Saturday, August 12, 2017

Yet another night where I didn't get to see the Still Spirits

Well, that was an oddly unproductive evening. I have been wanting to see the Still Spirits live for some time now. I interviewed them for the Westender awhile back, and have seen Jonny Bones' other band, the Bone Daddies, on a couple of occasions. I've really liked the recordings of the Still Spirits that I've heard, and am very curious about this development in the punk scene where suddenly 20something year old punks are playing ragtime, jigs and reels, country swing and other not-very-hardcore forms of music. It is somehow a pleasing dissonance to hear, at a show, canned recordings of the Descendents, Minor Threat and Husker Du between sets with bands featuring mandolins, fiddles, washboards and the like (but played with punk speed and energy). And I really like what Bones does onstage; I also like that he hosts midnight movie cult film screenings out in the boonies where I grew up, too, though I don't make it to a lot of those, either (one so far, to be honest). He seems like he's doing great stuff for his community, which I would be eating up if I were growing up there now, and I've enjoyed chatting with him at Haney Place Mall, where he works sometimes. But with the various complexities of life I haven't been able to catch the band as yet.

I made my best ever stab at it tonight at Pub 340. The place feels pretty much unchanged from its previous incarnation as a live music venue - I know I caught the Subhumans there at least once, some ten years ago, and a couple of other shows as well. It goes against the grain of wendythirteen's rather beautiful and true Subculture rant this month, about how venue attendance has dropped because of people being priced out of the city, but it was pleasing and interesting to see that the place was in fact pretty full, with the local drinkers gradually clearing out and being replaced by twentysomethings, mostly cute, mostly snazzily dressed, and all of them apparently having a really good time. I parked myself at a table and - once I learned there were no servers coming arround - went to the bar and attempted to order a pitcher of beer to myself.... which I quickly discovered is against BC Bylaws, which seemed kind of foolish, since I was stone cold sober and just didn't want to keep getting up and ordering fresh pints. Luckily an older carpenter/ drinker was on hand to volunteer to drink a bit with me. Bands started at nine, with Devil in the Wood Shack being first on the bill...

I had enjoyed interviewing Josh of that band around the time of their split EP with Still Spirits, but I had one misgiving in that first year of the band, which I didn't mention at the time: I didn't like that he was affecting an unnaturally Tom-Waits-y growl on several of the songs. Tom Waits is fine but his influence can aggravate me; he himself is so derivative - creatively, but still derivative - of so many other kinds of music that it's odd to hear him being taken as a primary source by people and borrowed from in turn. It was great to hear that Josh has dropped all that, that he's found his own singing voice, which works quite nicely with the material, and it was a relief to confess all that to him and discover that the band, too, has misgivings about aspects of that first split EP.  Despite their own apparent dissatisfactions with how they played this evening - Josh quipping that the band was called "Devil in the Shit Shack" at one point - I enjoyed their set a lot, which was high energy and tuneful and seemed mostly tight and all right to me, even if they were to their own ears struggling (it's only the second time I've seen them live and I was mostly happy that I liked Josh's voice so much better than the previous...). There were even a few familiar songs, like "Devil Does Do," which I see has been re-recorded for their vinyl LP (which I bought, and which Josh liberally gave a couple copies away of to people who rushed to the stage at the offer).

I would have probably left then if I'd realized that seeing Devil in the Wood Shack and talking about North Korea with the drunken carpenter dude were going to be the high points of the night.

Don't get me wrong: the Staggers and Jaggs gave a great performance. I bought their CD, too, and was pleasantly surprised that there was much more of the Hot Club of Paris - thanks largely to their violin player, a female whom I took to thinking of as "Stephanie Grappelli" - than Maritime folk in their music (I'd been expecting the latter, since their name is from Stan Rogers and "Barrett's Privateers"). The band had other surprises, too, including being half composed of women: having expected sea shanties, I also expected that it would be men singing them, since sea shanties are a pretty masculine form in my experience. I had actually crossed paths with the band before - serving as an extra in a short Clay Holmes film with the guitarist - but again, I'd never seen them and was glad I did; but by that point - they must have gone on around ten thirty or so - I was getting tired, having been up since seven, working and walking around all day, and I was finding the venue pretty hot. Plus my phone battery was long since dead, and though there is no table service at Pub 340 these days, there are definitely people who at one point in the evening come and clear AWAY the tables, including the one I was sitting at, to make room on the dance floor, so I wasn't as comfortably settled in as I'd thought I was.

I was no longer in the mood to be at a club at this point, to be honest. I would rather have gone home and listened to the Staggers and Jaggs on CD than stayed out, good as they were. But I wanted to hear the Still Spirits and I hadn't given up hope that I might.

Then next act came on, a touring band from Kelowna called Crowd the Joanna (not "Clouds of Joanna" as I'd previously written, suggesting perhaps that Joanna has been eating beans). By that point, I was starting to fall asleep in my new chair on the margins of the venue. (Thankfully no one was so bylaw-happy as to intrude into my night and tell me sleeping wasn't allowed; I have had that happen once at a Wolves in the Throne Room gig at the Venue where I nearly lost it on the security dude who "woke me up", since my "sleeping" was really more a matter, that night, of intensely trancing out with my eyes closed while listening to the band's rather meditative brand of metal, and his "waking me up" was more along the lines of "disturbing me:" grrr). I could see, between nods and jolts, that Jonny Bones was walking around in a pork pie hat and white shirt and half-considered apologizing to him and explaining that I was wiped out and had to go, but I hoped - though again, Clouds of Joanna or whatever were quite good - that they would get off the stage fairly soon so at least I could see ONE OR TWO Still Spirits songs, and still make the last fucking Skytrain back to Burnaby at 1:15 AM.

Nope. Crowd the Joanna, I guess enthusiastic to be addressing a Vancouver audience, kind of hogged the stage, playing four songs after their "just a couple more songs" announcement, and getting just a bit 1970's for their closer, like they figured they were the main act and could make a dramatic exit (actually, all three bands that I saw seemed to do that, playing longish, fullsome sets: there didn't seem any concern at all for wrapping up early on anyone's part - unless the Still Spirits found themselves butt-up against a curfew bylaw; I wouldn't know). They were good, they were good, I'm not pissed at them - but at that point I was (phone dead) in a state of "aggravated waiting," and I was starting to get worried about the time. I asked another older drinker I'd chatted with what time it was. At that point, Jonny was finally just taking the stage to begin setting up instruments and do soundcheck.

It was 12:35. Which meant if soundcheck went quickly, I MIGHT be able to see one song by the Still Spirits before having to run for the Skytrain station. But I also might not. More likely, it would take twenty minutes or so to set up. The bus service is unreliable at night, and I figured it would take ten minutes at best to get to Waterfront on foot. I spent a few minutes doing the math: if I left (by that point at 12:40, with Crowd the Joanna's drumkit still on the stage and only Jonny of the Spirits in evidence up there), I could definitely catch the train, but if I stayed any later, I still might not see a single song by the band, and end up on the dread drunk bus back to Burnaby.

There are few experiences in Vancouver I will try to avoid more determinedly than being on the drunk bus back to Burnaby.

So fuckit. Sorry, Jonny. I bought your new CD, too (and LOVE that it comes in a brown paper bag, though that's going to be a bitch to keep having to re-fold). I paid full price for everything, didn't cadge, tipped for my beer, tipped for my chips, and did everything a music fan is supposed to do to support his scene. I even washed my hands after I peed and, when a girl in an Alien Boys t-shirt asked me if I'd dropped five bucks, told her, since I couldn't be sure, that she should just buy herself a beer. I did every damn thing the way a scene-supporting music fan should.

I still didn't get to see the band I came to see.

My enthusiasm for experiences like this is running pretty low, to be honest. The scene might not actually be quite as wendythirteen describes in that column, but I sure am. It's nice that there were a lot of young people out at the show tonight. I hope they had a good time. But it might be awhile before I attempt another such gig.

(See my new Pill Squad interview in the Straight online for news about a show tonight, though).

Thursday, August 03, 2017

RIP Sam Shepard: Cold in July, Bright Angel

Always was a fan of Sam Shepard's. I've only seen a couple of film adaptations of his plays - True West and Fool For Love, and neither recently - but I've seen a few films he was involved in writing, most notably Zabriskie Point and Paris, Texas; seen at least one of two films he directed, Far North (if I have seen the other, Silent Tongue, it was on VHS thirty years ago and can't recall with certainty); own two freak-folk albums by the Holy Modal Rounders that he drums or plays tamourine on (Indian War Whoop and The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders, both delightful); and I have Bob Dylan's Knocked Out Loaded around somewhere - one of Dylan's shittiest-ever records, worse even than his Christian period, except for one ten-minute-long narrative, "Brownsville Girl," which he and Shepard wrote about a great old Gregory Peck western, The Gunfighter, which, after I fell in love with that song, I subsequently sought out and also fell in love with (thanks, guys!).

And then, of course, I have watched Sam Shepard as an actor more times than I can count, often in films I have great affection for, including some obvious ones like Schlondorff's Voyager or Apted's Thunderheart.  These films have gotten their due, critically (though if you haven't seen either, do seek them out). There are two films he's in that I particularly want to mention here, by way of paying my respects - Bright Angel and Cold in July - which you may NOT have seen, that I want to consider at some slight length.

Bright Angel is, I admit, a bit of a guilty pleasure, but it's one I can't shake, kinda like one of those really great songs that Bruce Springsteen has written, that make it impossible to dismiss him, no matter how much you want to (and I do, I do: cf. Richard Meltzer's "One Commie Wrong About Bruce" in  A Whore Just Like the Rest, if you're unclear why, but I bet Meltzer likes a couple of Bruce's songs, too). First off, Bright Angel is glaringly overwritten - by novelist Richard Ford, who gets no excuses from me for the screenplay's excesses, since he was in his 40's at the time the film was made (he might get absolved if he wrote it when he was 20; it feels like the work of a man in his 20's, actually). Said excesses begin with the title, a reference to Lucifer, the "bringer of light," who manifests in the film - not literally; there is no actual occult content - in the form of a character played by Lily Taylor. She's a young woman in trouble who comes into a small hick town and involves a young man (Dermot Mulroney) in a quest that brings him both an ordeal and a rich but thankless payoff in "experience." Of course, Taylor's character could only be named "Lucy," to cement the Biblical reference (maybe this seemed subtle and clever at the time, who knows?). The dialogue is a sort of philosophically-laced cowboy poetry with nuggets of, um, wisdom at every turn, served forth with great gravitas. Some of these have stuck in my mind for decades (including a line of Sam's, early on, that the meaning of all harsh words is "what about me?") It's the sort of film that makes a father washing his son's hands in the sink into a metaphor for something, but you're never quite sure what. I'm pretty sure, in short, that it is, all things considered, a BAD FILM; but it is a GREAT bad film, and an extremely actorly one, with one of the most jam-packed talent-laden character-actor-rich casts of 1990, which, besides Mulroney and Taylor and Shepard, also includes Will Patton, Valerie Perrine, Burt Young, Bill Pullman, Benjamin Bratt, Kevin Tighe, Delroy Lindo, Mary Kay Place and Sheila McCarthy (whew!). Lindo and Pullman in particular are given memorably unhinged, scenery-threatening roles and whopper lines of dialogue - but they pull them off (!). It's one of the most jam-packed actin' extravaganzas you've never heard of, available on DVD, and well-worth looking at, especially if all my above caveats make it seem more intriguing than horrible.

But Erika and I saw Bright Angel not too long ago. When Sam passed last week, it seemed appropriate to at the least watch a film he is in, as a way of paying respects, but it wasn't immediately obvious to me which to play (I don't have Voyager, and Thunderheart also is something we have seen not too long ago; she doesn't like to repeat films as often as I do). Erika and I after some discussion - choosing between a possibly boring visual masterpiece from when Sam was young and beautiful (surely everyone knows exactly which film I am talking about) or a lesser but more exciting crime film from his craggier final decade - settled on the latter course, and I got to see Cold in July for the second time. (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford never entered the equation because it was too long for the allotted viewing time; we like to be in bed by midnight at the latest.  It's also great, though it's more for Casey Affleck - or Nick Cave - fans than Sam's).

Truth be known, the genre machinations of Cold in July didn't really work for me the first time around, when I watched it with my Mom when it first came out on DVD. I had been badly prepped for the film, perhaps, since it had appeared on all these "best movies of 2014" lists; the high expectations led, as they often do, to a letdown. After an extremely fresh beginning, where Michael C. Hall - Dexter, here in an everyman role - shoots an intruder in his home, and has to come to terms with the changes this brings, both to his relations with his family, his community, and his sense of himself as a man, the film raises a huge red flag that it is going to turn into a Cape Fear knockoff, maybe with a bit of A History of Violence in the wings. This is initially disappointing - seeing a movie that looked like it was going to be totally original suddenly settling into an apparent formula - but it leaves you struggling with that for just long enough to force you to come to terms with it: "okay, I'll watch a Cape Fear knockoff, what the hell... I like Cape Fear..." Anyhow, you're gearing up to enjoy Sam Shepard as the bad guy, for a change, and just starting to get excited about the prospect - because Sam has some really menacing moments, early on in the film, including a bit as "the dark shape standing above the bed of a sleeping child" where he is absolutely terrifying, the stuff of nightmares. Then suddenly the film works pretty much a 180 degree turn - you can stop reading now if spoilers affect you - and before your eyes, turns ALMOST into a buddy movie, with the arrival of Don Johnson as a pig-farmin', hat-wearin' private detective, who unites with Sam and Dexter - sorry, Michael C. Hall - to investigate and right a wrong, turning the whole affair into a sort of "vigilante justice" meta-film and meditation on what it means to be a man (or something like that - I'll leave further plot details aside to not spoil too much but it would be a worthy addition to the book Killing for Culture if it ever gets updated again). Sam isn't a bad guy after all! It is still not a great film, I don't think - I preferred director Jim Mickle's Stakeland and We Are What We Are, which is probably his greatest accomplishment so far (though lacks Sam Shepard, so I won't discuss it much here; I think I blogged about it awhile back, when considering Southern Gothic horror). Cold in July tries to get away with too much, and while it has some very fresh and exceptionally engaging moments, it also has a few pretty silly plot devices ("how do we get them to discover the videotapes? Hmm..."). There's lots to like, don't get me wrong - it IS worth watching. But there is only one thing to absolutely love in the movie: Sam Shepard.

Not just because he's Sam, either. The film allows him to do some remarkable things as an actor - it boasts one of his best performances in any film ever. He plays a man whose backstory includes saving lives in the Korean war, who now - the film is set in the late 1980's - is an ex-con with an estranged criminal son, possibly dead. Sam's character is so disappointed and disgusted by what his life has become, from how his country and the justice system have treated him to what his own progeny have evolved into, most of which is left unstated or implied - that his coping mechanism is basically to just sit there looking off into the distance hopelessly, rage and sorrow flickering dimly in his face as he tries to decide who should be punished for everything he's experienced. (The above photo reveals SOME of that; it's the best example I could find online). It is a great performance in a film with many great moments; and while I'm still not sure it adds up into a perfect unity, it is well worth looking at, and better on second viewing, when you're not being too distracted by its various shifts in plot and genre. There is a Sundance interview with Mickle - mis-identified in half of the article as Jeff, weirdly - where the interviewer discovers that in fact Sam Shepard helped write one scene in the movie, but then doesn't follow through and ask Mickle which scene. But now I want to know!