2008-10 Vital Source Mag – October 2008

  • Various artists

    By Eric Lewin While college-rock (for lack of a better term) graduated into grunge and alternative-rock in the early ‘90s, Milwaukee has maintained an interesting relationship with the subgenre: the city’s biggest export is still the Violent Femmes, its most popular record stores are the size of bedrooms and its independent radio stations maintain an army of devoted local listeners. So while Activities Compilation: Volume 1 might play elsewhere as a futile effort to fit ‘88’s sound into ‘08 in another market, its context makes it a refreshing throwback, echoing a citywide love of independent music and its roots – notwithstanding an uneven collection of tracks. For a compilation that features more than 20 local bands, each contributing no more than two songs, Activities is sonically consistent: that is to say, lo-fi as it comes. Whether purposely as a production technique or the result of limited resources (common sense suggests the latter), the results are mixed as to which bands sound charmingly sparse and which just sound unfinished. Farms in Trouble’s “Empty Arrows and Exit Signs” is a wonderful, psychedelic folk romp, and the male-female harmonies of the Candliers’ “Bird Eyes” plays like The Vaselines-meet-Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs. On the other hand, Crappy Dracula barely miss exceptional sleaze-rock with “No Chance with the Mermaid Queen” by cheating themselves with a too-small drum sound. And on the other other hand, “Area Man” by Nothing in that Drawer is simply unlistenable. While the majority of the songs included are rather forgettable, most of them don’t suck, and a few are actually pretty good. That might not seem like high praise, but it’s a claim that most local scenes across the country can’t make. Activities might not stack up against legendary Wisconsin/Milwaukee compilations like Badger-a-go-go, but it certainly holds its own.

  • IfIHadAHiFi

    Fidelity is a concept by which we measure our pain, to paraphrase John Lennon. For music enthusiasts, there are numerous thresholds: melody, musicianship and production chief among them. In those aspects, Fame By Proxy, Milwaukee band IfIHadAHiFi’s third release proper, is a resounding artistic success. First of all, it’s damn exciting. Virtually every song is a rhythmic treat, with the drums not only laying down some nifty beats, but (in true post-hardcore fashion) actually serving as a lead instrument. Second, it’s well-executed, as opener “Defenestrate Me” demonstrates in tone and template: repetitive phrases tucked within some beautifully captured guitar and bass, overdriven to the max, with drums up the wazoo. Finally, it’s well-crafted. “Paradise by the Paulding Light” is the closest they actually get to full-on fucking a pop hook, otherwise flirting with it for the other 11 tracks. One, “Get Killed, Get Noticed,” is so breakneck and loose it feels like it’s about to just fall apart. Another, “Science Depends On Us,” is downright crafty in its self-realization. With touches of Fugazi (if they’d ever drink and loosen up) and many of Steve Albini’s projects, IfIHadAHiFi show that though they love to dress their music up in glorious noise. Their talents in the three above-mentioned thresholds are just too strong to be denied.

  • The Celebrated Workingman

    Putting a sparkling veneer on struggles and giving them buoyancy takes chutzpah. Adversity in music has mostly been relegated to the sad, dark corners of the mope-ish and the forlorn, with abundant minor chords and enough terrible renditions of proverbs to make even a schoolteacher blush. The Celebrated Workingman’s Herald The Dickens is a joyful example that ups and downs can be positively high-spirited. The almost non-existent minor chord, exuberant use of slide-guitar and glockenspiel, shared vocal duties and driving percussion contradict the words prominently and emotively displayed by front man Mark Waldoch. “Now, I’m no bird who’s battered …you’ll get better offers / I’m your worst, and I’m rehearsed,” Waldoch announces on “Islands,” his Morrissey-on-steroids vocals displaying no signs of cracking or caving, but retaining the hope that propels each song on the album forward at industrious speeds. Rough times are a powerful catalyst for the driven and triumphant displays of musicians, yet taking those rough times and creating some of the most sparkling indie-pop to grace the Milwaukee musical landscape since the recent likes of Maritime and Testa Rosa is admirable. Not only does it contain the same sparkle, but also it manages to have a bit of brawn behind all the pretty bells and whistles. The band that’s six people strong sounds like it, and then some.

  • John the Savage

    Six-piece John the Savage ain’t afraid of no ghosts — the ghastly and sinister are this debut full-length’s bread and butter. From Mexican standoff (“Me & the Warden: Standoff”) to murder ballad (“Ballad of a Killman, pt. XI”), it’s thematically dark, and though the vocals are most often indecipherable wailing, the band’s ability to incarnate stories instrumentally and transport listeners to distinct settings is just genius. In “Sinking Ship,” for example, a near-eight minute epic noisy with trumpet, violin pizzicato, accordion and then some, panic pools at the first sight of leakage, the crew yo-ho-hos like rum-filled pirates and the vessel plunges deeper and faster into oblivion. Similarly, piano-driven “Market Day” vividly recalls art squares of Paris and “Dope-Ass Fade from Jose” could have been just another dinner at Chi-Chi’s had the funk guitar and cowbell not keenly come into play. Their musicality isn’t a fluke — Kitchen Voodoo was largely recorded live to capture the spirit of a John the Savage performance. But within that good idea is vulnerability: all opportunity for nuance is lost. Players are on the same plane, all equally determined to be heard. Under relentless uproar, the arrangements suffer. Why blanket over hard work? Had they explored musical dynamics beyond just “loud,” even more of the band’s competence could have shone through. John the Savage may not be particularly restrained in subject matter or sound, but the year-old band has victoriously created its own genre-bending authenticity. Too many cooks or not, Kitchen Voodoo is still spellbinding. Disagree? A plague of locusts is probably already on the way.

  • Act on these

    Last month a new publication (Alt-) landed on the scene, fueled by a new generation of local artists getting the word out about what they’re up to. The beat continues with a goodly number of small energetic galleries testing their mettle, not the least of which is the Armoury Gallery in the Fortress building. You have until November 15 to see In Contour, showcasing three artists who use strong lines and edges in their work. Two of the participants, Paul Kjelland and Julia Schilling, are MIAD grads; the third, Sonja Peterson, is completing her MFA at the University of Minnesota. The gallery’s website (thearmourygallery.com) is a clutter-free place for a preview. Professional is a key word in their approach. November 15 is also your last chance to immerse yourself in Folliard Gallery’s biennial Open Lands show, depicting the restful scenery of the Midwest. The election is over (whew!), but global concerns grind on. Valerie Christell teaches art at Alverno College, and on November 14 her Contemporary Topics students will install a collaborative, site specific exhibit, on view through December 5 in the college’s Christopher Hall. Last year’s installations included work about genocide. How will you react to this one? Act/React, an interactive art exhibit, is underway in the Baker/Rowland galleries at Milwaukee Art Museum, and in tandem with that, Margot Lovejoy’s November 12 lecture at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design addresses interactivity issues. Lovejoy, the author of Digital Currents: Art in the Electronic Age, speaks at 7 pm. Seven winners of the 2007 Mary Nohl Fellowship awards gather at Inova/Kenilworth (through January 18, 2009) in an exhibit curated by Bruce Knackert, an excellent man. Look for work by Faythe Levine (co-owner of the wildly successful Paper Boat Boutique on Howell), Colin Matthes, Kevin Miyazaki, and others. Controversy surrounds this show, but only because it seems short on females. Two made this year’s cut, the aforementioned Ms. Levine and filmmaker Annie Killelea. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s free Visual Art Lecture Series presents Mads Lynnerup in an event titled “You Are The Artist, You Figure It Out.” Mads is a video artist and sculptor, and he’ll present his latest work along with words about it on November 12 in the Arts Center Lecture Hall, 2400 E. Kenwood Blvd, at 7 pm. For more Mads, he’s featured in stop.look listen at the Haggerty Museum now until way into 2009, which is to say February 22. If you get the short end of the turkey wishbone this year, no big deal. Lots of folks got short changed big time. Go sink your teeth into art instead. VS

  • Canyons of Static

    The impression one gets from Canyons of Static is that their instrumental shoegaze jams would be perfect for a stylized horror film about hyper-fast zombies infected with rage. Sure, that’s a fancier (and nerdier) way of saying that they sound like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but after repeated spins of the disappearance, the new Canyons disc, it’s clear that the impression goes beyond a superficial band reference — such a film’s driving sequences across washed-out video-contrast countrysides would be a perfect complement to the dreamy soundscapes offered in tracks like the 11-minute “Shelter.” The compositions follow the Godspeed template of theme, variation, but mostly theme. The band establishes a mood and slowly adds layer upon layer as they build to a crescendo a few minutes down the road. Guitars interweave with violin, bells and each other, weaving a patchwork quilt of sound the listener can wrap themselves in to keep warm when the car heater conks out in December. Canyons of Static hail from West Bend, a town with red state politics and poor economy (one of my most recent memories of hanging out there involved punks who had government-issue ham in their kitchen) that doesn’t exactly seem like a breeding ground for quality shoegaze. Then again, Milwaukee isn’t exactly known as a shoegazer town either, yet we have plenty of excellent examples (Brief Candles and White Wrench Conservatory, in addition to the Canyons). But maybe it’s more appropriate than we’d think — after all, the hypnotizing rhythms and melodies on the disappearance are wintery and desolate, yet small-town cozy. In that respect, Canyons of Static are more Wisconsin than zombie-controlled Britain after all.

  • Step Right Up

    As one of the 2007 recipients of a Mary Nohl Fellowship, Colin Matthes hit the jackpot. The 30-year-old scored again when the spacious inova/Kenilworth gallery was recently enlarged to accommodate the awardees’ efforts. Though a few of the exhibits are politically understated, Matthes’ War Fair: Occupation Games for Citzens and Non-Combatants scores mightily in this political year. The theme of the nine pieces is war in all of its gory carnival-esque glory. I’d like to say it’s a “fun-house,” but it isn’t, though perhaps it is for those who get a rush out of a chance to “Stone the Prisoner,” “Shoot Into A Crowd,” or play “Afghan Roulette.” Well, you can’t actually shoot or stone, but you get the drift. Step right up folks. Matthes knows quite a bit about carnivals, having worked for sixteen years helping his dad electrify stuff at the county fair in Jefferson, Wisconsin. I remember when the carnival rolled into my rural hometown, because it arrived with a delicious sense of danger involving the chance to win and the greater chance not to take home the fat glittering Kewpie Doll waiting on the shelf behind the sweating barker who knew how to spot suckers big time. Matthes’ installation is a sloppy cobbled-together mess. It succeeds because it’s sloppy, in the way that war is untidy. “Stone The Prisoner,” a towering (142 inches high) painting of a prisoner, wrought slap-dash in appropriate black and white stripes with touches of yellow, introduces the games, and stands opposite “Lucky Catch (Always a Winner).” Among the prizes one can fish for, are U.S. Army helmets, flag pins and FEMA Life Preservers. The chap attaching the prizes to various hooks is ferret-faced and somewhat reminiscent of the characters populating the art of German Dadaist/Expressionist painters. The images, scratched and slapped onto crummy plywood, suggest facism, but thankfully, Matthes avoids swastika clichés. “Fire In The Hole (Grenade Toss),” embellished in circus wagon colors, and canopied in painted canvas strung with industrial-strength lights, occupies the central space in the installation, surrounded by smaller works such as “Afghan Roulette.” Place your bet folks. Take your chances. Are we having fun yet? The day of my second visit to the gallery exhibit, was Sunday, October 19. The only other soul in sight was a gallery sitter busy chatting on a cell phone and working on a laptop. Before I exited, I placed my big round Obama “Fist Bump” pin on the railing surrounding Fire In The Hole. With apologies to Mr. Matthes, it’s my personal grenade, a token of why folks should vote on November 4. VS UPDATE: You’ll actually be able to participate in his “Fire In The Hole (Grenade Toss)” game on November 20th. A note from Polly Morris at UW-Milwaukee urges “Come one, come all,” so do that at 6pm on a Thursday. By then the green graffiti tag left by a wannabe artist (on the red brick exterior of the Prospect Avenue entrance) will likely have been removed. And oh […]

  • Sleeping Beauty

    Magical lighting effects abound in the Milwaukee Ballet’s season-opening production, Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty. But commingled with the sparse post-modern scenery, these fantastical efforts slightly diminished the accomplished dancing in Michael Pink’s reinterpretation of this full length ballet, which also displayed Marius Petipa’s legendary choreography. Pink’s version of the familiar fairy tale reduced the three-hour plus length to just over two hours, including an intermission. His production centers the story on royal and regal sequences celebrating Princess Aurora’s christening, 16th birthday, and eventual wedding. While these scenes showcase grandeur, the chosen elements understate the dramatic heart of the story and engage the audience visually more than emotionally. When Prince Desire finally awakens Princess Aurora with true love’s kiss, the remaining ballet movements become anti-climatic, even though exquisite dancing highlights their wedding ceremony. The massive semi-circular stage backdrop, placed high above the dancers, further enhanced this emotional distance. Between David Grills’ lighting designs transforming the floor of the stage and the constructed “sky” backdrop, there appears a black space. These three components divided the stage into separate sections where the lavish costumes and elegant ballet steps dissolved into the black abyss. When smoke envelops the stage during a scene transporting the Prince and Lilac Fairy to Aurora’s castle, the set design finally complements the performers and production, but only briefly. Budget concerns often necessitate simplicity of stage design, but cohesiveness between the set and dancers was missing from this Sleeping Beauty. The semi-circular set design also overpowered both the stage and the dancers so they appeared smaller than life. Often the Milwaukee Ballet uses a backlit stage and scenery with theatrical success, but this production was not one of those successes. Tchaikovsky’s score orchestrated under Andrew Sill’s direction and the superb skill demonstrated by all members of the Milwaukee Ballet Company beautifully enlivened the production, especially with the imaginative use of garlands and the corps’ synchronized choreography honoring Aurora’s 16th birthday. Luz San Miguel and Ryan Martin (married partners outside the ballet) portrayed the Prince and Princess with delicate artistry, especially in the bridal pas de deux. In contrast, the evil sorceress Carabosse created welcome tension throughout the performance in her flowing ebony costume, fluidly executed by Jeanette Marie Hanley with devilish flair. Her four attendants twisted and tumbled around her, adding another malevolent touch to the tale. Equally impressive throughout the performance was the addition of students from the Milwaukee Ballet School. Acquiring stage presence and exposure early in a career develops the company’s commitment to the Ballet’s future, advancing the art of dance. While this production of Sleeping Beauty envisioned the Milwaukee Ballet’s impressive talent, perhaps the upcoming season will more brilliantly illuminate these valuable gifts. The Milwaukee Ballet’s next production is The Nutcracker, a holiday tradition, which runs December 12 through December 28. 414.902.2103 or www.milwaukeeballet.org

  • Stevie

    Hugh Whitmore’s two-hour play, Stevie, tells the story of the life of British poetess Stevie Smith. Christened Frances Margaret Smith and called Peggy by her family, Smith was said to resemble jockey Steve Donaghue, inspiring the name that stuck with her. Born in 1902, this feminine literary figure was honored with two prestigious awards for poetry including The Queen’s Gold Medal in 1969. Yet her Aunt Madge (“The Lion”), who helped raise Smith, often referred to Stevie’s writing and rhymes as only “stuff and nonsense,” rarely appreciating Smith’s creative talent. Yet Smith’s written musings reached far beyond the “stuff and nonsense” her Lion Aunt believed them to be, which the Boulevard Theatre’s production confirms with stellar clarity. Under Mark Bucher’s direction, the debut Boulevard performance of actor Amber Page resurrects the poetess with stunning directness and genuine sensitivity. When Page recites Smith’s poetry or transforms her character into significant figures recalling Smith’s past, the audience listens mesmerized by her facial expressions and stage presence that evokes Smith’s spirit. Page embodies both the writer’s life and her language. The script’s vignettes of biography, autobiography, and Stevie’s poetry are touched with humor and poignancy. This performance brings the audience to a modern understanding of Stevie’s words about living a life outside conventional norms. The set of empty picture frames hanging on the wall behind furniture draped with white cloth accentuates the colorful personalities of Smith and the Lion Aunt Madge, who is ably portrayed by Sally Marks. These two actors display a visible affection for each other on stage that intensifies during the Lion’s illness. Page as Stevie states, “People thought because I never married I didn’t understand the emotion, but I loved my aunt.” Sally Marks plays the Lion Aunt Madge This relationship provides the centerpiece for the entire production because Smith considered herself estranged from conventional society, an independent woman who shunned marriage and the status quo that believed “a poet is not an important person.” Even the various men who flow through Smith’s life, remarkably played by Ken Dillion costumed in a black suit, including her vagabond father who left home when she was three, the fiancé she dearly loved, and male friends that cared for Smith later in her life fail to offer Smith a comparable love. While reciting one of Smith’s famous poems about a man who died at sea, the audience understands the depths of Smith’s despair and her consequent fascination with death when Page repeats the last line, “I was much too far out my whole life, not waving, but drowning.” The Boulevard Theatre’s not-to-be-missed production of Stevie recalls that neither love, the enjoyment of everyday life, nor following a dream are only “stuff and nonsense,” but rather they substantiate human existence. Page, in a luminescent performance enhanced with an equally wonderful performance by Marks, reminds the audience that Smith’s life contributed volumes on the difficulties inherent to living a life with creativity and imagination, yet outside society’s norms, even when success affirms that decision. […]

  • Rabbit Hole

    The Milwaukee Chamber Theater has made a commitment to producing a Pulitzer-prize winning play every season for the next five years. Rabbit Hole, written by David Lindsay-Abaire, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for Drama and is the second production in this endeavor. It is the achingly sweet, heart-rendingly bitter story of a family, the Corbetts, dealing with the loss of a child, and the ways in which they come together and pull apart as they grieve and begin to heal. Rabbit Hole is an intimate production: the entire play takes place in the Corbett house, and there are only five characters in the cast. Howie and Becca Corbett (played by Steven Koehler and Jacque Troy) are dealing with the death of their four-year-old son, Danny. Becca’s sister Izzy (Katheryn Bilbo) and mother Nat (Jan Rogge) offer a head-on approach to dealing with Becca’s loss. The cast is rounded out by David Bohn in the role of Jason, the teenage driver responsible for Danny’s death. Becca is the star of the show. Troy brings a completely believable level of restrained neurosis to the role as she navigates her younger sister’s pregnancy, her mother’s clumsy attempts to provide comfort and a house full of memories. Howie finds solace in a support group of other parents that have lost children and absents himself from the house for long periods. He cannot understand why Becca isn’t as comforted by the group as he is, and their different grieving processes create rising tension between them. Koehler is perfect as the frustrated Howie, trying to be supportive to a wife in a very different emotional space than he, but becoming increasingly frustrated by their growing distance. Bohn is note-perfect as the self-centered but emotionally connected teenager responsible for Danny’s death. His attempts to set things right with the Corbetts is a study in doing the right thing for the right reasons and still managing not to do it all correctly. Bilbo and Rogge are welcome relief from the seriousness of Howie and Becca’s relationship, giving the whole play a lighter touch than most dealing with death. Since the entire production takes place in one space, the stage at the Cabot Theater is divided into distinct areas, accomplished quite well by using a bent backdrop and multiple levels of action. The entire production has an intimate feel despite the grandiose surroundings. Rabbit Hole will make you laugh and cry. It is a touching story that is performed and delivered with remarkable sensitivity and realism. We should all hope that we could deal with a tragedy as well as Lindsay-Abaire portrays, despite the dark times that Becca and Howie go through. VS The production runs through November 2 at the Cabot Theater. 414-291-7800 or milwaukeechambertheatre.com.

  • Triple Espresso

    Failure is funny. That’s the basic premise of Triple Espresso: A Highly Caffeinated Comedy, playing in the Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall. Three friends get together and tell the story of how they got their big break — and how they messed it up in spectacularly embarrassing fashion. The show is chock-full of mishaps, misadventures and belly-laughs as Buzz Maxwell, Bobby Bean and Hugh Butternut recreate the story of their slow rise and rapid fall in the wild and woolly world of show business. Hugh Butternut (Paul Somers) anchors the show as a sensitive artist who actually manages to carve out a niche for himself in the performance world — he and his piano are the entertainment at a local coffee house called Triple Espresso. Buzz (Patrick Albanese) and Bobby (played by Marquette University graduate Brian Kelly) turn up at the shop one night, and the three embark upon the tale of their lives in show business as the trio Maxwell, Butternut and Bean. Their various exploits include an appearance on “The Dating Game,” a short-lived television show on Cable Zaire, a dream sequence recreating classic Three Stooges moments, and a shadow puppet show at a teacher’s convention. Somers is delightfully sappy as the saccharine Hugh Butternut. He nails the “sensitive artist” stereotype perfectly as he attempts to hold the trio together during their rise and fall, and looks back on their time together with rose-colored glasses. Brian Kelly is equally wonderful as the boorish, bumbling Bobby Bean. He’s self-centered, a braggart, and deliciously sleazy. Both Somers and Kelly have an innate sense of physical comedy; their slapstick maneuvers are as funny as any well-told joke. Patrick Albanese seems less comfortable with the physical humor of the show, but the dead-pan expression and gruff demeanor of Buzz Maxwell fit him to a tee. He knows just how long to stare blankly at the antics of his two cohorts before turning back to the audience, and the palpable distaste Buzz has for magic emanates from him in comedic waves as he performs magic tricks in his rise to not-quite-fame. Particularly side-splitting are the trio’s short-lived success on a cable network in Zaire, where only 1 in 87,000 people have a television and half of them don’t have electricity. Also the story of how Buzz meets Bobby when Bobby, then an aspiring folk singer, is hired to be the entertainment at a college freshman orientation session. And if you like magic, Buzz’s sleight-of-hand scenes will be particularly appealing as he combines magic, comedy and ill-humor in a seamless performance. Triple Espresso incorporates a modicum of audience participation into the show, and if you get a good audience (like the one on Thursday night) it is a real treat. Additionally, while there are a few references to Milwaukee dropped into the script, at least one of them succeeds in being far funnier than most other such attempts to connect to a local audience. The entire show is high-energy, seriously over-caffeinated fun. Triple Espresso: A […]

  • The Persians

    The Persians – Western literature’s oldest surviving play, and the only Greek classic we know of that’s based on contemporary history, not mythology or legend – is a punch in the gut. At a time when the fate of global civilization is quavering and Americans feel their grip on the world slipping, the story of an empire’s epic and bloody collapse is almost hard to watch in its furious and unflinching clarity. The play, written by Aeschylus in approximately 472 BCE, tells the story of the Persian army’s “unimaginable” defeat at Athens in the Battle of Saramis, considered by many historians to be the single most significant battle of human history. The Persians, who vastly outnumbered the Greeks and boasted a navy fleet far newer and more muscular, were vanquished, their massive force decimated. But The Persians is not a triumphal rally. The entire play is set at the court of the Persian Queen Atossa, anxiously awaiting the return of her son Xerxes the King and his giant army from the fight. When a lone foot solider breathlessly arrives and relates in gory detail the catastrophic battle, the kingdom is plunged into darkness, the Queen wails and goes into mourning and an entire civilization – represented by a chorus of men – deals with what is to come. This Renaissance Theaterworks production is an immersive, atmospheric experience: smoke beckons at the entrance to the studio, and the catwalk-like stage is flanked on either side by the studio theater’s 99 seats. No actor is ever more than 8 feet from the audience. Director Angela Iannone and her talented cast keep the tension and emotion at a fever pitch without sacrificing the arc of the story; the play is just over an hour long, but it’s an intense, deeply affecting hour. Marti Gobel as the Queen is remarkable in her portrayal of a soul tormented by “her own useless importance.” She is a striking, haunting presence on stage, and her scenes with the ghost of her dead husband Darius (Jeffrey Baumgartner) and her defeated son Xerxes (Travis Knight) are amazingly moving. Costuming by Holly Payne is simple and evocative, and Jennifer Rupp’s choreography gives the movement of the play a subtle and graceful poetry that mirrors the beauty of McLaughlin’s verse. The hubris of a society “deafened by empire building,” the machismo of war and the ruthlessness and oblivion of time, history and death all resonate in The Persians. Says the ghost king Darius, “death is long and without music.” This difficult, important play reminds us that our time here is short, and we must learn swiftly from the mistakes of the past. VS The Persians runs through November 3. 414-291-7800 or www.r-t-w.com