Yes, We Have No Jugs Today

How do you fit nine people, a stand-up bass, and a galvanized washtub on the exiguous stage of Pete’s Candy Store?

You don’t. The Jug Addicts solve the problem by careful stacking and layering: First you fill in the back line, where the two basses flank the harmonica; then you position the front line –acoustic guitar, washboard, and washboard; and finally the forefront line goes into the audience, with the fiddles along the walls and the lap-slide guitar in the middle. A little nimbleness of foot and hip, and they even manage to switch position as needed, when the bass player mutates into a musical sawyer or when the harmonica player steps to the microphone to sing lead.

No jugs, as you may have noticed (not even moonshine), but plenty of old-time music plucked from the repertoires of string bands and jug bands of the past, jazz standards from swing-era big bands, and a nod to the Hawaiian craze of the ’20s.

The Jug Addicts played a non-stop, hour and a half set to a solidly packed room including both stalwarts and casual walk-ins, including –this is Williamsburg, after all– one lovey-dovey Orthodox couple of a certain age, he with white beard, white shirt, yarmulke and tzitzith, she with a floor-length, long-sleeved dress and a brown beret at a rakish angle, and they were hootin’ an’ hollerin’ with the black-sweatered hipsters and hipstresses.

The band started things off with Jimmie Rodgers’ He’s in the Jailhouse Now, the opening cut from their CD Cynthia’s Kitchen, and never let the spirit flag; that’s the advantage of jug bands, even the ballads are fast and rowdy! They romped through Crazy Arms, Sheik of Araby, Frankie and Johnny, Bei mir bist du schön, Sadie Green, Minnie The Moocher and many more, trading lead vocals between Bill Carney (washboard, kazoo), Brian Mulroney (washboard, bells), Ken Byrne (harmonica), and Dale Burleyson (acoustic guitar). Anna Goodman and Karl Meyer split the fiddle duties, Gil Shuster played his washtub bass like a lead instrument while Robert Charde kept the double bass in the background (but made his way to the front row for a couple of numbers on the musical saw at the end of the set); finally, Steve Cooney sat quietly, with his 3/4 Gibson on his lap and played slide with a regular flat pick.

The CD, Cynthia’s Kitchen, sounds almost as jaunty and bracing as the live performance, even through (or perhaps thanks to?) tiny computer speakers. It was produced by JP Bowersock, lately in the news for that little pop band called The Strokes and for the compilation CD New York City Rock N Roll, but better known to us cool New-York cognoscenti for his own, exceptional neo-surf band The Papaya Kings (Don’t Fear the Reverb) and Cynthia Lamb’s band Kivi (get it? Cynthia’s kitchen…) As far as I can tell, it is only available at the band’s shows or by mail to

Posted in About Last Night |

Been Down So Long, It Looks Like DMV

I’m sure there’s some sensible reason that the Brooklyn DMV is in the Atlantic Center shopping mall, but I can’t imagine what it is. Take the escalator up to the second floor, squeeze past the guy selling watches for $10 at the top, and you have Old Navy on the right and the Department of Motor Vehicles down the hall to the left.

One side is full of people who can’t figure out what to do waiting in line for people who don’t know what to tell them to do, and the other, well, never mind, actually.

I’m out for a non-driver’s license. I always think they should make you fail the road test before they give you one. Like this: stop at red and you get your license; run through red and you have to take the test again; hit the light and you get a non-driver’s license. “OK, this one sure can’t drive. Next! Sir! Sir! Step out of the vehicle, don’t make me shoot.”

As soon as I set foot in the place the computers go down. Then they tell us the computers are down statewide, and Albany is presumably trying to find that guy who knows how to fix everything. So much for six points’ worth of identification and proof of birth.

Off to the movies. An afternoon at the DMV lets a lot of air out of a guy’s day, and even at matinee prices Secret Window doesn’t exactly rush in to fill the vacuum. It’s a fine movie – not as in Fine Art, but as in “Howya doin’?” “Oh fine.” Johnny Depp could have done this in his sleep, and it’s a credit to his work that he didn’t; the rest of the cast is uniformly dressed, shoes and shirts and pants, socks and hats and everything. Not one of them turns up even once awkwardly missing any clothes. Oh, they also walk around and talk and drive cars and stuff.

Last night I was entranced by Sylvain Chomet’s Les Triplettes de Belleville, which is great fun. It’s tender, twitchy, visionary, and vibrant, and has the virtue of overcommitting through every second of its creaky, scattered length. It peaked, to these sentimental eyes, in its first 15 minutes, creating strange and distant non-verbal relationships of amazing complexity between its main characters; with all the invention and wild lunacy that followed, it was never quite as touching again. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ll agree that Finding Nemo was a better Oscar® choice than this gem, though the Triplettes got totally ripped for best song. Come on, you know as well as I do that Return of the King didn’t even have a song. Oh yeah? Fine, sing it then.

I rest my case.

Posted in About Last Night |

Three Little Willies

As promised a few days ago, here are some pictures of the Little Willies, taken at the Living Room, NYC, on Sunday 3/7.
Jim Campilongo Richard Julian
Jim "Willie" Campilongo Richard "Willie" Julian
Norah Jones
Norah "Willie" Jones Norah "Willie" Jones
The Famous Phone Book =>

Photos © 2004 Pierre Jelenc

Posted in Music Theory |

The Demon Barber of Lodi, NJ

Last week two Sikh teenagers from Lodi, New Jersey told police they had been attacked by five bruisers, who pulled off their turbans and despoiled them of three to four feet of hair each. The attackers also stole $40 in cash. It’s a nasty little hate-crime story, touching on the quivering xenophobia of these times.

It’s also a cock-and-sacred-bull story, in that it’s completely false. Yesterday the pair told police they had made up the assault to cover for more routine haircuts, which are not allowed under their religious rules. I’m thinking – no, don’t tell me – a $19.95 cut-and-wash special at the mall? Times two?

Uncut hair is Kesh, one of the symbols of the Khalsa, which as I understand it (vaguely at best) is an order into which Sikh youth (of both sexes) are inducted in an initiation ceremony called amrit. Hair is regarded as a bounty from the godhead, and is not removed from any part of the body; thus the famous Sikh rolled beards. The tradition dates back to 1699.

Jersey in the Noughties is a long way from the rough edges of the Mughal Empire; so is Williamsburg far from the shtetl, and I am always caught up in mixed feelings when I see Chasidim in full regalia: payes, tallis, tefillin, the works. It must be terribly strange and hard to be the protruding tip of a mountain of tradition and family blood, stuck up into the modern air. And to be a modern man for the cost of a shave-and-a-haircut? Two bits.

Posted in General Musings |

Shades of Gray

Spaulding Gray - photo by Raku LorenThe sad news of the death of Spaulding Gray was not unexpected, but neither was it welcome. I didn’t know him, but I saw and read his work over the years.

Since Spaulding Gray was a storyteller who put his life and soul into his stories, we join his memory with a story of our own.

A few years back, a piece by a famous performance artist who shall remain unnamed – oops – started a short run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The first nights were a smash-up of New York’s black-clad finest. Since the black-clad finest are not always so good at planning ahead, and calendars can be elusive and confusing things in the best of times, the box office was swimming in last-minute requests from both the unwashed and the anointed. Most venues keep a stock of house tickets on hand for such emergencies as a matter of policy, and they were much in demand here.

After the show, a behind-the-scenes BAM friend reported that the box office tried hard to seat two last-minute requesters together in the orchestra: Spaulding Gray, who got his seat, and Monica Lewinsky, who ultimately didn’t show up. We all felt that the world was poorer for the lack of the monologue that might have come out of the evening.

Posted in General Musings |

Pearls Before Swoon

Scarlett Johansson: Purty azza pitcherA one-two film punch like Lost in Translation into Girl with a Pearl Earring is the kind of combo careers are made of (let’s just never mind The Perfect Score and figure two out of three ain’t bad). And Scarlett Johansson is just the kind of girl to deliver the goods on the combo, ya hear.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is the sort of dreamy slow drama that drives ‘em away in droves, and as is proper for such a thing it’s exquisitely beautiful. With lush set decoration that brings Peter Greenaway to mind (but absent the deviant disturbing sex), director Peter Webber makes a clever and interleaved picture of pictures, about pictures, in pictures. He lards his larder with rich images of leaded glass and period cookstuffs (we’re in 1665, folks), balancing cramped rooms and caged light with the constant feral threat of empyreal visions. Webber’s unobtrusive camera sometimes sits still just long enough for you to think, “That’s like a painting, it’s so familiar,” and then it glides on, back into story.

Art for art’s sake is a passionate game in stuffy Delft, and pretty young housemaid Griet (Johansson) is the sudden strike that leaves the household of the master painter Johannes Vermeer in turmoil and disarray. The conceit of Tracy Chevalier‘s novel, from which the film is drawn, is that Vermeer painted his hottie servant as the unnamed model in his famous “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” sublimating his desire for the girl in the weave of pigments and creating an anonymous masterpiece which gazed straight into eternity. This notion is probably not true – this excellent Vermeer site has a boatload of information on the subject – but the web of erotic intrigue the author and director weave around it is captivating.

Late in the film Griet comes to a joining of paths. Two of the directions she might go are closed off, and of the two remaining – each representing, The Lady or the Tiger style, a very different future – either would satisfy one or another itch. It’s a moment of supreme satisfaction. Where will she go? The camera lingers long enough to let you feel the power of the choice, in a visceral and confusing way. Film school students will note that Johansson is standing on a covered circle, a stand-in for the camera’s lens, or the audience’s gaze, or the artist’s eye. Or all three.

Colin Firth is terrific as Vermeer, the artist who is the mediator for and not the director of his visions; but I kept seeing Brad Dourif in the role, somehow. Cillian Murphy is the right sort of hunk and beautifully underplays (and embodies) the meaty call of life as the romantic foil of few words. The storyteller’s hand is appropriately heavy in making him the son of a butcher. Johansson is sculptural and pale, and Webber’s fascination with her mouth is enthralling for us in the dark house, too. Unlike Angelina Jolie’s notorious lips, though, Scarlett’s actually look like they are part of her face. The best of the visions is Judy Parfitt as the family matron; in her great ruff and black skullcap she is a portrait made flesh, and her eyes pierce and flash with skill and power.

Then off it was to burlesque at the Slipper Room. Which seemed a properly carnal response to such thoughtful pursuits.

Posted in About Last Night |

Willier Than Thou

Word of mouth did its word-of business last night, and under skies that spattered and threatened snow (damn groundhogs), The Living Room filled up full for an outing by The Little Willies. The Willies are an occasional downtown carouse that started life in concept as a Willie Nelson cover band and then, say thankya, peeped over the horizon some and grew to cover country in general, and Willie Nelson in passing.

Which means that Norah Jones was playing up-close, homey, and pretty much unannounced, in one of the City’s best small venues and at The Right Price (free, with tip jar). While everyone’s favorite safe coolster musical outlook these days is “I love everything – except country,” last night there was country love all over the place, and it felt good. Pierre and I turned up early (Pierre is a proud dyed-in-the-gingham country afficionado; I grew up on summer New England country & northern radio, and sometimes the spirit moves me) and squoze in just in time, before the I-can’t-see jostling started toward the back and the lines for the bathrooms got big-big.

What can a mere Pepper say about Norah Jones? Frankly, she’s luminous. I’ve already run my public self-flagellation over not jumping her train when it was still in the station. In keeping with the rest of her gracious campaign of world domination, she plays without a trace of star glam or lookee-here ego. She’s Goldilocks in Downtown mufti: neither too big nor too small, neither overplaying nor holding back her gifts. Norah is at home and among friends, perched on a phone book – the Living Room piano bench doesn’t adjust – in a PIPING HOT coffeehouse t-shirt and jeans, looking comfortable and glad to belong. You can almost forget that she’s a star. Almost.

The Willies feature “Willie” Richard Julian on vox and clacky acoustic guitar, “Willie” Jim Campilongo on rugged and lyrical electric guitar, “Willie” Lee Alexander on doghouse bass, and drummer “Willie” Dan Rieser in the back. “Willie” Jones trades off vox with Willie Julian through a set of country classics and culty dark horse tunes, spiced up with a couple of fun, goofy originals. One of which, “Milking Bull,” ruminates briefly on things that can’t be undone and involves a new scatalogical twist on the can’t-put-toothpaste-back-in-the-tube trope. Except not toothpaste. If you get my drift. “Potty humor,” says Willie Norah.

Best Line of the Evening

Willie Julian: That’s Willie Jones on vocals and piano. Hey, how come you get such a good name?
Willie Jones: There must be hundreds of Willie Joneses. We could look it up.
Willie Julian: Well, you’ve got a phone book right there.
Willie Jones: That’s right, I do.
Guy in the Audience: Do you have hindsight?
Half the Audience: Whoa!
Other half of the Audience: What did he say?

We get a terrific range of music over the two Willies sets, from Jimmy Driftwood’s “Tennessee Stud” to Johnny Cash’s “Delia,” and from Kris Kristofferson’s heartbreaker “For the Good Times,” which Norah voices with dusky clarity, to “Never Get Out of this World Alive” by Hank Williams. There’s a sidestep to “No Place to Fall” by Townes Van Zandt, and a wacky Willie Julian original about catching black-clad Lou Reed out in the country in the act of cow-tipping – “I thought you were vegetarian,” wonders the song’s Julian-like protagonist, to Reed’s response that he doesn’t eat them, he just knocks them down.

The high point is Norah’s cover of “Jolene,” Dolly Parton’s classic please-don’t-take-my-man hit. Where the original is crisp, defiant, and a little too bouncy for its subject, Norah paints it as a scene of bruised overcast. When she confides that “He talks about you in his sleep/ There’s nothing I can do to keep/ From crying when he calls your name, Jolene,” I believe her. Where Parton drew a sketch and allowed the story pull through from its own weight, Norah brings an overheard confessional quality to the song. In her hands it is fragile and bleak and alive.

Frank Tedesso filled the hotspot before the Willies. He’s eager and breathless, the happy picture of a big beardy man-child, radiating a swaddling and sheepish air of ingenuous discovery. I like hearing him tell stories, and I like hearing him sing in his great fluffy towel of a warm basso. Tedesso’s songs have a fresh flush that is sometimes new and sometimes a bit on the beaten path; when he pans gems from the river, as in “Birds” (in which he concludes that we can learn a lot from the French, what with “Frankie” Truffaut, guillotines, and Michel Foucault – but that we can learn even more from birds), the experience is delightful.

As it turns out, everyone likes country after all. Pierre will have pictures of the show later in the week.

Posted in About Last Night |

A Warrior’s Best Friend

The rover tried, unsuccessfully, to use one of its many tools to grind away at an outcropping dubbed “Flat Rock,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement on its Web site.

Now, let’s see … The logical explanation is … diamonds on Mars!

Posted in General Musings |

A Big Blog Took My Lunch Money

Our daily alert from WIRED Magazine sports the “Dog Bites Man” news that big bloggers steal from little bloggers. Whoa! Whoda thunk it?

Just as I read the story, which describes tracking phrases from blog to blog using a web trawler robot called BlogPulse, we had a synchronous referral hit from a BlogPulse page citing us as recent commenters on Orkut. A meme! A trend! A trope, even!

Nope. Our Orkut mention had nothing to do with anyone else’s discussions. It’s no news that big aggregator sites lift all over the place, and the guy who starts the buzz never gets the credit in this business or any other. Still, I’m guessing that most of the 80,000 blogs that BlogPulse paws through aren’t doing much more interconnected than flowing down the same river. If you look closely enough at that river and its swimmers, you’re sure to discover that all of us are wet.

We Peppers try to point back to our sources where we can. So note that it’s PZ Myers of the evolutionary blog Pharyngula who directed us to this eerie deserted photo-journey through Chernobyl. And Pharyngula credits his source as well, and so on down the chain.

Posted in General Musings |

Strangulation Of Disbelief

So there I am, disbelief hung high and dry, zooming along the last chapter of Paul Levinson’s The Pixel Eye. (I normally would have put a link here, but Amazon keeps sticking all sorts of tracking data in their URLs and that pisses me off.)

So anyway, we’ve got squirrels with bombs implanted in their skulls (not a spoiler yet) and the dénouement is fast approaching when Continue reading

Posted in General Musings |