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?