Catching My Breath

photoI’m at Atlanta airport awaiting my delayed flibght back to San Francisco after a whirlwind week of performances, meetings, parties, long drives and random encounters that have left me precious little time to blog.

Here are a few scattered impressions of things I did on my travels from Atlanta (which I already covered here and here) to Louisville, KY and Nashville, TN.

Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame: En route to Louisville, I fed my basketball fetish with a visit to the world’s only temple to women’s basketball. It was a Tuesday afternoon, icy rain was careening down on Knoxville and there was hardly a soul about. I more or less had the museum to myself. The museum official told me that the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame welcomes around 22,000 guests a year. Judging by the hoards that I saw attending a women’s basketball game in Louisville later that day, the news came as no surprise.  I didn’t care much for the endless glass cases filled with university team uniforms and photographs of the various esteemed coaches of the sport. The museum is most interesting for what it tells about the early history of women’s basketball, mostly through waxwork models and plaques with text. The sport came into being in 1892 by a Russian émigré to the US, Senda Berenson, who adapted the rules of the men’s game, which had been invented a year previously. Berenson taught phys ed at Smith College and thought that women would greatly benefit from playing basketball, even if the game was deemed to be “too rough for ladies.” In the early days, men were prevented from watching the women’s games due to the racy nature of the uniforms, which consisted of baggy wool bloomers and long-sleeved blouses. Oh, and the WBHOF is also home to the world’s biggest basketball. It’s on the roof of the building. It helped me identify the museum as I rolled into town in my rented KIA in the impenetrable weather.

The Humana Festival of New American Plays: I was in Louisville for a few days for various meetings and shows. I caught two dramas at the Humana Festival, probably the country’s most prestigious outlet for contemporary US theatre, which recently came under the direction of two Bay Area transplants – Les Waters and Meredith McDonagh. I saw Waters’ production of Will Eno’s Gnit and McDonagh’s take on The Delling Shore by Sam Marks. Gnit, which looks at Ibsen’s Peer Gynt through a 21st century lens, is a quirky-thoughtful, if slightly long-winded, work. What I most appreciated about it, apart from the great ensemble cast and Waters’ pace-y direction, is what the play has to say about listening. The dramatist takes Ibsen’s play, with its focus on how a human being realizes his highest self through speaking, and considers what happens when you take this to an extreme. In Eno’s dramatic universe, there is so much noise in people’s heads from their constant speaking and navel-gazing, that they have lost their ability to listen. This is not only borne out by the main character, Peter, and his constant self-deluding talk, but also by the chatter of the townspeople, all embodied by just one actor — the comically schizophrenic Danny Wolohan.  The fact that the sound for the production is mostly emitted from the horns of two old Victrola machines, which pass ominously across the stage between scenes, harks back to the early years of recorded sound, when people’s habits around listening arguably started to change. The Delling Shore was less compelling as a drama. The shrill four-hander about the contentious relationships between baby boomer fathers and their 20-something daughters draws much inspiration from Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But unlike Albee’s work, The Delling Shore hits one note. McDonagh’s direction is fluid and rhythmic. The talented, four-strong cast does its best to find substance in the shallow story revolving around the competitive nature of the relationship between two ageing writers, but I left at the end feeling prickly and impatient.

Copland and Mexico: Daniel Gilliam, the head of the local classical music radio station, WUOL, took me to Whitney Hall, the home of the Louisville Orchestra, to experience the home team give a morning concert accompanied by coffee and Krispy Kreme donuts (for which I clearly have a weakness.) I had a great time at “Copland and Mexico,” a program involving live music, video and commentary devised by the orchestra manager and scholar Joseph Horowitz. Horowitz’s tightly written script uses Aaron Copland’s fascination with Mexico as a way into a discussion about a musical figurehead who is less familiar to American audiences — the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. Gustavo Dudamel has done a lot to bring the great Mexican maestro to the attention of the American public in recent years. But Horowitz’s program goes further in this regard by providing valuable musical, political and social context for the music we hear during the two-hour program, which Horowitz presents in partnership with the aid of various regional orchestras around the country.  It’s also an entertaining way for audiences to engage with live music in a concert hall setting. In the first half of the show, the orchestra played short pieces by both composers – Copland’s El Salon Mexico and “Buckaroo Holiday” from Rodeo, and Sensemaya and Homenaje a Federico Garcia Lorca by Revueltas– with aplomb. The hall’s acoustics aren’t fantastic, however, and the sound only came into its own when a small chamber group centered around a piano performed Revueltas’ Lorca homage. The highlight of the program came in the second half, when the orchestra played Revueltas’ live score to the beautiful, politically-charged hour-long film about Mexican fishermen’s rights, Redes. I was transfixed.

Visual Art around the city: Louisville surprised me for its lively approach to public art. I loved the clatsch of colorful metal chickens on the waterfront and a ostentatious, golden statue by Serkan Ozkaya of a naked Biblical David (inspired by Michelangelo) in front of the city’s new boutique 21C hotel/museum. Speaking of 21C, the hotel is home to eclectic contemporary art exhibitions. I spent a merry afternoon sampling local bourbons there and checking out some of the art, which is free to view for guests and non-guests alike. On display currently are portraits by Catherine Opie and Kiki Smith to name two of the more well-known names represented in the current exhibition.

The Willett Distillery: My friend, the restaurant critic and cocktail writer Virginia Miller, suggested that I visit the Willett Distillery, a new distillery located in Bardstown, KT, about an hour from Louisville. I stopped in for a press tour on my way to Nashville on Friday morning. The distillery was originally started in 1937 by Thompson Willett, but fell into disrepair. It was given a facelift last year by the original owner’s descendents. Willett is a friendly, understated place. The brands include Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek and Johnny Drum. The best part of the tour is getting to see the fermenting grain bubbling and seething away in massive cauldrons. The staff don’t mind you putting your hands into the mix to feel and taste it. The alcohol kills all germs, they say. It’s easy to imagine leaning over too far and falling in to one of the kettles. According to my tour guide, the only thing that’s disappeared into the boil so far is the iPhone belonging to Willett’s master distiller, Drew Kulsveen. The tank had to be drained and an employee had to fish it out.

Tribute to Ron Davies: With only one night to sample what I could of the music scene on this first visit to Nashville, a friend of a friend suggested that I make my way to 3rd and Lindsley, a music club located in an unprepossessing industrial corner of the city, to hear a bunch of top-tier Nashville musicians perform numbers from the Ron Davies songbook. The musical tribute, which featured guest spots by a slew of country music artists, was organized by Davies’ sister, the prolific country record producer, Gail Davies. Her now-deceased sibling is not well-known outside of country music circles. But he was a great songwriter, responsible for writing songs for the likes of David Bowie, Helen Reddy and Maria Muldaur.  I sat at the bar with a sweet but stressed out middle-aged lady by the name of Kim who described herself as a friend / handler of one of the performers – the singer Janelle Mosser. Kim was worried because she had to get Mosser to another gig across town (a 30 minute drive away) but the singer had been placed very near the end of the Ron Davies program, making a late arrival to the next concert inevitable. She sped off as soon as Mosser was done. I had a great time. The music made me want to sway. Crystal Gayle, Mandy Barnett and Bonnie Bramlett were on the lineup among other Nashville royalty. The stage was crammed with top of the line musicians including a superb fiddler and electric bassist. I was susprised to see the addition of violin, viola and cello in a corner of the stage, playing along as if the presence of a classical string trio were perfectly normal in a saloon setting. The room was packed and I felt very fortunate to be there.

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum: Before I rolled back to Atlanta in my KIA, I took a tour of The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. I did this because I had been told by practically everyone that this was the place to go on one’s first visit to Nashville and because I was able to obtain a press ticket. Although I enjoyed checking out the exhibition about Patsy Cline, which includes such whimsy as the singer’s collection of salt and pepper shakers, and seeing the many amazing musical instruments and clothing items on display, I left feeling quite disappointed. My main issue with the CMHOFAM is that it takes a very simplistic, breezy view of country music. The institution is home to the Frist Library and Archives, one of the world’s great research centers for country music. But it refuses to engage in any way with the genre’s complex and dark relationship to the race politics that shaped the scene over the years and the over-commercialization that has developed in more recent decades.

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