Guitar heroes and heartaches: Howie Day at Ann Arbor’s The Ark

Howie Day

Howie Day

I’m not much for folk music (see my review of Inside Llewyn Davis) or, for that matter, guitar-driven singer/songwriters. So, when our friend Bonnie offered an extra ticket to see Howie Day at Ann Arbor’s The Ark, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I had vague memories of Day as an early aughts pop/rock folkie with the following attributes: an inescapable (and kinda bland) radio hit “Collide,” a reputation as having been Britney Spears’ rehab rebound boy toy, some TMZ-style controversies that involved berating flight attendants and throwing cell phones, and a Russell Crowe-esque fiery temper (that last point being the most intriguing to me).

It’s a shame that this is his legacy to ignorant lay-people like yours truly, because he is phenomenal.

The joy of seeing a musician live when you know pretty much none of their songs is that every tune is a new discovery. (My apologies to those Howie Day fans looking for a set-list or some other detail from tonight’s show. I have no idea what the songs were titled.)

Bonnie and Roy

Bonnie and Roy

Day was such a compelling presence, with just his honey-husky voice, his Liev Schreiber-ish look, a guitar and a microphone, and (his secret weapon) some astonishing gizmo that let him record, dub, layer, and re-layer his own voice and instrumentation in real time. I don’t know how else to describe it.

I’m sure someone out there knows the name for this, but he had a device on the floor that he would tap with his foot and record a snippet of guitar or voice or some other noise that would then loop and repeat and become the accompaniment for any given song. This technique – which was part dusty troubadour, part Ibiza-bound DJ – was transfixing and transporting.

This beat-infused folktronica (lord, I always hated that term, yet here I am using it) offered a surreal soundscape for the heartache dripping from every lyric. While Day gave sparkling between-song  patter (he kept returning to the notion that he really should have seen the film Noah today if he was going to perform at a venue called “The Ark”), every song he played related the tale of someone abandoned by love, by friends, by life. Haunting doesn’t even begin to describe the musical stories he wove.

Shane Piasecki

Shane Piasecki

Opening act Shane Piasecki was a sunny counterpoint to Day’s melodic solemnity. Piasecki – resembling some mashed up hybrid of Ed Norton, Bob Dylan, and James Franco – captivated the audience with his shaggy dog charm, playing guitar and harmonica and vocalizing, with studied casual aplomb. His numbers all had a loping frat boy charm but with a musical sophistication that belied his youthful demeanor. He had the audience in the palm of his hand … and that was prior to him telling us he had to rush back to his mischievous dog at the hotel where he’s staying before the establishment lost every last pillow to the canine’s canines.

If these two wandering minstrels find their way to your town (or somewhere nearby), do not hesitate to check them out. You won’t be disappointed. I, for one, bought all of Piasecki’s musical output (four CDs – $35 in total) at the merchandise table, and Day’s are now added to my Amazon cart for ordering posthaste!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound, Common Language, and Memory Lane also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Countdown: Inside Llewyn Davis

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 5 days remain until the official launch of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Please note that, in addition to online ordering, the book currently is being carried by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Memory Lane also has copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Here’s a snippet from Roy’s Review of Inside Llewyn Davis: “I’ll tell you what I think. Inside Llewyn Davis is in keeping with a theme that shoots through much of the Coen Brothers work: frustration over the venom creative people spew at each other in their dogged competition for limited resources, attention, and fame. Actors and singers and writers and painters and dancers are all a bit broken, and they make their way into careers that are often doomed from the start, compounded by a cruelly competitive system that rewards the schemers and abandons the weak.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Folk music is hateful stuff: Inside Llewyn Davis

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I have to start with a disclaimer …

I cannot tolerate a movie where animals are hurt or in peril. I knew going into Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest from the acerbic yet cynically humanistic writer/director team Joel and Ethan Coen, that a runaway cat is a central narrative element. Hell, the orange tabby is on the damn poster, clutched in the titular anti-hero’s arms as Llewyn saunters down a busy New York street.

Have you ever tried to hold a cat in one arm, a guitar in the other, while walking down a bustling thoroughfare?!? Exactly.

I will offer for my fellow animal advocates (spoiler alert!) that the cat is ok. Sort of.

A cat runs out a fire escape window and disappears. A cat reappears. A cat makes it home. A cat takes a road trip to Chicago. And a cat (or something) has a limp-inducing near miss with a car on a snowy road. Might be the same cat. Might not. I’m not sure what all these orange cats signify, but the Coen Brothers love their oddball metaphors, even if PETA (or yours truly) is inflamed in the process.

(As a side note, for viewers like me who, yes … of course! … worry about cinematic animal safety much more than that of human counterparts, there is a website for us. Thanks to Kim Elizabeth Johnson for alerting me to it.)

So, with that point made, how is the movie? Quite good actually. It is one of the Coens’ most sedate offerings, bleakly transporting viewers to grungy Greenwich Village in the 1960s where the folk music scene appears to be atrophying before the ascent of pop derivatives like Bob Dylan and his ilk.

Llewyn, played wonderfully by Oscar Isaac, is a failed troubadour, whose singing partner is long gone and who subsists on a steady diet of cigarettes, self-loathing, and couch-crashing at a succession of annoyed friends’ apartments. Isaac is a marvel, resisting every urge to make Llewyn one bit redeeming or likable. He is a wretched human (with a lovely voice) consumed by a toxic brew of pretension, insecurity, jealousy, bitterness, condescension, and holier than thou artsy-fartsiness.

(Oh, how I’ve known too many dudes like this fellow – folks who are so got by their own disappointments that they have to kick sand in the faces of any and everyone else with the tiniest shred of talent or even the slightest bit of creative happiness. Ah, that felt better.)

Often with a Coen Brothers film (in fact their best ones – like Barton Fink or the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men), you’re left wondering: what was their intention exactly? This film, like others in their oeuvre, offers their trademark circular non-ending ending, and, as we departed the theatre, I overheard a few folks asking, “What was that about?”

I’ll tell you what I think. Inside Llewyn Davis is in keeping with a theme that shoots through much of the Coen Brothers work: frustration over the venom creative people spew at each other in their dogged competition for limited resources, attention, and fame. Actors and singers and writers and painters and dancers are all a bit broken, and they make their way into careers that are often doomed from the start, compounded by a cruelly competitive system that rewards the schemers and abandons the weak.

With this acidic lens, the Coens turn their filmic gaze on folk music, one of the more self-satisfied forms of artistic expression. At surface, folk music has always been about gathering the tribe to celebrate our commonality; yet, in reality, it is usually a vehicle for some twee turtleneck-wearing phony to look down his or her nose at middle-class plebes who are scraping by with their staid corporate lives and suffocating mortgage payments.

The Coens dive right into the heart of that notion, and not with the campy satire of Christopher Guest’s similarly themed A Mighty Wind, but with the unsympathetic bruised heart of a Sidney Lumet or a John Cassavetes with just a smidge of their own asburdist twinkle.

The supporting cast is populated with assorted odd ducks stepping on the heads of their fellow “artists” in hopes of making a buck or two. Justin Timberlake is adequate in a throwaway role as an earnest folkie who writes a really godawful song with unsurprising populist appeal. John Goodman is sheer brilliance as a mean-as-a-rattlesnake jazz musician who shows his contempt for Llewyn and his chosen genre with a steady stream of vitriol, leveled at what he deems inane and amateurish musicianship. The normally exquisite Carey Mulligan struggles a bit with a one-note role (and equally bad wig) as an ambitious ladder-climbing folkie who may or may not be pregnant with Llewyn’s child.

Previously mentioned feline concerns aside, I recommend Inside Llewyn Davis to anyone who has found themselves lost in a creative bubble, not sure whom to trust or where to go. As they say, karma will get you, and perhaps that is the ultimate lesson we glean from Llewyn’s neglect of cats and people. What goes around comes around. And folk music is hateful stuff.