Saturday, September 19, 2015

Blues x 3: Dave and Phil Alvin's Lost Time, Shemekia Copeland's Outskirts of Love and Ronnie Earl and The Broadcasters' Father’s Day

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Willie Dixon, Brownie McGhee and Hound Dog Taylor. In the spirit of these founders of a musical form that never seems to wane, here are three first-rate releases for 2015. Dave and Phil Alvin's Lost Time (Yep Roc) is their follow up to Common Ground, released last year, and it features even more of their up-tempo and invigorating music. The last record was a rather laid back affair featuring songs written by Big Bill Broonzy. This time the Alvin brothers break out the electric guitars and rock the joint. The album opens with the Oscar Brown Jr song “Mr Kicks” quickly followed by the gospel number “World's in a Bad Condition” in a rousing version worthy of a tent meeting in Mississippi. In an interview in the August 2015 issue of Living Blues magazine, Dave Alvin was asked why the songs on the album sound so “contemporary” in spite of their age. Alvin's response spoke volumes about the value of blues music today, “in any type of old folk music, there's always that kernel of truth that keeps it alive [and] keeps it relevant.”

Friday, September 18, 2015

Sinatra’s Sinatra

Sinatra: All or Nothing at All aired on HBO in April. (Photo by William Gottlieb, 1947)

For those of us who adore Frank Sinatra, Alex Gibney’s comprehensive two-part documentary Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, which aired on HBO earlier this year, is a gift. I watched it in a kind of rapture, held by the dense, varied narrative and the amazing footage (much of it rare) and the intelligence of both the analysts and the interviewees from different stages in Sinatra’s life and career. Most of all, though, I was held by Sinatra himself, not just the singer and the personality but the chronicler of his own story. A few seasons back, an otherwise misguided Broadway revue of Stephen Sondheim’s music called Sondheim on Sondheim intercut footage of interviews with the composer-lyricist from different decades, and the results were unexpectedly moving: while he aged, his lucid and insightful glimpses into his own thoughts about his work provided a continuum for it. Relying on a number of interviews given at different phases of Sinatra’s career, Gibney does something similar, and when he adds commentary by his children, Nancy and Tina and Frank Jr. (whose vocal patterns are oddly similar to those of the comedian Paul Reiser), and the words of his wives Nancy Sinatra and Ava Gardner, read by Christine Baranski and Gina Gershon respectively, the effect is not unlike that of a bank of mirrors with planes that reach inward for as far as the eye can see.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Doppelgangers in Stephen King’s Finders Keepers and Joyce Carol Oates’ Jack of Spades

Note: this post contains spoilers for Stephen King’s Finders Keepers and Joyce Carol Oates’ Jack of Spades

The power of writing and its obsessive hold over fan readers is a theme with which Stephen King is familiar. In Misery (1987) Annie Wilkes becomes increasingly psychotic after she reads a manuscript by the protagonist writer, Paul Sheldon, due to a sense of betrayal after she learns that the writer decides to dispense with his popular Victorian romantic heroine series and write a contemporary novel spiked with violence and profanity. In his most recent outing, Finders Keepers (Scribner 2015), King narrates the tale of two teenagers, set thirty-five years apart, a troubled Morris Bellamy and a generous Pete Saubers, who become enthralled with the Jimmy Gold novels by John Rothstein, a novelist who bears a strong similarity to J.D. Salinger. After Rothstein finished his trilogy that made him rich and famous, he retreated to a farm in New Hampshire where he refused to publish anything further prompting Time magazine in 1960 to acclaim him to be “America’s Reclusive Genius.” When Finders Keepers begins in 1978, rumours have circulated over the intervening years that Rothstein continued to write.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Old Hat: Observations On The Upcoming Fall Network TV Season

Amber Valletta and Don Johnson in Blood & Oil, premiering on ABC on September 27.

Ever since I was a little kid, I have looked forward to the network Fall TV Season, including getting my hands on a copy of TV Guide’s special issue celebrating the same, and, almost every time out, have amassed a full slate of new and returning shows that I deemed worthy of my time. Tastes change, of course but I have fond memories of past TV seasons, such as CBS’s Saturday night schedule, for a couple of years, of All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show, a lineup that still stands out as, perhaps, the strongest night ever in Network television history. (I am dating myself here as it’s been a long time since prime time Saturday night was considered anything but a graveyard for reruns and cancelled shows running off their last few episodes.) This is why I have never dismissed network television, and feel that despite the glut of cable shows, good and bad, commercial TV still has much to offer.

Last year saw some new appealing network shows, joining the likes of my favourites such as CBS’s The Good Wife and Elementary, which are still strong entries on TV and supplanting in some ways two now disappointing comedies, The Big Bang Theory (CBS), which finally turned bad in its eighth season and the regrettably fast fading Modern Family (ABC). (The Mindy Project, though maddeningly uneven, was still worth watching and, after its cancellation by FOX, was fortunately rescued by Hulu and will continue to run on commercial TV in Canada.) Black-ish (ABC) was a funny, clever sitcom about an upper-middle class black family that addressed issues of racism and racial perceptions in a refreshingly non-politically correct manner and with more courage than The Cosby Show displayed. (The cartoonish The Jeffersons isn’t even worth considering in that light.) Gotham (FOX) managed to wring new gothic blood out of the superhero genre, depicting D.C.’s Batman when he is the young Bruce Wayne and has just seen his parents murdered in front of his eyes. He begins to grow into the caped crusader, under the tutelage of a cockney Alfred, more of a bodyguard than a butler and a former SAS officer to boot, and meets up with a young Selena Kyle (later to become Catwoman and portrayed by a young actress who is a dead ringer for Michelle Pfeiffer, who played Catwoman as an adult in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns), as well as other key figures in his future, such as Commissioner Gordon, who is still just a cop. The new season, subheaded "Rise of the Villains," promises to do even more with The Penguin, The Riddler and, possibly The Joker, who has yet to make his appearance in Gotham.

ABC’s 1940s and Manhattan-set Marvel’s Agent Carter also brought a fresh eye to the Marvel superhero universe with Hayley Atwell, stellar as the prim and proper but also sensual British agent, fighting sexism from her male fellows who think she is just good for getting them coffee. (It had a light appealing tone, in the vein of Raiders of the Last Ark, which made it far more watchable than its sister show, the leaden and heavy handed Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which I’m bailing on after two seasons.) And ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder was a tough minded murder mystery, set on a college campus, which, to my mind, broke some taboos in its sexual frankness, straight and gay, as well as proffering a cinematic look which made it move swiftly and surely. Yet the upcoming 2015-16 TV season, which begins next week, doesn’t seem to bode as well for new worthwhile fare. I usually sample about a third of the 30 or so new series premiering each fall on the networks. Out of this year’s 19 debut shows, I am hard pressed to find one or two, at most, that entice me enough to consider giving them a shot.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Brick By Brick: Super Mario Maker

Design and share your own Super Mario levels: it sounds simple, doesn’t it? Perfunctory, almost. It was frankly a surprise to me that Nintendo hadn’t capitalized on this idea already. It seems like a no-brainer, given the simple and satisfying design of the 2-dimensional Mario games. Let the player place some blocks, add some coins and some enemies, and you’re already off to the races. But Super Mario Maker, released last week for Nintendo’s Wii U, aims far higher than that. In its brilliant design and remarkable polish, it succeeds not just at creating an experience that’s totally unique in gaming, but at framing and contextualizing thirty years of that little mustachioed plumber, and highlighting what has always made his adventures so special.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Shaw’s Shaw: Pygmalion and You Never Can Tell

Jeff Meadows (left),  Harveen Sandu, and Patrick McManus in Pygmalion at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

Peter Hinton’s production of Shaw’s Pygmalion at the Shaw Festival is set in contemporary London, and for nearly two acts (the play is in five brisk acts) the conceit is great fun. Henry Higgins (played energetically and with considerable wit by Patrick McManus) hovers around Covent Garden in jeans and a t-shirt with a tape recorder or leans on his bike. Clara Eynsford Hill (Kristi Frank), disaffected and entitled, texts blankly while she and her mother (Julain Molnar) wait for their hapless, puppy-eyed brother Freddy (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) to find them a cab in a rainstorm; around them is a collection of raucous street folk including a busker with a guitar, a hooker in cut-offs and a young, wheelchair-bound homeless man. Higgins’ study (act two) is full of TV monitors; Eliza (Harveen Sandhu) catches her reflection in one of them and shrieks in surprise. The study is set up to allow Higgins – and Colonel Pickering (Jeff Meadows), the fellow linguist who moves in with him – opportunities for both research and leisure: a dart board upstage right offers a touch of local-pub atmosphere. When Eliza’s father Alfred Doolittle (Peter Krantz) appears in the middle of the second act, he wears a neon orange sanitation uniform and an earring, and he has to struggle to pull himself up out of Higgins’ beanbag chair.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues: Five New CDs

Doug Seegers

My mailman is fascinated by the packages which come regularly to my house. “You get a lot of CDs dontcha!” Sometimes, if I happen to be home when he delivers, I’ll open the package with him there, and show him what’s there. Usually a selection of little known artists, whose label is trying to promote them. Once in a while there are gems. Doug Seegers was a “frequently homeless” singer-songwriter who released this (his first album) at the age of 62. He’s been a drunk, and a John Lennon wannabe, but now delivers a positive Christian-based message in a pure country style. Influenced by Gram Parsons, The Byrds, Emmylou Harris and others, Going Down to the River was produced by Will Kimbrough and championed by Buddy Miller. Recorded in three days at Cowboy Jack Clement’s legendary Sound Emporium the album sounds great. Pedal steel from Al Perkins, a duet with Emmylou Harris, and a clutch of gospel songs and Seegers own lived-in voice produced an album that is almost a classic. I’ve had this title for sometime when it got lost at the bottom of a pile, but listening to it now I am wishing I’d listened to it a lot more when it first arrived.