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 Aodán 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. 

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Kitch Lit Series: Building a Restaurant

Restaurateur Danny Meyer’s book Setting the Table is touted as a business book. True, sprinkled throughout there are some fantastic nuggets on management and hospitality that make the book required reading for all people in a position of leadership or, really, anyone, anywhere who has a job, coworkers and a boss. But in reality, Meyer’s book could easily be shelved with kitch lit because it’s a tour through the burgeoning New York culinary scene in the 80s and 90s. 

Founder of such legendary restaurants as Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern and Shake Shack, Meyer is a decent writer and conveys his journey and that of his restaurants in a very readable way. Meyer shares some personal aspects of his journey from a food-loving Midwesterner to an aspiring chef to restaurateur but is mostly focused on letting the reader in on what he has learned over the course of his career. As a recovering manager of people I identify with and appreciate his management style and as a graduate of Disney’s Approach to Quality Service his approach to hospitality and service is on point. 

But for those of us reading Setting the Table for insights into the culinary world there is no shortage of interesting tidbits. The glimpse into the creation of now legendary restaurants with up and coming chefs such as Tom Colicchio and Kerry Heffernan is fascinating and the twists and turns, many of them unexpected and foundation shaking (losing an executive chef a week out from opening) provide for some colorful narratives. The opening of Blue Smoke is particularly interesting, who knew there were so many complexities to opening a barbecue joint in the middle of Manhattan?

Setting the Table is fun to read after Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires because her time with the New York Times coincided with some of Meyer’s timeline and the different points of view are an interesting dichotomy. Read them one after the other in any order.

Setting the Table is a breezy read. Highly recommended from both a business and culinary perspective.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Order Up

The musical Waitress, based on Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film of the same name, tells the story of Jenna, a waitress at Joe’s Pie Diner who uses baking as a distraction from her loveless marriage. When Jenna finds herself pregnant and then unexpectedly falling for her gynecologist a pie contest and its’ prize money offer a true opportunity to escape.

It is challenging to write about the show because it wasn’t bad it wasn’t excellent either. Most well know for having an all-female creative team with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles the show has a decent book and good music but one is left wanting more. 

Jenna does not always feel like a fully formed character. We learn in flashbacks about her difficult childhood and see that she still hurts from the loss of her mother but we don’t learn much else about her. When asked why she puts up with her abusive husband she simply responds that he was not always like that. Are we to believe that she accepts his actions because she was witness to that behavior between her father and mother? Perhaps, but something about the way the story unfolds feels doesn’t feel authentic.

Where the show excels is in the music. Bareilles refreshingly blends several musical styles, none of which feels like a traditional Broadway score. “Opening Up” has the most pop sensibility of the songs and nicely underscores at the outset of the show that Jenna herself is completely closed off while the reprise at the end of the show illustrates how much Jenna has changed. There are several other standouts. “When He Sees Me” sung by Jenna’s friend and fellow waitress Dawn, perfectly illustrates the personal anxiety of the human race and “Bad Idea” features some killer handclaps  - I am a sucker for handclaps.

The current tour cast is respectable. Leads Desi Oakley (Jenna) and Bryan Fenkart (Dr. Pomatter) have good chemistry. Charity Angel Dawson and Lenne Klingaman prove excellent sidekicks as Jenna's friends and coworkers; both have exceptional comedic timing and serve the necessary purpose of provider lighter moments in a show that touches on darker themes.

Waitress is a well done show. You may not walk out of the theater ready to put it on you top ten list but neither will it be a completely wasted evening. The music stands alone pretty well so give it a listen and if you have the means to see the show give it a try - at the very least seeing the music performed live will be worth it.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

One Wish

If I had just one wish it would be that more people get to know and appreciate the music of Josh Ritter. I know I’m supposed to wish for world peace but this seems more realistic.

Josh Ritter’s ninth album, Gathering, was released last week and I had the pleasure to attend the release concert and signing at The Electric Fetus. Ritter played many of the songs from the album and proved that his artistic prowess has not dimmed. 

Ritter is a masterful storyteller, his lyrics are quite often a literal mouthful because the storyline and character development he accomplishes in a two or three minute song requires that the words fly by. Good luck learning the lyrics for "To The Dogs or Whoever." Ritter has certainly evolved as a songwriter; portions of Gathering feel very introspective compared to earlier albums (The Beast In Its Tracks being an exception). And his last couple of albums have a relaxed, looser vibe in contrast to the tight, studio sound of his earlier albums. And praise be! Sermon on the Rocks and Gathering feel closer to his electric live performances than, say, Hello, Starling. A fantastic album sure, but one that lacks the electricity present on Rocks and Gathering

While his personal and professional evolution seems to be on display on Gathering, what has not evolved, at least from the perspective of an audience member, is Ritter’s enthusiasm for performing. I have been attending Ritter concerts for a decade and have repeated the same refrain for ten years: no artist more genuinely enjoys performing and sharing music with his fans. I honestly cannot recall having ever seen him perform without an ear-to-ear grin plastered on his face the entire set and last week was no exception. Ritter and Zack Hickman brought down the house. Their encore performance of "Getting Ready to Get Down" with the entire audience singing along was one of the most fun concert experiences I have ever had.

As if that wasn’t enough, Ritter then talked with, hugged and signed albums and posters for everyone who showed up. I personally waited 2 hours and would have gladly waited longer. The general consensus amongst those of us waiting was ‘what a nice guy.’ So maybe it’s not world peace. Then again, if the world learned to understand, accept and empathize with all different kinds of people the way Ritter's music does maybe we would inch a little closer.