Live On Sixth Street

Everybody knows Austin has a thriving bar and live music scene.  Last night we started our pub crawl in the very cool Rainey Street area, which I’d never visited before, stopped to have a beer at the Container Bar, which is largely constructed out of those enormous corrugated containers used by the shipping industry, then legged it up past Stubb’s to a bar called Cheer Up Charlie’s, where a kind of light show projected against a white bluff entertained us.  After noshing at Stubb’s we headed over to Sixth Street, the traditional strip of bars and live music venues that keeps getting bigger — and louder.  

Around Austin you see people with t-shirts that say “Keep Austin Weird,” or something like that.  After our foray through Sixth Street, I’d say that goal is being accomplished.  You see people wearing flags as capes, masks, wigs, glitter, and just about any combination of clothing, or lack of clothing, you can conceive.  On Sixth Street, you can still freely let your freak flag fly.

Dead Or Alive?

Don Rickles died today.  The insult comedian who was a mainstay on The Tonight Show and the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts and who delighted in calling people “hockey pucks” was 90.

abc-don-rickles-obit-jc-170406_mn_4x3t_384And this sounds terrible to say, but my first reaction to the news was:  “That’s interesting.  I guess I thought he was dead already.”

I feel very guilty about this reflexive response, but it happens all the time these days.  Some musician, comedian, movie star, or sitcom actor from the ’50s, ’60s or ’70s kicks the bucket, and you could have sworn they’d already gone to meet their maker.  I think the reason for that response is that, during their period of great fame, those celebrities are seen so frequently that they become expected, everyday sights on talk shows, in magazine articles, on game shows, and in guest roles on sitcoms.  Then, when their period of fame ends, as is inevitably the case, you associate their ongoing lack of presence on the popular scene with . . . death.  In fact, the only way you know for sure that they’re not in fact dead is if they suddenly get hauled out to award an Oscar or give a tribute to one of their just departed colleagues.

So, Don Rickles is officially dead.  Doc Severinsen, on the other hand, is still with us.

A Year Without Spending

Some people celebrate “Buy Nothing Day” — which aptly falls on Black Friday — as a protest against the rampant consumerism in modern culture.  The idea is to avoid buying unnecessary items and, instead, to spend more time with family and friends, and, literally, “live freely.”

Rolls of Dollar BillsA British woman took the concept more than a few steps farther, and decided to go for a year without buying anything beyond the basics.  That meant that she paid her mortgage and utilities and not much else, bought food in bulk and cooked her own meals, and rode her bike to work rather than taking the subway.  No dining out or drinks at the pub, no trips to the movies, no new clothes, no travel or vacations, and no luxury items like fancy foods.  She also turned down friends and family who wanted to buy her gifts.

To her surprise, she made it through the year, with the winter months being the toughest.  She saved a lot of money — about $27,000, all told — and found that she had come to enjoy simple things, like a picnic in the park or a walk through a museum that didn’t charge admission.  She also feels that she became closer to her family and friends.  In short, she says she learned that money didn’t buy happiness.

The most instructive part of the woman’s story of consumerist self-deprivation is this admission:  “I’d set myself budgets and spending plans in the past and they’d always fallen by the wayside on my next night out.”  People spend themselves into oblivion because they don’t have the self-discipline to control their behavior, whether it’s sticking to a budget or simply exercising good judgment on spending and refraining from making impulse purchases.  And then, at some point, they look around at a place cluttered with stuff they don’t use and clothes they don’t wear, and wonder where all the money went.

I wouldn’t want to go for a year without traveling, or enjoying a drink out with friends, or savoring a good meal on a special occasion.  Those are some of the things that make like special.  But avoiding unnecessary spending, living a more minimalist, possession-free life, and feeling a certain sense of pride that you’ve got your finances under control affords its own satisfaction, too.

Chris Rock’s “Total Blackout”

Last night Kish and I went to see Chris Rock with Mr. and Mrs. Jersey Cavalier.  Rock is on his new, “Total Blackout” tour, and Columbus is one of the first stops.  In fact, he’s got another show here tonight.

chris-rock_12-06-2016-827x620Rock was flat-out hilarious, but if you’re going to the show, let me offer a word to the wise.  Don’t take your cell phone!  Presumably because Rock doesn’t want any pictures taken during the show, or annoying rings from the audience, or recordings of any part of the show, all cell phones are taken and placed into Yondr pouches that are then locked.  People get to keep their bagged and locked phones with them, but they can’t use them until they walk to the unlocking station at the end of the show.  The Virginia Cavalier graciously walked all of our phones back to our office, which is nearby, so we didn’t have to hassle with the locking and unlocking, which expedited our departure from the theater.

This phone-locking process caused two interesting effects.  First, the area outside the Palace Theater was an absolute scrum before the show.  Security did nothing to put people into orderly lines, so you basically had a mob of impatient people who didn’t know why it was taking so long to get into the show, pushing and jostling and hoping the show didn’t start before they got to their seats.  It was a totally unnecessary melee that could have been avoided by some decent planning and security — which presumably will come later on the tour.  For now, my suggestion is to get to the show early.

Second, after the first two warm-up acts, there was a 20-minute intermission before Rock came on.  Imagine — in the modern world, a 20-minute intermission in which people can’t use their cell phones to check emails and text messages, post a selfie to Facebook, and otherwise pass the time!  When the intermission started, people seemed confused by the absence of their cell phone security blankets and unsure of what to do.  Ultimately, they ended up actually talking to each other, or intently watching the backdrop slide show of covers of vintage comedy albums.  The lack of cell phones sure made that 20-minute intermission seem a hell of a lot longer, but by the time it was over everybody was definitely primed for the show.

Comedy Central Night Of Too Many Stars - ShowAs for Rock, he was brilliant.  The topics he addressed were wide-ranging, encompassing racism, the police, guns, his own celebrity status, the Trump era, religion, his daughter’s freshman orientation, the need for bullies, his divorce, men and women, and of course sex — with a lot of other subjects touched in between.  He’s got a knack for looking at the world in a different way and then capturing his observations in hysterical one-liners.  He’s got to be one of the best stand-up comedians to ever grace the stage, period.

A few other points about Rock.  First, he’s the consummate professional.  Those of us, like Kish and me, who sat in the cheap seats in the back of the theatre appreciated his carefully modulated volume and clear delivery, designed to reach every corner of the venue.  He paces back and forth, so everybody can get a good look, and gave the people in the front row high-fives both before and after the show.  How many big stars will do that?

Second, although Rock uses more profanity than any other comedian I’ve seen live — in the barrage of MFs and f-words, you quickly start to not even notice the “shits” — in his performance the obscenities somehow seem less profane.  They’re just part of the act, helping to set up the one-liners, providing segues from one topic to another, and preserving Rock’s urban street cred.  And, in a way, the profanity masks the fact that some of what Rock has to say isn’t in line with the current PC worldview.  He’s the detached observer, skewering both the silly justifications of the pro-gun lobby and the bland reassurance offered by school administered with equal flair.  His willingness to tilt against all sides is one of the things that makes his shows so interesting.

I’ve been to a number of stand-up shows, and the show last night was the funniest I’ve ever seen.  It’s a must-see if you live near one of the towns on the tour.

Columbus Jazz Orchestra

Last night Kish and I completed our Christmas cultural gift exchange by attending a performance of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra.  Entitled Ella Fitzgerald & The great Ladies of Swing, the show featured the CJO in full throat and two superb guest artists:  Marva Hicks and Nicki Parrott.  

It’s the first time I’ve seen the CJO in a long time, and the show demonstrated what I’ve stupidly been missing.  This is a tight group with a big sound and lots of talent to display, and when they get a chance to play classic tunes from the American songbook with two brilliant female vocalists (and, in Parrott’s case, a fine double bass musician, besides), you’re going to get a great show.

The program was top-notch from stem to stern, but I particularly liked Parrott’s rendition of Fever and I Will Wait for You and Hicks’ version of Stormy Weather, and Kish and I always relish Blue Skies, which was played on our wedding day.  I also enjoyed CJO artistic director Byron Stripling’s  tasty trumpet fills and deft vocal efforts to channel his inner Louis Armstrong– but the high point for me was Hicks’ powerful and heartfelt performance on My Man’s Gone Now, from Porgy and Bess, which was a knockout punch if there ever was one.

The CJO is another artistic asset in a city that is full of them.  If you’re in the mood for some great lives music, you can still catch this show tonight and tomorrow.

Crossword Morning

It’s another grey winter day in Columbus.  I woke up early and started puttering around the house.  I picked up the German Village Gazette, our local weekly newspaper, saw it included the New York Times Magazine crossword, and thought: this is a perfect day to tackle a crossword puzzle.

I used to do crosswords from time to time — often on planes, if the people who sat in the seat before me hadn’t already marked up the in-flight magazine in the seat pocket — but it’s been years since I’ve dusted off the mental thesaurus and given it a go.  In the Webner clan, however, crosswords are a long and storied tradition.  Dad was a big crossword fan, always doing them with a back felt-tipped pen, and Aunt Corinne is an ace.  She would particularly like this one, because the unifying theme is grammar, and that’s her bread and butter.

If you haven’t done a crossword in a while, getting the knack again takes some time, but I got a few words and acronyms at the bottom of the puzzle, and it started to come easier.  Once I figured out the puns for the theme — i.e., “Santa’s nieces and nephews” = “relative clauses” — it came easier, and an enjoyable hour later I was done, and set my pen down with satisfaction.

The experts say crosswords and other mental puzzles help to keep the brain synapses sharp, and I think it’s true.  There’s a strong pun element to crosswords, of course, but the clues also often make you think of the world and the words in a different, slightly off-kilter way.  A three-letter word for “Bull’s urging”?  Red, perhaps?  Nope!  It’s a Wall Street “bull” that we’re supposed to think of, and the correct answer is “buy.”

Sometimes, thinking of things in a different way is a useful exercise.

Mission:  Seraglio

Last night I got one of my Christmas presents when Kish and I attended Opera Columbus’ Mission:  Seraglio.  Opera tickets were one of my stocking stuffers.

The timing was excellent for another reason.  Mission:  Seraglio is a reimagining of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, and yesterday just happened to be Mozart’s birthday.  The wily Wolfie, were he still among us, would have been 261 yesterday.

Opera Columbus’ production features all of the same beautiful music, but the setting and dialogue of the opera are transformed into a ’60s James Bond caper with a dashing spy, an archvillain apparently bent on world domination of a sort, and “Bond women” galore.  The modifications turn Seraglio into an outright comic romp, from the point at the outset when a tiny doll figure parachutes through the Southern Theatre, to the suggestive rearrangement of topiary plants by a sex-obsessed gardener, to a clever use of the lyric translation display, to the finale where one of the characters is securely wrapped in a straitjacket and hauled away.  The sets are great and the new dialogue is clever and occasionally laugh out loud funny.  And, while the characters clearly enjoyed their light-hearted trip down James Bond Lane, they also did justice to the lovely, often passionate songs that Mozart created.  I think he would have approved.

Mission:  Seraglio shows that opera is a vibrant, flexible art form where there is still lots of room for creativity, even for a work that was written more than 230 years ago.  It’s another job well done by Opera Columbus, and you can still see it at the Southern this weekend.