Field Report’s summertime: Christopher Porterfield faces his demons with the sun in his face

Field Report Summertime Songs (Verve Forecast)

The waning days of summer feel like a perfect time to consider what lies in the warm shadows of Field Report’s latest album Summertime Songs, released last March. Yes, days remain sultry and summertime songs glow and gleam with all the embracing life-force of the season.

Yet singer-songwriter Christopher Porterfield’s senses arise from nature’s passing cycles into death, and the quietly troubling and deeply philosophical musings of his dream-infested brain.

You feel older and wiser after it’s done, even as you sing yourself the ear worms of Porterfield vocal hooks like an enchanted teenager. Yes, it sounds slicker than anything he’s ever done, but it’s also easily as deep, beneath the pop gloss. The effectiveness arises first from the gentle experimentalism of his music, which has abdicated the lead guitar, as has much of contemporary pop, so refreshing a release from testosterone-fueled ego and excess. That’s not to knock the all the great guitarists and moments by guitarist of varying repute, but time has passed, and Field Report is right there, right here.

The album opens with a searing electric violin vamp that sounds like Steve Reich on steroids and immediately pries open the listener’s imagination. Throughout the album, the setting is expansive yet vivid in textures of synthesizers and electronic strings, and the sinuously propulsive drum grooves of jazz drummer Devin Drobka, delighting in messing with rocky back-beat jollies. But ultimately this is about the poetry of Porterfield, and his voice’s soulful declamation of it, by turns ardently striving and biting the tongue of its own querulous spirit. His eyes and senses are too wide-open to be bullish about anything, even though they love humanity in loss, of ongoing glory that summer blesses us with.

How is he doing chart wise? Well, the album may have risen and peaked already but it is listed on EuroAmericana chart the among the “Tips” albums by the chart’s resident critics. http://www.euroamericanachart.eu/. Nor has the album to date apparently caught up with the charms of the group’s first two albums, according to lastfm.com: https://www.last.fm/music/Field+Report

Porterfield remains a sort of songwriters-songwriter, having won over a number of grade-A songcrafters whom he or Field Report has opened for, including Emmylou Harris, Richard Thompson, Adam Duritz and Counting Crows, and Aimee Mann.

This cognitive dissonance in the music market may be partly because Summertime Songs is perhaps a little too streamlined in sound for the more rough textures that appeal to typical Americana music listeners. Nevertheless, Porterfield remains decidedly the sort of ruminative, deeply resonant singer-songwriter that many folk music lovers cherish. So they’re missing something if they overlook this. And there’s something quintessentially American about his point of view as well, even as the electronics seem to borrow something from EuroPop.

Christopher Porterfield of Field Report. Courtesy NPR

What’s American about this album? First, the band’s from Milwaukee, arguably the capital of the nation’s heartland. It also involves the individualism of Porterfield’s questing. He also often performs solo with only his acoustic guitar, and as big-sounding as his anthemic songs are, they work quite well solo, given the strength of his voice, musicality and poetry. He reflects today’s America especially in his ongoing striving to get a grip on truth and reality, while both seem to flirt with dreamlike states, poisoned improbabilities and living nightmares – especially when so many ordinary Americans suffer from addictions, to opioids or demagoguery’s easy, manipulative answers.

You were bouncing off the guard rail shouting at the wind

We were off our meds, drinking again;

we played them like a stolen violin

I knew my outlines and my ends,

They were embarrassed by sincerity back then.

If I knew/ what I know/ so far yet to go

The careening scene from the song “If I Knew” feels as classic Americana as Kerouac’s “On the Road,” evoked also in the album cover’s shambling car interior. And the last triplicate phrase, with its ending twist, reveals a guy gripping a few hard-won wisdoms. Yet the strongest of these is having learned a few forward steps in a still-long journey. The last phrase is the song’s resounding refrain, hollered in the roaring wind. Those who mock sincerity with currently-fashionable cynicism end up on the sidelines of complacency.

The next song, “Never Look Back” sustains Porterfield’s questing theme with fresh insight. He sings of trusting someone to cut off his hair with a pocketknife “…with my eyes closed I don’t need you do try.

I just need you to know I’ve earned what I’ve been going (through? A word lost in the wind?) and I am all about the day when we cut it all off, and throw it all away.

Turn the telescope back around; get these troubles out of view. Forgiveness does not excuse, it just prevents all of the others from destroying you.

The haircut is really a metaphor. You really sense the speaker’s relationship to humanity, still a Melvillian isolato, a bit ravaged, deeply troubled, yet embracing forgiveness as a kind of shield or scab. Bleeding may ensue, as well as backsliding.

From the video of the band performing from the new album, it appears Porterfield still waits for someone to hack off a shock of hair that resembles Elvis with a finger in a socket. But it’s the meaning behind the liberating act sustaining him, not the promise of short hair, per se. Field Report video “If I Knew,” etc.

So here’s a man who wears his flaws on his sleeve, or his scalp, and never stops digging into the querulous uncertainties that awaken him restlessly each morning. And his throat clears to the voice of an everyman, with a heart big enough to let his lungs bellow out like schooner sails catching the wind.

Christopher Porterfield is the sort of seer-poet who can sustain us if we give him a chance. Late summer’s not a moment too soon. He won’t always provide comfort but he’ll give us a boost, so we can see the horizon, even with the baleful sun, or inner demons, in our face.

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“Summertime Songs” album cover courtesy NoDepression.com

 

 

 

Lorrie Moore is a MVP as a literary switch-hitter

Lorrie Moore See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary (Knopf)

Lorrie Moore hides beneath layers of talent and the dazzling obfuscation of a great storyteller. The longtime Madison resident remained a very private person over the 20 years I covered the arts there, including her own literary output. It’s partly because she’s among America’s most acclaimed fiction writers – winner of the short story’s preeminent prize, the PEN/Malamud Award, an O. Henry Award winner and a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, among other accolades. She also edited the esteemed 2015 anthology 100 Years of The Best American Short Stories.

But See What Can Be Done uncovers Moore layers, a motherlode of essays and criticism, from The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review or The New Yorker, among other publications: 35 years of what she self-deprecatingly calls “using another part of my brain.” During those decades she taught creative writing at UW-Madison, until Gov. Walker’s draconian budget cutbacks left UW unable to match a professorship offer from Vanderbilt, in 2014, as her son approached college age. Nashville now seems an exile for a cultured New York state native who long-ago embraced a Midwestern lifestyle and sensibility.

Lorrie Moore in her Madison back yard, before she moved to Nashville. Photo by Linda Nylind

Though clearly liberal, she comments even-handedly on the 2012 Wisconsin recall of Walker (was she on his UW-faculty hit list?), more piercingly on the 2016 election, which means “almost 3 million people were disenfranchised…would we not plot regime change of a country with a similar sham democracy?”

She’s a storyteller-critic and this 400-page collection reveals perhaps our best literary switch-hitter since John Updike, even if there’s almost always competitors. 1 And Moore would likely banish herself to sliver-collecting benchwarmer, having once said: “Writers have no real area of expertise, they are merely generalists with a highly inflamed sense of punctuation.” Touche to herself, but her “inflamed” punctuation could avoid a double play, for sure. Moore’s super-utility-player talents bless her-non-fiction: sly wit and humor, burnished and felicitous style, and deep flashlighting into human character, whether fictional or of authors reviewed or represented in biographies read. I found myself re-reading some essays, plowing through the litter of my underlining, for the sheer pleasure of it.

She savors excellent writing, with shrewdness and humanity. She quotes generously, and never takes easy critical potshots.

Moore posits Updike (a fellow PEN/Malamud award winner) as “American literature’s greatest short story writer, and arguably our greatest writer without a single great novel.”

Compare her to a competitor among our finest author-critics, British-born New Yorker Martin Amis, who has coincidentally published a new collection of his reviews and essays, also for Knopf. The Rub of Time, Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1994-2017 reveals Amis similarly staying abreast of the political zeitgeist and loaded with critical powers, and is also highly recommend.

He makes a more extended argument for Saul Bellow as America’s greatest 20th-century author than Moore does for Updike, whom Amis also substantially analyzes. “Bellow is sui generis and Promethean, a thief of the gods’ fire,” and he “sees more than we see – sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches,” Amis writes. He also asserts that Updike and Philip Roth, his estimates as Bellow’s two strongest rivals, “have both acknowledged” Bellow’s preeminence. Norman Mailer’s stance on this should be considered. 2

Amis, however, has a weakness for attention-seeking posture and form, and periodically for gratuitous critical negativity that doesn’t age well. In the former category is his curious essay “In Pornoland: Pussies are Bullshit,” which I got halfway through and simply lost interest in, even given its nominal provocation.

Then Amis sadly commits Homer Simpson-like blunders (factual and interpretive) discrediting Moby-Dick – while expressing “gratitude and awe” for what he says could be The Great American Novel, otherwise. 3

Image result for homer simpson meme doh

He similarly throws Kafka’s visionary and prescient novel The Trial under the EuRail without even directly naming it, while implying he couldn’t finish any of the writer’s four novels.

By contrast, Amis’ extended contemplation of Vladimir Nabokov (over several essays) probes the great Russian writer’s seeming tendency toward pedophilia (Lolita, et al.) with lucid insight that flirts with prurience but persuasively builds a case for that writer’s unique genius. By comparison, Moore is no prig; she frequently addresses the nuances of “erotic love” in her collection, especially regarding Alice Munro, a literary goddess in her eyes. But Moore also possesses teflon-like taste, happily poking through trashy culture while never smelling of trash herself.

Above all, she leads readers on a glowing pathway to the heart of the matter. One of her favorite modifiers is “heartbreaking.” She’s finely attuned to a story or novel’s emotional tuning fork, which can place a palpable imprint on a reader’s soul. Some sexists might then infer that she mainly reviews women writers. Munro does claim three reviews here. She covers Ann Beattie, Nora Ephron, Joyce Carol Oates, Bobbie Ann Mason, Margaret Atwood, Eudora Welty, poet Edna St. Vincent Millet and the eccentric Brazilian Clarice Lispector, a/o.

Moore is praised as perhaps our wittiest and most poignant contemporary literary fiction writer.

Yet (unlike Amis) she assesses just as many outstanding opposite-sex writers. For example, she rightly critiques Philip Roth’s acclaimed American Pastoral for its “disdainful depiction of sixties radicals (who are given little of intelligence to do or say),” and aptly assesses his The Human Stain as “an astonishing, uneven and often very beautiful book.”  And yet, with almost painful prescience, she comments, the book “fails to extend understanding toward – and only makes fun of – the possible discomfort of minorities or women…where prejudice may be trickily institutional and atmospheric…” 4

She also deliciously unpacks meaty television series, including The Wire, Homeland, True Detective, O. J.: Made In America, and the sorry Wisconsin spectacle of Making a Murderer, among others, and sure-footedly branches out to theater, film and music. (She nails Homeland’s pivotal image: bipolar CIA sleuth Carrie Mathison’s “days of mania,” clue-clotted bedroom bulletin board: “Like a piece of installation art…Seeing the camera pull back on this decorated corkboard is like watching a world come to light.”)

Regarding True Detective, she captures the first season’s cinematic vividness, just in time for  mega-sized HD TV screens: “Through sensitive photography the setting seems to liquefy and flow into the cast to form (not just inform) the characters’ blood and spirit, vowels and squints, head shakes and struts. Their hot tears are a warm rain from the wide celluloid sky. This is assisted by first-rate actors, who possess the highest powers of concentration.” By comparison, season two pales, but Moore dutifully plows through it to dig up nuggets of redemption. Even “doing duty” she’s easily digestible enlightenment.

Her characterization of Beattie seems self-description. Beattie knows “that when you put people in a room together they will always be funny…No other writer manages such warmth and coolness simultaneously…there are no loud noises or bright colors; there is little overt grief, rage, or giddiness.” Moore’s serene, puckish equanimity, even in rough emotional waters, typically buoys her stories with seductive comic poignancy, and helps make her a lighthouse of a critic.

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  1. Note, for example, the categorically different and supremely ambitious 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley (whom Moore calls her personal “hero”). Smiley is a rare novelist-critic, and this superb non-academic survey of classic literature includes a vast, intimately authoritative meditation on novelists and the novel form, and a review of 100 famous novels, which she praises, punctures and dissects with crafty aplomb. Also, novelist-essayist Julian Barnes has written brilliantly about visual art in Keeping An Eye Open.
  2. In his magisterial late-career book The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing, another heavyweight literary contender, Norman Mailer, suggests Bellow is the top 20th-century dog: “Bellow is now inching more close to the Beast of mystery than any American novelist before him (referencing Henderson the Rain King).” More  provocatively, “It is possible that Bellow succeeds in telling us more about the depths of the black man’s psyche than either Baldwin or Ellison.”  Then, nearly as provocative qualification: “I know that (James) Jones and I would’ve been ready to urinate blood before we would’ve been ready to cash our profit and give up as Bellow did on the possibilities of the demonically vast ending.” Also, in a comment worthy of Moore: “(Bellow) creates individuals and not relations between them, at least not yet (He seemed to accomplish that in the later Humboldt’s Gift.).” Mailer himself admits to chasing Ahab’s whale in his blitzkrieg of the mountain, The Naked and the Dead, in “The Fight,” from the vast Mailer anthology The Time of Our Time, which also includes the best short-essay assessment of Huckleberry Finn I’ve read (from 1964): “One comes to realize all over again that the near burned-out, throttled, hate-filled dying affair between whites and blacks is still our great national love affair, and woe to us if it ends in detestation and mutual misery.” Back in Spooky, Mailer adds perceptively, “I think the younger writers are sick of Roth, Bellow, Updike, and myself, the way we were sick of Hemingway and Faulkner.” As a baby boomer, Lorrie Moore avoids succumbing to such generational bias.
  3. Amis comments on p. 27 that Moby-Dick contains “no women (even the hunted whales are, without exception, bulls)…” This overlooks one of the novel’s most celebrated chapters. “The Grand Armada” lyrically describes The Pequod crew witnessing intimately an armada of maternal whales nursing their young. Also, in his desperate last effort to deter Ahab from their suicidal chase, Starbuck commiserates with his captain over their profoundly missed spouses in the crucial chapter “The Symphony.” In the very same sentence, Amis writes: “There isn’t much America in it.” Critical appreciation includes vast tracts about America’s symbolic and specific presence in Melville’s novel. The Pequod crew itself is often exemplified as signifying America’s diverse, democratic population.
  4. Lorrie Moore, See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary, Knopf, 113-116

A shorter version of this review was published in The Shepherd Express.

American Players Theatre’s “Blood Knot” reaches deep for ties that bind

Gavin Lawrence (left) and Jim DeVita play South African half-brothers in Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot,” currently at American Players Theatre. All photos by Liz Lauren, courtesy APT 

Blood Knot by Athol Fugard, Touchstone Theater, American Players Theatre, through September 28. For information APT

SPRING GREEN –  When you’re born in the heart of darkness you may begin to understand a world’s weird palpitations. The sun sets and darkness does a somersault.

South African playwright Athol Fugard can summon such effects, with brotherly insight and affection. I’ve hardly seen the entirety of August Wilson’s 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle.” So suffice to say, south of Pittsburgh, Fugard’s Blood Knot captures one of the most complex aspects of the black experience ever dramatically wrought, perhaps in all the modern world.

Overstatement? Surely arguable, but the man’s a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature for good reason. He turns up the dramatic heat with the slow, laser-focused pressure of a master welder, until the emotional and intellectual impact burns into the viewer’s mind. As per its mission, American Players Theatre offers a classic of modern drama and, at mid-run, they did so Sunday with a one-time, pay-what-you-can price matinee. It’s a professional Theater Guild production, but they want people to see this. It’s well-worth a full-priced ticket.

Regarding our increasingly crazy and disheartening planet, the greater developed world still strives toward liberal democracy. Yet we can get sticky when it comes to political correctness, which typically entails doing the proper thing even though it’s sometimes self-defeating.

I’m wading into that uneasy backdrop, because this play and its casting prove fearless and ultimately correct, in the best senses. Some controversy arose when Caucasian actor Jim DeVita was cast as Morris, one of the two South African brothers barely getting by in a one-room shack in the non-white ghetto near Port Elizabeth.

African-American director Ron O.J. Parson wisely stood by his cast decision. For starters, Fugard’s characters are half-brothers, with the same white mother. More significantly, the play updates the classic Cyrano de Bergerac, wherein a poetical man becomes stand-in suitor for a smitten friend, who’s ill-spoken and ill-suited for wooing a woman. In this case, Fugard boils it down to one brother simply capable of writing, the other illiterate.

DeVita has actually directed Cyrano and, in that sense, this intensely immersive professional has strong experience with Fugard’s source theme. DeVita also played the title role and later directed perhaps Shakespeare’s darkest character-portrait, Richard III. He’s APT’s preeminent actor, having played Hamlet, Tyrone in A Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eddie in A View from the Bridge and received an NEA Literature Fellowship. Specific credentials aside, he’s a hell of an actor who deftly juggles comedy and drama. He has the sonic range, timing and  expressive nuance of a virtuoso violinist.

The white South African playwright himself has said he was actually inspired by his own relationship with his white brother, “and how cruel time had been with him.” So clearly, though the cutting-edge subject matter is clearly race, Fugard aims for the universal.

Make no mistake, Gavin Lawrence proves wonderfully winning, even heart-wrenching, as the illiterate and darker-skinned brother Zachariah. I can’t do full justice to his performance in this context.  Further, the actual true progress of P.C. in theater is gender-and-colorblind casting, which far more typically benefits women and actors of color. Yet this white male actor, in final analysis, proved how wise that ideal can be.

I’m trying to convey the playwright’s mastery of P.C. as social and linguistic subtlety, and regards deeper-seeded matters of brotherhood and, finally, love. This unfolds and sustains superbly with Fugard’s magnificent writing which, with the inevitability of nightfall, casts musical linguistic images in deft shadows, what I would call an ashen lyricism. From seemingly simple images, “the ruins of an old Chevy,” to grander utterances: Zachariah’s “I may be a shade of black, but I will go gently as a man,” or Morris’ mystery-invoking speech at the end.

For sure, this man bears the weight of life’s mysteries. By contrast to his exultant, go-for-it brother, Morris, a seemingly unemployed writer, struggles under a mountain of neurotic and fraternal complexities. Each night, after Zachariah’s shift as a park gate-keeper, the lighter-skinned Morris soaks his brother’s aching feet in epsom salts, a gesture of abject fraternal bond.

The two also recall John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, another parable about two apparent losers in life. Whereas Steinbeck’s slow-witted Lenny habitually looks to the future as a dreamer-fool, Morris calculates obsessively for the shared future of the two brothers, fully sensing how fragile that is. Yet he takes pleasure, even short-lived vicarious delight, in penning little love letters for his brother’s response to a white woman’s personal ad. Remember, this is apartheid South Africa.

“What you have thought, that’s the crime,” Morris warns his brother. “They’ve got ways and means, mean ways.”

Bible-quoting Morris is so deeply repressed that, when his brother asks him whether he’s ever been with a woman, he curls up like a flower burning into an ash.

Fugard richly weaves together symbolic objects, including an all-white suit that Zachariah buys with all the money his brother has squirreled away for their future. At this point, the layered complexity of their relationship unfurls, from teasing to playful exuberance, to turning inside out, so we see truth more clearly.

Finally, the play evoked W.E.B. Du Bois’ famous explanation of the “double consciousness” a black man must endure in a society that refuses to see him as a man. Du Bois himself was a rather light-skinned black man, well-educated and capable of passing as white. In this play, Morris carries such tricky “passing” consciousness with the weary endurance of Sisyphus. His brother signifies his potentially liberated spirit, the brother for whom life is too cruel.

Rarely have two so seemingly different brothers been bound together in a “blood knot” that might burst their hearts. And yet, Fugard resists any easy summation, because his ashen lyricism never really rests.

Listen to Morris, obliquely affirmative, near the end:

“Yes, It’s the mystery  of my life, that lake. I mean. . . It smells dead, doesn’t it ? If ever there was a piece of water that looks dead and done for, that’s what I’m looking at now. And yet, who knows? Who really knows what’s at the bottom?”

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