Monday, July 28, 2008

Rock & Roll Picture(s) of the Day

Somehow I failed to write about our rockin’ 4th of July. And so, because my tired brain cannot remember all of what I wanted to say about the double bill of Alejandro Escavado and the Old 97’s, I will let you judge (via my photography) how rockin’ it really was.

Escavado rocks out.

Rhett and Murray bring us home.

Don't mess with Ken.

Rhett in all his glory.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Pitchfork Music Festival: The Hold Steady

No, not that one.
When I found out that the only appearance of The Hold Steady here in Chicago would be at a three-day music festival, I think my first reaction was: dammit, now I gotta buy a ticket to a stupid music festival. Which I did pretty quick.

So I sat through a bunch of uninteresting openers in order to hear the "world's biggest bar band," The Hold Steady, for possibly the only time in 2008. (I never thought I'd get spoiled by anything in New York City, but seeing the Steady on a regular basis is definitely one.)

When Vampire Weekend finished and their fans flowed out, I joined the mass of Steady fans rushing towards the stage. I stood crammed in near the front with several youngerish, sweaty people. For some reason the only shirtless people were males, and uncomfortably close to me.

The show finally starts. After all the lethargic bands and audiences, it was exciting to hear the crowd cheer as *any* band takes the stage, much less my favorite band.

They opened the same way they did for the NON-Commvention in Philadelphia in late May: "Constructive Summer" leading directly into "Hot Soft Light."

One cool non-musical part was when someone near the front tossed something onstage near Craig. Craig was holding the mic stand in his right hand, and without really moving stuck out his left hand and snagged the object out of the air. It was a Twins visor, which he put on, and the crowd cheered lustily in acknowledgement of his Minnesota loyalties. (Like the prior post, all photos by me unless otherwise noted.)

Craig with the visor.

As for the was a good set. I knew it wouldn't be an all-time, have your extremities rocked off type show, given that it was a large outdoor festival with a mixed fan base. But the band was in fine form, ripped through several new songs, and seemed to be having a really good time. It made me wish for the chance to see them headline their own show, in front of an audience that was there to see them only.

I got a new camera recently, so here are some more pics.

The view looking backwards. I was trying to get a feel for how deep the crowd went....there were easily thousands watching the Steady. The total attendance for the day was in the 15,000-17,000 range. It was an accident, but I love that the church figures so prominently in this pic, and in what Craig saw when he looked out from the stage.

Bassist Galen Polivka and Craig Finn.

A good approximation of where I was in the crowd, sans zoom, taken early in the set. From left to right: Franz on keys, Galen on bass, Bobby on drums, Craig on his new guitar with the Grateful Dead bear sticker, Koob on the Gibson.

I didn't keep a set list, because it would have been impossible. I figured some die-hard fan would have posted one shortly after the show ended....after all, the NON-Comm audio appeared online before the was over, and that's a lot harder than jotting down song titles. But some of the stuff they played, in a not quite approximate order:

No, not that one either. (Couldn't resist.)

Constructive Summer
Hot Soft Light
Chips Ahoy
Lord I'm Discouraged
Navy Sheets
a couple other songs I didn't recognize, surely off the new record that I unbelievably haven't listened to yet
Massive Nights
Stay Positive
The Swish
Enc: Killer Parties

That's right...the second to last band at a festival got an encore.

One thing that was a little disappointing was no "Stuck Between Stations." The double-barreled intro of "Constructive Summer" leading into "Hot Soft Light" is cool to hear, but I think the old standby of track 1 of the two most recent records would be a great 1-2 punch to open a show.

Allright everyone. Stay Positive and enjoy the rest of your summer. ("This Summer!")

Monday, July 21, 2008

Pitchfork Music Festival

I went to the Pitchfork Music Festival on Saturday. Here's my notes and reviews.

The bands I saw (stage):

Icy Demons (B) (I'm pretty sure I saw 'em...I'd just got there)
Fleet Foxes (A)
Fuck Buttons (B)
Dizzee Rascal (C)
Vampire Weekend (A)
!!! (C)
The Hold Steady (A)
Atlas Sound (B)
Jarvis Cocker (C)
No Age (B)

First off, I'm going to call out the phoniness of blogging or live-blogging festivals like Lollapalooza or Austin City Limits. These writeups pretend to give a nuanced review of almost every band playing, to give you a feel of what it's really like Being There. If they are anything like Pitchfork, and I know they're bigger, it's impossible to see or do everything. There are too many people at the front of the stages, too much concurrent music, to give a fair shake to everyone.

Other random thoughts:

I felt similarities to the 2007 Fourth of July show at Battery Park: I took an unfamiliar commute to get to a park I'd never been to before, in a neighborhood I'd never been to before. I was there to see one band only, but had to sit through a soporific set by the opener first (in this case, multiple openers). There was rain, making the grass wet at best, and muddy in parts, and leading to near 100% humidity later in the day. There were unusual bands and unusual people (more so at the festival, as you'd expect with 19 acts in one day). I usually feel comfortable at a Hold Steady show, but at this festival I feel old, stable and normal.

The festival was sponsored in part by Goose Island. Here's proof.

I got to the festival around 2:30; smelled my first pot at 3:30 (in the Fuck Buttons audience). Not just one guy either, but a full crowd. Maybe that's how one makes sense of their "music" (see criticism below).

Dizzee Rascal (British rapper) started while I was at the far edge of the "B" stage. I was about as far away physically as you could get, and I could hear the bass clearly. Any closer and I'd probably feel it in my stomach.

Over by the "B" stage, I hear: "Yeah! Iowa Hawkeyes!" I am wearing the Iowa hat, so I turn around. It's an older black man, in his 50s, with a mustache and graying hair. I give him a thumbs up and a smile, and I realize I am no longer the most un-Pitchfork-demographic person here today.

My main reaction to these bands is: there's no rock! Fiery Foxes were very My Morning Jacket, down to the hirsute lineup. They were very low key, quiet, atmospheric, but not really singalong-worthy. Icy Demons were so forgettable, I don't remember anything of their set.

And now, the reviews:

Fuck Buttons: I wanted to see Fuck Buttons just so I could say I watched a band called Fuck Buttons. I listened for about five minutes to the droning electronica thinking, have they started the set? Or are they warming up? After 10 minutes of the continuous, non-musical drone, I thought, when does it get going? You know, vocals, guitars, maybe a song with a beginning, middle and end? After 20 minutes I realized there *was* nothing more--this IS Fuck Buttons.

In fact, the name is ironic because the "band" is two guys who make sound using laptop computers! Far from disparaging buttons, they need buttons (on their computers) to create sound!

The two men of Fuck Buttons.

And that sound is a constant wail of feedback and reverb, with a droning thump...kinda like slowed-down house music.

Fuck Buttons is not fucking nor buttoning anything. A bunch of random noise with no vocals, real instruments or musicality? I say fuck Fuck Buttons.

The crowd stands stunned by musiclessness of the FBs.

With no audience reaction, no head-bopping or clapping, I'm almost eager to go see Dizzee Rascal just to see some people movin'. In fact, I do wander over to Rascal a bit later, and I'm pleasantly surprised by his attitude and smooth vocal delivery. I'm not a fan of rap, but he does say "fuck" and his own name quite bit, so that's cool. I think his best line, delivered in his thick accent, was "Y'all might not understand a fuckin' word I'm sayin', but by the end of the day you'll know my name."

That's Dizzee Rascal up on stage. His name rhymes with a lot more stuff than you would have thought, cause he puts it in many, many lyrics.

I enjoyed Vampire Weekend more than I expected. They are a basic rock band with a strong reggae influence. The lead singer/guitar player looks like John Mayer and sings with a bit of a lilt. I recognized at least one of their songs, which is possibly from the radio, or more likely from TM's cousin's friend's boyfriend Adam. (Really. He was the one who played me a Vampire Weekend song on his iPod several months ago, not Igoe. Sorry for the mixup, Igoe.) They were probably the second-best band there on Saturday, but that ain't saying much.

!!! (pronounced with any sound effect syllable repeated three times, such as "chik-chik-chik") was not what I'd thought. I was under the impression they were an indie punk-rock band, like the Strokes or the Killers, that kind of thing. Instead, it was very much a dance-pop band, with the repetitive driving bass of house music. In fact, !!! was probably the only band of they day where I thought the bassist was the most important member of the band. They were co-fronted by a black woman with short hair and a white guy in 1980s short shorts, who strutted around like he was at a dance club. (Note: I watched the entire !!! set on the video screen, as I was waiting for the Steady at the "A" stage.)

As for the later bands.....
No Age was basically "me the singer/drummer and my friend." They made a lot of noise for what appeared to be two people, but I was otherwise unimpressed.

Atlas Sound was one guy with an acoustic guitar and a soundbox with echo-y effects and loops to create the mirage of a full band, not unlike Anders Parker of Varnaline when he opened solo for Jay Farrar/Gillian Welch. However, I was unimpressed. Maybe five years from now he'll be the next Beck, but right now he's just a guy with a guitar and a soundbox.

Jarvis Cocker was British, and at least he sorta rocked. He had discrete songs, with a defined beat and a melody. Doesn't sound like much in the world of pop/rock, but at Pitchfork, I guess it qualified him to be a headliner. I didn't notice anything else special about him.

That's Jarvis Cocker, the last act on the "C" stage.

Chicagoist, always with the pulse of any city that can have "-ist" appended to the end of it, reviews Saturday's Pitchfork here.

Boys and girls in Chicago, they have such a muddy time together. (photo by Jim Kopeny of Chicagoist.)

Oh, and for my own personal headliner? That review is coming next.....

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The On Notice Board: Cubs Second Half

Back in March, on the cusp of a hope-filled 2008 season, I put the following Cubs players, anatomies and concepts "On Notice":

Now that we're at the All-Star break, it's time to review these and create a new list for the second half of the season.

Kerry Wood's arm. So far so good there. He has a 3.02 ERA, 24 saves and 55 strikeouts in 44.2 innings.

The new Japanese guy. We learned it's pronounced KOHS-kay Foo-koo-DOH-may. And early on, he was pretty good, with more walks than strikeouts and making the cover of Sports Illustrated. But in the last month or so, pitchers have started to figure him out. The swing where he contorts like a drunk Sig Ep doing flagpole spins has increased in frequency. Kosuke needs to counter-adjust to the adjustments pitchers have made, quit swinging for the fence (homers are cool, but the corkscrew swing-and-miss is not) and go back to the patient, .400 OBP Kosuke we remember from April.

Hank White. Hank White is the Americanized nickname for Henry Blanco (get it?) popularized by Bob Brenly. Now, when I did this board in March, I assumed that Blanco was our catcher since Jason Kendall walked away. Since I'd missed the 2007 season and didn't really know what was going on, I was unfamiliar with this kid named Geovany Soto. So what did Soto do in the first half?
  • .288 average
  • 16 HRs (one shy of team leader Ramirez)
  • 56 RBIs (tied for second on the team)
  • first rookie catcher to start the All-Star Game for the National League.
So, Hank White: you are officially off the board. Congratulations.

Lou's temper. Lou Piniella went apeshit in May 2007, sparking the Cubs out of a slump and into an amazing run to the title. This year's club, as defending champ, shouldn't have needed such hysterics. Lou's tantrum took the attention off the underperforming and put it on himself. Luckily, the team has exceeded expectations, and such subertuge hasn't been necessary. But Lou: keep it in check.

D. Lee. D. Lee has had rough stretches over the past couple years, partially due to stuff he can't control (collision at first base, daughter got sick). And while he hasn't been super homerun star guy, he's been quite solid: .306 average, 15 HRs, 56 RBIs, 117 hits (most on team), .506 slugging. If Soto, Ramirez, Kosuke and Soriano (when around) continue to hit, it keeps the pressure off D. Lee from being the guy who HAS TO hit the home run, as opposed to ONE OF THE GUYS who can knock in the runner on second.

The bullpen. This made the board more on reputation, not knowing who was going to be in the pen. As a Leiber Believer I'm proud to say that Liebs has been the consummate pro out of the pen, compiling a 2.30 ERA in April and 1.64 in June as a reliever, even though he should have been named a starter. Guys like Howry and Marmol have been excellent at times. Wood as mentioned has 24 saves.

The curse. Aaah, well, so far so good. Moving on.

All other parts of K. Wood. Clearly I was concerned about his health. And, yes well, this one kept Wood out of the All-Star game: a blister.

A lot can change in three months, and therefore here's the "On Notice" for the second half:

The analysis:

Hendry's deals. He brought in top talent like Kosuke, Soriano and Harden. Is that going to be enough to win the pennant? I'm mildly concerned about the division (see below), but that's not the goal. This assemblage of talent should be looking bigger than the NL Central they won last year.

Soriano's health. For $136 million, I was hoping we were getting somebody who could play 150-160 games a year. Through the first 95, he's played in 51. (For comparison: Lee 94, Kosuke 90, Ramirez 88, Soto 88. Hell even newcomer Jim Edmonds has played 44 as a Cub, 70 total.) We need more from him.

Soto's stamina. I hope this kid blows the door off every record he can. He deserves it. But Lou needs to rest him appropriately, play Hank White as needed in day games after night games, inevitable rainout makeups that eat an off day, etc. It serves no one for Soto to be a one-half hit wonder.

Harden. Why was Billy Beane so eager to deal this guy? Is he an injury waiting to happen?

The Curse (again). It's not going off the board til there's reason to take it off the board.

Central contenders. Much as I'd like to see the Cards and the Brew Crew fade into obscurity, we can't guarantee it will happen. (We were in Wisconsin over the weekend, and we had a chance to watch/listen to a little Brewer baseball. They are still a fine team, and they have great radio announcers in Bob "Mr. Baseball" Uecker and Jim "I Sound Exactly Like Bob Uecker" Powell.

AAA Kids. Much like Jim Hendry's dealmaking, the Cubs are going to need help in September, as regulars need a breather. I'm looking at you, Felix Pie, and Rich Hill, if you ever find the strike zone. Maybe Shark will be asked to come up and eat some innings out of the pen. I'd prefer to see him as a starter in 2009, but I trust Hendry to do what's right with the young arms. Jose Ascanio, save some bullets from that arm of yours til the late summer.

Ronnie Wickers. Just stay the hell away, and keep your mouth shut. Thank you.

The stats can be found here, although they will change come Friday, so here's a screen grab for all of posterity (click on the image for larger version).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Avenue Q: Righting a Wrong (Review)

TM and I went to see the musical "Avenue Q" before she left for Europe. It was a nice treat to see something we'd meant to see in New York. And since we had a two-show streak of seeing Tony Award-winning musicals when we lived in New York, it fit right in with that trend.

Now, sometimes it's easy to get down. It's easy to start feeling bad about the things you don't have, or the things you are not. But no matter how bad things get, I can always take comfort one fact: I’m not Dennis Polkow.

That’s because Mr. Polkow wrote the most clueless, wrongheaded review for "Avenue Q" I’ve seen in a long time, maybe ever. It’s one thing to go see a band and not “get” what they’re doing, or see them on a bad night, or be otherwise misled into writing an off-base review. But this was beyond the pale.

I couldn’t believe how wrong this guy was. And because the website for New City (the alt-weakly which published his egregious prose) sucks, I can’t link to the review because it’s not online. So I typed in the whole thing so it can be eviscerated here.

As a onetime summer camp counselor, my father frequently referenced the “lake rule,” which is to say, if a camper told a joke that was more funny than vulgar, fair enough. But if the joke was more vulgar than funny—and the campers were the ones that would decide—then the joketeller would be thrown in the lake.

OK Dennis, so far so good. Not sure where you’re going with this, but I’ll trust ya.

By this rule, the entire Cadillac Palace Theatre would be fully underwater by the end of one performance of the national touring production of “Avenue Q,” two of the most vacuous hours I can recall ever having spent in a theater.

Ah. You’re accusing the show of being vulgar. First of all, the show was not vulgar. The off-color portions are nothing compared to what’s seen at independent and storefront theatres throughout the country. I was more unnerved and uncomfortable at the one show I saw at Steppenwolf than I ever was at Ave Q. Second, the show is tremendously more funny than vulgar. By a factor of three or four.

This Generation X-targeted and conceived—and believe it or not, triple Tony-Award winning—musical attempts to satirize “Sesame Street”-type children’s shows with Jim Henson-like puppets in a manner so mean-spirited, cynical, narcissistic, sophomoric and yes, even pornographic (ranging from constant obscenities for their own sake to puppets copulating) with a score so trite that the children’s music it derides sounds like high art by comparison.

Damn. Where do I start with this behemoth of a sentence. Well, Ave Q is not an attempt to satirize children’s TV. It’s a depiction of what life is like for 20-somethings who graduate from college, move to the big city, and learn to cope with bad jobs, dating, student debt, commuting and all the other factors of life out on your own.

Constant obscenities for their own sake? Wrong on both counts. The swearing was not constant; there were stretches of dialogue that could’ve been on the Family Channel. And the cursing was usually to punctuate a point, express anger, etc. You want excessive cursing, listen to rap.

Mean spirited? I think you’re thinking of "Seinfeld." These characters are likeable, genuine, and generally sincere. Sure there’s one snotty bitch, but what musical doesn’t have a villain?*

Cynical? Of course 20-somethings are cynical. Once you get out of college and see how the real world works, you get cynical.

Sophomoric? I will grant you this isn’t Bertolt Brecht. This is a modern American musical with puppets…were you expecting highbrow?

Pornographic? There is simulated sex between puppets. This might have been shocking…if the South Park guys hadn’t done it even more graphically.

This is the Kate Monster (and actress Kelli Sawyer) we saw in Chicago. She has sex on stage with Princeton. Kate Monster, I mean.

Believe it or not? Yeah, I do believe it, Dennis, because it’s a remarkably funny and creative show.

And you want to talk narcissistic? How about making your readers suffer through a 65-word sentence? Good crap, not even the scribes at the Omaha World-Herald can match the wordiness you achieve here.

This is no clever send-up, say, the way Eddie Murphy used to hysterically parody Mr. Rogers on “Saturday Night Live,” nor the way “The Simpsons” or “South Park” cleverly lampoon cheesy animation: this is puerile puppetry that forgets that the satirer has to have at least as much imagination as the satiree for parody to be effectual. When a female impersonation of former child actor Gary Coleman, for instance, is revealed as the person who outdraws all of the other characters in “It Sucks to Be Me” by sucking the most, the irony is that putting up with a tired rerun of “Diff’rent Strokes” would seem like supreme comedy next to this show.

A-ha. So now we see that poor Mr. Polkow is clueless in addition to humorless. He’s reviewing the musical as satire—except it’s NOT SATIRE. It’s not trying to spoof Sesame Street, it’s about making your life in the big city. Using puppets is just one vehicle for telling the story, just like foreshadowing and the soliloquy are both vehicles for telling a story. And for the record, this show is much funnier than “Diff’rent Strokes.”

And to have a cheongsam-attired Asian-American actress sing every “l” as an “r” so that “love” becomes “ruv” achieves as indelicate an effect as if an African-American performer had been asked to sing in blackface.

Umm, apparently he fell asleep during the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” Besides, blackface is a much more incendiary piece of our American history than the Asian-American accent. The comparison is, like everything else in his review, way off-base.

Trekkie Monster appreciates the multiple uses and benefits of the World Wide Web.

By the way, here’s the official blurb from Broadway in Chicago:

AVENUE Q is the story of Princeton, a bright-eyed college grad who comes to New York City with big dreams and a tiny bank account. He soon discovers that the only neighborhood in his price range is Avenue Q; still, the neighbors seem nice. There's Brian the out-of-work comedian and his therapist fianceƩ Christmas Eve; Nicky the good-hearted slacker and his roommate Rod -- a Republican investment banker who seems to have some sort of secret; an Internet addict called Trekkie Monster; and a very cute kindergarten teaching assistant named Kate. And would you believe the building's superintendent is Gary Coleman?!? (Yes, that Gary Coleman.) Together, Princeton and his newfound friends struggle to find jobs, dates, and their ever-elusive purpose in life.

Does that sound like satire? Or unfunny??

Finally, here's a review from a guy who got it: Chris Jones of the Tribune. (Which is good cause it explains the appearance of an understudy in the second act of the night we saw it, which happened to be opening night.) In fact, here’s a list of almost entirely glowing reviews collected by Theatre in Chicago. There is only one outlier. Guess who?

Dennis Polkow, it sucks to be you.

* Polkow thinks my use of "bitch" was excessive and swearing for its own sake.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Music Madness

Yesterday marked the beginning of a busy 4th of July weekend here at TMMPF.

In case you hadn’t noticed we like music. Specifically the rockin’ country kind.

Last night, we trucked out to Berwyn for the opening night of the American Music Festival at Fitzgerald's. The highlight (for us anyway) was our favorite Boston rocker Ms. Sarah Borges (and, of course, the Broken Singles). You may recall we also spent Valentine’s Day with SBBS at Fitzgerald's, a fact that was not lost on us as we chatted with the singer after the show last night.

The Borges set at the American Music Festival was much more rocking (and much more crowded) than in February. She played several songs off of her latest release, Diamonds in the Dark, and was as chatty ever.

(I'm telling you, put Borges and Scott Miller on the same tour and it would be better than a travelling stand-up comedy act (or at least there would be more talking).)

There was no "Around Nine" and no "Stop and Think it Over" though... two songs that I recently heard in random places (the former in Old Navy on State Street and the latter on an airplane - United I think).

Anyway, as previously mentioned we had a nice chat with Sarah after the show (one that included a mention of this blog… so Sarah, if you read this, leave us a comment and let us know what you think). Hopefully SBBS will make it through Chicagoland again soon… preferably in the city. Schubas would be perfect for this band.

Speaking of music in the city, our holiday weekend continues on Independence Day with the XRT free 4th of July show at the Taste of Chicago. MPF already told who is playing. Here’s hoping for a bit of this.

But wait there’s more!

On Saturday night none other than the fabulous Bonnie Raitt will be playing Taste. We saw Bonnie at Blues Fest a few years ago… and it was really freaking cold. It looks like the weather will be better this weekend (nearly perfect in fact) so hopefully we won't be too tired by that point and will make it downtown.

So, whatever you do this weekend I hope there is good music, grilled meat and tasty beverages. Happy 4th of July everyone!