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Friday, June 29, 2007

Welcome to the club, Commissioner Houlihan

Posted By on 06.29.07 at 07:48 PM

The first time I saw Brendan Houlihan (PDF) he was looking like a lamb lost among the wolves.

A rookie politician from the southwest suburbs, he was sitting in a downtown Cook County election board hearing room, fighting to stay on the ballot as a candidate for Cook County Board of Review, the three-person body that oversees property tax appeals. This was back in January 2006.

His opponent, Republican incumbent Maureen Murphy, had challenged the validity of his nomination petitions. Word had it that behind the scenes no less than Democratic Party chair and house speaker Michael Madigan was working for Murphy. Madigan's spokesman denied it, but one thing was certain: no major Democratic leaders from the southwest side were helping Houlihan, despite his coming from a political family (his father was a state rep from the far-south suburbs). With the exception of support from maverick Wheeling Township Democratic committeeman Patrick Botterman, Houlihan was on his own.

Eventually Murphy managed to find enough flaws in Houlihan's petitions to bounce him from the ballot. But Houlihan wasn't done yet. Since there were no other Democrats on the ballot, state law permitted the Democratic committeemen from his district to pick a nominee for the office.

The southwest-side Democrats got behind Bloom Township committeeman Terry Matthews. But Botterman stitched together enough support from north- and northwest-suburban committeeman to push Houlihan over the top, and he went on to defeat Murphy in November's general election.

On June 26 Houlihan held his first big fund-raiser since taking office. And guess who was the honorary host chairman? No, not Madigan -- that would have been too much irony even for Chicago. It was no less than Cook County Board commissioner and 11th Ward Democratic committeeman John Daley, the mayor's brother.

Houlihan didn't return calls for comment. As Botterman explained, Daley, like the mayor, was pretty much neutral in Houlihan's campaign. But Botterman says he's not surprised that Daley signed on after Houlihan won. "You know how it goes," he says. If they can't beat you at the polls, they welcome you into the club.

"Everybody loves a winner," Botterman says.

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Posted By on 06.29.07 at 05:57 PM


Only a short block-and-a-half long as of 1:30 PM. I've seen longer lines for a Belle and Sebastian concert.

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Baby Control's "Best"

Posted By on 06.29.07 at 05:16 PM

Most of the time I'm not really feeling the stuff that Craig over at the Chicago-based indie rock blog Songs:Illinois posts, but every once in a while he's absolutely on point. Like today. This past week he's been doing a series focusing on what he calls "Real Indie Rock": bands that have decided not to go the publicists/managers/licensing route and instead stick to the punk ethos that indie rock used to be based on. Today's entry is Baby Control, a Vancouver quartet that's blasting out some seriously sweet punk-pop mayhem. They categorize themselves as "grunge" and their influences section just says "Nirvana," but aside from their general location and their obvious love for yelling and loud guitars, there's not too much to tie them to the descriptor. Actually, the boys playing the instruments sound like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in their more Sonic Youth-y moments, and vocalist Zoe Verkuylen sounds closer to Kathleen Hanna or Bratmobile's Allison Wolfe than any grunge chick (even when the band is actually covering Nirvana). Vancouver's Ache Records is releasing their full-length, Best War, on July 31 (you can check out the title track here); Citystarfleet is handling the vinyl. After listening to three Baby Control songs about a dozen goddamn times apiece today, I would have to say that I'm feeling "pretty excited" about getting my hands on a copy.

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The Afrobeat savior has arrived

Posted By on 06.29.07 at 05:09 PM

Last night Seun Kuti, the youngest son of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, made a stunning Chicago debut in Millennium Park, fronting the remnants of his father’s last band, Egypt 80. Since Fela’s death a good number of acts have been scrabbling to grab the Afrobeat throne, from American groups like Antibalas and Nomo to Africans like former Fela drummer Tony Allen and Dele Sosimi, but most have deferred to another of the master’s sons, Femi Kuti, who's been touring here regularly for over a decade. But 25-year-old Seun made it clear who’s in control. His resemblance to his father is even more uncanny than I thought, and while he’s clearly channeling Fela’s creative spirit and sound, his charisma and skill can’t be faked.

At once sexy, funny, smart, and confident, he led his killer band through a relentless 90-minute set distinguished by good pacing, non-flashy showmanship, and a convincing passion. Although only eight members of the 17-piece band actually backed Fela before he died a decade ago, they played with the force of a locomotive and the precision of a clock, expertly heeding Seun’s verbal cues to drop out, cool down, or rev up. The leader sings in a thunderously deep, imposingly authoritative tone, chanting lyrics that do their best to tackle social injustice in Nigeria and Africa at large. His song explanations were cogent without being preachy and he wasn’t afraid to laugh at himself.

Toward the end of the set Seun invited some audience members onstage to dance—all night he mentioned the importance of audience participation back in Lagos—but he clearly didn’t expect several hundred of the estimated 8,000-strong crowd to swarm the bandstand. Having a number of dancers and admirers make short trips to the stage is a common tradition in African music, but the stream of fans that overwhelmed the band looked more like several busloads of the Bonnaroo unwashed than connoisseurs of Afrobeat. Millennium Park security exerted the force of a wet noodle; two guards on either side of the stage literally opened gates, which were stormed by eager fans. Luckily, no one was hurt and nothing damaged, but it was astonishing that the park’s security force was so feeble. It could have been a real mess. While it’s true that Seun invited concertgoers onstage, an informed, skilled security team should have had little problem containing the mellow crowd. Bandleader and baritone saxophonist Tajudeen Lekan Animasahun successfully directed the smooth exodus from the stage once the song ended.

While most American labels and concert promoters seem committed to Femi, Seun and his band are only playing five dates in North America and they’ve yet to land an album deal, although Chicago’s own Still Music has just released a great 12-inch single, the first music made available in this country by them. I don’t think it will take long before folks realize that Seun is the real deal. Femi, who will play Lollapalooza later this summer, has just released a best-of double-CD called The Definitive Collection (Wrasse). I’ve seen Femi three or four times, starting way back in 1995 as part of an Africa Fete tour at the Skyline Stage, and none of those performances come near what I witnessed last night.

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Mitchell v. Steinberg

Posted By on 06.29.07 at 04:46 PM

I said the other day that a Sun-Times strength is its packaging. Certainly the paper has others. One's its willingness to let its stars have at each other--always exciting to see, in the way it's cool whenever superheroes from different comic books bump heads for supremacy over Metropolis, or Gotham, or the Free World. Back in 1991 I wrote that as it was passé for papers to rail against injustice the Sun-Times had become "a lot more exciting by railing against itself." As a fer instance, I cited a Mariotti column ripping Michael Jordan for ducking the Bulls' White House visit after they won their first championship. Mariotti had immediately caught a one-two-three to the chin: op-ed columnist Vernon Jarrett, editorial cartoonist Jack Higgins, and a Sun-Times editorial all ridiculed the idea that Jordan owed the president deference.  Then there's the bilious relationship between Mariotti and Rick Telander. A year ago Ozzie Guillen called Mariotti a fag for avoiding the White House Sox clubhouse, and Telander's column was more on Guillen's side than his colleague's. 

Here we go again, and now we have Sun-Times columnists lambasting each other even when Mariotti has nothing to do with it. On June 26 Mary Mitchell compared the media treatment of Bobby Cutts Jr., suspected murderer of the missing Jessie Marie Davis, with the treatment of Christopher Vaughn, suspected murderer of his wife and their three kids. "By the time Cutts was arrested, he had already been pilloried in the media," Mitchell wrote. "Cutts is a black man who is accused of killing his pregnant white girlfriend and unborn baby." On the other hand, "although just about everyone I spoke with thought Vaughn must have killed his family, he was given the respect due any grieving father by the media." Said Mitchell, "The difference in these sensational crimes isn’t character. It’s race." 

The next day, Neil Steinberg offered a lecture on racism. "Treating dissimilar individuals in a dissimilar fashion is not racism, even if they are of different races," he said. Cutts "has a checkered past of adultery and abuse." Vaughn "has by all accounts a pristine record." He helpfully instructed Mitchell (who went unnamed) and his readers, "Awareness of race should help us perceive the world, not blind us to it." 

A day later Mitchell wondered in print if the right way to respond to Steinberg (whom she named) was to "walk down the hall and punch him in the nose." She said that Steinberg had become a "self-appointed critic of my views on race" and in fact had "used his position to label me a racist." The fact is, she argued, that "the Vaughn case was shrouded in mystery, while the Cutts case was wide open, we knew his personal business almost immediately." She gave two reasons why the Cutts case was "wide open"--the suspected killer was black and the victim was white. "Had Cutts married a pregnant black woman, we wouldn’t know what she looked like," Mitchell said, suggesting "cable news channels" might have ignored the story altogether. "I’m comforted," Mitchell wrote, "that a lot of black people knew where I was coming from."

They’re both more right than wrong. Yes, Cutts had a record and Vaughn didn’t, and that made a big difference to the media. But yes, I agree with Mitchell that if Davis had been black her disappearance probably wouldn’t have become a national story.  And true enough, the media opened the gates to anecdotal evidence of Vaughn’s creepiness the instant he was in cuffs. But that's typical not only of journalism but human nature--as soon as someone's led off we exhale and agree we always thought he was a little weird.  And you know what? Everyone's a "self-appointed" critic in this business: nobody in journalism needs a license  to say what he or she thinks of anybody else. Did Steinberg actually call Mitchell a racist? He wrote that to think what he said she thought is to "succumb to an inverse kind of racism." So, yeah.

Commenters turned my blog post about something completely different into a forum for Mitchell v. Steinberg, with early opinion favoring the view that if the feud went on she’d kick his butt. Let me add here, because it sort of fits, a mention of a call I got the other day from a retired Chicago homicide detective who’d seen my recent column on hate crimes. I’d made the point that Illinois and federal hate crime laws are a lot more evenhanded than some recent Tribune stories had made them out to be: these laws make it an additional crime to commit a crime of violence for reasons of racial hatred--whatever the race of the victim and the perpetrator. That’s swell, said the detective, who made liberal use of the phrase “politically correct.” But the thing is, he said, if it’s a white-on-black crime police and prosecutors are asking for trouble if they don’t file hate crime charges, and if it’s a black-on-white crime police and prosecutors are asking for trouble if they do.

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Apatow on abortion

Posted By on 06.29.07 at 04:35 PM


Judd Apatow's decided to wade into the Knocked Up abortion debate with this video clip, which he announced via MySpace with this preface:

"Here is what many have requested—a scene from Knocked Up where the issue of abortion is debated in a brave, thoughtful, comprehensive way. We're just the messengers of two sides of this very important discussion."

So for those attached to lone-standing trees while the surrounding forest is being clear-cut, here's the answer to your prayers.

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Sunday with the Mondavis

Posted By on 06.29.07 at 03:38 PM


One other food drink-related event this weekend: On Sunday, Wall Street Journal business reporter Julia Flynn Siler promotes her exhaustive new account of the life and times of America's most influential wine family, The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty.

It just hit bookstores last week but it's apparently flying off the shelves trailing clouds of controversy, with Napa Valley loyalists calling it a hit job and combing the pages for typos and factual errors and others defending Flynn Siler as a meticulous reporter. She spent three years on the case, and, as she herself says, the Mondavis don't like her much any more.

Based on this excerpt here, it sounds fascinating--it's going right under Wild Fermentation on my summer must-read list.

Flynn Siler discusses the book Sunday at 2 PM at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square; she's also in Skokie at Schaefer's Wine, Foods & Spirits from 11 AM to 5 PM Saturday.

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A brief history of cats

Posted By on 06.29.07 at 02:19 PM


I couldn't help myself. Here's the story. (Don't get it? Here's all the fun you're missing.)

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Even more Pitchfork Fest news

Posted By on 06.29.07 at 02:09 PM

Remember yesterday, when Pitchfork tickets sold out, and I said the only way you could get them was by whoring yourself on Craigslist? Apparently that's not entirely true. The Reader's giving away 10 pairs of those long-gone three-day passes. All you have to do is click here and sign up for our Reader Recommends or Early Warnings e-mail blasts. That's it. You don't even need to send in nude photos of yourself (though you can if you really want to.)

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The Uncomforting Familiar at T&A Lounge

Posted By on 06.29.07 at 01:32 PM

The CD sampler that guitarist Todd Rittmann (of U.S. Maple, Cheer-Accident, the latest Rhys Chatham gangbang, and a few other things) sent me a few days ago didn't have a track listing, but it didn't need one. It's by his new band, T&A Lounge Presents, and the songs are well familiar: "Dear Mr. Fantasy," "Life of Illusion," "Baby," "Mexican Radio." As Rittmann puts it, T&A Lounge Presents is "not JUST a cover band. We are amusmologists taking your hard earned entertainment dollar seriosly [sic], we are not going to bother the audience with all our fancy 'originals' (what are we geniuses or somethin'?)." The band also includes Andrea Faught (whose name I keep wanting to type as "fraught") and Jeff Libersher of Cheer-Accident, and Andy Coon of the Living Blue, all arguably geniuses of a sort. Their show at the Hideout on Sunday, July 1, promises to be a charmingly undemanding good time; for such a scary guitar mofo, Rittmann's quite the lounge host. Also on the bill are the more challenging Matnia and Magic Movie Machine, featuring Rittmann's Maple exes Pat Samson and Mark Shippy.

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