Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Tuesday, Jun 2, 2009
Words by Alice Singleton / Images by Michael Brosilow

In 1970, poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron declared that, “the revolution will not be televised.” Playwright Tom Stoppard reminds us, however, that just because the revolution might not be televised, that doesn’t negate the need for a groovy soundtrack as tanks roll in, bullets whiz, and dissidents get beaten senseless into hopelessness, submission, and enemy collaboration. The final and fatal assault in Stoppard’s play comes when those that fought the hardest transmogrify into plain ol’ political progressives, settling for the serenity of a gentler and kinder body politic that they once put their love and lives at stake for.


The year is 1968 and Professor Max Morrow (Stephen Yoakam), is a loyalist to the Communism ideal, yet resides in a decidedly un-Communist abode in Cambridge, England, where he tutors students in the ways of classical philosophy and Socialist order. His wife Eleanor (Mary Beth Fisher) is also an academic and shares Max’s passion to open their home to further tutoring students, all while battling the chronic effects of breast cancer. Max’s pupil and protégé, Jan (Timothy Edward Kane), wants only to lose himself in the rock music that fills up the milk crates on his apartment floor, including the music of Plastic People of the Universe, a dissident Czech rock band. Max teaches and preaches to Jan why they all must remain true to the Communist cause, ignoring the Czech government, as it turns menacing and violent against protesters. In turn, Max ignores Eleanor’s desperate need for her husband’s erotic validation, which is now possessed by her student Lenka (Amy J. Carle). Eleanor also loses her sixteen-year-old daughter Esme (Mattie Hawkinson) to the embrace of London hippie culture and her barely hidden sexual desire for Jan.


Unable to contain his boredom of the socialist ideal as academic argument, Jan returns to Prague to get up close and personal with his love of all things rock ‘n’ roll. He positions himself a disciple of the Plastic People, who have become an enemy of the state for their refusal to discontinue playing music not sanctioned by the government, which has banned all Western-influenced commodities. August 1968, and Soviet tanks roll through Prague. Czech dissidents and idealistic college students valiantly but unsuccessfully fight back; the Plastic People go further underground and Jan recommits himself as a disciple to rock ‘n’ roll, following the Plastic People, and purchasing the music of the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed & the Velvet Underground, and Pink Floyd.


Jan builds his rock ‘n’ roll monument even as government agents stand sentry outside his rundown Prague flat until the damn breaks. By the mid-‘70s the government, losing patience with those ideologues who challenge them, order the destruction of all things anti-government, including Jan’s precious record collection, an act that culminates with his interrogation, beating, and imprisonment. Jan stays behind bars until Max, lonely via widowhood, speaks with the higher-ups during a return visit to Prague, and arranges his release.


The years pass. Glasnost arrives. The Berlin Wall falls. The ‘90s bring a new name, government, and political philosophy to the Czech people, while Max’s heart breaks in double time to the fall of Communism in the East and the rise of political Conservatism in his adopted West. Max is now an old man, still professing in Cambridge, taking up British citizenship and living with the now-divorced daughter, Esme. His former son-in-law Nigel has gone to the Czech Republic to document the rise and fall of old and new, and meets a dejected and disillusioned Jan, using him as a “guide”. When Nigel confirms that he and Esme are no longer married, Jan makes the journey to Cambridge to visit Max and thank him for his kindness at arranging his release from prison.


Esme greets her old crush Jan as if she’s sixteen again, her spirit and sexuality renewed. About to lose her daughter Alice to university, and with her father becoming more embittered by romantic regret both human and political, Esme wants more than the occasional sighting of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett cycling through Cambridge to quench her desire. She plans a dinner party to include Lenka, Nigel, and Nigel’s new wife Candida (Susie McMonagle). The dinner table passes around shared histories and the evening ends with regrets, reshaping of lives, and the absolution that love never dies… and neither will rock ‘n’ roll.


Rock ‘N’ Roll makes its Chicago debut after critical and commercial success on Broadway and London’s West End. A revolution may or may not be televised, but Stoppard does a most excellent job of writing the revolution as a powerful presence on stage. Director Charles Newell shapes the music to deftly ebb and flow with the characters’ emotional rise and fall, failures and triumphs, and all the actors live up to their places on stage, with Mary Beth Fisher literally consuming the theater as Eleanor and the adult Esme, absorbing the moisture from the stage rafters to give her characters their very life’s blood and dimension. So convincing and scene-chewing was Ms. Fischer’s presence, it was not until the end when the actors took their requisite bows that I realized only one actress played two decidedly different generations.


Rock ‘N’ Roll is a force of cultural nature, and a lyrical reminder that no matter where we stand, with a revolt before us, there’s a soundtrack for it, and we pick the selections from an ethereal jukebox.


Runs through June 7th


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Monday, Jun 1, 2009
Words and Pictures by Kirstie Shanley

Ah, Norway: Land of free health care, fjords, and a bustling creative art and music scene. From the psychedelic rock of fellow Norwegians Serena Maneesh to the complex lullabies of Hanne Hukkelberg, it seems like Norway is chock full of amazing bands. Though four piece I Was A King is part of this community, they also have a unique sound all onto their own. Using guitar pedal effects to create just enough fuzz, the sugary pop songs recall something akin to a fuzzier, feminine Beulah. Without the effects, it could have easily been considered twee-pop but it was also less silly and more focused. Still, one couldn’t help smiling while listening to the tunes, which came off as super happy and very catchy. 


Visiting Chicago as part of their very first American tour, I Was A King were energetic and fun but did not talk too much in between songs, attempting, instead, to play as many songs as possible. Lead singer Frode Strømstads even announced that they were minimizing their banter with the purpose of doing just that. The chemistry within the band seemed understated as well between songs, but it seemed as though they were perhaps saving it for the melodious songs instead. The lovely intertwining female/male vocals from Strømstads and Anne Lise Frøkedal created a certain sense of lushness that was interesting and reassuring at the same time, like a sweet dream.


 


In some ways, it was fitting that Strømstads wore an Elephant 6 shirt because it would be easy to picture him listening to many of the bands in the collective (their self titled record even has a guest appearance by Gary Olson of Ladybug Transistor). However, I Was A King came off as a little more accessible than most of those bands and not caught up in a sense of idiosyncrasy. Though they treated Chicagoans to nearly an hour of songs that, if edible, would surely be delicious, it felt as if a mere fifteen minutes has passed by the time they finished. Those are the type of songs one could easily listen to all night, relishing in the glorious texture and hooks.



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Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner

Ahmad Jamal presented a tight, affable early set at the Blue Note, playing through a repertoire spanning both genres and decades. After sitting down to the piano and launching into “Wild is the Wind / Sing”—from 2008’s impressive It’s Magic—Jamal quickly stood back up and, going from stage right to left, introduced his supporting cast: Percussionist Manolo Badrena, drummer Jake Johnson, and his trusty bassist James Cammack. He then impishly added, “…and me!” As if there was any doubt.


As a stalwart bop pianist in earlier times Jamal’s playing flaunted timing and urbane impulse, all without resorting to innocuousness. His rhythm always attacked and then defused in interesting ways. Thus his work with Badrena has been a welcome marriage, blending dynamic rhythms and feel with eclectic textures. A new composition, “Love Is Lost”, showcased some of Badrena’s bells and “It’s Magic”, a slow ballad, was made even more tender with gingerly conga flourishes.


Cammack also showed-off his tenure with Jamal, effortlessly playing with and under Jamal’s strong lines. A new tune, “Flight to Russia”, was grounded by a swinging bass line that carried the piece. At another point Cammack played a brilliant solo of modulating octaves, all while fighting over a waiter’s steak order in the background.


Jamal was still, however, very much the focus of the set. Vocally, he would chide his aging hands when they failed him during a virtuosic run or compliment Cammack or Badrena after invigorating turn-arounds. It gave the intimate club an even more intimate feel, like we were picking his brain in real-time. Musically, Jamal was engaging as ever. Though he sometimes stumbled on his most difficult passages, his classics, like “Poinciana”, were ethereal in their resolving harmonies and syncopated cadences.



Closing with “Baalbeck”—written after a 2004 performance in the town of the same name in Lebanon—proved a disappointing choice. Its militant, and prominent, snare-drum rhythm smothered Jamal’s playing suffocating the piece. It was simply unrepresentative of the night’s warm performance as a whole.



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Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner

Dan Deacon’s seminal solo tours became the stuff of indie legend: One Humpty Dumpty man clad in Sally Jessy Raphael frames; a DIY table covered in lo-fi electronic equipment and electrical tape set up in the middle of the dance floor; and raucous dance parties with Deacon’s idiosyncrasies at the epicenter. Much has changed since his breakthrough electronic album Spiderman of the Ring’s and its accompanying tours, however. Deacon, musically and financially liberated, composed an epic album, Bromst, of sweeping instrumentals and densely rewarding layers with the help of a 14-piece ensemble—his very own Baltimore Gamelan if you will. Naturally, the size of his new arrangements invite new constraints into his live show and so Deacon was resigned to performing onstage at the Bowery Ballroom.


Going to the late show of a double header was also dubious. Given the energy of his shows, it was unsurprising that his entire ensemble couldn’t keep up and some were performing on fumes, despite Devo-inspired jumpsuits. Deacon himself—repeatedly comparing the later show to previously successful gigs in Brooklyn and the night’s first show—was easily frustrated by the late crowd’s inability to follow his instructions for crowd participation and interactivity, lashing out, “Did I eat show poison before this?” While those in attendance put forth a fair amount of effort, Deacon was irked by the crowd’s ineptness (inebriation?) and his frequent substitute teacher-like berating cast an awkward shadow on the show at times.


Regardless, Deacon seems incapable of committing any wrong towards his fans. They danced, soliloquized, and jumped on command all night long, reveling in the throbbing mass of sound coming from onstage. But the late set took its toll. Exhausted from dancing to the ironic Enya and Lisa Loeb house music before the show, the crowd seemed drained by 3am. From Deacon’s questioning it sounded like many had been to all three of his shows over the weekend. The others must have been more coherent.  Songs like “Of The Mountains” and “Woof Woof” lacked the dynamic punches and gradations that so greatly enhance their recorded counterparts. Next time, I’ll have to make sure and catch him earlier in the night.



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Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Words and Pictures by Kirstie Shanley

It’s nearly impossible to understand why the Dears aren’t bigger than they are. Not only do they exude the same intense passion as their fellow Canadians, Arcade Fire, the group’s large membership allows them to create something powerful that is similarly rich with instrumentation. It’s a tour de force sound that could easily fill an arena.


While lineup changes over the past few years—including the unfortunate loss of guitarist Patrick Krief—may have hindered the group’s progress, they are back touring with members of indie band Pony Up and have gained a cohesiveness to support the strong songwriting and musicianship. The result is a live sound that translates the sense of desperation in their songs into something that is transcendent and powerful.


Over the course of the past decade, through four studio albums and two EPs, the one constant has been couple Murray Lightburn and Natalia Yanchak. There’s always been an on stage chemistry between the two, but this time around it was even stronger, with Yanchak leaving her keyboards to sing central next to Lightburn at one point during the set.


Lead singer Murray Lightburn clearly drives the songs and began by entering from the back of the stage in darkness, a sort of disembodied voice floating above the audience. As the set wore on, however, he made a more physical connection with the audience, at times even embracing various audience members.


Lightburn’s lyrics have always been wrought with conflict and though the Dears are touring to support their most recent 2008 release, Missiles, they made sure to acknowledge some of their older favorites such as “Lost in the Plot” and “We Can Have It” off of their treasured 2003 release, No Cities Left. Murray also acknowledged the matched fanaticism of the crowd by playing an encore to his 90-minute set. Though the band deserves to be playing much larger venues to more people, it’s clear their fans are an extremely dedicated bunch who understand how important it is to support them wherever they tour.



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