Ruston Kelly, Emerson Hart, Common Jack, Drivin' and Cryin', Taylor Scott, Samantha Fish, Chelsea Williams and More

Rounder Records artist Ruston Kelly made a mess of his life before rehabbing in 2015. We can be glad he did. He stopped by Paste Studios for a few songs recently, including a powerful cover of Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” that’s better than the original, and that’s no dig at Swift. His voice gives the song more grit and urgency and he’s certainly a better guitarist. Kelly is often listed as a country artist­—perhaps because he’s married to Kacey Musgraves—but if you listen to “Dammit,” the song and vocal inflections evoke the introspective folk of Richard Shindell. It’s a breakup song: It’s alright to tell me what you think about me/I know you’re leaving, you must have your reason/The season is calling, your pictures are falling down… . If that’s not bitter enough for you, try the blues harp-laced “At Your Funeral.” Kelly makes pain sound so good.

Emerson Hart has a sweet tenor voice, but it’s also a powerful one. His “Island” is a lifeline, not a stranding place: I was wrecked and I was shattered/When I washed up on your shore. “32 Thousand Days” is more up-tempo and asks us, When I move from here to ghost/What’s gonna matter most? Need a dose of nostalgia? “Kids” recalls his youthful antics, back when, Nirvana was our Bible/When we needed to be saved. That one’s also about those got stuck in place. And don’t we all know people like that?

If you like more gravel and spit, check out Common Jack. “Skin and Bone” is a love song, but of the rocky variety in which what’s left unsung is tangled in the sheets. There’s a shuffle feel to “I Don’tMind,” your stoic’s guide to taking what comes along in good cheer. Common Jack likes to call things as they are. If you’re sick of the toothless excuses you hear every time another testosterone-poisoned  idiot pulls a trigger, check out his “One TooMany Days,” a song worth hearing if only for the line little boys can’t recognize that they’re a dying breed.

If you’re in the mood for some hard-driving Southern fried rock with a boot in the butt after-kick of country, try Georgia’s Drivin’ and Cryin’. They’ve been around since 1985 and draw inevitable comparisons to the Allman Brothers. However, when I listen to “Live the Love Beautiful,” the title track of their latest recording, Kevin Kinney’s voice reminds me of Neil Young and the arrangement of what Young did in his grunge phase. Perhaps the Allman Brothers comparison comes from jam band material such as “Step By Step,” or the fact that Kinney has played with Warren Haynes. Kinney isn’t a great singer, but he’s a serious rocker, even though he once (1990) made a folk-rock album with a few members of REM. Don’t expect anything like that on Live the Love Beautiful. It is rock n’ roll played loud and hard. Take a listen to their cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” It won’t make you forget the Stones, but it’s louder, slower, and has elements of lo-fi.

Here's another Warren Haynes connection, Denver-based Taylor Scott, who has played with Haynes. By his own admission, though, the Otis Taylor Band has been a bigger influence. Scott sports long hair that he twists into a Willie Nelson braid when it’s not in a man bun, but he’s more kick ass than honkytonk. Bust out your best cheeky dance moves for “Somebody Told Me,” which is a blend of blues and funk, with interludes of electric guitar that has bite and buzz. “Salted Watermelon” has more of an electric country blues feel. It’s muscular, though pulls its punches. It also has an excellent line: made my castles out of mud. Then try “Curiosity,” which is packed with verve and drive that builds like a traveling song.

By the way, if you don’t know the Otis Taylor Band, you should. Taylor is such a blues legend that he now often showcases the band rather than himself. Watch their 16-minute jam band tour de force of “Hey Joe.” It’s different from Jimi Hendrix’s famed version and Taylor doesn’t quite have Jimi’s pipes, but my goodness what he and his bandmates do with that song!

Let’s stay bluesy. Samantha Fish came out of Kansas City, inspired by folks like Bonnie Raitt, Tom Petty, and the immortal Stevie Ray Vaughan. If you watch the official video of “Dream Girl,” your first thought is that she’s playing for the country ballad/sweet lil’ thang crowd. Okay, but why is she dressed like Joan of Arc, carrying a sword, and singing as if maybe she’s just trying on a role that probably won’t fit? That’s Fish in a nutshell. Check her out on “Kill or Be Kind/Watch it Die.” There she is, with peroxide hair, fake lashes, and troweled on makeup, airing out her voice atop bass, horns, drums, and keyboards and letting loose on some wicked licks. Wicked lyrics too: Make up your mind, I can kill or be kind. If there’ any doubt you should dress in asbestos around her, watch her burn down the house by shredding an electrified cigar box guitar on “Bulletproof.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZFxAQz_x6g You can’t make out the vocals on this clip, but do you need them?

Chelsea Williams has a new album that came out this month, so she has made tracks from 2017’s Boomerang available for pay-what-you-like download. If Williams had only been heard singing at the Brown Derby instead of the streets and beach at Santa Monica, she’s be a classic LA discovery story. Her music caught the attention of Sheryl Crow, Lee Ann Rimes, and others before she became an LA staple. Hers is a blend of pop, rock, country, and jazz that evokes Kat Edmonson. “Boomerang” is a piano-based song that’s pretty, heartfelt, and strong in one fell swoop. “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” is darker and moodier, a song for low lights and late nights, and “Fool’s Gold” has elements of layered production often associated with LA music. “Six Bottles of Wine,” though is a Williams pastiche–a bit of torch music, an acoustic blues vibe, and traces of skiffle.

Future Thieves is a great band name and I like front man Elliot Collett’s voice, but I was underwhelmed by this Nashville indie band. “Get Up” is monochromatic and it sounds an awful lot like “Out the Other Side.” They pick it up a bit with jazzy electric notes in “My Body,” but drop again into a generic mode on “Nightmare.” There is talent here, but Future Thieves need to steal some compositional and production tips from bands with more colors on their palettes. 


Apeirogon a Powerful (but flawed) Book

Apeirogon (2020)
By Colum McCann
HarperCollins, 480 pages.

A few weeks ago, I posted a review of American Dirt that opened with the observation that if you think you can imagine what it’s like to be a Mexican refugee trying to make it into the United States, you probably can’t. Let me draw from the same well in this review of Apeirogon: If you think you’re sure of where you stand on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, you’re probably short-sighted.

I admit that I had no idea of what an apeirogon was before I read this book. It is a polygon, but hold onto your brain. It’s a two-dimensional figure “with a countably infinite number of sides.” That’s pretty abstract, but the basic idea is that no matter how many sides you see or draw, more are possible. This is Irish writer Colum McCann’s working assumption for his new “novel.” I put novel in quotes, because Apeirogon could just as easily be called a literary biography or lightly fictionalized history.

At its center are two flesh-and-blood individuals: Rami Elhanan, a 7th generation Israeli Jew, and Bassam Aramin, a native-born Palestinian. They are spearheads of Combatants for Peace, a real organization, and have become such good friends that they address each other as “brother.” Each must deal with the murder of a daughter. Rami’s 13-year-old Smadar perished in downtown Jerusalem when three suicide bombers detonated explosive vests; Bassam lost 10-year-old Abir to a rubber bullet fired by a young Israeli soldier.

McCann gives us looks at both the present and the circuitous route that led them to advocate for a peace currently scorned by a majority of their countrymen. Rami served in the military, fought in Israel’s wars, and has a father in law who was a “hero of Israel” turned peace activist. Bassam was one of the young men who used slingshots to fire stones at Israelis. At the age of 17, he tried to blow up jeeps with what turned out to be ineffective grenades and spent 7 years in prison for terrorism. This raises a potent question: How does one embrace another whose “side” caused your daughter’s death? This takes us back to the heart of the apeirogon metaphor. Why would you presume there are only two sides?

One of McCann’s major points is that both Israel and Palestine are damaged by war and occupation, which renders pointless attempts to measure relative damage. Apeirogon is often a book of parallel unsettling experiences. What does it feel like to leave the home of your best friend or a meeting of Combatants for Peace in neutral monastery and then ride your motorcycle across Palestine at night to your home in Israel? How does a Palestinian keep his cool as he sits at an Israeli checkpoint and knows, that on a good day, he’ll only be detained for a few hours?

Rami, Bassam, and their families are remarkable. Imagine an Israeli who thinks that both the occupation of Palestine and the building of West Bank settlements are illegal. Now conjure a Palestinian who goes to England and Ireland to pursue peace studies and makes the Holocaust the center of his studies. McCann explains these contradictions and coping mechanisms as, “Peace without reconciliation. To forgive but not excuse. To colonize the mind.” What drives both men and their Combatants for Peace allies is the deep belief that the status quo is an unacceptable dead end. Or, as they configure the hatred, “It’s not over until we talk.”

For a book whose title suggests an infinite number of sides, McCann dares suggest there really are but two: eternal war or peace. In this sense, the infinite number of sides references the myriad ways in which the status quo is defended and the indeterminate ways in which both sides of the conflict are damaged by it. This point is crucial. It is easy to take sides. If you are pro-Palestine, you can justify atrocities associated with the Intifada as legitimate actions of the oppressed against a repressive state; if you are pro-Israel, you argue that actions require reaction. Palestinians are terrorists whose provocations must be countered with force. Either view leaves two innocent girls dead.

Apeirogon is a powerful book, though not always a great one. McCann employs several devices; some work, some do not. The book is 480 pages long, but it could have been half as long and equally effective. There is repetition, which could be seen as reinforcement or (my view) simply redundant. McCann is a gifted writer, but I don’t think he trusts his audience to connect the dots. The danger is that the book’s length might discourage readers who most need to adjust their views.

McCann also intersperses sections on birds with the biographical narratives. We grasp early one that birds neither know about nor respect borders. They are “free” in ways that Israelis and Palestinians are not. Got that. Check. The rest of the ornithological detail is superfluous.

Still another device–perhaps inspired by the Qu’ran–is writing short bursts of text that are numbered sequentially. McCann doesn’t follow this (if I might) religiously, but he does reverse course at some point and begin to count down instead of up. It’s not clear why, which makes said exercise appear mechanistic.

Finally, I wonder if McCann grew too enamored with the very idea of the apeirogon. How may “sides” do we need to grasp the notion that they are infinite in number? I began to feel the way I fell about calculating increasing numbers of decimal points when squaring pi. Enough already!

I have read that neither Rami nor Bassam have yet managed to finish the book. Each has praised it, but have found it too “painful” to continue to the end. And isn’t pain the point? After all, “It isn’t over until we talk.”

Rob Weir


Three Classic Movies about Greed

 There are those who treat the COVID virus as a threat and counsel caution to reduce its deadly toll, and those motivated by self-interest that see it an annoyance and would use our lives as chips to wager as they spin the Profits Wheel. That’s my hook for taking a look at three movies in which protagonists seek sudden riches. All three are considered classics.

The Gold Rush (1925)
Directed, written, produced, and starring Charlie Chaplin
United Artists, 95 (or 72) minutes, Unrated

Many have trudged into foreboding places in search of gold. In most cases, those who went to mine the miners—hoteliers, furnishing agents, con artists, gamblers—are the ones who made the money. The Gold Rush, a silent film classic considered one of Charlie Chaplin’s best, took its cues from Canada’s Klondike Gold Rush (1896-99), with a few nods to the infamous Donner Party incident (1846-47) in which snowbound settlers headed for California resorted to eating leather and each other.

Chaplin, one of the greatest physical comedians of all time, plays things for laughs, not history lessons. We open to a scene lifted from Eric Hegg’s famed photos of lines of prospectors making or failing to make their way through the Chilkoot Pass. Then we cut to Chaplin as the Lone Prospector improbably dressed in his threadbare Little Tramp costume.  He negotiates numerous hazards but is starving, freezing, and lost in a raging blizzard.

The Lone Prospector happens upon the cabin of notorious outlaw Black Larsen (Tom Murray). They are soon joined by Big Jim McKay (Mark Swain), who has found gold. Larsen’s attempt to evict both men fails, but they are out of food and Larsen draws the short straw and must go out to find some. The plot is thin, but involves a double cross, near-starvation, and stumbling into a town—likely modeled after Dawson City, Yukon—where Chaplin falls for a dance hall girl named Georgia (Georgia Hale) who, at first, uses the bedraggled and poverty-stricken Lone Prospector as amusement.  Big Jim’s reappearance changes the Lone Prospector’s fortunes (literally!). Toward the end of the film, Chaplin is on a boat with his new business partner and spies Georgia before she sees him. He changes back into his rags to see if she really cares. Happy ending.

The Gold Rush is listed as # 58 on the American Film Institute’s list of Greatest American Films. There are several heralded sequences, including Chaplin’s gourmet preparation of his right shoe, Larsen’s starved hallucination that Chaplin is a giant chicken, and a cabin about to be blown over a cliff. Pathos, revelation, and romance are staples of most Chaplin films. If you want to get technical about things, Georgia and her comely friends probably would have been prostitutes in the actual Klondike Gold Rush, but why go there? If you’ve never seen a silent film, this is a good place to start. The original 1925 film was 95 minutes long. It was re-released in 1942 and trimmed to 72 minutes. Not much was lost in the shorter version.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Directed by John Huston
Warner Brothers, 101 minutes, Unrated

Let’s move up to # 31 on AFI’s top 100 list. The Maltese Falcon has it all: Bogart as tough-guy P.I. Sam Spade, John Huston as director, a script adapted from Dashiell Hammett, a legend, and a beautiful woman (Mary Astor) who has a secret.

In the 16th century, the Knights Templar, a Catholic military order, sent a statue of a jewel-encrusted golden falcon on its way to the King of Spain. Pirates boarded the ship, carried off the falcon, and it was lost to history. In Hammett’s story, several international treasure hunters are following leads that the falcon, now covered in lacquer and painted black, has resurfaced. Spade knows nothing about this when a woman calling herself Ruth Wonderly (Astor) hires him to find her sister, who has taken up with a reprobate. Spade isn’t convinced by her story, so he dispatches his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) to tail Wonderly. Archer is murdered that very night.

Thus begins a tale of ruthless intrigue whose plot thickens from the moment that Ruth “comes clean” and admits her name is actually Brigid O’Shaughnessy. The Maltese Falcon shines because Bogart was born to play a hardboiled character like Spade, because Astor is letter-prefect in her allure and treachery, and because the film is chockfull with other rogues, including Detective Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond), who wouldn’t mind sending Spade to the cooler; obsequious and androgynous fortune-seeker Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre); and “The Fat Man,” Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet), who has chased the Maltese falcon across the globe and will use any method—cajolery, blackmail, bargaining, murder—to lay hands on it. Greenstreet almost steals the movie from Bogie.

The film is a classic for many reasons, including its poignant ending. Or should I say endings plural? Many consider Dashiell Hammett the dean of detective novels. There are reasons aplenty for that as well. No cinema education is complete without at least one Maltese Falcon viewing.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Directed by John Huston
Warner Brothers, 126 minutes, Unrated.

Although The Treasure of the Sierra Madre doesn’t enjoy the same fame as The Maltese Falcon, it’s just as good. It won six Oscars—three for John Huston and one for his father Walter—and is also on AFI’s top 100 movies list. This time we get a sort of late Western. The year is (ironically) 1925, and two unemployed drifters, Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are footloose in Tampico, Mexico, bumming for meal money. Instead, they are offered jobs as “roughnecks” to build oil rigs for a contracting agent. But the lure of gold and a windfall for gear sends them into the hills to sluice for gold. They do well, thanks to Howard (Walter Huston), an old man who knows the ropes.

There are no secrets in the hills and they are soon joined by a fourth, Cody (Bruce Bennett), and the mountains are crawling with banditos and Federales. What begins as a partnership of three degenerates into four-way suspicion in which the only person on the level is the one no one trusts. Bogart didn’t win a Best Acting Oscar, but perhaps he should have. His is a chilling portrait of a man so poisoned by golden dreams that we watch him degenerate into a toothy simian-like beast.

One of the film’s morals is quit while you’re ahead. You never know when Gold Hat (Antonia Bedoya) and his banditos will come calling, nor do you know how others define “treasure.” Treasure of the Sierra Madre hurtles to a conclusion that is several parts tragedy and one big dollop of comedic hubris. To my mind, its final scene is an incredibly poignant moment that forces us to consider what matters and what doesn’t.

Rob Weir