Saturday, September 27, 2008

Two Degrees of Greg Klyma: Rust Belt Vagabond

The gods of the mail smiled on me today: I received a small package from Buffalo, NY. I opened it to find the new CD by my good friend Greg Klyma, Rust Belt Vagabond. Pulling it from the envelope, I felt instantly I was in for a treat: The hauntingly beautiful cover image – a snow-dusted, lonely, winding road lit ethereally in red – indicates precisely the mood and depth of the ten songs within.

I dropped the disc into the player, opened a beer and stepped out onto the porch. Leaning back in a decrepit rocker, feet kicked up on the half-painted rail, I watched the first western stars pull themselves from the rags of cloud cover over the mountains and listened to the first few tracks.

What I heard was the testament of a man with more miles behind him that most singers twice his age. When you hear a Klyma song, you can never be sure if you’re hearing something brand new or some long-forgotten song that has been a part of the American Folk psyche for generations. As the songs continued to roll out of the speakers like a slow moving train or river barge, it became apparent that Rust Belt Vagabond is Klyma’s Magnun Opus; at least, so far – one suspects, and hopes, that there will be many more.

I defy anyone to try to listen to “Suicide Blue” without being haunted or “Add a Little Love” without smiling and tapping a foot or “Two Degrees in Buffalo” without feeling that he’s singing about your home town or any track on this album without riding waves of nostalgia and empathy.

My favorite line from the Jarmusch film Down by Law is spoken in broken English by Bob (Roberto Benigni) to Zack (Tom Waits): “Is a sad and beautiful world,” he says. That line sums up the reality of life as well as any I’ve heard; and it describes Rust Belt Vagabond as truthfully as could be imagined. Sad and beautiful, indeed – and the exquisiteness of the latter owes to the deep honesty of the former.

Visit Greg's Website,
Buy Rust Best Vagabond at CD Baby

Requiem for a Friend

My day began with hailstones thundering down from the Absaroka mountains. Strange and agitating dreams dissolved as I watched the icy spheres bounce off the garden beds outside my window. Once the hail turned to rain, I made a dash from my cabin to the main house. While a pot of coffee was brewing, I thumbed through a well-worn copy of Ed Abbey’s Down the River. In the book, Abbey describes Henry David Thoreau on his death-bed being asked if he’d made his peace with God. Thoreau responded: “I’m not aware that we had ever quarreled.” His final words apparently were: “moose … Indians.”

Back in my cabin with a steaming mug, I checked my e-mail, and saw a message that I was now MySpace friends with the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra. When I lived in Saginaw, the symphony concerts were among the greatest events I had witnessed. Hearing the superb live performances of Mozart’s Piano Concerto #23 in A Major, Bolling’s Suite for Chamber Orchestra and Jazz Piano Trio, and Beethoven’s Third Symphony, are moments that I will never forget. I was lucky enough to be able to use selections of SBSO recordings in my production of Amadeus at Pit and Balcony – the music easily stood alongside recordings by some of the world's most famous orchestras.

I navigated to the SBSO website and watched videos of Patrick Flynn conducting and being interviewed, and thought about what an amazing talent he is and what a great thing for the symphony and for Saginaw to have him as conductor. Patrick and I spent many hours over the last few years at the Red Eye discussing music, politics, theatre, poetry, and a hundred other topics. A conversation with him was like an entire college humanities course condensed into minutes, mixed with an acid-witted, irreverent stand-up routine that could rival Bill Hicks or Lenny Bruce. I remembered the two of us vaguely discussing a nebulous idea of a performance combining poetry with symphonic music. Or maybe it was an idea I had always meant to bring up, but never had the chance – I don’t now fully remember which: we talked about so many things; jumping around topics as excitedly as the hail had been earlier in the garden. I thought maybe I’d give him a call today, catch up with each other, and see if the idea of a collaboration might someday go somewhere.

When I turned on my phone, there was a text message waiting: “Patrick Flynn died this AM in CA!” I had to reread it several times before I could believe it. Even now, after most of the day has passed, after discussing it over the phone with a couple friends and reading two news articles online about it, it still seems impossible that a man with such energy and passion, with a larger-than-life presence and boundless soul could be gone. That a person filled with such music could be silenced.

The skies here are still moody and rain drips erratically from the roof. I’ve been listening to my SBSO CD’s all day – at the moment Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Hal Grossman’s violin moves in the same way that these clouds flow down the mountainsides like grey rivers in slow motion. I can picture Patrick drawing out this music, almost painting it across a living canvas. The question Thoreau was asked on his death-bed about making peace with God, doesn’t even make sense in Patrick’s case – whenever Patrick stepped onto the podium, God stopped what he was doing to listen peacefully to what would follow. He was never disappointed.

Neither were we.

Originally published in The Saginaw News
[Visit the SBSO]

T-Chicks Flood Indian Barry’s – No Survivors

Technically, it was a scene often repeated: a local band releases a CD with a show at a local bar. Friends, family and fans flock in to show their support. I buy a disc (or score a freebie or trade a book for one), and proceed to drink too much for my own good.

But when the Thunderchickens took the stage at Indian Barry’s in Bay City to celebrate the release of Straight from the Coop, it was immediately apparent that this night was going to be far from a typical show. Very, very far.

From the moment the music started, it occurred to me that one doesn’t merely listen to or watch the Thunderchickens, one travels with them. They take you and you go – no questions. No hesitation. No doubts. You know that even though you have no idea where you’re headed, it’s exactly where you need to go.

It’s a rare band that can achieve such textures, such depth and richness, with only a four-piece. If you close your eyes, you will swear that there must be 7 top-notch musicians, 3 stellar vocalists, the ghosts of Gang of Four, Velvet Underground, Nicolo Paganini, and X, as well as 96 whirling dervishes and a bottle of the finest scotch ever spilled – all up there in epic synchronicity.

And this was only the beginning.

The songs continue; pounding into you and changing not merely your opinions about music, but the way you hear music – the way you hear everything. That’s the journey you are now on. They conjure up a sonic tidal wave. A surf breaking rocks (what surf-rock should have been). Jekel ravishes his guitar (think the grittier portrayals of “Leda and the Swan”), and Matt Kramer on drums and Justin McKinnon on bass carve cliffs and reefs riddled with the perches of screaming seabirds. Melissa May, in the center of it all, makes love to that ocean of sound. Offers herself to the sea with no fear of drowning. But it would be a mistake to write her off as merely a sexual force of energy – it is her words, her voice, her violin that make her a gifted artist who makes you willing to kill or die to have her there on that stage.

And now, a week or so after that night, I haven’t taken the disc out of my CD player. Every track grows richer and fuller with each listen. These songs have something to say, and what they say will haunt you.

Originally published in The Review Magazine
[Visit The Thunderchickens Here]