Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Report from the Ground at Solid Sound

After a proposed trip down to Bonnaroo fell through, I felt I owed Joey something. That something became a one-day pass to Wilco's Solid Sound Festival at Mass Moca.

We got up early Saturday. Well, I got up early; Joey got up 10 minutes before we were scheduled to leave and, in a tizzy, got himself together. It's a reasonable drive from Cooperstown to North Adams, MA. Two hours and thirty minutes later, we pulled into the parking lot, ecstatic to have made it early enough (11 AM) to avoid the remote lots which would have been soul-crushing to face when the day ended.

Mass Moca's industrial backdrop was perfectly laid out for the festival: lots of courtyards, interesting alcoves and easy access to the different sites. Sarah Lee Guthrie, Woody's granddaughter, was the first act of the day. A little boring but overall pleasant. She'll become important later on in the story.

Next up, one courtyard over, were The Sic Alps. They were heavy, loud and tons of fun. Joey and I were up close, leaning on the stage. The band provides great visuals: lead guitar/vocals, drummer/guitar player and weird feedback guy in the shadows. There was a man standing next to me who leaned over and loudly proclaimed: "I love music." Profound stuff.

Next up were The Handsome Family. I'd liked what I'd heard on line but they left me flat. I was disappointed and we didn't stay long, heading over to the train-converted-into-a-cramped-house exhibit and finding the samosa seller. A festival employee told us John Hodgman was spotted buying a falafel.

Liam Finn. What can I say about this musical Zach Galifianakis? Awesome energy, killer tunes and dynamic stage presence. The double drum gimmick was powerful, hearkening back to the old Thunder and Lightning duo of Ringo Starr and Jim Keltner. Things ramped up when Glenn Kotche of Wilco got behind one of the kits.

Joey and I played everything right. On Friday (we weren't there but heard the talk), there were massive storms that created havoc. Up to this point, we were bone dry. By heading to the inside comedy performances, we remained so, missing a downpour. Eugene Mirman, Wyatt Cenac and John Hodgman, with a guest appearance by Lewis Black, provided a pleasant break from the music.

We checked in with Thurston Moore, briefly. He usually leaves me cold. Instead we made yet one more stop at Euclid Records and bought The Sic Alps CD, two Wilco 45's on clear vinyl and T. Rex's The Slider. I was looking at the T. Rex albums and noticed Joey, eyes opened wide in expectation. I deferred to him and, though we both needed and wanted the record, like a good Dad I let him buy it. Then we were off to Joe’s Field, site of the headliners. (But first a burrito).

"Think we can be in the front for Wilco?" Joey asked. I explained to him that a determined person can always get to the stage, depending on how much they didn't mind pissing off other people. We got to the railing, uneventfully, up at stage left. Once situated, we heard the announcement that a short-lived storm was coming through. We went back to Euclid but it was so hot and humid in there that we ended up outside, finding a spot under an overhang. When the rain passed, and it was in buckets, we headed to the field and got our spot back. Again, well played!

Syl Johnson, a soul-infused vision in red, rocked the crowd. Syl pushed his new box set with almost every song. "This is featured on my new box set, Complete Mythology." Over and over again. Favorite part - Johnson asking if we knew The Wu-Tang Clan, 'cuz they gave him lots of money when they sampled him on "Shame On a Nigga."

We'd seen Wilco open for Neil Young a few years back and wished there'd been more of them and less of Neil. This was our first full Wilco concert, though I'd seen Jeff Tweedy once. They were simply wonderful and provided one of the sweetest moments I've ever witnessed at a concert. As the opening strains of "Jesus, Etc." floated over the euphoric crowd, Jeff let the fans sing, by themselves, for over half the tune. It was beautiful, soft, halting, the audience not sure whether to keep going, but Tweedy kept them at it. I like Wilco a lot, but I gave up learning words to songs sometime after The River came out. I knew a few phrases, but I was an outsider, not an insider. The view from there was fine.

Liam Finn joined the band for "I’ll Fight" and Ms. Guthrie came out for the encore. There, in a "long overdue moment" according to Tweedy, Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter sang "California Stars" from Mermaid Ave, lyrics by her famous forefather. Special doesn't quite cut it.

Remembering our killer parking spot, I was not pushing to leave quickly. What was the point? We still had 2 1/2 hours to drive; what was another 15 minutes making sure Joey bought a couple of shirts, including the Syl Johnson "Is It Because I'm Black" tee (It's featured on my new box set, Complete Mythology, don't you know?).

Though I missed a few turns along the way, we arrived home at 2:30, and, tired and happy, watched Robbie graduate high school later that afternoon. But I’m still sleepy.

(photos by Joey Katz)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Another Year Not Just Another Movie

Another Year is one of those movies that I throw on my Netflix list when it hits the theaters and, by the time it comes out on DVD and gets delivered to my door, I forget why it caught my attention to begin with. That leads to a perverse feeling of dread of the "I don't want to watch this film but I got it for a reason so I'll watch it anyway but it'll suck." Invariably, the movies that fall into that rental category turn out to be wonderful. So it is with Mike Leigh's latest.

It's a remarkable film, held together less by plot than by theme and mood. Tom and Gerri (true) are a happily married couple, an older couple in their 60's. Played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, the two exude calm and contentment, but they are not shallow, they are not boring and they are real. The subtle looks that Sheen delivers, the occasional fiery outburst by Broadbent, are delicately played but played to the hilt.

The attention-grabber is Lesley Manville as Mary, the irresponsible co-worker of Gerri, who is under the delusion that she's young. Clearly in her mid-50's, Mary is the type who prays desperately that people think she's 30, when at best she could be mistaken for ten years younger. Manville grabs your eye in a way her character only hopes to, and the central scene, when her pipe dreams are blown apart, will leave you breathless.

Another Year shows that "boring" real lives are anything but and, though seen as commonplace, are as rare as can be. How we get to our current state is our own creation; some realize that late, some never at all. Leigh presents a grand movie about the simplest of concepts: people can be happy.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Another Night in Cassavetes Land

I've seen most of John Cassavetes' directorial efforts. Not all, most. They swing wildly from overwrought to muted, from histrionically unreal to uncomfortably real. I like them and I don't.

Husbands (1970) has been on my must-see list forever. I finally watched it last night. Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and Cassavetes himself portray three close friends who descend into a frenzy of self-searching after the death Stuart, which turns their quartet of pals into a trio. Archie, Harry and Gus are so terribly worn and old in their early 40's, years younger than I am today. I was taken aback by how beaten down a 40-year-old was 40 years ago.

They are each selfish and childish in equal, though different, measure. Not likeable characters, particularly Gazzara's Harry who, in an over the top but harrowingly raw scene, has it out with his wife and mother-in-law. Cassavetes' Gus has his moments of charm, but when he does his crazy Victor Franko turn a la The Dirty Dozen, he's tremendously off-putting and hard to believe. Falk's Archie is a schlemiel, a bit hapless and pathetic, but he's Peter Falk and that's always good enough. The acting so is wonderful that I couldn't help like them all.

The film starts in dirty New York City, another entry for my list of filthy Manhattan movies of the '70's. I do love that disgusting, gritty look. As in all Cassavetes movies, there are natural moments, and when the three boys cavort and carry on in the streets, the camera captures their antics as passersby watch on in amusement and shock. Archie and Gus have a race walk down the block and an old broad turns her head, mouth opened roundly in a stunning bit of cinema verite. Scenes, as always, go on too long, no more so than the singing around the bar table bit. It's two-thirds wonderful, but that extra one-third really sucks the energy out of it. A Cassavetes trademark.

Gazzara, now realizing his marriage is over, decides to head to London. His two buddies agree to go along for the ride and tuck him into his hotel only to return right home. In their own bout of mid-life crisis, the pair find themselves with strange women in their hotel rooms wondering what to do next. I couldn't quite understand Gus and Archie's motivations; it seemed they had happy family lives. Perhaps that's how men carried on back then. I won't say how all three come through their struggles, but a cameo by Cassavetes' kids, Nick and Alexa, are highlights of the movie.

There's something about Falk, Cassavetes and Gazzara that is mesmerizing and fun. All three are, in their own ways, incredibly undervalued as individual actors. All together in Husbands, they're not to be missed.