It’s Good to Be Bad

January 14, 2009

images1Progressive jazz trio The Bad Plus has gotten a lot of good press over the past several years. They’ve carved out their reputation playing deconstructed covers of pop tunes like “Knowing Me, Knowing you” by ABBA and “Everybody Rules the World” by Tears for Fears. However, bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson, and drummer David King are serious composers as well—a talent that they spotlighted at their concert at the historic Village Vanguard club on January 2, the second of a four gig engagement.

These guys are intellectual and they want you to know it. Their music melds a complicated, dissonant classical aesthetic with a rock beat, but the beat is not steady. The time signatures shift wildly within a single piece and their approach is decidedly inaccessible to a jazz novice. The musicians are obvious fans of 60s’ free jazz and Ornette Coleman in particular. However, Coleman’s warm, rich saxophone playing always keeps the listener rooted in the music, whereas The Bad Plus’ trio of three rhythm instruments is cold and distancing. This trio demands a vocalist, or at least a horn player.

The band launched their set with an interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s composition Apollo—certainly not a breezy beginning. Then, they quickly moved on to their own works: “You Are” composed by Anderson and “Bill Hickman at Home” by Iverson. In both pieces, the lead piano melodies are tender and rather beautiful but are overpowered by loud, enthusiastic drumming. The combination just doesn’t seem to work.

However, the crowd at the Vanguard was up to the challenge of high art on a Friday night. Polite and attentive, the audience applauded during lengthy bass and drums solos and even demanded an encore. Finally, when the band ended with a swinging version of the standard “Have You Met Miss Jones?” you wondered why these guys couldn’t just lighten up and play some jazz.



January 14, 2009

images-21Kevin Bacon is prolific. With over 55 films to his credit, there’s even a game called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” where players try to link any Hollywood actor to Kevin Bacon in as few moves as possible. However, according to his older brother and band mate, Michael, Kevin is an exceptional songwriter as well. The Bacon Brothers showcased their folk-rock sound in a short set at The Duplex on January 5, a tiny, West Village cabaret theater seating only 75 people.

The Bacon Brothers were special guests of singer/songwriter Julie Gold, a resident performer at the Duplex. Gold is famous for writing “From a Distance,” a song that Bette Midler recorded in 1990 that reached number two in the Billboard charts.

Seated at a baby grand, Gold launched the concert with four original compositions featuring her talented backup singers, Emily Bindiger and Margaret Dorn. A warm and generous performer, Gold shines in the small black box theater, with a style reminiscent of Carole King. Her voice is rough and untrained, yet rich and expressive. At times, she struggles to hit the high notes, but she sings with such sincerity and emotion that it doesn’t really matter.

After a brief introduction by Gold, The Bacon Brothers took the stage and played four songs in a stripped-down set, featuring acoustic guitar and cello and Kevin on lead vocals. Gold, who is from Philadelphia, has collaborated with Michael Bacon (also from Philly) since the late 60s’ when she met him as a teenager.

Despite the whiff of campiness at seeing the star of Footloose, A Few Good Men, and, most recently, Frost/Nixon performing at a gay club, Kevin Bacon’s performance was seriously enjoyable. Like a younger Jackson Browne, he’s a capable lyricist and singer with an easy stage presence. And who in the audience wouldn’t want to say they were just one degree away from Kevin Bacon?

American painter Elizabeth Peyton is fascinated with pretty boys. Her current exhibit, “Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton” at New York’s New Museum, features her delicate portraits of mostly boys who look like girls. Covering two floors, the exhibit is a survey of her work over the past fifteen years, the first such exhibit in her native country.

Peyton’s portraits of her subjects—a mix of popular cultural figures, her friends and lovers—are mostly small oil paintings on canvas and wood board.  All the faces look eerily similar and female, with their cat-like eyes and salon-fresh eyebrows shaped in a perfect arch.

Peyton first attracted attention in the mid-90s’ with her portraits of Kurt Cobain, painted shortly after his death in 1994. These paintings are like little love letters, beautifully rendered in an impressionistic style, as if a young girl painted them to hang on her bedroom wall.

images2Her subjects are either famous or intense objects of affection. The exhibit features several portraits of Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, Patti Smith and Keith Richards.  All of these works were painted from photographs in sensuous colors.  She also has a self-portrait in the exhibit, and the similarities between Peyton and her subjects are obvious. She has the same androgynous look—the same beautiful but almost blank face. She looks relaxed and confident.

In 2004, Peyton began painting live models and these paintings stand out from her previous works. The colors are more muted and washed out, and there seems to be more movement to the paintings.  Her most recent paintings are still lifes of flowers and album covers and lively New York street scenes.

Ghostbusters Revisited

October 5, 2008

I was eight when Ghostbusters came out. It was the summer of 1984, and we piled into my mom’s brown van with all my cousins to see it at the Lafayette Square Mall. I loved it fiercely along with the Ray Parker Jr. Soundtrack that we had on LP.

Yesterday, after attending an afternoon fundraising concert in Syracuse called Barack around the Block, underdressed and shivering in the wet grass, I decided to come home and watch a movie. I don’t have a TV, so I opened, a site with loads of free TV shows and movies. The movie selection is strange: Starship Troopers, Bring it On, Weird Science…and Ghostbusters I and II. I hadn’t seen it since the 80s.

The script, written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Dr. Peter Veckman (Bill Murray), Dr. Raymond Stanz (Dan Akroyd) and Egon (Harold Ramis) are paranormal psychologists working for a university that looks a lot like Columbia. They’re all very thin and healthy looking. Bill wasn’t nearly so morose back then. There’s a lot of gratuitous smoking, and apparently they’re all geniuses that understand nuclear physics. But this crew of eggheads is more interested in chasing ghosts.

I remembered the opening scene vividly. A librarian at the NYC Public Library is down in the stacks, and, all of a sudden, the cards from the card catalog (remember those?) start flying in the air. The librarian sees something scary and screams, but the audience doesn’t see what it is. I don’t quite remember why the “doctors” are called out there (they hadn’t formed the Ghostbusters yet), but after investigating the scene, they see a scary ghost lady and run out screaming. Bill Murray convinces Dan Akroyd to take a second mortgage on his home in order to launch a ghostbusting business. Pretty risky. But these were the booming Reagan 80s. And the American dream was still rooted in the powerful American dollar.

Enter Sigourney Weaver. She looks absolutely stunning in this movie. Somehow despite being a gorgeous cellist for the New York Philharmonic, living in a co-op overlooking central park, she’s still single. She has to brush off her nerdy neighbor Louis Tully, played by the inimitable Rick Moranis. Rick Moranis! Where did he go? Did he and Dan Aykroyd run back to Canada?

But one day, when she’s unloading her groceries, the eggs start popping out of the carton and frying on her countertop. Her fridge starts to growl and lights up mysteriously. When Sigourney opens it she sees a neo-gothic temple floating in a purple sky. She hears the name Zuel and it’s all pretty trippy.

She decides to call on the Ghostbusters, who had been advertising on TV. Bill Murray falls for her immediately, but Sigourney thinks he’s kind of a sleaze. Together they inspect her kitchen, which is now bereft of ghosts much to her embarrassment.

Suddenly, phantom spirits overrun NYC. Remember Slimer? He’s a fat, green ghost that can somehow eat hotdogs—lots of them. And the Ghostbusters, who trap these unfortunate creatures in little boxes with nuclear powered guns, become famous. We get a nice montage of all the Busters on the cover of USA Today, Time, even the The Atlantic Monthly (a nice shout-out to the liberal elite).

Then, things get really weird. Sigourney is attacked by a devilish dog-creature in her living room, and she’s possessed by “Satan”, although the evil spirit isn’t actually called that. It’s called Zuel. Now she’s the Gatekeeper in a gauzy red dress, hair wild, eyes lined with kohl, hypersexual and heaving. Her dress is nearly always slipping off, but it doesn’t because it’s a PG movie (by the way, I counted only one instance of profanity during the entire movie. It was “shit”.). So the sexy, possessed Sigourney is looking for her Keymaster. Turns out it’s Rick Moranis (he was also attacked by a devil-dog in Central Park). Rick is great in this role. Nobody plays nerdy and awkward quite like Rick Moranis. There’s such warmth in Moranis. I think back to his performance as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. He was so touching. But I digress.

Okay this is where it gets really complicated. In the 1920s, apparently some sorcerer guy designed the building where Sigourney now lives. He built it to attract ghosts—or as I understand it—the devil named Gozer the Gozerian—to come and destroy the world. It’s hazy. But I think the sorcerer/architect is returning as Gozer. But this time he’s taking the form of a sparkly, half-naked woman, who has hair like Grace Jones and demonic, red eyes. She’s a mean bitch. And she’s also heaving and hypersexual. So, I guess, if we’re going to get into metaphors or semiotics—in the 80s, we were afraid of strong, sexy women because they had evil powers. They had to be wiped from the face of the earth.

Then, the four Ghostbusters (Ernie Hudson joins the lineup at some point as the token black guy) destroy her with their big guns that shoot out long streams of white-hot heat, but she’s not really destroyed. Instead, she transforms into the Stay-Puft marshmallow man.

The Ghostbusters realize that the only way to “neutralize” Gozer is to cross their streams of white lightning (rendering them red)—a sort of a nuclear circle jerk that could potentially be very dangerous and blow up the entire city.

But, as we all know, the Ghostbusters pull it off in the end and are celebrated as heroes by the citizens of NYC, who are cheering and wearing Ghostbusters merchandise. Oh, Rick and Sigourney survive too. Sigourney is hot for Bill after he rescues her.

In the final scene, we see Slimer the glutton-ghost and we are poised for a sequel–the dreaded Ghostbusters Too.

For more Ghostbusters on Beet Salad click here.