Friday, September 29, 2023

Way Back Machine: "No Corn, No Sop, No Tatters, No Depression: Wilco at the Bowl, 9/7/97"


One from the vaults: Having had the great fortune to just see Son Volt in town, and knowing Wilco are on their way (even if I'm not going this time), it made me wonder how an Independent story I wrote way back in 1997 still read. Now you can see how it still reads, too, from a time so long ago when newspapers weren't on the internet (so were still a semi-going concern).

Bipolar thinking can get you in a whole heap of trouble, if it’s fair to call stupidity trouble. Let’s just take the 1970s; yeah, them again. It’s mighty easy to reduce ’70s music into opposing camps — disco versus punk, say, or singer-songwriters versus arena rock. But such lines exist merely because critics, eager to fill column inches easily, need ways to show they can make distinctions. (Note most can make only two.) Take Fleetwood Mac. At what point do they cross from a band of three singer-songwriters into arena rock: When Rumors moved its 4 millionth unit? And yes, yes, I know, they were once a blues band and later something for the Clintons and Gores to bop around to as a way to prove they are hip, god help us. (Further evidence the Democrats are just Republican Lite.) 

Simply put, the “everything is one thing or the other” theory merely means everything not one or the other doesn’t exist. There are many musical 1970s out there vanished to us, as if hidden in hangars in Roswell, or something. A cult of believers might insist that a Big Star or a Cleveland punk scene existed, but most people, in pod-like serenity, go on believing only what radio dishes up for their ears, to mix both UFO references and metaphors. 

But the boys in Wilco aren’t most people, and that’s why you need to go see them on the Sheryl Crow bill this Sunday at the Bowl. They named themselves after an old radio for a reason, given they receive transmissions from across the eras. And to put those transmissions in context, it’s necessary for you to sit yourself down and listen to a bit of musical history. 

Wilco exists because Uncle Tupelo doesn’t, but I can tell I probably already lost too many of you. Which is sad, ’cause Uncle Tupelo was one of the best bands of the early ’90s that never got heard given too many people had flannel in their ears and teen spirit in their noses, but nevermind that, that’s a different story. Tupelo knew punk meant, at its very black heart, being uncool, and in 1990, that meant liking, or I should say likin’, country. And that’s real country: Uncle Tupelo’s first album is called No Depression after a Carter Family tune and now No Depression is the name for all like-minded musicians, such is the UT legacy. That Tupelo could like country and still like Black Flag and Neil Young only sounded on paper like a way to clear rooms or break rental agreements. On record, and even moreso live, it was the music that bar sawdust would sing if it had a voice (not to mention amps and fiddles and pedal steel and heart and brains). 

The Uncle Tupelo story ends in 1993 with their fourth album, Anodyne, when Jay Farrar, or so it’s rumored, given the group has never made completely public the causes of their split, said it was all over. Maybe he knew that they could never top Anodyne, an album that whistles round the river’s bend (“Acuff-Rose,” “New Madrid”) and then rocks back up the other bank (“The Long Cut,” “We’ve Been Had”) stopping mid-river for an anthem about the Civil War, maybe, or maybe just love and its uncivil wars (“Chickamauga”). Fans could only fear that the end would mean what the end of the Replacements or the Beatles meant—yet more once-talented people doddering on as if they could even touch the hem of the musical garments they themselves once wore. How sad to once be someone, to once have had talent, if only (and only can mean most nearly everything) the talent that came from the spark and rub of others. 

Maybe not having even Mats-sized success saved Tupelo, though. For now it’s time to risk, once again, bipolar thinking. UT split into two, Son Volt led by Jay Farrar, and Wilco, led by Jeff Tweedy. Most Tupelo fans, if they were betting sorts, put their money on Son Volt, given Farrar always seemed the soul of Tupelo, while Tweedy seemed the engaging cut-up; sure enough the first cut of the first Wilco album is “I Must Be High.” Turned out, though, that the old bipolar thinking trap swallowed whole any bettors, for if Farrar took the better voice (one person has said he sounds as if he’s lived three lifetimes, already) to Son Volt, Tweedy got to take the rest of Uncle Tupelo to Wilco. And by Anodyne that really meant something; the rest of the band could flat out play, seemingly any sort of music. And they did, and do, on two albums, now — A.M. and Being There

This is modestly ambitious music. It cops, more than a hook or a line, a vibe, a feeling that time is such a silly thing we’ve shackled ourselves to. Real music is outside time, which might be why it moves us so — not just a recording of a tune but the tune itself seems out there, somewhere, floating, waiting, like A.M. radio waves bouncing about the planet. The subject matter of Being There is almost incessantly music itself; it’s as if Tweedy wants to define self-reflexivity to those put-off by postmodern theory. So he sings about life on the road, insists this sounds like “Someone Else’s Song,” and croons a mash note to the lamé-wearing Elvis. 

It’s not country, really, not by a long shot, given the first song sounds like a less in need of Prozac version of Big Star’s Third (talk about your albums left in Roswell) and drops lines from Peter Laughner, co-founder of Pere Ubu and one of the first punk martyrs. Referencing Laughner so early might be a clue, though. After all, Laughner, who was so punk he beat Sid Vicious to OD-ing, loved Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, and Richard Thompson, while writing “Life Stinks,” “Amphetamine,” and the scabrous ditty “Ain’t It Fun,” whose best lines we can’t print in this paper. 

There’s a lot of music out there. And if you play it like you know it, which has something to do with (and so help me I’m writing this) soul, and you sing it like you mean it (which is knowing the power of the pulled punch), well, you end up a lot like Wilco. Given so few bands do the first two, and so few have the smarts to know and the heart to love so many musics, there’s only one Wilco. Don’t miss your chance.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

A Review of "Misfit: Growing Up Awkward in the ’80s" by Gary Gulman


Gary Gulman is the kind of comedian you figured had a book in him, given his love of words and language that helped him craft a classic routine out of the creation of the states’ two letter abbreviations. (If you don’t know this bit, watch it now before reading this review; one delicious moment, “Ne’er-do-wells. How often do well? They ne’er do well.”) But there’s more—he’s also willing to open up in ways many people can’t. Check out his powerful, and powerfully funny HBO show The Great Depresh, where he intercut stand-up with footage of his fight with mental illness.

But wait there’s more—based on the painstakingly detailed tales of his K-12 education that make up Misfit—he’s a real-life Funes the Memorious. If that allusion is too-highfalutin, we can turn to one perhaps equally obscure if more middlebrow, the Disney live action classic The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, one of Gulman’s favorite flicks as a kid. Gulman even provides the phone numbers for his precious handful of friends when he introduces them in the book.

Care to read the rest then do so at California Review of Books.

Monday, September 25, 2023

After Years of Hunting Rabbit, The Dead Rabbit

Finally going to a place you've have put the years into yearned-to-be is a fraught experience. Expectations of greatness are difficult to meet, let alone by something that hopes to be a pub. A really damn good one. Say, one that has twice been named best bar in the world at Tales of the Cocktail.

So maybe that's why instead of trying to write up my at last visit to the lauded Dead Rabbit in FiDi* New York, I instead decided to craft a cocktail from the bar's first book, The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog  Drinks Manual (Houghton Mifflin, 2015). Turns out that a Bijou, inspired by Harry Johnson's 1900 Bartenders' Manual, is an almost perverse delight--gin and sweet vermouth in equal parts, with some Green Chartreuse (get them monks into the glass for a good time), and soupçons of orange bitters, Angostura bitters, and Pernod. You do "garnish" by expressing orange peel over the drink, but discard the peel (pay attention, that detail will be important later).

*That's short for Financial District, and despite our desires, it's not, alas, pronounced, feh-DEE.

The Dead Rabbit--which takes its name from one of the Irish gangs that roamed these tip of Manhattan streets in the 19th century--earns its Irishness as its founders Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry are two self-proclaimed "Belfast boys" who first kicked butt in their hometown, then came to New York City, because if you can make it there.... (I so didn't want to do that, but couldn't help myself.) Of all things the location is around the corner from Fraunces Tavern--you know, where Washington bid farewell to his troops--so certainly offers historical bonafides. Even if most of the current TDR building was part of the build out beyond the heavy-hewed ceiling beams, it certainly has a been-around feel in the best way. You feel as if you're entering an old lair of cocktail loveliness.

It doesn't hurt that the service is far from gruff pub land. Someone opens the door as you climb the stairs to enter. You are ushered to the host stand, and led upstairs--if you are us with a reservation--to the Parlor, billed "the cocktail cathedral" on their website. (The first floor, the Taproom, offers punch and different drinks and Irish coffee and louder craic and conviviality; the top floor, the Occasional room, is for special events.)

If you get sat at the bar in the Parlor, as we were, no one will be standing behind you. It's only table and bar seating, loud enough to feel buzzy, but the buzzing won't takeover your head. Plus you get to order direct from the bartender, the only one, actually, who manages to work steadily but never in a frenzy. It's a place of calm. It's like they took service tips from the French Laundry, almost, how well-timed everything is, how knowledgeable everyone is, how pleasant. 

And then there's that book above (see the entire book as PDF online). Twenty-two cocktails await (a brief panic as to how to choose and choose the best!), arranged in pairs of Tradition and Tomorrow, although Tradition is mucked with in yummy ways most of the time. The categories: Effervescent, Martini, Gimlet, Egg White, Daisy, Whiskey Sour, Savory, Tiki, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Bitter. We scan through, and realize it might be smart for our hopefully hangover-free tomorrows to pick a core liquor and pick two of each we hope to consume over the evening. It didn't seem prudent to go from gin to scotch, say. That made whiskey an easy choice, given it grounded several of the categories.

Plus we both wanted a Buttoned Up (Chryss luckily got it), the traditional Old Fashioned. 

Each cocktail gets its own page--how seen and honored each one must feel in this temple to potent potables. TDR helpfully offers three distinguishing characteristics for each drink, a charming drawing from the Great British Bake-Off school of culinary sketches (except the finished product actually does look like its drawing at TDR), and the ingredients. Who doesn't want an opulent char, especially one that layers Angel's Envy Bourbon and Craigellachie Armagnac Cask Scotch? You know how it is--those who are buttoned-up often conceal the most power. Plus, what a perfect, clear hunk of ice. (I really need to raise my home ice game--TDR sort of shames me.)

I couldn't resist the Whiskey Sour of tomorrow, especially because I had to Google several of its ingredients (why drink what I already know?). The Amazake Kick lived up to its dried fruit, ready, robust descriptors. Amazake, which auto-correct doesn't know either, so I don't feel so bad having to look it up, is a traditional Japanese drink made from fermented rice; TDR gives even that a twist, via Ireland, of course, making theirs from soda bread. That helps led to the breadiness, of course, and the welcome homeyness is always darling in a drink. Once again there are two whiskeys--they love layering on the core pours--and then there's the odd Danish product Plum I Suppose, from Empirical, a bright botanical liqueur that brings marigold and plum. A drink like this one makes me want to be Sour a lot tomorrow.

We also ordered both versions of the Manhattan, what with our whiskey predilection for the evening and, well, that was where we were, after all. The "traditional" Jupiter Switch did what we like to do at home--use Amaro--but even gave that an unusual nudge by making it green walnut Amaro. Not that a hint of nocino is unwelcome or even that unusual in a Manhattan, but that earthy/nuttiness is a hearty touch, especially with the eucalyptus and cacao extending all the flavor's edges.

Tomorrow's Clare to Cádiz made me wonder if the present day and tomorrow are closer than they first appear. It's good to know elegance won't go out of style in the future, as this drink combines for a laser precise lusciousness, and then just enough extender notes--that hint of apple, the edge of nettle--to make it imminently quaffable. 

Most notable about all the cocktails--none were served with garnishes. The aromatics were all poured into the glass, and nothing detracted from the prefect crystal and the combined elixirs inside. And combined they always were. Cocktails at TDR--at least our four pours--all did that "let's make a whole new terrific taste" trick, as opposed to the, "I'm getting the whiskey, I'm getting vermouth, I'm getting the Angostura" bippity-bip moments of some cocktails elsewhere. 

I would also be remiss if I left out the food. I came in with little to no expectations there, assuming it would be all about the mixology. But I was sorely wrong. It's pub food, yes, but every bit as thought-through as the cocktail menu. Take these perfect deviled eggs, elevated with smoked salmon, herbed creme fraiche, caviar, espelette and dill. Savory, creamy, salty, devilishly addictive.

And we didn't photograph the rest of our food, partially as the light was dim enough (no, not too) that good photography wasn't easy, and partially because we were hungry (our evening came after a day of coast-to-coast flying and conquering the NYC transit system with two suitcases). Chryss had the fish and chips, a large enough platter we could have shared it even in our famished state--Harp Lager battered cod, mushy peas, crispy chips, and Ballymaloe tartar sauce (which made us recall our impressive lunch at Ballymaloe a few years back). Each item was nailed.

I went for the Bangers and Mash, a plate named simply so that every thirteen year old boy could suffer a giggle fit. The Cumberland sausage themselves were tasty little numbers, the pork in a good grind and well-spiced. But, of course, this dish is all about its accoutrements, especially that scallion-flecked mash potato, creamy yet not mush, and a lick-the-plate worthy gravy that brought the whole dish together.

The Dead Rabbit surpassed all expectations, and then some. It was mighty hard not to try one last tipple--I regret passing on their Irish coffee, but I don't regret not falling hard asleep that evening, too.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Drinking "Hidden" Italy: Poggio Stenti


With late September's plethora of perfect tomatoes, it's been sauce season*. We make so much we freeze it, too, so any evening's pasta can elevate with a blast of the bounty. 

*While I grew up in northern Jersey, I'm just too Slav through-and-through to call it gravy.

That means digging out the right wine to match from the cellar, of course. That's how I came to open a bottle of the 2018 Poggio Stenti Tribulo, a Montecucco Sangiovese DOCG. This is a wine that's very farm-based; the estate's 30 hectares contains vineyards, an olive grove and barley, spelt and wheat crops. So think integrative farming--done 100% organically--and some real terroir. Of course Montecucco isn't exactly a region many know (and only partially because the English language function on the consortium's website only works on a few of the site's pages). It's south of the more famed Tuscan regions like Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino, and closer to the Mediterranean (not that there's much sea influence). 

Even at five years in bottle, it opened a bit grippy to almost chalky, as Chryss put it, but with air it softened up some, while still packing Sangio tannins. The fruit presented raspberries leaning into blackberries, with maybe a quick nap of balsamic vinegar. But this isn't a fruit bomb, not with its suggestions of tar, earth, black pepper, anise. It grew more complex as the night went on (and don't you want your nights to do that?). 

Our tomato sauce was very pleased.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

A Review of "Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility," edited by Rebecca Solnit & Thelma Young Lutunatabua


It’s not lost on me that I’m reading Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility (Haymarket Books) as I take a fuel-guzzling flight cross country. As much as the 28 essays that Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua have gathered provide hope, ammunition, community, congratulations for small gains along the way, as much as I don’t need to be in the slightest convinced that our human-caused climate crisis is destroying our planet (I also have recently left Maui a mere four days before Lahaina was consumed), I stand accused, too. And let’s not even get to our beloved vintage gas-burning Wedgewood stove….

Of course, how can’t we all take the boiling/flooding/drought-stricken/on fire end of the world personally? A collection like Not Too Late by its very nature tends to speak more to the converted no matter how hard its authors hope otherwise, and even the converted among us always yearn we might somehow be exceptions. It certainly helps that’s it’s only a few pages into the book when co-editor Lutunatabua asserts, “The question shouldn’t be Will my actions be enough? but Will our actions be enough? This is a communal quest in which everyone can bring their talents, visions, desires, access—and if one person struggles, we can help each other up.”

Care to read the rest then do so at the California Review of Books.