Monday, September 28, 2009

Micachu and the Shapes via The Walker Art Center

IT WAS ODD NOT TO SEE THE YOUNG band rushing back to the stage after what must have been a solid five minute frenzy of applause and foot stomping. The wood floor at the Cedar Cultural Center in the Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis was taking a fine beating, for sure. The very place that Mica of band Micachu and the Shapes described as, "The most dignified place we've played."

Here it was, roughly 45 minutes after their first song and the audience wanted more of lead singer Micachu, a diminutive blond tough, and her band The Shapes. Of course they did -- the music was jaw dropping, futuristic, and demanded at least a bounce and bob. And when they were finished with their set of what Micachu categorizes as Pop music, I wanted more, too. Even when, at one point of the show when she adjusted her ukulele-thing to be perfectly out of tune. The audience groaned in agony; I felt a bit of excited anticipation. How was this going to work?

Micachu, aka Mica Levi, is in her early twenties and has been writing and playing music since she was four. The band was invited here from London via The Walker Art Center. From the program: "She is classically trained and is best known for experimental music in a variety of genres. Levi was born in Surrey (1987) and raised in Bow, East London...While a student at Guildhall, Levi was commissioned to write an orchestral piece for the London Philharmonic Orchestra which was performed at the Royal Festival Hall in April 2008."

With a background like that, it's no surprised she made a wildly out of tune Uke ultimately sound great. It worked. And it was exciting.

Mica's Shapes clearly have a great time on stage, too. Raisa Kahn plays the Midi keyboard, cowbells, and cymbal. Marc Pell is a drum machine. The both of them also do backup vocals. They're a young lot, like I mentioned, but they are a complex rhythm section to be sure. A few of us in the audience stopped bobbing, hypnotized by the synchronized blast of electronic blips, cow bells, a small zither (zina?) backing up Micachu's modded, heavily strummed over-sized ukulele-looking thing.

And here we were, begging for more of it. Our shouts remained unanswered. Turns out they couldn't decide on what their encore should be. Lucky for us they figured it out eventually. They had to dig way back to some earlier material.

I'm sure they have many more dignified performance venues in their future -- let's hope more in Minnesota, too. In the meanwhile, find their album Jewellery on iTunes. My favorites at the moment are Calculator, Wrong, and Guts.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Raimund Hoghe, Boléro Variations at The Walker Art Center

RAIMUND HOGHE AND HIS TROUPE HAD TWO shows at the Walker Art Center this past weekend. He showed audiences his closeups. It was an interesting show, considering he didn't display photographs or paintings on a wall -- he zoomed in using dance on a stark black stage.

The show, entitled Boléro Variations, included Hoghe himself along with dancers Ornella Balestra, Lorenzo De Brabandere, Ammanuel Eggermont, Yutake Takei, and Nabil Yahia-Aïssa*. They danced to 15 different songs in the style of Boléro; all the songs were beautiful except for one version which I thought was funny. The music itself was fine, but the version they danced to was also used for an ice-skating competition. So the audience heard how it sounds on tv -- cheering, the commentators, and worst of all, that booming echoing and distorted sound of classical music in a large stadium.

To put it simply, the dance moves were slow. But slow does not by any means mean simple. Slowing down the motions caused the small details become larger, and then those details seemed to morph into something different altogether. Like when you stare at a word until it no longer looks like a word, for instance. It was in this way that Boléro Variations began to feel like a show of closeups. To even the untrained eye -- mine -- many dance steps and postures were recognizable throughout the show. They were glimmers of recognition throughout the performance -- the flourish of a matador, the smooth steps of an ice-skater skating backward, the precise pose of a flamenco dancer with castanets, and even roboto! At one point I think I even saw the I'm A Little Tea Cup pose, but again -- my dance eye is not a trained one.

It quickly became obvious that this must have been a very physically demanding show for the performers. It was like watching a strong-man show, but the men lifting 500 pounds in each hand were not allowed that initial burst of energy to get the weights in the air. And again, the slowness of the dancing couldn't help but force a closeup look, and the repetition caused second guesses at what I was actually seeing. At many points during the 2-hour long performance I was no longer seeing people, but organisms moving about. At other times I was seeing human bodies, but unable to distinguish what may be different or strange from one set of bulging muscles to the next.

There were a handful of moments when the action sped up, such as during a Jitterbug sequence, or when Hoghe zig-zagged about the stage, sashaying and spraying what could have been perfume. Highly enjoyable.

Here are some interesting facts about Hoghe via Galen Treuer for the Walker Blogs, as well as Hoghe's website

*Nabil Yahia-Aïssa, sadly, was not able to perform due to very last-minute problems with his Visa. The Department of Homeland Security has a problem with the fact that he was born in Algeria.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum, Hayward, Wisconsin

THE FRESH WATER FISHING HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM in Hayward, Wisconsin is home to the biggest fish that I have ever seen in my life.

Of course, I knew that well before I arrived, but it was quite surreal to have what I pictured in my mind outdone by what is actually there. They have world record sized fish on display, including a 40 pound, 4 ounce Brown Trout and a 22 pound, 11 ounce Walleye.

But the large fish I am specifically referencing is also the hall of fame's focal point: Muskellunge!

This musky was made by Jerry Vetrus of F.A.S.T. Corp (Yes! The very Vetrus that is the subject of the forthcoming documentary Bunny and I are working on). In 1978 the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame added a four and a half story tall, half a city block long fish to their pond. It actually is in -- rather, above -- a pond stocked with real fish. Additionally, the musky's innards are stuffed to the gills with museum memorabilia! Old fishing lures, taxidermied fish, fish sculptures, and photos literally line the stomach all the way up to its gills. At which point visitors are welcome to stare out over the museum's grounds from the musky's spike-toothed mouth.

The musky isn't alone in the backyard of the museum. There are many other bigger than life fiberglass fish in various jumping and swimming poses. In fact, when it's raining, one might think they've fallen into a pond á la Land of the Lost. There is a giant sun fish, trout, and a Walleye to name just a few. There are countless photo opportunities and even more "I caught one this big" jokes.If you're not familiar with Hayward, Wisconsin, it might seem odd to put such a vast museum seemingly out in the middle of nowhere. But according to Emmett Brown, the museum's Executive Director, the location is sort of an epicenter for cabin-goers and fishing enthusiasts. And there certainly seems to be a steady stream of vacationers visiting the museum. While looking at a display of fish I heard one little boy say to his dad, "I caught one like that today!"

Downtown Hayward is just a few blocks away and is definitely a touristy little vacation town, so there is plenty to see and do. I recommend stopping in to the candy store -- it's spectacular. There is a huge center island with glass jars full of jaw breakers, gummy this-and-thats, and atomic fire balls. There is a wall of jelly beans. There are baskets of every candy you can think of. Most exciting though are the rooms set behind glass where you can watch candy being made, such as their famous almond-brittle.

On the drive home we went through Shell Lake, which also has a fiberglass fish made by F.A.S.T. Corp.!

Hayward, Wisconsin is about a three hour drive from Minneapolis.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Stick 'Em Up! Jesse James Days in Northfield, MN

APPARENTLY WHEN I READ THAT AN event is happening, say, on a Friday, I will think that it is happening on whatever Friday I want. With that said, I went to Jesse James Days in Northfield, MN a whole week early. That's just how excited I was to see a bank robbery.

Granted, it's a re-enactment of a bank robbery, but it's based on quite a famous actual robbery by the James-Younger gang. On September 7, 1876, Jesse James and the Younger brothers rode their horses into the town of Northfield. The gang had their sites on the vault in First National Bank. Townspeople soon realized what was happening and decided to fight the robbers. A gun fight erupted in the street and when the smoke cleared, two members of the gang were dead, as well as two civilians. The other gang members fled.

The re-enactment is a lively one.

The first time I saw the re-enactment was 18 years ago and I remember the horsemen with their authentic clothing billowing and flapping outward as they galloped full-force through town. They went into the bank -- the actual bank! -- for a short time and then came out, blank guns a-shootin'. Clearly the robbery was botched! There was a shootout in the street and a few of the gang members took to their horses and galloped out of town. One cowboy, the one playing Jesse James, put his hot gun back into his holster too soon, though. As he was high-tailin' it out of town, there was a growing plumage of smoke rising out from under his duster.

Little Coco with the James Gang in Northfield, MN. September 7, 1991

The actors ended up having to take a few moments during the re-enactment for some non-factual action: snuffing out Jesse James' smoldering hindquarters.

Here is a great video about what happened after the Younger Brothers were captured, as told by Charlie Rogers, a government records specialist with the state archives at the Minnesota Historical Society.

Despite arriving in town a week early, Bunny and I took advantage of exploring historic downtown Northfield without the crowds and found some excellent places to visit again when we go today, this Friday, the weekend of September 11, for the actual Jesse James Days.

Not only are there re-enactments, there are other activites going on all weekend, such as a horse shoe hunt. Here is a list of events on the Defeat of Jesse James Days website.

I recommend eating at The Tavern of Northfield Restaurant, a restaurant that boasts being a "scratch" kitchen. Which means many of their items, you guessed it, are made from scratch, in-house. For instance, they make their own red and alfredo pasta sauces, bread, and soup. Bunny and I started with a ridiculously wholesome, fresh, Granny Smith apple, cheese, and bread plate. Then for our main dish we split a full order of fettuccine alfredo, served with a giant slice of homemade garlic bread. Everything was so scrumptious, especially with that home-made taste.

"It's a good thing to work here in the mornings and eat all the fresh bread you want," our waiter said. Then jokingly, "It can be a bad thing, too."

There are always two soups on the menu, one of them is always their chicken soup and on the day we were there, Bunny and I had a hearty tomato basil soup. There is also a full bar and a specialty drink menu including a deliciously tangy, peppery, bloody mary that comes with a jalepeño pickle. YUM!

If you're not hungry, I suggest stopping in just to look at the place. If you're over 5'10" you'll want to watch your head. The restaurant has low ceilings, as it's in the basement quarters of the historic Archer House. The ceiling is arched and the floor plan is small. But once I sat in the spacious, high-backed booth, I didn't feel cramped at all. The ambiance, coupled with the home-cooking, was worth the hour drive. If the inside isn't to your liking, there is patio seating along Northfield's excellent River Walk. A Bald Eagle flew right over us while we were walking along the river!

Northfield, MN is only an hour's drive from Minneapolis going South on 35W.
Tavern of Northfield Restaurant: 212 Division St S. 507.663.0342

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

South Dakota, Part 2: Wall Drug, Rapid City, Cosmos Mystery Area, and Mt. Rushmore

Here's Part 1, if you missed it.
I REMEMBER SEEING PHOTOS FROM A family vacation to South Dakota in a photo album before I was, as my mom says, "Even a glimmer in your daddy's eyes." Or something. But I didn't remember any specific photos before Alie, Bunny, and I headed out on the road. It wasn't until I visited my parents after the trip, and looked again through the photo album, that I realized I had pretty much retraced their trip exactly, approximately 29 years later.

My photo album had startling similarities: there were the photos on the giant rabbit at Wall Drug, the photos in the old mining town of Keystone in the Black Hills, photos at Cosmos Mystery Area. Granted, of all the trips people take, I would think all South Dakota photo albums look the most alike. In any case, it was eerie and exciting to see that I took the same trip my family (mom, dad, older brother and sister) took before I even existed.

Too boot: I found out we stayed at the same Holiday Inn in Rapid City that my family did, too! Pure coincidence.

So, we arrive in Wall, South Dakota and it's like someone has made a town just for me and Bunny. It's touristy, sure, but it's far from boring. It's darn right fun. Hell -- there's a whole yard full of standees, a giant rabbit, and replica stagecoach to climb on! We stayed there for about two hours, but for my time-to-be-determined return trip, I would like to get a room in one of the tiny motels in town and spend an entire day in Wall.

I was able to find a cheap pair of cowboy boots, pink ones, and I wore them for the remainder of our trip. I also got my refreshing cup of free ice water -- the very gimmick that put Wall on the map -- and also picked up my free Have You Dug Wall Drug bumper sticker.

I love Wall.

High on all the fun we had at Wall Drug, I couldn't wait to move on to the next leg of our journey: Rapid City and Mount Rushmore! We were only a little over an hour away! We stopped at a Holiday Inn in Rapid City to relax for a moment and freshen up before heading out to Mt. Rushmore. The room was huge. I wonder if I managed to stay in the same room, much less the same hotel, as my parents!

We take the long, winding route, higher and higher into the Black Hills. There is something luxurious about being surrounded by pine trees growing out of the rock. We wound our way through Keystone (which looks incredibly fun, but we didn't have time to stop) and up to the four faces carved into the side of the mountain.

Do you know? The pass to get into Mount Rushmore is good for an entire year!

Bunny was first to point out all of the different license plates in the parking lot. No two seemed to be from the same state! A new walking path opened recently that leads to the base of the mountain. You can get up close and personal with the blast rubble! There is also a great photo opportunity to take a photo of the Presidents from the inside of a bolder. We also were lucky enough to see mountain goats! I knew something was going on when everyone was aiming their cameras into the woods rather than at the mountain!

I got a pressed penny souvenir (I'd been collecting them the whole way), and we drove back the way we came, but this time stopping at Cosmos Mystery Area.

Cosmos Mystery Area, according to our tour guide, is the location of some sort of unexplainable vortex. A vortex that warps and binds the trees, architecture, and gravity itself! Whoa! So that's a load of crap, but it was highly amusing and a ton of fun. We arrived just as the last tour of the day was getting ready to depart -- we were pretty lucky with our timing!

We walked up an uneven, steep, paved path to a crooked house-like structure surrounded by twisted trees. There were all kinds of tricks. I'll let the photo, above, say it all.

After that, the three of us were pretty punchy. But we were also hungry, so stopped at a Mexican restaurant before calling it a night back at the hotel. The food was delicious, the margaritas were huge and delicious, and in entered a mountain man. Well, he was more of a prospector looking fellow. We couldn't believe our eyes. That, coupled with being sleepy, punchy, and full of half a giant margaritas -- we got a little giggly, too. We were baffled and didn't quite believe our eyes. The prospector had continued walking toward the back of the restaurant.

That's when we started hearing knocking on the wall behind us. And more knocking. And then some more. By now we were full on laughing, probably being a touch annoying to the other diners. When the waiter came by to ask if we needed anything, I asked, "Did I just see a mountain man walk by? And is he knocking on the wall? I don't care, I'm just curious." The waiter shook his head with one of those "I don't know" shrugs. And then almost immediately we saw the prospector get escorted out of the restaurant. I felt terrible! I don't know if that was a direct result of me or a coincidence.

But the knocking stopped.

We brought our leftovers back to the room, watched some bad cable tv, and we all slept as hard as bags of bricks in our giant room. I woke up sad that we had to leave for home, but as I got dressed and put on my pink cowboy boots, I and made a promise to myself that I would return again someday.

But there was one more stop to make before we made a bee-line back to Minneapolis. The Dinosaur Park.

To get to this area, you have to drive through a regular old neighborhood and, once again, we wound our way up the side of a small mountain until we could see the city around us, unobstructed. The Dinosaur Park was made as a part of WPA Project #960 in the 1930s.

Basically what you do when you get here is climb on the dinosaurs as much as you want and take silly photos. It's a good thing that's what me and Bunny do best. The gift shop here is wonderful -- all kinds of goodies, including snacks like popcorn, hotdogs, and slushees.

Home again home again jiggity jig.

See the entire photo set on my Flickr page!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ben Vereen at The Dakota Jazz Club

BEN VEREEN HAS ENOUGH PERSONALITY to fill Radio City Music Hall. So when he took the stage at the relatively diminutive Dakota Jazz Club in Downtown Minneapolis on August 31, 2009, it felt like the walls were positively going to burst.

The man himself even seemed as if he were going to burst; every song he sang became shows on their own. They were like mini-plays with entire story arcs, accompanied by piano, upright bass, and drums.

Before he came on stage though, actress Tina Fabrique, currently starring as ELLA at the Guthrie (or Gut-tree as Vereen pronounced it) sang a couple of songs. She's a great singer with impressive (necessarily!) scat skills. But I was most impressed by the fact that she was introduced to the stage as "The woman who also sings the Reading Rainbow theme song."

There were a couple of standout moments from the evening's 7pm show. Vereen's version of Misty was spooky, like something from "one of those space channels," a phrase he used to describe the radio channels that only come in at odd moments in the middle of the night. He used the description in a story prior to singing this version of Misty. It was just his voice, a breathy quiet version of an otherwise booming instrument, accompanied only by drum set, which the player tapped with his hands instead of sticks. I expected to see satellites floating by during such a lonely, weightless song.

Vereen spoke often of Sammy Davis, Jr. during the evening's performance. After all, he was Davis's protégé. "I'm not going to do Sammy Davis," Vereen said. He put his hand up to the middle of his torso and continued. "He was this big -- I couldn't fit into his suits. Big shoes, though."

At one point in the evening, they showed a clip from the Jack Paar show in which Davis and Vereen sang a duet, then sat for an interview with Paar. Davis said, "It's like I've been running a marathon and now I'm passing the baton [to Vereen]. Just go! Go! Go with it!" Then Paar suggests the two sing a little more. And as they sang on the tv screen, the lights slowly transitioned to Vereen, nearby at the piano. He had begun singing the same song. It was a stunning bit of staging -- like he had come out of the television itself.

Dressed in a light gray pinstripe suit, accented with an ankle-length top coat and bright red silk scarf, Vereen thanked the Dakota for inviting him out at the end of August. It turns out his very first visit to Minnesota was in January. "I got off the plane and I had tears in my eyes," he said. "I wondered what did I do to you? I mean, it was so cold it hurt my feelings!"

More Ben Vereen:
• His blog
• Article in the Star Tribune
• He's currently writing a book. Be on the lookout for it!