Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"The Fifth Beatle" author speaks at C2E2 about Brian Epstein's influence


"The Fifth Beatle" goes a long way in ensuring that Brian Epstein's contributions to the success of The Beatles will not be forgotten.

The New York Times best-selling graphic novel is based on the life on the life of the Beatles' manager and was written by Vivek Tiwary, an award-winning producer of Broadway shows. I had the chance to interview him during his recent appearance at the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo.

Q - How were you inspired to do a graphic novel on Brian Epstein?

I discovered the Brian Epstein story 21 years ago, when I was at business school. I'm a life-long Beatles fan, and I was dreaming about working in the entertainment industry.

Believing that The Beatles and Brian Epstein were the team that wrote the rules of the pop music business, I thought I should study the life of Brian Epstein.

And so I was looking for The Beatles' business stories. I wanted to know how did he get them a record deal, when every label had passed on them? 

How did he come up with the suits and the haircuts? How did he convince Ed Sullivan to book the band, when a British band had never made an impact in the United States?

These were the stories that I was chasing. And I uncovered them and they're great stories and they're in the book. And if you are a Beatles fan, they are a particular treat.

But what really inspired me about the Brian Epstein story and the reason I stuck with it all these years is the human side of the story that I uncovered. In brief, he was gay and Jewish and from Liverpool.

And in the 1960s, those were pretty significant obstacles. It was against the law to be gay. It was literally a felony.

There was pervasive anti-Semitism, far more than there is today. And Liverpool was a town that had no cultural influence.

So you've got this gay Jewish man running around Liverpool saying, "I've found a local band, and they're going to be bigger than Elvis. They're going to elevate pop music into an art form."

And that's what I found so inspiring. As a young person of Indian origin, making my way in graphic novels and Broadway producing, I could really relate to that sense of being an outsider.

Q - What kind of research did you do?

As I said, I discovered the story 21 years ago. I like saying for two reasons. One is that I turned 40 last year, so I can literally say that I've been working on this book for more than half my life.

But also, putting it in perspective, 21 years ago, there was no YouTube, there's no Google, there are none of these online resources we so take for granted these days. And "The Fifth Beatle," www.thefifthbeatle.com, is the only book in print about Brian Epstein.

So I didn't really have a choice but to do interviews. So what I did was I got my hands on every respected Beatles book that I could find, and I'd read these 300-page books about the Beatles, and I would get 10 good pages about Brian.

But then I slowly put a portrait together about who were the people who knew him the best. And literally, I just called those folks. I tracked them down. 

After they realized I was legitimate and that my heart was in the right place, they were willing to talk to me. These folks slowly opened up to me over the years, and I got The Beatles stories I was after, but eventually they started telling me about Brian's personal life.

But that's how I researched this book, was through endless amount of interviews. Anytime I could track down anyone who had some memory of Brian, or worked with him or was a client, that's how this book came together.

Andrew Loog Oldham, the original manager of the Rolling Stones, who got his first job working for Brian; Billy J. Kramer, who was one of Brian Epstein's other clients and was a hit artist in the 1960s in the UK in his own right; Sid Bernstein, the legendary concert promoter who brought The Beatles over to the United States; Nat Weiss, who was The Beatles' American attorney and probably Brian's best friend and closest confidant, these are all people who were incredibly supportive of this book and who were incredibly impactful in my research.

Q - Probably getting a hold of Paul or Ringo was a little more difficult. Did you get anything from them?

Absolutely. McCartney in particular is a huge fan of the book. He wrote us a really lovely letter saying that he liked the book and that he was happy with the way we portrayed Brian. 
As a huge Beatles fan, what an amazing thing to get a letter from Paul McCartney.

Q - Was that the icing on the cake?

There have been so many icings on this cake, I gotta tell you. The past few months have been like a dream come true. Last week, we were just nominated for two Eisner awards, which are the comic industry's highest awards.

So that was a huge honor. A few months before that, we were also nominated Lambda Literary Award, which is for best LGBT graphic novel. It's the first year they even had a graphic novel category, so that was amazing.

Q - Peyton Reed, who directed such movies as "Yes Man," "Bring It On," "Down with Love" and "The Break-Up," is directing the film version of "The Fifth Beatle," and it will be produced by Bruce Cohen, known for his work on "American Beauty" and "Silver Linings Playbook." How did you connect with them?

Peyton Reed came to us. He's a huge comic fan. He heard about the graphic novel and heard that we were making a film.

He had worked with Bruce Cohen before on "Down with Love." I met with Peyton and he's incredible. We share the same vision for this.

Bruce Cohen also produced one of my favorite films, "Big Fish," and he adopted "Big Fish" for Broadway. We met when he was in New York producing "Big Fish."

He was sort of a very established film producer making inroads on Broadway, and I was kind of the opposite. I was a very Broadway producer making inroads into film, so we had mutual interests.

I felt that the Brian Epstein story would probably appeal to him given the other movies he's produced. The DNA of "The Fifth Beatle" is in all of those films that he produced.

Q - Your Broadway productions have won 25 Tony awards. Why do you think they have been so well-received? Is there anything in particular you are trying to do with each production?

Music is my first love, and you will see that all of my projects have some sort of music core.
All my Broadway shows have been musicals, with one exception, and that was "A Raisin In The Sun." And with "A Raisin In The Sun," I cast Sean Combs, otherwise known as P. Diddy.

And we marketed that production like you would market a hip-hop record. We hired street teams, we did radio promotion, we did things that you never do for Broadway shows.

So I would say that the one common thread in all of my work is music. Music is in everything that I do.

I guess I'm also very passionate about outsider stories, about folks who are least likely to succeed going the distance in whatever they are passionate about. And I think that is a common thread in all of my projects. 

"American Idiot" is about that, young people trying to make their way in a confused world.

Right now, I'm working with Alanis Morissette to adopt "Jagged Little Pill" to the stage. And in some ways, that's also going to be about an outsider story.

Music and inspirational human stories, those are the two things that I love.

I think that it is a story worth telling on stage, and I also believe that Broadway doesn't have enough musicals with strong female voices. I also feel that Alanis' songs are kind of tailor made for the stage.

Q - Do you think Brian Epstein would approve of "The Fifth Beatle?"

I think so. You'll never know, but I think he would have been very happy with this project, and certainly people who knew him have been very enthusiastic.

People who knew Brian have told me that they think he would be very proud of it.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Chicago band Vintage Blue shows off expanded sound on new EP


Chicago band Vintage Blue is not the type of band to stand still.

The band's sound continues to evolve, as evident on Vintage Blue's new EP, "No Going Back."

In celebration of the new CD, Vintage Blue, www.vintagebluemusic.com, will perform May 2 at Metro, 3730 N. Clark St., Chicago. The Future Laureates, The Ivorys and Mike Golden and Friends also are on the bill.

The show starts at 8:30 p.m. and advance tickets are $11, available at www.etix.com.

I had the chance to talk to Vintage Blue's Ben Bassett about the new EP.

Q - Great talking to you again. Of course, the band will be performing at Metro on May 2 to celebrate the release of your new EP, "No Going Back." What were your goals for the EP and do you think you accomplished them?

Thanks for checking out the new EP! Our goal on this endeavor was a focused effort to create a record that contained the best of the best. We wanted to present songs that fit into the current music landscape, while also staying true to our rock roots.

We worked on these songs for nearly two years and culled through nearly 60 to 70 tunes. We are very happy with the songs we created and the feedback we have been getting is great as people have responded well to every track.

Q - Is there a story behind the EP's name? The video for the song has been getting a lot of views. What was the concept for the video?

Choosing the name of a song, an album, or even a pet can be a crazy process. Input from a million people, friends, family, etc can be overwhelming. However, this one came pretty easy.

As a group, we all loved the title track "No Going Back" and when it was suggested we just use that as a album name, we all agreed. Probably the easiest band discussion we have ever had.

From there, the ideas flowed into doing a music video and the cover art and developing a story in the record.

The idea for the video was a collection of ideas from different band members. [Vocalist, guitarist] Ryan Tibbs had the idea for the transition of black and white to color through a Groundhog's Day type sequence, where the protagonist is constantly reliving days, but during each day there are elements of color added until eventually she finds something and gains her own color. 

It was my idea to incorporate an artist that would be painting through the video, and that the painting would ultimately become our album cover. Paul Rodriguez did an absolutely AMAZING job on the painting, so making it our cover art was an easy decision.

Q - The band raised $15,000 through Kickstarter to help make the EP. Does the fact that EP is now done mean even more to the band knowing that your fans contributed to making it?

The success of the Kickstarter was truly humbling. When we first picked that number we were really nervous. 

As many people know, if you do not reach the number, NONE of the money gets delivered. We were preparing backup plans to cover amounts and all sorts of craziness.

We are proud to say that our family, friends and fans made it happen all on their own and we could not be more grateful. Making an album is always a long and wild journey, but holding the EP in our hand now, knowing it happened because of our Kickstarter is definitely very rewarding.

Q - Last year, you guys played at Taste of Chicago for the first time. How was that experience and what is the band's next goal?

Yes! Taste of Chicago was such a great experience for us. 

Everyone at the City of Chicago Events Department were so helpful and complimentary of the band. It was a beautiful day last year and we had a blast seeing all the bands that shared the stage with us! 

The goals for us are always changing. Our big goal this year was to expand our festival reach outside Chicago. 

We have been considering a number of different festivals and are hoping to get back to Summerfest this year as well. Longer term goals include securing some licensing deals for the new record, as well as continuing the success of our current radio campaign, which has seen our single reach the top 150.

Q - How do you think the band has evolved since forming and how do you see the band continuing to evolve?

The easiest answer is that we officially added Brent Shumard to the band lineup. The new record has a heavy bandwidth, as our producer Jamie would tell you.

It means that there are many layers to the work we tracked and bringing Brent on as a multi-instrumentalist, allows us to add layers to songs that we could not do live without him. 

This record truly is an evolution for us. It feels like we moved from our '70s and '80s rock roots to a '00s and '10s indie rock type sound on many of the cuts.

We hope to continue growing as writers and musicians and keep seeing where it takes us.

Q - The music industry continues to change. How has the band tried to keep up with those changes?

The music industry is a wild animal. There are so many different ways to make an impact, to be heard, to distribute your music and to exist as an artist. 

The funny part is that no one really knows which of those options are "THE" path to exposure and success. If major labels knew they would not be losing so much money. 

If indie artists knew, then all of them would be trying the same tricks. The facts are that nothing has replaced hard work, professionalism and damn good music. 

We do our best to cover each of those, and we cannot wait to show the world this EP.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Chicago's Strobe Recording to present songwriting contest

Those wanting to support local music and discover some new talent would do well to attend the Strobe Recording Songwriter Contest at 8 p.m. April 24 at Strobe Recording, 2631 W. Division St., Chicago.

The contest is an opportunity for local songwriters to present their original songs and win free recording time.

The public is invited to attend with a $10 suggested donation. Studio doors will open at 7:30 p.m. and the event will begin promptly at 8 p.m. 

The fee to enter the contest is $15, and space is limited to 10 songwriters. To register or for more information, contact info@stroberecording.com. 

This is a BYOB event and street parking is available on Division Street.

Strobe will be offering artists a chance to win a half day of recording services. Songwriters will perform in front of music industry judges, and performances will be judged on originality, musicianship, composition/lyrics and stage presence.

The competition is open to solo and/or duo artists. Strobe will provide acoustic guitars and a Steinway grand piano for musicians use.

All performances will be recorded live and audio mixes will be provided to each artist at the end of the evening.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Chicago musician Ryan Joseph Anderson celebrating release of new solo album


After making two albums with Chicago band Go Long Mule, Ryan Joseph Anderson this week released his solo album, the captivating "Weaver's Broom."

The album, which roams through a number of musical styles, was produced by Andrija Tokic, known for his work with Alabama Shakes.

To celebrate the release of "Weaver's Broom," Anderson, www.ryanjosephanderson.com, will perform April 17 at the Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.

HoneyHoney and Sam Lewis are also on the bill. Tickets are $10, available at www.ticketfly.com

I had the chance to talk to Anderson about the new album.

Q - Great talking to you. Of course, you are releasing your solo debut album this week. What were your goals for the album and do you think you accomplished them?

I really think the biggest goal was to get out of my comfort zone. I'd been fronting a band for the past few years and recording pretty big and layered albums. 


Most of those songs were written and developed long before going into the studio, so everybody would go in with parts in mind and we would stack a lot of stuff on top of those parts. I think I reacted to that by writing a group of songs that, in my mind, where much more stripped down.

When it came time to record them, I wanted to make a record that stuck with that mentality and I definitely think we succeeded in doing that.

Q - Is there a story behind the album's name?
“Weaver's Broom” is another name for Spartium. It's a shrub with yellow flowers. 

I always liked that name and the images "weaver's broom" brought to mind. I wrote a song using the reference and felt that it really encapsulated the feel of the record, so I decided to use it as the title for the album too.

Q - Andrija Tokic, known for his work with Alabama Shakes, recorded the album. How did you hook up with him and what did he bring to the table?

Andrija was the first person I thought of when I decided to make this record. I worked on a project with him a few years back and it was one of the best times I'd ever had in the studio. 

I think he's brilliant. Sonically, we have very similar tastes and I think he has great instincts both as an engineer and a producer. 

He understood exactly what I was going for - from the first conversation we had about making the record - and really made that vision come to life. It's great to work with somebody who you trust that much.

Q - The video for "Fortune and Fate" is a stop-motion video that seems to really fit with the theatrical feel of the song. What was your idea for the video?

My girlfriend, Jen Donahue (who sings harmonies on the record), also happens to be my favorite artist. Pretty early on we decided that we wanted to make a video for that song and the best way to do it would be a literal, line-by-line interpretation of the song. 

Jen had the idea of doing it as a stop-motion video and started developing the characters. I started building the graveyard and we mapped out what we would do on each line. More that anything, we really just had fun with it.

Q - You had previously fronted the band Go Long Mule, which released two albums before disbanding this winter. Was it just the right time for the band to end and for you to go out on your own?

We'd been working really hard for years without a real break. After a pretty packed summer, it seemed like everybody had opportunities outside of the band that they wanted to pursue: Steve Leaf had a band of his own that he wanted to record, Dan Ingenthron was working with a lot of other groups (including the Westies) that kept his calendar pretty full, and Mark Zoller had a chance to spend some time in the mountains in Colorado. 

I think the time was right to take a break. Those are my favorite guys in the world to play music with and I'm guessing that there will be more Go Long Mule in the future.

In fact, we were all just at a good friend's wedding ended up playing a few tunes...it felt great.

Q - How does the Chicago music scene compare to the Nashville music scene? Do you have any favorite Chicago music venues? Where do you see yourself fitting into the Chicago music scene?

I love the Chicago music scene. It's an amazing community of people who really champion each other's work. Nashville is fun because there's music coming out of every window - the city is booming right now and it's pretty crazy to witness.

I feel like I wouldn't be the musician I am with out FitzGerald's in Berwyn. It's my favorite place in the country. Some of the best nights of my life happened there -  whether seeing music, playing music, or just hanging out. There's something in the air there.

As far as where I fit in, that's hard to say. I have such a tight group of friends in that scene and we've all worked together so much over the years that, honestly, I'm just honored to be a part of it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Chicago's Public House Theatre to present hit "Bouncers"

The Public House Theatre continues to stage productions designed to keep audiences glued to their seats.
Starting April 17, The Public House Theatre, 3914 N. Clark St. (at Byron Street), Chicago, will present John Godber’s hit “Bouncers.” Shows are at 8 p.m. every Thursday, Friday and Saturday through May 17. Tickets are $15, available by calling 1-800-650-6449, or at www.pubhousetheatre.com.
I had the chance to talk to director Chris Geiger about the show. 
Q - Great talking to you. "Bouncers" has been a popular play since opening in 1977. What made you want to direct the play?

I think every director has a few "bucket list" shows that they would want to put up if given the opportunity to do so. "Bouncers" has always been a bucket list show for me, and when I was brought on as producer for The Public House Theatre a little over a year ago, I had a very rare opportunity to put it up. 
I've been fond of "Bouncers" since I originally performed in a production of it in 2007. It's a play that, to me, embodies everything I love about live theater - it's dynamic, well paced, and simply just fun to watch. 
It's an experience you can't get at home or anywhere else.

Q - The play usually features four men, but you decided to cast two men and two women in the play. What made you want to go in a different direction? How do you think audiences will respond to the change if they have previously seen the play?

One of my favorite things about "Bouncers" is how adaptable it is to wherever and whenever you perform it. A lot of the themes it hits are truly timeless - we've all had varying experience with drinking to excess, going to bars and clubs, and trying eagerly to find someone to go home with. 
I think part of that adaptability also is in casting. While the play is traditionally done with four men, the script doesn't exactly call for that to be true. 
The cast plays a little more than 20 characters in total over the course of the show, all of varying genders and ages. And, as we went into process, we found that there are moments in the show that are actually more interesting and entertaining with the gender flip. 
I think people who have seen a production of it before will be pleasantly surprised with the results.

Q - How else do you think your production is different from past productions? For those not familiar with the show, what should they expect? 

Every production of "Bouncers" is truly unique, as there is no "right" way to put up the play. The script is fully adaptable - there are only a few "absolutes" in terms of blocking or staging. 
For example, the script calls for the Bouncers to perform part of Michael Jackson's "Thriller," a strange aside during a very heady moment of the play - and this is an absolute must! But the scenes leading up to these pillar moments are flexible and fresh depending on the cast's perspective. 

Because of this, the show will feel absolutely new for someone who has seen it before.

For those who haven't seen a production of "Bouncers," expect a high energy whirlwind night of drinking and debauchery with four amazingly talented performers who will escort you through a world of excess and bad judgment. The head bouncer, Eric, refers to this as a "midnight circus," and I can't think of a more appropriate description than that!

Q - You are also one of the founding members of The Nerdologues. How did the idea for the group come about? As a humorist, what do you find funny and what your favorite topics to talk or write about?

The Nerdologues began a little over four years ago after my fellow Public House producer, Kevin Reader, noticed during our informal sketch writing sessions with some friends that we enjoyed sharing our unfortunate stories about growing up as nerds more than writing sketches at the time. He got a few of us together to write down these stories, then we wrote some sketches to kinda "pad" out a show - a sort of "Vagina Monologues" of nerdiness. 
It's sort of evolved from there, and now we put up original productions (still with a monologue or two in there!) with varying themes or stories, as well as events, multiple podcasts, and weekly videos. Our mission now is "bring nerds together, and make nerds laugh," since that is basically how we came to exist in the first place.

From a writer perspective, I find humor in layering absurdity on common experiences, a fairly simple comedy choice. I also think that the most hilarious thing you can do on stage is bend over, split your pants, then sit down in a chair and have it break out from under you. 
Might as well end your show right there.

Q - It seems like Chicago is a great breeding ground for comedians. Why do you think that is? Is Second City a big factor?

Chicago is very cold and can be rough, and we need to laugh to warm ourselves up. Second City is a huge factor in bringing talent to Chicago, obviously, as are the many great comedians that have come out of our fair city. 
People come here to follow in their footsteps and go off to do great things themselves. It's a never ending cycle of funny bits and hard work.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

WXRT DJ Tom Marker keeping the blues alive

Without question, WXRT DJ Tom Marker is the biggest supporter and promoter of Chicago blues.
Anyone who is a Chicago blues fan has listened to his show "Blues Breakers," www.wxrt.com, which he has hosted since 1984. Marker is also the mainstage emcee of the Chicago Blues Festival each summer.
Fittingly, he was presented with a "Keeping the Blues Alive" award from the Blues Foundation from The Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tenn.
I had the distinct honor of interviewing him about his career.

Q - You took over hosting "Blues Breakers" in 1984. What were your goals for the show and do you think you accomplished them? 
My goal the first Monday was to play an hour of great blues. I sure wasn't as familiar with the blues then as I am now, but it's always been pretty easy to find an hour's worth of great blues.

My idea from the beginning was to play blues from anywhere and from anytime, but with a current day Chicago perspective. I continue to have that point of view, so you'll hear more local music by artists currently performing on "Blues Breakers" than you would hear on a program coming from another town.
Q - I understand your first taste of the blues came in high school, when you heard "East-West" by The Butterfield Blues Band. Tell me about your feelings after hearing that album. What is it about the blues that moves you in general?
I think maybe the first time I heard blues it was by the Rolling Stones. They had blues on their records from the time I was barely a teenager.
Not much later, I was hearing more British rock acts versions of blues songs so that made me more familiar with the style. Butterfield was an eye opener with the "East-West" record.
I was 15 years old at the time and it was a record that opened my imagination as to what music could be with its blend of blues and Eastern music. Also during my high school years the great Chicago blues label Chess Records was selling their library to another record company.
I think it was an attempt to goose their sales at the time but they decided to release a classic blues album by one of their big stars every week for a period of time. My buddy, Charles Schantz, went out and bought one every week.
I had heard all this blues-rock but now here was the real thing on our turntables.
Q - You've had the opportunity to interview and meet many blues musicians over the years, including Muddy Waters and Stevie Ray Vaughan. What were your impressions of them? Do you have any favorite interviews or stories?
There were several times I found myself backstage at a Muddy Waters show, often at Harry Hopes in Cary, IL. There was always a crowd around Muddy so I sort of hung around Pinetop Perkins, one of the sweetest men ever.
Meanwhile, Bob Margolin was telling my young bride where his hotel was just in case she wanted to know.
Q - What was it like receiving the "Keeping the Blues Alive" award? Do you feel that "Blues Breakers" has helped to keep the blues alive? 
I was very proud to receive the KBA. Plus, it meant WXRT would fly me to Memphis for a fun blues weekend. 
The award did its job. Ever since it's inspired me to do just that, keep the blues alive.
I believe that supporting the blues should be part of the mission of a blues radio program in Chicago.

Q - What do you think of the Chicago blues scene as compared to other blues scenes across the country? Are there any ways that you would improve Chicago's blues scene?

New Orleans has a great live, local music scene that's often related to the blues, but no other city has anything like what we have in Chicago. You can still go out any night of the year and hear blues in Chicago, and on the weekends you have half a dozen good choices.

And that's just live, local blues at full-time blues clubs. The blues shows up at a lot of places from Highland, Ind. to Round Lake, IL.

Also every touring blues musician from anywhere has Chicago as a tour stop at fine establishments from downtown to the near west and north suburbs.

Q - Even though rock derives so much from the blues, it seems that the blues continue to take a back seat to rock. What will it take to get more people interested in blues music? 

They only need to hear it.

Q - Who are your favorite blues musicians these days, Chicago or otherwise? Who have been some of your favorite blues musicians over the years?

I'm not going to answer this question because I would probably, stupidly, leave someone off the list by mistake and then feel real bad about that.