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.