High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

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Sunday, September 11, 2005

More than a Whisper

So I hear there was something going on at Soldier Field tonight. We wouldn't know, as we were sitting amid a pretty respectable crowd gathered to hear Nanci Griffith and the Blue Moon Orchestra at Dominican University's Lund Auditorium.

We began the evening at Cafe le Coq in Oak Park, where they had been expecting us yesterday. I only learned this this morning when sie received a "Bitch you were a no-show!" notice from Open Table. I and my very special guest "Big Honkin' Migraine" were at the reservation-making wheel yesterday. And just to keep things extra-confusing, the M had changed my open table information while he was in California and I was not sufficiently attentive to the confirmation notice when it got forwarded. In any case, I quickly made new reservations for today and we were joined by L.

I'd chosen the place on the basis of it being 6 minutes from the auditorium and having gotten good reviews in the Reader and elsewhere. It's a nice, though very small, space. I'm not sure that they have adequate wait staff for as packed as they get (it was empty when we arrived at 5:30, but by 6:30, every table was full). On Friday, I'd made 6 PM reservations, thinking that it was ample time. Today, with 5:30 reservations, we missed the first song of the opening act at 8 PM. (Of course, the host came over to chide us for being no shows the day before, so perhaps we were being punished.)

The menu isn't huge, featuring a daily special (plus off-the-menu specials), about 4 steak dishes, and 7 house specialties (something vegetarian [and therefore negligible], 3 seafood, a cassoulet, a porkchop, and a chicken dish). The wine list is almost entirely French, and although I enjoyed my pinot, the by-the-glass offerings were pretty limited.

I had fantastic crab cakes for my appetizer, M had duck in phyllo (spicy and delicious, though I could have done without the apparently mandatory drizzle of berry stuff over the top), and L had a goat cheese and onion tart. M also had the French onion soup in an honest-to-spaghetti-monster covered tureenette (the reviews aren't kidding when the note the emphasis on presentation and flair).

Our entrees were a long time in coming, but worth it when they did. I had the bouillabaisse (and could not resist grossing out L by making my prawn talk to him) and to force myself not to use a straw on the broth. M had the steak special of the day (I'm blanking on the cut, but it was perfectly done and incredibly flavorful, as was the "potato pancake" atop it). Although we almost had to call C to get clarification on a sauce, L was apparently quite pleased with his flank steak, based on the surreptitious plate licking that went on (we were in the corner, so no suburbanites were unnecessarily traumatized).

Our coffee was brought to the table in an adorable pot (but there was a notable lack of warm-up offerings [again, our waiter was perfectly fine, just incredibly busy, hence questioning whether or not they actually have adequate staff]), and we decided to push the curtain time for the concert to have dessert. M got the girly sorbet offerings, L honored last week's viewing of Transporter 2 by not forgetting about the Madeleines, which he enjoyed with a tasty peach mousse and almond ice cream (a touch too cinnamony for moi, but we all know about my major cinnamon malfunction). Me? I had the trois chocolates.

I was unprepared for it: A double shot glass full of bittersweet chocolate sorbet with a dollop of whipped cream; a microsized chocolate chip sponge cake with a bittersweet chocolate sauce, and, I kid you not, a Stargate of dark chocolate ganache with a white chocolate ganache center. The circle was as big as the palm of my hand and it was standing on its side on a little chocolate pedestal. The sorbet was amazing and the bite I could actually force down of the ganache was incredible. I---and this is me talking---cannot understand how a single human being is meant to eat that ganache alone, let alone following the other two parts. The sponge cake, frankly, was disappointing. It actually tasted stale or freezer burned.

We had to rush a bit, which was a shame, but given we'd been there a full two hours, I'm sure they were glad to have the table. L opted out of the concert in favor of toodling around downtown Oak Park. We sped to the Zombie Mobile and made it to the auditorium in good time. Unfortunately, they were selling tickets via hand-cranked punch card or something, and it took at least 10 minutes to sell 3 tickets.

Although the desk staff told the cranky man in front of us that there was no opening act, although the cranky man cocked his head, took in the decidedly masculine tones emanating from the auditorium and crankily said, "So I'm missing Nanci Griffith RIGHT NOW," there was an opening act. Sort of.

We made it to our seats near the end of the first song---a James Taylor-esque song on a single acoustic guitar. The singer/guitarist was, to my surprise, as British as British could be, despite the song stylings. He seemed to be a bit nervous at the crowd's lukewarm response to his (dry and quite funny) between-song patter, and rushed into his second song. Same basic style (though pleasantly less derivative) and he revealed himself to be a hell of a guitarist. He then introduced the Blue Moon's bass player, (the North Carolinian, and yet somehow very S-esque) LeeAnn Etheridge, who joined him for a few of her own songs. She, in turn, introduced the Blue Moon's drummer (later revealed to be British and her husband), who joined them for a number more or two.

After a brief intermission (and the usual interminable line in the ladies room, where I managed to smash my finger in the stall door), Nanci came on alone dressed in a mid-calf length brown plaid skirt, a drapey brown, top, and her hair back in a pony tail. She's a giant nerdy star (that's the third, not-so-well-kept secret [after her addictions to soap operas and the social columns in small town newspapers]), and I love her. She opened with Banks of the Pontchartrain. I don't know why the strong New Orleans ties in her music hadn't occurred to me, but I was tearing up before I even realized it. The rest of the band joined her (and of course, the British James Taylor was the guitarist/squeezebox player) for "Simple Life." After "The Flyer," and then into John Prine's "Speed of the Sound of Lonelieness." She then played "Working in Corners" as an homage to a friend of hers who'd resurrected the song for her (it's nigh on 25 years old), and again, I was just not prepared for how lovely it is live and found myself a bit dewey-eyed once again.

As she tuned up for "Love at the Five and Dime," she joked that it wouldn't be a Nanci Griffith concert if she weren't going from one weird tuning to another. I'd noticed this before when I had looked for some tabs and chord sheets for her stuff ("LatFaD," for example, is in some godforsaken spawn of Triple D, and I think "Trouble in the Fields" is the only song I've found of hers tabbed out in standard tuning), and wondered why. Turns out that most of the songs in weird tunings were written when she was just learning to play the guitar. Bitch.

Other highlights included "I Love this Town," a fantastic and hiliarious song written by Clive Greggson (the James Taylor dude), which is a duet with Jimmy Buffett (and it really, really, needed to be a duet with Jimmy Buffett) on Hearts in Mind; Beautiful, which she wrote for her stepafther (and told a hilarious story about); Listen to the Radio (ditto on the hilarious story about fangirling all over Loretta Lynn); and her collective manifesto Last Train Home, written during a spate of her exes "drinking and dialing." They finished with "The Hammer Song" and did the Stones "No Expectations" for an encore for those who might've had a more difficult time than we did choosing their live music for the evening.

I missed several of my favorites, including the inspiration for my subject line; Red Brick Floor, and Once in a Very Blue Moon. However, I also loved pretty much everything off the Hearts in Mind (ok, I have my reservations about the song about Sylvia Plath, which LeeAnn wrote and performed as part of the opening), which was all new to me. At dinner, I was feeling ambivalent about the possibility of missing the show, but I'm thrilled we made it.

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