About Kevin Lynch

Kevernacular (Kevin Lynch) is a veteran, award-winning arts journalist, educator and visual artist. He is the author of "Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy." He won The Milwaukee Press Club’s 2017 gold award for “Best Critical Review of the Arts” for the Culture Currents blog “Adolph Rosenblatt: A Great Eye, Gifted Hands, and a Huge Heart," an art retrospective exhibit at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee. He also won the gold award for the 2013 Culture Currents review, "Edward Curtis Preserved America’s Vanishing Race for Posterity.” Lynch was a long-time staff arts writer for The Capital Times in Madison and The Milwaukee Journal, where he was lead writer of a Pulitzer-nominated Newspapers in Education project called “That’s Jazz,” which was used in Milwaukee Public Schools and The Milwaukee Jazz Experience. Among other publications, he’s written for Down Beat, No Depression Quarterly of Roots Music, and NoDepression.com, The Village Voice, The Chicago Tribune, New Art Examiner, Rain Taxi, American Record Guide, CODA (The Canadian jazz magazine), Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine, Graven Images: A Journal of Culture, Law and the Sacred; The Shepherd Express, OnMilwaukee.com. Lynch has taught cultural journalism, English rhetoric and composition (while earning half of the credits for a PhD. in American Literature), and film studies. He’s been a music program host for WLUM-FM and WMSE-FM in Milwaukee. Lynch is working on a novel, "Melville’s Trace or, The Jackal." He’s also a visual artist and studied jazz piano and theory at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. He lives in Milwaukee.

Jeffrey Foucault replenishes his music in the streams of “Blood Brothers”

Album review: Jeffery Foucault — Blood Brothers (Blueblade Records)

After the brooding introspection of his previous album, Salt as Wolves, singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault comes up for big gulps of air, and perhaps his most genial album. It’s down-home music & poetry in a firm, warm handclasp.

Yet, even while striving to connect, Foucault takes chances. The title song “Blood Brothers,” hung on a descending bass line alluring as low-hanging fruit, is a love ode between men, yet sexually ambiguous. It recalls the fast friendship between surprise bedmates Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick, which Foucault celebrated in his very first album.1

This artist’s work is hard-earned. He throws all of himself into his song, yet the balance between reflection and passion sounds effortless. Foucault’s singing is dusky, beguiling and grainy as uncut wheat, yet as nuanced as a sideways-drifting wind.

The internationally acclaimed, East Coast-based, Whitewater, Wis. native is currently (and arguably) the Upper Midwest’s strongest roots music export (Nobel Prize-winning Minnesota-native Bob Dylan is sort of in his own category).

Foucault’s a guy who’s hardly figured everything out, but he sure knows how to say what swims in his brain and in the blood from his heart. That organic metaphor, as far as it goes, belies the great labor of craft underlying this music. His writing seems unpolished, but as right as rain. Still, he exudes utterly disarming humility. Blood brother or not, he feels like the first guy you invite for a backyard barbecue.

Photo montage courtesy YouTube

___________

1 Though he doesn’t identify the source, in his liner notes to his debut album Miles from the Lightning (2001), Foucault quotes from the end of the highly comical Ch. 12 — “Biographical,” from Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville. The aptness to Blood Brothers prompts me to revisit the quote, with context. First-time whaling sailor Ishmael quickly bonds with the lead harpoonist, the Polynesian Queequeg, for the ship they’ll sail on, when the two men are forced to share a bed in a crowded Spooner Inn, before they embark on The Pequod.:

“His story ended with his pipe’s last dying puff, Queequeg embraced me, pressed his forehead against mine and, blowing out the light, we rolled over from one another, this way and that, and very soon were sleeping.”

This view was published in a slightly shorter form in The Shepherd Express:Foucault review

Mrs. Fun’s “Truth” entertains and strives to stand the test of time

Mrs. Fun – Truth (Fun Time Records)

(Mrs. Fun, with guest bassist-vocalist Ethan Bender [from Streetlife], will perform from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday December 7, at Metro Market, 4075 N. Oakland Ave, in Shorewood. Mrs. Fun also performs with song stylist Liv Mueller at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Shorewood Legion Post, on Wilson Blvd.) To keep up with Mrs. Fun, visit their website:

Home

Mrs. Fun is a 30-year marriage of musical mirth and mutual creativity. On Truth, The Milwaukee jazz-pop duo documents its characteristically vast expressive range and stylistic diversity. The title, and the album cover’s darkly eloquent pyramid silhouette, suggest intent to stand the test of time. You could pop this CD in for a party backdrop, yet it rewards mindful, even reflective, listening.

To the latter point, the original “Zawinul” tributes the dominant figure behind the incomparable fusion group Weather Report. It evokes Joe Zawinul’s orchestral exotic scene-painting via synthesizer, yet retains the grounding of walking bass and crackling drums. Similarly “Orange Grove” bears sweet fragrance and rhythmic strum of the Latin guitar (synthesized). Keyboardist-vocalist Connie Grauer might be the most resourceful synthesizer player on the Milwaukee scene. This keys the group’s brilliance, along with drummer Kim Zick’s endless array of rhythmic accents and propulsive grooves and dynamics.

Grauer imaginatively reinvents two jazz classics. She prefaces Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensitive,” with her and title“Silent Mist” and graces the exquisite Jobim melody with her own poetic lyrics. And Wayne Shorter “Pinocchio” goes sci-fi as “Space Port/Pinocchio,” befitting Shorter’s own sci-fi sensibility. This is Mrs. Fun in their exuberantly edgy acid-jazz mode. However, I wanted the great jazz composer’s full melodic theme stated, and explored more — the theme’s closing phrases, suggest both involution and a curious outward force, akin to more-complex-than-he-appears Pinocchio, and his mythical nose. Several more minutes of development and this might’ve been a minor masterpiece of re-imagining. If any sensibility is expansive, its sci-fi.

“Soulful Strut” covers a hit R&B instrumental from 1969 and, while not quite as exhilarating as the horn-driven original, it captures the funky tune’s infectious insouciance.

Drummer Kim Zick (left) and keyboardist-vocalist Connie Grauer are Mrs. Fun. Courtesy Patch

Less successful is their cover of “Light My Fire” which here is a fairly straight recitation of the melody, which isn’t strong enough for such instrumental scrutiny, even if it and the song’s lyrics could launch the dark power and dynamics of The Doors’ original and Jose Feliciano’s soulful hit re-make.

They’re smarter when Grauer does a vocal she can handle, or they add guest singers here, like rapper Klassik or vocal stylist Liv Mueller on the closing “Calm before the Storm,” which includes a fine Grauer keyboard solo with deftly spacious phrasing. Despite her gifts on electric keyboards, I’d love to hear her record more acoustic piano, which she also excels at.

One hopes this group does more recording, of what they exactly want to do. They’re natural musical entertainers, and deft collaborators, but they have room to grow as musical artists.

As for now, in such often-dire and depressing times, the Truth never felt so good. Plus, as top-rate as the album is overall, it can’t do justice to the bright, vibrant personality of this consistently engaging duo in live performance. So I recommend you search them out in person (they gig frequently), and buy the CD directly from the artists.

_____________

This review was first published in shorter form in The Shepherd ExpressMrs Fun review

 

“Free Solo” film scales dizzying heights of cinematic suspense

Alex Honnold attempts to climb the great face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without any equipment (or sanity?) in “Free Solo,” a new National Geographic Documentary. Courtesy The Atlantic Magazine.

Free Solo, a National Geographic Documentary film by Elizabeth Chi Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin. Held over until Monday Dec. 10 at the Oriental Theater, Milwaukee,

Also showing at Silver Cinemas at Market Square Theaters, Madison, held over through Tuesday, Dec. 11.

Check theaters for possible run extensions and other info.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”
― John Muir, Our National Parks

Goddamn. You groan inside. Other emotional responses may surge up, while watching Alex Honnold climb alone and unroped – or free, in climbing parlance – up a long, vertical crack of the astonishingly, daunting face of El Capitan Mountain in Yosemite National Park, in 2017. It’s considered the toughest mountain face in the world – 3,000 feet of a monstrous granite elephant’s twitchy hide, enduring a single human ant.

You follow him up the towering crack, the zig-zag path of rock seemingly formed by a face-splitting lightning bolt, or maybe several lifetimes of such blasts. 

This sequence of pitches* requires hand jams and hand hooks against the vertical crack. When the crack opens wide enough, Honnold must shimmy his tensile body slowly up the chimney. Tough enough, but then, seemingly exhausted, he must perform a series of crazy moves of balletic delicacy and sheer stamina. No ropes. No pitons. No circus nets. Nothin’ but the chalk on his hands and fingers, to keep them dry. He’s at maybe 2,000 feet now, clinging to a vertical world, just barely.

Are you still breathing?

This astonishing, often-gorgeous and brilliant film records Honnold’s five-year odyssey to climb the face “free solo.” He had bailed out in a previous attempt, while recovering, but not completely, from a severely sprained ankle.  Earlier, on a practice climb, his brand new girlfriend had absently let the rope run out of the belay lock she was controlling. That fall had tested his relationship skills, far less assured than with a rock face. Honnold threatens to break up with her, thinking she’s an unreliable climbing partner.

However, he’d made that first free attempt in pre-dawn darkness, calculating he’d need all of daylight to reach the top. There will be no bivouacs on this climb. Yet he freezes up on one of the first difficult points. I suspect the shroud of darkness, pierced only by his headlamp, penetrates what he calls his “armor,” which he also likens to the attitude of a samurai warrior, who gamely faces, even embraces, death. Because it’s what is necessary.

Alex Honnold works his way up a long vertical crack on El Capitan. Courtesy Amherst Cinema

It’s easy to adopt a fraternal or paternal sense of protectiveness toward this boyish man, with black, tousled hair, and large dark, searching eyes and a handsome yet almost gaunt face and body. So he’s “Alex” to me now. His chiseled body gives you faith in him physically, yet he’s lean and not overly muscled like many contemporary athletes. It’s actually the perfect body for such extraordinary athleticism, as too much muscle might constrain the needed range of motion in his limbs.

I have some sense of this, and of Alex’s virtuosity and courage, being a former mountaineer (more on that below).

Outside magazine calls Free Solo “the best climbing movie ever made.” And there are quite a few vertically-fixated movies if you follow such things. Free Solo comes from a married couple, filmmaker Elizabeh Chi Vasarhelyi, and cameraman Jimmy Chin. They also created Meru – a powerful 2015 documentary of windswept urgency and dread – detailing a climb Chin attempted with two other men of Mount Meru, in the Himalayas. Chin, like all of his film crew, are trained climbers. He’d explained in Meru that he only works with people that he knows personally in his mountain climbing documentaries.

Image result for free solo

Camera crew documenting Honnold during the making of the film “Free Solo,” on El Capital in Yosemite National Park. Courtesy IndieWire.com

Chin knows Alex Honnold, already an acclaimed free solo climber, perhaps as well as anyone can. The closer we get to Alex, the further we get from him, it’s that “armor” climbers of this sort speak of – a psychological shield against fear, in a given moment.

Yet this shields his peripheral vision towards empathy or other interpersonal skills. We learn that Alex’s father was likable but remote, a man always needing to travel, just as Alex always needs to climb, or prepare for another.

“He was a teddy bear to me,” Alex recalls with measured affection for a father who supported his youthful climbing zeal. He admits that no one in his family ever used “the L word” (“I love you”) except in French, (je t’aime), as his mother is a teacher of French. That once- removed quality of expression may allow his mother, who’s briefly interviewed, carte blanche emotions in allowing her son full freedom. When he develops a relationship with a young woman, Sanni McCandless, it’s rocky right from the moment she allows him to fall.

But he’s in the middle of training and practice for the free solo on El Capitan, an unprecedented feat. But Sanni is a strong, big-hearted and brave woman. He sticks with her and their relationship blossoms like a couple of wildflowers emerging from a high mountain wall crack. But her roots touch the earth. So her own trail in his footsteps is the film’s subtext and it’s emotional crux.

When he finally goes for it, for broke, in very early daylight, her tears well up in Alex’s live-in van, wondering if she’ll see him again. From this moment, the intensity and drama ratchet up, more than most conventional thrillers I’ve ever seen. It’s hold-your-breath reality-show time. Ms. McCandless used all her persuasive skills and wiles, and perhaps burgeoning love, to quietly will Alex up the great face, and back from the fatal brink he’s almost sanguine about.

Image result for el capitan yosemite

The massive, intimidating 3,000-foot face of El Capitan in Yosemite. Wikipedia 

Among this obsessive climber’s most revealing and thought-provoking comments is a reference to “the bottomless pit of your self-loathing.” It seems to come out of the blue in his narrative voice-over, casting a certain pathos over this tale, rich with mythical and tragic overtones. Several great climbers that he has personally known die while climbing elsewhere during the five years he prepares for his solo attempt at El Capitan.

His emotional response feels like little more than the famous “so it goes” from Kurt Vonnegut’s comic tragic Slaughterhouse Five.

Ass accomplished and seemingly prepared Alex is, there’s no denying free soloing’s essential recklessness. “People who know a little bit about climbing are like, ‘Oh, he’s totally safe,’” Tommy Caldwell, one of Honnold’s best friends, says in the film. “People who know exactly what he’s doing are freaked out.”

On the morning he finally attempts it again, he eats his standard breakfast of oats, flax, chia seeds, and blueberries. He feels great, maybe “in a zone,” the temporary quality of an athlete who can seemingly do no wrong. You see it in the heightened, yet easy, rhythms of his moves; there’s almost a swagger in his swing, ape-like, from one precarious handhold to another.

For sure, this attempt is one of the greatest athletic feats you’ll ever see on film, even if Alex may fall to his death – right before the camera crew. The whole emotional, psychological and circumstantial reality of this attempt gives the film its gut-churning tension. And perhaps even a moral conundrum, if we watch him fall, and if the cameras do as well.

FILE - Alex Honnold, from left, and Sanni McCandless, subjects of the documentary film "Free Solo," pose with co-directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin at the InterContinental Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, Sept. 10, 2018.

 Alex Honnold, from left, and Sanni McCandless, subjects of the documentary film “Free Solo,” pose with co-directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin at the InterContinental Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, Sept. 10, 2018.Voanews.com

****

I have one comparatively modest but dangerous experience with free solo climbing which helped transfix me in this film. Through much of my 20s, until age 30, I climbed a number of times in The Tetons, but one summer I was unable to get to Wyoming. In late August, when I’d normally climb, I drove up to Door County, on a camping trip with a friend, Frank Stemper. Somehow, the hulking former high school football guard came down with the flu. Itching to get out and do something, I left him in our tent, with Sam, his lovably oafish shepherd-dog mutt.

I’d noticed intriguing cliffs along the highway through Peninsula State Park. By the time I walked along the highway to some alluring rock faces, the afternoon sun had faded badly.

Nevertheless, I found one route snaking up to the top of the cliff, what would be three or four moderate pitches. I began climbing and at some point noticed looseness amid the wall rocks, which I later learned are primarily limestone. I reached the top without terrible difficulty and probably started chuckling to myself, a tad too self-satisfied, as if I was my old house cat Fred, settled and regally surveying, as cats do, his home below from the highest possible perch in the house.

Now, a small detail most smug climbing cats negotiate with little consternation: I needed to get back down, to the highway. So I tried a few paths down but they mocked me with the yawning space over the toothy, jagged edges of a drop-off, not far below the top. Now I was a free solo “ant” inside and looking out, after foolishly crawling into the stone elephant’s mouth. I searched further along the cliff until I found a spot that looked manageable.

I gingerly began a downward climb (the well-established El Capitan route in Alex’s memorized climb includes a significant downward detour). What was I thinking then? Something like, “Do you know what you’re doing?” At about a third of the way down, I encountered an overhang that I knew I couldn’t get past. Right then, my upper handhold gave way, and a rock fell, hitting my face. Off flew my glasses, tumbling far down into the wooded space below. 2

I’m quite near-sighted, and now sweat and fear commingled with the blood the rock had drawn from my forehead. My “armor” was cracking. I mumbled something to Jesus Christ. Then a “blessing”: nearsightedness allows you to see things close to you, while points beyond blur into a haze. I could see fairly well at arm’s length distance, and just about to my feet.

I realized the only way I could proceed downward would be around a rocky corner where I could see a small ledge. I mustered my courage, traversed to the corner and managed to swing one foot over thin air, around the corner, to a toe hold; then the second foot came around, oh-so-delicately, to the toehold nub. In the traverse around the corner, my body was 98-per-cent out in space, high over thin air. The next toe step led me to the small ledge. I settled on the small horizontal strip, my body collapsing a bit, and grabbed hold of small green branch in a crack beside it. Now I wonder, did such a wildflower branch save Alex, at some point.

For posterity, I took a forlorn selfie, circa 1972, with a camera I’d brought along. A few moments of glazed admiration of the view, through the golden-brown leaves, with the waters of Green Bay glistening slightly in the setting sun. My wits, strength, and will renewed slightly. I finally worked my way down to the bottom of the loose-rocked, treacherous cliff.

Posterity selfie taken by blogger Kevernacular amid his free solo escapade on a cliff in Door County, ca. August, 1972. Photo by Kevin Lynch

I found my glasses in the brush and, nearby, another pair of eyeglasses, the frame cracked, and lenses long gone. The story of those glass frames remains a kind of mystery, just as does the forces that drive people to climb dangerous walls and peaks.

I’m convinced a big part of the force is spiritual. There is a long, transcendent moment late in Free Solo, when Alex rises through one of the toughest final pitches. Chin and his daredevil film group capture — behind the tiny, ascending figure — a backdrop of El Capitan’s broad, magnificent face, now ablaze in sunset, and glorious shades of mottled bronze, copper and gold. This is mighty granite’s mossy, chameleon powers. Yosemite’s waterfall cascades beyond. Magnificence amid high drama, with overtones of the human sublime.

I hardly suggest anyone begin climbing El Capitan in search of gold, only if you truly need the kind that ends up glowing in your soul.

As a survivor of a foolhardy-youth free solo climb, and bearing truly grand memories climbing in the Tetons, I retain embers of that inner fire.

______________

  1. A “pitch” is each sequence of a roped climb, from one belayed (secured) spot (station) to the next. In free climbing, you have, in theory, moments to rest in these places, originally established on El Capitan with pitons (large spikes with rope loop-holes) and carabiners. On such a dangerous climb, even the most secure “belay stations” are extremely exposed (that is, very susceptible to a climber falling off).

2. My Door County climb cued up an extraordinary experience later that year. John Boorman’s 1972 film Deliverance came out, based on James Dickey’s extraordinary survival novel. Frank and I went to see it. Four suburban friends take a canoe trip on the Chattooga River, deep in Georgia’s backwoods, eventually reaching the Tallula Gorge.My experience  flashed completely back to me during Ed’s desperate climb up the gorge cliff above the river rapids, to try to kill, with bow and arrow, a rural-dwelling rifle man who has killed one of his canoeing friends. Halfway up the cliff, Ed (Jon Voight) drops his wallet after peeking at his family’s photograph. He curses mightily and, right then, I felt my glasses, and some of my hope, falling off my face, into the Door County void. The long Deliverance scene was an uncanny experience of “been there…” Now, though I no longer hold grand climbing designs, (with bilateral arm neuropathy and a partially lame left hand), Free Solo has raised my bar of dramatic empathy to previously unimagined heights.

 

A progressive jazz pilgrimage comes to the Jazz Gallery Thursday

Christoph Irniger and Pilgrim, a Swiss progressive jazz group. The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, 926 E. Center St., Milwaukee. 8 PM, Thursday October 11, Suggested donation $10

 

The Swiss band named Pilgrim seems on a pilgrimage – a traveling quest to convey their vision along a freely exploratory pathway, which leads them all the way to Milwaukee’s Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts on Thursday.

If you’re receptive to music that’s expansive, texturally rich and atmospheric, Pilgrim might snatch you up on their trip, at least for this evening. From what I’ve heard online, the band has the right stuff and sensibility to latch onto, says, ECM, the major European-mining jazz label, if that labels visionary leader and producer, Manfred Eicher, gets an earful of them.

Pilgrim is also further proof of the international language that jazz has become, since being born and cultivated from a profound roots music into various iterations of high art in America. It remains perhaps more greatly appreciated in its more sophisticated forms in Europe, ironically due, in part, to America’s still-rough-hewn anti-intellectualism and cultural hang-ups, which keep “tribes” of Americans from appreciating artistic gestures that seem located across their divides.

One of the least desirable presumptions from the cultural left is that a certain product or artist is for hipsters or cognoscenti only. What good does that do but promote insularity and snobbishness?

Soapboxing aside, there’s a certain wind-in-the-face coolness to this music, but anyone with an open mind might find stimulation in this pilgrimage and, if needed, a bridge a cultural gap, in one’s imagination.  I’m impressed by how the band forges ahead in the spacious and sometimes treacherous realm encompassing minimalism and modal and free jazz, with electronic fueling when necessary.

Pilgrim is led by tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist Christoph Irniger. I just saw the jazz titan David Murray playing the same two instruments at the exciting new Madison music venue Café CODA, and was reminded of the warm depth and color of the low-register clarinet, made famous in jazz by Eric Dolphy. Iringer, a still-young Swiss player won’t compare to Murray’s mastery yet, but expect serious tonal and textural range from the pilgrim who also is the primary composer. The group also includes prominently featured guitarist Dave Gisler, pianist Stefan Abey, bassist Raffaele Bossard, and drummer Michi Stulz.

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.

Field Report performs “If I Knew” from the album “Summertime Songs.”

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.

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.

_______

“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.

___________

  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?”

_________

 

 

Talkin’ ’bout The Who’s generation?

The Who back in their rip-snorting heyday. Courtesy Die Zeit

“Talkin’ ’bout my generation!”

What generation are we talking about? It seemed very clear back when The Who’s Pete Townsend wrote and sang his strutting, archetypal ’60’s song of generational defiance, “My Generation.”

But now that Townsend himself is 73, and the band’s demonically brilliant drummer Keith Moon has been dead nearly 40 years, the question’s fair to ask.

Singer Roger Daltrey and songwriter-guitarist Pete Townsend, the only surviving members of The Who, recently took a stab at plugging back into their glory days. Courtesy the Boston Globe

The maker of the ensuing YouTube video asks the question implicitly in hilariously inspired fashion by having a group of British retirement-home residents sing Townsend’s song, a seeming act of blasphemy, even for a songwriter who seemed to sneer at any sense of the sacred.

The video starts by being very upfront about its relative contrivance of having put the creaky “lead singer” up to this, as he admits this is the first time he has done this. He then proceeds to read the proto-punk lyrics – along to a rockin’ young band playing the music.

The old coot even takes a stab at Townsend’s adolescent stutter: “I’m just talkin’ ’bout my ge-genera-shun.”

The rest of the elders sing and clap to the ongoing refrain “talkin’ ’bout my generation” with an almost loving embrace of a defiance that some of them probably bridled at, or even condemned, when their children played and sang along to the song, long ago.
So is this simply unabashed generational co-opting? To hear this, you see aspects of parody – an old woman doing Townsend’s rock-god “windmill” power-chord strumming, etc. –- but something more than parody is going on here. In the elders’ apparent joy, there’s a surprising sense of shared identity, that connects generations that might seem fatally at odds.

And that’s what makes this delicious joke also so satisfying and gratifying, even life affirming instead of a cynical diss. You sense that these old folks secretly envied their rebellious offspring, especially because “The Greatest Generation” grew up in the post-World War II era, in which a sort of bracing, patriotic conformity upheld much of their  passions. Not that that was all bad, at all. But it was perhaps inevitable that a strain of that patriotism would stagnate into a conservatism that would try to stifle ensuing American democratic life from growing and mutating in a natural, quirky, even paradoxical (think of the Altamont murder, the early death of the ’60s) manner.

As ’60s prophet Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes.) Next time you find yourself doing something unusual or contradictory that surprises other people or yourself, remember that you contain multitudes. Sometimes that contradiction is a sign of progress.”

So the lesson here is that the multitudes contained potentially spans generations. Townsend was a more encompassing avatar than he perhaps realized, at the time.

But enough reflection, let’s get on with it! The video’s been out there for quite a while, but thanks to the wonderful Madison jazz guitarist Cliff Frederiksen for, as we said in the ’60s, finally turning me onto it:

Father Sky and other rising talent heard Under the Big Tree in Riverwest

After a rainy interlude (see blue equipment tarp) Father Sky solo (singer-songwriter keyboardist Anthony Deutsch) performed as the headliner for Thursday’s Under the Big Tree backyard concert series in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. After the concert, a small bonfire was held, in the wood pit in the foreground. 

 

Under the Big Tree, an outdoor house concert series in Riverwest (by invitation via Facebook page: Under the Big Tree backyard concerts

The final two concerts of the series will be:

August 30 – Lady Cannon, experimental folk-jazz

September 20 – Hello Death, dark, orchestral folk music

******

Review: Under the Big Tree, Thursday, July 19.

Glowing behind a sheer cloud curtain, Thursday night’s half-moon seemed like a dubious goddess casting a sidelong glance down upon the proceedings below: A musician named Father Sky and his largely millennial audience in a back-yard concert called Under the Big Tree. The goddess surely wondered “Who do they think they are?”

“Give it up for the wind,” said the large-minded but slightly nervous Father Sky at one point, as if negotiating with the goddess, for the sake of his vulnerable gig, or for his generation.

Right before headliner Father Sky (singer-songwriter-pianist Anthony Deutsch) had performed, the evening clouds directly attacked this seemingly idyllic gathering with a strong downpour. At that moment, the evening’s second performer, classical and jazz guitarist Ben Dameron, had just played a jazz standard “Here’s that Rainy Day” with an exquisitely probing exploration of the song’s melodic and harmonic depths (Being my late mother’s favorite song, I hoped that, somehow, she heard it). Dameron later admitted he didn’t realize the aptness of his opening song selection. Artistic intuition (or anyone’s intuition?) plays jokes on the artist’s consciousness more often than we realize.

With the rain coming, Under the Big Tree host Liam O’Brien, a singer-songwriter-guitarist who opened the evening’s music, herded everyone inside of the large Riverwest house, a property where he and his partner have previously rented, and where the owner generously allows this music series a second season. Dameron, a classically-trained guitarist – replete with velvet leg cloth as the instrument sits precariously on his right thigh, (classical players never use a guitar strap) –  can hardly weather rain, especially with his very small electric amp.

Though a seemingly shy, musically-focused person, Dameron had immediately shown both courage and improvisational skill by opening his set with a request to the audience: “Could anyone give me a few notes, just anything, to work with?” Someone sang out a three-note phrase and he began deftly improvising on it, before his segue into “Rainy Day,” and then Bill Evans and Miles Davis’ pre-modal masterpiece “Nardis.” When rainy night chased us inside, he continued with  jazz-guitar pioneer Django Reinhardt’s “Nuage” (or “Cloud”), another perfect and evocative choice, “Pure Imagination” from the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and “Misty.”

Though some might question the last two choices, Dameron made them work as delightful and substantial music. Despite its sappy lyrics, “Misty” has striking interval leaps and shapely chord changes which have bolstered the song’s longevity as an instrumental jazz standard and perennial crowd-pleaser. Here and elsewhere, Dameron employed grace-note pauses for dramatic and expressive effect. And he seemed proud to share a surname with the great bop-era pianist-composer-arranger Tadd Dameron, with whom he seems to share a balance of well-honed refinement, harmonic depth, and swinging derring-do.

Classical and jazz guitarist Ben Dameron performed Thursday at Under the Big Tree. Dameron has studied at the San Francisco Music Conservatory, and at the UW-Milwaukee, with acclaimed classical guitarist René Izquierdo and jazz guitarist Pete Billmann. Courtesy Ben Dameron Facebook page.

But let me back up to contextualize this enlightening evening. By very informal observation a number of baby boomer parents struggle in their relationships with their millennial offspring, probably as most parent-child relationships are fraught, at least part of the time.

As a childless baby boomer, I can’t comment on this dynamic with any first-hand authority. But I can report an experience as a cultural journalist. Thursday night I got more than a glimmer of insight into what Milwaukee millennials do, in the night, with the music, alone (together).

A well-connected boomer friend of mine, musician and poet Rick Ollman, clued me into this quietly growing cultural venue, when I spoke with him at an event at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts. By the way,  the JGCA on Center Street (like the nearby Company Brewing) has increasingly become an important crossroads for different generations (I often see millennials sprinkled among the predominant baby boomers and Gen Xers there) and, perhaps more importantly, as a crossroads for Milwaukeeans of different colors. 1

But back to last night, and my infiltration of this largely millennial gathering, although with a smattering of older people, who were warmly welcomed.

Host (and apparent venue concept mastermind) singer-songwriter Liam O’Brien played a short opening set on his National steel-body guitar. He began with John Lennon’s “All You Need is Love,” sung almost apologetically because, he explained, he was prepping it for a wedding the next day, which had requested the song. Quiet as he played “Love,” it clearly set a magnanimous tone for the evening. He proceeded with an original that riffed on big numbers: “10,000 sheep tend to the herd,”… “will you love me in 10,000 days?”…”10 billion voices”…”10 billion years”…but with a tough, rocking guitar solo to bring his expansiveness back down to earth. The rather poetic riff on big digits recalled the great Milwaukee poet Antler, whom O’Brien should investigate, if he hasn’t. Another set highlight was O’Brien’s deftly satirical and peppery-paced “Hot Damn” (a “working title,” sung with his partner Sarah Shay) where aspects of nature behave like their all-too-frequent enemies (humans, that is, which reminds me of our current president, behaving like our enemy):

Wind watches a well-known movie show

Water argues with a worm the best school to send their kid to…

Soil, dust and sand have lawns and go for Sunday drives

and mushrooms always shop where reptiles advertise.

Hot damn! Just look looking at them go about their lives! 2

The audience ate up O’Brien’s defiantly pro-environmental attitude, which extends deeply into the resounding poetry and musicality of Father Sky, the only one of these acts I had already known. This blog has written about Father Sky, but not at length, and he’s worth plenty more consideration.

The self-titled debut album “Father Sky.” The group Father Sky is a trio comprising singer-songwriter-pianist Anthony Deutsch (pictured above), bassist John Christensen, and drummer Devin Drobka. Photo by Danielle Simone Charles, courtesy Father Sky

And now it’s clear, this is one of the most distinctive and original jazz-related artists Milwaukee has seen for a quite some time. Deutsch can play jazz piano and sing jazz standards adroitly, and do that combination probably better than anyone in the region. His originals on his eponymous debut album Father Sky (which includes bassist John Christiansen and drummer Devin Drobka), deal in personal testimony, inspirations and evocations from the heart. The album’s clever, and sometimes blues-inflected, but spare arrangements don’t try to impress the jazz buff, but reach to the broadest imaginable audience for a serious artist, as has many a gifted singer-songwriter, ever since Bob Dylan arrived and changed that game forever.

Thursday night, when Deutsch declared that his song “Within Me, Within You” is a personal anthem, one could more precisely understand and feel where he comes from, as an artist. He sings:

Within me, within you

Don’t look for something you can’t hide.

Without me, without you,

There’s nothing separate from you.

The storm’s a comin’, to your doorstep…

It’s a struggle, constant battle –

keep your love but don’t you hide.

Be silent, be observing,

Your power has no limit.

Throughout the songs – exploring the many-webbed interfaces of Nature, spirit, and humanity – you realize this man is deeply knowing, the proverbial “old soul” in his mid-20s.

Deutsch’s pliant and furry voice reflects his primary influence, Nina Simone and yet he unabashedly acknowledged his affinity for the pop folksinger Cat Stevens. The Simone influence really gives him stylistic power and substance. Like that late great singer-songwriter-pianist, this tall, bearded young man’s voice can swim in deep registers that grab at the listener’s soul and then pull it up towards the performer’s searching-for-sky POV, unafraid of the emotional stretch or lurch involved. His rounded middle and upper registers flow easily, like fish and birds near the surface of a full-fathom-dive ocean.

In having a gifted black woman as this white man’s primary influence – and all he does with it – there’s more than a whiff of genius.

And Deutsch was playing solo outdoors, with only an electric piano, albeit a very nicely-rigged one. His sound effects-infused opening to his second song faintly evoked legendary jazz “space traveler,” Sun Ra. Somehow, by about the middle of his set, the doubting lunar goddess above, Father Sky and the audience seemed to meld into a whole, in the nocturnal light, beneath the huge canopy of leaves, in a harmony layered with hidden complexities, as is this artist’s music.

Shortly afterward, the millennials lit a bonfire, right beside the performance area. Rainy dampness had faded away. The young people, the unfettered talent, the blaze. It all gave me, and my boomer friend Rick Ollman, increasingly certain faith in this incoming generation – gathering hope, conviction and fire for their era of power and transformation.

“That seemed like something right out of the sixties,” Ollman said, with a wry smile.

__________

Half-moon image (at top) courtesy Pinterest

  1. The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts event I referenced was a weekly jam session, with about a 50-50 split between black and white patrons. This carries on the great tradition begun by the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, in the same Center Street performance space, in the late 1970s through 1984 (Catch up on that historically auspicious legacy visiting Milwaukee Jazz Gallery Anthology Facebook page, which provides samples of journalistic coverage of the Jazz Gallery in its heyday).
  2. Under the Big Tree host Liam O’Brien is also the leader of the group Liam O’Brien’s Faithless Followers, which will perform for an EP-release event for their new release, Nowhere to Go. The event is titled “A Metaphysical Voyage on the Vessel of Symphonic Americana,” and will be at 8 p.m., August 17, at Anodyne Coffeehouse, 224 West Bruce St. (between 2nd and 3rd Streets) in Walker’s Point, Milwaukee. $10 cover. Besides O’Brien’s group, the event will include Caley Conway, Apollo Vermouth, and an art installation by Anika Kowalik. For information, the group’s Facebook page is Liam O’Brien’s Faithless Followers

 

 

How has capitalism worked out for you? Socialism is not a dirty word. Even less so is democratic socialism.

If a political novice like Donald Trump can become president, why not give a political novice, like New York Senate primary winner Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez –  with the energy, sharp intellect and vision of youth – a chance to apply her ideas about democratic socialism? We are, after all, a democratic society. Medium

Perhaps the most naked and time-worn example of American “anti-intellectualism” is the demonizing of the word “socialism.” Even some educated and seemingly thoughtful people instinctively react as if even the scent of socialism robs them of their precious liberties.

But the freedom capitalism promises – and now delivers so pathetically to “we the people” – is to empower or enrich persons or corporations in isolation, leaving distribution of wealth up to the enriched.

Yet in the United States, a person is almost invariably part of some community, if they admit it or not. Even a hard-working farmer, living perhaps a mile away from a neighbor, is sorely dependent on an economic system that runs fairly to compensate and support his labors. This means that a socio-economic system that balances the needs of individuals, as opposed to greedy wants, with the needs of the community makes sense. Why? Because trickle-down theories of capitalism rarely actually deliver to the people, whereas a social-minded system strives to assure the individual gets back something from the communal system.

I think a more socialist-oriented America can help redirect appropriate percentages of taxes on the rich, help close the terrible income equality gap, and stimulate the economy with greater consumer-spending power. Democratic socialism can co-exist with our capitalist system, in a dialectical tension, a check and balance, if citizens and our leaders do their jobs.

Bret Stevens, a conservative New York Times opinion columnist, reacted recently with condescending, patriarchal tone to the win of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old newcomer to politics who beat out an old Democratic Party insider, Joseph Crowley, in New York’s senatorial primary, and who has captured the imagination of a lot of America. She’s a self-described “social democrat.”

Stevens then trots out examples of how a few socialist governments in Mexico and South Africa have been corrupted. In Europe, democracies have consistently strengthened or formed since World War II, based on socialist principles. But their current struggles with reactionary politics are due to mainly to massive refugee flight from wars elsewhere. The problem isn’t the democratic socialism of, for example, Germany where, despite her challenges, chancellor Angela Merkel is now, in effect, the leader of the free world, now that President Trump his virtually abdicated such a role, with his anti-allies and pro-dictatorial perversities.

His disgraceful post-Summit press conference performance beside Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday is only the latest (and perhaps the worst) example.

It’s true that any political system can be corrupted. That is why democracy can never be a spectator sport, and part of the people’s role is remain vigilant about keeping our politicians honest. And Mr. Stevens, what about the gross corruptions that capitalism has wrought, time after time after time? We live in one of the worst ever –  the reason why American people across much of the political spectrum want meaningful change, not the same old same old. 1

More in America’s societal key, Stevens sings the grindingly tired “left-center-right” song that has not an ounce of intellectual creativity in it:

“If Trump is the new Nixon, the right way to oppose him isn’t to summon the ghost of George McGovern. Try some version of Bill Clinton (minus the grossness) for a change: working-class affect, middle-class politics, upper-class aspirations.” 

First of all, Trump is proving far worse than Nixon, who at least had intelligence for political and policy nuance, and a sense of shame. And Nixon actually accomplished some policies that provided ordinary people social and economic benefit, unlike anything Trump has done. And summoning “the ghost of George McGovern” is lamely poking at a straw man.

As for what we should agree on, we do need finally “working-class affect, middle-class politics,” and even “upper-class aspirations.” Those are all things that a well-run government that functions for general societal benefit can provide, with good faith and creative collaboration. You might notice how Stevens’ historical cherry-picking ignores the historic elephant in the room, the most relevant history in modern America. Of course, that’s Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which produced the most successful and extended period of across-the-board prosperity in American history.

As John Nichols points out in his history of American socialism, Roosevelt “drew inspiration from the platforms of the Socialist party that (Eugene) Debs handed off to Norman Thomas. But Roosevelt, a lifelong reader of (Thomas) Paine quoted the pamphleteer’s fireside chats (‘So spoke Americans in the year 1776. So speak Americans today!’) borrowed at least as much from the distant revolutionary’s canon.” 2

We know that when social-minded policy is put on the table, conservatives often start bleating about profligate hand-outs to the needy. However, thinking of American farmers, Thomas Paine wrote in his pamphlet “Agrarian Justice”:

“But it is justice, and not charity, that is the principle of the plan. In all great cases it is necessary to have a principle more universally active than charity; and with respect to justice, it ought not to be left the choice of detached individuals whether they will do justice or not… It ought to be the act of the whole growing spontaneously out of the principles of the revolution, and the reputation of it ought to be national and not individual.” 3

I want to draw an arc from Thomas Paine to the New Deal more pointedly, to one of the most explicitly acclaimed examples of socialist success in American history – in Milwaukee – which Nichols details in his book. But it was a column on this very topic this week by Shepherd Express writer Joel McNally which actually inspired this blog.

The longtime journalist has also taught a class on urban history of Milwaukee at UW-Milwaukee. His column notes the swelling energy and activism begat by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, and concisely delineates how the three consecutive Socialist mayors of Milwaukee, from 1910 to the 1960s, succeeded.

McNally explains that “there is a reason why young activists don’t consider socialism to be a scary word. They’re well-educated.” McNally then demarcates a history he taught his students, about what he calls “Milwaukee’s Socialist example.” The city’s three socialist mayors over that time were Emile Seidel (1910-1912); Daniel Hoan (1916-1940); and Frank Zeidler (1948-1960). The first, Seidel, helped clean up Mayor David Rose’s corrupt government, and Zeidler lives on as far more than a historical entity to those old enough to have witnessed his successful mayoral terms.

“But it was Hoan – the crusading socialist city attorney left standing after the 1912 purge of socialists who was elected mayor in 1916 and held the office for the next 24 years – who defined lasting contributions of Democratic Socialists to democracy itself,” McNally writes.

Socialist Milwaukee Mayor Daniel Hoan on the cover of TIME magazine in 1936. Courtesy TIME

Daniel Hoan was so successful with a socialist Milwaukee government that he was “recognized nationally for its sound financial management while expanding public employment for those out of work.” The New York Times praised Hoan in December 1931, two years after the stock market crash of 1929, for paying its bills, delivering unemployment relief to hundreds of thousands, “and at the end of the year will have about $ 4 million in the bank.”

And TIME magazine, run by conservative Republican publisher Henry Luce, put Hoan on its cover in April 1936, reporting: “Under him, Milwaukee has become perhaps the best-governed city in the US.”

McNally then describes how, despite The Democratic Party’s successful undermining of The Socialist Party, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt  “used public employment, unemployment benefits and other social safety net programs to pull the nation out of the Great Depression and become the most popular president in history.”
Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid,  Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act similarly are socialist programs, McNally notes.

“It’s as American as apple pie to elect a bright, new generation of Democratic Socialists. They’re fighting to preserve the American ideal of sharing the economic benefits of democracy with everyone, not just the wealthy.” 4

And we’re likely better off with more women public servants, like Ocasio-Cortez, baking America’s apple pie, because they’re often more skilled and experienced in the societal kitchen than men, and know how to slice and distribute the pies, to Make America Socially Equitable Again. How great would that America be?

____________

1 Bret Stevens,

“Democratic Socialism is Dem Doom,” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/06/opinion/democratic-socialism-alexandria-ocasio-cortez.html, The New York Times, July 6, 2018

2. John Nichols, The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism, Verso, 2011, 46

3. Nichols, quoting Thomas Paine in The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism, 50

4. Joel McNally, Democratic Socialists Aren’t Demons; They’re Just Energized Democrats, The Shepherd Express, July 12-18, p. 10, 2018