Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Theatre Review: Doug Vincent’s A Day for Grace

To call playwright Doug Vincent’s show A Day for Grace harrowing is an understatement. Exploring the events of a hardscrabble Virginia childhood that culminated in his alcoholic father’s suicide, along with those events’ many ramifications, Vincent plays himself as well as a Greek chorus of family members whose take on events don’t always sync with his own: those multiple perspectives shed considerable light on the kind of baggage he brought into the delivery room the day his daughter Grace was born. We know beforehand that despite what could have been an equally harrowing scene at her birth, Grace survived, but even that knowledge doesn’t spare the audience from an emotional roller coaster ride. After a sold-out run at New York’s Stage Left Studio, Vincent is returning it to his native Colorado at a venue still to be determined.

Vincent is a gifted and extremely entertaining storyteller. Early on, his depiction of his childhood emulation of the future Hall of Fame catcher from the Cincinnati Reds is delivered suspensefully, with a deft touch not unlike a baseball broadcaster recounting events as they happen in real time. But even more than he wants to be like Johnny Bench, the young Vincent wants to be like his dad. With one problem: dad’s “medicine” for a persistent physical ailment comes in a can labeled Pabst Blue Ribbon. When grandma comes over with her 40-ounce Colt .45, dad requires even stronger medicine, in the form of Canadian Mist. Vincent’s description of family interaction at moments like these is surprisingly elegant, without the least bit of the kind of mawkishness that typifies so many autobiographical works. Much as this must have been problematic, to say the least, Vincent never lapses into cliche, nor does he play the blame game. Instead, gallows humor is what pulls him through, something he no doubt picked up from his doomed father.

As the show’s segments shift, Sam Llanas – former frontman of popular Wisconsin roots rockers the BoDeans – does his part as Greek chorus with his acoustic guitar and warm baritone voice, singing excerpts from songs including the BoDeans’ brooding classic Far, Far Away from My Heart as well as several numbers from his 1998 cult classic cd A Good Day to Die, by the short-live side project Absinthe [#629 on the 1000 Best Albums of All Time list here – ed.]. Written to memorialize the teenage suicide of his older brother, the pieces from that song cycle used here have had their lyrics tweaked to fit the new context, and add considerable depth and gravitas to the overall ambience.

While Vincent’s father’s suicide is described in graphic detail, it’s the emotional impact that resonates more shockingly. Certain sounds and behaviors become Post Traumatic Stress Disorder triggers for Vincent, culminating with his wife’s struggles as his unborn daughter’s life hangs in the balance. At this past Saturday’s show, as the suspense reached breaking point, Vincent was literally moved to tears recalling how events unfolded: several audience members were overcome by emotion as well. Sometimes the drama of real life surpasses anything contrived for the stage.

One tantalizing aspect of the show, one which sadly won’t be missed by anyone who doesn’t know Sam Llanas’ more obscure catalog, is that his songs sometimes get cut short. Like Vincent, Llanas is also a first-rate storyteller, and there were points where songs like the haunting, down-and-out saga It Don’t Bother Me and the majestically angst-driven, Orbisonesque anthem Messed Up Likes of Us were about to reach their denouement…and then they were over. On one hand, Vincent deserves considerable credit for making such an apt pairing of music and monologue: on the other, those familiar with the Absinthe record will be left longing for more. During the New York run, Llanas played a series of intimate club dates; perhaps the same could be done the next time the show is staged. Otherwise, it couldn’t hurt to extend the work by, say, fifteen minutes, to let Llanas’ grim sagas sink in as impactfully as Vincent’s narrative.

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September 17, 2012 Posted by | drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Album of the Day 5/11/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #629:

Absinthe – A Good Day to Die

Sam Llanas may be known as the soulful baritone co-founder of Milwaukee roots rock legends the BoDeans, but this 1999 album by his other project Absinthe – with the Violent Femmes’ Guy Hoffman on drums and Jim Eanelli, formerly of the Shivvers, on guitar – is the best thing he’s ever done. Inspired by the suicide of Llanas’ older brother, this anguished, death-obsessed, semi-acoustic rock record follows the Bukowskiesque trail of a life in a long downward spiral so harrowing that when it ends with Time for Us, a surprisingly warm, comforting ballad that Llanas’ main band would pick up later, the mood still resonates. This guy just never had a chance. Bully on the Corner gets the foreshadowing going on early (although the narrator looks back and basically forgives him: his life must have been hell too). Defeat, with its mantra-like chorus, is just crushing; the title track is all the more haunting for its dignified treatment of the suicide. They follow that with the wistful, pretty Spanish Waltz, the unconvincing It Don’t Bother Me and then the two absolute masterpieces here, the down-and-out scenario Still Alone and the wrenching, Orbisonesque Messed Up Likes of Us. There’s nowhere to go from there but the bitter Dying in My Dreams, the denial of What I Don’t Feel and the paint-peeling noise-rock of A Little Bit of Hell, Eanelli’s great shining moment here. Surprisingly obscure, there don’t seem to be any streams of this anywhere, but it’s still up at the BoDeans’ site; here’s a random torrent.

May 11, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 2/4/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #725:

The BoDeans – Joe Dirt Car

Despite their occasional brushes with fame – the powerpop hit Closer to Free was the theme song to a 90s network tv sitcom – the BoDeans have always been colossally underrated. Gifted with not one but two first-rate songwriters, they foreshadowed the advent of alt-country by almost a decade. By the turn of the 90s, they’d moved on to a more anthemic straight-up rock style. This exhilarating 1995 double live album intersperses singer/rhythm guitarist Sam Llanas’ dark, cynical Americana songs among lead player/singer Kurt Neumann’s big rock anthems. The iconic classic here is Idaho, recorded on the spur of the moment at a soundcheck, a brutally sarcastic portait of rural redneck hell. The big hit is their 1985 debut single, the lusciously jangly revenge anthem She’s a Runaway. The scorching Stonesy rockers here are Fade Away, Still the Night, Say About Love and an absolutely volcanic Feed the Fire, alongside the starkly intense Ballad of Jenny Rae – another battered woman’s revenge tale – and Black White and Blood Red. Llanas mines a wry, wistful oldtime country vibe with I’m in Trouble Again and Looking for Me Somewhere; Neumann’s distant, alienated angst gets plenty of space on the jangly concert favorite Paradise and the bitter You Don’t Get Much and True Devotion. More than two dozen tracks here, virtually all of them first-rate and a handful of genuine classics. Almost thirty years after they started, Llanas and Neumann still tour with a revamped version of the band, continuing to pack stadiums throughout the Midwest. Here’s a random torrent.

February 4, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 8/12/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Wednesday’s song is #350:

The BoDeans – Idaho

Kurt Neumann’s savagely sardonic lyric about a rocker’s random encounter with redneck hell, set to a beautifully anthemic blue-sky melody. The best version out there is, believe it or not, a soundcheck that turned out so good it became the opening cut on the Americana rockers’ blissfully good 1995 double live cd Joe Dirt Car; the version on the live Homebrewed cd from 2006 is also pretty damn good. As is this 2008 live take in the link in the title above.

August 12, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 4/21/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Tuesday’s song is #463:

Absinthe – Still Alone

This bitterly and brutally evocative portrayal of life among the down-and-out and soon to be down-and-permanently-out is the centerpiece of the band’s one classic album, 1999’s A Good Day to Die, arguably BoDeans frontman Sam Llanas’ finest moment as a songwriter – and he has many.

April 20, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 4/19/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Sunday’s song is #465:

Absinthe – Messed Up Likes of Us

Not the goth-metal band but the vastly more haunting solo project of soulful baritone crooner and BoDeans frontman Sam Llanas. The longing and anguish in this bitter, Orbisonesque breakup anthem is visceral. From the band’s lone, classic cd, 1999’s A Good Day to Die.

April 19, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Patricia Vonne – Firebird

Mexican-American actress/siren Patricia Vonne (she had roles in Sin City and Spy Kids) has a big, haunting, sometimes anguished, full-throated wail and a potent guitar band behind her. This is her most overtly rock-oriented album, although her gorgeous melodicism and uncommon dedication to social justice remain. Over the past few years she’s been a fierce proponent of the rights of American Indians and Mexican immigrants, and on this one she speaks up for the over two hundred women who’ve been murdered in Juarez, Mexico in the recent past, right off the bat, with the album’s first track, Missing Women. It’s a big guitar anthem that wouldn’t be out of place on the most recent Mary Lee’s Corvette album, and is reprised with lyrics in Spanish at the end of the cd. The album’s second cut, Hot Rod Heart is a fast rockabilly number with baritone sax and layers of guitars, sounding much like Dylan as produced by Daniel Lanois. The following track Battle Scars is a big rock anthem evoking Sam Llanas’ work with the BoDeans, a fiery, jangly rocker whose aching, longing, harmony-driven vocals are nothing short of spine-tingling.

Vonne apparently has a fondness for women bullfighters, as evidenced in Torera, a cross between a Mexican bolero number and an American power ballad. After that, Jett Rink – the one track on the album most reminiscent of her earlier, more country and Tex-Mex inflected material, imagines a scenario on the set of Giant, which happens to be Vonne’s favorite film.

Other standout tracks on the cd include the haunting The Dogs Dance, with its recurrent refrain of “I’m holding on” building into the chorus; La Huerta de San Vicente, a bitter, mostly acoustic tango spiced with spare electric guitar, violin and piano, inspired by Vonne’s first visit to Frederico Garcia Lorca’s home in Spain; and Karolina, a soaring, hopeful ballad rich with multitracked guitar lines like the Church at their late-80s peak.

It could be said (don’t laugh!!!) that Vonne is to the late zeros what Al Stewart was to the 70s. Consider: they both love backbeat rhythm, have a great way with a catchy hook and most importantly, have a sense of history, whether it’s current events, or bringing events from the past to life in a way that makes them relevant to the present day. Unlike Stewart, she can sing. The Austin native is predictably big in her native Texas and is also huge in Europe. Here’s hoping this album will bring her the mass American audience she deserves. Firebird is available at better retailers, online and at shows.

February 28, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment