Saturday, October 28, 2006

Bob Dylan Concert Review

Music's Parthenon

There’s something about going to see a legend that makes you go the extra mile. Or in this case, about forty extra. Bob Dylan played the brand new Sears Centre in the northwest suburb Hoffman Estates on Saturday, October 28th. While getting there may have been difficult, seeing someone as significant as Dylan was worth it.

Dylan is one of the few people alive today who has played a role in shaping a generation and changing music. I mean, he’s in history books. But his heyday was forty years ago, and now most people know him by covers from other bands. Remember that famous Jimi Hendrix song “All Along the Watchtower”? That’s Dylan. This man reeks of history. And now touring on his latest critically acclaimed album “Modern Times,” Dylan shows how much the times really are a-changing.

The first noticeable difference is Dylan stays hunched over a keyboard the entire show, only addressing the audience after the encore to introduce the band, letting his band take over most of the music. The days of him playing acoustic solo are long gone. The second, and perhaps worst change is his voice, which has never been noted for its beauty, is now not much more than croaks and barks. His voice at times is recognizable as that from years ago, but most of the time it is hard to understand and painful to listen to. It is almost like a nasalier Tom Waits. For Dylan, who’s voice is sometimes called the voice of the Sixties, it is particularly disappointing to hear how deteriorated it has become over time. Third, for a man with countless brilliant songs, he rearranges them all to make them unrecognizable. In a way it makes the concert more interesting, but only in the way that it keeps you guessing trying to figure out what he’s playing. The songs are not changed for the better either, most have lost their edge and seem much more mundane.

That said, its fascinating watching Dylan. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him during the entire set. You feel as if you’re watching something special and historic every time he makes a movement. I kept thinking that when I got older, I would tell my kids about when I got to see the Bob Dylan in concert, and know that his music would transcend the generations.

Dylan was accompanied by his five-piece band, all in grey suits, while Dylan took stage slightly to the right in an all black suit with a black cowboy hat. The band was flawless, almost too polished. They played an unbelievable set list, playing classic after classic. The songs, however, were hit or miss. The new arrangements left some songs lacking their previous bite, like on the racial protest song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which lost its intensity and became laid back and almost sing-songy. Likewise, on the brilliant “It’s Alright Ma, (I’m Only Bleeding),” Dylan’s voice obscured perhaps his best lyrics of his career, by him speeding up the delivery and singing very gruffly.

However, sometimes the arrangements worked, perhaps because the tended to be closer to their original sound. On “Positively 4th Street,” Dylan delivered the lyrics very clearly and with the same force as he did in the Sixties. “Hollis Brown” became spooky and Dylan sang delicately to accompany the mood of the song. The new songs, which there were surprisingly only three, were also standouts. “Rumblin’ and Tumblin’” was the most energetic song of the night and even more explosive than on the record. Dylan closed with fan favorites “All Along the Watchtower” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” He played harmonica on a couple of songs to fan’s delight, and whenever he would was an instant highlight.

The Kings of Leon opened, which was a curious choice for someone to open for Dylan. The blistering southern rock group was not appreciated by the mostly baby boomer audience. They played twelve songs, and the faster songs, like “Molly’s Chambers” and “Taper Jean Girl” were full of energy. The slower ones tended to drag on, but they kept to the more rocking ones usually.

Seeing Dylan play is like visiting the Parthenon, it was probably a lot better when it was new, but at the same time, you know you are seeing something important. The heightened mystique around Dylan in recent years only added to the excitement of seeing him in person. However, a lot of the time it felt like a letdown and gave me the feeling of watching the man who used to be Bob Dylan. The show may not have been all that great, but the experience was.

Rating: 2.5/4

Friday, October 20, 2006

Lou Pinella Column

Feelin’ Lou-py
by Scott Bolohan
Staff Writer

Oh, Cubbies. You’ve done it again. Lou Pinella was completely wrong guy for the job of defending National League Central 6th place Chicago Cubs. However, Wrigley Field will at least be a more interesting or dangerous place to be. They might need to amend the "beware that batted or thrown balls and other objects may enter the stands" warning to specifically include bases, hats, shoes, middle relievers, and anything else Lou can get his hands on. It’s going to be a long season. On the bright side, Pinella will bring fire that was missing under the tenure of Dusty Baker.

Although pretty much any other human being would have brought more intensity than Baker, they didn’t need to bring in a guy who wrestled one of his relievers in the early ‘90s. The Cubs should benefit from his presence, but mostly because it would be hard to see them doing any worse. However, Pinella has been a pretty good manager in the past, without a doubt. His .517 career winning percentage, two Manager of the Year Awards, and one World Series ring attest to this. But it should be noted that the difference with those teams were that they were actually good and not cursed.

On the down side, Pinella’s addition means that the Cubs will probably try to pour more money into free agents. Not that I don’t love last year’s "big" free agent acquisition Jacque Jones (OK, so I pretty much despise him), but if there is anything this club should realize, is that wasting money on free agents doesn’t keep the fans happy, although Old Style dulls this effect. Winning really makes them happy. Come September, the ever-loyal Cubs fans stopped flocking to Wrigley, leaving many open seats for the first time in years.

Looking at the teams in this year’s playoffs, it’s easy to see that their success was from their nucleus of young, homegrown talent. Players like Jose Reyes, Justin Verlander, Albert Pujols all came up through their team’s farm system. Only after establishing a core of good young players did these teams dip into the free agents market. While the Cubs have had some success with developing prospects in the past (if you want to call Mark Prior and Kerry Wood successes), and most noticeable now with Rich Hill, rebuilding the team should be their first priority, not bloating the payroll.

However, the hiring of Pinella seems to signal the latter. Unless the roster undergoes major changes, it would be hard to expect them to be in the playoffs in the duration of Pinella's three-year contract. That is, assuming the Cubs don’t start to rebuild. But if they just keep delaying the inevitable with old and overpriced stop-gap free agents, it will push their timetable for success further and further back.
As history shows, Pinella is no fan of rebuilding. When he took over the 55-win Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2003, where he specifically wanted to go to be closer to home, the next three years his win totals were 63, 70 and 67, finishing out of the cellar only one of those years, when he was forth place in the division. He ended up leaving the Devil Rays on bad terms, saying he was upset with the ownership’s commitment to winning. Those Devil Rays teams had more young talent that the current Cubs team by any measure, and now he takes over the current 66-win Cubs. Sound familiar?

It is surprising that the Cubs didn’t pursue more heavily the other main candidate, former Florida Marlins manager (and Illinois native) Joe Giradi, who took a very young and inexpensive Marlins team to the brink of the playoffs. Girardi would have been more patient with the Cubs and has already shown success motivating young players. Under Girardi, the Cubs would have been able to start a plan to inject more youth into the team while perhaps remaining somewhat competitive. Considering Pinella’s history with rebuilding, there would be very little chance that he would have agreed to manage if he was told that was their plan of action.

Pinella has already said he wants disgruntled New York Yankees third basemen Alex Rodriguez on his team. As my great-grandmother would say, "It’s good to want." It will be very interesting to see how the Cubs plan to do this with such little talent at the major league and upper minors levels. The only conceivable way that they could land Rodriguez is if they give up young pitching, which as Oakland and Detroit have recently shown, is the way to build winners. It would be great to see the surefire future Hall of Famer Rodriguez in a Cubs uniform, but another high priced superstar who has struggled under the New York pressure is not exactly the ideal fit for a team not going anywhere fast.

While Pinella will bring a new attitude to the team, his success will only be as good as the players. Pinella’s past frustration in building a winner with the Devil Rays should really not change just because he’s heading a couple hundred miles north. Under Pinella, the Cubs will be thinking about short term improvements, while ignoring the already bleak long term troubles the team faces. The Cubs really botched this move, but given the last 98 years, that really shouldn’t surprise anyone.

This appeared in the October 20, 2006 edition of The DePaulia

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Jose Gonzalez Concert Review

The Lonely Swedish

You may not have heard of Jose Gonzalez, and if you haven’t, your assumptions about him would probably be wrong. The Swedish singer/songwriter (born to Argentinean parents) came to Chicago on October 15th, crooning his exotic Nick Drake/Paul Simon influenced solo acoustic songs to a packed Lakeshore Theater.

His haunting songs were helped out significantly by the small size of the 342 seat Lakeshore Theater, creating at times the intimacy of a high school talent show. The place was so quiet that his foot taps could be heard vividly. Gonzalez sat center stage, bearded and wearing a plaid shirt giving off a Bob Dylan Nashville Skyline vibe, with his lone acoustic guitar rolling through twelve songs in 45 minutes, mostly from his 2005 release Veneer with the odd Kylie Minogue cover (“Hand on My Heart”) thrown in for fun. Gonzalez has been no stranger to Chicago, this being his third time since the summer playing here after he was the surprise of the Intonation Music Fest. He appeared here last month opening and playing alongside Zero 7, where he is featured on their latest release. This was his first time headlining, and at times his inexperience with the role of the headliner showed.

Gonzalez took little time and jumped right into his soft and sometimes gorgeous music, as he breezed though his set. He seemed almost robotic with the solemn and unflinching expression he gave throughout the show. He barely acknowledged the audience, often playing with his eyes half closed and hardly any banter in between songs besides a “thank you” here and there. The very personal setting was perfect for Gonzalez to make a connection with the audience but he showed some reluctance to speak with his accented and sometimes hard to understand voice. He didn’t seem nervous, in fact, he seemed very confident on stage, but he never appeared to be fully invested in his performance. He began to countdown the number of songs he had left to play at five, giving an update at two, bringing awkward laughter from the crowd. The only time that Gonzalez broke from his shell was when a fan was shouting a request for “Save Your Day,” and he replied flatly with a no, and told a story about how in Sweden the have a saying, “You have to be hard to the soft people,” drawing an equal number of laughs and confused looks from the crowd of mostly college students.

However, Gonzalez kept the attention of the audience with his bare bones performance. His finger picking was fascinating to witness. He filled the room with sound with just his acoustic guitar, at times making it seem as if there were two or three other people playing with him. The most emotion he showed was with his picking. He would strum furiously, especially on songs like “All You Deliver” and “Deadweight on Velveteen” bringing the songs to life, while on “Slow Moves” and “Lovestain” he would quiet down the guitar and let his eerie voice take over as the main instrument. These songs were the perfect background to an autumn night with their mysterious air about them.

Nina Nastasia was the opener, and she was basically a female Jose Gonzalez. Her solo acoustic act at times had her sounding like Nora Jones. She at least tried to converse with the audience, which led to awkwardly funny GPS stories and her marching around the stage because she wasn’t used to all the room. Her charm was welcomed, something missing from Gonzalez’s set.

Gonzalez’s set showed why there hasn’t been much success for the solo acoustic acts in music for around forty years. His personality isn’t nearly charismatic enough and the songs were just about the same as they were on the CD. Having all of the attention was a blessing and a burden to Gonzalez. His technique was very impressive, but his lack of personality while sitting for the whole show could put people to sleep with the calming music he plays. The music, however, was excellent, and at times captivating, but there was not much in the way of visuals. The short set made the whole show seem like an expensive coffee house show. Gonzalez is full of talent, but his performance left more to be desired.

Rating: 2.5/4

Friday, October 6, 2006

Beck "The Information" Review

The Future Beckons
Album Review by
Scott Bolohan Staff Writer

Beck has always been a musical chameleon. He weaves in and out of genres and personas with each new album. From slacker to 70’s disco star, from rapper to heartbroken folk singer, Beck has always managed to create new and unexpected sounds. On The Information, Beck has, more so than ever, managed to take the listener on surprising twists and turns, all while arriving at a way to bring the fun back into buying a CD in the digital music era.

With The Information, Beck has embraced the 21st century. He leaked tracks on his website and video clips on MySpace well before the albums release. Upon picking up the actual CD, the first noticeable thing is the blank album cover with a packet of stickers, so that the listener can personalize the cover artwork. Also, each track is accompanied by a gloriously cheesy music video. The videos feature everything from people rapping in bear costumes to rifles being used as air guitars, and the homemade feel of the videos seem to fit the music perfectly. The Information becomes an experience in itself, where it can be touched, seen and, most importantly, heard.

Producer Nigel Godrich collaborates with Beck again, after working on Mutations and Sea Change together. On those albums, the production was sparse. This time, Godrich makes himself more visible, adding to the vast array of sounds heard on the album. He particularly excels on the albums darker songs, making them feel more along the lines of his work with Radiohead.

The Information starts out with a bang, with the first three songs standing out as among the best of his career. The percussion heavy "Elevator Music" is a non-traditional song featuring whistling, beeps, clicks, scratches and phone samples. The next song, "Think I’m In Love" is an insanely catchy pop song with Beck’s most personal lyrics on the album. The piano soaked refrain of "Think I’m in love/But it makes me kind of nervous to say so" stands out as a particularly confessional line. He follows that with the funky "Cellphone’s Dead," which features video game beeps, a Latin influence and samples of children.

The 15 track album is very disjointed, in many cases with each proceeding song encompassing a completely different genre and feel. He goes from the country influenced "Strange Apparition," with a piano reminiscent of Coldplay, to the soft lullaby feel of "New Round," to the infectious electronic of "We Dance Alone," to straightforward acoustic with "No Complaints." "1000BPM" is the most bizarre song, as Beck raps over a jumble of different looped percussive noises. The outcome is interesting, but really never gels. "Dark Star" feels like it could have fit on his last release, Guero, with its hollow feeling and a chorus with soaring strings that make the song feel almost sinister. The quirky "Motorcade," perhaps the masterpiece of the album, is backed by an electronic drumbeat with a simple guitar melody layered with synthesizers. It all creates a brilliant blend of noise, which would seemingly be pumped out of a stereo on a spaceship. The dizzying amount of sounds give a glimpse into Beck’s creativity and talent. He has always excelled because he was reinventing himself, and it’s in full force on this album.

On the downside, the hour long disc tends to drag on in parts, particularly "Soldier Jane" and "Movie Theme," which go nowhere. The ten minute album closer, "The Horrible Fanfare, Landslide, Exoskeleton" is a modern "Revolution 9," interweaving samples from earlier tracks over a dark groove. It is fascinating, until it closes with director Spike Jonze and author David Eggers speaking about space travel, which is why man created the skip button.

While it may not be a party album like Midnight Vultures and Odelay were, The Information instead is a perfect album for the iPod obsessed culture. It’s not his most accessible work, but his most sonically diverse. With The Information, Beck has created the album of the future.
Score: 3.5/4.0

This appeared in the October 6, 2006 edition of The DePaulia