The Shifting Styles of Christina Courtin

There must have been something in the air last night because Christina Courtin’s curt 30 minute set at Rockwood Music Hall was not at all  typical of her style.  A staple of the live music scene in New York for almost a decade, her sound is multidimensional to the point of unpredictablility. 

Just compare this, soft and sweet:

to this, loud and slightly contentious:

The show at Rockwood was all of the latter and none of the former, hinting at a shift in her stylistic preference.  Even beyond the musical composition, there was something different about her energy in the room and the paucity of an audience was proof that things have changed.   There seems to be a rotating roster of men in her band, and although the skills of these four were undeniable, there was a coherency lacking on stage.  It was like they were characters on the video game, Rock Band, each lost in their own world, their own fantasy of rock stardom.  The whole vibe was akin to 70s rock, with the relentless drumbeats and the driving electric guitar lines, even down to the long wavy hair.   Her notoriously hoarse and scratchy voice flipped up into squeals or screams and was all together less melodical, more abrupt.   Her music’s haunting simplicity was traded in for bold electric lines and rhythms, leaving very little room for the subtleties of her voice.

She sang with her eyes closed or her gaze down, as she is apt to do, contentedly in her own world.  During a guitar solo, she was like a young girl at a school dance, bopping along slightly and smiling to herself in the corner, lost in the droning sounds.   That sweet and eccentric naivete that audiences have come to love was alive in her performance, but her charm faded between each song.  It was as if she was just trying to get it all over with, without any attempt to relate to the audience.  She had a jaded quality; she seemed uninvested, maybe even irritated.  As one song was starting, she held the microphone up to her mouth and cleared her throat.  This could easily have been a musical choice, but then she said tersely, ‘I have something caught in my throat’, before repeating the action.  Suddenly it seemed like a statement, a comment on the lack of attention from the audience, a passive aggressive command in a way.

The problem is this was not her audience, or maybe this was just not the Christina Courtin that typically holds an audience in rapt attention.

New York Conversation

This is why I love the people of New York City. 

New York Times columnists David Brooks and Gail Collins have an online commentary called The Conversation in which they have a dialogue on certain subjects printed between their weekly columns.  Last week’s Conversation was titled “Who Decided That This Election Should Be About Sex?” and Gail Collins said this:

Gail: Whenever you bring up women’s internal workings, guys want to change the subject. Unless, of course, they’re trying to change the laws.

Yes, she not only thought that, but she said it.  Well, printed it actually.  And I loved it.

A Conquest for Stephen Spinella

There is not a single point on the emotional spectrum that is left untouched by Stephen Spinella in New York Theater Workshop’s production of An Iliad.  This tour de force of a role is shared in repertory with fellow New York stage icon Denis O’Hare (who also wrote the adaptation along with Director Lisa Peterson).  The production is a one-man retelling of The Iliad; the classic story is beautifully and astutely folded around contemporary-style banter and anecdotes.  It is underscored by a young man on an upright bass playing an equally diverse range of musical styles and sounds.  With this performance, just when it started to seem impossible, Spinella has outdone himself. 

Photo credit: Charles Erickson

One of Spinella’s greatest gifts as an actor is his striking vulnerability onstage, as evidenced in his performances in Angels in America, Spring Awakening and Paul Newman’s Our Town on Broadway.  Not only does he bring that same vulnerability to this role, but he brings a power, an aggression, that is worlds away from what audiences have come to expect from him.  He spends most of the 100 minutes directly addressing the audience and makes only slight shifts to represent the different characters in the story; the effect of lowering his voice or altering his posture is dramatic even in its most simplistic. 

The part of the production that cannot go unmentioned occurs as he stands on a chair in the middle of the empty stage, in a slowly shifting spotlight, and almost unconsciously launches into a list of all of the world’s most notable wars.  It starts with his trying to recall which battle against the Gods he is referencing in the story, and his own confusion by the various options leads him from one to the next, to the Mexican War of Independence, World War One, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan (again and again), all the way through to Syria.  The political statement being made is awe-inspiring in its subtlety. 

But the real take-away moment of the play may very well come at the end.  He has more or less concluded his story, justifying that the audience knows the rest so there’s no reason to continue.  It ends, he explains, like all war stories end- with loss, sorrow, the destruction of great cities and people.  He has put on his coat and picked up his suitcase and is heading back towards the exit at the rear of the stage, and he pauses.  Lost in the tragic images he has just painted, he slowly sets his suitcase back down.  And this is the Spinella moment that is heartbreaking every time; the exposure of his vulnerability and his pain.  He is shaking softly as he crumbles down onto the suitcase, buries his head in his hands and sobs.  And what he is crying for in that moment means something different to every person in the audience, inviting each to release their own deeply buried emotions and pains even if only for an instant.  He looks up and cathartically takes several deep, forced exhales- the way humans do when they have to collect themselves.  It is humanity in its most exposed and its most alive, and Spinella’s access to it, this gift of his, is breathtaking.

For a little more context on the role:

Hoots & Hellmouth Rock City Winery

Hoots & Hellmouth are four Philadelphia guys getting down to business.  And that business is playing some serious music.  They don’t go on stage to crack jokes or talk about their days; they are there to rock.
Playing to a full room at City Winery, these guys made the most of every minute of their 90 minute set.  There was very little banter with the audience nor was there much interaction between them on stage; they even went so far as to bleed a couple of songs right into one another.  And yet nothing about the performance felt rushed.  
As performers, they have a very relaxed and humble energy.  This quality extended itself to singer Sean Hoots’ diction, which made it slightly difficult at times to understand the lyrics of the upbeat bluesy songs.  This was easily overlooked since, as with most standard blues songs, the lyrics are cyclical and it is the rhythms and the melodies that really drive the song.  And for a band like Hoots & Hellmouth, with perfectly tight rhythms and contagious melody lines, the lyrics become only a small part of a much larger, well-oiled machine.
The blues, as a genre, is so broad it is slightly overwhelming.  With their guitar, banjo, mandolin, keys, electric guitar and drumset, Hoots & Hellmouth are coloring all around outside the lines of what blues music is thought to be.  The songs have that infectious, toe-tapping 12-bar structure, groovy syncopated rhythms and the intrigue of bent blues notes.  Even Sean Hoots (on guitar) and Robert Berliner (on banjo, mandolin and keys) couldn’t help but stomp their feet and dance in place as they played.
The clean structure of their recordings was shaken up a little in live performance, though it lost none of its clarity.  There was an instrumental break in “Watch Your Mouth” allowing for a call and response conversation between Berliner on banjo and Todd Erk on the electric guitar; later, turning in towards Mike Reilly on percussion, the band pieced together “The Family Band” from dissonant chords and sporadic percussion, as if they were searching for the song they knew was in there somewhere.  When the encore came around, things got really down and dirty.  The band’s energy changed, reflecting a free-wheeling jam session as opposed to a gig at a wine-driven restaurant in Tribeca, and it was a welcome shift.
It’s no small thing for a band to be equally fitted for a vast, upscale cabaret-style venue as for a backyard.  Clearly Hoots & Hellmouth not only span across several musical styles but also across several audiences and as many performance spaces.  When you’re in the business of music the way these guys are, you know no bounds.