52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK TWO

Week: Two

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

Pearl Jam
Album: Ten
Epic Records

I am a child of the grunge generation; if that’s the label we’re sticking with twenty years later. While music enthusiasts will argue about the true pioneers of the alternative rock wave–for the record looking back on the progression of music at the time, it’s hard not to side with the “Pixies were the true forefathers of the movement” argument, over the more universally recognized credit to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana–my gateway to the genre was through Pearl Jam.

I was too young to fully appreciate The Pixies during its heyday (though my dad’s friend’s offering to me of Doolittle at the tender age of eight always intrigued me, what with lead singer Black Francis’ screeching vocals and obscure choice of terrifying lyrics). While I wish I could say I discovered Nirvana’s Nevermind instantly upon its release along with the masses, it was Pearl Jam’s debut Ten that was my first real musical obsession.

I remember one summer in particular listening to the song’s on Ten over and over again through a pitch black Sony boombox by day, and through a matching black Sony Walkman from a audio cassette ripped from said boombox by night–those were the days, weren’t they? The liner notes on my original CD copy of the album have been unfolded and refolded countless times (those in the loop will remember the notes unfolding to form a poster of the band members standing in a circle, hands raised high and joined in a badass high-five of sorts). And I can clearly remember looping the opening moments of “Porch,” since it was one of the few songs with cool sounding curse words–the opening line verbatim, “What the fuck is this world”–that I had managed to slip by my somewhat censoring parents.

Pearl Jam is one of the few groups from the era that has survived and is still relevant in modern times (hell, its latest album Backspacer was a breath of fresh air in the band’s canon). Part of its success is based on its loyal fans like me who were mesmerized by Ten.

The album remains the band’s masterpiece. It’s a flawless execution of a budding sound that was, with all respect to the band members, all due to Eddie Vedder’s soaring vocals, which somehow meld gritty and epic into a style that remains unrivaled.

It’s also one of the few albums out there with a flawless flow that begins and ends on two perfect notes. Even for this project entry I was torn between going with the album’s slow-burning opener, “Once,” a completely unassailable way to kick off the album, or its more restrained, dare I say beautiful closer, “Release.” Ultimately I had to go with the latter.

I don’t know how many mix tapes and CDs I’ve capped off with this song. It’s an epic. Like “Once” it takes it time to build, allowing Vedder to test his deep vocal tones in front of a wall of rising guitar crescendos. Of all the songs on Ten this is where Vedder really shows he’s a musical force to be reckoned with.

His vocal range alone is enough to send chills down the spine especially towards the song’s magnificent closing moments when he carries the line, “release me” through an onslaught of distortion and commanding use of the ride cymbal from drummer Dave Krusen.

Even the song’s instrumental outro that is linked to the song (a continuation of the intro to “Once”) is worth the time on the record, adding an eerie finish to the already perfect closer.

Lyrically this song is very much akin to John Lennon’s shockingly personal, “Mother” off Plastic Ono Band LP. Both songs are heartbreaking laments about a lack of strong or loving parental figures. In the case of Vedder, it refers to the two father figures during his childhood and coming to the grips with the passing of his true father. He was apparently raised by a cruel stepfather and never got to know his real dad on a personal level before his passing. He realizes that he carries a piece of his real father but he’ll never know how or which part of his makeup. It’s this realization that makes the songs truly heartbreaking.

Oh, dear dad, can you see me now
I am myself, like you somehow

Casual interpretations of the song can be linked to the lines,

I’ll ride the wave
Where it takes me
I’ll hold the pain
Release me

which could reference escapism through drugs or simply, the release of stress in life. Letting go and living how you want to live is very much the unofficial manifesto of the grungers (it’s also the message I take away from the song since it’s difficult for me to relate to Vedder’s personal story). Hell, even surfers could relate to this song since the lyrics remain intriguing in their simplicity no matter how you perceive them. When matched with the song’s grandiose music, it’s also easy to just focus on the elevating line, “release me.”

Mention must be made of the rumor that this song was written during the studio time in about 20-minutes while the band was doodling through possible riffs. If this legend holds true, then this backs the theory that some songs are just meant to be written and can arise in an almost spooky fashion. Artists have often commented on moments of brilliance coming out of nowhere during unexpected moments.

“Release” is a song that I can remember falling asleep to as a child and as an adult, one that I remember imagining in my head during daydreams. It’s a staple cut from a one of the greatest debut records out there and one that instantly made me a lifelong devoted fan of Pearl Jam. During the 2003 tour for Pearl Jam’s Riot Act the band opened its masterful set at Chicago’s United Center with “Release,” catching most of the audience off guard and cementing the song’s importance for me as I was carried away by its strength.

It will always be a headphone song, or the kind of tune that must be played through a car stereo at full blast while driving alone, preferably at night, with the windows closed to create the perfect sonic environment to ride the wave.

A Worthy Redux?

Film Review: Ashes of Time Redux

ImageOne of the most highly anticipated films to premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was Ashes of Time Redux, a forgotten Chinese swordplay epic from the great Wong Kar-Wai or Kar Wai Wong (so as not to offend those privy to the correct Chinese system of naming the filmmaker will simply be referred to as Wai in this piece). For fans of this international filmmaking giant the release of this fairly unseen early picture, restored and granted a big screen re-release, was reason enough to seek out the film. Unfortunately the film presents a bit of a dilemma for viewers and those familiar with Wai’s other works due in large part to an inconsistent storyline. 

A film “redux” is really nothing more than a fancy word for Director’s Cut. The literal translation means “to return to,” and in the case of Wai, to return to an early film that supposedly the director was never fully happy with upon its initial release.Ashes of Time is an important film, but not necessarily a great film and its recent redux may be nothing more than a wishful attempt to resurrect a doomed film. It excels in style and visual appeal but lacks when it comes to its almost incoherent plot. Is it a love story? Is it a tale of revenge? Is it a failed mix of both?  

Released in 1994, Ashes was Wai’s first truly epic film. It was also released six years prior to Ang Lee’s international sensation Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the film that truly brought Chinese wuxia style filmmaking–a highly choreographed mix of martial arts and melodrama that has since become its own subgenre in Hollywood–to a global stage. It’s hard to say if Ashes had any influence on Ang Lee’s masterpiece (one could argue that both filmmakers were bringing a longstanding Chinese cinematic tradition, dating back to the dawn of celluloid, to the modern playing field with their respective films) but both films clearly set out to accomplish the same feat: pay homage to Chinese folklore and martial arts, while also telling a compelling love triangle drama. Unfortunately Ashes main flaw is its desire to appease all these goals when it should have just been a flashy swordplay film. 

As Wai proved later on with his series of masterful existential dramas, the filmmaker is more apt to melodrama and human emotion than action. This is not to say that Ashes does not feature some stunning fight scenes (one involving a female sword master practicing against her own reflection on a pond stands out as one of the film’s finer moments), which it does, however, when the film attempts to deal with the human psyche Wai unfortunately loses the viewer. To make up for this though, Wai succeeds with painting a truly visually stunning backdrop for his actors to inhabit with the vast Chinese mountains and deserts never looking so beautiful and at times surreal.

Herein lies the dilemma with Ashes of Time and really, any of Wai’s earlier works. His unique color palette and use of natural light has the ability to wisp you away from caring about the plot holes or nonsensical dialogue. When the film’s final credits begin to role, however, the absence of central meaning or storyline returns to the subconscious.  
Wai’s films are an experience for the eyes and Ashes is no exception making the cleaned up and digitally restored Redux version that much more appealing on the big screen.

ImageMuch of Wai’s visual appeal can be attributed to his long-time Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle who remains one of the most respected in his field–a sought after individual who besides helming the camera for the majority of Wai’s films has also worked with the likes of Gus Van Sant, the great Philip Noyce, M. Night Shyamalan, and Zhang Yimou’s wuxia masterpiece Hero (his work on DJ Shadow’s video for the song “Six Days” is also worth noting). The lush exterior shots are heavily saturated with the sand of the desert dunes appearing as the purist yellow one could imagine and the interior shots mixed with well-choreographed shadow play. 

The film also features a number of well-established players in modern Chinese and Hong Kong cinema including the great Tony Leung Chiu Wai as a blind swordsman (his scenes are some of the film’s best possibly paying homage to early Japanese Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman cinematic lore). Also present is the great Maggie Cheung who would later shine in Wai’s In the Mood For Love and its unofficial sequel 2046. Cheung’s performance in Ashes as a past lover living in the desert is worthy of mention despite being hindered by the choppy plot. 

Ashes of Time Redux is supposedly a slightly shorter version of the original film, a bit rare for director’s cuts that typically add rather than subtract from the films (see Apocalypse Now Redux, Terrence Malick’s recent Director’s Cut of The New World, and Cinema Paradiso: The New Version). The original film has long been hard to find on DVD with many versions being horribly transferred copies from substandard video releases. The original film stock was also supposedly in dire need of restoration, which might also have been the reason for the redux. 

Wong Kar-Wai is an important contemporary filmmaker and no matter how his earlier works compare to his more masterful current repertoire, they are still key chapters in his career as a filmmaker. Dogged down by a rather confusing storyline the ideal way to view Ashes of Time is as if you were looking into a kaleidoscope. You may not understand exactly what you’re seeing but the result is dazzling to the eyes. For those interested in this style the film’s to seek out are 1994s Chungking Express (ironically filmed as a way to get away from the tedious task of editing Ashes and released before in the same year), his masterpiece In the Mood For Love, and 2046. For die-hard fans of Wai Ashes is essential viewing and its Redux is best viewed on the big screen.

“Ashes of Time” is currently receiving a limited theatrical release. It is playing nightly at Chicago’s Music Box Theater through Thanksgiving. It will eventually be treated to a DVD release, ideally featuring both versions of the film for comparison. 

An Offer You Can’t Refuse

ImageFew would refute that Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Saga is essential viewing for anyone even remotely interested in film–from cinéastes to the most casual of filmgoers. Epic storytelling, stellar acting from legends of the industry, a riveting and oh so subtle musical score, and countless memorable scenes and dialogue gems–“Leave the gun, take the cannoli,”–are just a handful of reasons why these remain some of the finest motion pictures ever made.

Writing about the trilogy’s (and, yes, the often ridiculed third installment is included as possibly an unnecessary follow-up but an interesting chapter to the story nonetheless) importance in the pantheon of motion pictures seems pointless since, after all, what else can be said. Luckily a new gorgeously restored edition of the three films was recently completed and the end result,The Godfather-The Coppola Restoration, is the best reason to relive the Corleone family experience.
Films are always being released and re-released on DVD in various incarnations–Special Edition, Ultimate Edition, Anniversary Edition, etc, etc. The Godfather films are no exception having been already released on DVD twice prior to this, once as a bare-boned first time on DVD trilogy release, and then later as individual Widescreen versions featuring coveted commentary tracks from Coppola. The Coppola Restoration is a horse of a completely different color. 

Film restoration (and ultimately preservation) is one of the main advantages of modern technology and the advent of DVD and now Blu-Ray high-definition discs. Companies like the Criterion Collection or Janus Films have been cleaning up and re-mastering films for years now providing viewers with a new and fresh way of reliving the classics. Sometimes a restoration is as simple as digitally re-mastering the sound, cleaning up the original film stock of scratches and other imperfections, other times (as is the case with tackling The Godfather) a painstaking rejuvenation of the original horribly weathered film negatives is required to recreate and enhance the initial viewing experience. 

ImageThe first two Godfather’s original film negatives had been processed and re-processed countless times over the years mainly due to a high-demand for the film and countless shoddy VHS releases. Unlike modern film stock, which has a life of up to 500 years if store properly, the first two Godfather installments were shot with negatives highly prone to deterioration, mainly seen in the film’s use of color and shade. Add this to the fact that entire sections of the film had been missing or too dire to repair without extensive care and expert precision.

The six-year undertaking for the new releases was overseen by Robert A. Harris, a veteran film historian and preservationist whose focus is in large-scale restoration projects of the epic classics of the 1950s–most notably seen in the beautifully restored version of Lawrence of Arabia and Vertigo. He meticulously went over each of the film’s stills the way a photographer touches up every shot. With an epic motion picture such as The Godfather Harris had to go through roughly 250,000 individual stills, removing even the tiniest of imperfections and digitally restoring the film’s look.

The most noticeable improvement made to first two films (Godfather Part III was shot using more modern film stocks and thus required minimal work for the restoration) is in the film’s one-of-kind use of color, a distinction often lost on home video. Much of both films are shot inside dark interiors–most notably seen in the dark den where Marlon Brando’s Don Vito takes meetings during the first film’s opening wedding scene, and a similar dark office where Al Pacino’s Don Michael holds meetings during his son’s christening in Part II. The characters of The Godfather Saga are almost always looming in the shadows. In Part I the vibrant and joyous opening wedding scene is juxtaposed with the gloomy, dirty “business” meets being held in secret. The Godfather films have always been about two worlds–family in the traditional sense and family in the Cosa Nostra, business sense (this is also the core of David Chase’s “The Sopranos”)–and the use of dark colors is as crucial to telling the story as the characters themselves. Light and dark, good and evil, family and FAMILY, all are important themes throughout the saga, with color and lighting serving as a tool to help convey these messages.

For the restoration Harris, in collaboration with Coppola and the film’s original Director of Photography, Gordon Willis, brought the luster of the film’s original dark colors to the forefront, duplicating if not improving on the films’ original look and feel upon their initial 1970s release. The tense Italian restaurant hit in the first film and the various scenes set in revolutionary Cuba in Part II jump off the screen. Similarly Michael Corleone’s physical deterioration (most notably with the dark bags under his eyes and his battered facial structure) over the course of Parts I & II is a testament to how crucial color and lighting are to a film’s overall atmosphere. His physical appearance in Part III is now a legendary big studio Hollywood horror story with Coppola pushing to have an older Michael Corleone with the appearance of a beat up baseball glove, while the studios pushed for a more handsome modern day Al Pacino. 

While the technical feats underwent for this release is reason enough to revisit these crowning cinematic achievements (and possibly the best reason to get into the high definition television and DVD arena) the content of these films should not be overlooked. 

The great films are the ones that we watch over and over and with every viewing a more rewarding than the previous. Revisiting a film like The Godfather is a reminder of not only why these films are as renowned as they are but also of the film’s subtle moments of brilliance. There’s the use of fruit, particularly oranges, throughout the saga foreshadowing the demise of individual characters and ultimately the family. The films deal with the American dream, romanticized at first but ultimately show with consequence. The films are ripe with an affectionate level of humor, as seen with aforementioned “take the cannoli,” breaking the ice on what was otherwise a brutal execution scene or the nervous and almost childlike Luca Brasi. Even the morning rise of the unlucky Hollywood producer with the even more unlucky prize horse carries a level of dark humor, not to mention serving as a reminder to who these people truly are.

Then there’s the final flashback sequence in Part II in which the entire family gathers for Don Vito’s surprise birthday party. The playful jokes between brothers, the larger than life character of Sonny, and, yet again, more oranges carefully placed in the background, all serve as a subtle reminders of the stories main theme–family is important to these characters but a life of crime ultimately leaves you alone with one’s regrets and ponderings. Had Part III remained solely a dream among avid fans, this closing dinner scene, in which we see the early (and in Mike’s case the most uncorrupted) nature of the characters is displayed (a great scene at showing the truly questionable side of Tom Hagen, portrayed as fairly benign throughout the films), would have been the perfect closer to this epic piece of cinema. 

While DVD is the primary place to find the new restored Godfather films, a number of select theaters around the country, including Chicago’s legendary Music Box Theater, will be screening newly restored 35mm prints of the first two films for a limited time. While seeing these resurrected editions is worthwhile by any means possible, viewing this film as it was intended, in a large dark theater, amidst other viewers and with a sound system that can really give the film’s memorable score the acoustics it deserves, is the best way to experience Coppola’s masterpiece. 

One would hope that the time and care spent restoring these immortal film classics will be used for other film gems wasting away in the big studio vaults (and there are apparently many) each waiting to be revamped and rediscovered by a modern audience. For those not alive during The Godfather’s original 1972/74 releases, seeing the immaculate version Coppola and crew envisioned for the film is an experience that anyone with a love of film should take part in.

Selling The Dark Knight

You’ve seen the scores of slick posters plastered around the city. You’ve watched and re-watched the three carefully crafted trailers and now, after almost of a year of nail biting and a piercing level of curiosity, the wait is over. This Friday audiences around the world finally get to head to the megaplex for the highly anticipated continuation in the revived Batman saga, The Dark Knight. There is really not much to say about this film that hasn’t already been said. The film is sure to be the hit of the summer and there is already posthumous Oscar buzz for the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker.

Show me a person who isn’t excited to see Batman take on the new Joker and I’ll show you a liar. Not since that mysterious teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode One was screened prior to the film Meet Joe Black has there been this much built up hype and universal excitement for a film. Not only has The Dark Knight already garnered a number of favorable reviews, not to mention talk of Ledger’s possible Oscar Nod for a super hero film that isn’t in the technical category but it’s safe to say that sequel is in line to break the record for largest opening weekend in movie history. In other words, good, bad or just mediocre, Batman is going to open big.
While much of this anticipation could be the result of the film itself–after all who doesn’t want to see what Christopher Nolan and gang have in store for round two of this brilliantly resurrected franchise–most of the buzz surrounding The Dark Knight is the product of one of the most unique and fascinating marketing campaigns for a film, ever. The film’s now inevitable success will be a testament to the powers of what a keen promotion plan can do for a film and may just pave the way for the future of blockbuster hype building.
To be fair a film like The Dark KnightStar Wars, or most of the other blockbuster giants of the past decade generally do not require clever marketing. The word of mouth and notoriety alone is enough to reel in moviegoers. In the case of The Dark Knight, the film’s predecessor Batman Begins, which primarily introduced Batman’s story, left viewers with a hell of a cliffhanger for chapter two with that glimpse of Joker’s calling card. What the minds behind The Dark Knight decided to do was hype up the vision of the film’s villain instead of the film itself. Placing more emphasis on The Joker and less on Batman himself is clever because it enables Nolan to surprise viewers with what Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman character has up his sleeve.
This campaign started as far back when the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker was announced. Speculation of who would play the sinister clown had already been swirling around the internet geek-o-sphere and the announcement of Ledger was not only baffling to most but also created a level of mystery behind what he would do with the character. While the casting of Ledger was supposedly based solely on his supposed knock out audition, and the intense level of serious method, it was also a smart move in terms of playing up the film’s shroud of mystery.
Months passed then came the viral marketing, or use of popular mediums for the masses, primarily the internet. The release of the Joker’s menacing mug shot, complete with ghastly cheek-to-cheek scars and clown makeup that would give Tim Curry’s IT character nightmares, was just what was needed to silence any qualms with the casting of Ledger. The bait was set.
What came next is what makes the marketing behind this film so unique. Rather than merely leak trailers and footage to the usual outlets–MySpace, Youtube, Aint it cool news. Etc.–the savvy PR minds created an intricate series of puzzles and reality based games for fans to dive into, all rooted around the Joker and his “Why So Serious?” tagline.
Whysoserious.com premiered featuring everything from global interactive scavenger hunts and word puzzles to hints about the film’s other major character, Harvey Dent. The clues all led to tasty little teasers about the film including film stills of the joker and his masked gang, promotional posters and even an eventual secret screening of the film’s first six minutes shown at select IMAX theaters all over the country (the same opening sequence was then shown prior to select Imax screenings of Will Smith’s film I Am Legend).
ImageWhen the first official trailer hit the web and theaters in December of last year giving wide audiences the first actual scenes with the Joker, hardcore fans and casual moviegoers alike were officially hooked. Then they made us wait. And wait some more.
Unlike other big budget success stories this year like Iron Manor the new Indiana Jones, both of which were shot and released in a short window of time and didn’t focus a lot of attention on marketing, Nolan and gang decided to hold back the film’s release thus creating even more widespread anticipation. Even before anyone had seen the film there was already a healthy level of legitimate suspense. Few films are able to pull off a stunt like this and after the handful of positive reviews chances are the suspense will pay off.
The final level of clever marketing came in the past month with Comcast, the now popular digital cable provider, giving users an entire free-to-view section dedicated to the film featuring behind the scene documentaries about the production and Chicago backdrop, all three trailers and one alternate never before seen trailer, and most curiously a series of scripted fake news reports from the fictional Gotham Tonight news program. Each ten minute fictional talk show featured interviews and reports that present viewers background information about various characters in the film including Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), crime boss Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts), and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). Rumors even sparked that the main anchor Mike Engel (played by Sixteen Candles alum Anthony Michael Hall) may become a character of importance in future Batmaninstallments.
Earlier this summer Six Flags Great America and Six Flags Great Adventures theme parks opened separate Dark Knight roller coasters. There was even a direct to DVD animated film series (in similar vein to the Animatrix series) from various acclaimed international animators who each directed a short dedicated to filling the storyline void between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

While stunts like this might seem a bit much for a movie about a superhero the marketing campaign was fairly ingenious by giving enough hints and tastes of what’s to come to lure in the average moviegoer while also giving hardcore fans the clever puzzles and payoffs to raise their anticipation to ecstatic. The marketing behind this film went beyond the traditional advertising ploys and Happy Meal product placement of yesteryears thus making the film less of a singular entity and more of a multiple medium, fully interactive movie-going experience.
What does all this mean for films? It’s no surprise that in the magical age of CGI comic book film adaptations are the next big thing but like any other cinematic fad there are always the standout films that must raise the bar high for what audiences should expect.Batman Begins took an action franchise and turned it upside down by focusing more attention on the psychology of its characters, while also giving us a brand new, darker vision of the Batman universe that was void of the camp found in its predecessors. Consider also that The Dark Knight was innovative in being the first film out of the Hollywood canon to utilize the 60mm IMAX camera for certain scenes, a feat may also pave the way for IMAX being more than just a venue for cool nature and concert flicks.
This summer’s other big success story Iron Man followed closely by spending as much time if not more on Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark character as it did on the man in the metal suit. And with hints in both Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk of the eventual Avengers film, we may be in store for yet another extensive viral marketing campaign from Marvel Films. In the age where computer technology has become such a staple element of blockbusters the true auteur must go behind simply wowing audiences visually.
On the eve of its official release The Dark Knight “experience” that has been created does just that. While we’ll have to wait a couple more days to find out if the payoff was worth all the time and attention it’s safe to say that in the post Dark Knight arena, the promotion and delivery of Hollywood films will head in radically different direction.

Off The Radar Summer Entertainment

ImageAs the summer months approach there are undoubtedly a lot of exciting things in the entertainment world to look forward to. At the movies there’s the return of Indiana Jones and a handful of big budget popcorn superhero movies (the most exciting of course being The Dark Knight). In the music realm there are countless outdoor concert festivals across the country featuring a range of different artists and groups. Add this to new albums by Coldplay (Ole!), Weezer, Death Cab For Cutie, My Morning Jacket (already making a splash in the indie music blogosphere), and a number of interesting solo albums from the likes of actress Scarlett Johansson, Jakob Dylan, Steely Dan’s Walter Becker, and one Gavin Rossdale. Even 80s pin-up Rick Springfield is apparently making a comeback. How ‘bout that?

Then there’s the democratic primary battle, which is entertaining, if not totally nerve-racking, and will most likely carry on through the summer. If we’re lucky the commonwealth of Puerto Rico with its 63 delegates may become a major player in the drawn out race. Supporting players like the outspoken and misunderstood Rev. Wright only add to this fascinating political turn of events.

Then there are the less obvious highlights to look forward–the pieces of the entertainment industry that are still hiding off the radar. The following is a short-list of some the more intriguing but under-hyped upcoming events this summer. 


Chicago seems to have become a haven for some of the best summer music festivals around. Lollapalooza enters its fourth year at Grant Park, Pitchfork Music Fest returns for another indie music filled gala, not to mention staple favorites like Jazz and Blues fest. Some of the more surprising concert events this summer come at Chi Town’s lesser-known festivities. 

Stevie Wonder is on board to perform a free show at The Taste of Chicago and nothing compliments brats and deep dish better than a collection from the master of soul’s songs in the key of life.

Since its construction Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion has long been a haven for classical and niche musical events but ever since artists like Mavis Staples and Wilco took the stage the sheik amphitheater is slowly becoming one of the hotter outdoor venues in the city. This summer Death Cab for Cutie and Chicago’s own Andrew Bird will play to a crowd of fans under the hum of the lights of the city skyline, the latter being a free show.
Other traveling acts to look out for: Erykah Badu on tour for her tour de force new album New Amerykah Vol. 1 with The Roots, hip-hop’s truly talented band backing her up. Sly Stone originally planned a mini U.S. tour after years of reclusion but he recently cancelled a handful of shows including an upcoming appearance at Chicago’s Vic Theater due to health issues. Finally, Tom Waits, the minister of the bizarre, is set for a rare tour of Europe and the U.S. 

ImageForget the upcoming explosion of big blockbusters and superhero outings. The most intriguing film of the summer that has yet to make a splash is political satirist Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous, which is set for a mid-July release date. Very little is known about the comedian and longtime non-believer or secular rationalist’s new documentary except for what he’s plugged on his show, Real Time With Bill Maher and his appearances on Larry King. The film, which was directed by Larry Charles of Seinfeld and Borat fame, is supposedly a broad overview of the absurdities of organized religion and is in the running to be this summer’s most controversial film (after all it seems every summer post Fahrenheit 9/11 must feature at least one controversial film).

Some Bill Maher haters (mainly far right-wingers and various religious groups) have already started a shitstorm of protest for the film with no doubt more to come closer to its release date. Many people may be unaware of the film but it’s safe to say it will stir things up (it was originally set for an Easter release date if that tells you anything about his intent). Bottom line, if Mel Gibson can make an ultra successful two hour film chronicling the painful torture of J.C, Bill Maher has every right to make a film explaining why he believes Gibson and other’s favorite Bible stories are ridiculous. The big question is will the film garner the same following. Will he be able to connect to the large minority of so-called “rationalists” that he believes is out there without a voice.

Other smaller films to look out for: acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris’ new film about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and more importantly about the issue of military torture. Not exactly a feel good summer romp but arguably one of the more socially important films to see.

The Academy Award Nominated film Mongol, Kazakhstan’s official foreign language film submission for 2007 finally gets a (limited) U.S. release. Very few films have been made about Genghis Khan, quite possibly one of the most fascinating and underappreciated conquerors in world history (if you remember the man almost moved in on Europe), and none have been done at an epic scale. While a film entirely in the Mongolian language with zero movie star pull may not lure the masses, film buffs and historians alike will no doubt find some intrigue in this release.

Most people are more than ready to stand amongst thousands of Radiohead fans at one of the band’s various American appearances this summer and it’s safe to say many of us are dying in anticipation to see what Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger did with The Joker character. There is more than enough hype for major events like these–and rightfully so. Still the many other smaller, understated happenings and releases this summer are equally intriguing and deserve to be recognized so as not to be overlooked.

Wilco: Via Chicago

This past Wednesday Wilco finished its five-night winter residency at Chicago’s legendary Riviera Theater. The career spanning series was one to remember thanks to the band’s commitment to covering every song Jeff Tweedy and company ever wrote from all six of its studio albums. A musical contract of this nature is fairly ambitious and pretty unique for any band but this particular event wouldn’t have been quite the same had Wilco chosen another city.

For fans of the band the Windy City has long been a home base for the Wilco. Sure only one of the current members, drummer Glenn Kotche, is a native (front man Tweedy hails from the St. Louis area where his original band, Uncle Tupelo got its start) but technicalities aside there is a certain connection and affection for a particular city that is rarely seen with most bands working today.

While I looked on from the crowd during the two nights (Monday and Wednesday’s final culmination) I was fortunate enough to attend, I began to wonder what it would be like if other bands followed suit and dedicated a series of shows to dig through their musical skeletons, tackling past, present and everything in between. 

The dreamer in me envisioned my favorite bands and artists covering their catalogue including all their forgotten gems, the songs that are often forgotten about when it comes to live performances. Perhaps Radiohead channeling its early days with cuts from Pablo Honey and The Bends, Pearl Jam pulling out lesser-covered albums from its past like No Code or Vitology, or maybe a band like Talking Heads or the Pixies reuniting for a week long residency somewhere to cover their respective canons in its entirety. What would we be without wishful thinking?

After some further pondering I began to realize that really a concert residency like the one Wilco just pulled off really wouldn’t be successful for every band (mastering the lyrics to over 60 songs alone is a feat I’m guessing most musicians aren’t eager to tackle). An undertaking of this requires devoted fans, just the right intimate setting and a fairly unique band such as Wilco whose career has taken on many forms.

As I mentioned before Wilco has long been a Chicago band. Sure they are nationally acclaimed but you’d be surprised how little people outside of the Chicago or the Midwest know about the band, save more recent hits such as “Jesus etc.” or the title, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. While in the rest of the world Wilco is a niche little “alt country” band, as so many people tend to label them, in Chicago they are one of those adored entities that I believe many Chicagoans are truly proud of. 

The band recorded the majority of its albums in local Chicago studios, many of the members reside in or around the city, and above all Wilco always seems to come alive more when playing on local stages (case in point October’s performance at the relatively new amphitheater at Millennium Park with the dazzling skyline as the backdrop). Songwriter Jeff Tweedy even sprinkles certain aspects of the city into his songs–“Kiss and ride on the CTA,” “The wind blew me back, Via Chicago”–familiar trinkets of homage that fans can’t help but eat up.

When the five-night “Winter Residency at the Riv” was announced it didn’t take long for people to start marking their calendars. Tickets ranging from single night to 5-night admittance sold out at the blink of an eye on Ticketmaster. Soon after online ticket scalpers started boosting the prices for the now coveted ticket. 

When the shows finally arrived the band lived up to its commitment of spanning its career each night with loads of surprises and intimate sets clocking in at just shy of three hours. The current lineup has been together for four years, the longest of any other Wilco band of the past but still challenge of each night was successfully morphing into the many different incarnations of Wilco.

There’s the country as a chicken shack side, as seen on the band’s first record A.M. and the comprehensive two-disc sophomore release, Being There (quite possibly the best evidence of what the band was and where they were going musically). There’s the “highly orchestrated pop,” side of Wilco, as Tweedy told the crowd at Wednesday night’s performance, showcased on Summerteeth. The segue into American folk with the pair of Billy Bragg Mermaid Avecollaboration records, and finally the band’s experimental adventure into hi-fi, which garnered the most critical acclaim withYankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born

The band has been touring for the past year promoting its most recent effort, Sky Blue Sky, which received mixed reviews from critics and fans but very well may grow on people with age once we see where the band’s headed next. While the sets were heavy on newer songs, the band was true to its promise of touching upon every song and making each night one to remember.

While it’s true that I am a fan of the band I can’t help but write about what a joy it was watching Wilco perform rarely touched gems from its past–A.M.’s “It’s Just That Simple” (one of the few songs not song by Tweedy but rather the underappreciated bassist John Stirratt who received a roar of applause after his performance), the bitter-sweet “Say You Miss Me” from Being There, the dreamy “Pieholden Suite” and the pop harmony riddled “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (Again)” from Summerteeth featuring a local horn quartet or welcoming fellow Chicago musician Andrew Bird to stage to help out with the fiddle and a whimsical whistling solo on “Red Eyed and Blue” come to mind–in front of a crowd of admiring fans, many of which have stuck with Tweedy since his Uncle Tupelo days.

The band seemed right at home at the Riviera, one of Chicago’s historic old movie house turned music venues in the, and above all seemed delighted to be performing in front of such a loving audience. The more I thought about the residency I found it difficult to imagine the band pulling it off anywhere else. There was a certain current in the air both nights I attended that I rarely see at concerts. Perhaps it was the feeling of togetherness (a woman next to me said that we were all friends) or a sense of belonging. Whatever the vibe was it felt right. 

Towards the middle of Wednesday’s closing night show Tweedy took a moment between songs to tell the audience that in fact they were ignoring a big chunk of rarities, B-sides and tracks from the two Mermaid Ave. records, and that they might just have to do this again next year with a different, more ambitious goal in mind. I think I can speak for many when I say, nothing’s ever gonna stand in your way Jeff.

Setlists for the five-night residency can be found at feed://wilcobase.com/wilcobase-setlist.xml

Beauty and the Gray

For most people conceptual or “modern” art is either hit or miss. Some find the subtleties and minimalism of this style to be fascinating; others see it as simply uninspired or lacking true art aesthetics. Whatever your feelings may be there are certain figures in the contemporary art arena whose work and unique style and technique stands strong with the best. 

The Art Institute of Chicago, in collaboration with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of art, is currently hostingGray, a major exhibition chronicling the work of American multi-faceted artist, Jasper Johns from some of his selected periods. Focusing solely on the artist’s work with gray tones, the exposition is an extremely comprehensive overview of John’s fascination with the simplicities of the neutral color over five decades of his career.

Johns has been labeled many things–abstract expressionist, pop artist, and neo-Dadaist–none of which truly define his work. His fascination with the range and tonality of color (and with his gray work, the definition and neutrality of color) has always been present. Similar to pop artists of past and present, Johns has always utilized familiar images and themes (his two most famous pieces, Map and Flag, both focus on visual everyday emblems that we are familiar with thus forcing the viewer to look past the subject). Finally he sees his canvases and works as objects, often utilizing sensations such as texture as well as three-dimensional found objects (usually everyday items such as balls or clothes hangers). 

This exhibit is divided into the different themes and epochs of his gray pieces, beginning with early abstract oil paintings circa the 1950s, which focus on the shades between the monochromatic polars, black and white. The final room is devoted to Johns’ most recent pieces, theCatenary series (1997-2003), which marked a return to his gray form and focused on line and plane utilizing string and other fully dimensional objects that jump off the canvases. While these early and coda works are important to the exhibit’s overall theme and evolution, the work during the middle years, particularly his gray drafts and re-workings of some of his most famous pieces, truly make the strongest lasting impression. 

In the same vein as Map and Flag, both of which have whole series and studies devoted to gray, Johns fascination with numbers and letters are some of the exhibits finest specimens.  Focusing again on everyday iconography (the letters A-Z; numbers 0-9), Johns takes something the eye is familiar with and strips it down to a raw form. 

The bulk middle years, including the MapFlagLettersNumbers and Target series, also illustrate Johns fascination with multiple mediums for the canvas, everything from drawings and sketches, oil paintings, printmaking and stenciling, to the most fascinating; the encaustic paintings and collages. The encaustic technique, which Johns used throughout his career and brought to the forefront of modern art, involves the blending of color pigments with hot wax, which, when layered, creates a one of the kind texture to the canvases. In regards to his use of the canvas as an object and entity of the work Johns has said, “The canvas is object, the paint is object, and object is object. Once the canvas can be taken to have any kind of spatial meaning, then the object can be taken to have that meaning within the canvas.” 

Also featured heavily throughout the exhibit are Johns ink on plastic works, which pair up perfectly with his gray themes and create a one of a kind effect, particularly his re-workings of his Target series (large scale bulls-eye forms) in this unique medium. Similar to the encaustic technique, the ink on plastic pieces create a finish and an allusion to texture that jumps off the white walls, which they are hung. 

The most curious and bizarre part of the exhibit (also the easiest to miss) is the tucked away room containing some of John’s early ventures into sculpture. The handful of gray painted bronze busts also focus on common icons such as household objects like light bulbs, which, despite their minimalism, are fascinating illustrations of his talents outside the canvas. His bronze sculpture, The Critic Sees, a scathing critique of scathing art critics (Johns had his share of negative reviews) is one of the more underappreciated highlights of the exhibition that should not be missed. 

Featuring roughly 130 different works covering a range of different mediums Gray may seem a bit daunting at first but as you flow through the various rooms and watch the evolution of the artist’s work unfold, it’s difficult not to find a certain level of beauty beneath such a stale, achromatic color. For spectators not familiar with the work of Jasper Johns, Gray may appear as a bit of a specific introduction since much of his work is vibrant with color. That said, Gray encompasses themes of Johns work that he has explored all throughout his career and since the exhibit spans five different decades it’s a perfect way to witness an artist’s transformation and maturation. 

Jasper Johns: Gray will be at The Art Institute of Chicago’s Regenstein Hall until January 6, 2008 and will run at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art from February 5 to May 4, 2008. For more information visit www.artic.edu.

Art Rock

Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is currently hosting Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967, a comprehensive and at times fascinating look at the meshing of visual art and rock and roll over the years. The exhibit, which runs until January 6, chronicles the relationship between artists and rock music across the globe while also tapping into a number of subgenres. 

Named after the Rolling Stones hit single offBeggar’s Banquet, a curious choice since the Stones are featured sparingly, the exhibition is broken up into several different wings, each paying homage to a different significant rock and roll hub. From New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, London and Manchester in the U.K., Cologne, Germany, the multi platform art displayed represents certain elements from the cities and their unique sounds. Album cover art, promotional poster sheets, music videos and video art, rock and roll photography, traditional 2D paintings and drawings, and even sonic art soaked in via headphones, surround sound loudspeaker rooms and even a makeshift sound recording booth that can be reserved by anyone out to make a demo tape. 

While true art snobs may find the exhibit to be underwhelming, rock purists may be unforgiving for the lack of attention given to certain genres and equally important music scenes, and casual rock listeners may become jaded after the first couple rooms, the exposition is affective at examining how art was once a major influence on the music world and vise versa. The one troubling aspect of the exhibit is how little there is about the use of art in recent rock and hip-hop movements.

Sure the exposition covers obvious art-house favorites such as avant-garde guitar shoe gazers Sonic Youth (band member Kim Gordon is featured heavily throughout the exhibit) but little more is covered post the early 90s alt rock and punk epoch. While this lack of attention given to my generation left me a bit baffled I began to realize that in many ways art is no longer as significant to rock music as it once was. 

I remember as a kid discovering my parent’s massive record collection and immediately being drawn to the dazzling visuals that were featured on the LP covers. From the famous Andy Warhol crotch zipper on the Stones’ Sticky Fingers, the mysterious naked children figures perched on the sea of rocks on Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy LP, the washed out distorted faces of Talking Heads on Remain in Light, the Dalí inspired surrealism of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, to the Beatles, an art conscious band that released some of the most noteworthy cover art in history. The use of art in rock albums was at one point as big a focus as the fine-tuning of sound, the poetry of the lyrics and appearance/persona of the band or musician. Lately though I think it’s safe to say that the link between rock music and the art world is growing thin. 

It could be said that the death of vinyl and the slow but steady demise of CDs are to blame for a downfall of album art, with more attention spent on the marketing and methods of selling and distributing music there is less attention or care given to the art (I mean iTunes packages albums with “digital booklets,” but I can’t help but think it is a noble but poor replacement for liner notes). 

This argument goes well beyond merely cover art, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the best place to look for a band’s visual art influences. One of the most fascinating parts of the MCA exhibit dealt with underground punk bands of the 80s and their use of cheaply made and distributed promotional posters, many of which were artistically and politically creative. While the “do it yourself” underground music mentality is still alive today we rarely see promotional poster art, the kind that made you stop on a street corner, since we now have Myspace pages and websites (don’t get me wrong, one could make a strong argument for the advantages of the internet and the many artistically designed sites out there.)

Then there are music videos, which during the 80s and 90s became a controversial yet extremely popular way of mixing art with music. Some people argued that spoon feeding listeners images to go along with the lyrics of a song was a poor replacement for your imagination, however, there were many conceptual artists who used these shorts in creative and fascinating ways. 

Most people know about the handful of unique film directors working today who got their starts in music videos and commercials. There were certain videos that we as music lovers actually looked forward to watching, videos that took our favorite songs in extremely unique directions. I remember watching Michael Jackson’s “Black and White” song premiere after The Simpsons (corny I know) as a young lad, waiting in my friends basement for Nirvana’s “Heart Shape Box” video to come on, crossing my fingers for the VJ to play Beastie Boys’ hilarious “Sabotage” video or yearning for that next Beck video to come out, a musician who overlooked/visualized the majority of his highly stylized and brilliant videos.

Today it’s hard for me to remember the last truly great video I saw (Mark Romanek’s ultra bizarre but extremely wicked modern art museum inspired video for the Chili Peppers’ “Can’t Stop” song may take the cake). Sure artists like Radiohead, Bjork, Muse, Missy Elliott, Beck, Franz Ferdinand or Jay-Z still put out fairly unique, eye opening videos and certain artists still take great album cover art seriously (I may be the only one who dug Pearl Jam’s minimalist avocado cover on their last album), but for the most part music these days seems more concerned with the “to steal or not to steal” debate than extending their creativity past simply the music. 

What struck me as interesting about the MCA exhibit was how important the use of art once was. To have your photograph taken by someone like Robert Mapplethorpe (he did Patti Smith’s Horses album) or be sponsored by a visionary like Andy Warhol (who himself was idolized by musicians and artists) was something to aspire to. Bands like New Order (there is a fascinating look at the design of Order’s Power, Corruption, & Lies floral still-life album cover on display at the MCA), Funkadelic, 70s era Miles Davis Frank Zappa, or the slew of progressive rockers from the 70s (ELO, Yes, Asia, Genesis, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, almost all these groups relied heavily on visual art often using up and coming surrealist portrait artists like Roger Dean or ahead of their time graphic designers like Storm Storgerson) had a passion for art that went beyond the notes they played. Today though it seems like the biggest aspirations a musician can have is to work with a hotshot producer (uh hum, Glen Ballard) or have there song featured on whatever ridiculous “Laguna Whore” reality show is the fad that week (note that this statement does not cover every musician working today because there are some keeping the marriage of sound and vision alive. Just the majority).

Walking around the MCA I was curious as to what a similar exhibit might look like 20 years from now. How will future generations view the current state of music we’re in? Sure there have been advents in technology and I fully support the internet’s role in distributing music but I can’t help but think that we’re losing something with this change. There was something aesthetically pleasing about walking around the Sympathy exhibition. Seeing the full size carefully drawn posters, seeing how certain album covers were designed or walking over the room of vinyl records (you’ll see). The MCA exhibit is worth checking out (Tuesday is a free day so how can you not!) for anyone interested in learning about a fascinating piece of rock and roll history.

Concert Review: Eric Clapton

Concert Review: Eric Clapton
September 20, 2006
The United Center
Chicago, IL

The Cream of Clapton, Live

Eric Clapton, one of the godfathers of blues and rock guitar, played a near flawless show covering his early and latter days Wednesday night to a semi full United Center. While some people might coin the British rock prodigy the Cadillac of guitar of players, they are lying. If such a comparison must be made Clapton is the 50s era fire-red Maserati coupe of axe players. He is the kind of legend whose talent and career are unprecedented. While some of his recent solo endeavors have been mediocre at best, his slow and successful turn towards more straight blues proves that Clapton is still one of those rare musical gems of yesternow.

Dressed casually in jeans and a pink Oxford and sporting his legendary black Fender Stratocaster, ‘Slowhand’ Clapton and his band took the simply lit/decorated stage opening with the always classic, “Pretending,” from Clapton’s 1989 solo release, Journeyman. The blues rock anthem was followed by the faithful blue infused rendition of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” followed by the B-side, “Got To Get Better In A Little While” from Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos days. The first three tunes, melded together without pause, were perfect precursors for a night of songs covering Clapton’s entire cannon, from his early Cream days to his long blues jams. No rock was left unturned at the lively arena.

The opening trio was followed by a smooth 15-minute slow blues jam of, “Old Love” (also from Journeyman), which featured guest guitarist/song’s co-writer and long time Clapton collaborator, Robert Cray, whose band also opened the show. The song, which proved to be one of the main highlights of the night, featured beautiful two virtuosic guitar solos from Clapton and Cray.

Other highlights from the first half of the show included “Motherless Child” (a song improved when played live) from the 1994 record, From the Cradle. Half way through the show the band performed a four-song sit down acoustic set, featuring wonderful versions of the blues standard, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and Clapton’s “Running on Faith.”

The latter half of the performance showcased some of Clapton’s best-known anthems, including the rendition of “After Midnight” from Clapton’s first solo release, the sappy but always simple and moving, “Wonderful Tonight,” the psychedelic “Cocaine,” and the Derek and the Dominos era version of “Layla,” which along with Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing,” remains to this day one of the finest guitar rock pieces ever recorded.

The band played one stirring encore of the blues standard “Crossroads,” another of Clapton’s timeless classics. The version again featured brilliant vocal and guitar styling from Robert Cray, who sang the first two verses and joined Clapton on the last.

While Clapton has aged since his early days with The Yardbirds and Cream (he is quickly making his way to 70), his voice and sound has not deteriorated like so many musicians of the past who fade away. Rather Clapton has found a very unique style and sound that shows career maturity. His band, featuring two young guitar virtuosos, Derek Trucks (kin to Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks) and Doyle Bramhall II, respectively, add a perfect blend of country rock and blues slide guitar work to Clapton’s own crisp axe chops.

With a new album, The Road to Escondido, slated for a November release, and probable future solo and collaboration tours with blues legend J.J. Cale, it is clear that Clapton is not retiring anytime soon. Still, for anyone interested in rock and blues music he is one of those must see artists who truly is one of rock music’s best-kept legends.