Shoot the Buffalo Released at What the Heck

My new novel, Shoot the Buffalo,was released at What the Heck Fest 2005 in Anacortes on Sunday July 17th, 2005 at 2 p.m. The book will be sent to Clear Cut Press subscribers over the summer and will be available in bookstores in September. Stacey Levine’s new novel, Frances Johnson, was also released. Publisher Rich Jensen and editor Matthew Stadler initiated the release of the books into the world with a ripping of the packing paper and the pop of a champagne bottle. He used his mouth to loosen the bottle. A woman in front of me, worried I think that the editor of Clear Cut Press would meet his end on the grass with a fizz-propelled cork penetrating his brain pan, muttered, “oh no.” Stadler, escaped his death, and the cork propelled safely into the trees.

My family and I spent the weekend in Anacortes which has been noticeably altered since my last visit a year ago. Developments have replaced the outlaying farmland on Fidalgo Island. But luckily whoever is charge of such things has left the community forests. We drove to the top of Mount Eerie (the mountain that does exist rather than the band that both does not exist and is playing tonight, somewhere). On the drive to the top, an arduous trek for our fifteen year old Toyota, we passed a pregnant woman carrying her two year old child. And then we passed her overheated truck (and felt like heels for not being gentle-folk and offering a ride).

The community forests contain many lakes. The water was warm enough that it was more comfortable to sit in the lake then out of the lake. These lakes are all about a ten minute drive from the confines of the main town grid of Anacortes.

In the evening I went to see music in the echo-y confines of the Town Hall, where Karl Blau, The Blow, Laura Veirs, and Mecca Normal played. I was a bit disappointed by the music. What had seemed kind of fresh and earnest last year had faded in just a year of listening to it. This could be that there was a change of personnel in terms of the bands or because of the obvious improvements in polish and showmanship on part of the musicians. Mecca Normal isn’t in the vein of the Anacortes/Olympia thing — I had never seen them play before and they belong it strikes me to an older vein of local music that was pretty much destroyed between the grunge-thing in the early 90s and the effects of the dot-com rush in the late 90s. David Lester plays a kind of wild but studied lead classic rock lead guitar (referred to somewhere as free guitar) while Jean Smith sings in an ancient folksy whine. The incongruous mix, Lester’s studied and nearly academic mastery of something intended not to be academic nor mastered alongside Smith’s wailing is the kind of incongruous experiment that used to seem par for the course. They played a very solid show even thought the cement bunker of the Town Hall made it almost impossible to hear anything in the lower registers. Is this right? The space made something wrong with the sound and I don’t know what it was. But for me the off-putting thing about the show was the affected nature of Karl Blau and Laura Veirs juxtaposed to the unabashed rockstar show put on by The Blow. All of these singers share the speech-singing intonation of older Olympia acts like Some Velvet Sidewalk. The tunes, such as they are, are sparse and mainly acoustic. This places a great deal of stress on the lyrics of the songs, and more on how these songs are framed by the performer. An ideal moment occurred in the middle of Veirs set when she forgot the lyrics to her song. They continued to play the minimal background while she racked her brains (which I’m sure only made it worse) and then she asked the audience for help and spent a few minutes talking to them in sorting out what to do next. The division and level of the band from the audience didn’t really exist at this point, and then she went back to her playing and the audience went back to its listening (both components being established on equal footing). This seemed fine. The songs were all right, if not a bit long and predictable, and at times elaborate tropes that really didn’t benefit the attention being asked of the audience. Looking up Veirs now I see that she is on Nonesuch and is kind of a big deal, mainly for her “poetic” lyrics. And this is where these acts kind of melt. The poetry is really undemanding as poetry. I’m not asking for it to be demanding in the way, say, John Ashbury, is demanding, but that at least it avoid clinches or tropes. An artist who otherwise seems to avoid the limp fluff of similar acts, Phil Elverum, could use a bit of work with his lyrics. His new album, No Flashlight, for instance used not once but at least twice, “pregnant night.” The effect of this when these artists are clearly emphasizing their words and themselves as the bearers of this news (this clump of artists all present themselves as they are are: sweet, honest, sometimes tired and confused people) when they begin to reach for and use pre-digests clumps of language or worse (as in Veirs) is they create an artificial language of honesty and no longer does their act seem honest, but rather contrived and designed for effect. Veir’s entire act seems to be an echo of these other artists. She is studiously plain, plain spoken, playing unadorned music. When I think this is an approach for making meaning — that is — there it just happens because this is part of the artists method for doing what they can musically (Phil Elverum, Dennis Driscoll, Karl Blau, Al Larsen) then there is a confusion of signifiers and the fact they are plain dressed, plain spoken, unadorned doesn’t really mean anything. But when this approach becomes part of the act, there is suddenly an alignment of signifiers, the artist has carefully calibrated these by at least thinking about what they mean and how to use them. The result then is shtick that can easily descend into parody. And I felt the show in the basement of the Town Hall was this — the honesty had in the year since I saw these performers at the Department of Safety in July last year — had become a commodity, had become something to deliver, and in short could only become a repeatable THING if it was carefully calibrated.

Perhaps this is what Keala Maricich was perhaps reacing to — the advent in the K Records — Knw-Yr-Own Records of honesty as a kind of commodity. Maricich performs as The Blow. When I saw her last year, she presented herself as just a girl signing as well as she could, dancing as well as she could to the rhythms on her G4 Powerbook. “I love my computer,” she said. Like other bands she presented herself plain, spoke plainly about about her music and what everyone was up to in the context of her show and in this way coordinated a dance party in which there was no clear center (she become a conductor of proceedings rather than the performer in the center of things). This year however all of these things had been discarded. She had a snazzy hair cut. She was tan. She confidently took possession of the stage. She wore a track suit that made her look a bit like someone who had just stepped out of a Lexus sports-ute. She had the same songs, but now her monologues between songs were no longer designed to break any barriers between the audience and her on stage. She was on stage. She talked about the sounds of a French hotel with the patrons having sex. Her talk was about the body. Her show was about the body — and the only way to find your place in the show was to dance. (I am sadly from a region near Seattle that possesses a great deal of discomfort with our bodies, and dancing, brawling, having sex, these are all subjects that we are uncomfortable with, so I was forced to leave before the show was too far underway.)

What-the-Heck Fest is a festival of music/art/multimedia/etc. that takes place every year in conjunction with the Shipwreck Day flea market (on Saturday July 16th, an annual event featuring 8 city blocks in downtown Anacortes packed full of good junk, antiques, collectibles, tools and all kinds of treasures.

For more information about the festival, check out the site.

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