Sunday, October 31, 2010

These United States with Thrift Store Cowboys and Adam Arcuragi and The Lupine Choral Society at the Iota

After the whole long day of the Rally to Restore Sanity and a visit to the Holocaust Museum, you would think we would have collapsed in a heap and gone home.  Nope.  Instead, we continued on as planned to the Iota Club and Cafe in Arlington to see These United States, with Thrift Store Cowboys and Adam Arcuragi and The Lupine Choral Society

I like to say I knew all about TUS, but that would be a big fat lie.  I'd heard their name, perhaps, a DC/Lexington, KY band that been around for a while, an indie roots rock or alt-country kind of sound (they seem to have a variety of different labels, depending on who you ask). As part of my campaign to be less of a musical moron, my plan is to see more music and pay more attention. Starting dead tired with a band that I'd spent zero time listening to may not have been the best approach, but hey, I was out, and swaying with the beat, so it's a start. 

These United States
For a Saturday night on Halloween weekend, it was a surprisingly quiet show, which I can't quite figure out.  These were pretty tight bands, with even the opening band being reasonably solid, although, at a guess, a little starry-eyed about being billed the TUS.  All three bands seemed to know each other well and bleed into each other, with folks going up on stage here and there. I think this was the last night Thrift Store Cowboys and These United States would be together after several months on tour, so there was lots of cross-pollination.  And enthusiasm: the Cowboys' bass player, bounced up and down with alarming and entertaining bounce. I'm not sure it helped him play, but what the hell, twas fine.   

Halloween got its due, particularly from These United States, who played not just "The Monster Mash," but also "Werewolves of London."  Most of the band was in "classy drag" excepting the lead singer, Jesse Elliott, who told the story of how he missed the memo and ended up in a banana suit.  Elliott was extra festive and sweaty; he sang with unabashed enthuasiam and came on down to the dance floor in his banana suit (hmm, that sounds like a euphemism, but isn't).  My friend grooved on hearing "Wooly Bully," and that did actually get the small crowd (including me) actually dancing, not just swaying, so a good hoppin' version, but the song itself leaves me cold.  What can I say, I'm a crank. 

The last song we caught before stomping back to the Metro was a long version of Dylan's "Isis," a song my friend apparently finds irritating. It has many, many verses, which allowed just about everyone to sing a verse, which I think was the point. I found that interesting from a voice perspective, and just watching everyone crowd on stage.  I'm not sure if it's the Iota accoustics, the sound board or the band(s), but I found it very difficult to decipher the words on anything, so mostly, I was running on the melody and tone and giving up on what might be being said.  As a word person, that's really frustrating, and I find I like the music clips I've been thumbing through much more since I can, in the clips, hear what is said. Had I known their music ahead of time, this wouldn't have been as much of an issue...a word to the wise for me, I suppose.  Research.    

If I were a better music person or listener, I'd tell you all about the original songs they'd played, as play them they did.  From scanning through clips, I think "Water and Wheat" from "What Lasts" was on the playlist.  But no guarantees on that. 

Definitely, I loved, loved the steel pedal guitars in TUS and TSC.  They're just fun, warping in and out of different tunings.  And one of the TSC boys even showed up with an accordian.  Yowza. 

Musically, this is a bunch of boys that play everyhing and have no fear..everyone sings, most people play both the guitar and the drums, so everyone was rotating around from seat to seat, band to band, passing another tambourine.  Clearly, they'd spent a lot of time jamming together and were having a ball because, hey, why not?  It's Halloween, after all. 

A good show for which I wish I was more awake, more knowledgeable, and that more people were out, but it's a start.

Rally to Restore Sanity & US Holocaust Memorial Museum

A thought-provoking juxtaposition of events yesterday: first, my friend Brian and I attended the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Anger, the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rally on the mall, and then we went to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Mobs at Metro
The faux rally turned out to be a fairly massive event. Estimates put attendance around 215,000 people (way larger, as many people have pointed out, than the Glenn Beck fest a few weeks back). The Metro was so overwhelmed by the time we reached Takoma at noonish that, after two trains came by that could not possibly accomodate two more passengers, we rode the Metro four stops in the other direction to the end of the line so we could actually get on a train.  We were not alone in this – at Glenmont, the train remained packed. We chatted for a while with a nice family from Fairfield, Iowa, who were in town not for the rally, not for the Marine Corps Marathon the next day, not for any of the other massive events, but for an aunt's 90th birthday party. The logistics of their family gathering was significantly more complex due to Metro delays, but they were taking it in amused stride.

When we finally got downtown, the scene was impressive: a sea of people, many costumed and holding signs. A wave of nostalgia for me: from 4th of July events as a child to protests in high school and college, the mall is the geographic center of my political understanding. I once traveled in a caravan of three vans of many women and one man from Colorado to DC for the huge 1992 March for Women's Lives pro-choice rally. While I'm a much more disaffected political participant these days, I still believe that's my failing as a citizen, that the passion for organizing and demonstrating and letting your voice be heard is vital. When we let our passions wither, part of us dies as well, and our society suffers.
Sea of people
This rally, however faux, brought out many of the folks I consider my people: liberals with a sense of humor. Yes, the crowd was overwhelmingly white, and presumably reflected the demographics of the Stewart/Colbert audience. But how could you not like some of the signs like these?:

"A Cup of Calm the F#ck Down"

"Tea Parties are for Little Girls
and Imaginary Friends"
"All We are Saying is
Give Cheese Some Pants"

"My friends, do not be afraid of people. Luke: 12:4" and
"I couldn't think of anything. I just wanted to be on
the Internets" (wish granted!)

"Get off my Lawn, Hippies!"

"Even My Sign Chooses
Not to Yell"
 And people reacted to the sentiment of the rally. It was a super, super polite crowd. There was no finger-pointing or ranting, except the dynamic on stage with Sanity v. Anger, play anger. I spent a lot of time weaving through the crowds, partly because I almost immediately got separated from my friend, and partly because I was looking to get close enough to hear. I'm not sure anyone expected quite so many people, and the jumbo-trons and speakers didn't reach all of us. But milling around through signs and Halloween costumes, without fail, people said “excuse me” and “pardon me.” No one glared or elbowed me for trying to squeeze by. I didn't see any drunken rage fests. Just folks out with signs listening to some comedy and music on a sunny day in fall.

 Some people were so dedicated that they climbed on top of fences and even the port-o-johns so they could see. 

People on the rooves of Port-o-johns. 
Icky, I say, but dedicated.

Of the events themselves, I can only report on bits of the Stewart/Colbert conversation (“all Muslims aren't terrorists, Steve. There are Muslims that you like and admire.” “Name one!” “Kareem Abdul- Jabbar!” - or something along those lines) and other scatterings gleaned in the crowds. I heard part of a Kid Rock song. I sadly missed the battling appearances between Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) and Ozzy Osbourne.  Those of you watching at home probably saw more, but I'm glad I was there in the crowd.  

When the events wrapped up at 3pm, and I finally reconnected with my vanished friend, we proceeded to the Holocaust Museum. The mother of our Iowa friends on the Metro had talked about going, and it turned out, Brian had never been, so rather than struggle on the Metro again, off we went.

It had been at least a decade since I had been there. The Holocaust Museum is, obviously, not a place where you go for a lighthearted day, a point they make as they pack you into an elevator to start the exhibit on the 4th floor and say, “We hope you have a meaningful visit.” There is no “nice day!” for genocide. I warned Brian on the intensity level (not that he was expecting sunshine), but it's difficult to convey how affecting the museum will be.

The beginning of the exhibit talks about how Hitler was, at the start, an disgruntled corporeal in the army, a nobody that no one would have predicted to rise to such frightening power. There seemed to be little chance he would such a vile force in such short order. He got there first by way of political maneuvering, until he finally consolidated enough legal power so he could really dig into terror and violence after he was appointed Chancellor in 1933.

And what, largely, did the Nazi party feed on? Rage and racism and fear. Anyone who follows, say, the immigration debates, or the insanity of folks up in arms about, say, homosexual marriage, will recognize many of the tactics of singling out a group upon which to pour all angers and frustrations. Everything becomes a threat to Good Decent People and someone else's fault. In Germany, the Nazis blamed breadlines on the Jews and communists.

The old guard politicians of Germany at the time did not take Hitler seriously until it was too late -- something to consider in our current political climate. No, no, I'm not trying, Colbert-like, to Keep Fear Alive and suggest anyone is the next Hitler. As the Rally to Restore Sanity website points out, "the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles."  That doesn't mean that I'm inclined to agree much with, for instance, the politics of Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck though, and I find the museum, like the rally, emphasized the importance of speaking up.

I'm not, as noted, particularly politically knowledgeable, however. I find the political process of manipulating people a creepy exercise riddled with aggravation and overlooked and/or flawed logic, and intensely frustrating. I tend to avoid political conversation as unnecessary conflict for which I am, anyway, ill-armed. I was raised in a household split between the Democratic and Republican parties. Issues were not discussed and hashed out so much as put aside. Disagreement was considered inconvenient disharmony.

What is so profoundly affecting about the Holocaust museum is that it makes a very clear connection between how that political avoidance and apathy allows for the evilly-opportunitistic like Hitler to extract a devastating toll on human lives – the absolute horror of the camps, persecution, death, despair. Hells seemingly unimaginable were instead systematized, a conveyor belt of how best to destroy a culture, demoralize and humiliate and terrorize, and kill with all possible efficiency.

I won't talk about the many, many deeply disturbing stories and photographs and facts on display. It's a hard place to walk through, and an important one.  If you haven't been, go. 

I am going to tell you about where I lost it, both the first time I visited the museum, and again, when I got to that exhibit again yesterday.

The shoes.

There is a room full of shoes worn by concentration camp victims. There is something so human, so ordinary and personal about shoes, worn leather and frayed laces.  Everyone knows the phrase, "if you want to know a man, walk a mile in his shoes."  To see so many empty shoes, knowing that their owners took them off and walked on to their deaths, rippled through me in ways I still can't quite articulate.  There are so many shoes in that room, so many individuals gassed out of existence, and those shoes are but a tiny fraction of the people killed.

It may be another artifact or phrase or photograph will bring it home for you. For me, it was the shoes.

The museum was closing by the time we were leaving, and in fact, many of the last video exhibits, including the videos of survivors, were already turned off on the last floor.

We walked back out into the slanted light of a fall day, and saw the remains of the crowds, people with signs and costumes, now heading off for the Saturday night Halloween parties or to prepare to run the Marine Corps Marathon today or just sit at home with friends and family. We are lucky here, right now, despite our bad economy and other crises, that we can come together, share laughter and commentary, music and merriment and play, that we can be reasonable and yet still, in our numbers, be heard.

So here's my summary of takeaways for the day:

Don't rage. Don't hide. Learn what you can and listen carefully. Pay attention and when you smell bullshit, say, very, very, politely, without rage but with clarity and action, that it is bullshit. Well, maybe use a more polite word.  But you know what I mean. 

Also: go do what I can't do this year in Maryland, having registered too late after my move. Go vote.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out --

Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me.
--Martin Niemöller

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Thriller! - Article by my friend Darcy on the Thriller Flashmob.  Dancing zombies make me unreasonably happy. 

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Brief and tardy comments on my visit to "Spleen," created by Oreen Cohen, ART CARGO (Jacqueline Levine), and Sarah Allison, formerly on display in the basement of the Moderno, a condo on U St.  The building was not yet in use, so the realtor connected the artists with the space, allowing for the creation of the large installation sculpture in the basement.  I missed the opening evening, which apparently also included incense and wine, but when I arrived, I was all alone in the basement thrumming with loud clanking music and this unweildly beast:  

The piece is constucted from metal, ceramics, balloons, automotive safety glass, and probably a lot of other odds and ends. I was particularly pleased with how gruesome sweet little balloons could become in the context of intestines.

While I didn't have opportunity to speak with the artists, the real estate connection (whose name I can't recall, alas, but was extremely pleasant) who was manning the door upstairs reported that the artists did indeed suffer for their work, and that even safety glass isn't entirely safe; some blood drops on the floor added to the mood.

Inside the glass portion, you can see there is a TV, pulsing with heartbeat-esque music (the shattered insides of a glass house, perhaps, our translucent souls crumbling - add in your own metaphor). This didn't quite work for me - at heart, I don't want to be a media maven, and TVs are too loaded to be otherwise in my mind.  

But I loved the dripping cave of stalactites, a nice dragon-in-the-lair touch.

The piece conveyed a mood and mixed the gruesome with fanciful (balloons! I love balloons!), not a bad way to start an evening. I proceeded down the street to have a rather tasty margarita, feeling oh-so-arty. 

Posted on the the stairway to the basement, the following poem seemed apt. 

Spleen II

by Charles Baudelaire

When the low heavy sky weighs like a lid
Upon the spirit aching for the light
And all the wide horizon's line is hid
By a black day sadder than any night;

When the changed earth is but a dungeon dank
Where batlike Hope goes blindly fluttering
And, striking wall and roof and mouldered plank,
Bruises his tender head and timid wing;

When like grim prison bars stretch down the thin,
Straight, rigid pillars of the endless rain,
And the dumb throngs of infamous spiders spin
Their meshes in the caverns of the brain,

Suddenly, bells leap forth into the air,
Hurling a hideous uproar to the sky
As 'twere a band of homeless spirits who fare
Through the strange heavens, wailing stubbornly.

And hearses, without drum or instrument,
File slowly through my soul; crushed, sorrowful,
Weeps Hope, and Grief, fierce and omnipotent,
Plants his black banner on my drooping skull.

For more info on the work & artists, see the Project Website at Check out the original sketches of the work - fascinating to see the evolution of The Spleen. 

City Paper's blog review:

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sandpoint, ID Art Days - Galleries & Mobile Making

So was I arty and mistakeful on vacation, you ask? Why yes, yes I was. My sister and I managed to make two of my five days in Sandpoint, Idaho, art focused. 

Sandpoint is a small art town in northern Idaho ("the skinny part"), so twas easy to make a day of wandering around galleries. The most varied and lovely work we saw was at Art Works, a cooperative gallery run by local artists selling their wares. Jewelry, pottery, nature photography of the area, watercolors, the lovely if somewhat standard fare of a tourist retail store, but also interesting sculpture made of fired clay, wood and feathers, oil paintings of celestial lovelies, and a number of odds and ends that I was pretty sure I could make (e.g., beaded key chain fobs). 

Sandpoint has a lot of glassworkers, as they used to have a local studio run by the town, now closed sadly, so there was a particularly heavy emphasis on fused glass, jewelry, clocks, plates, etc., in many of the stores. We also poked our heads into a painting studio, which, if I could find her business card again, I would add a plug for, as it was lovely, brightly colored, festive work. I strongly recommend ending any such day by having the baked brie and a glass of wine at the Coldwater Creek Wine Bar. Yum.

Throughout our wanderings, we were busy plotting our own projects.  My sister had recently received five boxes of fabric from my mother, but wasn't feeling the quilting vibe for using some of it that way. And, of course, with my ugly mobile history, it seemed a natural extension to try making some fabric mobile prototypes a few days later. 

My sister is infinitely more organized, so she wasted no time pulling out the fabric, selecting some pieces and quickly cutting shapes, and got me rolling on my own choices.  She then ironed and I pinned shapes so that she could sew them on the treadle sewing machine.  From there, she dug out the grommet tool she'd found at a yard sale (I had tool envy, until we ran into some design flaws, which made it less groovy), and after some failed experimentation, we got her husband signed up for putting grommets in all our shapes so they were easily hung.  

And then there was the wire -- the fun part, in my opinion, particularly since I'm a metal junky.  My sister had a role of electrical fence wiring lying around, which actually worked out well (except it came with somewhat alarming warnings about remembering to wash your hands after use.  It may be coated in something awful). 

What was interesting to me is how different Susie and I approached the random design aspects of mobiles.  She found patterns online and worked to modify those for her needs.  I pulled off a hunk of wire, found a place to hang it off the chandelier, and then connected other pieces willy-nilly, hoping to find balance points with the fabric pieces and lengths of wire. Sometimes, there were failures, and pieces fell off, sections collapsed.  Susie had symmetry; I had random zigzag cheats built into my wire to help shift balances slightly without total reorganization, although in some aesthetic way, I was harboring ideas of a larger balance within the piece.

In any case, an enormous amount of fun. 

And here are the results.  Sadly, pictures don't do them justice, as they remove the movement...

Susie's prototype:

And mine, reassembled in DC - I forgot to photograph it in Sandpoint - so it's totally different than the last time I put it together.

As prototypes, there are, uh, issues, things that we would do differently, from choosing different shapes to finding less cranky grommets, to having cleaner edges and wire shapes, etc. More than that, however, it was a fabulous way to spend a gray day listening to 1980s pop music, singing and playing with wire. Successful art in my book. And perhaps the birth of an industry. You never know.