Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Not your classic, classic - an intense one-man-show confronts war


This is not your classic, classic! The new production and acting team of “Alder and Clark present” have taken a contemporary take on a classic, and taken it to, intensely emotional places. 

As much as I love myth and theology, I was never fully captivated when we studied the ancient myths and gods. Contemporary stories always seemed to convey the same themes, only in more easily understood and relatable ways. 

Rest assured, “An Iliad,” the postmodern play by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare is not The Iliad by Homer, although the same myths and gods persist. That is, this show is a visionary revision of a classic, but not your “classics class” classic, and the audience only benefits from its immediacy and impact.

When we are at a “backstage” style show at the Cookeville Performing Arts Center, seats are set up on the physical stage itself, and the audience can feel really immersed in the show. This is taken to an irrevocably intimate place with this wild performance. We just can’t hide from humanity’s self-hatred and the conflicted hope that stories about ourselves might finally save us from ourselves. 

Joe Clark might make eye-contact and give you cold chills, as his entire person interprets the one-man monologue that is the entire text with a particular mania and monstrous passion. The show is approximately 100 minutes without an intermission, but you will lose track of time as you are entertained and disturbed and possessed by the ghastly and grisly humor that the singular actor shares.

The stage is bare but for a boombox and a barrel fire and a bottle in a brown-paper bag. And assorted blankets and empty food cans and a dog bowl of water and dog-eared reading material. It could be one of the houseless camps that we see in every city.  Their minimalist stage set shows the speaker as a soggy traveler, a spent and sorry vagabond, a raging hobo on a hyperbolic binge. The play itself is an intoxicated Spark Notes of the primary source text, an external monologue about horror and heroism of war, mixed and mashed-up with an internal monologue about the bottomless grief and brutal glory of war. 

Even as the boombox gets kicked in desperation at one point, it occasionally spits news clips from several wars, Vietnam and Iraq and Ukraine and more. It speaks a sonic backing track, for the soundtrack that actually comes from the house speakers, and what a soundtrack it is, a haunted game of hippy Heardle, as instrumental snippets are interspersed, such as the Stones’ Gimme Shelter or Dylan’s Masters Of War or Black Sabbath’s War Pigs or Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction or All Along The Watchtower, the Hendrix version. 

Just as the boombox feels like an embodied conversation partner, so does the bottle, which probably contains water, but based on Clark’s imbibed and embodied iteration, you believe it is the vodka, gin, or tequila of which he speaks. And no wonder so many of our war veterans turn to the booze, as this story simply oozes the conflicted human compulsions and aches around violence.

We hate war. We love war. We loathe killing. We are killing machines. 

The fiery lust of this relentless monologue is bound not just by the bottle, but by the mania of obedience because war somehow pleases leaders and gods. We want to blame endless war on endless psychologies and theologies, blame the kings, blame the gods. Yet we participate. 

We enlist. We pay taxes. We fly flags on patriotic holidays. 

We profit in ways large and small, with no true conscientious objector exempt from the blood stains on their very hands, no matter our sign-holding protests and hand-wringing pleadings to our elected officials. We are all complicit to some extent, with every gas pump flowing from unsustainable sources and the universal adapter plugged into the endless war economy. 

Those who don’t die as mere children might spend long lives, riddled by nightmares and addictions and gathered around hobo bonfires, telling stories to whomever might listen.

Our small arts and theater community is invited to gather around this fire of fierce local art for only two more nights, Wednesday the 28th and Thursday the 29th, at CPAC, corner of Walnut and Broad, by the Post Office and Dogwood Park. Tickets available online in advance or at the door. Curtain at 7:30pm both nights. 

Alder and Clark present on Facebook

Advance tickets

Friday, June 16, 2023

Not a Jason Jukebox: The 400 Unit Melts Faces with All of Weathervanes on the Opening Night of Tour


As much a fan journal as a review...

Years ago, it wouldn’t be no-big-thing to swing by a venue for soundcheck rehearsal, to fanboy out and maybe lurk near the tour bus, but that's just not something I regularly do anymore. But I’ve driven more than 500 miles this week to get here, so why not.

I arrived at 4:10pm. Tour buses were parked & partitioned off by a shaded fence. The newish venue looks a lot nicer than I imagined it might. Very new, very suburban vibe out here in the Ozarks, and as I drove to the place from the west, it was all fields and trains and stuff.

Fayetteville, Arkansas. Population 95,000. 

How do they choose these locations for these tour-launch-shows, anyway. Out here in the heartland, I suppose we are pretty darn close to the setting for "King of Oklahoma." 

This is the first show after the album release at Eastside Bowl, last Friday (which I missed, because I was out of town seeing another artist). Knowing that this was the only show with Adeem the Artist opening, I felt prompted, no compelled, to jettison Bonnaroo tickets, drive more than 500 miles, and add tickets to the Open Highway Festival in St. Louis on Saturday, to make this a Jason weekend. 

Grabbing just a little bit of shade on the venue perimeter, I can hear soundcheck through the venue walls. Something so exciting about the early arrival, even though I hope to sneak off for a snack and shower here soon, would simply be hearing the noodling and chit chat and long silence between takes, a window to my forever dream to be a professional journalist, with early access on the air-conditioned other side of this brick wall. The weather apps say it is 88 degrees.

These are the songs I heard at soundcheck:
If You Insist
Honeysuckle Rose

Then, I actually did slip away, but not to escape the sunshine at first.  Instead, I opted for a short hike on the Razorback greenway, followed by a delicious burrito from Taco Bell (hey I was hungry after the walk), and then back to the AirBnb for a shower. I don’t like standing around too long before a show, so I made it just in time for Adeem’s opening song. As the supporting set started to evolve, I realized that instead of the usual 45 minutes I have come to expect for the opener, Adeem was getting an hour, which meant 13 songs. And 13 songs with a bassist and a drummer that truly made it not just rocking but more magical. Honestly, Adeem would have told more stories without the band, and we would have had fewer songs.

And what 13 great songs we got, including several from the “just-out-on-vinyl” Cast Iron Pansexual (I Never Came Out, Going To Heaven) and the “hits” from White Trash Revelry (Middle of a Heart, Going to Hell). The early-in-the-set standard Fervent For The Hunger, included a snippet from Isbell’s iconic 24 Frames, much to the joyful appreciation of the crowd. From a new unreleased song to a song from the vast Bandcamp back catalog to covers by John Prine and Tom Petty, Adeem really crafted a setlist arc to treat their fans as well as reach out to the folks that had never heard them before.

Set breaks on a big night like this, the gap time can put me on pins and needles. But not this time. You could say that I am kind of shooting as superfan for Adeem, with this being my 9th time seeing them. So I just hang out with them at merch, quiz them about the new song in the setlist, meet some of their other fans waiting in line to buy vinyl and get stuff signed. Which meant Jason’s first song at 9:05pm came so quickly. The cresting wave of freakout anticipation collided with the songs. 

We setlist geeks on the fan pages had been geeking out about how many Weathervanes songs we might get in a “regular” show, that wasn’t the record release party. I don’t think anyone really imagined the entire album getting played. But that’s exactly what happened, not in the LP’s order mind you, and with sparse classics sprinkled through. 

It was my first time seeing a Jason and the 400 Unit show without an oldie from the Drive By Truckers catalog. It was my first time at a show without Hope The High Road since before the Nashville Sound came out in 2017. Stockholm was the only song besides Cover Me Up from Southeastern, even though a 10th anniversary of that album set could be in order at some point. I am awed by the audacious confidence and chops it took to refuse the Jason-as-jukebox-of-his-former-self style of legacy show!! 

It will be wild to see if this kind of setlist is sustained for the entire summer.
Do the unapologetic rockers rock even more rock in a live setting with a great sound system. Yes and then some. Was it fire? Of course it was, with nothing but smoldering ashes and melted faces where the venue once stood.

Earlier on Thursday, Jason tweeted about opening night of the Weathervanes tour, thankfully contradicting the strange claim by a Pitchfork writer that the tour began 3 months ago. What? No, this was the big night, and I wasn’t the only person who traveled great distance to greet this epic occasion, having met others with similar mileage at the show or online. 

I don’t know if this is really a proper review but plainly just more of my fan journal that I started scribbling yesterday. I do know that I am typing this on not enough sleep and not enough coffee from my modest AirBnb, so I must get on the road, as my sweet spouse meets me at the St. Louis airport to join me for tomorrow’s show. 

Save The World
24 Frames 
Vestavia Hills
King of Oklahoma
Last of My Kind
Strawberry Woman
If You Insist
Middle of the Morning
When We Were Close
White Beretta
Death Wish
Cast Iron Skillet
Honeysuckle Blue
Cover Me Up
If We Were Vampires
This Ain't It

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Beyond the Bro - A Brilliant Tyler Childers Set in Detroit

Masonic Temple, Detroit, 6.6.2023

Only four years ago, I saw Tyler Childers at a festival and felt the day was too hot, there was too much cigarette smoke (because it was outdoors), and I was not nearly “bruh” enough to hang with the aesthetic in the fanbase. I don’t consider Tyler “bro-country” per se but the bro vibes were as thick as the nicotine haze that day. 
I’m not saying there weren’t some bro-vibes tonight (I overheard someone in the men’s room talking about an upcoming Morgan Wallen stadium show), and the marijuana vape pens made things plenty smoky for an indoor show where that shit is surely prohibited, even though recreational weed is legal in my former hometown.
Confession is I love too many genres to allow my own sense of my own identity, to deter me from loving great lyrical folk art, genre fanbase stereotypes fulfilled, yet notwithstanding.

So this show was so different, because I have had more time to learn Tyler’s music and continue to feel compelled to see him live, like it was a hunger and a course to correct that disappointing summer day back in 2019.

Granted I am sure Tyler was fire that day too, but I wasn’t ready. At a dedicated sold out show on a sold out tour, I was in for something else entirely. Tyler: A still rising star and a master of his craft in every way, with his voice an instrument, a conjuring spell, a distinctly unforgettable Kentucky-inflected wailing, howling, transcendent moaning, inimitable outlaw twang.

I met a fan from Iowa who said she was staying at the same hotel as him. Then she showed me a video of Tyler with his dog. Tyler is into his dog. The album is about dogs, really, dogs and heaven and so much more. But there’s a universalism to his Universal Sound that attaches itself to you like dirt attached to the side of your truck, stuck to you like the threads of your lineage to place and people.

Now I know that the Ryman is the mother church, but the Masonic Temple is another mother church. His stage set is so perfectly to convey that homey comfort and rustic rural wow, with an old-school TV, with black white cowboy shit on.
And the crowd, and this was perfectly evident in the first four acoustic songs. They know every song and every word to every song and they sing loud and in unison and they actually sound good. I admire Tyler, but I am not a superfan at their level and it puts chill bumps all over my arms.

During Creeker, I’m like how sad is this song and is this song about suicidal ideation and wow how can a sad AF song with suicidal ideation be so freaking holy. But it’s the late set rendering of the aforementioned Universal Sound and the sacred-dance-hall keyboard-and-drums smoking “Way of the Triune God” that has me “screaming and shouting” and slapping hands with a few thousand strangers.

In this catalog spanning set, he still packs in covers by SG Goodman and Kenny Rogers. He only samples from the recent gospel album but those songs are some of the funkiest (think the Country Funk compilation) and not the least sectarian and abiding a universal impulse toward inclusion. It really is church but the whole concert is church not just the newer songs, especially those churches of the honky tonks and highways and camping trailers and hunting lands.

At the end, which is just the last song, he does the most talking of the night.
It begins with an ask:
-be good to each other
-eat lots of vegetables
-drink lots of water

Then he starts talking about lyrics that were thinking about psychedelics, that were about letting go, and then he is telling us about a dying friend and moonshiner and hippy dear brother and Tyler is bringing music to hospice. Then Tyler is crying and introducing an acapella rendition of Sour Mash by Cory Brannan.

Then he is holding up one of those disposable shot glasses they have at shows. And it looks like it has whisky in it. And my brain is like wait and what and I thought you were sober. He holds up the shot while rendering the song more emotional and eerie than the original version. I really am terrified he is going to drink it, but at the end of the song, he turns the glass upside down and sprays the caramel-colored shine into the crowd.

Tyler songs are humming in my head on the way to the car, and I put on the "Purgatory" album as soon as I start up the silver Toyota with Tennessee plates.

Setlist (my notes mostly check with the version on, although a couple on there may be out of order)

Acoustic-just Tyler
Nose to the Grindstone
Lady May
Shake This Frost
Follow You To Virgie

with Full Band - Food Stamps
Whitehouse Road
Country Squire
Bus Route
Tom Turkey - Charley Crockett cover
Rustin in the Rain
All Your'n
Cluck Ol’ Hen
Two Coats
I Swear To God
Old Country Church
Take My Hounds To Heaven
Space & Time - SG Goodman cover
Percheron Mules
Tulsa Turnaround -- Kenny Rogers cover
Way of the Triune God
House Fire
Universal Sound
Honky Tonk Flame
Heart You Been Tendin
Sour Mash - acapella Cory Branan cover

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Queer Art In Tennessee

[Pictured - Bertha (Grateful Drag); Cookeville Pride & Madness of Lady Bright; Lela & Maxzine from the Vaudeville Circus & Jug Band review in Cannon County)

Pride month begins today. Queer art is in the community. 

There’s something especially sacred & galvanizing but also terrifying about Pride this year. Our local Pride, which I have missed many times due to my annual June travels, comes on the late pioneering poet Allen Ginsberg’s birthday. It is almost 3 years to the day after Cookeville’s historic BLM rally, which turned out to turn my entire life upside-down & inside-out. 

The day before our Pride, Melody Walker & Mercy Bell will drop the official release of their "Jesus Was A Drag Queen" song, which has already been making the likes & listens on TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, etc. "Jesus Was A Drag Queen" mirrors for me a poem I wrote about the queer Jesus, more than 30 years ago. More than 30 years ago, we marched on Washington for the LGBTQ rights movement, when it seemed like a time of rising hope, not hateful reactions. 

I was thrilled to learn that Melody Walker is also part of Bertha, an amazing “Grateful Drag” band that brings the queer & Deadhead communities together. Their April 29th debut at Dee’s in Nashville was the same day two punk bands & the Eggplant Faerie Players were playing a fierce, fiery activist-benefit show here in Cookietown. Sometimes you want to be in two places at once! But it was great to have Maxzine & Tom Foolery back in Cookeville. And I was happy to find that Bertha’s entire show is available on YouTube.

When I first moved to Tennessee, it was to join a rural artistic counterculture community, “in the hills & hollers,” as we would say. In a sense it was theater, too, that drew me here, as I was really following my dear friend Maxzine, who had moved down from Ann Arbor a couple of years(or was it months?) before I made the trek from Detroit. So it seems fitting to me that Maxzine & I have recently reconnected bunches, mostly in the streets of Nashville to protest the fascist GOP & support our queer & POC friends. But this past weekend I saw Maxzine in their other home, besides the streets & the rural gardens, the performance venue, juggling in many fabulous costume changes, with their collaborator Tom Foolery & the Murfreesboro band Jake Leg Stompers. Before the show Maxzine wrote me: “I am performing tonight and tomorrow, including using drag in a provocative way, given Tennessee making drag illegal in public in many cases (a law that is on hold as a judge mulls it over).”

Back in Cookeville, there is a new queer theater collective called “Friends of Oscar Wilde” that aims to produce openly LGBTQ plays, year-round. The local Pride committee has been incredibly active, well-supported, outspoken, courageous, & vibrant in face of considerable local backlash from several explicitly nazi hate groups & *some* churches (#notallchurches lol). So their new theater endeavors are such a clarion call for radical art in our community. Of course our beloved Backdoor Playhouse has been at the heart of the struggle, as one of the only venues platforming drag shows on a regular basis, after one venue was evicted and another had to close its doors for various reasons.  

The “Friends of Oscar Wilde” debut is “The Madness of Lady Bright,” directed by Mark Harry Creter & starring Matthew Melton. The play is an edgy avant-garde mental health meltdown in the style of something you would expect from Tennessee Williams. Lanford Wilson’s revolutionary pre-Stonewall text teaches us what the accumulated harm of a hostile society could do to an aging lonely neurodivergent queen. It’s beyond touching cute moralism to touch raw nerves with traumatizing truth-bomb heartbreaking beauty. It’s an emotionally psychedelic journey as the walls all collapse inside the heart-brain of our protagonist, that we as audience get to inhabit with them.   

We could say that Matthew Melton is the lead, but there are three of them. That is, in a way, it’s a one person show, but with other actors to perform the voices in their head. Matthew has thrown themselves into this role in such an immersive & all-encompassing fashion, such that the audience is invited or imposed upon to forget their butts-in-seats & just bear witness to the inner world as reality slips away.

This critic partially wanted a play of pure rainbow empowerment in these times that feel strangely pre-Stonewall, at least here in Tennessee. The riveting performance left me with more questions than answers, with a fire of love for all my queer siblings & a rage at the world that doesn’t want to know them, much less love & accept & celebrate them. After the exceptional less-than-an-hour whirlwind one-act opening-night debut, I stayed for the Q&A with cast & director, where we could really explore these issues more deeply. Matthew’s honesty, transparency, & yes joy, were all hanging out, with the jester makeup still flowing & glowing with their smiles & commentary.

I encourage everyone to see this show & to, like I needed to, set aside their PC purity code about wanting perfectly well-adjusted, happily partner, & mentally healthy queer characters to stick in the face of our local normies & haters. But like we discussed last night, this play is not for the normies, it’s for our arts & activist community & for our LGTBQ community, allies & accomplices included.

So please get to the Backdoor Playhouse tonight; Show is at 8pm Central and tickets are available at the door. Look into the EGGPLANT Faerie Players & the Jake Leg Stompers. Listen to Melody Walker, Mercy Bell, & Grateful Drag!!! Then get to Pride this Saturday at 11am in Dogwood Park or to your local Pride, wherever & when it is. 

Check out:

Jesus Was A Drag Queen: 

Check out Grateful Drag:

Tickets are available for the next Grateful Drag show in Nashville in October at the Analog: