Thursday, January 30, 2014

Remembering Pete Seeger

One of the highlights of my 2010 American trip was getting to see Pete Seeger in a rare, full-length concert, thereby fulfilling one of my life-long ambitions. I had to travel to Woodstock, New York (yes, that Woodstock), to catch the show, which took place at the Bearsville Theater. I wrote about that performance, in an earlier blog post headed, Pete Seeger – Living Legend. It was a great honor to see him in concert.

Sadly, the living legend passed away this week (Monday, January 27, 2014). He was 94 years of age.

Singer, songwriter, actor, environmentalist, ecologist, humanist and socialist; husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather, Pete Seeger was all these and much more. When Pete Seeger passed away, it is not overstating the praise to say that the world lost one of its great champions and humanitarians.

Tributes have been flowing in for Mr. Seeger since his passing, from a veritable Who’s Who of fellow performers (Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Billy Bragg), politicians (President Obama, Bill Clinton), and thousands of folk music fans and activists everywhere.

Pete Seeger’s passing will be an occasion for much sadness, personal reflection, and no doubt for renewed commitment to the important causes that occupy his, and our waking hours. The greatest praise we can extend to Pete is to honor his memory by continuing to sing his songs, and to get involved in the many causes and issues that were close to Pete's heart. Much remains to be done.

There are many great videos of Seeger available via YouTube, and I urge you to take a look at as many of them as you can. On learning of his death I immediately searched through my 2010 travel archives for the one song I recorded at that Bearsville performance. At the time, Pete was 91, and his singing voice was all but gone, but I was more than happy just to be in his presence, as I’m sure were other members of the sold out concert. I could have filmed much more, but I was more intent on enjoying the show. I did not want to be distracted by my camera, nor did I want to spoil the experience for other audience members. In the end, I satisfied myself with some photographs before recording Pete’s encore, the song, Quite Early Morning, which is embedded below.

Pete Seeger, Thank you for the joy your music has given me these past 50 years. Thank you for your boundless humanity; your optimism; your humility, and for the ongoing examples you continue to set as performer, songwriter, mentor, and advocate for peace and justice. For all this and so much more, I thank you.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

August: Osage County

At the end of each year it has become the fashion for movie critics to list their top ten best movies of the year, and to also rate their top ten worst films of the year. It says something about August: Osage County, that the film has probably made it on to as many best lists as it has on to lists of the worst films.

I think I can understand why. This is not a film that you can ‘enjoy’ in the accepted sense of the word. Watching the dysfunctional family at the centre of August: Osage County, implode in spectacular fashion is not fun – even though the film is classed as a comedy/drama. As family secrets are painfully revealed during the course of the film, characters are sucked deeper and deeper in a mire of their own making.

Meryl Streep heads an ensemble cast that also features Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch and several others in this film adaptation of the Tracy Letts Pulitzer Prize winning stage show. Letts also wrote the screenplay for the movie.

A digression. Many years ago, when I was fantasizing about being a writer, I used to buy a magazine for aspiring writers called appropriately enough, The Writer. Of the hundreds of articles I read in the magazine over a period of several years, only one has stuck in my mind, and of that article only the general theme remains with me. The article was headed, Where’s The Magic? The author of that piece, whose name of course I’ve long forgotten, suggested that every piece of writing had to have at least one moment of ‘magic’ in it. Not the abracadabra kind of magic, but the kind that would make a scene, or piece of dialogue, or action sequence really jump off the page. It was, and still remains great advice that can be applied across a wide range of artistic and creative endeavours.

August: Osage County, has magic by the truck load. And most of it is delivered by Meryl Streep. There are moments in the film when you watch Streep in action and you say to yourself, “There goes the Oscar for Best Actress again!”

A brief synopsis (minus spoilers) courtesy of Wikipedia follows:

Sisters Barbara, Karen, and Ivy Weston (Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, and Julianne Nicholson) are called back home when their father, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), goes missing. They have kept their distance from their mother Violet (Meryl Streep) because she has become addicted to pills and loaded up on prescriptions after getting mouth cancer. The entire family gather for an awkward dinner, led by the high and brutally honest Violet. Barbara, the favourite daughter, hunts down all of Violet's pills and gets rid of them in an attempt to force her to sober up. Eventually, we learn of the sisters' back-stories…

The pivotal dinner scene is about to get underway
We also earn much about the lives of the other characters, and it is during these revealing moments that the real action takes place and the magic happens. As we have come to expect, Meryl Street is on top of her game as the matriarch who wields such profound power and influence over her brood, and other extended family members. Julia Roberts has never been better as the only person who seems able to push back against her mother’s “truth telling” and controlling behaviour.

Not all the members of this large cast get a chance to shine in the film. Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, and Benedict Cumberbach have small but important roles, but are overshadowed by the numerous female performances. In fact, the females in August: Osage County, pretty much steal the show.

By the way, is Tracy Letts working some type of ‘in joke’ on us here? While most people would consider Tracy to be a female name, Letts is a male writer, and I find it interesting that one of the male characters in the film also sports what many would consider to be a ‘female’ name, Beverly. I can find no reason to prove Letts is trying to slip one past us, but the thought has occurred to me. But I digress, again.

August: Osage County, was (mostly) filmed in Bartlesville and Pawhuska, Oklahoma, and the backdrops utilizing wide open plains and small town locations, add to the sense of isolation and alienation the characters in the film are experiencing.

If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the trailer for the movie.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Melbourne, Fourth Time Around

Actually, I have lost count of the number times I have been to Melbourne in the past five years. It is at least four times but it could be my fifth or sixth visit. But hey, who’s counting, right? Each time I have come here to house sit for friends, who take the opportunity to enjoy a summer break elsewhere.

Each time I come back, I like to return to locations I have enjoyed on previous visits. Places like the Melbourne Museum, the ArtsCentre, the National Gallery of Victoria, ACMI (the Australian Centre for the Moving Image) at Federation Square, and of course many other places.

This time my first trip into the city took me as always, to Federation Square, and since it was Saturday, I went straight to the Atrium where every Saturday numerous booksellers from around the city display their second hand titles to a constant flow of willing buyers and interested browsers. Right next to the Atrium is the Ian Potter Centre: National Gallery of Victoria, Australia. I popped into the gallery, but decided not to do the rounds of the various exhibition halls. I confined myself to several large, colourful installations on display in the foyer of the gallery. These sat under the collective title: At Home with the Hotham Street Ladies. The installations were created by five female artists who go under the name, Hotham Street Ladies.

Above: A typical suburban lounge room setting with a difference. Each of the major pieces of furniture are here adorned with individually hand crafted icing fashioned to resemble pieces of pizza (and the box the pizza came in), cigarette butts, home furnishings, and other items.

Above: What appears to be a multicoloured floor covering on closer inspection (below) is an installation consisting of thousands of individually placed elements ‘woven’ together from ordinary icing coloured to give the impression of carpet fibre.

In an artist statement on display at the exhibition the group state: “We like to make art that is interesting, funny and even a little bit disgusting. We take old fashioned activities such as cake decorating and handicrafts, and make them fresh and new.“ The statement goes on to explain that the work was inspired by the house they used to share in Hotham Street, Collingwood.

Above: I particularly liked this installation, because it reminded me of the many family gatherings  which always left assorted crockery and tables covered with the detritus of long, wholesome, home cooked meals. Incredibly, all the ‘food’ on the table is made from coloured icing.

Above: The title board for the installation consists of hundreds of small icing sugar candies (see detail below) that are literally good enough to eat. One can only wonder at the patience and fortitude of the artists as they slowly and methodically created each piece of icing, hand coloured it, and carefully attached every piece in place.

The installation is on display until March 2014. I wonder if we are allowed to eat the icing once the exhibition is over?

More Information

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Have A Little Sympathy

L-R: Ray Smith, Istvan Nemeth, Julian Barnett, John Appleby
So what did I do on my first full day in Melbourne? I spent much of it uploading video clips to my YouTube page.

I admit that it may not seem like the most exciting thing to do on a house sitting vacation, but I was ‘taking care of business’, so to speak. During the afternoon and evening of December 1, 2013, I filmed the Sympathy Orchestra, one of many great local Adelaide bands during their regular gig at the Whitmore Hotel. As a long time fan of the group, I filmed the complete performance, and promised to edit and upload the tunes to my page at YouTube. This process is now complete, and you can watch and listen to what I consider to be one of Australia’s best rock ensembles.

For me, what make the Sympathy Orchestra so unique is that they perform instrumental arrangements only. There are no lyrics to get in the way of the instrumentation, and no ego driven lead singer prancing about front and centre stage, trying to draw the audience’s attention to himself exclusively. Julian Barnett is the principal composer, although each member of the quartet add their own contribution and stamp to every tune. Some of these tunes are relatively short at around five minutes in length, while others power on for more than ten minutes. Some build slowly to gigantic crescendo’s, while other maintain slow, thoughtful rhythms throughout.

Julian Barnett is one of those guitarists that play with his whole body. One of the best examples of this is when the band is roaring towards the end of the tune, Flex ‘Em. Julian is in constant motion as he alternatively thrashes his guitar or bends multiple strings in order to wring every last note out of them. His face contorts with effort and emotion, while his feet rise and fall in a dance that tries to stay grounded while at the same time wanting to break free from the floor he is standing on. I also love to watch drummer John Appleby working his kit like a man possessed. Watch the brief smiles and quick glances he throws towards Julian Barnett as he plys his drum sticks from the eight minute mark in this great instrumental piece. Take a look at Flex ‘em now.

Julian Barnett has been leading the group for many years, and I consider him to be one of the best guitarists in Adelaide. Heck, he is one of the best guitarists in Australia, and I’m sure he can hold his own with some of the best guitarists in the world. The other members of Sympathy Orchestra are no slouches on their chosen instruments either. John Appleby (drums/percussion), Istvan Nemeth (bass guitars), and Ray Smith on keyboards, have been playing together with Julian Barnett for many years, and the easy camaraderie the group displays on and off the stage is a pleasure to see.

The Sympathy Orchestra don’t venture far from their Adelaide roots, so sadly fans outside of South Australia do not have too many opportunities to see the group live. For that reason, it has been a pleasure for me to have had the chance to film the group and turn the resulting footage into a collection of clips that hopefully will help introduce the band far outside the confines of Adelaide, and South Australia.

More Information

Friday, January 3, 2014

Dreams Big Enough To Scare You

Yesterday, in a trip that reminded me of my 2010 Greyhound bus journey from New York City to New Orleans, I caught a bus from Adelaide to Melbourne. During the twelve hour trip we made several stops at small country towns and regional cities to drop off or pick up new passengers. One such stop was at the Victorian town of Nhill. There we had just 30 minutes to grab a quick bite at a local café or to hit the public restrooms at the tourist office.

I popped into Annaliesa’s Café at 24 Victoria Street, Nhill, for something to eat, and was delighted to discover numerous signs with a positive focus (see image), decorating the walls of the café.

Another of the messages read: “If your dreams don’t scare you, they are too small.”

Since I am planning to undertake some extended travelling again this year, I took both the above ‘messages’, and several others, as good omens for the year ahead. In fact, my new year begins with three weeks house sitting for friends in Melbourne – a role I have undertaken for the past three of four years. In May I will be in Greece for an extended stay, and with luck and good planning I hope to be back in New York City during July or August. If my trip to New York does not take place, I will head to France and England instead.

While I can’t claim that any of these journeys are large enough to scare me, I am well aware that at 65 years of age there are plenty of reasons to be cautious and careful. Anytime one spends up to six months away from home, you are forced to consider a wide range of scenarios that you probably take for granted if you stay close to home. The possibility of accidents while travelling is always a concern, and as a solo traveller, I am well aware that the responsibility for all my travel arrangements and for the decisions I make while I am away are all mine and nobody else’s.

Never the less, I am up for the challenge, and I hope my journeying this year will be as much fun, and as incident free as my last three extended trips in 2008, 2010 and 2012.

I hope yours are too.
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