Two very long years ago next month, on the day after America elected Donald Trump, I wrote in this space a column itemizing a few “Thanks, I needed that” things that helped me come to grips with the new reality. Now here we are, with yet another election on the horizon, and I still need to tend to the part of me that keeps me sane and not give over my entire life to, yes, the system. I’m far from a head-in-the-sander, but when I hit my limit of horrible headlines and intelligence-insulting everything, I need to know there’s more to life and humankind. People are good and do good things, and the rest of us are better for it. For proof, here’s a few more of my favorite “Thanks, I needed that” things:
Ellen Stanley, “Womenfolk” (KFAI-FM, Oct. 9). I’ve become an even more avid radio listener in these dark times, especially the local music shows. More than ever, as a seriously curious listener, ever-hungry for surprises and solace, I’m drawn to the idea that, amidst the noise, clatter and hate speak that surrounds us, music DJs are still taking to the airwaves and regularly committing random subversive and spiritual acts, connecting the lot of us in our various undergrounds with the taken-for-granted magic that is listening to music together.
Radio is at its best when you know for sure that the DJ is spinning records for you that are handpicked by said DJ and not by the sinister forces. In that way, like so many of KFAI’s specialty shows (thinking Pete Lee, Jackson Buck, Cyn Collins) “Womenfolk” always provides sustenance, powered as it obviously is by Ms. Stanley’s passion for sharing music, and this day I found the simple warmth of that act especially poignant, landing as it did just a few days after the Kavanaugh confirmation and as every woman I know and love keened and raged over the latest dagger from the white patriarchy. As such, I listened to almost every minute of this entire show, got healed by Katy Vernon’s “Grey Sky,” lifted by JOUR’s “Revolution,” rocked by Annie Mack’s “Just Do Right,” inspired by Frazey Ford’s “Runnin’” and all the rest and felt better about almost everything.
Dessa, “My Own Devices” (Dutton). Great art and writing makes you see yourself in the artist or writer, but it also makes you yearn for other lives and other ways to live. To be sure, “My Own Devices” is great art, and I for one am grateful for Dessa’s courage, grace, wisdom and honesty in these incredibly inspiring pages, and I can’t recommend it highly enough for any writer, artist or musician in need of a shot in the arm.
Vicky Emerson, “Steady Heart” (Front Porch). Classic country crooning straight outta South Minneapolis that sounds so timeless it could be Nashville or Memphis, 1933. “Good Enough” and the title track are gorgeous should-be country radio hits, while the likes of “In The Pines” and “Disappear” are powered by a stop-you-in-your-tracks voice that’s alternately sweet, sinister and sensual. (Check the New Orleans funeral-worthy reworking of Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.”) All in all, a deeply felt and perfectly witchy soundtrack to go with any autumnal upheaval your lil’ ol’ heart might be going through.
Bradley Cooper, “A Star is Born” (various theaters). Saw tons of people I know in these writ-large characters and their struggles with ego, creativity, fame, dreams, love, vulnerability, drugs and alcohol, and it’s worth it if only for the soundtrack and to see Lady Gaga’s character punch out the obnoxious star-jealous guy at the bar. I laughed, I cried, I grabbed my guitar.
Various artists, “Visiting Bob: Poems inspired by the life and work of Bob Dylan” (New Rivers Press). A feast of words and song in a glorious package befitting the Hibbing bard’s impact on poets since he first landed in Greenwich Village. Like the man’s work itself, this collection of Dylan-inspired poems — by little-knowns as well as luminaries like Patti Smith, Johnny Cash, Charles Bukowski, Robert Bly, Diane di Prima, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Holly Iglesias and many more — is a sweeping, heartfelt, wry and joyful feast, with my fave of the moment being Catherine Pierce’s “Poem for Bob Dylan’s Women,” which demystifies ye olde poet-muse conceit right out of the gate:
“How simple it must be, to be the women in the song.
To know without doubt that you’re magnetic
and precious, that you can shelter like God, that Honey,
you were Bob Dylan’s true love and he’s still weeping.”
Patty Peterson, “Minnesota Jazz Legends: The Elders” (KBEM-FM). Singer and DJ Peterson is one of the great unsung music supporters in this town, tirelessly championing jazz and jazz musicians like no one else these days, and this series (downloadable at jazz88.fm) is a rich and expertly researched and produced library of stories and history that no serious jazz or local music fan should sleep on.
Bye Bye Banshee, “Deathfolk Magic” release show (Bryant-Lake Bowl, Oct. 4). University Of Minnesota professor Ann Tandy and narrator Tesia Kosmalski provided the history of keening, funerals, burials, Irish banshees, 19th century death culture and the “death positive” movement, while singer Jezebel Jones and her ace band (Jeff Crandall, Chris Bates, Aaron Kerr and Karin Odell) delivered that rare theater experience that changes your mind about death and dying and therefore life and living. Encore, please.
The British Isles in the Twin Cities. No secret that I’m a firm believer in live music as a balm for all that ails, and it occurs to me that we lucky Minnesotans enjoy an embarrassment of riches when it comes to bands paying homage to the British Invasion and beyond. Seriously, with regular live blasts of the Kinks (Kinda Kinky), the Beatles/John Lennon (Curtiss A; the Fab 6), the Clash (Rude Girl), Led Zeppelin (Zeppo), Van Morrison (Belfast Cowboys), Donovan (Hurdy Gurdy), the Rolling Stones (Mothers’ Little Helpers), Thin Lizzy (Jailbreak!), Queen (The Crown Jewels) and U2 (Rattle and Hum), we may as well be flying the Union Jack over this burg.
Sarah Shook & The Disarmers(Turf Club, Oct. 7). “This is a song about someone everybody knows. There’s always that one person who complains about everything,” Shook said midway through her and her ferocious band’s Sunday night set. Knowing titters abounded, the band ignited and the lucky 75 or so decidedly un-grumpy people in the joint smiled their way into an extremely happy Monday.
The Okemah Prophets, “Enjoy Part of the Buffalo” (Okemah Prophets). Kevin Bowe’s crew’s latest is another roots-rocking shot of spirit and soul, highlighted by “Knock Yerself Out,” “Heaven on a School Night” (a beautiful ode to the joys of escaping the working week) and “Deaf Ears,” an addictive pop-rocker featured as this week’s “Coolest Song in the World” pick by Little Steven’s Underground Garage.
Lindsay Whalen. Had the pleasure of covering my favorite Minnesota basketball player at the end of her last WNBA season and the start of her tenure as coach of the Golden Gophers. Talk about inspiring: Whalen — quick to deflect praise and talk about other players and the importance of team without ever losing any of her own juju — is the utter opposite of, say, the Timberwolves’ wayward star Jimmy Butler, an average player and super ego who demands top-alpha-dog-in-the-locker-room status, calls his teammates lazy in public and, not coincidentally, has several less championship rings and gold medals than Whalen.
Lance Daly, “Black 47” (Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival). The first film to depict Ireland’s potato famine of the 1840s is claustrophobic and cathartic and, given these times of arrogant white men getting what they want no matter what, deeply satisfying when the blue blood patriarchy gets it in the end.
Robert Eggers, “The VVitch” (A24 film). Been on a horror movie semi-binge of late because Halloween, and this two-year-old creeper about a New England family at the dawn of the Salem witch trials has, like so much historical American art today, much to say about past as prologue and women as second-class citizens.
James Parker, “Paul McCartney Can’t Stop Making People Happy” (The Atlantic, November). An irrepressible read on the most irrepressible Beatle: “McCartney may have made more people happy — gapingly, tinglingly, mind-cancelingly happy — than any other artist, alive or dead. W. H. Auden wrote, In headaches and in worry / Vaguely life leaks away. Paul McCartney has been the opposite of that. The rush of early Beatles; the towering artistic magnanimity of middle-period Beatles; the epic fragmentations of late Beatles; and his solo songbook, which sometimes feels like a wild succession of one-hit wonders, of brilliant, bulbous, unrelated novelties — in every phase, in every style, he has insisted that we not allow our lives to leak away.”
Bryce Tache and the #StandOnEveryCorner movement. For going on four months every night 6 p.m.–7 p.m., Tache has been standing on the corner of Diamond Lake Road and Portland Avenue, holding signs that take on the Trump horror show, and it’s heartening to see so many others following suit all over the Twin Cities — and 243 towns and cities across the country. His is a lonely mission in many ways, and Tache has endured a lot of crap, including temporary banishment from Twitter and various instances of hate speak, but it says here that his courage and commitment is nothing short of heroic.
Norah Shapiro, “Time For Ilhan” (area premiere, Walker Art Center, September 22). Maybe my single favorite moment in this amazing work about one of Minnesota’s most inspiring citizens comes from Ilhan Omar’s daughter, who casually describes her mother’s choice to run for office as “for the greater good.” That it is: Omar’s three-year-old story is the most hopeful thing going in the face of Trump and the white racism he emboldens, and it’s only the beginning. Need a jolt of positivity going forward? See this doc and get to work.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at email@example.com.