Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Filtering by Tag: Chicago

Joe Jackson at Thalia Hall (again)

Joe Jackson has been busy lately.  After not one, not two, but three tours supporting his very strong 2012 release, Fast Forward, he immediately took his band consisting of bassist Graham Maby, drummer Doug Yowell and guitarist Teddy Kumpel to a studio in Boise, Idaho (the location of last summer’s final show), and quickly recorded an eight-track album called Fool.  It too is strong, and at last night’s return to the fabulous Thalia Hall in Pilsen, Chicago, he and his band played five tracks from the album along with a selection of other songs spanning four decades to an enthusiastic sold-out audience.

To commemorate Jackson’s forty years in the industry and to mix things up a bit from his previous tours, the band highlighted tracks from four other albums from four different decades, though two of them were way too predictable: Look Sharp from the 70s, Night and Day from the 80s (those are the predictable ones), Laughter and Lust from the 90s and Rain from the 00s.  It’s these latter two along with the six newer tracks (one from Fast Forward) that made the evening interesting, along with a rendition of “Steppin’ Out” that mimicked the original recording to perfection, including a glockenspiel and Jackson’s Boss DR-55 drum machine whose “club beat” was used in the original.

All of the musicians were excellent and given various moments to shine, though Jackson took more solos than I remember from previous concerts, including one from his once-ubiquitous melodica.  But it was drummer Doug Yowell’s high energy performance who really sole the show.  Animated, forceful and dexterous, Yowell blew me away with the beginning of one of my favorites, “Another World,” when he managed to play the drum beat and accompanying cowbell and timbale beat simultaneously.  My drummer son and I turned to each other with mouths agape.

The biggest surprise of the evening was the final track from 1991’s Laughter and Lust, the moody tune of resignation to love, “Drowned,” along with the opening – and closer! – “Alchemy” from Fool.  That’s right, Jackson both opened and closed with the same song under dim, red lights.  I loved it, if only because it meant that we didn’t have to hear the band end with “Slow Song” again as they had repeatedly since 2000.  Adding “I’m the Man,” “Got the Time,” and Steely Dan’s “King of the World” were welcome crowd-pleasers near the evening’s end, and the new song, “Fool,” was among the most exciting songs of the night.  Jackson pointed out that it is sometime the fool – or jester – who makes life sane (“If you lose your sense of humor, you’re fucked.”) and the song’s playfulness seemed contagious to the four musicians on stage.

All in all it was a great concert.  Jackson continues to use an iPad teleprompter for his lyrics, which is a little odd for songs that he’s been singing for forty years, but hey, if that’s what the guy has to do to keep touring, then I’m all in. I’ve seen Jackson perform eight times now, and this show ranks in the top three for sure. Keep ‘em coming, Joe!

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.

Al Stewart in Chicago

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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.

Cheap Kiss Records

Note: I recently wrote this article as part of a neighborhood magazine and thought I'd include it as a blog entry on my website.  These guys are class acts working for a great record store.

If you spot a Toyota Venza with the license plate “I BY VYNL” whizzing around the west suburbs of Chicago, consider introducing yourself to Chris (Grey) Ellensohn, who – along with business partner Pete Kuehl – owns Cheap Kiss Records, a store that’s dedicated to buying and selling vinyl and cultivating a love for music for the next generation.  Ellensohn and Kuehl want the world to know: records are still a thing. 

Yes, records, as in those black twelve-inch platters whose grooves contain the stuff of magic.  You may not be one yourself, but chances are you know someone who’s into albums or who laments the collection he traded away for a couple of cases of beer back in the late 80s.  Vinyl is making a serious comeback these days, and now accounts for about twenty percent of revenue for physical recorded music formats, and Cheap Kiss is part of the reason.

Chris, who by day works at Northwestern Mutual, started the business with Kuehl ten years ago after winning an eBay auction to purchase Platterpus Records out of Louisville, KY.  They changed names to Cheap Kiss Records in 2012 and now have two stores: one at Cornerstone Books in Villa Park and another in Glenview at the Rock House, along with a regular inventory at a Schaumburg warehouse where they conduct on-line business and frequent warehouse sales.

What does a normal day look like in the glamorous world of buying and selling vinyl?  Today, Chris is going to meet with an elderly man who purports to own somewhere around 5000 LPs, all in mint condition.  Will it pan out?  You never know.  Chris’s favorite moment is knocking on a would-be seller’s door, because at that point all things are possible.  Sorting through a few boxes of musty LPs might just lead to something amazing, like the time Chris found a copy of an album by the local metal band Amethyst, the most expensive record either Chris or Pete has ever sold.

When approaching a would-be seller, Ellensohn is quick to empathize.  “We understand that albums can be emotional.”  Sometimes a seller can’t pull the trigger, and that’s okay.  “They know that when the time comes, I’ll be here.”

Chris claims he can spot a vinyl collector in just a few seconds.  What are the qualifications?  “Typically a male, age forty to sixty, sporting a concert t-shirt and no females within fifteen feet.”  All joking aside, there’s a certain air that vinyl collectors share, and it’s one that Ellensohn knows well he says because he’s “one of them.”   

“You meet all sort of cool people, actually,” and he meets them in all sort of places.  Chris isn’t a shy guy, and he’s happily approached people at gas stations or concerts to inquire about their interest in vinyl.  At a pop-up sale at the Arcada Theatre last month, Pete and Chris met a woman in her sixties who regaled them with stories about her concert-going days, when she witnessed The Beatles at Comiskey Park and a double bill featuring The Who and The Kinks. 

Chris and Pete don’t have a goal of amassing copious amounts of records – their aim is more virtuous than that.  They view buying and selling vinyl as a way of repurposing LPs and keeping them out of landfills and on people’s turntables.  “We want records to be listened to,” says Chris.  “Vinyl is meant to be played.  It does no good sitting in an attic somewhere.” 

And what about vinyl as a medium in a world in which streaming services can provide almost any song at the touch of a button?  Chris is reminded of something a young woman once told him: “You should have to work for something this good.”  Just as sharing a playlist isn’t nearly as meaningful as creating the mixtapes you once compiled for old flames, vinyl helps the listener connect to the music in ways that streaming can’t.

On April 21st Cheap Kiss Records will host Record Store Day at their Cornerstone Books location.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved