Sunday, November 3, 2013

Of Musical Divides and Exciting Television: Yemen Blues, Lou Reed, The Good Wife and Copper

Yemen Blues

One of the problems of the myriad choices in entertainment available to the public is that, increasingly, demographic divisions and attitudes divide us in our ability to share communally in the enjoyment of specific types of music, films or TV shows. (Novels have, for the most part, or at least for a few decades, always functioned that way, with the odd exceptions like the Stieg Larsson mysteries which people of all ages seemed to be reading. ) That was the unfortunate experience I recently had when I went to see a double bill of Israeli music at Toronto’s Koerner Hall.

Having caught the Israeli Yemenite group Yemen Blues at Toronto’s Mod Club a couple of years back, with muddy sound, limited seating (that went to V.I.P.s), and where we had to stand all night with a crowd more interested in socializing then listening to the music, I couldn't have honestly told you if the group was any good as the experience was so bad. But now after catching Yemen Blues in concert at the acoustically perfect Koerner Hall, attended (for the most part) by serious concert goers who didn't yap, I can safely tell you how fantastic they really are. Led by the incredibly charismatic Ravid Kahalani, the group is a flawless and passionate amalgamation of Arabic music, jazz, West African sounds, in particular those of the late great Malian singer/instrumentalist Ali Farka TourĂ©, funk and rock, combining instruments like the trombone, trumpet, drums and oud. (Though as many as a dozen musicians have played with Kahalani, a Yemenite descended Israeli Jew who is determined to keep alive Yemen’s musical traditions, in the past, there were five others on stage with him in Toronto.) It was an amazing, rousing, memorable show that literally rocked the house. (Fittingly, the live CD I purchased after the show was recorded in October 2012 at Tel Aviv's Zappa Club. In its superb musicianship, disparate influences and sheer talent, Yemen Blues evokes the great Frank Zappa and the fine series of concerts given by his son Dweezil (he was in Toronto the week before) who pays tribute to his late dad's great work.)

Ravid Kahlani of Yemen Blues
Regrettably, as remarkable as the ensemble was, many of the older (Jewish/Israeli) audience left in droves once Yemen Blues began rocking. They had patiently stayed through and thoroughly enjoyed Israeli folk singer/songwriter David Broza, one of that country’s more venerated artists, who played the first half of the bill. However, his music, sung in Hebrew and Spanish was much more palatable for them but though he was clearly a talented guitarist and singer, Broza’s music left me cold. The difference between me and the older crowd who were turned off by Yemen Blues is that I’m pretty much open to all types and genres of music, with the notable exception of opera, whose appeal escapes me, and they weren’t. The fact that Yemen Bleus performed almost entirely in Arabic was off putting for them, too, not so much because of racist attitudes, I think, as because that language does not seem ‘Israeli’ to them  even though one sixth of Israel’s population is Arab and it’s that country’s other official language besides Hebrew. (Never mind that popular Israeli singer Yasmin Levy performs entirely in the Spanish – Judeo language of Ladino, which other than being Jewish in origin does not feel ‘Israeli’ either, or that Israel’s Chava Alberstein sings mostly in Yiddish, a European Diaspora Jewish language not at all tied into Israel’s history or culture except for the Yiddish speakers who live there. I’d argue that they, like Kahalani, are returning to their musical roots, except that his are non-Jewish in origin.) Of course, I will also make the case that Koerner Hall should have looked beyond the Israeli label and matched up more appropriate artists. The Ethiopian flavoured Idan Raichel Project, though not one of my favourites, would have been a perfect fit with Yemen Blues, not least because Ravid Kalahani was one of its members for many years.)

This refusal or inability of the Torontonians to relate to music that doesn’t fit into their pre-conceived norms – Israel = Hebrew – is not unique to language. Most young folk don’t listen to, much less appreciate, classical music. My late European father despised, like so many of his compatriots, rock and roll, which he likened to noise, and he didn’t get jazz. (That division between older and younger generations when it comes to musical tastes has always been with us, but it’s splintering even more into sub-groups, even within the same age bracket.) And, in fact, for the first half of my life I only listened to rock and pop before discovering the virtues and pleasures of jazz, classical, world, reggae and other forms of music, partly because of curiosity as to what I was missing and also because new friends helped me broaden my musical horizons. (Yes, I mean you Kevin!). I understand why so many attendees at the David Broza /Yemen Blues concert left the latter’s set. I just wish they and so many other music aficionados were open to different types of sounds than the ones they’ve become accustomed to. By leaving, they missed out on a terrific show and while that’s their loss, it’s also indicative of the gulf that continues to separate so many when it comes to ‘unfamiliar’ music.

The Yemen Blues experience reminds me, too, of an anecdote my friend Bram told me about musicians Lou Reed and John Zorn, which occurred at last summer’s International Jazz Festival in Montreal. Apparently, after being booed by the crowd who didn’t like their playing of ‘unfamiliar’ material, they told the audience to shove it and angrily walked off stage. I can well imagine Reed’s doing that given the nature of the experimental music he and Zorn, whose albums don’t work for me, were no doubt playing at that gig. Lou Reed, who died a week ago, was never one to put up with such nonsense. When I caught him in Toronto, more than a decade ago, I was struck by how he, unlike almost everyone else I’d ever seen in concert, refused to engage the audience in small talk, much less indulge in the city naming that’s de rigueur at musical events of almost any stripe. (Well, Bob Dylan was monosyllabic, too, but he also delivered a wretched show, mangling his own songs so much that they were unrecognizable. Reed respected his own music and gave us a fine show.) Lou Reed got flack for that, mostly from the music critics who, too often, reveal their own prejudices about the artists they are covering instead of informing us how well they did or didn’t perform. The end result was that his gig was deemed a lesser one. Not true, but it’s also sad that Reed's prickly persona – on display in a (non) interview given by him in the November issue of Mojo magazine – too often got in the way of a fair appreciation of his work, as Critic at Large’s Kevin Courrier wrote earlier this week.

Why dwell on Reed’s prickliness instead of properly lauding him for the superb albums of his career, not to mention his lasting, revelatory work for The Velvet Underground? Was there ever a better counter culture album put out than Lou Reed’s Transformer (1972) or a finer tribute to the unique city that is New York in his quintessential album New York (1989) or a more elegiac disc than his moving and poignant Magic and Loss (1992)? I don’t think so. From his cutting edge, raunchy and indelible “Walk on the Walk Side” to his quietly powerful “Perfect Day” (used to great effect on the 1996 Trainspotting soundtrack and, more recently, in a commercial for the Official Playstation 4 game which, as you might expect, is a sarcastic and ironic marvel that was right up his alley). Reed’s nasal voice graced songs that were as poetic and thoughtful as anyone has ever conceived in popular culture. (Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh was quoted as saying that if not for Reed, his novel would never have come into existence, which makes sense as its ribald and sardonic drug and sex fueled world could have come straight out of a Velvet Underground or Reed song.) Like the equally original Frank Zappa and Leonard Cohen, he was his own man – and sometimes woman (see the original Transformer back cover, above), whose like we will not see again. May his memory be a blessing!

Note: This section contains spoilers.

The new TV season hasn't amounted to much this year. The only show I'm sticking with is the moderately entertaining Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and that’s still not as buoyant or entertaining as it should be. But even though the latest crop of shows has made for disappointing fare, the exciting goings-on on TV’s best series The Good Wife more than makes up for that. Not since Alias (which ultimately self-destructed by blowing up its premise), have I seen a network show do what The Good Wife has so deftly done this season, essentially shuffling the deck on its characters so they’re pretty much all opposed to each other emotionally and personally.

It began last season when lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), somewhat reconciled with her formerly philandering husband - and newly elected Illinois governor - Peter (Chris Noth), but still pining for her former lover – and boss – Will Gardner (Josh Charles), seemed to be making a final decision on which of the two men would be in her future. But the last shot of the season finale saw her, instead, throw in her lot with fellow 4th year Associate Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) as he planned to leave their law firm, Lockhart-Gradner, to set up his own competing business. I definitely did not see that one coming. But this season, its fifth, has seen the shit hit the proverbial fan. Not only has Will found out what Alicia was up to – and feeling betrayed by her – had her summarily fired and escorted out of the building, but all the show’s’ major characters have lined up against each other.

Julianna Margulies and Josh Charles in The Good Wife

This is thrilling TV, mostly because it’s not going anywhere you’d expect, par for the course for this unpredictable show. From Alicia pretty much ending her relationship with Will almost as soon as it began – after the pair agonizingly lusted for each other for a year before consummating their attraction – to the complex friendship between Lockhart-Gardner's chief investigator Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi) and Alicia, which took a hit when Alicia found out Kalinda had slept with Peter when she worked for him though that was before the two women had met, The Good Wife has never been a conventionally laid out series. The only formulaic aspect of the show has been its tendency to wrap up courtroom cases with surprises or a flourish in the case’s waning minutes. The show’s creators, Michelle and Robert King, have, actually, brought out the most shaded characters on television today, flawed human beings, all of whom do things we would not expect or approve of even if they’re basically good people. Will has every right to feel betrayed by Alicia’s plans to leave Lockhart-Gardner, which after all made her partner but Alicia has every good reason to leave, to test herself with a new career endeavour. She was also somewhat pressured to go when she was split from the other 4th years by being offered a partnership, which she accepted, a cynical move by Will and partner Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) to renege on their promises to make all the 4th years partners. That sort of complexity is pretty rare on network TV though much more common on cable offerings and with its byzantine plotting and shifting alliances, this season of The Good Wife is hitting new creative highs.

Considering that The Good Wife is also TV's most relevant and au courant series, tackling issues ranging from cyber-bullying to U.S. government spying on its citizens and the war in Syria, the current plotting only makes the show more enjoyable and gripping. And the Kings haven't even followed through with other issues they've brought up recently, such as the fact that the election for the state's governor was stolen, though the extent of Peter's possible involvement and that of his political fixer Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) in that crime has not been determined, or whether Kalinda murdered her vicious husband Nick (Marc Warren) who showed up last season. (I like the fact that Kalinda is running away from a constricted life in my town Toronto.) And we don't know what will happen with the NSA spying on Alicia and the law firm, because of a tenuous connection to Islamic terrorism, courtesy of a Muslim ex-girlfriend of Alicia's son Zack (Graham Phillips). (The teenagers on the show, including Alicia's daughter Grace (Makenzie Vega), now coming into her own as a young woman, are among the most believable on television.) There’s even a suggestion that Peter may stray again even if things seem to be heating up again with Alicia (They had a quickie during all the hullabaloo over Alicia’s firing.) And it was sheer pleasure to watch Alicia, usually the most straight-laced of characters discovering her inner ‘bitch’, even contemptuously waving away Lockhart-Gardner’s oily partner David Lee (Zach Grenier) with a dismissal flip of her fingers while opposing him in court. Will Gardner, too, is transforming in an interesting manner, livid over what Alicia has ‘done’ to him, including poaching Lockhart-Gardner's clients,  but still polite enough to pass on a message to her that her daughter called on the phone he confiscated from Alicia until he could check to see if company info was stored on it. It’s those little touches that run throughout the show and make it so appealing. That's the beauty of the series. Its creators have so many balls in the air and never drop any of them that you can rest assured that whatever else occurs in season five, it won't be obvious or simple. And I'm writing this after having only seen five episodes of the current season. By season's end The Good Wife's emotional and physical terrain will, I'll bet, even more unrecognizable than it is already. To paraphrase Bette Davis in All About Eve, ‘fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy year." Indeed it will.

Tom Weston-Jones in Copper
Other than The Good Wife and the cable show Ray Donovan, the only other network drama which I deem unmissable is Copper, which though much improved from its uneven debut season, is now, regrettably, headed for cancellation. The show, created by Will Rokos and Tom Fontana (St. Elsewhere, Homicide: Life on the Street) is a provocative and fascinating depiction of New York City’s infamous Five Points slum circa 1864/65 while the American Civil War still raged and the Irish began to assert themselves in the city’s previously English run political landscape. (It has ended its American run but is still only two thirds of the way through its 13 episode season in Canada, where it is filmed.) Those are only a few of its plot points, which also take in the travails of an African American doctor, Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), a rare occupation for blacks at the time, who fights racism and discrimination at very turn, a righteous but troubled Irish cop, Kevin Corcoran (Tom-Weston Jones, the nominal ‘star’ of the show) and a disabled Union war vet, and friend of Matthew and Kevin, Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid).

This richer and deeper season of Copper has also become more distinct, notably in the relationship between Corcoran and fellow cop and former best friend Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan). They had seemed indistinguishable from each other in season one but now that Maguire is acting as hatchet man for the precinct commander, former Union General Brendan Donovan (Donal Logue, a great addition to the cast), an Irishman determined to make his mark on Tammany Hall, the city’s Democratic Party political machine which historically benefited the Irish immigrant in particular, by whatever means necessary, including extortion and murder, their relationship has been fraught with powerful tensions. And while the character of child prostitute Annie Reilly (Kiara Glasco) has been pushed to the background so far this season - the show’s creators may not know how much further to go with her – others have stepped in to fill the dramatic breach, notably Franka Potente’s German brothel owner, Eva Heissen, who is involved with several of the men she deals with on the side of the law and Alfre Woodard as Harrie Lemaster, Matthew Freeman’s mother-in-law, a former slave adjusting to freedom in a ‘filthy, violent’ town, New York, she cannot abide. I’m not sure about Anastasia Griffith’s Elizabeth Haverford, Robert Morehouse’s new English wife, who has become an opium addict; her character’s motivations seem more opaque in season two than last season when her status as the scheming foreign wife of a local powerhouse hinted at a complexity that hasn’t materialized as expected.

Mostly, however Copper is a show about the always riveting New York City, here portrayed as a messy melting pot of people of all walks of life, the rich and poor abutting each other, with an ever present threat of violence hovering in the air and the stench of corruption permeating virtually all aspects of ‘ordinary’ existence, while a few good men and women try to do good amidst the chaos, abject poverty and crime.
Copper’s production values have also improved though the cityscape – the show is shot in Toronto – still looks too clean. That’s a minor quibble though. Copper, superbly acted and directed and pungently written, is a striking and thoughtful series. Like the similarly themed HBO western Deadwood, set a decade or so later in Deadwood, South Dakota, - Copper is a product of BBC America – it may have been cancelled because it didn’t travel well outside of North America. Cable’s dirty little secret is that ratings aren’t enough to ensure a show’s survival as BBC America had announced when renewing Copper for a second season that it was its highest rated series. (Series don’t decline in the ratings that quickly when they’re successes out of the block.) If the Europeans don’t cotton to it or, as in the case of the Holly Hunter Showtime series Saving Grace, DVD sales aren’t healthy either, then the show is toast. But whatever the reason for its premature demise, Copper was that rare creature, an original concoction and no matter how good TV is these days, that’s still not as common as it ought to be, as this year’s crop of mild, cookie cutter network offerings makes clear. It was a unique series we could not afford to lose. I’m really sorry we did.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he is teaching a course on acting archetypes.

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