Devon Powers


City: New York City
Venue: Bowery Ballroom
Date: 2001-12-10

Wait -- did he drop the guitar on purpose? The song continued, but James Walsh quit playing in the midst of the action, visibly overwhelmed and signaling a stagehand to come and help him, quick. It only took a few bars for him to strap on a new six-string and segue in again, but the sudden switch -- just two numbers into their set, no less -- was hardly smooth and just a hair short of jarring. After making it through "Poor Misguided Fool" though, lead singer and guitar player/dropper Walsh explained the hasty changeover. "You might have noticed the guitar was painfully out of tune", he said, so matter of fact that it was both unbearably sweet and embarrassingly pathetic. The crowd couldn't help but coo at his confession. "He's so young", someone behind me murmured, as Walsh's nervous giggling and hair fussing earned him even more doting. And by then, there was no turning back -- the sweet lad had nestled himself firmly into the crowd's ample bosom, and we were giddy with motherly affection. Maybe someone instructed Starsailor on how to melt the hearts a New York crowd, now well versed in the nuances of sentimentality. But it's hard to believe that the blunders -- and wonders -- of the group's first New York show were anything but a brutally honest depiction of a band on the brink of stateside stardom. The show was far from faultless, but therein laid its perfection, its appeal. Really, I can't imagine a better introduction to the humble, gutsy, and straight from the heart stylings of the Starsailor sound -- and the fact that they were so completely genuine that night was plenty to convince anyone of their talent. They entered the stage at the Bowery Ballroom without fanfare, as the souped-up version of "Poor Misguided Fool" that had been playing offstage faded. (They'd later play a rendition from onstage, where the mishap I mentioned earlier occurred.) For non-New Yorkers, Bowery Ballroom is an important stepping-stone for most of the indie, Brit and alternative rock that filters through the city's scene. Bowey is both intimate enough assure the concertgoer that she's not "just another number", while sizable enough to prove that the group has a strong following. Often, acts that sell out there come back shortly to do pricier shows in larger venues. (As a case in point, Starsailor will return in January 2002 to open for The Charlatans UK at the larger Irving Plaza, and my guess is they'll be back to do a headliner there soon enough.) As soon as they assumed position that night, Walsh -- who looks more like a bewildered teenager than rock band figurehead -- whispered a timid "hello, New York" before diving into an aching version of one of their UK singles, "Alcoholic". Bandmates James Stelfox, Ben Byrne, and Barry Westhead brewed an engulfing cloud of musical energy, which Walsh's voice pierced through like a fog light. Every time he rose up to sing a note higher than his mid-range, his voice quivered with the fragile power, much like a person screaming through tears and an awful lot like Jeff Buckley. Stylistic ditto for the show's first ballad of the night, a version of "She Just Wept" slightly slower and more theatrical than the one on Love is Here. Eyes closed (and, at one point, rolling back into his head), Walsh sang as if he was writing the song on the spot, driven by the immediacy of a hellish heartsickness. And the audience again slurped up every ounce of his earnestness, practically silent with dumbstruck awe. In short, Walsh's forte is filling every note with utter agony -- ripped to shit, salt-in-wounds, this-hurts-me-more-than-it-hurts-you agony. Well apparently, it was something like that, literally and figuratively. "I can't get into it because my voice sounds like a bag of shit", he croaked at one point, again prompting the audience to "aww" in a rehearsed-sounding unison. "Fucking record company working us too hard. Fucking bastards". He giggled it off like a five-year old, though it's hard not to believe that, like a child, there was an innocent truth to his proclamation. He may have been overcome with passion, but he also seemed beaten by exhaustion; both the beleaguered and the boldness pulsed through every tune. If I'm talking about James Walsh a lot, there's a reason for that. He commands the stage as the charismatic leader of the pack, unable to keep his frustration or joy to himself and on a mission to make the whole world understand him. He's a classic example of the frustrated, creative genius who's permanently locked in high school, the tragic kid who might scrawl a poem on a wall, then punch a hole through it. When he nailed a number, he bounced about proudly and chatted with the crowd; as his voice burned, he paced with discontent, downing half a bottle of water in the course of each song and seemingly wanting to give up. He never full on threw a tantrum, but you could just see how he was the type -- especially midway through the show when the stagehand, apparently reading signals, brought out a steaming cup to soothe his ailing vocal chords. "I've got my tea so I'll be ok", he quipped. But maybe he wouldn't have been -- after all, a perfectionist never is. And that would have been okay, too. By and large, James was being too hard on himself and the Starsailor crew; aside from a few understandable slips, the show was clean and bedazzling in its simplicity. Whether a high gear number like "Fever" or Walsh doing "Come Down" solo, the sheer power that emanated from the stage that night drove yet another nail into their predestined stardom. The most forceful blow came near the show's end, in the rousing "Good Souls" (another hit in the UK). The crowd, as if it were already a single here, reveled with a manic joy as Starsailor pushed the intensity toward a fevered pitch. And Walsh, dramatically, finished out the number kneeling, wailing cacophonously on his guitar and meditating from the feedback. It's obvious that Starsailor are still figuring out how to behave as a band, one of international acclaim, no less. But to see them this early on in their journey is to see them in true form -- a form that inspiring, heartwarming, loveable. And may they keep a hold of this authenticity always, as their most effective asset.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.