Exit Lines: “Lobby Hero”

I had fun at Three Tall Women–too much fun, I suspect. Its original Off Broadway production, which won Edward Albee his third Pulitzer Prize in 1994 after a dry spell, was more quietly lacerating than what’s currently at the Golden, dreamier, stranger. I mean, all Albee plays are strange, occupying their own fascinating space between his imagination and ours. But this one, with three women, A, B, and C, who seem to have assigned roles (aging dowager mother, dutiful daughter, lawyer) in the first half, then come to represent three ages of the same woman in the second, has a pull all of its own. The story of Albee’s own hated adoptive mother, shot through with pain, regret, and fear, should mirror our own reckoning of youthful idealism lost to midlife drudgery and senior decline, but director Joe Mantello pushes Albee’s rueful humor for laughs. In this he succeeds, with three estimable accomplices in Glenda Jackson (her Broadway return), Laurie Metcalf (returning after her Tony win last year), and Alison Pill successfully lightening the load. The cost, however, is to the play–a description of an act of oral sex as commerce, a weirdly chilling vignette Off Broadway, is now a punchline. And it doesn’t need the cosmic frippery of the admittedly eye-catching set, said to be based on the bedroom seen at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, to be “universal.” In going for the funnybone, this revival misses the jugular.

Mostly crated over from the West End and the Menier Chocolate Factory is the Roundabout revival of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, a Tony winner in 1976. Surviving its passage without a scratch is its star, Tom Hollander, one part baggy pants clown and one part wonky philosopher, with a sliver of tragedy as the play recedes. Recedes as in flood–this is a verbose Stoppardian flapdoodle of Leninism, Dadaism, modernism, bedroom farce, and whatever was whirling around his febrile brain at the time, with Lenin, James Joyce, and Dada founder Tristan Tzara as supporting cut-ups. Hollander plays a burlesque of British consul Henry Wilfred Carr, who wrangled with Joyce when the author lived in Zurich, managing plays that Carr appeared in, unhappily. (Carr is parodied in Ulysses.) The comedy does rattle on, as Stoppard does at his most prolix, and the show will come down to a matter of taste. Director Patrick Marber (himself the author of Closer) manages a fine madness, however, and chances are the irrepressible Hollander will entice the skeptics to stay for the second act.

The best revival of the season, Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero, will bolt you to your chair. Partly it’s the tiny seats at the (Helen) Hayes, the new Main Stem home of Off Broadway’s Second Stage–but mostly it’s the play, the closest the Manchester by the Sea Oscar winner has come to penning a thriller, and its outstanding production. An Off Broadway hit in 2001, Lobby Hero, with much trenchant observation (and humor) about class, racism, and sexism, is very much a play of our cultural moment.

The lobby, of an apartment building in Manhattan, is a cunning turntable design by David Rockwell, which shifts perspective along with the POVs of its four characters, the tightest ensemble on Broadway. Jeff (Michael Cera), who washed out of the Marines trying to emulate his difficult father, is now a night security guard, lorded over by the hard-headed William (Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta‘s Paper Boi), who feels that his charge lacks ambition. Two cops, veteran Bill (Chris Evans) and rookie Dawn (Bel Powley) stop by, Bill to tryst with one of the tenants as Dawn looks the other way. Jeff hopes that Dawn will look his way, but as usual he garbles things, making him easy prey for the smugly self-assured Bill, who taunts him. “What do you see her as, a police officer or a piece of ass?” Bill asks. “I don’t know, a police officer piece of ass?” Jeff responds. It’s a funny line, but Cera, very much in his element, knocks it right into the balcony.

Things deepen into even more of an ethical morass when William needs Jeff to support an alibi, in a murder case that Bill, a competent if underhanded officer, is sniffing around. In Lobby Hero, everyone has something on everyone else, and how the cards are shuffled, dealt, and played from scene to scene ratchets tension. The friction, as noted, also leads to some big laughs. It’s all embedded in Lonergan’s play, with the actors bringing out every tone. Henry, who played The General in The Book of Mormon, is gruffly avuncular, then desperate, as the would-be standard bearer who can’t get out from under Bill’s suspicions. The British-born Powley, the star of the fine indie The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), gnashes a fun “New Yawk” accent as a female officer determined to be one of the boys, whose principles are challenged since she’s stuck with the most indiscreet and swaggering of boys. That would be Evans, trading in Captain America’s shield for a badge, and clearly exulting in playing a bad guy (a shaded, Lonerganian bad guy, that is) in his Broadway debut.

With this and the excellent 2014 revival of This Is Our Youth under his belt Cera has become Lonergan’s go-to muse on Broadway, an unexpected but welcome turn for an actor who has been zigzagging since childhood. (He and Henry are up for featured actor Tonys this year, odd in that Cera is clearly lead. But awards bodies are strange entities.) There are depths in Jeff that the floundering security guard is struggling to find, and Cera hauls all of them up. Terrific–and we’ll see him again this fall, with Elaine May, in the Broadway revival of Lonergan’s Pulitzer nominee, The Waverly Gallery.

Dizzy Heights #39: The Devil Take Your Stereo — “(This) and (That)” Songs, Vol. I

Those who played along when I ran Popdose’s “Name That Tune” roughly a decade ago (*pauses, kneels over, takes a breath when he contemplates that those days were nearly a decade ago*) may see similarities with some of these theme shows that I’ve been doing lately. Yep, I’m recycling, but hey, it’s been ten years or so. I’d like to think that the statute of limitations has long since expired.

Much like the previous shows, I now have at least two more shows’ worth of ____ and ____ material already at my disposal, thanks to my awesome (read: much more knowledgeable) Facebook friends. I am not afraid to admit that the themed shows are better because my friends’ song suggestions are better than mine.

Many of the artists making their Dizzy Heights debuts this week, well, embarrass me, because they should have been played weeks/months ago. See if you can guess which ones I’m talking about: Adam & the Ants, Capital Cities, Death Cab for Cutie, Elle King, Joan Jett, John Mellencamp, The Ramones, Voice of the Beehive, Walter Egan, and XTC. That’s right – nearly all of them.

Thank you, as always, for listening.

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode Sixty-Three

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode Sixty Three
There’s no rest for the wicked – like our current government – or our intrepid reporters/hosts/doyennes of all things tasteful and nauseating.  Aside from their usual spin on the Washington insanity, Jon and Rob spare no expense in going through and dissecting yet another busy week in a world going madder…  Amongst the numerous topics they tackle incluedes Gibson filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy; some very strange reunions announced on the heels of ABBA’s sudden re-emergence; a glance at Vivian Leva’s Timing Is Everything album, a farewell to Tony Kinman of Rank & File, The Dils, etc. plus Rob takes the wheel for “In Our Heads” this week – and always so much more.
In an uncomfortable time and place, isn’t it nice and reassuring to know that Jon and Rob are out there, doing their thing for you – so you can feel like “hey, they understand what I’m thinking”?  Because they do.  Believe us.
Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode Sixty Three

The podcast will be on the site as well as for subscription via iTunes and other podcast aggregators. Subscribe and let people know about Radio City, as well as Popdose’s other great podcasts David Medsker’s Dizzy Heights and In:Sound with Michael Parr and Zack Stiegler.

Popdose Exclusive Song Premiere: Andy Pratt, “Lincoln Avenue”

Chicago singer-songwriter Andy Pratt follows up last year’s acclaimed  Horizon Disrupted album (reviewed here on Popdose) with a new E.P.,  Further Disruption, culled from the same Steve Albini-engineered sessions that resulted in the previous L.P.

To hear Mr. Pratt describe it, “”Lincoln Avenue” is a pop-rock love song in its purest form. With only four chords and a familiar verse-chorus-bridge structure, it tells the story of all-consuming, passionate love. The city (specifically Chicago), entangled in the affair, serves as a backdrop to the tale of longing and distraction.”

As always, we’d like to know what you think.  So please give it a listen and let us know!

Further Disruption will be released on Friday, May 18th, 2018


Album Review: David Grubbs & Taku Unami, “Failed Celestial Creatures”

From the early notes of “Failed Celestial Creatures” – the meditative, 20-minute-long title track to the unanticipated debut collaboration between guitar-composer David Grubbs and Japanese musician Taku Unami, out Friday via Empty Editions – you get the sense you’re listening to something special. While Unami paints with fuzzy clouds of electronic sound, Grubbs repeats wonderfully dirge-like, circular refrains on undistorted electric guitar; the piece, which has an amazing sense of breadth/breath, softly inhales and exhales. At its finest, the work is evocative of Grubbs’ collaboration with the master Loren Connors, and to compare something to a gem like their Arborvitae says a lot.

That lengthy track, unfortunately, gets a little muddied and lost in its final quarter as distortion enters the picture but, even then, it radiates an almost-unnerving calm. Improvised and pseudo-improvised music, which this Kyoto-recorded material clearly elicits, can have a kind of rawness and unexpectedness to it – it’s part of what makes being witness to it so magical – and Grubbs and Unami toy with this notion, citing in the text Japanese absurdist references to ritual sacrifices. Maybe I lean literalist here, but I experience more of a journey where you don’t know what’s lurking around the next river-bend. (Or not.) On Failed Celestial Creatures, Grubbs and Unami seem peculiarly in control, playing off each other’s fragile string-bending to the point where everything sounds carefully composed – in several senses of the word.

The rest of the record is good, has its moments, of course, but does not match the grand gestures of the opener. The four-song “Threadbare” suite is beautific and lulling, in a sparse, almost dream-seductive kind of way. But, sadly, on “The Forest Dictation,” Grubbs makes his points of reference – the tiger imagery from Nakajima’s The Moon Over The Mountain – a little too clear and ends up, at least in terms of the record’s only lyrics/vocals, sounding a bit like an impression of himself.

The distractions, in the end, though, are few and far between. For a debut, these two seem surprisingly comfortable in and complementing each other’s skins and fans, especially, of Grubbs gems like Banana Cabbage, Potato Lettuce, Onion Orange will be rightly impressed.

EP Review: The Elephant Parallax, “Loam and Sky”

There are two epic songs battling for your attention on Loam and Sky, the new EP from The Elephant Parallax out Friday, and either could launch a fit description of why the record is indispensable.

First, there is the opener, “The Conscious.” Though it begins with “Bloody Mary”-style drums and a pixelated, Battles-ish guitar onslaught, what comes to drive it is a mathy alt-metal crescendo in odd time signatures over which the band, frankly, scorches Earth. The 1-2/1-2-3 wallop is the type of anthem you want to shout at the top of your lungs and that’s exactly what the trio does, mixing well-placed, choral oohs-and-ahs with barks that match the bite. How these guys fit so much into four minutes is beyond me.

Then, there’s the closer, “Incenfeminalgia II,” a sequel-of-sorts to a math-minded monster from the group’s 2010 self-titled LP. This one takes time to catch fire, introducing the soundscape with three minutes and change of moody, cinematic, reverbed-guitar-driven post-rock, the vague sounds of crackling fire. But when it strikes, it strikes hard. Again, the band flashes prog allegiances as much as shows off its alt-metal chops; think Pelican covering Tool or Hella covering The Mars Volta as men with fine voices lament, “Where did our intuition go?” The eruption here, when it comes, is visceral and boil-inducing – when the band darts into double-time near the close of the song’s nearly-10-minute run-time, after a fiery guitar breakdown, the rhythmic interplay between bass, drums and guitar is to tight, your ears will play tricks on you and you’ll start hearing the explosions as a series of rolling tides. This is intense stuff, some of the most blistering alt-metal you’ll hear this year.

The rest of the four-song EP is an interesting lull, for the most part sparser and more loosely packed, a passageway between mountainous terrain. The tracks, including the moody “OhRei,” aren’t duds, far from it; there are just no ways the music can measure up to the brilliance of the opening and closing tracks.

The whole EP was recorded at Ocean Way, once a recording home to the Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson, and the attention to hi-fi detail shows. Every guitar chord crunches just so, the vocals (especially the background chorale) are well-mixed, and the little details throughout, like the careful placement of vibraphone in the intro to the last track, indicate this thing was produced more than your prototypical alt-metal demo. It’s not overly polished or gross with studio goo but it works. And it works wonders.

Now, if I could only get those two songs out of my head.

Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll #16: A Room at the Heartbreak Hotel


Saturday, May 6, 2017 — 7:45 AM

It’s a cold, misty morning, unseasonable for May. I am driving my little Honda — its brakes finally mended — down back roads past white-fenced horse farms, paddocks rolling away across the hills to vanish in the fog.

I’m dressed for the weather, and it’s a new mode for me. I’ve long affected the look of a suburban gentleman farmer, but since November’s election I’ve been thinking about a more aggressive personal style. The ugly political climate makes me feel I’ve been drafted into some notional maquisard force; military surplus gear just feels right. I’ve taken to wearing a black Ranger beret and an M65 infantry jacket purchased by mail order, still musty from long-term warehouse storage and now festooned with safety pins and badges — a blood-spattered Watchmen smiley, my Pogues pin, an ancient Socialist Party button.

I drive on past the chain-link and double rows of razor wire that mark the perimeter of Industry; the low brick dormitories and yellow-painted chapel look almost picturesque in the mist and rain. I am bound for Mendon, New York — for the Cottage Hotel, which despite its name is neither, but rather a corner bar and restaurant. Roscoe’s Basement is booked for a show tonight, and we’re coming out now to set up and soundcheck before the place opens for lunch.

I pull up to the venue just as a chartered party bus is pulling away for a wine country tour. The passengers will return to the Cottage for supper, which should be ending right around the time we start playing. This bodes well; if the place is full of customers, we can surely convert some of them to an audience.

Tom and Deanna are already on the scene when I arrive — first in, as usual, setting up the PA and the drums. I manage to be of some use. I’m still getting my arm stretched and twisted once a week at physical therapy, but most of my carrying capacity has come back, and the new-grown bone is getting stronger.

The stage is none too large, and bounded by a low wooden railing, so we need to place ourselves wisely; drums in the stage left back corner, with Craig’s bass in front of Tom. Deanna’s at far right, within reach of the mixing board. I’m front and center, with the guitars filling out the back line. It’s snug, but not uncomfortably so.

The vibe is easy as the others roll in one by one. The room is deep, and comfortably shabby. Popcult bric-a-brac decorates the walls. It’s the very picture of a neighborhood roadhouse, and in that sense we are probably the ideal band for the place.

We go about our business — haul gear and tape down cables, tune and tweak and joke around. Chuck has brought his little daughter Alyssa along, and she’s standing watch over a big box of doughnuts, which means she is suddenly everyone’s bestest friend.

But all the while, there’s a little ache of sadness giving these mundane actions a poignancy. It comes from knowing that tonight is the end of something. After this show, we will lose one of our own. Tonight’s gig will be Michael Mann’s last show with Roscoe’s Basement.

Mike has always been one to keep his own counsel, and when he broke the news a few weeks previously, we were all blindsided. I had wondered if something was up when he joined a second band, but his involvement with them had not compromised his work with Roscoe’s Basement. In talking to him about it — and if he seemed hesitant to speak about it, I wrote it up to Mike’s typical hesitance to speak, full stop — I gathered they were an all-original outfit, their style heavier and more technical than ours, but not yet a gigging proposition. At the time, it seemed like a good way for Mike to exercise a different side of his talent.

It was hard for him to talk about his departure; I could sense that. It would have been easier for him to simply ghost. Maybe he was tempted to. I don’t know. But he took the time to explain it to us, even though it obviously made him uncomfortable. I respected that. He was at pains to let us know he wasn’t throwing us over for the other band — that in fact he was quitting both. He had simply taken on a massive workload, exacerbated by his perfectionist tendencies, and it was just no fun for him anymore. And because he is an all-or-nothing kind of person, the only way he could restore some balance to his life was to make a clean break.

I knew him well enough, I thought, to let his decision stand. Some guitar players love stirring up drama so they can get their egos stroked, but that’s not Mike. He wasn’t looking for us to beg him to stay; his mind was made up. Deanna and Tom sounded him out a little, floating the idea of cutting rehearsals back to twice a month, but it felt even at the time like a token gesture. We all loved Mike — loved him enough to want what was good for him, even if it meant the band would take a hit — and we trusted him to know for himself what he needed. Of course there were no hard feelings. How could there be?

Me being me, I cast my mind back, looking for the moment I’d fucked it all up, trying to figure out precisely what I should regret — any unkind word or gesture, any imposition, any time I’d been a tyrant or a jerk. But in the end, I thought I understood. I cannot presume to speak for Mike, but I remembered how I had walked away from something big and vital, something that felt like a calling; something that I found immensely gratifying, but which at the same time threatened to consume my life; something that had me snared like a fox in a trap, which to save its life will gnaw off its own limb — as I, and maybe Mike, felt the need to amputate one part of myself in order to save the rest.

Anyway, the decision was made. And Mike had very cannily taken steps to ensure that his resolve would not fail him. He committed to stay with Roscoe’s Basement until our show in May — and the next day, the day after the show, he and Debbie would fly off to Europe for a month. That’s a clean break. I admired him for it almost in spite of myself.

May 6, 2017 — 8:45 PM

After setup, I spend the rest of the day mooching around the house and trying not to drive my wife and son crazy with my nervous energy. I noodle at the guitar; take a couple of showers; practice my stage patter in my head, and in whispers; take the dog for more long walks than she actually needs. When the hour comes at last, I get into my commando drag and head back to Mendon.

To my delight, the joint is packed. Dinner service is just winding down. The party bus has returned, and the room rings with boozy good humor. Indeed, there seem to be three or four parties going on simultaneously, spilling into one another. I see cakes, and cocktail shrimp, and people, so many of them, fogging the windows with the steam of their breath.

The atmosphere is electric before we play a single note. But when we do — my God, when we do . . .

You can check in any time you like — and it turns out you CAN leave, after all. Photography by Janice Hanson.

It’s a haze. It is madness. It is glorious. There must be bum notes and missed cues and sloppy endings — there always are — but not a one can I recall. In my recollection, we play with power and grace and swagger, and everything is good and nothing hurts. It’s only between sets when I feel my human frailty upon me, as I step out the back door into the cold in my sweaty T-shirt, stretching to keep limber like a long-distance runner, pacing the dark alley with nerves. But when I’m up on the filthy stage carpet, it all fades away.

We go down a storm. This is, without a doubt, the most enthusiastic crowd we’ve ever entertained. I want it to last forever. But the hours wear on, their passage marked by the gradual dwindling of the crowd. The cooks and the dishwasher appear from the kitchen, roaring their approval. But at last, it is midnight, and we have to stop.

There’s a giant TV by the stage playing Saturday Night Live with the sound turned down. I glance over occasionally as we tear down. LCD Soundsystem are the musical guests. “Call the Police” is brand new. James Murphy is about my age, I think — I’ve got a couple of years on him, but around the half-century mark that’s not enough to make much difference — and we’ve got a similar blocky physicality. The band is killing it, I reckon. The TV makes no sound. They look like they’re having a good time, anyway.

I allow myself a post-show beer and collect our pay. We divvy up the cash. Of one accord, we set aside a little something extra for Mike. Send a postcard; buy yourself something nice.

It’s awkward. It was always going to be awkward. I’m making a conscious effort to give Mike and Deb the space they need, and the strain shows. I ask Mike if I can keep him on the email list for the Song o’ the Week Club; this seems terribly important to me in the moment. He says okay, and even assents to a hug.

And then — well, Mike and Deb have an early flight, and I’ve got a long ride home, and nothing lasts forever.

Sunday, May 7, 2017 — 1:45 AM

The ride home is dark. Many of these back roads have no street lights, and I don’t think I see another car the whole way. All things pass. I am six months younger than Jeff Buckley would have been, four days younger than Kurt Cobain. I survived my thirties, and thrived — well, sort of — and found my way back to the music. And tonight I suffered a loss, and also played a great show, maybe my best ever. Funny how things work out.

It’s the small hours before I get home. The house is dark and quiet. And as I walk in from playing the greatest show of my life, I am greeted with the sight of a huge pile of cold dogshit in the middle of the living room carpet.

Yeah, funny how things work out.
Ha fuckin’ ha.

Next: Bring ‘em All In

Album Review: Jodee Lewis, “Buzzard’s Bluff”

This new album from Jodee Lewis, Buzzard’s Bluff is a cathartic release from deep within the Missouri Ozarks. It draws inspiration from growing up in a small town, the trials of faith, and a 19-year marriage with children. No journey is without its crosses, and the album emerges after years of self-reflection and struggle.

Lewis, who now lives in Chicago, grew up in Missouri, where a deep passion for music rang through her home at an early age. The sounds of Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and Waylon Jennings became familiar chorus  voices that influenced her own storytelling.  “Buzzard’s Bluff” opens with a haunting chill that quickly becomes an anthemic march. With raw honesty, Lewis sings with a spine tingling melody that commands attention. The steady beat of drums intertwine with deep bass, energetic strings and a harmony filled chorus. The memory of the area still clings to Lewis as she states, “There were a number of things about my childhood that were tragic and unhappy, yet the Ozarks is deep in my bones and I still carry a great love for the area and its beauty, even after fleeing to Chicago almost 20 years ago.”

As an artist, Lewis has had to search deep within her spirit to deal with the unexpected turns of life. Dealing with personal loss is hard enough, but devastation can shake repressed memories loose and bring them to the surface. She explains, “My songs are more honest and they’re executed much better because I have my head on straight. I’m proud to share that with my friends and family who have supported me along the way.”

The as-mentioned sound of the title track, is indeed, based around minor chords and a certain dark vibe, but builds into taut old-fashioned dobro and fiddle runs that punctuate the verses and leads into the chorus; “Though The Flood May Rise” is a down-home country gospel piece with a neat shuffle and driven by banjo and fiddle and handclaps – which automatically makes me think of a tent revival meeting and “It Ain’t Killed Me Yet”, with its tongue-in-cheek title, is upbeat and bright and could easily find a place on country radio.  “Start Again Tomorrow” is a traditional country ballad, with deliciously twangy guitar and warm harmonies; “A House That Was Never A Home” is the album’s standout – a slow number but exquisite in its execution and feeling and “Peace At Last” closes the collection out in very satisfying fashion with just vocals, guitar and intermittent strings.

While I like most of what I’ve heard, Ms. Lewis’ voice is the only distraction.  At times, it’s almost too-childlike to be convincing of the passion and person pain that she’s poured into her songs.  But a moment like “Peace At Last”, her voice fits the landscape.  Overall, a very strong effort and I’d like to hear what she does next (although defining her as an “Americana” artist isn’t accurate – hers is a pure country sound which a great sense of understanding the traditional sound and style).

Buzzard’s Bluff is currently available