Wednesday, October 31, 2018

'Day' in the Life: Dael Orlandersmith's 'Lady in Denmark' Nicely Explores Happiness, Grief and a Brush With Greatness -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Lady in Denmark
by Dael Orlandersmith
directed by Chay Yew
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 18

Over the past few years, I've valued becoming acquainted with the work of the female, African-American playwright, Dael Orlandersmith.

Last year at Evanston's Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, I saw Yellowman, for which Orlandersmith was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2002. The 2-character play explores how variances in skin shade can affect the experiences of black people.

And earlier this year, within the Goodman's Owen Theatre--where I also saw Lady in Denmark on Monday night--I saw Orlandersmith herself perform Until the Flood, born from her interviews with residents and authorities of Ferguson, Missouri regarding the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer, and subsequent protests and riots.

I found it to be quite profound and powerful.

Nicely showcasing her versatility, Lady in Denmark is a one-woman play in which Orlandersmith doesn't perform. Rather--in the Goodman's world premiere production directed by Chay Yew--Linda Gehringer stars as Helene, a Chicago woman in her 70s who recalls her youth in her native Denmark among other poignant memories.

Per several articles in the Goodman show program, the writer's jumping off point for Lady in Denmark was a mention in Lady Sings the Blues--the autobiography of legendary singer Billie Holiday, known as Lady Day--of an encounter with a Danish doctor and his 12-year-old daughter at the Copenhagen airport.

This was on Holiday's 1954 European tour--five years before she would pass at 44--and in noting that she was suffering from a cold, the doctor invited her to his home for care and rest...and the superstar accepted.

Orlandersmith tried to ascertain exactly who the 12 year old girl was, and if still alive, locate her, but was unable to. Thus, the character of Helene is fictional, albeit inspired by a real circumstance.

It’s an interesting conceit, and any highlighting of the remarkable Billie Holiday is always welcome in my world. 

Gehringer is excellent, and Lady in Denmark is a rather poignant and quite enjoyable piece. 

But while Helene tells of the airport encounter and hosting Billie in her home, which leads to a deep-seated lifelong love of Holiday’s music that helps “get me through,” there really is relatively little lore of Lady Day woven into the fictionalized memoir. 

Helene regularly has Holiday’s records on the turntable in her comfortable Andersonville home—the set design by Andrew Boyce is superb, especially given that the Owen is the Goodman’s smaller theater—but I would have loved to have heard more than a few song snippets (“Come Rain or Come Shine,” “God Bless This Child”) and learned a bit more about the singer, not that I haven’t elsewhere.

For meeting Holiday is far from the most momentous event just in Helene’s childhood, and in this I’m not even referencing World War II or the Nazis invading Denmark. 

I’ll leave specifics vague, but Helene tells of a horrific incident that happened when she was 14, with implications well-beyond a chance encounter with an American music star.

Helene seemingly did enjoy a long and happy marriage to a Dane named Lars, who we learn has died just a few weeks before she tells the 90-minute tale of her life. 

In fact, Helene is speaking--strictly to the audience, which seems normal and a bit strange at the same time, as it's not set up like she's talking to someone unseen inside her home, or even on speakerphone--after all the guests have left an 80th birthday party she has thrown in Lars' honor, not cancelling it even after his passing. 

Initially Helene talks about her two grandsons who were among the party guests; one who thinks she's hip because she fancies Billie Holiday's music, another who was accompanied by a particularly shallow and loathsome girlfriend who said all the wrong things. 

From there, she reaches back to her childhood recollections, including Denmark during the war, a somewhat older-than-her man named Bo, meeting Billie and eventually marrying Lars and moving to Chicago. 

All of it is warmly presented, but only parts particularly consequential and riveting. 

In 2018, Goodman has presented several one-person shows, including Orlandersmith's Until the Flood, Pamplona, in which Stacy Keach embodied Ernest Hemingway, and the recent We're Only Alive For a Short Amount of Time, a memoir written by and starring David Cale. 

All of these--including Lady in Denmark--have been worthwhile pieces of theater, while illustrating the writing, performing and directing talent necessary to hold an audience with just one person speaking the entire time. 

Orlandersmith, Gehringer and Yew make Helene's life interesting--and, despite the unique interaction with Billie Holiday,  universal--enough to warrant one's attendance and attention.

I just think Lady in Denmark needs to celebrate Holiday a bit more, and spice up or eliminate some of the duller patches.

It's really good but doesn't quite sing to the heavens. 

Monday, October 29, 2018

Too Much Time Lost in Space: At Gift, David Rabe's Ambitious 'Cosmologies' Fails to Engross at Face Value -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

by David Rabe
directed by Michael Patrick Thornton
The Gift Theatre, Chicago
Thru December 9

Now 78, David Rabe won a Tony Award for Best Play--1972's Sticks and Bones--at the age of 32.

Over the next 13 years, three more Tony nominations--for In the Boom Boom Room, Streamers and Hurlyburly--would follow, and Rabe also had some success as a screenwriter.

So it was a pretty big deal when Rabe worked with Chicago's esteemed but intimate--approx. 50 seats in a Jefferson Park storefront--Gift Theatre to premiere his 2015 play, Good for Otto.

I liked but didn't quite love that drama focusing on mental health treatment, in part because its 3-hour runtime felt unwieldy.

I didn't see Rabe's Visiting Edna, which premiered at Steppenwolf in 2016, but was happy to be back at the Gift for the opening of Cosmologies, cited as a Midwest Premiere, though I haven't found articles about past productions elsewhere.

With due deference to Mr. Rabe, the Gift, artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton--who serves as the show's director--and the performers, I can't say that I much enjoyed or understood Cosmologies.

Photo credit on all: Claire Demos
Certainly, it is an ambitious piece, not only seemingly about memory and family--in an abstract way--but broaching on physics, religion, young lust and much more.

And admittedly, I struggle with plays that are long--Cosmologies clocks in at about 2 hours and 45 minutes without clear narrative justification--and especially non-linear, absurdist and/or surrealist works.

But other than observing the scars combative parents can inflict on their kids--and even that's a matter of vague interpretation--I really can't gauge what I was to derive from the play.

It begins with two high school friends, Eric (Kenny Mihlfried) and Milt (Gregory Fenner), who have drunkenly come to a Chicago hotel room from their Wisconsin hometown.

A phone call made to ascertain the date results in the arrival of a surly pimp, Richard (James D. Farruggio), and a wary but seemingly kindhearted prostitute, Teddy (Darci Nalepa, good here as she was in Northlight's Cry It Out).

Richard leaves the room, as has Milt, but soon returns to intercede harshly and injure Eric.

At which point, sans a visit from Rod Serling, things seem to enter the Twilight Zone.

Ostensibly still in the same hotel room but feeling more like a dysfunctional family home, Eric, Teddy and Richard share the same space, but seemingly in a completely different time, dimension and situation.

...accompanied by an escaped convict (John Kelly Connolly) who shows up for some reason that wasn't fully clear to me.

But then, rather little was.

Moment to moment, there were some nice scenes, with a tenderness between Mihlfried and Nalepa, and Farruggio feeling like George Clooney gone bad.

And certainly, there was some deft language from Rabe.

My companion, a bit better versed in matters of science and spirituality, appreciated the depth of thought the playwright tried to work into Cosmologies, but he agreed that at face value, it was confusing and not nearly engrossing enough to justify the length.

Obviously, there is no absolute delineation between good and bad, great and "eh," and especially with the pedigree not only Rabe brings, but Gift and Thornton as well, I won't dare make such a definitive value judgment about Cosmologies.

But it largely left me lost in space, and--while grateful for the opportunity to check it out--didn't provide enough of a fulfilling time. 

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Burn Down, The Mission: As He Starts to Bid Farewell, Elton John Still Delights Down the Yellow Brick Road -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Elton John
Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour
United Center, Chicago
October 26 (also played 10/27, with Feb. 2019 dates in Rosemont)

Before Friday night, I'd seen Elton John six times in concert, dating back to 1988.

Though he'll typically mine a couple of deep cuts from his vast catalog each time out, his shows are largely greatest hits affairs. Hence, I've heard "Tiny Dancer," "Bennie and the Jets," "Your Song," "Rocket Man," "Crocodile Rock," "Candle in the Wind" and all the obvious classics several times over.

And though--especially given fairly recent passings of rock legends--one must recognize the realities for a 71-year-old performer, Elton's dubbing this the Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour doesn't bring quite the urgency it might, given that it's slated to run into 2021.

Still, beyond wanting to hear--and sing along with--all the wonderful hits at least once more, I can't deny being metaphysically compelled to a certain degree, in going to the United Center on Friday night.

Tickets sold out in a flash when they went on sale way back when, and the aftermarket remained dauntingly high, but intent on not being denied I secured a reasonably-priced 300-level seat just a few hours before showtime.

With no opening act, word from the United Center of the concert starting right at 8:00pm proved true within a minute or two--usually there's at least a 15-minute pad--as Sir Elton, resplendent in a white suit with black trim, kicked into "Bennie and the Jets."

Though his voice would warm a bit over the course of 2 hours and 45 minutes, it was strong from the get-go, and John's veteran band sounded great into "All the Young Girls Love Alice" and "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," before the latter of which Elton acknowledged the impossibility of playing every song some might want to hear.

Noting that he had planned a set of songs that worked well live and that meant a lot to him, Elton spoke wistfully of the joy he and his longtime lyricist, Bernie Taupin, felt as young, fledgling songwriters when they learned that Aretha Franklin would be recording "Border Song," which he then played.

And amid the sheer delights of "Tiny Dancer," "Philadelphia Freedom" and "Rocket Man" came "Indian Sunset"--a long, narrative song off 1971's Madman Across the Water album--preceded by John speaking of his and Taupin's collaborative process.

That mostly tender tune was highlighted by wondrous and thunderous accompaniment from percussionist Ray Cooper. 

You can see the setlist here, which seems to exactly match every other show on the Farewell Tour, including Saturday night at the UC.

By most measures--show length, quality of the material (both historically and as performed), some nicely nostalgic commentary--it was a fantastic concert, with demonstrably strong contributions by longtime guitarist Davey Johnstone, drummer Nigel Olsson and all others onstage.

I loved the way Elton spoke with candor about getting sober--in Chicago in 1990--and championed the holistic, healing power of love and kindness before "Believe."

The video imagery was routinely superb, whether depicting Reginald Dwight's (his real name) outrageously-costumed past, a winsome Marilyn Monroe during "Candle in the Wind" or a young soldier and war imagery that--along with Elton's spoken intro--added new depth to my understanding of "Daniel."

A speech acknowledging his appreciation for the fans, prior to "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," was especially moving.

The couplet of "Funeral for a Friend" and "Love Lies Bleeding" ranked high among an evening filled with highlights.

And nearly bringing tears, "Your Song"--with Elton adorning a bath robe for the encores--was absolutely sublime, followed by the apt closer, "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."

So there is really no justifiable reason for me not to award @@@@@, especially given the show as a terrific summation of a truly remarkable career.

But I did feel it was a bit too businesslike, devoid of any spontaneity or surprise.

I understand that Elton hewed to his carefully culled setlist and not only were the choices fantastic, a 13-minute "Levon" demonstrated his willingness to break out of the box even if it meant challenging some of the crowd.

But for an entertainer I've long associated with fun--along with much else, in part due to the deceptive depth to Taupin's lyrics--it somewhat felt like there was a script to be followed, which didn't allow for much obvious mayhem or even mirth.

This reminded me that the three times I had seen Elton John on his Face-to-Face tours with Billy Joel, the latter provided much more of the overt merriment beyond the music itself. (Though I found some of that lacking in Joel's most recent solo shows.)

So for whatever minor perceptions of my peculiar mind, I can't consider this Elton John concert among the very best I've seen, even just this year.

It was great, but pretty much in the way I expected it to be, which is both a high compliment and minor knock at the same time.

Still, if not quite transcendent in intangible ways, the show was more than delightful enough.

Though I don't--currently--feel a need to catch him in Rosemont in February, I wouldn't be opposed to seeing Sir Elton once more before he shuffles off to whatever's next, though I somewhat suspect he'll continue to perform as long as his health allows, even if just in Las Vegas.

But if this is indeed the last time I get to accompany him down the Yellow Brick Road, I'll never forget the thrills I got, including--with the rest of the full house--bellowing the "Laa, la-la-la-la-laas" on "Crocodile Rock."

So thank you, Sir Elton.

How wonderful life is while you're in the world.

As apt per my closing line, here's "Your Song" from Friday in Chicago, as found on YouTube:

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Ours Go to 11: Volume 31, My Favorite Female Movie Stars of All-Time

1. Audrey Hepburn
2. Michelle Pfeiffer
3. Marilyn Monroe
4. Meryl Streep
5. Catherine Deneuve
6. Natalie Wood
7. Grace Kelly
8. Jennifer Connelly
9. Marisa Tomei
10. Julia Roberts
11. Hedy Lamarr

Plus a few more
Nicole Kidman
Julie Andrews
Jodie Foster
Lauren Bacall
Jessica Chastain

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Ours Go to 11: Volume 30, My Favorite Male Movie Stars of All-Time

1. Humphrey Bogart
2. Robert De Niro
3. Paul Newman
4. Harrison Ford
5. Jimmy Stewart
6. Denzel Washington
7. Jack Nicholson
8. Charlie Chaplin

9. Al Pacino
10. Philip Seymour Hoffman
11. Gene Kelly

Plus a few more
Marlon Brando
Steve McQueen
Orson Welles
Sidney Poitier
Cary Grant

Monday, October 22, 2018

'Warrior Class' Examines Politicians, the Skeletons in Their Closets and Those Who Maneuver to Keep Them Hidden -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Warrior Class
by Kenneth Lin
directed by Carol Ann Tan
presented by The Comrades
at Greenhouse Theater Center, Chicago
Thru November 11

In October 2017--just a year ago--news broke about numerous allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

This led to revelations about several other celebrities--and well beyond--prompting a fall from grace for Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK and many other powerful men alleged to be sexual predators (with each case containing unique circumstances and allegations).

On social media, the #MeToo movement arose, with women--and in some cases, victimized men--around the world sharing harrowing recollections of being  objectified, harassed, abused, assaulted, groped, raped and otherwise brutalized or belittled.

And, of course, in recent weeks, U.S. Supreme Court nominee--and now Associate Justice--Brett Kavanaugh was accused by Christine Blasey Ford of sexually assaulting her while both were in high school.

So, with good reason, the grim reality of men--though certainly not all of them--egregiously mistreating women has been highly topical for the past year.

But even beyond allegations and crimes that date back decades, sexual misconduct is obviously far from just a current issue.

I have to assume that as long as there have been men and women, there has been abuse, or at least domination or intimidation.

So although the Comrades' production of Kenneth Lin's play, Warrior Class, about a rising politician facing allegations of misconduct from a college girlfriend, certainly feels timely--and a program note from director Carol Ann Tan confirms that the topicality is no coincidence--the drama first appeared Off-Broadway in 2012.

And just to mention it, David Mamet's Oleanna--which concerns a professor accused of sexual exploitation by one of his female students--premiered in 1992. I imagine there may well be earlier such examples.

Nonetheless, Warrior Class is a wise choice for the Comrades, and upstairs at the Greenhouse Theater Center, scenic designer Sydney Achler has concocted a fine set for the three-character play, one that splits its time between a quiet restaurant setting and the home of the politician.

That pol is Julius Lee (Ben Veatch), a Chinese-American junior Assemblyman in New York, who has caught some buzz, including being dubbed a "Republican Obama."

As the 80-minute one-act opens, Nathan (a wonderful Scott Olsen), a political consultant working on Julius' behalf, is meeting with Holly (Alison Plott), who had dated Julius for over a year in college.

Initially this seems to be a perfunctory part of the political candidate vetting process, and while Holly is clearly a tad uncomfortable, she is tight-lipped about any concerns regarding Julius. But when Nathan asks her to sign a document to that effect, she shares that things turned rather unsavory when the two of them had broken up.

I won't reveal here any specifics of Holly's allegations, which are reiterated later in the play when she
meets face-to-face with Julius.

Yet while I am sympathetic regarding her stated feelings of being terrorized, unless I misread something, Julius alleged actions--of a boyfriend angrily distraught over a breakup--were markedly different from the supposed acts of Weinstein, Lauer, Kavanaugh, et. al.

I'm not condoning what Julius purportedly did as a 20-year-old kid, nor even saying it shouldn't harm his political aspirations, but it certainly doesn't seem clear-cut.

Especially as, if I understood right, he was dealt with by authorities at the time. 

And the acute and ongoing harm done to Holly is somewhat self-undermined by an agenda she presently brings to the table: She is willing to keep quiet about Julius in exchange for a favor.

I perceive I'm adding confusion to  this review by trying to keep plot details vague, but while there is certainly artfulness in how questions of 20+ years prior are addressed from both sides, my lack of narrative clarity hampered my overall take on Warrior Class (even in allowing that the dichotomy of Julius' and Holly's perspectives and memories is part of the point).

Which isn't to say I didn't like it; I just didn't love it.

The acting, most demonstrably by Olsen, but also by Plott and Veatch, is strong.

And even though primary point of contention seems muddled, observing how a political handler like Nathan--who is also trying to get Julius, in his current role as assemblyman, to aid a power broker seeking to open a casino--operates as part of the political system is rather fascinating.

On one hand, he seems valuable in trying to gauge a candidate's viability and potential landmines. But he also seems to be serving multiple interests at once, including his own.

There is also unseen family drama for all three characters that adds some depth beyond the politics (legislative and sexual), and also makes Julius' meeting with Holly wrought with a smorgasbord of emotions that are well-rendered.

Timely, interesting and well-acted, Warrior Class should be well-worth 80 minutes of your time and, at most, $20 of your money (check HotTix for discounts).

But if you're expecting it to provide powerful voice for #MeToo victims, or even riveting debate on behalf of men who fear unfair ruination over long-forgotten misunderstandings, Lin's play proves prescient but not entirely potent. 

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Joffrey's 'Swan Lake' Should Delight Even Us Ugly Ducklings -- Chicago Ballet Review

Ballet Review

Swan Lake
Joffrey Ballet
at Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 28

In the spring of 2008, I was in St. Petersburg, Russia for a few days, on a vacation that also took me to Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki.

St. Petersburg is home to the Mariinsky Theatre and its famed Mariinsky Ballet, better known as the Kirov outside Russia. Supposedly, it ranks with the Bolshoi Ballet as the world's most prestigious (though the Joffrey would also seem to be near such company).

I'm not certain if was actually the Kirov/Mariinsky that was performing Swan Lake within the Mariinsky Theatre when I was in St. Petersburg--it may have been another company using the theater--but either way, I tried to get a ticket but couldn't.

Sold out. No Russian ticket brokers I could find. No hotel concierge with the right connections. No ins with Putin. No Swan Lake for me at the Mariinsky.

Later that year, I did make a point of going to Chicago's Auditorium Theatre when the Kirov came to town to perform the ballet Giselle, which along with The Nutcracker stood as the only classical narrative ballet I've ever seen.

Photo credit on all: Cheryl Mann
That is, until Wednesday night, when I attended--also at the Auditorium--the opening performance of the Joffrey's current run of Swan Lake.

Per this Chicago Tribune preview by Lauren Warnecke, the current staging is a reprise of one
presented by the Joffrey in 2014, which stands the highest-grossing production in the company’s history.

The production features choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, the Tony-winning choreographer responsible for re-imagining The Nutcracker for the Joffrey beginning in 2016. (I saw it last December and was blown away.)

Wheeldon's Swan Lake was created for the Pennsylvania Ballet in 2004, but clearly has been warmly welcomed in Chicago, both in 2014 and--per opening night--now.

And even to the eyes of someone with absolutely no expertise in assessing the technicalities of ballet, the dancing was absolutely astonishing.

On Wednesday, in the dual doppelgänger roles of Odette & Odile, Victoria Jaiani pirouetted--i.e. spun on one tippy-toe--past the point of ready comprehension, even given the rarefied air of prima ballerinas.

As Prince Siegfried--but also, in this production, "The Principal Dancer," which I'll try to explain below--Dylan Gutierrez was also demonstrably terrific, and everyone onstage was a delight to watch.

Simply as a night of ballet, culture, entertainment, etc., Joffrey's Swan Lake is visually rapturous and I doubt anyone will be less than dazzled.

But although my appreciation reached emotional embrace by the end of the nearly 3-hour ballet, in full I wasn't nearly as swept up as I was by The Nutcracker--likewise composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky--whether the Wheeldon edition neatly weaving in the 1893 Columbian Exposition or the Joffrey's previous longstanding version by its co-founder Robert Joffrey.

I had read  Swan Lake's synopsis on Wikipedia, so roughly knew that, classically, it concerns the bachelor Prince Siegfried meeting and falling in love with a maiden named Odette, who--as with several friends at the aptly named lake--turns into a swan each night due to a spell cast by the nefarious Rothbart (embodied here, on opening night, by Fabrice Camels).  

At a ball in Act III--of the four-act ballet, done with two intermissions at the Auditorium--Rothbart presents an Odette look-alike named Odile (both danced by the same woman) and tricks Siegfried into thinking the latter is the former.

Especially with this being my initial foray into Swan Lake, I found this narrative somewhat convoluted and confusing, and on top of it--as I know largely due to reading Warnecke's article--Wheeldon introduced a ballet-within-a-ballet conceit that has the first half-hour taking place in a dance studio and other scenes blurring the lines. (Hence the Siegfried-Principal Dancer duality.)

The synopsis is printed in the program, but even in reading it pre-show, I found myself--throughout the first half, at least--beguiled by the beauty of the dancing but largely baffled by any storyline I was supposed to follow.

Without Wikipedia or the program book, I doubt I could clearly explain anything about the narrative based simply on witnessing it at face value.

Although the dancing of some small groups and/or soloists in the guise of Russians, Spaniards, Czardas, Can-Can dancers and others was fabulous, please don't ask me to explain their purpose in the plot line.

Eventually, I grasped enough to have the love story move me a bit, and with brilliant dancing, splendid music by Tchaikovsky--blissfully rendered by the Chicago Philharmonic--and beautiful scenery, costumes and performers, I wouldn't suggest that "not completely getting it" (including the reasons behind Wheeldon's unique spin) detracts all that greatly.

Yet while the artistry was magnificent, and at times absolutely mesmerizing, overall I was a tad less smitten as I might have hoped.

Certainly, avowed ballet aficionados should see Swan Lake if they never have, and even if just to a level matching mine, your enjoyment should be plentiful.

But if you're something of a cultural dilettante and wondering if this is the one ballet you should see in Chicago before year's end...

...well, that's a tough nut to crack.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Don't You Forget: At Chicago Theatre, Simple Minds Survey a Stellar Career Well Beyond 'The Breakfast Club' -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Simple Minds
Chicago Theatre
October 15, 2018

I believe, like most Americans, my introduction to the Scottish band Simple Minds came with their #1 hit single, "Don't You (Forget About Me)," which was featured in John Hughes' 1985 film, The Breakfast Club.

It's a helluva catchy tune, but the band was initially reluctant to record it, as they didn't write it. Rather, it was written by Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff specifically for the film and initially pitched to The Fixx, Bryan Ferry and Billy Idol.

Per Wikipedia, the band relented in part due to persuasion from Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, who was married to Simple Minds' frontman Jim Kerr (after she split with the Kinks' Ray Davies).

Amid the height of the MTV era, a few other hits followed--"Alive and Kicking," "Sanctify Yourself," "All the Things She Said"--but there is no song more identified with the band, at least in the U.S.

But Simple Minds have been a working band from 1977 to the present day, with 2018 Walk Between Worlds being their 18th studio album.

I have admittedly been oblivious to most of their oeuvre, but had read and heard enough good things to be curious to see the band on their latest tour, especially as inexpensive seats were plentiful at the ornate Chicago Theatre. (I wound up paying $31 total for 2 seats in about the 25th row, center.)

As I frankly conveyed in a recent review of The The, with Simple Minds I similarly had to Spotifamilarize myself with what I expected to hear, and don't claim to have brought a diehard devotee's heartfelt, historical connection to the songs besides the few aforementioned hits.

But I was impressed--to varying degrees--with almost everything Kerr, original guitarist Charlie Burchill and four other stellar musicians performed from across Simple Minds' catalog.

With no opening act, the show began promptly at 8:07pm with "The Signal and the Noise" from the new album, and it sounded good, as did two other cuts from Walk Between Worlds sprinkled throughout the 23-song set, "Sense of Discovery" and the title track.

It says something about the quality of Simple Minds that their new tunes pleased me roughly on par with several songs that were UK hits back in the proverbial day, such as "Waterfront," "Up on the Catwalk," "Let There Be Love," "She's a River" and "See the Lights."

Though at age 59, Kerr looks more like a corporate executive than an aging rock star, his supple voice still sounds strong and if I remember correctly that once upon a time--coincidentally the name of Simple Minds' best-selling album--he was thought to be a tad prickly, here he was completely warm, affable and gracious.

He shared that on a flight from London to begin the band's first full U.S. tour in two decades, a woman wrongly identified him as the singer from Simply Red, and in eventually deducing that it was actually Simple Minds, said she remembered him being thinner and with much more hair. 

Initially she told Kerr that she only knew "Don't You (Forget About Me)," but when pushed to name another, recalled "Promised You a Miracle," a fine rendition of which which followed Kerr's tale midway through the first of two sets.

Over 130 minutes (not counting the 20-minute break), there really wasn't anything I heard that I didn't like, but before intermission, "The American"--with a fine guitar solo by Burchill--and "Dirty Old Town" really came off well.

You can check Wikipedia if you really want to know the full roster of Minds past and present, but the current incarnation prominently features two women--vocalist Sarah Brown and Cherisse Osei--both of whom were demonstrably terrific and, along with other newer members, added a youthful freshness to the veteran band.

The musicians were backed by an LED screen whose graphics were best used on "Dolphin," something of a slower dirge that preceded the ebullience of an extended "Don't You (Forget About Me)."

Brown got to sing lead on the first encore, "Book of Brilliant Things," with a bit of the Doors' "Five to One" mashed in, before the closing twosome of "Alive and Kicking" and "Sanctify Yourself" sent us into the night alive, kicking and sanctified.

I've seen at least a handful or two of phenomenal concerts in 2018, and--perhaps given my level of fandom, pre- and post-show--I can't rate or rank this one among the very best.

But with nothing against the fine The The show a few weeks back--which makes for comparison primarily due to similarly moderate familiarity and affinity on my part--I was much more wowed by Simple Minds.

I'd always kind of known that their prowess--and renown, particularly in Europe--went well beyond their most famous song. But now I really know that, in a way I don't think I'll readily forget.

Here's a clip of "Sanctify Yourself" from Monday night that I found on YouTube. (No infringement intended.)

Monday, October 15, 2018

50 Self-Indulgent Selfies at 50

Happy Birthday to me.
Some highlights from my first 50 years.

Friday, October 12, 2018

If You Wanna: The Vaccines Prove Worthy of Being Given a Shot -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Vaccines
w/ opening act Jesse Jo Stark
Lincoln Hall, Chicago
October 11, 2018

I can't say that the Lollapalooza festival ever held that much interest for me, aside from a few great acts, and I'm past the point of actually wanting to attend it.

Standing in a muddy field all day was never much of a thrill, and it seems my favorite musical form--guitar-driven rock--has been usurped by hip-hop, EDM and various forms of pop, even at festivals. There really aren't many new rock bands I know and care about.

But that last sentence isn't something that I'm happy about, and beyond my own explorations to find something new, I'll commonly ask friends--often in the wake of Lollapalooza in Chicago or other festivals, including SXSW in Austin, TX--if they've seen any stellar bands lately. I also may check out live streams or clips on YouTube.

It was through a combination of these methods that, surrounding Lollapalooza in early August this year, I came to learn of The Vaccines, a British quintet that have released four albums since 2011.

I liked what I heard & saw enough to accept the invitation of a couple friends to see the Vaccines at Lincoln Hall Thursday night, which--in their having had all of their albums hit the Top 5 in the UK but not chart here--extended by own "Hidden in the Isles" Fest of Sorts, which I wrote about here.

Leading into the show, I had Sportifamiliarized myself pretty well with the songs showing up on recent setlists, though can't say my affinity for the Vaccines matched that of the Stereophonics, Ash or Charlatans UK, long-standing personal favorites whom I'd seen in September.

But that was kinda the point, as I think Arcade Fire and The Killers are the closest things to "new bands" I really like, and both their debuts came out in 2004.

To wit, since the beginning of 2010, I have seen over 300 rock concerts by headlining acts. Until Thursday, only one had been by an artist who hadn't released an album before this decade: Fitz and the Tantrums. (Dawes is close enough to mention in this regard, with their debut album coming in August 2009, though the concert of theirs I caught was a free show at Millennium Park.)

So it was nice just to have someone somewhat new pique my interest. And with lead singer/guitarist Justin Hayward-Young the primary point of focus, the Vaccines delivered a highly enjoyable, high-energy 75-minute set that certainly made me glad for the exposure.

This followed 45 minutes--and probably 15 too many--by Jesse Jo Stark and her band, who started strong with the spunky "Wish I Was Dead," but had too many similar-sounding somewhat ethereal songs, reminiscent of second-rate Portishead or a lesser take on Garbage's "#1 Crush."

The Vaccines' punchy, almost punky, power-pop is much more to my liking, but even they suffered a bit for lack of sonic diversity.

Beginning with the opener, "Nightclub," a number of tunes from 2018's Combat Sports sounded good, including "Your Love is My Favourite Band," "Take It Easy" and "I Can't Quit."

But these were relatively similar to the bunch from their 2011 debut, What Did You Expect From the Vaccines?--"Post Breakup Sex," "Nørgaard," "If You Wanna" and the show closing "All in White"--and the only demonstrable change of pace, "Wetsuit," comes from the first album not the latest.

An unreleased song, "All My Friends Are Falling In You," fit in well with the rest, yet also without demonstrating much variety or songwriting growth.

The Vaccines would do well to broaden their soundscape a bit, perhaps adding a bit of angularity akin to Maxïmo Park--another 21st century British band I love--and more piano or other textures. (The Editors are another band that would be a fairly good comparison for how the Vaccines might evolve.)

So even within the rather limited parlance of British Isles bands I love even if most of America is oblivious, I don’t sense that the Vaccines are a historically great band. Certainly not yet.

But they’re quite good at what they do, and within the even more limited scope of rock bands arising this decade that I have seen in concert, they stand at or near the top. (The Struts are another recent find I'll be seeing next month after loving their set opening for Foo Fighters this summer.)

Lincoln Hall is a comfortable venue, especially--for me--given the upstairs seating if you get there early enough. It was nice to see it sold out for the Vaccines, with the enthusiastic crowd presumably including many who had seen them at Lollapalooza and/or the festival aftershow at Schubas.

Hayward-Young was graciously appreciative of the Chicago fans who fill the joint, just two months down the road. And while he was avowedly fighting a cold, he's a pretty dynamic frontman. 

But here too there's opportunity for further development of the Vaccines. 

For while there's much joy to be had in a good, intimate show by a rare newish rock band, alongside friends I hadn't seen for awhile, the best concerts involve more than punching out just over an hour's worth of fun songs.

If I were to see them again down the road--and Thursday's gig was good enought that I'd be open to it--I'd hope not only for a bit more stylistic variance in the music played, but stronger connection developed between the audience and band, or at least the lead singer.

With such tweaks, the Vaccines could really be administered in powerful doses, with considerable and lasting effect.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Ours Go To 11: Volume 29, Artists Who Belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Yesterday, nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2019 were announced. You can find them, and search for all current inductees, at

This has prompted me to update my list of favorite artists--of those eligible, at least 25 years after their debut album--not yet in the Hall:

1. The Jam
2. The Replacements
3. Warren Zevon
4. The Zombies
5. Radiohead
6. Midnight Oil
7. Depeche Mode
8. The Cure
9. Soundgarden
10. The Smashing Pumpkins
11. Hüsker Dü

Plus 5 More:
The Monkees
Roxy Music
Thin Lizzy
Dinosaur Jr.