Thursday, August 27, 2009

Old Photo Corner 3: Boys

My paternal grandfather, his brothers, and some of the neighborhood boys. From the ages of the kids I'd say it was around 1930. Grandpa is on the right, hand on the crossed-arm boy's shoulder. Uncle Chuck is laughing in the back row on the left. Next to Chuck is Frank, and the tallest boy in the back row is Pete. Or maybe it's the other way around. I have a hard time remembering which is which; I never knew either of them. As usual, I want to ask many questions about this picture. Was there a particular occasion? What are they laughing at? Did the kid in the sailor suit get teased? What's a little blond boy doing amongst the Greeks?

Before he retired and moved to Florida, Uncle Chuck owned this place in Milwaukee, the Venetian. Although he ran a store in the building, it was originally a beautiful theater. It had its grand opening right around the time the photo above was taken.

I wish I'd seen it before they tore it down.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The sun came out and it didn't go away

Well, it didn't go away until I got back to Wisconsin yesterday. But L.A. was sun, fun, and music. I could wait for the superior, nuanced show reviews sure to come from Uyen and then simply link them here. Don't worry, I'll do that too. (See?)

Saturday night:
Evonne, Heidi, Paul, Uyen and I brought a picnic dinner to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where Paper Moon was being screened. As Heidi pointed out, you don't often get the opportunity to say things like: "I think I see our friends over by that crypt." Nor do you often get to see Paper Moon introduced by Tatum O'Neal herself. But that's Los Angeles, folks.

The movie was finished by 10:30 p.m. Time to go back to the hotel? Of course not. Time to head over to the Steve Allen Theater for the Tomorrow Show, celebrating its 4th anniversary. The show started at midnight, and didn't get out until ten minutes to 4:00. That's 4:00 a.m. It felt like a microcosm of the 24-hour Second City benefits: nonstop comedy, variety and music. We saw a magician, a man twirling a cheeseburger on an umbrella, a standup act that introduced our new favorite catch phrase of the trip ("Wake up! You fat. We talk later"), and two songs by Jon Brion. We'd be seeing a bit more of Jon over the next few days. Some of my friends attended his Friday night show at Largo, setting up a rare JB quinfecta. I had to settle for the quadfecta myself. Quite a first night on the west coast.

Brunch at Hugo's, the ocean (Zuma Beach) and then on to the Coronet for the 7 Worlds Collide 2 show. I thought I'd never get to see one of these - the previous four had been in Auckland and London - so when one fell into my lap in L.A. I was thrilled. The California cast of musicians included Neil and Elroy Finn, Lisa Germano, KT Tunstall, Bic Runga, and Jon Brion. Together they romped through a nice selection of songs from the upcoming 7WC2 album, and didn't limit themselves to songs written by those present. The free-for-all fun vibe of this show made me wish even more I could see the full 7WC2 lineup in concert. That's not to say that I felt this show suffered from not having the entire ensemble present. Rather, I can only imagine how mad it would be to see them all together at once. My favorite part of the night came near the end, during a Lisa Germano piano number. Jon, KT and Elroy were at loose ends standing near the back before the song began, nursing bottles of Red Stripe. Then - Elroy may have been the instigator - someone blew experimentally across the top of a bottle. Neil essentially commanded them to take "that shit" to a microphone, and before we knew it there was a three-person bottle choir standing before us. Jon's producer instincts kicked in and he took a turn at directing KT and Elroy when Lisa called for a bottle solo.

Sunday's setlist (all setlists courtesy of Uyen)
--Hazel Black
--Red Wine Bottle
--The Ties That Bind Us
--Little by Little
--Girl Make Your Own Mind Up
--A Change of Heart
--Black Silk Ribbon
--The Cobbler
--Too Blue
--All Comedians Suffer

--Margaret Trudeau song
--Jean Genie/Gimme Some Money/Eight Miles High/Sunny Afternoon
--From a Shell

Work, Farmer's Market, and back to the Coronet for the the first official Neil Finn "solo" show. It wasn't only Neil, though - Elroy and Jon were back to lend a hand. Monday and Tuesday were my reasons for planning this trip in the first place. I'd seen three other Neil Finn permutations before: Crowded House, Split Enz, and the Finn Brothers. I'd never seen Neil performing his solo material, and couldn't have been happier to hear some of my favorite songs from Try Whistling This and (my favorite of Neil's albums) One All. (Or One Nil, depending on where you come from.) There were indications that Neil might play another set in the Little Room after the show, but that was not in the cards for Monday or Tuesday. Someday, perhaps, I'll see such a thing.

Monday's setlist:
--Only Talking Sense
--Driving Me Mad
--Wherever You Are
--Gentle Hum
--Walking on the Spot
--Silent House
--Elephants [new Crowded House song]
--Last Day of June
--One Step Ahead
--Private Universe [with videos looped by Jon, including Nels Cline]

--Suffer Never
--I Love You Dawn [Neil solo acoustic, request]
--The Devil You Know [Neil solo acoustic, request]

Work, breakfast in a booth across from Drew Carey (Paul's second day in a row), work, Farmer's Market, drinks at the Roger Room, and back to the Coronet for the second Neil (and Elroy and Jon) show. The show was great - my favorite of the two Neil nights. They played a few improvised gems that came about when Neil accidentally discovered Jon's crazy effects board sitting on the piano. The first morphed into a surprise Jon/Elroy/Neil version of "Billie Jean." Later Neil also ad-libbed a verse of "You Sexy Thing" with Jon and Elroy contributing some backing instrumentation. Neil joked that those are the only funky songs he knows, and he's been known to play them at parties around 2:00 a.m. We heard a couple 7WC2 songs again as Lisa Germano joined the men onstage for awhile. They played the song Sharon Finn wrote with Neil, "Little By Little," and "The Cobbler," on which Elroy sings lead and plays the acoustic guitar. Neil also played a couple of songs he rarely gets to do - and they happened to be two of my three favorite songs from One All. "Into the Sunset" and "Turn and Run." Throughout the night Neil struggled with some chords and lyrics, and I'm sure he wasn't entirely pleased with the performance. Perhaps I'm just used to performers stumbling their way through every so often, but for me the mistakes just made the night more memorable.

Tuesday's setlist:
--Driving Me Mad
--Try Whistling This
--Message to My Girl
--Billie Jean
--improv/(Born to Be Alive?)
--Wherever You Are
--Faster Than Light
--I Feel Possessed
--The Cobbler
--Into the Sunset
--Turn and Run
--Little by Little
--One Step Ahead

--You Sexy Thing
--She Will Have Her Way/Coming into Los Angeles
--Something So Strong [original acoustic version]
--Into Temptation
--Not the Girl You Think You Are [with Mark Hart]

Home. Hold on, you mean I don't get to do the same thing every day from now on?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Summer comes

Saturday was a hot, muggy day in Chicago. One of the worst we've had in an admittedly mild summer. Saturday was also the day Paul and I attempted to hit not one, but two concerts in Chicago. Not the most favorable confluence of factors, but, then again, it could have been much worse. We could have been attending Lollapalooza. Shudder.

First on our dance card was a solo show by Jeff Tweedy, benefitting (and held at) Emanuel Congregation. In contrast to the February benefit shows at the Vic, he line was quite late in forming. No complaints here. We walked around on the beach, spent some time in Metropolis coffee, and generally tried to enjoy the late afternoon without melting. I'd considered driving the entire way down from WI on Sheridan Road, but perhaps another time.

The show felt a little weird to me, though I should be used to seeing Jeff in unusual settings. I was happy when Susan came out to take requests beforehand. Jeff played "I'll Fight," which I'd asked for, and it was interesting to hear it solo again. The last time that happened I barely knew the song at all. One of my favorite performances of the night was "So Much Wine" - I think the emotion of the lyrics really came through. "A Long Time Ago" was a rare treat I'd only heard previously with Golden Smog or at soundchecks. Overall, though, I thought Jeff seemed a little distracted. Judging from other reviews I've read, this isn't an opinion shared by the majority of attendees, so who knows. It was also unusual to experience so little crowd participation and singing along. It wasn't unexpected, since many members of the audience were there to support the congregation and weren't necessarily familiar with the performers. I missed that aspect, although it would have been an ideal atmosphere for someone who doesn't enjoy that kind of thing. Still, I'm definitely not complaining. Jeff gave us and Emanuel Congregation a very good show. It's not lost on me that 80% of the non-Wilco performances by Jeff Tweedy I've seen in the past four years have been charity benefits. (Truly, I figured it out.) That's pretty amazing. Peter Grosz (a.k.a. "the guy from the hamburger commercials") opened the evening with a short set of standup comedy. I wish he'd come back to do the Letters to Santa show again. Colbert, Schmolbert!

No dawdling for us afterwards - it was straight over to Metro for the second half of the double-header. Even a passionate festival hater such as myself can appreciate Lollapalooza for the post-fest shows: they start late so people can drag their dehydrated, drunken selves over to see even more bands! Without an 11:00 p.m. start time and an opener, there's no way we could have made it over to see Fleet Foxes after the benefit. But it did start at 11:00, and we did make it, even catching the last two songs of Dungen's opening set. The attrition rate in the crowd was higher than it might otherwise have been due to the extreme heat inside Metro. A dubious thing to be grateful for, but it did mean that we were able to get much closer than I'd hoped to the stage. Sure, Robin's beard was constantly dripping sweat, the band threw two canvas bags of water bottles out to the crowd, and Robin kept asking during the encore if anyone else felt like they were a verse away from passing out due to heat stroke. But we were really close!

Formidable heat and humidity aside, the show was excellent. It was my first time seeing Fleet Foxes in a headlining slot, and hopefully not the last. I don't know how they make their harmonies sound so effortless and beautiful, but they sound every bit as good in person. Better. One perk of liking a band without an extensive back catalog is getting to see practically everything you want to see at a concert. "White Winter Hymnal," "Mykonos," "Blue Ridge Mountains," "Sun Giant," "Oliver James" ... all played, including a cameo by Dungen. We heard a brand new song, too.

By the time the show was finished the walls of Metro were sweating like a cold beer on a hot day. The only other surface I briefly touched on the way out - the rail on the staircase - was wet, too. Ugh. Even though it was 5:00 a.m. before I got home, I consider Saturday a triumph of good music and will over the elements. As usual, I'm hungry for more. Bring on the weekend!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Isn't it a lovely night?

Over the past six years I've seen the Decemberists eight times, and Colin Meloy solo four times. All were in Madison or the Chicago area. Of those combined twelve shows, only two venues have been repeats. The Decemberists' fanbase has grown steadily over the years - in size, if not in age, though I'm doing my part to drag the average up. On Wednesday night the band played their largest venue in Madison yet: the Overture Center. I don't relish the prospect of shows on the 7-foot Orpheum stage, and thought the Overture seemed better-suited for The Hazards of Love, so the venue upgrade was welcome news to me. In spite of a few questions on how the Overture would handle GA, I anticipated a fine night of music.

The Overture lobby struggled to accommodate curving lines of fans before doors opened, but the procession into the theater was orderly. The Heartless Bastards actually came on a bit early to open the show, and I liked their set. Sound quality at the front of the theater wasn't the best, but that's an expected trade-off I'm more than willing to make. During the break between sets I turned around to take in the sight of a nearly full Overture Hall. Very impressive.

The Decemberists' first set consisted of The Hazards of Love played in its entirety. The album hasn't grabbed me the way that most of the band's material has in the past, though I respect and appreciate what they've accomplished with it. Seeing it performed live, however, I was captivated. The Hazards of Love is the band's most theatrical release in many ways; a concept album that tells a complete (somewhat fantastical) story from start to finish. Listening to it is a bit like listening to a musical soundtrack. I found it very interesting, then, that the actual performance of The Hazards of Love was the least "theatrical" I've ever seen the Decemberists. There was no playful back and forth with the crowd, no singalong gimmicks, no props. Don't get me wrong: I enjoy all of those things. But this was very much an in-character performance. Colin alternated between William and the Rake, taking command with "The Rake's Song." (Which I loved. All of those drums!) Becky Stark floated about the stage as Margaret. Shara Worden leapt and howled (and smiled an awful lot) as the Queen. The audience wasn't acknowledged until the last notes of the lovely "Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)" had faded away, and I'd had time to recover from Chris Funk's awesomeness on pedal steel. It was truly a unique concert experience ... one I wouldn't mind repeating.

The second set saw the return of the usual Decemberists, with bonuses. Bonuses like Shara Worden taking the female vocal role on "Yankee Bayonet," and joining Becky Sharp for a joyous and energetic cover of Heart's "Crazy on You." Colin was chatty, explaining why we owe him a debt of gratitude (his song "Dracula's Daughter" is so bad that it made God cry a single tear, creating the lakes of Wisconsin) and reminiscing about the precarious Orpheum stage. He made use of the entire stage at the Overture, which is always a bit of an adventure when there's no barrier between the stage and the front row. The second encore began with a solo performance of the gorgeous "Red Right Ankle," and the band ended the show with "Sons and Daughters." Singing "hear all the bombs fade away" over and over at the top of your lungs with a theater full of people feels wonderful. (It is what the "Kingpin" scream wants to be.) The soundboard setlist routine didn't fail me on the way out, and I left with a nice physical souvenir of the evening. Well, that and a limited-edition poster that's taken up residence in The Pile at home. I'm weak when it comes to hometown shows.

Decemberists setlist, 8/5/09:

The Hazards of Love [full album]
The Crane Wife, Pt. 3
The Bachelor and the Bride
We Both Go Down Together [w/last verse of Morrissey's "Angel, Angel, Down We Go Together"]
Yankee Bayonet [duet w/Shara Worden]
Rox in the Box
July, July!
Dracula's Daughter
O Valencia!
Crazy on You (Heart cover) [Shara Worden and Becky Stark lead vocals]
Red Right Ankle [Colin solo]
Sons & Daughters

More pictures on flickr.

Monday, August 3, 2009


I have a habit of thinking ahead. Far ahead. This is helpful in many ways; it means I'm usually well-prepared for meetings, deadlines, trips, DVR-ing important episodes of Anthony Bourdain's show, etc. But it has its drawbacks.

In recent weeks I've been making plans for September, October, and November. I've calculated and budgeted my vacation time through the end of December. Today I forced myself to take a breath and realized: it is August 3rd. August. Right now. If I don't watch out, I'm going to miss the rest of this summer while my brain continues to function two months in the future.

Perhaps this can become an extension of my curious, newest endeavor: becoming less efficient. I recently bought an excellent pedometer on a friend's recommendation. My goal each day is to walk at least 10,000 steps, but I realize that some days it's not going to be possible. On the weekend I can do this easily. On a workday, with 90% of my job depending on a computer, it's a challenge. Even a designated walk or hike, weather permitting, doesn't completely make up for a day at the desk. And so, I find myself going out of my way to be less efficient. Time for a bathroom break - why not walk across campus to another building, go up to the second floor, and use that restroom? Need to wash my lunch dishes and refill my water bottle - why don't I make two separate trips for that?

I know suggestions for adding more walking into one's day are common sense, but I never considered the degree to which many of them contradict my current way of thinking. We're so well-programmed to make the most of every second of our time. It's a jarring shift in viewpoint. It's strange to walk upstairs at home, realize I forgot to bring something I was going to put away ... and instead of being annoyed, view it as a bonus trip. Strange, and strangely refreshing.

To broaden this philosophy, I am going to take some time out every day to reflect on the fact that it is summer, and I need to bask in it. Even if it's cold and raining. (It's not today!) I'm going to make sure everything I need to do for upcoming months gets scheduled in my calendar, and then I'm going to make myself not think about it for awhile. August. Wow, State Fair hasn't even begun yet.