Thursday, March 19, 2015

As Lucky As I Am

Some days you wake up with absolutely no plans and go to bed amazed at your good luck.

Eating breakfast I saw that Dar Williams was playing UR tonight. For free, no less, as part of the Jepson Leadership Forum. Theme: Into the Fray: Global Perspectives on Conflict. Well, this was good news.

It was March 2008 when, as part of the same series, I'd seen Chuck D. at UR, so I shouldn't have been surprised at Dar. For that matter, I'd seen her at Capital Ale House with Holmes back in 2009 and we'd both been impressed with her singing, songwriting and guitar playing.

Within minutes I had scored a ticket and was back to eating breakfast.

Fortune smiled on me an hour later when I saw that a friend had posted about seeing "Mr. Turner" last night. That's a film I've been waiting for since last Fall when I first saw the preview. I hadn't realized it had sneaked into town.

And, yes, I know most people would have limited interest in a 150-minute film about a 19th century British painter, but I couldn't believe my luck when I saw it had finally arrived in Richmond. Plus a 9:20 screening would work perfectly after the Dar show.

Good luck continued when I arrived at the Modlin Center because the usher said they had just released the front row seats. I took the center one, along with much ribbing from the usher about my prime VIP position.

Since Dar's performance was part of the forum, there was almost as much talking as singing. Almost. But she's a fascinating woman, long on liberalism and, as a teacher at Wesleyan, at ease talking about things that matter to her.

She began with "When I Was a Boy," talking about different kinds of protest song and labeling that one "identity politics" because it gives listeners something to identify with. Other types were street music, meaning songs you march to (she had us sing along to "We Shall Overcome") and affiliation music (songs that get you to go with a cause).

I was loving this combination of lecture and music.

From the sound of it, lots of people recognized "As Cool As I Am" with the telling lyric "I will not be afraid of women." She may have offended some old-timers with her reference to the "Eisenhower military industrial complex" but not me.

As she spoke, she'd sing song snippets to illustrate points, so we heard bits of "Cripple Creek" for alcoholism, "White Rabbit" for drugging, CSN's "Our House" about caring for each other and Joni MItchell's "Woodstock" for baby boomers.

She talked a lot about what a nurturing time the '90s were for singer/songwriters such as herself (referencing Jonatha Brooke and Alanis Morisette) and how developed the coffeehouse scene was then. "I wrote about what I wanted to write about. I didn't want to write love songs. I wanted to follow my muse and I did."

Announcing "After All," she asked the adoring crowd, "Has anybody heard this song before?" and when she got applause, grinned and said, "Totally fishing." Don't we all sometimes?

Favorite line (because I am): I am the daughter of a great romance.

The crowd went crazy when she did Don's request (whoever Don was) of "The Christians and the Pagans," while she noted, "If the Unitarians had had a Top 10 chart, this would have been on it for weeks."

She shared her idea of how to bring the world together and it also involved saving discarded upright pianos. Post an ad, get an old piano and then order $2 Beatles songbooks off the Internet ("Cheaper than printing them off the computer"). Have Friday night singalongs with friends. Voila! A more connected world.

We heard about Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary helping her teach a class and him having the students eating out of his hand. Asking if any of us had gone to summer camp or knew who PP&M were, she told us to sing along and began playing "If I Had a Hammer."

I know every word, as did the people around me and we sang but halfway through the song it occurred to me that it should have been louder. Looking behind me, I realized that no one under 40 was singing. They had no idea of the lyrics.

Too sad. That's a song we used to have to sing in music class in school - Pete Seeger was already considered a national treasure - but no more apparently. But it was a fabulous finish to a lecture and performance about protest songs.

After Dar left the stage, I chatted with the couple next to me only to find out that she had been a writer back in the '60s. And get this, she interviewed Bob Dylan in 1968.

According to her, he was a terrible interview, never really answering the questions. Considering that I just read a piece on his new album that mentioned how un-forthcoming he was, it sounds like nothing's changed.

But let's focus on what's important here, I met a woman who talked to Bob Dylan.

There was a dessert reception afterwards and Dar mingled with the little people but I didn't speak to her, much as I had things I'd have enjoyed discussing with her.

Instead, I went to the Criterion to finally take in "Mr. Turner."

Walking into the theater, there were exactly two guys in the row behind me. One piped up, saying, "We told them to say this show was sold out so we could have a private screening." Then I showed up.

When I said I'd been waiting on this film for months, the older guy said he had too and that it was only here for a week. Anticipating that, I'd come tonight.

And my god, the film was breathtaking. Many scenes were composed in the same luminescent, painterly way Turner did his paintings. Light and the sea star as much as any of the actors, although Timothy Spall as Turner was magnificent: gruff, driven and deeply loving of the few people her actually cared about.

Perhaps it's the art historian in me, but the 150 minutes never dragged as the story of the last quarter century of his life unfolded. His epic walks looking for places to sketch, the light-filled studios where he worked, and his genial interactions with other artists of the day (he and Constable, his only close rival of the time, keep their exchanges to just saying each other's name) help explain the activities that made up his life.

Sweetly unexpected was when he fell in love with a simple woman (even calling her beautiful) from whom he rented a seaside room and eventually taking a house with her for the rest of his life.

What the movie didn't do was explain how Turner got to be the way he was or painted the way he did. No, for that I'll need a good biography and there's nothing I like more than being led to a good biography.

Except maybe waking up with a blank calendar and happening on two extraordinary ways to spend my evening.

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