My Black Friday Shopping Wish List





Santa has arrived and now that he’s done with the Macy’s Parade he’s making his list for 12/25. If you see the Big Red Dude, please tell him I’d like the following:


1. A mysterious targeted electronic pulse that wipes out all Christmas music at retail stores and public venues.


2. A ban on clothing made of non-natural materials.


3. Laryngitis for anyone who tries to say that Trump cares about average Americans—he’d sell your organs on E-Bay—or those who want to say that Joe Biden is not too old to be POTUS.


4. A genius brewer to discover that beer can be made without using 3,000 different types of hops in each 12-ounce glass.


5. Collective awareness that an “influencer” isn’t a real thing.


6. Airtime for any naturalist who can explain the difference between a reindeer and a plain old deer.


7. The discovery of a magic pill that transforms pie into health food.


8.  An IQ requirement for voting. Or for running for elected office.


9. Unionization of elf labor.


10. Don’t we all want this one? A definitive explanation of how a rotund dude can fit down chimneys and how he gets into locked homes that have none.



Alice's Restaurant: Thanksgiving 1969 Style?



Alice’s Restaurant (1969)

Directed by Arthur Penn

United Artists, 111 minutes, R/PG (language, brief nudity, drug use)





Every Thanksgiving you can find a radio station playing Arlo Guthrie’s famed 18:34 talking blues song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre.” Some people say they are sick of hearing it, but isn’t this the time of the year to be bombarded by music we have heard a billion times (to wit, Christmas carols)? Not everyone knows that Alice's Restaurant was made into a movie. It's not a brilliant one, nor is it 100% accurate, even though Arthur Penn received a Best Director Oscar nomination. It hit theaters at an opportune time–just days after Woodstock. Today, it’s an amusing nostalgia trip. Or is it?


Most folks know the basics. Young Arlo Guthrie is an about to drop out of his Montana college. He returns East for Thanksgiving and stays with Ray and Alice Brock in an old church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, that’s in a state of renovation and chaos. A whole host of friends–hippies, motorcycle gang members, assorted oddballs–drop by for, as the song puts it, “a Thanksgiving dinner that can't be beat.” When it's over, Arlo and a friend load the garbage into a VW minivan and drive to the dump in Stockbridge. It’s closed for Thanksgiving, but they spot a bank filled with garbage and heave theirs into it. They are soon arrested for littering, which turns out to be a major crime in Stockbridge. They are jailed by “Officer Obie” until they make bail and ordered to appear before a judge. In the category of you-can’t-make-it-up, Obie’s photos of the crime scene go for naught as Judge Hannon is blind. It gets weirder when Arlo is drafted and must report to a New York City induction center. He is rejected from military service because of his “criminal” record.


This is true (mostly). The film converts Arlo’s 18 1/2 minute song into an 111 minute movie. To do so, details are scrambled, made-up, or exaggerated for cinematic purposes. Some scenes were added so noteworthy people could appear in cameos. For example, we see Pete Seeger at the deathbed of Woody Guthrie (Joseph Boley). Arlo arrives to play harmonica while Pete sings “Pastures of Plenty.” Oddly, Arlo’s littering companion is inexplicably renamed Roger. Former junkie Shelly (Michael McClanathan), a motorcycle enthusiast, is fictional, an excuse for a cameo in which then 26-year-old Joni Mitchell to appear at a snowy cemetery to sing (gloriously!) “Songs to Aging Children” at Shelly’s graveside. One exaggerated detail that caused bad will was the implication that Arlo had once slept with Alice Brock. (For the record, her Stockbridge eatery was never named Alice's Restaurant.)


Of course, Arlo stretched the truth in the original song, so I guess we can cut screenwriters Venable Herndon and Arthur Penn some slack. If you realize that both the song and the film are satirical it hardly matters; both captured the zeitgeist of the late 1960s when the Vietnam War raged and the counterculture was at its height. The movie is fun to see, especially if you're tired of the song. See M. Emmett Walsh in his first film appearance as the group W bench Sergeant at the induction center and chuckle at the sight of old lefty Lee Hays as a minister. It's also cool to see several people portray themselves including William Obanhein* (“Obie”) and Judge Hannon, who was indeed blind.  Most of those in other roles were depicted by actors. Alice, for example, was played by actress Pat Quinn, Ray by James Broderick, and Arlo's mother Marjorie by Sylvia Davis. You probably won't recognize people in the minor roles and it hardly matters.


Why rehash events from over 50 years ago? Well, if you can get past the hippie garb and the political issues of the late 60s, there's quite a lot in both the song and the movie that remain distressingly relevant. Have politics improved since 1967?** Is your daily newsfeed filled with absurdities? Any new wars that ignited mass protest? Has militarism disappeared? Remember that phrase we see in movies: “Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Ah, but are there any innocents? Perhaps a healthy dose of satire would do us more good than a second helping of turkey.


Rob Weir


*In a nice twist, Arlo and Obie later became friends!

** The movie came two years after the song.


November 2023 Artist of the Month: San Miguel Fraser




San Miguel Fraser

Dots of Light

Culburnie CUL129D


During the 2020 Covid lockdown, musicians were forced off the road. Luckily it couldn’t stop the flow of creative energy. In Valladolid, Spain fiddlers Maria San Miguel and Galen Fraser took part in the “Stay at Home Festival.” It was a key moment in the evolution of the duo San Miguel Fraser. Maria, who is also an accomplished singer, is Castilian, but was schooled as a classical musician and excelled as an adroit interpreter of Galician and Basque music. Galen is a Berklee School of Music grad, but you could say he learned fiddle at his father’s knee. That would be Alasdair Fraser, one of the finest fiddlers on the planet. Somewhere along the line Galen also learned to play excellent cittern. The album Dots of Light is defined by the way in which San Miguel and Fraser use tradition and dance music as a springboard for roots music explorations.


“Dots of Light” opens the album and is, appropriately dedicated to those who acted as rays of hope illuminating the way through the dark moments of the lockdown. That’s Natalie Haas adding cello to a mid-tempo mix somewhat evocative of Scandinavian music. Close your eyes and you can imagine fireflies fliting about, sometimes deliberately and at other moments in interweaving patterns. “Cocido” comes a few tracks later. The CD linear notes inform us that it was one of the first tunes they created as a duo. It has a primal point counterpoint feel with San Miguel taking the lead and playing high notes that border on stridency. Fraser frames it by alternately bowing lower, plucking notes, or using his fiddle percussively. Cocido translates as “boiled” and the tune feels like it bubbled out of them.


Bolero De Algorde” was composed in honor of the walled city of Zamora located in Castile and León region near the border with Portugal. Zamora is bisected by the Duero/Duoro River, a region known its wines in both nations. Miguel showcases her vocal talents with emotive gusto. At times the fiddle exudes a Roma vibe, but with quickened accents that invite you to click your heels. San Miguel showcases vocals exuding emotion and gusto. These days the bolero is associated with Cuban music and love songs, but it actually originated in Spain.



The jota/xota is another Spanish dance in 3/4 time­–sometimes 6/8–and it’s exuberant however its played. San Miguel and Fraser join forces with the Galician duo Caamaño & Amerixeiras. “Jota deGuijar/Xota deRiotortoto” has a very different sound. Galicia is so named for the Gallaeci, Celtic tribes that once occupied northwestern Spain and Portugal. This set invites you to add some quick time hand clap filler as you sway to and fro. Note how the tunes build, settle, and build anew. I’ve also added a link to Miguel and Fraser playing a different set of jotas. Notice Miguel’s precise fingering, perhaps an offshoot of her classical training. Above all, you can see the joyousness of the jota. As much as they concentrate, they can’t help but break out into smiles.


Dots of Light ends with a set perfect for the season: “A Waltz For Winter.” Like the other eight tracks, Miguel and Fraser let the tune determine the pacing rather than simply seeking to dazzle. This one goes from something as quiet as a downy snowfall to a blizzard and back to gentle. In all, Dots of Life is a reason to celebrate life and dance.


Rob Weir




Tresspasses: Dangerous Liaisons Amidst The Troubles


Trespasses (2022)

By Louise Kennedy

Riverhead, 293 pages.




It has been said that Ireland is the only Western European nation that never experienced the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, or the Reformation. That's a mild exaggeration and heaven knows my Scottish ancestors have their share of lowlights, but there's indeed a heavy air of tragedy hanging over Irish history. This shows up so often in literature that I've dubbed it the Angela’s Ashes* Syndrome. Every now and then Emily will finish a depressing Irish novel, hurl it across the room, and proclaim, “Thank God I'm not Irish!” All of which is to say that Trespasses by Louise Kennedy is that kind of novel.


It is set during The Troubles of the early 1980s, a time in which sectarian strife in Northern Ireland burned with white-hot passion and senseless violence. Comely twenty-four-year-old year old Belfast resident Cushla Lavery is a primary school teacher whose students routinely witness bloodshed and lose family members. Imagine being a second-grader in a place where you understand homicide better than your ABC’s. Cushla carries the added burden of trying to be a Good Samaritan to seven-year old Davy McGeown and his impoverished family.


Cushla is a bit luckier than many in that she lives in a neighborhood in which there is fragile tolerance between Catholics and Protestants. There's no love lost, but as long as everyone respects what is perceived to be the natural order of things, the groups just disparage each other in private and drink in the same pubs, like the one owned by Cushla’s older brother Eamonn and frequented by Michael Agnew. He’s a Protestant–a Prod in the local parlance–but he’s also a civil rights a lawyer who champions the view that the British government has wronged Northern Ireland’s Catholics. The Laverys’  widowed mother Gina helps out at the pub, but she's an alky, which is hard on inventory. To help keep finances in line, Cushla often doubles as a barmaid. That’s where Michael and Cushla meet. Michael and several other Prods even ask Cushla to help them learn Irish Gaelic.


Of course, the bigger trouble behind The Troubles is that organized groups such as the Ulster Defence Association (Protestant) and the Irish Republican Army (Catholic) are not on board with a philosophy of live and let live. If you think either group is above recruiting youngsters or the not-so-bright to their respective causes, remind yourself that fanaticism doesn’t work that way. Prods and Catholics alike have ears to the ground to dole out retribution for those who violate their norms. This is so pronounced that the Irish National Liberation Army doesn't even trust the regular IRA to be fanatical enough in its anti-Protestantism hatred.


You can imagine that Cushla’s growing attraction to Michael isn't the wisest thing for her career, her family, or their respective safety. Yet Cushla pursues her infatuation even though Michael is married, has children, and is nearly two decades older than she. As such matters often go, each is foolish enough to think they can keep their relationship secret. One way Cushla tries to cover her tracks is to allow others to think she's dating Gerry Devlin, a work colleague, but it's not a very good cover.


Trespasses is a romance, but with elements of potential tragedy.  At over 670,000 residents Belfast is a medium-sized city, but during The Troubles it functioned more like a patchwork of neighborhoods than a single municipality. In a place where no one entirely trusts anyone else, the accidental and incidental can be deadly. There are always those too blind to see their own hate, including Father Slattery, a 60s-something vestment-wearing bully and misanthrope. But at least he’s visible; it’s the ones in the shadows who are more venomous.


Kennedy does a fine job of taking us inside Belfast before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement established the framework for a peace that has (mostly) held. How did Cushla and Michael fare before that happened? That would be a spoiler. I will say, though, that Trespasses is Kennedy’s debut novel and that, though she spins a good tale, she too often telegraphs where the novel is headed. Her health woes and the fact that she channeled childhood memories imbue the novel with urgency, but more ambiguity would have made it an even stronger work.


Rob Weir


* The reference is to Frank McCourt’s 1996 novel, which is unrelentingly bleak.