“Hard times come again no more,” sang Jay Farrar Thursday night. The sympathetic lament echoed through Irving Plaza as the rest of Son Volt took a break, this time Farrar conveying his dejected sonorities solo. Though taken from an 1854 Stephen Foster tune, Farrar’s incarnation, “Hard Times,” paralleled the original’s depressed tone. That dejected but introspective sentiment was something Farrar, with his band Son Volt, returned to frequently—usually over a foundation of good ‘ole American alt-rock.
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Things I overheard while eavesdropping during the festival so far include:
(Some film student-looking guy): He has more than… double my knowledge of international cinema!
(Some jaded and quite famous film reviewer): One year, I swear, I’m going to get a button that reads: “It’s just a fucking movie!”
(Some industry guy, talking loudly on his cell phone while in line ahead of me): I saw Roger Moore’s [sic] film last night. Well, you know I agree with his politics, I mean totally. But he can be so childish. This one was good though, not too didratic [double sic].
(Some local film reviewer with perhaps ironic facial hair, regarding the popular midnight madness public showings of horror films): I cannot watch a movie with that audience. (His friend): What, you mean like real people? (Mustache man): Yeah.
(Industry guy, looking a bit peaked, as we exited The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus): Oh, what a horrible mess. (Weird looking lady behind him): Yeah! Didn’t you just fucking love it?
(Reviewer from some obscure website unavailable outside of the mighty U.S. of A., to a helpful unpaid festival volunteer): So, am I to understand that no one in Canada has ever heard of the Huffington Post?
(Some serious film fanatic, as he sat down in front of me at a 9 a.m. screening): Only for Herzog would I do this. I was up till like three in the morning.
Todd Solondz’ new movie often feels like it is little more than a mash-up of his previous films. It even opens with a scene that is lifted almost wholesale from Happiness (1998). And, just like they did in virtually everything he has done before, pedophiles and other “perverts”, unhappy middle class white people, sexually confused children, and a generally mocking tone abound. At his best, Solondz is a real auteur, a singular observer of an alienated America, of an America filled with weirdos and lonely souls, longing for comfort and finding little. Certainly, the characters he explores in his latest represent some of the darkest he has yet drawn up: an incestuous father fresh out of jail (Ciarán Hinds), a lonely drug-addicted mother (a startlingly good Allison Janney), a curious and desperate dork of a kid (Dylan Riley Snyder), a pathetic barfly searching for escape through sex (a startling Charlotte Rampling), and a mousy woman (Shirley Henderson) who’s haunted by the men she has driven to suicide (Michael K. Williams, Paul Reubens). But, at his worst, Solondz relies on mockery, poking fun at these unfortunate characters without ever allowing us to fall in love with them. With each passing minute in this frightening little film, one finds oneself disliking the characters more and more, and finding the script to be uninterested in changing our view. This has the bizarre effect of leaving little reason for us to try to make sense of their predicaments, or to empathize with their despair. Throughout, the ostensible theme of forgiveness runs through everything like a bulldozer: can we forgive a terrorist, or a pedophile? Should we? And even if we do, can we/should we ever forget? Solondz may be a lot of things, but he is never subtle. This should have been enough to work with, but he muddies the waters with a hamfisted attempt to connect this “forgive and forget” theme to the issue of US troop withdrawal from Iraq, confusingly suggesting that if you do a bad thing and then steal away (“cut and run”) you make things worse. Well, maybe. But, really?
It was from in front of amps draped with Mexican flags and an enormous psychedelic mural, which encompassed the entire back of the stage, that the Mars Volta unleashed their sonic fury on Friday night at Chicago’s Congress Theater. The band stood six members strong on stage, but the brunt of the performance fell on the shoulders of the band’s founders and chief songwriters, guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala. This was just fine by them.
If weirdness is wonderful, CocoRosie has a handle on being amazing live. Striking in their colorful and unique outfits, Sierra and Bianca Cassidy had an undeniable stage presence. Of course, the true advantage in being eccentric is that you end up putting on a live show that must be seen to be believed and is much different than the vast majority of bands in your genre. You easily become a desired and, sort of, craved spectacle and the crowd can’t help but want more.
As biological sisters, it comes as no surprise how comfortable Sierra and Bianca Cassidy are with each other on stage. While Sierra alternates impressively between harp and piano, Bianca takes control of the strange toys. Juxtaposed with Sierra’s graceful soprano range are Bianca’s strange and twisted vocals. They’re a touch Joanna Newsom but still quite original. It’s like mixing the sour and the sweet together to create a perfect balance of the bizarre and appealing.
In some ways, their performance Friday night at Chicago’s Logan Square Auditorium felt like operatic hip-hop. The two talented sisters had three men playing backup to their own vocals and playing, including an engaging beatboxer who won the crowd over easily. It was difficult to see the support as they stayed in darkness behind the two sisters but nonetheless their presence was felt and only heightened the appeal of CocoRosie’s songs. The setlist alternated naturally between tracks that the crowd could easily dance to and more nostalgic songs that were nonetheless heartfelt throughout the hour and a half show.
With three albums to their name, CocoRosie was a rare treat to see live as they have not toured in quite some time. The capacity crowd, enraptured, stood ready to enjoy songs throughout their career. One of the songs that came off best, however, and put the crowd in a state of awe, was one of their oldest songs: “By Your Side” from 2004’s La maison de mon rêve. Between their stage presence, eloquent sense of grace and playing for the full effect, it wasn’t difficult for CocoRosie to completely win over their audience.