In This Case, Lesser Lakes is More

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Lesser Lakes Trio – The Good Land (Shifting Paradigm)

Lesser Lakes Trio is a quietly intriguing, even enchanting conceptual music trio that seems both of the land and above it, like a cloud , or a broad-limbed tree, or a hovering consciousness.

Their website self describes the Milwaukee-based group as three “sonic storytellers” undergoing a “restless search.” These  storytellers weave a web of enlightenment with melody and rhythm. Harmony is comparatively spare, reflecting the influence of the original  Ornette Coleman Quartet, which liberated itself from the “background” of harmonic changes, and the pop-like but serious musical sensibility recalls another contemporary trio, The Bad Plus.

The evocative statement also notes “there is something timeless and haunting in a waterway whose path skirts the larger bodies for more subtle divergencies, defying where gravity would cause most to rest.” The album cover depicts a vintage photograph from 1911, of three human figures standing on a Lake Michigan shore engulfed in snowdrifts.

Accordingly these somewhat meta “lesser lakes” strive to illuminate rivulets and rushes, “a regional riddle that unlocks a universal desire for musician and audience alike; to feel the wonder of it all.”

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The music radiates openness, a wide-eyed intelligence that embraces the natural world.  On the title tune, “The Good Land,” trumpeter Jamie Breiwick, here as elsewhere, is more pied piper than strutting jazz virtuoso. He unfolds a spare but eloquent theme that seems to reach out its hand to followers. The consciousness seems to survey the land, pronounce it as good and worthy of preservation, for harvesting, conservation, and appreciation. Breiwick’s trumpet solo uncovers thick textures, like a spade digging into soil, turning over rock and roots, perhaps even a night crawler.

So the group’s musical agility and creativity serve an overarching yet humble purpose. Bassist John Christensen breathes and bellows the musical movement. Devin Drobka is a special drummer, his style uses a deft sense of space, rhythmic disjunction and momentum that implies plenty of life’s complexity, but at an organic level that is not humancentric – down to the ground enough to dance with that earthworm.

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

Rosenblatt continued: Remembrance of art people past, and present

This post follows, in large part, the pull of nostalgia, which had me recently trekking over to the UW-Milwaukee’s art building (in the Peck School of the Arts), on a sunny windswept afternoon…I’d spent countless hours in this building when I was earning my BFA in the early ’70s. Especially time-consuming was the work on bronze cast sculpture molds, which required applying layer after layer of silica sand slurry to the mold…and waiting for each layer to dry…to build up a sturdy resistance to the infernal temperatures of the prepping furnace before pouring the fiery lava flow of molten bronze into the mold for a cast sculpture.grooms mural

A portion of artist Red Grooms’ mural group portrait of students and faculty of the UW Milwaukee art department in the early 70s, still located on the second floor of UWM’s art building.

During some of those slurry sessions I envied the folks up in the fourth floor, where painting was the area of concentration. But we make our choices and at that point in time I had chosen art that I knew would literally stand up and be counted and appreciated from all directions in its own space. Part of it began with the fast gratification of first working in wet clay and coming up with forms fairly quickly, someone akin, in three dimensions, to the gratification enjoyed by working painters swimming in intoxicating oil paint.

The crossroads between painting and sculpture leads me to my present subject, which I’ll try to be brief about, given that I just recently wrote an extended review of it off Rosenblatt’s retrospective at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, which is here:

Adolph Rosenblatt: A great eye, gifted hands and a huge heart

The exhibit, primarily of figurative ceramic sculptures, will close this Sunday, when it is viewable from noon to four although there are also viewing hours Thursday and Friday. Four hours and Info, click here:

Moments & Markers: An Adolph Rosenblatt Retrospective

 Rosenblatt, who died last winter at 83, was a remarkable man and artist, with an outsized personality to match. Though short in stature, he could fill up a room with his presence, especially when he started laughing.
Rosenblatt’s daughter Sarah commented, in sharing my review post on Facebook, that she considered her father a handsome man, so she was uneasy with my description, which spoke of a disparate assemblage of parts in his face. I even drew a comparison to a face Picasso might create.

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Blowup photographs of Adolph Rosenblatt at the retrospective of the late artist, at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee. The show will be closing Sunday.

I would agree with Sarah that he was, in his own way, a handsome fellow, as the blow-up photos of him, probably in his 40s, show (above) at the Jewish Museum exhibit.  His long dark locks were dashing, with their deep, natural swerve, down and up the side of his forehead.

But she understood my impression of him and, and reminded me of the portrait of her father in the marvelous mural (see image at top) the New York-based artist Red Grooms had done of faculty and students of the UWM art department in the early 70s. I recalled it had graced the art department commons lounge  right outside the fine art gallery, for years. Sarah told me that yes she was referring to the mural, and that the mural was still on display there. I was delighted to know this, and decided I would go revisit it, before the Rosenblatt show ended this Sunday.

Turns out, Grooms’ mural remains easy enough to see during hours that the art school is open. Simply go to the second floor. The elevator opens and there it is.

It remains a stupendous and utterly delightful work, for anyone to see, though nostalgia enhances it for those depicted in it, or who were part of the art department then.

Several outstanding faculty members are depicted in the left portion of the mural (at top). Note the looming mustachioed man, Tom Uttech who, to this day, I’ve never met or seen in person. He stands as tall and imperiously mystical as one of the grand trees in his woodland paintings, magical mystery tours that are among the most beloved productions of any Wisconsin artist.

I’m not sure who the professor is sitting in the wheelchair at the far left. Anybody out there who can name him, or anyone else here?

As for the mural’s other inhabitants, I don’t recall the names of hardly any of the art students partly because I spent, by then, most of my time down in the building’s basement with the scruffy sculptures students. The painters on the fourth floor always acted good-naturedly as if they were a bit above us basement heathens and, of course, literally they were, by four floors. But I do recall the very sweet woman in the middle in the purple sweater, beneath the guy in the yellow Rolling Stones “bitch” T-shirt. Her name was Vicki, whom I may have met in Rosenblatt’s life drawing class.

Grooms ‘signature and the dates are visible in the panel below the seated fellow’s crossed crutches (in image below).

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In the image below, you see Rosenblatt’s face. One senses that Rosenblatt’s presence may have helped attract Grooms to UWM For a residency given the affinity between Rosenblatt’s animated sculpture and Grooms’ celebrated 3-D pop-up arts. When he got here he also experienced the Milwaukeean’s mischievous hilarity, which was evident all over his face and head in the mural.

Now I realize that in describing Rosenblatt’s demeanor in my review,  I was subconsciously recalling this portrait – Grooms depicting his face as a nest of colorful strokes of energy swimming in crazy circles. I’m sure Rosenblatt dissolved into his jello-bowl of laughter over it, a number of times.

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The colorful character of artist Adolph Rosenblatt is captured in Red Grooms image of him at the top of this portion of the UWM mural. 

I’ve been thinking more about Rosenblatt’s inimitable laugh and now I think I recollect it even better. It seemed to have a looney hiccup right in the middle of it. He’d repeat the high-pitched giggle-hiccup several times before composing himself with a slightly satisfied, hoarse sigh.
It was a bit like the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland after a few too many drinks. Not that Professor Rosenblatt was drinking on the job – life and art were clearly a natural high this man.

Below Rosenblatt in this mural section is bespectacled Professor Joseph Freibert, a far more mild-mannered man, but an excellent teacher and artist. To the right of Freibert stands red-haired Professor John Colt, an art department star, whose original painting style centered on mysterious, even mythical nature forms amid glowing, watercolor-like atmospheres.

I’m not in the mural, being a sculpting basement dweller. But I was there back those days, Below is a photo of me down in the sculpture department’s open-air courtyard, working on my carving to be titled “Chained Life Force.”

Yes this was the early ’70s, as you can tell from the styles of everyone in the mural as well as myself. May those times and people live on, as an indelible piece of Milwaukee cultural history.

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Culture Currents blogger Kevin Lynch sculpting at UWM in 1972.

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All photos of Red Grooms’ mural by Kevin Lynch

 

 

 

Adolph Rosenblatt: A great eye, gifted hands and a huge heart

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The late Adolph Rosenblatt, with his many quirky friends in his large sculpture “My Balcony.” Courtesy UWM Photo Services

Adolph Rosenblatt Retrospective: Moments & Markers, Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, 1360 North Prospect Ave., closing Sunday, August 27. Hours are Monday-Thursday 10-5 PM, Friday 10-3 PM, Sunday 12 noon-4 PM. Free parking is behind the museum building.

I first met Adolph Rosenblatt in the early 1970s when he taught me life drawing in a class at UW-Milwaukee. He helped inspire me to switch my major focus to sculpture, from advertising design. He had just begun exploring the possibilities of figurative clay sculpture, after being primarily a painter. And when I took a basic sculpture class I was seduced by the sensual and palpable life I sensed in wet, malleable clay in my hands.

In our life-drawing class Rosenblatt would set up a large wooden board with mounds of wet clay on a drawing easel and bring the goopy lumps to life. This incongruously proved quite relevant to our ostensibly two-dimensional discipline, as we were trying to create the illusion of sculptural three-dimensionality on paper, with graphite or charcoal.

He and art professor Joseph Friebert helped liberate my drawing technique, which had been hard-edge and perhaps cold in its attempt at realism. Rosenblatt, a short, slightly hunched man, who died in February of natural causes at 83, would wander among our drawing easels, making incisive, wry and sometimes slightly outre suggestions. After all these decades I don’t recall any, so I’ll borrow from students quoted in a display at the wonderful Rosenblatt retrospective Moments & Markers, at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, 1360 North Prospect Ave., which is closing this week on Sunday, August 27.

One student took seriously Rosenblatt’s seemingly counterintuitive advice: “If a painting isn’t working, paint out your favorite part.” I think Rosenblatt understood the tendency of artists to fall in love with their own work, to even fetishize a part they’ve focused on and perhaps overworked. When all else failed, he would say “F–k the world and just paint.” Either was a way to let loose and let go, and see your work with fresh eyes.

And did this man ever have fresh eyes! However, one thing he did miss, it appears, was a self-portrait. Seeing again at his marvelously rough-hewn, vibrantly animated work, I see it reflecting the face of Rosenblatt himself. He should have done a sculptural self-portrait, because his face was a slightly incongruous assemblage of mutating forms. He could concentrate deeply but he always seemed on the verge of slipping over the edge into utter hilarity, of dissembling into laughter, and his infectious giggle of glee. His whole face would become a smile of many mirthful, slightly askew parts, almost Picasso-esque. But I suspect his disheveled lack of self-regard kept him from a self-portrait’s potential narcissism. He had a great eye with a fine mind, a master observer of others.

And the humor that coursed through his whole body transmuted into his art, which might be called “The Human Comedy.” And, not unlike Honore de Balzac’s novel masterpiece La comedie humaine, this artist saw and interpreted the world with a deep sense of the fallibility, absurdity and neuroses amid the beauty in each person. Rosenblatt also gives his figures a gritty gravitas that rarely feels solemn. The retrospective does reveal his social and political consciousness with a series of life-sized head portraits sculpted of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Another is of Anita Hill, famous for her sexual harassment testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. “I had to tell the truth,” Rosenblatt quotes her in the fired clay. “It is a high-tech lynching.” Hill here is expressive and beautiful, all of her facial contours rise as if struggling up a hill. If only her case had arisen today, as male sex abusers in power face their day of moral and legal reckoning. Rosenblatt’s sculptural memorial to Hill demarcates her as a pioneer of today’s “#Me Too” movement.

Another example of the peculiar dynamism Rosenblatt could convey in a high-relief sculpture is “New York Times – Berlin Wall” in which he re-creates a front page of The New York Times in clay, with the headline “East Germans Flood the West: After 40 Years.” The front-page “photograph” is a mass of humanity surging forward toward the viewer, brimming with pent-up hunger for deliverance and freedom, palpable in the heaving urgency of their bodies pouring out of the sculpture.

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Rosenblatt’s “New York Times – Berlin Wall.”

In such work you sense, beneath the surface, how humanity’s crookedly ambling collectivity often flirts with, or converges into, tragedy. As with the Anita Hall sculpture, in our era of vast swaths of desperate war refugees and immigrants, “Berlin Wall” carries powerful political and dramatic urgency, which literally reaches out to touch the viewer. Rosenblatt carried on a grand tradition of high-relief sculpture that goes back to the Greeks.

And yet, he will likely be most remembered for his depictions of modest, undramatic scenarios. He would take his boards full of clay into places like the Oriental Pharmacy lunch counter and render customers, or to the balcony of the Oriental Theater, which both became fairly “epic” works, if such a word could be applied to such striving to capture unassuming human humility and comedy.

One of these centerpieces of the show is the massive tableau, “My Balcony” (1997) depicting the Oriental Theater’s balcony with 50 or 60 people sculpted in quirky detail. You see couples necking, hands and legs entwined, a mother with a squalling child on her knee, another mom nursing her infant in the theater’s ostensible darkness. Each figure seems to radiate a virtual lifetime in the subtle facets of Rosenblatt’s gestural, fingerprinted way of modeling the figure, as if each has been shaped by the slings and arrows of fortune, the vicissitudes of time. This mastery of revelation gives his work a timeless and fascinating humanity – as if each figure has many tales seeping from their pores.

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Adolph Rosenblatt vividly captured a wide swath humanity in his large sculptural tableau, “My Balcony.”

The second major piece is less of a frontal display than the balcony, more of an experience of a quotidian place of unique yet oddly familiar people. “Oriental Pharmacy Lunch Counter” (1987) was a now-gone Milwaukee institution of sorts, a layout of long dining counters that snaked its way along five or six lanes of countertops. It was often jam-packed, as it is here and one feels more voyeuristic than with “My Balcony,” because you walk can around it and peer at the mood and situation of each customer and lunch-counter employee, eating, or chatting or daydreaming. One wonders what brought each one of them to the counter on this particular day.

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One corner of Rosenblatt’s large tableaux, “Oriental Pharmacy Lunch Counter.”

The work’s total effect is an exposure of human types that Balzac might have described had he lived in Milwaukee in the 1980s. These two big pieces have a discursive quality akin to Balzac’s sprawling masterpiece, though ambitious on their own terms. Other influences I detect are one he likely admitted to, Honore Daumier, the great artistic lampooner of middle and upper 19th century French classes. Daumier also did highly textural sculpture, not far different in style from Rosenblatt’s. Despite his barbed satire of the powerful and pretentious, Daumier betrayed tender affection for the hoi polloi, as in his classic “Third-Class Carriage.” His superb painting of industrialized France depicts the quiet fortitude of passengers in the third-class train carriage including, like Rosenblatt’s Oriental balcony tableau, a nursing mother.

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Honore Daumier’s “Third-Class Carriage.” Courtesy metmuseum.com

I also sense at least a parallel sensibility in now-famous “underground” cartoonist Robert Crumb’s artlessly skilled renderings of slightly gawky and sometimes sadly comic humans. I see, too, the Crumb parallel in Rosenblatt’s whimsical way with architecture, as in the delightful 1977 sculpture “Houses on Bartlett.” Here, a snowy landscape seems to pulse through its steep, rippling surface and even the houses almost expand and contract, as literally breathing from the lungs of Gaia. Or, more prosaically, an animated cartoon stands smack in the middle of a gallery.

The show’s second gallery shows different sides of the artist, including a good-hearted satire of elderly sun worshipers in “Snow Birds,” and a surprisingly ominous, noirish cast-bronze scene in which human features are wiped away.

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Rosenblatt’s “Snow Birds.”

A revelation lies in one of Rosenblatt’s large paintings. The stunning untitled oil bears the influence of another great Jewish artist, Marc Chagall, who is represented in the first gallery by a mural-size wall hanging. Chagall’s famous magically flying humans appear in Rosenblatt’s canvas, floating amid a burning atmosphere of abstract impressionism/expression. Such color-soaked brilliance brings us back to his fired clay sculptures, most of which are deftly and creatively hand-painted, adding another dimension to his 3-D art.

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Rosenblatt’s large, untitled abstract impressionist painting, with floating figures reminiscent of Marc Chagall.

And to that end, for all this show’s riches, I must close by returning to the movie theater balcony, a very revealing detail. On the furthest occupied seat to the right in one balcony row sits a man isolated by empty chairs around him, the only notable cavity in the crowded balcony scene. His head turns away from the whole crowd; his left leg rests on his right knee in a posture of a man whiling away the afternoon at the movies, hidden from the world. But he’s not watching the movie, only staring into his own private infinity.

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This lonely figure tells a deeply human story in Rosenblatt’s “My Balcony.”

His slightly shambling presence, to me, seems the essence of a quietly bereft but almost stubborn solitude. Rosenblatt has purposely captured him in this manner as a flip side – among the most common and universal sides – of The Human Comedy, the heart of loneliness. And for that, it’s a testament to Adolph Rosenblatt’s insight into humanity, his expressive skill and unerring generosity of spirit.

May Adolph live on, at a lunch counter in the skies, with bottomless cups of heavenly, hearty coffee and camaraderie.

All photos by Kevin Lynch, unless otherwise noted.

 

Father Sky is soulful music to your ears and to the earth

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Singer-composer-pianist Anthony Deutsch on the cover of his debut album. Photo by Danielle Simone Charles

Father Sky – Father Sky (self-released)

A capacity crowd recently at bucolic Villa Terrace for his debut CD-release celebration and Father Sky itself are testament. Young Milwaukee pianist-singer-composer Anthony Deutsch has old-soul wisdom and gifts for speaking to people about matters of the heart, and of the mind/body disconnect that often separates us from our deepest nature and from Nature.

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Milwaukee’s bucolic Villa Terrace overlooking Lake Michigan, was Anthony Deutsch’s choice of location recently to perform his nature-oriented music, “Father Sky.” Photo by Kevin Hansen.

His bluesy melodicism recalls the deceptively spare alt-jazz tunesmithing of The Bad Plus’ Ethan Iverson, a thread strengthened by Father Sky bassist John Christiansen and drummer Devin Drobka.  But Deutsch loves Nina Simone. His singing follows her forlorn, loamy eloquence – her world-weary persistence and faith. To me, Deutsch’s style also mirrors the exquisite jazz singer-pianist Andy Bey – the naked willingness to reveal male vulnerability.

Still, Deutsch’s folky, Father Sky-meets-Mother Earth sensibility tends to personal ecological vision, like someone picking pieces of grimy dust out of a spider’s web. Deutsch croons artfully but, unlike Bey, he’s a tall, large person, so his spacious baritone sometimes projects like a wolf howling at the moon. He leans a lot on the sustain pedal for sweet wisps, but the piano also pirouettes in sun-lit atmospherics. And “Soon, My Love” has a funky kick Gil Scott-Heron would dig. “Gonna Find Home” yearns for a home that’s everywhere, like the holy land Lakota Black Elk spoke of. There’s musical and spiritual substance here (he shows harmonic chops playing standards live). This beguilingly wayward talent might just take you away, home.

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A slightly shorter version of this review was published by Shepherd Express.

 

 

 

 

 

Jazz Now will celebrate the Milwaukee jazz experience in time, sound and spirit

Jazz Now event poster II

Poster designed by Elizabeth Vogt

Milwaukee ain’t The Big Apple, nor is it The City of Big Shoulders. On its best days, the city shines, like the magnificent Santiago Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum. On its worst days, it weeps a river of tears.

This is a struggling rust-belt city with more than its share of social and racial problems. That doesn’t mean it’s not a city of vibrant and meaningful culture, a city that can heal and grow by virtue of its diverse community, perseverance, and vision.
The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, once the home of the storied Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, counts on that progress and is willing to celebrate it right now, with something called Jazz Now. It’s a special event that acknowledges the city’s special genius of jazz and the toil to survive and connect, singing the song of Milwaukee’s surprisingly vaunted musical past, its present and, most importantly, its future.

So I am especially proud of an invitation to be part of this celebration, which will happen on Saturday, Aug. 12, at 8 p.m. (doors open at 7).

I will give a reading from my forthcoming book Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy, specifically parts of it which highlight the history of jazz here, especially in the halcyon days of the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery,  in the 1970s-80s. I will be joined by trumpeter-bandleader-educator and jazz archivist Jamie Breiwick. He will briefly also explore the city’s musical pasts and present, especially as archived and documented in the valuable website Milwaukee Jazz Vision.

Special awards will be given in the name of perhaps the city’s greatest living jazz legend, guitarist Manty Ellis. The Manty Ellis award will honor persons for “exceptional support of jazz in Milwaukee” Ellis has exemplified decades of stellar musicianship and historic commitment to jazz education. He has also organized more recently The Jazz Foundation of Milwaukee. The organization is affiliated with the national Jazz Foundation of America, which will sponsor the event and cover it for their national newsletter.

Awards recipients will be announced at the event.

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Manty Ellis (seated at center) will perform with his quartet at Jazz Now at The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts on Sunday, August 12. Photo by Elizabeth Vogt.

Ellis and Breiwick will also perform at the event with a quartet and special guest performers.

Another award will be given in the name of Chuck LaPaglia, the founder and owner of the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, for persons providing “outstanding promotion of jazz in Milwaukee.”
Without his vision and dogged dedication, Milwaukee would’ve had a far poorer jazz scene and history.
But LaPaglia was there when we needed him, and now we are here in celebration.

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Milwaukee Jazz Gallery founder-owner Chuck LaPaglia back in the day.

One more than one occasion, the center’s current manager Mark Lawson has said to me, “What this place really needs is an angel or two.”

The event will honor one angel who has finally delivered something and several other meaningful supporters of Milwaukee jazz, awards chosen by Manty Ellis.

Nevertheless, the venue could use another benefactor, to sustain general operations, including maintenance, booking and promotion. But that’s one reason to get the word out on this event, where we’ll measure and acknowledge the center’s great value to our city and to the music and the arts.

Come on down and let the good times roll.

 

Jazz Now event poster II

Steve Earle: The Hard-Core Troubadour Carries Wounds in his Outlaw Heart

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Steve Earle (right) and two of the Dukes rock out at a recent concert at the Minneapolis Zoo.  Dukes’ fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore and guitarist Chris Masterson also played a short opening set in their duo incarnation, The Mastersons. All photos by Kevin Lynch 

Apple Valley, MN – Steve Earle continues to amaze, for the depth of his musical and songwriting talent, his passion, righteousness and intellect.  He often manages to weave all these aspects through any given song.

He’s also a rare bird for his self-described working-class redneck cultural background. Our overheated stereotyping today might peg him as one of the anti-intellectual, blind-faith types that walk the Donald Trump lockstep. But Earle’s a patriotic lefty and an author with so much to give in mind and heart, and this was abundantly clear when he performed Sunday night at the Weesner Amphitheatre in the Minneapolis Zoo.

His extremely generous set displayed the range of style and attitude he’s cherished for.

A key moment arrived when he recounted his experience of beloved singer-songwriter Guy Clark’s death, which began with a story about high school teachers who showed Earle the way. Fellow Texan Clark had battled cancer for a decade, and lost his soul mate spouse Susanna Clark a few years earlier. Earle recounted waking up in Nashville, and joining other mourners to sing Clark’s songs. In his new album’s liner notes, Earle explains how he packs grief in his back pocket: “It’s no secret that loss comes naturally to those of us who wander the outer edges of the wide world. We’ve not only come to expect that, most of us have made it our stock and trade to embrace it, savor it, set it to the melody that the North wind whistles and the rhythm of a broken heart.”

When he got home, Earle wrote his song for Clark, “Goodbye Michelangelo.” It shows his well-honed tender side. Plucking a plaintive electric mandolin, he sang: “So long, my Captain adios/ Sail upon the sea of ghosts/ Chase the white whale to the end/ Bring the story back again…You taught me everything I know/ Goodbye Michelangelo.”

Why “Michelangelo”? Clark was an artist-craftsman, a guitar-maker – a sculptor of guitars – as well as a musical poet like his best friend, and Earle’s first great influence, Townes Van Zandt. (Guy’s ashes are accordingly waiting to be incorporated into a sculptor’s bronze statue. For a great example of that three-songwriter connection, hear the album Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark: Together at the Bluebird Café.)

“Michelangelo” graces Earle’s new album So You Wannabe an Outlaw, which is inspired by an original “outlaw musician,” Waylon Jennings. His classic album Honky Tonk Heroes grabbed Earle’s wayward heart again, not long ago when he was searching for an album theme. Jennings’ album was another timeless collaboration of dust-covered compatriots, Billy Joe Shaver and Tompall Glaser. 1

Earle’s a man of brotherhood and sisterhood, and both tendencies brim with romanticism, he admitted Sunday, toward the end. He openly recounted circumstances that surround his current situation, not-long divorced from his former musical mate and spouse Allison Moorer. He’s hopelessly star-crossed, it seems, having been married seven times, including twice to the same woman. Despite it all, Earle still believes in romance, not only between lovers, but in the idea that there’s a person out there for everyone. He even helped Moorer finish a song not long ago, “News from Colorado,” which he then recorded and performed.  And even if his belief is riddled with holes, he now cherishes the provisional freedom of “watching all the baseball games I want to.”

These reflections led to the new album’s “The Girl on the Mountain,” which echoes Townes Van Zandt’s “Colorado Girl,” speaking pointedly of a love he can’t let go. Earle could always soften his boot heel-tough voice, and here it drags its feet like a hobo: “Sometimes late at night I pray/She’ll come down to me someday/But the girl up on the mountain never knew.” The ambiguity of that last clause pricks the heart. Did she ever really know how he loved her? Did he ever really have a chance? Would he always lose her to a mountain?

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Steve Earle, performing here in Minneapolis, is a self described “romantic” who’s unafraid to bare his soul in concert.

The new album bears various riches, including two hard-life songs “If Mama Could See Me” and the harrowing “Fixin’ to Die.” The former one walks the fine line between shame and regret: “If mama could see me in this prison she’d a cried but she cain’t,” another canny line about tough realities. What mother can really accept an imprisoned child?

“Fixin’ to Die” recounts a crime of passion: “Fixin’ to die and I reckon that I’m going to hell. Shot my baby in the Heaven-on-the-Highway hotel!” Earle followed it up with the thematically conjoined “Hey Joe,” best known as a cover by Jimi Hendrix. It’s another murder ballad that he and his ace band The Dukes lent great power and even majesty, on the broad-shoulders of tragedy. It also included a razor-edged political ad lib: “I’m goin’ down south before that a–hole builds that wall/ So a man can be free!”

Earle mixed in just enough of his superb catalog for variety, including the heavy-metal grinder “Copperhead Road,” the pealing mysticism of the minor-key vamp “Transcendental Blues,” the stirring call-and-response of “City of Immigrants” and, in encore, one of his most exhilarating songs, “Johnny Come Lately.”

In the World War II tradition, “Johnny” celebrates returning veterans, even though this tale tells of a Purple Heart Vietnam vet who’s plenty worse for wear. Yet the irony of his troubles make hardly a dent in the hometown hoopla. Wait until he tries to find a job.

Finally, I can’t overlook Earle’s power-packed new song “The Firebreak Line,” which, he said, might be the first song dedicated to wildfire fighters. Wildfires, especially in California, continue to ravage drought-ridden areas and threaten property and human health and life. Talk about a new breed of unsung heroes. Until now. “Gotta pray that the wind’ll die/ and it rains down from on high/ raise a glass/ for the hotshots past/ in hotshot heaven up above the sky.”

Even if his personal life – including serious prison time for drug convictions – often plays like a B disaster movie, Earle is a hard-core hero in my book, the sort we need as many as possible of in our blighted culture and politics. I wonder how many working-class voters, especially fellow Southerners, pay attention to his word, compassion and insight.

He also displayed his superb musical taste in his choice of opening acts. The first group, the duo called The Mastersons, are actually members of the current edition of the Dukes, and include the excellent guitarist-vocalist Chris Masterson and violinist-mandolinist-vocalist Eleanor Whitmore. Together the couple dealt out piquant harmonies and snap-dragon rhythms.

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The Cactus Blossoms add very original dimensions to their Everly Brothers-esque vocal harmony style.

Harmonies were also the calling card of the second opening group, The Cactus Blossoms, and if you only glanced at the card you’d swear it read “The Everly Brothers.” I’ve never heard a group more perfectly and pointedly capture the gleaming fraternal resonances of that famous duo. And yet, for all that, you found not a single Everly cover in the set of this St. Paul-based group. Their lone cover was an old Kinks song, “Who’ll Be the Next in Line?” And they burn a very personal trademark into their style. For all their soul, the Everly Brothers almost sounded slick compared to this group. Which doesn’t mean The Cactus Blossoms lack for high musical skills. The vocal harmonies are achingly plangent and precise. From their mirror voices and looks you’d swear they’re blood brothers but nope, the singers are Page Burkum and Jack Torrey. And tellingly, they make no mention of the Everly brothers’ style on their website bio page.

What’s different is that the Blossoms slather a thick, hazy glaze of knotty-pine country on their Everly-ish pipes, often delivered at a sleepy shuffle, but with a band fully capable of cranking up for a bluegrass style hoe-down, or personalized Honky Tonk with a hint of burnished class. The overall effect, at its best, is down-home, infectious and quietly thrilling.

zoo amphThe Weezner Amphitheater at the Minneapolis Zoo is a stunningly picturesque concert setting.

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1 Earle historically is a brilliant collaborator, among his highlights have been full album-collaboration with the Del McCoury band, The Mountain, which includes his superb duet of “I’m Still in Love with You,” with Iris Dement, reminiscent of his joyous “You’re Still Standing There,” with Lucinda Williams. The Mountain also includes Earle, DeMent and a star-studded gaggle of roots-music singers doing his slowly stirring “Pilgrim,” which director Kenneth Lonergan used to close his breakthrough film about a feckless drifter, You Can Count on Me. Earle recorded “Johnny Come Lately” with the ultimate rabble-rousing Irish bar band, The Pogues. Then there’s his duet with Allison Moorer “After The Fire Is Gone” from Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Tribute To Loretta Lynn, and several duets with Emmylou Harris and one with his sister Stacey Earle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tonight hear vintage Grant Green and “Emergency!” by The Tony Williams Lifetime performed live at the Jazz Estate

Lifetime-Emergency

Photo courtesy Polydor Records

Emergency! by the Tony Williams Lifetime always had the pressing urgency it’s titled insisted on. But it was also always a cauldron of mystery, rough allure and power. In 1969, it churned the way forward for most of the jazz-fusion era, and distilled as much burgeoning talent into a trio as any group of its era.

That adds up to one of the most promising local jazz events in recent memory. Guitarist Neil Davis will lead a trio that will perform the original two-record set Emergency! live tonight at 9 p.m. at The Jazz Estate.

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Davis is a technically-gifted and historically-curious guitarist and educator, and one of the co-founders of the West End Conservatory and Milwaukee Jazz Vision, the website that promotes and documents local and national jazz in the Milwaukee area.

However, because Davis could not find the proper organist to do the record full justice, he has changed his plans. The night will feature a couple of tunes from Emergency! and be a tribute to the guitarist Grant Green, drawing from the albums Green Street and Standards. The bassist will be Clay Schaub and the drummer Devin Drobka.

The original Emergency! recording included the youthful, oddly disarming vocals of drummer Williams.

“Where am I going?” Williams sings at one point. “Where have I come from? If anyone asks me, I know I can say. ” The listener wonders as well, and perhaps Williams did at times, but you can’t help feel pulled along on this uncanny adventure. Williams’ drums blend whisper-to-roar snare press rolls, and a blistering array of attacks, explosions  and thrumming, throbbing back beats. Yet there are also disarming scenes of quiet otherworldliness.

Williams, only 24 at the time, was boldly charting new ground here. He hired the visionary organist Larry Young and the brilliant British guitarist John McLaughlin, who got his first chance to fuse jazz and rock. He would, of course, become a giant of fusion, especially with The Mahavishnu Orchestra. Here he blended fiery speed with bracing, uncategorizable textures.

Young, a modal innovative stylist on electric organ, summons some of the most ethereal sounds ever mustered from the instrument. At times he sounds like an ice-skating rink organist on acid. But he’s clearly a virtuoso.
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Tony Williams_ Memories Of A Drum Genius – Drum! Courtesy Drum! Magazine

Miles Davis showed up at one of the trio’s first live performance, and was so impressed that he asked the trio to join his band. Williams declined at first, even though he’d been part of Davis’s classic ’60s quintet from the age of 17. But before long, Davis had lured Williams and McLaughlin to help him record his break-out fusion impressionism masterpiece, In a Silent Way. Organist Young would follow along with the drummer and guitars on Davis’s seminal jazz fusion record Bitches Brew. 

But much that was fresh, strange and wondrous about the first possibilities of fusion arose like a dancing, sinuous flame in Emergency!

 

Old Crow Medicine Show proves the “Blonde” tonic still zings after 50 years

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50 Years of Blonde on Blonde – Old Crow Medicine Show  (Columbia Nashville)

Like snake oil healers, Old Crow Medicine Show lays hands on Dylan’s myriad symptoms of unrequited or forsaken love, as detailed in his classic 1966 double album. Their zealously empathetic remake of Blonde on Blonde follows Dylan’s odyssey through the heart’s impossibly verdant wilds.

Since the late 1990s, Old Crow Medicine Show has helped forge the neo-bluegrass, old-timey band style since aped by the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and many more. None possess more joi de vivre or instrumental flair. So perhaps this historical convergence was as inevitable as a rush-hour car crash between a new songwriter in town aiming at outshooting the Music Row scribes, and a car full of Nashville session virtuosos drunk on the real thing.

old-crow-medicine-show-2017Old Crow Medicine Show thrives on a lively, bounding dynamic of soulful ensemble, interplay and solos. Douglas Mason/Getty Images. Billboard.com

That’s sort of what happened in 1966 when Charlie McCoy, Wayne Moss, Kenny Buttrey and other pickers ‘n’ kickers, including blind pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins,  tackled Dylan’s new songs. They ranged from the woozy opener “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35″ where Dylan’s lyric initiated a circular pot party (which the pickers may or may not have realized), to the long, closing meditation-in-your-beer “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

According to Rolling Stone reporter Daryl Sanders, the recording session began by Dylan setting the bar at an almost vertiginous height of poetic intoxication.

“This wouldn’t be another business-as-usual engagement. It was ‘Visions of Johanna’ — seven minutes and 33 seconds of Dylan’s muse at its most unfettered, full of dazzling phrase-making (Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule) and profoundly suggestive pronouncements (‘Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial’). For his part, keyboardist Bill Aikins recalls trying to understand what Dylan was saying in the song. It wasn’t like Nashville session cats — or those in any other city — typically found themselves contemplating lines such as, ‘See the primitive wallflower freeze / When the jelly-faced women all sneeze.’

“I thought it was really … far out would be the term I would have used at the time,” Aikins recalls, “and still today, it was a very out-there song.” 1

Anything but politically correct throughout, the set included the ultimate female stereotyping love song that remains hard to resist, “Just Like a Woman.” Dylan makes us think there’s a grain of truth in there, for the “she breaks just like a little girl” kicker line seems, to this day, an expression of irresistible empathy, love and respect for the woman he’s portraying so incisively, as I hear it.

A few songs earlier the songwriter laid his abject heart on the line, of course, with the stirring “I Want You.”

And “Stuck Inside of Mobile (with the Memphis Blues Again)” – with its insouciant, rattletrap groove and hit-the-rickety-breaks release to each new verse, resounds in many geographic and spiritual directions – a private, noirish hell riddled with nightmare details.  “An, he just smoked my eyelids an’ punched my cigarette,” is a surreal yet comically-pointed image worthy of a slightly outre Woody Allen gag. (These two contemporaries remain among our greatest tough-but-milquetoast-statured culture geniuses.)

Or more pertinently to today’s headlines, the “Mobile” narrator reveals one brilliant way to do gun-rage catharsis that all too few have learned from: “He built a fire on Main Street and shot it full of holes.”

Ah, but the musicians on that song may have churned it so well by digging the feeling of cutting – musically and thematically – their peers in a competing Tennessee music city (Memphis, not Mobile).

Let’s down-shift a bit to the present recording. On “Obviously True Believers,” the Medicine Show pickers and fiddlers make us believe the power of their bluegrass/newgrass to hold its own energy in a reflective chrysalis, embracing those original sessions, even to release the music like a new sort of winged beauty.

They’re facing a high bar, here, too. Like The Band (then known as The Hawks), Dylan’s chosen collaborators back North, OCMS is three-lead-singers strong. Nobody today can match The Band’s craggy-hillside three-part vocal harmony, notably when covering a Dylan song or backing him. And no single band matches Rick Danko, Levon Helm, or especially Richard Manuel, as lead singers. Is that unfair to note? The younger band surely and humbly understands how The Band influenced them.

But the remade Blonde is more about solo vocal takes and, in lead turns, these singers (Ketch Secor, Critter Fuqua and Kevin Hayes) vocalize with at least as much passion as Dylan did, but without his accompanying layers of nuanced and biting tonal irony.

I love their ardor and fire, and how they up the ante with energy. Yet, it’s like they’re in love with these songs like would-be or lost lovers. So it’s cool to be aurally reminded of Dylan’s genius and how superbly his songwriting fit the Nashville players’ ratty-holed couching of it. As with any good tribute remake, the new album should send you back to the original, not just to accept this as a substitute.

Dylan let Blonde on Blonde grow across the Tennessee hills and worm itself into the collective consciousness, with roots as abiding as the tides of time. So it was that this project arose, half a century down Highway 61’s ever-worn path, from his native Minnesota to the deepest South where most of his favorite musical vernaculars came from. But he’s too great of an American poet and visionary to leave his roots at that.

Not coincidentally, another American road introduced this great band for me when Ariana Karp, the daughter of my photographic collaborator Katrin Talbot, popped Old Crow’s first CD into the car player some years ago. We were headed East in research quest of Herman Melville, for my book about the great American novelist-poet-visionary never quite recognized as such in his time. Melville is also deeply ingrained in Dylan’s experience, from his evocations of Ahab on Bringing It All Back Home to his description of Moby-Dick in his recent Nobel Prize-winning speech:

“He pursues the whale around both sides of the earth; it’s an abstract goal, nothing concrete or definite. Calls Moby the Emperor, sees him as the embodiment of evil. Ahab’s got a wife and child back in Nantucket that he reminisces about now again. You can anticipate what will happen.”

You sense the affinity of Dylan’s own restless search, to grapple with his own demons just ahead of him, and his better angels following warily behind, a search which has proven amazingly fecund over these years, for avoiding self-destruction. And Ahab’s wife is his own “girl from the north country,” and Dylan’s own is Sara Lownds, whom he had only wed shortly before he took off for Nashville to tip the world’s balance in his sprawling musical adventure.

He’d revisit his exquisitely-doomed Nashville romanticism after recovering from his real-life, near-fatal motorcycle nightmare, to finally record the kinder, gentler Nashville Skyline, which sits in history right behind Dylan’s healed motorcycle ass, even as the mythical John Wesley Harding remains his “healing up” transition album.  What heady times these were for the forming American “roots music” genres (along with The Band’s efforts, among other things) and they were not lost on the members of Old Crow Medicine Show.

You can’t help feeling that way, after hearing this, or perhaps seeing them live (they just performed the album in Milwaukee on June 9) as this is a triumphant live recording at the Country Music Association Theater Fame in downtown Nashville. Nearby stands The Johnny Cash Museum dedicated to the only actual country music contemporary of Dylan’s who could go toe-to-toe with him in Cash’s lifetime, and on Nashville Skyline. OCMS band member and album annotator Ketch Secor conveys how the band grappled with time’s motion captured in amber, which itself bounces and tumbles down the river. Secor writes: “50 years is a long time for a place like Nashville, Tennessee. Time rolls on slowly around here like the muddy Cumberland River. But certain things have accelerated the pace of our city. And certain people have sent the hands of the clock spinning. Bob Dylan is the greatest of these time-bending, paradigm-shifting Nashville cats.”

So a paradigm shifted in the slightly askew but inevitable collision that produced a strangely beautiful music that few ever anticipated, maybe not even Dylan himself, then a 25-year-old explorer of American vernaculars and poetics. The shift seems signified in the slightly out-of-focus photo of Dylan on the album cover.

rs-240573-Blonde-On-BlondeThe original cover photograph of Dylan’s epic “Blonde on Blonde” double album. courtesy amazon.com

And Secor writes outright he “loves” Dylan twice, and the artistic bromance probably septuples among OCMS members. So we’re talking “doomed,” improbable and inevitable romance, once again, of a different stripe. “The greatest spinner of rhyme and couplet since Shakespeare,” Secor rhapsodizes, and that remains debatable, but also now as inevitable a discussion as the Nobel Prize for Literature for the first pop songwriter. That raised some already high literary brows but solidified the assertion on an international Rock of Ages. So these guys clearly love the songs and cranky old Bobby Dylan, if not various real or mythologized women.

The result is this exuberantly loving re-imagining of the time a pop music artist knew he had two albums worth of strong stuff, especially when he found his Nashville cats. Amid long, arduous sessions often going deep into wee hours, the original studio players had their limits, being accustomed to three-or-four minute recordings. They admittedly seemed to run out of gas in the closing verses of the original 11-minute-plus “Lady.” 2

But Dylan clearly was setting new boundaries for a recorded rock music statement. So, with a gulp of extra literary oxygen at that point, we can see that “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” counterintuitively stands tallest of the songs. The lady-on-a-pedestal looms like a mythic goddess of shadowy ardor engulfing the countryside. 3 This time, the younger band that began by busking on New York city streets in 1998, have plenty of wind to the end.

Dylan asked repeatedly of his lady, “Should I wait?” Through yawning glens the “medicine show” echoes – singing, sighing, crying. Time waits and heals wounds and cultural schisms, over 50 years and beyond.

Today, when the rural South and much of the urban seem worlds apart from Dylan’s hip New York street corners – much less the hallowed judgements of the Nobel Prize – Blonde on Blonde retains a lasting, redemptive power. The twains did meet in 1966, and the times changed forever.

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1http://www.nashvillescene.com/news/article/13038289/looking-back-on-bob-dylans-blonde-on-blonde-the-record-that-changed-nashville

2. How hard did these musicians work to realize the simmering creativity of Dylan, who reportedly worked on little more than Cokes and chocolate bars during the long sessions? They went along with his idea to get a more “ramshackle sound” for “Rainy Day Women,” first by bringing in a trombonist for the song’s “wha-wha” effect, reports Andy Gill in Dylan: Visions, Portraits and Back Pages (Dorling Kindersley, 2005). Then Kenny Buttry disassembled his drumkit and deadened his snare drum to approximate the sound of a marching band drummer. Charlie McCoy also performed a dazzlingly ambidextrous party trick of playing bass and trumpet simultaneously, one in each hand. The ultimate story of the epic Blonde on Blonde sessions is found in Chapter 4 of Sean Wilentz’s remarkable history Bob Dylan in America (Doubleday, 2010).

3. “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is ranked as Dylan’s third-best song ever in the critical anthology Dylan: Visions, Portraits and Back Pages, characterized there as “Eleven minutes-plus of serpentine psychodrama.”

A short version of this review was originally published in Shepherd Express.

A more provocative New York “Julius Caesar” updates the classic story told by Stone Soup Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” at the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park. Courteswy www.artsintegrity.org

 

In my recent review of Stone Soup Shakespeare’s Saturday June 10 performance of Julius Caesar, I drew some comparisons to Donald Trump and Julius Caesar, and James Comey and Brutus. In response, the troupe’s artistic director Julia Stemper referred me to the controversy over a far more pointed and liberally adapted Julius Caesar in which a clearly Trump-like Caesar is depicted being assassinated, as Caesar is in the Shakespeare play.

The production, at The Public Theater at Shakespeare in the Park in New York, has sparked considerable controversy, including the withdrawal of several corporate sponsors, notably Delta Airlines and Bank of America.

Part of the commotion involves the perception that the play advocates such assassination. The script does addresses the issue of exceedingly “great ambition,” in a Roman general who aspires to become King of Rome. Like former President Dwight Eisenhower, Caesar does have credentials as a truly great war hero and leader, unlike Trump, the real-estate developer of highly-questionable, frequently litigated-against ethical history. Trump’s presidential behavior and decisions have exposed the sort of arrogance, petulance and temperament that have marked his checkered career, doubtlessly fueling The Public Theater’s interpretive angle.

Nevertheless, Caesar is disposed of a third of the way into Shakespeare’s story. Consequently, as I took pains to underscore in my recent review of Stone Soup Shakespeare, The Bard’s play explores ultimately the psychological dilemmas and moral consequences of the assassins, especially Brutus, the most articulate, sympathetic and torn character in the play.

Here’s my review:

Stone Soup Shakespeare sends the fate of “Julius Caesar” to the stars and back

From what Oskar Eustis, director of the Public Theater’s bold production, writes, that focus remains true to Shakespeare in his production.

As director Eustis explained, Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means. To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.” A statement from The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, adds: “So those criticizing this production for endorsing violence against President Trump seem to be willfully misinterpreting it, for their own political ends.”

In a director’s note for the New York show, Eustic comments further, in referencing the elaborately successful plot to kill Caesar: “Julius Caesar warns about what happens when you try to preserve democracy by non-democratic means and again, spoiler alert, it doesn’t end up too good. But at the same time, one of the dangers that is unleashed by that is the danger of a large crowd of people manipulated by their emotions, taken over by leaders who urge them to do things that not only are against their interest, but destroy the very institutions that are there to serve and protect them. This warning is a warning that is in this show and we’re really happy to be playing that story for you tonight.”

Read in detail the article exploring the controversy here, and feel free to leave comments below:

So Are They All, All Honorable Corporations

Stone Soup Shakespeare sends the fate of “Julius Caesar” to the stars and back

 

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Miquela Cruz, as Brutus, declaims in Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance of “Julius Caesar” Saturday at the Shorewood Library. 

 

Their current website epigraph reads: “Men are sometimes masters of their own fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves.”

It’s Cassius speaking, in the great play Julius Caesar, not long before “dear Brutus” colludes with Cassius in assassinating Caesar, the powerful Roman general, just returned from a triumphant war against Pompey. Brutus is also Caesar’s dearest friend.

Chicago-based Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance of Julius Caesar showed the “men” in firm control of their theatrical fate, despite swirling winds and a couple of wailing fire trucks trundling past the outdoor setting of the Shorewood Library lawn.

Despite the limits of barebones props and sets, the young troupe conveyed the drama, moral conundrums and tragedy of this story of betrayal, political assassination, and profound self-questioning. It was a deeply moving foray into Shakespeare’s tragedies, from a company which has typically toured the Bard’s comedies and fantasies. So,  for this attendee, it amounted to their most gratifying production to date. And the crowd showed great appreciation at the end. 1

Unlike the comedies, this had minimal madcap motion and slapstick. Accordingly, the company presented the text with greater clarity and impact than previously. The Bard’s drama and poetry shone forth like so many faceted jewels.

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Caesar (Julia Stemper) begins to feel the pressure of political unrest, and perhaps a hint of his looming fate, in Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance of “Julius Caesar.”

Especially after the dreadful, bloody or heroic deed, Brutus must wonder if the difficult answer about his fateful decision dwells only in the enigmatic glimmer in the sky. Indeed, Brutus’s closest ally in the murder plot, Cassius, is a head-spinner, alternating between such reflective illumination and utter hotheadedness, a contrast well-drawn by Josh Pennington.

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Cassius (left, Josh Pennington) consoles Brutus (Miquela Cruz) who has just lost his closest friend, Julius Caesar, in an assassination they both participated in. 

Regarding Cassius’s epigrammic comment: Does the “fault” lie in their life-snuffing act or in Caesar’s exceedingly “great ambition” to become Rome’s emperor, which compels Brutus to betray Caesar most of all?

Short of assassination, the play resonates today in the dilemma of Donald Trump and fired FBI director James Comey, especially in Trump’s “hope” — or “directive” as Comey sees it —  that he be utterly loyal to Trump, rather than to his nation and the Constitution. Trump’s fate as president may lie in himself, his own “great ambition” and it’s many seemingly self-destructive faults. And like Brutus, Comey is aiming to act for the sake of the nation. A Brutus utterance might be Comey’s: “For I am arm’d so strong with honesty that (threats) pass by me as the idle wind, which I respect not.” Comey admits being “stunned” and intimidated by Trump in one-one-one meetings.

And yet Comey did finally speak “honestly” in a manner that may seal Trump’s fate, as surely as Cassius’ fury and Brutus’s decisions seal Caesar’s. Certainly Trump has behaved more like a self-indulgent, impulsive Roman ruler than a democracy’s president and guardian, especially in never admitting any wrongdoing, even about his most demonstrably-false tweets. “Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins with remorse from power,” Brutus comments.

A difference is that Comey seems hardly as close to Trump as Brutus is to Caesar, whom Brutus feels a truly great man: “As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoiced at it; as he was valiant, I honor him; but – as he was ambitious, I slew him.”

In the moment before he’s killed, Caesar unwittingly borrows Cassius’s celestial metaphor to aggrandize himself: “I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fixed and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament.” It’s a brilliant Shakespearian flourish of irony.

Once Caesar lies dead, Brutus is ravaged with self-doubt and recrimination. So Shakespeare dramatizes one of the greatest moral and psychological conundrums a human in a certain position of power might face. As Brutus, Miquela Cruz carries the mightiest role burden with grace and equipoise. She does underplay Brutus’s apparent angst. But, unlike Cassius, it’s in Brutus’s character to strive for a certain balance between extreme emotions, which makes his decisions and actions no easier, as the wrenching ending proves. Under Eric Mercado’s direction, Cruz, along with Julia Stemper as a vivid Caesar, showed how well this company pulls off non-gender-specific casting.

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Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance of the tragedy “Julius Caesar” was offset by choreography, song, ensemble chanting and drumming, and an audience member as a surprise performer.

It may seem improbable that this small band of 21st century American millennials, juggling roles throughout, might actually reach into the Elizabethan and Roman Empire eras. Yet, aloft in energy and passion, they rode “the tides of time” back, like mythical birds following the constant currents and the northern star, through history’s ceaseless cycles.

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The sculpture “Congruity” by Narendra Patel overlooks the setting for Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance Saturday of “Julius Caesar.” All Photos by Kevin Lynch

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1 It’s worth noting, despite play’s violence, the company didn’t even resort to stage weaponry. So this managed to be family-friendly fare, as serious as it mostly was. Also, Stone Soup has done staged readings this year of such meaty fare as Richard III and Hamlet, clearly demonstrating their range beyond the comedy that might seem to tour easier to outreach locations they normally pursue.