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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Posted By on Tue, Mar 31, 2009 at 10:53 AM

Back in the early days of blogging, a couple local bloggers used to tease me about how they were going to put me and my MSM brethren out of jobs. 

Personally, I don't see it. We MSM types are doing a perfectly good job of putting OURSELVES out of work, thank you very much. And these days, it seems like bloggers pose a more immediate threat to campaign staffers anyway. 

We've run into a spate of blogs regurgitating press releases lately. Not to mention some intrigue about which bloggers are working for which candidates. 

The connections can be a little dizzying. A few days back, we had the Pittsburgh Comet's Bram -- who volunteers for city council candidate Georgia Blotzer -- praising a post by Maria of the 2 political junkies, who has also worked for city council candidate Georgia Blotzer. And the post that earned Bram's mentiion leads off with a press release from ... city council candidate Georgia Blotzer.

Meanwhile, Matt Hogue is the campaign manager for city council candidate Anthony Coghill. And there was been a minor kerfluffle over who had really created a couple animated short films Hogue has posted attacking two candidates' mayoral challengers. 

I'm not sure why candidates can't post their own damn press releases -- don't they have their own Web sites? But beyond that, I don't care that much. I've said this before, but these are blogs, not public trusts.

Besides, there's a nice irony here. Online and elsewhere, one complaint with the MSM has been that too often, reporters just repeat talking points ... often without making any effort to get to the truth behind the claims. It's almost reassuring to see that, even if the MSM does go the way of all flesh, its most sacred traditions will continue.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Posted By on Mon, Mar 30, 2009 at 3:28 PM

Sorry for the delay, folks -- it's still Monday, though, and thus not too late for MP3 MONDAYYYY.

This week's band is Centipede Eest, aka Centipede E'est, aka Centipede East, aka Centipede. Last fall, I wrote these dudes up for their newest release, Confluence. We discussed whether or not they're a jam band, and talked about their collaborations with other local musicians -- check it out here.

The track we're posting is an alternate version of "Stingray." Download it here!

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Posted By on Fri, Mar 27, 2009 at 1:50 PM

Unsmoke is likely the area's most memorably situated art gallery: It's housed in a former Catholic grade school in Braddock, right across Braddock Avenue from the gates and smokestacks of U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson works. The building, owned by Braddock Deputy Mayor Jeb Feldman, is home to a budding artists's collective, and is part of Mayor John Fetterman's attempts to revitalize the largely desolate old mill town.

But I wouldn't note all this if the art at Unsmoke weren't usually memorable, too, and that's been the case since the place opened last July. Most prominently, it's hosted teeming group shows and multimedia events -- even once a literary reading that accompanied the debut of a new outdoor wood-fired pizza oven.

The current show opened quieter, on Sat., March 21, and runs shorter. But as long as there's a little wine, it counts as a reception. And the show is plenty engaging on its own terms, particularly large-scale paintings and drawings by young, Brooklyn-based artist Firelei Baez.

One side wall of the gallery (the former school's high-ceilinged rec space) features Baez's amazing graphite renderings of women of different ethnicities, their hair seemingly prone to grooming by small bright birds. (In her artist statement, Baez notes, "In Caribbean folklore any part of the body represents the soul, especially hair. It is necessary to protect one's soul by making sure that any hair that is shed does not wind up in the hands of others. If a bird picks up one's hair and incorporates it into its nest, then the person's soul is placed in limbo.") Along the gallery's back wall, a couple other drawings, which seem to depict close-ups of orgiastic sex, likewise show off her drafting skill.

But Baez's signature is probably her more colorful work, paintings that seem to depict the mutated forms of furry, naked Rubenesque female figures. They are presented, typically, with their backs turned, in stilleto heels, their upper bodies obscured by wreathing foliage. In a variation, a couple works offer similar female forms, only this time disturbingly truncated: nothing below one knee, and a nothing but a coil of rope emanating from the other. The bodies, rendered in riotous tropical watercolors, mesh with abstract, protoplasmic emanations. Another image, somewhat disturbingly, combines reiterations of a well-fleshed leg and hip into a single, somehow larval form.

Baez was born in the Dominican Republic; the mass of black hair adorning some of the figures she paints might be her own (she attended the reception). She's now a student at Cooper Union, in New York. The Unsmoke show came about because she knows the brother of Zoe McCloskey, the young Pittsburgh-based artist whose large-scale prints made up the balance of this two-artist show called No Longer Disturbing, Beneath the Paper Thin Surface. (It runs just through Thu., April 2, with hours by appointment only; 937-371-1986 or unsmoke@gmail.com.)

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Posted By on Thu, Mar 26, 2009 at 5:04 PM

Just a quick FYI, a band that we weren't able to cram into the paper this week, Auryn, releases their debut album tonight. Auryn's an old-school political metalcore band who are all about environmentalism and direct action -- fans of, say, the first facedowninshit LP might be interested, eh? (Though they have more of an "epic" thing going on and less of a "stoner" thing.) Check 'em out here.

Tonight's show is at the Mr. Roboto Project and also features locals Onodrim (with one of whom I previously shared a band, in the interest of full disclosure), Protestant, and the epic UK band Fall of Efrafa.

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Posted By on Thu, Mar 26, 2009 at 2:37 PM

Just when you thought the whole Joe the Plumber thing had finally played itself out ... plans are afoot to spring this idiot on us all over again. 

Yes, Joe Wurzelbacher is apparently coming to Pittsburgh  to speak out against the Employee Free Choice Act on March 30. Wurzelbacher, of course, is to politics what Paris Hilton is to Hollywood: proof that anyone can earn 15 minutes of fame and then some, provided they are willing to be utterly shameless. After playing the part of a bald sock puppet in the McCain campaign, he's done a laughable stint as a war correspondent ... in which he suggested that wars shouldn't have correspondents. There was also talk about hiim recording an album. We can only pray there isn't a sex tape in the works. 

Anyway, now the talented Mr. Wurzelbacher is being offered up to us an expert on labor law. 

EFCA, as you may have heard, is a measure desperately opposed by business groups, because it would help unionization efforts. Under current labor law, even if every employee signs a card indicating their desire to form a union, an employer can still require an election -- which gives the employer more time to intimidate workers into abandoning the effort. Naturally conservatives are opposing the measure under the pretext that it will ... allow UNIONS to intimidate employees. 

Joe's visit coincides with Senator Arlen Specter's decision to oppose EFCA, dashing the hopes of many union supporters

Coincidentally enough, Joe's visit ALSO comes just a week after janitors at the Carnegie Science Center held a demonstration at their workplace. The janitors contend that while they've all signed cards indicating their support for a union, the Science Center still refuses to recognize one. 

It'd be nice if a couple of those janitors showed up to hear Joe hold forth on the bullying tactics of the union they are trying so desperately to join. I got a feeling somebody would be walking out of this event with a swirly. 

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Posted By on Wed, Mar 25, 2009 at 8:33 AM

One thing about music conferences that's always a bit surprising to me is how few of the musicians playing them in hopes of being "discovered" bother going to the daytime panel discussions -- panels led by the very people they hope will discover them. They'll show up and play their evening showcase, but not avail themselves of the professional opportunities -- and SXSW seems no different in that regard. Sure, there are usually a lot of people milling about in the conference center, but compared to the many thousands of musicians playing the fest, there's practically no one here.

Case in point: a demo listening seminar on Friday afternoon, led by Lawrence Gelburd, a Philadelphia-based music producer who I'd met before at Harrisburg's Millennium Music Conference. Attendees put their demos in a box, which were pulled out at random, played for 1-2 minutes, at which point the four producers on the panel offered constructive criticism and asked questions. Continue for about 90 minutes.

It's certainly not the most glamorous way to spend the afternoon, especially when the Australian government is offering free booze, barbecue and bands just across the street. Which is probably why there were maybe 30 people in the room for the panel. But I did see some new acts get hooked up with producers who were interested in working with them, which seems ultimately more exciting.

The trade show is another aspect that can be overlooked. Sure, it's a bit square - demos of music gear you probably can't afford and that's not released yet, and awkward conversations with spokespeople. But I signed up to win a lot of music gear, learned about some new band management/organizational software, and ran into Jason Stollsteimer and Don Blum of The Von Bondies, making the rounds of the booths, and from what I could tell, walking out with some serious loot. (As a teen-ager in Michigan, my first real writing assignment was a CD review of Blum's old sci-fi punk band Mazinga, for Ann Arbor Current.)

The night's music started out with a tromp down to La Zona Rosa, a large club on the outskirts of SXSW, for the Scottish Arts Council showcase. The openers, enthusiastic young band We Were Promised Jetpacks, seemed ecstatic with the large crowd they played to. "Back home, nobody gives a fuck," the singer crowed. I briefly considered just parking it at La Zona Rosa for the night, in that the rest of the lineup included Danananananykroyd, Camera Obscura, The Proclaimers, Glasvegas (who'd I'd failed at seeing the first night) and Primal Scream. One could certainly do worse ... but it was time to check in with some folks from back home.

Walking in the door of the Tap Room at Six, the first thing I noticed is that I'd been here before: It's where I saw Black Tie Revue (R.I.P.) play their SXSW showcase two years ago. The second thing I notice is Michael Kastelic of The Cynics, checking out the performance by The Ugly Beats, along with Gregg and Barbara of the Pittsburgh-based Get Hip label.

Emily Rodgers and her band were hanging out in the back room, seeming a bit overwhelmed yet energized by the maelstrom raging outside. Rodgers had already played one show today, solo, in a nearby bookstore. Tonight's showcase is for Misra, the label that recently signed her.

As her band kicked off the first song, Rodgers stood almost completely still, her eyes often closed, sometimes glancing down at a music stand. As she sang the chorus, "everything is better when you're around," I was reminded most of Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards. Throughout the set, the band maintained a fairly slow, loping pulse, with lonesome, echoing guitars that built toward an explosive, raging finale. Get Hip's Gregg Kostelich seemed genuinely pleased and surprised by Rodgers (perhaps even a bit regretful that he didn't sign her?).

After Rodgers' set, it was time for me to hit the roadhouse-style club Antone's, an Austin landmark, where I caught Portland singer-songwriter Mirah as well as St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark), performing new material from the forthcoming follow-up to her excellent album Marry Me. St. Vincent's performance proved as fascinating and complex as I remembered from a previous show, but the setup time for all the electronics and instruments was interminable. Compounding the problem was that, all around me, doofus guys kept up an unceasing chorus of "Marry me, Annie!" An interesting update on the traditional cat-call, true -- but still, you don't want to be that dude.

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Posted By on Wed, Mar 25, 2009 at 8:27 AM

Believe it or not, it's possible -- maybe -- for the city and county to pass a decent campaign-finance reform bill. 

I'll explain why I think so at the bottom of this post, but I'll admit you  couldn't see much sign of hope from yesterday's city council hearing on the proposed reform. At the outset of the hearing, city councilor Jim Motznik and county council president Rich Fitzgerald agreed they'd support the reform ... but only if both the city and the county passed the exact same measure.

That requirement has also been stressed by mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Dan Onorato when they first proposed the bill a few months ago. And some nattering nabobs suspected that requiring each legislative body to agree to the measure is a means of hamstringing them both. 

In fact Fitzgerald, who was invited to the meeting along with representatives from Onorato and Ravenstahl's offices, made clear yesterday that there wasn't necessarily "broad-based support" for the bill in the first place. And further objections to it emerged yesterday.

City councilor Tonya Payne, for example, depicted the issue as a civil-rights matter.

"People can keep their heads stuck in the sand if they want to," she said, but "white males can outraise any of us." Payne, who is black, predicted the measure would pass with or without her, but "I'm just saying upfront, you're squeezing me, you're squeezing [councilor Darlene] Harris, you're squeezing [councilor Theresa] Smith. Any other woman, any other African-American, you're squeezing us... I believe it's not fair."

I'll confess that I found the objection murky. If white males can outfundraise everyone else -- and no doubt they can -- wouldn't the smart move be to deprive them of that advantage by limiting contributions wherever possible? Ensuring black customers could sit at lunch counters seems far more noble than demanding black politicians, too, can get access to unlimited cash at the campaign trough.

Then again, Payne said she favored action at the state level. Given Harrisburg's track record for killing such reforms, that's not much different from saying you don't favor action at all. But if big cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia (which already has contribution limits) are the only ones who pass such measures ... that arguably does hurt the prospects for black candidates, who tend to launch their careers in urban areas.

But all this paled compared to the drama of city councilor Patrick Dowd -- who did you know is a mayoral candidate? -- grilling Ravenstahl aide Gabe Mazefsky.

Dowd noted that Ravenstahl had vetoed a campaign-finance bill passed by the city last year, and that many of Ravenstahl's objections to that bill could apply to this one. For example, Ravenstahl complained that the measure would put city politicians at a disadvantage in races for state office, where they might face suburban politicians who hadn't been cramped by the rules. Dowd noted that the same objection could apply to this rule as well.

"Why is the mayor suddenly flip-flopping?" Dowd asked.

"I think 'flip-flopping' is a campaign term ..." Mazefsky began.

"OK," said Dowd, "why has he changed his position out of convenience?"

"I believe on the school board, on which you served ... did you propose campaign finance reform?" Mazefsky shot back. 

The answer is no. And Dowd's cross-examination of Mazefsky was met with some knowing smirks by Dowd's peers. "I can't believe mayoral politics was intruding in these chambers," one later told me in mock surprise.

But actually, mayoral politics may be the best chance this bill has of getting passed. Notably circumspect during this hearing was Bill Peduto, the city councilor who has done more to push this reform than anyone else.

Peduto knows better than anyone that Ravenstahl's reform is a flip-flop. And as sponsor of the vetoed bill, he has the most reason to be upset about it. Still, Peduto kept his remarks fairly brief. He noted the more strident limits put in place by other cities, and said the veto had a "devastating" impact on reform efforts at the state level. But he also emphasized his willingness to work with the mayor (and by extension the county executive) to get a bill passed, expressing a willingness to negotiate some points with them. 

So it's possible, at least, that we could see a repeat of Peduto and Ravenstahl's compromise on installing energy-saving bulbs in city streetlights. Peduto and Ravenstahl have often been at loggerheads, but their willingness to negotiate this issue gave Ravenstahl a campaign boast, and it gave Peduto a notch in his belt as an environmentalist. It also left Dowd -- who also touts environmentalist principles, but who has long been on the outs with Peduto -- in the cold. 

The situation here seems similar: Ravenstahl would no doubt love to put this reform issue behind him, to neutralize Dowd and anyone else who might pop up as an independent challenger down the road. Peduto would no doubt love to pass a bill, period. And he doesn't have much interest in helping Dowd either.

Like I say, it may not come to pass. But I have a feeling that in Pittsburgh, the only way to fight old-school politics is with old-school politics. 

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Posted By on Tue, Mar 24, 2009 at 8:25 PM

Mark Southers' new play brought to mind a coupleof films I'd seen recently. Like Clint Eastwood's GranTorino and Phillippe Faucon's Dans La Vie, the playdescribed a culture clash. In Gran Torino, Eastwood plays aracist retired Detroit autoworker living next to a Hmong family.Dans La Vie, an excellent French film that screened at thePittsburgh Jewish-Israeli Film Festival, depicted bonding between anelderly Jewish woman and older ethnic Arab woman.

Southers' play, like the earlier installment inthis busy local theater-maker's Culture Clash series, focusedon one facet of a conflict that to Americans seems at least asintractable, if not older than, modern Arab-Israeli tensions: theone between African-Americans and people of European descent, hereItalian-Americans.

Somewhat like Gran Torino, I Nipoti ("TheNephews") starts as comedy, though it actually careensfurther, into outright farce. Two men, a pizza-shop-owner and thecousin he employs, have hidden their elderly and seemingly comatoseItalian-immigrant uncle in a nursing home in hopes of extracting hisfamily-secret sauce recipe. But while Gran Torino'sredemptive second act is driven by the threat of violence, INipoti looks for a bittersweet, even gentle resolution.

The play has its faults. Moreso than Southers'first two Culture Clash plays, Hoodwinked and JamesMcBride, it spools out long lectures about racism that bring thenarrative to a screeching halt. But it finds its own artisticredemption in some nice touches. One's a smart act-one sightgag in which one of the nephews, Nico, panics because he thinks theleg he's preparing to massage (to improve circulation) is hisuncle's, discolored by a blood clot; instead, the limbsuddenly proves that of Obadiah, a nursing-home resident who, likethe facility's staff, is African-American.

The splendid Tony Bingham, as Nico, and the wonderfulKevin Brown, as Obadiah, make comic hay with the scene. But it'salso a clever way to point out the arbitrariness of using skin colorto classify people.

Later, Southers explores the point in further sceneswith Nico and Obadiah. Nico, kindhearted but kind of slow, says,"You're white and I'm black. It's as simpleas that." But of course it's not. Plenty of folks ofMediterranean ancestry called "white" are darker thanmany of the people we call "black."

With their humanist values, and a tendency towardearnestness, culture-clash narratives can feel old-fashioned. Butwork like Gran Torino (which is really an urban Western), theincisive, fast-paced Dans La Vie and the sometimes poignant,sometimes raucously funny I Nipoti prove you can make yourpoint while entertaining, too.

 

I Nipoti continues through Sun., March 29. 

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Posted By on Mon, Mar 23, 2009 at 1:39 PM

Beware Fashionable Women is the power-pop alias of Barak Shpiez, a Pittsburgh-based musician and audio engineer who has spent the last year working in Los Angeles. Sean Collier reviewed the debut album from BFD in December:

"[T]wo of the album's ten tracks are particularly memorable: the harmony soaked, Beach Boys-style "I'll Be the DJ" and the careful yet infectious "Found." Both of those tracks are catchy, creative and hold up well to repeat listens. An album full of songs this good would be irresistible."

Beware Fashionable Women: "I'll Be the DJ"

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Posted By on Fri, Mar 20, 2009 at 5:38 PM

There's the oft-quoted William Burroughs line that "Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million pairs of Levi's to both sexes." The marketing department at Levi's has figured out that rock 'n' roll moves plenty of denim as well, hence the Levi's Fader Fort. Located on the other side of the train tracks from the central SXSW conference sites, and its own separate entity, the Fort is an large enclosure with multiple stages that manages to also incorporate a full Levi's store. The fact that you can see many of the SXSW bands perform during the day, in more of a party atmosphere -- and without an expensive official credential -- is very attractive. It also means means long lines to get in, but it can be worth it.

Case in point: The Handsome Furs, who offered a short, explosive set at the Fort yesterday. The husband-and-wife Canadian duo combined Clashy guitar (him), distorted programmed beats and synths (her) and dueling vocals that offered plenty of energy without making you feel like you'd checked your brain at the door. All this bodes well for the Handsome Furs upcoming show at Brillobox, on March 31. (The fact that it doesn't seem to be showing up on the Furs' MySpace schedule doesn't look quite as good, though.)

The highlight of the evening shows for me was Grizzly Bear, who filled the cavernous Central Presbyterian Church with their majestic vocal harmonies. I never realized that sitting in a pew for an hour or so in respectful silence, before heading back out into the mayhem, could be so refreshing -- is this what people go to church on Sunday for? I also checked out bands from the Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar/Dead Oceans family of labels, including These Are Powers, who recently played the Lava Lounge. The band Foreign Born, in particular, seemed much improved (and with an expanded lineup) over the last time I saw them, opening for St. Vincent at the Andy Warhol Museum. (Which reminded me that one of the things I need to do tonight is see St. Vincent again ...)

This weekend, I'll get to check in with some of the local Pittsburgh bands playing down here, and see how first timers are navigating this massive music blowout. For me, anyway, the second time through feels very different than the apocalyptic rush of being thrust into it without knowing what you're in for. To get an idea of what that experience can be like -- and probably is, for first-timers like Kim Phuc guitarist Eli Kasan, and singer-songwriter Emily Rodgers, for example -- is in my feature story from SXSW 2007.

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