Five Visionary Musicians Travel to the Apocalypse and Beyond


Kayhan Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider carried Milwaukee to the nether edge of pan-cultural, time-tripping music-making in a recent concert at Alverno’s Pittman Theater. Now we know why raved about these guys, and nary a guitarist among them.

Let’s start with Brooklyn Rider, which is classy-cool, not overdoing the hipper-than-thou theatrics that Kronos Quartet sometimes indulges. But this quartet band ain’t four-corner square fuddy-duds. Each player (save the cellist, who still romances his instrument in a loin embrace) performs standing up, unlike traditional or even most other “hip” string quartets. They may not subject their axes to Pete Townshend arm wind-milling, but every once in a while you hear a full-throated ensemble power chord from their discretely amplified instruments.

But such a stunning harmonic attack is no brain-and-body crunch. It’s more a genuine heart palpitator, as in the second movement of the latest Philip Glass string quartet which opened the second half of their concert with a mewling, wailing, bird cry effect, a soulful sonic wave in time and space.

Kalhor, by contrast, does sit – but he doesn’t even use a chair. Foregoing bourgeois conveniences is part of the rigor and ritual of Eastern and, in this case, Middle Eastern music. (Check it out: Brooklyn Rider is collaborating with an Iranian master, undercutting stereotypes of Iran as a bunch of jihadist war mongers. The quartet and Kalhor met in cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble tour).

Intensely focused yet collectively attuned, Kalhor is a compact man, a virtuoso of a four-stringed instrument, the kamancheh, with a gourd-like voice box that, despite its smallness, cuts through the Western string ensemble sonority easily as a lead voice. At times it almost keened, but eloquently.

The concert ranged from “Atasgah,” inspired music by BRider violinist Colin Jacobson’s experiences in Iran (like most non-classical groups, they compose some of their own material) to music drawing from the classical tradition, specifically Beethoven. “Seven Steps” reimagined segments of the German romantic master’s genius into a contemporary mélange befitting, say, today’s Web-surfing sensibility.

But these riders were brave musical expedition guides bent on transporting listeners, after intermission. Again they balanced Western and Persian sources. The Glass quartet — music from the film Bent — characteristically doesn’t travel far harmonically but rather envelops the listener in its ardent sonic direction. Brooklyn Rider plays Glass music like second nature, lending all the sharp and supple dynamics that give the minimalist composer his expansively romantic  interest and enchantment. And in this ensemble’s harmonies — both power chords and supple aural massages — reminds the listener of the peerlessly quadrupled expressivity of the string quartet form.

It all led up to this unique quintet’s big “hit,” if you can say that of a half-hour long piece, Kalhor’s remarkable “Silent City.” BRider had recently spoken with the great Indian jazz pianist-composer Vijay Iyer (who’ll return to Alverno for a solo concert on March 10), and noted Iyer’s characterization of music as “necessitating an architectural space for things to happen.” That’s “Silent City” to a T, though it began with the T virtually obliterated.

Like the Glass, “City” is essentially but richly modal, rising at first like the meager embers of devastated urban ruins. Here the composer’s instrument creeps out tentatively amid the quartet’s vast, bleak setting of shifting microtonal textures, a slow emergence somewhat reminiscent of, say, Barber’s greatAdagio for Strings,” rescored as a tonally ambiguous soundtrack to Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road. The group’s muted but intensifying pitches uncover a furtive, slightly frightening aura, suggesting a lone surviving consciousness — in the tentative voice of Kalhor’s kamancheh, with a memory haunted by spectral echoes. At one point, the piece begins growing almost like a random seed windblown to a fertile spot; a tree grows in scorched Brooklyn? Actually, Kalhor’s small, vertical instrument — with bulbous base, stalk-like neck and large pegs — resembles a growing plant.

The sonic sun gradually spreads, mournfully illuminating a morning of disabused innocence and pensively posing musical questions: What happened? What did we do to our world? Where do we go from here? The light births a new day and a now-insistent rhythmic sense of human industry. At this point, one sensed the concert had gradually achieved a touch of greatness — certainly a heady, breathtaking majesty to match the inextinguishable hope of a new era of life, amid desolation and death.*

The encore piece, bursting with joyously frenetic purpose, is titled “The Bird,” and depicted an intrepid winged creature “trying to fly to the sun,” Kalhor explained afterwards. In a post-technological world, Nature leads The Way.



*The recorded version of “Silent City” is enhanced by a bassist and a bodhran percussionist. It would be interesting to hear this ambitious work played by an East-meets-West chamber orchestra.

BTW, BRider has one of the coolest artist websites ( I’ve seen, with homepage site tabs deftly integrated into a gloriously funky ink pen-and-watercolor cityscape portrait of Brooklyn, and an actual online art gallery.

Remember, blog comments are always welcome!

Two Guys and Their Guitars

PABST THEATER, MILWAUKEE — So how’s this for folking it up? Shortly after writing the above posting, I saw Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt sitting on a stage with nothing but their two acoustic guitars and a little table between them with some water bottles — like sitting out on your front porch. This was the folk-music mode in essence. At first, Hiatt mumbled his words and Lovett fumbled his first song, stopping after four lines and saying, “Uh, John, maybe I should leave the singing to you.” But he gathered himself and started singing a completely different song.
So it went, each rummaging around for the next song to sing, and audience folks in the Pabst Theater talking to them randomly and they’d always politely respond. That got out of hand late in the concert when about 40 different requests came raining down on them almost simultaneously. That’s what happens when you cram 800 people onto your front porch. But they were both affable, humorous and charming. I think Lovett’s big hair presses down on his brain too much — he’s a little odd but you can almost imagine how he charmed Julia Roberts into marrying him, at least until he got his haircut and the pressure eased and he temporarily lost his quirky powers, like a goofus Sampson.
But he’s very smart and insightful and always has an aw-shucks ballad to sing. Both men did find their grooves and performed superbly — Hiatt especially traveled deep into his blues-infused story-songs, often pulling a menagerie of moods along with him: “I never felt so free, just my dog and me…how many times can one dog pee?”
So after he sang “All The Way Under” (from his marvelous recent alum Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns), Lovett said, “So we want to know, how low have you really gotten?” Hiatt chuckled and said “I’m still working on that.” Lovett is still workin’ on romance, sort of. He mooed out a courting ballad, written after meeting a beautiful lunch-counter waitress who only had eyes for his buddy. The sorry little kicker: “Now I’m stuck with this song/and I’ll never be able to use it.” For a moment you believed either he was never close to lovely Julia’s league, or that or maybe any of us romantic schlubs might just have a shot at the heart’s glory — if our timing were just right.
Throughout the show, Lovett’s singing remained in its usual expressively hovering register, whereas Hiatt’s ditch-diggin’ voice almost struck its own wormy coffin and then soared with ravaged wails that almost pierced the crying sky bluesmen sing about. I felt sorry for the five (!) different people I’d asked to come along who couldn’t make it (Is it my e-odorant? My third eye?) I had won two tickets from WUWM radio. Well, me and my empty red seat, we soaked up a heapin’ helpin’ of folk-country-blues soul. So satisfied.



I’m Kevin Lynch (or keve2109) from Milwaukee, and welcome to Culture Currents (Vernaculars Speak), my new blog. I subtitled it Words, Sounds and Images of Common (and uncommon) Culture. But it could also be Rooting around the Subculture. One of my notions is that subculture these days becomes mainstream culture very quickly, through co-opting or larger forces of consumption that bypass commercial or corporate marketing, which seems good.
So yes, it will be basically a culture blog. I’m a veteran, award-winning arts journalist, writer and visual artist who carries a curious little paradox around inside him, which I like to think of as my little shrunken head, a la Queequeg, one of my cultural heroes, fictional as he is. You see, I’m a lifelong Midwesterner with a hankering for the sea that seems to be part of what keeps my spirits restless. So the “sullen white surf” theme photo above suits my inherent discontent to a “T,” as I suspect it did Herman Melville  and his contemporary writers in what Lewis Mumford called “The Golden Age” of American letters. That literary generation has fallen into certain disrepute in some academic quarters but that doesn’t change the quality of their writing. I try to reach across the American spectrum of creative writing but for now I remain fascinated by what appears to be its true Genesis in the mid-1800s — especially Melville, Whitman, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Dickinson.

As for using this e-medium, I’m just beginning to accept James Fallows contention in a recent Atlantic article that the new media is perhaps “transforming” journalistic communications, by giving people what they want rather than what somebody thinks they need. So this blog won’t be good-for-you hard reporting, though politics will inevitably seep in, and links to good, solid journalism. But I will share if I think you’ll benefit from it in any sense of the word. That’s a fundamental motive for any culture writer, it seems to me.

So even if I do reel in some Melville quotes and perspectives from that era, this blog will be plenty contemporary, I promise with, I hope, trenchant and provocative comments on another interest in American culture that grew into a personal obsession of sorts in recent years. It’s a remarkably encompassing phenomenon that nevertheless I try to hornswaggle with a rusty-sounding brand: North American Roots Music. Maybe lassoing this sprawling phenomenon is a bit like trying to catch tumbling tumble weeds, dancing and sweeping across the Great Plains, and into the Heartland and whirling and twisting back down into the Southwest. So I’ll be wandering and chasing, and pausing to savor the voices in those winds.

So I hope you don’t mind following some of my extended metaphors and shambling similes. I’m tracking down a new generation of singer songwriters – a wonderfully motley crew – who are speaking through their lyrics and music with great care for the composed word. Here is why I think our indigenous vernaculars are serving us better than ever and worth paying attention to. So I also feel a sense of the restless, even slightly bedeviled, wanderer because I’ll put a confession right up front: I’ve always been fascinated by North American roots music but my very difficult (for me) divorce in 2007 cast me along the cruel shoals with countless forsaken spouses. There I rediscovered, and truly appreciated for the first time, Townes Van Zandt’s mournfully poetic soul salve. If you must know, “For the Sake of the Song” seems to nail my marriage like a dolorous Grim Reaper.
But I soon realized this man was right up there with Dylan and Young as a songwriter. I was unable to live without Van Zandt’s music daily for three or four months, something I can’t say about any other artist. Enough said about the marriage and “art therapy” though a few “vernacular voyeurs” I’m sure will proceed to poke around in the psyche of my postings if they must.

Truth is, roots music always had a hold on me in a way that I suspect entangles us all as real Americans, whether we’re aware of it or not. That’s okay, but it’s a reason why I write about it now as much as any art form, or at least try to. I’m really fascinated by the youngest generation of rootsy singer-songwriters who seem to embrace their elder’s style and sensibility while making it their own. I suspect they understand it’s their own heritage as much as their parents. The American song lyric as a medium has matured and grown painfully with our vast, often self-deluding but empowering  “sense of destiny,” like our country’s whole, hoary democratic experiment. So I’m interested in lyrics that you can (thankfully) hear — as its own literary form, as well as the culture the songs and styles have spawned. Some of the forbearers I may mention include of course the aforementioned Dylan, Van Zandt and Young, and Robbie Robertson, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Guy Clark, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne,Patti Smith, Lou Reed, John Lennon, Tom Waits, Warrren Zevon, Randy Newman, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Phil Ochs, Paul Simon, Robert Hunter, John Hiatt, Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, the individuals and “super” collectives of The Flatlanders and The Highwaymen, and the Brits Richard Thompson and Nick Drake.

A second-generation, very roughly calculated, includes Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Jim Lauderdale, Bill Camplin, Nanci Griffith, Robert Earl Keen, Patty Griffin, Dar Williams, Buddy and Julie Miller, the Jayhawks, Mary Chapin Carpenter.

I’m a fan of virtually all these artists but the ones that really excite me for the future are the youngest ones whom I feel grateful for carrying on and reinvigorating these traditions rather than discarding them. Who do I mean? There are several literal and worthy offspring like Jakob Dylan, Justin Townes Earle, Shooter Jennings and Hank Williams III and Holly Williams and Pieta Brown (the daughter of the great Iowa troubadour Greg Brown and step daughter of the marvelous Iris DeMent, who I hope still writes when she’s so moved). James McMurtry also fits the literary offspring category even if his brilliant father Larry doesn’t write songs. Among those simply gifted young songwriter-performers are the remarkable Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Hayes Carll, Ryan Bingham, Dierks Bentley, Laura Viers, Peter Mulvey, Jeffrey Foucault, Alison Krauss, Diana Jones, The Avett Brothers, the Uncle Tupelo gang, Donna the Buffalo, The Cowboy Junkies, Josh Ritter, The Pines, Slaid Cleaves, The Counting Crows, the Old 97s’ Rhet Miller, The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, again, to name only some notables.
You get a sense of this new generation.
I don’t mention deep pioneers of roots music but of course they range from the Carter family to Hazel Dickens, Woody Guthrie and the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, etc. etc.
Then there’s the blues revival — absolutely seminal to roots per se but in terms of songwriting and original performance of good two revival generations include Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, Paul Butterfield, John Hammond Jr., Al Green, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Ted Hawkins, Taj Mahal, Jack Bruce, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, Chris Smither, Paul Germania, Robert Cray, Rory Block, Trucks and Tedeschi, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Chris Whitley, Kelly Joe Phelps, Otis Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Tracy Nelson, KoKo Taylor, Magic Sam, Sue Foley, Robert Randolph, Mose Allison, Eric Bibb, Keb Mo, and many more.

Forgive my listing all this musical laundry. I only hope it feels (or will feel) eternally fresh for you. This is something I feel is alive and moving and of course very human and yet as elusive in ways as tumbling tumbleweeds, which is also why I love its unassuming nature as art.
My seemingly belated conspicuous arrival at roots music (I interviewed Bill Monroe in 1982, and covered plenty of all roots music intermittently) stems from my critical faculties (as a long time “fine arts” critic and jazz writer) or perhaps snobbery, some might suspect, concerning “folk music,” which can be the equivalent of karaoke music but without the courage of a little alcohol, and thus can still be insufferable and as self-important as Miss Piggy on a very tall mound of something ripe.

So I will be commenting on whatever mode of cultural expression — the high, low and in between — that seems interesting and timely, or timeless. Yet some of the 20th century’s most compelling and enduring music has emitted from so-called “folk” artists, who almost by definition often freely mine more specific vernaculars like blues, rock ‘n roll, R&B, country and bluegrass. As Louis Armstrong famously said “all music is folk music, horses can’t sing.” Thus, I happily set aside any leftover snootiness and gobble up wonderfully gritty and caloric glories of American art wherever reaches my senses.
Of course, my taste has its limits and I hear on the radio any number of folksy recording “artists” who sound too saccharine, wimpy and precious, as if ingratiating themselves into facile pop marketability. But I see this commercial impulse as a reflection of how roots music as a nominal subculture is starting to become a large part of a musical mainstream.

As you may know, at least popular two movies which are crucial to roots music’s revival such as it is: “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “The Blues Brothers,” the latter which I hold dear to my heart because my old white AMC Hornet putts along, I swear, in the background on an off ramp in the closing chase scene, filmed on Milwaukee’s then-unfinished “freeway to nowhere.”

Cruising  slowly on an off ramp seems like a symbolically appropriate vantage point for a cultural blogger.
So please, give me a holler as I try to drive straight and keep my eye on the cultural panorama at the same time. At times “look out!” might be the best response. But at least I’m driving in a rusted-out (but American made) metaphor rather than blabbing on a cell behind a real wheel.

So speak up, anyway you please, as long as you’re civil and clean enough for our friendly sponsors. And if you’re on a Smart phone in your car, be smart. Pull over. If you’re dead already, blame me.
— Kevin Lynch