I’ve now posted over 30 entries on my Park Odyssey blog, all with text and photos. Here’s a sample shot from Astoria Park in Queens. Come on over and visit now!
I’ve now posted over 30 entries on my Park Odyssey blog, all with text and photos. Here’s a sample shot from Astoria Park in Queens. Come on over and visit now!
Flipron, With Breath Bated & Eyelids Unblinking: A Flipron Sampler
Flipron makes its US debut this fall with a brief tour and a 12-track sampler disc that backs up the hype that this is very likely the UK’s most inventive band. Sharp-witted, antic, and addled, their songs are more than pop curiosities; psychedelic but always under control, they show offbeat classic rock influences (circa Kinks and Bowie) mixed up with bleary folk balladry and elements from smaller islands as well, from Hawaii to Coney.
But all that is in the service of the songs and the band’s eccentric and intruiging sensibility. As vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jesse Budd sings in the macabre-sweet “The Flatpack Bride of Possibilities,” “Each bone connected, each organ plugged in reveals another unexpected joy.” The compilation is full of unexpected pleasures, including the infectious “Gravity Calling” from their 2008 album of that name, the slinky “Big Baboon,” the arch “Mess It Up,” and the brand new single “The Coolest Names in Showbiz,” an unusually (for this band) straightforward gloss on fame: “You’re just doing what comes easily to you / Why bother? / The coolest names in showbiz love you / Why bother?”
Bother with Flipron. Anyone with a taste for new, original, boundary-stretching pop that’s just plain fun is unlikely to be disappointed.
John Lee Hooker Jr., Live in Istanbul Turkey
John Lee Hooker Jr.’s polished, contemporary blues is a far cry from the rough, elemental sounds of his legendary father. But in his own right, he’s a forceful presence, a skilled songwriter, and an honorable ambassador for the blues. He takes up that last role delightedly on his new live disc, recorded before an appreciative audience in Turkey. Like most of the tracks (except a couple of John Lee Hooker Senior covers), “Suspicion,” the BB King-style blues power ballad that opens the disc, is an effective original. The sounds range from Chicago blues-rock to soul to boogie-woogie to funk, with some clever arrangements like the tight, funny “One Eye Opened.” The songs cover topics from love (“You Make My Life Brand New”) to politics (“People Want a Change”).
When Hooker Jr. replays the standard bluesy complaints of the hard-up, he gives them a modern twist, with current idioms (“They Hatin’ on Me”) and cultural touchpoints, singing of Tiger Woods, recessions, and Ponzi schemes that promise “very large returns…but check out your bank account, because you’ve been burned.” He might not have the vocal heft or gravitas of some blues singers, but he knows how to put his entertaining story-songs across, and his band is top-notch.
Also included is an excellent, noirish animated video of one of the band’s best songs, “Extramarital Affair,” which recounts a true story of life on the road.
Whole Sky Monitor, Twisted Little Piggies
“The revolution was in your head,” shout these angry Leeds boys on this, their second disc. (The title of the album alone should give you a clue to the prevailing attitude.) “Never forget how stupid you are,” they plead. Primarily purveyors of highly focused noise, Whole Sky Monitor are not afraid to show a little soft white underbelly in the Beatle-esque “La Mouche,” but my favorite tracks are the short-and-sour numbers like the muscular “Freak Show” with its 7/4 time choruses, the chunky “My Regeneration” (get it?) and the punk-tempo “Abusive,” which clocks in at less than two minutes and suggests early Foo Fighters. I also like the dissonant jam in the uncharacteristically long “White Skin Suit.” Without much in the way of melodic hooks, these songs depend on a twin-guitar attack, rhythmic assertiveness, creeping dissonance, and pinpoint execution. All of which are here plentifully.
Originally published as “Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Flipron, John Lee Hooker Jr., Whole Sky Monitor” on Blogcritics.
FringeNYC 2010 is drawing to a close. I caught a handful of shows, mostly ones that happened to be playing at days and times when I happened to be free. Here are links to my reviews:
One of the best I saw was The Hyperbolist, a one-man puppet-non-puppet show by Joe Mazza.
Alas, the gospel of the Rev. Bill & Betty failed to ignite.
But I was happy the Amsterdam Abortion Survivor survived to tell the tale.
A welcome performance of Schiller’s Maid of Orleans, a play I’d never seen, boasted a couple of fine performances but overall it disappointed.
However, Jeff Kreisler’s Get Rich Cheating, while hitting mostly easy targets, added up to entertaining and effective satire.
And in Jen and Liz in Love, Jesse Weaver cooked up an honestly touching story of love and regret.
Though subtitled “Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago,” this concise and fascinating piece of social history by no means requires a familiarity with the Bob Fosse musical. It’s about crime in Chicago. It’s an effective portrait of the golden age of newspaper reporting. It’s a multiple character study. But more than anything it’s about the cult of celebrity. We tend to think idol-worshipping exploded in the late twentieth century, but it ran rampant in the 1920s, juiced up by the many competing newspapers that once graced major cities — and nowhere more so than in the Second City.
There, during Prohibition, a crop of female killers became celebrities. Maurine Watkins, a talented greenhorn reporter for the Chicago Tribune, covered the trials, filing incisive and sarcastic reports that made her a popular correspondent. Disgusted by the way all-male juries kept acquitting glamorous female criminals, Watkins then wrote a successful play based on her reporting. The stage play Chicago established her career (though she never again matched its success). Two movie versions followed. The first was silent; the second starred Ginger Rogers but bastardized the story to comply with the morality code of the 1940s, which didn’t allow characters to commit bad behavior and get away with it.
Not until after Watkins had died, though, did the Bob Fosse musical come about. Its current Broadway production has become the longest-running revival in Broadway’s history, and between that, the tours, and the Best Picture-winning 2002 movie version of the musical, an awful lot of people know the story, however obscure the original play may be today. But you need not know it at all to get a lot out of this book.
Perry neatly tracks the stories that splashed across the front pages of the Chicago papers in 1924. “Beautiful” Beulah Annan, immortalized in the play as Roxie Hart, and sophisticated Belva Gaertner, the inspiration for the character of Velma, were only the most glamorous of a number of female prisoners who had murdered men, usually lovers or husbands. Perry’s account of their crimes and their trials shines a light on the attitudes of the time, so different from now. Women weren’t thought fit to serve on juries — they couldn’t be objective enough. And they weren’t tough enough to be trial lawyers, though the book also profiles a trailblazing young attorney named Helen Cirese who successfully represented the unglamorous convict Sabella Nitti.
For similar reasons, many people believed women couldn’t commit crimes unless something — drink, passion, the loose living that was blamed for so many problems at the time — had led them astray. “Violence, after all, was an unnatural act for a woman. A normal woman couldn’t decide to commit murder or plot a killing…The violent woman was by definition mentally diseased, irreparably defective.” Beulah had been “lured into the world of jazz and liquor, had broken her marriage vows, like so many young married women forced by financial necessity to work outside the home.” A “respectable lady [like Belva Gaertner] who shot her husband or boyfriend…didn’t scare men: She was a romantic figure, a representation of how much women in general, with their overflowing emotions, loved and needed their men.”
Maurine Watkins, intelligent, moral, and religious, couldn’t accept this, and crusaded in print for the women she believed guilty to get what they deserved. But, though the string of acquittals had been broken in another case, both Beulah and Belva got off despite strong evidence against them. In the process, even their lawyers became celebrities. Hearst’s sensationalizing papers, according to Perry, “sought to mold news to their liking, which meant the commonplace blown up bigger and better than in any of their competitors.” The “commonplace blown up”…just like today’s reality shows. Tens of thousands of strangers swarmed upon the funeral of Wanda Stopa, another beautiful killer who’d avoided trial by committing suicide — “group madness, a sight so incredible, it stayed with the reporter for years.” It led Watkins from Chicago to Chicago, “a deeply cynical satire of the celebrity mania that she saw as the dominant feature of twentieth-century urban life.” Perry’s analysis of the play’s genesis sums up both its theme and, to a degree, that of this book:
From her experiences as a reporter in Chicago, she’d determined that human imperfections, individual and collective, had become monstrous. Real life had become farce…traditional comedy and farce…comedy and tragedy…were all one and the same in a superficial modern world of mass communication and overpopulated, spirit-crushing cities, a world that produced anonymous men and women seized by insecurity and a frantic desire for money, status, and attention.
We know how straight-laced society reacts. From Mae West’s 1927 conviction for doing a “kootchie dance,” through Jim Morrison’s 1969 arrest in Miami for exposing himself, to the bizarre excoriation of Janet Jackson for her “wardrobe malfunction,” America has always been an uncomfortable mix of the puritanical and the freewheeling and licentious.
Maurine never wanted her play made into a musical. Perry isn’t sure why, but he makes a convincing case against a commonly supposed reason: that she’d become a born-again Christian and ashamed of having sensationalized the lurid stories she’d reported on. Maurine Watkins was religious all her life; she was never “born again.” And she hadn’t sensationalized and glamorized the murderesses; to the contrary, she’d tried her hardest to turn the tide against Beulah and Belva. This book, among its other accomplishments, restores and buttresses the reputation of Maurine Watkins, who for a brief shining moment was the top crime reporter of her day, and then turned her experiences into a bitter, cynical, but eternally fresh and powerful piece of our culture.
Originally published as “Book Review: The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry” at Blogcritics.
Treasa Levasseur, Low Fidelity
Every so often—and not so often, really—a really special recording comes across my desk. Treasa Levasseur’s second disc has been out in her native Canada for a couple of years but is just now about to get a US release, and if we didn’t know we needed a true soul music revival, now we do. Low Fidelity is an excellent combination of smooth, soulful grooves, bluesy riffage, and ballsy singing and attitude, all melded together with pointed and (above all) fun songwriting.
Its ten tracks, almost all originals, draw on many of soul’s flavors: Aretha-style ballads (“Rest of the Ride”), piano-heavy Motown (the title track), Philly soul (“Talk to Me Babe”), Buddy Guy-style minor-key blues (“Good Ones Never Share”), gospel (“Amen”), even a bit of Sade-type gentle jazzy funk (“Truth Will Set You Free”). My favorite might be the New Orleans-y “Big Fat Mouth,” but there’s no weak link on the album. And while the above description might suggest a dilettantish collection of distinct styles, that’s not at all what this is. Levasseur’s powerful but crafty sensibility as a singer and songwriter shines steadily throughout this solid through-and-through album.
The Problems, Powder Blue Bone
Urban folk-rock meets rootsy Americana on The Problems’ fine new disc, with Frank Caiafa’s gravelly grey baritone vocals floating over beds of steady drums (courtesy of the excellent Barbara Corless), plinking banjo, guitars, and sundries. A variety of feels, including driving rock (“Damage Done”), are tied together by an the overall easygoing attitude established by Caiafa’s laid-back singing, even on more energetic tracks like “The Other One” and “Together.” The latter songs feel a bit like Steve Earle in one of his happy moods, or maybe John Prine on speed. And then there’s the uncharacteristically dramatic, Dire Straits-like “Walk Under Ladders.” On some songs you have to lean in if you want to make out the lyrics, but that’s quite all right—the mixture of grit and sweetness is what sets The Problems apart.
Lisa Brigantino, Wonder Wheel
Lisa Brigantino is what you’d call a complete musician—a superb multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, and not least, rocker. Listen to the pounding guitars and odd time signatures of “Go and Find It” and you won’t be at all surprised to learn that she used to be part of the all-female tribute band Lez Zeppelin, but she can rock out with just voice and acoustic guitar too, as in “Used To Be a House,” the most intense track on her new disc. “Aqualung”-like, it paints an affecting picture of homelessness.
The Dixie Chicks meet Simon and Garfunkel in the angelic harmonies of “Sarah,” while “A Little Sympathy” recalls melodic 1970’s pop-rock. Key word: “melodic.” Brigantino brings to her songwriting that real sense of melody that so many putative writers lack, whether it’s on a softie, like the folksy “Those Days” and the lovely “Light of Your Face,” or in more out-there fare like “I Gotta Find Me Somethin’,” where Dixieland meets the Andrews Sisters. The second half of the disc has one or two too many confessional ballads for my taste, but I think that’s just because the rockers make me want a couple more rockers.
Originally published as “Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Levasseur, The Problems, Lisa Brigantino” at Blogcritics.
Maybe it ought to go without saying that one should go to the theater prepared to pay attention. But it doesn’t anymore, not when screen-conditioned young people no longer have the attention span to serve on a jury. So, fair warning: Potomac Theatre Project’s current production of The Barker Poems—two long poems by Howard Barker read as dramatic monologues—requires sustained attention. It’s shy of an hour long, but that’s a fair stretch when close listening is mandatory. This isn’t a production that will hit you over the head and drag you along with it. Don’t go sleepy; you’ll need your serious brain to meet Barker’s serious language.
Primarily a playwright, Barker proves a really fine dramatic poet as well. To start, the wondrous Robert Emmet Lunney performs “Gary the Thief,” which follows said thief through an epic series of existential adventures as he’s arrested and imprisoned. “I live among you/Hating you,” he addresses us; “I charm you/With the ease of one who holds/All effort in contempt.” Mr. Lunney’s performance does indeed seem effortless. Breezed from mood to mood by subtle, perfect lighting (Hallie Zieselman) and directed deftly by Richard Romagnoli, Lunney makes Gary a delightful, philosophical, and slightly dangerous rascal. A bit of a low-class Ulysses, he rises above and burrows below what regular folks seem to expect of him: “I ride History lightly as a leaf/On torrents which wash away the/Gates of prisons and of parks.”
Ultimately he seems to experience a kind of revelation, or passion, but his consistent sureness of himself keeps the ending ambiguous: if Gary can’t learn (“I did this for knowledge/But nothing came of it”), can he overcome? Is there anything to overcome? Perhaps only our skepticism about him. About whether by himself he can sustain our rapt interest for half an hour and take us somewhere we’ve not been before. Mission accomplished.
The second poem, “Plevna,” comes to us through the rapid-fire delivery of Alex Draper, who was so fine as Alan Turing in Lovesong of the Electric Bear. Subtitled “Meditations on Hatred,” the work is named for a Bulgarian city that was the site of a long siege in the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s, but Plevna stands in for all sites where the horrors of war rear up. Jarringly, our narrator has just stepped away from a cocktail party. Still nursing his drink, he brings us various points of view: “The hem of his [the priest’s] cassock is stained/From the blood of horses…The emperor witnessed the decimation/From a platform made of planks…[Alexander] will not see death in such abundance/Or pain in such garlands again…” And the Sultan “is silent/Staring across the Straits/A cruiser made in South Shields unzips the placid pond.”
It’s a disturbing, at times bewildering ride, and in the end less successful as a piece of drama than “Gary.” It’s true that Mr. Draper, while bringing great liveliness to his performance, occasionally swallows a line. But in essence it’s not the fault of the performer or the crew. I think it’s simply that we read of war every day. We’re bombarded with new and old knowledge of atrocities here, there, and everywhere, world without end. We simply don’t need this, even from as great a writer as Barker, as much as we need the individual and irreproducible meta-yarns of Everyman-oddities like Gary the Thief, which can challenge our stodgy ways of looking at our violent and beautiful world.
What we do need, though, is more thought-provoking theater like this. As I said, don’t go sleepy. But go. The Barker Poems ran in repertory through August 1.
Photo by Stan Barouh
Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): The Barker Poems: “Gary the Thief” and “Plevna”” at Blogcritics.
Karling, Bound for Nowhere
Karling Abbeygate picks up where she left off, but this time with all original songs. Her new set of 14 pseudo-old-time country numbers are by turns Patsy Cline-style traditional (the excellent “What Another Lovely Day” and “Can’t You See I’ve Fallen”), rockabilly (“Dig Baby Dig!”), loopy “Crazy Mable” (sic), and even touched by disparate styles like Dixieland and carnivalia.
Working with two different studio bands, one with traditional country-western instrumentation and the other featuring Micah Hulscher’s aggressive organ playing, Karling covers a variety of bases with a single steady, one-of-a-kind stride, even if that stride may at times seem to have issued from the Ministry of Silly Walks. Her unusual vocal delivery sometimes feels more Asian than plantation, a kind of kewpie-doll belt that serves some songs better than others but is certainly fearless.
Other highlights include the torchy, tinkling ballad “The Valley,” the bouncy “Right Side,” and the sad and peculiar “Take This Take This.” And some songs, like “Back in My Baby’s Arms,” really sound like they could have been written in the 1920s.
Trevor Alguire, Now Before Us
The Canadian country singer-songwriter is back with a strong follow-up to his fine Thirty Year Run. Many of these songs are very traditional-sounding, but Alguire uses country’s typical sounds and song structures forthrightly, without pretense or self-consciousness, and the songs roll easily into your brain on the magic carpet of his honeyed baritone. “Are You Ready” evokes the cycle of life and announces we’re deep in the roots of where all words and music come from: “Are you ready…for your life to come full circle/And never be the same again?”
There are just enough surprises—like the time change in “Back Roads,” the warm bluegrass two-beat of “Pen a Man Down”, and the hollow Neil Young rawness of the spacious “Ditch by the Road”—to make the almost too-nice arrangements of the most traditional country-western songs welcome. In “Weeping Willow” he shows he can rock; Steve Marriner brightens up the already energetic “Hands Full of Flowers” with his barrelhouse piano tinklings; and a pretty duet with Kelly Prescott closes the proceedings. Not every song is thoroughly memorable, but Now Before Us is a great-sounding all-around good show.
John McVey, Unpredictable
The best of John McVey’s soulful pop suggests the spirit of Joe Cocker and Marc Broussard. Gentle ballads and midtempo country-rockers give way now and then to an acoustic softie like the title track and a bit of gentle Sting-like funk as in “The Con Man’s Easy Chair.” There’s nothing much unpredictable about the easygoing, accessible tracks that make up Unpredictable—with the exception of some unexpectedly literate lyrics.
McVey’s creativity does seem to peter out on the second half of the disc. The a capella closer, “Lay Your Burden Down,” aspires to break out of predictability, but his lead vocals here give way to an occasional tendency to get too careful and lose spirit. Overall, though, all you’ll need are a modest tolerance for the sentimental and a willingness to shed your ironic shell in order to enjoy the best of this spacious, well-crafted music.
Originally published as “Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Karling, Alguire, McVey” on Blogcritics.
My new project is underway: visiting every single park in New York City and documenting them on a new blog, Park Odyssey. Check it out.
Jefferson Market Garden, August 2010
Alan Turing—mathematician, code-breaker, war hero, homosexual, victim of state-sponsored chemical castration, suicide—comes across as a tragic figure in just about any telling. But the English playwright Snoo Wilson has done what students of 20th century history might have considered impossible: turned the life of this visionary, who died by cyanide in 1954 just shy of his 42nd birthday, into an epic celebration.
He does it through an episodic, half-fantastical trip through the stations of Turing's life, guided by the stuffed bear, Porgy. Turing really did have a Porgy Bear. It even has its own Facebook page. But here Porgy comes to life as an antic, touchy jester who speaks with a quasi-Shakespearean flair. The script refers to Turing as a genius, but Porgy, played with unflagging energy and broad humor by Tara Giordano, is the genius (in the original sense) of this tale, the representative spirit who draws Alan, Scrooge-like, through scenes of boyhood, the cruelty of public school, hesitant then confident sexuality, cloak-and-dagger war action, and, of course, his work.
Turing was always inventing or conceiving something. Wilson's Turing, intensely logical, can't see the point in celebrating more than one Christmas (why was the fact that the Earth had revolved around the Sun one more time significant?) and insists there's no difference between a human and an equivalently smart machine. Yet he can cavort at a drag bar in New York and cultivate a friendship—even something of a platonic love affair—with a young female colleague. A realistically complex human? Or a cipher for a playwright's imagination? If there's something missing here, it's that Turing's genius is more referred to than shown. We get mostly a babe-in-the-woods version of him, and just his personal half. Fortunately, Alex Draper is so charming in the role that we quickly grow to love him and hope for the best, even as we know the worst will come.
As for the work, it appears in projections as falling numbers, codes, photos of machines. In one lovely scene the actress Cassidy Boyd (part of the excellent ensemble cast) appears before Alan and his father as if out of the ether, covered in numbers, like an angel from heaven. An opposing vision comes a bit later in the form of a female graduate student (Lilli Stein), grimy from working in the bowels of Turing's giant computer, who emerges to hear the tale of woe—the accusation of "gross indecency"—that will lead to his ruin. The great man, it turns out, has never spoken to her before.
Another issue is that we don't really see what leads to the act which frames the story: Turing's suicide. The death seems just another episode. The fairy-tale style in which it is presented matches the tone of the rest of the play, so it didn't bother me at the time, but on reflection, the fundamental question remains: what was Turing really like? We're asked to take it on faith that he was a socially isolated weirdo, not "comfortable with existence." The Turing we actually get to know here is, with the exception of a scene or two, merely a bit eccentric, and sweet as can be.
It would be wrong, however, to ask the play to be something it doesn't set out to be. It's meant, I think, to be a corrective to the tragic aura that suffuses our awareness of Turing. As such it thoroughly succeeds. Director Cheryl Faraone displays a virtuosic touch with quick changes of scene and the blurring of fantasy and reality, aided by fine sound, lighting, and projection and an extremely economical but thoroughly functional set.
Wilson has a great time making fun of theatrical conventions—Shakespearean bursts of elevated language, comedic slow-motion running, the way Porgy puppet-masters a school bully off the stage when his scene is up. "Read your Hamlet," an old doctor friend advises Turing shortly before his untimely end: his problem is "this mortal coil—existence." But that's the problem we all have. This slick production at Atlantic Stage 2 is a fine place to come and forget about it for a couple of hours.
Lovesong of the Electric Bear played in repertory through Aug. 1.
Photos by Stan Barouh
Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): Lovesong of the Electric Bear” on Blogcritics.
Director Jose Zayas's adaptation of Brian Evenson's thriller/exposé Father of Lies is not for the faint of heart. A slowly curdling psychological horror story of sexual abuse, murder, and mutilation, it plunges past merely common evil into that region of nothingness described in the play as making hell seem like "a picnic."
PS 122's uncomfortable seating and lack of air conditioning somehow suit the increasing press of fate around the central character, a young Mormon churchman and new father named Fochs. (The name, pronounced "Fox," is frequently commented upon in the text. That's one of a number of ways the play reflects the experimental nature of some of Evenson's writing). The excellent Evan Enderle plays Fochs acutely, clearly conveying the impression the clergyman makes upon his wife and superiors as a mere man, if a serious and vaguely troubled one. His demonic side is so distinct it appears separately as The Man, played with delicious, subtle creepiness by Richard Toth.
Zayas's nuanced script comes alive through the mouths—and bodies—of his well-chosen cast. The superb Jocelyn Kuritsky thoroughly convinces as the trusting wife gradually realizing that the accusations of child abuse brought against her husband by two pious mothers may not be lies, and that Fochs may have even worse within him.
Zayas's taut, thoughtful direction and Bruce Steinberg's pointed lighting bring out physically the conflicts in the souls of not only Fochs but his church superior, Bates, played sympathetically—considering the negative light the play casts on the church overall—by Peter McCabe. (McCabe, as it happens, co-produced last year's Lizzie Borden musical, a much different but equally effective psychological nightmare involving murder and mayhem.)
Jessica Pohly too is doubly wrenching as not one but two of the demon's victims, while Matt Huffman makes an effectively pallid, ineffective psychiatrist who never gleans the remotest clue what he's up against: not just real evil, but a powerful, authoritarian church that endeavors to cover the evil up, even to the point of excommunicating uncooperative members. Violence not just physical but gleeful. Worst of all, the very real possibility of evil triumphing.
The play is presented as a long one-act, and its deliberate pace and detailed story leads to a few scenes during the latter part where ennui threatens to sink in. The horrific climax is more than enough to rescue us from any doldrums, though, and to be completely honest, now and then it was a little hard to pry apart the effects of the seating and climate discomforts from those that came from what was happening on stage.
But it was the story, and most of all the graphic intensity of the telling, that left this reviewer shaken as he left the theater. Hard to take, beyond cathartic, Father of Lies provides a disturbing glimpse into the worst depths of human possibility. In that way, it's a little bit beautiful.
Father of Lies played at PS 122 as part of the Undergroundzero Festival.
Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): Father of Lies” at Blogcritics.
Putumayo steps away from its customary flow of regional and stylistic compilations to give us a tribute to the music of one man, the great reggae progenitor Bob Marley. A number of the twelve tracks were recorded specifically for this disc. But it opens strongly with something that already existed: Three Plus's convincing "Jahwaiian" fusion version of "Is This Love." And it remains in Hawaii for singer Robi Kahakalau's cool, smooth take on the seldom heard "Do It Twice."
The California band Rebelution delivers "Natural Mystic" with an authentic beat and evocative echoey sounds but uninspired vocals. And thin-voiced French-Canadian singer Caracol disappoints on "Could You Be Loved"—maybe it's a style I just don't get, but she sounds to me like a half-baked Nelly Furtado. More surprisingly, Céu too comes off strangely listless in "Concrete Jungle."
Things pick up with Rocky Dawuni's West African/island fusion sounds, and even more so when Freshlyground bangs out their bright, driving version of the anthem "Africa Unite," really making the song their own. And ultimately, the disc turns out to be a pretty good demonstration of how different styles can be bent and blended to adapt Marley's hypnotic, singable, danceable songs, which are so closely identified with his own voice and sensibility. Northern Lights applies a dense American folk feel to "Waiting in Vain," Julie Crochetière's languid, sexy "Mellow Mood" has a vaguely European flair, and Funkadesi's tricky rhythms and Indian/island stew form a unique style, though it didn't totally grab me here.
The CD closes with two solid tracks. "No Woman No Cry," from the collective called Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, gets to the heart of Marley's "we're all one" message. Playing for Change is a truly international collective that unites stars like Keb' Mo' with street musicians from all over the world. Their "One Love" makes for a beautiful good-night, a "We Are the World" without the showboating and hype. Good feelings all around. That's the spirit of this uneven but overall quite worthwhile disc.
Originally published as “Music Review: Putumayo Presents Tribute to a Reggae Legend” on Blogcritics.
When Neil Young and Crazy Horse played at Jones Beach some years ago on the Horde Tour — it appears to have been 1997, as I am reminded by one of the countless concert posters reproduced in this new book — the "Dreamin' Man" was more of a "Complainin' Man." And what was he complaining about? Us. We, the audience, weren't appreciating the music enough, or so Neil thought.
I was having a fine time at what seemed to me a great concert. I'd never seen this god of rock live before and boy was I impressed. But what did I know?
Daniel Durchhortz and Gary Graff open their new illustrated history, Neil Young: Long May You Run, with a similar anecdote from 1983. Young was expected to play a second set with the Shocking Pinks, the rockabilly group he'd recently put together. Instead he played two acoustic numbers and called it a night, later explaining to his father, "That crowd didn't deserve the Shocking Pinks!"
A betrayal of the performer-audience contract? Conventionally speaking, yes — the artist is supposed to give his all for the crowd, do the best he can, that's what he's paid for. But Neil Young has never been a conventional artist, as the authors concisely document in their new book. "Neil Young does not explain," they write. "He simply does."
As a biography, the book is brief and breezy (yet occasionally repetitive). It gives an outline of the life (so far) of Neil Young, rocker, with glimpses of Neil Young, family man and human being. It's written well, and well-organized — chronologically, but with sidebars on particular topics, including interesting stuff like the history of CSNY and the making of "Ohio," and less fascinating material like Young's female collaborators and his relationahip with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sprinkled throughout are quotes from a pantheon of famous rockers, most of whom aren't very articulate about why Neil was important to them — but then, what makes Neil Young a crucial and unique figure is something that goes a bit deeper than words. One thing the book does stress is his unwillingness to compromise or to repeat himself, traits which really do make him unique.
Of course, no book can convey the sounds that made Neil Young the icon he remains today. But this one does an excellent job of documenting his career visually, and it will probably be an essential buy for any Neil Young completist. It will also make a nice addition to the bookshelf or coffee table of anyone who appreciates the great innovators of rock and roll.
In terms of what the book bills itself as — "The Illustrated History" — it delivers, housing a treasure trove of color photos and reproductions of posters, LP and single covers (including many international rarities), even tickets and backstage passes. In the back it offers an extensive discography, a filmography, and information about Young's most important sidemen.
Best for browsing through and absorbing its plethora of images, it's also readable. Hard to ask for much more in this kind of book.
Originally published as “Book Review: Neil Young: Long May You Run by Daniel Durchhortz and Gary Graff” on Blogcritics.
I’ve revived my old “Dead…from New York” column begun (in print only) in the NY Hangover in the 90’s. A colleague of mine at Blogcritics, Victor Lana, is also contributing.
Check out the newest—oldest—and deadest New York City blog, on Blogcritics here!
Soon this wave of everything-vampire will pass, right? It has to. But for the nonce, pop culture marches on to the unbeat of the undead, and I can't say I'm immune.
Vampires are everywhere on the big and small screens and the bookshelves. It's somewhat rarer that we get to see them on stage. Nosedive Productions, who've specialized in bringing us the bloody and lurid for a decade now, aim to remedy that with James Comtois' new full-length play The Little One.
Unlike most vampire tales, which turn on supposedly surprising similarities beteen mortal humans and immortal bloodsuckers, this story fully takes the vampires' point of view, stressing the strong pull upon them of the monstrous sides of their natures. Comtois and director Pete Boisvert explore some of the intriguing implications of eternal life. For example, time speeds up for these vamps, so as the centuries pass they have trouble keeping up with the evolution of fashion and, most entertainingly, language. There are also interesting spins on some of the details of vampire lore. Here, religious symbols repel only vamps who were believers as humans.
The always limber Becky Byers rises above sometimes awkward dialogue with a driven performance as Cynthia, the "Little One" of the title, a "doormat" turned into a vamp just after breaking up with her boyfriend. Her crawling, clawing emergence into her new, bloodthirsty world is one of the most affecting and effective scenes in the play. Another transcendent theatrical moment is a clever set-piece showing us the dizzying (to Cynthia) passage of time via a round of disjointed conversations between the new vamp and the humans of her former life, with whom the rebellious newbie is trying to maintain relationships. The finest moment of the second act is, once again, a wordless one, as the vampires mourn the death of one of their number with a kind of vampire-specific self-flagellation ritual. These moments and other smaller ones carry the potential of the troupe's vision.
They only partly realize that potential. The uneven acting isn't the main problem, nor is the slow pacing of some scenes; rather, it's the workmanlike quality of much of the vamps' dialogue. This contrasts with the facility Comtois evinces in the scenes with humans, and with the joyful fun he takes with their future dialects. The vamps' talk is functional but without sparkle, sometimes burdened with clichés that might work in a campier tale—but despite its gothic touches, this isn't camp, it's fundamentally a serious story. As such it's absorbing enough that (until the last couple of scenes) it held my interest. But I wished for more.
Jeremy Goren and Melissa Roth acquit themselves well in multiple supporting roles, and Byers is always a pleasure both as a performer and a choreographer—in fact, more dancing would have been a plus, as she's great at expressing nuanced feeling and layers of meaning through movement. But Rebecca Comtois and Patrick Shearer struggle to make their powerful, immortal characters fully convincing—she, because we don't understand what drives her suave, culture-loving character, and he because his is basically a cartoon. The suspense element—what's the nature of the dangerous feud that simmers between Cynthia's two mentors?—fizzles. And the big-ideas debate that crops up late in the proceedings falls flat, partly due to the leaden direction of the scene in which it takes place, but mainly because it doesn't add anything to the story.
Overall, The Little One is an enjoyable show with a distinct point of view and some excellent scenes—an interesting addition to the vampire canon, but not a home run.
If you go, take heed: there will be blood. The Little One ran through July 10 at the Kraine Theatre, NYC.
Photo credit: Daniel Winters
Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): The Little One by James Comtois” on Blogcritics.
The Italian photographer Tina Modotti (1896-1942)—artist, agitator, femme fatale—led a fascinating life at the intersection of art, politics, and idealism. A silent-movie actress, a comrade-in-arms of Diego Rivera in Mexico, a documentarian of and participant in the Communist movement, she deserves to be better known—and for her story to be much better told than this very bad play tells it. Modotti—by Wendy Beckett, author of the flawed but far better Anaïs Nin: One of Her Lives—is the worst thing I've ever seen Off Broadway.
Episodes in Modotti's life play out disconnectedly. Tina (Alysia Reiner) moves from political crisis to crisis and from lover to lover. Her unfortunate, idealistic husband is played by Andy Paris as a vain dandy one would think utterly unappealing to the deep-thinking and emotionally demanding Tina. The photographer Edward Weston, who becomes her mentor and lover, gets a wooden, mumbling, Shatner-esque portrayal by an utterly lost Jack Gwaltney. Suffering like the rest from a lack of direction, Marco Greco's Diego Rivera blusters through scene after interminable scene like a John Belushi character searching for a funny line. Only the young Cuban revolutionary whom Tina takes up with later on (played, again, by Paris) evinces the slightest bit of chemistry with our heroine, making their brief Act II bedroom scene one of the very few bright moments in a long, dull evening.
I wasn't sure whom I felt sorrier for, myself or the actors forced to deliver the painfully stilted dialogue through which the playwright insists on telling, not showing, this inherently interesting story. And with all that, we don't even get a good history lesson, as the script fails to provide enough of the context that a historical piece like this needs. The large projections of Modotti's bluntly beautiful photographs and Rivera's famous agitprop murals give a sense of what was at stake artistically and how socialist idealism fed the art of these passionate, creative minds. But the stills, alas, have a good deal more vibrancy to them than most of what happens on stage.
Though Ms. Reiner starts off well, smoldering through the first scene, that bit of life is all too quickly extinguished amid the dry, amateurish exposition that follows. No Italian accent, no charismatic sexiness, no acting skills could be enough to give her a chance of salvaging this poorly conceived and poorly executed play.
Modotti runs at the Acorn at Theatre Row through July 3.
Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): Modotti by Wendy Beckett” on Blogcritics.
The string quintet version of the chamber group behind The Dido Project made its Brooklyn debut last night with a flourish. Bassist Louis Levitt worried aloud whether the group was "cool enough" to play Brooklyn, but these young boundary-challenging musicians' lack of hipster attitude is as refreshing as their playing is acute.
With technique that approached impeccable, the five members of Sybarite5 showed off their love and mastery of a variety of 20th century music (and beyond), from Barber and Piazzolla to Led Zeppelin and Radiohead. The best moments, though, came in the new works crafted specifically for this type of group. Jazzy percussiveness met minimalism in Piotr Szewczyk's "The Rebel" to start things off; then the evening really took off with a piece written for the ensemble, "Black Bend" by Dan Visconti. It started modernistically, showing off violinist Sarah Whitney's ability to draw emotion out of squeaks and clawing sounds, then morphed into a blues shuffle underlying coruscating near-chaos punctuated with dabs of humor. This was one of a number of passages during the concert in which the quintet pulled from its strings the coming-from-everywhere sound of a larger group.
Thomas Osborne's "Furioso: Vendetta for String Quintet" had a very different feel but a similar aliveness. Frantic, syncopated sixteenth-note stretches and chromatic frenzies were relieved by brief lyrical passages. A miasma of dissonant tone clusters slowed to a contemplative hum; then the piece built back up to a reprise of the opening gallop before lapsing back for an unexpectedly somber ending. Really good stuff.
As for the familiar pieces: Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" become one of the 20th century's greatest hits for good reason—its dark, wrenching beauty—but by the same token it tends to be overplayed. Sybarite5 made a good case for its continued inclusion in the concert repertoire, turning off the microphones and playing a rich, thoughtful rendition built around cellist Laura Metcalf's sensitive, melodic touch. Continuing to survey the last century's greatest hits from various genres, they ventured a dense, energetic and finally delightful arrangement of Dave Brubeck's equally overplayed "Blue Rondo a la Turk," and a multi-layered version of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."
The harmonically complex, suite-like "Stairway" lends itself well to the "classical" treatment, but not all rock is equal. Zeppelin's riff-based "Heartbreaker" seemed gimmicky by contrast, despite Whitney's vivacious reproduction of Jimmy Page's famous out-of-time solo.
The group has also devoted a good deal of energy to its Radiohead project. Last night they played three selections by the experimental rockers, arranged smartly by Paul Sanho Kim. Some of this music, though, is too repetitious and self-consciously cerebral to really succeed at this level; dependent as they are on atmosphere, Radiohead's songs are difficult to make effective out of context. "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box" was fun, though, with the musicians evoking the rhythms of the original through tapping on strings with spoons and other unorthodox techniques.
Sami Merdinian, the group's other violinist, hails from Argentina, and appropriately enough he led them in two crowd-pleasing Ástor Piazzolla tangos, one slow and one sprightly. Both swung heartily and showcased the ensemble's rich tones and impressively synchronized playing.
If you're looking for a worthy successor to the Kronos Quartet as a small string ensemble pushing the envelope of concert music, count this exciting gang of five as one excellent candidate.
Originally published as “Sybarite5 at Galapagos Art Space, Brooklyn NY” on Blogcritics.
Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown: A Folk Opera
There's a good measure of well-made, melodic creep-folk on this concept album, and the alternately sprightly and moody production by Todd Sickafoose shows it to advantage. But the concept is stretched too thin; there's not enough here to justify the production's length of nearly an hour (at least not on disc; it's based on a live show which no doubt benefitted from visuals).
With the sturdy help of guests like Ani DiFranco, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, and the fiesty Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem (along with the painfully tired-sounding Greg Brown, who is less effective), Mitchell winds her way through a retelling of the Orpheus myth, and the album is worth getting hold of for its best numbers, which are very good indeed, like "Wedding Song," "Way Down Hadestown," the irresistible "When the Chips Are Down," and the intense "Why We Build the Wall," in which Brown's weathered voice is nicely balanced by glowing group response vocals.
Kate Tucker, White Horses
Kate Tucker's airy vocals drift on warm beds of arpeggiated guitars and gently throbbing organ, all with plenty of reverb. With a touch of the prettified honesty of Sara McLachlan, a measure of the insistent glitter of Blondie, a tiny touch of twang, and a backbone of plainspoken, often drony mid-tempo songs, this is a nice disc for a hazy summer evening. There's nothing original here, but it has what's more important: a soulful sincerity that melds just right with its pensive sound.
Mark Bates, Down the Narrow
Call it Americana for lack of a better word; what Mark Bates makes is slow-rolling, emotional, but light-footed roots music a la The Band. The spare, tight arrangements keep the focus where it belongs: on Bates' gripping songs, from the easy piano-pop of "Clean Through" and the jaunty Dixieland shuffle of "Death Sucks" to the ghostly sigh of "Go On" and the weary cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Flyin' Shoes."
The keening minor-key wail of "Forbidden Love" contrasts with the funny blues of "Daisy": "We got a son, his name is Neville / He's got red hair, looks like the Devil / He's rotten to the core, how can you blame him / His mother's a whore." (Trust me, it's funny, not bitter.) The intense "Forbidden Love" and the aching "A Drunkard's Holiday" are two more highlights.
The humorous situations of some of the songs, like "Daisy," perk up the slow overall pace. I highly recommend this disc for those who appreciate good songs and don't need to be hit over the head with loud hammers and frantic tempos.
Butch Walker & the Black Widows, I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart
Hearing a few tracks off this disc is what got me to go to Butch Walker's recent show at Webster Hall. (Well, to be honest, so did his straight-up, excellent cover of Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me," which is not included, but which you can hear here.) Now, listening the whole disc, I am not disappointed. Walker has assimilated just about every kind of rock, pop, and roots music into his repertoire of original, accessible, perfectly constructed tunes. The album is a joyous celebration of music—the craft of making it, and the somatic, emotional, and cultural connections that come of doing it really well.
Originally published as “Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Mitchell, Tucker, Bates, Walker” on Blogcritics.
Excuse me, but…Sarah Jane Everman? Not Kristin Chenoweth? That's right, the understudy was filling in for the star at the performance I saw. Chenoweth didn't receive the greatest reviews for this production, and now, having seen the show, I can understand why: the role of Fran Kubelik simply isn't the kind of dazzling one that best plays to her "LOOK-AT-ME!!!" strengths. But this thoroughly enjoyable revival doesn't need her.
The sweet-voiced and comically gifted Everman filled in quite ably. But really the show belongs to its main character, Chuck, played with elastic vivacity by the brilliant Sean Hayes, who though best known for TV's Will and Grace turns out to have boundless stage energy and a very nice singing voice to boot. And a big chunk of the second act is blown up to bursting by the hilarious Katie Finneran as Marge MacDougall, the inebriated sexpot Chuck meets in a bar after things have really spiraled down for him.
With Burt Bacharach's spirited, lightly eccentric music, lyrics by Hal David, and Neil Simon's smart book, the show is based on the 1960 film The Apartment. Chuck, a hapless but vaguely ambitious accountant, climbs the corporate ladder by allowing the married, middle-aged executives at his company to use his bachelor pad for illicit trysts. He's good-hearted but severely flawed, which is what gives the show much of its bite. The production manages to be both supremely cynical and humorously high-stepping, with a happy ending that only slightly relieves the story's sour attitude towards love and especially marriage.
The show was first staged over 40 years ago, and director-choreographer Rob Ashford has left many anachronisms intact: "Good thing I have 'hospitalization,'" says Chuck's neighbor, the old GP Dr. Dreyfuss (played with easy charm by veteran Dick Latessa). But it resonates almost as much with the recent, dystopian Adding Machine as with the Go-Go Era's glittery sheen. Without any great depth of emotion, the story mostly keeps us at arm's length, but the production compensates with witty dialogue, engaging music, fabulous choreography, and magnificent production values. I haven't seen such impressive moving sets since my last visit to the Metropolitan Opera: a huge, Christmas-decorated spiral staircase appears seemingly out of nowhere; a fully stocked bar, an elevator, Chuck's cozy apartment, various offices, all rotate smoothly in and out. Hayes' funny business with a piece of too-modern-for-its-own-good furniture and the opening number's office-chair dance extravaganza are just a couple of the show's physical highlights.
Because the part of Fran is relatively small, a couple of numbers were added for the revival to give Chenoweth more spotlight time, including the Bacharach-David hit "I Say a Little Prayer." Though sweetly staged, it feels shoehorned in. "A House is Not a Home" works better, reflecting the psychic homelessness that afflicts both Chuck and Fran. (Fans of TV's Glee heard Chenoweth dueting the song with Matthew Morrison a couple of weeks ago.)
But what you'll probably exit singing is "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," which was part of the original score. Prior to seeing the show I could have easily done without ever hearing that song again, it was so overplayed during my childhood. But it's a fitting, tuneful sum-up of this big, rather acidic show. With or without Kristin Chenoweth, Promises, Promises at the Broadway Theatre is a winner.
Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): Promises, Promises with Sean Hayes and Sarah Jane Everman” on Blogcritics.
Now available at Blogcritics for your reading pleasure! Start with Part 1 and follow the links, or navigate below.
The Bourtzi Fortress in Nafplio
Part 1 and Part 2 of my series “Two Weeks in Greece” about our recent trip are available for your reading pleasure over at Blogcritics, along with a review of a Butch Walker concert (and I don’t go to too many rock concerts any more, so get it while it’s hot).
The Stoa of Attalos at the Ancient Agora, Athens. Photo by me.