Monday, August 27, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #47 - Joe Cocker - Mad Dogs & Englishmen (1971, dir. Pierre Adidge)

Normally we don’t review rock docs in this column. However Mad Dogs & Englishmen feels like cinema to me. It watches more like a movie than a documentary. There are good guys and bad guys, a beginning, middle and end. The story has a heroic arc that finds our protagonist, Sheffield born R&B singer Joe Cocker, embarking on a long and dangerous journey across country with a band of friends and strangers to find the origin of his musical soul. Sounds dramatic right? Well it really is. This was probably the 4th or 5th time I’d watched Mad Dogs & Englishmen and I’d always found it very compelling, but I didn’t quite “get it” if you know what I mean. This time I got it. Fully! The reason it doesn’t feel like a bunch of concert footage is because it isn’t. It is a fully realized movie about a huge undertaking involving over 40 musicians and fellow travelers careening around North America creating something unique and special every single night. Along the way, we get a primer on the highs and lows of the music business circa 1970.

For the most part Joe Cocker comes off a genuinely talented, nice, inarticulate guy who is just kind of going with the flow. He has a tour of America booked after his triumphant performance at Woodstock with The Grease Band. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter The Grease Band went their separate ways and Cocker was left with his name on the dotted line and a North American Tour to mount. He called his friend, Leon Russell and within a day or two Leon had assembled a huge band that included the cream of the L.A./Oklahoma axis of musicians. Names like Rita Coolidge, Jim Keltner, Bobby Keys, Don Preston, Carl Radle and at the center of it all Leon and Joe battling for supremacy. For at the center of this movie is the subtle, dark, controlling, svengali-like personality of Leon Russell. Russell is the obvious musical director of this huge and supremely talented assemblage, as well as the social director and spiritual center of the whole affair. His image and musical fingerprints are everywhere. As stated Joe seems somewhat inarticulate which is never better illustrated than the scenes where he is taken around to radio stations to promote himself. Most painful is a stilted meeting with Bay Area legend Big Daddy Tom Donahue who comes across as overbearing and out of touch as Cocker does timid and hung-over. It becomes clear almost immediately that Cocker himself is like a wind blown leaf in hurricane gale wind, burned out from a couple of intense years of touring and a rocket ship to fame, he is hollow-eyed and lost. Until he gets on stage that is. After all, the reputation of this movie rests on the electrifying performances. And they are. Cocker becomes possessed by the music and delivers a series of electrifying performances. The band is unbelievably funky and tight, yet the arrangements of the familiar material are open-ended and loose allowing for breathtaking improvised ensemble moments. That looseness and amazing arranging can be laid at Leon’s feet. His musical contribution is as important as his emotional impact on the proceedings.

As the tour winds from coast to coast all the excess of the late 60’s is on full display; you got your sex (groupies everywhere including a weirdly dated encounter with “the butter queen,)” drugs (everything, all the time, non-stop) and of course Joe’s form of soul revue Rock and Roll. Interestingly, with over 40 years hindsight we can almost see the misguided idealism of the Woodstock experience unwind before our eyes. As the tour builds momentum the performances get better and better, the party gets longer and stranger and the entire proceeding looks to be heading for some kind of psychic cliff. Then...there is a moment of calm as the touring party lands in Oklahoma on someone’s farm for a down home picnic. All the schizophrenic impulses of the 1960’s are in full effect; the pastoral vs. the city, the family unit vs. rugged individualism, the traditional vs. the avant garde. It is all there as a large bunch of hippie musicians slowly unwind into the sunny grass fields of the American heartland. You can see the yearning for it to last forever, cut with the reality that this fragile ecosystem had to eventually crumble. Before it does though, it produces one hell of a great musical ride.
- Paul Epstein

I'd Love to Turn You On #64 - Rahsaan Roland Kirk – The Inflated Tear

Rahsaan Roland Kirk was many things, but let’s clear one thing up first – he was a genius. There are those who would tell you that because he sought to entertain as well as enlighten that his art is somehow lesser than the intensely serious music of a John Coltrane, a Miles Davis, a Cecil Taylor. But really, he’s in a line with Duke Ellington, with Charles Mingus, with Louis Armstrong – not exactly bad company to keep. He was also a remarkable jazz saxophonist (and player of other reeds as well), on a level with any of the greats you’d care to name, often using two or three (or more) horns simultaneously to create his own horn section. You can hear that right off the bat here with “The Black and Crazy Blues,” or most spectacularly on the title cut, where he contributes a gorgeous, tender solo interspersed with a gripping, multi-horn fanfare. And if you want to check out one of his tricks of technique that allowed him a unique approach to his soloing, listen to the extended improvisational line he lays down on “Many Blessings.” He just doesn’t stop to take a breath, because he uses a technique of circular breathing to draw in and exhale air at the same time. It’s not the first time he does it here, but it stands out here because the song is a more straightforward blowing tune. He’s also a traditionalist. You can hear that here most readily in his elegant reading of Duke Ellington’s “The Creole Love Song” and in the relatively restrained quartet music that makes up the bulk of this album, which ranges from light and lovely to the emotional intensity of “The Inflated Tear” itself.
But Rahsaan was also an avant-gardist in the sense that he was always pushing boundaries to find new ways to express himself; a surrealist joker always tweaking the noses of those who thought he could or should do things one specific way; a vaudevillian who knew how to elicit cheers of delight from audiences while still staying musically interesting. And that’s where the second album here comes in. Atlantic Records, Kirk’s musical home for many years, encouraged his experimental bent – the producer of The Inflated Tear even reports being a little disappointed when Kirk turned in the first album that didn’t showcase his wilder, woollier side. But after a string of great (and mostly out of print) releases for the label, Kirk fulfilled the experimental side of his destiny with Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata. At first these two albums – one of his nicest, cleanest, and best and one of his weirdest – seem to be strange bedfellows, but after a few listens, even the oddness of the later album just seems like Kirk’s quirks applied to a great set of songs, and the underlying eccentricities of his personality shine through on the seemingly “normal” earlier album. And what’s so weird about the second album? Well, excepting some mostly percussive support from a couple friends, Kirk plays every single instrument – and he’s credited with 18 plus “bird sounds” (including the “black mystery pipes” which he describes as “a piece of bamboo and a yard long metal tube – two pipes are played simultaneously.”) – by himself, live in the studio, without overdubs. It must have been the most amazing one-man-band show ever seen, and the fact that he actually made a terrific, albeit odd, album out of it just goes back again to show the level at which his genius operated. Mostly he’s recording his own tunes, again working the serious, the funny, the surreal, and the sentimental right alongside each other, and again he uses Duke Ellington as a touchstone, employing another non-percussive instrument (a piano) for the only time on the record, and creating a gorgeous duet that contextualizes the rest of Kirk’s songs on the album within a larger continuum of jazz and other black music and culture, one in which he’s not the sideshow figure he’s sometimes made out to be, but one of the true giants of the music.

The Inflated Tear is certainly the place to start with Kirk – it’s one of his best recorded, best conceived and loveliest album, but time has shown that even if Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata sold poorly in its first run, Rahsaan Roland Kirk was absolutely right in his conception, and created a really brilliant work there, even if it leaves some listeners in the dust. They’ll catch up one day.
- Patrick Brown

Friday, August 24, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Gunn-Truscinski Duo

Steve Gunn is the best guitarist that no one has heard of. He’s not a blazing-guitar-solo great guitarist, though he’s such a master of the six-string that I suspect he could be if he wanted to. His music is mellower, richer. Much of it he performs on acoustic guitar. If I were to pin his style down, I’d say he plays in the tradition pioneered by John Fahey: highly skilled explorations of deceptively simple melody, rhythm and chord themes that reside somewhere between jazz, classical and blues, with a whole world of international sonic spirituality mixed in. When he does plug into an amp it’s not to blast out power chords and screeching licks, but to add a layer of electric resonance to his intricate tapestries of sound, vibrations along the lines of those conjured in a good raga. Gunn started out in a virtually unknown Brooklyn drone trio called GHQ, and in 2007 he began releasing music of his own, on CDRs at first and then on vinyl with a tiny label based in North Carolina called Three Lobed Recordings. These records are rare from the get go: Gunn’s 2009 LP debut, Boerum Palace, had a print run of just 823. Which might explain his relative obscurity. He’s clearly not trying to be famous.
In 2010 Gunn teamed up with drummer John Truscinski to form the Gunn-Truscinski Duo, and they’ve released two records, Sand City and Ocean Parkway, both with Three Lobed, both on limited edition vinyl—624 and 777 copies respectively. The musical relationship between Gunn and Truscinski feels similar to the way Bill Evans and Paul Motian played together, two stellar musicians playing improvisational lead simultaneously within highly structured themes. The result is something that’s at once expansive and contained, tunes that feel simple enough to relax the mind at the end of a long, hard day, but full of complicated waves of notes dense enough to yield surprises across many, many listens. And it sounds so good on vinyl. It’s the kind of music that begs for the warmth and physical texture of an LP, partly because of its simplicity, but mostly because it’s music rich with handmade qualities and textures—the scrape of Gunn’s fingers across the strings, the woodenness of his guitar, the lo-fi hum of a small amp, the tautness of the snare drum, the uneven brassy sheen of cymbals. It’s like wood grain and unpolished stone. It’s something real in a world that seems to be fading into bits and gigabytes.
Frankly I can’t understand why Gunn and Truscinski are not superstars, at least among the millions of quality-music lovers who tune in to NPR’s All Songs Considered to be turned on to new aural art, because they’re just so good. In fact, Gunn has received some NPR attention with a fascinating interview from July of last year (in which he confessed to being a Dead Head). But the surreally small pressing of their latest release suggests that either the interview drew too few new fans or they don’t care and they want to keep things small. I’m not complaining. I like being one of the few people on earth who knows about such a good thing.

Monday, August 20, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #46 – People Will Talk (1951, dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

Cary Grant was the coolest, most suave dude to ever walk across the silver screen. It’s like he wasn’t even human, he was so perfect in posture, manner and good looks and good taste. Watching him act is like watching Michael Jordan on a basketball court or Jimi Hendrix with an electric guitar; he was one of those one-in-a-billion-billion people who was such a genius at what he did that he transcended even our notions of what is best, seemingly without effort. You really can’t go wrong with a Carey Grant film, and quite a few of them are essential viewing for any self-respecting cinephile – North By Northwest, An Affair to Remember, The Philadelphia Story, to name a few. I’m not sure if I’d add the 1951 comedy People Will Talk to this short list, because it’s not important in the way that those films are. But I’d still recommend highly, especially for people who like old movies for the way they offer a glimpse into the values and beliefs of bygone times, and for those who appreciate plotlines that are unwittingly, but undeniably, weird.
            Grant plays a young doctor named Noah Praetorius whose methods of medicine and style of teaching are unconventional but highly effective. He’s adored by his students and hailed as a hero in the larger community. But his success has made him the target of a jealous colleague, Dr. Rodney Elwell (Hume Cronyn), who is everything Dr. Praetorius is not – short, balding, undistinguished. Elwell hires a detective to dig up dirt on Praetorius in hopes of ruining him. Meantime, a student named Deborah Higgins (Jeanne Crain) faints in Dr. Praetorius’s class, and he examines her and determines that she’s pregnant. She’s not married, though, and the father of the child has died. This was, of course, a huge problem in 1951, and sparks a delightful chain of events between doctor and patient, professor and student, toward the inevitable romantic conclusion. The two stories converge in what is one of the most peculiar climaxes I’ve ever seen in a movie, a story within a story that’s so odd it makes the film worth more than the cost of admission for its oddness alone.
            As time capsules go, People Will Talk is better than most because it shows a period of transition. The tension that drives the romance plotline is borne of the social mores and taboos of the time: the shame of a pregnancy out of wedlock. Yet Higgins and Dr. Praetorius are clearly the protagonists, despite Higgins’s supposed sin and the good Doctor’s aiding and abetting. So you can only conclude that the audience at the time – society as a whole – possessed a degree of acceptance for the whole situation. Otherwise the film’s producers wouldn’t have been able to pull it off, especially not in a romantic comedy, a genre that has natural limits on how far it can push viewers out of the confines of societal norms. So it’s weird because it’s OK that Higgins had sex and got pregnant, but, at the same time, it’s not OK, and the plot rides on the pressing need to suppress the facts at hand. Watching it in the 21st Century, when the choices for women are, thankfully, far greater in number, you find yourself perplexed to the point of fascination as to why it’s an issue at all. But that makes the whole time-travel all the more interesting.
            As for the story within the story, I’ll say no more. I probably shouldn’t have even mentioned it at all, because part of the thrill is the way it comes so unexpectedly and feels so outrageously out of place. But here, too, we get a snapshot of a period of time. People Will Talk is based on a play by German playwright named Curt Goetz, who was a relative of George Bernard Shaw, with whom he was often compared. Both were stalwarts of modern theater, and one of the hallmarks of modernism in drama and literature was the move away from strict chronological flow in story telling. So this film is a stark example of this, made all the more stark by virtue of its being a movie, which we tend to expect to unfold sequentially. So it gives you a satisfying aesthetic jolt that you ordinarily get from the escapist delights of a funny Hollywood romance, and this lifts the movie higher up the list of Cary Grant’s must-sees.
            - Joe Miller

Friday, August 17, 2012

Interview with The Flobots

On August 28th the Flobots’ third full-length album, Circle in the Square is going to drop. They've agreed to a live performance for the Twist and Shout family on that very same day.

Are you ready?

The Flobots have always written socially conscious songs and have never been shy about stating what they wanted to see in the world. From The Flobots Present: Platypus to Fighting with Tools to Survival Game, every album has been a primal scream for a world they want to see come to fruition. Circle in the Square is another rally cry, reminding people that they are not alone. The whole world is filled with folks just like them, people who feel the need to rise up and take control of their own destinies. This has been a busy time for these Denver natives. Between recording the new album, gearing up for the tour, putting together a media center for urban youth and the general day to day tasks they have as super-heroes it's amazing that their founder/MC Jonny 5 had time to generously do this interview with me...but he did.

What can we expect from this new album?

Jonny 5: We're super proud of these songs. They're very personal but also very much inspired by the global democratic awakening. My hope this album helps blur the line between "political" and "non-political" music by going deeper to the emotions behind transformation, whether it is social or internal. So, expect celebration, sadness, determination, and joy. And rhymes.

What was the creative process?

5: All the songs are written collectively, and every song comes from a different place. We've tried for years to figure out what our process is, and found that there isn't one. Each song is its own story...

The Flobots are touring straight through until the beginning of November and hitting most of the larger cities in the rustbelt, Lansing Mi. included. As politically active as the band is are there any plans to visit any of the Occupations while you’re on the road?

5: Hey, that's a good idea.

Every time I turned around this summer at the Occupy movement I saw Jonny 5 running around. What part did/do you play in that movement? 

5: Occupy Wall Street started on September 17th. We went into the studio on September 18th. I was very limited in terms of time and not able to be physically present very much at Occupy Denver. I tried to be there at key points, performing once, rallying people at certain flashpoints, and playing whatever role seemed constructive and possible. But I was mostly just a part of the outer circle of inspired supporters. My inner activist was going crazy because it felt like I should have been there, but ultimately I recognized that it was important to stay on my path. Occupy spoke for so many people who WEREN'T there physically. I had to accept my role as one of those people being spoken for.

Has the band released any of their music under creative commons for use in informational videos or progressive actions?

5: We haven't. But we've tried to be very supportive and helpful with groups who want to use our music in ways that are in line with our values. I think the end result has been good.

The web comic at followed the theme that people everywhere are starting to wake up. Each chapter has been about an individual or couple of individuals going through an awakening of sorts. Do you feel, generally speaking, that the Occupation is a fully realized emulation of that?

5: I wouldn't say "fully", because there's always so much room for growth in all of us. Folks involved with Occupy are most certainly included in that. But it was an amazing step for people as individuals and for us as a country to recognize our power to create a more just and humane world.

Will that comic continue now that the there is protesting in most major cities and people are becoming less tranquil?

5: I'll have to talk to the comic's creator, DJ Coffman. He's a busy and talented guy. People should check out his work!

You must be really excited about the Youth Media Center, opening in 2013. Would you tell me a bit about that?

5: Sure., a non-profit founded by myself and other band members, is working with the Denver Housing Authority to create a 5400 square foot Youth Media Studio on the ground floor of one of the new buildings in the La Alma Lincoln Park neighborhood. The whole redevelopment is receiving attention for its commitment to sustainability and its respect for current residents, and we're excited to be a part of that project. Our next task is to raise money to build the actual studio. So, if you're a philanthropist and you're reading this and you want to have a building named after you, please let us know!

Who will be teaching and what kind of structure will it have?

5: One of the things I am so proud of about is that our staff and facilitators includes and have included powerful Denver artists like Molina Speaks, Suzy Q, Melissa Ivey, Chris Guillot, Serafin Sanchez, Nate Schmidt, Kalyn Heffernan (of Wheelchair Sportscamp), Bianca Mikahn, and many others. They'll be teaching and running the programs.  It's an amazing crew of folks. As a staff and board we're working right now to determine what exactly the structures will be.

Kalyn Heffernan of Wheelchair Sportscamp has been hosting “Pop-Up” Brunches to help bring in contributions for the Center. What other ways may people in the community donate or contribute?

5: Like any non-profit, depends on the generosity of folks in the community who believe in our vision, so donations are always welcomed and needed! We try to make it fun, like the pop-up brunches (Props to Kalyn!!), which you should come check out to if this goes to print before Aug. 18th. Also, like I said, if you want a studio named after you, talk to us. And later this fall, we'll be having our bowling ball fundraiser. We also need volunteers for a lot of events here and there, so if you have time to volunteer, hit up our Executive Director Jami Duffy at (Please notice that she is not me - a lot of people get confused). 

What can we expect in the future from the Flobots?

5: More of everything!

- Natja Soave

Monday, August 13, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On #63 - Dr. Octagon - Dr. Octagonecologyst

I'll admit – I didn't listen to much hip-hop growing up. Sure, NWA, Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest were important to my young ears, but once I hit middle school and discovered rock 'n' roll my tastes changed. That is until I heard Dr. Octagonecologyst. Suddenly I'd stumbled upon the alternative to all the thug rap that my friends were listening to. This was weird. It wasn't obsessed with bling, bitches and killing people who questioned your authority (though it touched on these subjects in its own warped way). And, most importantly, it had a sense of humor. With Dr. Octagonecologyst, Dr. Octagon, aka Kool Keith, revealed himself as a David Lynch of rap; relishing in absurdity without losing sight of a single, brilliant image.
            In 1996, seemingly out of nowhere, Dr. Octagon was born - half shark-alligator, half man. He created a hospital that specialized in otherworldly surgeries ("we specialize in any kind of rectal rebuilding, relocated saliva glands, and of course, moose bumps") and warped sex therapy ("girl let me touch you there, I wanna feel you.") He was from another planet (Jupiter) before Outkast put out ATLiens. The beats (by then unknown Dan the Automator) - part sci-fi, part horror movie - and DJ Q-Bert's deft scratching abilities perfectly matched Kool Keith's beyond-left-field lyrics.
            There are stand out tracks (e.g. "3000" and "Blue Flowers") on Dr. Octagonecologyst, but this is a true long player. Furthermore, unlike most rap albums where the interludes grow stale after one listen, on Dr. Octagonecologyst they complete the image. With samples from obscure porno films and hilarious ER-like sketches that introduce tools like "scissors, hammer, flame" and proclaim "ok, getting ready to stab - jam it in!" the overall insanity of it is endlessly listenable.
            In short, Dr. Octagonecologyst introduced an oddly compelling alternative to mainstream rap. And, even though the album didn't have a serious message, its willingness to push limits paved the way for other non-traditional rap groups to do their thing (Outkast, Gorillaz, etc.). Most importantly, it showcased a young team of future hip-hop pioneers getting everything right. Dr. Octagonecologyst is a classic and will sound fresh for decades to come.

- Paul Custer

Fables of the Reconstruction: Holy Modal Rounders

It’s a mystery why the Holy Modal Rounders haven’t gotten as much revisionist historical fanfare as the Velvet Underground and the Mothers of Invention. The two albums they released in 1967 and 1968, Indian War Whoop and The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders, were paradigm-shifting masterpieces, every bit as radical as the Velvets’ banana-sticker-cover self-titled debut and Freak Out! and Absolutely Free by Zappa and the Mothers. In some ways, the Holy Modal Rounders’ records are even more avant-garde because all the weirdness is poured into traditional forms that at that point in time hadn’t had much affiliation with pop, stuff like folk and hillbilly music and ragtime and Tin Pan Alley and punk, long before punk even existed. And in so doing, they offer a stunning view of the infinite possibilities of rock and pop that would be explored in the coming years by young musicians all around the world.
            That’s not to say these records inspired legions of sonic experimenters. Most likely, they didn’t. I’d never heard of the Holy Modal Rounders before this year, when my uncle loaned me a record they did in the mid-seventies with Michael Hurley, and in the time since I became acquainted with them I’ve discovered that most of my music savvy friends hadn’t heard of them either. That’s probably because these records are weird beyond weird; so weird that they verge on sloppy, kind of like the music I used to make with my buddies in high school when we’d get really stoned, turn on a tape recorder and strum warbling chords on an acoustic guitar and bang on pots and pans and make spooky sounds with our mouths. The difference here is that the Holy Modal Rounders are skilled musicians, and at the heart of all the psychedelic spontaneity is some solid playing. The fiddle work in particular is top notch. And it’s all stirred together with heavy doses of studio effects—echo, delay, reverb—that give the records a dreamlike quality. Listening to these records is like floating through the greatest flea market on earth, a place jam packed with Americana ephemera that drifts in and out of focus through a hallucinatory haze. You’ll be floating along, grooving on an echoing organ line that sounds equal parts Star Trek soundtrack and funeral parlor dirge, when suddenly the muffled drums quicken and a strand of fiddle cuts in and you’re tapping your foot to a down home barnburner. After a minute or so of that, it might slide into a ragtime ditty, similar in melody to Country Joe and the Fish’s “Fixin’ to Die Rag,” except it sounds like it’s being sung by cartoon rednecks with super-secret intellectual alter egos.
            In other words, these records are just as wild and crazy as can be, and they were wild and crazy at a time when few musicians knew it was even possible to be so strange. If I had first heard them without knowing what they were, I would’ve thought they’d come out earlier this year, and that they were cutting-edge, DIY, underground freak folk, not music that’s older than I am. I’d say they were wildly influential if I had a notion that a lot of later artists had heard them and followed suit, but the annals of rock history are too quiet about the Holy Modal Rounders for me to believe that their influence was direct.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts: Whatta Week!

This was one for the books. Midday Monday my good friends who own two of the best independent record stores in the country (Fingerprints in Long Beach and Park Ave. CDs in Orlando) hit town for a week of relaxation and a couple of shows at Red Rocks. Little did we know it would turn into one of the most memorable music weeks ever! First up was Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s triumphant return to Red Rocks. After Neil’s health scare a few years ago, and his use of bands other than Crazy Horse, it seemed like he might never fully rock again. All worries were set aside the minute he walked on stage and blasted into “Love and Only Love” from his sonic assault of an album Ragged Glory and then blasted right into “Powderfinger.” It was obvious Neil and The Horse were firing on all cylinders, as the volume was high and the guitar solos fierce. Through the night Neil played at least six brand new songs. He has stopped using the flowery prose of the poet and exchanged it for the carefully worded language of the journalist. He has just finished work on his autobiography and each song felt like a chapter, describing parts of his life. The details were touching as he recounted “walking like a giant” as a young man in the 60’s and now, “floating like a leaf on a stream.” It was a different style of writing for Neil, but it felt completely appropriate and fitting for a man his age. The two plus hour show traversed a lot of territory, but it was all fully satisfying. I don’t think anyone went away unhappy as the band galloped through new and old material with a renewed energy and purpose. One of the other record store owners I was with had a connection and after the show we got to go on the tour bus and talk to Neil and his long-time manager Elliot Roberts. Neil is psyched up about sound innovation and is deeply involved in some real cutting edge technological advances that might just change the way we hear music. He was animated and funny and brilliant and pretty much everything you hope for when meeting your heroes. He also looked great; he was thin and clear-eyed and just full of creative energy. We walked off the bus about a half-hour later floating on air.

Next we had a day off from concerts, but I did bring my friends to our Chris Daniels in-store on Tuesday night. Again, this was another moving and profoundly musically satisfying experience as local legend Chris Daniels brought it all home with a beautiful 35-minute performance of songs from his new “album of a lifetime” Better Days. Chris has gone through a brutal battle with Leukemia over the past couple of years and has thankfully come through it and delivered his most emotionally satisfying set of songs ever. He opened with the funny and timely “Medical Marijuana,” but quickly got down to business offering stunning versions of some of the heaviest material on the album. His band, which consisted of some truly great veterans of the Denver music scene (Randy Amen: drums and vocal, Kevin Legge: bass, Chris Daniels: guitar and vocal, Clay Kirkland: harp (harmonica), Sean McGowen: guitar, Andrea McGowen: vocal) just tore it up, and reminded us that Chris is not only a fabulous musician, singer, songwriter, but he is also one of the most accomplished band leaders the state has ever known. Several of the younger, hipper employees at Twist and Shout singled this in-store out as their favorite ever because of both the superb level of musicianship and the resonant nature of his songs as well. We felt emotionally drained and buoyed at the same time, which is what great art is supposed to do to you. We are all lucky to have Chris Daniels in our midst.
Wednesday comes and it is Jack White fever at Twist and Shout. Rumors of a secret gig at Twist are rampant even though we haven’t heard anything about it. I bring my friends by the store, and we were all surprised at the sight of a line of White Stripes fans outside just in case it happens. The store is hopping with people checking it all out and it feels like a holiday. It seems like it probably isn’t going to happen so we decide to check out the new Clyfford Still museum. This is another great addition to Denver’s cultural quiver, and something for us all to be proud of. As we left the exhibit about two hours later I called the store and asked if there had been any Jack White sightings. An employee told me they had just heard that the show was going to take place at an auto-detailing store on west Colfax. He gave a brief description where, but no information about time. On a lark, we decided to head to that part of town and just see what we saw. As soon as we approached Colfax and Federal I could see a crowd and then I saw the Third Man Records traveling record store truck. Holy shit, this might actually happen! We quickly parked and as we were walking over to the crowd of about 300 people we heard a roar go up. We got there just as Jack White and his band launched into four incredibly high-energy songs…in a parking lot…on Colfax. It was one of the most thrilling, spontaneous, guerilla rock and roll moments I have ever experienced. You could tell the crowd was all pinching themselves in disbelief. It was truly surreal and an all-time high for this long-time White Stripes fan. 
We floated up to Red Rocks that night and witnessed a mighty Jack White show that covered all his bands and proved without a doubt that Jack White is one of the heirs apparent to the legacy of great rock stars. His show was brash and ballsy and hit all the right notes. He sang great, soloed beautifully on guitar and led his large all-female band through a tight and satisfying set. The whole experience with Mr. White showed what an incredible grasp of his own career he has. He stormed into Denver and made everyone’s life just a little bit more fun and interesting. This guy gets it!

As we crawled back to Denver that night my heart was swollen with pride for the amazing music town we - all us fans - have created. It is truly miraculous that we live in such a great place with such an awesome music scene. Here’s to US. 

- by Paul Epstein 

Monday, August 6, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #45 - The Son (2002, dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

If you’re new to the works of the Dardenne Brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, there may be a little explaining necessary before you dive into their films. It may be overstating things to say that they ushered in a new school of European cinema (and it may not be) but it’s not overstating things to say that over their last five films, they have won more major awards at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival than any filmmakers ever. Ever. Let that thought stew for a bit. In the mid-1970’s Jean-Pierre and Luc founded a production company and began to produce documentaries of their own and by other filmmakers, examining the social climate of modern Europe, the fallout of WWII, and other topics, often leaning toward looking at poverty and immigration with a strong social conscience. By the 1990’s, they had turned to narrative filmmaking, garnering great notice with 1996’s La Promesse, which paved the way for 1999’s Rosetta, which walked home with the Palme D’Or from Cannes – the first Belgian film ever to do so – for its portrayal of a young woman who works to try to escape the desperate poverty in which she and her alcoholic mother live (both films are slated for release by the Criterion Collection on 8/14).
And it is under the shadow of their success with Rosetta that the Dardennes, feeling great pressure to make a worthy follow-up, created The Son (Le Fils). Given their training in documentary filmmaking, they use many documentary techniques – no sound effects beyond on-site sound, frequent use of existing lighting and locations, no score to emotionally underpin scenes – to create their story. Coupled with their frequent use of medium close-ups of their actors and their penchant for long takes (they say in a commentary that the film consists of about 80 takes – by contrast, the famous 3-minute shower scene in Psycho has 50), the style lends a directness and realism to the picture that is at times uncomfortable. The actors play down their roles and behave like real people instead of movie characters, and in the manner of the best Ingmar Bergman films, there are moments where we feel like we’re present in a tumultuous moment of someone else’s actual life when maybe we shouldn’t be there watching. The center of this film, and the winner of the Cannes Best Actor award for his performance here, is Olivier Gourmet, playing Olivier, a carpenter who teaches his trade at a vocational school for troubled youth (it’s no surprise to learn that the Dardennes conceived the film as a vehicle for Gourmet after working with him on their previous two features). When a new youth, Francis (played by Morgan Marinne), arrives at the school, Olivier at first refuses to accept him into his class, instead following the youth around the school and spying on him. Soon, he relents and accepts him into his class and this is where it’s time to stop talking about the plot.
Nothing much has happened to this point except that we’ve come to see the routine day-to-day behavior of both principles, including Olivier’s odd obsession, and before long, at about a half hour into the film, information is divulged to the audience that drastically changes our perception of the relationship between the two. And it’s the mastery of the Dardennes’ tightly held camera shots – kudos here due to cinematographer Alain Marcoen, who has worked with the brothers on every film from La Promesse forward and contributed greatly to their trademark visual style – their casual yet precise way of offering up plot details with a nonchalance that lets the audience have just enough information to carry us through, their methods of working with their cast to create the pitch-perfect performances (especially, though not limited to, Gourmet’s inscrutable performance of murky motives) that generates a nearly unbearable tension in the film. They play off and confound our expectations of what might happen, what we’ve seen in a dozen or a thousand other movies, and what we might do in the same situation that Olivier finds himself in. They don’t go out of their way to explain things unnecessarily – when Olivier is asked at one point in the film why he’s doing what he’s doing, he says “I don’t know.” And we’re left to put it together and take in what we see on-screen and our own reactions to it.

            The Dardennes have a gift for films about troubled young people that is at once sympathetic to the issues and choices facing them, but clear eyed about the fact that these are choices they make, not inevitabilities. What they also have that more cynical filmmakers lack is a sense of their films treading a line between disaster and hope – will whatever past history binds Olivier and Francis be overcome or will it consume them? More than the specific plot machinations, it’s that tension that makes the films go, and The Son, no less than their Palme D’or honored films Rosetta or The Child, makes the most of that tension.
- Patrick

Friday, August 3, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Krautrock and Its Descendants Pt. 2

I have a friend who remembers listening to the radio in the mid-seventies when the DJ came on and said, “We have this new record and this is the future of music,” and then he played Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” in its entirety, all twenty-two minutes and forty-six seconds of it. I’m jealous. It must’ve seemed like a musical revolution. At its core, “Autobahn” is a simple pop song with a catchy tune and a chorus you can sing along to even if you don’t know German. But it goes on and on and spirals into all kinds of cosmic synth sounds. It’s supposedly structured to resemble a road trip on the famous German highway, the one with no speed limit. I can’t vouch for the resemblance, because I’ve never been fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der Autobahn, but the song definitely has a narrative structure, like a journey through a soundscape of shifting tempos and curious instrumental interludes, and there’s enough variety and stability to hold your interest through the whole trip. When it ends, I want it to keep going.
            Radical as the song must have seemed to my friend back in the day, it probably sounded tame to fans of Kraftwerk’s earlier records. The band’s first several records were quite a bit weirder; freeform compositions conjured with an array of synthesizers and various drums, strings and wind instruments. And this is a reason why Kraftwerk reminds me of one of my favorite contemporary bands, Wet Hair (another is that the latter is clearly inspired by the former). The group hails from Iowa City, and their earliest recordings, which started coming out in 2007, were only for the most adventurous ears: dissonant washes and swells of far-out synth tones and occasional vocals that were flat and deep and uninviting. But when I got into them last year, when they released In Vogue Spirit, some of their earliest fans groused that they’d sold out because the album was full of songs as opposed to waves of weird noise. But to my uninitiated ears, it sounded as far out as can be. As with “Autobahn,” trippy old sci-fi-movie sounds punch up the melodies and the driving beat. With their latest release, Spill Into Atmosphere, their tunes have become even tighter. The bass and drums are bright and clear, and the synth sounds are highly danceable. But there’s still plenty of weirdness stirred in. I talked with Wet Hair’s main man Shawn Reed earlier this year, and when I asked him to describe his music, he said that “kraut pop,” for lack of a better term. So if you’re a fan of Kraftwerk in the 70s, you might want to check this out—though, I have to warn: Reed’s vocals take some getting used to; like I said, they’re rather flat and piercing. Likewise, if you’re already into Wet Hair and other new indie underground stuff like it, you might want to dig into the roots: Krautrock like Kraftwerk, “the future of music.”