Jeremiah Tall: Don't Sell Him Short!

Randm Records
* * * *

Jeremiah Tall hails from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which is located within the Philadelphia/Camden, NJ/Wilmington, DE metropolitan area. That said, he's a self-described mountain man and he plays the part well. He's a one-man band in the spirit of Matt Lorenz (aka/Suitcase Junket), who accompanies himself on guitar, banjo, and harmonica and keeps the beat with a kick drum fashioned from an old traveling case. Whereas Lorenz is often upbeat and playful, Tall idolizes Johnny Cash and his kick drum sports a photo of John Wayne in cowboy regalia. These are perfect symbols for Tall's persona, which is a blend of outlaw and drifter. He is a burly man with bushy hair and beard who looks a bit like Jerry Garcia's lost brother. His is a powerful voice with lots of husk, growl, spit, and yalp; and his songs are about cowboys, love that may or may not be redeemable, and encounters with the Devil. In fact, Old Nick appears on three of the eight tracks of Wakin­as Tempter, Gambler, Avenger, and Threat. Tall wants us to question the assumption that salvation is a given and, in his musical universe, the border between heaven and hell is gossamer thin. Encounters with the Devil at the crossroads are, of course, a folk music/folklore staple, but Tall does some interesting things with old tropes. In "The Devil and David," for example, he re-imagines the Old Testament story. In the Bible, David's first son dies after David commits adultery with Bathsheba; in Tall's tale, David beats the Devil in cards and reclaims his son—though he foolishly forgets to bargain for his own soul. In like fashion, the bluesy bass-note-heavy "Revelation (The Final Book)" is also a vengeance song, but this time a preacher reminds that it's God who is angry and "hell will follow in his wrath." And what's a badass album without a song about railroads? His "Train" is a thunderous guitar/harmonica/kick drum/vocal storm in which he implores a woman to "get back on that train" to return home to the man she left. By contrast, "Coal Mine March" is claps, stomps, and a capella vocals—as sparse and spare as a denuded hillside. Jeremiah Tall–don't sell him short.  Rob Weir    


Magician: A Look at Orson Welles Only for the Knowing

Directed by Chuck Workman
Calliope Films, 91 minutes, PG-13
* *

Last fall I went to a conference in which a very thoughtful undergraduate issued a reminder every storyteller, teacher, and director should take to heart. He is a film studies major, but he admonished that very often he finds himself watching "famous" films, but not understanding why they are famous. That's because his professors too often assume that everybody already knows why the movie, actors, or directors in question are renowned. Well, no…. Is it reasonable to expect that an 18-year-old will fall down at the altar of Fellini, whose 1993 death took place four years before he was born? If you want a student, viewer, or movie fan to observe greatness, give them some guidance.

Chuck Workman's new documentary of Orson Welles suffers from a lack of cues, clues, and context. The title embeds Workman's thesis: Welles was a magician who dazzled with his brilliance, prescience, intellect, and talent. I believe that to be objectively true, but that has something to do with the fact that I had observed Welles for years before his death in 1985. Alas, Workman's film is directed to the cognoscenti, not the curious. There's simply not much in the film to explain Welles' importance to those who are less familiar with him. Workman is best known for the montages he assembles for Academy Award broadcasts and his portrait of Welles is a bit like these—random snippets that rely upon the viewer to recognize images and infer connections. It is not a conventional or sequential biography. Although there are plenty of clips and some linking narrative, a casual viewer probably won't see Welles as a "magician," as most of what we see and hear is a litany of box office flops, aborted projects, and ego clashes. We are told repeatedly that Welles was a genius–especially by director Peter Bogdanovich–but it's Welles' well-earned reputation for being difficult that's most on display. Nor do we learn that films such as Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil were popular and critical flops in their day that attained iconic status due to the work of film scholars.

Orson Welles certainly deserves a biography, but I suspect it needs to come from someone less worshipful than Workman. He was a fascinating individual; also an infuriating one whose major magician act might have been not being ridden out of town on a rail! If you don't know about Welles, you should read about him. You should also watch (at minimum) Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Third Man, The Trial, The Lady from Shanghai, and Long, Hot Summer. (Unlike Workman, I'm not a fan of The Magnificent Ambersons.) Then you should have discussions about all of them. Do these things and you'll have no need for Workman's misguided documentary. If you don't  want to spend that much time, you'll learn more about Welles from Richard Linklater's 2008 fictional film Me and Orson Welles.  Rob Weir