Spiritual isn’t a word to be taken lightly. It’s reaching a pretty high level of human consciousness. Yet there I was at Lovin’ Cup Bistro and Brews Saturday night for Connie Deming’s show, backed by Phil Marshall on guitar, with Scott Regan opening. This was a deeply moving event. And yeah, spiritual.
Regan is generally identified as the weekday morning host Open Tunings on WRUR-FM (88.5), but he needs more recognition as a songwriter. He knows a great song needn’t be simple, it can go two places at once. So he sang one about trading baseball cards. Indians and Braves, exchanged without a thought to their homeland, accompanied by a high, lonesome-wind chant by Regan. Regan’s not a classic voice, but he’s evocative in a Willie Nelson way; earnest, like an armadillo scratching through the desert sand, looking for grubs.
Marshall backed him for a song, then Regan played solo, then Marshall returned with Deming. Deming is no desert mammal. Her voice soars, it goes wherever the story takes it. She draws inspiration from many places. Often her autistic son. Or from what she detected her listeners needed when she was playing group homes for the autistic and the elderly. And when she covers an old standard, like “Stardust” – at Marshall’s urging – it takes you to a place that is both long ago and timeless.
Marshall plays those standards for people in hospice. He’ll play whatever the dying want to hear, whether it’s Hoagy Carmichael or The Beatles. In a decision made just that morning, Deming asked Marshall to play a half-hour set, right in the middle of her own set. So we heard songs Marshall had written, inspired by his work in hospice. And he told stories about his work. Some of these stories were touching, some were funny, but never at the expense of the dying. Marshall is always the foil, because he’s learning something from these people.
After the show, Marshall told me he has been reluctant to play these songs and tell these stories for audiences. He’d even joked between songs about how uplifting it would be to play “Grief Walks In” in a bar on a Saturday night. He felt it might be exploitative. But no, it’s explanatory. It’s sharing something that we’ll all experience, if we haven’t already at the bedside of a friend or relative.
This show wasn’t tightly scripted. They made it up as the evening went on, the songs found their proper places. It was the kind of organic, nocturnal animal that might not appear again.
There was more. Early Sunday afternoon, The Death of Stalin was playing at The Little Theatre. A film that should win the Academy Award for Best Picture, but that’ll never happen. This tale of the Soviet Union in the days following the death of Stalin – he falls ill in a pool of his own urine, which I suppose is better than dying in someone else’s urine – is too insane for serious awards. Comedy crashes headlong into tragedy as we see fearful Soviet authorities comically scrambling to kiss ass and save their souls while in the background people are being strong-armed into basement rooms, where they are executed. This is hilarious! Why are we laughing, someone else is being shot in the head! The performances are brilliant, at times the movements of these Soviet leaders look as though they were choreographed by The Three Stooges. You know Steve Buscemi as the googly-eyed, bandy-limbed stringbean with the look of a guy who thinks a safe is about to fall on his head. But with the aid of a little padding and some loose suits, yes, he becomes a very convincing Nikita Khruschev.
So the movie’s over, and we spill out into The Little Café, where there’s a reception for this month’s gallery show, Off the Page: Creative Responses to Writing. It’s an unusual show, created by 10 women from a book club who have interpreted favorite books through various art mediums. I’d brought a couple of novels – Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky and John Fante’s Ask the Dusk – to loan to My Friend Tony, who is recovering from back surgery. Sitting at his table, in the midst of people I know, I eavesdropped on strangers’ conversations about art and food and cars and listened to Steve Piper playing guitar and singing over and around the roar of the crowd. Thinking: Why isn’t every weekend like this?
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