Saturday, September 1, 2012

Beauty in Simplicity: John Abercrombie Quartet's Within a Song

Beauty in simplicity. It's a phrase that's been used to describe great musical performances that are unadorned and ego-free and reach the human heart. Within a Song (ECM, 2012) by John Abercrombie could easily be described in this way. It’s an album of music that specifically plays tribute to the sounds Abercrombie enjoyed while maturing as a guitarist. But rather than pay tribute to his favourite songs and musicians in a formal way   that is, as mimicry  the guitarist leads his group away from nostalgia and into the present. It’s an arrangement that works beautifully.

The record opens with the standard "Where Are You?" by Jimmy McHugh. It's an appropriate choice as Abercrombie seeks to find the source of his inspiration and the muse that spoke to him in the 1960s and pulled him into jazz. Essentially, that's what this new album is about: the turbulent times in the art of jazz that reflected the social changes in the United States while uncovering new ground in the music. But it’s not a literal history  it’s impressionistic.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Continuum: The New Politics of Time Travel

Rachel Nichols stars in Continuum on Showcase

I’m a sucker for time travel stories. My first favourite film was Terry Gilliam’s wildly surreal Time Bandits: I was taken to see it for my 11th birthday, and can still vividly recall the delight I felt leaving the theatre that afternoon.  And I’m certainly not alone in my enthusiasm. There is something uniquely compelling about the time travel conceit, and there’s a good reason why it remains one of the more popular subjects in science fiction literature, film, and television. Time travel plots are eminently adaptable – they can be ridiculous or grave, simplistic or painfully complex. They can be camp (Time Bandits), philosophical (La Jetée), juvenile (Hot Tub Time Machine), geeky (Frequently Asked Questions about Time Travel), or can just plain mess with your head (Primer). From the giddy fun of the Back to the Future trilogy, to the patently movie-of-the-week quality of The Philadelphia Experiment, to the smash and grab Snipes/Stallone vehicle Demolition Man, I have eagerly consumed them all. The Harlan Ellison-authored original Star Trek classic “City on the Edge of Forever” set the standard for me at an early age – somehow covering many of the light and heavy aspects of time travel in one brief hour of television. But when it comes to series television, the results have been more hit and miss. From the Time Bandits-inspired, delightfully cheesy, perhaps rightfully short-lived Voyagers!, to the more human-centred (and often sublime) Quantum Leap almost a decade later,  the too-quickly-cancelled Journeyman on NBC, and the BBC’s magnificent Life on Mars, time travel is a challenging format for a continuing series. And so when Showcase premiered its new science fiction/police drama Continuum in late May 2012, I made sure to tune in.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Satan is Real: The Story of the Louvin Brothers

You will, if you are of a certain age and inclination, recall the conflicting sides of Donald Duck’s personality. They were represented by an angel and a devil. Each one gave him advice and encouragement and left him the free will to choose. This dichotomy has been displayed in literature, film, and parenting since time began. The Louvin Brothers (Charlie and Ira Loudermilk) were a pair of brothers who sang deep country music. Ira was the dark-haired handsome one who played the mandolin and sang the high tenor part. He was a womanizer, a drunkard, and had a bad temper. He was a scallywag with a beautiful voice. Charlie was the good boy – he didn’t drink, was married to one woman for decades, he played guitar and sang the low harmonies. The Louvin Brothers began their career in the 1940s. They called themselves the Louvins because people mispronounced Loudermilk. As the Loudermilk brothers they learned their harmonies from their mother who taught them old folk songs as they did their chores around the house, and from the sacred harp singing at the local church. The influence they had on country music is immeasurable. Satan Is Real was the name of their most iconic record album; it is also the title of Charlie Louvin’s autobiography.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Concert of Epic Proportions: Bruce Springsteen in Toronto – August 24, 2012

Bruce Springsteen Concert - Toronto - August 24, 2012

Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Is a three-hour and forty-five minute Bruce Springsteen concert just too much? Yes and no. I knew going in to last Friday’s Springsteen concert at Toronto’s Skydome (I refuse to call it the Rogers Centre because it sounds too much like a shopping mall) that that was what 40,000 of us were probably going to experience. But until you live through this emotional roller-coaster – the driven, full-on, balls-to-the-wall party which is a concert by Bruce Springsteen – you really don’t know what to expect. For years, Springsteen has maintained that if you pay good money to see him perform, whether the concert is in New York City or Poughkeepsie, you are going to get a show of equal skill, length and passion. (And unlike other performers – I’m looking at you, Madonna – who gouge their customers to see them “live,” Springsteen’s tickets are kept at a very reasonable price, and he and his band actually perform and sing live.) There’s no question he fulfilled that promise on Friday night.

Musical tastes change, and I basically stopped paying attention to Springsteen’s output in the mid 1990s. I’ve heard songs here and there over the years from after that period that I've liked (especially his fine 9/11 album, The Rising, and tracks from his new CD, Wrecking Ball), but I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as a fan anymore. I found myself at the concert more out of curiosity than as someone committed to his music. Our seats were of the nose-bleed variety, a scant seven rows from the top. We were also on an oblique angle to the stage. This was a problem because I don’t really think they properly figured out where to put the video screens. One was on far stage left (unseen by us); the big main screen was centre stage behind the band (again out of view); and then there was the one on stage right that we could see (or could have if it hadn’t been partially blocked by light scaffolding). And yet even with this huge limitation within the rotten, echoing sound of the Skydome, on this gorgeous night when the open dome made the sound even worse, this was one of the finest concerts I’ve ever seen.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Robert Hughes: Another Iconoclast Departs

Robert Hughes (1938-2012)

I first encountered the writings of the late art critic Robert Hughes, who recently died after a long illness at age 74, when he wrote for TIME magazine. As a long time subscriber to the magazine, I’d always paid attention to film, book and music and theatre critics, in TIME and elsewhere, but I had never really read or liked art criticism until Hughes came on the scene. Reading someone discoursing on artists I was mostly unfamiliar with – I wasn’t one for art galleries in my younger years – I sensed two salient points about him. One is that he didn’t suffer fools, or in his case bad art and bad artists, gladly, just like my other favourite curmudgeons, Harlan Ellison and the late Christopher Hitchens; and two, he brought the very highest standards of criticism to his writing. TIME has generally had critics a cut or two above the bland norm – currently Lev Grossman on books, James Poniewozik on television and Richard Zoglin on theatre fulfill that function adequately – but Hughes was something new. He was scathing – his critiques of artists like Julian Schnabel or Jeff Koons, whom he delightfully called 'The Princeling of Kitsch,' made an indelible impression on me. (Many years later I saw an exhibit by artist/ photographer Jeff Wall, a similarly themed modern figure, in Chicago and though I couldn’t entirely dismiss his oeuvre, I did feel that I was being confronted by a fraud. I suspect subconsciously Hughes’ trenchant criticism of modern art was percolating in the back of my mind.) But it wasn’t until I read his eye-opening book Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America (Oxford University Press, 1993) – detailing the then corrosive effects of political correctness on the political and artistic climate in the United States – that I fully realized how gutsy, vital and important Hughes was to the current discourse on culture and politics among intelligent and open-minded people.

Monday, August 27, 2012

French Without Tears: The Popular Music of Another Time

The cast of French Without Tears at the Shaw Festival (Photo: David Cooper)

French Without Tears at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake comes half a year too late for the Terence Rattigan centennial, but productions of this skillfully assembled entertainment are too rare for caviling – especially considering what a fine job director Kate Lynch and her (mostly) young cast have done with this one. It was the play that made Rattigan famous: the 1935 West End production ran for years and the play was filmed in 1940. To my knowledge he never wrote anything else like it. It’s a distinctly thirties mix of drawing-room comedy, junior division, and romantic comedy; the closest American equivalent would probably be something like Having Wonderful Time, the Arthur Kober play set at a Catskills adult summer camp that was filmed, quite enjoyably, in 1938 with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Ginger Rogers. French Without Tears is about a group of privileged young Englishmen living together in a villa in France over the summer and studying French in preparation for the Diplomatic Corps or international business. Except for the most juvenile among them, Kenneth (known as Babe and played by Billy Lake), whose haplessness at acquiring the language preoccupies him – the opening image, which gets repeated, is of him slamming his head against the dining-room table – the boys’ focus isn’t, of course, their studies, but women. One of them, Brian (Craig Pike), has been paying his attentions to a local (offstage) flirt named Chi-Chi. The others orbit around Babe’s sister Diana (Robin Evan Willis), who is officially dating Kit (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) but enjoys unsettling Alan (Ben Sanders), the most intellectually gifted of the crew, and the handsome newcomer Bill Rogers (Martin Happer), a naval lieutenant-commander a little older than the others. (The title of the play derives from a now démodé promise once offered by language instruction programs.)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Some Good Men and Women Feelin' Bad: Recent Blues Albums

Two guys named Anthony, at Buddy Guy's Legends in Chicago  (Photo by D. Kidney)

I spent the week before last in Chicago, on vacation with my wife and another couple. We stayed at a beautifully appointed boutique hotel in the Gold Coast, easily within a short taxi ride from most of Chicago’s feature attractions. There’s the Shedd Aquarium, home to thousands of examples of sea life; the Field Museum, not as I supposed a collection of open-grassy spaces, but rather a natural history museum which featured a wonderful exhibit on the life of Genghis Khan. We saw both these attractions on the first day, separated by a lunch of homemade porchetta sandwich at the famous-on-TV Panozza’s Deli. The second day we took pictures of ourselves reflected in The Bean sculpture, and then studied the Roy Lichtenstein show at the Art Institute of Chicago. All those museums were getting a little tiring … after all here we were in the centre of the blues universe and we hadn’t heard any of that great Chicago music yet! For lunch we taxied over to Buddy Guy’s Legends for some Louisiana cooking and a healthy serving of the blues. Buddy himself was on tour in California, so we didn’t find him leaning against the bar, but Anthony Moser (and another guitarist named Anthony) provided the free music. They sang blues, and funky originals while we enjoyed the beer, gumbo and po’boys.