Archive for June, 2009

Saramago: Sastre

Posted in From Saramago's Notebooks on June 23, 2009 by jkiparsky

A commentary by José Saramago on the recent murder of a Spanish policeman and the reaction to it by playwright Alfonso Sastre. The original text appeared on Saramago’s Portuguese-language web journal, O Caderno de Saramago on 23 June, 2009.

by Jose Saramago

I met the playwright Alfonso Sastre more than thirty years ago. It was our only meeting. I never wrote to him, I never had a letter from him. I was left with the impression of a rough character, hard, in no way complacent, which did not make for light conversation, although he would not have made it difficult. I didn’t hear anything more about him, except for occasional and uninformative reports in the press, always in relation to his militant politics in the the ranks of the abertzales. In recent weeks, the name of Alfonso Sastre appeared as the head of the list of candidates in the European elections, as a member of a recently formed internationalist initiative. The assembly did not acheive representation in the Strasbourg parliament.

A few days ago the ETA murdered the policeman Eduardo Puelles by the almost infallible procedure of the bomb hidden in a car. The death was horrible, the fire charred the body of the unfortunate man, who was beyond help. This crime inspired a general wave of indignation all across Spain. No, not general. Alfonso Sastre has printed a threatening article in the Basque journal Gara in which he speaks of “times of much pain in place of peace” at the same time that he justifies the attacks as part of a “political conflict”, adding that there would be more attacks if negotiation were not opened with the ETA. I can hardly believe what I read. It was not Sastre who placed the bomb in Eduardo Puelles’ car, but what I did not expect was to see him as the supporter of murderers.

Leonard Cohen, Boston, 30 May 2009

Posted in Music on June 5, 2009 by jkiparsky

Another review, this one of a show that is probably the best concert I’ve ever seen and is possibly the best concert that I ever will see. Yes, I’ve jumped on the bandwagon – but it’s true, baby.
Unfortunately, this is not the best writing I’ve ever done. My apologies, I blame it on the deadline.

The piece was written for Boston Music Spotlight, original article is located behind this link

Leonard Cohen, the Bard of the Beaten, appeared in Boston on Saturday night in a new guise: the Zen Sinatra. With a nine-piece backing band, a sunny disposition, and a really sharp suit, Cohen took an extended tour through his catalog, revisiting hits and introducing lesser-known pieces, and demonstrating that the man known for his somber and cynical ballads of the seamy side of life and his subdued delivery has another side. The Cohen we saw on stage on Saturday was the consummate showman, and apparently delighted to be on the stage singing his songs of gloom and desperation.

He certainly had every cause to be happy on that stage. A man long felt to eptiomize the range of moods running south of dour, recently hit with very severe and very public financial setbacks, and until recently more known in the popular mind for the esteem in which his songs were held than the songs themselves or his performances of them, he is suddenly the single most stunning performer on concert hall stages, and he knows it. The critical reaction to his current tour has gone beyond overwhelming – it is, as near as I can tell, unanimous. This is, according to people who listen to music rock music professionally, just about the best thing that ever happened.

I can go along with that. This was not simply a great concert by a great performer, and it was certainly not a victory lap by the reknowned and fading hero. I’ve been to those concerts, and they have their place. This was not simply a great concert, because it was not simply a concert. It was a production which put poetry at its core, surrounded that poetry with music, and put the whole thing forth with a conscious and deliberate air of theater.

There was certainly a concert in all of this. Cohen is touring with an excellent band, under the direction of his bassist Roscoe Beck, and featuring Spanish guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Javier Mas and reedman Dino Soldo as well as keyboardist Neil Larsen. Dividing the most prominent parts among them, these three create the musical drapery that swirls around Cohen’s lyrics, always staying close around him but never obscuring him. While Cohen’s melodies have never been the foremost attraction of his music, Beck’s arrangements tended to shore up these melodies, with the help of the backing vocals of Sharon Robinson and Charley and Hattie Webb, who were by turns Cohen’s Greek chorus and his Raylettes, providing both harmonic and dramatic support to the songs. Always alive to implications, Cohen seemed to enjoy shifting the roles of the singers throughout the concert, sometimes turning to them as if addressing a muse, sometimes ceding the spotlight to them – so they could sing his lyrics, to him. He played with them, teased them, and made them do tricks. This, of course, was all part of the theater of the thing.

And theater it was. As a dramatic presentation, it was little different from the more ordinary kind. A cast of characters occupied a stage and acted their parts to realize the auteur’s vision, that being (one hopes) to direct the audience’s attention to some commonly noted areas of the human experience and reveal them in new forms. The band, as supporting cast, knew their marks, and hit them, not as a sort of rote exercise, but as precisely as characters in a play, and the drama they created, in music and in their physical presence, focused the audience’s attention on the soliloquy at center stage. The leading man displayed a marvelous physicality as he delivered his lines – even standing stock still, he was a distinct presence, until he chose to disappear into the shadows and allow another player to step into the light. And when he sank to his knees to deliver a lyric, or augmented a verse with an outstretched hand, there was a majesty in the economy of his movement that outstripped the frantic jogging of a Mick Jagger or a Bruce Springsteen. As good as they are, they can’t play in this league. Other performers demonstrate energy. Leonard Cohen, tonight, was a paragon of grace. Not only the grace of a Sinatra, with the perfectly timed delivery that gets the songs across exactly as they should be, but also the grace of a monk, of someone who can speak simply and directly of love or of anything else in a manner that seems, if not perfectly accurate or perfectly complete, perfectly true. In the end, I was left with a sense that I understood the songs and the singer in a way that I hadn’t managed to before, and possibly that I understood the people around me a little more as well.

And this is the sensation, I think, that so many people have responded to after attending one of Cohen’s performances in the last year: the sense of a deeper connection, a spiritual one if you like, to the songs and to the world. It’s common enough to be blown away by a concert; Cohen’s aim seems to be more one of bringing together than of scattering.

But I suppose I should mention, since I know some will want to know: yes, he played “Suzanne” and “Who By Fire” and “Hallelujah” and “Chelsea Hotel” and “Bird on a Wire” and probably every other song you were wanting to hear, and you can hear them on YouTube.

Steve Earle, Boston, May 29 2009

Posted in Music on June 5, 2009 by jkiparsky

One of the things I haven’t had much opportunity in writing reviews was to write a bad review. There’s a reason for this: I choose the concerts I go to, and I don’t generally choose to go to a concert I’m not going to like. Unfortunately, sometimes musicians can let you down. I’ve liked Steve Earle for a long time, and I like his writing. Hearing him talk from the stage reminded me of talking to my friend Steve Stafford back home – they have some similar views and some similar ways of expressing them, and you’ve got about as much chance of getting a word in with Steve Stafford in his kitchen as you do with Steve Earle on stage. Unfortunately, his concert was a fairly amateurish affair, and while that might be good enough for some people, I think the listener has a right to ask for a little more from a musician. In any case, here’s what I wrote about the concert -you can see it in itsnative habitat or just read it below.

Steve Earle, Berklee Performance Center, 29 May 2009
One of the first things I knew about Townes Van Zandt was what Steve Earle said about him. The quote has probably become a paraphrase in my mind, but as I recall, he called Townes Van Zandt “the best damn songwriter there is, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Over time, I learned more about Van Zandt’s songs, and Earle’s got a point. But the thing that strikes me about it only now is that, years later, the image of Steve Earle standing on Bob Dylan’s coffee table (and, of course, Dylan falling back before this righteous angel come to correct his arrogant self-regard) still comes to mind when I think of Van Zandt, as much as the image of rain falling on a conga drum or a lonely cowboy dying slowly in a hotel in Cleveland. This tells you something about Steve Earle: the man knows how to make an image that sticks.

For many listeners, Earle is still tied to his 1988 hit, “Copperhead Road”, which certainly has its share of persistent images. Surprisingly for a pop-country hit, the song holds up for much more than its catchy melody and hard-rock hooks. Covering the lives and untimely deaths of three generations of an Appalachian family in about four minutes, with guitar breaks, the song could be a capsule summary of a Faulkner novel, had that worthy writer been around for the return of the Vietnam veterans to an America unready to receive them. Certainly the song calls to mind Faulkner’s dictum: the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.

Fast forward a few years, and Earle’s career has come to a screeching halt largely due to his practice of a peculiarly Western form of acupuncture. Fortunately, Earle ultimately returned to music and has enjoyed a rather successful career since, developing a reputation as a strong songwriter and an outspoken political activist. For his most recent album, Earle turned to the music of his friend and mentor, Townes Van Zandt, recording a selection of fifteen of that writer’s songs, and so when he took the stage at the Berklee Performance Center on Friday night, it was with a mix of his own and Van Zandt’s material. From the start, it was clear that this mix was working nicely. While Earle and Van Zandt have little in common as songwriters, their songs play well together. The format of the concert was fairly loose – one or two of Steve’s songs, one or two from Townes, and so on, with stories about the songs and about Van Zandt and about anything else that came to mind in between.

As the night went along, Earle occasionally ventured into politics, speaking concisely and sensibly on his concerns. While I expect I’d have some points of argument with him, I think we’d agree on the broadest points, and I certainly appreciated the clarity with which he expressed a well-considered view. Those views were not stridently represented in his songs, thankfully. Some songs, like “City Of Immigrants” come close to strident, but (as in the case of “Copperhead Road”) they are redeemed by a telling image that returns the song to the land of the human from the allegorical Empyrean. For the most part, though, Earle is a very human writer, and his songs tend to tell human stories, as do those of Van Zandt.

So we had a fine songwriter with an ability to connect with his audience, singing his own songs and those of one of the best writers ever, in a nice room with a friendly crowd. So much to like, and I tried to enjoy it. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I did, entirely. While there were moments where the songs came through nicely, Earle’s delivery was very uneven. His enunciation ranged from sloppy to atrocious, with whole lines disappearing into a sort of consonant-free mush, and his dynamic range came mostly in shades of loud. For a song like “Valentine’s Day” or “Hometown Blues”, the lack of subtlety was deadly, and a night of music all at top volume is not easy to listen to.

The poor enunciation, it must be said, was not a concern for the die-hard fans who made up the bulk of the audience. They were far more taken by the sheer energy of his delivery and the political sentiments which, as it happened, aligned nicely with their own. For the fan, this lack of subtlety was a sign of commitment, to the song and to the cause, and was a thing to be celebrated. Unfortunately, for those who are not yet fans, it was a barrier between them and the songs. This is especially unfortunate, because Earle was up on that stage with material from two very fine songwriters, and by taking his die-hard fan base for granted, he didn’t serve himself or his mentor well.