Gypsy Dreams

Amiri Baraka (I think) once said “Art is whatever makes me proud to be human.” In my humble opinion, art can also be something that makes us happy to be alive.

Once in a while, we are moved; we are awed; we are delivered nigh unto extacy. The Django festival took me there. This year, as all years, the annual homage to the two-fingered gypsy guitarist was a fine thing indeed. Django Reinhardt was a mercurial talent. One of the seminal guitarists -his influence reaching far beyond jazz- in music history, the man established, or rather popularized a playing style that was -and is- ridiculously fast, known as “string swing”. His achievment is all the more amazing when one considers the fact that he had in fact only two functioning fingers on his chording hand, the other two having been rendered useless due to an accident. Alongside violinist Stephane Grapelli, he played with Hot Club de France and was a proper rock star of his time. The iconic image of Reinhardt hunched over his guitar, eyes shut in concentration, cigarette dangling from his mouth, exudes sheer cool. Hot Club de Norvége have been carrying the Django torch in our Northern climes for years; they are well respected all over the world, and have -in addition to playing their heads off- been organizing the Django Festival. They were the opening act of the eveing and happily played a brisk set, ending in an instrumental duel between the violinists that set the audience afire and primed for the pyrotechnics of one Mr. Jimmy Rosenberg.

He failed to disappoint us. And how! Rosenberg came on, introduced his band, and said something along the lines of “We will try to, ah, kick some ass and have a party!” Success was a rather mild word for the balls-out musical mass orgy that followed.

Rosenberg is, simply put, one of the finest guitarists on the planet. His fingers moved with such swift ease that even the old master himself would be perplexed. As he played, overcome by the chugging rhythms, his face beamed ecstasy, beads of sweat descending on his face, and he was channeling a smile straight from the Gods. The level of skill needed for this kind of music makes it akin to magic for us mere mortal punters. After all, there is just something special when the bass player randomly knocks off a two-string solo that blows any Clapton wankfest of the past 30 years so utterly out of the water that the poor bastard wakes up confused somewhere in the middle of the Sahara, jetlagged and dehydrated. Exuberance is the order of the day.

The crowd, enraptured, applaud wildly at the slightest thing. Rosenberg, smiling his divinely touched smile all the while, made euphoric faces and ran his fingers across the fretboard like a man possessed. I was utterly enraptured, my hair standing on end, and it was as if Rosenberg played strings made from my nerve endings, it was that hypnotic, it was that joyous; it was pure musical bliss. Did I mention I enjoyed it?

The last act was…well, how could it not be a let-down? It was gypsy music, apparently. Melancholy and proud, the music of the downtrodden and proud outcasts. It was good, but far too mellow, and the star had left ages ago. The crowd was worn out, still reeling and trying to catch their breath after the fireworks that preceded; it was a shame for these musicians, but this was come-down music, and most of us were not ready to come down just yet. It was cold outside, a grumpy February evening, but the heat in our bones and heart was more than enough. See you next year, Django!

01.02.2005 • Permalink

Beyond Belief

Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello at 50. Who would have though it? Still, there he is, sporting a tie and a sharp suit, after all these years. Chubbier, balder and wearing glittering shoes to rival Dorothy’s over that rainbow, his growl is as fierce as ever. Behind him, the Impostors –basically the Attractions sans Bruce Thomas– keep a rock steady beat upon which the man himself’s words are flung full force into the void and driven home on jackhammer rhythms.

The audience is in fact comprised of all ages. Obviously, the greater part is pushing middle age themselves, but there is a great range, even down to those barely old enough to drink. It looks strange, and yet it’s like seeing myself ten years ago. Curious and reverent in equal measures, knowing we are about to see a legend. Of course, I’m too cool to let on, but inside I am giddy and excited and I don’t want to go to Chelsea. So much for aging gracefully.

Costello comes on stage to face a very enthusiastic crowd, and rips through nearly three hours of music, being called back three or four times. Having such a huge back catalogue means that your chances of hearing at least a few of your favourites is there. Still, it also means that you hear a lot more you’re not very familiar with. As befits a still-active artist, Costello is not content to simply run through a rehash of old hits and faves; he has a new album out and he’s touring the bastard! And boy, does he ever! His new stuff sounds good, almost as good as the old. The reason it’s harder to completely embrace it, I think, is that it hasn’t had time to grow on you. It’s also odd to think how times have changed. His new songs are hard-edged, angry and focused; they also sound as if they are cut from the same cloth of anger and spite that Costello had at his disposal thirty years ago. And yet, for all of this feeling of plus ca change, they sound nothing like what you hear on the radio these days. There are no angry ot suspicious songs anymore –there is only unfocused angst, suburban dirges of irrelevant solipsism, the old sound and fury signifying fuck all. The feeling of attacking an identifiable enemy, be it the government or the old girlfriend, is gone. How can we not love him? He is the angry geek done good. Had he been born ten years later, this former programmmer would probably be running Silicone Valley. What a loss that would have been.

The eloquence, the word games that may or may not mean anything (nobody sane has ever had the balls to claim they know what a Costello album is about), the focus and verve: all this makes it so abundantly clear that there is a mature person up on stage. I find it hard to believe that the Costello that started out (around the same time I was born), had – indeed could have – the warmth about his eyes the way this year’s model does. For better or worse, Costello has grown up; his craft has grown with him and maybbe that’s another reason his material seems slightly paler in comparison: he knows there is more to be explored elsewhere . God knows, and I’m probably talking through my arse here, trying to justify my not buying his new albums. (Hey, I still don’t have all the classics) Costello has stayed vital. Relevant is a different matter, though; as mentioned above, Costello sounds like nothing on the radio and in this day and age, is he relevant? I’d wager to say yes; a song like Radio, Radio in the days of Fox news is sharper than ever. Oliver’s Army went to Iraq instead, the Goon Squad took over the white house and hey: what really is so funny about peace, love & understanding?

I suppose this is not a very good review of the concert itself, but what the hell: I was there, you were most likely not and that’s how it is. It was cold outside, it was hot inside and we all felt like we’d been bowled over. The faces of the crowd as we made our way to the exits were beatific, perhaps the wrong state to find oneself in after seeing Elvis Costello, but neverthless: we saw God. And he was one of us.

23.01.2005 • Permalink

Azumi

Ryuhei Kitamura’s sophomore effort contains two of the greatest scenes in recent action movie-dom: 1) a teenage girl charging an army of 200 – and winning! – and 2) one of the most memorable decapitations of the “oh, wait, I just got nick…hiiissssss” sort. Yes, I know it doesn’t work like that, but dammit: it should.

Based on a popular Manga, Azumi doesn’t quite shake its pulp roots, but this probably stems more from Kitamura’s direction than the story itself. The kinetic overload of Versus is pared down as the plot takes on a bigger scope, but a few unfortunate directorial decisions throw off the pace every now and then. To wit: a random fight scene takes on Crouching Tiger-type wire-work and weird sound effects, while another throws in a Tex Avery-like anomaly in an otherwise straight battle scene; both scenes are jarring, but this is a minor complaint.

The lead is pretty dull, I have to admit. I gather she’s a pop star in her native Japan, but she’s not terribly interesting. Then again, it’s not like you have to wait very long for a fight scene to move things along, so who’s complaining?


  • Director: Ruyhei Kitamura
  • Cast: Aya Ueto, Kenji Kohashi, Hiroki Narimiya, Takatoshi Kaneko
12.01.2005 • Permalink

Rust in Piece

Poor old Dave Mustaine. In 1982, he was unceremoniously booted out of his first band for excessive drinking and drug abuse. He was furious, and got his act together, at least enough to start Megadeth; one of the seminal trash-metal bands, they quickly climbed to the pantheon of gods of such matters. His achievements were impressive, yet it was as much to get back at his old bandmates as for his own glory. After conquering the world, selling millions of albums and being hailed as one of the great innovators of the genre, one could forgive his former band for regretting his termination — unless, of course, that band happens to be Metallica.

In the recent Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster, Mustaine admits that being booted out of that band was the worst day of his life. But, to be quite honest, I can’t say that I’m too broken up over dave’s predicament. After all, there’s nothing that says the sum of these parts would have amounted to something greater than the sum of what we already had. And let’s face it, if Mustaine was still with them rather than in Megadeth, we the public would likely have been cheated of both Rust in Peace and Countdown to Extinction. And that, dear reader, would be a loss: It’s difficult for me to verbalize exactly what it is about Rust that I find appealing, but I suppose that to summarize, I could say: Holy flippin’ fuck!!!

The first time I heard Holy Wars, I was bowled over. I mean, holy Christ, what was that?! The cascading guitars, the thundering drums and Mustaine’s pained yelping over it all — this was unlike anything I’d heard before. It was great. Unlike most of their peers, Megadeth always seemed to have sly sense of humour about them, as if they knew it was partly a joke. Hangar 18, whilst also swirling like a dervish (I’m told dervishes swirl) also deftly anticipates the X-files, with its space ships and hidden fortresses. One supposes that the lyrics as such is unimportant — the skill on display renders lyrical shortcomings irrelevant anyway — also, Mustaine is too smart a guy — and too funny — to really take this stuff all that seriously.

Thrash metal mostly did away with ghost n’ goblins and all that fairy bollocks that thanks to the hippies were the lyrical pinnacle, (At least until Limp Bizkit came around and it was all suburban angst, all the time.) and Mustaine always did have a knack for a political lyric. I won’t claim he’s written great poetry, but still: Bob Dylan wrote his share of clunkers, and given the choice, I’d go for this sort of technicolour extravaganza over early Dylan monochrome dirges most days. Mustaine sings lines like “Don’t look now/to Israel/it might be your homeland” with an urgency that belies the sometimes clumsy lyrics. And a line like “They killed my wife and my baby/first mistake/last mistake” is more clever than one surmises at first look. Mustaine is ppresumably singing about the Palestine/Israeli conflict (Nutshell problem: They’re all nuts. Quick solution: Fence ’em all in, let them fight amongst themselves and leave the rest of us out of it) in a clever way. He neglects to state who’s singing, it could be from either side. While deep analysis of the lyrics might ot yield too much, Mustaine deserves credit for trying to say something more than the usual crap: Hell, lines like “Don’t ask/what you can do/for your country/ASK/what your country/can do for yoooouuu” are priceless. Dave Mustaine, nihilist, flying a bright red flag.

Lyrically, it doesn’t really matter. Sophomoric, yes, but as stated, the music is what it’s all about. Thrash metal does not have trappings in which it’s easy to do anything interesting except play really, really fast. Rust In Peace is such a great album because it is unflappably melodic, heavier than a lead enema and faster than the roadrunner on speed. But the fact that the melodicism is so effortless within this sort of grind is nothing short of spectacular.

The line-up of Dave Mustaine (guitar), Nick Menza (drums), David Ellefson (bass) and Marty Friedman (guitar/big hair) is considered THE Megadeth line-up by most, and it’s not difficult to understand why. We have here the four virtuosi of the apocalypse, and it certainly sounds like it. Weird time signatures, changes in pace, and layered solos that almost reminds me of — dare I say it? — jazz. More precise than laser-guided missile and tighter than a chickens bum, very little can measure up to this.

Megadeth recently came to an end when Dave Mustaine sustained injuries in his hand. It was unclear whether or not he would ever play again, but he’s nothing if not a survivor (the guy’s even been clinically dead! Not one to do anything by halves, he fell off the wagon with a vengeance and died. Obviously, they revived him.). After some pretty extensive surgery and retraining, he apparently can play again. Sadly, Megadeth are to remain a closed chapter. Still, it was fun when it lasted.

UPDATE: Megadeth are back on the road.

07.01.2005 • Permalink

Man Child

Oslo, 09.05.04

“Jonathan, I LOVE YOU!!!” We’re halfway through the show at this point. Jonathan Richman, looking impudently young for a man going on 50, is smiling broadly.

“Uh, thank you…uh…thank you very much, I, uh, I love you too!” Laughter, cheers.

Jonathan Richman has not been in Oslo for a decade or so, maybe longer. As the night will prove, it’s well worth the wait.

I have not been aware of him for that long. Until 2002, he was but the guy in the tree in There’s Something About Mary. The, I heard some of his stuff and liked it. Then, I moved to New Jersey and wa utterly and horribly miserable and went to a bar to drown my sorrows. Ordering a beer, I notcied a line in th back. What the hell? I thought. I checked it out; turend out Jonathan was playing that night. I happily paid my ten bucks and was treated to one of the the best shows I’ve ever seen.

I suppose I didn’t have that high expectations this time around. I mean, lightning doesn’t tend to strike twice. Could it possibly be as good? No. It was far, far better.

Richman is such a singular personality on stage; it’s just him and Tommy Larkin, the drummer, on stage. Jonathan plays his guitar fluently. Tommy keeps the beat, nuthin’ fancy. Jonathan sings, laughs, jokes, dances while Tommy sits there stoically. It’s cute; they’re kind of like an acoustic White Stripes, except I’d rather sleep with Meg than Tommy if I absolutely had to.

I only have a few of his albums, so I can’t give you a set list. He did play a lot of his most recent offering, Her Mystery Nof Of High Heels and Eyeshadow; the live rendition of Springtime in New York is more exciting than the recorded one. It’s also warmer and made me miss that particular city in a way I hadn’t in a while.

Many of the old chestnuts came out, like Pablo Picasso, I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar and many, many others that I didn’t know or forgot II don’t do notes, I just write this stuff for my own amusement). It didn’t matter. His music is warm and friendly and inclusive: it invites you in for hot chocolate and cheers you up. Jonathan dances for you on stage and it’s like he’s trying to express something that words just quite can’t.

He’s been described as naivistic; fair cop, but naive or not, it’s still immaculately expressive and universally recognizable to a fault. It really goes to show: in English, French, Spanish or Norwegian, love and the emotions thereof are all the same. Now excuse me, I must go hug myself.

10.05.2004 • Permalink

Dark Water

darkwaterOne of the nice things to read about the impending remake of this Japanese horror movie is that the American company have opted for Brazilian director Walter Salles to helm the production rather than some MTV hack. This is a nice indication that they are taking it seriously and that we will be spared a “re-imagining” of this nifty little number for the vidiot MTV-generation.

Hideo Nakata also directed the original Ringu that was the basis for Gore Verbinski’s The Ring; Ringu was an effective horror gem that spawned several above-grade sequels and dozens of cheaper knock-offs. (check out http://www.teleport-city.com for a review and explanation of Ringu’s success)

Nakata made Dark Water in 2002. It’s the story of a recent divorcee, Yoshimi, who tries to make a new life with her daughter Ikuko, while finalizing her divorce and fighting her ex-husband for custody of Ikuko.

They move into a run-down old building. Things start to happen…stuff that tends to happen in horror movies*. A young girl disappeared from the building years ago. She went to the same school as Ikuko. Can there be a connection? Or is Yoshimi simply going nuts from the stress of divorce? She certainly can’t afford to lose it, as her husband is still hovering in the wings.

Nakato is, thankfully, not an Michael Bay-style director. His takes are slow and languorous; if it didn’t make me sound like some kind of perv, I’d say that he builds up the horror in an almost sensuous way; his use of relatively static cinematography, some dynamite sound engineering, as well as coaxing subtle and nuanced performances from his actor all come together to create an organic whole. There are a few instances of “kinetic” camera work, but since they are few and far between, they retain their power and ability to pack a wallop, both emotional and fright-wise.

Kudos to the actors as well: Their characters are utterly believable. Rio Kanno, who plays the 6-year old Ikuko, is wonderful: She is quick to laughter and fear and isn’t precocious or sarcastic beyond her years. Here is a 6-year old child allowed to be just that and the movie is all the better for it. Yoshimi is no less wonderful. Dealing with slowly finding out something is very wrong; that someone or something is stalking them, she remains equally convincing as the mother deathly afraid of losing her child or of not being able to make the payments.

This is another strength of the movie: Real life happens alongside the supernatural. Even if things go bump in the night, Yoshimi still needs to be at work in the morning. We find out that she, as a child, saw a therapist in order to deal with her own parents’ divorce. Juxtaposing the idea that Yoshimi may in fact be coming unglued with the more probable scenario of a haunting, Nakata deftly creates a suffocating atmosphere that just becomes more and more so. The gradual revelation of who or what our ghost is jars us further: it isn’t a faceless evil either, not really. The ghost is all too human: scared, lonely, selfish…and frightening as all hell.

Without wanting to give anything away, the climax is damn near perfect; claustrophobic and shocking, a mix of real horrors and supernatural ones: just as in Ringu, things don’t quite work out as planned for our heroes. Choices must be made, none of which are easy. The ending isn’t happy Hollywood fare and as viewers, we feel almost cheated. Nakata doesn’t let go, though, adding a coda that one at first would think anticlimactic. But revisiting our characters ten year later, we are treated to one last scare that is guaranteed to make you look twice over your shoulder (I know I did.), as well as add further pathos to an already sad conclusion.

There is no black or white here, just a lot of greys. That the ghost for a moment somehow wrings sympathy out of us makes it all scarier: We are given not only the very human horrors of Yoshimi and Ikuko, but those of the ghost at well. Dark Water is that all-too-rare thing: a proper horror movie. Not a slasher or gore movie. No blood is shed, nor are any limbs cut off; it’s a resolutely blood-free zone. The chills and the scares we experience are the work of a sound story, solid acting and atmosphere put together. Not many people can do this sort of thing nowadays. As a confessed horror fan, I hope Nakata will mine the genre for a looong time. This is the sort of exercise that goes a long way to dismiss the tag of lowbrow and stupid that is often (and often deservedly, I admit) attached to the genre. Don’t wait for the remake, just see this instead if you can. It’s worth your while, trust me.


  • Director: Hideo Nakata
23.04.2004 • Permalink

Blue Lights Shining: The Jayhawks

Rockefeller Music Hall, Oslo, 15.03.04

Hearing the Jayhawks play live is like coming in from the cold, or curling up in bed in an old oversized sweater that, with any luck, still smells like someone you used to know. Most of all, it’s like seeing an old friend who cheers you up.

Having missed the Jayhawks on several occasions during my time in the states, I was thrilled to get the chance yet again. This time, I would not be denied. Rockefeller Music Hall is one of my favourite stages in the world. (Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence being another.) Dark and smoked-out, nicotine stains on the walls and beer stains on the ground: the decades of concerts it’s hosted have left their marks. Seeing a show there is like coming home. As it so happens, it’s become a favourite of many bands from the Big World Beyond as well. Oslo has in fact become a reasonably cool place to live, if you can afford to. I always knew that, of course, but I’m happy that you can always see the big acts here, but moreover the small acts and even the tiny acts. (In a month, Jonathan Richman swings by. He helped save my sanity in New Brunswick, NJ. I can’t wait.)

The room was nearly sold out, and after an opening act that sounded more like acoustic California indie rock than country, the Jayhawks sauntered, if not quite swaggered, on. The band seemed in good spirits and opened with a no-nonsense Stumbling Through the Dark that set the tune nicely for the rest of the evening: Travel-weary and whisky-soaked moments of dusty beauty. Such is the sound of the Jayhawks.

The Jayhawks are not a sexy band by any measure. Tall and gangly, vocalist Gary Louris looked more like a teacher, possibly writer, in his suit than a proper rock star. But then, again, who wants to be a rock star these days? Bassist Marc Perlman looks as if he’d be just as happy pumping gas as to be on a stage, but did admittedly look damn cool with a lit cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, the man himself facing the huge bass amplifier behind him.

It’s sad to think that a band like the Jayhawks never made it big, and at this point, probably never will. Is it their lack of rock glitz? Or is it simply bad luck? It’s certainly not due to songs or skill or enthusiasm. They’ve become one of those “almost-bigs” like Richard Thompson or Neil Finn or any of those other occupants of some little niche. I always thought they were better than fellow alt-country legends Uncle Tupelo, but I’ve actually been yelled at over this, so I’m not making any categorical statements here. In a nice fan moment, Gary Louris actually said “This is for Asbjørn; he asked on the street if we could play this…” and then What Led Me To This Town flowed from the speakers. They might not be so sexy, but they seem to like the fans and the fans love them back for it.

“So many songs…so many songs” mumbled Gary Louris at one point, as they pondered what tune to play next. So many songs indeed: I noticed that when playing 20 or so songs in one go, the songs did blend together a bit. But at the same time, their craft is so good, it doesn’t really matter. They didn’t do The Man Who Loved Life, but I did get Blue so I have no complaints. A number by the Golden Smog also popped up at one point, in case you were wondering. The Jayhawks write standards, more than anything. It’s not as easy as it looks, writing a verse and a chorus and a middle eight. But that’s what the Jayhawks do, and it’s a real feat. A few chords and endless invention.

For their final number, they played a song I didn’t recognize, but approaching the break, they took it to a rockier place…long solos, avant-garde wailing, etc. It was interesting to hear the band going beyond their expected parameters, and convincingly so. But all good things come to an end and so did this evening and the lights went up, and beers were finished and cigarettes stubbed out. After the show was over, I found it had started raining. It was a cold rain, the early spring kind that feels tired and melancholy and somehow hurried. In fact, just the kind of rain that you’d find in a song by the Jayhawks.

16.03.2004 • Permalink