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Friday, January 05, 2007

Adjectival Reversal: The Nutcracker on Horseback, Noble Horse Chicago

So a while ago, my friend B was soliciting opinions on whether or not her elder munchkin was old enough to enjoy The Nutcracker this Kwannukmastice season. Strangely, this led me down a circuitous path out of my neurosis about Christmas presents. You see, I got my nephew A a large-ish Christmas gift (jointly with my parents and little brother and sister-in-law), and I was concerned that this would look like favoritism, because his sister C was getting only books. I'd been thinking about taking her to a show as an auxiliary present, when pal M said the magical words: "Nutcracker on Horseback." Of course, I ended up taking both of them, thus failing to bring balance to the force.

Actually, I wound up taking the two munchkins as well as my brother and sister-in-law, because one can never have enough beards. We'd initially planned an evening performance, but I think I've mentioned that it's about as easy to get on these kids' schedules as it is to get a tour of the White House these days. We wound up with tickets for the Sunday matinee, and I don't think the squirts appreciated little bro and I were augmenting the present even further by giving up half the Bears game.

Once the OMGWTFBBQ of the simple fact of a Nutcracker on horseback began, the "The Hell?" there's a riding hall in the middle of Old Town? Try as I might, I just couldn't get my mind around an 1871 hippodrome sitting within spitting distance of my beloved Salpicon (oooh, I hope the horses don't spit on it). I stopped looking for the wonderfully weird in Old Town the day I decided to seek out the address of the studio/theater of Herschell Gordon Lewis and realized that the Blood Shed (where Robert Sinese, father of Gary got his start as a film editor) was now Condos. Consider my faith in the weird renewed.

Seriously, it's a lovely building made lovelier that you've just had to wrangle your way into a parking space in a neighborhood congested with the most oblivious of yuppies, you're walking down streets so narrow that parking with wheels on the curb is standard operating procedure, and suddenly, you come upon this lovely building gated away from the furious pace of the neighborhood around it. The warm fuzzies build as you go inside. The lights are low (much of it is provided by gas lanterns, candles, and torches), the wood is dark, the ceilings are high and crossed by serious-looking beams.

In the hall, the riding area takes up most of the space, and there's tiered seating at long counters only at one end. At the opposite end from the seats are two entrances to the ring, one opening on to a short flight of stairs, the other large enough to admit horses and riders, and there's another entrance for them to the right. There's a small show ring slightly closer to the seating than center.

The horses are beautiful and the riders and trainers are obviously very skilled. We got to see the black Andalusian that is mentioned on that page, as well as an American quarterhorse and several of the white Lusitanos. (I'll admit that I was somewhat bummed that my munchkin beards showed no interest in meeting the horses afterward. They were very pretty!)

There were a number of single-horse tricks, where a rider (or, in one case, a trainer who walked along side) demonstrated the horse's ability to curtsey, do a controlled rear, jump, high-step, etc. I feel certain that this makes me a bad person for wanting every animal to be my monkey and amuse me, but goddamn, a horse making a curtsey is just cute, ok?. Other portions centered on a group of horses galloping de-by-side in step with one another, demonstrating synchronized movements and weaving in and out of formation, and carrying riders engaging "in combat." There were also a few demonstrations of gate jumping, both with single horses and several working together. Later in the show, the emphasis was on the cossack riding, which was both nerve wracking and impressive.

So the space is cool and beautiful, the horses and riders ditto. Unfortunately, the whole Nutcracker conceit was a bit goofy and not particularly well thought out. Basically, an unseen narrator read snippets of a clumsily written synopsis of the story that had been selected because they had some vague relationship to the type of tricks that they wanted to demonstrate. There was a lot of down time. I'm not complaining about that: Obviously you have to move horses on and off, then stage others, and with the limited entrances, this is not going to be a speedy process. But it does tend to drag the narrative down.

Adding to the narrative problems was the fact that they seemed to have a less clear concept of Clara than did either Hoffman or Dumas (as my sister-in-law pointed out, if your heroine is young enough to be playing with dolls, selling a romance with a prince has its creep factor). The actress/dancer was likable enough, but she was left as the only thing going on for long, long stretches of time. They also castrated poor Fritz and made him an extremely bratty sister who gets no comeuppance for being a stone cold bitch. Likewise, they built up the Mouse King as evil and having a grudge against Godfather Drosselmeyer, then he's defeated in short order (and it wasn't even him standing on the backs of two horses as pictured, it was Drosselmeyer) and the nutcracker-now-prince spends all his time sucking up to Clara. I believe that I read something indicating that the matinee performances are shorter than those in the evening, so it's likely that we were experiencing the worst of the worst in terms of disjointed storytelling.

Still, it seems like the hall is better suited to shows that simply focus on the horses, riders, and how they train. For example, early on, it seemed clear that some of the single horses were just learning, and their tricks were consequently pretty simple. It would have been interesting to hear more about how they train them, the pace, the techniques, and so on. I'd definitely be interested in going back to see a show that played up the considerable strengths of this group more appropriately.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Waiting for Gumbot

Roughly 12 aeons ago, my friend A asked for my Gumbo recipe (which, of course, is Frank Brigtsen's recipe). M and I learned to make this gumbo on our honeymoon when we did a class at the New Orleans Cooking Experience. We've made it several times. It's time consuming but definitely worth it. I'm just typing in from the recipe that Frank gave us and giving the notes that I think will be helpful.

Yield: 12 bowl-sized portions (14.5 cups)
MTZQ Notes: This is a cajun gumbo (not surprising as Frank trained under Paul Prudhomme, who literally wrote the book[s] on cajun cuisine), which involves making the roux separately, then adding it to a boiling broth. Creole recipes cook the vegetables in the roux once it's fully browned. Both are nice, but I like the cajun way somewhat better for a gumbo, whereas the creole method lends itself better to less "soupy" things.

1 lb. Andouille sausage, sliced into half-rounds, 1/4" thick
MTZQ Note: I have used hot italian sausage in a pinch, but andouille is best, both for flavor and texture

2 TBSP Pomace olive oil
MTZQ Note: The key here is high heat tolerance. You don't want an extra virgin olive oil, because it will burn before your trinity has browned. You can also use reserved bacon grease or any other kind of animal fat.

4 c diced yellow onions, 1/2" pieces (divide into 3c and 1c portions)
3 c diced celery, 1/2" pieces (divide into 2c and 1c portions)
2 c diced bell pepper (any color is fine, but it's nicer if you have some variety), 1/2" pieces
2 Bay leaves
1 TBSP minced fresh garlic
4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp whole-leaf dried thyme
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
1/4 tsp ground cayenne pepper
3 TBSP gumbo filé powder
MTZQ: Note: The salt, dried spices, and filé powder can be tossed into the same dish, making a "spice kit." Resist the urge to up the spices because you like things more flavorful, at least the first time, this gumbo is nice and bold and really does require only these small amounts

12 c chicken stock
MTZQ Note: Frank says "or water" in the original recipe. Uh, no. You really do want to use chicken stock

1 chicken, cut into 8 pieces (3-4 lbs of bone-in chicken pieces)
MTZQ Note: I've always used legs and thighs, never tried this with breasts, which can be too unwieldy during frying, or wings, which seem like a lot of effort for little yield when it comes to removing the meat from the bones. Also, I just like dark meat better.

4 TBSP Chef Paul Prudhomme's Meat Magic seasoning
3 c all-purpose white flour
Enough vegetable or peanut oil for frying the chicken pieces


  1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Place the sliced andouille sausage on a shallow baking pan and bake until the edges have turned brown, 40-45 min.
    MTZQ Note: This might seem like an odd step, because frying the sausage in the gumbo pot would give you fat for sauteing the trinity. However, it's a step that makes a difference. The crisping of the edges of the sausage helps it retain some firmness in the gumbo, and you don't have to deal with too much grease/not enough grease. I'm a firm believer in baking.

  2. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over high heat. Add 3 c of onion, 2 c of celery, 1.5 c of bell pepper, and the bay leaves. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions begin to brown, 12-15 minutes.
    MTZQ Notes: First thing to realize is that this is the gumbo pot in which you're sauteeing. Eventually, the whole kit and caboodle will be in this pot, including 12 c of stock, so make sure it's big enough. The second thing about this phase is that it may go against every cooking instinct you have. When it says "high heat," crank that burner up. When it says stir "occasionally," it means occasionally. In the first 10 minutes, you might only stir these babies twice, and just a few more times in the last few minutes. It's not only ok for things to stick and brown, you want them to stick and brown. As Frank explained it "Brown is the color of flavor." Those bits that stick will be deglazed at later stages, and they'll add a lot of depth to the flavor. Also, we are talking brown on those onions. Not slightly golden, not toasty, but a nice, rich brown. Onions are hard to burn and they have a distinct and nasty smell when they are burning. If your onions look, to your panicked eyes, like they're burning, but they don't have that smell, they're not burning. Take a deep breath, salute the light in your onions, and resist the urge to stir.

  3. Add the remaining vegetables: 1 c of onion, 1 c of celery, and 1/2 c of bell pepper. Reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the second stage of onions turns clear, 2-3 minutes.
    MTZQ Note: If you were worried about all the veggies being limp and slimy, be contented. These vegetables are both for texture and a lighter, crisper flavor.

  4. Add the garlic and your spice kit, including filé powder. Reduce heat to low. Cook, stirring constantly, for 3-4 minutes.
    MTZQ Note: The important thing here is to battle the stringy nature of the filé powder. The low heat and constant stirring are key for that, the timing less so. Your filé may take more or less time before it plays nice and blends into the mixture, rather than coming away with the spoon in strings.

  5. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Add the cooked andouille sausage. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour. Skim off any excess oil that rises to the surface and discard.
  6. While this is simmering, it's time to tackle the chicken. I'm rearranging a few of Frank's steps here, because this order works better for me.

    • Seasoning

      1. Seasoned flour: In a shallow baking pan, add 2 c of the flour and 4 tsp of the Meat Magic seasoning. Blend well.
      2. Season the chicken pieces on both sides with the remaining meat magic, then dredge these in the seasoned flour
        MTZQ Note: As a disciple of Frank, I must insist that you embrace the "wet hand, dry hand" rule here. Handle the initial seasoning of the chicken and initial deposit of the chicken pieces into the flour with one hand, flip them with this same hand, then use the other hand to do more thorough coating and to transfer the now dry chicken piece to the plate or whatever you have waiting. It makes this much less painful.

    • I do believe it's time for you to fry.

      1. Heat your skillet with about 1/2" of vegetable or peanut oil to about 350° F.
        MTZQ Note: Ultimately you want to fry in whatever you are most comfortable with. For me that is either my cast-iron skillet or one of my deep nonstick skillets. You could theoretically do this in an electric fry pan with a temperature control, but I don't own one. Don't try this in any kind of personal (or professional, I guess, deep fryer, though).

      2. Place chicken pieces in the hot oil for browning. Fit as many in as you can, but don't crowd. Be aware that putting cold chicken in will lower the temperature of your oil, so you'll want to monitor this.
        MTZQ Note: I use a clip-on thermometer to monitor the oil temperature, but it's awkward and no mistake. Some rules of thumb that can help. Poppy Tooker advises that one can tell that oil is just about ready for frying when a strike-anywhere wooden match that has been tossed into the pot ignites and immediately goes out. I generally use the flour test: when a pinch of pure flour sizzles and pops when dropped in, the oil is ready. In terms of maintaining the temp, it should be bubbling and popping pretty vigorously throughout.

      3. It should take about 5 minutes to brown each side, for a total of about 10 min. per piece of chicken.
        MTZQ Notes: You are not trying to cook the chicken to the point that it is edible here. This phase has two goals: The first is to brown the chicken skin so that it adds plenty of flavor to the broth when the chicken is added to it; the second is to add flavor to the oil, which is then used to make the roux. To that end, you do do not want to submerge the pieces entirely (yes, that is one half of one inch above). You want to brown one side (about 5 min), flip the piece, then brown the other. If you submerge or nearly submerge the pieces, the "face up" side is getting bogged down with rapidly cooling oil. That makes for greasy, heavy chicken.

      4. As the chicken is browned, remove it to a plate covered with paper towels to drain.

  7. After the broth has simmered for 1 hour sans chicken, add the browned chicken to the still-simmering broth and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is fully cooked and tender, 35-40 min.
  8. Remove chicken from the gumbo and place it in a shallow pan to cool. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, take the meat off the bones and set aside. Discard the chicken bones and skin.
    MTZQ Note: If you haven't started making the roux while the chicken was cooking in the gumbo, you can certainly take care of this step while the chicken is cooling. It's no biggie if the chicken cools all the way down. Also, I use the chicken bones and skin to make chicken broth. You'll probably want to add a few wings or something to it, just because these have already been boiled a bit in the gumbo itself, but there's still plenty of flavor.

  9. Making the roux.

    • Take a deep breath. Banish fear from your mind.
    • Once your frying oil is cool, slowly and carefully pour it into a heatproof glass measuring cup.
      MTZQ Note: You don't want any of the browned flour bits in your oil. To keep these out, I place a paper towel in a colander or mesh sieve and pour the oil through it and into the measuring cup.

    • You will need 3/4 cup + 2 TBSP of oil.
      MTZQ Note: Frank's roux calls for 3/4 plus 2 TBSPs of oil. I watched Poppy do a much more casual roux with equal success. I am enough of a roux n00b that I stick to Frank's very precise proportions, and I'm happy to report that on New Year's Day, I made a beautiful dark roux in under 10 minutes.

    • Heat a cast-iron skillet over high heat and add the oil. When the oil is hot, gradually add 1 c of flour, whisking or stirring constantly, until the roux becomes the color of peanut butter. Reduce heat to medium and continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the roux is deep reddish brown (chocolate brown). Remove from heat and set aside to cool for 15 min.

      • MTZQ Notes on timing:

        • There is a point, just when the roux begins to turn the color of peanut butter, that it starts to smoke and becomes very grainy. At this point, pull it off the heat entirely and whisk like something is after you until the smoke dies down and it gets all smooth again. Trust me, it will happen. At that point, you can return it to medium heat.
        • My first few rouxeseses took a long time to make, mostly because I feared the heat, panicked, added more flour, and did other silly things. If your roux takes 45 minutes, but it's lovely and hasn't burned, consider it a success. It takes practice to build your confidence.

      • MTZQ Notes on equipment:

        • I usually use my cast-iron skillet, but my most successful roux to date was in a nonstick skillet. I don't think the nonstickyness was key. I think the success is attributable to confidence and practice, but it's worth noting that you can make a perfectly lovely roux in a nonstick pan.
        • I recommend stirring with a wooden spoon rather than a whisk to minimize the chances of cajun napalm damage to your person. Vigilant scraping of bottom and sides throughout is key. You want to cook the flour, you don't want to burn it. However, as with onions, go with the smell. Burned flour smells foul. If your roux doesn't reek, it's not burned.

      • MTZQ Notes on eyeballing and roux repair:

        • This roux should be really dark brown and have a distinct reddish tinge to it. It should be a shiny paste, but when stirred, there should not be standing oil.
        • If you have violated the first rule of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and panicked somewhere along the way, the roux is probably salvageable, so long as it isn't burned. If you do have standing oil when you stir, let the roux settle until there's a layer of oil on the top. You can then carefully pour off the oil, leaving your lovely roux behind.

  10. Bring the gumbo broth to a boil. Carefully pour off any excess oil that may have risen to the top of the roux and discard. Slowly and carefully add the roux to the boiling broth, a little bit at a time, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 25-30 min. Skim off any excess oil that rises to the surface and discard. Add the chicken meat, increase heat to medium, and cook, stirring gently, until the chicken is heated through until the chicken is heated through.
  11. Serve over cooked rice.

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Civil Hands in Need of Purell: El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth)

Let's see. What should I be doing right now? Cleaning, writing up a syllabus, getting my office in order so that I can stick to an informal resolution to work up there and keep my living room my living room . . . But I've got a crummy ear infection and haven't slept well in more than a week and I don't wanna. Instead, I shall inflict my thoughts about this movie, which turned out to be more Spanish Civil War and less Labyrinth than I'd anticipated, not that that's a bad thing.

Complete spoilers for Pan's Labyrinth follow.

For once, I don't think I can be blamed for paying insufficient attention and thus having the wrong expectations for the movie. The trailers most definitely emphasize the fantasy elements. I could also argue that Guillermo del Toro is better known for dealing in explicitly supernatural worlds (Hellboy, Blade II, which the ZK assures me was better than Blade, but then it would have to be, wouldn't it?), but I'm pretty sure that I thought Guillermo del Toro had directed King Arthur, which is a terrible thing to say about anyone. At any rate, I had no idea what the non-fantasy backdrop for this was.

For a movie that was about 20% what I expected and 80% news to me, I felt right at home, though. The story approaches the relationship between "real" and "fantasy" in much the same way that some of my favorite authors do. In particular, there are many elements here that are dear to Diana Wynne Jones's stories: An adolescent whose "real world" is in tatters finds him/herself embroiled in powerful and dangerous other-worldly goings on as well and the two bleed into one another.

The story is set in 1944, five years into Franco's Spain, and those darn Reds still aren't buying the hype. Capitán Vidal (Sergi López), in contrast, is a major stockholder in Franconian hype and is entrenched with his men in a mill house positioned to eliminate a particularly troublesome band of guerillas. He sends for his very pregnant, very ill, very trophy wife, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), on the grounds that his son must be born where his father is. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), Carmen's daughter from her first marriage to Vidal's tailor, accompanies her and is about as excited by the prospect of her displacement and her stepfather as he is about her.

On the journey to the mill house, Ofelia has her first encounter with the supernatural as she wanders into the woods during a stop. She spies an odd-looking stone and returns it to its rightful place as the eye a rough-hewn sculpture that is so weather beaten, it almost appears natural, rather than man made. As she slots the stone back into place, a bug very much like a Praying Mantis emerges. Delighted, Ofelia tells her mother that she saw a fairy, but Carmen attributes this to too much reading of the fairy stories that she insisted on bringing.

Upon arrival at the house, Vidal immediately assumes control of Carmen and makes his distaste for Ofelia clear. Ofelia, in turn, asserts her own identity even as she struggles to define herself. She defies Vidal's strictures and Carmen's weakness both consciously and unconsciously, in both childish and more mature ways.

As Vidal struts about, trying to impose social order and civility on the landscape, Ofelia finds herself drawn to the refuge of the stone labyrinth in the woods. As her mother deteriorates, mentally and physically, Ofelia explores relationships, both real and fantastic, with those who show her other ways of existing in the world. In the world of the mill house, she finds a kindred spirit and alternative role model (both in terms of gender and philosophy) in Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), a servant in the house who just happens to be aiding the guerrillas (her brother among them) in the hills. She also shapes the alternate reality of the labyrinth, literally transforming her insect friend into her notion of a fairy and herself into the lost princess of her favorite story.

She's an appealing heroine in a moving story, and del Toro is skilled at borrowing well-known tropes from fairy stories but keeping them fresh. For example, as Ofelia's princess identity is more than a typical child's dream retreat from a violent stepfather and submissive mother. Her nocturnal journeys strengthen and fortify her to go boldly through life at the mill house, keeping Mercedes secret, taking action to secure her mother's health even as she rebels the infantilized female role that her mother craves for both herself and Ofelia. Through it all, del Toro manages to keep Ofelia very real. She is not impossibly good or particularly wise beyond her years, but neither is she completely mired in the narcissism of childhood.

The blend of the child Ofelia has been with the woman she's trying to create is beautifully handled, both visually and narratively. In one scene, Carmen gives Ofelia a dress she's made for a dinner party Vidal is throwing. It's a lovely emerald green Alice in Wonderland affair (complete with white apron and patent leather Mary Janes). Having allowed herself to be literally dolled up, she slips out to the woods to complete the first of three quests given to her by the faun to secure her reentry to her kingdom. This involves her crawling through the muck into the heart of a dying fig tree. As an afterthought, she removes the party dress and hangs it on a tree branch. In her slip, the beginnings of her physical development are clear (without at all being overtly sexualized), and it's obvious how silly a dress it is for someone her age. Distanced from her mother's mores and their physical trappings, she is brave and clever as she achieves her goal on her own terms.

True to her age and genuine affection for her mother, though, her rebellion does not come without regret and self blame. When she goes to her book to learn her second task, the pages fill with blood. She hesitates before reopening it and again when her mother cries out to her for help. In that moment, she is clearly tempted to retreat into childhood, and for time she remains inert in both worlds. But ultimately, she moves forward, pointedly living in both and shouldering her responsibilities in both. It's only after the faun gives her a possible remedy for her mother (a mandrake root to be kept in a bowl of fresh milk and, notably, fed with Ofelia's blood) that she agrees to perform the second task.

It's on the second quest that it becomes clear that Ofelia's entire identity is between worlds, not just between childhood and adult identity. She becomes able, literally, to create her own avenues of escape and bridges between extremes. As she more overtly rejects the veneer of social niceties with which Vidal masks his violence, she takes a conscious step closer to the natural world and to folk identity, aligning herself with the guerillas. In contrast, Vidal sees nature as an impediment: It both hides the guerrillas and provides a literal shield for them and for his men as they try to take as much life as possible. Ok, I admit that the folk medicine metaphor is a touch on the hokey side, but the experiments in sacrifice that go along with it, some of which she fails rather spectacularly, make it work.

It's on the issue of sacrifice that the story stumbles a bit, though, and it's also, unfortunately, on this issue that it both begins and ends. Throughout, there is a strong distinction between those who demand sacrifice and those who make it. Vidal is a true fascist, demanding unquestioning loyalty and the surrender of the individual to his will and, more importantly, the will of Franco's Spain. Mercedes and the Doctor question whether their sacrifices are acceptable or meaningful when they are paired with lives of relative ease and comfort. And Carmen unwittingly gives her entire self over to Vidal, making the worst possible choices with the best of intentions to give her daughter what no one gave her, and ultimately to give her life (or to have it taken from her) for her son's. Even Vidal has inherited the legacy of his father who smashed his own watch so that his son would know the exact minute of his death and understand that death in the service of country is the only legitimate exit from this mortal plane.

Ofelia's third task is to bring her baby brother to the Faun. When she objects, the faun demands unquestioning compliance. We've all seen where this is going, right? The first item retrieved is a key, which allows her to retrieve a shiny, shiny knife from behind the back of the eyeless, BABY-EATING fiend, and now the faun wants the baby.

As the guerrillas raid the mill house, she drugs Vidal (who has just suffered a gruesome attack by Mercedes as she makes her escape after having been discovered to be the guerrillas' spy), and makes for the labyrinth with the baby in tow. There, the faun demands the blood of an innocent to open the portal to Princess Moanna's kingdom. She refuses and finds Vidal at her back. Out of choices and unable, this time to create her own means of escape, she wordlessly hands over the baby. Vidal shoots her and immediately gets his comeuppance as the guerrillas (plus Mercedes) block the exit from the labyrinth. He hands the baby to Mercedes and starts his big speech, a legacy from his father, about what they should tell his son about his death. Mercedes stops him and says the boy will never even know his name.

The bad guy dealt with, Mercedes rushes to Ofelia, cradling her body as her blood pours into the labyrinth. As she draws her last breaths, Ofelia sees herself entering a glorious royal court. Her mother sits at her father's right hand and congratulates her on passing the test, sacrificing her own life for the baby's. She urges her to take her title and the throne at her father's right hand.

And that, right there, is where I kind of call shennanigans on the movie. I'm not knocking the Pratchett approach to the afterlife. In fact, should any hang-y on-y bits survive this plane (something I emphatically do not believe will come to pass), I'm damned well going to insist on making up my eternal existence as I go along. But she's still quite pointlessly dead. And yeah, I get that a lot of other people have died in the course of this movie (uh, I probably should have noted earlier that this is a really disturbing, violent film. It's not particularly . . . graphic, except in a few instances, but not for the faint of heart, to be sure) and depressing lack of real ground gained or purpose imparted is deliberate. I'm supposed to object to her death, I know, but I object equally to the simplistic, childish "reward" that she crafts for herself in the wake of her most adult moment.

I'm not saying it negates what's good and thought-provoking and enjoyable about the film at all. I'm just saying that I resent the abrupt parting of ways with del Toro that I experienced in the last moments. Anyway, leaving aside a somewhat hokey ending, there's lots to enjoy visually and narratively in the movie. Just remember, it's got more Spanish Civil War than you bargained for, less labyrinth than you might've hoped for, and absolutely no David Bowie.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Ringing in New Ears: Pat McLaughlin at Fitzgerald's, New Year's Eve

I'd meant to write this up yesterday, but was far too lazy early on, then far too embroiled in cooking. We have a very good New Year's Eve at Fitzgerald's although our hearing may never be the same. Hearing, she is overrated anyway.

Of course, the move of the Bears game pretty much bent the city of Chicago over and took it roughly from behind, sans lube. Even Berwyn could not escape entirely. The doors at Fitzgerald's had been scheduled to open at 8 PM. A "pick and pay" buffet by Wishbone (which, as noted by M, will soon be opening adjacent to the Club) was to be available shortly thereafter, and opening band in the club/Pat McLaughlin in the side bar music room were scheduled to begin at about 9:30.

After Robbie's Show on Saturday, Bill Fitzgerald had announced that things would start "at 7PM with the Bears game in the bar." M turned to me at that time and said, "Maybe we should get here at 7?" Maybe. After 10 years and 170 Sundays of me parked in front of the Bears game, he says maybe.

We arrived at Fitzgerald's at 7 just on the heels of two other attendees who were eager for information on the timing of the evening's events. Unfortunately, the early opening seemed to have introduced some end-of-year chaos into the mix. The guy taking tickets/cash had no idea who was playing where or when. The bartender, who was still busily trying to turn his work area into a functioning bar, had no further information, either. (We were, at least, able to confirm that it was Pat in the side bar and Sonny Landreth in the main club.)

We settled down with a couple of beers to watch the Broncos lose (My comment to M: Very unhappy N, Very happy JRH.) and to make it clear that we were content and determined not to add to the continuing chaos. Not even when it was 7:20 and the TV was still on FOX and a Simpsons episode did I add to the chaos. M, knowing on which side his crazy stripper boobs are buttered, eventually got up and asked for the remote.

M: Do you see how much I really love you? I just turned the TV away from a Simpsons episode.
Me: A rerun
M: A rerun with Vegas wife!

I'll be interested in getting some official clarification on Smoke Free issues at Fitzgerald's. Again, as M noted, our superawesome waitress indicated that as of yesterday, they're entirely smoke free. On NYE, the main club and the side bar music room were smoke free, but smoking was allowed in the bar itself. This really interfered with my plans to build street cred by knitting while drinking and being entirely too emotionally invested in a consequence-free football game, as the only chain smokers in the place sat immediately upwind of us. Blegh. (This is further complicated by the fact that this pulmonary/sinus-y creeping crud we now both have already makes one feel as though one has spent the last 48 hours in a smoke-filled room.)

The buffet later being set up than the Fitzgerald's staff had estimated, and was besieged immediately by a somewhat bewildered throng when it did open. This worked out well for me, as M had initially intended to get his food while I held the table, then I'd get mine. Things moved somewhat slowly as the suburbanites suspiciously eyed up food with actual flavor (M reports that someone near him demanded "Just beef, white rice, and plain white bread if they have it"), so M wisely retrieved Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya, Crawfish Etouffee, Hoppin' John, Mac & Cheese, and cornbread for the both of us. All of it was heavenly, with a special shout out to the Etouffee. I am chomping at the bit for that Wishbone location to open and I may have to make a supplemental visit to one of their Chicago locations before that happens.

Things in the game began going from bad to worse in a hurry. There was a lone woman who had sat down at the table with the smokers, but clearly was not with the smokers. I recognized in her all the signs of the rage I was repressing at turnover after turnover (although I am appreciative of the efforts of Packers kicker Dave Rayner to provide consistent comic relief), the mounting soft-focus homages to Favre (I seriously have nothing against the man. I just can't. fucking. stand. all the announcers lining up to blow him instead of . . . oh, I dunno . . . covering the game?), and the often-repeated wish on the part of one of the smokers that Favre should have a good last game. No, he should not. He should become part of the turf. His bones should be ground to make Bear bread. Anything less is unacceptable. If he wanted to have a good last game, he should have been playing the Cowboys or something.

Ahem. I'm better now.

Anyway, to distract myself from the growing pain of the game, I kept peering through the closed glass doors into the music room where Pat and his band were doing sound checks and other preps. I spied a giant oil painting leaning against the back wall of the room, behind the band, and wondered what was up with it—a mystery never to be solved . . . or WAS IT?

Somewhere between 9:30 and 10:00, the doors to the side bar music room seemed to be open (although it's not clear if they were supposed to be open, or if they were simply stormed by Bears refugees). The room is basically a living room. It's longer than wide and carpeted. The stage backs up into the bay windows on the street side, and the entrance from the corner into the room is a nonfunctioning door. The stage is raised maybe 18 inches or 2 feet off the ground and the windows are covered with a black velvet curtain. The lighting set up is pretty minimal. I am unsure whether the disco ball was added for the NYE festivities or if it's a permanent fixture. Immediately in front of the stage is a door that leads into the basement. It has no knob on it, which seems rife with potential for wacky locking-the-band-out-of-the-performance-space hijinks, but in this case, it simply kept blowing open. (Man, this place is haunted. I can't be bluesy when I'm frightened!.)

As M and I took up a station near the stage and a window (the comparatively cool air by the window was counterbalanced by its proximity to a steam pipe that was by turns warm and scalding), a longshoreman consulted with the soundman (M: I swear, he's crafted from soundman DNA. All soundmen look like him.) led me to erroneously conclude that he (the longshoreman) was son of soundman (metaphorically, you understand) and would be doing sound for the side bar while soundman, the original, covered the main club. The longshoreman turned out to be the keyboardist for Pat, also named Pat, and clearly the primary giver of shit to Pat. Oh, also an excellent musician, especially given the fact that the sound issues with the keyboards were never entirely resolved.

A little after 10 (I think), Pat and the guys took the stage. In addition to the longshoreman on keyboards (and backing vocals), Pat was joined by a bassist/vocalist who strongly resembled Josh Jabas. (He also killed his first bass just for snorin' too loud.) A drummer named (I think) Angel, and a guitarist who, I'm pretty sure is the Eskimo's boyfriend. I have not confirmed that identity 100%, but you're just going to have to trust the fact that I'm a professional and I know a pair of freakish thumbs when I see them.

The side bar room is smaller and cozier than the club. It's a nice space, although clearly not one designed with music in mind. We figured that our spots by the window would make for ideal viewing. They did, for the most part, given that they were maybe 5 feet from the stage, but they were undermined somewhat by the ghostly door and the fact that Pat is totally devoid of any rock-star sensibilities and took up his position at the stage-left mic, rather than the one down-center. Rob Bob, the bass player, used the center stage mic when doing back-up vocals, which left me ample time to picture him in a jock strap and cowboy boots in order to study the resemblance to Mr. Jabas fully. I'm sorry, Mr. Bass Player whose name I've forgotten. It's A Thing.

Pat called out for "That Little Child song, in D," and the first set began. On a couple of occasions, Pat made reference to the oil painting, saying he had no explanation for it. Later in the night, he mumbled that it was someone's "first communion portrait." I became gradually convinced that it was a painting of Pat himself, but I think M thinks I'm mad. I refer you to my shit hot, fool proof thumb identification and leave you to make your own call.

The band played for a little more than an hour before taking a break. M and I had intended to wander Sonny Landreth-ward, but the Club was just too freaking packed, especially with all the stupid Channel 7 camera equipment. (Yeah, yeah, I know it's good for Fitzgerald's and apparently fun for everyone who wasn't us, but I think giving over 25% of floor space to a TV crew is a mistake with that many drunken bodies in the house.) We opted instead to hang out at a table in the tents connecting the club to the side bar. Pat, at one point, appeared to be investigating the possibility of getting some food. He seemed unsuccessful in this, which led us to belatedly worry after his second set (which was nearly 2 hours) that none of them had eaten all night.

The second set started shortly before midnight. M and his atomic watch slipped out just in time to secure us glasses of champagne. Midnight came and went in the middle of a song, but we shared a toast and a few smooches nonetheless. The disco ball set to spinning a few seconds late, and only stirring recognition of the moment in a few of our well-lubricated companions. (Seriously well lubricated. At one point, one of the more enthusiastic members of the group flailing around in front of the stage walked back into the room with a mostly full bottle of champagne, which she set down on an amp. What could go wrong, right?) We also belatedly got some noisemakers, which were then promptly confiscated and dumped as an offering on to the stage by the woman who appeared to be the semi-official photographer for Fitzgerald's. Musical highlights of the second set included "Girl (I'd be in trouble if you left me now)" and the closer, "Good Night, Irene."

So what does one make of Pat on second viewing? Obviously seeing him play with a full band (and electric guitar) is a different animal altogether from his performance at the Secret Country show in November, during which he beautifully abused a single acoustic guitar. I enjoyed the elaboration on the essentials (what can I say? I'm a guitar solo whore and a wanton slut who craves harmony), and I really liked the free-form, on-the-fly approach. Pat was frequently calling out keys and giving other directions, verbally and nonverbally, and it was neat watching this piece fall into place and that one not quite make it on the first go around, only to sound even better when it slotted in perfectly on the next pass. It's interesting that this would've made me incredibly tense if this had been theater or anything else on which I have something of an insider's perspective. Finally! Sucking at music has an upside: I can enjoy a performance that's living on the edge.

Not only am I not an audiophile, I'm not a live music snob. I love live music and don't get to it nearly as often as I should, living where I do, but with few exceptions, I get different but equal pleasure from listening to recordings of people I like. Similarly, I couldn't say whether I prefer solo!Pat or Pat!with!Band. Watching Pat alone, I got to focus on his total transformation from pleasant, but somewhat quiet interview subject into The Performer with the voice and the physicality and the grudge against his guitar. With the band, I got The Performer plus the Band Member, giving and taking, leading and following. M commented that, on the whole, he thought that Pat's music lends itself better to solo acoustic performance (not a slam on the group performance at all—we both enjoyed ourselves thoroughly).

I'm entirely serious (and approving, for what my approval is worth) when I say that Pat has no rock-star sensibilities whatever. Case in point: At the end of the second set, naturally everyone was hootin' and hollerin' for an encore. The rest of the band had made it all the way to the basement, but Pat just hung out in the haunted doorway, looking gleeful as he hopped back up on to the stage a full two minutes before the rest of the band.

The Other Pat gave him a look and a whispered lecture on his way by, which prompted Pat to apologize to the audience and say, "Pat just told me that I was supposed to go downstairs with the band." For all his sheepish grin, it was apparent that there were no firm plans for an encore (at the Secret Country show, when the audience called for one, he said "I know you're just makin' fun of me, but I'm gonna play anyway."). He wound up replaying "In Front of God and Everybody" and "Little Child" because so many people had asked for them, either having missed the first set or having had it washed away by champagne. After a couple more songs (not including "Pretty Bird," sadly; many had clamored for it, but I heard secondhand that Pat had said the rest of the band didn't know it), they said good night for good.

Other than the mysterious oil painting chatter, my favorite moment of the evening came during the encore when The Other Pat outed Pat as a fan of musicals, and wickedly suggested that Pat reprise "On the Street Where You Live," which he claimed they'd done during the sound check. Assuming that he wasn't entirely taking the piss out of Pat, I would pay big money to hear it.

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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Men with Hats, Men with Disturbing Shirts: Webb Wilder & Robbie Fulks at Fitzgeralds

I should probably wait for this entry until we spend New Years with Da Bears (Fuck you Very Much NBC and the NFL) and Pat McLaughlin, once again at Fitzgerald's, but when I wait, glaciers tend to pass by before I actually get to writing anything up.

We'd hoped that we'd left early enough to maybe, possibly score a table before Webb, but one can never tell with Fitzgerald's new addiction to constantly shifting the furniture. I bitched during the Junior Brown show about the missing platform. Now they have a lonely booth in the corner where we stood and watched Junior, about 3 feet of platform coming off that, and bare wall at the back, with two rows of tables on the East (I think) wall. To counterbalance the drastic steps they're taking to disrupt the ley lines or battle bad fang shui, they are going smoke free entirely as of tomorrow, and both the Webb Show and Robbie's were smoke free. (Particularly good news for me and my creeping pulmonary crud.)

Anyway, it looked like we were hosed with regard to seating until M was bold enough to ask two guys who were taking up a table for 6 if they were using two of the chairs. We started to move them along the back wall and were told we absolutely could not move the furniture (a policy I would come to embrace last night). We set them back down in the vicinity of the table they'd come from, which seemed to satisfy, and then a very nice couple invited us to use part of their table. We didn't get their names, but thank you nice, Webb-loving couple!

The opening band was the Javelinas, although we only learned this long after we'd left Fitzgerald's, because it was difficult to understand the lead singer a lot of the time. As I think I've disclosed before, I drove around for months with only one speaker in Maurice, my majestic 1988 Cavalier, before realizing that Jimi Hendrix never did an instrumental of "Foxy Lady." That being representative of my nonaudiophile nature, I wouldn't presume to say what the problem was beyond some things were way too loud and others weren't loud enough.

Still, as opening bands for Webb go, they were pretty enjoyable. I liked several of their songs, notably "Stop, Drop, & Rock 'n Roll," "Red Shoes," and "Detroit Narcotic Nights." They were fun to watch and had no tragic intraband disagreements regarding crucial things like key (unlike the umpteenth Replacementsesque band we saw before Webb earlier this year). Moreover, the crowd seemed to be reasonably into them, so I'd call it a success. This did not stop the people behind us (all two of them) from saying after every song, "Please be done." "THEY ARE AWFUL." "Don't they KNOW they've OVERSTAYED THEIR WELCOME?" Uh, whatever. I've been to Fitzgerald's many, many times before. It's not a crowd known for pity applause and attention. Save your rudeness for the really bad, belligerent opening bands (which I've also seen there).

Webb and the Beatnecks were on stage shortly after 11, and were quite finely attired. During set up, Tom had been wandering around in a blue sweatshirt, but this was merely to disguise the grandeur of his awesome red velvet-burnout jacket. Webb had a dark, striped shirt with a vest over it and, of course, The Hat. George . . . I don't even know how to begin describing George's shirt. Um. It was orange. And brown. And White. And rubyandoliveandlilacandmauve. Let's just say that this one very well could have been a patch on it and one would've been hard pressed to find it. The Shirt was accompanied by a hat something along these lines. Jimmy was disguised as an Irish publican in a tweedy jacket and cabbie hat. This is clearly a futile attempt to hide his secret identity as Joe Cocker. (Actually the Cocker Resemblance Obsession is M's. I don't see it much, myself.)

We haven't seen Webb perform since the somewhat tense and less than ideal gig at Knuckleheads. The few times before that, it had seemed like they'd all been working too hard. I think it was last January at Fitzgerald's that Webb's voice was all but gone. But Friday night, they were all looking fit, sounding fine, and apparently having a ball. I remain bummed that the crowd's reaction to About Time continues to be less enthusiastic than for the older stuff.

Certainly, "no new crap" vibe was substantially toned down from that in Kansas City.
I think that's at least partly attributable to the fact that it's clear that they have a great time performing things off that CD, and it's hard not to be caught up in their energy. In particular, "Jimmy Reed" was smokin' on Friday. Webb also mentioned that Kevin Gordon had opened for them in the past, leading M and I to exchange "holy shit" looks. We're pretty sure we'd have remembered him, so we assume that we haven't seen one of those shows.

In any case, we never have to worry about a bad Webb show (that's crazy talk), but this was an especially good one. And I'm not just saying that just because Tom finally caved on his Hatless position for the encore and got a freakin' coonskin cap. Frickin' awesome.

So last night, we vowed not to be dependent on the kindness of strangers for getting a table. We arrived just before 8 PM (opening act starts at 9:30 PM), and found Dolly Varden just finishing their sound check/rehearsal. We were the only ones there, except for a woman who was clearly with DV. I'm such a rocker that I settled down with my knitting and beer and M (futilely hoping to match my rocking nature) had a book and beer. As we began to discuss the possibility of getting some food, our superawesome waitress recommended a few places, and M went out to hunt for something, as befits his gender role.

By 9:30, the place was absolutely packed and I was trying not to physically assault the somewhat strange gentleman who kept setting his beer down on the foot of the stage, well within catastrophic spill distance of the pretty, pretty guitars. Although we were in the first two seats at the first table, things had filled in around the stage sufficiently that I couldn't see very well, so I was somewhat befuddled when Dolly Varden launched into their first song and my brain said, "That's Steve Dawson singing." (Wow that picture on his website is so not what he looks like anymore, in part because he stole his guitarist's old haircut.) Anyway, I've mentioned that Steve is an important cog in the small bourgeois clique of Old Town and, unsurprisingly, a great musician. (I've never seen him perform solo before and obviously I'm a moron who was oblivious to the existence of Dolly Varden.)

On the way home, M opined that he'd enjoyed DV, but that they didn't seem to be the best fit with Robbie. Of course, to me, it seems like a natural fit because I associate them with the same general pool of crazy, irritatingly gifted, swell folks from Old Town. But I take his point in terms of style. Dolly Varden leans much more to the pop side of things—a heaping helping of the best and weirdest of the Beatles, with just a dash of country, whereas Robbie is much more explicitly a crusader for country. But I still find them similar in the emphasis on intelligent lyrics, phenomenal harmony (it's a relief that Steve Dawson and Diane Christiansen are married, because otherwise we'd have to undertake evil experiments to meld their vocal DNA in a lab), and music that's actually pleasant to hear. Anyway, I liked them a great deal and my feeling of stupidity at not knowing about them increased throughout the evening.

Robbie et al. took the stage not too long after 11 and I began wondering if the t-shirt he was wearing (under a button down) could possibly say "Half Man, Half Horse." It did, but that was the least surprising/disturbing/hilarious thing about shirts for the rest of the evening. After doing a few of their own songs, Robbie warned the crowd that this was something of a dress rehearsal for their New Year's Eve Extravaganza in Madison, WI. By tradition, he promised, they would do a review of the most popular music of the year and touch on politics.

Oh. My. God.

At the start of the music year in review, Grant (guitar), Mike (bass/vocals), and Gerald (drums) left the stage and Joe Terry (keyboards) took the stage to get the ball rolling. They had deemed the songs they chose the most popular by spending two weeks torturing themselves by compiling data on crap they'd never heard. Because the Fitzgerald's crowd is so discerning and sophisticated, Robbie assured us, he realized that we would need an annotated version of the songs if we were to have any idea what was going on. With this in mind, they introduced Signboard Gerald. I can't be entirely responsible for the accuracy or validity of any information following that, because I was busy alternately laughing and coughing up a lung from laughing. Signboard Gerald = Pure Comedy Gold.

Signboard Gerald sported nested "helpful t-shirts" bearing the name of the artist being lampooned. He also provided sign language interpretation of the excruciatingly bad lyrics of High School Musical, Beyoncé, Chamillionaire, Rascal Flatts, Dixie Chicks, Nelly Furtado (Robbie as Promiscuous Girl. So. Very. Disturbing.), Josh Turner (Me and My God. My God and Me.), and some others I'm forgetting. If the coughing/laughing/oxygen deprivation excuse doesn't exonerate me on the Alzheimer's front, perhaps the finale of this will.

The last shirt unveiled by Signboard Gerald simply read: Justin. And then Robbie started stripping. All the way down to his wifebeater, which said Sexy on the front and Back on the back. One might argue that this could have been funnier if I had any idea that Justin Timberlake was still alive or that he had a CD called "Sexy Back." You'd be wrong. It could not have been funnier. Or at least it was maxed out on funny right up until the point that Robbie invaded the crowd at the front of the stage and got a few singles in his highly visible boxers for his trouble.

Content in the knowledge that he'd robbed everyone, up to and including Gerald who "ha[s] the view that nobody wants," of any Robbie-based sexual fantasies, they launched back into some of their own stuff for a while. One never knows whether or not to take anything about Robbie or the band at face value, but they certainly seem to have a casual approach to things, calling for requests so that they can slap the audience down, making Mike sing lead on a song so that short-attention-span Robbie can have a break, demanding a 12-minute guitar solo of Grant (followed by a 10-minute piano solo from Joe) so that Robbie can nip off to the back for a beer. It be equally unsurprising to me to find that things are actually scheduled down to the nanosecond or to find that, yeah, it's just that casual. Whatever the case, as much as I love the recordings of these guys, they really pale to watching them have what looks like one fuck of a good time. As I kept repeating on the way home, everything about them is Just. Wrong. WRONG. And I love it.

And speaking of Wrong, the political year in review? The delicious, heinous wrongness started with the "Religious Hatred Rag," (which, yes, is still going through my head, thank you so bloody much), featuring the band members (but notably not Robbie [or Joe] . . . . hmmmm) in ridiculous, stereotype costumes. From there, they moved to the showstopper "I Love a Powerful Dame." I'm pretty sure that the imagery here was necessary to convince the audience that there is, in fact, a lower, more disturbing place than that occupied by gyrating, be-wifebeatered, butt-crack-baring Robbie. Grant deserves special mention for his brief stint as a Washington Page in "Mark Foley Sent me an IM" (to the tune of "Baby Wrote Me a Letter." Likewise, he held his own as Mel Gibson to Robbie's Michael Richards in their vaudeville routine. That's saying something, given that Robbie's Kramer is an even better impression than his Willie Nelson on "Lukenbach, TX."

After more country music, a . . . . person (?) in the audience went pretty literally mad for "Rap of the Dead." Having heard this exhaustive list (including the Fortran guy), with only one minor glitch, I appreciate his enthusiasm, even if I couldn't hope to match it without some pretty hefty pharmaceutical assistance. Both M and I were fans of the tribute to Pluto by Mike the mild-mannered bassist (andDr. Phlox double), even if Robbie did pronounce it "faggy," thus opening a dialogue about free speech versus freedom from oppression between Robbie and Grant.

But country music comes first last and always in the hearts of Robbie fans. They finished with a few of their songs, ending, of course, with a version of "Let's Kill Saturday Night" that might have actually gone to 12. We interrupted their calls to their moms by demanding an encore, which they provided with good grace. All told, they probably played for 2 full hours (and poor Gerald, who had been covering for Dolly Varden's drummer, had been lashed to the mast for nearly 4). On the one hand, it felt like 5 minutes, and on the other, I keep remembering yet another hilarious thing that I simply can't omit. Awesome, awesome, show. Robbie is officially on the "to be stalked" list.

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