Great Chicago Fire Festival, Better Luck Next Year

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Other than professional sports, I try to take advantage of all Chicago has to offer, from dining to neighborhood diversity, storefront theater, gallery shows, and public art. When it comes to live music, my focus tends toward the classical variety, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, choir and organ concerts, and season tickets for Lyric Opera (for the past 20 years!)

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First set of the night at Andy’s Jazz Club.

But when it comes to jazz and blues (Chicago’s own!) I’m something of a slacker. Thanks to the gumption of friends, I’m filling in the gaps with visits to local music venues made famous by the likes of The Green Mill (which I finally visited for the first time this year.) Last night, it was Andy’s Jazz Club for dinner and a couple of sets of a quartet led by a talented, and loud, trumpeter. (Probably not the best choice for any conversation.)

We were downtown and just a few blocks from where the real action was last night–the first annual Great Chicago Fire Festival, put on by one of my favorite theater companies, Redmoon. At about 6:30, crowds had already started to form along the Chicago River, between the Michigan Avenue and State Street bridges. I walked across the State Street bridge for a view of one of the floating buildings, due to alight at eight o’clock, when flaming cauldrons would be lowered from the bridges.

Unfortunately, the weather (a tremendous amount of rain fell over the previous day) and technical difficulties prevented the building bonfires to go off as scheduled, and in some cases at all. By all reports, the flames were minimal and the pyrotechnics mostly confined to the brief fireworks display that was originally to follow the buildings burning away to reveal surprises hidden inside. Sadly, with such a lengthy delay and pathetic payoff, many disappointed spectators left early, missing a parade of grass boats (kayaks) that sounded like quite something to see.

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Guarding a cauldron and what turned out to be an inflammable prop house on the river.

By the time I left the jazz club, the Fire Festival should have been wrapping up, however it had yet to burn. People were three-deep to the riverfront, and the bridge was packed with some standing on the metal railing dividing the pedestrian walkway from traffic. I couldn’t see a thing, nor was I willing (or able) to climb a tree, as some did, for a better view. Instead, we walked a few blocks over to Xoco and grabbed a churro snack–the best churros, anywhere, hands down–before beating the crowds home on the el.

I’m disappointed the event didn’t succeed and feel bad for all the volunteers who put in many hours to create the spectacle. The floating buildings certainly looked impressive (and so Redmoonesque) but the execution was obviously flawed. We needed Robin Hood with a flaming arrow to save the day or at least tarps covering the structures, preventing them from becoming waterlogged in the rain.

Hopefully the city will treat this as a dress rehearsal (albeit an expensive one) and make adjustments for next year. I’m sure the first Macy’s Day Parade didn’t go off without a few hitches. It was nice to see a cross-section of Chicago gathering together at the river, despite the unseasonable cold (there were snow flurries that morning!) Colorful buildings floating on the Chicago River, set off by the amazing cityscape around them, were definitely something to see; it would have really been something had the  spectacle ignited as planned.

Purging the CD Collection

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Fifteen years in the making, 60-minutes to cull down from five shelves to two. All of it is in digital form and I only kept those discs I love or have sentimental attachment to or know they'll get a chance at rotating through the car stereo system. And when the day comes and my digital music is piped directly through the car (with the ease of plugging the iPhone in the dash,) the remaining discs will hit the road too.

Pandora Radio is My Co-Pilot

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Friday, 28 January

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Pandora has been the soundtrack of my life pretty much non-stop this past week. It satisfies my craving for new music while serving up a nice mix of favorites. I love that it goes where I go, always with me on my iPhone, and whether I'm listening with the phone or the laptop, I can pipe the music through the stereo speakers.

My New Theme Song: This Too Shall Pass

I previously mentioned the very clever videos the band OK Go created for their song This Too Shall Pass. I finally got around to downloading the song itself to my iTunes library, and in listening to it anew, I realized the lyrics were especially apropos for me right now.

So here it is again, in case you need a little something to get the weekend off on a positive note. Personally, the marching band version seems to fit my upbeat outlook right now more than the Rube Goldberg machine version. (Which, if you're a fan of and what to know in detail how they did it, there's a great interactive feature on their website here. Click on the map and have fun.)

Operating Room Mix Tape

There is a soundtrack to my life and music is a very big part of it. Music, all kinds of it, elevates my mood, fuels my walk, energizes my life, and speaks to my soul. So, it was very natural for me to want to know what music, if any, would be playing in the operating room during my surgery. What soundtrack would be feeding my subconscious (or should I say unconscious) while I'm out on the table and the medical team is doing their thing all around (and in) me?

I was curious, so I asked, near the end of my meeting with my plastic surgeon. (I kicked myself for forgetting to ask my primary surgeon.) The plastic surgeon was a bit vague. She wouldn't commit any songs or artists, just mentioned that she likes to listen to mellow music and that the team usually plays something more upbeat to get them going for the closing (no pun intended.)

Karen (who was there when I asked the original question) took the idea and ran with it on a recent Facebook post and I'm doing the same here.

So, surgical mix tape ideas?

Everybody Hurts by REM, Bodysnatchers by Radiohead, Brickhouse by The Commodores, How We Operate by Gomez, Comfortably Numb by Scissor Sisters…

You get the idea. Go crazy.

CSO Tales From Tchaikovsky

CsoredmoonIf you’re looking for something festive to do this weekend–well as festive as listening to music from a pair of tragic love stories can be–I’d suggest the Tales from Tchaikovsky program the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is running through the weekend.

I saw it last night as part of my Afterworks Masterworks series and was pleasantly surprised to see it was in collaboration with Redmoon Theater. Incidental music from the The Snow Maiden included narration which greatly added to the emotional impact of the music.

The second work was Swan Lake, which, beautiful as it is, has become so cliche in my mind that I thought I never needed to hear it again. Wrong. Hearing it live was quite amazing. In addition, Redmoom has created a shadowplay presentation using overhead projectors and paper cutouts to dramatize the story with cinematic touches reminiscent of silent film. Two teams of puppeteers on either side of the stage and behind the orchestra, worked in time with the music. A large screen over the stage used video cameras trained on each projector’s screen to combine the images in real-time. It was a unique and entertaining way to tell the story.

Greg Laswell in Concert

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I’m probably one of the few people not to have discovered Greg Laswell’s music through TV or the movies. (He’s obviously a favorite of Hollywood music directors.) I discovered him through KCRW’s song of the day podcast. (A great source of new music–and free songs–by the way.)

Since I first caught Laswell’s song “How the Day Sounds” last year, it’s been in frequent rotation on my iPod and the entire album, Three Flights from Alto Nido, has been one I come back to again and again.

Completely by chance, I learned on Monday that he would be in town for an acoustic performance last night at a venue so close to me I could walk there. And am I ever glad I did! I’d never been to Space (the venue attached to the Union pizza place in Evanston) and this was a great first experience. The space was intimate and Laswell, who turned out to be a pretty funny guy and extremely personable in between songs, had an easy rapport with the audience. It was low key and almost had the feeling that we were all just hanging out in the basement (a really cool basement, mind you) listening to a friend play guitar and sing.

And sing he did. I really like Laswell’s voice, his musicality and the stories he tells with his songs. It was just him up there with a guitar and piano, and he held everyone rapt for the hour and a half he was on stage. He performed old and new songs, including a number of tunes off his just-released Covers album (including a great “In Spite of Me” and one of my favorite Kate Bush songs, “This Woman’s Work”.)

Laswell was fantastic and he seemed to be having as good a time as the two-hundred-some fans in the audience. He expressed an interest in coming back again, this time with his band in tow, and you know I’ll be there.