Monday, April 22, 2013

You Missed Out: Chad Valley

I saw Chad Valley at Schubas a few months. Hugo told me during a pre-show interview that he was dealing with a sore throat, an ailment he admits he deals with all the time. Since his live show is basically just his voice, this was troubling to hear. At that show, he still sounded strong on stage, all by himself with his keyboard and midi controller. Last night, his voice sounded strong again, but he admitted halfway through his set to again feeling sick. When it came time for an encore, he passed on it. Disappointing. So disappointing. Maybe he really is putting his voice through too much up there.

I hope he can toughen up those pipes before his next major tour, because he has one of the best voices in the business. I want to hear as many live songs as he can handle.

Other than playing too short a set, there weren't many low points for the chillwave-going-R&B indie kid from Oxford. Even with a backup vocalist to help him with some harmonies, it was a significantly more laid back set this time out. The highlight was "Evening Surrender," a "we're gonna make sweet love later tonight" ballad from his Young Hunger full-length. On the recorded track, El Perro Del Mar provides the sexy. The smoke machine seemed a bit much during opener Ghost Beach, but the steamy residue was perfect for at least this moment.

A word about those openers real quick. Chandeliers kicked the night off with their analog electro-rock. This is one of Chicago's best local bands today, and they're being rewarded for it by playing a Tuesday night residency all next month at the Hideout. If you haven't seen them live yet, May is your chance. Their recorded material doesn't do their live show justice.

Ghost Beach was stadium-ready pop-rock. I've never seen so many lights and smoke on the Schubas stage before. It was jarring at first, but I really did appreciate it. Their melodies are as cheesy if not cheesier than a late-90s alternative band like the New Radicals or Sugar Ray. But that's just the changing of the tide in 2013. It's been a few years coming thanks to pop acts like Robyn and Free Energy going all-in, and now Charli XCX, but pop and indie are interchangeable now. The weird thing (and the interesting thing) about this trend is that we can decide whether we want to enjoy it ironically, or earnestly. And the cool thing is that it'll work either way.

Artists like Chad Valley are taking those TRL-era travesties and creating something worthwhile with what music fans long regarded as trash. At the very least, it demands listeners let their guards down and at least make an attempt to enjoy something without prejudice. The pretentious rockists are a dying breed in the 20-teens, and music is in a better place for it. Today, just listen to whatever moves you--whether it's experimental Chicago kraut rock, or Taylor Swift. Whatever works.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Twelfth Night / Thirteenth Night

If you live in Chicago, there's a good chance that you took a Second City improv class at some point. Who didn't, right? We (by "we" of course I mean us writers, musicians, actors, artists, servers, bartenders, baristas, DJs, dog-walkers, post-college-whatever-the-hell-we're-doing-in-Chicago-stillers) live here, so we have to take advantage of our comedy scene. Improv is one of our city's proudest pastimes. SNL is still handpicking them from here, iO still splits our sides, and The Onion brought their headquarters back from that overrated city of New York. We are the comedy city, and if you were at the Metropolis Coffee warehouse on Monday night, this would've been even more obvious.

published at Heave Media

This free event celebrated Shakespeare, Chicago style. It was BYOB, with a pinata, free shots of Koval whiskey, the rich aromas of freshly ground coffee, and free pork rinds. And this was all before the shows even started. Just another Monday night in Chicago I guess.

The first troupe, the Back Room Shakespeare Project, performed Twelfth Night, a comedy I had not seen before. Real quick, full disclosure, I am not a Shakespeare scholar. Not even close, really. I enjoyed Taming of the Shrew back in high school, but it's been a few years since I've read or seen anything by old Bill. All I hoped for on this night was that I wouldn't hear some cheap joke about something "to be or not to be" or a Montague/Capulet rift. Thankfully, these troupes weren't lazy.

Surrounded by burlap sacks of coffee beans, the actors embraced Shakespeare's comedy with equal parts irreverence and homage. Cross-dressing, star-crossed lovers played their roles with postmodern self-awareness and broken modern English. Busting down fourth walls was a part of the fun, with the actors delivering their immortal lines like some weird mix between Patrick Stewart at Steppenwolf and your drunken roommate complaining about the latest episode of Project Runway. The story held true to Shakespeare's original version, a wild comedy of errors that ends happily with love and kisses. But the next show took Shakespeare's other dramatic mask and made a giddy mockery of that frowny face.

The Improvised Shakespeare Company has been going for a few years now,  and this was my first time seeing them. I know, it's taken me way too long. I know. But you were all totally right. This is the smartest, quickest, most jaw-droppingly hilarious improv group you'll see in this city. If Ross Bryant isn't rich and famous in a few years, well, never mind, he will be. But for now these guys are ours, the pride and joy of Chicago. On Monday they improvised a direct sequel to Back Room's rendition of Twelfth Night entitled, "Thirteenth Night: Tax Nightier" (the "Tax Nightier" part came from an audience suggestion to start the show. I suppose because it was April 15th... tax day. Except... night. so... nightier. Anyway.). The all-male cast makes up limericks in matters of seconds, none of which ever fall flat. As they steadily build a plot, the archetypes of Shakespeare are magnified into what eventually becomes a surreal dreamworld of androgyny, incest, revenge, heartbreak, and tragedy. It's stunning to watch it all come together.

I'm not giving anything away here, but "everybody's gonna die!" even the taxman who came to Malvolio's party to collect the annual debts, greeted by a pile of corpses and a guilt-ridden antagonist holding a knife at his own chest. How does it all come to this classic Shakespearean end? Pure improv. That's what makes this troupe so remarkable. And writing about it does no good. This was visceral lucidity. The one request the actors made at the beginning of the show was to not record any video. They reminded us that this was the debut performance of Thirteenth Night, but also the final performance as well. It was an event that only we would experience for this brief moment. We had this one chance to laugh at it, so nearly 200 of us did just that.

Luckily, the Improvised Shakespeare Company still performs every Friday night at iO. Shakespeare buffs and philistines alike can marvel at this insanely talented troupe's take on the bard every weekend. But Monday night was special. It was a night to celebrate Shakespeare, local coffee, rainy tax days, and Chicago's best and brightest in improv comedy. Why celebrate all those different things at the same time? Because, it's improv in Chicago and the first rule is always say "yes, and." Thanks again, Del Close. Whether we're in the midst of some bizarre comedy or a painful tragedy, we're only in the moment for a little while, until we're on to the next moment. And we'll say "yes, and" to whatever that one is too. If those Second City classes taught us anything, it's this. And so we laugh and have fun even on a tax day, even on a Monday, even when it's rainy. This is just our scene around here.

Friday, April 05, 2013

RIP Roger Ebert

Like so many Chicagoans, I feel a deep sense of loss now that Roger Ebert is gone. He was a great writer, an inspiring thinker, and a hilariously witty person, but I think what's hitting me hardest right now is that I know we just lost a man who was as "Chicago" as they come.

We know we have it hard here. Winters are long, taxes are high, poverty and violence and corruption and all the garbage I don't have to tell anyone about. We live it. We know it. We're not the international city that New York is. We don't care about fashion, we care about food. We don't care about fame, but we do care about fun. It's a city where people live and work, and we love it here.

Roger Ebert encapsulated this Chicago way better than any other writer I know of. Of course there was Studs Terkel, but Ebert did something more. He brought the Chicago way to the world without beating anyone over the head with "Chi-Town" shout outs. He stuck it out with the Sun-Times, but more than that he just believed in his passion. He fought his cancer tooth and nail, and he worked until the day he died. And this is only what every Chicagoan does. Motivated by some inner sense of wonder about life in the world, with all it's tragedies and beauties, moments and feelings, we take it all on the chin until we can't anymore. It's a paradox, really. The Chicago way is something we wouldn't trade for anything in the world, but sometimes it can be so hard and brutal that we feel totally exasperated by it. Somehow that exasperation pushes us forward. And then we laugh again. We think again. We love again.

Roger Ebert inspires all of this quietly. He doesn't have to talk about Chicago, but we know. We know he's more Chicago than Jim Belushi, Vince Vaughn, or Theo Epstein can ever dream of being. He puts in the work, and is rewarded. And the key is: the reward comes not as a result of the work, the reward is the work. This is the Chicago way. This was the Ebert way.

He was born in Urbana, went the University of Illinois there, and eventually brought his own annual film festival to the college town. I went to Ebertfest only once, back in 2006. My sweetheart was in her last year at U of I, and we had to take advantage before she moved up to Chicago with me. We saw Ebert interview John Malkovich, about a month before he had jaw surgery. We watched "Junebug," our first introduction to Amy Adams. Ebert called it the Overlooked Films Festival. He was always a champion for the good work. Budgets and names never mattered. He didn't care if other critics agreed with him or not. He didn't care if a film was supposed to be "important" or seminal. But if he saw good work on film, he gave it a thumbs up.

Such a simple gesture, for such an introspective and intelligent person. But, this is what set him apart from all other critics in all other fields. Most of us are too haughty. Ebert easily could've been, but he never was. So many of us critique art like some sort of enlightened gurus. Either that, or we're talentless hacks out for our own slice. We critique art from a faraway tower, but adding nothing to a conversation. "Thumbs up" sounds terribly hacky on the surface, but it's this simple genius that grounded him. He was readable, approachable, likeable. He understood that films were for everyone. High-minded or low-brow, it's all on the table, and it all deserves a fair shake.

He was, and will continue to be, one of the most inspiring Chicagoans of all time. I've written a few film reviews here and there, even though I am a music guy. And I write about sports and religion too. Because if Ebert taught me anything, it's that we have to work. I love music, and it will always be the first thing I want to write about, but if that swell in me comes up and tells me that I have to write about science or politics, I have to do it. In Chicago, you embrace the moment. When summer comes, you take the coat off, get on the bicycle, drink beer at a street festival, and live the best life you know how to live.

We're only here for a while, so we have to make it count. Ebert did. I hope to someday come just a fraction of a percentage close to getting out of life what he did. I will try. I will work.

I will miss Ebert's work. But he left so much for me to enjoy, laugh at, think about, and take inspiration from for years to come. Just watching his old clips on youtube is making it a little bit easier to swallow today. I am so thankful for this Chicagoan's life. I'll end this blog post with his last paragraph from his review of one of my favorite movies, and then, I will go to the movies myself.

"Kaufman's mission seems to be the penetration of the human mind. His characters journeyed into the skull of John Malkovich, and there is a good possibility that two of them were inhabiting the same body in "Adaptation." But both of those movies were about characters trying to achieve something outside themselves. The insight of "Eternal Sunshine" is that, at the end of the day, our memories are all we really have, and when they're gone, we're gone."

Thank you Roger Ebert. Rest in peace.