Thursday, December 31, 2009

We Vow to Just Allow the Here and Now, 'Cause It Makes Sense

Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you that my absolute affinity for Joe Iconis and his work is no secret. I have dragged countless non-theatre friends to his concerts and have probably spent more money on his shows over the past year than I have on toiletries. There's something about his songs that is so infectious, addictive, universal, effortless, hilarious, and brutally honest that it's hard for me to really sum up why his work speaks to me the way it does.

In fact, the only ways I can really capture the essence of his songbook is through experience. The first time I went to a Rock 'N Roll Jamboree was two summers ago, and Joe opened his set with "Son of a Gun," which is still probably my favorite song of his to this day. Played by Joe himself, I instantly recognized the song as being excerpted in SPF's The Black Suits. And I remember sitting at the Laurie Beechman completely enthralled, moved by the poignancy and bitter realism of a song whose lyrics were all too familiar. Every one of Joe's songs tend to have a wicked sense of humor and sarcasm beneath the surface, but even in the kitschiest, most gimmicky of conceits, there's at least some kind of morsel of truth, something that transcends a simple song in a way that's not heavy-handed or self-serving.

So, rather than blathering on about the conceptual aspects of Joe's work, I figure I would do as many people are doing with the new year on the horizon and compile a list of my top 10 favorite Joe performances of 2009, to let you see what I love about Joe's music for yourself:

#10. "Everybody's at the Bar Without Me"

This is a fantastic song in its own right, but there were some politics concerning this being on the list. A primary factor is simply Katrina Rose Dideriksen. While Joe writes fantastic songs for girls, a lot of the songs in this list are male-heavy, so I thought I wanted to include a song where she really goes to town and show her stuff. In Things to Ruin, this song is also performed by Badia Farha, who adds her own sexy, humorous turn. So really, a song performed by two sexy ladies definitely deserves a spot on the countdown.

#9 "Son of a Gun"

If I were to make this list in the coming years, so long as Joe keeps performing this song, I will always include this song somewhere on there. The very raw, precise lyrics. The progression of an intimate metaphor. The way it inspires honest performance. Nothing will top the sensation of hearing this song for the first time, performed by Joe himself. But Jason "Sweet Tooth" Williams always brings it in performance. And Eric William Morris' performance in Things to Ruin has become a staple of the evening.

#8 "Guide to Success"

First of all, I love when Joe performs his own work (as I think I've mentioned a billion times before this). He surrounds himself with incredible talent who all perform his songs with commitment and heart. But when Joe sings his own stuff, you can hear the vulnerability in his craft. It's truly an incredible experience, and this song in particular, a tirade on the tyranny of industry, creates a moment of earnestness that is rarely observed.

#7 "Born This Morning (The Cicada Song)"

Things to Ruin in one of my favorite nights of Iconis tunes, and it's even survived the closing of The Zipper Factory. "Born This Morning" is an incredible opener, chock full of energy, catchiness, and swagger. Plus, it features the whole ensemble, and when you get all of those guys wailing their hearts out, nothing but genius can result.

#6 "Anymore"

Krysta Rodriguez is awesome. Joe Iconis is awesome. But it's when they come together in a musical dialog about lost connection that things get pretty fucking incredible. The lyrics aren't terribly sophisticated, but it's the clumsy but intimate words that get me every time.

#5 "Lisa"

Let me make one thing clear: Katrina has and will always sing the shit out of this song. She makes it sexy, passionate, and wonderfully courageous. But the first time I heard this song was in context in The Black Suits, sang by Jason Tam as the woefully conflicted John. There's something about the lack of confidence and sheer angst that he characterized in the song that really adds a story.

#4 "Rosalie"

It's about time that Ian Kagey stepped out from the Iconis band and had a song to rock out on. Not only do I love the funkiness of the music, but Ian's delivery is surprisingly soulful.

#3 "Girl, Your Days Are Numbered"

Incredible. On the aesthetic side, Jason in a Charlie Brown shirt and Katrina in a Max costume—what can be better? But add to that erratic and melodic music, along with the powerful voices of Sweet Tooth and Katrina, and this song becomes a rousing ballad of sorts.

#2 "Last on Land"

When I first heard this song, I enjoyed it but felt like it was a bit out of place with the rest of the music that evening. Also, with the samples of music I've been hearing of Blood Song of Love, I have a hard time grasping what exactly this show is going to be about/like. But when the haunting harmonies were still in my head weeks later, I knew that this highly evocative song is an example of Joe's capabilities in his future works.

#1 "It's All Good"

The first time I heard this song, one of the last numbers of The Black Suits, I distinctly remember how I felt in that moment. I was elated and also a little sad. This song seemed to sum up the entire show, the love of music and art, and I was upset because I knew that eventually the song would have to be over. It's hard not to feel a connection with the characters in this show and this song (whose cast is represented here, with the exception of Nick Blaemire who is substituted with Joe), and I was happy to see some kind of revival in this small space. It's an easy, unpretentious declaration of love for craft, a perfect description of how I feel about the genre, especially Joe's work.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Hemming and Hawing

I was all set with an idea of what I wanted to post about today (thrilling revelations, I assure you)… until I came across these videos today from one of my favorite composers on the scene at the moment, Ryan Scott Oliver. I already had him on the brain after receiving an awesome Christmas gift of tickets to Rated RSO at Joes Pub in January, but recently uploaded, incredible videos, teasers for 35 MM, also feel like an unexpected present.

According to the information in these videos, "35MM is a multimedia 'musical exhibition' in which photographic images inspire music and lyrics, and inversely music and lyrics inspire photographs." The photographic inspiration comes from Matthew Murphy, and the songs that result from the collaboration of text/performance/image is absolutely stunning and uniquely twisted and gorgeous in a way that I only seem to find in RSO's work.

This song in particular really struck a chord with me, with its dark, haunting, but gleeful energy that is reminiscent of an Edward Gorey cartoon:

I've heard a few RSO songs that are meant to be stand-alone, but an aspect of his work that I've always been in awe of is the fact that his music is always so theatrical. I don't mean this in a way that implies that his songs are flamboyant or epic, but that they always move a story forward, seamlessly combining emotion and musicality with the practicality and enthusiasm of storytelling. I feel like his work is incredibly generous to book and back story, a truth that is evident in his contributions to musical web series "The Battery's Down" in the way that it defined Jake Wilson's character's story arc in two songs book ending the three seasons of the series, perhaps more than any of the plot twists in any of the episodes. There's poignancy and matter-of-fact wicked humor that runs through any of the works in his song book that implies strong characters and a whole world unto itself, a reason why I can imagine people latched on to "This is Your Life" from TBD's inception or why Cait Doyle's theme song for "Hot Mess in Manhattan" is so endearing.

If I had to describe Ryan Scott Oliver's work in one word, I would have to say: compelling. Not only in the sense that it's moving and encompasses many layered emotions, but also in the most literal sense of the word. His music is a call to action, a moment in motion, and it sweeps through a story as though music is the only way of expression in that instance. My most vivid example of this was when he closed his set at SPF's lounge concert this summer with "Song of the Dead Fairy," and within the first chorus, I felt compelled to clap even though no one else was. I held back, but then Ryan actually looked right over at our table and kind of gestured as if to say, "Why the hell not?" Needless to say, that's all it took to really get into it.

Also, as a last note, can I just comment on how amazing the combination of Ryan Scott Oliver and Alex Brightman is? I've seen Alex in a few readings and performances now, but there's something about the energy and sincerity of the way he approaches the genius twist of a troubled Peter Pan or a love-crazed student that really makes for a stellar performance.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Me and My Three Best Friends

Besides sheer talent and a wicked sense of humor, a funny through line that seems to string together some of my favorite up-and-composers over the past couple of years seems to be none other than Nick Blaemire, the composer of Broadway's Glory Days and a fantastic actor in his own right. In fact, I joke that the young New York theatre scene could easily be linked through "The Six Degrees of Nick Blaemire," since he always seems to have a hand in my own theater-going experiences.

Aside from his own writing, I was first captivated by his performance as Chris in Joe Iconis' The Black Suits at The Public's SPF. Ignoring my sheer love of Iconis's music and his merry band of faithful singers/actors, it was Blaemire's gut-wrenching portrayal of a Long Island garage band leader that really got my attention, bringing gravity to what could have easily been a comically crude coming-of-age story. Much of the show's transcendence is due to Joe Iconis and Robert Maddock's quick-paced (despite 3+ hour run time) book and Iconis' hilariously poignant songs. But I can't possibly think of that musical without thinking of this song and that moment of being in that theater, transfixed by the immediacy of what was going on in front of me.

I just remember thinking to myself:

This is good stuff.

And since then, he seems to pop up in a ton of projects that I absolutely adore. From performing in Kerrigan and Lowdermilk's The Unauthorized Biography of Samantha Brown, to singing pretty songs in Ryan Scott Oliver's Rated RSO, to singing the hell out of more Iconis tunes in Things to Ruin, to appearing yet again at SPF in The Departure Lounge and singing a couple of songs in that year's Composure Exposure event.

And as though that's not enough, at the tender age of 23, he had a musical up on Broadway—albeit its opening night was also its closing performance—still a feat that has contributed to my determination to have some kind of successful creative project by 23 (well, him and Lady Gaga anyway).

Despite the fact that he's played a character in at least a couple of "Bro Musicals" over the past couple years, Glory Days remains its own animal, a heartfelt send-up to "generation apathy" and the inevitable disillusionment of growing up and apart from childhood friends. The music is modern with lyrics that roll off the tongue in a frenetic but relentlessly tuneful way. And even the most clich├ęd of male sentiments finds its own sophistication as the show tells the story of four high school buddies who reunite a year after graduation to find that their relationships aren't the same as their glorified memories of what they used to be.

This song is brilliant in its startlingly observant view of the world (written, as James Gardiner, the book writer of Glory Days, mentioned at the cast recording release concert, within the span of a few hours):

And this song never ceases to amaze me in way the music weaves through space and time:

There's something about both his songs and performances that is so admirably in the moment and self-aware. There's a sense that his characters are always aware of their flaws and fears, and they push them aside so that they can continue living, pushing through the moments of introspection with a little bit of wordplay and mustered confidence. I can only see even more success in Blaemire's future, and his current project Finding Robert Hutchens already looks incredibly promising. No matter what is on the horizon for him, on stage or off, I will be excited to be a part of it… and with my luck, I'll probably be in the audience whether or not I know he's involved beforehand.

…And did I mention his voice is like buttah?