12:58 PM EDT, August 16, 2012
Lewis Black goes from zero to peripatetic faster than almost anybody you've met, or seen.
The comedian's ire is our expectation and our treat, and in an audience before him, we relish the F-oaths delivered to Facebook, to politicians, even to us. We root for a vein to go rogue on his forehead, throbbing even after its owner has seemingly settled down.
"Once I watch the news," he told a sold-out room at the new City Winery Chicago Wednesday, "my day is over."
And because he has so well defined his persona, this is the perfect line. We want Black to watch the news, to get as close to thrombosis as his 63-year-old constitution can manage because, yes, everything really is that stupid and that aggravating and that much less logical than it used to be.
A long respected comic who has had his fame boosted in recent years by regular, ranting appearances on "The Daily Show," Black was an unusual choice to open the new venue.
Situated at 1200 W. Randolph St., owner Michael Dorf's New York import is a wine-and-food joint with a 300-seat performance room. But the performances will be almost entirely musicians, ranging from locals to big touring acts, from jazz to folk to rock.
Sandra Bernhard is the only other close-to-comic booked, but Black and Dorf have worked together in New York. There's even a Lewis Black Black Red private-label City Winery-made zinfandel-Syrah blend that the venue sells to raise funds.
And so, as Dorf said from the stage Wednesday at the show's outset, Black volunteered, a couple of years back, to open the Chicago location "if you get the damn thing built."
Wednesday's was the first of five sold-out shows from Black, a sort of appetizer before the music starts Tuesday with California guitar and songwriting treasure Dave Alvin ("Fourth of July").
But while Black was mostly excellent, explaining to us that we are, in essence, too distractible to deserve good government, having an angry comic on stage as the kitchen worked out some considerable kinks might not have been the safest choice.
The place's premise, beyond the winemaking and the eclectic American fare, is that it offers a more civilized way to attend a concert. You have a bite, maybe order a bottle, you sit in the same seat and watch the show.
And the rooms, both nightclub and restaurant, fit the premise: warm, woody, with hints of Sonoma, but still recognizably metropolitan.
Executed well, it sounds like a winning formula. Wednesday, even after a weekend-long "soft opening," a key component wasn't working. Reports of 90-minute lags between food order and arrival came from other tables. My own took 100, from more than a half-hour before the opener went on at 8 p.m. until after Black began his set at 9. And even then, the sweet potato fries were lukewarm.
The server was attentive throughout, which helped, and brought a free charcuterie plate to me and the people sitting across from me, which also helped. Ditto for a couple of tasty, City Winery-made wines on tap, especially the pinot nor.
But clearly, a kitchen that leaves people anxious for their orders -- and then finally delivers them during the headliner -- is not meeting the goal of urbane, upscale comfort. I'll trust that this first, regular, full-room show was simply a shock to a developing system.
(Dorf sent an email Thursday to Wednesday patrons apologizing for the problems and offering two for one tickets or a free dinner in recompenese.)
First-rate opening sets came from John Bowman and Kathleen Madigan, who regularly work with Black. Bowman, talking about the Penn State scandal, lamented, "I used to like the word 'horseplay.'" Madigan urged Mitt Romney to just keep wearing suits, because, dressed down, "he looks like a cop at a drug party."
And then Black came out, warning the crowd not to expect too much because, instead of laughter, "medicine is the best medicine."
His set balanced his disappointment, at times extreme, in the 21st Century with his observations, at times calm, on the political scene.
Here he is on Social Security: "You younger members of the crowd, tough (beans). I'm sorry. It's math. My generation wasn't good at it."
On our ADD culture: "What kind of a country gives a 5-year-old speed and then doesn't allow adults to smoke marijuana?"
On smart phones: "ADD incarnate... It's as if the lord said, 'Let there be ADD,' and this showed up."
He bites off words like chunks of sausage, delighting in his biliousness, in letting the heat under his collar escape. But it's not just ire in his act, it's a willingness to indict us all for laziness, stupidity, aversion to long-term thinking. He blamed our political problems squarely on four factors: Democrats, Republicans, the Tea Party and "us."
And early on, in another perfect Lewis Black line, he said, "Now I'm getting too angry too soon."
His larger implication, though, is that we haven't gotten angry enough, and we're doing it too late.
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