Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Bean(town) There, Done That: Recapping a Fantastic Four Days in Boston - Travelogue and Photo Gallery

Old State House
Travel Recap

Boston, MA
Aug. 2-5, 2018

Why did I recently go to Boston, for a 4-day weekend?

Is it a city I'd never been to? Do I have friends, relatives or business there? Was there a concert by Bruce Springsteen or other cherished musical favorites? Is its famed baseball stadium one I haven't attended? Was there a particularly compelling theater production in town?

No, no, no, no and not one that was the impetus.

I consider Boston one of the truly great American cities, along with New York, Washington, San Francisco, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and my hometown of Chicago. (There are many other cities I really enjoy, including Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Denver, Seattle, St. Louis, Atlanta, Cleveland and San Antonio, but I consider the above a cut above in terms of tourism, with Las Vegas and Miami Beach being separate cases.)

And though I'd been to Boston twice before, and seen many of its top attractions, I had really only spent a total of 4 previous days there, and none since 2000. (I've been to ALL of the aforementioned cities, even the second batch, more recently.)

Boston Public Library, McKim Building
So although my big vacation of 2018--to Peru--ended just 5-1/2 weeks prior, it seemed prudent to visit Boston for a full 4 days in early August...and the weather cooperated well. 

Having never set foot in Maine, I considered taking a bus to Portland one of the days, but ruled that out fairly early in my planning given all I wanted to do in Boston. 

And I ended up wishing I had devoted one more day, allowing me to visit the historic nearby hamlets of Lexington, Concord and Walden, but I'm happy with everything I did in Boston (and adjoining Cambridge).

So I won't make this too fancy, but rather a straightforward recap of what I saw, did and ate across the four days.

Interior of Trinity Church
● Arrival via Logan Airport from Chicago O'Hare on American Airlines

● "T" (Boston subway) from Airport to Prudential (purchased 7-day T pass)

Boston Public Garden
● Copley House (non-traditional hotel) - Booked via Booking.com - Costing roughly one-third of any other accommodations I could find in downtown Boston, I had a private room in a row house at 240 W. Newton, close to the Prudential Center. This wasn't an AirBNB, and there was a reception office across the street. I found it quite acceptable.  
● Prudential Center - A shopping center I walked through on my way elsewhere.

● NewsFeed Cafe - In the newer building of the Boston Public Library; I had an apricot croissant.

Massachusetts State House
● Boston Public Library - After entering through the newer building designed by Philip Johnson, I realized the older building next door was the one I was really supposed to check out. It was gorgeous, with many grand murals, including by John Singer Sargent, Edwin Austin Abbey and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. A reading room called Bates Hall is also astonishing.

● Trinity Church - I took a self-guided audio tour of this spectacular church at Copley Square, and was even treated to a local choir singing live from the altar.

● Newbury Street - Walked down this posh street for a stretch toward the Boston Public Garden, ducking into the Taj Boston hotel for a look, but the lobby wasn't anything particularly special.

● Boston Public Garden - A gorgeous open space on a beautiful day.

● Cheers - Formerly the Bull & Finch Pub, the exterior served as that of NBC's hit sitcom. Now there's a barroom matching that of the TV show, as well as another in original form. I've been here twice before and didn't eat or drink this time, but wanted to stop by. Nobody knew my name.

● Massachusetts State House - I couldn't help but snicker sophomorically at signs directing me to access the capitol through the General Hooker entrance (Joseph Hooker was a Union Army General), but enjoyed a nice tour of the building, including two
Red Sox vs. Yankees at Fenway, under a blood red sky.
statues by Daniel Chester French.

● Freedom Trail - Time constraints didn't allow me to arduously follow the red line on the sidewalk, as I have previously, but I got to most of the sights on either Thursday or Sunday.

● Holocaust Memorial - Six glass towers represent the 6 million Jews who were murdered.

● Union Oyster House - Open since 1826 and claiming to be the oldest operating restaurant in the United States, it's rather touristy and I've been here before. But it seemed like the place to get a Lobster Roll and a cup of "chowda." Loved the cornbread and my waitress was wonderful.

● Fenway Park - Red Sox vs. Yankees - I felt fortunate to get a reasonably-priced ticket on RedSox.com, found that it was behind a pole that blocked my view of home plate, was switched to one that did but went back to my original when it started to rain. The rain stopped and the Red Sox won 15-7. As a Chicagoan and Cubs fan, I find Wrigley Field much more endearing, but it was cool to see a game at Fenway, actually my second (after a 22-1 Yankees win in 2000).

Dance at Bougival, Pierre-August Renoir
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
One of the primary reasons for wanting to revisit Boston was to go to art museums, 2 of 3 I'd never been to. So in saying that--due to rain or the threat of it--pretty much all of Friday until the evening was spent inside museums only reflects day-to-day scheduling adjustments, not a compromise or change of plans.

From my hotel, I basically just walked southwest on Huntington Ave. Without any prior awareness, I stopped for a bite at:

Temptations Cafe - I had a Sweet Temptation brioche sandwich with banana and Nutella.

Then, because it opened at 10am, I began at the: 

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston - I initially jumped on a highlights tour, but a fire alarm interrupted it as the building was evacuated. I would return afterward, and pretty thoroughly explore the MFA's wonderful multidisciplinary holdings.

But during the forced exit, I went over to the: 

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum courtyard
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum - The private collection of its namesake, still organized to her exacting specifications nearly a century years after her death. Despite missing some masterpieces due to a 1990 theft, it is a very impressive collection housed in a mansion designed to resemble a Venetian palazzo. Highlights include a couple of paintings by Raphael, a Botticelli (and another by his followers), a terrific Rembrandt and many beautiful tapestries.

Before an evening concert, I stopped at:

Legal Harborside - A waterside outpost of Legal Sea Foods. Having had a lobster roll the night before, I opted for a Swordfish Gyros Sandwich, which was good. The restaurant is right next to the big white tent of the...

● Blue Hills Bank Pavilion at which I saw Ann Wilson / Jeff Beck / Paul Rodgers on their Stars Align Tour - Two great rock and roll singers--Wilson of Heart and Rodgers of both Free & Bad Company--along with one of the best guitarists ever. Although it may have been cool to see them play together, they each performed their own set with a backing band. Rather than run through Heart's greatest hits--playing only "Barracuda"--Wilson sang a selection of choice cover songs, some representing rock's recently-passed legends. Beck mixed instrumentals with some sung by Jimmy Hall. Rodgers stuck to his best-known songs from Free and Bad Company and remains a terrific vocalist. Overall I give the show @@@@ (out of 5), with Rodgers being the most enjoyable.


John Harvard by Daniel Chester French, Harvard Yard, Cambridge
The forecast again called for a full day of rain, even thunderstorms, but they hadn't quite started when I got to:

● Harvard Square (in Cambridge) - I arrived right at 10am and knew there were free student-led tours of Harvard Yard on the hour, so I jumped on the first one I saw, which I subsequently learned to be a...

"Hahvahd" Tour - ...which should have cost me $12. So I apologize and give them a plug here. The guy giving the tour did a nice job, but as the rain started to get harder, I repeatedly wandered off and eventually ditched my bootleg tour to enter the...

● Harvard Art Museums - The Fogg, Sackler and Busch-Reisinger Museums are now housed in the same building, with nicely diverse collections but still considerably more compact than the MFA. They have a wondrous Blue Period Picasso, a great Van Gogh portrait and some terrific works by Max Beckmann.
On the advice of a friend who is a Harvard Alum, I sought out:

● Mr. Bartley's Burger Cottage - A Harvard/Cambridge institution since 1960, they have a bunch of big burgers (with various toppings) named for Tom Brady, Liz Warren, Kim Jong-Un, Melania Trump and more. I devised by own, with Muenster cheese, grilled red peppers and grilled onions, accompanied by sweet pepper fries and a fresh Raspberry Lime Rickey.

With hopes that my doctor isn't reading this, I followed that up with a visit to the Cambridge location--I'm told the more famous original is in the North End--of:

● Mike's Pastries - They're famed for their cannoli, and I can report for good reason.

Before getting back to Boston proper, I rode to the Kendall/MIT T stop in Cambridge and took a stroll to and into the:

● Stata Center, a collection of adjoining buildings designed by Frank Gehry, in his typical unique fashion.

I had been advised that MIT has a great collection of outdoor sculpture, but it was continuing to rain and I was ready for a respite, so I made my way back to my hotel for a brief nap, before heading to the:

● Emerson Colonial Theatre to see Moulin Rouge!: The Musical - The newly refurbished theater--the oldest continuously operating in Boston--is absolutely gorgeous. And in a pre-Broadway World Premiere run, I thought Moulin Rouge! was phenomenal. See my review here.

Tail of a whale

● Long Wharf

● Whale Watching Cruise - On Thursday morning I had bought a ticket for a 9:00am Sunday Whale Watch tour, operated by Boston Harbor Cruises in conjunction with the New England Aquarium. Fortunately, the weather cooperated beautifully.

The cruise cost $53 and across nearly 4 hours into the Atlantic Ocean and back to Long Wharf, we saw only 2 whales, who for the most part were sleeping.

Boston Light
Still, even just the boat ride was worth it, just a glimpse of the whales was a thrill and I was able to take some great photos, including of Boston Light, the first lighthouse to be built in the United States (before it was the United States). 

● Paul Revere Statue - in the North End, on the Paul Revere Mall

● St. Stephen's Catholic Church (exterior) - built in 1804 

● Old North Church - I took a brief tour, which didn't take me up to the famous "one if by land, two if by sea" lanterns in the steeple (they don't remain), but taught me about the belfry and showed me some graves in the crypt underneath.
Old North Church

● Paul Revere House - I went on a self-guided tour. It was just OK, with some exhibits in the

adjoining visitors center pointing out that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famed poem, "Paul Revere's Ride" probably wasn't factual.

Hard Rock Cafe Boston - just for a quick peek

Faneuil Hall (exterior)

● Faneuil Hall Marketplace / Quincy Market

● Durgin-Park Restaurant - Within Quincy Market, it dates back to 1742, and since 1827 under the same name. I had a Crab Cake BLT, which was tasty.

● Kilvert & Forbes Bakeshop - Also in the market; I secured a fine macaroon.

● Old State House (pictured at top of blog post) - I took a self-guided tour and listened to a couple on lectures, on about the Boston Massacre and another about the 1713 building itself.

● T to the hotel, a Lyft to the airport and a flight to Chicago

And a few more photos...

All photos by Seth Arkin, copyright 2018. Please do not republish without permission and attribution.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Friends in a Strange Land: At Writers Theatre, 'Vietgone' Provides Interesting Perspectives on Post-War Displacement -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by Qui Nguyen
directed by Lavina Jadhwani
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru September 23

In writing theater reviews, my aim is to share enough about the storyline to give you a good sense of the play (or musical) so as to pique your interest--even if I myself wasn't so smitten--but not reveal any key plot twists, ruin the ending or lessen the drama.

Especially as I prefer to be taken by surprise as a viewer, I will maintain this discretion in discussing Vietgone, a fine recent play by Qui Nguyen, now getting its Chicagoland premiere at Glencoe's gorgeous Writers Theatre.

So even though Nguyen--whose writing I largely found quite fresh and inventive--opts to make certain revelations at the very beginning of Vietgone that essentially give away the ending, my tack will be to be even more circumspect than the play's introduction itself or the printed program, even if both provide insights you may otherwise find interesting.

Under the direction of Lavina Jadhwani at Writers and featuring a terrific set designed by Yu Shibagaki, Vietgone predominantly takes place in 1975, before, during and after the fall of Saigon that ended the Vietnam War.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Quang (a terrific Matthew C. Yee) is a South Vietnam helicopter pilot--the side supported in the war by the USA--with a wife and two young children, but duty and his comrade, Nhan (Rammel Chan) compel him to aid in the airlift of U.S. Embassy personnel and civilian natives likely to be targeted by the victorious Viet Cong.

As did over 100,000 South Vietnamese troops and citizens, Quang and Nhan wind up in a U.S. holding camp, this one being in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.

While Quang actively desires to get back to his family--prompting Nhan to accompany him on a cross country motorcycle trip in an effort to do so--his time in the camp is made more pleasant by encounters with an attractive Vietnamese woman name Tong (Aurora Adachi-Winter, excellent in a role demanding wide-ranging tonality).

Leaving behind both a lover and a beloved brother, Tong has come to Fort Chaffee with her brassy mother Huong (Emjoy Gavino, who also deftly embodies some younger women characters).

Ian Michael Minh also plays multiple parts, including both Vietnamese and (presumably Caucasian) American men infatuated with Tong.

I'll leave vague further specifics about the narrative, but appreciate being enlightened about South Vietnamese evacuees needing U.S. residents to "sponsor"--which I believe meant house, employ or otherwise support--them in order to be able to exit the holding camps.

And even though they had been U.S. allies, many of those who had come over from South Vietnam were seen and treated as the enemy.

So beyond the acute storylines about Quang, Tong and their families, I found Vietgone to be worthwhile for the way it illuminates about the immigrant experience, including for those who didn't emigrate by active choice.

At at a time when immigrant children have been separated from their parents, and other refugees arrive to face considerable bigotry--if even allowed into the U.S.--many of Vietgone's insights, including some of the between-the-lines variety, are rather shrewd and resonant.

(Without turning this review into a polemic, it seems to me that white-skinned Americans who tend to disdain those of differing colors and languages aren't so likely to be discriminating about legal vs. illegal immigrants. If you look "foreign," you'll likely be treated as such by those short on tolerance.)

I wish it had been possible for the ending of Vietgone to have surprise me a bit more, though something of an epilogue contains the play's most overt discourse about the Vietnam War itself and U.S. involvement.

But though it's hard to express such things in writing, the production really has a nice energy to it throughout two acts and nearly 2-1/2 hours.

Supported by music written for this staging by Gabriel Ruiz, there are a number of rap songs performed by many of the play's key characters, with lyrics crafted by playwright Nguyen.

Some of these work better than others--a rap by Tong presumably called "I Don't Give a Shit" is rather powerful--but it's part of what makes Vietgone feel fresh and unique.

That the newly in Arkansas Vietnamese characters do not --for the most part--speak with any trace of an accent and actually employ a good deal of American slang is also a novel touch.

And although I'm purposely leaving vague the play's various romantic and interpersonal interactions, I found this aspect of Vietgone rather compelling as well. 

Quang, Tong, Huong and Nhan are all strong characters, and it's hard to imagine them portrayed considerably better than by the actors at Writers. 

Although Vietgone touches on war and strife and politics, it's even more about love and family and friendship, with a good deal of humor along the way. 

It's neither perfect nor a masterpiece, and Nguyen's decision to give away the ending at the beginning is one of but a few choices I have my doubts about. 

But with many inspired ideas, deft touches, fine performances and welcome insights, Vietgone is a strong play that left me thinking. 

Even if where it would wind up was never much in doubt.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

It Doesn't Get Eddie Vedder Than This: Pearl Jam Powerfully Celebrates Heroes Across Two Winning Nights at Wrigley -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Pearl Jam
Wrigley Field, Chicago 
August 18 & 20, 2018
(both shows attended)

In life, the way I try to live it, experience and enjoyment and enlightenment and memories and music are more important than numbers, statistics and database entries.

So in reviewing a concert--or in this case, a pair of concerts by the same artist--I try to gauge and share my admiration and appreciation at face value, in the here and now.

But in addition to saving all my ticket stubs, and writing reviews to post here, I keep track of all rock concerts I attend in a Filemaker "Shows Seen" database, as well as (less comprehensively) on Setlist.fm. (I also have a Shows Seen database for theater performances, which lumps in opera, classical & jazz concerts, comedy, ballet, dance, circus and other live art forms.)

So I can readily tell you that the two Pearl Jam concerts I attended, last Saturday and Monday at Wrigley Field, represented the 19th and 20th times I'd seen the Seattle band live.

Coming just days after having seen the Smashing Pumpkins for the 20th time--albeit with a far less consistent lineup--Pearl Jam is the fourth rock act I've seen this often, following U2 (22) and Bruce Springsteen, far in the lead with 50 shows.

Even more pertinent to this review, this was the fifth time I'd done a Pearl Jam double, meaning back-to-back shows.

So while I thought the band sounded great both nights, it especially didn't matter to me that Saturday's pacing wasn't idyllic and Monday was 1/2-hour shorter due to a thunderstorm delay. (Unlike in 2013, the band didn't take the stage until after the storms came and cleared.)

And although, in the universe of Pearl Jam concerts, Saturday night's show might have only merited @@@@1/2 (on a 5@ scale), I relished the band digging a bit deeper into their catalog, for songs like "Breakerfall," "Present Tense," "Can't Deny Me," "Footsteps" and "Alone," even if none rank among my top PJ tunes. (See the 8/18/18 Pearl Jam setlist here.)

Of 60 songs played across the two nights, only six were performed on both.

I don't believe anyone attending either of the shows got gypped, but have come to appreciate that--with heavily revised setlists night-to-night--a pair of Pearl Jam concerts can be appropriately viewed as companion pieces.

Monday's show, which didn't get underway until 9:30pm due to the storms, skipped to the band's typical low-boil start to open with more fervor--"Given to Fly," "Why Go," "Go," "Last Exit," "Mind Your Manners"--and would include "Jeremy" and "Black" (neither played Saturday) as well as the live debut of a Ten-era outtake, "Evil Little Goat." (See the 8/20/18 Pearl Jam setlist here.

Even from Wrigley Field's upper deck, Eddie Vedder's voice sounded as good as ever on both nights, and now into their 50s, the band--Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, Matt Cameron and touring musician Boom Gaspar--remain musically agile and sonically ferocious.

Adding significantly to both shows was the sense of occasion, for me personally as well as--from all
observations--for Eddie Vedder, an Evanston native and fellow lifelong, diehard Cubs fan.

After Pearl Jam played two shows at Wrigley in August 2016, the Chicago Cubs would win their first World Series in 108 years, with Vedder on hand to celebrate. A concert documentary, Let's Play Two, intertwined the Wrigley gigs with Cubs championship footage.

To be honest, the sold-out shows this time around weren't seemingly filled with Cubs-obsessed fans, as a number of mentions by Vedder didn't elicit the kind of roars one might expect.

Sure, when Cubs owner Tom Ricketts brought the World Series trophy onstage on Saturday there was substantial applause, but otherwise I had the sense that there were many out-of-towners, White Sox fans and others who didn't care much about the Cubs gathered at the Friendly Confines.

But although there were no musical guests as at Pearl Jam's recent Seattle ballpark shows, Vedder found many friends and heroes to celebrate.

Ex-Bull Dennis Rodman was on-hand Saturday, bringing a ukelele to the singer and making a brief speech somehow referencing North Korea.

Blackhawks legend Chris Chelios appeared Monday, giving Vedder a jersey memorializing another, the recently passed Stan Mikita.

Saturday, Pearl Jam performed "Missing," a Chris Cornell solo song (drummer Cameron was his Soundgarden bandmate) and Vedder led the crowd in a massive phone-light singalong of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down," after sharing that Petty had loved playing Wrigley last summer.

Other cover songs over the two shows included "Leaving Here" (Eddie Holland), "Know Your Rights" (The Clash), "Rebel Rebel" (David Bowie), "Rockin' in the Free World" (Neil Young), "Rain" (The Beatles)," a truly blistering "I Am a Patriot" (Little Steven), "We're Going to Be Friends" (The White Stripes) and, wrapping up Monday night, "Baba O'Riley" (The Who).

Vedder mentioned and thanked many Cubs players, manager Joe Maddon, the Ricketts family and team president Theo Epstein, donning a shirt in the latter's honor on Monday. And as he was in 2016, former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason, now stricken with ALS, was on hand, at least on Saturday. (Let's Play Two nicely chronicles his friendship with Mike McCready.)

And lest I'm making you think these were mainly nights for paying homage, pure joy was had in hearing Pearl Jam blast through "Rearviewmirror," "Porch," "Corduroy" and everything else, while singing "Alive" at the top of your lungs with 40,000 others never gets tiresome.

I can't deny being mildly chagrined at how few young people I saw in the crowd. I would like to hope some teens and twenty-somethings still love rock 'n roll, but at Pearl Jam and a recent Wrigley show by Foo Fighters, youth was rather scant.

Hopefully, any teens there to "check it out" despite only knowing a few Pearl Jam classics would have been dazzled by Vedder's voice, the musicianship, energy, many superb songs and tributes to musical & baseball heroes.

Given some of the setlist choices, they may have occasionally had their patience tested, and though a bit shorter, I think Monday wound up being the better show.

I even think I enjoyed the Foo Fighters' latest Wrigley show--they played two in July, but I only attended one, as they don't mix setlists up much--a smidgen more than either Pearl Jam concert, despite liking the band itself a bit less. (For the record, I've seen Foo Fighters 14 times, my fifth highest tally.)

But as I tried to establish above, loving these two Pearl Jam shows wasn't only about loving each of the Wrigley performances.

And having been a fan since shortly after the band's debut album, Ten, was released in 1991, it really "doesn't get Eddie Vedder than this."

From Monday, a clip of the rare "U" as posted to YouTube by PearlJamOnLine.