The New Standards 10th Anniversary Holiday Show 2016
Posted: 09 December 2016 10:27 AM   [ Ignore ]
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This year, the New Standards celebrated the 10th anniversary of the cozy variety show that started at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul and has evolved into a joyous, slightly anarchic spectacle that is perhaps the hottest holiday ticket in the Twin Cities. 

…As I was trying to say during the abbreviated MPR Art Hounds bit, the show has become a treasured, singular tradition.  To me, it is a celebration of the local music community, and its unique ecology of cooperation, rather than competition.  What is most striking and beautiful about it is that it is such a quintessentially Minnesotan embrace of the musical community and the holiday season.  The show is a result of enormous talent and generosity.  During any given year, the band grants the stage to several other local musicians who those in the audience might not otherwise know.  And, correspondingly, several musicians agree to go out on a creative limb and take part in something altogether unfamiliar.

It is a collaboration of the most glorious sort, and it is truly of Minnesota.  It is especially noteworthy that during this occasion marking the show’s 10th anniversary, every one of the guests is based in Minnesota.  There was no Nellie McKay or Craig Finn from New York or Dan Wilson from Los Angeles.  This was a celebration of what we prize and what we create here.

There is one other element of this anniversary show that must be acknowledged.  All anniversaries mark the passing of time, and time past carries with it loss.  This show, like previous ones, marked loss explicitly, especially the losses of Gene Wilder, Prince, and David Bowie.  Also acknowledged were John’s mother and Chan’s wife, Eleanor.  These losses were worn more lightly than previously, perhaps as a result of the fact that, while time and loss go hand in hand, time also allows for healing. 

So, to the show:

1.  It began with John, Chan, and Steve at the front of the stage with ukuleles.  John said the song about to be performed was important to him because his father would sing it to him as a child.  It was “Here Comes Santa Claus” and it quickly became a bit about the fact that no one, including the members of the audience (who Chan urged to join in with a comically flailing arm), knows the lyrics beyond the first verse and the chorus.  A perfectly irreverent tone-setter.

2.  When the laughter died down, John and Chan began to harmonize in the style of a fugue, with overlapping tones chasing each other, but never resolving.  The sound swelled with immense waves of additional voices, strings, brass.  The curtain opened and revealed the entire complement of musicians, a stage resounding in fullness.  The harmony was then clear; it was “White Winter Hymnal” by Fleet Foxes.  One of the most stunning and most beautiful show openers I’ve ever encountered.  The audacity to take on something so intricate so early!

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Posted: 09 December 2016 10:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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3.  The staple, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was next.  Rupert was summoned but didn’t show.  Was this a tease or a snafu?  Either way, John picked up on Rupert’s absence and remarked “good-bye Satan, hello Trump.”  It was a theme of resistance in the face of degeneracy and mendaciousness that continued throughout the show. 

4.  Cameron Kinghorn, resplendent in a ruby bowtie, was introduced.  A duel threat, trumpeter and singer, he sang the 70s, soul inflected “This Christmas” perfectly channeling Stevie Wonder.

5.  Chan introduced the next song as a “dark twisted fantasy.”  It was “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”  Chan dug in with his hammy, beautiful baritone.  There was a stunning progression among the trumpet, alto, and violin in the middle that I desperately want to hear again.  And then, and then:  Janey Winterbauer asserted herself and howled her righteously indignant rejoinder to the song’s penultimate line “the three words that best describe you are as follows, and I quote:”

“STINK! STANK! TRUMP!”  The house was filled with an ecstatic sense of defiance.  It was Janey’s own Woody Guthrie sticker stamped on the show:  “This machine kills fascists (and perhaps short-fingered vulgarian Cheetoh Berlusconis).”

6.  Adam Levy and Aby Wolf then shifted the tone and sang one of Levy’s originals, “L’etoile du Nord” accompanied by strings.  I can’t do it justice. It is a gentle, surging meditation on Minnesota and its natural elements.  It is replete with reverence for this place and its essence.  “She cried a river of joy/Mississippi.”  “When she lays down/She covers us with a blanket of snow.”  I have searched everywhere for the lyrics.  They stand alone brilliantly as a free verse poem that rolls with perfect fluidity through the melody.  This song needs a broader audience.  Or, I should say that there is a vast audience that needs this song.

7.  John then said that the next song would be a look back at a previous show.  Levy stayed out and cut loose with “Ring of Fire” in homage to Mike Doughty’s performance from years ago.  The drums and the choir drove it forward, and Levy gradually took flight on a wave of Neil Diamond bombast. 

8.  There was no Robert Bly this year, but Alexei Moon Casselle performed a hip hop recitation of his poem “Vermillion.”  It was another piece that reflected the Minnesota environment, but with an overlay of tragedy and resilience.  Very nicely done.

9.  Next, Chastity Brown came out, and John introduced her song as one of their favorite songs off of one of their favorite records.  The entire band seemed to rise up, unleashed with the spontaneous, loose sound of Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do.”  Brown’s brassy, pugilistic vocals were driven along by the choir, strings, and jubilant swell of the horn section.  It captured the ineffable—the ecstatic, urgent creativity of Morrison’s masterpiece of a record.  This was one of my favorite moments over the last 10 years.  My notes say “shivers.”  I remember my arms feeling shot through with the electric effervescence one sometimes feels in the face of sublimity.

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Posted: 09 December 2016 10:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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10.  Nothing could follow that, but having the South American style drum line of Batucada do Norte at hand certainly helps.  They backed “Bizarre Love Triangle,” the bass, drums, vibes, and horn runs from Steve Kung created a perfect progression, all of which was pressed on by the choir.

11.  As it had to, that shifted to a euphoric run through “Rattle My Bones.”  Rupert finally appeared, paired off with a tap dancing demonette and surrounded by a line of glowing skeletons.  It was so joyful and absurd that my face hurt by the time the drum line recessed through the audience and we had our intermission.

INTERMISSION

1.  The second set began with Allison Labonne, resplendent in all white, even her hair looked platinum under the lights.  Chan mentioned that it would be a Claudine Longet song (and that Longet murdered her husband!).  It was an achingly beautiful, muted rendition of “Snow” with Labonne more breathing than singing the notes, accompanied by guitar and accordion.  Paris bistro meets the snowy north.  Nico looked on from the otherworld with approval and a shade of jealousy.

2.  Next, Dessa was introduced.  She sang a reworked “Fading Sound of Bells.”  She was backed by low brass and strings.  The arrangement was just brilliant.  It surged and swirled with a dark minor key thrum, underlaid by the richness that only a cello and French horn can seem to capture.  But, Dessa’s vocal dexterity seemed shrouded, underutilized.  The piece struck me more focused on choreography (Dessa was striking, alternating between a rigid upright posture and a loose limbed prowl of the stage) and the backing arrangement at the expense of Dessa’s vocals.  I was left wanting the rat a tat and gymnastic verbal brilliance of “Dixon’s Girl.”

3.  Matt Wilson came out and seemed to hug everyone on his way to the microphone.  He had bed head to a degree that I thought only a 4 year old could achieve, and sang his new song “When I was a Writer.”  As though Matt is not a writer now…  While it was far more restrained than his recent operas bouffes, it was gently gorgeous.  I was struck again by his utter honesty and unguardedness.  My only note about this song reads:  “Can’t fake empathy.”  Precisely.  Artistry, unlike artifice, requires vulnerability. 

4.  Enter Chris Coleman, his bag pipes, and the wonderfully subversive “Fairytale of New York.”  Janey Winterbauer and Chan Poling reprised a treasure from past shows and ate each other up.  My notes read “our next governor on bag pipes.”  Chan made a similar comment as the song wrapped. 

5.  No one could have possibly imagined what happened next.  Joel Hodgson, of Mystery Science Theater 3000, stepped out, spoke about his show and how he wished Har Mar Superstar had performed the theme song, and then performed it himself.  I was so overwhelmed by unexpected memories of high school and bonding with my fellow goofs and miscreants over “Manos:  the Hands of Fate” that the moment passed as though in a dream.  I still have my yellow fan club card in my wallet; it is so worn that it is more of an oval than a rectangle, but I can’t bear to file it away to be forgotten.

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Posted: 09 December 2016 10:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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6.  From hallucination to innocent dreams:  It seems appropriate that Jeremy Messersmith followed with “Pure Imagination” in homage to Gene Wilder, complete with cane and a (faux?) tap-dance routine.  The arrangement was built around a whimsical violin accompaniment that brought to mind Stephane Grapelli.

7.  Messersmith remained to reprise another holiday show classic, “Let’s Ditch Christmas” with a wonderful horn arrangement and, of course, the beach ball bearing and swimsuit clad Tinsel Toe Dancers.
 
8.  As beach balls were corralled, Gary Louris was introduced to perform another homage.  “Starman” memorialized Bowie and his crazy cosmic jive.  The strings were a heavy, shimmering foundation, the choir built and built.  And Louris, with his trademark slightly reedy and tremulous voice hovered above it all, bidding Bowie a celestial bon voyage.  It was gorgeous.

9.  It was time:  “Snow Days” filled the hall.  The brass shimmered, the snow fell from the rafters, and John wailed with joy, bearing the gift of Minnesota’s signature winter song.  Matt, leaving the glory to the New Standards and their partners, beckoned Mrs. Braintree from offstage.  As always, it was a beautiful moment, completely Minnesotan, brought into being by Matt and carried forward by John. 

10.  As has become customary, the show was brought to a conclusion with a dance party.  Janey and Aby presented yet another Minnesota contribution to the show, “Funky Town.”  That evolved into an utterly fierce “Controversy” propelled by choir, strings, brass, and light show.  Prince’s contribution ultimately wrapped the show, amidst a frenzy of dancing devils, trees, skeletons, and cowboys, on a note falling somewhere between jubilation and mayhem.  In other words, perfectly Prince. 

11.  For an encore, Aby Wolf stilled the chaos by revisiting her singular “Silent Night.”  Her voice is at times too much for the space, but it works.  The arrangement of bass, vibes, and piano shimmered with warm clarity around Wolf’s irrepressible instrument. 

12.    And finally, “Christmas Time Next Year,” Chan’s bookend to “Snow Days.”  While “Snow Days” can be said to usher in and celebrate the season, “Christmas Time Next Year” might be read to be more pensive and to acknowledge the voids that can accompany the season. That recognition of the departed is always somewhere apparent in the show (most obviously this year with the tributes to Wilder, Bowie, and Prince), and it makes it all the more rich.  Indeed, the song was introduced with a recognition of the central role women play to the season and was dedicated to them.  I took that dedication to be directed at Chan’s wife and John’s mother.  The poignancy of the season has never been better expressed than with Chan’s original Christmas masterpiece, which ends with his benediction that acknowledges the potential for absences:  “So raise your glass and drink a toast/to the wish we wish the most/that we’ll be together here/at Christmastime next year.”

This is a Christmas show unlike any other.  It is the product of generosity, and it inspires nothing more than gratitude.  Indeed, over the last 10 years of shows, the band has never failed to fill me with gratitude:  gratitude for being there to witness the show, gratitude to live in a place that is inhabited by so many richly talented and generous artists, and gratitude to live among so many who are willing to fill a music hall in support of such artists.  I can’t imagine a better way to start the holiday season than that.  What beauty, what generosity.  May we be together here at Christmas Time next year.

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Posted: 10 January 2017 03:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Speaking of needing a larger audience… No one can review our guys like you do, PSH! Thank you for archiving so poetically. Now I am weeping reliving all these moments.

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First Trip Shakespearience: June 13, 1987 “River Days” Kaukauna, WI. I was 16.

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Posted: 10 January 2017 04:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Thanks for your kindness, Jane.

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