Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bindlestickin' New York City: Memphis - Shubert Theatre

I somehow found myself on the guest list for a dinner on the Upper East side of Manhattan earlier this month. I’m not sure how that happened, but I never turn down a free meal so I hopped on a big ol’ jet airliner and got my ass to NYC. I arrived on a Sunday afternoon and like any Tony-loving fellow I decided to kick off my visit with a Broadway play. Book of Mormon was the obvious choice, but it is sold out until 2028 and I can’t plan that far in advance. Spiderman sounded cool, but general consensus is that the play sucks unless you get off on dudes in tights flying around your head. So I went down to Times Square and got in line at the TKTS booth with all the other cheapasses who don’t want to pay full price. I like my culture cut-rate.

Remember the thespians in high school? Well, just like I realized that a career in pro football was unlikely and hung up my stinky cleats after senior year, most of the thespians also realized that a Broadway career was unlikely and hung up their Kabuki masks and got real jobs as singing waiters at TGI Fridays. However, a few of them did not give up on the dream and can be found in Times Square wearing ridiculous costumes in the cold and passing out flyers to the shows for which they were rejected faster than was my application to Mensa. But I digress.

I perused the flyers and decided on Memphis on the basis of its 2010 Tony for best musical, the fact that featured some R&B music and because I’ve had some really good BBQ in the actual town of Memphis.

So, the play. The story of Huey Calhoun, a white dude in the 50’s who starts all sorts of shit for liking, playing and promoting black music. Back then such an atrocious act would be akin to going to Rick Santorum’s house with a plate of deviled eggs. So there’s your story, conflict and protagonist. In the course of getting to the end of the play, they dance and sing a lot. And there are some badass dancers and impressive singers that would make it to Hollywood on American Idol should they ever decide to stoop to that level. I usually hang out at infinitely off-Broadway theatres in which I’m lucky to find a folding chair and an usher not on crack, so I’m always blown away by the talent, sets, and general production value. But the songs were pretty generic, and well, like a musical. Almost as if they were written by Bon Jovi. Or their keyboard player David Bryan. What’s that? You say they were written by David Bryan? I can’t believe I got snookered.

Regardless, I was somewhat entertained, but left the theatre feeling ripped off. Like ordering the ten-piece McNugget and getting home only to find eight in the box. If you want to know why, then I must issue a semi-spoiler alert.

Huey doesn’t die. Huey doesn’t live happily ever after. The damn musical just ends. He should have died. Not because I’m evil and like sad endings. Cracky very much enjoys happy endings. But the story is pretty much based on real-life DJ Dewey Phillips. And Dewey died. Huey should have died. Cracky got had.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Charles Bradley – Metro – 2/18/2012

No, not Charles Barkley or Milton Bradley, although I think those shows might have been more fun. [Disclaimer: Cracky was severely ill the night of this show, but is trying to be objective. He sucked it up and got his ass to Metro as a service to his loyal fans, but might have been slightly altered. At one point Metro security came by and asked if he was okay and offered the services of the medic on site. Thanks, Metro, classy move, but I haven’t been shot or anything. I’m just trying to breathe and not puke on your shoes.]

I had been looking forward to this show. I found the Screaming Eagle of Soul, Charles Bradley, some time last year and he’s been a regular on my playlists. I highly recommend his latest record, and he’s even got a great backstory, complete with all the trials and tribulations, working as a cook for years, and then being discovered in his 50’s and finding success on Daptone records. Not much unlike my own story, except I can’t cook, I haven’t faced near the challenges he has, and I’m a tad younger. Oh, yeah, and I don’t have any musical talent.

There are obvious comparisons to James Brown… in appearance, sound and mannerisms (Charles, not Cracky). And it makes sense when you find out that Bradley has even worked as a James Brown imitator. But that’s what I felt like I was watching, even though he’s performing his own material. There are some great youtube clips of him performing in a bike shop last year during SXSW. He seemed genuine and sounded spectacular. But it seemed like headlining the show in Chicago at a mid-size club changed the dynamic. It was more about the show than the soul and he seemed to slip into James Brown mode again, maybe because he was more comfortable in that role on a bigger stage or thought that’s what people wanted to see.

So say I want a coonskin cap for my birthday because I’m feeling all Davy Crockett and my head is cold, right? Because I’m so awesome, you make a trip to the coonskin cap store and the salesman tells you, “Hey, every store is out of coonskin caps this season, but everyone is really digging these new beaver hats that we have in stock!” And indeed, you check out the beaver hat and it’s pretty nice. It’s warm, looks mighty fine, and because you’re as immature as I am, you giggle every time he starts talking about the extraordinary qualities of beaver fur. So you buy the hat, and it would have been a fine gift. But then you get home, try to make a raccoon tail out of papier mache, and try to color parts of the hat with a black sharpie to match the markings of a raccoon. Now I have ridiculous looking faux-shit hat. Sure it will keep my head warm, but it’s neither an authentic coonskin cap nor a pretty bitchin’ substitute beaver hat. And you just ruined my birthday. Thanks a lot. Cracky’s disappointed.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bettye LaVette - Old Town School - 2/24/12

Van Halen rocked the United Center this evening. I think. I wasn’t there. I almost got sucked into the hype and had a pair of good seats in my Ticketmaster cart and then I looked at the price and said, “Cracky, what the fuck are you doing? You’ve already seen those guys, and think of how many Swiss Cake Rolls and Nutty Bars you can buy with that cash! And you have tickets to Bettye LaVette that night, dumbass.” I kicked my cart over, flipped off Ticketmaster and got my ass over to The Old Town School of Folk Music.

The annoying dude from WNUR came out to tell us that the show would start about 30 minutes late because Bettye was delayed getting into town. I offered to take the stage and entertain the crowd with some funeral dirges on which I’ve been working, but they felt it unnecessary. I never found out the offending airline, but making Ms. LaVette late has not helped endear me to their industry. I’ve received better customer service from lemonade stands run by eight year olds. But I digress.

Concerts are just like sex. After a few times you’re ready for someone new. This was the fourth time seeing Bettye in the last three years so I was worried the show might seem stale. Bettye clearly sensed my trepidation and whipped out her kama sutra songbook and brought me to full musical arousal once again. Dang.

Bettye has been at this for almost 50 years, out there on her own before Don Cornelius ever uttered “peace, love and crabs.” I think that’s what pushed Don over the edge… seeing all those horrible t-shirts from Joe’s Crab Shack. Got crabs? Hilarious!!! Again, I digress.

Bettye finally gained more widespread recognition in 2008 after covering The Who’s "Love Reign O’er Me" as Roger Daltrey sat in the crowd Googling “singing lessons” while Pete Townshend gave him a charley horse. The record from which that cover came also includes other British classic rockers, except she shows them boys how those songs should have been done. Cracky has a voice that rivals Sinatra, but you never hear him sing for fear that LaVette will take one of his tunes and put him to shame the same way she has so many others. "I'm a better editor. If you make a statement, I can make it a stronger statement. And, if you write a story, I can make it a stronger story.”

And you can almost see her step into each song, pulling on the book jacket from each song’s story and assuming the role of the lead character. If that song tells a story of pain, she sounds like she just fell in the mud and got kicked in the head with an iron boot. A song of betrayal, and you have a feeling she just might kick you in the nuts if you look a little too much like the man who wronged her. And… scene.

She drew less from Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, more from I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise (female songwriter covers), and reprised some classics from her past. Her ‘tween song banter isn’t gratuitous (“Hellooo Chicago!) but very genuine, and her stories explain why she’s released the albums she has and why each song is on the setlist. She struts like she owns the joint on some songs, dances like someone 40 years younger on others, sat cross-legged on the stage floor for one and finished us off with an acapella performance which captivated the crowd as if she had just kicked our butts in a game of freeze tag.

Earlier that day, tickets went on sale for a Fiona Apple show at intimate Lincoln Hall. Demand obviously outstripped supply, probably ten-fold. The people who did not get tickets acted as if you had kidnapped their kittens, dressed them as Fiona herself, and decapitated them on closed circuit television while forcing them to watch "Clockwork Orange" style. Ironically, Bettye soldiered on and did a cover of "Sleep to Dream" better than Fiona could ever dream to sing. My point, get over it, Fiona fans, and find yourself another swell show to see. They’re out there. Bettye proved that tonight. Crack Approved.

Note: If you’re friends with Cracky on Facebook and use Spotify, the setlist from the show is on Cracky’s playlists.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Heartless Bastards - Lincoln Hall - 2/14/2012

Pretend, for a minute, that I am Alex Trebek. The answer is:

A) Pretty good, I need to check out more.
B) Not bad, I don’t need to fill my ears with sculpting clay.
C) Wow, I’m not sure we can still be friends.
D) Holy crap, I am so incredibly cool how could I not have known about this artist before!

The question is, “What are the possible responses when a friend shares music with you?”

I’d say most of the time my reaction falls into A. However, last year The Heartless Bastards captured the elusive D response. That is when Erika Wennerstrom and her cohorts came into my life riding on a flashdrive containing The Mountain record.

Erika has an extremely unique vocal style that I imagine is like listening to Chrissie Hynde while tripping on acid. For some of you it will be a mind-expanding experience while others may consider it a bad trip. But judging from the last two sold-out shows I attended, there are enough of us who dig putting a little tab of Heartless Bastards on our tongue for a couple hours.

Besides also hailing from the musical hotbed of Ohio, the comparisons to Chrissie don’t end there. The songwriting is solid and she’s not afraid to plug in her guitar and hit you in the face instead trying to strum you into submission with an acoustic.

On top of the irony of going to a Heartless Bastards show on Valentine’s Day, it was also the same day their new Arrow record was released. I supposed I should say “dropped” but that seems pretentious to me. If anyone “dropped” one of my records, CD’s or MP3 players I’d kick their ass. Unless they were bigger than I, in which case I’d still probably shake my head in disgust at their carelessness. Because the record is pretty damn good, and the new songs fit right in with the old favorites at Lincoln Hall that night. With four releases under their utility belts they put together a nearly two-hour set that never lagged or made me wonder if I was missing any Mercedes Ruehl original Lifetime movies on cable. I was completely engaged, riding the riffs and soaking in the vocals and planning a camping trip with Erika in my head. She can even bring the other Bastards, as long as they supply the marshmallows for the campfire.

By the way, I hope you remembered to stop pretending I’m Alex Trebek. Crack Approved.

Happy Belated Valentine's Day, you bastards.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Cowboy Mouth - House of Blues - 2/10/2012

A small joint called Club Clearview had scheduled bands over the course of an entire day on 4th of July weekend in 1992, and after paying a $7 cover I randomly stumbled in about the same time Cowboy Mouth was taking the stage. I’d say there were about 20 of us loners there that day who didn’t get invited to a bbq that weekend and, as is typical of that size crowd, we were kind of spread out and not entirely engaged. This was clearly unacceptable to the drummer/vocalist, one Fred LeBlanc. His drumkit was already front and center but that wasn’t enough. He came out into the crowd and rounded us up like a kindergarten class at the end of recess, and then proceeded to make us sit on the floor of the club in a big circle. No exceptions. Just like a game of Duck Duck Goose. But instead of knocking us on the head for not getting into the show, he and the band finished their set right there in the circle with us. Making us share in the vocals and percussion and making sure that nobody left that damn club without knowing the name of the band they just saw and feeling like they just freebased every riff on the setlist.

I think each one of us in the crowd told two friends after that show and made sure they came with us to the next one. And then they told two friends, and so on and so on until everybody is washing their hair with beer shampoo and eating jambalaya with red plastic spoons.

Unfortunately, Cracky went missing for a few years and lost track of Fred and company. And when he came back the rest of the music world had discovered the Cowboy Mouth experience. It’s just like that small circle back in 1992, except the circle is about 50 times bigger and it’s not a circle anymore. It’s now best described by kinetic theory. Cowboy Mouth is presented an audience in the form of a solid. They heat that sucker up until the crowd is a mass of Brownian motion and ready to blow the lid off the joint.

The lyrics aren’t sophisticated. The music isn’t groundbreaking. But if you find the shoegaze genre confusing and illogical and want to go back to the days when rock and roll was fun and celebrate life no matter how bad your acne or diverticulitis is flaring up, get yourself a ticket to a Cowboy Mouth show. The House of Blues show was no exception. Crack Approved.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

He's My Brother, She's My Sister - Empty Bottle - 1/14/2012

If I had gotten inked twenty years ago like I had wanted, I’d be the proud owner of a Bill the Cat tattoo today. I’m not sure what that might be worth on eBay today, but it’s not like you can sell a tat on eBay anyway. But I digress.

My point is that you need to think about shit before you go and do it. This also applies to band names. There have been brother/sister acts before: The Carpenters, Cowboy Junkies, Donny & Marie, Hanson. Most of them just use the family name or come up with something weirdly Canadian. Which reminds me that I need to make it to The Calgary Stampede one of these years. Anybody up there have a couch they’re willing to share? Not share a couch as in we’re both going to sleep on the same couch. Share a couch as in you own a couch and when you go to your bed you’ll let me sleep by myself on your couch. Just thought I’d clarify.

But this brings me to the Kolars of Los Angeles, Robert and Rachel. You see Robert is Rachel’s brother and, in case you weren’t clear on the transitive property of siblings, Rachel is Robert’s sister. After apparently spending a little too much time in that SoCal sun, they decided to name their band He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister. Not only does it reek of gimmickry, but sounds like a local band that will spend most of their time in their parent’s basement and, at best, maybe play a party at the local rec center. And if that weren’t bad enough, they decided to add a tap dancer as a percussion instrument. Now I have to confess that Cracky here is a fan of the ol’ tap dance genre, from old school Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to the creative applications of Chicago Tap Theatre today. However, just like the angry dude with the chocolate bar who got really pissed at the other dude when he got peanut butter on his chocolate, and the similarly angry dude with the peanut butter who got pissed at the other dude for getting chocolate in his peanut butter, I didn’t realize how well they could work together.

Did I mention that I had tickets to the sold-out Walkmen show at Metro that night? Now I had seen The Walkmen open for Fleet Foxes a couple months earlier and it was a damn good set, but I decided I could sell my $35 ticket and check out this Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of gimmickry known as HMBSMS for far less thanks to the Empty Bottle’s RSVP for free admission promotion. Nice call, Cracky. If you could pick stocks as well as shows, you’d be the next Warren Buffet.

HMBSMS has an indie folk vibe, which I think means that they write songs, dress like hippies and/or hipsters, and not a lot of other people in your office will have heard of them. So here’s your starting lineup… Brother Robert handles guitar and bass drum and vocals, trading off with Sister Rachel, who also doubles up on tambourine. My research is suspect since it depends on either a quick scan of Wikipedia or the Romanian prostitutes who responded to my ad on Craigslist for interns, but I believe it was Oliver on upright bass and Aaron on slide guitar. I’m not sure what happened to the cello player, but I like to pretend that he was left roadside in Des Moines, Iowa after a heated argument about the infield fly rule. But I digress. Finally, the lovely Lauren on tap shoes and percussion.

It sounds kind of whacked out, but it’s just crazy enough to work. Lauren lays down a tap rhythm that chugs along the tracks like an old-time steam engine, accenting the beats with the drums on each side of her, while the rest of the band adds some swinging textures over the harmonies of our sibling heroes. That alone is worth the price of admission, but the addition of the slide guitar gives it teeth that further differentiates it from all your other general indie folk hipsters running around out there these days.

I see they’re headed out to SXSW, so if you’ll be in Austin be sure to see them and tell ‘em Cracky sent you. They shouldn’t punch you out or anything since they seemed genuinely nice, and Lauren even sent me home with a signed poster. Crack Approved.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Hush Sound - Bottom Lounge - 2/4/2012

I confess I missed The Hush Sound the first time around. It must have been during my steel drum band phase. I can get obsessive. Eventually I realized I had to leave the islands before my brains got fried and return to Chicago. Upon arrival I heard that I needed to check out a band called Gold Motel. I don’t like being told what to do, so I didn’t. But it turns out they were opening for a Cold War Kids show and I did make an effort to get there in time to check them out. Gold Motel had a catchy, kind of pop sound led by a likable lass on keyboards and vocals. I had my crack staff do some research and found out the lass was one Greta Morgan, previously of The Hush Sound.

Turns out that a lot of Gold Motel fans missed The Hush Sound, and after checking out some old videos I missed them, too. Word must have gotten out on the street and eventually to Greta, because no more more than six months later The Hush Sound arranged a couple reunion shows at The Bottom Lounge just for Cracky. Thanks, Greta.

I obviously felt obligated to attend and picked up a ticket. As The Bottom Lounge filled up for the second of two sold-out shows, it became apparent that I did not fit the target demographic which consisted of 20 year-old girls and spider monkeys. I almost climbed into the rafters to hang out with the spider monkeys, but stuck it out on the main floor.

Greta handled vocal duties for Gold Motel but shares them with Bob Morris in The Hush Sound, which makes them the surf n’ turf of pop. I wanted to take them out for karaoke afterwards and force them to do a duet of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by Elton John and Kiki Dee, and then buy them ice cream with sprinkles. I totally get why the 20 year old girl demographic digs them.

I typically prefer my music darker or louder, but I appreciate a good pop song and musicians like The Hush Sound who can consistently write a hook that snags you like a hungry catfish. I also learned that the 99% that everyone is talking about refers to the percentage of their audience who sing along to every song, firmly ingraining damn near every one in my brain. Not necessarily a bad thing, but eventually Rob Zombie is going to have enough and evict them. Until that happens, Crack Approved.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Lenny Kravitz, Raphael Saadiq - Chicago Theatre - 1/31/2012

Cracky is an on-time sort of fellow, but especially so when he drops over $50 on a ticket. I’m getting my money’s worth from a show, even if it means showing up early to catch an opening act consisting of tone-deaf, cross-dressing Pussycat Doll rejects. Fortunately, I was actually looking forward to seeing Raphael Saadiq open this show. I think I first saw him on SoulStage, and I was digging the old-school Motown groove. Saadiq is clearly not Tony! Toni! nor Tone-deaf… he’s got the right vibe to pull it off, and looked good in his mustard suit and skinny tie. It was enough to get me to download some of his tunes and add them to the rotation. The mustard suit was also enough to make me go get a hot dog. I should clarify that it was a mustard-colored suit, not a suit made out of mustard. That's too Gaga-esque.

Unfortunately, the opening set did not even come close to clearing the bar I put up there. First off, he came on stage with some shiny high-top sneakers, a hoodie and a jean jacket. Come on, man, I see that on the train every day. Put on the skinny suit and look the part. I was dressed better than he was and most days I'm lucky if I remember to wear pants. Second, I don’t remember him singing all that much. There was some prancing around, some guitar hero moves, some horseplay with the bandmates, some gratuitous Chicago banter, when all I really wanted him to do was step up to that mike and fuel that theatre with some Motown energy instead of turning it into an abandoned Motor City auto plant. Third, what was with the cheesy blues tune? I hope that wasn’t just for Chicago, because we have standards here. Don’t act like your guitarist is Albert King and we’ve never seen a blues solo before. Finally, I will admit, it wasn’t all your fault. It’s as if the Chicago Theatre sound guy decided to skip the opening act and send his accountant to run the board. It wasn’t nearly as loud as it should have been, and all I was hearing was mostly drums and some keyboards. I felt as if I were listening to the show in a fish tank with one of those little scuba diver statues stuck in each ear canal. Come on, Chicago Theatre, don’t treat the opener like Kibbles n’ Bits when you have bacon-wrapped dates on the plate. The highlight of the set was when he let his keyboard player, Charles Jones, take over the vocals on a tune, and that dude put more heart and soul into his performance than I had seen all night. Except for Puppet Bike, which was parked outside the theatre before the show. Always love a Puppet Bike sighting. But I digress.

Finally, Lenny and his band took the stage. Rock stars. That’s pretty much my review right there. Every one of them looked the part, had the attitude, and backed it up with unquestionable talent. Not one of them looked like they wandered in off the street after their shift at Maggiano’s. I loved that the white guitar player had the biggest afro on the stage and that the girl on bass was one of those females who can rock the shaved head look with aplomb, each one playing wingman to Lenny, who stood front and center. There was no doubt that this was their only choice in life. You can’t stash a genuine rock star in a cubicle or force them to wear a nametag.

The horn section was well-represented, and Lenny is cool enough to let them leave the confines of the brass platform to which they are normally relegated by most bandleaders. Lenny relinquished the spotlight willingly, the reason obvious as their solos, true solos with no other accompaniment, captivated the audience. I exaggerate. They captivated me, while others in the audience were busy taking drink orders or checking their email. Look, I know you all came to hear “Fly Away”, but you paid a lot of money to hear that one song. Pay attention and spread that ticket cost over the rest of this show like you slather that mayo over your bologna sandwiches, you bloated noisemakers.

Most of the audience was clearly there to hear the hits and he delivered; however, the new material from last year’s Black and White America held up with the rest and I recommend checking it out. He's got an interesting bio and you can catch some of it in the video for the title cut.

Lenny is just a general rock and roll badass. He knows how to write a catchy tune, he knows how to play that guitar, he knows how to keep an audience engaged, and I bet he can even make a mean Denver omelet. Crack Approved.