Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Nackman, English, Means, Handcuffs, Soul Summit

Alex Nackman, Still Life Moves

It took me a while, but I finally thought of who Alex Nackman reminds me of: Peter Frampton. That dates me, of course, as does the fact that Don Henley's solo albums from the 80s came to mind when I listen to Nackman's more keyboard-dominated songs. But on a fundamental level, nothing much really changes in pop music – it's always about writing good songs and putting them across effectively, and Nackman does both, with slightly hoarse yet airy, friendly tones. Though his pop is shiny, there's a rootsy element to songs like "Banking on November," coming mostly from his lead guitar lines. But the dominant feel is shimmery, ideal for his hooky and well-crafted songs. The best of them are in the first half of the CD. "Wait For Me," "A Letter," and "Memento" are all superior, with the last resting on a modern thumping beat; "Banking On November" is a solid if obvious piano ballad, and more good ballads follow. The disc's later songs are less special, but taken as a whole there's a lot of really good work here – definitely worth checking out.

Aaron English, The Marriage of the Sun and the Moon

A rootsy thrum and psychedelic overtones animate Aaron English's progressive pop. There's a noticeable influence of classic big-thinking artists like the Police (and solo-artist Sting), Peter Gabriel, Crowded House, Led Zeppelin, and even (if you get right back to it) the Beatles, with a lot of "world beat" mixed in. As in all good pop, the best of these songs are full of hooks – some of them quite unusual, like the monotonous, growled chorus in "Like Smoke" and the multi-voiced bridge of "Anywhere-End-Up Street."

"Thin Ice," "Crossing the Desert, Crossing the Sea," and the title track are good examples of English's ability to construct ear-catching music and deliver it with feeling and style. His more contemplative songs, while less obviously memorable, create intriguing atmospheres. And he relieves the overall seriousness with a lighter touch just often enough, as in the sad-but-bubbly "God Bless You and Your Man." As a singer, English is not stupendous, but he's good enough, and the music on this disc is consistently fine. Listen at the website.

Steve Means, Rescue Me

Refreshing funk and soul grooves animate Steve Means's debut 7-song disc. His vocals have an unthreatening mildness, and yes, that's a nice way of saying they're on the weak side, but small, drippy vocals don't stop the plethora of limp-voiced African-American male singers in the R&B world, so why should we penalize a white singer for not being a belter? Means's voice is pleasing enough, and the chunky grooves and earthy, organ-fueled arrangements are the big attraction here anyway. He departs from the formula a little bit with the smooth pop of "Calm Down," though Benjamin Blake's solid bass still lays down the funk. "Woman Without a Name" is a dramatic and sweet jazz-waltz number that builds to a dense climax. Fans of John Mayer and Marc Broussard will probably dig this CD, as will Dave Matthews partisans and anyone to whom the term "soul-brewed pop," which Means uses for his music, strikes a chord.

The Handcuffs, Model for a Revolution

Here is some superfun new-new-wave girl-fronted rock from a Chicago duo that's gotten a heap of TV placements for its music and it's obvious why – they've got great songs that sound so, so hip despite dipping into the past. 70's hard-rock guitar, 80's new wave machine language, 90's dance-rock (think Elastica), and 00's pop crunch combine into a sound that's appealing and familiar but distinct and very, very catchy. I especially like The Handcuffs' more unexpected moments, like the melodic blast in the chorus of "All Shine On"; the mixture of guitar riffage and edgy girl-group style anthemizing on "Mickey 66"; and the super-simple form of "Sex and Violins." Even the less remarkable songs like "Peggy Moffitt" and "Don't Be Afraid" are glossy and fun. A few formulaic filler songs towards the end won't get in the way of one's overall enjoyment of this twelve-song CD. Highly recommended.

Various Artists, Soul Summit

Keyboardist Jason Miles got together a group of top musicians and singers to record this live session of great old soul tunes with full-on brassed-up arrangements. Steve Ferrone on drums and the Funk Brothers' Bob Babbitt on bass are just the foundation of the band's funky sounds. Jazz singer Maysa, blueswoman Susan Tedeschi, and Mike Mattison of the Derek Trucks Band share lead vocal duties. All the vocals are a little tamer than I might have expected, but on the whole it's a solid, if not amazing, set. "Shotgun," "What a Man," and "It's Raining" are among the highlights. Miles's own two tunes are plain-vanilla funk jams, and the James Brown medley, maybe not surprisingly, is less inspired than the rest – it just seems to be trying too hard. But Miles's arranging skills are sharp, and his taste in covers is excellent, with not one but two Dan Penn compositions. The man knows his soul music.

Round-Up Update: Back in July 2007 I praised singer-songwriter Tim Mahoney's "ear-tickling, wiry but honeyed pop rooted in McCartney and Squeeze" but wondered whether there were opportunities anymore for people to hear such great new indie pop. Well, it turns out he's become a veritable poster boy for the new era of music promotion. First, the retail chain Target selected his album for its Emerging Artists Program, displaying it on the endcaps of 500 stores in the Midwest. Then he won a contest called "Never Hide," sponsored by Ray-Ban, netting a two-page spread in Rolling Stone's 40th Anniversary special.

(And believe it or not, although I personally haven't laid eyes on a copy in years, I am informed by none other than NPR that people still read Rolling Stone. Unfortunately I can't provide a link to the NPR story – which was mostly about the alt-country magazine No Depression shutting down – because the NPR website is locking me out.)

To top it off, Mahoney has just won the pop category of the Durango Song Expo's "Write With a Hit-Maker" contest. Now, personally, I am too jaded and disgusted with the state of pop music to put any stock in songwriting contests – they almost never pick winners that seem worthy to me. But in this case, Durango obviously has. It's gratifying to see my opinions concurred with by some folks who can really do something to boost a talented artist's career besides writing some nice words. It doesn't happen often enough. Congrats to Tim Mahoney.

Book Review: Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems by John Ashbery

Over a long and fruitful career John Ashbery has proven what many wouldn't have dared suggest: it is possible for a poet to work in abstractions and also maintain a distinct and resonant voice. Just as an art aficionado knows a Pollock or a Rothko without being told, so does a reader of poetry know an Ashbery without needing to see the name on the cover – or, for that matter, understanding what the poem is about.

"About" is the wrong word anyway. This volume of selected poems (and prose poems) from the nine books Ashbery has published over the past two decades shows that age certainly hasn't slowed this octogenarian's pen; rather, time has broadened his palette, expanding the acreage of his peculiar subject matter. "Of" is a better word than "about" – "of" as in "made of."

What is a poem like "Finnish Rhapsody" made of? In this instance the answer is easy – it's made of two-phrased lines in which the second phrase restates the first.

Don't fix it if it works, tinker not with that which runs apace,
Otherwise the wind might get it, the breeze waft it away.
There is no time for anything like chance, no spare moment for the aleatory,
Because the closing of our day is business, the bottom line already here.

Another "easy" one is "Hotel Lautréamont," which is written in an obscure form called a pantoum, where lines repeat at specific intervals from stanza to stanza. These exceptions still go to prove the rule of Ashberian uniqueness. Their playful tricks suggest the fecund phraseology of ancient epic poetry without taking any specific epic form. We scent a dialogue with Shakespeare, a reflection of ee cummings, a Yeatsian echo, but each poem is never anything less than an Ashbery, though some may be said to be more distinguished than others.

"Offshore Breeze" demonstrates the poet's method succinctly. The first and second stanzas talk of an "I" and a "you" and some things, but no "he." Yet here is the third and final stanza:

What happens is you get the unreconstructed story,
An offshore breeze pushing one gently away,
Not far away. And the leggings of those meeting to
See about it are a sunset,
Brilliant and disordered, and sharp
As a word held in the mouth too long.
And he spat out the pit.

In that sharp last line, and not until then, perspective and metaphor are twisted into a completely new direction. It's startling and moving, without being "about." As Alan Brown put it in the Sunday Times, "Ashbery is still exuberantly dedicated to the truthful rendering of experience as a flow of sensations that defy interpretation."

"The Big Cloud," an exceptionally beautiful lyric that's also from 1987's April Galleons, seems at first to be "about" something. "For ages man has labored to put his dreams in order. Look at the result. / Once an idea like the correct time has been elucidated / It must fade or spread…" Yes, that feels true, philosophically at least. But as the poem delves deeper into the idea, abstractions pile up – "Last words are uttered, and first love / Ascends to its truly majestic position unimpaired." And then, in the final stanza, concrete images elucidate particular lives – "Letters were strewn across the floor, / Singing the joyful song of how no one was ever going to read them." As happens repeatedly in Ashbery's work, objects and ideas take on flesh and personality. The poem ends elegaically:

It was existence again in all its tautness,
Playing its adolescent joke, its pictures
Teasing our notion of fragility with their monumental permanence.
But life was never the same again. Something faltered,
Something went away.

That's about as sentimental as Ashbery gets. Contrast the above with the opening of the title poem, from 1992: "A yak is a prehistoric cabbage: of that, at least, we may be sure." This immediately undercuts any sense of groundedness we may have brought to our reading of the poem. "Still Life with Stranger," from the same volume, ends: "The whole cast of characters is imaginary / now, but up ahead, in shadow, the past waits." This boldly states what is usually unsaid: that these words are not meant as a direct reflection of any reality. A later poem, "The Green Mummies," begins with another perfect example: "Avuncular and teeming, the kind luggage / hosed down the original site."

Always playing, Ashbery writes inexplicable sentences in utterly graceful English. We extract meaning from them a little like we abstract it from music or sculpture. He presents facts and interpretations in tones of great seriousness, but with the subjects drained out. And somehow he makes this weird narrative flow work over the long haul, even through some very lengthy poems. The title poem of 1994's And the Stars Were Shining is like a short story or a movie set in an alien yet familiar universe. The narrator leaps through hoops of images, then pauses to reflect on the creative spirit:

…Some people have an idea a day,
others millions, still others are condemned
to spend their life inside an idea, like a
bubble chamber.

And in the final section comes close to stating a philosophy of art: "It's as though we've come refreshed / from another planet, and spied immediately what was lacking in this one: / an orange, fresh linens, ink, a pen." "The Problem of Anxiety," from 1995's Can You Hear, Bird, asks, "Suppose this poem were about you–would you / put in the things I've carefully left out: / descriptions of pain, and sex, and how shiftily / people behave toward each other?"

Sometimes when Ashbery starts to make too much sense, his poems lose force, as in some of the selections from Can You Hear, Bird. "…By an Earthquake" breaks out of this tendency with its playful form, a series of disconnected vignettes like these: "Albert has a dream, or an unusual experience, psychic or otherwise, which enables him to conquer a serious character weakness and become successful in his new narrative, 'Boris Karloff,'" and "Too many passengers have piled onto a cable car in San Francisco; the conductor is obliged to push some of them off." And the long poem "Tuesday Evening" is made of sometimes Shakespearean rhyming quatrains: "…It's getting late; the pageant / oozes forward, act four is yet to come, and so is dusk." The dada-esque prose poem "The Bobinski Brother," from Your Name Here (2000), could hardly be more different. "'Her name is Liz, and I need her in my biz,' I hummed wantonly. A band of clouds all slanted in the same direction drifted across the hairline horizon like a tribe of adults and children, all hastening toward some unknown destination." And so on.

The visual asserts its importance with the book-length poem "Girls on the Run," inscribed "after Henry Darger," the reclusive folk artist. "…The droplets made diagonal streaks in the air / where pterodactyls had been." But in the final volume represented here, 2005's Where Shall I Wander, Ashbery seems to be looking at politics and war, though, as always, in a skewed way. The prose poem "Heavy Home" closes: "For the time being the disputed enclave is yours. But its cadence is elsewhere." Finally, the short poem "Annuals and Perennials" begins with a discussion of "…this America, home of the free, / colored ashes smeared on the base / or pedestal that flourishes ways of doubting / to be graceful…" and ends with this devastating one-line stanza:

"We have shapes but no power."

By contrast, Ashbery's poems – certainly the best of them, as selected in this volume – come in many shapes, and bear masses of cutting, jostling power.

Audubon’s Aviary: Portraits of Endangered Species at the New-York Historical Society

The New-York Historical Society owns all of the 435 original watercolors from which the aquatint engravings in John James Audubon’s Birds of America were made. Being fragile and sensitive to light, the watercolors cannot be shown for extended periods. However, the museum is currently displaying about 40 of these magnificent artworks through March 16, and they are well worth the museum’s $10 admission. (Incidentally, that’s half the price of what many of NYC’s great cultural institutions charge, and you’ll notice it’s even less than a movie ticket.)

Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), ca. 1825

Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), ca. 1825
Havell plate no. 26.
Watercolor, graphite, pastel, gouache, and black ink with scratching out and selective glazing on paper, laid on thin board.

The exhibit also includes the museum’s copy of the full-size Birds of America on a specially designed display cabinet. Though these iconic pictures are to some extent familiar to most of us, only by seeing the hugeness of the book can you appreciate the impact they originally made. (No flipping pages, though – it’s under glass.) Samples of the popular, much smaller quarto edition are also shown.

The exhibit also pairs some of the drawings with recorded songs of the depicted birds. And finally, there’s a nice gilt-framed video display on what looks like one of those led screens of a selection of the images juxtaposed with video of the same birds in nature – a marvelous way to appreciate Audubon’s achievement.

A poignant aspect of the show is that some of the birds in the paintings, like the passenger pigeon, are extinct. Many others are threatened. The descriptions also note some “success stories,” birds whose populations have rebounded after being drastically reduced.

The only downside of the show is that because of the low light in the display room, it’s difficult for aged, floater-occluded mammalian eyes to read the placards. I have this problem in all museums, but it was especially difficult at this exhibit.

Really getting my $10 worth, I also saw the museum’s small but densely packed exhibit about the Marquis de Lafayette’s triumphant 1824-1825 visit to the United States – a country he had helped birth the previous century, when he was only in his 20s. Objects on display included Lafayette’s copy of the Declaration of Independence, letters from him to George Washington, and this carriage, which was used to ferry him from town to town in New England in 1825.

Carriage that Transported Lafayette in 1825

The N-YHS’s more permanent displays include many iconic paintings, including Thomas Cole’s spectacular “The Course of Empire” series, as well as sculpture, silver, porcelain, and a lot more. Finally, the museum is also running a 9-11 exhibit, which includes some pieces of wreckage, interesting to look at. But I didn’t spend any time at the 9-11 photography and video displays – this is still too raw for me even after six and a half years. It’s a livid memory, not a matter of history. I would, however, recommend the exhibit for out of town visitors.

On the way home I snapped this shot of some gulls flying around Central Park. This past Friday, we had the only significant snowfall of the year so far. It looked especially nice in the park.

Central Park Gulls

Music DVD Review: Fairport Convention: Maidstone 1970

Being the only known filmed footage of Fairport Convention's Full House lineup, this release is a bit more than a mere curiosity. However, its brevity and modest sound quality make it a must-have only for the most diehard of the band's fans.

With Sandy Denny out of the band, Fairport Convention in June 1970 consisted of Dave Swarbrick and a pre-facial hair Richard Thompson, with Dave Pegg on bass and mandolin, Dave Mattacks on drums, and Simon Nicol on rhythm guitar. The most famous, successful, and lasting band of the British folk-rock movement, the Convention was almost as well known for its shifting lineup as for its music.

The performances at this event are excellent, especially the multipart harmony vocals. But of the seven songs, only five are actually by Fairport; in the middle of the sequence are two songs by Matthews Southern Comfort, led by ex-Fairporter Iain Matthews. This band, one of many Matthews projects, would later record a hit version of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," but is otherwise mostly forgotten.

The total running time of the concert footage is only half an hour. From Fairport we get a jig and reel medley, followed by "Sir Patrick Spens" and "Now Be Thankful." Then Matthews Southern Comfort steps up with two disappointingly boring numbers. Fairport returns with "Flatback Caper" and "Jenny's Chickens & The Mason's Apron."

Besides the concert footage, there is one extra feature: a fifteen-minute interview with filmmaker Tony Palmer, who relates some background and trivia on how this film came to be made. Though the sound has been remastered, it's certainly not high fidelity. In fact, the shots of the crowd are probably more interesting than those of the band, although all of it is filmed and edited artfully.

The Maidstone Fiesta was truly, as Palmer describes it, a "family day out." Happy hippies dance to the faster tunes, but much of the audience consists of families with children. Watching the kids play, the hippies wander in and out of the woods, and the "normal" folks squint at the band is entertaining. You really get a flavor for how people looked, dressed, and interacted on a hot summer day in Kent in 1970.

Interrupting the set is a little Army helicopter show. Shades of "Puppet Show and Spinal Tap"? Not quite – Fairport was highly popular at the time – but it's funny anyway. Overall, it's an interesting set, but necessary only for huge Fairport Convention fans and completists; a minor addition to the historical record of the British folk-pop movement.

Music Review: Idina Menzel – I Stand

It sounded intriguing: bring together a mega-talented Broadway star and a mega-talented studio/songwriting wizard to record an album of original music. Idina Menzel, a star of Rent and Wicked (and recently seen on screen in Enchanted), is one of very few Broadway stars of relatively recent vintage to have made the leap beyond Broadway into the wider culture. Producer extraordinaire and songwriter Glen Ballard, the genius other half of the Alanis Morrissette phenomenon of the 1990s, has more recently worked with rock and pop royalty ranging from the Goo Goo Dolls and Shakira to Dave Matthews and Annie Lennox.

As an admirer of both artists, I really wanted to like this CD. Unfortunately, the best that I can say about it is that it's produced and arranged really well. Adult contemporary pop is rarely a nursery for originality, so I wasn't expecting anything world-changing or socks-knocking-off. But given Ballard's heavy participation – he co-wrote many of the songs with Menzel – I was hoping for at least a few good tunes. The closing ballad, "Perfume and Promises," is nice. The title track and "Gorgeous" have halfway decent hooks. That's as good as it gets. The songs are so drowned in cliche that "uninspired" seems a kind way to put it. As an album, it's listenable, but only because of the pretty soundscapes.

All Menzel's vocal passion and fireworks and Ballard's studio wizardry can't polish bad, half-hearted, Disneyesque material into something truly shiny. As with Disney's latest Broadway shows, though, this is probably one of those situations where critical reviews mean little. Judging from most of the listener reaction at, Menzel's fans are out in force, and they love whatever she does.

I can't help it, though. I feel strongly about this. I could walk out onto the street with my eyes closed and in four seconds trip over a songwriter who could write better pop songs than these for Idina Menzel (or any singer). Hugely successful creative artists like Ballard seem to often lose perspective amid all the plaudits and awards, and start to believe that whatever they do is brilliant. And no one's willing to listen objectively and say the emperor has no clothes.

Maybe a star like Menzel, not yet a mature songwriter, needs a collaborator who's hungry to succeed. With the exception of that good ballad at the end, Idina Menzel hasn't been well served here on her first project as a singer-songwriter.

Theater Review (Brooklyn, NY): Macbeth with Patrick Stewart

I used to say Patrick Stewart was responsible for one of the great theater experiences of my life. Now I have to say TV's Captain Picard was behind two of them.

In Stewart's solo version of A Christmas Carol, which he performed on Broadway for several winters during the 1990s, there was only one man on stage telling/enacting the classic Dickens tale. But the production didn't shout "tour de force" or feel tricky in any way. He made our experience of the story warm, enthralling, and genuinely wonderful.

The contrast between that touching and generous performance and his current role shows that for a man with such an unmistakable voice, Stewart has a large range. But before I get to the Scottish Play, a further word about the actor. American critics often describe him as best known in the US for his Star Trek character. That's true in one sense, but in another it's not. Star Trek fans are notoriously geeky, which, by definition, means intensely curious about the object of their geekdom. I'd wager the great majority of them know as much about the shows' stars as they do about the warp drive. Any self-respecting Trekker knows William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy are both Jewish, Majel Barrett was Gene Roddenberry's wife, and Patrick Stewart had a respected career as a Shakespearean actor in England, to which he returned after the long run of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The sexagenarian actor has expressed regret that he's now too old ever to play Hamlet. It's safe to say it doesn't matter, though, now that we have his Macbeth. In the vicious Scottish king, the actor finds a deathly torment of indecision, though it's more compressed in time than the Dane's. Once the murders have commenced, fate grabs the Macbeths by their bloody shirts, and there's nothing they can do about what they do, besides wail and gnash their teeth.

Rupert Goold's ambitious Chichester Festival Theatre production, in residence at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through March 22, is one of the great Macbeths of our time, and if it's not the greatest in recent memory I'd be amazed. Stewart and the extraordinarily intense Kate Fleetwood (Lady Macbeth) lead a uniformly excellent ensemble. And speaking of uniforms, the fascist/Stalinist setting isn't the first for this play, but it works well. Macbeth is, after all, about terror and totalitarianism. This aspect of the production also comments, without having to make a point of it, on the second Bush Administration's disastrous power grab.

What's more striking, in terms of modernity, is the heavy use of rear-projection video and loud sound effects. These are well integrated, and so effective in adding to the impact that one feels Shakespeare would have approved wholeheartedly.

Everything great theater can be and do, this production is and does. It has absolutely top-notch acting, of course, but also flair and humor and bonechilling thrills. I was sure they'd found some tricky way to suddenly and drastically lower the temperature in the theater as the terrifying image of Banquo's ghost ended the first half. In one of many inventive bits of staging, the Weird Sisters aren't outdoor hags but creepy hospital nurses, and the ghastly way they give Macbeth their second set of predictions really shocks. In another, MacDuff's family is murdered in a stunning stop-motion sequence.

Yet some of the play's most iconic scenes, like Lady Macbeth's guilt-wracked sleepwalk and Macbeth's "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech, are played beautifully straight. With the possible exception of a few specific video images, all the effects seem integral and necessary, part of a complete and consistent and totally captivating vision of the play. This Macbeth is a theatrical spectacle in the true, best sense.

Theater Review (NYC): The Play About the Naked Guy

David Bell’s breezy, witty, colorful comedy The Play About the Naked Guy cleverly sends up Off- and Off-Off-Broadway and takes a hilarious poke at the gay nightclub scene as well. If that leads you to imagine a lot of in-jokes and self-referential gags, you’re right, but don’t let that deter you from seeing this delicious confection. Gay or straight, backstage insider or casual playgoer, you’ll come out in a jolly mood.

The one-liners and flashy bits zip rapidly by, but if you miss one, six even better ones are on the way.

Eddie: Pleasure doing business with you, Mrs. Anderson.

Mrs. Anderson: Those were my husband’s final words.

The plot may be a little Swiss Cheesy, but no matter. The Integrity Players are in dire straits: down to three company members, they can’t draw an audience to their “lesser known classics,” but Artistic Director Dan (Jason Schuchman) refuses to compromise his principles and do anything more commercial. nakedguy3He and his wife Amanda (Stacy Mayer) have a baby on the way and no money to raise it, unless they give up their artistic dream and cave in to Amanda’s overbearing mother (the hilariously regal Ellen Reilly), who’s about to withdraw her funding of the failing company.

Harold (Wayne Henry), Integrity’s third remaining member, is an actor with great talent but a sad personal life. His loneliness leads him to a club where he meets the Bialystock-like Eddie Russini (Christopher Borg), a producer who’s grown rich on gimmicky, gay-themed stage shows like “Naked Boys Running Around Naked”. nakedguy1 With his two preening minions in tow (the screechingly funny Christopher Sloan and Chad Austin), and a haughty porn star like the ones you sometimes see on (Dan Amboyer) ready to take the lead role that would otherwise have been Harold’s, Eddie may just be the struggling Integrity Players’ saviour – but at what cost?

Kit: I have a new master! And his name is Uta Hagen!

With a lot of help from director Tom Wojtunik and a fine cast and crew, Bell has created an entertainment that’s sweet-natured and smart, very funny with just the needed touches of touchingness. He plays each of his plot strands fully through – the coming out story (as is sometimes seen in raunchier fashion on, the love elements, the character development – even as he mocks his characters, the crass and the pretentious alike. Sometimes Bell seemed to be reading my critic’s mind; his spoof of small theater companies’ invariably vapid mission statements is priceless.

Insider references aside, The Play About the Naked Guy is a show for all of us – all of us grown-ups, anyway. Might want to leave the little ‘uns at home for this one.

Presented by the Emerging Artists Theater at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, which ably plays itself in this production, in repertory through March 2. Buy tickets online or call (866) 811-4111.

Straight Talk about the Death Penalty

If only all Americans, including our elected representatives and our justices, thought like Justice William Connolly of the Nebraska Supreme Court. Writing for a 6-1 majority in a death penalty appeal that claimed execution by electric chair to be “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore unconstitutional, Justice Connolly wrote:

We recognize the temptation to make the prisoner suffer, just as the prisoner made an innocent victim suffer. But it is the hallmark of a civilized society that we punish cruelty without practicing it. Condemned prisoners must not be tortured to death, regardless of their crimes.

“Punish cruelty without practicing it.” Seems like that ought to be a pretty self-evident truth. But a lot of people – including a lot of people in power – aren’t interested in a civilized society. Or else their definition of a civilized society isn’t the same as mine, or Justice Connolly’s. In my civilized society, we don’t torture, whether we’re interrogating or executing. Whether the death penalty in any form is “cruel and unusual” is another question. But you only have to watch an electrocution to know that while it may be relatively quick (assuming all goes well), it’s a form of torture and shouldn’t be used. I hope the strong majority in this 6-1 decision resonates beyond Nebraska.

Rivington House

The other day I played with The Kings County Blues Band for a roomful of AIDS patients at Rivington House, a long-term care facility in downtown Manhattan. The residents were very appreciative of the live music, and the cheerful staff and volunteers seemed to have an impressive ability to turn what is essentially a hospital into a not so gloomy place for people who are suffering badly from AIDS to get the care they need. The website also lists volunteering opportunities.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – No Girls Allowed Edition

No ladies need apply to this edition of the Indie Round-Up – it's all guys, all the time.

Steve Northeast, Inside

Steve Northeast crafts energetic and emotional hard rock songs loaded with raspy guitars and cataclysmic rhythms. He puts a lot of emotion into the songs, and that, together with the deep engagement with what's going on the world, means that at times he risks overwhelming the production's generous musicality – and the excellent guitar work – with lyrics that bend towards earnest cliche. But at their best, the songs evoke the David Bowie of Heroes and the Soundgarden of the '90s. Favorites: "The Way It Is," "Out of Here," and the power ballad "Phoenix."

Listen at the website.

Jann Klose, Reverie

Jann Klose makes complex but accessible chamber pop with intelligent lyrics and contagious rhythms. Songs like "Doing Time" and "Clouds" have a European and sometimes Beatlesque sensibility. (It doesn't hurt that Klose's voice sounds a bit like Paul McCartney's.) The German-born, South African-raised singer-songwriter, now based in the Bronx, has been a theatrical performer, and he has a fine feel for how to arrange his songs with "stageworthy" effectiveness, easily slipping in horns, strings, reeds, and more unusual instruments. The touch is light; a song like "All These Rivers" may remind you of some of Sting's solo work, while the gentle "Remember Your Name" could have come out of southern California in the 1970s. Overall, a sweet salve for troubled times. Listen or buy.

The Alternate Routes, The Brooklawn Session

This disc is an acoustic re-recording of The Alternate Routes' superb debut album Good and Reckless and True, with the same eleven songs in a different order. At the moment, it's available only at concerts, and since the band is between tours right now, you'll have to borrow mine if you want it. (Low hourly rates!) You can, however, hear a couple of the tracks at their Myspace page. The disc has a sort of distant, ghostly, furry-wall-of-sound quality, very pleasing if you're in a coffeehouse mood yet want to hear good songs that aren't self-indulgent like a lot of acoustic singer-songwriter fare. Why am I writing about it if you can't buy it? Because it's another opportunity to tell you that you should really check out this Bridgeport, Connecticut band. Go out of your way if you have to; take an alternate route.

This Holiday Life, The Beginning of the End of the World

I sympathize with new bands trying to establish an identity; a band's name is quite important, but all the good ones, it seems, have been taken. Still, This Holiday Life could have tried a little harder.

Fortunately, the abbreviation THL seems to have been available – in any case, they're using it, and it flows off the tongue a lot better. The music, I'm happy to say, flows out of my speakers very pleasantly too.

The San Diego quartet has made a well deserved name for itself on the West Coast, with catchy songs and a modern sensibility which nevertheless nods back to the '80s new wave of Tears for Fears and Flock of Seagulls. A lot of the lyrics are abstract but there's no mistaking the meaning of "This is the end it's alright we're here together." "Undercover" is a strong earworm. "Animal" is a rubbery, surrealistic, evocative look at I don't know what, and "Oh Sister Please!" is another stretchy, hooky little gem. The slight quirkiness in the arrangements is amusing and endearing, not self-conscious. Overall, THL pops. Hear some tracks.

Theater Review (NYC): Conjur Woman: A Folk Opera

What better way to start observing Black History Month than to take in Sheila Dabney's spellbinding performance of Conjur Woman, Beatrice Manley's one-act folk opera. Backed by music performed on stage by the redoubtable Yukio Tsuji (guitar and percussion) and Jasper McGruder (harmonica and percussion), with tunes composed by the performers along with LaMama's founder, Ellen Stewart, Dabney belts out the Conjur Woman's tale of woe in a series of songs and hollers that vividly suggest the music of slavery times.

Conjur Woman turns her husband into a tree so the slave traders won't get him. Alas, she can't save him from the sawmill. That's the story in an acornshell. But what a telling. Jun Maeda's simple, beautiful set of jagged wooden walls changes color and mood from song to song (Jeff Tapper's lighting design is superb), serving as both cabin and woods. With a little bag of charms and herbs, a rope, and the passion in her rich, piercing, worldly-dark voice, Dabney takes us into the heart of darkness.

Conjur Woman
Background musicians left to right: Harry Mann on the mystical bass, Jasper McGruder, and Yukio Tsuji, backing Shelia Dabney. Photo by Brian Dilg.

The simple story roils with irony and allegory. Conjur Woman's magic is so strong it gives her power over nature itself – but only in her homeworld. Foreign gods (Christianity, modernity) render her charms inert. "God don't like that," she admits of her conjuring. But later: "God be with me in my hatred. God bring him back to me, God keep us together, God take us out of here." But even invoking the Christian God by three names (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) can't help her, and at the sawmill, the "machine ain't got feelings. Can't conjur machine."

We, however, are made to feel the full force of the conjuring. This isn't "Poof, you're a tree." Conjur Woman sings us a visceral description of how the man's body, part by part, becomes tree, and her image of his eyes still visible behind the wood, shining in silent terror as he's chopped into boards, is harrowing. This magic spell is no plot device; it's the substance and grain of the story.

Though drawn from the black experience, the music through which the tale is told – and the show as whole, staged by La Mama's Resident Director, George Ferencz – should resonate with any thinking being. The gulf between the "old ways" of wonder and nature and the new ways of technology is evident in cultures the world over. Though many centuries old, the battle is still with us, ever raging, if sometimes obscured by day-to-day life, inside our simian brains. Conjur Woman is a deep draught of wise wonder and emotional magic, with a mesmerizing central performance by the remarkable Shelia Dabney.

Through Feb. 10 at The Annex at La Mama. 66 E. 4 St., NYC. Visit Ovationtix online for tickets, or call (866) 811-4111.

Theater Review (Bronx, NY): Agnes of God

America, 1979. Ten grim syllables indeed. One sign of the Me Generation's ascendancy was the vogue for, and faith in, psychiatry as panacea. Through its many flavors and techniques, this alluring semi-science promised the self-grokking and inner peace that had become elusive amidst the brittle secularism of the age and the unfettering of the greed that we could already smell in the air.

A deeply psychological play like Agnes of God might not have been plotted to depend on a technique like hypnotism if it were written today. And Dr. Martha Livingston, the court-appointed psychiatrist tasked with determining a young, visionary nun's competency to stand trial for the murder of her newborn, might not have been written as so indulgently self-analytical.

Despite that dated aspect, the play's overall dramatic soundness makes it still effective, and its theme – faith and unbelief, the scientific vs. the miraculous – resonates strongly in this new century of militant Islam and Dawkinsian atheism. Center Stage Community Playhouse's new revival, staged in a spacious converted chapel, does well by John Pielmeier's claustrophobic, but intermittently funny, three-character play.

Agnes of God at Center Stage Community Playhouse
Ruth Chiamulera, Keri Seymour, and Pauline Walsh in Agnes of God

The story was made known to a wider audience through Norman Jewison's 1985 film version that starred Jane Fonda, Meg Tilly, and, in the meaty role of Mother Miriam Ruth, Anne Bancroft. Bancroft's seething performance, and before that, Geraldine Page's famous, Tony-nominated portrayal on Broadway, might seem tough to live up to, but the relatively unknown Pauline Walsh has a grand time with the part here, speedily banishing any famous ghosts.

The play's outward mysteries are straightforward: who fathered Sister Agnes's baby, and who killed it? But the unfolding of the old nun's own character forms a powerful parallel to the whodunit, and Walsh plays that power like a rope through her fingers, easily untangling the script's knottiness, with the able help of Ruth Chiamulera as Dr. Livingston. If, in the end, Mother Miriam is rather more, and rather less, than the kindly, worldly old nun she first appeared to be, we are grateful to have been so artfully misled.

The role of the "holy innocent" Sister Agnes is full of gristle too, and Keri Seymour bites bravely into it. Frightened out of her mind, hemmed in by the demons of her childhood, shifting from denial to release, from small and meek to towering and angry and back, Sister Agnes is simultaneously an ancient archetype – the visionary, stigmatic ascetic – and a creature of her psychologically aware times. Covered in a flowing white habit, with (like Mother Miriam) only the center of her face showing, she shocks and smolders, as does this production, thoughtfully directed by Tal Aviezer. Definitely worth the subway ride to the Bronx.

Performances are Feb. 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, and 10 at Foster Hall, 2474 Westchester Ave. in the Bronx (Westchester Square stop on the 6 train). Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, Sunday matinees at 2. General admission $18, Senior and Student $15. $2 discount on General Admission tickets for Bronx Cultural Card holders. For reservations call (718) 823-6434 or email  Caution: cigarettes are smoked on stage.