Tuesday, May 31, 2011

THE WHITE STUFF


Almost 50 years ago, something wonderful happened to popular music: The Beatles. Sadly, the original Fab Four no longer exists as an entity to play live for their generations of adoring fans, but here in Santa Cruz, we've got the next best thing—The White Album Ensemble. If you've never seen this amazing local treasure in person, now's your chance when the WAE teams up with the Santa Cruz County Symphony at the Civic this Saturday night (June 4) for a live benefit concert, "Across the Universe and Beyond."


Specializing in the enormous catalogue of innovative, irresistible Beatles music, the nine-member WAE collective began back in 2003 with a series of live performances of "The White Album" that rocked the socks off local audiences. More than just a cover band, the WAE has become a force to be reckoned with on the SC arts and cultural scene, replicating aural feasts of The Beatles' complex studio albums live, onstage, while helping to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for good causes countywide. Founding members Dale Ockerman, Ken Kraft, and Tiran Porter have put together a formidable and sought-after performing group that not only pays homage to the past with its vintage repertoire, but provides a springboard for performers of the future. Every WAE gig features guest solos by young local talent. A couple of years ago, the WAE introduced SC audiences to a local youngster named James Durbin. His performance of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" never failed to bring down the house; take a look at this 2009 clip, and you'll see why.


This is the sixth year that the WAE has collaborated with the Symphony on a Beatles music concert to benefit the Symphony's local music and outreach programs. Among other things, proceeds will help sustain the Youth Program, which brings the Symphony's classical musicians into county classrooms—an especially vital service in these days of draconian budget cuts, when art and music programs for kids are the first to go.



At the Symphony concert on Saturday, the WAE will present up-and-coming guest vocalists Tammi Brown (shown here onstage with the band) and Alysha Antonino, along with local favorite Drew Harrison. If you happened to catch James Durbin at the Boardwalk a couple of weeks back, you got a sneak preview of what these talented folks can do. (In particular, Alysha's soulful, laid-back "I Want To Hold Your Hand" was a highlight of the pre-game show staged by the WAE.)


So here's your chance, not only to see the next generation of James Durbins, but to help nurture music appreciation and musicianship in Santa Cruz County for generations to come. AND rock out to the WAE, onstage, in living color, conducting a magical mystery tour through the greatest song catalogue, ever. For ticket info, call the Civic Box Office at (831) 420-5260 or visit Santa Cruz Tickets online.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

DREAM ON


The more I see of the homogenized American Idol entertainment aesthetic, the more I believe that James Durbin totally dodged a bullet by his premature elimination. The bloated spectacle of the AI finale was a lesson in showbiz cheez-o-nomics: if they have an album, a video, a movie, or a comeback tour to flog, give 'em a guest star spot on the show. It was two-plus hours of fluff and foolery before the big revelation that Scotty McCreery's fans had out-voted Lauren Alaina's for the top prize.


Seriously, name two previous AI season winners who have gone on to have real music careers. Okay, now name two not counting Carrie Underwood. The point is, winning the AI crown is just as likely to be the kiss of death as a launching pad for future success. By far, the more interesting performers are the ones who don't make it all the way to the top. The only reason most of us disappointed fans of James, Haley Reinhart, Casey Abrams, or Pia Toscana, tuned in at all was to see our faves perform one more time.


Not that AI had a clue what to do with them. First it was everybody in the Top 13 onstage in spangly white outfits for the openining production number, Lady Gaga's "Born This Way". The seven lady finalists were later paired up with Beyonce (who quickly turned them into her backup chorus), and rappers TLC. The guys sang the greatest hits of Tom Jones (who later joined them onstage). But only the top seven finalists got to sing solos (or at last duets with selected guest stars); the rest only got to sing snippets of medleys. Maybe if they'd had a few less guest stars, there would have been time for Pia to sing a whole song.



Sure, there were moments. In the Jones segment, Casey was an entertaining frontman for a boisterously melodramatic group rendition of "Delilah." But James' solo was, um ... "What's New Pussycat?" Okay, he hit all those "Whoa-a-whoa-a-whoas..." but it wasn't much of a showcase for his singing or showmanship.



James was more in his element when he got to sing two songs onstage with his metal heroes, Judas Priest. It wasn't the most effective material he's had all season, but he proved once again that he knows how to command the stage, hit a few chill-inducing high notes, and looked like he was having the time of his life.


Casey's showcase song was "Fat-Bottomed Girls," sadly, not sung with Queen, but with Jack Black. (Followed by—surprise!— a commercial for Kung Fu Panda 2.) Yes, it was sort of a weird choice, but it reminded us what was always so fun about Casey—we never knew what we were going to get! Haley was paired with the venerable Tony Bennett for a nice, jazzy duet on the chestnut "Steppin' Out (With My Baby)."



In between there were yet more celebrity guest spots—Bono and Edge from U2, backing Reeve Carney in a production number from the Spider Man musical, and another nutty appearance by Lady Gaga to premiere a new single, perched high atop a giant climbing wall, in a leather bikini and a headdress that resembled a window shade, surrounded by dancers and explosive effects. (Could this show just please get over Lady Gaga?) This is what performers have to do these days to get noticed. Once upon a time, talented people could just shut up and sing.


When judge Steven Tyler appeared at the piano, striking the opening bars of "Dream On," for an instant, breaths were held all over America. This was the song he promised to sing with James at the finale, if James made it into the Top 2. But no such luck; Tyler labored through a short solo that lacked the pulse and the passion James would have brought, had it been a duet.


The point is, do kids watching AI even know who Tony Bennett, Tom Jones, (or even Judas Priest) are? They might as well trot out Rudy Vallee in a raccoon coat, singing through a megaphone, for all these acts mean to the show's coveted younger demographic. As for the contemporary acts—Beyonce, Gaga, Marc Anthony (accompanied by wife and judge Jennifer Lopez, shaking her booty at the audience): this kind of overproduced pop-rock junk food is the reason God invented alt rock. It's the kind of creaky showbiz razzmatazz AI seems determined to preserve.


James demonstrated every week that he has a better idea of what to do with his big voice and rock 'n' roll sensibility than any of the so-called mentors on the show. All of a sudden, his early elimination doesn't feel like an ouster; it's more like a graduation. Come September when the AI summer tour is over, he'll be free to pursue his own dream and make the kind of music he does best. As long as nobody forces him to sing Tom Jones, he'll do just fine.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

OLD MASTERS


Werner Herzog explores two of his favorite themes in his stunning new documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams: human obsessions, and the forbidding grandeur of Nature.


Understand, the film itself is not all that exceptional; some crucial factual details apparently don't interest Herzog enough to include them, and we are treated to some of the director's offbeat ruminations that prove more bewildering than profound. However, the subject of the film is stunning, a recently discovered, 30,000-year-old cave buried under a massive rockslide in rural France that contains the earliest known wall paintings made by human hands.


Chauvet Cave, in southern France, is named for one of the three hiker/spelunkers who discovered it in 1994, feeling their way along a rocky hillside for drafts of cold air that would indicate an open space within the rock. Inside, they discovered a multi-chamber cave whose walls were covered with animal drawings; they are now thought to be some 32,000 years old, twice as old as the famous Lascaux Cave paintings discovered in 1940. (Read more)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

SKULLDUGGERY



Hard to believe it's been less than two weeks since the shock and awe of James Durbin's elimination from American Idol. Since then, the web has been all abuzz with how the voting might have been—let's put this politely—compromised.


On the GT Facebook wall, as well as AI discussion boards all over the internet (especially this lengthy thread at the site Autism Key) Durbin fans are reporting problems with the voting system. Many California call-in voters claim they were never able to get past the all-circuits-are-busy signals. (Although one fan reports that when she tried dialing in one vote for Scotty McCreery instead, to test the system, it went right through.)


Other voters cite technical malfunction. When one online voter clicked in a vote for James, a picture of Haley Reinhart appeared onscreen. Others claimed when they voted for James, they received a confirmation for Lauren Alaina. A third problem cited (and this one more insidious, since it involves a degree of human calculation) is the misleading voting number assigned to James that week. In previous weeks, each AI contestant was assigned a voting number that corresponded to the order in which they performed. But on that last, fateful night, although James performed in the Number 1 and Number 8 slots, he was arbitrarily assigned voting numbers 1 and 5. Who was assigned voting number 8? Lauren Alaina. Since James had never, ever, been in the bottom three right up to the night he got eliminated, whereas Lauren had been in the bottom three just the week before, well, it's enough to turn us all into conspiracy theorists. (Read more)


Personally, I don't think it's going to hurt James one iota to be out of the running on AI. Whether or not there's any skullduggery involved, James getting voted off has already become a bigger story than the two contestants left standing. I'll probably skip the final round of competition tonight; I feel like I've already seen everything Scotty and Lauren can do. But you can bet I'll be watching the finale Wednesday night, not to see who wins, but to see if James comes back to sing one more song. We're still waiting for that duet with Steven Tyler!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

REELING


PotC4 not a complete shipwreck, but could have been so much more.


Almost nothing remains of Tim Powers' gorgeous historical fantasy, On Stranger Tides, in the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie. ("Suggested by," is the way the book is acknowledged in the credits.) Still, incoming director Rob Marshall's film is a more seaworthy vessel than the leaky old rustbucket that was PotC 3: At World's End. Johnny Depp's reeling and raucous Captain Jack Sparrow is front and center, providing droll commentary and having a blast. Penelope Cruz is on board in fine swashbuckling form as Angelica, daughter and first mate of legendary pirate Blackbeard—played with dark, ferocious brio by Ian McShane. And Geoffrey Rush is back, stomping around on a peg leg in a powdered wig as pirate Barbarossa-turned-privateer for King George.


There are a lot fewer undead pirate crews than is usual in the franchise (surprising, since they feature so prominently in Powers' book), and believe me, those rotting, eyeball-popping skeletons are not missed. And the action is more focused: everyone is searching for the Fountain of Youth. But, as usual, it's in the storyline that the movie starts to lose steam.


Longtime scriptwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio don't so much craft a narrative plot as string a bunch of gigantic comedy set-pieces together (most of which involve Captain Jack extricating himself from some tight situation). These can be amusing; it's always fun to see Depp swinging across the screen on a rope, or launching himself out of a palm tree as if it were a giant slingshot. But when it comes to the basics of plot construction, like character motivation, the writers remain clueless.


As in the book, the Fountain doesn't restore youth; it's a magical place where death can be defeated—temporarily—if a supplicant performs a ritual by which he can steal the extra years of a designated victim. Or something. Unlike the book, immortality doesn't seem to be part of the deal, and so the writers are overtaxed trying to explain why everybody is all afire to go there. Blackbeard has heard a prophecy that he'll be killed within a fortnight, and so wants to be prepared. Angelica apparently wants to buy her father a few extra years in order to save his soul—she's Spanish, see, and the Spanish are shown to be a nation of religious zealots who are also searching for the "pagan" Fountain in order to destroy it.


Still with me? Barbossa is sailing to the Fountain because he has a grudge against Blackbeard and wants a showdown. And Jack Sparrow? Well, um, he was once in possession of a map to the Fountain, so he's shanghaied aboard Blackbeard's ship to guide them there. Otherwise, he seems to have no particular interest in the Fountain, as either a power source or a potential profit-making venture. Indeed, Jack has no motivation of any kind except saving his own skin from one scene to the next, and this is where the film (and the series) fails its audience. Jack Sparrow never has any desires, none of the compulsions to do or achieve or win anything that creates plot. He's just along for the ride, making witty remarks, and although he's an entertaining companion, you'd think that after nearly a dozen hours of screen time in four movies, the writers could have developed a more complex character for Depp to play.



Disappointing too is his pairing with the fiery Angelica. Sure, they argue and swordfight, but they're never allowed to graduate into a grown-up relationship. They once had a tempestuous affair (notice how all of Jack Sparrow's notorious affairs are in the past, so the writers never have to show us any mushy stuff), but now she's just another character with an angle for Jack to be wary of. Seriously, would it kill this franchise to let Jack Sparrow have an onscreen relationship with a real woman? It wouldn't have to be X-rated; a bit of fun, sexy, camaraderie from two people who obviously enjoy each other would be so refreshing. But, no; the PotC franchise might let its heroines dress in trousers and wield swords, but it continues to shy away from the dramatic possibilities of introducing a complicated grown-up woman into the mix. They're still Wendys among the overgrown Lost Boys of the PotC world.


Still, Cruz and Depp have some fun with their banter. (Trading insults, Jack finally blurts, "You walk like a girl!" Angelica ripostes, "You should know!") There's a lyrical eeriness to a sequence involving mermaids surrounding a boatload of men—until they turn into bloodthirsty sirens, with vampire teeth, yet. And even though it's never explained where Blackbeard gets his magical powers, we get some cool scenes of his ship reefing up its own sails and live, slithering ropes that suspend a bunch of would-be mutineers at odd angles in the rigging.


Locations (mostly in Hawaii) are ravishing, and everyone seems to be having a hell of a good time. (Including Keith Richards in his obligatory cameo as Jack's father, asking sardonically, "Do I look like I've been to the Fountain of Youth?") As always, we just wish there was a bit less empty razzmatazz, and a little more there there.


Remember the scene at the end of the very first PotC, when Captain Jack is finally restored to his ship, the Black Pearl? Standing at the helm, gazing out over an infinite sea, he commands his eager crew, "Fetch me that horizon." That's the kind of stirring moment, full of the promise of adventure, that we long for more of in this series.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

YO HO HO


Long before Captain Jack Sparrow came reeling out of the fervid imagination of Johnny Depp, there was Jack Shandy, reluctant pirate captain and hero of Tim Powers' gorgeous historical fantasy adventure, On Stranger Tides. Now that the folks at Disney have appropriated Powers' novel for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie (due on local screens Friday, or 11:59 tomorrow night, for the terminally obsessed), I thought it was time to put in a good word for the original book.


I first encountered On Stranger Tides in the spring of 1989, when this paperback cover leaped out at me from a shelf at the old Bookshop Santa Cruz. Back then, I was reading everything I could find about pirates, getting ready to write my own pirate novel, The Witch From the Sea. With its elements of dark magic, voudon (or "voodoo"), zombie pirate crews and the Fountain of Youth, you couldn't exactly classify Powers' book as strict historical research. But unlike the PotC movies, the novel is rooted in a very specific historical time and place—chiefly, the pirate island of New Providence in the Bahamas, ca. 1718. This was the year Governor Woodes Rogers came out from England to "reform" New Providence by buying off the pirates with the King's Pardon to give up the trade. It was also the last year in the short but spectacular career of Ed Teach, aka Blackbeard.


Even though Powers' book is set a century before mine, I started reading it for its realistic depiction of the pirate life on board ship and ashore. But pretty soon I was devouring it for its lush, and simmering sense of magical forces bubbling just under the surface of real life (and history). Powers contends that magic has run its course in the Old World, but is still viable in some wild, remote regions of the New World, where it has not yet been civilized out of existence. The "Fountain of Youth" at the heart of his story does not restore youth; rather it's a power spot of dark sorcery where the living can be made immortal, and the dead resurrected (albeit zombie-style).



The action gallops from New Providence to Port-au-Prince on Hispaniola (now Haiti), to Kingston, Jamaica. Young Englishman and puppeteer John Chandagnac is sailing into the Caribbees to claim a family inheritance when his ship is captured by pirates in league with Blackbeard. They are there to rendezvous with another passenger, Hurwood, an elderly Oxford don and magical scholar who's en route to the Fountain; maddened by the death of his wife, he's planning to resurrect her in the body of his nubile young daughter, Beth. Determined to save Beth, Chandagnac joins the pirate crew, who rechristen him "Jack Shandy," and after several raucous adventures in which his desperation or sheer foolhardiness are mistaken for bravery, he's elected their captain.


The centerpiece of the story is a hair-raising trip to the eerie, demon-haunted Fountain in the company of Blackbeard himself, the only man who's ever been to the Fountain and come out again. (Hurwood needs the pirate to show him the way.) I just love how Powers seeds his supernatural plot so plausibly into what is historically known about Teach. According to Powers, he didn't do the immortality rituals properly the first time, and came away troubled by phantoms and ghosts—which neatly explains Blackbeard's historically well-known nuttiness and rages. Powers also suggests that Blackbeard engineered his own "death" in that famous fight with Lt. Maynard (which occurs in the book) in order to come back in a completely new—and immortal—identity. How does this ruse play out? Read the book and find out! (Shop local: pick up a copy at Bookshop Santa Cruz , or Capitola Book Cafe.)



One shudders to think how the PotC franchise will adulterate this material. Parts of the book seem tailor-made for the series, what with all those pirates getting killed and resurrected as zombies. There's even a sea battle between two historically correct ghost ships, the Charlotte Bailey and the Nuestra Señora di Lagrimas, resurrected from the bottom of the sea with their phantom crews when a magic spell goes astray.


We also know in advance that Blackbeard appears in the movie (although this time, he's the one with the daughter), and the plot evidently revolves around the Fountain of Youth. But the mermaids who figure so prominently in the movie PR are not to be found in Powers' story at all. And how are they going to insert Jack Sparrow into all of this? We can only hope the PotC brain trust rises to the occasion with a movie that's worthy of Powers' book, Depp's marvelously loony creation, and the eager viewing audience.


In the meantime, if you find yourself in the mood for more buccaneer action, check out my pirate movie review page. (Yes, that's me over there, in full yo-ho-ho regalia.) Granted, this personal and eclectic list doesn't include every entry in the genre, but there's still plenty to choose from, good, bad, and ugly, vintage or contemporary, from Anne Of the Indies to Yellowbeard. Cruise around and enjoy!

Monday, May 16, 2011

30,000 CRUZANS CAN'T BE WRONG


How did James Durbin rock Santa Cruz on Saturday? With a vengeance.


The 48-hour emotional whirlwind that plunged us all into despair when the American Idol voting results were announced Thursday night spun Cruzans into soaring delirium Saturday when James got his homecoming after all—the first contestant in Idol history to be granted a weekend home, even though he finished out of the Final Three. Some 30,000 of us thronged to the Boardwalk bandstand on Saturday to see him perform live (the biggest crowd in the 104-year history of the Boardwalk), all of us eager to be part of the first show of the rest of his life.


Anticipation was in the air online and all morning, including some excellent photos texted to the Sentinel website by Kevin Johnson of James stopping in to get a bite at Zoccoli's downtown, and signing autographs (and a table). The James Show officially kicked off at 2:30 at Louden Nelson Center, where he met with his former mentors and current performers from Kids On Broadway and All About Theater, as well as parents and children diagnosed with Tourette's and Asperger's Syndromes. This would be followed by a motorcade down Center Street, past Depot Park, around the roundabout, and down Beach Street to the Boardwalk.


But while all this was going on, my friend Donna and I opted to go straight to the beach. We parked a few blocks away, walked over the railroad tracks, and joined the crowds hiking in to the Boardwalk. (Along the way we all passed the Starz Bakery table, doing a brisk business with their James Durbin cupcakes—many of which I'm sure will be shellacked or otherwise preserved as a memento of the day.) By 3 p.m., the Boardwalk Esplanade as well as the upper deck overlooking the bandstand were already crammed with people, so we staked out a little patch of sand on the crowded beach to the right of the stage, just down from the Double Shot ride (whose hysterically screaming riders only added to the festive sense of excitement).



The White Album Ensemble was already onstage, tuning up. Except for a giant amp here or there, we had a pretty good view of the side of the stage. All ages were represented in the crowd; lots of teens and tweens, of course, but also entire families (a woman behind us proudly announced she was there with three generations of her family), parents hoisting up little kids on their shoulders, as well as a sizeable contingent of geezers and grannies, all of us bouncing and lip-synching to the WAE's Beatle tunes. James' appeal cuts across all age boundaries, but the most fun to watch were the kids, from girls with all their various hand-made "We (Heart) James" signs to the little boy in the Vine Hill Elementary T-shirt with his long hair gelled up into a big Mohawk , to the young Goth teen with the black-and-white scarf "rat tail" dangling out of his back jeans pocket, James-style. And everybody was in a friendly, celebratory mood.


Toward the end of the WAE's hour-and-a-half set, the crowd started pressing in closer (all we could see was a sea of heads in all directions) with the word that James had hit the beach. It took another 15-20 minutes for the lifeguard truck he rode in on to deliver him past the throngs to the bandstand; sequential screaming from the outskirts of the mob ensued as people got their first glimpse of his blond-streaked hair in the intermittent sunlight as the truck inched by.




And then he was up on the bandstand in real life, no commercial interruption, no tape delays. It's pretty amazing to see someone you've welcomed into your home on TV for 10 weeks suddenly live onstage; I was so glad I hadn't slothed out, stayed home and waited for the You Tube recap. The crowd went nuts, as James personally hugged every single member of the WAE, and waved to the roaring fans.


He thanked everyone for showing up, and for their support, and then the Boardwalk representative who was acting as emcee asked him how he felt about coming home to Santa Cruz. James thought about it for a moment, then walked over to stage left. "Can you hear me?" he shouted to the crowd on that side, who roared in response. "I can't hear you," he challenged them, prompting an even more seismic response. He marched centerstage, repeated the challenge, and got another deafening response, then came to our side, the edge of stage right, shouted the same litany, and had us all screaming like idiots. Then he marched centerstage once more, and raised his arms to us all, provoking a bone-rattling tsunami of rapturous joy.


"That's how I feel," he said. (Can this guy work a crowd, or what?)


Then he sat down on the edge of the stage, front and center, feet dangling over the side, and chatted about Thursday night's elimination round on American Idol. "The reason I was so emotional wasn't because I was off the show," he told us. The reason, he said, was that he'd been so looking forward to the chance to come home and thank "each and every one of you" for our support during his Idol adventure, a reunion he now assumed he wouldn't get. (The feeling was mutual; hands up, everybody else who went to bed in tears Thursday night, not only because we thought James had been robbed on the show, but because we thought we'd all been cheated out of Durbin Day?) He then praised Mayor Ryan Coonerty for his Herculean 11th hour efforts to make sure James got his homecoming after all.




Coonerty himself then came downstage, proclamation in hand. No mean hand at crowd manipulation himself, Coonerty asked the audience if they felt like "Durbin Day" was quite enough. What about "Durbin Week," he suggested, or maybe "Durbin Month?" At last, he handed the proclamation to James, designating "2011 as James Durbin Year!" At this point, Coonerty went on, it was customary to hand over the keys to the city, "But this is Santa Cruz, and we do things differently." Then he presented James with a custom surfboard painted with a portrait of James singing.


Finally, it was time for James to do what he'd come to do: sing. (Although not before he proclaimed to the crowd, "I was born in Santa Cruz. I grew up in Santa Cruz. And I'll forever live in Santa Cruz!") With the WAE as his backup band, he opened with "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?'" (a loaded question for this crowd), complete with lilting a capella first verse, and a driving finish to the finale, "You better love me tomorrow!" that makes this song his own. Next up was his signature tune with the WAE, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," delivered with haunting finesse (despite a funky sound system that made it difficult to hear himself).


That was theoretically all we were supposed to get, although of course he came back for one encore, after much shouting from the crowd. ("What are you saying? 'Bang A Gong?' " he asked. "Oh, one more song!") He then launched into a wailing version of "Don't Stop Believin'," which had everyone going nuts. If he had to narrow down his repertoire to one, single theme song, that would probably be it.


The fun thing about seeing James Durbin live is, yes, he really sings that well, moves around the stage like he was born on it, and engages the audience, big time. The next opportunity to see him live will be on the American Idol summer roadshow tour, July 13, at the Shark Tank in San Jose. I encourage fans to show up at that event to support James in his own back yard. After that, hold on to your rat tails; his solo career is just around the corner.


Concert photos by Brad Kava, Watsonville.Patch.com. See the slideshow.


Here are some fabulous photos by Donaven Staab, Boardwalk Staff Photographer, on the BW Facebook page


Here's a great You Tube composite video of James' arrival at the beach and performances.

Friday, May 13, 2011

WHY WE LOVE JAMES


Wait a minute, stop the presses! (Gee, I've always wanted to say that!)

This just in: Durbin Day will go on as planned in Santa Cruz tomorrow (Saturday), including a parade through downtown and a live performance at the Boardwalk beach bandstand. Click here right now for all the details!

And btw, don't miss James tonight on Jay Leno!



Is it possible to be too good for American Idol? It happened to James Durbin last night when the program's viewing and voting public failed to cast enough votes to send him into the Final Three. This was an enormous shock, especially when you consider that James is one of only two Idol performers this season who has never even finished in the bottom three before, not to mention that he consistently out-sang and out-performed the competition week after week after week.


James' elimination is not about any lack of talent. Rather, it's about a talent too big, gutsy, and exuberant to be contained within the very narrow confines of the American Idol pop-rock playbook. Sure, I'm prejudiced, but don't take my word for it. Look who's left standing: Southern teenage country crooners Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina, who have played it safe in their song choices every week. (Both of whom also effectively played the God card this week to mobilize their vast Bible Belt fan base. Maybe James should have found a cross to kiss.) The only risk-taker left in the game is smoky-voiced Haley Reinhart. I like her, but unlike James, she's never managed to establish a consistent personality onstage. She's finished in the bottom so often, and is so routinely dissed by the judges, this week, the voters must have decided to come to her defense.


Why do we love James? Because he's so much fun to watch! An exciting and dynamic performer, he understands stagecraft and brings a richly developed sense of theatre to the table every time. How about his intuitive showmanship, designing and creating his own production numbers every week? Then there's his versatility; he can cradle a ballad or belt out a rocker without missing a beat—or a note. And OMG, that voice! His Top 5 performances this season? 1) "Maybe I'm Amazed," for its melting authenticity (he sang it again last night as his farewell song); 2) "Uprising," by Muse, for its electrifying authority; 3) "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," for its pliant, a capella beginning and big rocker finish; 4) "Heavy Metal" and "Saturday Night's All Right For Fighting" (tie), for their gutsy showmanship; 5) "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," for its quiet, stunning power. (Wait, I didn't even mention this week's playful, vocally acrobatic "Love Potion No. 9!" Well, you get the idea.)


The only losers in this scenario are the American viewing public, now cheated out of the fun of tuning in every week to see what James will do next. For his part, James achieved everyhing he set out to do—he brought a necessary shot of adrenalin to a show that's started to go a little soft and stodgy around the edges. He also proved beyond a shadow of a doubt to all America that he was born to sing.


James Durbin's American Idol dream may be over, but his career is just beginning. Not winning the Idol jackpot hasn't impeded the careers of, say, Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson (who finished Number 7 in 2004), or glam-rocker Adam Lambert, first runner-up in 2008. Idol may have let him slip away, but in the meantime, James has established a worldwide fan base. Untold gazillions of people are now primed and eager to buy his future CDs and throng to his live concerts. Like me, they all want to see what he does next.


The homecoming parade and Boardwalk bandstand performance that was to happen this Saturday have been cancelled. James has too many commitments, getting ready for the Idol finale in two weeks (in which all season contestants evidently appear), and the upcoming summer tour of the Top 10 finalists. But whenever he does come home, I hope there's still a parade in the works, for us more than him; the hometown fans are in a frenzy to show him the love!


So don't stop believin', James. You're the real deal.

TRUE COLORS, TRUE BELIEVERS


You know the producers of American Idol are on to something when they choose to open and close the show with James Durbin. It's the number one rule of showbiz: first, smack 'em upside the head and get their attention, then leave 'em wanting more. James delivered on both counts.


Although it was advertised as Leiber & Stoller night (the veteran songwriting duo who penned countless rockabilly, R&B, and Motown hits in the '50s and early '60s), Wednesday night's show was divided into two segments, giving each of the four remaining contestants two big numbers. The Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller catalogue was used in the second half of the show, but in the first half, the competitors had to pick a song that they found "inspirational."


James chose to remain absolutely true to himself, opening the show with the Journey anthem, "Don't Stop Believin'." In the preview clip, he said it represented his own personal journey that has led him to A I, "because, since Day One, I've never stopped believing." His was a straight-ahead, stand-up rendition with no tricks; some minor pyrotechnics upstage, but otherwise it was all about his powerful, persuasive voice. He brought the crowd to its feet.


It was also left to James to close the show with a high-octane, rockin' version of "Love Potion No. 9," with a powerhouse, delayed finish that was so worth the wait. (Read more)


For those of you who came in late, here's the backstory on James Durbin's excellent American Idol adventure.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

SPIRIT GUIDES


Hey, kids, let's hop into the Wayback Machine for a jaunt back in time to Santa Cruz in the early 1970s. If you've seen the Big Creek Pottery ceramics and photo exhibit at the MAH, you may have enjoyed the quaint glimpse into commune life of that era, but the fact is, in those days, the same arty Bohemian vibe spread across all aspects of local culture. And perhaps nowhere was this more evident than up on the hill, where the spirit guides of the Santa Cruz arts community were shepherding UCSC through it's first decade of existence.


I was reminded of all this last week when, in the process of searching for something or other online, I stumbled upon an exceptional collection of vintage Santa Cruz images from photographer and former Cruzan Jim Hair. Like me, Jim was a student at the UCSC entity formerly known as College V (now Porter) in the very early '70s. But while I spent most of my time trying to navigate around the campus and get to my (pre-noon) classes on time and awake, Jim was doing something far more useful—documenting life in Santa Cruz, on and off campus, with his trusty Rolleiflex.


The set of 91 SC images on Jim's Flickr site contains some lovely shots of the wild, natural world in places like Pebble Beach, Point Lobos, and the redwoods of UCSC. But it's his collection of stunning portraits that will really melt your heart, especially those of the cultural icons and assorted Godmothers and Godfathers who created and shaped the Santa Cruz arts community that still exists today.


I fell in love with this portrait of Mary Holmes, busily painting angels for her own enjoyment up in her magical hilltop retreat. You'll find the inimitable Jasper Rose, in a natty bow tie, precariously posed on a rustic wooden bench in his art-bedecked hallway, Page Smith and Paul Lee on a picnic, George Hitchcock at work on his printing press, William K. Everson hugging a tree, Wavy Gravy debarking from his bus at the UCSC Quarry, a forthright Angela Davis, Gregory Bateson, screenwriter-to-be Charlie Haas, Futzie Nutzle, and some wonderfully evocative portraits of Jim Houston up in his workroom aerie. And that's just to name a scant few.


These photos aren't about nostalgia. Rather, they represent a kind of alchemy of time, place, spirit, and sensibility, captured by a gifted observer. Take a look, and enjoy!

Friday, May 6, 2011

PASSION PLAY


Welcome to another of my bi-weekly James Durbin updates. I continue to watch American Idol, so you don't have to. (Just follow my links to the awesome videos!)



Last week, the voting public still respected James Durbin in the morning, after his haunting, yet driving rendition of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" the night before.


But you've got another think coming if you think you've seen everything he can do. Wednesday night, he turned in not one, but two of the solid, quality performances the judges have come to expect from him every week on American Idol—a straight-up rocker, with a side of passion such as we rarely see in showbizzy Idol performances.


James was up first with the rocker, "Closer to the Edge" from the modern emo rock band 30 Seconds to Mars, combining strong vocals with an easy onstage presence. But for his second number, James came back with something completely different (as usual), the emotional, yet explosive ballad "Without You," from Harry Nilsson. (Read more)


FEARSOME FOURSOME


Today, only four contestants remain after last night's elimination round of American Idol, and, yes, James Durbin is one of them. He and fellow survivor Scotty McCreery continue to be the only two competitors who have never been in the bottom after a round of voting. The surprise last night was not who went home, but who else ended up hanging by a thread in the penalty box. (Read more.)


Next week, it's down to the Final Three. Go, James! And stay tuned...

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

WESTSIDE (AND OTHER) STORIES


Looks like gorgeous weather in store for this month's First Friday Art Tour. Downtown art venues will be hopping, as usual, from the Elijah Pfotenhauer show at Motiv to the Charles Prentiss exhibit at Artisans (those are Charles' luscious aloes, on the left); from paintings by Russel Brutsché at India Joze, to the Barbara Lawrence exhibit at Michaelangelo Gallery, to the multi-artist, mixed media LGBT Community Art & Pride show at Louden Nelson Center.


For something a little off the well-trodden art path, check out the art installation at Saffron & Genevieve by book artist Jody Alexander. Titled "The Odd Volumes of Ruby B.," the installation at the back of the store purports to be "the living and working space of fictional character Ruby B.," and features a variety of reconstituted books, wall hangings and various objets d'art crafted from textile, thread, and photo collages.


This month, there's even an opportunity to make your own 3-minute First Friday movie, the top three of which will be screened next week at the Santa Cruz Film Festival (details here).


And if you haven't already seen it (or even if you have; I'm planning to go again) don't miss the Big Creek Pottery show, going into its second month at the Museum of Art & History. Not only is this exhibit bursting with functional ceramics—vivid, playful, witty, and unique—from students and masters alike (that's a saucy little 1977 pitcher from Maestro John Glick, above), the show is also a time capsule of Santa Cruz cultural life in the 1970s, featuring 140 vintage photos from the heyday of Bruce and Marcia McDougal's fabled Big Creek Pottery School up Swanton Road. Drop in around 5:30 pm, and meet the MAH's brand spanking new Executive Director, Nina Simon.


But there's also some extra cool First Friday stuff going on on the west side. The R. Blitzer Gallery in the old Wrigley Building is hosting a massive show called EDGE: Art on the Westside. Curated by bronze sculptor Lila Klapman, the show features 16 local artists, all of whom live and work on the westside of town, including Barbara Downs, Andrea Rich, Jamie Abbott, Hildy Bernstein, Gloria Alford, Roy Holmberg, Andrew Purchin, and Susana Arias, among many others. Work includes painting, ceramics, steel sculpture, woodcuts, and various mixed-media, so there'll be plenty to see!


Then hike around to the other side of the Wrigley Building and trot upstairs to the Digital Media Factory, for the World Premiere of the pilot episode of Junk Art Scramble. Five weeks in the making, and countless hours of video footage later, Santa Cruz's own home-grown reality show, art competition, and experiment in creative green ecology is ready to be unveiled. (Read all about it here.) Will Team Cabrillo or Team Tannery walk away with the prize? Find out when highlights from the pilot episode air at 6 p.m., and at 8 p.m., Friday evening at the DMF. As an extra bonus, the art structures created by these two enormously talented teams will be on display as well, so prepare to be amazed. (And while you're there, check out the cool DMF facility itself, the best-kept secret in Santa Cruz.)


Need more of an art fix than even First Friday can provide? Come to beautiful midtown Live Oak this Mother's Day weekend, for the fourth annual Art & Chocolate Art Studio Tour. 12 neighborhood artists in nine venues will open their studios to the public 11 am to 5 pm, Saturday and Sunday, for this free event. What's the best part? Free chocolate will be available at every single venue on the tour!

Participating artists include abstract painter Beth Shields, figurative painter Richard Bennett, ceramic sculptors Geoffrey Nicastro and Carole DePalma, landscape painters Maggie Renner Hellman, Lou Renner, Amy Stark, and Paul Rodrigues, stone sculptor Mike McClellan, painter/collagist Myra Eastman, Janet Ferraro, painter of horses, and James Aschbacher, aka Art Boy. (Um, we haven't figured out what his painting style is called, but "fun" and "whimsical" most often spring to mind, as you can see by his "Cat Juggling," above.)

All nine studios are within a mile of each other here in Live Oak, for your viewing and sampling pleasure. So treat your mom, your kids, your sweetie, your BFF, or anyone else (including yourself) to an afternoon of dynamic art and tasty chocolate to satisfy your deepest inner cravings. (Click here for maps and info.)