fine composer, and "Go, Go, Go," "Completing the Forward Pass / Never Saw It Coming," "Fighting Irish," "There's Something in the Game," and "All American" are all enjoyable songs (among others), well-rendered.

And while I feel Something in the Game needs to narrow its focus, including a bit less of the narrative devoted to Fighting Irish players (most notably the famed and ill-fated George Gipp, played by Adrian Aguilar) hanging out at a South Bend gambling den, one of the Act II numbers staged at Jimmy the Goat's is really fantastic.

Weaving together a splendidly sassy singer named Thelma (Rashada Dawan) employed by Jimmy the Goat (the always terrific James Earl Jones II), a chorus line (comprised of Wildcat men and women) and several Irish players (also college students), "The Shift" feels like a production number you might see performed on the Tony Awards. 

The singing, dancing, imagination and connection to Rockne's gridiron innovations are truly that inspired.

Unfortunately, most of the musical's dramaturgical elements--the script, structure, continuity, breadth of focus--fall considerably short of championship caliber.

Like many other biographical musicals--or even plays and movies--Something in the Game suffers in too broadly trying to cover its subject's life story, rather than focusing more compellingly on an emblematic aspect or two.

And though Rockne's discovery, motivation and ceaseless if often chagrined faith in Gipp--who becomes an All-American only shortly before delivering his famed deathbed speech that the coach later reprises in "Ordinary Heroes"--is rather compelling, this comes well after an odd opening that depicts the legendary Knute pursuing another job during halftime.

This is followed by a flashback to Rockne's youth in Chicago, his arrival at Notre Dame and his time there as a player, chemist--yes, we actually see him discussing formulas--and assistant coach.

Though--as in 2008--Stef Tovar does a nice job as Rockne, his adult earnestness saps the early backstory scenes of youthful charm. (Why not use an actual college kid as the young Rockne?)

It also struck me as strange that those getting a 2-1/2 hour rundown about Knute Rockne will learn that he once was a Logan Square postal worker, but not that he would die in a plane crash in 1931 at the age of 43. (I don't think it can be presumed everyone knows this anymore).

Much better are some sweet courtship scenes between the romantically awkward "Rock" and Bonnie (a delightful and wonderfully-sung Dara Cameron), who becomes his wife.

Eventually and repeatedly, we will see her exasperation with Knute's tunnel vision focus on football, rather than family. (Billy, played by young Charlie Herman, is the only one of the Rocknes' four actual children depicted within.) But Cameron's lustrous take on "If There Had Been Roses" is another standout moment in a show that has many, despite narrative flaws.

The coach also inspires frequent frustration in his boss, Father Walsh (James Rank, another fine pro), largely because he routinely defies him. For a show seemingly concocted to honor the hallowed Knute Rockne, Something in the Game often makes him seem like quite a lout. 

While a bio-musical like this certainly needn't be historically precise in terms of how many football games Notre Dame won in a given season between 1918-30, I was genuinely befuddled in trying to follow the chronology, given the opening scene, the flashback, the working in of Gipp and the closing of the flashback loop in a way that seems to confound.

There are also three different songs that feel as though they should close out Act I.

That each of these songs is very good plays into my overall gist about Something in the Game.

Structurally the show is rather messy, but whenever people are singing and/or dancing, it's really quite enjoyable.

With deference to Rockne having popularized the forward pass, the experience is a bit akin to watching a quarterback and screaming:

"Throw it away! Take the sack! Don't force it! No! No! No! ....

"Touchdown!!! Woo-hoo! Way to go! That was awesome!"

Saturday, July 21, 2018

With Occasional Prehistoric Fervor, Dinosaur Jr. Unearths Some Cherished Rock in an Evanson Parking Lot -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Dinosaur Jr.
w/ opening act Purling Hiss
Out of SPACE
Temperance Beer Co., Evanston, IL

I would love to say that I've been an avid Dinosaur Jr. fan for 30 years, but that isn't quite the case.

Though the highly acclaimed second and third albums by the Massachusetts trio--You're Living All Over Me and Bug--were released in late 1987 and 1988, respectively, I was oblivious until 1991's Green Mind.

By then, bassist Lou Barlow had left the band and drummer Murph played only on a few tracks before also departing, but I was beguiled by the master musicianship of guitarist J Mascis, along with his lovesick lyrics and laconic, disaffected vocals.

With songs like "The Wagon," "Puke & Cry," "Thumb" and the title track, Green Mind was at the time--and remains--an album I held as dear as any from that watershed year, including Nirvana's Nevermind, Pearl Jam's Ten, R.E.M.'s Out of Time, U2's Achtung Baby and Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magic, all of which I love.

Over the years I've seen Dinosaur Jr. several times in various incarnations--including since 2005 with the original trio--as well as Mascis on his own.

With his brilliant soloing, J genuinely ranks among my five favorite guitarists of all-time, and think I own every CD he and Dinosaur Jr. have released.

To be honest, I often haven't been all that smitten by the band as a live act, but an outdoor street festival show in 2012 found them fantastic.

I hadn't seen Dinosaur Jr. since then, so I was genuinely thrilled when the excellent Evanston SPACE venue included them in their summer "Out of SPACE" series, taking place at a variety of somewhat atypical sites for live music.

These include the Canal Shores Golf Course and the parking lot of Temperance Beer Co. brewpub near Dempster & Dodge, where The New Pornographers played in June--I was traveling so had to miss them--and where Dinosaur Jr. appeared on Thursday night.

Opening act Purling Hiss
The band also played Chicago's Thalia Hall the night before, but the Evanston show had sold out in a hurry, so I was happy not only to be there, but granted a seat as I can no longer comfortably stand through shows.

Though I didn't have any beer, I was glad for the introduction to Temperance--a nifty name for an Evanston brewery given the formerly dry town's 19th century ties to Frances Willard and the Women's Christian Temperance Union--and I patronized a couple of the food trucks on hand.

Overall I found the whole event well run and everyone I encountered--staff and audience--entirely agreeable.

An opening band called Purling Hiss made some enjoyable noise for 45 minutes and Dinosaur Jr. took the stage--as scheduled--right around 8:15pm.

So my @@@1/2 (out of 5) rating merely reflects a performance by Dinosaur Jr. I found mildly disappointing, and even as such I was truly delighted to be present, especially on a very pleasant night. 

With a second guitarist onstage, the band sounded strong enough from the opening notes of "The Lung" off You're Living All Over Me, but there seemed to be only occasional fervor and it was about halfway through the 90-minute set that I first heard a song that truly excited me, "Feel the Pain".

"The Wagon," "Little Fury Things," "Start Choppin'" and "Freak Scene" were joyous, but Dinosaur Jr. eschewed cherished staples like "Out There" and "Get Me"--played at Thalia Hall the night before, but I wasn't there--and though Mascis had some sweet solos proving he's still got the touch into his 50s, he didn't blaze quite enough for me.

Except for rhetorically asking, "What should we play?" before two encore cover songs I didn't recognize nor love--see the setlist here--Mascis also didn't say a word to the crowd all night, though Barlow muttered a few pleasantries.

Mascis' combination of seeming aloofness with musical brilliance is long what I've loved about him, but too much of the gig on a rented stage in an industrial parking lot just felt a tad perfunctory.

The show wasn't bad and the night overall was great.

Just being able to see one of my favorite bands only about 10 minutes from my Skokie home made for a rather special occasion.

So although I didn't quite find it to be a (pre)historic performance, I'd be tickled any time Dinosaur Jr. may again be found in these parts.

Friday, July 20, 2018

For All Hue Persevere: Terrific Cast Renders Revamped Rendition of 'The Color Purple' Close to Perfect -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Color Purple
a musical
Broadway revival national tour
Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 29

In addition to Seth Saith, I maintain a much less verbose blog called 6word Portraits

Each day, I sixinctly profile a person I admire on their birthday, and share the post on Facebook.

Wednesday, the day I would see The Color Purple in the evening, marked 100 years since the remarkable Nelson Mandela was born, and as such, he was my daily subject.

In sharing my 6er on Facebook, I included the following quote, spoken by Mandela in 1964, at the trial that would result in his imprisonment for 27 years, essentially for refusing to accept that black people should be subservient to whites in Apartheid South Africa:
"I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
As I watched The Color Purple, Mandela's remark about fighting black domination really stuck me, given the show's particularly heinous character of Mister, who--like everyone else onstage--is African-American.

Photo credit on all: Matthew Murphy
Egregiously, racists may espouse that "black people are bad" but the truth is obviously that there are some people of African descent who happen to be bad--or who do terrible things--much as there are awful representatives of every race, religion, creed, etc.

It doesn't mean that anyone is bad because they're black. 

And part of the beauty of The Color Purple--in this case, the musical, as I haven't read Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel and am unsure if I ever saw Steven Spielberg's film adaptation--is that it chronicles a group of particular African-Americans, but like much great art, is also quite universal. 

Including in making the point that causing, facing, coping with and (hopefully) overcoming great pain and hardship is a reality inherent to those of all colors or classifications.

This isn't to suggest that black people and women--specifically--don't still face indignities (and worse), perhaps on a daily basis, that as I white man I presumably never will.

And it's no small part of The Color Purple's glory that it's entirely about--and onstage stars--African-Americans.

But as I watched the touring production of The Color Purple--currently at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre--a comparative musical that came to mind, somewhat surprisingly to me, was Les Misérables.

Though the latter concerns itself with insurgent French students--and others who feel ignored or mistreated by the ruling class of their own country--rising in rebellion in the early 19th century, both musicals have strong narratives derived from classic novels in which a central character perseveres over many years amid extremely challenging circumstances.

In Les Miz, this is Jean Valjean, a peasant imprisoned for 19 years--for stealing a loaf of bread--who
after his release becomes a dedicated father, respected businessman and mayor, yet remains hunted for his past.

But Les Misérables--which I believe the best musical ever created--excels in presenting several characters we truly come to care about. 

The Color Purple does this too, but at its heart is a young woman named Celie (played fantastically here by Adrianna Hicks). 

Although--without being able to cite specific adjustments--I liked this John Doyle-directed rendition of The Color Purple more than the original musical that toured in 2007, I still feel the show begins a bit abruptly.

It took me a few minutes to sort out the key characters and what was happening, and only in reading Wikipedia could I tell you with any exactitude that the predominant setting is rural Georgia, beginning in the 1930s. 

There Celie and Nettie (N'Jameh Camara) are teenage sisters, the former twice impregnated by her father and forced to give up her babies. 

The craven Mister (a terrible man adroitly embodied by Gavin Gregory) lusts for the obviously pretty Nettie, but is convinced to marry Celie, who both he and her dad openly deride as ugly (and other insults). 

Abetted by an impressive backdrop designed by Doyle--featuring as best I can describe, a wall of chairs--the choral number "Mysterious Ways" is quite powerful, as is "Our Prayer," sung by Nettie, Celie and Mister. 

As Celie begins her unhappy life with Mister, Nettie comes to visit. After he coldly sends her away, her disappearance hangs over the rest of Act I, and as I truly didn't recall how this would resolve itself, I'll keep things circumspect. 

But I think it fair to share that two other women become important friends to Celie, the boldly confident Sofia (Carrie Compere)--her take on "Hell No!" earns rousing applause on multiple levels--and a jazz singer named Shug Avery (Carla Stewart), who after being shown great kindness by Celie powerfully lets her know that she's "Too Beautiful for Words."

Other than to mention the additional characters of Harpo (J. Daughtry) and Squeak (Erica Dunham) mainly to cite the fine performances, any other narrative details will be left for your discovery. 

But as this is a musical, I will note "Push da Button" and "Miss Celie's Pants" as two more of the fine tunes credited to Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. 

Though the score has a few songs that don't quite dazzle, the high points are fantastic, with truly chills-inducing vocals by Hicks as Celie on "I'm Here," and remarkable work by Gregory's Mister on "Celie's Curse."

Unlike the British Doyle's noted directorial take on Sweeney Todd, in which the actors played musical instruments onstage, there is no obvious "gimmick" to this version of The Color Purple, whose return to Broadway in 2015 was relatively quick for a revival (the original production opening in NYC in 2005 and closed in 2008). 

I remember enjoying the show when I saw it at the Cadillac Palace in 2008, but not nearly this much.
My memory isn't sufficient to recollect has changed, but although the material itself doesn't quite delight me on par with Les Misérables or other musicals I consider among the very best, this is an superlative take that elevates the original score, presumably does better justice to Walker's revered novel and--based on other respected opinions--considerably improves upon the original Broadway production.

There is much that happens over the course of The Color Purple that--even in coming from rather famed source material--I don't feel right revealing in a review.

But Celie's story arc is much of what makes the show so powerful, and though you often rail at the depravity of its depiction the human condition, there is also considerable uplift.

Not only would Jean Valjean recognize a good bit of his self and spirit in the character of Celie and the aplomb with which she endures*, so too I have to believe, would Nelson Mandela.

*Just to clarify, as far as I'm aware, The Color Purple and Les Misérables were fictional novels, although steeped in history. My closing sentence might seem to suggest that Jean Valjean and Celie were real-life heroes as was Nelson Mandela, but I don't believe this to be the case.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Proud, Perplexed Papa: As Hemingway, by Himself in 'Pamplona,' Stacy Keach Provides a Remarkably Ernest Portrait -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

by Jim McGrath
directed by Robert Falls
starring Stacy Keach
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 19

It's October 1959, and Ernest Hemingway is holed up in a hotel room in Pamplona, the Spanish city he made world famous 33 years earlier with the publication of his venerated debut novel, The Sun Also Rises.

That book, a loosely autobiographical chronicling of the Lost Generation gallivanting across Europe after World War I, would help establish Hemingway as one of the world's most famous authors.

And, with crisply descriptive and boldly evocative language that would become his trademark, quite likely its best.

Over three decades, Hem would defend this title with the pluck of a prizefighter, or one of his beloved bullfighters. Often rhapsodizing about hunting, fishing and courage amid combat, he made the cerebral exercise of writing a manly sport often celebrated with his holy trinity:

Booze, boats and broads.

Following the renowned A Farewell to Arms and For Whom The Bell Tolls came Hemingway's 1952 ode to a persevering fisherman--The Old Man and the Sea--which earned the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was cited as central to his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

That same year, he was nearly killed in a plane crash in Africa, and defied death in yet another the very next day.

His health, and likely his faculties, would deteriorate from injuries suffered in the crashes, but in the summer of 1959, Hem would follow a bullfighter named Antonio for an article commissioned by Life magazine.

And as the one-man play, Pamplona, opens--within a beautiful set by Kevin Depinet under the direction of Robert Falls at Chicago's Goodman Theatre--the great, proud, tough Ernest Hemingway (embodied brilliantly by Stacy Keach) sits at a typewriter in his hotel room.

And is unable to write a damn word.

So the great Hemingway instead talks, about his frailties and flaws, his four wives and lost loves, his dear friends and departed comrades (most notably F. Scott Fitzgerald), his war injuries and the bravado of bullfighters, his days hanging out in Montmartre with Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein--before Hem had become famous--his feelings about Francisco Franco and Fidel Castro, his affinity for booze and his storied books, his dreaded mother who insisted on dressing him like his sister and his dear father who would--like the famed novelist himself, in 1961--end his life with a bullet to the head.

In Jim McGrath's play, on which Keach--long a Hemingway interpreter--collaborated, it's never really clear why the novelist would apparently be orating to an audience as he meanders alone in a hotel room, but without the dramatic conceit, we'd all be sitting in silence for 90 minutes.

Instead we get a first-rate actor giving us a glimpse into the mindset, and the biography, of a famous author many may have left behind in their high school literature classes.

Though I have revisited some of Hem's novels and short stories in recent years, I wouldn't quite call myself an aficionado, but can't really say that Pamplona taught me all that much.

But not only was Keach's depiction a tour de force--all the more remarkable given that his suffering a heart attack on opening night last year curbed the world premiere run at Goodman--but my friend Ken, an avowed Hemingway acolyte, found considerable depth and definition that abetted the familiar biographical terrain.

The show program states that Pamplona takes place on October 11, 1959, so even in knowing about Hemingway's real-life ending, part of the thrill is encountering how McGrath, Keach and Falls broach that eventual reality within the context of the one-act play.

I certainly won't reveal that here, but in citing the three key traits of a bullfighter--"skill, courage and grace in the presence of death"--I think Keach as Hemingway is also shrewdly referencing the writer, even given his self-inflicted demise. 

Less than I had imagined, Pamplona isn't merely a meditation on mental duress or how a brilliant mind might realistically deal with no longer being so.

Accompanied by images projected on the hotel room walls, the monologue is consistently far more colorful than it is dour.

But with Keach brilliantly infusing Ernest Hemingway with both bluster and befuddlement, we are given a keen glimpse into how "Papa" lived life--and wrote--mixing the nimble grace and defiant machismo of a great matator, while simultaneously being provided a poignantly potent sense of perhaps why the sun also set.

After the show at a reception in the Goodman lobby, Ken and I had the thrill of meeting Stacy Keach and telling him how sensational his performance was and how happy we are that he's doing well. He was extremely gracious in return. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Music is King: Likable 'Heartbreak Hotel' Dwells on Too Much Besides Elvis -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Heartbreak Hotel
a new musical about Elvis Presley
written & directed by Floyd Mutrux
Broadway Playhouse, Chicago
Thru September 30

My understanding is that Elvis Presley's first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show--on Sept. 9, 1956--didn't represent his "introduction" to most of America quite as much as The Beatles' debut on that show did on Feb. 9, 1964.

By the time Charles Laughton--not Sullivan, who was recovering from a car accident--introduced Presley midway through the hour, Elvis had already appeared on a number of TV shows during 1956, played several concerts and had had four #1 million-selling hits ("Heartbreak Hotel," "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," "Don't Be Cruel" and "Hound Dog").

A fifth #1 single in Elvis' breakthrough year of '56--"Love Me Tender," the title song of his first movie, the filming of which prompted him to appear on Sullivan from a Hollywood studio--would soon follow.

But the Ed Sullivan Show, a Sunday night staple in the early days of television, was generally the most-watched program in America at the time. And the approximately 60 million viewers for the first of Elvis' three appearances--nearly 83% of the TV audience--represented a new record.

Elvis would also be on Ed Sullivan on October 28--in New York, with the show's namesake--and January 6, 1957, the latter infamous for the censoring (at Parker's behest) Presley's below the waist gyrations, which only served to ramp up titillation and controversy.

Photo credit on all: Brett Beiner
But per noted rock writer, Greil Marcus (as referenced on Wikipedia), more than any other single event, it was this first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show that made Presley a national celebrity of barely precedented proportions.

With the handsome, charming and hip-shaking Elvis the Pelvis representing not only the birth of rock and roll--though certainly not unilaterally--but also the focus point of a rising teenage subculture that had never previously existed, it's almost impossible for me to gauge how exciting and seismic that September night must have felt in living rooms across America.

I'm far more a Beatlemaniac than Elvis fanatic, and have long had reverence for how much the Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan changed the cultural landscape.

And although--despite being old enough--I didn't actually see, live, Michael Jackson moonwalk on Motown 25 or Nirvana blast out "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on their first Saturday Night Live appearance, I've noted how captivating TV performances can not only have great musical impact, but immense societal reach.

But Elvis came first, and I have to imagine some perceived him as not just a punk but nearly a Martian.

Sure, Frank Sinatra had elicited ear-piercing screams from the bobby soxers more than a decade earlier, but that was before television, the end of World War II or rock and roll.

So, with the new musical Heartbreak Hotel centering on Elvis between 1954-57, my hope was that it would provide a sense of the frenzied excitement and on-the-precipice-of-a-revolution reaction that presumably accompanied him taking a stage in that era.

...whether on Ed Sullivan or Louisiana Hayride or in a high school gymnasium across the American South.

But while Heartbreak Hotel features tons of talent--including Eddie Clendening as a great Elvis--I found that it dwells too much on backstory, and too little on chills-inducing, culture-shifting music from the King.

With that said, I would stipulate that much of what writer/director Floyd Mutrux--who co-wrote the terrific Million Dollar Quartet--opts to focus on is both salient and historically important.

That Elvis, his initial rockabilly style of music and ultimately rock 'n roll were fused from "race music"-- whether found in gospel churches choirs or Beale Street clubs in Memphis--is a point that deserves to be made.

And Katherine Lee Bourne and Takesha Meshe Kizart (as Rosetta Tharpe, Ruth Brown and others), and the nearly show-stealing Geno Henderson (as B.B. King, Roy Brown, Chuck Berry and others), make it searingly, with sizzling performances.

Heartbreak Hotel is constantly entertaining, and the considerable stage time given to Elvis' early girlfriend Dixie Locke (Erin Burniston), Sun Records head Sam Phillips (Matt McKenzie), local DJ Dewey Phillips (Colte Julian), Blue Moon Boys bandmates Scotty Moore (Matt Codina), Bill Black (Zach Lentino) & DJ Fontana (Jamie Pittie) and Elvis' eventual manager Col. Tom Parker (Jerry Kernion), reflect many people--along with his parents--who were important in Elvis' early biography.

Quite often I find that jukebox musicals--featuring well-known songs by cherished artists--and the tribute shows that are the specialty of Chicago's Black Ensemble Theater are inherently enjoyable due to beloved music and excellent performances, yet short of being theatrically superb, usually owing to a lack of narrative or character development.

So it's estimable that Mutrux is trying to give us more than Elvis' greatest hits onstage. There are more than enough impersonators one can see be King for a night, if all one wants is music and an occasional "Thank ya very much."

But across three viewings--initially in its premiere run at Goodman Theatre--I found Million Dollar Quartet to be wonderful, in part because it doesn't try to do too much.

It takes a real-life occurrence--Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash all being at Sun Studios on Dec. 4, 1956--and with a relatively narrow focus, lets the four legends rock out over 90 minutes (in the guise of those embodying them).

There are liberties taken with the songs actually performed that night, and some biographical tidbits about recording contracts, hit records, career arcs and girlfriends interspersed between the songs, but while certainly not Shakespeare, MDQ is joyous and thrilling.

And if this new show were called Elvis Presley's America, where musical influences on him and--through his popularizing of black music--his importance amid the Civil Rights movement were presumed to be much of the gist, the structure might have seemed more sensible.

As it stands, nothing that is broached is unwarranted--and Heartbreak Hotel is far from bad--but I think it somehow needs to put Elvis Aron Presley more front and center from the get-go.

Mutrux obviously knows far more about the true circumstances than I do, and I don't doubt there were many belligerent arguments between Col. Tom and Sam Phillips, or that Elvis went to Dixie's senior prom despite scheduling conflicts.

There is also compelling drama in the almost Faustian relationship Elvis has with Parker, who for all his pomposity--and Kernion certainly plays that up here--undoubtedly abets King-sized success, whether through a bigger record deal, mass merchandising, marketing Elvis without a band and TV exposure.

I also liked the mentioning of Marlon Brando and James Dean, who--with their youthful, rebellious personas--give some nice context around Elvis seemingly rising like a phoenix.

As already noted, Bourne, Kizart and Henderson are fantastic on several songs early in the show.

And as with this endeavor overall, Burniston's Dixie is quite likable.

So there is plenty to enjoy, as it stands. (I imagine there will be ongoing tinkering.) 

But if you attend this show, ostensibly about a young Elvis, expecting Kingly jolts of electricity--as I did--you won't really get that until well into Act II.

Other than "That's All Right, Mama," there really aren't any "OMG!" Elvis classics before intermission, and prior to a post-bows Mega-Mix, few others are performed in-full or uninterrupted.

Eventually, Clendening & Co.'s romps through "Mystery Train," "All Shook Up," "Ready Teddy" and "Jailhouse Rock" gave me a sense of just how hyper-kinetic--and yes, sexually provocative--Elvis' gyrations must have been to mid-'50s teens (and their horrified parents).

And why--with perhaps just a bit of hyperbole--the history of the world can fairly be divided into "Before Elvis" and "After Elvis."

There is much reason for the applause I heartily bestowed.

But albeit with many worthy themes, messages, elements, characters and performances, Heartbreak Hotel spends far too much time foreshadowing, anticipating, discussing and dissecting the Big Bang--and not enough just showing it at full-tilt.

Or more so--as much as any not-the-actual-Elvis endeavor ever can--letting you feel it.

In your gut.

And wherever else at the end of Lonely St. you might dwell.