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Chicago by John Olson

An Intimate Evening with Levi Kreis
Apollo Theater

Also see John's interview with Levi Kreis and his review of To Master the Art

Someday, I suspect, some Chicagoans will kick themselves for not having seen Levi Kreis during the 18 months he played here in Million Dollar Quartet before taking the role to Broadway and winning a Tony Award, while others will brag that they saw him before he made it big. (Of course, many will be in both groups.) Kreis has all the right ingredients to become a very big star—the looks, the voice, a unique and personal presence, and catchy and accessible songs of his own writing that could appeal to a wide audience. Above all, he has stage presence and charisma to spare. The concert billed as "an intimate evening" felt like it, and while the sellout crowd of some 300 seemed to know him (and vice versa), I suspect he projects the same sort of love for his audiences wherever he goes.

The crowd at his first appearance back in Chicago, at the stage where he played Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet, included a whole group that literally served as back-up singers on some of his gospel and R&B inflected solos. They went wild when late in the two-set concert he sneakily broke into "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" from the show, which he followed that up with an extended snippet from "Great Balls of Fire." These excerpts were a reminder of the zany energy he brought to his character and linked the Levi as Lewis we saw in Million Dollar Quartet with the multi-faceted singer-songwriter headlining this concert.

Decked out in a tight plaid short-sleeved plaid cotton shirt and jeans, Kreis shared Lewis's virtuosity at the piano and his natural sense of showmanship. His repertoire, recorded on three albums between 2005 and 2009, was a highly melodic and soulful blend of gospel, country, R&B and Christian contemporary styles, though with secular lyrics. His compositions are mostly love songs and heavy on break-up laments, but even those have a sense of hope that permeates his writing. He opened his first set (which followed a twenty-minute opening set by Eric Himan, who co-headlines his "SidexSide Tour") with "Gonna Be Alright," an upbeat breakup song that is the first cut on his CD Where I Belong. His next number, a soulful cover of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me," was not so optimistic, but he followed it with "Ain't Nobody," a fast-paced, jazzy R&B-style song of encouragement to a girlfriend.

Though Kreis is openly gay, his lyrics frequently are written as if to be sung to a woman. Others are gender-neutral, like the ¾-time, gospel-style "Nothing at All" that topped the charts of the gay-oriented Logo cable TV channel for 17 weeks, or "Just This Good," a sensual love song he sang following a recounting of his coming-out story. He emotionally told the audience how, as a teen suffering from shame at his orientation, he enrolled in a conversion therapy program without telling his parents. Years later, while attending a fundamentalist college, he came to accept his orientation and came out to shocked friends and school officials. After taking an audience request for a breakup ballad ("Lonely Sunday Morning") off his first album (One of the Ones), he followed the story with "We're Okay," a song about his eventual reconciliation with his mother following her difficulty in accepting his coming out.

The second half of the concert opened with singer-pianist Jason Antone performing two songs, including a balladic cover the of the 1980s hit "Everybody Wants to Rule the World." Kreis finished up with a short set that included "Nothing at All," the numbers from Million Dollar Quartet, and closed with the uplifting love song "I'm Not Afraid." As he sang the refrain "Let it rain, let it pour, this is what I came here for" I'd bet the audience was happy to take it as a love letter to his them.

The "SidexSide Tour" was performed at Chicago's Apollo Theatre on November 1, 2010. Additional tour dates are scheduled through January 3, 2011. For more information on the tour visit www.levikreis.com.

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-- John Olson



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