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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Posted By on Wed, Oct 22, 2008 at 11:23 AM

I'm not sure what it says about an artist that they'll play three shows in one day ... or that he'll play a better show for an audience that paid nothing than those who cough up $25 for the privilege. But whatever it means, I kinda like it -- and especially when we're talking about the extraordinary singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo. (Earlier this year, I did an in-depth Q&A with Escovedo.) On Monday, his first stop in Pittsburgh was an on-air performance at WYEP, followed by two intimate shows at Club Café that evening. Even by the late show's finale, Escovedo hardly seemed to break a sweat, though his lead guitarist, sucking down a cigarette and chatting afterward outside Club Café, was feeling the burn.

Escovedo's set included material familiar to anyone who caught him at the Three Rivers Arts Festival this summer: songs from his excellent 2008 release Real Animal, selections from his dramatic work By the Hand of the Father, and the odd cover song -- in this case, a taste of the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" and a rousing rendition of Neil Young's "Powderfinger." Notably absent at Club Café were the string section and the poignant introductions Escovedo had offered with various songs that added considerable drama to his TRAF date. With just drums, bass and guitars backing him, his set was direct and to-the-point -- a bit less nuanced than I expected, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Speaking of extraordinary singer-songwriters with punky roots, don't miss Jonathan Richman, formerly of the Modern Lovers, tonight at Mr. Small's. If you've never seen Richman before, expect playful yet bittersweet odes to boyfriends and girlfriends -- possibly sung in Spanish -- and tales of somewhat moody sensitive boys trying to enjoy life's simple pleasures ... with some of Jonathan's exuberant dance routines thrown into the mix. If you're smart, you'll take a special friend to this show.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Posted By on Tue, Oct 21, 2008 at 1:41 PM

After we heard that there'd been a fire at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern -- and after we were sure no one was hurt -- our first concern, as well as that of many, was: What's Joe Melba going to do? That guy must play like three shows a week there!

Fortunately, Melba (née Pagano) himself had more important things on his mind: the folks who rely on the bar for their livelihood. So the intrepid rocker, he of Ukiah, Bowhunter, and sundry former bands, organized a benefit show for them. A suitable treatment for a venerable local rock institution in need.

In a show of Bloomfield rock bar solidarity, Howler's Coyote Cafe, a mere half block up the street from the stricken tavern, will host the show, which happens next Wednesday, October 29. It features Bowhunter, On Vinyl, and newcomers Lights Out, Lamp Party. Proceeds will go straight to BBT employees, incomeless for the time being while the bar is restored.

So turn out in force, enjoy the rock music, and hopefully in another couple weeks the pierogies will be a-fryin' and the kinda-old beer from the dollar case will be a-flowin' once more.

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Posted By on Tue, Oct 21, 2008 at 8:24 AM

Poetry predates written language. If that's a fact -- verified by the revenant oral epic-poetry tradition in places like India -- it's one honored in the breach. Even poetry aficionados read much more poetry than they hear. But the musical pleasures of poetry aloud are easy to find in Pittsburgh, and the city's oldest reading series is the International Poetry Forum.

Poet and English professor Samuel Hazo's creation opened its 48th season (48th!) on Oct. 15 with Paul Muldoon, the Pulitzer-winning Northern Ireland-born poet who's poetry editor of The New Yorker. Muldoon, 57, has a wild head of graying hair. He reads in a husky, deliberate voice with a light accent. (He's lived in the U.S. for two decades, currently teaching at Princeton.) Bespectacled, he has an air of John Lennonish mild cheek, and a habit of looking up somewhat challengingly at his audience at each stanza break.

It was easy to see why Hazo gave Muldoon the IPF's cash-prize Charity Randall Award for poets distinguished both on the page and in person. Muldoon, whose critically lauded work is often classified as obscure, spent a good deal of time telling the stories behind these 15 or so poems. "Graveyard visitations were very high on the list of social activities in that part of the world," he said, prefacing a poem recounting a childhood episode. He introduced "a poem having to do with a series of sensations through a hole in the wall" by saying, "It's a bit of a jumble. We'll see how we get through it." He offered a glimpse of his creative process, telling how a poem about his sister dying of ovarian cancer began as a verse about "one of my favorite animals, the turkey buzzard," and noting how another was inspired by a medical term for his unborn daughter's position in the womb: "The moment I heard that phrase, 'footling breach,' I felt a little poem coming on." And he read two new poems about porcupines.

But as with many good poetry readings, what I remember is the pleasure of the sounds, and the emotions they conjure: "Sinking fast in a dear crypt" and "the horse-hair-fringed niche" are two of Muldoon's I jotted down. And this turn of phrase: "Nothing can confirm one's sense of being prized than a sense of another's being anathematized."

It was a busy arts night in Oakland: Within a couple blocks of the Carnegie Lecture Hall, Squonk Opera's outdoor extravaganza Astro-Rama opened; Scott Turow awarded Anthony Varallo the Drue Heinz Prize; and Pitt Rep opened The Clean House. But with Muldoon demonstrating, as he put it, how the performance of poems is "the completion of their poetic moment," the Carnegie was a good place to be.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Posted By on Mon, Oct 20, 2008 at 11:20 AM

Liga, performed thrice by the Dutch theater troupe Kassys at the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts last week, is a show whose layers of meaning at first seem to unfold slowly. But then you realize that you're grasping its undercurrents almost in real time.

The first "act" of this intermissionless and disarmingly comic work engages: It's a video projection of a mockumentary about actors slipping backstage, one by one, as their unnamed live show ends. Then, the five actors enter the New Hazlett Theater stage, one by one, in person. (Proving that the PIFOF's roster of U.S. premieres holds many pleasures, including the linguistic, the three men and two women are named Thijs Bloothoofd, Harm van Geel, Esther Snelder, Marc Stoffels and Willemijn Zevenhuijzen.)

Initially, it's confusing: The actors seem to simply wander the prop-filled space, with its big pillows, small tables, folding ladder and inflatable palm tree. But as the random motion gells, it comes clear that they're portraying a bunch of little kids. It's playtime. They misbehave; characters played by Kassys co-founder Liesbeth Gritter and on-stage technical director Klaas Paradies impose order. Eventually they turn the random play into work assignments, and soon we're watching five adults at a barbecue.

The show is wonderful theater: There's inventive near-constant and motion, and the Hazlett's whole playing space and then some is used; the characterizations of toddlers (each with a distinctive personality) are spot-on and built to a hilariously anarchic climax. But as the video intro makes clear, with its actors being coddled and reassured like children, the show is also a wry meditation on theater itself. The closing scene, which gets the actors back offstage, is sharply conceived meta-theater.

Ultimately, though, the humor is poignant: The five kids' unselfconscious (if destructive) play is supplanted by the need for approval and pragmatism, and we're left with five awkward adults mouthing platitudes and bad puns, their imaginations colonized by movie and TV references, all of whom keep talking simply so they don't have to think.

"This acting in daily life thing fascinates me," Gritter, who also conceived Liga, said in the audience talk-back after the Oct. 17 show. She likes the idea of grownups playing children who pretend to be adults. But I thought Liga spoke for itself pretty well, too. Though you're never ahead of the show while watching it, when it ends you feel you've grasped most of what it has to offer, with just enough enigma left over to make it memorable.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Posted By on Fri, Oct 17, 2008 at 3:01 PM

Writing about Squonk Opera is like writing about a Roman candle, one that happens to come with a rhythm section. The troupe, now some 16 years old, is sui generis: Pittsburgh's only hybridizer of art rock and performance, and expert at blending surrealism, high camp and careful craft for the masses. Squonk's new free outdoor show, which I caught last night, nicely summarizes how its penchant for spectacle hobbles its shows' narrative momentum -- and how it doesn't matter that it does.

Here, the Squonkers -- who've feted Night of the Living Dead, Westernized the Minotaur (Rodeo Smackdown) and lovingly spoofed their hometown (Pittsburgh: The Opera) -- attempt to contact extraterrestrial life on our behalf. They've taken over one end of Schenley Plaza with a stage and a big satellite dish; the production also includes a crashed flying saucer; an anthropomorphized supercomputer (puckishly named "PAL 9000"); a giant silver hand; a set of false limbs; and lots of funny hats. The 70-minute show's like a big furry B-movie, with lots of trippy video (the satellite dish is the screen) and a dozen or more musical numbers, most of them pleasingly thunderous compositions for drums (Kevin Kornicki), bass (Ryan McMasters), electric guitar (David Wallace), keys (Jackie Dempsey), wind instruments (Steve O'Hearn, with a Dempsey Squonk co-founder) and vocals (Autumn Ayers).

The songs, many of them instrumentals, spin as tightly and kick as hard as Squonk ever has; of course, a few of them also stop the sketch-like story dead in its tracks, not to mention a couple of prop-based sequences that fall flat or go on too long.

In the end, though, this show (which concludes with 8 p.m. performances tonight and Sat., Oct. 18, weather permitting) satisfies. Even if the structure feels raggedy at times, there's a conceptual flow, with lots of hilariously straight-faced pigeon-technical jargon ("calibrate the Fibonacci sequence") giving way to a big on-stage and –screen party, and then to a manual override of out-of-control technology. Best of all, Squonk has retained its knack for comedy. The group manages to snap from a lovely ballad to madcap humor, and to smartly leaven the show's frankly stated anti-commercialization theme with well-timed quips. Astro-rama mightn't succeed at bringing all of mankind together, as the story puts it; but most of the few hundred people lounging on the damp Schenley Plaza lawn seemed united in the belief that Squonk had done it again.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Posted By on Thu, Oct 16, 2008 at 4:43 PM

Immediately after last night's final presidential debate, the conventional wisdom was that the winner was ... Joe the Undecided Plumber. (And why not? A day later, there's already a fashion line dedicated to him.)

But the pundits might want to take a second look before giving Joe Wurzelbacher any more laurels.  By his own admission, he's "not even close" to earning the quarter-of-a-million dollars that would make him subject to Barack Obama's tax hikes. Which means that the question he posed to Obama last weekend -- and that prompted John McCain to mention Joe repeatedly last night -- was purely hypothetical. McCain rapped Obama for how his tax plan would supposedly affect Joe ... but in fact if Joe earns in the mid-40s (as the average plumber does), Joe would benefit from Obama's plan.

Oh, and Joe really isn't undecided. He's registered as a Republican, and he's made it pretty clear that he knows who he's going to vote for.

While we're at it, his first name really isn't Joe. It's Samuel.

Other than that, though, his story checks out.

I feel for this guy. The whole world now knows about stuff like the $1,000 tax lien Wurzelbacher apparently has. It's the kind of debt that happens to a lot of good people who are having a hard time making ends meet ... but most of their debts aren't subjected to the scrutiny of a national audience. And few of those people will ever know what it's like to have a bunch of anonymous bloggers try to rip them to shreds.

On the other hand, it's also a little disturbing to see how quickly a person can be elevated to national attention. Wurzelbacher doesn't deserve to have his domestic life picked over by a bunch of bloggers. But he probably doesn't deserve to be elevated to the status of national celebrity either. 

This whole phenomenon amazes me. It is to American politics what that lip-synching girl was to the Beijing Olympics. Considered in context, they are both utterly trivial non-events, sure ... but they reveal an entire machinery of bullshit just below the surface.  Both in China and here at home, you always knew that the politicians themselves couldn't be trusted, and that the media is pretty shaky as well. But stuff like this lets you know just how large the hall of mirrors really is.

I'm not alleging that Wurzelbacher is some sort of "plant" by the McCain campaign, as some suspect. For one thing, there's at least some evidence to suggest McCain may regret ever hearing Joe's name, let alone repeating it a couple dozen times during the debate. 

No, I think what's going on here is weirder than all that. A guy becomes an overnight celebrity, and then a morning-after villain, all for engaging in that most American of traditions: asking a question of a politician. For generations that would have been the start and end of it. But both McCain and the media were anxious to trumpet their ability to celebrate the "common man." (And McCain is apparently out-of-touch enough to think a $250k/year plumber is a common man.) In Wurzelbacher, they each saw a guy who could be exploited for a bump in ratings or the polls. Joe had everything reporters and candidates alike are looking for -- "gotcha" moments, faux-populism, a sort of lottery-winner "it can happen to you" quality ... the whole deal. And Joe went along with it. Which, why not? How else would he have gotten on the Today show? 

Unlike in China, this isn't some sort of top-down deception. Its more organic than that. Because fame is our culture's principal commodity, the lines between public and private have become almost completely blurred. We buy magazines to see celebrities acting just like us, and something as mundane as asking a question of a poiltician can make any of us a celebrity. And so a strange complicity sets in between the politicians, the press, and the people. All three of them join together to create this sort of endless spectacle, each of them using the others. 

I'm not even sure who the joke is on anymore.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Posted By on Wed, Oct 15, 2008 at 3:24 PM

So for the last 45 minutes, I've been receiving -- at the rate of one every 30 seconds -- e-mailed form letters from PUMA, a group whose acronym stands for "People United Means Action." 

The e-mails are all the same -- and are no doubt all being sent to newspapers across the country. They read in part as follows:

The mainstream media has been reporting rampant and widespread voter fraud by the Obama supported group ACORN. At least ten states have opened or are already pursuing criminal investigations into this system fraud. ... I insist that you instruct your Secretary of State, Pedro Cortes, to open an investigation into the serious and credible allegations of voter fraud in Philadelphia, and that have plagued the Obama-supporting ACORN in a dozen states or more.

I wrote a murkier-than-usual column about the attacks on ACORN, a grassroots organizing group most people never heard of until Republicans started blaming them for everything from the economic crisis to Obama's lead in the polls. The column will be posted on the site tomorrow, so for now, I'll say only this: The notion that faked voter-registration information can sway an election is utterly ridiculous. Imaginary voters don't affect elections unless they actually show up at the polls. Which would be hard to do because, see, they're imaginary.

God knows ACORN has its problems -- as does any group that relies on paid signature-gatherers. (Pennsylvania Green Party candidates can attest to that.) But ACORN has a strong case that: a) they're victims here too, and b) had they not turned over information they thought was faked, they could be in a lot of trouble. It's true that the law prohibits registration of non-existent voters. But law-enforcment also doesn't look kindly at people who pretend to register voters and toss away the materials. Which kind of puts ACORN in a double-bind when a dubious registration form is put before them.

But what's really interesting about all this is that these accusations about phantom voters are coming from a fairly shadowy group. PUMA, which was founded to capitalize on the resentments of aggrieved Hillary Clinton voters, is run by one Darragh Murphy. And while Murphy claims to be a staunch Democrat, her only contribution to a presidential candidate was a $500 gift made in 2000 to ... John McCain.  (Check the FEC Web site and search for Murphy, Darragh in the name fields.) That's more than the $200 Murphy contributed this year to a PAC that supported Hillary Clinton herself. 

That has, of course, prompted all manner of speculation that Murphy, and PUMA, are really just trying to sow seeds of dissension amongst Democrats. I'll take no position on their motivations, but I think this interview proves that if they aren't trying to wreak havoc amongst Democrats, then what they are doing makes no sense at all. 

So what you've got is a group that may well have an invisible agenda attacking against another group for registering invisible voters. Welcome to the 21st century's virtual politics.  

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Posted By on Tue, Oct 14, 2008 at 4:54 PM

City Councilor Pat Dowd has been a controversial figure, but one thing both his critics and his supporters can agree on: He is a big believer in transparency and due process. A few months back, for example, the Pist-Gazette opined that the big problem with Dowd was that he was TOO obsessed with obeying the letter of the law, and didn't pay enough attention to the spirit. 

"Dowd has demonstrated he will stand on the letter of the law to the detriment of justice," blog author Char observed. 

(Speaking of which, where ARE you, Char? Your blog hasn't been updated in months -- though this didn't stop the Post-Gazette's Cutting Edge blog wrap-up from quoting it last week.)

So, yeah, love him or hate him, Pat Dowd is stickler for details.

But now there's a new sheriff in town.

City councilor Darlene Harris, whom Dowd defeated in the school-board run that launched his political career five years ago, turned some heads early this morning by releasing, well ...

This.

It's a SEVEN-PAGE, nicely-crafted legal opinion that casts doubt on Dowd's  proposed process for renaming streets in the city of Pittsburgh. 

OK, I'll grant there are more compelling things to argue about than how the city should go about renaming streets -- even if there are situations in which similarly-named streets can slow up emergency responders. But come on! Harris cites such landmark cases as H.A. Steen, Inc. v. Cavanaugh, Filler v. Commonwealth Federal Savings and Loan, Commonwealth ex. rel. v. Scully and the immortal Kolb v. Tamaqua Borough. And that's just in the first two pages! 

But it's not all just a bunch of citations: Harris boldly stands up for the proposition that the city should preserve its unique flavor -- except where confusing street names pose a safety threat, the city should hold onto the traditions that made it great. Or as Harris writes:

As a city which is proud of its idiosyncrasies ... we should not simply [surrender to] needlessly applied "modernity," the application of which may cause more harm than good.

What's that you say? The city's street patterns are so confusing that the city's 911 dispatch system has a hard time keeping up? Harris has an answer for that too:

"[W]e must look at another or additional provider of software for 911, rather than changing the world to comply with the software which serves it." 

Suck on that, Mr. Blackberry User!

I haven't been the biggest fan of Harris, and I think much of her tenure on the school board was pretty disastrous. But this ain't bad at all. And I'm guessing that Dowd -- who recieved this letter via e-mail, along with his colleagues -- is probably wondering, "Where did this closely argued, highly technical series of objections come from?"

Which is, of course, not much different from the questions that have been asked about Dowd himself. 

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Posted By on Tue, Oct 14, 2008 at 2:59 PM

I love my DVR but it leads to bad habits like lots of TV shows piling up in its recesses. (In the old days, you'd start to notice the tumbling stacks of videotapes.) Vacation, houseguests and breaking political news have all conspired to put me waaaay behind on new TV. I'm catching up slowly but here's some short grabs from what I've been able to get to:

 

A couple months back, I chided the modeling reality show She's Got the Look for not snapping up the tranny contestant before Tyra made that play. And sure enough: the "shocker" of this season of America's Next Top Model was Isis, the girl who was still a boy. In the end, the concept of Isis was more titillating than the poor girl, who seem to wilt more each week, and was recently sent packing.

ATNM -- now in season 11! -- is pretty much like that old sweater: comfy but not bringing much pizzazz. Apparently the two Jays are getting a spin-off, but history shows that outrageous characters are usually best in small doses.

 

I mistakenly thought that Bravo's Top Design had been tossed on the dust heap after its dull premiere season, but it popped back up -- and better than ever. Somebody heard my pleas to make the challenges interesting -- no more re-decorating the same white box! -- and the show has been a lot more fun.

Brain-busters for the would-be interior designers have included: a fall-out shelter for two; an eco-office; retail window displays (for former Project Runway designers, natch); and low-level bachelor pads. My only complaint this season is that judge Miz Margaret -- she of the LBJ-era molded 'do and Elle Décor magazine -- hasn't been as crazy uptight and mean this season. She actually seems happy, and I guess, I'm happy for her.

But I'm also sad, because last week, the kookiest contestant -- Wizit, the seriously off-kilter elf who seemed at times to be channel Klaus Nomi -- was sent home.

 

And a quick note about my favorite phony "documentary" series: BBC Reveals. It runs now and then on Sunday nights (with many repeats). It's pitched as a "documentary" program, but the topics are pure tabloid: two journalists who went on crash diets; women with too-big breasts; women with too-small breasts; a teen transsexual; body dysmorphia; boy anorexics; how to become a topless model; and the all-time-topper, "Britain's Worst Teeth."

It may have been one of the most horrifying things I've ever seen on TV. I didn't even know that teeth could get this rotted and messed up, and the four Britons profiled were in their 20s! And living in a country with socialized dental care! I gasped out loud several times and watched much of the show through my fingers, the dental procedures were that extreme.

This still doesn't count as "documentary" -- it's just more sensationalism -- but as a public-service announcement about dental hygiene, it was real gut-punch. You probably know somebody who needs to watch it.

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Posted By on Tue, Oct 14, 2008 at 9:48 AM

As regular readers of this chunk of hypertext are all too aware, last Thursday was the inaugural edition of CP Remixed, our new series of concerts featuring local artists. I was given the enviable task of recording portions for posterity, and the result is further evidence that you shouldn't send a print journalist to do a videographer's job. Okay, it's not that bad -- but it was a learning experience (note to self: don't try the shots from down low right in front of the stage; the lows will max out the mic and make everything sound wretched).

Without further ado, make haste over to CP Video to check out the videos of Discuss, Ohmu, and David Bernabo + Assembly!

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