Monday, December 28, 2009

The Moth, in NYC

I'm a podcast nut. Seriously. I think I subscribe to about 30 different podcasts and listen to them religiously. My favorites come and go, but I've been pretty steady in listening to ones that clock in around 20 minutes to an hour. On regular rotation: To the Best of our Knowledge, This American Life, Tapestry, Stuff you Should Know, Mom Stuff, Tech Stuff, Radio Lab, Hearing Voices, Sheila Rogers' show on books, White Coat Black Art, and so on and so forth.

One that I never miss is The Moth. Real Stories Told Live, Without Notes. Every week, it features a story, usually funny, sometimes kind of chilling, that usually has me laughing out loud as I walk along the streets of Montreal. As the shows are held weekly in NY, LA, Chicago, and Detroit, it was only a matter of time until I saw one. This was the day I saw one. Today. New York, The Bitter End, Bleeker Street. The theme for the night: Denial.

Well, I think I was in denial, because I showed up at 7 p.m. for a 7:30 show, fully expecting I would be allowed in. My mistake. The line circled the corner and then some. I was at the end of it, and then somewhere in the middle, when the line began to move. Sadly, I did not make it in when the show started, but stood outside in the bitter cold until 9. Only after intermission were we were finally allowed in by an unfriendly fat bouncer. The five performers were funny... not nearly as good as the ones on the radio show... but certainly a bit whack and entertaining. I think the experience of waiting outside chilled my humerus (pun intended). Or maybe the advantage of the radio show is that they can pick and choose among the performers and find the ones worth airing.

The lesson learned was this -- things that involve waiting in line are never worth the wait. The time spent talking to my friend while waiting: priceless.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sherlock Holmes. More Bond than Baker Street

I am a Sherlock Holmes fanatic. Well, perhaps I overstate my enthusiasm. I don't belong to any Sherlock Holmes fan clubs or can even claim to have read every single book written. I have, however, read Sir A. C. Doyle's corpus and can claim to have read several stories more than once. Like any intelligent, somewhat cool headed and unconventional individual, I identify with Mr. Holmes' worldview. Unlike Holmes, though, I know a lot more about literature and politics and a lot less about boxing.

It is with this caveat that I saw Guy Ritchie's adventure of my beloved Sherlock Holmes. He chose no better actor for the part than Robert Downey Jr. Holmes is brillian and has a tendency towards cocaine and morphine. Downey Jr... indeed, not so different. Apart from the nose, I would say that the two look alike. After seeing Downey Jr. without his shirt, well, I would also say that one is a lot more muscular than is appropriate for a lanky, coke addled detective who forgets to eat or refuses to eat when faced with consuming cases. Watson, unlike the more fumbling and doddery doctor of the Basil Rathburne persuasion, was also perfectly cast. Watson is sharp, a former military man of note, and only seems somewhat inept next to the almost autistic genius of Holmes. Shouldn't we all?

Holmes proves himself an able man, both through his cunning, his foresight, his gift for disguise, his ability to derive entire theories off the smallest of observations, his knowledge of chemistry, and even through his fists. Is Holmes really the boxing fighting machine who knows how to break a man's jaw for spitting in the back of his head? Therein the problem of this film lies. Rather than allowing this to be a masterpiece by accepting the limitations of Holmes and his world himself, Ritchie makes the mistake of turning to cartoonish action sequences that make Holmes seem more superhero than human super-brain.

In some ways, these long drawn out action sequences are exciting, deeply pleasurable, and well executed in their use of 19th century props that demonstrate a fascination with the newest of technologies -- steam engines, handguns, and a fascination with chemistry. On the other hand, they have a generic action sequence element to them. It might as well be a 19th century James Bond or Superman fighting in the scenes, rather than Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Just because the clothes and the prop set the date, there is something so ho-hum about chemical weapons and a final fight to the finish on a bridge.

My other major complaint is Irene Adler. Indeed. Any Holmes fan knows that the good detective has but one woman he recognizes as superior to all others: The Woman. She appears once as an almost Katherine Hepburn-esque sprite who bests Holmes using similar techniques. Adler is smart. Adler is herself a bohemian. Adler is above all classy. Her appearance as a double agent with a knack for trouble is... well... almost an insult to the real character. Furthermore, the implied relationship of feelings between Holmes and Adler is immature and inappropriate. No wonder Madonna dumped Mr. Ritchie.

Along with Irene Adler's shameless ability to manipulate Holmes is the absence of Holmes' true dark side. The 7% solution. Ritchie's Holmes is angelic compared with the one of Doyle's stories. For shame, again, pandering to the PG-13 rating.

That said, this review sounds harsher than perhaps intended. Was I engrossed in the story from beginning to end? Absolutely. Was I fascinated by the use of the 19th century world? Absolutely. Was Robert Downey Jr. the perfect choice? Absolutely. Did I find myself on the edge of my seat? Absolutely. The story is entertaining and Downey Jr. fantastic. The film has its stunning moments, but as a Holmes' purist, I don't like to see what I treasure most about the detective -- his lack of emotional influence, the lack of romance in the stories, the sheer use of mental power -- bandied about like a cat toy. No, had Ritchie held back a little, showed some restraint in the plot choices and their presentation... this film could have been iconic. Instead, it has the blandness of a Bond film, in which big action sequences are held together by a somewhat convoluted plot involving world domination and a double crossing woman. Move it ahead about 200 years and yes, you pretty much get the average action film of today.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

December Indyish at Il Motore

It'd been ages and ages and ages since I'd been to an Indyish event. They never fail to delight either, so I have no good excuse (albeit, a personal one) for not attending. Fortunately, I swallowed a certain amount of anxiety and went to the XMass Mess at Il Motore. As expected, a sampler of the local and somewhat lesser known arts scene performed with gusto, reminding me that Montreal is a pretty cool city at the end of the day.

Rather than review each act, as they were all good in their own ways, I'll just mention two bands that I hadn't seen before and was rather excited to make their audial acquaintance.

First up, Random Recipe. Where have these kids been hiding? Apparently, they were at the jazz fest, but I guess I was busy with other stuff that night. Anyway here's the recipe: Two female leads take turns with the lyrics, one rapping and beat boxing, the other belting out tunes Ani de Franco style. The two are backed up with a guitarist and a percussionist who occasionally come in with harmonies. Whoa. This was something special. I've managed to see some unusual fusion acts in Montreal, but this one was a deeply satisfying meld that threw down high energy, catchy songs. I found their performance the perfect blend of spontaneity and tightness. Yes, yes, y'all. This is the type of band that reawakens my passion for live performance.

Second up, the Receivers. I actually went to the Mess so I could see the Receivers. I'd heard good things and wanted to litmus test for myself. The fact that everything else that night was just good was just cherries in my martini, basically. The Receivers are a mood psychedellic act, with a noir feel, along the lines of the Dears and other moribund bands. Which is not to say the music is dreary and dull. Au contraire. This is dark and fierce, rather romantic in the 18th century, Wuthering Heights kind of way. Violent, feminine, almost gothic. Live, the Receivers were also a treasure to see, a very expressive band all around. They started with two Christmas songs, and then transitioned into their own material. With each song, singer Emilie Marzinotto hypnotized with her haunting voice and filled the room to stillness and a bit of rapture.

In sum, the monthly mess was satisfying from start to finish and a somewhat poignant kick to the ass that I should swallow my pride and anxiety and make it out to every single one of these events for the sake of this little blog and its much beloved readership.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Mosaics at the Belmont

I'm not really a hip hop person. I grew up about a quarter mile from Hempstead, the epicenter of some of the first artists of the genre (Public Enemy, in particular), and so kind of took it for granted. It was only after I left New York that I realized that hip hop is some kind of quasi-underground genre of music -- not the all-consuming entity it seemed to be. I've retained a few beefs though, such as the focus on the hyper-masculine, materialistic, anti-woman, anti-homosexual messages. Fortunately, not all hip hop is of that stripe and I can't paint every artist with the same brush. All the same, I dig hip hop because I like -- no -- LOVE -- I LOVE to dance. So if they talkin' 'bout bitches, ain't me theys talkin' 'bout.

Montreal has a vibrant hip hop scene and an internationally celebrated dj culture. Pair those things with the live music and you've got a true mosaic (pun intended) of St. Laurent's Friday night lifeblood. It was my good fortune to catch some of Montreal's turntabilists orchestrated live music by DJ Mana at Le Belmont. Again, this isn't my regular scene, but I did recognize a few names on the bill.

It isn't easy to describe the event, but basically DJ Mana (Annam Le) led his group of turntabilists as a kind of musical jam maestro. Along with scratching and other techniques, the dj-altered record was mixed with spoken word lyric, the musical talents of electronic beats, guitar, and keyboard. I was most surprised by the keyboard talent that the entire mash was able to provide. Little did I know that these djs are not just masters of mixing sound, but know a thing or two about how to play music as well.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Jon Davis and Bent by Elephants at Sala Rossa

Nothing like coming out of a long sickness to try and get back into things. Decided to take it easy and catch one band I've had my eye on, Bent by Elephants, as the openers for Jon Davis. These are two very talented groups of people who come into the Montreal scene out of McGill's music program.

Bent by Elephants reminds me very much of Joan Osborne, with a rich bluesy throaty songs. The band combines the standard fare of a regular rock band with the magic of a violinist, trumpet and a double bass. With such an orchestra, lead singer Chelsey Waltz has got to power her way to presence. But she does so with amazing virtuosity and still manages to remain charismatic. The music is delightful, complex, and indicative of high level training. I'm hoping Bent by Elephants will continue on its journey.

As for Jon davis, this was the first time I'd seen him. He came out with an orchestra, basically, cellists, viola players, violinists, bassist, plus keyboard, plus trumpeter, plus drums, plus guitarist. Whoa. WTF. This was no small production going on here. There's no denying the talent -- this is a band of, again, highly trained and highly talented individuals. The sound was big and lush, with so many elements coming together. Davis is at the helm, with his James Taylor-esque vocals, lyric driven, emotive. Singer-songwriter sort of material. Yet, for all the pieces, my favorite was the one he claimed was not practiced. I liked it because it sounded less precise, less timed, more... oh... reliant on the musicians' ability to work as a band. I felt as though the jazz section and the orchestra section needed to be better integrated and Davis seemed more comfortable with his jazz players than the orchestra. Not to say that any was lacking -- but I did sense a duality between the jazz side and the orchestra side, and perhaps on this short tour, the two will come closer and closer together as a single unit under Jon.