Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Favorite Records, 2010

1.  Camu Tao, King of Hearts – It’s a shame the first full-length solo by this Columbus legend is just coming two years after his death, but we’re all richer for having it.  This record is an open wound, an open bottle, and punk as fuck.  Full of surging, catchy beats using pop interpolations that always cut deeper than you think at first; the ramshackle lo-fi nature of the record makes it feel more personal but also makes it sound fresher, makes it jump out of the speakers at you.  Passion and urgency, time isn’t long on this earth for any of us.

2.  Jack Rose, Luck in the Valley – Another beautiful record my life is better for having in it but a damn shame it had to come out posthumously.  His most spacious work, a few tracks with the Black Dirt Pickers, old pal Glenn Jones, Harmonic Dan, with amazing warm solo tracks like “Blues for Percy Danforth” and house-party tracks like a version of WC Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” that should make everyone who thinks about covering that chestnut give it up or “When the Tailgate Drops, the Bullshit Stops”.  A breakthrough even for someone like me who loved all his records.

3.  Victoire, s/t – This eponymous debut full-length by Missy Mazzoli and her primary working ensemble is the most accessible classical/new music record this year – or, I’d say, of a number of years – a series of beautiful, jagged miniatures.  There’s something astonishingly fragile about the writing on this but also a strength coursing through the song’s veins, the Bryce Dessner-featuring “Song for Mick Kelly” about the character from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, features a keening, mournful violin line that lacerates the drone of the organ.  “Song for Arthur Russell” captures and summarizes everything I love about Arthur Russell’s music better than a million covers I’ve heard, with the mild electronic percussion, more Reich than Paradise garage, the cut-off vocals that reach for ecstasy but are always getting subsumed into the sound, never quite hitting release, and the buzzing strings over the suspended chords from the keys.  Now, for next year, a label needs to start putting out Mazzoli’s longer-form orchestral and chamber works so she can keep blowing all our minds.

4.  Chocolate Genius, Inc., Swansongs – I like to think in a parallel universe – maybe Lethem’s parallel universe where Gravity’s Rainbow won the Hugo – Chocolate Genius’s Blackmusic won a whole mess of Grammys and a new undercurrent of deeply personal, cliché-adverse R&B rose up in its wake.  Everything he’s done since then has been of the highest quality but nothing’s punched me in the gut in the same way until the new one.  Indebted to history, check the “Walk On By” referencing intro to “Enough For You”, but not beached on it, still swimming, still surprising, “Now we’re on dry land and you miss the seaside / Say you want another point of view / But when we make love, you wake up so hungry / I wish I had enough for you”.  Working images over to create an impression the way Mark Eitzel or Prince or Me’Shell N’degiocello does, and with a variety of moods his leathery, limited voice can wrap around, from that song’s melancholy to “Kiss Me” and “When I Lay You Down” with their lackadaisical seduction through the almost-gospel sunrise of “Ready Now”.  Like any record worth a damn, the music tells more of a story than the lyrics, tones warm and foggy for the voice and the songs to drift through, indistinct enough you need to pay attention but everything you need to hear comes right into focus when you listen for it.

5.  Current 93, Baalstorm, Sing Omega! – I already blogged about this record at length, but months late it’s still holding up and even growing in my memory.  A collection of love songs for the world and time and a record of the light after mourning (not a typo).

6.  Anais Mitchell and guests, Hadestown – I remember the first time I heard Anais Mitchell, “Cosmic American” and I was struck by the purity of the voice and the grit of the lyric, and this record – a song cycle in the manner of Randy Newman’s Faust featuring a ring of folk superstars to retell the story of Eurydice – delivers on that promise in spades.  Ambition only matched by its self-assurance and quality, helped by crystalline production from Todd Sickafoose. She and Justin Vernon nail the flirty quality of young Orpheus and Eurydice, Greg Brown and Ani Difranco both sexy and ominous as Hades and Persephone, I think I passed this on to more people I know than any other record on my list this year.

7. Unholy 2, $$kum of the Earth –The Unholy 2 in 3D Cinemascope at last, a record that perfectly captures what’s great about this band, the deep groove troughs and Chris Lutzko’s guitar tone that’s all sinew and gristle, Adam Smith’s sculpted delay and electronics, and Bo Davis’ drumming that knows exactly where the beat is in what feels like chaos.  What was once easily dismissed  - or enjoyed – as a cross between Suicide and Pussy Galore, now shows all of its elements and asserts itself as its own animal, with thanks given to the production work of Cheater Slicks’ Tom Shannon and Guinea Worms’ Wilfoster (who also put out a hell of a record this year) that finds clarity in the murk and puts the gravel back on the road.

8.  Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate, Ali & Toumani –Two artists who made an indelible impact on the world and on me in particular when I just started going to bigger concerts, in their second duet record sadly released after Toure’s death.  Every note is measured and balanced and still spontaneous and of the moment, a record for prayers and hangovers and that leaves you with a little more hope for the world when you’re done with it.

9.  Sharon Van Etten, epic – Where Van Etten’s Because I Was In Love was a perfectly chiseled set of sharp, funny, introverted almost-haikus, this sophomore effort lives in the world.  Bigger arrangements with drums, guitars up in the mix that make you nod your head, sweetly moaning steel guitars and multi-tracked harmonies on  the vocals, but everything’s used judiciously.  What she trades in on the side of the cryptic and the internal she gains in the strength of her voice and a different kind of purity.  The year of diligent work and touring has aided in the confidence to come right out and say, “Say it outright / If you don’t wanna see me tonight / And you won’t if you don’t want to / Hide it from me if you must / Hide it from me if you don’t trust / Anything I say to you” and say it with her voice growing higher and stronger, not shirking away, not building a castle in the sand but walking right toward you.

10.  Jason Moran, Ten – Everybody’s saying it’s the year of the piano in jazz, and true enough there were great solo records by Vijay Iyer, Geri Allen,  a Brad Mehldau that got a lot of attention, and the best record of The Bad Plus’ career but this is the piano record that stuck with me, haunting me.  His tone’s never sounded better, the rhythm section of Taurus Mateen and Nasheet Waits still have that unmistakable swing and texture, and the tunes are badass.  “Feedback Pt. 2” with its layer of electronic noise filling in the cracks between the notes but somehow making it seem more spacious, the melancholy “Pas De Deux – Lines Ballet” and the hard-charging “Gangsterism Over 10 Years” are favorites, but there’s not a bad track on this.

11.  Punch Brothers, Antifogmatic – Chris Thile’s chamber-bluegrass quintet released an unassuming record this year that had the best songs they’ve recorded that drift into more of a Richard Thompson territory, more complicated than the earlier heartbreak lyrics, so many fantastic moments on this.  “You Are” tracking the transition of learning to love again over off-kilter harmonies and repetition, the gorgeous ballad “Alex” with its hook “You’re only as good as your last goodbye” and Thile’s mandolin breaking up the pleasantness with a thrash I’ve rarely heard on the instrument. “Rye Whiskey” as traditional as the record gets with a gang-shout vocal, strong straight rhythms on a good-time drinking song and the old blues trick of ending each verse with “Have I ever told you ‘bout the time I ….” and not resolving the line until later when the song sags a little under a mandolin line wrenching the darkness out of the high strings as it moves into “When I took you/ And took her / For granted” and the same chords shift into that seeping dark oil-paint mode. It’s got enough interesting harmonic material to keep a jazz or chamber music fan listening but the songs are so strong you wish there were ballsier bands to cover and propagate this material.

12. Mary Halvorson Quintet, Saturn Sings – Her most conventional record but also maybe her riskiest, adding trumpet and tenor sax, it sounds like a Horace Silver record that came from space.  Melodies you could sing along to, and every time the first song comes on the rhythm section of John Hebert and Ches Smith has me nodding along and smiling, but it’s not as simple as that might sound, there’s always something I don’t expect around every corner.  This record is a sunrise and snow splitting and liquefying under your boots and the last blooming roses of summer.

13. Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty – A record stripped down to prime effectiveness, with old partners (Andre 3000 contributes the wobbly, clattering beat of “You Ain’t No DJ”, Sleepy Brown shows up on “Turns Me On” for his patented off-kilter loverman croon) and new (Janelle Monae’s perfect hook on “Be Still”, Gucci Mane on “Shine Blockas” which would be a massive hit in a better world) doing exactly what they do best.  A head nodder that also sticks words in your head for days and with beats full of little touches and hooks that also help it stick to your ribs but never trying to be anything but a great hip-hop record.

14. Janelle Monae, The Archandroid- This is the record where Monae filters and distills the last 30 years of R&B from solo George Clinton to Teddy Riley to Grace Jones to Prince to Angie Stone and recombines the DNA so it never sounds like just a throwback.  “Make the Bus”, the collaboration with Of Montreal is one of my favorite tracks and I never liked anything I heard from Of Montreal, she and Saul Williams team up for “Dance Or Die” with should be the year’s perfect club single.  The record could’ve stood a little editing, but I found myself smiling every time a song of this popped on my ipod, and I find it very heartening there’s an R&B record taking these chances.

15. William Parker, I Plan to Stay a Believer: The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield – There are few things in music I love more than Curtis Mayfield, and this collections of live recordings of William Parker and band taking on Mayfield’s beautiful melodies in post-‘60s fire music style hits the spot.  This record took songs I’ve loved for as long as I’ve loved music and let me hear them with new ears, as on the 21 minute “If There’s Hell Below” with Hamid Drake on drums and Parker, telepathic as ever, kicking the rhythmic intensity up just a notch so the horns just boil on top with the vocals and Lafayette Gilchrist’s piano the only thing that lets our ears catch up.  Or the gorgeous ballad “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, with this Sabir Mateen solo as raw as anything I’ve ever heard him play that only intensifies the beauty.  There’s enough familiar to keep us engaged, like the fanfare at the front of “Freddy’s Dead”, but always some new left turn you didn’t think of.  Vocalist Leena Conquest has never sounded better than on this, very few singers work over this kind of music, Patty Waters, Fontella Bass, but she never gives up any ground, she works the songs down right to their heart.  Amiri Baraka’s poetry and incantations are the flame inside the songs, sometimes retelling the stories of the songs, sometimes filling in an emotional context, sometimes just beautifully riffing where the music takes him.

16. Ashley Paul, To Much Togethers – Anyone who talks about this record in terms of dissonance is the same kind of lame who talks about Rothko in terms of Pantone.  Overdubbing her visceral saxophone and mingling it with Taisho Koto and some scraped percussion on “Wedding Song” and probably a few other instruments I can’t place until all I have to focus on is the sound and the feeling.  Deeply contemplative but also unsettling, the mood is set of being at ease with the world but also deeply skeptical of it, the Meredith Monk-like loping rhythms of “One One”, the dragging, shadowy lines of “Another Walk in the Park.”  One of the most spiritual experiences I had with a record this year.  Stunningly gorgeous.

17. Ohneotrix Point Never, Returnal – I was really torn between this record and the new record from Cleveland heroes Emeralds, both on Mego, both very similar records and both major leaps forward, but I just plain listened to this one more.  Synth with a warm palette and a perfectly assured hand, from the post-glitch flowering of “Nii Admari” through the orchestral glaze of “Stress Waves” on to the Tangerine Dream-in-a-cuisinart of “Ouroboros”.

18. Demon’s Claws, The Defrostation of Walt Disney – Demon’s Claws take that methamphetamine homemade human torch energy and channel it into something seemingly more placid but also more deadly on this new record. From the opening open-wound stomp of “Fed From Her Hand” through the low-rent swaggering echo and guitar of “Catch Her By the Tail” into the chopped up Western landscape of “Anny Lou”, this record might take a while before you show symptoms, but if you like the rawer side of rock, you’re going to keep coming at it unprotected until you know you’re infected.

19. Parting Gifts, Strychnine Dandelion – After a 2009 where two of my favorite rock bands, the Reigning Sound and the Ettes put out records that weren’t bad but were nowhere near their best work, Greg Cartwright and Coco Hames teamed up on this project that clearly rejuvenated their songwriting.  Not straying from the blueprint of their two primary bands, but playing everything with a freshness that makes it feel brand new, from sock-hop standards like “Keep Walkin’” through sexy mud-covered stomps like “Don’t Stop” and tragic ballads like “Born to be Blue”, I wasn’t bored for a solitary second of this record.

20. Scott Woods, Sunset Clause – Maybe the first spoken word record ever to make one of these best of lists?  The only other I could think of was Sekou Sundiata’s second record for Righteous Babe but I can’t find a list from that long ago.  Columbus’ pillar/exemplar of all things poetic, Scott Woods, made the best record of his career this year, finally stripped down enough it doesn’t need musical tracks, just a combination of live and studio work and that perfect voice.  Amazing persona pieces like “6 in da Morning”, “Jesus, Judas and the Case of the Old Woman’s Son: A Murder Mystery”, and “To the High School Thug that Broke into His English Teacher’s Car”, gorgeous lyricism crossed with justified and blue-hot rage on “How to Make a Crackhead”, “The Organist”, “Lamborghini Hickies”, notes on what’s wrong with poetry today including “Lynchings”, and hilarious geek-speak on “Cthulhu Calls for Love”, “Dungeons and Dragons”, “I hate Zombies Like You Hate Me”, and “Bob Ross Loves You Baby”, this shows every aspect of his poetic voice and leaves you assured there’s more coming.

21. Judith Berkson, Oylat – This record finally – and beautifully – captures what I hear the first time I saw Berkson at a back yard show Gerard Cox organized a number of years ago.  Unadorned, on a combination of of the reedy thinness of an electric piano and the richness of an acoustic but both played with this almost-clipped touch.  Taking classic Jewish cantor material, ‘30s standards and some thorny originals and approaching it all in the moment so it retains a sexuality and a sensuality and an ache that echoes long after the record’s over.

22. Marc Ribot, Silent Movies – A less conceptual solo record than Spirits or Don’t Blame Me, but some of his most gorgeous playing.  Really letting the Latin and classical influences come through.  Standout tracks include “Delancey Waltz” that sounds like its titular street slick with rain and everyone trying to keep their balance, “Fat Man Blues” with its low-slung swing, and the one-two mournful punch of “Empty” and “Natalia in Eb Major”.

23. Rashied Ali and Henry Grimes, Spirits Aloft – It’s hard for any record of Ali on percussion and a string player to not get compared to his record with Leroy Jenkins, especially since Grimes plays violin as well as his standard upright bass for much of this record.  But everything on this live date is perfectly recorded and in the moment but still with everything they’ve experienced and everyone they’ve played with a shadow in their hearts. 

24. LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening – Every time I try to write LCD Soundsystem off, they come back with a record I think is even stronger.  The dynamics, the singing, the writing, I feel like everything is just that notch stronger than their previous releases, and the hooks on this are monstrous.  While there isn’t a song that killed me the way “All My Friends” did, there also isn’t any filler.

25. Sarah Kirkland Snider, Penelope – A very different take on the sequence in the Odyssey that Enda Walsh took on in his play of the same name that also made my best-of list.  Played by NY new music ensemble Signal and with vocals by Shara Worden, the melodies stick in my plasma and everything has the weight of myth and the deep sadness of living. 

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Favorite Art Exhibits, 2010

1.  Paul Thek, Diver, Whitney Museum, NYC – I knew of Paul Thek’s work but I didn’t really know it when I walked in to the museum on a beautiful late October day, but coming in from the street all orange and golden and into this, all blue and pink and meat sculptures, it was like being slapped,  The impermanence of every damn thing is driven home all through this retrospective, but so is the truth in transcending the limitations of society, of inhibition, of the body.  As moving a collection of work as I saw all year.

2.  Marina Abramovic, The Artist is Present, Museum of Modern Art, NYC – One of the most visceral exhibits I saw this year, but that doesn’t mean it relied on shock value.  A fascinating combination of recreations of her earlier performances, videos, ephemera, and of course Abramovic herself sitting at a table making eye contact with visitors for hours on end. 

3.  Mark Bradford, s/t, Wexner Center for the Arts –Props to the Wexner Center for doing this and going above and beyond to integrate this with the community and get the outside world involved in an exhibit that was a harder sell than, say, last year’s Luc Tuymans.  Abstractions wrigglingly alive, color palates that smacked the viewer around, an exhibit I saw three times and wanted to see a dozen more.

4.  Catherine Opie, Girlfriends, Gladstone Gallery, NYC –Portrait photography that grabs you by the throat.  Few backgrounds but the ones set in a specific place are twice as gripping, the compositions draw you in even more because of that.  Women in joy and pain and ecstasy and rage.

5.  Peter Brotzmann, Wood and Water, Corbett v. Dempsey Gallery, Chicago – Brotzmann’s visual art which I’d only seen on record covers really stunned me in this gallery.  Blake’s giants and classical woodcut techniques and a love of the earth and woods and everything that deforms both, with a rough-hewn look but also a watery dreamlike brushstroke.

6.  Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb and Herbert Ferber, Modern Art, Sacred Space, Jewish Museum, NYC – This blew me away with three takes on modernist reworkings of tradition Jewish iconography, designed for an actual synagogue in the late ‘60s.  Whether it was the Curious George thing I saw this year or the Masters of the Comic Book show I saw a few years ago, or a small exhibit of permanent collection work dealing with how artists view the holocaust at this remove, no one sequences or displays art in a more approachable, interesting way than the Jewish Museum.

7.  Cyprien Galliard, Disquieting Landscapes, Wexner Center – Photos of buildings right before or right after demolition, this air of impermanence and crumbling modernity but also this beauty of decay. a splash of blue plastic that leads your eye through the rubble so then you see the tiny flecks of color you might miss originally.

8.  Various Artists, The Delusion of Eating, The Shelf gallery – My favorite multi-artist show in Columbus this year, brilliantly curated to expose the theme in a variety of different ways, less about sexuality than the early press led me to believe and more about the lies we tell ourselves about what we eat, about the nutritional qualities and also the hedonistic elements.

9. Jan Gossart, Man, Myth and Sensual Pleasure, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC – A widely known canonical artist who I had no background in before seeing this show, one of the frustrations and pleasures of being a dilettante striving for autodidact status.  Everything in these paintings is suffused with joy and a thick erotic richness, a link between Van Eyck and Rubens.  I could’ve stayed here for hours.

10. Various Artists, Chaos and Classicism, Guggenheim Museum, NYC – A mindfuck of a show clean and gleaming like a pristine tooth but bubbling rot not far enough under the surface.  Sometimes a regressive movement is just aesthetically motivated, but as often wanting to go back like it was at least leaves you open to insidious forces.

11.  William Kentridge, Five Themes, Museum of Modern Art, NYC – Seeing this South African artist’s exhibit full of his animations including stills and storyboards and enormous sketches and prints as well as performances and ephemera around the operas The Nose and Magic Flute was a kick in the teeth.  The artist and the audience as a worm burrowing into the banality of evil and coming out a little wiser but with a black eye.

12. John Baldessari, Pure Beauty, Metropolitan Museum, NYC – I walked out of this with an enormous grin on my face, and a new appreciation for an artist whose name I knew but I had no idea he was responsible for this much of what I think of as the conceptual art canon.

13.  Sarah Sze, untitled, Tanya Bonakdar gallery, NYC -  The framework of a wonderland, all spindly structures and very mundane parts but so enormous I had to delve into every single piece and leave slack-jawed.

14. Various Artists, Abstract Expressionist New York, Museum of Modern Art, NYC- Taking one of my favorite eras of art and showing me things I’d never seen and making me think about it in a new way is no easy task, and this did what the play Red could not even (though I also loved that).  It also paid the best tribute to a museum I already loved by reminding us that on a good day its permanent collection floors don’t even scratch the surface of its permanent collection.

15. Rivane Neuenschwander, A Day Like Any Other, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis – This Brazilian artist picks up Baldessari’s fun-gauntlet and throws so much at the viewer that you know something has to stick.  And what sticks you have a hard time getting over for days, including constellations made out of hole-punched paper looking over tables with the detritus of a raging night, an installation paying tribute to the movie The Conversation and a series of buckets with holes creating a resonance when they drip into other buckets.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Favorite Theatre and Dance, 2010

Theatre in Columbus is having something of a renaissance in the last few years, at least to my eyes.  I’ve always loved seeing a play but I remember some lean years where there was very little I wanted to catch.  I put theatre and dance on the same list this time because – and I know this is wrong – I tend to approach dance in some ways from a text perspective.  I respect what it uniquely does, but I still tend to lump it in my head with plays/monologues. 

1.  Merrily We Roll Along by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, Available Light, August 21, 2010 – I think I’ve done enough gushing about this show.  But while I juggled and hemmed and hawed over much of this list, there wasn’t even a second when AVL’s take on an under-regarded Sondheim play wasn’t at the top of it.  First thing I’ve ever seen Heather Carvel in and she was a revelation.  Ian Short was as amazing as he always is.  The direction caught both the youthful angst and what happens to the dreams of youth perfectly.  And when my ipod runs across the off-Broadway cast recording, these are the people I see and the voices my head hears.

2. Fences by August Wilson, NYC, April 14, 2010 – Obviously one of the greatest plays of the last quarter of the 20th century, and probably my third favorite August Wilson, plus I’d never seen it live.  I was planning to see this before I realized it had this perfect cast.  For acting firepower it doesn’t get much better than this.  Denzel Washington is a hurricane of charm and rage and love all trying desperately to be controlled and to run wild.  And Viola Davis matches him note for note but does it with stillness, with silence, and with one gesture to a hundred of his perfectly in-the-moment gesticulations.  Mykleti Williamson works the audience’s preconceptions like a master violinist and stabs you right between the ribs when you’re not expecting it.  I’d tell you I didn’t cry during this but I’d be lying.

3.  Them (2010) by Ishmael Houston-Jones, Dennis Cooper and Chris Cochrane, PS122, NYC, October 21, 2010 – I’m a big fan of all three of these gentlemen, but I’d never seen any of them in the flesh, and the original production of this roughly 25 years ago is still spoken of with an incredible reverence.  The early solo Ishmael Houston-Jones dances himself jammed my heart into my throat until I thought I’d choke or break into a million pieces, like the first time I heard Amiri Baraka read or Peter Brotzmann play saxophone or Diamanda Galas sing, an utterly unique vocabulary getting expressed so perfectly you’re not sure anyone else can ever use it.  But of course, the younger dancers peopling most of this revival/reimagination are fantastic, alone and together and all together and alone again.  Cochrane’s electric guitar was all chopped chords, whiplash feedback, emotions exploding before they happen with the dancers and shadowing the explosions, propping the characters up and bridging the dance and the text.  Cooper’s text is every bit as good as the other two legs of this triangle, not matching the dance except in brief moments – and those synchronicities as are shocking a gun getting fired – but informing it and showing another perspective on the plague and the desperation we still aren’t out of, told in a dryly funny voice that hits you with a sadness it lulled you into not expecting from the beginning, “I thought what they were doing was love.”  Maybe the most harrowing thing in any medium I saw all year but also the most life-affirming.

4.  In the Red and Brown Water by Tarrell Allen McCraney, Steppenwolf, Chicago, February 21, 2010 – My only regret with this is that I wasn’t in Chicago long enough to see the other two connected Brother/Sister Plays while we were there, because this was stunning.  Set in the projects of Louisiana in a time never quite specified, or perhaps out of time, and focusing on very current despair and joy but also Yoruba ritual.  I want everyone writing urban fantasy/American magic realism to see this and see how much juice there still is in the form, how much emotional and metaphoric weight it can still have.  Drumming and singing and astonishing acting, especially Rodrick Covington and Alana Arenas, and a script that draws the line between our past that keeps us down, our past  that shows a way out, and goes straight through your heart.

5.  Pride and Prejudice by Daniel Elihu Kramer (adapted from Jane Austen), Available Light, January 14, 2010 – A great adaptation of one of my favorite all-time novels that opens it up in pacing and modernizes it a little by bringing in the current currents of conversation but keeps its heart and its intensity intact.  Eleni Papaleonardos’ direction keeps the threads balanced and keeps the production moving at just enough of a clip to make an impact and keep the audiences engaged.  Great performances all around, especially Kim Garrison Hopcraft, Michelle Schroeder and Wolf Sherrill.  I was so in love with this I probably convinced 20 people to go who hadn’t seen a play since they were in college.

6.  Hughie by Eugene O’Neill and Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, Goodman Theater, Chicago, February 20, 2010 – Two takes on the tragedy of aging, two takes on classic-period modernism, and a showcase for Brian Dennehy that shook me to my core.  The moment where he starts to sing in Krapp’s Last Tape is one of those moments where you realize you’re watching one of the great stage actors just sinking into a role, collapsing on himself.  Electricity all around.

7.  837 Ventura Boulevard by Faye Driscoll, Wexner Center, November 19, 2010 – A fantastic, hilarious dance trio by Faye Driscoll that opened with her singing Will Oldham’s “I Am a Cinematographer” while shadowboxing and improvising half the lyrics and opened up into a friend-triangle that’s poisoning everyone involved.  Taking you from goofy joy right through the rage underpinning the joy, the trying to have a good time mostly to show up people.

8.  The Aliens by Annie Baker, Rattlestick, NYC, April 18, 2010 – It took the full first act for this to click for me, but once it did, it hit like a ton of bricks.  The three characters on the one set of the back porch of a coffeeshop in Vermont, perfectly directed by Sam Gold, with the viewpoint character, Jasper,  learning from the older two through mimicry and through reading behind what they’re saying to see the cautionary tale.  Acting’s amazing, there’s as much beauty in the moment when Michael Chernus as KJ said, “Frogmen sing together” near the end of the first act as in anything I saw this year, and the writing takes naturalism and makes it ineffably, miraculously strange.

9.  Red by John Logan, Donmar New York, NYC, April 17, 2010 – On paper, there was a lot of reason to worry about this.  A two-hander built around arguments about art between Mark Rothko and a fictional assistant by the man who wrote Gladiator?  But it was electric and heartbreaking, Alfred Molina gave a tour-de-force performance and Eddie Redmayne actually gave him a run for his money, not afraid to go toe-to-toe with him, to get dirty.  And the writing really captures those rhythms and keeps you moving with a few arias that’ll make the hair on your arms stand up.

10. A Free Man of Color by John Guare, Lincoln Center, NYC, October 24, 2010 – Frankly, this play’s a little bit of a mess, three hours long with it seems like 30 characters, spread out over two continents, and in the style of a restoration comedy.  But I was both as purely entertained as I’ve been all year, and as in awe as if I was watching a tightrope walk.  Jeffrey Wright is amazing (as expected) and hilarious (not quite as expected)as Jacques Cornet in a broader way than I’ve ever seen from him and he’s surrounded by a cast studded with pitch-perfect supporting actors.  A whirlwind of euphemisms for Cornet’s penis, leaping behind and out of curtains, and a self-awareness that they’re all in a play that mirrors the time period and the precarious social situation and artifice of New Orleans, most heartbreakingly when the main character in a fit of desperation summons Thomas Jefferson to address his complaints to his new ruler.  It made me feel good to see someone going out and making this kind of ambitious antithesis-of-black-box theater.

11. Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, Actor’s Theatre, July 24, 2010 – My favorite Shakespeare comedy in a venue I’ve loved since I saw my first girlfriend at 16 in Titus Andronicus, and the best production of this I’ve ever seen.  Staged in neo-realism’s Italy, a performance by Eleni Papaleonardos as Beatrice that had my jaw in my lap, a very strong Travis Horseman as Benedick and a stunning Acacia Duncan, there was nothing I didn’t like about this.

12. The Great War by Hotel Modern, Wexner Center, January 21, 2010 – Hotel Modern basically performed a live WWI movie with narration and sound effects exclusively using miniatures.  Indelible images and even performances all drawn out of plastic and digital video, affirming the belief in theater being whatever an artist thinks it is.

13. The Absurdity of Writing Poetry by Matt Slaybaugh, Available Light, March 21, 2010 – One of the first Available Light shows which I heard about but didn’t catch at the time, now revived as a once-per-season tradition.  A cut up/original text hybrid going through Slaybaugh’s influences, winding through the danger of making art, the double danger that no one will care, and ultimately that if you need to do it you need to do it anyway.  I wanted to have a few crybaby Columbus bands/writers who focus (by which I mean whine about, not take steps to actually build it) a little too much on their audience instead of their art watch this, because it’s a perfect example of how good, how invigorating, and how full of and in touch with life this kind of ars poetica can be.

14. Penelope by Enda Walsh, Druid Theatre Company, NYC, October 23, 2010 – There’s definitely a masturbatory element to this, both in the language and in the characters, it’s ostensibly about Odysseus’ wife but she never moves past being “Odysseus’ wife”, she’s a trophy for the four men hanging out in an empty swimming pool drinking gin to fight amongst themselves over.  They know the end is coming and their wooing is an all-angles portrait of stinking desperation, not just for their lives but also for an era, and you don’t ever really feel for them but I stayed on the edge of my seat and laughed my ass off. 

15. Stop Sign Language by Eleni Papaleonardos, Available Light, September 17, 2010 – One person show premiering this year written by and starring Eleni Papleonardos (who’s made an appearance on this list a few times), about her growing up with dyslexia, her growing up in a bilingual house and how language develops, all braided together because that’s how life works, it’s not easily separated or distilled down to its components.  Very funny and incredibly moving.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Favorite Shows of the Year, 2010


First of a series of four posts of art that really drove me nuts this year, that let me sleep like a baby or disturbed my sleep for days or made me sit down and write something about it or made me write three drafts I just threw out because I couldn’t get it or made me write something completely unrelated.  That made me call somebody or send somebody an e-mail even if I just found myself saying, “Man, so it was, I mean, you know… shit.”  Everything in all of these posts is in Columbus unless otherwise stated.

Saw around 80 concerts this year, not bad for spending an entire month in the Philippines for work.  Great year for music, wish I saw some more local stuff but only so many hours in the week.  2011, I’m ready, my loins are girded, I’ve bought the first ticket to a show next year (Pogues in Detroit, early March, but I’ve already got designs on some January and February stuff).

1. The Oblivians, The Summit, o7/10/10 – Everything you want straight up rock and roll to be – electric energy (and not just because there were some ungrounded microphone issues early on), gospel harmonies and snarling howls, drums that make you want to slam into your best friend in a five foot radius, and guitars like a freight train.  Last year’s show in Detroit was wonderful, but this beat your memories like they stole something, better than I thought a nostalgia reunion could ever be.

2.  El Jesus De Magico and the 2050s, 01/14/10 – Everything I hope the fringes of rock is going to deliver, even if it doesn’t always, a fitting send-off with friends everywhere.  Missed the Cheater Slicks since I was seeing a play that also made this year’s best list for me, but the 2050’s brought the nasty blues-rock but without any of the corny noodling clichés that sometimes entails, more Boss Hogg and Scene Creamers but with a tension you could hang yourself on.  But the meat was the best El Jesus show I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen them a ton.  Witzky’s howl all melancholy and blue flame, a rhythm section equally adept at the slow-burn narcotic crawls and the ferocious stomps, and organ and guitar that build these swirling expressionist paintings of light and feeling.

3.  Raphael Saadiq, The Vibe, Chicago, 08/06/2010 – Goddamn.  I mean what else do you say to this?  The perfect frontman, knows exactly where to brandish his ego like a sword and where to keep it in check, in a spotless suit with a seven piece band and two back up singers, special guests, I didn’t stop dancing for the 90 minutes he was on stage.  90% of the songs of his I wanted to hear, and a version of “It’s a Shame” with one of the Spinners up to sing with him that almost made me drop to my knees.

4.  Budos Band, Southpaw, Brooklyn, 04/16/10 – Boiling trumpet  and sax over slashing guitar, throbbing, ebbing bass and drums, and four percussionists.  The ingredients for an amazing dance party.  Played most of the new record and the crowd didn’t stop moving the entire set, everyone left soaked in sweat, falling asleep on the train back, and perfect, pristine sound still ringing in your head.

5.  Cheap Trick, The LC, 07/09/10 and Devo, Ohio State Fair, 08/04/10 – Every year I cheat a little on one entry, and this year it’s this one.  Within 30 days I saw two shows that restored my faith in live classic rock.  Neither of these bands cheaped out and there was an exuberance in still getting up and rocking an audience.  I love Cheap Trick but with the kind of love that tries to pretend most of their ‘80s work didn’t happen, and I’ve seen them a few times and while they’re great, there’s a lot of sleepwalking through a very well-worn setlist, but not this time.  With Rick Nielsen’s son on drums instead of Bun E. Carlos, they opened with “Weight of the World”, got “I Want You to Want Me” out of the way four songs in and when a third of the crowd left, they didn’t care.  Devo did all the songs you wanted to hear, a couple of things of the new album, particularly good versions of “Girl U Want”, “Good Thing” and “Uncontrollable Urge”, had three costume changes and clearly relished playing the Ohio State Fair.

6.  Swans and Baby Dee, Outland on Liberty, 10/08/10 – Every time I’ve seen Baby Dee it’s been a markedly different show: the joyous cabaret five-piece band at Rumba Cafe, the duo with Maxie Moston at Knitting Factory that stabbed the audience right in the heart again and again, and this with cellist and violinist and her restricted to harp, except for one instrumental on accordion, that was a finely sculpted bit of chamber music including a heartbreaking “Anne-Marie Does Love to Sing”.  Swans blew away any expectation I might have walked in with, from the more-than-10 minute intro to “No Words/No Thoughts” building up chains of tiny cells to create this grand, shadowy mosaic, but not just accumulating, squeezing the most power out of each of those building blocks and through repetition and slight changes, showing them in new light again and again and again.  On through the classic “Sex, God, Sex”, that had everyone nodding along and Gira’s howl at its most potent.  They dragged the audience through the depths of the soul on this pure, visceral, muscular but not macho or clichéd music, and they brought you back out into the light on songs like “Beautiful Child”, but all the light has a shadow element and as Leonard Cohen wrote, “Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows”.  Breathtaking, exhausting, invigorating.

7.  Robbie Fulks/Jenny Scheinman duo, The Hideout, Chicago, 08/09/10 – A two-hour trip through the shadowy alleyways, dead-end curves and bright lights surrounding the intersection between Joy and Pain.  Fulks’ “I’ll Trade You Money for Wine” with its hobo narrative and sharp, cold fingerpicking and Scheinman’s pizzicato.  Scheinman’s “My Old Man” with its refrain, “I’ll break your little feet” and Fulks’ high harmony.  Fulks’ “Goodbye Virginia” soaring to the rafters, her violin giving it wings and chiaroscuro.  Jokes and stories and astonishing playing and perfect versions of Grandpa Jones and the Carter Family and Lionel Belasco and their originals that meshed even in their different vocabularies, topped off by Mississippi John Hurt’s “I’m Satisfied”, leaning up against the bar having led the audience out pied piper style.

8.  Watershed, Rumba Cafe, 09/10/10 –  Good rock is a magpie’s nest and what makes it good is you relating to the shiny baubles, thinking they’re very much like your own or the ones you always wanted.  And the show at Rumba this fall, barely rehearsed, is the best Watershed show I’ve ever seen for a couple of reasons, but mostly that.  Coming out and leading with “Mercurochrome”, taking its disinfectant metaphor, the stinging pain of leaving being the way you know you’re healing, but here, live, in the middle it turned into a perfect raunchy (has that word ever been used for this band?) cover of Johnny Thunders’ “One Track Mind” with its Chuck Berry bounce and its perfectly-obvious drug metaphor and a whole other level of obsession which amped up the energy of their own song, crashing back into the final chorus, “This time tomorrow / I’ll be gone / The more it hurts / The more it works” and at least three kinds of mythologizing - mythologizing the pain of a decision you haven’t made yet, mythologizing self-abuse as a test of how strong you are, and plain ol’ rock star mythologizing -  all blur into this purple bruise and give the crowd whiplash.  Celebrating playing together, their drummer Dave of a number of years back in the throne after a year of health hell, they burned through a set of some of their angriest, catchiest songs to a crowd that really cared, everyone dancing, everyone singing along, but not as over-rehearsed as they can be (as, to be fair, you really have to be if you’re playing some of the larger stages they play), just sweaty joy, flubbed notes and scars and all.  A victory lap well-earned.

9.  Smoking Popes, Reggie’s Rock Club, Chicago, 02/20/10 – A band I liked well enough but didn’t quite get the massive love for just blowing me away.  Soaring, wistful vocals, from a guy who sounds like he’s being pulled in two directions at once with a band that snakes through all moods.  Rhythm section with crunch and swing, and two guitar lines that got tangled in each other’s flight path like two moths around the same flame.  Big and anthemic but winking just enough at that fist-pumping quality, as disarming in its earnestness as in its sophistication.

10. JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, Beat ‘n’ Soul, Off Broadway, St. Louis, 11/06/10 – The crown jewel in a weekend that also featured amazing sets by the Nevermores, Mondo Topless, The Beatdowns, The Bo-Keys and River City Tanlines, One guitar, bass, drums, an organ player who also busted out some beautifully raunchy tenor sax, and brilliant songs.  Drawing a continuum they fit into aesthetically through covers of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, the former done with a perfect reverence and the latter switched up from self-pity to a ferocious statement of intent, “This is not a joke / So please stop smiling.”  Their originals, and the frontman, are what separates this from a Sharon Jones or an Eli “Paperboy” Reed, both of whom I love but can be a little safe, a little measured.  Brooks leads with his chin right into the danger, right into the rage, “I’m glad to see there aren’t any kids under 12 in here, but if there are, bring them to the stage!  They need to learn some shit.”  Songs that are catchy, especially barn-burning versions of “Want More What” that rotates on the line, “I just want to fuck some more” and the two word hook, “Want more / Want more / Want more” that gets the crowd as crazed as any Parliament chant, or “75 Years of Art Sex” with its keening, heart-broken but also lusty hook, “You stab me in the dark”.  Soul music can still hold as much as you can throw at it and if you see a live JC Brooks set and you aren’t blown away, I can’t help you, my friend.

11. Jason Moran/Don Byron/Charli Persip, Jazz Standard, Manhattan, 04/17/10 – The set I always wish mainstream jazz was hitting heights it rarely does in my presence.  Byron’s tenor and clarinet keep spiking these already-gorgeous melodies with hints of gospel shouting and a rockabilly croon, Jason Moran playing the piano like a court jester and a percussion ensemble and Cezanne, and Persip (and Don Byron’s dad on bass for a few wonderful numbers) keeping it all together.  Even when it went off the rails, it was just to see how high it could jump and still land safely.

12. Cave and Psychedelic Horseshit, Carabar, 06/21/10 – Once in a while a show reminds you why you go out on Monday nights.  This was that show for me this year.  Psychedelic Horseshit did one of the best concise, song-based sets I’ve ever seen from them, Matt backed by Adam and Beth from Times New Viking for 30 minutes of thorny Buddy Holly pop.  Then Cave from Chicago got up and started playing this crunchy krautrock that shed its skin into a much sexier breed of krautrock than I think I’ve ever heard.  All about texture getting pulled out to see how much tension they could ratchet us up to, before that giant downbeat that felt like it resolved not just the last beat or the last measure but everything you’ve heard that night.  It felt like the air caught fire and the room shifted just a little and suddenly everyone unbuttoned another button, people started dancing, people are giving each other the eye.  Their records are very good, but that set was magnificent.

13. Liturgy, Scion Rock Fest, Bernie’s, 03/13/10 – Almost-codified black metal deformed in the best way by some post-minimalism, blast beats leavened with some middle eastern/Sun City Girls drumming and scorched earth guitars given a new Jesus and Mary Chain acid bath.  The kind of thing you have to see in Bernie’s because in a more comfortable club you might not believe it’s happening, the moldy claustrophobia keeps you in the moment.

14. Ernest Dawkins, Velvet Lounge, Chicago, 08/06/10 – Keeping fire music alive and staying connected both with its ‘60s forbears/giants and deeply entrenched in what today has to offer, its pain and its pleasures.  The composition was far more than just a launching pad for solos, but the solos were as fierce and as sweet as I could’ve hoped and the interaction stopped my heart a couple of times. 

15. Home Blitz and Day Creeper, Carabar, 07/29/10 – How close can you come to the carpet and still spring up smiling?  This set had a Raging Bull  appeal, the scrappy fighter who you get the sense knows they’re in a Sisyphean struggle but they do it anyway.  That was Home Blitz for me that summer weeknight.  Between every song, it looked like the whole set would fall apart, but every perfect noise-pop gem brought them back swinging with webs of interlaced guitar, nice guy Johnny formerly of Rot Shit on bass keeping everything together, and fierce drumming.

16. Travis Laplante, Zebulon, Brooklyn, 10/20/10 – Probably the best solo tenor sax set I’ve ever seen, and by someone I’m barely familiar with to boot.  Unamplified and first on a bill in a packed Brooklyn bar with people just looking to escape CMJ for a few hours with a nice beer or glass of wine, Laplante comes out and his horn starts singing, soul-growls that stretch like taffy into these organ-like landscapes, then get atomized into individual notes that hang in the air.  Great sets after, including Glass Ghost’s Stereolab-filtered-through-Serge-and-Jane grimy pop and Sam Micken’s arch, dry take on neo-soul with a falsetto that wouldn’t quit, but nothing else punched me in the gut like this.

17. Noveller and unFact, I Think It’s Open, 08/20/10 – My only regret about this show is that I got there a little late and missed Mike Shiflet’s opening set, heard it was stunning.  Second time I’d seen Noveller and this blew that earlier set away, more melodic but also more surprising, sculpting these perfect mountains of glass with her clarity of tone, then setting a fire all ar0und them just to see what they did to the light of the flames.  unFact, the solo-bass project of David Wm. Sims of the Jesus Lizard was also a face melter, subtler melodically, a little more song-based, and all soaked in that rich,volcanic tone he’s brought to every band he’s played in.

18. Dutchess and the Duke, Wexner Center, 01/16/10 – Two voices, two guitars, almost no addressing the audience (a welcome relief after a show I was at earlier that evening that literally had as much banter as songs) and this sweet, sweet longing.  Nothing particularly interesting to describe, but this show shook me all the way down.

19. Hallogallo 2010 and Disappears, Wexner Center, 09/07/10 -  And this show shook me in the exact opposite way, Michael Rother on guitar and synths leading Aaron Mullan of Tall Firs and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth and the Crucifucks in a set of Cluster, Harmonia and the eponymous Neu! track.  This physical, sweaty, spiritual body music.   The only thing I saw/heard/whatever this year that did the same thing to me as this set of music was that Paul Thek retrospective at the Whitney museum. 

20. The Beetkeepers, Scrawl, Black Swans, and the Planktones, Rumba Cafe, 12/04/10 – One of those reunions that’s so much better than you ever would’ve thought that everyone feels lucky just to be there.  And every single band stepped up their game, as good a set as I’ve seen from Scrawl, Black Swans, the Planktones (the new iteration of the Wyatt brothers’ fun cover project), and I’ve seen some great sets by all three of those bands.  And the Beetkeepers kept everyone in the palm of their hands for the entire hour set and played with a free-spirited tightness I never would’ve expected from a band spread across three cities and not having played together in almost 20 years.  Goddamn. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

At the End You Come Out Yourself; Stop Sign Language

“I too am minute as ashes with the fine
grain of my feeling running crisscross into dark
where I sight you enviously at the blurred roots
and the ospreys play there, they have second sight
like sponges, loving both canal and river,
commuting as you on water, fearful of this group
of buildings, even going underground.
You like it because your eyes see further,
even as a rock quarry is graceful
with your initials as the sorrowful poem’s end.”
-Barbara Guest, “Even Ovid”

When news of the accident in the newly thawing winter/spring meant Stop Sign Language was postponed, a number of us in town were disappointed, myself included.  Eleni Papaleonardos is a force of nature, a rock in this theater community, an asset to any city she’d choose to work in, and as close to a sure sign of quality as Columbus theater has.  The delay took no sting out of the production, trust me.  It’s already been a great year for her, from directing Available Light Theater’s terrific Pride and Prejudice with the largest crowds in the company’s history to that point (possibly since exceeded by Merrily We Roll Along?) , though her Beatrice in Actors Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing, and now, this monologue about dyslexia, how we learn, and the nature of language and communication that left my heart sailing, Stop Sign Language.

When I say monologue, I may be doing the show a disservice, because you could just as easily call it a ballet.  Every movement, every reaching for a prop, every slow extension of the right foot, in imbued with this richness, both metaphorical and emotional, you can mark what’s being discussed – childhood, the awakening of self, primitive cultures – just through body language, aided by Carrie Cox of the OSU Department of Dance’s subtle lighting.  Set design adds a different, complicating layer, a cross between a black box Spalding Grey piece – a chair and not much else for much of it – and a Sesame Street segment, with a creamy blue foam-core letter, variously p, q, d, and b, and stark back projections by Christian Faur.

But the words are what we’re there for, right?  Right.  And they’re what really drives this, a riveting examination of growing up in a bilingual household (English and Greek) and the difficulties dyslexia presented in learning the way she was told she should learn.  Or at least there’s where it starts. 

It never surrenders into self-pity or let’s-all-hold-hands platitudes and goes all the way back to the invention of language and how it’s all one great abstraction after another.  From the first image, which I don’t want to spoil, how we fit ourselves and what we want to say into forms that often seem arbitrary at best is at the heart of this piece.  I would’ve liked to have seen a few more risks taken from the direction, which is perfectly serviceable but could’ve gone more abstract and attention-grabbing.  But if that’s the only complaint I can make about something, I clearly liked it quite a bit.

There’s no way I can adequately describe this that’s going to make it sound as funny or as moving as it was, do yourself a favor and go see it, through next weekend.  http://avltheatre.com

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Merrily We Roll Along, Available Light, 08/28/10

Available Light never shirked from chances, and their first musical – beating much more established companies in town – doesn’t pander or dodge tough questions in any way.  Sondheim’s much-maligned Merrily We Roll Along written with George Furth (book) based on the play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart, with its backwards-looking story structure starting at 1976 and ending in 1957, hadn’t been produced in central Ohio in 20 years, and then at Denison University.  This production is a wonder, if you’re still doubting seeing it, go. Go. Go.

John Dranschak’s direction (assistant direction from Acacia Duncan) is perfect, using the space exactly right, keeping the focus on the main characters but also throwing you off with the chorus on the transitions, buying the production time to let the year-shifts sink in.  Darin Keesing’s design and Dave Wallingford’s sound design are marvels, a minimal set of not-quite-abstracted doors and sound both that place it in its time but not of its time, not leaning too much on the crutch of easy period signifiers.

This show is about the corrosion of youthful ideals and the bitterness that arises when they don’t get corroded, much reminding me of the Cai Guo-Quiang exhibit I saw at the Guggenheim  a few years ago, terracotta workers slowly less finished as you walked around the spiral until it was just raw material, raw potential.  And because it starts in success and dissolution, the songs (and their mirror-songs) start out knottier and angrier and by the second act as these beautiful songs of optimism and youth ring out you’re looking for the cracks, the dark  humor comes from how you know it all ends.

Of course any musical’s going to live and die by its stars, and Available Light’s always had a knack for matching the exact actor to a role, and they outdid themselves here.  Ian Short plays Franklin Shepard, the one of the trio who leaves his friends in the dust by – if not “selling out”, because this show doesn’t trade in easy dichotomies without puncturing them at least a little – and another in Sondheim’s list of male leads who are basically ciphers, reactive but not truly active, at least onstage (see also Bobby from Company, Frederik from A Little Night Music, and Giorgio from Passion).  The character’s confusion, the enough-self-awareness to understand why he’s being left, enough charm to sell himself the center of attention to the myriad people around him, but also enough awareness to think “Why can’t I just enjoy this success?  Why does success need to be a problem?”  All of that fuels a terrific performance that sells some of the most challenging scenes and songs in the show.

As good as Short is, even better are the other legs of the triangle, Nick Lingnofski as Charley Kringus, the purist who turns his insecurities outward when he thinks his partner’s leaving him in more than one sense.  He hits an absolute home run on one of the sharpest indictments of the ambiguity around success Sondheim ever wrote,“Franklin Shepard, Inc.” and bringing a sweetness that belies the knowledge of what happens next to “Our Time” that keeps it from being all sentiment or swagger. 

And best of all is Heather Carvel, lifting the character of Mary above another Dorothy Parker riff, and roaring through her piece of “Old Friends”, “Now You Know” and “Opening Doors”, and breaking every heart for miles on “Like It Was”.  The most cutting and the most adrift, but played so it never feels like another cliché, it feels as fresh as tomorrow, and with a voice that slips in and out of joy and rage with the power of a blast furnace but doesn’t ever rely on classic Broadway belting. 

Michelle Schroeder as Franklin’s first wife makes the absolute most out of her few scenes, maybe helped by her having the only thing in the show that ever approached a standard, “Not a Day Goes By”.  Kim Garrison Hopcraft, as Gussie Carnegie, maybe one of the most misogynistic portraits Sondheim ever painted, even manages to get us close to understanding, manages to make us feel something other than contempt when the character walks on stage, and does it by not judging and giving the character a refreshing self-awareness, and killing her songs.  But no one in the 20-person cast is bad, even people who mostly appear in the chorus transitions get moments to shine, particularly Ryan Kay as a waiter with a dream, and Elena Perantoni who damn near steals a scene she’s in with two sung lines and one spoken.

Anyone who’s ever had that feeling like the world’s at your feet, you and your friends are just about to be great, whoever’s watched that feeling disappear and had to try to find it somewhere else, whoever’s had those bullshit sessions on the roof and found one of the other people turned it into a better song or a complete novel and you had to choke back that jealousy.  Anyone who remembers how fraught with possibility the summer nights were when they were 20 and how rare it seems you’re in touch with that any more.  Anyone who wants to be inspired or just goddamn entertained, go see this.  Hell, I’m going to see it a second time before it closes at the end of this weekend.  http://avltheatre.com/1011/blog/category/shows/merrily/

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Time Turning in on Itself and Turning on You, A Parallelogram, Steppenwolf, 08/09/10

Saw the premier run of Bruce Norris’s (Clybourne Park) new play in Chicago with Tom Irwin (a little ashamed I still remember him most from My So-Called Life), Marylouise Burke, Tim Bickel, and Kate Arrington, directed by Anna D. Shapiro.  This’ll be shorter than usual because I don’t want to give anything away, but t0 start with, Jesus, it’s good.  Go see it.  Believe the hype.

It starts with an argument about a football game and perceptions, “If you saw this in a television show, a man like me, a white-collar white man, yelling at a woman, where would your sympathies be?” except there’s a time traveller in  the room that only one of them – and the audience – can see.  For the next two hours, there are several sudden shifts in the timeframe, relationships between those four characters change and deepen, and gaps between expectation and understanding widen but yu never quite fall into them.

What’s great about this play is that the central two or three questions set up in the first few minutes do get resolved but not by bashing the audience over the head, and not without humor.  Everything that comes up gets used, like Chekov’s gun, but it’s not nearly as slick as it could be.  And the direction  is impeccable.  Just like with her work on August: Osage County, Shapiro uses the set – one of the biggest wow moments in the play – as a conscious special effect and a break in the pacing but also to reinforce one of the themes, that we’re all trapped in our life, we have the will to change but things basically happen anyway, and only the trappings and the supporting characters change around us, stuck in space.

The acting is impeccable.  Tom Irwin manages to slowly win us over while not glossing over the unlikable-at-best qualities of his character, Arrington’s both luminous and completely grounded, Bickel’s more of a cipher but perfectly fine, and Burke hits every note the play asks of her.  Playing through August 29.  http://www.steppenwolf.org/boxoffice/productions/index.aspx?id=478

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The ‘60s, Illuminated Through Different Means

“The music is like that , makes you see in the dark, cause the dark be you first.  Understand.  Can you see in your self?  See the mission and the magic.  The way and the cross.  The hope and the double cross.  The music is like that.”
-Amiri Baraka, “David Murray, Addenda to a Concert”

Started out this Saturday in Chicago – in a musical sense – after a Cubs game at the Empty Bottle for the Hoyle Brothers honky tonk happy hour: a packed room with $2.50 Shiner Bock on special and a dance instructor giving two step lessons.  Exactly the scene you expect.  Purely joyous, from a band that’s been doing this long enough they don’t have anything to prove.  A drummer singing harmonies who knows the difference between a swing beat and a honky tonk stomp, a guitarist who can soar like a fiddle or snarl like a tenor sax, and a singer with the kind of smoothness that can put anything across.

Because their act is straight late-‘50s to early-‘70s country music, mostly covers but a smattering of originals in the style,  it’s built for dancing and hinges on a sometimes-subconscious familiarity with the songs.  But just as importantly, it counts on an audience not encyclopedically aware of that music, that’s kept off balance wondering “Is this an original?  Is this a cover?”  Then, before that confusion gets frustrating, out comes a classic everyone knows, like “Walking After Midnight” done by a lovely rockabillyish woman with a lilting voice, with the band backing her, or possibly the best live version of “One Woman Man” I’ve ever heard.  The last ingredient to their success is slipping in a couple of off-genre covers but covers that work in that manner and aren’t just a shock novelty (Yonder Mountain String Band, pick up the red courtesy telephone), once “You Shook Me All Night Long”, last night Springsteen’s “Red Headed Woman”.  The kind of thing that makes me glad to be in Chicago on a summer night and send everyone spilling out to dinner or another show or another bar or home dancing and grinning.

Then Ernest Dawkins’ Black Star Band at the Velvet Lounge.  I’m ashamed to admit how long it had been since I was last in this south loop shrine to musics holy and ecstatic.  With the passing of the great Fred Anderson I was determined to go see something there this weekend, show my support for the mission and drink a toast to the great man.  Ernest Dawkins playing Friday and Saturday was even better.  Friday night he led/conducted a seven piece band doing his new composition “Homage”, which, as he made clear in some introductory remarks, was both a tribute to the great Abbey Lincoln/Max Roach suite We Insist! Freedom Now Suite which came out in 1960 and begging the question, “Where have the last 50 years got us?  What are the problems we’re facing now?”  And if the Hoyle Brothers made me glad to be in Chicago, this made me glad to be alive.

If you’re doing something even tangentially related to Max Roach, you need a blistering-hot trumpeter and a fierce rhythm section, and this had both.   The opening started with these tiny melodic cells from the guitarist Scott Hesse, bowed bass from the maestro Harrison Bankhead, some soft-focus (but never soft) cymbal work from Vincent Davis on drums, as Dee Alexander’s wordless vocals shot through the veins of everyone there, crying and snarling with this beautiful rage, banging on the walls of the cage of the heart.  A little trumpet and bari sax drifting around the edges in the beginning.

It all shifted with three plucks from Bankhead, pulled strongly enough that you thought he was going to snap the strings off his bass, then resonating back with such a thunk you feel the floor move.  Then those three notes again.  Only then does Davis some in with a crash and this beautiful cacophony starts to bubble up, but with perfect architecture inside the whorls of sound, with Shaun Johnson (MVP of the night) peeling off these acid tones on his trumpet like it’s nothing, then stepping back into step with Hesse and Getsug to shadow Dee Alexander’s vocals.  In this section the vocals served as a reminder that “Freedom isn’t free” (variations on that are the only completed lyrics in the piece), said fast, then slow, then amber slow, then fast again, but always with such pure, precise diction that every word hits you like a hot nail and a slap in the face.  I wasn’t the only person with eyes closed, rocking back and forth in my seat during this, I promise.

Through the entire piece everyone got solo space to shine, including this perfectly bluesy section by Aaron Getsug on baritone and Dawkins himself flipping from Coleman Hawkins to John Gilmore to Pharaoh Sanders but always staying himself, with that juicy almost-shrill tone on tenor and alto, to Harrison Bankhead reminding us that he’s the pulse and Dee Alexander’s the soul.  A perfect updating of the Roach/Lincoln piece to include what’s happened in jazz in the last 50 years but also shining light on how powerful that classic music is, how much it holds sway on our imagination and makes us all want to write a haiku or make a cave painting or write a letter to our congressman or go home and make love.  All done by musicians who just looked over the material a few hours before.  Given a couple more performances, this is is going to be classic, mark my words.

The cap on the night was a midnight Raphael Saadiq show at the Vibe – the old Crobar space uptown.  Eight piece band backing him this time, two guitars, keys, bass, drums, tenor, trumpet and trombone, all in black suits with ties, bringing Saadiq out in classic style with an instrumental, his two background singers came out dancing also in black suits with ties, then Raphael took the stage resplendent in a cream suit with a brown tie already loosened.  Opening with “Lay Your Head on My Pillow”, the first batch of the show went heavy on the Tony Toni Tone classics, then seamlessly mixing work off at least two of his solo records (I didn’t hear anything from the Ray Ray disc but then I didn’t ever spend as much time with that one, it wasn’t in heavy rotation for a year or more in my house the way Instant Vintage and The Way I See It were) and of course “Dance Tonight” from the Lucy Pearl project, with his female backing singer nailing the Dawn Robinson part and also the Joss Stone part on “Just One Kiss".

Saadiq is the kind of showman they don’t make any more: dancing well enough but not so well the show stops for the dancing, singing in this gorgeous falsetto but not dipping into showy melisma, playing to the audience but never pandering to us, walking to the side of the stage and getting us on his side, off-mic, like a cross between Marvin Gaye and Iggy Pop.  Because he’d played Lollapalooza earlier in the day, this was (he mentioned on the stage) a more hardcore R&B show with some surprises for the true heads.  Including bringing up his brother D’wayne Wiggins from Toni! Tony! Tone! on stage to join him on a couple of songs, and best of all bringing out one of the Spinners to join him on his cover of their classic “It’s a Shame”. 

For a diverse portfolio of songs spanning 20+ years, everything felt like one continuum of soul, well played and with remarkable humor.  A songwriter with total faith in his voice, a singer with total faith in his songs, an arranger and bandleader who knows he’s picked out exactly the right players to kick his ass and he’ll never need to worry about it, and a frontman who has so much confidence he knows nothing’s going to steal the spot light from him.  He lets the background singers shine in a way that with any less of an artist, would totally upstage the main act, but they never do.  You see his eyes light up when someone else on stage does something spectacular, he and the male backing singer grinning like “Oh my god” during the Spinners’ person’s falsetto (I didn’t catch the name, and its not like there weren’t 30 people in that group over the years).  This is the kind of show where you don’t want to move to get a drink or go to the bathroom when he’s on stage, but you don’t stop moving the entire time.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Current 93, “Baalstorm! Sing Omega”

“Solitude and contentment are the product
of the mystical; we are never
alone and, by rights, never at peace.
Such is a space that, called
into being, or given,
transforms everything from what we
know it to be, mishandled by
the world, to what it never was, blessed.
-Charles Bernstein, “Amblyopia”

When a new Current 93 record’s coming out it’s a cause for celebration in Sanfordtown, and Tibet and his shifting cast of comrades have been on a hot streak the last few years starting with Black Ships Eat the Sky, but this new one, Baalstorm, Sing Omega! feels like a climax, like the moment when a ritual finally makes the sky crack.  The title combines a line from an Egyptian monk exhorting to “speak omega and do not let omega speak to you”, keeping your eye on the end, the final gambit, and not letting the world own you, as well as Baal, the Egyptian god of storms/thunder believed to have been introduced by the Semitic cultures and his name which literally means Lord.  So you sing omega as the lord’s storm sweeps up, as you feel the wind around you. 

Interestingly, a record made without the contribution of Stephen Stapleton or Michael Cashmore, giving it a much more organic feel, less of that gorgeous gauze to rip through, but once I got used to that, I found I didn’t miss it for this particulars set of songs about a very different dream-storm than that on Black Ships.  Opening with “I Dreamt I was Aeon”, backed almost exclusively by Baby Dee’s piano and organ and John Contreras’ cello, the two utility players of this piece, “I saw her face, / Glory on the sea / And I have come / To draw you / To me”, words amber-sap-slow and getting more drawn out as the organ wooshes like Messiaen and the piano keeps its steady, measured, royal gait, not setting up the melody so much as standing aside it, arms linked, and the cello playing the real melody, slow and sad and confident. 

The arrangements on this give everyone a showcase while still contributing to a cohesive whole, from Alex Nielson’s always note-perfect drums and percussion and Elliot Bates’ oud on the Eastern dance, “With Flowers in the Garden of Fires”, to the vibes, organ, backing vocals and guitar conjuring a cross between an Antonioni soundtrack and ‘60s soul jazz on “Passenger Aleph in Name”, to the fierce tension and almost anthemic quality of “The Nudes Lift Shields for War”.  

The thicker arrangements keep all of C93’s work from seeming like a spoken word record, but so does the fact that Tibet approaches all of his songs as songs, not poetry with separate backing, and his albums as specific collections of pieces with one unified intent. My favorite tracks, and I think the album’s centerpiece comes with the one-two punch of “December 1971” and “Baalstorm! Baalstorm!”.  Tibet’s vocal on the former is a sermon of doubt and frustration, memory as a way to spur on you and send you packing, driven by Contreras’ cello and Andrew Liles’ guitar playing, all clustered chords and gathering clouds, “I thought of her just now / She is there naked like the water / I cannot touch the punch of her lips / I cannot dare to touch / Lip or skin or fold / I gave gold to buy much less / And gave more / And nothing stayed but the storms”, with child’s – or childlike – voices bursting into the narrative, directing him with their exhortations as his voice rises to a roar then drops back to this hollowed-out melancholy. 

And on “Baalstorm! Baalstorm!”  with its faster, more insistent rhythms, a more direct love song to a series of women in his life, from his mother to Jeanne d’Arc who saw “the flames in her mane” to an unnamed You being addressed with “’Beauties of the Beast is / Full of grace – don’t you think? / I’d love to talk to you about everything’ / And then ‘Then I remember our days in Roma / Remember all the words?’” conjuring Horace’s Odes and Joni Mitchell’s “Talk To Me” in one raspy breath.

This record is a record of the storm inside David Tibet and the storm inside all of us.  A prayer and a trip through the museum of art and memory that makes all of us who we are, and as with everything he does, a profound and moving act of faith in love and God and how you find that in apocryphal knowledge as much or more than anything in the canon.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Back again.

Being in the Philippines for three weeks and working your ass off will throw off  your ability to blog.  Heard some records but no kind of a live music/social context.  So I’ve been making up for lost time.  Last weekend’s music was about how much of what you love is assimilated into your personal language, how much you hang around your neck intact, like a medallion, and the kind of swagger you need to pull that off.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Exuberance, A Hollow Mask with a Beard Painted On, and the Difference

“You know Louisville is death
You have to up and move
Because the dead do not
-Silver Jews, “Tennessee”

The unifying trend of the music I saw that really affected me in NYC this past weekend was a grappling with tradition, and they either hit it dead on, they transcended, or they flared out in a ball of irony and slavish imitation. 

The Nouvellas, still running hot on last year’s self-titled debut record, played the tiny tiki bar Otto’s Shrunken Head on a Wednesday night for the twice-monthly Copycat night, this one themed toward bubblegum, with a set of half covers and half their originals drawn from the record.  On their originals they take a more muscular, rougher tack, a little bit Buzzcocks powerpop, a little bit early ‘70s Stax not unlike Columbus’ Nick Tolford, but always with a sassy tongue in cheek. 

Watching them in this format you realize that they aren’t just two great voices, two engaging frontwomen, but they might have the best dance-party rhythm section I’ve ever seen, and a guitarist who plays just enough, no bullshit shredding but knows when to turn the sweetness up and when to punk-chop the chords up.And their own songs have the kind of instantly memorable hooks that can stand alongside the well-chosen covers, including “Indian Giver” by the 1910 Fruitgum Company, “Sausalito” by the Ohio Express and especially their closer, “Little Willy” by Sweet.  Corny? No doubt, and done with an awareness of that, but the winking didn’t derail the delivery, bouncy good time songs done because they were bouncy, good time songs.  And there were moments when I could’ve sworn I was seeing the best no-frills rock show I’d seen in maybe ever.

The next day I caught up with Mary Halvorson’s Trio in the Jazz Gallery with Ches Smith on drums and John Hebert on bass, mostly dipping into their debut record as a unit from last year and a couple of brand new pieces.  Every time I see Halvorson- and I’ve been seeing her for 7 or 8 years – her guitar tone’s more assured, sharper and her melodies more focused.  And this has now pulled past her duo with Jessica Pavone as my favorite format to see her in.  This is without a doubt her band, but it never feels like one soloist and two accompanists. Hebert’s bass lines you could ski down and his harmonies you don’t expect, Ches Smith’s color in his cymbal work, the way he shadows Hebert by rubbing the head of his snare, and the way both of them create an ever-shifting tectonic bed of rhythm for Mary to glide around in the cracks.

Friday we missed the Jay Vons but got to Southpaw in time for Budos Band.  10-pieces strong, with fewer horn players than when they played Columbus a few years ago, but more percussionists.  The sharpness of the horn section consisting of bari sax and trumpet gave the melodies more urgency, less of the sweeter ‘60s soul of last time I saw them and even more of the late-‘60s Ethiopian bar band, with trading solos like throwing gasoline on the flames the rhythm section got started.  The bass player perfect on those circular lines, a river through the percussion that reshaped the rocks and filled in the gaps, and the guitarist right there with him, for these 4-15 minute songs that never turned into mere jams, as much of the packed crowd danced as could without smashing someone into a wall.  Perfect, sweaty ecstasy, with where no one walked out unhappy or not sore.  I started nodding off on the train ride back, it was so damn good.

Finally hit a sour note on Saturday with the Hold Steady’s just-announced-a –week-before sell out at Bowery Ballroom.  And I have my qualms about the bands’ material, most of Stay Positive rubbed me the wrong way. but they destroyed me live a couple of years ago and I thought a hometown crowd might change my mind on the songs that tweaked me.  Well, it didn’t happen. 

The problem I have with Hold Steady songs that seem to focus on a particular kind of loser is that it’s almost always a particular kind of female  loser.  And I’ve known those people all my life, the people still stuck at the party years after it’s not funny anymore, the people who never do anything but tell the same stories in the same bars for decades.  And I’ve seen as many men in those situations as women.  But by the man always being the point of view character, and the man never having any culpability or responsibility for the situation, is at best lazy writing.  At worst, and taken in toto, is a kind of insidious misogyny, made all the more insidious by the band putting themselves across as literate, smart guys and therefore a literate, smart alternative to other music.

Beyond the lazy writing of the lyrics, the music also over time has incorporated more and more classic rock tropes but done in an overdone, funny way.  Which works if you do it on one song.  But when every third song turns into a half-assed Thin Lizzy intertwining guitar lines pastiche but with a less throaty singer, the tension there isn’t interesting.  It’s wanting to have your classic rock fist pumping cake but keep your ironic distance you’re clinging to like a lifeboat.  And while it might be unfair to brand a band by its fans?  The songs that are borderline at best don’t get any better by a sea of backwards-baseball-cap-wearing dudes singing along to “In the bar light, she looked all right / In the daylight, she looked desperate” or “There’s always other boys / There’s always other boyfriends”.

By the time we walked out, it was 9:45 and the next thing we had tickets for wasn’t starting till 11:30 so we needed to get the taste of that out of our mouths.  So onto Rodeo bar, and one of the best rockabilly singers the 1980s, Barrence Whitfield.  Kind of a dull band, certainly not up to the standards of his classic Savages, but the sax player was righteous and as soon as Whitfield opened his mouth all was right in my world, the shouting of Little Richard, the snarling sexiness of Don Covay, and that scream completely his own, not even Screamin’ Jay Hawkins had such a perfect scream.  Enough time for a shot of whiskey, a bottle of Dixie beer, and half an hour of stone jump blues/rockabilly classics, before walking down to the Jazz Standard.

Last show of the night at Jazz Standard with Don Byron on clarinet and Jason Moran on piano in the Ivey-Divey Trio, featuring Charli Persip on drums instead of Billy Hart.  Impression I got was that Persip was new to the group – or may have even been filling in – since he only took one solo in the hour-plus set, but great beauty and joy nonetheless in probably the loosest set I’ve ever seen Moran or Byron play.  Their interplay ranged from children at play, giddy tumbling and trying to one-up each other to the seriousness of chess grandmasters. 

Obviously inspired by the the Lester Young/Nat “King” Cole/Buddy Rich trio of the same name, this is the kind of tribute that takes great liberties but is also done with immense love, not the gloomy elegy I discussed in an earlier blog.  The Byron/Young analogue is more apparent now than when I first saw this band several years ago as his tenor sax tone has risen to the level of his clarinet tone and it really sounds like one voice singing in two registers.  And Jason Moran is Nat Cole the way Cezanne is Michelangelo, shared DNA, no doubt, with the broken chords and the sweetness of tone, but both more abstract and more invested in the internal landscape.  What made this all the more delightful was, after a gorgeous solo clarinet piece, Byron called his father up to play bass, and he ended up playing the entire set.  Like I say, fun, and smart, and everything I always wish more traditional jazz was.

Sunday was another lesson in wonderful contrast and the difference between a great genre act and an act that blows the doors off genre.  Met a friend of mine, who’s a great jazz guitarist, at the Lakeside Lounge, for some jukebox and bullshit, and the Ramblin’ Kind started at 9:00.  Pitch-perfect honky-tonk country with a singer with a great voice and a dead-on guitarist and a great selection of songs, including Billy Joe Shaver’s “Black Rose” and Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis” (Solomon Burke singing that is one of the 10 great pairings of singer and song in all history).  Nothing new, but if you like that stuff they do it better than 95% of the bands I’ve ever heard do it and a totally satisfying time if you’re looking for it.

After leaving the Lakeside, I saw the Amir El-Saffar/Hafez Modirzadeh Quarter with Mark Dresser on bass and Alex Cline on drums at Le Poission Rouge, rapidly becoming my favorite room in Manhattan to really listen to music. The show divided into two halves of more or less equal length, the first 12 “facets” of Modirzadeh’s “Radif-e Kahyan” and the second the 8 parts of El-Saffar’s “Copper Suite.”

Both compositions seemed incredibly interested in a locus where the natural ranges of all four instruments coincided, creating an opportunity for these gorgeous whirlpool drones that you could barely see your way out of.  Modirzadeh’s also seemed to get a lot of juice out of that moment where ecstasy overloads and turns into melancholy and vice versa.  El-Saffar’s was a little spikier, thick with sharp thorns and beautiful melodies not showing up or resolving where your ear’s expecting them to, but once you got it it was like you’d run a mile for the first time, that full-chest gladness and exhilaration. 

Taking the classic Ornette Coleman – or, if you’d like, John Zorn’s Masada – quartet format and its ability to contain Ginsberg-style long lines and messy beauty and four players more than equal to the task, the El-Saffar/Modirzadeh group laid waste to anything I’d seen before.  Not just that weekend, but ever, for at least a minute.  While I was watching it, I couldn’t come up with any comparisons, just drifting into the middle of the sound, and you can’t ask for any more than that.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Distance and the Gap; Four Photography Shows in NYC

You all know I love Columbus, but the wider range of interesting cultural stuff – especially visual art -  in New York isn’t even up for debate, right?

I’ll try to hit the highlights of my four days in NYC but in a few posts, this one’s grouped by medium.  Today’s it’s photographs – Catherine Opie, Robert Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson and a variety of other artists after the jump.

Catherine Opie was the biggest find I got from the Wexner Center’s recently closed Hard Targets, somehow she completely slipped under my radar until her photos of high school football players in action and at rest in that exhibit.  So I was excited to see a solo show, Girlfriends, at the Gladstone Gallery.

The Opie show is probably the best portrait photography show I’ve ever seen, it almost feels like a show of landscapes but the landscapes are people – sometimes within a natural landscape, sometimes not.  Her friends and her partners in a show combining new and archive photos, including k.d. lang, Kathleen Hanna, and women anonymous to the world but clearly not to their documenter.  There’s such love for the subjects in these paintings but not sentimentality, the focus is as sharp as a razor and every blemish or hard-won crease, every smirk or glint of the eyes doesn’t just come through, every one of these tiny details grabs you by the collar and makes you look at the photograph in a different way.

“Idexa”, with hiking boots, shorts and no shirt, on a rock formation in the woods, with this perfect look of acceptance and those tattoos lit just right by the filtered light through the trees.  “k.d. lang” in a gorgeous simple coat on a barren stretch of landscape, hair perfectly just out of place giving the impression that a strong wind whipped through but she’s still standing, still there.  Just as interesting are some of the photos’ names with a parenthetical like “Julie (play piercing)” face covered in the piercings of the title and running black (chocolate? paint? blood?)with her head tilted back in ecstasy or pain.  

There’s distance in these photographs, in some ways the distance of a journalist, but the distance isn’t there to keep you at an emotional arm’s-length, it’s there to let you take in everything and get to your emotional connection to the subject on your own terms, not the artist throwing her emotional connection at you.  The plethora of expressions, situations, ages, walks of life, with and without backgrounds, I could’ve seen this a dozen times and not gotten everything there was to get.

I also saw another archive-based photography show at Matthew Marks, Robert Adams’ “Summer Nights, Walking”, taken roughly thirty years ago.  This is also about landscapes seen through the tiniest details and it all looks wet, you can feel the humidity seeping through the slow glass of memory.  As a suburban kid who took a lot of these long walks, unaccompanied, this conjured memories of that feeling like anything could happen – good or bad – and like you were the only person in the world.  Not as much to think about as the Opie, but some indelible images that will last with me just as long, like the garage door being overtaken by a branch’s shadows like a creeping terror, or the gas station with a sickle moon hanging over it like a sword of Damocles.

The illusion of Adams’ work is that there’s no distance, you’re right in his eyes as he’s randomly walking around and choosing images.  But that’s deceptive, especially with the lush black and white, and the aggressively film noir compositions in about half the photographs, this feels like another world - not just gone but never to be seen again.  Like the kind of movie you secretly wish you’d come across on a flickering black and white motel TV but you buy the DVD anyway.

The Guggenheim’s main exhibit right now, Haunted is what on Star Trek or the West Wing they used to refer to as a bottle episode – no guest stars, using only existing sets – and this is almost entirely images from the collection.  It’s trying to be about the way past technologies, and the vagaries of memory, still inform modern photographs, which you could say about any art.  And for what it is, it’s a little bit of a mess, but there’s plenty of striking, moving work you should see if you haven’t already.

Walead Beshty’s damaged photographs of an abandoned East German embassy in Iraq are especially hurt by the odd, inconsistent lighting of this exhibit, looking like red blurs with reflections of everyone walking by until you saw them at just the right angle, which is a shame because they’re some of the most beautiful pieces in the exhibit.  Robert Smithson’s Yucatan Mirror Displacements, however, are an excellent example of what the Guggenheim does very well, several photos lined up horizontally of mirrors placed in Mexico breaking up and extending the landscape.  A panorama of attention grabbing images that beg you to come in the middle of them and slowly get what’s going on, striking enough to burst through the beautiful drone of the building but subtle enough you need to let it seep through your pores.

Also worthy of additional mention is the video of Merce Cunningham performing “Stillness” consisting of Cunningham performing the choreography to John Cage’s 4’33” (naturally, the dance is sitting still, fitting for a composition of silence).  Set up in four projectors that you gradually realize you can’t  walk around, you have to disrupt the image and everyone’s viewing experience, and it makes you not just nervous, but incredibly aware of how and where you move.  But the thing that seemed to sum this exhibit up for me was Idris Khan’s “Homage to Bernd Becher”, a compression of several Becher photographs into what looks like one half-finished image, entropy combined and turned in on itself, which got me thinking.  Is homage always a close cousin of elegy?  Does paying homage automatically mean the person tribute’s being paid to is dead to the person paying the tribute, that we’ve learned everything we can learn from them and now we need to reject those lessons?  And is it freed up from that serious, elegiac tone if the person being paid homage to is actually dead (I’ll address this in a music post about the same trip).

And of course, the elephant in the room, A. and I saw  Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern World at MoMA, And in those photographs you can see the birth of all modern art photography and photojournalism. The antecedents of the documentation of a movement you see in the Opie in Cartier-Bresson’s China and workplace photographs.  The rare beauty of a wave hitting a shore in Cartier-Bresson or the way streetlamps make shadows fall from trees in the Adams.  And a disregard for darkroom technique that you see show up but tweaked or aggressively played with in many of the works in Haunted.  I’m way too much a dilettante to even think I could say something new about this, but an exhibit completely worth seeing. 

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Scott Woods, Women of the World, Killadelphia, The Scion Rock Fest, and the Absurdity of Writing Poetry

“I’ve driven your highways and backroads, I rode the great dog
Through the snow and the sleet and hail,
Through the sunlight, through the fog.
I’ve heard the ravens call morning up
With their little raw saxophones
But the darkest of ravens was Nina Simone.
Yeah, we’ve all been to hell and come back
Where love cut us right down to the bone
But walking beside us was Nina Simone.”
-Tom Russell, “Nina Simone”

I try to see as much as I can, as time and money (and the corollary effect of needing to keep my job) and sanity and my health will permit.  But no matter how open you think you are, there will always be blind spots, always be things that either fly under your radar or consistently get pushed down on the agenda- seeing poetry falls to working late on Mondays, seeing metal falls to seeing a show where you’ll have more friends, locally-produced theater gets the short shrift compared to proven out of town work even when it’s produced by the same company.  We all do it.

This is a circuitous way of getting to an apology that I haven’t written much in here in a while.  I’ve seen stuff I loved but couldn’t think of what to say about them besides “That was real good” – Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard, In the Red and Brown Water  at Steppenwolf, Sarah Jones at the Lincoln Theater, Smoking Popes, etc.  Both the last two weekends have included art that didn’t take my excuses:, tired, over-stimulated, whatever the case was. 

It shoved me against a wall and gave me that feeling, the feeling I started a blog to try to document - where a spark went straight up my spine and all the hairs on my neck and arms stood on end, and I think I see the connecting thread  between all of it.  Art that’s intensely personal but also works through and around genres, that shrugs off memoir or persona poem or black metal and cracks those trappings like a shell then paints the pieces of that shell that still cling to the art so it’s recognizable, not trying to disguise its references, but organically changed so the resonance is picked up by the history and the now – the audience -  and vibrates us both.  Makes you feel a little less  -or more – alone –or both, which is a pretty sweet feeling itself.

These weeks of joy started with Scott Woods doing a fundraiser feature at the Poetry Forum on Monday March 8.  One of my favorite poets in town at the longest running reading series (at Larry’s for over 20 years, now at Rumba Cafe as Larry’s has become the Sloppy Donkey).  Doing two twenty minute sets of greatest hits and some new work, from poems I’ve loved for a long time – including the devastating “How to Make a Crackhead” with orbits around the line, “Grow up” which the person being addressed does and the person named in the title never gets to do; “To the High School Thug that Broke into His English Teacher’s Car” which manages to sketch two complex, complete characters and praise Nina Simone in less than four minutes; and “Elementary”, maybe the best example of the kind of love poem Woods was originally known for in town. 

Also working in some work I’d never heard, including the hilarious (and cringe-inducing, it hit so close to who I was at 16) “I Hate Zombies Like You Hate Me”.  “Republican Poets” which resonated with a recent blog about where’s the conservative art gone, who’s making it, are they just not on the radar of those of us who aren’t interested in the message or is there something else going on.  “Jesus, Judas and the Case of the Old Woman’s Son”, as perfect a mastery of voice as I’ve ever seen.  The cut-up/collage “Bob Ross Loves You Baby”, which picks up the thread of his early “Bob Ross, Give Me Strength” but using all Ross’ own words, put “in a blender” as Burroughs and Gysin said, to show the vein of ‘70s loverman underneath.

The open mic was also, as the forum goes, typically solid with some beautiful work – especially Frank Richardson’s poem about two Goya paintings – and some work that’s still clearly in the chipping-away-everything-that-doesn’t-look-like-an-elephant stage.  But I walked home and took another crack at a poem I’d abandoned the next day on the bus so the wheels were already getting turned, rust falling off. 

Wednesday of that week was the kickoff/pre-party day for the Women of the World Poetry Slam.  I bought the $50 all-access pass even though I knew I wouldn’t make some big events of this, because I wanted to show my support.  I think Slam’s focus on the audience has been generally good and there’s some beautiful, as well as rhythmic/visceral/whatever clichés you want to use, work to come out of slam land, but I don’t care who scores what.  I want to hear a poem, as Stephen Coleman said, “I wanna say yes at the end because I’m sick of saying no” (this comes back later).  I want to hear a poem that smacks me in the face or makes me throw some devil horns in the air, that leaves me tapping my feet to its rhythm without any musical assistance.  And this event brought some damn firepower.  Some of the strongest, most entertaining poets I’ve ever run across and twice as many I’ve never heard of.

The first open mic preceding the Last Chance Slam was like – and I mean this in the best way – the first twenty minutes of a science fiction convention, or the best Wednesday night of Twangfest – people who only see each other a couple of times a year at poetry events hugging and catching up, but also very focused, very intent on hearing out the voices of the people taking the stage.  And the stage was big enough for the guy with the three-page free verse choking on its own metaphors  (don’t look at me like that, I promise I was exchanging some eye-rolling at the side)  but shit, he had the balls to get up and do it anyway. 

And some straight-up greatness, including organizers like Mahogany Brown and Louise Robertson (who did a poem that has maybe my favorite opening line ever, “My Mother taught me how to lie.  It’s like breaking asparagus.  Snap. Pop. Done.”) and a woman who was too young to officially compete did a poem about the corroding effect of love, its ugly-making properties, that blew my hair back.  And last year’s champion Rachel McKibbens closed that night’s mic  with a Jan Beatty “cover” taking us all back to the Lollapalooza spoken word stage and those MTV poetry segments.

The next day – after a Jameson-sponsored whiskey tasting at the local Fado, A. accompanied me to a first-night bout at Kickstart Coffee, all of us sitting around scooters and motorcycles for sale listening to some phenomenal poetry, including Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s poem critiquing her boyfriend’s drunk song-poem that’s given A. and I a mantra for the ages - “Sandwich, I’m gonna eat you” -  and a number of poems there, the Erotica open mic at La Fogata that evening, Zanzibar on Friday, and the First Draft Open Mic at Columbus State on Saturday afternoon that all gave me that elusive feeling, poems by people I knew about (like Vernell Bristow, Laura Yes Yes, and those completely unknown to me (especially Dusty Rose from San Francisco who I saw a couple of times, and a woman who did a persona poem about the mother of a serial killer), and I wish I could write this up better by either having taken better notes or by the participants/nights sheet still being up on the web to jog my memory but suffice to say every one of those shows gave me something to think about and felt like I put my finger in a light socket.

Much like the solo Woods , there were a plethora of genres cut and bent, mutated, reshaped or sometimes just refined to such a pure essence that you could see right through them.  Personal work that always eschewed easy memoir even when they put a needle right into the artist’s own past and sprayed the blood in front of light so you cold see a rainbow in it.  Just seeing the diversity of perspectives – while also seeing how work grew out of the communal slam history and all its regionally evolved subspecies.

Genre getting its face reconstructed in a back alley surfaced again the same week, at the corporate-advertising multi-venue Scion Rock Fest, four venues full of underground metal for six hours at each and I saw at least pieces of six bands. Obviously, with this kind of show, not everything’s going to burn its impression onto your brainpan.  Even those that didn’t quite grab me still did what they did at full speed and ferocious intensity – including 3 Inches of Blood, textbook NWoBHM done very, very well, and Absu whose brand of hybrid black/thrash metal might have sold me if I saw them earlier. 

But the four bands that did – again, why this is one War and Peace blog and not something more digestible – didn’t take my excuses, reconfigured, flummoxed and confused my conceptions about rock and metal and ultimately reaffirmed by belief in its potential.  I’ve never been a huge metalhead, but I loved those Earache deathmetal bands in high school (my “punk rock” when punk rock was all post-Op Ivy SoCal dross) and Slayer and Motorhead are two of my favorite bands. 

Starting with the two bands that worked me over but didn’t fire the kill-shot, Ludicra, in Bernie’s, fronted by two women, one of whom handled mostly the screaming death vocals and the other playing guitar and handling vocals more reminiscent of Black Sabbath-era Ozz, tweaking the metalcore/hardcore trend of a more melodic singer and a screamer, and male rhythm section you feel in your ribcage and your groin before you even realize you’re nodding along.  Students of every important trend in heavy music of the last ten years, from the thick grooves of Pantera and Monster Magnet (and maybe even a little White Zombie funk) to stoner’s long song-forms breakdowns that fell between vintage hardcore and vintage Morbid Angel, occasionally shooting to thrash’s velocity as a way to build tension, not to release it.  Everything in this set was perfect and attuned to their intent and their mission.  You walk out trying to describe this and end with “You know what?  This was a great fucking rock band, that’s what this was.” 

Hate Eternal with Erik Rutan from Morbid Angel and a bassist/backing vocalist and a fiery, very professional drummer performed a kind of reverse alchemy from the magic Ludicra brought, maybe the defining death metal guitarist taking those death and black tropes (and that monowire guitar tone) and boiling it down into a Motorhead or ZZ Top-style power trio, using the cliches of both areas but infusing them with the energy of the other.  When it got too groove-y, he’d spray it with a guitar solo that was chemical flame; when the breakdown got too steady and rhythmic, the bass player would start into a counter rhythm or some beautifully weird harmonics.  And conversely, when it got too technical or avant, that giant drummer-led groove was back.  And I don’t mean “professional” as an insult to the drummer, because he hit every note they asked him of with aplomb and, a couple of times his cymbals started to come apart but he didn’t miss a beat, he played around the technical difficulty while his tech got it fixed and they didn’t need to stop even one song.

And then the main course.  The evening started with more than a bang via Lullabye Arkestra, a husband-wife duo from Montreal playing bass and drums, that started with slow tense bass-plucks and tiny cymbal patterns almost like playing a Ruins or Lightning Bolt 45 on 33 instead, then as though a switch got flipped, it moved through vintage mid-‘80s cusp-of-thrash metal, third-wave rockabilly, ‘70s cosmic soul, all on just bass and drums and those two voices in perfect, smoke-weathered harmony.  Most accessible band I saw the entire night, I can’t think of anyone who loves rock and roll who wouldn’t have loved this but that’s not to say it was simple, there was plenty of depth and substance and quirks to dig into.

And Liturgy would have made my going worthwhile even if everything else had sucked.  New blog-hyped, Bard-educated black metal from Brooklyn sounds like about the worst thing ever, but I always had a weakness for black metal when I could find something not tainted with the racism/homophobia couched in Teutonic folk or Nietzschean purity and Kyle Gann’s shout-outs got me to check out the record.  It was great, but I still had my doubts of how it would be live on a bill of “real” metal bands.  So, so glad to be wrong.  They came out with wordless vocals, as much doo-wop as the choruses/infernal chants you expect from Black Metal, and it kept going on and on and the three and four note patterns repeated out of sequence by different voices, turning into almost a Steve Reich piece before my eyes.  Then the crash of the drums and the first song surges up, and it’s an amusement park ride through everything I love about music of the last half of the 20th century, black metal grooves and snarled vocals, yoked to Ennio Morricone guitars getting dissolved in a Jesus and Mary Chain acid bath and even a little Pavement and AC/DC along with more Reich echoes.  Show of the year so far.

And the next week was the work that, as Sondheim said, “sum[med] it all wide up and [blew] it all wide open”, and I hope any of the two of you reading this who get that reference forgive the tastelessness.  Available Light holds onto their title of most interesting theater in town by doing a victory lap of previously-produced work that I, at least, missed the first time, both one man shows in an afternoon at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, Killadelphia, billed as a “mixtape” by Sean Christopher Lewis, and The Absurdity of Writing Poetry by founder/artistic director Matt Slaybaugh in collaboration with sound designer Dave Wallingford.

Killadelphia disarms you at first when Lewis walks on with a book of “material”, tells you it’ll be a minute, does some work and then it’s on.  This is a mixtape in the sense of putting together things for a teenage love to try to get your feelings across indirectly (one I received as I recall included James Joyce’s “The Dead”, Cake’s cover of Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes”, and lots of whispers that turned into giggles) or for yourself to try to make sense of these feelings (one I made around the same time that I didn’t send, as I recall, included me reading Yeats’ “Politics” along with Tom Waits’ “Please Call Me, Baby”, a rare recording of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance All Night” and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman’s “Lush Life; some things don’t change much).  But I don’t mean that connotation to imply that the work is juvenile, it put me in mind of that because sometimes throwing everything experienced around and sifting through it is still the best way to make sense of completely incomprehensible events/people/history, even when you’re an adult.

Lewis goes from his original impression on what he thought he’d be doing in the Philadelphia prison program to document - “The world’s greatest white b-boy prison bonanza” – then the corrections officer he meets and slowly the prison itself and the prisoners start to shift that.  But not in the way you’re expecting, no holding hands, no hugging.  He comes out knowing some people change and some people don’t and some people only change if their circumstances change and revert immediately if that goes back to the old status quo.  And he manages to hit all of these perspectives – and even more, all of these individual people – and these voices in an incredibly entertaining, moving, harrowing hour.  No one in the audience, I can almost guarantee, walked out forgetting this show any time soon.

The Absurdity of Writing Poetry takes its title from the Wislawa Szymboraka poem “Possiblities” which is one of a number of poems and other sources (including George Saunders, Margaret Atwood and James Kolchaka’s “The Trouble With Comics”) collaged into kind of a theatrical one-man version of a Rauschenberg combine.  Opening with Steve Coleman’s “I Wanna Hear a Poem”, arguably the modern slam poetry ur-text (it got quoted and its words appeared on the screen in the Def Poetry opening credits, for chrissake), which I mentioned about a million years ago in this blog post, talking about the WoWPS, and with a sparse stage littered with props (books upon books, boxes with written fragments, an old manual typewriter, a chair, and a ladder) this show was the shot of adrenaline I was looking for, and I don’t think I was alone seeing the faces in the audience.

The piece traversed through Rosewicz and Mos Def, Saul Williams and two Ferlinghetti pieces, Howl of course and Okerele’s “The Pioneers”, all spelled out in the program, and part of the joy was the way the sourced-work appeared, figuring out the connections and occasionally babe ruthing it, but most of the time being wonderfully surprised.  This kind of thing could have so easily been the equivalent of those quotes taped around Harlan Ellison’s typewriter but it was infused with so much soul and humor that it works as monologue and a rallying cry and an ars poetica even if you didn’t have the built-in knowledge, if you didn’t get the references or know the artists Slaybaugh cites in the climactic laundry list that seems like it’s going on forever but delivered so intently you want to throw a fist in the air.  And bringing this all back to the Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz rallying cry earlier, “Fuck yeah, sandwiches are awesome!”

I’ll be back soon, with something a little more manageable.  Promise.