Four Days of Aggressive Folk Music in Kansas City: FAI 2017

By ROBERT TRUSSELL

The annual Folk Alliance International conference got underway Feb. 15, 2017 at the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City, kicking off four days of public and private showcases by bands and singers-songwriters from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia, France and other far-flung places, along with bookers, radio hosts and industry professionals. This year the conference attracted about 2,700 registered delegates.

As usual (this is my third year), the performers were full of surprises. The word “folk” can bring to mind hillbillies plunking on banjos or old lefties singing labor songs. But as the conference has illustrated again and again, folk is anything musicians want it to be.

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Handmade Moments perform their public showcase at the Folk Alliance International conference in Kansas City. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

Handmade Moments, a high-energy, musically unpredictable Arkansas/California duo, delivered a prime example on opening night. The husky-voiced Anna Horton and gifted guitarist Joel Ludford wove a spell at their public showcase in the Brookside Room that was wild, exciting and unclassifiable. You could hear influences — jazz, bossa nova, punk, hip hop, the aggressive sax style of Fela Kuti — but in the end all you can say is that Horton and Ludford have created their own genre.

In their 25-minute official showcase they embraced the conference’s theme this year: Forbidden Folk. They sang originals about the ecological effects of fracking and other destructive human activities. And they offered a song about the current occupant of the White House. All presidents do damage, Ludford said in his introduction, but Trump “is the most accurate representation of the history of America.”

Their approach to songwriting is utterly original and incorporates vocal beat-box rhythm “tracks,” harmonies and sophisticated jazz-influenced solos on Ludford’s guitar. Horton makes an indelible contribution not only with her remarkable voice but also with her work on the bass clarinet, a commanding instrument almost as long as she is tall. But this instrument is not just an adornment. She puts real muscle behind it.

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Handmade Moments performs a private showcase after their public performance earlier on the opening night of the 2017 FAI conference. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

Later that evening, when I caught the first private hotel-room showcases of the conference, Handmade Moments demonstrated their astounding versatility with a set that had a completely different feel. Horton and Ludford switched off on standup bass and sang quirky originals and old jazz tunes they learned during a spell in New Orleans.

As performers, Ludford and Horton are charming and funny, but it’s their music that sticks with you. The compelling and addictive thing about Folk Alliance International is the opportunity to hear music you never would have even known about, much less cross the street to hear. Handmade Moments did all that, and so did others.

Al Scorch, a singer-songwriter out of Chicago who records with Bloodshot Records, writes original material that is raucous, poetic and intense. He’s a genial, lumbering presence on stage whose candid asides between tunes are acerbic but endearing. His songs reflect social and political issues, but always with a human face. Scorch performs mainly on the banjo and fiddler Jess McIntosh gave him accomplished support at his showcase. Their punkish music has little to do with genres we normally associate with the fiddle and banjo.

Track Dogs is a four-member band that, although based in Madrid, consists of two Irishmen, one Englishman and an American. Their unique instrumentation includes guitar (Garrett Wall), banjo and flamenco rhythm box (Robbie K. Jones), trumpet (Howard Brown) and electric bass (Dave Mooney). As you might expect from that lineup, their music is eclectic, with strains of Irish traditions, Spanish influences, rock, pop and jazz. It’s a seductive stew.

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Lead singer Garrett Wall of the Madrid-based Irish-English-American band Track Dogs. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

At Folk Alliance these guys performed with feverish intensity. As Wall explained during their set, they were trying to squeeze a 90-minute show into 25 minutes. A memorable original, “So Much Dust,” reflected on human existence:

You do all you can/To fight the good fight like a man/But times like these they take too much/And all we have to show is so much dust.

A song for our times.

The Jellyman’s Daughter, a three-piece Scottish band out of Edinburgh, shared a private showcase with The Bean Project from Melbourne, Australia. Emily Kelly and Graham Coe, founders of Jellyman’s Daughter, wove stunning vocal harmonies with Coe’s percussive work on the cello. The Bean Project founders, guitarist Ben Langdon and Bryce Turcato on French horn, created a distinctive sound, thanks principally to Turcato’s amazing solos on the horn.

To close Wednesday evening, I caught part of a private showcase by the The Railsplitters, an innovative five-piece band out of Colorado. I saw this exceptional bunch at last year’s conference. They employ the instruments of bluegrass, but they make their own music, which can be as creative as any jazz band.

Blues, a genre inextricably (and blissfully) tied to folk music, showed up in Kansas City thanks to at least two master instrumentalists.

Lloyd Spiegel, an Australian man-mountain, is arguably the best guitarist I’ve ever heard live. His mind-blowing finger work is so smooth that he hardly seems to break a sweat, and his voice is the other half of the show.

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Australian bluesman Lloyd Spiegel amazed with his fluid finger work at the 2017 FAI conference. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

A lot of people play guitar, but nobody does it quite like Spiegel, who has been making music professionally since he was 16 years old. He tells a fascinating story about legendary bluesman Brownie McGhee. After hearing Spiegel’s debut album, which included a couple of McGhee covers, McGhee called the Aussie father. The old bluesman made an offer: Let the kid come live with McGhee in Oakland, Calif. and he’ll teach him how to play the McGhee tunes he thinks he knows. Thus began a remarkable apprenticeship.

Since then Spiegel has spent considerable time in the states, including Chicago and Kansas City. He plays with a breathtaking authority, and he doesn’t just stick to blues. He can play lyrical material as well. Thursday night he proved himself an excellent storyteller between numbers in a 25-minute set — which included his instantly memorable original, “If I Killed Ya When I Met Ya (I’d Be Out of Jail By Now).”

Later on Thursday night I caught a private showcase by Tony Furtadoa formidable player on guitar and banjo from Portland, Ore. His style is rooted in the blues, but he performs a range of material, including originals. On guitar he often used a slide on his little finger, which he employed with dazzling results. The slide added texture and freshness to tunes like Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home.”

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Guitar and banjo wizard Tony Furtado of Portland, Ore., performs a private showcase at the 2017 FAI conference. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

His repertoire also included a classic folk song, “Peggy-O,” and a Furtado original: “Astoria,” an addictive instrumental he performed on the banjo cello. In Furtado’s hands, the deep-toned instrument sounds more aggressive than a bluegrass banjo. He had to keep things tight in his 25-minute set, but I got the feeling he could have easily played the tune as long as his fingers were up to it.

One thing became clear during Folk Alliance International: Bluegrass ain’t exactly bluegrass anymore.

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Barefoot Movement out of Nashville perform at Benton’s on the 20th floor of the Westin Crown Center. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

I caught part of a private showcase by The Barefoot Movement, a Nashville band whose sound transcends the genre. I’m glad I was there for a beautiful waltz-time ballad, “The Second Time Around.” Later I watched their full public showcase and took note of their versatility. Fiddler and lead vocalist Noah Wall, guitarist and singer Alex Conerly, mandolinist Tommy Norris and bassist Katie Blomarz are excellent instrumentalists. And lead singer Wall is a charismatic presence. And yes, they do perform barefoot.

Trout Steak Revival, like The Barefoot Movement and The Railsplitters, employs traditional bluegrass instruments to their own ends. The Denver band’s original tunes and arrangements are structured less like traditional bluegrass than…well, pop music. The band’s five members, Will Koster (guitar and dobro), Bevin Foley (fiddle), Travis McNamara (banjo), Casey Houlihan (bass) and Steve Foltz (guitar and mandolin), are all fine instrumentalists, and four of them can handle lead vocals, which tells you something about their versatility. Tunes like “Go On” and “Brighter Every Day” stick with you.

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10 String Symphony impressed with unique original material and phenomenal musicianship at the 2017 FAI conference. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

I encountered two duos who are also part of the bluegrass family, more or less. The Brother Brothers combine fiddle and cello and sublime harmonies. Adam and David Moss really are brothers and they really can sing. 10 String Symphony, based in Nashville, consists of two champion fiddlers,  Rachel Baiman and Christian Sedelmyer. Their original material, represented no better than by “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” is innovative and exciting and they proved to be fine harmony singers.

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The crowd loved Coco Love Alcorn at her public showcase at the 2017 FAI conference. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

Canadian Coco Love Alcorn might be described as a secular gospel artist. In her 25-minute set, I didn’t hear “God” or “Heaven” mentioned, but her music has a natural spiritual feel. Her lyric writing is economical and vivid. When she combines the words with irresistible melodies, the result is magnetic. Alcorn performed with two polished sidemen, bassist Connor Walsh and percussionist Jon Foster, both of whom provided backup vocals. The crowd loved her.

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Alysha Brilla conquered the audience at her 2017 FAI conference showcase. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

Another Canadian, Alysha Brilla, wowed a packed house at Benton’s (on the 20th floor) with her charismatic stage presence, humor, transcendent voice and serious lyrics. In her brightly colored dress and blouse, she projected the image of a tropical flower — an explosion of color and grace, delicate but powerful. (And she played the only blue guitar I saw at the conference.) Accompanied by percussionist/bassist Sammy Duke, Brilla won the crowd over with her infectious originals, including “Immigrant,” “Bigger Than That” and “No More Violence.”

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Songwriter Dan Martin performs in the Oklahoma Room at the 2017 FAI conference. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

My schedule didn’t allow time for many regional rooms — Alaska, Wisconsin, Sweden, Canada — but I did pop into the Oklahoma Room, where I caught a short set by singer-songwriter Dan Martin  that included his “You Don’t Know This Town Like Me” and the imaginative “Cannon’s Lament.”

Another talented Tulsa songwriter, Robert Hoefling, performed originals that included one of my favorites — “Midnight Daydream.” That short, deceptively simple song is a gem.

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Robert Hoefling of Tulsa performs in the Oklahoma Room. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

One Oklahoman I didn’t get to see is Chris Lee Becker, but I picked up a copy of his CD, “Imaginary Friends,” which reveals him to be an acerbic, inventive and often raucous songwriter. There are some serious tunesmiths down in the state that boasts the birthplace of Woody Guthrie.

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The Lemon Bucket Orkestra brought organized chaos to Benton’s during the Canadian band’s 2017 FAI public showcase. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

I first encountered the Lemon Bucket Orkestra in the Westin lobby, where the 11-member band (including a “gypsy” dancer) played a spontaneous set of what sounded like Eastern European and maybe Middle Eastern jams performed frantically with a punkish, theatrical sensibility. Later I caught part of their showcase at Benton’s, but the noise level quickly drove me to the elevator. During the setup I noticed that almost every instrument, including the tuba, was individually miked. Strange, since they would have been plenty loud with no microphones at all.

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Ariana Gillis pumps intensity into an upstairs hotel room at the 2017 FAI conference. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

The conference theme this year was Forbidden Folk, a nod to folk music’s long, honorable tradition of protest songs. I heard a few, but none so effective as “Freedom,” an original song by Ariana Gillis. At her late-night private showcase, Gillis delivered a plaintive call to action.

Freedom, freedom where have you been? she sang. I’ve been missing you so long.
Guns and soldiers, bullets, patrollers. Freedom never felt so wrong.

Says it all in the hyper-polarized, fragmented political era in which we find ourselves.

Folk music seems to have a North American identity, thanks to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and others. But this conference draws people from all over the world. Indeed, FAI’s executive director, Aengus Finnan, is a Canadian born in Ireland.

 Nobody has a patent on folk music, American or otherwise. And now there’s a curious sub-genre: Americana performed by non-Americans. That concept is the brain child of radio host Michael Park. His show, “The International Americana Music Show,” is carried on a number of  U.S. public radio stations as well as international outlets.

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The French band Doolin’ brought its unique brand of Celtic and Americana to the 2017 FAI conference. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

Park hosted his own stage at the conference and that’s where I saw the French band Doolin. In an intense, 25-minute set, the five-member group sometimes performed in English, sometimes in French, but regardless of the song’s origins the band delivered it expertly.

Instruments include guitar, whistle, bass, accordion and electric bass. These guys are fun to watch onstage, and if the music sounds more Irish than American (besides a cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”) no one was complaining. Without question, this is a great band.

Blair Dunlop, a singer-songwriter from England, shares his countrymen’s proclivity for an expansive vocabulary and a dry sense of humor. How many Americans would use “ascertain” in a lyric, as Dunlop does in “She Won’t Cry For Me”? In “Sweet on You” he sings: “If you don’t like Ry Cooder, how could I ever be sweet on you?” In a new song he incorporated the phrase “hydraulic electricity” into the lyrics, “which,” he said, “is my career highlight to date.”

One afternoon I stepped into a private showcase where The Changing Room, an elegant folk band based in Cornwall, shared an absurdly small space with two American songwriters — Mary Battiata of Washington DC and Ali Sperry of Nashville.

Forcing three acts to share a 25-minute slot seems crazy, but all involved persevered. Batavia, a former Washington Post reporter, has a soft, traveled voice and an appealing laid-back presence. Sperry shared a memorable romantic ballad, “Our Biography,” which she co-wrote as a duet with Robby Hecht.

The Changing Room sings in English and Cornish. Led by founders Tanya Brittain and
Sam Kelly, the band creates a unique sound with a combination of accordion, guitar, harp and banjo. “A River Runs Between,” an original, was lovely.

I attended the conference with my wife, Donna Trussell, who took the pictures you see here. Asked in the second or third day how she was doing, her response spoke for me and a lot of other people: “Exhausted. Happy.”

Robert Coleman Trussell is a musician and freelance writer covering the arts in Kansas City. He wrote an advance piece on the conference and FAI’s future in Kansas City for the January issue of KC Studio.

Bruce Dern on Tarantino, Westerns and John Wayne

At last I was on the phone with man who murdered John Wayne.

Bruce Dern, a 79-year-old two-time Oscar nominee, has done movies and TV. He has performed in Westerns, thrillers, biker movies and science fiction films. He has worked with great directors — Alfred Hitchcock, John Frankenheimer, Elia Kazan — and he has shared the screen with genuine movie legends, including Robert Mitchum, Bette Davis, Burt Lancaster and his old friend Jack Nicholson.

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Bruce Dern in “The Hateful Eight” (Andrew Cooper/The Weinstein Co.)

Now Dern is part of the ensemble cast of Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” a big-budget Western to which Dern lends what I call genre credibility. Dern’s penchant for playing frontier psychopaths got him plenty of work on TV Westerns in the 1960s, and he made a singular contribution to the genre in “The Cowboys,” a 1972 film. In it, Dern, playing a low-life rustler called Long Hair, became the first actor in a Western to kill Wayne, the most iconic screen cowboy of them all.

In “The Cowboys,” Dern was doing what he’d been doing for years on TV, playing a flea-bitten S.O.B. with a gun. (Director Mark Rydell had once directed Dern in an episode of “Gunsmoke,” the long-running CBS Western.)

But “The Cowboys” was something different. Wayne usually surrounded himself with cronies, but Rydell decided to put him with “New York” actors — Dern and Roscoe Lee Browne, who played the trail cook, had come out of the Actors Studio in New York, and Colleen Dewhurst, a veteran of the New York stage, had a prominent cameo as the madam of a traveling whorehouse.

The result? Wayne delivered one of his best performances in one of his best movies. And Dern entered the Villains Hall of Fame. Wayne had been killed off in a handful of other films, but never in a Western. And all of this took place not long after Wayne restated his right-wing political views in a Playboy magazine interview.

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Dern as Longhair in “The Cowyboys.”

“He said to me, ‘Oh, how they’re gonna hate you for this,’ ” Dern recalled. “And I said, ‘Maybe, but in Berkeley I’ll be a (bleeping) hero.’ He put his arm around my neck and showed me to the entire crew of about a hundred people standing there, and he said, ‘This is why this prick is in my movie — ’cause he understands that bad guys are funny.’ ”

Dern said he came to appreciate Wayne’s acting chops.

“To tell you the truth, he was a better actor than people gave him credit for,” Dern said. “There’s one thing John Wayne had, and that’s a presence. When John Wayne comes through a door, he’s a formidable being. He’s not someone you want to (mess) with. And I think he became a better actor as he went along. He was always relaxed, and he would have a nip or two during the day, but who (cares)? As an actor, he looked at you and listened to you and responded to what you said.”

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John Wayne beats the crap out of Bruce Dern in “The Cowboys.”

In “The Hateful Eight,” Dern is part of an ensemble that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Dern plays Gen. Sandy Smithers, a former Confederate officer who has come to Wyoming to find his missing son. Dern and Jackson have a particularly unpleasant encounter in a major sequence midway through the film.

Dern places Tarantino on the short list of directors he considers authentic geniuses. But the two had never met until Tarantino asked him to perform a cameo in “Django Unchained,” his previous movie.

“We have a lunch or two a year that last about five hours where we play … movie trivia and things like that,” Dern said. “He’s always had a reverence for me because he grew up watching me be (a bad guy) on television. He can even quote dialogue from shows I did on TV.

“He sent me the script of ‘The Hateful Eight,’ and that was the first I’d heard of it. I was excited that he wanted me to do it and that he had apparently tailored it for me.”

Little in Dern’s background suggested a career in Westerns. He grew up in an influential family in Chicago — he said he was a black sheep for choosing to be an actor — and as a young actor studied under Kazan and Lee Strasberg at the famed Actors Studio. He even drove a cab in New York to pay the rent. But after moving to Hollywood he found plenty of work on television, especially shows about the Old West, so much so that he became associated with the genre.

Dern recalled a bit of advice Kazan gave him when he was about to leave New York for California.

“Kazan said to me: ‘You’re gonna go to Hollywood now, and for a long time you’re gonna be the fifth cowboy from the right. Just make sure you’re the most memorable, unique fifth cowboy from the right anybody … saw.”

In the 1960s Dern appeared in every genre of TV show, but he found the most opportunities on Westerns. He appeared repeatedly on “Gunsmoke,” “The Big Valley,” “Wagon Train” and “The Virginian.” His first big-screen Western was “The War Wagon,” another Wayne movie.

“When I came to Hollywood in 1961, Universal Pictures alone made 14 hours a week of Westerns,” he said.

But his versatility has allowed him to work with some of the best directors in movies — Frankenheimer (“Black Sunday”), Hitchcock (“Family Plot”), Kazan (“Wild River”) and Walter Hill (“The Driver”). Along the way he earned a couple of Oscar nominations, one for “Coming Home” in 1979 and the other for “Nebraska” in 2014.

Tarantino, he said, is an actor’s director motivated by a reverence for the history of film.

“He encourages you,” Dern said. “The win is to be cast by Tarantino. And then you’re on the team. He’s had this group of actors he’s worked with through the years. And he kind of hired me to help lend a hand to what he was doing.”

In addition to Tarantino, Dern’s list of geniuses include Kazan, Hitchcock, Douglas Trumbull (who cast Dern in the science fiction film “Silent Running”) and Alexander Payne (who directed “Nebraska.”)

“My definition of genius has always been that at any point any member of the crew or cast can walk up to the director and say, ‘What is my contribution to this particular shot?’ and they can tell you succinctly,” he said. “In a way they’re teachers, they’re professors.”

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Bruce Dern received his second Academy Award nomination for “Nebraska.”

Another “professor” was Roger Corman, the king of low-budget genre films, including biker movies and horror flicks. Dern and Nicholson appeared in several of Corman’s movies early in their careers. Dern and Robert De Niro played members of Ma Barker’s gang in Corman’s “Bloody Mama.”

“Jack and I always felt like we got to go the University of Corman because neither one of us finished college,” Dern said.

Dern said he doesn’t like to rehearse except for the camera movements. And he’s not bashful about inserting his own line of dialogue if he thinks it will help the film.

“Alexander Payne said to me the very first day of shooting on ‘Nebraska,’ ‘You see anything this morning you’ve never seen before?’ And I said: ‘Yes I do. I see that everyone is pulling his oar, and it’s 29 degrees.’ ”

The message from Payne was: Dare to fail.

“Let us do our jobs,” Payne told him. “Never show us anything. Let us find it.”

Dern said when he heard that he knew that “for the first time in my career I had a partner I could trust.”

And that’s how he felt about Tarantino on “The Hateful Eight.”

“I think the greatest thing Quentin has is his reverence for what went before,” Dern said. “He’s not a revolutionary, but he’s leading the troops at Valley Forge as far as I’m concerned right now.”

This article originally ran Jan. 9, 2016 in the Kansas City Star.

 

Shtick and history: Renaissance Festival offers mud, sweat and cleavage

BY ROBERT TRUSSELL
rtrussell@kcstar.com

As I approached the main gate to the Kansas City Renaissance Festival, I heard war drums pounding away just inside the compound, and my pulse quickened.

What lay in store? Acrobats? A stunt show? Dueling swordsmen?

To my right was an impossible-to-miss figure standing on the periphery of a grassy field where an archery competition apparently was to be held. Certainly there were archers in the Renaissance era — generally considered to span the 14th to 17th centuries as a bridge between the Middle Ages and modern Europe — but this fellow would have been an odd sight on the streets of Shakespeare’s London or Michelangelo’s Rome. I shall call him Thor, because he was costumed as a bearded Norse warrior holding a massive hammer in one paw.

Thus, even before I entered the grounds, was I introduced to the fungible definition of “renaissance” at the annual Renfest, which began decades ago as a fundraiser by the Kansas City Art Institute but is now a commercial enterprise operated by a Minnesota-based company.

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The King and Queen lead the daily parade through the festival grounds. Photo by Robert Trussell

Inside the gates, I saw a number of young women wearing plastic elves’ ears (Were there more elves in the Renaissance than other eras?), a man wearing what appeared to be a Plains Indian feathered headdress and, of course, a few court jesters.

So, too, were there “bawdy” wenches with expansive decolletage, costumed strollers greeting visitors with “Good day, sir,” and boys and men dressed as medieval knights. There were moments when the mashup of incongruities became so vivid that I felt like I had stumbled into the multispecies cantina in “Star Wars.” Sadly, I saw no White Walkers (the frozen zombies from the pseudo-medieval “Game of Thrones.”)

People strolled around munching fried chicken served in paper cartons and enormous turkey legs. You could buy a $6 domestic beer if the sun made you thirsty. As you moved through the fairgrounds, there were times when the air was filled with the smell of hot grease and others where the dominant aroma brought to mind a cow lot. And, thanks to the recent rains, you had to sidestep patches of mud.

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Mounted knights join the parade and will soon meet in the lists. Photo by Robert Trussell

But there wasn’t much to do with the real Renaissance. Nowhere did I find a single reference to William Shakespeare, Johannes Gutenberg or Galileo — not that a visit to the festival is meant to be a scholarly pursuit.

No, the general era conveyed by the stage shows, attractions and gift shops spread across 16 acres in Wyandotte County invites a description no less vague than “olden.” As in Ye Olde (fill in the blank) Shoppe.

The war drums, it turned out, weren’t warlike at all. Just loud. They were part of an early-afternoon performance by Soul Fire, a “gypsy” troupe of young men and women who danced, tumbled (rolling in the dirt), twirled flaming batons and indulged in PG-rated banter with the audience.

Within minutes it was time for the parade — the daily procession in which most if not all of the resident performers fell in and toured the festival grounds with drums and trumpets. Knights on horseback, kings and queens, dancers and clowns shuffled, marched and pranced through a Sunday-afternoon throng of spectators. Bringing up the rear was the masked Executioner, an axe resting across one shoulder, who repeatedly called out: “Parade’s over! Bye-bye! You can all go home now!”

I followed the parade through the wooded festival site to the jousting arena, which is one of the festival’s big selling points.

The bleachers were packed by the time I got there and when the fellow dressed something like Henry VIII told the audience through his wireless microphone that they were to see merely a demonstration, the spectators were audibly disappointed.

“There will be no bloodshed today,” the King told them and a collective “aww …” rippled across the crowd.

I expected some bad theater and the alleged jousting didn’t disappoint. There was more talking than fighting as the King and Queen traded quips with the armored Sir Arthur, Sir Malcolm and Sir Duncan, who sat on costumed horses. The shaky accents, I could tell, were meant to sound British. First the mounted knights competed by spearing rings tossed in the air by a female squire. Finally, it came down to the real matchup — a joust between Arthur and Duncan.

On the third pass, Arthur unseated Duncan, who slowly fell to the dirt without injuring himself. Then they fought with swords. Let it be said the level of violence was less than shocking.

The festival has plenty of entertainment for family and kids. There’s a stand near the lists that sells foam swords. There’s a petting zoo. You can pay to ride horses, ponies, llamas, camels — even an elephant. There’s musical entertainment at stages throughout the park. But there’s also stuff for people in the market for something less than wholesome.

That’s why I ducked into the Dungeon Museum and paid $2 for a quick walk-through. The first window showed me the skull crusher, which worked something like a vise. The minimal written information in each display informed me that most of these interesting inventions were employed to extract confessions. No kidding. I’d confess to anything if the skull crusher were wrapped around my cranium.

It’s a short tour and the ineptly crafted mannequins representing torture victims won’t score points for realism. Yet the museum, whether by design or not, stood as a reminder that the Renaissance, for all its stunning achievements in art, philosophy and mathematics, had a grotesque side that reflected the worst in human nature.

With that happy thought, I called it a day and headed for the exit.

This article was originally published in the Kansas City Star on Sept. 23, 2015. Visit www.kansascity.com

 

The fate of the nation: It’s all showbiz

BY ROBERT TRUSSELL

I just love it when reality and fantasy collide.

Luckily for me, we live at a time when it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. Objectivity barely exists in public discourse, and the daily media-political mashup is the equivalent of a demolition derby.

“Politics is show business for ugly people,” analyst Paul Begala reportedly said in the ’90s. True enough, but the politics-as-showbiz era started long before.

If you want to pinpoint the moment when political decorum began its long downhill slide, then I vote for Richard Nixon’s two-second appearance on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in” in 1968 when he was running for president.

Nixon looked at the camera and deadpanned the show’s signature line with an incredulous tone: “Sock it to me?”

nixon-featThink of Tricky Dick’s novel decision to lower himself to the garish world of show business as a pebble bouncing down a mountainside that would be followed in time by a relentless avalanche.

Nixon was a legitimate political leader — a former vice president who had served in both the U.S. House and Senate — and his appearance on a prime-time variety show that riffed on ’60s counterculture was an amusing anomaly. And it raised an obvious question: Didn’t the candidate have better things to do? Crafting position papers on the Vietnam War, perhaps, or the nuclear arms race?

But Nixon had learned his lesson. In his earlier bid for the White house in 1960 he met in a series of televised debates with the future president, John F. Kennedy. The medium chewed him up and spit him out.

The debates trumped rhetoric with visuals: the relaxed, articulate Kennedy vs. the ill-at-ease Nixon, whose 5 o’clock shadow and sweaty face made him look scared and indecisive. By ’68, he’d wised up. Now he meant to be in control. He would use the medium, not the other way around.

Politicians were still figuring out how to dance with the succubus of television in the ’50s and ’60s because politics and TV were seen as separate worlds. Politics was serious business, historical clay being modeled by dour white men in dark suits in the Oval Office and the halls of Congress. TV was a box in your living room where you could watch rigged game shows, aging comedians hosting variety hours or Marshal Dillon blowing away frontier sociopaths.

One thing TV did have was journalists — a gallery of grumpy middle-aged guys who were credited with presenting something close to objective reality through the evening news and Sunday panel shows. Anchors were not yet considered stars. Journalists were not exactly celebrities. Not yet.

The politics-as-showbiz era began in earnest in 1980, when Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood actor and TV pitchman, won the White House.

Reagan was an adequate actor in movies (his last feature-film role was as the heavy in “The Killers,” a 1964 Don Siegel crime flick with Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes and Angie Dickinson), but I think most Republicans and Democrats would agree that his greatest performance was as President Ronald Reagan.

Reagan never lost his handsome jawline — he always looked great in a Stetson — and at the podium spoke with a conviction that betrayed no hint of hypocrisy, no dissembling, just pure starry-eyed belief in the shining city on a hill. Sometimes that could be a little scary.

In 1980 he sat for an interview with televangelist Jim Bakker on “The PTL Club” in a bid to curry favor with evangelical voters and declared that “we may be the generation that sees Armageddon” — a cheery thought from a guy who would soon have access to nuclear launch codes.

Whether Reagan really believed everything that came out of his mouth is a question for historians to answer. But like any great pitchman, he made us believe that he believed.

After Reagan completed his two terms, during which he theatrically pursued a program of deregulation, tax cuts, defense spending and saber-rattling, I held out hope that we could watch him resume his acting career. Chalk it up to my weakness for post-modern weirdness. Just think if he had been available for, say, “Independence Day” or “Armageddon.” How wonderful it would have been to watch the roster of stars in the opening credits conclude with: “And Ronald Reagan as the President.”

No doubt about it, Reagan led the way. He showed us that qualifications didn’t matter. There’s just one goal: Become a celebrity. Be a salesman. In the words of playwright David Mamet, always be closing.

These days news people interview each other. Actors pretend to be journalists. Presidents go on talk shows. Politicians and celebs alike snort airtime like cokeheads. Stephen Colbert, like his mentor Jon Stewart, has become an obligatory TV stop for power-seekers, except now he’s talking to talking heads on a late-night network broadcast instead of a late-night basic cable comedy show.

Barack Obama, a sitting president, agreed to appear on daytime gabfest “The View.” And why not? Obama is the most TV-friendly president in history. It’s hard to name a talk show he hasn’t gone on.

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George and Laura Bush calculatedly demeaned themselves by sitting for an interview with Dr. Phil — the celebrity psychologist who became a star after appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show — to discuss parenting.

Earlier, candidate Bill Clinton in his 1992 race for the White House put on a pair of sunglasses and played “Heartbreak Hotel” on the sax for Arsenio Hall’s TV audience.

Think about that for a minute. Try to imagine President Dwight D. Eisenhower going on “What’s My Line?” or “I’ve Got a Secret.”

We now live in an age when anyone can become an actor and any celebrity can run for office. For a Republican Watergate lawyer and U.S. senator, Fred Thompson was a pretty good actor as long as he played characters that were a lot like Fred Thompson. Sonny Bono was a pretty good congressman for a ’60s pop singer.

When the current GOP presidential candidates lined up for televised debates, it was tough to see them as anything but deadpan comedians.

There was Donald Trump, former reality TV star and “self-made” jillionaire, jutting his jaw as if posing for a Roman bust. Many a blogger compared Carly Fiorina’s demeanor to Cruella de Vil. And Jeb Bush, looking like a deer caught in the headlights, wishing he could rent a thimble of Trump’s charisma.

This is where we are: Politics as performance art.

There is a wild card out there, though: Bernie Sanders. His rumpled persona falls far short of movie-star translucence, and the pundits all say he doesn’t have a chance.

But I have to say the idea of a debate between Bernie and the Donald would make some fine television.

This article originally appeared in the Kansas City Star on Oct. 3, 2015. Go to www.kansascity.com

Rest Yourself Beneath the Strength of Strings: A Memorable Knight at the Folk Alliance

Note: This article originally appeared on kansascity.com on Feb. 20, 2015.

By ROBERT TRUSSELL

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Billy Strings & Don Julin at Folk Alliance International 2015. Photo by DONNA TRUSSELL.

People who play guitar tend to divide the world into two distinct groups: Those who play guitars (us), and those who don’t (them).

The style of music you play doesn’t matter so much. What matters is that you’ve spent years, maybe decades, trying to unlock the tonal mysteries contained in six steel strings pulled taut on a structure made of wooden panels, braces and struts that were shaped and glued by someone in a factory or workshop who actually gave a damn.

The beauty of the guitar, and a small family of other stringed instruments, is that it allows you to make music anywhere you happen to be.

You don’t need a license. You don’t need permission. You don’t need an orchestra leader. You don’t need an education, although the ability to read music isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

People with guitars have made music in prisons and box cars. They’ve performed at fish fries and barbecues. They’ve played at weddings and funerals. They’ve written songs in bus stations and flop houses and the backs of vans. With a guitar balanced on one knee, they’ve written songs on grocery sacks and envelopes and paper napkins.

So when guitar players get together there’s a kind of collective consciousness in the air, an unspoken collective bond.

That’s how it felt during a day and night of hanging around at the Folk Alliance International, an annual trade show held in Kansas City that attracts musicians from several continents.

Kansas City has its own community of acoustic singer/songwriters — labeled “folk” artists for lack of a more specific term — but for one weekend they have a chance to meet fellow travelers from across the country. And from Canada. And Australia. And Ireland. And the UK.

And just about anywhere you turn, you run into somebody you know, another guitar player wandering from one musical event the next, soaking it up like a human blotter.

I didn’t have anything to do with the folk alliance a year ago. But then I started seeing videos people had shot at of some of the private showcases in hotel rooms on the upper floors of the Westin Crown Center. And they were pretty amazing in terms of skill, originality and diversity.

This year my wife — the same person who showed me the videos — decided to volunteer. So I figured: Well, why not?

My first stop on Thursday night was the Music Fair, the label for public performances at the nearby Sheraton Crown Center. The first order of business was to see Billy Strings and Don Julin.

I was there for one simple reason: I had seen a video of one of their showcases a year earlier, and I imagine my reaction was basically what any guitarhead’s would be: These guys are amazing.

The duo from Traverse City, Mich. on Thursday were playing with a bassist, Kevin Gills, a big man who looks like he came down out of the mountains not so long ago.

Strings, the guitarist, is in his 20s and when he plays an expression of pure happiness sometimes spreads across his face. At odd moments he looks angelic, but during solos he can just as easily look demonically possessed. He plays with an intensity you don’t normally see in acoustic guitarists.

Strings, with his trim haircut and nicely fitted suit, stands in sharp visual contrast to Julin, the mandolin player. The portly, hairy Julin looks old enough to be Billy’s father but his exceptional musical abilities make him a good match.

Bluegrass, we know, can sometimes acquire a sort of mechanical precision, but Julin and Strings approach the music with something like a jazz sensibility. Their solos are unpredictable and full of surprises and you get the feeling that they rarely, if ever, repeat themselves.

The next stop was a show by Matt the Electrician, a songwriter based in Austin, Texas. On Thursday he was accompanied by another Austin musician, Jeff Plankenhorn, who backed Matt up with impressive work on dobro and guitar.

Matt’s stage patter seems a little affected, although his deadpan sense of humor generates honest laughter. His songs are quirky and engaging and he’s an expressive finger-picker.

Later we migrated back to the Westin, where we went upstairs and divided our time between the fifth and seventh floors. This is where the private showcases happen and the moment you step off the elevator you see that the corridor walls — indeed, the elevator doors — are virtually plastered with posters and fliers.

Some doors are labeled “green room” with handwritten signs, which tells you that inside musicians are probably warming up for a performance. Some countries and regions have their own showcase rooms. There’s an Oklahoma Room, for example, and a Folk Music Canada Suite.

That’s where we saw James Hill, a ukulele virtuoso from Nova Scotia. The ukulele has achieved a prominence in the last few years nobody would have thought possible when it was viewed contemptuously as a novelty instrument, but Hill plays with convincing (though understated) passion and a sophisticated musicality that would put some guitarists to shame.

He was joined in his showcase by Anne Jannelle, a classically trained cellist, who provided nuanced accompaniment and harmony vocals. Hill is a gifted songwriter whose lyrics deserve second and third listenings.

The showcases are meant for musicians and songwriters to demonstrate their talents for radio DJs and concert promoters, as well as just music-loving conference attendees. They run according to a strict timetable. Performers are assigned to time slots and they’re expected to clear out quickly to make room for the next musicians.

The hallways, as a result, are as congested as you might imagine an urban railway station in India to be. You see people wrestling full-size bass violins and packed-up electric pianos through corridors filled with gawking music fans flowing in two directions, often loitering just outside hotel rooms because the music from inside has caught their attention.

We wandered into a showcase by Trout Steak Revival, a Denver bluegrass band, just long enough to have a band rep hand me a can of New Belgium Slow Ride and hear a band member lament the next day’s drive back to Denver through predicted snow. I shoved the can into my coat pocket and we moved on.

At that point we ran into a guy I’d met earlier in the lobby who enthusiastically recommended another Canadian band in a nearby room. So we went in and took a seat to listen to most of a set by Sweet Alibi, a six-member group that incorporated guitars, a ukulele, a banjo, an electric bass, percussion, and electric piano and fantastic three-part harmonies by Jess Rae Ayre, Amber Rose Quesnel and Michelle Anderson — who are also the group’s chief songwriters.

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Sweet Alibi of Canada performed several showcases during the Folk Alliance. Photo by DONNA TRUSSELL.

The vocals were sometimes cool, sometimes passionate, and the music itself was crisply arranged, bringing together disparate influences to create a distinctive sound.

With that, we called it a night. The only downside was shelling out a handful of cash to escape the Westin parking garage (our validated ticket had expired earlier in the evening).

That was a minor complaint in a otherwise unforgettable night of music. I’ve covered different aspects of the arts for a long time and here’s what I found unique at the Folk Alliance: A notable absence of obvious B.S.

This looked and felt like a group of people who were genuinely happy to be together and to do what they do best, make beautiful music.

Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/ent-columns-blogs/back-to-rockville/article10767113.html#storylink=cpy

Hooked on crooks: How ‘Breaking Bad’ created a bona fide binge-watcher

This article originally appeared in the Kansas City Star on March 22, 2014.
By ROBERT TRUSSELL

The Kansas City Star

It took awhile, but I finally went over to the dark side.

There’s nothing new about binge-watching — Netflix says it’s here to stay — but I could never get myself to take the plunge.

Until recently.

I was defeated in a war of attrition. I broke down, upgrading my Netflix account to the two-DVDs-at-once plan. Then my wife and I took another ominous step. We ordered Apple TV, hooked it up to our 8-year-old TV and to our amazement discovered that it worked.

Now a universe of movies and TV series is available at the touch of a finger. We’re free to roam the Netflix streaming library. Delayed gratification is a thing of the past. And it didn’t take long to discover that I wasn’t alone. In fact, I was late to the party. But then I usually am.

I took an early plunge with “The Sopranos” just before its third season.

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. (HBO)

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano.

We hadn’t watched the iconic show about New Jersey gangsters trying to acquire the trappings of suburban respectability until HBO ginned up interest in the new episodes by running a marathon of Seasons 1 and 2. The TV happened to be on. We happened to have HBO on the screen. And we happened to watch one episode. And then we watched another. And then another.

After consuming a couple of years of “Sopranos” episodes in a single day, there was no choice but to become regular viewers.

Last year we immersed ourselves in the “House of Cards” experience. We weren’t set up for streaming yet, so we watched the entire first season on DVDs as fast as Netflix could get them to us.

The addictive narrative about an American politician scheming, lying and murdering his way into the White House offered just the right mix of elements to keep us hooked. It was smart. It was sophisticated. It was lurid. And it put some great actors together with some distinguished directors. What more could you ask for?

But then we discovered “Breaking Bad,” the AMC series about a schoolteacher in New Mexico who becomes a meth dealer after his lung-cancer diagnosis.

The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, has said the fictitious idea was to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface. Evidently he hit a chord. The show now has a permanent place in pop culture.

You can buy T-shirts advertising Los Pollos Hermanos, the fried-chicken franchise that fronted a drug-smuggling empire. Or shirts with the image of Heisenberg, schoolteacher Walter White’s drug-dealer persona, looking pretty scary in his sunglasses and black porkpie hat.

Bryan Cranston as Walter White. (AMC)

Bryan Cranston as Walter White.

Once again, we were late to the party. It was months after AMC broadcast the final episode that we began watching. It was all because of our friend Julie, a cancer survivor in Leawood. She insisted we had to watch the show. She and her husband, Terry, had consumed the entire series in a matter of weeks. Now she wanted us to watch it so we could share her obsession.

My wife, Donna, was unconvinced.

“I don’t know,” she said. “A high school teacher who becomes a drug dealer? It just sounds so contrived.”

“Just watch it,” Julie insisted.

“But …”

Just watch it.”

So we did — more out of loyalty to Julie than curiosity.

But viewing the episodes in order was a challenge. Netflix had a “very long wait” for Season 1, Disc 1. Area libraries, same problem. We had no choice but to buy the first season on disc.

So, Season 1 in hand, we started watching. Then we watched some more. Before long the show about chemistry teacher Walter White and high school dropout Jesse Pinkman wading into a world of meth addiction, murder and organized crime had us — well, hooked. We’d watch three or four episodes in one sitting. The other seasons were readily available on Netflix, so we began working through them. There were painful days, inevitably, when there was no red envelope waiting in the mailbox.

Julie understood.

“You won’t want to stop,” she said.

When Julie and Terry were in the grip of their “Breaking Bad” binge, they structured their weekends around the show. Friends would invite them to dinner but they’d say, “No, we have plans.” After all, there were unwatched episodes just waiting to be loaded into Terry’s Blu-ray player.

“I would say the show is as addictive as blue meth is to addicts,” Julie said.

At one point they began to toss around Jesse Pinkman’s favored epithet.

“We walk around the house saying, ‘Hey, bitch, you ready?’ ” she said.

And Julie, the most kindhearted person I know, found herself identifying on some level with monomaniacal Walter as he metamorphosed from unremarkable high school teacher to murderous, power-hungry sociopath.

“There were things about his cancer diagnosis that I related to,” Julie said. “Going through chemo and being sick I could kind of relate to. I don’t think I’d be able to put a bullet in someone’s head, but you know …”

The word “binge,” of course, has a pejorative ring to it. It’s a word to describe eating a package of Oreos in one sitting or knocking off two or three bottles of wine before the 10 o’clock news.

But what if you decided to read “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” back to back one summer? Would that be considered “binge reading”?

Watching Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood claw his way to power on “House of Cards” inevitably brings William Shakespeare to mind. Francis and Richard III have a few things in common.

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Richard III meets Lady Macbeth: Kevin Spacey & Robin Wright in “House of Cards.” (Netflix)

Indeed, long before anyone had heard of TV bingeing, the Bard set a precedent of sorts with his history plays about the succession of English monarchs in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare wrote eight plays that form a continuous narrative from the reign of Richard II to the rule of Henry VI. Now and then a brave or foolhardy theater company — usually in Britain — takes it upon itself to stage all of them.

Some companies like to pair two of Shakespeare’s Roman history plays, “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra,” with one actor playing Antony in both. On matinee days audiences could sit through both with a dinner break in-between.

Eugene O’Neill had a penchant for writing plays that clocked in at more than four hours. And some contemporary playwrights have created binge-like viewing experiences with epic dramas, including Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Robert Schenkkan’s “The Kentucky Cycle,” both of which must be viewed as two full-length plays.

But nobody in theater or film had ever produced anything quite like “Breaking Bad,” which followed a clear thematic progression and coherent narrative from beginning to end.

“Shakespearean” is an apt description. Each episode was an existential journey into darkness, as cerebral as it was lurid. And the show religiously adhered to Gilligan’s original vision: to turn a protagonist into an antagonist as the series progressed.

Responding to questions by email, Gilligan said he, the actors and his team of writers and directors all were committed to Walter White’s journey.

“When it became clear in Season 4 that Walter White’s story was headed toward its natural conclusion, we didn’t fight or ignore that realization,” Gilligan said. “It’s important to know when to call it quits.”

Gilligan, by the way, says he’s not much of a binge-watcher — with one notable exception.

“Every New Year’s Eve, the SyFy Channel broadcasts a marathon of the original ‘Twilight Zone’ episodes, which I wind up consuming one right after the other, like potato chips, for hours on end,” he said.

“It doesn’t seem to matter that I already own every episode, uncut and commercial-free, on pristine Blu-ray and can watch them anytime I like. I can’t quite figure out why I do that. It’s turned into a bit of holiday tradition for me, I guess.”

But Gilligan in no way underestimates the power of binge-watching and what it says about the way we now consume television shows and movies.

“No matter how old-fashioned I may be personally, I am foursquare behind the concept of binge-watching,” he said. “I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. ‘Breaking Bad’ benefited immensely from it — and perhaps was ultimately saved by it. Binge-watching transformed my career.”

As for Spacey, an executive producer on “House of Cards,” he was quoted recently saying that while his show didn’t start the bingeing phenomenon, Netflix did set a precedent by releasing an entire season at once so people could stream every episode if they chose.

“I think it goes to say how much an audience is really digging being in control and being able to treat a series the way they treat a novel,” Spacey said. “(They) pick it up when they want to pick it up and put it down when they want to put it down.”

Since then I’ve explored other binge candidates. We watched the complete “Luther,” a British police procedural starring Idris Elba as a detective with a history of mental problems and ethical lapses who nonetheless nabs a serial killer by the end of each episode.

I’ve watched a couple of episodes of “Ripper Street,” a blood-spattered depiction of police detectives in 1889 London.

We checked out “Dexter,” another show I never watched when it was in production. It’s enthusiastically grotesque and somehow invites the word “lighthearted” in its depiction of a serial killer who only kills murderers who got away with it.

And I checked out “The Walking Dead,” another AMC show, about the zombie apocalypse; plenty of action, but too much time spent on humorless survival-camp politics for my taste.

So what are the “Breaking Bad” fans supposed to do? No other show has offered such a consistent, dramatically coherent through line. No other show could draw viewers into an extreme-yet-plausible narrative with such skill.

“There’s an intensity, of course, when you watch back-to-back episodes,” said Paul Tyler, grants director for the Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City. Tyler said he and his wife didn’t discover “Breaking Bad” until the third season, so they watched the first two in a frenzy on DVDs.

“ ‘Breaking Bad’ is one of the best things we’ve ever seen on TV,” Tyler said. “The realism of the show made it all so believable. And the consistency and the arc of those characters over such a long period of time was really phenomenal.”

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in "Breaking Bad" (AMC)

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in “Breaking Bad” (AMC)

In the interest of something — let’s call it closure — we invited Julie and Terry to watch the final two episodes of “Breaking Bad” with us.

The doorbell rang, I opened the door, and there they were — wearing T-shirts showing the periodic table of elements, a reference to the show’s unique credits. And Terry was wearing sunglasses and a black, flat-brimmed Heisenberg hat.

“We’re here, bitch,” he said.

As the credits rolled at the end of “Felina,” the final episode, in which Walter White meets his inevitable end, there was a real sense of loss. The series was over. And we could never watch it as newbies again.

Some of the “Breaking Bad” acolytes are eager to see “Better Call Saul,” Gilligan’s prequel. But how can it wield the power of the original? Julie wants to watch “Breaking Bad” again from the beginning — when the time is right.

“There was something about ‘Breaking Bad,’ ” she said. “We couldn’t stop.”

(c) 2014 by the Kansas City Star

Filmmakers and theater artists in KC find symbiosis

This story originally appeared Sept. 23, 2013 on kansascity.com.

By Robert Trussell

Forrest Attaway had nobody but himself to blame.

One day the actor found himself on a remote country road somewhere out in Kansas, where filmmakers Mitch Brian and Todd Norris were shooting him from various angles and distances to put together a 60-second trailer promoting the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre production of “The Rainmaker.”

“There was not a QuikTrip or anything within 30 miles of this place,” Attaway said.

469385283_640In the play Attaway plays a character named Starbuck, a confidence man who blows into a drought-stricken rural community selling his services as someone who can bring rain.

“Originally my idea was Starbuck’s just standing out in the field and the camera pans in and moves in on one eye and you see a lightning bolt in his eye,” Attaway said.

Brian and Norris didn’t have the equipment to do it in one shot the way Attaway envisioned it. But they accomplished the same thing in a series of cuts that go from an extreme long shot of Attaway coming down a dirt road to an extreme close-up of his eye where, indeed, a lightning bolt flashes.

It wasn’t a particularly hot day, but they were able to shoot Attaway from far enough away that heat waves can be seen rising from the dirt. And in the editing process they turned the lush greenery on the roadsides parched and brown.

“They made it a better idea,” Attaway said. “I love those cats.”

A still from the Jetpack trailer for "The Rainmaker."

A still from the Jetpack trailer for “The Rainmaker.”

The slick trailer for “The Rainmaker,” shot in muted colors, is one of several Brian and Norris have made over the last year or two for local theater companies. Their first effort was a short promotional film for the Living Room’s 2012 production of “Bucket of Blood,” a play Brian wrote based on the 1959 Roger Corman cult film, in which interviews with artists involved were intercut with scenes from the public-domain film.

Since then they’ve shot trailers for “Burn This,” “Fool for Love” and “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll” at the Living Room; “The Rainmaker,” their first for the MET; and “The Mountaintop” and “Venus in Fur” for the Unicorn. Their latest is a promo for “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” which opens at the Fishtank Peformance Studio this weekend.

Visit a theater company’s website and you find videos, but often they fall into two categories: yakking talking heads and performance footage shot from a stationary camera. Brian and Norris are offering a third option: Deftly edited little movies meant to stimulate the viewer’s curiosity.

“We’ve all seen those bad local TV commercials with bad lighting,” Brian said. “And it never makes me want to see the play.”

Norris put it this way: “What’s more fun as a filmmaker? To shoot a rehearsal? Or make a minimovie?”

Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo in a still from the "Venus in Fur" trailer

Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo in a still from the “Venus in Fur” trailer

Not so long ago, filmmakers in Kansas City did their thing, and theater folk did theirs. There wasn’t much overlap between the two communities. But that’s changing. When Attaway directed “Fool for Love” for the Living Room earlier this year, he cast one experienced stage actor — Robert Elliott — but for the other roles turned to performers who had mainly worked in film — Amy Kelly, Jason Miller and Curtis Smith.

“I like the more real, gritty kind of film acting,” Attaway said. He added that the trailers Brian and Norris are shooting might be one way to achieve what every theater company wants: Finding a younger audience.

“Anything we can do to bring that younger audience in has to have that familiar feel to it,” he sad. “We were all raised on television and movies.”

Brian, who had supported himself as a screenwriter for years, had never considered writing a play until sitting through rehearsals and performances of the Coterie Theatre’s second production of “Night of the Living Dead,” in which his daughter played a zombie.

“After watching ‘Night of the Living Dead’ for 10 performances, I realized I knew how I could do this,” he said.

Jeff Church, the Coterie’s artistic director, approached him about writing a “Living Dead” sequel. The result was a 2009 production of “Maul of the Dead,” a comedic gorefest directed by Ron Megee, which began with zombies chasing security officers into the lobby of the Off Center Theatre before the audience had been seated.

“For me it was great,” Brian said. “I didn’t want any blackouts. I wanted to write sustained action, which you don’t get to do when you’re writing a movie.”

Subsequently, Brian wrote “Sorority House of the Dead,” an homage to 1980s slasher movies, which was staged by Megee at the Living Room. Then came “Bucket of Blood,” also performed at the Living Room. Now he’s firmly in the Living Room orbit. All three plays have been published and have been produced elsewhere, including two productions in Australia.

The cross-pollination between art disciplines in Kansas City is at an all-time high, Brian said.

“There’s a lot of creative synergy right now,” he said. “There’s a lot more crossover. There’s just a creative vibe going on in Kansas City.”

Norris said shooting the trailers has introduced him to a community of artists he hadn’t known.

“Mitch is much more familiar with the theater scene than I am,” Norris said. “I am very new to this so one of the fun things for me doing these promos is meeting all these terrific actors. So for me it’s like networking.”

An image from the "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll'" trailer for the Living Room.

An image from the “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll'” trailer for the Living Room.

Shooting the trailers has fundamentally changed the way Norris thinks about actors and playwrights.

“It went from a zero to a thousand for me,” Norris said. “I was one of those guys who had never seen good theater. My perception of theater was: ‘This is kind of lame, sort of stupid.’ But when I started seeing good theater at the Living Room and other places, I was like, ‘Oh, now I get it.’ I’m kind of a born-again theatergoer right now.”

When Attaway approached Karen Paisley, the MET’s artistic director, and pitched the idea for shooting a “Rainmaker” trailer, she didn’t hesitate.

“I said, let’s go for it,” Paisley said. “It’s interesting when you’re working with a modern audience. We can’t make theater be a medium that it isn’t, but helping people access something in their imagination in a mode of communication that is acceptable to them is not a bad idea. I love the whole look of it.”

Cynthia Levin, the artistic director of the Unicorn, said she first saw some of Brian and Norris’ work at a fundraiser for the Living Room. She invited them to shoot a promo for “The Mountaintop,” the final show of the previous season, which resulted in a moody black-and-white piece showing actors Walter Coppage and Chioma Anyanwu performing short clips of dialogue.

Levin said she was pleased with their work and wanted them back.

“The quality is fantastic,” she said. “They’re filmmakers. They do really great work, and I just knew I wanted them to do something for ‘Venus in Fur’ to open the season.”

Brian and Norris first worked together when Brian directed “Stay Clean,” a short film based on a James Ellroy story. Norris was the director of photography. They’ve worked independently and in partnership with others, but the work they do together falls under the umbrella of their company, Jetpack Pictures.

Where can they be seen? There’s no central forum for that. Some of Brian and Norris’s work can be seen on the Unicorn and Living Room websites. Videos cannot be embedded on the MET’s website at the moment. But the minimovies get shared widely on Facebook and Jetpack Pictures has its own Vimeo channel.

Brian said he and Norris hope to expand their client list and make trailers for other theater companies in town.

“No one has been disappointed yet,” he said. “A lot of it is getting people to trust you. We’ve both been making films since we were kids. So we have got a combined 70 years of filmmaking experience. It sounds awful but it’s true. We live and breathe this stuff.”

© 2013 Kansas City Star