Archive for June, 2008

Cern Burn

Friday, June 20th, 2008

I feel vaguely disappointed that the Large Hadron Collidor, scheduled to go on line in the fall, has been deemed “no threat to Earth or the universe.” I liked the idea of scientists accidentally creating a world-consuming black hole or a cosmos-collapsing quogulum.*

Now we have to go back to worrying about environmental destruction, terrorism, and economic decline – slow, painful ways for civilizations to die. How icky.

*Quogulum (n): a big unexplained science thingie that destroys the universe. I just made it up. Go ahead, use it.

Theater/Burlesque Review (NYC): Revealed

Friday, June 20th, 2008

One of the great things about being a writer is getting invited to all sorts of interesting events, including some that fall outside the categories you're used to. Like, say, an evening of lovely women taking off their clothes.

"Burlesque" originally meant a comedic, parodic style of variety show, of which striptease was only one element. Nowadays, although there is a serious "New Burlesque" movement out there somewhere, from my standpoint the non-titillating aspects seem to have dropped off, and we're left with striptease. That's the case, at least, in the burlesque shows I've seen in New York City.

The other night I had the pleasure of experiencing Revealed, a monthly show at Under St. Marks, a little theater at St. Marks Place and First Avenue (complete with bar) that I've started to think of as a home away from home. It's a warm, divey little spot, perfect for burlesque. In Revealed the artistes show more skin than in most shows, hence the title: yes, there's full nudity, and I for one approve, but the best part of the fun is in the gaudy creativity on display.

Gigi La Femme - Photo by Luke Ratray

Costumes and props are important, of course. Ms. Tickle, who had the most fabulous getup, made her reverse striptease into one of the sexiest numbers, walking on stage totally naked and then putting on her costume ver-r-ry slowly. Miss Ruby Valentine had great fun with plush boas, Gigi La Femme spanked herself, and so on. Scenarios are a big part of it. Kobayashi Maru had the most inventive act. Not to give it away, I'll just say that her soundtrack came from a classic science fiction film, and unlike the other acts, it wasn't music.

The puritanical busybodies of times past and present have it all wrong. Nothing about the naked human body is corrupting or immoral; quite the opposite. Yes, there are depressing strip clubs out there and forms of pornography that take advantage of women, but in a burlesque striptease show the performers have all the power.

Striptease and raucous humor go naturally together. The engaging Bastard Keith is a jolly host (he's funny and he can sing, too!), but half the best lines are shouted out from the gonzo audience. If you'd like to be part of the gonzo, Revealed runs the third Wednesday of every month at 10 PM. Tickets are available online or call (212) 868-4444.

You can also get more information at the show's Myspace page, where you'll find links to the performers' individual pages. The fetching Creamy Stevens, for example, the "child of slaughterhouse workers" who hails "from some decayed hamlet in Washington State," "learned she loved to entertain through making children cry at the juvenile detention center where she spent most of her teens." Fictional biographies aside, everyone does seem to end up in New York eventually.

Amidst the ongoing destruction of what was once a funky, creative stew-pot of a way of life, tucked between the chain stores and rich-people-only developments that are taking over the city faster than you can say "My dog was electrocuted by a manhole cover!", places like Under St. Marks hosting shows like Revealed persist, giving hope for the creative energy and street life of the, um, naked city.

Photo credit: Photo of Gigi La Femme by Luke Ratray

Music Review: Chuck Leavell, Live in Germany: Green Leaves & Blue Notes Tour 2007

Monday, June 16th, 2008

A joyous noise erupts from this new two-CD release from keyboardist extraordinaire Chuck Leavell (Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Allman Brothers). The set opens appropriately with a Professor Longhair chestnut and motors on through Stones covers, standards, Leavell originals, and a lot more. The pianist has stepped out in front before, notably with his band Sea Level in the late 1970s, but his vocals, while pretty good, naturally tend to take a back seat to his playing, whether on studio recordings or on the road with the Stones and others.

This set was recorded last year, after the Stones’ “Bigger Bang” tour ended. Leavell gathered some top German musicians to back him up, and the result was captured in the live radio performance from which these nineteen tracks are taken.

While it’s always fun to hear a group of ace musicians rocking out on tunes like “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66″ and “Honky Tonk Women,” the highlights of Disc 1, for me, are the gently grooving jams “Living in a Dream” and “King Grand,” which date from the pianist’s Sea Level days. Saxophonist Lutz Häfner shines on the former, while Leavell’s piano wizardry kicks up the latter, with the band churning along like a perfectly oiled engine.

On the whole, the best parts of Disk 1 are the songs you haven’t already heard a million times. It closes with the great old boogie-woogie number “(That Place) Down the Road a Piece,” which the Stones (and many others) have covered, and the beautiful “Alberta, Alberta,” which was reintroduced to millions in 1992 via Eric Clapton’s hugely successful MTV Unplugged album which featured Leavell prominently.

Disc 2 features his loving version of “Here Comes the Sun,” which sounds great except that it makes you miss hearing the harmony vocals you’re used to. Same with his otherwise rocking version of “Tumbling Dice,” which is nevertheless a great rendition. The keyboardist’s jazz fusion side is vented in his own “Tomato Jam” and “Blue Rose,” where the band shows it can match any American musicians at this smooth-but-tense style of music.

The thunderous “Compared to What” gets a well-deserved ovation from the crowd, and it’s no surprise that the set includes the Allmans’ famous instrumental “Jessica,” which perhaps more than anything else made Leavell the go-to keyboardist he remains so many years later. When he’s inspired, he can cut loose vocally too, as on “Statesboro Blues.”

Chuck Leavell may be a “musicians’ musician,” but there’s something for almost everyone here, and a lot of bang for your buck.

Theater Review (NYC): All Kinds of Shifty Villains: A Carnival Noir

Monday, June 16th, 2008

With their new theater piece, writer Robert Attenweiler and director Rachel Klein set out to combine the noirish flavor and tropes of the gangster genre with the circus/clown tradition. They’ve succeeded: All Kinds of Shifty Villains is an oddball play, but an entertaining one.

Fair warning: at the beginning, I hated the play. It began unpromisingly, with a musical number sung inaudibly by Precious Jones (Elizabeth Stewart), the story’s stereotypical femme fatale. Then, for the first couple of scenes, as we were introduced to philosophical tough-guy gumshoe Max Quarterhorse (Joe Stipek) and a batch of seedier types, I felt at sea, unable to fix on anything. Uneven acting didn’t help, and Stewart’s singing wasn’t the only thing hard to hear: some dialogue got swallowed by the Kraine Theater, thanks to certain actors’ lack of projection. (A rattling air conditioner didn’t help, but it wasn’t entirely to blame).

Gradually, though, the play won me over. It has two big things going for it: Attenweiler’s writing, and Klein’s funny, inventive, and occasionally eye-opening choreography – not as in dancing, but as in stylized and sometimes acrobatic movement, especially fight scenes and love scenes. Here much credit goes to the cast; standouts include Kari Warchock as Therese “Terry” Trueblood, Max’s loyal assistant, and Bret Haines, who plays the bearish half of a pair of lowlife brothers whom Max hits up for information. But the whole cast is good in this area. Together with the presence of a mysterious and vaguely sinister clown, the choreographed movement represents the circus element of this hybrid story.

As for the writing, it’s sharp and funny. “Will you be stepping into this sack of your own accord,” the brothers ask Terry as they kidnap her, “or must I produce a bludgeon?” Max, the detective, has just quit smoking, and his withdrawal symptoms take the form of hallucinations, which are sometimes amusingly acted out but often merely suggested by his absurd non sequiturs, which keep us enjoyably guessing. The suggestion of magic realism that comes from the evident lunacy mixes in interesting ways with the screwball comic action and Guy-Noirish set pieces, and holding it all together is Stipak, whose Max is a pretty strong focal point for the broad-ranging action. And he’s not the only nutcase in the house. “Something’s coming,” Max warns. “If it’s not what I think, at least it will be something else.”

So true, Max Quarterhorse. So true.

All Kinds of Shifty Villains runs Thursday-Sunday through June 28 at the Kraine Theater, 85 E. 4 St., NYC. Tickets online at Smarttix or call (212) 868-4444.

Concert Review: Strawbs and Judith Owen at BB Kings, NYC

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

Strawbs got their start way back in 1964, as the Strawberry Hill Boys bluegrass band. They had success in the UK during the 1960s, undergoing several lineup changes but always led by singer-guitarist and main songwriter Dave Cousins. (Early on they worked with both Rick Wakeman and Sandy Denny). In the 70s the band moved away from its folk influences and towards a harder, progressive rock sound, achieving its greatest US and Canada success in that decade, with the Hero and Heroine and Ghosts albums.

Their set at BB Kings last night included "Round and Round," "Out in the Cold," and the dramatic "Autumn" suite, all from Hero and Heroine, and bang-up versions of "The River" and "Lay Down" from 1973's Bursting at the Seams. I especially enjoyed hearing the vintage synthesizer sounds from keyboardist John Hawken.

I was surprised at how well I remembered all these songs, considering the fact that I didn't own all the albums, and those I did own were on cassette and I hadn't listened to them in literally decades. Strawbs at BB Kings NYC 06102008 Somehow all this Strawbs music snuck into my head back in the late 1970s when my world was green and new…

From Ghosts they did the sweet ballad "You and I (When We Were Young)" and perhaps my favorite Strawbs song, "Grace Darling," about the Victorian heroine of that name. Lead guitarist Dave Lambert sang a few of his contributions, including the rocker "Heartbreaker," and they reached back to 1972's Grave New World album for Cousins' "New World," another highlight of the set.

Songs from that era form the heart of a present-day Strawbs show, which is not surprising considering they're touring with the classic five-man lineup of that era. They do have a new album coming out this fall, however, and from it they played the socially conscious "The Call to Action" and the hooky title track, "The Broken-Hearted Bride," which featured powerful three-part harmonies. Though none of the Strawbs were ever what you'd call amazing singers, they sound wonderful together, and Dave Cousins' reedy, explosive, unmistakable voice hasn't changed much over the years.

He doesn't look too healthy, though. The rest of the band is fairly spry, but it can be a little difficult to watch Cousins from a seat near the stage. It's not that he isn't alert. The show went very smoothly, and when he once stumbled over some fast lyrics he laughed, muttered "Bollocks" (a word that's always hilariously pleasing to American audiences), and didn't lose a beat or bat an eye – but one somehow fears for him.

Still, I'm glad I finally saw a band that meant a lot to me in days gone by – and, I realized, still does – but that I never got to see live before. Judith Owen at BB Kings NYC 06102008 You know how certain melodies or riffs get planted so deep in the roots of your consciousness that they recur in your mind for your whole life, unbidden? Several Strawbs melodies are like that for me.

Singer-songwriter-keyboardist Judith Owen opened, playing solo. A collaborator of Richard Thompson's, she won over the audience immediately with a half-Tori-Amos, half-jazzy version of "Smoke on the Water," and kept us tuned in with her funny and engaging stage personality and exquisite vocal delivery. Her original songs, like the jaunty "Creatures of Habit" and the bluesy "Walking the Dog," were all winners in their own ways. My fellow Blogcritics writer Holly Hughes reviewed Owen's new CD recently.

Theater Review (NYC): Three on a Couch by Carl Djerassi

Monday, June 9th, 2008

Scientist-playwright Carl Djerassi’s fourth play premiered in 2003 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (under the title Ego) but has not received an American production until now. I’m delighted to report that Redshift Productions’ new Off Broadway staging does absolute justice to this intelligent, witty, and very funny concoction of noir, psychodrama, and clowning.

Djerassi is an emeritus professor of chemistry at Stanford University and the inventor of the birth control pill. He’s one of our culture’s premiere crossover figures between the worlds of art and science. I figured I’d mention all that, since it’s what one does. But he is also, quite independently of any other accomplishments, a playwright of the first order.

In Three on a Couch Stephen Marx, a famous novelist, fakes his own death in order to read the obituaries and critical appreciations he knows will follow. More than that, he is inspired by the real-life Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa to create “heteronyms,” alter egos to publish works in different styles for an audience meant not to know that the books all come from the same brain.

Sadly for Stephen, his original self cannot disappear without leaving a very large loose end: his wife, the sultry Miriam, who is at least Stephen’s match in force of personality and wit. The action takes place in the office of Dr. Theodore Hofmann, Stephen’s Freudian psychoanalyst. Played with antic clowning by the wonderful Brad Frazier, Theo is the glue that holds the plot together, and that’s critical because the plot is tricky and a little bit shaky in one or two places – but that hardly matters.

The pleasures of this longish one-act play begin immediately, with Theo attempting some very funny stylized acrobatics between his stool and his analysand’s couch, where Stephen lies apparently asleep. This business symbolically suggests the shrink’s attempts to “reach” his difficult patient, but it also opens up Theo’s character to our amused and sympathetic eyes: he is himself a very troubled man.

His role as confidante to Stephen and Miriam, initially professional and then personal, serves superficially to grease the gears of their story, yet on another level the therapist’s inner life is the very subject of the play. He’s on stage for almost all of the action, and his pursuit of his craft, with all his peccadilloes and insecurities, is the intellectual heart and soul of the work, at least in this production, carefully directed by Elena Araoz, stunningly lit by Justin Townsend, and luxuriously costumed by Chloe Chapin.

Theo is both an iconic shrink and a shrinking violet. He knows the theories and techniques of psychoanalysis as well as anyone, but is incapable – at least with Stephen – of maintaining objectivity, of keeping his cool. Between sessions and meetings with the husband and wife, he repeatedly tries to persuade his answering machine that he is master of his domain, yet all it does is stare back at him with its single blinking red eye. No analyst could possibly function in this way in real life, but the entire play is consistently absurd, both larger and smaller than life. By the end Theo does achieve a surprising sort of catharsis aided by (of all things) Susan Zeeman Rogers’s simple but clever set design. We cheer him rather like we cheer Georges in Act I of Sunday in the Park with George, a character Theo oddly resembles in some ways.

Mark Pinter plays Stephen with a pomposity so hearty it’s believable, in the over-agitated way a Seinfeld character seems “real”; Lori Funk is equally larger than life as the vengeful wife. Lush and noirish, Arielle Edwards and David Thomas’s music and sound dance us from scene to scene and state of mind to state of mind. The director has her cast play brilliantly with the fourth wall; the action is speckled with telling details like Theo bending into the stage light to read a letter, Miriam violently batting her eyelashes for much too long, husband and wife pounding out all the lines of a dramatic private scene while looking only at the audience. All told, it’s a full-throated sounding out of the possibilities of live theater.

Given the story’s psychological setting, I could quibble with how certain motivations are explained. But this play, and this production, hardly leave room for such quibbles. Both are superior in every way.

Three on a Couch runs through June 22 at the Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam St., NYC. For tickets visit the theater’s website or call (212) 691-1555.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Stone Coyotes, Bloom, Preston, Sugar Blue

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

Yes, I’ve been out of touch for a while – a vacation in Europe and some life changes (good ones, but ones which make blogging seem rather unimportant). But the ol’ critical brain likes to keep getting its exercise. And the new music keeps pouring into my mailbox, and some of it’s pretty darn good. So here you go:

The Stone Coyotes, VIII

Another year, another strong record from the Stone Coyotes. This one opens a little strangely, with the slightly hesitant "Tomorrow is Another Day." The rocking really starts with "Land of the Living," which has one of singer-guitarist Barbara Keith's trademark half-shouted choruses; in this one she brings it home with: "Through the Valley of Death I've been driven / Now I'm back in the land of the livin'." There's always been a stark naturalness to the Stone Coyotes' songwriting, which exactly matches their basic rock sound, and that combination is what makes them so good.

"Not Right Now" is a growly, crunchy rocker about mortality and music, while the softer side of Keith's songcraft makes an appearance in "The Lights of Home": "From gilded cities and crowded skies / To desolate highways that hypnotize / Rolling wheels sing a traveler's song / To the ones like us who've been gone too long." But the disc's best track may be "All for Angelina," a haunting blast about the scary and mystical side of love and fate. The absurdly obvious "Brand New Car" becomes infectious in spite of itself, and the cover of Merle Haggard's sad "Kern River" shows off the band's grasp of rock's country-and-western roots.

While the wife-husband-and-son band overall sounds as good as ever, with bassist John Tibble having become very accomplished as a lead guitarist as well, Keith's vocals seem a little lighter than in the past. I hope this doesn't mean her energy is weakening; I am always looking forward to the next Stone Coyotes album. But there's a fatalistic tone to this one, summed up in the tense closer, "Grey Robe of the Rain": "I call to the sun in the sky / Dry the silver tear in my eye / I feel the dig of the chain / I wear the grey robe of the rain." In the final verse the singer attempts to defy fate: "still I refuse / To wither, to bend, to succumb to the pain / Someday I'll throw off the grey robe of the rain." It's an image from Longfellow, but it sounds a bit like Cuchulain fighting the waves.

Peter Bloom Band, Random Thoughts (from a paralyzed mind)

This is one of the more accomplished debuts I've heard in a while. Straddling the border between a singer-songwriter vibe and energetic arrangements verging on power-pop, the Toronto-based Bloom and his band put across his well-constructed, catchy melodies and emotionally charged lyrics with easygoing confidence. Best of all, there's a nice variety of feels from song to song, from head-nodding pop-rock to sensitive balladry, and the ten tracks are solid throughout – it's not a case of one or two standouts and a bunch of filler. Bloom's high, liquid tenor is very appealing – boyish yet with depth of feeling.

Josh Preston, Exit Sounds

Josh Preston's third disc has a haunting mechano-acoustic sound, smart lyrics, and melodies that are both soothing and hummable. Preston has a sharper sensibility than the typical singer-songwriter working in this laid-back mode, and this gives his songs appealing depths beneath their pretty surfaces. That doesn't mean he's going to rock you; to listen to the disc straight through, you'll want to be in a quite meditative mood.

Sugar Blue, Code Blue

If you're in the mood for some spankin' new funky blues – and how could you not be? – harmonica man Sugar Blue delivers with this free-flowing set of politically charged soul-busters. The disc is worth having just for the smooth and inspiring "Let It Go" and the strange, dreamy "I Don't Know Why." But from the funked-up "Krystalline" and the rocking "Bluesman" to the slow blues shuffle of "Bad Boys Heaven" (with a guest solo from Lurrie Bell) and the showy pop-jazz of the slightly weird "Walking Alone," Blue's inventive, wailing harmonica, his tense, straight-up vocals, his tight band, and his mastery of the whole constellation of blues-rooted styles cast a powerful and uplifting spell.