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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Bluegrass and Yak Leather at the Top of the World: Robbie's Secret Country with Casey Driessen and L

After all the cheery martyrdom and mayhem on Saturday, M and I settled into the(once again freezing cold) auditorium at the OTSFM for Robbie's March Secret Country Show. But I learned an important lesson earlier that day: Bass is easier to play when you practice it.

Robbie seems to be on some kind of disturbing outfit mission. Not only was he wearing slacks and a blazer once again, this time he added a bow tie. Just to freak me out. Well, your plan backfired, Mr. Fulks: The bow tie was quirky enough to be "you."

He opened the show with a Secret Country parody of "The Christmas Song" and then talked a bit about the future of the Secret Country show in light of the merger between XM and Sirius. (Short answer: There's no real way to tell what will become of the show and its broadcasts after the merger, but there's not much reason to despair just yet.)

For the interview, he brought out Casey Driessen and Marshall Wilborn of Longview (sorry, but if Longview has a page, its location is hidden well enough to defeat my google-fu) at the same time. He used notes again this time, leading me to soothe my inner qualitative-data collector by inferring that his completely off-the-cuff interviews with Kevin Gordon and Pat McLaughlin were an aberration and that he actually plans and organizes his interviews like the rest of us mere mortals.

Given this evidence of planning, I have to wonder if it was with malice aforethought that he began the interview by asking Marshall how he got into playing bass. He rather sheepishly admitted that his relationship with the bass was something of an arranged marriage: He'd been playing banjo with a group that had two banjo players (which is, perhaps, more remarkable than having two songs about horses dying when they fall through ice ). The assembled company assessed both players for talent, taste, and commitment to the instrument and gently suggested that Marshall take up bass. From there, he stuck with bass because he loved the music and found that bass opened a lot of doors to it, and only later did he come to love the bass for itself. Later, Robbie asked how Longview retained its spontaneous, in-the-moment sound. Marshall responded, in just as self-effacing a tone as he'd told the story of his protracted journey to loving the bass, that they don't play together that often, so not only is fond reunion ever present in their music, they've constantly got to re-work out the kinks.

Bouncing over to Casey, Robbie asked about his recent trip to Tibet/China. I can't really do justice to the story, which sounds like some kind of beautiful art!nerd dream: traveling to breathtaking (literally and figuratively) places for "work" (those are envious quote marks, not sarcastic ones); teaching others music about which you feel passionate; learning music completely foreign to you about which your teachers are passionate; collaborating, fusing two foreign brands of music into something entirely new; and carrying your rock star goggles in their own yak leather case. Unsurprisingly, Casey's journal does a much better job of describing the trip, and I'm over the moon to read in that very journal that there was a documentary film crew with them for some of the trip. (If only I were rich or knew rich potential investors, I would answer the call for funding therein.)

It's funny that he mentions not sleeping well at 13K feet. The closest I get to his beautiful dream is when I'm in the field and I don't have the million cares of my daily "real life" tugging at me. And whether the Pacific is in my front yard or living at 10K feet to the soundtrack of roosters, I have never slept so well in my life as I sleep in Peru.

Casey's set was up first. He was joined by the Colorfools. Although I gather that this is a floating collection of individuals, in our case, we had Tom Giampietro on drums (bass, floor tom, some cymbals, a djembe, and an Udu (a type of clay drum from India) and Matt Mangano on bass. Casey, of course, was on fiddle and vocals (which were sung into a an old-timey-looking mic that was deliciously echo-y and caused M to say "he's singin' into a cay-un" each and every time).

The music was fantastic on its own merits and particularly spine-tingling for me because it sidled up to some of the skulking loners in my music collection and started a jam. It's only right and proper that Many Hands would figure prominently in that session (my Best Mate D was with Many Hands for many years, and their music and ongoing story is another installment in the global, multicultural art!nerd dreamscape). But I also caught echoes of Los Pakines, Seu Jorge, and Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars.

And then some more central figures in my collection joined in the jam: Great Big Sea, all the artists on the Old Town School Songbook CD (in fact, they performed a song Casey's just recorded for a later volume of it). It was the best kind of musical experience, the kind that reminds you of things in your collection you've forgotten, evokes the warm fuzzies of often-heard favorites, and tacks a substantial, new, and exciting addition on to the house where your music lives. And on top of all that cockle-warming, ear-pleasing, horizon-broadening goodness, all three of them were fascinating to watch as they played.

As M noted, Casey's fiddle-playing style is evocative of Pat McLaughlin's percussive approach to the acoustic guitar. On his site, he calls this his "showcasing his signature rhythmic 'chop' style," which might give you a shadow of how the styles resemble one another, but really, they have to be seen to be believed. And I'd have to add that whereas Pat's guitar always looks like it's just about to make its bid for freedom, Casey and his fiddle are more like Holmes and Moriarity, each pushing the other to greater intellectual heights in a rivalry the fire and savagery of which are undiminished by the highly civilized confines in which it takes place. (Wow that was torturous even for me. Please excuse, this is the most exciting music I've come across of late. And we have goggles. In a yak leather case.)

Anything I say about Longview is going to sound like damning with faint praise, which is wholly unfair to them. They were an absolutely enjoyable, satisfying continuation of the bluegrass vibe started by Bobby Osborn in February. I found myself a little unsure of how Marshall ended up being the interviewee, as Longview is much more a collective with no obvious choice for a leader or spokesman. Moreover, Marshall himself was literally in the background of the performance: He and his electric upright were the sole occupants of the upstage area, he only sang on one of the songs in the encore, and he engaged in none of the patter during the set.

In addition to Marshall on bass, Longview features: James King on guitar, Chicago-style-hot-dog comedy (yes, I do mean comedy based almost exclusively on Chicago-style hot dogs), and vocals; Don Rigsby on mandolin, vocals, and exaggeratedly folksy comedy with acerbic undertones; Lou Reid on homonyms for punk icons, guitar, high tenor vocals, and straight-man lines; J. D. Crowe on distinguished silver pompadour, vocals, and banjo playing that approaches the speed of light; and Ron Stewart on fiddle and Indiana representation. True to Robbie's assessment, their sound is complex, fresh, and very present-sounding, no matter how venerable the tune (their rendition of "High Lonesome," in particular, raised my goose bumps).

One of the nicest, most understated moments in Walk the Line is when June explains to Johnny that she's not much of a singer, so she learned to be funny. Of course, Reese Witherspoon's performance in that movie is full of superstar snippets, but that one is one of my favorites. She manages, in a very understated way, to channel June, a shadow artist if there ever was one; but she also sneaks in a wink and a nod to the audience as if to say, "Can you even believe that June freakin' Carter went to her grave thinking of herself as an also ran?"

Longview's set reminded me of that, not because I got any sense that anyone thought of themselves as second fiddle (sorry, sorry, SORRY!), but because the comedy was absolutely nonstop. Seriously, James had seen a vendor with Chicago-style hot dogs earlier in the day and apparently just couldn't get over the experience. Don and Lou got in on the act and had the technology to rebuild the six-million-dollar joke, better, faster, and stronger than the Billy Crystal/Jack Palance one-armed-push-up Oscar bit. And you have to love the work ethic of what is essentially a bluegrass supergroup that still feels like the audience deserves a free comedy gift with purchase.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Your Lesbian Tai Chi Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore: Dialogues des Carmélites at Lyric Opera

So a Jew and an atheist/recovering Catholic walk into a 20th-century opera about nuns during the French Revolution on St. Patrick's Day . . . Mad Lib that . . . IF YOU DARE!

So, Wire Monkey Mother, the sister of my heart, does not, as a rule, enjoy 20th century opera. She does, however, enjoy escaping the wilds of Kansas occasionally. Because, you know, her Lifetime Fitness just doesn't have valet parking. Can you believe that's not in contravention of the Geneva Convention? Anyway, back when I had what might have been the only remaining ticket for Die Fledermaus because I'd neglected to hunt up an opera companion, her husband asked if I'd take his wife, please. And so a plan was hatched: Hot Lesbian Subtext, then chocolate.

I'd had a raging crisis of self-loathing while getting ready and thus left the house really late. M, thankfully, offered to drive me to the red line (he was meeting us for post-subtextual chocolate, and I thus didn't need to drive into the sea of drunken green people), which I duly boarded. My current knitting project is really too big to be practically portable, so I'd brought a book for the relatively short trip downtown. Sadly, I had chosen Wil Wheaton's Dancing Barefoot, which happens to begin with an emotionally raw story about retrieving something from his beloved great aunt's home shortly after her death. Red eyes, puffy face, and runny make-up really turned my self-confidence crisis around. Thanks, Wil!

Our evening began at ristorante we, because WMM was on the ball enough to score a reservation when we were threatened with trying our luck in the bar area at Rivers, my usual pre-Opera haunt. We's food was fine, but not remarkable (except for the outlandish size of the pork belly that came with WMM's risotto. We did, however, enjoy the half bottle of wine, courtesy of her husband J, and the red velvet settee was the ideal place to start an evening rife with lesbian subtext. (See how neatly I avoided mentioning that I almost didn't find the place, because I'd failed to note (a) its name and (b) its address? I thought it was at 171 W. Adams [it wasn't] and that its name had a "W" in it, so I very nearly got hung up at "17 W at the Berghoff.")

But dinner was achieved without incident, and a cab was procured to whisk us off to the Civic Opera House for a cheerful evening with Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites. By the time we were in our seats, the outer curtain had already been raised to reveal that the wings and upstage were completely masked with aggressively nonreflective, battleship grey flats (I think I owe an apology to the Hunnish set designer for Orfeo ed Euridice: Production Designer Robert Carsen seems to be the warrior for monochrome). On the stage, 15 little nuns' habits were laid out in . . . well, not 2 straight lines, but yes I went to the Madeline place. I am, after all, only human. But, hey, WMM was the first to comment that some of our soon-to-be-dead sisters were big and some were little.

This is the third production that Carsen has designed for Lyric in just two seasons (The aforementioned Orfeo, plus this season's Iphigénie en Tauride [another C. Willibald Gluck special], which I did not see). I ended up liking Orfeo design overall, and Carsen's streak with me holds. I'm not sure whether the credit should go to him or to set designer Michael Levine for the masking walls, and I'm not sure whether or not I should be committed for worrying about who gets credit for grey walls, but bear with me: These weren't just any grey walls; they were Caligari grey, German Expressionist grey. Like how much more grey could they be? And when the side walls raised—just barely enough to clear the head of the tallest player entering—it was downright tectonic.

There wasn't much beyond walls (but what walls they were!) in the way of set design. Every other element of the set design was either movable, human (which, generally speaking, also implies movability), or shadow. On the movable, nonhuman front, we had all-purpose A-frame benches and tables that could be assembled to suggest any interior monastery space, or the ruins of La Maison de la Force when upended. The only piece of furniture other than these rough-hewn pieces was the last provincial chair (which managed to be appropriately gaudy, despite being entirely upholstered entirely in shades of grey) in France, property of the Baron de la Force himself. And, it seems, no Robert Carsen design would be complete without receptacles for transporting fire and making Og very nervous.

I flatter myself that my gentle readers are curious about my assertion that there were human elements to the set design. This is not a wacky metaphor originating in my fevered brain. Carsen (and, presumably, Didier Kersten, Stage Director for the revival of this production) literally circumscribed smaller spheres of interaction within the cavernous (yet claustrophobic—all hail The Grey Walls!) space of the stage using humans as the boundaries: For example, as Madame de Croissy lays dying, six nuns lay prone, forming the perimeter of a small rectangle around her death bed, and Jean Kalman's lighting design reduced the entire world to something no bigger than that small, rigidly defined space; in contrast, as the Chevalier and Baron de la Force discuss their worries about Blanche, they are very nearly forced off the stage by the mass (sometimes heaving with movement, other times deathly still) of chorus members who have corralled them downstage center.

In the latter case, the device is taken a step further, as the aristocratic space is defined by four servants, each occupying the pool of light from a very tight spot. Given the setting (France, during the Reign of Terror), this servants-as-furniture visual gag could be construed as a rather obvious joke. However, I think that all concerned with the design have something larger and more interesting to say with this device.

Take, for example, another instance in which the line is blurred between which humans are standing in for inanimate objects, and which humans are players in the scene, whether active or passive: In act II, scene iii, Blanche has been granted permission to speak with her brother, and Madame Lidoine has ordered Mother Marie ("you and only you") to listen in. All the nuns who have been onlookers during the conversation between the two women pull their veils over their faces and step into a straight line at center running from upstage to downstage. Mother Marie does the same, become the downstage-most post in the human fence. At the end of their conversation, Mother Marie steps immediately from the line and continues the conversation with Blanche that the Chevalier has just abandoned. Still later, the stark geometry of the human boundaries we've seen so far is contrasted with the staging of the prison scene in which the nuns are heaped haphazardly within an extremely small and stark square of light, with only Madame Lidoine distinguishable as an individual at the center.

Taken as a whole, the implication of the human set is that no conversation is ever set against an inanimate backdrop. And that works beautifully with the structure and form of Poulenc's music. Every discrete section of the music is literally a dialogue—a speech act carried out between pairs of entities, whether they are individuals or audiences. Our dialogues are bounded, but also shaped and facilitated, by our communities, our social context, and our selves in the largest sense.

This is not meant to imply that there was no snarking about the human furniture. At intermission, both WMM and I wondered about the long-term implications of remaining in crocodile for the entirety of an opera death (and Poulenc is in no hurry for Madame de Croissy to kick it once and for all): Did any of the nuns nod off? Were they plotting knitting projects in their heads? Doing fractals with George Bradfute? And just how many ceramic Baby Jesii did the propsfolk have to go through before they found the ones whose heads would break off and roll so exactly to the edge of the stage, then stop? On a more serious note, I thought that Blanche and the Chevalier trading "sides of the fence" during their dialogue was a bit obvious and on the nose. Outside becomes in, the brave brother is forced to flee, while the sister living in pathological fear stands her ground, blah, blah. Yes, I get it.

As much as I've managed to say about the unrelentingly minimalist set design, there's not a tremendous amount to say about Falk Bauer's costumes. He himself notes: "For this production, it's important that the costumes don't play a major role - they're just simple and appropriate. . . . It's also important that everyone in the crowd scenes must seem to be a specific character." The nuns' habits were fine, and although WMM had high hopes of getting extra points for The Tribe by catching Bauer out on the novice's habits being the same as those of the full-fledged nuns, both Blanche and Constance had the appropriate white veils rather than black. For my part, I will cop to some difficulty distinguishing Mother Marie from Madame Lidoine (who, really, shows up out of nowhere) without visual cues.

The brightly colored costumes of the Chevalier and the Baron, although welcome respite from the greyscale, were maybe a bit too too. Bauer's note about everyone in the crowd being a specific character is interesting, though. In the opening scene, the chorus is, on the one hand, this monolithic thing surrounding the aristocracy, on the other, they are individuals. They're all dressed in black, white, and (of course) grey, but their suits are cut differently. They are bald and long haired. They are fat, they are thin. They are individuals as much as they are The Terror. And just as the humans-as-set-pieces serves the music and narrative well, Bauer's success in the costume design is crucial when Poulenc writes for individual men later in the opera.

Musically, I was not sure what to expect, but I was prepared to cringe in sympathy for WMM (I think I'm reasonably cringe-proof for my own part at this point). For the most part, though, Dialogues is remarkably tuneful and listenable. There aren't a lot of in-your-face, I AM MODERN, BEYAAATCH, shennanigans. Pompous Essayist Roger Pines notes:

IN creating a musical framework for Bernanos's spare, elegant language, Poulenc went back 350 years to Monteverdi [Note: I have Return of Ulysses next week, so I'll be back to bitch slap Roger for this, I'm sure—Ed.], mixing that inspiration with the influence of Mussorgsky and Debussy.

In fact, there's so little self conscious modernity in the music that both WMM and I were startled by the "and now . . . a PIANO SOLO to awake those of you who've nodded off" and the regular commentary by the XYLOPHONE OF DOOM, because they were unexpected every single time.

In terms of structure and pacing, Dialogues is most decidedly post-Wagner. There are large swaths of singable tunes, but they are tightly bound to the conversational interludes and passing scenes that flank them. This is not an opera that is easy to interrupt with applause (and although the audience was quite enthusiastic and still there at the end, for the most part, there was not a single ovation other than at intermission and the end). To circle back from the opera in general to this specific production, again, the production, set, and costume designs, together with the stage direction, work flawlessly with Poulenc's vision. The costumes laid out on the stage before the opening scene are taken up by the crowd, and the nuns appear from within the crowd for scene ii. Exits and entrances are accommodated by the walls smoothly and silently raising and lowering. The music and action glide unimpeded toward the inevitable.

Much is being made of how moving this opera is. Musically, I'm certainly on board. Narratively, I concur with the whispered assessment of WMM: It's all about The Crazy. All Crazy, All the Time. I mean, seriously, I'm down with inexplicable nervous complaints of the literary heroine as the next consumer of period fiction, but come on: Blanche enters a convent because she's frightened of her own shadow, but then she becomes inexplicably convinced that she is the only safe person in France—she, a member of multiple groups that are easily construed as anti-Revolution in a time when anti-Revolution was very broadly conceived.

More problematic is Mother Marie (a real shame, because dayum, that's one hell of a musical role). Through what I think WMM called "Catholic calculus," arrives at the conclusion that 15 virgin martyrs = many dead priests, and so the balance is maintained, so she might as well coerce the rest into taking the vow of martyrdom along with her.

Even poor Constance, who initially seems to at least have the excuse that she's either brain damaged or just not that bright (no one that happy is playing with all the Stations of the Cross, if you take my meaning), eventually starts to talk the talk. Roger "PE" Pines, Anna Christy [who sings Constance], and Eugenie Grunewald, who plays Sister Mathilde all comment on how Constance's maturation into a profound thinker is touching. I have to side with Blanche (at least Blanche in the synopsist's view):
[Constance] explains that she has always hoped for a short life, and that when she met Blanche, she knew that they would die together. Blanche is appalled.

Many of Pines' points about the importance, relevance, and uniqueness of Dialogues are well taken: The emotions and phenomena with which Poulenc is dealing are almost wholly original. Dialogues is, in many ways, What Happened to Thais After She Left Egypt (without the extended S&M orgy in the middle [is it possible that I've never blogged about proposing this play to my theater group, without having read it all the way to the end, thus resulting in MST3K levels of wackiness?]). I understand why the story was moving to Gertrud von le Fort and to Poulenc himself after the revival of his Catholicism.

The story is just a mess of irrational decisions that don't particularly speak to faithless old me, I guess. Moreover, the points that might have moved me—the tragic loss of real, individual lives, the wrongheadedness of The Terror, the intolerance, and the trading of one kind of tyranny for another—get lost because it's more or less turtles of tyranny all the way down. The guillotine is just as sharp when it's the Savior what brung you.

I am genuinely saddened that my disengagement from the story was complicated by what I saw as the lone false note in the staging of this production. At the end, as the nuns are led to their deaths, they have been forced to shed their habits, so they are in loose white chemises. The blocking was such that as they sing the "Salve Regina," there were two rings of five nuns each with one nun in the center (Constance is one of the central nuns, I cannot recall the other) and Madame Lidoine was downstage and centered between the two rings (remember: We were missing Mother Marie and Blanche at this point).

The choreography during the "Salve" was . . . unfortunate . . . you can put them in whatever get ups you like, 13 women doing synchronized movement just cries out for pompons. Moreover, the synchronized movement was some kind of terrible hybrid of yoga, tai chi, and the hustle. Hence the subject line. As the "Salve" was repeated, a rapid, dynamic roll on the snare evoked the snick of the guillotine (quite effectively, too), and with each iteration, one of the women would slowly drop out of the choreography, sink to the floor, and roll herself into, inevitably and yet still unfortunately, a cruciform pose (supine, arms extended to the sides at shoulder height). Now, the mimicry and inversion of the habits laid out before the opera's opening mitigated this incredibly tired symbolism, but not a lot. And the goofy nature of the last 10 minutes or so is rendered really tragic by the fact that the music is, truly, quite beautiful. Even Blanche's "Veni Creator," ubercrazy as it is, just hits hard and deep in the best possible way. Until she launches into the YoChiTle.

Most of the performers in this production are pretty well-known to me. Of course I'm a giant Isabel Bayrakdarian fangirl, but this is Bayrakdarian as I've never seen her before. Thus far, she's been a charming, kittenish Zerlina, a fresh-faced force of nature as Marzelline, and a Euridice too cute to come off as being as neurotic as she ought to be. I also have her Joyous Light CD (Armenian liturgical music, and beautiful stuff it is), which is joyous as advertised. So weepy, dramatic, frail Bayrakdarian was new for me. To her credit, it was as if she had remade not only her voice, but her very self for the role. And yet the effervescent Bayrakdarian was there, injecting real joy and depth of feeling when it's appropriate to the story. IN her blurb she says:
In the finale, the other nuns are singing what they'd sing in times of need. Blanche is the only one who is glorifying God, as if she's going to a wedding instead of to her death.

It's well said (although she's polite about not making reference to the crazy in which Blanche is soaking at this point), and she does bring real beauty to that moment and the few others that call for it.

This new and wholly different Bayrakdarian was particularly strange when juxtaposed with Anna Christy's Sister Constance. I've only heard Christy as Muffin in A Wedding, which is tantamount to having not heard her at all. She was quite magnificent—a bizarre little crystal blue babbling brook in the middle of the cesspool that is both France and these characters. In fact, she was so light, lovely, and charming, that I had a momentary: "Wait . . . is that Bayrakdarian?!?" If any of the story is to be rescued from itself, Constance and Blanche must have a believable and immediate bond. No two could have managed that better than these two.

Madame Lidoine is perhaps the time that I've heard Patricia Racette and thought that the quality of her voice and the character of her vocal attack was well-suited to the role she's playing. I saw glimpses of it in her Liu, but she really made Madame Lidoine her own, both dramatically and vocally. Her work in the prison scene, specifically, and against (and with) Jane Irwin's Mother Marie, more generally, were particularly moving and delightful from a technical perspective.

Felicity Palmer (Madame de Croissy) and Jane Irwin (Mother Marie) were both new to me and what powerhouses they were! Certainly no one could accuse Palmer of shying away from the agony of de Croissy's death, and yet the fierce energy she poured into the performance made it handsome—truly, it was to be appreciated for its deep, robust qualities that are far afield from the delicacy and melodramatic notes that characterize the great female moments in most opera. Palmer also gets an appreciative nod from me for being the only one to poke at the story. She says of her character:
The prioress should be a shining example of someone going gladly to her death, but she is as afraid and unprepared as anyone else. Her physical agony is also a hit at Mother Marie, who always pumps the Carmelite line - 'You should just be happy to rest in Him.'

She certainly seems to love the characters on the canvas, but in a more critical, mature way that I could see myself getting behind . . . maybe . . . eventually.

Irwin, damn her eyes, kept making me like Mother Marie as a gruff, no nonsense curmudgeon who is really kind and sensible underneath, and Mother Marie is really the craziest of them all. I especially enjoyed Irwin's voice and characterization in act III when she is trying to reason with Blanche. Her voice takes on a smooth, wheedling quality that evokes some of the greatest, most seductive moments in (once again) male opera roles.

As for the genuine, bona fide males, of course there aren't many. Joseph Kaiser, who would have been my Romeo if I hadn't lucked into my tenor boyfriend and his beautiful opera hair, was our Chevalier [Uh, I am so very high. Kaiser was never to be my Romeo. It was Matthew Polenzani and I don't know how I made this branefart---Ed.]. Initially his voice didn't do much for me, possibly because much of it seemed to be swallowed up by the grey walls and the heaving mass of chorus members on stage. However, once Bayrakdarian's Blanche arrived on the scene, something sparked and I warmed to him greatly. His scene with her, solo, in act II was marvelous and heartfelt.

Dale Travis as the Baron de la Force was more successful in impressing me than he was as Geronte in Manon. It's possible that his bass-baritone is more paternal/avuncular than it is sexy, which is why it struck me wrong. Even as I type that, though, I think: "I know what those words mean individually, but together they make no sense!" Bass-baritone not sexy? Unpossible.

Dennis Petersen's Chaplain, in some ways, redeemed his Dr. Blind. The Chaplain, too, is perpetually worried and uncertain in the very moment when he is most needed as a strong leader. Petersen managed to trim his sails neatly between what the Chaplain is and what he ought to be. To his credit, he was confident enough that we would recognize some rough vocal edges as dramatic choices rather than mistakes, which might not be the choice that every singer makes in a role with pretty little material.

Other brief appearances were made by stalwart Lyric folks like Bryan Griffin, Phillip Dothard, Jordan Shanahan, and Kenneth Nichols. This opera is a veritable girls' sleepover party without the pillow fights and hair braiding (I'm guessing that the nuns are not above a few rounds of "light as a feather, stiff as a board" and a seance or two), so there's not much to say about the boys except that they were well-suited to achieve the goal of making every single person who appears a real, specific individual.

And because everyone, gentile or Jew, lesbian or het!girl, need a little soothing after so much death, after the opera, we met up with some fine-looking menfolk, my esteemed spouse, our friend Freshmaker, and his friend, who had been recently dubbed The Mack Daddy for the Chocolate Buffet
at the Peninsula. (Well, Freshmaker, being a freak, but a cute and gentlemanly one, joined us for the cheese plate at The Peninsula.)

The buffet was, somewhat disappointingly, less chocolatey than in the past, but still overwhelmingly delicious. The chocolate-ginger creme brulee was a stand-out as was the nearly-devoid-of-chocolate mandarin orange panna cotta. (I know, I can't believe it either: I'm praising something that had, essentially, only a chocolate swizzle stick in it.) Oh, and there were good truffles of uncertain origin and great hot chocolate this time, plus a yummy gooey chocolate cakelet with a sugared orange peel on top.

Conversely, the chocolate lollipop that had banana flavor inside just made Og angry, as did the presence of strawberries dipped in white chocolate only. Ditto the necessity of digging through the pile of chocolate-dipped pretzel sticks for the milk chocolate buried amidst the piles of those dipped in white chocolate, which rendered them about as useful as Lincoln Logs for consumption purposes.

On balance, a grand time was had by me and no one wound up dead, Catholic, or a virgin, so I'm calling the whole evening a success.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Primate-cy: Electric Boogaloo at the MIlwaukee Zoo

It was more than 2 years ago that M and I last ventured to the Milwaukee County Zoo and lost our headgear to wiley moose.

That trip was auspicious for me, because it marked the first time that I actually got to see bonobos, after multiple attempts to do so. In retrospect, it's a bittersweet trip, because it was also the first—and very sadly, the last—time I'd get to see Mitch Hedberg perform. Although I almost never reread anything I've ever written, I peeked into that entry and I'm sad that I wrote so little about his performance. His appearance that night was both a surprise and a real treat. Given how much of Mitch permeates conversations at Telecommuniculturey, he's someone that M and I really do miss on almost a daily basis.

Anyway, it's a long time since it was all happenin' at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Given that my baby brother has just matched at the Medical College of Wisconsin and will be looking for a house, most likely in the zoo's 'hood, it seems unlikely that it'll be that long before our next visit, and that's a good thing.

The holdings of the Milwaukee County Zoo are, somewhat unfortunately, superior to its facilities. And I'm not just talking about the slim pickings in the way of junk food. (Although, as it happens, only the Santa Barbara Zoo, with its repulsively healthy, avocado-featuring offerings, ranks lower.) Their signage is pretty tragic, both in terms of content and literacy (someone had added a much-needed sharpie apostrophe to "It's" on one sign, but I lacked a sharpie to remove one elsewhere; and let us never speak of the mote/moat problem). A lot of the "interactive" signs (you know, where a question is asked and you lift a flap, slide a lever, or push a button to get the answer) are in bad repair. And nothing appears to have been updated in the 2.5 years since we've been there.

In perusing their website, I see that the problems also penetrate that. For example, the Great Apes and many of the Primates are in the same house, so their organization on their list is not simply location based. Leaving aside the fact that Great Apes are a subset of Primates, making the location-based list confusing even if it were accurate, you then have the Orangutan (hint: it's a Great Ape) lumped in with the Primates. And the term "Pygmy Chimpanzee" has no place on any materials that hope to be educational.
These kinds of problems irk me but don't really have much of an effect on what I get out of a visit. For the most part.

After grabbing a bite for breakfast, we made a false start down the wrong path to the house with Great Apes and other Primates and had to backtrack to it. It was quite cold, so all the primates were indoors. There were two gorillas chilling in the indoor habitat, quite possibly the same two brothers we saw the lsat time, but I'm not sure. They weren't doing much, so we moved on to the bonobos.

The first thing that caught my eye was a nearly hairless male bonobo who sat stock still, keeping himself apart from the rest of the group. He was incredibly muscular, a feature emphasized by not being especially hirsute. He just looked out over the rest of the group so calmly the whole time that we took to calling him "The Cooler."

The second thing I noticed was that there were three bonobos as high as they could possibly get in the habitat. Two of these were adults (one male and one female, as it would turn out), and the third was a youngster. The little one was on the move, clearly wanting to get down on the floor where the rest of the action was. The adult male was hot on his/her heels and in fact sped past to cradle him/her on the rest of the way down. The female caught up with the two and elbowed the male out of the way to take charge of the little one. It gradually became clear that she'd lagged behind because she had extremely limited control of her lower limbs, and seemingly none over her feet.

We're going with the assumption that the female was Linda, the oldest of their bonobos and one who suffers from diabetes, and that she is the mother of the little guy/gal was quite possibly the little baby we saw back in '03. Unfortunately, none of the information delineating the individuals had been updated since our last visit, so this is just a guess. The identity of the male remains unknown, although I suspect he might have been the one actively pursuing the mother of the baby in '03. That guess is based on the fact that he was obsessed with both the mother and the little one, and the mother didn't seem especially pleased with or interested in his bonobo-y attentions to either herself or her offspring (and yeah, the adult male went there with the little guy, 'cause that's how bonbos roll). And just to complicate things, any and all of these bets may be completely off based on the fact that the female was sporting a truly giant estrus swelling (and seemed to have actual intercourse with at least two males), which seems out of step with the age of the little one.

So you can see that information—any information at all—on identity, relationships, health status, etc., would have been a real asset. But our confusion was probably nothing to that of the student who was parked on the floor by the habitat, clearly making notes for a school project. She was a bit surly to someone who asked her a question, snapping that she didn't work for the zoo, but we'll right (in fairness to the Milwaukee zoo, I leave my think-o intact, here. WRITE, damnit!) that off to quite understandable frustration.

From the bonobos, we powered past some cuddling mandrills and fairly sedate spider monkeys. The Goeldi's monkeys were completely uninterested in showing us their tiny baby. The two orangutans were kind of canoodling, but with their backs to us. The black-and-white colobus monkeys were looking glum, as they have every right to, and the Diana monkeys were quite huffy at my having mistaken them, based only on a very brief glimpse, for the B&W colobus monkeys.

But the siamang were all up for being entertaining. The group comprised a family: adult female, adult male, and a little one just over a year old. When we first got there, the mother was sitting on the floor, looking despondent, as the little one performed a vaudeville routine. He was trying to walk on the floor, but kept slipping all over the place. This seemed to irritate him, driving him to climb some of the vines hanging over his dear old mum so that he could kick at her head and shoulders in the universal, cross-species dance of toddler frustration. He was so bad at walking bipedally on the floor that I entertained two possible explanations: (1) He was somehow developmentally delayed and not yet strong enough, leg wise, to "walk"; (2) some particularly cruel keeper had actually crisco-ed the floor.

While mother and child were enacting this tender scene, the adult male was at the back of the habitat, looking through the grate into the interior, out-of-public space. At some point, the mother and kiddo moved back to sit near him. He seemed annoyed by the kid and, at some point, seemed to be trying to make some connection (not necessarily a bonobo connection) with the adult female, who whipped around and smacked him, once, twice, upside the head. Although her reasoning was not obvious at the time, when the whole group later moved closer to the glass, his hand appeared to be entirely covered with shit, which might explain some things.

We finally peeled ourselves away from the primates and headed off to see some reptiles and fish. I appreciate herpetological creatures in general, and M is, of course, an a fish person (and pisces), but there was not much that was particularly exciting in here. M reaffirmed his position that poisonous snakes are cheater cheater pumpkin eaters, and we reminisced about the crazy rattlesnake at the St. Louis Zoo. I was then roundly mocked for wanting to know (a) whether said crazy rattler was abnormal neurologically or otherwise and (b) just how much craziness is out there in the snake population waiting to be selected for.

We next hit the small mammal house where river otters did their cute river otter thing, which is just a smidge less cute than the sea otter thing. Most of the monkeys, including the pygmy marmoset, were completely uninterested in being seen by us. The icky, horrible bats, in contrast, were all too happy to make their presence known (and I'm still having nightmares about the one that was loping across the ceiling while upside down). The wild kitty had just been given a treat ball and was being hilariously house-cat like. The bush baby remained cute, although he did not engage in any particularly spectacular locomotive feats this time around.

Our outdoor tour was rather brisk due both to the cold and the fact that we learned our lesson about sudden Wisconsin wind last time. The short list to the outdoors:

  • The peacock that was really really bummed about the closed snack bar and perpetually screamed about it.
  • Australia was a bust because it was under construction and being painted, which might explain the sacked out roos.
  • Giraffes look totally ridiculous indoors, but being that close, you can see them swallow, which is pretty freakin' cool. Also, their skulls are quite alien looking.
  • The wussy polar bears went back inside almost as soon as we showed up.
  • The black bears we saw look surprisingly like the hound, despite the fact that the hound is quite equine.
  • The "Farm" is generally pretty lame, but we did see:

    • A very twitchy bird of prey being trained and demanding food about every 5 seconds (reason for presence on farm unclear).
    • A cow that trotted in for its lunch when called.

  • The timber wolves that they have are just completely beautiful. They also very pointedly walked to the glass as we walked away, watching us for as long as they could see us with a look that clearly said "We don't want your kind 'round here, two legs."

After some lunch, we swung around the opposite side of the apes/primates to check out Macaque Island where the so-called "snow monkeys" were looking pretty miserable in the cold. Well, most were looking pretty miserable. There was one who was sitting with his legs splayed wide, his erect penis making a jaunty arch and resting on the rock between them like the proverbial third leg.

It was closing in on closing time by then, so we made one more swing through the primate house. This was quite fortunate, because we learned that the adult male orangutan "Tommy" (if that is his real name), suddenly seemed to be in possession of a bucket. We also got to witness all the bonobos going completely mental: They'd run into a deep, out of sight portion at the back of the habitat. For several minutes it would seem as if they had gone inside for the night, but moments later, they'd emerge, as if from a clown car, screaming. Over and over again they did this. Comical, yet mysterious, that's our bonobos.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

The Newfoundgoodland: Great Big Sea in Milwaukee, WI

So M and I failed not once, but twice, to get special-person tickets for Great Big Sea. Nonetheless, we decided that if we added some hot bonobo-on-bonobo-on-bonobo action into the mix, we might be able to make do with pleb tickets in The Good Land.

The concert was at the Potawatomi casino, which didn't particularly thrill me (for most of the same reasons cited by Alan here, and yes, that's hypocritical, because I love a few days in Vegas). It thrilled me less when we wound up parking (thanks to inadequate signage) in the first lot we saw, and walking through 86 miles worth of construction (the entire city of Milwaukee appears to be under construction) to get there.

However, the Northern Lights Theater is actually quite a pleasant venue, and a welcome oasis of nonsmoking, to boot. It reminds me most of The Park West in layout, but I doubt it seats as many. Although we finally bought tickets a mere three days in advance, we were in the back of a comfy, high-backed booth one level above the mosh tables (presumably, these were the early release tickets) with a couple who were pleasant enough, but not overly chatty. The drinks, of course, were overpriced, but at least good drinks. The basket of fried stuff to tide us over until dinner, ditto.

The show started quite promptly at 8 PM (M and his "atoms" claim 8:02, but we spurn him), and as was the case with last year's "Evening with Great Big Sea", there were two sets and no opening band. Although there was not as strong a divide in material between the two sets as there was last year, the staging also followed the same pattern, beginning with a minimal drum kit (he had a floor tom this year, which my notes from last year suggest he did not, but I wouldn't trust me if I were you and I'm me, so pause to consider) for Kris, and everyone in front of the draped lights. Murray had a stand-up bass in addition to his amplified acoustic.

M, because he likes to be a pain in the ass, declared (jokingly, I can assure you, because you might not know from his utter lack of sarcastic voice) early on that this might be the moment when GBS would jump the shark. This was initially based on the addition of the upright bass, which Murray used with all their fancy new instruments. When Alan pulled out a banjo at one point, a mandolin (which I think we've seen him play before) at another, and his sweet, sweet electric gibson at yet another, M again gave me a significant look. And then Bob started changing instruments midsong, making him guilty, at least, of hubris.

Although I utterly scorn assertions, however in jest they might be, of shark jumping, I do note that our scruffy boys were all wearing button-down shirts and that Sean and Bob have both cut their hair and look almost respectable. Alan's beautiful rock hair remains intact, thankfully, and he used it to great advantage. In general, they all looked fitter and more rested than last year, which warms my heart.

Set 1 kicked off with "Billy Peddle" and "Go Boys Go (Chemical Workers' Song)," which they immediately followed with "When I'm Up." Although I would follow these lads anywhere (especially, as I've noted before they always tour when it's spring and the wanderlust sets in), I suppose some people might wonder why they're touring at the moment. There's no new album this year (boo!), although the plan is to record one throughout 2007 for release in time for next year's temptational tour (hurray!), so this tour is meant to feature a healthy mix of things they haven't done in a long while plus more recently released things and a handful of genuinely new stuff.

Alan's "From the Road" entry from Kalamazoo, MI, to which I linked above, says they debuted three new songs, but we only got two: "Walk on the Moon" is akin to "Ordinary Day" and feels like it could have been on Something Beautiful. I liked it a lot, but I can imagine that those who are mostly fans of their more traditional stuff will be impatient with it. The second, which doesn't yet have a title (Alan refers to it as "Here We Go Again" in his journal), is much bouncier and feels traditional, though it's new. Unless I passed out for a while, we did not get "Where I Belong," which, from Alan's description, is a real return to roots in the same vein as some of the songs off the debut CD. I'm sorry we missed it.

In terms of things that I don't think I've ever seen them perform live before, I'm dredging my memory here (there's been a zoo trip, an opera, a chocolate buffet, and a Secret Country show since then, so bear with me). It's quite likely that I'd never heard the two opening numbers live, or at least not since back in 2002 when I saw the boys live for the first time.

I'd absolutely never heard Sean do "Captain Wedderburn" live. It was not only a real treat, it served as a reminder that he doesn't always sing the songs about lying, cheating, and generally being a dawg, just most of the time. In some ways, Sean's voice has changed the most over the course of their nearly 15 years (yikes!) together, and this performance was a nice demonstration that he still has the sweet, high tenor chops he's always had and they're greatly enhanced by the more dynamic range he's developed. Sean also did "Feel it Turn" in the second set, which not only have I never seen, I am not sure I've ever heard it, because of my spouses desultory ripping practices in the past. (In fact, as I'm going through their discography, there are many things I've never heard [and I wonder about the mysterious asterisk by Something Beautiful], so I guess I'll be digging through some CDs.)

Although it wasn't new itself, the performance of "Sea of No Cares," permanently transformed the song for me. I actually quite like the version that ended up on the CD bearing that name, but I realized when I heard it performed by the guy from the Push Stars who cowrote it (with Alan on acoustic, of course) that the CD version is on the overproduced end of the spectrum. For the performance on Thursday, Alan asked us to imagine ourselves at Sean's place on a foggy Wednesday Newfoundland afternoon, surrounded by beagles. Um, yes please.

Also among the things never before heard on stage (and quite possibly never to be heard again) were: Sean's Sammy Davis, Jr., impression, which led to an impromptu rendition of "Somewhere Beyond the Sea" and repeated demands for a "Brandy McBrandy," which were eventually fulfilled, for good or for ill; Alan's leading the crowd into a medley of "Country Road" and "This Land is Your Land," which was just plain weird; and some recitative about doing casino shows more often, because they're over 21 and give the boys the opportunity to be really filthy. (For the curious, "penis" is Alan's idea of really filthy, "poo" is Sean's.)

The boys being funny and charming and adorable is nothing new at all, but they were perhaps more relaxed and playful this year than last. Last year, of course, jokes abounded about pitching a CD like The Hard and the Easy to a corporate monolith, but there was a slightly hysterical shine to their eyes. Methinks there was some joking on the square going on. In Milwaukee, they kidded constantly about the venue, which made Alan feel like a Gladiator (he kept demanding Barabbas, which got funnier each time) and Sean like a member of the Rat Pack (hence the Sammy Davis impression). Bob, as Alan noted, actually smiled and laughed on stage. Multiple times. (Don't worry, Bob, it took nothing away from the fact that you are the only human being alive who has a rock star stance and strut built up around the button accordion.)

Other comic highlights included Alan's long-winded introduction to "When I Am King." During the course of it, the band decided that the song was really more an "Alan and Friends" song, and the light man helped get this across by leaving the rest of the band in darkness with a single spot on Alan. This was all the funnier because it was meant to explain how embarrassed he was about the self-centered second verse. Also, Sean told us that he prefers a wax to a shave (apropos being "like a brother to Shave"), and Alan promised to kiss away his pain (I have no idea). Alan doesn't care about Murray's pain, apparently, because only Sean noted that they were going to have to give Murray more verses, given the amount of anger he injected into his on "Scolding Wife." (Murray suggested that they give him less anger, but this suggestion went unnoticed.) But probably the funniest thing was Alan pantomiming the role of the "Rover's" lover, raising her arms up around her breast.

Each set was a little more than an hour, and they came out for two encores. The second—an unamplified version of "River Driver" sung from the apron—was incredibly beautiful. Or at least it was once the fucking tone deaf drunk woman behind me finally recognized Alan's repeated gestures for quiet until the very last reprise of the chorus, at which point we all joined in. I'm always greedy for whatever they don't have time to play, but this show was a really great mix of things from their whole career. Sure, I'd have loved more from The Hard and the Easy, but I loved hearing things from way back on Great Big Sea and Up. I loved it all, even Alan's little screw up in "Excursion Around the Bay," and the mystery of whether or not Kris was really playing the piano accordion or just using it as an accessory.

It was a great night, and I deeply regret that we didn't follow through on my brilliant plan to high-tail it back to Chicago and catch them at the Riviera on Friday, but the bonobos, they were calling, as was the hound dog.

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