Archive for the 'Music' Category

Thurston Moore in Madison

Thurston Moore in
Madison 9/11/15 at the High Noon Saloon. Photo: Bob Wake.

We stood ridiculously close to Thurston Moore at his High Noon Saloon show (his band included former Sonic Youth bandmate and drummer Steve Shelley, My Bloody Valentine bassist Debbie Googe, and guitarist James Sedwards). No Sonic Youth material. Played a large portion of his recent album The Best Day and tunes from an upcoming album titled Rock ’n’ Roll Consciousness. For a 57-year-old punk/noise band innovator from the distant 80s, he nearly convinced me when he declared at one point, “I’ve been waiting forever to grow old” and “old is the new young.” Music ran the gamut from classic-sounding Neil Young rockers to trippy Fripp/Eno guitar instrumentals to blistering noise, sometimes all within the same song.

Dave & Phil Alvin in Madison

Dave & Phil Alvin, July 25, 2014, High Noon Saloon, Madison, Wisconsin.

Dave & Phil Alvin, July 25, 2014. High Noon Saloon, Madison, Wisconsin. Photo: Bob Wake.

A capacity crowd at Madison’s High Noon Saloon last night greeted brothers Dave and Phil Alvin performing with their three-piece backup band, The Guilty Ones. In a word (or two) we were blown away. They played for two and a half hours without a break, including four encore numbers. The Big Bill Broonzy tunes from their new album, Common Ground, were only a portion of the ambitious set list, which ranged through 80s Blasters songs, material from Dave’s solo albums, and a cover of James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please.” Phil’s voice was spellbinding and powerful, confirming a miraculous recovery from 2012 health concerns.

Couple of highlights: a monstrous drum solo from Lisa Pankratz on Dave’s song “Dry River”; and Dave telling the story of composing “What’s Up With Your Brother?” after a Madison solo gig a few years ago at High Noon Saloon: he kept getting interrupted on his way to use the bar’s bathroom by audience members asking about his brother. The story, of course, was followed by Dave and Phil’s bang-up rendition of the song.

Future Islands in Madison


Samuel Herring of Future Islands. High Noon Saloon, Madison, Wisconsin. March 27, 2014. Photo: Kate McGinnity.

Last Thursday night’s sold-out Future Islands concert at Madison, Wisconsin’s High Noon Saloon was an opportunity to see something that I’m sure happens from time to time but rarely when you’re privileged to attend the show. The scenario is this: A long-touring band with several indie-label releases is given an unexpected and explosive career boost—in this instance, a March 4th appearance on Late Show with David Letterman and a subsequent viral YouTube video of the performance—and suddenly the smaller venues they’ve been booked into are bursting at the seams. (High Noon Saloon’s capacity is 400.) Tim Jonze, music editor for the UK Guardian, titled a March 6th blog post, “My mind has been blown by Future Islands on David Letterman.”

As mesmerizing as Future Islands singer Samuel Herring is in the Letterman video, it was surpassed a hundredfold on the Madison concert stage. (You can get a pretty good sense of this from another YouTube video of the band performing at SXSW in Austin the week before they hit Madison.) Herring was backed by expert bandmates (Gerrit Welmers on keyboards/programming, William Cashion on bass, and drummer Michael Lowry) who kept the synth-pop groove anchored while Herring ferociously sang, shimmied, thumped his chest, whacked the side of his head, growling one moment, crooning the next, writhing on the stage floor, his voice switching from primal punk to Motown soulfulness on a dime.

At one point in the show, mid-song, Herring’s microphone broke apart, torn wires dangling in his hand. He kept going and led the energized crowd in a singalong by mouthing the words and never missing a beat. “First time that’s happened in eleven years of performing,” he said, laughing, once he was again wired for sound. A young girl in front of us hugged him as he came off stage at the end of the night. She was both gleeful and drenched, as Herring was trailing an ocean of sweat.

Ellington & Strayhorn’s “Nutcracker Suite” (1960)




Cat People(s): 2 Anniversaries

By Bob Wake

I. Cat People (1942)

The original Cat People (1942), directed by Jacques Tourneur, is both an acknowledged classic of suggestive horror and one of the most famous Hollywood B-movies of all time. First in a series of low-budget RKO fright films produced by Val Lewton, Cat People became a surprise hit that saved the studio from near-bankruptcy following the failure of two iconic films that in their day were costly flops—Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)—directed by the mercurial boy-genius, Orson Welles. Lewton, while unpretentious by Wellesian standards, was no less hungry to make movies.

Cannily, Lewton found a creative path within the system by working fast and cheap. (And finding an economical use for abandoned sets like the ornate staircase from The Magnificent Ambersons that shows up in Cat People.) He’d been a deadline-driven journalist and pulp novelist. And before being offered his own production unit at RKO studios, Lewton worked his way up at MGM as an ambitious story editor and researcher. Cat People’s disquieting atmosphere of Old World otherness combined with New World dislocation can be traced in part to the European backgrounds of Lewton, born in 1904 in what is now Ukraine, and Tourneur, born the same year in France. The film evokes a haunted American melting pot of primitive mythologies and new-fangled superstitions (i.e., psychoanalysis) ill-equipped for securing one’s safety or survival in a modern impersonal cityscape. It should come as no surprise that after working with Val Lewton, director Jacques Tourneur (along with Cat People cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca) went on to make the influential film noir, Out of the Past (1947), which helped define the genre as doom-laden and populated with psychologically crippled outsiders and social misfits.

Cat People’s Irena Dubrovna (played by French actress Simone Simon) is an aspiring fashion designer of Serbian heritage living in New York City. Introspective and melancholic, she believes herself descended from a devil-worshipping were-leopard who survived an Eastern European witch-hunting pogrom in the 16th century. Irena finds herself drawn to the caged leopard in the Central Park Zoo. Her impromptu marriage to a marine engineer (Kent Smith) remains unconsummated because Irena fears that her own unleashed passion will destroy her husband just like, it’s implied, her mother may have killed Irena’s father in a sexual frenzy when Irena was conceived.

Val Lewton wrote a short story, “The Bagheeta,” published some 12 years earlier in Weird Tales magazine, about medieval villagers hunting a black leopard believed to be a were-beast capable of transforming itself into a beautiful woman of taunting, deadly sensuality. Which is to say, a kind of origin myth for Cat People’s folkloric equating of arousal with bestiality and bloodlust. The screenplay is credited to DeWitt Bodeen, although Lewton contributed heavily to its thematic construction and rewriting. Biographer Edmund G. Bansak, in his book Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career, points to passages in “The Bagheeta,” such as the following, that clearly presage Cat People’s distinctive conjuring of fear and eroticized anxiety through the unseen:

Again he rode through the wood. Again he peered right and left for some sign of the beast, fearful always of seeing golden eyes glow at him from the pitch blackness of the night. Every rustle of the wind, every mouse that scampered on its way, flooded his heart with fear, and filled his eyes with the lithe, black bulk of the Bagheeta, stalking toward him on noiseless paws. With all his heart he wished that the beast would materialize, stand before him, allow him opportunities to slash and thrust and ward. Anything, even deep wounds, would be better than this dreadful uncertainty, this darkness haunted by the dark form of the were-beast.

Simone Simon in Cat People (1942).

Simone Simon’s complex portrayal of shapeshifter Irena Dubrovna is sympathetic in a manner not unlike that of Lon Chaney, Jr.’s bewildered lycanthropist Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1940), which had been a recent entry in the long line of lavish Universal studio horror hits that RKO wanted Val Lewton to replicate at a fraction of the cost. No time-consuming elaborate monster make-up for Simone Simon. Instead, characters are stalked by … something. Branches rustle. Shadows loom. Sinister growls echo from the locker room of an indoor swimming pool. Paw prints in the park appear to segue into high-heel shoe indentations.

Concerns that Lewton may have gone too far in substituting shadows and sound effects for in-your-face literal scares caused studio bosses to insist that a leopard be shown during the climactic mauling death of the psychotherapist (Tom Conway) who sexually assaults Irena in his office. Nevertheless, the film’s most frightening jump-in-your-seat moment—still effective 70 years later—is the oft-copied sudden lurching into the film frame of a city bus with its air-brakes hissing.

II. Cat People (1982)

The cult status of Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake of Cat People rests largely on a couple of tangential aspects of the production. First, the David Bowie/Giorgio Moroder theme song, “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” endures as a great Bowie track and gained further pop culture permanence with Quentin Tarantino’s wildly effective use of the song in a climactic sequence of Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Second, director Paul Schrader’s cocaine-fueled obsession with the film’s star, Nastassja Kinski, as recounted in Peter Biskind’s guilty-pleasure history of 1970s Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, rivals the stories of Alfred Hitchcock’s creepy abuse of Tippi Hedren on the set of The Birds (1963). Schrader shot more nudity of Kinski than the actress was comfortable with. He then spitefully added much of it to the film in retaliation for Kinski quitting their turbulant relationship during production. After finishing the movie, she fled to Paris with Schrader in pursuit. Kinski reportedly told him: “Paul, I always fuck my directors. And with you it was difficult.”

The 1982 Cat People relocates the story to contemporary New Orleans, where Kinski’s character Irena Gallier arrives at the film’s opening to be reunited with her brother—a shapeshifting minister played with menacing brio by Malcolm McDowell—whom she hasn’t seen since childhood. Unfortunately, before we meet Kinski and McDowell, we’re treated to a turgid 6-minute prologue of cat people “mythology.” The film never really finds an effective juxtapositional tone between its gruesome modern-day tale of sexual violence and the primal symbolism of the prologue (and a later scene set in the same blood-red dreamscape). A not dissimilar film from the same era, Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980), found a way to integrate this kind of Jung-on-acid material so that the border between waking reality and the unconscious seemed radically porous.

There are compensatory pleasures to be found in Schrader’s Cat People, to be sure, beginning with its high-toned production design and sensational cast. In addition to Kinski and McDowell, there’s John Heard’s shy zoologist whose obsession with Irena brings out his inner fetishist; Annette O’Toole as Heard’s spurned love interest; Ruby Dee as McDowell’s Creole housekeeper; and Ed Begley, Jr. as the affable zoo-employee sidekick whose arm is graphically torn off in a memorable blood-spurting shock moment.

Nastassja Kinski & Malcolm McDowell in Cat People (1982).

Paul Schrader’s films have suffered somewhat unfairly in their critical reception over the years because his reputation as the brilliant screenwriter of two classic Martin Scorsese films—Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980)—has raised unfulfilled and probably unreasonable expectations for his own directorial efforts. Cat People was not a box office success. This resulted in Schrader being pushed out of studio-financed work and toward the rocky shoals of independent filmmaking. (He has grabbed a lot of attention and raised some eyebrows for his latest project, The Canyons, a Kickstarter-funded mock-exploitation film due out next year, with a script by Bret Easton Ellis and starring Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen.)

Further complicating any clear-eyed appraisals of Schrader’s work is his vaunted renown as a trenchant film critic in his own right, in particular as the author of Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, a remarkable examination of the “Holy” in the filmmaking styles of the three European directors addressed in the book title. The study grew out of a thesis written at UCLA Film School, where Schrader received an MA after studying theology at Calvin College. He’d fallen under the spell and personal mentorship of famed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael. Because Schrader’s intellectual background precedes him, film scholars have sometimes been misled in their desire to find deeper layers of philosophical intent to his movies. (To which one wishes to add: Good luck deconstructing The Canyons.)

Elf Power in Madison

Athens, Georgia-based indie music stalwarts Elf Power have released a strong new CD—their tenth studio album—and are touring. The band’s ethereal psych pop and mystical lyricism remain strikingly original as ever, like some sylvan hybrid of William Butler Yeats and early R.E.M. filtered through The Notorious Byrd Brothers. That’s the good news. The bad, sad news is how sparsely attended their High Noon Saloon show was last Monday night in Madison. A generous estimate would place the “crowd” at around 30 people. But let’s face it: woe unto any Wisconsin public event scheduled the same night as a televised Green Bay Packers-Chicago Bears football game.

Given the desultory circumstances, Elf Power’s current five-member lineup (lead singer/songwriter Andrew Rieger, bassist Derek Almstead, guitarist Jimmy Hughes, keyboardist Laura Carter, and drummer Eric Harris) gave an engaging, and, at times, inspired performance. Bassist Almstead’s harmonizing vocals didn’t find their sweet spot until a couple of numbers in, but audience sympathy was on his side as he was hobbling to and from stage on crutches from an apparent injury or sprain.

Highlights included four standout songs from the new album: “The Taking Under,” “Stranger in the Window,” “Like a Cannonball,” and “Goldmine in the Sun.” And a seemingly out of character but very fun cover of “Junkie Nurse” by Royal Trux. Opening for Elf Power were reverb-drenched Madisonians Icarus Himself, whose Fine Young Cannibals falsetto flourishes from lead Nick Whetro were a rousing rebuke to a shamefully underpopulated night at the High Noon Saloon.

Jimmy Hughes and Andrew Rieger of Elf Power performing at the High Noon Saloon, Madison, Wisconsin, Sept. 27, 2010. Photo: Augie McGinnity-Wake.

Neutral Uke Hotel in Madison

So glad we decided to check in early at the Frequency in downtown Madison for the 11 pm Neutral Uke Hotel show last night. Seems a couple of the bands scheduled for earlier in the evening didn’t make the gig, so the Neutral Uke foursome (Shawn Fogel on vocals and ukulele, Josh Cohen on melodica, Michael Epstein on baritone ukulele, and Matt Girard on trumpet) were setting up by ten and playing by ten-thirty. They opened, in other words, for themselves.

Not so odd really, since East Coasters Fogel and Epstein both front other bands (Golden Bloom and The Motion Sick, respectively). We were afforded the distinct pleasure of a strong mini-set of power pop and hook-laden rockers that unquestionably spurred the sale of Golden Bloom and Motion Sick CDs and vinyl singles after the show. The point of their tour, however, is another project altogether: a loving homage to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the still startlingly original 1998 album by Neutral Milk Hotel (formerly of Ruston, Louisiana and Athens, Georgia) that has grown increasingly iconic with every passing year. Thankfully Neutral Uke’s gimmick of playing the entire album on ukuleles transcends its novelty premise.

While Shawn Fogel’s singing has an overall sunnier disposition than the possessed and disturbing vocalizing of NMH’s Jeff Mangum, Fogel acquits himself brilliantly on the album’s most powerful cut, “Oh, Comely,” a monumental eight-minute psychodrama of love and rage directed at the memory of Anne Frank and her Holocaust death. There’s nothing quite like it in the annals of rock history or modern poetry for that matter. Mangum himself recently performed the song when he made a rare public appearance last May at a New York benefit concert.

Neutral Uke Hotel at the Frequency in Madison, WI, August 22, 2010. Band from left to right: Matt Girard, Michael Epstein, Shawn Fogel, Josh Cohen. (Photo: Raina Severson)

The Decemberists in Madison

DecemberistsThe Decemberists came to Madison last Wednesday and rocked the plushly appointed concert hall. The Overture Center for the Arts ain’t no Mudd Club or CBGB, but it’s ideal for live performances of concept albums like Brian Wilson’s Smile or The Decemberists’ new rock opera, The Hazards of Love, brainchild of frontman Colin Meloy. Katjusa Cisar’s generally positive 77 Square review of the show is for the most part on target, even her amusing—if snarky—nutshell appraisal of the album’s story line:

The story—well, nevermind the story. A mash-up of renaissance fair, Rush and The Titanic, sprung from the mind of Meloy, it’s all very mystic: a druid-nymph love affair torn by a jealous queen and snarled by deals-gone-bad and marriage-by-drowning. Someday, it’ll make juicy fodder for an ambitious graduate student studying the link between Nordic folk tales and prog rock.

The Hazards of Love is compelling musically and dramatically (after locating a synopsis, here or here, which is something the CD booklet could really use). I do take issue with Cisar’s characterization of Meloy’s performance as “weirdly stiff” and “emotionally flat.” He seemed ironic and cerebral to me. Weirdly stiff and emotionally flat in a good way. No question that guest vocalist Shara Worden brought classic rock sizzle to her Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature role as the forest Queen. But “upstaging” Meloy, as Cisar claims? I’d say instead that their contrasting styles define the composition’s strength, its off-kilter clash of hot and cool, intellect and bombast. Colin Meloy’s penchant during the evening for alternating sips from a long-stemmed glass of red wine and a cheap plastic bottle of water pretty much says it all.

Worth noting for fans: Meloy appears to be blogging now, quoting from Infinite Jest and recounting childhood disagreements with his sister about Depeche Mode lyrics. His sister is Maile Meloy, who has a well-received new book of short stories out, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It.

[Editor’s update: I’d be remiss if I didn’t give the last word on the Decemberists’ show to Augie, who’s penned his own enthusiastic review.]

Together Through Life

dylanTogether Through Life is the Bob Dylan album I’ve been waiting for without even realizing it: lean and bluesy with a Tex-Mex kick courtesy of Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo on accordion. While I admired the “career resurgence” trio of albums that began with Time Out of Mind (1997) and continued with Love and Theft (2001) and Modern Times (2006), I must confess these are albums I’ve rarely returned to. I’ve already listened to Together Through Life more times than any Dylan in years. No question I’ve found my soundtrack for the summer of 2009.

Instant classic: “I Feel a Change Comin’ On,” as melodic and open-armed as “Lay Lady Lay.” (There’s some typically Dylanesque confusion about the lyrics: Rolling Stone’s review of the album quotes and scrutinizes a line from the song as “you are as whorish as ever,” claiming that Dylan “growls it like a compliment.” However, an online lyrics site scans the line as “you are as porous as ever.” Porous seems the more likely choice in context, but not definitively. The aforementioned online lyrics site is on shakier ground in rendering another line in the song as, “I see my baby comin’ / and she’s walking with the village beast,” where “beast” is pretty obviously being sung as “priest” on the CD.)

Krall Does McCartney

krallLike many coffee spewers, we’re suckers for a new Diana Krall CD, even though her prolific output has been generally uneven since Live in Paris (2002). Her latest, Quiet Nights, is once again a fairly safe mix of songbook standards and soft-rock covers. Reconfiguring pop chestnuts as “jazz tunes” can be a tiresome gimmick to attract aging boomers. But it didn’t seem that way when Cassandra Wilson set the gold standard with her smokey version of “Last Train to Clarksville” on New Moon Daughter (1995). And Krall, to be fair, did fine by Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” and the Bacharach/David “The Look of Love,” both of which show up on Live in Paris. Quiet Nights has three smooth-jazz makeovers, the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” which didn’t much impress us, ditto another Bacharach/David tune, “Walk On By,” and—the album’s best cut—an unexpectedly beautiful cover of Paul McCartney’s “For No One.” Krall’s version is gorgeous, aided in no small part by legendary arranger Claus Ogerman, whose distinctively ethereal orchestrations were behind some of Sinatra’s best 60s work. Perfect for a Beatles tune, in fact, because Ogerman’s touch has an uncluttered elegance not dissimilar from that of George Martin’s. After listening to Krall sing “For No One,” we were inspired to dust off the Revolver CD and listen to McCartney’s original. Then we got caught up listening again to the entire epochal album (if not our favorite Beatles album, which most days is Abbey Road). As for Diana Krall, at the very least download “For No One.” Great song, so-so album.


Recall: A Short Story

Walden West and the Twilight of Transcendentalism

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Caffeine & Other Stories by Bob Wake

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