A screening of “The Long Goodbye,” local jazz from Paul Dietrich and Michael Brenneis, and more events of note in Madison this week. | By Scott Gordon, Reid Kurkerewicz, and John McCracken
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THURSDAY MARCH 21
The newly published Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography connects the work of the crusading socialist leader to the present-day resurgence of socialism, with art by Noah Van Sciver and writing by Paul Buhle, Steve Max, and Dave Nance. Just as importantly, this graphic work (interspersed with written passages) illustrates how socialists are up against many of the same forces Debs took on during the late 19th and early 20th century—ruthlessly extractive capitalism, right-wing authoritarianism, compromised labor leaders, a misinformed societal fear of left-wing ideas, and middle-of-the-road Democrats either to co-opt and water down socialist proposals. Buhle, a historian of both comics and the American left, and Nance, a retired lawyer who plays music and writes graphic nonfiction, both reside in Madison. They’ll join historian and WORT host Allen Ruff for a panel discussion at this event, presented in partnership with Madison’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter.
Van Sciver’s unvarnished style and his eye for the nuances of human facial expressions make him a good fit for this tale of the hardscrabble revolutionary from Terre Haute, Indiana and the strains of immigrant leftism and humanism that shaped him. Buhle and his co-authors have an authoritative grasp on Debs’ story and the historical context in which he worked. The book spans all 70 years of Debs’ life in just 130-odd pages, which makes for a choppy narrative style. Crucial historical events like the Bisbee Deportation pop up briefly without adequate explanation, and the authors switch between omniscient narration and fourth-wall-breaking remarks from the characters in a way that doesn’t really flow. The book also doesn’t seem all that interested in Debs as a flawed human being—his greatest failing here is giving too much away to those who need it more. Still, Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography convincingly presents him as a courageous, impassioned, and generous figure with a profound belief in the dignity and creativity of working people—in one of the book’s most memorable scenes, a young Debs stops to admire an owl a fellow railroad worker has painted on the side of a boxcar.
Buhle and co-authors are also wise to emphasize that socialism in Debs’ time had a strong infrastructure among poor and rural communities in the Midwest, despite the prevailing wisdom that socialism is an out-of-touch coastal-elites thing that won’t resonate in Middle America. For all its jump-cutting, the book does hint at the complexities that have always swirled around and within the American left, and reminds today’s activists that they’re not the first to contend with ignorance, repression, and bigotry. —Scott Gordon
Robert Altman’s lesser-known 1973 masterpiece The Long Goodbye is a simultaneously serious and parodic take on 1950s private-eye stories. It’s based on the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, and even as screenwriter Leigh Brackett—who collaborated with William Faulkner on the far more famous 1946 adaptation of Chandler’s The Big Sleep—hones the plot down to rhythmic precision, the loose ends and obscurities remind you that the concept of truth was in question long before 2016. Private investigator Philip Marlowe, played to the extreme of cool by non-stop cigarette smoker Elliott Gould (whom some fans insist is an inspiration for Cowboy Bebop‘s Spike), gives his buddy Terry Lennox a ride to Mexico, and is then accused as an accessory to murder when Lennox’s wife is found beaten to death. Marlowe doesn’t believe the official facts, and his insolence and distrust towards police justice drives him to clear his friend’s name. He’s also hired by the beautiful Malibu housewife Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) to find her alcoholic washed-up writer husband. The couple just so happens to remember Lennox, too. The camera glides between panes of glass and mirrors, distorting a reality that never quite becomes reassuringly psychedelic, following Marlowe as he grasps at half-truths and self-deceptions on his way towards the infamously explosive and morally ambiguous ending. —Reid Kurkerewicz
FRIDAY MARCH 22
Drummer Michael Brenneis has more than 20 years of improvisational music under his belt and has played a key role in Madison outfits that range from the straightforward to the avant-garde, including The New Breed Jazz Jam, Major Vistas, and the Active Percussion Duo. Prolific as he is, Brenneis doesn’t often get a chance to share his ambition as a composer and bandleader, so his 2018 album Plutonium was something of a revelation. It finds him leading an eight-piece band on seven largely through-composed tracks, and stringing the six members of the horn section into tense, dissonant, and sometimes playful arrangements. Tracks like “Coal Wars” scratch more at the abstract edge of things, but for the most part Brenneis is crafting sophisticated melodies with a cracked, upside-down charm, especially on “The Second Billion,” “Plastic Revenge,” and the sprawling “Titans.” Brenneis will perform his original compositions here with all the players on the album: Tony Barba (clarinet, soprano sax, tenor sax), Jonathan Greenstein (tenor sax), Greg Smith (clarinet, baritone sax), Paul Dietrich (trumpet), Mark Hetzler (trombone), David Spies (tuba), and John Christensen (bass). —Scott Gordon
SATURDAY MARCH 23
Madison-based record label Kitschy Spirit, which has put out a variety of rock music from its hometown and beyond, combines experimental acts, punk bands, and community support in its annual Smells Like Kitschy Spirit celebration. (In former years it’s also been known as Kitsch-As-Kitsch Can.) The event brings together bands from Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Cleveland to showcase some of the more noisy, scruffy acts the area has to offer. The night will also feature donations and raffle items with proceeds going to Briarpatch Youth Services, a Madison non-profit that provides innovative services dedicated to strengthening and improving the lives of youth.
So far there are 10 bands scheduled to play, so here are some highlights: Chicago two-piece Wet Wallet fuses abrasive, scattered electronic effects with looping drum machines. Habitat For Insanity comes from Milwaukee to thrash around with fast-paced songs prone to circle pits and frantic hardcore riffs. Coming from Cleveland, The Missed is a power-punk outfit that blends bluesy guitar riffs with melodic punk vocals. Dead Familiars is a new project from Madison’s Nate Karls, who has played in local bands including Dharma Dogs and The Momotaros and put out solo work with a lo-fi, indie-punk feel. Madison duo Gender Confetti bashes out punk jams rooted in queer resistance, anti-capitalism, and radical trans feminism. Their sound and song-writing spark feelings of joy, self-reflection, and rebellion. According To What is a poppy, fuzzy punk band from Madison that builds backhanded lyrics into its driving riffs and catchy melodies. Another Chicago band playing here, Hitter, drags old metal trends and classics back from the grave by the throat. —John McCracken
In trumpeter Paul Dietrich’s compositions, melodic and chordal elements tend to gently seep together into a stream that’s definitely going somewhere but mostly invites the listener to sit still and ponder a while. “I still appreciate jazz that’s a little more angular and jagged, but I’ve always kind of liked the chill and restrained stuff,” Dietrich told Tone Madison in a 2017 interview about his second album, Focus. That album was recorded mostly with a quintet, but the new Forward, which he’ll celebrate here, uses an excellent cast of 18 musicians to unlock more dimensions in Dietrich’s original music. Dietrich himself plays trumpet on just one track here, conducting quite a few with players Wisconsin ties—including bassist John Christensen, saxophonist Tony Barba, vocalist Megan Moran, and trumpeters David Cooper and Russ Johnson—and some rising and established luminaries from beyond—like saxophonist Greg Ward, guitarist Matt Gold, and drummer Clarence Penn. Forward opens with four stand-alone compositions, two of them revisited from Focus (“Rush” and “Settle”), but the back half of the record is the five-part “Forward” suite, in which Dietrich, a native of Ripon and currently a Madionsian, pays musical tribute to Wisconsin.
Dietrich uses the big-band format in incredibly supple ways here—it’s rarely about a cheerful chordal blast from the trumpets and trombones, but nearly always about space and spread. “Forward I: Perennial” begins the suite with saxes, trumpets, and Carl Kennedys trading quick, almost fragmentary phrases, letting us hear an upbeat if not quite funky side of Dietrich’s work. Dietrich writes in the liner notes that he wrote “Perennial” to capture the feeling of returning home to Ripon and catching up with old friends. Johnson’s trumpet solo here enriches the song’s sense of comfort and familiarity, but still shares a bit of the searching, subtly avant-garde edge Johnson brings to his own work as a composer and bandleader. The nine-and-a-half minute “Forward II: Snow” puts Ward’s saxophone at the center of a delicate harmonic buildup, in which the big band masses together in a procession of serene chords that have almost a droning quality. Dietrich says he wrote this one about “that moment, just after a significant snowfall, when all sound is muted,” and Ward’s solo here builds exuberantly upon that idea without quite breaking the band’s collective hush. At this show, Dietrich will lead an 18-piece ensemble consisting of most of the players on Forward, including Ward, Gold, Moran, and Barba. —Scott Gordon
WEDNESDAY MARCH 27
Jenny Lewis’ solo career kicked off in earnest with the 2006 album Rabbit Fur Coat, and long before her band Rilo Kiley officially broke up, Lewis’ transition to a caustic-witted, wreckage-surveying, country-and-R&B artist was complete and convincing. The 2008 album Acid Tongue holds up, not because of the soft-rock singer-songwriter nostalgia that was fashionable around that time, but because Lewis knows how to work the subtle niceties of melodic phrasing and how to braid the tender with the cruel in her lyrics, especially on “Carpetbagger” and the title track. What really won me over around then was Lewis’ 2009 show at the Barrymore. Her vocals came through with just the right balance of longing and bite, and Lewis has a great band that had clearly worked to flesh out the songs’ live arrangements. (Someone also kept loudly bellowing “HELL YEAH MUMMA JENNY” between songs, which was weird but only sticks in my memory because the show as a whole was so good.) By the time she plays this show, her fourth solo album, On The Line, will be out. The three singles so far, especially the swingingly world-weary “Wasted Youth,” show a lot of promise for a night of fresh material. —Scott Gordon