Crooked Still Moves Beyond Bluegrass Cliches

Iron Horse Music Hall (Northampton, MA)
December 3, 2010

Those who have followed the music entries on this blog (or in print in The Valley Advocate) know that I have been highly critical of the state of modern bluegrass music, which has become paint-by-numbers masquerading as homage to past masters: affected twangy vocals, way-too-earnest mountain gospel, and flat-picked guitar and fiddle breakouts at predicable intervals. It’s as if everyone is trying to channel Bill Monroe and has completely forgotten the New Grass innovations of the 1980s. Until now. A handful of bands have decided it’s time to look at the calendar and bring bluegrass out of the 1930s and into the 21st century. Foremost among them is Boston-based Crooked Still. As they demonstrated on Friday December 3, in the first of three sold-out Iron Horse concerts, bluegrass is ready for some new blood and new directions.

The first of several great things about this concert was the presence of so many young folks in the audience, a sure sign that Crooked Still’s sound is tailored for a new generation. Re: that sound, several instrumental shifts stand out. First of all, the band seldom uses a guitar at all. Where most bands would have a flat-picker, Crooked Still has Tristan Clarridge, a cellist who uses his instrument to create a deep resonant aural soup in which other sounds can bubble. He also plays in a style that’s more bop than classical, one akin to what Natalie Haas does in her collaboration with Alisdair Fraser. Perhaps that’s no accident; Crooked Still’s fiddler is Natalie’s younger sister, Britanny, and though she can lay down licks with the best string players, she mainly joins double bass player Cory DiMario, and banjo wizard Gregory Liszt in putting down ambient grooves. When Crooked Still get things cranked up, there isn’t much empty space in the room, and sounds meld like a bluegrass gamelan rather than simply setting up the next solo. And this is as it should be. The instrumentalists are sublime in their own right, but the centerpiece of the band is vocalist Aoife O’Donovan. Hers is a glorious voice that is, at once, muscular yet soft as silk. On stage her exuberance and the ease with which beautiful notes pour out of her mouth are so infectious that it’s hard not to fixate on her. You should look around, though. This band isn’t flashy on stage, but there’s a lot going on. Just because Crooked Still doesn’t go in for a lot of prolonged solos doesn’t mean they’re a simple chord-progression band. Like jazz musicians, polyphonic and polyrhymic sounds are kicking about the stage and come together in a harmonious whole.

Crooked Still mostly played selections from its most recent CD, Some Strange Country (Signature Sounds) and these also indicate that this is not your father’s bluegrass music. How about a cover of “You Got the Silver,” originally recorded by The Rolling Stones? But Ms. O’Donovan can sing anything—an old chestnut like “The Golden Vanity,” bad times songs such as “I’m Troubled,” a fragile Celtic song such as “Wind and Rain,” one recorded by Emmylou Harris (“Orphan Girl”), or achingly beautiful numbers such as “Sometimes in this Country.” The dancey backbeat to many of Crooked Still’s arrangements are another reason why young folks love them. To be a 100% objective, Crooked Still’s show was not flawless. The band needs to work on ending their songs with the same flourish with which they open—quite a few dense arrangements petered out and left the audience uncertain as to when to applaud. In like fashion, the textured instrumentation on occasion felt like works in progress in which the timing was ever-so-slightly off. But for my money, I’ll take imprecise innovation over paint-by-the-numbers any day of the week. Check out this band if they come anywhere near you. The worst that will happen is that you’ll fall madly in love with Aoife O’Donovan, a fine first step in plumbing the depth of the rest of the music.

Military Blindness: Don’t Look, Don’t Think, Don’t Tell the Truth

I’ve always taken a contrarian view of the military’s don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue policy for several reasons, not the least of which is that my idea of balancing the federal budget is to slash the Pentagon budget by two-thirds. I think that having a large military only encourages unscrupulous politicians to get involved in global military adventurism. Nor am I among those who valorize warrior culture; I share the viewpoint of Eugene Debs who, in 1917, observed that he couldn’t see the point of asking one group of poor workers to put on uniforms and go halfway around the world to kill another group of poor workers on behalf of rich masters. And I surely don’t understand why gays or lesbians would ever want to be part of an organization that forces them to be silent, second-class citizens with a Sword of Doom dangling over their heads.

Okay, that’s me and I understand that lots of folks disagree. But here’s what I really don’t get. How can anyone who knows a damn thing about history or military experience possibly believe that having gays and lesbians serve is in any way harmful to the nation’s defense? One hears all manner of nonsense about how homosexuality would harm morale, destroy unit cohesion, and jeopardize military preparedness. Such points of view are a combination of ignorance, mindlessness, and downright lying. They each rest on the presumption that homosexuality has been largely absent from US military history--that just a small band of “perverts” have populated military ranks. (And one also hears of how such people “violated their oaths” by lying about their sexual orientation.)

In my other job as an academic I was recently asked to review a book by Justin Spring titled Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade. It tells the fascinating tale of Steward (1909-1993), a gay man who would have been labeled a “slut” if he had been female. Steward had sex with over a thousand men and kept a detailed journal on each liaison. He also amassed a huge collection of gay pornography, adorned his apartments with graphic gay murals, was one of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey’s major collaborators, and had his journal and explicit photos in plain view during an age in which doing so exposed him to great dangers. Under the name Phil Andros he also wrote homoerotic pulp fiction and operated a tattoo parlor that doubled as a gay parlor. This is to say that Sam Steward was in the closet, but just barely.

What does this have to do with don’t ask/don’t tell? Steward had flings with bohemians and famed figures such as Rudolph Valentino, Thornton Wilder, and Julien Green, but Steward’s number one source for gay sex was the U.S. military. I exaggerate only slightly when I say that, if Steward is to be trusted, there were more straight men in Greenwich Village gays bars than there were on U.S, Navy and Marine Corps bases in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. When Steward wrote, “the U.S. Navy has always had an attraction for me,” his double entendre was as factual as funny. He had sex with hundreds of sailors, Marines, and soldiers and history does not record that World War II, Korea, or the Cold War was lost because of oral sex. (Would it be too much to call Steward’s biography a real Fellatio Alger tale?)

Why don’t we know this story? Well, we do actually. Alfred Kinsey told it, the proliferation of gay literature and bars verified it, and the presence of gay-themed tattoo joints and bars adjacent to military bases was so apparent that it was hardly necessary to “pursue” an investigation of it. How can we say that the U.S. military didn’t harbor homosexuals? One way was to change the definition. For much of Steward’s most active sexual life, a man who gave oral sex or received anal penetration from another was a “homosexual,” but he who was on the other end (so to speak) was not. (That’s the sort of logic that says one is not an automobile driver if another person pays for the gas.) Still another was to fixate on periodic gay bashing administered by uniformed personnel and sell it as the military cleaning up Dodge City. Mainly what we got instead of full disclosure was the great denial. Thus, in the name of ferreting out a small number of “deviants,” gays and lesbians were outted and discharged.

What a farce! And what sanctimonious old demagogues are those politicians who served and now say that gay soldiers and sailors are a threat. Wouldn’t you just love to hook them up to lie detectors and ask them if they ever met up with the likes of Sam Steward?

Like I said, if it were up to me our military would be much, much smaller. But I would also replace don’t ask/don’t tell with a policy suggested in a recent Boston Globe op-ed: don’t know/don’t care.


How to Opt Out of Christmas

Years ago Phoenix and I opted out of Christmas. It wasn’t the money. We simply wanted release from the stress, crowds, and mindless consumerism associated with the most intensely crass and secular of all American holidays. Spare us the Babe in the Manger speeches; Christmas in America has more to do with Adam Smith than Baby Jesus.

We decided to spend December dining with friends, making contact with family, and consuming fun rather than getting caught up in rituals of reciprocity and gluttony. The breaking point came about ten years ago when our nieces were literally swamped under a mound of gifts. They no sooner opened one present than another was thrust in front of them so that every relative under the sun could snap a photo of the bewildered lasses. Soon, they were dazed and numb. As clich├ęd as it sounds, by the afternoon they were having more fun with the wrapping paper and boxes than with the content. And here’s the worst part: the wreckage represented expenditures of hundreds of dollars, a lot of it from folks who could have used the cash for much better purposes.

Christmas is even more crass when we buy for adults. In our families the holiday had degenerated into a zero sum game--you buy me the item on page 72 of the L.L. Bean catalog and I’ll buy you one from page 104. For adults Christmas involves two types of people: those who can afford to buy things and thus already have what they need and want; and those who can’t afford to engage in consumer frenzy, yet are pressured into doing so. If you fall into the second category, for heaven’s sake stop! Consider this sobering statistic--if you rack up $6,000 on your credit card and try to pay it off by making the minimum payment, it will take roughly 54 years to do so even if you never use the card again! Fa la la, indeed! In trying to conform to manufactured images of seasonal jollity you have placed yourself in economic thralldom akin to that of 19th-century sharecroppers.

It’s our seasonal prayer that none of you are in that sinking boat. But even if you have plenty of dough, there’s simply no reason to put up with the stress and the madness. Just say no. It may already be too late for this year, but it’s not too late to prepare for next. Here’s our how-to-guide for opting out.

1. Step One: The Power of Guilt. We must ask ourselves how Christmas got to be such a mess in the first place. The answer is simple: We’ve been sold a bill of literal and metaphorical goods on what a “perfect” Christmas is supposed to be like. Don’t underestimated how powerful that imagery is. To counter it, you need to present an equally powerful counter image.

As you gather this Christmas, subtly drop remarks such as “We have so much and there are others who have so little. What do you think about scaling way back next year and making donations to charity instead?” My guess is that about three-quarters of your friends and relatives will breathe a sigh of relief and get on board immediately. Your job is to follow up on this and start dropping reminders in late summer and again several weeks before Thanksgiving. Don’t call and say, “We’re no giving presents this year, right?” Instead remind them that they said they wanted to give to charity. Tell them you plan to make a donation in their name and ask which charity they’d like you to support.

2. Step Two: Phasing In the Plan. There will be some people on your list who won’t buy in immediately. One or two may even feel hurt and assume you don’t care enough to buy them something. You need to go gentle with these folks. Start by scaling back instead of going cold turkey. Appeal to their soft side. Do they love animals? In addition to a modest gift, get a really nice card and insert a Heifer International brochure with a note that you’ve given a donation in their name. It may take a few years before these folks stop the gift cycle altogether, but they will.

3. Step Three: Be True to Your Principles. It’s not enough to say you want to spend time with friends and family instead of gift buying; you need to do it! Make sure you schedule dinners out (or potlucks in) with close friends and family. The goal is to make the holidays joyous, not to become the Grinch. And make sure you write those charity checks.

4. Step Four: Replace Consumer Goods with Thoughtful Ones. What people really want during the holidays is a reminder that you care. A plate of home-baked cookies can say this louder than an item plucked from a catalog. So too can cleaning someone’s gutters, fixing a squeaky door, or taking their car in for an oil change. Want to do something really simple? Rent “It’s a Wonderful Life” and watch it with someone you care about. Provide the buttered popcorn. The biggest gift you can give is your time!

5. Step Five: Buy Your Kids a Pen Pal. If you have little ones, it’s hard to eliminate gifts totally, but the U.N. and other agencies have programs that allow you to sponsor a child abroad. Do this for your kids and spend part of Christmas with books, pictures, and maps that illustrate where their pen pal lives. Help your kids write a letter to that child. Follow it up in the weeks to come with language lessons, food, and other such items. I had pen pals as a kid and it made me think about the world. I remember a correspondent from Peru way more than I remember most of my toys.

6. Step Six: Treat Yourself in December. Take some of the dough you’re not spending on prezzies and go out. Take in a concert or a show. Fun is always a good antidote for stress!

7. Step Seven: Replace Old Rituals with New Ones. Okay, I admit it: If I hear “Silent Night” at a mall one more time I may spew. I loathe Christmas carols, plastic reindeer, and blow-up lawn displays. But I’d be the last to say that rituals are bad. If you dislike the old ones, make some new ones. We buy a new tree ornament every year and label it. We also have some invented holidays, such as Moosemas on December 16, which is celebrated by eating clam chowder and drinking Scotch. A small ritual is walking amidst the downtown lights on Christmas Eve after the stores have closed. Another is a short walk in the woods behind the house on late Christmas morning. Still another is playing CDs of English and Scottish carols that we’ve not heard a billion times. Our most cherished is an annual pre-Christmas dinner at a restaurant with our dearest friends.

8. Step Eight: Make Christmas all about the Food. When you ask most people to name their favorite holiday, it’s usually Thanksgiving. Why not? It’s about food, family, and a relaxed pace. So make Christmas into a second Thanksgiving. Prepare foods that take a long time to make. Buy a really, really good bottle of wine. Have a multi-course meal that unfolds over several hours. And, above all, share it with friends and family. Don’t forget to mention how lucky you are to have so much when others have so little.


Paul McKenna Band In Time for the Holidays

Between Two Worlds
Mad River 1019
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The Paul McKenna Band is a quintet of five seriously talented young Scotsmen. They did the festival circuit in the U.S. last summer, but they remain under known because the band’s album Between Two Worlds was hard to find. No more; Mad River has released it and one of the biggest favors you can do yourself this holiday season is to grab it. If this album isn’t the antidote for the endless barrage of Christmas carols, you’ll probably need to check into rehab!

Paul McKenna has a singular voice, one that is simultaneously soothing yet contains a hint of rasp. Check out “Dancing in the Dark,” a song that is gentle but has an ever-so-faint undercurrent of unsettledness. Another standout is “P Stands for Paddy,” a song borrowed from Ireland that manages to be defiant and sweet at the same time. McKenna’s intriguing voice is backed by a stellar group of musicians, including fiddler Ruaridh Macmillian, who will remind longtime Celtic fans of a young (and smoother) Brian McNeill. That’s partly because Brian was his mentor at the Royal Scottish Academy and Macmillan is unabashed in his admiration for him. David McNee and Ewan Baird handle much of the rhythm work on bouzouki and bodhran (or box drum) respectively, and Macmillan’s swooping melodies are matched note by glorious note by Sean Gray’s flutes and penny whistles.

Sample these lads on YouTube and then buy this album. It will make you feel better than a boatload of fa-la-las.