Big Little Lions, Erin Costello, Surrnder Hill, The Contenders and More

Big Little Lions, Alive and Well

Okay, I pretty much love these guys. Sometimes you hear music that's just what you need when you wonder if anything has a point anymore. Helen Austin—a former standup comic in London now in British Columbia—and Paul Otten, a Midwesterner, producer, and two-time winner of the John Lennon Songwriting contest bill themselves as indie artists and, for once, it's a good handle. Their music has the sparkle of pop, an edge of call-bullshit politics, the verve of danceable soft rock, and a whole lot going on in each track. Alive and Well is their third full LP and the title is meant as an ironic metaphor, almost as if to announce their astonishment at being able to hold out hope when the world is falling apart at the seams. "Big Mistake" infuses a tumbling little melody with handclaps and building noise that suggests maybe we can move beyond weariness. Austin drew comparisons to Dolores O'Riordan even before the latter died and a song such as "Unicorn" shows why. If you think you're in for magical thinking, the opening line disabuses you: Everybody wants a unicorn/To be unique and still belong. It's not that easy; instead we're looking for humanity/while wading through the vanity. "Kind" is equally double-edged—both a path forward and the gnawing possibility everything is going to hell in a handbag. Yet through all of this the music is airy, even sunny. In the end, the song that might sum what is to be done is to "Find Your Tribe." Like the group name, this one starts small and goes bigger to a repetitive acoustic groove that's both sweet but nervous. Find your people, find your tribe/Those you want to be beside/Then you are home. If that sounds trite, tell me something that makes more sense. ★★★★★

Erin Costello, Down Below, The Status Quo

If you laugh when I tell you that one of the best R & B singers around is from Nova Scotia, my response is that you've not heard Erin Costello. She has just released her fifth studio album and you need hear only a few bars to know that she has a serious set of pipes—the kind that are sultry, powerful, and tinted with small colorings that shade an otherwise simple song such as "Worry Don't Weigh Me Down" and make it seem like a masterpiece. Costello also beguiles with arrangements that blend jazz, R & B, and pop in ways that are simultaneously retro and new. Check out "Low," which unfolds atop Glenn Milchen's cross-rhythmic percussion and evolves into something you'd get if you crossed Mavis Staples with a whiff of danger from Eartha Kitt.  Then try the blue note grooves of "Fighter," a song that signals why the album bears its name. ★★★★

Surrender Hill, Tore Down Fences

Country music and time on the road seem to go together like a saddle and a horse. Tore Down Fences is the second album from married couple Robin Dean Salmon and Afton Seekins, but it's Salmon's twelfth. He was born in South Africa, raised on a San Antonio cattle ranch, had a New York band that played at CBGB, moved to Atlanta, then went on the road with everyone from Rodney Crowell to Cyndi Lauper. Seekins was born to self-sufficient folks from Alaska, moved to Arizona, and lived in New York. The two are now based in Sedona, Arizona, a place where rolling stones often settle. Surrender Hill is mostly a duo, but the two also work well inside a band. Salmon's voice has just the right amount of spit for country/folk music and Seekins adorns hers with small touches of nasal twang. Their new album departs from script with songs that generally exude more contentment than most country albums. The title track, for instance, is about picking up from being dumped and opening a new chapter of the Book of Love. A title like "I RideAlone" suggests a lonesome cowboy, but this one is content under the big Montana sky. I really liked "If I Can't Have You," a catchy song that rocks ever so slightly. If you like a bit of cheekiness, there's a video of the two singing "Misbehave" at their wedding—a bold choice for beginnings as it imagines being old and looking from the POV of endings. ★★★ ½

The Contenders, Laughing with the Reckless

Not too many duos consist of acoustic guitar and drums, but that's precisely the format for The Contenders and they do a few more unexpected things. Guitarist, lead vocalist, and songwriter Jay Nash, for instance, lives in Vermont but his percussion buddy, Josh Day, resides in Nashville. They bill themselves an Americana band—from the acoustic country end of the spectrum. Nash has a decided country scratch to his voice, but every now and then he drops a small riff (in unexpected places) that you'd swear he lifted from Elton John; listen carefully to select lines in "Call Me the Lucky One" and you'll know what I mean. I also really like Nash's percussive cadences in that one. Nash also has a knack for keeping us off balance in his writing. "Finer Weather" seems like it's going to be about New York City, but it's really an I-will-follow-you song. We get more misdirection in "The Night Jackson Fell," which might come off as a Lost Cause post-bellum anthem until you pay attention and realize it's really about the crumbling foundation of a doomed relationship. Another good one is "The Flood," an unvarnished song about hard lives, hard times, and hard choices. This rhythm and harmony first LP portends promise. ★★★½

Sarah Aroeste, Together/Endjuntos

Here's something you don't hear everyday: a singer billed as feminist Ladino rock. I'll take the feminist part of this on faith as I know just a few words in Spanish (and none of know of in this variant), but Together is not a rock album. "8Days" is theatrical to the point of having a show tune feel, and "Thank You Trees" is a bluegrass/pop/holiday song mashup. It is, however, a nice exposure to Sephardic song. One of my favorite tracks is "Buena Semana," a piano-based tune that has incantatory qualities. The American-born, New York-based Aroeste is of Greek Sephardic ancestry and there are songs that honor Jewish traditions such as Shabbat, Sukkot, and "El Dia de Purim," a spring holiday nearly upon us. I enjoyed this recording, though I wish Aroeste would rein in the vibrato more tightly. ★★★

Katie Herzig, Moment of Bliss and Walk Through Walls

Katie Bliss is releasing her sixth album, Moment of Bliss, this month. She's billed as a folk rock performer, but that's a misnomer: she's a pop artist who favors music slathered in electronica and production. "Feel Alive," from the new album evokes the disco dance grooves of Robyn and the video is worth a watch because the lyrics are featured. Much of Herzig's repertoire is drenched in sounds and loops that subsume vocals in a thick aural mix without many spaces. "Strangers" has the same feel, but with a catchier tune. If you want to check out voice with less going so, try her pop torch "Me Without You," in which she stretches her voice into the falsetto range. I'm not a big fan of pop but if you are, you should sample Herzig. ★★


Dodgers Should Repete in NL West

National League West Preview 2018
Big Blue and Who are You?

Were it not for the fact that baseball is a crazy and unpredictable game, this would be a no-brainer. I'll hedge my bets only to say that it would take a reckless person to wager on any team not called the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the NL West.

To Win: The Dodgers have the most talent by far, especially now that Bellinger has had his breakout season and Pederson has matured. Grandal, Seager, Turner, Utley, Puig…. Add the best pitcher in baseball in Kershaw, a decent supporting cast, and Jansen to seal the deal. The Dodgers are so above the rest that even though every other team in the division except the Diamondbacks improved, they are still miles behind LA.

To Show: The San Francisco Giants have the second best pitcher in the MLB in Bumgarner. They added McCutchen and Longoria to go with Posey, Belt, Panik, and Pence. If Cueto and Samardzjia pitch close to their overrated) reputations, the Giants should make a big jump.

Darkhorse: The San Diego Padres added Hosmer, Headley, Galvis and a few other moving pieces. The pitching is suspect, but if they catch a wave they could surprise.

Predicted Finish

1. Dodgers: Too much talent to lose the division, though probably not enough to win the World Series.

2. Giants: I'm still puzzled about how badly they tanked last year, but I think they'll break precedent and shine in an even-numbered year.

3. Padres: If the pitching is decent, they'll push the Giants; if not, it will be different cast, same show.

4. Rockies: They look as thin as the Denver air, yet they always seem to be better than experts think. Roster-wise they should finish last, but they never seem to do so.

5. Diamondbacks: Greinke is hurting and I don't think some kid from the minors will replace him. And you don't subtract J D Martinez and expect Souza to fill the holes between Goldschmidt and Lamb.


Eight Mountains a Story of Friendship and Fate


By Paulo Cognetti
Atria Books, 272 pages

When I was in Italy a few years ago I visited the mountain village where a friend was born many decades earlier. My wife and I drove higher and higher before reaching our destination. It would be overdramatic to say the village was a place time forgot, though that would be precisely the phrase for abandoned hamlets above and below it.

I mention this because one of the themes of Paulo Cognetti's Eight Mountains is that geologic time moves slowly and mighty mountains couldn't care less about the rhythms of its human inhabitants. The village I sought was in the Apennines and Cognetti's in the Southern Alps, where Italy melds with Switzerland, but it's easy to imagine a similar vibe. Eight Mountains follows a decades-long friendship between two individuals from quite different backgrounds: Milan-raised Pietro Gausti and Bruno Guglielmina, who seldom ventures far from the confines of greater Grana, a gateway village to the high peaks near the Matterhorn. Like some of the places I visited, Grana once held thousands, but now just hundreds.

Pietro and Bruno become soul mates despite their differences. Pietro comes from an educated bourgeois family who summer in the Alps; Bruno is a rough-and-tumble peasant lad whose mother is a near mute and his father a brute. Pietro's parents more politely parallel Bruno's: his mother is content with rustic pleasures and his father driven to traverse the length of mountain trails and glaciers, even if it means pushing Pietro like a driven mule and even though a summit is simply the signal to reverse and go home. For Pietro, though, the mountains, rivers, scree, and forests are Zen-like—places to contemplate, not conquer. This is a source of some amusement to Bruno, who tells him that "nature" is a name those of privilege give to the mountains, whereas people of his ilk label what is useful: wood, water, stone…. This is certainly the point of view of his people; Bruno's father punches Pietro's father when the latter offers to take Bruno back to Milan and pay for his education. Is this an act of tyranny, or a hard kindness?

In practical terms, it means the boys are seasonal friends who mature along different paths: Pietro becomes the educated professional who travels the world whilst Bruno lives out the only role he desired: that of a mountain man. Neither play their roles quite as they would have scripted them, but who comes closer and why is Pietro lured back to Grana whenever he can get there? As Bruno casually observes, "You are the one who comes and goes. I'm the one who stays put." The book's title derives from one of Pietro's visits to Tibet, where he speaks with a monk who draws an eight-spoked wheel and tells him that in Buddhist cosmology the great peak Semeru stands at the physical, spiritual, and metaphysical world, surrounded by eight mountains and eight seas. The monk asks Pietro, "Who has learned the most, the one who has been to all eight mountains, or the one who reaches the summit of Semeru?" Maybe that sounds weird, but think before you judge—it might well be one of most profound questions ever asked. To put it in more Western terms, is it better to be a rock or a rolling stone? To know thyself, or to live with the unknowingness of becoming? 

Eight Mountains is a book about friendship, fate, the things from childhood that can and cannot be overcome, parental secrets, and both ancient wisdom and nonsense masquerading as truth. At core it wrestles with the degree to which we change our basic essence and the limitations of such endeavors. In the end, it's also both an actual and a philosophical mystery. This is Cognetti's debut novel, and it's quite an achievement.

Rob Weir


Not Much Time Left to See O'Keeffe in Salem


Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, MA)
Through April 1

You don't have much time left to catch the Georgia O'Keeffe extravaganza at the Peabody Essex Museum. I'd like to suggest you rearrange your schedule to do so.

O'Keeffe (1887-1986) has been iconic for so long, that many people assume there's not much left to discover. It is well documented that young O'Keeffe dazzled teachers at the University of Chicago and everywhere else she studied. She was in Virginia when pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) organized her first solo show in 1915. Three years later he convinced her to move to New York and the two were married in 1924, though he was twenty-three years her senior. 

We know this, just as we are aware that marrying an older man was just the tip of the iceberg of her unconventional life. She was equal parts artistic genius, bohemian, rebel, and (fiercely) independent. Within her lifetime, she was lionized by feminists for the strong vulvar imagery in her canvases, especially depictions of flowers, but also in the folds of canyon lands in her beloved adopted state of New Mexico. She began spending time in 1929 and moved there full time when Stieglitz died in 1946.

So what's left to tell? Sometimes the least discussed aspects of a famous person's life are things that are hidden in plain view. It seems Ms. O'Keeffe was also a clotheshorse with a fondness for fine threads. That's the "style" part of the Peabody Essex show and when you look at the "image" part of it—the many photos taken by Stieglitz, Tony Vacarro and others, it's so obvious that we wonder why it took so long for anyone to launch a show comparable to this one. Perhaps it's because it doesn't fit as well into the nonconformity narratives we impose, or perhaps it's simpler: her art is so powerful that it simply dominates our minds as well as our eyes.

O'Keeffe's fashion sense is the first revelation of the show. The second is equally obvious, but makes perfect sense. We know that O'Keeffe's subject matter changed dramatically when she was in the Southwest, but so too did her entire sense of color. Her New York paintings were black and gray with splashes of color used for dramatic, often geometric, effect. In New Mexico, bold color is often dominant. Elsewhere the grays give way to azure blue, golden adobe, bright white, and textured beige. After seeing New Mexico, O'Keeffe's 1949 rendering of the Brooklyn Bridge makes perfect sense.

It's reflected in her clothing as well. When O'Keeffe painted in New York, she dressed the part of an avant-garde cosmopolitan. She especially liked being draped in silk. In New Mexico, her work clothes of choice were denim. She still enjoyed fine couture such as hand-stitched cuffs and fitted dresses, but her wardrobe was brighter.

I'm not sure what O'Keeffe would have thought about a show spotlighting on her closet. I'm pretty sure she's be appalled by one the videos—of a fashion show filmed in the desert of clothing "inspired" her art and fashion sense. It's hard to imagine she'd have anything but scorn for the waif-like vacant-eyed models and she might even tut-tut the idea of being an object of another's gaze—though surely she played that role for Stieglitz, some of whose photos of her focused on her body parts (fingers, breasts, segments of her face) rather than the whole. There is, though, a difference; Stieglitz was unquestionably artistic in her endeavors and both he and O'Keeffe held progressive views that were critical of commercialism.

This, however, is an incidental observation on my part. The Peabody Essex show rightly lists "art" as primary. You will see a few well-known paintings, but other revelations come in the form of less familiar paintings.

As I said, the clock is ticking. Run; don't walk.  Check out also the spectacular T C Cannon show in the same museum—to be reviewed next month.

Rob Weir


The Flight Attendant Soars as a Mystery

By Chris Bohjalian
Doubleday, 368 pages

It makes a difference when authors do their homework. By his own admission, Chris Bohjalian knew next to nothing about the following key elements in his latest novel: the daily grind and road life of flight attendants, the effects of severe alcoholism, weaponizing drones, or the contemporary world of espionage. But before he put fingers to keyboard, he knew a lot and it shows.

The eponymous Flight Attendant is Cassandra Brown and, if you know Greek mythology, you're aware that Cassandra is an unfortunate name with which to saddle someone. The unconventional "Cassie" knew from an early age she needed to get out of her hometown, but perhaps she fled her stifling hometown and dysfunctional family before she was ready for adulthood. The only life she's known since she departed is that of a rolling stone flight attendant with a major air carrier. Bohjalian takes us inside a lifestyle that sounds more glamorous than it is—long journeys with quick turnarounds, surly or sickly passengers, living out of a small suitcase, unpredictable scheduling, and airline-provided sleeping quarters that are more toward the former side of the budget versus luxury hotel spectrum. As for destinations, the best even an experienced attendant like Cassie can hope for is to "bid" a route and take her chances. Even that sometimes requires some bargaining: if you want to go to Rome, volunteer for a place you don't want to go, like Dubai. Women like Cassie are essentially airborne domestics in high heels.

We meet Cassie on the downward slope. She's still attractive, but is realistic enough to see that her job and Father Time have exacted a physical toll. She has a few "bid buddies" she's gotten to know, but even they are more concerned acquaintances than close friends. What they know, however, is that Cassie fills the voids in her life with casual sex and booze. Especially the latter, which is still another obstacle between she and her sister, a responsible mother who makes sure her kids are never alone with Cassie in the rare times she's at home. Cassie's life is thus a volatile mix of loneliness, flirtation, and alcoholic-fueled hook-ups. Her drinking isn't just foreplay—it's the sort that results in blackouts and waking up in the morning naked beside a man and not being sure if you had a good time or not.  

On a flight to Dubai, she chats up 28-year-old Alex, a wealthy hedge fund manager and later that day, he slips her the key for his room in a hotel that's decidedly more posh than her digs. He's younger than Cassie's usual one-night stands, but also kinder and the night begins well. There are just three things that mar Cassie's libidinous evening: a short interruption when a woman calling herself Miranda visits—presumably to brief Alex on his meeting the next day. Things two and three are more problematic: she and Alex have great sex, but Cassie drinks until she blacks out. That's embarrassing, but the fact that she wakes up soaked in Alex's blood is a real problem. Dubai is not a place where you want to be discovered with a dead man in the bed beside you and a broken gin bottle on the floor.

Cassie doesn't think she killed Alex, but then she wouldn't be the best judge of that, would she? Fight or flight? Hey—it's called The Flight Attendant! Bohjalian spins a suspenseful thriller told from Cassie's befuddled point of view and Miranda's more clear-headed perspective. This is far more than your average whodunit, one that takes us into some of those other worlds mentioned in opening paragraph. Is Cassie a deadly drunk? Did she just get away with murder? Who was Alex? Miranda? Is anyone, Cassie included, who they seem to be?

Chris Bohjalian is an author I have long admired because, yes, he does do his homework. More than that, though, he knows how to build suspense without going Dan Brown unbelievable on his readers. He is particularly skillful at getting inside the heads of characters. That may sound obvious—he invents them, right? You try thinking like someone who isn't you. Now repeat in a different mindset. And again…. I won't pretend that The Flight Attendant is the new War and Peace, but it's a terrific page-turning mystery. The final pages are a tad contrived, but there's plenty here to keep you glued in your reading chair way past your normal bedtime. The Flight Attendant earns its wings.

Rob Weir   


Sculpture and Quilts at Mount Holyoke College

Mount Holyoke College Art Museum
Through May 27, 2018

Those who read my art reviews know of my fondness for well-done small exhibitions. Mount Holyoke College currently features two shows that illumine without bludgeoning.

A Very Long Engagement: Nineteenth- Century Sculpture and Its Afterlives is small in that the sculptures on display rest easily on slender pedestals and there are just fifteen of them. The sculptors represent a potpourri of American, English, and French artists. What ties them together is that each work references past traditions. Today we might label them ‘meta.’ They are displayed beside photographs of older works of which they are commenting or from which they drew inspiration. A reclining figure from Henry Moore, for example, bears remarkable similarity to a 10th century Toltec figure. Paul Jena Baptiste Gasq’s Diana is his take on Classical Roman depictions of the goddess of the hunt. 

In addition to the above pair—and you seldom see a Henry Moore this small—my favorite works are: Frederic  Leighton’s languid The Sluggard, Auguste Rodin’s Monument of Honore de Balzac, Pierre Auguste Renoir’s Dancer with a Tambourine, and Henry Rox’s whimsical Girl with Flowers, the latter a work from a former Mt. Holyoke art professor. I also greatly admired the mottled texture of Emilie Stamm’s Standing Nude.


What an inspired idea it was to run the sculpture show simultaneously with the quilts of Mary Lee Bendolph. What better way to demonstrate how old barriers between fine art and folk art have crumbled like the Berlin Wall. If Bendolph’s name doesn’t immediately resonate, perhaps you’ve heard about the Gee’s Bend quilts that took New York by storm when they went of display at the Whitney in 2002. (I saw that show. It was both exhilarating and exhausting.) Bendolph is an acknowledged queen bee of that tradition—and it’s an old one. Gee’s Bend refers to an elbow in the Alabama River southwest of Selma and the first quilts and coverlets made there came from slaves on the Pettway plantation. To this day, Gee’s Bend is largely an African American region and many of the quilters are descendents of Pettway slaves.

The end of slavery did not bring a lot of prosperity to the area, which meant that quilts were made for plebeian reasons—not with an eye toward hanging them in a gallery. That is to say, they were everyday items of use. Gee’s Bend was also the kind of country living in which things got repurposed rather than tossed away. Old shirts and feed sacks became part of bedspread, leftover scraps of material got stitched together in a crazy quilt, and it mattered little if a coverlet mixed corduroy, cotton, and linen.

Bendolph’s quilts tend to favor big pieces and bright colors and patterns of straight lines and basic geometric shapes. I love the idea of workaday items standing side by side with the output of academically trained artists. Those who has ever run their hands down the sides of a cabinetmaker’s bookcase, smiled upon seeing an eccentric weathervane, or beheld the simple elegance of a sampler knows that everyday objects often contain a beauty of their own. Also memories. I was deeply moved by one of Bendolph’s “ghost’ quilts. When her husband died, she cut up a pair of his dungarees and used the faded inside of the pockets to anchor her quilt. I defy anyone to tell me this is a less tribute than the Medici tomb.

Rob Weir


Thinking about Civility


Reflections on Civility: Another Birthday

I’ve managed to spin around the planet another whole year, an annual accomplishment that makes me ponder things. In Year Two of the Trump era I have civility on my mind—ways we can be kinder to each other within our communities. Maybe the POTUS has contempt for civil discourse, but that doesn’t mean we have to stoop that low.

Here are ten ways we can follow to Make America Nice Again.

1. Stop insisting that your own way of life is “right.”

Every time I hear someone go on an anti- [fill in your least favorite group] rant, what I really hear is, “I’m so insecure in my own identity that I’m going to criticize yours.” It’s this simple: In most cases, no one within any particular group has ever tried to tell me how to live my life, so I’m surely not going to tell them how to live theirs.

2. If it hasn’t happened to you, maybe it's not a problem.

Many things that divide us are just Straw Man debates. Do you worry that immigrants are stealing “American jobs.” Well, has that ever happened to you? Have you ever been fired so the boss could hire an illegal immigrant? Are erstwhile Silicon Valley programmers remaining unemployed because non-documented workers are doing all the coding?

3. Unless you really know, don’t assume you do.

I often overhear disdain for those using food stamps at the grocery store, especially when they walk out with a cart filled with things you’re about to pay the proverbial pretty penny to procure. I've heard people mutter that those using food stamps are unworthy and need to “work for a living.” Do you know anything about those relying on welfare? Let’s start with the fact that more than half of all families getting food stamps contain at least one member who works full time. Follow with most food stamps feed children. If you know nothing of the recipient, don’t invent a narrative; doing so merely makes you a petty gossip-monger.

4. Don’t extrapolate without data.

It’s one of the few things I recall from math classes! I’m sure each of us has seen people game the system. There are, of course, welfare cheats. Also crooked lawyers, money managers, plumbers, mechanics, professional athletes, doctors, ad infinitum. There are Muslim terrorists, but Christians are more likely to commit murderous acts within the United States. The moral is that there’s world of difference between individual cases and patterns. Confusing the two makes you a hater, not a prophet.

5. Be neither a Neanderthal nor a PC Snowflake.

 Has nuance had been abolished? It often appears that we’ve split into two camps: vitriolic misanthropes and oversensitive snowflakes. The first have no heart; the second expend more energy being offended than in making things better. The first is spiteful and mean; the second boorish and sanctimonious. The first is deluded by faith in assumed moral certainty; the second by blind belief in castles in the sky. The first needs to soften, the second to toughen. Both need to embrace the fact that few things in life are either/or.

6. There is a difference between mistakes and intentions.

You are not perfect, so why assume others are? I want to hurl every time I hear terms such as flip-flop, microaggression, extremist, mansplaining, or the suffix –tard on any word. We use insults to pigeonhole rather than hear what the person intended. Social media repeatedly demonstrates that often we express ourselves awkwardly, rashly, or obtusely. Heaven forbid you do so, because the rest of the universe becomes temporarily perfect and rushes to label you. Next time you’re tempted to label another, make damn sure you know that the other person actually intends harm. Don't forget to consider that you might be the jerk in the murk.

7. Ask the question and sit down.

Few things are as irksome as a Q and A after a talk in which someone gives a speech instead of just asking a question. Men often try to spray turf or critique before they cut to the chase; women have a tendency to over-emote by telling us how they feel or were moved. Just ask the question!

8. Stop dropping F-bombs.

There was a time when the word ‘fuck’ shocked us. Not any more. It might be the most over-used term of the 21st century. Very few will think you badass, clever, or hip when you utter it in earshot. They’ll instead think: rude, crude, and unrefined.

9. Don’t wear ignorance like a badge of honor.

Can an ill-educated nation be a great one? Not on this globalized planet. You can deny science—if you don’t care about planetary Armageddon. You can remain undereducated, unskilled, and uniformed—if you’re comfortable being unemployed, unemployable, and clueless. You can blame someone else for your troubles—as long as you know that few will care about your self-inflicted woes. Ignorance is to be combated, not celebrated.

10. You might as well be a mensch.

Thanks to an old buddy for this phrase, which is basically a Yiddish spin on being a good egg—an honorable person in the eyes of others. So much anger, tragedy, selfishness, and division would dissolve if we each understood that in the grand sweep of the Universe, no one of us is all that important. The Universe doesn’t want to hear us brag, overhear our cellphone conversations, or bow before our fame and acclaim. We don’t have the right to cut others off in traffic, or to take their lives. There is no justification for abusing; we do not elevate our esteem by demeaning others. Toys and wealth will not save us from the ultimate fate: we will die. The choice is really whether one checks out loved or unloved. In my own imperfect way, I'm trying to be a mensch. 


Lost in Paris: Goofy to a Fault?

Directed by Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon
Oscilloscope Laboratories, 83 minutes, NR
(In English and French with subtitles)
★★ 1/2     

Forget the Hollywood rating system. In the age of the Internet, users rate movies as OMG, LOL, or POS. Lost in Paris suggests we ought to add a WTF category. It may not be the campiest film ever made, but its tents are in the front row of the bivouac grounds. Its charm is that it’s quirky and strange; its weakness is that both qualities are served in gluttonous portions.

Let me set the tone by describing the opening scene. The camera looks down upon a village encased in apocalyptic amounts of snow. We gaze upon a quite obvious toy-sized set before we are taken inside a library where Fiona (Fiona Gordon) sits behind a desk looking like she is where fashion went to die. Then we are treated to a gag torn from the pages of the W.C. Fields film A Fatal Glass of Beer (1933). A door opens, fake snow flies everywhere, and the wind blasts with such force that everyone and everything is blown sideways. The door closes and all returns to normal. And by ‘normal,’ I mean absurd. Cue some Canadian accents.

The person entering the room delivers a soiled letter that was accidentally thrown into a garbage can rather than placed in the post box. It’s from Fiona’s elderly aunt Martha (Emmanuel Riva), a once-famous dancer but now 88 years old and trying to keep French authorities from squirreling her away in a nursing home. (She has a unique way of dodging authorities and it’s one of many reoccurring jokes.) So it’s off to Paris for Fiona, who apparently has never been off the tundra before.

If you plan on watching this film, surrender all logic right now, as things are about to get so absurd they would make Eugene Ionesco check into rehab. We next see Fiona in Paris, her stick-like figure crammed into a clingy green dress, a pair of cheap tennis shoes upon her feet, her face framed by glasses dubbed ugly by Geeks United, her hair crimped and curled by a mad hairdresser, and hefting an enormous orange backpack. Cut to the next visual joke—it takes a contortionist to get it through the Metro turnstile. Oh—the backpack is also flying a Canadian flag from its frame. 

The best way to describe the rest of the film is to say everything gets sillier and that its loose (as in very loose) structure is built around miscommunications, misassumptions, misfortunes, mistaken identities, misconnections, slapstick routines, and repeated jokes. Among the latter are setups involving Martha’s escapes from French authorities, a neighbor’s missing sock, chance encounters with a Mountie, a persistent dog, an even more persistent street bum (Dominique Abel), and the McGarrigle sisters singing Loudon Wainwright III’s “Swimming Song.”* That song reoccurs because people and things have a habit of falling into the Seine, with the objects resurfacing later in hands other than those that first dropped them.

Gordon plays the gal from snowy Hicksville set adrift in the City of Light with wide-eyed fascination and goofy desperation. She is literally lost when separated from her backpack, clothing, money, and passport, but gains the bum Dom, who won’t leave her alone and whom she finds alternately annoying, useful, and kinda cute. (Physically he puts one in mind of Roberto Benigni.)** Most of the action is set along the Seine, at Pont Grenelle (where there is a smaller version of Auguste Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty), at the Père Lachaise Cemetery, and atop the Eiffel Tower.

Really, though, neither the plot nor action is much more than an excuse to string together gags and surreal situational comedy. At its best, Lost in Paris evokes the preposterousness of Jacques Tati and the nimble-footed physical routines of Harold Lloyd, though far too often it’s like a cloying old Jerry Lewis vehicle or one of those painful Saturday Night Live sketches that went on twice as long as it should have.

I probably would have walked out had I been in a theater and I contemplated switching off the DVD at least half a dozen times. So what kept me in my lounge chair? Lost in Paris is indeed a WTF film. It’s so odd that I found myself watching like a voyeur at a disaster scene. Just when I thought I couldn’t take anymore, something utterly charming occurred—like Riva chancing upon Norman (Pierre Richard), an old dance partner and lover, and doing an impromptu seated soft shoe routine, he in a hospital gown and ancient shoes, and she in cast-off clothing, wool socks, and Birkenstocks. There are also situations akin to those in the old Airplane movies that are just so dumb you can’t resist them, though you feel guilty as hell afterward. I mean, can one not watch slapstick inside a crematorium?

After a time I admired the moxie of Abel and Gordon for being able to poke so much fun at themselves. Their physicality is also impressive, as evidenced in everything from pratfalls to an impromptu tango. If you can put yourself in the mood for wall-to-wall silliness, I can give this a qualified recommendation. It’s unlikely you will view anything weirder in 2018, so score one for uniqueness. I’m glad though, that Riva got to make one film before she died in early 2017. It looks like she had fun in Lost in Paris, but I wouldn’t want this fart cushion of a movie to be the last for such an important icon of French cinema.

Rob Weir

* That makes more sense than most things in the film. Kate McGarrigle was once married to Wainwright.

** In life, Gordon and Abel are married. She’s actually Australian and he’s Belgian.


I, Daniel Blake Indicts Heartlessness


Directed by Ken Loach
eOne Films, 100 minutes, not-rated
* * * * *

I, Daniel Blake is one of the saddest films I’ve seen in some time and that’s saying something as its director, Ken Loach, has never been known for making uplifting films. Loach is an unabashed champion of the British underclass and the sort of director who is unafraid to call out phonies and power abusers.

His target this time is privatization of the British safety net. I, Daniel Blake plays like a blue-collar version of Bleak House or The Trial. Its titular character is, simply, a decent human being. Everyone likes Dan (Dave Johns): his mates from the shop where he worked, people he meets on the street, even his Afro-British neighbor who Dan yells at to take his garbage to the bin instead of leaving along the flat complex balcony. And would they not like him? Dan is a standup guy, the sort who doesn’t have to be asked to help out a person who needs assistance. That includes Katie Morgan, a down-on-her-luck single mom of two children: the sullen, mildly feral Dylan and mixed race Daisy. To make matters worse, British social services relocated Katie (Hayley Squires) from London to Newcastle because the latter has housing for welfare cases such as she. Never mind that Katie knows no one in Newcastle and her mother is in London. 

Dan has problems too. He had a heart attack and can’t work—at least that’s what his cardiologist says. The privatized employment office says otherwise; according to their work capability assessment he is eligible to work because, of course, some tick-the-boxes form knows way better than a heart surgeon. The upshot is that Dan can’t work and he can’t get benefits unless he looks for work that he can’t accept even if he secures it. He can, of course, appeal, but that involves filling out an online form and scheduling a hearing—except he’s a carpenter who has never touched a computer and he has no income. His is the ultimate Dickensian nightmare merged with a Kafkaesque labyrinthine absurdity.

Dan does all he can to maintain his dignity and composure and then some. He is a veritable lifeline for Katie and her kids and the conduit through which Dylan leaves his shell. Katie’s struggles alone will break your heart, but if you think you can’t keep a good man down, maybe you’re naïve. The system Dan encounters isn’t just complicated, it’s so heartless and cruel that even Ann (Kate Rutter), the welfare agent who tries to help him, gets into trouble for not following protocol. I do not exaggerate when I say that Dan’s treatment is the sort that would lead an American to lock, load, and shoot everyone in sight. Dan’s response, as befits a good man, is somewhat less aggressive.

Loach’s film is a searing indictment of the callous profit-makers and mindless pencil-pushers who don’t give a damn about decent people or poor mothers who burst into tears and cram unheated beans into their mouths at food banks. It is also an indictment against all those who watch and merely tut-tut the injustices before their eyes or actively enforce rules they know to be immoral. The sort thst doesn’t think they are to blame if their actions cause antisocial responses. Okay, this is a film script, not a documentary, but if a tenth of what we see on the screen is accurate, Great Britain should hang its collective head in shame. Except, of course, this film could have been made in the United States as well. In fact it was. Moonlighting or Florida Project anyone?

I know I’m soap boxing but dammit, it just shouldn’t be this way. What does a man like Daniel Blake have to do to reclaim his humanity? He shouldn’t have to do anything; decency should be its own ticket to personhood. This film will leave you shattered, but shame on you if you think it too depressing to watch. I’m glad we still have directors like Ken Loach with the courage to speak for those whose tongues are silenced by sanctimonious monsters.

Rob Weir


Sing, Unburied, Sing a Powerhouse


By Jesmyn Ward
Scribner, 304 pages

Sing, Unburied, Sing hits you like a punch you should have seen coming but didn’t. When I first began reading it I was underwhelmed and wondered why it had won the National Book Award. Then, Bam!!!  It slammed me between the eyes.

It is set in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, somewhere near the Gulf of Mexico. When we meet “Pop” and his 13-year-old grandson Jojo, they are about to butcher a hog for the latter’s birthday—Jojo steeling himself and trying to remain stoic amidst the blood and viscera. As we meet the rest of the family living in a shotgun cabin, we are lured into a timeless rural mindset. There is Jojo’s 3-year-old sister, Kayla; their mother, Leonie; and Pop’s wife, “Mam,” lying in a back room and wasting away from cancer. The feel is that of a Toni Morrison or Alice Walker novel set in the Reconstruction South. Then small references begin to unsettle us—first of mechanical devices, then of motorized vehicles, which forced us to think maybe it’s the 1920s. Then come mentions of Hurricane Katrina and Deepwater Horizon and it hits you that this is now, not the sleepy past. Bam!!!

Sing, Unburied, Sing has been compared to Morrison’s Beloved and with good reason: it’s really a ghost story. When Jojo tells us early on, “I like to think I know what death is…” we’re being set up. One of our ghosts is history itself, but not the dead hand of the past moldering in the ground, rather one (in Karl Marx’s words) that “weighs like a nightmare in the brains of the living.” As we work our way through the many racial injustices in this poor, our minds conjure other ghosts: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner…. We think also of ghosts who departed early dues to the hidden injuries of class.

Ward doesn’t allow us to make this just a novel about race. Jojo and Kayla are biracial, their white father Michael doing time in northern Mississippi’s infamous Parchman Farm*. Stroylines intersect as Pop once did time there himself—back when Parchman was as close to hell as a living black man could get. It was slavery cloaked in legal garb and when Pop was there, so too was a 12-year-old black child named Richie, sent up to do hard adult time for the crime of being so hungry he stole some meat. Pop came home, but Richie didn’t, a story Pop spins out for Jojo in pieces. Richie is another of our ghosts, a wandering spirit seeking to come “home,” wherever that might be. Still another is Leonie’s brother Given, murdered by a jealous white boy he thought was his friend simply because he was a better athlete and woodsman. Death is everywhere in this book: people, goats, hogs, deer, oil-choked dolphins….

The question is whether the dead stay dead or, if like history, they weigh like nightmares—perhaps concrete ones. Mam is a “seer,” as is Kayla and (maybe) Leonie. The book’s structure is deceptively simple; Michael is being released from Parchman and Leonie, Jojo, and Kayla set off to fetch him, along with Leonie’s white friend Misty, with whom Leonie shares a love of booze and drugs. As you can imagine, this is not going to be a routine journey. Think detours into crystal meth, serious medical issues, confrontations with racist cops, and a family reunion that’s not exactly like something out of “Father Knows Best.” And let’s not forget the ghosts. Can we sing them home?

This book has it all: Christianity mixed with voudon, descriptions so vivid we can smell the mud, and repeated patterns of resistance, fear, resignation, and moving on. (A repeated Jojo line: “It don’t matter.”) Do you like metaphors that spring to life? Pop’s given name is River. Read the Langston Hughes poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Think of shades of meaning embedded in the words “sing” and “home.” Be literal and muse upon Parchman (parched + man). Muse upon Mam’s cancer and think globally. Think upon Black Lives Matter and dare to ask if that’s true, then or now. Let that weigh on your brain. 

What a powerful book. Bam!!!

Rob Weir

*Music fans might recognize Parchman Farms as the subject of several blues songs. It’s also where Alan Lomax famously collected blues classics in the 1940s. [check)


Try These for a Pan-Celtic St. Patrick's Day


A lot people ignore Celtic music until St. Patrick’s Day rolls around. That’s a shame because it is way more creative than anything you’ll hear on Top 40 radio and has been for decades. It’s my favorite genre of music.

St. Patrick’s Day is part of the problem in that many people only think of Irish music when the word Celtic is uttered and associate it with stereotypical drinking songs and canned diddly diddly instrumentation that’s high on cheap theatrics but is seldom played outside of tourist hotels. It bears mention that almost no one in Ireland can stomach the idea of green beer, paper shamrocks, and plastic leprechauns. So let's use St. Patrick's Day to Celtic all Celtic music.

The term “Celtic music”—and pronounce Celtic with a hard K unless you mean a Boston basketball team—is a misnomer. Ditto any sort of national music such as Irish or Scottish music. The late Tommy Makem of the Clancy Brothers hailed from County Armagh in Northern Ireland and once told me he never heard the phrase “Irish” music as a lad; the tunes and songs he heard in his village of Keady were completely different from those played twenty miles away.

Celtic actually refers to many peoples, only some of whom lived anywhere near Ireland. In tribal Europe, pretty much anyone who wasn’t Germanic or Slavic was a Celt. Many Celts also found their way to Asia and Asia Minor. Today, though, we use Celtic to reference areas with a sizable concentration of Celtic bloodlines and cultural saturation: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, Galicia in Spain, Asturias in Portugal, the Isle of Man, and Canada’s Cape Breton Island. Each has great music, but I will share ideas from the places in bold.


There really isn't any such thing as a "Celtic" instrument per se, aside from three that are actually very universal and were probably the world's oldest instruments: bagpipes, flutes, and stringed zithers, including the harp. There are many varieties of bagpipes—the subject of a future post. Celtic bands generally have a preference for fiddles and accordions—they set great dance tempos—but you name it and they use it: cittern, bouzouki, piano, cello, hand drums, acoustic and electric guitars, tin whistles—even brass and woodwinds.


If you’re tempted to cite The Chieftains, Clancy Brothers, or Irish Rovers as the forerunners of modern Celtic music, dont; it was Ireland’s Bothy Band, the first to appreciate that there’s no such thing as “traditional music.” It is the nature of folk music to change and no well-traveled tune or song should ever be called the original version" unless accompanied by the phrase “earliest known.”

The Bothies turned Celtic music upside down in the early 1970s by bringing modern influences into older tunes and songs, including using amplification so that harps and fiddles could hold their own with louder instruments. They practically invented the “Big Set” featuring textured melodies, stitched tunes, and big swells. They still hold up simply because few have ever done it better.

Lunasa is the more recent band I think comes closest to The Bothy Band’s instrumental vibe, with more groove: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uG4lNbXTBAs

Altan is surely the most beloved of current bands and the best exemplar of Donegal music, whose tunes often feature two fiddles. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uG4lNbXTBAs 
A review of Altan's new record The Widening Gyre is forthcoming on this site.

I tend to prefer Scottish bands, and my favorite of all time was Ossian,* which has a delicate side seldom matched and wove sounds and tunes together like fine tailor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4jzFowWZIA

For pure bring-the-noise excitement, try The Tannahill Weavers, a band that preserves tradition and isn’t just a rock band whose members have accents: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FANYQIFdtE

Silly Wizard* had it all: the whimsical duels of the brothers Cunningham, the dulcet vocals of Andy M. Stewart, solid fiddling, and terrific stage presence. It was always a tossup which was more fun: the musicianship or the jokes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UIdz87JsTgY

Kornog was responsible for bringing Breton music into the limelight and if you’ve never heard Breton dance music, you’re in for a treat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-j1kHJnJZ9A

Breton music also features instruments you don’t hear a lot, like the strident bombarde and the hurdy-gurdy. Ad Vielle Que Pourra is half Breton, half Quebecois, and 100% exciting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYw8xL7ICrw

The Rankin Family is the standard to which all other Canadian Celtic bands aspire. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBD_faUIThQ

For a Spanish Celtic flair, try Milladoro: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZ5NtUSQX4E

A preview of bagpipe variety: Susana Seivane from Galicia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ioTUmP9qYVI

If you want to hear an amazing international Celtic offering, Skydance is The Bothy Band gone global: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rePzNVFf_Ac


This instrument has come to define modern Celtic music. There are scores of great fiddlers, but in my mind four stick out.

Scotland’s Alaisair Fraser is one of the best violinists in the world—of any genre. He can paralyze you with a single note. That's him with Skyedance above. Try this one as well. It explains my love for Scotland and Alaisdair's music : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2d-4dy-lCY

Ireland’s Martin Hayes is in that same league. Check out his focus. His is boiling frog music that starts slow, simmers, and comes to a rolling boil: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5hg3iuoJoM

Chicagoan Liz Carroll is unmatched as an Irish-American performer who puts her unique stamp on each piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITdV3rRL8oQ

I imagine that Cape Breton’s chief import is fiddle strings. Normally it would be hard to pick just one Cape Breton fiddler—except everyone pretty much agrees Natalie MacMaster is the queen bee. You try fiddling and step dancing at the same time; I’ll swing by and sign your cast. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59VGEME-iAE


If you like great voices, Celtic music provides in spades. Here are some to try:

Ireland has given us amazing voices, including:

Mary Black used to head De Dannan and went onto to global fame as an interpreter of Irish song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P17wWpr2usk

Dolores Keane, also once led De Dannan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rc3KRw6nN20 

Mairéad Ní Mhonaigh who fronts Altan. For the Irish-impaired an approximate pronunciation is Mar' ray' ed'  Nuh-wee'-nee. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1734yzunow

Maura O'Connell who went on to prove there's no genre she can't slay. 

My favorite Scottish singers include:

Andy Stewart of Silly Wizard and his sweet tenor voice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=appBtXoxfb8

Dougie MacLean who has written some truly amazing songs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wP8A9rtg0iI

Karen Matheson of Capercaillie might well be my favorite singer since Sandy Denny died. Notice how Scots Gaelic differs from Irish: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZe9N1vNGh0

Karine Polwart If not Karen, Karine is my favorite! 


**Both Ossian and Silly Wizard and Ossian have been cursed by bad luck. Both George Martin and gentle soul Tony Cuffe of Ossian have died, as have Andy Stewart and Johnny Cunningham of Silly Wizard. I knew all four and miss them terribly. Johnny C was maybe the funniest human being I've ever known.