Memorable Times in New Orleans

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From Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo to Jimi Hendrix’s guitar to an on-site filming of NCIS New Orleans, you never know what you’re going to encounter on the streets of the Big Easy.  When I visited recently with my wife Sharon we stayed in the Quarter, which we’ve done regularly for each of our trips.  In particular, we enjoy getting a room at the Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street, which, in addition to its convenient location, well-appointed rooms, and superb staff, also lays claim to a place in literary history, having been featured in works by Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, and Ernest Hemingway.  From there, it’s an easy stroll to Bourbon Street, Jackson Square, Canal Street, and the Mississippi River.  Before mentioning anything else, I want to acknowledge the jazz quartet that entertained us in the baggage claim area of the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.  They were a pleasant surprise, to say the least:

On our first night, my wife and I stopped for dinner at the Bourbon House restaurant, after which we took a walk down Bourbon Street.  Since it was a Monday night, most places were open, however, the street was comparatively uncrowded, making it easy to get around.  While the site-seeing and the music were a kick, getting hit up by panhandlers who were very honest, shall we say, about wanting money to get a fix wasn’t as enjoyable.  In fact, they scared my wife a bit.  Consequently, after dropping in Madame Laveau’s House of Voodoo for some unique souvenirs, we avoided Bourbon Street for the remainder of our stay.

Tuesday, on the other hand, was a completely different vibe.  After a satisfying breakfast at the Criollo, which is the Hotel Monteleone’s excellent restaurant, my wife and I were unexpectedly greeted by a children’s choir performing in the hotel lobby.  Talk about something wonderful!  Needless to say, we felt blessed:

We then headed out and browsed in the shops along Royal Street, where my wife found a gorgeous vintage necklace and I admired the autographed guitar that Jimi Hendrix played at the Isle of Wight, which was on sale for $42,000 at an antiques and collectibles shop.  Wow!

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From there we had an appointment with Royal Carriages, an historic tour that began at Jackson Square and moseyed throughout the Quarter.  Highlights of the tour included seeing the Café Maspero, where Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page met his second wife, the house where Tennessee Williams lived, and the last bank that Bonnie and Clyde robbed before their legendary death in a police ambush.  After our mule-drawn tour ended, we walked down Decatur to the Louisiana Music Factory, then caught some of the live acts on Frenchman Street, among whom was Andy Forest, who was performing for a sparse afternoon crowd at The Spotted Cat:

Our Tuesday evening also included a free concert at the St Louis Cathedral, where we had a nice time listening to Irma Thomas sing Christmas standards.  I say listen rather than see since there was a large pillar blocking our view.  Obviously, we should have gotten in line much earlier than we did.  There must have been close to a thousand people in line ahead of us!  Still, it was a very nice time, which we capped off with a Tempura Udon dinner at the Sekisui Japanese Restaurant on Decatur.

On Wednesday, after some delicious omelets at The Café Beignet, we headed down Canal Street to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, which is next to the Mississippi River.  On our way we ran into what we thought was the dreadful aftermath of an accident or even a murder, as there were emergency vehicles and police everywhere!  Fortunately, we found out to our joy and relief that a crew was filming a scene for an episode of NCIS New Orleans.  In fact, we had the pleasure of seeing Scott Bakula and CCH Pounder in action!  As for the aquarium, it’s a place that my wife always insists on visiting, which I don’t mind accommodating.  The exhibits are well-maintained and the creatures are delight to see, complete with a shark tank and a pool in which you can pet stingrays:

We never tire of this city with its Old World charms and the pleasant and always gracious people we meet.  We certainly never get bored with the people watching, the street performers, or the delicious food.  Indeed, New Orleans is a pleasure to explore virtually anytime of year, even in the middle of December, which is when my wife and I paid our last visit.  Speaking of which, please follow the link below to a photo album I created on flickr, in which you can see much more than my words can describe:

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Video and photo credit: David Martínez

 

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“Sing Me Back Home”: The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

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My first trip to Nashville, TN included a day at one of its most important historical destinations, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.  Equally renowned as a research institution and as a popular attraction, its three massive stories are a temple dedicated to the sonic permutations of the folk, hillbilly, western, and blues music, which have sprung from American soil.

After standing in long line for tickets, which moved rather briskly, I stood in another line for the elevator that would take me to the second floor.  As instructed by the docent operating the elevator, I began my tour with a small exhibit about the Southern country rock band Alabama.  From there it was simply a matter of going with the flow from one gallery to another, in which case after case displayed an assortment of historically important instruments, stage costumes, and other paraphernalia.

For me, “real country” means those artists I listened to on my parents’ kitchen radio during the 1970s.  In which case, seeing one of Johnny Cash’s black suits and matching boots, Dolly Parton’s sparkling coats, or Hank Williams’ guitars brought back a flood of memories.  As a museum experience, it felt very much a like a Smithsonian, only instead of seeing Lincoln’s stove pipe hat or Dorothy’s ruby slippers, you get to see the Pontiac Firebird from the Smokey and the Bandit movies.  For more, please follow the link to a short photo album I created documenting my visit on Saturday, November 12, 2016:

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“In Cities We’ll Only Leave”: Daughter, Live at the Cannery Ballroom, Nashville, TN

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There are certain musical artists in your life who, when you see them perform—especially for the first time—leave you feeling transformed.  You’re simply not the mere mortal you were before the show began.  Perhaps you thought you knew the artists’ music intimately, fully expecting the live performance to be tantamount to when you first discovered them, which may have been moving but not necessarily transformative.  Over the past ten years, what are best described as “religious experiences” have been few and far between.  In fact, only two shows immediately come to mind, namely when I saw CocoRosie at the Rialto Theater in Tucson, AZ, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds during their Austin City Limits performance, and, perhaps, as a third, The Dead Weather at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, OR.

Now, there’s a fourth, Daughter at the Cannery Ballroom in Nashville, TN, which I witnessed on Friday, November 11, 2016.  What all of these performances have in common was creating an experience that made me feel that I’d entered the realm of myth, in which the music was more than art or entertainment, it was medicine for the soul that I didn’t know I needed until I was awash in its affects.  In the case of Daughter, a trio based in London, they’re part of a musical tradition that extends from Dead Can Dance to Portishead to Slowdive and, more recently, The XX.  Currently, Daughter is promoting its second album Not to Disappear (2016), which augments an oeuvre that also includes four EPs and several singles.

While many bands rearrange their songs for a live performance—in the case of CocoRosie, for example, the live performances rarely sound anything like the studio versions—Daughter remains mostly faithful to the originals.  However, because of the band’s stage presence, its light show, and the exquisite musicianship, what you experience is anything but prerecorded.  As a personal aside, I must confess that I enjoy watching how lead singer Elena Tonra moves with a guitar.  In a word, she’s sensuous.  And her voice is the Center of the Universe, albeit one that’s somehow as shy and intimate and it is compelling and beautiful.

Making their way through more than a dozen songs, largely drawn from the new album, Daughter turned a grungy venue on Nashville’s Cannery Row into a house of worship.  As evidence, I want to share one of the three videos I recorded, “To Belong,” which is a song about realizing when a relationship is no longer a relationship but a burden to one another.

Photo and video credit: David Martínez

When the Heart Knows that It’s Home: The Joy Formidable and “Y Garreg Ateb”

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Formed in North Wales, based in London, The Joy Formidable have been making music since the release of their first single, “Austere,” in 2008.  Since then, three albums, three EPs, and an assortment of singles and remixes have been produced.  In one respect, The Joy Formidable evoke a mythic landscape of medieval Arthurian romance, but without the vanity of the hero’s journey.  Unlike the Elizabethan minstrel folk rock of Jethro Tull, The Joy Formidable forge the sonic scope of Rush with the lyrical grandeur of King Crimson into a rare element that could only flourish on Welsh soil.  More to the point, the songs that Rhydian Davies (bass and keyboards) and Ritzy Bryan (guitar and lead vocals) write—accompanied by Matthew Thomas (drums and percussions)—belie a more ordinary but no less evocative world of human relationships.  In the latter respect, The Joy Formidable are very much a rock n roll band, singing about the affairs of the heart, complete with epic riffs that make your spirit feel like a hitherto unknown place—a valley, a glade, a lake, a meadow—has been revealed through the chords that Bryan is playing.

When I saw The Joy Formidable perform for the first time, it was on Saturday, October 29, 2016 at the Crescent Ballroom in downtown Phoenix, Arizona.  They were opening for another band, which was inconsequential to me.  I had been waiting years to see this trio perform live, so I was there for only one thing.  I was not disappointed.  The set opened with “The Greatest Light Is the Greatest Shade,” from their first album The Big Roar (2011), which was also the source of the show’s finale, “Whirring.”  In-between was a selection from their second album Wolf’s Law (2013) and their recent release Hitch (2016).  However, at about the midway point, the band played “Y Garreg Ateb,” which was part of a monthly singles series that The Joy Formidable released during 2014, featuring songs sung in the Welsh language.  When Bryan introduced the song, she said it was about a place one goes to, a sacred space, in order to contemplate.

While it is tempting to characterize the Welsh songs as examples of musical nationalism or musical sovereignty—it’s easy to forget, particularly when one lives in America, that Wales is a colonized nation—the touching quality of the song feels more like an ode to the land as a source of dreams and solace than a rebellion against the English.  I say “feels” for the simple reason that, not being a Welsh speaker, I have no idea what the lyrics say.  Yet, as someone who comes from an Indigenous culture, the song brings to mind the harmony that one can only experience when they are reconnecting, through song, with a place, a land, where one truly belongs.  With this in mind, if “Y Garreg Ateb” is an example of anything, it is of how singing in a different language—Welsh, instead of English—completely alters one’s sense of being.  While the song is still recognizably The Joy Formidable, at the same time it conjures an utterly different side to the band.  It is the difference between going out into the world, where strangers and the unknown reside, and returning home, where family and friends live, the ones who know your true face.  Below is a video I recorded at the show.  Please enjoy:

Video and photo credit: David Martínez

‘Strange Circus’ (2005): Sion Sono and the Horror of a Normal Family

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What’s worse than murder or betrayal?  In Sion Sono’s 2005 film Strange Circus the ultimate taboo is violated, disclosing more than the demons dwelling within the heart of a middle-aged man as he preys for his daughter.  As we follow the emotional turmoil of “Mitsuko Ozawa” (Masumi Miyazaki/Rie Kuwana/Mai Takahashi) and her mother “Sayuri” (Masumi Miyazaki), who are both forced to endure the sexual torment of father and husband “Gozo Ozawa” (Hiroshi Oguchi), a poignant critique of polite society emerges, in particular for the way in which it forces victims of abuse to hide in the shadows with their suffering.

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Gozo is the principal at Mitsuko’s school, where he’s regarded as a respectable figure.  At home, though, he’s a monster who subjects his wife and daughter to his heinous sexual desires.  What results as the abuse continues is that Sayuri begins taking out her shame, anger, and jealousy on Mitsuko.  Out of this cruel chaos “Taeko” (Masumi Miyazaki) emerges, an emotionally unstable and wheelchair-bound novelist who writes erotica about “Mitsuko” and lives in a baroquely decorated house, complete with a secret room, where the truth of Mitsuko dwells.

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Because of the popularity of her work, Taeko has a number of assistants, among whom a new face has joined in her employ, “Yûji Tamiya” (Issei Ishida), who identifies himself as a “great fan” of Taeko’s work, and who eventually takes on the assignment of discovering the story behind Taeko’s handicap and the inspiration for Mitsuko.  In addition to being another chapter in Sono’s exploration of the darker aspects of the human psyche, as occurred in Suicide Club (2001), or the hidden needs of the marginalized, as seen in Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005), Strange Circus unleashes a damning criticism of the patriarchy that still pervades Japanese society, which disempowers women, and normalizes male abuses of gender inequity.  And in the case of Mitsuko there’s nothing more disturbing and traumatic than to see the face of the man who’s supposed to protect her turn into an expression of lust.

Indigenous Peoples Day 2016

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While holidays may seem trite and ineffective at promoting the values they represent—Does Christmas generate Christian values?—they nonetheless retain the capacity of drawing peoples’ attention away from the status quo of everyday life.  In fact, in the case of efforts at establishing new holidays, the public struggle for recognition may create a maelstrom of controversy and debate.  One need only think back to when Martin Luther King Jr Day was considered a subversive, un-American idea.

While Indigenous Peoples Day may not be instigating the kind of passionate reactions that MLK Day once inspired, its message is no less profound—the abolishment of Columbus Day and the heinous crime of colonization that it symbolizes.  In its place is a recognition that America is Indian Land and that America’s First Peoples are still here, complete with a celebration of our survival, our communities, and cultures.

Although it will take an Act of Congress to make Indigenous Peoples Day a federal holiday, like MLK Day or Thanksgiving, the idea behind this Day is an idea whose time has come.  As of October 10, 2016, the following cities have adopted IPD in place of Columbus Day: Berkeley (CA), Denver (CO), Minneapolis (MN), Seattle (WA), Red Wing (MN), Grand Rapids (MN), Traverse (MI), Newstead (NY), Akron (NY), St Paul (MN), Olympia (WA), Lewiston (NY), Anadarko (OK), Anchorage (AK), Portland (OR), Carborro (NC), Albuquerque (NM), San Francisco (CA), Belfast (ME), Durango (CO), Asheville (NC), Eugene (OR), Cambridge (MA), Bainbridge Island (WA), Santa Fe (NM), Yakima (WA), and Phoenix (AZ).

Below are two short videos that I recorded this past Friday, October 7 at Arizona State University, Tempe Campus, which was celebrating its inaugural Indigenous Peoples Day:

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ‘Skeleton Tree’ (2016)

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Ever since I saw Nick Cave twist and brood in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), in which he and the Bad Seeds turned “From Her to Eternity” into a hymn for the forlorn, I have always listened to their songs as religious music for the fallen.  Just as Wenders’ angels, Damiel and Cassiel, looked over and worried about humanity in an unbelieving world ravaged by world war and divided by the Berlin Wall, so too does Cave and his collaborators evoke a world, across sixteen studio albums, in which love and skepticism are the two angels guiding the consciences of people who are on an endless search for acceptance, affirmation, relief, forgetting, and oblivion.  The Bad Seeds’ world is a world of Cain and Abel, Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene, an image that was reinforced for me by Cave’s 1989 novel And the Ass Saw the Angel.

In the case of Skeleton Tree, released a mere twelve days ago on September 6, the spirit of Job is conjured throughout each of the album’s eight songs.  More to the point, Skeleton Tree is an album of loss, mourning, and anguish, which is infused with an otherworldly beauty.  The music is sparse and moody, while the lyrics are emotionally complex.  From “Jesus Alone,” in which various tragic figures are seen in their darkest hour, to the title track, which stirs up a desolate landscape and “a jittery tv,” each song explores a different form of anguish, be it a lost love, “I Need You,” or a lost child, “Girl In Amber.”

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How much of what appears in this album was inspired—if that’s the right word—by the death of Cave’s fifteen-year-old son, Arthur, last year at the Ovingdean Gap near Brighton, England, one cannot say based on the lyrics alone.  What is obvious is the tone of despair and elegiac splendor, which take the listener from the hopelessness of “Anthrocene,” in which Cave sings “All the things we love, we love, we love, we lose” to the hint of redemption in “Distant Sky,” which sings with anticipation, “Soon the children will be rising, will be rising,” even if “This is not for our eyes.”  My favorite song, though, is “Rings of Saturn,” which is about the epiphany of a woman, “Her body, moon blue, was a jellyfish” and who is “completely unexplained.”

In the end, Skeleton Tree is a more than worthy successor to Push the Sky Away (2014).  For even if one is unaware of the tragedy that has befallen Cave, the songs comprising this album are as evocative and fulfilling as anything he has ever done, be it Tender Prey (1988) or Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus (2004).  All I can tell you is that I haven’t been able to stop listening to these songs all weekend.