Apr 28, 2010

Angry Magic

Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre has remounted its hit production of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. It's running at the beautiful Young Centre in the Distillery District through June 5th.

In prepping for my live radio interview with actor Jordan Pettle last week (he plays tough nut office manager John Williamson), I returned to my review of last year's production. Shock and awe aside ("I wrote that?! No, really... I wrote that???"), I was struck by how much had changed, and how much had stayed the same in this year's version. The chemistry between the six cast members is as pungently male as ever, its energy as snappy and smart as the salty dialogue. Director David Storch has the performers -Eric Peterson, Albert Schultz, Kevin Bundy, William Webster, Peter Donaldson, and Pettle -play, literally and figuratively, with their own energies, reactions, and relationships with one another. Most noticeable in this year's revival is the sheer physicality on display; chests and chins jut forwards like prize fighters daring their smarmy mugs for a loud, proud shiner. Spit flies around with as much aplomb as big promises and dead contracts.

There's a kind of manic, angry magic at work here; between Ken MacDonald's sexy, shiny design and _'s slithering sound design, a kinetic energy comes sparking from the stage, full-throttle. It's exhilerating, exhausting, and ultimately enlightening. Jon Stewart and his gaggle of writers are equally foul, fierce, and funny about financial ruin -in a way, they're Mamet Circa 2010, with every ounce of anger, wit, and that alchemical transformation that happens in the arena of performance; a kind of magical inversion of "reality" happens, with equal gasps and guffaws bouncing off sets, sofas and stages. There's something so powerful about the mix of funny and angry -it makes the underlying rage all the more bitter, and strangely, cathartic.

Storch nicely captures this magical combination. You'll leave wanting to either jog a twenty-mile marathon, or take a long, hot shower. Maybe both. Whatever you do, channel that energy into something positive that doesn't involve selling bad stocks or properties in Florida.


Photo of Eric Peterson by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Apr 22, 2010

It's So "Big"

"Since when did the personal become the small?"

So ends a recent column by writer Russell Smith in last week's Globe and Mail. I pondered this line as I reviewed various favourite blogs, artworks, musicians and artists. "Personal" is a complicated matter, especially within the creative realm. Doing it well entails walking a fine, hair-thin line between insight and narcissism. Regarding the personal as "small" depends on who you're asking, what you're creating, and how you're synthesizing elements of life, imagination, and observation.

I've always been a fan of the venerable Mr. Smith, for the way he manages to seamlessly integrate all three, while pouring in mounds of thought-provocation about the wet-dry trails of footprints that map out our contemporary lives. Last week I attended the launch of his latest book, Girl Crazy, which revolves around an established urban man's obsession with a stripper and the seedy underbelly he is inevitably drawn to. I haven't read it yet, but based on Smith's past writing, as well as a recent (positive) review, it seems like a heady mix of questions around social class, the nature of modern life, the drag of adult responsibility, and the hot steaming throb of obsession ballsing the lot up. What's more, it feels, like much of Smith's past work, entirely shot through with a smart sensibility that embraces both male and female perceptions around the deliciously taboo two-backed beast that both scintillates and scorns our society, vampirically sucking at the humming root of desire that sits inside us all.


Just before attending Smith's book launch, I went to an art opening featuring the work of Quebecois artist Dominique Fortin. Like the author, the personal is anything but small in her world; with references to family, friends, and her own history (and future), Fortin beautifully fuses the twin themes of epic and intimate to render the most personal moments understandable, real, and present. Ironically, the title of the exhibition is "Petits Geants" (or "Small Giants". Fortin embraces and celebrates femininity in an epic yet intimate way that I found deeply moving as well as inspiring. Using faces and figures as her main motif, Fortin integrates the visual play of Klimt (notably with the creative use of spirals and intricate patterns, for which she employs a range of mixed media) and the graffiti ethos of Basquiat (especially in her use of text around and/or above her figures). The effect is something of a punk-rock Alice In Wonderland, with china doll-esque black and white female faces sitting atop large (sometimes winged) figures, lost (or maybe found) in a swirling, soft focus world of imprecise measurements and imperfect geometry.

One of the paintings features Fortin's daughters as facial models, which is brave, considering the artist confessed her determination in depicting an all-around female archetype in her work. I'm not a mother, but I related to the dark-angel whimsy of her work and found myself mesmerized by the raw, aggressive scrawls and strong painterly colours, especially in the context of their contrast with the delicate-faced figures. Featuring one's offspring as the model of that universal, and deeply powerful idea, is both brave and crazy -but overall, the show (running at the gorgeous Thompson Landry Gallery through May 9th) is totally beguiling. Fortin embraces both child-like wonder and adult desire with equal gusto, and the results pour beautifully forth on her mixed media canvases.

I have a feeling I may find the same powerful mix in Smith's words as I do in Fortin's artwork. The "personal" as small? Only if you're small-minded to begin with. Done well, and there's nothing more universal -which is, at least to little ole me, makes for the most memorable art.

Girl Crazy is published by Harper Collins and is available now.

"Petits Geants" runs at the Thompson Landry Gallery to May 9th.

Apr 18, 2010

Song Song Sunday

Lying in bed mid-morning this sunny Sunday, two thoughts presented themselves: 'why can't I go back to sleep?' and 'what the heck is the name of that French-Canadian electro band from the 1980s?' Several cups of Bewleys, a plateful of waffles, a scan of the weekend paper and a load of laundry later, I set myself the task of answering the latter question (there is no answer to the former, other than the mysterious wonders of the human body). A bit of snooping, and... voila. I thought of The Box in relation to Gorillaz's new single, "Stylo" -there's that same pulsating beat, that bloopy-bleepy bass, that high-ish, scarily monotone vocal. It's creepy and compelling all at once.



I have no way of knowing if Damon Albarn et al have heard The Box's 1980s hit "L'Affaire Dumoutier (Say To Me)", but I do hear a definition connection between the two:



There's always been a European sensibility to what Gorillaz do, much in the same way with what Quebecois artists were doing twenty years ago. That spirit of experimentation, of pushing pre-conceived norms, of being... just plain different, feels weirdly duplicated and canned these days; ideas of what constitutes "authentic" within the musical realm are hazy at best.

I type this after an evening of half-observing the Twitter insults flying around over Ke$ha's appearance on Saturday Night Live between sips of red wine and bites of calamari in a busy trattoria; I couldn't help but feel compelled to observe the nastiness being hurled at the "garbage chic" singer/songwriter, and feel, at least, a bit sorry for her. Online, the running theme was that she ripped off Lady Gaga, in both sound and appearance. People know -or like to think they know -a fake when they spot it, and yet more often than not, the same fickle public openly applauds pre-conceived, packaged musical figures who've been primed to be the sassy "rebel" while simultaneously keeping a well-groomed public persona that has nothing to do with music and everything to do with celebrity. What's original? What's a rip-off? Is being obvious a hugely bad thing -especially when put beside artists that look (and, oh yeah, sound) like they've dropped out of a machine? I'd argue the online culture has blurred our ideas of what constitutes originality, in both good and bad ways. To borrow Warhol's phrase, people want their fifteen minutes -but with fifteen different costume changes and a team of publicists, stylists, and hangers-on, ever singing the same damn over-manufactured, cutesy-wootsy, auto-tuned song. Some of us notice.

Incidentally, I remember Madonna's break-out in the 80s, and her getting the tired old "trashy" / "slut" / "ripoff" insults hurled her way, too. Ergo, there's something about all the hatred towards Ke$ha that makes her way more interesting to me. Fabulously shabby, awkwardly un-hip, and defiantly dirty, the young singer has less of the Gaga glam that so lends Ms. Germanotta to MAC campaigns and Philip Treacy hats, and more of the desperately young, ambitiously sexy vibe of Madonna's live performance of "Like A Virgin" from the 1984 MTV Awards. She's out of tune entirely, gets tangled in the wads of white netting and emanates such a vibe of delicious trashiness, you'll want to take a shower at the end of it -but you can't take your eyes off of her, either.

Then again, maybe I'm being an old fart. I do think it's useful to go back and draw threads from past to present, however obvious, or un-obvious, that may be. Finding an original voice takes time, patience, and most of all, living (especially living away from the nefariously homogenizing forces of the record industry). It makes separating, mixing, kneading, and baking the authentic from the inauthentic that much more rewarding. Imagine a meal in a box; now imagine a meal in the oven. Originality is a tiresome old notion to throw around in the 21st century, but it behooves us to think about it, and how we approach our music, and what we expect from its performers, more carefully. Everything really is everything, as Lauryn Hill sang.

Herewith, a probable inspiration for The Box and Gorillaz -and probably everyone else, too:

Apr 15, 2010

Crystal Prunes

Is it me? One sounds like the other, to my ears:

Here's a new track from duo Crystal Castles, premiered by the BBC (thanks to AUX for the heads-up):



And here's a track from The Virgin Prunes that's well over two decades old:



Fill in the holes between now & then; Einsturzende Neubaten, Nine Inch Nails, KMFDM, Massive Attack, and Neu! all come to my mind, but I'm sure there are way more. (Do feel free to leave suggestions in the comments section.) The influence and importance of these bands, seminal in the industrial-meets-electronica-meets-new-forms-of-rock-and-roll arena can't be overstated, and yet so often, the names and faces and songs are forgotten.

Tying them all together with contemporary sounds makes for fascinating musical thread-spotting, but it's equally interesting to see just how deeply these threads twist and spiral through the visual art realm; all these bands have a strong aesethetic (people today might use that over-used, tired term "brand") where the worlds of painting, photography, video, and filmmaking are every bit as vital as the music.

Not everything is pretty, nice, and easily digestible here. I like that. There's something about viewing something surreal, uncomfortable, and confusing that is hugely refreshing -it's like aerobics for a brain more used to the pablum of dependable narrative arcs and tidy conclusions. I like the raucous visual attacks of Neubaten, NIN, and the Prunes, KMFDM's Soviet-meets-Pop paintings, and Massive Attack's embrace of experimental filmmaking partnered with their deeply atmospheric, unsettling sounds. So it makes sense that I was struck by the accompanying photo of Crystal Castles on the AUX site, which reminded me of Godard, Helmut Newton, and Wolford all at once. Nicely done.

Appropriation, influence, mainstream, underground -all these labels (and their concomitant definitions) are melting and forming a kind of morphed culturo-sonic Frankenstein, simultaneously scaring, shocking, delighting, and inspiring.

2010 Music: incredible.

Now, if only the major labels would get on the inspiration train.

Apr 11, 2010

Mixing Past and Present

As regular Play Anon readers know, I really love theatre, though I must confess, much of it doesn't touch me, way, way down in that murky sub-world of real, lived experiences and ghost-like memory very often. Where The Blood Mixes is different. The work, penned by Kevin Loring and on now at Toronto's Factory Theatre through April 18th, is the story of a native Indian community and the memories that haunt its inhabitants. Set during the salmon run at the meeting point of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers, the work offers a riveting look at one community's attempts to come to grips with its tragic past. Alternately funny, sad, irreverent and thought-provoking, it's one work you won't easily forget, particularly if you have a lot of ghosts wafting around the dusty parlour of a forlorn past.

Floyd (Billy Merasty) and Mooch (Ben Cardinal) are longtime friends who are also native survivors of the horrific residential school system. Director Glynis Leyshon cleverly uses the long Factory stage to transfer between time, memories places, and character experiences. Robert Lewis' clever stage design is wonderful in conveying easy locale shifts between the outdoors and indoors, and the outer and inner lives of the characters. Live guitarist Jason Burnstick sits to one side, offering musical counterpoint to to the action; he's a deeply gifted player and intuitive artist, though his additions occasionally muddle or make maudlin scenes that are better left in silence. Still, Burnstick's music is a compelling complement to Loring's beautiful writing; each works in harmony to render the tender hurts of past and present with careful precision and delicate feeling.

I'm not native, but I definitely, deeply related to twin themes of abandonment and reunion in Where The Blood Mixes. Loring uses contemporary native history in tandem with family drama to devastating, moving effect. I caught myself sighing wistfully during the scene in which Floyd's wide-eyed, city-dwelling daughter Christine (Kim Harvey) confronts her father after years of separation. It was all so familiar: I made a journey myself years ago to see a father I was estranged from, with a similarly curious attitude. Floyd's embarrassment, shame, guilt, and halting awkwardness were eerily, painfully familiar to me, as was Christine's eagerness, vulnerability, courage, hurt, and longing. Actors Merasty and Harvey beautifully capture the ties that bind, the wounds that separate, and the blood that inevitably mixes between generations, cultures, histories, and experiences. This is theatre at its most powerful, honest, and cathartic.

Beyond the personal sphere however, Where The Blood Mixes is an important piece of theatre for many reasons: its questions around the quality and future of contemporary native life ring as true as ever, and its exploration of Canadian native history as it relates to the present is grippingly, tragically real. Loring's writing, together with Leyshon's masterful direction and a uniformly strong cast, makes this work one of the must-sees of the 2010 Toronto theatre season. Just make sure you bring lots of tissues.

Where the Blood Mixes runs to April 18th as part of Performance Spring 2010 at Toronto's Factory Theatre.

Photos courtesy of Belfry Theatre.

Move Me

Listening to the first release from The Chemical Brothers, two thoughts strike me: first, this is very ambient-meets-techno, second, what took them so long?



I always loved dancing, and dance music. I didn't recognize the labels -house, electronica, etc (not that they existed much) -so much as enjoy the output. I danced with equal vigor to the latest pop hits of the day (something about the hummable jumpiness of MJ & the bass-heavy, thumpalicious grooves of "Nasty" sister Janet still moves - literally) as the wordless, hazy instrumental stuff you heard everywhere but could never quite name; it had a groove, it had a heart, it had a beat, and it breathed, in a wordless, low whisper, "move..."

So I did -to everything from 70s era instrumental funk and disco to 80s glam pop to the awe-inspiring, genre-defying sounds of the 90s, when technology took a decided leap forwards and married metal, rock, beats and block-rockin' rhythms to create a holy land where definitions vanished and were replaced by a nirvana outlined in the fuzzy shapes of outstretched limbs and undulating hips.



Dance has always felt like a kind of holy sacrament for me. After moving home from Dublin and London, I bemoaned a North American club culture that seemed to cater exclusively to the under-21, micro-skirted, posing-with-cocktails set; I was more accustomed to the cargo-panted/t-shirt, big-boots-and-all-ages crowds actually dancing at clubs in Ireland and England. The phrase "dance music" has very different connotations between continents; even now, with the success of bands like Air, Daft Punk, and MGMT, it's still, I think, somewhat ghettoized as being the exclusive enclave of the young. Nonsense.
Found at: FilesTube - Megaupload search

As Robbie Robertson breathily intones in the gorgeously dense Howie B. track, "Take Your Partner By The Hand":
this is a place she goes to fulfill a very basic need
... to communicate without talking...
she wants to make a connection
...this is about smoke and sweat and beats
this is about no questions
I relate even now, my club days like foggy, happy, multi-color memories smiling at me from afar.

So with The Chemical Brothers' new release, I'm taken back to that place. I love hearing the notable embrace of past (with samples of work from The Who, The Beatles, and Pink Floyd certainly audible) and fearless celebration of present. The Chemicals were one of the first big acts to hit the mainstream back in the 90s, and they paved the way for others -The Prodigy, Orbital, Underworld -to come forwards in North America, and dip into a bigger ocean in Europe. I'll never forget walking through a dull, flourescent-lit department store in Dublin (a more depressing, middle-of-the-road retail spot you couldn't find) and hearing "Firestarter" piped through the store's enormous, bland expanse. Young mums walked by pushing strollers and grannnies glanced at sale-tagged sweaters as the screaming insistence, with echoing beats and shouts, bounced off the scratched, matte lino: "I'm the firestarter..."

These days, the songs being piped through that dreary store might be made by someone on a laptop, living in an equally dreary suburb; it doesn't matter about the source now, so much as the spread. Everything yawns open, embraces, pushes, pulsates, sways and shimmies; the Chemicals recognize this bold, scary, exhilerating sense of the unlimited essence of sound, music and experience -that basic need to communicate - and with a wink to the past, they're kissing the future, and moving feet, hearts, minds, past categories and into the horizon where sea, sky, and dancefloor bleed.

Apr 8, 2010

Radio Radio

After an absence of nearly a year, I'm returning to the radio waves tomorrow morning.

It's a weird mix of nerves and excitement I'm dealing with right now: fear over the live aspect, of under-prepping (I'm currently, madly, mowing down every piece of info I can find), of being late, of guests getting lost, of me getting lost, of scary electrocuting microphones, of power outages, and tripping on wires and downed signal towers. Some of those fears are, I suppose, more well-founded than others.

A bigger issue is the confidence it takes to get in front of a mic and talk to complete strangers with some degree of authority. When I left a career in advertising many moons ago to go to broadcasting school, I was scared, sure, but I was also armed with an astonishing confidence and self-belief that stupifies me, looking back. Life experience is supposed to make you more resilient, more comfortable in your skin, more ballsy and more brave -not less so. Right?

Another part of me, that small voice that still shouts my love of broadcasting in tinny, transistor-esque tones, is happy, excited, joyful and ... content. It feels like a good kind of return. A return to a version of me I miss terribly -the one that wags a joyful tail at strangers and bounds up to a microphone fully confident of the words about to be delivered, half-improv, half-melody, with high and low tones singing a full stream of bleary-eyed morning magic.

Won't you tune in?

Take 5, CIUT 89.5FM Toronto - I'll be on after 9.30am ET, interviewing choreographer Wen Wei Wang about his new work, Cock-pit. And yes, there will be more -next week.

Oh, and just for fun, here's a picture of me with filmmakers Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen, the guys behind the awesome documentaries Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, Global Metal, and Iron Maiden: Flight 666. You can't see it, but yes, my tail is wagging.

Apr 6, 2010

Dreamy Dub



It's the end of a long, frantic day. Turn down the lights. Pour a cup of hot tea, red wine, mulled cider. Exhale.

Images: wavy lines, coloured glass, paper stars, blue and green crayons. The smell of cardamom bread. The feel of cold ceramic against wet, bare feet. The bright dance of red oil paint across a linen canvas. The taste of maple syrup and cinnamon.

I experience all of these -and more -when I listen to "The Birth of Bellavista Nights", the latest creation from Daniel Lanois. Filmmaker Adam Vollick's intuitive, Zen-like shooting masterfully captures the dreamy, thoughtful nature of this composition. I've always had a magical, sensual connection with art that moves me most, and this is a perfect example. If you want more, check out their live show from the Bowery Ballroom, full of the same kind of magical artistry and intuitive creativity that makes listening to this such a powerful experience.

Lanois was, and remains, a true visionary, and one of my very-favorite artists. Ahhh. That Black Dub album can't come soon enough.

Apr 4, 2010

Linkalicious

I Eat Your Country (With Relish): In honor of the Sydney International Food Festival last fall, participating countries contributed flags made from the respective countries' best-known foods. It's simple but it's nifty. Depending on which flag you like, I guarantee you'll get hungry just looking. I especially like the French one myself. No prizes for guessing what constitutes its tricolour. Nationalism has never been so delicious.

Sweet... Song: Jonas Kaufmann is an opera singer. A really good one. Writer Olivia Giovetti describes his voice as "dark chocolate." Mmmm. Also, he's gorgeous. Mmmm. He has two new CDs out this week, and he's set to perform as Don Jose in Carmen this spring at The Met. Aside from being keen to get down to New York, I want to see this production (easily the 30-something-ish production of Carmen I will have sat through), to stare at his pleasing Teutonic mug, sigh over Bizet's beautiful score, and think of... chocolate.

Easel Ladies: Together with Virginia's springtime celebration of women in the arts (called Minds Wide Open) comes Women of the Chrysler: A 400-Year Celebration of the Arts, which the Chrysler Museum has curated from their permanent collection. Featuring artists as wide afield as Harriet Cany Peale, Mary Cassatt, K├Ąthe Kollwitz, and Dorothea Lange, to Diane Arbus, Louise Nevelson, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and Cappy Thompson, this is one exhibit that is part history lesson, part celebration, all artistry.



I Love This Band: Preachers Son is a Dublin-based trio with a grit-glam sound channeling equal parts David Bowie (especially in his Berlin phase), Nick Cave, Johnny Cash, and the Legendary Shack-Shakers. They've created a unique, hard-rock sound that positively drips with drama and raw musicality. I can't stop playing them. Fingers crossed they'll be here for North by Northeast.

Viva La Eno: In this interview from March 2009, the artist/producer/all-around genius expounds on his processes of composition, production, and collaboration. He offers some fantastic insights into his past with Roxy Music as well as his present, working with bands like U2 and Coldplay. He also discusses the beauty of simplicity, citing an early viewing of a Mondrian painting as a formative moment in his creative development. Oh, and he has this to say about fans of bands:
I don't like fans very much to be honest. Of course I like people enjoying my music and I quite like being admired for having some good ideas, but the anorak-y type of fan is a rather frightening object of humanity, because you think, "Please get a life; don't have mine."
Collaborawesome: David Byrne and Fatboy Slim have come together to produce an album chalk-full of deep grooves and original sounds. Here Lies Love features the vocal talents of Tori Amos, Martha Wainwright, Alice Russell Sia, Natalie Merchant, Cyndi Lauper, and many more. Beautiful.

Fountain of Woot: Marcel Duchampe's 1917 exhibition called "Fountain" made a splash upon its exhibition, but a surfeit of duplicates threaten to tinkle all over the famed artist's legacy... or possibly enhance it. As More Intelligent Life notes, Duchamp was one "who had painted moustaches on postcards of the Mona Lisa" and he "understood the power of reproductions to render a work iconic and consolidate an artist’s international reputation." In this high-tech remix era where questions of originality are both critical and codswallop, and borrowing/stealing for recreation is plus normale, the issues Duchamp raised nearly a century ago have particular currency and potency.

Welcome to Detroit: Photographer Andrew Hinderaker went to Detroit -and took a lot of pictures. His work is a document of an area hit hard by the recession; empty, yawning streets, skeletal buildings, hard lights dominate many shots, but interesting, he also finds the beauty in the desolation, turning his subject (a microcosm of America itself) into a kind of victory over dark days and damning forces.

Tune in Friday: I'm going back to radio broadcasting starting April 9th, 9:30amET. Whether you're an A&E afficionado, or just plain want to hear what my voice sounds like, tune in. Please?

Apr 2, 2010

Funny Friday

Between nibbles of knotted fruit bread and sips of green tea this morning, I came across this hilarious video, courtesy of Oxfam UK. It's all about Kenyans raising money to support British theatre. Wearing ruffs in the fields are just a small part of the support; wait until you see the other costuming, banners, and building projects.



Taken from Scottish comedian Armando Iannucci’s comedy sketch show that aired on Britain's Channel 4 in 2001, the episode also featured a promiscuous Priest and TV executives setting up a reality series in a Buddhist monastery. There's no denying this video's clever, creative spirit; it's a kind of gentle mockery of the patronizing attitude that can go hand-in-hand with much aid effort to African nations. This excels at milking and mocking that patronage, showing how ridiculous it looks -and in fact, is -to all involved. You'll be literally laughing out loud, even as you consider the brainy subtext. Excellent.