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Tuesday, Dec 16, 2008
Words and Pictures by Kirstie Shanley

Fans waiting for Mercury Rev to take to the road again won’t be disappointed as this tour—to promote their recently released seventh studio album, Snowflake Midnight—is more commanding and memorable than past performances.


This time around, the five piece group has increased the use of visuals. Projected behind them, at the back of the stage, came everything from favorite record covers to cherished quotes. The lighting also highlighted the dramatic quality of their songs, both in terms of colors and transient bursts of light. When lead singer Jonathan Donahue wasn’t at his microphone, he stood by the drum kit with his arms spread as if cherishing an ethereal experience as the light and color enveloped him in a bright, psychedelic wonderland.


The second thing that has increased is the immensity of the sound. Creating a sense of largeness and space, the perfectly balanced elements of instrumentation and vocals meshed to construct music that alternated between dreamy and grandiose. On record, Mercury Rev’s songs are characterized by a unique sense of sound courtesy of Dave Fridmann’s production. The translation of this studio trickery to the stage has not always been effective, but with Donahue singing his heart out theatrically and adopting iconic poses, it was impossible not to feel the band’s deep sense of accomplishment.



Donahue and guitarist Grasshopper still possess a great live chemistry, and their shared history was evident as the band played a mix of recent material and songs from a more distant past. Long time fans of the band will be happy to hear that they are not only playing newer songs, such as “Snowflake in a Hot World” and “October Sunshine”, but also “Holes”, “Opus 40”, and “The Funny Bird” from 1998’s masterpiece, Deserter’s Songs. 2001’s fantastic album All is Dream also received a fair amount of attention with “Tides of the Moon” and “Spiders and Flies” being definite highlights of the set. By the end of the night, as lights and projections interlocked with the music, it was impossible not to marvel at the wonder of it all.



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Monday, Dec 15, 2008
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner

To say that 2008 has been good to Justin Vernon is the understatement of the year. A little over 12 months ago, prompted by illness and the breakup of a band and girlfriend, he released what many consider the bleakest, most beautiful, set of personal songs put out in the last year and a half. The image of Vernon recording in isolation for three months in his North Wisconsin cabin only added to the mystique and a re-release by indie label Jagjaguwar in February provided a boost, exalting For Emma, Forever Ago into a blogosphere-ordained gem. As the year winds down, Forever Ago finds itself a staple “Best of…” entry and Bon Iver (Vernon’s musical entity) found itself headlining a pair of concerts at the legendary Town Hall.


The unassuming Vernon was charming and comfortable in the storybook auditorium, regularly dispensing self-deprecating quips about the band’s name (“I still can’t pronounce it”) and their undersized repertoire (“This will be our last song because we’ve played them all”). He actually never finished explaining why he’s “not that into encores” because an emphatic fan cut him off, pleading woe is New York this, financial meltdown that, blah blah blah, keep playing! Impressed with the guy’s candor he had no other choice. But his personality by no means outstripped nor compromised the gentle but passionate demeanor of his songs.


With three supporting players and singers Vernon’s set opened with an a cappella refrain, though wavering intonation hindered its potential. Evolving into the recognizable guitar intro of “Flume”, its measured pacing and Americana structure echoed Jeff Tweedy.


Vernon performed some tunes from an upcoming Bon Iver EP entitled Blood Bank. “Beach Baby” showed no extraordinary promise while the title track was the fieriest I’ve heard yet from Bon Iver.


In general, Vernon took advantage of his multi-tasking ensemble, utilizing a battery of drums and drummers to either generate throbbing, explosive beats (“Skinny Love”) or propel a cathartic climax with complete audience participation (“The Wolves”). At other times various percussion instruments added textural accents to Vernon’s verdurous falsetto and Mike Noyce’s accompanying ethereal guitar sounds (“Blindsided” and “Creature Fear”).


Thankfully by show’s end their four-part harmonies were coalescing nicely. This was a great thing as they ended the night with an un-amplified a cappella cover of Sarah Siskind’s “Lovin’s for Fools”. Result: gorgeous.


Opener The Tallest Man On Earth—visually a knockoff Swedish rockabilly—restlessly paced the stage, only pausing at his microphone to sing songs with playful wit and lucid abstractions. His lilted rhythm guitar and intricate picking were a sturdy counterweight for his take on the grizzled, gravely, creaky vocals of Dylan.



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Friday, Dec 12, 2008
Mazur + 1,000 Women from the Entertainment Industry + Lunch at the Waldorf-Astoria = Heaven

This is a huge week for film awards. The Broadcast Film Critics have just announced their Critic’s Choice awards nominations, as has the Hollywood Foreign Press with their Golden Globes. Both the Los Angeles and New York film critics have weighed in, too. In between all of this exciting news, I took off wandering down Park Avenue in New York City in search of the legendary Waldorf-Astoria hotel.


Why? You might ask…


PopMatters was cordially invited to the 28th annual New York Women in Film and Television Muse Awards luncheon, which took place on Tuesday, December 9th at the opulent Gotham institution. This was my first actual awards ceremony, and hopefully the first of many.


The city was customarily alive with twinkling pre-celebration lights and verve, while Holiday carols could be heard at every corner. In the air, there was definitely a distinct feeling of that special kind of NYC Christmas good cheer and the spirit of generosity extended into the glittering grand ballroom of the Waldorf, where charity and goodwill abounded, in the form of about a thousand dedicated ladies who were nestled comfortably amongst the frescoed ceilings and luminous mirrored crystal chandeliers.


Previous Muse honorees include Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon, Barbara Walters, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Frances McDormand, Alfre Woodard and Dianne Wiest, and the group’s Honorary Board includes renowned women such as Gena Rowlands, Liv Ullmann and Glenn Close, but what makes the Muse Awards so special isn’t it’s star power (though it doesn’t hurt). The biggest draw of the organization is that it is specifically geared towards supporting the advancement of women in the entertainment industry and offers scholarships, jobs, funding, and awards in equal measure to achieve this goal (two of their pet projects, The Museum of Modern Art’s Women in Film Archive and the Film Finishing Project are particularly awesome). “Last year only five of the top 60 films had major roles for women,” said Muse Award recipient Cynthia Nixon. “And only 15 percent of the top directors, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors are female. And that is why the New York Women in Film and Television is so important.”


“We need to support each other and fight for each other. We all need to be in there pitching for ourselves and for each other,” said Nixon, showing a nice pro-feminism flair. “As an actress, I need women executives who are going to develop and green light those movies where women’s roles that amount to more than a single, two-dimensional wife or girlfriend.” Parity for women in the business is, of course, a subject near and dear to my heart as the role of gender in film is both my passion and my area of academic interest. The ceremony was a synergistically perfect fit of writer and subject, really, and a terrific initiation into the netherworld of the mythic “awards ceremony”.


Honoring actresses Laura Linney (recent Oscar nominee for The Savages) and Nixon (Sex and the City), as well as executives Linda Kaplan Thaler (CEO of Kaplan Thaler Group advertising and entertainment), and Cyma Zarghami (President of the Nickelodeon/MTVN Kids and Family Group since 2006), for their continued championing of women in the business, the Muse Awards proved to be antonymous to the proper, stuffy surroundings. The annual luncheon, emceed by the versatile, funny Nancy Giles (CBS News Sunday Morning) was a swanky affair that brought out some of the most powerful, influential women in NYC, but managed somehow to stay lively and fun, with whip-smart speeches abounding and thoughtful tributes from the dais (although repeatedly pointing out how bad the economy is while eating lunch at the Waldorf seemed a little misplaced and gauche). “Women appeal to everyone. Even vampires” quipped President Laverne Berry, alluding to the box office behemoth Twilight. “It’s simple: Give. Women. More. Money.”


Inside the chatter-filled ballroom, there were a lot of tall heels, little black dresses, facelifts, and, Peta-be-damned, furs. Face-lifted or not, everyone looked sharp, plus there was an open bar, which always makes people happier. The energy at a mainly-girl event such as The Muse awards is contagious and being one of the few dudes in attendance afforded me the ultimate journalistic privilege – I was able to act as a fly on the wall, privy to the secrets of all of these interesting, enthusiastic women. In other words, my version of heaven. Well, that is if “heaven” was filled with a core voracious, obnoxious photographers, as I suspect it might actually be. As the photogs were jockeying and fighting for positions in the press room, I stood calmly behind them; glad that photography remained, for me, a hobby.


When Linney entered the room, the photographers all briefly spazzed out. Let’s talk about Laura Linney, what she is like in person, for just a second: she is glowing, amazing perfection incarnate. She looked nearly incandescent. Though she graciously posed and smiled for the piranhas, she did not talk to the press, prompting one lumpy middle-aged man with hair coming out of his ears to cackle and grouse “what a bitch”. At an awards ceremony celebrating women, no less! Is nothing sacred? Later, a paparazzi photographer came over to me, showed me a pic he had snapped, and barked “who is this?!” It was, funny enough, Linney, one of the major honorees, and one of the most respected, celebrated actresses of our time. “I’m very, very lucky to have grown up in New York City,” she said. “It gave me a spirit of independence that has followed me here to this day. I also grew up with theater where there is such comradery among artists that I wasn’t aware of sexism until I started working in Hollywood. It was a shock. And at times, it is still a shock. ”


After Linney, a beaming Nixon bounced into the room, and was both accommodating and radiant. “I think women are really very communicative,” she explained to me when asked what the best thing about working with other gals was. “I have a lot of experience, certainly on Sex and the City and in other things that I’ve done, where I feel like other women really stand up for you. It’s fun to have girlfriends that are on the set or backstage.” Talking to the actress felt more intimidating than any other interview I have done – mainly because of the million disorienting flashbulbs that were popping off as I was trying to center myself. Everyone in the room was hanging on her every move and this sort of laser-like focus served as a reminder of just how poised big league actors must be at all times at events like this because all eyes truly are on them. To see a mini-media circus unfold in front of you as you are shaking the hand of Miranda Hobbes is disorienting, at the very least.


“This has been an interesting year to be a woman, in politics, in entertainment, and in the world,” said Nixon. “We have taken some big steps forward this year, but there have also been reminders that glass ceilings remain and that backlash inevitably seems to accompany our advancement. [Sex and the City] had an opening weekend of 57 million dollars. The highest grossing debut, ever, for a movie starring women, and women over 40. But you can’t imagine how beat up all of us got in the midst of our success. Movie critics, the vast majority of whom are men, gave us such a reaming in the press, they sounded more like they were indicting an ex-girlfriend than evaluating a movie. It really felt angry and personal. Many civilian males acted similarly. I was walking down the street, not very long ago, when a guy yelled at me, out of a truck, ‘your movie sucked’.


“One of the main reasons it took so long to actually make the film in the first place was that the people who were in charge of green lighting it were skeptical that it could make any money,” Nixon explained in her acceptance speech. “Now, while I don’t think that female executives are infallible, I do think that if we had more women making the decision about what gets made, this would not have been the case. Women executives would not have to have it explained to them that women are not a special interest group, but are, in fact, more than half the population, and if you build us a movie, we will come.”


After a good lunch, dessert, and two delicious glasses of Pinot Grigio, I sailed back down Park Avenue in my strappy Gucci ankle boots and tight little black APC suit with a girly Lifetime Television for Women gift bag, complete with silver lame accents, displayed for the world to see, unashamed. In fact, I felt proud to be a man who unabashedly supports the endeavors of women in entertainment and look forward to doing it for a long time. If that means I have to occasionally schlep an uber-feminine gift bag through Midtown Manhattan, or eat lunch at the Waldorf-Astoria with Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney, than so be it.


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Thursday, Dec 11, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
Words and Pictures by Sachyn Mital

Dedicated fans drove over ninety minutes from Providence to see Mike Doughty perform at Hamden, Connecticut’s The Space for it was the closest show to their city. Doughty was formerly the front man of Soul Coughing, a unique ‘90s alternative band that, like Cake, was hard to categorize as the songs often contained jazz elements and absurd lyrics. While still with the band, Doughty recorded tracks that he would later release as Skittish (his debut solo LP) after the band’s breakup. Since going solo, Doughty has consistently toured the country playing acoustic shows and has also released a handful of albums, EPs, and live recordings, building up his loyal following. While still performing acoustically, Doughty has been touring with his friend, Andrew “Scrap” Livingston, who provided backup on cello and electric guitar. They continue to captivate audiences with their intimate performances and, at least in Hamden, also answered audience questions from a jar.


Over the course of his 21-song set, Doughty almost covered his entire career, including a few hits from the three Soul Coughing albums (“Soft Serve” and “Janine”), a cover (Kenny Rogers “The Gambler”), and songs from his solo albums, plus a new one called “Nectarine Part II”. However when someone asked him to play songs from his even earlier days (Mod Five? though no reference is found on the internet), he did not remember any but was astonished that someone knew those works.


Unifying rollicking guitar strumming with flowing singing, Doughty creates genuinely catchy tunes. With his quirky and sometimes personal lyrics, he is also a very literate singer-songwriter as well. (Though, during “Unsingable Name”, Doughty forgot some lyrics, asked for someone to remind him what they were and then laughed as he proceeded to trip over them again.) Over the nearly two hour show, the audience’s enthusiasm was remarkably high, though a particularly boisterous woman caused consternation by shouting during almost every break. Fortunately, she was silenced after someone loudly acknowledged her as the girl in back who won’t shut up.


Interspersed throughout the songs was a question and answer segment, per Scrap’s request that the audience write some and place them in a jar. Some people wrote song requests such as the oddball “More Bacon than the Pan Can Handle” that Doughty rejected (probably because it contains samples) while others inquired about any possible Soul Coughing reunions. He was often asked about his favorites: candy (grape Laffy Taffy); poem (Alan Dugan’s This Morning Here); and his musical heroes (John Lee Hooker, Billy Bragg, and Ani DiFranco). While Doughty switched guitars, he let Scrap take a stab at the questions and by the end, the two had emptied the jar. All things considered, Mike Doughty is an artist who truly can become a fan’s favorite due to his good shows, catchy music, liberal taping policy, genuine friendliness, and witty humor.



Tagged as: mike doughty
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Wednesday, Dec 10, 2008
Words by Christian John Wikane and Pictures by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

Celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, Billy Porter headlined a special two-night run at the famed NYC venue. Accompanied by keyboard, bass, and drums, Porter treated the sold-out audience to what he called contemporary American standards. Whether re-casting Stevie Wonder’s “All I Do”, giving a hair-raising rendition of Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”, or tossing in rare gems by Oleta Adams and Julia Fordham, Porter held the audience rapt for a flawless 70-minute set. His take on the Marvin Gaye classic “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”, which also incorporated a rap based on The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” and an audience call-and-response, was a riveting tour-de-force.


Though he made no mention of a new album, Porter certainly has a wealth of material to accompany him back into the studio or on the stage, should he release a recording of his latest set. Few performers can make the familiar seem new but, on two bone-chilling nights in New York, Billy Porter excelled in doing just that.



Tagged as: billy porter
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