Sunday, May 19, 2024

We Were Singing Hosanna: Taking Vows & Having Visions with the Decemberists in 2024


The Decemberists
The Pageant
St. Louis
May 17, 2024
Not just five stars, not just ten stars, but all the stars, and all the galaxies too. Utterly incredible show.

The Decemberists are a band I have always loved, but a band where I have never completely taken the plunge from the admiring place of being a casual fan, even one desiring to be a serious fan and not yet a superfan.  

There are reasons for the prickly and primal attraction to them, as well as the reticence or hesitance to flying with them to wild mystical heights, then falling harder into the hollow of their mortal truths. I guess I am a more-than-casual Decemberists fan (having paid to see them enough) and who wants to be a more serious Decemberists fan but sees that might require some sacrifice and commitment. With them, I admit that there’s this mythopoetic learning curve and a deep listening requirement. I have dabbled and even dabbled deeply, if that’s a thing, but maybe now’s the time to circle back, study the catalog, and beckon the vows needed to fully imbibe their vision. 

I have followed them at least since the 00’s, when I discovered Hazards of Love as it was released in 2009, just a few weeks before getting sober. I remember telling a friend that the album sounds better when I’m high. The friend says every album is better high, and now I say the listening experience has to offer the surreal portal on its own, without the frills and thrills that kill for an addict like me. Hazards of a lush learning sober love from simple drunk lust. This reflection will periodically loop back to the mind-altering aspect of their music, for sure. 

Sometimes, I cannot believe the Decemberists are from Portland or are an American band. Discovering the Decemberists reminded me of discovering British freak folk like Pentangle, Steeleye Span, or Richard Thompsons, on someone else’s vinyl back in the 1990s. If the Decemberists aren’t from Albion proper, they are at least from Narnia or some other enchanted land of our magical imaginations. Even though one podcaster implied that being from Portland means essentially the same thing for indie-rock hipsters, their sound suggests something even more. 

Some say Hazards of Love was a concept album but me this is a concept band, for they are the curly crunchy floral core within cottage-core, the hand-me-down, home-made, an analog vintage as concurrently authentic as pretentious as that cursive font on the t-shirt we just bought. Keep in mind that pretentious here is part of the authenticity, not an adversary to it. Or as one podcaster put it: this also means that a four-syllable word is always better than a two-syllable word, and big words do not even have to be used correctly. In that sense, Decemberists lyrics are both arcane and postmodern, both archeological as in a tactile archive found in an abandoned castle and totally disposable as in pop-cultural rapid-fire gibberish. 

Taking the fandom pledge here feels risky to a fault for traversing some aesthetic fault-lines, like rewatching Star Wars movies alone or finally getting around to reading Tolkien or Joyce or even more realistically, let’s say, finally reading the literary series written by the band’s singer and songwriter Colin Meloy. Are you sure? I mean, they said, you can microdose or abstain, are you sure you want the heroic dose? 

It’s like I am walking that woodland trail with a rock in my pocket, that I am certain will transmute into a precious gem, but it hasn’t quite yet, because I have not walked deeper into the bramble and the dark, not yet. Maybe that arbor-to-feral metaphor spilled simply from the cosmic music fan, after witnessing the live debut of “Don’t Go To The Woods,” from the forthcoming album--As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again--out June 14. 

The way I inhale albums and attend shows today is reaching a religious period, a forever sonic catechism. This is a band so worthy of that reception and attention. The Decemberists take a bold move this spring to tour just ahead of an album that isn’t out yet, but from the tracks that are “officially out” to the two debuts we heard on a Friday in Missouri, I can say my anticipation will surely build in the days that remain before the full set drops. 

The speech-of-sorts that Colin Meloy inserted into “Burial Ground” was spicy and stopped my heart for a moment. Something like (paraphrasing here): I see you singing along. Singing along is part of this show whether we like it or not. But don’t let the catchy chorus fool you. This song is about death. This song is about our future home. We are all going to the dirt when we die. Now I just can’t shake that chorus that shudders in the back of my brain as I type, sucking gratitude from last night’s music memories, sucking brain fuel from caffeine and channeling into this laptop keyboard on a Saturday afternoon in a St. Louis coffeehouse. We woke up another day on this side of the dirt.

Several years after he wrote it in the build-up of 2016, Colin Meloy singing “Severed” so few days before another presidential election, ripped sanity from its thin scaffold as the theater-sized venue shook with acerbic hooks. This catchy music always reveals a darkness, a morbid joy if that makes sense. Meloy has said of this song: “The character in the song, the first-person character, is a demagogue, absolutely, so it was an exploration of, ‘What is demagoguery, and where does it come from?’ as we were seeing this very public figure express these kind of insane and incredible sentiments in public.” Simultaneously terrible and beautiful. 

I sennsed similar erosions of collective sanity and serenity but also defiant cynical jubilation from “16 Military Wives.” Okay, so is this how it is. The world is completely trash in the political-warfare side of things, and here is this brilliant poet to make an indie-pop masterpiece about it. Okay, I need this in my mental coping with this crazed world. 

It’s a predictable lane for literary author nerds to appreciate literary songwriters, but Colin Meloy fulfills this vocation in such consistently mind-blowing iterations, that it gives me pause to simply breathe the same air as him in this room, to just get to sit at the feet of this wild witness to this world in all its horror and hope. As in awe as I am of his lyrical daring, he also feels oddly familiar, dressed as he is like so many of my academic colleagues. A podcaster said this too: they look normal, if on the eccentric weirdo side of normal. 

Staring at Colin Meloy this time, in his button-down smart-casual shirt, fitted slacks, and low-rise Doc Martens, I thought: he just doesn’t look like my colleague, he is my colleague, he is every itinerary English professor ever. He has a leather satchel. Inside the leather satchel, he has a leather-bound journal. In that journal, he writes these very lyrics that I am tripping-out about, he writes them with a fancy pen with refillable ink. You might think he drives a Subaru or a Prius, but I say it’s a beat-up old Volvo or VW that runs on biodiesel and has a standard shift. 

Let me try to arrive at my conclusion which is collusion with the spiritual realm: releasing a 20-minute prog-rock experiment about Joan of Arc as a “single” for an upcoming full-length album is an absolutely over-the-top move of inner confidence. It’s “beyond beyond,” as my mother likes to say. 
Meloy says of “Joan in the Garden”: “I got into a Joan of Arc kick after reading Lydia Yuknavitch’s beautifully batshit novel ‘The Book of Joan.’ I wanted to make my own version of Joan — but the song that came was as much about the creative process as it was about the actual woman, about angelic visitation and creative visitation and the hallucinogenic quality of both.” Wait what? I listened to the song maybe twice when it dropped, was awed by its audacity, but did the dabble thing and moved on.

Now they are playing this for an encore. No more “hits.” No more singalongs. You could slip out early, but I don’t advise it. It’s like eating an edible, doing shrooms, getting on the DMT rocketship whether you want to or not. It’s like church and first communion and sensory deprivation and sensory overload and wait did I just read that Mike Mills from R.E.M. sings backup on the studio version? Sacred psychedelic songcraft! If you listen closely, we are singing hosanna, hosanna yeah! 

Yes, I am that guy pulling up the lyrics on my phone to fully grok this while they rock this. What about that final furious stretch, it just wrecks me:
She is daughter and son
The imperium undone
All the autocrats are laid
To waste
To waste
Oh holy whore androgyne
Come and sunder the stop signs
Break it all so we can build again
Bring on duke or dauphin
Blood will flow like a fountain
As it ever was, so it will be again
Will be again

Not only is the music utterly mind-boggling and face-melting in serious degrees, the story line is everything I have loved about the likes of William Blake and Allen Ginsberg and Jesus themselves and all the better messiahs and avatars of non-coercive religious teaching, pure revolutionary and anti-authoritarian spirituality. 

This is the kind of song I imagine stoner-nerds in the late 70s and early 80s listening to over and again in some black light basement, blasted outta their bloody mind-bodies, writing term papers on it to impress their ex-hippy English teachers. I might have gone on Reddit after midnight and after the show, just to read the reactions from the venn diagram of Reddit-nerds and Decemberists fans from when this masterpiece dropped. 

I am just going to finish this ramble, not because I am done spinning glory about how badass the Decemberists are right now, but because we have to drive back to Tennessee. So my last move rather than an ending is a to-be-continued, but not before I paste some of the best comments as seen from Reddit, because they are just that good, just about “Joan in the Garden”:

-Love it when indie bands do long-ass songs that are just three or four normal songs in a trench coat. 
-Colin: “we do have some space left on the vinyl and I did just watch Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii…”
-Okay now, just what in the Pink Floyd Mars Volta is going on here?!
-This song is so good I’m about to make it my whole personality for the next few months
-This is some serious blue balls. Just when it feels like it should explode into the heaviest thing they've ever done, there's several minutes of outer space noise, followed by "Breaking The Law" by Judas Priest.
-I heard the water dispenser humming at work and thought it was part of the song.
-It’s absolutely a must hear live. I’m about to follow them on tour. I almost died when they played it.
-Anybody else experience an effect like the music expanded?  It was like my head opened, and the speakers were floating in the room?  I wasn't on anything, and I was able to duplicate it. 


Saturday, May 11, 2024

To Hell With Symbols: Ethan and Maya Hawke and the Christ-Haunted Cinema of a Flannery O'Connor Biopic

In between two Adeem the Artist music sets in East Nashville on a steamy spring Thursday, we crossed the river and town at peak traffic to Hillsboro Village, to our beloved art house theater The Belcourt, to see Wildcat, the new Flannery O’Connor biopic directed by Ethan Hawke and starring his daughter Maya Hawke, as the enigmatic southern gothic fiction writer, who gave us the idea of the south as more Christ-haunted than Christ-centered. Deep down, I sensed I needed this film for its confrontation with my mystic doubt and my region’s irresistible authenticity and demented hypocrisy. 

I have always appreciated the reputation of Flannery O’Connor without having spent enough time with her, even with me as a professed and professional literary fiend. For some reason, I kept her at a distance, and unlike with Faulkner, I had not been required to take a deeper dive for my literary education. 

This film is a needed gateway, opening still raw wounds and windows of wonder that shimmer with southern reality and freaky surreality. Keeping Flannery O’Connor at any distance ended for me in a movie theater on Thursday. 

Peer and admirer and fellow Catholic, Thomas Merton shared upon her passing: “Her South was deeper than mine, crazier than Kentucky, but wild with no other madness than the crafty paranoia that is all over the place . . . . Only madder, craftier, hung up in wilder and more absurd legends, more inventive of more outrageous lies!”

Right as we were leaving Grimey’s New and Preloved, to get into the car, my spouse showed me the Nashville Scene, which seems to have panned the creatively ambitious film. But I love a good 20th century period piece, love a good biopic, with addicted musicians and/or literary geniuses, especially, preferred. If it involves tortured writers banging out mystery on old-school typewriters, more of this please. The film just drips in its saturated colors and period costumes, all vintage arthouse vibes and then some. O’Connor can be weird to a fault, unfailingly fallen and dark, but also fiercely funny. I was unprepared and hungry for her dark, biting, and bitter humor. 

Just the backstory of how Maya, the daughter, actor, and singer (about to release an album, too) discovered Flannery O’Connor in 10th grade English class and gave her father, Ethan, O’Connor’s prayer journal and studied Flannery with her father and asked him to make this movie for her to star in, that backstory was enough to draw me in. I am someone who already absolutely loved the elder Hawke’s directing in the music biopic Blaze and acting in recent feats of cinematic provocation such as First Reformed and The Good Lord Bird. If there is anyone working in Hollywood who shares some of my preoccupations with outlaw country music and revolutionary spirituality, also dealing with themes of human failure and liberation, it’s probably Ethan Hawke.  

The biographical themes of the film seem to dance around Flannery’s singular commitment to her craft, her loving but difficult relationships with others, such as her mother as portrayed by Laura Linney and the poet Robert Lowell portrayed by Philip Ettinger, her lifelong struggle with disease, which resulted in her passing at 39, and finally, with her at times unlikely and yet totally devout and unrelenting Christian faith. I found the biographical portions of the film both believable and intoxicating and fell hard in love with Flannery for the ferocity of her comebacks and asides. Decades before online meme culture, she was a font for epigrams and one-liners, such as “I don't deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it.” 

So a Flannery O’Connor biopic was the biopic I desperately needed -- yet didn’t know that I needed.

 But the Hawkes in their shared creative ambitions didn’t stop there. They pulled something ever more meaningful, mysterious, and miraculous, by weaving in and out of Flannery’s short fiction with subtle ease, with a nod to famous short stories, including: “Good Country People,” “Revelation,” “Parker’s Back,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” The not-so-nice review in the Scene seemed to take issue with these, but to me, the Hawkes did this perfectly, with Maya and Laura Linney also starring in all the visionary vignettes. They were simply mesmerizing in embodying the southern gothic aesthetic to a tee. It’s hard to imagine this film not finding its way on to countless syllabi for a Flannery O’Connor revival in English departments, where her flower may have faded, for I feel the Hawkes have made Flannery O’Connor more accessible, profoundly relatable and attractive, and certainly more teachable.  

But for all the stunning art and biography of Wildcat, I was not prepared for how it devastated and delighted me spiritually. I remember precisely the portion of the movie when I started bawling, and I pretty much wanted to weep for the rest of the film. Keep in mind, my love of art, literature, and music are predicated on their way of breaking me in my egoic shell, or even worse my everyday mundane complacency, and religion, when it has worked for me, provides the same therapeutic triggers of subversion and transformation.  

As Christ-haunted and church-saturated as our region remains, I go through long stretches of late, as deeply disconnected, if not outwardly defiant, of the patriarchal and patriotic threads within Christendom, all this after a period as a called and installed rural preacher, that ended ever-so abruptly during the George Floyd uprising of 2020. My current spiritual practices when communal are mostly live music, 12-step recovery meetings, or occasional attendance with Unitarian Universalists. Other times, my spirituality is mostly solitary and deeply nature-based (which in all honesty was true before and after my recent sojourns in the chapels of Tennessee). I sometimes prefer out-and-out rejection of church doctrine to any kind of integration of multiple beliefs and practices into a holy hybrid. 

And here I remain in Tennessee. I am not sure my own born-again experience and subsequent theological career in the “professional prayer trade,” could have happened the way it did, were I not an adopted southerner. But the last four years of personal deconstruction, concurrent with the rise in religious nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-queer hate doctrine, have left me feeling allergic to religion in the same way I am allergic to alcohol. The late queer and southern actor Leslie Jordan said he was baptized 14 times but never felt more shame than in a church pew. I hear that! 

All this to say, even as I was clearly compelled to see this film, I did not go seeking a confrontation with Christ or the cross or the sacrament of communion. But that is what happened.  

The scene that floored me as with a Pauline or pentecostal experience takes place at a dinner party. As an intellectual exercise, as guests pontificate on the metaphor and symbolism of the eucharist, Flannery interjects, her voice shaking, “Well, if it is a symbol, to hell with it.” 

Maybe it is just a story, maybe it is just a myth, maybe the accumulated hypocrisy and violence of centuries of authoritarian Jesus-conscripts undeniably undermine the utterly weird cannibalistic blood rite of holy communion, that we once called a love feast, but suddenly, shockingly, the cinematic wild apologetics of a gothic, proto-feminist novelist at a dinner party, are neither crude nor conservative, nor silly nor superstitious, because for some possibly illogical and insane reasons completely outside me, I still think she might be right, and that this meal might foreshadow all human liberation, and whereas I have at times taken that food weekly, or monthly, or even daily, I feel the words of invitation echo in my bones after a very long lapse, and I am suddenly hungry for holy food, even with a belly full of the communion of fresh theater popcorn and fountain coca cola. 

If it is a symbol, to hell with it. If it is the body and blood of God’s self, do you have any, or where can I get some?

The Hawkes fuse that scene with another quote from O’Connor about who or what God might be. This is the longer version that I have found from her non-fiction writing. O’ Connor says: 
“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child's faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do. What people don't realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can't believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.”

Religious seeking when practiced with childlike wonder can be an adventure. Open-mindedness, without contempt before investigation, can produce delicious discoveries, even fruits. But my yo-yo, see-saw-like conversions and reversions, confessions and obsessions, sometimes these all feel like so much mental masturbation and existential exhaustion. I honestly understand the idea of “spiritual but not religious” more than I ever have, but I also crave community. Frankly, I prefer curiosity to certainty, but not fakery and falsity in any form. Mere symbols or metaphors? Screw that! 

Did the Hawkes provide only a sacred trace, a primordial memory of that which preoccupied me during a different phase? Or maybe that shot of hot tears at Flannery’s flippant testimony was only a fanciful feeling of a faith more forgotten than doubted? As I watched them both being interviewed by a bishop, neither came across as orthodox or devout, and I realize from recent experience, that I probably just need to flow and roll with this, whatever this is.  

Leaving this rambling reflection for now, I close on this: Flannery O’Connor is a staggering and mesmerizing female saint of the 20th century, who lived out a calling, also a profound weirdo outsider/suspicious insider version of her subversive faith. Others that share that space for me include Dorothy Soelle, Dorothy Day, and Simone Weil. Today, I might also include someone contemporary in this lineage, someone like Sophie Strand. Regardless I am grateful, deeply so, to Ethan and Maya Hawke, for such a disturbing and gorgeous exercise in devotional cinema that brought me, for two, tear-soaked hours, in contact with the haunted, creative, and deliciously divine, however you might name or un-name that thing that some call God. 

Friday, May 10, 2024

From Shame to Celebration at the Adeem "Anniversary" Release Celebrations!


Yes, since February 2022, I have been seeking the full-immersion country-rock baptism in the plurality of pronouns that is the Church of Trash multiverse of an unapologetic Adeem the Artist friendship & superfandom. 

Yesterday morning I woke up with a line from Carolina to start the day.
“She fired red hot buckshot.” 
Driving to Nashville to get injected with some of that!

Some part of the insane sanity of this neurodivergent spark-seeker comes chasing the communal fire, that cauldron love & joy & rebellion at the left wing of folk & country, & with Adeem’s incomparable contributions, a life committed to doing this thing: 

“build a machine
That can convert shame into celebration”

We are driving to Nashville to discard the shame & join the celebration. 

Heaven, hell, sex, joy, theology, laughter, 
earworm choruses for years, 
fanzines & tarot cards in Asheville, 
devil-adjacent arms-flying fiddle-music, 
self-deprecating humor, 
political jabs at the hypocrisy of “all sides” 
without adopting either side 
except the side of human autonomy & dignity & justice, 
self-conscious social-media interventions, 
meditations, & confessions, 
irreverent chaplaincy for the deconstructed mystics 
for whom live music in independent venues 
is the last remaining chapel to express 
that vital pulsating energy that some folks call the holy spirit.  

Adeem The Artist
Anniversary Album Release Celebrations
Day One - 5-9-2024

Grimey’s In Store & Signing - Solo Acoustic

Night Sweats 
One Night Stand 
Socialite Blues 
Middle of a Heart


The Basement East - Full Band 
WSG Flamy Grant & Brandi Augustus
The Band:
Mark Connor - bass
Asher Coker Miller - Drums
Seth Hopper - fiddle 
Butch Walker - face-melting lead guitar on select songs!
Andrea Kukuly Uriarte - guest vocals


There We Are
Part & Parcel
One Night Stand
Fervent for the Hunger
Wounded Astronaut 
FM Radio (Dar Williams cover)
Carry You Down 
Socialite Blues 
Plot of Land
Night Sweats 
White Mule, Black Man
Tiger Prince of Knoxville 
Painkillers & Magic
Dirt Bike (with Andrea Kukuly Uriarte)
Jesus Christ Likes Fast Cars 
Middle of a Heart
Going To Hell

Sunday, May 5, 2024

River Shook & the Apocalyptic Self-Care of Honest Lyrics & Live Music

Sarah Shook & the Disarmers
Nicolette & the Nobodies
Club Cafe, Pittsburgh
May 4, 2024

“I write songs, so I don’t kill myself.” - River Shook 
(as said to Jason Earle on the Marinade podcast in 2023)

Damn, friends, if we can just be here and think about, this kind of honesty! 

Let’s be clear about why we make and crave and need and love all the wickedly unfiltered art as self-care and survival. We write (or paint or sculpt or scream), so we don’t die, if this is not the punk rock apocalyptic poetics of authentic self-love!
Maybe sometimes people think of “self-care” as some kind of passive pampering, but for the neurodivergent poet-types who remain engaged with the realities of an at-times radically uncaring world, self-care is legit holistic resistance. That kind of delicious defiance is what I encounter with River Shook and fellow travelers in the DIY and independent edges of our current folk music revival. 

River Shook and their band “Sarah Shook and the Disarmers” are touring to support a phenomenal new record, and they play a fierce outlaw fusion that fits well with its many siblings in the currently crushing glory of our alt-country renaissance. Yet when inhaled as its own vulnerable voice, this music shakes our collective core with its singular vision, as we simply are overwhelmed and appreciative of face-melted and soul-saturated sonic fumes. 

While without apology a part of the wildly flowering alt-country scene, this is also a rock band, and seeing this five-piece live, this is a rock show. Shades of cowpunk, garage, and shimmering subtle distortion move us to our inner parts with an honest, in-yer-face full force delivery of dueling guitars and steel guitar, with drums and bass anchoring the North Carolina twang in a pure rock revelry. This is music that lights a lineage to the bastard future where the descendants of Uncle Tupelo and Bikini Kill also go to therapy and put down the fire-water that fueled the earliest Sarah Shook tracks. 

River Shook and band blazed through more than 20 songs in less than 90 minutes, and as with so many shows, I wasn’t ready for it to end. As a professed introvert, River banters so briefly, compared to some artists whose between-song comic stories are longer than the songs. So I took it to heart that they told us the backstory on one of my top bangers from the new album. River mentions walking regularly as part of their daily coping (as is also true for me), and I was thrilled to learn that the origin of the song “Stone Door” come from one of my favorite hikes among many amazing hikes in my home of rural middle Tennessee.   

It’s like I can feel all of River Shook’s influences unfolding on the barroom floor like the grail, like the eternal analog and card-catalog made of human spit and grit. But then I read in an interview how River readily rejected the standard-operating “influences” plug that so pleases music writers, saying simply of the people they are sometimes compared to: “I honestly haven’t recognized any of them.” 

After the Pittsburgh show, I am telling the Disarmers merch-person and Nicolette Hoang, the Vietnamese-Canadian lead singer of the opening band Nicolette & the Nobodies, how both acts brought some of that early cowpunk energy, that the much younger me adored in Lone Justice, and they all collectively admit they have never listened to Lone Justice or Maria McKee. But Nicolette and her shredding lead guitarist Ian Bain said they would listen to Lone Justice when driving to the next show. I really hope they do. 

From the meticulously-framed design of their brand-new album cover, Nicolette and the Nobodies intentionally invoke 1970s country and artists like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. Their set brought all those respectfully vintage vibes in their originals, but then even moreso, in their cover of “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” that conjured both the versions by Aretha Franklin and the Flying Burrito Brothers in perfect measure.  

Of all the joys and pleasures of seriously following multiple artists in a burgeoning subculture, sometimes you get to see such stunningly talented folks in a relatively tiny venue. I think of course of the OG Basement in Nashville, where I have been attending shows on-and-off for 20 years. 

So stepping into the Club Cafe in Pittsburgh, I am immediately wowed and going “what-the-what" by how intimate a show this is going to be. Only wanting the best for these artists, only wanting others to experience what you get to experience, the effort to travel to gigs is rewarded by seeing something so strong, that you can maybe one day say, you saw it when. But just being into this moment, you are seeing fiercely-called artists willing to drive long distances and leaving absolutely everything on the stage.