Thursday, August 16, 2018

Humour me: Coriolanus and The Glass Menagerie

Even the heaviest plays contain some elements of humour and levity — though often only the savviest of directors and cast tease those out.
Stick with me...
My wife and I attended two plays usually given austere treatment — Shakespeare's Coriolanus and Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. In our case both productions were intelligently teased apart to yield insight and, yes, laughter, where lesser talents have plodded directly into the morass. Both plays are tragedies, but the humour — even if it is ironic — is finally what makes a production humane and relatible.

Robert Lepage's Stratford production of Coriolanus is sensational and not to be missed. Lepage's enthusiasm for designing dynamic set-pieces is put to excellent effect.
The play is given a contemporary setting, and a fifth-act exchange of texts between two soldiers is guaranteed to bring down the house. Lepage and cast clearly understand that Coriolanus' twin defects are his pride — he is a gifted soldier, but also a belligerent moralist and stiff — and his entitled status as a mama's boy. The latter is played to great effect, keeping audience reception warm and engaged.

Menagerie's Tom Wingfield is also a mama's boy, albeit one whose sense of entitlement is deliberately leading him out of the family fold.
Most productions feature Tom in a remorseless state of pique, well past receptivity to any of his mother's expressions of love — which are fraught, to be sure, but needn't be played with po-faced “Mommie Dearest” hideousness. Annette Stokes Harris' and Michael Serres' direction of Menagerie for Port Perry's Theatre On The Ridge artfully avoids that temptation.

You can't rewrite the play — Tom is clearly beyond ready to leave — but Liam Lynch embodies Tom with a fading, but still present, awareness of his mother's love, as well as his for her. Where other actors present a seething mien when Amanda spins off into yet another southern belle reverie, Lynch lets slip a reluctant smile, and the sense that his initially sarcastic response to her play-acting is a mask he wears for his own sake, and occasionally slips as the three Wingfields settle into their co-dependent fortress.

Full disclosure: Annette and Michael are our dear friends. My wife and I enjoy their company, in large part because they embody the creative/collaborative spirit. With Theatre On The Ridge they have pulled together a cast of up-and-coming actors-on-the-cusp, and the results for Menagerie are utterly spectacular. Lexi MacCrae, Michael Williamson and Lynch are all advanced students in, or recent graduates of, esteemed drama programs — the fusion of youthful energy/hunger with the keenness to go pro must have been an absolute gas for our friends to work with, and it shows.

The concluding performance of The Glass Menagerie is tomorrow, 7:30 at Port Perry's Townhall Theatre. Don't miss it.

Coriolanus runs until October 25, in Stratford, Ontario.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Anniversary 'Airborn' covers by Jim Tierney

While browsing the bookstore shelf the other day, I noticed that Kenneth Oppel's fabulous Airborn trilogy has finally received the cover art it deserves, via Jim Tierney.
If Tierney's aesthetic seems familiar, it's because he's become a justifiably high-profile cover artist. Here Tierney presents the trilogy's Edwardian High Adventure motif with just a whiff of the Steampunk jazz that Oppel so delightfully fused into it.

I wish I could transplant these covers to the jackets currently donning my hardcover copies of the trilogy. In the nine years since I initially discovered the books, I have revisited the stories many times. I've often thought the first book could be an excellent textbook for aspiring novelists of every stripe. Oppel's narrative architecture is patiently and meticulously laid out, giving the sincerity of his emotional investment an utterly persuasive heft. Write whatever the hell you want  if you can pare it down to Oppel's standard of disciplined delivery, you will be leagues ahead of 90% of what you see on fiction shelves.

LINKS: The ladies at BookWars duke it out over the various covers Airborn has received over the past 14 years, and declare a winner. Kenneth Oppel is on Twitter. He seems like an eminently approachable chap with a grounded sense of things  check him out, then check out his books.

House Of The Rising Sun, James Lee Burke

House of the Rising Sun (Hackberry Holland, #4)House of the Rising Sun by James Lee Burke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Burke's House of the Rising Sun is remarkable in that it contains two female protagonists possessed of complex, but understandable, motivations. Long-time readers of Burke will easily recognise the third and final act (nothing wrong with that: it works, and it works well), but the first two are built on a studied emotional subtlety that is sometimes missing in Burke's ever-expanding library. New readers and long-time fans should find this a very satisfying read.

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Winnie-the-Pooh origins?

I couldn't say whether or not this "Heritage Canada" moment made it into the new movie...

Friday, July 27, 2018

Liturgy: Taking the “Fun” out of “Funeral”

In the opening minutes of Hereditary is a short shot that unnerved me so badly I gave serious consideration to excusing myself and leaving.

The movie begins with a funeral. A child stands by the casket, beholding her late grandmother. In the periphery is a man looking directly at the child and grinning horribly. I thought, if the rest of the movie is like this I don't know if I can manage it.

The remainder of Hereditary is indeed upsetting, but I found the means for managing it. I might get into that at some point, but for the purposes of this posting I'll just use the grinning man as a metaphor for the state of remembrance in this place and age — lots of grinning, little grieving.
“Celebration of Life” seems to be a popular theme these days. To be fair, it is a rare funeral that doesn't contain some element of celebration — circumstances have to be crushingly tragic for all joy to be absent. But to reduce remembrance to mere “celebration” is a heinous sham.

I've been to a “celebration” that began with Led Zeppelin's “Kashmir” being played through a second-rate PA system. Things proceeded apace from there. You can believe it's a memory that haunts me. The fellow being celebrated was maybe 10 years my senior. He died by his own hand.

As we drove away from the service, I said to my younger daughter, “It doesn't matter which of our species' Big Five you settle on, so long as you publicly choose one and stick with it you will be saving the loved ones you leave behind the unintentional grief of proceedings like this.”

I have just returned from another funeral.
Anthony Block — a young man, 21, the son of my dearest childhood friend. Anthony was born to two Mennonite parents, and chose to be baptized into the Anglican Church his father joined some years ago. The funeral was a very big deal, because the death of a young person is a very big deal. I attended with my father. When we left he said, “The lovely thing about the Anglican liturgy is it allows all people to grieve.”

Given where I've been living and with whom I have associated for the past three decades — the bulk of my life — I have been in near constant contact with the Anglican Church of Canada. My difficulties, or “issues,” with it are significant. But dad is right. The liturgy helps. My wife and I borrowed the marriage liturgy when we tied the knot. I haven't given the orders, but you have my blessing to go ahead and pinch the Anglican funeral liturgy for my remembrance, should it come to that.

Getting back to the aforementioned “celebration” — the departed was born in the British Isles, a culture so thoroughly christened it is impossible to give a proper account of it. It would not have been completely out-of-bounds, I don't think, to resort to the liturgy on his behalf — in fact, at one point we all rose to say the Lord's Prayer, regardless of the man's religious convictions or lack thereof. Had we frog-marched ourselves through the liturgy, his closest friends could have said, “What a crock! R___ didn't believe a word of this guff — he must be spinning!” But that anger — that's good, isn't it? That's grief, man. That needs to be there.

Eyeh. I have enough friends who have very pointedly joined the “Nones” — I get it. In fact, I don't just empathize, I sympathize. But if that's you, please give some thought to your own funeral. Give your loved ones a chance to grieve.
Anthony Block was among the gentlest people I've known. He was amazing with kids, and with vulnerable types in general — a soft touch, but not at all a pushover. He was unique, he loved to give. LiveDifferent is the charity designated to his memory.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Dan Baird & Homemeade Sin, This Ain't Hollywood, July 3

Greetings, P___.

I got a call from Our Mutual Friend, wondering if I'd join him in Hamilton to see Dan Baird & Homemade Sin at This Ain't Hollywood. My knee-jerk reaction was to decline, of course. But it had been just over a year since I'd last seen Our Friend and catching up with him over burgers and beer before a night of Baird & Co's feisty brand of rock 'n' roll was, on further reflection, quite an attractive offer. So I came out of “retirement” and made the drive to Steel-Town.

Back in '86, Baird shot out of the gate and into the stratosphere when his band, the Georgia Satellites, scored an unlikely hit with “Keep Your Hands To Yourself.” Thirty years later Baird is understandably circumspect about that event in his particular space-time continuum. He plays it every show, of course, and brought it out early this night. “If I'd known I was going to have to play this song the rest of my life, I would have wrote something else — Joe Walsh said that about “Life's Been Good.” If Baird harbours similar feelings about “Hands” a) nobody could blame him, and b) nobody could sense it from the way he plays it on stage.

If this night was any indication, there is no more committed performer of the rock show than Dan Baird. He battled various gremlins throughout the night — a faulty capo, a broken snare, various tuning and timing issues. Such are the risks one courts when switching up the setlist every single night, often on-the-fly. Baird started up an impromptu version of “Long Black Veil” which clearly caught the bass-player — youthful newcomer Sean Savacool — off-guard. He locked eyes with guitarist Warner Hodges, who calmly shepherded him through the chord progressions. The end result was a seamless success, a rock ‘n’ roll torquing of a country chestnut.

You and I last saw Hodges doing his thing as a Scorcher, some 20 years ago, when Perry was still alive and pounding the kit. Hodges was already clean and sober by then, but still exhibiting the attitude that once fuelled such exploits as smoking cigarettes through a nostril whilst lip-lock chugging a Heineken and keeping rhythm.

Today even the cigarette habit is in check, and his evolution as a bandmate is a revelation. He and Baird traded quips about the unexpected challenges encountered that evening — Baird’s delivered with a snicker and a sneer, while Hodges’ with a placid shrug and knowing smile.

Yin and Yang, in other words. Whoever thought balance could be achieved in a rock show? But if a rocker is going to do this into the sixth (and counting) decade of one’s life, however else are you going to manage it?

And all this before a crowd of 40.

During the final song of the night, an audience member rushed the stage in an evident euphoric state. I turned to check him out — he was a member of the opening band, a fellow some years older than I. He had announced his intention to get ripped to the tits, and had clearly managed the feat. For a moment I envied him — is it at all possible to trigger Dionysian rapture without resorting to Dionysian excess?
After a while, it all becomes a blur.
Rhetorical question.

The deeper envy was beholding this group of elder brothers, watching each other’s backs and committing themselves not just to the music and the show, but to each other’s welfare. They were a band, in other words — that most admirable and enviable of social/professional groups.

Let’s keep the band together, shall we?



P.S. This is the setlist, as near as Our Mutual Friend and I could figure. With the exception of the closing song, the rest of the order is VERY questionable. Also: missing are some numbers we couldn’t name, no doubt to be released on the forthcoming Screamer, which looks to be another winner.
Younger Face (possible opener)
Shake It Til It’s Sore
Julie and Lucky
Keep Your Hands To Yourself
I Love You Period
Long Black Veil
Damn Thing
All Over But The Cryin’
Let It Shine
Love Gone Wrong
Do My Worst
Crooked Smile
Sheila/Do You Wanna Dance
Railroad Steel (closer)
Here is a recent interview with Baird, held just before a series of health shocks broadsided him/them. It burnishes some interesting insights into Baird’s way of thinking and doing his thing in the current environment.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Mid-Life Fan Letter

I encourage my daughters to write fan mail — have done so since they were little. “It doesn't matter if they're a Big Deal, or someone who's Almost That — if this person has brought some joy to your life, they deserve to know.”

They don't listen to the Old Man, of course. And, to be fair, why should they? I haven't written fan mail since I was their age, and shame on me. For instance, if Devin knows I'm crushing on him, it's through no fault of my own. In hindsight, instead of courting injury at the edge of the circle pit during this concert, I should have forked out for the Meet-n-Greet. The backstage pass cost several times the price of admission, but at my stage in life (and his tier of fame) it was perfectly affordable — even something of a deal, when contrasted to what I paid to see Steely Dan earlier that year. I've no idea what Townsend would have made of beholding a puffy 50-year-old in the same queue as a bunch of excited kids half that age — and there's the pity. It might have amused him, it might have thrown him off-kilter — we shall never know, alas.
"That's me in the middle,* finding my religion..."
*Not really.

Anyhow, earlier this week I broke out the digital pen-and-paper and wrote my first fan-letter in decades.
The deepest pleasures in life are often unanticipated. When I received notice of a new Anderton's/JustinGuitar “rut-buster” video I expected little more than another low-key musical revelation that might, or might not, be useful in my own attempts at self-improvement-via-guitar. By video's end I was laughing in delight.

I can't give any account of what happened that won't sound pedestrian. First off, it's all Music Theory 101. Mrs. K___, my piano teacher, tried to impart this basic understanding when I first began lessons with her as a seven-year-old. Forty-three years later my daughter explained it to me all over again, with pencil and paper and charts. I'd memorized it, and I could recite it at will. But I could memorize and recite a Japanese koan with greater understanding than I had for this basic, basic material.

I'd been a campfire guitarist for 30 years. I knew what “One, four, five” meant, kinda. The main thing was, if you gave me the key, I could play the three “magic chords” just fine.

By the end of episode 6, I understood how “One, four, five” related to the major scale, and how the major scale could be applied to any standard one- or two- or three (plus)-chord pop or blues song to make a pleasant-sounding solo.

That's it.

But it blew my head open.

I couldn't begin to count how many times I've had that simple, fundamental theory explained to me over the last five decades — it never, ever, sank in until this week.

There are two reasons for this revelation: 1) Justin Sandercoe is just about the Socratic Ideal of what an instructor should be; 2) this gentleman stood in as my Student Avatar, so that as the concepts became real to him, they became real to me.

So I wrote “Captain” Lee Anderton a fan-letter. Dude's 46 years old, runs a successful music shop in the UK, has a wife and kids of his own, but he's willing to go on-camera and learn the fundamentals of music theory so he can improve his guitar chops just a bit — in front of millions. That takes some sand. And now he's got a 53-year-old fan-boy.

Yes, well . . . let's not make any more of that than we need to. What I really want to stress is this: the world needs more fan mail.

I don't have to tell you what a downer it's become to turn on the computer and log in. We can't even pick up the bloody phone without getting minute-by-minute updates announcing the growing toxicity of global social expectations. Anything that counters that is a sprout of joy that needs protection and nourishment. “Likes” are nice — but fan-mail is better.

Go. Do.

Post-script: Hm, looks like the production people at Anderton's/JustinGuitar have removed Episode Six — temporarily, I'm sure. I think they mistakenly posted Six before Five, so you'll just have to wait — or start at the beginning and catch up. But the larger point is there is probably something/someone else who's bringing you joy — let's hear about it. And let them hear about it, won't you?

Monday, June 25, 2018

Guitars I dig: Malcolm Young's “The Beast”

Malcolm Young's signature guitar was a 1963 red Gretsch Jet Firebird, given him by his older brother George.
When AC/DC started out Malcolm and his younger brother Angus traded solos — Angus claims Mal was always the better guitarist — but at some point Mal insisted the kid brother take lead and show-boating duties, while he, the elder, stood back and kept the train on the tracks with his dependable steam-engine rhythm stylings.
During shows Malcolm would switch from one Gretsch to the next, but inevitably “The Beast” came out. He made it his own by removing the trem-bar (“hard-tailing” it), the middle and neck pick-ups as well as the fire-engine red paint. It is as purely a rhythm guitar as can be.
Could be the knobs are there to keep it held together.
People with too much money can buy themselves a 2017 replica of “The Beast” for anywhere from $10,000 to $21,000. Players can find non-stressed varieties of the Malcolm Young Jet for anywhere from one- to three-grand. Owners are rapturous, for the reason you might expect — the guitar delivers that famous crunch tone, best when paired with an older Marshall amp cranked to 11.
"You're gonna charge WHAT??"
I see one version of the MY Jet has two pick-ups, so a player could reasonably expect the guitar to handle other duties besides stripped-down 12-bar blues-driven rock. However, I can't imagine anyone buying it for any other purpose than to chop out the AC/DC songbook — either in some crowded pub, or (more likely) their own bedroom.
Or church parking lot, depending...
That's more money than I could ever justify spending on an instrument of such limited expression. But I will admit that despite (or, let's be honest, quite likely because of) my complicated history with AC/DC I do have a special fondness for Malcolm's rhythm guitar. After a Saturday afternoon spent tackling some particularly tricky blues riff, nothing clears out the frustration like 10 minutes of chunking through “Jail Break” and “It's A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll).”

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

“What are you listening to?”

“Is Bill Evans still 'On The Platter'?”

“Yes,” was my immediate reply, followed by a pause. “The others are not.”

“What are you listening to?” is my go-to icebreaker (“What do you do for a living?” and “What are you up to these days?” are average questions that fetch average answers). But when I was asked the question on Sunday, I found myself at a loss for words.

I am listening to a lot of blues these days, albums from the '60s that inspired the bands that once inspired me — “The Three Kings”: Albert King, B.B. King, Freddie King. It amounts to aspirational listening — I'm hoping to graduate from dog-paddling in the kiddie pool to doing the front crawl in the deep end. The listening isn't without pleasure, but the focus of attention on technique tends to keep me cool where once I was prone to fevers of passion.
"Michael rowed the boat ashore, ah-lay...[repositions fingers]...LOOO-yah!"
There are other albums making regular appearances on the “recently played” playlist: In Your Own Sweet Time by The Fratellis; Ámr by Ihsahn; some tracks from the recent Samantha Fish album (wup — we're back in the blues again). These days I'm recycling Led Zeppelin quite often, as well as the older Rush albums, with the occasional Clockwork Angels replay, just to keep it all in perspective.

But mostly I'm listening to podcasts — lots and lots of podcasts. About which, more later...