Music And Performance


I am now officially on my wild adventure to bring Chicago to the World.

For those of you who may not have heard, I purchased a one-way ticket to Berlin and plan to travel the world as an Itinerant Professional Chicagoan- heading whichever way the wind takes me. It’s a disorganized haphazard quest, but I have reached a point in my life where it’s time to live my beliefs and my Art and see the World while I still can (and while it’s still there).

Valuable Background Info

In 2010, I spent several months in and around Shanghai, China. My Cousin J had a music club there and the open freewheeling vibe of the place (and Shanghai in general) combined with where I was at in my life (it had just blown up in my face like a bad science experiment) spurred me to have a Musical Epiphany.

In addition to reconnecting with singing, I discovered that my harmonica playing (which I had mostly been doing by myself in my apartment for 30 years) sounded as good to other people as it did to me; and I began playing and singing every night in Jams in Shanghai (with people from all over the world), writing songs, doing my Performance Poetry, and even sitting in regularly (eventually for money) with a trio of Chinese musicians at a Chinese Jazz Club in Hangzhou.

Having done many different kinds of Performance throughout my life (most notably Acting, Standup Comedy, Storytelling, Performance Poetry, and Improv) I still longed to someday play music (something I had adored since birth) seriously— so this time in China was like opening the door to a previously shuttered wing in the Mansion Of My Soul.

When I returned to my “normal” life in Chicago as a Lecturer, Historian, and Tour Guide; I continued to play music at various jams around the city and with several musician friends. The book I had co-written in 2008-2009, the publishing of which falling into indefinite limbo was one of the major factors in the aforementioned “Life Explosion” (along with my Mother’s Death and a few other horrible things), finally was published in 2013. After a year or so of flogging it I began thinking about traveling again.

I longed to return to China but several factors had changed my direction, most notably my Cousin J passing away from ALS (RIP). Also, many of the people I had most strongly bonded with had returned to their respective European Countries. I also had several longtime friends who lived in Europe, and thus my crazy scheme was hatched.

Here is the recounting of my first week:



Week One- The Adventure Begins:

The trip here went about as well as it could. My Carry-On Bag was overloaded by 5 pounds (and the checked bag was just a few ounces in the clear) but I was able to switch some stuff over to my little Printers Row Lit Fest canvas bag enough to get through the check in process at Air Lingus.

I was still overloaded on both counts for the next flight from Dublin to Berlin but the woman behind the counter at O’Hare took pity on me and gave my boarding pass for the next flight so I could go straight to my flight with my overloaded carry-on (once she saw that it was the right size & just a little heavy she got much cooler about things) and put a big HEAVY BAG Transfer sticker on my massive checked bag. I got through security with no problem at all, they didn’t even freak out at my bag of harmonicas (which look really sinister in an X-Ray) and my paranoid worry about some bizarre Homeland Security “exit interview” was unfounded.

The flights were both blissfully without incident and went smoothly- didn’t have to “earn it” the way I did going to Shanghai in 2010, when I had a 10 hour delay on top of a 2 hour layover in New York before I even got on the flight to China. The transatlantic flight seemed like it was not long at all compared to that 14 hour flight and the Dublin to Berlin flight was a veritable puddle jump.

Oh what a relief it was to see that big bag of stuff on the carousel when I arrived in Berlin! Then to walk through those doors to the arrival gate and see my friend R emerge from the crowd. I had a nasty irrational fear that something would happen and I’d be stuck at Berlin Schoenfeld airport with no phone and nobody to contact or help me.

A quick drive from the airport to R (& his wife C’s) place and that was that. I was on The Continent! [as I had heard said in countless cheesy old movies and parodies of them]

Their apartment is large and labyrinthine; with immensely high ceilings, wood floors, and lots of french doors between the various sections. It’s seems out of some sort of Architectural Central Casting for a “big elegant European apartment.” The neighborhood is sort of sleepy and calm, it used to be a Jewish neighborhood back before the war and is mostly elderly folks and small businesses.

The first several days were just about getting acclimated and shaking off the jet lag and culture shock. On Friday I took my first Berlin subway ride (just 2 stops) to meet my friend V, who gave me one of her old cast off phones (still infinitely fancier than any I’ve ever had) with a prepaid card service number. Perhaps I’ll learn how to do something other than text and receive calls with it, but it’s unlikely!

We went and had some iced tea at this American-ish place called Bikini Bar that overlooked the Berlin Zoo (old, nasty and depressing even by Zoo standards) and chatted a bit before wandering around the area, which was quite “mall-ified” and not too interesting. There was a cool Art Museum/Center called The America House, however, and we wandered into their gift shop and perused the large selection of gorgeous Coffee Table Art Books (mostly about Photography) and talked about Art and Photography (I hipped her to Vivian Meier, who apparently isn’t that well known outside of the US/Chicago).

It’s always interesting to meet someone in person that you’ve only known through Social Media, a situation where the Avatar becomes a Person. Fortunately that went really well and we both were satisfied with the others Analog Self and fell into the same comfortable Art and World of Ideas conversations that we had been having online. After a couple hours we said our goodbyes and I walked back to the nest, having survived my first solo flight unscathed.

Saturday I was feeling a bit out of sorts; as my sleep patterns were still fitfull and my body was going through sugar and fat withdrawal from the lack of garbage American food. “Tough Shit, Body!” I told it. One of the many reasons I am on this crazy adventure excursion is to escape the American Obesity Matrix long enough to get back to a healthy weight.

But I was also getting into a weird anxious Hermit Spiral from the newness of the situation (similar to when I first arrived in China and was staying with my Cousin J) to the point where R & C had to sit me down for a “WTF Mike?!?” talk (similar to what Cousin J had to do in Shanghai). Although a bit intense and uncomfortable, it cleared the air all around and things got much better. That night we watched the film The Woman In Gold (superb), which also helped me get some of my gumption back.

Sunday morning I went shopping with C and got some items I was needing, not the least of which was some high-caffieine instant coffee (R’s little high-tech espresso nodules just weren’t delivering the payload I needed!). A big cup of that also did much to put me back on track.

Then I went for an exploratory walk through more of the surrounding area with my camera and a map. It was a gorgeous afternoon and Berliners were out in force enjoying it. I wandered around a flea market and through a couple adorable little parks and started to get the feel of the town and feel much more comfortable in my own skin. German words started to slowly trickle back and I took several photos of interesting things (at least to my eye and mind). After about an hour I was really getting into it; strolling along reading the street signs aloud to myself and doing a running commentary in my recovering (but still woefully weak) German. “A woman with a dog.” “A man and woman with a child.” I felt like Bruno Ganz in Wings Of Desire right after he fell to earth in Berlin.

By the time I got back to the nest I was feeling right as rain and had even come up with a stirring song to remember their address. Michael was starting to get some traction!


SOOO, I’m sitting around R & C’s apartment on Monday night when I Google “Blues Jams Berlin.” Several cool results pop up, most notably Rickenbackers Music Inn, which was just 2 blocks away from where I was sitting.

“Holy Shit!” I exclaimed to myself, “I must go check this out forthwith.” But I see that the Blues/Rock Jam is Tuesday night and tonight is the Pro Jam (which implies you’d better be fucking able to bring it). At first I hesitated and wondered if I should wait till Tuesday (sorry if a bad 80’s song just popped into your head) but remembered the encouraging words of my friend E (a great musician I played with in Shanghai) a few months ago and considered the fact that I was playing so much with many fine Chicago musicians at The Roots Room (and other places) before I left that my chops were pretty much back. So I said “What the Hell, I’ll at least get to check the place out even if I don’t get on to play.” So I cleaned the harps and headed on down there.

And my was I sure glad I did! First off, the place was JAM packed on a Monday night with cool folks watching some killer musicians tearing it up onstage. Then everyone; from the bartender, to the people watching, to the cats who ran the jam, to the musicians in attendance, made me feel so welcome and comfortable that I didn’t even care if I was able to fit into the mix that night- I already felt like I was home.

But, Gentle Reader, I was able to get into the mix at the very end of the night and played some harp along with a gaggle of great musicians and a sultry chanteuse on two tunes- the Screaming Jay Hawkins classic “I Put A Spell On You” and the Chicago Blues chestnut “I Just Wanna Make Love To You”- and acquitted myself rather well if I do say so myself.

Everyone else seemed to agree [!] and I was like “Hey, you should hear me on a tune I’ve actually played before!”

I thought that perhaps I might be availed that opportunity the next night- not that I mind the thrill of jumping on board an unfamiliar song and hanging on for dear life by my fingernails.


Night 2 at Rickenbackers Music Inn for the Blues/Rock Jam.

Even more packed- to the point where I quickly got claustrophobic and had to flee to the little beer garden outside until the break (fortunately I could still hear the smoking hot ensemble that was playing). Once the break came I found the guy in charge of the jam, introduced myself, asked if I could sit in at some point, and let him know that I wanted to play blues.

He introduced me to a man called S.T., who bore a striking resemblance to my late Cousin J, in whose honor I was wearing my Polkacide t-shirt (one of the many great SF area bands he played in over the decades).

After a set by yet another hot combo, S.T. had the stage and graciously let me sit in with his group for several tunes. The first one was the U2 song they did with B.B. King called “When Love Comes To Town.” Never played it before but it’s the kind of bluesy tune I can really sink my teeth into. S.T. was quite the showman (did I mention that he was dressed in a vintage white 3 piece suit with matching white shoes?) who brought it hot and heavy on guitar & vocals and wrangled the band with an expert hand (it takes a special talent to do arrangements on the fly with a bunch of cats all thrown together) and it was another “grab the tiger by your fingernails and hold the hell on” scenario.

He thanked me after that first song and I wasn’t sure if he wanted me to stay up there, but he did and I cooked with he and the band for a few more songs. One was the blues standard (made famous by B.B. King) “Rock Me,” and I’ll try and remember what the other ones were later. Playing with musicians (especially really great ones) just turns my brain to jello.

Anyway, I was able to bring it pretty well and everyone seemed to really dig it yet again. And the rest of the night was spent digging the subsequent ensembles and talking to all the cool folks who were in attendance.


Its now Wednesday evening in Berlin and I’m recovering from my two nights in a row out jamming, chronicling my week, and still trying to remember what were the other tune(s?) I played on the night before!

Fortunately for me, Berlin is (at least so far) much like Shanghai was; lots of Guitar players and not too many Harmonica players (although there was a very nice harp player there last night), which makes it easier for me to get into the mix.

At some point I’d love to be able to get some players together and do some of my crazy ass Swamp Demon original material on a jam; but all in good time.

So far it’s been two great jams, which earned me two free drink tickets (hey, you take what you can get in this world!) and some valuable playing experience.

Hopefully I (or rather Michael LaGrange) will also be able to get in on some Standup Comedy Open Mics (much more Standup in English here than I thought) and some Storytelling before I head up to Denmark (where further wonderment awaits). There are also several other music jams here as well.

We shall see what transpires.

Regardless, The Adventure Has Truly Begun!


I’m Hosting An Open Mic

  Friday, May 8

It will also be a Celebration Of My Birthday

(3 days off but close enough)

And (OF COURSE) I’ll be bringing my Internationally Acclaimed

Homemade Hummus!!!





The Roots Room is a great space and this night is perfect for working out new material and expanding horizons as an Artist/Performer.

When I host Open Stages I create an atmosphere of respect for all genres of performance where Artists can feel safe and secure. [No stylistic cliquishness OR DISRESPECT allowed!]

My greatest joy comes from seeing someone perform for the first time or watching an Artist try out a new genre: a Writer reading their work in front of others for the first time, a Musician doing Storytelling, a Storyteller doing Stand-Up, a Poet playing Music, a Stand-Up reading a poem— The Place Where The Boundaries Meet & Overlap Is Where True Magic Happens.

And there is nothing like the feeling of opening a door into a new room in the mansion of your soul— SO COME ON DOWN & GO ON UP!!!

The Roots Room: 5203 N Kimball

BYOB & All Ages.
$10 Suggested Donation (or pay what you can).

In Case Ya Missed It:

Much fun was had at the Roots Room last night! Began the night with a brilliant singer named DeWayne and had a contingent of poets and writers do some fantastic work. Stann Champion displayed his guitar mastery.

And I got to do some poems, standup (very rusty but I had my moments), a long story piece, and just generally get my shamanic jibber-jabber on— which felt tremendous after a long Winter of Hermitude.

I always hope for what I call a “Triumphant Moment” in my Open Stages- that moment where someone feels comfortable and/or bold enough to stretch themselves as a Performer/Artist (or to perform/read for the very first time).

Last night’s Triumphant Moment: When Writer/Actor Robert Strasser got up on stage (again) and borrowed Stann’s guitar to do a heartfelt rendition of Long Black Veil.

The next Open Mic at The Roots Room shall be on May 8 (a mere 3 days after my Birthday).

Please Stop By And Be My Triumphant Moment!!!


Sometimes Ya Just Gotta Let It All Hang Out. And This Is One Of Those Times!!!


Every once in a while I like to discuss a Chicago-related documentary not created by Kartemquin Films just to see what it feels like. 😉


Musician (2007)

Subject: Ken Vandermark

Produced by Jason Davis and Daniel Kraus. Cinematography and Editing by Daniel Kraus. Additional Crew: Joe Chellman, Amanda Kraus, Ryan Bartelmay. Released by Facets Multimedia Studios.




Musician is Part 2 of The Work Series, a documentary project conceived and created by Daniel Kraus; the other 3 being Sheriff (2005), Professor (2009), and Preacher (2011). The series is currently on hiatus while Kraus works on a series of writing projects, although he hopes to return to the series to profile several women at some point (fingers crossed on this!).


The Work Series is a documentary project inspired by the oral histories collected by Studs Terkel, most notably his volume entitled Working. Featuring no narrator or any typical documentary film drama-enhancing bells and whistles, the series uses the “fly-on-the-wall” technique to try and bring the viewer as far as possible into the work and life of the subject.


Tearin’ it up on Baritone. Photo: Juan-Carlos Hernandez



This technique is perfect for the subject of Musician, the Chicago-based musical genius (literally so, as he won a coveted MacArthur Fellowship in 1999) and Civic Treasure, Ken Vandermark. Musician opens with Vandermark composing a new tune in his basement workspace, worrying and fretting over each note as he tries to actualize the sounds he hears in his head, and then cuts to a segment of the finished composition being performed by an ensemble.


The film then follows him as he goes about the Herculean task of being a working original Jazz musician/composer in America (which unsurprisingly includes several trips to Europe and other foreign locales where quality musicianship is more readily accepted by the public). Musician doggedly chronicles the whole experience; talking on the phone with bookers and club owners, coordinating/rehearsing with other musicians, hauling gear to and from gigs, endless hours in airports or behind the wheel, and of course the performances themselves. The film also illustrates Vandermark’s struggle to maintain his relationship and home life in the face of constant travel and work, something he approaches with the same calm rationality and good humor he brings to his work.


Cookin’ with Ken. Dave Rempis on Sax and Tim Daisy on Drums. Photo: Juan-Carlos Hernandez



Vandermark was the perfect choice for the Work Series, because DAMN does he work! If he hadn’t won a MacArthur grant so early in his life this film would have been a perfect “audition” for the coveted Genius Grant; because you simply cannot watch this film without coming away thinking that the man is a genius. Even if you don’t enjoy/get his music (and I truly pity you if that is so) you still have to award him the moniker by the “99% Perspiration” benchmark (easily 110% in his case). The sequence that shows the CD covers of all the bands and projects he has either headed or participated in (over 100 albums with almost 40 ensembles) is an apt testament to this fact.


Musician is available for streaming (as is the entire WORK Series) and has several bonus segments of Vandermark and some of his various ensembles playing his music.


Solo improvisation is incredibly difficult, but Vandermark pulls it off with uncanny skill. Photo: Amanda Kraus

And let’s discuss the music! A multi-Reedist (tenor and baritone saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet), Vandermark has absorbed and embodies the style of Modern Jazz known as “Post Bop” but there are also echoes of Punk and Thrash in the mix. Those familiar with avant-garde Jazz will recognize several of his influences in the music; John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, John Gilmore (from The Sun Ra Arkestra), Roland Kirk, Ornette Coleman, Booker Ervin and several other Sax Giants are combined and augmented in a sound that is traditional yet original. His compositions are also stunning and powerful, by turns beautiful & blistering and always uniquely his own. Vandermark has a well-earned reputation for playing with the best musicians around and his various ensembles are always brilliant and tight.


Genius At Work. Photo: Amanda Kraus

So there you have it, Gentle Reader. Either stream this film or rent the DVD from Netflix (I’ve been hogging a copy for the last several weeks but I finally returned it over the weekend) and make a point to go see Ken Vandermark whenever you are able. Because like many cultural treasures of Chicago, he’s criminally under-appreciated by the mainstream.


And let’s hope that Daniel Kraus continues this series as soon as possible!


This is a very interesting piece of work and is definitely worth a look by those who are fascinated with the creative process.

The Artsiders is a documentary project by Chris Olsen which examines the lives of several artists from various genres and features them discussing what inspired them to become artists, what inspires them to continue along that path, and all aspects of their creative process. It is an ongoing series but this particular DVD (I rented it from Netflix but it is also available online) is the full length original project that started things off.

The artists run the full gamut of artistic genres: visual artists, dancers, a percussionist, even a voice-over artist. They all discuss their lives and their art with candor, providing insight into what drives the creative mind and just exactly what the life of an artist entails (hint: it isn’t generally wealth and glamor). Personally I love listening to artists discuss their process (even if you don’t particularly like them or their art there is always something to be learned) so this film was really in my wheelhouse, but even those not totally obsessed with art will find it fun and edifying.



Yes, this day has finally arrived!!! I appear with Arnie and Robert K Elder at Printers Row Lit Fest at 1PM today.

Those of you who clicked for tickets need to show up at least 20 minutes in advance to get your seat in the room- and those who missed out on the “ticket clicking” can just wait in line and you will be seated once all the ticket holders have been seated and the 20 minutes before presentation deadline has passed.

I am so looking forward to seeing you all!!!



Hooray, Hooray!!! HOLM 2 Drops TODAY!!!

The long and winding path has finally reached its end.

And another one begins:

I managed to get some extremely heavy cats to play with me on a video to commemorate this historic book launch. Seasoned Chicago music fans will immediately recognize them.





The Fires Of Creativity Burn Furiously At The Frankenstone

The Fires Of Creativity Burn Furiously At The Frankenstone


In honor of National Poetry Month I am hosting a second Hootenanny in April at the Frankenstone Art Center. Special guest will be Muse O’ Fire; an ensemble featuring featuring the words of noted Poet, Writer, Educator, Administrator, and Frankenstone “Poet In Residence” Carolyn Aguila, backed by some of Chicago’s finest Jazz improvisors (including the brilliant Steve Hashimoto). Not to be missed!!!

Frankenstone Art Center

3310 W Foster Ave

Monday, April 22nd. 7PM

Cover- $1.99  (actually $2 but you get a hand-hewn Penny Necklace!) BYOB

Acoustic music and all genres of performance are welcome!!!

I will be bringing my usual melange of Poetry, Storytelling and Standup.


I will be rockin’ the ‘Stone twice this month in honor of National Poetry Month. The first one will be this coming Monday, April 8.

3310 W Foster. Sign-up at 6:30, Show starts 7ish.

All types of performer are welcome.


Chicago Stand-Up Comic Michael LaGrange made an appearance at the last one, probably will show up again this Monday. He is one twisted soul, you really ought to check him out. Here is a picture of him in Guizhou, China, chillin with some Miao honeys.

Michael Chills With Some Miao Honeys

The Miao (pronounced like the cat sound) are a hill tribe distantly related to the Hmong.

I have been hosting a monthly performance night at the Frankenstone Art Center since December; and they have grown from a round table gathering/Paris Salon sort of thang into an actual Open Stage Hootenanny with poets, singers, storytellers, musicians, and even a dancer at the February incarnation of this event that has no name.

As someone who performs in several genres (poet, storyteller, comic, singer/musician) this hosting opportunity has been a wonderful way for me to blow the dust off my performance skill set. I have been trying to imbue the proceedings with a sense of respect for all forms of expression and create a safe space where people can feel comfortable expanding their boundaries and trying new things.

My benchmark of success was always how many people there were who either tried performing/reading for the first time, performing in a new genre,  or were at least trying out a new song or piece. And from the first night, when two poets who had never read their work in public before did so with great gusto, that goal has been continually attained and I am pleased as proverbial punch about it.

This next one should be equally awesome, so stop on by and either enjoy the show or be a part of it!

The Frankenstone Art Center is at 3310 W Foster. Festivities begin at 7PM.

Stay tuned for news about the two open stages set for April in honor of National Poetry Month!



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