Saturday, November 26, 2011

Janelle Monae, The Hearers and A Trip to the Moon

Gestures of love connect the seemingly desparate artistic events in my past day.  The image that stands for all the rest takes place by the bar of Lawrence's Jackpot Saloon last night.  Two men, probably musicians I don't know, running into each other after some time has passed.  I accidentally watch too long and notice that their welcoming hug turns into a brief squeeze and a softness in the eyes.  These street tough--looking dudes love each other.

Less overt but just as palpable an affection filled the Jackpot's air all night.  Such warmth even flowed through and from the swamp-blues-by-way-of-punk Mad Kings and the ironic gutbucket stomps served up by Drakkar Sauna.  Soft eyes all around.  The college kids may have gone home, but those who have returned were back with long chosen families.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the set by the Hearers, a band that can typically only get together for an annual Thanksgiving show at the Brick because they have migrated to every corner of the map.  Last night's show was apparently down two members from the Brick, and it got cut way down as the last of three late sets, still I couldn't tell what I was missing.  What I do know is that watching the Hearers' stage framed by loving, perfectly placed strokes of harmonica and glockenspiel by Jay Kakert and sweet backing vocals and keyboards by Chris Braun spoke to the deep camaraderie of this band, a band that lovingly crafts songs that seem like pure studio magic, into a wonderous, heartfelt live experience.  It was a beautiful set to close a beautiful night.

And that includes all of my night, which started in the early evening with my wife and youngest daughter at the mayor's Christmas tree lighting in Crown Center.  I had to go because Janelle Monae, a young woman I've written about three times in just over the past year (for this blog, for Pitchweekly and for Rock & Rap Confidential), a woman who gives me a lot of hope not just for the vision of Kansas City artists but for the state of contemporary music, had been invited to help mayor Sly James flip the switch on the Christmas Tree.

Accompanied by Nate "Rocket" Wonder of the Wondaland Arts Society she helped create in Atlanta, Georgia, Monae left her bandmate's side and joined the mayor to say a few words in support of the Christmas tree fundraiser for the city's poorest.  She spoke briefly, pointing out that she was from the other Kansas City across the river (not adding that she was from a part of KCK, Quindaro Avenue, that receives precious little attention from the larger city), but instead, adding, "but I'm all about unity, and I carry all of Kansas City with me wherever I go."

Those were important words to inspire youth who look up to her, a young woman who has gone from being virtually unknown to working with P. Diddy and Big Boi in the past few years, and just in the past year (and some change), to touring with everyone from Of Montreal to Bruno Marrs, Katie Perry, Prince and Stevie Wonder.  As her father once explained to me, the wonderous science fiction universe she's created in her lyrics and that incredibly eclectic music that merges Sun Ra to Nat King (and Natalie) Cole to Michael Jackson and OutKast, all of it, in some ways came as a retreat from a city she knew as essentially some hard mean streets.  To know how much thought and perspective went into the honesty of Monae embracing Kansas City as she did last night made it all the more poignant.

And the fact that Monae's three suite releases were inspired by Fritz Lang's 1927 magical celluloid accomplishment (and 99%-er political statement) Metropolis connected directly with the joy I experienced today, again with my wife and youngest daughter, at Martin Scorcese's Hugo.  Taking any of the joy out of experiencing this film by saying too much about the heart of its mystery would be wrong.  But I have to say two things.  I am extraordinarily thankful to see one of our finest filmmakers make thematically and visually smart use of 3D.  More importantly, Scorcese made a brave choice with this film, particularly considering the cynicism of his canon, to focus on light in the darkness, in this case, the very real light of the motion picture's first great visual magician, George Melies.  Hugo is a love letter to Melies, that and much, much more.

Though I feel fairly confident that no one will ever try to write about Janelle Monae, the Hearers and Martin Scorcese all together again [wouldn't it be great if I'm wrong?], what they have in common strikes me, tonight, as something vivid and heartening.  Inherent in their make up, but also particularly vivid in the present tense, these artists all reach for the moon with their work, and that kind of vision is hard to come by (even among many of our finest artists, musicians and otherwise).  After all, when the Hearers sing "the stars can be your home/they're not very far away," Darren Welch's sweet lyric fights its way through Marc Tweed's agonized cries of doubt.  But what emerges from that struggle is a sense the limits of our imaginations are only problems to be solved.  All these artists show hearts and minds together find a way.   

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