Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Filtering by Category: Reviews

ELO in Chicago

An early morning email from a friend opened the door for me to attend Jeff Lynne’s ELO concert at the Allstate Arena in Chicago on Wednesday night, a show I’d toyed with going to until I saw the ticket prices, but leapt at the opportunity to attend last-minute for a more reasonable price.  ELO's music was a significant part of my childhood, and while I kept up with the band through the early 80s, I certainly can’t be labeled as anything other than a casual fan, unlike many of the thousands who attended last night’s show, which ran a little over an hour and a half.  The number of recognizable songs performed in such a short span was amazing.  Just when I thought, “I think that about covers it,” the band would break into yet another gem from the mid-70s.

Dressed in dark pants, a black shirt and grey blazer, 70-year-old Lynne masked his age with a beard, curly hair and sunglasses, and while his mid-range voice sounded strong and pure, he wisely relegated much of the higher vocals to his stellar backup singers, who added the animation that Lynne lacked and enabled the band to stick to the original keys for most (if not all?) the songs.  Twelve musicians joined Lynne on stage, including three string players and three keyboardists, one of whom spent the entire show doubling the string parts, allowing the arrangements to cut through the mix and sound much fuller than three strings could accomplish as a trio. 

The nineteen-song set strayed none-too-far from ELO’s first greatest hits album, including nine of the eleven tracks from that LP and only one song post-1980, “When I was a Boy,” a 2015 recording whose strong melody and nostalgic lyrics fit in nicely among the evening’s other songs.  There were a few other surprises, including the debut song off the band’s first album, “10538 Overture,” and “Wild West Hero,” among my favorite tracks from Out of the Blue and one that I played incessantly thirty years ago.  One song that was surprisingly absent was "Fire on High," which surely would have brought the house down and to me would have been a far better opener than "Standin' in the Rain."

Lynne didn’t engage his audience with storytelling the way James Taylor, Jackson Browne and other aging rockers do, but he still gave off an appreciative vibe for the audience, thanking them several times in a way that appeared heartfelt.  Lynne's music director, Mike Stevens, took the reins to introduce the large cast of musicians.

During the performance of “Handle with Care” from the Traveling Wilburys, the crowd cheered during the second verse, and while I couldn’t see the screen from my vantage point, I knew that they were most likely reacting to a photo or video of the departed members of that band.  The last time I saw this song performed live was at the Vic Theatre in 2003, when Tom Petty dedicated it to those who had gone.  Though Roy Orbison had died a long while back, it had only been a year and half since the death of George Harrison and a still-raw two months since Petty’s long-time bass player, Howie Epstein, succumbed to heroin addiction.  Here we are a decade and a half later, and it’s comforting to see Lynne and Bob Dylan still standing and still playing music.

As fans of aging rockers, we need to embrace these moments while they last.  Last night at the Allstate Arena, the fans of ELO surely did.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Memoir

My favorite reference to Andrew Lloyd Webber is Elvis Costello’s lyrics from his 1989 song, “God’s Comic.”  He writes of God:

So there he was on a water-bed
Drinking a cola of a mystery brand
Reading an airport novelette
Listening to Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Requiem

He said, before it had really begun
"I prefer the one about my son

I've been wading through all this unbelievable junk
And wondering if I should have given
The world to the monkeys"

For whatever reason, Webber is a composer that musicians love to hate.  Non-musicians, too.  I recall an episode of a short-lived 1990’s sitcom called The Single Guy, in which the lead character is mocked for having purchased tickets to Cats.  (Robert Russo has an excellent summary of Cats and why some people hate it.)

But love him or hate him, Webber has had the kind of success that warrants a memoir, in this case a 480-page book called Unmasked that puzzlingly only covers the author’s life up through the year 1986, when he was on the cusp of what some claim to be his crowning achievement, The Phantom of the Opera.  No details about Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard and School of Rock, which is a shame, because I would have loved to have read less about Webber’s first forty years and more about his last thirty.  The author admits, “my verbosity got in the way,” and that is an understatement.  The details with which he describes the meetings, compositions, rehearsals, trials and tribulations of productions are sometimes interminable.  As a musician, I got some of the name-dropping references, but there were hundreds of other details that ended up muddling up the narrative.

Details aren’t Webbers only problem, unfortunately.  It’s good that he went into composing rather than writing, because as an author his prose is often cumbersome, filled with choppy sentences, unnecessarily convoluted similes and obscure references, not to mention questionable punctuation (he seems averse to the use of hyphens).  When I actively chose to read faster, I found myself having to slow down, as the narrative lacked flow.  Consider this sample from page 86: 

“EMI had such a postboy.  His name was martin Wilcox.  I don’t know if he ever blagged his way into the top honcho’s offices.  But he did get as far as Tim Rice.”  This choppiness makes reading 480 pages very laborious, indeed.

Which is too bad, because Webber has had a hell of a career.  Like many professionally successful people, he risked it all, leaving Oxford after only a year to pursue writing full-time with Tim Rice, the type of decision that often separates the wanna-bes from the real thing, and the accounts of Webber’s struggles to get productions like Evita and Cats off the ground are inspiring.  The former opened to terrible reviews in New York but still ran for over 1500 performances, and despite the jokes sometimes directed at Cats, it was the longest running musical on Broadway until another musical broke the record: The Phantom of the Opera.  So there you go

Webber wisely addresses his personal life sparingly, thankfully admitting to transgressions without dwelling on them, and referring to his past wives with respect.  He delves a bit deeper into various professional rifts he’s had over the years, but usually only slightly, often referring to a heated topic only to conclude, “It’s best left at that,” but on occasion he quotes unflattering letters he’s received from the likes of Tim Rice and Ken Russell, effectively settling old scores by using his wrong-doer’s own words against them.  Nevertheless, Webber’s decision not to write a tell-all book is refreshing, as is the modesty he portrays at various points, and I don’t get the sense that he’s feigning for the benefit of posterity, though I could be wrong.  He writes in detail about which sections of his Requiem are subpar, and he admits to being in over his head when composing Variations.

I’ve only seen two Webber musicals on-stage:  a traveling production of Aspects of Love in 1993; and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat when my girls were toddlers.  Other than that, I’m only familiar with a handful of tunes.  Go figure.  I do wonder if Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music will have the staying power of, say, Stephen Sondheim or Richard Rodgers, but as a musician, it was interesting for me to gain a little insight into the creative process and how melodies composed for one purpose were resurrected for other stories, and Webber also does an admirable job of covering the business side of the industry, describing financial difficulties and concepts like grand rights in an accessible manner.

He also shares a few tidbits he’s learned over the years from people he admires.  After seeing Webber’s failed musical, Jeeves, Hal Prince wrote to Webber, “Remember, you can’t listen to a musical if you can’t look at it.”  And a meeting with Richard Rodgers led his conclusion that no one can take in too many melodies in one listening, a fact that often leaves me scratching my head after a musical crams two hours of new material down patrons’ throats with no melodic reprises.

All in all, I’m glad I read Unmasked, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t recommend it except for the most ardent fan of musicals in general, or of Webber’s specifically.

My Half-Year of Streaming Music

Denying for years to join the 21st Century, I indulged as recently as last summer in purchasing CDs, pulling the trigger on albums by Esperanza Spaulding, William Shatner, Bright Eyes, Paul McCartney and Field Music.  But last November I took the plunge and joined a streaming service – first Napster, whom I was told paid artists more but whose service I determined was inadequate, and then Spotify, a company vilified by some and praised by others.  Since then I’ve delved into scores of albums I’d never taken the time to investigate before, and for this reason alone, music streaming has a new fan.  I still love having physical CDs in the car, where I can immerse myself into an album and listen the way I used to, but for hanging out at home and investigating unexplored musical territory, streaming services can’t be beat.

I’m not much into playlists and haven’t utilized this aspect of Spotify more than a handful of times.  Instead, I’ve listened to albums and bands I hadn’t given attention to in the past.  Since November, I’ve fallen in love with the following albums:

  • Manifesto, a brilliant release by Roxy Music, surpassing what some claim to be their crowning achievement, Avalon.
  • Underneath the Colours, the debut album by an almost unrecognizable INXS.  Angry, edgy, melodic.  Fantastic.
  • Sit Down Young Stranger (or, alternatively titled, If You Could Read My Mind) by Gordon Lightfoot, heartfelt folk-rock from start to finish.
  • Odessey and Oracle by The Zombies, an amazing album recorded around the same time as St. Pepper, but – in my mind – surpassing it in some ways.
  • Grand Hotel by Procol Harum, a collection of wonderful melodies with gravitas

I've delved into so much more that I never would have done without the aid of a streaming service.  I checked out releases by Cat Stevens, Van Morrison and James Taylor.  I finally listened to the Rolling Stones of the 1960s, and concluded that aside from Beggar’s Banquet, much of it falls flat for me (and that Their Satanic Majesties Request may be among the worst albums ever recorded).  I learned that I’m not as fond of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions as I am of Lloyd Cole’s solo work, and that I'm not as fond of Jethro Tull and King Crimson as I am of other prog rock bands.  I discovered that early Chicago albums are padded with really bad, lengthy tracks, and that each of Esperanza Spaulding's releases are worth my attention.  I gave the last half-dozen releases by Elton John a chance, concluded that Aimee Mann continues to put out quality material, but without the punch of her first three releases, and that the J Geils Band is a great party band with some standout tracks, but ultimately doesn’t grab me.

I also listened to classical guitar by Ryan Walsh, Latin music by Natalia Lafourcade, Mansieur Perine, and Vicente Garcia, fusion by Snarky Puppy, jazz by Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and newer releases by Empty Pockets, Young the Giant and Lake Street Dive.

And on and on.

Now, the question remains: can artists make a living making music when people only use streaming services?  That remains to be seen, but for a guy in his 50s who sometimes has difficulty keeping up on music, streaming can’t be beat.

Of course, of the five albums I highlighted above, I’ve purchased four of them on vinyl. 

So yeah, I’ve still got the disease.

Al Stewart in Chicago

IMG_20180604_214020918.jpg

Over the years I’ve met a few people who so dislike Al Stewart, the mere mention of his name leads to something akin to a gag reflex.  During freshman year in college, my old friend Tom, upon hearing that I owned a greatest hits CD of said Stewart, grimaced as if he’d just sampled a plate of cow dung.  Nevertheless, I continued to be a casual fan of Stewart, having purchased four of his records on vinyl – all of them either used or cutouts (remember those?) – but not going beyond 24 Carrots.  When Russians & Americans came out in 1984, I was tempted to take the plunge with my hard-earned money from Kolb’s Garden Center, but instead opted for Elton John’s Breaking Hearts. 

Seven years later, when I learned that Stewart was playing not three blocks away from my apartment at a tiny stage on Cathedral Square in Milwaukee on a sunny afternoon – not exactly the venue or the time of a major rock star – I figured, what the hell.  I walked alone, took a seat, and Stewart took the stage with accompanying musician Peter White and played a great set in front of a sparse crowd, but what stuck with me most were the haunting images of a then-unreleased song called “Trains,” another of Stewart’s history lessons, culminating in the tragic turns that locomotives took in the carrying out of Nazi orders during the Holocaust.

Last night, I was once again graced with a fine concert by Stewart, this time at the City Winery in Chicago, the first of two nights with a particular album highlighted.  I opted to see The Year of the Cat from 1976 rather than Past, Present and Future from three years prior.  What can I say?  My fandom of Stewart’s catalog only goes so deep, but it was great to hear the man once again after twenty-seven years.

Opening with three tracks (“Sirens of Titan,” “Antarctica,” and “Time Passages”) prior to delving into the evening’s featured album, 72-year-old Stewart’s voice sounded rather thin, but since he never had a powerhouse voice to begin with, all that was truly missed was some of the high range, and he had to weave in alternative melodies on “Time Passages” and many of the songs from Year of the Cat.  Dressed in dress slacks and long-sleeve button-down shirt, he looked more like a banker on lunch-break than an artist, but Stewart wasn’t even hip in the 1970s, so what would one expect when he finally reached his 70s?

What Stewart lacked in singing voice he made up for in telling stories, offering several insights between songs that kept the audience (my son may have won the prize for youngest attendee) engaged and – often – laughing.  Stewart mentioned that for a folk-rock historian, having a hit was not enviable, and so he began Year of the Cat with a song about a naval battle in 1591 (“Lord Grenville”) followed by another history lesson with “On the Border.”  Alas, the second song was a hit, as was the album’s title track, perhaps making Stewart very uncool among his folk-rock brethren.  He also told a story of how he began to play the guitar in the middle of nowhere, England, only to eventually find another guitarist nearby named Robert Fripp, the eventual virtuoso of King Crimson fame.  Not a bad find, even if Stewart ultimately rebuffed Fripp’s insistence on learning jazz chords. Introducing the song “Broadway Hotel,” Stewart explained that the song was about a seduction at a hotel in Portland, Oregon.  He waited a beat, then added: “I highly recommend it.”

Joined on-stage was Stewart’s opening and accompanying band, Chicago’s very own Empty Pockets, a stellar act whose six-song opening set of tight harmonies and soulful melodies fit well into the evening’s performances.  The standout for me was guitarist Josh Solomon, who nailed every part required of Stewart’s catalogue and then some, including a fine electric piano solo that surpassed anything I could have performed.  (I hate it when guitarists can also play keys better than me!)  Also on-stage was multi-instrumentalist Marc Macisso, who hammed it up for the appreciative audience, particularly during the signature sax solos of “Time Passages” and “Year of the Cat.”

Gone are the days when a melodic history lesson could become a radio hit, but for one night in Chicago, history was cool again.  I had asked several people to joined me for the evening, but none took the bait, and my son, who knew little of Stewart prior to the concert, said afterwards, “I’m glad your friends said no to the show.”  So there you are, Al.  You’ve earned the appreciation of a 16-year-old.  Not a bad feat for an aging rocker.

Rob Lowe in Chicago

I purchased tickets to Lowe’s “Stories I Only Tell My Friends: Live” on a lark.  I emailed my wife last December and wrote: “This could either be really fun or embarrassingly bad.  What do you think?”  We decided that either way, it would be worth the price of admission.  It was, and not because the show was a trainwreck the way, say, Lowe’s singing performance at the 1989 Academy Awards show was.  Instead, the evening was a perfect mix of anecdotes, history and funny one-liners, with a few moments of enlightenment thrown in.  Unlike Carol Burnett, whose talking tour I attended two years ago, Lowe didn’t shamelessly self-promote his book and he presented a tighter, better-rehearsed performance. 

I’m not a Rob Lowe fan, per se – not the way many in the audience at Saturday night’s event at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago were.  The woman next to me, who’s vision was blocked during a pre-show slideshow that briefly projected Lowe’s shirtless cover from Vanity Fair, went to her phone, brought up the photo, and kept it as her screen saver.  There were fans holding signs, fans who applauded to even the most obscure movie reference, and fans who jumped up and down when the spotlight illuminated Mr. Lowe after the slideshow concluded with a scene from West Wing. 

It felt slightly canned at times, especially when the audience didn’t react quite the way he expected (his story about meeting Lucille Ball at the same ’89 Oscars was really cool, but when he revealed her photo, it didn’t quite get the reception that it probably should have, which left him forced to instill meaning more forcefully), but the show was highly entertaining, partly because Lowe is – simply put – so damn likable. 

These types of talking tours – which I wish more actors would conduct – are successful only if the audience can truly relate to the actor, and there’s no better way than for the performer to master the art of self-deprecation.  Lowe made fun of his looks, which so often capitalized on his more feminine side – especially early in his career – and his “Midwestern people-pleaser” personality that has sometimes led him to say yes to gigs that were downright embarrassing.  His description of Barry Levinson’s facial response to Lowe’s aforementioned 1989 Oscar performance was priceless.

Lowe can do more than facial expressions: his impersonations Saturday night included Bill Clinton, Cary Grant, Robert Wagner, Francis Ford Coppola and Tom Cruise, who sounds like as big of a douchebag in real life as many of us suspect he is.  But Lowe’s show wasn’t a celebrity-bashing performance.  He made it clear that assholes generally don’t last long in the industry, and that the bigger the star, the nicer they are.  This is good to hear, and it sounds like Lowe, with his modest roots in Dayton, Ohio, hasn’t let success go to his head.  He deftly answered fan’s questions during the Q&A portion of the evening, and he lovingly talked about his wife of twenty-seven years, his two adult sons, his father who was in attendance, and the people who helped him during his recovery from alcohol and drug dependence.

The breadth of Lowe’s career is astonishing for an actor who’s only 54 years old.  It’s already spanned forty years and has included numerous movies and TV shows you might have forgotten about.  Remember Brothers and Sisters?  How about Dr. Vegas, a show that lasted all of six episodes and denied Lowe a chance at staring in another little program called Grey’s Anatomy?  He admitted that his two most important works were West Wing, which led the cast to a meet and greet with President Clinton in the oval office, and The Outsiders, a telling of the classic S. E. Hinton novel that springboarded the careers of not only Lowe, but Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Diane Lane and Matt Dillon.  When asked about his favorite movie and favorite movie location, Lowe quickly responded About Last Night, filmed in Chicago.

I could kick myself for not having seen shows by Carrie Fisher, Nora Ephron and Peter Gallagher, and I’m glad my wife and I decided to take a risk with Lowe.  I wasn’t exactly a fan when I entered the building, but left the theater with a bigger appreciation for the man.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved