Milk, Jens and Third: A few of my favorite things..

I had originally hoped to start the new year here with another “Best beats” post similar to last year’s, but as I went to work on the year-end summary, the list format just wasn’t working for me.. I was fortunate enough to engage with art of so many different varieties in the past year, that a bulleted list just didn’t seem to do it justice. Here’s my attempt at encapsulating a banner year of artistic appreciation chronologically-ish.

When I began to think back on all of the live music I have witnessed in the past year, it was especially hard to choose a favorite. And then, my mind drifted back to a lovely spring evening in the history-filled Old Music Hall on the University of Wisconsin’s infamous Bascom Hill. Jens Lekman is a musical genius, and his performance that evening was breathtaking.

Running late to the show, which I was staffing as part of my internship duties with a music promoter, I stumbled into the theater just in time to catch the end of Lekman’s sound check – a nearly private performance of “Your Arms Around Me,” off of the Swede’s critically-acclaimed and fan-adored 2007 album Night Falls Over Kortedala. Later that evening, before a packed house of university hipsters happy to have such a wonderful excuse to spend a Sunday night avoiding the library, Lekman and his band lilted through their set list with a whimsical and charming style that filled the room. This show certainly deserves the stamp of “best show of the year” from me.

Springtime was home to a number of other fantastic shows which served as excellent distractions to my final semester as a college student in Madison. Leslie Hall made me a believer, once more, in the power of the gem sweater with her sparkling (though too short) set at the High Noon in March. Stars sparkled at the Barrymore. Ra Ra Riot proved why they’ve received blog buzz up to wazoo — these kids are going places fast. Tegan and Sara were their adorable, witty selves — though the mostly 18-minus audience of screaming adolescent girls made me feel out of place and… uncomfortable. And in May, at the Annex, The Kills killed. Their shows have a performance art, voyeuristic quality to them – like you’re watching a private, intimate moment between lovers while peaking through their living room window.

The spring also brought with it the release of my favorite album of the year. Around a month after the Lekman show, on April 29, I ran to the record store to pick up Portishead‘s first original release in over a decade, Third. To say that the album exceeded my expectations would be one sin of an understatement. The album is brilliant, continuing Beth Gibbons and company’s pension for music that creates the soundtrack of loneliness and despair. The single “The Rip,” featured in the video below, is a particular favorite of mine. This is music that, much like P-Head’s previous releases, will stand the test of time and cement their position as rock, er, so-called “trip hop,” legends.

And then it was summer. The official new owner of a very expensive piece of paper, I began waiting tables with the same zeal I had usually reserved for racing through poorly-written essays toward the finish line of a rapidly-approaching due-date. I also sold edible, flower-shaped fruit baskets to middle-aged women. But more importantly than that, it was my last summer of pure “freedom.” Of course, I saw the Sex and the City movie. And of course, I cried. This was required — otherwise, I risked losing the precious gay card (on which I’d only recently had my credit limit increased..). And there were Hellboy and Twilight, both of which were less impressive. Thanks to more recently viewed films like Doubt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Milk (which I’ll talk about more later), the year’s unimpressive cinematic lineup was mostly salvaged in my mind.

The summer’s main jewel was a weekend trip to Chicago for the Pitchfork Music Festival. The hot, summer weekend spent out in the sun basking in glorious sets from Animal Collective, !!!, Dodos and M. Ward, to name just a few of the highlights, was a fantastic send-off to summer, and an excellent preview to the city which I would shortly thereafter call home. Bon Iver was a particularly great way to wind down from Sunday’s craziness, as his music played just as well to the sweaty, dehydrated masses as it did at the Orpheum Stage Door for his April show in Madison. Only disappointments: Vampire Weekend‘s far too tame set (are they the most overrated band of the year? Discuss) and missing Cut Copy‘s set due to their tardiness and my own lack of sobriety/patience.

Since calling Chicago my permanent home, my financial position has precluded enjoying as much live music as I would’ve liked to, but I still managed to make it out of the apartment for quite a few notable shows: Andrew Bird, free of charge, at Jay Pritzker Pavilion; Lykke Li, bouncing around the Empty Bottle stage; El Guincho, launching a hipster dance pit to their infectious fusion beats. In early December, Amanda Palmer played the Metro, proving that she can rock the stage solo just as well as when she performed as half of the Dresden Dolls earlier in the year at a January show at the Vic. Another bonus of the Palmer show, which surprisingly had the most diverse audience in terms of age and appearance of any other show attended this year, was the on-stage appearance of Neil Gaiman. Gaiman read had an excerpt from his upcoming book collaboration with Palmer. The show kicked outrageous amounts of ass — don’t miss any opportunity that you have to see this fabulous performer live. You won’t regret it. Not a chance.

And finally, I have to give a shout-out to the movie that really made me cry like a baby — moving me to the core with its ironic relevance to today’s political landscape facing the LGBT community. Milk is an incredible film, and it (as well as Sean Penn) deserves all of the accolades coming its way. Harvey Milk died at the hands of misunderstanding and ignorance of the same grain as that which allowed Prop. 8 to pass in California. Although it is true, as the movie said, that “you have to give them hope,” hope alone is no longer going to cut it. I hope that this film inspires all those who see it to call out and stand against prejudice and double-standards whenever you see them — such as the apparently new law that it is illegal to fly while Muslim.

Yay for art! I need a nap.


Big city livin’

A lot of people have been asking me what life has been like since moving to the “big city” [i.e. Chicago] and I suppose the time has come for something resembling a more standard update on my life in the past several weeks.

I just yesterday returned from a weekend trip to Madison to partake in the inaugural Forward Music Festival and visit with friends. The festival was mostly enjoyable, effectively satiating my craving for live music, and was a thrifty deal, at $25 for a weekend pass. Tsk tsk to festival organizers for switching the Saturday schedule at the last minute and causing me to miss the performance of The Dials, a Chicago-based band — this was not the only changed or grossly off-schedule occurrence that happened during the festival. That said, Neko Case, Leslie and the LY’s and Flosstradamus alone were worth the price of admission, not to mention the bits and scraps of many other talented performers that I was able to catch over the course of the weekend. And I’m hoping to catch Thao Nguyen (whose set I also, unfortunately, missed at FMF) at the Hotel Cafe stop in Madison later this fall.

For those of you unaware of the grandeur that is Ames, Iowa-bred, gem sweater-wearing Leslie Hall, feast your eyes post haste:

Just a few weeks prior, I was fortunate enough to catch another of my favorite live musicians in a free outdoor show downtown, when Andrew Bird played the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park. The selection of songs was spectacular — from the many newly-penned songs played to the glorious ‘Fake Palindromes’, which inspired a mass audience migration to the stage — and were enhanced by both the picturesque backdrop of the park’s scenery and the bottle of merlot that my roommate and I split. The next time this man comes into your town, do not hesitate to clear your calendar and check him out.

Andrew Bird against the backdrop of the beautiful Pritzker Pavilion.
Bird playing against the backdrop of the beautiful Pritzker Pavilion.

My occupation at this moment would technically be “freelance writer,” though this is hardly full-time, nor is it paying the bills, which has made a profound impact on the amount of time I’ve been able to devote to this blog, in addition to my choices of entertainment. If you’re interested in reading some of my work, spotlighting talented queer Chicagoans, check out my recent articles from EDGE Chicago, featuring the co-founders of the Bare Boned Theatre company and singer-songwriter Ian Wilson.

Beyond that, my other work as a writer: (a) Angry insomnia-induced blog rants on a certain hockey mother, (b) Dozens upon dozens of cover letters, (c) The beginnings of a manuscript — yes, a manuscript, tentatively titled Adventures in Wonderland.

The manuscript is turning out to be based very much on my own life, drawing inspiration from everything ranging from Sylvia Plath poetry to subway performance artists. It is about the adventures of a young gay man new to a large urban setting in a world of vigilant social networking, intrusive advertising, online dating sites, divisive and a wilting economy. It’s about disappointment, fear and naivety coming head to head with hope, optimism and love. Wandering lost through the world at the very time when you’re expected to be found. Keep your eyes out for a preview to be released on this blog before Halloween.

In addition to writing, I’ve been spending some time volunteering, which has been a total blast. Two weekends ago — during that freakish flood of the city — I had the treat of participating in the fabulously ornate Aware Affair: Superheroes fundraiser, hosted at the MCA Loft by the Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN). My duty? Wander the glamorous space with a clipboard in one hand and a drink (compliments of the open bar) in the other with my very own personal male-model-hero.

This boy — who was STRAIGHT, who knew!? — was just one of many models who showed up for the gig as eye candy for the predominantly male guests. I had to laugh when he expressed concern over the amount of attention that he was receiving from some of the older men at the event — did he not realize that he was covered only in tiny briefs, glitter and body paint? I’m not sure what the expectation was, but I’m thankful that I was paired with this particular heterosexual male model-musician-student instead of the Republican in the red briefs who spent ten minutes explaining to me why John McCain’s military experience alone should be reason enough to secure any vote, regardless of any lacking in the Palin department.

Attacked by the Hulk.
Attacked by the Hulk.

‘Til next time, I’m outzo.