Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Podcasts and Barthelme and books, oh my.

Often at work, when I tire of spending my time listening to The Current at a volume so low that I cannot figure out what song is being played, I take to spoken-word podcasts. My standard rotation includes a great deal of NPR, but I've recently become a fan of several New Yorker podcasts, especially The New Yorker Out Loud, which features one of the week's contributors chatting about his or her article. This week's podcast is a fun little chat with Ariel Levy about political social-utopianist lesbians of the 1970s.

However, since I'm a book nerd and all, the previous week's podcast featuring Louis Menand talking about Donald Barthelme is what has me all in a tizzy right now, in part because it introduced me to The New Yorker Fiction podcast.

Barthelme is one of my favorite short story writers; even though I only own the Sixty Stories and Forty Stories collections, I often dip into one of the volumes to find a refreshing, beautiful, absurd little piece of writing that makes me feel better, especially if I'm in the middle of a long-haul of a book (hello, 2666, how're you? Yes, I'm talking about you). "The Balloon" is certainly one of my top ten favorite short stories; through the silly "what-if" setup of a balloon being inflated over much of lower Manhattan, Barthelme touches on the public's interaction with art and its complete separation from the creator's content. It is also poignant and wickedly funny.

Speaking of wickedly funny, Barthelme's "I Bought at Little City", read by novelist David Antrim in a perfectly droll fashion, is one of the stories featured on the New Yorker Fiction podcast. This podcast is my new work-drug. Brilliant short stories read by the authors of other great short stories! Mary Gaitskill reads Nabokov! Aleksander Hemon on Bernard Malamud! Oh, the wonder of it all.

I recently had a chat about books with someone who emphatically stated that he liked "big" books (in both scope and volume), and was dismissive of anything less. I consider this argument equivalent to someone deciding to exercise, but only doing strength training with the heaviest possible weights you can lift. That's part of it, but you need cardio, you need light work, you need a variety of exercises to keep yourself in balance. Brilliant short stories like Barthelme's help keep me quick, and the craft that goes into short works often has to be better than that of "big" novels, because the impact must be made with less material.

Okay, I think I'll stop now, because otherwise this is going to segue into a discussion about Twitter, and I'd rather save that for another time.

Prolix, prolix, nothing a pair of scissors won't fix...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Maestro Subgum & the Whole (or, I Am Still a Youngster in This City)

You think you know someone, and you realize you have no clue. Take Miki, for example. I met Miki at the Old Town School of Folk Music not long after I started volunteering in there 2004. He was the café manager, so I'd swing by to get my free volunteer drink whenever I worked a show. Sometimes, I would work as the café volunteer; it can be a very busy gig, but Miki would encourage me to drink the new beers he got in, and we'd chat about our lives. Miki doesn't work many concert nights anymore, but I still stop by and chat with him when he's at the school; I know all about his kids, he knows all about my ex-boyfriends. He'd mentioned making music, but so does everyone who works for the school. In a building full of sweeties, he's at the top of that list, but I didn't know much about what he'd done before he started working there.

So it was a pleasant shock to run across a picture of Miki Greenberg in the Reader a few weeks ago. Apparently he'd been a member of the "legendary band Maestro Subgum & the Whole"! I can't say that I've known anybody else who's been in a legendary band. There was no real description of the band, or when they were active, or why they were legendary. Why, why had I never heard of them? I made a mental note to investigate further next time I talked to him.

Serendipitously, Miki saw me sitting in a coffee shop recently and came inside for a chat. After talking to him about Maestro, I'm really excited to see them play next Sunday, March 1st, at the Viaduct Theatre.

Details about this fabulous band after the cut.

There's not a ton of net-data available on Maestro Subgum & the Whole (notable exception below), because they were at the height of their popularity before the internet had really taken off, starting in the late 1980s and ending when they disbanded in 1994 or 1995. They had one big blow-out reunion concert in 2001 at the Old Town School, where Miki was by that point working; the show sold out, it was apparently a riot and their best show ever, and they've not performed since then.

Their instrumental palate consists of vocals, horns, and piano, which might make you think of Weimar-era cabaret, but there's a very rocking, yelling, ranting, zany energy that moves beyond the impeccably mannered expression of Kurt Weill. That is to say: at least from the clips I've heard, it is crazy and weird, and has a dusty 1930s feel crossed with a bit of a ranty early 1980s punk vibe, and I think I like it.

Maestro Subgum's members & alumni have done quite nicely for themselves. Beau O'Reilly and Jenny Magnus founded the Curious Theatre Branch (the group curates Chicago's annual Rhino Fest; Maestro Subgum & the Whole's show will be the closing act of that festival); other members have also been involved with Redmoon Theatre and Mucca Pazza. They also have a Tony-winning alum, since former trombonist Mark Hollman wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics for Urinetown.

The best interview I can find with Maestro Subgum & the Whole is a 2001 interview with Ira Glass on WBEZ (scroll down to January 19th, grumble about it being a Real Media file, react strangely to numerous mentions of "President-Elect Bush" from just before his inauguration, fast-forward to about 1:00:38). A couple of song clips are included, which should give you a taste of what you might get to experience if you go to see them live. Do you really want to wait another 8 years?

Maestro Subgum plays as part of the 20th Annual Rhino Fest
Sunday, March 1st, 3pm, at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N Western Ave.
Tickets are $12, or pay what you can.
Box office: (773) 296-6024

Prolix, prolix, nothing a pair of scissors won't fix...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On caffeine, coffee houses, and coffee.

So there's some drama going on right now in the Chicago blogosphere about the renovations to the three local Intelligentsias, and the subsequent revamp of their price structure. (In order: Original GB:DT post, Chicagoist responds, GB author Mike Doyle quits GB because of this, and The TOC Blog summarizes the whole mess.

Setting aside the drama, I do think there was a basic reporting error, as there will be under-$3.00 coffee. A Clover of the Day will be offered, with S-L prices ranging from $2.00 to $2.65. I'm also a regular at Mill Park, and all the baristas who told me about the change immediately mentioned the Clover of the Day; I find it hard to imagine that Mr. Doyle asked any barista "Will there be coffee under $3?" and received an incorrect answer.

All the passioante talk about the changes at Intelligentsia did get me thinking about what people expect when they go to a coffee shop. I think part of the discontent with Intelligentsia right now could be traced to a disconnect between what some current customers want them to be, and what Intelligentsia wants to become.

More on that later. Now on to my GRAND THESIS. It involves taxonomy! Don't you love a good taxonomical grouping?

Here it is: people who buy coffee from coffee shops do it for (at least) three different reasons: for the caffeine, because of the coffee house, or for the coffee. There's going to be a lot of overlap in these three categories; I'd put myself in all three, depending on my circumstances. And people could go to Intelligentsia for any of the three reasons above (though I suspect most fall into the latter two categories, given the price and availability of the stuff. But let's get to the grand generalizations!

For the caffeine: These folks drink coffee like it's medicine. It is a necessary input for adequate daily output. They want coffee now, and they'd probably prefer it cheap, as long as it's drinkable. An alternate grouping wants their caffeine, and they want a socially-acceptable milkshake.

I'm this person: whenever I can't get to Intelligentsia in the morning, either because I'm starting work at 6 am or because I really need those extra 30 minutes of sleep. This happens more frequently than I like. I'm lucky enough to have a Keurig machine at work that dispenses adequately non-nasty caffeinated hot brown water; let's not talk about taste, because there is nothing to talk about. Before the Keurig, I respected the Dunkin Donuts stuff; SBUX drip coffee has always tasted like burning tar to me, so I never drink the stuff. However, while their drip is wretched, SBUX does make some delightful caffeinated milkshakes. I may have enjoyed one or two in the past.

Likely targets: DD, the tiny SBUX/Caribous with no seating, gas stations, every kitchenette in every office everywhere.

Because of the coffee house: The coffee house environment, hearkening back to the Ottoman Empire (or if you prefer, Vienna in the 1700s)! The history of intellectual progress props you up as you putter along on your laptop or meet up with your friends!

Getting slightly more serious-planting yourself down in a coffee shop for awhile is great. You can go alone ot get away from the distractions of home for less money than if you went to a restaurant (and without any of the social stigma). Groups can hang out, chat, study, knit, or whatever. I've seen small business owners interview employees in Hyde Park Starbucks, and I've seen Russian professors emeriti gather together for mid-morning tea and "conversation" (aka lots of gesticulation and loud Russian) at Unicorn in Evanston. I love them both. The atmosphere of these places varies greatly, as does the quality of the coffee, but it's probably the atmosphere that keeps people coming back.

I'm this person: On Wednesday nights at Julius Meinl (Southport/Addison) when I meet up with the Kelly Girls, my knitting group. When I tutor a friend in math at Noble Tree Coffee (2444 N Clark... it's Lincoln Park and it's fabulous). Back in the day at Filter. At numerous spots around my neighborhood, like Mercury, Atomix, and Alliance. Very frequently at the Mill Park Intelligentsia (if you show up at 6:30 am, it's pretty easy to get a seat).

Likely targets: Anywhere listed above, plus tons of other places. SBUX and Caribous with seating can even count. Apart from those corporate places, the Loop was pretty bereft of coffee houses until Intelligentsia opened two shops. However it seems that Intelligentsia is bnow aiming more for people who will come there...

For the coffee: They're members of They wen to Intelligentsia's Coffee Geekfest weekend before last. They can talk coherently about the proper control of coffee through the wet milling and drying process, and use the term "commodity coffee" as a pejorative. They have strongly-held opinions about Chemexes, Clovers, and what varietals may taste better using a particular brewing method.

I'm this person: Because I can say "yes" to some of the above. Because when Intelligentsia higher-ups talk about how baristas should be as regarded as sommeliers, how they do much much more than just push a button at this level, I agree. Because when I went to San Francisco, I dragged my friend along to Ritual Roasters and Bluebottle Coffee Co. (where I asked so many questions that they asked me if I worked in coffee). Because this is geeky, and I am a geek.

Go to: Intelligentsia. Metropolis and The Coffee Studio probably also count, but I don't know them nearly as well and suspect that they aren't quite so geeked-out as Intelligentsia is at this point.

So... the Intelligentsia change. I'm sure the higher prices for coffee will drive away some caffeinators and coffee house folks. I bet it will even drive some coffee fanatics to brew at home (with their own roasts, or maybe Intelly's). But the price increase isn't because of Clover machines, it's because this coffee is the 1983 colheita to a jug of Gallo that DD serves, and it's because the well-trained baristas deserve to be paid a premium for their skill. Intelligentsia (along with a few other companies across the country) has worked to create an educated, interested, coffee-loving group of consumers. Now it's time for a test of how far this group will follow them, and of whether the group is large enough. Despite the economy, I'm guessing yes; I'm guessing that in a few years, the thought of ordering pre-brewed urn coffee at Intelligentsia will seem as strange as ordering a round of Slippery Nipples at the Violet Hour would be now.

But we'll see, won't we?

Prolix, prolix, nothing a pair of scissors won't fix...