Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Category: Visual arts Page 3 of 13

Are vinyl records the last multi-media canvas?

When I called Peter McGennis, the first thing I asked was: Where are you? I was expecting an answer like, “at my office in Buffalo,” something that would give me a little background color. Instead, I get metaphor. He says, “I am standing at the intersection of film and music and community and history.”

That’s a four-way stop. Let’s start with music. Record Store Day is April 21. A nationwide celebration of independent record stores, rolling out hundreds of new releases on vinyl, many exclusive to the celebration. The Rochester area is blessed with an unusual number of music-nerd indie stores offering these treasures. The House of Guitars, Bop Shop Records, Needledrop Records, Hi-Fi Lounge, Webster’s Heavy Metal Records, Batavia’s Vinyl World Revival, Brockport’s Trader Shag’s Emporium. Some have live music during the day.

No one does it bigger than Record Archive. Live music, food trucks, and people lining up as early as 5 a.m., hoping to latch onto one of the only 2,000 copies printed of the blue/grey swirl vinyl re-issue of The Doors’ Strange Days. In fact, Record Store Day has grown into such an economic driver that Record Archive’s celebration has events through most of the week, leading up to April 21.

McGennis is a part of that. As he says, “The record-store fan base is more in tune with my work, in terms of mixing music and film, crossing the genres of music and film.” He’ll be in the Archive’s eclectic back room at 6 p.m. Tuesday to show clips of his latest film, Queen City. And he’ll talk about the film’s soundtrack, and answer questions about how this small-time indie filmmaker writes songs and then convinces musicians such as Allen Toussaint, Susan Tedeschi, James Cotton and The Average White Band to record them. So that he can use them in his movies. He even convinces many of them play roles in his films. Sharon Jones dances on the deck of the oldest fireboat on the Great Lakes. Maria Muldaur sings in a donut shop.

“Vinyl has become one of the last physical canvases where an artist can communicate on several levels,” McGennis says. “We now have a generation that is not used to paying for music. When you find a place like Record Archive, their vision of looking out for their artist, their energy, you want to be a part of that. How they want to be more than selling records. How they want to be a piece of the community fabric.”

McGennis calls what he does – when he’s not editing corporate videos – “making movie albums.” With history and community as well. In the case of Queen City, the history is 1980, the community Buffalo. He calls his films musical love letters to his home town, Buffalo.

Peter McGennis with Sharon Jones.

When McGennis says he’s no Scorsese, he’s probably right on several counts. He’s completed four films. In Buffalo Bushido, McGennis spends a lot of screen time walking around naked. He’s the star as well in Queen City, a cops-gone-bad story that’s often purposefully campy. McGennis compares it to blaxploitation flicks, or ’70s entertainments such as Car Wash. He’s already written and plans to begin filming this summer the final piece what he calls his Buffalo trilogy – a rock opera set in the now-extinct Crystal Beach Amusement Park.

He calls himself a “multi-media storyteller,” writing the songs before he writes the scripts. The script, he says, is just a longer song. And then he simply asks people if they want to climb on board, mining the connections he made while living in California and working in the movie industry, and approaching musicians he’s met at shows. He wants these films to emerge out of friendships. Yet, “I’m a legitimate producer,” he says. “When I say, ‘I’m making a film,’ I am making a film. That will separate me from 95 percent of that group.”

McGennis says he wrote the lead role of Queen City’s blues singer with the actor Vivica A. Fox in mind. Only afterward did he ask: Will you be in my movie? “She’s a beautifully open-minded person,” he says. “She said, ‘You know, I’ve never played a jazz singer.’”

Similarly, “When I asked Magic Slim to play a role, I told him, ‘We find you in the old Hotel Lafayette, it’s falling to pieces, it’s a glamorous kind of squatting.’ And he says, ‘OK.’”

Perhaps these musicians say yes because they recognize the indie artist scuffling for his art. As McGennis says, “Sharon Jones was a prison guard, she didn’t start recording music until she was in her 40s.” From there, Jones evolved into a soul and R&B star, until her death in 2016 of pancreatic cancer. “She and I were close,” McGennis says. “We talked a lot until the very end. I really miss her, she was a tsunami of energy.”

He recalls telling Jones after she’d finished filming her role in Queen City that he had a friend who was a fan, and had painted a mural of Jones on his bathroom wall. Of course she wanted to see it. In the hours before her flight out of Buffalo, McGennis drove her to East Aurora. “He opens the door, his jaw drops,” McGennis says. “She took some pictures, and politely asked, ‘Can I go to the bathroom?’”

McGennis compares the work of an indie filmmaker to Columbus sailing across the Atlantic Ocean with no islands in sight. He doesn’t know for sure where this is going. So what McGennis calls the gestation period of these films can be long. He began filming Queen City in 2013. It could be the result of limited resources. Money, and lining up cars and lava lamps from 1980 to decorate the set. But McGennis also insists it’s the result of assembling the kind of complete package that used to come with buying a vinyl album, before the experience was downsized to CDs, and now downloading. He’s willing to take his time, he says, lining up the right musicians, using period cameras and lenses, and not substituting a California studio lot for the fading, wintery mill city of Buffalo. “The last thing I want to be,” McGennis says, “is some neurotic producer driving a Porche down the 405.”

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Stalin’s dead, but the weekend was alive

That’s Stalin on the rug.

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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Shake your Eddie Money Maker

Eddie Money, innocent passerby Ernie Orlando and, lurking in the background, the young Eddie Money.

Your first reaction probably isn’t: “Wow! There’s Eddie Money!”

It’s more like: “Huh. So that’s Eddie Money…”

This despite Money having sold more than 30 million albums. The guy exudes an everyman vibe. “Eddie Money was here last week,” the waitress at Mr. Dominic’s said. “I had my picture taken with him.” That’s the way it’s been in Rochester the last few weeks. The ’80s rock star, star somewhat faded, taking a break from the casino circuit, posing for photos. Money here, Money there. Getting ready for Wednesday’s world premiere of Two Tickets to Paradise: The Eddie Money Musical. Five shows, running through Feb. 18 at Kodak Center for the Performing Arts Center. Then, they say, take it on the road.

I’ve been asking around. Trying to figure out why Eddie Money, why Rochester. “He’s got connections here,” is the best answer I’ve heard, and that’s kinda vague. Money’s evidently been shopping it around for a few years, and Rochester Association of the Performing Arts CEO and President Jim Vollertsen is the one who took an interest in developing the project. He’s the producer, and at an abbreviated sneak preview said that Money actually wrote Two Tickets to Paradise eight years ago. But, “It was terrible, you gotta fix it,” Vollertsen said Money told him.

Did they fix it? It’s hard to say from that brief glimpse a couple of weeks ago at University Preparatory Charter School on Lake Avenue. Fifty or so media types and folks associated with the show gathered to watch a musical being born on a gymnasium floor, because the production needed a rehearsal space approaching the 80-foot stage at Kodak Center. The invitees glanced up at the basketball hoops and wondered: How’s the 68-year-old Eddie Money’s jump shot? Likely better than the jokes he was telling as a little audience warm-up.

Two Tickets to Paradise has been reworked by Eric Johnson, the show’s artistic director, and Dresden Engle, who’s well known here for her own musical-comedy endeavors, as well as her work with the comedy troupe EstroFest. It’s a Rochester production, with RAPA casting. And Engle, who’s quite good as the mother of young Eddie Mahoney, as he was known in his formative years.

Throughout the short preview, we sampled a few songs; the show includes the familiar Money hits – “Shakin’,” “Baby Hold On,” “Take Me Home Tonight,” “Two Tickets to Paradise” – and six new ones. Starting off in the turbulent ’60s, with his brother in Vietnam, we see young Mahoney rebel against his family’s wishes that he follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and father and become a New York City cop. Father and son butt heads and dad demands the kid quit prancing around like a fairy and get a haircut. Haircut? Eddie wants to be a rock star. These scenes of Italian household charm and chaos have the feel of The Calamari Sisters, always a big hit with Rochester audiences, but with more drugs. As his star ascends, Money’s girlfriend scolds him for caring only about money, drugs and fame, and not enough about the music.

The dance numbers look big, with Money’s music arranged for both orchestra and a rock band, as Money himself narrates the story of his life. He’s watching Alec Nevin; A Webster native and Ithaca College grad, Nevin looks a lot like the young Money, down to that sheepish and endearing grin Money always seemed to wear, like he was asking: Can you believe I’m doing a video?

The inspiration for Two Tickets to Paradise, Money told the preview audience, was Jersey Boys, the acclaimed Frankie Valle musical. Is there enough here? We’ve certainly had plenty of stories of those who seek fame and, like Icarus, fly too close to the sun, flame out and fall to earth.

The story arc is a familiar one. Redemption. Does Money, like Frankie Valle, overcome personal and professional challenges?

Or does he end up like William Holden’s screenwriter Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, floating face down in a swimming pool, dead?

Will Eddie Money live?


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