Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Mike McGee, Robert Lashley and Cynthia French at the Green Frog - April 7th - The Green Frog


Mike McGee, Robert Lashley and Cynthia French at the Green Frog - April 7th - The Green Frog

It’s always a joy when Mike McGee returns to town. McGee is one of the finest poets in the country, the only poet to have ever won the National and World Poetry Slams, the originating influence of the popular Kitchen Sessions and the nicest person you will ever have the pleasure to meet. Based now in his hometown of San Jose, California, Mike lived in Bellingham not too long ago and there is always a lot of love waiting for him here.

All of this was present at the Green Frog when McGee took the stage. As a working poet, he has a deceptive ease of delivery. He calls what he does “stand-up poetry”. Often, he catches you off-guard as you realize his conversational comedic  “stand-up” set-up has suddenly morphed into a poem of luminous beauty. After the alliteratively aural acrobatics of “Love Life”, he begins a piece called “Mycrophone” with the question “Is this thing turned on?” The piece unfolds as a heartfelt confession of how comfortable he is in front of a microphone. Then he seems to fight the rhyme for a moment until it bursts forth in a paroxysm of pure poetic ebullience. It’s a virtuoso performance, stopping you in your tracks and fixing you in the high-beams of language. He follows this with “Geez, Us!”, a brilliant hallucinogenic-comedic piece about him hanging out with Jesus, dreaming of the “Four Midgets of the Apocalypse” who “burned down miniature golf courses”, shaving Jesus’ head and the receiving a “Holy Burrito”.

Even though McGee is up on the stage separated from the crowd, he is actively engaged with the audience, listening to laughter and silence, watching the faces for reaction. With each new piece, you feel it is being pulled out of his bag of poems just for you. He calls Jake Werrion up to the stage to perform beautifully sparse musical echoes on guitar during the spoken monologue of “Take No Shit! (A Zoo Story)” which probably made the sorrowful ghost of Spalding Grey smile. He follows this with the powerful and poignant “Dirty Dimes” which details with a harrowing fluorescence a graveyard shift at a Walgreen’s Drugstore, describing a Dantean procession of characters who pass through in quietly desperate caricatures until the tenth customer, a woman dying of cancer or AIDS who pays with a handful of dirty dimes. It’s a powerful piece that takes all the breath away, a sublime synecdoche of the American Dream un-waking. Poetry that rings your bones like a bell.

Robert Lashley rises to the stage, his body language incarnating the Jeremiad, the mournful tenor and meter of his poetry. He tells us this day is the anniversary of the death of a woman he loved. His reading is uncompromising, the language shivering and shaking, a fist raised up in barren rage against time. The death of the loved one weighing down the words, adding black hole gravity to the lost center: “Through light and glass, the world is her laurel. / Her holly seeds filtered all light and shadow. / Sorrow is an invisible city of fabrics / from her, and the world outside.” An unrelenting obsequey performed with an almost violent rawness and fragility.

Cynthia French follows with a wonderful poetic rant about how Jane Fonda ruins everything from drive-in theaters and how one looks in spandex to not being able to set it up for your dying father to win an Academy Award. Her delivery is electric and engaging, laced with a penetrating and self-deprecating humor: “I am a fluorescent sock caught in the rusty chicken-wire fence around the drive-in movie parking lot.” She ends with a humorous story about her move across the country to Bellingham without a physical map that took her far off course of a scheduled poetry reading, which she then drove many miles back to attend. And Cynthia French is that sort of supremely talented poet who would go drive hundreds of miles for poem.

McGee returns with a selection from his most recent chapbook, Romantic Electric Camouflage, which is a “loop of poems” describing the development, denouement and dissolution of a relationship. This new work, while accented with his incisive comedy, is rooted deeper down in poetry. “I Meant to Say” as the first meeting, first impression, is one comedic riff after another, followed by what he meant to say. Imagine a Red Skelton clown trying to tell a woman he meets how he’s not kidding. This is followed by “The Winners”, full of the first bloom of love, a sublime poetic solemnity silencing the laughter: “I am the words in the night / You are the ears I exist for”. McGee takes the audience out into deeper waters with “Knightswimming” - about mid-point in the cycle where he asks the unravelling question: “Did we think we were rescuing each other? / Two anchors at sea?” He tells us the cycle is meant to be looped, when you get to the final poem, it guides you back to the beginning, Finnegan’s Wake, beginning again at the end. This is fine poetry, arcing white hot from page to performance, an absolute pleasure and privilege to bear witness to.

Mike McGee:
Robert Lashley:
Cynthia French:

This review originally appeared in What's Up! Magazine

EP Review: The Living Arrows - Set You Free

The three pieces (transcending the idea of “songs”) on The Living Arrows EP, Set You Free, resonate like the separate lines of a haiku: each is a world unto themselves but realizing a greater poetic dimensionality as a whole. On the first track, “Set You Free”, Alexandra Doumas’ warm voice, beauty laced with an unidentifiable melancholy, sings you into a poetic, almost mythic, narrative. There are elements of Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark and also something entirely its own. Traesti Luther comes in on the refrain, the perfect tonal counterpoint to Alexandra. The next piece, “Every Day I Wake”, features the rich sincere vocals of Traesti singing “Every day I wake, I try to lose my mind” over Christian’s Casolary’s captivating drum track and Loren Shaumberg’s engaging knife-like guitar riffs. Their shared vocal dynamics, the lyrical metaphysics, unfold and unfold the song over a sweet jazz-folk musical landscape. The last track, “King, Spring and Stone”, could have easily been born out of the Child Ballads, the vocal interplay between Alexandra and Traesti evoking comparison to Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer - the elegant and sparse instrumentation serves as a perfect frame. While there is obvious lyrical talent and accomplished musicianship, what is most engaging is a sense of the unexpected joy that emerges out of The Living Arrows’ music. Whistles, odd vocalizations, giggles, conversation and laughter are all essential elements. This music is the soundtrack for the beauty of waking up on a Summer’s morning, of not wanting the night’s dreams to fade; the prelude to a perfect day.

This review originally appeared in What's Up! Magazine.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

CD Review: Corwin Bolt and the Wingnuts: Screwloose

CD Review: Corwin Bolt and the Wingnuts: Screwloose

Listening to Corwin Bolt and the Wingnuts latest release, Screwloose, is like tuning-in to a haunting AM radio station on a summer night where the grass is blue and you are happy lost on the backroads of a 1930s Appalachian Dream. Bob Wills, Hank Williams and Stephen Foster are conjured forth. Bolt’s voice aches and moans with his resonating steel guitar like a strange attractor, owl-wing flutter towards a Blood Moon, at once comfortable and unsettling in its authenticity and rawness. Josh Britton’s slapping bass and Tim Long’s percussive tapping raising up the ghosts of Johhny Cash’s Tennessee Two: somewhere Marshall Grant is smiling. Dancing over it all, like musical lightning melting is Jeremy Sher’s sweet sweet fiddle playing. Every track on the album is fine, a cauldron of inventive original themes such as Made of Metal and Mile After Mile mixed with traditionals that reach out from the depths of the the collective American unconscious. The Gillian Welch song, Winters Come and Gone is given a new and remarkable reading as the involuted elements of the song are turned outwards into the willful convictions of the traditional John Henry. Likewise, the Stephen Foster tune, Angeline the Baker is fused with the dark energy of the fiddle reel, Soldier’s Joy. Corwin Bolt and the Wingnuts perform a New-Time Music, dressing the bones of Old-Time Music in a fresh and mysterious skin; creating a thing of beauty, harmony and sorrowful joy.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

EP Review: Spider Ferns: Safety

The Spider Ferns new EP Safety unfolds seductively in your mind, laying down layer after layer of resonate musical reference, from trance to surf, jazz to dreampop - music simultaneously bright and shining new and yet as ancient as a fireside dream lullaby. The marriage of music between Kelly and Alton Fleek as The Spider Ferns has created a series of epiphanic sonic landscapes filled with poetic fragments and evocative musical atmospheres. The first track, Stronger Still, sets out with Alton’s fused-out tribal rhythms, icy guitar riffs, and Kelly’s voice like that of deep memory, reverberated and reminding: “When you turn the key.” The next track, Safety, has an elegant clock-like complexity, jazz-inflected guitar over a series of vocal questions that answer themselves in the beauty of Kelly’s asking. The hypnotic and seductive, Worlds Without Fail, with it’s Bauhaus meets Angelo Badalamenti echoes, an opium dream of a surf guitar, is one of the strongest tracks on the EP - entrancing as a ghost. The final track, In Violet Bloom (featuring Audiosapian), has intricate rhythms alchemized with sparse musical phrases and luminous vocals. The five songs on this EP are all beauties, as solid and multi-faceted as diamonds. The Spider Ferns music is music you fall into like a dream, where time and your presence dissolve into a transcendent beauty.

This review original appeared in What's Up! Magazine

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Joseph: Music Rooted in Kith and Kin

Deep in the heart of the band Joseph's music is an eerie and beautiful spirituality, reminiscent of the haunting backwoods harmonies of the Carter Family and resonate with the echoes of ancient English and Irish folk song. Joseph is a band of three sisters from eastern Oregon celebrating kinship through music and song. The name Joseph is derived from three sources: their Grandpa Jo honoring family, the small town in Oregon representing home and the Biblical patriarch, whose ability to interpret dreams guided his life. There is bewitching mountain mystery in the music the three sisters, Natalie, Allison and Meegan Closner. Joseph sings the listener back into the essential elements of music, the lyrics as spells, the melodies as enchantment, the rhythms as the primal beatings of the heart that unites kith and kin in the shared experience of what it is to be human.

I asked Natalie about the world she and her sisters grew up in. She tells me, "we grew up in this Christian culture where is this very strange thing happens where you are not supposed to ask any questions or wonder or be curious. And that is so lifeless. Recently, after playing so many shows, we have been trying to make it as an occasion for people to pause and reflect upon what it is to be spiritual, to engage that part of themselves through the music."

On their new album, Native Dreamer Kin, the title representing the fundamental axes that define the band, Joseph has gathered in a solid collection of songs that showcase their poetic and musical sensibilities. What is most striking about the music is the harmonizing between the sisters. There is a natural tendency to associate them with other sisterly musical pairings such as the Dixie Chicks or Heart - and they do share some of the best qualities with them - but they are much closer the otherworldly Sirens trio (Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch) from O Brother Where Art Thou? In standout songs such as "Cloudline",  "Come In Close" and "Eyes to the Sky" the three sisters perform a harmonic alchemical transmutation of word and music into shimmering epiphanies of transcendent meaning.

There is an atmospheric and evocative video online of the first song of the album, "Cloudline", which places the sisters in the deeps of the Edenic Northwest woods. Chiming piano and tribal drum, incense and fog drifting through the evergreen and fern, the sisters as archetypal angelic figures stepped out of the major arcana of a Pacific Northwest tarot, chanting soul choir repetition of: "Take me to your water and lay me on your shore, I want to come in deeper but the water is so cold". As in the presence of all great music, there is a simultaneous sense of wonder and hair-standing-on-end spookiness.

Natalie tells me that "something happened in the room as we were making Cloudline that was gripping and powerful.  Through the process of recording and listening, we realized that Cloudline was the story of us taking a risk in the music. That is is our journey. And we want to reach up into the clouds to achieve the success this risk is going to take me to."

One of the more refreshing aspects about the construction of many of the songs is the lack of obvious refrain. Instead, the poetic narrative flows without break, finding resolution in single repeated, increasingly gnomic phrases. The plaintive death meditation "Come in Close" circles around the line, "What do we have but this?". The Cohen-esque gospel affirmation of "Lifted Away" returns again and again to simple statement: "It's here". "Not Mine" seductively repeats the question: "Who will stay?" answering with "You're not mine" over and over, turning the word's semantic meaning into a pure musical sound. And the sublime prayer-like musical mantra of "Eyes To The Sky" explores the repeated dynamic between the light of "I will lift up my eyes to the sky, to the sky" and the dark of "Burn up the despair that's been sinking me". At the heart of every song is the tightly woven fabric of the sister's incantatory harmonies whose ever shifting patterns shade richer meanings with each new listening.

The three sisters in Joseph perform music that is achingly beautiful and yet wonderfully strange, rooted in kith and kin, a poetic dream language and an abiding sense of home and place. Their music has that unusual quality of sounding new and also as if it has been sung for a thousand years, hearkening back to a rich tradition of home spun spirituality. The hope is that they always remain true to the strangeness and idiosyncratic beauty of the family: the private jokes, inside stories, the rich red blood stronger than any water, the sweet birthing songs and the hymns sung over the graves and dying beds. But there is no real doubt here: the music of Joseph is a beautiful musical celebration of these luminous elements of lives centered in the goodness of the family, harmony of place and beauty of dreams.

The band Joseph will perform on Saturday, January 10 at the Green Frog.

This article originally appeared in What's Up.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Ben Von Wildenhaus: Music to make the cartoon moon cry tears

Ben von Wildenhaus, formerly of Federation X and Quaalude County Country Band, looks like used car salesman from 1973 in a rumpled suit, a beat down figure from a David Mamet play. From this appearance comes entrancing atmospheric music that is a cross between Ennio Morricone and Brian Eno mixed with a little Angelo Badalamenti. On his new vinyl release, II, Wildenhaus takes the listener into a reverberated landscape where broken fragments of melody creak and moan like junkyard wind chimes (Bad Lament I, II); where a surf style guitar mixes with Esquivel like sonic elements to reverberate like the theme song to a space-age western where astronauts on horseback lasso aliens; where guitar strings map the desolate territory around a thrumming industrial heartbeat (Al Azif, An Nur); where a sad / angry woman sings Spanish to the sound of mascara running down her face (Tu); and where an organ grinder's monkey plays percussion in a boardwalk fortune teller's booth as a blind man plays violin and an emaciated elephant blows a busted saxophone while the bearded lady smiles at you and all you can see are her three missing teeth (Easy Opium). Wildenhaus's music taps into deep neural frequencies that drop the listener into an autistic fugue state where discrete notes stand on the distant horizon like a herd of wildebeests always threatening to stampede but never doing it . It is music to make the cartoon moon cry tears and every alley cat fall into respectful silence. Beautifully strange. Strangely beautiful.

Ben von Wildenhaus has a record release show on Jan 30th at the Shakedown with Prom Queen.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Blake Angelos at the Bellwether

Blake Angelos at the Bellwether

It is a typical Tuesday night at the Bellwether: Blake Angelos is playing an achingly beautiful interpretation of the jazz standard, "I'm Through With Love". Accompanying him is bassist, Rene Worst, and his usual partner in jazz, drummer Julian MacDonough. It is one of those happy instances of music here in Bellingham where you feel privileged and fortunate to be in the audience. Here in the richly appointed lounge, listening to the Blake Angelos play through the standards, you know you have found a hidden gem in the weekly music scene.

Blake has been in Bellingham for over 14 years, playing solo or as The Blake Angelos Trio. Recently, he has been performing at the Whatcom Jazz Music Arts Center. He has also performed and recorded with local singer Havilah Rand among others. He tells me, ""Jud Sherwood has me on some of his concerts as well with his Jazz Project which continues to be a great program for jazz musicians in Bellingham.  I have one coming up with him in the fall with a great vocalist from Seattle named Gail Pettis with my friend and great bassist Jeff Johnson. Just think - we have two vibrant nonprofits for creative music in Bellingham.  How cool is that?  I also regularly play with my great friend, vocalist Rane Nogales."

He tells me that one of the challenges of playing jazz regularly is to find a way to make it accessible to everyone. "It's a great gift to have the opportunity to play solo piano as much as I do and I don't take that for granted. I am always adding new songs to my repertoire from jazz standards to classic pop like the Beatles, and more contemporary stuff Radiohead, Soundgarden, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel." Regardless of the song, there is always a lovely subtlety, a quiet complexity, to Blake's playing: jazz runs curling back into blues voicings that just break the heart.

I ask him about his early experiences with jazz. "My Dad played lots of music like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, the Mills Brothers, so I grew up listening to the music but growing up in Billings, Montana wasn't super conducive to studying jazz. I did take piano lessons, played and sang in rock bands and was in choir in high school but I really started playing jazz when I went to college in Wyoming and studied with the jazz band director there, a great educator named Neil Hansen."

It was at Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming that Blake says, "that is where I first really dove into jazz." In between semesters of studying music theory and composition, he played in the summers with a trio at Glacier National Park. He adds, "the cool thing about Northwest College is its right next to Yellowstone Park and attracts lots of people who retire and move out there. One of the guys who retired was a swinging drummer named Ronnie Bedford who moved out to Wyoming from NYC.  He was really instrumental in hipping me to lots of music and the stylistic elements of Jazz."

He moved to Seattle in the early 90s. "I was working in a music store there and played a lot of gigs with a bunch of Seattle jazz artists for a few years." In 1994, Blake started working for Yamaha. He says, "I found the Yamaha work really engaging and fun and decided to leave college, moved back to Seattle, worked at Microsoft for about a year and a half, then became full time with Yamaha where I have been ever since.  All this time I have played and studied jazz primarily but really everything else as well. My job at Yamaha keeps me dialed in to all sorts of different musical genres."

Attracted by the music scene, Blake moved to Bellingham in 2000. "There are some great venues around - like Wild Buffalo, the Red Light, the Green Frog to name a few - and Jim Haupt, the manager at the Bellwether hotel, has been amazingly supportive to live jazz in Bellingham.  The fan base and support of this community is amazing.  It is awesome to live in this town for that reason. I travel constantly all over the U.S. and it is exceptional in that regard compared to other places around the country."

Every Friday and Saturday night, you can hear Blake Angelos play solo jazz piano at the Bellwether from 6 to 9 pm. And every Tuesday as a trio featuring Julian MacDonough from 5 to 8 pm.

This article originally appeared in What's Up!