Ruthie Foster, Soulful Singer: Frigid Weather Couldn’t Keep Us Away

It was a dark and stormy night . . . hold on, that line sounds familiar. I think I may have lifted it from someone inadvertently. Wouldn’t want to do that. I’m going to put it into Google and see what gives. I’ll be right back.

Yes, indeed. The sentence was penned about 185 years ago by an English novelist whom nobody alive today ever heard of. In that sense he’s just like me. Let’s start over.

It wasn’t a dark and stormy night. Well, it was dark, but it wasn’t stormy. In fact the sky was quite clear. But it was a bitterly cold Saturday night, no doubt about that. As in 12° F. My wife Sandy and I had just eaten dinner in a tavern we like in the Philly burbs. As we soldiered through the parking lot to our car, the night air laughed in my ear. “Man, you sure are a nitwit for going out in weather like this,” it mockingly said, keeping its voice low so that Sandy wouldn’t overhear. “Didn’t anyone tell you that it’s cold outside?” It’s surprising the things you learn as you get older — before that frigid evening a couple of weeks ago I never knew that the night air could talk, let alone be a sarcastic jerk. I kept my mouth shut, but next time I’ll be prepared with a snappy retort.

Ten minutes later Sandy and I arrived at our post-dinner destination, Montgomery County Community College. It’s located in the once-bucolic town of Blue Bell. Modest in size and scope, MCCC isn’t where one would expect to find a world-class performing arts series, but such is the case. Many times over the years, Sandy and I have seen top-of-the-line musicians and modern dance troupes in the series’ 400-seat auditorium.

It was good getting out of the cold. We settled into our seats at 7:45 PM and awaited the singer whom I’ve known about for a few years but never had seen in person. Ruthie Foster, she who drinks from the wells of blues, gospel, soul and folk music, and who is one of the prides of musically-rich Texas, USA. Ruthie, in her early 50s, is an in-demand artist. She regularly plays in the States, Canada, Europe and sometimes Australia. Let me mention one important point before I forget: Ruthie is a gifted vocalist with a gracious and likeable stage presence. If she passes through your area, and if you enjoy music of the sorts I mentioned above, you would do well to attend her concert.

Ruthie1 IMG_0175
Showtime arrived. Ruthie Foster walked onstage with three musical compadres: Samantha Banks (drums and other percussion), Scottie Miller (piano and organ) and Larry Fulcher (electric bass). Electric guitar was not in the house. Ruthie strummed an amplified acoustic guitar, but she knew her limitations on the instrument and ventured not a solo during the show, leaving most of them to Scottie and a couple to Samantha and Larry. Would the band have gained from having an additional member, to wit a high-flying electric guitarist? No way. His or her absence kept things lean and uncluttered, and placed Ruthie’s vocals at the center of center stage.

The show began with a rendition of Patty Griffin’s When It Don’t Come Easy, a tune about love’s elusiveness. The tight machine that was Ruthie’s band set a perfect rhythm and constructed elastic boundaries over which Ruthie spoke the truth. Bap-bap-bap-bap went Samantha Banks, sure-footed and steady on the drums, as she was all evening long. Larry Fulcher’s bass lines floated here and then there but never lost their way. Scottie Miller pushed and probed on the piano, at the appropriate times sending out blasts of emotions. The band was aware, focused and nimble on this and every song that followed.

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A few words about Ruthie Foster’s singing voice. It is wonderful, as is the way she uses it. She sings cleanly and clearly, unstrained and vibrato-less, always in control. And she can move easily to a hush or to a soulful barrage of notes. The timbre of Ruthie’s voice often reminded me of Bonnie Raitt’s, but Ruthie’s is fuller and better — Bonnie I’m certain would agree. At concert’s end, 90 minutes from the starting gun, I was convinced that Ruthie is one of the big talents in her field. What’s more, she sings songs that contain real meaning. Songs about tolerance, equality and hope. Such as the concert’s hope-centric third tune, a recent Foster original titled Brand New Day. It dripped with gospel fervor. “Love heals and love lives/And time will reveal a brand new day,” Ruthie proclaimed as her three pals, playing their instruments all church-like, vocally urged her along with harmonized “uh-huh, hoo” after “uh-huh, hoo.” Uh-huh, I loved it.

Let me say a few more things before I hit the “publish” button to post this article. Ruthie has written quite a few songs over the years, but kept her set list heavy with compositions penned by others. She chose numbers, for instance, by June Carter Cash (Ring Of Fire) and Lucinda Williams (Fruits Of My Labor). And she closed the show with  Stephen Foster’s Oh! Susanna, an American chestnut from 1848. (Click here to watch her perform Oh! Susanna two years ago). For that final tune she was alone on stage for the only time during the show. She sang slowly, picking comfortable notes on the guitar. As the song progressed her voice soared effortlessly, poignantly. Oh! Susanna took on meanings that I’d never thought about before. She made a great song greater.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

Tony Bennett Is A Wonder

I’m not an expert on the subject. However, if someone asked me to name the 20th century’s best singers of the so-called Great American Songbook, I’d reel off names such as Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong and Fred Astaire. My list is hardly complete or definitive. But it contains excellent talent without a doubt.

All the entertainers on my list were contemporaries, their careers overlapping one another’s during various decades. A sad note is that only one member of the list is still with us, Tony Bennett, whose professional musical life took hold in 1949 (1949!). Sixty-six years later he continues to go strong. The man is 89 years old now and in good voice. He records regularly and likewise tours the world. He, to me, is a phenomenon. A wonder.

Tony Bennett (left) and Bill Charlap. (Photo by RPM/Columbia Records)
Tony Bennett (left) and Bill Charlap. (Photo by RPM/Columbia Records)

A few weeks ago I caught a track on the radio from one of his albums. It was a melancholy song, beautifully sung. His accompaniment was only one instrument, a piano. I thought that the selection probably came from The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album, a 1975 release pairing Bennett with the esteemed jazz pianist. That album has achieved iconic status over the years. But I was wrong. The song — and I can’t remember which one I heard — was a brand new recording from the lovely album by Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap titled The Silver Lining: The Songs Of Jerome Kern.

Recently I listened twice to The Silver Lining in its entirety. And I listened to a few cuts from the Bennett/Evans duet album too. These albums are separated by 40 years. And you know what? Tony’s voice is nearly as good now as it was then. It has lost a little power, strains a bit occasionally. But it remains quite great. I find this most incredible. Has there ever been another gifted vocalist whose pipes have held up so well in his or her very advanced years? I can’t think of anyone. Please let me know if you can.

Jerome Kern was a top composer during the first half of the 1900s. He wrote with a host of smart and classy lyricists, Oscar Hammerstein II, Dorothy Fields and Ira Gershwin among them. The Silver Lining presents some of Kern’s best-known, and best, compositions. For example, The Last Time I Saw Paris, All The Things You Are, I Won’t Dance.  There are 14 tracks on the record. Bennett sings on all of them. Bill Charlap, a refined and tasteful jazz piano player, is Tony’s sole partner on three. Charlap’s jazz pianist wife, Renee Rosnes, adds a second piano on four songs. On the remaining tracks, Charlap is joined by his longtime collaborators, Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington (no relation) on drums.

Overall I find this album to be sublime. The instrumentation is understated. Bennett’s vocalizing is poignant and incisive. He plumbs the depths of the tunes’ lyrics and adds some explosive high notes at the conclusions of a few songs to show that he still has it. If you’re a Tony fan, you should own The Silver Lining.

So, what’s the deal with Tony Bennett? How has he managed not only to survive, but to thrive? Well, genetics more than anything probably accounts for Tony’s long life. As for thriving, we all might learn from his outlook on and approach to life. Tony Bennett always has seemed to me to be a down-to-earth and nice guy, and also in possession of wisdom. There is a fine article about him in the December 2015 issue of DOWNBEAT magazine (the article is not online, so I can’t provide a link). Two quotes from the piece are very telling.  In one he says: “I can’t believe that I’m 89. I stay in shape. I take good care of myself. I got rid of all bad habits. When I was younger, I was pretty wild, doing a lot of foolish stuff. I stopped all of that and I got back to how to sing properly.” And in another he says: “I think life is a magnificent gift. We should all enjoy the fact that we’re living on an unbelievable planet that’s loaded with education and love and beauty.”

It’s not coincidental that the song Look For The Silver Lining concludes the Bennett/Charlap album. George “Buddy” DeSylva’s lyrics are fully in tune with Tony Bennett’s take on the human situation. Give a listen:

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I Never Met Thelonious Monk, But . . .

The front cover of the author's copy of Criss-Cross.
The front cover of the author’s copy of Criss-Cross.

I loved Thelonious Monk’s music from the first time I heard it, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. The year was 1964, maybe ’65. I was a high school senior entranced by rock and roll, R & B, some folk music, and by standards singers such as Sinatra and Bennett. But not by jazz, which was foreign territory to me at that time. My high school buddy Dave had just obtained his New York State driver’s license and one day informed me that he was going to take a ride to a local Sam Goody’s, a popular record store chain that sadly is no longer with us. For whatever reason, I didn’t accompany him. Dave asked me if I wanted anything from Goody’s. I must have been feeling adventurous because I requested a jazz album. Any jazz album would do, since I didn’t know one from another. The record that Dave a day or two later placed in my hands was Criss-Cross, Monk’s 1963 release. I doubt if I had ever heard of Monk before, though he was one of the most famous jazz pianists in the world. And I doubt if Dave knew much about him either. How, then, had Dave come to select this album, which to this day I consider to be magnificent? I don’t know. Dave possessed powerful intuitive talents, still does, and it seems that choosing great music from out of the blue was one of them. On the other hand, maybe he just liked the album’s cover. It is très cool.

I listened to jazz in small amounts over the next few years and in 1969 began to become the jazzhead that I am when I started heavily to inhale the outpourings of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and an ocean of others. And Thelonious Monk too, of course. Monk is one of my all-time favorites.

There’s something peaceful about Monk’s playing, even on the upbeat numbers. Something mesmerizing. Something irresistible in the way he’d offer the unexpected note, the tantalizing trill. Monk had an instantly recognizable sound on the piano, an intriguingly off-center approach. He didn’t play overly fast, just fast enough, and he put his heart and soul on display. He didn’t compose a lot of tunes (73 is the official count), but the unadorned and undeniable beauty of many of his compositions have connected with millions of listeners and with his peers. During the 1980s and ’90s it seemed that every month brought forth a new Monk tribute album. Even now, many jazz albums include one or two Monk works. Great compositions such as ‘Round Midnight, In Walked Bud, Ruby My Dear, Hackensack. Monk died in 1982, and remains a giant.

Thelonious Monk was someone I wish I had met and talked to, though I gather he wasn’t a man of many words, at least at times. I suspect that his song titles indicate this. Fifty of the 73 are either one or two words in length. Still, how fine would it have been to ask Thelonious Monk some questions: Have your piano practice habits changed over the years? Which of your songs mean the most to you? Do you ever listen to Top 40 radio? As a New Yorker, whom do you like best, the Yankees or the Mets?

But I never met Monk. In the 1960s and ’70s, however, three people I knew had up-close Monk experiences, which as a Monk fan I always have looked upon fondly. And in a sense have made my own. The earliest involved one of my high school friends, a young lady. We had graduated in 1965, and soon after that she and her family moved from Long Island to an apartment building in Manhattan near Lincoln Center. Amazingly, this was the building in which Thelonious Monk and his family resided, and had for years. More amazingly, my friend and her family occupied an apartment either directly above or below the Monk pad, I’m not sure which. I recall my classmate telling me, not long after our high school careers ended, that she often would hear Monk playing the piano, which, to say the least, was incredible to me. And enviable.

Back cover of the author's copy of Criss-Cross.
The back cover of the author’s copy of Criss-Cross.

The second occasion involved my friend Dave, who got my Monk ball rolling, with Criss-Cross, in the first place. He once had a brief encounter with the man. Dave thinks the meeting took place in 1966 or ’67. The location was a New York City subway car on which Dave spotted somebody who looked awfully familiar. This somebody was clothed in what Dave described to me as pajamas. Pajamas? Sure, why not? Intrepid soul that Dave was and is, he walked over and asked “Are you Thelonious Monk?” “Yeah, I’m the Monk,” came the reply. End of conversation.

The third Monk event was the topper. My mother was part of it, and I was there when it happened. The month was March, the year was 1976. WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station that programmed jazz in its classic and far-out varieties, was holding a Thelonious Monk marathon, playing his recordings nonstop over a multiday period. I imagine that the station’s intense tribute was timed to coincide with a concert by Monk and his band that same month at Carnegie Hall. My mother was a devoted jazz fan and WKCR listener because her son (my brother) Richard was in attendance at Columbia and was a WKCR jazz DJ. As such, he was on the air for portions of the Monk fest. But not on the evening in question, during which I sat with my mother in the kitchen of her Long Island home as the Monk celebration emanated from a small radio on a counter between the sink and the stove. Concerned about others as she always was, she said something like “I wonder if Thelonious Monk knows what KCR is doing.”

She went to the telephone and dialed 411, the number for directory assistance. Did Monk have a listed number? Somewhat surprisingly, he did. My mother called. Someone on the other end picked up. “Is this Mr. Monk?” she asked. “Yes,” was the reply. “Hello,” my mother said. “I wanted to ask if you know that WKCR is playing all of your music. It’s a wonderful tribute.” “Yes, thank you,” replied Thelonious Monk. My mother probably then complimented Monk on his talents, and Monk probably said “thank you” again. And that was that. I sat there semi-stunned. My mother, to my recollection, had never done anything like this before. She keenly followed the world of celebrities, but always from afar. Of all the stars that she admired, from Mary Tyler Moore to Lena Horne to Paul Newman, I never would have guessed that her one personal contact would be with a jazz pianist.

I was a mere bystander to my mother’s bold move. I, however, had one engaging and in-person Monk experience of my own. This occurred on March 26, 1976 from a balcony seat  at Thelonious’ aforementioned concert at Carnegie Hall. Sitting next to me were my brother Richie and his wife-to-be, Sara. I can’t recall if the performance took place just before or after my mother’s conversation with Monk. Likely, after. Monk didn’t play often in public those days, so the Carnegie gig was a highly anticipated event. In fact, two appearances in July of that year would be his last ever. He was on stage with four musicians, including his son T.S. Monk on drums. Thelonious said little, maybe nothing, to the audience. What mattered was his playing, and he was in superb form. Strong, poignant, totally on the money. His fingers did the talking.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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You Gotta Like These People: A Review Of Meet The Patels

A few nights ago my wife Sandy and I went for the umpteenth time to the Ambler Theater, an art house cinema in the Philadelphia suburbs that I’ve praised often on this website. We were accompanied by our excellent pals, Cindy and Gene. They are Philadelphians understandably loathe to drive to the burbs, or anywhere, for fear of the nightmare that sometimes awaits them hours later when they return to their congested neighborhood and attempt to find a parking space. I hope they are not still circling their surrounding blocks these several days later. If they are . . . well, that’ll learn ’em.

We saw Meet The Patels at the Ambler Theater.
We saw Meet The Patels at the Ambler Theater.

The movie we went to see was Meet The Patels. It is a delightful concoction, a documentary so breezy and cheerily assembled that I urge all of good spirit to take it in. For those not of good spirit, watching it maybe will help them find a better path in life.

 

 

Nonetheless, I left the Ambler Theater not at all sure if I would comment online about Meet The Patels. Sure, I enjoyed the documentary very much. Sure, it’s worth writing about. But: 1) Hundreds of reviews of this movie already have been penned. 2) I didn’t seem to have any wondrous insights to disseminate. 3) Etc.

On the other hand, my blog is a voracious master, compelling me to keep it fed.

Words of wisdom attached to a wall at Randazzo's Pizzeria.
Words of wisdom attached to a wall at Randazzo’s Pizzeria.

Fresh out of ideas and inspiration, I sauntered into Randazzo’s Pizzeria the day after watching Meet The Patels. It’s a decent joint a mile or two from my abode. As I waited for my pizza slices to heat in the oven I took a look at one of the walls. It was covered with knick-knacks and photographs. One of the knick-knacks caught my attention and got me thinking. It was a depiction of an Italian chef standing next to a chalkboard on which were written very sage and pithy statements: “A pinch of patience; a dash of kindness; a spoonful of laughter; and a heap of love.”

Those are words not to be taken lightly. They truly are meaningful. They are a good recipe for life. And they illuminate what, to me, Meet The Patels is all about.

And thus a pizzeria inspired me to sit down and type this report. Meet The Patels concerns a family of four, the Patels. Natch. Husband and wife, India-born Vasant and Champa, moved to the States decades ago for better opportunities than they saw available at home. They became accustomed to the American Way, but hung on strongly to their native customs and values. Stateside they produced two children, Geeta and then Ravi. Now young adults, the siblings are highly Americanized, yet cognizant and appreciative of the Asian culture that undeniably runs through their veins.

All four Patels, as best I could tell, reside in California. Mr. and Mrs. P occupy a roomy home. Geeta and Ravi, touchingly, share a comfortable apartment. How many adult siblings live together? Few, by my experience. In this documentary, Geeta and Ravi seem to pull it off easily.

On to the plot. Meet The Patels spins the tale of Ravi’s search for a wife. Having recently broken up, after a two year romance, with a white girl named Audrey, 29-year-old Ravi somewhat reluctantly agrees to allow his parents to try and find a suitable match for him. Only thing is that Mom and Dad never knew about Audrey. Ravi was too embarrassed ever to tell them that he had dated a female of the non-Indian-American persuasion. Mom and Dad, successful products of an arranged marriage — arranged being the norm in India — were under the impression that their 29-year-old son was kind of a relationship tyro. And that his unstated goal was to settle down with someone who shared his ethnic background. Coolly they convince Ravi to allow them to employ slightly updated versions of traditional Indian matchmaking methods to identify and locate a mate for him. Said mate is to come from the large pool of well-educated and fine-tempered Indian-American and Indian females that Ravi’s parents are confident exists. Let the games begin.

Meet The Patels is a movie that originally wasn’t meant to be a movie. As a lark, Geeta began filming Ravi’s wife-seeking adventures. After a while she and Ravi realized that fun and wisdom were to be found in the raw footage. Light bulbs went off in their heads and a project was born. They are credited as Meet the Patels’ directors, and along with two others as the writers. The movie doesn’t mention this, but it turns out that the story and filming took place about seven years ago, after which various snags held things up big time. Last year, finally, the movie was completed and became a darling of the film festival circuit. It’s playing now in a modest number of theaters. Ravi was an actor landing a handful of movie and TV roles while Meet The Patels was filming. These days he is a pretty big presence on the small screen. He’s currently in two series, Grandfathered and Master Of None

Meet The Patels moves fast and furious, Geeta handling most of the camerawork in an engagingly amateurish home movie mode (she claims she never learned how to operate her camera, or frame scenes, properly). The film intersperses animated sequences, scripted and nimble, to explain and give oomph to the plot. The plot doesn’t require more elucidation from me. No spoiler alerts here. What really matters are the lessons about human behavior and relationships to be gained from the flick (and from the Italian chef’s chalkboard). To wit, the four principles in Meet the Patels are endearing, warm and loving. They respect each other and get along famously. They are open (excepting Ravi’s concealment from Mom and Dad of Audrey’s place in his life, but we’ll forgive him that) and open to change. They smile a lot, laugh a lot. These are folks you’d want to be friends with.

Sandy, Cindy, Gene and I all left the theater feeling good. Amen.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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The End Of My Long Affair (With Turner Classic Movies)

When I moved to Philadelphia in 1974 I became a film buff of sorts. It all happened very naturally and wasn’t anything I thought about. There were fewer options for movie lovers back then in Philadelphia than there are today, but there were enough. In addition to first-run theaters, Philadelphia had various venues that specialized in lesser-known flicks — some were foreign, some not. I had never before seen many foreign or cult movies and found myself liking them. My cinematic diet, consisting of the mainstream, the obscure, the subtitled, has remained consistent ever since.

My wife Sandy, whom I met in 1990, is a big movie fan too. Each year she and I leave the house 40 or more times to take in movies. Chez us, together we catch an additional 25 or so flicks on the tube. We like doing things together. For a span of eight years in my married life though, I also viewed hundreds of films on my own. I watched them on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel. I became addicted to TCM, but I’m not anymore. Here’s the story:

In 2006 my thoughts and activities were less-focused than they should have been. My father had died the previous year and I think my restlessness was partly connected to his passing. He had lived with Sandy and me, and we spent a lot of time caring for him. With him gone I had trouble finding ways to fill up my days fully.

I began watching TCM movies on this TV in 2006. This is a recent photo of the TV.
I began watching TCM movies on this TV in 2006. This is a recent photo of the TV.

Sandy had been suggesting I might do well to add some prime time television viewing to my regimen as one way to get my mind off of things. But I couldn’t decide what to watch, didn’t think I’d  be happy devoting a bunch of hours to the small screen. Somehow though, I heard the call of TCM. Our meeting must have been preordained. And so a few months into 2006 I began descending the stairs on many evenings from our kitchen to finished basement, a place I hadn’t visited all that much since moving into our house the year before. In the basement’s den area sat an old bulky TV that had traveled from our previous home.

The Letter was the first movie I watched on TCM in 2006. I took this photo recently.
The Letter was the first movie I watched on TCM in 2006. This is a recent photo.

I began the affair gingerly. The first TCM movie I watched in 2006 was The Letter, a Bette Davis melodrama. It was pretty good. “OK, let’s try another,” I thought, and not too many days later Tender Mercies passed before my eyes. I had seen it when it came out in 1983 but didn’t recall it too clearly. I gave it two thumbs up in 2006.

Turner Classic Movies is quite the amazing broadcaster. Movies in their unedited versions 24 hours a day with no commercial interruptions. TCM’s core is English-speaking productions from the 1930s through 70s. Once in awhile the station throws in a foreign movie or a silent or a post-1970s film such as Tender Mercies. Despite the station’s name, however, hardly every TCM movie is a classic. There are plenty of clunkers. On many occasions I turned off a movie within its first 30 minutes and made the long climb upstairs.

And yet, duds or not, I became very comfortable sitting in a recliner in front of the basement TV. By 2006’s end I had watched 61 movies on TCM. The next year’s number was 103, and the year after that I reached the 87 mark,  my two highest totals. Since then the counts have descended, from 64 in 2009 to seven in 2014. I’ve managed merely one movie so far in 2015, The Great Santini, a good one that seemed a tad better to me when it made its initial rounds in 1983.

Why the dramatic falloff? Well, after cutting a slew of notches into my movie-watching belt I discovered that my TCM motor was running out of gas. Eventually, many of the movies I contemplated watching didn’t seem, upon investigation, good enough to spend time with. And the slim pickings of films from 1980 onward began to bother me a little.

But I tip my hat to Turner Classic Movies without hesitation. You see, to Sandy’s amazement somehow I’d made it into my late 50s and early 60s without having witnessed On The Waterfront, West Side Story, Singin’ In The Rain, From Here To Eternity and others that the general populace would deem to be true classic films. TCM rectified that situation. Contrarian that I sometimes am though, Singin’ was the only one of those that I felt was completely worthy of wearing a crown. And, besides Singin’, at least 15 more offerings that I first caught on TCM are now on my list of elite movies: In A Lonely Place, Odd Man Out, The Misfits, Darling, Sweet Smell Of Success, Hud . . .

Hey TCM. you’re a great station and I thank you for all the entertaining hours that you bestowed on me. Add some movies from the current century and maybe once again you and I will become pals.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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Stuff And More Stuff (A Visit To The Mercer Museum)

One of my closest friends, Alan, lives in Paris, France, so we don’t get to see each other too often. My wife Sandy and I are crazy about him and his wife Martine. Wonderful people. Smart, gracious and, if the conditions are right, up for pretty much anything. Alan and I have been buddies for 50 years. We met at college in Vermont lo those many years ago. He and Martine were in the USA for a couple of weeks recently for family gatherings and to tour New England a bit, and they also visited Sandy and me for a few days. We all had a terrific time together.

The weather was hot while they were with us. By 10 AM each day the sun was kicking ass. Sandy and I had hoped to show Alan and Martine some beautiful outdoor sights in Philadelphia or its environs. Maybe Morris Arboretum. Maybe Longwood Gardens. Maybe Philly’s Old City section and its nearby Penn’s Landing waterfront. But we scratched all of those ideas off our list. None of us felt like dealing with the heat. Where to, then?

Doylestown's Mercer Museum.
Doylestown’s Mercer Museum.

I’ve written a number of times about Doylestown, PA, a fine village in Bucks County about 20 miles from Philadelphia. Doylestown was the home of Henry Chapman Mercer, a talented and brilliant chap with eclectic interests who lived from 1856 to 1930. He designed and constructed three large and unusual buildings in Doylestown, one of which, the Mercer Museum, fit the bill as an indoor destination for Sandy, me and our friends. On the first full day of Alan’s and Martine’s visit, that’s where we headed.

Henry Mercer was a traveler, an archaeologist, an outside-the-box thinker and a collector of myriad objects. He also was well-heeled, a circumstance that allowed him to indulge his passions and to live pretty much as he chose. The collecting bug bit him early in life and took hold very strongly in the 1890s when he saw the effects that industrialization was having on the American way. Before they would be entirely phased out and disappear, he decided to amass examples of the handmade objects that once were, and in some cases still were used in typical homes, in everyday trades, on farms and in workshops. The tools and household and recreational goods, in other words, that defined how folks lived in the 1700s through roughly 1850.

Mercer spent much time at junk dealers, auctions and country sales, and often for little money purchased an astonishing array of items, thousand and thousands of them. But where would he keep all of this stuff? No problem. The amazing Mercer designed a sprawling idiosyncratic castle of sorts to house his Americana collection. A small team of workers built the structure in just a few years. The Mercer Museum opened in 1916, and Henry immediately donated it and the stuff to the Bucks County Historical Society, which to this day owns and runs the operation.

I was pretty certain that Alan and Martine would like the Mercer Museum. It’s not well-known, why I don’t understand. But it is fascinating and maybe one of a kind. The building alone is worthy of examination, a concrete behemoth awash with windows and topped with a dizzying display of towers and chimneys and who-knows-whats. Mercer selected concrete as his primary construction material because he desired a fireproof enclosure for his collection, and it certainly seems as though he made the correct choice. To date, no flames.

A dory, a sleigh and much else, all suspended from the ceiling and arches in the atrium.
A dory, a sleigh and much else, all suspended from the ceiling and arches in the atrium.

And the collection? “Incredible” is an understatement. Thirty thousand or more things to eyeball, many of which you’re not likely to encounter elsewhere. A well sweep (it drew water from wells in pre-pump days), a stagecoach, a hay rake with 24-inch-long teeth, components of a water power saw mill . . . not to mention smaller items such as tools used in hat making, tinsmithing, coopering, the healing arts, you get the idea. Mercer suspended some of the big boys (a dory and a whaleboat, for instance) and also some of the little guys from the ceiling and arches of the museum’s large central atrium, where the effect is hallucinatory. It takes long looks to figure out just what it is you’re looking at, despite the quite good signage. And Mercer apparently had a real sense of the whimsical, as chairs, chests, baby cribs and other artifacts I couldn’t easily identify dangle from the ceiling, often upside down.

The Hat Making room.
The Hat Making room.
High Wheeler bicycles "floating" above a stagecoach.
High Wheeler bicycles “floating” above a stagecoach.

Most of the tools and results of America’s myriad trades, thankfully I suppose, are much more neatly displayed. They are divided up, by occupational use or other categories, in rooms, alcoves and niches that surround the atrium on six different floor levels.

Brown is the color of the day at the Mercer Museum, since so many of the objects on display, especially the hefty ones, are made of wood. Alan and Martine and Sandy and I took our time in the Mercer forest, but after two hours started to run out of gas. Alan said the museum is one of the best he has ever been in, and I concur. This trip to Mercer was my third or fourth. A fellow visitor, whom I chatted up slightly while we both gazed at eight-foot-tall High Wheeler bicycles hanging from the ceiling above a western Concord stagecoach, got it right when she said that “[Henry Mercer] makes hoarders look good.”

A few suggestions to the interested. Go, definitely go to the Mercer Museum. But make the voyage on a sunny day, as there is a paucity of artificial light there. And skip the dead of winter. The museum is unheated.

As mentioned hundreds of words above, the day following the Mercer experience featured temperatures just as disagreeable as its predecessor’s. Once again, an indoor attraction it would have to be. Where? (To be continued)

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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The Michener Museum Shines Yet Again

James A. Michener Art Museum.
James A. Michener Art Museum.

One of the things I like about art shows is that they can surprise you (in a good way). It’s a gas when a museum or gallery curator comes up with a new slant or assembles a themed exhibition that makes you say “great idea!”  That’s part of the fun of going to places such as the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA. Not always, but often you can expect the unexpected there. Five years ago the Michener mounted a fascinating display of costumes worn by movie stars in famous movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s black leather jacket from The Terminator was in the house. So was Elizabeth Taylor’s gown from A Place In The Sun. That show caught me off guard by its coolness and inventiveness. Its idea seemed obvious, but only after the fact.

A similar sense of forward thinking surrounds a current Michener exhibition, the long-titled Iron And Coal, Petroleum And Steel: Industrial Art From The Steidle Collection. The works on view have been borrowed from their permanent home in State College, PA. There they reside within Penn State University’s Earth And Mineral Sciences Museum And Art Gallery, another mouthful. Hats off to the Michener for knowing of the off-the-beaten-track Steidle collection’s existence and for smartly organizing the paintings and their messages.

Edward Steidle (1887-1977) was a mover and shaker for many years in the worlds of mineral and petroleum extraction and use. An engineer, teacher and college administrator, he was dean from 1928 to 1953 of Penn State’s College Of Earth And Mineral Sciences. He also collected art, much of which he commissioned, that depicted the earth industries in action. The students at Penn State’s earth and minerals school were surrounded by examples of ores and extraction implements in the school buildings. Steidle, to my mind somewhat of a visionary in this respect, wanted artistic representations of the same also to be on view at the university.

Bituminous Coal Tipple, painted by Louise Pershing in 1936.
Bituminous Coal Tipple, painted by Louise Pershing in 1936.

Louise Pershing’s Bituminous Coal Tipple, from 1936, was the first work I grabbed onto at the Michener after quickly scanning the collection.  I loved its muted tones, the hulking mass of the tipple and of the hill in the foreground, the clouds of smoke issuing from all over the canvas, the lonely patch of green grass. Pershing mapped out her painting precisely and filled it with feeling.

 

Pershing’s oil painting represented a pretty good number of the ah-hah moments that I had in the Steidle galleries. What struck me first when I walked into the exhibit were the colors on the canvases. As with Pershing’s work, largely they were subdued or somber, the hues of earth and coal, of heavy equipment. As I walked around the galleries I noticed some other things. For one, nearly all the paintings were strongly designed and observant. Steidle had a good eye for art. Also, I was completely unfamiliar with the 40 or so artists in the show, excepting one or two. Post-Michener research confirmed that most of them had nice modest careers in their day but didn’t make it to the ladder of fame — only a few have garnered Wikipedia biographies. And I saw that a good number of the paintings were by women, not always the case on museum walls.

Miners In A Lift, painted by Henry Poor in 1947.
Miners In A Lift, painted by Henry Poor in 1947.

The Michener’s Steidle exhibition is a winner because it includes a boatload of works equal to Pershing’s Bituminous Coal Tipple, some maybe even better. Henry Poor’s Miners In A Lift, for example, which he painted in 1947. Five (or is it six?) coal miners are within the tight wooden cage, about to step outside the mine entrance, their shift over. Emerging from near-darkness into light, their eyes are hugely distended. The painting tells life stories, as the workers’ uneasiness about their dangerous occupation is on their faces. The confined framework of the painting brings power and immediacy to this work. It probably was my favorite at the Michener show.

The Steidle collection is said to be one of the best collections of industrial art in the USA. When these works were created, coal and steel were massively important industries in Pennsylvania and nationally. A few decades later they pretty much collapsed. The paintings are in that sense a time capsule of what once was. The historical aspect of the Michener show was presented clearly and didn’t make my eyes glaze over, the museum avoiding ponderous explanations on its informational placards. But, half-baked art aficionado that I am, I was more interested in the painterly aspects of the Steidle exhibit than in straight history.

Forging The Shaft: Hydraulic Forging Press, painted by Rose Ann McGary in 1936.
Forging The Shaft: Hydraulic Forging Press, painted by Rose Ann McGary in 1936.

Take, for instance, Rose Ann McGary’s Forging The Shaft: Hydraulic Forging Press. She painted this canvas in 1936. It shows workmen shaping red hot steel, and would have earned a thumbs up from the artist Fernand Léger and his fellow Cubism descendants. A carefully assembled construction of planes, cylinders and boxlike shapes, Forging The Shaft takes Cubism’s original color scheme of grays and browns and adds, just off-center, an explosion of pink. It is both a contained and dynamic painting.

The Steidle show closes on October 25. There’s still time to see it.

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One More Stop On The Road For Donna The Buffalo

My wife Sandy and I recently saw in concert an electric and eclectic band from upstate New York amusingly named Donna The Buffalo, and afterward I wanted to write about the show. Before sitting down to compose my magnum opus though, I mulled over my approach to the subject matter. The main question I posed to yours truly was: What should the subject matter comprise? Naturally, Donna The Buffalo needed to be a big part of the focus. But you know what? I knew little about DTB pre-gig, and possess only a cursory knowledge about the band now. We went to see them on little more than a whim. I’d heard of them, knew that their history was lengthy, and decided that taking a chance on them would be fun. When my mulling concluded, I was of the opinion that the path that brought me to this show also should be part of the story.

I think of myself as a music lover. I listen to a wide variety of genres and have been to well over 1,000 concerts during my earthly tenure. Yet, these days I feel like a tyro when I listen to radio stations or read music-related websites, magazines and newspapers. I mean, more often than not, I am unfamiliar with the musicians. To me, it is just incredible how many solo performers and bands are out there playing the game. In the USA alone, there must be 50,000 professional musical acts, maybe more. In my younger days I thought that I had a handle on a fair percentage of music makers. No longer, not now in the Internet Age when anybody and everybody can make his or her presence felt.

And so, ten or more years ago I largely gave up on trying to keep up with the avalanches of musicians plying their trade. It was just too much work, too exhausting. Better, I think, to stay in tune to a lesser extent, and also to take gambles and hope for the best. As with Donna The Buffalo.

New Hope Winery, one half hour before showtime.
New Hope Winery, one half hour before showtime.

Donna The Buffalo appeared at New Hope Winery, a venue in the Philadelphia suburbs that Sandy and I discovered last year and have become very fond of. The joint was packed with 200 or more souls when DTB took the stage. A front-and-center area, where tables normally would be placed, had been cleared to create space for dancers. I looked over the crowd. At some previous visits to the Winery I’d seen demographics heavily tilted to the 50 and above bracket. Not this night. DTB had tipped the age scales downward substantially. Twentysomethings and thirtysomethings abounded. There even were a few very young children in the room.

Donna The Buffalo in action at New Hope Winery.
Donna The Buffalo in action at New Hope Winery.

What a band. Not having known what to expect, song number one told me that I had chosen wisely by attending this concert. A quintet, DTB was tremendously tight and intuitive all night long, and possessed a large catalog of songs to choose from. They held the stage for two hours and 10 minutes, filling their long set with 22 songs and little between-tune chatter. I was standing just behind the dance section, which was crowded with bobbers and weavers. After two or three songs, I too began to go with the flow. And kept going. But I was bouncing alone — Sandy stayed at the extremely stage right table to which we had been assigned. Her view of the musicians from there was lousy, but in the dance area she wouldn’t have had a chance seeing over anyone’s head. Mea culpa.

DTB has blended a bunch of musical styles into their sound: rock, country, zydeco, reggae. Rock being the dominant force. On some songs (What Money Cannot Buy; Love and Gasoline) the power was relentless, Stonesy, irresistible. On others (The Ones You Love; Conscious Evolution) the groove expanded, contracted, widened once again, giving no mercy to the audience. All you had to do on those expansive numbers, Grateful Dead-ish and Allmans-ish as they were, was close your eyes to be transported to a higher and mind-opening plane. Yes, Donna The Buffalo was that good.

DTB began its journey in the late 1980s, picking up steam in the mid 90s, and in the current century has become a decently successful and popular unit. They tour like crazy and have amassed a loyal national fan base known as The Herd, a mini version of the Deadheads. Two original band members (Tara Nevins and Jeb Puryear) remain. Tara and Jeb compose most of the group’s songs, usually individually. At the Winery, each took the lead vocal spotlight on his or her compositions. Jeb opted for the laidback Jerry Garcia approach to singing and handled electric guitar sizzlingly. He’s a guitar hero unknown to 99% of Americans. Tara’s sweet and gentle mountain drawl pleased me much. And she was the band’s multi-instrumentalist. Fiddle, acoustic guitar, accordion, tambourine and scrubboard (for the zydeco numbers) were her arsenal.

A bunch of musicians have played alongside Tara and Jeb since DTB’s inception. The three current guys have been around for several years. Mark Raudabaugh killed on the drums. Kyle Sparks was all over his electric bass’ strings, drawing out lines that percolated and sang. And organist David McCracken was immense. So many times in so many bands, especially the poppier or atmospheric ones, the keyboard player is on the lame side, somehow fooling the audience with pretty chords and simplistic runs. Not McCracken. He can play. He jabbed, moved fast, reached for the skies, whatever it took.

So, how many acts that I’ve never heard of or barely heard of, and that I’d find to be great, are on the circuit? The question is a puzzle, the answer unknowable. Which makes music and, similarly, much else of life, delightful.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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Screwball Begone! (A Review Of Mistress America)

I wasn’t as fond as I thought I would be of the movie that my wife Sandy and I went to see recently. Sandy told me that various critics have heaped praises upon said flick, Mistress America, some calling it a screwball comedy in the grand old Hollywood tradition of Howard Hawkes and Preston Sturges. I saw the movie differently. I found it to be as much a drama as a comedy, as bittersweet as it is funny. And as for screwball, which can be great . . . well, Mistress America’s try at the madcap art form encompasses not the entire movie at all, settling instead for one long and uncomfortable segment in the second half. I didn’t have much fun with that interlude. A collection of intersections involving most of the movie’s cast, it felt flat and strained to me, out of place with the decidedly tilted but more realistic antics and people-play that populated the rest of the film. In other words, Mistress America overextended its ambitions. It would have been a better movie if its creators, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, had kept their eyes on the  wry and poignant, and left the supposedly wild and crazy alone. My rating? Two, maybe two and a half out of four stars.

We saw Mistress America at the Regal multiplex in Warrington, PA.
We saw Mistress America at the Regal multiplex in Warrington, PA.

Mistress America revolves around a small parade of characters led by Brooke Cardinas (Gerwig) and Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke). Brooke is a 30ish lady on the go, an at-times free spirit who cobbles together a living in New York City by leading exercise classes, doing interior decorating, whatever it takes. Her dream is to open a restaurant slash hair salon slash hangout in Lower Manhattan called Mom’s, a place where customers will settle in and feel really comfortable. A wifty notion possibly, but who knows? Brooke already has signed a lease for the empty space she plans to transform, and is in the process of assembling financial backing. She’s committed, and several steps ahead of herself.

Into Brooke’s life enters Tracy, a Barnard College freshman not connecting very well to the college scene in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. At Mistress America’s outset, Tracy and Brooke have never met. Tracy learns of Brooke’s existence from her mother, who has plans to tie the knot with Brooke’s father. Following her mom’s suggestion, Tracy gives her stepsister-to-be a call. They meet, they bond, and the slings and arrows and goofy twists of fortune begin to fly.

Excising the unwieldy aforementioned portion of Mistress America, what we’re left with is an observant study of two women looking for some answers. Tracy is young, an introvert, and beginning what appears will be a very long process of self-discovery. I’m not placing heavy bets on her ever finding peace and contentment. She can be nasty and guileful, sides of her personality she might not have known were alive till the forceful Brooke’s influence poked them to the surface.

Brooke on the other hand is a longtime gung-ho trooper. Disappointments have peppered her life, but on she goes, pushing aside her doubts and sadnesses as she seeks the next opportunity or person that might set her on the true path. Late in the movie Brooke offhandedly takes a deep look inside and throws out some comments that almost are on target. To Tracy she says something to the effect of  “I know everything about myself. That’s why I can’t do therapy.” Actually, she knows so much that, I think, she scares herself. And keeps on running.

Baumbach and Gerwig, a real life couple, have been feeling their collaborative artistic juices the last few years. They cowrote Mistress America, and Baumbach directed. Ditto for 2013’s Frances Ha, which resembles Mistress America in that it centers upon a young woman who stumbles a lot in life. Frances, though, is several notches below Brooke on the got-it-together scale. Gerwig starred in Frances Ha, and I wasn’t sure if she would have the acting chops to differentiate her leading roles. I am glad to report that she does. Her Brooke is a complicated soul, usually energized and with a gleam in her eyes, but down enough times that my good wishes went out to her. Mistress America, despite its big ol’ flaw, offers plenty to chew on.

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Puck’s The Place (A Venue And Concert Review)

I’ve written several times on this blog about Doylestown, PA. In the extensive suburbs of Philadelphia, Doylestown is perhaps the prettiest, the most charming, the most interesting village. I’m referring not to Doylestown’s generic housing developments, but to its quite large historic district. This section is worth a visit, and for many people, such as my wife Sandy and me, multiple and regular hellos.

Puck's outstanding neon sign.
Puck’s outstanding neon sign.

You like art? Go to Doylestown’s high-quality Michener Museum. You like non-blockbuster movies? Try the County Theater. You like artifacts from America’s pre-Industrial Revolution past? The astonishing Mercer Museum was built for you. And if you are a popular music buff, the place to frequent in Doylestown is Puck, a spot with chic indoor and outdoor eating areas and, incongruously, a grungy cellar where singer-songwriters and rock and country and funk bands take the stage a few times each week.

I’ve been to Puck’s music room 15 or more times over the years. Puck’s management brings in a wide array of musicians, a few of whom are touring artists with decent-sized national followings. But generally the players at Puck are little-knowns from Greater Philadelphia. I once had a small career as a music presenter for a summer music series in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood (see my article The Music Biz And I). It was at Puck that I found several local acts (Cheers Elephant; Toy Soldiers; The John Byrne Band) who knocked my socks off and whom I ended up booking for the series.

What I like about Puck’s music room is its casual and boho vibes. Aside from the handsome bar, the space has been inspired by Frat House Finished Basement Magazine. The mottled floor could be mistaken for a Jackson Pollock painting. There are pillars that obstruct views of the stage. My kind of place.

As for the music, I tend to approach Puck with an open mind, with few expectations, and usually everything works out just fine. Many times I find the music to be good but nothing special. And sometimes, as with Cheers Elephant et al., I’m wowed. On a recent Saturday night, Sandy and I both were floored by Grady Hoss And The Sidewinders, the opening act of a double bill. I’d never heard of them, had little idea how they would be. What they were was tight and exciting, a country band in the classic mode, with some latter day tweakings. Anyone who favors Waylon Jennings, Gram Parsons and Dwight Yoakum would find good fun with Grady Hoss And The Sidewinders. For me, their 45-minute set was 45 minutes too short.

Grady Hoss And The Sidewinders, as I’ve learned from post-concert research, is a Philadelphia area band just starting out. They are working on a maybe-soon-to-be-released EP. Their Puck engagement, much to my amazement, was their public debut. Lance Davis, the leader, apparently had a fairly long career as an engineer and producer and rock musician, but for various reasons put all of that on an extended hiatus a number of years ago. In 2014 he emerged from his musical hibernation with country tunes on his mind. As the band came together, Lance decided that each member needed a colorful stage name reminiscent of the kinds of names (Ernest Tubb, Buck Owens) that once populated the country charts. Voilà, Lance adopted Grady Hoss as his moniker. The others in the group were dubbed Bucky Vennerson (in real life, Vince Federici), Dusty Reigns (Dan O’Neil) and Earl Smokesman (Charlie Heim).

Grady Hoss And The Sidewinders on stage at Puck.
Grady Hoss And The Sidewinders on stage at Puck.

Lance and pals played nine songs at Puck, eight of them originals. The songs were good. Lance’s vocals were heartfelt, his high notes reverberating with longing or regret, as they should in tales drawn from country music’s traditional wellspring. Lance strummed an acoustic guitar all evening, his face half-hidden beneath a big Stetson hat, and The Sidewinders created a rich palette of sounds around him. I knew I was in for an evening of treats right from the opening moments of the opening song, Rivertown. The chuga-chuga Johnny Cash-like beats from Heim’s drums and O’Neil’s electric bass built a strong template. Federici’s guitar licks ignited and pushed. And guest pedal steel guitarist Dave Van Allen’s poignant statements were as Nashville as you can get.

Two head-nodding honky tonk numbers followed Rivertown. I didn’t catch their titles, but their themes were classic country: lost souls and drinking. “Lord, I don’t know where I’m going/But I just want to get there” came from the first, and “I’m going back to the bottle/Back out in the rain/Back to the girls I need to see” from its successor.

So, how were these guys able to sound so good in their first-ever club performance? I imagine it’s because they’ve practiced a whole lot, and because they have heaps of talent. I can see this band going places. They without doubt have the chops, the look and the laidback attitude. What they will need to make it, if indeed making it is part of their game plan, is a bunch more original songs. As I discovered at home a few days later, two of the eight originals that I heard at Puck predate GHATS. They come from a rock album, The Hovercraft Diaries, that Lance released nine years ago. Maybe Lance possesses much new countrified material that he didn’t reveal at Puck. If not, I hope that composing sessions are on his agenda. Grady Hoss And The Sidewinders are a band about which I’d be happy to say one day, “I saw them when . . .”

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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