Follow by Email

Share it

About Me

My Photo
send E-mail to

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Vinyl Fans Share Their Record Collections at Venues Across Greater Cincinnati

The All-Spin Zones

Vinyl aficionados share their record collections at venues across Greater Cincinnati

cover_vinylnight_taylorstanley1Vinyl nights encourage the sharing of music in person, without digital distance (Photo: Taylor Stanley)
It’s the last Tuesday night of March at HD Beans & Brews Café on the Silverton/Kennedy Heights border, and a small crowd is attending Vinyl Night Cincinnati’s (VNC) monthly gathering. (Full disclosure: This author is a co-founder of VNC.)
Vinyl Night Cincinnati has been meeting here for almost four years. All vinyl nights — select evenings at bars and other venues where people come to spin and listen to vinyl records — have their own distinct personality and all are responses to the ongoing revival of interest (and sales) in vinyl records. 

At VNC’s March gathering at HD Beans, the first person to play a set is Gary Janssen, who drives down from Oxford for the gatherings. He steps to a microphone at the front of the café’s back room to explain his choices. 

“A friend of mine was lamenting there is no more protest music,” he says, mentioning the unnerving warlike situation in Crimea and how it could lead to actual war. “So I brought two protest songs.”

First up is “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” from a 1983 vinyl album by Scottish-born Australian folk singer Eric Bogle. Janssen explains how the song chronicles the hardships of Australian troops (fighting with the British) during the Battle of Gallipoli, where the Allies fared disastrously against the Turks in a World War I battle. 

Neil Sharrow, a VNC co-founder, uses his laptop and a wall-mounted flat screen TV to call up a video of Bogle as the LP plays. 

Janssen next plays “War Widow” from Country Joe McDonald’s 1971 album War War War. The entire album, a relic of the anti-Vietnam War protest era, consists of McDonald adapting the poems of the late Robert Service to music.

The March edition of Vinyl Night Cincinnati was off and running. And before it was finished — some three and a half hours later — the selections played by the assembled group included music by Duke Ellington with Louie Bellson, The Beach Boys’ lesser-known gem “Cool Cool Water,” Syd Barrett, Jim Pepper’s Pepper’s Pow Wow’s cathartic, revelatory 1971 Jazz take on the old Indian peyote chant “Witchi Tai To” and much more. 

For older participants (you can find people in their sixties at these events) who knew to keep their LPs and 45s, vinyl-playing groups are a chance to show off their prescient connoisseurship.

For younger folks, it’s a chance to share the latest new releases in vinyl, as well as the latest finds at the growing number of used vinyl stores. And besides being able to play from their collections, vinyl devotees want to attend public events to hear what others like as well. Some are party-oriented sessions with a DJ, but many are like book-discussion groups — only louder and with beer. 

“It’s really amazing the number of vinyl enthusiasts in this town,” says Margaret Darling, a musician (formerly with The Seedy Seeds) who currently helps run one area vinyl-playing session with another in the works. 

Her Tuesday night at Covington, Ky.’s Pike Street Lounge runs from 7-11 p.m. because many of her vinyl-toting participants are not barroom regulars and like to get home early. 

“We have one regular who brings in terrific Punk and another individual likes easy-listening music from the 1970s — John Denver and Karen Carpenter,” she says.

Starting the second Saturday in May, Darling and Daniel Kinney, under the moniker Hook & Ladder, will DJ a vinyl dance party at Northside club Chameleon specializing in Detroit House music.

At the Southgate House Revival, which has Tuesday vinyl sessions, Derek Toebbe has hooked up with the crew at Newport, Ky.’s new Torn Light Records store to share sets and offer more variety for listeners. (Others can bring records to play, too.)

At Listing Loon, the Northside craft beer and wine shop that recently became a bar, Billy Alletzhauser, a member of the band The Hiders and a former Ass Pony, plays from his record collection on the first Tuesday of the month. For a recent session, he brought LPs as varied as Butthole Surfers’ Rembrandt Pussyhorse, Lonnie Mack’s Hills of Indiana, Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man, an EP by The Handsome Family and a box of 45s.  Alletzhauser’s set, he would admit, is curatorial. 
“With vinyl, what you bring is limited because you can’t carry loads of stuff,” Alletzhauser says. “So you’re catering to your own tastes. Of course, you can’t help but perform a little. So if a guy with a Mohawk comes in, I’d want to play something hardcore. Or if a Rasta (comes in), some Reggae.”

On other Tuesday nights, Listing Loon has invited guest vinyl DJs. And it will accept newcomers. 
“People who come in and see Bill and then say, ‘I want to do it,’ we’ll give them a chance,” says Listing Loon co-owner Dave Mikkelsen. “If you know enough to be interested, you’ve probably got a good vinyl collection.” 

A sampling of vinyl nights around Greater Cincinnati:

Chameleon: Curated Dance records; second Saturday of the month. 4114 Hamilton Ave., Northside, 513-541-2073,
The Comet: Curated Reggae records; second Saturday of the month. 4579 Hamilton Ave., Northside, 513-541-8900,
HD Beans & Brews Café: Open turntable; last Tuesday of the month. 6721 Montgomery Road, Kennedy Heights, 513-793-6036,
The Listing Loon: Curated sets; Tuesday nights. 4124 Hamilton Ave., Northside, 513-542-5666.
Mayday: Open turntable; second Thursdays of the month. 4227 Spring Grove Ave., Northside, 513-541-0999,
Pike Street Lounge: Open turntable; Tuesday nights. 266 W. Pike St., Covington, Ky., 859-916-5430,
Southgate House Revival: Open turntable plus curated sets; Tuesdays nights. 111 E. Sixth St., Newport, Ky., 859-431-2201,
Three Kings Bar: Open turntable; Monday nights. 8 Pike St., Covington, Ky., 859-815-8252. Reverbnation page

(From Cincinnati CityBeat, 4-16-14)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Beyond the Valley of Americana: Tribute Albums Roundup



(What’s up with all those damn covers from the roots, folk, country and—in the odd-man-out selections from the decidedly non-Americana-tilting Paul McCartney’s songbook—pop community? Our resident TSP (tributesyndrome psychotherapist) investigates. — Blurt Online,, 12-3-13)
IN A  Mojo article, Sylvie Simmons noted that “Americana artists seem abnormally drawn to tribute albums.” She didn’t go on to explain why, but here’s a possibility:
Americana is a synthetic term for a jumble of “authentic” musical styles (if you buy the  notion that any kind of recorded music can be more authentic than another) that by the early 1990s were hurting in the commercial marketplace they once dominated.
One reason is that the artists were getting too old for the youth-oriented radio formats that dominated record sales. Another was that younger music lovers favored new styles – grunge, rap, Garth Brooks-style arena-friendly country, Whitney Houston-style operatic pop – that sounded either too harsh or too slick to those who wanted new music to still show the roots of the rock ‘n’ roll they liked. Those roots included rockabilly, blues, soul, workingman’s (and woman’s) country, folk troubadours, and especially the post-Dylan singer-songwriters.
“Americana” became the catchy branding term favored by everyone – musicians and fans – who wanted such roots music to stay in the ballgame. It’s been a remarkable success story – there are more younger earnest singer-songwriters now than ever, while the older musicians are able to extend their career relevancy well into their fifties, sixties and beyond. Some have even established their careers in their fifties and sixties. Even this very magazine hopped on the bandwagon blurted (!) the term from the cover of our latest issue, #14, to announce our multi-band feature covering the diverse likes of Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Gov’t Mule, Barrence Whitfield, Kenny Roby and Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion.

And part of that success has come from attaching the “Americana” term, via tribute albums, to lot of artists/musical styles you wouldn’t think belong. It’s made Americana such a big umbrella there’s seemingly room for everyone. And let’s face it; it’s also an opportunity for Americana’s many journeymen (and women) to get some exposure.
***Room for almost everyone. Let Us In: Americana – the Music of Paul McCartney…For Linda is a good example of going one artist too far with the gimmick. It’s a bad idea for a good cause – all proceeds benefit
Americana implies some kind of realism – some kind of core toughness, soulfulness or lack of pretension – to the material. And as a solo artist, McCartney best described his catalogue as “silly love songs.” One might also call his post-Beatles rockers as “catchy musical confections,” which have their place in the pantheon of pop but probably not alongside the Band, Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams or other Americana role models.
It doesn’t do much for McCartney or Rodney Crowell for Crowell to prowl around the airy “Every Night” as if it has shadowy depth. And if Ed Snodderly was hoping this album would be a good way to introduce his down-home country voice (and producer Phil Madeira’s fine slide guitar) to a new audience, he maybe shouldn’t have chosen “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.”
Will Hoge is a fine singer/songwriter, one whose songs have the gruff, rough-edged truthfulness to make you stop and listen. But here he tackles “Band on the Run” – definitely not an Americana candidate with such doggerel-style lyrics as “the jailor man and Sailor Sam, were searching everyone for the band on the run.”
One exception to the miscalculations is Ketch Secor’s (of Old Crow Medicine Show) inspired reinvention of “Give Ireland Back to the Irish,” which in the hands of McCartney’s Wings came off as cute and bouncy with some clumsy guitar work. Secor, with his committed and expressive singing and fine banjo and fiddle work, turns it into the folk-protest song it was meant to be, although he does have to struggle with one verse’s lack of musicality. And Jim Hoke’s pennywhistle on the track is a pleasure to hear.
One suspects that many Americana artists approached for this project just couldn’t find a way to interpret the strained songwriting of McCartney hits like “Comin’ Up,” “Live and Let Live,” “Say Say Say” or “Hi, Hi, Hi” and just said “no, no, no.” So the album lacks those solo hits and has eight Beatles tracks. The Beatles’ superior songwriting has long proved itself adaptable to many arrangement styles, so this does work better than solo McCartney songs. But does the world need more straightforward, heartfelt versions of “Yesterday” (Matrica Berg) or “Let It Be” (a female ensemble, including the McCrary Sisters and Allison Moorer)?
Bruce Cockburn’s tart plaintive voice, always balancing sorrow and regret with shades of anger, does add darkness to “Fool on the Hill.” And Ollabelle’s gospel arrangement of “Get Back” is fresh. But overall, this tribute album just makes the case that McCartney is not an Americana artist.
½ stars
Reviver Music;
ON THE other hand, while not without faults, You Don’t Know Me: Rediscovering Eddy Arnold is a perfect example of how Americana – especially its cowpunk subdivision – can really help an out-of-favor country artist get his groove back.
Arnold, who died in 2008 at age 89, was one of the crooners who ushered in the age of smooth Nashville countrypolitan with an enviable streak of hits in the 1950s and 1960s, including “Make the World Go Away,” “What’s He Doing in My World,” and “Turn the World Around.” (He was a “worldly” presence in country music.)
That’s not the Nashville style most revered these days – Americana favors something with more bite while commercial country favors banal tailgate-party-friendly arena-rock wannabes. But Arnold’s songs, some of which he helped write, were first-rate – all they need is a little more twang or scruffiness to be relevant today.
And he gets that treatment, mostly to good results, on You Don’t Know Me’s 19 songs, some recorded at the RCA Historic Studio B that Arnold often called home. The project is the result of an odd-couple partnership between Arnold’s grandson, musician Shannon Pollard, and former Dead Boy punkster Cheetah Chrome, now a Nashville resident. (Also involved as co-producer with Chrome is music professor Don Cusic; go here to read the recent BLURT interview with Chrome, by the way.)
It starts with a triumph, Alejandro Escovedo’s bitter yet swaggering “It’s a Sin,” and continues on with Bobby Bare Jr.’s tough take on “Make the World Go Away,” Mary Gauthier’s intimately drawling and slightly contemptuous version of “You Don’t Know Me” (with Ralph Carney’s teasing clarinet), and Jason Ringenberg’s rousing, shouting, piano-pounding “Texarkana Baby.” The latter could fit on a Jerry Lee Lewis tribute.
Chrome, his singing voice more a groan than a croon, gives himself one of the album’s finest songs, “What Is Life Without Love.” It is given a swinging Dixieland-band horn arrangement from Carney that slowly pushes and challenges Chrome’s voice and guitar to greater heights. It’s as impressive as anything he’s done as a solo artist.
His pal, New York Doll Sylvain Sylvain, is positively jaunty with his quasi-vaudevillian take on the good-natured “That Do Make It Nice.” It features a nice whistling part, too.
There are more fine cuts – including Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner’s droll, recitative interpretation of “Jim, I Wore a Tie Today,” Frank Black’s sobering “Don’t Rob Another Man’s Castle,” and Mandy Barnett’s sensuously becalming, ghost-of-Patsy-Cline version of “How’s the World Treating You.”
There are also a couple strange choices. Peter Noone, maybe hoping for a futureAmericana Does Herman’s Hermits tribute album if he helps out on this, does a competent but undistinguished “Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue.” And while Chrome and Jason & the Scorchers’ Warner E. Hodges create sparks with their guitar work on Bebe Buell’s “I’ll Hold You in My Heart,” singing is really hard for her and it shows.
Still, if there’s ever a Tribute Album Olympics, where each city enters the best such record to be produced by its music community, this would be a worthy entry from Nashville.
***½ stars
Plowboy Records
THIS feature began by referring to “Americana” as a synthetic term, which is true in the contemporary meaning of the term. But historically, some music is organically Americana because it just is. It’s part of our nation’s DNA. Songs from the Civil War era qualify, certainly – painfully so. But do they still have enough life, enough juice, to appeal to lovers of today’s Americana music?
Randall Poster, whose outstanding work as co-producer/music supervisor for the soundtrack to Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There resulted in the best Dylan-covers album ever, attempts a try on the two-disc, 32-song Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War. He has O Brother Where Art Thou ambitions, and there are O Brother soundtrack participants here, including its creator, T Bone Burnett, himself.
 Poster has rounded up all sorts of country, bluegrass and folk artists for his project, from the legendary traditionalists (Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Ralph Stanley, the late Cowboy Jack Clement) to rock-influenced alt-country and alt-folk figures (Shovels & Rope, Pokey Lafarge, Karen Elson).
Poster also has good connections with the conceptualist roots-music cognoscenti – Steve Earle, Burnett, Joe Henry also contribute. And he got the virtuoso banjoist Bryan Sutton to assemble appropriate historic songs and take the lead in performing several (“Hell’s Broke Loose in Georgia,” “Battle Cry of Freedom”).
This is meant to both remember the Civil War’s 150th anniversary and also be infused with today’s concerns. So there are songs about both Union and Confederate soldiers, as well as songs about the emancipation of slaves, the hardships faced by civilians and the political nuances of the war years.
 You can actually learn a lot from the songs – “Just Before the Battle, Mother/Farewell, Mother,” which features Steve Earle and Dirk Powell sounding like hard-bitten Shane MacGowan, references as “traitors” the Northern Copperheads who were anti-war.
In the wake of 12 Years a Slave and the horrors of slavery it depicts, I’m not sure this inclusive approach has the impact it might have had even just a few months ago. It’s hard to feel equal empathy for everyone involved, to see both sides as weary victims of war’s cruelty, when you know what the Confederates were fighting for.
However, you can put such thoughts aside when a master vocalist like Jamey Johnson – his deep, pining voice not just grave but seeming to speak from the grave – turns the Southern Appalachian folk song “Rebel Soldier” into a melancholy and chilling lament. There’s no finer country singer right now, no one so in touch with the lonesomeness that’s part of being human. He makes you feel his subject’s tragedy.
One wants all the songs here to hit as hard and shake us up like those two. But there are times – Chris Hillman on “Hard Times,” Ricky Skaggs on “Two Soldiers,” Sam Amidon on “Wildwood Flower,” Vince Gill singing “Dear Old Flag,” Chris Thile and Michael Daves on the bluegrassy “Richmond Is a Hard Road to Travel” – when Divided & United veers toward being a pretty-sounding period piece. And at those points, it starts to lull.
Maybe their voices are just too nice for this project. It’s the shopworn but emotion-soaked voices that deliver many of the project’s peak moments. Loretta Lynn’s “Take Your Gun and Go, John,” an 1862 song about a woman encouraging her husband to join the Union Army, has added resonance from the fact she is from Kentucky, a state wracked by divisiveness during the war. “Tenting on the Old Campground,” an 1864 folk song for enlisted Union soldiers that is both impassioned and anti-war, is acoustic but benefits from John Doe’s knowledge of rock ‘n’ roll vocal dynamics. At its best, it ignites spirits like Phil Ochs at a political rally.
Taj Mahal’s “Down by the Riverside” shows the old bluesman still has a lot of life left in his weathered voice. Ralph Stanley’s “The Vacant Chair,” written in 1861 as a memorial to a Massachusetts soldier, is uniting in the spirit of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Joe Henry’s “Aura Lee,” an 1861 minstrel song, has a relaxed pastoral gentleness that would do John Hartford proud.
And T Bone Burnett’s dramatic, almost avant-garde arrangement of “The Battle on Antietam” – about two brothers on opposite sides of the battle – opens with a gorgeous clarinet solo and uses rumbling piano and thunderbolt percussion to wrap his vocal in ominousness. It’s outstanding.
By being so ambitious and large a project, Divided & United has its misses as well as its hits. It lacks consistency, but it works well often enough to make this a reasonably satisfying exercise in both 19th and 21st Century Americana.
*** stars
ATO Records

FOR beautiful execution of a beautiful idea for a tribute/concept album, try The Beautiful Old: Turn-of-the-Century Songs. These mostly pre-phonograph-record-era songs, which range in period from 1823 (“Home Sweet Home”) to 1918 (“Beautiful Ohio” and “Till We Meet Again”), are definitely Americana. (They also were popular in Britain.)
Yet they aren’t thought of as “Americana” in the contemporary sense – they’re considered more a part of the Tin Pan Alley/music parlor/sheet-music tradition than the folk/blues one. They are pop – popular music of their time. (If there’s any artist of recent times who has championed them, it was Tiny Tim.) So Beautiful Old transforms our perceptions of them.
This project, the best of its type since O Brother Where Art Thou, is a partnership between executive producer Paul Marsteller and music producer Gabriel Rhodes, the son of Austin singer-songwriter Kimmie Rhodes and her husband Joe Gracey. The attractive packaging, in addition to lyrics, includes reproductions of artful original sheet-music covers.
Beautiful Old is dedicated to Gracey, who died of cancer in 2011. And among the artists participating are Kimmie Rhodes (three songs, including a poignant, dreamy version of the 1910 “A Perfect Day” with her son on guitar, melodica, pump organ and glass armonica – an antique instrument that is played with hands) and her daughter Jolie Goodnight (two contributions, including a spare mountain-ballad take on 1907’s “Silver Dagger” with rave-up violin work by Richard Bowden).
It’s amazing how direct these ballads are – and shocking when we see just how open these original composers were about expressing adult feelings of grief and remorse. It might make you a little embarrassed to live in the 21st Century when pop music means overproduced pandering and smugness.
For instance, 1854’s “The Dying Californian,” which A.L. Lee set to music from a letter about a man who died at sea en route to the California gold rush, unfolds like a slow-motion wake, sad but comforting. Carrie Elkin sings lead with Kimmie Rhodes providing soft, close harmonies and Bowden’s violin is exceptional. And Jimmy LaFave’s rugged-as-wagon-ruts voice is perfect for the poetic “Long Time Ago,” an 1839 song that equates lost love – and death – with nature and the landscape.
But there’s another, sprightlier side to Beautiful Old – one that uncovers and acknowledges the entertainment value of this period’s music. Such songs either reflected or commented upon the leisure-time activities of a pre-mass-culture era. And Beautiful Old has found just the right wizened artists – especially British artists – to cover such songs. It’s also found a Most Valuable Player to support them all – Garth Hudson. His old-fashioned parlor piano provides rustic grandeur to Ohio native Kim Richey’s lovely cover of 1918’s “Beautiful Ohio.”
Richard Thompson, who has toured with his 1,000 Years of Popular Song revue, is the pleasurable principal singer of the 1895 “The Band Played On,” which tells of Matt Casey waltzing with “noise and vigor” with the strawberry blond he met at Saturday night balls. Christine Collister’s backing vocals and Hudson’s accordion, among other  contributors, provide for a politely rollicking arrangement.
Graham Parker’s craggy voice, with its scary, malevolent edge, is appropriate for the 1867 “The Flying Trapeze,” which spins a bizarrely funny tale of how a daredevil gymnast stole away the singer’s girlfriend and made her “assume a masculine name” to tour with him. Hudson’s accordion and piano contribute to the lively accompaniment.
And in a genius choice, Dave Davies – he of the beery, cheery “Death of a Clown” – reclaims the theatrical/musical side of the Kinks with the dashing yet sensitive “After the Ball” from 1892. His woozy, propped-up voice is full of memories of British village greens past, and he’s helped immensely by accordionist Hudson, tinkling pianist Michael Thompson, and Gabriel Rhodes on tenor banjo and ukulele, among others. One hopes his brother is listening – this could inspire Ray.
One also hopes Ian Whitcomb – the British rocker who so early on championed historic popular song – is listening with a smile. This is a project he would love – as will many people who get a chance to hear it.
**** stars
Doubloon Records

Friday, April 18, 2014

Review: Suzanne Vega's Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles

By Steven Rosen, American Songwriter, 2-17-14)
Suzanne Vega
Tales From the Realm Of The Queen of Pentacles
(Amaneunsis Productions)
4 out of 5 stars
Suzanne Vega achieves an admirable balance of strengths on this new studio album, her first in way too long (seven years). Lyrically and vocally, she is succinct and clear in meaning while still being poetic rather than prosaic. Yet the songs themselves – in their sly melodic twists, instrumental coloration and production (by Gerry Leonard) – are marvels of artful construction.
This is an odd thing to say about an album whose ten compositions all are under five minutes (six are under four), but at times the imaginative arrangements provide symphonic breadth and complexity. Take, as an example, the deeply compelling “Song Of the Stoic,” about a mysterious loner harmed in childhood and now guarded. (A “Luka” update?)
It starts with high-powered electric-guitar chords (Leonard) dueling with a banjo (Larry Campbell) before Vega’s voice, nonchalantly soft but every word registering, sings the ominous narrative to a minor-key melody. But at the verse’s conclusion, Catherine Russell’s wordless backing vocals come in to soothe and comfort. There is then a solemnly expansive passage provided by the Smichov Chamber Orchestra Prague, and afterward the song resumes Vega’s character’s story.
The sonic territory covered and the complex emotions conveyed are impressive considering “Song of the Stoic” is just a shade over four minutes. And yet Vega achieves this again and again on the album. The overall effect is novelistic – verses, choruses, bridges unfold like satisfyingly detailed chapters.
Another successful example is “Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain,” whose very title conjures memories of blues-truism songs like Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book By the Cover.” It has a Middle Eastern musical motif – interpolated from 50 Cents’ “Candy Shop” and played by the Prague chamber orchestra – that provides flourish and contrast for a vivid, wise tale about using writing as an outlet for “that tiger rage that you can’t contain for real.”
But when she wants some New York rock grit (she was raised there, after all), she can come up with a hypnotically repetitive riff to rival Lou Reed. The premier example here is “I Never Wear White,” which at its halfway point (and again toward the end) breaks into a buzzy electric-guitar solo by Leonard. Vega’s voice has an extra depth on this song, heightening its declarative nature. And the lyrics amount to a credo – a strong, independent urban woman’s show of solidarity with Johnny Cash:
“I never wear white
White is for virgins
Children in summer
Brides in the park”
In some of these selections, especially the Alice in Wonderland-like “Crack in the Wall,” she seems to be simultaneously exploring the real world and some place unseen, unknown and ephemeral. She also gets inspiration from knowledge of magic, but she’s sly (and entertaining) about it. The album’s title, a reference to Tarot cards, comes from “Fool’s Complaint.” But in it, Vega doesn’t see herself as the Queen – “How I hate the Queen of Pentacles!” she sings in the opening line – but rather:
“My card’s the fool, the fool, the fool
That merry rootless man,
With air beneath my footstep
And providence is my plan.”
The way she gently, reassuringly positions herself as an outsider is a touching strength, recalling another fine New York songwriter – Janis Ian – in worldview if not in her sound.
Vega can be plainspoken about her optimism and hopefulness, even while expressing herself poetically. The gorgeous closing tune “Horizon (There Is a Road)” tells us that “love moves us on to that distant horizon…so true,” while the light folk-rock arrangement parts for a stately trumpet passage from Alison Balsom. At the end, Vega briefly takes her voice up to a higher octave, emphasizing the sincerity of her words.
The effect is inspirational. But then so is the whole album. It shows that a talented, visionary singer-songwriter can comfortably do what she does so well, yet not be trapped by conventionality.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Fascinating Cultural Critic Visits UC for a Radical Confab

Fascinating Cultural Critic Visits UC for a Radical Confab

ac_bigpic_slavojzizek_photo_tonyyanickSlavoj Žižek at UC - Photo: Tony Yanick
I came across the Slovenian theorist/writer Slavoj Žižek in the recent movie The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, in which he passionately used scenes from Hollywood movies to spotlight his observations about the humanist struggle against repression and totalitarianism in oppressive capitalist systems.

His actual ideas were so densely intellectual, and delivered in such a rapid-fire manner, that I truthfully understood very little. But god (if I may use that word in reference to Žižek, an atheist), was he ever a fascinating cultural critic and film buff! In Pervert, he claims that one of John Carpenter’s more obscure horror movies — 1988’s They Live, in which aliens use subliminal advertising to control humans — is one of Hollywood’s most radically leftist movies ever.

Wanting to learn more about Žižek (pronounced Zhi-zheck), I discovered University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning was hosting the second-ever International Žižek Studies Conference and Exhibition. And it was going to focus on “parallax future(s) in art and design, ideology and philosophy.” Not only was it going to have a strong visual-art component, but Žižek himself was going to give a keynote lecture. So I attended last weekend.

It attracted around 100 or so Žižek scholars, students, artists and others from around the world — someone came from China. With panel discussions and workshops bearing titles like “Visualizing Metalepsis in Sites of Exception,” it wasn’t easygoing.  
Struggling to understand the concept of “parallax futures,” an important one in Žižek studies, I asked the DAAP coordinator of the conference, assistant professor Kristopher Holland, what that meant. 

“We’re trying to figure it out,” he said. He also explained, as an example, that F.
Scott Fitzgerald had first written and published Tender Is the Night one way, with flashbacks, in 1934, to poor reception. He then authorized a reconstructed version that was published posthumously in 1948. “So when we talk about Tender Is the Night, what are we talking about? Both exist. There are two ways of looking at things,” he said. 

The art for the most part was quite interesting. At the conference site, the mazelike DAAP building, several artists either had installations or did performances. Sue Wrbican from George Mason University encased a 1960s-era sail inside a 20-foot-high open bamboo construction to suggest the difficulty of navigating “between reality/fiction and male/female.” 

Nearby, Mira Gerard of East Tennessee State University intermittently reclined on a homey fainting couch and quietly read aloud from journals about her ongoing Lacanian psychoanalysis. 

In conjunction with the conference, DAAP’s Noel Anderson worked with Hebrew Union College’s interim museum director Abby Schwartz to curate a small but choice art exhibit called Parallax Futured: Transtemporal Subjectivities at HUC’s Skirball Museum. (It’s up through May 14.) 

The pieces tend toward minimalism and conceptualism with a twist. For instance, Tyler Hamilton’s “Untitled” features a concrete cube on which three metal legs have been attached, making it a kind of faux camera and tripod. And a beautiful small oil painting called “Mattress” by Zoran Starcevic is a close-up of gray-white mattresses seams, the repetition interrupted by a black diagonal slash. Is it, too, painted…or real? You want to touch it to find out. 

But the art — and everything else — took a backseat to Žižek’s own appearance Saturday afternoon. The DAAP auditorium attracted a couple hundred people who were enthralled by a rambling but fiery lecture (with Q&A) that went past two hours. 

Talking excitedly while compulsively tugging at his sweater or his face, the 65-year-old Žižek touched on so many topics so fast, good luck keeping track — Jacques Lacan to Ayn Rand, Marx to Edward Snowden, post-Colonial Africa to the Holocaust, the pending failure of global capitalism and so on.

But it wasn’t a dry dissertation by any means — the talk was peppered with non-academic words like “bullshit,” “stupid” and “blahblahblah.” And also with more of his fascinating, contrarian film references — he prefers Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to Spielberg’s Lincoln because it shows the violence of the fight against slavery. 

He believes Bela Lugosi’s 1932 horror classic White Zombie is vividly about class struggle. And he highly recommended the DVD of thriller The Butterfly Effect — “with the great American artist Ashton Kutcher,” he said sarcastically — for the atheist aesthetics of its “much more radical” non-theatrical-release ending.

As the applause finally ended, like at a Rock concert, I thought whatever else, he needs his own TV show. Maybe At the Movies With Slavoj Žižek

(From Cincinnati CityBeat, 4-9-14)

Friday, April 11, 2014

Report From the 2014 Big Ears Festival in Knoxville


Big Ears poster
(Editor's note from Fred Mills, Blurt Online, where this story was published 4-8-14)
After a three-year hiatus, the adventurous—iconoclastic, even—three day event returned to Knoxville, TN, for March 28-30. Among the artists performing were  Steve Reich, Dean Wareham, John Cale, Television and Colin Stetson. Our own Prof. Rosen was in attendance, and he’s rumored to have returned home raving and drooling but otherwise intact.
 2014 Big Ears Festival 3/28-30/14, Knoxville TN
 As the years passed since the 2010 Big Ears music festival in Knoxville, with no announcement of a new one, it looked like maybe it had been too progressive and eclectic for its own good. Or for the land between the coasts.
 In its two-year existence, it had been devoted to that area of New Music where brainy rock/post-rock meets contemporary classical – especially where both use noise, minimalism, repetition, droning and other forms of sonic experimentation. It also honored alt-rock and New Music “elders” – composer Terry Riley had been 2010’s artist-in-residence – and outsiders who defied easy categorization.
 Ashley Capps, whose AC Entertainment produced Big Ears, quickly declared after the 2010 event that planning would start for 2011, but it never happened. Nor did 2012 or 2013.  He had other things to work on, true – Bonnaroo, Louisville’s Forecastle, and two festival ventures in nearby Asheville, N.C., that explored the area where serious-minded electronic music met synth-pop and EDM – Moogfest and Mountain Oasis. Even while a similar but smaller festival, MusicNow, thrived in Cincinnati and proved a heartland audience existed for barrier-breaking music, there was no new Big Ears. (MusicNow’s founder is Bryce Dessner, the classically trained guitarist with The National.
 Still, Knoxville – AC Entertainment’s home – seemed a wonderful place for a thoughtfully programmed indoor festival for serious music listeners. So this year, with support from the city government and the mayor, he brought it back.
 Knoxville is a great place for such a festival. The two main concert venues are treasures. The bejeweled 1,600-seat Tennessee Theatre was built in 1928 and painstakingly restored; the 700-seat Bijou (also restored) was built in 1909 and has a Victorian feel.
 Market Square, site of two clubs used as Big Ears venues, is a model of a human-scale public space, ringed with good restaurants and shops. And the giant golden Sunsphere, a relic from the 1982 World’s Fair that awaits revival, looms over the city like a prop from a dream-state Sun Ra concert, setting a perfect standard for Big Ears’ ambitious musicians.
 Steve Reich was this year’s artist-in-residence. Reich, at 77, long has been accepted (and feted with a Pulitzer Prize) as a composer who reinvigorated classical music with his use of subtle variations in persistent percussion and electronic sampling/looping. He made minimalism as popular in classical music as it is in art. But his impact on (and borrowing from) rock has only lately been recognized. His music has parallels with the Velvet Underground, funk, Kraftwerk and today’s many younger musicians who use electronic sampling and repetition. (Should Steve Reich be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?)
 That contribution was recognized at Big Ears’ closing event, during which Ensemble Signal flawlessly, breathtakingly performed his nearly-hour-long “Music for 18 Musicians.” Vibes, piano, string and brass instruments and voices developed the hypnotic, repetitive melody lines with quietly controlled precision and delicacy.  It rocked.
 When it was over, the crowd at the Tennessee Theater offered Reich, who was present, and Ensemble Signal a long standing-ovation. The piece dates from the mid-1970s, but it was received by many of the theater’s younger attendees as if it was a revelatory contemporary breakthrough. Reich’s audience is growing and widening.
 With acts at up to five venues (including workshops and discussions at the Knoxville Art Museum), there was too much for any one person to take everything in. I tried but missed some. But here are observations about some of the notable others (besides Reich and his interpreters) that I saw:
 Dean Wareham with band: The Velvet Underground side of New Music was well-represented by Wareham, who spotlighted the loping, melancholy melodies and affectingly droll deadpan vocals of his recently issued debut solo album. His guitar solos were particularly fluid and controlled. Wife Britta Phillips played bass in his band.
Dean Britta
 Dean and Britta’s 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screentests:Meanwhile the duo’s Andy Warhol project, which they have been touring with for several years now, continues to grow in popularity along with Warhol’s legacy. Indeed, Dean & Britta bear considerable responsibility for the increasing importance of the screen tests as part of Warhol’s work.
 They were black-and-white silent films – unedited close-up portraits of several minutes’ duration in which the subjects are left to their own devices to do something interesting – that Warhol shot of visitors to his Factory. This was during the mid-1960s, Warhol’s “underground” and most avant-garde phase that Lou Reed wrote about in the songs “Chelsea Girls” and “Walk on the Wild Side.”
 On stage at the Bijou, Dean and Britta told stories about the subjects and then played their suitably downbeat, transfixing songs, some purely instrumental, as the films play on a big screen. 
 With time, fewer and fewer of the filmed subjects – so many looking young, vibrant and impossibly cool – are still alive, adding to the solemnly elegiac nature of the presentation.
 That also adds to contemporary appreciation of the subjects. Applause broke out, for instance, at the screen image of the now-departed Lou Reed, drinking Coke from a bottle and wearing shades. (Dean and Britta played the Velvets track “You’re Not a Young Man Anymore” during this.)
 John Cale: One living link to that era, Cale, was actually something of a disappointment at his Friday night show at the Tennessee.  Now white-haired at 72, but still gifted with a powerfully clear voice – capable of soothing melancholy and screaming grittiness – he should have used his set to make a statement about the worth of his six-decade career. What really mattered the most to him, and what would most endure? His Velvet Underground material? His solo albums from the 1970s? The 1980s? All of the above?
 Instead, he used his set primarily to showcase material from 2012’s Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, a good but not great contemporary alt-rock, fusion-y album that – when performed live, at least – shows Cale trying to fit in with today’s music rather than tower above it. (He did have an excellent guitarist, Dustin Boyer, to offer dazzling playing as Cale mostly was on keyboard.)  Strangest of all, he did a few of his older songs, like “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend,” “Ship of Fools” and the Velvets’ “Waiting for My Man,” in an odd, choppy style as if he was in Devo. Some songs after better left unreinvented.
 There were exceptions – his beautiful tribute to the Beach Boys, Nookie Woodouttake “All Summer Long,” sounded gorgeous. With him on acoustic guitar and several female back-up singers offering harmonies, Cale sang Fear ballad “You Know More Than I Know” with introspective mournfulness. And he can rip the heart out of  “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Television: On the other hand, compared to Cale, Tom Verlaine knew exactly what Television’s showcase Saturday night set at the Tennessee should be about – a statement that the band’s vision of punk as a music where smart, dark lyrics coexist with long guitar solos than build and then soar off from minimalist, repetitive chording is every bit as relevant as the Ramones’ or Talking Heads’ take.
 And is he right! The show featured epic takes on “Marquee Moon,” “Little Johnny Jewel,” “Torn Curtain” and other enduring mid-1970s classics, with Verlaine taking many of the solos but leaving room for second lead guitarist Jimmy Rip (who has replaced Richard Lloyd) to add textured interplay. The second encore, in which Verlaine took “Psychotic Reaction” from its 1960s-garage-rock roots into a strange, slow fade-out that replaced the song’s original bravado with sadness, was unforgettable. Television has a future to match its proud, underappreciated past.
 Colin Stetson: This muscular, polite saxophonist is becoming a sensation – a music hero – with his literally breathtaking playing. Using disciplined circular breathing, he plays long solos primarily on an oversized bass saxophone, and sometimes on tenor and alto. He forcefully plays and hums through the reeds, and the results are cosmic – part Anthony Braxton and part Tuvan throat-singer.
 The surprise is his following, considering the esoteric nature of his work. The bar where he played his Big Ears set, Scruffy City Hall, was jammed for his Friday night show. Air, let alone sight lines, was at a premium. And people talked about Stetson all weekend. Could he become the most popular saxophonist since Kenny G? The thought is as mind-blowing as his music.
 Lonnie Holley
 Lonnie Holley: This 64-year-old African-American “outsider” artist, who uses found material to put together phantasmagorical yet poignant sculpture, has also been recording his improvised, free-flowing songs full of poetic yearning – last year’sKeeping a Record of It was outstanding.  At Scruffy City Hall on Sunday afternoon, where there at least was some room to move, he enchanted as he played keyboard and sang with plaintive gruffness. Vocalist Jenny Hval and members of Julia Holter’s band carefully offered support.  Holley’s humor mixed well with his wisdom – dedicating a song to Big Ears, he observed “What big ears you have” to audience members and then confided – perhaps a nod to the frailty that comes with aging – “I just hope in a year/I can still hear/With my big ears.”
 Time and space doesn’t permit detailed descriptions of all the other highlights as well as the very few disappointments (Jonny Greenwood’s performance of Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint”). But Julia Holter’s hushed, slowed-down version of Barbara Lewis’ dreamy “Hello Stranger” was mesmerizing and belongs in the next David Lynch movie; multi-keyboardist Nils Frahm (below) displayed his talents without for a second appearing to be a show-off; acoustic trio Dawn of Midi featured an equally inventive pianist in Qasim Naqvi; and guitarist Marc Ribot’s constantly inventive playing during a screening of Chaplin’s silent movie The Kid was a treat at the Bijou, which probably showed silent movies when they were new.
Nils Frahm
 It left one eagerly awaiting the next Big Ears. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait four long years for it.
 Photos by Steven Rosen.

Follow this Blog!