Gaby Moreno a Bilingual Dynamo


Illustrated Songs

Paisley Records

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Everything on Gaby Moreno’s new release (her second) sounds old. Moreno is a bilingual artist who was raised in Guatemala. As a performer she’s a retro dynamo. Several of her Spanish songs draw on bossa nova beats and ranchero-style singing, but most sound like Latin-laced versions of the kind of small combo songs found on the soundtracks of Depression Era movies. That is, except for “Ave que Emigra,” her semi-autobiographical song about leaving Guatemala for New York; she makes no bones about the fact that Do Diddley was her influence on that one. I’d also hazard a guess that some Johnny Cash snuck in subconsciously. When Moreno switches to English, her whole demeanor changes. She’s still retro, but it’s a Motown well from which she draws. The slightly coquettish tones of her Spanish songs give way to lusty, big-voiced numbers. Check out “Mess a Good Thing” and you might think she morphed into Aretha Franklin! (Though she again throws us for a loop with the odd little song, “Mean Old Circus,” which evokes an 1890s musical hall.)

Whether all of this showcases her versatility or leaves her foundering for a clear musical identity is up for debate, but I found her an intriguing talent and admired her willingness to take chances. She’s an unsigned artist at present, but I doubt that will last long. Check out her Webpage; there are some samples there.


Roger Ebert Memoir Uneven but Moving

Life Itself: A Memoir. By Roger Ebert. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2011.

ISBN 978-0-446-58497-5

Who, in the past twenty-five years, has done more to change the way we think of movies than Roger Ebert? More serious than the freakish Gene Shalit, less pretentious than Rex Reed, and more approachable than Pauline Kael, Ebert–and the late Gene Siskel–evolved a form of film criticism that might be labeled upper middlebrow: a way of accepting all screen images on their own merits. For Ebert, the question has never been whether a summer blockbuster or a kung-fu movie was the equal of Fellini or Bergman, but whether a movie is a good one within its genre. Two small measures of Ebert’s impact: On the weighty end of the scale, he was the first film reviewer to win a Pulitzer Prize. As for his impact on popular culture, who does not know the shorthand thumbs-up/thumbs-down assessment of a film? (Be careful if you use it; it’s copyrighted!) More recently, Ebert has become a hero for cancer survivors and the disabled; complications from a 2006 surgery for thyroid cancer cost him most of his jawbone and left him unable to speak or take nourishment through his mouth.

In Life Itself, Ebert leaves pity to others; he considers himself a man blessed by a good family, good education, serendipitous vocational fortune, rich professional relationships, dear friends, the blessings of late-in-life love, and the ongoing ability to view, muse upon, and write about movies. Ebert takes us from his Urbana, Illinois childhood and a University of Illinois education to his time in Europe, his luck in securing a job with the Chicago Sun-Times, his TV success with At the Movies, his marriage to Chaz Hammelsmith, and back to Urbana, where he runs an annual film fest. His descriptions of his early days with the Sun-Times are like outtakes of the 1931 film The Front Page, complete with crusty editors, frenetic newsroom energy, and wide open horizons for those energetic and talented enough to seize them. Ebert was a product of those freewheeling days; he freely admits that he knew almost nothing about cinema when he was assigned the Sun-Times’ film critic’s job in 1967. Equally compelling are his recollections of the gritty side of Chicago, its dive bars (including the Billy Goat, parodied by John Belushi) and the city’s colorful cast of characters, including John McHugh, Mike Royoko, and Studs Terkel.

Movie fans will find numerous delightful anecdotes. Ebert speaks glowingly of those who touched him personally, and what an eclectic mix it is: Pauline Kael, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Martin Scorcese, Werner Herzog…. If there is any doubt about Ebert’s catholic tastes, consider that he thinks that both Ingmar Bergman and soft-porn king Russ Meyer were geniuses! And, of course, there is plenty about Gene Siskel (1946-1999), his TV sidekick, the urbane counterpoint to his own frumpy demeanor, and a man who was, variously, his mentor, cherished friend, and nemesis—often within a span of days.

Ebert’s willingness to admit to a love-hate relationship with Siskel is emblematic of the warts-and-all approach to his memoir. He is equally candid about past struggles with alcoholism, his sexual adventures and misadventures, his fascination with African-American women, his agnosticism, his grueling surgeries, and his own mortality. The major downside to the book is structural, not unfiltered candor. Neither chronological nor thematic, it’s a randomly distributed mĂ©lange of views and memories, many of which first appeared on the popular blog he began when he lost his physical voice. One wishes his editor had arranged the chapters in something approaching a logical sequence, as the book’s scattershot presentation often makes for disjointed reading. In some cases, full understanding of the chapter requires some knowledge of events and people that have not yet been introduced.

That said, though, it would be a big mistake to dismiss this book as one merely about its author. There are deeply moving selections about dealing with illness, of mentally conjuring the taste of foods never again to be savored, of what it meant to grow up in a unit that exuded for-real family values, what it feels like to be transported by a movie, and what it means to contemplate death. Ebert has long educated us on the glories of film; in late life he’s now helping us see our inner selves with greater clarity.


Battlefield Band, Alan Reid, and Beyond


Line-Up; Recollection

Temple Records 2104; 2103

The cover of the new Battlefield CD pictures the band posing in front a height chart, as if they were crime suspects. It’s a fun idea as we know this “line-up,” or do we? We see Sean O’Donnell (guitar/vocals), Alasdair White (fiddle/fretted instruments), and Mike Katz (bagpipes/whistles/guitar/cittern), but who is the tall man holding another set of pipes? That would be Ewen Henderson, who also plays the fiddle, whistles, and piano. He tips us off that we’ve seen the passing of an era; in 2010, Battlefield cofounder Alan Reid retired from Battlefield after 41 years. Battlefield can now throw two pipe kits or two fiddles at a time at us. The opening set, “Raigmore,” is a very cool one--edgy, loud, and ever-so-slightly dark and frenetic, with fiddles popping in an out like a man with a secret. It’s suggestive of future directions Battlefield might

take. Two others are “The Herring,” a bouncy cittern and fiddle-driven piece, and “The Pits,” a big-reel set that airs out the pipes. Two of the album’s songs are in Gaelic, a language in which Henderson is fluent. So is Battlefield alive and well? I think so. The new album also features a lot of quiet material, with many of them evoking the Boys of the Lough more than Battlefield’s backlist. The concluding “Me n’vin BĂȘlek, na Manac’h” stands as the bookend opposite of “Raigmore.” Solo fiddle sets the mood for a pastoral, wistful tune in which even the pipes are feathery and light, though they move the piece onto a more joyous plane. Good stuff, though also a hint of hesitancy. Label it new steps, but not yet full stride.

Not ready to go cold turkey on Alan Reid? No need; Recollection is an eighteen-track compendium of Reid originals, covers, and classics culled from the Battlefield backlist, plus a 1981 duo project with Brian McNeill. Can any of us hear songs such as “The Green Plaid,” “I am the Common Man,” or “The Gallant Grahams” and not hear Reid’s voice in our heads? And then there are songs he penned such as “The Dear Green Place,” “

Jock the Can,” and “The Arran Convict” that have become so well known that many people assume they are traditional songs. Savor this collection, but don’t file it under “nostalgia;” at age 61, Reid has left Battlefield but has no plans to hang up his pen or vocal cords. Recollection is just out there to tide us over until new projects appear.