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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Offed Brass

Sometimes when you've planned a night out, things go right. When that happens and whe you're me, you worry. You'll recall that we already had tickets for Assassins. So when I was able to make reservations at Shanghai Terrace by e-mail, when M remembered to bring the ticket confirmation up from the printer, when we made it downtown in much less time than predicted by the traffic report, I was mildly concerned. When we found a parking space on the street on Superior for two bright shiny quarters, I knew we were screwed.

So there was no problem with our table, it was much more pleasant downtown and six floors or so up, so we decided to sit outside where the only downside was a woman across from me with truly dreadful, Cousin-Thomas-level table manners. A drinks waitress offered us water and champagne (which we opted against). And we waited. And waited. And waited some more. This is the very same place where they offered me a shawl a few weeks ago. I was not anticipating waiting.

While we were waiting, the other shoe was getting into a position of maximum readiness for dropping. I thought I'd just check the address of the theatre on our ticket confirmation sheet (remember the one that M independently remembered to bring up, which is the very same one that I independently remembered to put into Batz before we left). Naturally, the sheet didn't have the address. No problem, I figure, I know it's on Randolph, and it's around 70-something either East or West. We'll just look it up on Mike's phone. Which cannot find it. So I'll call information. Which cannot find it and keeps telling me about the fucking Cadillac Palace theater. But hey, we're in a fancy hotel and that's what concierges are for. So I put it out of my mind.

And finally our waiter arrived (about 20 minutes later). It was the same guy we had last time, and he seemed harried even though the place was not very crowded. Fortunately, he took our order right away and soon we had soothing drinks. I had the lobster roll as my appetizer, and although I'd originally ordered the "baked vermicelli prawn" on the grounds that it sounded appealingly weird, I wound up changing to kung pao prawn on the grounds that M was ordering chow fun noodles. M ordered this strange, chilled drunken chicken appetizer and roast duck over sausage rice.

Our delicious steamed buns arrived in timely fashion (just as I was starting to realize that I'd had nothing to eat but Johnny Depp cereal all day), but then there was another lull before the appetizers. Yum when they did, though. My roll was divided into four "fresh" pieces (spring-roll like) and four deep fried (egg-roll like). It was quite delicious, and it was nice to be able to identify several different flavors within it, rather than having a mashed sort of filling. M's chicken thing was quite good, too, even though I made the grave error of thinking of it as a chicken snow cone early on.

Another lull before our entrees was starting to make me nervous. The kung pao was good, but ultimately just prawn kung pao. The sauce on the chow fun was to die for, as was M's duck. The only downside to the entrees was some weird timing on the arrival of our second drinks, so I wound up having dinner alongside a sweet, specialty martini, which wasn't ideal. Finally, for dessert, we decided to have the S'mores for two, which sounded like a good idea and looked like a good idea, but turned out to be something of a pain. Basically they bring you a lovely oil stove with a grate. On top of it are four marshmallows on skewers: one strawberry, one passionfruit, one lychee, and one green tea. on a separate plate are four wafer-cookie sandwiches (one cookie being graham-approximate, the other being chocolate) with piped---well, not ganache, which doesn't pipe, per se---but ganache-adjacent substance.

So, mad propz for presentation, but the execution is nearly literal. The marshmallows are on the end of the skewers and the exterior began melting almost immediately upon being exposed to heat. When we tried to put the first marshmallow on a cookie sandwich, however, it was almost impossible to remove from the skewer, because it hadn't been heated through enough. Also, making cookie sandwiches "for two" is messy and challenging, because it's not like you wouldn't want to sample each of the different marshmallow flavors.

By the time we got our check and got out, it was shortly after 7 PM, we still had to determine the actual theater's address and make it down to Randolph. Getting the information took longer than it should have (dude, just let me do the googling), and we were in that weird space where it wasn't clear whether a cab would actually get us there more quickly than walking. We opted for the latter and braved the Michigan Avenue Moseyers. The people working the front of the house were initially quite nice about us being late. Then we went in, got yelled at by an old lady in the front row who seems to have appointed herself hall monitory (LOOK up there! You'd better be turning that cell phone OFF!)

Weirdly enough, we'd been instructed not to sit in the four "late seating" seats in the front row. In the second row there were three reserved seats. On first pass, it seemed like not only were there not two seats together, it seemed that there were not two seats period. M went out to ask the front of house what to do, and there was snappiness. I admit to returning snappiness. Yes, we were late, but we also paid for seats. And you have patrons yelling at other patrons. Anyway.

We did get separate seats, and mine was the last seat in the back row (very very bad house set up, because it was not at all obvious how many seats were available away from the main aisle). These seats would turn out to be tragic for reasons other than being separated from one another.

The space is called the Storefront Theater, and it's at 66 E. Randolph. It is in the same building as Gallery 37 Center for the Arts. It's also one door down from the Silk Road Oasis at 72 E. Randolph where E, the mandolin player in my Outlaws of Country class had a photography exhibit open recently---a coincidence that fuelled my address confusion. On the literal hand, the theater in the heart of the theater district. On the metaphorical hand, the theater is a hole-in-the-wall space that kind of sucks for performance.

The company mounting the show is called "Open Eye Productions," but the Department of Cultural Affairs is also listed as a producer. Although Open Eye is celebrating its 10th season, I've never heard of them. That wouldn't be such a surprise if they weren't peforming at such a plum address when their level of professionalism seems much more in line with the limitations of the space. I realize that sounds bitchy in the extreme. I'm not saying that they're a bad company (there's a lot of real talent in the production), but they are kind of a half-assed company.

For example the lobby photos (and from what I can see from surfing around, the press photos as well) were hokey and amateurish. The program does not appear to have been edited or formatted in any way. Lines often break randomly about one quarter of the way across the page. It's about 12 pages long, exclusive of ads and it's folded in half and badly xeroxed. I wave my freak flag high for understaffed, underfunded theater groups that have to beg, borrow, or steal everything they can get, but if you get an opportunity to perform in such a high-profile space, you really want to pay attention to the details and look as polished as you can. They certainly missed the boat on their materials.

Sadly, that comes across to some extent in the production, as well, which is even more inexcusable in a show in its 5th and final week. For example, the portraits of the assassins' targets seem to have been drawn by 10-year-olds of somewhat suspect talent. Lincoln, Ford, Reagan, and FDR are hung on the backdrop, as well as a poster declaring "TAKE AIM" (with gun sites in between the words, hyuck hyuck) are on the backdrop that forms the upstage wall, whereas Nixon, McKinley, Garfield are high above the stage on the stage left and right walls. This doesn't seem to have been a deliberate choice (although I half wondered if it was meant to give the performance space the feel of a demented classroom), or if it was, its reasoning remains mysterious to me at least. Also, the slide projector seemed to be out of focus at several points.

Similarly, the attention to costume detail is scattershot. For example, there is no attempt whatever to make the ensemble member playing McKinley look like McKinley or even to dress him in appropriate period costume. Fair enough, that shit's expensive, but the rest of the chorus IS in period dress, and later, the ensemble member playing Garfield has elaborate stage hair and costuming so that he's a dead ringer (so to speak) for the well-known portrait (which happens to be the model they used for their "portrait" on the wall). Booth had short, almost shaved hair and no moustache, which, again, I'd get if you just couldn't do it, but they took real pains to make several other actors resemble their real-life counterparts. On the flip side, the chorus member playing the proprieter had longish hair and they made no attempts to mask it in period-appropriate ways. And for the "and the horse you rode in on" portion of the evening, their fake Kentucky Fried bucket sucked. Colonel Sanders does NOT have a pink face, and I say this as someone who has a black hole in her brain where art should be, and who still managed to create a passable vintage bucket.

In addition to some of these inconsistencies that may be attributable to the lack of resources endemic to the "B-team" theater group (however unfair consignment to the B-team may be), I can't say this production seemed to suffer from overly strong leadership. Chris Maher's direction was amateurish and heavy handed. I had formed that opinion before I read the director's note, which sounds as though it was written by a defensive 18-year-old, and I remain convinced that most of the flaws of the production can be laid at his feet.

For example, he seems to have been in love with a particularly intrusive idea that all the assassins should have a red element in their costume. For some, this is fine. Squeaky, for example, is meant to be wearing red religious robes. Sarah Jane has a frumpy black and white jumper, but a large red hand bag. Byck's in a Santa suit, so you're golden there. Hinckley has a red-check shirt, all good. Even Guiteau's red neck tie is fine (except for the lighting issues).

With Czolgosz, you move into marginal territory. He's got a red handkerchief, and he does need one a-for to wrap him a handkerchief 'round his gun and all, but 90% of it does not need to be hanging from one pocket at all times, like he wants to be prepared in case he wanders into a gay bar where they buy into the myth. Zangara is even further out on the limb. Rather than an immigrant crippled by a possibly psychosomatic illness, his loud red shirt makes him look like an old tourist wandering around St. Petersburg in sandals and black socks. But then there's Booth. Who wears Candy-apple-red satin gloves through the whole damned show. Candy-apple-red satin gloves that seem to be women's gloves, given that you can clearly see them extending well beyond his wrists and up into his sleeves at several points. Even if you don't know the episode of The Critic that I'm thinking of, the whole gag was just so fucking dumb.

More generally on the lack of direction note, no one seems ever to have come to terms with the space and its limitations in terms of staging and acoustics (in fairness, our seats certainly made us painfully aware of those limitations). The lighting design was either flat out inept or the actors' marks were not well established. For example, I often could not see Czolgosz's face because his light was hitting him in the belly button and his hat cast him into deep shadow. At other times, it was obvious that Guiteau's long frock coat was made from two different materials, because the lighting turned the skirt of it bloodred, leaving the top dark brown. During "Everybody's Got the Right," the overhead lights kept flicking from red to white to blue, playing merry hell with make-up, costuming, and the audience's ability to see anything. And the dead spots. Oh the dead spots people had to move through.

The music was often quite terrible. The band was set up behind the last row of the audience in the far house right corner. That put them directly behind me and about 10 seats over as well as directly behind M and about 3 rows back. M apparently could not hear anything on stage any time the drum was going on. I had major difficulties hearing from time to time depending on where the performer was standing. The choral backing for the beginning of "Another National Anthem" was approximately 12 million times louder than it needed to be, so I missed the several screw ups in terms of dialogue timing during that number (which is a shame---what a drag to the number). There were so many timing screw ups in general that I don't think we can blame Sondheim for being a bastard. At least not entirely. I wondered, in fact, if they were attributable to the fact that the actors could not actually hear their musical cues because of the Spinal Tap approach to everything. The pain of the loudest band in America tonight was amplified by truly wretched trumpet and clarinet players.

If I had left after the first 10 minutes (up through and including the Ballad of Booth), I would have hated this production. Again, I'm laying the blame primarily on Maher and his "direction." Adam Minegar, the long-haired chorus member playing the proprietor, has a great voice (which is good, because the proprieter's part has a big range), and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he can act when not actively hindered from doing so. Unfortunately, he is actively hindered from doing so during "Everybody's Got the Right." He is dressed in a filthy, moth-eaten bowler and grimy carny wear, and he sneers and capers and is basically Clint Howard.

But this wrong directorial turn is nothing to the travesty that is Chris Maher's idea of The Balladeer. Let me tell you a little about The Balladeer. The Balladeer IS America in Assassins. He is not a good guy by any stretch of the imagination, but that should not immediately be apparent. In the production I worked on, we cast a tall stringbean of a guy who looked kind of like a more homespun, less dopey Diederich Bader and we put him in some overalls. The Boxer Rebellion production went the Opie route and put him in coveralls. And, of course, the Broadway production featured Doogie Howser in the role (I cannot comment on costuming).

Before tonight, I really would not have made any strong argument about a mandatory "look" for The Balladeer. But that was in the time before Chris Maher cast Torgo. The thing is that there has to be something appealing about The Balladeer, no matter how menacing and smug he turns out to be. Put it this way: If you're casting Titanic and you accidentally call Billy Bob Thornton instead of Billy Zane as Rose's fiance, no one is going to be surprised when he shanghais a small child to get on a rescue boat. They may be surprised that he does not tear the head off the small child and drink her spurting arterial blood, but the reveal that he's Really a Bad Guy will not be a reveal. Even James fucking Cameron gets subtlety at that level.

Chris Maher, not so much. After Booth stumbled his way through the dialogue, the Balladeer emerged from the wings with a banjo. And I thought, "Oh, Jesus fuck, I hope he's an acting banjo player and not a banjo-playing actor." That appears to be irrelevant (but I have some piercing questions for the "banjo player" in the band), though, because it was purely an accessory banjo for the entire time other than the four seconds in which he pretended to be playing (picking at the strings, but not fretting, mind you). Booth finally offed himself on stage, with lights on, and the body stayed (leaving me thinking, "Dude, wtf?") there. The Balladeer then got up on the bottom of the rolling flat representing the barn wall and delivered the rest of the song as though, he might quite literally piss on Booth's corpse. And the height of the funny? If you really punch the word HEAD in all his lyrics, it's like, you know, funny, because Booth has just shot himself in the HEAD. Quite the kneeslapper. I'm hesitant to say much of anything about Matthew Wilson as an actor, because The Balladeer was so fucked from the beginning. I will say that although he wasn't a terrible singer, his range certainly wasn't up to the role.

The bar scene follows, and I think I was still transmitting rage in Booth's direction. The Ballad of Booth is quite long, but also beautiful. Unless the band keeps missing notes, which screws up the singers. Oh, also it doesn't help when some of the prettiest passages appear to have been cut or skipped and the haunting harmonica (or flute) run makes the baby Jesus cry. So pile all that on top of those damned red gloves, and I was pretty aggravated. This was further complicated by the incredibly over-the-top acting of the guy playing Zangara (the two of them are at a table together).

Tom Weber soothed the savage beast somewhat in his funny Guiteau toast. In fact, I remember specifically having some issues with the all-crazy-all-the-time delivery of the guy in the Boxer Rebellion's production, but here was some welcome light and shadow.

When the focus shifted to Czolgosz and Hinckley, I gained confidence that Maher's acting-sucking powers were less than total, and it was here that I got my first clue that the production might not be a total loss. Noah Simon looks nothing like John Hinckley, and yet his body language really captures him. He's fundamentally creepy, but also lost and somehow sympathetic, at least intermittently. In the bar scene, he also made Hinckley typical---a typical, narcissistic, privileged, unthinking young guy. That's chilling all on its own, but it also made Czolgosz's eruption into rage more believable. Even though I really liked the production I worked on and thought the actors were top notch, there was always a "Dude, it's just a bottle. Maintain." element to this scene.

Clay Sanderson as Czolgosz gets the other half of the credit for making quite a pivotal interaction work. I think the guy I worked with was ultimately just too young and innocent-looking. He strangely resembled the real Czolgosz, except for the wear, tear, and care on his face. We all used to giggle in his Goldman scene when he says "I am coarse and ugly," because he was really such a baby-faced cutie pie. Clay Sanderson, in contrast, had the haunted, beaten down, defeated look going on. His monologue was rushed, strangely paced, and had no emotional topography to it, but I could feel the character underneath the bad direction. And although John Byrnes, the actor playing Booth, would later improve, his timing was off and I resented him breaking the rhythm of the scene, just when I thought things were getting off the ground.

"How I Saved Roosevelt" and Zangara's execution came next. In this number, the chorus members acquitted themselves well, even if the blocking and choreography were trying to undermine things. They clustered around a microphone downstage right and they were lit about 85% of the time, which was much better than average. Zangara, for some reason, was quite a bit upstage of them at left, strapped into his electric chair. I was pleased to find his resort shirt replaced with prison blue and pleasantly surprised to find that he could actually sing (they didn't even have to rearrange the remorseless end for him). Sadly, because of the acoustic wackiness, M could not hear him at all over the chorus and the drums. One directorial touch that I thought worked well was the fact that one of the chorus affixes the cap to his head as they file off stage left at the end of the number.

Following Zangara's demise, everyone loves a good anarchist rally. I was surprised to see that there was actually a platform immediately in front of the screen on which the slides were projected at the level of the top of the curtain that formed the back wall of the lower part of the stage. Emma stepped out into a well-placed (for once) spot and delivered her speech, which once again, showed complete ignorance of the concept of emotional dynamics. Again, I'm going to place the majority of the blame on the director, because Micaela Petro had some moments of genuine connection with Czolgosz, even if she did overplay the strident modern woman a bit too much. Either she or Maher also massively messed up the timing on her "It's a free country . . . that was a joke" line. She held for laughs in an odd way that seemed tantamount to winking at the audience living in the world according to GWB. Crickets chirped, I assure you.

If there's a flaw truly inherent to Assassins as a play, I think it's the fact that the women are so uniformly intended to be comic relief. Good actors can wring some drama out of things, but Squeaks and Sara Jane are certainly aimed at the groundlings. In their "chicken" scene in the park, this problem was further confounded. I'm tempted to give Maher a partial pass here, because Sara Sevigny, who played Sara Jane (and, uh, who is their marketing director and has the same last name as their founder), is obviously a real comic powerhouse. The temptation to let her run with it would have been great, at least in the park scene. Ultimately, though, this undermines what little seriousness is available to these characters, and in the actual assassination attempt, her being at 11 for the entire time was tiresome. It nearly ruined the awesome and completely committed pratfall by the guy playing Ford.

Playing Sara Jane so over the top is also hell on the actress playing Squeaky. In this case, Kate Staiger had a great look for Squeaky (very intense blue eyes, and she looks rather like a young Eileen Brennan), and she held her own. But given how broadly Sara Jane was played, she had little choice but to tone her performance down from the pixieish stoner that Squeaky really is. That, unfortunately, gave her a little too much brattyness, particularly when she was talking about her fight with her "daddy."

Fortunately for both Staiger and Noah Simon, though, Squeaky and Hinckley get a scene and a song together. The scene in Hinckley's tragic basement allowed them both to shine as actors as well as to show off their pipes. It's not an easy song, and they wisely rearranged the very low ending of Hinckley's opening verse to accomodate Simon (who actually played the guitar, rather than carrying it around like a fucking clutch purse). There were a few band-realted screw ups near the end, but they both held it together.

The Gun Quartet was a tragedy of choreography, although the male actors played off one another very well during it. Also, because much of it is minimally accompanied or outright a capella, not having America's loudest and most off-key band in my ear was a welcome relief. But when Sara Jane came on the scene, things rather went to hell. I don't know if she can't sing or doesn't like to, but I could hardly hear her at all and they substantially revised and trimmed the end of the number, which is a pity, because it's such a lovely piece of absurdity.

Post--Gun Quartet, we of course have McKinley's assassination and the ballad of Czolgosz, which is sung almost exclusively by the Balladeer, who once again skulked and sneered and looked around to see if there wasn't a stray child he might molest or something. Choreography, also pretty fucked up, and remember that McKinley looks like he just stepped off the set of the Untouchables. It hurts too much to dwell on the ruination of another of my favorite numbers, and so I move on.

But sadly, I move on to Byck's first monologue, for which they did not even bother to try to find Yoohoo. I mean, we didn't find yoohoo and had to resort to Faygo, but we LOOKED, damnit. What metaphor can I use this time for a long scene being made tedious by doggedly sticking to the same emotional pitch throughout? Screw it. Kevin Grubb, I am sure, has many fine qualities, a lush head of hair seems to be among them. But at the end of the day, he's not Jay Franks, and therefore he's not Byck. Oh, you wanted a fair review of him? Yeah, no can do. I will say this, though: He put a lot of prissy bitch into a performance that calls for heaping helping of gregarious, desperate smelly guy, which is even more problematic in the second monologue than the first. However, he was better than the Boxer Rebellion's Tiny Bick on Quaaludes.

Throughout most of the show, the set was quite basic. The upstage "wall" was three sections of dirty red-and-white-striped curtain on pipe frames. That wass topped with red, white, and blue string lights, and the aforementioned "portraits" are hung on there. When a set piece was needed, the curtains parted in the center and a flat was rolled on, usually upstage right (e.g., the barn in Booth's scene, the bar, etc., and for the book depository, a brick wall is set up right and a portion of wall plus the window were rolled up and slightly left).

The scene of Guiteau's execution revealed that the set had much more versatility that turns out to have been sadly underused. The entire stage left curtain was folded back over the center section, revealing a blackout curtain on the reverse side and a set of steps leading up to the platform in front of the projection screen. For some demented reason probably known only to Maher, these steps have a railing on the upstage side, but none on the downstage side. Oh wait, the lack of downstage railing was probably attributable to the fact that he had string lights running up the downstage margin of the steps themselves, because, you know, the execution scene needs that Vegas feel and that added element of danger to the actor literally cakewalking up and down the rickety, railingless wooden stairs.

Despite this bit of tackiness, and despite some completely wrong-headed nonsense about having Guiteau face upstage to address his "crowd" (hello, dork, THE AUDIENCE is the crowd. We are the rubberneckers.), this number worked, largely thanks to the enthusiasm and talent of Tom Weber. Also, whatever sins the Brenda Didier (the choreographer) might have perpetrated elsewhere, much was forgiven here. It's a fun, fun number and fun was actually had with it.

The choreographer's success during "Another National Anthem" (which also makes use of the upper-level platform, albeit briefl) was more modest. In parts of it, she seemed to "get it," creating opportunities for one-on-one connections between those characters who haven't yet formally interacted with one another. But things just never came together when they drove the Balladeer offstage (in fact, he winds up stomping his widdle feet and getting offstage mostly under his own power, which is wrong wrong wrong). And after that, she had them in a tight cluster at stage left, when they ought to have been spreading out and pushing their interaction with the audience, enjoying their newly claimed turf.

Any energy that Didier had managed to whip up during this number was quickly squandered during the book depository scene, though. Booth and Oswald's interaction lasted nearly 10 mind-numbing minutes. However, it was here that my shifting sympathies finally landed firmly on the side of John Byrnes, the actor playing Booth. As draggy and drawling as the dialogue was, I could actually see him fighting his own better instincts. I just wish he'd fought a little harder.

Chuck Patella was largely forgettable as Oswald. In fact, he'd have been entirely forgettable, I think, if he hadn't been stuck in another tragic directing mistake near the climactic moment. He and Booth both have lines that are clearly bordering on internal monologue, so naturally Maher thinks it's a swell idea to have them literally nose-to-nose, snarling in one another's faces. It was a bizarre enough choice that I wasn't entirely sure that this wasn't going to go all Brokeback Mountain on us.

Oh, and of course, he bursts through the center of the curtain during the reprise of "Everybody's Got the Right" sporting his new, RED shirt. Because he's an ASSASSIN now, see? Just in case you didn't know how that JFK thing turned out. Which Maher apparently thinks is a possibility, because Booth also pulls the cloth from the "TAKE AIM" poster, revealing the JFK portrait during that number. Because he's DEAD, see? He's not alive and thinking with sand in a nursing home with Elvis. He's D-E-D.

For the record, this production skipped the increasingly optional "Something Just Broke" number for the chorus in between the book depository and the reprise of "Everybody's Got the Right." I can't really be sure that was a choice though, and not just another rookie mistake.

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Friday, June 16, 2006

Wiper Fluid! It Was Wiper Fluid!

I feel like I've been Captain Cultural Bombardment of late. That's good and that's bad. It's good because it means that I'm actually following through on a promise I make to myself regularly, namely not to take the chocolately, culturey center of Chicago for granted. It's bad because Captain Cultural Bombardment spends an awful lot of time with the Burgermeister of Pomposity.

It's worse, because we're going to see Assassins tomorrow night, and nothing brings out my snooty hifalutin' nature like a Sondheim, particularly one I know well. So I figure that a newsy little post about our trip to see Cars tonight is welcome respite for everyone. I figure that even I cannot get pomposity from an animated movie about cars. Especially an animated movie about cars that definitely did not make me cry. Oh, and never fear: Nacho Libre is on the horizon.

I can't really remember why the Lone Star Steakhouse brought up the topic of strip clubs. Oh, I tell a lie. And tragically, the conversation tangentially hearkens back to Blues Part 2. Tangentially, I swear! Don't hit. Or yell. So that crazy Hokum style has a fondness for the weiner-level of genital euphemism. This brought up the issue of a new hot dog stand that is opening near the Western El stop, which happens to be called: Chubby Weiners. I had noted this before and kept forgetting to tell M, who is an aficionado of ridiculous business names. (I beg of you not to ask him about Mandrill.)

But I was reminded of Chubby Weiners last night in Outlaws of Country when B revealed that he'd been discussing the aforementioned Weiner Vendor with J, who commented that it was almost as bad as "Flash a Taco." (Note: I have no idea whether or not such a business exists in Chicago, but my lowbrow blog recon for the day is done, given that I have just discovered a website that may or may not be related to Chubby Weiners, but its URL is ). M, with a sparkle in his eye, commented that Flashy Taco was a great name for a strip club.

So naturally, we got to discussing food at strip clubs. Specifically, he reminded me that when he moved to the Decks and Ducks place (100% literal and guaranteed euphemism free), he received a "Welcome to the Neighborhood" coupon from "The Brass Rail" for a free prime rib buffet. This, of course, led us to planning his putative visit to The Brass Rail during which he would demand his prime rib and ostentatiously sit facing the wall, while reading a book. Given that we had segued into this discussion from one about the history of Pullman Porters, I think it's safe to say we were doing our duty to weird out the waitstaff and other diners around us. We get that a lot.

After dinner we had about 45 minutes until the next movie, so we went to Best Buy to pick up some games so that Guitar Hero won't be lonely. (I promise low brow, I deliver low brow---would you like to hear about Pandora's Gibson Les Paul with its Green Lightning Flames?)

From there, we finally wound up at the theater, where we were able to confirm that there is now a one-to-one correspondence between the number of people alive on planet earth and the number of animated movies currently or recently in production that feature talking animals. The only possible good news about this is that Pixar's Ratatouille seems to feature Patton Oswalt as the lead rat. (There is some disagreement on this point, with some folks claiming that it's actually David Cross [I could buy this, but it's a stretch], and others [who have been visiting the crackpipe a bit too regularly] who say it's Billy Crystal.) This was doubly funny to us, because we'd just been talking about the impending DVD release of Weird Al Yankovic's short-lived children's show, on which he'd appeared. I guessed that his segement would have been called Patton Oswalt spends the worst 45 seconds of his life trying not to drop the F bomb.

The short in front of Cars is called One Man Band (sic, sadly---but trust me, the lack of hyphen really hurts me more than it hurts you), and it's cute and clever. Then again, you might not want to take my word for it, because I loved Bounding, in front of The Incredibles, so my short bar may be set too low (erm . . . ). It's basically a Bears/Packers, Crunchy/Creamy, Springfield/Shelbyville situation: One one-man band is brass and percussion, one is strings (except for the piano, which is technically percussion). A typically unmoppety Pixar moppet has to decide which one will get her coin, and wackiness ensues.

Cars itself is almost uniformly cute, very often funny, and overall a good, solid Pixar offering. Uh, it also definitely did not make me cry, because they're CARS and that would be RIDICULOUS. There was a section in the middle that I felt was a seriously wrong turn (which would be a right turn in the NASCAR context. I kill me. Which saves time, as it means J won't have to) with a very strange "Cars love nature and the small town economy" facet to the "X learns an important lesson" plot. I mean, really, the arrogant, friendless main car has a quasi-religious experience at an abandoned gas-n-stop hotel overlooking "Ornament Valley." WTF? Very odd "Brought to you by Megalodinoexcavators" feel to it.

Another bonus to the movie is the soundtrack, which features the Rascal Flats (although there's something weird going on with their song), The Chords, Hank Williams, and of course Chuck Berry. Another detriment to the movie is the soundtrack, which features Brad Paisley in not one, but two numbers (I don't care if he's the supposedly traditional "new country" guy, he's a dirty hack). But the worst is James Freaking Taylor (and, yes, I have proof that he wrote ONE actual country song [and it's not a bad one, but this is not it]) doing a song called "Our Town" for which Randy Newman may have completely shot his treacly, maudlin wad, a feat I previously believed to be impossible. Likewise, the rest of the score is unremarkable. But when the soundtrack is on, it's on. Even better, the Songs Inspired By CD has none other than the last of the full-grown men, Mr. Webb Wilder, doing Johnny Cash's I've Been Everywhere, which I cannot WAIT to hear. (Not on iTunes. Grumble Grumble.)

It's not the best Pixar movie, which is still The Incredibles in my opinion, which is admittedly the opinion of a giant nerdlinger.

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Blues, pt. 2: From the Country to the City

Once again, your humble correspondents made the (marginally shorter) long, lonesome (well, not particularly lonesome, as we were together, to say nothing of the millions of close friends) drive northward for the second part of the Oakton Community College's Emeritus Program on the Blues.

This week's featured person who needs to be killed on the grounds of being too fucking talented was the Old Town School of Folk Music's very own Eric Noden, a quantity previously unknown to me. (Note: I am claiming him as ours because he is and was there by virtue of skip; however, at the moment he either does not appear to be teaching anything, or he has been one in a long series of victims of database maintenance by a well-meaning, yet underskilled volunteer army.) As advertised, he talked about the movement of the Blues from the Bayou, where we had last left our intrepid musical form, to the city. The second city, actually, as he talked almost exclusively about movement of the Blues into Chicago and some of the evolution that took place there.

Eric's approach was to play more and talk less, which is not to say that his session was less information heavy than Chris's. Chris was just more casual and balladeer-ish than Eric, who played several songs from beginning to end by way of demonstrating styles. In addition to teaching at Old Town, he works with the Blues in the Schools program in Chicago. (Eric's site has a button for this under education, but it unfortunately doesn't go anywhere.) As you might have guessed, this involves teaching the Blues to, in this case, elementary-school-aged kids. However, it culminates in something far cooler than I could have imagined: They get to take their act to the Blues Fest.

He used his approach to Blues in the Schools as a jumping-off point for this session. He opened with "Tear it Down, Bed Slats and All." This is an early blues---or proto-Blues with lots of rag-time influence---song famously recorded by The Memphis Jug Band. His version of this was for acoustic guitar and kazoo. Yes, kazoo---in fact, his kazoo was ingeniously mounted around his neck with duct tape and wire. In part, this is naturally an homage to the "found instruments" dear to the jug band, but it is also born of the fact that programs like Blues in the Schools are not traditionally rolling in money. Thus, when he shows up to work with a classroom of 30 or more students, they have to get creative about the instruments they include. Blues both goes around and comes around.

From there, he talked a bit about the timing and motivation behind the migration of Blacks, in general, and musicians, in specific, to northward and eventually to Chicago. In part, they were drawn in by a labor shortage caused by World War I. But the lines of force pulling Black men and women into Chicago were particularly strong because of an explicit campaign to support the "Great Northern Migration" (from about 1915-1925) by the publisher and editorial staff of The Chicago Defender. The story of The Defender is an interesting one in its own right, but with regard to the Blues, the tie-in with music is exceptionally so. In the south, most ditributors refused to circulate the paper. Thus, its main mode of distribution in the south was in the hands of entertainers (who moved around more freely) and Pullman porters, all of whom were Black, of course. And in those pages, sandwiched in between the editorials urging Blacks not to go gently into the good night of segregation, were ads looking for musicians to make 78s.

Jumping ahead just for a moment, there was a guy sitting behind us who seemed to be asking a series of leading-the-witness type questions to get at the fact that many of these musicians were exploited. However, he began his questioning badly by asking (in tones implying that he already knew the answer) whether the songs these artists were recording had been popular. Of course they were popular. They sold in droves. Sensing that what the questioner was really getting at was who profited from the sales, Eric mentioned that what survives from the teens and twenties is not always the best stuff of the musicians, who were often paid by the recording. This gave them strong motivation to simply crank out similar tunes with different lyrics, or the same lyrics over different styles in some vain attempt to get ahead.

Again, the issues of ownership, coopting, and exploitation are interesting in the extreme, and I really hope they actually get some play at some point in the series. However, the tactic of interrupting aggressively to broach the topic, as though the speaker had been pussyfooting around it (which he wasn't), is frustrating. That said, I don't know much about these ads. I'd have been interested to learn in who was placing them and whether or not they might have been the result of Whites publicly shunning The Defender, yet quietly cashing in on the talent that was heading northward.

In any case, Eric's main subject was the migration itself and the evolution and fate of the Blues during and after it this period. As this coincides with some of the earliest recordings of the Blues---and definitely marks the beginnings of the "commercial success" of the blues---he led off this section of his talk with Mumsy Mumsy Blues and Shake that Thing by Papa Charlie Jackson. Given that Papa Charlie was the first commercially successful Blues artist, it is probably no surprise to learn that he played in a style called "Hokum," which is all about the sex. More than that, it's all about ridiculous euphemisms for sex, like "Please wrap my hot weiner in your tight bun."

Even when someone asked about the origin of the term Hokum, however, Eric kept an admirably straight face and focused on the aspects of Hokum style that were more presentable for the assembled company, mainly the fact that this style is very well suited to the singer accompanying himself. In Papa Charlie's case, this involved playing a banjar, which is either a banjo strung like a guitar or a guitar with a banjo body, depending on whether you are a Hatfield or a McCoy, banjoically speaking. I am Switzerland with regard to banjos, and I decline to comment. I will note, however, that the banjo has many properties similar to the steel guitar that made it ideal for increasingly large venues in the preamplification era. Whether that excuse is sufficient to the existence of the banjo is between you and your local folk authorities.

I really can't communicate the coolness of the playing typical of the Hokum style, although both those pages linked above take a stab at it. Eric was still using his acoustic (which was some kind of wickedly cool Gibson---in fact, unless there was a repro run of which I'm not aware [very possible, I'm not exactly a vintage guitar whore {but I'd like to be}], I think it's actually a 1940s-era J-45 judging from the use of the old, nearly illegible logo on the headstock [I have late-breaking stalker-derived news {and an unprecedented second opportunity for triply nested parentheticals in the same parenthetical. I need a cigarette.} on this issue---it is in fact a newer Gibson jumbo, which is nearly identical to the J-45s. Tricksy logo.) for this and in the most literal sense of the word, watching as I listened was stunning. If I had not been sitting about 3 feet from him, I would have sworn that at least three incredibly well-conducted instruments (a bass, rhythm guitar, and a separate guitar doing these incredibly fast fingerpicking leads) being used. In fact I think I now have some insight into what Christian Kane's odious cousinwas trying to accomplish on stage in 2004. Boy howdy, was he not ready for the Big Kids' table.

Despite the versatility and talent (which, frankly, I'm convinced is the result of alien visitation and/or very early gene splicing) of solo acts like Papa Charlie Jackson, combos were up and coming in the world of jazz and the Blues. Even within the Hokum style, people like Tampa Red were teaming up with other musicians, and many of the great Blues vocalists were backed by jazz bands on their recordings. Here, Eric pulled out his trusty National steel guitar to demonstrate a bit of Tampa Red's style with the slide by playing "It's Tight Like That." Although the song is a, shall we say, overly fond and faithful homage to "Shake That Thing," the steel guitar and slide technique (for the previous numbers, Eric used two fingerpicks and a thumb pick on his right hand, nothing on his left) give it a very different feel, and he talked a bit about the different techniques of reaching the much-sought-after blue notes via bending vs. sliding (and again mentioned the relationship between voice and instrument in this regard).

After this, he moved over to the piano for a bit and ended up building on something Chris had talked about last week. This is fortunate for me, because despite the fact that said some very nice things about my memory in response to my last blues post, I completely forgot to talk about Chris's excellent demonstration of Delta and Piedmont piano approaches (primarily what you're doing with the left hand differs quite markedly in these styles, yet I'd never registered it until he pointed it out) and how the guitar follows the piano in both styles of Blues. Interestingly enough, Eric's take was that the piano offers the Blues musician more freedom in certain ways. In the first place, the piano, like the steel guitar, bajo, and the anathema---I mean banjar---, suffers less from the lack of amplification. But from a stylistic standpoint, he said he also feels it has it going on over the guitar, because it gives the musician 10 independent (or nearly so) note attacks.

I thought this was strange coming from someone who had played the guitar all his life and only come to piano in the last 7 or 8 years. (Not that you would know about the latter part of that from his playing. Bastard.) However, I do have to say that the finger issue has been among the more difficult ones for me in learning to play the guitar. First of all, you might as well cut off the thumb on your fretting hand, because it doesn't really exist. Second, even when you're using the thumb on your right hand, they count in UNIX. Thumb is 0 or "thumb" and your index finger is 1. That is just whack.

But anyway, he sat down at the piano and played a piece with a very strong Boogie Woogie influence. This prompted the latest in an interminable series of etymology questions. This time, the guys at the back of the room with their TiBook were able to look it up and the undocumented source attributes it to a word meaning "dance" in the native language of Sierra Leone. I was about to berate myself for not remembering the piece or the artist (I knew he talked about Pinetop Smith, but this wasn't Pinetop Smith) when suddenly I remembered that it was called "Chi-Town Breakdown," it had terrific lyrics, and it seems that HE is the artist. (It's off his cd Midwest Blues and a preview is available at CD Baby.)

Heading back to his guitars to come full circle and to talk about someone coming full circle, Eric played "Key to the Highway," by way of introduction to Big Bill Broonzy. As Chris mentioned last week, Big Bill has deep roots at the Old Town School. (Rather, the Old Town School is deeply rooted in musicians like Big Bill, but that sounds slighly gross, probably illegal, and definitely unsanitary.) So I've always thought of him as a guitarist, and it was not until this very minute that I learned that he started out fiddling for Papa Charlie Jackson who may or may not have taught him to play guitar.

In any case, although Big Bill's early recordings were in the solo-acoustic style (if not the true Hokum style from which he is denied on account of lack of weiner talk), he was one of the earliest Blues musicians to incorporate a much wider variety of melody instruments, including horns and harmonica. In addition, he farmed out much of the rhythm work to the bass, freeing him up for the fingerpicking leads for which he became famous in the 30s and 40s. Although this style would then become the meat and potatoes of the electric blues of the 50s, Big Bill returned to his acoustic roots in the years before his death in 1958. And because it's all connected, this Unplugged: Round 0 (again with the UNIX counting) phenomenon may have been genuine musical recanting, or it may have been influenced by the shift to audiences that were almost exclusively white later in his career, bringing us back to authenticity, ownership, coopting, and commercial success.

Someone asked for a demonstration of late Big Bill to contrast with "Key to the Highway," which predates much of his fingerpicking madness. Again, I note that all who lecture are, at some point, Matilda, because Eric looked genuinely blank and flustered for a minute as he could not think of a single thing to demonstrate. He pulled it out admirably, though, by playing something late-Broonzy-esque by Jimmy Reed (who, for the record, is the kaaaaang of rock and rowowoowowolll), namely "Baby, What You Want Me to Do?"

My internal timeline was somewhat befucked by the devolution into the "everyone pretends to ask a question so that they can say something they think is important, and no one else cares" portion of the proceedings when the attention spans really broke down around 11:00 AM. I do know that we wound up with Howling Wolf and that we somehow got to Howling Wolf by way of Tommy Johnson's "Canned Heat Blues" (a reference to drinking sterno-derived alcohol-y goodness during Prohibition or in case of Blue Laws), which he also played for us. He had a request for another piano number at the very end, and he obligingly returned to it; here, unfortunately, my memory truly fails, because I cannot remember what he played, only that he had added in some very cool and funky Cuban flairs in the bass.

However, a factoid that I recall about Howlin' Wolf (and not just that he triiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiied) himself does remind me that, in the course of some off-the-cuff commentary, Eric had touched on some facets of this period in Blues that were gradually wrung out of the genre. Specifically that, although we'd currently sneer at the kind of homages and "borrowing" of the sort that Tampa Red was doing, it was an accepted feature during the early days of recording that artists would draw from a common well of "Blues poetry" as he put it (in much the same way that we frequently experience "You have reached the end of folk music and found yourself across a set of mountains that may be the Blue Ridge or the Smokey. In any case, please turn back."), as well as taking familiar musical forms and playing with instrumentation and style. In terms of lyrics, formal songwriters like Willie Dixon didn't come until much later. When they did, Willie has famously said, Howlin' Wolf found himself on the wrong side of a new lyrical divide. Whereas people like Muddy Waters were more adaptable (or more prone to abandonment of their roots, depending on your perspective), Howlin' Wolf was never all that good with words, particularly ones he didn't already know.

And thus we end poised on the edge of the electric era. As we were discussing on the way home, we're intrigued by whether or not that era will actually be represented in this series, given that the next talk is "From the Bars to the Folk Clubs." Que sera sera. We're having good fun.

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