A Sort of Homecoming

 

When U2 announced a stadium headlining tour in support of the 30th anniversary of its landmark album The Joshua Tree, reactions among critics and fans alike were split. Some accused the band of cashing in on the legacy of its most acclaimed legacy, while others were thrilled at the prospect of seeing the album live for the first time.

The Joshua Tree, when it was released in 1987 marked the critical and commercial apex for a band that was formerly a humble rock outfit from Dublin. The anthems like New Year’s Day, first seen on the divisive album War, had been fine tuned into a album full of grandiose vision and yearning for an authentic America. Obvious hits like With or Without You were buffered with live favorites, including Bullet the Blue Sky.

During the tour for the album, U2 played stadiums for the first time, playing against a sparsely furnished stage that accentuated the band in silhouette. For a group that had finally achieved mega-stardom, there was a slight sense that they were hesitant to fully embrace the magnitude of what had been accomplished.

Despite U2’s foray into electronic music, first seen on Achtung Baby, and later executed in disastrous fashion on the forgettable album Pop, the band’s heartbeat remained the soaring virtuosity of  The Joshua Tree’s open-minded sense of adventure. In the late 1990’s, when the band’s experimental phase had come to a long, slow conclusion, the band reached back, and sought to re-discover the magic of that fateful album.

In returning to Chicago’s Soldier Field to perform the album, U2 made good on the promise of the album, delivering both spectacle and leaving the audience wanting more. Opening with a thrilling rendition of Sunday Bloody Sunday, Larry Mullen’s crisp drums and Bono’s aching vocals set the stage for a night of epic music, with slight political undertones. When reliving the song’s namesake violence, Bono added mentions to recent tragedies in Kabul and Manchester, lending a current voice to the song’s decades old lament.

Aided by Edge’s synthesizer playing, the band dusted off A Sort of Homecoming, the band’s lead track off the formative album The Unforgettable Fire. Bono’s aching vocals on the deep cut captivated longtime fans, and set the stage for the nostalgia trip of running through The Joshua Tree.

Flanked by gorgeous 4K screens that spanned the length of Soldier Field’s endz one, U2 took attendees on a visual trip of the album’s themes, including a beautifully desolate landscape during Where the Streets Have No Name, and a blood red moon for One Tree Hill.

The album itself showed the broad range of the band’s sonic exploration of America and reminded the crowd of the band’s ongoing search for meaning among loss. The reintroduction of songs like Exit allowed the band to probe the darkness of the American dream and examine what it means to face that same vision, 30 years and millions of dollars later.

If the show had a weakness, it was the return to Bono’s current political messaging, in the form of tired encore songs including Miss Sarajevo, Ultraviolet and One. As the first section of the concert evoked the brilliance of U2’s early soul searching rock, the latter portion reminded the audience of the band’s clear complacency in recent years and the abandonment of these ideals.

Despite some missteps,  the band succeeded in making a show that spoke to decades old questions and themes seem relevant and thrilling. U2 may never return to the urgency of the legendary concert film Under a Blood Red Sky, but it proved that its founding ideals and passion are not irrelevant more than 30 years later.

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Insurgency

In the past 10 years, the notion of parity in sports has been key to an expanding audience for both the NFL and MLB. Having less certainty over the championship participants lends a vast unpredictability to seasons which otherwise lack mystery or novelty. The New York Giants were the successful insurgent against the legendary New England Patriots of the early 2010’s. More recently, the Kansas City Royals broke through for the first small-market championship by a team not from St. Louis.

Much of the responsibility for these upstart teams lies in the stability and certainty of strong management structures and scouting. However, some of the most noble rebuilding efforts and potential dynasties fall by the wayside. The Oklahoma City Thunder caught lightning in a bottle with numerous stars found with top-10 picks, but ultimately fell victim to an acrimonious ending, with the departure of Kevin Durant, and a shocking collapse in the hotly contested 2016 Western Conference finals.

The new NBA collective bargaining agreement has provisions allowing for small-market teams to remain competitive and retain their best players. DeMarcus Cousins, could reportedly re-up with the Sacramento Kings for $200M. Despite the inflow of new TV dollars, the NBA remains at a low-point for competitive balance. LeBron James led-teams have appeared in SIX consecutive NBA Finals. The Golden State Warriors, barring a major collapse, will appear in their third championship in a row. Part of this inevitability is of course the result of accumulated star players, and the role of players as GMs in the new landscape.

What can be done about the NBA’s competitive balance? How can we make the Finals more akin to the Super Bowl or the World Series? Perhaps a change to the playoff structure would be the most likely way to ensure less certainty. A first-round that returns to a best of five format could give younger teams with lower seeds a chance at dethroning older, more established teams. The NBA could also take measures to penalize teams like the Spurs who regularly rest star players down the stretch, incentivizing them to work harder during the regular season.

Because after all, the worst-kept secret in the NBA is that the regular season is simply a presage to the all-important playoffs. It has never been accurate, however, to say that the regular season is meaningless. For many teams, their young players get tremendously important reps during this period, and learn only by suffering against the best teams in the league. The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo would not have rapidly ascended from a 7 PPG player, to a true superstar without the opportunity to rapidly fail.

Perhaps giving small-market teams (or those without an ongoing record of playoff appearances) an ongoing special salary cap exception could fuel competitiveness, and reduce their reliance on player specific recruiting. Imagine if the Toronto Raptors had the opportunity to sign an extra player who could put them over the top? We may have been looking at the first new Finals team in nearly 10 years.

For now, these suggestions are pipe dreams. The teams that are able to succeed are those who hit on 3+ consecutive top-10 draft picks, and find valuable players in the late-first and second rounds. One can only hope that the ongoing rise of analytics and improved scouting throughout the league can pay dividends in making a league never known for parity, a brave new frontier for teams able to catch their peers by surprise.

Short Circuit

On election day in American in 2016, there was a palpable sense of closure in the air. I interviewed for a job that elicited my passions, and spent the evening drinking to the assumed defeat of Donald Trump. The six months of non-stop, heavily partisan election coverage had taken a tremendous toll on a country already divided by political differences.

And then some incredulous happened- Trump won the election, and subverted every expectation we have for presidential candidates. Maintain decorum and respect your opponents? NOPE. Secure high amounts of donor money and use paid advertising as a blunt object? NOPE. Demonstrate non-predatory social behavior? NOPE.

For many of a liberal bent, the election was a sharp repudiation of many core blue legislative goals: diversity, inclusion and the right to access healthcare among them. Trump supporters fed on the belief that they would, “Drain the Swamp” and return Washington to a more placid, salt of the earth leadership style.

Instead, what ensued was the most harried and uneven presidential transition in recent memory. Trump’s team attempted to submit nominees without the proper vetting documents, and pushed through numerous cabinet appointees that appeared to have little relevant experience- other than a willingness to embrace Trump.

Nomination season brought with it a breathless stream of news reported on a constant basis, fueled often by the prevalence of cable news and the President’s ongoing enmity toward the media. Dogged reporters such as David Corn of Mother Jones and Jake Tapper of CNN capitalized on an opportunity to attack Trump’s weak points, and appeared to be emboldened in being branded fake news.

But despite this reporting, and the gains it has demonstrated, the fatigue of a brutal election, amidst efforts to undermine President Trump’s credibility is supremely noticeable. Host of the popular podcast Pod Save American,  Dan Pfeiffer, former Obama staffer, noted one morning that  Twitter had become a receptacle to ask, “Oh shit, what did he do today?”

For all but the most politically invested, it has become tremendously hard to maintain sanity in the face of the most unqualified, and seemingly incompetent administration since the initiation of the Iraq war. Part of this of course, is a smokescreen from the Trump camp. The furious signing of executive orders and defense of the President’s family business has distracted from the potential of Steve Bannon’s unchecked influence, and the widespread adoption of conservative pet projects once considered for candidate Mitt Romney.

Just this week, there were news reports that employees across American report lower productivity due to the anxiety and uncertainty brought on by the election. Like any difficult situation in life, the solution might lie in vigilance, but it certainly will not be solved with rumination. If you are so inclined, support a protest, attend a congressional townhall, or write a letter to your legislator. However, recognize that there is a finite limit to the role of the media in helping improve this situation for the average American.

We cannot think our way out of this quagmire, but we can make a conscious choice to escape. As the winter recedes into spring, we can pick up an old hobby, whether it is reading a book or going for a run. Time spent with friends can ease the fear and uncertainty many of us feel, and limit the need to be constantly plugged into the political landscape.

I’m not advocating for a complete withdrawal from the world of political engagement. Instead, I’m suggesting a happier, and more holistic approach may be the solution we need to move this country forward. Because every election is ultimately the voice of one citizen, expressed millions of times. The embrace of an alternative perspective, and perhaps even a bit of escapism, might be just the trick.

Spin the Black Circle

In 2015, the music industry seemingly hit rock bottom from a sales perspective. Streaming, according to Nielsen, experienced a growth rate of nearly 93%, while CD sales hit another recent low. Artists, young and old are forced to tour continuously to maintain a standard of living befitting of their profession.

Despite these changes in the industry, another physical medium has seen sales continually bounce back, and exceed any reasonable expectations. In the first half of 2015 alone, the RIAA reported record sales of nearly 9 million. That statistic, was the highest in over 25 years, a time when Sony’s Discman was not yet a household name.

Some of the appeal for the vinyl market is clear. Just like throwback jerseys and classic cars, consumers yearn for the authentic in a world that is increasingly disconnected and dependent on the digital. A record sleeve is highly tangible and gives a more distinct feel for the story behind the album. In an era obsessed with artisan water, exposed brick walls and organic granola, the record isn’t an outlier, it is the latest in a search for authenticity. The warm, sometimes hazy sounds  that emanate from vinyl have re-ignited a love for the old-school in many music fans tired of compressed MP3s and tiny computer speakers.

But the authenticity engendered by the vinyl resurgence doesn’t come without a cost. Iconic albums by top artists re-printed often cost $20-$30, a steep cost particularly for a generation of new vinyl lovers unaccustomed to paying for their music. Rare, out-of-print records fetch even higher prices, sometimes costing over $50.

Part of the allure of the record craze is the opportunity to collect and to discover the strange assortment of albums that were available in a pre-Spotify era. Although the internet simplifies the process of searching for records, it does not eliminate the rush of finding a special release at a dusty old shop. Much like the used book store, technology has transformed the way people interact with their media, but not entirely displaced the need to experience the tactile.

The rush of collecting vinyl is certainly a new high-profile hobby, but in the long-term the sustainability of the industry remains uncertain. Only 40 plants in the U.S. currently manufacture vinyl, currently lending a highly-collectible component to the business behind the music.

Time will tell if today’s 20-somethings tire of purchasing vinyl, but strong alternatives exist. Despite the stupidity of its initial public relations push, Neil Young’s Pono Music opened up the world to the possibility of streaming high quality FLAC files. Jay-Z and Kayne West followed suit with the much maligned Tidal Music, which charges $20 per month to access a library of on-demand hi-def music.

For the average consumer, the realm of hi-fi music can be confusing, and offer too many options to be streamlined. But for those interested in experiencing the music authentically, a new wave of strong bluetooth products (including Sonos, Ultimate Ears and Bose) make consuming music, whether it be the physical vinyl or high-quality streams a seamless experience.

 

Not Fade Away

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If you had turned away for just a moment during Friday night’s listless Bulls game, you could have sworn it was 2012 or 2013. Except this time, the player in agony on the floor wasn’t Derrick Rose, it was stalwart Jimmy Butler. Butler had smashed his way through the porous Nuggets defense for a torrid 18 first half points, before being wheeled off the floor with a knee injury.

In the second half, Rose was forced to pick up Butler’s mantle and play with the reckless abandon that he so rarely displays at this stage in his career. Rose delivered, getting to the rim with ease, and scoring 30 points on a near triple double. The problem, was that with Butler sidelined, the Bulls had no clear answer for Danilo Gallinari, the Nuggets versatile swingman who scored 33 points on just 12 shots.

For the majority of the game, you could forgive the Bulls for giving major minutes to Cameron Bairstow or E’Twaun Moore. The team was taking what the Nuggets offered, and entered the 4th quarter with a healthy 16 point lead. But when you are missing Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and even Nikola Mirotic, sometimes the cupboard is bare. Sometimes teams in this predicament lack the wherewithal to stay strong against even a pedestrian team like the Nuggets.

For the Bulls, the soul searching must continue. With the loss, Fred Hoiberg’s Bulls fall to 27-22, and occupy the 6th seed in the surprisingly tight Eastern Conference. This is a team that barring significant improvement cannot challenge the Miami Heat in the playoffs, let alone the Cleveland Cavaliers.

It’s extremely tempting to blame the Bulls’ struggles on the recent spate of injuries, but the problem goes deeper than that. This team lacks a discernible identity, appearing constantly stuck in a power struggle between Butler’s assertiveness and Rose’s confidence in his increasingly diminished skills. Most troubling, the team cannot find ways to close games, an indication that some veterans on the team are unable to carry the load they once could.

And for all the strife, the Bulls front office appears resolute in their determination not to make a significant trade. Can you truly blame them? With most of the team’s attractive front court assets hobbled, the team would be limited in the players it could offer most teams. For now, it appears that the Bulls will be stuck in NBA purgatory- not bad enough to make the lottery, but not good enough to challenge the teams occupying the top spots in the Eastern Conference. That kind of awful resignation must make Tom Thibodeau somewhat happy that he departed when he did, and spared himself the suffering of yelling through one more lost, directionless season.

Just Like Witches at Black Masses

Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath, as a band, is a cultural artifact. The group emerged in the late 1960’s in the UK, immediately establishing themselves as the archetype of what was to become heavy metal. For the better part of a decade, the group  wrote indelible riffs, ruminated on the occult and partied the hardest of any band NOT named Led Zeppelin.  Surprisingly, this was not remotely sustainable.

Over the next thirty years, the band’s lineup was a revolving door, with guitarist Tony Iommi proving the only true stability. Fans born after 1985 couldn’t be blamed for having an incomplete picture of a band often overshadowed by the singularity of Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career.

Like many bands however, Sabbath couldn’t quite ever call it quits. With recent Chicago concerts including a triumphant 2012 Lollapalooza performance in the books, the band made Chicago one of the first stops on the aptly named “The End” tour. With the fragile health of Iommi and Osbourne always in the forefront of fans’ minds, Chicago would provide the first major test of the band’s vitality on the 2016 tour.

The scene outside the United Center was like something out of a rally in Sturgis. Leather-clad fans from their 30’s through their 70’s pounded light beer while waiting to amble through metal detectors, a veritable Back of the Yards meets Sons of Anarchy contingent.

Increased security measures, it turned out, were warranted, as the staff confiscated more than its fair share of switchblades and flasks.

The scene inside the sold-out United Center was one of cautious anticipation as an ominous curtain blanketed the stage. Sabbath took the stage to a fresh, CGI-fueled video that featured a demon rising from the ashes.

Opening with the lurching “Black Sabbath” off of the group’s debut album, Osbourne prowled the stage, clad in black with a menacing yet restrained stage presence. From the onset, Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler established themselves as a powerful and unrestrained duo, highlighted by furious takes on classics including, “Fairies Wear Boots” and “Snowblind.” The group turned on the air raid sirens for a thrilling, fist-pumping rendition of the all-time great “War Pigs.” The crowd was so enraptured, that even the off-duty cops serving as security guards couldn’t help bobbing their heads.

Although Osbourne’s voice faded throughout the concert, Iommi was determined to carry the show, and offered scintillating solos towards the latter half of the first set on songs such as “NIB” and “Hand of Doom.” Throughout the concert Osbourne exulted the crowd to show their fucking hands and strangely closed many songs by saying, “God Bless You!”

Osbourne found his rhythm on the last several songs, including a visceral rendition of the title track from 1970’s epic Paranoid.  For a group that was never predicated on stability, the show was a nostalgia-packed effort that demonstrated why their influence remains strong to this day. And the truly sold-out crowd reveled in the superlative performance as purple and white confetti streamed from the rafters.

With concerns about Osbourne’s health remaining chief, the band later postponed several upcoming tour dates, lending increased credibility to the notion that this truly, is the end.

 

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It’s been three long years since we closed our doors. Some things have changed- ESPN stopped supporting sports journalism, closed Grantland, Tinder happened and Periscope has taken off.

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