Bayfront Blues Festival

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune
The second to last thing anyone would expect to see at a blues festival: A cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” The absolute last thing: The classic tune performed by a dream team of three nuevo-blues musicians who are easy on the eyes, hard on guitars.
Blues Caravan 2011 – Girls with Guitars featuring Cassie Taylor, Samantha Fish and Dani Wilde shook things up midafternoon Saturday during Bayfront Blues Festival. The ladies, who each have thriving solo careers, joined forces for a set that caused a ruckus among the thousands of fans who turned out for the second day of the event at Bayfront Festival Park.
They’re young. They have full voices. They have songs that run from girl power to social justice. They’re intense and rip up the stage. Taylor, the band’s bass and keyboard player, has bluesfest in her genes. She joined her father, Otis Taylor, on the stage a few years ago. Wilde, a guitar player and vocalist, is from England. Fish is a Kansas City girl who came into the limelight while playing the Chicago Blues Festival last year. 
Perhaps young Nick Roloff of Coon Rapids, Minn., summed up the spectacle best:
“They play better than the guys – and they’re hot,” he said.
The Roloff family ditched out of the show early for the meet-and-greet area and landed at the front of what would become a very long line. The Trooper Award goes to Nick’s mother, Colleen Roloff:
“I have to take a picture of my husband and two boys with the girls,” she said.
Here are other scenes from the 23rd annual bluesfest, which finishes with headliners Vicci Martinez and Beverly McClellan, who play at 5:45 p.m. today on the main stage.
As long as there has been a Bayfront Blues Fest, there has been Big Walter Smith on the bill. The old man was dressed in all white and propped on a stool for a set that included songs like “Stand by Me” and “I Ain’t Drunk (I’m Just Drinkin’ “).
“Twenty-three years,” Smith said, counting his performances at the park. “Twenty-three years.”
The 81-year-old was the day’s first performer on the main stage and had a full lineup of musicians all dressed in white – a guitar player, a keyboardist, drummer, bassist, trumpet player, sax player and trombone player.
He had fans singing along to “Hey Hey The Blues is Alright.”
“He’s so warm and loving,” said Mary Anne Burns of Maple Grove, Minn. “He’s like our grandpa.”
Donna Herula tells breathless stories with the touch of a Midwest accent. But her music has a Southern style. Herula returned – this time with her husband, Tony Nardiello – for a show in the acoustic tent.
They teamed up for Lucinda Williams’ song “Jackson” and Herula showed off some of the Robert Nighthawk songs she covers on her second album “the Moon is Rising: Songs of Robert Nighthawk.”
Following that, Peter Karp & Sue Foley performed songs from their album “He Said/She Said,” which is taken from letters they wrote back and forth while on the road, after meeting years ago at a blues festival.
Karp is a writers’ songwriter, with interesting lyrics that sometimes lean a little sexy. Foley has a deceptively pretty voice. Together they have a twee sensibility, like a bluesy She & Him.
Chastity Brown, a Memphis girl-turned-Minnesotan, couldn’t sign on to the “sit down and play nice” style of the acoustic tent. She finally had to kick her chair aside and stand up and dance, her cowboy boots moving and tapping. Brown has a big soulful voice that sounds like her guts are being squeezed.
Andi Spike, a blogger from St. Paul, is a blues fan who was covering the event for her fashion-music-vegan living website Bunny Warrior. She favors young blues musicians, she admitted, and said she likes the way they incorporate modern influences.
Spike said Brown was her early pick for a favorite of the day.
“I think she was the best I’ve seen,” Spike said. “She has surprised me the most.”
This story originally ran in the Duluth (Minnesota) News Tribune on August 14, 2011

Book review: ‘The Art of Fielding’ by Chad Harbach

By this time last year, the world of contemporary fiction had me dizzy with a one-two whammo of love and envy. Shit was tight. I wouldn’t pay $50 to press my breasts against the stage while my favorite band played. I’d have paid $50 times 50 to scrape gum off Jennifer Egan’s shoes or observe Gary Shtyngart with his lips wrapped around a bottle of top-shelf vodka. And then there was Freedom and then there was House of Tomorrow. Panic ensued: Which one did I want denting my cheek when I went to sleep? Would Hilary Thayer Hamann be my little spoon?

This year has been a dud. I say that as of right this second. There is a lot of promise in that yet-to-be-released queue. But if someone dangled me by the ankles over a body of water teeming with water snakes and said: “Give me your Top 10 of 2011 or you’re going down, kisser to forked-tongue-kisser!” I’d end up with a face full of belt material.

I’d have my number one, though. Reading it felt like a sigh. Finally something I can strap to this dismal year to keep it afloat. Thanks, Chad Harbach.

The Art of Fielding, Harbach’s debut novel, has that Irving-collegiate chill to it, though it’s coming off the Great Lakes rather than an East Coast bay.

The story is built around Henry, a kid from small-town South Dakota with no life plans, but who is pure poetry at shortstop. He’s complicated in his lack of complications. For more than 500 pages, little else about him will be revealed. Baseball genius, reads and re-reads his idol’s book The Art of Fielding. No favorite foods, no lust, no introspection, no humor. Just baseball and what it takes to get better at baseball and what happens when he hits a terrific and ill-timed slump.

Henry is discovered by Mike Schwartz while playing summer ball. This lumbering loaf of an athlete, hopped up on the pain pills it requires to play Division III football and baseball, sees Henry’s potential and takes action. He gives Henry the hard sell, sends for his high school transcripts, goes suave on Henry’s doubting father and gets the kid enrolled at Westich College. Schwartz is a dynamo. A big body who makes things happen for other people, yet cannot kick the pills, get into an upper tier law school or finish his thesis.

The university’s president Guert Affenlight has taken a shine to Henry’s super-cultured, eco friendly, gay roommate Owen. The 60-year-old, who looks 50, falls hard in his only homosexual crush. Also: his daughter Pella has left her husband in California and is auditing classes. She’s whipped the Westich boys into a froth, but it’s Schwartz who lands her.

Then, disaster. When agents and scouts start dangling dollar signs in front of him, Henry makes a bad throw, the first presumably of his life, and everything goes haywire. He starts thinking too hard, questioning speed and aim, pausing too long and making the first baseman work way too hard. This, in turn, throws off everyone around him.

This buzz-book has gotten enough chatter that it’s impossible to not give it an extra finicky read. So you secured a $650,000 advance, eh Mr. Harbach? Big numbers for a rookie, huh? Well I don’t like the pacing of the first 50 pages! A reader might think to herself. Then that same reader might re-evaluate the critique after a bit of self-analysis: It’s not so much that Henry jumps grades within a single paragraph. It’s that he is so fun to read about that you don’t want to grow up too fast.

The novel is proof that fiction doesn’t have to start itself on fire. The story isn’t surprising or twisting or heart wrenching or cruel. It’s easy. Sometimes its predictable, but sometimes it dekes left and goes right. Hot damn if I didn’t love every single character — enough at one point to want to order 50 pizzas to Harbach’s house to get back at him for what I thought he was going to do to one of them.

Now. I need to find nine more books that sing before that ball drops.

This review was originally published on Minnesota Reads on September 18, 2011.

Book Review: ‘Kiss & Tell’ by Marinaomi

Sat down to write about artist MariNaomi’s draw-all tell-all graphic memoir Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume from 0-22, and found myself penning memories about playing tug-o-war over the one neighborhood boy on Fifth Place Northwest. Playing boyfriend-girlfriend in a room full of girls, sitting in a bean bag chair and drinking water we pretended was spiked with “Spanish Fly.” Surely something we had seen on “Love Boat,” our faces pressed together making “Mmm Mmm” noises, our heads making figure eights.

A “StarWars” fanatic whose friendship I forked left from the first time I saw Madonna on MTV. There she was, bed head and black lace, set against a white box. A clear line in the sand: No longer giving a rat’s about R2D2, but craving, absolutely craving tulle skirts, pouty lips, exposed stomach, flirtation, and please God, rhythm.

I bet this is a pretty natural response. Especially if the reader came of romantic age to a Cure soundtrack, like MariNaomi. The premise isn’t unique. Neither are the gritty, fuck-you-dad teen tantrums of this West Coast-based former wild child. Her taste for the mohawked and dreadlocked, the homeless teens, older dudes and future inmates suggests a certain After School Special-ness I wouldn’t have dared to test in the 1980s, which makes the gawking all the better.

It start with her origin story: Her father as an officer in the army teaching English in Japan and falling for one of his students, her mother. It’s a short story that says a lot about the conservative backbone of the family. In the final panel they coo over their young daughter, blessing her with the opportunity to someday fall into a love like theirs. “One day you’ll find a man to take care of you,” her father says.

Things quickly shift from their story of chaperoned dates to a not-so-innocent story of a pedophile babysitter who trades her nudity for grape gum, snaps a bunch of pix, then shows her his in a chapter called “The Most Beautiful Penis I’ve Ever Seen.”

She breaks her story into sections divided by age and the stories quickly turn from cries of Cooties to sneaking a boy in her bedroom window, Billy, who is cockblocked by, simultaneously, a menstrual explosion and her mom’s footsteps in the hallway. She grows up quickly in these pages, losing her virginity in her early teens, dropping out of school, running away from home, dabbling in the ladies and maintaining a relationship with a boyfriend who is sent to jail.

They are told in negative-style panels, back backgrounds with white images of orgies and tough talks.

Marinaomi is probably one of those people who has probably gotten the old “ohmygah, you should write a book about your life” over drinks with friends. She definitely succeeds, sharing the deets on dozens of romantic relationships without blinking. It’s solid entertainment that won’t change your life, but it will definitely take you back to that time in the bushes when you played kissy face with the neighbor.

 This review was originally published on Minnesota Reads on September 11, 2011.

Book review: ‘Lola, California’ by Edie Meidav

Last summer I fell in love with a wordy piece of coming-of-age fiction starring an emotionally mute young woman and a doomed love affair with an older, even more emotionally mute man, a boxer. Thinking about that book now I just see long, hot weekends on our deck with a glass of water and all of my outdoor reading accessories in a pile next to the lounge chair. I’d read. Stop. Look at the cover. Flip back to pages where I’d folded a corner and re-read. It took forever to get through and, uncharacteristically, that’s what I wanted. To never finishAnthropology of an American Girl. It totally fit this sort of inspired, albeit unfocused fit I was having. I sometimes wonder if I’d still five-star it if I’d read it in, say, November.

This past month I fell into a similar relationship with Lola, California by Edie Meidav, this massive mix of a lot and not enough.

Rose and Lana are best friends in that way teenaged girls are best friends. Barely distinguishable, two personalities pooled into one that they call Lola — after the song, of course. At night they roam the streets of Berkeley, inventing false back stories and torturing frat boys. They have this impenetrable-ness — literally and figuratively — because they are always together. By day, whether they like it or not, they are under the tutelage of Lana’s guru father Vic Mahler, who probes them with questions and then probes their answers. He has legions of fans and followers who sometimes camp in the Mahler’s front yard.

This decade-jumping story reveals early that Mahler is in his final days on death row, but also sick with brain cancer. He is tended to by an empathetic jailer who provides human contact. He mostly wants to see his daughter while it’s his daughter’s friend, who is now a lawyer, who wants to see him. The Lolas haven’t seen each other for two decades. Not since the two were living together in New York City, a tandem act at a strip club, and Lana saw on the news that her dad had done the thing that landed him in lock up. What he did and whether he is guilty is not necessarily a secret, but it’s only eluded to late in the story.

Rose re-connects, not necessarily by chance, with her old friend at a spa near the prison. Lana is living on-site as the girlfriend of a former Mahler follower who is trying his own hand at influencing packs of people. She is with her twin sons from a previous relationship that ended in suicide.

This book is dense, word and concept heavy. The plot just seems to be a place where Meidav has parked so she can make deliciously descriptive and slow meandering sentences. She’s like a super-skilled Frisbee player: The venue doesn’t matter.

The years later portrait of the former friends has its surprises. Rose has been consistent in her infatuation with Lana. And Lana has spent the years regularly reinventing herself — unable to do anything about what is at her core — trying to avoid association with the Mahler name. Vic Mahler is a humbled version of himself, the last bounces of an ego with an air leak.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of reading this one on Kindle. This is one of those books you want to flip pages on and fan yourself. Carry it around and touch the cover. But since I just have inked dot words that have been beamed down to the page from the sky, it feels like reading it was a mirage. I don’t own the book any more than I own a song that gets stuck in my head. Rookie error.

Book review: ‘Half a Life’ by Darin Strauss

Anyone with a vivid imagination and a something-ton vehicle who has ever cruised alongside a wobbly bicyclist has probably mentally played out this scene: Biker veers left into the path of the car, defies gravity by skirting up the hood, face pressed into the windshield, body tossed like a limp towel to the shoulder of the road, the thump of flesh bags dropped into gravel, the glint of a reflector and the crush of metal.

In the case of Darin Strauss, this is exactly what happened toward the end of his senior year of high school. His Oldsmobile-load of friends en route to a mini golf course; the victim was the athletic younger schoolmate, Celine Zilke.

“Half a life ago, I killed a girl,” Strauss writes in his memoir Half a Life, the story of 18 years of living with the proverbial blood on his fender, an accident that was ruled an accident by witnesses and authorities. Still, it happened during those years when a teenager already feels the harsh and judge-y gaze of peers — all the more penetrating because it involves a dead girl.

“How do I keep the accident from being the main thing about me forever,” he wonders.

After graduation, Strauss tries to shed this distinction. He goes away to college and holds the story captive in his own head. He replays Zilke’s mother’s funeral-side curse to live for two as he works his way into adulthood. He thinks of the girl when he reaches for a can of soda and realizes she will never get to reach for another soda. Occasionally, he gets to the point in relationships where he feels that he has to tell a girlfriend — and these moments are met with mixed responses: awkward comforting gazes, phone calls that aren’t returned, a sharing of a personal tragic experience, anger. Finally, 18 years after it happened, married with two children, the writer who is known as a novelist shares his most-consuming story.

Half a Life is honest in a way that had to be hard to write: A moment at the scene of the accident when some pretty girls wander over and ask what happens and he purposefully and self-consciously morphs himself into the portrait of a grieving man. The assertion that maybe young Celine was suicidal, holding fast to a journal entry she had penned the day of her death in which she reveals that she has finally realized that she is going to die. (Someday? Or within a few hours? Hard to decipher the emo intents of a high school girl with a journal). Sometimes he feels Celine with him; Sometimes he feels like he should feel Celine with him. And the numbness.

This story is, obviously, gripping. But Strauss doesn’t let that keep him from applying word-magic in the way he tells it.

“I’ve come to see our central nervous system as a kind of vintage switchboard, all thick foam wires and old-fashioned plugs. The circuitry isn’t properly equipped; after a surplus of emotional information the system overloads, the circuit breaks, the board runs dark. That’s what shock is.”

Book review: ‘Paying for It’ by Chester Brown

In June of 1996, cartoonist Chester Brown’s girlfriend Sook-Yin — who would be his last girlfriend — admitted she had fallen in love with another man. She wanted to see how things would play out with this drummer and talked it out with Brown, who encouraged her to give it a shot. He continues to live with her and consider things like romantic love and committed relationships. He develops a solid case for being anti hearts and flowers.“… There were only three reasons why I wanted to have girlfriends,” he tells a platonic friend in the beginning of his book Paying for It. “One: because it’s socially expected — guys who don’t have girlfriends are considered to be losers. Two: I liked the ego boost of having a woman who wants to have that sort of exclusive relationship with me. And three: sex.”

When his friend suggests that he engage in one-night stands, he tells her: “I don’t have the social skills necessary to pick up women for casual sex.”

This is undoubtedly true.

Brown’s graphic memoir is about his transition into becoming an unflinching john who decides in 1999 that his human need for love is satiated by family and friends and that his human need for sex can be satiated by soliciting the prostitutes or escorts he sees advertised online and in publications. His story includes the women he meets with and his philosophical debates with his friends over the morality of his lifestyle and the legitimacy the profession and whether it should be legalized or regulated.

He meets dozens of women and each is disguised in the pages with fake names and no identifying characteristics. He learns that he dislikes fake breasts, worries that some of the women aren’t legitimately 18 years old and that sometimes he has to request a condom before they perform oral sex. He also has conversations about American history and the series of life events that landed the escort face first in his lap. Some he sees consistently, including one who is his favorite until the sex suddenly begins to feel empty and he moves on. With some he discusses his work as a cartoonist and he starts using his real name when he makes appointments.

Plenty of the spare panels feature a stick-ishly limbed Brown joined missionary style to an anonymous woman. Others feature him naked and flaccid, having pleasant post-coital conversations. His intent is obviously not to titillate, but to provide a journalistic series of first-hand experiences.

Brown is hyper self-aware, at times acting like his own analyst. When Sook-Yin finally asks him to move out of their shared space so that she can live with her boyfriend, Brown sits around, a stickish figure in tighty whities acknowledging that he feels depressed. Then he realizes that he has just had a brief glimmer of happiness, so he backtracks to the root of the upswing: Where had his thoughts strayed that brought on that feeling? Ah. An image of sitting up in his own bed in his own home reading. And with that he has worked through his sadness and exorcised it. Plus: Now he can invite the prostitutes into his own home.

Brown is a little prickly. A friend in the afterward describes him as “robotic.” He knows himself and understands human emotions — although he doesn’t really subscribe to them. Jealousy, he tells a friend who questions how he continues to live with Sook-Yin, is a learned behavior. He simply doesn’t feel it. There are plenty of character traits that are anti-social, including his admittance that a 28-year-old woman who greets him at the door is older than what he was looking for. He also sneak attacks friends by starting debates about prostitution, specifically issues he has clearly given much thought to. They don’t stand a chance against his fine-tuned arguments. On the other hand, much of what he is saying makes sense. Relationships are not necessarily the cure-all for a person looking for happiness. And what is wrong with a scenario in which a person wants to have sex and another person consents to sell it to him/her — with the inclusion of personal guidelines like no kissing or oral sex. The last faction of the book includes further arguments in favor of legalizing prostitution and notes that build on things that appear in the panels. This part gets to be a little much, but is consistent with Brown’s very clinical style of presenting the most 100 percent thorough argument he can give.

This review was published on Minnesota Reads on August 28, 2011.