Posts Tagged ‘Kate McGarrigle’


June 30, 2013


I’ve been a fan of prize-winning British novelist Alan Hollinghurst since I read his debut volume, The Swimming Pool Library, and admired its beautifully crafted sentences, its confident multiple narratives, and its homoerotic frankness. The Line of Beauty had all that and more – a remarkably intimate depiction of Thatcher’s England from inside the Iron Lady’s social circle. Hollinghurst’s latest, The Stranger’s Child, is exponentially more ambitious even, with all of the writer’s qualities burnished with an impressive Henry James-like mastery. Divided into five parts that unravel over the course of the entire 20th century, it revolves around an invented cast of literary characters: a young Wilfrid Owen-like poet whose death in World War I transforms him into a national legend, a Bloomsbury-like circle of aristocratic and self-mythologizing artists, and the industry of academic archivists, scholars, and biographers who feed on their remains.
From the very beginning, Hollinghurst sets up a skein of sexual secrets that the characters play cat-and-mouse with the full length of the novel, some of which never make the surface again. It’s dense, fiendishly clever, and emotionally absorbing. I am apparently not the only reader who recognized it as a fictional corollary to a non-fiction volume that came out the same year (2011), A Book of Secrets by the distinguished biographer Michael Holroyd, who is wittily name-checked or rather mis-name-checked in The Stranger’s Child – one of many delicious tidbits the author drops along the way. Not exactly light summer reading, but it kept me absorbed on two train trips across Italy and a long plane ride home.


It’s impossible to watch 5 Broken Cameras, the Oscar-nominated documentary by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, and not feel a mounting outrage at the situation it depicts. Burnat, a Palestinian farmer in the West Bank village of Bil’in, acquired a camera to film the birth of the youngest of his four songs, which coincided with the beginning of weekly protests against Israeli forces that seized land, bulldozed olive groves, and built a barricade to make room for a new Israeli settlement. Drawn to start filming everything that happened in the village, Burnat became an activist documenting the increasingly brutal and unjust behavior of the Israeli army, who attack the ragtag protestors (armed with nothing more than stones, drums, and pride) with tanks, gas grenades, and lethal bullets. It’s a crude but effective microcosmic portrait of the heart-sickening ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You can stream the whole film on YouTube here.


Paul McCarthy WS at the Park Avenue Armory is a big, expensive, puerile, idiotic conceptual art piece that I guess makes the case that most Hollywood movies are big, expensive, puerile, idiotic fairy tales. WS consists of eight hours of film in which McCarthy plays Walt Disney shooting a live action version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, with most of the characters sporting prosthetic noses, eating junky food, and cavorting orgiastically with toy-balloon genitals and cake-frosting jizz. The main film sequences are projected onto two banks of screens at either end of the Armory’s cavernous space. In the middle of the space stands a reconstruction of the sets used for the film – a plywood simulation of a suburban tract house and a plastic jungle for the forest sequences. Additional film sequences screen in a series of galleries off to the side.
All the advertising and signs all over the place warn “This exhibition contains explicit imagery and mature content. Admission is restricted to audiences over 17 years of age.” So of course viewers can’t wait to find the naughty bits – I stumbled across one of the side galleries where a naked pomaded porn star was alternately stroking his hard cock and poking it into a mannequin lying on the fake-forest floor. McCarthy seems to be one of those artists whose work is more interesting to talk about and read about than actually to experience – see Holland Cotter’s thoughtful review in Friday’s New York Times.


It’s a big week for remembering Kate McGarrigle – two memorial concerts at BAM coincided with the opening at the Film Forum of the documentary film Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You, directed by Lian Lunson (who made the excellent concert film Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man). And Nonesuch Records put out the 2-CD set Sing Me the Songs featuring a stellar crew singing songs by and associated with her: Kate’s kids, of course, Rufus and Martha Wainwright; her sisters Anna and Jane; the extended McGarrigle family (Anna’s partner Dane Lanken, their daughter Lily, old friend Chaim Tannenbaum); and a passel of guest stars including Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Richard, Linda, and Teddy Thompson, Justin Vivian Bond, Antony, and Broken Social Scene. The songs that Kate and Anna recorded together can’t really be topped by anyone else, so for my money the treasures of the album are the many previously unrecorded or unreleased songs. Best among them: “I Am a Diamond,” sung by Martha and Rufus.



Richard Greenberg has written many plays, but The Assembled Parties (produced by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel Friedman Theatre) is a rare convergence for him: it’s a thoughtful, dramatically ambitious script that receives a perceptively detailed staging by director Lynne Meadow with the help of an excellent cast, all the artists involved doing things that are more difficult than they look. What looks like a pretty standard New York Jewish family play – the secrets! the matchmaking! the lovable alter kockers! the wayward children! the worried mothers! – turns out to be much more of an impressively novelistic enterprise that’s less about the story and more about creating intricate character studies. Many of the Henry Jamesian qualities I admired about Alan Hollinghurst’s novel show up here, including the willingness not to announce what it is about but to let the audience put some pieces together itself. Also the narrative confidence – the two acts take place in the same apartment 20 years apart, but the sets look entirely different for each act, two actors in major roles don’t return for act two, and Jake Silbermann plays one character in act one and his younger brother in act two.
assembled parties
Judith Light (above right) won lots of awards playing the loud and lovable Aunt Faye (a variation on the role she played last season in Other Desert Cities – both performances more than a little redolent of the great Linda Lavin), and Jessica Hecht (above left) deservedly drew critical praise for authentically inhabiting the complicated, deceptively cheerful former actress around whom the play’s activity revolves. But really I admired all the actors equally – Lauren Blumenfeld as the self-admittedly dim bulb Shelley, Jeremy Shamos as the outsider who works overtime to ingratiate himself with the family by serving as unofficial spy, Silbermann as elusive Scotty and socially awkward Tim, and Jonathan Walker and Mark Blum as the husbands who are sociable in company and adversaries in private.


As a film 20 Feet from Stardom, Morgan Neville’s documentary about rock and roll’s backup singers, is somewhat shapeless, repetitive, and meandering. But for diehard music fans like me who spent formative years studying the credits in fine print on record albums, it’s an enjoyable opportunity for face time with the people who, as someone in the film points out, sang the parts of hit songs that most listeners love singing along to. The movie showcases a selection of legendary backup singers – most notably Darlene Love (whose leather lungs sang the hell out of early ‘60s Phil Spector hits that came out with other artists’ names on them, like the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel”) and Merry Clayton, who earned a spontaneous round of applause in the movie theater after we heard the track of her climactic performance in the Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter” without the band. Almost worth the price of admission alone! Other singers featured include Claudia Lennear, Gloria Jones, the Waters Family, David Lasley, and two singers new to me, Judith Hill and the truly amazing Lisa Fischer. Aside from rummaging around inside rock ‘n’ roll nostalgic trivia, the movie does ponder the somewhat melancholy question: how come some incredibly talented singers never make it as solo performers, while many mediocrities become rich and famous?

Performance diary: Rufus Wainwright at Carnegie Hall and the Juilliard Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall

December 23, 2010

December 6 –
I’d heard in advance that Rufus Wainwright was making a strong request to audiences for his current concert tour that they hold their applause during the first half of the show, while he plays the song cycle that makes up his most recent record release, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu. I didn’t realize until seeing the show at Carnegie Hall that he was treating this song cycle as a kind of theater piece. He makes a dramatic entrance in silence, processing slowly across the bare stage wearing a thick black cape with a 20-foot train. He sits at the grand piano and proceeds to perform the album’s dozen songs, while video plays of a gigantic blinking blue eye smeared with too much dark eye shadow.  (Visuals by Douglas Gordon, whose photography also graces the cover of the album.) Three of the songs are adaptations of Shakespeare sonnets; the others are somber, dark, and sad, reflecting as they do on his feelings during the final days of Kate McGarrigle, his beloved mother. They’re not his best songs, not especially melodic, rather monotonous in fact, with florid show-offy piano arrangements and lyrics that sound like hasty blog entries. At Carnegie Hall, with its billowing acoustics, many of the lyrics were as difficult to hear as they are to read in the liner notes of the album, where they are written out in Rufus’s flourish-crazy handwriting. When the set was over, he got up and processed offstage as slowly as he arrived. Many of his diehard fans found this act a little hard to swallow, including me, but it certainly showed off the many sides of Rufus: the self-indulgent narcissist, the diva, the ambitious artist always wanting to stretch himself, the little kid playing dress-up, the grieving son.

After intermission he came back onstage dressed more casually in sweat pants (“don’t worry, they’re very expensive!”) to do a another set of favorites for the fans, again with only piano accompaniment. By himself he did “Grey Gardens,” “Memphis” (his tribute to “another New York legend, Jeff Buckley”), “Going to a Town,” “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” and “Dinner at Eight,” a song about him and his father, Loudon Wainwright III, who was in the audience. Rufus brought out Stephen Oremus, the music director for his remake of Judy at Carnegie Hall, to accompany him on a bunch of Garland standards: “Do It Again,” “A Foggy Day,” “If Love Were All,” and “The Man That Got Away.” And he brought out his sister Martha (who looked fabulous in spangly tights and super-high heels) to sing with him on “Moon Over Miami,” “Complainte pour La Butte” (from the Moulin Rouge movie), and “Hallelujah.” And then of course there were tons of encores, beginning with “Poses,” for which Martha came back onstage, this time with her infant son Arcangelo. “We start ‘em young in the Wainwright/McGarrigle tribe,” Rufus cracked. And then a couple more Judy Garland numbers, “Alone Together” and “You Made Me Love You/Me and My Gal.”

It was a celebratory and fun evening, but I was very aware that Rufus started the second half with “Beauty Mark,” his great zesty song about his mother, and ended with one of hers, “The Walking Song,” about the early days of her courtship with Loudon: in its own way a sweet memorial tribute to a wonderful musician and Rufus’s best friend.

Lots of famous fans showed up for the concert. I saw Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons), who was sitting in front of Stephen and Alvaro. I spied Frances MacDormand with her Coen Brother, and I chatted with Laurie Anderson, who was there with Lou Reed. Laurie looked great and remarkably relaxed, considering that she’s been on tour much of the year with three different shows. She told me she just performed at a benefit concert with her dog Lolabelle. I was trying to track Lou’s possible connection to Rufus, and then I remembered that Kate and Anna sang the odd little “Balloon” song on his Edgar Allen Poe album, The Raven.

December 11-12: I got behind on blogging because I had a couple of performances of my own with Gamelan Kusuma Laras at the Indonesian Consulate. It was a long and somewhat challenging program. I wasn’t surprised that several of my friends who came to the concerts had their fill and left at intermission. It was a gas for me. I got to play kethuk on one number (the welcoming music, “Clunthang/Kasatriyan”), and then I sang with a chorus of other folks on three other numbers (in ancient Javanese!). It’s been decades since I did so much singing in such a short amount of time. I was a little hoarse afterwards. And then for days I could not get some of this music out of my head….!

December 13: Thanks to my friend Roman, I found myself sitting sixth row center at Alice Tully Hall for a concert by the Juilliard Orchestra, playing two pieces new to me: Prokofiev’s Piano Concert No. 3 and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. Both were fantastic. The Prokofiev turns out to be one of those fiendishly difficult show-offy vehicles for a virtuosic pianist, like Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concert No. 1. In this case, the performer was an unbelievably talented 19-year-old Juilliard student from Virginia named Julian Woo with impossibly long fingers, all the better to play long stretches of crazy cross-handed piano, his fingers literally tickling the ivories, diddlly-diddly-dee. The orchestra, of course, includes basically the cream of the crop of young musicians, passionate and confident and highly attentive, dreamy to hear. And the conductor for the evening is some kind of rising star, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Quebecois music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic who will take over the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2012. He’s a Leonard Bernstein-like dynamo, fantastically expressive, at times leaping off the floor, other times caressing his own cheek to cue the string section. The Ravel was equally exciting and exacting. The excellent programme notes by James M. Keller informed me that Daphnis and Chloe, commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes, is Ravel’s longest composition ever with the largest orchestral accompaniment as well, including such rarities as celeste and wind machine. The Dessoff Choirs, which Andy sings with, provided the choral contribution, which consisted entirely of swoony non-verbal aah-ing and oo-ing that at times sounded like the music accompanying certain kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley dance routines. I’m laughably uneducated at the history and appreciation of the classical repertoire, so I’m glad to get exposed to such treasures, however that happens.

R.I.P.: Kate McGarrigle

January 20, 2010

I mourn today the sad passing of Kate McGarrigle, the Canadian singer-songwriter beloved for the records she made with her sister Anna and also the mother of singer-songwriters Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright. See a lovely tribute to her online on the CBC website here.

I loved the McGarrigles from the very beginning of their career, when Linda Ronstadt and Maria Muldaur started recording their songs (Anna’s “Heart Like a Wheel” and Kate’s “The Work Song”). I got to meet and interview them in Boston at the time of their first album (1975). I was just a kid, still in college, and they were still largely unknown, nervous and shy. I interviewed them in their tiny hotel room, where we sat on the twin beds and talked.  I saw the McGarrigles play live for the first time at the Inn Square Men’s Bar in Cambridge, which was not much bigger than my living room is now. The stage was crammed with several musicians (including Dane Lanken and Chaim Tannenbaum) and tons of instruments. After every song, everybody switched instruments, taking turns on guitar, banjo, fiddle, accordion, and concertina. Brilliant show. I saw them numerous times over the years, at clubs and concert halls, most recently at Town Hall for the tour that accompanied the fantastic family songbook, The McGarrigle Hour. I reviewed almost all their albums over the years, for the Boston Phoenix, Rolling Stone, and the Village Voice.

Then when Rufus hit the scene, wherever I saw him, Kate was always hovering nearby: at a mini-show and CD signing in the basement of the old A Different Light bookstore on 19th Street…at Fez…at the Supper Club. I didn’t see his Judy Garland show at Carnegie Hall, but there was Mom, playing piano while he sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

She left behind a lot of great music. I’m a big fan of French Record, but for the sake of remembrance I just put on Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and it made me happy to think about this fantastic musician. Ever heard it? Check out “Kiss and Say Goodbye” here.

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