Thursday, January 31, 2013

Magic and Wonder: The Music Tapes' Traveling Imaginary Tour (Cat's Cradle, 1/28/13)

The Music Tapes impart a childlike glee and a magical wonder to their audience through their shows.  Since things like magic and wonder can be hard to express with mere words, I thought I’d try something different for their indoor circus-tent tour, the Traveling Imaginary.  So I’ve made a short little film to capture what my “night at the circus” was like.

Bandleader Julian Kostner, member of the Elephant 6 Collective and formerly of Neutral Milk Hotel, is whimsy personified.  It’s as if he’s on a mission to help all of us reclaim our inner child.  Having seen the Music Tapes twice, I can attest that they’re making great strides towards that noble cause… be it via big-top, lullaby, or Christmas caroling tours.  In addition to the music, props, and games, Julian is a wonderful storyteller.  His lilting voice relates tales of quirky characters and places unknown, or forgotten, touching the mind and the heart. 

I’ll leave the stories to him.  It seems only right that some of these things should be kept secret, as they are best experienced in person.  Even one of the games was kept hidden from those of us in attendance, unless -- and only if -- they chose (one-by-one) to play it! 

I’ll just let the film tell the rest of the tale.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Multifaceted Noise: Tar Heel Sound Fest (Chapel Hill, 1/12/13)

I just wanted to give props to this little festival held earlier in the month in Chapel Hill.  It was the first (I believe?) Tar Heel Sound Fest, billed as a "festival of cutting-edge music with ties to the Old North State".  Going in, it looked like it'd be kind of a mish-mash, and I guess it was.  But coming out of it, it felt more pleasantly -- no, frankly, astoundingly -- diverse, especially for such a brief event.

The one-night festival was held at four venues and featured 18 bands.  I caught all the acts at the Cave, and one or two over at Nightlight and Local 506.  They were:

The synth-powered punky-pop of Antibubbles...

Traditional Klezmer from Gmish...

Experimental solo trombone explorations from Jeb Bishop... 

The self-styled "deePop" (deep pop) of Kenyattassata...

Corey Pallon's dark, psychedelic, singer-songwriter fare...

... and thundering, poppy indie from North Elementary.

I also missed or only caught seconds of what were probably several other good shows:  Microwaves, Daughter Element, Crowmeat Bob & George Cremaschi, White Cascade, Le Weekend, reggae, electronica, more jazz, etc etc etc...  All-in-all, the Tar Heel Sound fest struck me as gutsy.  With little care for genre-fication, it courageously showcased many (sometimes underrepresented) artistic possibilities, and the vast range of musical talent in (or "with ties to") the Triangle. 

True artistic spirit lay behind the creation of this festival, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with next year.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Jenny Besetzt - "Teenage Lions" (Video)

Greensboro's Jenny Besetzt perform Teenage Lions from their CD, Only, at Duke Coffeehouse in Durham, NC. (1/18/13)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Panorama Jazz Band (Spotted Cat, New Orleans, 12/29/12)

I haven't been writing much lately, save for some more personal material.  It was a busy holiday season.  But I have seen some music.  Notably, the very eclectic Tar Heel Sound Fest a couple of weeks back, and the more recent double bill of Jenny Besetzt and Bleeding Rainbow at Duke Coffeehouse (I hope to post at least some photos of those shows soon, if I ever catch up).

But I want to flash back to last year first.  Well, December 29th, anyway.  I was down in New Orleans visiting family and friends, and trying to get over the flu.  And what better way to heal thyself than a solid drenching in good food, drink, and music, right?  At least in New Orleans!  (if it don't work, at least ya get a little lagniappe)

Well, my lagniappe this Saturday night was the Panorama Jazz Band.  And while the music may not have soothed my savage cough, it sure did wonders for my soul.  I had not gone out in the Marigny since forever, and never to the Spotted Cat.  My old friend David said the leader of this jazz band went to French immersion school with his boy (and some kid named Pitt-Jolie or something).  Anyway, a friend's friend, jazz, New Orleans... despite my roots, I'm not the most schooled aficionado of jazz.  But I'm always trying to deepen those roots.  Plus, I'm here, why not?  Might be a little fun, eclectic, intellectual...

But this was no Preservation Hall trad-jazz history lesson. When the Panorama Jazz Band kick in, your feet can't help but start moving (yes, even mine!).  All-acoustic instrumentation belies the raucousness that ensues when they play.  The prominent backing of tuba, and percussion right up there with Stanton Moore, ties them to their NOLA base.  But the rest of the brass section and accordion take you to parts unknown.  The banjo gives it a little Dixieland kick to go with the more modern brass vibe, and the rest of the mix.  Styles jump around from song to song, so you have no idea where you're going to end up on the globe.  But you'll sure as hell dance all the way across it!  Paris, Istanbul, Argentina, a quick cruise back home, and then you up and hop a flight to Macedonia.
Bandleader and clarinetist Ben Schenck's seemingly reserved personality is shown to be a ruse once he takes the stage, leading the songs and the party, playing and waving his horn in the air (like he just don't care!).  And the rest of this band's got chops!  I think they're sort of the resident band at the Spotted Cat, and it shows.  The Panorama Jazz Band is equal parts Rebirth Brass Band and Paris Combo... or is that King Oliver as played by Kocani Orkestar?  Bollywood through a klezmer lens?  I... just... don't... know!   But there is nothing historical or traditional about this band, other than the wealth of tradition they build heavily upon.

I showed up a couple of months too early, but I still got to enjoy carnival season in New Orleans. The Panorama Jazz Band gave me my Mardi Gras in December!

Ahhh, joie de vivre!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Father's Humanity

I want to write a little about my Dad, Roland Joseph Guerin.  He's been a wonderful father, raising four kids who have gone on to excel both at their professions and in raising their own families (if you count me, that is).  I couldn't have asked for a better father, and family life, growing up. He's taught me more than I could ever measure.  Truly, it was my Wonder Years.

Now, at 81, my father has Alzheimer's.  Oh, that same, great father is still there.  He's just buried beneath a world of memories, and a dearth of memories -- all scattered and confused, half-lost and half-found.  But he's there.

So I wanted to write about him because I learned a lot about Alzheimer's during my short holiday visit.  But I learned more than that.  I also learned something about humanity.
When I visited him in December, his memory had deteriorated somewhat from the last time I saw him (too long ago, at a year before).  With most of us, there was a wave and a vague acknowledgement that we were someone he knew who was visiting (usually, my brother Eliot and I were his brother Russell).  He had to ask repeatedly who we were, although he left the distinct impression that he knew we were family, or at least very close friends.  He was always happy to see us.

Each time he saw my sister -- his daughter -- Becky, there was more than a hint of memory of her.  Although it may have been more emotional memory, it was memory nonetheless... and strong, at that.  Each time, he would greet her by saying "Becky!  I haven't seen you in so long!!", and his eyes would well up with tears.  He was equally emotional when she would leave, tearing up, saying "I love you".  Once, upon saying goodbye to her, he took the opportunity to add "I love you all!".   

This strong reaction to Becky was at once sad and very happy.  It was a clear sign of memory, of love,  boiling to the surface.  Imagine how you would feel if you lived a life with someone, loved them, gave your whole life for them, and then lost them.  Imagine if you didn't even remember that they existed, as if a millenium had passed and you were embedded in some strange new world.  Then imagine you remembered, that you saw them, and it all came back in a rush.  While there is, I know, an intense sadness in that, there is also a wonderful sense of elation to be had.  It is something to be celebrated.  It is the prodigal daughter -- and father -- returned!  It is the flush of realization that they were never really gone in the first place.

Dad may not remember the things that most consider important.  He doesn't know how to properly bathe or care for himself.  He doesn't remember when to eat, or to change clothes, or how to read or write.  His body doesn't remember how to walk safely.  But he remembers the important things.  They are still there.  Life, and love, and family... if only in spurts, through self-surprising instantaneous revelations, and in quiet times sitting with loved ones.  And it seems like these are things he will never lose.

He also remembers how to be gracious.  Just as my mother died with grace, my father is living his waning years with grace.  On New Years Eve, he wanted to ensure that all of us who were visiting were included,  making sure that we all had food and a place to sit (using his limited vocal and intellectual capacity, and from  the confines of a wheelchair).  Ever the gracious host.  When I told him it was 2013, he said "Really!  I think I'll sit this one out!"  I hear ya, Dad!  He enjoyed the music at the party, asking me to take him up to the front, tapping in time with the piano player.  He even generously offered to me to come visit more often, opening the door to his home, saying "You could come in here, be a regular"... his "Cheers", his own private New Orleans neighborhood bar.  Would that I could more often, Dad.

Roland Guerin today usually lives as though he is still in high school, or recently graduated.  When he thinks I or my brother Eliot are our Uncle Russell, he congratulates us on getting married before him.  Russell often goes through his high school yearbook with him, and there are glimmers of memory of the people and places.    Roland is a state champion wrestler, valedictorian, and -- as he has recently told us -- "has plenty of girlfriends!"  It's not a bad life, and he is happy, at least.  This is more than most would dare to hope for in the autumn of their life.

When I told him I now lived in North Carolina, he asked what brought me there, deciding it "must've been a girl."  I said "No, it was a job." (and schools, etc, but no need to sweat the details)  He said -- in the Alzheimer's stammer of half-words (and the rest missing) that I was quickly learning to translate -- "You must've completed your higher education."  I said "Yes, I got my PhD."  Again, he welled up emotion, and there was that happiness-sadness of a long-lost memory surfacing.  He said with great pride "All the Guerins!", tearing up.  He was remembering that all his kids had finished college and gone to graduate school, 3 of us being "doctors" of one kind or another.  An instant later, he may not have remembered that he even had kids, much less what they did with their lives.  But he remembered the life, the results, and his love and pride.

What these brief, all-too-infrequent encounters taught me is this.  While we human beings fancy ourselves  creatures of great intellect -- intellect that is capable of feats both fearsome and awesome -- we are also creatures of great emotion.  This emotion is also capable of feats both fearsome and awesome.  Who is to say what's more valuable, intellectual memory or emotional  memory?  My father, who always had an abundance of the former (and worked his life to instill it in us) and seldom expressed the latter, is now left, ironically, a creature of almost pure emotion.  But it is good emotion, and it is a memory of his life:  accurate and telling, noble and pure.

One of the most touching things Dad ever told me was about three months after Hurricane Katrina.  Mom had died as an evacuee in Shreveport, and he had moved back about a month before Thanksgiving.  He was alone for the first time in more than 40 years, in a city -- his beloved city -- that was hanging by a thread.  My family and I went to New Orleans to cook and have Thanksgiving dinner with him.  Except for my mother, who re-kindled her Catholicism in her final years, we were a fairly secular household.  So Dad didn't say grace.  But before beginning the meal, he said "I'm not a particularly religious person.  But I wanted you all to know that what you are doing is very human."

Even today, from deep within a forest of blurred intellect and vibrant emotions, of amyloid plaques and tangles, my father is still teaching me what it is to be human.