Hail to The Chieftains

Before The Chieftains review — which it’s not, because I lost my Lamy Al-Star pen following a disaster of a restaurant meal so I couldn’t take notes — a roundabout.

I try to be a jack of all journalism tricks. I even covered a lecture and poetry reading by ex-NBA star Tom Meschery in about 2000 at the University of Arkansas for The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas — almost sports reporting. In about 1982, I photographed a workshop in Irving, Texas, taught by jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour. Later I realized I heard little and saw little, except for notes I made for the photo-page captions and what came through my Minolta’s lens. In the 1990s, reviewing occasional plays and classical and jazz concerts for the Arkansas Democrat then Democrat-Gazette, I found that deadlines changed my appreciation of the stage. It wasn’t just plot and character, but more story and acting. Was that a dramatic pause or a missed cue? Are those French horns in tune? Reading books evolved with reviewing a few a year.

We all do this though, without writing. Honey, did you like the movie? We exchange experiences and opinions. Maybe it’s that the critic needs specific sentences immediately, not fuzzy impressions, especially if the show is over at 9:45 and the copy desk needs the 10-12 inches by 10:30. Notes are necessary.

In the last decade, outside of Brick I’ve written no reviews. I still jot a rare note during a show. I fear I’ll forget. Yet in the last decade I have forced myself to sit back, just absorb. You leave the theater then glowing, with a total impression, hard to summarize and, too soon, hard to recall. So when I buy $48 tickets for us to see Randy Newman on Jan. 22, at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, I want to leave with something besides, “Duh, rockin’ show, durn, he’s funny.” The value of a top-dollar entertainment only starts with the two hours in a dark auditorium. It continues with memories and any enrichment afterward. On Newman, the first revelation was as a young man he wrote 3 Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come”; when he sang it that night you realize, with that croaky voice and singsong pacing, who else? Continue reading

It Takes Villages

Copyright 2010 Ben S. Pollock

Something that’s amazed me my entire adult life is how lousy a predictor childhood is of adult success.

Children reared with all the advantages, the latest psychology and/or consistent discipline — turn out as anything from national leaders to routinely stable mid-levels to layabouts. Children born in abusive families or to poverty — can repeat the previous generation or become presidents.

The second amazing thing is to hear adults blame childhood for everything, but that comes from something that once had been whispered, courtesy of the mass media, especially afternoon talk shows: Psychological counseling. The roots of failure or misbehavior are interesting, but current research indicates doubts: Focusing on a malady’s beginning may not hasten its cure. Sure the psycho with a machine gun was beaten up as a kid but … duck!

Every once in a while you come across someone who credits his or her sound childhood with being well-adjusted and successful. (See: Bill Gates)

I’d blame my own mom and dad, but they sure tried hard. My reticence, shyness, eagerness to please and reluctance to offend is due to childhood. Those are drawbacks to ambition. However, those traits can be adapted into qualities, which is up to me.

In the early 1990s, I wanted to free-lance a column to a Little Rock alternative weekly, initially called Spectrum. At that point, the late Tony Moser was editor; I knew him from when he worked at the Arkansas Democrat. Tony was brilliant and a character and in not a good way, an alcoholic. Praise from colleagues and superiors was split oddly: Half called him a great reporter and a lousy writer and the other half said the opposite. [I believe a journalist cannot be one without the other.]

Spectrum’s office was above Juanita’s restaurant. I recall everything but the exact quote, but as I sat across from his desk Tony rejected my samples, saying something like:

You hold back, Ben. If you let it out, your column might be interesting, and we might use it.”

Tony might have made a sincere assessment, or he might have been being a jerk. That’s something you learn after a while: People don’t always say what they mean, or they mean what they say at the time but may not have thought it through, or their memory of their opinion is faulty. In any case they might be right.

Darn straight I “hold back” deliberately, for clarity, for polish and to avoid offense unless I intend to offend. That should make the writing better, right?

OK, I almost never want to offend, so Tony Continue reading

Blued: Revue Review

The performance in Fayetteville of Blue Man Group filled my mind too full to write about immediately. A deadline would’ve been wonderful.

So now it’s time to free up to brain cavity. Past time. We saw the third of its eight shows at the Walton Arts Center, during the first week of September. The company — part of it, because it has permanent stages in five U.S. cities and a traveling international troupe — developed a “bus-and-truck” smaller-venue tour here, rehearsing through August at the WAC, under the direction of two of the three founding “blue men.”

Imagine: Blue Men walked among us at the Farmers Market, ate at our restaurants, and without the paint we did not know. It’s a large group, a full pop band backs them along with innumerable technicians and stagehands. Hope they enjoyed their sojourn.

Because I’d only seen them on TV and YouTube, all I knew was drumming, technobeat music and perhaps some clowning.

What one sees in person is surreal mime, a current manifestation and merger of several classic theatrical techniques, Continue reading

Rock in Rococo

A concert by Mark Knopfler and his band, seen April 21 in Kansas City, promoting his album Get Lucky, was tremendous. If you live within 250 miles (the distance from Fayetteville, as it happens) and have some extra 20s for tickets, try to see it; otherwise listen to the record. Though usually featuring electric instruments, songs both live and on the disc have an acoustic feel. Despite being a rock band, the rhythms and sense of Scottish (Gaelic?) and other British folk traditions are honored. You bet, the Dire Straits founder provided a generous “Sultans of Swing” around the midpoint of the two-and-a-quarter-hour, single-set show.

That is the review, 110 words. That’s all any show write-up need be. Just like news stories, where what’s new is just a paragraph and the rest is background, context and explanation. The latter, you learn in broadcast news writing, can be reduced to one or two clauses. Similarly in critiques, there’s the opinion then ruminations. Writers sometimes hide, disguise or disperse the take in the introspection, not always on purpose. With an opinion and its big caboose, readers of reviews want one of two things: 1) Advice on whether to see the show or get the book, album or download, or 2) They were there as well and the write-up serves as a souvenir and an affirmation or argument about the endeavor.

Ruminations if halfway decent are not fluff. Mediocre ones may be padding or ego expressions, yet even those can be fun if the writer is any good. Great supporting comments in a review are what make Criticism, capitalized, literature. At the least, they’re useful. The best way to stay culturally informed, I am convinced, is to read good book reviews and skip the books, except those few that grab you.

The Knopfler contemplations are below. Useful, entertaining or egocentric blogging? I don’t know. What I do know is when I see a a great concert or play or read a solid book, my mind wanders. I follow it and maybe take notes. In downtown Kansas City, I scribbled on an index card in the dark and it’s legible enough: There’s a dead trumpeter staggering through Fort Smith and how greed trashes a restored theater.

* * *

At about the third song of Knopfler’s mellow show sent my reverie to seeing Harry James when I was a young teen, Continue reading

Cultural Indifferences

The wonderful thing about having a well-run auditorium in town is opportunities it provides. If you follow Paul Simon or were listening to pop music in the mid-1980s you know of his album Graceland, which introduced to the West the South African men’s chorus that was in Fayetteville last weekend. Its name can seem a mouthful: Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

  • Ladysmith — hometown of the Shabalala family, who comprise most of its nine members.
  • Black — the area’s favored farm oxen.
  • Mambazo — Zulu for ax, perhaps more in the metaphorical Christian sword sense. (Thanks, program notes.)
  • Dinkelspiel — a smaller auditorium at Stanford University — or one of the bigger lecture halls, depending on whether it’s night or day.

So help me, I kept thinking Dinkelspiel during Saturday’s performance of the extraordinary men’s ensemble. In the late 1970s jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins played at Dink. In a still-memorable moment of my college years, the microphone clipped to his sax went out. Mr. Rollins hesitated for the briefest moment then resumed the piece. He sounded great before but now, astounding. To be heard in the last row of the 700-seat hall, not to mention over his combo, he changed his breath support and his embouchure (how the lips and teeth hold the mouthpiece). It made me realize how artificial amplification is, even when allegedly live and otherwise acoustic. In a couple of minutes though Mr. Rollins’ mike got repatched, and the wall of sound was re-erected.

The Mambazo band is known for dancing during its songs. They had no accompaniment. It was a cappella all the way, not even a hand drum. So when they kick or squat, they move from the microphones on stands.

The group, with few staff changes, has been together for over 40 years. Their words fading in and out must be deliberate. Maybe the fellows were playing their microphones like instruments; pros do that.

We had balcony seats, and I do have hearing problems. I’d have them hooked into wireless lavalier or headset microphones. Recalling Mr. Rollins, though, you know Mambazo would be more incredible sans amplification. Continue reading

Man and Superboy

Copyright 2010 Ben S. Pollock

Seeing the backstage drama Crazy Heart down at the Malco on its opening weekend here in Northwest Arkansas gave me lots to think about, being a good movie.

It’d be fine to wait for a home viewing, but leisurely, panoramic views of New Mexico increase the worth of a cineplex screen (Houston’s skyline? Big deal).

The featured country & Western music was more Western than country. The plot though overrides that. It’s the old “star performer on the way down may be redeemed by the love of a good woman.” Last year’s middle-aged male star vehicle The Wrestler was another verse of the song. Both beg the question of what the female lead, who’s always much younger and beautiful, ever sees in these guys — in both flicks we should be grateful technology is not pursuing Smell-O-Vision.

There’s a certain reality to this hoary fictional device: artists who hit success early tend to coast later on. Perhaps it’s laziness, or burnout, or that their audience demands more of the same. It may not be alcoholism or other addictions.

Insight: If you’re coasting, you’re by definition coasting downhill.

The protagonists of both these movies recognize and love good women, whatever role groupies play. This brought to mind a recent column of Little Rock colleague Gene Lyons, writing in Salon.com about Tiger Woods, a golfer at the peak of his games. Gene writes, “At the expense of repeating myself, I first formulated Eugene’s First Law of Sexual Dynamics covering a pro bass fishing tournament in Tennessee:

‘If there’s something one man can do better than another, there’s a woman who’ll sleep with him for it.’”

Part of Gene’s argument is where there’s consent there’s often complicity. But not always. That makes not just for attractive fiction (for artists) but career-costing facts (for other public figures).

There’s more to solid movies than relationships. Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart uses the greatest subtlety to show how his character Bad Blake inflated into his on-stage confident self. As does Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. That made me think of Myrna Loy. Continue reading