SxSW Review: SYML, Low, March 13, St. David’s Sanctuary

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SYML, March 13 2018

After overcoming some sound interference troubles, Brian Fennell (formerly of the indie rock band Barcelona) quickly began in the church pulpit as SYML, which means simple in Welsh. Just as the name implied, it would turn out to be a straightforward singer-songwriter concert that has come to be St. David’s Sanctuary’s signature.

Over the years, it has also become clear that if you can’t sing, St. David’s is not a place to showcase your talents. SYML is, fortunately, not in that latter category. While I find it a bit distracting to have the cello and violin backing to his one man show, there was little hestitation in his delivery for passages. That said, the songwriting itself isn’t always clearly original. It isn’t hard to see that the opening of “Ghosts” neatly paraphrased Coldplay’s “In My Place.” While refreshing, his “Mr. Sandman” cover was not just a little creepy, and self-admittedly so. The lyrics were twisted into a lament about loneliness that might make Tim Burton jump. Even with all its idiosyncracies, this is still a first-rate set, ending with the promotional piece “Where’s My Love.” I would recommend the above tracks as well as “Wildfire.”

If the previous set was “simple”, Low’s performance is its quantum entangled pair. How can we put more symbolism into a show? “I know! Let’s have two stern-faced, practicing Mormons sing nearly monotonic verses against a backdrop of ascending drum beats for 40 minutes in a dimly lit church, and conspicuously display their drinking of red soda and chomping of apples. That way, no one will think we were being serious!”

To be fair, Low has had a long career of minimalist excellence. It’s really not surprising that they managed to make the seemingly simple and monotonic music beautiful. And to be honest, it was a completely different experience if you were willing to stay the course. Problem was, it did not engender that will in most of the audience on this night. If St. David’s Sanctuary monitored their doors, they would have registered the exodus in between every track played. It was rare to see a concert hemorrhage audience throughout. I think a masochist mindset definitely came to the fore – and many just wanted to derive some type of reward having stayed with the performance. And as if they understood implicitly, Low did eventually open up the format for a number of more flowing pieces.

As for me, I felt like I had been party to some ritual to which I did not submit, but perhaps I did sign up for it. After all, SxSW is about getting a dose of the weird.

Low, March 13, 2018

SxSW Film Review: Constructing Albert [Laura Collado]

Posted on by Gary in Movies, South By Southwest | Leave a comment

Sibling rivalry is not a new phenomenon, nor is it an emotion reserved for the lowest common denominators on Jerry Springer. Even in the rarefied world of haute cuisine, where the names elBulli and Adria recall creative genius operating at an ionospheric level, this is still true. Although Albert Adria has been behind the restaurant elBulli for decades, his culinary talents seemed to have been overshadowed by his brother Ferran’s conceptual overhaul of the language of fine dining. The idea was quite startlingly simplistic: an experimental kitchen whose goal is solely to invent experiences between mouthfuls. The closure of elBulli, however, left Albert literally at a loss. His invisibility behind Ferran and elBulli’s reputation both hampered his ambition to become his own boss. Constructing Albert is the documentary about how they remade his new brand in this long shadow.

In 2013 when Albert (and filming) began, that arduous journey involved opening and coordinating five restaurants in one year. Tickets, 41deg, Pakta, Bodega 1900, and Nino Viejo. Both Tickets and 41deg ended up earning Michelin stars. Having gotten that far, Albert then decided to close 41deg in order to use it as a stepping stone toward a new concept restaurant called Enigma. In this hindsight view, you can really appreciate the way that entrepreneurs in the restaurant world interact with their critics. Bear in mind that these critics are not the Yelping public, but a stratified group of foodies that have somehow garnered the power over life and death. The vocabulary needed to commune with them, while alien, isn’t hard to stomach. I liken it to how academics shape their interests by experimenting with publishing in top journals – just substitute “publications” for “restaurants”. Perhaps the inventions in elBulli in the early 1980s were never meant to earn Michelin stars. But in constructing a new brand and reputation, that is now the first and last thing on the menu.

Describing this on paper makes it seem like simple business decisions. But in reality, people work the kitchen and restaurants. Where the film shines isn’t in the narrative of a brand, but the evolution of the personal stakes everyone involved has wagered, including that of director Laura Collado. During Q&A, she mentioned that the original intent of the documentary was indeed to explore the sibling rivalry, which would have been a short few interviews. Five years later, watching the film in 2018, one’s appreciation of the dynamics between the chefs has to be revised. While I am certain that her footage could have been edited so, a nasty intrigue never materialized. If anything, the film seemed a bit of a muted celebration of Albert. And why not? As if juggling 5 restaurants, 2 Michelin stars, a revolving list of dishes that updates every two months, thousands of ingredients and techniques isn’t entertaining – just looking at the results makes me want to drop $500 on a meal.

Storytelling Review: You’re Being Ridiculous, February 3, Steppenwolf Theatre

Posted on by halley in Reviews, Theatre | Leave a comment

So, as I age (or, as I prefer to call it: “ripen” or “mature”) I have found myself widening my cultural interests from music to theater and, most recently, storytelling. Why? I hear you ask. Thanks for asking! Let me tell you: So, two main things I love about going to music shows are:

1) Lyrics. Clever, eye-opening lyrics can open minds and eyes and make you question your conception of narrative and connotation. One of the frustrating things about songs is the inability to ask the singer what a specific lyric means or how the song-writer came up with it.
2) The freedom the audience has to react however they want. When you go to a show, you have people singing along, clapping, closing their eyes, laughing, crying – you name it and there’s one in the crowd. I love this variety of reaction – so unlike something like a stand-up show where there is one acceptable reaction: laughter. And if that doesn’t happen, everyone feels uncomfortable.

Two main things I don’t love about going to music shows are:
1) People on their phones. I HATE realizing I’m looking at the stage through someone’s iPhone who’s recording it as opposed to actually watching the show.
2) Standing.

Enter… storytelling! This amazing artistic exercise combines all my favorite things: clever wordplay that is then elaborated upon and explained in great and gripping detail; audiences who snap, close their eyes, “mmhmmmm,” laugh out loud, cry, wave their hands, etc; MCs who forbid phone usage and mean it, and comfortable seats! I highly recommend it.

If you are in Chicago, I highly recommend it at Steppenwolf. This amazingly curated venue is intimate, creative, perfect for a first date, offers beautiful cocktails, a full coffee and pastry bar, and sparking water on tap (!). The staff are impeccable, the stage set up is welcoming, and the audiences are diverse and friendly. I really can’t praise this place highly enough.

I found this amazing venue through its “You’re Being Ridiculous” storytelling performance as part of its LookOut Series. The show Saturday night included 9 talented storytellers who regaled the audience with short but super memorable stories ranging from tear-jerkers to laugh-out-loud tales. Topics included:

1) Procrastination as denial of fear – and a way to push yourself to try new, unexpected things
2) An ode to breasts
3) Suicide and the power of family and laughter to bring survivors through it together
4) The terror of substitute teaching 4th graders
5) A husband-wife rendition of how they met (very different interpretations!)
6) Tales of life-changing surgery
7) The highs and lows of gay Jews vacationing in Boca Raton, FL
8) My favorite: a tear-jerker on the power of letting go.

The stories made me laugh, cry, learn, question, and start conversations I otherwise would never have dreamed of having. And the small venue allowed us to walk right up to the talented narrators and hug, high-five and praise however we wanted to. It really was an incredibly powerful night and I’m so glad I was there.

My storytelling pales in comparison to what you’ll see when you try this out – so go! Please! Whether a narrator or a listener, you’ll come away richer.

ImagineNATIVE Review: The Road Forward (Marie Clements, 2017)

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Reviews | Leave a comment

To varying degrees and on a spectrum of acceptance, we are all aware of the issues facing our First Nations communities. If our knee jerk reaction on being exposed to these painful, negative stories is denial, then we shouldn’t be surprised that this selective pressure pushed for the evolution of fighters: singers, songwriters and activists whose whole lives are built around being heard, being recognized to promote change. And thus, we come to this film. The Road Forward is a positive (and forceful) image of people who had no choice but to fight for their own rights, told through songs.

The Native Brotherhood/Sisterhood of BC are organizations that sprung up in the 1930s in response to deprivation of liberties of the native people on the BC coast. Originally formed around fish processing factories to the blueprint of a workers union, it gradually took on the job of neighborhood watch in Canadian politics regarding native rights and freedom. Recognizing the need to unite the cause as well as to communicate news in general, in 1946 they began to run the paper Native Voice, not as the mouthpiece of the organization, but as THE gazette for native life and politics in BC and around the country. That is where The Road Forward starts.


If we are feeling reductive (and blind and deaf and dumb), we could categorize this as another “struggle film”: documenting and prominently highlighting the otherwise invisible hardship people endure outside of our plastic anechoic chamber. But that would not only be a gross understatement, but also an irresponsible one. Calling this a musical slightly breaks the term as we typically grasp it in the Broadway sense. Yes, it uses blues, rock and rap to convey, emphasize, and weave together a story. Yes, it is a great showcase for native talents who persevered despite adversity. But it has more soul, and more self-determination, than that description betrays. Like saying fried chicken is just poultry pieces with breading in hot oil for 10 minutes, the secret is in the cookin’ and eatin’. The vehicle on which these feelings of pride, shame, fear, sorrow, cultural confusion, and far more beyond, is the key to this film. This allowed it to take on a new ability, and strike a distinct tone on the same subject that we all know (and tend to bury in ignorance) so well. And so, even if it lacks analysis of pragmatic solutions as to the road going forward, you need to watch this. It’s a powerful and important monologue, and we need to hear the (war) cries and start to discuss and enact realistic and humane solutions.