Break out your favorite shimmery glitter and electric blue eyeshadow, my pretties, it’s time for another journey into the belly of the beast of that job we call blow—I mean, business we call show. The instant-classic musical is back, and there is no such thing as too much of the rock diva Hedwig, even if her backing band the Angry Inch is all she has to work with. If you’ve seen the 2001 film, if you saw any of the sold-out performances produced over 2004-’05 by the Mobtown Players starring Jordan Siebert, and even if you saw Iron Crow Theater’s 2010 staging, Stillpointe Theatre’s current production, which makes it second and final stop at the Ottobar tonight, is a must if you’re a fan and as ideal an introduction for newbies as you’ll ever get.
Hedwig is the Citizen Kane of East German genderqueer never-was-a-rock-star epics, and writer/creator John Cameron Mitchell and music/lyricist Stephan Trask workshopped the production in NYC clubs before it debuted off-Broadway in 1998. StillPointe staging this stand-up meets rock gig musical in Baltimore’s stalwart indie-rock venue is a stroke of art direction ingenuity. An intimate rock-club vibe is hard to replicate, and part of me wishes we were still living in the bad, old days when you could stand in a club with a can of cheap beer in one hand and a Lucky Strike in the other. Taking in Hedwig’s wig-flailing, cliché stage antics and her hilariously touching between-songs banter practically invites the self-destructive dance that flits from liver damage to lung cancer and back.
Hedwig—played by workhorse Adam Cooley, who produced, starred, and directed the 2011 productions at Creative Alliance at the Patterson—her husband/backing ground singer Yitzhak (Lex Holzer), and the Angry Inch (bassist Jeff Palladino, guitarist David Gregory, drummer Spencer Sinnott, and keyboard player Stacey Antoine) hit the stage, and over the next roughly 100 minutes she recounts her childhood in East Berlin, botched gender-reassignment surgery, abandonment in middle America by her sugar daddy, and tumultuous love affair with the Christian teenaged son of a military man and the beautifully rocking music they started out making together. Hedwig’s story isn’t so much a triumph over adversity as a celebration of the audacity for dreaming about the supposedly impossible, told through a menagerie of songs that are as genuinely moving as they are patently outlandish. Hedwig‘s songbook is so effortlessly overstuffed with melodrama and longing for decadent 1970s glam that it fills The Darkness with such envy they can’t fit into their tiny leather pants.
And, seriously, if there’s a better way to begin the final weekend of 2017 than singing along with a musical that invites all the strange rock ‘n’ rollers to hold on to each other to get through whatever night is coming, the goddesses have yet to bestow that gift upon us. Lift up your hands. Lift up your fists.
“Science is about knowledge and power. In our time, natural science defines the human being’s place in nature and history and provides the instruments of domination of the body and the community. By constructing the category nature, natural science imposes limits on history and self-formation. So science is part of the struggle over the nature of our lives.”
— Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women
Something ridiculously simple yet genuinely odd happens about 15 minutes into Stephanie Barber’s In the Jungle, her new film version of a solo performance piece that she debuted in 2009. The general ideas of the three-act plot remain the same: a scientist (Barber in the solo performance) narrates her ethnographic field notes about studying plants in the first part, presents something like a paper based on her fieldwork to the International Association of Botanists in the second, and listens to a radio DJ’s late-night broadcast in the third. In the first and third sections the scientist is ostensibly in the jungle for her research, yet what she says and how she says them make you wonder if you can believe the veracity of her findings and statements. She’s scientist, our modern producer of knowledge, as an unreliable narrator.
In the original solo performances, Barber segued between sections with stretches of improvised music and a video projection of a tiger running superimposed on a series photographs, which moved from nature scenes to the more domestic and urban imagery of civilization. In the new film Jungle, which was shot in 2015 when Barber staged the piece at the Theatre Project starring Cricket Arrison as the scientist and Matmos’ M.C. Schmidt as the radio DJ, both the tiger video and abstract soundtrack remain, but she adds a curious wrinkle: cinematographer Mathew Robert Thompson’s camera begins a slow 360-degree pan at the end of Jungle‘s first section, where Arrison is typing up her field notes on a giant typewriter created bet set designers Smelling Salts Amusements. As the camera starts making its slow turn, which takes a few minutes, black-clad stage hands enter the frame and begin breaking down the stage to change sets. Eventually the camera takes in the black of the theater’s wall before arriving at the attending audience, backlit, creating a halo of faces looking forward. Visually this shot kinda recalls the faceless cavalcade of the angry mob at the end of John Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust, only instead of figures darting to and fro in front of giant searchlights, it’s slowly taking in a group of people sitting patiently, docile, waiting.
Not to take anything away from Barber’s writing or performance skills, but film is her most expressive and precise artistic language, and this simple camera motions introduces another wrinkle to In the Jungle‘s droll thematic universe, brining the audience into its world of artifice. Like much of Barber’s creative labor, Jungle exists in the tension of both recognizing the profound beauty of the natural world that we inhabit while coming to grips with the inadequacies of our knowledge systems, including language, to describe and understand it. As a solo piece Jungle also toyed with language’s inability to describe the self, the scientist’s field notes and presentation confounding and illuminating in equal measure. With the film Jungle, Barber suggests that language might also be fairly deficient in its ability to allow us to understand each other.
Credit Arrison and Schmidt for helping Barber suss out this aspect of the piece; they turn these formerly solo personas into stand-alone characters that have different ways of speaking, body language, and, just by being different people, qualities of voices. Arrison, particularly, is a pleasure to watch in this role. As an actor she’s got a gift for not only handling verbally complex dialog parts—see also: her The World is Round performance—but finding the human being who would talk and think in such ways. And she handles Barber’s script, which hews to the style and tone of ethnography while also parodying them. In the first section—which the scientist ludicrously says is her 1,612nd day in the field, or roughly four and a half years—she first reveals that perhaps we can’t trust what she says, that she might be, intentionally or unintentionally, untruthful:
“I grow more convinced that, not only should I not share the wonders and secrets to which I have been privy these years here in the jungle, but that perhaps I should willfully obfuscate and misinform those who wish to learn its charms. Perhaps the revolutionary faction of the fern family has been filling my head with vibrant propaganda while sleep and, like the sugars which trees release at regularly timed intervals to control the ascension of beetles and other underground insects needing alarms, perhaps the plants are sweetening my sense of time.”
Arrison delivers these lines in the calm, clinical voice of doctor dictating patient notes, but she also occasionally tilts her head, pauses as if considering what to say, and rushes through parts as if words are coming to her in a torrent of ideas. During the presentation in the middle section, Arrison’s performance is even more tightly controlled, part lecture by a learned expertise in her field and part woman doing her best not to tell people what she’s really thinking.
Being a slow learner, it was only while watching the film version of In the Jungle that I realized the entire piece is basically a thematic fugue of three monologues and sound: the scientist’s almost internal monologue of the field notes, the lecture presentation, and the radio DJ. In the first and third the audience for these texts are unknown to the speakers. While the scientist listens to the radio DJ’s broadcast and even calls in a request—and, well, tells the DJ that she’s a snake—there’s no implicit relationship between the two, and Schmidt’s dry wit and debonair voice only amplifies the chasm separating the scientist and him. To her, he’s a warm voice on a lonely night; to him, she’s the lady up late calling in because she wants to hear a song. And she’s saying she’s a snake out there with all her snake friends. OK, sure.
In only the second part of Jungle is the intended audience for a monologue known and seen—us, sitting in the theater, which Jungle‘s set even deliberately pokes fun at with two rows of cardboard cutout attendees placed onstage in front of Arrison’s scientist. This presentation is both the work’s most completely off its rocker piece of writing and the most succinct articulation of its core concerns: our complete and utter inability to hear and understand each other’s ordinary, everyday pain. That Barber’s script delivers such passionately vulnerability in a stretch of genuinely arch comedy—seriously, Arrison’s lecture performance impressively somersaults from deadpan humor to pretentious gravitas—bores a hole into the customary language of modern scientific and philosophical writing, and is the reason for the Donna Haraway quote that begins this review. Watching this In the Jungle brought to mind Haraway’s mediation on the political economy (re)produced in biological ideas and the role of language in that process, which the historian of science explores in that same book:
“One thing is undeniable about biology since its early formulations in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: biology tells tales about origins, about genesis, and about nature. Further, modern feminists have inherited our story in a patriarchal voice. Biology is the science of life, conceived and authored by a word from the father. Feminists have inherited knowledge through the paternal line. The word was Aristotle’s, Galileo’s, Bacon’s, Newton’s, Linnaeus’s, Darwin’s; the flesh was woman’s. And the word was made flesh, naturally. We have been engendered. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1979), in their study of nineteenth-century women writers, discuss women’s travail to construct a voice, to have authority, to author a text, to tell a story, to give birth to the word. To author is to have the power to originate, to name. Women who seek to produce natural knowledge, like our sisters who learned to write and speak, also must decipher a text, the book of nature, authored legitimately by men.”
In the Jungle isn’t so obvious as to come out and ask, “Does this phenomenology make my butt look big?”—but in Barber’s winding sentences and Arrison’s controlled performance, they ably show how language and knowledge systems hide as much as they tell, are able to identify some things and not others, and are often as close as we can get to sharing something about ourselves and yet still remain completely obscured by the forests of consciousness’ night. By turns odd, funny, and ultimately touching, the film wants to discuss the problems of the very way we know things but has to use those ways we know things to point out that we might not know what we think we do. And when we finally realize the futility of just such an endeavor, maybe the best we can hope for is a friendly disembodied voice in the night, who picks up the phone when we call, and who plays our favorite song, just because we asked.
However its algorithms work, I need to thank YouTube’s sidebar links for bringing filmmaker Rob Tregenza’s Talking to Strangers back into my life. Shot mostly in southwest Baltimore during the winter of 1987, the film is told in a series of nine roughly 10 minute scenes shot in continuous, uninterrupted single shots. I accidentally saw it at the Baltimore Museum of Art during the first year I moved to Baltimore for college in 1988—I think the Baltimore Film Forum did screenings in the BMA, which was right next to my college campus. At the time I’m not sure I completely comprehended the ambition I was watching onscreen, I only knew I hadn’t seen anything quite like it. Still haven’t. (It’s one of those austere kinds of films that Richard Brody sincerely praises.)
Today, Tregenza appears to be the program director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s cinema program. If you’re curious, seek out an October 27, 1987, Baltimore Sun profile of Tregenza by Henry Scarupa; it talks about Strangers’ production and Tregenza’s Baltimore Film Factory, a commercial film production company he started with his wife. Strangers follows an aspiring writer, named Jesse, who works other jobs to support himself, over a few months. In that Sun profile, Tregenza said:
“Jesse is on a quest to depart the ordinary,” he elaborates. “His concept of himself is that of an artist in search of characters. But the character he reveals in successive actions, as events randomly gather about him, is at odds with his original self-concept. The question of identity is important. I wouldn’t say this is what the film is about, but these things have guided the way I’ve put it together.”
In addition to being a patiently subdued character study, Strangers captures a bit of late-’80s Baltimore, especially in the mesmerizing opening shot. The link to the film is below, for however long it’s going to stay there.
A few barely formed thoughts about some of the many music, art, film, stage, &tc. experiences I’ve been fortunate to hear, see, witness, feel, and be knocked out by during 2016. All lists alphabetized, some contain 25 items, some 20, some 10, some may have one. If I’ve written about it before, I try to link to that. If it’s something that’s been written about extensively, I probably won’t say something about it because though I’m arrogant, I’m not so arrogant that I feel like I have to share every thought that passes through my head in my out-loud voice. There’s little consistency in the below—and I kinda run out of steam toward the end of the list—save whatever is included was something that connected in some way with my brain. (For calibration purposes, in some lists I also include an example of something that did little for me, a blind spot.) I may not know what’s best or great or even good, but I do know what I like.
Anohni “4 Degrees”Hopelessness lead-off track “Drone Bomb Me” received more year-end attention, but this banger, which comes right after it, is the one that sears the ears.
Beyoncé “Don’t Hurt Yourself”
BLXPLTN “FEMA” This Austin duo continues shape-shifting in every direction. The New York Fascist Week album moved from industrial funk to anarcho-punk hip-hop to electro-indie rock to inviting noise to, with “FEMA,” a muscular blend of rap and ambient chill, Bowie’s Low by way of the Geto Boys.
Big Ups “National Parks” Brooklyn quartet grafts a Rodan-like tensequietloud onto a Fugazi-dubby rhythm pattern and peels off a postpunk pop gem.
Cala Vento “Isabella Cantó” Cala Vento is a Barcelona indie-pop/rock duo, whose self-titled debut has its share of hits/misses, but “Isabella Cantó” is pure glee. My Mexican Spanish is shamefully crap, and my continental Spanish and/or Catalan nonexistent, but my best guess says “Isabella Cantó” is your pretty typical boy has crush on girl, girl doesn’t know boy exists story that has been causing dudes to try to make something like art only since forever. Cala Vento has a new album out this month on BCore, and the lead single, “Isla Desierta,” is pretty tight.
Lucy Dacus “Troublemaker Doppelgänger” Another case where attention to an album’s single, No Burden‘s “I Don’t Want to Be Funny Anymore,” overshadows the song the showcases just how sophisticated this early-twentysomething Richmond songwriter is. “Troublemaker Doppelgänger” is a slow boiling country-rocking stomper about that dangerously exciting time between being seen as a kid and full grown-assness, and Dacus straddles it with the thousand-yard stare of the battle scarred: “She was a victim of the same disease/ that’s roaming the streets and bites when it please/ and makes us wanna live forever or die in infamy.”
Death Grips “Three Bedrooms in a Good Neighborhood” Sometimes I wonder if every song idea that passes through Death Grips’ heads ends up being released, but when this outfit sticks the landing, there are few other bands like it.
Mykele Deville “Chasin’ Rallies” Stumbling across this underground Chicago emcee’s Super Predator—and, yes, the album opens with that clip from Hilary Clinton’s infamous 1994 speech—back in May is what turned me from casual Bandcamp browser to dedicated user. That album is a sobering exploration of systematic racism; his follow-up, Each One, Teach One, which came out in August, is a De La Soul-level example of hip-hop storytelling. The album’s Bandcamp page says it was a quickly made—conceived in two months, recorded in one week—ode to Deville’s nine-year-old niece, and it unfurls like the bedtime stories a young girl makes an adult keep telling her to stay up later and later. Overall it’s beyond adorable, but Deville isn’t afraid to wander into real talk. The politically agitated “Chasin’ Rallies” will resonate to anybody hyperaware of the two Baltimores, and producer Colin Mulhern intermittently punctuates the staccato beat with a piercing police siren. Not everything is so severe on Each One, and the album closes with the lullaby-like “C’est la vie,” whose chorus goes: “Never listen to what the television told you/ Never let another person control you/ You’re a queen, everything that you dream you’ll receive/ if you fall I’ll be there by your side/ Ces’t la vie.” When Deville’s niece repeats it right after him but in the first person, don’t mind those tears that may well up a bit.
The Dirty Coal Train “Black X / J’Acuse” This Lisbon trio’s album Super Scum hits Supercharger levels of garage-rocking goodness, and if the above video and this studio appearance on Portuguese radio station Antena 3’s No Ar program is any indication, guitarist/vocalist Beatriz Rodrigues has the best eyebrows in rock.
Little Mix “Hair” Yes, this British dance-pop group is totally manufactured by Simon Callow’s effing The X Factor. Yes, as often happens with manufactured pop groups none of the performers had a hand in writing the song, and one of its six songwriters is the ferociously talented Anita Blay, aka CocknBullKid, whose stunning solo work doesn’t get anywhere near the same amount of mainstream attention as Little Mix. Yes, “Hair” is pretty much Rodgers and Hart’s “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” from South Pacific updated for the Instagram age. And, yes, guest emcee Sean Paul still kinds looks like Vin Diesel’s mini-me. Don’t care: “Hair” is ridiculously entertaining and shameless pop.
MHD “Roger Milla” (Artside) Paris-based Afro-trap emcee MHD pens a funkily staccato ode to the great Cameroon striker Roger Milla. There is nothing but fun here.
Mitski “Your Best American Girl”
OBN III “Rich Old White Men”
Julie Ruin “I Decide”
ShitKid “Oh Please Be a Cocky Cool Kid” (self/bandcamp) Swedish solo artist Åsa Söderqvist finds the sweet spot between early New Order’s stumbling electro beats and Sentridoh’s bedroom sarcasm.
Sleaford Mods “I Can Tell”: If there’s other people sing-ranting as angrily and specifically about economic inequality as this Nottingham duo in indie music right now, please let me know.
Solange “Cranes in the Sky”
The Suffers “Midtown” Houston 10-piece the Suffers may be the closest thing we have to the Delfonics’ silken mid-tempo soul working today, and vocalist Kam Franklin can move from sotto voce Jill Scott intimacy to Gladys Knight richness, which she does here as she moves from the finger-snapping verse to the flowering chorus.
Kanye West “Ultralight Beam”
My blind spot: Leonard Cohen “You Want it Darker” Look, I get it—he passed away, he was one of the more emotionally complex writers of deceptively simple songs of his generation but, again, he also wrote “Hallelujah.” Frankly, there are much better songs on Cohen’s final album—specifically the ghostly “It Seemed Better That Way” and the gut-punch “Leaving the Table.” But the title track’s smoky rhythm, Cohen’s arch delivery of the Mickey Spillane-terse lyrics, and the song’s whole neo-noir steez makes it sound like something that got cut from the 9 1/2 Weeks soundtrack.
Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra s/t (Gitterbeat) The latest project from Nigerian drummer Tony Allen. There is no bad here.
Blood Quartet Deep Red (Feeding Tube) The debut LP from a quartet featuring trumpeter/guitarist Mark Cunningham, who played bass for NYC no-wave outfit Mars, along with Lluis Rueda (guitar), Kike Bela (bass), and Candid Coll (drums) in Barcelona. Noisy, dreamy, oceanic post-rock excursions that aren’t afraid to wander far away from the skeletal groove.
Buñuel A Resting Place for Strangers (La Tempesta International Oxbow vocalist Eugene Robinson with some Italian noise-rock powerhouses: seductively scary.
Nick Cave Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd) The way Cave lets brief moments of shimmering light poke through the most profoundly sad album of his career is a humbling display of an artist confronting grief.
Chance the Rapper Coloring Book mixtape (self) Sometimes the most radically disarming thing a 23-year-old African-American father, who grew up in what some stereotypically reactionary and data-using web sites deem one of Chicago’s “worst neighborhoods,” can do is create one of the more sincerely celebratory and thankful-to-be-alive albums of the 21st century. I probably listened to Coloring Book start-to-finish more than any other album in 2016.
The Dance Asthmatics Lifetime of Secretion (Melted Ice Cream) Noise-y, PIL-y trio in Christchurch, New Zealand, who had me with the lead-off track “Liquid Lunch,” a wickedly lumbering mess that brings to mind the born-in-last-place scowl of Drunks With Guns’ “Wonderful Subdivision.”
dvsn Sept. 5 (OVO Sound) This debut outing from the Toronto R&B duo of vocalist Daniel Daley and producer Nineteen85 specializes in downtempo landscapes of bleary-eyed desolation, what unspools in the mind’s ears while waiting for the rideshare to head home instead hitting up the after party.
Exploded View Exploded View (Sacred Bones Records) German journalist-turned-vocalist Anika provides the icy chill atop the permafrost electro vibe smelted by Mexico City musicians/producers Amon Melgarejo, Martin Thulin, and Hugo Quezada; equal parts DFA’s death-disco wobble and Pylon’s post-punk twitch.
Familea Miranda Radiopharm (BCord Disc) New album from the long-running Chilean post-punk trio who treats rhythm with as much controlled abandon as The Ex. Solid video for the album’s lead single, “Brut Nature.”
Gate Saturday Night Fever (Mie) The improvisation-leaning Dead C guitarist/vocalist Michael Morley and his drum machine tackle, appropriate, deconstruct, and reinvent one of the more indelible movie soundtracks and the result is even weirder than expected. Every time I listen to it, I realize that there’s some place on earth where it is crawling toward 5 a.m., and if there’s somebody there who is still awake, albeit coming down off of whatever, Gate’s SNF could be the discombobulating void-stares-back dance music looping inside that brain.
JambinaiA Hermitage (Bella Union) South Korean outfit that marries the noise of Japanese label PSF bands in the ’90s with the kind of Godspeed You! Black Emperor drone-groove-as-epic-poetry thing for which I am a sucker. A track such as “They Keep Silence” was an itch I didn’t even know I needed scratched until I heard it.
Kamaiyah A Good Night in the Ghetto (self) Second only to Chance in the stem-to-stern spins in my headphones; I have to confess one of the reasons I dig this Oakland emcee so much is that in my ears she raps with the same kind of nimble, laid-back intelligence that made Heather B such a joy.
Sam Lao SPCTRM (self) Like Tink, Dallas’ Lao is commandingly comfortable singing and rapping, and with SPCTRM she combines R&B and hip-hop into her own bustling, infectious blend of independent pop that darts among a range of colorful personalities, like the wildflowers that run along Texas highways.
Martha Blisters in the Pit of my Heart (Dirtnap Records) This punk-tinted indie pop quartet hails from Durham, UK, a town of about 140,000 located 20 miles south of Newcastle way up in northeast England, closer to Scotland than London. I mention that because in my mind that means Durham might be like a Dayton, Ohio, or a Denton, Texas—one of those small to mid-sized American cities that has steadily produced some of the better if under-sung and underground American music since the 1970s. Martha hits the ears like one of those bands, not afraid to punch above its weight class in verve, smarts, and killer hooks. Blisters is a little bit the Vaselines, a little bit Hearts of Oak-era Ted Leo, and a whole lot of insouciant glee that’s all the band’s own. In addition to having knack for killer song titles—dig “Chekov’s Hangnail”—Martha’s secret weapon is a gift for ebulliently bummer lyrics. “The Awkward Ones” contains the stop-eavesdropping-on-my-mind’s-internal-monologue lines “I won’t take a compliment, but I will ruminate for hours on a single mean remark/Collecting them like ornaments, the nasty things that people say that I save up to think about when it gets dark”— and starts off with a direct smells-like-teenage-brain-rot “More Than a Feeling” guitar hook allusion to boot. The album even ends in one of the more sincere, I-hate-you/I-love-you-Paul-Westerberg mash notes since the Goo Goo Dolls pinched out their first songs, minus the shameless yearning for adult-contemporary radio airplay.
NxWorries Yes Lawd! (Stones Throw) As much as I enjoyed Anderson .Paak’s lovely Malibu, there’s something more relaxed and off-the-cuff about NxWorries, a duo with the ridiculously prolific producer/beat chemist Knxwledge. Lawd!‘s casual atmosphere—sculpted entirely by Knxwledge’s palette of stately rhythms, touches of horns, slinky bass lines, and cashmere keyboard touches—creates a plush velvet cushion for .Paak’s soulful croon. The entire album’s a soundtrack for sitting out on the front steps and shooting the shit with whoever’s passing by. I’m gonna grab me another from the fridge, want one?
Carrie Rodriguez Lola (Luz Records) I’ve dug the fiddle-playing of Texan singer/songwriter Rodriguez ever since catching her a long time back when she was touring/recording with Chip Taylor, though I’ve been lukewarm to some of her solo albums. Though her 2009 album Love and Circumstance includes a gorgeous version of ranchera singer Tomás Méndez Sosa’s “La puñalada trapera,” by and large she’s stuck to country, folk, and honky-tonk on her albums—which is what makes the bilingual Lola such a disarming rush. Until I read this Texas MonthlyQ&A I didn’t know Rodriguez’s great aunt was Eva Garza, a Mexican-American actress/singer from San Antonio that might be little known to people my age who didn’t grow up with Spanish-language radio and jukeboxes often playing in the background, and on Lola Rodriguez displays a sophisticated intimacy with a variety of Mexican/Latin popular music idioms, delicately blending them with country and folk instrumentation and tempos. It’s a stunning outing, and as lovely as Rodriguez voice is, when she sings in Spanish it sounds like she’s unlocked an emotive superpower.
SPR! Mental Health (Hoga Nord Records) Debut LP from the Swedish duo of Albert Sjöstam and Christoffer Fransson. It’s mostly noisy-ish, psychedelic-leaning electronic tapestries punctuated by Primal Screaming beats—see “Cha Cha Cha” on the Hoga Nord Soundcloud. In a few places, however, SPR! unfurls some intoxicating beauty, as in “Turn Your Illness Into a Weapon” a Fennesz-lush tapestry of shimmering glee, and album stand out “Twa-Li,” a heavier, more damaged, and more the-antidepressants-aren’t-working take on Spaceman 3 at its most self-medicated.
Yves Tumor Serpent Music (Pan) This intoxicatingly alive album has one foot in the kraut-noise of Sex Swing and one foot in Franke Ocean’s shrugging soul&B, one hand in the woozy pop sensibility of Blood Orange and the other hand in the oneiric experiments of Madlib. One of those albums that’s easy to get lost inside.
A Tribe Called Quest We Got it From Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic)
True Widow Avvolgere (Relapse) This Dallas trio doesn’t try to fix what ain’t broke with its fourth album, another slab of shimmering shoegazey melodies that crawls at the oozing pace of permanently stoned metal. Delicious.
Un Blonde Good Will Come to You (Egg Paper Factory) The nom-de-band of 20-year-old multi-instrumentalist, producer, songwriter, and vocalist Jean-Sébastien Audet, with Good the Montreal-based Un Blonde concoct a swirling amalgam of gospel, psychedelia, and soulful pop. It’s like Maxwell and the first incarnation of the Polyphonic Spree got together to make a chilled-out album for summer nights.
My blind spot: Bon Iver 22, A Million (Jagjaguar) It’s not that I hate sad-beard synthpop. It’s just that I liked this kind of introverted, beat-oriented, fragmented mood album a little more when it was called Vespertine and especially Nearly God. Comparatively, A Million feels willfully vague, less Justin Vernon’s intense long night of the soul and more concerned with figuring out if he likes piña coladas and getting caught in the rain.
20 Jazz Albums
Aggregate Prime Dream Deferred (Onyx Music) Drummer Ralph Peterson’s new ensemble, which includes pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist/flutist Gary Thomas(*), delivers a thoughtful, politically ornery album that isn’t afraid to swing.
Melissa Aldana, Back Home (Wommusic) Chilean saxophonist Aldana has a big, plush tone, and alongside bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Jochen Rueckert she’s able to conjure the tight, expressive saxophone trios of Joe Lovano and especially Sonny Rollins, an admitted inspiration (her interview/conversation with Rollins is a great read, and not only because it’s always refreshing to read what Rollins has to say about anything.)
AZIZA Aziza (Dare2) It’s possible some the year’s funkiest moments appear on an album anchored by 70-year-old bassist Dave Holland. Rounded out by drummer Eric Harland, guitarist Lionel Loueke, and saxophonist Chris Potter, Aziza revisits big, American 1970s large-ensemble jazzrock’n’funk muscle cars and reimagines them as a lithe, responsive quartet for today’s highways and byways in other parts of the globe.
Battle Trance Blade of Love (New Amsterdam) This New York tenor saxophone quartet completely knocked my socks off with 2014’s Palace of Wind; it’s difficult to call Blade more of the same because I’m not entirely sure what to call what saxophonists Patrick Breiner, Travis Laplante, Matt Nelson, and Jeremy Viner do. Otherworld drones move into overlapping lyrical melodies move into almost funeral bluesy wails move into something like contemporary classical minimalism. Regardless of what to call it, Blade contains passages that offer some of the most delicately moving music to caress my ears all year.
* Michael Formanek Ensemble KolossusThe Distance (ECM) A 19-member group that frequently corrals its big-band oomph into compositions that are as intimately vulnerable as a Morton Feldman piece. Hauntingly cinematic.
Gunwale Polynya (Aerophonic Records) Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis’ take on the power trio, featuring percussionist Ryan Packard and bassist Albert Wildeman. If Time Berne’s Paraphrase trio ever did anything for you in the ’90s, worth checking out.
Mary Halvorson Away With You(Firehouse 12) The New York-based guitarist heads up a larger ensemble on this outing, including Baltimore-based pedal-steel player Susan Alcorn, for a hypnotically intricate record.
Yussef Kamaal Black Focus (Brownsound Recordings) Groove-oriented head music from this duo of London-based drummer Yussef Dayes and keyboardist Kamaal Williams.
Bobby Kapp/Matthew Shipp Cactus (Northern Spy) Of the eight (I think, I may have miscounted) records Shipp played on this year Cactus is the one I kept coming back to. Grippingly exquisite.
Free Nelson MandoomjazzThe Organ Grinder (Rare Noise Records) Trio of Edinburgh-based musicians Paul Archibald (drums), Rebecca Sneddon (alto sax), and Colin Stewart (electric bass) keep one foot in the ominous moods of doom metal, one in the ebullient joy of free jazz, and combine them in a disarmingly engaging amalgam of melodic oomph.
Naked Wolf Ahum (Clean Feed) Multi-national quintet that includes Dutch bassist Luc Ex that sounds like it’s having a blast finding new grooves inside of off-kilter rhythmic ideas.
William Parker with Lisa Sokolove and Cooper-More Stan’s Hat Flapping in the Wind (Centering/AUM Fidelity) Bassist Parker has apparently been working on a musical since the mid 1990s and Stan’s Hat collects 19 of those songs, performed by vocalist Sokolove and pianist Cooper-More. The album feels like a chamber opera informed by gospel, postwar jazz, and Parker’s deeply soulful stripe of free music.
Sélébéyone s/t (PI Recordings) Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman teams up with emcees HPrizm and Gaston Bandimic, bassist Drew Gress and Damion Reid find the breakbeats in hard bop’s propulsion, and the rest of the ensemble make hip-hop and jazz find in-the-pocket common ground.
Shabaka and the Ancestors Wisdom of Elders(Brownswood Recordings) Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, currently in his early 30s, is about the same age as many free-jazz musicians were when they were making some of the more adventurous, curious-about- music-from-other-cultures explorations in the mid to late 1960s, and Wisdom, recorded in Johannesburg, wouldn’t feel out of place among any of the BYG Actuel records of that era.
Linda Sharrock (In) the Abyssity of the Grounds (Gold Lab Records) Rare is the triple LP that you want to listen to start to finish. Rarer still is the free-jazz, wordless-vocal triple LP that you not only want to listen to start to finish, but that each and every time feels like it is clearing the history on the brain’s web browser so that you hear anew.
Starlight Motel Awosting Falls (Clean Feed) This quartet of three Norwegians— saxophonist Kristoffer Berre Alberts, bassist Ingebrigt Haaker Flaten, and drummer Gard Nilssen—along with American organ/moog player Jamie Saft push its collective jazz heaviness toward psychedelic rock terrain, and the result is something that’s at times disorienting and treacherous, as if the band brought in at Twin Peaks‘ One-Eyed Jacks when shit is about to get seriously unclean.
Baklavaa Dane On (Grimoire) It’s possible Baklavaa is Baltimore’s oddest band, which is saying something: too metal to be punk, too spazzy to be metal, too art-school damaged to be indie-rock (see: the video for “Ointment”), too thrift store to be art-school trust funded. But on songs such as “Bad Filth” and “Plunger Lip,” Baklavaa hammers out its own kinda ear-worming noise-rock.
Black Lung See the Enemy (Noisolution) This fantastic local power trio seems to get plenty of digital ink/attention in Europe than it does in America, much less Baltimore, and we’re the ones missing out on that. Black Lung—Adam Bufano (guitar), Dave Cavalier (guitar/vocals), and Elias Schutzman (drums)—doesn’t try to reinvent any wheels. It simply hammers out eight tightly spacious and gloriously fuzzy heavy-rock songs.
Ami Dang Uni Sun (Friends): “Nasm” may be the most gorgeous piece of music that Dang has ever conjured into existence, and she specializes in threading together tapestries of rhythmic, disorienting beauty. The local sitar player, vocalist, and producer has luxuriously hybridized Indian classical and electronic dance music for approaching a decade now, and it’s a sound that cozily snuggles between disorienting rhythms and skyward soaring melodies. “Nasm” finds her voice carving a slow-jam melody around what sounds like sustained organ notes and a drum pattern that slow swells from gentle pulse to onward rush, like a stream graduating to a tributary. Her voice stays at an almost lullaby pace for most of the song, the music’s increasing bustling unable to sway her calm—until a spike of vocal agitation she hits at the nearly three-minute mark sends an electric chill down the spine. Uni Sun‘s eight tracks aren’t a radical departure from her 2011 Hukam (Ehse) debut or her 2014 In Auspices self-released EP, more a testament of how sophisticated Dang’s songwriting has ripened. She’s streamlined her approach, and she’s achieving so much more atmosphere, mood, and emotional depth with seemingly fewer elements. Absolutely gorgeous.
JPEGMAFIA Black Ben Carson (self) Baltimore-based emcee/producer JPEGMAFIA is one of the smartest independent artists working right now, period.
Rjyan KidwellMusic Man Forever (Bandcamp) Of the seven (I think) releases Kidwell/Cex made available on Bandcamp for the first time in 2016, Forever reveals something a bit new, in my ears, for Kidwell. Other releases, particularly Acts and Irreducible Sensations, shows off his gift for slippery beats, sculpting gentle grooves out of jagged textures, and an all-around deft touch for crafting ambient electronic funk. Forever‘s four songs are more moody, deliberate, and ominous, at times conjuring a dreamy, George Crumb intensity.
Littlehawk self-titled (Friends) Longtime Celebration drummer Dave Bergander’s solo album of loops and loopy textures is an immersive, ambient album for living in in the postindustrial now, where the decay of neglect and contentious renewal efforts slowly skirmish on city streets.
Maxine s/t (Bandcamp)
Equal parts Kiwi-pop jangle and dreampop fuzz. Lovely late summer night pop.
Multicult Position Remote (Reptilian) With its third release this trio of bassist Rebecca Burchette (ex-Flowers in the Attic, Exosus, Lady Piss), guitarist/vocalist Nick Skrobisz (Carrion, the Wayward), and drummer Jake Cregger (Hatewaves) continues to be Baltimore’s most consistent update of Big Black’s brand of unrelenting noise-rock.
Eva Rhymes Odd World (mixtape) There’s a stripped-down but robust vibe to Rhymes‘ mixtape, from the initial modest keyboard blip and drum track combo of “Wierdoz” to the bouncing soul of “Ignorance is Bliss.” Rhymes treats these musically warm and inviting beats as backdrop for her verbal shadow boxing, at time aggressive, at times taunting.
Scroll Downers Hot Winter (Ehse) The debut release from this combustible trio of drummer David Jacober, guitarist Zachary Utz, and vocalist Lexie Mountain doesn’t quite capture the full detonation of the band’s live sets, but as a Polaroid snapshot of that energy, it’ll do.
Wordsmith and JSOUL Blame it on the Music (Hipnott Records) At this point singer/songwriter/producer JSoul and emcee Wordsmith are under-sung local veterans, with JSoul’s 2008 Love Soldier still sounding like a neo-soul classic nearly a decade on and Wordsmith one Baltimore hip-hop’s earliest adopters to using the internet as his primary means to connect with fans. I think Blame is their first album collaboration, and stem-to-stern it sounds like two guys confident in their ability to pull off big hooks, intimate emotions, and catchy melodies. Stand-out track “Satellite” features Wordsmith nimbly dancing over a lithe beat about “welfare, Spam in a can, eating pot pies/ KFC, Popeye’s, buckets or the box eyes” en route to talking about “just haves and the have nots, it was lopsided/ MSNBC is biased and FOX lies.” Blame it on the Music is one of those casually solid hip-hop albums from two artists who aren’t trying to prove anything, merely talk right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand.
My blind spot: Blacksage Shivers (Friends Records): Due really to me not always cottoning to certain 1980s synth-era throwbacks that this album recalls in my ears, which I discuss a bit more at the end of the Baltimore singles list, below.
20 Local Singles
Alter “Static Sea”: Long-haired twee shoegaze, as if On Fire-era Galaxie 500 added nine layers of distorted fuzz to its vulnerably skeletal pop songs.
Abdu Ali “I’m Alive (Humanized): “Tears of a Black Mova” is probably the Mongo song that I dragged and dropped into the headphones playlist more often, but “I’m Alive” is the mixtape’s track that best showcases Ali’s stylistic range, vocal charisma, and, alongside JPEGMAFIA’s production, wickedly inventive sense of rhythmic propulsion.
Greenspan featuring Eze Jackson and OOH “Keep Swimming” An organ provides a sleepy melodic line that almost quotes the bridge from “More Than a Woman,” which you expect is setting up a sleepy-eyed mood, and then Greenspan comes in behind a head-bobbing beat, setting a high bar for Jackson and OOH, who are more than up to the challenge.
Greydolf “God or Cunt”
Hands Up featuring Miz Jaxxxn “Free”
Jacober “Scary Driver” (Friends) Former Dope Body and current Scroll Downers drummer Jacober’s latest solo album, Glass Splinter, recalls a mid-’90s Thrill Jockey kinda feel, Tortoise before it went the full prog or Sea and Cake before Sam Prekop went totally Steely Dan. “Scary Driver” hits an off-center indie pop/rock mood that finds a winsome melody out of a collisions of rhythms and textures, with Jacober on a number of percussion instruments and some guests fleshing out the song with electric guitar, vibes, double bass, and violins.
JPGMAFIA and Freaky “I Might Vote 4 Donald Trump” Sure, Dooley, Tlow, and Lor Roger’s “CIT4DT” has more sincere laughs. And Mighty Mark and TT the Artist’s “F Trump” has a catchier hook. But only JPEGMAFIA took a look at this cracker-ass-cracker country months before the election—remember, this track was posted online back in May, right around the time the president elect secured the nomination—and realized, These comfortably numb white people are actually going to do this. JPEGMAFIA’s lyrics over the past two years reveal a mind the utter opposite of naïve, and with “I Might Vote 4 Donald Trump” he and Freaky wrap cultural commentary around political satire around a scorched-earth exasperation with the status quo.
Brooks Long “Have You Been Getting Too High”
Long and his band prove their ample skill with throwback soul and R&B every time they hit a stage, but this three-minute-and-change slow burn is the one time on Mannish Boy, their new album, that Long & Co. live up to the Muddy Waters-nodding, dirty electric blues muscle of the album’s title.
Mighty Mark “Real”
Nadszat “Budapest Smile Club” No idea who is involved with this project, which has put out two or three singles via Bandcamp over the past year—this one an earworm of off-kilter instrumental pop and curlicue beats.
Joy Postell “Consciousness”:
DJ Spen presents Doug Lazy “Church Clap” Yes, a cheat because Lazy is a house producer originally based in DC and currently, I think, in Atlanta. But this infectious track is one of the many put out this year on Quantize Recordings, the Baltimore-based label run by DJ Spen and Thommy Davis, who mixed and mastered this single.
TT the Artist “Drop It”
Quattracenta “Hang the Moon” Newish outfit of Sarah Matas (guitar/voice), Andrea Shearer (drums), Joan Sullivan (guitar), and Christian Sturgis (bass) that, on this track at least, does a windswept takes on the spacious indie rock that kinda splits the difference between the anti-Western country rock of Monroe Mustang and Knife in the Water’s dreampop take on honky-tonk. I keep missing this band live and hope to correct that when the next opportunity arises.
Romantic States “Strangled” This duo of drummer Lenia Madelaire and guitarist/vocalist Jim Triplett continues to find a sneaky power behind its minimalist set-up. “Strangled” is the B-side to “Take My Hand and Run, a fuzzy take on indie-rock twee that hits all the appropriate hallmarks. But “Strangled” spends nearly three minutes of its 3:40 running time bouncing from jaunty guitar and drum line to fuzzed out bliss, like a has-no-words-for-his-emotions dude sitting in his idling car and occasionally revving the engine because he doesn’t how else to express anything. By the time Triplett exhales the song’s single verse, the song barely has any emotional steam left and settles down.
Zheep “Old Man”Zheep’s20/20 can be hit and miss over its 17 tracks, impressive experiments with a shadow of a beat pushing “Old Man” undercut by the less impressive rhymes. With the title track, though, Zheep displays a charismatic storytelling streak over Ksonn’s horns and vocal loop production.
My blind spot: Lower Dens “Real Thing” Again, I think this is me having an issue with the sound to which the music here harks back. Lyrically, “Real Thing” is Jana Hunter’s typically succinct poignancy, and her delivery, swaying from reigned-in passion to unleashed urgency, shows yet another evolution of her increasingly versatile voice. Musically, though, in my ears “Real Thing” marches in step with the mood and tone of mainstream mid-1980s music—see: Chicago’s “Hard Habit to Break,” Thompson Twins “Doctor Doctor” and “Hold Me Now,” Mr. Mister “Broken Wings”—that sounds like the middlebrow John Hughes norm. As weirdo-embracing or sexually ambiguous or not white-boy-rock as that era of new-wave synthpop can seem from the 21st century, at the time it was also the soundtrack for kids who, you know, got brand new cars for their eighteenth birthdays. And that’s totally my problem, not the song’s.
The Age of Shadows (Kim Jee-woon, South Korea) The Cinemark Egyptian 24 cinema at Arundel Mills Mall has regularly programmed mainstream Indian movies for a while now; over the past year or so I’ve been noticing some popular movies from Latin American, the Philippines, and South Korea making its way to its screens, and because I often have to get out of my apartment early on Saturdays—it’s the wife’s home work space—I’ve made a modest habit of catching a few matinees that seem interesting. Shadows is basically a stylish, old-fashioned spy thriller set in Japanese-occupied Seoul in the 1930s, but Kim—the director of such genre-shredding gems as I Saw the Devil; The Good, the Bad, and the Weird; and The Foul King—and his longtime cinematographer Kim Ji-yong have a blast updating classic Hollywood style for 21st century action. A genre exercise, but Hollywood doesn’t really make genre films this sumptuous and solid anymore.
Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, USA) A small number of filmmakers have been dubbed the “American Bresson” over the past few decades; Reichardt is the only one who insists on a rich, nuanced moral universe in her films that lives up to the comparison.
A Conspiracy of Faith (Hans Petter Moland, Denmark) This third installment of film adaptations of Danish crime fiction author Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series finds its pair of cold-case detectives Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Assad (the great Fares Fares) tracking down a serial killer who may be hiding out in a cloistered religious group. I’ve never read any of these novels so I can’t attest to how faithful the adaptations are. That said, the prickly chemistry between Lie Kaas’ taciturn to the point of being an existential asshat Mørck and Fares’ Assad—no, I don’t think I’ve heard his last name mentioned in the three films thus far—is superb. The subject matter is grim. The cinematography deceptively gorgeous—this is a film where some of the more heinous acts take place in sunlight’s brightness—and Fares, it bears repeating, is touched by that Gregory Peck-ish mix of competence and decency that makes his cop navigating the worst that humanity has to offer both gripping and moving.
Divines (Houda Benyamina, France) French-Moroccan writer/director Benyamina’s feature follows Dounia (Oulaya Amamra) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), two teenage girls figuring out how to live on the mean streets of a Paris banlieue. Sure, it’s stuffed with the uneven here’s-every-idea-in-my-brain of an independent film, but anchored by a powerhouse performance from Amamra, it has the energy of the Dardenne’s Rosetta.
Fences (Denzel Washington, USA) Of all the indelible performances Washington, our greatest living screen actor, has given in his career, his proud but bitter 50-something former Negro League ballplayer Troy Moxon ranks up there—and yet Viola Davis as his wife Rose, Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s mentally impaired brother Gabe, and especially Stephen McKinley Henderson as Troy’s garbage man co-worker and best mate give him a run for his money as the standout here.
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer, USA)
Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier, USA)
The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, South Korea)
High Rise (Ben Wheatley, UK) Savage socioeconomic satire delivered in the unfussy, poker-faced sangfroid of mid-century modernism. Also: few songs from The Fall have ever been used in film soundtracks—Silence of the Lambs is the only one that comes to mind—but if there’s a better cinematic use for any Mark E. Smith song than “Industrial Estate” cuing up the closing credits to this barbed, feral flick, I hope to live long enough to see it.
I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, UK) Director Loach and lawyer-turned-screenwriter Paul Laverty have worked together since Carla’s Song (1996), and I’m having trouble coming up with another filmmaker/writer team that has been as consistently good over a 20-year span, much less one as devoted to cinema as a medium for social critique, however much their success on that front has waxed and waned. In this indictment of neoliberal austerity measures they’ve produced a work that stands alongside their best—see: My Name is Joe and The Wind That Shakes the Barley—in finding the bigger political statement wrapped around the personal story.
Julieta (Pedro Almodovar, Spain) Look, I also enjoyed the weak I’m So Excited, so yes, I confess being on the Almodovar bus since I was a teenager. That said, Julieta is Almodovar in a minor key—well, as minor a key as he works in—and for me it was his most satisfying film since All About My Mother, one that I hold dear to my heart.
Krisha (Trey Edward Shults, USA)
The Lobster, (Yorgos Lanthimos, USA/Greece)
The Love Witch (Anna Biller, USA)
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, USA) I really have little to add to the praise heaped upon writer/director Barry Jenkins, story source Tarrell Alvin McCraney, or the impressive performances from Mahershala Ali, Trevante Rhodes, and Naomi fucking Harris. I did, however, want to give a huge shout out to director of photography James Laxton, for helping to make this film visually unforgettable and, for my money, the first American film to approach the expressionistic use of color of Wong Kar-wei’s vivid collaborations with cinematographer Christopher Doyle (Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time, In the Mood for Love).
The Nice Guys (Shane Black, USA) Yes, it’s basically Inherent Vice for people who don’t want to think, but in the process of jettisoning elements that tie politics, history, and America into confounding knots, Black and his co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi resurrect the quasi-buddy cop comedy from the lobotomized likes of Cop Out, Let’s Be Cops, and The Other Guys. Still, it’s no The Guard (2011), from Irish writer/director John Michael McDonagh, whose 2016 pitch-black-comedy War on Everyone deserved a better roll out than what felt like that one day it was in theaters.
Three (Johnnie To, Hong Kong/China) Filmmaker To has a career as long, varied, and celebrated as John Woo’s, but he’s a bit more of a film-nerd/snob taste here and he never had an American interlude that dramatically handicapped his output and creativity. As a result, To has made more films, which has given him more opportunities to try new things, from the tense, Sidney Lumet-like Drug War (2012) to the disarming high-rise musical Office (2015). Consider Three a chamber thriller: a police unit led by a ruthless chief inspector (Louis Koo) accidentally shoots a crime boss Shun (Wallace Chung) in the head. He’s alive, but the bullet is still in his brain, and he’s taken to a hospital, where he’s placed under the care of neurosurgeon Dr. Qian (Zhao Wei). The film takes place entirely in the hospital, mostly in the ER unit where Shun is monitored by cops and hospital staff. Surgery is required to save his life, but Shun is trying to buy time to get word to his people to tell them to come get him. This roughly 90-minute actioner is about 80 minutes of talky bits before it arrives at its conclusion, which kicks off with nearly four minutes of operatic all-hell-breaks loose that’s shot in an uninterrupted single-take choreography of Matrix bullet-time, whip pans, and moving camerawork, and scored to a Chinese pop ballad. It’s the greatest hospital mayhem since Hard Boiled, and it’s surprising how patiently To sets up such an eruption of activity to what had up until then felt like a closed-door drama.
Snowden (Oliver Stone, USA) Not to imply that it’s all that good, mind you, or that I think that the mercurial Stone has made the definitive anything about Edward Snowden (Laura Pointras’ Citizenfour is, in every way, the superior film). What is curious is how Stone frames Snowden (Joseph Gordon Levitt) as another one of his typically idealistic American men who get disillusioned by the reality of what serving their country means. Snowden is basically Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison’s conversation with Donald Sutherland’s L. Fletcher Prouty/Mr. X in JFK stretched into an entire movie, or Ron Kovic’s journey in Born on the Fourth of July in the intelligence community instead of the armed forces. That parallel makes Snowden problematic and politically undercooked, but for a Baby Boomer whose politics were sharpened in the ’60s to see Edward Snowden as an archetype of disillusioned American patriots makes a curious, eccentrically compelling version of a contemporary political biopic.
Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, South Korea) Yes, it’s Snowpiercer with zombies but, you know, it’s also fucking Snowpiercer—with zombies. A disposable widget of human greed and businessman-slash-absentee divorced father (Gong Yoo) reluctantly accompanies his daughter (Ma Dong-seok) on a train from Seoul to Busan for a weekend visit with her mother. They leave on the same morning a virus spreads through Korea turning people into wanton flesh-eaters devouring any living thing in their path. Obnoxiously entertaining.
Things to Come (Mia-Hansen-Løve, France)
My blind spot: Both La La Land and Manchester by the Sea. Even if you completely overlook the white jazz dude trying to be the art form’s saving-grace champion in the former, you’re still left with a musical where every number is listless and inert and not a single dance sequence measures up to even the worst ones in the Step Up series. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does more sincerely impressive and alive songs on a weekly basis during its season. In the latter, Casey Affleck’s ostensibly impressive performance amounts to doing the least acting, as if every time his working-class white dude has to contend with an emotion Affleck opts for expressing nothing. I realize that part of the point of this portrayal may be that this kind of man’s version of masculinity means he doesn’t have a place or know how to express the immensity of the emotions he’s going through, but I do would argue that this version of working-class masculinity is one imagined by somebody who has never spent any time around working-class Americans.
Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene) Arguably a cheat, as it’s closer to one of Chris Marker’s cinematic creative nonfiction essays than conventional documentary proper.
Mapplethrope: Look at the Pictures (Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbeto) Come for Mapplethorpe’s younger brother’s anecdote of Robert brining Patti Smith to his parents Queens home for a meal in the early 1970s, stay for the reminders of Mapplethorpe’s exquisite visual intelligence and the widespread antipathy to gay life, sex, and death in the 1980s.
Baron Noir (Canal+/Amazon) Billed as the French House of Cards but oh so much more, revolving around the mayor of Dunkirk (the superb French Algerian actor Krad Merad) and his mentor, who is running to be president on the Socialist party ticket.
The Black Mirror (Netflix)
Bosch (Amazon) This is really just a Titus Welliver-delivery system for me.
Elementary (CBS) As a late-40-something person I’ve always associated CBS as the middlebrow network for people who have just given up on being interesting in life—Square Pegs and the risibly reactionary The Unit are the lone CBS shows I can recall caring about, and even those are pretty lame—so I do kinda wonder if I’m regularly watching the Simon & Simon or Murder, She Wrote of right now. What keeps me coming back is being a total Jonny Lee Miller fanboy and for Elementary being the lone show on TV that I can think of that allows a grown-ass man and woman to be professional colleagues without ever trying to suggest or invent or insult that relationship with a romantic one.
The Fall (RTÉ One/Netflix)
Fleabag (BBC Three/Amazon)
Happy Valley (BBC/Netflix) English playwright/writer Sally Wainwright’s bleakly gripping procedural that follows a police sergeant (Sarah Lancashire) in northeast England.
Jack Irish (ABC, Australia) In 2012 the Australian Broadcasting Company debuted a pair of stand-alone, two-part TV movies starring Guy Pearce as Jack Irish, a Melbourne lawyer turned debt collector and reluctant private detective, a character created in Peter Temple’s crime novel series. It’s fun to see Pearce speak in what’s probably closest to his natural accent, and he seems to have a blast playing a PI who rather be hanging at the pub watching Australian rules football, learning to be a woodworker, or at the horse track with his mates Harry (Roy Billing, who could very well be the New Zealand Bob Hoskins, and somebody should be attaching him to a Auckland-set update of The Long Good Friday stat) and Cam (the fantastic Aaron Pedersen), the kind of guy who knows that some situations call for merely threating blokes, others call for bringing a gun. In 2016 ABC turned its latest Jack Irish adaptation into a six-part miniseries, meaning twice the fun.
Killjoys (SyFy) Yes, it’s Firefly lite, but it’s also a multi-racial/ethnic, polysexual space opera that lets a character say of a computer, “Wow, whoever programmed this is an asshole,” and when another wonders aloud why a male colleague is attracted to someone, “Have you met boobs?” In other words, juvenilely ridiculous.
Shetland (BBC Scotland) Douglas Henshall stars as a cop in Shetland, the archipelago located furthest north east away from the mainland, but not so far away that gang informants, witness protection, professional hit men can’t touch it.
You’re the Worst (FX)
Luke Cage (Netflix)
Queen Sugar (OWN) I’m actually kinda surprised this drama didn’t get more year-end, awards/nominations, or critical attention. For this adaptation of Natalie Baszile’s novel, executive producer and co-writer/director Ava DuVernay and her creative team—particularly the writing staff of Melissa Carter, Ali Gordon-Goldstein, Denise Harkavy, Tina Mabry (Itty Bitty Titty Committee), Kay Oyegun (This is Us staff writer), Anthony Sparks (Lincoln Heights), Jason Wilborn (Underground)—deliver a master class in telling a story with long and knotty historical details through the intimacy of a single family. The cast—including Rutina Wesley, Dawn-Lyen Gardner, Kofi Siriboe, workhorse character actor Omar Dorsey, and total badass Glynn Turman—is on point. And I think every episode was directed by a woman. On top of all that, Queen Sugar used music better than any other show this year with, maybe, the exception of Mr. Robot. Yes, Sugar‘s deep south Louisiana setting means it can break out some lesser-known gems such as Henry Gray and the Cats, Big Jack Johnson and the Oilers, the Rebirth Brass Band, and Louisiana Red. But DuVernay, series composer Meshell Ndegeocello, and music supervisor Morgan Rhodes also make some brilliant choices—which you discover in the very first episode when a few tensely dramatic storylines tightly coil around each other as the episode approaches its end and you slowly realize the music you’re hearing is U2’s “Drowning Man,” the eighth or ninth best-known song off 1983’s War, but the emotionally ideal soundtrack for this moment. Bravo.
Jackie Milad Pyramids Fall Too (Phoebe) See: City Paperreview.
David Page Security Theater (Creative Alliance) Because I suck I never made the time to write about this exhibition, which is both the most Dave Page-ist interactive sculptures qua apparata ever but also, as evidenced by the “performance” portion of this show, where volunteers willingly got into Page’s odd wearable forms of physical restriction and consciousness confinement, a slyly brutal comment on how we willingly participate in our own dis-/misinformation in the 21st century.
Reference/Material (Center for the Arts gallery, Towson University) Full disclosure: I consider Alex Ebstein, the artist, writer, and former Nudashank gallerist who curated this show, a colleague. That said, her 2016 return to curating following grad school, both with Phoebe Projects and this exhibition, served as a reminder that we need younger curators with great eyes for emerging artists because their curatorial brains are able to articulate and visually demonstrate what this work is doing. Reference/Material took seriously the irreverent, at times blatantly silly and elusive work of a handful of contemporary artists, many of whom local DIY gallery goers of recent years would be familiar with, and explored how they’re in conversation with 20th century modernism. Exquisite.
Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television (UMBC’s Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture)
My blind spot: Baltimore Rising at MICA. Not so much that I didn’t like the show as much as I feel my takeaway from it was a minority opinion. Rising opened less than a week before we went to the voting booth on Nov. 8, and I have the feeling that the election’s outcome adjusted the needle on responses to this show—which is poor art criticism and even worse politics. To wit, that any/all visual content of protest stands in opposition to the then (and now current) president elect and everything he/the GOP stands for. But what’s going on in this exhibition is more nuanced and complex, and speaks much more cogently and adamantly to the Baltimore of the past year and a half and the polices/economic development ideas of Democratic control of the city for most of the 20th century. Rising is a weird show, where some of the recent work by white artists looked like an emotion searching for a subject matter while some of the work from the African-American artists, which the exhibition catalog admits, dates back a few years, if not a decade, before the 2015 Uprising. Together the show brings together works telling many different narratives, about who is paying attention to what and when and why. The catalog also mentions that the Uprising took place a few blocks from where the exhibition is installed without mentioning that moving that distance along those same blocks radically changes things such as life expectancy, income, incarceration rate, level of education attained, etc., for the people who live there. Some of the pieces are total stunners because the artists and the work understand or at least wrestle with this city’s and country’s thorny history—Lauren Frances Adams, Sonya Clark, Joyce Scott, Jeffrey Kent, Olivia Robinson, and Paul Rucker chief among them. Others, less so. Again: Baltimore Rising is not a bad show, but to regard it as some institutional embrace and/or allegiance with and tribute to Uprising protestors erases the very real economic and political forces perpetuated by institutions that create the conditions that led to the Uprising in the first place and silences what the Uprising protestors were saying by lumping their voices into some greater, nonspecific, anti-Trump/Fox news/fascist Republican resistance that we’re all, now, on the same page about because Trump. Yes, solidarity, is important and vital—but so is listening to and trying to understand what the people who were protesting before you started status updating a new outrage every hour were saying.
One Light City Baltimore Installation
Shelter in Place By far the most effective and illuminating installation at the entire festival. And I’m pretty sure nobody is going to sue anybody else over its use. Innovative. Disruptive. Informative. Win-win.
Death of a Salesman/A Streetcar Named Desire (Everyman Theatre)
Detroit ’67 (Center Stage)
The Failures (Psychic Readings)
Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Center Stage) Center Stage’s opulent staging of Christopher Hampton’s 1985 adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary novel received lukewarm reviews, which curiously chided it for being a disappointing choice (a play about the aristocracy) and having problematic subject matter—as if those issues weren’t there in the mid 1980s when it was celebrated on both stage and screen. What the Guardian called the “seduction of a 15-year-old girl” in its review of the play’s original run starring the late Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan was pointed out as abuse a few years later. In 1988, a then-18-year-old Uma Thurman, who played Cécile in Stephen Frears’ film adaptation, pointed out that the Marquise, by questioning Cécile’s resistance to a rape, transforms the victim into the criminal—”what people have been doing to women for hundreds of years,” Thurman said in an interview with The New York Times. True, but I’m not sure the diffident response to this Dangereuse is due entirely to contemporary culture’s better awareness and/or understanding of sexual assault. Sex as weapon is what this play is explicitly about, but it’s also played as farce for most of its running time. Every production I’ve ever seen of it plays the arc a 15-year-old girl being “seduced” by a grown-ass rapist to enthusiastic participant is played for a laugh—and often gets that laugh from its audience. But both this production and this fall’s Broadway revival starring Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber attempted to fluff this play’s relevance to today via the rise of Trump and the one percent billionaire asshole class in general—which starts to get at what makes the play so disquieting today but doesn’t quite get there. Les Liaisons Dangereuse ends with its rich optimistically looking forward toward the 1890s, and we smirk in knowing what awaits them. But with economic inequality and government in Western democracies reaching levels not seen in a century and political shifts toward the right, the smugness of thinking the rich finally get their comeuppance no long feels true. What made this play feel so not right was leaving the theater wondering if all the amorally rich had to do is wait a little over 200 years to regain its grip on power’s reins.
The Rocky Horror Show (Iron Crow) Though I first saw the Rocky Horror film a handful of times over the summer of 1987 at some theater in Harvard Square I’d never seen the stage version, and I hadn’t watched the film since sometime in the ’90s. This show was pretty much the most fun you could have in public without getting arrested.
Schoolgirl Figure (Cohesion Theatre)
Siobhan O’Loughlin’s Broken Bone Bathtub (Submersive Productions)
The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee (Stillpointe) See: BmoreArt review.
Under the Skin (Everyman)
Scean Aaron The Rocky Horror Show (Iron Crow)
Cricket Arrison, Cleveland (Psychic Readings)
Body/Head at Ottobar, Nov 10 This concert took place two nights after the presidential election. I had done a phoner with guitarist Bill Nace about 10 days prior, but ended up not able to place it locally because it was all Trump all the time by then, and for that I suck. Fortunately, the embarrassment of that failure didn’t prevent me from catching the show, because Kim Gordon and Nace were otherworldly. They seemed to play one extended improv, with a single video, running in super-slow motion, projected behind them. The video featured a band playing live, and the singer looked familiar, and it took me about 15 minutes to realize it was that video from the Germs playing the Whiskey in 1979, one of, I think, the few live films of the band that isn’t in The Decline of Western Civilization. As I’m recognizing that I’m watching Darby Crash, one of the great instances of being newscycle footnoted in music history—Crash’s December 7, 1980, death was overshadowed by that other news event of Dec. 7, 1980, when Mark David Chapman shot some guy outside the Dakota near Central Park West—I also feel like Gordon’s distorted vocals come into sharp focus for a few seconds, and I think she’s screaming, DON’T GIVE WOMEN POWER, DON’T GIVE WOMEN POWER, before moving onto something else. That’s just as likely to be a mishearing of the words that came out of her mouth as it is an accurate representation of lyrics, but the entire night ended up exactly the kind of wall of sustained, propulsive guitar noise that I needed refresh empty my brain’s cache.
Jessica Bennet The Wild Party (Iron Crow)
Allison Bradbury The Wild Party (Iron Crow)
Martin Casey, The Master and the Margarita (Annex)
Marcus Civin “his table is a drum/These feet are drumsticks/And I’m sick of It” (School 33, May 14) and “City Hall Levitation” (Transmodern Festival, Nov. 6) For Civin’s School 33 performance in May, he was joined by percussionists Sierra Gaither, Terence Hannum, and John Lemonds, who carved wooden lower leg/feet as sticks to bang on a drum-like table, producing the kind of brain-rattling bass throbs that would drop a metal drummer’s or hip-hop producer’s jaw to his/her knees. “City Hall Levitation,” on the other hand, was an unmitigated hoot. Loosely inspired by Abbie Hoffman’s Levitate the Pentagon in 1967, Civin put together a group of “Gestures essential to Levitation”—in this order: hip roll: two steps up, two steps back; head nodding back and forth; a low hum; a high “angel note”; make the sound of water whooshing through a pipe; and the wiggly-wacky-woo, which is pretty much your great American freak-out of running toward an unmovable object and then stopping, as if hitting a glass wall—and an inspired chant. Sample, which you should imagine being read in a City Lights Bookstore beatnik drone: “This year has left me with strength and yearning – I know how to come from the quiet places and the shadows – I know where my people are – P-P- P-Paving stones rumble – B-B- B-Balustrades are outraged – Sign posts are outraged– F-F- Flags are feeling sick – The steps are tired – Park your car somewhere else – Stone knows its ambition – Stone wants to fly –The Baltimore harbor is churning – The Appalachian Mountains are rumbling – The cabinets are creaking – The bark and the roots of the trees feel it – The artworks have left the walls – There is a great force pulling us upwards – The glass in the windows will shake – All the underpinnings will be exposed – This building wants freedom.” Yeah, I think I saw that building lift up an centimeter or two.
Jessica Frances Dukes Detroit ’67 (Baltimore Center Stage)
FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture on North Avenue, 9 April 2016 Not trying to take anything away from FORCE’s winning Sondheim Prize entry at the BMA, which mainly proved how well Hannah Brancato and Rebecca Nagle can adapt the project to a gallery’s white box. What makes this project compelling and vital, however, is that I don’t get the impression that figuring out how to make it work in a white-box gallery was ever the point. FORCE is above all a political enterprise, figuring out how its primary object, the Monument Quilt, can do the work of policy reform, advocacy, awareness, and solidarity. And this installation of the work on North Avenue—the largest display I’ve ever seen of the Quilt, and in the most urban setting I’ve ever seen it occupying—brought the discussion about upsetting rape culture to the very streets where those actions need to be taking place.
Tatiana Ford, Schoolgirl Figure(Cohesion Theater)
Lafayette Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes Blues for Freddy Gray EP release show, Windup Space, Oct. 1.
Guillermo Gómez-Peña: Unplugged, UMBC Dresher Center, Sept. 13 I’d seen Gómez-Peña many, many moons ago in San Antonio, so I was looking forward to experiencing his irreverent mix of funny and smarts again. What I was ill-prepared for was the emotional sucker punch of some of the pieces he’s doing now, particularly a piece toward the end wherein he invoked American politicians constantly invoking g-d and the almost placeholder speech-ender, “God bless America.” The piece included Gómez-Peña calling out God bless” and inserting a few different countries: Mexico, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Venezuela, Bolivia, Columbia, Cuba, North Korea, China, Cambodia, Palestine, Sudan, the Blackfoot and the Iroquois, the Mixtec and Zapotec people. He continued with France? Canada? Iceland, Fiji, the Bahamas—before repeatedly calling out “God bless” and pausing, until people in the audience started calling out countries: Peru, Azerbaijan and Syria, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Chile, Costa Rica, Nigeria. These shout outs to countries we never hear our leaders or ourselves blessing uncomfortably spotlighted not only the narcissistic arrogance of “god bless America” but the verbal barrier it erects between us and the everybody we’re saying isn’t us.
LabBodies’ Creative Mornings Baltimore presentation Both informative of their process and playfully made fun of the self-seriousness presentations of these “creatives” pow-wows at the same time.
New Music Gathering at Peabody (*) Taka Kigawa playing Ligeti’s Etudes, So Percussion, catching a bit of the five-hour performance of Morton Feldman’s For Philip Guston Kathleen Supové, or the Gamelan Dharma Swara—only my fourth time ever to see a gamelan orchestra, which only solidified my suspicion that gamelan orchestras and brass bands are two of greatest things human beings have ever come up with—this intimate conference was non-stop awesome.
* Peabody Institute’s Now Hear This performance of Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” April 15 See profile of Now Hear This-artistic director Courtney Orlando in the Johns Hopkins Magazine.
* Hank Shocklee, Peabody Institute A cheat, because Shocklee’s appearance was a lecture as part of Wendel Patrick’s Hip Hop Music Production: History and Practice class (see Johns Hopkins Magazinearticle), but Shocklee’s such an entertaining speaker I wanted to bring up one thing he said in passing. He mentioned the importance of emerging artists having a space to, you know, get better at what they do—or, in his words, “you need a place to suck.” He was specifically talking about musicians performing live, but as I approach being an adult in Baltimore for 25 years, I think about all the underground, quasi-legal, and impromptu basements, warehouses, studios, living rooms, backyards, temporary street stage, parking lots, VFW halls, former strip clubs, bars, cafes, clubs, and afterhours spaces where I’ve seen bands and musicians over that time, about who those spaces did and didn’t welcome and make room for, and who does/doesn’t have the opportunity to suck before getting better, finding a local audience, finding a wider audience, and the chance to make have even the hard-scrabble side gig that is being a working musician today. Speaking purely as a going-to-shows music fan for the past 30+ years, “places to suck” are pretty much my favorite places to see live music, and we need more for everybody, because they’re very often the Bunsen burners where tomorrow’s hotness catches fire.
Malcolm Peacock Let the Sun Set on You (Presented by Ginevra Shay’s Rose Arcade curatorial project in Druid Hill Park, Oct. 6) Like Tino Sehgal I don’t think Peacock considers his work performance at all and might actively distance himself from the term but, also like Sehgal, Peacock’s situational, constructed experiences involve active participation by his audience that makes us performers in this space we’re creating by encountering his ideas. Let the Sun Set on You threaded together a trio of Baltimore histories: 1) the open-water drowning deaths of African-American boys in the summer of 1953, when all the city’s public pools, save one, were whites only; 2) Druid Hill Park’s Pool No. 2, the city’s lone black pool, which is now the grass-covered site of Joyce Scott’s “Memorial Pool” artwork; and 3) the tennis courts where blacks played, which remain without lights so that people can’t play after the sun goes down. Each segment was a mindful history lesson, a chance to time-travel to a decade where life in Baltimore might’ve been different, but not all that much. But there were moments of genuine magic during this evening-into-night event, as a table with pinic-y sweets and drinks and blankets were spread out on the grass where the poll once stood. And as the sun set on a part of the park that, by design, tried to push African-Americans home as night fell, Peacock accomplished what may never had taken place in that pool before: guys and gals, black and white, young and old, and of who cares what gender identity and sexual orientation, mixed and mingled and enjoyed each other’s company on a gorgeous fall eve.
World’s Longest Game of Telephone, Lexie Macchi, Walters Art Museum, 22 May 2016 OK, yes, I realize Macchi was sincerely aiming to break the record, which would have involved getting more than 1,330 people to the museum on a single day—a quietly wry a comment on the things art institutions have to do to put asses in the proverbial seats in our age of the (post?) blockbuster museum show. Couple that idea with the actual path Macchi carved out in the Walter’s to accommodate more than 1,330 people—the game started in the Hackerman House in front of the late 15th century sculpture “Buddha at the Moment of Victory” and, if the record had been broken, would have ended in front of the museum gift shop, which was then having a 50 percent off sale on certain prints. Macchi had a much more interesting conceptual idea running through the game—I think the snippet of text that started the game came from a rare illuminated manuscript in the Walter’s collection—but the experience itself was a playfully rich and thoughtful consideration of the museum space and how its contents are marketed and presented. Bravo.
Franco Citti, who had small parts in two installments of The Godfather but who made his debut in Pasolini’s Accattone, and would go on to co-star in six other Pasolini films, including the great Porcile.
Raoul Coutard, a cinematographer as responsible for the visual look and cinematographic headiness of the French New Wave as some of the directors—Costa-Gavras, Jean Luc-Godard, Jean Rouch, François Truffaut, Jacques Demy—with whom he worked.
Ronit Elkabetz, Israeli actress I knew very little about until I saw her in The Band’s Visit.
Screenwriter and actress Barbara Turner, mother of Jennifer Jason Leigh and writer of director Ulu Grosbard’s undersung Georgia, one of the most beautifully brutal portraits of a walking human chest wound sucking all the wind out of every room she enters.
Vilmos Zsigmond, who—during the last decade of adventurous color cinematography in Hollywood—shot one of the most stunningly photographed films of the 1970s or any decade.
Polish director Andrezj Zulawski, whose gift for turning the creepy into the viscerally uncomfortable seeped into nearly every one of his 15 films.
20 Shit Movies I Totally Paid to See Because My Wife Works from Home and Sometimes on Saturdays I Have to Leave Early and I’m Wicked Cheap So, Hello, circa 11 a.m. Matinee Price or Second-Run Theater and Dammit, I’m Now that Middle-Aged Man Seeing a Comic-Book Slash Knuckle-Dragger Movie by Himself on the Weekend and That’s Sad AF
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Captain America: Civil War
Hell or High Water
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
London Has Fallen
The Magnificent Seven
The Purge: Election
Star Trek Beyond
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
A Few of My Favorite Things From Musicians Who Passed in 2016
A Tribe Called Quest “Steve Biko (Stir it Up)” (Midnight Marauders, 1993, co-written by Malik Taylo, aka Phife Dawg)
Pauline Oliveros “A Love Song” (The Well and the Gentle, 1985)
Prince “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” (Sign O’ the Times, 1987)
Wham! “I’m Your Man” (Columbia 12-inch single, 1985, written & produced by George Michael)
Poison Girls “Riot in My Mind” (Songs of Praise, 1985, co-written by vocalist Vi Subversa)
Beastie Boys’ “Egg Raid on Mojo” (Polly Wog Stew EP, co-written by guitarist John Berry)
Kim Wilde “Hey Mister Heartache” (Close, 1988, co-written by Wilde’s guitarist Steve Byrd)
Clarence Reid “Nobody But You Babe” (Alston 7-inch, 1969, co-written by Reid, who would go on to infamy as Blowfly)
Finally, Rudy Van Gelder, the jazz recording engineer who, after building his studios in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, in 1959, spent the rest of his life recording and preserving some of the most amazing sounds human beings have ever created.
* Starred items feature people associated in some way with the Johns Hopkins University, including the Peabody Institute, and since I work at Hopkins, just disclaiming such here.
This weekend offers a local theatergoing luxury that’s becoming increasingly common: there’s so many compelling productions happening at the same time that you’re not going to be able to hit them all. Three of these four productions—Iron Crow’s Fucking A, Single Carrot’s Samsara, and Stillpointe’s Grey Gardens—end this weekend. None of them are emotionally easy rides, which is part of the reason they’re all worth trying to catch.
Stillpointe shrewdly sees the misogyny lurking in the background of Grey Gardens. Roughly halfway through the first act, a rich, old, white guy offers some advice to the fairer sex. Major Bouvier (Barney Rinaldi), the portly mansplainer, is chatting with his niece Edie (Christine Demuth) and his two tweenage granddaughters, Jackie Bouvier (Anne Murphy on the night I attended) and Lee Bouvier (Avagail Hulbert on this eve). Yes, that’s future first lady and heiress Jackie Kennedy Onassis and her younger sister, the future socialite Lee Radziwill. The major counsels them that because “we live in perilous times, if you want to anchor yourself in an uncertain world you have only one recourse”—before launching into “Marry Well,” a jaunty little ditty driven by a coy, martial beat. The Major’s advice: “Find a staunch young patrician, Republican/ With the blood and the brains to excel/ Like the fine strapping lad your late grand mama had/ meaning I, little girls, marry well.”
Welcome to Stillpointe’s tartly comic and sweetly cruel Gardens, a production that understands that the story of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale gets its gravitational allure from the lifelong détente of a mother-daughter relationship, and knows that these two women’s lives took place inside a social culture that didn’t want them if they weren’t going to do as they’re told. Co-directed by Stillpointe founding members Ryan Haase and Danielle Robinette, this production is the first to make use of the company’s pair of intimate performance spaces in the adjacent buildings at 1825 and 1823 North Charles Street, and it features two of its more formidable performers playing different versions of the same character. Also: puppets. All three of these decisions conspire to add a nuanced gravity to this version of the Tony Award-nominated musical—music and lyrics by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, book by Doug Wright—that debuted on Broadway in 2006, and which The New York Times critic Ben Brantley called “a show that is, at best, costume jewelry.”
The source material here is, of course, filmmaking brothers Albert and David Maysles’ beloved, 1975 documentary about the mother-daughter Beales, whom the filmmakers captured living in the decrepit decadence of the expansive, 28-room East Hampton estate that lends the movie its name. The elder “Big Edie” was a daughter of privilege who married lawyer Phelan Beale at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1917. They lived on the Upper East Side, had three kids—two boys and one girl, also named Edith, aka “Little Edie”—and separated in 1931. Big Edie got Grey Gardens in the divorce, and it became the live-in rehearsal studio for her singer career. Pianist/composer George “Gould” Strong lived there for a spell; as did another male companion for a bit. By 1952, Big Edie was all alone, and Little Edie left Manhattan, where her own attempt at an entertainment career stalled, to return to the summer retreat they called home year round.
The two of them had been living there increasingly removed from the outside world when the Maylses showed up with their cameras in 1973 and captured a house overrun by cats, raccoons, trash, fleas, and disrepair. The documentary has stoked an adoring cult fanbase ever since, particularly among gay and queer audiences. “Gay men think they’re latching on to Grey Gardens because they think it’s camp, but it’s really because it’s about a parent-child relationship,” performance artist John Epperson, aka Lypsinka, told The Advocate in 2009, adding that “[t]he best movies are always about identity, and that movie certainly is.” Scott Frankel, the composer behind the musical Grey Gardens, told Newsweek in 2006 that “Little Edie’s so inspirational to a lot of disenfranchised people. . . . She somehow managed to put on some incredible headgear and still think the best years were ahead. She faced each day with optimism, energy and style.”
Stillpointe’s approach puts equal emphasis on the parent-child relationship and the disenfranchisement. The musical’s first act plays fast and loose with the Beales’ real story, remixing rumor and fact to imagine what life was like at Grey Gardens before the cats and trash took over. About thirty years before that quagmire, the stunning, elegant big Edie (Zoe Kanter) is all posh enunciation, witty banter, silky gowns, and endless cocktails. She’s prepping the gorgeous Grey Gardens estate for Little Edie’s (Christine Demuth) nuptials with Joe Kennedy, and the extended family’s all there: Bouviers Major, Jackie, and Lee, groom-to-be Joe (Bobby Libby), and perpetually pickled piano man Gould (Adam Cooley), Big Edie’s partner in song and seeking distraction at the bottom of a glass. Big Edie in her youth also possesses a competitive, conniving streak, and her yearning for the spotlight, even at her daughter’s wedding, sparks a schism that snowballs into a seemingly insurmountable chasm. If Big Edie can’t be happy in marriage—her husband divorces her by telegram from Mexico—no one can, and the first act ends with Little Edie leaving Grey Gardens, never to return.
The entire audience for this Grey Gardens moves next door for the second act, where Big and Little Edie, and the state of the home, look like the ruin familiar from the documentary. As exceptional as Kanter is with Big Edie in her youth, Danielle Robinette is ruthlessly human in her performance of Big Edie in old age. The use of different actors—in the original Broadway and Off-roadway production, Christine Ebersole played Big Edie in the first act and Little Edie in the second, which has a different effect—doesn’t merely highlight time’s unforgiving passage, it intimates how the social fall that accompanied it changes a person. Demuth returns as Little Edie, improvised head scarf an all. Save for a few visitors, such as congenial handyman Jerry (Jon Kevin Lazarus), Big Edie and Little Edie live amongst their own filth, dreaming of what might happen in the world outside that isn’t, ever, going to happen.
They were too brash, too opinionated, too liberated, had too many of their own ideas, didn’t just get married and do the wife thing the way they were supposed to. The narrative contrasts between the first and second acts shows that, yes, there was an insurmountable tension between Big and Little Edie that eventually tethered them together. The thematic contrasts between the first and second acts suggests that their resulting behavior because of that tense relationship is what drove everybody but each other away. According to the society in which they traveled, they deserve their fetid fate.
And it’s one where they live surrounded only by a horde of feral cats, which Stillpointe features as puppets manipulated by everyone from the first act who isn’t in the second. These puppets and puppeteers adds a devastatingly nuanced touch: we see the Edies haunted by the people who used to be in their lives when they had social connections, glamour, a future, money. Kudos to this production’s entire cast and crew for landing this quiet knockout punch. The story of Big Edie and Little Edie is, per the Grey Gardens documentary, an almost too textbook example of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s claim that there are no second acts in American lives—there’s nothing but the rise and the fall. Stillpointe’s approach to the unapologetically mainstream musical Grey Gardens reminds us that those rises and falls in America don’t happen in a vacuum. They take place in the socioeconomic milieus that people make. And if this is how America’s “best” families—who attend the finest schools and go on to be captains of industry and the government—treat their own when they don’t obey, well, how do we expect they’re going to treat anybody who isn’t white, privileged, and rich?
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Single Carrot Theater also finds a way to make a mainstream tone uncomfortable with Samsara by playwright Lauren Yee. Katie (Alix Fenhagen) and Craig (Paul Diem) are a childless-but-trying middle-class Northern California couple who decide to go the surrogate route. They’ve already invested a small fortune in their efforts, so they find a more economic surrogate option online—via “reproductive outsourcing” in India. Suraiya (Saraniya Tharmarajah) is a medical student who is hoping to use her portion of the surrogacy fee to complete her education.
When Craig—and only Craig—flies to India for their child’s birth, all metaphysical hell breaks loose. The wise-cracking, relentlessly inquisitive Amit (Utkarsh Rajawat) appears to Suraiya, a projection of the unborn fetus she’s carrying. Katie begins having visits from the Frenchman (Dustin Morris), a version of the suave, seductive leading man her mom idealized. Nobody seems quite prepared for—or completely thought through—what a Western couple paying for a child produced in a south Asian country means. And they better figure it out soon, because Amit is ready to come out—that is, until Suraiya talks to him about the cycle of life, which eventually includes death.
Director Lauren Saunders and scenic designer Jason Randolph opt for a minimally surreal visual approach. The set is but a curved screen hanging above a curved set of risers that can be moved into a variety of positions. While the dramatic action cross cuts between America and India, only the characters change. Everything takes place in this visual sea of neutral hues, as if the imagination had been decorated by the Pottery Barn.
I suspect that’s intentional: tone-wise, SCT’s Samsara feels a bit like a very special episode of an otherwise anodyne prime-time television drama. As such, the acting is intentionally affected, as if characters are experiencing seemingly obvious points—about life, their childhoods, the global movement of capital, marriage, colonial exploitation, babies—for the first time. It’s a cheeky way to spotlight how insincerely mainstream entertainment typically handles serious topics. Diem and Tharmarajah, especially, ride this knife-edge balance of naiveté and knowingness, finding the sincere emotions among the superficial reactions. Rajawat has a gift for oddly timed humor, blending the total lack of knowledge, much less consciousness, you’d expect from a fetus with a wily wiseacre streak. He’s not just a fetus trying to form an opinion; he’s almost surly about it, too. Also: Fenhagen is a total badass at creating the upwardly mobile middle-class American white woman whose anti-anxiety mediated understanding of the world she’s formed in her head you will have to pry from her cold, dead, organically eating, credit-card wielding, thin hands.
The kicker is that Samsara can’t avoid heading into more serious terrain, because things like the global movement of capital and colonial exploitation and, well, birthlifedeath don’t conform to the unreality perpetuated by the imaginary realities conjured by mainstream entertainments. This intermission-free, 90-minute play takes a turn toward the end that might feel sharp, but it’s merely what’s always lurking behind the perceived consumerist benefits of contemporary capitalism, a reminder that the relative ease of being able to click and buy anything online only temporarily shields us from an entire system of unpleasantness and exploitation that isn’t going to end well, no matter how rosy things appear right now.
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As with last season’s Flatland and Minotaur, Annex Theater’s approach to The Tempest feels like it started from a visual idea and bloomed from there. For this Evan Moritz-directed production of William Shakespeare’s temperamental play, the audience rings a large oval stage that swallows Psychic Readings’ black-box theater, as if you’re all sitting down to a large dinner party. In effect, you are. For the play’s two-and-a-half-ish hours running time (with intermission), you’re going to be overserved a lavish, topsy-turvy feast. There will be drama. There will be laughs. There will be magic. There will be mischief. There will be scheming. There will be romance. And, boy howdy, will there ever be drunks.
The Tempest doesn’t so much have a plot as it has a suggestion of things that take place. Prospero (Aladrian Wetzel), the former Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda (Katharine Vary) live on an island deserted save the deformed creature Caliban (June Keating) and the spirit Ariel (Mika Nakano), with who Prospero communicates. Prospero conjures a storm to crash the ship carrying his brother Antonio (Betse Lyons), the king of Naples Alonso (Sarah Lamar), and his retinue—Stephano (Molly Margulies), Gonzalo (Michael Ziccardi), and Trinculo (Carly Bales)—washing them ashore. The King believes his son Ferdinand (Jonathan Jacobs) is dead, but the young man merely washed ashore elsewhere and is found by Miranda. What ensues is the kind of small alliances formed for potential power grabs that run through Shakespeare’s plays, only with a little sorcery thrown in.
All praise Annex’s back house for this production’s striking audio and visual experience: the world created by set designer Douglas Johnson, costume designer Susan MacCorkle, lighting designer Chris Allen, composer Rjyan Kidwell, and video designer Tom Boram feels closer to psychedelic late 1960s/early 1970s European flicks than anything in the Shakespeare universe. Wetzel’s Prospero—who stumbled a bit early on with Shakespeare’s odd language the night I saw this, but she recovered quite strongly—is clad in a white body suit with fringe and feathers and faux fur things and flowing cape that’s just cool; she looks like she wandered straight out of an Alejandro Jodorowsky flick and into a Baltimore underground theater, bringing a layer of wiggy ’70s excess with her. Nakano’s Ariel flutters around the stage like some newfangled bird-bug species. And Keating’s Caliban costumes turns the character into a tentacled humanish creature ripped from the pages of a Japanese comic.
Most entertaining of all is the drunken partnership formed by Margulies’ Stephano and Bales’ Trinculo, who are plotting something but are really more interesting in staying lit. Stage inebriation is one of those things you think should be easy but more often than not just looks idiotic. Bales and Margulies appear to know that the drunken verisimilitude passes directly through outright idiocy. This pair of bumbling, tumbling, stumbling, and slurring actors should do an online web series where they, in sloshed character, read House and Senate Democrats’ reasons for voting “yes” for this administration’s cabinet appointments—because the only excuse such spineless officials could possibly have for that is that they were obliterated beyond all human thought.
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Iron Crow Theater is in the middle of what we can politely call a fucking tear. After sitting out the 2015-’16 season, Iron Crow has returned with a string of impressively acted, visually rich, and emotionally intense shows, from The Wild Party through The Zero Hour. The company’s latest, Suzan Lori-Parks’Fucking A, doesn’t veer from that daring streak, and may be the most distressing production in a season absolutely roiling in disturbances.
Lori-Parks’ Fucking A, which debuted in 2000, is an allegorical reworking of The Scarlett Letter, set in mythical small town, where the Hester (a powerhouse Jessica Bennett) branded with an “A” is the local abortionist. Hester used to work for the mayor (Jamil Johnson) and his wife (Cricket Arrison), until her son supposedly committed a crime that sent him away and cast her to the lowly job she occupies now. Hester is quasi-friends with prostitute Canary Mary (Deirdre McAllister), who’s sleeping with the mayor, and the Butcher (Jared Swain), who dotes on Hester on a bit. Illiterate, Hester relies on Mary to read the letters from prison her son mails her, and the local scribe (Rebecca Dreyfuss) to write her replies. With what little money she brings in from abortions, Hester pays into the Freedom Fund that, she hopes, will get her son out of jail after 12 years.
That simple sketch suggests a level of conventional dramatic reality coursing through Fucking A that the script flatly rejects. There’s enough recognizable figures and ideas floating around—a mayor, a butcher, some pantomime of ethics and morality—that you sense a patina of a Wilderesque Our Town going on. But other elements short-circuit that assumption. For one, a string band—percussionist Josh Eid-Reis, mandolinist Dave Engwall, and guitarist/banjoist Kevin Krause—sits onstage the entire play, providing some musical accompaniment and providing background when characters intermittently break into bluesy, folksy songs. At times, Hester and Canary Mary speak in an invented language that a voiceover translates for the audience. Also: the level of everyday violence accepted by everyone in the play is unconscionable. When a feared convict called the Monster (Javier Ogando) escapes from jail, a trio of red-neck hunters (Caitlin Weaver, Kelly Hutchinson, and Martha Robichaud) set off to track him down and capture him, dead or alive, for a bounty. The bodily cruelties they inflict on escapees, such as cutting off limbs while still alive? They they can do those for free.
Anybody slightly familiar with the Jacobean tragedies that inform this play will have an idea just how true horrorshow this will go before it’s all over; what director Stephen Nunns and set designer Nicki Seibert add to that rough ride is a withering indictment of state law and order. The stage is set up like a shotgun-shack judge’s bench and courtroom, with a series of moveable tables, bars, and a bed that create various interior spaces during the production. A porch swing occupies stage right, a sofa stage left. The entire cast sits somewhere on this stage for the entire running time, turning the entire performance area into a courtroom with the audience as the, well, audience.
Or does it? As Iron Crow’s blistering Fucking A unfurls, in the back of your brain you start wondering, Who’s on trial here? Is it Hester, being judged by the town? Is it the Monster, whose word-of-mouth actions since escaping flee from the lips of everybody, though we never see him do what they accuse him of? Is it the mayor, the ostensible rich man in charge, who’s position it is to guide the state through the exercise of its power. You decide. By the time this Fucking A ended, though, I was wondering if the play might be indicting those people who sit quietly and comfortably watching a society lead itself to ruin for the sake of its own entertainment.
Stillpointe Theater’s Grey Gardens runs through Feb. 12; tickets. Single Carrot Theater’s Samsara runs through Fe. 12, tickets. Iron Crow Theater’s Fucking A runs through Feb. 12; tickets. Annex Theater’s The Tempest runs through Feb. 19; tickets.
Happy birthday to the late Spanish author Carmen Laforet, who was born on this day in 1921. She’s a writer I knew zilch about prior to this summer, when a passing mention of her 1945 novel Nada in an essay that I was reading made me curious about it.
And holy ass-flattening debuts: Laforet was only 22 when she wrote this utterly transfixing, existentially sophisticated novel about Andrea, an orphaned young woman who moves to Barcelona to live with relatives in the bleak aftermath of the Spanish civil war. It’s an intimate novel about Andrea’s experiences, Laforet’s language terrifyingly beautiful at times (even in English translation), and by the time Laforet has you gripped by Andrea’s saga you realize the novel is as much about Spanish politics and society and the struggle just to get by itself. Nada is one of those kinds of sneaky knockouts.
My ignorance of 20th century contemporary Spanish fiction is shameful—actually, my ignorance of most 20th-century fiction that isn’t America is shameful—and the most cursory of poking around led me to recognize that Laforet is a major female author in a male-dominated post-Spanish Civil War literary world, and I think Nada is the only novel of hers widely available in English translation. (This is, like, reason number 90 million why my white Mexican-American ass needs to learn Spanish.)
Laforet passed in 2004 at the age of 82; see The Guardian‘s obit. Nada was reissued in new English translation by Edith Grossman in 2007 by the Modern Library, and if I read writer Fernanda Eberstadt’s review in the New York Times back then, I don’t recall doing so. (The Times even included an online excerpt from the first chapter.) The Guardian‘s review was even more potent.
If I came across either of those reviews then, neither moved me to pick up the book. So this post is merely me hoping to encourage a few people to check out this quiet brain bomb of a novel.
From Mario Vargas Llosa’s introduction, translated by Grossman, to that 2007 Modern Library Edition of Nada:
“In the world of Nada—the unsurpassable title says everything about the novel and the city where it takes place—there are only the rich and the poor, and like a third-world country, the middle class is a thin, shrinking membrane and, like Andrea’s family, has half its being sunk into that plebian jumble where workers, beggars, vagabonds, the unemployed, and the marginalized commingle, a world that horrifies the middle class and that it tries to keep at bay by means of fierce prejudices and delirious fantasies. Nothing exists beyond the small larval world that surrounds the characters; even the little bohemian enclave that Andrea sometimes visits, created in the old district by young painters who would like to be rebellious, insolent, and modern but don’t know how, is parochial and something of a caricature.”
Tonight is the closing reception for Only When it’s Dark Enough Can You See the Stars, the Abigail DeVille project installed at the Peale Museum downtown that was commissioned by the Contemporary. The inimitable Joyce J. Scott is performing, and there’s a processional featuring the New Edition Marching Band that was directed by Charlotte Brathwaite, one of the many collaborators on this project.
And, yes, I’m going to use this event as a shameless excuse to link to my arguably too wordy essay about the show that appeared over at Bmore Art.
Above: A detail of “Black Whole” from DeVille’s Peale Museum installation. Excuse the poor rendering of the m4v file to GIF.
Despite all the typing and obvious research that went into that piece, I didn’t get a chance to acknowledge a few key things that appropriately calibrated my head for doing my best to wrestle with the intersection of history, museums, creative labor, and race, and I wanted to. I didn’t quote directly from any of them, but whatever interesting things I may have said about Dark Enough are greatly indebted to three essays, one set of liner notes, and two songs listed below.
The first is art historian Rebecca Zorach’s essay “Art & Soul: An Experimental Friendship between the Street and a Museum” that appeared in the Art Journal, Summer 2011, Vol. 70 Issue 2, p 66-87. It remembers a short collaboration between the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and an organization of former gang members from Chicago’s west side that produced a community art space called Art & Soul in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighbor in 1968. This piece was vital for helping me to understand what we talk about when we talk about collaboration and museum labor.
The second and third essays were examined the 1969 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition Harlem on My Mind: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968, and the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition. Museum Scholar Yuha Jung’s paper from the 2010 International Council of Museums Conference, which I read thanks to it being printed in The International Journal of the Inclusive Museums 7 (2): 1-13, 2015, is titled “Harlem on My Mind: A Step Toward Promoting Cultural Diversity in Art Museums,” and thoughtfully wrestles with understanding the historic context to how museums represent a version of African-American history when African-Americans are not part of that museum process. The second is scholar Caroline V. Wallace’s “Exhibiting Authenticity: The Black Emergency Coalition’s Protests of the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1968-71,” that appeared in Art Journal, Summer 2015, Vol. 74 Issue 2, p 5-23, which is one of those essays everybody should read who has an interest in the activism and the problematic structural insufficiencies of museums.
The last three things may seem trivial but nothing happens in my brain without a soundtrack, and very often the ideas midwifed by the music experience are as important for how my brain gets wired as conventional prose communication. In the case of thinking about See the Stars, those wild cards were the liner notes to Godspeed You Black Emperor’s Yanqui U.X.O., Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation Project and specifically “Revolution”, and Palace Brothers’ “For the Mekons Et Al” off the 1994 compilation, Hey Drag City.
The 1947 remembering-a-lover-lost song “Green Dolphin Street” by composer Bronislaw Kaper and lyricist Ned Washington is one of those standards that jazz musicians have interpreted and reinterpreted for more than half a century. The plush, almost decadent melody becomes a springboard for performer’s personalities, whether it be Ahmad Jamal’s unflappable cool, Miles Davis’ confident vulnerability, or Wynton Kelly’s bluesy elation. When pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist Michael Bisio tackle the standard on their new album Live in Seattle, what you hear are two eloquent and versatile veterans balance intelligence and warmth without ever slipping into the nostalgia and traditionalism that a can be a standard’s musical quicksand. Their sympathetic and sparring duet makes “Green Dolphin Street” sound emotionally romantic and forlorn now, not evocative of some imagined, idealized past.
The entire album feels as spry and fresh. Bisio and Shipp have, I think, played and recorded together for nearing a decade now, and their ongoing collaboration continues to produce a wealth of music that is as expressively moving as it is intellectually astute. Unlike last year’s The Conduct of Jazz, a stunning statement that felt like it was engaging with and commenting upon the jazz trio format, Live in Seattle sounds like two musicians with their hearts and minds set to thrill. It’s an album that sees avant-leaning vocabulary and musical pleasure as inescapably enmeshed, where Bisio’s seemingly atonal high-pitched bowed bass lines become the apt accompaniment to Shipp’s achingly melancholic reading of the melody to Rogers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.”
Quite simply, it’s a musically complex album that mines an emotional landscape of the everyday. Consider Bisio and Shipp’s engaging take on Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s 1972 hit “Where is the Love”. Shipp handles the song’s melody and meter while Bisio paints abstract rhythmic textures behind him. Together they take the song into rhythmically meditative spaces until it’s a whorl of piano chords and bass throb before easing back into the song’s hummable melody.
More fun are what they do with Shipp’s originals, such as the rhythmically knotty “Psychic Counterpart” from 2012’s Elastic Aspects and “New Fact,” a song that is, I think, a robust update of “The New Fact” from the 1998 quartet album, The Multiplication Table. Live in Seattle‘s “New Fact” is a powerful, gorgeous dance where the bass and piano seemingly drift apart into their own paths and circle around to share an orbit again and again.
To get a sense of the nimble relationship Bisio and Shipp share, just consider what he brings to a single Shipp composition. On the 2006 solo piano album One, Shipp’s “Gamma Ray” is a meditative exploration in which he moves from melodic lines to dense improvisations, from elegant passages to dizzying sequences. When “Gamma Ray” appeared on Shipp’s 2011 live trio album Art of the Improviser with Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey, Shipp tackled the song solo; the tempo feels slightly accelerated, its dynamic shifts more angular, and as a result its melody feels more physically dense. On Live in Seattle Bisio and Shipp stretch “Gamma Rays” out to nine and half minutes, with Bisio putting a ghost of a pulse behind Shipp’s lines. When Shipp comes to the composition’s rush of pointillistic piano notes around the seven-minute mark, Bisio marks a thwumping time behind him until they’re both sounding dense, percussive sheets of sound from their instruments, a soulfully ineffable eruption of beauty.
Painting and cooking metaphors come all too easily to mind for moments like this, those situations where a mix of sophisticated skill and expressive know-how ignite a complex and esthetically visceral response. Live in Seattle is just that, a delicious, sumptuous feast for the ears and the wrinkled brain between them.
Matthew Shipp and Michael Bisio play An die Musik April 12 at 8 p.m.
OK, so because I was ignoring the internet for most of the weekend I didn’t pay much attention to the Gay Talese thing until this morning. So while standing at the home desk with this morning’s coffee I wanted to see if I could do any better. The below is a list of women journalists, critics, and nonfiction writers who inspire me and/or I admire and/or whose bylines I seek out simply because they’re good at what they do. In no particular order, by no means exhaustive, heavy on music & culture writers because that’s what I read a great deal of, I did cheat a bit by looking around at the piles of magazines laying about the desk and nearby bookshelf and used titles for memory clues, and I didn’t include a number of people I know personally and/or have/currently work with as I felt that might be playing favorites in some way. Included brief IDs for some names, figured the names who I didn’t ID needed no intro.
Also: am sharing not to be one of those not-all-men asshats but as an invitation for others to tell me what women journos they read on the regular as well. Like I said, what came to my mind is heavy on arts/culture and the publications I regularly read so am always looking for more bylines to pay attention to.
Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times‘s crime fiction columnist since the late 1980s—I know I just said this list is in no particular order but Stasio immediately came to mind for me because in many ways she’s the platonic ideal of a critic to me: highly informative, economically entertaining, and somebody you trust not because you agree with everything she says or her tastes, but because you have utter faith in her succinct ability to communicate what’s in her brain without wasting your time.
Andrea ‘Enthal, who penned the Underground column for SPIN pre-Byron Coley, and who was responsible for making me aware/turning me onto the very idea that things I had never heard about or known existed were worth seeking out and experiencing for myself.
The late art critic & historian/curator Arlene Raven, Baltimore-born, Hopkins-educated, who I had never heard about until her 2006 death, and since then the 1989 book she edited, Art in the Public Interest, has become as interesting and oft-referred to text for me as Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.
The late Molly Ivins, political columnist/reporter & OG badass
Ellen Willis, music critic and formidable essayist
Thank you, Paul Rucker and John Somers, for making my first two visits to Light City Baltimore worthwhile. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting from the festival itself but after wandering around it for about two and a half hours on each of its first two nights, I think I greatly overestimated its size, scope, and vision. I mean, I feel like I have been hearing about it pretty steadily since the Sun first wrote about it in February 2015. The fest’s budget figures have tossed around $4 million estimates, raised through private donations. Last spring and summer the festival’s social media channels talked about its community planning meetings and calls for artists. When the lineups were announced last fall it sounded big: 29 original works of “light art” and some 50 concerts and 100 performances, along with its ticketed innovation conference. And over the past few months its media rollout has felt inescapable. The festival even has a freaking app (which I can’t use because my DumbPhone can’t upgrade to iOS 8). But while wandering up and down its 1.2-mile footprint around the Inner Harbor on Monday and Tuesday nights I kept wondering, Is this it?
In fact, while making my first pass through I was reminded of that episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer where the Scoobies spend the entire hour trying in vain to prevent the appearance of some demon. When the ugly creature from an evil dimension does appear, he’s about the size of a toy, causing one of the gang to quip something along the lines of, “Big fanfare . . . little finish,” right before Buffy stomps on him. So clowning on Light City—and, I have to confess, I left my apartment Monday night fully thinking I was going on a fact-finding mission to hate on this thing with extreme prejudice (I just can’t with the “light art”)—would feel a bit like making fun of Eeyore. Light City is less a Grand Prix of Baltimore-scale epic fail and more like those off-brand carnivals that used to set up in the old Eastern High School parking lot across from Memorial Stadium. You can even get cotton candy. Served atop sticks with lights, natch.
Photo credit: MEL GUAPO
If that home-school-simple scale was intentional, it was a smart move. Navigating the Inner Harbor during Light City is no more or less annoying than usual. But I have to admit I was expecting some aspect of it to be more interesting—or at least making some effort to be visually grand. In my brain “light art” of this variety operates like Olympic games opening ceremonies, and there’s not a single piece here that even aims for that level of artifice. For better and worse the work from the visual artists is by and large innocuous. Some are interesting, some are imaginatively conceived, and some are incredibly thoughtful, but nothing so far has totally grabbed my eyeballs. More distressingly, everything installed for Light City Baltimore looks more visually interesting as a hashtagged shared pic than it does in real life.
OK, full disclosure: I find the very idea of the “light art” peddled by light art festivals to be visually tepid, so understand that I’m coming at all this from a biased and pretentious place. I see images from Vivid Sydney, the festival Light City organizers cited as an inspiration, and all I think is that “light art” of this ilk is just a Cow Parade for the 21st century. Yes, there are a few light festivals around the globe with longstanding historical roots—see: Lyon’s Fête des Lumières, and we’re going to come back to this notion of “historical roots” in a bit—but most are of a more recent vintage. And they’re everywhere. It’s not that they can’t be interesting—Thomas Schielke writes about architectural lighting at ArchDaily, and in this 2013 post he examines four different light festivals with four different focuses—but the blatant tourism aspect of these events is pretty shameless. The International Light Festival Organization lists 11 light fests happening this year alone in Europe.
But, hey, I’m a snob. Thankfully many of the participating local artists aren’t. Scott Pennington’s structures installed in the plaza by the World Trade Center is what initially planted the carnival aspect of Light City in my brain. His works are midway-like gates and shapes festival attendees appear to enjoy walking among. That romper-room playfulness animates Mina Cheon and Gabriel Kroiz’s diamond lights, which dot the walkways heading from Pier 5 to Harbor East. People appear to enjoy getting their photo taken standing inside of these large, illuminated diamond shapes, but I’m not buying their ostensible referencing to CitiWatch‘s surveillance system and the blue lights associated with them. That’s a specious symbolism not earned by experiencing the works in person, as they fit all too comfortably among the rest of the bright and shiny nonsense at the Inner Harbor, void of tensions.
The Inner Harbor setting, in fact, can’t be ignored or even muted, much less transcended. Not only do all of its corporate entertainment, retail, and restaurant signage possess a similar illumination palette as the Light City artworks, they’re all an order of magnitude larger than every piece in the festival. The environment just devours everything in sight, and any piece with a touch of nuance about its articulation or concept feels nearly inert.
Take Lisa Dillin’s “Natural Lighting Emulator V.” For it Dillin has made a series of slowly rotating discs that have holes, shapes, slits cut into them; as they slowly turn overhead the light passing through them becomes diffuse, the way sunlight does passing through a tree canopy. This piece is exactly the kind of acutely observed, inspired use of a material to evoke the natural world that Dillin does so exceptionally well. But installed maybe 10 meters away from the entrance to Family Meal, it feels and looks like the outdoor smoking area, a place to burn one with just enough light to check Facebook while doing so.
The same could be said for Robby Rackleff’s “Pyrrha” or Greg St. Pierre and Andrew Bernstein’s “Water Wall,” which are both projection and sound installations. The former uses the visual language of glitchy computer graphics and is installed on a bridge by the former Public Works Museum. The latter sits in the harbor off the promenade behind the Four Seasons Hotel in Harbor East, and it projects images onto a spray of water shooting into the air. Both are the kinds of ideas and scales that would stun in any kind of gallery setting; at the Inner Harbor they feel like the sorts of mild divertissements that are there all the time. Here you go hip, young customers of Wit & Wisdom, the official bar of Light City. Partake of house-crafted infusions such as bacon-washed bourbon and seasonal cocktails such as an Asian pear mule while enjoying the pretty lights we had local artisans craft for your amusement.
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Now, about those historical roots. Practically since its public debut the fest’s press materials have touted: “In 1816, Baltimore was the first American city to illuminate its streets with gas lanterns, revolutionizing the urban landscape forever by transforming the city with light.”
I’m not entirely convinced that’s accurate. Yes, on June 11, 1816, Baltimore businessman-slash-artist Rembrandt Peale used gaslights to illuminate galleries—or a gallery, I haven’t been able to determine if it was one or more rooms—in his for-profit museum located at 225 North Holliday Street downtown, the site where artist Abigail DeVille is installing Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See The Stars, her new body of work as a project of the Contemporary. Peale was part of a five-man business team that formed the Gas Light Company of Baltimore—the company that would become Baltimore Gas and Electric—in June 1816, and it set to work laying pipe that would run gas through the city. As noted in an October 10, 1998, Baltimore Sun article by Frederick Rasmussen, “[i]n 1817, the new company was contracted by the city to erect its first gas light at the corner of Market and Lemon streets, today Baltimore and Holliday streets.”
“At the end of World War II, there were some 16,000 gas lamps still in operation in Baltimore. By the early 1950s, when Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro began conversion of the city’s lighting to mercury vapor lamps, there were still more than 10,000 gas lamps casting their wonderful soft, yellow-greenish light across the city.
It was on Aug. 14, 1957, that D’Alesandro extinguished the city’s last gas lamp in Little Italy, thus ending the city’s 140-year affair with gas illumination.”
Elsewhere in the Sun‘s archives, a letter appeared in the November 10, 1957, edition that brought up conflicting sources as to who had the first gas lights in the U.S., Baltimore or Richmond, Va. Depending on what sources you check today, that question hasn’t been entirely settled.
I’m not mentioning these factoids here merely to be a prick—marketing claims probably don’t get fact checked—but to mention how events such as Light City Baltimore participate in history rewriting whether they are intentionally trying to or not. I don’t know if the fest’s organizers tried pitching the festival to local civic and business leaders without the bicentennial hook, but I do wonder if this historical truthiness makes it a juicer sell. Because the festival wasn’t marketed as, We want to have a light festival because we think it’s cool. Instead, part of what’s being sold with this festival is the idea that Baltimore was an innovator of something at some point in time and, ergo, it can be again. We should remember this great moment in the past and use it as a springboard into the future. Light City is one of many ways a city’s past gets retold to remake a possible future for itself.
Of course, the complications come in when we starting getting down into the particulars of whose past we’re talking about, whose future, and who gets to decide, participate, and profit from the making of that future. Right now Light City is but a small plot point in the ongoing postmodern novel that is Baltimore’s central business district in the postwar era. (See David Harvey’s “A View from Federal Hill” for a different chapter.) And it’s following in the footsteps of many chapters that use “art,” vaguely defined, as a black box to generate tourism revenue.
That’s a predatory strategy that I’ve suggested elsewhere doesn’t work. What I didn’t mention then is that the strategy more consistently than not makes utterly underwhelming art, an argument that this light festival does little to dispel.
Light City, however, is taking place in a post-uprising Baltimore where its citizens are refreshingly wrestling with and reckoning the city’s past. And wandering around the fest and then doing some cursory reading about city’s gaslight history, briefly excerpted above, didn’t have me thinking about the Baltimore of 1816. The Baltimore that the festival sifted to the surface was that of the Mayor D’Alesandro that extinguished that last gaslight, and the ways power players in Baltimore, and the vision they produce for the city, remain concentrated in such a tiny pool of people.
Consider: Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. was the father to both Minority Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Thomas L. J. D’Alesandro III, the city’s mayor from 1967 to 1971. That D’Alesandro returned to the newscycle over the past year because he occupied City Hall during the uprising that ran April 6-14, 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was succeeded by William Donald Schaeffer, the four-term mayor who oversaw the habor’s transformation into a tourist mecca. Thomas L. J. D’Alesandro was also mayor when the Morris A. Mechnic Theatre opened in 1966.
I’m wicked cheap, so when I went to Light City I parked a good stroll away from the Harbor and not at one of the garages charging roughly $20 for the night. And while heading back I walked by the site of the old Mechanic. I usually pass through downtown by bus, cab, or bike, and I’m rarely around this area at night, so I hadn’t seen the destruction up close and personal, when it is slightly illuminated by the ambient glow of nearby streetlights and buildings. I’m no champion of Brutalism, but walking by the hole in the ground stopped me in my tracks—simply because for a few years I would sit behind the theater waiting for a phone to ring.
When I worked as a bike messenger in the pre-cell phone and hand-radio days of the early-to-mid 1990s, a pair of pay phones behind the Mechanic was where you were sent if you ended up clear of deliveries downtown. You and whoever else was clear would sit around, lean your bikes up against a concrete slab, and shoot the shit, grab a quick bite, smoke, whatever, until the phone rang and you got a pickup. I spent many days chilling there in good weather and bad. If it was wintry wet you were looking to get moving as quickly as possible. On slow, sunny days you didn’t mind the downtime. Maybe you’d get lucky and the law firm of Venable, Baetjer, and Howard, now known as Venable LLP, would have a stack of filings that needed to get run up to the State Department of Assessments and Taxation at 301 West Preston. Multiple stops at the same address were easy money. I remember one slow spring day a number of us pooled up a nice chunk of change that would be awarded to the first of us able to ride our bike down the up-moving escalator that climbed up from the underground parking lot. Nobody dared try, though a few of us stood at the top looking down, trying to determine just how wrong it could go.
I hadn’t thought about of such things since the ’90s. I didn’t live down there. I didn’t even work at a nearby office building. I merely spent some time there off and on during the years I worked as a bike messenger in college because the money was better than waiting tables. And the sight of its annihilation triggered a small but potent wave of nostalgia.
What if this destruction took place in my neighborhood? What if where I grew up looked like this? That’s what EBDI and the Johns Hopkins University (note: I’m a Hopkins alumnus who now works for the university, and it is a Light City sponsor) did to the Middle East neighborhood when in 2001 they identified 750 households for removal to redevelop 88 acres of East Baltimore. That’s what the city did to Harlem Park in 1969 when it wanted to build a highway connecting the central business district, where renewal investment was taking place, to Interstate Highway 70 in Howard County, destroying more than 950 homes, more than 50 businesses, and displacing roughly 1,500 people. Both are/were economic development projects designed in full cooperation with civic and business leadership.
In both instances the populations affected were overwhelmingly African-American. Previous commitments prevented me from getting down to Light City on Wednesday night, where Luminous Intervention’s “Pipelines” installation at McKeldin Square—which involves projecting the faces of victims of police violence onto the fountain’s concrete walls—coincided with the 140th West Wednesday, the weekly event held by the activists who have fought for justice in the murder of Tyrone West by police on July 18, 2013. On Monday night at this site I caught a bit of a forum on police violence and on Tuesday some of the music performances—Son of Nun and Dev Rock, I think. The installation is, thus far, the rare work and public space at Light City that addresses the uprising, the urban policies and practices that created and sustain the violence of economic disinvestment, and the citizens affected by it in any meaningful way.
Light City hasn’t been coy about the fact that it’s hoping to boost tourism in and around the Inner Harbor during its week-long run, hoping to draw 350,000 visitors to the area. In the 1970s and ’80s the Mechanic was part of the city’s tourism industry, too, managed by a quasi-public corporation that also ran the Pier 6 concert pavilion. At one time the Mechanic was considered such a part of the city’s entertainment package that Omni International Hotel began targeting entertainment tourists in the late 1980s, and planned to make a “Skywalk to the Stars” attraction on the walkway that once passed over Baltimore Street. “We feel that Baltimore is increasingly becoming an entertainment attraction,” Henry J. Knott, president of the development company that owned the Omni, told The Sun in 1988.
While I was standing by the Mechanic—I mean, the massive hole in the ground where this entertainment attraction once stood, the bikes modified by Thick Air Studios, a Light City participant, rode by. It was a group of cyclists whose bikes had flags attached to them that each bore a red neon letter. Together they spelled out DEAR BALTIMORE. Well, I found out the next night they were supposed to spell DEAR BALTIMORE when I saw them again. That night the first few riders got a little jumbled, and what rode up Charles Street and eventually turned left onto Fayette read DARE BALTIMORE. If only.
Had I any electrical know how, creative chutzpah, cash that wasn’t going toward debt, and didn’t fear authorities, I’d look into finding a way to illegally illuminate the Mechanic hole in the ground as a kind of guerilla Light City installation. Just obnoxiously flood it with klieg lights and get a bunch of those glowstick rave necklaces and use them to spell out TOURIST ATTRACTION in the chain-link fence that surrounds the site. Because that’s all our tourism-dependent economic development strategy is doing for us: creating large-scale event holes in the ground into which we hope people and businesses pour money, funds that never actually reach or sustain the citizenry at large, until these things become of no use to the city’s civic and business elite.
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Luminous Intervention’s “Pipelines” isn’t the only politically modulated Light City installation that works. Paul Rucker’s “In Light of History” does a fair job of tapping into the city’s checkered past. For “In Light” Rucker has installed a small street light at 11 places along Pratt Street that were sites of businesses involved in the slave trade. The light posts are modest, maybe six feet tall, and their lights are glowing areas that slowly change colors. Each lamppost supposedly had a pamphlet Rucker designed about this slave trade history, but even by 8:30 p.m. on Monday night I didn’t come across a single post that still had this publication in stock.
“In Light of History” is the lone Light City installation that I’ve come across thus far where the Inner Harbor’s overbearing presence amplifies the work’s thematic intent. Rucker’s lampposts are easy to walk right by and not even notice. Or you might see one and think it’s just a different kind of sandwich-board placard for one of Pratt Street’s many chain stores. Is this lamp telling me where the Starbuck’s is or where human beings profited from the selling of other human beings? Both.
Rucker’s performance on Monday night, however, was just a breath of fresh air. He set up with his solo cello right there at the Inner Harbor amphitheater where Light Street bends into Pratt, a pond of blinking star lights surrounding him. He announced that he wrote a piece of music for each of the sites in his installation and was going to play three of them, and the first went off without a hitch. The next two were plagued by technical difficulties—a looping pedal wasn’t working appropriately—and he eventually ended his set playing the prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 (I think, my classical music knowledge isn’t what it should be).
But despite the technical difficulties, Rucker was everything the festival needs more of: genuine joy, sincere interactions with attendees, and above all a respect for the intelligence of the general public. He talked about liking the family friendly festival because kids were up late and out of the house with their parents, and toward the end of his set he invited all of the age seven-and-under tykes up to grab one of the blinking stars that surrounded him, causing the kind of adorable chaos that ensues anytime a group of starter humans trundle about. He asked the crowd history questions—What year and amendment gave women the right to vote? (1920, the 19th Amendment) What year was the Emancipation Proclamation issued? (1863) What year did Maryland outlaw slavery? (1864)—and people yelled out answers. The entire set never once felt like an eager-to-entertain tourist sideshow, and was a brief moment of good-natured fun in the presence of a grown-up human who happens to be an artist.
John Somers’ performance on Tuesday night was something else entirely. The guitarist/electronic artist was joined by Liz Meredith, with whom he put out the five-LP drone monolith The Disposition of Vibrant Forms in 2013, and three other musicians: two flutists and somebody who switched from xylophone to musical saw. Somers and Meredith set up their gear on the street in front of the Concert Stage at Harbor East, located at the intersection of Lancaster Street and Central Avenue. Somers’ laptop played a gurgling a wash of shifting sounds and textures, which he augmented with barely perceptible electric guitar hums and buzzes, sustained notes he sang through a megaphone while walking through the crowd, and melodica. Meredith alternated between two different violins and also wandered through the crowd bowing long notes. Ditto the two flutes and the xylophone/musical saw player. They all held single notes with no perceptible shape or structure to the composition, and for long stretches they were standing or walking among the twenty to thirty attendees milling about taking in this gentle ooze and staring at a bunch of gear sitting on the pavement.
And they kept this up for nearly an entire hour. It felt like part endurance test, part radically sheepish disdain for the festival’s middlebrow commercialism. When I turned around to see what one of the musicians was doing behind me, my eyes inevitably tilted up to see the Legg Mason Tower. Following one of the flutists as she distractedly walked east down Lancaster and my eyes came to alight on the under-construction Harbor Point monstrosity that the city awarded $107 million in TIF funding in 2013—the largest TIF request to the city prior to Under Armor asking for $535 million earlier this month.
And down there on the streets of Harbor East, where you typically hear some kind of radio-friendly pop flotsam floating out from a bar or car, five musicians performed an uncompromising, hour-long drone that wrapped itself around the head like a bucket of gelatin. Joggers passed through. People wearing workout lycra stopped by to stare for a few minutes at a time. Three people, shit you not, tossed a Frisbee around. One couple made out. Occasionally loud sounds from some place down the street or around the corner cut through the drone. Real-ass yuppies sat on the patio of Ouzo Bay next to some fake-ass fire while drinking red wine. At one point a street cleaner came through, grabbed a cup with one of those metal claw thingies, and then accidentally dropped the cup, which bounced around the street and became the only rhythmic element my ears had heard in what felt like a lifetime. Somers and company didn’t jibe with any aspect of Light City I had experienced thus far, and not only am I glad they were a part of this festival, I kinda hope Somers recorded the performance and Bandcamp releases it with the Eno-ish title Music for Branding Campaigns just to complete the apathetic middle finger of the performance’s entire steez.
That said, I’m still looking forward to a hitting a few things, such as Friday’s Open Beats hosted by the Llamadon Collective over by Mondawmin Mall and the LabBodies performance in Station North, the Saturday event at the Clifton Park bandshell and Dan Deacon that night—chiefly because the performances have been the most satisfying events thus far. (Note: I’m not attending any of the conferences for lack of interest and, frankly, it takes a certain amount of temerity to hold a conference that claims to “focus on promise in overlooked neighborhoods” and charge $200 to get in, so I couldn’t afford to go even if I were curious.)
I just wish the light art was more interesting, or more interestingly installed, but that would mean moving it away from the Inner Harbor’s gaping maw of mediocrity. Even something that should be compelling, like the “Lightwave: Baltimore’s Beacon” combination of oral histories and dancing light, ends up feeling like a highway traffic sign. Light City isn’t bad; merely inconsequential. And I shudder to think what artists and communities could actually do with a fraction of the capital that went into this tourism gamble—what would a Transmodern or Abdu Ali’s talk about making Kahlon a festival look like with a $100,000 cash infusion? I don’t know. I’m pretty sure that neither would aspire to bring some 350,000 people to the city. But I’m also not convinced that bringing 350,000 people to the city is a good enough reason to sink any amount of capital into the creation of middling spectacle.