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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Data Mining: Millhauser's Eisenheim the Illusionist

So the Chicago Reader is apparently unimpressed with both Christopher Nolan and The Prestige. What amuses both me and M about this is that the reviewer lays narrative flaws at Nolan's feet, rather than at the feet of Christopher Priest, the author of the novel.

Also on the amuseomometer, more comparisons to The Illusionist. Of course, M and I are eager to see The Prestige precisely because we want to see Nolan's treatment of Priest's highly problematic text. Similarly, after seeing The Illusionist, I was eager to see how many of the narrative niggles I had with it were attributable to Neil Burger (director) and how many should be attributed to Steven Millhauser (author) and the original text.

The Barnum Museum collection of stories (published in 1990) are out of print and my attempts to buy it on ABE Books was unsuccessful (and saddled me with a different collection, and I'm not sure I want that one now). I did pick it up at U of C's library, though, and resisted the temptation to skip directly to "Eisenheim," which is the last story in the volume.

It's kind of irrelevant whether or not I liked the volume overall. That's good, because I'm not sure that I can say one way or the other. Several of the stories read, quite literally, like writing exercises in describing the environment. The detail is sometimes exquisite, sometimes tedious; the metaphors are sometimes mind altering, sometimes evidence of being so open minded that one's brain falls out. While reading many, I'm afraid I was so gauche as to want something—ANYTHING—to happen, rather than being subjected to the umpteenth character's postmodern viewpoint on the dust on the windowsill.

The peak of that groundling impatience was reached during "The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad," and I scaled that Everest again during "Alice, Falling." I really SHOULD have liked these, and my brain was definitely falling out with all the open mindedness and desire to like them. They're about the disconnect between the life-changing experience, the memory of the life-changing experience (which is illuminated by the changed life, of course), the narrative of the life-changing experience, the narrative tailored to the audience whose lives the narrator is attempting to change, all marching through an infinite hall of mirrors. And they are bloody tiresome.

Others, like the title story, "A Game of Clue," and "Behind the Blue Curtain" are appealing enough that the utter lack of plot or point is less grating. "Eisenheim the Illusionist" is easily the best story in the volume and also the oddest fit for it. I suppose it bears superficial similarity to "The Sepia Postcard" and to "The Invention of Robert Herendeen" (the former is pretty good, the latter is not), but those are both jarring in the context of the rest, too.

I'm mostly done beating up on Millhauser and will turn my ramblings to the actual story and the movie now. Even given my problems with the movie's narrative, I would say that Burger's screenplay is more ambitious and satisfying than Millhauser's story. I don't know whether that excuses some of the muddled ethical elements or not, but as Browning and Aaron Sorkin remind us, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" So whether my personal thumbs up or thumbs down is relevant or not to the relative merits of story versus film, I'd rather have Burger's passionate ambition than Millhauser's cool observations.

In terms of factual inventory, the love story between Eisenheim and Sophie is more or less Burger's invention. There is a brief subplot in which Eisenheim, having retired from the first phase of his magical career, courts a woman named Sophie, who marries another at the last minute. When Eisenheim "graduates" into his spirt manifestations, one of the first individuals he produces is "Fraulein Greta." As Vienna goes mad for her, some speculate that she is, in fact, Marie Vetsera, the Prince's mistress who died with him at Mayerling (others speculate that she is the girlhood spirit of Empress "Sisi"). In terms of the childhood sweetheart aspects of their relationship, I suppose Burger could have been elaborating on the relationship between two of Eisenheim's later manifestations, children named "Elis" and "Rosa."

Certainly Burger's conflation of these elements into a love interest can be problematic. Adding a love story is tediously Hollywood, of course, but in this instance I think it is (or was meant to be) a window to Eisenheim's soul. Millhauser's story keeps us distant from Eisenheim from beginning to end. In fact, the final line of the story is
All agreed that it was a sign of the times, and as precise memories faded, and the everyday world of coffee cups, doctors' visits, and war rumors returned, a secret relief penetrated the souls of the faithful, who knew that the Master had passed safely out of the crumbling order of the history into the indestructible realm of mystery and dream.

But Millhauser never shows us Eisenheim outside of that context; in fact, there seems to be no objective Eisenheim who exists outside the minds of the public.

One interesting aside that is omitted from Burger's film: At one point in the story, Eisenheim systematically demolishes all rivals with the escalation of his illusions. This culminates in a rivalry with a magician who turns out to be none other than Eisenheim himself, playing his own antagonist. I can understand why Burger left it out, but it makes for more interesting and direct comparisons to The Prestige.

Burger's Eisenheim is elusive, but ultimately substantial. He has needs, desire, wants, and motivations, even if those are not always revealed to us in a wholly unproblematic way. Edward Norton plays Eisenheim beautifully in line with Burger's vision. His intensity is so provocative and relentless that there's a fierce satisfaction in seeing into his heart of hearts. Yes, what we're shown is fractured and obscured; it might be mundane and personal or extraordinary and social (and true to Millhauser's postmodernity, it may be many other things, depending on what one does with it), but there is, for lack of a better metaphor, a text to anchor the reading.

In terms of the politics of the story versus those of the film, the Hapsburgs are definitely on Millhauser's mind:
It as the age of levitations and decapitations, of ghostly apparitions and sudden vanishings, as if the tottering Empire were revealing through the medium of its magicians a secret desire for annihilation.

Even more distant from the reader than Eisenheim, though, is Uhl. Far from being an ambitious man in the service of the corrupt Crown Prince (who is dead before the story's beginning), he is simply a magic enthusiast, the Chief of Viennese Police, and apparently a model citizen of the Hapsburgs. His personal interaction with Eisenheim (when Eisenheim does a trick called "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" and controls the children in the audience) occurs "offscreen," robbing Millhauser's story of one of the great strengths of Burger's: The relationship between two men, emergent as powerful figures in different ways.

Near the end of the story we learn that, of his own volition, Uhl has been keeping notebooks on Eisenheim, ultimately deciding that Eisenheim "disturbing the public order" was not the real problem, but rather:
No, what disturbed Herr Uhl was something else, something for which he had difficulty finding a name. The phrase "crossing of boundaries" occurs pejoratively more than once in his notebooks; but it he appears to mean that certain distinctions must be strictly maintained. Art and life constituted one such distinction; illusion and reality another. Eisenheim deliberately crossed boundaries and therefore disturbed the essence of things. In effect, Herr Uhl was accusing Eisenheim of shaking the foundations of the universe, of undermining reality, and in consequence of doing something far worse: subverting the Empire. For where would the Empire be, once the idea of boundaries became blurred and uncertain?

I think Burger's Uhl is an excellent elaboration and illumination of Millhauser's. The paragraph above strikes me as something impossible to convert to a visual medium, but I think Burger's transformation of it remains true to the spirit of the story. And for Millhauser's part, it has come close to relieving me of the burden of thinking of Burger's Eisenheim as, ultimately, a manipulative charlatan. As Millhauser's Uhl views him, Eisenheim is more shaman than shyster. He creates an altered state in his audience and shifts the consciousness of Vienna's working class. I still dig in my heels at Sophie's ultimately false implication of the Prince in her nonexistent murder, certainly, but I at least see Burger trying to pull off a subtle point, rather than missing an obvious and troubling one.

In any case, I'm glad to have read the story if not entirely pleased to have lived through the entire volume. But perhaps my postmodern alteregos will have something different to say.

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Friday, October 20, 2006

Panted: The Big Easy, Day 1

We are proud to bring you another installment of Telecommuniculturey on Location, this time in New Orleans.

I had two big concerns about this year's trek to "The Hag": (1)That I would have a poster full of intronic sound and fury, signifying nothing; (2) that I would have no pants. To be sure, if one is going to be pantsless, New Orleans is about the best place in the US to do it, but the prospect of being nude and surrounded by an army of geneticists is not a happy one. I don't need any input on the polygenic, partially heritable nature of my massive thighs, for example.

I declared my poster "done enough" at about 5:45 AM on Sunday morning and sent it off to the 24-hour Kinko's for printing. I then collapsed into bed for about 3 hours of quality sleep, woke up, and began doing circuits of the house like a particularly stupid sheep in need of a sheltie. These included stops at the computer in the fevered hopes of getting JUST ONE MORE THING done in between wandering upstairs and down as I threw utterly random articles (which, mercifully, included a few pairs of consignment pants that more or less fit) into a suitcase.

My flight left shortly after 4 PM, and I needed every second of the time leading up to it for pointless fretting, psychotic dreams of making up "a few" new slides that could be printed in NO and inserted into the poster, and packing. At some point, the M asked if maybe I should eat something. I think I looked at him rather desperately and said, "No?" I had, for the previous 10 days or so, been subsisting on fast food salads. My ever-impeccable timing meant maximum potential exposure to E. coli. Coincidentally, I'm sure, much of the work for the poster was done from my bathroom where I was joined by all 100-lbs of nonhuman animal flesh in the household. This may be more than anyone needed to know.

Midway was a freaking madhouse for some unearthly reason, and the usually very efficient Southwest people had some evil harpy at the entrance to the line mucking up the works. In theory, she was making sure that we were appropriately sorting ourselves into lines of those with boarding passes and and those needing to deal with tickets, boarding passes, etc. In practice, she stopped every single person and scrutinized obvious boarding passes for no obvious reason other than a need to exert power over the masses and slow us all down.

The flight was entirely full and the person occupying the middle seat in my row had no sense of fucking personal boundaries. He sat slouched with splayed knees and elbows firmly planted on either armrest, jutting well into my space and the space of the person in the window seat. The joke was, eventually, on him, though, for lo! I am a continental knitter, and even with my short needles, asshole's going to get poked.

The original plan had been for me to head to the hotel, divest myself of all worldly goods (which, again, I remind you, triumphantly did include pants), and join J and AKS at Arnaud's for dinner. However, as I learned upon calling the Professor from the pachinko cab (every time we went over a bump, the dome light came on and there was a jangling noise. I suspect because my door did not actually, in the most literal sense, close), he'd pushed the reservation and we'd all be able to head over together.

Because Team Turtleneck is a model of efficiency, within 45 minutes of touchdown, we were sitting in the beautiful (and mercifully more casual) jazz dining room at Arnaud's, looking out on Bourbon street, listening to the world's most perfect jazz trio, and had sazeracs in hand (well, J and I had them, AKS had a Manhattan). The tone of bourgeois cruelty for the week was set at Arnaud's. You see, their Table d'Hote menu seems like it would transport you to a very happy place indeed before depositing you in hell by way of payment. But that feeling only lasts until you see the a la carte menu, at which point you realize that you are already in hell because you can. not. choose.

We ultimately put on our brave faces and realized that it was simply not practical to order three of everything. We settled for an appetizer each, oysters for the table (after reflecting that it was a rare occasion, because no one present was going to be grossed out by them), and entrees, of course. Taking maximum advantage of the "no M to gross out" factor, I ordered the Escargot en Jaunty Chapeaux; J went for the alligator sausage; and AKS, I believe, went for the gumbo? I know it was between that and the shrimp bisque, but NO leaves one pleasantly awash in delicious soups and stews, so it's hard to remember.

For the oysters, we went for some on the half shell (ZOMG, unbelievably fresh, delicious, and totally without need for condiment of any kind) and the Oysters Arnaud, a sampler including one each of all their baked options. The latter were good across the board and some were transcendent (yes, dear, groin-grabbingly transcendent). If they were less memorable than the raw, it's likely because we let them sit a bit too long and possibly because (as I would learn later in the week at our return to the New Orleans Cooking Experience) the oysters this year are unusually tiny thanks to various aspects of Katrina fallout.

I was so excited about the pastry caps on my escargot that I tried to eat the first one too quickly and got more tongue sizzle with my deliciousness than I had bargained for. As vehicles for butter, garlic, and herbs, they did their duty well, and the pastry caps were an awesome addition to that (plus, the wee individual cups? Such an adorable delivery system for slimy deliciousness!). I admit to coveting J's sausage. Um . . . I mean that in the literal sense, of course. That was some tasty gator with tastier Creole mustard. My brain continues to blank out on AKS's soup/gumbo, but it was delicious, that much I know. Oh! Wait! It was the gumbo, because there was something on top that needed to be sucked out. How I forgot that, I will never know. I'm tentatively blaming the Tiger by the Tail.

For entrees, I went pompano en croute; J went Crawfish O'Connor (which, sadly, was not en fuego tableside as we'd hoped); and AKS went with what we came to call "Hell Quail." Because, seriously, if you know that every possible food bribe under the sun is in your dish and you order it anyway, you also know you're on the express train to hell the minute you finish.

Each entree was beautiful in its own way. The crawfish was actually more of a comfort food dish than the menu's description seemed to imply, but it had a deep, rich flavor with very pleasant heat at the back. My pompano? Well, what can I say? It was a fish topped with scallop mousse inside a gorgeous pastry fish. Amazing presentation and the lightest, most deceptive (Me? Harden your arteries? Stop your heart cold at the dinner table? Would I do that?) cream sauce EVAR. And Hell Quail? Let's just say that Hell Quail made me forget my "No Organ Meats" rule and LIKE IT.

For dessert, there was excellent coffee, Strawberries Arnaud for moi, Ice cream/sorbet for AKS, and I'm blanking on what J had. I think it was a special, because neither the chocolate devastation nor the caramel flan look familiar.

As much as I enjoy the Food!Pr0n, any tale of this dinner is incomplete without mention of the awesome jazz trio. The jazz dining room is, seriously, one of the most pleasant spaces known to me. It's comfortable, visually pleasing, and they clearly made a compact with the devil to achieve acoustics capable of supporting a 3-piece strolling band that still allows diners to have a conversation. From subsequent peeks into the dining room as we strolled Bourbon later in the week, I gather that different musicians rotate through, with the upright-bass player possibly being the stable element. We had upright bass, awesome banjo (the drum was transparent and inside was a kind of diorama of dixieland jazz), and, I think, a curved soprano sax played by mini-Joss Whedon.

They started their set playing in the corner and eventually made their way around to teach table, playing a song or two for each. We got an awesome tango-infused version of St. Louis Blues medley-ified with Shake, Rattle, and Roll, which they got us to sing. They did many of the expected standards ("St. James Infirmary," "Jelly Roll," etc.) with the added bonus of "House of the Rising Sun." Both the bass player and mini-Joss were kick-ass singers, and I was tickled to be able to watch some cool slap bass up close, especially after not being able to see much of the blurry-handed prowess of Jimmy Sutton on Friday. Seriously, these guys were so good I took to pressing my face to the window and mewling pathetically in the hopes of hearing a bit more of them later in the week.

After dinner, we decided that a bit of a stroll to work off some of the meal was in order. We headed down Bourbon Street toward Esplanade and wound up at the Maison Bourbon, partly because we were lured in by the hot, hot trumpet of Jamil Shrif and partly by the promise of a drink called "Tiger by the Tail." AKS and I were definitely intrigued and did not regret opting to receive its newsletter. Well, I personally would later regret subscribing to its second issue hot on the heels of its first, but you can't blame the Tiger, man.

The weirdest note of the evening was that at 11:59 PM, the Maison was hopping, the set was coming to a smokin' finish, and the bartender was knocking out drinks with alacrity. On the stroke of midnight, the place turned into a pumpkin (celebrating with relief the end of Our Lord's day, I'm sure). We got the "You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here speech from the Pod People who had replaced those who were joking and laughing with us a literal moment before.

Confused but still soaring on great food and music, we pointed Team Turtleneck back toward Canal. J abandoned us momentarily to secure black Mardi Gras beads for us. The minute he detached, before AKS and I could really get into our discussion of boas, three cute little Celtic men appeared from the Pocket Dimension and joined in, informing us that we both simply NEEDED those boas. Happy and oblivious, I was inclined to agree, but the Pocket Celts seemed disappointed and melted away when our male escort reappeared.

Upon return to our palatial suite, we somehow managed to stay up until 5 AM talking about the relative merits of Lt. Col. Man!Ho and MacGyver. I think I broke something in AKS pretty permanently when I gave my summary statement: "Look, I'm just saying that when the Zombie Apocalypse comes, I'd be presenting to MacGyver and bearing his children, because he's the one who's going to get you through."

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Mutual Masturbation

So I've had Elizabeth I languishing on the TiVo for some time now. I'd started to watch it a few weeks ago, finished it up tonight, and started it right over from the beginning again. And only partly for Hugh-Dancy-stalking purposes.

It has many things to recommend it. But the highest honor I can bestow upon it is to say that I'm pretty sure that Helen Mirren made a study of Miranda Richardson's Queenie to get the Mad Queen Bess bits down just right. And I'm completely serious about that.

This version of the Virgin-Adjacent Queen centers on her relationships with the two Robins (Dudley, Earl of Leicester and Devereaux, Earl of Essex). Given that much potential for bawdy French Farce, Mirren is faced with Liz's 19th nervous breakdown about 10 minutes in. And apparently neither Mirren nor Tom Hooper (who, I see, also directed Daniel Deronda; methinks I'm not the only Dancy stalker) shied from making her as thoroughly ridiculous in her moments of human weakness as she is awe inspiring in her moments of political greatness. It's an interesting choice and the right one to keep the story from descending completely into soap opera territory.

And does it even need to be noted that the entire cast is stellar? Jeremy Irons, Emperor Palpatine, hosts of folks from Cracker, and MI-5, etc. Hugh holds his own with some powerhouses of acting and hardly ever has to fall back on his fundamental cuteness in tights. And shallow as I am, I couldn't help thinking that I wouldn't mind shagging Hugh Dancy (or Jeremy Irons, for that matter) at Helen Mirren's age, nor would I mind shagging Helen Mirren at Hugh Dancy's age.

I love it when a plan comes together.


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Bookend: Jet Li's Fearless

I promise that you'll all hear all the gory details of the New Orleans trip in Matilda's good time, but while I wait for my spouse to emerge from the shower, I might as well cover Fearless, which we went to see Sunday night.

Jet Li is someone that I find immensely appealing and paradoxically cute at all times. It doesn't matter how stinky the movie is. It doesn't matter if his character is supposed to be the most villainy villain in all villaindom. It doesn't matter that the sheer force of the mildest of his gazes could grind me into a fine powder. I like him and crave a pocket-sized version of him to carry around with me.

Partly, this is because he gives unparalleled "This is mah kewt face" face. Partly, it's because his roles generally call for him to be the nameless, silent type and, not being Clint Eastwood, he carries that off with a zen-to-cheerful determination that makes one want to fix him some cocoa and insist that he put his deadly feet up. Ok, so possibly that's just me.

In any case, Fearless is something different for Jet Li and something different for me as a Jet Li fan. New is usually good on its own merits, and certainly if this is to be his "last martial arts epic," breaking new ground is appropriate. I'd be willing to wager that this role had him speaking lines in excess of all lines spoken in his previous films combined. If you don't like that figure coming direct to you from my ass, please consider my observation that he certainly is required to play a much wider range of emotion than is typical of his other movies, up to an including Hero: He is the silly, affectionate father in his absent-minded, desultory way; he is the fond son, determined both to restore the family's damaged (at least as he perceives it) reputation; he is the warrior who approaches his matches with careful nonchalance; and he is the self-deceiving drunk who willfully ignores the fact that his largesse buys him hangers-on, rather than true disciples; and ultimately, he is both the humble student and someone worthy of the title master.

He is remarkably good at all and heartbreakingly so at many. He's not an actor of, for example, Chow Yun Fat's subtlety, and to his credit he knows that. But be that as it may, he has a similar kind of stillness about him that he overcomes her, occasionally visibly as a facial expression or a passing moment of body language hits the "NOT JET LI!" buzzer. There are times when he overplays the macho and the bombast, but it's not a stretch to treat that as a deliberate choice that the character might make.

Narratively and thematically, Fearless has its issues. Some are endemic to history-based film (this is certainly not historical fiction, and it's not quite fictionalized history, either), and some are dear to historically based films set in China. In terms of the latter, Fearless probably suffers more from the propaganda-y goodness than does Hero. Hero takes place entirely on a canvas occupied by Great Men (Please excuse my inexcusable use of the masculine to include Mistress Flying Snow. If it's any consolation, I feel sure that she'll kick my ass for it.) doing Great Things. Fearless showcases the lives of everyday people, some of whom seize the historically contingent moment and attempt to make it their bitch. In the course of doing that, however, it shades to the Yang Ban Xi end of the spectrum, idealizing the peasant way of life, blaming inequality and want on foreign interests, oversimplifying questions of multicultural unity and equality, and so on.

And you know, it's a film based on a semi-mythic character living in a highly problematic, politically and culturally volatile time. For temporal framing, they arbitrarily choose most of the lifetime of Huo Yuanjia, which means we're looking at the period from about 1870-1910. That covers the Japanese conquest, rebellion against the Ching dynasty, the influx of European powers intent on getting a piece of the Chinese pie, the Boxer Rebellion and its aftermath, and the protacted death of Imperial China.

The film manages to capture much of the fractured feeling without ever pulling focus so far away from Huo Yuanjia that it feels forced. Notably, the degredation of Huo's home town and his people are manifest upon his return, but the sequence of images moves along at a good clip. Huo can't take it all in at once and the audience never feels like we're dwelling on the angst. Likewise, the circus setting for Huo's (entirely fictional, as it turns out) match-up with Hercules O'Brien is ideal for a rapid-fire look at the social, cultural, ethnic, and economic pluralism of the audience. Upon reflection, of course, the sheer number of consumers of the jingoistic contest is depressing, as is the diversity within it, but again, there's no sense getting visually bogged down in that when most people came to see a Jet Li/Ronnie Yu ass-kicking movie.

I've seen a handful of complaints that Yu's direction gets repetitive in trying to show off Li's moves to their best advantage. I refer such individuals to the pointedly-NOT-Master-of-the-Flying-Guillotine-Huo-is-the-champion-of-the-world montage. We see the highlights of the goofier fights (alas, no long-armed yogis, but twins!) and appropriately harrowing and extended versions of his grudge matches. Yu also seems to have made an intelligent directorial decision in having the first three fights of the penultimate match (those against Europeans) take place immediately, leaving the final (Chinese vs. Japanese) battle for the film's climax. It's a neat and appropriate visual framing, and it serves the quite necessary purpose of giving those who are there strictly for the martial arts a healthy appetizer before they'll be sitting through the girly character development and history parts of the movie.

Overall, I really enjoyed Fearless. It's not as visually appealing as Hero, but the comparison isn't really fair as the latter is more overtly mythic, which opens up more possibilities. In some ways it is more narratively satisfying, despite the ways in which both films are pat and overly simplistic, simply because Huo was a real person and Li carries that through. Likewise the supporting cast are real people, flawed and capable of grace, generosity, and following the difficult path. And the actors, notably Yong Dong (as Huo's childhood friend and adult ally, Nong Jinsun) and Shido Nakamura (as Anno Tanaka, the Japanese fighter with whom Huo reaches an understanding before their match), usually manage to inject that humanity into the interactions, even when the dialogue is heavy handed.

For selfish reasons having to do with Jet Li's cuteness and my love for martial arts movies, I hope this isn't his last epic. But if it is, it's a high note to go out on.

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Junior, Revisited

I have a massive brain dump to do. Tragically, I also have a massive amount of grading to do. The compromise is that I shall chip away at the New Orleans in chunks that make sense in the depths of Matilda!Brain. Just so you have a sense of how things will go, I'm going to start two days before I left, because M and I journeyed to Fitzgerald's as part of our "Stalking Junior Brown" program. And really, how hard can it be to catch THAT man in THAT hat with THAT Guit-Steel?

It's possible that there's something magical about Junior Brown and opening bands. As you may recall, I had mad love for The Silvermen, who were the first band at the Knuckleheads show in Kansas City. In the case of the Fitzgerald's show, it takes some work to figure out where to direct my inappropriate fervor.

The calendar listed The Riptones in small print under "Junior Brown with." From context clues, I now gather that the bassist for the Riptones has been pretty seriously ill. That seems to explain to explain why the band we did see was definitely not The Riptones. The players we saw (upright bass, guitar, and drums) were hesitant to introduce themselves as a band, and after a week in New Orleans, my mid-term memory ain't what it used to be. However, I have managed to excavate certain pieces of information.

Our bassist for the evening was Jimmy Sutton and the guitarist was Joel Paterson, both of whom seem to derive from the Four Charms. Paterson also belongs to Devil in a Woodpile and has played with Steve Dawson, who teaches at the Kevin Bacon The Old Town School of Folk Music. It's not just a small bourgeois clique, it's also a small, talented-yet-starving musician clique. I regret to say that what I know about the drummer is minimal: His name is Alex something or other; he looks like a younger, hipper Dean Haglund; he'd never played with these guys before (at least not the material they did that night); and he got yelled at a few times, probably because of the never having played with them before.

They may have been an ensemble without name or country, but they were great. Better still, they were great on their own merits and great as an opening band for Junior Brown. The Four Charms are primarily a swing band, and there was plenty of swing in the performance (longing for an upright bass in my household reached all-time highs during an extended slapping riff), but also blues, jazz, and a fair amount of country. Paterson also got so into one of HIS extended riffs (mmmm . . . Les Paul-y goodness) that he kicked out his own amp cord and insisted on a do over. If there's one thing I love more than eclectic in my opening band, it's healthy dose of cute spazz. Anyway, they, whatever they call themselves, were terrific.

Junior, once again, came on around 11 with the same bassist and drummer from KC in tow (or, rather, they had him in tow, as the bassist once again did the Old School "Ladies and Gentlemen, Junior Brown!" intro as they played the Benny Hill theme [ok, so that's Old School in a different way]). The first four or five numbers he played were identical to those in Kansas City. Lest that come off sounding bored or ungrateful, let me assure you that I did not miss the Guit-Steel lobotomy, courtesy of the craptacular audio set up at Knuckleheads even one little bit. It was great to be able to enjoy myself thoroughly without worrying when, exactly, my liquified brain was going to dribble out my ear.

After the standard opening, he mixed the set up a bit more, omitting some songs and adding others in. As is my malcontented way, I cannot think of a single song they added, but I recall missing "I Have to Get up Every Morning Just to Say Goodnight to You" and "Still Life with Rose." The nonstop pace was just the same as in Kansas City. His patter, likewise, remained minimal, but he also seemed much more relaxed and engaged with the crowd. I don't mean to project my neurological issues on to him, but he just seemed to be enjoying himself a lot more at Fitzgerald's. Giving Knuckleheads the benefit of the doubt for the moment, I should note that he's been playing in Berwyn for a couple of decades, whereas it was his maiden voyage at the KC venue. Still, I think the person at the soundboard for the entire show probably had something to do with the palpable difference in performance.

My lone complaint about the show, in fact, is that Fitzgerald's has removed the platform along the back wall of the venue. This used to have a row of chairs/stools and a row of tables on the floor in front of it. We would often head for the back corner of the venue and take some of those chairs on the platform. From there, I had enough added elevation that I could see the performers without having to bob and weave. But alas, no more—there was a great deal of bobbing and weaving and Junior spent a lot of the time out of my sightline.

Still the show was sufficient to motivate M to pick up several CDs for his long train ride to NO. Things being what they were before I left, I didn't have time to load them on to the Obah Cypt, but I intend to remedy that today. All in all, a satisfying chapter in the stalking saga.

ETA: Dayum, I screwed the pooch on this. One of the most important bits of information I discovered at Fitzgerald's is that Lucy Kaplansky will be there on Friday, October 20. I just missed her in St. Louis and I'll be missing her this week as well, given that I'm committed to volunteering at the Teen Open Mic Showcase that night. But learn from my tragic example and go see her if at all possible.

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