Sunday, April 15, 2018

Don't Leave This Band Behind

Just a damn good band. That’s how I would succinctly describe The Steel Wheels, a folk bluegrass band from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I had a chance to catch a recent gig at Knuckleheads in Kansas City – and no, I do not live anywhere near Kansas City, that’s how good they are – and was reminded of how satisfying it is to see a good band perform live.  But five words does not a blog post make so allow me to expand a bit.

The Steel Wheels are Trent Wagler, Eric Brubaker, Brian Dickel and Jay Lapp, all tremendously talented instrumentalists and vocalists. Brubaker effortlessly showcases the the full potential of the fiddle, an instrument made for high-speed riffs. Dickel and Lapp are equally strong on upright bass and mandolin, respectively. Quick pause for the mandolin: a beautiful instrument that deserves more spotlight than it gets. Wagler writes a lot of their music and also serves as a vocalist and picks on banjo and guitar. His songwriting is impeccable and features beautifully constructed lyrics that tell a story while simultaneously leaving room for the music - the instruments and their vocal harmonies - to shine.

As with most authentic musicians The Steel Wheels are better live. It’s a challenge to capture the energy of performing for a live audience in a quiet recording studio. The immediacy is lost so the loose, go-with-the-flow quality cannot be duplicated. Other than Josh Ritter’s ear-to-ear grin, the Wheels are at the top of the list of performers who personify pure appreciation and joy on stage. And just like Ritter, I have more fun watching the show because of how much fun they are having up there. Every song they performed during their set at Knuckleheads was a standout – they don’t really have a weak song in their repertoire – but my favorites were "Go Up to that Mountain," a fun, fast paced tome and "End of the World Again," a beautiful, calm melody.

The Steel Wheels have a few albums out and tour pretty regularly so the opportunity is at hand for you to listen to their music and see them live. The Steel Wheels are in a group with some of my beloved musicians such as Josh Ritter and Socks in the Frying Pan: if more people knew who they were their popularity would soar. Their talent is through the roof, their songs are beautifully crafted and their pure enjoyment in doing what they do is unmatched.

Friday, April 6, 2018

All the Feels

Damn you, Hulu, sucking up all my free time with your endless trove of television. Just when I was nearing the completion of watching the entire Top Chef series  again (Again? Yes, again.) I pop into the menu one evening and find that Everwood is now streaming. I clicked play on the pilot episode faster than Padma can say “Pack your knives and go.”

Everwood did not get the airtime it deserved but in its’ four seasons it accomplished more than most series do in eight. When it originally aired from 2002-2006 it was a perfect gender-flipped counterpart to another much beloved CW series, Gilmore Girls, but with more friction in the parent/child relationship.

Everwood is the story of Dr. Andy Brown (Treat Williams), a world-renowned neurosurgeon who, after the death of his wife, moves his teenage son (Gregory Smith) and young daughter (Vivien Cardone) to Everwood, Colorado, a gorgeous, and, sadly, fictional small town. To say that the relationship between historically distant father Andy and son Ephram is tumultuous is an understatement. Williams and Smith are great sparring partners and their moments of understanding and reconciliation are all the more gratifying because of the authenticity of their vitriol.

As Everwood follows the family on their journey to rebuild their lives it addresses challenging topics ranging from marijuana legalization to abortion. Upon second viewing some of the story lines feel a bit heavy handed with morality tales but I can forgive it that flaw. Everwood is smart, witty and beautifully written and acted. And, yes, that is Chris Pratt before he was Chris Pratt.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Kitch Lit Series: Romance Edition

Until a few weeks ago I had never read a romance novel. Once a genre thought to be too campy to be taken seriously, romance has seen a bit of a rebirth and readers are no longer meant to feel shame for reading popular fiction. The genre has never appealed to me but, as it turns out, chef and cooking-themed stories account for an entire sub-genre in the romance world, who knew? In the name of research, I dove into Too Hot to Touch by Louisa Edwards.

And while it was a bit laborious, I finished the book and, needless to say, my thoughts will be brief. The characters were a bit clunky. One of the main characters, Max, frequently talks like a preteen boy. That may be intentional but it did not serve to create a relatable character.  Most of the other leading characters seem to be merely sketches instead of finished paintings. And while Edwards’ writing is fine, cooking provides too many easy metaphors for romance. Gems such as, “with a fervent passion that felt like fiery hot peppers burning through his chest” and, “passion flared…like the blue flame on a range” are sprinkled on every page and it all felt too forced, too on the nose. 

All that aside, the author’s inclusion of the story about the Zen master and the young priest tending the Zen garden was appreciated. By far my favorite part of the book. 

I recognize it is not entirely fair to pass judgment on an entire genre based on one book but I may be doing just that. So while the chances of my reading another romance novel may be slim, I know for sure that I will read many more books about chefs. Check back for more Kitch Lit coming soon!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Frying Up A Good Time

If it’s a good time you’re after, I have bad news. You missed the Socks in the Frying Pan concert last night. And I know you are probably thinking, “I don’t care that I missed it because I’ve never heard of that band, plus that is the weirdest band name ever.” I will grant you the point on the name. Never has a band name been quite so intriguing and mysterious. And based on the name you would never guess that Socks represents the best in traditional Irish music. But I’m here to tell you that this immensely talented band deserves a listen and you will care the next time they play in town.

Having discovered Socks at the Walnut Valley Festival, I could not pass up the chance to see them right in my own back yard sans the seven hour drive. Their set at Hoyt Sherman Place on Friday night was nothing less than spectacular.  The band is made up of Aod├ín Coyne on guitar and brothers Shane and Fiachra Hayes on button accordion and fiddle, respectively. Shane is taking a break from touring right now so Socks is touring with another bloke on the accordion. However, with Fiachra’s thick accent and my untrained Irish ear it was impossible for me to catch his name. He is unnamed here but not unappreciated!

Socks’ concerts are a showcase for each band member’s immense instrumental and vocal talent. The speed with which Fiachra Hayes can play the fiddle is astounding and the slow build of some traditional jigs is a perfect showcase for that. "Slipjigs and Reels" was a rousing good time and one of the jigs they played in the second act left them genuinely out of breathe (Fiachra blames their adopted U.S. diet, namely, Dunkin’ Donuts). Coyne’s songwriting was beautifully showcased in his solo guitar piece written about the role of women in the 1916 uprising. All in all, perfection. Zero complaints. I could have done without the two guest appearances of the local Irish dance troupe but that is only because they danced in front of the band and obstructed my view. 

Their stage presence is winning. Fiachra took the lead as chief communicator and he is a great storyteller. His yarns often poke fun at his fellow band members but are also charmingly self-deprecating. The crowd on Friday was small-ish but mighty, foot stomping from the very first song. I hope that every single person who was in attendance tells at least 5 other people about Socks so that their next stop in Des Moines is a sold out show. My only regret? They did not play "Shady Grove" and I didn’t catch one of the little socks that they threw out into the audience! Come back to Des Moines anytime Socks! We’ll be ready!

Friday, February 23, 2018

'S Wonderful

The blurb I read about the first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel talked it up as the second coming of Gilmore Girls. Co-created by Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino, the team behind Gilmore Girls, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel certainly shows promise. The Gilmore Girls comparison is a little unfair. Aside from the sheer amount of dialogue, the tone, the era and the relationships are completely different. And other than a couple of inconsequential crossovers (did the Palladinos have a Russian winter themed wedding, do they wish they had? Not sure, but that specific reference pops up in both series) you would not necessarily know the shows share a creative team. My intense devotion to Gilmore Girls, and the expectations built up by the blurb, may have colored my first viewing of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I wanted to fall heads over heels in love with it, and I can't say that I did. That said, if a bit slow to start, there is potential in the premise and character development. Plus, I now want to move to New York City – in the 1950s. 

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel follows Miriam “Midge” Maisel after her husband, who dreams of trading in his office job for stand up comedy, leaves her for his secretary. Miriam is left to pick up the pieces and create a life with the leftovers. After an angry, drunken, unintentional night on stage at the Gaslight club, Miriam teams up with Susie, the hard scrabble Gaslight manager. Together the two decide to make a go at crafting Miriam into a true comedienne.

While I can appreciate that streaming TV is a great outlet for creative freedom, there is something I miss about a traditional 22-episode season. The first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a tight eight episodes. In order to be truly invested in the characters, there is a whole lot to learn about them and not a lot of time to do it. The first three episodes were mostly expositional, but with episode four it seemed that the show had found its’ voice. At that point the jokes seem less forces, the banter rolls off the tongue. That naturalism can be attributed to the depiction of the blossoming friendship between Miriam and Susie.

Brosnahan and Borstein
Even though Miriam and Susie come from completely different worlds they speak the same language, literally and metaphorically. Rachel Brosnahan (Miriam) and Alex Borstein (Susie) are fantastically natural in their shared scenes and, as a result, their banter is sharp and their relationship feels authentic. The same cannot be said of the other relationships depicted in the show. To start with, a classic TV arrangement: Miriam’s two kids are always conveniently with the sitter, her parents or sleeping. Anywhere but with her. If the premise of the show is that a young wife and mother gets the rug pulled out from under her but the kids don’t really seem to be a big part of her life, what, exactly, has she lost? Miriam’s relationship with her parents doesn’t ring true; there are glimpses of change heading to the end of the season so it will be interesting to see where that goes in the next season – especially if she continues to live with them.

One of the best things about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is the setting. Having never been to New York nor lived during the 1950’s, I’m in love with the Greenwich Village folk scene. The whole show has a Carousel of Progress feel to it. Colorful old appliances, Zagnuts and Boston Baked Beans at the newsstand and Howdy Doody on TV all combine to pick you up and transport you to into an alternate reality. And the music, always a highlight on Gilmore Girls, is carefully chosen to underscore the tone of the scene or the moods of the characters. Hits and lesser-known songs from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Blossom Dearie and Paul Revere and the Raiders blend seamlessly into the environment of the show. Streisand’s version of “Happy Days Are Here Again” playing over a montage of Miriam moving back in with her parents intercut with scenes from her and Joel’s milestones in their apartment comments on both time periods in Miriam’s life but in very different ways. The acts at the Gaslight are fun as well. I hope beyond hope that some of those acts are intentional homages to Pete Seeger and the Smothers Brothers. 

It is great to have the Palladino voice back on TV, or at least in our streaming services. The end of Gilmore Girls left a hole in a lot of hearts, mine included. And while The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel may not compare, that’s okay, because they really shouldn’t be compared. The charm of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has only started to reveal itself. Season 2 ought to be a hoot.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Laughing Together

There is nothing quite like heading out on the town knowing the evening will be filled with laughter. Laughing at home by yourself or with one or two other people is one thing.  Don’t get me wrong, I love to laugh and I’ll take it in all forms but there’s something about sitting in a theater full of people laughing together that is tremendously satisfying. Such was the evening last week when stand up comedian Kathleen Madigan, currently on her Boxed Wine and Bigfoot tour, stopped by Hoyt Sherman Place. 

If you have not heard of Madigan or watched her two specials available on Netflix get on that immediately, she will not disappoint. Madigan’s sets tend to blend personal stories and observational humor. She carried a grin most of the set that seemed to indicate that she doesn’t take herself too seriously and seems to actually enjoy comedy as a craft. Madigan expertly mines her family for some of her richest material. When she details some of the humorous eccentricities of her large Irish Catholic family you can sense the complicated, knotted ball of yarn that is equal parts love and irritation. Last week some of her funniest material was about her parents and their questionable understanding of reality. Apparently at one point they hatched a plan to drive to Mexico to seek out cheaper prescription medication.

Madigan’s material did not veer into overly political territory. She got in a few barbs against Trump but it was her diatribe on the advanced age of the leaders of both parties (and her brief impressions of Nancy Pelosi, Paw Paw Orrin Hatch and Mitch McConnell) that brought down the house. Aside from that it was a refreshing night off from the reality show that is the current state of affairs. 

Madigan radiates an easy-going sensibility and, despite her often self-deprecating humor, is clearly quick witted. When any stand up comedian pulls from his or her own life or uses family members as fodder for material it’s hard not to wonder how much the eccentricities are exaggerated for effect. But maybe that doesn’t matter. If the result is hilarious then perhaps that’s just another skill: spinning a good yarn. Madigan has been on the stand up circuit for many years and tours most of the year so there is no reason you can’t get out there to check out her set in a city near you. Or at the very least check out her Netflix specials from the couch of your choosing.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Don't Know the Future But a Light is Waiting to Carry You Home

Right now two fictional families are calling to me from that powerful machine we call Hulu. The first, the semi-autobiographical Goldberg family from The Goldbergs, is loud and brash. The other, the Tanner family from Full House, is as calm and kind as the Goldberg family is loud and outspoken.

I have loved The Goldbergs since the beginning. Set in the 1980s, the show is a fun nostalgia trip. The Goldbergs is unlike any other sitcom family. Mom Beverly, a smother mother if there ever was one, swears like a sailor; dad Murray is most known for changing out of his work clothes immediately upon walking into the house and parking it in the recliner in his tighty whiteys and the three kids, Erica, Barry and Adam alternate between being angsty teens, supportive siblings and bitter rivals. The show’s recent episodes have been perfection. "The Goldberg Girls" incorporates 80s classic The Golden Girls and the opening features the entire family singing along to the show’s theme song “Thank You for Being a Friend.” To quote Murray, "Good song, great ladies. Blanche!" But the recent episode "Dinner with the Goldbergs" is a true tour de force. The idiosyncrasies of every family member shine under the institutional lighting of the chain steakhouse where they gather to celebrate Erica’s birthday. Beverly is in fine form: requesting a different table multiple times and hoarding rolls in her foil-lined purse. Murray nearly passes out from hunger, Pops befriends the diners at nearby tables, Adam wants to order off the adult menu despite his mother’s objection (he learns she was right), Barry freezes when it’s time to order and Erica tries her best to hold it together. Obnoxious yet lovable, the perfect balance. The fact that every episode ends with actual footage of creator Adam Goldberg’s family is the icing on the cake.

At the other end of the spectrum we find ourselves in the Tanner household. I grew up watching Full House and watching it now is pure nostalgia. Full House centers on widowed father Danny, his brother-in-law and his best friend who all live together to raise Danny's daughters in a pseudo Three Men and a Baby arrangement. Full House has a sugary sweet reputation. Every episode is a very special episode, a lesson is always learned and the ending is always happy. When DJ and Stephanie rip a hole in the wall while arguing it is a given that they will try to and fail to cover it up and that the lesson will be about the importance of telling the truth. We knew that when the bathroom flooded, when DJ scratched the car, when Stephanie told on borderline anorexic DJ, the list goes on. Everything you need to know about growing up can be learned on Full House. That is, assuming you are coming of age in a white, well-to-do, relatively sheltered San Francisco family. 
So how to explain the draw of these shows and their fictional families? Despite their seemingly opposite familial qualities they share one very basic theme: emotional acceptance. In both shows the characters get mad, sad, happy, nervous and feel every other emotion towards each other the world. And on both shows, rather than being stifled, that emotion is accepted. In the Goldberg and Tanner households it’s easy to identify with one of the characters depending on your mood that day, that hour, that year.