“The Wild Pear Tree” at UW Cinematheque, refreshing vocal jazz from Betsy Ezell, and more events of note in Madison this week.
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THURSDAY JANUARY 24
It may seem like hyperbole to state that Neil Young has been an icon for longer than most people have been alive, but it’s also true. Like most icons, Young has also always been complex, far more so than sobriquets like “the godfather of grunge” convey. For one thing, Young has always been a folk musician at heart—but crucially, one whose mind and soul were turned around both by the inspired wave of electric music in the early 1960s, and later on the seismic impact of Jimi Hendrix. And those influences are essential to understanding how he would go on to write, and why the musical straightforwardness and lyrical obscurantism that marked even his earliest material (like “Sugar Mountain”) predicted the sound he would later develop.
Whether initially consciously or not, Young realized and perfected a deceptively complicated idea early on that respected and synthesized some of the best virtues of folk music and rock and roll in a cunning and highly affecting blend. Unlike practically any other folkies of the time who transitioned to rock and roll, Young comprehended on a gut level that roughness and partially simulated simplicity in the service of emotional resonance, a feature of some of the most moving and exciting folk and country, lends a thrilling power to the exhilarating melodic virtues and sheer lunatic call of the best rock and roll. He also instinctively understood that using this conceptual edge as a through-line could unite things as seemingly disparate as heavy guitar distortion, stark acoustic laments, country-flavored celebration and mastodontic rhythmic drive. It’s that duality—his pioneering, endlessly fresh approach of combining an uncommonly sensitive and intelligent singer-songwriter’s mentality and craft with an unforgettably haunting, expressionist, yet easily accessible and memorable feel for rock and roll—that has led to his enormous influence on generations of rock musicians.
That duality is present even in his quieter, more traditionally folksy acoustic solo performances, which is how he will soon perform at Overture Hall. A song like 1969’s ineffable “Down By The River” existed in its original studio version as a 9-minute electric dirge, performed with Young’s backing band Crazy Horse. It featured, among many virtues, epic sweep, beautiful rhythmic feel pitched between the romanticized dream sounds of inspired amateurism and primitive mastery, keening and unmistakable singing, and phenomenal guitar interplay between Young and the short-lived Danny Whitten. But Young was just as easily performing the song as a desperate 4-minute acoustic blues as early as 1971, shorn of solos, volume, fuzz or even other band members.
It’s often surprising how comfortably the most superficially rocking material of Young’s translates to acoustic settings, but it’s a twinning he’s milked forever, sometimes even to disturbing ends. On 1989’s Freedom, he put two versions of the bitterly ironic hit “Rockin’ In The Free World” on the record, one electric and one acoustic—not only to illustrate how his material stands up to any approach, but to show just how easily anyone can interpret it, as the chilling live acoustic version documents how little the audience that night even understood what Young was trying to tell them. This was some conceptual distance beyond even the dual electric and acoustic versions of “Hey Hey, My My” that appeared on 1979’s classic Rust Never Sleeps, still Young’s greatest ever demonstration of how the intertwined sides of his musical personality feed and play off of each other. He’s illustrated this seemingly paradoxical principle in one way or another for decades, and he’ll likely do it again in this solo performance at the Overture. The wonder is that it still retains so much power and mystery. —Mike Noto
FRIDAY JANUARY 25
This decade, Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has staked his claim on searing three-hour epic-length Chekhovian works like 2014’s Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep, which had its suitably seasonal Madison premiere at Cinematheque in 2015. Forging ahead in the restless spirit of former films set in contemporary Turkey, The Wild Pear Tree (2018) is more deeply driven by lyrical, existential dialogue than imagery in a progressive shift for Ceylan since his atmospheric mystery Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Wisconsin Film Festival 2012).
Here, Ceylan’s focus on an aspiring young writer seems to mirror the aesthetic, as recent college graduate Sinan Karasu (Aydin Doğu Demirkol) reluctantly returns to his childhood home in the village of Çan. Wrestling with self-doubt as an academic, an uncertain future in teaching or military service, and his father Idris (Murat Cemcir)’s gambling debts hanging over his provincial family, Sinan ambitiously bets on publishing his self-described “quirky auto-fiction meta-novel,” which contains his scrutinies of local life and culture in the Çanakkale province.
Ceylan nourishes The Wild Pear Tree‘s intrigue through the various obstructions Sinan must face in this pursuit, both self-imposed and ubiquitous, and character psychology that seesaws between personal and familial favor. The film intelligently and often entertainingly presents the intersection of sobering philosophical debate and comically tragic undertones in a series of demoralizing tête-à-têtes with the locals, as Sinan’s tendency to provoke inevitably steers the initially auspicious encounters towards awkward antagonism.
But this is really only a sliver of the demonstration of Ceylan’s mastery as a filmmaker and storyteller over 188 minutes, as he triumphantly engages through the loquacious, slow-burning narrative while also delicately establishing a meditative pastoral of golden autumn landscapes and visually nodding toward surrealistic doom. Occasionally, these approaches and moods coexist in the same sequence, as with The Wild Pear Tree’s most haunting meeting between Sinan and his one-time crush, Hatice (Hazar Ergüçlü). —Grant Phipps
Twin Cities percussionist Davu Seru and Baltimore-based saxophonist Jamal R. Moore both have far-flung resumes as composers and collaborators, so it’s hard to imagine that this rare duo performance will be as simple as filing under “jazz.” Seru’s No Territory Band septet channels his original compositions into lush, subtly shifting horn arrangements and overlapped melodic figures that build on polyrhythms and serve as jumping-off points for improvisation. While it’s easy and customary to name-check the people a jazz musician has played with, Seru’s choices in collaborators do say a lot about his daring spirit as an artist. The ones that jump out most to me are experimental electronic artist Rafael Toral and Twin Cities guitarist/banjo player Paul Metzger, who is best known for playing an astonishing 23-string banjo he modified himself, but has also busted out the electric guitar to join Seru in searing, mischievous takes on Monk and Gershwin.
Moore’s work as a bandleader and composer has included nimbly searching performances with his Organix Trio, and like Seru, Moore also tends to work extensively within a lineage of boundary-pushing jazz (in collaborations with musicians including Roscoe Mitchell, David Murray, and Hamid Drake) and a bit beyond it (that list also includes the great Sheila E. and experimental percussionist Michael Zerang). Both artists have worked in the academic realm—Seru at Hamline University and Moore at Baltimore’s Coppin State University—and will follow their performance here with a discussion on black cultural praxis. —Scott Gordon
Madison-based vocalist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Betsy Ezell’s first album, Voices, released in December, takes a rich and conversational approach to vocal-driven jazz. As a singer, Ezell can fully and poignantly inhabit a smoky blues (“Commercial Avenue Stoplight Blues”), a sinuous Latin-tinged melody (“Palavras”), or a slow-burning affirmation that hints at contemporary pop and R&B influences (“For So Long”). The album starts with Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s standard “All The Things You Are,” but Ezell wrote the remaining eight tracks, and all nine treat her voice as an instrument fully invested in a real give-and-take with the other musicians here. Ezell’s interplay with bassist Laurie Lang is especially rewarding throughout, but all involved do spacious, warmly collaborative work here: pianist Becca May Grant, drummer Jim Huwe, and guitarist Richard Hildner. (Saxophonist Virginia Mayhew and organist Roberta Piket join in on “She Is Strong.”) It’s the kind of jazz-vocal music that’s bound to take on even more nuance in a live setting, and Ezell celebrates the album’s release here with Grant, Lang, Hildner, drummer Chris Sandoval, and vibraphone player John Becker. —Scott Gordon
SATURDAY JANUARY 26
By all accounts, Fatimah Warner (who performs as Noname) should be everywhere we look. By the age of 25, the Bronzeville native (now based in Los Angeles) had made an appearance on Chance the Rapper’s mixtape Acid Rap, another on The Coloring Book, appeared with him on SNL, worked with Mick Jenkins and Saba and renowned producers like Phoelix and Cam O’bi, and released her much-anticipated debut mixtape, the precocious but distinctly unprecious Telefone, in 2016, to widespread critical acclaim.
That said, she keeps a relatively low profile—fitting, considering she chose a name that implies both anonymity and a refusal to be categorized. Given the prevailing pop-culture equation, where fame equals exposure equals fiscal and commercial success, it’s a feat for an artist to break out while exuding such modesty. But despite her best efforts, her rise to renown has been meteoric. She puts out albums without a label, on her own dime, and Telefone (still available as a pay-what-you-want download on Bandcamp) funded the execution of her sophomore effort, last September’s lush, self-assured Room 25.
It took two years for production and recording, practically an eternity in the streamlined production schedule of many hip-hop artists. And it shows—Room 25 carries with it a distinct sense of arrival, of taking up space. As on Telefone, Noname’s spoken-word roots shine through; Warner got her start performing spoken word poems at the YOUMedia Program for Young Creatives in Chicago. The album is rife with social commentary, and it seems no one and nothing is spared: structural racism, insipidity, the myriad double-standards of America. But, for Warner, the personal is also political, and Room 25 centralizes her own narrative, her own understanding of the world as a young, black woman in America. Beneath her vocals are the uncomplicated beats, steadily funky bassline, and smooth key work of Phoelix, reminiscent of The Roots’ Do You Want More?!!!??! and some of the more R&B-tinged moments on Solange’s A Seat at the Table.
There is a more reserved, almost effortless quality to Noname’s delivery on Room 25 but it is nonetheless unapologetic and insistent, bordering on relentless; she delivers many of her lines until you can almost hear her running out of breath. She’s of the most interesting lyricists in recent memory, and what is perhaps most impressive about Warner’s songwriting is her ability to hold two truths in equal measure, even if they appear on their face to be irreconcilable. On “Window,” Warner both maligns a previous fuckboy with one breath—”The way you struggling to love yourself / Believe me, that’s karma / You want a nasty bitch, psychiatrist / That cook like your mama/ And all you got was me-me-me”—and wishes him well the next: “But I love you even though we’re not meant to be / I still love you/ I hope you find everything that you want / And she loves you.”
“Blaxploitation,” which samples both grooves and dialogue from two films of said genre, The Spook Who Sat By The Door and Dolemite, contains both no-nonsense certainty (“It’s not a matter of color / Freedom is everybody’s business”) and a questioning as to what the future may hold. “Who wrote the movie to America?” Warner asks, then follows up with assurance: “It’s still coming soon.” —Katie Hutchinson
Sarah Price’s 2016 documentary L7: Pretend We’re Dead chronicles the music, mischievous antics, legacy, and struggles of one of the most influential punk bands of the late ’80s and early ’90s. L7 wrote unapologetically gritty but catchy songs, and pushed their music in a defiantly feminist direction, with efforts that included organizing the abortion-rights benefit Rock for Choice. There’s also a Madison connection to the band’s story: L7 recorded some of its third album, 1992’s Bricks Are Heavy, at Smart Studios with producer Butch Vig. At this double feature, Pretend We’re Dead will screen alongside The Smart Studios Story, Madison filmmaker Wendy Schneider’s 2016 documentary about the now-defunct east-side recording studio. The event also coincides with the recent release of American Noise Vol. 2, part of a compilation series that celebrates music recorded at Smart. Released in partnership with Madison-based punk label Dirtnap Records, American Noise Vol. 2 offers a cross-section heavy on the noise-rock, punk, and grunge outfits that recorded at Smart during the ’80s and ’90s, with tracks from artists including Die Kreuzen, The Crucifucks, and Tad. —Scott Gordon
WEDNESDAY JANUARY 30
Editor’s note: This event has been rescheduled to February 6 at the Memorial Union Play Circle.
The Netflix documentary series Making A Murderer raises serious questions about the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach in Manitowoc County and the guilt of the two men currently serving life sentences for the crime, Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. As their cases wear on in court, the series has become a messy public sensation, spawning a defamation lawsuit from a detective, turning Madison-based attorney Dean Strang into an unlikely heartthrob, and inspiring creepy mouse-man prosecutor Ken Kratz to publish a book and go on speaking tours. More importantly, Making A Murderer has also ignited a long-overdue public conversation about the fundamental issues that drive wrongful convictions. One of the most common factors in such cases? The false confession.
Here, Strang will moderate a conversation about that with Laura Nirider and Steven Drizin, the two Northwestern University law professors currently representing Brendan Dassey. In Making A Murderer‘s second season, Nirider and Drizin take an in-depth look at the confession police extracted from Dassey—who has developmental disabilities, and was a teenager at the time of the murder and initial investigation. Even if you’re not convinced that Steven Avery is innocent, it’s pretty tough to watch the video of Dassey’s confession and see anything other than a gruesome miscarriage of justice. It’s a master class in why people often confess to crimes they didn’t commit, and the coercive, deceptive tactics police use to get those confessions. Nirider and Drizin are doing noble work here, using the popularity of Making A Murderer to educate the public about issues that have impacted hundreds if not thousands of criminal cases. —Scott Gordon