Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Petty cache

Tributosaurus, the reigning kings of live musical impersonation, masterfully interpret the catalog of a different rock star every month. They also tackle a different headliner every New Year's Eve, and this year they pay homage to Tom Petty.

It's a good choice. Tom Petty's not the first person you think of when you try to name the superstar pop acts of the last thirty years -- U2, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen come more immediately to mind, or younger stars like Dave Matthews -- but he's quietly put together a nice career on what might be called the B tier of the big time. He was never a matinee idol or a political spokesman type, shunning the spotlight when not on stage. For him it's been enough to be what he is: a good songwriter, respectable guitarist, passable singer, and from all appearances, a profoundly decent and likeable guy.

"Tributo" doesn't just play the hits, they also serve up the deep cuts (he said in his best WCKG "nothing but the classics" Alan Stagg ultra-baritone). And they don't just bang out three chords and yell into a mike, they meticulously prepare note-for-note renditions of every song they play. I mean, these guys bring in extra keyboard players for a Genesis show, hire a horn section to play James Brown, and so on. They're all professional musicians in other bands, they just do this out of love. And on behalf of their many fans, we love them for it.

Due to high demand, they're not just playing Petty on New Year's Eve, they've added two shows tonight as well. Hurry up and get your tickets for this one, because as of January 2 it won't come around here no more.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Patton in general

The great Patton Oswalt appears live tonight at the Lakeshore Theater. You might know him from his many entertaining appearances on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," as the voice of Remy the rat in Ratatouille, or from the alt-standup road documentary The Comedians of Comedy. He's got a smart, fresh take on more or less everything. My Flavorpill preview is here.

To get you in the mood, here he is summing up the George W. Bush presidency:

And here's his old chestnut about the KFC Famous Bowl:

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy birthday to...

...pretty much everyone but you, Jesus.

Scholars can't even agree on what year J.C. was born, much less the date, but the best evidence suggests that his birthday wasn't in December.

However, quite a number of other well known people were born on what we've come to call Christmas. So happy birthday to Humphrey Bogart, Rod Serling, Little Richard, American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, Sissy Spacek, Sir Isaac Newton, hotel magnate Conrad Hilton (recently played to perfection on Mad Men by Chicago actor and FOBB&B Chelcie Ross), Anwar Sadat, Ken "The Snake" Stabler, Floridians Jimmy Buffett and Larry Csonka, Cab Calloway, Barbara Mandrell, former Chicago Cub Manny Trillo, and newly minted baseball Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson.

And what the heck, to you too, Jesus, whenever your birthday is.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Taming of the Flu

I recently wrote about attending the opening night of the Second City's new mainstage comedy revue, Taming of the Flu, and mentioned that my Flavorpill preview would be forthcoming. It has since come forth.

Get your tickets early. The mainstage generally sells out up to a week in advance, especially for weekend shows, and although they add extra performances at holiday time, demand is high.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Phantom Menace: why it sucked

I was at a party over the weekend with some of my favorite pop culture experts, people who have read every book, seen every movie, played every video game and watched every TV show. One of them even tours with big-time rock bands and is usually good for an entertaining story or two.

Aside from some interesting talk about David Foster Wallace, the decline of Harper's magazine and the poster art of Jay Ryan, which the party hostess and I both collect, I got tipped off to the latest Internet sensation: a scathing 70-minute review of what has to begiven the enormity of its industry-changing franchise and the sixteen long years of anticipation that preceded itthe most colossally disappointing movie of all time, Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace (God, even the title is terrible).

The review takes the time to document the movie's shortcomings in exhaustive detail: its lack of a protagonist, incomprehensible story
, glaring plot holes, cardboard characters, nonsensical moments and overcluttered visuals, among many others.

It also includes footage of George Lucas and his cowering employees as they work on Phantom Menace, making clear that Lucas' immense wealth and complete creative control (plus his underlings' job security concerns and groupthink) prevent anyone from pointing out its obvious problems. Even Lucas himself more or less concedes that the movie is a huge mess, but only after it's too late to undo the damage.

The review is posted to YouTube in seven 10-minute installments that, as more than one commenter noted, amount to a far more entertaining movie than The Phantom Menace.

Here's the first installment to get you started:

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The things we do for love

My friend Michelle Carman likes Steve Martin.

Sure, you're probably thinking, so does everyone. And while that may be true, I submit that she is more into Steve Martin than you are. I'm a pretty good Steve fan myself -- I can quote "A Wild and Crazy Guy" with the best of them and even got to meet him recently -- but Michelle leaves us behind.

She not only has his complete movie collection on her shelf, she has twenty Steve Martin books too, not just Born Standing Up but everything he's written, plus everything that's been written about him. She's got out-of-print Steve paperbacks from his 1970s standup days and rare titles from obscure publishers, including a memoir by his high school comedy partner. (Who knew he had one, much less that the guy had written a book?) She even has the thoughtful program guide Steve wrote when his art collection went on display at a Las Vegas museum.

But stuff is just stuff. It's the purity of Michelle's appreciation that I in turn appreciate. To hear her talk about Steve is touching: she evinces a type of deep affection that can only be called love.

Although they've met a few times around New York City, where they both live, Steve might not even remember it. I'm sure he enjoyed speaking with Michelle because she's a charming person, but she keeps a respectful distance and doesn't want anything from him that he's not already giving us via his career. She's simply a true fan in the best sense.

So when Steve recently announced a contest to make a video for "Wally on the Run," an instrumental song about his dog from his new bluegrass record:

...Michelle took notice. She's a top NYC advertising creative and knows her way around a video shoot. In fact, she and I were recently walking through Times Square when she nodded upward at a commercial playing from a huge billboard and mentioned that she'd worked on that spot.

Michelle is also a gifted artist and animator who directs short films in her free time. So naturally she applied her talents to the contest, and guess what happened?

Here's Steve to tell you more:

Way to go, Michelle! You have plenty of fans too, and we're proud of you.

Here's Michelle's prizewinning video:

And here's the other video that won a prize:

Monday, December 14, 2009

Letters to Santa

Missed Second City's big 50th anniversary weekend celebration? Same here, but they've got one more big special show in store, and maybe the best one of all.

Every December, Second City stages a 24-hour marathon benefit for Operation Letters to Santa, an ingenious charitable effort that retrieves and responds to underprivileged kids' actual letters to Santa Claus. In this case, the Second City crew picks up "Dear Santa" letters at the Chicago post office and makes poor children's Christmas wish-list dreams come true.

The benefit helps fund the effort, as do Second City's comedy and rock-star friends who perform during the 24-hour run. Now all they need is you to come out and complete the circle by catching some indie heroes (The Mountain Goats, Will Oldham) and improv grandees (Matt Walsh, Horatio Sanz) playing in a small room.

The Second City That Never Sleeps: Letters to Santa kicks off at 6pm tomorrow and runs for the next 24 hours. Jeff Tweedy takes the stage at 7pm. Tickets are $15, available at the door and good for the entire 24 hours. More information in my Flavorpill preview here.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Culture watch

Here's a look at some shows worth your time now playing around town.
  • Taming of the Flu is the new mainstage comedy show at The Second City, opening as the comedy institution spends the month of December celebrating its 50th anniversary. I was fortunate to attend the premiere last night and found it funny and entertaining. My Flavorpill preview is forthcoming.
  • Also at Second City, Studs Terkel's Not Working continues its run in the e.t.c. theater. With a solid cast and sharp writing, there's a lot to like in this show. It runs through the holidays, after which the cast will begin writing and gradually work in material toward a new revue, so catch it while you can. My Flavorpill preview is here.
  • Yet again at Second City, this year's The Second City That Never Sleeps: Letters to Santa comedy and music benefit is set for Tuesday, December 15 through Wednesday, December 16. It's the eighth annual staging of a nifty holiday tradition in which 24 straight hours of big-name rock bands and comedy stars raise money to buy presents for underprivileged local kids in response to their actual letters to Santa Claus retrieved at the Chicago post office. With performers like Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, the Upright Citizens Brigade's Horatio Sanz and Matt Walsh, and The Mountain Goats, everybody wins. My Flavorpill preview is here.
  • Second City didn't produce but its Donny's Skybox Theatre plays host to Ass'09 (pronounced "asinine"), a comedic year-in-revue sendup from impresario and FOBB&B David Facchini. I would have seen it Friday night but it sold out before I could get tickets. Ass'09 runs through December 18; tickets at
  • If it's December it must be time for A Christmas Carol. The Goodman Theatre's annual staging of the holiday classic runs through the end of the month. I liked this year's model and enjoyed the stalwart Larry Yando in the lead role. My Flavorpill preview is here.
  • Missed last night's Broadway premiere of Race, David Mamet's hot new play? Same here. But there's another Mamet opening closer to home this weekend (if your home is Chicago, anyway) when the Steppenwolf Theatre officially premieres its new revival of Mamet's landmark fast-talker American Buffalo. Amy Morton directs her fellow Steppenwolf ensemble members Francis Guinan and August: Osage County playwright Tracy Letts. (What doesn't this guy do? Can he block for Matt Forte?) Previews are now underway; my Flavorpill preview is forthcoming.
  • The Addams Family is a new musical starring two-time Tony winners Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth, now running in an eight-week Chicago tryout en route to Broadway. Officially opens Wednesday but previews are underway. My Flavorpill preview is here. I also attended the show's opening press conference last spring, where I got the skinny on Charles Addams and his macabre characters' New Yorker magazine pedigree. Read about it here.
  • As if playing Grandmama in The Addams Family eight shows a week weren't enough, Jackie Hoffman is also working on her night off. The Second City veteran is playing the Royal George Theatre on Monday nights in a one-woman showcase for her brassy comedic gifts. Whining in the Windy City: Holiday Edition runs through December 21. My Flavorpill preview is here.
  • Want something seasonal? Uplifting? Outdoor? Musical? Participatory? Free? Then check out Caroling at Cloud Gate, the City of Chicago's annual festival of a cappella holiday carols sung live in Millennium Park under the "Bean." A different group of choristers leads the singing every Friday night at 6pm, with free coffee and hot chocolate courtesy of Caribou Coffee. Two more weeks. My Flavorpill preview is here.
  • Prefer your Christmas entertainment funny? Dirty? Late-night? Gonzo? Then get over to ComedySportz Theatre, where the notorious improv group The Hot Karl presents their in-your-face brand of holiday entertainment in Santa Claus Conquers the Nazis. My Flavorpill preview is here.
  • Like Wicked before it, Jersey Boys came to Chicago from Broadway, set up camp downtown and made all the money. The slickly produced and highly enjoyable story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons runs through the holidays and closes its wildly successful two-year run on January 10. My Flavorpill preview is here.
  • The road from Broadway runs in both directions, as Million Dollar Quartet has announced it's picking up stakes after the new year and transferring to the Great White Way. It's the true tale of the now-legendary 1956 all-night jam session when Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis -- oh, and Elvis Presley -- cranked out each other's songs at Sam Phillips' Sun Studios in Memphis. They'll play the hits and you'll love it. Through January 3. My Flavorpill preview is here.
  • If your idea of standup comedy is a middle-aged, middle-class American standing in front of a brick wall on cable television complaining about his wife, there's a whole big world out there you should get to know, creatively and geographically. You can do both at Make Chai Not War, a showcase for some of the best young comedians in the business, several of whom happen to be of Indian or Muslim descent. Local favorite Hannibal Buress, now writing for Saturday Night Live, headlines. Make Chai Not War plays the Lakeshore Theater this Sunday evening in a benefit for Apna Ghar, a shelter for abused women and children. My Flavorpill preview is here.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Don't hassle the Hoffman

She's cranky enough already. But also talented and hilarious.

Working on her Monday nights off from playing Grandmama in The Addams Family, Jackie Hoffman lights up the Royal George Theatre with a one-woman show entitled Whining in the Windy City: Holiday Edition. Buy a ticket and brace yourself.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tricky Jay

The illusionist Ricky Jay is deeply connected to the unknowable mysteries of the universe. One of these, David Mamet, has featured Jay's sleight-of-hand expertise on the silver screen and directed his two previous touring stage shows, Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants and Ricky Jay: On the Stem.

Jay's back on the road with A Rogue's Gallery, his third Mamet-helmed evening of chitchat and prestidigitation. This time he's bringing a stageful of magical posters and artifacts with him, taking questions about them from the crowd and performing illusions based on the conversation. So the audience chooses its own adventure.

A Rogue's Gallery opens tonight at the Royal George Theatre and plays Chicago all week. My Flavorpill preview is here.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Tiger Woods

After all these years playing par 5s on the PGA Tour, he finally drove into a tree.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Now that my spinach and mushroom puff pastries are turning golden brown in the oven, I take a moment to wish you all a happy Thanksgiving. We have a lot to be thankful for.

And in the spirit of the season, enjoy this.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

OK by me

What are you giving thanks for this week?

Me, I've got an enviable bounty: wonderful family, hilarious friends, health (decent), youth (fading) and a comfortable life that's continually interesting, at least to me. My horn of plenty overfloweth and I am constantly grateful for my extraordinary good luck.

And there's one more blessing on my list as of this morning, when NPR Weekend Edition Sunday puzzlemaster Will Shortz was kind enough to use another puzzle I wrote as this week's listener challenge on his weekly radio puzzle segment.

I've always liked puzzles, mysteries and trivia. I like the New York Times crossword, Cox and Rathvon's "Puzzler" cryptic crossword in the Atlantic, Will Shortz on the radio, Donald J. Sobol's Two-Minute Mysteries and Agatha Christie when I was a kid, Trivial Pursuit, Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery, early 1980s Games magazine (whose then-staffers would go on to edit the WSJ, NYT and NY Sun crosswords), Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune as both viewer and contestant, the "radio game," baseball trivia, word puzzles, the challenge of competitive poker, card tricks, number tricks, mind-reading tricks, memory tricks.

I like solving things, knowing things, learning things, amazing people by remembering things, stumping people, being stumped, teaching things, being taught. I like breaking out a deck of cards and taking 20 seconds to blow someone's mind. I like when someone tells me an interesting piece of trivia, and if it's good enough I'll never forget it. There is so little wonder in banal, prosaic everyday life that I take pleasure in the small moments of awe and discovery we can all choose to engage in.

Taking it to a meta level, I've discovered in recent years that I don't just like solving and posing puzzles, I like creating them too. Happily, there are forums like Weekend Edition where we can share them with others. It was a thrill when Mr. Shortz used a puzzle I wrote on the radio last July, and it's a thrill again today.

Here's my new puzzle:

Think of a word containing the consecutive letters O-K. Remove the O-K, and you'll get a new word that's a synonym of the first word. What words are these?

Solved it? You can enter here for your chance to play a different puzzle with Will Shortz on the radio next week. Good luck.

One of the abiding blessings of the Internet is its uncanny knack for bringing like-minded people together. I frequent several blogs about the New York Times crossword and the NPR puzzle, and also post a standing offer on this blog to provide a hint for the latter. Between these blogs' communities of adherents and my own regular email correspondents who ask for (and, I'm not ashamed to admit, provide) NPR puzzle hints, I've got a nice circle of puzzle people around me. Some of them I've met in person, others I know as email pen pals and many more just as fellow blog commenters.

One of them, a brilliant MIT alum and ace crossword solver known as "Bob Kerfuffle" on the popular Rex Parker crossword puzzle blog, sent me the following email today, which he has given me permission to post here:

Dear Mr. Bass,

I feel that I know you from Rex's blog, so I am emboldened to share my thoughts on your Sunday challenge with you.

I am disqualified from sending in an answer since I have played the on-air puzzle with Will. (More than 10 years ago, but it seems once is enough.)

If you take the word OKAY and drop the OK, you get AY, which my dictionary says is a variant of AYE, or in other words a synonym for OKAY.

Taking things a step further, if you take the word "O.K." and drop the OK, you get "______", and since according to the Latin, “Qui tacet consentire vidétur,” or Silence gives Consent, that would be synonymous also!

And I will faint if either of those turns out to be your intended answer!

Thank you for your contributions to Puzzledom.

"Bob Kerfuffle"

Not my intended answers, but you gotta love it. My dad also came up with a funny guess: HOOKER and HOER (pronounced "whore").

So this week I'm giving thanks to Will Shortz for yet another fun adventure in puzzling. It started every week on the radio and every day in the newspaper, then his Wordplay movie was released on my birthday, then I went to his American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Brooklyn, then I competed in a Chicago crossword tournament, and now I'm gradually joining his stable of puzzle contributors. Perhaps someday I will try to conquer the obvious final frontier, i.e. constructing a New York Times crossword puzzle, but it's already been an entertaining ride for which I feel thankful.

Or to put it more succinctly, as Ali G might say, "Gratitude."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Setup, joke

Like the New Yorker? Pretend to like the New Yorker but just flip through the cartoons?

Either way, you might enjoy this report I wrote on the recent Chicago Humanities Festival, which featured a number of New Yorker staff writers and artists.

Of particular note, cartoon editor Robert Mankoff joined fellow cartoonists Roz Chast, Ed Koren and Pat Byrnes for a freewheeling panel discussion on their ongoing contributions to a great American tradition.

I wrote the story for Emdashes, a website all about the New Yorker, founded by the casually brilliant Emily Gordon and edited by the literate jet-setter Martin Schneider.

Though their love for the New Yorker is pure and their knowledge of its history commanding, they have serious publishing cred: Emily is the editor-in-chief of Print magazine and Martin is a professional book editor.

If you like the New Yorker, you'll love their site.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Here come the Pixies

A rock band without peer, underappreciated in their time, the Pixies have steadily grown in renown and acclaim since their acrimonious breakup in the early 1990s. Their 2004 reunion tour was a hero's return, a hugely successful series of live dates that triumphantly and resoundingly confirmed their status as one of the top rock acts of the past quarter-century.

Five years later the Pixies are back on the road, this time celebrating the twentieth anniversary of their landmark 1989 LP Doolittle. They're playing that record in its entirety on this tour along with its related B-sides including "Bailey's Walk," "Dancing the Manta Ray" and "Weird at My School."

The Pixies' Doolittle tour hits Chicago for three shows this weekend at the Aragon Ballroom (does anyone still call it the Armageddon Brawlroom?).

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Poster child

Even if he were neither a FOBB&B since high school days nor one of the cooler people you'll meet, though he is both, Jay Ryan would deserve mad props for his insane poster-making skills. A leader of Chicago's thriving screen-printing community, Jay is as talented an ink man as he is a brilliant freehand artist, plus he knows his way around the indie music scene as a bass player for Dianogah.

Rock musicians play music with him, they like him, and they want to hire him to make a cool poster for their band. Or they never even meet him, but they see or hear about his work, then they really want to hire him to make a cool poster for their band.

Then they get their posters from Jay, love them and tell their friends. Meanwhile their fans go nuts over the posters and clamor to buy them. This raises Jay's profile, more work comes in and the whole cycle continues. Thus are posters, and poster-making careers, made.

Add it all up and you've got a singular national talent who's created original poster art for untold hundreds of concerts and events, and in so doing helped keep his art form alive and thriving. He also does his part to bring along the next generation of poster makers by speaking to art students around the country.

Jay has written a new book collecting his recent efforts, entitled Animals and Objects In and Out of Water. He'll be appearing at Quimby's Bookstore at 7pm tomorrow evening (Wed. 11|11) to sign copies and discuss his work. This event is as recommended as Jay's work is collectible, i.e., highly.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Who broke the Bank?

During my recent trip to the New Yorker Festival I heard some grumbling from habitués of the Cartoon Bank, the online repository and marketplace of New Yorker cartoons. They complained that it was recently overhauled for the worse, to the detriment of its customers, cartoonists and even ownership.

I visited the site to see what all the fuss was about and it turns out they're right. The site redesign did indeed work to its detriment and the Cartoon Bank is now a far cry from what it used to be.

For starters, the search functionality is less robust than it was before. It is no longer possible to search cartoons by popularity, which means a user looking for consensus wheat must sift through a lot of chaff.

The removal of popularity search also adversely affects the artists themselves, who get commissions on each sale. This is important. The vaunted New Yorker cartoonists, though beloved by millions, are in fact an endangered species; their many admirers rarely stop to consider their precarious position. There are fewer outlets than ever these days for gag cartoons (flipped through Punch or Judge lately? me neither) and the New Yorker jokesters have come to depend on secondary sales as an important source of income. The "greatest hits" search method was a crucial means of driving traffic to their best-loved New Yorker works, one they would like to see restored. Admittedly, there are three static "Best Sellers" shown on the right side of the Cartoon Bank page, but this is a pale imitation of a popularity search. Also, one of them is a New Yorker wristwatch.

Another fundamental problem: the Boolean search algorithm is out of whack. Searching "Sipress tennis" would not generate the "Sipress AND tennis" search result you might expect i.e., any and all David Sipress cartoons about tennis but rather, a "Sipress OR tennis" result of any cartoon either drawn by Sipress or about tennis.

Meanwhile, a search for "Alex Gregory cartoons" would produce not just a list of Alex Gregory's cartoons, but also cartoons in which a caption included the word Alex or Gregory. A Matt Diffee cartoon in which a Jeopardy! contestant says, "I'll take Presidential Haircuts for $200, Alex" might be funny, but it's hardly an Alex Gregory cartoon.

Upon the site's relaunch, in fact, it initially offered to display search results in a somewhat absurd A-Z or Z-A order, by the first letter of the caption. Why would anyone want dozens or hundreds of search results arranged arbitrarily in reverse-alphabetical order rather than in order of relevance or popularity? It makes no sense. The alphabetical arrangement has since been removed from the site, but more revisions remain necessary.

Check out this screen shot of search results for a standard request, business cartoons:

The results are ostensibly sorted by "most relevant," but that doesn't look like the case to me. One of the top eight results is set in a bar and another on a sandy beach. They just happen to use the word "busy" or "business."

On a lesser note, they also seem to have axed the Cartoon Channel, a popular feature in which a new cartoon would display every ten seconds or so in a slideshow format. It was cute and fun. Why get rid of it?

Then there's a final issue, one not immediately apparent to the casual observer: the search results are inaccurate! Despite The New Yorker's reputation for precision, the item count can be way off. Cartoonists who've drawn hundreds of dog cartoons are shown to have only a few dozen, despite the Cartoon Bank's ostensibly representing the entire New Yorker cartoon history. That might not sound like a big deal to you, but I hear it's driving the cartoonists crazy.

Here's hoping the powers that be restore the Cartoon Bank to its former glory.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Sunday, November 1, 2009

This is not a post

1. Do you like R.E.M.?
2. Do you live in Chicago?

If you like rock music but said no to question 1 above, you might consider seeing Los Lobos tonight at Symphony Center.

Or if you said no to either question, find yourself a Sirius satellite radio and tune in to the "Jam On" channel this afternoon to catch Phish live from the third and final day of their Festival 8 in Indio, California.

Speaking of Phish, every Halloween night the touring veterans "go as" another rock band and play a classic album in its entirety live on stage. This year Phish let their fans choose the album they'd play, making it a fun guessing game by posting a list of dozens of albums on their website and gradually killing titles off the list in gory Halloween style as fans voted them down. Eventually it boiled down to a handful of finalists from which the band made its choice, unveiling the surprise live on stage last night when they tore into "Rocks Off," the opening song on the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street. I would have tuned in for that one but I was out seeing other bands cover yet other bands.

Back to R.E.M. If you did say yes to both questions above, you'll enjoy this.

From the promoter's press release:

Chicago fans of R.E.M. will get a Halloween treat a day late this year. On November 1st fans will get a one-night-only opportunity to see an advance screening of R.E.M.’s “un-concert” documentary film “This Is Not A Show – Live at the Olympia in Dublin” at the city’s newest music venue - Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave - absolutely free.

(Editor's note: Lincoln Hall, on the site of the old 3 Penny Cinema, is a new music room from the Schuba family, owners of the venerated rock club Schubas.)

In their acclaimed 2007 “working rehearsals” in Dublin, R.E.M. set up camp at the venerable Olympia Theatre in Ireland’s capital city and tested new material over five nights before passionate capacity crowds. Music at the show was produced by Dublin native Jacknife Lee who, along with R.E.M., co-produced Accelerate, the album that emerged from these shows.

“Live at the Olympia” gives fans an opportunity to hear those songs at their earliest stages of development. In addition to the new material, the band also served up several songs from across their nearly thirty year career - from Chronic Town to Accelerate and all stops in between!

Screenings begin at 7:00pm & 9:00pm. Ages 18 and over welcome for both screenings.

Free admission, first come first served – limited to venue capacity.

For more information fans can contact Lincoln Hall at 773-525-2501 or visit

Trailer and clips for the film may be viewed here:

Tell them Ben Bass and Beyond sent you!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wicked rain

Barbarians are storming the gates. From Sigur Rós at the Civic Opera House to Jackson Browne at Ravinia, mainstream acts are descending on traditional bastions of high culture. The trend continues this Sunday evening, when Tex-Mex rockers Los Lobos appear at Symphony Center.

Of course, as with the above two acts, Los Lobos are serious career artists deserving of a residency in an august venue. As Rolling Stone magazine put it, "With the exception of U2, no other band has stayed on top of its game as long as Los Lobos."

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Friday, October 23, 2009

On the road with Steve Martin

Last night I caught the best bluegrass show starring a comedy legend on banjo that I've ever seen.

Wait, let's not qualify that so much. It was one of the best shows I've ever seen, period.

Regular readers of this space will recall that Steve Martin, a serious banjo player who occasionally dabbles in comedy, is touring in support of his new bluegrass album, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo. I wrote a Flavorpill preview of his highly anticipated Chicago show that went over well and the promoter generously offered me tickets to last night's performance at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. (FTC disclosure: check.)

And what a show it was. Steve Martin is not merely a competent but an outstanding banjo player. And the band he brought! He's touring with the Steep Canyon Rangers, a six-man tornado out of North Carolina that has to be the best bluegrass band anywhere. And if they're not, please tell me who's better so I can go see them too. The Steep Canyon Rangers are jaw-droppingly good. Virtuosic, entertaining as hell, and like Steve Martin, great songwriters too. As Steve said onstage, "These guys are hard to get. They're usually ranging steep canyons."

The Rangers won a lot of new fans last night. If Steve Martin is what it takes to pack two thousand curious bluegrass newcomers into a theater, good. They deserve it and so does their genre in general. I will definitely go see these guys again. I haven't enjoyed a concert that much in years.

And when you've got Steve Martin as your frontman, the between-song patter is the bonus, an A+ comedy show that carries the momentum between songs and keeps the audience smiling (though the songs did plenty of that too). I always like it when bands are funny onstage; in fact, there have been times when I'd have preferred that a band keep talking rather than resume playing. Ideally you get a Matt Wilson type, an excellent musician who is also brilliantly funny.

Still, there are a lot of armchair Steve Martins, but there's only one Steve Martin, and he had the huge audience in the palm of his hand. His between-song conversation was charming and hilarious in just the right amounts, meticulously written and impeccably delivered in classic Steve style. I won't repeat his jokes here because he's using the same material throughout the tour, but if he comes through your town and you hate bluegrass music, you should still go see the show because every three minutes you'll be laughing yourself silly.

As if that all weren't enough, Steve's publicist was nice enough to put us in the middle of the sixth row, an ideal vantage point from which to be blown away. It felt like a small club and we had to turn around for a reminder that we were in a cavernous old downtown theater.

And as if that weren't enough, I was fortunate enough to be invited backstage after the show to say hello to the band. There was also a guy back there who introduced himself to me as "Steve." He once made a movie called The Lonely Guy but I think there was a typo in there because Steve Martin is a lovely guy. He and his wife are lovely people both, cultured and articulate.

And the Steep Canyon Rangers are too, personable gents who've risen to the top of the bluegrass world by dint of prodigious talent and hard work. Good for them that they hooked up with Steve Martin, and good for him too. They deserve the exposure and excitement of playing beautiful theaters before large crowds, and he in turn gets a crack band to help him realize his creative vision for his music. It's an elegant pairing.

After years of loading one's own gear into vans and staying in modest accommodations, there are benefits to touring with a huge celebrity. While we chatted backstage, the band was informed that rather than heading to the airport at 8 a.m. as originally scheduled, they'd now have a limo waiting at noon because they'd be flying to Denver in a private plane.

The band is also seeing a side of show business they hadn't seen before. Vince Gill showed up at their gig in Los Angeles and sat in for a few songs. Ed Helms was there too, a banjo player himself. Steve's friends Lorne Michaels and Paul Simon keep popping up on tour, sometimes with junior sidekick Jimmy Fallon in tow. Fallon, a newcomer to bluegrass, loved what he heard and invited the band back to play his television show. If it's good to be the king, it ain't bad being all the king's men.

Steve and the Rangers also played David Letterman's show on the Monday night after the unfortunate news of Dave's personal problems broke over the weekend. It was the highest-rated show Letterman's ever aired, outdrawing any show that evening in prime time. Forty million people tuned in to hear Letterman talk about extortion and apologize to his wife, but his pain was the band's gain. More people saw the Steep Canyon Rangers play that night than will ever see them play live, and they won a legion of new fans.

The only drawback for them is that, while in theory they stand to get paid anew every time that episode of Letterman is rerun, given its awkward monologue at the top of the show, there's no chance it will ever see the light of day again.

Some have wondered why Steve Martin, a searingly effective comedian without peer, has taken such a lengthy career detour into inoffensive family film comedy. It's a reasonable question and one I wouldn't profess to answer, but I speak for many delighted new fans of his music when I say I'm happy he's doing what he's doing right now. And so, it's quite apparent, is he.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Home and home series

Chicago at New York

I jumped across the Hudson last weekend to attend the 10th, and my sixth consecutive, New Yorker Festival. I caught the following six events:
  • "Tales out of School: New Yorker Writers on The New Yorker," an evening of storytelling curated by FOBB&Bs The Moth featuring behind-the-scenes anecdotes from staff writers Roger Angell, Judith Thurman, Mark Singer, Ariel Levy, and Adam Gopnik. Entertaining stuff all around and gems aplenty. Longtime (and apparently last-time) Moth host and New Yorker humorist Andy Borowitz moderated and cracked wise.
  • A lecture by Malcolm Gladwell advertised as "The Curious Case of Michael Vick." But it wasn't Bad Newz Kennels, it was bad news for the audience. Gladwell opened by announcing that he would in fact not be talking about Michael Vick, and instead orated for over an hour on the contrasting drinking habits of the Bolivian Camba and New Haven's Italian-Americans in the 1950s. Who cared? Not me. I love Mr. Gladwell and will follow him almost anywhere, but he lost me with this one. It was the fifth time I've seen him at the New Yorker Festival and the first time I didn't enjoy it. Such point as he did make -- that alcohol consumption can either bind a community together through social ritual or become an epidemic monster through binge drinking -- seemed self-evident. And it's not that I'm not a big drinker. I'm not a homicidal cop but I enjoyed his discussion a few years ago about Blink and the Diallo case; I'm not a record producer but I loved his talk about software that predicts pop music hits; I'm not an Ivy Leaguer but I ate up his tongue-in-cheek debate with Adam Gopnik over whether the Ivy League should be abolished. This one just didn't work. A Festival friend of mine felt the same way. After trying for over a half hour to get into it I gave up, broke out my subway map and plotted my route to my next event. At least there was a nice long Q&A session, but most of it had to do with his lecture.
  • "New Math," a panel discussion featuring baseball guru Bill James, creator Nate Silver, Columbia University economist and Gang Leader for a Day author Sudhir Venkatesh, and University of Missouri statistics professor Nancy Flournoy. Moderator Ben McGrath, whose work I love in the magazine, was quietly hilarious and did a fine job. The discussion was surprisingly funny, occasionally thought-provoking, cordially informative and well worth attending.
  • "The Political Scene," a panel discussion at which political reporters Hendrik Hertzberg, Jane Mayer, and Ryan Lizza and executive editor Dorothy Wickenden broke down President Obama's first year. This event suffered by comparison to last year's version. At the 2008 Festival, which took place a few weeks prior to Election Day and centered largely around politics, George Packer joined Mr. Hertzberg, Mr. Lizza and Ms. Wickenden for a spirited discussion of the campaign trail and the forthcoming general election. It was lively conversation and expert analysis from those who knew best. This year's model, by contrast, was just OK. Too much dry policy talk for my taste. There was a lot of Afghanistan, a lot of terrorism, a lot of torture, some health care, and a little Obama. But they did cover the issues; I guess we just live in serious times.
  • "Master Class: Cartooning" with cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. I'm no cartoonist, much less one worthy of attending a master class, but I was all over the chance to hear an exemplar talk shop. Mankoff is not just the New Yorker's cartoon editor but one of the best cartoonists in the magazine. Those who suspect self-nepotism should know that of his over 900 New Yorker cartoons, many more of them appeared before he was named cartoon editor than since. For that matter, his cartoons are excellent, so who cares? Having seen Bob speak a few times before, I knew him also to be hilarious in person. He did not disappoint, drawing loud laughs from the capacity crowd in the Condé Nast Auditorium.
  • "Master Class: Copy Editing" with Ann Goldstein, Mary Norris and Elizabeth Pearson-Griffiths, three New Yorker copy editors with nearly a century of experience among them. To the collected authors, editors, reporters, bloggers, English majors, and, yes, New Yorker staff writers in the room, it was pure catnip. Learning from some of the best in the business how they edit copy at the highest level of the publishing industry was a privilege and a joy. On the macro level, they took us through the Byzantine layers of the editing process, still governed by a superannuated, typewritten flowchart. As for the micro, they rattled off examples of New Yorker style, cited umpteen entries from its 2400-entry word list and invited us collectively to take the editing quiz that all prospective new hires must tackle. Undaunted, the audience passed with flying colors.
I also enjoyed a few other New York moments. Joined three fellow New Yorker enthusiast friends for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel dining room, a William Shawn-appropriate venue where our table was not round but octagonal, and yet within mere feet of the famous painting of Dorothy Parker and her, uh, circle. Grabbed some cream puffs at Beard Papa, a less famous West Village dessert shop than the Magnolia Bakery but one worth visiting. And took a break from all the Condé Nastery by catching Saturday night's performance of Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage" on Broadway, where Jim Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels, and Hope Davis chewed the scenery in a theatrical knockout brawl.

New York at Chicago

I'm back in Chicago this week and a New Yorker I once met seems to have followed me from the Big Apple. He's a banjo player called Steve Martin. You might also know him from such other projects as being one of the ten funniest people alive.

But right now it's all about the banjo. Steve has a new bluegrass record out called "The Crow" and he's been everywhere promoting like crazy. Actually, the friend I stayed with in New York knows Steve pretty well. She just caught his show last week at Carnegie Hall, loved every note, and hung out backstage afterward. Another friend tells me he also tore it up at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco.

This week, though, it's Steve Martin live in Chicago for "An Evening of Bluegrass and Banjo," this Thursday night at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. More info and a ticket link in my Flavorpill preview here.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

We're number 5!

I recently jettisoned a horrendous lemon of a car when I traded in my 1999 Cadillac Catera and reclaimed my sanity.

The Catera was known to GM insiders as the "Craptera" for a reason. So imagine my non-surprise when a friend emailed me's list of the Worst Cars of the 2000s and, sure enough, the Catera was on it.

The surprise was that the Catera didn't head the list. To paraphrase Comic Book Guy, I've concluded it's the Worst Car Ever, and yet the "Caddy that Zigs" only took the 5 spot. Incredibly, four other cars were deemed to suck even worse.

As we enter Halloween season, here's some bone-chilling reading to make you shudder: Worst Cars of the 2000s

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Well trained

Last Sunday afternoon I was standing on the train platform at the Clark and Lake stop of the Chicago Transit Authority, more familiarly known as the "L." There was a large throng of people, unusual for a Sunday, because the 2009 Chicago Marathon was wrapping up. Runners and their friends were all around me.

Eventually a crowded Brown Line train pulled into the station. The conductor made an announcement over the loudspeaker, audible to those on the platform: "This is an eight-car train. The middle cars are full. Please move to one end of the train or the other." I did so and got one of the few remaining seats in an end car. It took a while but the large crowd eventually got onto the train.

With every passing stop, the frustrated conductor made increasingly impatient variants of the above announcement.
  • At Merchandise Mart: "Please move to either end of the train. (pause) Or not."
  • At Chicago Avenue: "This train has sixteen doors. They all lead onto the same train. Please find an available door and use it."
  • At Sedgwick: "Every car has two doors. They both lead to the platform. There is no need to form a single-file line."
  • And one time: "Ma'am, you can't walk through him, so find a way to walk around him."
I was sitting with three guys from my neighborhood who'd just finished running the marathon. We were all chuckling at the free entertainment courtesy of the angry conductor. One marathoner in particular couldn't believe what he was hearing: "That guy is so getting fired, but he's making the most of his last day."

Fired? He's a Chicago Transit Authority employee with experience, problem-solving skills, intelligence and personality. Given the CTA's ongoing woes, he strikes me as an excellent candidate for CEO.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Thoughts from Thalia

You know who that was, right? In Greek mythology? The muse of comedy, of course, and so a personal favorite deity of mine.

In her spirit, some FOBB&Bs are doing their part to inject some levity into our serious world. Here's a rundown of the latest comedic work from my peeps:

1. Live.

All-around great guy Dave Facchini is the impresario behind the popular Creepy Hug sketch comedy series. Their latest show, Dirt Nap, wraps up its current run tonight and tomorrow night at 8pm at the Gorilla Tango Theater, 1919 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. Tickets $12 at the door. (773) 598-4549;

2. Print.

The witty Caprice Crane cranked out some of the best shows MTV aired in the 1990s. More recently she's writing Hollywood screenplays for Scarlett Johansson and scripts for the new 90210 and Melrose Place when not publishing a series of hit novels.

In New York? Catch Caprice tomorrow evening at 7:30 p.m. at the Lincoln Triangle Barnes & Noble, 1972 Broadway at 66th St. across from Lincoln Center, where she'll read from and sign her latest book, Family Affair. If you're looking for a good read, treat yourself and buy it here.

3. Online.

During my recent trip around the Bay Area, I met a very cool Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Gerry Mack. He told me about the world of dot-com startups, his expertise underscored by the fact that we were sitting a block away from Facebook's Palo Alto headquarters at the time.

Gerry is backing a new interactive improv comedy site called Daily Improv, a beta version of which is up and running here. Check it out, comedy fans.

p.s. I'd next cover Erato, the muse of poetry, but as a longtime philistine of good standing, all I know is that because her name begins and ends with a vowel, she's a regular answer in my beloved New York Times crossword puzzle.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Wagon watch

Bandwagons. We all jump on or off them at one time or another. Today I thought I'd take stock of my current ridership status.

Entourage: On, but with a loosened seatbelt. This season was generally good, but several times in recent weeks I felt like I was watching a formula play out, with each character being put through his paces in exactly the way you'd expect. It took me out of the show and reminded me that I was watching TV (and yes, HBO, your old slogan aside, it's TV). Jeremy Piven, though a raging bag in real life, continues to shine in the role that has come to define his career. He and Kevin Connolly are by far the two best actors in the regular cast, and for that matter, two of the few good ones. Coincidentally or not, their characters are the two most interesting.

Chicago Bears: On. I ignored the preseason as usual, then I was out of town when they opened their season with an ugly loss at Green Bay. But I've caught the three games since (Comcast DVR remote that jumps ahead thirty seconds from the ref's whistle to the next snap of the ball: accept no substitutes), all entertaining victories including a nail-biter over the defending Super Bowl champs. Their savior, newly inked quarterback Jay Cutler, looks like the real deal, and the team features a bunch of talented young playmakers I'd never heard of a month ago. Speaking of which:

Johnny Knox: On. The rookie speedster is as cool as Johnny Knoxville, but younger and faster. He raised eyebrows with a passel of flashy plays in recent weeks, then ran back Sunday's second-half kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown. He's a humble Devin Hester.

Mad Men: Not on, but walking alongside. Mad Men is a decent show and yet the most overrated show on television. Stylish, gorgeous to look at, sure, but wildly inconsistent. The writing is too frequently just OK for a show that many have anointed the chosen one. (It does have a nice pedigree. Creator Matthew Weiner first pitched it years ago as a relative unknown and couldn't get any takers, so he stuck it in a drawer and took a job writing for The Sopranos. Five years later he was one of their top scribes and when he dusted off Mad Men during Tony Soprano's final season the AMC network bought it immediately. Ah, credibility.) In short, Mad Men is good enough to keep watching but doesn't deserve the mountains of hype it gets (a local columnist feels the same way and another chimes in here). However:

Jon Hamm: Enthusiastically on. He's Cary Grant for our generation, the ridiculously handsome star of the most lauded show on television, but it hasn't gone to his head. I met him at a party in New York City last winter and chatted with him for a while. As detached and mysterious as Don Draper is, Jon Hamm is engaging, bright and funny. He couldn't have been less impressed with himself, but I was plenty impressed. Then in July he appears in the celebrity softball game at the All-Star Game in his native St. Louis and, playing third base, cleanly backhands a hard smash and fires a strong throw across the diamond for the putout. How cool is this guy?

Chicago Cubs: Off. The bandwagon derailed some time in May or June as injuries and inconsistent play from the expensive end of the roster ruined the 2009 campaign. Manager Lou Piniella's refusal to move the underperforming Alfonso Soriano down in (or out of) the batting order didn't help either. Derrek Lee hit every pitch over the wall in the last two months of the season and no one even noticed.

President Obama: On. I happen to like his politics, but leave that aside. I admire his leadership and he's got personality and coolth to burn. He remains impressively steadfast in the face of frequently inane criticism (don't speak to our schoolchildren directly? death squads?). As for results, it's only been eight months. Time will tell.

Northwestern Wildcats athletics: Hard to say there's a bandwagon at all, but if there is, I'm on it. Heck, I'll drive. I salute any serious research university that puts a good team on the field without sacrificing its rigorous academic standards (see also: Stanford, Duke). NU's young football coach Pat Fitzgerald has done so, increasing the win total in each year of his short tenure and leading the team to the Alamo Bowl last year. The 'Cats also frequently impress in non-revenue sports: the women's lacrosse team has won five straight NCAA championships, the softball team played in two recent Women's College World Series, and the tennis teams are usually tough.

Twitter: Off. I've never jumped aboard the Twitter Express as so many have. That's not to say it's not an effective way to share opinions, but to paraphrase a recent beer advertising campaign, I'll skip the microblogging site in favor of my good old macroblog.

Chicago 2016 Olympic bid: The bandwagon hit a wall last week, but I'd never jumped on board. There would have been pros to having the Olympics here, but significant cons. All told, I could never bring myself to feel more boosterish than about 55/45 against the bid, so I'm content to let South America get its overdue first bite at the apple.

2006 Volvo S60 T5 sedan: I am so on the bandwagon for this car that I think it is itself the bandwagon. I ended an eight-year bad relationship last week with my personal bête noire, a balky 1999 Cadillac Catera, replacing it with the insanely awesome T5. How Swede it is.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Department of Corrections

Memo to ESPN's Mike Tirico: I hate to nitpick, but -- aw, whom am I kidding? I love to nitpick! During Brett Favre's coming out party tonight on Monday Night Football, when Ryan Longwell lined up to kick for the Vikings, you said, "Here's another longtime former Packer." You meant "another former longtime Packer." It's too soon to say it your way. It'll be true in forty years but Longwell won't still be playing then, although Favre probably will.

Memo to Fox's Brian Billick: You had about three malapropisms in ten minutes during the Bears telecast yesterday (not including calling your broadcast partner Thom Brennaman "Todd"), but I didn't bother writing them down or memorizing them, so you're off the hook. But beware: if you don't clean up your syntax, you might get called out on some jerk's blog.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Just asking

When Iowa Hawkeyes fans yell Go Hawks, shouldn't they really be saying Go Eyes?

A Hawkeye is a type of eye, not a type of hawk. Shortening a team name to Hawks only makes sense if it's something like Redhawks or Blackhawks.

Speaking of the Big Ten, my Northwestern Wildcats won a thriller today on the road, spoiling Purdue's homecoming at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Northwestern tailback Arby Fields fumbled away the ball on NU's first play from scrimmage, his teammates muffed a few tackles and Purdue built up a commanding 21-3 lead. But the Boilermakers (or as some call them, Boilers; insert condescending correction here) were clumsy too, turning the ball over six times and helping Northwestern score 24 unanswered points to take its first lead. And I thought Purdue's five turnovers in Evanston last year were ugly.

After the late touchdown that put Northwestern ahead, Purdue went into its two-minute drill and marched easily up the field, but the drive stalled inside the 10 yard line. A would-be tying touchdown pass glanced off a receiver's hand, another end-zone strike came up empty and Northwestern held on for the 27-21 victory.

Go Wild!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Fish story

Bass, meet salmon.

The above good-looking guy is my brother, Ari Bass, who recently hauled in this Chinook salmon from the chilly waters of Burnham Harbor in downtown Chicago. (My brother is the one in the white shirt.)

When he emailed me the above photo I initially assumed it was one of the salmon he caught last summer while deep-sea fishing in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Alaska. But no, he caught this one here. I didn't even know we had salmon in Lake Michigan.

Look at the size of it. Not only did he land this beast unassisted, he did so during a citywide fishing tournament called the Richard J. Daley 2009 Memorial Sportfishing Derby. At 20 pounds, 11.5 ounces and 39 inches, Ari's catch was good for first place at the time in the Chinook (King) Salmon category. It's since been surpassed by at least one larger fish. I blame steroids.

As much as our parents would prefer to see one of us deliver something else at 20 pounds, 11.5 ounces, namely a set of triplets, we're all proud of Ari. Good job!

p.s. Those who were awaiting today's big announcement involving a Chicago sporting competition and a mayor named Daley can now breathe easy. Wait, there's another one?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Another opening, another show

It ain't just football season that's starting up this month. Shows are opening all around town.

Tonight, for example, my dearest cozes in The Moth storytelling series alight in Chicago for the first of four monthly evenings of stories told live on stage. It's the last Tuesday of every month at Martyrs, 3855 North Lincoln Avenue. 7:30 p.m. doors, 8 p.m. stories. $7. More information is here.

In the past week I have been fortunate to attend the season openings of two leading Chicago theater companies, Steppenwolf Theatre and the Goodman Theatre.

Steppenwolf kicks off its new season with Fake, a world premiere by ensemble member Eric Simonson. It explores the subject of faith via the early 20th Century discovery in England of the remains of "Piltdown Man," believed at the time to be the missing link between ape and man but later revealed to be a hoax. It didn't blow me away but it's worth seeing. My Flavorpill preview is here.

Last night, the Goodman opened its new slate with a rousing production of Animal Crackers, the 1928 Marx Brothers Broadway smash that preceded the Warner Brothers screen comedy of the same name. After Groucho and co. left New York for Hollywood, the show was considered impossible to produce without its original stars and sat on a shelf for fifty years, but has enjoyed revivals in recent years. This one's funny and entertaining, with rarely seen material from the original Broadway script. My Flavorpill preview is forthcoming.

Now get out there, buy some tickets and support live theater. Football's not 'til this weekend.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Room of Requirement

This isn't just one of the most classically beautiful rooms I've ever visited, it has an impeccable pedigree.

During my recent visit to Stanford University I found myself with several free hours on my hands, so I was in the market for a pleasant place on campus to do some reading and catch up on email. As in all things Stanford, my professor friend and Cardinal expert David P. had an excellent suggestion.

There's a reading room on the fifth floor of the Bing Wing of the Green Library, he explained, that is among the more ideal places on earth to relax. And was he right. With soft leather couches, easy chairs, broad wooden tables, speedy wi-fi signal, shelves full of excellent books, Oriental rugs, sunlight streaming through elegant skylights, tasteful lamps, scenic views of "the farm" (Stanford campus), and an open, inviting layout, this aesthete's delight is about as perfect an answer to a specific request as I've ever gotten.

Interestingly, after twenty years on the Stanford campus, David himself only learned of the reading room in the past few months when a friend tipped him off. He's a math and computer guy who's toiled on the engineering and science side of campus since his undergrad days, eventually getting his Ph.D. in medical informatics (think CAT scans and cancer research), so he's never had much occasion to visit a humanities library like the Green. For him it was all about the science library, which I'll assume is known as the SciLi since everything at Stanford has a cool nickname: the Coffee House is the CoHo, the Florence Moore building is FloMo, frozen yogurt is froyo.

So when David recently asked a colleague to suggest a nice place on campus to sit and work away from their lab, and thus learned about the reading room, he couldn't believe that he'd never known about it. Although it's been sitting right there the whole time, it was an open secret unknown to him until he specifically went looking for it.

It felt to David like a Harry Potter moment. As our fellow Potterphiles know, when Harry needs a private room for a specific purpose (training his friends in magic spells, hiding something valuable, etc.) he repairs to a little-known hall in Hogwarts Castle that exists to help those who seek it, magically providing suitable materials and assuming the proper shape and size to meet the needs of its users. It's known as the Room of Requirement.

Since the reading room so perfectly answered David's request, he's come to think of it as the Room of Requirement. And since it so perfectly answered mine, so have I.

p.s. Thanks to David for letting me share this story. He has been overwhelmed by autograph seekers, groupies and fan clubs since receiving several mentions in this blog over the past few weeks, and after today it's only going to get worse. He might have to hide out in the Room of Requirement.

p.p.s. As a sumptuously comfortable place where students read or do homework, the Green Library reading room is also reminiscent of the Gryffindor common room.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

We don't do what we do

During my recent trip to California, I had lunch in Palo Alto with an old friend who works as a Stanford University professor. As we chatted about work, we noticed something similar about our jobs.

When people ask him what he does, he told me, he responds that he's a professor. Inevitably they then ask what class he teaches, to which he replies, he doesn't. He runs a laboratory in the Stanford radiology department, performing research, earning patents and contributing to the world's knowledge in his field. So although he does instruct and collaborate with the students in his lab, unlike many professors (or at least most people's concept of a professor) he doesn't stand up in front of a lecture hall and teach a class.

I can relate because I'm an attorney who doesn't really practice law. I do occasionally file court papers, appear in courtrooms and work on transactions, but I've mostly left the practice of law behind, spending more of my time as a client than an attorney. I don't bill my time or cultivate a roster of clients. So there we were having lunch, the professor who doesn't teach a class and the lawyer who doesn't practice law.

A few days later I was catching up with another old friend in Berkeley whose parents, whom I know well, also live in the Berkeley area. My friend's dad, a retired radiologist, is an expert pilot on advanced flight simulators. Despite his medical background, he told me that if he were on an airline flight and both pilots had seizures, as a practical matter he would rather take the controls and land the plane himself than try to nurse the pilots back to health.

It felt like he should have been there a few days earlier at the lunch meeting of people who don't do what they do.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Wine country: a photo essay

International Orange.

I first heard that term in a cool Final Jeopardy question many years ago, or should I say, in the answer whose question contestants had to provide. (This was not when I was on the J show, I just remember it.) The category was something like "American Landmarks." I'm going from memory here but the answer was something like, "This popular tourist attraction, the most visited in the world, is painted a color that was created specifically for it and named International Orange."

And the question was: What is the Golden Gate Bridge?

I took the above lousy photo as we approached the G.G.B. from San Francisco. About 40 seconds earlier, we'd rounded a bend and happened upon a perfect postcard view of the bridge. Unfortunately, my camera was buried in a backpack. By the time I had it ready to go, the moment was gone and I ended up with the above snapshot of some guy's car with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. I am a lousy photographer. That is why I went to law school.

But even I couldn't mess this one up. The scenic outlook on the southern tip of Marin County provides this excellent view of the bridge. Obligatory San Francisco fog: check.

The outlook also afforded the above view of the Bay full of boats out for a Labor Day ride, plus Alcatraz Island and the San Francisco skyline. I found it quite exciting at the time, but the above photo is pretty boring. I guess you had to be there.

So do I.

We spotted this car as we made our way north into Marin County. In addition to Buffy, I also love the fact that California vanity plate buyers get to use hearts. Are you listening, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White?

This intersection presents a difficult trilemma. You've got three tempting choices: north to Geyserville, south to Napa, and east into downtown Calistoga. I love me some Calistoga. It's a pretty little wine country town with hot springs, mud baths, and laid-back people. I was there six years ago and liked it so much I made a point of returning.

Actually there are two other good options at this intersection: stay at the Craftsman Inn, visible at right, or eat at Buster's BBQ, at left. We did both of these.

Eventually we got into wine country proper, where something called the Napa Valley Wine Train passed by. How great is that? I wanted a photo of it but got the above photo of some other guy's car with the Napa Valley Wine Train barely visible in the background. I told you I was a lousy photographer.

Squint and you can make out the name of the train above its windows.

We stopped here for beer but they didn't have any.

But did they ever have the whole grapevine thing covered.

A closer look at the vines. Are they even vines? They look like little trees but I assume they're vines that have been trained to grow vertically with the white sticks along the "trunks." Wine making is like photography, I got nothing.

Look at those grapes. They're not as big as the grapes most of us buy in the grocery store, and they have seeds, but they do taste good...

...which I proved by trying a couple, sticking it to the big corporate winery by eating some of their profits. The above shot of a misdemeanor in progress is as close as I will ever get to an action photo.

An unfortunate side effect of eating grapes directly from the vine is that I am now a complete grape snob who refuses to eat any grape that was picked over ten seconds earlier.

I always thought "CS" in boldface Helvetica was the nickname of an obnoxious glossy magazine called Chicago Social, but it also turns out to be shorthand for Cabernet Sauvignon. I discovered this after nicking the grapes in the previous photo. I'm glad they didn't turn out to be Merlot grapes because I crave the respect of Paul Giamatti.

Yes, we also visited smaller wineries than the massive house of Mondavi. E.g., we had a nice chat with a mellow California vintner dude and bought some vino at the Camellia Cellars tasting room. We also visited Healdsburg, a beautiful enclave and home to several dozen wineries including La Crema, the favorite label of a buddy of mine. But I didn't take pictures of any of these places. Now I'll have to go back. See how I did that?

Actually, this is a better action shot than the first one. I snapped this picture of a "West Zinfandel Ln" street sign at around 40 miles an hour. Someone alert the Pulitzer committee.

As we made our way back into civilization on Sunday evening of Labor Day weekend, my friend's Toyota Camry started to lose power, dying and restarting a few times in the crawling traffic on the 101 South. This was after she'd owned it for several years with no issues. The problems started shortly after I started driving the car for the first time. I also happen to drive a lemon in Chicago. I am trying not to take this all personally.

Eventually the car died for good in Sausalito about two miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. We were in the left lane of a four-lane expressway. There was no shoulder on either side. You know those horrible people whose car is stalled with flashing lights, blocking traffic on a packed highway, being showered with obscenities shouted by passing drivers? We were Those People.

We called AAA and it seemed like a nightmare was starting. After several minutes of explaining our predicament to an operator who was physically in the Midwest and mentally somewhere past Neptune, my patient friend (a University of Chicago graduate) still hadn't convinced the operator that we were in neither Sacramento nor, after an extensive discussion of 101 South, Los Angeles.

Happily, our deus ex machina arrived ten minutes later in the form of Bill, a passing tow truck driver on the way home from work who happened to be a Triple-A driver. He also happened to be the nicest, coolest, most competent, and most awesome person in the history of everything. Within a few minutes we were on our way.

I took this photo of the sunset over the Pacific Ocean from the passenger seat of Bill's truck as we drove over the bridge.

I never thought I'd start a phone call with the unlikely words "I'm on the Golden Gate Bridge in a tow truck," but I did so moments later. I now realize that before doing so my life was sadly incomplete.

Bill's rescue only looked more fortuitous when we discovered that the AAA operator hadn't done anything productive after all. She'd tried to send a truck but described our location so poorly in the AAA dispatch computer that we'd have remained stranded if someone had tried to follow her garbled directions. (I don't know whether anyone did; Bill canceled the request as soon as we were on our way.) I've never had a problem with AAA in Chicago, but apparently in California, as in baseball, AAA is one level below the pros.

Above photo: Best Guy Ever.

It turned out our guy was not the Bill Wren stenciled on the truck, but a Bill who worked for Bill Wren. He delivered our car to a local San Francisco garage, then went the extra mile (literally) and dropped us off at my friend's place because he lives nearby. I returned the favor by tipping him handsomely and blowing his mind with a quick card trick, then we sent him on his way.

Bill, wherever you are, thank you for preventing what might have become a disastrous end to a relaxing Labor Day weekend. And to all the great people we met in wine country, I hope to see you again soon.