Thursday, December 13, 2012

Word into media w/ high art & amateur enthusiasm

It's always interesting to see people you know do work you do, so I was fascinated last night to watch the "May These Changes Make Us Light" production on Cherokee Street. This was an ambitious multimedia show that mixed live music (rock band, string section, handdrums) with dance (aerial, pole, Mexican folk), video, spoken word, shadow puppetry and costumed theatrics. Most of it was ultimately text-based, so they were translating poetry and folklore into other media. That's exactly what Poetry Scores does, so I was fascinated to watch how other very talented people do what we do.

In the cast was one of my very favorite local artists in any media, Michelle Mynx, choreographer and pole dancer and half of Gravity Plays Favorites. Michelle performed in a narrative piece with many other elements. Like most of the production, it had an earthy yet spiritual basis, and I enjoyed to see one-half of the burlesque duo Gravity Plays Favorites choregraph for solo pole dance in a setting where sexuality was not themed.

I have a reverent attitude toward Michelle's work and Gravity. I get so blissed out that I experience it differently and it's hard to compare to the rest of my experience of a show. For the part of the show where I wasn't awestruck, my favorite bit was the opening: Fire Dog playing "Prelude," their collaboration with The Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra. I listen to that song so often from my sampler of the new Fire Dog record that my daughter, who joined me for the show, blurted out at the second chord, "I know this song."

I was struck elsewhere in another Fire Dog number that Celia is an amazing bass player. I always assumed she was a chord-chopping band leader playing bass in a buddy's band to help out, but she has made the instrument her own.

The aerial dancer Indie Nombrilou had another featured spot. Her work also puts me over toward that awe-o-sphere where there's not much I am able to say about it other than I am glad she is working here while I am here.

The venue was a nightclub, more given to loud bands than multi-media shows, so the lighting was poor. I especially couldn't see Indie's act as well as I would have liked. There is a trade-off in the lighting, because Light was the main theme of the show and various projections of light (which required darkness to work) were integral to the show. That includes skilled video work by Mike Pagano which threaded in and out of the other performances.

The show closer was led by the voice of Lyndsey Scott. Lyndsey is one of my other favorite artists in town whom I've always asked to do everything. I've not seen her in her own element that much, so it was interesting to see her persona in its more native setting. I felt her as a strong spiritual center for the show.

I was dragged out to a show on a school night by Rebecca S. Rivas, who choreographed and danced and had a role in the overall shape of the production. Rebecca and I share a highly demanding and rewarding day job at The St. Louis American. So though I see her more days than I don't, and though we have dozens of friends and creative partners in common, I actually never share art with her.

We talked about the show and about producing shows today. We agreed on a shared aesthetic, which is also an ethic in a way. We agreed it's good to mix high professional talent and vocation with amateur enthusiasm. It's good to have both Michelle Mynx, who could work anywhere in the world, and your friends who want to put on an animal costume and act out a folk tale. We agreed there's something really good, and something really St. Louis, about that mix.

Translating poetry and folklore into other media with a playful mix of high art and amateur enthusiasm -- that's the thing I am talking about; that's the thing we do around here.


Photo of the great Michelle Mynx borrowed from her Facebook page.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"Water Bread & Beer" served in digits, plastics, live gigs

Our longtime producer, licensing honcho and e-distributor Meghan Gohil is jumping our band Eleanor Roosvelt through the iTunes etc. loops for our new record Water Bread & Beer to be available for worldwide digital download.

The band is also covening in St. Louis from Nashville, Los Angeles and New Jersey this weekend to usher into the world small pieces of plastic with the new record and companion artwork digitally imprinted in physical form. Fred Friction opens for a house concert in Olivette at 8 p.m. Friday, December 7 (email David Melson - - for his address and to get on the list). Then we play a tavern gig in Granite City at 10 p.m. Satuday, December 8 with Dana Anderson at Jacobsmeyers Tavern, 2401 Edwards, by the scenic steel mills.

Our digital distributor asked of us some detailed notes for Water Bread & Beer, and here is what we had to say. I used some vague terms ("Americana") and made band-name comparisons in some feeble attempt at popular appeal.

Eleanor Roosevelt: Water Bread & Beer

Eleanor Roosevelt’s new record Water Bread & Beer captures a folk-rock songwriting team half-way in its evolution from pioneers of alt-country (as Enormous Richard, they released their first record in the same town and summer as Uncle Tupelo) into the music department of an arts organization, Poetry Scores, that translates world poetry into other media.

The new record has an even mix of “original” Americana songs, and musical settings of poetry and traditional texts. Among the songs where frontman Chris King penned the lyrics, “Watch a Cloud” is about doing exactly that while lying flat on your back on a farm; “Seeds & Shit” is about moving off a barstool and down to the country to live with a woman; “Grainery Light” muses on a hometown dominated by that grainbelt icon. But their future as Poetry Scores is glimpsed in “Death & Taverns,” which sets a Federico Garcia Lorca poem to music; “Children’s Rain Song,” a new folk-rock setting of a Moroccan Jewish children’s chant; and “Tortilla,” a new working of  a Peruvian labor protest song.

These songs were composed and the basic tracks recorded while the songwriting team was on the road as Hoobellatoo, a field recording collective that provided a pit stop on the journey between the band Eleanor Roosevelt and the arts organization Poetry Scores. These songs were written and initially recorded in grand, scattered places: a mansion on Mount Desert Island in Maine; a cabin in Door County, Wisconsin; a campsite in the Virginian Appalachias; another cabin on South Turkey Creek in Leicester, North Carolina beside the square dance platform built by Bascom Lamar Lunsford; and in the living room of Pops Farrar in Belleville, Illinois. It was finished by producer Elijah “Lij” Shaw at his studio The Toy Box in Music City, Nashville, Tennessee.

When King, Shaw and their songwriting partners Matt Fuller and John Minkoff wrote these songs, they had been on and off the road for the better part of a decade, as rock bands and then field recordists. In these songs you can hear the edge and unpredictability of the road, especially “Strangers & Dangers” (where the title says it all) and “James Brown Boulevard,” the name of an actual road on the wrong side of the Godfather of Soul’s hometown, Augusta, Georgia. “Pair of Skunks” is an homage to that angel of every traveling band, the pretty girl pouring coffee in the morning at a roadside diner. Certainly “Nothing Feels Better Than Doing Wrong” – though a very free adaptation of a traditional Zulu text – expresses sentiments familiar to anyone who ever saw the country via the van of a traveling band.

The Zulu folktale buried in that rock song points to another element that runs throughout this record. Though Water Bread & Beer is dominated by the acoustic, guitars, banjos and fiddles of Americana, it takes much of its perspective from the traditions of Africa. As Hoobellatoo, these guys recorded a traditional Grebo (Liberia, West Africa) elder named Nymah Kumah, who influenced them profoundly as people. “Pepper Soup & Local Honey” is basically a recipe of Grebo traditional immunology: local honey to inoculate yourself against local pathogens and pepper soup to clear your chest and head once they get in. “Me as a Horse” sets to music a passage from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by the father of the African novel, Amos Tutuola of Nigeria. And “Head Rolling Down a Hill” includes a fragment of a novel by the great Ghanaian writer A.K. Armah: “We have time to bounce across yards of mud from days of rain.”

Musically, Eleanor Roosevelt sounds like some of the other bands that incubated alternative or insurgent country, such as The Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo in their mellower moods and Whiskeytown, with scratchy acoustic textures offset by the grime of John Minkoff’s electric guitar. Guest instrumentalists include Geoffrey Seitz, who has won the highest traditional fiddle honors at Galax and Clifftop; and keyboardist Pat Sansone, who would soon leave the Nashville rock scene to join Wilco in Chicago.

Eleanor Roosevelt blog: Or email


Cover painting by John Minkoff