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