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by Thomas Britt

15 Jun 2009

It is difficult to match the showmanship of Dan Deacon, but Sam Herring and Future Islands did just that with an opening slot on Deacon’s recent Bromst tour.

Front man Herring exudes a Joe Cocker vibe that elevates the band’s sound to something altogether more soulful and unique than much of today’s run-of-the-mill synth-pop.

Joe Stakun’s video for Wave Like Home standout “Beach Foam” places the band in some sort of solarized screensaver baptism. The video is a good introduction to the band’s strange, hypnotic universe.

by John Bohannon

14 Jun 2009

Segueing into Saturday after Friday’s festivities, I came to the slow realization that my body can’t quite handle these events like it used to. After a barrage of beat-driven acts on Friday, my goal on Saturday was to seek out a relaxing array of music throughout the day in preparation for the day’s headliner, Bruce Springsteen.

One of the most pleasant surprises came in the form of a press exclusive performance by Nonesuch newbies, The Low Anthem. Combining the droning element of a pump organ and the subtle nuance of atmospheric tones, the band hit a perfect chord, especially the vocals, which were absolutely phenomenal and as pure as can be. Their debut Oh My God, Charlie Darwin will be making it into my hands as soon as the festival is finished, and I suggest it makes it into yours as well.

Now, for the record, I have always had an avid hatred for the music of Jimmy Buffett. I’ve stayed as far away as possible from hotel resorts that might pipe out his tunes as I check in, and you’d never find me in one of his Margaritaville restaurants. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a giant smile on my face during his set with Ilo Ferreira and the Coral Reef All-Stars. There is something mighty charming about the man in person. Whether you like Buffet’s music or not, he knows how to make an audience feel good—and one can do nothing but commend that.

by Bill Gibron

14 Jun 2009

Dario Argento has often been referred to as the ‘Italian Hitchcock’. The filmmaker even made a latter day film based around the renowned British auteur. But with outlandishly stylized efforts like Suspiria and Inferno to his name, as well as cruel and callous crime thrillers (known as “giallos” in his native Rome), it was often hard to actually see the connection. Argento is so much more than Sir Alfred’s rightful heir, the differences between the two being easily identifiable. One used overt style to sell his standard mainstream thrillers. With a few stumbles along the way, Argento has remained one of international fright films’ most consistently inventive and unusual maestros.

Still, for many in his fanbase, there has been a missing motion picture perspective, a single film that has been squirreled away by a studio that thought it was getting visceral terror and, instead, got baffling, beautiful terror art. Paramount has sat on Four Flies on Grey Velvet for almost 40 years, never allowing it a legitimate home video release. Now, Mya Communication has rescued the title from the vaults, and it’s time for macabre mavens everywhere to rejoice. What we have here is not just a horror Holy Grail. It’s not just the missing link between Dario and Hitch. Four Flies on Grey Velvet is, without question, one of the great works of post-modern dread ever.

For struggling rock star Roberto Tobias, making music is a release—and right now, he could use an escape. After being relentlessly followed by a man in dark sunglasses, he decided to confront the stalker. An accidental death and a few photographs of same later, and Roberto is being blackmailed. Yet oddly enough, the extortionist doesn’t want money. Instead, they seem content to further torture and torment him by murdering his friends and professional associates. Turning to a hippie friend named ‘God’ and his constantly drunk companion ‘The Professor’, Roberto hopes he can catch the criminal before the police get involved. When it appears that his friends’ efforts aren’t working, our hero gets a fey private detective with a rather poor track record involved. While his wife Nina worries and his arm candy Dalia tries to comfort, Roberto is convinced that someone is trying to frame him for the killings.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet is indeed a forgotten Argento masterwork, a wholly visual free-for-all that ends up surpassing almost everything he had done before, or has done since. It sits right at the start of his oeuvre, the third film in his “unofficial” animal trilogy (along with Cat O’ Nine Tails and Bird with the Crystal Plumage) and the first to fully explore the various camera tricks and visual flourishes that would come to dominate his early period efforts. There are moments of pure optical madness present—a run through a series of red theater curtains, a killing that ends with a victim’s head striking each and every step down a stairwell. But there are also aspects of narrative and murder mystery subterfuge getting a post-giallo workout. Argento would define the format forever with Profundo Rosso. Four Flies actually feels like an unusual audition for some kind of half-thriller/half Gothic fairy tale hybrid.

One thing’s for sure - the original Master of Suspense would be proud. There are literally dozens of differing elements present that would tickle old Alfie’s shock sensibilities. Our hero has a recurring dream about an Iranian beheading, the blade of the executioner moving ever closer to the victim as the vision plays out. Elsewhere, there is a visit to a coffin convention, the players moving around displays showing outrageous, avant-garde, black comedy burial paraphernalia. Of course, it wouldn’t be an Argento film without some cinematic stalwarts—the conspiring supporting cast, the secret rendezvous that turns fatal, a wheezy murderers psychotic ramblings, the oddball turn that ‘solves’ the case. The novelty here is something called retinal retention. It centers on the idea that the last thing a victim sees actually registers on the back of their eyeball. Through lasers and sophisticated scientific techniques, we get the final clue to the killer’s reveal - sort of. 

Of course, the mystery is never the meat inside any Argento movie meal, nor is the police procedural attempting to solve the crime. Wisely, Four Flies sidesteps the whole authority angle, giving Roberto a reason to avoid the fuzz. Instead, he offers more “unusual” ways to address authority. Made in 1971, during the last lilting remnants of the dying counterculture, our fiendish filmmaker really lets loose with the fringe characters. Of particular interest is a man named “God” (short for Godfrey) who seems to be the puppet master for all of Roberto’s self-sleuthing, and later on, a homosexual PI provides his less than competent case solving methods in full limped-wristed swish mode. Yet Argento is not playing bigot here. Instead, he is messing with gender types, taking on both the macho and the mincing as a means of countering the eventual ‘reality’ of the killer.

Of course, all the proposed political context is just moviemaking smoke and mirrors. The real power is in the moving picture, and there are stunning examples of same throughout Four Flies, including an ending that is absolutely haunting in its slow motion vehicular violence. This is the filmmaker in full blown experimental mode, a man so assured of his visual acumen that he is willing to toss aside all other baser elements of cinema—story logistics, character detail, tone consistency, etc.—to achieve his ends. For some, this will be nothing more than slick self-indulgence, flash for the sake of unclear aesthetic aims. But when viewed through the prism of his growing directorial confidence, in conjunction with where he hoped his career would flourish, Four Flies becomes an outrageous omen of things to come.

Why Paramount sat on this film so long will always remain a cinematic mystery. Sure, one could argue that Argento has made more accessible films, even within Suspiria‘s fever dream dynamic and latter works’ (Opera, Stendhal Syndrome) unbridled gore. But as something indicative of who he was/is, as an example of his art at its most malleable and insane, Four Flies on Grey Velvet is without exception. It’s the kind of film you ‘expect’ when you hear about the man, his mannerisms, and his methods. It’s the giallo that redefines the genre as it cements certain filmic formalities. If you go in expecting straightforward crime solving and a wealth of clues/red herrings as to the killer’s identity, you’ll be disappointed. Argento litters his scenes with all manner of diversion, but very few lead to the final denouement. Indeed, as whodunits go, this is more of a “who cares”. But as a work of celluloid skill, Four Flies on Grey Velvet has no equal. It’s a great, great film.

by Zane Austin Grant

14 Jun 2009

When I stepped into the Ramada Inn conference room in 1991 for the scrappy comics convention being held in the small Northeast Texas town where I grew up, I was 12-years-old and had never heard of a ‘comic-con’.  Popular culture was usually slow making it to our semi-rural township.  You had to drive forty-five minutes to the next city to see newly released films, and there was only one bookstore, though it soon closed.  After that, I was left to pillage the local library. Reading every racist 1930’s Hardy Boys book in their collection, I eventually moved on to Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins.  Like most boys my age, I liked the idea of children showing traditional authority to be inept, and serving out humiliating justice.  In a sense, I was conditioned to become part of the early 90’s comics’ reader demographic. 

In 1990, during the week that the first Todd McFarlane Spiderman came out, a local accountant opened a comic book store on the town square.  My mother, a long-time sci-fi enthusiast, took me to the grand opening, where she bought me a copy of that recommended issue.  Those Spiderman #1 covers with the variant grey and gold webbing that hung beneath the words “1st All-New Collectors Item Issue” told me as a young tween that not only was I holding a cutting-edge work, but also that I was making a wise investment.  In ten years, I thought, it would probably be worth enough to pay for my college.

Pretty soon, the town was on fire with comic books. So much so that sometimes town kids would use them as currency for craps games. It was an activity some churches frowned on. But our thought was that 1st editions were as good as currency. When we heard that a local comic convention was to be held, our excitement mostly stemmed from our idea that we might unearth an issue we thought was rare and put one over on an adult, ‘Hardy Boys’ style. 

Walking through the Spartan surrounds, browsing the nearly-bare tables, it became embarrassingly obvious to us that we had no idea what we were doing.  I pulled together ten bucks and purchased an autographed copy of Sergio Aragones’ Groo #7, which can today be procured on eBay for no more than $14.99.  The convention was basically a specialty flea market for comics readers and collectors who were for the most part as much in the dark as I was about the growing collector bubble of the time.   

Fan conventions were nothing new by the time I attended the one in my town. Where there is a desire for escapism built into a cultural artifact, the most alienated of fans have good reason to want to have their own gatherings and discuss the finer points of their favorite pastimes. 

Science fiction fans have long had conventions, well before the first comics convention was held in 1964. The setting was a small Manhattan room full of metal folding chairs, a cooler of sodas, and fans sitting around talking about comics. Tom Gill, well-known for his twenty year run as illustrator on The Lone Ranger, did a talk on how to draw comics, and the fundamentals of the convention were born:  fans and industry people creating a shared space to discuss mutual interests. The austerity of this first comics convention was not that different from my experience. But by 1991, social interaction had in the main shifted from a gathering of fans to vendors selling their collectables.

The New York Comic Art conventions started small, but grew from those 300 attendees in 1964 to over 76,000 at New York Comic-con 2009.  Meanwhile, several other major cities started their own comic-cons, notably San Diego, which grew to include over 120,000 by 2008. As the industry went through booms and busts, fans continued to find value in meeting and having any sort of interaction with creators.  As writer and artist legacies were solidified, the sheer volume of people in attendance at larger conventions altered the kinds of exchanges possible between fans and creators. The spectacle of the panel and brief signings are all that remain. 
What became of the hope that collecting comics would some day pay for future college debts? 

Like any inflated economic bubble, filled with speculation and hot air, the collectibles market was fueled by its own hype. Exaggerated by the appearance of creative ‘superstars’, the convention scene only garnered more attention.  The same month I bought McFarlane’s Spiderman #1, so did 2.5 million other people. While I remember enjoying the $1.75 in reading it, we would have to burn a lot of them to make it collectable. 

The earliest conventions seemed more about meeting up with like-minded individuals and possibly filling in gaps in one’s collection.  Early on, these collection gaps were hard to fill, because comics were distributed in the same way as magazines and newspapers.  Stores signed up with a distributor and basically took what was sent to them and returned what did not sell for a full refund.  Before direct market distribution, a candy store may or may not get the next issue in the series you were following.  Specialty stores however, could pre-order whatever you wanted. What’s more they were stuck with the back-issues; filling in a collection was easier.

The advent of the internet drove down exchange value even more. Buyers now had access to privately-owned collections up for sale.  One Saturday morning, I visited a garage sale in Washington, D.C.  After going through the boxes of comics, all protected with sleeves and boards, I was informed that issues would not be sold individually. I would need to purchase the entire collection if I was interested.  The collector admitted that he really did not want to sell them.  He bought these books because he liked the stories, and even though he thought their value would increase he now wanted his son to read them and learn the mythologies he himself had spent so many years with. But with his new family, his priorities had changed.

In a way, I am glad comics culture has somewhat moved away from traditional collecting.  Going to the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art festival last weekend made me think about how old school conventions might have been.  I ran around finding some of my favorite artists, who I had met at other conventions like Bethesda, Maryland’s Small Press Expo.  Last year, I went to New York Comic-con alone and felt pretty lost in the masses until I navigated my way to an artist and editor friend.  Though I enjoyed going, it at times felt more like a mall than a community of fans.  After a panel, one writer for Vertigo said something to me about fans wanting to make a connection with him, but the limits of the convention form and scale prevented him from making a connection.  Is a signing really all readers want? Is anything more possible at the scale of today’s conventions?  As I gear up for San Diego Comic-con this year, I don’t expect to get to know all 120,000 convention goers, but I do hope to find another signed copy of Groo.

by John Bohannon

13 Jun 2009

After the never-ending ordeal of plunging into the campgrounds, another prolific year for Bonnaroo is underway. Now in its eighth year, it has become one of the world’s most diverse and popular festival destinations and it’s parked dead in the middle of Tennessee. No different from previous years, the backpacked druglords and the eager and willing are in full force. After a setback on Thursday night that involved a torrential downpour and the quick scare of a tornado warning rumor, Friday proved to sit among the row of ducks for impressive days having taken place at the festival. On initial thought, the excitement I managed to muster up for this year’s trek in the mud was minimal at best. Communing with Phish and Public Enemy fans alike, the atmosphere filled with the smell of patchouli and weed smoke somehow draws me in to its, well, unyielding charm.

Friday’s madness kicked off with a phenomenal set from critical-darlings (and David Byrne advocates), the Dirty Projectors. Every little thing about this band is complex in its nature, but simple in its approach. Building layers of beautiful vocal harmonies and spastic guitar-lines, the band somehow finds a groove that is grounded in the pop world of Wings-era McCartney and Paul Simon’s Graceland, and the convulsive, quirky approach of Talking Heads. Considering they were playing on the David Byrne-curated stage, it only made sense for them to have him guest on the Dark Was the Night sensation, “Knotty Pine”—a beautiful way to end a near perfect set.

After having standards set high, it was inevitable something was set to fail. It just happened to be possibly the most hyped band of 2009, Animal Collective. Their set was a complete and utter failure. Full of electronic meandering and slowed down renditions of their otherwise, upbeat and sunny songs, their Merriweather Post Pavilion-driven set fell flat on its face to a monstrous crowd. In order for this band to take the next step in their career, they should spend time learning to wow larger audiences and how to adapt a set in stadium-sized situations.

BELA FLECK [Photo: Karen Dunbar]

BELA FLECK [Photo: Karen Dunbar]

Bonnaroo has always had a knack for exposing world music to American audiences, one of my favorite aspects of the festival. This year, they had the Africa Rising tent featuring the likes of Toumani Diabate & Bela Fleck, Toubab Krewe, Amadou and Miriam, and African beat legend, King Sunny Ade. The Nigerian-based Ade brought the funk from across the Atlantic. Known as the king of Juju, his new compositions sound just as fresh and soulful as those he created over 20 years ago, melding the best elements of the west’s approach to pop music with traditional Nigerian music. The only shame was this was probably the least attended performance I saw on Friday (probably due to the fact they were competing with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs). Ade and his band, the African Beats, showed artistic integrity and dedication to an art form unlike anyone else on Friday, and lets hope it paid off with a new, dedicated audience.

TV ON THE RADIO [Photo: Karen Dunbar]

TV ON THE RADIO [Photo: Karen Dunbar]

After a quick nap in the lovely hammocks behind the stage, I managed to get some liquid courage from the fine Tennessean whiskey and pummel through TV on the Radio’s set. I think its fair to say Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone are two of my favorite figures in modern music. They are so charismatic and inimitable with their approach, its hard not to love what they are doing. I’m not quite sure what the hell Tunde is doing when he dances, but after watching the man act in Jump Tomorrow and Rachel Getting Married—it makes complete sense. His awkwardness is his allure, and creates a stage presence that’s unparalleled.

DAVID BYRNE [Photo: Karen Dunbar]

DAVID BYRNE [Photo: Karen Dunbar]

After curating a stage for the day, David Byrne had a performance to take care of himself. There’s a reason why he is one of the biggest figures in the world of avant-garde pop music, and it comes out in every aspect of his live performance. Playing everything from Talking Heads era classics such as “Born Under Punches” and “Burning Down the House” to cuts off of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Byrne is truly a seasoned veteran, controlling the crowd with every word and fluid movement. He also had the help of a brilliantly choreographed dance-routine that was about as offbeat and spastic as David Byrne’s music itself (which I’m sure was intentional). Truly sensational and one of the best experiences I’ve had at Bonnaroo in my six years attending.

PUBLIC ENEMY [Photo: Karen Dunbar]

PUBLIC ENEMY [Photo: Karen Dunbar]

Capping off the night was a solid performance from political-minded hip-hoppers Public Enemy. I have the feeling a good 75% of the crowd came out to see Flava Flav, and rightfully so—the man looks about 65 but holds it down like he’s 25. There’s a reason he was and is the best hype man in the game. Chuck D brought the brains to the operation, doing exactly what he has been doing for over 20 years, informing an audience that’s willing to listen and encouraging them to be socially conscious. That’s a deed to the death for Chuck D, and its obvious even in a constant party environment.

After a day of blistering heat and constant exhausting, the back of my car had never sounded so good (my tent got flooded the night before, which never fails to happen). Prepping for a Saturday of Springsteen and a hefty endurance test is on the horizon. Looks like Bonnaroo will be yet another success.

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