June Jam: MDQ + MC Othello

Did you think there was a midsummer night’s slowdown?  Nope. Lots of stuff going on in my world. You might be interested in these. They’re suitable for family entertainment or music and theater regulars.

My grandson and I had a theater bash weekend, his belated 15th birthday treat.  We saw Million Dollar Quartet at the Apollo Theatre Friday night and Othello: The Remix at Chicago Shakespeare the next day. Both shows gave us great music as well as compelling theater. We loved both and the next day couldn’t decide which was better.

MDQ is in an open run at the Apollo Theatre on Lincoln Avenue.  Othello: The Remix by GQ and JQ runs thru July 27 at Chicago Shakespeare on Navy Pier.

A million-dollar quartet in 1956–that’s $8.5 million today

I saw MDQ when it first opened here in 2009 — and although I say I hate musicals–you gotta love two hours of rockabilly music. It’s a great show–a jukebox musical, certainly–but with elements of character insight and plot points that make it fascinating (especially if you’re a music geek). From the first chords of “Blue Suede Shoes” to the last notes of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” the music is infectious and unbeatable.

milliondollarqtI assume you know the basic story. On a certain day in December 1956, four rock stars and almost-rock stars arrived at Sun Studios in Memphis. Each had his own issue to pitch or discuss with studio head Sam Phillips. The music that results is amazing. From Carl Perkins’ hot guitar licks on his Les Paul Gold Top and Jerry Lee Lewis acting up at the keyboard, to Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash singing and playing guitar in their inimitable styles. The great thing about this show is that the four performers are all musicians first as well as credible actors–so it ain’t faux piano playing when Lance Lipinsky hits the keys as Jerry Lee Lewis.

Near the end of the show, Sam Phillips wants to take a photo of his four artists. They pose around the piano and recreate the above photo of 57 years ago, which then appears on a giant screen.

James and I came home and watched YouTube videos of Jerry Lee Lewis.

Note for foodies: The Etno Village Grill

We wanted burgers before the show, so we went to a great little place just up the street from the Apollo.  The Etno Village Grill, at 2580 N Lincoln, serves grass-fed burgers, and homemade soups and salads in addition to European-inspired street food such as Cevap sausages. Everything is made fresh and grilled to order.  Sandwiches can be customized with 20 or so condiment options — most of them homemade — such as Etno Spread (feta cheese/sour cream/chilli pepper), great tsatziki, roasted garlic and chive spread (sour cream, roasted garlic, chive) and homemade dill or sweet pickles..  Highly recommended for excellent food quality. It’s a rather rustic, casual environment with counter service.

Othello: The Remix at Chicago Shakespeare

The next afternoon, we watched Shakespeare’s Othello in a hiphop setting. And you know what? It works. MC Othello is a musician who escapes the ghetto and rises to the top of the music industry. He’s in love with and marries a beautiful singer named Desdemona (whose voice we hear but never see). Iago, Cassio and Roderigo play roles something like Shakespeare wrote, transmogrified into the hiphop world. The four talented actors play all the parts, wearing coveralls and grabbing wigs, hats and props when they change characters. And they change characters frequently, with very convincing change of voice and physical demeanor.

The musical highlight of the show was surely “It’s a Man’s World” with topical humor merged into Shakespeare’s lyrical verse. The four actors perform it in glamour-gal style wearing gold lame “gowns” and nightclub-singer wigs and jewelry.

The plot twists and turns about jealousy and a fabricated affair are played in hiphop couplets with music. The play ends tragically, as the Bard wrote. It’s sharp and inventive and another star performance by the team that created and starred in Bomb-itty of Errors and Funk It Up About Nothin’.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Mr Leonard Cohen

A short review of a concert plus my confession about how I became a Leonard Cohen fan.


Photo by Nancy S Bishop.

Leonard Cohen performed a 3.5-hour show at the Chicago Theatre the other night, touring with his fine new album, Old Ideas – made up of all new songs. He puts on a superb show with a 10-piece band including a violinist, flamenco guitarist, other ethnic stringed instruments, keyboards including a Hammond B-3, plus drums and bass — and three wonderful back-up singers. (Photo by me.)

At age 78, his style and stamina are remarkable. He skips off stage, waving like a vaudeville performer. And he frequently kneels to sing. I have to admire the ease with which he kneels and rises. (You’ll appreciate this too when you’re my age.)


Photo ©Rick Friedman 2012. http://rickfriedman.com.

He performed nearly 30 songs with one 15-minute intermission. He pays fond respect to his band members throughout the concert, introducing them and highlighting their solos and special talents.

(“Legends of Music,” the photo of Leonard Cohen, Chuck Berry and Keith Richards, was taken February 26, 2012, at the JFK Library and tweeted last week by Keith @officialKeef.) 

The setlist included five songs from Old Ideas, but was primarily from his long history of recordings, including fan favorites such as “Bird on a Wire,” “Suzanne,” “Everybody Knows,” “I’m Your Man” and of course, “Hallelujah.” (The latter is one of the most-covered songs ever written, by the way.) His collaborator Sharon Robinson performed a song I had not heard before: “Alexandra Leaving.” He also performed “A Thousand Kisses Deep” as a recitation. It is exquisite and makes you realize that Leonard Cohen is, first of all, a poet.

Leonard’s lyrics are mournful, erotic and often funny. In “Tower of Song,” he sings “Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey, I ache in the places where I used to play” and later laments “I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”

So, here’s my confession. I became a Leonard Cohen fan by accident. The popular culture of the late ‘60s and ‘70s passed me by completely since I was immersed in children, husband, home and career. No time for following the latest bands and barely time to see a movie or play.


My Beetle, almost perfect after 12 years and 20,000 miles.

About 12 years ago, I got my new (now old) Beetle, which came with a cassette player but no CD player. I had a good supply of tapes since, in pre-smartphone days, I would tape my records and CDs. My friend Linnea had a new car with a CD player so she gave me a cigar box full of tapes from her old car. I sorted thru them and picked out a few for the Beetle. The first one I played was from a Roy Orbison album. I was driving along enjoying the music and near the end of side A, the voice changed to a baritone growl. The song seemed to be a dystopic anthem* with the refrain “First We Take Manhattan.” At the end of that amazing song, I turned the tape over to hear the rest of I’m Your Man. And ever since, he has been my man. (Not to the extent that Bruce Springsteen is, of course.)

After listening to that tape a few times, I went to the music store and bought the CD and a few other Leonard CDs, such as The Future, Various Positions and a Best of compilation. A few years later I was in Montreal (his home town) and found a music store with a trove of Leonard Cohen CDs that I hadn’t seen before. So I now have a dozen in my CD stack.

There was no opportunity to see him live then — only in recorded concerts on TV and DVDs. I was thrilled when a world tour was announced with Chicago dates in May and October 2009. The first time I saw him at the Chicago Theatre I was absolutely captivated by his show and showmanship. What a charmer. He put on a great show and the band and other singers far exceeded my expectations. I saw him again in October that year at the Rosemont Theatre (now renamed) and he was equally magnetic.

No, he doesn’t exactly sing and his voice is deeper and more gravelly now than on earlier recordings. But he is very charismatic and as my friend Mike says “the coolest human on the planet.”

I believe rock stars (and Leonard is a rock star) tour as much for the adulation as for the money. I have watched videos of Bruce Springsteen playing before tens of thousands of people at huge outdoor European venues. The camera is behind him and you see the enormous crowd singing, dancing, pumping fists, waving flags and jumping up and down. Jumping up and down for him. That’s why senior-citizen performers like Bruce, Leonard, Sir Paul, the Stones, and Bobby D never give up touring.


* The meaning of “First We Take Manhattan” has always been the subject of debate by his fans. Is it about terrorism? The Holocaust? A musician ignored by the public? The meaning is surely ominous. Listen to it and make up your own mind.

The joy of reading on the CTA

I never go anywhere without something to read. You never know when you’ll be stuck waiting for a lunch date or a movie time, for a doctor or a freight train (when I lived in DeKalb, the RR tracks crossed the intersection of two major highways). And there’s nothing nicer than sinking into a book or favorite magazine on a long bus, train or plane ride.

RS-billiejoearmstrongIt’s fun to see what other people are reading and to wonder why they’re interested in that subject. I’ve gotten into conversations with fellow travelers about reading matter. When I was in the middle of Eric Clapton’s autobiography, I debated who is the greatest rock guitarist* with the guy sitting next to me. And today I was reading the new issue of Rolling Stone with Billie Joe Armstrong on the cover (the front man for Green Day and now out of drug rehab) and had a discussion about changes in rock and drug culture with a young woman with purple hair peeking out of the hood of her down jacket.

Let’s face it. I love my technology; my Kindle, iPad and iPhone are part of my life. I often read the Kindle while commuting because it’s smaller and lighter than the iPad and no one will want to steal it. (CTA riders have to be vigilant.) But I still prefer stashing a book or magazine in my bag – and I enjoy the vicarious thrill of seeing what other people are reading. On a morning bus, you may see students reading law or business textbooks. There’s always a dressed-for-success person reading the latest business best-seller. But the most interesting are the fiction readers. When I see someone reading a novel I enjoyed, I want to talk to him about it – but I usually don’t. On other days I’ll note that everyone sitting around me is reading an e-reader or a phone and I’m blocked from getting any insights into their literary tastes. Book covers are great views into someone’s interests. Too bad e-readers hide the cover that a book designer worked hard to create.

The anonymity of e-books isn’t a new discussion. Christopher Borrelli wrote about it in “On the ‘L,’ e-books change spy game” in the Chicago Tribune last year. This comment was intriguing: “… reading on a train or bus is what urban dwelling is about, a near perfect illustration of how living in a city often means being simultaneously public and anonymous, surrounded by strangers at exactly the moment you just want to be left alone.” You can find Borrelli’s article and a fascinating diagram that maps CTA routes to passengers’ reading habits. http://tiny.cc/zfthtw

Maybe I’ll add a verse or two on urban solitude to my poem “Urban Woman Blues.” https://nancybishopsjournal.com/2012/10/22/urban-woman-blues/


* Speaking of great rock guitarists

I am totally excited about the new Jimi Hendrix album, released this week. Yes, the late Mr Hendrix, who is almost always #1 on lists of great guitarists. Not only was he great, he was left-handed! The new album is People, Hell and Angels – 12 tracks out of the Hendrix vault of officially unreleased music. (Why did it take 40+ years?) You can read about the album here. http://tiny.cc/ksshtw You can listen to one track here. http://bit.ly/14u1ySp I listened to the whole album the other day on NPR First Listen. OMG, it’s good.

Quick cuts: Musical notes

Bouncing all over the place this week on musical topics. Quick Cuts #2 to follow on stage, screen and Chicago.

The Grammys and MusiCares

Bruce Springsteen was named MusiCares 2013 Person of the Year for his humanitarian activities. The MusiCares event took place two days before the Grammys. Many famous musicians were to perform Springsteen songs, and at first the news was released that the concert would be broadcast. And then that information was corrected. But we obsessives were hoping for at least online streaming. (I can stream anything from my laptop to my HD TV set, so I figured I was set.)

org-logos-mcThat evening, I tuned in for the excruciatingly boring, fashion- and celebrity-obsessed red carpet coverage. Gag me, please. Optimistically, I hoped I would get to see some of the music. But it was not to be. So I will have to wait for a sure-to-be-released DVD version. (There is a very nice six-minute video tribute  to Bruce as MusiCares Person of the Year here – the video is edited by the talented Thom Zimny.

The Grammys
is a crazy attempt by the Recording Industry of America to shoehorn a zillion performances, tributes and award presentations into 3.5 hours. Madness. There were many interesting performances – some of them straight up like Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers of their own songs. And odd combinations like Maroon 5’s Adam Levine with Alicia Keys. That inspired David Carr of the New York Times to tweet: “Maroon 5 and Alicia Keys go together like the whipped lard and sponge cake in a Twinkie.”

And there were tributes to performers who died last year. A tribute to Dave Brubeck by three famous musicians lasted all of 30 seconds. But at least the tribute to Levon Helm, the multitalented musician singer-songwriter, was a full rendition of “The Weight,” made famous by The Band. Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes showed her powerful singing chops and quite kept up with Mavis Staples. Fabulous number.

I thought there was to be a tribute to the late Glenn Gould, the brilliant and eccentric Canadian pianist. Did I blink and miss it?

It wasn’t all a fabulous show but it was fun to watch. Social media activity was high. The Grammys claim there were 18.7 million social media comments. Twitter was on fire.

The Eric Clapton survival story

I just finished Clapton, Eric Clapton’s autobiography (Broadway Books, 2007). I love reading biographies and autobiographies. This is a fascinating story and well written – and no one tried to launder the Brit-isms out of it for the US market. I strongly recommend it to music fans.Clapton2010Cover

But it is a heartbreakingly sad story. How did the man survive to be the revered guitar genius he is today? He went from being a guitar beginner, playing small gigs, to touring with the Yardbirds, Cream and Blind Faith. Throughout those years and later, he was first of all on various kinds of dope, then became a full-blown heroin addict, went thru rehab to break the addiction, only to become a roaring alcoholic who apparently was rarely sober.

Throughout these addictions, he played all over the world and usually (although not always) played brilliantly. If I didn’t know the story would end well, I would have stopped reading because it is an incredibly sad book. Clapton makes no effort to sugarcoat his past. And the part about losing his young son Conor is wrenching.

Also there was an unbelievable string of women, girlfriends, lovers, wives, etc. I lost track of the number of wives. But in 2002, he married and apparently has stayed married. He and his wife have three children.

As he says in the epilogue, when he wrote the book in 2007, he was 62 and 20 years sober and “the last ten years have been the best of my life.” He puts his highest priority (even before his family) as “staying sober and helping others to achieve sobriety.”

The best part of the book is Clapton writing about how he came to love the blues and his love for listening to, writing and playing the music – and how he loved the American blues musicians who brought the music to England. Shockingly, it took musicians like the Rolling Stones and Clapton to bring the blues to the US, where musicians here finally came to appreciate it. To this day, it’s recognized for its huge influence on rock and roll.

Greg Mitchell mixes music with politics

You may never have heard of him but Mitchell is well known in music and in news publishing. Early in his career, he wrote for Crawdaddy, the influential pioneer rock magazine. (I wrote about Crawdaddy in September in my post on the Glory Days Symposium; it has been resurrected as Paste Magazine.) Later, Mitchell was editor of Editor & Publisher, the trade magazine for the newspaper industry.

Today, he writes for The Nation and has written a number of books on history and politics. His latest post is written in sympathy for Marco Rubio’s apparent thirst during Tuesday’s Republican response to the State of the Union address. Mitchell, always the music lover, posts videos for five classic songs offering Rubio more water – songs from Otis Redding, Van Morrison, the Beach Boys, Leadbelly and Hank Williams Sr. It’s a great little setlist. Catch them here. http://www.thenation.com/blog/172862/marco-rubio-5-classic-songs-offering-him-more-water

Mitchell’s latest book is Journeys With Beethoven, coauthored with Kerry Candaele (Sinclair Books, 2012). The book is described as an “exploration of Beethoven’s musical, cultural and political influence today.” It’s available in print and as a $4 e-book from the usual sources. Check it out on his blog; link below.

Beethoven Cover final smallerHis blog Roll Over Beethoven explores a wide range of Beethovenovia to support the book http://journeyswithbeethoven.blogspot.com. Mitchell posts fascinating items and videos about all aspects of Beethoven, as performed by classical, rock and pop performers, writing and film aspects of Beethoven, and even news of a year-long Beethoven-on-Hudson Festival in Nyack NY, which will include “dozens of concerts, film showings, a Marathon at the Mall, and (we hope) a massive choral sing-out in the park, a rocking Beethoven-palooza, dance, a theater piece, and events for and recitals by young folks.”

One question: Is a Beethoven-Palooza something like a Stooge-a-Palooza? (Hint: It used to run on WCIU Chicago.)

The day the music died – or lived forever

Fifty-four years ago today was The Day the Music Died, according to lovers of early rock and roll and the lyrics of the iconic song, “American Pie,” by Don McLean. Early in the morning of Sunday, February 3, 1959, a small plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper (J.T. Richardson), crashed in a snowstorm soon after taking off. The musicians had played at Clear Lake, Iowa, that night and were on the way to Moorhead, Minnesota. They were part of a Midwestern tour called the Winter Dance Party.

buddyhollyHolly died at 22 after only a few years of performing, but his work has influenced many musicians including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. Many people had heard Buddy Holly and the Crickets by then; they had made several records and performed in Europe as well as across the US. He was one of the first performers to write and perform his own music, which reflected country and rockabilly music as well as  R&B. His hiccupy vocal style and the rhythms of early rock and roll still are infectious. And the Crickets’ lineup of two guitars, bass and drums became the template for many small rock bands – and some high profile ones such as U2 and The Gaslight Anthem.*

Contrary to McLean’s lyrics, the music didn’t die that night in 1959. In fact, Holly’s music took on a new life, inspired many musicians and scholars. Holly’s death was devastating to many musicians and fans at the time. In his autobiography, Eric Clapton, who was 13 at the time, says “I remember walking into the school playground … and the place was like a graveyard, and no one could speak, they were in such shock. Of all the music heroes of the time, he (Holly) was the most accessible and he was the real thing.” (Clapton, 2007, Broadway Books.) The Beatles are said to have named their band in homage to the Crickets’ bug-themed name. Bob Dylan tells (in an award-acceptance speech) of seeing Buddy Holly play in Duluth just a few days before, on January 31. People of a certain age will tell you they remember where they were when they heard that Buddy Holly had been killed in a plane crash.

220px-Don_McLean_-_American_PieMcLean’s song was released 12 years after the plane crash. Although superficially it may sound like just a great rock song, every phrase has meaning in the lore of rock and roll. One of the best known lines is: “Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry, Them good ol’ boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye, Singing ‘This’ll be the day that I die, This’ll be the day that I die.’” The first part is said to be a metaphor for the death of the American dream; the latter is adapted from Holly’s song “That’ll Be The Day.”

Try this Super Bowl Day activity if football bores you:  See one of the exegeses that has been made of the line-by-line meaning of “American Pie,” such as The Octopus’s Garden at http://www.rareexception.com/Garden/Garden.php  My favorite story about the song is from Chicago radio station WCFL’s Bob Dearborn, who analyzed the song for listeners in 1972. His story and his analysis are online here http://user.pa.net/~ejjeff/pie.html. (The station is now sports radio WMVP.)

So get out your Buddy Holly and the Crickets CD and join me in listening to a little “Peggy Sue,” “Look at Me” and “That’ll Be the Day.”

For more on Holly, especially the influence of his music after 1959, see Buddy Holly by Dave Laing in the Icons of Pop Music Series published by Indiana University, 2010.

Other music notes ….

* A shoutout to my friend Steve the Scrivener for suggesting I listen to Gaslight Anthem’s CD, The ’59 Sound. Nice punk sound. They do rock. I particularly liked the Springsteen references in “High Lonesome” and “Meet Me by the River’s Edge.”

My other new CD is the Lumineers’ self-titled debut album. They’re a folk rock band with great songs, intriguing melodies, percussion and lyrics. My favorite tracks are “Dead Sea” and their hit single “Ho Hey.” Like Gaslight Anthem, they’re from New Jersey. The Lumineers now are based in Denver.

Not Fade Away: Soundtrack of the ‘60s

I don’t like musicals, on stage or film. I dislike them because they take a perfectly good drama and add egregious singing and dancing that does little to advance the story or explore the characters. (Like James Joyce’s The Dead on stage or Light in the Piazza.) So I won’t be seeing or reviewing Les Miserables (I suggest Victor Hugo’s book instead). But I’m excited about a new film with music titled Not Fade Away — a rock and roll film set in the 1960s.

notfadeawayAs one reviewer said, a great movie is always about more than what it’s about.* Not Fade Away is written and directed by David Chase in his first project since The Sopranos. Chase clearly loves this music. His film is about kids who want to be rock and roll stars. And it has lots of music. Constant music, in fact. But don’t call it a jukebox movie. It’s far more than that. It’s an exploration of the cultural upheaval of the ‘60s – in music, TV, film and politics. And it’s another chapter in the story I started to tell in my earlier essay, The Rock and Roll Escape Route. Rock and roll has often been an escape for teenagers who perceive their families living dreary, ordinary lives that they do not want to repeat.

In Not Fade Away, Doug, an Italian-American kid in New Jersey, and his friends form a band; practice in a family garage, and play teenage gigs. Doug starts on drums and turns out to be a pretty good lead singer. They produce a demo tape and make a contact with a record producer, who outlines for them all the practicing and performing they need to do before they will be ready to audition for a record contract.

There are several subplots, including Doug’s relationship with his father (played by James Gandolfini) who doesn’t understand Doug’s dreams, his long hair or his dress. The romantic subplot involves Grace, a girl from a wealthy family, and includes an unnecessarily complicated subplot about her sister, who suffers mental illness. The band members are unknown actors and do a credible job with the music.

The classic film plot of birth/failure/success is turned on its head by Chase. The story progresses as the band changes character and eventually Doug leaves. The film ends — with Doug in Los Angeles — in a fanciful but ambiguous street scene. (You’ll remember that The Sopranos finale drove many fans crazy. Love ambiguity, I say.)

There’s not a moment in the film where we don’t hear music; the soundtrack is killer. Steve Van Zandt of the E Street Band was the music supervisor and embroiders a masterful rock and roll sound track. Interestingly, the song “Not Fade Away,” written by Buddy Holly and covered by dozens of musicians, is not played in the film. If you’re a music fan, stay and watch all the credits. (Of course, if you’re a real movie fan, you do that anyway.)

Nancy’s rating:  Highly recommended

* Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York, 12/17/12.

Wrigley x 2

Oh, give me the beat boys and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away.

No, Bruce Springsteen didn’t perform the great pop-rock song “Drift Away” in his two Wrigley concerts. But I did get lost in his rock and roll for two nights and it was sublime.

You can find plenty of reviews of these concerts online, as well as complete setlists.  http://www.backstreets.com/setlists.html and http://brucespringsteen.net/. Both were epic nights with setlists highlighted by songs like the 1978 version of “Prove It All Night” with its long instrumental opening, “Spirit in the Night” and “Blinded by the Light” from Springsteen’s first album, Greetings from Asbury Park. And rarities like “My Love Will Not Let You Down” and even “None But the Brave,” which really surprised me.  Fifty-five songs in two nights — a total of 42 different songs in the two setlists.

On both nights, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Tom Morello, the Nightwatchman, of the late great Rage Against the Machine, joined Bruce on stage.  Morello and Springsteen played the powerful electric version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” both nights. Morello’s frenetic solos on his old custom-made “Arm the Homeless” guitar produce  sounds you rarely hear out of a guitar. I’m a big Morello fan.

Eddie Vedder performed two songs with Springsteen each night.  Fine duets on “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “Atlantic City” and “My Hometown.”

Photo at right: Bruce, Eddie, Tom and drummer Max Weinberg.  (Photo by Lois Bernstein from backstreets.com.)

For our family, the highlights were Saturday night.  My grandson James (he’s 14) went to his first Springsteen concert with me. And it rained.  But most significant was the fact that my 7-year-old niece was on her dad’s shoulders when Bruce sang Hungry Heart and made his way down a platform out into the field seats. He was singing to the crowd and high-fiving fans as he walked.  And he stopped and high-fived Juliana and said something like “you go” to her.  It was a priceless moment.

The difference between the two shows, of course, was the rain. Friday night was clear. Saturday night was too, until about two-thirds of the way through the show when a light rain started. And continued.  It never poured. It just rained and rained.  But it didn’t spoil the show and everyone got wet, including the frontman, who spent plenty of time out in the crowd, performing on the platforms built out among the pit and field seats.

Oh, give me the beat boys and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away….