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Gin Blossoms 'Jam' Zoo: 'Not Actively Bad'

"If you just walked in and you don't know what the heck is goin' on, we're the Gin Blossoms," lead singer Robin Wilson announces early in the band's set at Lincoln Park Zoo. This may actually help some people in the audience.

A couple people have already stopped to ask me who's playing tonight, at this first installment of Lincoln Park Zoo's "Jammin' At The Zoo" summer music series; it's the Blossoms and Chicago singer-songwriter Carey Ott. Many of these people have come to be at an outdoor concert, in a spacious field bordered by a food court, ape houses, zebras, antelopes and flamingos. A couple of off-duty zoo employees tell me that many here tonight are zoo members or season-ticket holders who buy Jammin' passes before they even know who will be playing. It makes for an odd jumble that straddles the working-, middle- and upper- classes, and all their children. "I've been here six years and I've always gotten that vibe," one of them says.

Just like any proper rock show, this one involves a lot of waiting, but there's plenty to do. In fact, it levels the economic and social playing fields a little, because nobody knows what to do first - but everyone's determined, by God, to get a little of everything. Browse the free copies of Chicago magazine and Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage Previews. Mill about the chaotic food court, which has a vaguely Balkan feel that Americans can truly experience only in their tourist attractions and public schools. Buy yourself a frosty cup of Sam Adams (Jammin's official beer), and hoist one with the sturdy patriot himself - cardboard cutouts of him stand near most of the six beer-and-wine tables.

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A man in his early 20s gets on his phone and starts planning a weekend golf game - a scramble, to be precise. A few couples negotiate their folding-table privileges with security guards on the concrete plaza between the food court and the lawn. A couple of little boys climb up a nearby sculpture; a man wearing a shirt that proclaims Kid Rock "AN AMERICAN PIMP" leans against it.

The crowd gets thicker and slower - turns out it's a sold-out show, the Blossoms' second at this venue (the first was in 2002; the zoo worker quoted above told me the Blossoms played a less successful show there six or seven years ago). The zoo's lawn is really a logical place to have a small outdoor concert. It's just like any other stretch of public parkland close to the shore, not a mere afterthought in the middle of a larger attraction. This is not the crummy amphitheater of Spinal Tap's puppet show/jazz odyssey disaster.

During the wait, an announcer comes onstage to announce the upcoming artists in the series - Collective Soul in July, They Might Be Giants in August. These names elicit only a few scattered claps - odd considering one's cult following and the other's basic similarities to tonight's main band. He also notes that TMBG's zoo show will not be one of their kid-friendly shows. "You can bring your kids, but neither the zoo, nor the band, are responsible for what they might hear," he chuckles in the manner of a permissive Ned Flanders. That sums up the tone of the gathering - everyone's here to have fun, but there's an enforced mildness about it.

Soon enough, Ott mounts the stage alone, with an acoustic guitar, and starts into a gloomy waltz. At first I think this is not going to work for a breezy summer evening, but he gets a little looser and more interesting with each song. He will take a wry, seventh-chordy turn just where you'd expect the average working singer-songwriter to start moaning some limp melody. This short clip of his song "Lucid Dream" is the perfect example. When I heard the gentle organ and plaintive arpeggios, I thought I was in for something mopey - but then the music slid into a totally different structure. It's no masterpiece, but it at least does something that you wouldn't necessarily expect.

I discover the perfect way to enjoy Ott: Wander over to the little amphitheater behind the sea-lion pool and let his ballads waft over to me. After a few minutes of this, though, I hear his backing band plug in, and, thinking that the Gin Blossoms are coming on, become the first person to achieve light-jog speed here this evening.

Near the end of his set, Ott plays a cover of Frank Black's "Headache." Again, this earns him points. Everyone's seen that opening act that has loads of original songs, and whether they're good or not, I tend to want to see what else the artist can do. A well-placed cover shows us that the artist has at least a little taste, versatility, and humility.

If I don't like all of Ott's songs, it's purely a matter of preference, not one of induced revulsion. What's the difference between those two? It's that Ott does his thing without trying to bludgeon his audience into gloomy submission. He is not one of the James Blunts of the world, who are always grabbing listeners by the leg hairs and yanking them into pitiful moods. A singer like Blunt will deliver his lyrics ("You're beautiful, it's true/And I don't know what to do/'Cause I'll never be with you . . . ") with epic import. Ott has more of an Aimee Mann effect: He can set a serious emotional tone, but is always a little smart-assed and understated, just in case you're not hell-bent on touching his wounds this very moment. He's broadly likeable. So I'm optimistic that, with the right marketing, he can knock Blunt out of the VH1 rotation sometime soon. The only thing I don't get about Ott is why he breaks into the national anthem as a coda to one of his minor-key songs, trailing off with a wistful "Were so gallantly streaming . . . were so gallantly streaming . . . "

After Ott, we've got a good half-hour to mill about before the main attraction. I go back over to the sea-lion pool and browse some real estate. Again, this is another excuse for everybody to try indiscriminately to take in everything open tonight - the sea lions and the tiger, mostly.

A scruffy man in a black-and-orange striped jacket scurries through a relatively less dense bit of the audience to the backstage gate. One man standing nearby seems to notice with a curious grin, but nobody in the audience runs up to greet him on his way. It's Gin Blossom Robin Wilson, whom gamers might also recognize from his column in PlayStation magazine.

ginblossoms_th.jpgPretty much every Gin Blossoms song drips with melancholy, but the performance matches Ott's in its emotional restraint. The only obnoxious thing Wilson does is occasionally grab a cell phone from a fan near the stage and sing to all the pals who can't be here tonight. If anyone's overdoing it here, it's the audience.

Perhaps it's just the lack of normal, well-adjusted fans, but tonight it's impossible not to notice all the grown men and women who show up to concerts with a childish ache to be involved, especially as I get near the stage. A good 30-foot radius of people have gathered around, standing, waving their arms, and/or singing along. During the Blossoms' first song, an amp starts leaking some nasty feedback. The stage manager runs out to fix it. A cluster of 35-and-older males all try to help him out with completely useless hand signals. "The bad sound seems to be originating there!" is the basic meaning of this code. A fellow about my age, wearing sandals and a baby-blue polo, tries to stick his face in my notepad with a gleaming, shit-eating grin.

A few songs later, I start easing my way out, and I come face-to-face with a squat, 30ish woman. She swizzles herself down into some kind of dancing attitude, boogles out her eyes at me, and yells, "Heeeeey Jealousy!" - the title of a hit single that the band won't be playing for another 45 minutes. And she intones it as if it's some kind of coy, private joke between us. Of course, what she's really trying to say is that I must not be having enough fun, or else I'd be making random, drunken proclamations of my own.

My favorite, though, is the guy who starts yelling and pumping his finger at guitarist Scott Johnson as Johnson noodles a blues riff between songs. "Talk to me!" he bellows. "Talk to me, man! TALK TO ME!" Johnson nods politely and otherwise ignores him.

Overall, it's a well-played set that passes without incident. It includes a few songs from the band's upcoming album, which sound just like their songs from 1992's New Miserable Experience and 1996's Congratulations, I'm Sorry. Yes, folks, there is a Gin Blossoms sound, and if you should tire of it, just remember that it really is different from the "later Goo Goo Dolls sound" and be grateful. There are valid reasons not to like the Gin Blossoms, depending on what you're into, but it's hard to argue that they're actively bad. The worst I can think of them is that they provide a good way to listen to some mopey music once in a while without plowing over one's standards of taste.

Meantime, in the "great cats" house, a Siberian tiger is pacing back and forth in its cage. Another upper-middle-class-yet-surly fellow approaches the exhibit, and, seeing the tiger go off to an unseen part of the habitat, boasts, "He saw me coming! He knows who the king of the jungle is!" One must preserve male bravado in the face of all this vulnerability.

Scott Gordon will file reports from the zoo all summer, and we predict they will not be actively bad.



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Posted on June 25, 2006


MUSIC - Muddy Waters Museum Has Mojo.
TV - WGN Now Trump TV.
POLITICS - Trustbust Entertainment.
SPORTS - Tweeting Foles.

BOOKS - The Endurance Of The Rubik's Cube.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Charles E. Cheese Boo-tacular.


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