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Friday, February 23, 2007

Flames! On the Side of My Face!: Ghost Rider, Reviewed

So was there anyone out there aware of the existence of Ghost Rider who thought, "Hmmm . . . Marvel Superhero movie, flaming skull, flaming chain whip (for whipping). Matilda can probably take or leave that"? If so, honey, we need to make a dinner date and get to know one another.

We first saw the trailer for Ghost Rider as part of the world's most perfect trailer reel before the pretty damned imperfect X-3. I've been on low-level squee alert ever since. Not even the news that this was written and directed by Mark Steve Johnson (who definitely deserves some time on the business end of the Penance Stare for Daredevil) could stop the squee. Of course, it helps that I did not know that until just this very minute. And so it was with a heavy heart that I learned they were not prescreening Ghost Rider for critics.

The decision to keep the flames under wraps earned the top box office slot on its opening weekend (and I think M said the highest opening numbers that Nicolas Cage has ever had [taking Elisabeth Shue roughly from behind may win the critical acclaim, but it does not, apparently, pay the rent]). I think it also probably contributed to the film's 27% rating at (this, incidentally, is a travesty, given Daredevil's 44% rating). So I'll just come out and say it: Ghost Rider is nowhere near as bad as Daredevil is. I can and will go further: Laserblast is nowhere near as bad as Daredevil. And I posit to you that The Avengers is not as bad as Daredevil. Oh, but I was talking about Ghost Rider, wasn't I?

Ghost Rider is by no means perfect. After the opening Sam-Elliott-narrated backstory, which is shot in deliciously comic-book-y style, it gets off to an extremely slow start. From the extreeeeeeme flashback to 150 years ago, we flash forward to Johnny Blaze's teenage years and find that his dad is dying and his girlfriend's father has some strange objections to his daughter making it with a carnie. Because all stunt motorcycle riders are the manliest of men, Johnny plans to run away with said girlfriend. His master manly plan is derailed by Johnny's shocking discovery that his chain-smoking, chronically coughing father has lung cancer. Oh, if only HIPAA had been in place to save Johnny from the cruelest form letter of all. If only his father had had the strength to crumple it even a little bit before tossing it in the trash!

But with this painful truth visited upon him, Johnny does what any young man would do: He goes to work on his bike in a carnival tent. Peter Fonda feels his pain (in a manly, Wotan's-Greatcoat-Wearin' kind of way, nothing fruity, you understand) and offers Johnny a deal: Dad's cure from cancer for Johnny's soul. Johnny's dumb cracker mind is comprehensively befuddled by this, but it matters not, because Mephistopheles stores his contracts on scroll holders so pointy that Johnny pricks his finger and falls into a deep sleep from which only true love's kiss can wake him. Er . . . no. He does prick his finger, which Meph takes as consent. Dad goes from cancer free to mangled and crispy in the space of an hour or so. (Does no one read the classics anymore? For the love of Ba'al, be specific)

The main problem with this section of the movie is not that it's utterly predictable. It's not even that the dialogue has a high stinkyness quotient. It is mostly that Matt Long has absolutely zilch to recommend him beyond a killer set of cheek bones and well-shaped lips. It seemed pretty clear to me that by the time the scene with Fonda was filmed (and, by the way, Mr. Fonda, I concur with M that you should remain in the safest, most undisclosed location you can find until you complete another film, because this has "Peter Fonda's last film" written all over it), everyone concerned had just given up on acting and direction and just wanted it over. It is possible, however, that Raquel Alessi (Young Roxanne) paid off Long to make her look good, because I'm pretty sure that he's the only actor of her generation that might be able to deliver those particular goods.

To distract myself from Long's painful, embarrassing attempts at plying his putative trade, I focused on the fact that there was no way in hell that this extremely pretty boy could possibly grow up to be the extremely funny-looking Nicolas Cage. I refer to this as the "Inverse Superman Problem," the Superman problem, of course, being that there's no freakin' way that Jeff East grows up to be Christopher Reeve. But I stand corrected in the case of Ghost Rider: A pair of blue contacts, a dark hair piece (that apparently took 3 hours each day to apply) and some kind of 22nd century cheek implants (I wonder if they were bits of apple meant to emphasize the round and prosperous aspects of the peasantry) and violas! Cage looks convincingly like the ridden-hard-and-put-away-wet adult version of Matt Long.

Whatever steps they took to pull off that visual trick, though, it was not enough to distract me from the Eva Mendes problem. Actually, let me be fair: It's really the Roxanne problem, which is really the age-old "love interest in bad-boy centric comics" problem plopped down at the crossroads of sexism and ageism in Hollywood. From the moment we morphed from Matt Long's final, extremely painful attempt to convey emotion to Cage's "Calm Blue Ocean" expression in the moments before he jumps a bunch of semis, I was preoccupied with the fact that Eva Mendes is a decade younger than Nicolas Cage. (I actually would have placed the age gap closer to 15 years, but I find that Cage was born in 1964, Mendes in 1974.)

But of course the film-going public would collectively burst into flames if a 43-year-old woman was cast as a love interest in a film like this, so we just have to pass over the fact that Roxanne's classist daddy's time might have been better spent if he'd objected to the whole statutory rape/pedophilia aspects of the thing way back when Johnny was 18 and Roxie was 8.

I guess it's to the movie's credit that it takes at least two steps to alleviate the obvious age gap: First, Nicolas Cage appears to have been sent to some kind of demonic trainer to prepare for his 30-second scene in a towel. I'm not much of a fan of sinewy, overmuscled guys (Donal Logue's schlumpy, cutie pie-doughy guy physique is much more to my tastes), but day-um! Nick is cut. So cut, in fact, that M and I were wondering if they CGI-ed his abs.

The second age-gap-distracting technique was to feature Eva Mendes's boobs in each and every scene and have them bring along Eva as kind of an afterthought. (In the car on the way home, M and I were discussing Cage's recently expressed desire to make a She-Hulk movie starring Mendes:

M: I have to admit that I can see it.
Matilda: I don't think you're qualified to judge after this movie.
M: What do you mean?
Matilda: I mean I think you should recuse yourself from the case.
M: Huh?
Matilda: I have two questions: What color is Eva Mendes's hair and does Eva Mendes have feet?
M: Be fair. They never framed her feet. I think her hair is dark.
Og: I rest my case.)

But really, I don't have anything bad to say about Mendes. And right up until they started showing her in button-down shirts open to her pubic bone, I thought that the movie might not totally suck on the female front. The first time we see the grown-up Roxie is in one of the really well-done visual echos of the comic-book style. Johnny is preparing for a stunt and making his way through a herd of reporters (he doesn't do interviews, of course), and she calls his name. The camera cuts to her backlit at the high end of a ramp that leads out into the lights of the stadium. It's a gorgeous frame, gorgeously lit. Roxie is wearing a monochrome dress that's close-fitting, high-necked, and sleeveless. It's an outfit that's easy to draw, as M pointed out, but it's also one that is in stark contrast to the high-waisted, girlish sundresses that Roxie favors earlier in the movie. Mendes, of course, has a body to die for, but it's on the curvy end of the spectrum (in fact, she's crowed about her child-bearing hips [which might be overstating the case ever so slightly]), and the dress highlights the fact that she has a modicum of meat on her bones, and just for a moment, you can believe that she and Cage might be of an age.

Also helping along the female problem is the fact that Mendes and Cage, overall, have a nice rapport with one another. The dialogue in their scenes together is not really something to write home about, but they have a great, giggly, flirty vibe that carries it. The movie runs into female problems again later (there's really no reason whatsoever that Roxie should be part of the final confrontation, for example, plus, she throws like a girl), but Ghost Rider is far from the worst answer to "How Do You Solve a Problem Like [Insert Girl's Name Here]" (the worst answer, tragically, would be the otherwise fantastic Batman Begins).

Like the handling of the Roxie problem, the homage to comic books in shot framing is something of a mixed bag. The very opening sequence, the introduction of adult Roxie, and many of the segments of the fights are really well done. Likewise, the narrative jangling of the fact that Blackheart meets up with the elemental demons in a biker saloon in the middle of the desert for no particular reason failed to bother me at all because the post-soul-sucking shots were so beautifully done. Johnson owes thanks to his cinematographers and art department for achieving a great 2-dimensional feel in the sets and dizzyingly weird perspective shots that is quite evocative of comic book panels without bringing the pace of the movie to a grinding halt. In most cases. One egregious negative example is pretty near the end when Johnny rides his hog into a swamp that is less realistic than anything one might find on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. And he rides. And he rides. And gee, where could this be going given that the water elemental demon is the only one he hasn't yet fought? And he rides. Oy!

Overall, the screenplay is not exactly a narrative triumph, but again, it's not the worst I've seen either. There's the slow start, the nonsensical departure of Sam Elliott after he's employed for one of the best visual gags in the movie, the communication of key plot points from miles away, and the fact that Donal Logue is completely misplaced after the first 30 minutes of the movie and only picked up again to do him gratuitous violence. The bad guys are not the sharpest knives in Hell's Drawer, but they needn't be. Still, Blackheart loses some serious street cred when he seems to believe that a good hanging will permanently solve his Ghost Rider problem.

M was concerned that some of the more abstract concepts of the comic book weren't communicated, but I "got" the Penance Stare right away and I had at least some idea of what the relationship between Ghost Rider and Johnny Blaze was. All things considered, the limited screen time, a few well-done visuals, and minimal dialogue was, to my mind, a better way to go than getting bogged down in a metric crap ton of exposition (cf. Constantine, for example).

The visual effects are good. I'm proud to note that the skull was based on scans of of Cage's actual skull (vive la anthropometry!), and they didn't try to have it emote in any way other than by voice. (M was very down on the voice, but it didn't bother me.) The flaming chain whip was awesome. every. time. And although there were certainly scenes included for the sheer pleasure of strutting the FX stuff, they were not especially cumbersome or intrusive.

With the exception of the two youngsters being positively dreadful and Peter Fonda relying primarily on his jackets to do the acting (in his defense, those were some shit hot jackets there), the performances were good. I imagine one either loves Nicolas Cage or hates him. I mostly love him, and certainly his quirky timing adds substantially to this movie. To return to the good decision not to waste too much time on draggy exposition, Johnny Blaze is surprisingly quick to accept his new night gig as Hell's Bounty Hunter. Cage has a ball selling that through a few funny moments, and it certainly comes out as believable (for comic book values of believable). Mendes does what she can and sparkles when acting against Cage. Sam Elliott is Sam Elliott. I imagine there was never any question as to who would be cast as Carter Slade, nor should there have been. He gives excellent straight man.

Wes Bentley (Blackheart) kept freaking us out, because he looks like the slightly chubby love child of Tobey Maguire and Sean Maher. (Yes, I feel like a total douche bag citing his chubbyness. He's not chubby by any reasonable real-world standards, and even if he were, I wholeheartedly support moving away from the insistence on rail-thin wisps of former people, but c'mon, your minions of hell are traditionally committed to hitting the gym often enough to keep them in slim, cassock-like coats and are generally not known to sport a wee bit of a double chin.) Physique aside, he was 100% committed to the goofy dialogue and struck a nice balance between scenery chewing and blasé wit. Laurence Breuls, Daniel Frederiksen, and Mathew Wilkinson had very little to do other than scowl as the elemental demons. Donal Logue (Mack, Johnny Blaze's Guy Friday) and Gibson Nolte (Stuart, Roxie's camera man) were pleasant sidekicks who got in some nice quiet character-development scenes with the leads.

So Ghost Rider, in my humble opinion, is a highly watchable movie that has frequent moments of genuine enjoyment. I don't begrudge the full price we paid for the tickets, and I'm confident in saying that it's worth a theater viewing, although you may want to catch it at a matinee or dollar theater.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

I'm Stabby McSpear! Put Me in Your Tasty Bushbabies!

There's an exceptionally cool article in Current Biology's "Online Ahead of issue" section this week by Jill Preutz from Iowa State University and Paco Bertolani who seems to be a graduate student at Cambridge. In it, they report that chimpanzees in their study communities routinely make spears for use in hunting. It's a well-written article, and it's chock full of novel observations with far-reaching implications. The following is rated S for Stabby.

Primate tool use is taken somewhat for granted these days, but it's worth remembering that Jane Goodall's initial reports of termite fishing and wadge dipping at Gombe were met with considerable skepticism fewer than 50 years ago. And just when we'd gotten comfortable with our closest relatives modifying the environment through nonbiological means, there was the revelation in the mid-1990s that orangutans (the most distant of our Great Ape relatives) also made and used tools in the wild. Gorillas would join the party even later in late 2005. The bonobos, to date, remain on the outside looking in, possibly because their tools are sex-toy oriented and therefore not much good for opening doors.

So our thinking on tool use has come a long way just in the last few years. We've gone from thinking that a culture-ready brain (or at least a technology-ready one) evolved just 7 million years or so ago (before the human-Pan split) to accepting that, neurologically, the right stuff has been with the Hominoid lineage for more than twice as long. We've also realized that a number of different social structures, ranging from the semisolitary orangutan to the gregarious, constantly shifting community of the chimpanzee, can result in tool-using individuals. We've also had to give up overly simplistic notions about handedness and language going, as it were, hand-in-hand. Hell, just last week we had to give up any last-ditch hopes that chimpanzees might somehow have "caught" tool use from humans.

Even though chimpanzee tool use is, comparatively, a pair of comfy old cognitive pajamas, this research by Preutz and Bertolani introduces some pinholes here and there as well as a few things that might constitute a previously unrecognized pajamial butt flap. First off, the context of tool use is new and exciting: At Fongoli (the Senegalese study community), the chimps use tools for hunting, which has a couple of new and exciting implications.

A less radical, but still interesting, factor about the hunting context is the preferred prey of the Fongoli chimps. Elsewhere, chimpanzees tend to hunt young baboons, colobus monkeys of all ages, and things like antelope and bush pigs. At Fongoli, the environment is considerably drier than that of other chimps and these preferred prey are absent. The Fongoli chimps hunt bushbabies (a small, nocturnal prosimian primate) instead, using their spears to stab into the hollows where they shelter as they sleep the day away. Several characteristics of Fongoli hunting are probably related to this choice of prey.

First of all, the small size of the bushbaby, combined with its nocturnal activity patterns, mean that a lone chimp has a greater chance of success, whereas larger diurnal prey might be out of reach for the solitary hunter. An individual who successfully captures and kills a bushbaby thus has no social obligation to share the meat (elsewhere, hunted meat is virtually the only resource that is shared among adult chimps who parcel out the spoils to the hunters and to females who . . . ahem . . . have something to offer). The small size of the kill also probably contributes to the solo consumption. The "shooting fish in a barrel" (seriously, could you bring yourself to stab this in its sleep?) nature of bushbaby hunting also opens this economic niche to individuals who don't usually hunt, namely subadults and females.

The real kicker about the context of Fongoli tool use, though, is the fact that ape tool use in hunting is pretty much novel. Up until now, all food-related tool use by chimps has taken place in foraging contexts: They open nuts with stone or wood hammers; they make leaf sponges and dip for water; they dip stalks and twigs into ant or termite mounds and fish them out. Although "rousing" use of tools has been observed in isolated cases elsewhere, the Fongoli chimps employ tools in hunting frequently.

In addition to the quantitative shift from rare to routine, there's a qualitative difference: Whereas a chimp at Mahale picked up a nearby branch to rouse a squirrel from a hole, the Fongoli chimps are using spears to stab at the prey repeatedly. It is not yet clear whether or not the prey is killed (or even injured) with the spear, but there's a cognitively important difference between using a branch merely to extend the length of the arm and using a spear as a weapon. This isn't just appealing to those of us who enjoy a spot of violence now and again, it is very likely to improve the chimp's success by allowing him or her to invade the busbaby's nest and immobilize the prey in one swift movement. Rousing use of tools is just as likely to give the prey time to escape.

So tool use in an entirely new context is cool. New prey is conceptually cool for humans, albeit bad news for the endangered Senegalese bushbaby. Experimentation with hunting by chycks and youngsters also on the well-chilled end of the news spectrum. New data on chimpanzee cognitive evident in how they use their tools, approaching absolute zero.

But the real seat-busting potential of this research is in the manufacture of the tools themselves. Certainly there is something about the image of chimps running around with spears that tingles the Alan Moore sensors of the brain all on its own, but the data on the modification process certainly have more than just the "Stabby Chimps = Crazy Awesome" street value. Preutz and Bertolani characterize the manufacture of spears by the Fongoli chimps as "crafting," which doesn't sound like an earth shaking declaration. In anthropological circles, where even today we insist that the object in use be an "unattached environmental object" (this criterion was used for long time to deny the title of tool use to behaviors like "bridging" among male orangutans who bend saplings to travel from one larger trunk to the other), crafting has a flatbed of baggage with it.

The process that the chimps use to create their spears is both hierarchical and flexible. Certain steps must be taken early on, regardless of formal aspects of the material or any other factors, but once the base modifications are complete, the chimps can and do alter their techniques on the fly. That speaks volumes about their ability to generalize, which we consider to be an especially important facet of human intelligence. Another aspect of the manufacture that is especially intriguing is the fact that the chimps are sharpening the end of the tool using their teeth.

Again, this is a qualitative shift in a behavior that is seen in other contexts. In termite and ant dipping, as well as in nut-meat extraction (shut up JRH, a chimp will often use teeth to break off the tool after it is chosen and to strip it of leaves. However, in those contexts, the tool cannot fit into the space without the modification. At Fongoli, the sharpening behavior is not simply to make the tool fit, it is part and parcel of how the chimp wishes to use the tool. My favorite sentence in the entire article: "Chimpanzees forcibly ‘‘jabbed’’ (sensu Marlowe [16])." As I said earlier to M and J, it is now my goal to see in print "[Organism foo] comprehensively dismembered (sensu Matilda) that punkass po po bitch."

In terms of the bigger picture, the context of Fongoli tool use has real potential to shift our view of the early hominid resource base. As much as we have always loved a "Man the Hunter" model for our own evolution, most of the evidence suggests that hunting and tool use have fuck all to do with our first divergence from the Pan lineage. The earliest hominids do not have the teeth of a habitual meat eater, in terms of either architecture or wear; the earliest tools are persistently linked to scavenging/foraging behaviors (extracting marrow from the sloppy seconds of large carnivores and/or extracting insects from bark and mounds); and there's not a lot of clear evidence linking the earliest bipeds to any kind of tools at all.

The Fongoli chimps represent routine and systematic attempts at hunting with tools that are nondurable. Although there is the potential to do archaeological research into how long this behavior has been in their repertoire, ancient hominid behaviors of this type will be archaeologically invisible (at least until we shift our framework for recovering and recognizing tool-using behaviors) because of the much greater time elapsed. Thus, although it remains pretty incontrovertible that hunting and meat eating were not an appreciable trick up the hominid sleeve (not that we had sleeves until much later) until the emergence of Homo erectus about 2 million years ago, it is possible that hominids began experimenting with tool-assisted hunting as well as foraging at a much earlier date.

Off the top of my oversized head, I think that conceptual nugget has the potential to shed light on how the frilly heck we made it out of Africa in such a hurry, as the evidence from Dmanisi and tool finds in China suggest (both emphasize mastery of hunting as a key factor). I also wonder if there are dental implications for the chimps that would shed light on the weird dental problems that plagued the Neanderthals. To be sure, the Neanderthals had a wide variety of stone tools they could have used for sharpening, but it's also been suggested that a cognitive barrier prevented them from envisioning the snazzy, hafted, multicomponent tools that those rockstar modern humans favored.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007


I think it's long past time I admitted it: I am addicted to opera. And I don't think there's a clinic for it.

It is the world's least aggressive, slowest moving addiction. Its pushers are surpassingly patient: The first 7, 8, 9 are free. My very first opera was Tosca, back in about 1993 or so. I believe I paid the handsome sum of $5 for my dorm-subsidized ticket.

Next, I was the lucky recipient of a Don Carlo ticket that had been intended for my friend J's boyfriend. She'd thought better of buying Magic Flute tickets, because she wasn't sure the relationship would last that long. They didn't even make it to DC, but I'm sure her cynicism had nothing to do with it.

Then a different friend J set to tempting me, first with Salome, then with Faust. If there is a woman out there who has the willpower to resist a double dose of Bryn Terfel, she is no sister of mine.

A third friend J (hmm . . . I feel like I'm devolving into a Jim Carrey movie. Please shoot me.) repaid my stage managing efforts with tickets to a special performance of Turandot for alums of her college. That was v1.0 of the Hockney-designed production that kicked off this season.

Yeah, I played hard to get for a while there.

It wasn't until 2001 that I felt like I could scrape together enough cash that it looked discretionary if I squinted at it and J (the second), L, and I got our first season's worth of tickets. Even then, I feigned a somewhat noncommittal attitude. I even skipped Hansel and Gretel because we were traveling around Christmas and I told myself I wouldn't really miss that one. But even in that season, there was the Billy Budd incident, which revealed that I could not only enjoy 20th-century opera, I could enjoy something based on fucking Melville. Yeah, that right there would probably be the first warning sign.

The next season, J dropped by the wayside (something silly about an austerity program). L and I soldiered on through a pretty lackluster production of Susannah, Ramey notwithstanding. And I told myself that opera was clearly not the boss of me.

But that was also the season that brought Thäis and the era of tedious opera blogging. I'm resisting equating this with shooting directly into my eyeball. After all, I didn't always blog my opera going. There's nothing, for example, on the next season's Samson et Dalila (ok so for that there's a private entry that I never finished) or Lucia di Lammermoor or Madama Butterfly. I will pass over the fact that I experience pangs—actual, literal, somatic pangs—when I think about how those experiences are lost to me.

And, let's face it, that was the very same year that I ate up Cunning Little Vixen and then A Wedding with a spoon. The writing was on the wall. I was doomed to find myself at least as delighted with The Midsummer Marriage as I was unsure whether I'd ever want to actually listen to it again. The cash to buy Nixon in China (which got not one, but two entries and a follow-up movie ) from pal M was, even then, burning a hole in my pocket.

And while the Old Guard and the Young Turks of opera were giving each other the old hairy eyeball, there were infractions in the neutral zone. Gluck made me explore my feelings about countertenors (and I still have a glut of recordings of Orfeo ed Euridice on my wish list, none of which I've bought); a murder of Strausses strutted their straight opera stuff, experimented with the recipe for the ideal cherry-popping opera, and crossed the theater/opera line to make me a coloratura's bitch; and, of course, Puccini made multiple bids to be the most derivative and derived from composer in my experience while still having a gooey, enjoyable center.

I've actually been thinking about this long, strange trip for some time. Definitely back as far as Midsummer Marriage, but probably even earlier. Right now it's on my mind because I'm doing a happy dance over the discovery that Chicago Opera Theater has student tickets for every performance. I need to see Bluebeard's Castle (Ramey!), and Erwartung goes along with it (oddest Cav/Pag I ever did see). And then there's Béatrice et Bénédict: One of my favorite Shakespeares viewed through the eyes of the man who brought you Symphonie fantastique. And, well, if I'm gonna buy two tickets, I might as well take in Il Ritorno D'Ulisse In Patria, right? For half price? Ya sure you betcha!

Also on the horizon is renewal for Lyric's next season. I wasn't expecting it to be a crossroads, but it's shaping up to be. Of course L is no longer my built-in opera-going buddy, so I have to decide whether to keep the second subscription and set up a series of opera play dates, drop my subscription to one seat, and if I choose curtain number 2, whether I want to upgrade my seat slightly or stay where I am on cash-flow grounds. In having a peek at the season, there is the aforementioned Country and Western La traviata/La Bohème cross-over event, Julius Caesar (a text I've been looking to reclaim ever since college, when I was scarred by the dreadful Oliver Stone Presents: JFK Julius Caesar for which my boyfriend was the TD), Die Frau ohne Schatten, Falstaff, The Barber of Seville, Eugene Onegin, and . . . a drum roll please . . . Doctor Atomic. Further investigation reveals that the bitches at Lyric have further complicated this by not putting Doctor Atomic in my fucking series. Why do they want to mess with The Junkie?

So anyway, just an old (or new, or temporally middling) sweet (or dissonant) song keeps opera on my mind. All the time. I think about who I know and how strategically they might be located. I casually browse the websites of operas in other cities, piecing together a strategic spatio-temporal opera map in my mind. Who can I visit and what can I see? Is there a summer fix to be had? Is it tacky to stalk Massimo Giordano or Bryn Terfel or both?

If anyone wants to examine the etiology of my addiction, s/he will have to toss both genes and environment right out the window. My dad loves classical (in the Western Art sense) music, but cannot abide opera. Despite his genuine enjoyment of this music, he hardly ever got to listen to it. My mother not only will not tolerate it in her presence, she's prone to mocking him for putting on airs or something. As with a lot of my tastes, I have to invoke the Rush Basket Principle.

But however I've come by the addiction, I regret nothing. Opera has been the most delightful, painful, challenging, sublime, mock-worthy interest I've developed in my adult life. It has assumed an actorly position, legs set wide, and thrust its fists against the posts of my notions of a good time. It has pried open doors I didn't know existed, revealing music, literature, schools of design, performers, and phenomena that would have remained completely unknown to me otherwise. It has sparked and fueled my Chicago renaissance, however desultory a renaissance that may be (the fault, dear Brutus, etc.).

I almost didn't go to see Tosca, way back when. I had a pretty serious chest cold that was probably pneumonia, I was overworked and stressed out and tired. I was pretty sure I wasn't going to like it anyway. Yeah, even if I'd missed it, I'd probably have gone to something or other with a friend later, but it makes me twitch, thinking that something that's taken such root in my mind and heart might never have been. But that may just be the junkie talking.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Marathon Men: Robbie's Secret Country with the Campbell Brothers and Bobby Osborne

While I was away attempting to interpret the bioinformatic equivalent of entrails, M took it upon himself to get us tickets to the February, March, and April Robbie's Secret Country shows. We'd missed December, because everybody wanted to see exactly how it is, wherever Jimmie Dale Gilmore is, he's always driving by, and January (featuring Uncle Monk, which happens to feature Tommy Ramone) on account of Fraternal Zombie celebrations. The third Sunday of February happens to have been yesterday.

When we arrived for our classes, we noticed a sign indicating that the 7:30 PM show was canceled. This was a little perplexing to us, as we had tickets for 4 PM. I remain unclear on how the two shows work, given the interview, followed by performance format of the show, but both the March and April shows are scheduled at 4 and 7:30.

While M was at his concertina class, I was afoot in the cold and damp trying, for the love of ba'al, to find a cup of coffee and a warm place to sit and knit in Lincoln Square. Of a Sunday, this seems to be impossible. I wound up at the Grafton ordering a small amount of food that I did not want and coffee that I did (but that did not really satisfy) in an attempt to justify my hour's stay in front of their fireplace, which contained no fire but one hell of a cold draft.

The concert hall, likewise, was freezing, as it had been for the five hours I was there the night before. A gentle note to any facilities people who might be reading: If the combined force of 200 moshing teenagers has not warmed your space to a livable temperature, you might consider turning on the damned heat.

While the chap from WLUW was giving his usual, somewhat long-winded introduction, I spied Robbie in the stage left wing. Wearing a suit. I thought I might be hallucinating from the hypothermia. I have seen Robbie in all white and a pointy Peter Pan cap. I have seen Robbie in a wifebeater and very nearly out of his pants. I have never seen anything as disturbing and somehow wrong as Robbie in a suit. With a tie. I sort of understood the instinct when Bobby Osborne was introduced. He was sans hat, but the man does inspire a certain sartorial aspiration.

There was no introductory mock interview this time. Bobby was introduced first, and Robbie interviewed him solo for about 10 or 15 minutes, this time, I noticed, referring pretty frequently to some notes he had with him, in contrast to what seemed to be a completely off-the-cuff interview in November. (My memory is a little fuzzy, but I don't recall Kevin Gordon and Pat McLaughlin being introduced separately in this way.) Like many finely attired southern gentlemen, Bobby is a Talker.

He began with the strange tale of his own voice, which started out in the Ernest Tubb range when he was a boy and, against all laws of god, man, and hormones, crept well up into the tenor range as he grew into adulthood. Following the dictates of his voice, he listened to the Grand Ole Opry, faithfully pursuing his goal of singing just like Tubb. By happy accident, he caught a performance by Earl Scruggs on the Opry while awaiting Tubb and was inflamed with desire to know how one man did that to a banjo (he later confided that when he saw Scruggs perform, he comprehended this mystery in about a minute and a half). Later, when his voice changed, he modeled his singing style after that of Bill Monroe.

Listening to him talk was like taking a comprehensive historical tour of bluegrass. He was funny and self-deprecating, always speaking of himself as trying to imitate one well-known or another. Funniest of all was his assertion that he'd really, truly yearned to sing "Rawhide" like Bill Monroe until he actually saw Bill do it. After that, he decided, there wasn't a whole lot of point to anyone else trying his hand at it.

But Bobby's knowing and having imitated anyone who was anyone in bluegrass aside, he has also been a tremendous innovator in the genre, and Robbie got him to talk a bit about that, starting with when he first picked up the mandolin. His first instrument (other than voice) had been the fiddle, and he was pretty dismissive of how far he'd taken that. In terms of group playing, he'd started on guitar (doing a Lester Flatt imitation, according to him) with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers because that was the role that needed filling. Scruggs gave him a yearning for the banjo, but eventually he'd settled on mandolin (for which he is known best), investing in a $5 Gibson when he was 20.

Throughout his recording career, he'd been eager to get away with whatever innovations he could with each album. The Osborn brothers are credited with bringing drums into bluegrass, as well as mining the good stuff of western swing and country western and bringing pedal steel into the bluegrass equation. Bobby, in particular, is also seen as the originator of the trio harmony style of singing with the high tenor carrying the melody grounded by two harmony lines underneath.

When Robbie brought out Phil and Chuck Campbell, he commented that he liked the seating arrangement of Campbell, Osborne, Campbell, Robbie. I'll admit I wondered just how much whiplash might be suffered moving from old school bluegrass to Pentacostal Church music, but Chuck cleared up any concerns on that score right off.

The Campbell Brothers' music derives from (well, is, really) the music of the House of God Church, a Pentacostal Church established in 1903. Members of the Church are forbidden to take in a lot of popular culture. For the Campbell Brothers, this meant that music like the blues was strictly off limits. The Grand Ole Opry, in contrast, was completely fair game. Lap steel, the cornerstone of House of God Church music and the only truly nonnegotiable instrument in country thus becomes the natural and supernaturally charged crossroads between the two genres. Chuck talked about enduring hours of not just the Opry, but Hee Haw, for heaven's sake, all for the payoff of a 10-second lap steel solo.

Both brothers talked about both the roots of their music and the innovations that they've made. In their Church music, the success of the music overall hinges on the skill of the lap steel player, and that success is based on his ability to use his instrument to mimic the human voice. This and other pretty stringent requirements, paired with religious avoidance of other musical forms, have led to the music remaining relatively untouched by outside influences. Obviously that pristine existence outside of the sphere of commodified music is what had Robbie walking all over creation "desultory music fair" to discover the source of their sound.

Nonetheless, the music has changed, and the Campbells themselves have been driving force in what they consider the fourth generation of it. Chuck now plays pedal steel and had to prove to the congregation that it would work together with the traditional lap steel. Darick, the youngest brother, has moved from drums to lap steel, making way for Phil's son Carlton on the drums. Their cousin Denise (on whom Robbie admits to having a mad crush, and who can blame him?), who was once the singer in Phil's illicit R&B band, sings with them regularly. Their bassist Malcolm Kirby is the only nonrelative in the regular band, having joined both band and Church after he was asked to play the role of wedding band at the same wedding to which the Cambells were invited to play their music.

Not that anyone was complaining, but it seemed as if the interviews were taking longer than Robbie had intended. The Campbell brothers (with a local House of God bassist whose name I've sadly forgotten subbing for Malcolm, plus the addition of another female vocalist named Cinnamon) didn't start their set until about 4:45, opening with "Sign of the Judgement," followed by an instrumental version of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come." When I realized that it was going to be purely instrumental, I had a moment of "Uh . . . " because that song is so much about the lyrics for me. (Yes, it's true, I can be a Lyrics Bigot, although I do not hold a candle to my spouse, who banishes all instrumentals from his iPod.) However, I more than came around by the end, in large part because of the emphasis that Chuck had placed on the lap steel acting as the voice. With the words stripped away, it's staggering how much of Cooke's feeling remains to be teased out by the right player.

Although they ended up playing for more than an hour, they probably only got through about 5 or 6 songs, as each inevitably devolved (or evolved, I suppose) into jubilant improvisation. They did not seem to hold the overwhelming whiteness of most of the audience against us, as they urged us to clap, shout out, and get on our feet, which most did and were still doing when they (briefly) left the stage and Robbie called for an encore. Chuck was literally left holding his pedal steel, which he'd picked up preparatory to packing it, when they came back on to do "The Storm is Passing Over."

As promised, the skill of Darick and Chuck was such that it was often difficult to tell whether I was hearing a human voice (especially given the tendency of just about everyone to add their vocals at will). Underneath the vocals, both steel and human, was a solid foundation of skill and feeling emanating from the guitar, bass and drums. At the risk of revealing myself to be hopelessly white and godless, I felt a bit cold and technical in the way I experienced the music aurally (the Cooke being an exception), but watching the joy happening on stage (and in the audience) was pretty powerful.

There was a very long and very cold intermission beginning at about 6 PM. At 6:15, I commented that it was probably lucky they'd canceled the 7:15 show. If Bobby Osborne and the Rocky Top X-Press made it on before 6:30, I'd be very surprised to hear it. (Please forgive me. I'd managed to approximate normal body temperature during the Campbell Brothers' performance by wrapping myself as tightly as possibly in my Cozy [which is easily 3x the size of that pictured], and that all went to hell when they opened the damned doors again.)

The Rocky Top X-Press comprises Dana Cupp (alias the Wee Ron Perlman) on banjo, Matt DeSpain (alias Knox Overstreet in David Byrne's big suit) on dobro, Daryl Moseley (hand crafted by bluegrass specialists) on upright bass, and Bobby Osborne, Jr, on rhythm guitar. Usually David Crow fiddles, but he was absent from our performance.

They opened with "9-lb Hammer" and two other folky standards I've forgotten. Only Bobby sang on these, and he barely waited for applause before launching into the next number as if it were merely a coda for the first. This reminded me of Junior Brown's No Chit-Chat approach. I wondered if Bobby had somehow talked himself out during the interview. I needed have worried, because after these three songs, which were clearly meant as a single opening number, he chatted about the songs, giving a little bit of history on the songwriters, most famous performers, and his own experiences with them.

He also introduced the band as he went along, starting with Matt DeSpain. It turns out that this charming young Kentucky lad made his very pretty dobro with his own lily-white hands, and still had time to learn how to play the hell out of it. Watching individual styles of dobro playing is endlessly fascinating. It seemed to me that Matt used only a thumb pick on the right hand (although M thought he had a hand full of finger picks) and a claw-like attack with the rest of his fingers. As is usual (and yet eternally amazing to me), it sounded as though his part was being played by no fewer than 15 men on 75 or so guitars.

Next, after some comic confusion about the difference between a dobro, a banjo, a guitar in general, and a hub cap, Bobby introduced Dana Cupp. Cupp has a sleepy-eyed look and a playing style that looks leisurely and sounds like it stole something. It also seemed as if he was playing with just a plastic thumb pick and otherwise nude fingers, but I've learned to distrust both my eyes and ears when people musicians are screwing with the laws of physics.

Daryl Mosely handed his bass over to Bobby, Jr., temporarily and played guitar as he sang a ballad so lovely that it's driven its own name right out of my head. My current struggles with Badtz have led me to be fascinated by bassists and bass lines alike. It was hard, however, to pick out the bass line here, not because it was unremarkable, but because I kept getting drawn into the whole of the music. (Also, basses being the undervalued instrument of all genres, my attention kept being drawn to the SHINY! qualities of lightning fast, incredibly sweet solos on dobro, banjo, and mandolin.)

After the initial numbers in which Bobby was the sole vocalist, most of the songs incorporated the harmony trio for which the Osbornes are famous. Daryl was a pretty constant fixture in these, and Dana and Matt switched off on the other slots. The combination of these voices with the style of microphone they were using (I don't know from mics, so don't even ask me) meant that, every single time, I was doomed to say to myself "There's a feller in there that'll pay you ten dollars if you sing into his can."

As Robbie said in introducing Bobby, the man's got intonation. He nails every single note to the nearest convenient surface and anchors every single line of melody. The harmonies come at it from every angle, giving the whole thing a sharp, full sound that just tingles your toes.

Like the Campbells they played for more than an hour (more or less, but you have to factor in Bobby turning a merchandise pitch into a long, funny story about Germany, Bill Monroe, a summer heat wave, and the man's spotless suit and hat) and returned for two encores. The second featured a banjo-driven version of "America the Beautiful" to soothe the soul, no matter how cynical and dead tired of jingoism that soul might be. The ultimate finale, though, was "Ruby" as is right and proper. I don't know if anyone else sings that song. If they do, I'm guessing they haven't seen (felt in the very marrow of their rawhide bones, more like) Bobby do it.

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