Saturday, June 9, 2012

Bearing Witness: Gregg Allman’s My Cross To Bear

I was never much of an Allman Brothers fan. There were so many bands playing blues-based rock’n’roll that you had to draw the line somewhere. Oh, sure, I had a copy of the double live album At Fillmore East, like most of my friends. It was a mark of ‘cool.’ Duane Allman was the next guitar hero, and when he joined with Eric Clapton on the Derek & the Dominos' classic Layla album, I showed a bit more interest. There were just so many bands! And the Southern US had more than their share. Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Wet Willie, to name a few. They each had a hit or two, many had twin lead guitars and a soulful singer, and they knew how to mix country with blues and come up with something new. But the Allman Brothers Band? No, I just filed their LPs away with the rest.

Gregg Allman is a survivor. His brother Duane was killed at age 24 in a motorcycle accident over 40 years ago.  Bassist Berry Oakley drove his motorcycle into oncoming traffic about a year later. Drug use took its toll on the band, and its crew, including singer and organist Gregg Allman, Duane’s younger brother. In his new autobiography, Gregg drops one word from one of the ABB’s songs for his title. The song was called “Not My Cross To Bear,” but reality has hit Allman hard, and when it comes to his life he now realizes it is My Cross To Bear (William Morrow, 2012). 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Then and Now: An Indie About Odd Journeys

Aubrey Plaza, Karan Soni and Jake M. Johnson in “Safety Not Guaranteed”

The 1997 classified ad read, in part: “WANTED: Somebody to go back in time with me...Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed.” Some people who spotted this request in an Oregon survivalist publication probably were intrigued. Others may have felt chills – especially if they eventually saw a picture of John Silveira, the fellow with with a spiked mullet seeking a companion for his trip into the past. At first, though, nobody knew who he was or exactly where to find him in the present.

Fast forward more than a decade and the reclusive Silvereira was tracked down by Colin Trevorrow, a nascent feature filmmaker living in Burlington, Vermont. They agreed to have lunch together. When the two strangers met at a restaurant in Quechee, a village along the eastern border of the Green Mountain State, the talk turned to cinema.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Doom Soul: Cold Specks' I Predict A Graceful Expulsion

Al Spx, aka Cold Specks

Born all in the dark wormy earth, cold specks of fire, evil, lights shining in the darkness
 James Joyce, Ulysses

The first time I heard of Al Spx (the pseudonymous name of the Etobicoke-raised singer/songwriter
– and Cold Specks is another of her made-up names – she now lives in London, England), I was listening to Metro Morning on CBC Radio in Toronto last February. Host Matt Galloway, whose musical taste I rarely find interesting (his middlebrow views which he thinks are so multi-culti can be frequently infuriating), introduced the first single, "Holland," from her soon-to-be-released album, I Predict A Graceful Expulsion (it came out last month). The thing that stopped me cold (no pun intended) was not the song (he hadn't played it yet), but rather the term he used to describe the type of music she plays. Al Spx calls it: doom soul.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Getting Personal: Lisa Marie Presley’s Storm & Grace

Storm & Grace (Universal, 2012) is Lisa Marie Presley’s third album and her first in seven years. At age 44, she seems to be coming to terms with her illustrious father and the weight of perpetual celebrity that was foisted upon her from the time she was born. Common fodder with the tabloids, Presley also seems to be coming to terms with her past, or at least, appears to be in the process of doing so. Thanks to the earthy tones surrounding the songs, led by producer T-Bone Burnett, Storm & Grace weighs heavy on the ears. The solid, upright bass of Dennis Crouch is right up front pulsing every musical nuance while driving the songs forward. Presley seems to be able to bear a heavy load and open up about her past. Music as therapy? Indeed.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

TV’s Revenge: Trashy But Zeitgeist Phenomenon

The cast of Revenge, on ABC

Note: The following contains SPOILERS

It’s a telling thing that although the American public TV networks are ostensibly devoted to appealing to their audiences, they rarely reflect back the viewers' realities. And that’s never more apparent than in terms of economic facts and figures. It’s the rare TV show that is actually about working-class blue-collar Americans, though significant ones from The Honeymooners through All in the Family to Roseanne did endeavour to portray that way of life. Mostly though, especially in popular sitcoms, like Seinfeld, Friends and even How I Met Your Mother, making a living and worrying about paying the bills isn’t on the agenda; in fact, the lavish apartments and spacious rooms the folks on the above TV shows live in were and are laughably removed from what New Yorkers actually put up with. (I know people who have to live in Hoboken, New Jersey, even though they work in New York City, because they can’t afford to shell out thousands of dollars for a tiny one-bedroom apartment in the Big Apple.) But even in escapist, adverting-heavy network television, the gloomy headlines of foreclosures, unemployment and debt have, increasingly, been creeping into the plotlines and premises of the shows.

The 2009 quickly-cancelled Kelsey Grammer series Hank was centred around a boorish Wall Street executive who loses his job and has to move back to his hometown to re-connect with his family and the small town values he left behind. The characters on CBS’s The Good Wife are uniformly well off, but the law firm at the centre of the action suffered some economic difficulties last season and had to lay off staff so as not to go under. And on the finale of the second season of ABC’s Happy Endings, the series’ arguably most successful character, Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.) was fired. (It’ll be interesting to see how much the series’ third season will delve into Brad’s dire situation, the first time he’s been unemployed since he finished university.) Even Penny’s (Kaley Cuoco) job as a waitress on CBS’s The Big Bang Theory has always carried with it the awareness that she barely makes enough money to scrape by. (The apartment complex the main science nerds of that show live in, with its perpetually out of order elevators, also looks authentic.) But of all the shows currently on TV, it’s the ABC drama Revenge which may be the most plugged into what’s actually coming down in the United States, even though at heart it’s pulpy, trashy and more than a little soapy.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Are You There, McPhee?: John Guare at a Low Point

Paul Gross (centre), with Hope Springer and Matthew Kuenne, in Are You There, McPhee? (Photo: Michal Daniel)

What in the world has happened to John Guare?  The great American playwright who authored Six Degrees of Separation, The House of Blue Leaves, Bosoms and Neglect, Marco Polo Sings a Solo, the Lydie Breeze plays and the screenplay for Louis Malle’s Atlantic City has returned to the breathtaking rate of production he enjoyed in the seventies and eighties.  He opened a new play, A Free Man of Color, at Lincoln Center a year and a half ago; another, Are You There, McPhee?, just closed the McCarter Theatre season in Princeton, New Jersey; and the Signature Theater in New York has scheduled a third for next year.  But A Free Man of Color and Are You There, McPhee?, are hardly recognizable as works by Guare, whose plays are distinctive for hooking wild, complicated plot lines to perhaps the most acute instinct for dramatic structure since Eugene O’Neill.  These new projects are rambling and aimless. A Free Man of Color, an early-nineteenth-century picaresque inspired by the life of Joseph Cornet, the richest black man in New Orleans, had magnificent production values, but as a race play it was both pedantic and incoherent, like Suzan-Lori Parks’s much lauded Topdog Underdog.  And poor Jeffrey Wright, as Cornet, asked to carry the whole enterprise on his back, wandered through the scenes with a slightly puzzled resoluteness, as if neither Guare nor the director, George C. Wolfe (who also staged Topdog Underdog), had bothered to hand him a map.  But at least A Free Man of Color was about something.  Are You There, McPhee? has miles of narrative but no theme.  It’s a lost play.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Boot(y) Camps: Sweating and Working It Out

One of the signs of spring in the city – aside from robins, patios, and Vespas – are the Lulemon-clad armies performing gruelling rounds of burpees, crunches and squats in public parks. Yes, as bathing suit season draws near and the layers of clothing start to come off, so must the extras on the body that have accumulated over the winter. Our monolithic fitness industry offers an endless array of options for those who either need or desire a source of guidance in their routine. One cannot walk several blocks without feeling the guilt-inducing reminders of fitness clubs, boxing studios, or flyers for the “boot camp.” This year, based on a combination of curiosity and bemusement, I decided to gear up and join these boot-camp goers. What I discovered was something truly enlightening.