Sunday, August 24, 2014

Modern Decor...MY ASS!

I've got a problem. I'm getting older. Yes, I know, we ALL are. Haha, consider the alternative, blah blah blah.
American society has always been youth oriented, but now that us Baby Boomers are nearing retirement, it has really skewed younger. Nothing points to this more clearly than hospitality decor.

A typical modern destination type restaurant has jettisoned the soft, high backed chairs of luxury accommodation and replaced them in most cases with hard metallic stools, or even worse, benches. As a man nearing my 60's, this is almost reason enough for me to not dine at such a place. How can I enjoy my meticulously prepared and presented meal when my ass is screaming for me to get off of it the entire time? "This Muscovy duck breast in a port wine reduction is superb, but OWEEE my aching back!"
Cool looking, but Daikaya's upscale Ramen would be more comforting with a damn CUSHION somewhere!


I know those of you who were trained in Hospitality Management were taught to maximize profits via turnover.
 Yes, turnover- good in restaurants, bad in basketball. It means getting more people in and out faster by serving them fast, and not letting them linger. I'm all for the former, but not much for being shooed out of a nice post-prandial glow and onto the street. I'm certainly more disposed to getting off my butt if it is in extreme discomfort. 
Yet, how good can it be for business if 1/3 of your prospective clientele refuses to even walk in your joint because it looks painful to them? Also the theory that you don’t want an older clientele because they don’t drink (not true!!!), and don’t spend (really not true) falls apart when you remember that we have the expendable income, not those kids struggling to stay afloat and barely making ends meet. There are more of us, and we have the dough. Why cater to the younger ones? 

And while we are discussing pain, how about the decade-long trend of making the audial atmosphere in a restaurant absolutely deafening? Yes I know the common reasoning that works here: If you walk in a place that’s quiet, you think “This place is dead. The food must suck”. If you walk in a place that has activity or at least is loud, then it has the appearance of being busy, even if it’s just 4 tables. There is always a “Playlist” going on, sometimes devised by the owner, sometimes courtesy of satellite radio, and it’s loud and often inappropriate. The walls and ceiling are metal, concrete and glass, and the floors are hardwood or concrete or something else reverberant. There is nothing to absorb the sound, and the result is conversation is only possible when yelled. 

Can you imagine doing this in your home? Serve dinner to family  and or friends, turn the stereo up to top volume, and remove all the rugs and curtains. What a lovely evening that would turn out to be!

This is the audial equivalent to having bright halogen lamps on all over the place, shining directly in your patrons eyes. 

The sad part about all of this, is that now the quality and originality of the food are no longer the determinant factors in where I dine, and before I drop a ton of hard-earned on a night out, I want to make sure that I won’t feel like I’m at disco night in the local penitentiary. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Film reviews: "The Spectacular Now" and "Mud"

I recently had the chance to see two very strong additions to the "Coming of Age" genre, Jeff Nichols' latest southern tale, "Mud", and James Ponsoldt's story of a High School alcoholic, "Spectacular Now". These films could not be more different, yet they have many of the tropes of their genre in common, and both take place in the American South.


"Mud" often feels like a period piece. It reminded me just a touch of something I caught on TV a few months ago, a '50's coming of age movie called "Goodbye, My Lady". I started watching this "boy and his dog" movie because the music was written and performed by Laurindo Almeida, the great master of Brazilian guitar. It's a very sad and wistful film, and surprisingly it drew me in with subtle, straightforward acting and storytelling. "Mud" is the same kind of presentation. Nichols' first two efforts, "Shotgun Stories" and "Take Shelter" have a bit more obscurity to them; at times you struggle to understand if what you are seeing is real or not, or what a character's motivation is in a certain situation. This is not the case in "Mud". The central mystery of why the title character is in hiding is revealed early on.

The film centers more around the relationships between the two young friends, the boys and their families, and the boys and Mud himself. The story of Mud and his erstwhile woman, Juniper, becomes more of a learning parable for young Ellis, as he battles his parent's imminent divorce, and falls for an older girl. This is what works beautifully about the film. What seems a bit forced, however, is the plot itself. Much of the film is standard indie style pastorale, slowly paced and small worded dialogue. When it morphs into an action film, complete with heroic rescue, bad guys and a shootout, the result is a feeling that the director is out of his depth. It's not that the action is clumsily done; on the contrary it is quite professional. The film, however, has not been leading us to these moments, and it is reminiscent of the last part of "Adaptation", wherein Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze satirize the arc of popular film with a potboiler ending. Mud goes from being a kind of deluded, pathetic, lovelorn loser to acting like his CIA trained father figure, who just happens to live across the river from Ellis.

Don't  misunderstand--I enjoyed "Mud" very much, and recommend it without reservation. What really shines in the film is the cast, headed by a strong turn from Matthew McConaughey as Mud. He seems to be resurrecting his career by avoiding RomComs and going indie. I have recently enjoyed his performances in "Killer Joe" and "Bernie" very much. The kids, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are both believable and unforced, and much of the supporting roles are superbly played. Standouts are Ellis' father, played by Ray McKinnon (Vern, from "O Brother Where Art Thou") and Nichols' "house player" Michael Shannon as Galen. The two big names, Reese Witherspoon and Sam Shepard are as you would expect; up to the task of support players without dominating the film.
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On the subject of dominating a film, Miles Teller, as Sutter Keely in "The Spectacular Now" is on screen every frame, it seems, from start to finish. This is a good thing. He is maybe the best young actor in this generation. I was made aware of him through the painfully poignant "Rabbit Hole". Without prior knowledge of the film or it's performances, I came away thinking that he was the main reason to watch it. This is only somewhat true of "The Spectacular Now", due to a fine script, perfect casting, and some of the best ensemble acting in recent memory.

The film tackles an interesting subject; what happens to the popular guy in school when he graduates and loses his status? When people begin to look towards their futures, and not just on where the next party is going to be, or who is the hottest guy/girl to date? Now add into this mix that our hero's undoing begins with being dumped by his hot, popular girlfriend for the over-achieving football/academic star, and that one of the reasons he is being dumped is his incipient alcoholism, and we've got an original character study.

Sutter rebounds with the geeky Aimee, who is played brilliantly by the lovely Shailene Woodley. Casting Woodley as a geeky girl is more than a stretch, she is gorgeous and luminous. I kept thinking about Emma Stone in "Easy A", and how hard a time I had picturing her as the high school loser. These girls would have been the Mt. Everest of MY High School. I guess we need to get past this in contemporary film. Regardless, Woodley and Teller have such a natural chemistry and flow, that it seems like we are watching Cinema Verite at times. Their scenes together are as good as this stuff gets. When Aimee is at a dinner party, and offhandedly describes her father's death to a pill overdose, it is done with that understatement of someone delivering shocking news that they themselves have become inured to. The camera shows the shocked reactions of the dinner guests, and never shows a close-up of Aimee. It is unnecessary. Her voice tone and delivery carry the impact. This is where both you and Miles recognize the depth and strength of Aimee's character. We collectively fall for her.

Sutter and Aimee make a pact to stand up to their (single) mothers, and when Sutter finally does by going to confront his absentee father, you find out exactly what is the source of his alcoholism. What follows is a scene between Sutter and his mother (played by one of my favorite actresses, Jennifer Jason Leigh) of tremendous power, wherein Sutter's mom explains how he is different from his father. This is the big moment, and Jennifer Jason Leigh does it justice.

The script, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber is original and thoughtful. There are few, if any, false notes. This is the team that brought us "500 Days of Summer", a re-working of "Annie Hall" that was very entertaining albeit a bit shallow. "The Spectacular Now" shows some growth, for certain. The film may not be as funny as "500 Days", but it will stay with you a much, much longer time.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Little Serow-- Komi's much hyped, much cheaper sibling

Our experience at Komi was so excellent, that it seemed a no-brainier to check out Johnny Monis' hugely popular and well-reviewed Thai themed restaurant, Little Serow. Yes it was somewhat a daunting task for two middle-aged foodies. The process is complicated...you need to arrive about 4:30 to get on line outside the unmarked door on 17th St. Then you wait for an hour or so until they invite you in, party by party. If you want to eat later, you can put your name on a list, and will be seated in the second seating (usually about 7:30).
There are no garages in the area, so you need to find a meter if you want to eat right away, which is what we did. While we waited on line, it drizzled a bit, but we had some nice conversation with a young woman who was right in front of us.
The other daunting part of the meal for us oldsters was the content of the food, which has a reputation for being fiery hot. I happen to love hot food, so I wasn't scared, but my wife was not looking forward to it. I will let her vent her side of the story, but suffice it to say she doesn't like Thai food to begin with, so was truly indulging me. It was a bit of an easy indulgence, since she ranked Komi as a top 5 meal of her life! At $45 per meal, Serow also seemed much easier on the bank account than it's Greek neighbor.

Once inside, we were greeted cheerfully by the hostess, who sat us at a two top nearest the rear of the place. It offered a nice view of the staging area, so we could see what dish was approaching. The seats were raised stools, and the table was barroom table height. Not comfortable at all. The restaurant feels like a dinner party at someone's sparsely decorated home. The music playlist was bluegrass and country music; like Komi, it was selected by Anne Marler, Monis' wife and partner. It seemed kind of homey, and even though I am not a fan, I felt it counteracted the pretentiousness of the table getting process. Our server was happy and informative, but was more like a part of a huge serving organism that seemed to take plates to your tables regardless of assignment. All were very up on what was being served, and my water glass stayed filled all night, thank GOD!

We ordered a bottle of Rose Provençal, which I thought would be appropriate for the kind of food and August weather. The Rose came out nowhere close to chilled properly, which made me wonder if they were going whole hog on the Thai thing, where refrigeration is always an issue.
First course and Side dishes

Speaking of hog, our first plate came out, which was basically lighter than air pork rinds and hotter than Hades pepper dip. Accompanying for the full meal was a bamboo container of flavorless sticky rice, and a basket filled with undressed raw veggies. The veggie assortment was interesting, beetle lettuce(?), watermelon radish slices, Thai basil bunches), and also uninteresting, (Bibb lettuce, cucumbers, romaine). As for the chip and dip, it had its pleasures. The dip was reminiscent of Baba Ghanoush in texture, but way more subtle in flavor underneath the heat.

Next came out two dishes representing a salad course. I can describe one as pork candy in cilantro, and the other as corn salsa from hell. They both had a similar sauce, but the pork candy made that dish more enjoyable. Both were hotter than our pepper dip, and had a lasting burn I found difficult to quench until much later in the meal. I don't associate cilantro with Thai food, thinking it more indigenous to Vietnamese cooking, but it seemed a major part of this meal. I happen to love it, but it is quite a divisive herb. My wife detests it, sadly. I finished the pig candy, but left most of the corn salsa, finding it pretty damn boring. After this course, my mouth was pretty enraged, lips stinging and eyes running. That's ok. Nothing wrong with an endorphin rush. The water was being consumed at record pace.

Our next dish was a kind of lettuce cup and chopped chicken take, that was pretty similar to a P.F. Chiang dish, but much more unique in flavor. The chicken was mixed with liver, and I thought it was great. Instead of lettuce, there were cabbage leaves for cupping. Also, Thai basil took the place of Cilantro, making the plate safe for Cilantro haters, but not safe for Liver haters. This was a hot dish, but much less fiery than the three predecessors. Things were looking up!

So far the sauces were consistently redolent of fish sauce, with varying amounts of lime to sour things up. Next came a very different flavor and texture. A mushroom dish topped with a fried egg. The sauce was sweetly rich. I loved it when I could take a handful of sticky rice and dip it in there.
The mushrooms were small and slightly crispy, and breaking the softly cooked egg enriched everything with yolk. This was another fine dish, and a nice left turn in the flavor parade.


Ribs in Mekong Whiskey and Dill
The last plate featured short pork ribs, surrounded by a sauce with Mekong Whiskey (go figure--the Southeast Asian version of Jack Daniels Ribs) and, of all things, dill. Yes the ribs were perfectly cooked, crispy and falling off the bone, but i have to say the sauce was not something that fell under the category of different. The dill was a surprise, but not enough to make the sauce thrilling.

This place won a James Beard award? Critics from the Washington Post and Washingtonian Magazine rank it in the top 10 of the area? I'd trade that whole meal for a plate full of Queen Bee spring rolls. Damn how I miss that joint. OK, that's a bit harsh, but I was expecting something far more exotic and surprising. 

There was one final unannounced treat, coconut custard on a small square of sweet sticky rice. It was good, but not remarkable. Which is pretty much how I'd sum up the entire meal. Of these hottest restaurants in the DMV area, only Komi has lived up to the hype so far. Minibar was a close 2nd. Let downs have been Le Diplomate, Volt 21 and sadly, Little Serow.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Our Night at Komi




Many times I have read a series of raves about a place, gone and forked over a ton of cash, and when totally underwhelmed with the experience, wonder what I missed. Worst case scenario so far- Volt Table 21. The bill was astronomical, and the experience was not amazing. Don’t get me wrong—there were some fantastic bites in there, but also some that I found either dull or just something that the juxtaposition of flavors didn’t work for me. Minibar, on the other hand, was great, worth the money and a totally satisfying trip into glutton heaven. Better still was my meal last night at Komi, a top rated small course restaurant near DuPont Circle.

My wife and I arrived at 6:00 on the dot, and found no valet or parking on the street. I pulled my ex-New Yorker routine and landed something on a side street with some illegal moves.
The space is spare and not lushly decorated. It’s on one floor of a townhouse, with wood floors, stucco walls and wrought iron appointments. It’s dimly lit, and, once filled, pretty noisy. Older people like myself can’t really hear normal conversation when sound isn’t deadened somehow. This is a conceit of the younger generation of restaurateurs—they want their places to seem lively, so no carpets, wall hangings, drapes, etc. What you end up with is cacophony, and not conducive to an intimate dining experience. Lisa, my wife and dining companion, said the background music playlist was excellent and eclectic, but they could have been playing “The Candyman” on endless repeat for all I could tell.

The place hadn’t filled yet, so for the first half of our meal, we could enjoy conversation without raising our voices. And there’s plenty of time to talk. The full experience took 2.5 hours. That’s not to say that you spend a lot of time waiting for your food. On the contrary, it comes out exactly when you want it.

Our main server, Mary, was a delightful and well-informed presence all night. An ex-policy wonk, she decided to blow it off for the world of high level dining, and she seems very happy. We each ordered one glass of red wine, which we nursed through the meal. This served a dual purpose. First limit the cost of a verrrry pricey meal, and second, I had a gig afterwards and wanted to not be completely groggy for it.

Before our food began coming out, Mary asked us about food allergies and preferences. Lisa is not a fan of cooked fish, I have a problem digesting eggplant (not a small problem in a Greek themed restaurant), and we both detest beets. That was no problem, and the dishes we received were very appropriate to these tastes.

Now for a plate by plate broadcast:

Our first taste was a small spongy ball of bread topped with some sour creamy/yogurt substance and a small spoonful of trout caviar. We were told that this was their “Taramosalata”, and it was a perfect opener. Light and refreshing, with a few nice textures.

Next came the re-imagining of Spanakopita. No filo here, instead, a fried ball of cracked wheat or bulghur and inside a soft, warm cheesy substance. I didn’t get the textural sensation of spinach, but the flavor was there. It was a kind of kibbe with pureed creamed spinach inside. This was a standout, and we both raved about it so much, that Mary later on brought us a second taste each!

Sashimi of Coho Salmon followed, and was as fresh and flavorful as that gets. Interestingly sprinkled with tiny cocoa pellets, the mix worked both in flavor and texture.

What followed was a baby turnip, which was cute as can be, served over a small smear of uni, and the sauce was an “uni zabaglione”. I guess that means some liqueur and cream foamed with the uni. Whatever, it was a beautiful combination with the bitterness of the turnip.

The first swing and miss from the kitchen was a still attached to the shell bay scallop, tiny and sauced with a scant lemon butter. This was really not very different from a sauce you’d get in a so-so seafood stop near the shore. Very uninspired. Also, detaching the mollusk from it’s shell was troublesome, and shredded the scallop on Lisa’s dish.

Gnocchi was next, and time for some redemption for the kitchen. Made from Yukon Gold potatoes, the gnocchi was the lightest and fluffiest I have ever had, served with Vermont butter sauce and baby chives. The single best pasta dish I have ever tasted. Literally at the moment I was thinking this, one of the waiters saw my expression of rapture, and commented, “It’d be nice to have an “Olive Garden” sized portion of that, right?” No shit!

Another success came out, a bit riskier but fully realized nonetheless. Rabbit Liver Mousse served over a sourdough soft crouton. The mousse was light and flavorful, and not too livery. The crostini was from pain de campagne type bread, obviously flavored with oil and garlic. Tiny minces of some kind of gherkins added a sweetness and contrast to the gaminess of the pate. A home run!

Sweet onion filled dough, described as Baklava, served adjacent to a small slab of Foie Gras was next, and the plate was dotted with the most powerful tangerine jelly you can imagine. I expected more of a flaky filo type encasement of the sweet onions, but it worked nonetheless. They shouldn’t refer to it as Baklava. This was good, but following the previous two acts was difficult at best.
Mascarpone filled Dates

Our first taste on the sweeter side came out, a mascarpone filled date, warm and comforting, exactly when your palate was ready for a directional change. Exquisite!

Now for the other pasta: two kinds of ravioli, and respecting Lisa’s wish, she received a non-fish version, filled with sunchoke puree and delightfully rich in a light veggie cream sauce. Mine was salt cod filled, and very airy, with a sauce that complemented the fish well. Typically, we each liked the other’s dish more, but I generally appreciated both of the raviolis more than Lisa did.
Roast Goat
At last the main dish came out, and this is what separates Komi from all the other small course places, they give you their choice of a substantial serving of a protein. If you are lucky, or hint at it, you get what we got; the roast goat. It is pretty much the best souvlaki you can ever imagine---fork tender goat meat with a crispy outer layer, served with fluffy grilled pita rounds and garnished on the side with fresh lemon, red pepper rings, basil salt and ultra-creamy tzatziki. I literally could not get enough, but I was also getting a telegram from my stomach that it was “fine now, and could I please stop?” My mouth shot back, “shut up, fool.”

Desert followed in three plates:

We started with honey mousse, served over delightfully crunchy nuts and a crackle of some sort. This was a standout. Unlike any desert I have had in both flavor and texture.

Then came a greek donut, which was a bit thick and dull, the only other misfire from this kitchen beside the scallop. The donut was served on a ricotta cheese bed, which usually does nothing for me anyway, so all in all, it didn’t work for me.

But hope was not lost, for the finale was a plate of salted caramel and chocolate variations, one a small slab of toffee coated with chocolate, a millionaire’s Heath Bar.
In the middle was a peanut butter caramel and chocolate petit four, that was probably the best sweet I have ever had. In the middle of it was a crunchy peanut brittle substance, and the top was soft caramel with fleur de sal on it. Screw Olive Garden, I wanted a Coldstone Creamery “Love It” size of that!
Then, wrapped in a box (supposedly for a birthday present- although this was not really my birthday dinner) was another caramel in a chocolate cup, but this had a spicy flavor, later identified by Mary as Cardamom. Brilliant!!

Was Komi one of the top 5 meals of my life? Yes, without a doubt. Not ranking them, but they are; my first meal at Inn at Little Washington (1990), a perfect evening of steak, etc. at Peter Luger in Williamsburg, Minibar, and a Rive Gauche discovery, Café Constant.


Monday, March 5, 2012

Wayne Train goes on Soul Train


Winter 1981. My girlfriend who is quite ambitious, decides that I am not ambitious enough. She’s right, of course. After all, I am a musician. I’ve been playing bars and such, working at my Mom’s restaurant, doing covers in a rock band, playing standards in piano bars. I want to play jazz, but I live in New York City, and what few jazz piano gigs exist are held down by living masters like Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris.

I’ve been working part time at Radio Shack, trying to help pay what pathetic bills we have. I’ve also been gigging with a cover band called “Nightwalk”, wherein my stage name is “Wayne Train”. Don’t ask. My girlfriend has convinced me that now is the time to buy a new telephone answering machine. It’s a pretty major expenditure, but she made the argument that, as an aspiring free-lance musician, this might pay for itself eventually.

So I splurge and buy a machine. Ironically, the first message I get, I mean THE FIRST MESSAGE, is from a guy named Tom McConnell, friends with a Bassist for a recording project in which I am involved. Tommy says that his band, a funk group out of Brooklyn named “Skyy”, is looking for a new keyboard player to replace Larry Greenburg, who had recently either quit or been fired, in one of those “you can’t fire me-- I quit” deals. Tommy says I should call him and arrange an audition with the group’s leader, Solomon Roberts. I ask him how I should prep for the audition, and he says that they have a track that’s playing on the radio and is doing pretty well, called “Call Me”.

The next day, I tell a couple of my African-American colleagues at Radio Shack about my impending audition. One of them nearly has a heart attack; apparently this tune is doing more than “pretty well”, it’s climbing the R&B charts like a skyrocket, and about to cross over to Top 40. She turns the radio to the big R&B station, and within THREE songs, the track plays. So now I’m getting nervous. The song has a killer groove, a lead singer who has a bit of MJ in her sound, and a nice little gimmicky idea of a chick trying to move in on her friend’s squeeze.

Despite my complete ignorance of post-disco funk, I chart out the song as best I can, and go to rehearsal/audition with Skyy to try and play the tune. Their keyboard rig is 5 deep, all I use is a Fender Rhodes and a little cheap ARP imitation, so immediately I am out of my depth. Solomon walks me through the parts and which keyboard does what, and with my cheat sheet taped on the keyboard stand, I’m good to go. Always a quick study, after a couple of runs through, I am starting to lock in. They seem to be pleased, and I get the “we’ll call you”.

A few days later, I actually DO get the call. It turns out that they are not officially handing me the gig, but they need me to go to LA for some promotional stuff and a TV show. I get the idea that I have gotten this chance primarily because the guy I am replacing is white, and they think if I’m dressed like him, nobody will notice. I have yet to see my predecessor, and soon find out that his chosen stage costume is Urban Cowboy. Here I am, a guy who thinks of himself musically as the hip jazz Manhattanite, forced to dress as a freaking COWBOY. After 40 plus years as a musician, I wish this were the worst indignity that has been heaped upon me.

Not even close.

We get on the plane to LA, and I am informed of our schedule. We are going to land at LAX, and go immediately to a large record store to do an “in-store”. Basically, you go and sign autographs and LP’s for an hour or so. Then, we will check into our rooms at the Sunset Marquis, and later do another promo appearance, including a visit to the LA branch of our record company, Salsoul. The next day, we will go to do a TV show in Burbank, a show called “Soul Train”.

“SOUL TRAIN”? They didn’t mention that we were doing THAT show. Am I gonna meet the dancers? Don Cornelius? Is this really happening?

We land at LAX and there are two limos waiting for us. We travel to the in-store, a huge shop in Inglewood. There is a big crowd waiting for us. After some photo ops with the staff, we all sit at a large dais, where we will sign promo photos of ourselves. My first quandary arrives when I realize I will be signing a picture of a guy who doesn’t look like me at all. I also realize, upon looking at the picture, that I am not the only replacement in the group! One of the girls, the short one, is also different from the one in the picture. I ask Tommy what’s up with this, and he explains that the 3 girls in Skyy are all sisters, but that one of them is 6 months pregnant. So this sister is not actually a sister. In fact, other than her size, she also bears little resemblance to the actual band member.

I begin signing my name over Larry’s face, to try and prevent people from recognizing the difference, but to no avail. At least 10 fans ask me where the real guy is. I try to explain that I am just as real as the guy in the picture, convincing nobody.

All the while, the tracks from Skyy’s LP, “Skyyline” are playing. In fact, this is when I realize that when you are touring and promoting, you will not only play your hit 100’s of times, but you will also hear it at least as much. By the time this little sojourn to LA is over, I am already totally sick of “Call Me” and have it memorized note for note.

We check into the Sunset Marquis, always a favorite of the record companies for their visiting bands. It is a very swanky place, bedecked with palm fronds, and I am starting to feel the rock-star vibe coming on. I am rooming with bassist Gerald Lebon, a nice guy who is quiet but with a good sense of humor. The next morning we walk down the Sunset Strip, a place we will be very familiar with by the summer. But this is our first trip, so I am anxious to see it.

After breakfast, the Limos take us out to Burbank, where “Soul Train” is taped. I don’t know what to expect; the last time I did a TV show I was 6 and my Mother made me go on this show I had never seen, and never heard of since, called “The Funny Company”. It was like “Wonderama” but with slightly lower production values. Basically, “Funny Company” was to “Wonderama” what “Troll 2” is to “Avatar”. (By the way, my lovely wife, Lisa was apparently the Alec Baldwin of “Wonderama”, having guested countless times.)

Ironically, “Funny Company” did have a lot in common with “Soul Train” from my perspective. I would have to perform, although I would be lip-syncing to “Call Me”, rather than doing a sing-along to “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leafed Clover”. I would still be playing myself, and I would still be dressed like a cowboy.

We go for make-up, and the typical pancake application. I asked for extra-dark. I figure I will be shown maybe two times, once during the phone call breakdown, and once when they show a full shot of the band, so I am not sweating my look too much. I am getting to see the dancers, and am looking out for that gorgeous Asian girl (you all know which one I mean). It’s not really what I thought it was going to be like. The soundstage is very industrial, the dancers are not interested in the bands at all. We eat some bad crudités, and the next thing I know we are on stage, lip-syncing. Minutes later, the song is over, and I feel I have acquitted myself well. Then I find out that that was a rehearsal for the director and camera team. We run the song again, and this time I think it goes just as well.

Before I know it, Don Cornelius is standing in front of me with a handheld mic and asking me something inaudible. I hesitate, and he says in a much louder voice, “And you are?” Nobody warned me that this would happen! I am slightly panicked. I blurt out “Wayne!!”

Don gives me a look that says, “This ain’t the motherfuckin’ Mickey Mouse Club, fool. Give me your whole name.” When I realize this after what seems like an hour (it is in reality about 2 seconds) I say, “Wilentz-Hi!” I don’t think I could have acted dorkier if I had been channeling Barney Fife. Suddenly, my cowboy outfit seemed very appropriate.

I did eventually get asked to join the band, and stayed with them for 8 years. I did eventually get promo pics with my face on them, and got to wear clothes I might actually wear in real life. I recorded 5 LP’s with Skyy, and was on “Soul Train” 3 times, “Solid Gold” 3 times, “American Bandstand” and “The Merv Griffin Show”. I was also on “Livewire”, a show on the fledgling Nickelodeon Network, which was taped at the Ed Sullivan theatre, and where I met my wife.

About a month later, we all watched that episode of “Soul Train” on the tour bus, and huge laughs were heard when Don Cornelius and I had our little uncomfortable exchange. For at least 2 weeks, I was referred to as “Wilentz-hi”.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Reviews of "TRUE GRIT" and "SOMEWHERE"

Two Holiday releases reviewed.

There are times when those gifts under the tree look a lot more exciting than they turn out to be once unwrapped. This season, we have two films that looked amazing in their gift paper, and once viewed became varying degrees of disappointment. I’ll start with the film that was like getting a Mexican Strat when you thought it was going to be a Les Paul. Then I’ll follow with the cashmere sweater that turned out to be socks.

“TRUE GRIT”

As my friend Michael said, “even mediocre Coen Brothers is 10 times better than the other garbage getting released.” This is the case for “True Grit”, a film I couldn’t wait to see. It IS better than most of the films I have seen in the theaters lately, but it’s really not going to be considered one of the Coen’s greatest.

At the center of the film is unknown Hailee Steinfeld, who is in every scene of the film. Her charcter, Maddie Ross is expertly drawn, and her performance is at times wholly engrossing and believeable, and at other times straight out amateurish. There are scenes in which Maddie’s obstinacy and determination are perfectly captured, and then moments when Ms. Steinfeld rushes the dialogue so that it sounds like a high school drama production. The other performances are all letter perfect, including a drawling Jeff Bridges’ very different take on Rooster Cogburn, Josh Brolin’s dunce of a bad guy in Tom Cheney, and particularly effective is Matt Damon’s foppish but somewhat heroic Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf.

Roger Deakins’ camera is again the main star of this film; landscapes change, but the picture remains exquisite regardless—he is Edward Weston with an Arriflex. The Coen’s have also taken great pains to recreate the florid dialogue and speech mannerisms of the era. Pacing, sets, costumes and cutting are all flawless. The brothers’ attention to detail is something we are all spoiled by and accustomed to.

Yet the film itself is a good old-fashioned oater, melodramatic and linear. Whereas “No Country for Old Men” reinvented the “drug deal gone wrong” sub-genre, with an unforgettable villain, and violence that decreases in graphic representation as the film evolves, “True Grit” stays unerringly true to the Western, with the simple twist that the toughest guy out there is a 14 year old girl.

“SOMEWHERE”

I am a big fan of “Lost In Translation”, writer/director Sofia Coppola’s second feature, a film that had an original tone, and treated the “outsider” theme with a gentle yet comic treatment. The strength of the movie was in Bill Murray’s rare, understated performance, and Ms. Coppola’s juxtaposition of Murray’s calm persona and the hyper world of modern day Tokyo. Unfortunately everything that was so successful in that film, fails miserably in her newest release, “Somewhere”.

The opening alone is worth discussing. A static camera watches about 1/8th of a deserted racing car loop, as a black Ferrari tears around, time and again. You hear the sound, but you only see a small part of the racing. This goes on for what seems like the better part of 10 minutes. It’s surely much shorter than that, but it FEELS much longer. This is the overall story-telling method employed for the entire film. Scenes that you are used to taking a certain time to run, take about twice as long. Ms. Coppola is telling the audience, “This is my chosen form of communication today. Deal with it.”

The story is of an actor (Stephen Dorff) at the height of his fame, who lives at a hotel for the rich and famous, drinks, screws and does drugs, virtually wasting his gifts and money in an aimless life-style. His estranged wife dumps their daughter into his life, and he must re-examine his way of being. THERE. That’s it. There is no funny dialogue, no clever plot device to help the two meld, basically nothing but the two characters doing nothing of interest. Oh yes, and tons of footage that should have ended up on the cutting room floor, rendering the film about 25 minutes long. If she had used this method while making “Lost In Translation”, the karaoke scene would have had each song performed in it’s entirety, lasting about an hour.

In one particularly enraging scene, the static camera focuses on our “hero”, Johnny Marco, sitting on a couch, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. Nothing happens but that. 5 minutes of that. If you were in the room, you might have broken up the tedium with, “Hey Johnny, how about those Dodgers?” It’s like Ms. Coppola saw a bunch of Ozu films, and said, “I’d like to make a movie like that, only with uninteresting characters”. When Marco and his daughter, Cleo (played realistically by Elle Fanning) fly to Milan for a promotional appearance, MY daughter turned to me and whispered, “I’m surprised they didn’t just show them sitting on the plane for 5 minutes”.

There are occasional paeans to great filmmakers; a strange woman removes her bikini top for Johnny from a nearby terrace, looking more grotesque than appealing—it is an unmistakable Fellini reference. The “nothing happens” of Antonioni is also part of the film’s fabric. If this is neo-neo-realism, I want no part of it.

Mr. Dorff’s performance is one-note, but that is not his fault. Ms. Coppola dominates this film as if she were training the camera on herself throughout. The desired effect of the slug-like pacing is to force the audience to go inside the heads of the characters. This never happens. Most of the time you are thinking to yourself, “when will this scene/movie be over so I can have something stimulating happen, or listen to someone say something of interest”, none of which goes on in this movie.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Rickie Lee Jones, Live at the Birchmere in Arlington, VA

12/7/10

On a frigid night in early December, one of the great singer/songwriters of American music played a show featuring the entire contents of her first 2 LP’s. For people of a certain age, recordings are meant to be heard this way; in their entirety. Actually, I had these records on cassette, and mostly listened to them on my Walkman while on tour. The second LP, “Pirates” holds a particular place in my personal pantheon. It was one of the few pop records of which I never grew tired. Every listen seemed to offer a new revelation.

Ms. Jones’ influence on pop culture should not be understated. Her look, her drawly singing style, her edgy lyrics and soulful grooves permeated hipster society in the late ‘70’s early ‘80’s. Street urchin chic, is how I classified it. Musically, she is the offspring of Laura Nyro and Bruce Springsteen, but she is nonetheless her own creation.

The show began with her biggest hit, “Chuck E.’s in Love”, a clever turn on the grown up tom-boy who hangs with the guys but never gets one. Ms. Jones’ vocals still have the cutting high belt that is her signature, and in this song her unintelligible diction was at it’s most cryptic. The band was nice and groovy right from the start. Remarkable too was the restrained sound level; no earplugs were needed. The material on Rickie Lee’s first LP is much less challenging than “Pirates”, and the band seemed to have an easier time with it. Missing however, were the amazing high harmony parts mostly sung by Ms. Jones on the recordings. Probably not in the financial cards, but a couple of female backup singers would have really helped.

Some of the highlights from the first half of the show were “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963”, “Coolsville”, which featured the unmistakable cat wail of guitar and vocals, “Danny’s All-Star Joint” on which the band really glowed, and “Company”, a great jazz ballad. Ms. Jones preceded the performance of this song with a disclaimer, mostly about her inability to play along with it. Curiously , she seemed to struggle much more with the vocals on this complex piece. Throughout the show she spent a lot of energy on tempo changing, much to the band’s chagrin. It seemed like someone who has spent a lot of time touring solo, and expecting the band to follow her every whim. During the rubato bridge of “Weasel and The White Boys Cool”, you could tell the band was at sea trying to follow her quixotic phrasing.

As she embarked on “Pirates”, it seemed she was getting a little crabby. After a moving rendition of “We Belong Together”, her most Springsteen-ish work, Ms. Jones berated the audience for being unresponsive, which was far from the truth. “Lackadaisical” was the term used, and it worked, the crowd ratcheted up their response from thereon out. The weakest performance of the night was “Living it Up”, and with good reason. It is a very difficult piece, with multiple groove changes. The original recording is miraculous, I doubt if any live version could be its equal. Rickie Lee grew somewhat angered at the band at this point. I believe “cranky” was the word that sprung to mind. Before a stirring version of what she referred to as the saddest of all songs, "Skeletons", Ms. Jones admitted that she got a bit testy at the piano, blaming it on acid flashbacks and indiscretions of her youth. It seemed a bit like an apology. After "Skeletons", she adjusted the song order to make it more show-like; rather than end with downers like the jazzy but dark "Traces of the Western Slopes" and the quietly reflective "The Returns", Ms. Jones omitted the latter altogether, placing the crowd-pleasing "Woody and Dutch" at the end of the show, and smartly so. The song that launched a hundred Pepsi and McDonald's ads, worked it's magic with the audience, and their rousing response elicited what Ms. Jones said was their first encore of the tour, which turned out to be "Satellites" from the album Flying Cowboys.

The fear that the years, which have been so unkind to many of her generation, would have undone Rickie Lee Jones' sound, style and ability to evoke powerful emotions were quite unfounded. This 2-sider show was immensely moving and entertaining, and Ms. Jones proves why she is still a unique talent, and a treasure of American music.