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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Phasers Set to Weep: Lucy Kaplansky and Ellis Paul at OTSFM

I'm not sure if I'll get to (or ought to) write up a comprehensive Texarkana report, but I can start with a few observations:

  • If, because it is 90 degrees by 9 AM, you make the decision to wear a microfiber tank top, rather than a proper blouse under your suit, you WILL be required to take off the jacket at airport security, and there WILL be a problem with the person in front of you, requiring you and your matronly arms to stand there, sans jacket, for at least 10 minutes.
  • I think that if your city is hotter than hell for much of the year, climate control should be one of the core competencies of your airport. I cannot stress to DFW how strongly I feel on this point.
  • Pink leopard-print backpacks with Superman's logo are cool.
  • It was fascinating to learn that "No Smoking" has an entirely different meaning in the context of one of the two cabs in Texarkana.
  • If, because it is the only other season-appropriate suit you own, you choose to wear an ivory/tan suit to an important business meeting, your pen WILL explode all over your hands before said meeting begins.
  • All the good businessmen of Texarkana want to do is eat your brains. They're not unreasonable. I mean no one's gonna eat your eyes.

I'll leave off Texarkana in a moment, but allow me to say that it is not easy to get there from here. Or even to get there once you've figured out how to get there from wherever you might be. Or, once you're there, to get anywhere at all. So, yeah, Texarkana was kind of surreal. Oh, and a dry county. Have I mentioned that half of it is in a dry county? And we were in the wrong half?

Anyway, as planned, I was in fact back in Chicago by 3 PM. Starving and exhausted, but corporeally back in Chicago. After we took care of the starving part, I think I could have happily slept through until I had to leave for my bass class on Sunday afternoon, but we had tickets to see Lucy Kaplansky, so no sleep.

Ellis Paul was opening for her, and although I've heard the name and I recognized a handful of the titles of tracks I see on his website, the man himself was pretty much new to me. He's immensely tall and reminds one of Jeff Daniels without at all looking like Jeff Daniels. Of course, it's possible that I was just highly suggestible in my exhausted state, because Jeff Daniels happens to be playing at Old Town in the near future.

Anyhow, he was quite a great lead in to Lucy. He has a similarly sharp, witty, and personal song-writing style and a very deadpan sense of humor. He turned the latter on the audience, mocking us for our seriousness and for unduly emphasizing the SCHOOL in OTSFM. Out of a sense of fairness, I'm sure, he also told a story about traumatizing Arlo Guthrie by taking his shirt off in front of Arlo before a show. Oddly enough the same technique ended up getting Nora Guthrie married, though, so take that for what it's worth.

He played acoustic guitar and piano "in the key of white," as he's teaching himself and hasn't quite mastered the black keys yet. His friend, Don Conoscenti, sans shoes, also came out to play with him for a few songs (which ended up being more than half the set. The two of them obviously know one another very well indeed and delighted in giving one another shit on stage.

I'll never remember all we heard, but it was a great set. Throughout it, I was having a nagging brain malfunction about his voice, though. I knew it reminded me of someone, but I just couldn't nail it down until afterward. I am afraid to even mention it, because it's all too possible to take it wrong. Oh, all right: It's Steve Perry. But Steve Perry attached to smart songs ranging from soul raking love songs to the kind of music that makes even me want to drive: "Jukebox on My Grave," "Maria's Beautiful Mess," "3,000 Miles," "Blacktop Train," "Take All the Sky You Need," "Home," and "Alice's Champagne Palace," which I managed to love despite painful memories of racing toilets.

But then . . . THEN . . . the crowd calls him back for an encore and he starts out with the funny Arlo story. And just when he's made you feel like he might possibly be a dork within the same order of magnitude you are (and by you I mean me, you understand), he gets vindication because Nora actually asks him to take his shirt off. And when you've laughed good and hard and "awwwwed" over how Nora met her husband, you realize that you have been led down the garden path. Because all off this sillyness and sappyness is to get you feeling all good and mellow when he talks about how Nora asked him to write the music to Woody's "Gods Promise," which he wrote during the first year after his Huntington's Disease manifested. And then . . AND THEN he sings it and if you're not only me but a very very tired me whose brain has been eaten by venture capitalists, you're weeping copiously by the end and just trying, out of respect for your fellow concert goers, not to sob out loud. And let me tell you, once you've already wept a little weep during the opening act, there is no hope whatever for you during a Lucy Kaplansky set. I think you all can appreciate how diabolical this man is.

And I'm not letting a certain Dr. Kaplansky off the hook either, as she decided to start her set with "Carey" off Joni Mitchell's Blue, perhaps the most heart-rending album of all time. I'm not sure if opening with Joni is the equivalent of her content rating: This acoustic set is rated "A" for "aching." Some material may evoke images of the kind of family one only dreamed could exist and may cut far too close to the bone for sensitive hearers. Frankly, it's just as likely that someone should tell Joni that she got served.

Whereas Ellis Paul was all sly humor and wit right up until the Patented Woody Guthrie Gut Punch, Lucy, as befits her other profession, worked about equally from the folksinger's guide to dry, slightly ditzy humor and the DSM-IV. She started by pointing out one of the songs she sang early on in the set had been written for her 4.5 year old daughter. It's called "Manhattan Moon," although she admits she'd have loved to call it "Molly's Song," she already has one called "Song for Molly" in honor of her grandmother. It's a sweet, rolling little song—a lullaby with legs (wheels, really). After this innocent ditty, she "warned" us that she'd be talking a lot about her daughter. Just in case anyone got suspicious, and we should have been, she did another comparatively happy-go-lucky song, a cover of Loudon Wainwright's "Swimming Song." She also told us a bouncy, upbeat story about having done a recording of it years ago that she thought was dismal. (Ok, that's not the bouncy, upbeat part.) When she was thinking about doing it again, she actually ran into Loudon and asked if he thought their meeting was a sign that she should give it ago. he replied, "Whenever someone does one of my songs, it's a sign."

Wanting to be sure that we were well and truly on our way to trusting her implicitly, she did a few songs about her relationship with her husband. "This is Home," is actually a neat companion to "Manhattan Moon" It's a weary, longing, love song from on the road. It's passionate and filled with worry about taking love for granted and not living up to promises, and all the time it comes back to faith in the home you make.

It was probably around this time that she explained that Molly is aware that Lucy talks about her at shows.In fact, when she recently attended a day-time show, Molly decided that she wanted a say in what gets said. So when Lucy had spoken to her before the show, Molly instructed her to tell us that she'd eaten a whole hot dog. Duly noted. But she also told us that Molly has a stuffed dog and a stuffed panda bear whom she calls "my boys." True to this appellation, she parents "her boys," telling them that they need more protein, and so on. She also has decided that her boys have two daddies, Mark and Chad (just in case one took "has two daddies" to be some kind of sitcom euphemism that might star B.J. OR the bear), and she and Lucy switch off playing these roles.

During the end of this story, she'd already started strumming the chords for her next song. As she finished and was about to launch into the song, she looked down as if surprised and said, "Ooh, this song isn't really appropriate for kids." And how. "Ten Year Night," which, she assured us, is about the man who is now her husband, despite a fan's expressing condolences to Lucy that she "wasn't with that 'Ten Year Night' guy anymore," is low-down and dirty, sexy and a little angry.

Certainly I had her commentary to back me up, but to me it seemed unmistakable that this song was about the same man—or really about the same relationship—just at a different stage of the game. I was tempted to write something that implied "less mature" there, but that's not right, either. There's a certain volatility to the music and lyrics that has echoes of the early days of a relationship where you can rub each other raw, literally and figuratively, in the good and bad ways. "Ten Year Night," isn't just fond, if slightly dismissive, memories of those days. It's a driving, urgent need to say "I still feel all that and more," and to be heard:

Going eighty on the highway
We're rushing somewhere
But the way I feel tonight
It's like I'm already there
Open your eyes and look at me look at me
Open your eyes and look at me
Cause I have and hold this love for you
Before this ten year night is through
I'm telling you I'm telling you

The note she hits here obviously appeals to me. She revisited it when she played "Ring of Fire," which she also covers on Over the Hills. I think it's partly an homage to her folk/country roots (she played a little bit of Walk the Line during the show to acknowledge those roots, as well), as OtH, musically, is said to be a return to the more acoustic sound that she began with. Anyway, her version of "Ring of Fire," is smokin' sexy with the requisite edge of pain. It reminded me of the way Reese Witherspoon plays the scene when the lyrics first come to June. And I'm staggered to find several people saying that the version on the CD is "phoned in." It seems to be part of a broader irritation with "too many covers," on OTH. Given that one of my very favorite Lucy-containing CDs is Cry, Cry, Cry, a collection of other songwriters' works done in resonant, soul-deep harmonies with Dar Williams and Richard Shindell, I'm unlikely to have the "cover issue."

I think this was probably after she introduced us to her relationship with both husband and daughter that she felt that it was pretty safe to take the gloves off, emotionally speaking, and have her way with us. She started to talk about her experiences traveling to China 3.5 years ago to adopt Molly, which she also chronicled in the title track from her last CD, The Red Thread.

Although Molly has quite varied and cosmopolitan tastes at home, on the road, she is apparently insistent that they listen to "Mommy's Music," (The Red Thread CD) and "my song" ("The Red Thread" track) and nothing else. I'd never considered how much being a singer/songwriter could complicate the parenting hazard of the one, the only, the car CD, accept no substitutes. But Lucy admitted to pulling a con on Molly one day when she just. couldn't. hear. that CD any more. She told her, "but the first song is about you, Molly!" And of course she had to hear it.

To balance the "funny at Molly's expense," she gave a superficially self-deprecating laugh. I now understand that that very laugh was suffused entirely with wickedness. She informed us that she cries at pretty much everything nowadays, and yet she still somehow managed to sing the title track from Over the Hills, which . . . well, it's a song to her daughter in the future, ok? Like that's not going to be a tear jerker.

But was she satisfied? Oh no, she was not satisfied. She then, with much self-doubt, played what she had written of a song for her big brother (Spike! My hand to god, his name is Spike Kaplansky!) in the wake of their father's death. And, oh sweet jeebus, utterly without mercy, the song she wrote on the plane on the way to say good-bye to her father. And that was after she'd told the story of the lullaby he used to sing to them every night—music he'd made up to lyrics from a Golden Book that had long since been lost. Her brother (Spike!) had just happened to find a copy of the book, which he'd given to Molly as a birthday present. He hadn't known about the song, she hadn't known about the book, "And so I read Molly the book. And I cried. And I sang her the song. And I cried. And now when she wants to hear it she says, 'Mommy, sing the grandpa song and cry'."

And I haven't even gotten to the New York songs. She, of course, did "Land of the Living," which is on These Times We're Living In, a fantastic post-September 11, 2001 anthology that isn't what you think it is. But she also did "Brooklyn Train," which . . . shit . . . might very well be a divinely inspired, infinitely less pathetic song based on my delayed weeping for everything after the fact.

Do I need to tell you how much of a mess I was by the end of this? Do I need to kick each of your asses individually until you get some Lucy Kaplansky? I'd better not.

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Blogger RJM said...

Dear Matilda,

As someone who’s written wonderful words about the great music coming from singer songwriter Ellis Paul – first I’d like to tell you thank you. I’ve been Ellis Paul's friend and manager since 1992 and his music, words and friendship are jewels in my life. Upon examining the state of the music industry, Ellis and I have realized that far and away the most important connections that we have are not at all on the business side of the equation – it’s the people that love Ellis’ music. They’re more important than the biggest retailer or the most powerful radio station - so we’re starting a campaign to empower the people. Ellis’ new album “The Day After Everything Changed” was completely funded by his fans and is one of the finest he’s ever recorded. Many of Ellis' fans and folks passionate about great songwriting don’t even know that it’s been released. So if you’d like to help support a truly independent artist – here’s how. The lead single track on TDAEC is “Annalee”, and if you go to you can download “Annalee” for free. Unlike so many other free song offers – you don’t have to give us your email, sign up or register for anything at all. It’s free for the taking. The small favor we would ask? Please share it with any and all of your friends that would enjoy Ellis’ music. This would help our efforts and help spread the music. This truly is a campaign about the power of the people in the support of independent music and artists.

Please stay in touch.

And thank you.

Ralph Jaccodine, Manager

1:02 PM  

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