Circus of the West shows off Some Connections at the Icehouse

The music scene in the Twin Cities has been thriving for generations but it’s still nice to see concerted effort to bring in the next generation. Circus of the West had that going on in spades! Rumor has members of Broken Beaks, the first band are in high school and the audience included all ages. The legacy continues and brings in a full house!

Their music is happy, toe tapping, mood changing. Even with a song like (I’m on the outside) Looking In, with a strong theme of alienation – the tune is upbeat and seemingly joyful. Even more so when they are accompanied on stage by so many friends. The show opened with nine on stage.

Their songs tell a story with a rock opera feel. Lead singer Edwin Caldie has a strong voice and emotive presence. The first four songs came from their debut album – followed by a few even newer songs. Some Connections is a song that resonates with the specifics in the lyrics from date and location (Nicollet Island). There’s something about details that makes a song more universal.

Through out the show (and wlbum), you can feel the 80s influence, the pop sensibilities, the love of showmanship in the keyboard and old school rock in the guitar.

There was a fun gospel interlude with Dr. Andrea Q. Langford. She was accompanied by the band and several women with strong powerful, plaintive voices singing Work for Me. Again very uplifting!

Opening of The Human Anomaly by John Schuerman

I did the quickest gallery tour ever through John Schuerman’s The Human Anomaly because I really wanted to see it and I was squeezed between work and kids. I had spent the day discussing community need and use of technology on the Iron Range and had kids waiting at home. It was a really odd juxtaposition to the art, which highlights the human role in nature and human’s ability to control one’s environment.

The art is exquisite colored pencil drawings. Each piece includes a singular or maybe just a few objects with precision and white space of a medical text book. The work is realistic and clearly natural yet removed from nature because the object is set outside its usual surroundings.

Tree Ring is the work that struck me the most. It is a bracelet of tree bark; the rings have been removed from the center. It looks as if you could feel the texture of the bark and there’s an orange ring painted on the outside. It’s easily recognizable but displaced. There’s an eerie quality too as the orange ring denotes an untimely death of the tree. Or at least an untimely demise or destruction. There’s a sadness in the work presented in the context of the show that I would have missed if seen on its own. It’s nature made human.

In contrast, hair circle is a piece that seems to make human become nature or art. It’s a picture of a swirling circle of hair. If I hadn’t read the name I might assume it was a delicate crocheted doily or dense, penciled Spirograph. I don’t know if I’m draw to it because of the art or the nature of it or because it reminds me of my three daughters.

The Human Anomaly will be at the Gordon Parks Gallery January 29- February 22, 2018.

When We Land album release at the Turf Club

Technically When We Land is a boy band but they’re not a boy band in the traditional sense. They are deeper, more thoughtful. They opened with Throttle and the Wind off their latest CD (Introvert’s Plight Album). Whether fact or fiction the song is deeply personal and a uniquely male perspective on heartbreak that would almost make you hate your last lost love a little less.

Singer Jesse Baxter has a strong voice. The music is indie rock with some country sensibilities possibly based on the song themes. While I think there are usually four in the band, there were five on stage at the Turf Club Friday night.

They had an even bigger crowd than was expected and a crowd that clearly are big followers of the band. (And not your usual Turf Club crowd.)

Their second song was more rocking but equally melancholy in temperament Five Bar Blues. The drum was particularly strong but it’s really Baxter’s voice that leads the charge with most songs. That being said the guitars and bass meet the quality and support the sound. The set went on with new and old songs.

Antigonon, un contingente epico – mythology, Cuban revolution and a lot of sexual energy

Teatro El Público, Antigonón, un contingente épico (Photo: courtesy Lessy via The Walker)

It takes some amazing actors to make me forget that everyone was naked for the first 10 minutes of a show. Because, well naked is naked. But despite the fact that the cast of Antigonon, un contingente epico were partially or fully naked through most of the show, that wasn’t the most uncomfortable part. The most uncomfortable part was my woeful knowledge of Cuban history.

Antigonon, un contingente epico is part dance, part spoken word performance. It’s in Spanish with English subtitles. The subtitles are kind of helpful in that they are fast and they are narrating non-linear monologues and brief disjointed dialogues. So I read the words but they didn’t always sink in because I was distracted by the “exotically absurd costumes” and action on stage.

The performance starts with two women and two men on stage – stark naked. They dance in couples, exchanging partners and eventually end in a heap together. That gives way to the vignettes of solo performances, conversations and inquisitions. There are repeated themes – brothers and sisters together or not and fighting with or for each other. I was expecting more Antigone (Greek tragedy – where Antigone, daughter/sister of Oedipus fights to get her brother buried, gets caught burying him without permission and kills herself in defiance of being buried a live a weak answer to Creon’s decision not to kill her for burying her dead brother but just bury her alive) and more dance but I wasn’t disappointed with what I got.

The monologues are not straightforward but there is a feel for oppression that is kind of colonial but not quite, which could parallel US invasion of Cuba, Cuban independence from the US, Fulgencio Batista’s rule before and after his military coup (after the coup allowing US companies to dominate the economy), Fidel Castro’s revolution and the current tenuous relationship between US and Cuba. Although I’m seeing this from American eyes; there are also hints at the international take on for in Cuban with mention of Nazis and Russian history.

The overwhelming impression is that the show is intense. There is a scene when one of the women is talking to her husband (played by the other woman); the husband is willing to buy his bride anything but all she wants is a flower, although no subtlety was used in conveying the fact that a flower meant physical relationship. Even reading the fast paced dialogue, the intense, violently sexual actions on action were striking -and kind of funny – but mostly intense.

The dialogue, the costumes, the action are all shocking. Yet, they aren’t as wrenching as some of the historical video of violence in Cuba. There’s a deception of sleight of hand that’s at work in the show that draws a strong reaction without a full understanding of what has happened. If I were to see this show every night this weekend, I think I still would feel woeful in my knowledge but the show is so compelling that I’m tempted to try it.

Antigonon, un contingente epico will be performed by Teatro El Publico Jan 4-6 at The Walker.

Ben Noble highlighting Whisky Priest at Bryant Lake Bowl

If you have time for just one song by Ben Noble, make it Little One. As he says, it’s a story song presumably about his own three year old. It’s a gentle song, too loud for a lullaby but the kind of song you’d listen to with your own little one cuddling on the couch. It showcases his falsetto range that produces an ethereal, soothing sound. The strings (especially on the album but also live) have a dream quality that plays against an otherwise straightforward tune. The lyrics are touching and sweet. The song is like a little vacation.

Luckily I had time for a few more watching Noble play at the Bryant Lake Bowl with a bass player, keyboardist and drummer. They played many songs from his latest CD, Whisky Priest. Keeping with a theme, he led with Daughter, which is another pensive almost melancholy song. Again the song features his unique voice. The lyrics, the voice, the guitar are very tender.

Noble’s song writing is very personal but it’s a case of when personal detail can make something so universal. Many of the tunes are inherently sad. Good listening for a cold winter afternoon.

Piano preview of Christmas peace from Steven C & Friends at the St Paul Cathedral

Steven C’s piano solos have been downloaded millions of times. Millions! He has played with the London Symphony Strings at Abbey Studios and with Mannheim Steamroller on the TODAY show. So I feel fortunate to have seen him in his own backyard, which it turns out is the same as my backyard.

Steven C (and his friends) played a set of Christmas and Emotive music at the Cathedral. His friends include the St Cecelia and St Gregory Choristers of the Cathedral Choir School, vocalist Kathleen Johnson and three musicians, Pat Frederick on violin, Charles Asch on cello and Lawrence Lawyer on pipe organ.

They started with O Come, O Come Emmanuel. The choir began a cappella. Then just the piano. Then the strings joined in. The music sounds like the Cathedral looks. The majesty draws you into the space but the details keep you there. A joyous start.

The second song was Still, Still, Still with piano and strings. It’s a more pensive piece and the audience was clearly touched – each in a different way. I find it soothing. It’s a one-hour break with stimulus that spoils you into a brain lull. But around me, I could see tears or joy and remembrance. Everyone has taken time from a busy week to escape and the music did not disappoint.

Some songs stand out – such as the siren’s plaintive start of Twas’ in the Moon of the Wintertime. And the husky low notes of Mary Did you Know.  There was a sing-along and Phil Coulter’s Irish Blessing. That’s always going to be a hit in St Paul.

I enjoyed Steven C’s original work too, especially Restored. Apparently, he felt called to write that just before he recorded the new album live at the Cathedral (Sep 2017). He wrote it based on his experience restoring old houses in the area and based on memories of the restoration of the Cathedral roof. (Remember when the Cathedral dome was green?) He wrote it during a 3-mile run to the Cathedral. And that is when I knew we shared a backyard. Because I had walked with a friend to the show that night,  4 miles each way in windy, freezing weather. But it was absolutely worth the hike!

Steven C has two more shows this season:

I rarely include video and I hope the artist won’t mind – but I thought everyone could a quick break of hectic for splendor of music and art

Hatchet Lady: Carry Nation, Angel of Destruction – the must-see musical

Crazy or chosen? That is the question that I’m left with after seeing Hatchet Lady, performed by Walking Shadow Theatre Company. Are larger-than-life zealots driven because they are crazy or chosen (by God)? And who gets to decide? A timely question for so many reasons!

Historically, Carry Nation was a passionate member of the temperance movement, known for destroying taverns with her hatchet. Hatchet Lady is inspired by her story and her modern-day, fictional biographer (Frances) who bemoans her own lack of passion or courage, striving only for “what will make people like her.” Frances presents as a third option to the “crazy or chosen” option – damned by mere adequacy.

And the story is a musical!

That idea of “crazy, chosen or adequate” gets to the root of some of the feminist themes in the play. Girls have traditionally been taught to aim for adequate over chosen or risk being labeled crazy. The title character sings a song comparing herself to John Brown, American abolitionist who believed in violence. They are similar in some ways; different in others. Both were religious and both were violent. One fought against slavery and the other against alcohol. Or is it that one was a woman and one was a man? If the story were about Joan of Arc, the important difference would be clear. The fact that we’re comparing Brown to Nation leaves room for deeper consideration.

The action of the play is driven by vignettes narrated by a community radio talk show format (think SNL skit) and punctuated with musical numbers from punk to country. Admittedly the flow could grow tiresome if the writing and acting weren’t as good as they are. As it stands, it’s a good way to convey info (I might not have passed a test on Carry Nation) and start conversation on themes of isms and historical perspective.

The acting is suburb. Keeping with the SNL references, Maren Ward as Carry Nation and her biographer brings the physical humor of Melissa McCarthy. Megan Burns nails the community radio personality. Maureen O’Malley as the intern sent to work with the seasoned biographer is a good wide-eyed balance. Chelsie Newhard rounds out the cast playing several roles, including Mr. Carry Nation. The writing (Savannah Reich) is clever and thoughtful. It’s the kind of writing that makes you happy to have an MA in literature and sad that you can’t discuss the work in great depth in class the next day. So many levels.

The music (by Luc Parker) stops the action in important places and allows for total turnaround in plot. It sets the tone. The band includes Britt Collis on guitar, Katelyn Farstad on drums, Pamela Laizure on violin and Shannon Boyer on bass. Dressed as angels with wings and halos, the musicians are part of the performance. The music in integral but not overbearing.

Remaining performances:

  • Thursday, Dec 14, 7:30pm
  • Friday, Dec 15, 7:30 – post-show discussion
  • Friday, Dec 15, 10:00pm
  • Saturday, Dec 16, 7:30pm – CLOSING

Amanda Grace releases new CD – Better Life

Amanda Grace played a cozy set of new and old songs at the Warming House to release her new CD, Better Life. She started with a brand new song – first time played publicly I think. It was a slightly bluesy piano song with a hint of drumming. It’s a format and tone that sets nicely with her sultry voice. The drummer stayed with her as she played some covers and older songs. She was joined on stage with fellow singer Joyanne Parker to sing a Christmas song.

She saved the music from the new CD for the second half of the show. There were two songs that really stood out – Better Life and Los Angeles.

Better Life has a popular music feel, with a folksy twang that harks back to Jewell; maybe that’s combination the guitar and voice with range. And Los Angeles has a marching drive forward. She talks about the song pouring out of her when visiting a sick friend in California. It has touches of sweet keening but it’s the step by step rhythm that pushes the song forward.

Grace’s music is very personal. She writes, sings and talks about the death of a nephew, the death of a brother-in-law and a sickness with friends. There’s an undercurrent in spirituality seemingly born of life experience balanced with hints of the harder rock she noted enjoying as a student. She uses her talent as an opportunity to work with ChildFund, a nonprofit that strives to feed kids all over the world. During the performance she mentioned two children – Bui and Vilma – and asked us to think about them. After the performance, she is available to speak about the kids and ChildFund. Guests are offered a free CD as they learn more about ChildFund. It helps spread the word. ChildFund helps promote the artist and compensates them for the cost of the CDs. It’s a win-win.

Astronomique Single Release of Mimic Forms – 60s aesthetics and 80s musical influence

Astronomique is the band you thought you’d be seeing in the future back in 1987. They’re a synth pop band with 60s aesthetics and 80s musical influence. They played Thursday night at the Icehouse to introduce their new single, Mimic Forms.

There are four members: Logan Andra Fongemie on vocals and keyboards, Sean Hogan on vocals and guitar, Mitch Billings on vocals and drums and Jordan Morantez on bass guitar. The band is solid; the keyboards really set the tone of the music, bringing the space age feel. There’s a nice contrast between the harder rocking band and the pop appeal of the keyboards. The vocals – especially on tracks where Fongenie and Hogan both sing – bridge the difference. There’s a sweet and salty, high and low, mix that sounds really good together.

Adding to the space age feel was a Sci-fi video on in the background, the video for their new release Mimic Forms (shared below); I presume. The folds in the majestic curtain behind the stage of the Icehouse make it difficult to confirm. It was fun to guess the movies that influenced the obscured video (Barbarella, Tron?) in the same way it’s fun to guess the influence on the music. Mimic Forms is less synth, more vocals than some of their earlier songs. There’s something soothing and almost wavy to the music.

They also played the B-side to the new single, 23rd Century. I enjoyed the Spanish feel in the castanet-sounding drums.

Sarah Morris: Americana singer song writer with a lot of friends

The Hook and Ladder has never felt cozier than with snow blowing outside and a sold out show for Sarah Morris inside. Even the stage was brimming with a rotating cast of impressive characters.

I was immediately struck with Morris’ song writing; her ability to turn a clever phrase like “good at good buys” into a full-fledged song: good at goodbyes. It reminds me of the kind of old school country music I listened to during a road trip; the “if you don’t leave me I’ll find someone who will” listen-twice lyrics.

Morris talked about her song writing style or tactics – the online writing groups and video challenges. In fact, my favorite song from the show and the latest CD (Hearts in Need of Repair) apparently came from a video challenge on a day when she was very sick. The song feels like a childhood music box and celebrates breezy summer love and suits her sweet voice. It’s emblematic of the love songs on the album.