Center for Puppetry Arts

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Puppets, Muppets, what am I doing here?

Answer: Entertaining my mom who visited during Christmas. 

The Center for Puppetry Arts is, in my opinion, an entertainment option that doesn't get much attention in Atlanta.  Downtown Atlanta is abundant with other possibilities.  Start with the money sucking center for puppetry arts logo behemoth that is the Georgia Aquarium, the obligatory World of Coke, and the ho-hum CNN center and you have the main draws.  Add in the High Museum of Art, Fernbank Museum of Natural History, the Fox Theater, the Margaret Mitchell house, the Carter Center, the MLK, Jr. National Historic Site... there's attractions galore. And for the less cerebral with a willingness to drive a little further, there's always Stone Mountain, Six Flags over Georgia, Whitewater, or a stroll around Lenox Mall.

Still, curiosity resulted in a venture to this lesser constellation.  The Center has regularly programmed puppet shows, a puppet museum (yes, with Muppets), and an educational facility directed towards local and distance learning in the art.

As one might expect, most performances are directed towards younger audiences, and as the schedule did not allow beggars to be choosers, we went to see "The Shoemaker & the Elves," a Grimm Brothers story (1812 - but a traditional tale) about an aging cobbler at the end of his business which is suddenly rejuvenated by the arrival of two misfit elves, Frankie and Gino.

The show was presented in the "Downstairs Theater," a 170-seat venue that was fairly narrow but very well suited due to a steep incline to allow clear views for all.  My particular showing was about 80% adults, which was surprising. The performance was very entertaining, running about 45 minutes, with the puppeteers briefly introducing themselves and their craft at the end.

The set is the workshop of Mr. Footmeyer's shoe store.  It features counters, a radio, and a window that is effectively used to depict other places and transition between scenes.  After all, you can't really Shoemaker and the Elvesalter the set.  The performance was tightly rehearsed with both puppeteers/actors in strong voice.

Even without the benefit of the museum, you learn a bit about hand-and-rod puppets, rod puppets, and shadow puppets, each of which are demonstrated at the conclusion of the show.  I hadn't really thought about "puppetry," but the work is done from below, meaning the puppeteer performs with arms raised inside the puppet - as opposed to marionettes which are controlled from below.  In other words, it requires some strength and conditioning.

The Center itself, despite a $9M renovation some years ago to a fairly ancient school building, feels old, and doesn't "show" particularly well (or as well as the photograph).  Center for Puppetry Arts The museum has some interesting displays... and some not.  It is funded in part by public grants, which isn't unexpected, but non-member ticket prices for the general public aren't insignificant either ($16).  These obviously go towards funding all their endeavors, but the price is likely to prompt a "been there, done that" attitude for all but enthusiasts.

Still, it was a worthwhile diversion and it is highly recommended for those looking for something different to do.  Oh, and parking is free at the rear of the building, an extravagance by Atlanta standards.

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Top 20 CDs of the Decade

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'Tis the season for trendy "Best of the Decade" lists, to which I'm not immune.  More importantly for me, it's a great opportunity to reevaluate and share some favorites. 

I'll state what usually is unstated in such matters.  I don't listen to every genre, and I certainly haven't listened to every artist that I might like.  But I can say that I purchased every CD listed below and each remains in my collection.  Regrettably, my audience of 20 hasn't yet warranted promotional copies from record labels to explore further afield.  

The other aspect that I should mention is what I qualify as "Best of."  To me, it encompasses both artistry (not sales volume) and interest (tunes, instruments, lyrics that I find appealing).  For example, Britney Spears fans may listen to a CD a zillion times, but they're (hopefully) likely to admit that the music itself doesn't point towards a Michelangelo of the aural world.  Likewise, music that brings together dissonance or challenges musical theory may be highly regarded for the "artistry" behind it, but my ears demand satisfaction in that it has to sound good.  I give some regard to each of these poles, but, in the end, it's my list.  Titles are hyperlinked to Amazon for sound samples.

#20 Belle & Sebastian - The Life Pursuit (2006).  I've Belle and Sebastian  The Life Pursuit followed this Scottish band for many years, and this release represented their most mature effort to date.  They added some musical muscle to their often dainty, 60's reminiscent, bright pop sounds, as well as above par lyrics. 

#19 Built to Spill - You in Reverse (2006).  I didn't come Built to Spill - You in Reverse to this CD as a fan of the band.  Fans and critics both were likely disappointed with it as it was a further departure from what attracted much of their following.  But, when I can't think of something particular I want to hear, yet want rock guitars, I go to this.  There are vocals and some very good guitar solos, but great riffs keep it steady and propel it forward.

#18 Los Super 7 - Heard it on the X (2005). I'll be Los Super 7 honest.  There are ample CDs that are qualified to fill this spot.  But rather than push a personal favorite (Mark Knopfler) or a critics' darling (Lucinda Williams), I'm throwing this one in for the joy of the unexpected ride, and musicians happy to take you along.

#17 Sufjan Stevens - Illinoise (2005).  Admittedly, I Sufjan Stevens - Illinoise rarely listen to this CD.  It's one of those "artistic triumphs" that many critics favor at or near the top in similar lists, and it's worthy of the praise.  It is widely diverse in instrumentation and subject matter, but the music, while very good, is presented in such a caring fashion that, unfortunately, it loses my attention from time to time.  Meanwhile, the lyrics are very detailed and demand much more attention that I'm usually able to give to them.  The strength of "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." alone is enough to warrant placement here.

#16 Spoon - Gimme Fiction (2005).  There's nothing great Spoon - Gimme Fictionabout this CD; it's just that it's so good. Snappy beat, catchy tunes... just well crafted stuff.  Their 2007 follow up, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, is every bit as good, despite the inane title.

#15 Jeff Beck - Live at Ronnie Scott's (2009).  Get the Jeff Beck - Live at Ronnie Scotts DVD/BluRay; you need to see the strings bend.  Beck has been a rock guitar legend for 40 years, but unlike contemporaries Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, he never had mass appeal as he never particularly sought material suitable for mass audiences.  This performance brilliantly features every nuance of a master guitarist in a variety of genres, mostly jazz fusion. 

#14 Bob Dylan - Love and Theft (2001). I would argue Bob Dylan - Love and Theft that Dylan has made better music this decade than he had for the previous 20 years.  His writing is focused, his band is perfectly suited for the material and Dylan's delivery, and his voice carries, shall we say, the weight of experience - in a good way.

#13 Micah Dalton - Pawnshop (2008).  Dalton was a Micah Dalton - Pawnshoplucky find for me.  I took note of an advertisement in Paste Magazine and sought it out in one of my more exploratory (free time!) moments.  Pawnshop is a concept album of sorts, with songs that touch on elements of an included story.  It's one of those releases where you can just feel that the artist made the album he truly wanted to make.  A more thorough review can be found here.

#12 Richard Ashcroft - Alone with Everybody (2000).  It Richard Ashcroft - Alone With Everybody seems so many others expected "more" or "better" from the first solo release from the front man of The Verve.  Pre-conceived expectations often make it difficult to appreciate something for what it is.  I found a disk full of great songs, all adorned with sonic ear candy. 

#11 Blind Boys of Alabama - Spirit of the Century Blind Boys of Alabama - Spirit of the Century (2001).  Religion and the blues are inseparable, and both are gladly found here.  To supplement their gospel harmonies, this release is blessed by the inclusion of ace musicians, such as John Hammond on guitar, who fill each song's needs perfectly.  It moves, it's worshipful, and it's joyful for those so inclined.

#10 Drive By Truckers - Decoration Day (2003).  Raw but Drive By Truckers - Decoration Day expertly woven tales of that part of the southern culture that I, as a Southerner, seek to avoid.  "Sinkhole" is a rock song for the ages, and it's particularly timely for these troubled financial times.

#9 Damien Rice - 0 (2003).  Recorded on the cheap, this Damien Rice - O Irish artist created a lasting record of personal expression.  Whether a simple folkish presentation or accompanied by strings, the music embellishes what is mainly a vocal performance of an artist baring whatever he had to say.  Some may find this precocious in its entirety, but it strikes me as an artist being authentic.

#8 Radiohead - In Rainbows (2007).  This seems a more Radiohead - In Rainbows logical follow-up to 1997's Ok Computer, their acclaimed "masterpiece," in that for the first time in a decade their songs actually sound like songs.  In Rainbows certainly has its experimental moments, but the band seems focused on presenting an enjoyable experience for the listener rather than satisfying just themselves (the latter describing most of their work this decade).  In short, it's intelligently made and challenging rock music.

#7 Liam Finn - I'll Be Lightning (2008).  Liam Finn is the Liam Finn - I'll Be Lightning son of Crowded House's Neil Finn, and it's obvious talent runs in the family. This is largely a one-man show both in creativity and in performance.  Finn seems resolute in making a CD that is an individual artistic statement while borrowing appropriately from some of popular music's best influences - his father and The Beatles.  There are some misses here, but for me, it reaffirms youth.

#6  Coldplay - A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002).  Coldplay - A Rush of Blood to the HeadSure, there's a part of me that wants to demote this CD for the lethargic arena music monster they've become.  But, I can't ignore the fact that once this sucker occupied my CD tray, it didn't want to give it up.  This may be as good as Coldplay gets, but that's pretty darn good.  "God Put a Smile Upon Your Face" shines.

#5 Drive By Truckers - The Dirty South (2004).  I can't  Drive By Truckers - The Dirty Southhelp but refer to Mojo magazine's review, which nailed it - October, 2004:
“This ragamuffin Alabama outfit has fashioned an impressive catalogue that’s moved swiftly from orthodox roots to outrĂ© concept operas in just a few short years. The Dirty South finds the band furthering its Jim Thompson-meets-Lynyrd Skynyrd brand of redneck noir with another sharply observed song cycle. While the Truckers have always trumpeted their Dixie roots, they’ve avoided confederate flag waving caricatures; their songs paint a more complex portrait of the defiant, violent nature of the good ole boy culture. Here, they go even further, displaying a lurid intelligence that seeks to explore an alternate American history, whether deconstructing its icons – be it John Wayne or John Henry – or exploring the true vagaries of the rock biz’s early years, the sad, small town reality of the Reagan 80’s and the soul-crushing consequences of life in a traveling band. Gritty as it gets.”

#4 Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (2008).  First and foremost, fleetfoxes there's an emphasis here on harmonies. This isn't to say that Lennon-McCartney dropped them a top-20 tune with a ready-for-radio hook. Perhaps if rock and gospel were mixed during the Reconstructionist South... Well, no. This band hails from Seattle, WA.  "Haunting" seems to be the best description of this this CD both in presentation and effect.  Sometimes it's best just to let a CD grow on you rather than resist.

#3 Radiohead - Kid A (2000).  I borrowed this from a  Radiohead - Kid Afriend and found that it was so unorthodox that I was comfortable listening to it only when my family was asleep.  They just wouldn't get it, and I wasn't prepared to give them a reasonable explanation of why I would listen to this.  It was a struggle to find beauty beneath its electronic experimentation and lack of expected rock forms, but it can be found in it's driving bass and rhythms.  Kid A was a bold departure by a band otherwise positioned to accept the "world's best rock band" baton from U2, and it was worth it. 

#2 Midlake - The Trials of Van Occupanther (2006).  I  Midlake - The Trials of Van Occupanthergenerally give high regard to artists who make the music they want to make, who have a vision and work towards that regardless of current trends or pressures.  In that this, Midlake's second release, is itself a vast departure from their awesomely quirky debut, they seem a band with ample ideas that are clearly free of commercial constraints .  Just gazing at the cover, certainly there's some oddity to it.   But with guitars, flute, piano, synths, and whatever else it takes, this band is full speed ahead in making incomparable music.  I can't compare them to another band, or an era, or a genre, or anything.  And I don't have to.  I just enjoy them.  Most of the songs concern "home" in some sense, and it's certainly been played many times in mine.

#1 Badly Drawn Boy - The Hour of Bewilderbeast Badly Drawn Boy - The Hour of Bewilderbeast(2000).   An amazing debut, chock full of every good musical idea that the artist, Damon Gough, had apparently conceived of until that point.  Take some great lyrics, mix in an eclectic assortment of instruments, add a sense of humor, throw in an occasional surprise, change the tempo from song to song, bury it with substandard marketing, and you have a vastly under-appreciated pop masterpiece.  To be fair, it wasn't created for radio airplay (in the U.S. anyway), but not everything of value complies with expected norms.  Thankfully.

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The Island of Misfit Songs, Part 2

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Sure, it's a catchy tune.  Absolutely.  I'm not quite sure where my attention has been though, because I'm not sure if I've ever heard the song before.  And it's an oldie, written in 1944, that has been covered by many artists.

The version I heard was recorded in 1959 by Dean Martin and, I think, Doris Day, and the song is "Baby, It's ColdDean Martin - Baby, it's cold outside Outside."  IF I've heard this song before, I must have only heard the music.  Whatever.

I'm not against "wintry" themed songs mixed in with the Christian songs that herald the Christmas season.  "Winter Wonderland," "Jingle Bells," "Silver Bells," etc.  These are very nice songs, and they've become part of the Holiday tradition.

"Baby, It's Cold Outside?" is a misfit.  I can't help but include the entire lyric, credited to Frank Loesser.  It's a duet, with the parenthetical phrases sung by the male:

I really can't stay
(but baby it's cold outside)
I've got to go away
(but baby it's cold outside)
This evening has been
(been hoping that you'd drop in)
So very nice
(i'll hold your hands, they're just like ice)
My mother will start to worry
(beautiful what's your hurry)
My father will be pacing the floor
(listen to the fireplace roar)
So really I'd better scurry
(beautiful please don't hurry)
well maybe just one drink more
(put some records on while I pour)
the neighbors might think
(baby it's bad out there)
say what's in this drink
(no cabs to be had out there)
I wish I knew how
(your eyes are like starlight now)
to break this spell
(I'll take your hat, your hair looks swell)
I ought to say "no, no, no sir"
(mind if I move in closer)
at least I'm gonna say that I tried
(what's the sense in hurtin' my pride)
I really can't stay
(oh baby don't hold out)

both: baby it's cold out side

I simply must go
(but baby it's cold outside)
the answer is no
(but baby it's cold outside)
your welcome has been
(how lucky that you dropped in)
so nice and warm
(look out the window at that storm)
my sister will be suspicious
(gosh your lips look delicious)
my brother will be there at the door
(waves upon the tropical shore)
my maiden aunt's mind is vicious
(gosh your lips are delicious)
but maybe just a cigarette more
(never such a blizzard before)
I've gotta get home
(but baby you'd freeze out there)
say lend me a coat
(it's up to your knees out there)
you've really been grand
(I thrill when you touch my hand)
but don't you see?
(how can you do this thing to me?)
there's bound to be talk tomorrow
(think of my lifelong sorrow)
at least there will be plenty implied
(if you got pneumonia and died)
i really can't stay
(get over that hold out)

both: Baby it's cold outside

It says Christmas all over, doesn't it?  Maybe it speaks to the reason for the season for some. I like Dean Martin; the song suits him well.  I'm not such a stodgy old prude that I can't admit that there's a worldly humor to it. But it's not a Christmas song, and it doesn't even belong as a "holiday" song.  I

Aside from a short history about the song on Wikipedia, there's also an interesting side story to this song that's documented elsewhere as well.  It turns out that Sayyid Qutb, upon visiting a Colorado church dance at which this song was played, remarked witnessing "arms circled waists, lips met lips, chests met chests, and the atmosphere was full of passion."  This was featured in his anti-Western book, The America I Have Seen, written in 1951.  Qutb would go on to be a key figure in the philosophical groundwork for organizations such as, you guessed it, Al Qaeda, and notably Ayman Zawahiri, the menter of Osama bin Laden.

That's not to say that it's responsible for the extremist world we live in today.  As songs go today, it implies but never states what is more often graphically laid out.  But even an America that condemns immorality in it's celebrities yet celebrates immorality in its fiction would have to admit that the "responsible" notion of protecting an alluring woman from the dangers of the cold doesn't quite hold what anyone would attribute to the moral high ground as the lyric plays out.  Bah humbug.

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The Island of Misfit Songs

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My ears hear, but sometimes they don’t necessarily listen.

As it happens, I like my cup filled to overflowing with Christmas songs.  It's one month a year, and it's not like I'm able to listen to them all day long anyway.  It's great for drive time, though.  Peaceful, relaxing, familiar, tuneful ...from one holiday classic to another.

...until my teenage daughter, who has just been singing along, says “that isn't a very nice song.”  Excuse me?

It’s a Christmas song!  How could a Christmas song not be a nice song?

“Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer,” a song that needs no introduction, is simply iconicRudolph amongst Christmas songs.  I’ve seen the stop-motion animation TV “Special” many times, and, reliably, I've found comfort in knowing that good little boys and girls the world over can go to bed confident that should the North Pole have a severe weather condition, Rudolph is there to help deliver the goods.  That’s just great stuff.  Get thee behind Rudolph, Frosty, you might drip on the presents.   

It’s an underdog story, and we all love underdog stories!  It's as American as apple pie!  We feel for the cross-eyed little dude, his slight build a disadvantage against those brutish jock reindeer kids (actually, calves).  Throw in a speech impediment and a poor father figure and, yeah, we're pulling for him.  Even the Giver of All Good Things (not Him, rather the one in the red suit) didn’t give him support.  But we know a champ when we see one, and banding together with his misfit friends, Rudy will show ‘em, right?  And he did.  And he went down in history and Amen to that.

Stupid teenagers.  What do they know?

My daughter apparently pulled some strings, and within a week I found that the ripples from the small stone she cast had reached my far shore.  As amusements go, the "Word Power" section of Reader's Digest is as beneficial as they come.  Go me.

In the December issue, I present Word #2:

Plaintive (‘plane-tiv) adj. – A: simple.  B: sad. C. loud.  (editorial comment:  Are readers happier with three choices instead of four so that they can score better when they guess?). 

I’d say… B.  Not because I looked.  That's next.

*flips page*

2. plaintive – [B] sad.  I can’t be the only one who finds “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” plaintive.

Hey now!  Is there a freakin’ conspiracy to undermine our time honored traditions?

It didn’t come upon a midnight clear, but fortunately I had my daughter to explain the problem.  To the text we go: 

“Rudolf with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?  Then how the reindeer loved him, as they shouted out with glee…”

They certainly say they loved Rudolph, but they didn’t like him because of who he was... they only liked him because he could guide Santa's sleigh on one fitful night.

What are we teaching our kids about the nature of love?  That’s a very plaintive lesson for people who don’t listen carefully beyond the words to the moral in the story.  Good catch, kiddo.

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The family went to see Avatar last night, the mega-expensive fantasy epic just released by Mr. Epic Producer, James Cameron (Titanic).  Reading about the crowds, we bought tickets online, only to find out upon arrival that the show time we selected was not 3D.  A fairly easy trade-in and two killed hours later, we were seated for our little adventure.

I think it's fair to say that we really had no idea what the movie was about, and I had only read the first paragraph in a review by someone saying that due to the hype, they were prepared to call Avatar "the worst movie of the year" but instead walked away concedingAvatar that it was "the best movie of the year."   I don't have that struggle as I haven't seen that many movies this year.

To get to the verdict, it's definitely a movie worth seeing, and I would think especially so in 3D. 

First, the basics.  A soldier is sent to learn the ways of another culture who are themselves an obstacle to progress.  The soldier gradually becomes immersed in the ways of the people with whom he lives and comes to the awakening that his own people are in the wrong.

Sound familiar?  It should.  It won 7 Academy Awards in 1990, including Best Picture.  That movie was Dances with Wolves, a lengthy exploration of Indian culture and the challenges they faced as America expanded west.

The same notion is presented in Avatar, though more thoughtful speculation in motivations, causes, and effects are rendered pointless as good and evil are presented in paint-by-the-numbers cliches. 

Bad: corporate greed, the military, technology, the neighborhood bully.

Good: environmentalism, racial openness, naturalism, the 70 lb. weakling.

At its worst, it could be seen as a testimony of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants' guilt for all bad things.  It doesn't set out to make that case, of course, but it sets up an easily identified straw man to play against the better aspirations of the writers, that being a completely different race of people, the Nu'vi. 


Sound American Indian?  It's not, but they could be were they not located on another planet.  Location, location, location... is what makes this movie different.  Cameron admitted that the movie had to wait for the technology to make it possible, which would not be the case if the movie was situated in the desert, the plains, or even the standard southeastern pine forest.

Instead, take a jungle, color it with What Dreams May Come, fill it with slightly mutated but familiar beasts (hammerhead rhinos, for example), plant fantastical suspended islands above the forest, add wyverns for getting things off the ground, and you got yourself a highly capable, computer generated Roger Deanenvironment just begging for 3D release.  Or, the equivalent of a Roger Dean album cover that moves.

The 3D effects are not "punch you in the face" variety thea-tricks, but instead they are mostly used to provide depth of field.  Some uses, such as holographic display screens, are stunning.  But not everything is fully realized, and my son was correct in pointing out that the characters' faces didn't have the same depth effect as the environment around them. 

Still, it's a worthwhile movie if only for the next generation appreciation of what is possible from computer generated effects.  The plot, while not up to the task of moving this to a masterpiece level, remains enjoyable even if entirely predictable.  It's obviously good enough to make a 141 minute movie "breezy."

Now, if only ensuing efforts will provide 3D glasses that are designed to fit over those of us who are already spectacled.

Rating: 4 of 5 Stars.  Plus a 0.1 maybe.

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While reading a Wall Street Journal article about the privacy issues associated with Facebook, a phrase caught my attention:

If blogging felt like shouting into the void, posting updates on a social network felt more like an intimate conversation among friends at a pub. 

The introductory phrase is what caught my attention, because it accurately captures what it feels like writing to no one in particular.  It gets further complicated when I consider how lousy I am at writing to people that I know and that would want to hear from me, yet I'm quite happy to write to what is, and don't take this personally, a small and generally unresponsive audience.  I don't think my mom is impressed.

If I am, indeed, shouting into the void, I must imagine that the void is not a warm and fuzzy place but rather a dark and expansive space, one presumably absent of mothballs, monsters under the bed, or evil traffic lights. 

But there must be something there.  And that something would be liverwurst.

My history with liverwurst goes back to childhood, when "choices" were limited to the one of the following that was available:

  • PB&J.  A timeless classic.
  • Bologna. "My bologna has a first Bologna name, it's O-S-C-A-R, my bologna has a second name it's M-E-Y-E-R..."
  • Split bananas with miracle whip and peanut butter.  Yes, that's on bread.  I'd venture another go at that, but my wife forbids Miracle Whip in the house.  It's prohibition was foundational in our marriage.
  • Pimento cheese.  A southern classic, notably available at The Masters for gentle men and ladies.
  • And liverwurst.

Liverwurst. Say it out loud.  Go ahead.  Now say it loud enough so someone can hear you.

You didn't, did you?  Why? Because you know they'll think you're W-E-I-R-D.

I mean, just look at it.  And people wonder what goes into hotdogs?


Liverwurst came packaged in slices, a square greyish pink slab trimmed around the edges in what I recall was a greasy, slimy layer of white fat.  I think it was intended as a warning to go no further.  If that didn't work, then there was the odor, a clear indication that it was time to go to my best friend's house and see what he had in his fridge, because Ken's parents loved him. 

Okay, quiz time.  Which sounds more appealing?  Liver? or Wurst?  Eh?  Can two wrongs make a right?  Liverwurst and I parted ways before high school, and I think we've both been okay since.

So I was talking with a friend of mine from Toronto, who told me he had just gotten a sandwich.  From out of the Void, I said something close to "Oh man, don't do it.  Put down the liverwurst!"

He said, "How did you know I was eating liverwurst?"

Admittedly, in a joking sense, I was thinking the wurst [sic] of him.  The Void did it.  In it all it's nothingness, it still had the wisdom to eject the sheer notion of liverwurst from its space.  That it would occur to me that that there was the truly awful possibility that someone would be eating liverwurst 635 miles away (as a bird flies) begs a proximate cause.

"Seriously, how did you know?"

I don't have an answer for that.  Some things are better left aVOIDed.

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Steve Morse Band - Out Standing in Their Field

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I've been a fan of guitarist Steve Morse since his latter days with the Dixie Dregs, that late only because that's when I was introduced to them.  My friend who loaned me What If was bewildered when I returned it with only a moderate reaction.  It took me a while to appreciate it, as the genre of the music was something akin to rocking southern fried classical jazz fusion.  Elements vary from song to son and within songs themselves.  As an instrumental only group, there was ample room for diversity, especially given the solo space given to guitars, keyboards and fiddle.

The Steve Morse Band generally takes the same approach, but the band is stripped down to guitars, bass and drums.  Their latest release, Out Standing in Their Field, is full of puns on titles (suchSteve Morse Band as a picture of them standing in a field), but musically, it's no joking matter.

The CD begins with "Name Dropping," which sets a muscular tone that could drive nails.  "Brink of the Edge" backs off slightly, observing certain tones that Morse has used throughout his career.  But, it's still a platform for his seemingly impossibly fast playing, and, of course, his guitar soars.

"Here and Now and Then" is yet another shade less aggressive, and it captures some beautiful moments by Morse and bassist Dave LaRue.  The title here is another play on words, as is "John Deere Letter."  The latter covers what seems to be part of Morse's recipe for any CD, that being a country hop stomper that proves that super fast guitar work can fit any genre.

Another obligatory insertion is "Baroque 'n Dreams," a classical guitar piece accompanied by electric bass.  Morse is adept at the style, and it's an amazing song, with both instruments going in different directions but fitting together beautifully.

"Flight of the Osprey" is the only song that, to my ears, suggests it might actually suit a vocal.  Add a Mellotron and a prog-rock lyric and it could go places.  Still, it's a very enjoyable tune.

To be fair, this music isn't for everyone.  When there are no vocals, the song structures are open to whatever suits the artist.  None of them have pop "hooks," and several seem fitted together only to allow a base for the solos, which is justification enough.  In other words, you probably won't be humming any of these while working at your desk.

There are two take-aways from this CD.  One is that any aspiring bassist should listen to Dave LaRue only to be exposed to a world of what is possible with the instrument.  The second is that while some may follow the chromatic scales or syncopated approaches as an intellectual pursuit, the natural response for me after each listen is to just say "Wow."

Suggested Songs: "Name Dropping," "Brink of the Edge," "Here and Now and Then," "Baroque 'n Dream"

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Clips are available at Amazon, and Morse's MySpace has sound samples of several songs, though none from this release.

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Tinsley Ellis - Speak No Evil


It's hard to resist buying a CD when the artist is standing there, waiting...  So, a few bucks and a heartfelt compliment later, I'm not just reviewing Ellis' newTinsley Ellis - Speak No Evil CD, but his autographed new CD.  Go me.

Speak No Evil is his 11th studio album, and it's chock full of 12 blues based rockers, each with varying tone or pace.

I won't go into describing blues musical forms, but in its modern state, it usually involves lyrics that are constructed around a particular phrase that it is the essence of the song's theme, with the remaining lyrics to support the idea and rhyme, of course.  Added to that is the guitar solo, which has been a required ingredient ever since the blues went electric.  As subject matter goes, it's the blues.  Not Taylor Swift pop.

At its best, blues based songs reach for a certain feeling that is shared between the lyric and whatever instrumental outworking launches from it.  Ellis has no problems finding phrases, and he's never shy about launching a solo. 

The CD starts well enough with "Sunlight of Love," setting the tone with a wah pedal-laden rocking outing.  "Slip and Fall" harkens back to the days when FM radio played music that 20 years later, who woulda guessed, would be known as "classic rock."  If there was a single from the CD, that would be it.

The title track is one of the best here, where pretty much everyone should be able to relate both lyrically and musically:

Words thrown out in anger always come back to haunt you

once they go they don't return

talk is so hard to undo

so speak no evil; evil will come back to you

"It Takes What it Takes" seems sequential with perhaps the consequences of speaking evil: love gone wrong.  "The Other Side" follows up with a lyrical and sonic vengeance:

Since you won't be around much longer, let's just plan to meet up on the other side.

This is in turn is followed by another relationship at odds lyric, this time with a Cream-like riff. 

It seems like in the day time we're so much at stake, i's safer in the nighttime, in the darkness where you can hide. The night is easy; the day is the hardest part.

And so it goes.  The first six songs seem stronger than the remainder lyrically, but Ellis' guitar is exceptional throughout.  He makes good use of effects pedals, and I can't help but wonder if he comes to a sound then develops a lyric that will fit the mood of the piece.  In any case, he makes it seem so easy.  

Suggested Tracks: "Speak No Evil," "The Other Side," "The Night is Easy"

Rating: 3 Stars out of 5

(Note: Using the Rolling Stone Record Guide criteria, it should be very rewarding to fans of a particular style.)

Selected tracks can be heard on Ellis' MySpace page.


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Farrar & Gibbard - One Fast Move Or I'm Gone

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Respectively the leaders of Son Volt and Death Cab for Cutie, my interest was piqued when I learned they were providing the music for the soundtrack of a movie about Jack Kerouac's Big Sur.  As it turns out, only a couple songs are featured in the movie, but the artists enjoyed the project so much that they created the remaining songs.

Big Sur, to begin with, is a lightly developed region on the California coast (I didn't know there was one left), where the mountains rise abruptly Big Surfrom the sea.  It's seen a diversity of interest from mining, to bohemian, to camping, to... whatever it is today.  Scenic, I guess.

Kerouac spent a short time there visiting a friend.  To be fair, I haven't read much of Kerouac, and I knew little of him other than he was considered a "beat poet."  A little research later, and I find out that he wasn't as much a part of the "happening" scene as I imagined.  Big Sur was considered his last great work, but much of the respect comes not from great revelations or carefully crafted prose, but from his honesty in revealing his experience about pain, suffering, alcoholism, mid-life, etc., the type stuff frequently credited as the fuel  for a creative spirit.  I doubt I'll read the book.

What, then, of the music?

Jay Farrar wrote 11 of the 12 songs, the lyrics of which are lifted from either Kerouac's book or from his included poem, "Sea," which closes the work. Fair enough.  Farrar's musical style is generally categorized as alt-country, which might be translated as twangy but with intelligent lyrics.  There's a lot of pedal steel, some slide guitar, and, though not on on this CD, a heavy guitar riff.  He has a rather narrow vocal Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard - One Fast Move or I'm Gonerange which he uses in a tone that sounds downcast, well suited for introspective lyrics.   He seems a good fit for Kerouac's material.

Gibbard, on the other hand, is a gifted writer and has a voice that, while again limited in range, is brighter and rings clearly.  His songs tend to include narratives, with an approachable song structure that leans lands somewhere between "indie" and pop. 

Yin and Yang.

The CD begins with a breezy "California Zephyr," sung by Gibbard and which provides an optimistic opening for what might unfold as the CD progresses. But not so fast.  Ferrar counters immediately with "Low Life Kingdom," with a lyric that finds the threat behind nature while observing its beauty.  It's presented in a depressing tone - though fitting for the song. 

A snippet:

Settling down with warm-glow woodstove and kerosene peace you're looking for, peace you'll find in the tangled mad cliff-sides and crashing dark of big sur

Rapturous ring of silence pacific fury flashing on the rocks, the sea shroud towers the innocence of health and stillness in the wild of big sur

Third up is "Williamine," a song questioning beauty and love.  With Gibbard back on vocals, it remains hopeful.

Only interested in the sad music the voice of Williamine, she makes men sigh and women wonder where is all the beauty coming from? And why?

And so it goes.  Gibbard's single entry, the title track, sounds okay, but after half a minute, you realize that he fit his lyric to the same plodding beat and tune that has become so tiresome with his own band.

Overall, this is well articulated (though including the lyrics would have made for a nicer tribute), and it probably works best for fans seriously into either artist.  I'm likely to watch the movie out of curiosity, at the least.  That said, situated on the shoulders of a "literary great," one might expect that the songs would demand concentration. However, once fully explored, repeated listenings quickly fade into the type of background music that suits one well when focusing on other things. 

Suggested Tracks: "California Zephyr," "Breathe Our Iodine," "These Roads Don't Move"

Rating: 3 Stars out of 5


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James McMurtry - Live in Europe


I feel compelled to review CDs during the year that they are released, which means I have some quick work ahead of me.  Today's subject is James McMurtry's "Live in Europe" which I've delayed reviewingmcmurtryliveineurope because there just didn't seem that much to say about it.  But there's enough, of course.

This is what might best be described as a bargain.  It includes a CD with 8 songs, plus a DVD with video of 6 songs at a cozy venue, all for the expected retail price of a CD or less.

The band includes the basic group that I saw in Charlotte, NC a few months ago, but adds keyboardist Ian McLagan.  He's given some room to lead in several places, nicely diversifying their overall sound.

That said, I'm not entirely happy with this CD.  The format can hold up to just over 70 minutes of music, and this clocks in at 41:55.  It wouldn't have been that hard to include more of the setlist in the available space.

I know, I know.  Why am I complaining?  It's a bargain, remember?  And I wouldn't want it to be redundant with material on the (basically free) DVD, would I? (Actually, two songs are featured on both).

Well, yes!  I don't watch DVDs in my car or through my tried but still true Boston Acoustics speakers.  By the eighth song in McMurtry's world, I'm just beginning to feel a little pissed off swagger about the rotten state of everything and doubt my conservatism.  Oops.  End of CD... and just in time!

To be fair, McMurtry is a keen observer of things non-political as well, and his songwriting skills merit listening even if just to appreciate the other side of an argument.  In addition, the guitar work doesn't necessarily sound like something special until you see it.

Therefore, the DVD is a nice inclusion, admittedly, and with "Choctaw Bingo" clocking in at almost 10 minutes, the DVD is worth the price of admission by itself.  His typical closer, "Too Long in the Wasteland," is also well done, even if its expected placement as the closer suggests that he needs to write another sprawling rocker just to mix up the routine. 

But, here I go, being negative again.  Why 39 minutes of video?  Why not more?  Who sits down to watch 39 minutes of a concert?  Teenage Miley Cyrus fans?  Or young moms with infants reliving the Backstreet Boys in between feedings?  Seriously, let's include enough product to get into it.

This review might be a little biased as I began unwrapping this puppy with more than a little aggravation.  Beside the usual hassles of removing the plastic and security sticker, another millimeter of paperboard might have made the sleeve large enough to extract the discs.  Pulling the discs out risked cutting my fingers or slinging my elbow into a hard object as they came free.  As it is, I forced Live in Aught-Threeone back in, and I'm certain if I reinsert the other it will cut  through edge of the casing.  Bad manufacturing.  Bad.

But, overall, it's a nice souvenir from the current tour.  That said, if you want live material or an introduction to McMurtry's music, pick up "Live in Aught-Three," which is a much more satisfying set.  Oh, and it plays better with a nice cold beer.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars


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Cap and Trade

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I've heard about "Cap and Trade" but never really bothered to better understand it other than from sound bites, which isn't a healthy approach to understanding anything.

The basic idea is to cap the emissions of an obviously undesired pollutant but allow emitters the option of "trading" their overage for financial instruments usually called "allowances." Allowances generally cost a certain price for a quantity of pollutant, such as a ton. The allowances are theoretically priced to reflect, in some regard, the cost of complying per ton of pollutant without having to lay out the capital to bring emissions below the current regulatory standard.

Like anything, these costs of allowances change. The price of energy changes, which might make the cost of the allowances seem significant or negligible as related to other costs. Similarly, the cost of compliance can change as better, more efficient technologies come about. And, as a result, the price changes like a commodity.

The EPA released a study on sulfuric acid (acid rain) and ozone based on history over the last 10 years or so. It points out some pitfalls but overall suggests that when allowances are costly, companies prefer to invest in controls rather than pay the higher costs or gambling that the future price may decline. Though from what I would consider to be a biased source, the EPA reads fairly objectively and indicates positive results in these two instances, namely reduced emissions.

Currently, "Cap and Trade" is most bandied about concerning carbon dioxide emissions and the threat of global warming. I'm not a scientist, but I don't believe that global warming is something to be measured by the decade. In the 1970's, we were fearing the coming ice age. Now, it's global warming.

I don't discount the numerous scientists who believe global warming is occurring. If it is so, the question is whether or not humanity contributes significantly to the process, which from everything I've read is not conclusive. The current polar ice cap melt was an issue between 1920 and 1940 during similar weather patterns, but it recovered well enough on its own without human taxation as a means of improvement.

There do seem to be a number of observable consequences of warmer weather patterns, but the cause and effect is persuasively argued by parties on both sides of the argument, depending on which result they want it to be. As with any such study, I'm a cynic who says it matters who pays for it and who their intended audience is.

Al Gore is also not a scientist. Though from another biased source, the following video neatly recaps a couple major errors in his movie, "An Inconvenient Truth."

Aside from the delayed effect of C02 emissions following increased temperatures (the point being, heightened C02 levels are the effect, not the cause), it's also notable that there have been so many observed instances of this phenomena. Yet the latest cycle is supposed to be due to man's activity on the planet. Hmm. A purported total of 35 errors in his movie can be read here.

Does it matter? No. All scientific debates aside, it's now a political matter where dissenters become villanized. None of us want an inhospitable planet, so we'll suffer through the costs of doing what we can.

What are those costs?

Some would prefer a tax. Regardless of how polluting an activity is, a tax would make people pay who produce it, whether it be industrial, residential, or any other source. As all costs are ultimately passed on the consumer, it basically encourages people to buy less stuff, thereby cutting production levels which cuts emissions. Could work well enough, at least for those still employed.

Allowances. They cost as well, and those costs are also passed on the consumer eventually. The trick with these, as described earlier, is following the money. I'm not there yet. It's clear that governments can profit by auctioning off the allowances and then use the money to fund energy-efficient projects... if they can be trusted not to divert funds. Some States already do this. Once the other States or countries realize the money to be made, they'll flood the market and ruin it for everyone. Don't worry, if you were, an international overseer isn't far off.

But companies can also receive credits by reducing their emissions below targets, then sell these to others - apparently directly or on special markets for these financial instruments. In other words, people/businesses other than governments can make money off of them. And, there's already some entrepreneurs who build polluting plants with the purpose of rehabilitating them to earn credits worth more than the cost of the fix.

There's always someone working an angle, and among verification of a pollutant's emissions and/or improvements, the trading or sales of allowances, and re-routed funds, there certainly seems to be an open invitation for abuses.

The other proven loophole is for companies simply to off-shore the worst of their emission generating operations to countries who don't participate in the Kyoto agreement, the business decision du jour for reducing overhead.

Carbon offsets. Currently, this is a voluntary "cap and trade" on an individual level. There's a lot to read about these, but they seem to appeal to people who either feel personally guilty about their personal impact on the environment or to those who wish to participate for public relations benefits as being considered "green" or environmentally sensitive. The latter has increasing attraction as more and more purchasing decisions or contracting requirements specify preference for "green" suppliers. Monies paid for offsets are voluntarily made directly to organizations that purportedly invest the money in wind farms, tree planting, and other eco-friendly endeavors.

Carbonfund is one such non-profit whose site reads very well, though I'd be interested in finding out the efficiency of the money given to any such organization. Is the money simply given away to other enterprises that need funding? Is it invested into legitimate businesses with the expectation of returns? Is it shell-gamed into privately owned corporations where profits are retained? The money has to be transmitted to someone, so is there any accountability for use and results? Etc. I looked with the help of my friends Google and Bing; there's not much in the way of clear and validated examples, but here's one (grant amount not specified. hmm).

Lastly, a British politician has recently recommended personal carbon allowances that would have the effect of law. Wait a few years; it will gain increasing momentum as governments seek new sources of revenue, plus it has the socialistic advantage of affecting those who (unfairly) consume more. Privacy issues notwithstanding, it's possible that chili sales would plummet. But if that's what it takes to save the polar bears and stop hurricanes, I'm all for it... during the summer, at least.

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Derek Trucks Band - Variety Playhouse

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The "idea" for last night began a month or more ago with a planned trip to the Sweetwater Brewery after work.  This was a successful venture, with a moderate crowd for their two hour sampling "tour."  In addition to their regular offerings, they also had seasonal beers on tap, including "Motor Boat," carrying possibly a caramel flavor in a reddish ale classified as extra strong bitter, and their "Seasonal Ale," a darker ale with perhaps a chocolate and nutmeg flavor.  Both were very good.

Wait! This is a concert review, isn't it?

A short distance away, The Derek Trucks Band played their second night at my favorite local venue, Variety Playhouse, and this concert became a spectacular finish for an evening out.

We arrived early and found seats about 60' from the stage as the crowd began to enter.  The opening act was Tinsley Ellis, a local bluesman who headlined at the venue only a month or so earlier.  In fact, he's so comfortable with the venue that he was milling about the audience prior to the show.  Drinking Red Bull. Cool.

Tinsley Ellis 12-3-09 Variety Playhouse

His set began pretty much on time, and about half of his songs were from his new CD, Speak No Evil, which I'll get around to reviewing shortly. 

Tinsley Ellis 12-3-09 Variety Playhouse

Ellis plays an aggressive blues rock, usually staying true to the blues scales but if there's ever a few subtler moments in a solo, it's only so that he can build it back to full throttle.  He does mix in other styles for some variety, and he is clearly a master of the wah pedal.

Ellis plays as a trio, also featuring drums and bass.  His bassist goes by the name Evil 1 and even has a matching hat.  I couldn't help but think of Thing 1 and Thing 2.  In concert, it's fair to say that his fretwork is felt more than heard.

It was definitely a satisfying set from a skilled guitarist.  Live! Highwayman is recommended as an introduction to his music, or the video clip at the end of this post.

A short time later, Derek and his band took the stage, beginning with rather soothing slide guitar after Ellis' onslaught.  I had been eager to see him in concert after listening earlier this year to his most recent CD, Already Free, and the timing was fortuitous as the band is taking 2010 off.

Trucks has released 6 studio CDs, most of which included covers of others' work.  His new songs were exceptional in concert, largely defining the best moments of the concert.  Trucks is more accustomed to a looser jam approach to live performances, and the tone, vocals, and tunefulness of these songs helped keep the spirit of the show together. 

Derek Trucks Band - 12/03/09 Variety Playhouse

This is not to diminish the enjoyment of the jams, featuring the talents of a large and seemingly innumerable supporting cast.  The keyboardist/flautist was featuredTrucks and Tedeschi - 12/03/09 Variety Playhouse heavily, but the sonic range was also filled with trombone, tenor sax, percussion, drums, bass, and a bevy of guests. 

These included Trucks' wife, Susan Tedeschi on vocals and guitar (both are nominated for Grammy awards this year), Jimmy Herring (Widespread Panic, Allman Brothers Band, others), two guest drummers (one from the Doobie Brothers), a mystery vocalist, and a finale including Tinsley Ellis.

Derek Trucks and Jimmy Herring - 12/03/09 Variety Playhouse

The only misfire during the evening, to my ears, was "My Favorite Things," from The Sound of Music.  There were certainly good moments, but it ventured in so many directions that the chorus was only a regrouping point after travels elsewhere.  It never sustained a groove. 

Tinsley, Trucks, Herring - 12/03/09 Variety Playhouse

This was more than made up for by a lengthy and energetic cover of Derek & The Domino's "Anyday," not to mention a fiery "Key to the Highway" amidst the encores.

Trucks' stage presence is interesting.  He's featured front and center, but faces to the side seemingly from humility or shyness.  On the other hand, this allows the entire audience to clearly see his fingers work the frets, which is a treat. 

Derek Trucks - 12/03/09 Variety Playhouse

It was a great show, and I wouldn't hesitate to see him again.  Only, maybe not on a weeknight.  We left at 11:45, and we may have left a second encore behind us.  The morning came early...

From other performances:


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Black Friday

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I haven't been in the mood to write of late, not that things aren't percolating that will find their way here.  The title above might suggest that I'm ready to launch into the economic weathervane of retailer profits or, more cynically, the official kickoff of the call-it-anything-but-Christmas season. 


I got up early on Thanksgiving to go buy the newspaper ads.  I say that because I read the news on the computer, and it was solely for the ads that I ventured out.  $2 for ads.  Go figure. But I'm not the only one.  The convenience store was almost sold out.  In any case, the ads were soon sorted into a short stack of possibles and a large stack of no interest.

Friday, to give credit where it's due, the alarm clock did its job, ringing brightly at 6:00 a.m.  After appropriate assault and battery, we arose at a more reasonable 8:30 a.m., and shortly headed off to my wife's favorite shoe store... for jeans.  After waiting in the checkout queue, we found ourselves, or, more specifically, the brand of jeans, victim of the fine print in the coupon.  What to do?

IHOP.  That's the International House of Pancakes. 

My wife and I have seen the Roswell, GA area grow and change over 20+ years, longer for her.  This location of IHOP remains distinctive compared to current genericIHOP - Roswell, GA styling due to it's faux-chalet styling.  Well, okay.  It has a steeply pitched roof.

In any case, it's a comfortable place for comfort food.  As expected, early bird shoppers can't live on bargains alone, and the restaurant was full... but without a wait.  Inside, there was a certain warmth to the temperature that spoke of hot chocolate on a cold day, though that week of the year isn't due until mid-January.  Better, there was a slight haze at ceiling level, not the stinging or choking type, but one that carried the pervasive odor of eggs, bacon, sausage, and syrup.  Ah, syrup.

I opted for the Harvest Nut & Oats pancakes, eggs over medium, crispy bacon, and a perfectly carbonated Coke on the rocks.  A winner.

We left two high schoolers at home, snug in their beds, and both will be leaving home soon and sooner (respectively).  I don't dwell on what life will be like as empty nesters; I prefer to live in the now.  I can't recall specific times that my wife and I have been to that IHOP; it's been reliably good, but there are no special memories. 

This time was no different as breakfasts go.  We didn't have particularly meaningful conversation or come to any aha moments in our relationship.   But then, maybe I did.  Maybe the setting and the food started my thoughts down a certain path, but real comfort can easily be overlooked in the familiarity and common interactions in a relationship.  We're blessed in so many ways, but it was as good a time as any to appreciate that after 22 years of marriage, we're solidly in the black.

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