Vishten: Rising Band from Prince Edward Island

Terre Rouge
Plages PTVish05

This review originally ran in August of last year, but this superb band--with 5 engaging albums to its credit--is now on tour. Those in western MA, southern VT and NH, and eastern NY can catch them at the Guthrie Center in Great Barrington, MA on September 2 (8 pm show--doors open at 6) 

If you've been to Prince Edward Island or the Magdalen Islands, it makes sense that a band from the former would pay homage to the distinctive red sandstone soil one sees everywhere. The rising trio Vishtèn reminds us, though, it's not just potatoes that germinate in that red dirt. The titular Terre Rouge is the opening track, but its chorus–Allons danser ma jolie–is a lover's invitation to dance. It's one of many dance tempo songs on the album. Although there is no clogging on this one, you'll hear plenty of moving feet throughout. Updating tradition is a Vishtèn staple, and one hears that to wonderful effect on "Ma mie tant blanche," a catchy song, but also one in which the mix of smooth presentation and clogging sounds old and new at the same time. PEI is a small place in size, but not culturally. Vishtèn honor its variegated cultural roots–Acadian, Micmac, Irish, Scottish, Breton, Magdalen Islanders—and wrap those musical traditions in a bright wrapper that has the heft of tradition but the exuberance of pop. Another song that illustrates this is "Coeur en Mer." It takes a tried and true folk motif—a woman disguised as a man to be with her sea captain husband–opens then tale with thumping beats, frames Pastelle LeBlanc's vocals within a crisp mandolin run from Emmanuelle LeBlanc, adds some bodice-tight harmonies, tosses in some mouth music, and allows the tune's pulsing beat and joyful melody to dance on the decks. Not all is mirth, though. Those who live in the East will recall the winter of 2015 as a rough one. Vishtèn instrumentally recreate its feel in "Trois Blizzards," with Pascal Miousse's fiddle notes dashing about like gale-driven snowflakes. Feet tap as if trying to drive the cold winter away, and then comes some penny whistle that's somewhere between hope and melancholy, but maybe just a touch more of the latter. Vishtèn also strike a pensive pose on "Valse á Alonzo." LeBlanc's deliberate accordion is somewhere between Parisian-style ennui and a tantalizing suggestion it might squeeze out a joyous waltz if fancy strikes. Need further mood adjustment? You'll think PEI imported swamp water and perhaps a gator or two when Vishtèn go Louisiana style fais-do-dos on "Joe Féraille," a tune collected by John and Allan Lomax in 1934. But don't worry; they round off the superb Terre Rouge with something closer to home–a set of "crooked tunes" (those that dispense with regular rhythms as dancers or local customs dictate). They only had to cross the Confederation Bridge and borrow these from New Brunswick. I recall seeing Vishtèn for the first time just two years ago, but in this short span they've become one of my favorite bands, and thoughtful projects like Terre Rouge explain why. 

Rob Weir

 There are no videos of new material yet available but the link below gives a sense of the band's energy and material:


Debo Band Makes Boston Boogie

Ere Gobez
FPE Records
* * * *

If you like sweaty dance bands with blaring horns, complex cross-rhythmic percussion, crunchy bass, and vocals piercing through the mix, you'll love The Debo Band. And if you want something a bit out of the ordinary, Google them now to check out their latest release Ere Gobez. The Debo Band gets labeled "Ethiopian pop," but ignore that handle—you'll never hear pop that's this robust, and only two of the band members are of Ethiopian heritage: vocalist Bruck Tesfay and saxophonist Danny Mekonnen. "Debo" means communal labor and the album title translates "Call of the Lion-Hearted." Those are two labels I can endorse. The Debo Band is, indeed, a group effort, an eleven-piece ensemble that, like the lion, roars across the stage. The Debo Band plays as boldly and loudly as you'd expect from an outfit that throws the following at you: two saxes, trumpet, trombone, sousaphone, accordion, two violins, guitar, bass, and percussion. One more thing: The Debo Band is based in Boston, not Addis Abada.

The Debo Band grabs you by your dancing shoes and doesn't let go. The first track, "Ele" opens big and proceeds to get bigger; "Yachat" unfolds with the kind of wailing electric guitar you might associate with the Allman Brothers, adds Tesfay's vocals, lots of brass, and shifts to a higher gear you think will dissolve into chaos, but never does. The Debo Band is full of surprises. On "Kehulum Abliche," Tesfay's vocals lull us into a trance, but the music makes us want to dance. "Sak" sounds like the sound track from a dessert action movie, "Blue Awaze" could be background music for a caper film, and "HiyamitkachiBushi" is like North African café music on steroids (and it has the rumblings of a rumba).  "Yalanchi" feels like Big Band music merged with a North African-influenced rock and roll band, which, in my mind, is exactly what The Debo Band is. A word about Bruck Tesfay: His is an unforgettable voice. He often sounds like a muezzin, but one calling the faithful to party. Bruck belts out all manner of elides, guttural tones, accidentals, modulations, and other vocal ornaments. What a voice! What a group! Let's replace "banned" in Boston with "band" in Boston. Even John Winthrop would boogie to the Debo Band.

Rob Weir


Pairing Presidents: Obama and Carter


Shakespeare observed that the "past is prologue." Is this depressing or reassuring? Hegel gloomily commented, "We learn from history that we do not learn from history. … [P]eople and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it." The flip side comes from William Faulkner, who observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Are we condemned to an endless cycles of glory and stupidity, or simply part of the ebb and flow of the human condition? I'm not wise enough to answer definitively, but I can say, in this presidential election year, that every president has had an analog.

In the eleven weeks leading up to the election, I'll profile the Shakespearean prologues by working backward to pair presidents. I will use scholars' ratings of presidents, add my proverbial two-cents' worth, and (hopefully) both enlighten and provide intellectual fodder upon which to chew.

When he was elected, many hoped that Barack Obama would become the black Franklin Roosevelt. This was bad history; no president has ever had a working majority as large as that of FDR. It will probably anger Obama supporters, but the president he most resembles is Jimmy Carter.

How they are similar:

Obama and Carter are deliberate, low-key, and highly cerebral. Both are of outstanding character, moral, and scandal-free. Carter is undoubtedly our most respected ex-president and I imagine that Obama's post-presidential years will be similarly devoted to selfless public service.

Carter and Obama each took over after long Republican presidencies and represented great hope for liberals alienated by what they viewed as harmful GOP social policies–those of Reagan and George H. Bush in Carter's case, and eight years of George W. Bush in Obama's case. Both disappointed as they had limited success in moving Congress on issues such as energy conservation, gun control, reindustrialization, or environmental protection. Neither was a forceful leader. Both inherited big messes in the form of ruined economies and declining foreign relations.

Jimmy Carter failed to improve the U.S. economy, did a superb job in the realm of foreign relations. Although he is often vilified for the Iranian hostage crisis, it was Carter–not Reagan, as many believe–who negotiated hostage releases. (Nor was Reagan any stronger on Iran; he simply talked tougher.) In most other aspects, Carter's foreign policy enhanced American prestige and power. He negotiated the Camp David Accord between Israel and Egypt, the first time a Muslim nation recognized Israeli sovereignty. Conservatives beat him up over his policy of linking U.S. aid to human rights, but most of Latin America credits Carter for assisting their transformations from juntas to democracy. The same Latin Americans hailed the decision to give Panama control over the Panama Canal, another decision that infuriated conservatives but looks wise in retrospect. Finally, Carter's decision to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan is now viewed as one of the nails in the USSR's bankruptcy coffin.

Obama will also get higher marks from historians on the foreign policy level. He certainly patched relations abroad left torn asunder by his blundering predecessor. Obama removed U.S. troops from Iraq and had the courage to say this war should have never been fought in the first place; he has drawn down troop strength in Afghanistan, a war that's probably unwinnable. He earns high marks for shutting down war hawks within the Democratic Party (Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, John Kerry) that urged US intervention across the globe with hazy plans of what could be accomplished or how a mission would end. Remember Osama bin Laden? Obama took him out, not the GOP howlers. Gaddafi fell in Libya after carefully orchestrated US pressure and Obama wisely resisted temptations to overreact to the Benghazi tragedy. If he gambled correctly on engaging Iran rather than further isolating it, history will be very kind to him. Normalizing relations with Cuba was simply the correct thing to do. Foreign relations improved immeasurably under Obama.

How they differ:

There is no equivalent of the Affordable Care Act on Carter's resume. The Dow Jones foundered under Carter and set records under Obama, who has been a much better steward of the economy. (In truth, presidents have little influence over the economy, but each takes the blame or the credit.) It's too soon to tell whether T.A.R.P.  or the bank bailouts were a good idea.

Obama is more comfortable in public than Carter ever was and wins on all those intangible style points. Lest we dismiss those as trivial, remember that we have no ceremonial leader such as a queen; the POTUS is a symbol of the nation as well as its chief executive.

Carter wore his evangelical Christianity on his sleeve; Obama practices church/state separation. Obama is also a strong advocate of science.

Carter began the military buildup for which Reagan took credit; Obama has been less wiling to approve big-ticket military items and favors spending money on troops rather than hardware.

Scholars' rankings (of 44):

Carter is currently ranked 27th and Obama 17th. When he left office, Carter's was seen as a "failed" presidency, but he has risen steadily. Obama, on the other hand, has slipped from 12th to 17th. I suspect he will slip further when passions cool over the enormous symbolism of having been the first African American POTUS.  I would rank both in the 20s—at the bottom of the upper tier. There are few great domestic achievements associated with either and (alas!) foreign policy dexterity seldom attracts great acclaim.


Bryson's Cranky Look at Britain Has Sublime Moments

By Bill Bryson
Doubleday, 2015, 376 ppp.
* * *

Few travel writers rival Bill Bryson's magical mix of humor, celebratory wonder, and gentle critique. Bryson’s search for the ‘perfect’ American small town in The Lost Continent (1989) is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. In it—and books such as I’m a Stranger Here Myself (1999) and his hilarious Australian sojourn In a Sunburned Country (2000)—Bryson manages both to expose readers to godforsaken locales, yet find the sublime in small moments and unexpected discoveries. He has always called attention to head-scratching idiocy, and has expressed bafflement when finding Homo sapiens in habitats unfit for human consumption, but his barbs generally battle for attention with self-deprecating humor.
The Road to Little Dribbling—the title is ironic; no such place exists—is a sequel ­to Notes from a Small Island, his 1996 walkabout Britain. Bryson is an Iowan by birth, but has lived much of his life since the 1970s in England—first as a student working at a defunct sanatorium in Surrey, but also in Dorset, Yorkshire, Hampshire, and London. He is married to an Englishwoman and is in the process of obtaining UK citizenship. Little Dribbling contains numerous laugh-out-loud passages and, like his other books, takes us to out of the way places where few wander and more should—Noar Hill, Silbury, the remnants of Motopia, the Meon Valley, and Derwent Water among them—and regales us with tales of long-forgotten English eccentrics. (No one does eccentricity as well as Brits!)
What’s missing from Little Dribbling is empathy. What once amused Bryson now infuriates him. The book is filled with discursions and rants that, frankly, only a writer as famous as he could get past editors without reworking the tone. At age 64, Bryson seems to be cultivating the image of grumpy misanthrope. There is liberal use of the F-bomb, mostly for cheap affect, and even more liberal denunciation of people he encounters as “idiots” and “cretins.” Sometimes it’s richly deserved. He recounts an incident in Austin—though what a trip to Texas has to do with a book about Britain is uncertain—in which he checked into a major hotel. When he gave the clerk his London address, she asked where it was located. When she couldn’t locate England, Britain, or the UK on her computer pull-down menu, she insisted there could be no such place. I despair for America’s future. How does one get out of junior high school without having heard of London? But, wait—it gets worse.  Our dumb-as-dung cowgirl was perfectly content when Bryson told her to try “France!” Okay, she deserves the label “idiot.” But the overall sense of the book is that a lot of people annoy Bryson—sometimes merely for their audacity of occupying physical space.
At his best, Bryson makes us chortle. Little Dribbling is filled with quotable hoots. His take on Britain’s declining rail service: “It is like rigor mortis with scenery.” He skewers a talentless but venomous authoress as an airhead who finds herself “progressing through life with breasts that must weigh thirty kilos each.” He uses the phrase “knobhead in ermine” to lampoon an archaic British class system that bestows honors on people who don’t actually do anything. He is equally witty in discussing Britain’s legendary inefficiency, its penchant for erecting monuments to people it forgets the moment the first pigeon alights, and its obsession with rules, especially those that are contradictory.
The overall portrait of Britain from Bognor Regis to Scotland’s Cape Wrath—places Bryson determined are the actual most-distant points in the United Kingdom, not Land’s End and John o’Groats as the tour books say—is less sunny than that of Notes from a Small Island. He sees a nation in the midst of transformations that are destroying remaining pockets of charm and replacing them with squalor, noise, and litter. He confesses missing the Britain he came to love in the 1970s. Is he right, or is this a further manifestation of encroaching Old Fuddydom? I’ve been to many of the places he writes about and if the losses he mentions are accurate, I’d cast my vote for saying that Bryson is on to something. Britain without charm is, well, Sheffield and Birmingham. There is a palpable sense that Britain outside of Greater London is a dire place interrupted up by enclaves of grace.  
U.K. readers are sure to notice that Bryson gives short shrift to Wales and Scotland and doesn't go to Northern Ireland at all. Although he didn't intend this, Bryson's Anglo-centric travel through what he constantly calls "Britain" might be a harbinger of the U.K.'s post-Brexit future. Scotland desperately wishes to remain in the European Union and will probably schedule a new independence vote. Northern Ireland leaders now ponder whether unification with the E.U.-member Republic would be better than remaining inside a declining United Kingdom, and some Londoners have pondered leaving as well. Oh dear! Again, without intending to do so, Bryson allows readers to imagine a post-empire Britain. In an odd way, he gives comfort to American readers. At least we have our collective idiocy to keep us together!
I don't mean to make this book sound glum.  Bryson recounts some truly magnificent moments—and describes places I've added to my bucket list.  His humor is sharp, even when he's more acerbic than amusing. My advice is to give it a spin, but don't be afraid to skim when Bryson's ramblings turn into rants. Decline—broadly defined—isn't pretty, but remembrance, time warps, and unexpected renaissance can be. A final thing—avoid Bognor Regis!
Rob Weir


NFL Time? No Thanks!

It’s just about time for more football. Color me disinterested. In my view, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is the greatest threat to public health since opioids. Think I’m kidding? Check out Goodell’s public record on CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). It is a textbook case of rapacious capitalism—denial masquerading willingness to grind up athletes to protect a multi-billion dollar investment. There’s little that differentiates NFL owners from Gilded Age coal barons. If you’re a parent and you let you kids play football, you might as well accelerate time, take a baseball bat, and repeatedly smack your kids over their heads, because that’s what a few years worth of football will do their brains.Oh yeah, it also makes them grow up to be jerks.

If it were only the refusal to take CTE seriously…. Let’s call the NFL the National Fraud League. With the possible exception of FIFA and the IOOC, there is no sports federation on the planet that extorts like the NFL. These guys make Mafia shakedown artists seem like public servants by comparison. At a time in which cities are struggling to keep schools open, build homeless shelters, fix bridges, fill potholes, and provide basic social services, the NFL seeks to bilk them for the one-time frivolous experience of hosting a Super Bowl. The rock bottom fee just to apply is a new stadium.

This would be risible, were it not for the sad truth that cities are biting like hungry trout approaching a fat worm on a baited hook. Atlanta has the perfectly functional Georgia Dome, but is about to shell out $1.4 billion to replace it. The Dome was built in 1992 and a 25-year-old facility won’t satisfy King Roger. For the record, my home was built in 1993, is still in great shape, and has nearly tripled in value rather than depreciating by $56 million per year. Maybe Atlanta needs to hire better builders.

NFL Owners: America's Only Socialists!
Atlanta’s new stadium will be named Mercedes Benz Stadium. Like the car, the new venue will cater more to the 1% than to the 99%, who get pick up the bulk of the tab. The minions of the rich known as the Chamber of Commerce shamelessly support the project. The C of C claims a Super Bowl generates $400 million in income. Leaving aside the basic stupidity of gambling a billion more than one can win, there are numerous studies that show that the Super Bowl (and the NFL in general) generates far less than boosters claim. There’s also the matter that the stadium cost is the tip of the pigskin; infrastructure upgrades, tax abatements, and construction delays inflate costs like Tom Brady’s worst nightmare.

The NFL excels at graft. According to the Associated Press, six of the past nine Super Bowls have been awarded to cities with spanking new facilities. In all cases, local taxpayers subsidized most of the associated costs and, almost always without the consent of voters. The AP also reports there is seldom solid math behind the claims of NFL boosters. Why, it’s as if they just made up numbers—which precisely what they did. The NFL won’t tell you about the studies that show zero percent difference in tourist dollars between cities that host a Super Bowl and those that don’t. As in the case of the Olympics, normal tourism is disrupted by the event—often for much longer than just the day of the Super Bowl, and there is no long-term “bounce” from being a host.

Why do cities continue to fall for this? Beats me, but if you think Las Vegas is the city of gamblers, it’s a piker compared to Los Angeles, whose leaders want to spin the roulette wheel on both the NFL and the Olympics. The Rams and Raiders left LA in 1994 and, you probably noticed that tourism ceased, the city was vacated, and most Americans came to believe that Los Angeles was a suburb of Terre Haute. Oh wait, that didn’t happen. What does LA think it’s going to gain from the Rams returning in 2016? It had better be plenty, because the current estimate for a facility to open in 2019 is $2.6 billion. Good grief! Remember: As Atlanta teaches us, this baby will be an antique in 25 years—at an annual loss in value of $100 million. In case you care, the average homeless shelter costs about $17,500 per person per year. Do we want to contemplate what the Olympics will cost if LA wins its bid for 2024? But at least Los Angeles will get a Super Bowl, right? Not necessarily! A new park only puts one in the running for consideration.

Let’s return to CTE, shall we? Today’s NFL is a shell game run by billionaires to dupe the masses. Several economic prognosticators claim that though the NFL is presently at the height of its popularity, it has maxed out its potential and is a poor long-term investment. Some have ventured to compare football to boxing circa 1968—about to take a cross to the chin and go splat on the mat. It won’t disappear, but football might become another niche sport. Unless some dramatic (read: miracle) leap in technology occurs, CTE will play a big part in that. Would you really take a bat to your kids’ skulls? If parents simply take away the pigskin and toss their kids a soccer ball, it will rob the NFL of what it needs most: a new generation of sanguinary warriors. If you think I overstate, visit your local playground and count the number of kids kicking the round ball compared to those tossing the prolate spheroid. If production value collpases, it won’t be easy for elected officials to write welfare checks for billionaires, and kudzu will grow in the cracks of the rotting edifices of greed.